Ars Gratia Artis

art for art's sake

My father called this week to ask why I’m not spending every minute of every day pursuing job leads, sending out résumés and going on interviews.  He expressed concern that a fiftysomething middle manager could become unemployable and impoverished if he stays out of the workforce too long.  I could tell that he was following up on my mother’s call of last week (she was of the opinion that my ambivalence toward writing job applications must indicate that I am depressed over having been recently laid off).

This doesn’t take into account the fact that I knew about the layoff two months in advance and that I’ve applied for more than 25 positions to no avail.  That I am not applying for dozens of jobs right now appears to be the issue.

“You have to have somewhere to go in the morning,” was my father’s advice.  I responded that it’s also nice not to have to go anywhere in the morning.  I omitted mention of the fact that he has been retired for twenty years and doesn’t have to go anywhere to go in the morning other than outside to mow the lawn or into town to a doctor appointment or the grocery store.  I also thought it circumspect to skip the part about how the only thing this night owl wants to see in the morning is the back of his eyelids.

Dad pointed out that there is a difference between not working because you’ve been thrust out of the workforce due to the economy and not working because you’ve decided to retire and have a nice pension from the state retirement system.

It’s not as if I haven’t thought long and hard about whether to keep working or to throw in the towel.  I tried to explain that I’ve had enough of the cubicle life and that I would like to work in a results-oriented environment in which I can exercise my nighttime creativity rather than being stuck in the 9-to-5 routine.  I fear I was not very successful in my efforts to relate how much I love blogging every day and, hopefully, finally finishing the last part of my memoirs.

“And what will you do then?” he asked.  I offered that I hope to market my manuscript around and hopefully attract the attention of a publisher who can afford me the services of a professional editor.  I’m realistic, I told him; I don’t expect to earn a penny from this endeavor, although I won’t be self-publishing the book either.  Why, then, would I waste my time?  Good question.  My answer:  To satisfy myself that I can do it.

This got me to thinking about how, along with my fellow writers, I am a member of a society of professionals who work without compensation.  In a capitalist economy, this sounds crazy.  Who would work for free?  Plenty of us, apparently.

In a recent New York Times opinion piece (“Slaves of the Internet, Unite!,” Oct. 26, 2013), author Tim Kreider observes that those who wouldn’t think of giving away a haircut or a can of soda for free think nothing of asking writers to compose work for publication for no pay.  The applicable currency, the theory goes, is not money, but “exposure.”  In other words, no compensation is really needed because the public gets to see what great writers we are so that they can ask us to write more stories, poems and articles for free.

The whole idea of us creative types pouring out our blood, sweat and tears for love (not money) struck a chord.  Kreider’s article took me back to my “volunteer” work for America Online in 1995, 1996 and 1997.  I worked as a message board monitor, a content provider, a leader of virtual “tours” through AOL’s Entertainment Channel and a “love doctor” (facilitator in a love, sex and relationships chat room called The Hot Bed).

I’ve heard anecdotally that several of my fellow chat hosts and content providers have unsuccessfully attempted to sue AOL for back wages.  I am told that AOL’s legal people took the position that all of us willingly and eagerly volunteered our time in order to be a part of the excitement of the early days of the Internet.

I believe it is true that we agreed to work for free, but not necessarily for the “coolness” factor. Like myself, many of us were addicted to the friendships and connections we had made online back in the days before Internet access was essentially free. 

In the mid-nineties, AOL was behind a firewall and the charge to use its services was three dollars per hour.  Quite a few of the volunteers were students, unemployed or just too poor to be able to pay the huge bills that we tended to rack up.  I recall working 20 hours per week as a combination desktop publisher and technical writer for a tiny Silicon Valley startup, getting paid ten dollars an hour, crashing with my sister and sending almost all of my paycheck to AOL.  I just had to get my chat fix at any cost.  See?  Addicted.

