Tuesday, November 4, 2008

What's next is what's important

I punched a democrat's name on the Presidential ballot for the first time in 20 years. I'm one of the 12 people who voted for Jimmy Carter in his first run against Reagan. I'm pretty sure this one will turn out differently. Barring any huge surprises, the first African American President will be elected today. I think that's a good thing. I don't think it will change the inter-racial landscape much, but I think it's a good thing.

I have to confess that I wasn't really all that happy about voting for Barrack. In an earlier note I indicated that the reason I was doing so had more to do with the VP candidates than the top name on the ticket, and that is still the case. I remain convinced that Sarah Palin is not qualified to be president. If McCain had picked Joe Lieberman I would have voted for him. He didn't, I didn't, that's it. What's next is what's important.

Most people think the presidential election is the most important thing occurring today. It's not. The senatorial election is much more important. If the democratic party gets to 60 seats in the senate they can overrule the filibuster. With their majority in the house under Pelosy and 60 seats in the senate there would remain no viable checks against the democratic parties will. That's the republican party's fault.

In the last election the republican party missed a golden opportunity to begin to reconcile the gaps over the nation's issues. Instead of reaching across the aisle to create bonds and work together they publicly gloated. The deep rift this created became the unifying force the democrats needed to field a unified vote. It was foolish and short sighted and I am embarrassed by the party's leadership. They should be embarrassed today.

What's next is what's important. Will Barrack and Nancy be able to do what they promised? Will they field a national healthcare plan? Will they repair the US economy? Will they bring home the troops? For all of us, I hope so. To be sure, we'll see an interesting test of an opposite economic ideal. Bill Clinton railed against trickle down economics, but left the engine in place that drove it. This administration will do no such thing. Who knows, maybe that's a good thing. Like I said, it'll be interesting.

What's next is what's important ...

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Shut Up and Lead

I was having lunch today and (as usual) listening more to the conversation behind me than the one I was in. I know - it's a bad habit - I'm working on it - yada, yada ....

Anyway, there were three guys sitting behind me talking about the economy. 'The stock market has lost 2 Trillion dollars in value in the last week and a half...'No banks are ever going to lend money again. 'The recession is going to last for years,' etc. By the time they asked for the check I was ready to pay their bill for them so they could just pack up their bags and march off to doomsday.

I'm probably the dumbest guy you ever met, but I don't think that's the right way to see all of this. Yes, the market is way down and that's bad. Yes, there is going to be a worldwide economic slowdown. Yes, some fortunes have been lost. I feel especially badly for people who's retirement was all in high growth stocks. Acknowledging all that, I still think there is another way to see this.

There is little question that the financial markets worldwide have been an overly efficient value-creating engine for the last several years. So much so that the value they created clearly outran the worth of the underlying companies. What we're seeing is first the acknowledgement of that and then the decrease of the markets associated with a loss of confidence in the system. It can be described with lots more words, but that's really the essence of it all.

What this means to me is that for the people with the guts to quit complaining and lead there is a massive opportunity looming. In the last several major market adjustments, going back to the depression, leaders who saw, grasped and drove opportunity created enormous wealth by getting ahead of the crowd during rebuilding. The funny thing is, I don't think that takes all that much luck or skill. I think most of these people simply chose to look for stuff to fix instead of dwelling on what was broken.

For all of us, the timing of the current market situation creates an opportunity, if we choose to see it in a different light. It's an opportunity to shut up and lead. To step up and cast a vision and give the people around us a cause for hope and to drive that energy into organizations that shine because in a time of pain and darkness they exhibit light.

To be sure, the path isn't easy. We have to be smart about the paths we take. The good news is, we are smart! We simply have to decide that we are going to focus on solutions instead of problems; on ups instead of downs. We have to take that message to the people we lead and we have to overcome the noise by showing people a way out. While the rest of the world sits around their own old town Pasadena lunch table dithering away the days with gloom and doom we'll be gathering momentum. By the time they look up, we'll be on our way. By the time they rally, we'll be gone.

I had a call today with an investor. I'm raising $5MM to get n54 moving. The guy I was talking to was in New York, in the financial center - the center of the maelstrom. He was interested in the technologies and I could tell he was intrigued, but I could also tell that he was a little troubled. We got to the end of the call and I said, "what's on your mind?" He said, 'look, I'll be honest, I think you guys have a good idea here and I think there is an opportunity. I'm just not sure what the economy means." I said, "Hey, here's the way I see it. For the companies that get their dollars now and get moving there will be an enormous opportunity. After 9/11 there were a few companies that got going fast and those companies were all big winners because the markets got everyone else distracted while they were blazing ahead. I want to do the same thing." There was a pause. He said, "that's a good way to see it and you're right."

I'm no genius and I'm not saying this to blow my horn. I'm saying it because this was a hardened investor in the middle of the market. He had every reason not to hear what I was saying. If I'd said nothing our conversations would have been over. I just took a different view and he listened. In a way I handed him a lifeline. We can all do that and if we do, we may start to crack the iced over stratosphere of potential ... At least that's the way I see it.


Friday, October 3, 2008

Turn out the lights ... the party's over

Well, I guess, barring any major changes in direction between now and the election, I've made a decision.

It wasn't easy. As I referenced in my earlier notes I actually like both of these guys. That's a pretty major departure from the last few elections where I didn't like anyone. They're both straight shooters - or as straight as our screwed up system allows them to be. As hard as they've tried to disagree, they actually agree on more of the core issues. As different as they are, they're a lot the same. They just come at the world from two completely different places. Under different circumstances, I have a feeling they might have liked each other.

