The triumph of the small

Sometime around 1995, we changed. We changed because the Internet seemed to move from the unknown and unreachable to the possible. A prosumer activity to a consumer activity. It was open. It was available. And most who weren’t already there, wanted to be there for its promise.

In 1995, amid my excitement over what could be digital, I was still reading two different newspapers over breakfast each morning and listening to two different public radio stations in two different parts of the house. While not efficient, the gaps and differences between the reporting taught me about opinion. About choice. About editorial decision-making. And about truth.

Sometime around 2007, we changed again. In 2007, the digital possible moved from our desktops to our hands. Everything was indeed possible, just as they said in 1995. While still thrilling to receive a handwritten letter or a telephone call, perhaps even more enchanting was an email. A ping straight into our everyday that did not obey the rhythms or etiquette of the postman, the workday, or dinnertime.

Meantime, sometime between then and now, people returned to craft. Amid some uncertainty out in the world, people returned to making. Retreating into handmade objects, slow processes, face-to-face friendships and pleasures, people demonstrated that while we can’t change the world through artisanal coffee, we can reinforce the human values that seemed unrequited through rectangular glass.

Sometime around 2016, we changed again. Or rather, we began a media evolution that would continue for years to come. Public blurred with private. Truth blurred with fiction. Celebrity blurred with identity. Purpose blurred with perception.

And sometime around 2017, we will change again. The new year will bring a different kind of retreat. Rather than retreating into making or craft, we will retreat into smaller and more nuanced connections. Into quality over quantity. Into the single story over collections of stories. Into the subtle over the general. Into the singular datapoint over big data. Into attention over distraction.

2017 will ring triumphs for the small and true, the richness of a single moment, and a celebration of what is, rather than what is not.

First written for Nieman Lab, Predictions for Journalism 2017.

The not yet principle

We were a healthy family. My mom would bring home groceries in paper bags loaded with newly purchased food, mostly plants. But also, more exotically: Oreos, Pretzels, Diet Rite, Golden Grahams, Little Debbie Swiss Rolls, Fritos — a weekly goldmine of snacks into the otherwise snack-less househould. And when one of the four kids rushed to tear open a package, we heard the same sound. “Not yet.”

The not yet sound effect happened not only with groceries, but with anything new. New clothes still with tags hung in every closet. Letters sat unopened. Paitence truly was a virtue, delayed gratification embodied. New snacks, and all new things, were for the future, not now.

This wasn’t the experience I saw around me. Most memorably, at 16, my best friend received a new red convertible because she passed her drivers’ test. Later, after perhaps borrowing my parents’ stationwagons one too many times, I received a trusty (old) hatchback with four speeds and an AM/FM radio. If I had received a new car at that age, my parents reasoned, what would I have to look forward to? They wanted me to feel what it was like to do it myself. The time for a new car was not yet.

They were right (of course). Some years later, as is the case with many childhood things, I got it. Practicing waiting is a lifelong practice since, as it turns out, impatience has a particular gravitational pull. But after all that waiting, finding or opening or having that once-future thing feels very much present.

And that is worth waiting for.

Grace notes

I grew up with a mom and dad who played music every chance they got. Most nights after dinner, one parent would turn up the classical music coming from the local station on the kitchen radio, the other retired to a room to read, while the kids each went off to practice their respective instruments. One child on the upstairs piano, one on the downstairs piano, another in the TV room practicing a wind instrument.

They took the kids to piano lessons, French Horn lessons, saxaphone lessons, flute, clarinet, whichever instrument struck our fancy. For some period of years, all kids were required to take two instruments, so mathmatically, our practice sessions took most of the weeknight evening not already taken up by homework. But the house was, interminablely, filled with “music.”

My mother was a whistler and when not actually playing the violin, she was whistling her way around the house, making certain no room was unfilled with sound. Every morning about 5AM my father would rise first and start tea or coffee, making the most of what little solitude one could find in the house. (For years, I also woke at 5AM to “keep my father company,” thinking he was lonely. Not until I had kids in my own house did I realize those early solo hours were not lonely, but intentional — a needed respite from the clamor of everyday life.)