When I ended up unemployed and broke, I found out a way I could stay online.  Those who were willing to perform tasks such as hosting chat rooms and message boards would be “compensated” by being credited with an hour of online time for every hour worked.  In some of AOL’s channels, it was possible to earn two or even three hours of online time for each hour worked.

And then there was Nirvana, the Holy Grail, the mysterious “overhead account” that was only whispered about and was rumored to be a myth.  It wasn’t a myth, however.  Some of us managed to cadge content wrangling volunteer positions that required many, many hours of research and HTML coding, compensated by an entirely free AOL account.  For addicts like myself, it was the ideal situation.  As long as I got my work done, I could spend all day and all night online.  Which I frequently did.  I wouldn’t sleep until I collapsed in my chair.  To buy food, I borrowed money from family and friends.  I freeloaded, I mooched.  I moved from California to Connecticut and back to California again.  Anything to avoid working so I could be online all the time.

I loved hosting the chat room, particularly on Saturday nights when the place would be rockin’ and rollin’. This was a double-sized chat room that held 46 rather than the usual 23.  There were always a few “snerts” in attendance, kids who had no interest in taking part in the conversation and would repeatedly violate the no polling/no scrolling/no profanity rules.  We had macros, pre-typed scripts, that could be sent into the chat room at the touch of a button to warn these miscreants that they risked being tossed out by the higher-ups.  For most of the chatters, however, it was one big party and I was the emcee.  I would have thought-inducing questions prepared ahead of time; if I received responses, I would type follow-up questions.  I would do my best to recognize participants by addressing them by their screen names.  As the text scrolled down the screen, it was my responsibility to try to keep up with all the threads of the chat and to make additional comments to provoke the expression of a variety of opinions.  It was a heady experience, quite the thrill.  And I did it all, if not for free, than at least for the free account.

At one point, my “supervisor” asked me to conduct a seminar to let my fellow chat hosts in on the secrets of my success.  That was when I finally put my foot down and demanded compensation.  Of course, AOL was unwilling to pay actual money, and so I stood my ground and took a pass.

These days, I can’t help feeling that I am falling into a similar pattern by blogging in this forum.  None of my fellow WordPress bloggers are paid a penny; we do what we do as a labor of love.  As the old saying goes, “writers write.”  The instant publishing tools that WordPress makes available to us at no charge enable writers to gain, as Kreider terms it, “exposure.”  I love the Times graphic attached to his article, a bank deposit slip that lists, in part, “1,530 page views, good karma, 872 likes, 490 comments, 2 days notoriety… Total: $0.00.”  He points out that, despite all the feel-good vibes, a writer cannot eat and pay the rent on this.  He cites the old joke headline “Artist Dies of Exposure.”

Kreider proposes that writers could remedy this situation if we’d only stop giving away the fruits of our labors for free.  “Not getting paid for things in your 20s in glumly expected, even sort of cool,” writes Kreider, while “not getting paid in your 40s, when your back is starting to hurt and you are still sleeping on a futon, [is] considerably less so.  Let’s call the first 20 years of my career a gift.  Now I am 46, and would like a bed.”

Being a considerable number of years past the age of 46, I can certainly appreciate Kreider’s perspective.  He rails against a public that, by expecting us to work for free, relays the opinion that “our vocation is worthless.”

Clearly, Kreider doesn’t believe that our vocation is worthless.  And this is where he and I part company.  Say what you will about the virtue of the starving artist, the fact remains that, in a free market economy, things are worth exactly what people will pay for them.  In that respect, my work and that of most of my fellow writers is indeed worthless.

But that’s okay.  Just as in my days as a chat host, I do what I do because I enjoy the process and take pride in the product.  More than likely, Kreider would argue that I can’t have very much pride in my work if I am willing to forego compensation and simply give it away.

I respectfully disagree.  I blog for the same reason that I spend time with my little grandniece:  Both pursuits light up my life.  They make me smile, and hopefully they make you smile, too.

Ars gratia artis, baby.

