The Bee On The Window

For the entire afternoon today, a bee kept walking up the window above the desk in my office.  The bee would start at the bottom of the window and march up to the top, flapping its wings, and then inevitably tumble down to the bottom of the window — there to start all over again.

I don’t know how many times it happened.  20?  40?  100?  But the bee was a study in single-minded determination, and nothing was going to stop him from getting to the top of the window, for whatever his bee-related purpose might have been.

I was tempted to try to open the window to try to shoo the obsessed bee out, but (1) the interior seal on my window is broken, which is why it looks like it hasn’t been washed since the Carter Administration, and I’m not sure the window actually opens, (2) it’s difficult to get to the window because of the way my desk is set up in the office, and (3) we’re talking about a bee and a potential stinging incident, for crying out loud.  I may be interested in helping a fellow creature, but I’m not going to risk getting stung by some potentially deranged bee in the bargain.  So I let the bee go on his merry, Sisyphean way.

After seeing the bee fall repeatedly, and get up and dust himself off and start on his upward journey again, I thought the bee on the window was a pretty good metaphor for life and work.  Some days, we’re just a bee on a window.

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Board Game Indoctrination

Of course, I played Monopoly as a kid.  What American kid didn’t?  And Life, and Chutes and Ladders, and Risk.  They were fun games that everybody had, and a great way to pass the time on a cold and rainy weekend afternoon.  And, as I was moving my little tin race car or cannon around the board, trying to purchase selected properties, work out trades to establish my monopolies, build hotels before everyone else did, and then hope that other players would land on my properties and pay me lots of that colorful Monopoly money — especially those rich gold $500 bills — I wasn’t thinking that basic cultural and social training was being drilled into me with every move.

img_5823But, of course, it was.  Part of the training was just the idea of a game that had rules that you and every other player had to follow, or else the game wouldn’t work.  Monopoly players, for example, couldn’t just move their pieces to whichever spot they chose or freely take money from the bank; they had to roll the dice and count out the spaces and pay for houses and hotels to make their properties more valuable and take their medicine if they landed on Boardwalk and accept getting knocked out of the game if their money was gone.

But while kids moving their pieces around the board might not realize it, there was deeper social and cultural training, too, in the sense of what you needed to do to win the game.  If you played Monopoly, you wanted to buy property, make the most advantageous trades imaginable even if it meant ruthlessly taking advantage of your kid sister while doing so, accumulate every monopoly, drive other people out of business and into bankruptcy, and have the biggest bank account ever.  What better introduction to the American capitalist model of the world than Monopoly?  And you learned about the desired behavioral norms in other games, too.  In Life, you wanted to get that college degree and land on those pay days.  In Chutes and Ladders, you saw that if you landed on a space that showed good behavior, you could climb up the ladder to the top, but if you landed on a space where the kid had broken a window with a baseball, it was down the chute to the bottom.  And in Risk, you wanted to build armies in your corner of the world and then have them sweep across other territories until you conquered and dominated the entire globe.

I thought about the social and cultural aspects of board games when I saw this article about board games sold during the Nazi era in Germany.  When you think about it, it’s no surprise that some Nazi board games would reflect core concepts of the Nazi system.  The games feature swastikas, goose-stepping and Seig Heiling soldiers, and heroic defense of the Fatherland, and encouraged players to plot attacks on the English coast, shoot down Allied planes, or defeat troublesome Jews.  What kid growing up in Germany playing these games wouldn’t be subconsciously channeled into specific, officially sanctioned ways of looking at the world?  And the same is true of the early Soviet Union, which featured games like Electrification, Revolution, Reds vs. Whites, and Maneuvers:  A Game for Young Pioneers, all of which tackled pressing issues that the country was confronting in the ’20s and ’30s and indoctrinated the players in the accepted, official view of those issues along the way.  (Presumably people didn’t have to pay for the communist games.)

It makes you wonder what the board games in North Korea, Iran, or ISIS-controlled territories look like.  I’m guessing that, in North Korea these days, they play a lot of their version of Risk.

A Year, Probably, Like Any Other

It’s December 31, which means the end of another year is upon us.  It’s traditional to reflect upon the year that is passing, and I’ve done that.  But the older I’ve gotten, the more I realize that the themes tend to be the same — because that’s just the way life is.

tsq_nyeve_2012We’ll remember 2015 as a year when we’ve lost some loved ones, but when new family members have been added through marriage.  Friends and colleagues have had good news and bad news on the personal health front.  We’ve seen some family members lose their jobs, while others have achieved graduate degrees and reached new heights in their professional careers.  Some doors have opened, and other doors have closed.

