Please enjoy this transcript of another episode of the “Books I’ve Loved” series, in which I invite amazing past guests, close friends, and new faces to share their favorite books—the books that have influenced them, changed them, and transformed them for the better.
This episode, we hear from Cal Fussman (@calfussman), a New York Times bestselling author, longtime Esquire writer, and the host of the podcast Big Questions with Cal Fussman.
Cal has transformed oral history into an art form, conducting probing interviews with the icons who’ve shaped the last 50 years of world history: Mikhail Gorbachev, Jimmy Carter, Ted Kennedy, Jeff Bezos, Richard Branson, Jack Welch, Robert DeNiro, Clint Eastwood, Bruce Springsteen, Dr. Dre, Quincy Jones, Woody Allen, Barbara Walters, Pelé, Yao Ming, Serena Williams, John Wooden, Muhammad Ali, and countless others.
Listen to the episode on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Overcast, Stitcher, Castbox, Google Podcasts, or on your favorite podcast platform.
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Cal Fussman: Timbo, this is Cal Fussman, the host of Big Questions Podcast. I say that with great pride and thanks, because if it weren’t for you, I wouldn’t have my podcast. Not only did you have me as a guest on yours twice, but then you kept on nudging me to start my own and then you helped me set it up, and it’s transformed my life. So, much gratitude, brother. I know you like to ask this question about books, and the beauty of it is that you can get a different response from someone in 2019 than when you asked him in 2016 because they might’ve read 100 or 150 new books during that time.
I do have to confess a weakness here. I generally don’t stop and wonder, “What book should I read next?” Nearly all of my reading revolves around who I’m going to interview next. A lot of the people I’ve interviewed for Big Questions or Esquire Magazine over the last two decades have written books, so that’s the bulk of my reading, and this leads to my recommendation for your listeners. Actually, a couple of recommendations I’m going to make here. I know you’ll get behind these recommendations because these books were written by somebody I first heard on your podcast, the tidying up guru, Marie Kondo.
I got a chance to interview Marie onstage at a recent event for Rekuten. Marie is that company’s ambassador of joy, and I’ve got to say, I think she’s one of the most unique people on the planet, certainly a master at what she does. In fact, I walked away from the experience thinking she’s a genius. Tell you why in a second, but first, let me mention the book she’s written. The first is called The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, and subtitle, The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing. She might’ve had an editor declutter that title a bit, but hey, it became a New York Times bestseller and it sold nine million copies. The second book is called Spark Joy: An Illustrated Masterclass on the Art of Organizing and Tidying Up.
When we were up onstage, I wanted to give the audience a taste of Marie’s writing, so I read from a section about storing socks. It’s on page 80 of her first book, The Life- Changing Magic of Tidying Up, and I’ve got to say, I’ve read Shakespeare, Dostoyevsky, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Mark Twain. This section written by Marie is one of the most original thoughts I’ve encountered. I never thought I’d see socks brought to life on a printed page, but listen to how Marie looks at them. So I’m going to page 80. Little title here says, Storing Socks: Treat Your Socks and Stockings with Respect. And here goes.
“Have you ever had the experience where you thought what you were doing was a good thing, but later learned that it had hurt someone? At the time, you were totally unconcerned, oblivious to the other person’s feelings. This is somewhat similar to the way many of us treat our socks. I visited the home of a client in her 50s. As always, we started with her clothes. We moved through her wardrobe at a smooth pace, finished the underwear, and were ready to start organizing her socks. But when she pulled open her sock drawer, I could not suppress a gasp. It was full of potato-like lumps that rolled about. She had folded back the tops to form balls and tied her stockings tightly in the middle. I was speechless.
“Dressed in a crisp white apron, my client smiled at me and said, ‘It’s easy to pick out what I need this way, and it’s quite simple to put them away, as well, don’t you think?’ Although I frequently run into this attitude during my lessons, it never fails to astonish me. Let me state, here and now, never, ever tie up your stockings. Never, ever ball up your socks. I pointed to the balled up socks. ‘Look at them carefully. This should be a time for them to rest. Do you really think they can get any rest like that?’