NaBloPoMo November 2013

On Rules and Blogging

On our way to my job interview in Riverside last week, we found ourselves stuck in Los Angeles’ legendary bumper-to-bumper rush hour traffic.  As we crept our way through East L.A. on Highway 60, we noticed an Outback Steakhouse and decided to stop for dinner.  Our thought was that perhaps the traffic would clear after an hour or so.

Why Outback?  We had a gift certificate.

Although I truly believe in the saying that “meat is misery” and the smell of animal flesh cooking makes my stomach turn, even vegetarians can get by at a famous steakhouse chain restaurant, at least if you’re willing to content yourself with bread, salad and a plain baked potato.

I noticed that the servers had left a stack of coasters on our table bearing one of Outback’s mottoes:  “No rules, just right!”  This got me to thinking a little bit about the nature of rules.

Rules may be imposed to place a certain amount of structure on operations so that everyone knows what to expect, but they can also be used as means to brutally enforce the will of a despot.  Free spirits and those who feel like rats trapped in a maze may despise rules and may rebel by flouting and perverting them at every turn.  This appears to be the zeitgeist into which Outback is tapping:  When you walk through our doors, you are free to do your own thing, man!  Woohoo!

And yet, we know that some level of rulemaking and rule enforcement is necessary to the success of any collaborative effort, including that of living together in what we refer to as “society.”  Our laws are a set of rules; free will dictates that those subject to said laws may choose to abide by them or to ignore them and face the consequences.  One of the goals of our criminal law rules, for example, is to prevent others from committing violence against us (and to remove the violent from society, thereby preventing the perpetration of further harm against the populace).

Rules are an important part of “how the world works,” which is why they are taught to schoolchildren.  We have adopted the convention that 2 + 2 = 4 to avoid Babel, i.e., so that all of us are on the same page and able to communicate in the same “language.”  Many hands may make light work, but collaborative effort becomes impossible when the group is unable to agree on baseline standards.  And when we join a new group, our first task is always to discover the rules and norms that must be followed in order to be accepted as a member.

It has been said that both children and adults crave a certain amount of structure (rules) and look to others to impose it.  I would venture to say that a total absence of rules would create an intolerable level of chaos in most of our lives.

Still, it seems that many of us feel oppressed by too many rules and dream of casting off the shackles thereof:  No rules, just right!  People claim to prefer doing what they choose to do rather than what they have to do.

I thought about rules again while reading Scott Berkun’s new book, The Year Without Pants (see yesterday’s post for a more extensive discussion).  In his description of the new user experience on wordpress.com, Berkun states, to my shock, that most users starting a WordPress blog never put up a single post.  I was perplexed.  Now why would anyone bother to set up a WordPress account if they didn’t plan to post anything?

My guess is that planning has nothing to do with it.  Berkun posits that customers may be led to WordPress because someone told them “you should have a blog.”  Presumably, such conversation came about based on some interesting life experience or based on some topic on which the would-be user has demonstrated some level of expertise.  In other words, something that others would want to read about.

Berkun states that the ideal path for the WordPress blogger would be to get an idea, write about it, publish it and “be happy” (get tons of likes, follows, comments, be Freshly Pressed and live happily ever after in the company of fairies, rainbows and unicorns, tra-la).  Instead, Berkun tells us, many would-be bloggers abandon their blogs either immediately upon signing up for them, or after failing to come up with an idea that they deem worthy of sharing with the world, or after writing a draft of a nascent post and rejecting it as not good enough.  In other words, too many bloggers never hit that Publish button either because they are too lazy to put in the thought and effort necessary to compose a blog post, or because they don’t believe in themselves enough to expose themselves to the potential ridicule of the big, bad blogosphere, or because they aren’t satisfied with their initial efforts and would just as soon blow it off and play another game of Temple Run or Words with Friends.  In some cases, perhaps potential bloggers are subconsciously influenced by the puritanical admonition “don’t start something you’re not going to finish.”  And, of course, a blog is never finished.  It is always a work in progress.  This is the song that never ends, it just goes on and on, my friend, la la la.

