Friday 30 December 2022

Ted Chiang, Exhalation

He’s not necessarily interested in how human beings interact with one another (a few of his stories contain romantic subplots, and they are noticeably less compelling than anything else he writes). Instead, he focuses on how human beings interact with and are shaped by their technologies ...

Constance Grady, Vox

I remember being thunderstruck by the two major stories in Ted Chiang's first collection, Tower of Babylon and Story of Your Life (later made into the film Arrival). Looking back on my review from the time, I noted that I found the rest of the stories in the book 'interesting as exercises' but that they didn't seize my imagination or leave my brain more open, as the top two did.

Reading through Exhalation, I really wanted to love it as much as I did that first book. I kept embarking on each story, hoping it would be "that one" - the Story of Your Life of this collection. None of these stories however come near its level of intricacy of content and form.

The strongest story in the book, for me, is the longest - like Story of Your Life, The Lifecycle of Software Objects is a novella-length story, given plenty of room to develop. It centres on Ana and Derek, two employees at Blue Gamma, a software start-up making "digients" (digital organisms) for people to take into virtual worlds. Derek is an animator; Ana is a very new coder, but she's actually brought onboard at Blue Gamma for her earlier job experience, as a zoo-keeper. Blue Gamma's digients take the form of baby animals - pandas, tigers, chimpanzees - and the company is trying to tune them perfectly for the market. The older-tech equivalent would be Tamagotchis, those needy little devices that required the owner's regular attention or they "died". The digients however are AI and therefore can build a different kind of relationship:
[Derek] subscribes to Blue Gamma's philosophy of AI design: experience is the best teacher, so rather than trying to program an AI with what you want it to know, sell ones capable of learning and have your customers teach them. To get customers, to put in that kind of effort, everything about the digient has to be appealing: their personalities need to be charming, which the developers were working on, and their avatars need to be cute, which is where Derek comes in. But he can't simply give the digients enormous eyes and short noses. if they look like cartoons, no one will take them seriously. Conversely, if they look too much like real animals, their facial expressions and ability to speak become disconcerting. It's a delicate balancing act, and he has spent countless hours watching reference footage of baby animals, but he's managed to design hybrid faces that are endearing but not exaggeratedly so.
The digients are created then "hothoused" - run 24 hours in simulators to see how they develop and to winnow out the best products - then Ana's role is to work with them, teaching them and learning alongside them, so that Blue Gamma understands thoroughly the product they're taking to market, and future customers can be supported:
... this is not what she envisioned for herself when she went to college, and for a moment she wonders how it has come to this. As a girl she dreamed of following Fossey and Goodall to Africa; by the time she got out of grad school, there were so few apes her best option was to work in a zoo; now she's looking at a job as a trainer of virtual pets. In her career trajectory you can see  the diminution of the natural world, writ large.
Blue Gamma does well for a time, and establishes a steady business model (a razors & blades model: the purchase of the digient isn't the big outlay, it's through the regular purchase of food treats where the company make their money). Customers are entranced, and user forums spring up with owners comparing notes and sorting issues. But after a couple of years, people start to lose interest. The pets become too demanding, or other life matters take over. Accounts (and digients) are suspended, or digients are dropped off at "shelters" for re-adoption. Competitors spring up. Eventually, Blue Gamma winds up:
Many of the other employees have been through company collapses before, so while they're unhappy, for them this is just another episode of life in the software industry. For Ana, however, Blue Gamma's folding reminds her of the closure of the zoo, which was one of the most heartbreaking experiences of her life. Her eyes still tear up when she thinks about the last time she saw her apes, wishing she could explain to them why they wouldn't see her again, hoping they could adapt to their new homes. When she decided to retrain for the software industry, she was glad he'd never have to face another such farewell in her new line of work. Now here she is, against all expectation, confronted with a strangely reminiscent situation.
However, Blue Gamma makes an offer: the dozen "mascots" (first-generation digients) are available for the outgoing employees to take with them, and both Ana and Derek take up this offer.

The rest of the story plays out as an examination of both what it takes to keep aging software alive, and what it takes to keep relationships alive: the answer seems to be constant maintenance. While The Lifecycle of Software Objects is ostensibly about the parameters of the rights of AI entities (and is the most interesting examination of that question I've encountered) its also a very, very good story about software products and companies: how they work, how they fail, how users are left behind.

Chiang feels like a tech optimist, or maybe a humanist. The stories in Exhalation examine some of the long-standing tropes of "technology" and the human mind: the possibility of time travel and our  ability to influence our past or future; the relationship between intrinsic human memory and technological aids that let us externalise memories; the Sliding Doors paradox of what it would be like to see the branching multiverses that roll out from our life decisions. Some are duds, IMHO (the steampunk story, the parrot story). One - Omphalos, the story of a women's faith being fundamentally challenged - is surprisingly tender and affirming. 

Overall, I leave Exhalation wanting to move back into the world of action, not contemplation. Reading this book in one sitting is probably not advisable. If you pick it up, I suggest you spool it out, take your time, mix it up with other things, and let Chiang work his skills on you more slowly and perhaps more effectively than I did.

Thursday 29 December 2022

Tamsyn Muir, Gideon the Ninth

In the myriadic year of our lord — the ten thousandth year of the King Undying, the kindly Prince of Death! — Gideon Nav packed her sword, her shoes and her dirty magazines, and she escaped from the House of the Ninth.

As a fast but often forgetful reader ('Read a lot, forget most of what you read', as Montaigne said*) a good fantasy series can quite easily earn a place on my bookshelves. Over the past 20 years I've amassed a core collection that I return to regularly to sink back into the world-building, reacquaint myself with the characters and appreciate the plot-twists anew: Megan Whalen-Turner's The Queen's Thief series, N.K. Jemisin's Inheritance and Broken Earth trilogies, Melina Marchetta's The Lumatere Chronicles, Patrick Ness's Chaos Walking trilogy, Lev Grossman's The Magicians, Paulo Bacigalupi's Shipbreaker trilogy, Laini Taylor's Daughter of Smoke and Bone and Strange the Dreamer books, Maggie Stievater's myriad series (though her best book is undoubtedly the stand-alone The Scorpio Races). 

Gideon the Ninth - the first in Tamsyn Muir's Locked Tomb trilogy - wasn't on my official summer book stack*. I'd actually been picking the book up & putting it down for a while - it was Charles Stross's blurb on the cover that put me off: 'Lesbian necromancers explore a haunted gothic palace in space!'. Not the lesbian bit, not the necromancy bit, and not that gothic palace bit - the in space! bit. My husband dislikes "fantasy" because wave-your-hands-around-magic can constitute a plot solution: I dislike "science-fiction" because I find generally find the science tedious, anything with robots and AI generally boring and space opera specifically is one of my least favourite genres (see also Star Wars and Star Trek).

However. I kept seeing Gideon the Ninth popping up in people's recommendations and then Muir took out a couple of places on the Unity Book's sci-fi & fantasy best-sellers for 2022. I asked Twitter what I should do, and Twitter said buy it (which is, basically, why I am still on Twitter). And while the book is not perfect it's still a hell of a lot of fun. 

The book opens with a ornate cast of characters, divided into the Nine Houses of the Emperor: it reminded me of Alexandra Bracken's Lore which I read last year, which also opens with nine houses, based on Greek mythology. We are dropped straight into the story and the narrative  point of view of the lead character, as 18-year-old Gideon Nav embarks upon her latest attempt to escape her position as an indentured servant of the Ninth House and leave the planet to sign up for the Emperor's troops. We get a bit of context via her interactions with two retainers of the House, and then in glides the teenage heir to the House, "wearing black and sneering":

Reverend Daughter Harrowhark Nonagesimus had pretty much cornered the market on wearing black and sneering. It comprised 100 percent of her personality. Gideon marvelled that someone could live in the universe only seventeen years and yet wear black and sneer with such ancient self-assurance.

To describe the plot is to give the book away, so I won't do that. Three things I did notice though.

One is the number of genre tropes Muir pulls upon, and weaves together successfully. There is the central adversarial co-dependent relationship that provides much grist for colourful jibes, familiar from a legion of teenage rom-coms. There's a solid training montage with a grizzled and grudgingly respectful older mentor. There's a group of disparate characters thrown together in a mysterious environment and a subsequent contest of arms and wits, with the accompanying alliances, betrayals and crushes. There's a murder mystery, of the isolated country house full of guests/suspects variety. And there's a series of reveals at the end which are both satisfying and affecting (even if the horror / fight scenes surrounding them go on a bit - they'd translate well to screen but feel almost as if written for that). 

The second is that while it's kind of set in space, that's also not really a factor, and while there are zombies, they're not really presented as such. Two things of great relief to me.

The third is how often I thought of Taika Waititi's screenwriting tone while reading the book. Muir is also a New Zealander, and there are throw-away phrases (douche-bag, old as balls) that feel very New Zealand to me. There's a dead-pan tone throughout that could be described as sass, but to me feels more like the self-deprecating Kiwi humour we like to see in our cultural products:

As they pulled themselves into the shuttle, the door mechanism sliding down with a pleasingly final whunk, she leaned into Harrow: Harrow, who was dabbing her eyes with enormous gravity. The necromancer flinched outright.

"Do you want," Gideon whispered huskily, "my hanky."

"I want to watch you die"

Muir does a good job of showing rather than telling: the different kinds of necromancy, for example, are demonstrated through action rather than through loads of exposition. If you need to understand the backstory in order to enjoy the action, this probably isn't the book for you - having read all 475 pages, I still don't know exactly how the Houses emerged or what's really going on in the Emperor's affairs that he needs armies and champion for. And sometimes the story-telling is a bit too clever. Because of the show-don't-tell approach we meet the characters through their interactions with Gideon rather than in an orderly way (there's no run-down of the pairs from each House, in the style of, for example, The Hunger Games). Characters are often referred to by appearance rather than name (the terrible teens, the mayonnaise uncle) and even half-way through the book I was still repeatedly getting lost trying to reference them back to their correct Houses. In some ways this was appealing (contrast it to the pages and pages of heraldry in G.R.R. Martin, say) but it also got in the way of the reading a bit.

