Tag Archives: work

why we write: michael danaher

28 Nov
The following is the second installment of “Why We Write,” a series of personal reflections on the craft of writing. Each installment is poignant in its own way, but in sum the series is a sincere and astounding collection of thoughts, emotions, and ambitions regarding the profession of writing. Take of each what you will.

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Michael Danaher

I’d like to say it’s for some ultimate truth, like digging down deep into the clay of the human condition and unearthing something revelatory, something meaningful and genuine. That’s why I started, I suppose. Carver, O’Connor, Cheever, Vonnegut, O’Brien, Hemingway, Orwell, Salinger, Capote—they moved me, taught me things about myself, about my fellow man, that had been there all along but that I couldn’t see until I had consumed their sentences, digested their words, and attributed some significance to the meal of their works. And I knew, after reading “Cathedral” for my first Fiction Writing class sophomore year of college, that I wanted to be a writer.  Continue reading

treatise

17 Nov

Americans have to be told not to throw their pennies into small bodies of water. Anything smaller than a swimming pool and it’s inevitably lined with copper. There’s probably hundreds of dollars in the larger fountains. Do we even wish for anything when we do it? Or do we just toss out of habit?

I’m standing at end of a bridge, over the Metra tracks that mark the barrier between the Art Institute’s original building and its Modern Wing. A jutting piece of aluminum has collected the past month’s rain and the museum’s patrons can’t help themselves. There are pennies and nickels and dimes. Two keys. A perfect maple leaf. Etchings at the water’s edge look like fossilized shells. The water is drying up  slowly, leaving dirt on the aluminum in wide bands of varying colors. When it disappears completely, the sight will confuse people. Hundreds of coins in a bare aluminum trough, as if someone accidentally spilled a very large purse.  Continue reading

modest millionaires

10 Nov

I think we can learn a lot from this couple.

They recently won the Illinois Lottery, but have yet to tell friends, family or even their children. The couple plan to keep their jobs—he runs a small business—and raise their children with a strong work ethic by keeping secret their loaded bank account.

patience

1 Nov

Designer and illustrator Matt Stevens:

“All experience is valuable experience. We, a lot of times, come out of school and get horrible jobs or jobs we’re not that excited about. I would encourage folks to be patient. Some of the best lessons I’ve learned have been at the worst jobs I’ve had.”

I think that will resonate with just about everybody.

via The Great Discontent.

how to say no

26 Oct

My friend Derek and I have talked long into the night—and in the early morning before our friends wake up—about limits. Commitment. Smallness. About “traveling widely in Providence,” which is a line that’s stuck with me all these years, even if I’m getting it wrong. With so many people advocating for saying yesyes to everything—we need to know we can still say no. Liz Danzico says we not only can but should.

“Something a friend said to me several years ago has stayed with me,” she writes in The Manual. “‘It’s easy to say no if you love something.’ Wrong. Wrong, I thought at the time. If you love something, say yes. Say yes to everything. Yet what did he mean about loving something, I quietly wondered on the side. Did he mean to imply having a focus for one’s passion was another tool to help make better choices?”

She apparently comes around. Her final thought is this: “No matter what it is—be it a business, a person, a piece of art, a career, a song, a family, a way of life, or a pursuit of any kind—it’s easy to say no to all the choices that will present themselves if you love something. Finding that thing is the hardest part. But that’s another lesson.”

Alongside her post, she ran this quote from the late Steve Jobs, which is a timely and poignant conclusion to all this:

“People think focus means saying yes to the thing you’ve got to focus on. But that’s not what it means at all. It means saying no to the 100 other good ideas that there are. You have to pick carefully. I’m actually as proud of the many things we haven’t done as the things we have done.” 

an IRS agent explains…

10 Sep

What people don’t understand about my job is that chances are you are not the person I’m examining.
I examine doctors who expense three Cadillacs, insurance brokers who claim jet skis for business use only,
and real estate agents who haven’t paid taxes in eight years. The public doesn’t realize that tax auditors are
the only people between a balanced effective tax rate among all social classes and the bourgeoisie stealing
what isn’t bolted down.
Don’t kid yourself; these people are stealing from you.

