Personal

A Wedding and a Funeral - Reflections on a Portfolio Life

Please forgive me for having not blogged, but life should be allowed to intrude. And intrude it has this season: I officiated a planned wedding that became suddenly very interesting, and then conducted an unplanned funeral that tears at my heart still. These reminders of real life pushed aside the comparatively mundane promise of writing a regularly scheduled blog.

Oh, I am also grading papers and final exams these days. In addition to my rewarding day job, I am privileged to conduct a graduate course. Every ten weeks, I meet and engage with bright minds - not all that young, necessarily - as they work through the foundations of ethical leadership in pursuit of their MBAs. This is one of the aspects of my portfolio I hope to continue for as long as I breathe.

Wait, portfolio?

We all live a portfolio life. Many stirring (and ordinary) orations begin with a recitation of our multiple identities. I am a father, a son, a grandfather, a husband, a consultant, a blogger and I’m already tired of myself here. The “portfolio life” I reference above just means I live some of these identities with intent, attention, and focus. For example: I am also a professor, a wedding (and now funeral) officiant, and an academic. While philosophers and therapists advise us to embrace these many identities, and there is some research hinting that our cognition is improved against tasks with distraction rather than focus; there is also some financial security in diversifying our attention. That college course brings in some income. The officiating does not, yet, but it helps to satisfy a creative outlet that brings a level of emotional stability. The academic pursuits help satisfy a yearning to pursue deeper truths, and yes, helps qualify me - on paper - for that professorship thing.

A brief aside: A professor of mine once asked me if I had ever considered going in to teaching. “Yes,” I replied airily. “I was thinking I would become a college professor when I retire.” “Oh, that’s lovely,” my England-born mentor replied acidly. “Imagine how that sounds to poor saps who pursue it as their lifelong vocation.” And so I am an adjunct professor, no longer imagining I will march onto some grateful campus at age 65. As the Bride and I discuss retirement plans, I now factor in a modest stipend rather than a second career.

Anyway, I focus on aspects of my identity with an eye, yes, towards monetization in my dotage - but also on the attention they deserve now. While I happened into these roles accidentally in most cases; I find the fact that my attention is thus divided benefits my work against each. I am better at individual pursuits because I have the others. My business relationships are richer because I can talk about something other than knowledge management and business transformation - some days I actually manage to sound human. My years spent dabbling in (very) amateur videography for community theater gave me the confidence to compose a memorial video for my departed friend. The costs are significant: It’s been six years since that last distant Caribbean beach trip; I have signed up for two online courses and then not had the time to fully explore them; and constructive boredom has eluded me for over a decade. But this is who I am.

What aspects of your multiple and shifting identities can be monetized, or otherwise deserve your attention? When will you start writing that book? How is your garden doing? Pick up the guitar lately? This “portfolio life” isn’t anything new, but an observation that living an intentional life is made more difficult because of the noise. I recall a gourmet restaurant this year where the host said as we were seated: “Please refrain from using your phone this evening - for conversation, texting, or especially taking photos of your food. Please just enjoy your evening.” He was ready for an argument, but I was grateful for this. Otherwise I would have been taking those photos; and we really need to start living rather than endlessly documenting our lives. For some of us, it takes effort to focus on great food and friends without checking email or otherwise feeding our networks.

We live in an age where our attention quota can be filled to overflowing with other people’s trivia - it takes intention and planning to live fully these multiple identities. To overtly start living a portfolio life. Here’s to hoping you too have a ten-minute answer to the cocktail party question; “What do you do?”

 

I'm not French

French to try being nice As we landed at Charles de Gaulle airport, my ex-pat seatmate turned to me for one last chat. "Do you want to know the secret to getting along in Paris?" Of course. "Everyone speaks English, but don't assume they do. First, ask if they speak English - and ask that question in French. Parlez vouz Anglais?"

That worked. Amazingly well, actually. I stopped strangers on the street and asked directions back to the Latin Quarter (for a global traveler, I'm pretty bad at navigating). Not once did I get sneered at, or turned down. "Yes" was the answer I heard, and everyone took the time to help the American.

Well, once, I heard "No." During the workshop I was there to help facilitate, someone walked in two hours late. As we had already broken into groups, who were engaged in fairly intense conversation, I wanted to help our newcomer catch up. "Excuse me, parlez vous Anglais?" Perhaps because I started the question in English, I heard "Non!" Ok, I walked away. But not far.

"Uh.. why?" "Excuse me?" "Why you ask me about English?" "I was just going to catch you up on what you missed, so you wouldn't feel left out of the conversation." "Oh. Go ahead then."

And so that ended pleasantly. Much more pleasantly than the conversation years earlier with a French citizen during a World Bank party. Someone paired us in conversation, introducing me by telling the gentleman my last name as if it would be of great interest to him.

"This is not a French name!" "Ok, and, hello." "I mean, this is silly. There is no one in France with the name of Bordeaux. It would be as if someone in your country were named, eh, Jimmy Chicago. This does not happen. You are Canadian." "Well, great meeting you, but I'd rather be over on the other side of the room now."

While I have often thought "Jimmy Chicago" would be a great pseudonym, the fact is I'm not Canadian either. But that is a tale for another day.

The Call Button

NYT article on the consequences of nurse staffing. I began to emerge from a truly black sleep, only to feel a wave of agony coming from the front of my face. I felt as if a train were hurtling into my head, over and over. I found myself panting and grunting, unable to even cry out in pain. A soothing voice, next to my ear, told me that she was going to take care of me. The waves subsided, but only because I was falling asleep again. It seemed only second later that same voice was now imploring me to wake up, to come back to her.

I am told this cycle repeated for two hours, although I had no sense of time. In the seconds of what passed for lucidity before passing out each time, I was dimly aware of another human nearby - also in distress.

