Memory is All We Have (part 1)

Roughly a decade ago I stood in a shop in the little tourist village of Portmeirion, Wales, debating which book to take home as a souvenir. The choice was between two books by the same author I had never heard of, selected almost at random for their titles and covers, and took a surprising amount of time.

Considering that the one I chose, the one about the old diary rather than the one about the forest, has been one of my favorite books ever since, and is unequalled by anything I’ve ever read for its pacing and structure, I’ve often thought about that decision, and the chance that led me to this one that I love so much.

But it wasn’t until I was re-reading it yet again this week that I wondered why I’ve never hunted down the other one. I know the author is published in America; I looked into it when I realized I would eventually need to buy a replacement copy.

The answer is simple and a little strange. I’ve tended to assume, all these other years, that I could never love the other one as much as this one, and this book is so magical to me that I fear it would be spoiled by reading another in the same style.

At first I thought this was completely opposite my usual practice, considering that I have tracked down and read almost every available work by other authors I’ve particularly enjoyed – Jane Austen, Henry James, Dorothy Sayers, Alexander McCall Smith. But it’s not, really. I’ve never re-read Portrait of a Lady, my favorite of Henry James’ works, because I feared it wouldn’t speak to me the same way the second time around. The first time I saw Whale Rider it was spectacular, the second time it was special, and the third time it was merely a very good movie. After being equally blown away by Almost Famous I never took the chance of the same thing happening.

All we have is our memories. We don’t like to think that; we’re always being told to “live in the moment.” But if you don’t believe me, try having a conversation when you’re so tired, so distracted or simply so in-over-your-head that you can barely remember what was discussed five minutes before or how one subject segued into another. “The moment” becomes rather surreal when you can’t rely on memory and it is memory that gives importance to each moment.


Theoretically, Knowledge is Useless

I love to read and always have – to the extent that whereas most parents have to bribe their children by the book, my mom was able to use a “time-out” from reading as a punishment. The main difference between then and now is that now I read much less (why are adults so busy!) and that the proportions of fiction and nonfiction have flipped. Now I mostly read books about history and business/management and articles about marketing and the best way to do everything.

A love of reading is a useful thing. It certainly made school more enjoyable, and it’s enabled me to take jobs about which I knew next to nothing, because the company knew I would read everything I could get my hands on, absorb what I needed to know, and essentially train myself. It is, in fact, how I know 98% of what I know about marketing.

But what a voracious reader eventually runs up against is: if it’s only theoretical, knowledge is useless.

What good is knowing the theory of good customer relationship management if you never put a plan in place? Of knowing that a piece of machinery has been pushed too far and become unsafe if you never alert anyone? Of knowing the importance of treating people with respect if you still regularly allow yourself to lose your temper?

Knowing something may be half the battle, but if you stop halfway through the battle, you’ll still lose.

The unavoidable and difficult fact is that knowledge needs to be practical and in use to have any value.

As I near the end of this 52-week project and reflect on what I’ve learned from it, I don’t think I’ve accomplished what I wanted to. I appreciate the enforced focus on a lot of ideas that otherwise would have been glossed over in the demands of day-to-day life, and I think I’ve gained some understanding from it. But I’m questioning my old belief that enough exposure to an idea will ultimately change your actions. Thinking and action are connected, but thinking is not action.

“A little knowledge that acts is worth infinitely more than much knowledge that is idle.” – Kahlil Gibran

Enough Rope and the Myth of the Slow Day

A coworker mentioned that things had been slow in their department this week. I nodded in rote sympathy. What you really want is just enough work, not too much, not too little, but too little is arguably the more painful. Not that I remember what that feels like.

But then later on as I was taking one of my head-clearing walks I thought, “But when it’s slow, doesn’t that just mean you have time to do the strategy- and project-work that you’re always meaning to get around to otherwise? Isn’t that just the chance we’re always struggling for to be proactive rather than reactive?” Looked at that way I don’t think there is such a thing as a slow day. Continue reading “Enough Rope and the Myth of the Slow Day”

Intersections of Responsibility

Read someone like Seth Godin regularly and you quickly become a convert to the idea that you should always bring your A-game to your work and your life and your “art”, that you should never give less than your full allowance of passion and energy, that you should never just show up and think you’ve done your duty.
Great. Agreed: that is ideal.
But what about those days when your A-game just isn’t going to happen? The flip-side of the above ideas is that if you aren’t having one of those “Unexpectedly totally cranking it out” days (to quote the Rands article from my last post), you shouldn’t bother showing up at all. And that’s obviously not practical. It’s also a slippery slope that gives you permission to say, “Well, I don’t feel like working today, so…”
The last few weeks my posts haven’t been finished on time. I caught myself saying, “But it’s not my fault! I couldn’t do it that day because there were internet problems/I ended up having dinner plans/I was really tired/etc!” Hold on a minute here. I’m not writing a daily blog, I’m writing a weekly one. Sure there might be very valid reasons why I could not post in the final 24 hours… but what about the rest of the week?!
I’m down to the wire again this week and, looking back, I have some extremely valid excuses. Leaving aside Monday, which I don’t even remember:
Sunday: unexpectedly spent the entire day with visiting family, then finished it with a crippling headache that lasted until bedtime.
Tuesday: I got proposed to (yes!) – obviously derailing the rest of the plans for the evening.
Wednesday: surprise dinner with the new in-laws-to-be.
Thursday: drinks with a friend, which I planned three weeks ago and forgot about because I’ve been so busy and so tired. And also two hours of overtime.
The thing is, very valid though all those excuses may be, I still had to make those choices. I set my priorities as family > sleep > blog (also dishes and tackling the pile of papers that is growing on my desk… apologies to my roommate).
Mom’s mantra is, “You can only do what you can do.” This is helpful to a perfectionist like me, especially one who happens to live in a world where everyone seems to think they can or should have it all. You can’t, and there’s no need to feel bad about that.
But that brings me back around full circle. Are there really truly times when the best you can do is less than your best, or times when some commitments have to slide? And how do you know when it’s one of those times and when you’re just being lazy and/or making excuses? I wish I knew.