Having said this, I'm sufficiently intrigued to move on to the second book, and be glad I invested my summer time here.

*The quote ends "and be slow-witted" and I'm not so keen on that bit, unless you frame it as a kind of slowly percolating thought, in which case ka pai.

Wednesday 28 December 2022

Noel Streatfeild, Ballet Shoes

"It's to do with happiness. It means hard work."

I came back to Ballet Shoes yesterday after listening to the Christmas episode of the Backlisted podcast. I went into the podcast worrying that a feature of my childhood was about to be ripped apart - I came out of it curious about the author, and wanting to go back into that world.

Streatfeild trained at RADA as an actor after working in munitions factories and army canteens in First World War. After the death of her father she decided to become a novelist - in an interview played on the podcast she says she made the switch because she needed a more secure career option, then scoffs at her own naivety. She began writing for adults, and then in 1931 for children. Her publisher asked her to write a children's book, capitalising on the craze at the time for ballet. "The story poured off my pen, more or less telling itself ... I distrusted what came easily and so despised the book," Streatfeild later recalled: published in 1936, Ballet Shoes has never been out of print and has sold millions upon millions of copies. Streatfeild must have felt both gratified and trapped by its success: it led to a litany of follow-up books - Theater Shoes, Skating Shoes, Party Shoes ...* 

I inhaled Ballet Shoes, and many other Streatfeild titles, as a child; while I recall the beat-up Puffin editions with their 1970s orange-yellow-green covers, I cannot remember how I came upon them - the library, hand-me-downs or acquisitions from the secondhand book store in New Plymouth. Her books were wholesome, the language sparkled, the tone was often appealingly knowing, the child characters had flaws that were treated as natural and normal, but still to be reined in. But I think the thing that appealed to me most (as with so many great books aimed at pre-teen readers) was that Streatfeild showed the tough realities of her child characters' lives, but also gave them the tools and abilities to pull through them and create their own destinies.

For the uninitiated: Ballet Shoes is the story of the three Fossil sisters, set in London between the wars. The three girls - Pauline (pink and white and platinum-blonde), Petrova (dark-haired and sallow) and Posy (the red-head) - have been "collected" by Great-Uncle Matthew (known as 'Gum'). A 'legendary figure' to the girls, he had been a 'very important person' collecting outstanding fossil specimens around the world. Having collected them, he needed somewhere to put them, and hence secured a large six-storyed house on London's Brompton Road:
Naturally, a house like that needed somebody to look after it, and he found just the right person. Gum had one nephew, who died leaving a widow and a little girl. What was more suitable than to invite the widow and her child Sylvia, and Nana her nurse, to live in the house and take care of it for him? Ten years later the widowed niece died, but by then his great-niece Sylvia was sixteen, so she, helped by Nana, took her mother's place and saw that the house and the fossils were all right.**
Gum then loses a leg in spectacular fashion: undismayed, he and his new wooden leg give up fossil expeditions in favour of exploration by sea. One night, the ship he is travelling on is struck by an iceberg and sinks (this is 1936, remember, the Titanic sunk in 1912)***:
... all the passengers had to take to boats. In the night one of the boats filled with water and the passengers were thrown into the sea. Gum's boat went to the rescue, but by the time it got there everyone had drowned except a baby who was lying cooing happily on a lifebelt.
Gum takes charge of the baby, and when she cannot be traced to anyone on board, returns with her to London, 'fusses and fumes' as the adoption papers are made out,  presents her to Sylvia, then promptly fucks off on another journey. This time he winds up in hospital next to a Russian, "a shabby, depressed fellow who yet somehow conveyed he hadn't always been shabby and depressed, but had once worn gay uniforms and had swung laughing through the snow in his jingling sleigh amidst rows of bowing peasants." The Russian and his wife fled during the revolution; they 'tried to train themselves to earn a living' but failed; the wife died, then the husband dies, and their little girl gets scooped up from the children's ward and taken back home to Sylvia.

"The last baby Gum did not deliver himself". She turns up in a basket, with a letter and a pair of ballet shoes: 
... yet another Fossil to add to my nursery. The father has just died, and the poor mother has no time for babies, so I said I would have her. ... I regret not to bring the child myself, but today I ran into a friend with a yacht who is visiting some strange islands. I am joining him, and expect to be away for some years. I have arranged for the bank to see after money for you for the next five years, but before then I shall be home.
Thus, Pauline, Petrova and Posy Fossil ("P.S. Her name is Posy. Unfortunate, but true."). To begin with, the girls had "a very ordinary nursery life". There are few toys, because they have no relations to give them any, and clothes are handed down (clothes are a SIGNIFICANT feature of Ballet Shoes), but the two older girls are sent off to a nice school and all is well. But then Gum shows no sign of returning, the girls are pulled out of school, and Sylvia resorts to taking in boarders to help pay the bills.**** The boarders are all lovely, however, and effectively form a team to assist Sylvia in the children's upbringing. Two retired lady doctors, used to coaching children for exams, take over the older girls' education (with Dr Jakes introducing Pauline to the beauties of speaking blank verse). Mr and Mrs Simpson arrive with their Citroen, much to the delight of car-mad Petrova. And Theo James is a dancing instructor at Madame Fidolia's famed stage and dancing academy, and it is her idea to have the three girls taken on as fee-free students, on the basis that when they are twelve they can get their stage licences and start performing, paying back a fee to the Academy and supporting the household.

None of this is a secret from the children. They are full participants. They create a vow - to make something of themselves, to put the Fossil name into the history books (as self-made sisters, 'nobody can say it's because of their grandfather') and to make the money to alleviate Sylvia's concerns. 

And from there we launch into the story, of the household's continuously precarious financial position, and the children' training and entry into working life. There are pages and pages of financial calculations (how to scrounge together the money to make the audition dresses, in order to get the parts, in order to pay back the borrowed money). There are pages and pages of clothes - the lovingly detailed list of required items for the Academy, the "whipped frills" of organdy frocks, the shame of aged velvet and straining seams. And there are pages and pages of stagecraft - while commissioned to write a book about ballet, it is her own background Streatfeild evidently draws upon:
Pauline would be fourteen in December, and not only had the sense to see how much she was able to pick up from watching other people, but she had sufficient technique to follow the producer's reasoning. She understood 'timing', she was still apt to time wrong herself, but she was learning to hear when somebody else timed a line wrong. She was beginning, too, to grasp the meaning of 'pace' The producer of 'A Midsummer Night's Dream' was a great believer in 'pace', especially for Shakespeare. Pauline, listening to the rehearsals, could feel the pace of the production and going home on the tube she and Doctor Jakes would have discussions about it - how this actor was slow, and that one had good 'pace'.
So, Pauline is beautiful, and a natural actress; Posy is a great mimic, and born to be a dancer; Petrova is "technically proficient" but hates the whole thing - however, she sticks at it, because that's what the sisters do. Petrova was always my favourite, as the odd one out - she is the Jo of this set of sisters. Petrova's saving comes in the form of one of only two real male characters in the book. Gum is the catalyst but he creates the action by disappearing. Mr Simpson, the garage owner / boarder, exists to keep Petrova's hopes up by enabling her to explore the world of mechanics and engines that she is drawn to. Mr Simpson is an intelligent, kindly, noticing sort of man, engaging in the Fossil's world of frills and nervous anxiety without demeaning it. There is one beautiful passing observation about his and Petrova's friendship that summarises Streatfeild's knack for describing the kind of adults that kids want to be around:
'Hullo, Petrova!' he would call up the stairs sometimes on Sunday afternoons, 'having a bit of trouble with the car. Come and give me a hand.'
The most gorgeous afternoons followed; he was not the sort of man who did everything himself and expected you to watch, but took turns fairly, passing over the spanner, saying 'Here, you take those nuts off'.
It all works out well in the end, because - and this is one of the great lessons of Ballet Shoes - hard work and a good attitude almost always pay off. After the glorious detail and many moments of honesty in the book, one is somewhat jolted by how quickly it is wrapped up in the closing pages. 

I went into the book with trepidation - it's hard going back to the classics and measuring them up against today. Aside from Gum's "what's the point of keeping a pack of women about the house if they're never there when you want them" (a statement that bookends the novel and which I think on re-reading might be Streatfeild being mocking about self-important men?), the thing that knocks you back about the book is the focus on appearances. Prettiness is both desirable, and unfairly distributed, and this is personified in the character of Winifred, a peer (and thus competitor) with Pauline:
There was one other child waiting, who had her mother with her. Her name was Winifred, and she was very clever. She was the child who would have played Mytyl if she had not had measles. She had acted really well, she was a brilliant dancer, she had an unusually good singing voice, but she was not pretty. She had a clever, interesting face, and long, but rather colourless, brown hair. She was wearing an ugly brown velvet frock; not a good choice of colour, as it made her look the same all over. 
... All the time Winifred was talking people who walked by called out, 'Good luck Winifred, good luck Pauline'. Pauline could see from the way that they looked at her that they thought she looked nice, and from the way they looked at Winifred, that they thought she did not. She wished that she had some money and could buy Winifred a new frock; she was so nice and she looked so all-wrong.
You have to wonder what the character of Winifred is there to do in the book, if not simply to teach the Fossil sisters some relativity. At 12, Winifred is the oldest of 6, her father is an invalid, and her mother needs her to get work to support the family. Pauline reflects "Of course she needed the money too, but somehow, although there was not any for new clothes, and the food was getting plainer and plainer, nobody had ever said what a help it would be when she could earn some, and certainly she had never been as worried about it as Winifred." But Pauline beats Winifred for the role of Alice, and then Petrova beats her for a role because Winifred is late to an audition, and Winifred exits the story without any relief beyond a nice cup of tea in their nursery. The lesson I took out of this as  child was that smart, plain, hardworking girls have to work that much harder - and perhaps that's just what Streatfeild intended. Her short biography at the front of the book, written for the child audience, includes the phrase "Noel was born in Sussex in 1895 and was one of three sisters. Although Noel was considered the plain one, she ended up leading the most glamorous and exciting life!"

