Friday, August 5, 2011

Alexander McQueen: Beautiful Savagery

I stopped by the Metropolitan Museum of Art yesterday to finally see the Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty exhibit before it closes on Sunday. I have been a member for years, and luckily, it came in handy--- I was whisked to the front of three hour line comprised of tourists, admirers, fashion bloggers and those who came to be able to say they did, where I was given immediate entrance to the darkened and mirrored Cantor hall. 

I have never really followed the fashion industry at all, but in the past few years if one were to have asked me to name a great living designer, I would have unequivocally mentioned his name solely.  I have always been astonished by the artfulness and architecture--- the objects he created were more than fashion.  The complexity of his work can be seen in both it's construction and deconstruction.  He was undoubtedly a genius whose life was cut too short by his own hands, unfortunately a fait accompli for many of the brilliant and tortured throughout history.  Ironic that the last exhibit at the MET that had this type of reception by the public was Van Gogh.  "They should have told you Vincent, this world was never meant for one as beautiful as you." 

The pieces were works of art. However, I was distracted, thinking about that crowds that surrounded me as we squeezed like sardines through the serpentine exhibit.  We shuffled like cattle from one turn to the next, where you would hear people reading quotations aloud and the occasional 'wow' or 'isn't that amazing', pointing at a metal spine constructed as a corset or a dress modelled with enormous hips.  You would see fashionistas read quote after quote about conformity, breaking rules, how he saw himself as disruptive to the system.  Anonymous homogenous crowds that never would have looked at his work in life, now appreciate it in death and reading his statements as if they were generic descriptions beneath paintings. 

Maybe it all was just too soon after his death, but somehow, for me it all felt a little cheap and commercialized and eery.  Not the exhibit itself as much as the crowds it provoked.  Bitter irony I guess it was. Maybe that was the point.  Maybe he would have wanted a non-conformist to leave feeling a little uncomfortable and disturbed not by his work, but by the mirror is cast on the crowd.  Or maybe not.  I think about Stieg Larson, the author of the 'Girl with the Dragon Tattoo' series and how his girlfriend says that he would have hated the wholesale marketing of his work, and it went against everything for which he stood.  I wonder if Lee Alexander would have hated the side show attraction of the masses. But I guess we'll never know.

"Now I understand what you tried to say to me,
How you suffered for your sanity,
How you tried to set them free.
They would not listen, they did not know how.
Perhaps they'll listen now." (Don McClean)

Monday, August 1, 2011

Our Brief Relationship with AirBnB

My husband and I have heard a great deal of hype about Airbnb in recent months and have considered using couchsurfing for years, so after the NYTimes article early last week, we decided to take the plunge.  Within the day, we had listed our primary residence, a condo in Northern New Jersey and our summer home in upstate New York on Airbnb.  We bantered back and forth about showing worldly strangers around places we know and love.  As perennial scrappy start-up kinder, we thought about the passive income that could potentially come rolling in to fund new and old fangled ventures.  And then, the reality set in--- we would be opening our home(s) to the world at large, literally. 

At first we thought about logistics: what do we do about keys, what do we tell our doormen, what criteria do we use to choose our home's suitors?  Then we thought about theft and damage, art and knick knacks from our world travels, my grandmother's furniture, my antiques, our identities.  My husband began to fret about his books (his biggest worry).  As far as keeping out nefarious elements, we were fairly certain we both had the gut instincts and research skills to sniff out the bad ones.  However, rather instinctively, we realized we'd need to move out all important paperwork, jewelry and small valuables, making our home slightly less authentically 'homey' but soothing our worries about loss a little. 'Don't tempt a thief.' We had built a sanctuary, a corner of the universe that is all ours and we began to worry about violating it.  "Push past it", we both thought. 

Within two days I was contacted by a friendly entrepreneur from NYC, who has worked with the UN and Peace Corp.  He wanted our summer home for this past weekend.  "Ok", I thought with a sigh, this all would begin sooner than I had expected, "We better prepare the house and ourselves", I cautioned my husband. "Am I ready for this?," I thought to myself. I began working out arrangements with the potential guest and realized that we wanted a little more lead time to open the house to outsiders, so we turned him down.  In corresponding with the epitome of the perfect Airbnb user and going up to our home this weekend, we both breathed a deep post-mortem sigh of relief that it didn't happen.  As I skimmed the surface of the pool up in the mountains yesterday, and we had the chance to discuss the two week August request for our condo that came on Friday, I began to solidify my thoughts and concerns about this system.  Suddenly, the romanticism of cultural exposure, new found friends, oodles of passive income, lollipops and rainbows washed away and the engineer in me was crunching the numbers while the entrepreneur and management consultant forced the hard realities to bubble to the surface.  It was then that I realized that no matter how keen I am on the whole concept in a vacuum, for us, it did not pass the basic sniff test for reasonableness in reality.  The risk reward ratio was too high and lopsided against us as homeowners.  I decided then that I needed to write about it.  Little did we know in our blackberry service deprivation the furor that was happening online.

