Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Survivor: Chantilly

I am completely alone for approximately 40 minutes each day, 20 minutes in the morning, and 20 minutes in the evening.  I am living for those few minutes in a sensory deprivation chamber of my own design.  I am off the grid, the Invisible Man.  Alone, but not lonely. 

Today is Day 24 without a personal cell phone. 

My cell phone was my work phone, and I changed jobs in the beginning of the month, so that phone was dutifully returned to my previous employer.  I fully intend to get a replacement phone, with enough sizzle to impress strangers, with enough features to wow my friends, and as little monthly recurring cost as possible to satisfy my budget.  I just haven't gotten around to it, and that's OK.

To clarify that last statement, that's OK...with me.  I seem to be the only one not put out my my lack of a cellular ball and chain.  Some (aka 'spouse') are concerned about my availability.  Some are concerned about my safety.  Some are concerned that I might be concerned.  I will admit that when driving, I do think that a phone would be handy in case of an emergency.  If I had a flat tire, a phone would be nice.  Hit a deer, and I could make a call.  Otherwise, I'm OK.

To those who would like to talk to me during my downtime, sorry.  Try the home number if you have been deemed worthy of access to the unlisted secret, 256-bit encrypted 10 digit code.  To those who never called me anyway, I will continue to trust that you've been dialing the old number for 3 weeks now in frustration.  Keep trying.

Soon I will rejoin what passes for the Communication Revolution in our world, texting and chatting to fill the minutes - total connectivity without the fussy mess of intimacy and meaningful conversation.  I may get a ticket for speeding, but distracted driving?  Not this month.  Good luck, Verizon.  I'll be a hard sell.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010


On Thursday morning, I heard an interesting report on my sports talk radio station while driving to work.  Washington Redskins quarterback, Donovan McNabb, was asked several times, in several different ways, for his opinion of the quarterback change in Philadelphia from Kevin Kolb to Michael Vick.  As you will all remember, McNabb was traded to Washington to make room for the future franchise QB, Kolb, and now after only 2 quarters of uninspired football as a starter, Kolb has been demoted.  The press was salivating for the "I told you so, Philly" quote, but McNabb, ever the savvy veteran in the pocket and in front of the podium, said nothing.


He refused to take the bait, refused to comment on the situation, and returned the focus to the 'Skins upcoming game against St. Louis.  His refusal to make news was the news.  Now, having lived in DC for close to 20 years, I know that a quarterback controversy is food from the gods, and one is created in this town more often than a political candidate promises to cut wasteful spending or apologize to his family.

The morning radio snippet that "Nothing happened, and nothing was said - film at 11" felt to me like the reporter would continue to promote this angle until a story was actually created out of thin air.  That is, after all, the reporter's job, isn't it?  In the 27/7 500 channel news business, the job is to find stories, but in the absence of one, make one.  "Be bright, be brief, and be gone" as the mantra of the reporter has been replaced by "Be bright, be brief, and create the story".

When the absence of news becomes the news, we're all in trouble.  Not meeting the expectations of the prevailing news cycle is now news.  McNabb, not sticking to a media driven preconceived script that tells the tale of division, revenge, anger and vitriol, is the story.  Perhaps Donovan needs media lessons from his buddy T.O.  That guy knows what to say to create a story!

I only wish this was a phenomenon confined to the sporting world.  It's worse in politics.

From the Washington Monthly:

In (a recent) Rolling Stone interview, the magazine asked about the kind of music Obama's been listening to. The president noted he tends to stick to the stuff he enjoyed when he was younger -- he iPod has "a lot of Stevie Wonder, a lot of Bob Dylan, a lot of Rolling Stones, a lot of R&B, a lot of Miles Davis and John Coltrane" -- but an aide has also exposed him to some more rap, so there's "a little Nas and a little Lil Wayne" on his playlist, too.

Fox News responded with this headline: "President of the United States Loves Gangsta Rap."

Fair and Balanced.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Where Have You Gone, Paris Hilton?

Back in July, I clipped a brief news item from The Week, my new favorite world-at-a-glance periodical (I recommend it).  The piece detailed the stunning campaign victory of The Best Party in the city council elections of Reykjavik, Iceland.  The Best Party, whose political platform "calls for free towels at all swimming pools and erecting a roller coaster at the airport", is led by comedian Jon Gnarr, and the campaign was popularized by a video of Best Party candidates singing Tina Turner's Simply the Best (kids, ask your parents to hum it for you).  Global warming is apparently melting away any common sense among the Icelandic people.

