Thursday, September 30, 2010

Hot. Hotter. Hottest.

The official thermometer in Los Angeles broke at 113 the other day. The extreme heat could easily be a metaphor for political discourse or how that discourse gets us hot under the collar. I think the extremism that is more worrisome is more deep seeded and our political environment only reflects what exists throughout the rest of society.

Every day we’re bombarded with messages encouraging us to buy this product or that product to fix this thing or that thing. Advertising is fantastic – there is creativity, inspiration and innovation reflected in a range of new products. It’s not the new products or their messages that is cause for concern. It seems that each new product is the best ever. This one is the best drain cleaner ever. The drain cleaner we tried to sell you last month? Fuggetaboutit…this one’s better. Never mind that next month there’ll probably be an ever better one.

The claims of best ever and most fantastic and other hyperbolic descriptors have resulted in the opposite effect. The trend in movie ads shows that a particular movie may be “#1 Movie this Week” while another is the “#1 Comedy in America” while another is the “#1 Thriller this Fall” --- all probably true --- but if you want to see the actual “#1” movie, now you have to look hard to find that qualifier. So much work! Soon I expect to be able to see the “#1 Mystery in your neighborhood for the past 12 hours.”

It seems that every product now has a qualifier for being the very best or the only reason to acquire it. From a business and marketing perspective, that makes sense. It’s the function of business to distinguish itself and its products from the competition, and showing that their product cleans better, tastes better or is cheaper than the competition is fundamental. The trick is getting the word out.

We consume massive amounts of content and advertising every day – so much so that the various designations lose impact and value. The comparative qualifications of one product to another must then be amplified to keep up. Our attention is less focused because our days are busier, more harried and more distracted than ever before. To let us know about the important product difference means the volume gets cranked up, the message therefore must get more intrusive.

The result is more and more creative efforts to grab our attention. The Los Angeles Times once again arrived this week with a worrisome headline and pictures covering the entire front page --- only to discover that it was a paid ad for a new TV show. Mission accomplished – my attention was diverted because my expectation that the front page of the newspaper would carry, you know, news. TV newscasts now regularly highlight cross-promotional items and endorsement-paid segments on health and cars, often without attribution.

Being duped or tricked into believing that something is independent and then learning that it isn’t is now so pervasive that there exists a level of distrust and skepticism that permeates every part of our lives. It is potentially very destructive.

That destruction is where political discourse has evolved (devolved) to. President Obama was marketed and sold as the best politician, the one who came from nowhere to become the Leader of the Free World. He was better than any comic book hero. Now to some he has become the Worst President Ever (since that other Worst President). To some he’s now that Foreign-Born-Radical-Marxist-bent-on-the-destruction-of-Society-As-We-Know-It. To others he’s a disappointment because it turns out his feet got wet when he tried to walk on water. This is what happens when people are “sold” on one thing, and get something else. I don’t think President Obama or his supporters intended to have the expectations they set up not be met. Of course not. But it is inevitable with such salesmanship. By not meeting the very expectations they stoked, the spiral of disappointment and anger increases. Fewer participate in the process. And to get people involved and voting again the next time will require more, more and more sales. We’re at the point of diminishing returns – the same with having so many #1 movies…people actually shut down. The current result is more energy to wind people up again – for business or politically.

None of this hyperbolic discourse in any part of society is actually helpful. Until we individually look at our role in trying to “be the best” and the impact that we allow advertising and selling to succeed, the vicious circle will continue, just faster and louder. Yes, I’m saying we have to be responsible for our actions and communications to business and politicians. Clearly that’s a ludicrous idea. The most. Ever. In the history of human existence. Really!

Thursday, September 23, 2010

The Most Wonderful Time of the Year

This is the most wonderful time of the year. I am reconnecting with old friends and past loves which meeting new people, having new crushes and suffering disappointment. It’s the new TV season. My addiction to the medium traces back to childhood when my siblings and I would negotiate over which shows we’d watch. Oh those Happy Days!

