July 31, 2005

A Random Walk down the Aisle

Posted in Uncategorized at 8:02 am by falstaff

So true…

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July 30, 2005

Do me a favour and pass the marijuana

Posted in Uncategorized at 10:56 pm by falstaff

Back when I was in middle school, there was this major media campaign against drugs. Every day you would get these ads on TV, featuring misguided young men who destroyed their lives by Saying YES to Drugs, ads that invariably ended with a red skull that had a small puff of smoke drifting out of its hideously grinning teeth (you have to remember these were the good old days of public programming on TV – before cable came in – so that these ads were often the most exciting part of the evening’s television watching). Personally, I don’t think these ads helped much – for one thing, by clubbing all narcotics under the general rubric of ‘Drugs’ they allowed people to make the dangerous assumption that there was no difference between smoking the occassional joint and doing LSD or Ecstasy – a slightly more balanced perspective may have been useful. More importantly, though, they helped create an excitement around drugs that I, for one, was unlikely to have felt otherwise. In my entire adolescent life, the only person who ever offered me drugs or suggested I try them was that leering drug dealer on TV. Those ads left me with the distinct impression that the proper thing to do when one was at college was to get together with a bunch of friends, put Dum Maro Dum on the stereo, and snort something that looked suspiciously like talcum powder up my nose. The fact that I never managed to meet a single person in my college who actually did drugs remains one of the more serious disappointments of my teenage life.

More importantly, though, I feel these ads completely ignored the most pernicious of all narcotics known to man – kindness to total strangers. You know how it is. One day you’re hanging out with friends and someone (not someone you really know too well, mind you, just some guy) has a favour to ask. Before you know it you’re stepping forward, volunteering. He tells you what it is, with this half-sceptical, half-intense look in his eyes, as if daring you to back down now. You really don’t want to do this, but you go ahead anyway. You figure it’s just a little thing, it can’t hurt. It’s not like you’re going to make a habit of doing this or something. You do it. You feel good. The world seems brighter, more lucid. Next thing you know you’re hooked. Every time there’s a favour to be done, you’re there. It doesn’t matter who it’s for anymore – friends, neighbours, total strangers you meet on the road. You don’t care – you’re just looking to score. You spend days in a frenzy of doing good deeds, like a boy scout on speed, like a Good Samaritan with the fast-forward button on.

After a while you realise you’re going too far. You try to stop. That’s when the guilt hits you. You know how easy it would be to make someone else happy. You now how good you’ll feel afterward, even though it’s really painful while you’re doing it. You can’t stand the thought of all those favours you could do going wasted. You stick it out for a few days, trying not to meet the eyes of others for fear of the appeal you’ll see in them. Then one day you break down and help a blind man cross the road. That’s it. You’ve fallen off the wagon. Next thing you know you’re helping that fat PhD student down the street who no one will talk to finish her dissertation. Before you know it helping other people has taken over your whole life. You don’t work anymore, you have no other interests. All you do is go around doing good to other people. Pretty soon people are avoiding you in the street. This only makes you more desperate for them to like you, so you start doing even more favours. Before long you’re chain-helping – going from one favour to the next without even stopping for a breath in between. You’re not a person anymore, you’re just a doormat.

The thing that makes kindness so deadly a drug though, is that it must be the only addictive substance on the planet which doesn’t just get you hooked on it, it also gets hooked on you. Think about it. You do some random person a favour because it’s easy and the blogspot server is down. They thank you profusely – you accept their gratitude with good grace, shrugging it off to show how humble a person you are. It was nothing, you say. Next thing you know they actually believe this. They’re coming to you with every trouble they have. If it’s not their term papers, it’s their mother’s sciatica. Or their complete absence of a sex life. Or a job for their fourth cousin twice removed. You can’t just fob them with a simple ‘sorry, I don’t have the time’ any more (which is what you should have done right at the beginning) – now they EXPECT this of you. Worse, they DEPEND on you for this. If you tell them you might not be able to talk to them for more than an hour about their curtain designs because you have a major surgery scheduled tomorrow and you need to make a will before it, they will look at you in this hurt way that says they’re disappointed in you, you’ve let them down. After all, it’s not like they’re asking you for anything major. Just a simple little thing. You’ve always done it before. What’s wrong this time? Have they done something to offend you? Don’t you like them anymore? At which point, of course, you cave in and say, fine, fine, I’ll come and hold your hand while you have “I love Momma” tattooed on your left buttock. No, that’s all right, never mind about the opera tickets. This will be just as much fun.

