A Fruit Vendor and a 1% Chance

Posted on December 18, 2011

This post was initially published March 1st, 2011

Years ago a new Sherlock Holmes-inspired novel was published. Called The Seven-Per-Cent Solution, it didn’t compare to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s masterpieces. But as an old Holmesian who still bristles at the name Moriarty, it held my attention.

I was reminded of the doppelgänger Holmes’ mystery while chatting with a friend at one of my favorite watering holes in Houston. Jim is a philosopher in the tradition of Socrates, holding forth in the public square, so to speak – in this case the Main Street lounge called Notsuoh, or Houston spelled backward – and speaking truth to whomever will listen.
On this particular night, on the stage of Notsuoh a poet held forth at the microphone with his unique blend of Whitman and Ginsburg. An appreciative crowd listened attentively or played chess on ancient card tables.

It was a couple days into the Egyptian Revolution of 2011, a largely peaceful event that a week later would hasten the departure of the country’s 30 year autocrat Hosni Mubarak. Jim was not caught up with the rapturous rejoicing in Tahir Square. We were soon to learn that the celebration masked some ugliness such as the assaults on the correspondent Lara Logan. No, Jim was more taken with the arc of history.

Time Person of the Year“What are the chances,” he asked, “that a poor fruit peddler in Tunisia could light a spark – both literally and figuratively – that would change the world?” He was referring to Muhammad Bouazizi, the fruit vendor who poured gasoline over himself and lit a match to protest the arbitrary police abuses that made it difficult for him to make a living. He died on January 4 and his death led to spontaneous riots in Tunisia which soon ignited similar protests across the Arab world.

“We all live within a band of, say, 99% normalcy,” Jim went on. “Every day presents us with a predictable set of variables and expected outcomes. But then, every once in a while, our comfortable cocoons are shattered by the abnormal, the unexpected, the outlier event.”

“I’m not speaking of death, earthquakes, tornadoes,” he said. “Those are within the realm of the expected, unless of course there were an earthquake that toppled Manhattan or a tsunami in Toledo. No. I’m speaking of the perfect storm, the unplanned szyzegy, the confluence of events each one of which is remote and together are virtually unimaginable.”

We debated whether the Great Crunch in 2008 qualified as an outlier, or the Great Crash of 29, or the eruption of Krakatoa. Global warming was out, we agreed. The discovery of penicillin was in. The Russian revolution was out. Too predictable. But Moses and the 10 Commandments, the births of Christ and the vision of Mohammed, were all in. The ratio of chance over impact was just too small. The first single cell replication that signaled the dawn of life was in.

Jim was on to his next Socratic observation. “The Chinese say, ‘May you live in interesting times.”. I say, ‘We live for the 1% chance, the unexpected moment that will change reality and make us stop and marvel. It is what gives our lives meaning.

“These are what legends and myths are born from: The peasant that discovers a precious diamond, the medieval palace besieged by Grendel, a St. Francis that has an epiphany and sacrifices all.
“Our legends and myths are our collective memories or dreams of the ‘what can be’ and the ‘what we are capable of.’ They are a statement of our special humanity, our capacity for greatness, our wish to be better than we are.

“The 1% is outside the normal but it is where we long to be, challenged, threatened maybe, but ultimately hopeful, triumphant and exalted.”
Jim stopped his musing. Even he can give it a rest sometimes. Maybe 1% of the time. His silences can be as provocative as his speeches.
But he made me think. A Tunisian fruit vendor and a world turned upside down. Chances? A fraction of 1%. Impact? Infinite. Feelings? Hope for newly freed peoples, and fear of a violent and unstable future.


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Paean to a Volt

Posted on February 2, 2011

Chevy Volt

I am trying to understand why my wife and I are so excited about our new "victory red" Chevrolet Volt. Sure it's stylish and functional and economical. Sure it gives you a certain sense of moral superiority: Unlike a lot of hybrids out there, it is completely emission free for the first 50 miles or so, the distance we will use it on an average day.

But it's just a car. And it's certainly not a high end sports car, or a luxury sedan, or a mini-school bus for transporting the high school hockey team. The trunk space is limited although the seats fold down for added storage. It has great acceleration but it's not going to win the Grand Prix.

So what is it that has us so excited?

I started to think about the kinds of consumer products that float our boat. We're not big shoppers -- who has the time? -- and when we shop we're always pragmatic. We tend to get more satisfaction from a good meal out with friends than from fancy clothes, cars, or appliances. I've written about the 25 year old refrigerator we replaced recently. I haven't mentioned the 2-door oven that we recently replaced after one of the ovens hadn't worked in over 10 years. Wall Street is not rallying on our purchases, no sir.

