Sunday, December 16, 2007

The Next Time Around

In the wee hours on Friday morning, we sat outside and watched the Geminid meteor shower. It was a little cold (high 30s), but we wrapped up in blankets, lit the charcoal grill for some radiant heat, stretched out in our zero gravity deck chairs by the pool, and gazed upward. The chairs are positioned so our backs are to the Strip, some 20 miles to the north. To the south, the sky was dark and littered with twinkling stars. I quickly picked out Orion's Belt, the only constellation I can always find. Even before I could find the North Star and the few other constellations I can identify, a meteor shot through the sky.

I've meteor-watched before, but until we moved to the desert (land of incredibly clear night skies), meteor-watching was more a matter of "Was that one? I think I just saw one." Now, there's no mistaking them. I wouldn't say the sky was exactly alight with meteors, but we saw 20 or 30 of them in the space of a couple hours. Each one was beautiful and thrilling - and there's something so intriguing and romantic about the fact that we're only now seeing something that actually happened billions of years ago.

Glaciers in Alaska, meteors, the way cacti get all fat with stored water after it rains, geology, black holes, the space-time continuum - if there is a next life, I think I'll study science instead of liberal arts. I wasn't very interested in science when I was in high school and college in this life, although I did take not one, but two physiology courses at Michigan, the first one to fulfill a distribution requirement, the second because the first was just wonderful. But I am fascinated by science now, from giddy astrophysics to humble biology. It all has an orderliness, a sequential, consequential logic, but also a sort of explanatory magic.

Thursday, December 6, 2007

Risks & Rewards

I played blackjack this week with a table-full of hard-core gamblers who considered me a lightweight because I have rules about when I leave based on how much I've won or lost. Apparently, discipline is not the hallmark of self-described "real gamblers." The two men and two women I joined at the table are people I've played with before. I like them because they play well and aggressively, they mind their own business, and they don't complain constantly (as if the cards or the dealer or the casino were on a personal crusade to separate them from their money or as if they were chained against their will to the table). I can't say they ever seem to be having a wonderful time, but they aren't the pictures of misery you sometimes find at blackjack tables, especially on late weekday afternoons at local casinos.

I had a nice run of luck and was within $100 of doubling my money within 40 minutes. The guy to my right noticed me counting my chips during the shuffle and asked if I was ahead. I nodded, then told him I always leave when I've doubled my money. He was astonished and his exclamations prompted a table-wide discussion of how bizarre it is to have a financial goal and to leave when you reach it. They demanded to know if I had similar rules on the downside and were amazed to learn that I do. Each had a story of giving back significant winnings. The stories were confusing, but the motives for continuing to play as big stacks of chips went away included the conviction that the good luck would return (notwithstanding temporary setbacks), the need to catch up with large overall losses (kind of a "we'll make up our losses with volume" theory), and the belief that there was nothing more compelling to do.

I thought it would be tactless to say I don't have overall losses, but I did say that, like them, I could play again the next day if I didn't feel finished and that I wasn't usually up for marathon playing anyway (it's not that challenging a game and, after a while, the house advantage gets tiresome). These statements struck them as crazy. They told me I wasn't a real gambler and we all laughed. When I made that last $100, colored up my chips and prepared to leave, they shook their heads in bewilderment that was, as far as I could tell, not at all tinged with envy. If anything, they pitied me.

I think it's interesting that they consider discipline and limits to be signs of lack of authenticity where gambling is concerned. Could this also be the reason so many people are so risk-averse? Taking the right risks is the foundation of progress and success in every arena, but it's certainly a gamble - and not a particularly good one if you approach it pell-mell, without planning ahead and thinking about consequences. But there's no requirement that you approach it pell-mell. Discipline and limits aren't anathema to the real deal; they're what make intelligent risk-taking possible.

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

All That Glitters

My neighborhood is alight with holiday decorations. This isn't unusual: the people around here decorate, Vegas-style, for everything from Christmas to Veteran's Day. There is barely a day throughout the year when facades and front yards aren't resplendent with lights, flags so large they could be used as tarps to cover the houses altogether, and, inexplicably, giant inflatable holiday-appropriate figures. Turkeys, ghosts, pumpkins, Cupids, drum and fife corps, penguins, Santas complete with reindeer and sleighs, snowmen, etc. For one three-week period that seemed to last forever and was tied, as far as I could tell, to no widely recognized holiday, an enormous inflated Scooby-Doo stood sentry in front of a house five or six away from ours. In a community where there are rules about what you can park on the street and what your driveway has to look like, this seemed untoward. Especially as Scooby-Doo's posture crumpled sadly due to partial deflation, I considered calling the property management company to complain, but the thought of dealing with them was more offensive than having to tolerate Scoob.

I don't understand the impulse to decorate the outside of one's home. I suppose it could be the outward expression of irrepressible high spirits caused by holidays, but to me it has a show-offy quality, sort of a "Look how far we went!" vibe. Even if it's about giving one's neighbors something to enjoyable to look at as they pass by versus making them green with envy (or nausea), it seems very external to me. Most people here don't even decorate their houses themselves; they hire services to do it. (It's hilarious to watch crowds of these service people swarm all over houses in the weeks leading up to major holidays, then repeat the performance again in the days after as they dismantle everything.) I'd be willing to bet these people also send those Christmas cards printed with their names and in envelopes with computer-generated labels for both the mailing and return addresses - not a shred of personal sentiment anywhere to be found, unless you consider the DNA in the saliva used to lick the envelope to be personal sentiment.

I think the holidays are about what goes on inside the house, not what's hanging from its rafters. Family and friends, good food and thoughtful gifts, cozy sweaters and college football bowl games - those are the things that spell irrepressible high holiday spirits to me. My house may be one of the few non-players in the neighborhood parade of holiday glitz, but it's glowing inside. I certainly hope the same is true of the decorated houses.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Blog, Jr.

The Relevant Articles page on my website is turning into sort of a mini-blog on gender and career issues. Check it out sometime.

Thursday, November 22, 2007


As I walked to my flight in the Houston airport last Saturday, I happened to notice a bookstore display prominently featuring a book called Why Men Marry Bitches. I've been thinking about this ugly title and the word "bitch" and how it's used ever since. I don't know anything about the book itself (nor do I think I want to), but once the B word was the 5-letter equivalent of a 4-letter word not used in polite company. Not only would it not appear on the cover of a book prominently displayed in an airport bookstore, it also wouldn't describe a woman that any other than the most un-self-respecting of men would marry. It meant a pushy, harsh, nasty, cutting, self-centered, mean, critical and never satisfied woman who was horrible in a particularly female kind of way - an altogether awful human being.

I’m guessing the book uses the word "bitch" in a more 21st century way to describe a woman who thinks for herself, doesn't cut people much slack, and insists - probably vocally and in no uncertain terms - on high standards from herself and the people around her. All of this, of course, would make her "difficult" in the minds of the traditionally, conservatively inclined and anyone else who thinks women should be seen and not heard.

This pisses me off. A woman who refuses to be a doormat or even predominantly a subservient listener (as opposed to an active participant) should not necessarily be labeled difficult. A woman with a mind of her own who is willing to express her opinions and insist on high standards is not necessarily a bitch. A man with the same characteristics wouldn't be slammed with a similarly derogatory term. I understand the classic need for the weak or intimidated to denigrate the strong and the threatening, but come on....

Why has the word come to mean (as my cool new iMac Leopard dictionary widget defines it) "a woman whom one dislikes or considers to be malicious or unpleasant?" That definition covers a lot of territory. The word has evidently become an all-purpose descriptor to apply to any woman who doesn't fit one's personal definition of what a woman should be. It seems to me to have become a misogynistic social statement rather than merely a noun used to label legitimately bad behavior.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Only in Vegas

At around 3:30 yesterday, C. and I joined a couple in their 40s or maybe early 50s at a blackjack table at the Venetian. We played and exchanged pleasantries (where are you from, what do you do, etc.) for 45 minutes or so, then the woman said she had to go get dressed and asked the man not to wait too much longer before he came up to get ready. Turning to us, and with a nice, dimply smile, she said they were getting married at 6:00. We exclaimed congratulatorily (even as I wondered if maybe I'd heard wrong - casinos are pretty loud even two days before Thanksgiving, and what a surprisingly - and wonderfully - casual way to spend the hours before your wedding). Play continued as we asked how they met and the other questions you ask people who are about to get married. They were all smiley and very sweet with each other as they told us their story. After she gave him her chips and left, he stuck around for another half hour, glancing at his watch every five minutes (adorably), told us all he really had to do was shave and put on his suit, won some more money, and then, with more congratulations from us, headed off to get married.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

The Farther, The Better

I've written before (here and here) that I love to think about time as something other than a straight line. The notion that the past and future might exist simultaneously with, and influence, the present is both cool and intellectually challenging. I saw the movie Next last night and realized that time and its unfolding also have an impact on thinking strategically and not confusing outcomes for goals.