I have faith in the basic decency and goodness of people, but I also know that six sigma events occur beyond anyones control and despite the best of intentions. My biggest concerns boiled down, not to my personal belongings and violating my personal space, but to basic liability law.  Let's start with the law of the land.  Our town, and most towns as far as I have researched have laws on the books from nearly a century ago regarding boarding houses.  It is variable by municipality, but in a general broad statement, renting out rooms is technically illegal.  Many municipalities restrict it all together, while others require fire inspections, certificates of occupancy, egresses.  All and all, it is effectively considered an illegal apartment.  As far as renting out an entire apartment or house, more and more cities including New York and Paris (the two most popular according to the Airbnb website) are cracking down on non-owner occupant short term rentals.  How much that could or would be enforced is questionable, like j-walking or public cursing, these could be laws on the books that are only occasionally used to set an example.  But who knows, especially with the visibility and growth of Airbnb.   

Then I began to consider the concerns of our neighbors.  Certainly my building would not take kindly to, what they would deem, transient elements walking the halls.  If pressed, they could probably either find something in the by-laws to restrict it or put it up for a vote in our almost entirely owner-occupied building.  At best, we might make friends with people who live half-way around the world, but not with the ones we would see in the hallways everyday.  At worst, our building could impose a fine, force us to take on more of the insurance policy for the common areas.  Lord knows what else?

And that brings us to the crux of it: insurance liability.  We have a fairly basic homeowners insurance policy on both of our homes, and since they both sit within a larger community, that policy is augmented by a larger umbrella policy that covers external parts and common areas, for which we share the expense with the rest of the owners.  I began to think about the potential moral hazard of the boarders.  Also, what if someone were injured in the home.  Suddenly the big question came--- 'What if someone tripped and fell from the balcony of our condo (many stories up on a cliff over the Hudson, this would be sure death)? What if God forbid, a child drowned in the pool Upstate (they call it legally an attractive nuisance for a reason)?'  Further, 'what if the worst imaginable thing happened, and someone died on our watch (and our property)?'

It would be tragic no doubt, and forever taint our home with a morbid reality.  But also, thinking about the technical realities of responsibility, we (and our insurance company) could potentially be on the wrong end of a wrongful death claim.  Not just that, but our umbrella policy might also come into play.  And this is where the real hairiness begins. If this were a rental property, I would have investment property insurance rather than an ordinary homeowners insurance policy and I would probably require a long term renter to have proof of his own renter's insurance. Neither of which I would have to protect me as the landlord in the context of Airbnb.  Knowingly renting out the property with the wrong coverage would be acting in bad faith, and unknowingly doing so would be considered negligent.  Technically, I would be violating the terms of my insurance policy to have a boarder (according to my agent, who I called out of sheer curiosity) and hence there is the possibility of voiding a pay-out to the injured party and making my policy as a whole voidable.  I would also probably be violating the terms of the umbrella policy, not to mention, the laws of the corporations and the land.  I would be entering into the case with unclean hands in every direction and I would probably be opening up other owners, and the corporations themselves to liability, for which both parties would hold me accountable.  In this stark and extreme picture, at best I go bankrupt, at worst, the common property is also seized and I face criminal and civil litigation. 

As I see it, Airbnb is based on a shadow economy like Napster was.  When the illegal actions were minor, rare, and peer-to-peer, everyone looked the other way.  But once it became larger and commercialized is when government agencies and corporations began to take notice and issue.  And the litigious issues aren't just liability and local laws, think about fair housing issues and the ADA.   The word 'disruptive', as many people in the VC and start-up community love to use, doesn't really apply when the behavior is actually illegal and harmful to it's users. 

Airbnb loses if it does not address the gaping holes in their business model.  Say the unfortunate and unforeseen happens and Airbnb is taken to court--- say they do win the battle that their non liability statement is enforceable (which I'm not so sure it would), they still lose the war of consumer confidence.  If they can rectify the legal issues, I'd say it's an obvious step that they get into the insurance brokerage and background check business.  They can begin by providing riders to hosts for a higher percentage of the transaction (currently 3%) and supplying guests with renter's insurance for an additional fee, like the travel sites do with trip insurance.  Then as far as creating a safer system, beyond personal reviews, they should consider implementing a basic background check for renters, particularly at the request of the hosts.  Otherwise they are leaving a large gap in the personal liability of users, and hence, in their own corporate liability. 

It all reminds me of something my mother would drill into my head as a little girl.  I was six and had been recuperating from a strep throat and was given permission by my doctor to go back to school.  My mother wrapped the antibiotics and Tylenol I would need for that day in tin foil and put it in a zip-loc baggy, with a note for the nurse.  I was to bring it directly to the nurse when I got to school.  My mother's warning was stern and emphatic, no matter what any other child says, "Do not give them these pills!  If another child were to take them and something were to happen" she warned, "We could lose our house!" 

I didn't entirely understand what my mother meant, but I obeyed and did not give another first grader my medication.  So now that I have my own home, I completely internalize what she was attempting to explain and hence, as it stands I will not be giving my bed to an Airbnb guest.

Thanks for the lesson, Ma. 

Wednesday, June 1, 2011


I approached the ancient ruins with reluctance. As I draped my flowing sweater over my head to honor a tradition in conflict with my principles, I heard lyrics from 'Chorus Line' in my head, "Help me feel it".  I was afraid I wouldn't.  I was scared that I would leave unchanged. And, who was I asking for help, anyway?  The closer I got, the more I seemed to unconsciously lower my heavy head, as if to give deference to a history bigger than me but also with some amount of shame that I was not more in awe.  I am a scientist.  I am a kabbalist. At home, my brain and soul are in conflict, a prayer is immediately followed by judgement and feelings of foolishness. I unknowingly carried this much religious baggage with me on my trip.

