I was in Indianapolis for a convention, wandering the streets with my good friend around lunchtime, when we found ourselves in front a brewpub. There were no lines – a rarity at this hour – and my stomach was making the rumbiles.
“Let’s grab a bite,” I said.
“Hang on,” said my friend, and he took out his smartphone.
“Who are you calling?”
“Nobody. I want to check the reviews.”
“Reviews?” I asked. “It’s a brewpub. It’ll have hamburgers and beer and cost around twenty bucks. There’s no line. Come on.”
He looked up. “But are they good hamburgers and beer?”
“We won’t know until we try them.”
“We will if we check the reviews.”
This is utterly, completely … alien behavior.
I understand that reviews drive a lot of consumer activity, but it’s never made sense to me. In the days before the internet made everyone a critic, we had a professional class to tell one what to watch, what to read, where to eat. I remember that they existed, but I can’t remember a single time I took their advice.
I’m not sure why. It may just be a contrarian streak, or a dislike of presumed authority, but mostly it’s because I know I like a lot of things other people don’t enjoy. For instance, it’s difficult to imagine anyone I trust giving a five-star rating to even the most remarkable plate of haggis. My favorite whiskies have been described by trusted friends as tasting like “a mouthful of wet dirt.” And I take comfort in the existence of a Never Mind the Bollocks cover album performed by bhangra musicians.
Aside from my own quirks, thanks to the internet things have spiraled completely out of control. Anyone with access to a public library’s internet connection and two working fingers can now take part in elevating or torpedoing anyone else’s endeavors.
My favorite to date? “Honestly one of the worst masses I have ever been to. Boring, uninspired, sloppy and irrelevant”—Marilisa A., reviewing Our Lady of Good Counsel Church in Manhattan.
Seriously, who decides what church to attend based on semi-anonymous reviews? Presumably the same kind of people who take the time to write them.
I’ve tried to fold reviews into my recent larger purchases –a car, for instance. But with these items, it always seems to come down to hooting tribalism around someone’s personal preferences wedded to a certainty that all OTHER preferences are the work of Bealzebub himself.
Now, that’s at the consumer level. At the creator level, it’s naturally a different story. I have to recognize that reviews are considered an important part of the buying process by many people. I don’t have to understand it, necessarily; but I do have to engage with it.
What I *can* understand is this: It’s always pleasant to hear your work praised, and it’s always useful to receive constructive criticism, and it’s always a pain in the ass to slog through the pointless and unconstructive criticism. One way to counterbalance the unconstructive criticism is to provide more positive or constructive reviews for your fellow workers, slogging away in the word / note / jeté mines.
To my mind, the best review isn’t one which seeks to influence others into purchasing (or refusing to purchase) some piece of work. Rather, it’s a means of letting the creator know their work was seen, that there was a connection made. It exchanges just a bit more of my time for their work, lets them inhabit my mind for few hours longer. I suppose, perhaps, that’s the point that many reviewers make. A tip of the hat to someone’s best efforts, whether it was fully appreciated or not.
For the record, I didn’t review the brewpub. But the burger was fine and the lager was lager.
Play to Innovate isn’t my usual read. Generally speaking, I find books on business practice to be either tiresome slogs or condescending managerial tripe. Finding a book filled with solid advice that still clips along at a rapid clip is a wonderful change of pace.
Bret Schwalb’s central concept might not be brand new – brainstorming has, of course, been around longer than most of us have. What Play to Innovate does is shift the focus of a brainstorm away from the gray, safe, dry-erase corporate boardroom and towards a method of freeing our minds, individually or in a group.
While we’ve heard “there are no bad ideas” in countless sessions, none of them have felt true until running through one of Bret’s meetings. By encouraging a safe place, Play to Innovate unlocks something many of us buried long ago – the capacity for wonder, the ability to dream something larger than we have before.
When we hear of history’s great innovators, not one of them played it safe or focused on the realistic. They dared to think beyond the minds around them, to stretch the boundaries of imagination and pluck something tangible from a dream. Bret’s methods provide a framework to help your team do just that.