Next is not a great movie, but it's a good one. Much tighter and more taut than
Déjà Vu, although that movie also raised intriguing time issues (in and among all the explosions). Both movies illustrate the sequential, consequential nature of actions and events - how one thing flows from and is shaped by another - while, at the same time, clarifying that the slightest change, including awareness of past and future, can utterly transform outcomes. Next goes several steps further and demonstrates (correctly, I think) that if your goal is too short-term and specific, you'll end up with the wrong outcomes even if you achieve it.

I've always been struck by how willing people are to plow ahead without first articulating what they want to achieve and why they want to achieve it. You need to think ahead and figure out which actions and paths will get you what you really want, whether you're driving a car and will have to turn left at some point (it makes more sense to move into the left lane a block or two before the turn, right?) or you're trying to succeed in your career or retire when you're 45 or whatever. You also have to understand what a goal really is. Many of the things usually labeled goals are actually outcomes - financial security, teamwork, career success, marriage, saving someone from a particular disaster, etc. Set up as goals, things like this, however desirable, won't by themselves make one set of actions clearly better or more effective than another, and they can easily lead to skewed results.

This isn't news to me - I wrote about it a long time ago in
Madison, Wisconsin. But I hadn't focused before on time's impact on the distinction between goals and outcomes. The skewed result in Next demonstrates that even something that looks like a well articulated goal may turn out to be only an outcome if you think far enough down the road - and so the farther ahead you can envision, the more directed and pertinent and successful your actions will be.

Monday, November 5, 2007

I Know You Are, But What Am I?

Warning: This is more an essay than a blog post, but I got carried away.

I like intellectual patterns and I tend to see them in very disparate occurrences and situations. Today, it's (a) the recent flap over the 2007 performance of the New England Patriots and (b) women lawyers so timid that they are still - in 2007 - waiting for permission to have rewarding, significant careers rather than grabbing the opportunities in front of them with both hands. To me, both phenomena (and I use the word in two of its senses for the Patriots' performance) are part of a pattern I don't like that says nothing is pure and everything must be measured by reference to what the least charitable someone else might think. They also seem to be part of a pattern that says something about power.

When the Pats scored 52 points against the Redskins, there was a lot of grumbling about running up the score as well as some dire predictions about how such superiority of attitude and dominance of play might well lead to, among other negative repercussions, a deliberate attempt to injure the quarterback. I'm tempted to go off on a tangent about how any such attempt would be reprehensible and possibly criminal or about how provocation does not excuse violent behavior however much it may explain it. And regardless of that 52 points, it's hard to imagine that the Patriots' exceptional play hasn't already turned them into a hunted team that everyone wants to knock off. (Nice try, Colts - and I mean that sincerely.)

But I'm on a different track today. As I watched the Patriots play in Dallas the week before the game in question, it occurred to me that their coach might well be trying to build a perfect football team. His insistent focus on what his talented team could have done better in every game, which is evidently how he coaches and also how his players look at results, seemed beautiful in light of how very good the team is. By normal standards, they were already well past good enough. When I watched the game in question with this notion in mind, it seemed to me that the Redskins were basically irrelevant. The only worthy opponent the Pats had encountered up to that point on the road of the 2007 season was the Pats themselves. They looked to be trying to beat their own previous best and the result was football played gloriously, at a giddily high level.

But to my surprise, the reaction the day after the game was an indignant chorus of how unsportsmanlike and classless it was for the Patriots to have made the Redskins look so hapless. Huh? I suppose the Redskins did look hapless, but isn't that a Redskins issue? Was it necessarily the Patriots' motivation? Their goal? Their fault? Couldn't it as easily have been an unintended byproduct of the superb performance occasioned by their pursuit of football perfection? And, if so, should that pursuit of perfection be hampered by potentially unfortunate byproducts? Frankly, I don't even see what's so unfortunate about this byproduct. If the Redskins can't handle the Patriots without looking hapless, then the Redskins should get better. (And, if they do, they are free to prove it by soundly beating the Patriots the next chance they have.)

It's ridiculous to suggest that the Patriots shouldn't play to the best of their abilities and pursue something extraordinary because their opponents aren't up to it and will look bad by comparison. Why is it unsportsmanlike to do your best in a game that is about winning and entertaining the masses? Why is it more sportsmanlike or respectful to do only what's necessary to beat the other team, then sit back and coast? Is that somehow less disheartening to the loser? And anyway, why is it even relevant in this context how the loser ends up looking or, for that matter, feeling?

I've always believed that too many people worry too much about what other people inclined to think badly about them will think of their behavior - and, as a result, they make cramped, coerced, conservative decisions instead of big, free, innovative ones. I had a boss once who asked me apropos of an interpersonal mess created by a peer's discomfort with the exceptional results generated by one of my groups, "Would it have killed you to make XYZ comfortable with what you were doing?" I was astonished by the question. It wouldn't have killed me at all, but it never occurred to me - both out of respect for XYZ (why would I do him the discourtesy of assuming he had to be managed?) and because I never dreamed that he (or anyone else) would perceive my group's success as a way I was trying to make him look bad. I was just doing my job. It wasn't about him or directed at him in any way; he was completely irrelevant to my motivations, my intent, and my group's performance. But, apparently, I should have foreseen his discomfort and found a way to make him comfortable, too. Sorry to be repetitive, but huh? Why on earth would he think my group's results had anything to do with him? Why couldn't they be purely what they were? Why did my group's success justify his attempt to blame his own feeling of inadequacy on me? Why couldn't he give me the benefit of the doubt? Do we have to correct for the upside of success by slamming the people responsible for it?

And it's not like any of this helps the weaker. A woman lawyer recently told me she wanted to get on an important committee, but “because I deserve it, not because I’m a woman.” I told her she shouldn’t care why she got on the committee. In a place like her firm, where women still don’t routinely find themselves on important committees, it’s silly to turn down a leadership opportunity because affirmative action is or might be behind the invitation. The goal is to get there and then prove via great performance that you deserve to be there, not to wait for the powers that be to recognize that you’ve earned it the “regular” way.

She looked unconvinced and added that she didn’t want “the guys down the hall to hate me because as a woman I got it instead of them.” This, too, is ridiculous. If she has a contribution to make and she’s willing to stand or fall by her performance on the committee, why should it matter to her that
a few sour-grapes types may grumble or doubt her merit or think she got an unfair advantage? Does she hate men because they routinely get opportunities, advantages, mentoring that she doesn’t? Does she think they hate each other for this reason? Of course not. She might hate the system, but there’s no percentage in hating the beneficiaries – unless they intentionally work to exclude you. In her case, they weren’t doing that, but her fear that the traditionally powerful would attribute bad motives to her for not doing it their way was very effectively achieving the same result.

I'm thinking all this has to do with the one-size-fits-all relations that are assumed to exist between the strong and the weak, regardless of the particular situation. The strong are assumed to be so at the expense of the weak. The weak are assumed to be at the mercy of the strong and also to be trying to cut them down or curry favor with them at all times. None of these assumptions is inevitably true.

I agree that it is incumbent on the strong not to use their strength to harm the weak and to deploy the advantages of strength appropriately. But the weak have an obligation too, and that’s not to blame the strong for weaknesses they did not cause and are not exploiting. Whether you're strong or weak, there's still room for effort and for excellence. There's still room to pursue great performance, to innovate, to challenge yourself, to stay in the game and succeed spectacularly. If your motives are pure, you shouldn't have to give up in the face of strength or weakness. You shouldn't have to stop and rest on your laurels the instant you achieve the lowest common denominator with which the least capable or charitable of your fellow strivers feels comfortable. You should be able to give it your all, give others the benefit of the doubt, and count on being given the same in return.

Monday, October 29, 2007

I'll Give You Aggressiveness!

Sometimes I wonder if the media is on a deliberate and targeted mission to disempower women. Articles like this one, which states that women don't start businesses as commonly as men because women "aren't as aggressive," are legion. It's basically impossible to read the financial press without being hit in the face by some denigrating depiction of women's abilities, motives, moxie or stick-to-it-iveness.

