Interlude: The List

I now confess:  I’m a compulsive list maker.

My friend Danny often teases me about it.  He once said that if something ever happened to me he wanted my signed copy of The Ants and my Lists.  His point is worth honoring:  the reason I haven’t written (or for that matter, read) The Ants may in part be due to the multitude of distractions on my lists.

And mind you, they are lists.  I start one.  It gets filled to the edge.  I start another. I misplace that one so I start another.  So these lists of duplicate mutually distracting items litter my office.

Why I do dat?

It’s a good question.  I’ll take a stab at it.

1. I’m Seeking Order.  My house growing up was in absolute chaos.  I’ve told some people stories, but I think it might be hard for most folks to imagine.  Junk and trash everywhere.  At times dog shit covering the kitchen floor. No one ever cleaned up.  No one did much of anything.  I had no set bed time, no meal times, often times not even meals.  In that environment it was hard to keep even my thoughts straight and so early on I learned that a list could provide at least the illusion of structure.   I remember over spring break in 5th grade I approached my friend Leo with a schedule for everything we would do and what time we would do it.  He was baffled.  Why do we have to have  a schedule, he asked?  It’s Easter vacation.

He was right.  And yet I didn’t see it as at all weird.

2. No filter: From the very beginning the sheer number of things that would land on that list were near infinite.  In a world without structure and rules, all things are necessary.  And all things are possible.  So on any given day in 6th grade, my list might include: clean the kitchen, vacuum the house, edge the lawn with a pair of hand scissors, buy groceries, do homework, explore the canyon, ride my bike to North Park, read Les Miserables, and make a present for mom.  I had no criteria by which to differentiate between grownup stuff and kid stuff.  In 7th grade a friend once asked me what I was saving my paper route money for.  I’m going to buy a refrigerator, I answered.

And there was no distinguishing between important stuff and non-important stuff.  It was just one big soup.  Everything needed to be done.  My mom’s stuff.  My brother’s stuff.  My stuff.  And it was all possible because there was nothing or anyone to say it wasn’t.

3. Incented to be a generalist: Feral creatures are opportunists.  You don’t know where the next meal is coming from so you take what you can get.  I was too young, though, to distinguish what was truly necessary for survival.  I started reading company financial reports in 5th grade because (and I swear to god this is true), I figured I needed to know how to manage money. This information, I thought, might one day be useful.  So my floor was littered with Huck Finn, Tolkien, notes on scientific experiments I should complete, those financial reports, word searches, a half eaten omelette, recipes I might want to cook, a Scientific American issue devoted to number theory, and Readers Digests.  I grabbed whatever came in front of me. And mind you, there’s no one in my life to set boundaries, to perhaps say it’s not necessary for a nine year old to be reading financial reports or, as the case was, trying to understand periodic functions.

4. DP thinking:  Displaced Persons – folks who’ve been displaced from their homes and consequent emotional stability – tend to become packrats.  I love DP’s – In my twenties and thirties I spent a lot of time with emigres from Latvija and Russia and Germany – in part because I could identify with them.

We all were afraid of loss. And physical objects or pieces of paper become mnemonics for those things we were trying to hold on to. If I lost the piece of paper, I would in turn lose the emotion or idea that I associated with it.

That’s why I still have my record vinyl.  And certain New Yorker’s from 1992.  It’s a very interesting sickness.

And it’s also why, in part, I’ve been buried by my own lists.  If I lose the list, or even an item on the list, I stand to lose another small sliver of my self.

And that self, defined early on by loss, cannot bear it.

The Difference Between President Obama and Me

Obama at Sasha's Dress RehearsalWell.  Actually. I think there are quite a few.  But one in particular stands out.

Between December 16 and January 21 President Obama did the following:

  • He attended a dress rehearsal of his daughter’s school play
  • While doing so he wrote some draft remarks for a talk he was to give.
  • That night he delivered those remarks at the memorial for the New Town families.
  • He celebrated the holidays
  • He engineered a compromise to avoid the fiscal cliff.
  • He initiated a sweeping effort to address gun violence.
  • He got inaugurated.
  • He attended some inaugural balls
  • He launched new efforts to reform our immigration policies
  • With great difficulty he negotiated to raise the debt ceiling
  • And he instigated new efforts to reduce gender and sexual orientation bias in the US military

I would have taken any one of those items, checked it off, and called it a year.

But instead, what did I do?

  • I made some hard cider
  • I celebrated the holidays
  • I lost a chicken to a bobcat
  • I must have done something else, but for the life of me I can’t remember what.

Now Obama, of course, is the President.  And I’m me.  And there are a whole lot of really interesting reasons why that’s the case- perhaps I’ll get to them in a later post.

But the present point is what behavior allows Obama (despite political rancor) to be a bit more effective?  Keep in mind, that in 2006, the thought that an African American named Barack Hussein Obama would soon be elected President of the United States would have been considered ludicrous.  And yet it happened.  In large part, I think, because of his personal habits.

What are some of those?

1.  Intense focus.  I carry with me the image of him the day after his 2008 election victory.  He awoke as usual at 5:30 am.  He went to his regular workout at his gym in Chicago.  And then he reported for work at the campaign headquarters and began the transition.

In hand with this, it helps to remember that Obama began as a community organizer.  To do that, you have to first know how to be organized.

2. Clear priorities.  Obama’s 2008 Campaign Blueprint for Change contains a lot of promises.  And many on the left were frustrated because he didn’t do everything he had set out to do or that he seemed too willing to compromise.  But I would counter that he actually had a much clearer understanding of the reality facing him.  In a divided nation, (and keep in mind how divided we were and still are), you only have so much political capital.  The gravity of his first Inaugural reflected, I think, the depths of the challenges facing us.  We were in economic free fall.  Banks were failing, and those on the inside feared a wholesale economic collapse.

So the priorities were bailing out the banks.  Rescuing the auto industry.  And putting forward the Affordable Health Care Act.  And none of those came easily. That’s mostly all he had capital for.  You could argue that he may have burned too much.  Gay rights, immigration reform, addressing climate change?  All those laudable efforts would have to wait for a second term.

3. Long term investments.  The 2012 campaign began in January 2011 when David Axelrod relocated back to Chicago.  The campaign team began the heavy investment in datametrics, infrastructure, and personnel that helped win the election.  They eventually assembled a distributed organization and data gathering machine of such efficiency that Obama felt at ease enough to play b-ball on election day and Nate Silverman could go to sleep on election eve with visions of sugarplum fairies dancing in his head.  Much of the heavy lifting had been done years earlier.

It also can be seen in policy decisions: In order to see a peace dividend in 2014, the draw downs in Iraq and Afghanistan would need to begin in 2009 and 2011. Or as part of the economic stimulus bill, his administration increased our investments in sustainable energy development from the hundreds of millions of dollars to over 70 billion.  We won’t see all the returns on those decisions until the tail end of his presidency.  But if the returns were ever to be felt, the infrastructure investments needed to be made early on.

So at the tail end of 2012, what dim lessons did I draw from the president?

  1. Stay focused.
  2. Get organized.
  3. Set clear priorities.
  4. Invest in tools and infrastructure early on.
  5. Hire well.

By the way, the photo is of Obama reviewing his New Town remark at the dress rehearsal at his daughter’s play.  He went to the rehearsal because he was not going to be able to attend the full performance that night.

The full raft of Pete Souza behind-the-scene photos of the Presidency are worth a look.  They give a strangely poignant sense of what it’s like for the President and staff to be working within the West Wing.