March 10, 2017

Weekend processing.

I’ve learned an important truth about myself over the past few years: I need time to process. When I am presented with information, knowledge, tasks, or any other kind of stimulus, I need to take time to process that incoming stimulus before I can move onto whatever is next.

This week has been marked by a barrage of information, of meetings and conversations and projects, with very little opportunity for processing. It’s not just my mind that needs this time—my ability to deliver good work is dependent on this downtime—but also my body; I sleep poorly, my head hurts, I feel more sluggish when I can’t step back and just think.

And so, as I prepare for a slow, quiet, processing weekend ahead, here are some pieces I have read over the past few weeks that have resonated. After taking time to process each one, I feel they are worth sharing with all of you.

Public service anonymity is dead, long live public service anonymity, Kent Aitken

Whether it’s public servants being officially sent out to events as representatives or simply the combined portrait of their public activities, public service anonymity is good and dead. To resuscitate it, the entire contract for public service professionalism would have to be rewritten for the modern age, and very principled lines around public statements drawn and enforced. Which would have to be for both personal or professional contexts; the line between the two is disappearing. […]

If the nature of accountability is changing, we could reconsider the relationship between accountability, responsibility, authority, and expertise. Right now we hold Ministers accountable for the minutia and complexity of vast portfolios, including things for which they cannot be reasonably expected to have control or expertise. Likewise, we make public servants with subject matter expertise responsible for activities over which they have no authority. (And somehow measure their performance on that.) […]

For those who currently have a public presence, and get benefit from it: don’t lose sight of the fact that this is not an unambiguous win for government writ large. There are risks both short and long term. The public service is built out of the collective expertise and experience of public servants - but also their relationships and biases. For better and worse.

Beat Generosity Burnout, Adam Grant and Reb Rebele

Collaborative overload is pervasive in workplaces around the world, and selfless givers are its biggest victims. Employees who consistently demonstrate the motivation and ability to lend a hand get rewarded” with the bulk of requests and often find themselves drowning in meetings and emails. The result is that they are at risk of burnout or attrition, their colleagues are frustrated by a lack of access to the help they need, and other employees who could be pitching in are instead sitting idle and disengaged.

Meanwhile, our research shows that across industries the people who make the most sustainable contributions to organizations — those who offer the most direct support, take the most initiative, and make the best suggestions — protect their time so that they can work on their own goals too.

People often make the mistake of confusing generosity with selflessness. As the writer Caroline McGraw observes, We’ve been conditioned to believe that being kind means being available 24/7.” Being an effective giver isn’t about dropping everything every time for every person. It’s about making sure that the benefits of helping others outweigh the costs to you.

Who Gets to Be a Restaurant Critic?, Navneet Alang

Most food criticism is defined by a single word: should. It is almost impossible to encounter a review that doesn’t either explicitly or implicitly judge what is on a plate by a standard of what should be: whether cacio e pepe is sufficiently al dente, tonkotsu ramen broth unctuous enough, or a late-night bistro appropriately lit. This is of course true of all kinds of criticism. But food in particular tends to locate its should” in generally absolutist calls to authority, whether that is authenticity (is this how they make it?), tradition (is this how they used to make it?), or, more generously, the coherence of a chef’s vision (is this what she truly wants to make?). 

But while film critics can talk excitedly about Star Wars in the same breath they speak with reverence about Oliver Assayas, dining critics generally seem less willing to spread their critical eye quite so wide. In the actual back and forth that defines a craft and its criticism, food criticism is almost exclusively focused on either the high end, or at least the artisanal — if not the kind of restaurants that grow their own food on the roof, then the kind that celebrate simple foods, from burgers to bagels, and apply the same fastidiousness in their creation (which is often reflected in the price, too).

The obvious tension between competing versions of what should be thus emerge as questions of taste and class. When New York Times critic Pete Wells recently reviewed community-focused Locol, a storm of outrage followed — the emphasis on the quality of the food seemed misplaced in the face of the restaurant’s broader social mission. Conversely, Wells’ now famously brutal pan of Guy Fieri’s American Kitchen was cheered by similarly progressive food-watchers for that establishment’s conspicuous failure to meet standards of authenticity or quality. Wells was likely playing to his audience who, at least in their tastes, aspire to the conspicuous consumption of the well-heeled, white, chattering classes. In fact, it is precisely the aspirational nature of food media and its links to race and class that allow it to both condemn Guy Fieri’s food but also discover the chopped cheese: The latter is authentically populist, while the former is not. But it’s also possible to detect in such reviews a kind of sneering classism; a condemnation of a restaurant is also a condemnation of its patrons, after all.

