Don't Shake the Flask

Because you don't know if it'll explode

Month: January, 2019

KonMari-ing the Library and Other Blasphemous Things

When I first read about the controversy on Marie Kondo’s advice to throw out all your books that don’t bring you joy, my first thought was a cynical one–that this was promoted to generate buzz on her new show on Netflix. One must admit, the timing of the controversy and its availability on the streaming service was a little suspect.

I had heard of Kondo’s book when it first came out a couple years ago, but I paid it little mind, assuming that it was just one of many offshoots of the current minimalist trend. I didn’t need to read about something that I already quasi-practiced. I’m more on the pro-minimalist side of things, but this is about half due to necessity–I’ve moved around a lot and discovered that having too much stuff to move around is just a pain in the ass. Philosophically, I don’t attach too much of myself to things. I’m more of an idea person. So basically moving everything online–communications, writing, reading, research, entertainment–wasn’t a difficult transition for me.

Don’t get me wrong, I understand why people have an emotional attachment to things. There’s history behind those objects–and I think for some people it’s easier to keep those things around than to try to capture those feelings into words, photos, and three dimensional schematics and upload those documents into the cloud. If people don’t want to throw X, Y, and Z out even though they take up quite a bit of room, I wouldn’t really care as long as they don’t try to store X, Y, and Z at my place.

Anyways, after thinking about this some more, I find it hard to get worked up about this. I don’t really agree with Kondo’s methods (Why throw something out because it doesn’t bring joy? Why not use utility or some other quantifiable method as a criteria for throwing things out?), but I don’t see why I should use up so much emotional energy getting worked up about her notions on throwing books away when she’s not physically coming into my home to toss stuff out. (Although judging from some parody tweets on Twitter, maybe she is.) I think what’s really happening is that marketing a certain aspirational lifestyle that has its origins in one culture is clashing directly with the lifestyle philosophy of a different culture.

So why am I framing it as a clash of cultures? Well, take Kondo, for instance. Her methods are very much rooted in Japanese style and the way she advocates throwing things out harks back to the animist beliefs that still pervade the country. From her Wikipedia page, she made a statement to the effect that she sort of had a religious experience that set her on the path of becoming an organizational guru. In light of that, I think she’s fashioned herself into an organizational Joan of Arc, saving people from being besieged by their own stuff. Only instead of being burned at the stake for her heretical notions about books, she’s being pilloried on Twitter.

I also want to note that it’s individual books that are considered and then tossed if they don’t bring joy. For people who are outraged at this notion, it’s not so much that the books are individual, but they are part of a greater whole–the personal library. If you subscribe to the personal library as an entire entity, tossing books out is akin to, say, chopping a tail off a pet cat because you reason that the tail is not essential in keeping the cat alive and why not amputate because that would save space. But we all instinctively know that that is inhumane.

Books are also not just about joy. They bring all sorts of emotions because writers try to capture the totality of the human experience in words. So if you are throwing out everything except the joyful books, aren’t you metaphorically cutting off all your emotions except the happy ones? (It does not escape my notice that Japanese society is also a lot more conformist than others. Many emotions are hidden–to the detriment to mental health–in order to avoid conflict and to keep everything in harmony.)

For some strange reason, this whole thing reminded me of one of the books in Jayne Castle’s St. Helens trilogy which were futuristic romances written in the late 1990s before the whole paranormal romance thing blew up and took over bookstores. The conceit of these books is that human colonists landed on some weird planets (that somehow bear an uncanny resemblance to the late 20th century Pacific Northwest) and over time, developed psychic abilities or talents. In one of the books, the villain turned out to be this lady who had the talent to organize everything. Her downfall was that she was too obsessively organized. Anyways, the point of that digression is that it’s probably okay not to be perfectly tidy. Do what works for you. And if people are pushing some method or another, well, just assume they’re trying to take over the world. Or at least make a cash grab.

No Accomplishment Is Your Own

So, I recently came across this tweet on my Twitter timeline. It caused some outrage and controversy. So I went on this person’s profile page to figure out if I could get any context from the rest of the tweets. Unfortunately, I failed on that part. All I could figure out was that this person is a writer and a comedian and they went to Harvard at some point. Considering that this person makes a living in trying to be funny, I wasn’t sure if this tweet was a serious statement or her trying to be funny. Maybe it was both. Since I’m not sure what her intent was, I sort of find it as a failure on her part as a writer to try to convey her true intent.