Not until I navigated my way through the crowd of women pleading for cures to the greatest ails, to a tiny patch of cool stone did I pay attention to the moist fistfull of wishes or 'prayers' or whatever it is you are supposed to call them, in my left hand.  At first, I just mimiced, leaning with one arm, resting my head and creating my own personal space.  And then I began to recount the 'hopes' I had just written on torn fragments from my sketchpad.

And suddenly, something happened.  I had "melted". 

After many moments, I looked up to find a place where the stone had been worn away by millenia of clawing and bargaining, leaving a void for my notes.  Barely able to see through my tears, I pushed them as far as I could into a large deep cavern to the right of me, hoping they would be enter into a domain in which I was powerless.

Not until those moments at the wall did I realize not only that I have had this perpetual warring of belief systems, but more, that I was tired of fighting.  In those moments, I was allowed to relinquish the control to which I clutch so tightly in my balmy fists---  control of my beliefs and control of my 'wishes'. 

There, I permitted myself to 'feel it'. At that place, I was allowed to call them prayers.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Victimized: Osama & Revelry

On Friday evening, I attended a conference on 'Youth Radicalization Redefined' co-hosted by Google Ideas, Tribeca Film Institute & the Council on Foreign Affairs. Six former extremists were brought together to discuss how they came to be involved in these organizations, how they got out and how the youth of today (52% of the world population) could be persuaded into more positive directions. They particularly focused on bullying and those who are bullied with little opportunity often embrace a culture of victimhood.  Many of them concurred that they were seeking 'family' and to be a part of something 'bigger than themselves' because of their common sense of being attacked in some way.

NYC: May 1, 2011
 This talk now seems to almost foreshadow the end of the Osama Bin Laden era. I must admit, hearing news reports and the address by our president last night gave me a certain amount of morbid satisfaction. I do believe in the death penalty, and on the day of the attack, I wasn't more than 10 miles away.  NYC has been my lifetime home. I am also a Jew, connected to Israel, a big point of contention in the Arab world. As with many people, 9/11 hit close to home, literally and figuratively.

Clearly, his death was just. Just, because he killed so many and polluted the minds of so many more.  But 'justice served', as so many of the newspapers assert, I'm not so sure. To say that the death of one man equalizes the murders of so many others belies the value of life in general. And to celebrate, is even more scary and sobering.  Since the attacks it seems we have enshrined ourselves in victimhood. We've responded to a violent assault on our country by going into multiple wars and categorizing an entire region and belief system as 'the enemy'.

GAZA: September 11, 2001
On September 11, 2001, certain people in the Arab world rejoiced and danced in the streets. That response was based upon their own conviction and passion for their own belief system. The celebration was presupposed upon misinformation about a western world plot to destroy Islam. Yes, their revelry was based upon lies, but it was no less real, no less based upon a sense of victimhood. And now, in the streets of New York on May 2, 2011, nearly 10 years later, we do the same. Cheering at the death of a murderer. To me, it is a sad day. One where we are forced to face a very sad reality that began so many years ago. I confront another reminder of the continual blood shed over ideology. No, we did not start it. Yes, his murder was just.

It's just the revelry--- I guess I just wish it all never happened and that the cycle of violence would end, more than I wish him dead. Unfortunately, the drum keeps beating...
Supporters of hardline pro-Taliban party Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam-Nazaryati shout anti-US slogans during a protest in Quetta, Pakistan, on May 2, 2011 after the killing of Osama Bin Laden by U.S. special forces in Abbottabad.
QUETTA: May 2, 2011

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Testing For Reasonableness

Today, I sat in on 'The Business of Entertainment', hosted by Charlie Rose. The most interesting character was not the accomplished blue blooded CEO of Time Warner Inc., Jeff Bewkes, but rather Joe Roth, a self-made eccentric film producer. After discussing the ups and downs of his own career in producing blockbuster movies, his inherent message was that learning the business was the easy part.  What set him apart were the necessary street smarts, savvy, and ability to trust his own gut.  That loyalty was most important in his line of work. He attributes his overwhelming success to this faithfulness to his primitive brain.

A few years ago, I had a boss try to train me out of my instinct. He thought of me as a leader in the making and thought I could be greater, if it wasn't for my pesky habit of leading by my gut. He attempted in every way possible to force me to trust market research and conventional wisdom first, rather than the innate wisdom that I knew to be truer. It caused friction and questioning of him and myself.

This was not something I could abide. Throughout my life I've been guided by my instincts, my sense of people, my perception of my environment. When I've listened, truly listened, they have never steered me wrong, I've seen success, growth and have been awed. But when I haven't heeded the 'little voice', I've had some of the worst blunders and failures of my life.

Maybe for some people, statistical certainties and market research data inform their decisions better than their own sense of how the system should work. It helps them trust the rules outside themselves. In engineering school and even with children I've mentored, the best ones, the ones who really 'got it' had a sense for numbers. Beyond basic calculations and understanding of complex concepts, some students were able to hazard an estimation on the back of an envelope or know that a written calculation was somehow wrong. Those people have a deep feel for orders of magnitude and have automatic mental tests for reasonableness. The ones who never questioned an answer, no matter how absurb, because they followed a formula, frustrated me.

