The Best and the Interesting —
Two small ideas that didn’t warrant separate entries.
A few years back, I found myself in downtown Boston in need of a belt. Part of the belt I was wearing had broken, leaving a rather important aspect of the buckle in my hand, and now I was in danger of making a scene. I walked along the sidewalks on this weekday morning, belt loop hiked in right hand, and headed in the general direction of my car to drive home, when I saw some sort of men’s clothing store.
Since this was downtown in a city, it was not a chain, but an actual single-name store, with granite facade and hard-to-see interior. I walked in because surely, these people had a belt.
Five steps in, I realized this was a place where people who did Extremely Important Things went to have special suits made for them to do their Extremely Important Things in. I figured right there that the belt was probably going to cost me a lot of money, but I really did need a belt.
The old man behind the counter, the only person and staff in the store, eyed me critically as I walked up in my loud Hawaiian print shirt and jeans, obviously not one of the usual customer set. I immediately said ‘I need a belt”, like I could divest myself of any further embarassment by indicating the exact item needed to make me leave posthaste.
He motioned towards a rack about 20 feet away with belts hanging off it, and I immediately turned, skipped over to the rack, and browsed through them, looking for one that might fit me. And then I heard his flute-like voice far behind me from where he still stood:
I turned in absolute horror and fascination. Yes, in fact my exact waist size was thirty-eight!
When someone has been working at something, really working and striving to be better, they will reach this humming peak, this absolutely top shape they are capable, and people are capable of great things indeed.
While talking with Ward Christensen during my interview of him for my documentary, we got to talking about quality, and he told me the story of a hot dog vendor outside a building he was visiting in a city. He ordered a hot dog with mustard, and the guy grabbed a hot dog, slammed it into a bun, grabbed the mustard, squirted it across the hot dog and shoved the whole package at Ward, who paid for it and walked away.
He thought to himself “Wow, you would think the guy would be less slapdash about it” when Ward looked down at the hot dog and saw that the mustard was a perfect line exactly in the center of the hot dog from one side to the other. The vendor had done it so many times, that a perfect mustard squirt was like second nature.
My father was at one point the financial guy for one of the research centers of IBM, and he told me once that for quite a few years, he could be handed a spreadsheet of a project or business plan, and within a blink, he’d say “Fails in 2 years” or “Needs more capital” or any of a bunch of other evaluations that in earlier years he would have needed an evening of study to return. He said it was like looking at a painting or a car and just knowing.
This sort of skillset is absolutely undocumentable, impossible to claim, and when you see it in action it’s breathtaking. I seek out those experiences and they pop up at the most unexpected times.
While riding to work, I turned on the radio and I heard two people talking. Commenting, it sounded like. They were discussing some sort of legal issue, some sort of concern with rules. I didn’t pay much attention, but after about a minute, it started to feel weird. Something was wrong, very wrong. I didn’t know what exactly it was.
And then it hit me. The two guys were not stumbling, they were making brilliant points, they were disagreeing but not hostile, arguing but not raising voices, and hitting all the marks of top-flight educated conversation. What were they doing outside of a book? They were just perfectly talking, talking like people just do not talk, talking in a way that once you hear it you realize what dogshit passes for critical thinking in the day-to-day of our lives.
It was December of 2000. The person talking was David Boies. He was Gore’s lawyer before the Supreme Court and he was talking to the Supreme Court justices about the aspects of the law. They were being broadcast across radio without commercial interruption, so there it was, just a bunch of top-flight legal minds discussing issues. It was stunning for me. The best against the best.
My hope is, at some point in my life, I will hit such a stride, some skillset I have where the best of me just happens as a matter of course. I’m good at some stuff, bad at others, but I would love to hit some point, in a few years, where I throw out perfection as calmly as a child tosses a ball. It’s something to strive for.
When such thoughts come to me, I sometimes think that if the person I was in 1981, the 11-year old Jason who lived in Brewster, NY for a few short years, could have been transported to my home in my 30s, here in my office, and spent just an hour with me, he’d just hug me and cry and cry. It was all worth it, he’d sob, before going back to his living hell.
When I announced digitize.textfiles.com to people and showed how I had reams, absolute stacks of all these brochures, magazine cutouts, flyers and catalogs, there was a lot of attention paid to me in terms of letters and articles about how it was nutty I had all this stuff 20-25 years after the fact. It was a point of interest about how I was scanning in neat stuff and what it represented in terms of historical context.
But there were no discussions that I saw about the fundamental question: Why did you feel the need to solicit and have reams of junk mail sent to your home of nearly any type for years on end covering anything and everything you could get your hands on? I am 11, 12, 13, and I am circling literally dozens of “send me mail” offers from every single vendor in every single magazine I can get my hands on. What is up with that? Once I point it out, it starts to mirror-flip into something more concerning than fascinating.
