I Pay Rapt Attention

Notes from a San Francisco Weekend (Part One): Suits, Casablanca, and Public Transportation

Posted in adventures by Zoelle on July 27, 2009

Whew, what a weekend. There’s enough to say that I’ll break this up into two installments– Saturday and Sunday.

SATURDAY

It all began with the farmer’s market. My mother and I make a concerted effort to stop at the Farmer’s Market at the Embarcadero every Saturday that we come to SF, so of course we stopped by to get some fresh produce treats. I bought a bunch of multicolored carrots (though they weren’t as good as last year’s, they were delicious enough that I ate almost the entire bunch before we left the market) and then discovered that CUESA was sponsoring a berry tasting. What a fantastic way to start the morning- I now know (after some intense comparative study) that the Albion strawberry from Dirty Girl produce may in fact be the epitome of the strawberry. Good to know.

SUITS

The main purpose for our San Francisco jaunt was to buy me a suit. As I’ve mentioned before, I’m in the middle of the application process for business school, and now that I’ve got an interview, I finally need a full suit of my own. Needless to say, being a slender 6’2″ female makes finding a suit… challenging. Either the jacket is too short or too wide, and as for pants or a skirt? Well, I’ve learned to hope for substantial hems that can be let out, since I can’t afford anything custom-made (yet!)

I won’t bore you with details, but let’s just say we had been searching for HOURS already when we stumbled across a cooking demonstration in “The Cellar” (the demonstration kitchen in the basement of Macy’s) from David Lawrence, the executive chef of 1300 Fillmore. His fried green tomato salad with honey lavender goat cheese definitely improved my spirits. While waiting for it to start, I also heard about the “SF Chefs. Food. Wine” festival for the first time. If you’re 21, sign up to volunteer and get in free! It’s going to be AMAZING. (But I’ll write more about my deep and abiding desire to attend this festival at a later date.)

Oh, and after another 4 hours, I finally found a suit. I blame it on the spike of energy I got from Chef David ūüôā

CASABLANCA

After dinner, my mother headed home and the night really began. I headed across the bay to Berkeley, to have dessert with a friend from school who’s here this summer teaching middle school kids math and theater. What a combination. From there, I persuaded her to come first to a friend’s party in north Berkeley and then back to SF to see my cousin’s band, Maus Haus, headline a show in the Mission Creek Music Festival at the Bottom of the Hill. Note: I’ve written about Maus Haus before. Incidentally, there was an adventure surrounding that show, too.

Well.

The party, for the record, was pretty cool. Casablanca-themed, which meant that (nearly) everyone was decked out in their vintage best, and many of the people in attendance were Lindy dancers, so yes, there was legitimate dancing going on. A rare sort of thing to see. I say nearly all were dressed up, though, because my friend and I were most definitely dressed to reflect the rest of our distinctly modern days. Oh well.

PUBLIC TRANSPORTATION

We planned to leave at 10:45 in order to catch the BART back into the city to the 16th street stop in time to get the #13 Fillmore bus to the venue by midnight, when the band was theoretically to start.

We didn’t leave by 10:45.

We trusted in the accuracy of the host’s iPhone and its BART schedule, missed TWO trains, and ended up leaving at 11:15. Oy.

We made it to the mission BART station by 11:50, and discovered that the next bus wouldn’t be arriving until 12:04, meaning we’d definitely be missing some of the set. In the course of the next 14 minutes, my friend and I attempted to hail a cab.

This was when my super-sheltered-suburban-inner-child decided to rear her ugly (and usually so carefully contained) little head. Somehow, I managed to try to hail not only about 20 already-occupied taxis, but also a pizza delivery boy and a cop car. The bus came before I could manage to get one. Yes, before you ask, I am ashamed to exist.

When we finally made it to the Bottom of the Hill (after being stopped by a photographer from SF Station, who I’m pretty sure has some lovely candids of me trying to call a friend of mine) and tried to pay, but were told that they were no longer charging.

There was only one song left.