It reminds me of my experience last night. I attended a special board meeting for our condo building. The complex is in a heated debate about a construction contract, soon to be completed and another soon to be negotiated. Thomas and I are have been frustrated by the lack of transparency coming from the board, which makes them seem more dishonest than they actually are. After arguing with some board members on specific numbers quoted and assumptions made, we both realized that it is really not a matter of veracity. We realized that it is about a basic sniff test for reasonableness. It is sadly just not within everyone's bandwidth.

Maybe we need people to be the guardians of the rules, the ones who seek out experts, calculate by rote formulas, think within the box. I think I need them most of all, so that the defiant child in me, and others like me can find ways to break them--- the rules that is.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Facebook, we're not friends...

It is no secret that I really, really dislike facebook.  Given full disclosure, I do 'troll' around from time to time, peeking in on people's lives, who under normal circumstances (read: pre-FB), wouldn't pop into my mind for years.  I always say that Zuckerberg created it to distract everyone else--- hung up on the mundane routine of acquaintances' daily lives and the social mores of high school--- while he goes on to take over the world.  Or maybe I watched too much 'Pinky and the Brain' as a kid and it is just an ancillary and unforeseen consequence of social networking.   Whatever the case, Facebook is something I try my best avoid like the plague, because inherently I see the social reverberation of 'status updates' and 'friend networks' as just that--- an incurable disease.  Yes, a blood-borne anxiety inducing disease, like malaria. 

There has been plenty of press lately about 'Facebook Depression'. I wouldn't doubt it.  Take the dynamics of high school sophomores with the perceived social hierarchy, have everyone of every age use those rules, stir in tough financial times and an anemic job market.  And there you have it, the experience of a catty high school reunion every day, on live feed.

I recently overheard an argument between a girl and her boyfriend about comments on her 'wall', the tone seemed as if their on-line lives were more relevant than their off-line relationship. A few weeks ago, over dinner, a friend updated me on the goings on of a third degree friend on her network, she compared their career accomplishments and potential salary discrepencies. A girl at a cocktail party told me that the photo 'commenting' and 'liking' got so arduous and political she quit FB cold turkey and now she has anxiety about going back on for a work assignment.  The environment plays to people's most baseful insecurities and weaknesses, where many market a 'profile' they want everyone else to believe (and envy). The ironic part is that those who work so hard to maintain and impose rule of order and promote their image are probably the same insecure social climbers from the good old days of adolescence. 

As I've said before, I am extraordinarily private and completely averse to self-promotion.  Unavoidably, I see even 'sharing' the good that's going on in my life as not only unnecessarily bragging but also making myself a ripe target for an evil eye.  My childhood home was a superstitious one, where my baby crib was painted a deep candy apple red and most comments about good fortune were immediately followed by a 'Kanina Horah, poo, poo, poo'.  So I can't help it really, I don't like talking about myself unprompted, not even to my supposed 'friends'.  As I see it, very few people need to be updated on my daily trials, trivals and triumphs.  Averaged over years, the hope is that life experience will be positive.  It can't be healthy or natural for a near stranger to know the instantaneous events, positive or negative, of one's live.  Not for me at least.

So where does someone like myself fit into the modern age--- this second-life-like world of perpetual updates?  A world, as I see it, where you are either a bombastic braggart or a self-concious braggee, or possibly both simultaneously.  Facebook, and people's use of it has created a zeitgeist of overexposure and insecurity, of personal uses for social media and search engine optimization, all that seems increasingly like an outgrowth of youthful social bullying and popularity contests. 'Neither a borrower nor a lender be'; I don't wish to share nor to envy.  So where do I fit in? 

I had stopped asking that question a long time ago as an eccentric and self-assured teenager.  I am not about to start again now.  So, it seems there isn't a place for my kind--- not at this lunch table.

And  I'm OK with that.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Chris Christie & My Uterus

To me, it is clear that our governor, Chris Christie, is positioning himself for the Republican nomination for a Presidential election.  I just wish his professional aspirations would leave my (and every other woman's) reproductive system out of it.

Always the diplomat, I try my best not to talk politics in mixed company. However, I do have strong liberal views, and given an audience of like-minded people, I unabashedly speak my mind about all things Democrat. Unfortunately, I'm coming to realize that I stymie my own voice, not only to make everyone in a given room feel more comfortable, but I am also intimidated by the bullying and aggression that all too often comes from the other side particularly on the topic of abortion. Yes, I, the fearless opponent of conventional wisdom and authority, get a little scared to talk about a one of my most empassioned topics. 

I am not the only one.  After a number of women's political trainings and being 'asked' to run for office by Emily's List, I find that women are hesitant to cause confrontation and take leadership roles without good reason. And by 'good reason', there's usually something that keeps her up ranting, hopping mad, in the middle of the night.

So here I am angry and outraged--- standing for those too intimidated speak.