But the Volt? We're not talking Ferrari or Bentley here. Yet we feel the kind of excitement reserved for syrupy commercials for diamond rings, where the angelic bride-to-be floats off into a heavenly haze.

Ads for consumer products often exploit the "snob factor," a quirk of human nature in which we all tend to place value on glamour and glitz that is far out of proportion to any inherent value in the product itself. It is a form of pride, plain and simple. If challenged, we would probably rationalize a purchase based on its cost-effectiveness. Deny it as we may, we take smug satisfaction in the awe and envy of our friends and neighbors.

OK, so clearly, the Volt has no snob appeal.

Then there is the reverse snob factor. The kind of in-your-face hubris that has Hollywood actors wear jeans and torn T-shirts to fancy restaurants. A guy I know flashes his Timex like a Rolex. I had an old friend who drove a beat up Mercedes with 250,000 miles on it. The seats were shredded and the engine sounded like a lawnmower. He may have worked on Wall Street but he was determined to drive a car that looked like it came out of a chop shop. It gave him perverse glee to see the looks on his friends' faces.

Naah. The Volt is no beat up jalopy. It's got class. It's also not a thumb-in-your-eye statement about crunchy eco-mindedness. It looks like any other car. Only 10 have been sold to consumers in Connecticut so nobody is going to be noticing us tooling around in our victory red sedan.
Which brings me round to my first car: A 1959 VW bug, with a little 4 cylinder engine in the back and luggage storage in front. There's a picture of me at 18 standing next to the car, sideburns down to my chin, moustache, big floppy collars on a plaid workshirt. No snobbery here. And for a college age student certainly not reverse snob appeal. This was the real thing, rusty fender, broken aerial and all.

So what does the bug have to do with the Volt? Because I realize as I write this that we are experiencing the same secret joy that I used to feel with that little Bug, the feeling everybody gets from their first car or their first apartment. It makes us smile.
It's like a hot dog at Coney Island: it may not be a chateaubriand at the Ritz, but it's deeply satisfying. Like watching Casablanca, or wearing an old pair of jeans. There's no price or value you can place on that kind of feeling. But it's real.

Like the Volkswagon, the Volt is the people's car. It is an achievement of engineering, American engineering. One can almost hear the excitement of the design team in Detroit as it rolled off the assembly line. It is the product of a vision, ingenuity, grit. It exists despite numerous efforts to kill it, enduring the way those old torn jeans in the closet endure despite numerous attempts to throw them out.

And there is a purity to it. No emissions for 50 miles (they say 36 conservatively but you can run the battery down for all 50). Carbon free. Guilt free. Like giving up smoking and sucking on a lollypop instead.

The Volt is on order. I promise you that when the folks at Karl Chevolet in New Canaan, Connecticut, call to tell us the car is here we will drop everything like we're running to the hospital for a new baby.

And I guarantee there will be a picture of us standing next to the Volt. Like the one of me next to my rusty old Bug.

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Watching the Weather Channel

Posted on December 31, 2010

Those of us in the energy business – and in particular, those of us who heat and cool our customers’ homes with natural gas, electricity, or heating oil – love to watch the Weather Channel. Especially from November 1, when winter begins for us, to March 31, when it ends, we watch it first thing in the morning and last thing at night.

In the winter, we watch the little bubbles of cold air drift down from Canada ahead of the Jet Stream. In the summer, we watch the thunderstorms gathering in the southwest afternoons, and the humidity weigh down on the northeast for weeks at a time. We watch the ridges of high pressure stall over the middle of the country. We watch the variations to normal (degrees over or under 15 year averages, say).

In the winter, I find myself feeling the chill in the air as our Atlanta customers rise for the morning, where they are not used to the cold. In the summer I feel the Northeast humidity personally and keep an eye on whether the electrical system can meet the cumulative air conditioning demand. After all, if the amount of electricity generated falls short of meeting demand for as little as a nanosecond, the entire distribution system can be affected and rolling blackouts or brownouts could follow.

This morning as I woke to the Weather Channel I had a sudden realization that I was alone. Nobody else in my family is remotely interested in the weather. In fact, I guarantee my friends are watching the Today Show or Morning with Joe. They may watch the Weather Channel when there’s a major storm system moving in, or a Nor’easter is blowing, or there is a cool feature on tsunamis. But they would probably consider my interest to be an addiction or a strange obsession.