The other thing that struck me on this re-read was that Streatfeild gives her child readers considerable insight into adult lives. Mr and Mrs Simpson cannot return to Kuala Lumpur because the markets have slumped and their rubber-tree plantations have been outstripped by other means of producing rubber.  Nana often speaks crossly, but it is because she cannot see solutions to the pressing problems that confront them. Sylvia is worried and thin and explains to the children that she feels guilty and embarrassed to be taking money from them, but can't see an alternative. One passage particularly stood out, for teaching me to see layers of emotion when I was young:
Nana never could remember that though she had been Sylvia's nurse, her child was now a grown-up woman, and the sound of the sort of crack in the voice people get when they are miserable brought all her nurse instincts to the top.
And the final thing I learned about myself in this re-read was how much Streatfeild's writing conditioned me. I used words like "amidst" in my primary school journals because of her; I knew what a 'game leg' was, had the phrase 'Satan finds tasks for idle hands' stuck in my head forever, knew way too many names for different fabrics because of her. And I retain a deep fondness, a kind of comfort, for 1930s writers because, I think, I grew up on this diet. Streafeild was my entry drug for Mitford, Waugh and Taylor and for that - as well as some of the dubious life lessons - I will always be grateful.

*I quite vividly remember Skating Shoes, better known as White Boots, because of the morbidness of the plotline: the story revolves around two girls, Harriet and Lalla, one rich, one poor, who meet at the ice-rink. Harriet has been set to skating to build up her strength (building up one's strength and putting on weight are two strong Streatfeild themes) whereas Lalla is training because both her parents died in a skating accident and her Aunt Claudia has decided therefore she too should become a world-renowned figure-skater. WTF.

**This paragraph comes on the second page of the book, in the romping set-up to the story. Reading that Sylvia took over domestic responsibilities at the age of 16, after the death of her remaining parent, sat me back as an adult. It is a lot like my experience reading I Capture the Castle repeatedly over the past 25 years, where in my 30s the character of Topaz, the young stepmother, came into focus after years of ignoring her in favour of teenage Cassandra.

***When I was at primary school in the 1980s we regularly sung a song about the Titanic in assemblies: the chorus went "It was sad (it was sad) / Mighty sad (mighty sad) / It was sad when that great ship went down ( the bottom of the ocean). / Husbands and wives, little children lost their lives, it was sad when that great ship went down". It is so weird how these nuggets of culture get passed down from generation to generation. 

****As noted in the podcast, Ballet Shoes has tinges of the boarding house novels of the 1930s; people thrown together in reduced circumstances and their lives subsequently intertwining. Effectively, Ballet Shoes is the story of a household of women abandoned by the male figure who was meant to provide for them, having to make their own way in the world - for pre-teen girl readers.

Monday 26 December 2022

Super-Infinite: The Transformations of John Donne, by Katherine Rundell

"It's traditional", writes Katherine Rundell at the outset of her biography of English Renaissance writer John Donne, "to imagine two Donnes - Jack Donne, the youthful rake, and Dr Donne, the older, wiser priest, a split Donne himself imagined in a letter to a friend". In Super-Infinite, Rundell describes a man "infinitely more various and unpredictable", who "reimagined and reinvented himself, over and over: he was a poet, lover, essayist, lawyer, pirate, recusant, preacher, satirist, politician, courtier, chaplain to the King, dean of the finest cathedral in London". She introduces a writer "whose work, if allowed under your skin, can offer joy so violent it kicks the metal out of your knees, and sorrow large enough to eat you". And she sets herself a high task: "This is both a biography of Donne and an act of evangelism."

I came to  Rundell's life of John Donne straight off my memorial re-read of Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall trilogy, finishing The Mirror and the Light (which I still find  grueling and upsetting, despite the fact the ending can come as no surprise, not only because it is well known that Cromwell is dead, but because I've read the book three times now). Within one page of Super-Infinite the two timelines unite. Sir Thomas More, Cromwell's great antagonist during his rise to power and his ghost as Mantel tracks his downfall, is Donne's maternal great-great uncle: Donne's life is shaped by his family's adherence to the Catholic faith and subsequent loss of fortune and precarious present. 

The transition from  Cromwell's Henrican era to Donne's Elizabethan period was very smooth, with the residual tastes and smells and textures of Mantel's writing fleshing out Rundell's book, which does not linger on world-building detail. Donne left behind no diaries, no household account books, no treasure trove of poetry drafts: his poetry was written for a limited audience, and little was published during his lifetime. Letters he wrote remain, collected and published posthumously by his son (who removed dates and changed names to burnish his father's reputation, attempting to make his social circle seem higher than it was and thus epically frustrating later researchers), but the letters he received he would burn after the writer's death ("a letter was, for him, akin to an extension of a living person, and should not exist without its parent"). Some of his surviving work Rundell admits to being unreadable even for his greatest fans - one religious treatise Rundell describes as "so dense it would be swifter to eat it than to read it". There is a sizable body of sermons, again largely published after his lifetime. During an extreme illness Donne smashed out and hurriedly published a collection of  23 essays on the human condition, part of the fashion for deathbed meditations - he lived another eight years. 

About 200 poems are today attributed to Donne. Again, very few were published during his lifetime, or even remain in his own handwriting. They have been pieced together from collections and manuscripts, painstakingly compared line by line, word by word, for variations. Few can be accurately dated, so close cross-referencing between his poems and his life events can be tricky; one tends more to illuminate the other than to pinpoint. Donne's poems were written to celebrate marriages and mourn deaths; there are "satires, religious verses, and about forty verse letters, a tradition he loved: poems of anything from twelve to 130 lines, carrying news, musings on virtue and God, and declarations of how richly he treasures the friends to whom he is writing."

And then there are the love poems and erotic verses - the ones many English readers have come across one way or another - even without the scaffolding of an education in literary history. "To call anyone the best of anything is a brittle kind of game", writes Rundell, "but if you wanted to play it, Donne was the greatest writer of desire in t he English language. He wrote about sex in a way nobody ever has, before or since: he wrote sex as the great insistence on life, the salute, the bodily semaphore for the human living infinite. The word most used across his poetry, apart from 'and' and 'the', is 'love'."

I wonder, by my troth, what thou and I
Did, till we loved?Were we not weaned till then?
But sucked on country pleasures, childishly?
Or snorted we in the Seven Sleepers’ den?
’Twas so; but this, all pleasures fancies be.
If ever any beauty I did see,
Which I desired, and got, ’twas but a dream of thee. 

 And now good-morrow to our waking souls,
Which watch not one another out of fear;
For love, all love of other sights controls,
And makes one little room an everywhere.
Let sea-discoverers to new worlds have gone,
Let maps to other, worlds on worlds have shown,
Let us possess one world, each hath one, and is one. 

My face in thine eye, thine in mine appears,
And true plain hearts do in the faces rest;
Where can we find two better hemispheres,
Without sharp north, without declining west?
Whatever dies, was not mixed equally;
If our two loves be one, or, thou and I
Love so alike, that none do slacken, none can die. 

The Good Morrow

Good poetry and bad poetry are matters frequently debated in Mantel's Wolf Hall trilogy. The courtier poet Thomas Wyatt plays a significant role in Cromwell's life and times, and the books illustrate the power poetry held at court and in political life. Wyatt's poems eddy around the court, passed swiftly from hand to hand, copied into commonplace books; verses that say sotto voce that which cannot be explicitly pronounced. Wyatt's lyrical powers are contrasted to those of "Tom Truth", the nom de plume of Lord Thomas Howard, whom Cromwell exposes in his illicit marriage to the King's niece Margaret Douglas through the revelations of his execrable love poems. Poems can be a matter of life and death - Howard died while imprisoned in the Tower of London, but at least was not beheaded or hung drawn and quartered; a very real threat in the machinations surrounding the crown. I remember the first time I walked through London's National Portrait Gallery, and the astonishing portraits of this era: men with their finely-turned stockinged legs and lustrous pearls, men executed at the age of 26 or 32 or 45 because they threw the wrong dice in the game of courtly life.

In an era when the stakes were so high and the politics so personal, writing was used to gain favour or redress fortunes. Donne had to dig himself out of one colossal hole earlier in his life, when he secretly married Anne More without the knowledge of her father Sir George More. Love matches were verboten: marriages were social and financial contracts and Donne had broken this violently. He wound up jobless and in prison and had to dig himself (and his young wife) out through a combination of groveling letters and an ecclesiastical court case. Later in life Donne undertook one of his most important transformations - a turn towards the Anglican church, not only personal but also professional, and for this he had to earn the King's trust and lay to rest both his Catholic origins and the lingering gossipy recklessness of his marriage. In a chapter titled "The Flatterer" Rundell lays out how Donne worked his way towards the security of a well-paid religious position, a route that was "byzantine, labyrinthine, often unpredictable", one that required talent, luck, strategy, and above all contacts. Ritual flattery, through letters and dedications, was oil that greased the social wheels, and Donne could be outrageously oily - although as Rundell points out, he blandished his compliments both upon those in positions to enable his rise, and recipients without any power whatsoever, suggesting he simply enjoyed making language work in this way.