A statement like "women aren't as aggressive" is just stupid. First, it describes an impact, not a root cause. Second, it's far more likely that women don't start businesses as often as men because the business world is still preeminently a man's world, delineated by male rules, personalities, organizational structures, time demands...and men. It's indisputable that women don't have the same access to big-time networks, financing or other resources. Third, is it even true that men start far more businesses? I seem to recall reading years ago that women-owned businesses employed more people than the Fortune 500 companies combined. Fourth, as Natalie Angier points out in the exhilarating and gorgeously written
Woman: An Intimate Geography, watch little girls at play or bands of junior high school girls bully members of lesser social groups and then try to make the case that females aren't naturally aggressive.

You have to wonder if this demeaning characterization of women is meant to be directive or prescriptive. Even if the onslaught is not intentional, the constant attempts to define us disadvantageously are demoralizing.
A woman has to be made of pretty stern stuff to withstand them and choose to succeed anyway. To be fair, I suppose statements like "women aren't as aggressive as men" dictate how men are supposed to be, too, and also in a limiting way. But whether or not anyone likes it in the abstract, aggressiveness is a prized characteristic in the business world we've got. Until our organizations and societies and operations demonstrate parity, the impact of these one-size-fits-all characterizations will always be harder on women. Given the current state of affairs, a woman seeking to succeed as an entrepreneur or, indeed, as a businessperson of any other stripe already has a tougher hill to climb. To call women as a gender "not as aggressive" isn't helping.

Secondhand Smoke

Southern Nevada is a great place to live for a lot of reasons, including our almost complete lack of natural disaster potential. No hurricanes or tornadoes, no earthquakes or tidal waves, no volcanoes or floods or blizzards or avalanches, nothing much in the way of precipitation of any sort. We sometimes have magnificent lightning; it lights up with sky with vertical bolts like some Las Vegas stage spectacular, but it's rarely accompanied by rain or even serious clouds.

We do, however, have one geologic drawback and that's our proximity to California with its natural disasters galore.
For the last three days, there's been an acrid smoky smell to the air - not unlike in the casinos with tired ventilation systems, but outside. The sun seems to be wrapped in a few layers of dirty cheesecloth. And there's a pall of very nasty-looking yellowish haze hanging over the Strip and other lower-lying areas. Obviously, this is not even in the same ballpark of important or threatening as the actual wildfires they're suffering in southern California, but it's mighty ugly and, in terms of what it means for broader air and weather patterns, it's disconcerting, too.

Thursday, October 25, 2007


I am not a patient person. I'm efficient and competent at most things, but I'm really bad at cutting slack to people who aren't. Situations and machines that don't deliver as promised also make me crazy. Delinquent (or nonexistent) replies to email, incompetent drivers, having to follow up all the time even with businesses I'm paying for a service, tablemates who play blackjack ultra-slowly, the satellite or the Internet being "out," the complete inability of a book distributor to get anything right on the first try - it takes a conscious act of will to quell the swell of impatience these irritants provoke in me, and I don't even like to think about all the time and effort I've spent doing just that so as to contain tirades and maintain the outwardly even keel necessary to being considered a sane person.

As I fought back today's driver-induced red haze of impatience, though, it occurred to me that where air travel is concerned, I effortlessly maintain an unruffled serenity not usually seen without pharmaceutical aid. There is little in daily life more irritating than flying - from getting to the airport, to the person behind you in the security line who has to keep running into your rolling carry-on or, if you're traveling light, your feet, and the person in front of you whose laptop is buried at the bottom of the hugest possible carry-on and whose shoes seem to have a highly complicated removal mechanism, to hurrying up and waiting, to being sandwiched into airplanes designed in the apparent belief that Americans are getting thinner rather than fatter, to the terrible grammar in the standard announcements, etc., etc., etc. Traveling by air should by all rights make someone like me fit for a straightjacket. But it doesn't bother me a bit. I don't tell myself in advance to take it easy and remain calm. I don't seem to be in charge of my state of mind at all. An imperturbable placidity just settles over me from the moment I get up on a traveling day.

For a brief period in the 80s, I was afraid of flying. I could do it, I could even carry on a conversation if I was with someone else, but I spent the entire time preparing to die. It wasn't a fear of dying so much as a disinclination to die stupidly. My fear was of a mechanical origin: I figured the people who flew and maintained airplanes were probably as un-diligent as the people who did everything else. (And stories like this one made me sure I was right.) Years later, I read an article that said a lot of women in their early 30s with small kids experience fear of flying. The article suggested that the reason was control-related. Young mothers struggle so hard to control their complex lives that being in a position of utter lack of control is horrific to them. Maybe that's what was up with me. In any event, my fear went away after a few years. I realized a couple days in advance of some business trip that I wasn't apprehensive at all and I've been a calm flyer ever since.

I suspect I just gave up on the notion of being able to control anything, aviationally speaking. There's no percentage in resenting the lines, the fellow travelers, the silly security requirements, even the mis-tagged luggage. There's no percentage in doing anything but smiling sweetly and saying "Sure, no problem" when they ask if they can search your bag. There's no percentage in getting worked up over delays. I think I learned at some entirely unconscious level that I have no control whatsoever over the flying experience and the best way to deal with it is to relax and go utterly with the flow. It's not hard to extrapolate that lesson to other impatience triggers, but i
t's not a lesson I seem to be able to apply intentionally. As much as I enjoy my aeronautical tranquility, I'm apparently not willing to cede all control in the rest of my life.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

One for Humanity

My flight to Dallas on Friday restored my faith in the human race. Well, ok, that's a little strong, but my opinion of the kindness of strangers is back on terra firma at the top of the cliff, rather than halfway (or more) to the bottom. After the plane pulled back from the gate and taxied out to the runway and just before we hit the gas to speed up and take off, a passenger in first class was discovered to be "non-responsive." The flight attendant requested the help of any medical personnel on the plane and 5 people quickly responded. With only concern and none of that obvious "I'm cool" desire for personal glory evident on their faces, they made their way to the front of the plane. A bit later, the attendant asked if anyone was diabetic and willing to part with one of those sugar testing dealies. A sweet senior citizen came forward with that. We went back to the gate, where the official airport paramedics met the plane (the flight attendant having immediately made the necessary page). The stricken passenger, who had apparently had a seizure but was by then responsive, walked off with the paramedics, and a "clean-up crew" got on board to do their thing (a thing I and, I imagine, my fellow passengers tried not to think too hard about).

But here's what improved my opinion of humanity. During the delay, which all in all took an hour, not one person exhibited impatience. There was a general air of concern for the ill passenger and a general quiet on the plane. No restiveness, no grumbling. A few people took out their cell phones and calmly inquired about the possibility of rebooking their connecting flights. When it was all resolved and the flight attendants reappeared, all sorts of people congratulated them on their calm, compassionate competence.

A lot of the evidence of daily life seems to suggest that people have become utterly self-centered with no consideration at all for their fellow human beings. But here was a plane full of people who behaved, despite the delay, as if they had no thought whatsoever other than compassion for a stranger. The all-for-one mood lasted, too. Without being asked, those of us staying in Dallas stood aside and let the people trying to make connections disembark first. The connecting people were demonstrably grateful and still not pushy. Nearly everyone thanked the flight crew warmly on their way out. It was the best example I've seen in a long time of people putting themselves in someone else's shoes, gaining perspective, and realizing that some things are more important than others. Really quite uplifting. Reassuring, too.

Saturday, October 6, 2007

Insult to Injury

There's been an alarming trend in TV broadcasting over recent years toward programming designed for simpletons with no emotional maturity, no self-censoring capabilities, limited vocabulary and, apparently, no ability to take in information and keep track of it for more than a minute or two. Nowhere is this more evident than in football coverage.

Where once we tuned into football games, now we tune into circuses of inane frenzy, complete with glitzy, seizure-inducing graphics, music of the kind that made for a great sound gag in Broadcast News circa 1987, celebrities of various stripes and species (read on), and announcers who run the gamut from depressed-sounding drones to kewpie dolls on speed. Once, we watched football games interrupted only by commercials (easily bypassed with TiVo or, before TiVo, trips to the kitchen for snacks). Now, we watch little morsels of football games, their flow interrupted by kitschy announcer bits, updates "from New York," asinine sideline reports, and those
redundant game summaries interspersed frequently and annoyingly into the game we're actually trying to watch.

I feel obliged to digress long enough to note the routine mangling of the English language that infects on-air commentary like a medieval plague. Perhaps this game was lost as soon as these people were dubbed "commentators," but in my opinion, their speech should be free from ludicrously misused words ("after their pulsating victory last week") and such gems of oratorical ignorance as "the coach told them they have to take it personal," "he should have went down the field," and "between you and I" (a moronic thing to say into a live microphone even if you say it correctly).
I don't expect all the illustrious journalists and ex-jocks to have actually learned proper English somewhere along their educational paths, but you'd think the networks could hire some head case like me to set out a few basics and coach the on-air folks to avoid particularly grating errors.