Needless to say, we weren’t pleased. After about 5 minutes of music, we were back out on the street, searching for the bus¬†stop. It proved impossible to find,¬†so¬†we¬†finally managed to¬†sucessfully hail a cab. ¬†Because BART was no longer running, we had to wait 40 minutes at the Transbay Terminal for the bus back across the bay. Another hour later (after making everyone on that bus despise us for laughing hysterically at the ridiculousness of the evening for a good portion of the ride,) we finally made it back to her apartment.

It was her last weekend in the bay area- I’m just hoping it was memorable enough that she forgives me for the nightmare of transportation we faced.

Effectual thinking

Posted in adventures by Zoelle on July 22, 2009

I just finished reading this document. It summarizes the 2001 findings of Saras Sarasvathy who tried to determine the essence of an “entrepreneurial spirit.” Yes, it’s from 2001, so it’s not exactly hot-off-the-presses new, but the answer is to draw a distinction between causal thinking and effectual thinking and it also happens to articulate the reasons for my hesitance to pursue entrepreneurship better than anything else I’ve seen:

All entrepreneurs begin with three categories of means: (1) Who they are – their traits, tastes and abilities; (2) What they know – their education, training, expertise, and experience; and, (3) Whom they know- their social and professional networks. Using these means, the entrepreneurs begin to imagine and implement possible effects that can be created with them.

Well, that’s all well and good- except I’ve spent the last 20 years (yes, that’s my entire life) learning little else except writing/effective communication, following directions, and maybe a little HTML. I spend most of my time reading. This isn’t to undermine the value of those pursuits or that knowledge- I just never thought of those skills as facilitating the creation of a business, perse. Maybe a consultancy, but I didn’t have anything except my high school diploma and some classes in creative writing. You get my point- the “what I know” bucket seemed to be pretty lacking as a staring point for anything at all. That, in combination with my own particular brand of extreme risk aversion, seemed to put the kibbosh on being an entrepreneur any time soon.

Well, things change. I’ve spent a lot of time this summer reading about entrepreneurship, watching my friends try it out, and playing around with some ideas of my own. I’ve been reaching out to that community a little bit (I live in the bay area, after all) and trying to get a feel for the sorts of people who engage in this effectual thinking. It’s something I’d like to learn, antithetical as it intuitively seems to the way I typically function.

Because I’m going into my senior year of college (and facing the sudden possibility of $150k of debt in just a few years if my interview at HBS goes well at the end of August [yes, I got one- just found on on Monday]) I’ve suddenly been weighing my priorities and thinking a lot about ways to merge the type of lifestyle I desire with the sort of job that will provide me some modicum of security or at least (best?) work that’s engaging enough to make me forget how terrifying it all is. It turns out the engaging-work part is more important to me than the other two, at least for now. What’s more, it seems to me that as far as times-of-your-life-to-risk-everything go, right after college isn’t a bad one. It’s not like I’ve got much to lose- the worst case scenario is I live at home and have to take the full loan package for my MBA.

So this is my public declaration (to keep me honest) that I’ll actually explore this possibility. I’ll push my comfort zone, challenge my thought process, and yes, if my (current) little idea looks like it’s going to work, I’ll tell you all about it.

What is it about Free Stuff?

Posted in Eccentricities by Zoelle on July 21, 2009

What is it with American culture and free things? This morning, my boss and I stood in line for half an hour to get a free pastry with the purchase of a hot beverage at Starbucks. Would I have typically purchased a pastry? Would I typically have gone to starbucks at that time of morning? Was the pastry even worth waiting for? The answer to all of these questions is a pretty definitive ‘hell no.’ And yet because I got a shiny coupon (both on my own and as a forward from two of my superiors at work) I shelled out my $4 so I could get the free pastry. How does this make any sense? I mean, kudos to Starbucks for getting so many people to waste so much time (and without even stocking additional pastries to meet the demand- seriously? If your promotion goes until 10:30, have enough pastries to last that long. There were basically none left at 8:30) but how do we let this happen?

