Working at Amazon Sounds Exactly Like Grad School. Is There Anything Wrong With That?

In reading Friday’s New York Times piece on Amazon’s workplace environment, some elements seemed Orwellian and grim – particularly, the use of numbers to track performance metrics with exceptional granularity.

But other parts of life at Amazon seem almost warmly familiar. The company’s culture apparently “stokes employees’ willingness to erode work-life boundaries,” and encourages employees to be vocally critical of one another, and even of themselves. They work on weekends, late nights, and holidays. For some, the pressure leads to quick burnout and departure, while other employees were actively pushed out when management didn’t see them performing.

I found myself reading it and nodding my head.

Because that’s exactly what a high-level PhD program is like.

Amazon employees apparently experience “anxiety-provoking sessions called business reviews,” in which they’re expected, every week, to defend their performance. “Explanations like ‘we’re not totally sure’ or ‘I’ll get back to you’ are not acceptable,” reports the Times.

But is it as unacceptable as telling your seminar professor that you don’t have a well-informed take on the evolution of Marx’s definition of labor power between the Grundrisse and Das Kapital? Is a harsh review as anxiety-provoking as a dismissive snort or a condescending “Okay, let’s hear if someone can help you out . . . “?

I had always, frankly, assumed that life in a large, successful corporation was at least as much of a boiler room as a graduate program. That employees were expected to sacrifice themselves for a larger mission, keep their eye on the ball, constantly interrogate what they were doing, innovate and implement, use their brains and sleep under their desks. When I read the Amazon story, it frankly struck me as a trumped-up non-story, with employee “anxiety” now somewhere in the same ballpark as child labor.

NBC called the report ‘scathing,’ Geekwire described it as ‘brutal’. I’m not sure whether that’s how a lot of people saw it, or just how media wanted to spin it. But clearly, at least a good number of folks are glad to get huffy about an innovative company holding its employees to extremely high standards, and leaving behind those who can’t keep up.

It makes me think I’m just not on the same page as a lot of Americans. Okay, maybe my ambition isn’t to sell 10% more chenille curtains this quarter – but aren’t we supposed to be hard workers, with big dreams and big ambitions? That means sacrifice, that means grind, that means maybe facing your own inadequacies and taking some risks every once in a while.

And at least the people at Amazon are getting paid well to do it – those of us going to the mat for philosophy or social science or literature are lucky if we don’t go into debt for the privilege of frying our nervous systems and having our self-esteem pummeled on a weekly basis for years on end.

So, my initial temptation is to say – if you can’t take the heat, why would you even try to work at Amazon?

But then I’m reminded of a much different aspect of my experience in the doctoral meat-grinder. I am a person who’s extremely privileged in a lot of ways, from my stable family background to my white male heteronormativity. There were several significant and very powerful scrums during my time in grad school that, more or less, amounted to some students pushing back against the culture of insanely high standards and overwork.

At the time, my first response was similar – suck it up, buttercup. This shit is hard because it’s hard. You can’t read Lacan just once and hope to get anything out of it.

But as those discussions and fights continued, I started to see the other side. Regardless of identity, some students weren’t as prepared as I was. That was around when I realized that not everyone was reading Kierkegaard in high school. Not everyone got to study Nietzsche with that philosophy professor from Waking Life.

On top of that, not everyone was willing or able to sacrifice themselves at the altar of the Word the way I was. Some people had families, some people had actual relationships (as opposed to whatever the hell it was I was doing with women back then).

And the thing is, I didn’t have these advantages because I was exceptional – at least not primarily. I had these advantages thanks mostly to circumstance. I had parents who kept lots of books around. I went to a pretty decent, college-oriented public high school, where the German teacher led a philosophy club. I had a support system that made it easier to handle the pressure.

There are some relatively simple arguments for making these demanding structures open to people who might not immediately click with them.  Our society hinders a lot of people in a lot of ways, and we would all benefit from trying to compensate for that. I think anything like affirmative action turns potentially poisonous once you transition from an undergraduate learning environment to a performance-oriented professional environment, whether a PhD program or a corporation. But there are and should be programs to recognize and support, for instance, talented minority scholars – thinks like incentive fellowships. Evidence shows pretty strongly that Silicon Valley has yet to come up with a successful model to do anything similar. But greater support and recruitment has nothing to do with lowering standards. Lowering standards is not a way of being ‘supportive’ – it’s just a way of lowering standards.

But the episodes of discontent during my grad program opened my eyes to a more tricky concept – that you may actually need people who aren’t a perfect fit. Sure, you need the high achievers, maybe you even need a plurality of them. But a community made up of people like me would have been absolutely hateful. That seems maybe to be what’s going on at Amazon – the peak performers don’t have much use for anyone with more complex lives and backgrounds than theirs.Which might ultimately weaken a company that’s trying to serve all of America.

But then again, I clearly have no idea what America is like.

