But Why These Shoes?

I’m back on shoes.  I guess I really like shoes.

I’m really interested in shoes, and what they say about their owners.  In theory, they’re inconspicuous, out of the way – as far away from the head, with its facial expressions and speaking as possible.  We pay attention to faces, to upper bodies.

Down there at the lowly Cape Horn of the body sit the shoes, functionally tasked with keeping our oh-so-tender feet safe.

So as I sit in the park, watching the many people go by, I can’t help but wonder about the choices everyone made.  Why those shoes?  What possessed the wearer to choose this shoe instead of any other?  Why does the market support such a wide variety of footwear?

What do my shoes say about me?

When I buy shoes, it’s an almost unconscious decision.  I’ll browse online, or go to a shoe store (gasp) in person, and see what they have.  If asked what I’m interested in, I’ll say “I don’t know”.  I don’t know.  And yet, I’m guided by an invisible will towards specific styles, brands, and types.

The reality is that I’m very specific about what type of shoe I’ll buy and wear, I just don’t like to admit it, even to myself.  Whether or not I like it, whether or not I’ll admit it openly, I’m buying shoes in large part in order to tell you something about myself.  Yes, I have some baseline requirements that don’t relate to other people (do they fit?  Are they comfortable enough?), but the majority of my shoe buying decision comes down to you, and what I want you to think of me.

What do people’s shoes say about them?

Are they comfortable looking?  Are they inconspicuous?  Are they bright and obnoxious?  Are they so obviously ugly that the wearer is either blind, or making some sort of statement about how little they care about what you think? Do they match the wearer’s shirt? Hat? Are they athletic shoes, in spite of the fact that the wearer is not currently doing anything athletic?  Are they leather? Are they not leather, but brown anyway? Are they very obviously brand new? Are they dirty?  Are they all white, but amazingly not dirty?  Can you imagine how much work it is to keep all white shoes clean?  Seriously, think about it, I’ll wait.

So, I don’t know, go look at your shoes.  How much of the decision to buy that particular pair of shoes was about telling people about yourself?  Are you happy with what they say?

Tune in tomorrow, where I’ll undoubtedly talk more about shoes.

 

Other people

A few days ago I wrote about the phone, and my general desire to not use it.  Ever.  But there’s a little more to it than that – barely under the surface, there’s a general disdain for other people, for human interaction.  I fall into this trap easily, and willingly, fully aware of what I’m doing.  And it’s fine.  I like being alone, and I don’t often feel lonely, or compelled to seek out interaction with other people.

I mentioned a phone call that kicks off the podcast S-Town.  A phone call I would have blown off,  avoided, because the very premise of the call was all wrong – it was obviously not the transactional interaction that I would have wanted it to be.  Of course, the reporter, being a reporter, followed through with a call, and what followed was a wild and baffling exchange that eventually evolved into a long and involved relationship (no, not _that_ kind of relationship) with one of the most interesting people I’ve heard or read about.  Really a fascinating person, the kind that makes you question everything about yourself, or maybe all about the world, _even if_ they’re difficult to be around.  (I’m only 2 episodes in, so maybe by the time I finish the series, I’ll have discovered it wasn’t a real person or something.  Don’t spoil this for me.)

When we interact with no one, or only with a small group of friends and family that we already know well, it’s easy to stay comfortable.  To exist safely in a cocoon of our own ideas and philosophies, safely protected from the difficulty and discomfort of facing interactions and people who don’t share them, might have their own.  This is safe, comfortable, and boring.  To rehash a quote:

When the outcome of a game is certain, we call it quits and begin another. This is why many people object to having their fortunes told: not that fortunetelling is mere superstition or that the predictions would be horrible, but simply that the more surely the future is known, the less surprise and the less fun in living it.

Watts, Alan W | The Book: On the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are

Other people are wildcards.  Other people _can’t be controlled_. Other people force us to re-examine our beliefs, and introduce us to new ones.  It can be uncomfortable and embarrassing.  Sometimes it’s useless, because lots of people are actually terribly boring.

But if you want to life the kind of uncertain, adventurous life Watts refers to,  it’s probably worth picking up the phone on occasion, and talking to the clearly crazy person on the other end.

Shoes

I was in New York over the weekend.  I hadn’t ever been to New York.

We spent an afternoon in Central Park.  It was Sunday afternoon, and the weather was nice – and the park was full of people.  More people than a yokel such as myself can really comprehend easily – where did all these people come from? Where do they all live?  Why are they all here?

But one thought kept coming to me:

Look at all these shoes.

