March 17, 2008

Integrity Issues

Watching the news from Albany this morning, I couldn't help but note that in the past four years the three Governors of Connecticut, New Jersey, and New York have resigned in disgrace. Is there something in the water in the tri-state area, something that encourages its Governors to tragically succumb to their baser instincts?

All three were promising rising stars of their parties, all with national potential and thrilling political careers ahead of them. Young, wealthy, and popular, they had merely to master their own sloppy impulse control to make a tremendous impact and do wondrous good for their constituents, and yet all three revealed a hammartia particularly unsuitable for high public office: corrupt John Rowland from Connecticut felt he was entitled to free home improvements in exchange for state contracts, cronyism laid Jim McGreevey low when he hired his boyfriend as the State’s Security Advisor, and libidinous Eliot Spitzer was unable to restrain himself from indulging with prostitutes.

There are many arguments being made in the media regarding whether prostitution should in fact be against the law, and at several thousand dollars an hour, you'd be hard-pressed to convince me that Kristen was being exploited. Simultaneously, the Mann Act is a relic of a bygone era, inherently misogynistic and patronizing, and by its very existence implying a feminine helplessness and inequality to men. In fact, I've broken that law myself several times as has any man who's taken his girlfriend on vacation out of state. Yet however insulting and archaic,violating the Mann Act remains against the law, as does soliciting a prostitute, and those are laws that Spitzer swore to uphold.

Integrity is simple: you do what you say you’re going to do, by when you say you’re going to do it. You do what you know you should do, even if no one’s watching, even if no one’s told you to do it. So don’t run for Governor if you’re unwilling to keep your oath of office.

My favorite politician Thomas Brackett Reade once said “I do not expect, by acting thus, to escape criticism; merely not to deserve it.” Integrity is the suit of armor you wear against the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, it provides you with a simple template for life – not for ensuring that things never go wrong, but for ensuring that you can remain inherently authentic, genuine, and committed in the face of things that will absolutely go wrong. Face into the wind, integrity is the sure place on which to stand when the world rages around you.

Our society is based on a reasonable expectation of each other’s behaviors. We rely on each other being reliable. More importantly, we make decisions based on one another’s integrity every day. When we’re let down so dramatically, when we encounter such stunning hypocrisy, it’s a devastating blow to the very underpinnings of our co-existence. Hypocrisy isn’t the most deadly, impactful, or immediate danger in our world, but it is the most insidious. It’s the rot from within that weakens our faith in one another and the institutions that we rely on. And it’s cumulative; there’s no such thing as an insignificant disappointment.

You get to choose integrity, everyday. It’s voluntary. Not because you have to, but because it’s good for you, and because it’s good for all of us.

None of this may be true, but it makes sense nevertheless.

March 15, 2008

Catch Up Part 2...

Longtime readers may remember my Austrian ladyfriend from just about this time last year. Well, this past February she returned to visit America with her choral group, and then stayed to visit with me for a week in NYC. It was an active week, with me doing my best to play host. I fear I’m not nearly the New York City host I once was, not only have I lost the enthusiasm for "exciting" New York, I was also constrained by the work I needed to do to prep for that HR conference.

Daniella and I had a nice week, visiting Princeton, NJ and checking out the campus and surrounding area (more on that later...). We went salsa dancing again with some of our B'nai B'rith group, and we went to see a new Broadway show, and of course we went to dinner quite a bit. The sudden and constant company after months of being single was a bit of a shock, and it was a challenge to maintain the schedule while also managing the need for high output at work that week. But we had fun, and it was great to see her again.

The show we saw, In the Heights, was also great. It was in previews then though it’s now officially opened, and it’s a fun, lively musical full of Latino flavored singing and dancing. Though it has a thin and wholly predictable storyline, it's thoroughly entertaining. I suspect it’ll be a medium to large size hit, primarily because it has the potential to tap into a large market of current and potential Latino theatergoers.

One thing I did like about it was that it didn't attempt to pander to non-Spanish speakers. It's a show about Spanish speakers, in a Spanish neighborhood, and if some of the lines and jokes are over your head, so be it. The lead guy started writing the show many years ago in college and his friends and family put up the initial cash for the first few iterations in workshop downtown, and now he's opening on Broadway and it's the best kind of success story. With so many revivals and movie-to-theater adaptations cluttering Broadway for so many seasons now, an actual original musical was exciting in and of itself. And the lead guy will be a big deal shortly. No surprise to see him get his own sitcom or something... he'll be the flavor of the month before too long, and perhaps a keeper.

