On Lessons in Loss

In the latest issue of The New Yorker, Kathryn Schulz reflects on two seasons of loss in “When Things Go Missing.” The piece has a benign beginning, dealing with losing physical objects but then moves to a gut-wrenching, emotional account of how Kathryn dealt with the loss of her father late last year.

With the benign beginning, some statistics:

Passwords, passports, umbrellas, scarves, earrings, earbuds, musical instruments, W-2s, that letter you meant to answer, the permission slip for your daughter’s field trip, the can of paint you scrupulously set aside three years ago for the touch-up job you knew you’d someday need: the range of things we lose and the readiness with which we do so are staggering. Data from one insurance-company survey suggest that the average person misplaces up to nine objects a day, which means that, by the time we turn sixty, we will have lost up to two hundred thousand things. (These figures seem preposterous until you reflect on all those times you holler up the stairs to ask your partner if she’s seen your jacket, or on how often you search the couch cushions for the pen you were just using, or on that daily almost-out-the-door flurry when you can’t find your kid’s lunchbox or your car keys.) Granted, you’ll get many of those items back, but you’ll never get back the time you wasted looking for them. In the course of your life, you’ll spend roughly six solid months looking for missing objects; here in the United States, that translates to, collectively, some fifty-four million hours spent searching a day. And there’s the associated loss of money: in the U.S. in 2011, thirty billion dollars on misplaced cell phones alone.

I loved this paragraph:

A few days before his death, having ignored every request made of him by a constant stream of medical professionals (“Mr. Schulz, can you wiggle your toes?” “Mr. Schulz, can you squeeze my hand?”), my father chose to respond to one final command: Mr. Schulz, we learned, could still stick out his tongue. His last voluntary movement, which he retained almost until the end, was the ability to kiss my mother. Whenever she leaned in close to brush his lips, he puckered up and returned the same brief, adoring gesture that I had seen all my days. In front of my sister and me, at least, it was my parents’ hello and goodbye, their “Sweet dreams” and “I’m only teasing,” their “I’m sorry” and “You’re beautiful” and “I love you”—the basic punctuation mark of their common language, the sign and seal of fifty years of happiness.

A fine lesson on grief and dealing with loss:

Like a dysfunctional form of love, which to some extent it is, grief has no boundaries; seldom this fall could I distinguish my distress over these later losses from my sadness about my father. I had maintained my composure during his memorial service, even while delivering the eulogy. But when, at the second funeral, the son of the deceased stood up to speak, I wept. Afterward, I couldn’t shake the sense that another shoe was about to drop—that at any moment I would learn that someone else close to me had died. The morning after the election, I cried again, missing my refugee father, missing the future I had thought would unfold. In its place, other kinds of losses suddenly seemed imminent: of civil rights, personal safety, financial security, the foundational American values of respect for dissent and difference, the institutions and protections of democracy.

On what losing ultimately teaches us:

No matter what goes missing, the wallet or the father, the lessons are the same. Disappearance reminds us to notice, transience to cherish, fragility to defend. Loss is a kind of external conscience, urging us to make better use of our finite days.

The whole piece is a must-read, certainly one of the best pieces of writing I have read so far in 2017.

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President Obama’s Secret to Surviving the White House Years: Books

This is a wonderful interview with President Obama, in which he explains how books have shaped his day-to-day life in The White House. The transcript is here, and the broader piece by Michiko Kakutani summarizing her conversation is here. A highlight:

Like Lincoln, Mr. Obama taught himself how to write, and for him, too, words became a way to define himself, and to communicate his ideas and ideals to the world. In fact, there is a clear, shining line connecting Lincoln and King, and President Obama. In speeches like the ones delivered in Charleston and Selma, he has followed in their footsteps, putting his mastery of language in the service of a sweeping historical vision, which, like theirs, situates our current struggles with race and injustice in a historical continuum that traces how far we’ve come and how far we have yet to go. It’s a vision of America as an unfinished project — a continuing, more-than-two-century journey to make the promises of the Declaration of Independence real for everyone — rooted both in Scripture and the possibility of redemption, and a more existential belief that we can continually remake ourselves. And it’s a vision shared by the civil rights movement, which overcame obstacle after obstacle, and persevered in the face of daunting odds.

Mr. Obama’s long view of history and the optimism (combined with a stirring reminder of the hard work required by democracy) that he articulated in his farewell speech last week are part of a hard-won faith, grounded in his reading, in his knowledge of history (and its unexpected zigs and zags), and his embrace of artists like Shakespeare who saw the human situation entire: its follies, cruelties and mad blunders, but also its resilience, decencies and acts of grace. The playwright’s tragedies, he says, have been “foundational for me in understanding how certain patterns repeat themselves and play themselves out between human beings.”