“That’s right. The socks and stockings stored in your drawer are essentially on holiday. They take a brutal beating in their daily work trapped between your foot and your shoe, enduring pressure and friction to protect your precious feet. The time they spend in your drawer is their only chance to rest, but if they are folded over, balled up or tied, they’re always in a state of tension, their fabric stretched and their elastic pulled. They roll about and bump into each other every time the drawer is opened and closed. Any socks and stockings unfortunate enough to get pushed to the back of the drawer are often forgotten for so long that their elastic stretches beyond recovery. When the owner finally discovers them and puts them on, it will be too late and they will be relegated to the garbage. What treatment could be worse than this?”
Well, Tim, all I can say is I’ve never balled up a pair of socks since, and Marie showed me how to fold a pair of socks onstage. Anybody who wants to know how to fold a pair of socks can turn to page 99 of her second book, Spark Joy. There is a full page of illustrations devoted to sock management. These two books and my talk with Marie onstage have really changed the way I think. They’ve liberated me to see the things that I own in a different way. If they are not completely useful or they don’t spark joy, Marie recommends offering thanks to them and then it’s sayonara.
When she goes into somebody’s home to tidy up, she has a system. She starts with clothes first, then papers and books, then sentimental items. She’s found it easiest to make decisions on clothes. Sentimental items come last because they’re the hardest to part with. Now, I got to admit, Tim, I needed Marie very badly. I’ve had a lot of experiences in my life and quite often, I’ve kept physical objects from these experiences as mementos. I’m beginning to worry that I might need five houses to store them all. I needed a way to pare down the mother lode. So what I did was bring a few sentimental items onstage with me to see if Marie could tell me if I should keep them or get rid of them. I hope what transpired will compel people to buy those two books.
The first item was very unique. Never seen another like it. It’s a small garbage can made out of wine corks. The corks are glued together in a circle and at the bottom, the bin is held up by a base of magnum champagne corks. I laughed the first time I saw it. It was in the office of the best sommelier in America at the time, Andrea Immer. Now she’s Andrea Immer Robinson. Andrea’s office was at Windows on the World at the top of the World Trade Center. This was back in 2000. I didn’t know much about wine back then and Andrea was helping to teach me how to be a sommelier for I was writing for Esquire Magazine. In fact, for one night in 2001, I did become the sommelier at Windows on the World just before the hijacked planes came in and took down the towers on 911, which is one of the reasons that this garbage can is still with me.
See, what happened is that Andrea was leaving for a more advanced position and cleaning out her office. She didn’t know what to do with this garbage can made of wine corks. I think somebody had given it to her and probably, they didn’t know what to do with it either. I couldn’t imagine what anybody would do with a garbage can made of wine corks. I even remember making fun of it. So as Andrea cleaned out her office, she passed it on to a public relations person, who was standing next to me when I made fun of it.
About a year later, this public relations person left her job for a better position and remembered me making fun of the wine cork garbage can. So as a sort of gag, she passed it on to me. I didn’t know what to do with it, so I put it in my basement where I stored my wine and I did find a use for it. I began to toss inside this garbage can the corks of the really good bottles that I enjoyed. That way I could save the corks and the memories inside these corks. I went on to do my night as sommelier at Windows on the World. It was one of the best nights of my life. And very soon afterward, the towers were taken down on 911.
Now, this full story takes a while to tell and if anybody wants to read it, they can Google Cocktails Before the Collapse on Esquire.com. Bottom line here is I was so shaken by the entire experience, took me 10 years to write that story. Anyway, this garbage can made of wine corks was the only physical thing left that I had from Windows on the World. I couldn’t get rid of it. I moved across the country and over the years some of the champagne cork legs began to fall off, but I just couldn’t bear to throw out this garbage can into a garbage can.
Now, having read Marie’s books, I knew her MO. If it sparks joy, you keep it. If it makes your insides go, Kaching, you keep it. But this garbage can made of wine corks contain many layers of emotions. It was filled with the corks of some of the great tastes of my life and some incredibly happy moments that came with them. But it was also filled with a profound sadness that to this day has no dips.
I had no idea how Marie would react to all this. I told her the story. There was a gasp from the audience, a hush, and then a prolonged silence. Nobody knew how Marie would respond. She took the garbage can of cork in her hands. And I’m telling you, Tim, it was almost like watching a shaman reach into this spiritual being of this garbage can of wine corks. She closed her eyes as if she were using all of her powers to pull out the essence of my experience. And then she turned to me and said, “Keep it.” Tim, I’m telling you. When she handed it back to me, I wanted to hug it like a baby. I never thought I’d ever love a garbage can like a child, which goes to prove this is not about things. This is about spirit.
