Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Bob Curtis

My friend Bob Curtis died recently. On Sunday I attended a memorial service for him. Bob was diagnosed with cancer in January. In February, after radiation and chemo, he developed complications. He died peacefully at home on March 16.

Early on a website was set up so that his many friends could monitor his progress and express our love and concern to his wife, Linda, and his family. So when we learned he had passed it was not a total surprise. But it was shocking nonetheless. Bob was 63 and appeared to be a vibrant, healthy and happy man. Check that. Not ‘appeared.’ He was a vibrant, healthy and happy man.

I have an intense dislike for funerals. Usually they are pro-forma recitations larded with heavy religious ritual. Rarely do they capture the essence of the person who can no longer speak in his own defense. Memorial services are a little more tolerable, but I find that I resist them too. I don’t need to say my goodbyes. If there is something incomplete in my relationship with the person who is gone I prefer to complete the process privately. It may be interesting to hear what others have to say, but I don’t need to listen in.

Having said this I notice a contradiction. I think it would be great at some point after I die if people get together to celebrate my life and our relationship. The music should be Coltrane’s “My Favorite Things.” A funeral is totally unnecessary. There will be ashes and I’ve told Sandra what to do with them. A religious service for me would be inappropriate and laughable. But a celebration of some sort? Not a bad idea.

So if it’s OK for me, why my resistance to attend such occasions for others? The honest answer is I don’t know. But I have a theory. I don’t like to yearn for or live in the past. What’s interesting to me is now, the present. And when I think about memorial services it looks to me like a reason to try and recapture ‘the good old days.’

But I saw in Bob’s memorial service that it doesn’t have to be that way. There was a formal program for about an hour at the beginning. People who were closest to him talked. Each person was personal, brilliant in their expression and appropriate for the occasion. I liked this part.

Then there was a casual lunch and good wine. I liked this part too. And what I liked best was counter to everything I would have guessed going in. It was a chance to see and talk to many people I hadn’t seen in years. Yes, people from the past. It was fun and satisfying to reconnect, albeit superficially and only for a few minutes. Who woulda thunk it?

I didn’t stay for the final part in which there would be a chance for people to talk about Bob and their relationship with him. I’d still rather do that on my own. Had I stayed I would have said that while I knew and had a friendly relationship with Bob during the 1970’s and 80’s when we worked in closely related organizations, I really got to know him later when we had gone our separate ways. I can’t remember exactly how we reconnected, but we did.

After he married Linda Brockbank almost 7 years ago Sandra and I developed a kind of tradition with Linda and Bob. A few times a year we’d have a great meal together, usually at a restaurant we hadn’t been to. And always, wine would be a feature of the event. We all shared a love of special grape juice.

In talking with Linda the other day I realized something I hadn’t articulated to myself before. One of the qualities about Bob that stands out the most for me is his ‘no bullshit’ approach to life. What you see is what you got with him. I really like that.

During his illness, Sandra and I toasted his and Linda’s well being every evening when we first tasted the vino that would grace our table. I think I’ll do the same this evening.

Friday, March 26, 2010

English Football

With just seven games left, the long Premier League season that began last August is entering the ‘run in’ phase. Three teams at the top are battling for the championship. Three teams at the bottom are struggling to avoid relegation. The endless soap opera of gossip, scandal and opinion led and fed by a rabid media and eagerly devoured by rabid fans in every city and hamlet continues at a fever pitch.

I am blissfully free of ties handed down through the generations that chain me, like it or not, to this team or that. I will always remember the plaintive response from my dear English friend Keefy when I asked him why he continued to suffer so horribly as the fortunes of Leeds United sank, and then sank again. “I can’t help it,” he said. “I was born into this situation.”