Learning to play music is an long exercise learning to to be kind to yourself. As your fingers stumble to keep up with your eyes and ears, your brain will say unkind things to the rest of you. And when this tangle of body and mind finally makes sense of a measure or a melody, there is peace. Or, more accurately, harmony. And like the parents who so energetically both fill a house with music and seek its quietude, both are needed to make things work. As with music, it takes a lifetime of practice to be kind to yourself. Make space for that practice, and the harmony will emerge.

That morning

Whose life is this anyway?
What is directing the birds’ flight

and the clouds’ path?

What made the mornings?

That morning,
the one I heard from where I was lying,
situated still,
deep in duvet,
listening to hear whether it was sunny or raining,

constructing a scene outside from the sounds—
a tree in white bloom,
a neighbor walking a poorly behaving dog,

a zagging car,
a flamboyant bird—
I wondered,
whose life is this anyway?

Yet now,
I know exactly whose life it is,
and I join them,
in all their bloom and occasional misbehavior,
in all their being,
feeling gratitude for having a choice,
feeling silence and idleness,
being present for morning,
being present for the good ones, for coffee, for truth, for cereal,
for everything that comes now.

Banking time

At age eight, I start saving my star money. I strode down to the Third National Bank of Scranton, and with the help of my father, opened my first savings account, bankbook and all. And this, the opening of my first anything with my own name on it, I did with all the pride a four-foot human could have. It was my first foray into saving.

Earning was a value we kids were taught early on. Our refrigerator — plastered with a hand-crafted spreadsheet of all the chores in the house that could be completed for a nickel, dime, or quarter — was opportunity waiting to happen. And when that opportunity was completed and marked with a star, we saved.

While we’re taught the value of saving money, we’re never really taught the value of saving time. Not saving time so we are more efficient elsewhere, but actually banking time. Saving it for later.

This past week, as Harold Pollack’s index card rightly gains visibility, I’d like to propose some quick parallels for investing time:

Max out your vacation days.
If you work for a company, force yourself to take the maximum allotted days. If you work for yourself, take at least five days for every year you’ve been working, within reason.

Keep 10-20% of your day, every day, free.
Don’t schedule 10-20% of your time at all. Leave yourself open for the unexpected.

Schedule make-up events on a monthly basis.
Set aside time to reschedule every lunch, dinner, or friend/family date you had to reschedule earlier that month because of professional obligations.

Pay attention to recurring meetings.
Avoid recurring meetings where you have little role. Attend them sparingly and purposefully, rather than consistently.

Promote your time off.
Instead of celebrating how many hours you worked in a day or how many years you’ve gone without a “proper vacation,” place value on your time off. Use it in such a way that it not only refreshes you, but you’re proud of it.

We don’t always have the luxury of putting time away. Yet if we observe it as an asset — save-able, invest-able, and appreciable — in time, we get to appreciate it back.

A friendship theory

Ben Horowitz with a friendship theory:

No matter who you are, you need two kinds of friends in your life. The first kind is one you can call when something good happens, and you need someone who will be excited for you. Not a fake excitement veiling envy, but a real excitement. You need someone who will actually be more excited for you than he would be if it had happened to him. The second kind of friend is somebody you can call when things go horribly wrong—when your life is on the line and you only have one phone call. Who is it going to be?

Years ago, a friend said she keeps a short list of emergency contacts in her head—a trust of three people she can count on, day or night, no matter the circumstance. This week, I’m especially grateful for both types of friends in my life. Who is it for you?

With saying

It goes without saying,”
they say.
Without expressing
simple joy

anxiety
gratitude
flusteredness
love
anger!
or thanks.

It just goes without saying,
most of the time
and we go

looking
watching
waiting
not noticing the oak or the ash.
The marks in the leaves are the same.
Right?

