Conversations in Management: Gertrude Stein

There’s no there there.

Gertrude Stein

Rockwell_Family_TripAre we there yet? There probably isn’t a parent in the land who hasn’t heard this eager cry emanating from the backseat of the car. In fact, there probably isn’t an adult in the land who can’t dimly remember uttering the expression themselves in a time long ago. Are we there yet? and its sibling expression, Are we almost there? are usually first heard five minutes into a trip estimated at two or more hours. The expressions are then repeated every five minutes until about ten minutes before arrival. At that point the chattering back seaters fall asleep and then wake up cranky when you cheerfully announce, “we’re here!” To be sure, over the years parents have tried creative ways of stifling these incessant questions. From the homespun license plate game of yesteryear to the elaborate onboard entertainment centers of today, front seat occupants have tried to distract the back seaters. (Here’s a tip: the quiet game still has some legs when the reward for silence is raised to a quarter.) But the exuberance of youth is not to be denied and they’ll constantly look beyond the windshield for a future that they’re rocketing toward at 70 mph.

It wasn’t the future that Gertrude Stein had in mind when she penned her now famous line.  Nor was it an indictment of urbanization, suburbanization, vapid intellectualism or a feint to get you not to pay attention to what actually requires a good deal of attention. Though the phrase has been co-opted to mean all of these things over the years, they don’t reflect stein’s own thinking. What she actually had in mind was much more benign—she was simply wondering where yesterday went. In 1935, after an absence of 45 years, Stein returned to her childhood home in Oakland, California. In those intervening years she had become an international celebrity. She and her brother had assembled a renowned art collection that included works by Picasso,  Cézanne,  Renoir and  Matisse. Her Paris salon hosted luminaries such as,  Hemingway, Fitzgerald and Joyce. She’d published more than a dozen books including The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas. It was a book tour that brought her to San Francisco and an opportunity to revisit Oakland. She remembered Oakland fondly as a place where a child, “could have all anybody could want of joyous sweating, of rain and wind, of hunting, of cows and dogs and horses, of chopping wood, of making hay, of dreaming, of lying in a hollow all warm with the sun shining while the wind was howling.” By the time of her return, the family farm was gone and a city of 30,000 had mushroomed to more than 300,000. When she wrote, “there’s no there there,” she said she was describing a moment of “painful nostalgia.” What had been there was gone and only a memory of the place remained.

So it seems there are two, “theres.” One is the there of impatient girls and boys who strain to see a future through the windshield that seems just out of reach. Their excitement is palpable and they can barely contain their enthusiasm. The other is the melancholy there of maturity where life is glanced in the rearview mirror. It’s a place where experience, memory and imagination combine in ways that are more fanciful than real. Either way it can be a problem. We can be limited by a past that constricts our ability to grow. And unlike the kids in the car, we never arrive. The future always remains just up ahead. If we keep waiting for fulfillment, we’ll always be disappointed. The truth is, today is all we have. That’s why we should make the best of it. Don’t wait for happiness, satisfaction and contentment. There is a there there. It’s called now.      —Ebert

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