Appropriately Hopeful

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about hope.

Right now, as in today, I think it’s important for leaders — of anyone, anywhere — to be appropriately hopeful. The “appropriately” is what is causing the struggle for me. Whether to our kids or our colleagues, our parents or our partners, we certainly don’t need to be projecting a sense of optimism that is untethered from reality or possibility. That seems like it could only lead to harm. And to be too unhopeful, to reject what is actually possible, also feels untenable if we intend to move ourselves, and others, forward.

With that said, and in order to inform and widen the approximate for a while longer, I’m taping to the blog wall the bit of poem below. It’s from Fanny Howe –from a poem of hers that Jay Thompson once described as “snow-hushed, prayerful buzzing.” That might be the best we can do right now.

H/T to Andrew Epstein for sharing the above poem.

Interior Chinatown: Some Questions

For those teaching Interior Chinatown alongside me (or, more likely, for those considering it as a text that they might teach), below are some questions I’ve used to move us into a deeper consideration of the text.

I’ve found it necessary to slow down our reading of this text. First, it’s a quick read. It’s easy to power through the pages, especially when it is purely unfolding as screenplay. Second, and more important, its most accessible lane is the one that is funny and/or clever. While I love that lane of this book, it’s also easy to stay there, to just coast there. Hence the nature of the following questions, which ask us to dig into what, I think, makes the book special: it poignancy, its broad applicability to many kinds of struggle, its critique of the unseen forces that shape everything from our relationships to our dreams, its ability, in short, to push all kinds of readers into their own interiors.

The Questions (most of which only make sense if you have the book in your hand)

  • What is the story of Sifu (that starts on page 13)? How does his “role” affect his economic situation toward what seems to be the end of his life?  How do you think his story impacts Willis?
  • What is the story of Older Brother (that starts on page 23)? How do you think his story impacts Willis? Was his ending really “for the best?”
  • Review the scene from Black and White depicted at the start of Act II.  Identify those moments (before the break on page 38) where the show seems to be using typical cop show conventions to make satirical points. 
  • Re-read page 38 and 39.  Explain the ways that this passage attacks narrative structure itself in order to demonstrate its harmful effects.
  • What different modes of expression have we seen so far within this screenplay-novel?  Given his larger point about the danger of roles and exclusionary narrative structures (even for those with a good role or place in the narrative) why might the author choose to switch between modes with such seeming abandon?
  • What happens in the right margin on pages 6, 43, and 72? What might it mean to speak in — or write from — the margins?  
  • What trick does the Old Asian Man play on page 44? Why is it significant, in terms of the text’s metafictional aspirations?
  • Review pages 46 – 50.  Draw a comic book style rendition of the SRO. 
  • Read page 56, when the narrator’s mom tells him to “be more.”  Why is this such a significant moment?  
  • What is your version of Kung Fu Guy?  How did this particular dream get buried in your heart?  [students must answer this question]
  • At the top of page 58, the narrator writes, a little heartbreakingly, “you always seem to have just arrived and yet never seem to have actually arrived.  You’re here, supposedly, in a new land full of opportunity, but somehow have gotten trapped in a pretend version of the old country.”  Unpack this.  What is he talking about? Why is it tragic, in its way?
  • Listen to John Denver’s “Country Roads” while reading the karaoke scene on page 65 – 66.  Plumb the poignancy of this scene.  How does it echo other emerging themes in the text.  Why is it both happy and sad?  Any other emotions at play?  Name them.    

Interior Chinatown: Beginning, Again, at the Beginning

If you read my earlier post about Interior Chinatown, you know that I asked my students to do some preliminary thinking (about film, identity, etc.) before reading the first Act of the book.

As I prepped my lesson and planned my opening questions about the actual book, I realized that I had to be sure to begin at the beginning. It’s a simple concept but easy to overlook in one’s planning.

Beginning at the beginning with a book that is written in a screenplay form but calls itself a novel is, quite simply, to ask some obvious questions: What do we have here? What is this text? Where does it fit into our prior reading experiences? Also, there’s a less obvious question that underscores the above: How can we resolve this ambiguity in the right way and at the right pace so as not to reduce it too quickly into something other than itself?

I planned well, taught in the hybrid blur in which we find ourselves right now, and then the lesson was over. I realized, after the last semi-confused student had left the room and the Google Meet, that we had been so very close to understanding the most basic — and important — lesson that Yu had set before us. But we didn’t quite get there.

Why? Because we didn’t realize that the questioning posture that the text insists we assume, from its first beat, is the exact same posture that the text wants us to assume as we encounter the people, and world, around us.