This was not always the case. There was a time when most of us lived on the farm, when most of the goods we consumed were produced within a couple miles of our home, and when few of us ever ventured farther from the hearth than the distance a horse could travel in a day.

Then, we lived by the weather and the rising and setting of the sun. The cycle of the seasons dictated when we planted and when we harvested, when we did our chores, when our kids went to school. The weather determined when we visited our neighbors and family and when we stayed home. Armies fought in nice weather and went into winter quarters in cold.

Our days generally started before dawn because we were in bed shortly after dark. Before Edison, our evening activities were dependent upon lamps lit by expensive oil or toxic kerosene. It was cheaper and safer to go to bed. Even today, much of the world lives off the grid, although in some parts of the developing world new rural, off-grid solar installations – a few watts generated on the roof of a primitive shelter – have enabled children to study into the night and parents to charge cell phones, sparking a revolution in both education and social interaction.

Red Sky in the MorningI imagine our ancestors looking up at the sky at first light, and then frequently throughout the day. “Red sky at morning, sailors take warning; red sky at night, sailors’ delight.” They didn’t need a Honeywell RCW33W Jumbo Atomic Wall Clock with Automatic Weather Forecasts and Barometric Pressure Readings. They were conscious of gathering clouds, felt the air pressure dropping and smelled rain in the air.

Sometime in the early nineteenth century all of that began to change. First came timber or macadamized roads. We could travel farther from home, live farther from our work, consume food produced in far away towns. Later, railroads and canals extended the horizons of our daily lives. In 1800 it took some 3 weeks for a shipment of corn, say, to make its way from Cincinnati to New York. Thirty years later it took fewer than 3 days.
As we moved close to the cities, where most of us live today, our dependence on the weather waned.

Except for a few rare winter storms, we have no trouble getting around town. We commute to work in all kinds of weather, by car or bus or train or in a subway. We set the alarm to get up when it’s convenient and we stay up as late as we want.

Weather MapToday we might pay a passing glance at the thermometer outside the kitchen window. We might stick a hand outside the door to determine what coat to wear or whether to carry an umbrella. But we will sooner trust the weather man on the local TV station than trust what we see in the sky – assuming those of us who live in the cities can see the sky at all from our windows. With the exception of sailors and a handful of farmers and ranchers, we have no more interest in the weather than the price of wagon wheels.

Of course, our ability to forecast the weather – even for mundane reasons like whether to wear a raincoat – has not affected our ability to change the weather. We are still susceptible to the sudden shower, the unpredictable and malign tornado, the disruptive snowstorm. Knowledge may help us anticipate weather but it doesn’t help us prevent it. We are no less exposed than our forefathers glancing anxiously up at the sky.

While we may not care much about the weather, I believe we are all still affected in another way. When the sky is overcast or it rains for days, it begins to take a toll on our emotions. I can see it in friends and co-workers. Glum, long faces take over.

And when the sun shines again, there is exuberance like that of the spring. The sap flows and romance blossoms and in northern latitudes people step out of doors for the first time.
I have a similar visceral reaction to the winter solstice. December 21 is the shortest day of the year. But strangely, within a few days of the solstice, I sense the days getting longer. I haven’t checked the sunrise times and I’m sure the change is modest and imperceptible. Yet to me it is unmistakable. I feel an optimistic surge come over me. “Sure we are in the midst of winter,” my body seems to be thinking. “But spring is coming.”

I don’t think I’m alone. Long before I entered the energy business, I experienced these reactions to the seasons and to daylight. I may not be outside milking the cows before dawn, or planting furrows, or chopping wood for the fire. But when I glance at the thermometer I am as close to the natural world as any of my ancestors. .. and just as powerless to shape it.

Posted in From the Archives

The Open Spaces

Posted on December 16, 2010

I’ve been reading about George Washington lately: His character as a person and a leader. I started with Joseph Ellis’s brief biography and went on to David McCullough’s 1776. Recently I’ve been spending most of my time with a door-stopper of a tome, Ron Chernow’s biography.

Chernow bases his research on George’s voluminous letters over the course of his career. Most of them have survived, although I read recently that JP Morgan burned a few from his personal library because he considered them lewd. Morgan didn’t want to see the old man’s reputation blemished!

Knowing about my obsession, a friend invited me to attend a lecture at New York’s Historical Society. The speaker, Barnet Schechter, had just published a magnificent work, George Washington’s America, about the maps that Washington had used during his life.

