I would make a terrible police witness. If I witnessed a crime and had to testify, I would have to write the victim a profuse apology note for my crap observational skills. As I previously mentioned in an earlier blog, I need to pay a lot more attention to what's going on around me.
See, I have a tendency to live in my head. I have lengthy dialogues in there, as I suspect many people do, and sometimes, I'll even repeat those conversations out loud. In other words, I talk to myself a lot.
My husband (who has amazing powers of observation) has caught me doing this in the shower. He silently peeks through the curtain, not unlike Jack Nicholson in The Shining because he thinks he's funny (although I'm now onto him, so he can't scare me anymore), and says, "Who are you talking to?" The first time I was a bit embarrassed when he caught me, and now I don't care. "Myself! Duh! Get out!"
I mentioned in an earlier post that I was going to start reading a new book: How to Live, or A Life of Montaigne by Sarah Bakewell. Chapter 2 is called, "How to live: Pay attention." That chapter might as well have been subtitled, "Michelle Lewis, I am talking to YOU." The French Renaissance writer learned to pay attention, halfway through his life, by deciding to write about everything. "Simply describing an object on your table, or the view from your window, opens your eyes to how marvelous such ordinary things are," writes Bakewell.
So I thought, Let's give this little exercise a go. Right now. If it worked for Montaigne in a tower in a 14th-century French chateau, then it might work in a 1957 Florida bungalow.
I work from home. I spend most of my day, and frankly, my evenings, in one room. The room is called ... surprise ... a Florida room. In Britain, it would be known as a conservatory. I look at these objects in this room, and the view outside, every day, all day, but I don't LOOK -- really look -- at them. And so that is what I'm going to do. Right now. Let's take a little trip round the ordinary, shall we?
So many words for just one room! It's hardly a tower in a chateau. And I sure as hell am not Montaigne. But there are so many memories and experiences in this room that span centuries, beyond my lifetime — of people I know and people I don't. If you put all the people who have touched every object into this room together, they'd barely fit. And if I don't pay more attention, then I will miss the narratives of everyday things if I'm always inside my own head.
This may not have been all that interesting to read, because these objects belong to me, and there are many houses just like mine — thousands. Millions, perhaps. But perhaps try this exercise in one of your own rooms. See if it evokes memories that make you smile, or think.
Montaigne was right: Writing really does open one's eyes to how marvelous ordinary things are. I hope it never happens, but perhaps, I'll become a better crime-scene witness, and ultimately, be more present.
Do you remember this 1970s Crackerjack TV ad? (If you don't, then just watch it. That's why I embedded it. You're welcome.) "Whaddaya call a kid who can swing like that? You call that kid a Crackerjack."
This ad popped up repeatedly during Saturday morning cartoons when I was a kid, and jealousy would surface. I would bitterly think, "What's wrong with me? How come I'm not really good at any one thing? I'm not a Crackerjack kid." I certainly wasn't that girl in the ad: I took gymnastics, and while I managed to learn how to do an aerial, I never could master a back handspring or the uneven bars because my arms were too skinny and weak.
My grandmother would buy me Crackerjacks. I'd first dig out the prize, then pick out the peanuts, and finally crunch the caramel-coated popcorn, all the while feeling like a fraud. And just as I embedded this charming ad for you, dear reader, that stupid ad has been embedded in my subconscious my entire life. Thank you, Crackerjack, for introducing me to Imposter Syndrome.
I always envied people who knew exactly what they wanted to be when they grew up, or who were driven enough to be truly amazing at just one thing. Crackerjack's ad preceded Malcolm Gladwell's "10,000 hours of practice" theory in his book Outliers by decades (I never would have practiced like that for anything anyways), and I didn't know at the time that it might have been helpful to weigh 50 pounds and have a Romanian gymnastics coach. I just thought you were born with extraordinary talent. What I wanted to do as a kid was watch TV, play with my friends, swim, and read a whole lot. But who got to be a Crackerjack kid for reading a lot? Nobody. But you might get a certificate from the library. (Maybe that's why when I was in second grade, I decided I wanted to be a librarian. That didn't work out.)