There are a number of reasons for an outcome like Reykjavik has experienced.
  • It could be disgust with the entrenched political structure.  According to The Week, "analysts say the results show voters' disgust with Iceland's traditional parties" - sound familiar? 
  • It could be part of a conspiracy to seed government offices with utterly unqualified and incompetent people in order to destroy the institution from the inside out (insert your own joke here).
  • It could be that voter apathy led to low turnout at the polls, and comedy groupies obsessed with truthiness cast their ballots for names they knew.  
  • It could have been the natural inclination to select any choice in a list labeled "The Best".  The only party, in that case, that could defeat The Best would have to be named The New and Improved Party, or The Extra Strength Formula Party, although Mitt Romney has already submitted that name for copyright protection.
The scariest reason, and the one that I believe is mostly likely at work here, is the blurring lines between entertainment and reality.

Celebrities, entertainers, or faux celebrities/entertainers winning elections is nothing new.  Minnesota is represented in the Senate today by former SNL writer and satirist, Al Franken.  Space traveler John Glenn represented Ohio for years.  Steve Largent cashed in his football fame for 6 years in the House.  California's Governator is better known as a violent cybernetic organism from the future than as a policy wonk.  And, lest we forget, one of our most recent Presidents took second billing to a chimpanzee in a movie.  So it is not a recent You Tube driven phenomenon that the famous (or infamous) convert that loyal following into political power, and many have earned the right.  I won't say which ones.  The blending of entertainment and the establishment, however, seems to me to be accelerating, and I fear that it doesn't bother enough of my fellow citizens.

No surprise there.  A recent Marist poll found that when asked the question, "What is your dream job?", 75% of respondents opted for movie star, pro athlete, and rock star (in that order).  We value notoriety as a desirable character trait to develop, and we reward those in our culture who exhibit notoriety with our trust and the keys to our government institutions.  Brilliant.

Flash, sizzle, and buzz rule the day in our world where Wall St. is overshadowed by Madison Ave., and Main St. seems quaint and anachronistic when compared to the Digital Superhighway.  In a world where challenges are more complex, our popular solutions are bumper sticker slogans.  In a world that is increasingly connected, we are driven further apart from one another.  In a world that provides instant access to factual information and knowledge unparalleled in the history of civilization, we are easily distracted by pop-up ads and teasers that lead us down the rabbit hole into a disinformation fantasy land.  "Popularity" and "Best" have become synonymous, and I don't think these concepts should be interchangeable.

The question we have to ask ourselves is, do we want better government, or just a better show?  And maybe more to the point, and scarier still, would we know the difference?

Election day is coming.  I hope the returns won't preempt an American Idol results episode.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Coiffure Du Jour

I was unfaithful before our family vacation, and I’m feeling a little funny about it. I didn’t plan it that way, but events conspired, and I was desperate.

I needed to see my regular girl to feel fully prepared prior to our family trip to the beach.  I needed something just for me, something to give me that inner confidence, that inner peace.  Approximately every 6 weeks or so, I’d go to her for service, sometimes more frequently during the hot summer months.  I wrongly assumed that she would be available for me on short notice, as she had been for the past 7 years or so.    I guess I took her for granted.  She was never the best, but she was consistent, and I trusted her.  To be completely honest, price was always a factor – she was cheap, and so am I.

When I learned that she wasn’t available, I was in a panic.  I needed help, and fast.  Believe it or not, my wife suggested someone who could take care of me on short notice.  She knew that I wouldn’t be relaxed on vacation if I didn’t get this taken care of, and she certainly didn’t want me cruising a seaside resort for an alternative solution.  So I accepted her suggestion, and went to visit Anh.

I was nervous, but Anh had a great smile that put me instantly at ease.  She asked questions about what I wanted.  Her approach was methodical.  She was attentive and talkative throughout the session.  She was sometimes hard to understand, but as long as she got the job done, it didn’t really matter.  I watched her closely in the mirror, making sure that she didn’t get distracted and make any careless mistakes.  When I made gentle suggestions, she listened and responded.  She took her time, and made me feel like I was her only customer.  I have to admit, sometimes I feel like I am being rushed, but not this time.  To finish me off, she kindly asked if I preferred the foam or the gel.  I thought she was a bit heavy on the gel, but whatever – it was her first time, so I can’t be hypercritical.