Of course, people will tell you that there’s joy in giving, that one mustn’t think only of oneself. I completely agree with this. And I’d be quite happy, on the whole, to make sacrifices for people I truly love or care for – to help them out in any way I can, even if it means a significant inconvenience to myself. Ironically, though, these are precisely the people who are the most reluctant to take advantage of me – they approach me for help only when there’s no other way, they’re careful not to make a habit of it. It’s complete strangers (or people I actively abhor and therefore make it a point to be excruciatingly polite to) with whom the simplest little good deed gets instantly magnified into a lifelong commitment of bonded labour. And that’s what I object to.

Looking back, I probably would have survived the occassional joint. God knows I’ve been sozzled out of my mind with alcohol often enough – I don’t suppose the occassional drug high would have done me that much harm. If there’s one temptation I truly regret giving in to, it’s this urge to do random acts of kindness. So the next time someone offers you a drag, think about it (though if he’s offering it to you freely he’s probably a narc in disguise). But the next time someone comes up to you and asks you for help – Just Say NO.

July 29, 2005

The Price

Posted in Uncategorized at 8:47 am by falstaff

It was past closing time. The coffee shop was almost empty. One man sat on a corner table, trying to gulp his coffee down too fast, burning his tongue in the process. The lights had been dimmed. The boy in the apron who’d served them was clearing up now, turning the chairs upside down and placing them carefully on the tables, legs turned up to the sky like some grotesque dead animal. Somebody had turned the door sign over, so that seen from inside it now said (in bold orange letters) ‘Open’ – which meant, of course, that it was closed.

One door closes, the other opens, he thought. But what if it’s the same door, just seen from opposite sides? Was it really that easy? Could you just flip your heart over and shut the world out? Could you reverse time so it would read the way you wanted it to?

They were sitting across from each other, clutching their seperate coffee cups as though they were regrets. Hers was a tall latte with too much sugar as usual; his was small and bitter – an espresso. He started to take another sip, then realised there was nothing left. That’s right, he thought, I have drained the cup to the bottom. I wonder why I’m still holding on.

The girl at the counter was looking at them anxiously now. Hoping they would leave soon. Why were they still here anyway? There was nothing left to say. Was it just that the lateness of the hour had made of the table some sort of rite, obscene but necessary? Was this part of the dance then – a spotlight, a fire that they warmed their hands against before vanishing forever into the darkness? Between them now the silence was a sugar bowl, filled with white sachets of accusation that they fingered absently, but would never open, never need. It was just as well.

It was only when she got up to go that he realised how much he loved her, how much he could hate her. There was anger there, but also a sense of relief. After all, someone had to leave first, he thought, better her than me. He watched her take out her purse, count out her share of the tab, leave it pinned under the saucer. He waited with impatience for the last thing she would say. When she finally raised her eyes to his, though, he realised that this too was unnecessary, and he nodded and let her go; the words she had opened her mouth to say were left unsaid. She nodded back, then turned away. He watched her leave, experiencing again that feeling of barriers, transparent yet unbreakable, between them – that sense of observing each other from two equal but alien worlds.

She did not look back. When she had disappeared around the corner, it occured to him that they would probably never meet again. The idea seemed impossible somehow, yet also very real, like a photograph of himself from a place he couldn’t remember visiting. The waitress was hovering behind him now, he could feel her impatience like the beat of wings coming closer. He should go. Get some sleep (if sleep still existed in the world, if there were still beds and pillows and nightlights; he wasn’t sure). He was catching the early flight.

On an impulse, he picked up the cash she had left, sat staring at the note for a minute. Then, very carefully, he tore it exactly into half. Then he put the two halves together and tore them into two more halves – again with the same careful precision. Then he put the four pieces together and tore them…

Someone had told him once that there was a physical limit to how far you could take this. Eight tears, he had said, and then the whole thing becomes too thick, it’s true, it doesn’t matter what paper you take. Or was it that you couldn’t fold a piece of paper more than eight times? He couldn’t remember. He wondered how many times you could fold a man, how small you could make him? He looked at the pieces of the note in his hand – nothing but scraps of worthless paper now – and let them trickle into the ashtray.

The waitress was watching him nervously. She thinks I’m going to be trouble, he thought. She thinks I’m not leaving because I don’t want to pay. How ironic. The truth is I’m not paying because I have nowhere to go. She’s coming over now. She’s going to say something. Better to pay now and get out.