Ethics, Sleep and Creativity

Lately, I admit, I’ve been fudging the posting timeframe a bit. So, to make some amends, a bonus post with links to some helpful articles I ran across this week.

First, an interview that takes the ethics of everyday decisions to a whole new level:

people have to understand that there’s no latitude, that there’s no such thing as a little bit wrong, like there’s no such thing as a little bit pregnant… if you look at things that way, even a bad attitude is an ethical issue, because it might mean your own work isn’t being done properly, and you’re probably infecting others so their performance suffers, too.

Then two posts that made me feel both better and worse about my productivity levels:

From the Wall Street Journal, why some people can sleep so little and get so much done.

For a small group of people—perhaps just 1% to 3% of the population—sleep is a waste of time. Natural “short sleepers,” as they’re officially known, are night owls and early birds simultaneously. They typically turn in well after midnight, then get up just a few hours later and barrel through the day without needing to take naps or load up on caffeine.

From Rands In Repose, a discussion of how creativity can be harnessed.

Those who do not understand creativity think it has a well-defined and measurable on/off switch, when in reality it’s a walking dial with many labels. One label reads “Morose and apathetic” and another reads “Unexpectedly totally cranking it out”. This dial sports shy, mischievous feet – yes, feet – that allow it to simply walk away the moment you aren’t paying attention, and each time it walks away, it finds a new place to hide.

Finally, a long, beautiful, depressing and inspiring story about an experiment in which a world-famous violinist played for a crowd of commuters.

Each passerby had a quick choice to make, one familiar to commuters in any urban area where the occasional street performer is part of the cityscape: Do you stop and listen? Do you hurry past with a blend of guilt and irritation, aware of your cupidity but annoyed by the unbidden demand on your time and your wallet? Do you throw in a buck, just to be polite? Does your decision change if he’s really bad? What if he’s really good? Do you have time for beauty? Shouldn’t you?

In the Face of a Royal Pain

Among the armfuls of books I pillaged from the closing of the local Borders was one I first read over five years ago, Sex With Kings, which tells the story of various royal mistresses in various European countries over the last 500 years. It’s not quite as salacious as it sounds, and I found it even less glittering when rereading it.

You see, royal mistresses sometimes weren’t very pretty, and even the most beautiful woman at court might not hold the king’s interest for more than a few weeks. (Madame de Pompadour, the quintessential royal mistress who held the attention of Louis XV for 19 years, didn’t even have sex with him for most of that time.)

To be the maîtresse en titre (“official mistress,”), a formal position that was usually held for years, even decades, required intelligence, loyalty, creativity, and, most often, a sweet disposition that put the king above all else.

In her early years as royal mistress, Madame de Pompadour was often required to accompany Louis on his frequent hunts… in all kinds of weather. Despite the fact that these excursions often gave her pneumonia, she put on her riding habit and omnipresent smile and went off to join the king.

Perhaps her best role was that of royal listener. The king had the unfortunate habit of recounting the same stories innumerable times, of discussing the same themes – hunting, illness, and death. And his mistress, who hated talk of hunting, illness, and death, concealed her yawns behind a smile….

Nor could she leave her apartments for exercise or a change of scene lest the king suddenly appear wanting food, conversation, or sex. Despite the daunting challenges of her schedule, she never permitted herself to show fatigue, boredom, or illness, never expressed frustration, anger, or crankiness.

Two incidents in particular show her remarkable self-control under constant and extreme stress:

In one case, Madame de Pompadour, suffering from a horrendous migraine, sent the king word that she was ill and unable to attend dinner. He insisted she come down anyway. And so she went, and was pleasant to him when she got there.

Later, her 10-year-old daughter and only child died at school. Within two weeks, Madame de Pompadour’s father also died. But it would be fatal to bore the king with her grief. Someone who saw her soon after reported:

“I saw the Marquise for the first time since… a dreadful blow that I thought had completely crushed her. But because too much pain might have harmed her appearance and possibly her position, I found her neither changed nor downcast.” Though the prince saw her chatting cheerfully with the king, he thought that she “was in all likelihood just as unhappy inside as she seemed happy on the outside.”

In fact, there is only one recorded incident of Madame de Pompadour losing her temper at the king, and I suspect that was a deliberate strategy to make her point.

In the end, her reign over the king ended only with her early death – likely hastened by the constant strain on her health for those 19 years.

My point? Yes, she chose her career and evidently thought the rewards were worth the suffering, and while I might not agree with her weighting of those things, the fact remains: if she could show that kind of patience, forbearance, and calmness of temper for that long, and in the face of that kind of unreasonableness – how do I ever think I have any excuse for showing my annoyance?