September, 2010

Sep 10

Sharded Year

I’ve had this post rolling around in my head for some months now, but until a couple of weeks ago didn’t really know how to frame it up. The gist of it is this: it’s been a really complex, dynamic, shifting, difficult, but in many ways gratifying year. (Since about January, give or take but probably a month or two before that.)

But a friend the other day told me he’s feeling like his life lately is a collection of shards — lots of different, distinct activities — so many that they’re all-consuming — but because they’re so different, they don’t quite add up to a whole like he’s used to things. (He’s an extraordinarily high performing & functioning guy, so even in this “sharded” state, he’s getting a humbling amount of important work done.)

That captures how I feel about my year in a lot of ways. The start of things was right around Christmas last year when Mom had some serious health issues (she’s fine now; doing fantastically well). The year has been complicated with work, of course, as I transition out of Mozilla and to Greylock. Dislocating my shoulder and the subsequent surgery and (ongoing rehab) changed the whole complexion of the year for me — it’s hard to explain how significant it’s been. And my grandmother died in August, having lived a full life and going out on her own terms, but nevertheless, a major transition.

Add to that watching and helping and learning as SPL turned 5 and continues to grow into being his own person. And the day-to-day successes and failures in the role of husband and father — on the whole doing very positively, but living an imperfect life, as we all do.

So when my friend talked about his “collection of shards” for the year, I really understood what he meant. On the whole, I’m feeling as happy now as I’ve felt in some time, and am feeling great about the coming months and years. But I’d like a little more coherence and resonance across activities than I’ve had this year.

When I talk with friends, I find that others have felt a bit like this in 2010 and 2009 — so many of them that it seems to me that the context of the state of the world and our country must be playing some part.

But here’s the really good news, at least for me: I’ve felt this way before. And, in fact, I find that I tend to have periods of stability that last many years, with periodic shardings. 1995 was a year like that for me: leaving Stanford, starting Trilogy, parents divorcing, grandfather dying, reconnecting with Kathy, moving to Austin — lots of motion, many shards. So was 2005: Sam was born, joined Mozilla, left the company I started. And in every case (those plus some others), what was happening in retrospect was that I was rearranging the furniture of my life, reconfiguring things for something new, and the steep learning curves associated with the sharded year over time yielded to a better understanding of myself and my family and my work, and a new sense of where I fit and how to be who I wanted to be.

I’m not sure this will sound super coherent to anyone but me, but wanted to capture how I’m feeling, and why even with so much in motion (and I’m adding a few new shards as we speak), I’m feeling very comfortable and happy about today, and tomorrow, and the days after that.

Sep 10

The Hunger Games Trilogy, by Suzanne Collins

When I posted about the Percy Jackson books (verdict: meh) and how I like reading YA fiction, a couple of folks suggested The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins. So I picked up the first volume and really, really loved it. It’s a sort of The Running Man but for kids, with pretty overt political themes, strong game play elements, and very quickly paced. Loved it. The second book, Catching Fire, I also read over a couple of days, and was lucky in my timing that the day I finished it, the third volume in the series came out. The first book was stronger than the other two, I thought, but the whole series is entertaining and well done, and won’t take you long to read, anyway. (And much preferable to Percy Jackson, in my estimation.)

Sep 10

Elsewhere, U.S.A., by Dalton Conley

I’ve known Dalton for a year or two — have met him at gatherings of awesome people — and have always been really intrigued by the things he says. He’s the Chair of Sociology at NYU, and is an incredibly sharp thinker.

As the subtitle (“How We Got from the Company Man, Family Dinners, and the Affluent Society to the Home Office, Blackberry Moms, and Economic Anxiety”) suggests, it’s a collection of essays on how America has changed — how the lowering of the cost of subsistence goods, the rise of women in the workforce, and the growing influence of technology in our lives has completely transformed our class system and our relationships to others and ourselves.

There are some complex topics here, and Dalton is a way better writer on this than I’ll ever be, so I’ll just leave you with a selection of his ideas that struck me. They’re all in different parts of the book, and are pretty complicated in how he talks about them, and the excerpts are a little long, but see what you think. 🙂

“Something is new here. Ever-striving Americans in a land of immigrant dreams and Horatio Alger myths is nothing remarkable on this continent. What is novel is that Americans used to work themselves to the bone for material necessities and to rise up out of constant struggle so their children wouldn’t have to. Leisure was something you attained when you reached a certain income level. Today, a different dynamic has taken shape: For the first time in history, the more we are paid, the more hours we work. Paradoxically, perhaps, we do this now because among the luckiest of us the rewards for working are so great, they make the “opportunity cost” of not working all the greater. The result is that we no longer have leisure-class elites. The rich are working harder than ever. (Even those born to great wealth now feel the pressure to work for work’s sake.) Rather, leisure is something for the poor. This seemingly arcane economic measure—the income elasticity of leisure—represents a fundamental change in how many of us live; and, obviously, this change has affected not just when we work, but also how we play, how we love, how we raise our children—how we live.”