1776 US Map

Schechter had been inspired by another inspired work on cartography, Robert Augustyn and Paul Cohen’s classic book, Manhattan in Maps. I sat with Augustyn at the lecture and afterward we had a fascinating exchange about maps and life.

Schechter had pointed out that throughout his busy career – whether acquiring property in Tidewater Virginia, speculating in land west of the Allegheny’s, leading a Virginia company during the French and Indian Wars, or commanding the Continental Army – Washington relied on maps that looked reliable but were in fact largely speculative.

As Schechter pointed out, much of North America in the late 17th century remained unsurveyed. Major population centers like New York were mapped in detail, and the broad outlines of the colonies could be seen. But between those regions that were known in detail lay vast stretches that were unknown.

When managing a military campaign, a commander frequently relied on local scouts to alert him to streams and rivers and possibly hostile tribes of indigenous natives. When sending troops on a mission the parties had to anticipate delays that could occur because of unforeseen obstacles.

Today we take for granted that mapmakers are working with reliable intelligence. We assume that they have explored the terrain or are relying on others who have done so. Perhaps the Amazon or some Indonesian rain forest, hidden from Google Maps by an impenetrable canopy of trees, remains unknown. Certainly the ocean floor remains obscure. But for the most part the earth’s surface has been catalogued and reduced to lines and reliefs on a map or globe.

As with maps, so with life. Often we make decisions based on a mixture of clarity and speculation. Indeed, the more information we have or think we have, the more confident we become.

In business, this often leads to a dangerous confidence level. We might be missing a key variable but we underestimate its importance and we get cocky with the information we do have. We rush to judgment and then, to our chagrin, discover the unforeseen rivers and mountain obstacles that stand in our way.

Studying Washington’s maps gives us a sense of humility, similar to what medical practitioners must feel when their patients look for certainty and they can only reply with statistical probabilities. We have become so confident in the medical science that we have forgotten that medicine is also an art. Think of the genetic code: As much progress as we’ve made in deciphering the sequence of amino acids that manage life, much remains shrouded in mystery.

Washington learned to live with imprecision and uncertainty. We, too, must learn the wisdom that comes with recognizing the limits of our own knowledge.

Posted in From the Archives

Disagree! But not Disagreeably

Posted on December 7, 2010

As for life and love, so for politics and business: Compromise is an outcome, not a goal. If we do not pursue what we want, we never achieve anything.

This aphorism was prompted by the perpetual pontification of the pundits:

  • President Obama will need to “move to the middle” to get anything done with his new Republican House;
  • The so-called Tea Party, which succeeded in electing a number of its anti-establishment members, will have to “soften” some of its positions in order to succeed at governance;
  • The new Republican majority in the Congress must begin to “compromise” in order to avoid the fate of Newt Gingrich’s Contract with America in 1994; and
  • The Democrats will need to be more “collaborative” if the Senate is not to deadlock with the House.

All of these post-election day observations seem to make compromise an objective. As if the way to reach a negotiated solution is to start in the middle and then move to the outside.

Sorry to part ways with the prevailing wisdom but compromise is the end of negotiations, not the beginning. It may be uncomfortable to have a vigorous debate among people with divergent points of view. But that is human nature.

I may be alone in this view but I actually find the harsh, partisan rhetoric of the recent election refreshing. Generally, politicians are so glib and mealy-mouthed that it is hard to know what they’re talking about. Occasionally when they take a stand on anything, they back off the instant they are challenged, fearful of offending any of their voters.

Elections have become a choice between Tweedledumb and Tweedledumber. Politicians use the same meaningless phrases, such as “it’s time for a change” and “we must move forward and not backward.”

In this year’s election, it felt as if there was a little clarity for a change. There was actual disagreement. Barring a little incivility and a couple nasty fights, that is good. We can disagree without being disagreeable.

How nice to hear clear, unambiguous opinions come out of the mouths of candidates. At last they believe in something. They are willing to lead. And they are also willing to lose! How many good ideas have come about because people were willing to take a stand when it was unpopular and lose until they won?

Somebody once said to me, “Never underestimate the desire of the people to be loved and not led.” Sad, but true. People like to be fed gushy pabulum. Obnoxious prophets don’t win popularity contests.

Why should politics be different from business? Consumers hear disagreement all the time: It’s called competition. Products compete, and competing ads make people think about the relative merits.

