It’s a Major Reward!

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At long, long last, my Velorex 562 sidecar arrived on the curb, in a Volpe Express truck driven by a kindly fellow named Bob. The box was intriguingly mysterious: seven feet long, six feet wide, brown cardboard covered in shrink wrap and weighing three hundred pounds. It sat on the curb in a maddeningly intriguing way: “TO: John Young. Hold at Philadelphia docks.” Kate suggested that we put a “DANGER: BENGAL TIGER” sign on it, which is the best idea I’d heard all year, but then Bob was able to give me a hand dragging it around to the garage pretty much right away, so the lives of the neighborhood kids will just have to wait to be enriched in that particular way.

Lydia is cutting four teeth simultaneously, and she’s got a rash from her MMR shot last week, poor girl, and is much crankier than usual. “Do you want to go up?” “No, no no!” “Do you want to get down?” “No, no, no!” In conjunction with her new Multi-Purpose Preemptive Attention-Getting Shriek (a technique developed recently, and undergoing extensive market testing), Kate’s job is… difficult, right now. I swear to god, Gloria Steinem was right — if it was considered a traditional men’s job to raise kids, it’d be a two hundred thousand dollar a year job, and would require fifteen years of specialized training. And there would be three shifts, plus dental, and awards would be given out, and there would be carbon-fiber strollers and golf trips to the Bahamas for top performers: “Yeah, I totally potty-trained that sucker. Boo-yah! The red jacket is for closers! …Juice box?”

It’s a Major Reward!

Everything new is old again

I was wondering why I got a bunch of Retropod mail today. Turns out I made the Make blog today, courtesy of Philip Torrone. What’s up, PT?

Also on the Make blog, I saw that Fortune had published an article titled “The Amazing Rise of the Do-It-Yourself Economy“, in which Daniel Roth talks about all the hobbyist hardware hackers and just simple putter-ers out there who are putting stuff together for fun. He mentioned one of my favorite essays, EB White’s 1936 New Yorker article “Farewell, My Lovely”, about the shiny new Model T Ford, its mysteries and deficiencies, its quirks and the community of, well… hackers and putter-ers that would bolt on accessories, frown at the wiring, and generally try to own and inhabit this cool new technology.

I love these articles — the (for want of a better term) “Everything new is old again” genre — in which ideas and issues we think of as contemporary reveal themselves as reincarnations of something else. Which is not meant to trivialize them. Or explain them, or anything. Though I was in a socialist mood, I guess, when I blogged in 2001 about the 1910 Tom Swift books:



“…It also goes to show you how “coolness” changes depending on what is new and unfamiliar — and what can only be afforded by the upper classes. Cars, motor-cycles, and motorboats are new and rare in Tom’s time. So new, in fact, that gasoline is stil spelled “gasolene.” His mastery of these expensive gasolene-powered toys wins him respect, adoration, and (believe it or not) lucrative government submarine contracts! Tom is worshipped as a hero in these books because he can unstick a floater valve in the carburetor of his motorboat, because he can jury-rig an ignition wire from a bit of cattle fencing, and because he can replace a cracked cylinder head in less than two hours. Where would this get him today? A mullet and a front-row seat at the WWF smackdown, that’s where!”

Anyhow, here are my favorites from the “everything new is old again” genre:

  • Ancient Greece: The semi-famous “These damn kids today!” quote commonly attributed to Socrates turns out to be spurious, though there’s a nice one by Hesiod at the end to use instead.
  • 1882: Life on the Mississippi, by Mark Twain. The history of the riverboat pilot — an occupation requiring plenty of special skills that then vanished almost overnight in a crippling recesssion — was pretty damn relevant reading in 2000.
  • 1890s: Mavis Beacon used to have a really wonderful economic history of the typewriter, when this new machine promised to let one person do the work of ten printers’ devils, when they cost about ten grand in adjusted dollars, and when people who had mastered the black art of “touch typing” could command the equivalent of a princely ONE HUNDRED DOLLARS AN HOUR. This article was an eerie read in 1999, when HTML coders were carried around in sedan chairs and brushed their chin beards with golden combs (still looking for the link).
  • 1901: A Defence of Penny Dreadfuls, by G.K. Chesterton: Chesterton, a wonderful populist philosopher, responds to the Victorian criticism that “you’ll rot your brain with that reading stuff!” Very apropos of Steven Berlin Johnson’s new book Everything Bad is Good For You.
  • 1910: Plenty more metalshop-worship by Tom Swift authorVictor Appleton. The days when jumping a battery was a dashing act, requiring special clothes!
  • 1936: Farewell, My Lovely, by E.B. White: when casemodding meant dropping a camphor ball in the gas tank and overclocking the under-seat ignition coil. Also, listening to E.B. White lament the old-style clutch is like reading a Jakob Nielsen website usability screed: “Letting in a clutch is a negative, hesitant motion, depending on delicate nervous control; pushing down the Ford pedal was a simple, country motion – an expansive act, which came as natural as kicking an old door to make it budge.” Ha!

I’m sure that there are many more, and I’d love to hear about them!

Everything new is old again

Love is easy; middle management is hard.

In fifth grade at Westtown school, we were assigned “artist reports”; a ten page(!), illustrated biography of an artist we admired. To a fifth-grader, ten pages is a dissertation, a monumental scholarly work that consumed the whole second half of the year, so we selected our subjects pretty carefully.

