Everybody knows the deal is rotten, 19

16 08 2015

When I was younger—much younger—I thought I’d get the kind of job I could really throw myself into, an all-encompassing career that would provide me with all of the pleasure and meaning I could want from life.

Touching, isn’t it, how little I knew.

Now, it could be said—has been said, by the likes of me—that my current inability truly to commit to my work (paid and unpaid) takes things in rather too far the opposite direction, but I do think that my unwillingness to commit to a Stakhanovite* work-ethic is generally more healthy than not.

Consider Amazon:

Every aspect of the Amazon system amplifies the others to motivate and discipline the company’s marketers, engineers and finance specialists: the leadership principles; rigorous, continuing feedback on performance; and the competition among peers who fear missing a potential problem or improvement and race to answer an email before anyone else.

Some veterans interviewed said they were protected from pressures by nurturing bosses or worked in relatively slow divisions. But many others said the culture stoked their willingness to erode work-life boundaries, castigate themselves for shortcomings (being “vocally self-critical” is included in the description of the leadership principles) and try to impress a company that can often feel like an insatiable taskmaster. Even many Amazonians who have worked on Wall Street and at start-ups say the workloads at the new South Lake Union campus can be extreme: marathon conference calls on Easter Sunday and Thanksgiving, criticism from bosses for spotty Internet access on vacation, and hours spent working at home most nights or weekends.

It must be admitted, of course, that Amazon would never hire, much less interview, me: I lack tech skills and corporate experience, so I am most definitely not the Amabot they’re looking for.

Some employees do relish the competitive atmosphere at Amazon, thinking that it makes them better, sharper, more able employees; that this kind of bionic work ethos won’t do much for the person they are outside of being an employee is, of course, irrelevant.

(As an aside: I used to that going to grad school was like sticking your head in a pencil sharpener: you do come out a lot sharper, but you also lose a lot in those shavings.)

And as loathsome as I find Amazon’s “purposeful Darwinism” practices—their treatment of employees who do exhibit human frailties is appalling—they seem to me more different in degree than in kind to many other workplaces. Google and Apple and Facebook might provide all kinds of goodies for their employees, but these aren’t these goodies simply the happy-clappy way to get those workers to spend more time at work?

Now, as an employee I’d rather work for someone who wants happy rather than frazzled workers, but really, I want to work at a place that knows its place in my life: important, but not everything.

I may not have much in my life (this is one of those above-mentioned issues), but I do at least have the possibility of having something more.

And that ain’t nothing.


*h/t to Chatham Harrison for this reference. My first thought on reading of the need for self-criticism was that that sounded Cultural Revolution-ist, but hey, given the contradictions of a company ethos that demands both that workers be self-critical and that they not admit of any doubts or lack of knowledge, why couldn’t it embody both Stalinism and Maoism?

And no, for the record, I don’t think Jeff Bezos is the bald offspring of Uncle Joe and Mao; I mean, there’s no record of him being a genocidal maniac, is there?

Keep on keepin’ on

18 06 2014

I am a terrible, terrible guitar player. It’s why I keep playing.

Makes sense, right? Why do something well when you can suck?

I’d rather not suck. I’d rather that everything I do, I do well.

I’d also like to do more, and to do more is most often to do what I don’t know how to do.

Which means I’ll be terrible when I first do it.

Now, I keep playing because I’d like to get better, because I think I can at some point do it well. I didn’t re-up with the Gotham Rock Choir because I wasn’t convinced that more practice would make me a sufficiently better singer. It’s one thing to be terrible on the way to getting better, but quite another to be terrible on the way to mediocrity.

Rather takes away one’s motivation to practice.

I doubt I’ll ever be great on the guitar—that fucking F chord—but with practice I am improving, enough so that I can gull myself into practicing even more.

So, at some point, I’ll be merely terrible, then mediocre, and then all right. I don’t know that I’ll ever get beyond all right, but, for now, it’s enough to know that I can at least get that far, and that it’s just possible that I could, someday, be good.

Time to try something else to be terrible at, then. I’ve long wanted to learn French. . . .

