Abandon Text!

W. H. Auden once said: "Poems are not finished; they are abandoned." I have been abandoning writing projects for many years, since only the pressure of deadline and high expectations ever got me to finish, or even start, anything of merit. This blog is an attempt to create a more consistent, self-directed writing habit. Hopefully a direction and voice will emerge.

Saturday, January 27, 2007


I heard an interview on NPR with Alexandra Pelosi about her documentary "Friends of God," about evangelicals in the Bible belt. I've not seen the documentary (I don't get HBO) but I was interested in her take on their culture -- both what she found, and how she found it. She manages to strike a very good balance, in which she is completely open about having her own beliefs and opinions, and equally sure that her beliefs and opinions are not what the documentary is about. It's rare that someone has the humility and common sense to let others tell their own story, and let that speak for itself. It seems like too many documentaries have the pretension of trying to "make a statement," to the detriment of the subject matter.

It's also a living testament to a culture of tolerance -- on both sides. Pelosi is open, friendly, candid, and not afraid to make fun of herself and her ignorance of the evangelical life. She could make friends with these people, and talk about their most valued beliefs, without either compromising her own integrity or showing the least bit of disrespect to them. The evangelicals, too, demonstrate a principle of a society with religious freedom: they are a culture that is built on persuasion. Evangelicals (at least, the ones in the documentary) believe that their goal is to convince you that they're right -- they need you to freely come over to their side in order for them to "win". Unlike some other religious-centered cultures, they are less concerned with forcing you to do something than with changing your mind. And much of their culture is geared towards teaching people to win the argument; they are steeped in apologetics, and they tirelessly practice their capacity to broadcast the truth as they see it. In this sense, they seem far superior to the sneering scientific atheists who so despise them; the evangelicals are patient and persistent and have faith that the Truth will win, while the scientists, though equally sure of their beliefs, usually stomp off in a huff when people refuse to acknowledge their message, and mutter things about outlawing superstition.

I was also struck by the primary form of the evangelicals' argument, at least the one that was presented to Pelosi. "I was saved at least five times a day," she said, "And every time they would start by asking me, 'What do you believe?' And they would listen to me talk at length before they would say anything. And then they would ask, 'Why do you believe that?' And a lot of times, I couldn't say. But they could always point to the reason for their beliefs -- 'see, it's right here in the Bible.' At least they knew why they believed what they believed." The evangelicals were not even trying to sell Jesus Christ; they were starting with a more basic appeal: "Wouldn't you like to understand your own beliefs, and your own life?" The evangelicals are selling the same thing that I am, as it turns out -- consistency, integrity, and a consciously chosen life.

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Friday, January 26, 2007

Shoe Salesmen of Nation's Capitol respond

At a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on a non-binding resolution that opposes Bush's plan for a military build-up in Bahgdad, Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., said: ""I think all 100 senators should be on the line on this. ... If you want a safe job, go sell shoes."

Shoe salesmen from around the nation responded angrily to the Senator Hagel's comments in flood of letters, phone calls, and talk-radio commentaries. "Man, when was a $6-an-hour base plus commission considered a "safe" job?" said Ken Johnson, assistant sales manager at a PayLess Shoe Store in Alexandria, VA. "If I don't move enough of these Hush Puppies today, I could be out on my ass tomorrow."

"Ain' no senata wouldn't last one day in 'dis job," said Shaniqua Washington, a sales rep at the same store. "People can be real demandin', like, 'You don' have size 14 in camel suede finish? What is wrong wid you people?' And I'm like, 'Honey, what's on them shelves, dat's what we got.' It hard."

"Camel suede, my ass," she added.

Carlton Jones, a store manager for a Foot Locker store in downtown D.C, agrees: "You see that 'No Concealed Firearms on premises' sign on the door? That ain't just there for decoration, you know what I'm sayin'? You see them bars on the back windows? When a new shipment of [Air]Jordans come in . . . shit, I'd rather be in Baghdad."

