Banking time

At age eight, I start saving my star money. I strode down to the Third National Bank of Scranton, and with the help of my father, opened my first savings account, bankbook and all. And this, the opening of my first anything with my own name on it, I did with all the pride a four-foot human could have. It was my first foray into saving.

Earning was a value we kids were taught early on. Our refrigerator — plastered with a hand-crafted spreadsheet of all the chores in the house that could be completed for a nickel, dime, or quarter — was opportunity waiting to happen. And when that opportunity was completed and marked with a star, we saved.

While we’re taught the value of saving money, we’re never really taught the value of saving time. Not saving time so we are more efficient elsewhere, but actually banking time. Saving it for later.

This past week, as Harold Pollack’s index card rightly gains visibility, I’d like to propose some quick parallels for investing time:

Max out your vacation days.
If you work for a company, force yourself to take the maximum allotted days. If you work for yourself, take at least five days for every year you’ve been working, within reason.

Keep 10-20% of your day, every day, free.
Don’t schedule 10-20% of your time at all. Leave yourself open for the unexpected.

Schedule make-up events on a monthly basis.
Set aside time to reschedule every lunch, dinner, or friend/family date you had to reschedule earlier that month because of professional obligations.

Pay attention to recurring meetings.
Avoid recurring meetings where you have little role. Attend them sparingly and purposefully, rather than consistently.

Promote your time off.
Instead of celebrating how many hours you worked in a day or how many years you’ve gone without a “proper vacation,” place value on your time off. Use it in such a way that it not only refreshes you, but you’re proud of it.

We don’t always have the luxury of putting time away. Yet if we observe it as an asset — save-able, invest-able, and appreciable — in time, we get to appreciate it back.

A friendship theory

Ben Horowitz with a friendship theory:

No matter who you are, you need two kinds of friends in your life. The first kind is one you can call when something good happens, and you need someone who will be excited for you. Not a fake excitement veiling envy, but a real excitement. You need someone who will actually be more excited for you than he would be if it had happened to him. The second kind of friend is somebody you can call when things go horribly wrong—when your life is on the line and you only have one phone call. Who is it going to be?

Years ago, a friend said she keeps a short list of emergency contacts in her head—a trust of three people she can count on, day or night, no matter the circumstance. This week, I’m especially grateful for both types of friends in my life. Who is it for you?

With saying

It goes without saying,”
they say.
Without expressing
simple joy

anxiety
gratitude
flusteredness
love

anger!

or thanks.

It just goes without saying,

most of the time

and we go

looking

watching

waiting

not noticing the oak or the ash.

The marks in the leaves are the same.
Right?

Anyway,

no one is saying anyway.

But what if
it went with saying.

They’d say,
“It goes with saying.”
And we might say,

thanks.

On making it up, or the virtues of make believe

As I pulled off my tennis shoes just inside my front door that day after fifth grade, I heard my mother say it, “No one knows what they’re doing.” She, in a simple response to a query I had about some confusing adult thing or another, continued, “You know, we’re all just making it up as we go along.” And there it was. In one fell sentence, she had introduced me to the secret of adulthood.

While the secrets of adulthood are many (we can say no, doctors no longer fix things, we can actually learn new skills), the sentiment of expertise is less contested. Or, less often revealed anyway. People aspire to be expert. And more often, we assume the following: we grow up, we become experts, the end. With age, we gain wisdom. Nothing could be simpler. But nothing could be further from the truth.

Early on, my mother exposed this myth — casually, just after piano practice and before dinnertime. Adults too were making it up. Adults were winging it. It has been an invaluable insight that’s guided me my whole life.

So what follows, really, are the virtues of making it up:

1. Style

I don’t know is, in fact, the most important secret to reveal.

Before we knew design, before we knew what we did was “a profession,” we wrote. We sat patiently through grammar class, learning when the participle dangled and the sentence ran on. As we got older, we were handed down paperbacks gilded with lessons and rules about how to write. Guidelines from Strunk & White guided our grammar and high school prose. But if we braved on, we may have encountered a different kind of grammatical attitude. Grammar rules dropped away, and we were left to our own devices. If we forgot the rules, we could speak and write in our own voice, we could develop a style that could only be our own.