Which brings us back to our New Jersey governor. It seems beyond his 'fiscal conservatism' he is trying to appeal to the fundamentalist base of the Republican party and is now commenting on matters of abortion warming. New Jersey being a fairly left leaning state, I don't see these topics necessarily falling within his purview or pay-grade. It seems he's attempting to position himself for a bigger seat on a national stage. To me, it's devastating that the desire to strip any woman of her reproductive rights becomes the litmus test for a tried and true GOP candidate. All the tea-party-ers have now prioritized gutting planned parenthood funding and violating Roe v. Wade through the creation of egregious and unconstitutional state laws above the 'fiscal reform' platform on which they were elected . We all saw the health care bill get hung up on insurance reimbursement for abortions.  And the irony isn't missed on me, that conservatives want less government every where else, except as it relates to my medical decisions and family planning. Why? Why is a woman's uterus the central issue in national political discourse and policy reform?

It forces me to believe that maybe it is a fiscal maneuver. But it is one where poor women are never able to break the cycle of poverty, one where a woman is never seen as a competent decision maker even on matters of her own body. To enact this type of assault against half the population, to me, is a declarative and resounding message to women, 'no matter your advances in industry and education, you are a submissive class.'  Keeping the poor poor and schooling woman on weakness is certainly a fiscal decision. However, I have to believe that it is one most people would not support.

So here I stand, me and my uterus.  Who's with me?

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

CPH: A Visitor's-Eye View

Copenhagen is going to be big. They will become the next major player in trade, tourism, influence and overall coolness in the next few years.  That's my bet, and I'm rarely wrong about these things. 
Those Frankfurters
Let's start with my stomach.  They apparently have an inordinate amount of Michelin star restaurants.  However, my palette has never been all that socially aware or demanding, and as our place on the waitlist at Noma never came due, we roamed into random places to eat.  The nordic options seemed limited, we found places that either served very greasy fair with lots of mayo-based dipping sauces or meats that were shaped, pickled, and cured, either way cost of living is surprisingly high (nice burger joint, a plate could run 110Kr = over 20 bucks and coffee to-go costs $4-$7).  Beer is a big thing, frankfurters are huge literally and figuratively, especially off a truck for breakfast. 

Speaking of coffee, I had the opportunity to meet up with Sandra for a long chat on the lakes, she's a hip well-travelled bohemian lady who authors an amazingly helpful insider's view of the city, Classic Copenhagen.  We talked about her perception of her home city and my sense as a foreigner looking in. I was scorned for my food choices and she was schooled on the need for local influence in the tourist trade.  What a personalizing travel experience!   She definitely changed our trip for the better and I'd like to think I had a little influence on her too. 
Nozzles for Spray Cans!

Little Yogini
Copenhagen is entirely populated by artists, industrial designers, and architects, it seems, who love American and New York culture almost as much as their own.  We stayed in the world's first carbon neutral local hotel chain.  Stores house inventive and ergonomic housewares.  The streets are covered in stickers and posters and street art, and we even came across a store specifically for the graffiti trade. It seems these people's creative juices can't be bottled.  Also there is a yoga studio on every other block.  And yes, those two sentences are juxtaposed for a reason.  We rented bikes from Baisikelli (a suggestion from Sandra), an outfit that's gives money to a sister organization in Africa.  Social enterprise is innately a part of almost every business. And everyone bikes.  There are designated bike lanes everywhere throughout the city and most have fittings for small children--- special seats, strollers attached to the front axle or a small bike attached to the back. 

There are young couples and more babies then I've ever  seen in one place before.  And when the couples aren't together, men in sunglasses, hip leather jackets and pompadours are often seen pushing the strollers alone. Co-parenting is tres chic.  Danes are a forward thinking people it seems in many ways.  They protected their Jews in war time, Copenhagen has 'five fingered" plans for continued urban development and growth, and is a leading attractor of biotech and clean tech.  I can dig it.

So there's a taste of Copenhagen--- filled with egalitarian creative hippies--- one of whom is now a ven.
Last Sun in Copenhagen

CPH: At a Glance

A few of the 1000 pictures we took of people, places, and things:



Graffiti Shop

Mikeller Microbrewery (thanks, Sandra)


Little Hippy Family

Little Audio Engineer
Fashion Shoot

Little Clown
Tres Chic Daddy-hood

Little Family


Daddy & Naked Baby

Little Family

Proud Danish Daddyhood

Thursday, March 31, 2011

Flea Markets & A Child's-Eye View

I am writing this on a flight to Copenhagen. When I was younger I knew it as Royal Copenhagen. You see, the cultures of distant lands were categorized and understood by the collectible antiques I had seen in flea markets that originated from that place. I never really thought about international imports or that some people would want to break from tradition.
David Andersen Butterfly

Hence, Denmark was the country of LEGOs and Holland was a country of Delft porcelain. My image of Scandinavia had porcelain with blue and white clogged children and windmills sitting on mid-century boroughs. In the foreground of that mental scene, kids sat on living room floors building castles out of primary-colored blocks.  All the women wore David Andersen enamel sterling jewelry in vivid colors. Striated blues, greens, and reds forming a leaf or a butterfly, fastened scarves and adorned the wrists of locals as they set their tables with cobalt and ivory dishes. Norway also brought solje jewelry--- intricate silver filigree pieces with hanging spoons--- worn by every bride on her wedding gown.   

As for the rest of Europe--- West Germany still existed because valuable porcelain marked as such could still be found and I knew that Germans must like their silver duller than most everywhere else, as they usually put about 10% less of the substance into their amalgams. France had Limoges insect encrusted trinket boxes and Lalique perfume bottles with beautiful translucent nudes, sitting atop Louis XIV marble top bombay chests--- never quite seemed 'cozy' or 'livable', but they must be a very formal fancy peoples, I thought.