These days I have two DVR’s programmed to the hilt, with my goal not to miss my favorite returning shows or the new ones. Each of the DVR’s have their own criteria…one is for action and crime oriented shows while the other is more relationship shows, news/info and, of course, HGTV. “My stories” transport me around the globe, allow me to get to know interesting people and relate to their experiences. I get to have adventures, learn new procedures and am vicariously romantic. I laugh. I cry. I get thrills and chills. Television is no vast wasteland, it’s a rich cornucopia of human experiences.

I don’t watch much “reality,” preferring the imagined relationships of scripted fare over the situational absurdities that largely fill the reality genre. (The Amazing Race, of course, is the shining exception to that rule – where the character development, adventure and challenges best virtually anything else.  Starts Sunday 9/26!) As Premiere week goes along – it’s like being 5 years old on Christmas morning. Everything is shiny and bright, the bows are so pretty! I know there’ll be some stanky stuff in one or more of the packages, but I’m hoping they are few and far between this year.

In moments of introspection I wonder what draws me so strongly to the TV. Conspiracy theories about “The Man” sending messages and controlling me via the box notwithstanding, I think that TV offers what life could be, and maybe even should be.

My house was robbed twice in 2009. In addition to the loss of material property, the intimate invasion of privacy stayed with me long after the incidents. The LAPD took 28 hours to arrive after the first robbery. The officers asked if I wanted to have fingerprints taken – to which I naturally agreed. There are only 2 fingerprint units in all of LAPD. Two. They’d get to me within a week. To have a report filed I had to go to the station. After waiting 90 minutes there was no detective available to take the report, so I just left the paper with the front desk. After the second robbery I bailed on the fingerprints. A suspect was arrested. Speculation is that this person had been doing similar robberies in the neighborhood for the better part of the year. I know this only because of the local supermarket newspaper. I called the detective “assigned” to the cases to see if any of my property was recovered or if I could be helpful as a double victim. No response. After so many years of Law & Order, CSI and a host of other criminal procedures I had an expectation that my police force would care, be efficient, act fast and that forensics were ever present. Such is the dichotomy between television and the real world.

Television offers the promise of solving complex issues in 45 minutes or less. Doctor’s are dedicated and never seem to ask or care about insurance or payment. Lawyers get cases in the morning and are in court that afternoon. The bad guys are nearly always caught. Everybody seems to have sex, and it’s always hot and satisfying. The disconnect between how the world really operates and how it’s portrayed seems to grow with each season.

As viewers we see hero’s performing extraordinary physical, emotional and relationship acts – all neatly packaged. When a similar situation interrupts our actual lives and we can’t solve the issue as succinctly, frustration with the actual world increases. Why can’t we just parachute into Afghanistan, like Chance in Fox’s Human Target or like Jack in the newly departed 24? When we see somebody we find attractive and interesting – shouldn’t our eyes just meet and bliss follows? Shouldn’t we be clever enough to have a pithy response to every situation? Where is President Bartlett when you need him?

President Obama won the Democratic nomination and ultimately the election by being a good character on television. He is attractive, well spoken and has a great rise-from-nowhere-to-conquer-the-world story. Months after taking office and the challenge of governing and building coalitions became the primary narrative, his popularity waned. What do you mean he can’t turn the economy around in a few months? If it were on ABC that would have happened by mid-season. A year to pass a legislative bill? Josh Lyman used to do it in half an episode of West Wing. Health care? Just go to General Hospital or any number of other fictional hospitals.

Most people cognitively know the difference between fiction and non-fiction. Even with this knowledge, the prevalence of so much content that we all consume voraciously (whether it be television, movies, plays, video-games) has established a baseline of expectations. Politicians market themselves as the next deodorant – fresh and new! No wonder the dissatisfaction of established institutions is so high. When we are marketed to, we expect a certain result – and that result is unlikely to be realized in a world where people fundamentally disagree on the size, scope and role of its institutions – both public and private.

Private enterprise is not immune from the expectations game. Most of the characters we know, love and root for on television spend the majority of their time in their work place. They seem happy, fulfilled and making next week’s rent or mortgage is rarely an issue whereas in the day to day living most of us have that as a primary concern. Certainly TV shows primary function is to allow us to escape the mundane of our daily lives to imagine something different.