Other recent activities: my new best friend in NY is a lapsed Mormon / current lesbian who loves hockey, and though my opinion of hockey resides somewhere between indifference and mild disdain, when terrific tickets to a Ranger game fell into my lap I knew Amber was the perfect non-date date. I still think hockey’s closer to stupid than not, but going to the game was fun – the Garden, the fans and everything. We had a great time, much better than the Rangers who totally lost.

Amber and I enjoy a number of things in common, not the least of which is our attraction to women. We never run out of things to talk about...

Following a difficult breakup last fall, I stayed intentionally single through the holidays, and then extended my moratorium through Valentine’s Day. Since then however, I’ve begun socializing once again, though I remain true to my recently instituted offline-only rule. A good friend wants to set me up with someone who has a blog wherein I could learn all about her, and I was adamant that all I want is a phone number. I have no intention of conducting any part of the relationship via electronic proxy, even email is to be kept to an absolute minimum at the outset. 2008 is the year of doing it the way our grandparents did it (though not great-grandparents, because that gets into the arranged marriage era, and I'm not entirely ready for that just yet...).

Another friend of mine, someone whom I briefly dated last summer, introduced me to one of her friends and the friend and I had our first date just last night. My sister will be pleased because Karen is a lawyer - and my sister has assured me that I need to date a professional woman who's busier than I am. Karen and I had a nice time, though no instant fireworks. I'm interested in seeing her again though, and giving it another chance to develop, though not yet sure if she is.

Karen is a foodie, and knows a great deal about cocktails. I'm a fan of food and drink, but never delved into the cocktails world, and was very impressed with the subtle distinctions and whole underground of what to drink, where, and how. Learning that I liked gin, she ordered me two drinks - a Gin-Gin Mule, and a Ramos Gin Fizz. Apparently the Ramos Gin Fizz is a very fancy drink because it must be shaken vigorously for at least five minutes. It's made with vanilla syrup and gin and lime, which are three of my favorite tastes, and it has egg whites in it - which initially freaked me out, but I was bold. The shaking aerates the egg whites giving it a fluffy, meringue taste and consistency. It was delicious, though I felt bad for Artemio our bartender, and I tipped him very generously.

Shaking a drink for five minutes is no joke; he offered to make one of these for me, I would never have asked for it. Apparently, it's bad form to ask unless the bar is practically empty, due to the time and effort this one takes to prepare.

Like I said, a whole cocktail subculture going on...

I make a pretty good spagetti sauce....

My buddy Goorasta turned me on to this...

(language nsfw)

Future Blog Reader

Broadway to Boston has had her little girl, after something like 480 hours of labor (I may have misheard that). Congrats to the whole family!

And for those of you keeping track, yes, it means that of our college group of friends, the only two yet to reproduce are me and the gay one…

OMG, Brilliant...

I am excited/ashamed to note that several of my favorites are on this list...

The Top 10 Rap Songs White People Love

And I mean fucking LOVE. When these songs come on, White People look at each other and say "Awwww yeah" or "Hell yeah" and are compelled to sing along. Sometimes there’s also a corresponding stupid dance move.

Having studied White People for 27 years, my authority on the topic is absolute; this list is damn near bullet proof.


Airline Rant Part 2

I arrived last Sunday from San Fran landing at JFK at 9:35pm. I arrived home at 11:45pm. The cab ride was 20 minutes. The other hour and fifty minutes was spent doing this:

That's a picture of us waiting for our luggage. For nearly two hours. Without any information from Delta regarding where our luggage was. Since we were there, we were reasonably confident that our plane had in fact landed in New York City. So was our luggage not on the plane? Or was it still on the plane waiting to be unloaded? Or had it been sent somewhere else?

Now, for the record, there was indeed plenty of luggage there - just not our luggage. There was luggage from a Boston flight flight for instance, that had been circling the carousel for an hour before handlers finally removed it to a remote corner.

Somewhere (in Boston, I suspect) there were a number of people wondering where THEIR bags were. Had there been a "have you seen my luggage" website, I would have let them know their missing bags were enjoying a holiday in NYC. For the first time in recent memory I had sympathy and felt connection with strangers in Boston, as opposed to the hatred I feel for their baseball fans or the gleeful joy with which I contemplate their loser football fans.

Nearly two hours to get our luggage off a plane and into our hands on a Sunday night. Like my experience with Men's Wearhouse, let me iterate - the last interaction we have with your business will be our most memorable. If you can't stick the ending, you've blown it.

So this will be a brief rant, simple and direct: fuck you Delta. Fuck you straight to hell.

Airline Rant Part 1

Once again, I found myself flying recently, and shockingly I have some thoughts on the experience.

