Sunday, September 27, 2009

Explaining My Relationship to Decision-Making

It’s almost October, and that means I’ll soon be celebrating another birthday. It also means that the Sun has moved into Libra. I realize that, for some people, that solar transition means absolutely nothing. I appreciate that some people do not believe in astrology, and being a Libra, I would never force them to change their tune. But given what I’ve learned about the Libran character, it is difficult for me to disregard how a Sun sign might foretell behavior. In fact, I find the information helpful. In fact, in the realm of decision-making, my being a Libra pretty much explains everything. So I’ll take this opportunity to share what I’ve learned. If you roll your eyes at my reasoning, that’s your prerogative. (And I’m guessing you’re a Scorpio.)

Libras are known for their rather labored approach to decision-making. We’re the sign of the scales, and it is in our nature to weigh all aspects of an issue. It is in our nature to be fair. Extremely, painstakingly, tediously fair.

For people whose workday begins with changing into a judge’s robe, this bent toward circumspect decision-making is probably convenient (for all parties concerned). But for a gal who just wants to go out and do some quick shopping, this weighing thing is a pain in the ass. Once, during my college years in New York, I had some money to buy a new winter coat. It was going to be the first winter coat I ever bought “on my own,” and so it was a rather momentous occasion. I spent quite a bit of time in a relatively small clothing store on Madison Avenue. After more than an hour, I narrowed down my choice to two coats – a navy one and a black one. In addition to being different colors, they were quite different styles, thus bringing far too many factors into the decision-making process.

As I tried on the “other” coat for the nth time, the saleswoman, who had been patient with me up to that point, asked, “Are you a Gemini?”

“No,” I said, sensing – and at that point, sharing – her frustration. “A Libra.”

“Oh, God, that’s worse,” she said. “Take the black one!”

“Thank you,” I responded, realizing how desperately I appreciated the intervention. “I will.”

I put the black coat on the counter, and she began to ring up the sale. At that point, I felt she was my new best friend, and so I confided, “You’ll notice how no one accompanies me shopping.”

It was an observation I had made over the preceding years, and it was one that my family joked about. I really am impossible to shop with. I act as if every decision were going to change the direction in which the earth is spinning. But it seems I can’t help it. The stars have made it that way…


In the mid-90’s, when I was working at a nonprofit in downtown Los Angeles, I had a co-worker named Robert. Robert, who was several years younger than I and who had married recently, was also a Libra. Having not looked at his astrological profile as carefully as I, he was intrigued when I began to describe some of the traits we shared. When I mentioned the shopping thing, he laughed, nodded, and indicated that he understood.

I told him about the time I was in the Woolworth’s in New York, selecting a shower curtain. I went into one of those Libran shopping trances, I told him. Each $2.00 shower curtain had a unique pattern, of course, and each featured different colors. So I had much to consider. As I picked up one shower curtain package after another, I was reviewing, in my mind, the colors of the towels that my husband and I had. I was considering the colors of the tiles in our bathroom. I was re-assessing the shower curtains’ patterns themselves. Did I want fish? Were flowers too girly? God, the questions!

The strange, strained look on my face caught the attention of a Woolworth’s sales associate, a man sporting a blue smock that featured a friendly name tag. He approached me and regarded the eight packages of shower curtains I was holding (these were the finalists). “Lady!” he said, “How many shower curtains do you need?”

Where was the Madison Avenue saleswoman when I needed her? Where was the person who might say, “Just get the blue one with the fish! It’s a fucking two-dollar shower curtain, for God’s sake!”

I probably also told Robert about the time when I was at a department store in a Los Angeles mall, and I tried on so many pairs of sunglasses that a security guard began hovering behind me. The guard probably reasoned that the exorbitant amount of time I was spending trying on an exorbitant number of sunglasses was all part of a plan to pocket at least one pair. But, I wasn’t looking to steal. And, in fact, the decision-making was so daunting that I just walked away. No new sunglasses for me that day. I was just too overwhelmed by the options.

Robert enjoyed my anecdotes, and I learned the next morning, when he came into my office, that they had provided him with some enlightenment. “I told my wife about the Libra thing and shopping,” Robert said, referring to a conversation he had with his new bride the previous night. “You totally hit the nail on the head! She hates shopping with me! I drive her crazy!


Robert and I continued to bond over our common idiosyncrasies, and one day, when I went into his office to see if he had a dictionary, I learned how clearly he had come to understand the burden we Libras carry. I was looking for a dictionary that day because our boss had edited a grant proposal I drafted, and she suggested, in her edit, that the word “reexamine” should be hyphenated. Being the stickler I am, I wanted to consult an almighty reference book before making the change.

Robert directed me to his dictionary, and as I opened it, I told him why I was needing it. He continued about his work as I looked up the word. When I found the entry for “reexamine” and learned that, according to that dictionary, the word could either be hyphenated or not, I really felt the onset of a quandary.