The big dilemma is what to do next.  6 weeks goes by fast, and I will have a decision to make.  This would be so much easier if I could get this done at home, but let’s face it.  If you want it done right, you need a professional.

I wish my hair didn’t grow so fast.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Saturate Before Using

One of the many benefits of growing up with older siblings in the house was never having to spend my hard-earned birthday and Christmas money on albums.  My brothers and sister had pretty much everything a music aficionado could want.  But around the time of my 16th birthday, it was time to make my own way musically.  Time to buy albums of my own.  1978 was a good year to branch out on my own buying power.  Several bands that you may have heard of released debuts records that year - The Cars, Van Halen, The Police, Devo (OK, only I care about the Spud Boys from Akron, but it's my blog).  One of my first trips to the record store delivered musical history to my turntable, and I was transformed.  I raced home and dropped the needle on Hotel California, Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, and the fifth release from Southern California rocker Jackson Browne, Running on Empty.

It was that summer of 1978 when I saw my first Jackson Browne concert.  At the tender age of 16, a gangly bundle of awkward potential searching for a poet to give voice to my limited emotional range, I was hypnotized by Browne at the peak of his career arc.  The title track from Running On Empty, You Love the Thunder, and The Load Out and Stay earned regular FM airplay.  This was before my bitter disappointment at the subsequent Hold Out album, and a few brief years before he (allegedly) got too physical with girlfriend and part-time mermaid, Daryl Hannah.  It wasn't getting any better than summer 1978.

I took Natalie Hochstein with me to that first concert at the Garden State Arts Center.  She had amazing blue eyes, cascading ringlets of blonde hair, and jeans that were usually so tight...well, my daughter would not be allowed to leave the house in similar attire, let's just say.  At the time, I wasn't so concerned with her denim fashion statement.  She was, in short, way out of my league, but I was a dreamer, and too hormonal to see that fact clearly.  Despite the obvious points in her favor (that line is for you, Tim), Natalie was actually my 3rd choice to share that special summer evening.  I really wanted to take Mary Sobon, thinking that Jackson Browne's lyrical genius and David Lindley's haunting lap steel guitar would pry open her heart to me, and simultaneously expose her current boyfriend, Michael, to be the ass that apparently only I could see.  She turned me down.  I was so crushed, I listened to The Pretender album for an entire day.  I can't remember who was second choice, so Contestant #3 Natalie won the concert ticket lottery.  I knew in my heart that I had to have a date for this particular show, someone other than Rosie to hold my hand during the slow ballads (see Rosie, song 3, side 1 - Running On Empty).  I was going for the music, anyway.

Natalie was aloof and distant on my date - I can't in good conscience refer to it as "our" date, since it was plain early on that I was the only one participating in the "date" portion of the evening - so I focused on the stage and internalized the meaning of the songs.  The lyrics spoke to me, as lyrics can when you're 16 and searching for emotional structure within the chaos of the high school years.  Natalie was a disappointment, but it was a great show.

I saw JB several times after that.  The summer of 1980, my girlfriend (a huge upgrade over Natalie, I might add) and I enjoyed lawn seats at that same Garden State Arts Center, and screamed like crazy Jersey-ites as he brought out every member of the E Street Band for his encore of Stay, up to and including The Big Man, Clarence, only to be deflated by the buzz kill news that Bruce was in LA, mixing The River.  There was the show that same summer in Saratoga Springs, when 4 of us had planned to fly in a 4 seat Cessna to the show, only to have that plan blown away by high winds.  We drove instead.  The most historic Jackson Browne performance I saw had to be his set at the No Nukes benefit in Madison Square Garden, warming up for Springsteen (the 3 album set from the live 4 day No Nukes event is a classic, and includes Bruce's Devil With the Blue Dress medley - yes, I was there).  These concerts were long ago, and that 2 year period included evenings with The Allman Brothers, Styx, Boston, Talking Heads, Squeeze, Billy Joel, The Ramones, and God knows who else I can't recall right now.  The Jackson Browne shows didn't have the energy of Bruce, the communal love of U2, or the hypnotism of Talking Heads, but they did mean something special to that gangly bundle of awkward potential searching for a poet to give voice to his limited emotional range.

