Review: What I Talk About When I Talk About Running

This slim volume is partly a guide to training for long distance running, part memoir of a writer’s life and career, part zen philosophy of life and death. I’ve heard it repeatedly described as “intimate” and “thoughtful” and it is both of these things, yet also it is more.

For someone who hates to run, I sure have read a lot about long distance running lately. I read Scott Jurek’s ultramarathon running memoir/vegan cookbook, I’ve read more articles about the sport than I can count – partially because I’m trying to understand my husband (who loves running) but partially because I’m trying to understand other things, about life, discipline and repetition as the path to greatness in any of life’s pursuits, athletic or not.

While I am not a fan of running, I am a fan of stories that tell of human will and triumph, and I am a great fan of Murakami, so I was drawn to this book. It seemed inevitable that I should read it and the changing of the year always brings with it for me a more focused than usual contemplation of discipline, of goals and will.

Murakami draws some fairly obvious parallels here between the lonely, plodding labors of long-distance running and regular novel-writing. (This book makes a good companion to Stephen King’s “On Writing” which I also recently read and enjoyed.) The marathons and triathlons for which Murakami trains and in which he competes provide some narrative flow and shape. But I would tell you not to read this book for the narrative, and not even for the autobiographical insight into Murakami (how he became a writer, how he and his wife sold their successful bar and changed their lives with calm-eyed purpose).

Read this book for the unexpected beauty of its sentences, for the small bits of descriptive genius that Murakami creates so often. The small wry jokes, the delightful insistence on personifying objects. Though some reviewers have complained about his stubborn vagueness, it’s clear to me that when he says something is “pretty good” or that he is “kind of naive” or that his leg felt “really painful” or some similarly terse and boring statement, it’s deliberate. And he is unrelentingly Japanese in his subtle deliberateness. If he unleashed all the words in his vocabulary at all times, we wouldn’t notice the most wonderful bits, where every word is so easily, perfectly placed, where every small choice matters.

These are few of my favorite moments:

From chapter 6: “I had plenty of desire to run, but my legs had their own opinion about this.”

“I’m a piece of machinery. I don’t need to feel a thing. Just forge on ahead.”

“[One] of the privileges given to those who’ve avoided dying young is the blessed right to grow old. The honor of physical decline is waiting.”

From chapter 7: “Has the dark shadow really disappeared? Or is it inside me, concealed, waiting for its chance to reappear?”

From chapter 9: “The sad spreadsheet of my life that reveals how much my debts far outweighs my assets.”

As I review these scraps I find they do not quite retain their magic or meaning all alone, excerpted here, the spell broken. I also find I can’t quite describe what makes Murakami’s particular way of speaking and writing so special to me. If you do not like Murakami, perhaps this book is not for you. I do not like running, but this book delighted and touched me to the core.

Book review: What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, by Haruki Murakami
5/5 stars

Review: Modern Romance

Aziz Ansari’s humorous stroll through the jungle of modern (highly digital) dating is a treat to read. With its breezy, often hysterical, style and well-researched tidbits about human behavior and the neuroscience behind why we act and react the way we do during mating activities, its bestseller status is no surprise to me.

This is not a “comedy” book per se; it’s a very serious book about a silly topic, as written by a funny person. Ansari seems to have really found his voice here – it’s the voice of a slightly goofy smart guy observing, not quite believing the silly things he sees, and delving deeper into the research to show us that things really are this silly in most modern internet-enabled dating.

To write this book, Ansari teamed up with NYU sociologist Eric Klinenberg, and designed experiments, surveys, even dedicated Reddit forums to collect information and (often sad and hilarious) personal stories from people all over the world. They do an excellent job of illustrating the modern “problem” of becoming paralyzed and exhausted by having so many choices, the ability to endlessly research them all, and the conviction that if we CAN have “the best” then we SHOULD have it. Of course, when we apply this set of ideas to dating, we’re setting ourselves up for fatigue, misery and probably, failure. This is demonstrated in a number of ways, data and anecdotes.

A highlight for me was the overview of the neurochemistry behind “companionate” vs “passionate” love (a subject I would expect to see explored more thoroughly in more relationship books actually) and the comments from Jonathan Haidt, an NYU psychologist specializing in morality and emotions. Some of the soundest relationship- and life-advice came from this section. I was also happy to see that Dan Savage was consulted and quoted with regard to exploring non-monogamy as a serious option.