I was in "recovery" following surgery to repair a deviated septum, and yes: it can be as painful as you have been told. Utterly worth it in the long run, but the most pain I've ever imagined. The voice, alternately soothing and scolding, belonged to the nurse who crouched forward in a chair positioned between two beds. I noticed that her relief stood just behind her. The second nurse tapped the owner of my soothing/scolding voice on the shoulder, and they switched out rapidly - the chair was unoccupied for less than a second. My treatment that afternoon included probes containing cocaine inserted deep into my nostrils; removed only when my blood pressure dropped below a certain threshold. They were re-inserted only when my blood pressure exceeded 260 (the number was carefully documented, and was second only to cocaine as the most alarming bit of data contained in my chart). I suspect my expressions of agony were not the trigger for this pain relief, but the danger presented by a blood pressure well above 200.

Once I was stabilized, I was wheeled out and only then caught a glance at my fellow sufferer. A woman my age, now sitting up in bed and looking like I felt. I gave her a grim thumbs up, but she was able only to follow me with her eyes. All other voluntary movement, I believe, was coming at too high a price.

I remember that afternoon as I read of hospitals where the pain relief is subject to shortages in nurses on the floor. My fellow sufferer and I took the full time attention of a nurse for the better part of an afternoon - so intense that the nurse had no other duties but sustaining two surgery patients and keeping either of us from having a stroke. Had that occurred, I am certain other nurses would have appeared. Without this intense treatment, I cannot imagine how that day would have ended.

I remember this, because the vision of pushing a call button and receiving no relief is a terrifying one. My daughter is a nurse, and she speaks of patients who keep both hands on the call button as if it were their only source of life. She must balance the true needs of her patients, never letting one overwhelm her attention to the detriment of the rest. She must also balance the ever-changing number of nurses available to her, as unseen forces determine who is working which floor for any five-hour block throughout her shift. A medical unit is a collective, whose beds are populated by loud libertarians. And nurses are the commons. The dance of staffing a medical unit is driven by patient needs, balanced by costs and - in the U.S. - profit. The notion that a balance must be struck is understandable when there are competing human needs. Competing corporate needs are somewhat harder to swallow when we are on that call button, desperate for relief.

There are no grand conclusions here, just a shudder. Grateful I had that voice when I needed it (and yes, the cocaine). And pushing away the thought that if my physical problems ever result in the need for a call button again, I can only hope it is connected to a solution. I'm reminded once again: hope is not a method.

After us

What happens to our brains after death? We remain fascinated with our own brains - and perhaps equally fascinated with our demise.

"And we wonder how it will feel." - Karla Bonoff

I recall being somewhat traumatized as a child by reading about people buried alive in prior centuries. True or not ( likely not), the belief became so widespread that some people were buried with a line of string leading to a bell attached to the tombstone. If you heard ringing, get a shovel and some help! Truth be told, this is from my childhood understanding, the entire meme could be apocryphal. However, it was enough for me to decide, before puberty set in - that I would be cremated when the time comes. That is still my wish, for much the same reason. (One lesson: If your kids are reading, it doesn't mean they're ingesting wholesome entertainment.)

Another belief, or at least speculation, involved how long the beheaded head remained aware following its rude separation from the body. The idea that one would be aware of the executioner's blade as one stared into wicker for three seconds or so also remained with me. This fate cannot be mitigated by planning, as with cremation, so I've instead lived a life that cannot be confused with that of the French aristocracy.

We will always ponder the chemically-infused electro-goo that houses "us," and we will always ponder what happens when that goo ceases to pulse.

And so I always click on URLs like the one above. And hug my grandchildren, trying to shake all the damned visuals.

Ringing

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I was halfway to the office from the hotel, strolling the nice streets of Chicago (the mean streets are a few miles out from my hotel), when I did my thumb-ring-check. Rather than look to see if I was wearing my rings, each thumb touches the ring finger. I do this a few times a day. This time, I was too far along in my commute to fix the situation; but there it was. The dreaded naked finger. In my mind's eye, I could see them waiting for me on the bathroom ledge. Great. I hope they're still there when I get back. In an ugly moment, I pictured someone from "housekeeping" slipping the rings quickly into a white pocketed apron.

The rest of my walk was taken by noting the personal cost if the rings disappear. The wedding ring is a white gold with a few inset diamonds. The gold was never polished, it has a honed look. Rough-hewn, one might say. The decision to change from the original was set when I saw a (much nicer one) on a friend's finger. His partner had a matching one, and I refer to them as wedding rings - much to the ire of his partner. "We live in a hate state, it would be illegal for us to be married!" I stopped joking about the rings and marriage after that. My friends have been together for over 30 years, more married than many couples in spirit and intent. Yet their partnership simply doesn't exist in the eyes of Virginia. My ring reminds me of my beloved bride, but it also brings to mind the work to be done for marriage equality. I am more fortunate than my friends: whose 30 years' love is illegal - while both of my marriages were celebrated and subsidized by the law.

My other ring is a Claddagh ring. A yellow gold intersection of a valentine, hands, and a crown. These represent the three points of a 'man,' as told to me: love, loyalty and friendship. Today, the ring usual signals Irish heritage - although a colleague of Thai extraction tells me she wore it as a young girl. "If the heart is pointed out you're single, if it's pointed in you're taken." The original craftsman, the story goes, lived several hundred years ago. Forcibly apprenticed to a goldsmith in England, he earned his freedom and returned to his native home of Claddagh, in Western Ireland. My bride and I stayed in a bed and breakfast along the raging waters that separate Galway from Claddagh, a stone's throw from the Spanish Gate. As we strolled through Galway, she surprised me to leading me into Thomas Jones' jewelers, the sole heir to the Claddagh design - and the only jeweler who can legally engrave "Original" inside the ring. I long owned a Claddagh ring, gifted to me by my sister when I completed my Master's, but it had grown weak over time and I risked breaking it daily. I left Thomas Jones with my new prize, a solid strong "original" Claddagh. This reminds me of my heritage, the charm of Galway, and yes - the heart is always pointed in.

The rings were still there when I returned to my tiny room in the old Hotel Cass. The remote possibility that they had been lost led to my musing, captured here and shared with you. The mementos did their job that morning, by taking the day off.