In 1981, I was living in Brewster with my mom and brother and sister. We were living one of those two-wrong-turns-and-you’re-homeless situations, where a number of inherently bad financial situations and cost of three kids meant that we just kept skating the edge of disaster, and my mom’s strong dislike of my dad meant that she would take the alimony checks but would steadfastly refuse to point out if we were really down money-wise on a given month due to unforseen costs (clothes, car repair). At one point we were all sleeping in the same room on the top floor with a kerosene heater in the middle of the room to make up for the fact all our heat was basically shut off. It was very bad, let’s just say.
Beyond this poor home situation, I hated my school. I hated the people in it, the teachers who taught in it, and the faculty who lorded over the kids like tyrants. I have no love for Henry H. Wells Middle School or Brewster High School and I wanted to be anywhere else. My knowledge of computers made me a source of ridicule, and my intense personality led to rumors and fighting that still fills me with horror thinking about it. I still remember the bastard math teacher in charge of computers, who distrusted anyone who wasn’t fully afraid of the Apple IIs under his control. Twice in my time in the Brewster School System I was given a negative grade for class participation to ensure I would not pass the course. He was one of them.
And I can’t overstate the boredom. Having no money to buy anything, not getting along with very many people, consistently finding myself “against” random sets of students at this school, I just had nothing. I had arcade games that I could afford a dollar for occasionally, and if I was really lucky, I could buy a computer game. From the time I was 11 to when I was 14, I bought 3 computer games: Preppie, Dneiper River Line, and Scott Adams Grand Adventure: Mystery Fun House. I very simply could not afford any others and had to pirate them to play anything at all.
But so much of my time was just spent walking aimlessly along roads, walking to school, getting lost, going nowhere. That’s how kids end up in gangs, or doing drugs, or just breaking stuff. You’re just so friggin’ bored out of your mind, and you’re in your own little self-imposed prison because nobody is showing you any way out. And then you do something stupid, something horribly stupid and everyone goes “you should have known better”.
In my case, the stupid was filling out reader service cards and having reams of stuff show up at the house. These colorful pamphlets promised a cool world outside my own, full of smart and engaging people, doing wonderous things that maybe I myself could do someday. And they were an escape, and I loved these things, and I’ve kept them like some people might keep an award or a picture, because their promises became my memories.
Here, 20 years later, I’m many things, but I’m never bored. My life is filled with interesting events, unusual e-mails, historical and salary-based work, and an ever-growing set of interests and experiences. When I became a person of means, I made sure to enjoy it to the fullest, meaning for a while I was living paycheck to paycheck on a very high salary, but damn, was I happy. I got involved in all sorts of hobbies and projects in late high school, college, and to the present day. My office here is filled with pieces of lives and writing and dreams and I look around each day when I come in to do stuff and I just love it.
My e-mail box is like a candy dish: letters from people I admired as a youth, letters from folks who I’ve been asking questions of, and letters from others like myself researching history or involving ourselves in wide-ranging projects, who need my input or assistance or questions answered. Every day, it’s amazing what comes down the line at me.
The 11 year-old me, if he knew this is how it would end up, would have simply thought: So it was all worth it. And it was.
TEXTFILES.COM has now been in “business” for about 8 years. That time gets behind you, but most notably, this period of time is enough for there to be kids who my site represents an institution that has been around as long as they’ve been online. They could be on the computer at 10, and now they’re 18, ready to go to college, and they realize all the time they spent, with money or without it, browsing all these files. And they write me.
TEXTFILES.COM is many things, because it’s so huge. It has writings by professionals, adults, companies. But more importantly, it has writings by kids, teenagers, people who, like I was, are bored out of their minds, waiting for something to happen, anything, ready to go in whatever direction life tells them to, unaware that the best thing to do is fuck the starting gun and just start running. But they read the files here, written by others like themselves, and they realize the potential out in the world and next thing they know, they are running.
They find me in e-mail, at conventions, at presentations of my film projects. And they tell me how much of a difference I made to them.
I’m sure at some point that will stop being interesting.
But I don’t think it’s going to be anytime soon.
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You nailed it friend. Thank You.
That second post sure as hell deserved its own entry.
I’m in high school right now and I my outlook on teachers and students directly reflects yours.
waxy is right about the sainthood!
> When someone has been working at something, really working
> and striving to be better, they will reach this humming peak,
> this absolutely top shape they are capable, and people are
> capable of great things indeed.
