Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Habits Old and New

Old dogs can learn new tricks. My new resting habits are Exhibit A, and there are others as well. Thankfully, they’re not all tumor-related, and thinking about my new ways for maintaining energy levels has increased my awareness of other positive changes in daily habits. Please note that we’re conspicuously not thinking about how life will change next year when Shea starts college, though we’ve been laying foundations for an empty nest quite consciously for a few years. We’re enjoying life too much as it is to contemplate that upheaval just yet.

Here’s an example of the kind of change I am willing to think about now: for many years, I’ve read three newspapers every day. Like so many pieces of my life, it had a routine to it: headlines on all papers first, then a front-to-back reading. In the summer, when US papers aren’t available, we tried the International Herald Tribune and buying (once it started and was widely enough distributed that we found it around us) the European Wall Street Journal. Neither was very satisfactory, compared to the domestic editions. As on-line versions came into being, I switched some years ago to reading the New York Times exclusively on-line while we were away.

While there were oddities, it’s still possible to read the entire NYT, with some limitations imposed by their implementation. I submitted a range of suggestions to their customer service site, summer after summer, to a selection of which responses came back saying that my experiences were wrong and their way was right. This was emblematic of the lousy customer service attitude of so many large organizations that David and I were talking about the other day. While my suggestions might not be worth implementing, it’s brainless to write back and tell me my experience is “wrong.” It might not be useful to them, or worth a change, but that kind of response is beyond tone-deaf, especially when writing to a loyal, decades-long customer. That’s my assessment from my new mellow perspective. (It boggles the mind to think about likely reactions to such notes by New York City customers who are live with big-city stimuli and pacing and general Type A-ness.)

Anyway, leaving that rant alone, I still read the paper version at home—and sometimes the on-line edition, too. I frequently read the on-line version exclusively while traveling. (If you open and download all the stories you’re interested in while you have a connection, you can then read each story in succession on an airplane or in another location with no network access. The trick is to notice whether the story has a second page, and make sure you get the “single page” option selected so you have the whole story when you want it, not just the first chunk. It would be great to have the option to open stories only in the single page format so this last step wouldn’t be necessary. After my other experiences making suggestions to the on-line NYT, it seems impossible to imagine that anyone at the paper will listen, so I haven’t even tried to suggest it.)

What’s interesting to me, and what catalyzed this whole essay here, is that the unwritten “rules” in my head seem to be completely different for the paper version and the on-line version. In turn, over time, this has changed for the better the way I approach the paper version.

On-line, I usually read the NYT’s commentaries first; on paper, their placement on the op-ed page means they come after all they international and national news. Somehow, having read the on-line version in the way it arrives has given me permission now to read the physical paper out of order. Of course, Michael always reads the paper out of order according to my set of rules. Under his less rigid life view, which leaves him generally more relaxed, just about any approach works. (He also doesn’t have any rules about folding the sections back to what he’s reading and leaving them lying around that way, but the less said about that, the better.)

Another digression: the paper price of the WSJ in Europe is too high (2 euro a day) for regular consumption, especially when the dollar is in the toilet as it was last summer. The regular on-line subscription price is ridiculous, so we tried it on the Kindle this summer under a free offer choice. Take my word for it that it is completely maddening to read the Wall Street Journal on a Kindle. Together, these two organizations have made a combination of dumb-headed choices that leave even reasonable users (Michael is the metric for this) dumbfounded. “They did this on purpose?” is a common refrain. And the price after the free offers expire is disproportionate to the value. The upshot is that we’d rather go without the WSJ than read it electronically. This cannot augur well for the business model news organizations are going to have to find to survive in our changing world. (Unless, of course, we are so far out of the mainstream that their approach not working for us practically guarantees them success with the rest of the populace.)

Trying to come back to the topic, the short version of all of this is that a changed medium has changed my rules and habits. I still find the paper and electronic versions to be different experiences, differently satisfying. When home, I still read the paper version, though it’s much more frequently in what would have previously been a non-compliant, out-of-order, fashion. My inner rules czar has come to accept this gracefully. That seems like a harbinger of generally relaxed rules, especially the arbitrary ones, thoughtlessly adhered to at some cost even when not useful and constraining. That’s a positive change.

I've come to see the difference between a routine that simplifies life, reducing the need to expend thought on repetitive tasks (how to load and unload the dishwasher, for example) and one that is constraining. My new-found habits catalyzed by the change in the newspaper-content delivery mechanism have been freeing, and are leading to a re-examination of other routines. Some survive the examination, like having a set path to frequent destinations. I hate to have to think about navigation, and knowing in advance a way that works is, for me, value-added. Michael, on the other hand, loves variety and drives a different way as often as possible, even to places he goes all the time. When riding with him to a place for which I have a set route, it takes a real act of will not to tell him that his way is “wrong.” (Sadly, this effort is not always successful, as even riding, it’s less wearing for me if the familiar route is followed. I’m working on this.) Differences are illuminating and world-expanding.

So is letting loose of rules and routines that do not make life better.

That’s a lot of writing on a little topic. Or, maybe a big one, if all the implications are examined. Whatever. I hope the sun is shining wherever you are, at least inside, if the outdoor sun isn’t cooperating or didn't get the memo today.

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