Google’s Alphabet Dance and the Inversion of Capitalism

A quick note: I’ll be blogging here more, now that I’ve got some time and headspace after my weird adventure. Hopefully, this’ll become a place not just for contemplating and chronicling post-academic life, but for speculative extensions of the writing I do elsewhere.

I’ve been thinking about something for a while, and yesterday’s announcement about Google’s restructuring helped me focus it a bit. Gizmodo gets the basics right – that Alphabet is about putting innovative and world-changing products like driverless cars, connected homes, and whatever the next iteration of Google Glass is. The revenue-driving stuff – basically, search and associated advertising – will become a segment of a more obviously diverse company.

But that doesn’t change the fact that little of that speculative stuff tends to make money. And certainly, not compared to advertising. This strikes me as part of a larger, long-term trend that I still need to contextualize historically, but that I’m not sure anyone has really identified. That is, there are motives much more complex (though not necessarily more subtle) than profit driving a lot of the activity at certain future-oriented technology companies, including not just Google, but also Elon Musk’s enterprises.

These organizations spend a lot of money, well, not making money. It’s tempting to be cynical – that a company like Google is being simply strategic when it experiments with driverless cars, wearable computers and the like. They might be just, a) experimenting to see if something hits. Google Glass, in theory, could have been the next Android. Who knows. And Tesla certainly seems on track to make money.

But way more interesting, on the cynicism front, is the idea that this is some kind of ‘techwashing’ – that the profile of Google is being consciously cultivated by these experiments, which can be thought of as, more or less, a marketing expense. Certainly, search dominance is about mindshare. We all think Google when we think search. And how much of that is due to the constant headlines generated by Google’s more experimental work?

But finally, I think the most interesting interpretation of all is one that moves beyond cynicism. Certainly, Elon Musk seems unquestionably to be a manically creative guy with huge dreams and ambitions for reshaping the world. And I’ve recently been writing about some companies with similarly public-spirited, not terribly profit-driven projects – bike shares, and, coming up soon, carpooling.

In all of this (and here I’m being really, really general) we’re seeing at least a little bit of takeover of what in a different time would have been public government projects. And these aren’t nonprofit companies, or even, by and large, Benefit Corporations with explicitly social goals.

Depending on your perspective, these are companies making really, really long bets – or they’re just experimenting and innovating for its own sake, because their principals think it’s cool.

I’m not sure to what extent it’s novel for a revenue stream as powerful as Google’s, or a fortune as huge as Elon Musk’s, to become a platform for fierce experimentation and innovation. Old-school titans of industry (aka robber barons) often sunk their profits into public works – libraries, universities. At least intuitively, I don’t think it was as common for them to use their leverage to continue developing new and highly speculative technology.

The only really clear example I can think of is Howard Hughes. I’m sure there are others, but it’s illustrative that Hughes is the one that pops into my head – and he’s well known for being nuts. By the standards of a previous era, when resources were more scarce, the kinds of risks being taken by an average startup (and its funders) would have been (rightly or wrongly) considered foolhardy.

There’s another aspect to this, which is investment. Investors, partly because they’re having a harder and harder time getting good returns, are increasingly willing to throw money at people with big ideas, whether those ideas are best judged as innovative, half-baked, or outright crazy. And after that, they’re willing to keep throwing money at people with big ideas that get a little bit of traction, but haven’t turned a profit (yet).

It’s a weird, pervasive, but probably productive mindset. We have individuals willing and even eager to take big risks. And we’ve got people who want to be part of that, the same way producers used to pay a high price of admission to be part of the movie business. And I’m beginning to suspect that, on some level, nobody is really all that focused on profits. Profits are somehow less important than creativity.

Maybe we’re living in a world of convenient (and even productive) fiction – we have ‘stocks’, we have ‘earnings reports,’ we have ‘projections.’ But what if that’s all some kind of fig leaf, and Amazon is basically just one big crowdfunding project?

 

Cat-Astrophe Now . . . Almost.

The Amazing True Story of the Most Dramatic Cat Rescue in the History of Madison, Wisconsin.

This post is mainly to give the full version of this story to a bunch of friends who watched it unfold in bits and pieces on Facebook – though it’s a ripping yarn for everyone else, too. If you’re a cat owner, or even if not, prepare to be scared, and finally (spoiler alert, in case you missed the title) relieved.

This is a very long post. But hang in there – it’s worth it.

 Prologue

I am not a longtime cat owner. I’ve had my cat, Steve, for about a year and a half, and hadn’t had any pets for more than a decade before that. In fact, I only have him because my awesome girlfriend wanted cats, and one ended up living with each of us.

Steve Resting

Steve behind the scenes while I write – before his greatest adventure.

