Thursday, February 4, 2010

Time Management

I’ve decided that my feelings of being pressed for time come from not doing the right things with the time I have.

After I play the violin, I feel satisfied and content for the rest of the evening. I wonder if I would feel that way if I played the violin early in the day every day. Maybe using time wisely is like eating nutritious food. Everybody has 24 hours per day, but sometimes, those 24 hours are more satisfying than other times. Maybe wasting time is like eating junk food. In both cases, you’re using up a resource, but it’s not satisfying your needs, and it leaves you wanting for more. Using time well is like eating nutritious foods; it satisfies you. Just like more Twinkies will never satisfy a person who really needs vitamins, more time spent checking e-mail, paying bills, worrying, griping about dirty dishes in the sink, will never satisfy a person who really needs to play their violin. After you eat your veggies, though, your cravings often subside. After I play the violin, I stop caring about the dishes. I’m too busy whistling to care about the dishes.

Ah priorities. People say that you should set priorities and do the most important things first. I think it’s true. Easier said than done. Maybe I should play the violin every day before I go to work (as long as it’s not too early in the morning). I like the idea of praying five times a day, as practicing Muslims are supposed to do. That’s five times a day that you are forced to remember what your priorities are. I am not religious, but I do like rituals.

It’s too bad when one has a feeling, for one reason or another, that what one is supposed to do and what one wants to are misaligned. Right now, for example, I want to play the violin in the hour before I go to work.

On the other hand, I feel like I should spend the time doing something that will help me progress in my writing. I’m annoyed that I spend so much time working as a cashier, plus time to commute to and from work. I think that I should spend at least that much time writing. Alas, I don’t.

And should I spend the whole time dealing with my bodily functions, ie., making lunch, eating it, and packing dinner to take to work, or should I spend money to buy my dinner at Whole Foods to save time?

I guess if you make more money in the time it would take you to make a sandwich than what it would cost you to buy a sandwich, it’s a good investment. That’s why businesspeople eat out. I’ll keep making my sandwiches for now.

I spend a lot of time worrying about how to spend my time. It’s ironic but true.

Sunday, January 31, 2010

One Man's Shirked Responsibility Is Another Man's Chance

I’ve been reading Jeanette Walls’s new book, “Half Broke Horses.” The main character, Lily Casey, doesn’t seem the Lily type at all. She’s tough. She’s the one who took on all the responsibilities that came her way: as an adolescent, she ran her family’s farm, since her dad’s disabilities kept him from doing it, and her mother, a lady, wasn’t interested in it; she rode a horse 600 miles in 28 days to go become a teacher in a one-room schoolhouse not once but twice; she went off to Chicago and made her living as a maid, attending high-school classes at night; she married a good-for-nothing man who took her money, but after beating him up and cussing him out, she gritted her teeth and moved on.

Too often in life, people who live together fail to share responsibilities or have different ideas about what the responsibilities are. The person with the highest standards ends up doing most of the work or becomes bitter with resentment at the others who should step up to help but don’t. This seems to be how it goes in my apartment of four unrelated people sharing common spaces.

My housemates are lax at dishwashing. If a housemate doesn’t wash his dishes after two days, he won’t do them after a week. It’s more trouble for me to get my housemates to do their dishes than it is for me to do them myself. If I do it, the dishes are clean, and I no longer have to feel slighted every time I go into the kitchen. If I leave the dishes, they bug me every day, and no one does them. If I ask my housemates to do their dishes, reminding them whose are whose, they’ll do them, but it makes for a tense relationship, and I end up doing the unclaimed dishes, anyway.

The most effective way to get them washed is to wash them myself. Maybe this attitude toward community dishes could extend into the wider world.

If one is going to lead a happy, productive life, one must avoid bitterness. I think that sometimes means forgiving people for their shortcomings and picking up their slack. It means paying less attention to what you think people should be doing and more attention to reality. You have to work with a world full of people who all shirk responsibilities, some people more than others. There’s enough irresponsibility in the world to turn me into an unripe persimmon of a person if I let it! Rather than complain about the way people are, it’s probably better to accept it and work around it.