Yes, I will pay. I will pay all of it, every last cent. And she will never know.

July 28, 2005

You’ve got to be kidding

Posted in Uncategorized at 9:21 am by falstaff

What exactly is the deal with proud parents anyway? I mean what are they so proud about? Okay, so you went ahead and got yourself a 20 pound piece of raw, blubbering steak. That’s fine with me – I’m a tolerant person, I don’t judge. What you do in the privacy of your own home is none of my business. But you could at least be suitably ashamed of the little monstrosity, keep it hidden away at home, in the garage maybe, next to the beer empties and the spare tire. What’s with all this celebration? If all you want is something that goes off at all the most inopportune times, wakes you up at night, embarasses you in public – then get a cellphone without a silent mode, for God’s sake.

And what price the smugness? I mean if I spent my time wandering about the city carrying something that was a cross between a car alarm and mashed whale blubber I’d either get arrested by Homeland Security or put in a strait-jacket by those nice men over at the local nut-house, right? Except everywhere you look there are these glowing mothers pushing their prams about, and no one so much as bothers to stun them with Mace. Even when they invade our offices we smile at them indulgently, when they thrust their little ghouls in our faces, we manage to restrain our instinct to hit them with our wireless keyboards (purely in self-defense, of course). How lovely, we say, just what I needed to make my cube more fun – a drool machine to slobber all over me! Now I don’t have to build my complex analytical models in silence anymore, I can do it to the accompaniment of caterwauling puppy fat! What’s that? You want to use the conference room to change the baby – go right ahead, that’s what it’s for. Think of it as your own personal diaper altar. We just pretend to have meetings in there every now and then so no one will suspect. (And while we’re on the subject – what is it about diapers that makes changing them a quasi-religious experience for women. I mean, would you like us to all come stand around and watch while you went to the bathroom? Is there some biblical precedent for this sort of thing? Was the first thing Princess what’s her name did for the baby Moses after she pulled him out of his basket of bulrushes to get him a fresh diaper? Did the three wise men stand around in wonder, clutching their precious gifts, while the virgin mother changed the infant Jesus?)

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that parenting is easy – I recognise that being a good parent is one of the hardest things in the world (and something I’m way too chicken to try). But what’s so tough about having babies? I mean, okay, so if you come and tell me you’re proud of your daughter because at 16 she’s over at John Hopkins finding cures for cancer and setting the text of Dante’s Inferno to a piece for solo violin-cello in her free time, then I can see why your pride may be justified. But if all you’ve managed to do is procreate, I don’t see what the big deal is. It’s not like you’ve suddenly become model parents. This little monster you’re dandling about is probably going to turn out to be a psychotic axe murderer, or (even worse) a Britney Spears fan (you can see it in its face already).

So where does this sense of achievement come from? And it’s not just self-delusion. Other people buy into this. There I’ll be at a family get-together telling everyone about the seminal contributions I’m making to business strategy, or trying to have a conversation about Hegel’s dialectics, when some stupid cousin of mine will walk in with his wife and three month old baby and instead of telling them to can it, everyone will cluster around them cooing in incomprehensible voices, and casting sly glances at me that say “Why couldn’t you be like this? Why are you such a failure? Where did we go wrong?”. I don’t get this. I mean, look, I’m the one with the Ivy League education, I’m the one who’s read all of F Scott Fitzgerald’s books, I’m the one with four different recordings of J.S. Bach’s Art of Fugue on my iPod; this guy has some dead end job as a sort of glorified help-desk, he reads books for the illustrations, neither he and his wife could hold a conversation if it fell into their laps – and he’s the successful one? Why? Because he figured out how to get a woman pregnant. What a discovery! The world will never be the same again! I can see the Nobel Prize committee rushing to the phone to call him and give him the good news. Yup, anyday now.

Oh, and if all this wasn’t bad enough – we have to be nice to these people? Make way for them as they walk slowly out of the auditorium making cooing noises because the baby started crying in the middle of Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony (again)? Sit at the table next to them at a restaurant and listen to their brat howl without sticking your fork into it or at least pouring some tabasco sauce into its eyes? (Why is it that more restaurants will ban dogs and not babies / little children? I’m okay with dogs. Dogs are decent and well-behaved and if they trouble you too much you can always shove them away; if a fiery Doberman comes up to your table and bares his teeth, it’s okay for you start back in panic and ask the owner to keep him under control and no one says, “Oh look! Little Adolf made a new friend! Aren’t they cute at that age!”) Give up our seats on the bus / train to them? (you get to have sex and I have to spend a thirty minute journey on my feet? Great.*). They get tax breaks for inflicting these horrors upon us? Why don’t we just let the Martians take over – at least they reproduce through cloning.