So I was very excited to show her the second item. It was a photo of me boxing with Julio Cesar Chavez when he was the junior welterweight champion of the world. At the time, he had 87 wins, no losses. I think it was four 84 knockouts or so, and in this photo, I’m landing a left hook on his jaw. Photo’s framed, about two feet wide by 18 inches tall, captures one of the best moments of my life. In fact, it’s a wonder I still had my life after I got in the ring with him. Thankfully, Julio had a sense of humor about the session. We did it for a magazine story. I definitely told that story on your podcast so people can hear it there.
Here’s the thing. Anybody sitting in the audience in front of Marie and I had to know how I felt about this photo. Kaching. Ah, but there was a catch. “Does it bring you joy?” Marie asked. “Oh yes,” I said, “so much joy that you know what I did? I had the same photo blown up to the size of an entire wall for my office so that every day I go to write, I can see myself in the ring with one of the greatest fighters who ever lived and not only that, but actually landing a punch. It’s a daily reminder to me that whatever I can dream, I can do. So Marie,” I tell her, “Here’s the problem. I have this same photo filling up an entire wall in my office. What should I do with this smaller one?” An outside observer looking at it now might see it as pretty large.
Marie took the photo in her lap and slowly circled the hand over it. I’m telling you, Tim, it was like she was burrowing into the depths of the six months I trained to get into the ring with Julio—every punch I took in training, every sit-up, every time a medicine ball got slammed into my gut. She turned to me, “Keep it,” she said. Now, I was beginning to get a little nervous, Tim, because if she was as attached to my sentimental items as I was, if she was that attached to those items, I was in big trouble. I’m telling you, Tim, I just moved and my wife looked at the boxes filled with mementos that were filling up the new place and she just flat out asked me, “What is this, a home or the Cal Fussman museum?” Well, I definitely need to get rid of some stuff.
So I pulled out my next item for Marie. I knew this would go directly to her heart. It was a beautiful fan from her homeland, Japan. Her face lit up when she saw it. There were a lot of Japanese people in the audience. Rakuten is a Japanese electronic commerce company founded by Mickey Mikitani. The audience wanted to know the story. The handle on this fan gave way to an oval that looked like parchment and on this parchment were illustrations of a festival in Kishiwada. It’s called Danjiri.
Every October, half a million people fill the streets to watch this festival. It’s a wild parade of wooden floats the size of old-fashioned stagecoaches that are ornately carved and decorated. They have to have been built hundreds of years ago, and there are long ropes in front of each coach. I mean, really long ropes, long enough to fit 30, 40, 50 young guys dressed in black who line up to pull these floats through the streets at blistering speeds while other guys are dancing on top of the floats and waving these fans. Then everyone eats crap and drinks beer.
Well, I always wanted to go to Kishiwada and run with one of these teams. I was told about this festival by a Japanese woman back in 1994. But my wife had just gotten pregnant, and it was not the time for me to run off to this festival. So this Japanese woman gave me this fan as a way of saying, “I hope one day you will get to the Danjiri. Until you do, have this as a memento.” Well, it’s been 25 years. I never got to run in the Danjiri, but I still have the fan. “Does it spark joy?” Marie asked, “Oh yes. Makes me very happy.” She took it in her hands and lifted out the spirit and she turned to me. “Give it as a gift to someone in the audience,” she said, “And make plans to go to the festival.” The crowd applauded and many people in the audience approached me afterward and asked for the fan. I gave it to the first person who came up to me, a man who promised that he would never give it away.
Now, a friendship between that man and I may come out of that exchange, but something else occurred to me, something I didn’t mention to Marie that told me how truly great her powers are. You see, Tim, when I first brought this fan home, I noticed that my wife was not a big fan of that fan. My wife’s Brazilian. She was pregnant and hormonal. And now that I look back upon it, she certainly didn’t like the fact that I was treasuring a gift I’d received from another woman. I’m sure my wife was jealous of that fan from Kishiwada. So Marie had removed the jealousy from my home, put me in the position to make a new friend, and then nudged me to run in that festival where those experiences might take me to even greater places, and I will go to that festival and who knows where it will take me?
Now, I realize that not everyone is going to be able to trek their clothes and sentimental items out for Marie Kondo and have her tidy up their lives, but you see, that’s why I’m recommending her books to your listeners. I believe they will turn your listeners homes into sacred space.
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