Nielson (the TV ratings company) reports  that the average home has 3 TV’s and we watch about 5 hours a day, or about one-third of our waking lives. Consuming this much television enables the disconnect between how the world works and how we want the world to work to exist.

Certainly the answer is not less television. Maybe we need perspective television – where our dramatic stories are more representative of actual experiences, where people of different sizes color and economic backgrounds are better represented. Maybe there are more shows like The Wire and Friday Night Lights that take present extraordinary stories based in identifiable worlds. A landscape where murder and mayhem aren’t the primary sources of conflict. Whoa! I’m teetering off to never-never land. Back to originally scheduled programming...

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Discounted Education

I have crossed the threshold of having spent more years outside of a classroom than inside one. This occurs to me as September brings legions of students – from toddlers to post-collegiate – back into the learning environment, eager to start fresh. As the child of two passionate and gifted teachers you’d think that I would be a de-facto supporter of schools. Not so much.

Sometime in the early 1980’s I opined at the dinner table how Ronald Reagan was right – I couldn’t find anywhere in the Constitution that justified an “Education Department” of the U.S. Government. My parents, in a gesture of extreme patience, goodwill and genteel temperament, let my ‘Alex P. Keaton’ moment pass. “Not everybody has had the education that you have had and can so easily discount it.”

Discounted education is exactly what we have right now, but not in the way my parents meant. I am indebted for the extraordinary gift that I had been given as the child of educators – getting both a formal and informal education second to none. My teenage arrogance/naïveté of the value of education has given way to adult appreciation laced with frustration that indeed not everybody has the same educational opportunities.

In business I have hired a lot of people. I found in the last several years especially it is harder to find candidates who have reasoning and logic skills. There’s a strong argument that the decades-long trends towards standardized testing has caused some of this. I was a terrible test taker, especially the ones where you filled in a bunch of circles. My SAT scores were an embarrassment. I would likely be a warning statistic in today’s “No Child Left Behind” environment where teaching and studying is more about the right answer rather than the process and the reason for the answer.

Teaching doesn’t belong just in schools, but in all of our institutions. A good executive in business should have many characteristics of our best teachers: patience, the ability to communicate effectively and translate complex data to multiple constituencies. The executive must also be open to learning, from subordinates, competitors and customers. Imagine if our political leaders listened and then took the time to guide citizenry to their way of thinking on a particular policy instead of a 15-second catchphrase. It would make for terrible Cable TV news, but a vibrant, engaged and rich society.

A lack of funding is a constant frustration at the classroom level. As a business person who believes in limited (but effective) government, I see the funding issue as a critical issue – but it’s not just throwing more financial resources at the current system.

Money in and of itself does not guarantee a good educational experience, for teacher or for student. California ranks #16 of all states in per capita spending yet is ranked 49th in educational effectiveness.

EPE Research published a state ranking of education spending per student. It showed that

The highest spending state, Vermont, is rated 30th in SAT scores nationwide. The lowest spending state, Utah, gets higher SAT scores from their students and is ranked 20th above Vermont. The Worst State SAT score comes from Maine yet it spends the 5th most money in the nation.
Statistics can vary widely in this (or any) area – especially in how one might use them to support their particular point-of-view. For example, the US ranks 37 in per capita spending, but do we think that American students are less educated than Malawi or Cuban students?  Complex and emotional issues can quickly get bogged down in “my statistic trumps yours.” For a moment, and for the sake of this discussion, let’s consider that there’s enough money already but it’s the systemic conditions don’t allow for the most effective use of those funds.

This week Los Angeles just opened the most expensive school ever built: $578million. (That’s about $135,000 per student.) The dollars spent on construction come from targeted and voter approved taxes to build schools and that money can’t be used for anything else. I’m not suggesting that those dollars could have saved thousands of laid off teachers...because the funding rules of the tax restrict that…but this nuance of fact is secondary to the message that is sent to teachers, parents and students: building are more important than teachers. $578 million for any building is simply excessive. Was the question ever asked: Do we really need more physical structures?