As a fiction (about fiction) that wants to encourage us to see the real world differently, more equitably, with less bias, with less reliance on shortcut-stereotype thinking, Interior Chinatown’s first achievement is to dismantle categories, snap judgments, or what Daniel Kahneman called System 1 thinking. Its first achievement is to shake up all the ways we reduce people to types. Interior Chinatown wants to reinvigorate one of the most important tools we have for knowing, and ultimately caring for, one another: curiosity. Also: the bravery to bathe in ambiguity just a little bit longer, to hold it even and especially when others might try to harm it by solving it.

We shouldn’t have been trying to answer efficiently the question, what is this book? We should have been trying to celebrate the fact that the book’s very existence centers this question. We should have begun at the actual beginning . . . and stayed there long enough to actually absorb the lesson. Simple to say and complex to actually do.

In school tomorrow, we’ll try again to avoid school’s central irony: the things that school ingrains and rewards often undo our purpose for being there in the first place. Act 2 of Interior Chinatown awaits.

Interior Chinatown: An Introduction

Today I tweeted at the start of the next unit / book in my English class.

Here’s the beginning of the “will share.” It’s how I framed the text, asynchronously, for my students. This post is probably just for my English teacher readers, but you might find something useful or fun in it regardless…

Dear Satirists,

Before you crack open Interior Chinatown, I’d like you to do some preliminary exploring and thinking.  

IC is written, in part, as a screenplay.  So you should spend a few minutes reviewing this website and learning some of the basics of the screenplay form.  It’s not a beautifully designed digital space, but it does a good job of labelling the key parts of a screenplay. Jot down a few notes about what you learn.

Next, think about the purpose of screenplays and movies at large.  Generally (and I’m not talking about art house / independent movies right now) screenplays, and the movies they lead to, tell us how to think and feel about ourselves, our families, our communities, etc.  (I’m not suggesting that they tell us the right things to think and feel.)

They convey their messages through stereotypes and earn money and praise by fulfilling expected character arcs.  Think about all of those PG-13 romantic comedies we all secretly love.  The couple meets, falls in love, has a small problem, falls back in love, has a really serious-looking breakup, and then one of them runs onto an airport runway, as one often does, stops the plane, and proposes while possibly saving a puppy from danger.  It’s the same arc — every time. Only the faces change.

More seriously, movies quite often exhibit what can be called a “normalizing force” on culture.  Movies in the past have normalized male dominance, heterosexuality, homosexuality, the Holocaust, racial stereotypes, etc. etc. etc. Think about a movie you have loved in the past.  Perhaps one you have seen more than once. What did it seem to be normalizing?  Did it make its point through stereotypes?  Why did the arc of the movie feel so satisfying for you?  Was Ryan Gosling in it?  Write down an actual paragraph in your actual notes.

Once you’ve reached this point, you’re ready to open the book.  Take a look at the cover* and the Table of Contents.  What do these elements tell us about what to expect from the novel? Jot down a few notes about what you learn.

[*Blog bonus: I created a slide below that contains two different versions of the cover that I found online.]

Read Act 1 (pages 3 – 30).  As you read, start to keep track of the kinds of parts that different characters get to play, the “world of Black and White,” the use of the word “Generic” and what it seems to mean, and the various storylines and their impact on your understanding of some of the work’s bigger points about identity, race, class, and the way our imaginations / fantasies affect what we allow ourselves, others, and our communities to become or not become.

No: a house

Here are the opening lines of Meander, Spiral, Explode: Design and Pattern in Narrative.

In 1926 an Irish designer named Eileen Gray, who’d created lots of gorgeous, strange furniture but scarcely a house, began designing a shiplike villa on the south coast of France that would drive the famed architect Le Courbusier wild. Corbu had just announced that a house was “a machine to live in,” but Gray thought, No: a house is a person’s shell, a skin, and should respond to how she lives.

Yes to the resounding no . . . to being defined sometimes by the creativity and scale of our disagreements.

Email in 4 Principles and 28 (Mostly) Small Moves

A new colleague asked me a simple question recently: do you have any advice about how to keep up with all the email around here? I’ve answered this question several times before, in a variety of contexts and ways, so I figured I would write down my current best answers in an easily shareable format.

To check, refine, and extend my thinking, I consulted Reshan Richards and Eric Hudson, getting the Small Online Kindness band back together for a quick reunion tour. The results are below, attributable to all three of us.


