I cried while driving to work this morning. Alone in my car with NPR, my heart broke for the families in Connecticut. And like a lot of people, my thoughts turned to gun control, and how better legislation might make tragedies like this less frequent.
There’s a lot of anger and pain in this country. People who don’t often think about gun violence are right now thinking of little else.
I hope the Obama administration takes advantage of this. Which sounds crass, I know, but it’s naïve to expect political change to happen in a vacuum. Gun violence takes place every day, but how often do we talk about gun control? How many mass shootings do we have to mourn about before conversation turns into action?
There’s a lot of momentum right now, it seems. Not just for gun control, but also marriage equality, and maybe even climate change. But momentum means nothing unless we convert it into something real.
Obama ran his 2008 campaign on a platform of “Hope” and “Change.” In hindsight, his posters would have been more accurately labeled, “Damage Control.” Which, to be fair, is all we could ask of him, given the country he inherited.
But this next term could be different, and not only because Obama won’t be beholden to the political calculations of running for re-election. We seem to be reaching a tipping point on several major fronts. The right to same-sex marriage is going before the Supreme Court. Obama mentioned climate change in his acceptance speech after dodging the topic throughout reelection. And today, gun control is center stage.
These issues are partisan today. Very partisan. But in the coming decades, I think (hope) their outcomes will be as painfully obvious as the Civil Rights movement or women’s suffrage.
Who knows. Overall, it seems there’s little faith in government these days. When I was seven, I wrote Bill Clinton a letter to congratulate him on winning the election, but more importantly, to thank him for picking a vice president who cared about the environment. Do children today even write letters like that anymore?
Now is the time to restore hope by enacting change. The government will never be perfect, but it can still do good things. Things that will be life-changing for many – or in the case of gun control, life-saving.
Busyness serves as a kind of existential reassurance, a hedge against emptiness; obviously your life cannot possibly be silly or trivial or meaningless if you are so busy, completely booked, in demand every hour of the day.
Last week, a New York Times opinion piece, The ‘Busy’ Trap, made the rounds on the Internet. And nearly everyone who shared it (myself included) did so with a sort of perverse pride. “Hah, this is so me. Busted!”
Which is ironic, given the article’s thesis. We’re not busy out of necessity. We’re busy out of hubris – it makes us feel more important when our every waking hour is spent on work or an extracurricular. And while I’d argue that some of the busiest people I know are genuinely busy doing genuinely valuable things, overall the author presents a solid (and damning) case. When prompted, we enjoy lamenting about the insane pace of our lives. In fact, these days we don’t even have to wait to be asked. Thanks to Twitter, Facebook, etc, we can now volunteer commentary on how busy and important we are at any hour to an ever-available audience. And often, that audience responds. Instant validation.
I suck at carving out free time for myself. And yes, this admission is half humility, half brag (#humblebrag). But I tell myself that it’s okay, because my current busyness is a conscious, measured choice. Just like I’ll later choose to counterbalance these sleep-deprived years by embracing the opposite extreme. Take a year or two to live on some remote, exotic beach. Write a novel. Meditate and do yoga daily.
But here’s the problem with that plan, as charming as it sounds (aside from the obvious economic challenges). Relaxation isn’t merely the absence of busyness. It’s an art, a skill. It takes as much practice to learn to calibrate to an agenda-less existence as it does to a 16-hour workday.
When I studied abroad in Seville, Spain my junior year of college, I was initially enamored with the slow pace of life and a relative absence of responsibility. Classes were a joke and warranted attendance about a third of the time. My host family only hosted for financial benefit, and didn’t care to see me outside of meals. Every day was the same: some combination of napping, attending a class (or not), tanning alongside the Gaudalquivir river, binging on pirated episodes of 24 (Spanish TV is flat-out awful, sorry), eating too much fried food and drinking too much wine, and hitting the discotecas until sunrise.