"Well, maybe not Baghdad . . . maybe the north side of Anwar province or somethin'."

Shoe industry workers at all levels responded with equal ire. Colleen Hutchinson, vice-president of marketing for Adidas, told reporters: "It's a cut-throat market out there for high-end products. We're under constant pressure to innovate. Marketing budgets are astronomical, with a lot of high-risk placements . . . sometimes even Super Bowl ads. If Senator Hagel had said, 'Go sell laundry detergent,' now that I could understand. Life was easy when I worked at P&G. But shoes? The Senator is clearly out of touch with harsh realities of the private sector."

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Thursday, January 25, 2007

Executive Pay, Backdated Options, and Ethics

I've been a little confused by the Wall Street Journal's mixed messages on the recent issues of executive pay and backdated options. As you may have heard, many companies got into trouble recently for backdating stock options for its executives -- that is, lying about when the options were granted, so that the executives got the most money possible out of the grant.

At first, the Journal was out in front in breaking the story: their own analysts had crunched the numbers of various stock option grants and determined, Freakonomics-style, that many executives had been too "lucky" with their options dates, and that overwhelming statistical evidence suggested they had cheated. After the story ran, the SEC followed up with their own investigations. Yup, they had cheated. Some CEOs and board members were fired. Looked like a good chance to run some fatcats out on a rail. The Wall Street Journal has generally been good about standing up for the rights of the investor, and makes a fuss about overpaid executives on a regular basis.

But then Steve Jobs, the darling CEO of the darling Apple, was caught with his hand in the cookie jar as well. And not just a little in . . . a lot in. There were some middle men at Apple to take the fall for him, but at Pixar he was very directly involved at setting his options dates. Suddenly the mood changed. Nobody wanted to run Steve out on a rail. He was too popular. We love The Incredibles on our iPods too much. And, unlike so many CEOSs, whose mediocre performance hardly seemed to warrent the millions of dollars they were paid, Steve Jobs was clearly vital to his company. And, on balance, investors would rather keep their brilliant but slightly ethics-challenged CEO than lose huge chunks of stockholder value if he's sent down the river.

The Wall Street Journal editorial page suddenly joined in the excuse-making. "Welllllllll . . . the stock options were only a tiny portion of his overall pay. What's a million dollars more or less to Steve Jobs? That's pocket change to him. The board knew what it was doing, the board can pay him whatever it likes, let's not make too big a deal out this."

The incident is akin to finding out that a close and trusted associate, someone you've known for years and welcomed into your home regularly, stole a magnet off your refrigerator. On the one hand, you don't want to destroy a close friendship over a nearly worthless refrigerator magnet. On the other hand, goddammit, he stole something from my house. What else is he taking from me? And worse yet, do I want to hang around someone whose sense of entitlement is so great that they just help themselves to whatever they want, big or small, with no regard to whether it's right or wrong?

I have seen that same mentality prevail with certain rich people. My mother once noted that her richest clients for her landscaping business were often the ones who were the slowest to pay. "For some reason they seem to think that because they have so much, paying me is a trivial matter beneath their attention." Like a celebrity that walks into the bar and everyone jumps up to buy them a drink, they have somehow come to believe that they are so special that the rules don't apply to them anymore.

I don't think Steve Jobs should be fired. It was a small part of his compensation. (And, if you must know, I was the person who stole a refrigerator magnet from a friend's house. But that's another story.) But what he did was wrong, wrong, wrong, and we need to keep pointing that out. Rules matter. Honesty matters.