There are advantages to being the one who does the work. I imagine that it makes one capable and confident in one’s abilities to take care of things. One may learn to focus on goals and stop worrying about petty things, like who does what. Eventually, if one consistently makes the best out of situations, people will start putting one in charge of situations. One becomes a leader, the money follows, and with money come more opportunities.

I say “one,” because I can’t yet say that I have done these things, and I don’t want to direct the statements at “you,” either.

Maybe living with people who shirk their responsibilities is an opportunity for me to take them on. In the end, it might turn out best.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Hope For Haiti

I. A Blessing In Disguise?

An earthquake has devastated Haiti. The capital is destroyed. [CORRECTED FROM ORIGINAL POST!] The New York Times reports the total dead as around 150,000. Haiti lost everything it had, which wasn’t much. The earthquake will force Haiti to rebuild its country and will inspire foreign countries to contribute to Haiti’s recovery. The destruction is grim. But the rebuilding, if done right, could be great.

Haiti needed help even before the earthquake. As the newspapers say, it was, and is, the poorest country in the Western hemisphere. Resources are scarce, and people are so poor that they can’t afford to buy things they need even when they are available. Many people lack clean water and pasteurized milk and die of easily preventable diseases.

Some would argue that the US had an obligation to help Haiti even before the earthquake. Some, on the other hand, would argue that before the quake, Haiti’s problems were manmade by the Haitians and that they are not the US’s responsibility. Before the quake, Haiti’s government was not working to organize society, and its economy was not productive enough to support its people.

The destruction of the earthquake has overshadowed those manmade problems. It was a natural disaster and no one’s fault. Maybe Haiti didn’t have very far to fall, so to speak, but that doesn’t matter. What matters is that Haiti has hit rock bottom.

The earthquake could be a blessing in disguise. Whereas before, Haiti had itself to blame for its corrupt government and failure to organize its society, now it can blame all its problems on nature. Countries that might not have felt responsible for Haiti’s plight before the quake now will probably be more sympathetic.

II. We Can’t Write Them Off

My sympathies are easily won. I hate to say that Haiti’s poverty and corrupt government were the fault of the Haitian people and write Haiti off my list of worries. I believe that everyone in the world is connected to everyone else by biology, by sharing a planet, and by commerce, in the most practical sense. I use products that come from all over the world, from a t-shirt sewn in Bangladesh to an Israeli red pepper. In that way, I influence the lives of people all over the world. If a person in Bangladesh is underpaid for their work in a sweatshop, and I buy a product of that sweatshop, I’m partly responsible for that person’s poverty. On the other hand, I’m also creating a job that might keep them alive. In either case, I’m connected to the Bangladeshi seamstress. I can’t say that her problems are not my problems.

Similar connections exist between me and Haiti. The US has had some hand in Haiti’s government throughout the last century, from an occupation lasting from 1915 to 1934 to the US intervention to reinstate Aristide after he was ousted in 1991. For better or for worse, the US has a relationship with Haiti, and it can’t abandon it now.

III. Trade Embargoes

A sore point in this relationship between the US and Haiti was a trade embargo of the 1990’s. In effort to pressure Aristide’s reinstatement, Clinton’s administration placed trade embargoes on Haiti that left Haitians with no market for their coffee and mangoes. Cripple the economy and leave people hungrier than before in order to force a government change intended to boost the economy and help people? This is a terrible idea.

Trade embargoes are a foolish way to try to change a country’s government. If rich countries refuse to trade with Haiti, its people will be poor. That won’t necessarily inspire them to revolt against their government and come up with a democracy. People will, instead, live in desperation. They won’t think long term. They won’t think about changing the government. They’ll just survive, or not, on luck.

If people have some international trade to give them jobs, they’ll have more money, more leisure, more hope for a better life. People given a taste of a better life might start to imagine that, were they in charge of the government, things could be better still.

IV. How can we help?

An island nation where everyone is poor cannot survive without getting some capital from somewhere else, through aid or trade. On one hand, I think the world should muster its resources to help Haiti. On the other hand, I’m not sure the Haitian government can be trusted to use the money wisely. Trade is the better option.