Thinking Virgin America may be new and exciting, and because Richard Branson went on the Colbert Show and was funny, and because they were $10 cheaper than American, I decided to patronize them for the first time.

Note to everyone who sells anything – don’t fuck with your customers. Charging $10 less, and then only allowing one bag so that everyone with 2 bags has to pay a $10 surcharge for an extra bag is fucking with us.

“But we allow a heavier bag – up to 70 pounds. Most other airlines only allow 50 pound bags” was their justification. So you’re saying we can have 70 total pounds rather than 100, which though I have a theater degree, I'm confident is in fact less. And you’re encouraging us to have one heavy bag rather than two lighter ones. This results in less baggage handling effort for you, sure – but for a rapidly aging population, is one 70 pound bag really a viable alternative? I don’t expect too many of the seniors in the western world - which by the way makes up the majority of the population and will for years to come -are comfortable wielding one 70 pound bag as opposed to two smaller ones.

Alas, after some research, I see that this trend isn't limited to just Virgin America, it's endemic. A Wall Street Journal article from this week (coincidence?) addresses the changing nature of the allowable baggage rules at a number of large airlines. I was pissed at Virgin America, but apparently it's merely just another reason to be pissed at airlines in general.

Also, for the record, naming your airline Virgin America when there’s already a Virgin Atlantic, and then putting them far away from each other at LAX is also fucking with us. Because harried travelers are not going to recognize the difference in enough time, and because cab drivers who may or may not speak English will not ask the necessary questions, and because short hairy Jewish travelers leaving for San Francisco early in the morning will then end up at the wrong place with very little time before their flight. Bastards.

And by the way, you STILL have to pay extra for an internet connection in the terminals. Hotels pull this shit too – you pay $250 and up for a room, and then another $14 a day for internet? Just stop doing this. Stop it. It makes us hate you.

Despite no earlier inclination to be in "business" earlier in my life, I find myself surprisingly embedded in conversations these past two years in what makes a company successful and desirable - the “branding” of companies so to speak. I’ve come to believe that most people would rather pay upfront and be left alone, rather than pay piecemeal for broad services such as travel (see or see also Club Med). The constant pay as you go for services on top of the initial charge of the product inspires a feeling of being taken advantage of, at least it does for me. While I enjoy the idea of ala carte service, you need to be upfront about it, it needs to be well-publicized, and their should be options. Sure, let me pay less for having less luggage, or more for more luggage, but that can’t be a surprise – it has to be an agreement.

For the record, the TSA continues to defy convention where I am concerned. Ironically I boarded my plane pissed at Virgin America, which is known for exceptional customer service, and impressed and thankful for the TSA, known for the opposite. Yet again they were courteous, helpful, patient, and professional… While I’m as ready as most to descry the surveillance state within which we must now operate, credit is due – the TSA has been just fine.

And then on top of everything else, Virgin America's in-seat entertainment system wasn’t working...

March 14, 2008

Playing Catch-Up Part 1

Time for my rare update.

When last we left Dan he was entering February with quite a bit on his plate. The past four weeks have seen me home rarely before 11 (when I was home at all) though the activities have been a blend of work and play, and all fun.

We throw a yearly HR conference at work which went very well. We hosted loads of folks from around the world who descended into NYC for four days of why Human Resources is special, what we’ve done for you lately, and what’s next. There’s a couple of big deal initiatives happening, so it’s a great time for a get-together, and we got a lot accomplished. Despite my appreciation for technology and love of computers, as someone who has spent the past year trying to do most of his work via telephone, email, and web conference, I can tell you emphatically that there is no substitute for face to face meetings. Sure, I love traveling, but that’s coincidental; it also just so happens that travel is still the best way to get things done.

During that conference in NY, and last week during some meetings I had in LA, I think I made better progress with some recalcitrant people than I’ve made all year. Not only is it harder for difficult people to be difficult in person, they don’t seem to be as inclined to be so when you’re chatting them up over coffee, rather than via a Webex or teleconference.

Our HR conference was Monday through Thursday afternoon a few weeks back, and that Friday was a catch-up day. Saturday and Sunday were my first relatively free days in several weeks, which I used to handle some chores, and spent time with my grandmother, who bestowed upon me some of my grandfather’s wardrobe. Though always larger than life to me, he was in fact somewhat smaller through the chest and shoulders than I am, and so there’s more incentive for me to drop some more weight. Grampa had some dope threads, and now several choice pieces beckon from my closet. The best item fits just fine though - it's this terrific Scottish beret which still smells of him. He was wearing it when we attempted our helicopter trip this past January, you can see it in the photo from last month.