Anyways, the replies to that tweet fell into two camps: 1) People who assumed that the author of the tweet aimed to skewer rich, privileged young people who boast about their accomplishments when it was in fact their parents’ money that funded everything, and 2) people who felt that they were being kicked while being down because the author did not explicitly state it was rich, privileged young people that she was talking about. Her statement was vague and could be easily interpreted to mean that it included EVERY person who was living at home with their parents, lumping in both the wealthy leeches with the poor, disabled, and others who live with their parents out of necessity.

And what do I think of this? Well, I think figuring out who pays the rent is besides the point of what constitutes a “real” accomplishment. And I’m speaking as someone who has paid my own rent ever since grad school (I lived in dorms as an undergrad and my college education was funded through scholarships). Accomplishments don’t appear from out of a vacuum. They get done from support of a lot of people: parents, yes, but also other relatives, friends, teachers, mentors, other people who believe in you, supporting organizations, networks, and sometimes just pure luck. Just because a smart, hardworking person also happens to be living with someone else who pays their rent doesn’t make them any less smart or hardworking.

I can, perhaps, make an educated guess as to where the tweet’s author was coming from. As the child of immigrant parents who managed to make it into Harvard and then into some high profile gigs–it’s probably easy to assume that she made it to where she is due to her own efforts. In fact, one might assume that I might be one of the most likely people to take her view because I’m also the child of immigrant parents who attended prestigious universities and now making it professionally in one of the most expensive parts of the country. However, I am also acutely aware that where I went to school also helped open doors that might not have been available to me otherwise. Yes, I did all the work, but someone has to open those doors, too. I suspect that all of her accomplishments would have been a lot more difficult to do if she had not had the network available to her simply by attending Harvard (and all the circumstances leading up to her getting accepted there).

So, one could argue that having any accomplishments is a mix of work and circumstance. And in this case, the “circumstance” is the sticking point. As the old saying goes, we all stand on the shoulder of giants. And regardless of who’s supplying the money and the opportunities and the moral support, perhaps we should all apply some humility when describing our own accomplishments rather than stomping on other people while trying to validate ourselves.

Organizing Everything

Don’t you sometimes get the feeling that life is nothing but organization, a fight against entropy?

Today in the mail, I got a mass of postcards from various places in the world. Usually it’s just one or two, but I guess after the holidays, a lot of mail accumulated at the post office and it was just today that everything got delivered. But instead of tossing all of these cards into a photobox where I’ve been keeping all of my postcards after reading them, I decided to do a mass organization by country. (This, to me, seemed like a more intuitive way of categorizing everything compared to, say, topic or style or shape.) It took longer than expected.

I can’t say that I particularly liked doing the organization, but now that all the postcards are in order, it’s interesting to note the patterns that emerge by country. Perhaps I’ll do an actual analysis at a later date when I have more time to kill.

Starting Small

It’s been a while since I’ve posted regularly in this blog. I don’t want to have a resolution saying that I will start posting regularly from now on, because let’s face it, most resolutions end up as failures as the rest of life gets in the way and attempts at establishing new habits get broken. But, perhaps I’ll start small with bits and pieces of observations rather than starting big with essays encompassing large ideas and perhaps that will make it easier to go on.

Anyways, I wanted to share my latest binge watching: Begin Japanology and Japanology Plus (it’s actually the same program, but the name changed). I discovered this on YouTube because the site began recommending this to me after I had been watching other documentary videos. I love these types of videos because it tells about different cultures through seemingly very simple things like home appliances and umbrellas as well as the more obvious cultural markers like food, literature, and religion.

I have to admit, part of the fun of watching this particular show on YouTube is reading the comments. (Yes, yes, I know. Never read the comments. But I can’t help myself.) It’s usually overwhelmingly positive for the main host, Peter Barakan, who has a very calm, British demeanor. But the commenters have such a hate-on for the host of the “Plus” segments, Matt Alt. It’s probably because Alt’s character is so obviously that of an exuberant American that for whatever reason, fans of the show find too jarring in comparison to the subject matter and the other host. I personally don’t get the hate (Alt definitely has a different style of presenting, but I’ve seen worse), but I do find it amusing that in the comments of the later episodes, the haters reluctantly post that he’s “getting better”. Maybe they don’t want to admit that Alt is growing on them.