The greatest courtship was that of the King. Donne's Pseudo-Martyr ("swifter to eat than to read") was dedicated to King James and distanced Donne far from the Catholic rebels who had recently attempted the  Gunpowder Plot, by arguing in favour of James's newly instituted Oath of Allegiance. Donne's book is dedicated to the King, a text of "white-hot ingratiation" but, writes Rundell, this was not "purposeless fawning"; rather, "it was a way Donne could signal unambiguously his allegiance to James's religious policies, and flag his devotion to serving the King." James loved the book, and had Donne made an honorary MA at Oxford. Donne's next book, Ignatius his Conclave, came hard on the heels of Pseudo-Martyr, and directly tackles political flattery. Ignatius of Loyola (founder of the Jesuits) is in hell and in conversation with the devil, whom he quickly proceeds to abase himself before, larding him with compliments. 

Donne runs this parable two ways: 

whomsoever flatters any man, and presents him those praises which in his own opinion are not due to him, thinks him inferior to himself and makes account that he he hath taken him prisoner, and triumphs over him

but also, the flatterer

(at the best) instructs. For there may be, even in flattery, an honest kind of teaching, if Princes, by being told that they are already endued with all virtues necessary for their functions, be thereby taught what those virtues are, and by facile exhortation excited to endeavour to gain them.

This statement tingled in my mind, and the bell it rang was Cromwell's Book of Henry, the guide Mantel has him writing for the instruction of his favoured young employees, of how to move and influence in the dangerous radius of the King. Flattering those attributes you wish your prince to exercise is, if I remember correctly, a tactic Cromwell learns from his beloved patron Cardinal Wolsey in the books: when you hold a mirror of words up to the King, you show him a picture of his grace, his mercy and his temperateness as well as of his strength and god-given right to power. And hopefully you will hold on to your head for another day. 

The other book that Super-Infinite made me think of is Sarah Bakewell's How to Live, or, A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts At An AnswerBoth books, I think, are brilliant: both are literary biographies of Renaissance men, and bring a twist to their structuring. Bakewell organises her book roughly chronologically, but uses the themes of Montaigne's essays as the jumping off point for each chapter (Question everything, Guard your humanity); Rundell hews closer to the chronological path, using the stages or transformations of Donne's life - The Hungry Scholar, The Anticlimatically Married Man, The Suicidal Man - as her organising principle. The scope of Bakewell's book is  wider, and she spends  more time on the philosophy and writing that influenced Montaigne, and how in turn he has been interpreted throughout history: Rundell's in contrast is focused and moves at a quick clip, but with sufficient diversions to not make you feel rushed as a reader. While not given to extraneous detail, Rundell's scholarship occasionally colours in the narrative in delightful ways:

The physical world was made up of symbolic meaning, and could, through relentless attention, be decoded. Your own body, stretched out in the water, could become a reminder of the crucifixion. He wrote:

Who can deny me the power and liberty 

To stretch mine arms, and mine own cross to be?

Swim, and at every stroke, thou art thy cross 

(It's hard to picture exactly what stroke he's doing here, to mimic the cross. The first English treatise on swimming, in 1587 by Everard Digby, describes something akin to breaststroke with intervals of doggy-paddle: presumably not that.)

Donne, like Shakespeare, is known for inventing or embellishing words ("I knew that to have given any intimation of it [his wooing of Anne More], had been to impossibilitate the whole matter", he wrote to his unwilling father-in-law; "I have cribrated [sifted / reviewed], and re-cribrated, and post-recribrated the sermon" he wrote in a panic to a friend after the new King Charles took amiss at something in the first sermon Donne delivered to him). In Super-Infinite Rundell likewise jinks with language: "A grim truth", she observes of one of Donne's own observations about the nearness with which we live with death at all times, "and one which makes our modern attempts to avoid the topic of death look malarially unhinged"; the useful little prefix "un" gets coupled to unusual words - "uncharming", "unshining". While I've not read any of Rundell's writing for children I wonder if those books too share this playful use of language; I can remember as a child myself relishing  the ways bits of words can click together and transform each others' meanings, the plasticity of English that makes it both infuriating and delightful. One small quibble - as wonderful a word as "waspishly" is, I think it is such a strong spice that it can only really be used once in a book.

My one true regret with this book however is that it felt about 25% too short. Rundell doesn't hustle us through the story, and her scholarly asides (about fashions for moustaches, or the appalling conditions of a besieged Spanish city) add texture as well as enhancing our understanding of the many layers of Donne's writing. It's not necessarily even Donne who I want to spend more time with - it's Rundell's own company, her thoughts and observations that I want more of. Highly recommended.

Wednesday 14 December 2022

Summer reading list

I was going to say, it's that time of the year that I start getting excited about my summer reading pile. But that's a lie - I start getting excited in about September, stockpiling books I want to enjoy over the break, each addition a promise to myself for relaxation and world exploration.

Will I read all these? No. Will I pick up old books from my shelf and re-read those instead? Inevitably. Do I feel buoyed every time I look at this promise to the future though? Most definitely.

Before you start - I have to recommend Rachael King's write-up of her year in reading - a complete joy 

Rebecca Solnit's Wanderlust (abandoned) and The Faraway Nearby. I enjoyed Orwell's Roses very much this year, and (shallow reasoning, but still) these new books are from the same design family (though slightly squatter). Solnit is one of the few people who I don't know IRL that I follow on Twitter, for her trenchant and roundly-considered views.

Zana Fraillon and Bren MacDibble's The Raven's Song. The only YA, which is unusual for me. Bought on the basis of Rachael King's review. Read and reviewed.

Claire Keegan's Small Things Like These. An impulse buy, one I kept picking up & putting down at my local, Good Books, and finally walked out the door with. I've not read anything by Keegan before. Read.

Ted Chiang's Exhalation. I really enjoyed Chiang's previous collection, Stories of Your Life and Others and am looking forward to sinking into his imagination again. Read and reviewed.

Elizabeth Strout's Oh William!. I read my first Strout, My Name is Lucy Barton, this year, and I am fascinated by (but not yet sure if I enjoy) her chilly voice. Read and reviewed.

Maggie Shipstead's Great Circle. I think I was feeling blue a few months ago and got a dopamine hit by ordering a bunch of Booker-nominated novels I hadn't yet read. This was one of them. Read.

Catherine Chidgey's The Axeman's Carnival. One of two books that everyone has been talking about this year. Read and reviewed.

Coco Solid's How to Loiter in a Turf War. The other book everyone has been talking about this year. Read.

Paul Diamond's Downfall: The destruction of Charles Mackay. I adore Paul and I'm excited to read his take on this (in)famous story. Check out his interviews about the book with Andre Chumko and with Kim Hill. Read.

Julian Aguon's No Country for Eight-Spotted Butterflies. I started by noticing Alice Te Punga Somerville retweeting Aguon and then read his essay, On Guam there is no birdsong, you cannot imagine the trauma of a silent island. Layering this on top of Robin Wall Kimmerer's Braiding Sweetgrass, which I finally read this year. Read.

Kate Atkinson's Shrines of Gaiety. I read every Atkinson that comes out. Reliably good holiday company. Read.

N.K. Jemisin's The World We Make. I've gotta say the prequel to this book, The City We Became, was my least favourite Jemisin to date, but I'm such a stan, I'll buy every one. Read.

Orhan Pamuk's Nights of Plague. I've never read Pamuk but I wanted a thick historical fiction addition to the stack, so there you go.

Rachel Buchanan's Te Motunui Epa. I loved Buchanan's Ko Taranaki Te Maunga and as with Paul Diamond, I'm excited for her style of telling this tale

Plus one for luck

Again via Rachael King (with Claire Mabey, my two chief reading inspirations) the BBC have adapted Susan Cooper's The Dark Is Rising as an audio drama and I might give that a whirl.

Unscheduled reading

There's always going to be some.

Katherine Rundell's Super-Infinite: The Transformations of John Donne. Added to the reading stack late because literary Twitter was so positive about this book. Reviewed here.

Noel Streatfeild's Ballet Shoes. Read after listening to the Backlisted Christmas episode about this book. Reviewed here.

Tamsyn Muir's Gideon the Ninth, added after realising I needed some levity in the stack. Reviewed here. And then Harrow the Ninth.

Sarah Moss's Ghost Wall, after reading The Raven's Song - couldn't resist the bog-sacrifice connection.

Alan Garner's Treacle Walker - continuing that bog people theme. Reviewed here.

Sunday 4 December 2022

Want to try me on as a mentor in 2023?

One of the absolute best things I did in 2020, in the height of  the first phase of the Covid-19 pandemic in Aotearoa, was open up an opportunity for people to try me on as a mentor.

I took on three people; one was a so-so relationship for both of us, I think; two were just fantastic, and I got to be part of the working lives of two women who I massively admire and from whom I learned so much.

I'm now just about 3 years deep in my current role and have found my footing (knock on wood). So I think I have the capacity in 2023 to work with 2, maybe 3 new people. 

How this works

I'm going to take the same approach as I did last time. Further down this post is a link to a short form for people who are interested in this opportunity to fill out. From those applications (last time I got nearly 60, which just blew me away) I'll pick about 4-5 people to have an initial meeting with (in-person or online). This is a chance to get to know each other a bit, and see if we fit at this point in each of our working lives. Afterwards, we'll decide together whether there's value in continuing to meet longer term. I'm envisioning mentoring relationships that last between 1 and 2 years.

Who I work best for

The areas where I know I can offer the most value are:
  • Transitioning into a leadership role
  • Adjusting to people management roles (either when you're new, or working through something like a looming restructure / change of leadership)
  • Adjusting to working with a board
  • Taking care of yourself as a leader / people manager
  • Working with a board 
The public cultural sector is my home base and site of most experience, and I know I'm of most service to  people who are in that zone. I will be upfront and say I respond best to optimistic, proactive people who are looking to grow. I know from past experience that I'm not good for people who are feeling lost or dismayed in their careers. That kind of career period needs something more like career coaching, and that's not my skillset. 