Personally I think this whole parenting thing is one big consolation prize. The basic idea is that any given point of time some 90% of people are going to be losers, so if you don’t want total anarchy you have to give them something that will let them feel a sense of achievement. Hmmm..let’s see, what is it that it takes no intelligence, no talent, no taste or maturity or education? How about making babies? Yes, that’s a good one, let’s go with that. Never mind if you can’t spell, are hooked on your old ABBA recordings and have the street-smartness of a piece of roadkill. You too can be a REAL GROWN-UP! Just as long as you don’t manage to figure out how to use a condom.

*I’m convinced, btw, that half the women riding the Philadelphia transit system with babies had the damn things for the express purpose of doing me out of a seat

July 27, 2005

The Parable of the Desert

Posted in Uncategorized at 1:58 pm by falstaff

Sigh. Okay, I promise this is the last pseudo-philosophical post I’m putting this week. It’s just that I’ve been having a couple of discussions on this stuff, and I just couldn’t resist.

Anyway, here’s a piece I wrote a long while back to a friend – it still expresses better than anything else how I feel about life.

In the Myth of Sisyphus (you really MUST read it) Camus makes this whole point about the absurd life being a life without appeal. I think one of the simplest ways of looking at it is as a life emptied of consequence (in all senses of the term). The cornerstone of all absurdist reasoning is precisely this – that no matter what we do, it has no effect on the human condition or the ultimate outcome of our own life which is death and oblivion. Understand that this is not fatalism. We are not saying that no matter what you do, your destiny will not change – we are saying that you can change your destiny, but that your destiny itself is trivial: strong gusts of wind can bear the falling leaves farther from the tree, but this does not make a strong gust of wind meaningful or ‘good’. The gust of wind, like existence itself, merely is; and while its presence has consequences, no significance can be attached to them.

This then is the accusation – a meaningless farce of survival with the persistent bad habit of death at the end. And if we are to deny consequence to everything we do; if the courtroom is empty and the judge and jury that we imagined are only planks of wood and the glassy sunmica of the backs of chairs, then there can be no hope of appeal.

But this is not the absurdist argument proper, this is only the preface, the statement of the problem. The challenge for the absurd man is really to accept this causal vacuum, and to maintain, even in the featureless face of its cold impartiality the haughty visage of man’s dignity – not because man is deemed important, but because knowing only ourselves, and therefore certain only of our own consciousness, we have nothing to hold on to but existence.

To illustrate this a little better, allow me to introduce the parable of the desert. Imagine that a man wakes up one morning and finds himself in a desert, without water. He could then convince himself that water lay in such and such a direction, and go on travelling in that direction certain of finding it, ceding only at the point of death, still convinced that water lies in that direction and hopeful of finding it someday (not realising that such a day can never come). Or he could choose not to search for water at all, choosing instead to accept that there is no water but that this doesn’t matter – something else does, say building sand castles (either because he believes in sand castles, or simply because he enjoys building them). Or he could sit down and die. The absurd man’s challenge is to do none of these – neither to delude himself with hope of any kind nor to surrender. The absurd man must accept that there is only the desert, that nothing he can do in the desert is of any merit – he can neither find water that would allow him to survive in the desert, nor can he build monuments in sand that will survive to tell his Ozymandiacal tale to those who follow. In short, he must accept that there is no difference between doing something and doing nothing. And having accepted that (and this is the real test) he must then choose action over surrender. His task is a difficult one, because it is to choose to hang in limbo between belief (which he cannot aspire to) and suicide (which is beneath his dignity), it is to accept defeat and all its bitterness and not be defeated.

But if there is hardship here there is also a great triumph – the only one possible to man in an absurd universe. Knowing that reprieve is impossible, the absurd man has chosen to attend every sitting of his trial, to listen to every imprecation that is heaped on him and to go through all the necessary paperwork (have you read Camus’ Outsider? This is more or less what happens there) without ever trying to defend himself or making a plea for justice. And this ‘conscious scorn’ is the only means by which man can assert his dignity.

