Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Unwrapping Thanks

'Tis that time of the year. Gratitude is unwrapped as the turkey is basted. I don’t mean to suggest that the expressions of appreciation are anything other than genuine – it’s just curious to me that it takes a National Holiday to remind us to be generous with our gratitude.

Thanksgiving is a uniquely American holiday, though it is also celebrated in Canada, Netherlands, Grenada (in appreciation for the U.S. invasion of 1983) and Liberia. Each country has its own day, but the general originating premise (except Grenada) was the same: giving thanks for a bountiful harvest. The feast with the Pilgrims and Native Americans in 1621 may not have been the first celebration, but is certainly the most famous.

Today the tradition involves vast quantities of food and drink. Friends and family gather to share the experience, be with one another and connect. Football will be played nearly non-stop throughout the day from amateur to the NFL. The day after Thanksgiving has become the official launch of the Holiday buying season – with millions of people shuffling off to the mall to begin the gift giving ritual that the commercial holiday season demands. Mixed in with all of these traditions is when we individually take a moment to be Giving of our Thanks. It’s a particularly American mixture.

I lived in London during my junior year in college. The school put forward great effort by renting a restaurant and serving sliced turkey and some fixings. It was an underwhelming meal after a lifetime of extraordinary meals on the day. My sister was taking a high school term in London simultaneously and we were able to gather for part of the day. Corny as it sounds the essence of the holiday came alive for me then and I’m always reminded of it in each of the subsequent Thanksgivings. We were together – our shared familial bond and just being together mattered more than the meal itself.

For many years I hosted an “orphans” Thanksgiving, providing hospitality, food and drink to others who may not have been able to travel to be with core family members. Time passed and other traditions took precedent. Whether I’ve been with friends, family or on my own the day has been a time to take a deep breath, reflect on the joys and gifts that I have and express my gratitude for having them.

This year’s different yet again. I’ve travelled after many years of avoiding the maze. It’s been another year of unemployment, nearly two full years now. The job prospect most interesting and exciting that I’ve been working on for 5 months went away last week. I’ve been embroiled in legal disputes for much of the year. Then there’s the pending foreclosure. Most significantly, though, it’ll be the first Thanksgiving that we’ll have without Dad (who died in August).

Thanksgiving was always hard for my parents given that Dad's father was killed on a Thanksgiving weekend just a year into his marriage that left my Grandmother hospitalized for months. Considering all of the losses past and present it would be easy to go to Vegas, order Pizza and let the day just whizz on by.

Instead, in my quiet meditations and prayers I’ve been giving thanks for each of the losses. Totally counter-intuitive. Giving thanks is not the same as understanding. I don’t know why after a lifetime of effective professional accomplishment I am stymied in that arena. I don’t know why the financial security that I built has had to be decimated. I don’t know why Dad had to struggle for over 5 years after his stroke before being at peace. I don’t understand any of those things – and many others. But I’m trying to be grateful for them.

One of the last things that Dad wrote (via dictation) in the weeks just before he died: “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.

My gratitude is not the equivalent of happiness or satisfaction with the losses in my life. Instead I’m trying to emulate Dad. I like to think having gratitude for that which I’ve lost is the deepest essence of faith. Having faith is what I’m particularly thankful for this year.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Presumed Guilty

I want to be safe and secure. We all do. It’s one of the most fundamental characteristics that we share. When we travel we particularly want to protect ourselves. AAA predicts that more than 42 million of us will travel 50 miles or more next week for the Thanksgiving holiday...close to 20% of all Americans. Nearly all will arrive and depart safely whether going to Grandmother’s house by air, rail or car. The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) has established new rules where air passengers will be randomly selected to undergo a full-body electronic scan that shows the screener a naked image to determine if the individual has any contraband or explosives on their body. Individuals who are uncomfortable with the scan can elect a full body search which now includes same-sex screeners exploring the genital area.

Last week a passenger declined both, feeling that it was far too invasive and opted not to travel by plane at all. A TSA official threatened to fine and jail the passenger regardless of the fact that the man was leaving the airport.

The Los Angeles Times ran an editorial yesterday “Shut Up and be Scanned”. In today’s paper a letter writer suggested that the passenger who opted not to travel should be put on the no fly list. These are our choices?

On September 11, 2001 19 al-Qaeda terrorists hijacked four commercial jets and perpetrated the worst attack on U.S. soil since Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. The responses to this horrific day have been extensive and the change to how we fly has been one of the most dramatic and obvious.

In response to a series of hijackings carry-on bags had to be screened starting in late 1972. That launched the incremental increases in procedures that have resulted in full-body scans/searches. Planes used as a weapon is a terrifying prospect and I certainly am not interested in traveling in a system which could be easily corrupted by the bad guys.

