in Things I Love

A love letter to Japan

I can admit, now, that I didn’t love you at first sight.

I would visit you in Tokyo, once or twice a year for work. Not knowing your language was an obvious barrier between us, but it was more than that. Everything about you was so…foreign. Simply greeting someone or ordering food proved a source of frustration. I couldn’t make my way around by myself. You were inscrutable, and I longed for the familiar back home.

Over time, though, things changed. I grew to appreciate your differences, and discover your many finer points.

My feelings for you started changing as I began traveling outside of the city. I was struck by your natural beauty. On the train, I was like a schoolboy, my nose pressed up against the window. “Look at the mountains! The rivers! The pine and bamboo! The roofs on the houses! The green rice paddies everywhere!”

I was smitten, and eager to get to know you better. Just naming the places I’ve explored – from small villages to magnificent cities – gives me a thrill: Awaji, Gokayama, Hakone. Hiroshima, Kanazawa, Kobe, Kumamoto, Kyoto, Matsuyama, Miyajima, Nagasaki, the Seto Islands, Shiretoko, Takayama, Tateyama, Yakushima, Yokohama. Touring whole prefectures of Hokkaido, Kochi, and Okinawa.

I’ve grown to love your cuisine, how it’s presented and how it respects the seasons. Your fruits and vegetables, even those I’m accustomed to, taste like something else entirely. And good food is everywhere. At a rest area on the highway, I found hearty home-cooked meals. At a small gift shop in the mountains, the soup was a beautiful and delicious gift from the earth, replete with fiddleheads and mushrooms picked right there.

You’re easy to love. Everywhere I go, things are clean and work as they should. There’s a system and a process for everything, from small conveniences to things of more pressing importance.

And your people! Men and women of all ages and stations are helpful to the extreme. Refreshingly, it’s not for money. It’s because there’s a sense of respect that pervades your culture, respect that leads people to treat others well, to take good care of things, to avoid waste, and to take pride in their craft, whatever it is. I see it when the taxi driver knows where to go and greets me with white gloves and a bow as he takes my baggage. I see it as I travel, and the whole of the country’s transit system is akin to the world’s most finely-crafted precision watch.

I could go on…

I know you have your flaws. But in my eyes, they’re the imperfections expected in any precious gem. Others may not love you as I do, but love is not a contest. For the others, I hope they find feelings for a place, for her culture and her people, like the feelings I have for you.

Oh, Japan! There are at least 1,000 reasons to love you. I look forward to getting to know them all, and to discovering 1,000 more.

A love letter to Japan

When work doesn’t feel like work

For years, I’ve heard platitudes about people who love what they do. How it doesn’t feel like work. How they would pay to do it.

“How annoying,” I would think to myself.

During most of my career, we used the expression “combat pay” to capture our feeling that we earned our money because we were so often stressed and unhappy. I figured a job wasn’t meant to be fun or enjoyable, and that’s why they paid you. That’s why they call it work. 

This week, though, I saw for myself how – and why – work could feel like something else entirely.

Whistling while I work

Channeling my inner Snow White

I was on a plane heading for holiday in Japan with plenty of options for passing the time: books, movies, sleep. But instead I worked on presenter notes for slides. Even more unusual is that the notes weren’t for me, but for people I’ve never met.

It took me several hours, and as I was working on it I felt happy.

A few days later, my wife and kids were visiting friends and I was on my own for the day. I could have taken a train and visited any of a number of spots in Japan that I love.

Instead, I worked in various Kobe cafes for 6 hours, updating peer support guides. This was harder than working on presenter notes as it involved more thought and creativity, as well as uncertainty about whether the outcome would be worth it. It wasn’t fun. Yet at the end of the day, after making good progress on the guides, I felt fulfilled. Later today, I’ll be on high-speed train and I’m looking forward to working on them again.

It’s remarkable even to me. Why am I happy to spend precious holiday time doing these things?