—Part of The Atlantic‘s series on job misunderstandings

food service < factory work

20 Jul

In a report by GOOD on the state of the American waiter, the magazine notes that the food-service industry has added more than 216,000 jobs in the past 18 months, growth that is twice the national average. This has been going on for some time, not just in the past two years, and interestingly, these food-service jobs are what’s replacing old factory jobs. The benefits, however, are much worse.

“Back in the ’60s, so much of the working class was employed in factories. The jobs we’ve seen taking their place have been service sector jobs that don’t have labor protections. Only ten percent of workers get paid sick days and 90 percent don’t get health insurance from their employers. The fact is, most of these jobs are replacing work that used to be better.”

pens, stairs, & toys

15 Jul

When CBS MoneyWatch released a list of the 20 craziest interview questions ever asked in a real job interview, tech journalist Giles Turnbull figured he’d answer every single one, so he’d never be unprepared. Some of my favorites:

Procter & Gamble: Sell me an invisible pen.

Imagine that pen you loved. Remember? It was a great pen. Then that jerk in the office asked “Can I borrow that for a second?” and it was gone, never to be returned. You still see that jerk every day, but have you seen your pen? That need never happen again with the invisible pen. It’s a pen only you can use, because you’re the only one who knows it’s there.

Google: You are climbing a staircase. Each time you can either take one step or two. The staircase has n steps. In how many distinct ways can you climb the staircase?

There’s a typo in your question, there, dude. You said “n,” but I think you were supposed to put a number.

Kiewit Corp: What did you play with as a child?

We had no toys. Grandpa sometimes brought us interesting-looking stones that he’d found by the creek, so we gave them names and invested them with complex personalities and back-stories. They lived in a stony alter-universe where everybody was a stone. The stones had little stone parties sometimes. We offered them bugs to eat, but the stones weren’t hungry. I have my favorite stone in my pocket. He’s called Gufflin. Would you like to meet him?

man as industrial palace

22 Jun

You’re Part of Technology, Too

I use Radiolab as an escape while I work out. As a radio show, it can be fascinating, funny, cute, and gruesome in a single episode. It’s the perfect distraction while I lift weights or bike—things that don’t come naturally to me.

I was at the gym when an episode stopped me in my tracks. I felt the wind go out of me, and I ceased moving. Robert Krulwich, one of the hosts, was interviewing Kevin Kelly, author of What Technology Wants, and something Kelly said was chilling. Going back to it now, I can’t recreate the poignancy of the moment, but it was a haunting realization for someone who avoids technological gadgets and fancies himself “set apart” from the fast-paced world of technology.

Let me set the scene. Krulwich has been talking to Kelly for nearly 20 minutes, and Krulwich has repeatedly made known his discomfort with several of Kelly’s ideas. At this juncture, Krulwich reads someone else’s summary of the book, and asks Kelly if he too is not at least a little creeped out by these notions.

Robert Krulwich (quoting): “‘Humans cannot direct or prevent technology’s course. Like water contained behind a dam, relentlessly seeking escape, technology will eventually find its own way.’ Now doesn’t that creep you out a little?”

Kevin Kelly: “No, no—”

RK: “Oh, you’re just you.”

KK: “No, no, no. Seriously. If you said the same thing about life, would that creep you out?”

RK: “No, I’m part of life; I’m just worried about the things—”

KK: “No, you’re part of technology too. Don’t you understand? We humans have invented ourselves. We have this external stomach we call cooking, that has changed our diets, that has changed our teeth, our jaws. We remade ourselves when we became literate; our brains are rewired, we think differently. We’re not the same people that left Africa. We have domesticated ourselves. And we’re going to continue doing that.”

Now, I’ve read about technological devices as extensions of human ability. The telephone was an extension of our mouths; it projected our voices across impossible distances. But this was an eye-opening way to see myself: An invention. Not readily separable from technology.

I found myself the next morning trying to imagine life with no technology, not just without our MacBook or Civic, but without the building systems that were used to create our apartment building 80-some years ago. Without the pipes and pumps that bring water up three stories and into our tub. And, yes, even more basically: without the books on our shelves or a simple pencil or written language at all.