With any book about modern dating, I expect to be appalled at least some of the time by sexism, but on the whole I think Ansari does a good job of representing the bullshit that women face and remaining neutral, not falling into many potential sexist or slut-shaming traps. Regarding different reasons for women vs men to date and get married, I enjoyed the discussion of how the internet has freed young people (especially women) in repressive cultures to interact more freely in secret than their parents might allow. It’s interesting to think about how technology that seems to make life harder for more privileged women (i.e. giving dudes more power of choice, lowering women’s perceived “market value” – a horrible idea and worth a whole different discussion) also makes life easier for women in more restrictive cultures (giving them more freedom to participate in the world).

I have some quibbles with the book. At times it is repetitive and some of the jokes are mighty dumb. Another annoying thing that comes to mind is the glossing over of the Tinder origin story and the sexist erasure of co-founder Whitney Wolfe. They did so much research, you’d think they would have Googled a bit about Tinder and given credit where it was due, instead of participating in erasing Wolfe from history and giving her accomplishments to her male co-founders. (Catch up here if you don’t know what I’m talking about.) Even more tragic, the way Wolfe was ousted from Tinder would have made some great dating horror story material, very relevant to this book!

I think this must have been an honest oversight – I hope so – Ansari has always struck me as more of a feminist, interested in fairness, in truth. Perhaps this is the type of thing that could be corrected in the next edition – I know I’d be happy to read another chapter in a few years, covering whatever new innovations in online dating come up in the meantime.

Book review: Modern Romance, by Aziz Ansari, Eric Klinenberg
4/5 stars

On useful surveys

You know you need to get feedback from your users – you probably already do it. Lately I’ve spent a ton of time carefully adjusting, rewriting and generally fiddling with customer communications, trying to pin down the perfect number of words and the right timing to say something and get a response without annoying people or turning them off. Something just happened that so perfectly illustrates a few key principles to follow that I had to write it down.

Here’s what happened:

I got a haircut yesterday at my favorite salon. The owner greeted me. My usual stylist was friendly and in a good mood. I loved the haircut when I walked out. I had a generally great experience – I even mentioned this to my partner when I got home, what a nice experience I had. (Every business owner’s dream, an actual unpaid spontaneous positive brand placement.)

Today, I got an email from the salon, asking for my feedback. Sure, I thought. I clicked the button (step 1), gave the visit a 5-star rating (2), wrote a one sentence positive note (3), and said yes, I would be likely to recommend the salon (4). That was easy and painless, but it still took about 3 minutes of my time and a high level of goodwill on my part as a customer to complete these 4 steps. I clicked the button to send my response, expecting to be done.

And behold – I was taken to a second page – with 10 verbose multiple choice questions.

Oh my god, I thought as I looked at this wall of text, never mind, I don’t have time for that. Shaking my head, I closed the survey.

If you write surveys that are too long, this is exactly what your customers will do.

So what? Here are some things to remember when surveying customers.

Even the most positive customer will only allow you to impose on them for a moment. You might be their favorite brand, but remember…you’re still just a brand. You’re not their friend. Don’t get confused. You work for them. Not the other way around.

What does that mean? It means that you must respect their time. Ask your three most important questions. Then stop. If they like you, they’ll be back. Ask them another question next time. Or ask those questions a different way. Or maybe, don’t ask them anything for a while, then ask again next month or next quarter.

People like to be nice, they like to help out, and they don’t like to be rude. When someone – even your hair salon, or your podcast app, or your insert-favorite-SaaS-product-here – asks a quick question that costs them almost nothing to answer, they’re  inclined to just answer it. After all, answering “Yes” or “No” or “:)” is just about the same amount of effort as clicking the “X” to dismiss the email or dialog box. The further you get from that amount of effort – the more work you make them do – the less they’ll feel like helping you.

On the flip side, people feel good when they help each other.

Ask them a simple question that they are capable of answering – make it quick and easy – maybe even make it fun by using conversational language and a cute button to press – and they’ll actually have a moment of positive emotion. Maybe it’ll make them more likely to answer your next question, when you ask it in a week or a month. And that’s what you want.

Here are some resources that I found useful as I thought about surveys.

These articles are really basic, but I found them all to be good starting points for inquiry.

The Grateful Challenge

Gini Dietrich threw down the Thanksgiving gauntlet and I’m game for it. So here’s my answer to the Grateful Challenge.

The challenge is this:

Set a timer for 10 minutes and write down all of the things you’re grateful for—or things that you love—as fast as you can. Can you get to 99 things in 10 minutes? (Spoiler: I couldn’t but it was still worth doing.)

