What would you replace?

Three hours before my flight was due to leave for Jakarta, my car was broken into and the carry-on bag I’d packed for the flight was stolen. I lost my laptop, work badge, e-reader, paper notebook and pen, favorite headphones, makeup, phone charger, international plug adapter, hand sanitizer, makeup remover, toothbrush, hairspray, scarf, eye mask for sleeping on the plane, extra socks, and antibiotics in case I got sick while traveling.

For a moment I thought, am I still going? But I still had my wallet and passport and phone, and because my suitcase was too big to fit through the car window the thieves had broken, I still had most of my clothes. I’m a big believer in momentum and at this point, the momentum of things said go. I called the security office at work to deal with the work side of things; my husband called the car insurance company to deal with that. And then we headed for the airport. My husband dropped me off – this was a work trip, not vacation – and I headed inside to check in for my flight.

This was when things got interesting. I’d expected that I could replace anything I really needed once I was inside the airport and past security – but the shops at SFO close at midnight, and by now it was 12:05 a.m. No paperback book or phone charger for me.

This was an odd feeling. I hadn’t realized how accustomed I was to having a large handbag with me most of the time, and I kept double-checking my wallet to make sure I still had it. It was attached to a loop handle around my wrist, so the odds I’d lose it were low, but still. I wondered if I was more shaken up by the theft than I realized. Maybe?

I sent my husband a text message saying everything was fine, then settled in to wait for the flight. Thirteen hours and I’d be changing planes in Taipei. In Taipei, surely there would be a place I could at least buy a phone charger.

I tried to figure out the odd feeling. Was it the lack of a backpack slung over my shoulder? (I’d liked my backpack!) The inability to write anything down, to think through what had happened or what to do next the way I do it best, on paper? The lack of anything to read? I’d turned my phone off to save battery; just in case I couldn’t get a charger in Taipei, I wanted to make sure I still had power when I landed in Jakarta. Supposedly someone would meet me at the airport to take me to the hotel, and I’d be meeting up with work colleagues once I was there, but still. The ability to look something up or call someone if something went off-kilter seemed worth maintaining.

What do you do on a plane flight with no book, no music, and nothing to write with? I don’t usually watch in-flight movies, but this time I did: I Feel Pretty and Deadpool 2.. Meh. Then I slept.

Taipei: the flight landed so early that the shops weren’t open yet. I paced up and down the hallways, stretching out my ankles. The layover was nearly three hours. There was plenty of time.

Taipei airport is interesting and to me, uncomfortable-feeling. The ceilings on most of the concourses are relatively low; most of the places to walk feel very closed-in. There’s a central area with the airline lounges and food court that’s much taller, two stories, but the lighting is dim and as you look up at the ceiling, everything fades to darkness and girders. I saw almost no exterior windows. The whole thing feels post-industrial, or like a setting for a post-apocalyptic sci-fi movie. On the other hand, there’s an orchid display and a Hello Kitty store and a small lounge with hand-carved wooden furniture and potted plants.

By now the stores were open, and I had to decide: what am I actually going to need? I don’t love shopping, and airports are pretty expensive places to buy most things. I wanted to keep my purchases minimal – but I also knew our agenda in Jakarta was packed full, and I didn’t want to count on having time to shop for anything specific while there. If I was going to need it during the trip, this was my chance.

I settled on:

  • A charger, cord, and portable battery for my phone. This was a work trip; I had to have some way to make my phone work.
  • A scarf. Indonesia is a majority-Muslim country, and I might need to cover my hair.
  • A notebook and pen. I just feel too weird if I don’t have something to write with.
  • A small, professional-looking backpack. The trip would involve being out all day, and that meant being able to carry bottled water, the scarf, and so on with me.

It took me an hour and a half to track it all down, partly because while there were a lot of electronics stores, they all had slightly different options and the plugs in Taipei are different from the plugs in Jakarta, so I had to find an adapter, and then I balked at how much it cost. Happily a store clerk helped me figure out a cheaper option that still worked, based mostly on knowing which items had cables included vs needing to buy them separately. I am also pretty picky about backpacks. It needed to be a backpack for comfort, but again, I wasn’t up for spending a ton of money, I wanted it to be lightweight, and it needed to look more work-appropriate than hiking-appropriate. I would have bought a book, but the only English-language books I found were travel guides for places I wasn’t going.

At the end, I settled into one of the lounge chairs next to the potted plants and used my phone’s data roaming plan to purchase and download a couple of e-books. Now that I had a battery and charging cord, I could use my phone as something to read.

And then it was time to board the flight.