It would also be nice if broadcasters knew the rules of the game they were covering, so during those interminable official reviews we wouldn't have to listen to hyped-up discussions about the quarterback's apparent intent as the officials decide whether it was a fumble or an incomplete forward pass (for any of you non-football fans still reading this post, intent is irrelevant to this determination) or about what should happen following a fumble into the end zone. Demonstrating relevant expertise is evidently not one of the hiring criteria for these jokers. With very few exceptions (I love you, John Madden), they're all too busy trying to be colorful and fabricating "human interest" crap that's, first, of little interest and, second, about as likely to be true as their scary hair colors (male & female). The words and anecdotes they put into players' and coaches' mouths would embarrass even the sensitive hero guys in those diamond commercials.

Anyway, last night's game featured a new low. Celebrities have been slipping into football coverage for a while, as if network bosses are worried that without some additional draw people won't tune in. Whole chunks of games have gone un-broadcast and un-commented on while the announcers "interviewed" Spike Lee or Archie Manning about the horrors of Hurricane Katrina, drooled over Geena Davis or Christian Slater as they promoted their new stuff, or let such luminaries as Jim Belushi try to talk about football. Arnold Schwarzenegger, in his governor of California role, waxed hilariously enthusiastic last year about what a great team the Raiders were as
they ineptly fumbled the ball on the actual field of play (shown to us on a split screen so small the action was barely discernible).

And last night, Street Sense - yeah, the horse that won the Kentucky Derby - introduced the Louisville players. I'm not kidding: a picture of Street Sense appeared above the pictures of the players while some jocular voice pretended to be said thoroughbred, yukking it up with equine humor and even offering to race one of the Louisville speedsters. I thought it was bad when Ashley Judd introduced Kentucky's players or John Grisham introduced Mississippi's or maybe Mississippi State's, but Street Sense?? I shouldn't be complaining, though. I was too appalled to listen carefully, but I think the horse spoke without any grammatical errors or ignorant malaproprisms. Maybe he could work with John Madden.

Friday, October 5, 2007

Attention, Sports Fans

Check out this new sports blog. I can promise that the writing will be crisp and pointed, the opinions will be strong, and the whole shebang will reflect a female perspective rather than the male perspective more typically available in sports commentary. And the female writer in question is also an athlete, which lends her additional credibility, as well as someone extremely special to me whose commentary I've been agreeing with, arguing with, and otherwise enjoying for years.

Sunday, September 30, 2007

My Left Ear [sic]

Ever since I gave up the hearing in my left ear (the 2005 price of curing an inner ear disorder that produced debilitating attacks of vertigo), I've heard music differently. It's not just that I'm no longer stereo, a hearing difference I don't really perceive. Some music sounds flatter than I recall, and lyrics are harder for me to make out, but the fact that all sound now comes to me from the right is a fact I have to take in intellectually, not one I actually experience.

The real difference is that when I listen to music in my car I now hear the harmony rather than the melody. This has something to do, I presume, with how the speakers in my car work. The difference is especially pronounced when I'm in the passenger seat. On our recent trip to Arizona, a few times I couldn't tell what song we were listening to until we got to the chorus - even when the songs were ones I've known by heart since I was in college.

I love to sing; I was a singer in high school and I'm an alto. This hearing anomaly would have come in mighty handy back then as I, along with all the other altos, struggled to sing harmony while high-pitched sopranos shrieked well-known melodies in our ears. Now, in my car, I happily belt the harmony, almost undistracted by the melody when I'm driving and completely undistracted by it when I'm in the front passenger seat. It's wonderful. Harmonies are so interesting and unexpected; they have a minor-key sort of mystery to them that I've always enjoyed, but never found easy to hear and follow the way I do now.

Could I have taught myself to hear this selectively before it was my only option? I suppose so. Had I continued to take voice lessons or tried to sing professionally in some way, I would have had to become a more reliable alto - not one who, like many, occasionally and furtively slipped into singing the melody. But tuning out the melody and singing a harmonious, but different tune is hard, especially when the melody is one you know and like. Literally and metaphorically speaking. How cool that a so-called disability has given me an ability I lacked. Makes me wonder what other skills I could develop by experiencing things differently.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Dining with Children

I've been in a couple restaurants lately that featured uncontrolled children in addition to the standard menu items. In Scottsdale a couple weeks ago, a toddler toddled around a very high end breakfast place; her father was standing near her empty high chair keeping his eye on her, while her seated mother happily and apparently obliviously chowed down. We waited behind the hostess who was trying to seat us as she waited for the toddler to get out of the path to our table. This morning, a gaggle of the under-5 set engaged in various under-5 set behaviors, including shrieking, throwing food, squealing and whining in that annoying "you're not paying enough attention to me" way. Since I left Chicago, I've spent very little time tolerating kids in restaurants. Vegas isn't really a kid place and I rarely go out to anything but dinner, which we eat late. The obvious lesson from the recent experiences is that I should stop going out to breakfast altogether.

But it seems to me there's another lesson, too. The me-first entitlement mentality that seems to pervade our culture more with every passing year could, I think, be one of the long-term effects of children who are not taught socially acceptable behaviors early. I'm all for letting children's creativity develop, but I don't think budding creativity is so fragile that it can't coexist with courtesy and consideration for other people. Pointing out to a child, even a toddler, that grown-ups don't run around in restaurants and that they use their inside voices (most of the time, anyway) isn't likely to stifle the child in any important way. It is far more likely to help the child learn to become an adult that other people can stand to be around.

So much of adult life is a matter of figuring out how to manage your natural instincts and reactions within the context of other people's rules and how to change the behaviors that aren't getting you what you want - at work, in relationships, even in all your little daily interactions with strangers at the grocery store or on the expressway. If you aren't expected to manage yourself appropriately in a restaurant (or, presumably, anywhere else) as a toddler, how are you ever going to do so effectively as you grow up?

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Personal Responsibility, Anyone?

I read an article yesterday about a guy in China who collapsed and died, apparently of exhaustion, after playing online games in an internet cafe for three days straight. Sad and bizarre, I thought. I can certainly understand getting obsessed with an internet game - I used to be something of a Tetris addict and my rehab after knee surgery consisted mainly of conquering Super Mario Brothers 1, 2 and 3 (to the delight of my children and their friends). But three days straight? That must have been one compelling game.

When I read these odd news stories, I try to avoid looking at the commentary people post underneath them. The posts are always depressingly ungrammatical and mean-spirited; often, they're horribly racist and/or misogynistic, too. But sometimes I can't resist. When I glanced at the commentary under the dead player story, I was appalled to find that the common theme was that the internet cafe "should have" kicked the guy out or made him take breaks every couple hours or imposed some other fail-safe mechanism to have prevented his death. Huh? Is no one personally responsible for anything any more?

It's beyond my ability to comprehend how anyone but player-guy could have borne any responsibility whatsoever for monitoring the amount of time he spent playing internet games. If he'd been a child, his parents should have been paying attention to him, but, as an adult, he's on his own. In fact, I bet those selfsame self-righteous commenters would be the first to have a fit if "someone" monitored the way they spent their time. So why are they always looking for ways to make someone else responsible for their catastrophes, minor and major? Too careless to secure your hot coffee before you drive away? No problem - sue McDonald's when you stupidly spill it all over yourself. Can't be bothered to keep a calendar for your commitments? No problem - just make it necessary for meeting and event organizers to send you (and everyone else) inbox-clogging reminders. Can't afford the stuff you want? No problem - max out your credit cards and buy it all anyway, then complain about crushing credit card debt when you can't pay.

Seems to me that freedom is highly desirable. Self-direction, too. As adults, we should be free to do as we please with our lives and our time. But the price for freedom and self-direction is personal responsibility. It isn't anyone else's fault or responsibility when the actions we take have negative consequences - and it's childish (not to mention disgusting) to look around for someone to blame.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

A Perfect Day

Yesterday was a perfect day. We drove back from Scottsdale, where we'd gone on Friday. Why would someone who lives in Las Vegas go to Scottsdale? For a haircut - there is now a Ouidad salon in Scottsdale, which saves me the trouble of going all the way to Florida to get my hair cut. (If you have curly hair, and maybe even if you don't, you understand the critical importance of a good haircut.) Driving trips are easy and fun, and it continues to amaze us that a 4-5-hour drive now takes us to Phoenix or the Grand Canyon or L.A. or Salt Lake City rather than to Ann Arbor or Door County or Minneapolis.