4 Principles

  1. As with many ill posed problems, email requires a current, best strategy. Strategies may vary from user to user, but what’s important is to actually have a plan so as to avoid becoming part of someone else’s. Have a consistent set of moves that you run through every time you open your inbox.  Too many people open their email mindlessly, just diving into the fray. Often they open it when they have some time to kill . . . or because they don’t know exactly what they should do next in their day . . . or because they’re looking for some quick energy. None of these approaches make you a bad employee or person. But they are the email equivalent of clicking on Netflix when you don’t know what you want to watch. Thirty minutes later, you might still be scrolling. Sixty minutes later, you might wonder why you’re watching a show about sharks or barbecue grills. (TL/DR: Have an email strategy that allows you to open your email, each time, with an intended outcome.)  
  2. When you’re actually in your inbox, be willing to spend time in order to save time. Fire off an angry email and you’ll probably have a multi-email (and possibly multi-meeting) mess to clean up. Allow newsletter subscriptions to multiply weekly or daily in your inbox without pruning, and you’ll soon have difficulty separating email signal from email noise. Fall into the habit of reading emails without acting on them in some way and your inbox will become dangerous rapids rather than a gentle gurgling brook. (For more on this topic, see this RW non-classic.)
  3. Try to be as cool as Cal. (Cal Newport, that is.) His writing is calm, clean, thoughtful, and practical — possibly because he actually sticks to his own sane and sound rules. Here’s one of our favorites: the fixed schedule. Put your email addiction on one.
  4. Get the tech all the way right — it’s worth the up front investment of time to set up a messaging app, other than email, that centralizes internal communication and an appointment or calendar app that reduces the need to email about logistics.

28 (Mostly) Small Moves

  1. Set aside a short though sacred block of time (~30 minutes) each morning and use it to clear your inbox.
  2. If you can’t address something in email quickly at the start of your work day, leave it in your inbox but carve out the time — on your calendar — to give it attention at some other point. If you don’t carve out the time, then you won’t ultimately eliminate the email (or the thing that caused it in the first place).
  3. If a message doesn’t require a response, and you’re not postponing it to later, read it, acknowledge it (preferably not by replying all), and then archive it.
  4. If you read a message and know you will never need to recall or call up any of the information in it, trash it.
  5. If you don’t think you’ll be able to give an email attention in 24 hours (or it doesn’t need to be within 24 hours), send a note to the sender with acknowledgment of receipt and an ETA for a response.
  6. If you’re in a rush during your first email session of the day, scan your inbox and snooze as many messages as possible, with one caveat: don’t snooze recklessly. Snooze to the precise day and time when you will be in a position to respond to an email or when you will need the email. (For example, if someone sends you a meeting agenda for a meeting that will happen in 14 days, you might snooze the email until 12 or 13 days so that you can review it at a time when you will want the information to be fresh in your mind.)
  7. If someone emails you to set up a meeting, send them your appointment or Calendly link. (This assumes that you / your organization followed Principle # 4 above.)
  8. If someone emails you internally, Slack them back to try and kill the email back and forth. (This assumes that you / your organization followed Principle # 4 above.)
  9. When possible, find people in-person to close a loop (harder these days), set up a quick call, or do a video call through Slack.
  10. Monitor redundancy in emails and seek more communal communication to address FAQ’s. How might a listserv or Google group or other online forum create a shared thread where responses can be crowdsourced?
  11. Archive emails that you might need again, especially if you use an email application that has a good search feature.
  12. During off hours and on the weekends, remain email aware (this is mainly advice for senior leaders), but have a plan for which emails would merit a response (hopefully just a few) and which would not (hopefully most). You can get back to it during the work week. Also, the more you email colleagues over the weekend, the more you normalize such behavior.
  13. If you feel you must email over the weekend, and if it’s not an emergency, schedule the message to go out on Monday or Tuesday so that you don’t set off an email back and forth over the weekend. (Plus, emailing on the weekend is a good way to ruin someone’s weekend, depending on the content of your message.)
  14. Before you trash an email, consider how it arrived in your inbox.  If it arrived by subscription, take the extra time to consider unsubscribing from that subscription.  If, on the other hand, someone is emailing you without implied permission, ask them to stop or tell them that you prefer that they email you on another account. Then, give them another email address that you check less frequently.
  15. Know if you can trust the search feature in your email application.  If you can, then by all means, use it to relax your approach to email.  Read and respond or just read, then archive and search as needed. 
  16. Send short, “I’ll reply by this date” emails to buy yourself some time and also reduce the need for others to send you another email to follow-up on a previous email.
  17. Use the timed send feature (available in some email programs) to space out certain email conversations. If you bounce an email back right away, you may receive more emails. If you send back an email in a few hours or a day or two, you will allow a situation to breath and possibly resolve itself. (We sometimes wonder — what would happen to the volume of email in the world if every email was sent on a 12 or 24-hour time delay?)
  18. Don’t be the bottleneck. This tip flies in the face of the advice offered in # 17 (or, rather, suggests that you apply that advice with discretion). If you’re sitting on emails that are holding up projects of people, then you need to get out of the way by answering the emails.
  19. Remember that every email response shapes the temporal expectation between two people. If you email right away a few times, any deviation from that will be noted. If you take weeks to respond, people may question your commitment to them or to a project. In the domain of email communication, build a reputation that is not impossible to maintain and yet reflects the level of respect you intend to convey in other areas of your daily life.
  20. Use Gmail categories.
  21. Write boilerplate responses and save them in your draft folders or in a text file. When appropriate, copy and paste them into a new email and edit lightly before sending.
  22. Move people to bcc when possible. It’s a fan favorite for a reason, and it also reduces additional email clutter.
  23. Ask to be removed from threads that no longer require or need your input.
  24. Craft response-proof emails. This style of emailing is worth the extra time — up front — to prevent ongoing back and forth.
  25. If an email is a request of you, try to nail down that transaction in one exchange.
  26. Aim for inbox zero every day, but allow yourself the leeway to hit this target by the end of every week. We know that’s a laughable goal for many people, but we have found that the effort to stay in really good email shape each week pays off in a more relaxing weekend and lower stress overall.
  27. If you answer the same question again and again via email, write a blog post/doc and share the link/doc the next time someone asks.
  28. And remember the email tortoise, who won the race the way all tortoises do.