My vote won't count for much. I'm a registered republican in a democrat dominated region. When I go to the polling place on primary election days I don't have to wait in line, so there's an upside. I call myself a Lincoln republican. I guess I kind of take pride in that. In knowing what that means.

The truth though, is that I'm not sure Abe would recognize this republican party. Lincoln didn't exactly feel that the best way to ensure wealth, fairness and happiness was to leave everything up to the people. That's a misnomer. He felt that the best and most efficient way to govern was local. He wanted less power at the federal level and more power at the local level. He was neither terribly religious, nor terribly conservative. The plays he attended were usually pretty bawdy for the time. He loved to laugh and he was slow to condemn, even when he vehemently disagreed with an other's position. He freed the slaves, but he extended a free hand of reconciliation to the South. If he'd lived a lot of things would have been easier for folks below the Mason/Dixon line.

I think either John McCain or Barack Obama could make a good President. My democrat friends will sniff and look down their noses at me for that. McCain has made a career of being honorably centrist. His best friend in the senate is a democrat. He looks upon the Bush administration with real disdain. He would govern in a different way. I don't know if Obama is experienced enough to be President. Some of his statements seem very, uh, 'hopeful.' That said, he's damn smart and he's clearly a leader.

I think Joe Biden and Sarah Palin are also both good people. I hate Biden's politics. He is everything I've always opposed about the democratic party. Backed into a corner he attacks the person rather than the idea. He's done it for years and it's a part of his character. I think he was a horrible choice for Barack. Sarah Palin seems pretty straight forward. I believe her when she says she wants to work for reform. Like McCain, she's bucked the party line when she thought it was wrong. People scoff at her taking on big oil, but they shouldn't. In an oil state that took real courage.

In the end though, unless I get even more worried about a liberal landslide, I'll likely end up voting for Obama. I like his hopeful ideals. I like what his election would mean to black America and to the world. I don't vehemently disagree with most of his positions. None of these is the reason why I'd vote for him though. I'd vote for him because if John McCain dies Sarah Palin would be President, and she's not qualified. I may hate what Joe Biden stands for politically, but there is no question that he would be a capable standin in the event of a tragedy in the oval office. I admit that I worry about congress and a massive unprotected overreaction in the event of a landslide. I'm tired of being characterized as foolish by the mass of new democrats and their tide of change. I may end up voting for their man, but I do it with less enthusiasm because of the people who will also punch that ticket. That might be something to work on ...

Monday, September 8, 2008

An Interesting Couple of Months

Well how about that? Polling data out this morning indicates that John McCain and Barrack Obama have entered a statistical dead heat headed into the last two months of the campaign. Frankly I never thought that would happen.

I think two things are driving that. One, the recent conventions create a last man out dynamic that influences the polls. I doubt very much that the electorate represents the same numbers. (That's another way of saying I think the poll is wrong - but I think it may be directionally correct. The other piece is clearly the impact of the Vice Presidential candidates.

In a campaign where both candidates are competing on a platform of change, it is harder to accept Joe Biden as a VP candidate than it is to accept John McCain as a President. I honestly can't figure out why Barrack picked Biden. To me it was a horrible choice and it may cost him the election. As much as I hate Hillary, I would rather have seen him choose her. (I think he would have won in a landslide). Biden represents the old guard and has been the democrat's partisan pitbull in congress for years. McCain on the other hand has a history of reaching across the aisle to do the right thing by the electorate. They're the two old white guys. I like McCain more.

That's not to say that my mind is made up. It won't be until the debates. I would like to see a lot more substance from both sides. Obama's speech actually contained more substance than McCain's which was a surprise. Unlike most republicans, I'm not sure I'm such a huge Pallin fan. I think she did an outstanding job at the convention, but there are things about her that I don't like so much. The fact that her family is clearly experiencing some issues is high on that list, and that would be true whether she was a man or a woman.

All of this said, at the moment for me McCain is leading, but by a slim margin and that based more on his record than anything else. There was something about his "stand up America" call at the end of his speech that was really exciting. It didn't come with the emotional X factors that Obama delivered, and those are important, but it came from a man who has fought in congress for an awfully long time for what he believes in, whether his party liked it or not, and that's got to mean something.


Wednesday, June 25, 2008

A Visit with History

Anyone who's read any of the stuff in my blogs knows that I am a sap for history, for anyone in the service, active or otherwise, and particularly for those situations where the two come together.

The other day I had an opportunity to visit the WW2 memorial in Washington DC. The memorial is significant and long over due. Considering that more than 5 million Americans served in World War 2 and more than 400,000 died, fighting for freedom overseas, the 50 years it took to build the memorial is cause for embarrassment. But that's not the subject ...

In my mind, World War 2, was the last easy to understand war. In World War 2 the enemy was a stated and practiced oppressor. There was ample evidence that the axis powers were in the war to one end - world domination. They believed they were better than anyone else and they were out to rule the world, killing off whomever they didn't like and taking whatever they wanted with reckless and ruthless abandon. When they thought they were strong enough and when they thought it was time, they attacked us and when this had occurred we responded.

It's really the "we" that this is about. As Americans, there is a great deal of pride in what happened in WW2. We established ourselves as a 20th century super power. We saved Europe from Germany and at the same time on the other side of the world we saved Asia from Japan. Other nations were involved and other sacrifices occurred, but in a very real way, had we not entered the war - had we chosen to remain isolated - the outcome would have been much, much different. But that's not about the "we."