In our business, there are two basic products: fixed price protection and variable pricing. Variable pricing often offers short term savings, such as an adjustable rate mortgage offers short term savings. Over time, if interest rates jump, mortgage holders may end up paying more. Likewise, fixed rate plans protect the consumer from higher bills, like a fixed rate mortgage.

How do we express the relative merits of these products? Not by saying, “It’s time for a change – buy from us because we must move forward.” Rather, we shout:

Don’t be fooled by false promises or bait and switch prices! Buy a fixed price and we can protect you from higher energy prices!”

In other words, we challenge the competition. And in so doing we give the consumer a stark choice. We do not seek compromise. We take a stand.

If you believe in something, you go for it. You don’t start in the middle. Nobody wants to hear you say, “I had a few relationships. I’ve decided you’re OK, comparatively speaking of course. Let’s get married.” You want to hear someone shout: “I love you. I’m the best friend you’ve ever had. Marry me, damn it!”

No equivocations. Take a stand!

As we go into the post-election interregnum, let’s welcome a little bit more debate and postpone the talk of compromise. It will come soon enough.

Posted in From the Archives

Thanksgiving Note

Posted on November 20, 2010

I know that many of you plan to take some time off next week. So I hope you’ll forgive me if I share with you some thoughts as we leave for the weekend and enter Thanksgiving Week.

In many ways, Thanksgiving is a remarkable time on the calendar. Some holidays are religious. Other holidays recall events in American history, like Memorial Day or Independence Day. All of us enjoy the day off but some of our team members may celebrate other religious or national holidays that are more meaningful for them.

Then there is Thanksgiving. It does not celebrate a national historical event — although the first thanksgiving, held by the Pilgrims in 1621, took place after a bountiful harvest at the Plymouth Plantation in Massachusetts. It also does not commemorate an event in any organized religion.

Instead, Thanksgiving has come to represent a moment to pause, to reflect, and to give thanks for the bountiful blessings we all enjoy as human beings. And it is also a time to remember those that are not so fortunate as we, the millions of families around the world, including many of our customers, that struggle daily for needs that we take for granted, such as basic food and shelter and health.

It was Abraham Lincoln who proclaimed the first national holiday. It was the middle of the American Civil War when, in 1863, Lincoln called for a commemoration that would recall not only the blessings and joys that American prosperity had brought but would also “commend to his tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the [Civil War].”

He called on “ the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it … to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquility and Union.”

We work hard throughout the year so that we have times like this to enjoy and cherish. I hope you all have an opportunity this Thanksgiving to spend quality time with friends and loved ones.
And I join you and your families in a prayer for the “full enjoyment of peace, harmony, and tranquility.”

Good weekend and safe travels wherever you may go!

Posted in From the Archives

Under the Little Dipper

Posted on November 19, 2010

Seventeen years ago, our family moved from New Jersey into a new house in Connecticut. My oldest son was 5 at the time. Early on the day of the big move, I carried him sleeping to the car in his pajamas and belted him into the back seat.

As the sun rose my son woke up and we stopped on I-95 for breakfast. By the time we arrived at our new house the movers were hard at work. I carried my son from the car and placed him onto a couch that was coming off the truck. The movers carried him to his bedroom. For years after we would recall that early morning trip, one of our first father-son bonding experiences.

That night, I helped my son straighten up his room. We hung up some pictures and put his favorite stuffed animal, a giant green rabbit named Toto, by his pillow.

Even at this age, he loved science. We had papered his walls with pictures of the solar system. Before bed, I pulled out a sticker book of circles of all sizes. As he followed along in a picture book that showed the constellations, I stood on a ladder and stuck little white circles on the ceiling. The stickers were phosphorescent and absorbed light. When the lights were off – we tested this right away – the stars and planets glowed in the dark.

Recently my son graduated from college, found a job and moved into an apartment. He is an adult now, living on his own. For a long time it took an effort to recall the little boy in his pajamas, pointing to the stars.

At least until last night. My wife and I decided – after 17 years, no less – that it was time to make a small improvement in our bathroom. A few leaks and broken fixtures – not to mention the dated pink tile work and peeling wallpaper — helped convince us that it was finally time to upgrade.

In order to have the work done, we needed to move out of our bedroom. So we moved down the short hallway to our son’s room. We exchanged our bed for his, moved our clothes into his dresser, and spread the items from our dressers onto his desk.

We turned off the light. The heavy window shades plunged us into darkness. And then we looked up. There we saw planets and stars, the Little Dipper, Orion’s Belt, a moon. The sky of Brian’s childhood emerged from the ceiling.