I just love the game. I do have my preferences and prejudices, but they’re based on what I see happening as the season unfolds, not on family history. At the top, even though I recognize that Manchester United is the Yankees of English football (and I sure as hell don’t like the Yankees) I admire their consistent excellence. With Chelsea, a point behind Man U, I dislike their owner, the Russian Roman Abramovich, but I like their Italian manager and many of the players. And until recent years they were perennial underachievers, so I notice I often root for them. And with Arsenal, a point behind Chelsea, I love the style of football their manager, Arsene Wenger, teaches. Also, they’ve done well this season despite injury problems and the use of many young players. So I enjoy watching Arsenal.

I guess in the end I’ll want one team or another to win the title, but for now as a neutral I’m happy it’s a close race.

At the bottom, Portsmouth is a disaster. Since the season began they’ve had multiple owners, multiple managers and have declared bankruptcy. Even so, when I watched them get creamed by Chelsea the other day I marveled at the loyalty of their fans. The stands were full. It was deafening non-stop drum beating and singing from start to finish. They just love Pompey, no matter what the circumstances. The other two teams that are likely to be relegated are Hull City and Burnley. Since they are small teams from small places without a lot of money I’d like to see them stay in the Premier League, but it doesn’t look good. Often the struggle to avoid relegation is more interesting than the battle at the top, but not so this year.

My personal battle is to excel in the Fantasy Football game I play every week. At this point I’ve done very very well. I’m in the top 1.8% of the teams participating from around the world. To be specific, I’m ranked #41,282 out of the 2,293,538 competitors. That’s not a typo. There are nearly 2.3 million football fools like me in the game.

Well, in a few weeks the season will be over. And then what? It’s on to South Africa for the World Cup that begins in June. The Beautiful Game never ends.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Message #3 - Challenge Yourself!

This is the third in a series of messages. I'm posting roughly one a month.

For you, what is impossible?

No silly answers allowed. Some things clearly are impossible. We don’t know each other, but I’ll bet you can’t set a new world record for the 100 meter dash. Or achieve many other physical feats. So put those aside. And toss any others that aren’t subject to debate.

What’s left? More than you think. Much more. You’ve spent your entire life creating a wish list of what you’d like to have, except they’re out of reach. Beyond you. So unavailable that you never even consider the possibility they can be yours. For others, maybe, but not for me.

I’m not smart enough. I’m not brave enough. I’m not tall enough. I’m not pretty enough. I’m not talented enough. I’m not lucky enough. I’m not healthy enough. I’m not young enough. I’m not old enough.

You’ve got all these assumptions about your limitations firmly anchored in your mind. How did they get there? Are they part of your DNA? Of course not. They exist because you put them there.

Challenge Yourself! To confront and move beyond these conclusions about yourself doesn’t require deep analysis trying to figure out how they got there. I’m not declaring war on psychiatry. I’m saying that if you’re the one who has concluded that something is not possible, you can also be the one who concludes it is possible.

Self imposed limitations are reversible. At the same time, moving something from impossible to possible doesn’t guarantee a positive result. It only means you are not giving up before you try.

When I look back on my own life I see that I took on seemingly impossible challenges over and over again.

In the 1950’s we still had a draft in this country, and I was drafted into the army. I chose to skip Officer’s Candidate School in favor of being an enlisted man, thus serving two years rather than three. So there I was, PFC Miller, on a troop ship headed for Japan in late 1956.

There were three classes of passengers: enlisted men like me; the navy guys who ran the ship; and cabin passengers – officers and senior enlisted men, some of whom had dependents with them. I had been assigned to KP in the Cabin Passengers Mess. The food and ambiance were clearly superior to what my buddies down below were getting, but I hated KP. Really hated it.

I kept thinking about ways to get out of it. But this was a very small universe, and avoiding KP seemed impossible. Then, in what seemed to be an extraordinary stroke of luck, I heard there was going to be a troop show. Guys working on the troop show wouldn’t need to pull regular duty. That’s for me, I thought, the troop show.

I went to see some Captain who was in charge.

“I’d like to be in the troop show,” I said brightly.

“Well,” he said, “do you sing or dance or play an instrument?”


