Saturday, August 20, 2011

You Must Go and Win

One of my good friends has a thing about quitting. He thinks it's important to quit something that isn't working out, or just isn't working for you, and to do it as soon as reasonably possible. And he feels this way to the point where I think he respects people a little bit less (maybe even a lot less?) if they just keep plugging away. I forget what the exact logic is, but I think it has something to do with not wasting your life.

I have historically seen things the opposite way. To me, there's honor in sticking with a crappy job or a degree program you're not too sure about. Quitting seems flighty and immature. It's also something I would have a hard time owning up to, ending a relationship or dropping out of law school (which I didn't do). It would feel like failure.

Ultimately, sometimes it's best to admit something isn't working and cut your losses, and other times the smart thing to do is tough it out. But how do you figure out which is which?

If there's a theme tying together the stories of You Must Go and Win, a sort of memoir/essay collection by a struggling musician who was born in the USSR, it's that. Alina Simone, the author, moved from Ukraine to the Boston suburbs as a child when her father fell out of favor with the KGB. As one might imagine, such a history paves the way for a lot of seeking, and a lot of colorful tales. Many of them are set in Siberia. This is mostly what the book is about -- here are some crazy stories about a quirky singer/songwriter in search of her past, and, also, herself. Some of them are pretty funny. Some are like a slightly boring knockoff of Sarah Vowell. But one can see how a book about a struggling musician can also be a book about whether it makes sense to keep trying. The answer may not be what you think it is.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

The Quality of Life Report

In the past couple of years, I have read several novels about moving to New York or living in New York. Now, one about leaving New York. The Quality of Life Report looks at first like a trifle. I bought it in Michigan with the thought of reading on my grandma's pool deck, or on the bus ride home. My first observation was that it was a well-written trifle.

"When my friends and I were not discussing the lack of available men, we were usually discussing moving out of New York," Meghan Daum, the author, writes. "When somebody came home from an unusual location -- a wedding in Nova Scotia or a snorkeling trip in Australia -- and spent two weeks obsessing about moving into a yurt on the Bay of Fundy, we called it an Alternative Lifestyle Alert. The guiding principle of the Alternative Lifestyle Alert was that it was never acted on. Until now." Alternative Lifestyle Alert! That sounds like something my friends back in Buffalo would have said!, I thought, and kept on with what I still thought was a beach read.

For us professional-type people who did not grow up in or near New York City, the choice is roughly something like this: on the one hand, The Outside offers affordable housing, the proximity of friends and family, comfort and convenience. On the other hand, New York offers the opportunity to do and accomplish things you otherwise could not, the idea that even in this day and age, you can just sell your things, pack up what's left, and go really make something of yourself. The question is not only where do you want to live, but who do you want to be.

Lucinda, the main character in The Quality of Life Report, describes it as a conflict between substance and style. Leaving New York, she decides, will make her become a person of substance. Slowly she realizes that when you leave your stupid, fake problems (childish men, bad fashion, too-small apartments) behind, what you find out in the real world are real problems.

If I say more, I'll give too much away. Friends who have been torn between the big city, the small city and home sweet home, please read this. And then discuss it with me.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

The Big Short

If the first Wall Street movie is to Liar's Poker as the second Wall Street movie is to The Big Short, then Michael Lewis has outdone Oliver Stone by far. In both cases, the original was better, but in this case, the second volume still tells a new great story, updated for and relevant to a couple decades later.

The Big Short is a character-driven story of highly complex financial transactions and a corrupt system that works for no one but the handful of people who are making tens, sometimes hundreds, of millions of dollars off of it. So was Liar's Poker. The difference is that Liar's Poker was an autobiographical story. Lewis himself had recently left a lucrative Wall Street job where he made, he felt, way more money than he was worth doing something that had no social purpose. He wanted to chronicle a time of irrational excess that he thought wouldn't last, and he wrote about it in a way that was funny and a little self deprecating here and there. Twenty years later he reports, not only was I wrong that it wouldn't last, things got worse than ever, and the whole economy nearly went down with them.

The choice in The Big Short to focus largely on people who saw subprime lending and mortgage-backed securities for what they were, and to tell their story, was a great one. We get to see how these people had unique perspectives and personalities that led them to believe that although everyone said they were wrong, they weren't wrong. Like so many of the books I've written about here, it made me think of Outliers, by Malcolm Gladwell. In that book, Gladwell shows how the people who are the best at what they do got that way by not just intelligence and hard work (lots of people are smart. lots of people work hard. But there's only one Steve Jobs.) but also by unique combinations of circumstances. Steve Eisman, one of the main characters in The Big Short, was the child of investment bankers who became a corporate lawyer, hated it, then had his parents get him a job at the one investment banking firm that still tolerated renegades. If he hadn't learned about the field from his parents, and they hadn't gotten him a job at what was probably the only firm where he could thrive, he would not have become the man who foresaw the meltdown, no matter how brilliant he was. That's not the point of the story -- the point of the story is that everything sucks and we're all screwed, I'm pretty sure -- but it's an interesting point nonetheless.