  1. My able physical body (minor climbing injuries aside)
  2. My startling good health (hardly even a sneeze or cough all year)
  3. My wonderful partners
  4. My new apartment
  5. The second FIGMENT Oakland happened and it was great!
  6. New FIGMENT Oakland friends
  7. Finding old former-NY friends again in SF
  8. My cousins who I get to see now that I live in SF
  9. My parents’ good health
  10. My mother can now pop down for a quick visit to see a show with me on short notice
  11. The friends I am still close with a year after I left them in NY
  12. Ice cream sculptures by Anna Barlow
  13. Newfound minimalistic urges and stuff-purging has made me feel lighter and happier
  14. Bernal Heights park
  15. Corona Heights Peak
  16. Sunsets
  17. Full moons
  18. Hot tubs at night
  19. NYC – just so glad it is still there and I can visit it
  20. Central Park in the Fall
  21. Convertibles
  22. Puppies
  23. Tompkins Square Park
  24. Tacos
  25. Earth Balance vegan butter
  26. Avocados
  27. the Gramercy Tavern tasting menu
  28. Magnolia trees in full bloom
  29. Living a ten minute stroll from Mission Cliffs
  30. Santa Cruz beach boardwalk
  31. 6 Giant Dipper rides in a row
  32. Donuts
  33. Absinthe
  34. Quality cocktails
  35. My company is awesome
  36. My coworkers are awesome
  37. Yoga
  38. Massages
  39. Love letters
  40. Mixtapes
  41. Earl Grey tea
  42. Pumpkin pie
  43. Luxardo cherries
  44. Instagram, for helping me enjoy daily photo taking and photo appreciation
  45. Stephen King’s “On Writing” for helping over my writer’s block
  46. My new bike
  47. Spotify, the app that keeps me going all day long
  48. Fancy black lingerie
  49. Blue Bottle New Orleans coffee
  50. Space (simply for the inspiration and perspective)
  51. My young niece, the cutest little girl in the whole world
  52. My in-laws (because they have now known me for 12 years and seem to like me anyway)
  53. JEM and the Holograms (lifelong inspiration, the tv show, not the movie, obviously)
  54. Lana Del Rey
  55. Tori Amos
  56. Surprise flower bouquets
  57. Really high heels
  58. GRRM novels
  59. Hot springs
  60. Waking up well-rested and calm
  61. Lunch-break gym time
  62. Really long walks
  63. New socks
  64. Green hair
  65. Black leather
  66. The Kindle
  67. Switching to Mac
  68. The Orbit Room reopening
  69. Alpha Delta Phi
  70. Really good pizza
  71. Fresh homemade cookies
  72. When my husband makes my lunch
  73. Laying down in a pile of fresh warm laundry
  74. Odeur 71 by Comme des Garcons
  75. My wonderful friends Catherine and Noa who write me sweet handwritten letters
  76. Fancy stationary
  77. Scavenger hunts
  78. Game nights
  79. Cacti
  80. Not fearing the future

Not bad. I cheated and took 15 minutes. I could have easily thrown out 10 or 20 more but I wanted to choose things that were specific and actually meaningful to me, so I’m pleased with my list.

Happy Thanksgiving to all!

5 Resources for Artists in Oakland

I’m writing a series of posts over at the FIGMENT Oakland blog! See the original post over there.

San Francisco is known around the world for its quirky, colorful aesthetic and rich history. Just across the East Bay, Oakland is also bursting with creativity, with one of the highest concentrations of artists in the United States! If you’re an artist looking for places to show your work in the East Bay area, here are some 5 great resources that you should definitely have on your radar.

Note: We are not affiliated with these organizations nor did they ask us to mention them. We do think they would be helpful to great number of our local community!

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1. Oakland Arts Enthusiast

Oakland Arts Enthusiast is a regularly updated home for arts journalism, covering contemporary artists, events and gallery openings, as well as calls for artwork. The directory page lists dozens of independent galleries and studio spaces in Oakland and Berkeley. Searchthe calendar for events and openings, browse the gallery section for photo coverage of recent shows you may have missed, or contact them with your own press releases.

 

2. Oakland Art Murmur

Oakland Art Murmur is a beloved East Bay non-profit institution, comprised of a network of member venues. According to their website, member venues in the OAM network exhibited over 1200 artists in more than 400 exhibitions in 2012, to an estimated 84,000 visitors. Find out about open studios, social events hosted by and for artists, and free walking tours. Their mission? To “ignite and nurture a lifelong love and appreciation of art”!