Another recent example, just to drive this point home: I basically never drink coffee at all, and I never got to McDonalds, and I still seriously considered finding one in downtown Oakland yesterday so that I could get a free 8 oz mocha– just because it was free and I like whipped cream under all circumstances. I’d chalk this complete absurdity to my own proclivity for acquiring free things (after all, I probably eat more samples than normal human food during any given weekend- thank you Costco and Trader Joes…) but I’m not alone! That line was at least 3x as long as it is on even the busiest mornings- and these are people who avoid wasting time and calories at all costs! Regardless, this strategy of waving the carrot of something-free (even something that’s not entirely desirable on its own without the incentive of shiny free-ness) is one that works out really well for people. If McDonalds really wants to enter the specialty coffee market, then giving away McCafe’s once a week for a month a) gets people to try the product and thus overcome any assumptions of poor quality they might have because it’s coming from a fast-food restaurant and b) gets them to try it regularly, potentially getting them in the habit of heading to McDonalds for their morning coffee. It’s obviously not going to work on everyone, but not a bad strategy, overall. I’ll be curious to see if they’re able to overcome the stigma of their preexisting brand and have real success in this market.

Speaking of Free Stuff

Charlie Hoehn just came out with a (free) e-book on Recession-Proofing yourself as a recent college graduate. His strategy hinges on the idea of willing working for intelligent people for free in order to prove your worth, open the door to future (paid) gigs, build a network, and create an impressive portfolio. The book is only 30 pgs long (with HUGE type) so it’s worth taking a look if you’ll be graduating soon (or, like some people I know, are older and looking to transition industries during a recession or have been out of the job market for a while.)

¬†So: In the spirit of the Tall mini-experiment I ran last weekend (in which I tested my theory that being tall was not the most important factor in peoples’ perceptions of me as was kind of posited in a recent book on being tall [spoiler: it wasn’t.]) I’m going to try out this recommendation. Admittedly, I’m not a graduate yet, and I already essentially have 2 job offers for after graduation (so I don’t really need to recession-proof myself), but the general concept should still apply, right? I’ve got a few mini-projects I’ve been meaning to pitch to people anyways, so I’m going to use the process and scripts Hoehn outlines and we’ll see how this goes. Either way, I’ll keep you posted.

The Value of an Education

Posted in Eccentricities by Zoelle on July 20, 2009

A few days ago, Ben Casnocha posted on his blog about Tyler Cowen’s comparison of the modern educational system to a placebo. It was… incendiary,¬† shall we say. The main point (as exhaustively clarified in the very lively comments to the post) was essentially that perhaps college students receive “intellectual self-confidence” (what Casnocha identifies as the primary benefit of a college education) from just thinking that they’re being educated (as opposed to actually learning anything.) While I have some problems with the validity of the metaphor in general (how can the educational system, which is inherently a delivery system be a placebo?)nevertheless, it got me thinking, and rather than jumping all over his blog (again) I thought I’d post some of my musings here:

On Critical Reasoning

The selling point for the liberal-arts college educational experience is in many ways the contention that it will “teach you to think” (at least, that’s what they claim here at Yale…) Numerous people (who I’m too lazy to track down links for right now) have seriously questioned whether it’s possible to teach a skill like critical reasoning in a classroom setting. While I think a class called “critical reasoning” sounds both exceptionally boring and not particularly useful, I -do- think that the collegiate educational environment does provide legitimate, tangible opportunities to build critical reasoning skills on a regular basis, though in a perhaps less formal sense. Writing essays forces development of the ability to construct a logical argument from preexisting material- that’s a certain type of thinking that can be applied more broadly than in English class. I could give more examples, but I’m hoping my point is clear- critical reasoning, to my mind, is one of those skills that really can be acquired through internalization of the general processes at work in specific circumstances (like essay writing or doing problem sets or working on a project)and because the college experience forces those situations upon the individual regularly and within a (theoretically) supportive environment, critical reasoning is almost forced to develop, at least to a point. Perhaps I’m being naive; it wouldn’t be the first time.