 

But Steve is great. He’s a goofball, insatiably curious, and adventurous as hell. I’m a pretty adventurous (read: foolhardy) dude myself, which is why, when I lost my lease unexpectedly, I decided to go on a road trip for a couple of weeks, visiting friends and celebrating the freedom afforded by my newly (marginally) successful freelance writing career. And I figured I would take Steve with me. I mean, what the heck, he’s Adventure Cat.

What you’re about to read is the story of how that great idea turned into a five-day nightmare, and, very nearly, Steve’s slow, horrific end.

Adventure Cat Moving Boldly Into the Future

Adventure Cat Moving Boldly Into the Future

I got a preview of the challenges presented by travelling with Adventure Cat when, while visiting my friend Sangeet in Ohio, Steve adventured right out onto a balcony, then jumped down onto a small overhang about ten feet off the ground. He couldn’t jump back up, and didn’t have quite the nerve to jump down, so he sat there and moaned until I went to Ace and bought a $130 ladder to get up there and get him (As you’ll see, some of this is about money, along with many many other things).

So far so good.

Steve contemplating the glorious vistas of Columbus, Ohio.

Steve contemplating the glorious vistas of Columbus, Ohio.

After Sangeet’s place, I stopped by Chicago briefly to visit my friend Love (that’s his real first name – he was raised by some cabal of Swedish hippies), then headed on to Madison for two days with Craig, who works at Wisconsin Public Radio. There was some negotiation of the logistics of the visit, because Craig and his fiancée have a cat of their own, Bonnie. I felt a little anxious about imposing on my hosts, but everything seemed like it would be fine. To be on the really safe side, we left Steve on the porch overnight, in his big car kennel, covered in a heavy blanket.

He absolutely did not appreciate this one bit, meowing angrily most of the night.

Monday

So the next day, we transferred him to the basement, where he could be inside, but still separated from Bonnie. It’s a weird little space – the house is about 150 years old, and there are all sorts of nooks and crannies down there. So we kept an ear out for a while, but he seemed to prefer the basement to the crate, and we headed out on a tour of Madison.

Madison is fantastic (if you haven’t heard) and we enjoyed a great day, full of beer and food and books. This is like a city built entirely out of the leftover sets from Portlandia sketches, real or imagined: There’s the feminist bookstore (which unlike the one in Portlandia, is actually an awesome bookstore); there’s a tree covered in yarn; there’s the elaborate and insanely convenient bike share system. Not only did we see a controversial piece of anti-police protest art hanging in the public library, we also saw a left-wing realty office with a #blacklivesmatter poster in the window.

I would move here in a heartbeat, if I hadn’t already lived through six Midwestern winters.

When we got home, we went to check on Steve, but he didn’t come running to meet us – which is strange. I pretty much instantly knew something was wrong. When I called for him, I heard his voice from a crawlspace that extended from the basement at ceiling height. Then I noticed a stack of paint cans in a corner that had been knocked over – he’d jumped into the crawlspace.

Goddamn Adventure Cat.

You've heard of a murder van?  This is a murder hole. And yes, I assure you there's a hole there, just big enough for a cat.

You’ve heard of a murder van? This is a murder hole. And yes, I assure you there’s a hole there – just big enough for a cat.

Craig and Liz, reasonably enough, figured that Steve was just a little freaked out by being in a new space, and was hunkering down in a dark corner just to feel secure.

Still, I was worried, mostly because I knew Steve. Steve was not a hider, or a hunkerer. He is, to use the refined language of our hip hop forebears, never skurred. And he was being really talkative, not shy – we exchanged meows in the borderline insane way cats and cat owners do.  And weirdly, while Steve’s voice was definitely coming from the crawlspace, it seemed much further away than that it should have – distant and echoey.

Either way, there wasn’t much to do, and he didn’t sound like he was in pain or panicked. Before long, we went to bed, even though I was still feeling uneasy.

Tuesday

Still no sign of Steve. I started to feel some guilt – clearly, if he was hiding for this long, he was more freaked out than I’d figured by being dragged around the country. I checked in and talked to him throughout the day as I worked on an article, and kept shining a flashlight into the dark crawlspace to see if I could spot him. I even went down to the drugstore and bought a hand mirror, which I taped to a broom handle in hopes I could get a better look back in the depths of the space. It didn’t do much good.

Wednesday

Day two of Steve hiding out. I started to get even more worried. I got in my car and was on my way to rent an inspection camera and some lights, hoping to be able to see further down into the depths of the crawlspace. But Craig called me, as I was literally in the car on the way to go totally CSI, to tell me that he had talked to several cat owners who traveled with their cats. According to them, sometimes cats just need a day or two to settle down. We should just leave him be, and he’d come out in his own time.

Once again, I set aside what I was pretty sure I knew about my cat – that he wasn’t very likely to be hiding from anything – and turned back around, ready to keep waiting. Steve was still calling out from the crawlspace.

I sat in the basement and read aloud about train derailments.

I sat in the basement and read aloud about train derailments.