I went shopping for a suit recently. The gentleman at the store, after I told him why I needed a suit in a conversation lasting no more than a minute, disappeared and came back 2 minutes later with a suit that was not only my exact size, but fit impeccably in every other respect. He told me, “that’s the suit for you. We can try some others” — which I did — “but this one will fit your body the best” — which it did, by far. I love those experiences too.
> This sort of skillset is absolutely undocumentable,
> impossible to claim, and when you see it in action it’s
This is indeed amazing, and has happend a couple of times to me as well. After years and years of being in the business, they can “size you up” in the blink of an eye. But is this, as you write, undocumentable? I’d say no.
After a couple of years of working as personal coach and therapist I seem to have picked up what my students describe as an “undocumentable skill”, i. e. often simply “knowing” about the clients’ issues seemingly before they even finish speaking the second sentence.
I’d been in the IT consultancy business before starting out my own career, and I’d been trained to gather as much data as possible about customers and projects, only to learn that it’s the gut feeling (call it intuition) after all that decides over success or failure of any given project.
Likewise, this “knowing what it’s really about” skill in professional coaching does not involve any conscious analysis or, god beware, “gathering psychological data”. The trick is to get about as proficient as an old wise woman or man (think of the orcale in Matrix 😉 ) in a short period of time which is actually quite possible to document and to learn. In fact, it’s part of the base curriculum of my students who learn to be personal coaches or psychotherapists.
Anyway, I agree that it’s in a way much more pleasant to just do the things that you do well and just do them over and over again and then, some day, feel that you, as you write, “will hit such a stride”. You will, and chances are that it already has happened but you still have to notice. ;o)
Cheers from Germany,
This post was so nice to read! It actually made a difference in my day.
Thanks for all and greetings from Brazil!
fuck the starting gun, just start running
I might just have to steal that. Great post.
LIES! This was all just an advertisement for textfiles.com!
great post, really made me do the puppy face while reading it.
Beautiful… you captured the pathos of being intelligent and a prisoner of school. Very familiar territory; I began one of the tales on my website thus:
“It began in Kentucky in the early â€˜60s: I was a ham radio operator known as WN4KSW, a skinny burr-headed prisoner of school, isolated in the cultural drought of the Midwest. I was theoretically a smart little bugger, according to test scores, yet I kept hearing that I had attitude problems and wasn’t working up to my potential. With the exception of science fairs, my academic performance was apparently disappointing to authority figures.
“Oh well. I didn’t care: I had a secret life.”
Thanks for the excellent essay, Jason…
Nice post. But I had to view source to read it, since white-on-black is terribly difficult to read. Your site would have twice the readership if you changed the color scheme.
> The vendor had done it so many times, that a perfect mustard squirt was like second nature.
It’s for this reason that I find it a pleasure to watch good bartenders. They move with a fluid grace that is never hurried, but somehow they’re able to make drinks and pull beers faster than I could ever do it.
Over time, I’ve come to predict that type of experience I’ll have at an establishment by how efficiently the bar operates. Is the bartender in a panic, or the bar laid out poorly? It will probably be a bad night. On the other hand, if the bar patron’s needs are served expediently with no wasted motion, the evening will usually turn out well.
Perhaps this shows that I spend too much time in bars. 🙂
I won’t go into the stories, but I not only agree with, but understand everything you just said. On this and many other articles.
Don’t like the white on black text? Over-ride it in your browser! In FireFox you’ll find it under Tools/Options/Content/Fonts & [sic]Colors/[sic]Colors. De-select “Allow pages to choose their own [sic]colors, instead of my selections above”, click OK twice and reload the page. Vo’la!
Re: Effortless displays of skill
There’s Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s fascinating concept of “Flow” (or as I like to call it, Flow420) at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flow_(psychology)
Re: We Don’t Need No Education.
As for being naturally intelligent and hating school, well damn.. that’s probably 99% of all kids who have ever had to attend that miserable arthritic dinosaur of an institution (‘Deschooling Society’ by Ivan Illich has many good many things to say about this – available online!)
There was one woman at school who ‘taught’ (or rather ‘imposed’) Chemistry, that me and my friends liked to call “Jabba” after the obese slug-shaped space trader. A small part of me still hopes that fat b1tch is dead *ahem* sorry.)
Just to say, I’m from a paltry little island called Endland and over here “Deliberately under-funded public education”, “Every day like Sunday” and “The standard sub-standard” are the norm.
Makes me think of tragic anti-hero Henry Rollins and his own experiences growing up in a society which treats children as fodder for the Great Machine.
Thing is – it is always we humans which (initially, at least) create these Processing machines and then become slaves and victims to them. An old, old story..
Take it easy