The "we" is about the veterans themselves. Movies like Saving Private Ryan and Flags of our Fathers, and series like Band of Brothers give us a window into the realness of the valor of the American civilian soldier. Visiting the World War 2 memorial gives us a chance to honor them.

On the day that I was there there was a veterans flight organization there with about 100 WW2 vets. They were being escorted around the memorial by active service personnel in their combat fatigues. Some of the vets wore their uniforms. Most wore blue T-shirts with the flag and their state and the name of the organization on them. Seeing them in this place in this way, seeing them talking with the active service members, most of them crouched down in front of their counterparts' wheelchairs, was a poignant reminder of the nature of their courageous gift to the US and to the world.

Their tears, the way they listened and thanked the countless strangers who approached them and thanked them for their service, the stories they tell and the memories they share, both horrific and heroic, author a meaningful memory in an all too trite world.

This is not about whether or not wars are right. They're not, although I'm a firm believe that sometimes they are necessary. It's not about Iraq, or Obama or McCain. It's just about these guys and this place and what a special thing it is that though too long delayed, they have this place as their place and we can visit them there and thank them for the meaningful and courageous thing they did. We should.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

A Better Way to Fly

Be Afraid American Airlines, Be very Afraid

In the last seven years I’ve flown over a million miles on American Airlines and before that I spent about five years racking up more than 500,000 on United, so I know a thing or two about the American air carriers. I’ve been an all-star flyer on both, as comfortable as they can make me on the five hour flights that make my living possible on one coast with my life on the other. I’ve booked seats in coach and ridden in first so often that I’m a little stunned when the upgrades don’t go through.

I know every meal plan, a lot of the flight attendants, and even the scratches on the windows on most of the planes on the routes I fly. (These are almost always single aisle coast to coast configurations on A320s, 737s and 757s). On the routes I fly most, I’ve probably flown my last miles on the American carriers – frequent flier status be damned.

It’s not that I suddenly found a job on the west coast. That would be a dream come true, but a near term second dream was always that I would find a more comfortable way to fly. Someplace where flying was like I’d read about it when I was growing up. It was glamorous. The planes were beautiful, the people were happy, even the flight attendants seemed to like their jobs (and you didn’t hear announcements like, ‘the flight attendants are here for your safety” which seems to be an excuse for their sour faces and even more sour attitudes).

I should stop right here and say that I don’t blame the flight attendants. It’s actually the stock market’s fault that the planes are over filled and under staffed, that there is no pillow, no food and no fun of any kind on any of these flights. The flight attendants are making the best of a bad situation, so I’m not blaming them…. But back to how my dream came true.

By accident, I found Virgin America airlines, Branson’s latest US endeavor. I booked a seat on their website – which works better for a first time flier than American’s does after eight years of trying. I booked First Class – because it was cheaper than an American Coach ticket on the last minute itinerary I was buying and I went to the airport and got on the plane and my whole concept of flying changed in an instant. The flight attendant smiled and welcomed me aboard. The plane is clean and cool – like W hotel cool - with blue lighting and white seats and individually controlled TV/Movie/Music systems at every seat. There is an actual first class with enough room to open my laptop (unlike American or United), and real plugs at the seats so I can just plug straight in. (Was that really that hard to figure out?) I am flying along watching the US OPEN playoff LIVE on my fold up screen and typing away on my fully powered laptop. Heck, even the safety announcement is cool – I’ll let you find out why.

The food in first class is fresh, light and even creatively served, with mint & watermelon, grape & cheese and Meuslix appetizers served in nifty little clear square shaped cups, and fresh herbs around a nice balanced frittata with roasted tomatoes and an artichoke heart. Did I mention I’m on a plane?

What’s really astonishing is that all of these things are comparatively simple. There is really no magic in any of it. It’s just well thought out and the mission is clear. Travel should be fun and if it can’t be fun it should at least be comfortable and convenient. I still have my million mile badge on my carryon. But that’s more a reminder of what I left behind than a badge of honor. I’m hoping my next million miles are on Virgin. It’s a better way to fly.

The US Open

I should start by saying that I really didn’t want to go to the US Open. Or, I really didn’t want to go that much. Three days of traipsing around a golf course in crowds of over 140,000 watching guys walk by and periodically stop to hit or putt a ball isn’t really my idea of a good time. It was however a dream of my wife’s to go and so partly out of a sense of duty, and partly because I genuinely love to watch her have fun, I went.

We found out before we got there that we wouldn’t be able to park anywhere near the course. In fact, we had to park 13 miles away at Qualcomm Stadium. I wanted to go less. The first indication that I might be wrong was that the parking was free and comparatively well organized. Then, when we had walked all the way around the stadium to where the busses were waiting we found out that we couldn’t take cell phones. There were metal detectors, so it wasn’t a question of just hiding them. We just couldn’t take them. We would be completely out of touch for all of three days. Things were looking up even more. (Never mind that I had to take the phones back to the car and therefore had actually walked about 17 miles before we even left for the golf course).

Boarding the busses further confirmed that this wasn’t going to be like most things in America. I had thought that the person who had the idea to transport 140,000 people from a parking lot around a football field 13 miles to the golf course should be shot, but when we arrived at the busses, the boarding process was astonishingly simple, the route well planned, and the drop off point at the golf course allowed unfettered access for the teaming hoards … and hoards there were.

