Failing v. Falling Short

The company I worked for hired a new Executive Vice President (EVP) of Sales & Marketing and I lost the sometimes enjoyable position of being the only person in the company who knew anything about marketing, and therefore the one whose recommendations about what we should do got followed most of the time.

Within the first two weeks of his arrival he sat me down and went through the current state of our marketing. Had I done this? What about that? Had we ever considered such-and-such? None of this list, which went on for about 15 minutes, was something I hadn’t thought of, but the answer to most of these questions was “No, we haven’t gotten to that yet.” The state of our marketing sounded dreadful even to me and, to be honest, I’d thought it was dreadful the whole 16 months I “ran the department.”

I went home and cried and announced, “I failed!” Continue reading “Failing v. Falling Short”

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October Book Review: At Home: A Short History of Private Life

Why did soldiers in the 1800s fire rounds into their canned food?

Which British monarch was so fat he or she could not go down stairs, but had to be lowered through a trapdoor with a pulley?

Why was the aspidistra the indoor plant of choice in Victorian times?

I confess this was not originally intended as this month’s reviewed book; looking for something entertaining, and misled by the word “short,” I checked it out as my fluff book. However, it being both more serious and considerably longer than Bill Bryson’s other books (it is, in fact, 9 times longer than his “African Diary,” which I highly recommend, and which, at 49 pamphlet-sized pages, was only one evening’s reading for me), here we are.

Bryson is known chiefly as a humorist, and the origin of the book is explained with a comedian’s typical curiosity:

Sitting at the kitchen table one afternoon, playing idly with the salt and pepper shakers, it occurred to me that I had absolutely no idea why, out of all the spices in the world, we have such an abiding attachment to these two…. Suddenly the house seemed a place of mystery to me. So I formed the idea to make a journey around it, to wander from room to room and consider how each has featured in the evolution of private life.

What he found, to his “great surprise, is that whatever happens in the world – whatever is discovered or created or bitterly fought over – eventually ends up, in one way or another, in your house.” The result is that one receives the impression that, having found the subject far more immense than he supposed, the book became both rushed and crammed and, at times, not as focused or organized as it might have been.

Fortunately, for the most part this has little effect on the reader’s enjoyment. Bryson’s humor, though relatively subdued, shines through on every page in his entertaining digressions and delight in the absurdities and improbabilities of life, expressed with his usual gift for a good turn of phrase.

There is his exuberant declaration that “Nothing – really, absolutely nothing – says more about Victorian Britain and its capacity for brilliance than that the century’s most daring and iconic building [the Crystal Palace] was entrusted to a gardener.”

After relating how horrified famous diarist Samuel Pepys was to find, in 1662, that his fish dinner “had within it ‘many little worms creeping,’” Bryson assures us that “finding one’s food in an advanced state of animation was not common even in Pepys’ day.”

Or, perhaps my favorite tidbit out of the whole book:

Curiously, the one service room not named for the products it contains is dairy. The name derives from an Old French word, dey, meaning maiden. A dairy, in other words, was the room where the milkmaids were to be found, from which we might reasonably deduce that an Old Frenchman was more interested in finding the maid than the milk.

One theme that appeared throughout and struck me with a kind of understanding sadness was how, in the days before professional certifications, anyone could be anything:

Even after architecture became a recognized profession, most practitioners came from other backgrounds. Inigo Jones was a designer of theatrical productions, Christopher Wren an astronomer, Robert Hooke a scientist, Vanbrugh a soldier and playwright.

Of course, there was a downside to this. “In one decade in America [in the mid-1800s], more than four hundred theaters burned down. Over the nineteenth century as a whole, nearly ten thousand people were killed in theater fires in Britain” – because there were no safety standards, and theaters used wildly unstable lighting developed by amateurs. I understand why the way it is now is “better,” and is the way it must be. But, as Bryson says, the old way contained much capacity for greatness.

The book is in turns shocking-funny:

Even though sugar was very expensive, people consumed it until their teeth turned black, and if their teeth didn’t turn black naturally, they blackened them artificially to show everyone how wealthy and marvelously self-indulgent they were

shocking-tragic:

Of scurvy alone it has been suggested that as many as two million sailors died between 1500 and 1850. Typically, scurvy killed about half the crew on any long voyage [but although experiments in the 1760s pointed to the cure] the British navy… procrastinated for another generation before finally providing citrus juice to sailors as a matter of routine

and shockingly coincidental: one man of no significance to history, James Chiswick, single-handedly connects the sewage of London, the beginnings of professional baseball, the discovery of the atom, and the French Revolution, just because he happened to have gifted children, students, and roommates.

Unfortunately, after about 350 pages of this, the endless factoids and digressions start to get wearing, and just at that point the book reaches the bedroom and takes a decidedly darker and more depressing turn.

Nothing upsets me more than the lack of legal rights for women throughout history, and Bryson manages not only to find the worst examples (one woman, after finding out that her husband was slowly poisoning her, applied for a divorce. After listening to the arguments the judge counseled her to go home and “try to be more patient”), but to follow them with other equally disturbing subjects, such as including a detailed account of one woman’s 17-and-a-half-minute mastectomy, written by the woman herself – because, of course, this was in the days before anesthesia and so she was awake for the whole thing. This is followed up by such everyday horrors in the nursery as are not worth repeating.

Which leaves me in another unexpected place: giving this book, which was mostly very entertaining and by an author I like, a negative review. The casual reader may enjoy reading the odd chapter; the student of history and trivia certainly will. I’m glad to know the 2% of the facts the book contains that I will remember. But as a whole – if I got bored by this kind of Britain-centered trivia, then most people will.

By the way, if you’re still curious about the questions posed at the beginning, the answers are:

  1. Because early tin cans were welded shut, and it was the only way to open them
  2. Queen Anne
  3. Because the fumes of gas lamps were fatal to most other house-plants.

Here Again

It is completely shocking – and a little embarrassing – that fully 9 months have passed since my last post (in which, I’ve not forgotten, I promised that the November book review was “coming shortly”).

I do have a slightly valid excuse – as far as it goes – in that the dead computer referenced in that post wasn’t replaced until mid-August. My husband and I thought it might be an interesting experiment in anti-materialism, in breaking the nearly universal addiction to the online world, to see how long we could go without replacing it.

Well, it was interesting, all right. I spent just as much time as ever on Facebook, thanks to the advent of my iPhone, but was hindered from many more worthwhile pursuits. It took at least four months for me to get so fed up about not writing that I resorted to pen and paper.

And for that flakiness, I apologize. After all, the first hallmark of a respectable blog is the constant and regular addition of “content,” to use marketing-speak. Not to mention that my one loyal reader was disappointed.

All the same, I wouldn’t say the time was wasted. It occurs to me that the writing of the blog is somewhat incidental to the stated purpose of the blog: “the quest for a life of love, laughter, reason & usefulness.” Love and laughter are arguably best pursued off-line; and a usefulness that is built only on the written word is not more than half-baked. And in the post-less interval I did keep to my goal of reading a non-fiction book most months. I did make some gestures that were, for me, quite generous and thoughtful. I had new experiences, changed some opinions, and embarked on new ventures – all of which will be reflected in the posts of the months to come.

I won’t promise to be here every week, this time. After all, the time specified by the 52/365 Project is long over. And though a blog is a commitment, I’ve never prioritized it above other commitments – chiefly my marriage, my health, and bringing my A-game for the people who pay me – rightly, I think. Still, I will try, and this time I’ve done what I always wanted to do and never quite managed: I have prepared some posts ahead of time for those difficult weeks.

It’s good to be back. And thanks for your patience.