Saturday, October 24, 2009

Garbage Day

Whenever I take my trash and recycling out to the end of the driveway for the town to pick up, I feel lighter somehow when I get back to the house. That stuff is gone! The kitchen garbage, the stuff that can't be recycled, various things that I am getting rid of that can't go to Goodwill and no one else wants. All sorts of bits and pieces that came into my house one way or another are gone from my house for good. It always feels like progress.

But more and more, I am aware that that is an illusion. The stuff is just gone from here. It's not gone gone. It is somewhere. Maybe it gets incinerated, maybe they just dump it in a landfill somewhere. I've never bothered to find out. I should.

* * * * *

When I am walking or riding along a road or on a beach and see litter that people have discarded along the way, first I wonder who and why, and whether they considered, even for a second, what they were doing when they dumped the stuff there.

Then I wonder if the packaging designer gave any thought to how the package would look, lying on a beach or in the grass by the side of the road.

And then I think about this: imagine that when you die, you are suddenly confronted with all of the trash you generated in your entire lifetime. Not the trash that was generated on your behalf, just the trash that you discarded yourself. Aside from a few collectors' items (your old Barbie Dream House, for example), the stuff is garbage. And it's all yours.

Whether you dumped that six-pack of empties along the road in high school or just tossed the cans in a dumpster somewhere, it all comes back to you in the end. And so there you are, looking at a mountain of everything you ever discarded. (FWIW, recyclers might well have smaller mountains, since the stuff they recycle is reused and won't count against them in the end.)

I haven't figured out what happens next.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

About Passion, II

People who love what they do—for work or pleasure—are a joy to be around. Sure, if you're a landlubber with no interest in boats and you have to spend hours on end with someone who constantly talks about boating, eventually you'd want to run screaming from the room. But the hit you get from a conversation with someone who's totally jazzed is pretty darned wonderful.

One of the things I love about my job is how passionate the people I work with are, from the people at the highest levels of the company to the production editors I argue about commas with, the designers who fuss if something is one point (that's 1/72nd of an inch) out of alignment on a layout, and the sys admins who take care of problems of all sizes and all urgencies, every day.

The people I work with care. They care about punctuation and customer service and sales figures and marketing copy and book bindings and the food we serve at conferences and the new products we develop. I'd wager that there's nothing we do that someone in the company isn't passionate about, one way or another—someone who sees it as their mission to ensure that we do that piece of our business properly and well. (In fact, some of us are rather relentless about it, although I'd like to think that I've mellowed a bit over the years.)

Without that level of engagement, working at O'Reilly would be like working the assembly line at a cannery, all of us passively waiting for the conveyor belt to bring us the next item and the next and the one after that, rarely looking up to see what's coming toward us and never trying to get further upstream, where the decisions are made.

Instead, even after 30 years, the company still feels like a startup in many ways. From my perspective, it's all about passion. And that's what keeps me here.

Monday, October 19, 2009

An Untidy Life

Here’s the thing: whether it’s working out a knotty design problem on my computer or making a shadow box or trimming the hedge, I use up my energy on the doing. Which means that I rarely have any energy left to adequately clean up after myself. Needless to say, that does not make for a tidy life.

Sometimes I’ll bundle up whatever I’ve been working on and shove it into a drawer or pile it on my worktable, and later regret that I didn’t take the time and care to put things away properly. Or I’ll spend an hour cleaning out and reorganizing my art supplies, but then will come across something that just doesn’t fit into my scheme. If my energy engine has run out of gas, I’ll just toss that outlier in there somewhere, thus compromising my rare attempt to straighten things up.

The worktable in my studio is anything but. It’s actually a work storage table. All of my projects seem to end up there, waiting for me to take the next step. It’s a heap of stuff that ranges from little plastic animals to sand dollars, fabric, hot glue sticks, corks, and frames. I walk by the door, see the disarray and quickly glance away. I work on my dining room table instead; because it’s front and center in my house, I tend to keep it clean. When I’ve exhausted myself making boxes on the dining room table, I gather everything up and—you guessed it—dump it on my worktable upstairs.

I have friends who are total neatniks. Their houses are clutter-free, their workbenches and desks clean and organized, so that when they next go to fix a chair leg or write the next chapter in their novel, they start with a clean slate. In some ways, I envy them. I’d love to have all of my stuff properly organized and put away, with some rational system for finding it when I’m ready to work with it. On the other hand, the amount of time they spend cleaning up is time they aren’t spending making things. I'd rather make things.

Yes, yes, I know—in the long run, the neatniks are probably far more productive than I am. And they probably have fewer self-made disasters, where the pile of stuff on my worktable falls to the floor as I try to add just one more thing to the pile, or when I get hot glue all over my kitchen counter because I just had to put a piece together in the kitchen.

But their work is tighter, too. As beautiful and inspired as it may be, their process feels constrained to me, with nothing unplanned, with little or no opportunity for the happy accident. It’s like skiers who ski a slope with a plan in mind, mapping their course out before starting down, versus those of us who ski in the moment, with the attitude that we’ll handle whatever comes. Sometimes we do, sometimes we don’t, but there's always the possibility that it will be the best run we ever had.

There are times when I wish I were more like the neatniks and the planners. But mostly not. Much as I'd love to have my house and worktable orderly when I walk in the door, I love the fact that I am never really done with the doing. May it always be so.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Birthday Present

Barack Obama won the Nobel Peace Prize today. Conservatives are either aghast or dismissive: "He hasn't done anything!" That depends on what "doing" something means. He's certainly done what Mr. Bush could never do: use his intellect and diplomacy to earn the respect--albeit in some quarters, the grudging respect--of the international community. The guy is stuck with two wars, an offshore prison full of terrorism suspects, a financial/economic crisis, and political opponents who are arrogant, cynical, and absurdly petty. And he still manages to do his job with grace, humor, and good will. That really drives his detractors nuts; they just can't get to him. He's a class act. And they, by and large, are not.

Hearing about the Nobel award along with a great ride this morning on the Wolfman made for a darned nice birthday. If the Sox manage to win Game 2, that will be the icing on the cake.