The good news is that for the most part, golf hoards aren’t like most kinds of hoards. They’re relatively well behaved and quiet when they should be. They encouraged the golfers – both stars and ingĂ©nues alike – in good times and bad, and – oh – my – god – there were some bad moments for these guys. With rough so deep that it was actually hard to walk through it – let alone swing a club and make contact and greens so fast they resembled wavy nonstick frying pans, the players struggled on most holes to find ways to just make par. Hey – wait a minute – that’s what I do! Maybe that’s why the US Golf Association (USGA for the acronym aware) makes the course so hard. It’s so these guys have to struggle for the same scores we do. Never mind that I’ve never shot below 80 and probably never will.

Golf is a beautiful sport. It really is. There’s something about the undulation of the fairways, the sandy bottomed bunkers, the trees, the water and the vistas that is truly regenerating. For me – more so on this day because I didn’t actually have to try and hit a ball well in front of all those people. But the players are beautiful too. There is a grace in the arch of the swing and the rise of the ball that is peaceful to watch. Better golfers even make the less graceful moments work, like when Geoff Ogilvie hit a perfect lob from not five feet in front of me straight up in the air and landed it perfectly on the edge of the green, watching it roll to within about a foot and a half of the cup. Nothing should have been easy about that shot. The grass was too long. The ball hopelessly tethered. The green falling away with less than 20 feet from edge to edge along the roll and the greased lightning fast surface - these things should all have conspired to carry the ball into the deep fringe on the other side of the hole, but will, practice and grace stopped it short and par made, Ogilvie smiled at us as he walked off the green to admiring applause and touched his hat as if to say, ‘yeah, that was pretty cool, wasn’t it?’

I’ll leave Tiger for another day … he deserves his own. But if you ever get a chance to go to a US Open, a Superbowl, a truly great concert, or anywhere else where you might get a chance to experience the magnificent, go – and please drag me along with you. I’ll bitch and scream, but I’ll pay my way and in the end we’ll smile and know we did something special.

Friday, June 6, 2008

The Power's Out

Sitting in my office in Virginia this morning. The power’s out. Yesterday afternoon several powerful thunderstorms rattled through spawning tornadoes, falling trees and generally making a mess. My computer will work until the battery dies. Sadly, this machine can work for most of the day on its battery so I have no excuse to not at least look busy.

Sitting in the office in the dark though, does make one wonder what things were like before we had all of the things we have now. On the one hand we would miss many of the conveniences we have. We would miss the entertainment, distraction of the internet, and the instant access to seemingly important information. We would absolutely miss the convenience of our cell phones. (Mine is dead by the way, battery died while it was trying in vain to find a local cell site). Basic conveniences like light and heat would be hard to live without.

On the other hand, there is an enforced slowness in an unpowered world. My office is near the entrance and I have windows, so several of the guys I work with stopped in and just sat and talked this morning. Some of the talk was about work, some wasn’t. The fact that the power was out meant there was no sense of urgency. The conversations we had about work were better. We were able to get more into depth than we would have been otherwise. The other conversations wouldn’t have happened at all.

I think at some point, in some future company, I will enforce one morning a month where all of the computers stay off. Where people are free to roam the halls and look in on one another and just say hello. I like the feeling of the place when there are no beeps, when there is not much going on. Things just feel better. People can go to lunch and when they come back the emails will still be there, and we can get back to work.

Who to Vote For - Part 2

It's going to be an interesting campaign.

A few weeks ago I wrote down some thoughts about Barack Obama and I said then that when I got around to it I would do the same for John McCain. The waterfall of comments on my musings around Obama– which contained some mildly radical views – suggests that many are waiting with great anticipation for what’s coming here. (there were no comments).

John McCain is old. His speech is clipped. He is not eloquent or inspiring. His current wife is at least his second, and may be his third. I don’t know which. I’m not sure that matters all that much. John McCain is a Republican. For some reason, in this day and age, apparently that’s a bad thing. I’m not sure it is, but it seems like a lot of pretty influential people – namely everyone who runs a TV station or a newspaper – has decided that it is. Fox is the exception, but their “Fair and Balanced” view is embarrassing in the other direction, so they don’t count either. But I digress.

One very interesting thing about these two candidates is that they are very much archetypes of the core values of their parties. In a nutshell, that means that Obama thinks the best ways to solve the country’s problems is to concentrate program and policy in Washington. So we're seeing him pitching a national healthcare program, a national energy program and spending a lot of time and energy talking about the government’s responsibility to protect the working class from the ravages and greed of big business. Conversely, you will hear McCain talking about cutting the federal budget, cutting taxes, and redistributing power to the state, local and family level, as these are the core tenants of what used to be the Republican Party.

It is refreshing that we won’t be hearing about abortion, gay rights and lots of other things. Neither candidate seems interested in allowing the campaign to devolve to this level. Rather, they seem focused on the big problems of the country and on highlighting their very different views on solutions.

It is important to point out that McCain’s perspective on a lot of things is pretty centrist. This is a dangerous road because he runs the risk of alienating the “right wing” of the party. Without their votes and enthusiastic support, it is thought that he can’t win. But if you page back through his 21 year career in the senate you will find that he has often gone against the more extreme sides of the party. McCain/Feingold, his campaign finance reform bill was co-sponsored with a democrat and the conservative pundits said it would be the end of McCain’s career. Joe Liebermann has always been one of his best friends in the senate. They have fought for the various causes they both felt were good for America, yes – including the Iraq war and the surge, and have at times rattled their respective parties. (Liebermann actually lost the democratic nomination in his own state in a reelection campaign in which the democratic party aggressively backed another candidate. He ran as an independent and won reelection in a landslide). Much has been made of McCain’s time in a POW camp. Much should be made of it. There is merit in the statements he makes about the military and about war simply because he has been there and he’s been through the worst of it.