I did call animal control and talk to them. Nothing they could do unless they could see the animal, they told me.

Thursday

Day 3 – the day I made the mistake of going on the internet and googling “How long can cats survive without water.” I was now positive he was trapped somehow. I woke up nervous that I might not hear from him again. What I read on various message boards set me off – if we were in day 3, we were close to the end. He could already be suffering liver and kidney damage, and could be dead soon.

The strange thing was, when he meowed – and he meowed all day – he still didn’t sound like he was in pain, panicking, or otherwise deeply distressed. He mostly sounded . . . annoyed.

Even weirder was that even though he was meowing like the dickens about every three hours, we couldn’t tell where the hell the sound was coming from. The space under the floorboards was only about a foot deep, and the area of the crawlspace was maybe twenty feet by ten feet – it ran under just a small kitchen and bathroom. But Steve sounded like he was impossibly far away – sometimes almost like he was outside of the house. This weird sound made it harder for us to guess where he was, which made it harder to point our lights and cameras in the right direction, which meant we had no idea how to free him.

By now, Craig and Liz were plenty worried, too. We started exchanging theories about what had happened to him. Maybe he was wedged behind something, maybe he had pushed his way between the walls and couldn’t back out.

That afternoon, I rented a Flir thermal camera from Home Depot – heat-sensing, like the Predator.  I thought maybe I’d see a cat-shaped hot spot as soon as I pointed it at the floor – but unfortunately, it turns out thermal doesn’t really go through walls any more than it goes through mud.

I also finally rented the fiber-optic camera I’d set out to get on Tuesday, and started shoving it down vents and cracks.

Rental fiber-optic camera.

Rented fiber-optic camera.

By now, I was nearing panic. I got the name of a carpenter from the Animal Control office, and we started seriously talking about how to dig up the bathroom floor, above where we thought we were hearing Steve meow.

But then, sensibly enough, Craig and Liz got in touch with their landlord to let her know what was going on. She, again sensibly enough, didn’t want anyone tearing up the floor of her house if it could be helped, especially since it was an older and strangely built house. There was no way she’d approve the guy recommended by Animal Control to work on the house – especially not that night, which was what I’d been hoping. It seemed everything would have to wait until the next morning, when she would, hopefully, be able to get the handyman who had worked on the house for years.

All very sensible. Except that 8pm that night was when the 3 day mark passed for Steve. I was convinced that if we couldn’t get him out that night, he was definitely dead. So at around 9, while Craig and Liz were out of the house, I sat down in the basement, as close to where I thought he was as I could get, and I apologized to him.

I’m sorry I got you into this mess, buddy, I said. And I’m going to miss you. Then I cried for quite a while. I don’t know if I had at that point come to terms with his death – that would take a lot longer. But I had at least accepted it.

But then the damnedest thing happened.

Friday

In the morning, after I had said goodbye to him, Steve was talking again. Still not in pain. Still hard to pinpoint, but still not panicked. Still sounding strong.

Maybe, somehow, the internet had lied to me. He was still alive. And, it seemed, okay.

And then the landlord, Jane, let us know that she and her contractor, Tom, were on their way over. Tom had been working on the place for nearly two decades, since before Jane owned it. Tom heard Steve, but he was just as puzzled about where he was as the rest of us. But he understood the mysteries of drywall and paneling.

And so, with little ceremony, we started taking the house apart.

hole in cabinet

The hole cut in the bottom of the kitchen cabinet, which gave us a few extra holes into the underfloor.

Holes in foundation masonry

Holes knocked into the masonry around the edge of the house. This masonry, amazingly, is load-bearing – we pulled out sections that were mostly already loose..

Craig, wedged behind a bathtub, where we thought for a bit Steve might have gotten stuck.

Craig, wedged behind a bathtub, where we thought for a bit Steve might have gotten stuck.

We knocked holes in the masonry foundation to access the crawlspace from the back. We cut a giant square out of the bottom of a kitchen cabinet, then drilled through to the crawlspace from above. We took the panel off the back of the tub, to make sure Steve wasn’t somehow stuck inside the tub. We took a panel off a wall, then drilled through the board separating the wall from the crawlspace.

In each case, we used the fiber optic camera to scan every possible direction for a sign of the cat. We got into every nook and cranny.

Then things started to get weird. Craig went to Best Buy and picked up a Parrot, a wheeled drone with a camera. The drone could only really move on flat surfaces, so we wedged boards as deep as we could into the crawlspace, and sent the drone in.

But for all that, we couldn’t find Steve. Not a sign. I spotted some dried poop with the fiber optic camera, but that was it.

We kept hearing his voice, on and off, and it still sounded both like it was coming from the crawlspace, and like it was far away.

Soon, everyone was exhausted. We’d done everything we could do. Craig and Liz had a 5k the next day, and decided to get a hotel room.