Flight 93 crashed in Shanksville, Pennsylvania on September 11. The passengers stormed the cockpit and sacrificed themselves so that their flight would not continue on its path to crash into the White House or the Capital building in Washington. Those passengers were, in fact, the first to operate in the Post-9/11 world --- they took control and didn’t allow the terrorist plot to succeed.

There have been dozens of other incidents where passengers have taken it upon themselves to stop behavior or threatening actions. We no longer live in a world where hundreds of fellow passengers will quietly sit by as an aircraft is commandeered as a missile. Cockpits are more secure and pilots can carry weapons. Air marshals fly on most commercial flights.

Just a few weeks ago we learned Yemen-to-US flights carried bombs.  It reminds us that cargo transported (via air, rail or sea) is largely not screened and thus subject to nefarious activity. There are simply a huge number of ways that a free and open society can be manipulated, scared and intimidated.

Terror, by definition, is when we are afraid, uncertain and not safe. The question is whether the actions we take to feel secure actually make us secure or just give us the appearance of being secure.

There are cities where every two to three blocks a police car is visible. In London nearly every place one goes is captured on camera – they have more than 500,000 of them! (80% of crimes caught on their CCTV still go unsolved, however.) After 9/11 the National Guard patrolled airports with machine guns. At the height of the crime spree in my own neighborhood the local constabulary put on a visibility campaign...including parking empty patrol cars every few blocks. All of these actions make me feel less safe and less secure. Walking my neighborhood today I don’t see a major police presence and I actually feel safer as there isn’t a need for them to be out front.

Somebody has filed suit against the TSA for violating the Fourth Amendment with their new screening procedures. The extraordinary American system of checks and balances will once again be tested. I’m sure the case will wind its way through the courts over many years and by the time there is a resolution it won’t much matter since another technology will be in place.

One of the things I cherish about America is that we’re all Presumed Innocent until Proven Guilty. This presumption makes it difficult for law enforcement. It is one of the bedrock principles of the freedom that we fight wars to protect.

Some say “If you don’t have anything to hide, then it shouldn’t matter.” That’s a powerful and flawed argument. The premise of the argument changes that bedrock principle from having to prove one’s innocence instead of having it proven. When I fly next week I won’t have anything to hide. If chosen I will have to prove that I don’t have anything to hide (literally) it since the TSA presumes I’m guilty simply for wanting to spend Thanksgiving with family. It certainly won’t make me feel any safer.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Season of Change

Fall has arrived. In many parts of the country leaves have changed colors and there’s a briskness to the air. Most of us “gained” an hour through the now provincial notion of “saving” time. As nearly all of the farming done in modern society is automated and run by big agro-business, I’m not sure there’s much of a reason for futzing with the clocks. But then again I’m not in the oil business. With darkness descending earlier in the day, it’s a signal of a change in season especially when weather isn’t a traditional indicator of seasonal differences. Here in Los Angeles I call it the season of Santas. We get the Santa Ana’s in preparation for Santa Claus.

For many weeks the stores have already had Christmas merchandise available for purchase. Candy canes are on end caps and decorations stand in contrast to the Halloween and Thanksgiving motif’s that are the bulk of store shelves. This season sales are expected to generate $447 billion. That’s a lot of money and for many retailers this season represents the majority of their income and profit for the year.

Managing businesses that are seasonal in nature carry their own challenge. Having run businesses where this season did make the bulk of the profit required military-style precision in planning and execution. The biggest scaling that a business has to do is on the staffing side. Companies must have staffing that is proportional to their sales needs – and with seasonal businesses it means that for 2 to 3 months out of the year the majority of the staff is temporary.

The permanent staff that is relied on during the year to maintain quality, consistency and brand effectiveness must adapt to an influx of people who are looking for additional spending money, perhaps even as an ‘audition’ to become permanent; putting the regulars on edge. Managing the different agendas of staff is critically important to insuring that the core constituency (customer) is served.

Nationally this Season of Change is best reflected in the results from Election Day 2010. Much in the blogosphere and the media in general has been made of the Republican “shellacking” of the Democrats. The opposition party will indeed control the House of Representatives and have more representation in the Senate. There are still some races being counted – but the results so far show that Republicans gained 64 seats in Congress and 8 seats in the Senate. To me the statistic that is more interesting and helpful is that in Congress 15% of the seats changed and in the Senate 21% (of the 37 seats up for grabs). Looking at it another way 85% of Congress stayed the same and 79% of the available Senate seats stayed the same.

