Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Steve Jobs: Death as the Change Agent of Life

Today I read, again, Steve Jobs' commencement address to the 2005 graduating class of Stanford.  As he gives this speech, he's already been through a serious cancer scare--he had a rare, curable form of pancratic cancer--and gotten more time than he imagined. Given his resignation from Apple last week, it is clear he's going to die pretty soon. It's hard to comprehend a world without him, and it's awful to contemplate. Yet in this speech he says that death "is very likely the best invention of life." 

The prospect of it certainly spurred him on.  He decided to no longer waste time or mince words, and as a result we have things that do make our lives cooler and more joyful.  I remember the first morning when before dawn I set out for a walk with my iPod and thought, it's almost fun to be out at six in the morning.

The first time he left Apple, of course, he was pushed. He talks about how getting fired from the company he started led him to despair, followed by restlessness. So he started another technology company and, more importantly to the rest of us, Pixar. It gave us "To infinity and beyond!" and Mt. Wannahockaloggie, helping Nemo be found.  And Holly Hunter's character looking ruefully at her mirror image in Spandex, yet going out to save the day anyhow, because being a mom mattered more.  During this time Jobs got away from the office long enough to meet an extraordinary woman who became his wife and the mother of his children.  Failure is how we frame it.

My favorite story is about calligraphy.  Jobs went to Reed College, a small private institution in Portland, Oregon, for a little over a year.  He didn't want to spend any more of his working class parents' money, because he didn't know what he really wanted to do.  So he dropped out and then showed up at classes as a drop-in just because he was interested.  Everything on the campus, from drawer fronts to student council election posters, was drawn in beautiful script, and he was curious enough to go to a class:

I learned about serif and san-serif typefaces, about varying the space between different letter combinations, about what makes great typography great.  It was beautiful, historical, artistically subtle in a way that science can't capture, and I found it fascinating.

And now a three year-old can pick up an iPad and intuitively know how to use it.  Jobs calls it "connecting the dots" which he says can only be done backwards, not forwards.  As life can only be understood.  No wasted steps. 

A full text of his speech can be found here, on the Stanford website:

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

The Wisdom of Julia Roberts

Saturday night I was watching Steel Magnolias. Yes, this makes me sound like a loser, but in my defense I'd hosted a party at my house the night before and was dreading what turned out to be a very bad date the next evening.  More on this in future posts.

Anyway, I was watching Julia Roberts play Shelby in her dreadful, ghastly front-pleated trousers and that awful sweater she wore to the holiday carnival--the eighties were bad for everyone, but imagine seeing what your stylist talked you into embarrassing you past mortality.  Not sure even $20 million a picture would fix that.

I knew soon she'd be on life support, but had dropped in in time for one of my favorite lines of the movie.  And it occurred to me, like a guy quoting Pacino, that many of my favorites of all time came from that funny-looking yet impossible not to look at woman from Smyrna, GA.

In order of like, these are mine:

"I'd rather have thirty minutes of wonderful than a lifetime of nothing special." This line has led me to fall into ill-advised love affairs, expensive spa treatments and more than a couple of afternoons drinking on patios.  But she wanted to be a mama, and she was married to a philandering Southern man.  ("I thought it might makes things..better." Ah said, Sally Field's raised eyebrows as they understood.) When you're tragic, you get away with this.

"It's easier to believe the bad stuff." In Pretty Woman, she was the gorgeous girl who doubted herself.  Maybe it was because she was a hooker, or maybe she became one because of it.  This movie didn't plumb the depths of her psyche (though Richard Gere did discuss his therapy) but unlike in real life, she didn't remain a dirty little secret to her dream man and he made good on his compliments. In spite of unreality, it made all of us feel better to know a girl who had hair like that still remembered what the mean girls said in biology class.  And then was redeemed by her Prince Charming.  This is the part I don't like about the movie.  I always wished she'd gone off to the London School of Economics and beaten Richard out on a LBO, or whatever those finance people did back then.