How to apply

If you're interested, please fill out the short form below by 22 January 2022. I'll review applications (please let there be applications this time!!) over the summer break, write back to everyone at the end of January, and set up those initial meetings for the start of February (depending on people's availability).

Expression of interest form

In the spirit of disclosure, one of the things a fantastic mentor once advised me to do to take care of myself  was to carve out time at work to do things I find restorative and joyful. As an endlessly curious person, immersing myself in people's professional lives and ambitions is one of my happiest things. So, if this is an opportunity you're interested in, know you're doing me a favour by pursuing it.

An extra, please read with care

When I was 32, I was widowed when my husband committed suicide. That was a long time ago, and it feels like another lifetime - or even someone else's life. While I won't give advice to people about mental health, what I will always make time for is supporting people who are grieving and returning to work, or whose job is to manage a person who's going through this. I can't provide professional support but I can share my experience, what I found I needed, what surprised me. Please don't use that form to approach me for this - but do reach out if you need to, I'm pretty easy to find.

About me

Oh, also! If you don't know who I am: I'm Courtney Johnston, Tumu Whakarae | Chief Executive of Te Papa. You can read a bit about my background & experience in this profile by Nikki Macdonald (from when I was appointed in 2019) or this 2022 interview with Duncan Greive on his epic podcast, The Fold.

Thursday 28 July 2022

Letter to my unfulfilled idea

This week, I was invited to speak at the In Your Dreams: Letters Aloud salon. In these monthly events, being run by Pirate and Queen, five people are asked to write a letter and read it aloud for the first time in front of a live audience. For the July event, the theme was Letter to my Unfulfilled Idea.

* * *

Years and years ago, I was acquainted with the idea of a “manager’s manual” – a guide for your new staff on how to operate you, their new boss. I took on this idea, and one of the statements in my manager’s manual is: I am an ideas fountain. 

My 30s seemed to be a particularly rich period for generating ideas. 
I went through a stage of riffing on a range of condiments enriched with alcohol, which I never pursued: peanut butter and rum, cheese whizz and tequila. 

There was a time there where I was promoting the idea of a week-later newspaper: a newspaper that re-presented stories from the previous week, edited down the ones that had turned out to actually be important. 
I invented a product where you could upload your Powerpoint file to an online provider, who would turn them into analogue 35 mil slides, and send them back to you with a slide carousel, so you could give pretentious illustrated lectures. 

Then there was that period when everyone was doing "My year of X, Y, Z". You remember - you set yourself a daily task or development challenge, blogged it, then turned your blog into a book and the book into a speaking career, fame and glory. In that period, I had the idea I'd spend a year training as an adult gymnast. That idea definitely remains unfulfilled. 

And my best, worst, unrealised idea: a service where your order personalised statement condoms. You go online, design your condom logo - days of the week, happy 21st, be my Valentine - and get the printed item delivered to your door. I never took that idea anywhere, and deservedly so. 

On the other hand, I have some ideas from that period that I'm still very fond of. The Museum of Emotions is one of these. 

It was inspired by my job, and my life, and a poem titled 'William and Cynthia' by Charles Simic: 

Says she'll take him to the Museum 
of Dead Ideas and Emotions. 
Wonders that he hasn't been there yet. 
Says it looks like a Federal courthouse 
With its many steps and massive columns. 

 Apparently not many people go there 
On such drizzly gray afternoons. 
Says even she gets afraid 
In the large exhibition halls 
With monstrous ideas in glass cases, 
Naked emotions on stone pedestals 
In classically provocative poses. 

 I had been thinking at that time about how the English language felt impoverished. How we had a dwindling number of words for love, for friendship, for our feelings. How words have become watered down over time - words like melancholy or chivalry once had entire schools of thought built around them, rather than meaning ‘a bit depressed’ or ‘holds doors open for women’. And how when our language is impoverished, our ability to describe or share or face our emotions is likewise diminished.
The Museum of Emotions was not about collections, civic pride, or community involvement. It would be a place that you could go to, to experience emotions that have fallen into disuse, emotions that are foreign to your everyday life, or emotions that have not been part of your life yet. 

It’s not a place to learn about emotions. It’s a place to feel them

I had a conversation at the time with a friend about my idea. He talked about a museum where you programmed exhibitions and performances explicitly designed to elicit emotional responses. I talked about a room that you went into where someone would radiate an emotion towards you, like perfume rising off warm skin. Where you could, as the kids came to say a little while later, catch feelings

Say you'd never had a broken heart. Say you'd never held a baby you'd given birth to. Say you'd never gambled a pay cheque away. Say you'd never punched your bully. Say you've never cheated. Or been cheated on. Say you'd never lost a job. Or an election. Or a parent. Say you could go somewhere, and try those feelings on for size. Say that’s a Museum of Emotions 

Let's go back to Simic’s first line: Says she'll take him to the Museum / of Dead Ideas and Emotions. 

I never noticed that 'dead ideas' bit until last Friday, when I sat down to write this letter. I had always focused on the emotions. 

This idea might be unfulfilled, but it's far from dead. It's more like its simmering on a back element in my brain, a pork bone in a stock pot, flavouring my thinking. It was originally presented in a conference keynote lecture. It lives on in a couple of blog posts I wrote at the time. I occasionally go back and visit those posts, just to remind my idea that I still care about it. This last week, I’ve brought it forth, and played with it some more. 

So let's not say "unfulfilled" ideas. Let's say: still cooking.

* * *

My letter was a challenge I set for myself in trying to write something good, without reaching for easy emotions (a crutch I lean on too readily when trying to connect with audiences). In the (very, very good) Q&A after the event, run by organiser and impresario Claire Mabey, I got into a lot more of the background behind this piece of writing:

I wrote up that powerpoint / slide carousel idea in November 2012. A lot of my thinking that year was shaped by things like the digital/analogue flip-flop (eg via Dan Catt) and experiments like Berg's Little Printer.

The Museum of Emotions was written towards the end of 2012 too. That was the year my husband died. I was stripped bare that year. Art meant something very different to me. The Museum of Emotions was especially inspired by a particular visit to Michael Parekowhai's On first looking into Chapman's Homer.  

The Museum of Emotions was a small part of a keynote talk given in late 2012 at the National Digital Forum conference, titled Going back to Gallery Land

Here's the final stanza of that Charles Simic poem

Says she doesn't understand why he claims
All that reminds him of a country fair.
Admits there's a lot of old dust
And the daylight is the color of sepia,
Just like this picture postcard
With its two lovers chastely embracing
Against a painted cardboard sunset.

The next Letters Aloud event is on 31 August, is on the theme 'Letter to the Future' and features Karlya Smith, Clementine Ford, Paddy Gower, Emily Writes, and Anthonie Tonin.

Anna Rawhiti-Connell was part of the first Letters Aloud event, 'Letter to my Biggest Failure'. Her letter about not becoming a parent is published on The Spinoff, who are partners in the series (thanks for the tote team :)

Thursday 21 July 2022

Finding your audience

I felt really vulnerable starting my blog up again.

Now I realise I needn't of worried. No-one's going to read it. Unless I make them.

I started blogging in December 2006. Fun fact: I registered my blogspot account because I wanted to leave a comment on another blogspot site, Jim and Mary Barr's Over the net (2006-2016). Over the net - Best of 3. It was a table-tennis reference; one that I've lived with now for 16 years. 

Once I had the blog, I used it as a way of documenting all the internetty things I was learning about, as the newly crowned Web Editor at the National Library of New Zealand.  It was auto-didactic: I was self-training, I was practicing, and I was self-consciously surfing the breaking wave of Web 2.0.

My first post was on Tomma Abts winning the Turner Prize. Don't know why - probably, that was the big international art news that day. I think I was practicing making text into links? The formatting is all fucked up, but I think it's important to leave it that way. Posterity and all that.

In that first month I drew attention to other NZ art blogs, like Peter Peryer (miss you, Peter, online and IRL). You can see me there following the web writing precepts I'd been taught: break links out on a new line, tell readers where you are sending them. No rickrolling just yet.

I also shared the things I was learning about. Like posting about social tagging. That entry references Remember that? was a social tagging website - a place where you described and shared links, like a public folder of your best photocopied articles. Personally, I became a Ma.gnolia user and also fooled around with Stumbleupon. Web content was so precious that we turned cataloguing it into a social activity.

This was the time when the big search engines released the year's top search terms at Christmas time. When people wrote rules for corporate blogging (we wrote so many rules during this period). When Time's Person of the Year was - us. I posted about my desire to attend a [Tim] O'Reilly conference. 

God we were nerds.

Anyway. My point. In 2006 you could start a blog, and it would be a rare enough beast that people would read it. In fact, I posted about how Technorati searched 29.6 million blogs and less than one in a million was a museum blog. People read what I posted. Me and the small number of other NZ art bloggers linked to each other, and developed and shared a readership. 

For years, my blog had one foot in the web world and one in the art world, and hung out a lot where the two converged. I was also one of the OG bloggers at NLNZ, where we wrote our hopes and dreams into the LibraryTech blog.  I've just discovered they ported that content over into the current site, and  you can still find my old posts with this utterly endearing bio statement:

There's actually a post on that site that shows how blogs slid into the emerging social media world. It's about one of the "tbreaktweets" we sent from the Library's Twitter account (set up on Jan 2009, first in thank you very much). Tbreaktweets was me and my friend Chelsea; we sent out tweets linking to stuff we loved in the collections twice a day, when our middle-aged colleagues headed off to the pyramid (the Library's then-staff kitchen) for morning and afternoon tea. The blog post was about how a PapersPast article about a hyponotised lobster that we tweeted got picked up by BoingBoing and went viral. 