But after the novelty of it all subsided, I began to go a little insane. My days had no purpose, no structure. I’d invent random tasks for myself, like reading The Economist – one of the few English-language magazines I could get my hands on – cover to cover each week. I planned and took trips to stay occupied, and probably (okay, definitely) drank way too much. My surroundings were exotic, my days were wide open, and I couldn’t wait to return to my overscheduled, goal-oriented life.
If I had a difficult time making the transition in college, I can only imagine how hard it would be for me now. Back then, I had no iPhone, no Twitter. I’d check my email maybe once or twice a day. Today, I am incessantly, obsessively connected. And by extension, busy. And oh-so important.
I think most of us who’ve fallen into the “busy trap” like to kid ourselves that we could crawl out of it at will. We go on vacation and read in the sun and pat ourselves on the back for only checking email once a day. Busyness is a choice, and we can choose to disconnect. It’s that simple.
Except that it’s not. We measure our self worth by what we do each day, and in what volume. Vacations don’t change that equation, they merely hit pause on the calculation.
I have to imagine that this is why some women who decide to stay at home and raise children have a difficult time with that transition. Or why people who lose their jobs fall into such deep depression. Obvious challenges associated with both those scenarios aside, the entire way we value ourselves (and assume others value us) crumbles.
Is our generation going to be capable of appreciating retirement, or will we be too far gone?
Let’s say I do find a way to make my beachy retreat from the world work. Would I even know how to feel good about myself in those circumstances? Could I survive without structure, ubiquitous connection and constant feedback? Or would I falsely build those into my new life?
It might be worth the agony of an exotic ex-pat adventure to find out. Someday.
So I’m sitting in the Seattle-Tacoma airport, and I’m pretty pissed. Our gate says that our flight to San Francisco is on time, but the internet says otherwise. And the internet always knows best.
Only now – five minutes before we are supposed to depart – does a human representative of Virgin America finally confirm what we already knew. We’ll be lucky if we get out of here tonight. Which is unfortunate, because the quickest way to come down from a weekend high is with a flight delay. Also, I’m now going to have to find and consume something made of dark chocolate.
I know I sound like a spoiled child of the first world (which, I suppose, I am). And Virgin America is certainly a lesser evil than its indisputably evil airline counterparts. And, of course, we can’t control the weather (yet). But as I sit here, glaring at the departures board, I can’t help but feel like we’re stuck in this horrible, awkward, acne-ridden transition period for air travel, where flying commercial is no longer glamorous, but not yet convenient enough to make up for it.
Today, I had a glimpse into what flying must have been like in its earlier, sexier days. My sister and I embarked on our first ever seaplane adventure this afternoon, from Orcas Island (San Juan Islands) to Lake Union (Seattle). The stated departure time was 3:00pm, so only at 2:50pm did we motor on over to the designated dock. Our plane was 15 minutes late, but no one gave a damn. We just sat on the dock in the sun, eyes on the horizon so we wouldn’t miss the water landing.
And once the plane did make its dramatic approach, there was no jostling for position in line. There were only a dozen of us, after all, sun-soaked and giddy. And with no physical tickets or assigned seating, our “check-in” was merely a quick roll call from a wonderfully jolly pilot, and a request for a volunteer co-pilot. Which a very chivalrous (and not unattractive) dude from Los Angeles ceded to my sister. The pilot then helped each and every one of us aboard.
The plane itself was from another era. Which is to say, it was old. Old seats, old seat belts, old safety instruction cards. And an old control board, which my sister, fortunately, did not need to use, her role as copilot being more decorative than functional.
But despite the disheveled surroundings, the flight itself was incredible. And intimate. These days, when I fly, I don’t even really think about the fact that I’m, well, flying. And how ridiculously amazing that is. Sure, on a 747 you can peer through that tiny, oval window with two-inch thick glass and see some clouds and stuff. But it may as well be a screen showing a video of clouds. The experience of flying has long been abstracted from the experience of flying. If ya know what I mean.