Anyway,
no one is saying anyway.

But what if
it went with saying.

They’d say,
“It goes with saying.”
And we might say,

thanks.

On making it up, or the virtues of make believe

As I pulled off my tennis shoes just inside my front door that day after fifth grade, I heard my mother say it, “No one knows what they’re doing.” She, in a simple response to a query I had about some confusing adult thing or another, continued, “You know, we’re all just making it up as we go along.” And there it was. In one fell sentence, she had introduced me to the secret of adulthood.

While the secrets of adulthood are many (we can say no, doctors no longer fix things, we can actually learn new skills), the sentiment of expertise is less contested. Or, less often revealed anyway. People aspire to be expert. And more often, we assume the following: we grow up, we become experts, the end. With age, we gain wisdom. Nothing could be simpler. But nothing could be further from the truth.

Early on, my mother exposed this myth — casually, just after piano practice and before dinnertime. Adults too were making it up. Adults were winging it. It has been an invaluable insight that’s guided me my whole life.

So what follows, really, are the virtues of making it up:

1. Style

I don’t know is, in fact, the most important secret to reveal.

Before we knew design, before we knew what we did was “a profession,” we wrote. We sat patiently through grammar class, learning when the participle dangled and the sentence ran on. As we got older, we were handed down paperbacks gilded with lessons and rules about how to write. Guidelines from Strunk & White guided our grammar and high school prose. But if we braved on, we may have encountered a different kind of grammatical attitude. Grammar rules dropped away, and we were left to our own devices. If we forgot the rules, we could speak and write in our own voice, we could develop a style that could only be our own.

2. Tolerance.

In the land of making it up, there is no word for “misstep,” no dictionary entry for “mistake.” Such words would assume there is a right way to do something. Tolerance, then, is a way of life. And seeking others who experiment and fail is encouraged and celebrated.

3. More making.

Make believe is contagious. So do what feels right. What moves you. What inspires you. Make up more.

Far earlier, even before fifth grade, I discovered Fred Rogers with his make-believe and Neighborhood itself who said, “Discovering the truth about ourselves is a lifetime’s work, but it’s worth the effort.” These virtues of make believe, no matter how deeply we trust the notion we’re all making it up together, still take a lifetime to trust.

In the meantime, I’m making it up.

Yes, and

Yes, and

Brooke Gladstone reminds Margaret Atwood of her favorite word:

You said [to The Guardian in an interview] your favorite word was “and.” “It is so hopeful,” you said.

“Yeah, and,” replied Atwood. “I think it’s better than ‘therefore.’ Not nearly as prescripted.” (7:28)

Many years ago, I had anxiety about the comma. In reply to “what do you do?” I found myself listing a string of projects and future ideas, separated by commas. This untidy gaggle of words, comma delineated, left me self-conscious. A person without a single term to describe my profession.

Years later, a wise friend said he found the more interesting people tend to be ones who can’t exactly describe what they do day to day. Instead, of forcing prescription, let’s embrace “and.”

Instructions for life

Josh Wagner’s advice to his 18-year-old self:

You don’t have a choice as to whether your best days will end up devoured by time, but you do have a choice about how it’s done.

Don’t be afraid to fight. But first make sure you know how.

Don’t be afraid to love. But first make sure you don’t think you know how.

Stop putting all that work into agonizing over the imminent loss of everything you love. Simply love. While it’s still right there in front of you. Time not spent burning is draining, every bit of it trickling away at one second per second.

And when you do fall in love — and you will, again and again and again — don’t stop falling just because you hit the ground.

Good lessons.

Ode to vwls

When yesterday I received an email signed “rgds,” a trite valediction closing an email to a group of professionals, I stopped. Rgds? Really?

See also:
Some Srs Bsns: Are Words Without Vowels Rlly More Efficient?