You can drive from Las Vegas to Phoenix and back via Hoover Dam, which really is a modern marvel, or you can avoid the Dam traffic by heading west to Bullhead City, which takes you parallel to the California border and features some of the best high desert landscapes and mountain vistas imaginable.
The drive is incredible pretty much all the way - no cities, very little in the way of signs of human habitation, kind of what the moon might look like if it were warm and red instead of cold and silver. There are mountain ranges of varying sizes and shapes everywhere, including a stretch of weird and beautiful mountains-in-formation (I'm guessing) composed of what look like stuck-together piles of huge rocks, some of their boulder-y edges cantilevered improbably in seeming defiance of gravity. These look as if they couldn't possibly be natural, as if instead some crazed giant child stacked them up for his or our amusement. They cluster around the southern Mojave County line, about 75 miles south of Kingman, AZ. They're also warmly lunar, but very strange; you wouldn't be surprised if they suddenly stood up and started lumbering in a science-fiction rock monster sort of way.

The drive is also full of lush desert landscapes. I used to think the desert in bloom was too subtle to call lush, but two and a half years of living in a desert have evidently trained my eye to see differently. Forests in the desert are nothing like forests in Alaska or the Midwest. Here, there is plenty of space between trees, all of which are in a constant battle for their share of what little water there is. And everything is dwarfed by the surrounding mountains and enormous sky; desert forests don't even begin to block out the sunlight. Their density is a whole different thing. But along the Joshua Forest Parkway, there are thousands of Joshua trees, their shape stunted, even tortured, but still arching and graceful, their bursts of whitish leaves looking like a frost of flowers on the tips of their many crooked branches. Further south, there are forests of saguaro cacti - surely the coolest plant in the world. Some just stalks, others with multiple arms, all pinstriped with prickles, the saguaro stand like beacons waving hello or goodbye as we drive by. I love knowing that they swell up when it rains, hoarding the water for months to come and slowly deflating as they use it up. Unlike our part of Nevada, where the mountains are mostly bare rock, Arizona's mountains and hills are covered in shrubs and cacti and flowering clumps of plants. This looks messy to me after the peaceful, pristine rock that I love, but it's also beautiful and it puts me in mind of how weird plant life is: plants accomplish nothing but survival and growth. Beauty, too, I suppose, but that's of no import to them.

As we drove, it was easy to avoid any preview of what was happening in the Michigan game being TiVo'd at home. The chances of running into a TV along the way were virtually nil and I'd warned the kids that I wanted no relevant texts. Our eyes full of nature's beauty and my hair springing in perfectly cut curls around my face, we arrived home unsullied by any news, football or other. I had a good feeling about the game - the day was so perfect it just didn't seem that old Blue would ruin it. Sure enough, the Wolverines came through.

Saturday, September 8, 2007

It Must Be So Because It's Always Been So

So apparently preseason football rankings are kind of like figure skating seeding - the judges decide who's going to win and then do just about everything in their power to make their predictions come true. All a devoted Michigan fan can say today is that it's too bad football outcomes aren't as subjective as figure skating outcomes. To win a game, we obviously need the same kind of help that robbed figure skater Paul Wylie of his much deserved gold medal a decade or so ago (the last time I paid much attention to figure skating).

The real question isn't how a Division 1-A powerhouse could have lost to Appalachian State last week (a team, by the way, I don't want to take anything away from; I love it when underdogs win so long as it's not Michigan they're beating). The real question is how this particular Division 1-A powerhouse could ever have been ranked #5 in the nation. Was the defense that's been completely absent in the last 5 games (don't forget that Ball State game we nearly lost just before the OSU game last year) somehow in evidence during the practices viewed by the rankings voters? Or, more likely, did they put the hapless Wolverines up top in the preseason poll because that's where they always reside preseason?

No wonder change is so hard to come by. Here's yet another example of "let's ignore the facts and go with the status quo" thinking. Michigan must be a powerhouse because it's always a powerhouse, right? Well, these "stunning losses" are going to prove pretty hard to ignore - or are they? If there's one thing I've learned from my years in the business world and as a sports fan, it's that the status quo wields inexplicable and virtually (but, fortunately, not totally) unstoppable power.

Sunday, September 2, 2007


I love football. It's full of intricacy and athleticism, strategy and spirit. It's beautiful. Most of the time, the difference between winning and losing is wholly a matter of executing well against a well-conceived game plan. Too bad all outcomes aren't as appropriate and straightforward.

But along with the good comes what sometimes seems like more bad than is bearable. Who knew there were as-yet-unplumbed depths of humiliation available to us Michigan fans? Who could even imagine? Wasn't it enough to fall short year after year despite consistently being touted as great pre-season? To have "the best recruiting classes in college football," but somehow continually play stodgy, unimaginative offense (then, bizarrely, have one of your stodgiest and least imaginative quarterbacks transform into the Tom Brady who plays for the Patriots)? To outsize nearly every opponent, but still fail to blow anybody out - ever? Did we really have to add being on the wrong end of the worst upset in college football history? Was it necessary to prove so spectacularly that we haven't mastered one of football's fundamental rules: that the whole point of scheduling a cream-puff on opening day is to kick the crap out of them? Sigh. Another season shot to hell. With any luck, this go-round will at least have a silver lining; this latest disaster should at long last drive the final nail into the coffin of Lloyd Carr's once luminous coaching career.

And that's not all. It looks as if we're off to another season of refereeing miscalls - nice way to hand the game to Auburn, refs. And in both college and the NFL, the head coaching ranks work like corporate America's executive suites. For the most part, we recycle tired old white guys.
(I didn't know Norv Turner was even still alive. Glad he is, but it's a mystery how a great team that for some reason decided Marty Schottenheimer couldn't do the trick came to the conclusion that Norv Turner can.) Unsuccessful with one team/company (or more)? No problem - we'd love to have you come head up our shop! It's as if having once achieved the exec suite is the only prerequisite for achieving it again - regardless of how you did there. And, of course, when the new bigshot is brought in from outside, the highly talented offensive and defensive coordinators who didn't get the job leave the team altogether and go to work for competitors. Sound familiar, corporate executive suite watchers?

Another sigh. But I'm still awfully happy that it's September and we're underway. The only thing more difficult than football season is the off season.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Time Travel

Apropos of this post, I read this story a few days ago and have been thinking about time travel ever since. If I understand the article correctly (which, after several rereadings, I am pretty sure I do not), the theory is not dissimilar to what Superman was up to when he flew circularly, counter-orbitwise, around the earth to turn back time and undo both the earthquake and Lois Lane's demise. How funny if that turns out to be the key to time travel - way to forecast, DC Comics! But for my time-traveling money, the time travel hypothesized in the article has two serious drawbacks: its availability only to "distant future generations" and its inability to go further back in time than when it was created. That's all well and good for those distant future generations, but how does it help me visit ancient Egypt? And I'm not sure whether it's depressing or encouraging to imagine distant future generations thinking of the early 21st century as analogous in any way to the world we now consider ancient.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Mysteries of the Universe

I've been struck by a few puzzlements recently. To wit:

Why is it so important for drinkers to get non-drinkers to drink? From my uncomfortable, feeling-the-need-to-conform days in college to my jaunty professional life cocktail party pretense that a club soda with lime was actually a vodka and tonic to my current "No, thanks, I'm really not a drinker," I feel as if I've spent my life fending off the proselytizing benevolence of people who want me to share the joy they find in booze. Apparently, I lack the taste buds or enzymes or whatever it is that makes this stuff taste good to people. I can be talked into an occasional margarita or a celebratory glass of champagne, but most alcoholic beverages taste to me like what I imagine nail polish remover would taste like. I've been drunk precisely once and it's not an experience I care to replicate. (If I remember correctly, there was about an hour of wonderful, dizzy, barely conscious buzz, then several hours of actual unconsciousness, then headache and nausea.) And, hey, I can be fun sober.

How is it possible for readers to read and enjoy a book when their grasp of what actually happened in the book and who the characters are is so tenuous that...well, if their actual grip on things were equally shaky, they'd be perpetually surrounded by dropped objects. I know we all bring our own experiences to the table when we read and that the hallmark of a good book is the way it creates its world while leaving room for different readers to take different messages from it, to respond in their own way and get what they want and need from its plot and characters. Fair enough. But I continue to be amazed by people who miss key character descriptors and plot points, or who want to know who Julie is two paragraphs after Julie is introduced, or who never even noticed a theme you found overbearing. Makes me wonder if our entire experience of books - and, probably, everything else - is virtually all about what we bring to them and very little, if any, about their intrinsics.