It can be difficult to really understand the vast scale and power of the worldwide human economic machine – but if you get thousands and thousands of people together, and then just start paying attention to their shoes, you can start to get a sense for it.  All those shoes.  Very few of them exact duplicates – there are many similar styles, but not so many perfect matches, even in a sample size so large.  Each pair had to be designed, manufactured, packaged, shipped, delivered to a store, then purchased by a person.  So. Many.  Shoes.

What’s more – shoes aren’t exactly a commodity.  People care about their shoes.  They have to be the right size, to start – but more important than that, they have to be the right style.  We expect our shoes to, on some level, reflect who we are.  So now you’ve got to have this massive infrastructure in place for manufacturing, delivering, and selling the shoes, but you’ve also got to close the loop – the customer’s desires have to inform your shoe designs.  And it works!  I saw thousands and thousands of pairs of shoes, and each one somehow spoke to the person who bought them – made them feel a bit more stylish, or more professional, more athletic, more unique – enough to spend some money and take them home.

The sheer volume, the complexity that makes up the industry that has no focus, no concern other than to protect and decorate your feet, is staggering.

Creating

So often when we try to create we judge what we are making before its even had a chance to breathe and grow

Ben posted this in relation to a quote from Sister Corita Kent, who I know nothing about, and now feel compelled to hear more from.

About a month ago, I told my brother that I’d write something meaningful to me every day for 100 days on this blog.  It’s been great, and it’s been terrible.  

The beauty of a commitment like that is that I have to write and publish every day.  And a lot of days, the thoughts I’ve had, whatever I’ve written down, I don’t like them.  They’re boring, they’re hard to make sense of, they’re pretentious, or they’re just poorly written.  And I don’t want to post them.  But I do. I thrust them on you poor people, and then I (usually) have them automatically posted to Facebook and Twitter to seal the deal, and ensure people revel in the mediocrity with me.

Just as Ben describes, my default state would be to never publish anything except things that I really like, and I’m really excited about – which means I’d basically never post anything at all.  I’m glad to be forced to follow his advice – to be forced to write, create, and avoid judging too much during the process – something just has to get posted every day.

So take Ben’s advice.  Go make something, and don’t let yourself judge it along the way – just go until you’re done, and let it turn out how it turns out.  Whatever it is, you’ll end up better than when you started.

The phone.

I just started the podcast S-town, put on by the producers of This American Life, and Serial. It’s come up several times over the past few weeks, most recently when my wife recommended it to me this morning. So I gave it a listen.
In the first episode, the host describes an exchange he had with a listener over the past year or two. It started with emails alleging that something was afoot in a small town in the South. 

Eventually, one of the stories is corroborated, and the reporter takes the bait. Upon contacting the listener to get more details, he gets a response: “I would like to talk to you by phone if possible. This is just too much to type.”
When does something become “too much to type”? And why? What conversations necessitate a phone call instead of an email?
I’ll state my bias right up front: I communicate all day long via text. Email, text message, slack, etc – the vast majority of my interaction with other humans – personal and professional- is via text. Text is powerful. In the right hands, it is precise and exact, and ranges from emotionally charged to strictly factual.
So when I hear “This is just too much to type”, I hear “my thoughts are unclear, and I’m interested in having you listen to me ramble”. By the way, my fears are immediately confirmed on the show when the listener launches into descriptions of his mothers dimentia, and the number of stray dogs in the callers house, and town more broadly. You can get away with rambling on he phone, or in person – but in text? In text you don’t have a monopoly on my attention. I can scan ahead, to look for when or if this tangent will wrap back around to the reason for us communicating. The inability to do so means you can hold me hostage indefinitely, or until I’m so annoyed I’ll interrupt.
Speaking on the phone or face to face is far higher bandwidth than text. This is generally touted as a blessing, but let’s consider it more thoroughly, with some examples. Have you ever wondered why salesmen always want to “schedule a call” or meet in person? Why do door to door salesmen still exist, in an age where communicating with anyone without leaving your desk is simple and ubiquitous?
The added bandwidth gives whoever you’re talking to a wealth of information about you (are you nervous? Timid? Eager to please? Uncomfortable with confrontation?), plus an array of tools to use against you to get you to agree. Remember chad? He sold us a standing ovation we didn’t want, but he could only do so because we were in the same room.
For these same reasons, often text is the wrong answer – it is harder to communicate emotion, to foster a connection over text. When I call my kids because I miss them, I want to see their faces, i don’t want to send a text.
But don’t tell me that you need to meet face to face or on the phone to schedule a meeting, or discuss something. Text fits the bill just fine, thanks.

Human Work

The so-called rich elite are in actuality poor as well, disengaged from real human work and therefore from real human accomplishment

Robinson, Kim Stanley | Red Mars (p. 375)

I’ve taken this quote completely out of context, because it’s been so long since I read it that I’ve forgotten the context.  But that’s ok, because I think it stands on its own.