2. Tolerance.

In the land of making it up, there is no word for “misstep,” no dictionary entry for “mistake.” Such words would assume there is a right way to do something. Tolerance, then, is a way of life. And seeking others who experiment and fail is encouraged and celebrated.

3. More making.

Make believe is contagious. So do what feels right. What moves you. What inspires you. Make up more.

Far earlier, even before fifth grade, I discovered Fred Rogers with his make-believe and Neighborhood itself who said, “Discovering the truth about ourselves is a lifetime’s work, but it’s worth the effort.” These virtues of make believe, no matter how deeply we trust the notion we’re all making it up together, still take a lifetime to trust.

In the meantime, I’m making it up.

Yes, and

Yes, and

Brooke Gladstone reminds Margaret Atwood of her favorite word:

You said [to The Guardian in an interview] your favorite word was “and.” “It is so hopeful,” you said.

“Yeah, and,” replied Atwood. “I think it’s better than ‘therefore.’ Not nearly as prescripted.” (7:28)

Many years ago, I had anxiety about the comma. In reply to “what do you do?” I found myself listing a string of projects and future ideas, separated by commas. This untidy gaggle of words, comma delineated, left me self-conscious. A person without a single term to describe my profession.

Years later, a wise friend said he found the more interesting people tend to be ones who can’t exactly describe what they do day to day. Instead, of forcing prescription, let’s embrace “and.”

Instructions for life

Josh Wagner’s advice to his 18-year-old self:

You don’t have a choice as to whether your best days will end up devoured by time, but you do have a choice about how it’s done.

Don’t be afraid to fight. But first make sure you know how.

Don’t be afraid to love. But first make sure you don’t think you know how.

Stop putting all that work into agonizing over the imminent loss of everything you love. Simply love. While it’s still right there in front of you. Time not spent burning is draining, every bit of it trickling away at one second per second.

And when you do fall in love — and you will, again and again and again — don’t stop falling just because you hit the ground.

Good lessons.

Ode to vwls

When yesterday I received an email signed “rgds,” a trite valediction closing an email to a group of professionals, I stopped. Rgds? Really?

See also:
Some Srs Bsns: Are Words Without Vowels Rlly More Efficient?

Was the emailer intending to communicate familiarity with his recipient by dropping the vowels in “regards,” or was he simply demonstrating tired sophistication with the keyboard — too familiar was he with keystrokes that vowels were an interference and, therefore, a waste of time in the rhetoric between us? Or was it simply that everything is now bound by constraints even when we are constraintless?

No matter the reason, vowels are now the victims, and as a result, it seems fitting to compose an ode in response.

To what consonant altar have we subscribed to?

And what innocent A E I O or U has been sacrificed?

Thou still impoverished and vanishing ever more quickly,

Dear friends! Who can now explain,

The reason more aptly than our current style:

Why we’ve simply banished the unaware vowel?

Just as quickly as we forget E-I-E-I-O, we adopt truncation,

In email, we sign “rgrds;” in retribution, we give “thx,”

Too much in a hurry to round out the fuller sounds.

What mad pursuit do consonants offer? What ecstasy might they bring?
If “I before E except after C” is relinquished to merely “C,”
What substance do we have left before?

Thanks to Keats.

Old posts in transition. This original post written in 2009.

You say goodbye

When it comes to answering the phone, I’ve never been one for ceremony. I learned early on that our family was nothing if not practical. When I visited friends’ houses, they would impress us with phone etiquette, “The Barrett residence; this is Brendan speaking,” in their flat eight-year-old voices. But the Danzico kids: we just answered with a simple “hello.” It got the job done. And after my brief childhood contemplations about the formalities of the Barrett hello, I gave little thought to picking up a telephone.

Until now.