Trade with Haiti is a better way to help, because it is more than a hand out: it rewards Haitians for responsible behavior, productivity. The US should support Haiti’s economy by enacting the opposite of a trade embargo. We should go out of our way to buy Haitian exports, such as mangoes and coffee. Perhaps Haitians could also provide some services to companies that hire people all over the world to answer phones, enter data, transcribe recordings.

Readers, help me to round out the “how can we help?” section of this essay. And then, let’s put our ideas to work.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Three-Way Mirror

In the bathroom, I know how to make my face look the way I expect it to look.
I smile at myself in the mirror and look pretty.
In the dressing room of a store, I make the same faces
And what I see is not my usual smile but me looking puzzled from the side.

Before the bathroom mirror, I make a move and see it happen. 
In the dressing room’s three-way mirror, watching myself move is like watching someone else.
What I feel is disconnected from what I see.

It's not just like watching another person. I am not disconcerted or made nauseous or anything by other people, thank goodness.
Other people don't surprise me, no matter how they are.
But everything I do in front of that mirror surprises me. I can't control it. I can't even stay still. I fix the face in the middle mirror and--op!--there goes the figure on the side. 
It's like seeing someone else where I am supposed to be.

So this is what most people see of me all the time, I think. 
Reflected in the minds of others. 
The only time I look the way I do when I stand facing myself head-on before the mirror is when I’m standing, facing myself head-on, before the mirror.

A sense of cluelessness, of having no idea
In face of a huge, smothering idea and a world of infinite clues.
A sense that the thing not understood surrounds me from all directions, at all times, and that I'm just glimpsing it.
It won't stay still long enough for me to even look at it; it changes every time I move, every time I breathe; I can't catch it.

This skiddish reflection is only the surface of this unknown. I am on the surface of the surface of the surface of the surface of the surface...
The dressing-room mirrors are not arranged opposite each other to make their reflections go on and on,
But the hidden mirrors are exactly that way.

I leave the dressing room and leave the reflection behind.
I take the rest with me: the infinite unknown.
Yet the world stops shimmering.
I walk out of the store clothed in a new black box and getting along fine,
Content with the smidgen of knowledge, still and sure and certain, that a few people are in love with whatever they see
When they look at me. 

Friday, January 22, 2010

Campaign Finance Law Overturned

The Supreme Court ruled that corporations can spend as much as they want on behalf of candidates, overturning a previous ban on corporations directly influencing elections, as detailed in articles like this one, from the New York Times.

I am not a big-business type and care more about the rights of everyday people, about the environment, about trying to right injustices in the world, about things that can't even be measured in dollars, like music and love, than I do about businesses' rights to make inconceivable amounts of money.What are people like me going to do if big businesses start to control who is elected to represent us and then bribe and blackmail the politicians into doing their bidding? 

My first thought was that the only way for people like me to fight big businesses would be for us to start a big business of our own and make a lot of money to support our candidates.  But I suspect that, in order to make enough money to rival big businesses, we would have to start exploiting people and the environment.  And if our goal became to make a lot of money, we might start to change our ideas of what we want government to do for businesses at the expense of other priorities.  We would, in short, defeat ourselves trying to defeat our adversaries.  We would become the people we set out to rival.

There's a particular big business I'm thinking of, generally of liberal bent, whose CEO did, in fact, speak out against a social program under consideration now.  It's probably an example of what could happen if a well-meaning group of people set out to make a lot of money.

What to do?  Maybe try to live in spite of the government instead of trying to change the government. Power leads to corruption and corruption seems to be necessary to rise to power. 

Yet people don't function very well without power structures.  Groups need leaders.  Even in my apartment, I have to take charge for anything to get done.  People don't just take on responsibilities of their own accord.  The same is true of society.

How can an organized society have a government to deal with common problems without it becoming corrupt?  Is this one of those insoluble problems?  I am trying not to throw up my hands, but I am throwing up my hands.