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A Year, Globally

Approximately one year ago this week, I heard of an opportunity to become a 'global resource.' It turns out my employer takes that 'global' word seriously. The past 12 months have added 170,000 miles to my various airline accounts, and taken years off my spinal alignment. While my previous assignment found me in the occasional European capital city, this one favors Asia for the most part: Beijing, Mumbai, Bangalore, Sydney, Hamburg, The Hague five times, and Hong Kong four times. Today, I am shuttling off to Chicago, which feels like a light cab ride compared to the 30-hour days between lie-flats for those Hong Kong shleps. My favorite has to be the Hamburg (1 week) to Sydney Australia (1 week) to home (15 hours) to The Netherlands (2 weeks) trip. Sitting at home during those 15 hours, my Bride asked me if I wanted to jump in a hot tub. "Sure, sounds good!" And I sat there, staring. Then she asked if I could use a sandwich. "Yeah, I could go for that!" Leaning in, she says; "How about a gin and tonic?" "Outstanding suggestion!"

It was 10 am local.

That's when I realized the wisdom of the old saying: Time exists so everything doesn't happen at once. When you collapse time, your body apparently gives up on sequencing or aligning behavior to the time of day. I needed to introduce some time structures, and fast. I can't say I've succeeded. I tend to screw up my calendar in Chicago, one time zone away, more than I do Hong Kong, 12 time zones away. Nevertheless, I realize several things need to change to accommodate the constant movement.

More troubling than the personal misalignment is the lack of productivity. I keep thinking I'll be able to write and think on a plane - but that rarely happens. I did get upgraded once, and managed to grade a semester's worth of papers "overnight." I landed and uploaded the grades, prompting one student to email me: "I am now convinced of your superhuman powers." I could have mentioned that I was at 38,000 feet while she slept, but why ruin a young person's idolatry?

At the one year point, then, it's time to consider that this is my way of life now. I've had the opportunity to chat with friends who have done this for years. I've spent time in deep conversation with folks who were formerly email buddies on a crowded listserv. I managed to finally meet up with a Scot I've admired for years, grabbing a beer in a Dulles airport bar one evening during his layover - and spent a delightful evening with a Welsh friend in Hong Kong who is a member of a multi-million mile club with an airline. These conversations confirmed what I was beginning to realize. In traveling this much, your life becomes very small. I think of my mother, now limited in mobility. Her life has become defined in terms of what she can navigate. While I navigate the globe, my life becomes defined in terms where I can focus amidst the blur.

In truth, living among strangers can be a liberating experience. I can focus where I like. I can allow my creative life to fill in the vacuum formed by the lack of a social life. As with most things, I just need to become intentional about it. So here's to a more intentional year ahead. This is not an ideal existence, I will need to get off the plane at some point. However: For now, I get to see the world. My Flickr feed is a thing of beauty. I am gaining an understanding of global culture and humanity than I could not find any other way. I am most, most fortunate.

Pardon my Dust

20130601-112357.jpg I need to blog more often. I've known this for some time, and wanted to get an apology out to anyone who follows this page. After chastisement duly administered by a certain dear Spanish friend, I am finally taking steps to increase the rate of blog posts on this little cul-de-sac. (Said chastisement occurred five months ago, so you can see how hard this is for me.) Two changes in this regard:

* I will endeavor to share more often, rather than only publish once I have a white paper ready, complete with footnotes. Long-form blogging is not serving me well. Yes, I see people who engage in frequent long-form blogging - I honestly don't know how they do it. Perhaps by writing more often, I'll come to resemble those success stories. (The best approach to writing is to write, after all.)

* I'm experimenting with the Wordpress mobile app. On my iPad, I am more likely to have a dedicated screen focus. When I use the laptop to blog, I find myself time slicing among tasks. The result is a folder full of moldy drafts, some years old by now. With the iPad, I can focus and seize the moment when ideas hit. My travel schedule over the past year resembles the hockey stick graph, and the iPad is more my companion than my trusty MacBook Air these days.

If indeed the conversation is the product, then perhaps more frequent albeit shorter and more malformed thoughts will provide the forum for conversation. My last post in March sparked truly thoughtful and valuable comments, which lay ignored for far too long. That can't happen again. If I spark a conversation, I need to be present.

Self-flagellation aside, thanks for reading.

(Obligatory cat photo used without permission, unsure where I got it. Will delete upon request.)

My Cup of Tea

My British lunch companion cringed when I poured sugar in the cappuccino.  Not because one does not add sugar, but because one does not, apparently, add white sugar.  “I can’t [pronounced ‘cahnt’] believe they gave you white sugar.  That is for tea, brown sugar is for coffee.”  I’d never heard that, and asked him to share more tea imperatives.  Turns out I’d done it wrong all along.  You are “supposed” to pour milk, add the tea - and in India the milk and tea is brewed as one - then sugar to taste.  The rules are obscure, but violations bring physical discomfort to my colleague.

In Hanoi, I learned the role of Vietnamese green tea in business. While not an elaborate tea ritual per se, the role of this strong tea in business meetings was driven home when the beverage was poured at the formal outbrief.  This was not something made available in case I craved a hot beverage on a torrid June afternoon in Vietnam - I was expected to share the teapot with the government deputy minister.  As may be true around the world, the boss’ tea was much superior to that shared by his staff earlier in the week.

In Beijing, I knew to order green tea and was not disappointed.  In Mumbai, I learned there was something called Assam, in addition to Darjeeling, etc.  I craved Irish breakfast tea, and was told, gently, that what I wanted was black or Assam tea.  In retrospect, adding the brown Demerara sugar was a violation of my friend’s first principle regarding color coded sweeteners.  By the time I reached Australia, I became used to ordering ‘black tea’ with milk and sugar.

But when I ordered it like that, just like that, on a United airlines flight, the American flight attendant was not amused.  Back in the land of Lipton, I had forgotten that ‘black tea’ at home means no milk or sugar.  We do not differentiate among the many teas available, unlike the majority of humanity.  So when I ordered ‘black tea, milk and sugar,’ I received a withering glare in return.  It took me a second to realize my error.  How could she have known I spent much of my summer receiving the equivalent of a semester in tea education?