Perhaps the most eye-opening piece of advice is to let those individuals who take pleasure in dragging things down simply opt out. It’s rare, in my experience, to hear someone admit their method won’t please everyone. I can name with certainty the people in my company who would roll their eyes, drag their feet, and refuse to engage with this process; and seeing this acknowledged by an author is a refreshing thing.
I recommend Play to Innovate to anyone who has struggled with a thorny problem at work, or been challenged by seemingly impossible requests. Because with just a touch of play, the impossible can become innovation.
(Full disclosure: Jess Nevins has “Tuckerized” me – which is to say, named a character after me – in this book, so if you’re expecting solid literary criticism you should go talk to an academic he’s annoyed. However, I’m being as candid as my massive ego permits.)
Stagecoach Mary is a Weird Western pulp-style collection set in an alternate Montana in the 1890s. Consisting of eight short stories and encompassing elements of horror, westerns, steampunk and modern sensibilities regarding such things as race and gender; it’s a delightful read in the summer and, I suspect, will be even more fun come Halloween.
If you’re unfamiliar with the historical “Stagecoach” Mary Fields, well, you’re in for a treat. In our reality, she was the first African-American woman star route mail carrier in the United States. Tough, stubborn, independent and successful, she was a remarkable woman. Actor and Montana native Gary Cooper wrote an article for Ebony in which he said, “Born a slave somewhere in Tennessee, Mary lived to become one of the freest souls ever to draw a breath, or a .38,” which sounds like high praise in any era.
Jess doesn’t shy away from the racial elements of the time – you really can’t, writing about such a woman – but to my mind he handles it with grace. Alongside Mary’s own racial issues, the Blackfoot tribe and the trials of the Chinese in the American West are all presented with heroes of their own. (I will confess that Cool Hand Liú is, perhaps, one of my new favorite names.)
He writes each of the stories through the eyes of a young white American man, however, never trying to put himself into the shoes of the other characters; and while the narrator and the sheriff are perhaps remarkable for their tolerance in this time, if you can accept ghosts and river serpents you should be able to accept softer edges in a social milieu.
For the most part, the stories read with the quick action and tense excitement one would expect from this style. As in any clever collection, the two strongest stories serve as bookends. “The Hitchhiker” is a perhaps classic ghost story, but one with enough twists and turns, not to mention exciting scenes, to make one forget the urban legend at its core. And in “Stagecoach Mary’s Last Ride-Out,” a half-dozen more legends of the fictional Wild West make an appearance to fight alongside our erstwhile heroine, culminating in a shootout described with all the breathless intensity of the OK Corral.
Other solid stories include “Omahksoyisksiksina,” about those creatures the Blackfoot tribe may have left behind and to whom they eventually return; “The Phantom Airship of ’98,” featuring members of several tribes attempting to right a historically tragic wrong; and the aforementioned “Cool Hand Liú,” in which an alternate Paladin has his guns, and has certainly travelled. Each of these were well-crafted and enjoyable tales, with characters deeper than your average pulp and creatures described with feverish intensity.
The two weak stories, to my mind, are “Stagecoach Mary Outwits the Devil” and “The Madness That Overtook Cascade.” While “Outwits” is certainly well-written, and I enjoyed Jess’ Devil immensely, I was still unable to decouple it from its well-known inspiration, which you will recognize within a few pages.
My shrug at “The Madness” is, in a word, maddening, because I’m a huge fan of the work I believe inspired this one – HP Lovecraft’s Dreamlands stories – and I believe I simultaneously wished for more mythic and doomed poetry while being unable to envision the story’s events taking place in a stolid American plains town.
That being said, Jess Nevins has an excellent grasp of the way people speak. His dialogue throughout gave me different tones and voices in the ear, and his descriptions of Cascade and its surroundings made me feel as though I was there myself. Unsurprisingly, given his reference works, Jess also knows how the pulp heart beats, and makes copious use of that knowledge.
I found Stagecoach Mary to be a wonderful collection of stories by a writer who is solidly in his wheelhouse, about a woman who deserves to be more well-known and regarded in the modern day. Pick it up and review it for yourself, if you’ve the time and inclination – you won’t regret it for a moment.