“Then what would you do in the show?”

I wasn’t going to let my mere lack of troop show talent stand in the way. I smelled a possibility for getting out of KP, and I wasn’t going to let it escape.

“How about I write a play,” I said even more brightly.

“We’ve never had a play before,” he said, almost to himself. “OK. Show me your play at 4 o’clock.”

I said I’d do that. Only one problem: I didn’t have a play, and it was almost 1 o’clock. I had three hours. I had no idea what to write. And given that space was at a premium, I didn’t have a place in which to write. What to do? I was driven to desperate measures. But I was motivated. I remembered there was a small ship’s library that was closed in the afternoon. That would be the perfect place.

I got permission to use the library. By 4 I had a three-act play, three five-minute acts called “Inching to Inchon.” Given that we were on a slow boat to Korea en route to Japan, plowing ahead at about 20 mph, it seemed an apt title. There were to be three performances of the troop show, one for each class of passenger. Therefore, I had to write something that would appeal to each class, which I did. It was a brilliant piece of work, I must say, born of the kind of commitment that made this country great: self-interest.

I cast my buddies. I arranged to rehearse in an empty hold way down near the bottom of the ship just above the bilge tanks. We rehearsed diligently every day and delivered three sparkling performances. It was a great artistic and manipulative success.

I had challenged myself and done the impossible.

Many years later I was working as a consultant to, Iwataya, a large department store group in Japan’s southern island of Kyushu. Over a period of 3½ years I spent one week a month in Japan. 40 trips in all.

My first major project was to help Iwataya create a new Vision statement. To begin the process I went offsite for two days with their top executives to come up with a draft. Their assumption was that they would write the Vision and then we’d move on to other things.

I challenged that assumption and offered a new possibility. How about involving the employees before the Vision statement was a done deal? They wondered how that could be done. Not a problem, I said. Revolutionary, but not a problem. Just have a series of meetings with representative groups of employees from all levels of the company, show them the draft Vision and get their feedback.

Then, if there was consistent feedback that suggested changes should be made, incorporate the feedback, rewrite the draft and bring it back to the senior leadership for final approval. What I was suggesting was very un-Japanese. In a top-down, hierarchical structure, asking those lower on the totem pole to get involved was indeed out-of-the-box thinking.

I wasn’t sure they’d buy my suggestion. I was sure that a lot of the changes being made at Iwataya would rise or fall on employee participation, so this approach to the Vision was building on a context that was already in place, at least in theory. One of their primary concerns was that the employees would be too timid or afraid to really speak out, especially if they wanted to criticize work their seniors had done. I argued that I could create an environment in which they would say what was really on their minds. In the end I don’t think many of the executives thought it would work, but they were willing to have me do it, so we went ahead.

I wouldn’t be able to lead all the feedback meetings, so I did a few prototype sessions and trained a dozen people to continue the process. They would lead the meetings, digest the comments and suggestions that were made, and at the end sit down to rewrite the Vision if that was necessary.

120 meetings were held. 1,000 employees participated. As it turned out, many were outspoken and critical of the draft Vision statement. There was consistent feedback on certain points. So the statement was revised and I brought it back to the Directors. They were terrific. They saw that the work their employees had been done was better than what they had produced. They added just one word and then approved it. I was ecstatic. What I had created and promised worked very well.

I had challenged myself and done the impossible.

For you to move beyond what you know and are sure about can be scary. It is unfamiliar territory. The results are unpredictable. It is natural to fear what is unknown and untried. There are no road maps, helpful hints or how to’s to guide you. Venturing outside your comfort zone is uncomfortable.

So why bother? Maybe you’ll make real what you thought was impossible. Maybe you won’t. But that’s not the point.

Message: Living a life of possibility is its own reward

From the beginning of recorded history great thinkers, poets, scientists, philosophers, clerics and many more have been fascinated by “what is possible.” There are no easy answers. It’s a moving target. Which is good for you and me. It gives us the freedom to take it on ourselves.