Fast-forward to college. I love history, and make it my major. I get a teaching qualification so I have an excuse to study history. We are in a recession when I finish graduate school with a second history degree. And after working in a group home with disabled adults (I loved it but couldn't support myself on it) and very successfully holding down a night job as a drunken barfly, trying to figure out what the hell I was supposed to be doing, I got my first job in ad sales. That's what was on offer at the recruitment agency, and I grabbed it. It was a history magazine—close enough.
My resume is like a 19th-century traveling salesman's covered wagon: There's a little bit of everything in there. Writing? Check. PR? Check. Editing? Commissioning? Outreach guidance worker? (Yes, seriously.) Check. Check. Check. TV and film. Architecture. Travel. Alcohol. Business and productivity. Technology. The refugee crisis. Syria. Global warming. Cancer research. Financial inclusion. I sometimes feel like that granddad who bores the pants off everyone at a dinner party because he's got something to say about everything.
And for a very long time, I thought this hodgepodge was a weakness. I wasn't an expert in anything. But then the internet and smartphones showed up. And now we've all got to keep swimming, like sharks, or we become obsolete, at least in my field.
So where do I want to be five years from now? (Yes, someone actually asked me that in an interview. Nil points for originality. I resisted the urge to reply, "Paying the fecking mortgage, mate.") I don't know. And I have now (mostly) made peace with winging it—or at least I've learned to live with the uncertainty. I bought a copy of How to Live: A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer by Sarah Bakewell, to see what he has to say on the matter. The 16th-century French philosopher was frank, and I like frank. I'll share what I find out.
But as I said last night to my daughter's friend, who displayed her artwork, which explores her own existential crisis, at a beautiful exhibition put on by high school seniors, "I completely relate to everything you did here. It's okay to feel like this—it took me this long to figure that it's okay." She replied that she felt relieved that it wasn't just her. I hope she realizes that there are millions of us.
So, here's what I've learned so far:
My BBC iPhone notification pinged. Notre Dame was on fire. Cue nauseous feeling, like when the Glasgow College of Art caught on fire - twice. Go to Twitter, look at photos of the flames shooting out of the roof. Burst into tears when the spire falls, and sob for a half hour. Yell, "No!, No!, No!" at my phone.
I look at Slack, to see how my Fast Company colleagues in New York and San Francisco are scrambling to cover this horror with our unique angle. (I work from Florida. That's another story for another day.) Of course we need expert input, so architects/engineers/construction experts are discussed. I suggest my husband. (Hey Scott, who asked the headline question on Facebook: this is how it happened.)
Ed is a construction project manager at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg. He is also British-born and raised, having grown up in Essex, and before he went into management, he was a master plasterer. He knows how to parget. He renovated our Edwardian house in Saffron Walden. He also knew how my previous Tudor house was put together, and why the floors were slopey and what those funny carved symbols were by the wooden door frame and fireplace (answer: to ward off evil spirits). He taught me that my old walls were stuffed with horse hair for insulation.
When he and I spoke about Notre Dame, he instantly replied, "Renovations. Happens all the time." So he had a chat with Sean Captain, the writer of what turned out to be a super post. (Sean later quoted him a second time about how Paris could go forward from this tragedy, and bottom line, there's a heck of a lot of safety checks and testing to do before they even begin to plan. IMHO (and Ed's), President Macron's five-year plan is more than a bit ambitious.
So the first Fast Company story goes live, and the clever comms team at USF pick it up. That's where the fun began for Ed, and he got a taste of my world, and how quickly stories can move in media. Within hours, he had an interview scheduled with a radio station in San Francisco, the Tampa Bay Times, and the CBS TV affiliate, who came to our house and filmed him.
I gave him a crash course on being filmed (don't look at the camera; he did anyways, lol), helped him anticipate the questions journos would ask, and made ridiculous charades movements during his phone interviews to help prompt him. It was the first time our career worlds had truly collided, and it was frantic, funny, exciting and slightly stressful.
I always thought Ed and I could never work together; that we'd end up bickering. But we worked as a team, and it was a hell of a lot of fun. I'm also glad he better understands what I do; he's often said it's hard to get what I do all day on my Mac, as it's abstract, where what he builds is concrete (no pun intended).
And it just ever so slightly distracted from the pain of the fire of a beautiful building in a city I know ever so well, and sharing thoughts made us both realise that, in the big picture, this is yet another step in Notre Dame's evolution. It is not gone; it changes again. As it always have, and always will. Kind of like everything in life.