Where it once seemed innocuous, “hello” is now causing me downright anxiety. The word — a common way of greeting someone when answering the phone — is standard in the United States and fairly common both in England and France. It’s about as routine as making toast or turning on a light. It’s something we do to initiate and give a sort of permission for a conversation to start.

See also:
15 other expressions that have run their course

The problem is that “hello” has gone the way of VCRs, Crockpots, and Pink Pearl erasers. While we keep it around for all its perceived usefulness, it is simply not necessary anymore, and no one is admitting it.

“Hello” is a leftover.

A greeting without a cause

The word, once having such a prominent place in social interactions, has now been rendered unnecessary by caller ID. With 90% of Americans having mobile phones and 96 cell subscriptions for every 100 people in the world, chances are, caller identification lets us know who is calling before we answer. And we know you know that we know who is calling.

So why greet one another with a meaningless word?

We see a person’s name (e.g., “Mom”) displayed even before we take the call. But we continue on with what is arguably a leftover formality, answering with a generic word. Then comes a feigned surprise. We play along, sometimes pretending astonishment at the sound of the caller’s voice.

Why this intentional inefficiency? Why not answer with a personal greeting?

Hello, you must be going

The origin of the word seems surprisingly unknown. While it is well-documented that Alexander Graham Bell himself originally tried to use “Ahoy, Ahoy” to answer the phone, the reason for the switch is not clear. People in the 1880s needed a greeting that would take the place of what happened on the streets when one met a stranger.

Much later, in the seminal Why We Buy: The Science of Shopping, Paco Underhill talks about the landing strip that humans need when they enter a store. The first eight feet of a store are useless, because people don’t see them. They are in effect blind to the entryways, and store owners know that this is dead space and goes unused. Perhaps Americans need the same landing strip when initiating a phone conversation?

Get to the point

See also:
Goodbye may be harder than it seems

Other cultures don’t seem to need it; they jump right in. Italians answer, “Ready,” leaving it up to the caller to demand, “Who’s speaking?” In Spain and Mexico, they answer “Speak.” And like the Italians, the Mexicans will demand: “Where am I calling?” And if they have the wrong number, they’ll indignantly hang up, sometimes with a curse, as if it were the respondent’s fault. While curt, sure, these are more straightforward.

Each culture may need a different way to take calls, and perhaps it’s time we review how how we do it. Let’s look at where technology has brought us and get to the point.

Old posts in transition. This original post written in 2007.

Second chance for a last impression

Forget what you’ve heard about first impressions; it’s the last impressions that count. Last impressions — whether they’re with customer service or a date — are the ones we remember. They’re the ones that keep us coming back. But there’s one kind of final impression that people seem to forget.

Were this 1904, according to A Dictionary Of Etiquette: A Guide to Polite Usage For All Social Functions, standard conclusions were: I remain sincerely yours, or, Believe me faithfully yours.

The email signoff — that line that you write before you type your name — has been all but forgotten. Go take a look at your inbox: you might be astonished at how little attention people pay to the closing lines when writing email. This underrated rhetorical device is so frequently disregarded that many people have the gall to simply attach an automatic one to their email or mobile signature.

Closing lines vary from the possibly self-conscious (“My warmest regards,”) to the often charmless (”Best,“). They, at least in my inbox, revealed the following:

Tnx

Best

Word

Later

Laters

Thanks

Cheers

Cheery

Take care

Feel better

All the best

Safe travels
Love you all

Super great
Best regards

Get well soon

With gratitude

Thanks family

Your weary friend

Thanks in advance

Thanks, all the best

Don’t work too hard

Hope to see you Thursday

Hope to hear from you soon

Warm regards right back at ya

It seems there are patterns in closing line types. If ordered another way, they look like this:

Expressing gratitude

Tnx

Thanks

Thanks family

Thanks in advance

Thanks, all the best

Expressing general sentiment

Best

All the best

Best regards

Word

Later

Laters

Cheers

Cheery

Expressing affection

Love

Love you

Love you all

Expressing state

Your weary friend

With gratitude

Imperatives

Feel better

Take care

Safe travels

Get well soon

Don’t work too hard

Wishes

Hope to see you Thursday

Hope to hear from you soon!

