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How do you solve problems?

When I have to solve a problem, I need silence, time, and no interruptions. For most of my life I assumed this was how everybody did it, and noisy and more collaborative approaches struck me as just invasive or dumb. Thanks to my sister, who forced me to take a psychological test that defined my “workplace personality,” I learned that my way of solving problems is just one of many effective approaches.

What I take for interruptions are what others think of asking for help. What I take for needless time-wasting in chatty meetings others think of as necessary collaboration. I still despise either of those approaches, but I do know they can be valuable and that others think of them as work.

So, when life presents you with a challenge, what’s your approach? Retreat or collaboration? What drives you nuts about the way your colleagues approach problems?

My Memory of George H. W. Bush

I sang in the Yale Whiffenpoofs, an a cappella group that’s been around for over a century and was invited more than once to sing for Yale alum George H. W. Bush. My group met him during the administration of his son. We were singing at the Yale Club in New York and he was in the front row.

It’s traditional for every set the group sings to end with The Whiffenpoof Song, and all alums get the honor of being invited up.

We made a point of saying that all honorary Whiffs were welcome to come up and sing too, which caught the president’s attention. He hesitated a bit, then got up and joined us. He hadn’t sang while at Yale and he’d been made an honorary member by some past group while in he was in the White House.

But he joined us anyway. He knew all the words to the song and put his arms over the shoulders of the Whiff on his right and left during the chorus, as tradition demands. And afterward he shook each of our hands and seemed to genuinely appreciated the honor, as perhaps only a Yalie can.

I didn’t agree with his policies and wouldn’t have voted for him if I’d been able back in the 1990s. But he had a grace, charm, and gravitas which filled the room. We could use his touch in the world of presidential politics today.

 

For Your Long Weekend Read: Deciphering the Library of Herculaneum

Here’s what may be the mother of all long-term data storage problems.

When Mt. Vesuvius erupted in 79 A.D., it sealed the extensive library of a wealthy Roman under many feet of ash and earth. Scrolls that wouldn’t have otherwise survived two thousand years were preserved intact and dug up in the 1750s. Since then, they’ve pinballed around Europe, exchanged as gifts between kings and emperors and been locked away in rarefied institutions. They might contain lost works by some of the superstars of antiquity, like Sappho and Aristotle.

Trouble is, nobody can read them because they are lumps of blackened carbon that crumble to dust when you try to unroll them. A few have been deciphered but the majority remain rolled up.

Now, a group of scholars and physicists are trying to use equipment capable of peering into the scrolls without unrolling them, detecting details at the molecular level. A grain of sand left by a reader in between two layers, the faint raising from page-level of dried ink, or the groove of a stylus are all detectable.

Even though this piece came out in The New Yorker three years ago, it’s news to me. It’s the kind of wonder that doesn’t often make it to the headlines, but should.

Even with Merkel’s Leadership Coming to an End, the EU is the Moral Leader of the West

The Associated Press is providing hour-by-hour updates of the meeting of the G20. It’s politics meets social awkwardness, as the Saudi Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Salman, Donald Trump, and Vladimir Putin hang out in close quarters with world leaders from the EU and other regions.

Back before November 2016, when grown-ups still ran U.S. foreign policy, it would’ve been a no-brainer that the U.S. would have issued a joint statement with other G20 leaders condemning the murder of Saudi dissident and journalist Jamal Khashoggi and also punishing Russia for stepping right over the edge of legality with their recent seizure of Ukrainian ships, part of their ongoing effort to claim the territory as their own, which has been an on-again-off-again Russian territory since at least the days of the British Empire.

But in the bizarro world we’re living in, the EU faction is writing its own statements upholding a rules-based international order and democratic norms, while Trump, Putin, and Mohammed bin Salman gad about in their own morally vacant, transactional, no-man’s-land.

Thank God for Old Europe, keeping it together for anybody who cares about making sure the Enlightenment project doesn’t collapse.

Copy Critique: U.S. War Propaganda from 1942

Advertising has at least one thing in common with the Gothic cathedrals of the Middle Ages. It is a vast collective creative project undertaken in anonymity. Nobody cared, least of all the stonemasons, who built the pillars and spires of a church as long as they stood upright. And nobody cares who makes the art and copy of great ads, as long as they get the message across.

But unlike the cathedrals, advertising is ephemeral. Beyond annual award shows, we don’t stop to appreciate and learn from classic work. That’s why it was a rare thing to see a collection of World War II propaganda posters at the FDR Presidential Library this weekend. Many of them are a perfect union of words and visuals, made with brevity and power that would put social media mavens to shame.

Example number one is this beauty from 1942. It conveys with three words and one symbol what a long-form copywriter like myself would take at least 300 words to get across. I was humbled by it, and pass it along to you.

Get the message?

Punctuation & Civilization

As Kenneth Clark said, “Manners are small morals.” I’d say the same about punctuation.

