Sunday, June 20, 2010

Dead Guy as Life Coach

Gurus with respectable intellects are a tough get. I found mine in Irwin Edman, Columbia University philosophy professor circa 1929. He may be dead, but he’s good.

His essay “On American Leisure” resonates now as much as it likely did for folks in flapper gear who were failing to embrace joyful, spontaneous experiences.

Seized by the American compulsion to be all you can be, they had turned leisure into another opportunity to pursue excellence, not happiness.

Here he schools me on how to put a cease-and-desist order on anxiety.
Why is it so difficult to relax and take pleasure in a moment?

The desire for speed, the desire for luxury, the desire for first place – these are indeed three deadly enemies of leisure.

As a knowledge worker, I find I can’t shut all the input valves, not because I desire all that data, but because I fear if I don’t “keep up” I will be left behind.

We have turned our idle hours into the hurried business of getting short cuts to knowledge. Outlines simply are a way of applying efficiency to culture as well as business.

You suggest that our whole culture has a means-to-an-end tinge. We read to have something clever to say at the next party, not for our own silent pleasure. We go to parties to meet superior business connections or romantic partners, not for conviviality. We see classical concerts not out of a love for the music, but to reinforce our identity as educated, classy people. What gives?

We flee to society, dull though it be, through the fear of the greater dullness of being alone.
We hurtle along at a breakneck speed, physically and spiritually, for fear of the drabness and futility we might feel if we slowed down.

What are we supposed to do then? Become hermitic monks?

One need not follow Thoreau into the wilderness to practice his isolation, nor Buddha into the desert to achieve his mediation. There is peace in a city apartment if one will but stay at home an evening to find it, and Nirvana to be found at home in one’s own mind.

What about other people?

Good conversation is certainly one of the most enlivening ways of leisure, and good conversation is something between solemnity and absurdity.

And it cannot happen when the time is structured by means-to-ends dynamics, right?

In America, of late, we have had to choose between talking on ‘subjects’ solemnly and schematically, or babbling nonsense, doing anything rather than talk. We have grown a little weary of talk that is all smart and burnished; we have grown tired, too, or talk that sounds like the overflow program of a literary club.

We are, I think, beginning to learn again the joy of conversation, a light and easy play of minds and tempers over common human themes.
Wish I knew where your acolytes hang out, sans MeetUp agendas or other overweening frames. Why is a return to reflection and genuine engagement so important?

We may talk much about the future of America, and think to measure its destiny by statistics of its educational, economic or political changes. But the outlook for our country lies in the quality of its idleness almost as much as anything else…We may still find time to live rather than time to kill.

For if we do, we shall have learned what the spiritual life really means.  For it means nothing more than those moments in experience when we have some free glint of life for its own sake, some lovely unforced glimmer of laughter or reason or love.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Cuddly Ambiguity?

While trawling for opportunities, I’ve repeatedly encountered a trendy new job requirement:  Must be comfortable with ambiguity.

What an admission for companies to make!

If they are using the correct term [a big IF, but that’s another post], employers are giving applicants fair warning:  You are about to enter a land of inexact language, indecisiveness and nebulousness.

The honesty is refreshing. The implications are terrible.

I can understand wanting people to be equipped to handle uncertainty, change and shifting priorities. The stiff, the stodgy and the stubborn don’t find favor in any successful business today.

However, being comfortable with ambiguity implies that one is OK with not having a clear ambition/product/process. It implies that vagueness, double-speak and evasive behavior are acceptable. Isn’t ambiguity part of the problem, not an attribute we should be proud to contribute as part of the solution?

What if employers instead sought out the individuals who can lead with intelligence, care and clarity?
Such people do not have all the answers; the best ones would unambiguously admit the same.
But then they’d grab their chisels and start chipping away at the challenges confronting the business.

I’d put my money on action-Jacksons over ambiguity-cuddlers any day.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Uncooperative J&J Fuels Dissident 1982 Tylenol Murders Theory

Johnson & Johnson, trusted maker of baby shampoo and medicine cabinet staples including Tylenol, is currently under investigation by Congress.
The feds question the company's manufacturing quality-control processes, transparency with the public regarding safety concerns, and accountability, given several recent recalls. For a recap of the charges/stonewalling, read this NYT piece.
What's intriguing about this situation is how it connects to the infamous – and still unsolved – Tylenol poisoning murders of seven Chicago-area residents in 1982.

A decade ago, I published an investigative profile of the prime suspect, a man who is still being questioned as the possible "madman" who, according to the official story, either purchased or stole bottles of Tylenol capsules from retail locations, inserted capsules filled with potassium cyanide into these bottles, put the bottles back on store shelves and then waited to see who would eventually purchase and ingest the deadly poison.