Reading about the absurd challenge, it would seem that the whole philosophy is rather similar to the Geeta’s concept of karma. This is untrue. Because what the Geeta is advocating is action without the hope of reward; what the absurd argument talks of is action with the certainty of no reward. The difference is significant. Karma is a surrender into the hands of a higher power, the hope of reward is replaced by a belief in a just eternity that renders the hope redundant. Absurdism, on the other hand, is the outright rejection of hope and an espousal of action in deliberate and futile spite of an impersonal and ephemeral existence. Caught in quicksand, the ordinary man would thrash about because he hoped to escape. The Karmic philosopher would thrash about knowing that he could not escape on his own, but believing that the effort itself would become a virtue. The absurd man would thrash about knowing that he could never escape, because he still had the strength in his muscles to do it and it was an insult to his dignity not to.

This may seem like a petty victory – it is. But it is the only victory possible to man, the only victory that man can achieve. And it is a victory not because it proves something to someone else (there is no pomp in the quiet scorn of the absurd man) but more because there is a sense of achievement in having done something so hard, in having pushed yourself to accept the dichotomy between action and consequence. The absurd man is not trying to prove anything to the quicksand, he is trying to prove to himself that he is capable of simultaneously knowing that he is to die and of continuing to put in his best effort to escape and that though he recognises that this knowledge and this satisfaction is trivial and will die with him, he also recognises that there is nothing else that existence offers him and is content.

In a sense this is the Promethean way, and the way of Satan in Paradise Lost. Remember Milton:

“Hail horrors! Hail,
Infernal world! and thou, profoundest Hell,
Receive thy new possessor — one who brings
A mind not to be changed by place or time.
…Here at least
We shall be free; the Almighty hath not built
Here for his envy, will not drive us hence;
Here we may reign secure, and, in my choice,
To reign is worth ambition, though in Hell;”

Suggested Reading:

1. Albert Camus The Myth of Sisyphus (obviously)
2. Albert Camus The Outsider
3. Franz Kafka The Trial
4. Franz Kafka The Hunger Artist (short story)
5. Jean-Paul Sartre Being and Nothingness
6. Arthur Schopenhauer On Pessimism

P.S. This argument does leave open the question, of course, of what man is to do once he’s decided to continue existing – but the point is precisely that that is a trivial question once you’ve seen the truth and decided to go on living.

Another day, another opinion

Posted in Uncategorized at 8:41 am by falstaff

People are always telling me I’m opinionated. Personally, I think that’s just their opinion.

A friend was reminiscing the other day about a prof back at business school who claimed he (my friend) didn’t have the right to an opinion about some business question because he’d never had any work experience.

This (in my opinion) is an entirely illogical point of view. On the contrary, I would argue that all opinion deals with things that we haven’t experienced or don’t know about. Whatever you know for certain / can prove objectively is not opinion – it’s fact. It’s precisely what you haven’t experienced / known that remains in the realm of opinion.

To understand this better, consider first what the professor really means when he says he ‘knows’ what the real world is like. Has he worked for every organisation in the world? Is he currently working for a business firm? What he really means when he says he knows about business organisations is that he knows about a handful of organisations that he personally has worked with at a specific point of time. However, every organisation is different and organisations change over time, so it’s entirely possible that all the past experience he has is completely irrelevant now. In fact, learning theorists would argue that by using his limited experience to theorise about the world, the professor may actually be doing himself a disservice. Research has shown that people with limited experience have a tendency to blindly apply learnings from these settings to other situations where they may not be relevant. As a result, they do more poorly than those who come in with no pre-conceived notions*. A little learning really is a dangerous thing.

But there is a larger issue here – one that deals with the very nature of truth. What do we mean when we say something is true? Karl Popper, building off the work of Hume, argues that the continuity of truth is an illusion – that we cannot objectively know anything about the future from what we have experienced in the past. We may believe that gravity will still operate tomorrow, because it is our experience that it has operated day after day for centuries now – but we cannot prove that this will be so. As Heraclitus would say, you cannot step into the same river twice. Popper therefore concludes that we cannot scientifically claim that anything is true – at best we can only claim that it has not been proved false yet.