That’s why Mr. Elsewhere is constantly having “meetings” that are ambiguous in nature. Part of each workday is spent drinking lattes with folks who may be potential clients, or investors, or just interesting people from whom the newest hot idea for private equity may arise. Since one never knows where the next next big thing is lurking, any meeting could result in the opportunity of a lifetime for the artist, movie producer, venture capitalist, salesperson, or business consultant. It could be the woman he meets on the plane who runs an environmental nonprofit that badly needs a Web redesign. It could be the father of his child’s playmate in the sandbox who runs a hedge fund on his BlackBerry while changing dirty diapers. Or it could even be the kid herself, who has just the look Mrs. 2009 needs for her newest marketing campaign. Even when the Elsewhere class ostensibly go out purely to socialize, they find that they cannot stop themselves from glancing at their text messages, talking work, or making valuable introductions across the table. It all may be a Ponzi scheme, but it certainly is no shell game: In an information and service economy, much of what drives success is, in fact, social skills.”

“The essential character of positional goods in our time is that the satisfaction they provide is not intrinsic to their value to an individual—i.e., their ability to satisfy hunger, thirst, or even to express ourselves. Rather, their utility relies almost entirely on their relative social position….One consequence is the increasing role that material goods play as positional goods—something Hirsch didn’t consider. Mrs. and Mr. Elsewhere absolutely have to have the latest iPhone, McMansion, or SUV. There’s nothing inherent about an iPhone that makes it a positional good. Some (but not all) of its features are material improvements on previous models. It may save us time and effort to have all of our music, phone numbers, and photos in one handy little gadget. Or it may not, as some users are finding. However, to the extent that the pleasure from the iPhone or the Hummer or the $5,000 gas grill (a favorite example of the economist Robert Frank in his related book, Luxury Fever) stems from the fact that it is better—or at least more costly and thus rarer—than the grills of one’s neighbors, it has become a status or positional good. It is through this magical endowment of material objects with the powers of relative position that we think we have solved the problems inherent in mass consumption of positional goods—if only fleetingly. Never mind the credit card bill that is to come: For now, the magical object has done its job, and we are satisfied (if not quite happy, since the actuality of the thing may be disappointing compared to the idea of owning it in the abstract). So, when people talk about the dematerialization of the economy, what they should be really calling it is a de-necessitation of the economy, as in a deemphasis on basic, physical necessities; or, alternatively, a luxurification or positionification.”

I’ve also got a book on my shelf that he wrote about birth order in families called The Pecking Order that I’m looking forward to reading.

Sep 10

The Chronicles of Amber, by Roger Zelazny

From time to time, I go back and read some of the most memorable and influential books I read while growing up — this set of 5 books: Nine Princes in Amber, The Guns of Avalon, Sign of the Unicorn, The Hand of Oberon, and The Courts of Chaos — were hugely important to me. They told about an interesting, edgier type of universe than The Lord of the Rings, and I was pretty captivated by them.

I’d been wanting to read them again, but they’re not available in Kindle editions, so I’d been sort of dragging my feet. But I happened to be near a used bookstore the other day and found a volume with all 5 books in it — and devoured it over the course of about 10 days.

Really fun to read, really fun to remember. And there were a couple of twists that I remembered being totally shocked by when I read them as a teenager — they obviously weren’t as surprising to me this time around, but I really enjoyed remembering the feeling.

Anyway, not all books hold up 25 years later, but for me, these did for sure.

Sep 10

The Education of a British-Protected Child, by Chinua Achebe

Things Fall Apart is probably the most important book I read when I was in school at Stanford — I’d really never been exposed to literature from outside Europe & America, and it was a bit of a revelation to me. I read it again a few years ago and it made just as big an impression.

This new, short, collection of essays by Achebe is interesting, but it was a struggle for me to get through. There’s a lot in it about being an African, about writing in English, about the effects of colonialism. He’s clearly writing about things he knows uniquely, and I liked it from that perspective, but not that enjoyable a read overall.