On the Value of College in General

It could be argued that for the sufficiently motivated individual, such experiences can be had outside of the collegiate bubble. That’s totally true- but I imagine that very few people are sufficiently motivated to sustain that level of constant challenge (of one kind or another) for a full 4+ years. Independent learning and exploration of that kind certainly require strong goals or at very least enough self-awareness to recognize what ought to be studied. I refuse to believe that a completely random approach could be as valuable as an admittedly generic or flawed but guided program. You’d have to get very lucky, at least.

Yet (as has also been argued over and over and over again) I would point to the other aspects of the collegiate experience to locate its value– for me at least. Mostly, it provides a deferment- I get to explore lots of things, meet lots of people, and stew until I get at least a marginally better idea of what I want to do professionally (in case you were wondering, I still have no clue. But that’s besides the point.)I suppose if I had known from the age of 5 that I wanted to be a zookeeper (like one of my friends) it would make more sense to muck around for a bit and then go to Zoo School– but I’m not in that situation, and something like 90% of my friends aren’t either. College serves as one giant tasting menu of everything from academic disciplines to types of people and even physical locations. Great for my confusion. I hope.

It’s also got all those other things people mention- meeting and interacting with diverse new people, making contacts, accessing new opportunities, etc. All of that is great, and if you know what you want to learn, well then, that’s good too. Especially in the sciences or medicine or other fields where some base level of rote memorization or skill is actually necessary to function.

To bring this back to my previous thoughts about critical reasoning: for me (a literature major) it’s not about remembering the specific content of specific classes (unless they directly relate to my thesis) so much as recalling how I approached various problems or issues I encountered in previous essays or readings and using that skill set to deconstruct analogous situations. It’s about recognizing something essential to human nature in all of its forms (in this case, narrative structure- my continual obsession- but that’s another story entirely.)And while I could read all these books on my own, I know I get more from listening to my peers fail to understand the source material than I could get from independently reading a critical essay with a different perspective. It helps me understand how other people think– and I can’t think of learning anything more valuable for the future. But that’s just me.

Ok, I know many of you are college students or formal college students- so if you managed to wade through my rambling thoughts above, leave some of your own- do you think the only benefit we get from formal education is an “intellectual self-confidence” of sorts? Am I naive to think there’s something more there? What do value do you find in college? Do you think you’re actually learning anything? More importantly, do you care if you are?

Notes from the Weekend (a follow-up on Tall thoughts)

Posted in Uncategorized by Zoelle on July 13, 2009

Not that I want this blog to only ruminate on the issue of my height, but I’ve got a little more to say:

Inspired by¬†my musings on being a Tall Woman last friday, I did a little experiment this weekend, and I’m back to report on the super-unscientific-but-interesting results. Essentially, I got a haircut Saturday morning, and decided to try dressing up for once- just to see if there was any difference in the reaction I received from random strangers on the street.

Typically, regardless of what I look like, I attract some level of attention just by virtue of being 6’2 and female. At most, that usually means some stares (usually from toddlers) and the occasional inquiry about my athletic prowess (in case you were wondering, I’m the most uncoordinated human being of all time, so that ‘potential’ is entirely wasted on me. Sorry.)

Well, it would seem that my ideas about the importance of attractiveness/confidence and its effect on how a tall woman is perceived were not wholly unfounded: on two separate occasions, I was approached by complete strangers who said, respectively that I was “awesome” for my height, and that I “received compliments for my height” and “carried it well.” What’s funny is that the only thing that changed between that day of shopping and the last time I’d been out (during which I wasn’t approached at all!) was my haircut and the fit of my jeans- my heels were the same height, and my posture was identical (I was paying attention.) I find it interesting that an objective change in my hair led to comments on my height, which clearly hadn’t changed at all. To me, this implies that tall women who “carry it well” are rare enough that looking polished while tall is worthy of comment. That’s a sad conclusion, if you ask me. After all, would you walk up to someone who’s 5 feet tall and tell them they handled their height well? I should hope not. There are plenty of people of all heights who slouch and dress badly- do strangers comment when they don’t? (I’m under the impression that no, but I could be totally wrong.)