A parallel arguments applies to objects and situations. The key point here is that all categories are creations of the mind and therefore opinions. What do we mean, for instance, when we say that two pens are identical? What we really mean is that within the limits of our perception we are unable to tell them apart. Yet in actual fact two ‘identical’ pens are actually completely seperate entities – made up of separate particles of matter – which have nothing to do with each other except that we happen to have characterised them along dimensions of our own choosing as identical. Existence (or being) is the only ‘fact’ – everything else is merely opinion**.

People will argue that there is such a thing as informed opinion – but what does this mean exactly? Only that in our opinion, there are certain sources of information that can be trusted / that make sense. I remember attending a Bible reading once (don’t ask – I got dragged there by my then girlfriend) where this young woman told me that what she loved about the Bible was that it was all completely true. So what to me is merely opinion (and fairly quaint opinion at that) is to her objective fact. It follows that all truth, all objectivity, is nothing more than a collective delusion. The whole world is opinion – it’s just that whatever everyone (or almost everyone) believes is a special class of opinion that we call truth***. All empirical reality is only triangulation.

It always amuses me, therefore when people say things like, “that’s just your opinion, just because you think so doesn’t make it true” (which is probably what you, dear reader, are thinking about this whole theory right about now). If you really eliminate all opinion, all we are left with is feeling (and undefined feelings at that – the moment you tried putting them into words they would cease to become facts – statements like “I love you”, for instance, are merely matters of opinion). And that’s a world we could hardly survive in for long (although, of course, the idea that we should survive is only really an opinion by itself).

Notes:

* For research on this in an organisation setting – see Haleblian and Finkelstein (1999), ‘The Influence of Organisational Acquisition Experience on Acquisition Performance’, Administrative Science Quarterly, where the authors find that prior experience of the acquirer is negatively related to acquisition performance; and Tushman & Anderson’s seminal 1986 paper ‘Technological Discontinuities and Organisational environments’ where the authors argue that radical change will tend to come from new entrants who are not constrained by prior learning

**For a more detailed (and much, much better written) treatment of this idea see Sartre: Nausea (extract here) and Being and Nothingness.

***As an aside, the notion of applying democratic notions to truth is fairly ridiculous. Majority opinion is usually the worst barometer of truth, partly because most people do not think clearly and partly because majority opinion represents what is comfortable or convenient to believe. See, for instance Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People (e-text here)

July 26, 2005

Recipe for a Melancholy Evening

Posted in Uncategorized at 9:48 am by falstaff

Take one part Chekhov.

Add Haruki Murakami’s South of the Border, West of the Sun.

Blend in Schubert’s Violin Sonata in A minor D 385 (preferably with all the lights off)

Add Walcott to taste.

Garnish with a light sprinkle of Miles Davis, just for the aroma.

Serve warm.

What was it Keats said:

“No, no! go not to Lethe, neither twist
Wolf’s-bane, tight-rooted, for its poisonous wine;
Nor suffer thy pale forehead to be kist
By nightshade, ruby grape of Proserpine;
Make not your rosary of yew-berries,
Nor let the beetle, nor the death-moth be
Your mournful Psyche, nor the downy owl
A partner in your sorrow’s mysteries;
For shade to shade will come too drowsily,
And drown the wakeful anguish of the soul.

But when the melancholy fit shall fall
Sudden from heaven like a weeping cloud,
That fosters the droop-headed flowers all,
And hides the green hill in an April shroud;
Then glut thy sorrow on a morning rose,
Or on the rainbow of the salt sand-wave,
Or on the wealth of glob├Ęd peonies;
Or if thy mistress some rich anger shows,
Emprison her soft hand, and let her rave,
And feed deep, deep upon her peerless eyes.”

Vanya-ty

Posted in Uncategorized at 9:18 am by falstaff

“SONIA: What can we do? All we can do is live. Yes, we shall live, Uncle Vanya. We shall live through the long procession of days before us, and through the long evenings; we shall patiently bear the trials that fate imposes on us; we shall work for others without rest, both now and when we are old; and when our last hour comes we shall meet it humbly, and there, beyond the grave, we shall say that we have suffered and wept, that our life was bitter, and God will have pity on us. Ah, then dear, dear Uncle, we shall see that bright and beautiful life; we shall rejoice and look back upon our sorrow here; a tender smile–and–we shall rest. I have faith, Uncle, fervent, passionate faith. [SONIA kneels down before her uncle and lays her head on his hands. She speaks in a weary voice] We shall rest. [TELEGIN plays softly on the guitar] We shall rest. We shall hear the angels. We shall see heaven shining like a jewel. We shall see all evil and all our pain sink away in the great compassion that shall enfold the world. Our life will be as peaceful and tender and sweet as a caress. I have faith; I have faith. [She wipes away her tears] My poor, poor Uncle Vanya, you are crying! [Weeping] You have never known what happiness was, but wait, Uncle Vanya, wait! We shall rest. [She embraces him] We shall rest. [The WATCHMAN’S rattle is heard in the garden; TELEGIN plays softly; MME. VOITSKAYA writes something on the margin of her pamphlet; MARINA knits her stocking] We shall rest.”

