Treasure the Morning

What’s special about mornings? I have an answer. It’s not mornings, it’s what you do the day before.

Experience developing software

When I was developing software, I discovered that when I was stumped, the best thing I could do was to think through and write down the problem as exactly as I could rather than try to concoct a solution. I could throw away the notes, I seldom looked at them again, but after they were on paper, go home, take a nap, get a fresh cup of coffee, whatever, just change the subject for a while. Don’t think about it for a while. A solution would usually come to me.

On the other hand, wracking my brain for code never seemed to work well. I might be able to hammer out something sufficient, but it was never my best work.

Conscious versus unconscious mind

From this, I’ve concluded that my conscious mind is less capable than my unconscious. The best use of my conscious mind is to clarify problems, not create solutions. If a solution does not come freely and effortlessly, I try to clarify the challenge rather than construct a response. When I think I have the problem as completely understood as I can, I stop and wait until something pops up.

Mornings

This is why many people treasure the morning. The unconscious mind has a fresh cauldron of newly minted solutions to deliver to consciousness after a night of work. The new day’s task is to implement these solutions and gather a fresh batch of clear problems for your unconscious mind. I am surprised when I see how much better I feel and how much more I get done when I stop fretting over solutions and strive to understand problems.

Writing

In writing, I don’t try to plan what I will write. Instead, I make notes on what I am trying to say, the kind of story I am trying to tell, what my characters feel. I notice that John Steinbeck did a lot of this in his journals and Raymond Chandler did the same in his letters. At least I am in good company with this approach.

Oddly, I often lose track of this plan and frequently have to stop myself from going for a solution instead of clarity. Insisting on a solution rather than a clear problem is a trick that my stubborn self-defeating resistance plays on me all the time.

Callie Oettinger posted a “What It Takes” blog on Steven Pressfield’s site that inspired me to think this over and I posted a version of the above as a comment there.

 

A Man, a Cigar, and a Plymouth

A pear tree planted by Gottlieb Waschke.

I posted this item almost ten years ago and has been one of the most read items in the Vine Maple Studio. I edited it lightly for this repost. I should note that this story is constructed entirely from hazy memories that have passed through several hands. I would not take it as entirely historical.

 

My great grandfather, Gottlieb Waschke, like most men from the turn of the century, smoked cigars, but he was not good at driving automobiles.

He had a nickel silver match case with a cigar end clipper and an engraving of a stag on the front. My grandmother said he brought the case from Germany.

After he married off six daughters and more or less established four sons, he bought a Plymouth and drove it around some, but he never learned to drive well. A man with six married daughters was under no  compulsion to drive any better than he felt like, and the state had not gotten around to traffic laws or requiring driving licenses. In photographs, Great Grandpa resembled his contemporary fellow Prussian, Otto von Bismarck. My father remembered him as stubborn with unshakable self-confidence, even arrogance. Those traits could not have been mellowed by his success with managing family affairs.

Dad rode with Grossvater in his Plymouth a few times. He overheard the old man muttering “Recht, recht,” and “Links, links” (German for “right, right” and “left, left”) as if he were driving his German speaking team of horses, when he wanted the car to turn. Dad, who was not more than six or seven at the time, said he wanted to laugh, but did not dare.

John Schaefer, a family friend whom I have mentioned before, told me a story about my great grandfather’s driving. One sunny September Friday,when all the farmers were in Bellingham shopping, paying bills and selling things, Great Grandpa decided to drive in to town. John Schaefer saw him in his Plymouth on the corner of State (then called Elk) and Holly, a busy spot in town. In its way, as busy as any intersection anywhere. Great Grandpa was stopped waiting for traffic. When traffic started, he popped the clutch and killed the engine. Horns started honking, and one driver, probably having just left one of the taverns that were everywhere before and after 1919, shook a fist menacingly.

John Schaefer was a self-professed no-good at that time, probably just out of one of the taverns himself, was watching from a safe vantage on a bench on the sidewalk, smoking a scant teaspoon of Bull Durham tobacco wrapped in wheat straw paper. John said Gottlieb gave his harassers less attention than he paid to the manure in his barn, took a six-married-daughters stretch, and searched his pockets for a cigar, which he eventually found. With great care. he used his nickel silver match case trimmer on the end of the cigar. The crowd gathered and more drunks got word that something was up. They began to creep out onto the street as Gottlieb trimmed his cigar exactly as he liked it, stopping to test the draw and admire his work.

John began to fix himself another smoke as Gottlieb lit a match. The first match blew out in the breeze before Gottlieb got it up to his cigar. In those days, before the landfills and regrades had leveled and molded the geography, Elk street was closer to the water than it is now and John said there were a few oysters to be picked up right in town. On a tough day, you could go out on the tide flats and gather a meal, and Jake at the Waterfront Tavern would let you eat it at the bar if you could afford one of Jake’s watery and short nickel beers.