Intaglia carnelian faces surrounded in bright yellow gold could be seen on the erect pinkies of firey Romans drinking espresso, and at these chest-height-Italian-gathering-places there were flower arrangements at the center in an end-of-day Murano glass vase. If one wanted to know if a women was of Czechoslovakian or Austrian decent, all one needed to do was look to her crystal necklace, which of course, they all wore. If she was Czech, the beads would reflect a rainbow off each of the facets, but if she was Austrian, the crystals had a clearer, more refined appearance without the same prismatic effect. 

You get the picture.

Fortunately, now that I have been able to travel as an adult, I don't see countries in such a particular way. Though many times, I still type-cast and cities now become to some extent a periscope-like view into an entire country, admittedly unfairly. For instance, France, for now I think Paris--- a beautiful city filled with fantastic food and art, though the people many times seem quite self-important, dare I say, obnoxious. But their cool black clad appearance belies a passionate sense of French identity to which they cling and never want diluted. And I was right, they are a formal peoples, just sit in a cafe with a few teenage girls, and you'll notice a sense of occasion and of personal style that can't be found anywhere else. Some of my most beautiful mental images were shot there, and some of the most thought-provoking and creative movie shorts I've ever seen were born in the mind of a Frenchman. So I wouldn't quite say, "I left my heart in Paris", but close and Lalique and Limoges have very little to do with it.

So we'll see what Copenhagen has in store. Hans Christian Andersen's antiquarian fairy tales and George Jensen flatware certainly, but what else I'll learn about the Danes I wonder.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

The Great Divide: Doctors vs Innovators

Time Magazine eLEGS

I recently listened to a talk about the future of exoskeleton technology.  It seems that Berkeley Bionics is making great 'strides', helping wheel-chair bound individuals walk again.  My college days were packed with discussions of biomechanics and gait analysis so, of course, the topic is of great interest to me.  However, if conceivable, what I find more interesting is that when it comes to discussion of modern science and medical technologies inevitably, the practice of medicine is vilified. 

The woman demonstrating the technology has been paralyzed for nineteen years after taking a sudden somersault while skiing in her twenties.  She described her despair in the hospital bed, which was magnified by the doctor who "strolled in and told me I'd never walk again.  And with that he shattered me".  Since then, she had relearned how to ski and rock climb, but with this device, she was walking for the first time. Her tone was defiant, as if she thought her doctor would have wanted to be right more than for her to be healed.

As a teenage, I worked at the Arnold P. Gold Foundation, a non-profit that focused on teaching doctors to treat patients more humanistically.  Many of us, I'm sure, have read statistics on the mind-body connection, the placebo effect, the importance of hopefulness in treatment.  I saw it with my own grandmother. This is not the first time I have heard such a negative perception of physician care.  But more and more often I hear these sentiments espoused by the innovation community, with the most vitriol of all.  The attacks come both in professional and personal contexts.  Oddly enough, it often becomes medicine versus innovation.

I believe, what it really distills down to is that though these two groups seem to have similar goals, they actually have diametrically different views of patient care with much differing time horizons.  In the most idealistic situation, doctors are trained experts with an encyclopedic knowledge about disease and ways to fight it.  However, they are dealing from a very finite stack of answers and the very basis of their profession tells them, that all diagnosis and prognosis must fall within that Rolodex.  Everything is reduced to statistical norms within mortality and morbidity charts.  Their focus is primarily in the past.  They treat one patient at a time, informed by their education and experience, winning some, losing others, hoping that over enough cases, they can beat the house. 

The science and technology community is predominantly a different breed of animal who thinks almost entirely of the future.  Innovators believe that the game can always be rigged to improve the odds.  They have faith that given enough analytical capital--- man, microprocessor, experimentation--- anything is possible.  This illogical blindly optimistic view of the world provide the fumes that keep them working even when chances seem slim.  To them answers are never finite, and thus the Rolodex is a dynamic one.  And lastly, when they hit, they hit big, effecting the life of not just one patient, but possibly millions.

So when these two communities are forced into the same room, whether by industry or illness, they can't understand each other.  The doctor, in the trenches daily, patient-to-patient, must see the innovator as a wild-eyed dreamer. While the innovator, creating a device or cure ten, twenty, or thirty years into the future sees the physician as lacking hope, vision, and having the audacity to think he has all the answers . 

The irony is that they both need each other--- and it's not just about creation and implementation.

I hear that job satisfaction amongst physicians is at an all time low.  Doctors are a disheartened and disillusioned bunch and they deserve a little hope and faith drizzled into their profession. Maybe innovators could share their flame of optimism.  A tiny flicker could burn despite all the negativity medical professionals face.  Maybe then they could impart more of it to their patients too.  And I'll be the first to admit, many times innovators can be dreamers.  They could stand to learn more about the current needs of patients, develop a greater sense of urgency around solutions and visualize the real people they would be helping with this great abstract idea. 

Past, present and future.  Grounded and hopeful.  Micro and macro.  Doctors and innovators would do well to realize they are on the same team. 

Monday, March 28, 2011

Wal-mart & Manhattan

A letter to the editor about our dismay for the now built and running Wal-mart coming to our neighborhood, the argument I believe is still apropos.  I hope New York keeps fighting the good fight.