5 reasons 

Some of the reasons will be clear to anyone who has studied motivation or read Daniel Pink’s Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us:

“We have three innate psychological needs—competence, autonomy, and relatedness. When those needs are satisfied, we’re motivated, productive, and happy. When they’re thwarted, our motivation, productivity, and happiness plummet.”

As I was working on the notes and the guides, I was tapping into these intrinsic motivators and more:

Autonomy: I was self-directed, without a boss, process, or system controlling me.

Mastery: I was actively researching and learning while trying to improve my work.

Purpose: I knew why I was doing my work – to help other people access a better career and life – and that higher purpose ennobles even mundane work.

Connectedness: Though I was working by myself, I was interacting before and afterwards with people around the world who were giving me feedback and expressing thanks.

Compassion: At first I labelled this generosity, but it feels like more than that. We may or not be wired for generosity beyond our inner social circle, but there’s plenty of evidence that compassion, or living with an other-centric viewpoint, is a key ingredient in the recipe for happiness and fulfillment.

The $$$ question

My sense is that anyone who has donated their time to a good cause can relate to my experience this week.

A question for me is how money would change things. More precisely, if there was an extrinsic motivator involved – Every WOL circle pays $10! The client is demanding it on Monday! – would it rob me of my feelings of fulfillment? Would it feel like work again?

It seems obvious that the answer is yes. But perhaps there’s another way. Perhaps you could give away most of the work and figure out ways to monetize a portion of it. Then you might be able to retain most of the feeling of joy and fulfillment, of flow, knowing that the paid portion makes all the rest possible.

What do you think? Have you seen people do this well? Are there role models to emulate?

photo (11)

Sex & words: One book and the 95 words I didn’t know

Words, like sex, can be used to commune with someone, to “share something in a very personal or spiritual way.”

They can also be used for one’s own pleasure. At their worst, they can be used to make one person feel superior at the expense of another.

This is what I was thinking as I read a book of essays titled, perhaps ironically, Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader, by Anne Fadiman.

Confessions of a Common Reader

The Joy of Sesquipedalia

One of the essays, “The Joy of Sesquipedalians,” was about the author’s fondness for words. (“Sesquipedalia” means, as I learned upon looking it up, “long words.” It’s from the latin sesquipedalis – “measuring a foot and a half.”)

The essay was about a book she had read that was written in 1920 by Carl Van Vechten. It was titled The Tiger in the House and was about, of all things, cats.

“What simultaneously most thrilled me and made me feel most like a dunce was Van Vechten’s vocabulary. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d met so many words I didn’t know. By the end of the book I’d jotted down twenty-two.”

In the rest of the essay, she quizzed friends and family about how many of those twenty-two they knew, with wide-ranging results.

The ignominy of ignorance

I pride myself on my vocabulary and yet didn’t know any of the 22 words. And I wondered: What other words in this book don’t I know? So I went back to the beginning and circled every word I couldn’t define.

Though the book is only 154 pages, I found 95 words I didn’t know, including the 22 contributed by Carl Van Vechten. On page 117 alone there were 4 words I had never seen before. Even my word processing application bristled at 20 of them, chiding me with 20 red squiggles.

I tried to take solace in knowing some words that seemed difficult:

conjugate triptych marginalia apogee corpus parsimonious festooned frisson quixotry prescient necrosis vestigial gewgaws verisimilitude perspicacity provenance pell-mell somnambulist ectomorph

But it was cold comfort. They’re vestiges from studying for standardized tests in high school. The frisson, as they say, was gone.

A special kind of love

Was the author showing off? Indulging herself? Trying to make the reader feel inferior? I don’t think so. On each page you can feel her genuine love of books and words. She was simply sharing that love the best way she knew how, in what for her was a “very personal or spiritual way.”

I was humbled, and decided to face the truth about just how good my vocabulary is (or, more to the point, isn’t). No guessing or trying to make sense of a word from the context. If I didn’t know it, I listed it, and I can already hear you saying “What? He didn’t know that?!”