Tea is a pretty basic commodity, the cultivation and distribution markets established hundreds of years ago.  Manuals no doubt exist to help the new worker understand how to continue the long tradition, bringing this product to market.  Manuals, however, will fail  in the final application.  The local enjoyment of the product, that activity which drives demand.  This final, critical routine is rich with local context.  You may decide you can write local manuals, but my dapper British colleague is of Indian extraction.  His preferences, as emotionally laden as they appear to be, are personal and unshakeable. The value of the tea cannot be pre-determined by manuals or engineering diagrams - but by respecting the shifting context that defines the experience for the individual tea-drinker.

I'm certain this applies only to tea, though.

Breaking Down Love's Checklist

I was confronted today by a checklist posted by a friend - 10 questions that “should be asked before your wedding day.”  I found the questions absurd, as someone with 29 years of marriage under my belt, and suggested she pass these before long-married couples, and count the ones who say, “yeah, that’s what we did!”  The friend then challenged me to respond in a blog, revealing what I see as the ‘keys’ to a good marriage. I understand the culture engendered by the Checklist Manifesto, where every task can be decomposed into simple lists to ensure quality.  Like all management fads, it has its place, and becomes farcical when applied beyond its utility.  Marriage is not a 50-50 proposition, it’s a 100-0 reality, unevenly distributed over time.  If that idea is an unfriendly one, reconsider the whole marriage idea.

This blog challenge gave me pause, as those 29 years represent time spent with two different spouses (8 years and then 21 years and counting).  Who am I to challenge these ideas?  I have no keys to a good marriage, because they don’t exist.  The notion that we can approach this as a business plan is silly. As a father, I counseled my daughters to consider four questions with their respective intendeds. (I managed to help Daughter the Younger reconsider a potentially disastrous engagement using this technique - but really can't kid myself into believing anyone took me seriously otherwise.)

So rather than a checklist, I asked that they consider four big questions, and see if their intended had similar answers. This was a simply exercise in compatibility, certainly not a recipe for a successful marriage.

Ok, those four questions - again only getting at compatibility for a person with whom you're thinking of sharing a bathroom for the next 60 years. Insufficient, but a start:

1) What is perfect entertainment?

2) What is perfect relaxation?

3) What is perfect sex?

4) What is sacred?

There are no keys, there are only conditions. We can't plan, we can only influence and adapt - based on a core bond that is nurtured and prized. All else is negotiable. (E.g., you can agree to a child 'strategy,' but if one of you becomes disabled and unable to accommodate, is that a ticket to your 'exit strategy?')

Nevertheless, the blog challenge remains on my laptop.  I summoned the Bride, and we answered these as a couple.  I took the liberty of challenging the question - some may consider our answers as non-responsive.  As with every other observation of our marriage, thanks so much for your observation:  but it’s working for us.

What is our “mission statement” as a couple?

We did not have a social mission or a business plan when we decided we no longer wanted to live apart.  As a couple, we considered our vows as the “mission statement.”  But let’s recover the language - the vows were our initial promises to one another.

To what extent are you willing to go to have a family, medically?

We had a family, already.  I brought a son into the marriage, she brought two teenaged girls who lived with us.  Family planning is a core decision to make together, no question.  But one never knows how far you are willing to go ‘medically’ to do anything.  No amount of planning prepares the father who confronts an unconscious wife, whose life depends on endangering their unborn child.  Deeper issues abound here, the checklist fails utterly.  This is a reasonable question, which resolves the bare minimum in terms of planning.  Deeper convictions will be called upon when the unexpected confronts us.

What will we do if we find out our child has severe disabilities?

Child or fetus? What’s the real question here?  Do we have a view of life as disposable, casting aside the inconvenient gifts?  When does life begin?  Under what circumstances do we institutionalize our crippled child?  The language here is a bit too bland for me, let’s use real nouns and compelling language to chip away at the emotions that will rule that day.

Who should I have on speed dial for the days when I just can’t figure you out?

Each other.  Unless you are pondering a polyamorous relationship, why would you invite another to help you understand your life partner, your helpmeet?  The friend I vent to about my Bride is not someone I want on her speed-dial.

Can you name two couples that you admire and would hope to emulate?

No, because the whole notion of best practices is a discredited one in business, and even more of a failure in relationships.  You never know the reality of relationships you observe; your goal should be to become the model to emulate, carve your own path.  You can’t know what it truly takes for relationships you admire to work, it’s a fool’s errand to pretend otherwise.

How do we stay sexually engaged with each other?

Have a lot of sex.  Also, expand your definition of sex.  Touch throughout the day.  Compliment one another constantly.  Flirt ceaselessly.  The Bride and I have had satisfying bouts of foreplay that last for weeks, while never losing any clothing. Sex is a communications channel, for those who insist on business language.  Find out what turns your partner on, and devote yourself to that end.

Will we share our credit reports with each other?

We will share our credit reports with our creditors.  We will merge our futures, and therefore discussing how we think of money goes much deeper than our past.  Discuss purchases, talk about the value of material wealth, the emotional response to debt, and hold hands while you pay the bills.

Should we have an exit strategy for the marriage, and if so, what would it be?

While you’re at it, write up an exit strategy for your relationship with your children.  Exit strategies are relevant when considering land wars in Asia.  While a marriage can seem more stressful and destructive than war, it is supposed to be a cleaving of souls.  If confronted with this checklist, I would seek an exit strategy for the engagement.

If married previously, why did it end and what did you learn from that relationship?

Definitely discuss why the marriage ended, and be certain to share how your ex-spouse would answer this question.  That perspective will be much more constructive than the well-rehearsed narrative that helped you exit the previous commitment.

What are our conflict management styles, and are they compatible?

Why do conflict management styles need to be compatible?  Is there a 2x2 matrix that indicates which styles are compatible, and a personality test we can take to determine our style?  And where do we go to forget the fact that we evolve throughout our lives.  Here’s my answer:

Don’t hit each other.  And don’t use sex as a weapon.