When you think about it, years are like that.  The days when you could reach New Year’s Eve and confidently conclude that the year just ending was the best year ever, but the next year will be even better, are gone.  You know there’s no predicting with certainty that the curve will move you ever upward, and when you get to a certain age, the years kind of blend together, unless they feature a marriage, or a special graduation.  Who remembers much about 1998?  Or 1994?  Or 2003?  At some point, shortly after the ball drops in Times Square, they just fade into life’s tapestry.

So 2015 probably will be viewed, in retrospect, as a year like many others.  The main point is that we’ve made it to the end.  At a certain point, that becomes a kind of accomplishment in itself, but the focus has to always be on what is to come.

Bring on 2016!

Deleters Versus Retainers

They say that opposites attract.  It must be true, because Kish and I are complete opposites in one very important modern characteristic.

I am a dedicated email deleter.  She is a confirmed email retainer.

We get along well despite this significant difference in our approaches to modern communications.  It’s just one of those distinctions and behavioral quirks that we ignore in furtherance of the greater good and the ultimate goal of happy household harmony.

IMG_7439In reality, I try to avoid even looking at Kish’s email box when its on our home computer screen, because it usually provokes a grim sense of horror.  Even a casual glance tells me that her inbox is chock full of obvious deletion candidates, like that Williams-Sonoma solicitation for us to buy high-end knives — one of dozens of Williams-Sonoma emails that we’ve received since we bought some cookware there a few weeks ago and reluctantly agreed to track the delivery of our order on-line.  (Sigh.)

In my in-box, such unrequested solicitations and other junk emails would be identified, highlighted en masse, and deleted immediately, with great relish.  But in Kish’s emailbox they are examined, and then . . . accumulate and remain, apparently forever.  She is a gentle soul at heart, and no doubt is pained at the thought that whoever sent the email might be troubled by a quick deletion — especially a deletion without even being read.

I like the idea of keeping a crisp, limited in-box, so that the important emails aren’t mixed in with a bunch of crap and unable to be promptly located amidst the clutter.  And, candidly, I enjoy the little thrill of accomplishment that comes from highlighting and deleting an entire screen of junk and then hitting the garbage can icon.  It gives me the same sense of control and glow of basic achievement that also comes from rinsing off the dirty dishes in the kitchen sink, putting them in the dishwasher, and wiping off the counter, or sweeping off the back patio to remove the debris falling from the trees overhead.  “Begone, solicitations, and Twitter announcements, and Facebook notifications!,” I think.

I can’t understand why someone wouldn’t want to experience the joys of regular email deletion — but I guess such differences make the world go round.

Proofing Your Life

If you work in an office environment, you’re likely aware of a curious phenomenon when people try to proofread their own work.  Some people can do it effectively.  Others can’t.

The psychologists among us explain that people in the latter class, when creating their work, see a flawless, excellent product in their heads and assume that that is what they are keyboarding.  Then, even though typing mistakes get made and everyone’s writing could use some editing, when they try to proofread their eyes don’t communicate reality back to their brains.  Instead, they skip over the grammatical errors, misspellings, and typos, think of what they intended to write rather than what actually appears on paper, and see an immaculate piece of work.

Life as a whole seems to be that way, too.  Some people have a sense of self-awareness that allows them to proof their lives just like they would proof a memo at the office.  They see where they have made mistakes and gone astray and worked to make corrections.  In fact, some people are so proficient at personal proofreading that they can do it in real time, self-editing their statements as they are being made and modifying their behavior as it is occurring.  It’s fascinating to watch these people internally debate about word choices and weigh one approach against the other before making their decision.

But then there are those who seem to be utterly incapable of self-proofreading.  They’ve decided on a course of action and they’re going to stick with it, oblivious to the verbal cues and physical reactions of the people around them that say they’re on the wrong path.  It’s as if the some internal buzzing in their brains interferes with the basic sense of self-awareness that keeps humans from walking into heavy traffic or jumping into a shark tank.  These people may not think they’re infallible — not quite — but they believe that they’ve thought things through and considered all of the options, they’ve rationalized their ultimate decision, and they just can’t see any other way.  And when unexpected or bad things happen, they’re blamed on rotten luck, or bias, or unfairness.  Sometimes only catastrophe can cause them to finally deviate from their chosen course and realize that maybe the problem can be found in the mirror.

The older I’ve gotten, the more I think proofreading is a really valuable skill.

The Death/Retirement/Disability Calculation

We all have to make some hard decisions in our lives, but one of the hardest is figuring out when to stop working.

