Friday, June 23, 2006

Only In America


Last weekend, I was waiting for the bus on Van Ness & Greenwich. The Sf Muni, especially on the weekend, does not come "every 15 minutes" but rather when it damn well feels like it. As I dug my heels in for a protracted faceoff with my watch, a young woman approached me, initiating this feverish exchange:

Young Woman: "Excuse me, does the bus come here?"

Me: "Allegedly."

Young Woman: "I'm sorry, do you speak English?"


Due to the NBA finals, I have been watching much more television than usual - although, to be fair, any television at all is much more than usual. One of the commercials that seems to really be making the rounds is for Cialis, an ED drug that promises to work up to four hours. At the end of the commercial, they admit that side effects may include an upset stomach, headaches, and a sore back. Seems obvious enough to me. My only question is, what happens to the guy taking it?

Friday, June 09, 2006

Kicking Ass and Faking Names

Misunderstandings, the more I think about it, really make the world go ‘round. Whether it’s the classic SNL Emily Litella routines about “presidential erections” and the like, or your typical Middle East religious riot, misunderstanding can always be counted on to add some color to life’s drab landscape. My father, a criminal attorney of some notoriety, is apt to describe a client as having been the victim of “a small misunderstanding about 70 kilos of cocaine”. Who could argue with that?

Easily among the most misunderstood of concepts is networking, a topic which, if it’s of scant interest to some of you, it might well be because of how it’s been misconstrued. Keith Ferrazzi writes in his modern classic Never Eat Alone about those unfortunate “networkers” who return from a conference bragging about all the “contacts” they’ve made – in reality, nothing more than a stack of business cards of people they met in passing. As Keith explains, these aren’t contacts, but merely a list of people you can now cold-call.

While the Internet has been widely touted for redefining the way we do things, I find it’s equally effective at allowing us to repeat old mistakes. Look on any social networking site, and you’ll find people who shamelessly amass names – call them contacts, friends, connections – until you wonder if it’s possible they’ve even met a tenth of those people. The only networking site I find professionally useful, LinkedIn, expressly discourages this type of aggrandizement, and that is why it’s (for the most part) effective. People only feel comfortable making referrals for, or requesting introduction through, people they trust. A revolutionary concept, no?

Of course, it was only a matter of time until the business card collectors invaded LinkedIn as well. LinkedIn displays the number of connections each user has, and to an extent it’s a good barometer of a person’s commitment to getting the most out of the service. Someone with one connection probably joined at the behest of a friend, forgot about it, and hasn’t gotten much value from it since. To be fair, in some professions and geographic areas, it’s not terribly useful. On the other hand, 25,000 connections suggests a separate form of indifference to the site’s goals. I get invitations to connect from these people all the time.

It’s funny when a message from someone you’ve never met begins “Since you’re a person I trust…” I end up accepting these invitations, because I’m a nice guy and I’ve learned the hard way more than once that I can’t afford to brush anyone off. But I seriously question the value of this practice when I notice that I’m connected to someone through someone I’d feel totally uncomfortable asking for an introduction. Not surprisingly, these trusted "colleagues" I’ve never met never seem to contact me again.

Perhaps to discourage blatant connection-padding, LinkedIn no longer displays the number of a user’s connections when it tops 500 – in that case there is only an icon that reads “500 +”. When I see that icon on the profile of someone I've never heard of who's just requested me, I have to wonder how many of their other "connections" are in the same boat. Frankly, I think it’s a perfect response. The connection-mongers, however, are not happy, and they’ve banded together to do something about it – namely, establishing their own wiki. Read their stirring manifesto:

Why MyLink500? LinkedIn no longer displays the number of connections for top networkers. Anyone with over 500 connections carries a notation only of "500+" connections, whether they have 501, 5,000, or 25,000 connections. This policy is an insult to top networkers who take pride in the care and development of their networks and evangelism of LinkedIn. This page is dedicated to these proud networkers.

Funny – I consider diluting the value of LinkedIn by making a mockery of its guidelines to be sort of insulting itself. I’ve never been that great at mathematical reasoning, so I’ll pose the question to you all: is an insult of an insult a compliment?

(Ironically, this nonsense is hosted by PBwiki, the co-creation of my good friend Ramit Sethi. It was Ramit who, in May of 2005, turned me on to Never Eat Alone. Thanks again, pal!)