And finally, why in double-deck blackjack is it so common for all the players at the table to get a poor hand while the dealer gets a great one? A few days ago, on the first hand of a new shuffle, every one of five players was dealt a 15 (four pictures and fives; one eight and seven) when the dealer got a 20 in the form of two tens. This wasn't even close to the first time I've seen this; it happens far more commonly than the laws of probability would seem to dictate. The next hand saw another pair of tens for the dealer and five more crappy player totals - including, unbelievably, another picture and five; there are only eight fives total in the two decks! I understand how the game operates in favor of the house, but that has everything to do with how you have to play and nothing to do with the likelihood that you'll be dealt two cards totaling 12-16. The dealer theoretically has the same odds of getting an unpleasant hand as the players, right? Hmm.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Wishful Thinking

Ever since I found myself (reluctantly) in the book marketing biz, I've been struck by what an unscientific leap of faith marketing is. I've always thought of marketing as a rather voodoo-ish discipline, one in which no one can show direct causality between efforts and results. The theory seems to be little more than "exposure is good." Where marketing books is concerned, the mantra inherent in every marketing, PR and distribution message is "Of course there are no guarantees." Some of the books that get reviewed in The New York Times go on to be bestsellers; others languish. True juggernauts like Harry Potter are rare, and it's unclear whether marketing activities can take any credit at all for that phenom. (It's rather wonderful, actually, that innate quality and readability seem to be at the root of Harry's success.) Only recognition by Oprah is a real magic bean and even those authors often have the disconcerting (I imagine) experience of watching the anointed title fly off bookshelves and then subsequent titles remain resolutely shelf-bound.

Basically, everyone hastens to tell publishers and authors that the book won't get anywhere unless people see it. This stands to reason, but the implicit corollary - that once people see it, they will buy it - is, it turns out, neither reasonable nor true. Not even when the exposure is highly positive and persuasive. I am amazed by how scattershot and unpredictable results are. They seem to defy logic and they make it very difficult to target and pursue sensible uses of marketing time and effort.

Further complicating matters is the seemingly infinite array of marketing middlemen. These erstwhile folks have come up with thousands of ways in which you can pay them to generate exposure for your product - no guarantees, of course, but it's all based on the premise that exposure is good. Take the following example:

Book Distributor: Let us exhibit your title at the XYZ Regional Booksellers Convention, which we'll gladly do for [insert price - usually between $100 and $650; i.e., not enough to scare you away, but not nominal].

Publisher/Author: That sounds interesting. What kind of results do you see from this kind of exhibition?

BD: There are no guarantees, of course, but lots of booksellers will see the book. It's great exposure.

P/A: Of course, but how do the exhibited books do in the weeks and months after the show?

BD: We can't measure those results. There's no way to know which exposure led to which sales.

P/A: Well, ok, but how do exhibited books do, say, in the six months following the show when compared to similar books in your catalog that aren't exhibited? Can you show any measurable benefit, even if you can't draw a straight line between exhibition and sales?

BD: We don't track those statistics.

P/A: (internally: So basically this is just a way for you to make $$) Aloud: So how do your customers typically do the cost-benefit analysis to determine if the benefits of exhibition justify the cost?

BD: If people don't see your title, they can't buy it. This is a standard book marketing tactic and it's what marketing budgets are for.
Exposure is good.

Marketing obviously has aspects and players that sometimes make it more of a racket than anything else, but even leaving that aside, the basic premise appears to be: If no one sees your book, no one will buy it, so, q.e.d., it must be good to put it in front of people. This adds up, logically speaking, to:
the absence of not green is green - a fallacy immediately apparent to everyone who's taken Logic 101. I'm as much a believer in "nothing ventured, nothing gained" as the next guy, but this marketing baloney is irritating me. I'm just supposed to make the leap of faith, I guess. But the only justification I'm getting for believing that if I put it out there, people will come is that if I don't put it out there, people won't come. Sorry, but that's just not doing it for me.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

An Unforeseen Consequence

Evidently, a lot of younger women entered the work world utterly bereft of the coping mechanisms that years of sexism at the high school, college and grad school levels built into their predecessors (including me). It's certainly great that it's evidently no longer weird for a girl to be smart, ambitious and career-focused in high school, college and grad school, but a disappointing side effect of that progress is the shock that young women feel when they hit the wall of institutional blindness to their differing approaches, needs and value propositions. Judging by the opt-out revolution and the questions I get whenever I give speeches, many younger women are not only ill-equipped to handle the sexism - or even the inhospitability - they encounter once they start working in traditional places of business. They are also astonished by it.

Sexism is alive and well. It's impossible to look at the number of women in top positions in any arena (business, law, government, academia, entertainment, the media, medicine) and conclude otherwise. For all sorts of reasons - some related to institutional inflexibility, some to narrow-minded biases, some, no doubt, to white male protectionism, some to women's own failure or unwillingness to understand how the games are played and won - the flood of women who enter all these arenas thins to a trickle at the management and decision-maker levels and then dries to a few drops at the top. It's very troubling to me to think that the progress we've made is itself helping to impede further progress.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007


I have been doing so much traveling and sightseeing lately that I barely have time to work on my various writing projects, keep up with email and keep my website fresh, let alone to blog. I've got plenty of words and images in my head, but somehow when my eyes are full, the need to write observationally takes a temporary back seat.

After Alaska (which, in case you're a new reader, was incredible -
click here for some posts about that), we spent a little time at home and then went to New Jersey to go boating with some friends. We enjoyed a weekend of beautiful weather (wasn't there supposed to be some sort of heat wave across the US??), and spent Sunday boating into New York Harbor. I think the last time I saw NYC from the water was over 10 years ago when we took the kids on the ferry to Liberty Island. I'd forgotten how peaceful Manhattan looks from the water. It's hard to believe there's so much striving and crowding and bustle when you see it glinting quietly in the sun, looking like a fairy tale version of itself. There's also that mirage effect - it looks rather as if the skyscrapers are floating just slightly above that little sliver of island and that if they actually rested on it, it would surely sink under the weight.

And to get within 200 yards of the Statue of Liberty as we did - well, call me a Midwestern rube, but I'm a sucker for that lovely lady. She's beautiful and inspirational and still a symbol of many good things about America. Amazingly, neither she nor the NY Harbor are chock-a-block with visible security either. The hole near Battery Park where the Twin Towers used to shoot up into the sky is, to anyone familiar with the old skyline, a poignant and compelling memorial, and the fact that the Harbor is still open and accessible seems also to say something beautiful about the American spirit.

Monday, July 30, 2007

The Hobgoblin of Small Minds

I have a love-hate relationship with email. Obviously, it's great for easily staying in touch with other responsive people. But it can so easily get lost in someone's inbox (in a way a delivered letter really can't) and it's far too easy to ignore. It's also evidently spotty in terms of reliability. Quite a few people I trust have told me they never received messages from me or that they sent me messages I never received. And today, when I emailed the inaugural issue of my bimonthly email series to the people who've subscribed to it, my own daughter's copy ended up in her spam folder.

Luckily, she's someone who checks that folder in real time for misplaced legitimate email. But I cannot understand how an email from me to her could have been dumped in spam. She and I email frequently; our addresses are well-known to each other. Was it the few links I included? The date in the subject line? The fact that my message had a blind distribution list? (Her spam filter would have been happier, maybe, if I'd invaded everyone's privacy and shown the distribution list?) Why can that dumb spam about cards from "classmates" or sexual enhancement pharmaceuticals slip past spam filters into inboxes? Why do legitimate distribution list emails from websites, law firms, charities, etc. make it through one month and wind up in spam the next?

In addition to being yet more evidence that technology both rocks and sucks, this is also an example of what's wrong with using policies to deal with thugs. As we seek to screen nuisance email, we inevitably screen legitimate email too. Living in a coed dorm in college was a fun and very valuable experience, particularly for someone like me who has no brothers. But nowadays, because of the tendency of what I presume is a tiny percentage of the college population
toward harassment and rape, truly coed dorms (room-by-room) are virtually a thing of the past. Flexibility and discretion sensibly applied at work to things like dress code, hours, leaves, sabbaticals, advancement opportunities and so forth have also gone largely the way of the dinosaur, snowed under by one-size-fits-all policies.