For some people, of course, there really is no choice, because they have not accumulated the savings that would give them the freedom to make a judgment.  They simply have to keep working to survive.  But if you have worked hard, and planned, and scrimped to put money away toward retirement, you ultimately will confront the issue of whether you have saved enough and can stop working, or whether, “to be on the safe side,” you should work a little bit longer and save a little bit more.

It’s a tough choice because there are no easy answers and the consequences can be profound and, in some unfortunate instances, appallingly final.  In one direction, you can retire too soon, see your nest egg take a hit in a “market correction,” and realize with a sinking feeling that you simply don’t have enough to have the kind of retirement that you hoped to have.  No one wants to be a cash-strapped retiree who becomes a burden on their kids.  But in the other direction, if you decide to keep working, you may be struck down, or left disabled by illness, and never have the opportunity to enjoy the fruits of your labors.  Add in a few more moving parts — like whether you are someone who really enjoys your job and your co-workers, or whether you have incredibly long-lived ancestors or alternatively an apparent genetic predisposition toward certain disease, or whether you have family members who could use some help, or whether you are a worrier by nature and want to try to build enough of a cushion to provide complete retirement peace of mind — and the decision becomes even harder.

It’s also a tough choice because you can’t help but be influenced by the personal stories of the people you know.  A hale and hearty former colleague who is seemingly on the cusp of retiring dies suddenly, and you remember that one of the last times you spoke to him he was laying out his plan to work just a little bit longer before hanging up his spurs, and you shake your head and feel a chill.  A new, older acquaintance explains that he had retired, went through the market downturn in 2008-09, realized with a sinking feeling that he had pulled the trigger too soon, and scrambled to go back to work and keep earning, and you shake your head and feel a chill.  And then there are friends who develop serious health problems, friends whose siblings are in serious financial distress, friends whose spouses unexpectedly need surgery.  The list of possibilities is endless, and each little personal story tugs you in one direction and then in the other.

The most uncomfortable realization of all is that there is no magic calculation, no absolute certainty, and no clearly correct answer, and the consequences are huge.

The Platinum Stylist

For years I had my hair cut by random guys named Joe and Ed who wore short-sleeved polyester shirts with a comb and scissors in the front pocket.  You sat in a long row along the wall, got the barber who had the next open chair, received a generic haircut, and heard him shout “Next!” and slap the chair clean when he was finished with the clipping.

Now I go to the Platinum Stylist.  It’s an upgrade.

IMG_3398I’ve been going to The Platinum Stylist for several years now, since back before her hair was platinum.  She works at the Square One Salon, which used to be a block from our offices.  I was assigned to her at random, and I liked her approach from the get-go.  She promised that the first haircut would be very good, the second would be even better, and the third would be perfect.  She was right — at least, as right as a dedicated practitioner of the tonsorial arts can be working with limp brown hair and a head shaped like mine.

She’s got a quick wit and a great sense of humor, so going to get my hair cut ends up being a fun social encounter.  She knows the names of Kish and the boys, remembers about travel plans we’ve discussed, and seeks my views on downtown dining options.  She puts up with my awkward attempts at humor in good spirits and remembers that my ultimate goal in every haircut is a vain attempt to look “distinguished.”

And she’s got an essential quality of any true professional:  she cares about the quality of her work.  I sit in the chair and see her in the mirror, gazing intently at my cranium, prowling from side to side, looking for a hair out of place or a section that needs an extra snip or two to produce the best possible result.  Her dedication to her craft is so obvious, and so impressive, that I’ve come to rely implicitly on her judgments in all hair-related categories.  If the PS suggests that I might want to trim the sides shorter this time, to try to combat the weird effect of the coarse gray hairs sprouting from my temples, I’m doing it.

IMG_3392She’s also convinced me to turn a quick haircut into a longer process.  Now I get not only a haircut, but also a shampoo, a scalp massage, a hot towel treatment, and a mini-facial.  After a long day’s work, getting a hot towel treatment is a pretty pleasant experience — and it sure beats old Joe tossing some witch hazel powder on my neck and buffing it with a coarse towel.

I’m such a dedicated fan of the PS that I kept going to her even after Square One moved to the other side of downtown.  What’s a short walk for an excellent haircut?  And it’s obvious that I’m not alone in my judgment about her capabilities, because I used to be able to schedule a haircut on the spur of the moment and that is true no longer.  I’ve been trained like Pavlov’s dog to make a new appointment at the end of every haircut. It goes against my standard devil-may-care approach, but the PS is worth it.

I guess I’ve come a long way from the “three chairs, no waiting” days.