I was pretty confounded. I’d already mourned my cat’s death, and there he was, still very much alive – if, maybe, existing in some sort of strange extraspatial limbo. It made me think of the book House of Leaves, one part of which is the story of a family who discover their house opens up into a space that shouldn’t exist. Steve, it seemed, had fallen down a hallway into nothingness.

If he’d stayed alive this long, though, I was beginning to think we would find him. He did have a pretty badass, determined team on his side. I talked to him more that night, but I didn’t cry.

Saturday

Craig won his 5k. He got a little wooden medal.

Then everyone convened at the house again – Tom, Jane, Craig, Liz, and I. We were all tired, a little wired. But everyone kept going. I can’t say how grateful I still am for everyone’s energy. It’ll always be an amazing memory for me.

The thing that kept confounding us, no matter how many angles we approached from, was one pile of bricks in the center of the crawlspace. We couldn’t get any true sense of whether it might be more than a pile of bricks.

Then Craig had his second big win of the day. He used some extra-strong Gorilla tape to attach his iPhone to a long strip of 1 by 2. Then he used Apple TV to connect it to the upstairs monitor as he stuck it back into the crawlspace below. The fiber optic camera just couldn’t go quite that far.

And that was when it happened.

We all stood upstairs, yelling down to help guide Craig’s camera over the top of the pile of bricks, through a gap of just a few inches between its edge and the floor above. And then we saw –

There was an opening. There was some kind of hole, or pit, opening down from the top of that pile of bricks.

And then, as Tom, Jane, Liz and I stood watching the feed upstairs, a pair of curious green eyes flashed up from that hole. Then they turned away and disappeared.

 

Mother

FUCKER.

 

We all screamed, cursed, jumped, and swore. We’d found him.

My knees buckled and my stomach flipped. He was still there – and he was still moving.

Me a few moments after we located Steve.

Me, a few moments after we located Steve.

Extraction

Of course, just finding him felt like a victory – but we still had to get him out. As we considered that, we also spent a few moments considering just what the hell we were looking at.

Tom was confident it was a cistern – a deep tank that had been used to collect rainwater for the workers who lived here back in the 1850s. The kitchen and bath had been added on out back without completely filling or adequately covering the cistern.

So Steve, being a natural born idiot, had been exploring the crawlspace, and jumped into the dark open hole.

Our second horrific hole of the morning.

Our second horrific hole.

This also explained why Steve had sounded so weird. Not only was he genuinely a lot farther away than we thought – he was in a space shaped more or less like a bell. As he moved around the bottom of the cistern, the sound bounced in wildly different directions around the house.

We figured out that the cistern was roughly centered under a bathroom vanity, so that got ripped out. We used the fiber optic camera to find the edges of the cistern once a few holes had been drilled, then Tom did the amazingly persistent work of cutting a larger hole through – no joke – six inches of floor, made of several layers of plywood.

Then we had a hole big enough to see into. I got down on my belly and stuck my head down, and was amazed to see Steve looking more or less unscathed. We did a little catching up. Then, unbelievably, he started trying to jump out.

Five days underground, and he somehow still had the strength to make a four-foot vertical leap. What a beast. (No dice, though, of course – the walls of the cistern neck were concrete.)

But we still had a serious problem – the cistern was at least six, maybe more like eight feet deep, and we only had a tiny hole to access it. We were going to need help getting Steve out. Now that we could see him, we could call Animal Control – who, I have to be blunt, were not very helpful. The agent came over, surveyed the situation, and then left us a selection of nets and traps and basically told us to figure it out on our own.

But we’d come this far, so we weren’t going to be stopped by a lackadaisical public servant. One of the nets actually did prove crucial – a rig that opened and closed with a pull, which we’d need to get the net down into the small hole. We put an open can of food in it, lowered it, opened it, and hoped Steve would get the hint to crawl in.

He was both smarter and dumber than that. He sniffed the food and, somehow, didn’t seem that interested. I tried a few times just to net him, but there wasn’t enough leverage through the tiny hole. But then Steve took the initiative, and started trying to climb the pole.

Mind you, this was an aluminum pole, so he wasn’t likely to get very far. But then I had my own brainstorm, and just started slowly pulling the net up – and Steve latched onto the fabric netting itself. I wasn’t sure he would make it. We panted and stretched and levered . . .

And then he was out. I took one look at him, and thought – this son of a bitch is totally fine. I was glad to see him, of course. But I realized he would never really appreciate what he had put me through. Which is, you know, cats in a nutshell.

Steve at the hotel hours after his rescue.

Steve at the hotel hours after his rescue, envisioning bigger, deeper wells.

I immediately put him in his carrier and whisked him to the vet, where an exam and bloodwork showed that he was completely fine. Our best theory was that there must have been water, and maybe some bugs, down in that cistern.

From there, we went to a hotel room, where I had to fervently pray that there wasn’t a well under one of the beds.