Look, I recognize that those comments were clearly intended to be complimentary, and I’m not going to pretend that being told I was awesome by a stranger wasn’t a great ego boost; it was. It’s just interesting that being tall as a female is automatically seen as something to be struggled with, or overcome. It’s relatively universally acknowledged that for a man, being tall is a good thing- an unfair advantage, even- but for a woman, it’s always about the difficulty of finding pants or a boyfriend or “owning” your height when everyone is against you. And I’m not a fan of the victim narrative pattern, personally, so it’s hard to take those kind words without a grain of salt. If I’m successful in business in the future, will my success be framed by the fact of my height and gender? I certainly hope not- I’d like my personal story to be about more than overcoming some physical fact of life, learning to “own” myself, or whether or not my height makes me more successful because it makes me more masculine.

In other news: This week I’m going on my very first business trip. I’m inordinately excited, although I’ve been told that they’re not nearly as exciting as I currently imagine them to be. That’s ok; free lunches still excite me, whether or not they’re in the Bay Area or LA.

Thoughts on being a “Tall”

Posted in Eccentricities by Zoelle on July 10, 2009
Arianne Cohen just came out with “The Tall Book,” an examination of the world of tall women, and while I haven’t read the book itself yet, upon reading the review¬† in the NY Times, I started thinking (as I often do) about being a “Tall,” as the author calls us. Unlike the reviewer, I definitely count- I’m 6’2″ (that’s too tall to model, just in case you were wondering) and completely shameless about wearing heels. In fact, I typically have at least 2″ worth of shoe, if not 5. This is equal parts irrational love for shoes and thumbing my nose at those assholes who feel that my height makes my footwear subject to their judgment and regulation (yes, you know who you are.) Honestly, unless I’m roaming the city stabbing innocent people with my stilettos, you can back the fuck off, shorty.

Anyways. According to this book review, I am an “SUV of humanity.” That means all those great statistics you always hear about tall people- eat more, better salary, automatically given more personal space, longer life, etc etc. And of course, less likely to get married. Or find pants that fit. Regardless of whether or not those findings apply to me, I’m not really sure what I think about being called an SUV. Just saying.

That said, unlike the supposed majority of young tall women cited by the reviewer (and perhaps the author) as unhappy about their height, I like my height. I relish it. One of my college essays was about being tall, for heaven’s sake. Yet I’m confused by the problem that other tall women (including the author) seem to have with “dating down.” Maybe I don’t have a problem with it because I’m rarely really conscious of my height differential with other people (it’s just sort of how the world works- I tend to be literally looking down most of the time. I only tend to notice if I have to significantly look up) or because I tend to meet the people I’m dating when we’re both sitting down (I am, after all, a student, which means a lot of time at a desk) but I’ve “dated down” for most of my life. I can think of two people total that have been taller than me at all, and only one who was noticeably so. My longest relationship was with someone who was significantly shorter, and while he DID find as many curbs to stand on as possible, that was more of a running joke between us than anything else.

As for being treated differently… well, it’s hard to say, isn’t it? I’ve only ever been treated the way I am, you know? I find that I get substantially different treatment based on the amount of time I put into my appearance, not whether or not I’m wearing heels. That could be because my starting height is already pretty up there, but I think it’s more than that. Attractiveness and confidence are just as important, if not more so.

Penelope Trunk recently wrote about “How to Be a¬†Tall Person¬†at Work” which, to be completely honest, I had some trouble taking seriously (yes, because I’m already tall,) even though she does make an interesting point about body language and people’s perceptions. And she’s not the only one writing about such things recently. It’s everywhere. What is all this recent obsession with height, anyway? Is it that height is one of those few things that people can’t really change about themselves (as opposed to just about everything else these days) and everyone is hyperaware of any real or perceived advantage that a person can have? Is this part of a larger societal fascination that I’ve been willfully ignoring? Perhaps. Either way, perhaps I’ll pay closer attention to people’s body language when they speak to me for the next few weeks, and we’ll see if I notice anything special. Maybe I’ll take to wearing those really high heels more than I already do. Who knows.