I picked Norman Rockwell. Partly, I think, because I had come across something snotty in a World Book (O, pinnacle of academic scholarship! O, font of wisdom!) entry about how many considered Norman Rockwell not a Real Artist because he sometimes used photographic techniques, projecting an image onto a canvas and using that as a template. I was indignant: look at the command of the brush! Look at the work that went into the detail of each wood-paneled doctor’s office! Damn it, that mastery of craft and that attention to detail was ART, and I was going to write an artist report about him to put him next to Van Gogh and Kandinsky and Manet and other artists that didn’t need a championing in TEN WHOLE PAGES of carefully prepared erasable pen.

Looking back, I realize that the more salient criticism may have been that Norman Rockwell was mostly an illustrator, rather than an artist, and that being simple and popular (and, especially, funny) is anathema to serious critical success. This is a serious error that people make all the time. With Pascal and G.K. Chesterton, I think that most things worth knowing in life are not the things that come with lots of frowning, brain-wrinkling mental calisthenics. Life does indeed require a hell of a lot of effort, not the kind of Important Effort that we usually spend time attributing gravity to. From Chesterton’s “Orthodoxy“:

“Seriousness is not a virtue. It would be a heresy, but a much more sensible heresy, to say that seriousness is a vice. It is really a natural trend or lapse into taking one’s self gravely, because it is the easiest thing to do. It is much easier to write a good Times leading article than a good joke in Punch. For solemnity flows out of men naturally; but laughter is a leap. It is easy to be heavy: hard to be light. Satan fell by the force of gravity.”

You see that last bit on (wood-paneled) doctors’ office walls, sometimes. Chesterton also had a lot to say on the subject of such difficult and non-serious subjects like why a pompous man sitting on his hat is funny and reminding alarmist Victorians that just because the errand-boy is reading “The Red Revenge”, it’s unlikely that he’s really dripping with the gore of his own friends and relatives. That essay, A Defence of Penny Dreadfuls, is one of my favorite historical essays to point to when people get hysterical about television or game violence. That’s an old, old argument.

Okay, returning to the point once again, I think that we tend to take the wrong things in life seriously, and think that the easy bits are the hard ones. Love is easy (which is the staggering, amazing wonderful thing about love); the daily activity of showing love is hard. Faith is easy; works are hard (nb: I’m an atheist now, in case it matters.) Getting told what to do, then doing it? Easy. Making sweeping strategic decisions? Easy.

Middle management? Hard.

Now, don’t get me wrong — I don’t think work is easy. Work is, well, work, and just in case any of the members of my team is reading this, you do a great job of it: cheerful, speedy, competent, efficient execution. What I’m talking about is the fact that the SINGLE MOST IMPORTANT ACTIVITY OF BUSINESSES EVERYWHERE AROUND THE WORLD seems to get trivialized: the act of figuring out what the hell needs to get done next, who the hell is going to do it, whether they understand what you asked them to do, how long it’s gonna take them, whether they’re on schedule, whether they’re done, whether they did what you asked them to, and what the hell to do next. In other words, middle management, and that’s the hardest work that people who work for me do. I guess I started to learn this building houses in Mexico, where we had thousands of cheerful, energetic, and completely clueless high-school students on hand. Move ten thousand pounds of lumber? Easy. Figure out where to put it? Harder. Keep all thousand smiling Southern Baptist teenagers busy at the same time? Very hard. I learned another piece of it in the days after September 11, 2001, in Manhattan, when I got to see first-hand how the Red Cross ministered to volunteers by putting them through emergency training sessions, even though doing so was a net drain on resources — there was nothing useful that a thousand raw volunteers could do except feel better that they were doing something, and that’s the service the Red Coss provided to them.

Monster.com’s 1999 Superbowl ad featured kids talking about what they wanted to do when they grew up: “I want to claw my way up into middle management!” At the time, I shuddered. Because I was a programmer (well, a coder), and I thought that middle managers were the useless buffoons who wore short-sleeved dress shirts, polyester sansabelt slacks, and drove uninteresting cars. Now, I know the truth: middle managers are the incredibly useful buffoons who wear short-sleeved dress shirts, polyester sansabelt slacks, and drive uninteresting cars. (Actually, that’s not quite true: fully 66% of the people who have ever worked for me have been, at some point, involved in a punk-rock band, and two people on my team right now have one-letter names; letters down towards the end of the alphabet, which makes us sound like a dangerous, nerdy spy organization. Which we are, you know.)

So, what’s my point? Now that I’m in upper-middle management, a hugely important part of my job is trying to convince the folks that work for me — emerging managers — not just that their job is useful (it’s pretty immediately apparent that somebody who actually, you know, knows what the schedule is supposed to be is a VIP), but that middle management is a kind of holy, life-affirming activity that spreads joy and peace, and lets everyone go home on time so that they can do the fun, easy things in life (like love) and the fun, hard things in life (like buy groceries for the baby and wash the kitchen floor and try to make intelligent conversation) and that middle management is so hard because it’s so important, and that what I anxiously scan resumes for these days is the unwritten message “brings order from chaos; brings understanding from confusion; brings lovely, completed objects from a churning sea of uncertainty.” Damn it, THAT’S the middle manager’s job description.

And it’s, you know… hard.

Love is easy; middle management is hard.