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Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Life by the Clock, Continued

It's been about three weeks since I began scheduling my entire life. When I get up, when I go to bed, and every moment in between, is accouted for and explicitly allotted time. I move some things around inside the schedule freely, but the allotted amounts remain the same. So . . . how's it going.
  • Regular sleep is by far the most important component. The lie I told myself most often was, "I'll just stay up late to finish that," as if I could magically conjure up more hours after midnight with no consequences. I go to bed at 10:30 pm and get up at 5:00 am, and I think I have the sleep titrated about right, because I'm tired when I go to bed but I usually wake up before the alarm goes off. (And that 6.5 hour regimen is sometimes supplemented by a noon-time 15-minute micronaps . . . and I have no doubt that caffeine is propping up my capacity somewhat.) In the past, the only way I could go to sleep without anxiety was to work myself to the point of exhaustion; it was the only way I could be sure I had done everything I could do. Now, I go to bed still knowing the same thing; I have optimized my performance, and I'm not going to gain anything by pushing it any harder. Occasionally, I'm tempted to stay up another half-hour to finish a project or see the end of "Law and Order," and the next day I feel it. But I don't think I'll ever return to the lifestyle of routine post-midnight work.
  • The morning routine of writing is the next most important. Morning is definitely the best time for me to write, and I have no stress about "squeezing in" my writing anymore, though producing on the clock sometimes squeezes me to finish faster than I'd like. Last year I had gotten in the habit of jotting notes on blog topics in my Treo 650 during the day, and that has become a vital part of the process; you can't sit down at the computer without already knowing what you're going to write, or you're toast.
  • Daily exercise is certainly doing me good, but it is a subtle good. I am only slightly better on the elliptical, and my pushups and situps show tiny incremental changes. But, as the CEO of my last company said, "All I need is a trendline! Just give me an arrow pointing in the right direction, and I can keep the investors happy." And there's always audiobooks to listen to, so I'm getting nice steady doses of Frank McCourt. The investors are happy.
  • I get dressed for work now. I used to shlump around the house in my bathroom until the middle of the morning, and then put on jeans and a t-shirt. Now, even if I'm working at home, I put on khakis and an collared shirt and real shoes. When I sit down to breakfast with the kids, I feel like I'm "going to work." I think everyone else feels it, too. Again, it's a subtle effect, but a measurable one.
  • Work time: I'm definitely living by the calendar, because we're so busy now I can't afford not to. I tried to cheat last week, stealing time from one customer for another, but I quickly realized my peril and confessed to Harry by the end of Friday. Monday morning I was having conference calls with both customers, with Harry attending, setting new expectations. We got some serious pushback from one, and none at all from another. It was painful, but not nearly as painful as I expected, and certainly better than the stress I was living under by lying to myself and others about what was going to get done. Harry said: "Don't worry. They'll respect you more because of this. They will value you're time more." And so far that seems to be true.
  • I said I would record my billing time as it happened, and that's not really happening. I'm better at taking written notes about what I'm doing while I do it, but I'm not putting it in GoldMine right away, and still spending the bulk of Thursday evening typing it up. Some improvement is called for.
  • Evening time: this used to be Guilt Central, home of the "I ought to work on this, but I'm dreading it so I'll do that instead . . . or do nothing at all." It definitely has forced me to plan my SKS work more carefully, which means it gets done. (We had great turnout for our first meeting on Monday, thank God.) But it's still a lot harder to keep that time dedicated to specific purposes: work still tries to creep in where it shouldn't, and school meetings and such are sometimes disrupting it. But I have been faithful to getting at least two hours of financial stuff a week in, which I'll need with tax season upon us.
  • Weekend time: This used to be Anxiety Time, the "I'm here with the kids but I'm angsting over when I'm going to get to work on other things" time. A lot of that is gone, but not all of it. The weekends have never gone exactly according to schedule, primarily because so many other players are involved; the kids get sick, Janet goes out to a poetry reading, Janet gets sick, yoga gets rescheduled, Janet and the kids go to grandma's for the day, etc. It makes me very conscious of how I have to coordinate with Janet . . . which is good.