When she messed up her pantry.  This isn't technically a line, but when she looks at her tidy cupboard and throws everything around in a rebellion against her controlling husband in Sleeping With the Enemy, we all feel like she's broken free.  (In my own similar act, I used to clean out my ex-husband's travesty of a home office while he traveled.  We all have our ways.) Of course we know the bastard won't let her go and she'll have to shoot his sorry ass.  I was always so happy that she did it instead of her new boyfriend, who got knocked out early and only woke up after the ex was quite dead.

"I'm just a girl, standing in front of a boy, asking him to love her." K, pathetic, but in Notting Hill she was playing herself and what guy, even Hugh Grant, could resist?  To be truthful, my favorite line in this film is when Hugh looks at her with messy hair and no makeup first thing in the morning and says, "You have never been lovelier to me than you are now."  Which makes me pathetic, I suppose, but gee.

And when gorgeous, tuxedo-clad George Clooney, the scoundrel who has lied and stolen and nearly destroyed her professional reputation in Ocean's Eleven asks her about her new love Andy Garcia, "Does he make you laugh?" she says, a beacon of strength to all of us women who've struggled to break free of a charmer: "He doesn't make me cry." 

Yes, it turns out that Andy loves money more than Julia, but George is bad news for her and sequels always suck, as Ocean's Twelve did for sure.

Do you have favorite Julia quotes?

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Why Don't Smart Girls Succeed in the Work World?

A friend of mine was labelled as a child, quite rightly, as gifted.  Like a number of women I met at Queen's University, where I made my lucky escape from a small-town gulag, she was the first one in class to put her hand up and ask questions.  She and her counterparts had attended elite all-girls schools in Toronto. They never apologized for asking questions, and never assumed the boys had better ideas.  They made the best grades and the professors loved them. I was a B student on my best days and was too busy thinking about the boys in other ways to care much about Canadian Federalism. When we graduated, I fumbled around, as I had expected to.  My friend landed her dream job and spent the next two years in a pit of misery: it was nothing like school, and she felt like a failure. She dropped out for a long time, and only took steps back in years later. Now in hindsight, she has spent some time thinking about why girls who excel in school very often don't make great careers, and is incorporating her ideas into her consulting business.

I would prefer to set myself on fire in the lobby of the law firm where I work than let any of my brilliant colleagues see my university transcript.  And yet. living by my wits, I have found really interesting work that lets me contribute and grow and support my children and myself.  But, like my friend, so many of the smart girls I knew have dropped out of the workplace or have played around the edges of several careers but have never really made headway.  

So maybe I'm a little scrappy and a survivor, not to mention a single parent without a choice but to find a way to make the best living I can.  Still, what have I done that these exceptional women haven't?  A few thoughts:

I'd no illusion of being particularly special.  I have never been described as brilliant or exceptional.  Instead, I'm told I play well in the sandbox and am fun to be around, and every once in a while someone tells me, usually with a bit of surprise, that I'm actually quite bright. They also say I get crap done. This used to bother me a lot as I thought it meant people thought me frivolous. But since my work doesn't involve saving babies, I've decided making work fun is a pretty valuable attribute. Also, it's meant I can work for people who wouldn't hesitate to tell me how dumb I am while paying me quite well.  It's meant I can mine the opportunities for learning in most places--these opportunities are almost always there if you can get over yourself and look for them--so that I could eventually leave the jerks for something better. Which I most certainly did.

Rebellion is fun.  The problem with being one of those smart girls (as opposed to smart guys, if you think about it) is that you always play by the rules.  Understanding quite young how to make the grownups like me, I worked that so I could go off and color outside the lines. I realized early that most institutions have a few lifers who are invested in making sure things are predictable.  The problem is, those people don't move organizations forward.  In fact, they don't get things done because they spend all of their time worrying about what the people in charge think of them.  The Eddie Haskell in me knows I must be deferential for the most part, but that asking uncomfortable question in the right circumstances and taking the odd risk shakes things up. It also mitigates the tedium of the workplace.  Everyone needs more of that.   