"As fairly recent home-owners in North Bergen, purchasing our apartment in November of 2006, we were drawn in by the sense of community, the highly diverse population, and the fact that it is a transitioning neighborhood. As such, we were distressed to read in Tuesday's Bergen Record about the imminent acquisition of property by Wal-Mart in our town. We feel that Wal-Mart would undermine everything North Bergen is striving to be.

North Bergen is a strong working-class town with a large Urban Enterprise Zone. The UEZ zoning was created to help the area flourish and to promote small business growth. The program is there to incentivize employment of local union workers and to allow the area to have a self-sustaining economy. However, based on a recent article in the Wall Street Journal about Wal-Mart's "aggressive" tax cutting strategies, we are forced to believe that it would take advantage of and undermine the entire purpose of the UEZ zone (Drucker A1). Simultaneously, it would enjoy half the normal state tax rate and gain additional profits from the employment of local non-union workers. Wal-Mart will hire a skeleton crew with as few full-time employees as possible, making sure to avoid paying for health coverage. As stated in Thomas Friedman's The World is Flat, even many of their full-time employees with 'full benefits' are forced onto food stamps and Medicare because Wal-Mart wages aren't adequate for the standard of living (Friedman 215). Lastly, this company has an infamous track record for taking control of an area and its economy, while manipulating and optimizing local tax law for maximum profits. Consequently, it is being indicted by multiple states for partial tax evasion.

We see this aggressive move by Wal-Mart as a way to take advantage of a small town at a tipping point, to benefit its investors at the cost of a town's success. North Bergen would be at the will of this anti-American corporation. Wal-Mart will strangle the small- to mid-size companies, which the UEZ zone was created to promote and protect, by undercutting prices and limiting necessary expenses. Inevitably, many businesses will close and Wal-Mart will be able to assert it's dominance over what would have been a thriving community.

We see no benefit for our home town or our neighbors."

Thursday, March 24, 2011

The Allure of Wander Lust

My mother planted a tree for each of her children when we were born.  For me, she trained a wisteria vine to stand upright and become what looks like a peculiar tree--- no small feat. It still gives her headaches some years, she has given up on bracing it to a post and now just attempts to trim it at the beginning of the season. Every spring it grows in unexpected directions, the flowers draping differently, and the seedling pods spread further on my parent's front lawn.  As a child, that bush-like tree was symbolic of my rebellious nature, my impulse to roam, the fact that 'I could not be tamed'.  I thought it meant that I was wild like a vine.

I've been noticing a trend lately.  One where smart, ambitious, young people choose to take a wild detour, a seemingly permanent hiatus from their adult lives.  I see quarter-lifers en masse abandoning all notions of a permanent identity, forgoing education (some use this as a detour in and of itself), family, home, and career to 'travel'.  'Travel' has thus become an autonomous and all-encompassing word for not just motion, but constant, never ending life as a rootless vagabond.  That way they are responding solely to individual whims and momentary desires, rather than facing the bigger picture--- the instinct I believe every human being has--- 'How will I contribute to something greater than myself? What will be my lasting impact?".

The impulse is understandable, after all a few years ago, I had a similar one. I hit some bumps in the proverbial road that many people my age are first encountering--- the experience of being forced to reconcile your hopes with a reality that is less than ideal, particularly in the context of work-life.  My generation was told, 'you can do anything', 'you can change the world', 'you are special'.  It's a great deal to live up to, and more so, to figure out what that actually means when you are forced to 'specialize' in very tenuous times.

Suddenly, one feels the need to figure out what to do with the rest of life, now, at this very moment.  The unfortunate thing is, when someone with the life experience of a couple of decades is faced with such a deep unanswerable existential question as "What will fulfill and engage me for the next, hopefully, eight decades? What will it say on my epitaph?" many run scared, understandably so.  They run to the farthest corners of the earth, thinking they can escape this monster, the very one their fathers vanquished from under their beds when they were little.  But as my grandmother used to say, "whereever you go your troubles follow", and no matter where one sleeps, there will always be a goblin lurking in the corner.  That is, until someone turns on the light to reveal that scary shadow to be, say, a sweater hanging on the back of a chair. 

I decided to write about this after reading a poem by Robert Service in Truman Capote's, 'In Cold Blood'.  The killer in this true-story left a note for a woman who had cared for him, as explanation for his departure.

There's a race of men that don't fit in,
    A race that can't stay still;
So they break the hearts of kith and kin,
    And they roam the world at will.
They range the field and they rove the flood,

    And they climb the mountain's crest;
Theirs is the curse of the gypsy blood,
    And they don't know how to rest.
If they just went straight they might go far;
    They are strong and brave and true;
But they're always tired of the things that are,
    And they want the strange and new.
They say: "Could I find my proper groove,
    What a deep mark I would make!"
So they chop and change, and each fresh move
    Is only a fresh mistake.
And each forgets, as he strips and runs
    With a brilliant, fitful pace,
It's the steady, quiet, plodding ones
    Who win in the lifelong race.