Overall, I'm amazed at how many good changes came upon my life all at once. I year ago I made a list of "all the things I ought to do but don't." They were all disciplines I had struggled with for years: regular sleep, regular exercise, realistic work hours, committed Group work, etc. Now, eight of the top ten are being done, and it almost seems too easy.


Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Set that teacher's hair on fire

Janet heard a story on NPR about an award-winning teacher, Rafe Esquith, and she forwarded a link to me about the guy and his book, Teach Like Your Hair's On Fire. I am full of ideas about teaching, mostly untested and half-baked, so you would think that I would be immediately keen on hearing about someone who was actually doing new things in the classroom.

My first reaction to NPR's page on the story was surprisingly cold. I looked at Esquith's head shot, with the classic chin-on-knuckle thoughtful pose, and something inside of me said, "Slick. Phoney." Then I looked at the cover of his book. Esquith is wearing a suit and tie, and he is surrounded by kids all looking at him as he gestures. He is literally the center of attention. I wonder if actually wears a suit when he teaches . . . it's possible. Then I read the prologue to his book, and it starts out, "It is a strange feeling to write this book. I am painfully aware that I am not superhuman." Harumph. False modesty if ever I heard it. "Not a day goes by when I do not feel overwhelmed by the attention . . . " Just how much attention has this guy gotten?

And the rest of the prologue is more me-me-me, what he hopes and what he's done and how hard his job is and . . . not much about the students at all. A few cliche claims about how "crazy" his methods are. So my first impression was, "Raging egomaniac."

But I also remembered my previous post about being objective and fair and taking responsibility for what one writes . . . and I thought, "I can't pan this guy just because his head-shot gives me the willies." So I listened to the NPR interview.

And . . . I was very impressed with the guy.

He was extremely articulate and composed. Some of the things he said I had been saying for years: teach fiscal responsibility, teach economic principles of budgeting and responsibility and ownership, things nobody teaches but everyone knows are critical to success. (Yes, I know . . . of course I think he's brilliant if he shares some of my ideas. So who's the real egomanic now, huh?) And, when he spoke about the level of his dedication, and how it wouldn't be fair to expect it from everyone, I believed him. I heard someone who had found vocation, and was pointing the way, knowing that few could follow. And when he said that he only wanted to teach and wasn't interested in being a full-time education pundit, I believed that, too. "Well, other people can do that, but that's not what I do."

Then I went back and read the book prologue again . . . and I started to see what I had missed. "Our culture is a disaster," he writes. He clearly saw that the problem was one of culture and values, not merely technique.

So what am I to make of this? Was my first reaction just wrong, an allergic reaction to some good self-promotion? Or was my initial reaction correct, and my intellect papered over it once it warmed to the content? I think he's the real deal, he's doing good things for the kids, and he is worth listening to. He may also think very highly of himself. But . . . mea culpa. Perhaps I only see a mirror of my own ambition and my own ego.

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Monday, January 22, 2007

The SKS Elevator Pitch

The UNC Self Knowledge Symposium is having its first meeting of the semester this evening. One of the officers of the group was struggling (as most of us do) to find the best way to describe to newcomers the essential character of the organization, and what makes it different from other organizations. So, here's my unpremeditated rap:

The SKS is an organization that supports students in their spiritual seeking. "Spiritual seeking" is defined in the broadest possible sense, because we think the process of seeking has commonalities that transcend one's religion (or lack thereof) and culture. We believe that it is vitally important that people consciously identify their core beliefs and values, consciously test and evaluate those principles according to their own experience, and also consciously test and evaluate themselves in light of those principles. You could call the SKS "real-life philosophy": thinking about things that really matter to your own personal life.

Everybody has a philosophy of life. They might not be conscious of it, but everyone does have certain points of reference that they use to decide what's real, what's right, and how they should live their lives. That philosophy might be very simple, like: "Drink beer at every available opportunity," or "Do whatever everyone else is doing and hope that everything turns out all right." We think it's important to know what your real philosophy is, because if you don't make your decisions consciously and thoughtfully you will make them unconsciously and reactively, and our experience has generally shown that living your life unconsciously doesn't work very well. It tends to create lots of regrets.