3. Free Oakland UP

The project of curator and artist Jocelyn Meggait, Free Oakland UP is “a multi-purpose art space focused on building community by offering art and objects for free and focusing on socially activated art projects.” For artists working in assemblage, mixed media, sculpture or collages, the listings on this website can be a treasure map to your next amazing materials. They offer a wonderful array of items, opportunities and best of all, space, all for free.

4. California Arts Council

The California Arts Council (CAC) is an organization dedicated to “advancing California through the arts and creativity.” Their grand mission statement proclaims a desire to enrich the lives of all Californians “by access to and participation in a diverse spectrum of artists and arts and cultural experiences” as well as increase public support for the arts and arts education.

Whether you’re seeking help with learning about art grants, or an up to date list of open calls for artwork, their website has got you covered.

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5. FIGMENT

Of course we have to include FIGMENT! You may already know that there is an annualFIGMENT event in Oakland, but it’s actually a global non-profit organization with a deep network of artists, volunteers of all kinds and community organizers.

So what does that mean for artists? It means that if you’re an artist, a maker, or a DIY enthusiast looking to connect with like-minded creators, FIGMENT can be a great starting point. Check out our website, Twitter and Facebook groups to start networking with other artists and organizers of FIGMENT events, and tap into a welcoming community all around the world.

3 things that kids and families love about FIGMENT

I’m writing a series of posts over at the FIGMENT Oakland blog! Here’s the first one.

What kind of experiences come to mind when you hear the words “art show” or “art event”?

Did you picture a stark gallery with white walls or a museum filled with precious objects that you aren’t allowed to go near or touch? Maybe a concert or performance where you have to sit still in a chair and you aren’t allowed to talk?

Let’s face it, what most of us think of as the usual “art experience” just isn’t very kid-friendly.

At FIGMENT, we aim to change that. We think that’s a big part of why kids and families love FIGMENT! We encourage families to attend with children of all ages. We think it’s the perfect place for the whole family: It’s purposefully inclusive, cost-free and totally interactive.

Making giant bubbles at FIGMENT
Making giant bubbles! Image via FIGMENT.

Read the rest over at the FIGMENT Oakland blog.

A trick to save time hunting for the right photo

Recently a friend asked in frustration: How and where can I search for good “background” stock photos – you know, stock photos that have a significant amount of space that is just “empty”?

Whether you’re designing a presentation or print ad, this question comes up all the time. I’ve spent countless frustrated graphic design hours sifting through sites like Veer or iStockphoto searching for just the right image, only to find things that were thisclose over and over again, but without quite enough space for my non-negotiable copy.

iStockphoto, my go-to site for a lot of projects, has a great search tool just for this that many people I’ve talked to don’t seem to know about, so I’m posting it here. Scroll down in the advanced search options sidebar and simply select the areas where you expect to place copy, then run your search.

Screenshot: iStockphoto copyspace search
Screenshot: iStockphoto copyspace search

This feature has saved me lots of of angst while searching for the right photos to use as backgrounds in my ads and presentation decks, I wish all stock photo services would offer this search capability.

 

Happy photo hunting!

How to Fail at Instagram: McDonald’s

McDonald’s recently attempted to appeal to millennials with a bunch of ads featuring some bacon covered sandwich. The ads clumsily attempted to use slangy phrases (“That glow tho”), other ads used soccer references to appear relevant and friendly. They were all roundly mocked, and they deserved it, but not for the reason that AdWeek suggests.

AdWeek wonders if “consumers aren’t ready” for ads in their Instagram feeds. This question completely misses the lesson here. I have no doubt that consumers are absolutely ready and willing to view ads in their Instagram feeds – IF the ads are attractive and relevant.

Millennials are used to seeing a ton of ads everywhere they go online. What distinguishes this class of consumer from previous generations is the expectation that ads will be relevant and targeted. For the modern and web-savvy consumer, the baseline has changed. An informal survey of my 20- and 30- something friends reveals a pervasive belief that it’s actually straight-up rude to advertising something that isn’t personally relevant, the equivalent to butting in to a stranger’s conversation.

We share an incredible amount of data online, we know it’s being collected and mined, and we expect that in part, we’re feeding all of our locations, preferences and purchases into the vast machine because all of this will make our lives better, faster, smarter and more convenient. I live in a world where Facebook knows exactly what bathrobe I was viewing on a clothing website and what hotel I was looking at while planning a trip, and can serve ads for those things to me as soon as I switch tabs. Sometimes I’m even pleased by the ads I’m served, because they remind me of something I wanted to look at again, or they offer me a discount on something I was going to buy, anyway. This is the best case scenario – a symbiotic, helpful relationship between the customer and marketer, enabled by social data and sharing. The key word is helpful!