Challenge Yourself!

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Carelli-Pinkerton Follow-Up

Those of you who followed the trial I was involved in last year will be interested in a recent story told on the radio program, "This American Life." While I was writing my blog after the trail I had several email exchanges with James Spring, so I'm not surprised that he's recounted such a thoughtful, personal and mesmerizing tale of his involvement.

If you click on "Stream Episode" and go about 12 minutes into the program you'll find his piece.


Saturday, March 13, 2010

Money Doesn't Always Talk - Ha!

In an unprecedented attempt to buy their way back to the top of club football in Europe by winning the Champion’s League, last summer Real Madrid spent $340 million in transfer fees for new star players. The result:

This week they were eliminated in the round of 16 by Lyon. Ha! Couldn’t even buy themselves into the quarterfinals.

In England, last year Manchester City was taken over by a group from Abu Dhabi. They too spent an obscene amount of money, well over $150 million, to buy their way to the top of the English Premier League. With 11 games left to play they are in 5th place. When the season is over they may or may not end up in the top four, but they won’t be close to the top teams. Ha!

How sweet it is.

Friday, March 12, 2010

I Didn't Know That

I didn’t know Elton John says Jesus was gay.

I didn’t know Glenn Beck is a Mormon.

I didn’t know some Greeks can retire with a full pension at age 50.

I didn’t know that the body of Cyprus’ ex-President, which was stolen, has been found. I’m ashamed to admit that I didn’t even know it had been stolen in the first place.

I didn’t know it was illegal for Christians to proselytize in Morocco.

I didn’t know that if you need an organ transplant in Israel you get preferential treatment if you’ve agreed to donate an organ. Not the one you need I assume.

Speaking of donations, I didn’t know that part of Obama’s Nobel Peace Prize money, all of which is being donated to charity, will go to the American Indian College Fund.

I didn’t know that a federal appeals court has ruled that “One nation, under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance does not violate the separation of church and state because it is a patriotic exercise, not a religious activity. I guess burning a cross on someone’s front lawn would be classified as free speech.

More on donations. I didn’t know that a sporting club (anyone know what a sporting club is?) is donating $10,000 to children’s charities as part of a plea deal to atone for the death of an 8-year-old boy who shot and killed himself with an Uzi at a gun fair sponsored by the club. How generous of them.

I didn’t know that statisticians are predicting U.S. births to Asian, black and Hispanic women will surpass births to non-Hispanic whites this year. More evidence that the precious white majority is on the way out. Get used to it people.

I didn’t know that in Germany in recent weeks there have been 153 claims of sexual abuse in Catholic schools, some dating back decades, some only a few years ago. The Pope says he’ll look into it.

I didn’t know that Dysport, an anti-wrinkle competitor of Botox, is offering new customers a rebate if they’re not happy with their wrinkle situation after trying Dysport. The rebate? A Botox treatment. Let’s see if I’ve got this right. If I get injected with Dysport and a look in the mirror shows my eyelids are droopy, my eyebrows are uneven, and I’ve got Mother Teresa-like furrows, I can do it all over again – free – with Botox. Sure I will.

Have a nice day!

Tuesday, March 09, 2010

Comments for Today

A few things that are flitting across my brain:

I’m very happy “The Hurt Locker” won both Best Picture and Best Director Oscars. I liked and admired “Avatar” but appreciated and enjoyed “The Hurt Locker” more.

The idea of charging out-of-towners a fee to enter the Botanical Gardens in Golden Gate Park is ridiculous. It won’t add much money to the city’s coffers, will be a nuisance for anyone who wants to take a walk inside, and will unnecessarily piss off visitors to our city. It’s like trying to balance the budget with a gesture.

How nice that many people in India are upset because there’s a movement to allot a third of their federal and state legislative seats to women. How sad that you need a law to partially correct an age-old anti-female bias.

