An old friend of mine was on the Internet and came across an article that I had written, so she emailed to say hello. I was glad to hear from her. She and I worked together 11 years ago. We were once close but drifted.
I started to write a pro-forma reply. “Great to hear from you! Things good in Brooklyn. Two kids.” And so forth. But my email felt false and chatty.
I thought about it for several days. Finally I had an idea: What if I sent over a list of the things I’ve learned in the last decade? It felt like the most accurate way to bridge the gap. Because then she’d know what had happened. From there it took several days to write. Here is a part of it:
In the last decade, the things I learned were:
How people are typically kind, except on the public Internet (but privately generous). How too many people borrow tragedy that isn’t their own. How to build a giant digital archive from old magazines. How to do it again for a different magazine. How to work with digital things by the hundreds of thousands. How to quit a dream job.
The difference between a website, a collection of websites, an API, a platform, and an ecosystem. How to be the dumbest person in the room without embarrassing myself. How to be the smartest person in the room without embarrassing myself. How to be somewhere in the middle of a room. That I’m not the most interesting person in a room, or the worst person in the world. How not to teach a class.
How to talk to 20 people. How to talk to 500 people. How to talk to rich people. How someone may be in physical, mental, or emotional pain and not tell you. How to dress for meetings. How it feels when a friend dies, when a friend’s wife dies, when his children die, when a father-figure dies. How to go to conferences where you sleep in a tent.
How people cry in meetings. How to wait patiently and quietly when someone is crying in a meeting. How many of my friends had miscarriages. How to pitch a book. How to miss a deadline. How to lose a ton of weight, and how to gain much of it back.
How to apologize. How to apologize again. How to take my blood pressure. How to walk around San Francisco.
How to be the person to call when people start something new and who they call again when they get fired for trying it. How to help someone get a job. How to play with a smartphone for hours at a time. How to survive a twin pregnancy. How to raise twins to three weeks, four weeks, one year, three years. How to efficiently change a diaper under extreme meteorological or emotional circumstances. How to cut back on drinking. How to ramp up on drinking. How to give a toast.
How to clean a bathroom, how to hold a screaming child, how to make eggs in a hurry, how to kiss a wounded elbow, and how to squeeze a tiny foot.
I sent that off. Several days later she sent back her own list. It was a great list: About learning new ways of working, about being a mom and wife, and the way her body was changing. It was like an index to the book about her last 10 years.
A different friend once told me a story: He was working for a huge old engineering firm and one of the firm’s weird jobs is to keep the line open between the United States and Russia — to maintain the “red phone.” He’d visit the facility sometimes. There is—still, even now—an underground, bomb-resistant facility with rows of blinking machines.
It is staffed around the clock by graduate students in Russian literature. They’ll read quietly, occasionally checking the line. I guess someone is on the other side, in Russia. There aren’t many calls, of course. I guess they could, and probably should, shut it all down. Then again, the line is open and it works fine.