I write code and talk to people for a living.  And those are valuable, fulfilling, enjoyable tasks – writing code is creation, in a very literal sense. Even so, sometimes I feel like I’m “disengaged from real human work”.

Building things is fun.  It’s satisfying.  Handling physical objects, making things that can be seen, touched, admired, used, repaired – it’s a different kind of satisfaction – in some ways it feels more real, maybe more “human”.

Doing human work can help keep us human.   Go bake some bread.  Or build a chair.  Or fix a door that squeaks.

Standing Ovations

A couple of weeks ago, I found myself at a David Copperfield show.  Yes, that David Copperfield.  I’m not a magic aficionado, but the show was fun – well produced, polished, and generally entertaining.

I’ll admit that half the fun of the show was not the show itself, but watching it and figuring out how it was produced.  I don’t really mean the magic – figuring out how the tricks worked – that was mostly beyond me.  I’m perfectly willing to suspend my disbelief and just agree that he’s sold his soul to the devil in exchange for a full head of thick black hair, and the ability to make big stuff show up where big stuff could not possibly have been moments before.

What I found interesting was the sheer amount of production that went into the show.  Everything was rehearsed, and rehearsed thoroughly (and repeated several nights a week, I guess).  Nothing went wrong – and when it seemed like things might be going wrong (as it sometimes does whenever members of the audience get involved), Copperfield’s experience as a performer and manager of audiences, clearly extensive, took care of it.

Everything had a place.  Every step, every trick, every word.  It felt like watching a TV show in person.  The entire thing had been crafted – designed to direct our eyes, our attention, and our emotions.

The end of the show rolled around, and with it some kind of 2 part finale.  I don’t actually remember what the tricks were, I just remember that there were 2 standing ovations. I’m always intrigued by the concept of the standing ovation.  You go to a show, you get to the end, you’re already applauding, but it’s not enough.  You’ve got to really let the performer(s) know that they were so compelling, so amazing, that you cannot stay in your seat.  You have to stand up, clap wildly, even whistle, if you’re one of those people blessed with the ability to make a shrill, fingers in your mouth whistle.  And it’s never just one person.  The whole crowd gets up, or at least the front section (why is it always the front section?) in a nearly unanimous decision that the performance was too amazing – butts cannot remain in chairs.

So I was particularly surprised when, at the end of this show, not one but two standing ovations took place.  The show was nice, I enjoyed it, but I would not put it in the category of “to applaud this man while sitting would be a travesty”.  And everyone in front of us stood up to clap.  Twice.

But I noticed something during the first standing ovation.  Being alert for this kind of thing (I’m always keen to try to work out the motivations of that first person who stands up during the applause.  What a weight on their shoulders!), I watched the first dude stand up.  He was young-ish, probably early to mid 20s.  But what struck me was the fact that after the applause, he left, like he had to go to the bathroom or something.  Then the second standing ovation rolls around, and lo and behold, it’s the same dude.  Stands up, gets the ovation going, and leaves.

So clearly, he’s part of the show.  And his role is: Trick (guilt?) the people in the front section into standing up and clapping.  And that doesn’t sound so surprising, but think through how this went – they planned this.  They sat down at some point before the show, and somebody said

“Alright, Chad, you’re on ovation duty tonight.  I want you to sell it.  Don’t be a Zack.  We all saw what happened to Zack.  I’ll give you a crisp $5 bill if you can squeeze a tear out.” 

 And he went out there and did it.  And dutifully, the people around him bought it, and stood up.  

Chad here, who showed up 38 seconds ago, found this performance worthy of a stand-and-clap.  Good enough for Chad, good enough for me.”  

Or maybe they didn’t buy it.  Maybe they saw through it, but somehow felt like it was their job to stand, and Chad was their leader – giving them non-verbal cues on how they were expected to behave for their privileged position at the front of the theater.  Maybe they felt bad for Chad, standing all alone, and quickly got up so he didn’t feel silly, or, you know, suffer the same fate as Zack. I don’t know.

Regardless, the lesson was:  Don’t trust Chad.  And maybe don’t trust our deeply ingrained, follow-the-leader instincts.  Because apparently (I learned after the show), this is so common, it’s a thing, with a name.  We’re all so willing to follow the Chads of the world, who will head to his next job, resume in hand, listing his exemplary skills in “Leadership in standing up”.

Don’t follow Chad.  Watch out for Chad.  He’s at the theater, where he’s innocuous, but I’m guessing he’s elsewhere too, preying on us psychologically, convincing us of what to care about, what to do.  And he’s doing so with his own motivations, his own goals, his own agenda.

I’m watching you, Chad.

Passion

In the past fifteen years, the only time I didn’t look at my bank account every day was when I was doing something I was passionate about.