Two weeks later, Steve is still, by all signs, completely fine. We’re still looking for a permanent place to stay in St. Pete, but we’ve continued to find that people are eager to help out.

I doubt he’s learned a damn thing.

Steve Asleep on my luggage, today.

Steve Asleep on my luggage, today.

Plugs

I want to give a few shout outs and plugs.

First and foremost, to Tom Potter and Jane Pawasarat. Tom is an amazing contractor who has worked in central Madison for decades. He’s an amazing problem solver, and we couldn’t have done it without him. He’s like the A-Team – if you need him, you can find him.

Jane is, I’m positive, an incredible landlord and community member. I can’t imagine what I would have done if I had had to watch my house getting torn up. She didn’t just tolerate it – she was on Steve’s team the whole time.

Equally first and foremost are Craig and Liz, who were incredibly supportive and managed, somehow, to make me feel more or less okay about the immense disruption I’d caused to their lives. They chipped in both emotionally and materially – Craig’s techy gearheadedness was, after all, what ultimately cracked the case.

The eastern office of the Madison Emergency Veterinary Clinic did bloodwork on Steve after we pulled him out, and were able to confirm that, by whatever freak circumstance, he was totally fine. The only slight damage was that his claws were worn down by trying to jump and claw his way up a concrete frickin’ wall. But even they weren’t actually injured.

(I also can’t help taking this opportunity to contrast these vets’ great work with that of Blue Pearl Clinic in Tampa. Madison Emergency gave me an on-call exam and slate of blood tests for $200 on a Saturday night. A year ago, Blue Pearl bilked me out of $480 for a heart exam Steve didn’t even need. Never take an animal there.)

We also had some advice from Troy Bakken, a Madison carpenter and cabinetworker who was very helpful.

A to Z Rent All in Madison rented us the camera.

Madison’s Roman Candle Pizza gave us a great discount when I told them the pies were for a pet rescue in progress.

And the web and technology gurus at ThinkTank in St. Pete have basically made my long series of questionable lifestyle choices possible.

 

And Finally, The Ask

Yeah, there’s a bit of an ask here. I hope you’ve enjoyed the story long enough to stick around for it.

Here’s the deal: I’m a freelance writer. I’m relatively new to the game, but I love it – it’s what I’m meant to do. And I’m doing fairly well.

But it’s hard to write when you’re trying to rescue your cat from a well. Steve’s misadventure cost me about a week of work, on top of the direct expenses of renting various kinds of equipment, a couple of unexpected hotel nights, the vet, etc. All in all, the cost was substantial.

What I’m asking is this. If you need, or know anyone who might need, writing services, consider me. Maybe you need a grant written, or a press release. Maybe you need help telling a story just as crazy as this one, or just a few blog posts. Having a little more work coming my way would make it easier for me to cover the financial gap Steve opened up (and then jumped down).

My rates are reasonable. You can find out more at davidzmorris.com.

 

Thanks, and I hope you enjoyed it.

-David

Do you want to get a story on Fortune? Because this is how you get a story on Fortune.

Because that’s how you . . .

I’ve been meaning to write something for a while on the topic of how PR people should approach journalists. It’s something I’ve had a lot of thoughts about since I started writing more and more, and getting unsolicited pitches.

[The other thing I’ve noticed as I’ve started writing more and more is that, when I could be getting paid to write, blogging just isn’t that appealing. Lucky for you, for some reason, this afternoon I’m deliriously exhausted and can’t do any real work. For evidence, just see the title above, and this rambling parenthetical. (see, this is the quality of writing you get for free).]

Anyway, a couple of days ago I got a pitch email so beautiful it nearly brought me to tears. I’m just going to take the risk of copying the actual thing rather than anonymizing it too much:

Trucking writers and editors-
As apps and online platforms continue to wiggle their way into the industry, today we announced that the ScoopMonkey ratings and review engine is now available for users of the Truck It Smart  load board. ScoopMonkey is ratings and reviews written by carriers and brokers, and the integration means easy due diligence for all parties as they seek one another’s services.
Press release here, a fancy blog on it here, and a little bit here about who in the heck we are. Any questions, feel free to contact me at the info down there.
Best,
[PR Dude]

This, if you’re not already aware, goes against almost every convention of how PR professionals are expected to reach out to journalists. BUT IT’S PERFECT. Here’s what it does right.

1) It clearly knows who I am, without being creepy. That greeting – “Trucking writers and editors” – is way better than the fake-friendly “Hi! Just happened to see xyz and thought you might be interested in q ” that is standard issue. It makes it obvious this person knows what I do – but without feeling compelled to pretend they’re my friend.

2) It assumes I know what I’m doing. There’s not a ton of context setting here, just an acknowledgment of a reality in the field of transportation – the rise of apps/gigging. There’s no explanation or extensive background – first, because that’s not the press intros job, and second, because while most journalists are actually rank amateurs at just about everything except putting words on a page (and often that, too), we like to have our egos stroked by having people think we’re actually experts on our beat. Talk to us like we know something!

