Reset! (Shaking the Etch-a-Sketch)

By , March 22, 2012

What does it mean, to want to “reset,” to “restart” some part of our lives?  This week’s news headlines, about the “Etch-a-Sketch” comment made by a Mitt Romney campaign advisor, echo a personal dilemma for me.

I’m at a crossroads in my career, trying to choose a direction for my next few years, but I feel weighed down by many of the professional decisions I’ve made over the past 15 years as an internet consultant, and before that as an attorney and journalist. At the same time, our child is about to embark on her senior year of high school, and must start planning for college and beyond — which churns up my own memories of that same time in my own life.

Time and again, over the past few weeks, I’ve wondered about some of my “absolute beliefs,” and my views about certain ideas, actions, companies, and people I’ve dealt with over the past 15 years.

I’ll simplify my very complex collection of baggage, and focus on just one aspect: spam (bulk unsolicited commercial emails).

I’ve despised spam for more than 15 years.  I was once one of those lunatics who would report spammers to their ISPs and upline service providers, and I was proud when my complaints resulted in a spammer’s email or web site account being terminated. I posted web pages identifying spammers, and urged consumers to complain to the spammers.  And I vigorously but foolishly participated in many online discussions about spam.

And I swore, 15 years ago, that I would absolutely, positively never do business with a spammer. In my mind, I viewed this as a sort of “death penalty for spammers” (not that I wanted physical harm to spammers, but that companies who sent spam would forever be excluded from consideration when I made purchasing decisions).

One of those companies was bookseller Barnes & Noble, whose newly-formed online division in 1997 chose to broadcast emails to any email address it could find. The company paid employees to “cull” email addresses from web sites, and added those email addresses to its lists. After I complained, B&N not only refused to apologize, but it insisted that it could continue to send email to anyone it wished, period. (It did agree to remove my name from its lists, but denied it had any responsibility to do so.)

I actually spent money on advertising banners to appear on hundreds of other web sites, urging people to “Boycott Barnes & Noble.” And when my activities caught the attention of a reporter, B&N extended its deception, to the point of actually telling one reporter a bizarre fabrication: that I was satisfied with its response and no longer objected to their practices. To this day, B&N has never apologized, nor have I ever expressed any change-of-mind about the company.

But today, I am wondering: should I “hit the reset button,” and let go of the huge cloud of grudges that I hold against spammers and others who’ve offended me in the past? What would that mean?

The Etch-a-Sketch is a great political symbol, but a deceptive analogy, because we can’t (and don’t want to) erase everything. I want to retain all the experience, all the learning, and most of the relationships that I’ve developed over the past 15 years, and most important, I won’t abandon the core values that define me (and which led me to become angry and take action).

I don’t want to forget the past. But I would like to “let go” of the grudges, the anger, the resentment. I want to be open to doing business with people whom I know have made mistakes in the past, even if they’ve never accepted responsibility or admitted those mistakes. I want to feel comfortable walking into a Barnes & Noble bookstore and shopping for a book.

Maybe a “reset” wouldn’t matter much, given how aggressively I responded to spammers and others who offended me in the past.  My strong words and overblown reactions have likely helped to insure that just as I won’t do business with them, they won’t want to business with me, either.

But we all do wish for a “reset” button, an opportunity to shake the Etch-a-Sketch and start afresh, regarding some aspect of our lives. It’s not a bad thing to wish for.


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