In order to answer those kinds of big, universal questions, you often wind up addressing religious or spiritual questions: "Is there a God? Is there a soul? What happens after I die? Is there a purpose or destiny to my life?" We are not here to answer those questions for you. There are lots of places to go to have people tell you what to believe and how to live: most religious institutions will readily give you answers. We, however, are not in the answer business. We are in the question business. We think it is possible to take spiritual and religious questions seriously without telling you the answers. The SKS is has no official spiritual dogma or affiliation with any church, religion, or non-religion.

The SKS is not merely about ideas. It's not just a philosophy club, where people talk about things, and then they walk out the door, and that's it. We believe you have to apply your philosophy to your real life. Does the way you live your life make sense based on your philosophy? You need to reflect on your own life and your own actions, and figure out whether you are being true to your philosophy or not. In that sense, the SKS goes beyond philosophy discussion group and moves into psychological analysis: "Why do I say I believe this, and then do that?"

But the SKS doesn't stop at self-reflection, either. It also moves into the realm of action: "What can I do to change my life? How can I live better?" All that philosophizing is useless if it doesn't change the way you actually live.

For all these steps -- thinking about life, reflecting upon your own life, and consciously acting -- we've found that it helps a lot to have other people to work with. In every realm of human activity, people achieve their highest potential in a context of other people. Scientists, athletes, activists, writers . . . everybody uses other people to help. We think real-life philosophy is no different. You could try to do it on your own, but it's a lot easier when you have people with whom you can share ideas, trade strategies, and give and receive support. That's why we have this group.

The SKS is unique. There are very few places you can go to talk about such questions, and have an honest and candid real conversation. In most other organizations, you will only be met with an argument ("You're wrong, and here's why") or a treatment ("You're sick, let's fix you").


Sunday, January 21, 2007

Spin Wars

Two instances of media spin hit me simultaneously yesterday.
  1. My mother-in-law forwarded a vicious slander of Barack Obama that had been forwarded to her. The message tried to paint Obama as a closeted radical Muslim. I suppose it doesn't help that his middle name is "Hussein," which might as well be "Jones" in the Middle East but most American's only hear it as "evil guy." A quick check on snopes.com easily verified the truth: he's been active in a Christian church for the last twenty-five years and never said or did anything to indicate he ever considered himself a Muslim.
  2. The Wall Street Journal published an op-ed from Paul A. Offit, citing a JAMA study that asserted that people who abstained from certain immunizations were putting their communities at much greater risk for certain diseases. I haven't been able to read the full text of the study to decide how much credence to give to it, but I found it rather irresponsible that neither Offit nor the Wall Street Journal disclosed his ties to the pharmaceutical industry -- that he is a consultant to Merck on the production of vaccines, that he has refused to disclose whether he is paid by Merck, and has a financial stake in the production of vaccines in the form of his patents. Of course, I didn't know this off the top of my head -- this basic information was available courtesy of a single Google search.

These two incidents show the acceleration of both knowledge and ignorance in the information age. The basest lies can shoot around the world in days . . . but individuals can validate that information just as easily, too. I am not so much concerned that individuals and media are generating spin; that has always been true and always will be true. What concerns me more is the fact that we are all becoming little publishers ourselves -- our capacity to send information or misinformation has become magnified. Journalists have an accepted standard for fact-checking, validation, and full-disclosure . . . but those standards have not disseminated to the broader culture.

I know journalists are often slamming the blogosphere for playing fast and loose with standards of reporting, but I am not just echoing the "you're not journalists so just shut up and listen to us" argument. I don't believe that a blogger, or even a person who innocently forwards an email to their friends, has to meet the same journalistic standards as CNN. But I wish the popular culture recognized that they ought to have some standard . . . and hold them responsible for it.

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