3) It gets its point across with no bluster or hype. A thing happened. I can probably fill in the context myself.

4) It gives me solid resources for learning moreSorry, your super-short email can’t be all you write. It’s a morsel. Then link me to the meal.

5) It’s about more than the thing that happened. This is the only spot where maybe one more sentence could have been helpful – but it could have also scuttled the entire thing. You see, gig apps are part of some much larger trends in the industry, and across industries, which make the topic worthy of deeper consideration. The email doesn’t actually broaden out to these issues, but that’s kind of okay, because (to repeat myself) it’s about an actual event relevant to the deeper issues.

This is almost certainly the main point. Not all writers, but at least some (myself included) are looking, more or less, for real events that connect to larger and somewhat more abstract issues. The deal described above isn’t exactly earth-shattering, but it’s still a legitimate reason to write about, not just what happened, but why, and what it means.

If your story doesn’t meet that critieria – or if you can’t convince me that it does in three sentences – please, don’t bother getting in touch.

(And for all those reasons, yes, there is now something in my pipeline related to this brief little email.

 

On the Road Again – Pitch Me Transportation Technology Coverage

I haven’t really mentioned it here, but I’m now writing much more regularly for Fortune about transportation and logistics technology. It’s a swell gig, but it’s tough to do a lot of on-the-ground reporting when you’re covering a national beat and stuck in Florida. So I’m about to take a month (June) to travel around, visit some old friends, and see a few interesting sites in person – a lithium mine in Arkansas, a port in Jacksonville, maybe a Gigafactory or two. It’s a reporting trip combined with some good old-fashioned nomadism, with the hope that it’ll juice my writing and my soul (I’ll also be saving on rent, since I’m timing this for a month between leases and putting everything I own in storage).

So, where do you come in? If you’re a PR rep with any connections to transportation technology, now’s the time to give me ideas for interesting sites I should check out on my tour. If you represent a train operator, I’d love to come see what they’re doing. Got a UAV factory? Yes please. And if you have a mad-scientist client building a perpetual motion machine in his garage, I definitely want to see that.

Reach out to me on twitter @davidzmorris.

 

Thanks!

Unpacking my Blah

I’m still putting some books into their right places after my move a couple of weeks ago. I happened across my copy of Jurgen Habermas’ Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere. The sight depressed me. I don’t blame Habermas – the book is fine, big, strong, meaningful and rich. And I know, as with all things in the great cycles, that I’ll come back to it, that it will yield up a new, more alive version of itself someday, in conversation with some bit of weirdness or history. I know that I will use it to find life.

But it still, in that moment of seeing, brought back to me so much anti-life. I wasn’t taken back to the moment of reading or the moment of discussion, which are joys I miss. Instead, the sight carried with it all the deadening structures that a book like this props up, maybe exists to prop up, to the degree that any work done to free it would be contrary to the initial professorial intent, the reclining assessment, the tentative dissection, the threading and unthreading of a thousand minutely distinct glass beads.

I’m not sure what the right place for Habermas is, but I think it may be out of sight. At least for now.

Finding the Plot, in Life and Fiction.

We mostly do not see our own weaknesses easily, or they wouldn’t last so long. Several of mine conspired for many years to frustrate my desire to write a novel. I’ve made at least six attempts, all stalled out at anything from twenty to a hundred and twenty pages.

I was always annoyed by these failures, but never devastated. I moved on – too easily. My focus was elsewhere. I had decided, when I was 23, that I would become a college professor, and work on my writing on the side. But that didn’t end up working out well – at age 25, age, 28, age 31, as I was making attempts at novels, my academic career was taking vast amounts of energy. And consciously or not, I began defining myself by my successes there, rather than as a writer. Somehow, I’d lost the plot of my own life.

And that’s why I kept losing the plot of my fiction projects. I never started with a plan because I never approached these projects with enough seriousness, focus, and energy. And I never approached these projects seriously because, while I was telling myself one thing – I Am a Writer – my reality was a much different one, of endless rounds of applications for social science grants, fellowships, and teaching jobs.  I carefully planned the contents of my dissertation, but had no such disciplined approach to my novels because, despite the stories I kept in my brain about myself, they weren’t important to me.

At a point about two years ago, I came to realize just how misplaced my academic ambitions were. There were plenty of reasons for this, but high on the list was the fact that most of my ‘writing’ was ending up in academic journals where it was totally unread. And while I was proud of my work to a degree, I was fighting an uphill battle against an academic machine where Good Writing was defined much differently than the work I had fallen in love with as a teenager and young man. Despite my good intentions, my academic essays were often mangled, stunted, and airless cloud-castles of pure concept.