Besides, it’s boring and hard to have to think of something new to say all the time.  Even those who publish interesting posts often abandon their blogs after a while.  It’s a lot of work and, well, there are other things in life that demand our attention.

Or maybe there are just not enough rules.

In a “No rules, just right!” environment, there is little incentive to take time to learn about the venture on which you are about to embark.  I’ll just do whatever I want to do, and that may well be nothing.  If it’s free and I don’t have to worry about getting my money’s worth, and if I am automatically (Automattically?) accepted into the group without having to worry about conforming to pesky norms to avoid getting kicked out, well then, by golly, I haven’t invested a thing so why should I care?  Oh, and I forgot to call Aunt Mabel (or I have math homework or I need to switch the laundry).  As the AOL signoff says, “Good-bye!”

Let me tell you a bit about how I published my first blog post back in March.  I had found about WordPress from other websites and had clicked around and looked at a few blogs (not the easiest thing, by the way, when you are not yet signed up and don’t know what the heck you’re doing).  Then my wife’s grandmother passed away and we made a long trip on short notice to be with family.  Upon my return, I felt sufficiently moved by the experience to write a short piece about how I felt.  I figured some of our family and friends might be interested in reading it.  After I wrote it using Microsoft Word, I saved it to my laptop’s hard drive and wondered whether I should email it to family members or what.  That’s when I remembered that I had been looking at WordPress recently.  I signed up for a blog, thought of a name on the spur of the moment (one I have since come to realize is more than a little dorky, but I feel invested in it now and will not be changing it anytime soon – sorry), and posted “Grandma’s Funeral.”

In other words, I wrote first and set up my blog after.  Now, I realize that this is not how most new users enter into the WordPress world.  Perhaps I myself am the exception in this case, the rebel, the one who does his own thing and snubs his nose at social norms.  Except I had no idea what those norms were at the time and therefore could not have known I was snubbing them.

So what would I propose?  Maybe it’s time for some rules.  Maybe we need some new UI feature that requires the would-be user to submit a piece of writing before he or she can create a name, pick a theme and sign up for a blog.  The piece would automatically be published at that point.  True, the user still might never post another, but at least he or she would experience the “happiness” of seeing their work in print.  That in itself could be enough motivation to do it again.

So what do you say, WordPress?

I can hear the whining already.  But we don’t want to raise any barriers to new users.  But we want to make it so easy even a caveman can do it.  Well then, I suppose the question is:  Do you want to continue hosting the multitude of users, so aptly described by Scott Berkun, who never post a single word?  Is this the kind of customer you really want, WordPress?

Some say it is better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.  Perhaps a corollary applies to rules.  Rules may be made to be broken, but it is better to have to break them than never to have had any rules or structure at all.

Sorry, Outback.

 

On Scott Berkun and Working Remotely

remote working

As disappointing as it was to be laid off recently, not working has provided me with a lot more time to read, both here in the blogosphere and offline (those bound-up paper thingies called “books”).  When I was working, it might take me a month or more to get through a book.  But today I did something that I haven’t done in many years:  I read an entire book straight through in a single day.

Some of this reading was accomplished at the kitchen table, some on the living room sofa and some seated on a pew outside the entrance of the church next door, while batting away moths that persisted in landing on my book, on my shirt and in my hair.

The book in question was Scott Berkun’s The Year Without Pants.  Sure, I was curious about how Matt Mullenweg started Automattic and I was interested in learning a little bit about what goes on behind the scenes of the bloggy world we so love at wordpress.com.  The real reason I picked up this book, however, was to experience Berkun’s take on working remotely, what he refers to as “the future of work.” 

You see, I am considering pursuing an employment opportunity that would be almost entirely online, “working from home.”  And despite the obvious advantages of such an arrangement, I harbor more than a little trepidation.