And serious bonus: our pilot didn’t give a damn about our “electronic devices.” Meaning I didn’t even have to be sneaky about taking the pictures shown here, and uploading them from the plane. Which reaffirms my (and many others’) belief that the safety threat that our phones supposedly pose to planes during takeoff and landing is bullshit.
Anyway, this was the first flight in a really, really long time where I actually looked out the window for more than seconds at a time. I wasn’t alone: everyone was glued to his or her respective (very large) window. The descent into Seattle’s Lake Union was beautiful, and we all held our breath when the plane touched down (with barely a splash). And then our gallant pilot helped us each off the plane.
I am willing to accept that glamour and excitement and intimacy are not things we should expect from today’s commercial airlines. Honestly, they’re not even things I think we should want. Given the volume and frequency of air travel today, what we need are efficiency, predictability and convenience.
But these are not things we are getting. It can take an hour to get through security. Flights are delayed more often than not. And how is it possible that the majority of airplanes are still not equipped with Wi-Fi?? I get that there are factors – like national security – that trump my desire to spend as little time in an airport as humanly possible. I guess I’m just venting in the hope that in five/ten years, we’ll look back on this awkward, preteen period in the history of long-distance travel and laugh. Like we laugh at those horrible (still painful) middle school photos. Because the future will have its shit together.
And when we’re done laughing, we’ll teleport ourselves wherever the hell we want to go.
This is such a silly topic. But I’m feeling lazy and materialistic, so why not? I’m also feeling rather melancholy, but instead of indulging in retail therapy, perhaps writing about shopping will help (doubtful).
I’m at brunch with two bffs a few months ago. (This relates, I swear, but I don’t feel like properly transitioning. See: lazy.) At Zazie, specifically, and if you live in San Francisco and haven’t been, go. If you’re visiting San Francsico, also go.
So my friend – we’ll call her Anne, since that is her name – poses the following question as we dig into our various egg-and-carb concoctions:
Do you have any key rituals in your life?
(And yes, after a decade of friendship, we really do pose questions like we’re verbally administering college admissions essay prompts. Or perhaps like we’re on a really awkward, three-person first date. Which, I suppose, would be awkward by default.)
Their answers were good. Rituals around travel preparation, for instance – gathering all the pertinent flight and hotel information, researching places of interest in advance, even printing out maps in the Age of the iPhone. Or rituals around going to bed – the exact lighting, the perfect mattress, a specific order of operations around teeth-brushing and pajama-wearing and face-washing.
But I was kind of stumped. I don’t really have many – or even any – real rituals. I mean, I drink lattes every morning and I eat brunch every weekend. But even these activities are often unplanned and rather chaotic. Sometimes I order the scramble and SOMETIMES I ORDER THE PANCAKES. I’m really kind of a mess.
Then I realized that I do have a ritual, or if not a ritual per se, some very core rules that I adhere to religiously. Rules about shopping. For clothing and accessories, specifically.
I have rules about shopping because I somewhat hate shopping. Which may come as a surprise to those of you who know how much I love fashion. But shopping kills me. I generally find it stressful, inefficient and frustrating. After an hour I start getting grumpy. And a little bit desperate.
Which is why I have these three very simple, very core rules to keep me on track. They are:
Look your best when you shop. This is not meant to help you one-up your fellow consumers, or even to get more attention from the salespeople (although if you’re a prostitute attempting a Rodeo Drive shopping spree, it certainly couldn’t hurt). It’s only meant for you. If you rock your sharpest outfit when getting your shop on, you’re setting a very high bar. That’s a good thing. Go shopping when you look like shit, and you’re likely to buy anything that looks even marginally better in the fitting room mirror. Mistake. Go shopping when you look the the shit, and if you’re relieved to get back into your own clothes after trying something on, then that something is not for you.