Does it still make sense to have schools be just 9-months a year? This calendar evolved from farmer’s needs. Studies show that students take weeks to regain ground lost over a three month break. A year-round school schedule makes sense not only from a learning point of view, but a resource point of view as well. Rather than having facilities sit empty, a robust scheduling system can be utilized to keep students and teachers on a continuous calendar while maximizing the use of physical plants. Los Angeles’ experiment with year-round scheduling was abandoned a few years back due to complaints from families with kids on multiple tracks and the approval of dollars for more facilities, negating the need to maximize facility usage. This to me is a logistical problem that smart people can solve and wouldn’t have included building more schools – no matter their cost. While that wouldn’t necessarily mean that the construction dollars would automatically go into the classroom – there would be an opportunity to have dollars better utilized somewhere that ultimately could benefit schools.

The Los Angeles School District in February 2007 introduced a payroll system years late, tens of millions of dollars over budget that couldn’t calculate paychecks properly. Thousands of teachers were underpaid, overpaid and simply not paid. The Los Angeles County Grand Jury in June 2010 found additional hazards of collapse are imminent that will cost some $65 million more to fix.
The payroll system is extremely complex with hundreds of differentiating factors. One teacher, for example, may be paid one rate for Homeroom, another rate for teaching History, another for being a Coach and another for tutoring. That same person may have a whole other pay structure if they lead the same course at another school within the district. Tracking these different pay rates, hours, etc. is time consuming and expensive for all involved. Is this the best use of teacher time? Administrative resources? IT development? How does this benefit the classroom? Union leaders, teachers and administrators should look to streamline the pay structure and utilize third-party vendors (Microsoft? Google? Apple?) to build a working system. This is just one example where schools can learn from what works in business.

Learning and teaching doesn’t end with a degree. Businesses benefit when continuing education is integrated as part of the company’s Research & Development. I ran a services company that had a slower business cycle during parts of the year. Rather than lay off the staff and have to hire and train new staff, providing a continuing educational curriculum was the solution. Managers used the opportunity to correct what seemed like ingrained performance issues. Employees were able to provide recommendations for efficiencies. New skills were learned and taught, all of which benefitted the company with the introduction of new services. In the short term such efforts are not cost-effective. In the mid and long term we learned that investing in staff yields not only financial benefits to the company but improved morale and loyalty.

Business, government and individuals can learn from each other. Who will take the first step?

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Ode to Jack

Dad as a Boy
I look like Dad – the physical resemblance is clear and remarkable. Of course I’ve know this for some time – there are many photos of us where the features are unmistakable and the dozens of comments at Dad’s funeral last week reinforced the fact. A few years back when Dad was at home after the first stroke and we had overnight nurses coming in – I would stay up to greet them. (I suppose verifying the time-slip might have also played a role.) I would get up from the comfy TV chair and greet them. “Oh Lordy. I thought he was-raised-up-and-a-walkin’ again. Lord Have Mercy!” exclaimed one of the South African nurses when I startled her with my very presence.

Dad - Alaska circa 2003
Laughter is one of the hallmarks of who Dad was and one of his legacies. Shortly after Dad's first stroke I was at the hospital. Doctor’s came and went, specialists. One of the doctor’s – a brain surgeon I think – was distinguishable mostly due to his appearance. He stood 5 foot 4 (being generous) and was like those old Weebles-Wobble-but-they-don’t-fall-down toys (a lot of mid-section girth). I was there with Mom one day and we were talking about what Dr. So-and-So had said. We’d look to Dad and he had a totally questioning look, unsure of which one of the myriad of doctors we were talking about. “Dr. Pear” I said simply. I nearly killed him that day with the convulsing laughter that occurred – the nurses had to race in and fix the breathing tube that nearly came dislodged.

Dad loved words. He wrote a book, “WOW” which stands for A Workbook of Words. He and I sat in his office – both us typing into matching Kaypro computers. Post-stroke the family would regularly spend time at our parents’ home in Massachusetts to try and provide Mom a small break as the Primary Caregiver. During one of these visits I was introduced to a new device and routine that had to be done. The InExsufflator. OK, fine. Several visits later I connected with one of the nurses who knew I was doing the day-to-day while I was there. “Don’t forget the CoughAssist” machine. Another new thing? No. Dad just preferred calling the CoughAssist machine the InExsufflator. Classic.