This Sunday night, Wolftrap National Park for the Performing Arts, An Evening with Jackson Browne and David Lindley.  I'll be there.  I've grown up since the last time I saw him, but some things you just don't outgrow.  The music speaks to my past, but lives in my present.

I hope my kids don't grow up with the same gut level connection to the songs of Justin Bieber and Lady GaGa.  That would kill the moment, wouldn't it?

Monday, September 6, 2010

January in September

For those of you who have known me for a long time, you know that my favorite holiday each year is New Years.  No, not because of the free flowing debauchery that can sometimes define that annual celebration, and my active participation in said ritual(s).  That's just a bonus.  No, it's always been my favorite holiday because of the opportunity for personal renewal and redemption that January 1st represents.

On January 1st, we reinvent ourselves.  The slate of the prior year is wiped clean with a turn of the calendar page, and all things seem possible.  Yes, it is true that today can be the first day of rest of your life, but it often feels a lot like yesterday.  On New Year's Day, the sentiment rings more true to us.  Quit smoking?  January 1st.  Lose weight?  January 1st.  Watch less TV?  January 2nd (it is Bowl season, after all).  And the resolutions provided a shared experience.  January 1st is goal setting with a mob mentality.  Everyone is starting fresh, and we can all be the best self we imagine that we already are.  So let's have a drink!

On New Year's Eve, I prepare fastidiously for the New Year.  All laundry must be cleaned, all food shopping must be completed, and the house must be organized.  If I am going to feel new, everything around me must give the illusion of newness.  I will trick myself into believing that tomorrow is really the first day of the rest of my life by having pressed shirts and full cupboards.

Tomorrow morning, Lucy starts kindergarten, Marra enters high school, and I start a new job.  The level of reflection and celebration may be more subdued, but the sense of renewal is similar.  It is the ideal of the fresh start that has us energized for the first day of new experiences, new challenges, and new friends.

Lunches are packed, outfits are selected, and school/work bags packed.  Look out.  We're ready.

Happy New Year!!!

Work Work Work

From Seth Godin's blog entry today.  Happy Labor Day.

Whatever happened to labor?

Not Labor with a capital L, as in organized labor unions. I mean labor as in skilled workers solving interesting problems. I mean craftspeople who use their hands, their backs and their heads to do important work.
Labor was a key part of the manufacturing revolution. Industrialists needed smart, dedicated, trained laborers to solve interesting problems. Putting things together took more than pressing a few buttons, it took initiative and skill and care. Labor improvised.

It took thirteen years to build the Brooklyn Bridge and more than twenty-five laborers died during its construction. There was not a systematic manual to follow. The people who built it largely figured it out as they went.

The Singer sewing machine, one of the most complex devices of its century, had each piece fitted by hand by skilled laborers.

Sometime after this, once Henry Ford ironed out that whole assembly line thing, things changed. Factories got far more complex and there was less room for improvisation as things scaled.
The boss said, "do what I say. Exactly what I say."

Amazingly, labor said something similar. They said to the boss, "tell us exactly what to do." In many cases, work rules were instituted, flexibility went away and labor insisted on doing exactly what they had agreed to do, no more, no less. At the time, this probably felt like power. Now we know what a mistake it was.

In a world where labor does exactly what it's told to do, it will be devalued. Obedience is easily replaced, and thus one worker is as good as another. And devalued labor will be replaced by machines or cheaper alternatives. We say we want insightful and brilliant teachers, but then we insist they do their labor precisely according to a manual invented by a committee...

Companies that race to the bottom in terms of the skill or cost of their labor end up with nothing but low margins. The few companies that are able to race to the top, that can challenge workers to bring their whole selves--their human selves--to work, on the other hand, can earn stability and growth and margins. Improvisation still matters if you set out to solve interesting problems.

The future of labor isn't in less education, less OSHA and more power to the boss. The future of labor belongs to enlightened, passionate people on both sides of the plant, people who want to do work that matters.

That's what Labor Day is about, not the end of a month on the beach.