Thursday, June 01, 2006

Forgotten But Not Gone

So, as everyone knows, I didn’t write a blame thing for the past two months. Why? The truth is, there were a lot of factors. The Final Four, incidentally, sucked. Three total blowouts. Then I was dog-sitting. Then Desert Trip 2006. Consequently, I was too happy. Then I was too sad. I was too busy. Then my schedule opened up completely and I lost all sense of urgency and time management. Ultimately, the blog became one of those old friends you’ve forgotten to call for so long you’re afraid to try again, because it will never be the same and he’ll never forgive you for your failure to care. But who does?

Apparently, at least two of you. One of whom is Guru Khalsa, who frequently bombards me with whispered exhortations to quit my job, grow my hair out, and above all, write more. Thanks, pal. The other remains anonymous and left only this comment:

gabe, it's been almost a month. please write.

Simple, poignant, direct. I wish I could do half so well. And, having felt quite the same way of late, I decided to embrace that crack I saw on someone’s Nalgene sticker about being the change you wish to see in the world. I’m back. Let’s get down with this jazz music.

Last night, I attended satsang with Adyashanti, the spiritual teacher and funnyman known in my circle as the Bliss Bunny. I dragged a few friends along, always a dicey proposition. To keep things interesting, one was raised a devout atheist, the other a devout Catholic. The air was thick and stifling in the normally comfortable Unity Church of Palo Alto, the epicenter of I’m OK/you’re OK spirituality in the South Bay, prompting Adyashanti himself to remark, “I know it’s only a concept, but could someone try to adjust the air conditioning?”

After we got over that zinger, we were treated to a fairly enlightening discourse on the ultimate dimension of being, followed by Q&A, during which, as always, people with no discernible questions to ask droned on interminably, lulling us into a stupor worthy of spontaneous awakening. Afterwards, I was asked why I’m attracted to Adyashanti’s teachings, which emphasize freedom from struggle over freedom through struggle, and urge making peace with the unknown. My first reaction was, “Well, it runs counter to everything I tend to believe and do…”, which, on its own is probably not a great rationale.

We’ve all heard some brand of nonsense about the struggle within, but I’m starting to believe it. I’ve always been at odds with my own nature, and have found my greatest rewards in doing things I don’t like to do initially. My friend Bill Stewart, who is at least six decades older than me, says that you should get up every morning and do something you don’t want to do – and, I’m guessing, merely getting up doesn’t count. I never would have thought, for instance, that a former recluse and sociopath like myself would end up in headhunting, one of the most networking-heavy of all professions. I used to be afraid to call my close friends, let alone cold-call an executive I’d never met. But a funny thing happened along the way – the connecting process stopped being painful and is now something I truly enjoy.

So, I think, the internal struggle is not a journey in itself, but one stage. Doing something you hate as a discrete task can be rewarding. Making a career of it, maybe not so much. Ask someone who knows. They’re everywhere, and there are far too many of them. For more on this unfortunate phenomenon, check out the writings of my good friend Ian. I justify my ocean swimming by claiming that the water is so cold, you feel warm as a result. It’s taken some getting used to, but the truth is, it’s also almost ten degrees warmer than it was in January when I first donned the red cap favored by the mighty South End Rowing Club, where I often enjoy a post-nautical sauna. In other words, if it sucks the entire time with no noticeable improvement, something’s wrong.

It kind of reminds me of the time my friend Suzanne took me to a Buddhist meditation service. I was poked, prodded, and admonished by the presiding monk to sit correctly, face correctly, and fold my hands correctly. At first, I was highly annoyed; later, I began to think that there might be considerable rewards in embracing rigid discipline until it no longer seems difficult. The next morning, I woke up with the worst lower backache of my life, and concluded, “Fuck that guy”, which I generally believe these days as well.

Setting aside the spiritual realm for a moment, though, I think there’s something more fundamental about the internal struggle: personal contradictions are enjoyable, and inherently humorous. Joseph Heller , for instance, constructed almost an entire book out of sentences such as “Dunbar loved shooting skeet because he hated every minute of it and the time passed so slowly.” Or consider the Facebook profile of a good friend of mine, a talented mechanical engineer and a sensitive, empathetic, and loving person, who shall remain anonymous.

nra, shooting guns, kickin it at the lake, drinking miller high life, pornography, smoking meth at the pismo dunes and kickin it there, underwater basket weaving, kickin it with the michigan militia

On second thought, as the cliché goes, it’s funny because it’s true. We’re from Carmel Valley, after all.