There will be some different leaders and tactics may change. Will there be much of a change in policies? Probably not. Just like the tinsel moving from 2 shelves to taking over an entire aisle during the month of November I expect that there will be continued rhetoric and disagreements. The focus may become more like the tinsel transition, but there will not be a wholesale takeover. How can there be? The vast majority of people and policies were re-elected.

It’s important to remember that the electorate has supported the status-quo. Usually the support runs closer to 90%, so this election cycle does represent a big drop in that support and that is indeed noteworthy. President Obama may follow the Ronald Reagan model after that mid-term “shellacking.” He may follow the Bill Clinton model of still being “relevant.” More likely he’ll follow his own hybrid version.

Just like the Santa Ana winds lead to a chilly rainy winter … or falling leaves to snow … when the majority stays the same so will the politics. So enjoy the additional hour of sleep, but don’t be surprised when it’s taken away come Spring.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

More Similar than Different

I’ve had a great opportunity this week to catch up on some of my Kindle reading (aka book reading). In addition to pulp fiction, mystery and romance novels I have done some non-fiction reading. Bob Woodward’s “Obama’s Wars” provides an insider’s narrative on President Obama’s Afghanistan policy. Tim Gunn’s “Gunn’s Golden Rules” is a breezy romp, has some gossip and Gunn’s opinions and recommendations on manners in 2010. As I mused on these very different titles, subjects and authors, I realized that they were more similar than different.

Viewed through Woodward’s reporting – meticulously researched and impressively objective – the reader is introduced to Barack Obama, his process and how he works with the military. It’s a fascinating account that at its core is about how a novice civilian President must manage and ultimately direct a firmly established war machine that is accustomed to having its way. Over the course of his first 18 months in office there are repeated examples of the President asking for counsel and options and not receiving them…or more accurately receiving options that aren’t really options. (“Sir, what you really meant to ask for is…”) Vice President Biden emerges heroic, intelligent and passionate in his approach – adjectives I would not have previously associated with him. In this prism one can also understand better how President Bush’s approach easily was further corrupted and expanded.

My reading of the accounts (none of which has been disputed in the months that the book has been available) is that the senior military officers have acted in a way that borders on treason. At the very least they join their civilian colleagues behaving with gross insubordination. How President Obama both stood up to the military and ultimately caved is an extraordinary lesson in management, human behavior and what’s wrong with entrenched bureaucracy of any kind. My takeaway is we must remain true to our principles until the cost of those principles puts everything else at risk. President Obama could have stayed true to his principles but would have had to replace the Defense Secretary, the Secretary of State, the Joint Chief, 2 of the 4 Service Chiefs and the leading commanders in Afghanistan and in Iraq. That probably would not have been received too well in the US and global communities, though I’m not sure that they all would have resigned en mass as indicated in the book because many in that group have shown that they don’t hold to their principles that rigorously.

Tim Gunn stays true to his principles and has no trouble sharing his opinions or feelings. Largely known as the “guru” on “Project Runway” he approaches life in many ways from a Victorian sense of propriety He has adapted much of this sense of right and wrong to a current day sensibility. His is an uplifting and “American” story – overcoming a debilitating stutter, attempting suicide and rising to become the grand, elegant, beloved and adored teacher and guide to aspiring fashion designers. He says what he thinks and does so in a way that is respectful, funny and often inspiring.

Business people often have similar challenges. Unions, while staying resolute for their members can make life miserable for Management. Shareholders similarly can make demands that rankle the working class. Management must weave a careful and deliberate path between the needs of the people who do the work and the obligations of those who fund the operation while delivering goods and services that meet the expectation of their customer. For me this is where it’s fun to take those challenges and chart a course that ultimately delivers results for each constituency.

I realized that much of what Tim Gunn aspires to is what we actually wanted from our business leaders and from the President, whomever is serving. It is proper and expected that those serving the President should provide him with the accurate data that he demanded and is entitled to. Like it or not – it is his decision as Commander in Chief. Congress’s role is authorizing War. Of course they didn’t actually do that for either Afghanistan or Iraq – they authorized the “use of force” and the media has called it war ever since. These are technically military conflicts. The point is that once Congress has done its authorization and continues to fund the effort no matter what we call it but the tactics are left to the Commander in Chief. It is totally disrespectful and shows very poor manners to ignore direct orders. The outcome might not be any different: it’s the lack of respect of the office and the process that is most galling. Tim Gunn would say “Shame on you! Were you raised in a cave by wolves?” Of course I think that if more of Gunn’s Golden Rules were followed we’d not only have a more civil result, but likely even more fashionable!