“Oh great,” I said in frustrated tone that was driven by playfulness.

“What?” he asked.

“It could go either way,” I let him know.

Robert sighed for both of us and looked at me with matter-of-fact concern and a gleam in his eye. “Well,” he said, “There goes your day!”


My next staff job was at a higher ed institution, where I was the Rob Petrie of the three-person proposal writing team. Our administrative support came from Lisa, who prepped all proposals for final packaging. Lisa, who was quickly becoming a friend, knew of my decision-making dilemmas. And, often-times, she was more in tuned to them than I was.

One day, she wanted to consult with me about a budget page that she had completed. I was standing in the middle of the writers’ room when she approached. She gave no hint of being anything other than professional as she held up the sheet and pointed to the bottom line number. “This grand total,” she said, quite seriously, “Should I bold it or give it a double-underscore?”

She then watched my face as it took on an extremely pained look. She watched the busy- ness that was taking place therein and amused herself as she imagined what considerations I could possibly be entertaining. When it was clear we might miss the deadline waiting for my answer, she smiled her broad smile. “GOTCHA!” she said, as she ran off to make the decision herself.


So there I’ve been in life. Deliberating for minutes and hours-on-end about shower curtains, sunglasses, hyphenations, and the appearance of fonts.

And yet there have been other decisions that seemed to take no time whatsoever: Should I get married? Sure! Move to California? Why not? Quit my job? Absolutely! Quit this job, too? Yup. And this one? Face it; it sucks. Even though I don’t have another job lined up? When has that stopped you before? Buy a new car? Gotta drive!

When I drove my 1998 Honda Civic off the lot, it had seven miles on the odometer, and I was committed to five years of car payments. I could swing it, I knew, and I wasn’t bothered by the commitment. But I was struck by how quickly I had made the decision. I would recount the adventure later, telling friends, “My God, I chose a car faster than I choose a parking space!”

Which is when it dawned on me: It’s the small decisions I cannot seem to make…

It took a few years, but I have finally reached a place where I can apply that discovery to everyday life. I have learned that if I can’t make a decision quickly, then I just don’t care. What a freeing revelation this has been! I have a formula now! When a question is asked of me, I either answer immediately or I volley it back to the person who posed it. “Surprise me!” I say.

As I’ve come to understand my relationship to decisions, and as I have freed myself up by letting others make the smaller ones, I also have come to appreciate my ease with the larger ones. It’s about intuition. It comes from the gut.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Drinking the Virtual Kool-Aid

A few months ago, Kevin Spacey was a guest on Letterman. Several minutes into the dialogue, Dave asked the actor if he “did the twitter.”

From watching Letterman’s show fairly regularly, I have gleaned that Dave is averse to online social networking, and while there’s curiosity behind his questioning, he’s not likely to change his attitude. Perhaps, when he asks a question about twittering, he’s looking for someone to explain – in terms he can genuinely understand – why everyone is so engaged in this new tweeting-and-following phenomenon. Perhaps he just likes to initiate a dialogue that will afford him several opportunities to look bemused and perplexed.

Spacey’s answer did, in fact, lead to some classic quipping from Letterman, and that amused me. But what stayed with me – and what has motivated me – was how the actor introduced his response. I am not claiming to quote him directly (though it’s possible I’ve remembered it verbatim); regardless, Spacey said this: “Yeah, I was resistant for a long time, but my business partner told me I had to, so I drank the Kool-Aid.”

…He drank the Kool-Aid.

What an interesting metaphor. Sadly, it began in 1978, when hundreds of people committed suicide together. And from that day in Jonestown, it has become the catch-phrase for buying into a perspective and agreeing to embark on the path of whatever individual(s) or dynamic(s) are leading that perspective. And you have to believe, when someone uses the metaphor, that there’s something rather negative underlying the choice of words. When someone says that they “drank the Kool-aid,” you can’t help but believe that they were led kicking and screaming to the trough.

But I am so grateful for Kevin Spacey’s use of the metaphor. I am grateful because I relate to it. I don’t want to participate in the world of online social networking. I find it inherently impersonal, often narcissistic, and completely overloaded.

On the other hand, I have to face the reality of today: people spend more time online than they do offline. They get their news, their views, and their “bemuse” from whatever they can type into their search engine. So…

I’m approaching the trough, and my intention is to return to it about once a week.

I don’t have a plan (and I’m not sure I’ll ever have one). I’m just going to write and share. And maybe, just maybe, I’ll find folks who want to know about the other things I’ve written.

If you don’t know my work, something that relates remarkably to this premiere entry is my Amazon Short, “Too Many Machines.” For a mere forty-nine cents (yes, I spelled that out because it’s so damned quaint as prices go), you can download a copy of a Seussian poem that I wrote in 1987. Once you’ve read it, you’ll understand why I’ve resisted this marketing vehicle for such a long time.

Feel free to let me know what you think.

More to come,
Katie Gates