– Anton Chekhov ‘Uncle Vanya’

But what if we don’t have faith, Sonia? What if, for reasons of outrage or heroism or just plain old fashioned stubbornness we refuse to believe, refuse to be cajoled into happiness by the prospect of that belief? What if we would rather be disappointed in ourselves than disappointed in God?

What if the trouble is different – what if the problem is not that one has a life without joy but that one feels joy without a life? What if all these feelings are only images dancing on the surface of a river while the water slides by underneath?

You say we must do the accounts. Very well. But what if, when all the tiny little details have been added together, your life refuses to balance? No matter how many times you check them, the figures simply don’t add up? What if the trouble with your life is not simply a miscalculation, an error – what if there really is something missing? How do we make that up, Sonia? Can we just make up a number called God and make our lives balance that way? Wouldn’t that be stealing?

But look how I’m rambling now. Just listen to me whine. Or better, pay no attention to me. What do I know? I’m only Vanya, Vanya the fool, Vanya the has-been. I am like a man who paces around a deserted house looking for a way in. Forgive me. I am trying to remember how to be kind to you. I am trying to remember how to be kind to myself. Don’t you dare believe a word I just said, Sonia. Cling to your burden because without that you are just a tramp without baggage, bound for nowhere.

Enough talk. You’re tired now, my dear, I can hear it in your voice. Go to bed. We can tally it all up in the morning. Go to bed and try not to think about today. Don’t worry about the lights – I’ll turn them off when I’m done. It’s the least I can do after all you’ve been through. Go now. Goodnight.

[she leaves]

Yes, it’s the least I can do. There’s always someone who has to do it, isn’t there? Someone who has to turn out the lights and grope his way back to his bed all alone in the darkness. It might as well be me.

July 25, 2005

World’s Worst: Is there anything you’d like to know?

Posted in Uncategorized at 8:42 am by falstaff

Have you ever had the experience of sitting in a job interview and just as you’re beginning to relax and think that things are going well, the interviewer turns to you, says “Do you have any questions for us?” then leans back in his chair and watches sadistically as you sit there, squirming like a performing seal who’s just run out of hoops to jump through. It’s as though you went to sell your soul to the Devil and he started offering you instalment plans.

What is it with these people anyway? They’re going to be doing these interviews all day – you would think they could go to the trouble of having enough questions for a lousy twenty minute interview. Did they run out or something? (Were my answers too short? Was I talking too fast?) Haven’t they ever heard of division of labour? Listen, buddy, you ask the questions around here, see?

If you’re really naive you might think of this as a ‘nice’ gesture. Like asking someone if they want a blindfold before you bring out the firing squad. Do they seriously think that I’m sitting there, thinking “All right! This is the right, non-threatening setting to ask all the questions about this place that have been bothering me!”. I mean forget about the judgements they’re going to make about you based on what you ask*. Do you really think you’ll get an honest answer – think about it – if they want to hire you they’ll lie through their teeth to get you, if they’re not interested, they’re hardly going to give you the opportunity of turning them down.

Personally I think the whole point of this question is that inside every sour-faced interviewer is an anxious young interviewee just bursting to break loose. Like my mother when she’s teaching me how to cook, these people aren’t content to just stand by and watch – they feel the need to demonstrate how good they are at it, thereby shattering any vestige of self-esteem you might have left – “See! That’s how it’s done. Wasn’t that simple? Now you try it again.”

Of course, there’s also the fact that these questions provide considerable fodder for subsequent gossip and amusement – I call this the Rumpelstiltskin effect (what a catchy name, no?) – letting people try something purely for the amusement of watching them fail spectacularly. I remember how back at the Firm** we would have all these young starry-eyed applicants asking questions about work-life balance – we would fob them off with some faff about flexibility and setting your own priorities, then laugh ourselves silly at the water-cooler afterwards (picture Macbeth’s witches after he left and you’ll get the picture)

Anyway (and this is the point of all of the above), here are:

The Ten Worst things to say when the interviewer says “Do you have any questions?”