If technology is not just gadgetry but the whole invented world—every machine, no matter how simple—then I can’t distinguish myself from that world any easier than I can pretend I’m not part of the natural system of sun, water, and air.

:: :: ::

Right up there with Swaziland

No matter how you run the data, you get a correlation between technology—whether you buy the above definition or not—and a change in the way we work. Faster, everyone says. And they’re right. In college, we learned it by rote: “Technology may mean that things get done faster, but you’re now expected to do ten times as much.” They were trying to prepare us for the real world. Except, what we didn’t learn was that this real world wasn’t everywhere.

Americans now put in an average of 122 more hours per year than Brits, and 378 hours (nearly 10 weeks!) more than Germans. The differential isn’t solely accounted for by longer hours, of course—worldwide, almost everyone except us has, at least on paper, a right to weekends off, paid vacation time, and paid maternity leave. The only other countries that don’t mandate paid time off for new moms are Papua New Guinea, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Samoa, and Swaziland.

Now, certain economic systems that sound great don’t always live up the hype. Greece, for instance. It probably offers weekends off, paid vacation time, and paid maternity leave. But it also has zero accountability, which means government officials there make about three times as much as a private-sector employee and collect bribes to boot. One IMF official put it this way:

“The way they were keeping track of their finances—they knew how much they had agreed to spend, but no one was keeping track of what he had actually spent. It wasn’t even what you would call an emerging economy. It was a Third World country.”

So we don’t want to always call the European grass greener, but I must admit that my views on work don’t necessarily align with American culture’s, and yet from within such a powerful system, it’s difficult to see a way out. Not to say I’ll quit trying. Just like I won’t quit creating ways to limit—or at least remain in control of—my relationship with technology.

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Man as Industrial Palace

I didn’t initially see the connection, but I ran across something today that well symbolizes these complex thoughts on human evolution and industry. It doesn’t answer any of the questions, but it does provide a little room to breathe. It’s an animated installation of Fritz Kahn’s 1927 lithograph, “Der Mensch als Industriepalast,” or “Man as Industrial Palace.”

concentrate, monkey, concentrate

4 Mar

Not usually a fan of gadgets and gizmos from the tech world—they’re just more artificial solutions to problems caused by earlier artificial solutions to yet earlier problems. But: a team from Spain has created something that immediately changed the way I write—the entire writing experience actually.

HerraizSoto&Co., from Barcelona, created the OmmWriter, a free word processor that completely takes over your computer, blanks out your screen, and stops your notifications. No chimes when someone gchats you, no tones when a new email pops up. No constantly being distracted by that news story you have pulled up behind your current window. No seeing other programs in your dock and remembering something you were going to do. This is a program that offers simplicity again. “Welcome back to concentrating,” it says as it opens. And it feels good.

It’s precisely because the OmmWriter disables the technology we’ve surrounded ourselves with that it actually serves a positive purpose in creative pursuits. From the team that created it:

OmmWriter Dana is a humble attempt to recapture what technology has snatched away from us today: our capacity to concentrate. OmmWriter is a simple text processor that firmly believes in making writing a pleasure once again, vindicating the close relationship between writer and paper. The more intimate the relation, the smoother the flow of inspiration.

The default screen is a snowy scene, a few trees near the horizon, clear, fresh, and white, like paper. Ambient music is available, as is silence. You can choose a plain white or gray screen as well. And from the moment I downloaded it, it was a pleasure to write. It was more intimate. And smooth. Somehow the designers had stumbled onto something new and yet simple and intuitive. Perhaps this was because it was never meant to be a product.

OmmWriter emerged as an internal tool to help transport us away from the humdrum noise; allowing us to be at one with ourselves and our ideas. All said and done, after having created something so valuable, we figured that OmmWriter was just too good to keep to ourselves.

In describing OmmWriter, the creative team quotes an anonymous wiseman who said, “We are all at the mercy of our wild monkey minds.” And so, when you’ve had your fill of writing, or, by necessity, you must re-enter the world, the program reminds you: “Restarting notifications. Your mind, a wild monkey.”