Here are the 95 words I didn’t know in the order they appear in the book, including the 22 words unfamiliar to the author. (I put those in italics.) I linked to online dictionaries so you can see the definitions yourself if you like.

Do you find the use of these words thrilling or a turn-off?

How many do you know?

  1. miscegenated
  2. motets
  3. interlarding
  4. vermicule
  5. ptarmigan
  6. sesquipedalian
  7. repletion
  8. monophysite
  9. mephitic
  10. calineries
  11. diapason
  12. grimoire
  13. adapterile
  14. retromingent
  15. perllan
  16. cupellation
  17. adytum
  18. sepoy
  19. subadar
  20. paludal
  21. apozemical
  22. camorra
  23. ithyphallic
  24. alcalde
  25. aspergill
  26. agathodemon
  27. kakodemon
  28. goetic
  29. opopanax
  30. elegiac
  31. glossologically
  32. seracs
  33. pemmican
  34. hoosh
  35. prosodically
  36. trenchant
  37. unregenerate
  38. trochee
  39. soi-disant
  40. lapidary
  41. bibliolatrous
  42. palimpsests
  43. alluvium
  44. fascicles
  45. umber
  46. hotchpotch
  47. hoary
  48. hortatory
  49. distaff
  50. abjuration
  51. bibliomane
  52. tangency
  53. nonesuch
  54. bravura
  55. eidetic
  56. redolent
  57. schist
  58. defile (as a noun)
  59. slomped
  60. nimbus
  61. sanguinary
  62. lissome
  63. captious
  64. pettifogging
  65. dragées
  66. helpmeet
  67. rufous
  68. towhee
  69. descried
  70. ferrule
  71. purdah
  72. pounce box
  73. ichor
  74. spoor
  75. prolix
  76. embonpoint
  77. turpitude
  78. emendations
  79. placable
  80. moly
  81. piezo
  82. lucubrations
  83. ventail
  84. kerf
  85. villanelle
  86. blandishments
  87. excursi
  88. lubricious
  89. frontispiece
  90. salacities
  91. vulpine
  92. erysipelas
  93. lumbago
  94. catarrh
  95. declivitous

Loving What Is

I’m sitting in the park on a gorgeous day, and I see a young mother trying to restrain her 1-year old son from making his way toward the grass.

He’s happy and excited, and the mother is getting increasingly upset.

“Wait. Wait. WAIT. Wait. You’re not following directions!! Sit! Wait. Wait.”

The boy simply saw the grass and wanted to go there. But the mother couldn’t accept that.

It was a laughable scene, until I realized I was doing the same thing every day throughout the day.

“Make a right on Warren.”

We’re coming down West Street and we’re almost home. My wife makes a simple suggestion: “Make a right on Warren.” It’s a block ahead of where I normally turn.

I’m instantly annoyed, and I show it. We’ve had this conversation before. She thinks she can optimize the route based on the lights and save us a few seconds. Why does she care where I turn? Why is she always optimizing everything? She should think about something else!

It’s such a small thing, and yet I can feel my body tense up as I express my irritation. I immediately regret my reaction, but it’s too late. It seems like I’m wired to respond that way.

Loving What Is

Well, after 51 years, I may have discovered a remedy. I found it in a book recommended by my good friend Eve (note to self: always read what Eve recommends).

Loving What Is, by Byron Katie, “enables you to see what’s troubling you in an entirely different light” by having you ask yourself “four questions that can change your life.”

Loving What Is

It sounds ambitious, but it’s quite simple, and the many dialogs between the author and a wide range of individuals helps you see how to apply it.

The main premise is that suffering tends to come not from what happens but from what we think about what happens and what we think should happen. My wife’s suggestion about where to turn was simple and harmless, but it triggered a set of thoughts that made me upset.

What if I could train myself to think differently?

Doing The Work

Byron Katie refers to applying the ideas in her book as “The Work.” The first step is to complete a worksheet with judgments you’re making about someone. Here’s a common example.