We thought of the years Brian had slept in that room, looking up at the ceiling. Through grade school, middle school, high school. Through friendships, early disappointments, personal triumphs, temporary setbacks, positive feedback at school, fights with his parents. Lying in his bed, the stars continued to shine down on him with a gentle, benevolent, constant glow.

We never know what experiences will stay with us as we grow older, what moments will influence us long after they are forgotten. A supportive voice. A soothing picture. A chance off-hand remark. An unexpected encounter.

Occasionally, under stress, at home or in the workplace, we say things that we regret. Those things sometimes come back to haunt us, or they leave us with an indelible impression of pain that we can’t identify or remember with clarity.

Other times we may listen to a friend or colleague share a concern or an emotion and without even knowing it we provide unwitting solace. Our instincts tell us that some day we, too, may need a shoulder to lean on and so we listen with attention and empathy. We say something supportive and our words lend a measure of comfort far out of proportion to the gesture itself.

Recently my wife met a friend in Miami whom she had not seen in over 20 years. She had recently left her job and joined a volunteer non-profit group. She said that her decision was influenced by a conversation the three of us had had in the late 1980s.

We were all having a drink in Newark, she recalled, when I quoted a former chairman of the SEC: “The first 20 years are for learnin’, the second 20 years are for earnin’, and the last 20 years are for servin’.”

“I always remembered that comment,” said my wife’s friend when she met her many years later. “And when I reached 40 I said to myself, ‘It’s time to start servin’.’”

A chance remark, a tiny gesture, a silly game of placing phosphorescent dots on the ceiling, resonating years later and reminding us that it is the little things that sometimes make the biggest impression.

Last night, as we lay under the stars in our son’s room, my wife mused:

“Some day, we will move from this house and a child we don’t know will lay in this room. At bedtime, his parents will turn off the light and close her door. And she will look up and see these stars and planets shining down on her. And her imagination will wander to places we can never know.”

Posted in From the Archives

Tweet, Not Twitter

Posted on September 23, 2010

Recently I took up rowing again after some 40 years. It is hard to describe the joy – and sometimes the pain! – of gliding a few inches above the water in a racing shell.

Last weekend, tired out by the exertion, I floated to a stop alongside some marsh grass. The sun was high and hot. On the banks of the river a fisherman stood patiently with his rod, watching for a tremor on his line.

I heard a sound. “Tweet. Tweet.”

It was the familiar sound of a ringtone.

“Tweet. Tweet.”

I thought to myself, “I didn’t bring my cell phone with me, did I? I always leave my phone in the locker.”

“Tweet. Tweet.”

I looked around me. The fisherman was too far away. The sound was closer. “But I don’t see anybody,” I said to myself. “Whose cell phone could that be?” I wondered. I held the oars and looked around me.

“Tweet. Tweet.”

Then I saw it. A small bird sat on a boulder, almost hidden among the brown blades of grass. Its tiny beak pecked at the air while its wings moved with an imperceptible shiver.

“Tweet. Tweet.”

It was not a cell phone but a bird!

I have long enjoyed anachronisms, those little jokes that life and history play on us when two things unconnected by time come together in an ironic or humorous way. Like when Captain Kirk calls for a search of the data tapes to be examined in a Star Trek episode (obsolete by the turn of the last century let alone the next). Or when Fred wheels around in his foot powered car with his buddy Barney in the stone age TV show The Flintstones.

Sometimes anachronisms are unintentional, as in the movie set in the 1970s (I can’t remember which) in which a character responds to an emergency by saying, “Call 911!”. But “911″ was not introduced until the 1980s.

The word “anachronism” is derived from the Greek: it means out of time. But as I floated on the river I realized this was something new entirely: Two unconnected experiences juxtaposed in an ironic way. Call it an anaphora, something out of experience.

I’ve been mulling different anaphorae (that’s for Mrs. Hildebrandt, my high school Latin teacher).

Here’s one: There’s a scene in the hit cable series “Mad Men” when Peggy, the ambitious copywriter who is struggling to break the glass ceiling for women at the ad agency, runs into the ladies room to rinse her face. Somebody walks in behind her and they have a brief exchange.

As they spoke you could hear an echo. Now I haven’t been in a lot of ladies rooms but I know that sound and it wasn’t from any bathroom today. It was the sound of voices bouncing off the chrome and tiled surfaces of an old lavatory. Somehow the director had caught the sound that I don’t think I have heard since grade school. It sent shivers down my spine, reminding me of recesses and locker room talk and kids experimenting with illicit cigarettes in the last century.