Jakarta was great – maybe a topic for another post – but the whole experience of first losing things I’d carefully chosen to taken with me, and then needing to quickly replace just the items that were most critical, based on a limited selection of things available, was also interesting. It’s easy to get pretty meta about minimalism, and do we really need all the things we carry, and at first I wondered if maybe this wasn’t some great life lesson about needing less. Did I really need a backpack, for example, or was the wallet I already had enough?

Then I thought a little harder about my role – professional woman on a business trip, intentionally going to learn about this part of the world – and what I was hoping for from the trip, and what would make that easier. And I realized that most of what I’d packed in the first place really was likely to be useful.

Maybe the lesson is more that sometimes, we’re already doing just fine.

Books I’m reading

… or have been reading lately:

Reader, Come Home, by Maryann Wolf
I loved this. Pulled me in, made me think, changed how I’m approaching a number of things in my life, including reading (prior blog post). I’m glad and thankful I read this, and that means I’m also glad and grateful it exists. Just outstanding.

Gould’s Book of Fish, by Richard Flanagan
Sort of a (dark) fairy tale or magic realism, sort of an unreliable narrator, sort of an indictment of the early convict years in Tasmania, sort of fantastical, with metaphorical beasts and fish and men…. I recognized that it was literarily worthy but it never fully pullled me in. Perhaps this was along the lines of “the men all so good for nothing, and hardly any women at all”? Or perhaps it just wasn’t my taste.

The City and the Mountains, by Eca de Queros
The second time I’ve read this. A book with a message, arguably a morality tale, and I usually don’t love those – but this was so engaging that not only did I read it once, I kept it around and years later (ie last week) read it again. And I liked it just as much. The second time reading it, it seemed even more relevant than the first: this time I’ve been to rural Spain, which yes is not Portugal, and it’s a hundred years later, but at least the physical landscape isn’t too far away; and this time I’m thinking a lot about information and distraction and overwhelm and the tradeoffs of things coming in vs being or doing (or not-doing) oneself. All that makes it sound boring or dry, but really it’s just fun. It’s also a peaceful and calming sort of thing to read before bed, even during a tumultuous week.

The Achievement Habit, by Bernard Roth
I think I’m about done reading books about productivity. There was nothing wrong with this one, but I keep falling back to the ones I really love (18 Minutes; The Life-Changing Magic of Not Giving a F*ck; Getting Things Done.) That said, a few insights worth noting:

  • Doing things is itself a habit or a muscle. Do stuff and it gets easier to do stuff.
  • The stuff that makes us crazy when other people do it is probably stuff we do ourselves (else we likely wouldn’t even notice when others do it).
  • Let go of concerns and/or tackle any given problem from a different angle by up-leveling the problem itself. Rephrased: ask “why” like a two year old and then answer that question instead.

The Wake, by Paul Kingsnorth
I’m just a little way into this. It’s beautiful and wonderful and I love it and I’m so glad I’m reading it.

The End of Mr Y, by Scarlett Thomas
Just a little way into this one too. This is the second book by Thomas that I’ve read. Like the first (Our Tragic Universe) it’s both totally engaging and sneakily intellectual. In spite of that, I keep picking it up and putting it down and losing momentum – which I think is more about the number of books I’m currently reading and/or the amount of chaos in my life right now. So I am likely going to put it down more thoroughly for a while, and then start over.

F*ck Feelings, by Michael Bennett
I picked this up to look at in a bookstore because it had an amusing title and a bright yellow cover (yep, totally judging book by cover). I read a couple of pages and grinned at the book. It was just nice to read something that was both about how a) sometimes life is difficult and b) sometimes (often!) the thing to do is just get on with it anyway. Plus I have kind of a standing joke with a friend about how perhaps feelings are overrated, and what one needs to do is think things through rationally, and why do other people not get this?! And I often feel a sneaking kind of respect for the whole ‘stiff upper lip’ and dry humor approach to life that one finds in the more stereotypical bits of British humor. So, this was appealing. Then I read a couple of pages and felt better. Oh, the irony. There’s good odds I’ll read the rest of it, perhaps in tiny doses as required to deal with chaos.

New Selected Poems, by Les Murray
Because poetry is necessary, and Les Murray is great. I’m reading this one or two poems at a time, and at that rate it will take me a while to finish. I’m good with that. Things I like about Les Murray’s poetry: the sense of landscape and space and how specific it is. Also the use of such a wide variety of words, arranged in such a wide variety of ways.

And that’s all! For now, at any rate.