The Librarian of Congress and the Greatness of Humility, Sarah Larson

Like many librarians, Hayden is a big believer in the rights of all people to educate themselves, and in the importance of open access to information online. (This inclusive spirit has become more urgent nationally in recent weeks: see Libraries Are for Everyone,” a multilingual meme and poster campaign, created by a Nebraska librarian, Rebecca McCorkindale, to counter the forces of fake news and fearmongering.) In September, Hayden gave a swearing-in speech in which she described how black Americans were once punished with lashes and worse for learning to read.” She said that, as a descendent of people who were denied the right to read, to now have the opportunity to serve and lead the institution that is our national symbol of knowledge is a historic moment.” She also talked about the Rosa Parks archive, now at the Library of Congress and available online. In a letter it contains, Parks wrote, I had been pushed around all my life and felt at this moment that I couldn’t take it anymore.” That letter, Hayden said, is now available in the classrooms of Racine, Wisconsin, in a small library on a reservation in New Mexico, and even in the library of a young girl in Baltimore, looking around as her city is in turmoil.”

In that same speech, Hayden recalled having once been a little eight-year-old girl with pigtails who checked out Bright April’”—a children’s book by Marguerite de Angeli, from 1946, and one of the first to address racism—“over and over until the fines came in.” Hayden’s childhood was shaped by two very different libraries. She was born in Tallahassee. Her father, a music professor, started the string department at Florida A. & M., a historically black university; her mother taught music and later became a social worker. She grew up in several places,” including Illinois and New York. I was fortunate to spend summers in Springfield, Illinois, with my grandparents,” she said. (“We would go on trips to New Salem, where Abe Lincoln spent most of his childhood,” she said. You see the log cabins, and then Lincoln’s home right there in Springfield.” Her relatives and Lincoln are buried in the same cemetery.) Her grandfather, a retired postal worker, was the messenger for the state-capitol complex in Springfield, and young Hayden would accompany him on his rounds: governor’s office, archives, state library. I think about it a lot now,” she said. That one of my earliest introductions to a library was actually a state library, and going into a building that was a miniature—definitely miniature!—version of a Jefferson Building.”

Her other formative library was in Jamaica, Queens, near P.S. 196. The little branch storefront library right across the street, where you’d go after school,” she said. My early experiences with libraries were all about being comfortable with being around books, being around stacks, feeling free to be around them.”

Our obsession with personal branding reveals a dark truth about the future of work, Noah Berlatsky

Visualizing oneself as a brand also makes worker solidarity more difficult, Gershon says. Brands compete with each other; they don’t come together to demand higher pay, or decent health care, or reasonable hours. When people think of themselves as brands, they are speaking the language of reputation, appearance, and marketing. It’s hard to switch from that to a discussion of moral responsibility.

I would love to see another metaphor about what work has to offer become dominant,” Gershon says. Maybe instead of thinking about people as property or businesses, we could think of people as craftsman. And that way, people in the same kind of work could see themselves as facing the same structural issues.” This tweak might allow people to focus on group organizing, rather than self-packaging.

What writers really do when they write, George Saunders

We often think that the empathetic function in fiction is accomplished via the writer’s relation to his characters, but it’s also accomplished via the writer’s relation to his reader. You make a rarefied place (rarefied in language, in form; perfected in many inarticulable beauties — the way two scenes abut; a certain formal device that self-escalates; the perfect place at which a chapter cuts off); and then welcome the reader in. She can’t believe that you believe in her that much; that you are so confident that the subtle nuances of the place will speak to her; she is flattered. And they do speak to her. This mode of revision, then, is ultimately about imagining that your reader is as humane, bright, witty, experienced and well intentioned as you, and that, to communicate intimately with her, you have to maintain the state, through revision, of generously imagining her. You revise your reader up, in your imagination, with every pass. You keep saying to yourself: No, she’s smarter than that. Don’t dishonour her with that lazy prose or that easy notion.”

And in revising your reader up, you revise yourself up too.

→ Weekend Reading