It is such a scary question because life is an ever evolving journey--- there is no one answer in your mid-twenties, let alone early fifties or late seventies.  And with the life experience comes the knowledge, not what will keep your engaged ad infinatum and leave a legacy long after you're gone, but that situations manifest, unforeseeable events and environments arise and change happens even as life seems like it's standing still.  Thus we need to be open to the ride, adaptable to change, and make decisions authentic to ourselves and to that which is known at the moment.
As for me, I have always been called a 'gypsy', partially because of my look, and partially because I've always been a restless vine-like spirit.  As a teenager, I identified with movies like 'Chocolat' and assumed I had a wandering soul like the listless heroine. So for a spell, as an adult, I tried on that shoe for size. Surprisingly, what I found, is that it didn't fit as well as I had expected.  I found that I am committed and passionate about certain things and to certain people.  I am not listless nor scared of standing still--- if anything, I am terrified of running. I found that I love an adventure, but I also love a warm home where I can collect all the stories in one place.  I discovered that thinking outside myself defined me more than looking within.   "Yes! Live! Life's a banquet and most poor suckers are starving to death!," Auntie Mame proclaims to her nephew.  I've only recently come to understand what that actually means. 

And funny enough, I now see myself like that wisteria even more today than when I was a child, but in an entirely different way--- not a tree, not a vine, but both. Which makes me beautifully unpredictable, and at the same time also deeply rooted and when my season comes, I spread my flowers and seeds generously, and hopefully, with more far ranging impact than the prior one. A bohemian with a specific place in the universe--- I am a stationary gypsy, if that's possible.  Hence, now I can sit without the dizzying shifting parallax of perpetual motion and enjoy this wonderful ride of life, where I try to steer as often as possible. A ride well-lived, not a life well-ridden--- that's my goal.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

The Perception of Power

Last week, I wrote yet another complaint email to a CEO. This time, it was in regards to unfulfilled price match guarantees on a travel site that shall remain nameless. Other times it has been to the heads of commercial & investment banks, retailers, consumer products producers, credit card companies. Many times I CC other chief executives within the company, depending if it is say, an operational or financial issue. Often I CC members of the board.  You could say that I am blind to the perceived boundaries of wealth and/or power.

As to this particular incident, it may seem trivial to most. After spending an unexpected hour on the phone with  'white glove' call center service, they wouldn't honor the guarantee attested on their website. The service rep mentioned as the reasoning a couple of loop holes, asterisks and round-abouts, all contradicting each other. All to get the company out of a $25 refund and $50 future credit. Mind you, I had just received an elite/platinum membership, with this spiffy concierge number embossed on the card, for being such a profitable customer. I promptly cancelled my reservation and rebooked with a competing site. After which I wrote a scathing email to the head of the company for his irresponsibility, his dereliction in the way of customer service, and also expressing that the company no longer had verisimilitude to me--- I didn't sense they were acting in good faith.

My first letter like this was written at age 8, with the help of my father. Frustrated that Jolly Ranchers  packages were usually slim on the lemons, my favorite flavor, I wrote to 'the man' about being bilked out of my allowance money.  I even lamented about how the 29 cent stamp was an expense I could not afford (ok, so it was a slight exaggeration), audaciously asking for 3 bags of pure lemon, which was not a product they produced.  After printing the letter off on our dot matrix printer, I separated it at the perforation, removed the trim, and sent it off in an envelope. A few weeks later, I received not only a hand written reply from a brand manager (oh, the irony), but samples of new products, coupons and my father was invited to pick up more at the local factory.  He later came home with cases of pink lemonade candy sticks, something I don't believe they produce any longer.  All because of my insolant little letter.

My mother recently found these
and gave them to me.
Now access is even easier. We have the internet and blackberries and email, and given a little research effort and writing abilities, it is fairly easy to tell a company what you think quickly and electronically. I've found the email address on my way underground, written the email on the subway ride, and sent it as I've walked up the steps to the street air.  The day of printers and snail mail is nearly dead. 

But it's not just a 'company' I like to contact, inevitably I want a human being on the other end of that letter and one with enough clout and skin in the game to do something about it.  Hence, I have this dreadful habit of sending complaint letters to CEOs.  And I always offer a seemingly important consequence, the loss of a good customer.  I usually get a response from the executive office. Occasionally, I'll get a response from a customer service manager, given specific instruction, I'm sure, to "handle this".  Rarely, have I received direct touch from the CEO himself (yes, him, it's always been a him unfortunately). 

Apparently, I'm not the only one. I recently read about the CEO of Starbucks receiving an email from the CEO of J Crew, Millard Drexler, about the coffee lids at his regular Starbucks haunt. Drexler sees it as his right and his duty, as I do.  Schultz was responsive and took ownership of this small complaint--- I'm glad, as I'm not only a regular consumer, I'm a shareholder.  I hope he responds as vigorously even to the 'nobodies' who email him.

I guess, if you distill it down, my habit started with that letter to the candy company.  Maybe if my father never read about Ralph Charell, Guiness Records most successful complainer in the early 80's, I'd be a slightly different person today. But then again, I have always had a strong sense of fairness and justice.  Additionally, I never quite understood that fear of 'authority' or respect for 'conventional wisdom' that's supposed to come with say, your first teeth or your first homework assignment.  Also, when I entered the business world, and particularly the entrepreneurial world, I found myself speaking with management of companies often.  So all those factors accumulate to create a world that is markedly flat, where we are all human and fundamentally, that means no one is inaccessible and no aura of power is inpenetrable. 

As for my anonymous travel executive, I just received an email with an apology and a credit for my next booking. I'm happy. But I'll be happier if they don't do it next time.