Speaking of cigarettes, here’s another one. Not long ago I walked into an old haunt of mine in New Haven. I ordered the hot tuna grinder (that’s the Connecticut expression for what is called submarine sandwich or a hero in New York, a hoagie in Philadelphia, and a po’ boy in New Orleans).

The food tasted the same. The flatware clanked against the heavy ceramic plates the way it always had. The condensation on my stein of beer looked and felt the same.

But something was amiss. I could see across the room. I could read the backwards Budweiser sign in the window. I could read the chalk board of specials in the back. I could even count the Salamis hanging from the rafter by the kitchen.

What was different? The cloud of tobacco smoke that at one time filled every pub in America was gone! The air was as clear as an outdoor park. And that was not necessarily a good thing, for now I could also see the cobwebs of dust on the coffered ceiling tiles and the peeling paint above the bar.

Our language is replete with anaphorae, vestiges of obsolete actions that don’t let go. Dial a rotary phone recently? Maybe not but that doesn’t prevent us from doing it metaphorically.

Still try to roll up the window in the car? I do it all the time but with a button. Stand in line recently? Yes, but only because if I did what I used to do – stand on line – someone might accuse me of hogging the computer.

And then there’s “hooking up” with someone. I used to hook up with friends all the time. But that kind of lascivious behavior will land you in jail nowadays.

Better to just meet. And turn off the cell phones. And listen. That tweet may not be Twitter.

Posted in From the Archives

A Tale of Pots and Plants

Posted on September 13, 2010

It pays to have a sense of humor. Without it one could go mad.

What prompts my cynical remark is the sanctimonious claptrap that frequently emerges from the mouths of political and business leaders.

I’m talking about those leaders that are quick to blame everybody but themselves when problems arise. Take Richard Fuld, the former CEO of Lehman Brothers, blaming Wall Street for the collapse of his century old firm.

Or Tony Hayward, the CEO of BP, who blamed the rig operator Transocean for the explosion that caused the biggest oil spill in US history. This despite BP’s culture of lax safety standards.

We try to teach our kids to accept responsibility. One of our formative national myths has little George Washington admitting that he did something wrong. But for some reason our leaders can’t say the words: “I made a mistake.”

The flip side of the “Dog Ate My Homework” is another phenomenon that is just as prevalent: Call it the Blame Game. This is particularly popular for those who can’t take responsibility themselves and feel the need to blame others.

I’m always amazed how blame flows downhill, rarely up. The people with the least power – and the least responsibility – usually take the fall. In all fairness there are occasional examples of leaders willing to admit a mistake: Take Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack’s who was quick to eat crow for firing Shirley Sherrod. It was so refreshing because it was so rare.

Most of the time the blame is misplaced. To understand why you have to think about the anatomy of a mistake.

Most mistakes are like slipping on a banana peel: They’re accidents. Nobody intends to slip and fall and end up in the ER. It happens. Call it bad luck, or bad Karma.

I’ll grant you that once in a while there’s some deliberate act of corporate sabotage that’s fit for an episode of Law & Order. But most mistakes just happen. People don’t come to work in the morning saying, “I’m going to make a mistake today.” Or “I’m going to add those numbers wrong! I’ll show them!”

Mistakes, like accidents, are unintentional. To prevent them we have to understand them, as well as the people that made them.

So what does analysis show? When a child knocks his milk off the table we realize it was probably because it was too close to the edge of the table. Or he was horsing around. Or she was distracted.

So we teach them to move the glass to the middle of the table. We calm him down. We take away her distraction.

When people make mistakes it’s often because they need better training and should not have been tasked with a job without better supervision. Or they didn’t get enough sleep. Or they are being asked to do too much and are distracted.

In other words, the fault is often not with the employee but with his or her manager. To paraphrase Horatio, “The fault is not with our stars but with our bosses.” The very people playing the Blame Game are the ones who should take the blame!

Often it comes down to respect for coworkers and a fair appreciation of people’s abilities. In my experience most people want to do a good job and take pride in doing it. It is the duty of leaders to assess whether they are capable…and to take responsibility when they are not.

Speaking of differences and how we must accept each other’s different abilities, I am reminded of a sweet Chinese proverb that illustrates the point nicely. Thanks to whomever circulated this on the internet (and apologies to the pour soul whose hard work may have been plagiarized!).