I understand the need for clarity, and for protection against abuses of power. I also understand the desirability of consistency and of not reinventing the wheel. But policies that operate in a vacuum without human reason, timely applied, or that seek to reduce us all to the lowest common denominator aren't useful. They're monstrous.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007


I love ships. I'm not a big fan of cruises; those I've limited to vacations in destinations best enjoyed via water (Alaska, the Greek Islands). Cruises are too much like camp for adults, and they require more interaction with other members of the human race than I consider ideal for a vacation. But ships please me. They're so orderly, so cunning. Nothing rolls around. Nothing is loose. There's nothing extra. Everything is designed to fit both its purpose and its space.

We have glass tumblers in our bathroom, but they don't sit on the counter, risking disaster. They fit into little metal circles extending from the second shelf on each side of the sink and exactly the right size to hold them securely but not too tightly, just below eye level. The shelves themselves feature little restraining bars to hold the towels, lotions and whatnot in place. Canapés
arrive each afternoon in dishes ideal to hold them (and incredibly cute) - plates with depressions to preserve pretty arrangements, small square trays on which rest shrimp or vegetables to dip in creamier offerings contained in little bowls fitted into perfectly-sized porcelain slopes molded right in. Several of the office buildings I've worked in have swayed more than this ship does; in them, I routinely watched coffee slosh in cups, pencils roll back and forth across desks. But aboard ship everything is stabilized. All is spare, uncluttered, and cleverly designed.

Perhaps that's why people find cruises relaxing - and not just people like me who can't stand clutter and disorganization. Maybe even people who have no problem living and operating among disorderly throngs of stuff are soothed by order and
purposefulness, cunning and fitness, in the things around them.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Beauty Absolute

The Hubbard Glacier: hands down, the most amazing sight I've ever seen. We approach aboard ship, in water so calm it resembles a field of rippling grass. Ice litters the calm surface - in dots, chunks, slabs, bergs and little bergs (called, charmingly enough, "growlers"). The bay looks like a giant punchbowl near the end of the party, the original irregular ice-picked hunks now reduced to ice rubble.

The glacier itself is visible to us from 30 miles away. It appears to be still, but is in shape plainly identifiable as a river of ice inching downward. Its face is that now familiar aqua-y blue, striped with white and brown crevasses. Its scale is hard to judge visually (like everything in Alaska), but as we slowly pull away, another cruise ship moves in to take our place and pretty soon it becomes clear that the glacier is huge - far, far more massive than our eyes are telling us. The glacier's scale swallows the replacement cruise ship and makes it look like a toy.

Cruise ships are about 140 feet tall; the glacier's face is 400-500 feet tall - and that's just the face, the flat vertical part at the terminus that, for this tidewater glacier, falls into the sea (and continues all the way to the sea bed far, far below).
The Hubbard Glacier is 6.5 miles wide, 1,200 feet deep and 76 miles long. Our heads know these facts, but our brains somehow can't square them with what our eyes are seeing. Such is the scale of Yakutat Bay and the surrounding mountains that the glacier's face, nestled as it is in the gentle, folding curve of the fjord, looks like maybe a few football fields in length. Even as the river of ice breaking off at the face stretches back and up the huge gully it created, disappearing eventually into the clouds, it seems manageable - big, but not beyond taking in visually.

Cameras definitely can't capture this grandeur. Pictures all look too flat, too static, and the light isn't right. I'm struggling to come up with properly descriptive words, too, despite the clarity of the image before me and the picture in my mind's eye. The silvery white backdrop is bright in a way that clouds in the Lower 48 are not. The fluffy heaviness of the clouds drops in places into discrete puffs that hover over mountain peaks or fill up valleys. In other places, the clouds stripe into tendrils that connect to and seem to be pulling up cones of vapor from the sea. The rounded, tree-covered mountain mounds share the horizon on all sides with the higher, craggy peaks that were tall enough to have ridden above the once blanketing tide of ice. Spots - or so they look, although they're probably half a mile square or more - of snow daub the high granite peaks, looking restful and like permanent fixtures, not remnants. It's gorgeous, majestic, pristine, peaceful.

The simplicity and relative monochromaticity do not make the landscape austere. It's serene. Is it the scale that creates the serenity? The evidence of tens of thousands of years of constant, incremental and inexorable geologic activity, purposeful, but not reasoned? The complete absence of any evidence indicating human activity?

It's impossible to behold a glacier up close and simultaneously consider important or worrisome the price of a stock or the sale of a book. In the face of something so monumental, life for people gets placed in the same category as life for animals or plants - a matter of food, shelter, survival and alignment with nature, such competition as there is more fundamentally necessary than self-aggrandizing. This scenery evokes purity - of color, elements, needs, motives and emotions.

Monday, July 23, 2007


Today's port of call was rather dull and it's drizzling, so we've returned to the ship. After a very refreshing soak in one of the three outdoor Jacuzzis (water hot, air and raindrops cold, maximum bubbling from strong jets easing our poor necks, strained from all the craning of the last few days), we are chaise-lounging on the pool deck, wrapped in wool blankets. We feel like invalids cozily ensconced on the Titanic (pre-iceberg), as we read, scribble, doze and people-watch. And I'm noticing an interesting phenomenon, along the same lines I wrote about in an earlier post about Florida. Vacation dressing is yet another of the many things that men and women approach differently.

Cruises, like everything else, have become more casual in terms of dress. We haven't cruised in 13 years, and this time packing was a whole lot simpler. There's no "formal night" (how silly were those?), and even the night designated "jackets required for gentlemen; tie optional" was honored more in the breach. With very few exceptions, the men on board look rumpled. There's a lot of bedhead hair at breakfast, and disheveled, very comfortable-looking clothing is on display throughout the day. The men look, in short, like they're on vacation.

The women, on the other hand
are made up, coiffed and bejeweled. Their idea of cruisewear is often bizarre, but it's rarely higglety-pigglety. They're assembled rather than relaxed, no matter the time of day. Basically, the men look like the unmade bed in our suite just before the maid's arrival and the women look like the same bed immediately after her departure.

I tend to read a lot into these things (ask me sometime about the misogyny inherent in women's shoes), but I'm thinking the root cause of this vacation disparity might be makeup. Men don't wear it; lots of women have a hard time going anywhere in public without it. And once you've bothered to use makeup, things like arranging your hair, putting on jewelry, and doing more to assemble your outfit than simply choosing the nearest top and bottom in the closet seem more like necessary next steps than like too much trouble.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

A Rose by Any Other Name

Skagway - an ugly name for a beautiful place. Confusion seems to abound over the name, in terms of both spelling and meaning. On maps and in guidebooks, it's "Skagway." The local newspaper, however, is the Skaguay Alaskan, although all of its articles refer to "Skagway." Our guidebook tells us that, in Tlingit, the name means "place of the north wind." The selfsame Skaguay Alaskan informs us that the Tlingit word is "Shgagwéi" and it means (a) "rugged or wrinkled," referring to the effect of the strong north wind on the waters of northern Lynn Canal (where Skagway is located) or maybe to the collecting of clouds on the mountain tops at the back of the valley, or (b) "the beautiful one," referring to Face Mountain southwest of Skagway which has been described as a beautiful Tlingit woman. (Apparently Tlingit is a very creative language.)

Whatever. The actual place, population 834, is gorgeous and the wind that wrinkles the waters has blown in some stellar weather for our visit. The sky is completely blue (the first time we've seen that since we left Las Vegas), and the humidity (to which I've become exquisitely attuned since I moved to a desert) is down significantly. Everyone's excited - apparently, it's not unusual for the helicopter tours to get canceled due to rain and fog and, while Skagway gets more sunshine than the cities to its southeast, blue skies and balmy temperatures approaching 70 degrees are still rare enough to occasion great joy.

We're not helicoptering. We're taking the the White Pass & Yukon Railroad (could that sound any more romantic??) from sea level up about 2600 feet to the White Pass, through which gold-hungry rushers made their way to the Klondike a century ago. Construction on the railroad started in 1898, somewhat after the Klondike Gold Rush, so we're much more comfortable than our plodding predecessors. Despite the hardships of the 1889 trip, I hope the 30,000 gold prospecting hopefuls who made it paused to take in the glorious scenery. It had to serve as reward enough for all but the 300 who actually struck it rich - and if it looked then as it looks now, that wasn't too bad a bargain.