For the rest, seek pre-marital counseling, where the facilitator will help you explore deeper questions that will reveal the style of your partner.  If you’re determined to make it work, you will 1) adapt yourself and 2) help that person grow - ever mindful of the balance between these two activities.

The calendar tells me this is a Valentine’s Day blog.  I’m thankful to the friend who convinced me to pen this.  In April, I will officiate at my 10th wedding (for those keeping score, I’m 8 and 1).  (One of those weddings was not recognized by the state of Virginia, but it counts in the hearts of all who matter.)  The decision to merge identities, while embracing the paradox of individual identity as whole, is not one that lends itself to a checklist.  It is not a business partnership, it is an emotional ocean into which we plunge from great heights.  Our only plan should be to cling to one another, to form a raft from our shared memories, and to nurture friendships and children as our legacy - enjoying each wave that washes over us.  It’s about the journey, and if you’ve found someone who wants to share yours, then celebrate.  Every day.

In Praise of the Olds

Putting aside the fact that, back in my day, “the Olds” referred to a car owned by someone on the brighter side of the tracks - I recognize that this term now refers to the generations beyond the one currently in fashion.  I realize that while I do not consider myself old; I do remember Watergate, the Vietnam War, the moon landing, and the deaths of all three Kennedy brothers.  And so I write to praise them, me, this holiday for a simple reason:  The Olds enjoy life more than you do. Our holiday toasts often feature a few seconds of silence.  We aren’t grasping for words, we are connecting to memories that predate you.  We mist up easily for the same reason.  We smile at soiled toddlers because we remember the stress when we were first confronted with tiny people - you.  (Also, we are no longer responsible to remove said soil. Our joy in reminding you of this is unceasing.)

I found myself at a large sing-along last week in a small town North of Boston.  A dear friend has hosted these gatherings for over 15 years, such that now their 18th century home bursts each holiday season with guitars, pianos, a harp and violin, and nearly one hundred voices.  I was privileged this year to be holding one of those guitars, and was therefore provided a front-row seat to enjoy these many souls.  Their ages ranged from six to eighty.  The young teens sprawled like puppies for a third of the room, while the adults stood towards the back, nearer to the wine selection located back in the kitchen area.  The smiles were shared: for one evening there was no toddler whine, no teen angst, no mid-life crises, no fears of mortality, no tears of sadness.  There was only laughter, music, warmth, and love.

While all had a good time, the Olds had a better time.  Only looking back through years can one appreciate the joy of connection.  In looking across the room, I saw myself at each age - from the shy child, to the teens who only gain confidence in groups, to the later awkward attempts at self-expression, to the college students, to the young fathers, to the truly confident Lions at the peak of their game, to the Olds.  We all wonder what is next, but for the Olds that question has been answered many times.  For this one magical evening, there were no questions of what is next - there was a sharing of magic, song, and later, dance.  The season features moments like this.  When all ages are joined in the same laughter, when a stranger wandering into the home would feel right at home.  Only the Olds appreciate how rare and wonderful such evenings are.

Here’s to the holiday. Here’s to the child on Christmas morning, the young teens exiled to the kid’s table, the older teens laughing too loudly at play, the Lions reveling in their ability to sustain a home.  But more than all, here is to the Olds.  Who have lived each phase, and only now fully understand we are all One.

How a Memory Palace Fuels the Elevator Speech

My apologies for the mixed metaphor in the title, but I'm pressed for time these days.  I certainly need to improve my blogging frequency, monthly just does not cut it with me. My 'Other' Memory Palace

We recently began to settle on a strategy story line at our little shop, to capture our approach to improving life options for children of color and poverty through education transformation.  Even that is a mouthful, but it gets harder.  Ready?  We aim to:

Accelerate achievement for these children through system redesign in order to realize a personalized learning experience for each child.  We will pursue this by working in a network of selected districts established under umbrella 'innovation zones,' connected by a common information services platform.  We will deliver frameworks for innovation in education and specific tools that have proven effective - recognizing a spirit of both experimentation and measurement.  We will work to establish lasting networks for sustained innovation across the educational system, improving the probabilities that innovation will lead to systemic transformation.  We don't want to lock in our 21st century understanding of learning - we are currently locked into a 19th century approach and have learned the hard lesson of stagnant markets for education.

Whatever you think of the paragraph above (and how many floors would that elevator ride take to explain?), I am able to recite it at will because the pieces live in my childhood home on Long Island.

Allow me to elucidate.

Borrowing from Matteo Ricci and reaching back to 1596, I first rely on the accidental blueprint in my head regarding the home in which I spent my first 16 years (and then a few additional years, but that is a story for a different blog).  As I first heard and talked through our strategy, I walked through my home and placed artifacts or built structures to remind me of the elements.

Walking in my front door, I head first upstairs - in the bathroom I have placed a speedometer to reflect Acceleration.  We were a family of six, with one and one-half baths.  Acceleration was something often requested of the inhabitant.  Walking to the back bedroom, I find Personalization because my sister once painted the walls a hideous blue that refuses to leave my memory.  Walking back up the hall, I stop at the bedroom I used as a teenager.  Here is where I used to exit the home using the window, sliding down the garage roof for post-curfew appointments.  Of course, this reflects System Redesign.  In the smaller front bedroom, I placed imaginary scaffolding to reflect how much I wanted to rebuild the room when sleeping there as a small child.  Hence, Frameworks.  In the fourth bedroom are many boxes containing - the Tools.  The man of the house had been packed up and moved out when I was 11 years old, hence the packing crates with tools.

Walking downstairs, I sidle past the System Architects sitting on my couch - my sisters' boyfriends who curried favor by fixing things around the house - to the dining room which long featured a "swamp cooler" for "air conditioning."  Here I imagine the humidity and flora, including the Cocoon (innovation zone).  In the kitchen, where my mother spent weekends perfecting her sauce in a large kettle (every home on Long Island understands the Italian sauce that lasted all week), I find the Information Services Platform.  Here I pause for a bite of most excellent sausage (Laws), as most of my conversations begin with the new role of the Federal government in education and the opportunities this provides for our endeavors.