We’re in the midst of an epidemic of politicians quitting or being forced out because of misdeeds. Am I surprised? Of course not. Is one party more virtuous than the other? Nope. I’m particularly amused/disgusted by California Republican State Senator Roy Ashburn. After he was charged with DUI, reports surfaced that he frequented gay bars. He then ‘fessed up and acknowledged he is gay. He then explained his 14 years of anti-gay votes in the legislature by saying he did it because that’s what his constituents wanted him to do. OK, now I get it. “The voters made me do it.”

Religion-generated fighting in Nigeria is killing hundreds of people. What a surprise. These slaughters follow are just the latest in humankind’s penchant for killing those who don’t support the right god. How do you know which is the right god? That’s easy: The right god is my god, not yours.

Big night coming. Daylight Saving Time starts Sunday morning. Yes! Daylight for an hour more. I love it. The only thing better would be Double Daylight Saving Time.

My doc, Jane Hightower, is strongly recommending I take a daily dose of tumeric. She says it does all kinds of wonderful things for the body. Well, I like it in Indian food, so why not? Besides, she’s usually ahead of the curve on stuff like this.

Have a nice day!

Tuesday, March 02, 2010

Tea Party Follow-Up

Yesterday I wrote that while I don’t like the Tea Party I can relate strongly to the frustration that has sparked their movement. It’s interesting that today’s NY Times has a story about people who feel the same way:

Coffee Party, With a Taste for Civic Participation, Is Added to the Political Menu


Fed up with government gridlock, but put off by the flavor of the Tea Party, people in cities across the country are offering an alternative: the Coffee Party.

Growing through a Facebook page, the party pledges to “support leaders who work toward positive solutions, and hold accountable those who obstruct them.”

It had nearly 40,000 members as of Monday afternoon, but the numbers were growing quickly — about 11,000 people had signed on as fans since the morning.

“I’m in shock, just the level of energy here,” said the founder, Annabel Park, a documentary filmmaker who lives outside Washington. “In the beginning, I was actively saying, ‘Get in touch with us, start a chapter.’ Now I can’t keep up. We have 300 requests to start a chapter that I have not been able to respond to.”

The slogan is “Wake Up and Stand Up.” The mission statement declares that the federal government is “not the enemy of the people, but the expression of our collective will, and that we must participate in the democratic process in order to address the challenges we face as Americans.”

Local chapters are planning meetings in cities from Washington to San Antonio to Los Angeles (where there have been four in the last month.) The party (coffeepartyusa.org) is planning nationwide coffee houses for March 13, where people can gather to decide which issues they want to take on and even which candidates they want to support.

This summer, Ms. Park said, the party will hold a convention in the Midwest, with a slogan along the lines of “Meet Me in the Middle.” The party has inspired the requisite jokes: why not a latte party, a chai party, a Red Bull party? But Ms. Park said that while the Coffee Party — and certainly the name — was formed in reaction to the Tea Party, the two agree on some things, like a desire for fiscal responsibility and a frustration with Congress.

“We’re not the opposite of the Tea Party,” Ms. Park, 41, said. “We’re a different model of civic participation, but in the end we may want some of the same things.”

The Tea Party argues for stripping the federal government of many of its roles, and that if government has to be involved, it should be mostly state governments.

“The way I see it,” Ms. Park said, “our government is diseased, but you don’t abandon it because it’s ill. It’s the only body we have to address collective problems.

You can’t bound government according to state borders when companies don’t do that, air doesn’t. It just doesn’t fit with the world.”

Still, she said, “we’ve got to send a message to people in Washington that you have to learn how to work together, you have to learn how to talk about these issues without acting like you’re in an ultimate fighting session.”

Ms. Park and chapter organizers said they would invite Tea Party members to join their Coffee counterparts in discussions. “We need to roll up our sleeves, put our heads together and work it out,” she said. “That’s, to me, an American way of doing this.”

Born in South Korea, Ms. Park moved to Houston when she was 9 and worked in the taco stand her parents bought there, which she said helps her understand average Americans.