The capital of Alaska is the most isolated state capital on the North American mainland. Like most cities in Alaska, Juneau is accessible only by boat and plane. It's also the only state capital with a glacier on its back doorstep. The Mendenhall Glacier is a mere 13 miles away. I'm rapidly becoming a glacier junkie and the Mendenhall is the first one we've seen up close. Its beauty is alien. It looks far more like rock than ice, and it's hard to understand how it can maintain itself in such a dry and frozen state among green foliage and lush wildflowers and when the surrounding weather is 62 degrees and sunny. Apparently, Juneau gets only 42 sunny days a year and we've been lucky enough to experience one of them. A sunny day, we learn, is a relative thing. In Juneau, it is warm, things do have shadows and you need your sunglasses, but the sky is still blanketed with silvery-white clouds. It's a sky that wouldn't achieve even Partly Cloudy status in the Midwest or the Southwest, but, perhaps because of the sheer size of the coastal mountains, the clouds here seem somehow above the sun. Anyway, it's a beautiful day.

After gazing in wonder at the Mendenhall, realizing that a camera is never going to capture the depth and scale of what fills our eyes, and pondering what it might mean that the glacier's retreat rate has jumped from 60-90 feet per year in the 1990s to 200-500 feet per year now - it's retreated over 500 feet already in 2007 and it's only July - we head to the marina for an evening of small boat whale-watching. This turns out to be an incredible experience, despite the hokiness that inevitably characterizes excursions operated for tourists. We see a cocky threesome of orcas, two females and a male, frolicking in choreographed bursts of flesh and exhalation. Even better, we see an exuberant humpback whale calf who breeches the water - a phenomenon, we're told, that's more commonly seen in the whales' winter home in Hawaii's warmer waters than in the cold Southeast Alaskan waters. Evidently, no one informed this calf because he shoots his entire enormous body up out of the water, flips his fluke, and slams back down once, twice, thrice, four times in all. He keeps up the leaping, albeit more sedately in partial breeches, once he's joined by his mother, who dwarfs him and teaches us yet another Alaskan lesson in perspective.

The whales seem both oblivious of us and as if they may be showing off - or on the payroll of the tour operators. We also see a gang of Steller sea lions packed onto a buoy, yukking it up - 10 or so male teenagers excluded, we learn, from the mating rituals of their elders, but having a high old time on their own. Before the trip is over, we've also seen jumping fish (an amazing sight) and a couple dozen bald eagles
having some sort of avian conference (maybe about the jumping fish?) while standing around on the silty flats exposed by the low tide. There's also a hanging glacier. Unlike valley glaciers, which have made their way down to the valley floor and end on dry land, or tidewater glaciers, which terminate in the sea, hanging glaciers remain on the mountainside. The effect is of a suspended mass of ice, ripply and distinctively blue, apparently impervious to the effects of gravity. I miss a few more bald eagles (weren't these things endangered? They're everywhere) because I can't take my eyes off the glacier.

Back aboard the cruise ship, we collapse into the Adirondack chairs on our balcony to watch our 11:00 pm departure. Juneau gets about 18 hours of daylight this time of year, and the sky isn't quite dark as we set sail.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Intimations of Immortality

Tracy Arm, Alaska: a narrow inlet created by a glacier and filled by the sea, only a mile and a half wide. The sun is up, but not yet out. Even so, it's very bright. The sky is huge and arched; the thick blanket of clouds appears convex, like folds of heavy fabric draped over a wide, upside-down bowl. The fabric is rent in places, allowing beams of light to fall through. In other places, the fabric itself thins and falls, sometimes filling up the valleys and plateaus between the tree-lined mountains with massed cottony puffs, sometimes rising as steam from the sea, sometimes mantled like a cobweb over the dense ranks of trees, their tops piercing through. The mountain curves are the rounded curves that distinguish fjords carved by retreating glaciers and the water is dotted with hunks of ice in a cluttered variety of sizes and shapes. There are small, fanciful chunks shaped like rabbits, whales, airplanes. Larger chunks look like mini-mountain ranges or conferences of bears. There are a few ice slabs, some bare, some bedecked with hundreds of perching birds.

It's glacial ice - identifiable as such because it's blue. Oddly, unusually blue, ranging from the silvery bluish white color that old ladies sometimes dye their hair to aqua to the marine blue of the southern Pacific on a sunny day to practically cobalt. Glacial ice is blue because it's had all the air pressed out of it by successive layers of snow falling. The accumulating weight of the new layers compresses the lower layers into progressively denser ice and eventually the ice absorbs all the colors of the spectrum but blue. Beautiful - and evocative, too, of long time horizons, the true nature of beauty and accomplishment, and the limits of human vision.

Again, I'm startled by the way such a narrow palette of colors can glow so richly. Silver, white, blue, evergreen and the deep gray-green of the rippling water. Steep-sided cliffs of granite add a gray-black to the mix and mark the places from which the glacier retreated so
recently (in glacial terms) that trees have not yet had a chance to take root. The color palette is restful, cool, and majestic. There is no sound.

As the cliffs heighten and steepen, rivulets, then falls of glacial water flow down narrow gullies, weaving in and out of the surrounding trees and occasional banks of wispy fog in what looks from afar like fits and starts. The mountain tops graze the sky, the tallest of them craggy escarpments high enough to have stood above the smoothing tide of ice. Some of the mountains seem to have holes in their tops, like irregular suitcase handles, but that's an optical illusion created by patches of snow the exact silver-gray color of the sky. On closer examination, the snow is denser and more opaque than the sky, but neither it nor the clouds seem moist or even misty. The mountains have a rolling, mound-y quality, despite the occasional steep vertical drop from a peak straight down to the sea. No shorelines here; just a narrow vertical strip of granite between the bottom rank of tree trunks and the water. As we sail away, the mountains behind us assume the shapes of giant sleeping animals, their paws resting on the soft surface of the sea.

Friday, July 20, 2007

Cruising to Alaska

Day 2 of a luxury cruise from Vancouver to Anchorage via Alaska's Inside Passage. The scenery is starting to be amazing. The color palette is so different here than in Las Vegas. It's all silvers, grays, whites and greens. The sky is wintry even though it's July. The evergreens that blanket the land whenever we see land are tall and ramrod straight, packed into ranks, but also frilly, like uniformed rows of soldiers with profusions of monochromatic medals dangling from their shoulders and chests.

There's something very romantic and frontier-like about the Inside Passage. The scale is enormous and it's all about nature; at sea, nothing (but us) indicates human habitation or endeavor. It's hard not to feel like explorers arriving for the first time. Of course, they didn't arrive on 12-story cruise ships complete with four on-board restaurants nor were they met the moment they stepped ashore in what is now Ketchikan by Visitor Information Centers or fish & chip vendors. Still, Alaska has a pristine quality that even touristy curio shops and jewelry stores can't diffuse. Nature seems paramount: bright, blue-gray skies; ascending tiers of evergreens rising up to mountain peaks, treetops shrouded in what looks like steam, but is actually the trailing fingers of piles of silver-gray clouds; wooden structures so weatherbeaten that they seem not manmade, but like indigenous, and very small, parts of the landscape. And water everywhere, looking even in the peaceful harbors more like the intimidating Atlantic than the laid-back Pacific of further south.

Yesterday, while we were at sea, no land in sight, the sun came out for a couple hours. We sat on our balcony at the rear of the ship (or, more nautically, aft) and watched the sun glint off the waves created by the ship's wake. Suddenly, we saw a whale playing in the wake! This was a sight so remarkable that even though it was plainly visible to our naked eyes, we raced for our binoculars to make sure. Yup, a whale, cavorting like a happy puppy with the added extra feature of a blowhole from which it could occasionally and apparently ecstatically spout plumes of vapor. Welcome to Alaska.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Homer and Me

I think Homer Simpson once said something like "Oh, a joke. I get jokes." I felt just like him as I listened to a flight attendant crack wise on my flight from Chicago to Las Vegas. I know you're supposed to just go with jokes and not deconstruct or over-analyze them, but this jokester offered two quips that struck me as totally weird and not funny at all, despite the appreciative chuckles they prompted on my crowded plane.

First, during that part of the safety info where they tell you you can't smoke in the "lavatory," our comedian informed us that if we broke this rule, we would be subject to a fine in the amount of "one or two thousand dollars, and if you had that kind of money, you'd be flying United." Huh? I get the implied jab at United for being more expensive, but the implication that no one who could afford a pricier alternative would ever fly Southwest is a bizarre and inapt admission against interest.

Then, when we landed she announced, "We would like to welcome you to Hawaii. [Pause for dramatic effect.] But since we can't do that, we'll welcome you to Las Vegas instead." This one might have been funny in a rueful sort of way, I suppose, if the options were Hawaii and Baghdad. But with Hawaii and Las Vegas, it just seemed peculiar.

So why was everyone around me chuckling?