Obama says that McCain is running for Bush’s third term. Well, let’s take a look at that. Perhaps the most outspoken critic of the Bush administration during the Katrina relief debacle was John McCain. He called the Bush administration’s handling of the crisis “disgraceful” and his voice was heard very early. He opposes many of the Bush administration’s war policies, chief among them the use of torture techniques such as water boarding and has been an outspoken critic of the secrecy surrounding conditions at Guantanamo Bay. He stops short of saying that it should be closed though … It is true that he supported going to Iraq. At the time everybody else did too. Obama was in the Illinois state legislature. What he thought at the time doesn't matter. He didn't have the same context as the majority of the senate and house who voted to go to war. If he had, he may have had a different view. Both men want to bring the troops home. They disagree on the practical time table.

On balance, it is clear that John McCain is an honorable, stable, experienced and conscientious man whose focus is to try to do what is right for America. His body of experience is massive. His views are his own. He is not the puppet of the Republican Party or the Bush administration.
Is that enough to make him president today? I’m not sure. I think we need a president who inspires us. I think we need a president who can build a bridge with younger people around the world, so we can start rebuilding the country’s stature in the international theater. I think we need a president who can look at the problems we face and who will try to sponsor new solutions. I haven’t yet seen enough of what John McCain wants to do to know if he can accomplish any of these things.

Like I said, it’s going to be an interesting election.

Monday, May 26, 2008

On Memorial Day

Over three days in a small town in Pennsylvania nearly 8000 Americans died. They gave their 'full measure of devotion' during the battle of Gettysburg. There are no estimates of the total number whose injuries caused their later deaths, but a number of somewhere around 16,000 is likely given the rampant infection and unsophisticated medical practices of the day.

In a few hours on an otherwise beautiful stretch of beach in France more than 2400 Americans died in the face of withering German resistance. Between 1941 and 1945 more than 400,000 Americans were killed. These Americans gave their lives in a fight for the freedom of others around the world. Many of them are buried in cemeteries in the countries where they died.

In the five years since the beginning of the Iraq war just over 4000 have died. 400 of these young people were from Southern California. They went to Iraq in answer to duty's call. Many of them died protecting members of their squads or units. Many died at the hands of an unseen enemy.

Whether they died in the 'War Between the States,' WW1, WW2, Korea, Vietnam, Grenada, Panama, Afghanistan or Iraq, these people all deserve our heartfelt gratitude and thanks.

Memorial Day is a day just for them. It is not a day to celebrate or remember others. It is not a day just for Barbecues and family gathering, though doing these things honors the sacrifice of so many. It is not a day to debate the worthwhileness or politics of Iraq.

Knowing the total number of war dead from each war tends to dehumanize the individuals. Though it is painful, we must remember that each of these soldiers came from a family and a home. They had hopes and dreams. There were things they loved and things they didn't like at all. There were people who loved them who were left behind to remember the people they were and to mourn the people they could have been.

One thing is sadly certain. Next memorial day there will be more war dead. In fact, two died this morning on a road in Iraq. In the end, their sacrifice is not heroic or political, it is personal. No matter the circumstances, their sacrifice is final. They know it. They are there anyway. That's why we honor them.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Why Not Hope?

Pessimism is so easy. We live in an age where we are so conditioned to criticism that we fail to understand that the inner voices we hear are not our own. They are the voices of others, embedded in our minds and souls. We are gifted with a heart of compassion and a heart of hope. That's actually how we're made. The rest of it is what is put on by the world. It's our choice to keep it on, and it makes a great shield and a lot of the time that's not a bad thing . . . But every once in a while, just every once in a while, you have to remind yourself that you can take it off.

What causes us to take it off is different for each of us. For some it is a great book, a great wine or a perfectly prepared dish, gracefully served in a great restaurant. For others it's an ice cold beer, a slice of pizza and a loved one's touch. For others it's a beautiful place at a beautiful time, where the din of friendly conversation is drowned only by occasional high spirits, laughter and mirth.

For me, it's art. It's those moments when somebody is doing something that is as close to a natural expression of perfection as they can muster. They are moments when their souls seem to creep a little closer to their skin - when the border between their expression of an ideal and the ideal itself is blurred.

That's not actually possible. We can try all we want, but we can't actually reach the ideal. It's when someone let's go - when they decide that for whatever reason they're going to abandon their personal borders and almost turn inside out, letting the perfect expression of the art form come through, unfettered, with little regard for anything but its expression and the gift it gives back. It's the trying, the true, heartfelt pursuit of something unattainable that we can see if we let ourselves - and in those moments my pessimism fades.

Whatever that takes for you. Give yourself to the moments that let it happen more often. Abandon the easy walls of a jaded world. Let yourself enjoy the moments of beauty. It takes a conscious effort and perhaps actual work but I think if we let it happen we experience beauty in a way that approximates what we were meant to know, in a garden, in a long forgotten, perfect world.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Who to vote for?

To be honest, I can’t really say who I’m going to vote for in November. Like most Americans, I find myself tired of the Bush administration. To tired, I can add disappointed as I voted for the guy. But I agree that it’s time for a change. The question is, to what?

I got curious about Barack Obama. So I read some of his book (I actually couldn’t read it all as I got a little tired of it –but that’s not his fault, he just hasn’t really done enough yet in his life to really fill a book). Some of the stuff I like. As a republican I guess I’m not supposed to like things like a call for the government to stop meddling in people’s lives. Gay marriage and abortion are hot button issues and abortion is always a tragedy – or at a minimum the result of a tragedy. My rather distorted right wing view may see gay marriage as a sin. But there are other sins, some far worse, that people are getting away with every day.

