We need love (and free testing)

This was originally published on LinkedIn but is also published here for posterity.

LinkedIn is a professional place. We’re all trying to put our best face forward in hopes of seeming trustworthy, knowledgeable, and ultimately employable. But, please allow me to be a bit more human and vulnerable for just a moment. I’ll explain why at the end.

Today, I simply had enough. The news, the worry, the concern for my friends, family, and coworkers, the madness of our national leaders. It completely overwhelmed me. I was unable to work. Was I sick in the traditional sense? No. Was I able to contribute to my teams in any valuable way? No.

So, I took a sick day and my teams adjusted because they care about me in the same way I care about them, as humans first and coworkers second. It’s a fundamental level of care and concern that we all deserve from those around us.

I am privileged enough to work in an organization where this is not only possible but fully supported. Part of that is based in our value that “We are all in this together” and part of it is because I work in a mission-driven organization trying to dramatically improve the future of all human knowledge. But, every worker in our society should be able to experience this, including the migrant farm worker, the part-time single parent working retail, and anyone who trades their labor for money.

Of course, I know we don’t live in that world. But, we could. If we wanted it bad enough, we absolutely could. Would it stop the coronavirus? No. Would it help people to do what’s right for their health and the health of their community? Of course. We obviously aren’t there yet but in a few months when this crisis hopefully recedes, I’d like to see this country and this world think more deeply about how workers are treated, not just in salary or benefits or work environment but as human beings.

So, I’ll answer the question at the top about why I thought this was important to share in this frank and open way. 

First, only by talking about mental health can we ever remove its stigma and begin to make a change in the way we treat it. If you want to know my story, I’ll tell it freely in hopes that it helps you or someone you care about. Maybe along the way, some recruiter sees this and decides not to contact me. I don’t care. If you contact me because you need help, I’ll have gotten way more out of this than a recruiter form email.

Second, many (most) of the people I know can work from home comfortably because of the nature of our work and the privileges we enjoy. Trapped in my head today, this thought alone was a way for me to get outside myself and begin to approach some compassion and empathy. Now, look, I’m no saint. I’m not going to expose myself needlessly to crowds of people because I think love can stop a virus. But, if I’m sharing my thoughts with my elected officials or giving money to the people who know how to handle this situation, empathy and compassion need to be present.

This is why I wanted to share this post on LinkedIn. In some ways, this crisis has impacted our workplaces in ways many of us never thought possible. If LinkedIn is a place to discuss this part of life we call work, then this messy human side is part of it.

This public health crisis and the isolation it requires demands that we elevate our compassion and empathy. That means we need it in our work and with our neighbors. We need it for those we love and for those we’ve yet to meet. If we make it through this without embracing that mandate, we will have merely survived.

Take care of yourselves and each other.

Avoiding Amazon

I’ve been working to avoid using Amazon for the last few months. There are a few reasons for this which basically boil down to the fact that I think Amazon’s business is bad for America. They continue to use labor practices that are anti-worker. They continue to pursue profits at all costs. They defensively acquire and shut down competitors in what can only be called anti-trust. They just played two major cities into giving away billions in tax revenue for a false promise of high-paying jobs and amazing growth.

An ironic smile?

This is the kind of unbridled late-stage capitalism that I cannot stomach. It’s a scorched earth approach that cannot support or countenance. I envision a world that works in a completely different way to the world that supports, empowers, and even celebrates a business like Amazon.

The first step was to stop buying books from them. I wasn’t a big book buyer from them to begin with. I tend to buy used through ThriftBooks or Better World Books. I also borrow a lot of books from the library. The first hint that this whole challenge might be harder than it seems was when I found out that AbeBooks is owned by Amazon. So, strike that option.

It’s clear to anyone who bothers to pay attention that local bookstores have suffered mightily in the world that Amazon built. Even large competitors like Books-A-Million and Barnes and Noble are struggling to battle the overwhelming juggernaut of Amazon. Authors are generally cagey when it comes to talking about Amazon but many of them bemoan the rampant piracy and review-fueled sales marketing that lives within the Amazon ecosystem. As a lover of writing, books, and the conversations they germinate, I simply can’t ignore how Amazon has destroyed much of the book industry.

Next, I had to stop buying other things from Amazon. Things like wrenches, vitamins, shoes, and watches were all things I’d purchased through Amazon. I also bought a lot of gifts for others through the site because the shipping was easy given my Prime member status. To discourage myself from buying these things, I canceled my Prime account. That forced me to consider other options. This has been difficult because it means shopping from lots of other sites and doing more comparisons and bargain hunting. Still, if I need something immediately, I’ll buy locally. If I don’t need it immediately, I can wait more than two days.

Once I was out of the habit of buying from them, it made the Amazon Echo in our house easier to unplug. That had the benefit of also stopping our family from being spied on. We did miss some of these features like the Question of the Day that might my son and I had fun with and being able to shout for a timer while cooking in the kitchen.

Another avenue of Amazon getting my business is cloud computing. While I do work in the technology world building web applications, my employer doesn’t use any Amazon services. Unfortunately, avoiding using sites that do use Amazon web services is exceedingly difficult and would likely mean my stopping using the Internet altogether. This alone should frighten everyone into questioning what Amazon is doing on our world.

Lastly, and what brought all this to mind this evening, is that I am an avid user of Goodreads. The site is owned by Amazon. Today, I remembered that I have a lifetime paid membership to LibraryThing. I set about importing my collection when I decided to look up more about the history of LibraryThing. Turns out that back in 2006, AbeBooks bought about 40% of LibraryThing. That was before Amazon owned AbeBooks but it now means that Amazon owns almost half of LibraryThing.