Now that I am truly focused on my writing, I am better able to see where I’ve been going wrong, and work seriously to fix it. In my journalistic work, I’m beginning to figure out the difference between Important Facts and A Story. I’m deeply grateful to the editors who have been instrumental in teaching me – or maybe, reminding me – that People, their motivations, and their interactions, are at the center of most writing that matters.

I can’t help but think that my youthful misanthropy played its own role in arresting my awareness of Story. My early literary influences have been perhaps, I’m beginning to think, not entirely positive. Of course, there were the conceptual works of the social sciences – I was reading critical cultural studies before I was out of high school – but the literature I read was pernicious in its own mind-blowing way.

My favorite writers were, in rough order, William S. Burroughs, J.R.R. Tolkein, Ishmael Reed, and Samuel Beckett. Only Tolkein is no longer on that list (replaced by the more esoteric likes of M. John Harrison and Jack Vance). Tolkein is a bad model for his own unique reasons, but the rest of those are intensely self-conscious stylists who also happen to be, in many senses, satirists of traditional plot, structure, and character.

Burroughs and Reed’s characters are often quite ‘fake,’ and they can and will do anything at any moment, not because it serves any larger plot, but for the impact of a single moment. Beckett’s novels are best characterized as vast swathes of nothingness, with words on top. Naked Lunch, Watt, and (to a lesser extent) Mumbo Jumbo are more experiences than novels, things you have to power through with a level of motivation that the books themselves are reluctant to supply. They are the products of varying mixes of genius, madness, and despair. They are not, in that sense, easy to draw lessons from.

Which is why, fifteen or twenty years after first devouring those brilliant works, I’m having what should not be a new experience – I’m carefully plotting and structuring a novel. It’s the continuation of “The Scouts of the Pyre”, the three-part serial that first appeared in Steampunk Tales back in 2013. It’s insane to admit this, but the completed parts of that project – what amounts to roughly 1/3 of a novel – was completed without any plan in place. As I extend the plan out from what I essentially improvised for Steampunk Tales, I’m realizing that I’ll have to go back and change significant portions of the completed work. Not a bad thing, I suppose.

I’ve found two books helpful in this new venture. I bought them both, I think, over a year ago, which gives you a sense of how long the process of coming to this new task has been. One is called Building Fiction, by Jesse Lee Kerchival. The other is Story Structure Architect, by Victoria Lynn Schmidt. These books are most useful in sparking questions that should be obvious. Who is this person? Where do they come from? What do they want? How will they get it?  With their help, I’m fairly quickly filling in an outline of what will happen in my book.

It’s a fairly giddy process, because I feel like I’m cheating – I don’t have to actually write out all of the ideas I have – but I know I’m doing important work, and that I will eventually get the pleasure of writing them, confident that they have meaning and heft and purpose.

I’m also seeing the creative world around me in a powerful new light.  As much as I love style and image, I’m beginning to appreciate things for their structure, for their characters, for their story. Some of these are unlikely sources of education – Netflix is full of questionable films that will teach you a lot about plot.

I’m hoping to write a bit about this process as it continues. I feel like I’m becoming a more well-rounded artist, very quickly. I’m enjoying that process, and its promise, immensely.

Listen to Your Resistance

I am sitting down to grade, in what I’m sure will be a frantic last-minute dash, the final projects for my Media and Technology Studies class at the University of Tampa. Ever since grad school, I’ve felt an intense resistance when it comes to sitting down and starting the process of grading. Once I get going I’m usually okay, but it takes me a while to commit to actually start the process of doing the work (hence, it seems, this blog post, which is a meditation on procrastination that is itself an act of procrastination, since I’m sitting here with Blackboard and my UT email open in another tab).

I don’t feel this sense of resistance, this slight wavering in the pit of my stomach, when I’m working on even the most inconsequential piece of copy for a commercial client – to say nothing of the nervous excitement and/or at least anticipated satisfaction of a job well done that I get when I’m sitting down to work on an essay or reported piece.

I don’t know exactly what it is about grading, but it is very clear that this is the part of teaching that makes teaching a burden for me. I love talking to students. I hate evaluating them. I don’t think I so much mind the act of judging them, though I’m at least taking less evil pleasure in that than I used to. Mostly, it’s just such a fucking boring process. Nothing is created by grading. Most students don’t read feedback. At the undergraduate level, only a tiny fraction of students are actually committed to doing better than they’re doing at this exact moment. Some take your constructive feedback seriously (and I’ve found an above-average concentration of that sort of student at the University of Tampa, which helps me approach grading with a bit more dedication).

And finally, maybe, what bothers me about grading is the ever-rising consciousness of how inevitably arbitrary, but simultaneously highly impactful, the attachment of these little letters are. It’s a bind, an unfulfillable responsibility that nobody should ever feel entirely comfortable with.

Either way, I can only listen to what my body is telling me. Grading makes me uncomfortable and gives me no pleasure. Writing, in all its forms, makes me happy.