Get to know failure.  My freshman roommate at Queen's cried when she got her first B. I laughed at her, because I'd been told from an early age that I wasn't cut out for academic success, yet here I was sitting in the same dorm room with her. I remember the startled look in her eyes when I told her this. Suddenly she realized she could have had a lot more fun in high school and still wound up in the same place. She never really liked me after that. The people who hand down grades, I knew by then, are human.  They have good days and bad.  Some of them are jerks and some of them are really ethical people.  Kind of like bosses.  Taking all of your self-worth from authority is a one-way ticket on the Unfulfilled Potential Express at best; at worst, you end up informing on your neighbor when the Stasi show up. I've had some notable failures--at few jobs I've been terrible at and a marriage that crashed and burned--and yet have managed to eventually land on my feet.  No fun, but the only injury was to my pride. No big deal.

My daughter is a smart girl, but I tell her over and over again that I am proud of her whether she makes an A or not.  Her brother does well, too, but doesn't fret over it at all. My expectation for both of them is post-secondary education, but I'm not hung up on where the they go--beyond whether they feel like it's a worthwhile experience--or whether they make the Dean's List.  In the end, I don't believe it matters all that much. 

So I tell them all of the following: Show up.  Think for yourself.  Treat the people who work with you (and the lady who cleans out your trashcan when you work late) with as much respect as those in authority.  Take a chance and if you fail, get up.  People will admire you for taking the chance. 

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Playing Through

Sometimes a respite only reminds me of what I'm missing.  It's the thirty-second consecutive day where we've hit over 100 degrees Fahrenheit here in Fort Worth, and it's wearing.  During my week in Canada, I described it to my extended family as rather like February in the north--when it snows while you're Christmas shopping, it's charming.  When you're still shoveling snow two months later, it's totally not. 

The heat isn't that bad, I've always claimed.  The predictability of it has always rather appealed to me in contrast to the other, volatile Texan seasons, where torrential rains, tornadic winds, property-damaging hail and rapid temperature drops can all occur inside of an hour, usually when I am driving home. But in summer my air-conditioning kicks on every half-hour or so during the night, and I know when I get up to walk the dog the relentless, burning sun will have risen in a bracingly blue cloudless sky.  Every. Single. Day.

I remember running after school in rural Ontario in the grip of winter.  The sun had earlier been bright against a blue sky on those days, too, though it did nothing to warm up my world, but by now it was going down in a hurry. I'd look down occasionally as my Nikes squeaked on the hard-packed snow and wrinkled my nose to unstick my nostrils, glued together by the frigid air.  I was proud of playing through.

These days in my adopted home, I need serious sunscreen if I'm out after eight in the morning.  Running errands in the afternoon can leave one exhausted--it's 60 degrees in the store and 115 in the parking lot, a bit hard on the constitution.  I'm tired of drinking water, which it seems I must do all day long if I do more than sit and answer my correspondence. 

For a week the children and I went north, though it was rather hot for there as well.  Still, as we walked out of the airport, that oven-like heat his us and we all groaned a moment. Again, I am inclined to play through and get out each morning (another plus side of heat is that if you get up early enough in the morning you get a break) and even on the odd evening on my bike, though when we hit 107 yesterday I decided it wouldn't be prudent.  When hot yoga at 95 degrees is cooler than outdoors, something is amiss, though I've made it back there a few times since our trip. 

The cold, though I find it more unpleasant than the heat, never really frightened me, perhaps because I was a child in the greatest extremes.  The cold has more sounds at night: I remember trees popping and the sound of large icicles falling in the dark. Cars wheels squeaking on the snow and clear voices. The cold was solid and benign.  The heat is silent, but ruthless and unforgiving, and I still wonder as I did when I arrived a decade and a half ago if the road might not spontaneously ignite in front of me.  It feels, as I once wrote, Biblical. We all wonder if the heat and the concurrent drought is some sort of punishment, or appropriate preparation for it. Will it ever end, we ask?  I heard a radio host say our record from 1980 was forty-two day over 100.  Bring it, he said.  He must be new here.