One week different

For the past week I’ve done almost everything differently. I haven’t been online. I haven’t gone to work. I haven’t cooked dinner. I haven’t seen friends. I haven’t worked in the garden. I expected to go to New York, but didn’t. I’ve driven out to the beach twice in the afternoon, and once to the nearby Japanese garden. I’ve read two books, one on paper and another on my ereader. I’ve gone to four doctor appointments. I’ve taken half a dozen naps. I haven’t checked the news.

One of the books I read was Reader, Come Home, by Maryanne Wolf. I picked it up on a whim at a bookstore in the beach town I’d driven out to. Reader offered the only accurate description I’ve ever come across of how it feels to me to really read, deeply, all-in, surroundingly. I used to say that good reading wasn’t about seeing or thinking individual words; I was there, watching, present. The description the author gave in this book was the first and only thing I’ve read that made me think someone else would know exactly what I meant by that.

So that pulled me in. And I had time: not a lot of mental energy, true, but time. I’d set my email autoreply to indicate that I wouldn’t be answering email. I’d declined meetings. It seemed pointless to check much of anything online, and since the whole point of the week was recuperating, there was nothing much else I was trying to do. I read the book. I read it on paper, page by page, and because the author had me hooked with that description, I trusted what else she might have to say: after all, this is a person who gets it.

Summary: we read differently when we read to skim, to summarize, to hunt for information than when we read deeply. We read differently on a screen than we do on paper. We read differently when we read in volume rather than when we read to read. These differences aren’t subjective or maybe; they’re measurable and visible in everything from brain scans to how we move our eyes across text.

Maybe because this was a week of different, maybe because I was primed to pay attention, maybe because I’ve felt my own reading brain slipping, the ideas in the book hit home. I tried what Wolf said she’d tried: focused, forced attention. I read and re-read until I got it. I fought my way through long sentences without letting nuance slip past (I found a couple of places I think Wolf’s editor could have improved things, but that’s meaningful too). A couple of chapters were less personally meaningful to me than others, but I read them deeply anyway. I held internal arguments with myself about what might be missing: this is a recipe for reading more deeply as taught to children, but what about the rest of us? are we sure that children are more distractable than adults? how do we handle the volume of things we might read, or feel we’re expected to read, professionally or personally? if one reasonable goal is a bilateral approach to reading modes, when does truly lightweight skimming make sense? (And as I write this, I remember: being taught to skim, as a skill, sometime in middle school. There’s a certain irony to that, but maybe also a certain hope: can we learn to choose how we read? And I remember my mother telling me about how her reading changed in law school, and how it changed again after that.)

As the week went on, I started experimenting more specifically. I aimed for less rapidity, fewer things, and more depth. I aimed for stillness, for letting my mind do nothing much at all. I checked email less often, and when I did, I wrote back to the friends who’d sent messages asking if I were okay. I uninstalled a couple of apps from my phone. In the doctor’s office while waiting for the optometrist to come in, I simply sat.

I’ve also been reading Gould’s Book of Fish, by Richard Flanagan, on my ereader, and up to about three quarters of the way through I hadn’t really seen the point of it. It’s violent and gruesome and yes the early penal colony days in Australia were awful, but. I haven’t been able to see it, to see the story in the book the way I sometimes (and in the past, nearly always) see the stories in books.

Then sometime around Thursday evening, a switch flipped, and I was there. Twopenny Sal was dancing around a fire, ochre painted on her face, shadows leaping too against the night sky – and that image is as vivid as anything I can imagine. I finished reading Book of Fish this morning, and everything through to the end – I was there. (It’s still never going to be my favorite book, but that’s fine, and a different story.)

Last night I picked up The Wake, by Paul Kingsnorth. I’d gone to see Kingsnorth give a talk, a few months back, and the whole idea of this book just pulls me in. The surreality of it; the slip into a new language; the sense of a landscape I both know and don’t. Every few months I’ve picked it up and thought, is this what I’m going to read next? and every few months I’ve put it back on the shelf.

This time, I took it down to the couch and dove in. It’s beautiful and misty and wonderful and even in this, my week of how-is-it-possible-to-feel-this-tired, the scenes and the place and the people are clear. I am so glad I waited to read it.

So where does all this leave me?

Somewhere around Thursday or Friday, my brain started feeling more clear.

Somewhere around Thursday or Friday, I started feeling like I could think again, in a way I haven’t felt like I could think in quite some time.

I don’t quite know what’s next, but I am unwilling to give this up. I’m planning a few things to keep it going: less lightweight information, and if that means I use the gaps between things for exactly nothing specific, that’s fine; more breaks between meetings; more paper, both for thinking through projects and for reading; fewer apps; less checking the news; more one thing at a time; more choosiness and more depth in reading. If this forces me to do fewer things overall – okay. It feels like a really good trade.