This all leads me to ask if there is any book-related community site that isn’t owned, funded, or otherwise reliant on Amazon? I’d love to track my reading, organize my collection, meet other readers, read reviews, and get recommendations but I don’t want any of that to help Amazon make money.

What is the culture of your household?

I’ve been enjoying Alec Baldwin’s new interview show. I know he’s a polarizing figure and so I’ll leave that debate for another day. It also hasn’t gotten great reviews. I think some of that is because it is decidedly old-fashioned. But, this isn’t about the show, really. I want to write about a question Baldwin asked Ricky Gervais (another polarizing figure) on a recent episode.

Baldwin asked, “What was your household like as a child with regards to culture? What books, music, or TV was around?”

blogbooks

As an interview question, it’s a softball opening because it lets the interviewee paint the picture they want. It also allows for some grandstanding if one was so inclined. Still, it’s an interesting one to think about with regards to your own life and that of your children.

I grew up in a house that wasn’t necessarily awash in music or books. My parents both liked to listen to the radio when I was younger but that went away as I got older. It just wasn’t something I have much recollection of except in the car. My Mom often had the radio on while taking me to school. My Dad would sing old songs while I traveled with him for his work. It was around but not deemed all that important. It was something that sort of sat in the background or passed the time.

My Mom is an avid reader and so there were books around but I don’t remember her talking to me about them much. That might have been because I was too busy reading anything I could get my hands on. My Dad was not into books really. I don’t recall ever seeing him reading a book. Magazines, yes. But not books.

My Mom recently gave me a box filled with a lot of the books I had as a kid. It was a treasure and I’ve been thrilled to share them with my son. They sit on the shelves of his room which are filled with other books.

Any flat surface in our house is probably stacked with books. Since we moved into a smaller place, we have a storage rental filled with probably a thousand books. They used to line the walls of our previous house.

All that to say that I wonder about myself why I want music playing all the time and to have shelves on shelves of books. Many cynics have written about the person with shelves full of books they haven’t read. They treat it as some sort of facade or mask that the owner wants to present. I suppose that could be true and maybe in my darker moments, it’s true of me as well.

What I really like about sharing music or showing off books is that it helps to define who I am and more importantly who I want to be. It describes parts of me that are otherwise impossible to describe or so far outside what’s expected that they’d seem laughable if not limned by the possession of a book or knowledge of a singer’s provenance.

I’ve struggled in my life to coalesce around a central image of who I am and who I should be or who I could be. It’s been core to many of the issues I’ve faced with obsessive behavior, substance abuse, depression, and anxiety. Maybe there’s a certain dissociative side of me that sometimes loses its grip on the lifeline at the center.

Books and music help remind me on a daily basis of the things I hold true, the parts of the world I care about, and the better natures I want to discover.

If someone asks my son in 40 years what the culture was like in his house growing up, I hope he’d say something like, “We had tons of books about all kinds of things but a lot of science fiction. There was always a book to look at or a magazine to thumb through. Music was always playing. Anything from socialist reggae from the 60s to the latest pop club banger. It was all fair game.”

I know that he’ll find the bits of all of this that pluck some string inside him or maybe, like me, he’ll recognize that adding it all up into a maelstrom of input has a certain value too. I hope he doesn’t struggle in the ways I have but I do hope that he recognizes the value of surrounding yourself with the things that have meaning and whose value exist only through that meaning.

Echoes of Doom

A friend recently mentioned this essay by Charles Eisenstein. It spurred the thoughts below.

So many of my thoughts lately are coalescing around a few writers and musicians. Charles Eisenstein, Wendell Berry, Peter Oren, Various leftist/agrarian reggae artists.

There’s a theme through all this that I can’t escape. I felt it profoundly when I was in San Francisco a few weeks ago. This disconnection in a world that claims to be overly connected. If there’s anywhere to feel that feeling, you’ll find it on the streets of this techno-wizard city beset with income inequality, housing madness, and unbridled greed all in the guise of progress.

When I ran through the Presidio one morning, I jogged off the path and just stood in the midst of the giant trees there. I just needed to absorb some of that energy and dispel some of my own negative energy. Even there, I was reminded that this was an Army base and I marveled at the barracks and stables where we once guarded against intrusion by the other.

I crossed the Golden Gate Bridge and I watched a giant tanker pass under the bridge. I waved at a guy on the ship. I envied his impending journey out on the ocean. Meek in the face of nature but with an empty sky above him full of stars.

I considered what that tanker was carrying and it made me wonder how we have become so adept at the corruption of our own wellbeing. Here’s a marvel of engineering used not to further our wonder or knowledge but to schlep the effluence resulting from inflicting wounds on the land for the sole purpose of convenience.

I recently ran past the hotly contested Mountain Valley Pipeline construction that’s happening here in southwest Virginia. It’s a 30 yard wide scar across mountains, streams, the Appalachian Trail, vistas of wonder. I just stopped and stood in the middle of this destruction. It looked like a giant had taken its finger and smudged everything in its path into a broken, gray wasteland. It’s a rending of the Earth with no concern except the attempt to sate the hunger for commerce and the religion of more.

Some guy in a hardhat and hi-vis vest yelled at me to “get off his work site.” The use of the possessive there made me furious. I shuffled off and wondered what exactly it was that he thought he owned.

I can’t escape these echoes of the boundless pain we inflict on our world and ourselves. I get back to my desk and see that Apple has announced a new phone which is priced at $1,449. The world rejoices while Apple sits on billions in cash and we marvel at these kings of capitalism.