I am duly impressed by the “distributed” environment in which Automattic’s employees can be (and often are) all over the world, collaborating with the aid of such tools as IRC and Skype.  (IRC?  Seriously?  Is that dinosaur still around?  I’d rather not think about it.  Too many stories of misspent nights on IRC in the not-so-halcyon days of my youth.)  And yet, Berkun points out that something is definitely missing when coworkers type to each other.  It is difficult to gain a full understanding of another’s remarks when such cues as body language and tone of voice are stripped away.

There has to be something exciting about collaborating with colleagues in Europe, Asia and Australia, right?  I would think that the cultural diversity involved, rather than constituting barriers, would contribute depth and breadth to the conversation.  Not to mention that, when working on a product, it is helpful to have firsthand feedback on ways in which the interface and documentation could be interpreted very differently overseas than it is in the United States.

But then there is the fact that Automattic is a “flat” rather than hierarchical organization. It is one thing to provide and receive assistance from colleagues when everyone is on the same level.  It is quite another to have to constantly report to a boss, and to monitor employees, who may be hundreds or thousands of miles away.

On a personal level, how would I deal with the challenges of working remotely?  Would my work habits fit in with this mode of operation?  Berkun is right on target when he admits that working remotely is not for everyone.  To succeed at remote work, he points out, people must be “masters of their own habits to be productive, whether it’s avoiding distractions, staying disciplined on projects, or even replacing the social life that comes from conventional work with other friendships.”

Bingo!  My chief fear about working remotely is that I am simply not disciplined enough to be successful.

To date, all of my employment has been within established work hours in a traditional brick-and-mortar office environment.  About five years ago, however, I experienced a tiny taste of what it’s like to work remotely, and it did not go well.  My wife was in the hospital for a few days, and rather than using vacation time and absenting myself from my projects entirely, I promised to work online in between running back and forth to the hospital.

Bad decision.

Aside from the obvious distractions (the doctors were trying to figure out whether my wife had fallen victim to the H1N1 virus and my mind was not really on work), I quickly discovered that when I was not at work physically, I was not there mentally either.  Even though I had access to the corporate intranet and was supposed to be working (our crude collaborative efforts consisted of instant messaging), I found myself drawn to such other occupations as:

  • Sleeping
  • Playing turns in my ongoing email Scrabble tournament
  • Reading blogs
  • Messing around on Facebook
  • Did I mention sleeping?

After four days of this, my wife was back at home, I was back at work, and I breathed a sigh of relief on both counts.

Berkun posits that some folks need to have that barrier between their home life and their work life, and for them, a traditional work environment is more suitable than working remotely.  My wife, however, says that I just need to buck up and learn some self-discipline.  She may be right.  Perhaps I could do this if I just set my mind to it.

Think of how practical this would be if I could pull it off.  We now live in a small town in northern California, surrounded by family, and with expenses a heck of a lot lower than they would be down the road in Silicon Valley or San Francisco.  I could be working right now, in the middle of the night, on a laptop dangling off a TV tray, sitting in our living room listening to Steely Dan over headphones.  Or sitting in Starbucks with a soy latte.  Or out in the fresh air on the church pew next door, batting the moths away.  And who knows?  Maybe we’d finally be able to fulfill our dreams of living part of the year by the ocean in Pismo Beach.

This working remotely thing is starting to sound better and better.

Bachin’ It, Day 4

Dirty Dishes

DW has been gone for four nights now (that’s four nights down and another seven to go), so (insert poor-me pity comments and general whining here) I got to spend Saturday night by myself, just me and my Kosher for Passover macaroons, perusing all the blogs that I haven’t had time to look at during the week.

I’ve always wanted to start a post with “DW.”  You see, DW writes her journal on another blogging site that shall remain nameless here and when I go over there and look around, I see many bloggers of the female persuasion referring to their hubbies as DH.