All the old settlers, Gottlieb included, learned to go to the water when food was short, to treat the sulfurous stench of the tide flats as a comfort that could be relied on in tough times. Gottlieb no doubt smelled the tide flats of Bellingham Bay and took comfort as he calmly lit his cigar and took a few fragrant puffs, feeling satisfied that September afternoon.

The horns honked and a few more fists were raised, but John Schaefer pointed out that Gottlieb Waschke was known to have four sons and six sons-in-law, three or four of whom were always ready and eager to take offense, possessed fists like stones, and had arms as hard and tough as a vine maple trunk. This thought kept the crowd in check as Gottlieb got the fire burning nicely in his cigar, started his Plymouth, and drove on.

Libraries, Personnel Costs, Automation, and Jobs

I observed at a meeting of our local library system recently that the 40,000 foot financial view of our library system is 70% of expenditures on personnel, 10% on collection (buying books), and the remaining 20% keeps the lights on, which includes computer systems, the cost of transporting books from branch to branch, office supplies, furniture maintenance, and all the other minor expenses that go with any business. I spent a few minutes researching and found that this distribution is fairly typical nationwide.

Dealing cards at Harper Reserve on the South Side

I worked in a library for the first time in about 1970, working part time on the desk at Harper Reserve in the University of Chicago library system checking out books and other documents that instructors had placed on reserve for students in their classes. In those days, record keeping was all manual. As I remember, each book had two cards in a little pocket pasted to the inside back cover. Patrons entered their name and borrower number on each card for each book they checked out. Part of the checkout process was to verify that a legible borrower number on the card matched the number on the patron’s library card. One card was filed by call number (the equivalent of author, title, and edition), the other was filed by due date. I may not remember all of this exactly, but I think we were able to determine who checked out each book, and the books due on a given date, but it was nearly impossible to provide a patron with a list of books they had checked out. If they didn’t know what they had, they would not find out until we nailed them with an overdue fine.

After a few months experience, library workers learned to handle three-by-five cards like Las Vegas black jack dealers and put a stack of cards in alphabetic or call number order without thinking about it. Does anyone besides me remember the sorting gizmos with A-Z plastic flaps?

It isn’t nostalgia

I haven’t gone into detail on these obsolete practices for nostalgia. I want to compare it to present practice. Almost all the work of the circulation desk of those days has been eliminated. Accurate alphabetization while thinking about what to say to the girl who sits across the table in Western Civ class is no longer a bankable skill. The activities that most of my cohort were hired to perform are now part of a computerized integrated library system. The checkout station scanner scoops up the bar code on the patron’s card and the bar codes on each item to be borrowed. The computer system takes it from there. In our library system today, a patron can check out a book at our “Express Library” with no human contact or touch. Only a few tasks I was paid to do at Harper Reserve in 1970 are still performed by human beings today: getting books for patrons from the shelves, re-shelving them from the return bin, and shelf-reading (checking for miss-shelved materials), all tasks that involve physically handling the books.

Integrated library systems

The system does a better job than we did in 1970. It’s faster and more accurate (the computer is never distracted by thoughts of the girl across the table in Western Civ), and the computer tells the patron which books they have checked out, when they are due, and offers them an opportunity to renew, all on a web site pleasantly decorated by a skilled graphic designer, instead of talking to a bored student who smells like wet wool.

The integrated system does it all, and does a much better job than we did in 1970. You would expect that personnel costs as a share in the budget would have shrunk significantly, since much of the work done by personnel in 1970 has been shifted to computer systems, which are funded as overhead, not personnel or content.

Library personnel today

This takes us back to the 70-10-20 split in library expenditures. I find it surprising that libraries still invest 70% of their revenues in staff. Investing in human beings is good, but I have to understand how it works for libraries. Today, we worry that digitization is eliminating jobs and making decent livelihoods a prerogative of a privileged few. I have no idea what the present equivalent of “Harper Reserve” is like at the University of Chicago today, but I do know a little about what happens today in our local public library branches.

I have not been able to find reports on the distribution of public library budgets in the 1970s, but I am willing to guess that they have stayed about the same because it simply feels the same to me. I notice that libraries today focus much more on hands on customer service as opposed to the rote work that took up time in the past. I argue that automation has freed up library workers for more productive purposes instead of eliminating jobs. Checking for legible checkout forms, shuffling cards, and poring over bins of paper slips to fish out circulation records is not good use of a human resource. Humans are better used in helping a patron find the book they need or want, by speaking to them and leading them to the resource, putting out informative displays, directing useful programs, and any number of tasks only humans can perform well.

Jobs and unemployment

Can this model be applied to other endeavors? Sometimes yes, but it’s hard for me to imagine finding a more human task in a factory for a punch press operator who has been replaced by a robot. Certainly, their are better uses for people outside of factories, but that is cold comfort for workers who have earned their living from their patience and diligence rather than special skills. Patience and diligence have always been, and still are, honorable human traits, but they are exactly what automation supplies cheaply and abundantly. Hence, they are devalued in many settings.

This, I think, is sad.