 

Fireworks, Mimes, and Books

Posted in adventures by Zoelle on July 6, 2009

FIREWORKS

As you may have noticed, this weekend was a national holiday here in America, and one imbued with some astonishing qualities, if you ask me. This year in particular July 4th celebrations had a real transformative effect on my understanding of the town that I live in. Every year, my mother and I go to the parade in the morning and the fireworks at night. Both of these festivities are kind of hokey, to be honest, and this year for the first time they made me realize just how much my hometown has in common with those small towns that populate the rest of this country, coastal and non-coastal regions alike. I’d always sort of assumed that because my area is relatively affluent and part of the bay area that we were different- perhaps more conservative than the rest of the bay, but still a part of the stereotypical Californian ethos. I mean, this was a place where I didn’t feel cool or rich enough to ever quite fit. But if you watch us on the fourth of July- well, you wouldn’t get that feeling. And the groups that are represented in our parade don’t just magically pop into existence once a year- they’re an integral part of the fabric of this community, whether I come in contact with them or not. We have megachurches with rock bands and a lawnmower brigade and 4h and our share of soldiers overseas. We’re pretty good at little league baseball, and we have very earnest cheerleaders. We have more organizations for young to teenage girls to create social hierarchies than I even knew existed. And I don’t say this to condemn or make fun of any of these institutions- far from it- I just didn’t really recognize their existence before. To each his own. It’s good to know there are things going on besides the train museum in my town. My point is more that it’s easy to get caught up in a personal vision of a place based solely on how you interact with it, and to entirely miss everything else that’s going on. I think this place is boring and empty because none of those groups are the types of groups I care to join, not because there isn’t anything to do. So my boredom isn’t a reflection on this place, so much as an indicator that I belong elsewhere. Maybe these are empty observations, but they feel important to me nonetheless. It’s the stupid common sense things that end up being the most meaningful once you get past “knowing” them and actually figure them out, I guess. Oh, and one other observation: it doesn’t matter how awkward and out of place you may feel in a location- fireworks are cool no matter where you go, if you’re into that sort of thing.

MIMES

On Sunday, in an effort to go places that could offer things we actually wanted to do, my mother and I headed to Mission Dolores park to see the opening performance of the SF Mime Troupe’s ¬†new show, “Too Big to Fail.” It’s the 50 yr old Tony Award-winning company’s musical take on the financial crisis a la Just So stories. In an enormously entertaining production, a storyteller takes the audience through a series of folktales to explain our “Sotodo” (or greed button.) Along the way, we hear about the curse of credit, the demon of privatization, and enjoy some excellent performances. The show finds its strength in its actors and its characterization of the circumstances that led to the financial crisis, which while (literally) demonizing of large corporations, doesn’t let anyone off without some guilt. The show falters in the end by proposing a payment strike (where those in debt only pay off what they actually owe and don’t pay back the interest as well.) Noble and idealistic as the idea may be, it’s just a little too naive and simplistic to be convincing, intelligent, or, frankly, worth suggesting. It undermines a lot of the previous power of the show, if you ask me. On the other hand, if you’re going to preach that message, you couldn’t ask for a better audience than San Franciscans in Mission Dolores park. So there you go. On the way back to the BART, we took a detour down Valencia for some quality pirate time. Always enjoyable. Finally, we grabbed the $3.50 tofu tamale special at¬†La Oaxaquena (delicious!) and headed home immensely satisfied. A good day, to say the least.

BOOKS

I’m fortunate enough to have awesome friends in publishing (I’m looking at you, Sarah, Meredith and Jeffrey) so I can get free books from time to time. While I’m technically supposed to be plowing through my thesis reading list (which I totally want to do, don’t get me wrong) I took a break this weekend to read the new translation of The Skating Rink by Roberto Bolano. This is particularly exciting because technically speaking it hasn’t been released yet. I can’t really say much about it until then, but let’s just say I’m working on a pretty substantial essay review of the title which will appear in the Yale Review of Books in the fall (and then maybe here!) Very exciting stuff.