In principle, I think universal healthcare is a good idea. Everyone should have health insurance. What gives me heartburn is that I can’t really think of a single government program that actually works. Healthcare is a big, complex thing. Do I think the government can actually do a better job? Well, no. Not that I think John McCain has a great idea either. I’m a little worried – but not drastically – that we may be out of great ideas. I haven’t heard one for a while.

So none of these things trouble me. There is something that troubles me though. I don’t think it’s a great idea to let everyone out of Guantanamo. Now, Barrack doesn’t suggest that we would just open the gates and let everyone go home. He wants to bring them all here and put them on trial. The problem is that we’ve actually already done that a couple of times. One guy’s doing pretty well – repatriated to Afghanistan and happy. Another guy walked into a nightclub or a school or a bus or something like that and blew himself up along with a bunch of other folks who were just trying to live their lives. They’d be alive if he was still in Guantanamo. Do I think all of those guys belong there? Probably not. There’s no easy answer. That’s how things are sometimes. So I’m not so sure about that.

I actually like the idea of talking to people. I think we should talk to Ahmadinejad. The trick is, he can’t do anything. Contrary to what most Americans understand, he doesn’t have anything to do with actually running Iran. That’s the Ayatollah’s job. The army reports to him. No one, including Ahmadinejad, does anything without asking him first. Iran’s not as bad as most American’s think it is either. It’s just also not that great. But talking can’t hurt. So I think that’s a good idea. Let’s talk to the Ayatollah too.

I also like the way he talks about America. I think America is great. I think it’s just been told so much that it’s not that it’s decided that maybe it’s not. It is though. America is a great country. The first in the history of the world that has used its military might to try to help people. We’ve made some mistakes along the way, but give us a break. There is no precedent for chasing the bad guys out of a country and not just taking over ourselves. It worked in WWII, but that might have been a fluke. Who knows. I think we should keep it up though. Saddam Hussein sucked and if the Iraqi people can figure out a way to get to peace – even if it takes 10 years – that might give another country, a Myanmar, a Somalia, or some other rotten place, hope. I’m not sure that’s his plan – to let it take the time it needs, but I’m not sure it’s not either. So that one’s a draw.

No president can fix the economy. That’s not actually the president’s job. Congress could help there but they won’t until after the election. The fact is they don’t really know what to do. That’s ok though, because America is a very big country and it has a lot of ways to deal with what we’re facing. So I’m not going to pick a president based on what they can do about the economy.

Like I said, I don’t know who I’m going to vote for. Both boxes will be there. I need to figure out some stuff about that McCain guy. When I do I’ll write it down here too. The good and the bad. Just like this. Unless I decide he’s actually great. My hopes aren’t real high on that. So we’ll see.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Travel Notes

Sometimes I feel like for the rest of my life two weeks every month I'll be flying somewhere, driving a rental car, staying in a hotel, picking up breakfast every morning (ok a cup of coffee) at Starbucks and eating dinner every night in the bar in a restaurant that is not bad and that is not far from my hotel.

When I was a lot younger, a lot of this was fun. Now that I'm older and a lot of it has lost its sheen I guess I've come to think there are just a few things that actually matter when you have to travel. Here's my short list - I'd be curious to know about yours ...

1). Check in before you go to the airport. There will only be a line when you don't.

2). The security folks are just trying to do their job. Be nice to them and they'll smile.

3). There is no excuse for not knowing why the plane is leaving late. (I don't know why the airlines still don't get this, but they don't. Pick up the microphone and tell me what's happening).

4). No decent hotel as an air conditioner hanging out of the wall under the window.

5). If you say you're going to do something, do it. A curious thing happens to me every time I go to pick my car up in DC, my name isn't on the board. I have to go inside and stand in line. If Hertz cared, there would be some way for me to contact them and let them know this happens. There isn't. They don't.

6). Coach sucks - and it's only going to get worse.

7). Bartenders are almost always the only people you will just chat with on the road. A really good bartender can make the lonely road a little easier.

8). Holding the door for someone won't mean you miss your plane. You feel better when you do it and always feels bad when you don't.

9). Always ... always ... always... wear shoes to the airplane bathroom.

10). Speaking of the airplane bathroom. The reason it takes so long for people to do their business is that they're not. They're done. Between home and your hotel room the only truly private place you'll be is in the airplane bathroom. People recharge in them. They're charging stations.

11). The food you can buy in the back is better than the food you get for thousands of dollars in the front, but desserts are better in the front. Hint - Fly American dinner flights in first. You get a Sundae. That feels a little like home!

12). Your company's travel policies are actually designed to get you to spend more money than they will while you travel. The best way to avoid this is not to travel.

13). When you're flying west it takes longer. It doesn't just feel that way. It does. You're crazy, but this is not why.

14). You have to decide in the first minute if you want to talk with the person next to you for the rest of the flight.

15). For a business traveler a good book is the best travel aid.

16). Calling home doesn't make you feel better.

17). The best part of any trip is pulling back into your own driveway and seeing the lights on, no matter what time of night it is ...

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Americana, Shmamericana

The last thing we needed in Glendale was another Mall. We already have the Galleria. We have the Marketplace and we have the … uh … oh yeah – the Exchange. Another mall was just going to create more traffic problems downtown. It wasn’t going to promote world peace. It wasn’t going to improve the standard of living for the average Glendalian. So, along came Americana and I was sure downtown was going to hell in a hand basket. That’d be it. Gridlock city USA. We’d have a few more stores and some more restaurants – most of which we could get to with a short drive to Pasadena. Aside from that, a new mall just means more traffic. We don’t need more traffic.