[Remind me sometime to tell you about running the NLNZ blog when we did the 2008 web harvest and received death threats from enraged sysadmins. Good times.]

Like most people who spend a lot of time online, I've flirted with a bunch of platforms, some that have been long-lived, many that haven't. I've created reams of content and lost them to the ether . Through it all, I've kept this blog. It's a treasure trove for me, of talks and magazine articles and radio appearances that I have faithfully archived here. It's also, inadvertently, a kind of unedited memoir, hundreds of diary entries that might not be about me but are from me

I've come back to the blog this winter. It pretty much went on hiatus when I started at Te Papa in 2018, and went fully quiescent when I became Tumu Whakarae at the start of 2020. 

Partly this was because blogging (where I have always been deliberately candid) felt too risky. Partly it was because in this role I communicate all the time but don't often have time to think of new things. And partly was just that I was on a massive learning curve and had no spare puff for it.

Now I do have mental space - but I'm not sure I have an audience.

A friend DM'd me about my re-emergence:
I have very mixed feelings about the idea of public writing again. I don't know if I feel more vulnerable about it now or if I'm just less willing to tolerate the anxiety it always produced. Maybe it's also that the conversations I'm able to have in the classroom can stand in for some of the kind of responsiveness I used to get when writing/podcasting. But I have lots of things I am thinking about now, so it would be nice to find a space for them.

And I wrote back:

The thing I've found funny about it is that your "audience" is so fragmented now. I've found that in order to bring something to people, I'm sharing it over a plethora of platforms. Which makes me feel so attention-seeking! But then I figure if you're publishing, you want it to be read, so you might as well put that last little extra bit of effort in. 

The first long form piece I wrote in this comeback, on career cycles and trajectories, I shared on Twitter (4621 followers), LinkedIn (over 500 connections), and via the weekly pānui I write to all staff at Te Papa (this week, that email list has 614 addresses). It's had nearly 1100 views.

The second was a reflection on Kate Camp's memoir, You probably think this song is about you. That one I tweeted, and shared via email with a couple of non-social media users. And (having talked to Duncan Greive about it on The Fold recently and simply remembered that I had it) I revived my Tiny Letter and sent it out there too. On my blog it's had 164 hits; on Tiny Letter it went out to 195 subscribers, and I've had about 10 sign ups since then. Tiny Letter seems to reach people who have abandoned Twitter; no-one, it seems, just visits blogs any more.   

I don't know how to feel about those stats. I write to be read, after all: I'm making an effort to be seen (shouty as that seems at times). I have the luxury of wanting an audience but not needing it (I've listened to a lot of Duncan's interviews with Substack writers, after all).

So, is this a lament for the wide-open spaces and close communities of the pre-2010 internet? Not really. I'm more just curious about how my own publishing history has changed, as a online content creator now for more than 15 years. I've been publishing online, about my work and my life, for almost my whole working life. I've experimented with loads of platforms, and usually I've followed or found a community on them (the absolute nicest was probably that intense few years of reviewing on Goodreads). I am nostalgic for peak-blog (and Google Reader - miss you mate). But you can't lament change. Instead, you just keep writing about it. 

Sunday 17 July 2022

On Kate Camp's 'You probably think this song is about you'

[Note - all text in quotes comes from Kate's book]

Kate Camp - Wellingtonian, poet, comms professional - has just released her memoir, You probably think this song is about you, through Te Herenga Waka University Press. I read it all in one go yesterday.

In her interview yesterday with Kim Hill, Kate talked about the process of writing the book: of selecting a topic, and then writing and writing and writing until she hit the nugget. Then starting from that nugget, and writing all the way back.

The memoir could be classed as a story of growing up female, from 1972 to now. It moves between  personal nostalgia (the close cataloguing of the contents and smells of her grandparents' home in Hastings; school assembly song choices), coming of age drama (drinking, smoking, sex), revelations of the kind we have become familiar with in women's writing (fertility battles, the small casual cruelties of childlessness) and revelations few would ever be frank enough to admit (a chapter on wetting herself, as child and adult). Threaded through this are long-running storylines: a long-term relationship characterised by addiction and abuse; the suicide of a close friend; a loving family;  an abundance of close shaves and second chances.  

Kate and I work together - she's the Head of Marketing and Communications at Te Papa. I have only known her since I joined Te Papa, so many of the aspects and history of Kate that come through the memoir are, to me, just that, history. The memoir largely cuts off before the time I met her, and the smoke-soaked Kate of the book is understandable, but not quite familiar. She reminds me a lot, actually, of my older cousin Kim, who would be Kate's senior by a couple of years: another over-achieving uni drop-out, another Greenpeace canvasser, a head girl gone rogue, a pot smoker with lung-choked gurgle of a laugh, a wry accepter of everybody's foibles and flaws

Aspects of the book horrify me - in the sense of a horror movie, of watching circumstances mount up in such a way that you just know how they will play out. A young teen who can dress up in her mum's clothes and blag her way into Courtenay Place pubs. A young teen who's hanging out a 41-year-old pot-dealer's house. A young teen who doesn't value her body or her beauty, trading them off for the things she wants, which become the things she needs. A teen who enters into an abusive relationship and then stays there, a teen who bad things are happening to and who's being bad herself, being the baddest version of herself. A kid who can even then apply what I know of Kate today, the relentless logic of risk-management and a superhuman ability to manage a situation through to an acceptable conclusion:

I spent ten years of my teens and twenties with an one-again-off-again boyfriend, and we used to fight like that all the time. I remember our downstairs neighbour saying to me one time, When I hear you guys fight, and I can hear things smashing and breaking, and I hear you screaming, when should I call the police? And I didn't skip a beat, didn't think, I wonder if that's a rhetorical question. I just said, I'll call out to you. If I ever call your name, go straight next door and call the cops. He didn't have a phone.

The thing I find remarkable about the book - knowing Kate well, but not to the point of intimacy - is that while she has learned and been taught to be compassionate with herself, she does not let herself off the hook. There is an honesty that is not seeking approbation or thrills: it has just been tracked down, drawn forth, and written to the point of inevitability.

Even though it's the truth, it feels unfair and somehow cheap for me to write about Jimi's anger, his violence. It's like playing a card that changes the meaning of everything, makes it black-and-white. And it wasn't like that. I did so many things in that relationship that I'm ashamed of. I lied and stole and cheated, and I was cruel, and most of all I'm ashamed of how I used him, of how, over those ten years, I went back time and time again, always for the same reason. He said to me once I don't think you really want to have sex with me, you're just trading sex for intimacy. And I thought No, I'm trading sex for drugs and intimacy

I'm familiar with that card. For me, it's my widowhood - ten years old this year. "My first husband died. He killed himself." It's a statement that absolves me of all responsibility. I'm not at all responsible. And yet, of course, I am.

Another point of similarity is that we're both under-reactors:  

The fertility doctor had been asking me if I'd been feeling any side-effects from the hormones, any breast tenderness, night sweats, strange emotions, and I'd been happy to report I hadn't felt a thing. Now I was coming to realise that was a bad thing, my body's stoic insensibility. I was under-reacting, just like I always did. 

Some of this is having thick natural buffers, a capacity to keep your head while others, etc. Part of it (for myself) is what I  think of as burnt-off emotional nerve-endings, meaning I spend a lot of time observing my emotions rather than feeling them. There's a bit of Scottish parsimoniousness (even though emotions are free), of it not being worth the effort, and some distaste for making a fuss, being a mess. At 12 or 14 I can remember trying to get a good crying jag up over some teenage injustice, standing in front of the mirror to watch myself sob, and giving up because I just wasn't that into it. Two men have left me (one to suicide, one to another woman), because, they said, in their different ways, I know you'll cope. Which is another way of saying I know you won't make this hard for me.

Kate writes about  going to a doctor for abdominal pain, and being told there's a chance she has ovarian cancer:

At some point he said that I was very calm, and I remember thinking, I don't really see what the alternative is, were there patients who would burst into tears or shriek No no no or say well that's just fucking brilliant isn't it. I said something like Well there's not much point getting upset at this stage. I had a therapist at this time - she was a Scandinavian of some kind - and I remember her saying to me once, in her northern European accent, I find it interesting that you say there is 'no point' in feeling a certain way. Do you believe that emotions should serve a utilitarian purpose? It was the kind of annoying question you pay good money for.

Many many years ago I watched a tv series called something like Child of Our Times. It was probably a turn of the millennium thing. In it, a jovial child development expert tracked the progress of a group of kids all born at the same time.

One episode has never left me. The kids would've been about four. They were testing the kids' ability to recognise and describe emotions. They set up a test where the kids listened to a taped recording of a voice actor reading recipes, in Italian, with exaggerated emotion in her voice: great sadness, great happiness, great fear. The kids were given printed sheets of cartoon faces to hold up, matching the smiley or crying face to the emotion in the recording.

The kids by and large did fairly well, but one child - a little blonde girl - failed spectacularly. She kept holding up the smiley face whenever the voice actor's rendition ached with sadness. And this was odd because this kid was preternaturally attuned, an old soul. Her family was under some form of stress (perhaps the parents were on the fringe of breaking up?) and she shuttled around, settling things down. So the jovial child development expert delved in, and asked her about the face/voice mis-match. And she said It's important people think you're happy, even when you're sad. The tenderness, sadness and self-recognition I felt in that moment still haunt me.

Kate writes:

I have always observed but am still surprised by the fact that, when you pretend to be OK, most people think you are. You're expecting at least some of them to see through you, but they almost never do.