So there is my Memory Palace.  Hardly a palace to my recollection, but it's an internalized physical space through which I can wander and survey the elements of our strategy. My childhood home is filled currently with the elements for education system transformation.

Where is your Memory Palace, and what do you keep there?

COBRA - Do Better, Jack!

We interrupt this blog for a cautionary and personal tale regarding health care insurance in the U.S. - specifically the predatory practices by at least one player deep within the system. This will be a long tale, and I apologize in advance for the length. The summary: If you lost your job and are using the ARRA subsidies to help pay COBRA premiums, be diligent about canceling this coverage once you are employed again. When I say diligent, I mean do not trust anyone involved in the process - be careful, and get everything in writing. 200906300858.jpgBackground: in the U.S., you pay a small portion of the actual health care insurance premium while your employer pays the lion's share each month. The Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act of 1986, or COBRA, provides you with the opportunity to remain a part of your employer's group health plan following termination of employment - but you must pay the entire premium. This unwelcome shock to your finances can come at the worst time, as a laid-off employee can find themselves paying three times what they're used to paying at precisely the moment they lose their source of income.

Earlier this year, Congress passed the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) of 2009 - part of these provisions included a subsidy for partial COBRA health care premiums if you have been laid off from your job. The idea is to "restore" the employer's share of the premium for up to nine months' coverage. With so many losing their jobs since October of 2008, this is a welcome lift. I should mention that the previous employer does get hit with additional costs, as they are billed for their share of the premium for a terminated employee. Employers and employees must opt-in to the ARRA program.

My previous health coverage ended in February, whereupon I secured COBRA and began paying ADP my premiums as directed. Since I started paying the before ARRA took effect, I paid full-price. The ARRA subsidies were then applied to future premiums...and herein lies the tale.

I accepted full-time employment at my new job on 1 June. The following is a timeline written after an otherwise wasted day, in hopes this will help others from wasting theirs:

5/14 - Send email - first notice to ADP of intent to cancel coverage, as I've accepted full-time employment. Asked procedures to cancel and how to get refund of premiums paid.

5/15 - Bride calls CSR #1, who says " Just send or fax us a letter saying you want to cancel coverage, and you're all set!"

6/4 - Letter faxed as per instructions.

6/10 CSR #2 - Tells me I needed to have faxed information as of 5/31 to get it cancelled for June. Nevertheless, she promised cancellation as of 6/1.

6/24 CSR #3 - Apparently, someone overruled CSR #2 and I have to pay for June anyway. More worrisome, I'm on track to pay July as well. For some reason, my account status is Active. CSR #3 announces a cancellation as of 6/30, and issues a refund for July and August premiums. I vow to get June back somehow, since any collection of COBRA subsidy under ARRA while employed could lead to a penalty - basically, ADP is compelling me to defraud the U.S. Government by applying an ARRA subsidy against COBRA premiums for any date after 1 June!

6/30 ADP responds to my 5/14 email. Announces July has been paid. If I want to avoid paying August, I am invited to dance this dance once more. Amazingly, they admit to having my request for cancellation - but want it again. I've bolded salient portions below and masked dollar figures - I have not fixed the broken English:

"We have reviewed your account as per the request below. Our heartiest Congratulation to you for your new Job! The account is paid in full through 07/31/2009 and we have a credit of $xxx.xx in the account. In reference to your email regarding early cobra termination, we have received a written request on 06/04/2009 to cancel coverage effective 06/01/2009.

"Please be informed that you would need to post mark the letter by the last day of the previous month for the changes effective from the 1st day of the next month (that is, by 05/31/2009 for the plan changes effective from 06/01/2009).Since we received the request on 06/04/2009, we are unable to terminate the coverage and we have already forwarded the premium amount to the insurance carrier.

"However, if you wish to cancel cobra coverage effective 08/01/2009, you would need to send us a plan termination request letter via mail or fax, stating the effective date from when you would like to cancel cobra coverage, along with the account number in the letter and the letter needs to be signed by yourself and your spouse. You would need to post mark the letter by the last day of the previous month for the changes effective from the 1st day of the next month (that is, by 07/31/2009 for the plan changes effective from 08/01/2009)."

In English: Start over, and get it done today or we're stealing your August premium as well.

6/30 (8:00 am) Called CSR #4 and asked for supervisor. Bride standing over me now, weapons at the ready.

6/30 Poobah #1 is horrified. "Not proud of my company today," says she. She promises to fix all, but first has to talk with previous CSRs, then would call back "this morning." Never heard from her again.

6/30 (1:00 pm) Called CSR #5. Claims Poobah #1 made it a priority case, and they'll be back to me "tomorrow." (Interestingly, he says he has a note in the case file that Poobah #1 called me to convey this information already. Nice.) Problem: tomorrow is 7/1, at which point, they can then charge for me for August since they didn't hear from my by 6/30 - according to the email. Not accepting this answer, as the only written correspondence indicates the need to re-submit paperwork by 6/30. "Sir, I am trying to help you." This is where I utter the phrase, several times, "Do better, Jack!"

6/30 (1:30 pm) Transferred to Poobah #2. He assures me the research department will review the June issue and resolve in 48 hours. He is confident July and August will be refunded. I now refuse to hang up the phone until he sends me an email to this effect. He tells me this is not possible, he can only email people within ADP."Do better, Jack." He tells me to respond to the morning's email and he will reply with the info. Ten minutes later, he claims technical difficulties have prevented the email from going out, and can I give him 24 hours to send it again? Yes, he really said that. "No. Do better, Jack." He implores me to grant him more time, as he is messaging his supervisor, Uber Poobah #1. I ask to speak to that person, but - you guessed it - that is simply not possible. They will not come to the phone. I have reached the pinnacle of ADP Customer Service: all decisions occur above Poobah #2, where men and women labor in a client-free workplace.

By 2 pm, I have an email saying July and August will be refunded. Still wrestling over June, but mercifully, I let Poobah #1 hang up the phone.