Warm regards right back at ya

Lastly

You may want to peruse notes on “notes and shorter letters” from 1922, including a personal favorite, How to Address Important Personages.

With all of these, the intensity and — dare I say — sincerity varies depending on punctuation. A warm “Thanks!” can have quite a different sentiment than a flat “Thanks,”. We can’t be expected to neatly tie up every email every time. But once in a while, it would be delightful if we applied the same sincerity to the last impression that we do to the first.

Yours.

Old posts in transition. This original post written in 2007.

Listening is how we eat music. Hearing is how we digest it.

Robert Fripp cf. “Use familiar knowledge unconsciously. Sight-read. Make your own pieces with the notes you know well and the rest of the piece, the story, the language, will fall into place.”

This is New York

This is New York. A city that can be at once deeply familiar but also newly restless on the same block. A city whose very material for being is serendipity. A giver of anonymity and a giver of the densest participation in humanity. And still, with all its gifts, it requires only one thing of us: utility. The only thing New York requires of its citizens, its tourists, its commuters, its passerbys, its participants, is to use the city. The only thing one cannot do in New York City is embrace it with apathy.

This is New York. We come here unfinished, looking to the city for answers, for solitude, assignment, and for reward — looking for someplace to finish our sentences. And the city, in turn, presents endless possibilities. No matter if one lives here a year or a life, if utility is the city’s aspiration, then its reward is its neighborhoods.

Recently, I moved — all of 1.8 miles. After 11 years in one Brooklyn neighborhood, I moved just over 9,500 feet to the east. New Yorkers live and breathe by the people and services on a single city block, so moving this far is just as well moving countries. Changing currencies. Allegiances. Time zones. But without sympathy. Because it is, after all, still one city.

When I moved from the East Village of Manhattan to Brooklyn, I saw neighborhoods unlike I’d seen before. “The city,” as Manhattan is called if one is a Brooklynite, has neighborhoods of course. Yet Brooklyn has them at a different scale and speed. Within a month of moving to Carroll Gardens, I’d been offered protection, welcome-baked-goods, and was head of some sort of block-party planning committee. In more than a decade there, I’d been locked out, delighted, broken into, loved, infuriated, and everything in between. And I relied on the people on my block to be there for me through it all.

I now live on Flatbush Avenue in Brooklyn — the kind of Grand Central of our borough — where the steady traffic and sirens are a nightly lullaby. It’s no pastoral neighborhood, but the frenetic diversity of pace, scale, sounds, lights, and people to befriend envelops one in possibility. It’s less bake sale more survivalism, less Hopper more Pollack. Invitations to help and dine together are frequent, and neighbors hang even closer together. Islands of neighbordom against the fray. With neighbors, anything is possible.

This is a city I came to with aspiration, and a city I return to aspiring to be inspired again. Of all the cities, it may be New York who is the most unflappable, the most infallible, the most impenetrable, but the most loyal and the most forgiving. As such, it is New York City itself who is unfinished, its unkempt seams and its unsmooth asphalt, its uptown arts and its devoted downtown, living undone, side by side.

This is New York. A city of neighbors making the unfinished finished.
It’s been spat on and praised, paved over and cheered on. It needs us to finish its sentences. For despite all of the promised anonymity of this singular city, “New York City” is plural.

If you spend too much time doing ‘Ready aim, aim, aim, aim’ you’re never going to see all the good things that would happen if you actually started doing it. Business plans are interesting, but they have no real meaning, because you can’t put in all the positive things that will occur. I always live by the motto of ‘ready, fire, aim.’

Oliver Burkeman. In his book, he reviews the work of psychologist Saras Sarasvathy, who had studied qualities successful entrepreneurs share. I found this not too dissimilar from one of my favorite quotations on his writing process from E.L. Doctorow. “Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” When I write, I’ve never been able to have a plan, so knowing authors I admire similarly drive into the fog has been encouraging. Less aim, more fire.