A former J&J employee, Scott Bartz, has a decidedly different theory, one that's becoming more credible in light of J&J's evasive behavior of late.

Bartz believes the 1982 contamination likely happened during the repackaging and distribution of Tylenol capsules, not at retail.

On his exhaustively detailed Web site, Bartz explains how a J&J-affiliated employee would have had the opportunity to slip the cyanide-laced capsules into the supply chain without detection. He further shows how – in his opinion – J&J deftly kept investigators obsessed with finding a "madman" haunting stores, rather than probing its less-than-pristine manufacturing facilities and its many middlemen "contractors" who handle all those over-the-counter medicines you think are carefully monitored, tested and secured.

I've followed this case for a long time, and the more I dig, the deeper the rabbit hole seems to go. I didn't know the "repackaging" industry even existed until I met Bartz. I find his research fascinating, but frustratingly difficult to verify.

One unequivocal fact remains:  the victims and their families have yet to receive justice.
Perhaps the heat coming down on J&J will thaw their cold case.
Turn up that sunshine, Congress.

Friday, June 4, 2010

History Repeats. Literature Reminds.

Between the BP disaster, the flash crash, the Guatemalan sinkhole and that revolting cat litter ad campaign Cats Against Clay, I’ve been a wee agitated and blue. 

My escape hatch? Classic stories by “Lost Generation” writers.

Hemingway’s Indian Camp was brilliant, if not exactly a picker-upper. I reached for a Nathanael West collection. 

Miss Lonelyhearts nearly stopped my heart. But his short novel, A Cool Million published in 1934, had me laughing – and crying – with recognition.

The hard-luck tale about “the dismantling of Lemuel Pitkin” seemed ripped from the headlines I was trying to avoid. 

Let’s see, we have…
  • Crooked bankers foreclosing on a widow, not because she was so terribly behind on her payments, but so that an interior decorator could dismantle her cottage and set it up in his Fifth Avenue boutique as a marvelous exemplar of shabby chic.

  • This same lifestyle merchant executing perhaps the first-recorded viral marketing scheme:  driving a team of horses through Central Park, “not for pleasure, as one might be led to think, but for profit. He had accumulated a large collection of old wagons in his warehouse and by driving one of them in the mall he hoped to start a vogue for that type of equipage and thus sell off his stock.”  

  • Environmentalist rage expressed by one Chief Israel Satinpenny railing against the palefaces’ pillage, “all the secret places of the earth are full. Now even the Grand Canyon will no longer hold razor blades. Now the dam, O warriors, has broken and he is up to his neck in the articles of his manufacture.  He has loused the continent up good. But is he trying to de-louse it? No, all his efforts go to keep on lousing up the joint. All that worries him is how he can go one making little painted boxes for pins, watch fobs, leatherette satchels.”

  • Tea Party-types led by a former U.S. president who’d be a fine cuddle for Ms. Wasilla, “How could I, Shagpoke Whipple, ever bring myself to accept a program which promised to take from American citizens their inalienable birthright: the right to sell their labor and their children’s labor without restrictions as to either price or hours?  The time for a new party with the old American principles, was, I realized, over-ripe. I decided to form it; and so the National Revolutionary Party, popularly known as the ‘Leather Shirts,’ was born. The uniform of our ‘Storm Troops’ is a coonskin cap like the one I am wearing, a deerskin shirt and a pair of moccasins. Our weapon is the squirrel rifle.”

Oh, Mr. Whipple. We’ve met before. Mr. West reminds us that we’ll meet him again and again.
Might as well squeeze a chuckle from the chaos.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Not Even a Fleeting Glance at Consequences

On Memorial Day I joined the crowds waiting to tour the USS Iwo Jima at Pier 88.
It’s not often we get a chance to board such an impressive vessel staffed with polite young people looking quite spiffy in their uniforms.

Walking the gangplank into its hull was an exercise in humility. What thick steel! What massive capacity – loaded this day with amphibious assault vehicles, tanks, helicopters and other military might which visitors were encouraged to touch, to pose for pictures upon, to fantasize about commandeering.

What an utter lack of evidence indicating its true purpose and effects.

I commend the government for allowing its citizenry to inspect how our tax monies get spent, but to understand the potency on display we should have been able to chat up a wounded soldier, a war widow and an Iraqi mother whose children now exist only in those PowerPoint slides denoting civilian casualties.

War is not as sexy and fun as posting pictures of yourself holding an unloaded M16 off the sunny coast of Manhattan. The smiles would not be as wide if we had to wipe blood from the trigger. Let’s remember that, and not just on Memorial Day.