It also feels like the best side effect I can imagine of coming down with shingles. A year from now, I think and hope this is what I’ll remember when I look back at this time.

The flight I did not take

The flight I did not take
was the flight that left on time, pulling out of the gate
at eight-
-oh-five a.m.
no delay or pause, no need to hesitate and reboot navigation.

The flight I did not take
was the flight where I did not spill my coffee
halfway down the jetway
where the entertainment system was filled with music I didn’t know
but loved precisely.
It was the flight with attendants handing out
room temperature water
no ice
no slippery napkin
no pretzels
just chocolates and caramels and a chaser of strong black coffee.

The flight I did not take
was the flight with three cute babies
all giggling, none crying
and one tiny dog that escaped down the aisle
and stopped at my seat so I could pet it.

The flight I did not take arrived twenty minutes early
and my hair was not tangled
and I arrived at the train platform just as the train pulled up
and I stepped on and was whisked away to my much-loved far-away city.

The flight I did not take
led me to zero jetlag
to afternoon tea every day at four
to sunny and non-humid weather
to cheerful and collaborative work meetings
and plenty of free time.

After the flight I did not take, I slept well
and woke, refreshed,
in a new and different city.

Morning flight

This morning at the flats the tide was out
the earth remaining watery-grey
with long-billed sandpipers stalking, bending low
seizing what they found.
In the channel nearby the pelicans swooped
practicing crash-landings, legs stuck out before
webbed feet braced for impact.

I ran past stands of fennel and sage,
eyes squinted in the morning light,
my own feet kicking up gravel and dust.
I paused to watch the sandpipers sweep their beaks
left and right
in swivel motion with round bodies
mirrored in the slick mud they stood on.

Twenty minutes out, and fifteen back:
not much time required
for grace.

Fifteen Years

Disclaimer: I work at Google; the opinions expressed here are my own, not Google’s.

I just passed the fifteen year mark for working at Google. This seems crazy to me – how can it have been that long? That’s longer than I’ve done just about anything.

When people I’m interviewing ask me what I like about Google, why I’m still there (although admittedly not many interviewees think to ask about how long that actually is), my usual answer has two parts:

1. The people
2. The variety

Google has grown immensely since I started working there, and with that growth has come a bunch of new projects. When I started, Google had about five total products (Search, Ads, AdSense, News, the Toolbar, Images, and maybe one or two others I’m forgetting). Now it has… I have no idea how many. Lots. Hardware & software. Cloud stuff. Enterprise stuff and small-business stuff. Consumer stuff. Video stuff. Mapping stuff. Lots of stuff!

And with that variety has come the ability to move around, to change projects, to experiment and try things. My estimate is that I usually spend about two to three years in any given role (sometimes it’s hard to define what a role change really is; some shifts are more obvious than others). I’ve worked on sales tax systems and enterprise administration systems and mapping and search and news and partnership stuff and abuse and payments and for a brief moment while I was trying to figure out what to do next, hardware. In addition to projects, I’ve changed job roles. I’ve taken two leaves of absence and been part of I-don’t-know-how-many teams.

There are areas I haven’t worked in – most noticeably, ads & core search (the big ones!).

Some of my favorite people from the early days are still around. Some aren’t. That’s okay – I’ve learned that the people I most want to stay in touch with, I mostly stay in touch with, and some of the brand-new-hires turn out to become some of my favorite people too. I’m pleased that some of the people I first met on a difficult project over ten years ago are people I work with on a completely different project today.

I’ve always been officially based in Mountain View, but I’ve travelled to offices in Australia, India, Israel, Japan, and in the US, New York. Later this year I expect to travel to Indonesia.

Every so often somebody asks me, “what was it like when…?” and I find that my answers are mostly lightweight. Most recently, somebody asked “was that in your Noogler orientation?” and I replied, “we didn’t have Noogler orientation,” without realizing initially what a big shift that really represents. We didn’t have orientation, or videoconferences, or a homegrown Calendar app, or multiple cafes serving three meals a day, or Android. We didn’t always have enough desks.

But overall, we were held together then, as we are now, by the threads connecting each of us to each other. (Also an enthusiasm for food. We used to have lobster pasta at lunch sometimes. And donuts, dammit!) We are in my experience an opinionated, vocal bunch of well-intentioned people trying to build and do interesting things. We argue, we debate, we try hard to get it right. We put in effort and time and intention. We care.

And I think that’s why, when somebody asks me, “how was it different then?” that I always come up short on an answer. In a lot of ways, of course, it’s very different. The company is something like sixty times bigger┬áthan it was when I started. Of course it’s different.

But in a lot of ways, it’s very much the same. And I suppose that’s why I’m still there.