Making a business out of restraining people’s wants

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A couple of weeks ago, I had a good long chat with a friend who used to be a housemate and who is now engaged in his own business. I was encouraged by his stories of challenge and keeping the faith, as well as his interest in exploring technology to serve real needs, particularly around mobile apps, website development to support local services, and similar opportunities.

I hope this article from Fast Company would inspire him to continue looking for good ideas and have the resolve to turn them to reality. Here’s to you!

People need help saving themselves from themselves, and that presents a business opportunity. What if payroll companies offered “contingent paychecks,” dispersing your earnings only if you met the conditions you’d specified (e.g., taking four hours of Spanish lessons or watching Schindler’s List)? Or imagine that someone set up a national Opt Out of Fat registry, and if you signed up, restaurants would deny your requests for nachos and grocery stores would refuse to scan your Oreos. Might people pay for that?

We admit these ideas are a bit far-fetched and perhaps likely to end in bloodshed. But Milkman has offered more practical suggestions, such as cleverly bundling wants and shoulds. For instance, exercising is a should, so what if your gym offered to receive your magazine subscriptions? That way, to read the new Vanity Fair (a want), you’d have to drop by the gym. Or what if Blockbuster offered you a free tub of popcorn (a want) for every documentary (a should) that you rented?

It’s a compelling idea: Might the future of business lie in encouraging shoulds rather than indulging wants? Could corporations help us bring out our better selves? We hope so. But let’s face it — our wants are powerful and stubborn. Cheetos will not go quietly into the night.

Richard Swenson on Balance

Sobering thoughts from the book In Search of Balance by Richard Swenson:

“People with great gifts are easy to find,” Emerson wrote, “but symmetrical and balanced ones, never.” I wonder if we need more “great gifts” today, or if we need more grace? Where are the symmetrical, balanced people who are great because they have the time and energy to be kind?

The hunger of our day is not for inner-demon-driven, all-stress-all-the-time, switching-focus-at-lightning-speed, constant-rebalancing workaholism—we already have literally millions of twitching rascals with prodigious productivity racing faster than photons. We have enough stuff, we have enough speed, we have plenty of progress, and we especially have a superabundance of more. But will you permit me to inquire about the status of our truth, love, faith, relationships, health, joy, depth, and peace?

What corridor do we choose if we wish to rediscover the green pastures and still waters? What set of priorities will point us in that direction?

Balance is not the Kingdom, but if our priorities lie in that direction, balance can help us sustain our focus all the way Home.

Teaching Your Parent to Use a Smartphone

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First, the power switch, the volume rocker. The touch screen.
The front-facing camera, about which not enough cultural
commentary could be said. Then, apps. There’s one on
which you can read news, order food or a taxi, keep up
with the Joneses, or watch cat videos.

I know, you would say it’s the modern preoccupation
with distracting ourselves, as though “killing time”
doesn’t make assassins out of us. You’d say we don’t need
the luxury of a powerful pocket computer when there are
children out there who don’t have food.
And like you, I’d pick battery life and sunlight readability
over an abundance of bells and whistles any day.

But a gift is a gift, and wouldn’t it be a little unstewardly
to refuse it when providence has so placed you in a
segment of history where technology lets you talk
to your daughter and grandson halfway around the world,
digital face to digital face? It would be like refusing
to eat the vegetables that you said the farmers
worked so much for to bring to our table.

So I encourage you to explore the device and assure you
that you won’t break it—unless by break you mean making
it submit to you as its owner—because apart
from the fateful Reset button, which will give you fair warning
anyway, you won’t mistakenly press something that would
destroy it or render the memories you put into it
irretrievable, the same way you assured us (though perhaps
not in so many words) that we could never get off the
edge of your love for us.

But watch out for those clickbaits and pop-ups that
congratulate you for winning contests you do not recall joining.
They are the candy-dangling strangers you warned us about
when we were schoolchildren.

Moving on, the Back button, the stationary icon that says
return—one mark of our ability to connect to the
past, to undo, correct, revert, revisit; a reminder that
no matter how we may have mastered user interfaces, it is
still a jungle out there, and we are all still Hansels and
Gretels occasionally relying on the mercy of breadcrumbs.

And if all else fails, there is the Home button so that
whatever screen or however far down the menus you may find
(or lose) yourself in, there will always be a familiar place
that you can retreat to, with one tap. Just like home.


(Dec. 2015)

Jeepney-sticker Jesus


You are the one who blesses our way (keeping it safe
by night and day) and who blesses, by extension,
the sweet lover who happens to be our driver. You
are the original bleeding heart, the vivid painting
showing thorns snug on the ventricles, Your gaze able
to follow anyone from whichever angle, as any
perceptive child would notice—as if to say in no uncertain
terms, “God knows Hudas not pay.” But if by any
chance the crucifix (swinging to the rhythm of the
pendulous head of a dog or the waving hand of a
golden cat) is any clue to the roots of reality, of course
we all know who ultimately pays.

Meanwhile, on this side of eternity, it remains a
disappointment how seating capacity is not really about
seating, how it riles every self-respecting passenger
capable of counting that all too often, two or more things
are made to occupy the same space at the same time.
How the posted minimum fare and no-smoking sign
are sometimes simply decorative.

On this side, where the commerce of man meets the
economy of God, our madnesses, faith, and superstitions
mix, here with the request to please pay in coins in the
morning, to wear seat belts and segregate trash,
to vacate seats for the pregnant and disabled, and all the
other republic acts that make for good memorizing in
quizzes but somehow fall perennially short of making
our nation more than the metaphorical reference of an
old repurposed vehicle whose checkup has been
overdue for more than a decade.

But maybe from a wider view the reference is not just to
us as a people but to us as a race. Maybe Your traveling mercies
are for everyone, so that even if Your pictures often
function only as lucky charms, if anyone ever asks where
God was in the frustrations, the crises, and the tedious
uneventfulness, at least one could say with certainty
he was there all along, right with us on the ride.


August 2015

Fish for Breakfast

While the Web page loads to show me what inun-unan is in English,
I put the phone down, say grace, and—with the kind of nonchalant
ambidexterity we apply to things we’ll take for granted on this day—
pick apart the bones off one side of the fish, separating morsel from
nonedibles: red-orange scales, tail, spine, what remains of the head.

As if to honor its memory (or as though it would), I pause to marvel
at the fresh whiteness of this piece of sea meat, harvested at dawn
by fishermen who continue to fish despite being unenriched by the job,
from the bounty of a sea that continues to give despite being polluted;

and at how effortlessly fish-molecules—infused with vinegar—merge
with people-molecules so that at any given time, you have something of
sea and land, animal and plant in you; at how, no matter which specific
arc of the circle of life you bite, someone is bound to be offended, for

food is really a matter of one dying for another to continue living. And
it’s not your fault this is how things are, for how else do you in fact take
part in the dance of the universe but through standing on the shoulders
of giants; entering the world, for instance, through a life-threatening

event. You can only hope that by heeding the call to “take and eat,”
gracefully, grudgingly, gratefully, grumpily, any manner but guiltily,
you may eventually stop trying to live off the fat of your ability, off
the produce of your guarded, steely sufficiency, and like fish, broken but
multiplied, lay down your life.