The boys needed to go to Barnes and Noble. Yes – in my house, “I’m out of books” qualifies as a need. Enough of a need that even after a long day of cleaning out the Garage, (which is a long day indeed) I happily let the boys jump in the truck and we were off. Our deal at Barnes & Noble is pretty simple. They get 30 minutes to choose two books. This is because one of the boys could take forever choosing one book and the other, given more than five minutes will come back with a wagonload.

Now I know Glendale. It was five PM. Gridlock city waited, but I outsmarted the traffic patterns and took Harvard straight in to Americana. (That’d Harvard street – a Harvard grad would have taken Brand … but that’s a subject for another day). The boys and I drove straight into the parking lot, (I steered – they coached) – saw a sign that said there were 90 spaces on the third floor (none on the second and the first is evidently for people who are more important than me) – went to the third floor and found a space and parked. Wow – ok – so we’re at Americana. So far it’s a clean parking garage with big spaces – which I have to say is great. But it’s still just another mall.

We went to the elevator and got on and a guy in a suit was there to push the button for us. This actually saved a fight. In my house Matthew (11) loves to push the button and Mitch (14) loves to torture him by getting to the button first. Matthew could get there first because he’s generally faster, but he doesn’t because he tends to stop and smell the roses … but I digress. Anyway, they burst into the elevator and immediately recoil against the windows as there is a man in a strange – Disneyish outfit standing there to push the button for us. Hm .. maybe the Galleria has these too, but if they do I don’t remember.

We jump off the elevator on the bottom floor onto the carpet(?) and head out into the mall. I have to admit that here, at least for a moment, I was a little lost. I felt a little like I’d just walked under the train station into Disneyland. Josh Grobin and Celine Dion were singing a duet on an invisible sound system, the Jewel City diner was busy and there were people everywhere. Here another weird thing happened. They looked happy and they were all looking at me. What is this, an Old Navy commercial? No, wait, they weren’t looking at me (thank God). They were looking at the fountain. By the way – I mean everybody. Cheesecake Factory waiters and waitresses, shoppers, strollers, gawkers, all were transfixed watching the fountain, um … ok – Dance, to the music.

“Don’t get distracted boys, you’re on the clock.” We all proceed to Barnes and Noble. Ah .. familiar ground. We ride the escalators to the third floor and .. holy cow … the place is huge. Feeling doomed to beatings later because we can’t choose only two books or get out in less than ½ hour I head off to cook books while the boys head to their respective sections. Not more than 15 minutes later, they’re back. Happy. The books they wanted are here. Reading can ensue at home. The world is spinning on its axis. We’ll be ok.

We headed back to the car, riding the escalators up and admiring the…wait…. Ok – yes …. the chandelier, in the parking garage. Not just any chandelier, a kind of a cool, deco number that must be at least 15 feet tall.

I drove out of the parking lot thinking, God Bless America. Not God Bless Americana mind you. Just, God Bless America. In America, if somebody has a vision and the energy and wherewithal to make something happen, they can make it happen. Sometimes it can take longer than it should, because those of us with less vision may want to slow things down to make sure we will not be pained, but in the end a good thing can be done. That’s what Americana is … a good thing. As we drove back out of the parking lot and off toward home I had a little time to think about what it was that had given me this sense that the world must actually be ok. After some reflection I decided that it was simply that the Americana is just basically, right. There is beautiful space, some great things to watch when the people are a bore, cool stores and restaurants and a quality of construction that transports a person to another world. What a lovely surprise.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Leading, Laziness and both at once.

I've come to the conclusion that there are two kinds of leaders; those who lead because they understand this is the best way to help get things done, and those who lead because they don't want to work. Which one are you?

For some, leadership is a gift. It's a strange gift in a way. Most gifts make us happy. They are things we like. Leaders, though gifted, are compelled to lead and are terminally unhappy in any setting where they perceive poor leadership and where they are unable to lead. I'm using they, but could just as easily use I. (That's for Dee Clark, who is a leader and a friend, but who insists that in any meaningful conversation the most powerful pronoun is the first person. She's right about this. Try it. A subject for another day).

Leaders who are compelled to lead are born leaders, and leaders are always born. They are made up of a curious mix of personality traits that add together to create a leader. There is no way to teach someone or to force someone to lead. (It is important to point out that leadership and management are different. People can be trained to manage). Trying to force someone to lead is like trying to force someone to sing. Eventually they'll do it, but you will be sorry you forced them.

Gifted leaders are not always good leaders, or good managers. The underlying gifts do not in and of themselves create a good leader. Good leaders are constant learners. People who understand their gifting is both a blessing and a curse. A good leader is sensitive to the fact that without the right understanding it is relatively easy to lead people in the wrong direction. Good leadership takes work. Listening, understanding, teaching, a high degree of perception, an inside and outside focused view - all of these things are elements of good leadership.

For some reason our culture seems to be very good at creating leaders who lead simply because they don't want to do. These people may have some of the gifts of leadership, and they use these gifts to gain leadership positions within organizations of all kinds, but when it comes down to the process of actually leading they fall down. They fail to realize that effective leadership is not about the position. They fail to realize that true leaders lead from the bottom and not from the top. Leading from the bottom takes work. By and large, these people seem to have looked at the various possibilities for making a living and decided that the least amount of work seemed to have been done by people in the highest places. Our culture reinforces this view. In the same way that every sitcom in the last 20 years has showcased imbecilic parents, they have also shown poor managers. People who get paid more to do nothing. I want that job too.