Was the emailer intending to communicate familiarity with his recipient by dropping the vowels in “regards,” or was he simply demonstrating tired sophistication with the keyboard — too familiar was he with keystrokes that vowels were an interference and, therefore, a waste of time in the rhetoric between us? Or was it simply that everything is now bound by constraints even when we are constraintless?

No matter the reason, vowels are now the victims, and as a result, it seems fitting to compose an ode in response.

To what consonant altar have we subscribed to?

And what innocent A E I O or U has been sacrificed?

Thou still impoverished and vanishing ever more quickly,

Dear friends! Who can now explain,

The reason more aptly than our current style:

Why we’ve simply banished the unaware vowel?

Just as quickly as we forget E-I-E-I-O, we adopt truncation,

In email, we sign “rgrds;” in retribution, we give “thx,”

Too much in a hurry to round out the fuller sounds.

What mad pursuit do consonants offer? What ecstasy might they bring?
If “I before E except after C” is relinquished to merely “C,”
What substance do we have left before?

Thanks to Keats.

Old posts in transition. This original post written in 2009.

You say goodbye

When it comes to answering the phone, I’ve never been one for ceremony. I learned early on that our family was nothing if not practical. When I visited friends’ houses, they would impress us with phone etiquette, “The Barrett residence; this is Brendan speaking,” in their flat eight-year-old voices. But the Danzico kids: we just answered with a simple “hello.” It got the job done. And after my brief childhood contemplations about the formalities of the Barrett hello, I gave little thought to picking up a telephone.

Until now.

Where it once seemed innocuous, “hello” is now causing me downright anxiety. The word — a common way of greeting someone when answering the phone — is standard in the United States and fairly common both in England and France. It’s about as routine as making toast or turning on a light. It’s something we do to initiate and give a sort of permission for a conversation to start.

See also:
15 other expressions that have run their course

The problem is that “hello” has gone the way of VCRs, Crockpots, and Pink Pearl erasers. While we keep it around for all its perceived usefulness, it is simply not necessary anymore, and no one is admitting it.

“Hello” is a leftover.

A greeting without a cause

The word, once having such a prominent place in social interactions, has now been rendered unnecessary by caller ID. With 90% of Americans having mobile phones and 96 cell subscriptions for every 100 people in the world, chances are, caller identification lets us know who is calling before we answer. And we know you know that we know who is calling.

So why greet one another with a meaningless word?

We see a person’s name (e.g., “Mom”) displayed even before we take the call. But we continue on with what is arguably a leftover formality, answering with a generic word. Then comes a feigned surprise. We play along, sometimes pretending astonishment at the sound of the caller’s voice.

Why this intentional inefficiency? Why not answer with a personal greeting?

Hello, you must be going

The origin of the word seems surprisingly unknown. While it is well-documented that Alexander Graham Bell himself originally tried to use “Ahoy, Ahoy” to answer the phone, the reason for the switch is not clear. People in the 1880s needed a greeting that would take the place of what happened on the streets when one met a stranger.

Much later, in the seminal Why We Buy: The Science of Shopping, Paco Underhill talks about the landing strip that humans need when they enter a store. The first eight feet of a store are useless, because people don’t see them. They are in effect blind to the entryways, and store owners know that this is dead space and goes unused. Perhaps Americans need the same landing strip when initiating a phone conversation?

Get to the point

See also:
Goodbye may be harder than it seems

Other cultures don’t seem to need it; they jump right in. Italians answer, “Ready,” leaving it up to the caller to demand, “Who’s speaking?” In Spain and Mexico, they answer “Speak.” And like the Italians, the Mexicans will demand: “Where am I calling?” And if they have the wrong number, they’ll indignantly hang up, sometimes with a curse, as if it were the respondent’s fault. While curt, sure, these are more straightforward.

Each culture may need a different way to take calls, and perhaps it’s time we review how how we do it. Let’s look at where technology has brought us and get to the point.

Old posts in transition. This original post written in 2007.