Dad as Howie, me as newspaper kid
Dad introduced me to the theatre. As a youngster I was shy and totally introverted. Mom and Dad thought that play-acting would bring me out of my shell. I was cast in a Community Theatre production of Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town.” Dad chauffeured me to and from rehearsals. The director immediately realized she had an adult male who had to be there – and convinced him to play Howie, the milkman who travelled with his horse Bessie (via pantomime). I played Joe and Si Crowell, the newspaper boys.

Over the years we did this production a half-dozen times at various locations. One of our favorite memories was one night when Act II started without Howie. There was some critical plot point that had to be conveyed by Howie, so they had to vamp. Howie eventually raced on stage, apologizing and explaining that Bessie had been on the crapper.

Mom and Dad @ Trippoli Fountain

He lived and loved life himself. He adored his children and grandchildren and told us so.  His marriage to Mom lasted nearly 53 years and they were together for 58. Their love-story is one I aspire to, one where the soul actually mates with another, where laughter rules the day and love is ever present. “Take care of your mother” was his wish, admonition and life's mission. We will Dad, we will. It’s who you’ve raised us to be.

Dad the teacher.
Beyond our immediate family, Dad’s influence is impressive. As a teacher he molded many for nearly 50 years, though he never stopped teaching, guiding and mentoring. He inspired and guided young men and women. We have received hundreds of correspondences saluting Dad’s impact on individual lives over his entire career. He’s had a play dedicated to him and been acknowledged by Alaska’s Writer Laureate. I’ve even heard from my babysitters who remember him. Luis is the home healthcare worker who became part of our family and one of Dad’s closest confidants during the last 5 years.  Luis became Dad’s continuing opportunity to mentor, guide and inspire. Luis simultaneously mentored, guided and inspired “Chief” to do things that most with that type of stroke could never do.  My gratitude and awe of this young man cannot be overstated and it’s somehow fitting that Luis Jr. was born a few weeks before Dad died. It’s reassuring and comforting to see and hear that so many have credited Dad with sparking their life-long passions, whether they be as parents, teachers, coaches, writers, doctors…he just wanted everybody to live and love life to their fullest potential. His and Mom’s favorite song reflects his total way of being:

To dream the impossible dream
To fight the unbeatable foe
To bear with unbearable sorrow

To run where the brave dare not go
To right the unrightable wrong
To love pure and chaste from afar

To try when your arms are too weary
To reach the unreachable star
This is my quest

To follow that star
No matter how hopeless
No matter how far

To fight for the right
Without question or pause
To be willing to march into Hell

For a heavenly cause
And I know if I'll only be true
To this glorious quest

That my heart will lie peaceful and calm
When I'm laid to my rest
And the world will be better for this

That one man, scorned and covered with scars
Still strove with his last ounce of courage
To reach the unreachable star

“Enough already” I hear him saying. He’d be the first to point out his failings and his fair share of humanity. As a faculty brat I am acutely aware that not all of his students appreciated his methods.  More personally his struggle with booze was a long and painful one. Once on a row-boat outing I pulled in the oars and attempted an intervention. If there’s a book about what-not-to-do this should be in it. At least I didn’t have to swim back. Years later he chose sobriety, but it wasn’t an easy transition for him.

June 2010
The stroke was a defining transition. It changed his life and our lives. He wrote this (via dictation) in the weeks just before he died and the words capture him best: “I've come to see my stroke as a grace, a John-of-the-Cross invitation, to enter into, experience and re-experience my life in becoming a person in various communities. Without the stroke, I wonder if I would have, could have reached such richness. Regardless, I am filled with gratitude. Here, I think the Spanish word "gracias" is significantly richer than the English "thank you" because the stem is related to both grace and gratitude. Thus when I say "gracias," I am expressing thanks and gratitude to the loving power that gives me the grace of life and the invitation to grow as a person in a community, thus seamlessly weaving the finite and the infinite.

Muchas Gracias Dad, muchas gracias. Rest in peace. You’ve earned it.