An elderly Chinese woman had two large pots, each hung on the ends of a pole which she carried across her neck.

One of the pots had a crack in it while the other pot was perfect and always delivered a full portion of water.

At the end of the long walks from the stream to the house, the cracked pot arrived only half full.

For a full two years this went on daily, with the woman bringing home only one and a half pots of water.

Of course, the perfect pot was proud of its accomplishments. But the poor cracked pot was ashamed of its own imperfection, and miserable that it could only do half of what it had been made to do.

After two years of what it perceived to be bitter failure, it spoke to the woman one day by the stream.

‘I am ashamed of myself, because this crack in my side causes water to leak out all the way back to your house.’

The old woman smiled, ‘Did you notice that there are flowers on your side of the path, but not on the other pot’s side?’

‘That’s because I have always known about your flaw, so I planted flower seeds on your side of the path, and every day while we walk back, you water them.’

‘For two years I have been able to pick these beautiful flowers to decorate the table.’

‘Without you being just the way you are, there would not be this beauty to grace the house.’

‘Each of us has our own unique flaw. But it’s the cracks and flaws we each have that make our lives together so very interesting and rewarding.’

‘You’ve just got to take each person for what they are and look for the good in them.’

Posted in From the Archives

Five Years Ago

Posted on August 27, 2010

Five years ago this Sunday Hurricane Katrina made landfall in Louisiana and brought a nation together in grief and frustration.

The storm, one of the five deadliest in US history, set records for intensity as it tore through the Atlantic. After clipping the tip of Florida it entered the Gulf of Mexico. There it became the strongest hurricane ever measured, surpassed only by Rita a couple months later.

A Category 3 storm when it entered the Gulf, it grew in 9 hours to a Category 5 on August 28, with winds of 175 miles per hour. Fortunately it slowed before it reached the coast the next day.
The images from that day five years ago will long be with us. Curiously, most of the historic section of New Orleans escaped damage. Most of the city is below sea level and protected by a levee system from the rising waters of the Mississippi. But the hurricane, whose strong winds extended 120 miles from the center, bypassed the French Quarter and headed for the enormous lake that borders the city to the north, Lake Pontchartrain.

One might place Hurricane Katrina in a category of natural disasters, like the eruption of Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines in 1991, or the tsunami in the Indian Ocean in 2004 which swamped Indonesia, or the earthquakes in Japan.

But that would be a mistake. Because Katrina was as much a man-made disaster as a natural one. It is true that the genesis of the storm was meteorological. But mankind has weathered storms for millennia and has learned to prepare for them. Look at the levee system that protects Holland from the North Sea, the construction standards in LA, the flood barriers in the Venetian lagoon.
The damage from Katrina should have been mitigated by man-made preparations. It was not. It was actually made worse. Levees breached in 53 places, putting 80 percent of New Orleans under water.

Some storm gates were never closed.

True, it was not possible to secure hundreds of miles of coastline. Mississippi and Alabama were also hit and of course there were no levees there. But most of the damage fell on the beleaguered delta. 1,577 people in Louisiana perished with 135 remaining missing. 238 died in Mississippi.

As if the storm’s damage were not shocking enough, the nation’s inept response was even more discouraging. This is where the frustration comes in. I can understand the breakdown in communications and services in the immediate aftermath of the storm. It was heartrending to see families suffering for days in the sweltering, unsanitary conditions of New Orleans’ Convention Hall.

Or lying in the hot sun on the bridge.

Recently on a business trip to New Orleans I rented a car and drove through the Ninth Ward. On the one hand, I was pleased to see that the conditions were somewhat better than news media shows when it reruns video footage from five years ago. Conditions are much better, no doubt.

But only somewhat. Driving up and down the streets I counted just about every other house as renovated or under construction. But that left many more homes in shambles or replaced by vacant lots.

I continued my drive further along the Pontchartrain waterfront, toward the Lakeview and Lakefront areas of the town. Here the recovery was much more rapid. Here the homes, many of them multi-million dollar spreads lying in the shadow of the levees, appeared to be 90% renovated or in reconstruction.

Was it more than coincidence that the prosperous parts of town, that were equally affected by the levee breaches, had bounced back faster than the poorest parts of town? Probably.

Today, New Orleans still bears the scars of Katrina. Some of those scars will never disappear. They will continue to remind us of those days five years ago when nature unleashed its fiercest blows and men and women failed in their duty to protect each other from harm.

Posted in From the Archives
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