I have a recurring dream that I am being held hostage, or in some dangerous situation, some threatening men are there who I know mean me harm, Whatever the situation, I know instinctively that the only way to survive is to pretend I don't know they are a threat. I need to behave as if everything is fine, while calculating my escape. In one version of the dream, I am lying in bed with an intruder next to me, crouched by my face; I pretend I think he's a family member and tell him, groggily, that I'm asleep. In another I'm being held in a compound, but I walk around with my captors, politely commenting on the landscaping, while secretly looking for a way out. The dreams never resolve one way or another, but the sense on waking is of the enormous pressure of knowing your safety depends on cheerfulness, on your ability to convince others that you are blithely unaware of danger. I know my sister has the same dream sometimes.

In her acknowledgements, Kate talks about her dad's reaction to the book. Her dad loves her: both her parents do, and she them, and the largely untroubled nature of that loving is one of the things that balance out the horror movie bits. But he's upset that the book focuses on all the bruises on the apple of Kate's life, and doesn't reflect its shine: her happy marriage, her successful career, her publishing record, her literary fame, her solidity in the world. Why is she painting herself in such an unflattering light?

There's a passage in the book that sums up for me the wisdom of Kate Camp. In her interview with Kim Hill, Kate passingly references a "not very startling self-realisation of the Covid era", and this is one of these. It's not a unique realisation but you just  know she has lived in, in a thousand humdrum moments that may well make her wince to recall, but that are irresistible because when she writes them down, they make a hell of a good story:

When you think about rock bottom, it sounds like a one-time thing, but in my experience it's a place you end up going to over and over. If you're lucky, you learn something each time you visit. 

Thursday 7 July 2022

Link roundup

A quick reocmmendation to kick things off - Maureen Lander has started digitising and sharing her archive on Instagram - follow maureenlanderarchive for so much wonderful goodness

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Learning to Minister, and a crucial skillIn this RNZ story Phil Smith interviews Kieran McAnulty about the rapid shift from backbench MP to Minister: 

You might imagine incoming ministers get lots of warning, to study and gird their loins. They don’t. 

If that had been the case Kieran McAnulty wouldn’t have chosen that week to move house. 

 Kieran McAnulty is now minister for Emergency Management, for Racing, the Deputy Leader of the House and Associate Minister of both Local Government and Transport. Associate Ministers generally get specific roles inside the wider portfolio. 

That’s like taking on five new jobs at once. But it’s more than that, it’s a change from effectively working for Parliament to working for the Government. 

As Smith analyses it, one of the major differences is the new expectations of Question Time in Parliament, where the Minister is judged not only on content, but performance and delivery: 

 A minister might be brilliant at policy development, at management, delegating and overseeing multiple projects and multiple departments, and at getting money approved …but public perception will determine they are failing if they get monstered at Question Time. 

 It’s a strange way to mark success because Question Time’s interactions aren’t particularly ‘real’. Instead Question Time is a kind of theatre and doing it well involves a degree of performance, but not all MPs are naturals at that. 

Smith follows this up with an interview with Chris Hipkins on how to survive question time.

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From my friend and Tāwhiri / Aotearoa NZ Arts Festival CE Meg Williams, Sober reality - on three years of not drinking. Shared partly for Meg's insight and generosity, but also because it refers to one of my pet topics, the DOPE bird personality test.

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Athol McCredie and Jane Harris at work did a beautiful job of pulling together a full tribute to Luit Bieringa for the Te Papa blog. Scroll all the way through for the final pic of Luit and John McCormack back in the day in shorts with icecreams. 

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There's a strong tendency with arts (and other) organisations to focus on CEs and senior leadership, and not the boards that put them in place. This Sydney Morning Herald article about Australia's incoming arts minister Tony Burke is fascinating because he sheets home responsibility to the previous administration for "lazy and indulgent" appointments. 

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Shared by Nicola Gaston on Twitter - an interview with James Poskett, author of Horizons: A global history of science. Poskett notes the tendency to tell the history of science as a series of breakthroughs by (largely) white Western males, and dismiss the continued histories of science in other cultures:

We’re at a kind of crossroads in history, but also in science. And the narratives that scientists were taught and told themselves in the West was a narrative that was built for the Cold War. But the Cold War’s over — the original one. Yet we’re still telling these narratives about Western science, science being neutral. And I think a lot of public mistrust in the sciences generally is actually a function of this — that we need to present publicly a more realistic, political, diverse account of how science is done – how we got to now — in order to have the consent and engagement of the mass public in the sciences.

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Also on science, also quite possibly shared by Nicola - a long and fascinating and quite worrying (in that oh-shit-there-goes-another-set-of-assumptions-I-was-comfy-with) Guardian article by Stephen Buranyi, Do we need a new theory of evolution?

Sunday 26 June 2022

Emerging, Submerging, Sinking or Swimming: Career cycles and trajectories in the GLAMs

As they say - this is a long post that I didn't take the time to make short. It meanders through a group of musings about career progression, with a long digression into Brazilian jiu jitsu. It's an effort to get these ideas out of my head, and back into the habit of sharing. 

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A few weeks ago I attended the CAM-D (Council of Australasian Museum Directors) and AMAGA (Australian Museums and Art Galleries Association) meetings in Perth.

I'd been nervous about going to CAM-D. This group is made up of the leaders of the state and national museums in Australia and Aotearoa. Because the pandemic struck when I was just 3 months into my role at Te Papa, I had only met a few of them face to face before becoming Tumu Whakarae. 

For nearly two and a half years then, I've been joining Zoom hui with this group, always feeling a bit of of my depth. These are really seasoned professionals. Most have at least one, sometimes two (possibly three) decades of experience on me. My nerves about joining then were exacerbated by losing my bag on the flight to Perth, meaning I'd had to do an emergency shop to get clothes for the first gathering. At least that gave me a topic for small talk.

As it turned out, of course, everything was fine. No-one treated me like the little kid who didn't belong at the grown-ups' table (that's my internal narrative playing out, and it's also running out: I'm 42 now, rapidly moving past even "youth-adjacent"). It was magical to spend time with a group of people used to working and thinking and managing at significant scale in my sector. We had shared challenges, and many shared aspirations. We're balancing similar tensions, and competing priorities. I felt surprisingly at home very quickly.

AMAGA was completely different. Hundreds of people, compared to about a dozen. A council and organising committee that favours younger / newer professionals in the sector. And an explicit activist spirit, one that is very familiar to me from earlier in my career but not a space I occupy much now: of kicking against accepted practice and pace of change.

The conference was strongly flavoured by emerging museum professionals (a loose definition would be "people in their first ten years of museum practice"), and the strengths of these regional and national EMP networks was obvious. Listening to their presentations and talking to people between sessions, I found myself feeling my age in a really specific way, which I spend a lot of time thinking about. At 42, generationally I sit right on the cusp of Gen X and Millennial. I often feel like I'm in the middle, holding hands between the Boomers and Millennials - able to see both sets of perspectives and life experiences, not feeling settled in either camp.

Which led me to tweet this during one of the talks:

I've got to hat-tip to Megan Dunn for the "submerging" bit, which she coined in this 2013 essay for the Pantograph Punch. Megan there is talking about the flip side to the emerging artist, who is taking off on a career trajectory: the submerging artist, who slid off the ladder of career progression.

When I was a baby PR at City Gallery Wellington - my first full-time job - one of the things I had to do was write media releases. One of the clichés that gets rolled out high up in these releases is the status of the artist. It looks something like this:

  • Emerging
  • Rising talent
  • Mid-career (the trickiest)
  • Established
  • Senior
  • Renowned

This is reductive, of course. There are those artists who emerge later in life; those who were overlooked for chunks of their lives; those whose work or impact wasn't recognised within the mainstream gallery system but were fully formed outside it. But the key to it is that the only way is up. There's no resting spots, no plateau, no in & out flow. And there's definitely no wind-down. 

Te Papa employs approximately 600 people. A percentage of these are long-standing professionals (across a range of practices) who are coming to the end of their full-time or paid working lives. The negotiation of the final period of your working life inside a museum is, I think, worthy of as much attention and support as that emerging / entry period. And yet it is something that is rarely discussed out loud. How to accommodate, enjoy the benefit of, and celebrate people who are late in their careers, who are going through family changes, health changes, financial changes, and for some a massive change in their identity, as they contemplate leaving a career (and sometimes a single institution) to which they have dedicated decades' of mental, physical and emotional energy. Not to mention the subtle (or unsubtle) pressure of the generations behind these people, who - frankly - want the jobs they currently hold. While there's a lot of emphasis on internships, promotion and career development, there aren't similarly strong shared frameworks in place for how to reduce working hours, responsibilities, or shift the emphasis from producing outputs to transferring knowledge.

That's what I actually meant by "submerging" in that tweet, rather than the people who have trialled a museum career and decided it's not for them (that was me, by the way - I left City Gallery vowing I would never work in a gallery, and look how that worked out). Or, to put another spin on 'submerging', the people who feel like they are stalling in their career. 

We tend to think of careers as ladders, patterns of progressions. One speaker at AMAGA suggested that they should be thought of more as jungle gyms, where you might move laterally as well as vertically. New Zealand has a government careers website, which lists a wide variety of models

I've not got the insight to propose a different model. And I'm not sure I want to promote a bell curve theory, from emerging to peaking to submerging again on the other side. Or a seasonal one, moving through Spring to Winter. What I want to explore is more the micro-phases within your career journey, that play out repeatedly as you take on new roles, or new life experiences alongside your working life. And I'm thinking a lot in sporting analogies.

This year, I've gone back to jiu jitsu. I've been training since August 2012, but I took a long patch off over the past two years; a combination of lock-downs & Covid restrictions, a bad ganglion cyst, and also just feeling overwhelmed in my new job and not having mental space for a sport that is literally all about being up in someone's face. 

BJJ has a belt system: white, blue, purple, brown, black. While there is a syllabus, every club interprets this differently, and awards belts differently. But let's say, roughly, that each belt represents 2-3 years of solid training, skill acquisition, and a certain kind of commitment to your club and the people you train with.