And I know things now

7 05 2014

Modernity is dead is in a coma.

Okay, not modernity—modernity is still kickin’—but my medieval/modern project to suss out the beginnings of modernity, yeah, that’s on life support. I’ll probably never pull the plug, but the chances of recovery at this point are slim.

The main problem was that I never had a thesis. As a former post-modernist I was interested in the pre-mod: learning about the last great (Euro) transition might help me to make sense of what may or may not be another transitional moment.

And I learned a lot! I knew pitifully little about European history—couldn’t have told you the difference between the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, that’s how bad I was—and now I know something more. I’d now be comfortable positioning the Renaissance as the final flowering of the medieval era, arguing that the 16th and 17th centuries were the double-hinge between the medieval and the modern, that the Enlightenment was about the new moderns getting chesty, that Nietzsche crowbarred open the crack first noticed by the sophists, and that the medieval era in Europe did not truly end until the end of World War I.

None of these is a particularly novel observation. I make no pretense of expertise nor even much beyond a rudimentary working knowledge: there are still large gaps in my knowledge and large books to be read. And I will continue reading for a very long time.

But I don’t have a point to that reading beyond the knowledge itself. It’s possible that something at some point will present itself as a specific route to be followed, but right now, the past is an ocean, not a river.

That’s all right. I’m a fan of useless knowledge and wandering thoughts.

Listen to the music: 99 bottles of beer on the wall, 99 bottles of beer

18 03 2014

Clearly, this woman is more energetic than I am. Or more obsessive.

When I decided to listen to all of my cds in alphabetical order, I never considered reviewing each and every one.

Okay, maybe I did, but only for a second. It wasn’t meant as a writing assignment for myself, but as a listening assignment. Why did I have these cds, this music? What was I missing? What held me? What no longer did?

Jayzeus christy, why did I buy this?

After I thought the thought, I had another: Hey I should blog about this. Sometimes I run a little dry in the blog department, so blogging about these chunks of listening space would keep the posts flowing. (Bad image, but you know what I mean.) And writing about it publicly would help to keep me listening, even if I got bored with the whole thing. It turned a lark into a project, a way to track my commitment to the music itself.

It’s worked pretty well. Sometimes I listen because I want to listen; sometimes I listen because I haven’t listened in a while; sometimes I listen because there’s something in this set of cds that I want to talk about.

The mixed motives keep me moving.

Anyway, while I very briefly considered mini-reviews of each cd, I turned against the thought almost immediately: blegh. It wouldn’t be the worst thing to offer my response to each cd—as Megan Seling notes, this woman is setting herself up for a book deal (and sure, I did I get a nice bump in readership when a Listen to the Music post was Freshly Pressed: imagine if I were really committed!)—but I wanted to follow where the music took me, not mark every step along the way. If somewhere amidst 10 or 20 cds I came across an overlook or a canyon or a hidden river, I wanted to stretch out in these spots, to linger, to find out if there was still anything there, anything more.

I may be listening my way along the trail, but I’m after something more.

All things weird and wonderful, 36

8 01 2014

Why do we sing?

Why do we dance? Why paint and hop around and declaim in pentameter and chop stones into bodies and trees into ravens and how can people become so naked in themselves so as to become someone else, in front of god and everyone?

There were times watching some of the would-be soloists in the Gotham Rock Choir that I was embarrassed at how they let themselves just sing—just sing!—and let the song cover every missed note and skipped tempo and just, just sing.

And then I would be abashed, for so missing so much.

I don’t understand why we do this: let ourselves go in front of one another. I don’t understand why we sing and dance and conjure beauty and sorrow out of the rough leavings of this small world, I don’t understand this at all—except to know that I am moved by these conjurers, and their conjurings.

When I say there must be something more I don’t mean magic or angels but these conjurings, the way we take what we’ve got and make something other, something more, than what was there before.

You can’t go on, thinkin’ nothing’s wrong

21 10 2013

Two things.

One, I hate Google Drive. Maybe if it worked I wouldn’t hate it, but it’s not working so I hate it.