- Any item you buy should be better than all other items of that kind that you own. This one requires a little explanation. Let’s say I want to buy a cocktail dress (which, for the record, I always do). Thanks to this rule, I’m only allowed to buy a cocktail dress if I love it more than all the other cocktail dresses already in my closet. Or if I want a new pair of sandals, they had better make all my other sandals super jealous. Superiority can be measured on different dimensions – maybe you love something because it’s crazier than all of its predecessors (like my feather dress, or neon pink heels). Or perhaps it gets first prize because of overall utility and versatility (like my Fry’s cowboy boots, the centerpiece of my wardrobe). You can also narrow the scope to suit your purchasing needs. If you really need to buy a white t-shirt, it’s going to be hard to find one that is better than all the shirts you own. But it had better be better than all the white t-shirts you own. This rule actually came from my friend’s Parisian host mother when she was studying abroad, and it’s frickin’ brilliant, because it means your wardrobe is always improving.
- Don’t buy anything on sale that you wouldn’t pay full price for. This one I came up with all on my own a few years ago after realizing that almost all of my never-worn clothes were ones I had bought on sale. Discounts are intoxicating. Omg, these jeans that were $249 are now only $59! And sure, they don’t quite fit right through the hips, but ZOMG THE SAVINGS. Price tags with lots of red lines through them are the shopping equivalent of drunk goggles – we end up going home with conquests far below our usual, sober standards. That’s not to say that frugal shopping isn’t great – it is! – but before you buy a discounted item, ask yourself if you would buy it at the original price. And if the answer is no, leave it at the bar…er, store.
So, those are my rules. Sometimes I cheat, but in general, they’ve forced me to buy far fewer and far better things over the past few years.
Now, I suppose this is the part where I could try to compensate for the triviality of this post by extending its lessons to other areas of life (stay somewhere nice when you’re apartment hunting, each boy you date should be better than the last, never take a so-so job just because the money is better, etc.).
But let’s just keep this post silly, cool?
Last week, I had the privilege of attending Fortune’s Most Powerful Women dinner in New York.
Now, before you declare that the most obnoxious and unlikely sentence ever written, let’s be clear. I wasn’t exactly invited. Alas, my evil plans for power accrual have been stalled by the remodel of my underground lair.
I didn’t crash the party, either. Rather, my awesome (and far more powerful) boss couldn’t make it at the last minute, and she graciously allowed me to go in her place. How lucky am I?!
But then the plane ticket purchasing high subsided. And it hit me: I was about to be the Least Powerful Woman at a Most Powerful Women dinner. By about 20 rungs. And let’s be real here, I’m probably not even on the same ladder.
Oh. Em. Gee.
Panicked, I immediately began: a) scouring the interwebs for an outfit so perfect it would compensate for all other deficiencies, and b) preemptively drafting a series of self-deprecating tweets to have on hand. Ya know, the standard coping mechanisms.
Why the freak out? It’s not like I’m totally unaccustomed to hanging out with a more powerful set. The Valley is filled with brilliant people, and I’m often the least impressive and intelligent person in a room. I legit love that.
But it’s different when it’s an invite-only event, and the people invited have all earned the right to be there. Would they (politely) question my right? Would they even want to talk to me at all? And if not, could I overcome my chronic networking paralysis and summon the courage to talk to them? Standing in a corner and praying to be hit on for the sake of conversation was unlikely to work, given the obvious lack of Y chromosomes. Er, not that I’ve ever done that.
Well, the big night arrived. And the women milling about during the cocktail hour were, as expected, crazy impressive in every way imaginable. Some I knew by name, others I had to surreptitiously google later in the bathroom. You’ll have to take my word for it, though, because it doesn’t seem right to namedrop anyone here.
Except maybe when it comes to Martha Stewart. I think she’s fair game. And she was positively regal. As soon as she entered the room, the volume dropped and every head turned. And even though my commitment to the domestic arts has dropped precipitously since the age of eight, I just had to meet her.