This was my favorite question and answer (especially the bolded part below):

Q: It’s what you said in your farewell address about Atticus Finch, where you said people are so isolated in their little bubbles. Fiction can leap —

Barack Obama: It bridges them. I struck up a friendship with [the novelist] Marilynne Robinson, who has become a good friend. And we’ve become sort of pen pals. I started reading her in Iowa, where “Gilead” and some of her best novels are set. And I loved her writing in part because I saw those people every day. And the interior life she was describing that connected them — the people I was shaking hands with and making speeches to — it connected them with my grandparents, who were from Kansas and ended up journeying all the way to Hawaii, but whose foundation had been set in a very similar setting.

And so I think that I found myself better able to imagine what’s going on in the lives of people throughout my presidency because of not just a specific novel but the act of reading fiction. It exercises those muscles, and I think that has been helpful.

And then there’s been the occasion where I just want to get out of my own head… Sometimes you read fiction just because you want to be someplace else.

On how books can be a solace after a tragedy:

Q: Is there some poem or any writing or author that you would turn to, say, after the mass killings in Newtown, Conn., or during the financial crisis?

Barack Obama: I think that during those periods, Lincoln’s writings, King’s writings, Gandhi’s writings, Mandela’s writings — I found those particularly helpful, because what you wanted was a sense of solidarity. During very difficult moments, this job can be very isolating. So sometimes you have to hop across history to find folks who have been similarly feeling isolated. Churchill’s a good writer. And I loved reading Teddy Roosevelt’s writing. He’s this big, outsize character.

Worth reading in entirety. You will be missed, Mr. President.

Max Levchin’s Career Advice

Max Levchin, former CTO of PayPal and currently CEO of Affirm, speaks with The New York Times about his career track in a really great interview.

On hiring candidates that are capable of great endurance:

And one thing I have found over the years is that in hiring, the dominant characteristic I select for is this sense of perseverance in really tough situations. It’s like the difference between endurance athletes and sprinters. I think it is a really good predictor for how people behave under severe stress.

Working in a start-up means there is a baseline of stress with occasional spikes. There are people who are really good at handling spikes. In fact, most people are really good at handling spikes. But normal isn’t normal. There is constant stress. And so I look for endurance athletes, in the business sense.

However, the question and answer that stood out to me by a long shot:

What career and life advice do you give to new college grads?

I tell them to take big risks, because this is the one point in your life when you have nothing to lose. You amass barnacles of good living as you get older, which makes it that much harder to make a big bet.

So I always tell people go to a start-up while you’re young. You might believe that going to a more established company to build up $100,000 in savings is your ticket to go take a big risk. It really isn’t. It just slows you down and makes you feel like you need to get to $200,000.

I think he is absolutely right. The one major regret I have is not having gone into the start-up world right out of college. I sometimes wonder if it’s too late to join if you’re in your thirties.

Hotels for Book Lovers

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The New York Times has a piece today on hotels that book lovers would enjoy visiting:

Yet when the books don’t belong to an individual, but rather to a hotel or a bar, it is not armchair psychology — it is an invitation to a chance encounter. Which book might catch your eye from the shelves at the Wine Library at the B2 Boutique Hotel & Spa in Zurich, where guests can browse some 33,000 books with a glass of white in hand? What books might be in your room in the Library Hotel in New York where each floor celebrates one of the 10 categories of the Dewey Decimal System and a reading room is open 24 hours? Which volume will be brought to your table at the Gryphon, a cafe in Savannah, Ga., where diners receive their bill tucked inside the pages of a book? Might any of these books change your trip, your mind, your life?

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Oregon has several such spots, such as the Sylvia Beach Hotel in Newport, where rooms are separated into Best Sellers, Classic and Novels, and there’s a library but no Wi-Fi or television in the rooms. There’s also the Heathman Hotel in Portland, which, with more than 2,700 books, has one of the largest autographed libraries in the world in partnership with Powell’s Books, the country’s largest independent bookstore.

I have added Gryphon and The Library Hotel on my to-visit lists. What other hotels should book lovers visit that weren’t profiled in this piece?

On Watching Arrival after the Election

I went to the theaters two weeks ago to see the movie Arrival. I was captivated by the film—in my opinion, it’s the best film of 2016. (I read Ted Chiang’s “Story of Your Life” that was the basis for the film a few years ago; I highly recommend reading the entire short story compilation). Writing in The New Yorker, Jia Tolentino echoes the beauty of this film and what you may feel as you watch it:

Chiang writes the human-alien encounters as leisurely endeavors, conducted through a looking glass, in a utilitarian tent, over the course of months. Heisserer, thankfully, puts the humans and aliens in direct communication, and adds an element of geopolitical conflict that speeds up the plot. Banks and her assigned partner, a physicist named Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), ascend deliriously through an opening in the spaceship itself, astronauts in hazmat orange floating up in zero G. The site of encounter is cavernous and lunar. The seven-legged aliens, called heptapods, have no front, no back, no faces; they move like elephant trunks, insects, anemones, angry brooms. And yet it’s wondrous, not monstrous, to meet them. Outside, the world has been plunged into fear, panic, and crisis; inside, there’s a sense of loneliness, ineffability, and strength.