Two, I don’t know if this is depressing in and of itself or for its utter lack of imagination.

The question of labor is going to be huge in this century: if machines are more efficient than people for the vast majority of tasks which people currently perform, then what is to happen with those people?

Do you think the sun will shine more brightly on those released from the factories, the fields, the retail counters, and the office cubicle? Once the machines are installed, what use will be found for humans?

One possibility is to rationalize our sociability, to  monetize the things that separate us from machines , which is what Brad DeLong suggests:

Our society will then be enormously rich: our collective and average productivity will be awesome. But the society will only be a good society if we can figure out how to employ each other in high-value (3b) activities–only if we find ways to organize life so that most of us can actually add a lot of value by amusing, pleasing, and encouraging others will we have a society of mutual respect, and of only tolerable inequality.

The problem with this interpretation, however, is with the notion of “added value”, which is a nice way of saying “economically useful”. In previous versions of capitalist society, economic utility was a way for [non-enslaved] humans to free themselves from blinkered judgments of “one’s proper place”: by dint of one’s wit and work, a man could make his own way.

That way might still be terrible—Marx and Engels made much of the barbarity of industrialization—but, as those who toil in the 21st century version of the “dark satanic mills” observe, it sure beats life down on the farm.

But now the hollowing out of men and society that Marx saw as the culmination of capitalism is breaching our consciousness. We worked because we were human and because we were human we worked: we accepted the deal that our worth was to be found in our utility because we could always find ways to make ourselves useful.

And now, if we are no longer able to make ourselves useful?

I hate Google Drive because it’s meant to be useful and it is not useful. It is a useless tool, a contradiction in terms; if it can’t be made useful, it should be discarded. But if humans become useless tools, are we to be discarded? What’s next?

I don’t trust Marx’s solution, because, really, there is no solution. But we need a new imagination; there must be something more.

All I ever needed was the music, and the mirror

16 09 2013

When I was a young ‘un I was all about performing.

Give me a stage and I’m on it, a light and I’m in it, and a chance to shine shine shine, and I’m takin’ it. A full-length mirror in my bedroom, a stereo, and a balled-up fist were my substitutes for the stage, the orchestra, and the microphone I wanted more than anything.

When I was pre-teen, it was all about Hollywood, but a bit of adolescence and I turned east, toward New York and the theatre (which was the genesis of my desire for New York).

Theatre in high school provided some of my best memories; it was also the peak of my performing days. I was at best competent, something which I had figured out even then, so while I very briefly flirted with the idea of going into theatre (in terms of considering whether or not to apply to Northwestern), once I decided on Madison, it was clear I’d major in political science, as a prelude to a career in journalism.

Funny thing about print journalism: it is a backstage activity. Yes, television is now clogged with scribe-pundits, but back in the olden days, journalism meant print (tv was something else entirely), and any fame would be confined to a front page byline on a national paper.

The jazz of journalism for me, though, was even less the bylines (tho’ that mattered: I still remember my first headline story, on a strike by the TAA, the grad student union) than getting the next day’s news the night before, and taking part in churning events into news.

We weren’t the story, but we wrote the story, and I decided I liked that more than anything.

Skip forward 25 (or so) years, and I still love that backstage churn. And while there is a performative aspect to teaching, outside of the classroom I am not only not interested, but dread taking center (or even side) stage.

Which is why I joined Gotham Rock Choir. Of course.

Yes, a big piece of this is kicking myself out of my rut, but the GRC provides something more: active discomfort with the activity.

Oh, Absurd, you’re saying, that makes so much sense: of course you should choose to do something which you won’t enjoy.

Well, that’s kind of the point. It’s one thing to get off my ass to do more of the things I’m used to doing, but quite another to push myself to see if I can get easy with something which makes me uneasy. And it requires a commitment, which just magnifies the unease. . . so, y’know, perfect.

If I really don’t like it after this cycle (which ends in December), I won’t re-up. But if the experience doesn’t kill me (which it won’t), maybe I’ll be willing to try something else, discomfort be damned.

If I want there to be something more, then I have to try something more.


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