I'm a brown belt. But I love going to beginners classes. I like to help out, supporting new people, especially women. It's also soothing, running through basic techniques that you know well. And as with most disciplines, you find yourself learning so much more about what you already know through teaching it to a diverse range of people.

So one night recently I was paired up with a fairly on-to-it newbie, a smaller dude who could listen to the instructions and to me. And next to me on the mat was a pair of the most exemplary munters. Fresh off the street, muscular dudes who quite likely watch UFC in the weekends and listen to the Joe Rogan podcast. 

It's important for context that you know that everything you do in BJJ is done with a partner. There are no kata, like karate. From your very first class you are paired up with another person, doing something that looks like full-body, floor-based peaknuckle. People either love the intimacy and the intensity of being thrown into such close physical proximity with a stranger (or even worse, your mate who came along with you, and now has his face planted in your groin area because your first class happened to be triangles) or it freaks them out and they never come back. To begin with, it can feel a lot like being assaulted. You have no idea what's going on, and another person is trying to hurt you. 

So, these guys were just a picture to behold. Rigid as fuck, because they were so uncomfortable being wrapped in each others' arms. Hyper-aroused, flooded with fight-or-flight chemicals, they could hardly hear the instructor because of all the brain chemicals rushing around. Because they've learned that strength is a virtue, every move was being performed at 200%, which meant nothing worked properly. BJJ is full of weird specific movements and you get taught them piecemeal, so these guys had no context in which to place the particular technique they were being taught. And they were so self-conscious that when other people tried to help them, they either couldn't hear the advice, or had all their barriers up against being told how to do something better.

And watching them, I realised that this was the exact parallel of my first two years as a CE. So hyper-aware of being watched I couldn't remember what it felt like to do something naturally. Loads of advice coming in, but no existing experience to place it into context. The rushing white noise of expectation and fear of failure in my ears. And the crushing experience of simply being very, very bad at something and having to be okay with doing it poorly for as long as it took to learn how to do it well.

The thing with jiu jitsu is that it's a lot like swimming. When you learn to swim, you start from the point of drowning. Learning to swim is the process of getting better and better at not drowning, until magically, you're swimming, not drowning, when you take your feet off the ground. Then you learn to take breaths, to experiment with different strokes, to dive under water, to turn flips. You can't remember what it felt like to not be able to swim. You also can't - without quite a bit of reflection and practice - effectively coach someone else how to transition from not-drowning to swimming.

BJJ's like that. To begin with on the mat you're drowning all the time. Then the moves start to connect together. You learn sweeps and counters and escapes, as well as attacks. You learn that if they do a, it's likely heading towards b, and so you can prep to do c, and if c is unsuccessful, you can transition to d - in fact, maybe you'll feint d in order to pull off an e. You learn to breathe through pressure. You distinguish pain from actual threat of injury. And once you've got some experience and perspective, a body of knowledge, some resilience, you might even graduate to self-awareness: an insight into the impact your actions have on your partner, how you can be a helpful training partner by considering their needs as well as your own, how you can pace the speed or intensity of a roll to bring out the best in an encounter for both of you. 

This year, I feel like I graduated from white belt as a CE. I reckon most days, I'm hitting purple. Enough experience to see the patterns playing out, to draw on a decent repertoire of techniques, predict outcomes, and be conscious of the people around me. Some days I find myself acting like a white belt and its crucifying, but only because it hurts my ego. What I need to remember though (and this is easy for me, because I am lucky to have a really strong natural growth mindset) is that black belt is still a long way away, and on the way I will have to ride out and push through several plateaus and some complacency. And as my coach says - once you hit black belt, you turn around, and you learn it all again from the basics right up. 

That was a long tangent. But what I wanted to illustrate with it is that throughout your career, you're likely to regularly spend time in microcycles, going back to white belt as you take on new responsibilities or roles, and growing through them. I like this way of thinking much more than impostor syndrome (this article has been so influential on me on this topic): you are thrown back into the beginning of a learning cycle, and so logically, things will be harder until they get easier.

So if we think of a career more as a series of looping coils than a straight line tracking up, what might the stages be? Like Tuckman's theory of group development, there might be storming, norming and performing. But there's also the bit after you've gotten to performing - or competence, or mastery - where you plateau. And that's where I think we could spend some time flipping up our mental models.

Years ago, I learned about the Gartner Hype Cycle, a theory of the adoption of new technology:

Gartner Hype Cycle.svg

I think there's something there in that plateau point. To think of it not as stalling, but as your most productive phase in a particular role. You have mastery, you're comfortably meeting the expectations, you're receiving the pay off for the investment of extra energy you put into learning these new skills: so what are you doing with it? Maybe less a plateau than a prairie - loads of room for you to range.

In my own career, this plateau stage is when I typically move into teaching (whether that's been workshops or blogging or some other form) or volunteering (enough mental space to take on governance roles or help out with conferences and networks and such like). I can comfortably perform the role asked of me, and from that base, I can push myself in other ways. For me, that's always naturally about getting externally involved, rather than developing deeper mastery in the technicalities of my job. Then when I transfer to a new role, for a while I have to give all this up: I'm fully occupied learning how to do my new mahi.

That's where submerging comes into it. I'm a Peacock. I thrive on being noticed and working with people. If I'm very honest, I get some hurt feelings when I'm no longer seen as an emerging talent, or an expert, and instead I go below the radar. A big part of my motivation comes from that visibility. And while (yes, get out the world's smallest violin) it's been lovely to get as many invitations as I have over the past 2.5 years to do talks and interviews on being a woman in leadership (only a woman, mind you, I don't think I've done a single non-gendered event) I miss being asked to do stuff because I'm really good at something. Or because I'm leading new thinking. And let's note here - I don't think I'm ready to be invited to pontificate as a CE yet for those reasons. I don't think I've achieved anything like enough to warrant that. But I also wonder if that time in my career is behind me.

When I was at the height of feeling needlessly sorry for myself, sometime last year, I listened to an episode of Adam Grant's Work Life podcast that has really sat with me. It's titled Career decline isn't inevitable, a phrase taken from one of the central interviewees on the episode, Arthur Brooks, who in 2019 published an article on The Atlantic titled 'Your professional decline is coming (much) earlier than you think'

In the intro, Grant says: 
Let's be honest, we all have peaks and valleys in our careers, times when we hit our stride and do our best work, and times when we're in a slump. Most of us are worried that as we age, our physical and mental skills will decline and we might enter into a permanent slump. And that fear is compounded by the fact that age is seldom seen as an asset in the modern workplace.
And then Arthur Brooks says:
I mean the number one myth is that, you know, particularly in certain professions, like, let's just say yours and mine, which is coming up with big ideas and sharing them, that that'll never go into decline. Why? Because it doesn't require, you know, strong biceps, and yet there's overwhelming evidence that in idea professions people experience decline as well. They just don't expect it.
And I was like - holy shit, that's me. I could blame it on pandemic brain, but at my very core, I could feel that effortless, effervescent mental energy of my 20s and 30s fading. I hadn't just paused jiu jitsu - I'd also given up blogging, stopped clearing my feedreader, stopped following a lot of professional coverage across the sectors I was interested in. I could feel myself slowing down and it terrified me

The podcast covers a range of things, including countering the idea we're fated to decline. But the idea that really resonated with me (because it felt like a life-line) was the concept of fluid and crystallised intelligence. Here's Grant introducing the concept:
What happens to our cognitive abilities as we age is not straightforward. It actually depends on what kind of mental skills we're talking about. Psychologists have long distinguished between two kinds of intelligence: fluid and crystallized. Fluid intelligence is your raw processing power. It's basically your IQ, your innate capacity for learning and problem solving.

... A common refrain in Silicon Valley is that young people are just smarter. When it comes to fluid intelligence, that's generally true. But the story changes with crystallized intelligence, your acquired ability to solve problems by applying your knowledge and experience. 
The concept dates back to the 1960s and a psychologist called Raymond B. Cattell. It suggests fluid intelligence the innate ability to think fast and flexibly, to draw inferences and connections, to apply reason and come up with new conclusions and insights. And it falls away by your 40s, when - according to the theory - it's replaced by growing crystallised intelligence, the ability to apply your learned experience and knowledge to your thinking.

What Grant and Brooks argue is that if your 20s and 30s are about raw insight and invention, your 40s onwards can be about making way for a new generation of powerful thinkers, and adapting yourself into more of a role as sounding board, coach, and providing the context and experience to support that emergent thinking. In tandem, in theory, you should have the best of both worlds. 

I'm instinctively wary of any Western academic or scientific form that has measures of intelligence wrapped up in it. But I think the shape of this idea is really helpful for reflection. It reminds me of a quote from Aristotle which I am very fond of (again, something that I've never read in the original Greek and therefore have only a mangled and personalised grasp on): that there is intelligence, and then there is wisdom, which is having the judgement to apply intelligence well. (Here's an HBR-style take on that idea.)

I think the combination of the CAM-D and AMAGA meetings really made me think about all this, because the two environments were so characterised by these qualities: the activist fluid intelligence of the cohort I was spending time with at AMAGA, and the crystallised intelligence of the CAM-D group. And me, sitting in the middle - relinquishing the fluidity but only just beginning to crystallise - could see both the potential and the frustration on both sides. Energy and experience, when you looked at it through one lens, and ignorance and fossilisation through another. Millennials and Boomers.

By virtue of having an accelerated progression through a range of roles with rapidly growing complexity (from managing a web team of two at 30 to a national museum of 600 at 40), I feel like I've been gifted with the opportunity to develop that contextual knowledge faster than a lot of my peers. At 42, I find myself in my career peak. I hope though I'm only in the foothills of my wisdom.