Writing what I know.

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Pieces of me are coming back.

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I’ve been cooking lately. Right now my hands smell of garlic. Don’t tell Denise, because I’m using her computer, and she takes better care of her things than I do.

I made us a simple lunch, featuring zucchini sliced thin on the mandoline. I sauteed garlic on a low heat, then added the zucchini slices, cooking them until they were translucent and green, curling up on themselves.

It doesn’t really matter what I did with the zucchini. I’ll tell you anyway. I put it on baby fusilli with olive oil, sea salt, and coarsely ground pepper.

I cooked more when Denise and I first met. That’s not exactly right. I cooked more as we got to know each other, starting with eggs and advancing into soups and pastas. By the time we left our garden in Point Reyes, I was making quiches and salads, slow roasting tomatoes, and even collaborating on jams and pies with Denise.

That all came to an end when we moved back to San Francisco so that I could launch Knowledge Architecture. I worked Monday through Wednesday at my old job to fund the company. I worked every other waking hour I could to get the business off the ground. When I wasn’t working, I was thinking or talking about the business. I put on weight, stopped cooking, reading fiction, hiking, and any of number of things that were pieces of the guy that Denise married. She missed him, as did I, but I was single-mindedly possessed.

Ironically, one of the reasons I started a business was to have more time to do the things I loved. I have that now. It took a couple of years, and I’d be lying if I told you that I don’t think and talk about the business obsessively. I do. But on the other hand, I don’t go into the office on the weekends, I leave work between 7-7:30, we are heading to Italy for three weeks in September, without a phone or computer. We just got back from three weeks in Point Reyes, where I worked a reduced schedule.

I don’t wish to congratulate myself on getting some life balance back. I want to emphasize that regulating your work hours and taking vacation are not heroic accomplishments, they are the results of prioritization and discipline, as well as signs of a successful business. One thing I’ve noticed when talking to other founders about their early years, or at least first-time founders, is that they gave their life away for two years. The amount of new things you are required to concurrently learn, decide, and build in the first two years is staggering, I cannot over-exaggerate it.  If, however, you haven’t gotten things under control after two years, and that includes your hours, my experience tells me that’s not a good sign, and things might be chaotic for the foreseeable future.

The reason I share this story is that nobody told me about the pieces. Nobody told me that when you set aside pieces of yourself for a couple of years, that they don’t automatically come rushing back in to occupy the space that they used to fill, just because you decided to pull back your hours, just because you are ready for them again. Those pieces of you might have evaporated while you had them dammed up behind your work.

I don’t know what my advice is, other than to share what I’ve experienced. I can’t say that I would have done things differently, even if it meant sacrificing part of myself for it. I can say that I’m relieved that pieces of me which I had put on hold are coming back, and that it feels good to be cooking again.

Written by Christopher Parsons

August 14, 2011 at 4:57 pm

Posted in Uncategorized


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Am I the only person who thinks obsessively about where they want to live?

I guess I know of at least one other person, Denise. She wrote a post about it this morning. I liked the comment that flwrjane left:

What a good problem to have. My heart screams country while my head quietly insists on city.

She’s right, my heart and head don’t agree.  I trust them both equally, so that leaves me with my gut, who says “both.”  So what’s my problem?

West Marin is the best place I know for reflecting. When I work out here I find my mind often drifts to bigger picture questions, often questioning the necessity of the work I’m doing. Why am I doing this? Could I eliminate it or automate it? Would the world stop spinning if it didn’t do it or would I be fine, finding myself with more time for the things I love doing?

In the right proportions, this is a healthy process, one that most businesses and individuals don’t get enough of. In excess, I worry that too much reflection would lead to crippling inaction.

San Francisco is the best place I know for working. It pulses energy and entrepreneurialism. In San Francisco, almost everyone you meet has a crazy idea for a new business. Granted, most of them are either technology or food related,  but people in San Francisco know how to dream and execute, which might not fit with our stereotype. (While I’m defending San Francisco, please note that we don’t call our city “San Fran” or “Frisco.” “San Francisco” works just fine, as does “The City.”)

Where was I? Right, heart and head.

There’s a great piece of advice I came across when I started Knowledge Architecture, which was that the founder should work on the business, not in the business. Getting away from the city is the perfect way for me to work on the business. I came up with the idea for the company here, so it seems natural to return here to see the big picture. This summer I’ve been working on our first extensive research project. Again, easier for me to do research away from the city, far from the distractions of the office.

My head worries about getting too far away from the pace of the city. I worry that the country will make me soft, that I’ll lose my edge. I worry that I’ll become estranged from my team.

As I write this, I’m aware it seems that fear, especially when it comes to work, is what keeps me in San Francisco. That’s not true. I prefer the city in the winter. It gets dark early in winter. It also rains. The country can feel isolated and depressing by January, while the lights and crackle of the city are stimulating.

I’ve begun to wonder if the best solution would be to split our time equally between the two. May through October in the country, November through April in the city. The “growing season,” both literally and spiritually, might be best spent reflecting in the country. I miss our garden and I miss gardening, I did some of my best thinking while watering or weeding. Besides, it’s cold in San Francisco during the summer. (Smart ass tip from a local #2:  Mark Twain didn’t say “the coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in San Francisco.”)

Anyhow, enough about me. Does anyone else wrestle with these questions?

Written by Christopher Parsons

July 31, 2011 at 2:51 pm

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Never stop tinkering.

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My mom called me last week to tell me my grandfather had died. He was 95. My initial reaction was remarkably singular — a feeling of admiration, envy even, in the way that he lived at full speed, right up until the last few weeks.