Altucher, James | Choose Yourself (p. 130)

Everything seems really important.  Your job, your bank account, your house, your car, your clothes.  Your TV.  The shows you watch on your TV.  Your furniture.

I walk around my suburban neighborhood in the summer, and it’s all pristine yards.  Green grass, well trimmed.  Well maintained landscaping.  To be clear, this includes my house.  And I walk around, and I can’t help but wonder:  Do we all care this much about our lawns?  Is this really important enough to justify the amount of time and money spent?

I think most people don’t actually care about these things, at all – or, put more honestly, I don’t think I care about these things at all, in spite of the fact that they feel important to me.  You probably have a different set of things that feel important but you don’t care about, which overlaps to some degree with mine.

I have an actual list titled “things I don’t care about”, which includes the things above.  Making that list is difficult, because if you want it to be meaningful, you have to be really painfully honest about it.  And maybe I want to be the kind of person who doesn’t care about how my yard looks, but I do.  I actually love yardwork.  That’s ok.  Making a conscious decision, giving it some actual thought is what is valuable.

Here’s what I find more interesting, day to day: the amount of time and effort I spend thinking about or working on the things that are on my “things I don’t care about” list is directly related to how excited I am about whatever else I’m doing in my life.  I’m spending a lot of time thinking about how justifiable it would be to buy a new car?  Perusing luxury home listings and thinking about how to get rich?  Probably a good indicator that I don’t really care about what I’m doing with the rest of my day.

” … for the past 33 years, I have looked in the mirror every morning and asked myself: “If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?” And whenever the answer has been “No” for too many days in a row, I know I need to change something.”

Jobs, Steve | Stanford Commencement Speech, 2005

 

Chula

I dare you to watch this and not enjoy it.  Let me walk you through the emotional rollercoaster you’re about to embark on:

:00 – :50 | I guess this is like, costumed breakdancing with tap boots?  Novel.  I’ll give this about a minute, pat myself on the back for being “cultured”, and be on my way.

1:00 | Quite the costumed call-out there, black boots.  Part of me wants to mock, but he’s so committed, so fearless about it.  Lets see what white boots has to say.

1:30 | I think white boots is the literal definition of panache.  I can’t let this go quite yet.

2:20 | I guess this is on.  This is happening. Nobody is backing down here.  Still – I’ve seen them both dance now,  I’m certainly not going to watch this whole thing.  I’m an adult with things to do.  I’m surprised I made it through 2 minutes.

2:35 | I realize they’re commanding the live band by tapping their boots.  I can’t lie, I’m suddenly flush in the cheeks.

3:10 | How many spins was that?  Did anybody see that?

3:10 – 15:00 | Did i just watch this for 15 minutes?  There’s no way I just watched this for 15 minutes.

15:15 | WHEN DID BLACK BOOTS’ HAT COME OFF?  Gather round, everybody, it’s about to get real.

16:05 | Add “take off my scarf and jump rope with it” to the bucket list.

18:13 | I did it.  I watched 18 minutes of this.  And somehow, I’m disappointed it’s over.

 

I don’t know what this is.  I don’t know what the rules are.   I don’t know who won (yes I do, black boots definitely won).  But It was good.  They were good.  They were passionate, talented, practiced, and committed.  And that’s fun to watch.

Bravo, mystery dancers.

Courtesy of digg.

Kilian

When you try to climb a mountain to prove how big you are, you almost never make it. And even if you do it’s a hollow victory. In order to sustain the victory you have to prove yourself again and again in some other way, and again and again and again, driven forever to fill a false image, haunted by the fear that the image is not true and someone will find out. That’s never the way.

Pirsig, Robert M. | Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

Every time Kilian Jornet pops up in a video, I’m entertained by him.  In today’s sampling, he attempts the Seven Summits of Romsdalen in Norway, a 77km route, in a single day, using only skis and feet as transport.  but my favorite part is (spoiler) when he fails – conditions aren’t quite right, and he can’t make it in a day.   He admits it, maybe he’s a little defeated, but it’s ok.  It’s a huge day just the same, and he’s expended a huge amount of effort.  And the cameraman asks him “What now?” and he replies

Kilian: Shower… Eat… And then just, I don’t know like, just to plan for tomorrow, ah?

Cameraman: (laughing) Are you serious?

The best part is that he’s completely oblivious to how nuts everyone else thinks this is.  It’s not nuts to him because it’s who he is.  To take the ZAMM quote literally, he wasn’t climbing the mountain to prove who he is, he was climbing the mountain _because_of who he is.  He had a goal, it was hard, he couldn’t reach it – but the point was not really the goal, the point was a fun day in the mountains, and tomorrow is no different.