My concern is not with my refund - I am employed and have the resources to eventually resolve this matter. And I will let the government know I did not intentionally defraud them out of a June premium subsidized with ARRA funds. My concern is those who cannot make their own hours and spend a day with ADP. What is happening to the hourly employee, (who, for example, may have received this end of month email after business hours today)?

What is happening to those who cannot spend hours on the phone with a call center?

What is happening to those who were supposed to be helped by ARRA? If they are still unemployed, they are still receiving health care coverage. But if they resume employment - they are likely being drained of their premium refund by ADP. ADP's choice was to apply the ARRA funds to future premiums rather than refund the money and bill me. This decision ensured their fees for several months, as their efficient CSRs effectively stonewalled me for a full six weeks. The less persistent may give up - and these souls will then find themselves charged a 10% fee and told to return the subsidy for health coverage they tried to cancel.

To ADP, and I suppose United (see previous) or any business struggling to survive today, I guess the message is simple: Do Better, Jack.

Virgin America: Humans at the Center

While she is not nearly this old, the Bride learned to drive on a Model A pickup truck. The experience was centered around the magic of personal locomotion - the human was a bit of an afterthought as the engineering of these first mass-produced automobiles focused instead on harnessing the challenging technology of the day. 200906261016.jpg She regales me with her memories: set the choke, engage the spark, and other terms lost to history. The automatic transmission, the electric starter, power windows and cup holders had not yet been invented. Today, buying a car with a manual transmission is within the interest of the hobbyist, but for most of us who are buying transportation rather than a car - the latter is the domain of a fading breed. The need to accommodate the human to early technology has passed, we can now tailor the experience to our comfort and convenience. Back in the 1970s, I had the occasion to listen to one of the first Sony Walkman devices to enter the U.S. The sound was remarkable, I knew I was experiencing history. Of course, if you moved the portable device, the cassette tape would warble and distort the sound. No matter, the engineering needed to produce this remarkable sound hadn't yet caught up to the iPod experience. I accepted the limitations of motion because the innovation of the sound experience was worth the inconvenience.

What is your focus when you purchase transportation services - are you buying the car or the ride? For air travel - my real point - are you buying the airline or the flight? For years I supported United, I knew the airline industry was a difficult yet essential industry, and I believed that loyal customers were core to the health of the industry. I earned "elite" status, and was able to book exit row seats and the occasional upgrade to human-sized seats and actual service. I have been a United "member" since 1991.

What I missed was the dynamics of the market - so long as someone is willing to pay to fly, someone else will provide the service. United is an important employer, but it is apparent their system of service delivery places accommodation of the human as a last priority. Recently, I began to listen as fellow travelers told me of airlines such as Virgin America, Jet Blue, etc, who considered the user experience in their design of the cabin, the services, etc.

For me, today, this stops here. This far, no further! (Hoping you can hear Patrick Stewart as you read that.)

I write this while aboard my first Virgin America flight. I am less than an hour into the flight, but it feels like it's only been 10 minutes or so. The simple reason, I am not focused on the airline, the aircraft, or the fact that I'm strapped in and hurtling through the air at 30,000 feet. I am not deprived of all sensory input so that I may focus on the flying experience. Instead, my senses and mind are engaged - not enduring the broadcast of a single movie choice that changes every two weeks, but enjoying options from on-demand television and video as well as in-flight Internet access. Rather than treating my weekly cross-continent commute as a time of sensory deprivation, I am connected and engaged.

Some quick comparisons, written now two hours into a five hour flight. I don't think I need to wait for landing to finish this blog, though:

United

Virgin

“We welcome our Global Services, 1K members, and First Class on the red carpet to board first. Seating area 1 will board using the blue carpet, but only after Premier Executive members board, also using the blue carpet. It’s simple, people!”

“Hi, John. Welcome aboard, please enjoy your flight.”

Pre-flight safety video eminently ignorable and hasn’t changed. Kindly bearded gentleman in the video likely retired in 1980s.

Pre-flight video speaks to you as an adult, uses clever cartoons to engage you. Bonus, Richard Branson avatar makes inappropriate reference to Mile-High Club.

In-flight entertainment system is initiated once “cruising altitude is reached.” I secretly palm the iPhone, listening furtively to avoid takeoff noise.

Seat-back video available as you board and throughout. No need for subversive behavior.

In-flight entertainment (on most flights) consists of central video, occasionally obscured. Broadcast model - one movie fits all. The movie and tired TV reruns cycle twice per month.

In-flight entertainment matches home experience - satellite television and on-demand movies. I don’t need to stock iTunes with past seasons of Rescue Me to endure the flight.

Seat audio often inaudible or broken (personal experience, IAD-SFO route). As a treat, you are invited to listen to the air traffic conversations between the pilot and tower. If you want to know what’s on each channel, you consult the printed guide. Otherwise, you pound the arrow keys as you cycle through the audio channels.

Seat audio high quality, simply select the genre from the touchscreen, no need to know the channel, or cycle up through bad rap, cheesy DJs or stale comedy to get to your selection.

Drink cart wheeled up the aisle occasionally, reminiscent of prison book cart experience you see in old movies. You may ring your call button to order out of cycle, taking chances with flight crew attitude.

Thirsty? Order drink from the menu, and they bring it to you. An innovation for air travel, a regular practice at every restaurant since the beginning of time.

Wifi available in the Red Carpet Club, conveniently located in many airports - subscription price varies based on Elite level, would cost me $400/year. Not terribly relevant to the in-flight experience, but needed for comparison in the column to your right.

Wifi available on-board the aircraft. Less than $10 per flight, or $50/month for frequent fliers.

Laptop power a rumor, and special adaptors possibly needed (never seen on IAD-SFO route)

Power outlet in every seat, no adaptor needed.

The prices are comparable. Would I rather stay with United, in hopes that I get upgraded more often to an in-flight experience that is better than the folks back in steerage? Or move to an airline that engages and connects every passenger? Where every seat is at least tolerable? My travel agent is concerned that I will not maintain "status" with a global airline, but I am choosing instead to help grow an airline that places the human experience first. We face tough choices each day, and the occasional heart-rending decision path. This simply is not one of them. Congratulations, Virgin America - my 200,000 miles (plus) per year are yours.