I used to keep a file of quotations. It grew to about 16 pages in Microsoft Word. Today I scribble them down in my bullet journal when they hit me especially hard, but I don’t go out of my way looking for them any longer.
I’m leaving aside the monologues I love – Richard III’s “Winter of our discontent,” Macbeth’s “Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow,” or Hamlet’s “Quintessence of dust.” While some of these could be considered quotes, they’re more performance pieces.
I’m also leaving out song lyrics. Even though there are some lovely sentiments in song, and some poems that masquerade as songs – looking at you, Lou Reed – I feel like the question is more literary and less lyrical.
Timing is also important. For example, while I delivered this Joyce Cary quote to my graduating senior class at Illinois Wesleyan University, I no longer believe it as fervently as I did in my maudlin youth:
“The truth is that life is hard and dangerous; that he who seeks his own happiness does not find it; that he who is weak must suffer; that he who demands love will be disappointed; that he who is greedy will not be fed; that he who seeks peace will find strife; that truth is only for the brave; that joy is only for him who does not fear to be alone; that life is only for the one who is not afraid to die.”
It still rings true to me, but it no longer seems a quote to live by.
Still, some quotes are timeless. At our core, we rarely change who we truly are, and our values are often reflected in the words which ring most true. When I pause to think, and sift through the dozens of quotes which have meant something to me, I continually come back to the one which has served as a rudder for me throughout the years:
“A moment of patience in a moment of anger can prevent a thousand moments of sorrow.”
This version of the quote is variously attributed, though the front runner seems to be one Imam Ali, about whom I know nothing. It’s a wonderful quote and a good reminder that when I wish to snap, I can play the clock forward to consider the consequences of my actions.
Of course, I recently came across another quote which seems to counterbalance the one above. Virginia Woolf tells us, “You cannot find peace by avoiding life.”
This quote is part of the reason I took up the Ten-Minute Topic challenge. While I offer many of my strongest opinions – most of which are, sadly, political in nature – I have often been reluctant to offer smaller ones, or to share one on one with those who mean most to me and whom I fear may disagree.
By challenging myself to quickly write in response to these prompts, I am trying to see where my natural opinions and quirks arise, rather than working to polish them into a finely honed response. I’m already learning more about myself, not all of it good.
But by the same token, I am no longer avoiding life.
What do you sometimes pretend to understand that you truly don’t?
I’m in something of a bind at work.
You see, the dayjobbery is in Information Technology, but I’m on the “administrative and quality” side of that technology. It’s not like I spend my days debugging or writing code, or figuring out which language works best, or comparing one program or tool to another.
The dayjobbery is also at a company famous for engineering knowledge, which means I’m already surrounded by very technically competent people who would be perfectly happy without people like me cluttering up the corridors and taking up bonus paychecks.
Now I am known to be the “most technical” member of my immediate team. Which may or may not be accurate, but is similar to saying I am the “most empathetic” public executioner or the “most honest” politician.
This sometimes combines in a situation where I am asked to own a technical application, the scope of which is often beyond me. And as previously discussed, I have trouble:
- Saying no,
- Admitting failure, and
- Looking foolish or ignorant.
This is a potent cocktail for utter disaster.
It’s never come to disaster, of course. Historically, I have always been able to use a combination of Google-fu, a vast network of friends who are skilled at vastly different things, enough charm to delay the requestors and a certain low cunning to – in general – come up with an answer that satisfies people and fixes the immediate issue.
I have learned, too, to keep notes on how I fixed the thing that time, to ensure the next time it raises its head I have an answer, even if I don’t fully understand WHY this is the answer.
I have tried to make myself more interested in these technical components, but it’s a hopeless case. I don’t much care why a program or function works the way it does. I’m far more curious about why someone would lay it out in a certain way, or the history behind how this program was selected, or any of those other, more human factors that wrap themselves around the tool.
That curiosity makes me very, very good at the “administrative and quality” side in which I actually work. Just not at the technical sides of administering quality tools.