McDonald’s Instagram campaign, on the other hand, reveals the worst kind of advertising as obnoxious, unwelcome interruption. Instead of targeting, for example, only customers who follow food-related accounts, or customers who previously tagged #McDonalds or even #bacon, the Instagram campaign is an untargeted bomb, detonated in a place where many image-conscious consumers are openly hostile to things like fast food. I follow a bunch of accounts on Instagram related to fitness, outdoor sports, health and beauty. I don’t think I’ve made a Facebook, Instagram or Foursquare checkin at a McDonald’s more than once in the last 2 years. I’m probably the last person on earth who should be seeing an ad for a McDonald’s sandwich in my feed, and the ability to figure that out already exists if brands care to use it.

On the flip side, some brands seem to hit it out of the park on Instagram. SPG (the official account of the Starwood Preferred Guest program) comes to mind. With 27,000+ followers, they aren’t nearly as popular as McDonald’s account, but a quick perusal of the comments has me convinced that they have a better understanding of how to use Instagram to evangelize the Starwood brand. While more than half of the comments on an average McDonald’s post are negative, angry and/or related to how terrible and unhealthy the food is, all of the comments on SPG’s posts are positive, happy, and aspirational. Fans love SPG’s peeks into luxury hotels, well-appointed rooms and picturesque views from around the world. The photography is top notch and the chosen images represent the brand in positive ways that are especially popular on Instagram, where great light, pretty views, sunsets and aspirational lifestyle images rule.

Sure, Instagram doesn’t offer advertisers the ability to target their ads in the ways I suggested above. Yet. So, how about admitting that Instagram just isn’t the right advertising avenue for McDonald’s right now? Not all brands are destined for success in all social ad venues. That’s OK! It’s really worth considering before wasting a ton of money on campaigns that invite consumer hostility – and there are a ton of other places out there to spend it.

Rent the Runway goes Netflix

“The New York-based company, backed by $54.4 million in venture funding, caters to what chief executive Jennifer Hyman calls the “woman 2.0,” a customer who values experiences over possessions. In the case of clothing, this woman is willing to rent a designer dress for one night because she’s smart enough to know it’s not worth spending $1,000 or more on an item she’ll only wear once.”

The article leaves out one important driving factor (discussion of which is buried in the video clip): the celebrification (can we call it that?) of the average woman as brought about by social media. Once upon a time, a regular young woman might scrape together her spare money and save up for that designer dress of her dreams, rationalizing that it was high quality, well-made, would last a lifetime and give her many proud occasions to wear it.

Sometimes we still do that, if it’s a classic style or color – a black column gown, say, or high end suit. But the proliferation of smartphones with their cameras means that whenever we go out, everyone is taking pictures. The ubiquity of social sharing means that all those pictures end up on the internet, often right away. This has had the interesting side effect of making everyone a character in their own reality show, constantly observed and evaluated by everyone else in their lives. The modern woman about town is conscious of being observed like never before, and now worries about being photographed in the same outfit twice in a way that used to be the exclusive purview of international movie stars.

This is why Rent The Runway’s new subscription model is a brilliant idea and relief for the fashionista on a budget. The old arguments about timeless style and quality just don’t hold anymore when every outing in the city is relentlessly documented. Furthermore, as CEO Jennifer Hyman notes, cloud entertainment services like Spotify and Netflix have acclimatized us all to the notion that we needn’t physically “own” things in order to use and enjoy them. Actually, it’s way more convenient to have someone else hang on to them for us, so we can download them whenever we want. Millennials in particular don’t understand having to choose, and why should they when they can virtually have everything?

Far from being in the business of “just renting sparkly dresses,” RTR’s Hyman appears to understand a very crucial thing: Objects are meaningless, trends are transitory, and we are all just made of information. She emphasizes at the end of the discussion that they’ve built the platform to allow anyone to rent anything, for any duration of time. One immediately thinks of other high cost items we might want to share or rent-to-own: consumer electronics, vehicles and artwork all come to mind. Perhaps RTR is coming for those next.

Ninja Inspiration

Watching Kacy Catanzaro complete the American Ninja Warrior finals obstacle course would be inspiring no matter what, but finding out that she’s even smaller and shorter than me makes it that much sweeter to see her rock it! What a great reminder to never let size or stature get between you and your fitness dreams.