Note: the full piece contains spoilers.

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(hat tip: @joshuatopolsky)

On President Trump’s First Term in Office

When it was first published, I ignored Evan Osnos’s New Yorker piece about Trump’s first term as president. Now that it is a reality, I read it with intrigue.

Some notable passages below. First, Trump’s fascination with nuclear weapons:

For many years, Trump has expressed curiosity about nuclear weapons. In 1984, still in his thirties, he told the Washington Post that he wanted to negotiate nuclear treaties with the Soviets. “It would take an hour and a half to learn everything there is to learn about missiles,” he said. “I think I know most of it anyway.” According to Bruce G. Blair, a research scholar at the Program on Science and Global Security, at Princeton, Trump encountered a U.S. nuclear-arms negotiator at a reception in 1990 and offered advice on how to cut a “terrific” deal with a Soviet counterpart. Trump told him to arrive late, stand over the Soviet negotiator, stick his finger in his chest, and say, “Fuck you!” Recently, a former Republican White House official whom Trump has called on for his insights told me, “Honestly, the problem with Donald is he doesn’t know what he doesn’t know.”

Shortly after taking the oath of office, Trump would be assigned a military aide who carries the forty-five-pound aluminum-and-leather briefcase that holds “a manual for conducting nuclear war,” according to Dan Zak, the author of “Almighty,” a new book on nuclear weapons. The briefcase, known in the White House as “the football,” contains menus of foreign targets: cities, arsenals, critical infrastructure. To launch an attack, Trump would first verify his identity to a commander in the Pentagon’s war room, by referring to codes on a one-of-a-kind I.D. card, known as “the biscuit.”

On checks and balances working in the system:

Some of Trump’s promises would be impossible to fulfill without the consent of Congress or the courts; namely, repealing Obamacare, cutting taxes, and opening up “our libel laws” that protect reporters, so that “we can sue them and win lots of money.” (In reality, there are no federal libel laws.) Even if Republicans retain control of Congress, they are unlikely to have the sixty votes in the Senate required to overcome a Democratic filibuster. 

However, Trump could achieve many objectives on his own. A President has the unilateral authority to renegotiate a nuclear deal with Iran, to order a ban on Muslims, and to direct the Justice Department to give priority to certain offenses, with an eye to specific targets. During the campaign, he has accused Amazon of “getting away with murder tax-wise,” and vowed, if he wins, “Oh, do they have problems.”

How would Trump handle China?

Shen Dingli, an influential foreign-policy scholar at Fudan University, in Shanghai, told me that Chinese officials would be concerned about Trump’s unpredictability but, he thinks, have concluded that, ultimately, he is a novice who makes hollow threats and would be easy to handle. They would worry about the policies of a President Hillary Clinton, who, as Secretary of State, oversaw Obama’s “pivot” to Asia, intended to balance China’s expansion. “She is more predictable and probably tough,” Shen said. “Human rights, pivoting—China hates both.”

Other considerations in the piece are The Great Wall, illegal immigration, and Trump’s belief that he could renegotiate the national debt. Worth the read.

Bill Murray, Brooklyn Bartender

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This New York Times story of Bill Murray serving as a bartender for a soon-to-open Brooklyn bar is fantastic:

At 8:05, Bill Murray stepped in at last. The place lit up with smartphone flashes as he moved toward the bar. Those not occupied with capturing his likeness for their Instagram accounts gave him a round of applause.

His first order of business was to grab a bottle of Slovenia Vodka from behind the bar. He twisted off the square black cap, poured a shot into it, drank it and placed the cap on his head to big cheers. Then he got to work.

People who shouted the names of complicated cocktails got nowhere fast. But when someone said, “Mezcal, rocks,” the guest bartender served it up chop chop. Mr. Murray was equally quick with tequila shots, for himself and for anyone who asked.

The co-owner of the bar is Bill Murray’s son, Homer. Homer described his father’s bartending skills:

He just kind of pours Slovenia Vodka into people’s glasses when they look thirsty. He’s about efficiency. Turn-and-burn.

I would agree with this assessment:

A mixologist simply knows how to mix drinks…A bartender knows how to run a bar: interact with guests, have fun, have conversations with them. Bill is a bartender.

The whole story reads like a script from one of Bill Murray’s movies (most notably, perhaps, Lost in Translation).