Ellen Burstyn’s Lessons on Survival

Ellen Burstyn’s Lessons on Survival

On the Death, Sex, & Money podcast:

When Burstyn was 18, she got on a Greyhound bus going from Detroit to Dallas. She had 50 cents in her pocket and a hunch that she could find work as a model. The actress and director, known for her roles in Alice Doesn’t Live Here AnymoreThe Exorcist, and Requiem For a Dream, says she’d never do that now. But back then, she didn’t doubt herself.

It wasn’t the only risk she took as a young woman. At 18, she’d already gotten pregnant and had an illegal abortion. By her mid-20s, determined not to just get by on her looks, she left Hollywood to study acting with Lee Strasberg. In her mid-40s, after leaving an abusive marriage, she starred as a newly single mom in Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore. The role was based in part on her own life, and it won her an Oscar.

Now, at 81, she told me she is most proud of her relationship with her son, whom she adopted at birth. “I really think of myself as a work in progress,” Burstyn told me as we sat in wicker furniture in her Manhattan bedroom. “I know I’m a successful actress, but I don’t feel I’m necessarily a successful person.”

Most life in the universe won’t evolve for another 10 trillion years

In the grand scheme of the cosmos, life on earth might have popped up far sooner than it should have.

A team led by Harvard astronomy department chair Avi Loeb crunched some numbers comparing the size of stars to how soon life should form on the habitable planets that surround them. The team predicts that the odds of life developing around the more common and smaller red dwarf stars will increase drastically in the future. In other words, when it comes to life, maybe we ain’t seen nothin’ yet.

Research suggests planets orbiting red dwarf stars will be more congenial to life, but it won’t evolve for another 10 trillion years. The universe is now 14 billion years old.

So don’t wait up.

Life On Earth May Have Arisen Unusually Early (Ryan F. Mandelbaum/Popular Science)

 

Garry Shandling and Jerry Seinfeld joke about life and death in a video released just weeks ago

Shandling appeared on Jerry Seinfeld’s “Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee” in an episode titled “It’s Great That Garry Shandling Is Still Alive.”

“So it turns out I had a hyper parathyroid gland that was undiagnosed because the symptoms mirror the exact same symptoms an older Jewish man would have,” Shandling says, “which is lethargic, you get puffy, you get heavy, you think you kind of want a divorce but you’re not married.”

They talk and joke about getting older, look back on what it was like starting out, their careers doing sitcoms in the 90s, death, and Robin Williams’ suicide. Shandling makes a joke about his own suicide note.

It’s funny, sad, and poignant. Shandling and Seinfeld seem to be having a good time.

[It’s Great That Garry Shandling Is Still Alive / Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee]

Everything I really needed to know about life I learned from playing Tetris

5. What you did right gets forgotten immediately, but what you screwed up you have to live with.

6. Making a big pile isn’t what you want to do, unless, of course, what you want when you get done is to have made a big pile.

[Everything I really needed to know about life I learned from playing Tetris / Geoffrey Landis]

On the value of keeping a “spark file” of partly baked ideas, and reviewing it every few months

Steven Johnson:

The problem with hunches is that it’s incredibly easy to forget them, precisely because they’re not fully-baked ideas. You’re reading an article, and a little spark of an idea pops into your head, but by the time you’ve finished the article, you’re checking your email, or responding to some urgent request from your colleague, and the next thing you know, you’ve forgotten the hunch for good. And even the ones that you do manage to retain often don’t turn out to be useful to you for months or years, which gives you countless opportunities to lose track of them.

This is why for the past eight years or so I’ve been maintaining a single document where I keep all my hunches: ideas for articles, speeches, software features, startups, ways of framing a chapter I know I’m going to write, even whole books. I now keep it as a Google document so I can update it from wherever I happen to be. There’s no organizing principle to it, no taxonomy–just a chronological list of semi-random ideas that I’ve managed to capture before I forgot them. I call it the spark file.

Now, the spark file itself is not all that unusual: that’s why Moleskins or Evernote are so useful to so many people. But the key habit that I’ve tried to cultivate is this: every three or four months, I go back and re-read the entire spark file. And it’s not an inconsequential document: it’s almost fifty pages of hunches at this point, the length of several book chapters. But what happens when I re-read the document that I end up seeing new connections that hadn’t occurred to me the first (or fifth) time around: the idea I had in 2008 that made almost no sense in 2008, but that turns out to be incredibly useful in 2012, because something has changed in the external world, or because some other idea has supplied the missing piece that turns the hunch into something actionable. Sure, I end up reading over many hunches that never went anywhere, but there are almost always little sparks that I’d forgotten that suddenly seem more promising. And it’s always encouraging to see the hunches that turned into fully-realized projects or even entire books.

This seems like a profoundly useful idea, and not just for writing — but for life.

It’s a variant on the someday/maybe list in GTD, which I’ve never really understood the purpose of until now.

The Spark File

Put away two things every day

In my effort to get my home office looking less like a disorganized storage unit, and more like an actual office — an effort that has gone on so long that if it was a person, it would be old enough to vote — I have a new rule: Every day, I clean up that day’s new clutter and mess. And then I remove two more things from the office. Preferably, I put those things away. But usually I can’t put them away, so instead I move them to a part of the house we don’t use. And when my office is in shape, I’ll start sorting through all the things in storage and keep some of them, and get rid of most of them.

Getting rid of things is a big project. We can’t just throw them away, as we could in the Mad Men era. We have to recycle them, or sell them, or give them away responsibly. What a pain.

Among the things I’ll be giving away: About 90 percent of my books. I have no idea how many books I have; if I had to guess, I’d say 10,000. Years ago, I began to wonder why I kept every book I ever read, because it’s not like I’m going to reread 99 percent of them. And yet I keep them all. Why? Well, because it’s what one does. It’s what I’ve always done. But now with the advent of e-books I’d much rather have the space, and re-acquire anything I want to re-read as an e-book.

Where can I get rid of old books? How about electronics? Office supplies?