My boss should appreciate me more.

I want him to give me more recognition and praise for my work.

He should be more caring.

I need him to see the big picture and not focus on small things.

I don’t want to get any more urgent emails from him about things that aren’t important.

Then, armed with four questions, you practice inquiry to dive into those judgments:

  1. Is it true?
  2. Can you absolutely know that it’s true?
  3. How do you react when you think that thought?
  4. Who would you be without the thought?

Then you turn the statements around in various ways to examine them more deeply. For example:

I should appreciate me more.

I should appreciate my boss more.

The triggers for me tend to be when I apply “should” and “need” to other people. They tend to pit me against reality and, as Byron Katie says, “you lose, but only 100% of the time.”

I’ve been practicing doing The Work for a few weeks now, and I’m noticeably calmer. My wife’s suggestion is just a suggestion. An email from the boss is just an email. I can’t know their thinking or their story. It’s my thinking and judgements that are the problem. If I embrace what is, then I change my thinking and I feel happier.

Next time, I’ll make the right turn on Warren. And I’ll smile.

Why is Italo Calvino stalking me?

I had never heard of Italo Calvino before, and now he’s everywhere.

It’s starting to make me suspicious. Why is he following me?

Photograph: Ulf Andersen/Getty Images

Photograph: Ulf Andersen/Getty Images

Our first meeting

I’m in my favorite bookstore on Bleecker Street, bookbook. It’s the one with a table outside offering engineered serendipity at a discount. Inside, asking for a book recommendation from the person behind the register can be like asking the sommelier about a wine. “I like Borges. Do you have anything like that?”

“Try this,” he said, and handed me If on a winter’s night a traveler by Italo Calvino.

At lunch

I’m heading out to meet my daughter for lunch at Buvette on Grove St. I’m late and have to pick a book to throw into my backpack. (“Always bring a book” is a rule of mine.) I consider a few options and bring the Calvino since it’s compact.

The place is crowded so we eat at the bar, and before the food comes the person next to me places a book on the counter. I do a cartoonish double-take. It’s If on a winter’s night a traveler by Italo Calvino. I notice it’s a much older edition, meaning she probably didn’t get it from the same bookstore.

I can’t help but mention the coincidence to her. Like a good New Yorker, she’s unimpressed. “I couldn’t get into it,” she says, “so I’m giving it to my friend.”

On Twitter

Now I must read the book, and I find it is indeed like Borges. “Not one novel, but ten, each with a different plot, style, ambience, and author, and each interrupted at a moment of suspense…a labyrinth of literatures, known and unknown, alive and extinct.”

A few days go by. As I scan my Twitter feed, I see Italo Calvino is there too.

Italo Calvino on Twitter

And again a few days later.

Italo Calvino on Twitter

Surely, the universe is telling me something. The next time I am at the book store, I buy two more of his books, a collection of stories titled Cosmicomics and a novel, The Baron in the Trees.

In the car

When I’m driving by myself, I usually listen to TED talks or simply try to be quiet and enjoy the drive. This time, for some reason, I switched on the radio. Selected Shorts was playing on National Public Radio, a show where they read short stories aloud in front of a live audience.

“Our first story tonight is Italo Calvino’s “The Distance of the Moon” read by Liev Schreiber.” My mouth drops. I listen to the story in full, hanging on each word. It is in the collection of stories that I just bought.

A conspiracy of attention

Perhaps it’s just a coincidence. Maybe the author is experiencing a sudden surge in popularity 30 years after his death. Or perhaps the universe is trying to introduce me to Italian fiction.

More likely, though, is that I’m simply tuned in to what has always been there. Maybe my one choice in the bookstore that day simply made me aware of things I was blind to before.

Of the eleven million data points our brains can take in at any moment, we’re conscious of only forty. But which forty? Deciding what we pay attention to can shape our entire world view. It can decide which doors are open to us and which doors we never see.