“We encountered racism, yes, but the majority of people were kind, they were good people, they were like our family,” she said. “I understand where they are coming from.”

Eileen Cabiling, who founded the Los Angeles chapter, said she had campaigned for President Obama, but paid little attention to politics until the Tea Party convention and Mr. Obama’s State of the Union speech, where he rebuked Congressional Democrats and Republicans alike for their inability to move on legislation.

“I had withdrawn in campaign fatigue,” Ms. Cabiling said. “I was like, what happened?”

Only 2 people came to the first meeting, she said, but 30 came Sunday, including some Tea Party members, who she said could agree with their more caffeinated counterparts on some things.

“This is about recognizing that the government represents us,” Ms. Cabiling said, “so we need to step to the plate and start having a voice and start acting like bosses.”

Monday, March 01, 2010

Invitation To A Tea Party

I had a startling insight yesterday. I realized that in a fundamental way I’m aligned with the Tea Party people.

Before you quickly move on in disgust, a couple of disclaimers. I despise their heroes – Glenn Beck, Palin and the others. On specific issues they care deeply about my views would get a zero approval rating from them – and vice versa. I am repulsed by their chauvinism. And more.

What I realized is that their appeal and the passion that accompanies it comes from a growing feeling that the government is unwilling and incapable of solving the problems that this country faces. The government can’t be trusted.

Let’s be clear about what I mean by ‘government.’ I don’t mean the bedrock institutions upon which the United States was founded. They may be imperfect, but they’ve stood the test of time and can work. By government I mean the people who are leading these institutions. They can’t be trusted to act in the public interest. Their interest is in their reelection first and their party second.

The result? A state of gridlock. A country that is ungovernable. A good example is the country’s finances. There’s a lot of talk about the budget, the deficit, the debt, burdening our grandchildren with an unsustainable economy, etc. For most Americans this is an abstract threat. It’s an academic conversation that doesn’t affect them today. And today is what they are concerned about.

In a desperately poor country people who are hungry aren’t interested in long-term development needs. If your house is on fire you want to save your home, not start a deep discussion with your spouse about your relationship. In this country people are hurting now. So their focus is on today, not tomorrow. They don’t have a job or are barely getting by. They’re in danger of losing their home. They need medical attention. They’re in need and they have noticed that their government doesn’t seem to give a shit.

At the same time they see that many people aren’t suffering. The contrast between the haves and have-nots is palpable. And many of the have-nots are ex-haves. What they see is that the payoff for doing the right thing, working hard, paying their bills and taxes, educating their kids, is a frightening and depressing situation over which they have no control.

And no elected or appointed official has the guts to tell them the truth – to talk straight to them. Either about today or the future. They could say: You need a job? Fine, we’ll provide incentives for businesses to hire you and if that doesn’t work the government will step in with jobs and training. You need help keeping your home? Fine, we’ll make sure that you won’t lose your home.

Yes, there are efforts and programs in the works to deal with these immediate issues. But you know what? They’re not working – or they’re not working fast enough. The evidence? The Tea Party and people like me. But, you say, the last thing the Tea Party folks want is for the government to get involved. True, but no government at all or all government all the time are flip sides of the same coin. These extreme positions are the refuge of the frustrated. So we shouldn’t be surprised that the country is polarized. We’re all frustrated.

You want to straighten out our economy? Simple – raise more revenue and spend less. Here’s where the straight talk gets binding. Because this means that people who can afford it have to pay more. And people who are receiving entitlements have to get less.

If the politicians aren’t willing to confront the truth and tell people honestly what it’s going to mean for them the gridlock will continue. Some echo Jack Nicholson and say people “can’t handle the truth.” I disagree. I think people can handle the truth – if they’re convinced it isn’t bullshit.

The conventional wisdom is that such a path is political suicide. I don’t think so. But if it is, it’ll be suicide in a good cause.

Have a nice day!