My mom skillfully framed the broad sweep of his classic American success story in his obituary this morning. From his family’s orange farm to Cal Tech.  From Cal Tech to the Manhattan Project.  An international engineering career with bouts of entrepreneurship thrown in.  A marriage that lasted over fifty years, which yielded a daughter and two grandchildren. More friends and colleagues than I’ll ever have in my life.  There’s not much to mourn here — he had an amazing life, which was healthy, full, and long.

My earliest memories of him are from the basement of his house in Scarsdale, in his workshop, hands covered in grease, pulling apart something in the house, or one of his cars, just to see if he could put it back together again. It drove my grandmother crazy, but amused the rest of us. His weekdays were spent solving some of the grand engineering problems of industry. On the weekends, no mechanical problem was too small to escape his interest. In the way that my grandmother never stopped talking, he never stopped tinkering. I took after my grandmother. My brother Chad took after my grandfather.

My grandfather and I didn’t always see eye to eye. When I was younger I enjoyed his gift for tinkering about as much as he enjoyed my gift for debate, which often got me in trouble with him. Yet over time, I came to appreciate engineering, and by extension, I understood him better. Software got me into tinkering, as did working with ideas, cooking, entrepreneurship, and gardening. I was full of questions for him over the last ten years. How did you do this? Why did you do that? What was it like to work on X? I suppose it was partially the history major in me, but more than that, I finally identified with him, and for that I’m grateful.

My wife Denise is convinced that his constant tinkering kept him sharp right until the end. He took to repairing clocks for the residents of his retirement home. His MacBook, cell phone, and digital camera provided endless amusement for him, though I suspect he was more interested in their capabilities than in actually using them.  Whenever he was stumped, you could hear him muttering under his breath, “What goes on here?”

I once asked my grandfather for his advice on living so long. I’ll never forget his answer, “stretch and save.” He explained that “stretch and save” wasn’t his answer for living a long life, rather, if you find yourself living a long life, you’ll want to be flexible and have money in the bank. I’ll take the more liberal interpretation Papa, and argue that stretching your mind is equally as important as stretching your body. I’ll enter your irrepressible passion for tinkering and 95 years on earth as evidence to support my claim. Rest in peace.

Written by Christopher Parsons

July 9, 2011 at 4:04 pm

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Paul Chowder’s most useful secret.

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From the The Anthologist :

And then a man of forty or so, with a French accent, asked, “How do you achieve the presence of mind to initiate the writing of a poem?” And then something cracked open in me, and I finally stopped hoarding and told them my most useful secret.  The only secret that has helped me consistently over all of the years that I’ve written. I said, “Well, I’ll tell you how. I ask a simple question. I ask myself: What was the very best moment of your day?” The wonder of it was, I told them, that this one question could lift out from my life exactly what I will want to write a poem about.

Written by Christopher Parsons

July 3, 2011 at 5:07 pm

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Days swollen with time.

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The key to summer is getting out of the city. I suppose my advice presumes your urbanity. If you can see the stars at night, you are well positioned for summer. Lucky you.

In The Maytrees, Annie Dillard wrote about “days swollen with time.”  The Maytrees lived in Provincetown, and also in a beach shack away from town, up in the dunes.

I read The Maytrees on our faded green couch, and on the bed up in the loft, over several afternoons one summer in Point Reyes. Halfway through, I started reading it aloud to Denise. I didn’t start over at the beginning.

Summer days seem longer away from the city. Perhaps that’s because I cleave them with a nap, which yields two shorter days. One to savor now, the other for later.

Once you have bisected your days, effectively doubling the length of your summer, you can then decide whether or not to fill them. If you decide to fill a summer day, you should only use one ingredient at a time. A hike. A lunch. A book. A swim. A walk to the meadow. The secret to swelling your days with time is not to burst them, like an overripe berry, but to fill them right to the edge, and then stop.

Written by Christopher Parsons

July 3, 2011 at 12:59 pm

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I want to write down what I know.

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When I was younger, 22 to be precise, I started a journal. I also started reading the classics. Reading isn’t the right word. Devouring. I didn’t read the classics, I devoured them, hoping to infuse my veins and muscles and brain with wisdom, as if reading faster would transform me more quickly.

I remember thinking that the secret to success was knowing about people, not knowing about things. Hemingway knew about people. As did Kerouac. And Twain. And Fitzgerald. I planned to wield my knowledge of people like a sword. Fiction, the more the better, was my forge.

On weekends I would take fiction and my journal to the mountains. Sometimes to the beach. It was serious business, becoming wise.

I moved to San Francisco and signed up for a writing class. I liked writing. Well, I liked the idea of writing. My problem was finding something to write about. This was before I married Denise. Before I got laid off and before I laid people off. Before we moved to the country and grew a garden. Before I started a company. Before both of our dads had heart surgery.

I write more now, mostly for work. I write to figure things out. I have lots of things I want to figure out these days, so I am writing more. I started reading Nicholson Baker’s The Anthologist today. That’s where the title of this post came from, on page 34. His character, Paul Chowder, writes to help people.

“If you feel that you have a use, if you think your writing furthers life or truth in some way, then you keep writing. But if that feeling stops, you have to find something else to do. Or die, I guess. Or mow the lawn, or go somewhere and do something, like visit a historic house, or clean up a room, or teach people something you think is worth knowing.”

Last month I left my journal on an airplane. It had my name and phone number in it. I was sure someone would call. They didn’t, and it broke my heart. Each New Year I pull out all of my journals, going back to when I was 22, and read them chronologically. I’m 34 now. I imagine doing this when I’m 84, perhaps reading into February.

Written by Christopher Parsons

June 26, 2011 at 6:58 pm

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