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?

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

A Suit is a Suit is a Suit

When I used to take commuter trains to and from work in Chicago, I typically encountered an ilk of businessmen whom I came to think of as "suits." The men wore suits (it was many years ago), but the label in my head was more about how they were than what they wore. They had an identical-ness of demeanor, look, haircut, briefcase brand, even diction and laughing style that made them instantly recognizable and more or less indistinguishable from one another. They always traveled in packs, and a domineering, "it's our world" attitude oozed from their every pore. As if the trains were private coaches rather than public transportation, they left their feet and sometimes their briefcases in the aisles. They imbibed drinks they'd bought in the station and brought on board as they made serious, self-important proclamations, then in progressively louder voices convivially exchanged business-jargon-rich bon mots. They never got out their monthly passes and put them in the little holders designed to streamline the conductor's job; instead, they dug in their pockets once the conductor was at hand, tapping his foot. And periodically they issued from their throats, like the mating calls of so many birds of a feather, those too loud and, to my ears, artificial sounding "heh-heh-hehs," less spontaneous bursts of laughter than declarations that seemed intended to convey to all and sundry both how delightful they found one another's company and their kinship as fellow masters of all they surveyed.

I've been in Chicago this week and I discovered that the suits have changed their clothes, but not their stripes. At lunch yesterday, I was temporarily distracted from my own companion when two men sat down at a nearby table. At first I thought they were identical twins, which was what caught my eye. Then I realized they were different sizes and didn't, physically at least, look like each other at all. One had a controlled profusion of curly hair, the other had straight hair and the distinct beginnings of male pattern baldness. One looked like a weekend sports warrior, the other was pasty and soft. But both were wearing blue shirts, rumpled light khaki pants, and those dark brown loafers that don't really go with light khaki pants. Both sported very expensive watches. Before they settled down to lunch with each other, first one, then the other pulled out the coolest new cell phone model and chatted on it briefly (while the waitress stood patiently by). Both failed to use their "inside voices." And periodically throughout their lunch, they boomed those trademark heh-heh-hehs, that unmistakable call of the suit.

Tuesday, July 3, 2007

A Nod to the Entitlement Mentality

The entitlement mentality that people started bringing to work in the 90s originally struck me (and many other older managers) as negative. The younger generations didn't seem to get it. New hires showed up at work and behaved as if they expected rewarding careers to be delivered to their office doors. They seemed to lack fire in their bellies and, for that matter, a clear understanding that job satisfaction, getting good work, doing good work, and getting ahead were up to them, not to some institutional equivalent of the mommy or daddy we suspected had done their homework for them and otherwise rendered them clueless about taking initiative and personal responsibility. I remember being appalled that my kids' high school insisted on submitting their college applications for them. A better instance of making soon-to-be-adults dependent, irresponsible and unable to fend for themselves was hard to imagine - and this seemed like only one among many examples of how post-baby-boomers were being infantilized.

But, apropos of my last post, the entitlement mentality clearly has a plus side. The blithe assumption that one gets to do it any way he wants and still garner the rewards of working in a traditional work environment may have annoyed us burgeoning old fogies in the 90s, but it has indisputably transformed our work environments - and for the better. Aided by their sheer numbers - and the obvious need businesses have for them now and going forward - younger people have forced a more realistic assessment of what employees want and need and must be given if they are to be recruited, retained and deployed effectively. Whether this is a silver lining of a largely unhealthy phenomenon ("adultolescence," anyone??) or a broad and deep intentional change effort on the part of the generations we suspected didn't get it, the impact of their "suit yourself" approach is loud, clear, impressive - and good.