Which never would have happened, if the powerful woman I was chatting with at the time hadn’t pulled me across the room, depositing me firmly in front of the Queen of Homemaking herself.
“Martha, this is Ashley,” she said.
“Hello dear,” Martha cooed. “Are you an intern?”
Staring into Martha’s impossibly tan, impossibly smooth face (holy skincare regimen, isn’t this woman sixty-something??), I was so nervous I almost said yes. Whatever you want me to be, Martha.
I did, I think, manage to get out one word.
Martha nodded politely, and my escort provided a few more helpful details about my identity. And then Martha was gone, her earth tone-clad body gliding through the crowd.
(I think I made a good impression.)
The dinner portion of the evening was fantastic. Everyone was chatty and friendly and interesting. The speakers were truly inspiring, and amazingly humble. They’d overcome some crazy shit, and many of them – despite their near-omnipotence – seemed to have far more balanced lives than I.
They also killed – or at least challenged – some assumptions of mine. I’ll admit to being wary of the effect that power can have on women. Rising to the top ranks in Corporate America seems to require a pretty substantial degree of aggression and ego (not to mention pantsuits, barf). The same goes for men, but these traits are already in line with the accepted male stereotype. I guess I just don’t like the idea of femininity and power being inversely related, which is one of the reasons why I’m such a Sheryl Sandberg fangirl.
So anyway, I did it. Great success, as Borat would say.
To celebrate my survival, I headed straight into another terrifying situation: karaoke-ing. Eek. And who happened to be getting his sing on in the East Village, but the one and only Adrian Grenier (sans any sort of entourage).
Funnily enough, I wasn’t even fazed. Perhaps I’d accrued some power at the prior event. And by power, I mean booze, natch.
It’s hard not to feel like a second-class citizen in Silicon Valley. In a world where everyone seemingly has a startup, an idea for a startup, or an idea for an idea for a startup (this latter group being the largest contingent), I am boringly uninspired. 95% of my mental energy goes into my job, and the other 5% is reserved for Scrabble matches.
The entrepreneur worship in the Valley is extreme – although you could argue that a large portion of it is self-worship. For every brilliant and successful entrepreneur, there are hundreds (thousands?) planning to build a “Netflix for cats.” Or worse, they are entrepreneurs in search of an idea. Um, order of operations??
I don’t mean to sound so frickin curmudgeonly. The audacious, pursue-crazy-ideas-against-all-odds mentality is a big part of why I love living and working in the tech community. I guess I’m just tired of feigning engrossment in the composition of an oh-so urgent tweet whenever conversation turns to everyone’s world changing ideas. Market demand and business models be damned. Gah, curmudgeon!
But in the past 24 hours, I’ve read two (totally unrelated) posts that make me feel much, much better about my lacking entrepreneurial spirit.
The first, The Secret Guild of Silicon Valley, shines a light on perhaps the least visible but most essential Valley contingent. Or as the author puts it, “They are part of a nomadic band of software tradesmen, who have mentored one another over the last four decades in Silicon Valley, and they have quietly, steadily built the infrastructure behind the world’s most successful companies.”
And then this quip from Dustin Moskovitz at last night’s PandoMonthly interview, “The 100th engineer at Facebook did way better than the vast majority of entrepreneurs in the Valley.” And they’ve also “had more impact.”
I think impact is the most important point. There are a multitude of companies in the Valley serving millions or tens of millions of users each, with employee counts in the hundreds (or in Instagram’s crazy case, the teens). That’s a pretty powerful ratio.
Which isn’t to say that I would never ever do the startup thing. If I had a brilliant, all-consuming idea, I like to think I’d go for it. (And yes, I know I’m a PR chick with no programming skills, but hey, a girl can dream.)
But in the meantime, I’m going to forgive myself for being content helping to build a company that I fiercely believe in, but had no part in starting.
And maybe I’ll compile an arsenal of really, really horrid company ideas to deliver deadpan the next time peeps want to talk startups at a dive bar.