Carefully and Open to All Paths / Failed Substitutions

It’s not everyday, in the random course of one’s reading, that a quote from a Pitchfork review of Bill Callahan’s music (mentioned a few days ago on this blog) connects to an article in Journal of Contingencies and Crisis Management. Such, such were my joys.

First, from Mike Powell’s review of Bill Callahan’s new album:

If anything, Callahan often seems like he’s following his songs instead of leading them, carefully and open to all paths, the way a birder follows the call from wherever it comes. (He is a meditator, no surprise.) Even ”Ry Cooder,” a tribute to the roots-rock musician and possibly the dumbest song Callahan has written in 27 years is alive with punchlines, zig-zags, and little surprises a stricter sort of attention would miss. 

Second, from Karl E. Weick on William James:

William James is famous for this sentence: ‘If my reader can succeed in abstracting from all conceptual interpretation and lapse back into his immediate sensible life at this very moment, he will find it to be what someone has called a big, blooming buzzing, confusion, as free from contradiction in its “much-atonceness” as it is all alive and evidently there’. . . . What is less well known is that a few sentences later he makes the more crucial point that ‘The intellectual life of man consists in his substitution of a conceptual order for the perceptual order in which his experience originally comes’. We do not realize how much we ignore, but we realize it when projects are interrupted and structures break down. What we then see are failed substitutions that previously concealed ambiguity that was always there.

Source: “Ambiguity as Grasp: The Reworking of Sense,” by Karl E. Weick

Naming the Fish

We opened our school this week, and we’ve been working, daily, on debugging all the new programs that we’re running. People have to walk different paths (than usual) in the hallways, keep their classroom doors open instead of closed, and connect remote students to in-person students through miraculous though sometimes clunky technology. And that’s just in the first 15 minutes of any given day . . .

Yesterday, my lunch order got mixed up, so I missed a critical meal and spent the day feeling crankier and crankier as my blood sugar dropped. I went home, raided the fridge, and recovered. But I was still sore about the mistake.

Then my phone buzzed and I saw . . . a photo of my lunch. It was delivered, accidentally, to the wrong campus, about a mile away from mine. A colleague there, a second grade teacher, picked it up at the end of the day, took it home, took a picture of it, and fed it to her son.

The next morning, we were still laughing — over email — about the case of the missing lunch. She offered me some encouragement in the form of self deprecation: “I am taking things super slow in class . . . today, my one goal is to name our class fish.”

As I was building slides for my own class, a Satire elective for juniors and seniors, I found myself counting minutes and stacking content. “Could I fit in the Stephen Colbert video and the Twain quote . . . and the tour of the student LMS . . . while working in some written reflection time, and . . .”

I stopped and thought about the fish in my colleague’s classroom. About the collective brainpower it would take to develop a list of names, whittle it down, negotiate, compromise, agree, and heal any bruised feelings along the way. About what it might mean for a task to be essential these days.

Easy to say and explain? Yes.

Requiring complex cognitive processing? Yes.

Bolstered by collaboration? Yes.

I built this slide, with an assist from unsplash.com, and dropped it into my deck. Every ten slides. Repeat.