1. “You talkin’ to me?” (“Hey you! I asked you a question. You deaf or something?”)

2. “You’re seriously thinking about hiring me?” (“Does this mean you’re okay with the fact that I have no experience and my degree is a forgery?”)

3. “Why do we exist? Is there a higher meaning to life?” (“Are you my mommy?”)

4. “Err…is it normal for planes to be flying this low around here?” (“Just how soon can I get my signing bonus?”)

5. “Are you wearing any underwear?” (“I just wanted to be sure you were properly briefed.”)

6. “What’s the difference between a job applicant and a professional spitter?” (“One gets the job and the other jets the gob.”)

7. “Do you have any special medical benefits for people with degenerative psychoses?” (“Not that there’s anything wrong with me, you understand, at least there wasn’t until those aliens came and took me away to experiment on (sob!)”)

8. “So let me get this straight – I get to handle millions of dollars of company money, and if I disappear one Monday morning, it’ll be five days before you find out that the money’s missing?” (“I just wanted to make sure. And while we’re about it, what is your policy on office supplies? Can I order whatever I want?”)

9. “Is it okay if I put my clothes back on now?” (“I really think working with you will be great exposure for me.”)

10 “So do you want the pizza or not?” (“And after all these fool questions, there’d better be one heck of a tip!”)

Notes***:

*Actually, this sort of reverse questioning involves a number of really tricky trade-offs. To begin with there’s the basic trade-off between actually asking a question (and getting the “THAT’s what you want to know?” look) or not asking a question (and ending up seeming arrogant, uninterested or just plain dumb). But there are many other trade-offs, for instance:

Compensation vs Lifestyle

Do you
a) Ask about compensation (“Assuming I make the median bonus for last year, adjusted for salary inflation, of course, and invest 40% of my post-tax income in fixed income bonds at a 5% yield, will I make more than $ 132,516.34 which is what the other job offer I have will pay me?”) and come across as a shallow prick or
b) Ask about lifestyle (“So what are work-hours like? Do you guys usually get weekends off? Will I have time to spend with my family?”) and seem like a lazy wuss who’s already thinking about taking time off.

General vs specific

Do you
a) ask something hopelessly general and generic (“So, if I join the equity trading desk, will I have to deal with, like, shares and stuff?”) thereby making it clear that you’ve never looked at the company’s website or
b) ask something incredibly detailed (“So I read the report you guys published on the Oncological biotechnology sector, I was wondering whether you thought the market will finally succumb to counter-inflationary pressure from the rapidly improving yeast supply situation in East Nicaragua, or whether, on the contrary, business in that sector will continue to boom following the recent legislation by Congress on the use of carcinogenic air freshners?”) and risk getting it wrong and making an even bigger fool of yourself (Ans: “No.”)

Big-picture vs. detail

Do you
a) ask something suitably global and abstract (“What would you say are the four great qualities that the Firm instills in each of its employees”) and risk falling asleep halfway through the answer (not to mention having them think – this guy seriously believes in this stuff?) or
b) ask about some practical, everyday thing (“So is it okay to wear a tie of any colour to office or are there specific approved Firm colours?”) and come across as a hopeless worry wart.

Starting-off vs Exit Options

Do you
a) focus on near-term profile (“Do you do some training in the first month or am I just supposed to know all of this?”) making it clear that you are completely incapable of seeing beyond your own nose or
b) talk about long-term exit options (“where do people who leave the firm typically end up?”) thus telling them that you’re already thinking about quitting.

Presumptuous or defeatist

Do you
a) assume you’re getting the job and start settling down to details (“So could I get the corner cubicle on the 22nd floor, the one with the view of the outside world if you stand on tip-toes on your chair”) or
b) give up (“So if I don’t get the job, will we ever see each other again”)

** A period in my life when I actually had a proper job, also known as “my life as a suit”

***Boy, that first note turned out really long.

July 24, 2005

Wolfgang!

Posted in Uncategorized at 5:01 pm by falstaff


Find of the day:

A 6 CD recording of Mozart’s Symphonies No. 21 to 41 by Sir Neville Mariner and the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields.

Such joy!

P.S. Don’t you think Academy of St. Martin in the Fields is just the most evocative name imaginable?

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