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Photo used without permission from http://www.firsttofly.org/Information/Homework/wright_photos.htm

For Sale: One Frequent Flier

iStock_000007134685Small.jpg I read the other day about how airlines are having trouble capturing and keeping business travelers. Airline travel represents even more of a buyer's market than in previous years, according to media reports. Being a Premier Executive flyer on United (a lofty title until you consider the titles "above" me, and I'm still not permitted to use that coveted 'red carpet'), I thought I would call United and discuss my upcoming business. I observe that while I am a Premier Executive, I almost never get upgraded in cross-country flights. There are simply higher classes of frequent flier who get in line ahead of me. Now, I think this is completely fair - the people who are flying 100,000 miles a year are entitled to 'dibs' on seats and service that respect the human condition. However, if this is a buyer's market, perhaps it is time to review the relationship. This review is also based on some new personal circumstances discussed below.

What do I get as a Premier Executive?

1) The regular economy seats in United provide a profoundly inhumane experience, but are required in order to create an additional class: Economy Plus. You cannot have Economy Plus without Economy. One must provide steerage class seating in order to prod you into an impulse buy, hoping to avoid lower limb thrombosis. As a Premier Executive, I can reserve Economy Plus seats for no cost and in advance. Check!

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2) While I cannot use the Red Carpet entry (reserved for 1st, business class, Global Services, 1K members), I get to board ahead of Seating Area 1 (think on that for a second: every flight has reasonable people confused that the number one on their ticket does not mean they board first). Why does this matter? Because of the consistently "limited overhead storage" that leads to some unfortunates being forced to check their carry-on luggage - adding 20 minutes to their flight experience on the receiving end in some cases. I don't have that problem, because I can board first and get my bag into the overhead nearest my seat; a luxury when exiting the aircraft. Check!

So the benefit of being a Premier Executive amounts to this: I get to avoid the miserable flying experience of the people behind me both on line and on the plane. My experience is still mediocre, with no laptop power, no on-demand video, no internet access, uncomfortable armrests, etc. But at least I'm better off than those people back by the lavatories (given the ratio of lavatories to passengers, I call this the Buttock View Section).

Now, I have a new employment situation that will find me on an airplane virtually every week. Since airlines were eager to get business traveler dollars, and I have a lot of business coming up over the next few years, I thought I would engage my current vendor. I offered a modest proposal: Since I would be a higher class flier in a matter of months at my current rate of travel (1k), why not grant me the status now to ensure I continue to procure the services of United for these next few years? Yes, this is unfair to the existing 1K members, and therefore perhaps untenable, but I thought having an idea would help the United rep get creative in her attempt to keep my business. Even if advancing me to 1K early is not "aligned with United policy," what ideas would she offer to keep my business?

I will spare you the extended phone call, I'm certain you can recreate the experience for yourselves and be fairly accurate. Bottom line: the entire conversation was about their policy. The poor lass was left telling me how important I was to United, while offering absolutely no reason for me to continue buying her product offering. I mentioned the in-flight experience as compared to other airlines - on-demand video on JetBlue and Virgin America, Internet access on Virgin America - and her only response was to talk up the Internet access in the Red Carpet Club. (Two problems there: These clubs are all on the GROUND and membership would cost me over $300/year.)

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My advice to the United Airlines Owners (employees) is this: We have come a long way since Henry Ford was able to offer any color of car, so long as it was black. If you continue to engage your customers by simply repeating your "policy," and ignoring customer-centric approaches to business, you will lose. You are about to lose me. Does that matter?

For my new job, I commute from DC to San Francisco. If I flew every week, that would be 251,576 miles per year. If every other week, the miles would be 125,788. Currently, I'm flying every week - a pace that will continue for at least the next six months. Yes, I will be a 1K member in a few months - but United's failure to consider loyalty strategies that are based on something other than schadenfreude regarding my unfortunate fellow travelers is a potentially fatal flaw.

For all other airlines: Does anyone out there need a frequent flier? I have approximately 200k miles per year for the winning conversation. You may reach me in the comments section below.

Papa's Got a Brand New Gig

library.jpgAfter 27 years in the national security business, more or less, I have accepted a position to work something far more tractable: the U.S. education system. My new business card says I am the Director for Knowledge and Innovation at the Stupski Foundation: a private, operating foundation in San Francisco whose mission is to improve life options for children of color and poverty. The foundation does so by helping education leaders accelerate academic achievement so that all students graduate with the knowledge, skills, and aspirations that will enable them to thrive in college, career and life.

What follows is my personal observation following an extremely short time with the Foundation - and is certainly subject to change as I learn more about this exciting new challenge (I was kidding, this problem is quite a few postal zones away from tractable). When I write on behalf of the Foundation, I will be doing it somewhere other than on this blog site. These musings here will always represent the addled mind of yours truly.

Specifically, we take the following approach: Until we address the systemic breakdown in the educational "system," we cannot have enduring change for the children that are our focus. Core to these systemic issues is the failure to innovate. Good ideas are not transferred across the system to other districts or other states. Districts forget core understandings about "what works" when the leadership changes. Innovation helps an industry adapt to change and survive (right, Detroit?). Where is the innovation in education? Where is the research and development (and distribution) that characterizes the innovation engines in other sectors?

At this early date, this is how I understand my new job. Help an extraordinarily talented team by bringing KM principles to bear in building out the R&D capacity for U.S. education. Partner with states, school districts, research firms, technology companies, philanthropic institutions, and an increasingly vital federal Department - developing ways to conduct multi-disciplinary investigations in order to spread "what works" to the most under-served in our educational system. There are great opportunities in methods and technologies, a willingness to invest in meaningful change, and an unprecedented need to develop a ready workforce suited to the emerging global economy.

This is an exceptional and humbling opportunity, I am most fortunate to be presented this chance to serve. It should be quite a ride, and I'm hopeful my friends and casual readers will be there to enjoy it with me. Oh, and if you have any ideas in this area, this is no time to be shy.