The part of the mind that remembers the rules for capitalization after a semicolon or whether to use “who” or “whom” is also the part of the mind that strives to think clearly about the matter in front of it. Punctuation guides our grammar and through our grammar it guides our consciousness.

Mary Norris, The New Yorker’s “comma Queen,” says as much in her latest piece. If you think of yourself as a member of The Resistance against the immorality and incompetence of those in power at the moment, she says that a good place to start is with a clean, beautiful statement of the truth. To speak truth to power, in other words, it is essential to first know how to speak.

Some Gratitudes

Before the last Thanksgiving leftovers are eaten, I want to get down a few lines about what I’m grateful for this year.

Friends and Family. There were many years when this wouldn’t have made my list, not because I didn’t value the relationships in my life, but because I didn’t know how to value them. They were simply there, like the rain in autumn or the snow in winter. Now that I’m roughly halfway through the journey of life, I know how important it is to have people with you along the way. They show you what’s possible. They define you. They give and receive love, without which it is not possible to be fully human. And to all my favorite humans, you know who you are: all love and affection to you.

Books. There isn’t a year I wouldn’t have included these magical objects on my list. They are an escape from the prison of the moment and of the present time, a solace in tough times, a celebration in the best of times, and a source of wisdom and amusement, often both at once. Without them, I would not know who I am or what anything means. They think thoughts for me that are bigger than I’d ever be able to arrive at on my own. They keep the whole picture of the world in mind, seen in understanding and compassion and fascination, so I don’t have to bear that burden.

My Body. Just about everybody who knows me knows that I used to weigh over 40% more than I do now. There isn’t a day that I don’t get up and take a moment of thanks that I’m no longer beset by the physical and emotional suffering that came with that body. I don’t want anybody to feel body shamed by this post. But for me, being heavier than I am now didn’t work out. Let’s hope I can keep up the physical recovery, one day at a time.

My Job. Just about everybody who knows me also knows how much my job rules my life. It spills over into vacation time, sleeping time, weekends, evenings, and even my dreams and the stray thoughts of the odd hours. For all the anxiety it brings, it has made me smarter, more creative, braver, and more financially secure than I’ve ever been. I’ve got a long journey before I’ll be satisfied with my progress on any of those fronts, but without the whetstone of my job, I’d be much duller than I am now. Plus, in a mean, cold world, it’s nice to have a place to go every day where my talents, such as they are, are put to use.

Dungeons & Dragons. For the past two years, I’ve been getting together with a mad crew of friends to create real, shared memories of imaginary places and people. I’ve learned more about my imagination than I have in a lifetime of writing and even some things about myself I’d never have otherwise. (How *would* I respond to the chance to sell my soul, speak with the dead, steal a treasure, or defend the innocent?). This thanks extends this to all tabletop games that you play with other people — it’s a sure path to the kind of knowledge of yourself and others you’d normally get from real life, but you get to have fun and suffer only the mildest of consequences when you find it on the game board.

That seems like a fairly basic list, but there you have it. It’s what showed up when I asked my mind for a list of what mattered.

Now, back to the grind.

What are you grateful for?

 

Meet My New Family Member, Rowdy III

He is a miniature long hair Dachshund, black and english cream, twenty two weeks old. So far, he’s a big fan of chasing his own tail, chewing on the ends of shoelaces and zipper pulls, and passing out in front of radiators.

UPDATE: I should clarify that the wonderful Rowdy III lives with my mom and step-dad in the Hudson Valley. He’s not mine. We’re just siblings.

(Photo credit: Andrew Yang)

Abraham Lincoln on Thanksgiving: Gratitude in Times of “National Perverseness”

A time to give thanks? Check.

A time of “national perverseness”? Check.

And who better than the near-mythological figure Abraham Lincoln to remind us that even when things seem to be falling apart–the Civil War gets more points on that score than our own–it’s important to make time to give it all a rest and be thankful for what the earth has provided and for all of us who are still here in good health to enjoy it together.

We are not engaged in Civil War, but it has been a year of catastrophe. Many Americans who were alive last Thanksgiving aren’t alive today, whether from natural disaster like the California fires, or manmade disaster, like the 35,000 Americans who die from gun violence every year.

So take a deep breath and savor the day.

From Abe’s proclamation of Thanksgiving as an official holiday, which appeared in The Atlantic in 1863.

It has seemed to be fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently, and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and voice by the whole American people; I do, therefore, invite my fellow-citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea, and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next as a Day of Thanksgiving and Prayer to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the heavens. And I recommend to them that, while offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him for such singular deliverances and blessings, they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to His tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners, or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty hand to heal the wounds of the nation, and to restore it, as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes, to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquility, and union.

If you don’t pray to God, Abe’s rumbling, periodic sentence still works–give thanks to whatever forces at work in the universe remind you that you’re just a small part of things, but a small part capable of gratitude.

Have a great day, everybody!