Now, what does the D stand for, you may ask?  I’m hoping it’s dearest, darling or some other such affectionate claptrap.  I cringe to think of the possible alternatives.  I bet the term of endearment is just a front, a ruse engaged in by the Secret Society of Women Bloggers.  I’m sure the D really stands for dumb, dufus, damned or some other cleverly disguised put-down of the inept, clownish and clueless males who occupy their households for the sole reason that the DWs, out of the kindness of their hearts, don’t put them out with the cat at night.

Not long ago, DW gently suggested that I might be happier crossing the Rubicon, moving to the other side and blogging on the site that she uses.  In the name of honesty, I’m pretty sure DW made the suggestion because she took pity on me after I began cussing and foaming at the mouth when I couldn’t get my WP formatting to do what I wanted it to do because I am a mushwit who never bothered learning how to code basic HTML properly.  Frustration is my calling card and tantrums are my forte (I’ve been fine tuning them since the age of four and I’ve gotten pretty good at it, if I must say so myself).

What really got my hackles up was when my attempt to do something as simple as bolding a heading somehow translated from the beginner’s <b> and </b> tags into something called <strong>.  I have to admit, for a minute I felt pretty good.  I am strong!  I am Tarzan of the Apes!  I began beating my breast and emitting jungle calls until I realized that, no, the code was not a reflection on my corporeal or mental fortitude; it just meant that I am a mushwit who can’t code for crap.

Fortunately, WordPress has thought of this.  Hence, there are little buttons labeled B and I for bold and italics.  Spoonfed like pablum.  I love it.

DW headed up north to be with family for Easter and for the dedication of our little grandniece (see yesterday’s post).  Originally, I had planned to go too, but, as my father is fond of saying, work is the curse of the drinking class.  I was going to use some of my vacation time, but there was this project, and it involved multiple company locations, and then I somehow got volunteered to be on these committees, and — well, I won’t bore you with the details.  So here I am, bachin’ it.

Now, under normal circumstances, I would take full advantage of my period of bachelorhood to eat out in restaurants every night.  Or at least until DW starts sending me texts replete with ominous warnings about how I’m running up the Visa.  Not this time, though.  It’s Passover!  This means that I am stuck in a double bind:  I can’t eat any of my usual foods and I can’t go out to eat either.  Passover consists of eight days of extensive food restrictions.  If you read my Passover Pity Party post, you know what I’m talking about.

I am very fortunate indeed that DW is so kindhearted.  She makes me feel loved.  Prior to her departure, she made sure that I am well set up for meals, even cooking a pile of carrots and potatoes and divvying them up into Gladware containers so that I can microwave them.  We made a trip over to the Coachella Valley and bought jars of my Passover soup that I can just heat up and cans of Passover tuna to take to work for lunch.  I really need to learn how to cook.  Nah, too lazy.

My protracted laziness is not limited to cooking.  It also extends to doing laundry, vacuuming and performing a strange ritual that DW refers to as washing dishes.  This last pursuit must be done by hand due to the fact that our local water smells bad and is harder than a baguette that’s been left sitting out for a week and a half.  Or, I should probably say, harder than a matzah.  One foolish enough to try using the dishwashing machine ends up removing the dishes at the end of the cycle and washing them all over again by hand.  Unless you like to eat off baked-on crud, that is.

The last time DW absented herself for an extended period of time, I merely ran water and dish soap in my dishes after use, and left them sitting in the sink.  Upon returning, DW wondered why the house smelled like a cesspool.  Until, that is, she saw a sink full of soap suds under which lay a large pile of dishes bearing the residue of moldering food.  Even for DW, who is familiar with the depth of my laziness, this was the penultimate.

This time, however, we were prepared.  DW left me with a large pile of Styrofoam plates and a box of plastic forks, spoons and knives.

I guess I’d better haul the trash down to the dumpster, though.  It is just possible that I may have eaten fish three or four nights ago, which is probably why the house is starting to reek like the dock of the bay.

Air freshener, anyone?