Leaders in this category are the worst kind of people in my book. They are gifted and they choose not to use their gifts in the best way. Whether in the workplace, in charitable organizations or churches their impact is endemic. They leave demoralized, disenchanted, angry people behind and the impact of this can last a lifetime. Want to know if a leader is good or bad? Take a little time and talk to the people who are trying to lead with him or her. Are they motivated? Is their path clear? Do they feel empowered? Are the things they're doing consistent with the organizational mission? If so, chances are you've found a winner. But if they're frustrated, or unclear about their path; if they are lethargic, or if they are doing things that are antithetical to the mission of the organization, you've likely found a loser.

I've probably been a winner and a loser at different times in my life. At the moment, with little to lead, I'm probably nothing - and that makes me worse in many respects. Which one are you? In the process of leading are you taking the time to cultivate and empower those who have chosen to work with you? Are you a voracious learner? Do you read everything you can get your hands on with a critical eye to see what can be learned? About how to lead? About how to do the things your team is doing? Do you listen? Are you open to criticism? Do you encourage criticism?

This one thing is true ... What's next is up to you.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Driving, Cultures and Cursing

I hate to admit it but I'm a racist behind the wheel. In any other situation I am almost completely colorblind, but when I get behind the wheel I'm transformed into the most vile form of white supremacist.

I'm not sure what it is about some cultures, predominantly Asian cultures, that causes them to be such poor drivers. But I think it is empirically true that they are just that. Poor drivers. There, I said it out loud and in public. Bring on the protests! Picket the house. I don't care. What I'm really trying to figure out is, how do those women drive with those visors over their faces? Can the sun's harmful rays really penetrate the steel and insulation in the roof of the car?

Alright, now that your knickers are in a knot I'll equivocate. Not ALL Asians are bad drivers. In fact, some are remarkably good. Almost as good as me. Not ALL white people are good drivers. Far from it. In fact, some are just as bad. Other cultures seem to fall in between.

You've all heard of DWI - Driving While Intoxicated. I think we need a some new categories .... DWA - Driving While Asian, works as a way to explain some of the slow and quasi erratic behaviors. Even worse is DWAOTP. Driving While Asian On The Phone. By the way, there is also DWO - Driving While Old, but that's the subject for another day. (By far the most dangerous driver is a DWAO&OTP).

I'm not sure why our elected officials are working so hard to eradicate general DWOTP. This merely reduces the skills of the average driver to roughly those of a DWA. So if we're going to have laws about DWOTP, I think we should also have laws about DWA, but we all know that will never happen. Studies will show that there really is no difference between the records of the various races. Heaven help the insurance company that red lines people by culture, regardless of the facts.

All of this said, it is important to point out that by far the worst drivers remain DWTS - Driving While Terminally Stupid. You've seen these people. They're all over. They drive too fast in school zones and parking lots, and in a different form they get on freeways going 8 miles an hour while they search for a break large enough in traffic - apparently roughly 4 miles long - that is large enough to give them the opportunity to sit back off the steering wheel, stop staring in their side mirror, catch up to traffic and get back OTP. These people can come in any color, size or age and I think they should be permanently relegated to public transportation.

If I've offended anyone I'm sorry. Like I said, I'm only a racist behind the wheel. In other walks life I actually celebrate the cultures we live with. Myriad ethnic groups have permeated Southern California society and I think the cultural fabric they create is an entirely beautiful thing.

That's 10 minutes for today ....

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Young folk.

Masses of people have suggested that I should blog. (OK four). I'm not really sure why I should blog. It seems an odd thing in some ways to simply write something and post it for all to see. But I'm susceptible to influence, so ... here goes...

I'm sitting at my new counter top, looking out my new windows at my new patio and another beautiful California day. I'm acutely aware of the blessings in my life. A great family, terrific friends (including a bunch of teens and twenty somethings whose energy and outlook always gives me hope for the future - more on that later), something to do every day that feels useful, and lots of things that interest me.

I'm also acutely aware that not everyone in the world is so lucky and I've thought about that some. There are a lot of things we can't change. There are a few we can. I've decided to concentrate my efforts on the area around where I live, and particularly on the young people here. For many in my generation, the stark differences between our own upbringing and what our kids and their friends and acquaintances experience are frightening. To be sure, there is much to be frightened about. Kids are challenged with everything early. The drug and sex subculture is pervasive. Inputs from childhood cartoons to adult sitcoms teach kids that their parents are idiots - and reality all to often mimics art. Through it all, kids soldier on.
My generation seems to think that simply because these things are true, kids must just, pretty much, suck. They as much as say so. I think we're wrong. I think kids, and the young adults they become are remarkable. They live through the challenges of their culture and in the midst of it they find something to cling to, something they like and enjoy and sometimes something that gives them hope and they cling to that and they thrive.

"Cool" is different too. Cool was easy when I was a kid. If you were good looking at athletic you were cool. If you weren't you coped. Cool applied to the whole school - to the whole town really. You knew the cool kids from any school at a glance. (Pretty shallow huh?) Today, cool applies within a thousand microcosmic subcultures. Kids don't have to be cool for the whole school, they can be cool within the confines of their chosen groups and relationships. To be sure, they can be "uncool" too and the loss of anonymity in the smaller surrounds might make this harder than it was for me. I'll leave that to the experts.

I only gave myself 10 minutes a day for this. If you like it, let me know. If you think it sucks - let me know that too! If you have a different opinion, by all means - weigh in!