But back to the narrative... painfully early the following Monday morning after our HR conference I flew out to LA to attend a second conference, this one as a participant. I planned my travel quite particularly, ensuring I arrived with a few hours to spend on the beach before the first session kicked off. No travel drama heading out there, which was nice, because the quicker I got to the hotel, the happier I knew I would be. And I wasn't disappointed.

The hotel – sweeeeet... the Fairmont Miramar in Santa Monica. The view from my room was spectacular, and I had the chance to go for a run on the beach (twice) and had the theme to Three’s Company in my head the entire week. The weather was sunny and in the 70's, and the sudden immersion into spring from the depths of winter was a welcome change of pace.

The conference itself was on corporate ethics and compliance, which has been a big part of my responsibilities for my company for the past 18 months. It's somewhat ironic that I was at that conference and then came home to find out that our Governor, whom I was a strong supporter of, had been sleeping with prostitutes for many years - but more on that later.

The conference material was very engaging. As I've mentioned, I feel quite strongly about integrity, ethical behavior, and hypocrisy, and each of the sessions dealt with either preventing or mitigating the impact of corporate ethical violations. The theme of the conference was "outbehaving the competition" which I loved, and I spent the week immersed in the strategic and tactical aspects of creating and administering corporate ethics and compliance programs, and more importantly - why they are a good idea.

There are legal and HR implications for programs that umbrella both legal compliance and ethical culture, and I was there for the HR side of it. There was additional value to me in my capacity as the guy running our talent management initiative. One issue we hear quite a bit about when considering attracting and retaining the best employees is the blossoming resentment toward hypocritical corproate behavior. Practically every study being done of the Gen-Y and Millennials entering the workforce confirms that they're most concerned with whether they can be proud of the company they work for. In fact, we consistently see that more than money, more than hours or vacation time or health care, working for an ethical company rates highest on their list of reasons to apply and subsequently accept an offer of employment. For myself, I like how this issue is about doing right not just because you have to but because ethical behavior and reputation is good for business as well.

But enough of that and back to the hotel - it had an amazing koi pond, with koi fish that were enormous, and these funky turtles who were all about sitting on the rocks and catching some sun. This little guy was doing yoga, methinks, as you might be able to see both his back feet are up, and splayed, for maximum sun exposure.

One of the evening events the conference organizers had planned was a trip to the Sony lot, with dinner and a studio tour. Thinking (correctly) that it would impress the masses, they also arranged for several celebrity impersonators to wander amongst us and be charming or annoying, depending on their role. As you all well know, the only celebrities I’m impressed with are William Shatner and Julie Andrews, but it was fun to see how much the random folks from random places enjoyed the Hollywood action. Am I jaded, am I too accustomed to working for a media company? I still enjoy time on a studio lot, hearing the history, seeing where so and so filmed this and that, seeing the bungalow in which Adam Sandler writes his prose, and of course I get a kick out of seeing famous folks... but watching some of my co-attendees flip out over the celebrity impersonators – not even the actual celebrity, but some barely-working actor who happens to look like someone with a much more enviable imdb entry – left me somewhat amused and feeling more than a little patronizing toward my colleagues.

No, for me the big treat was Wednesday night’s field trip with my co-worker Michelle. As the last session was concluding, we discussed where we might want to head for dinner. "I was planning on looking for an In-n-Out Burger..." I commented. Her eyes lit up, and I knew it was game-on. Michelle had a rental car, and with a little help from the internet we identified an In-n-Out not terribly far away. Armed with a google maps printout we lived the dream: a double-double with cheese, vanilla shake, and fries animal style.

Yeah, yeah, you’re thinking “it’s fast food” Oh no… it’s so much more than that. Fresh, extra-tasty, and just right. Their menu has four items: burgers, fries, soda, and shakes. Period. I'm very impressed with anyone who does whatever they do well, and In-n-Out does fast food burgers better than anyone else. They do one meal, and do it right.

With the conference over and finding myself in LA, I arranged to spend Thursday on our studio lot and had two very successful meetings with some of my most significant constituents. I was also able to squeeze in a lunch with an old friend from my San Francisco days whose office is also out in LA. We realized that this fall will be ten years we’ve known each other, a relationship conducted primarily via sporadic visits to each others coasts/offices whenever possible.

Work responsibilities complete, Friday I was off to San Fran. Though I was there briefly last year, I didn’t get much in the way of San Fran time in during that trip as I spent most of my three days staying with friends at their place with no car. This time around I rented a little VW rabbit and actually enjoyed the city. My friend Tina was the only person I told about my trip, and the weekend revolved around seeing her and her two girls, visiting my old SF haunts, and eating.

I’d like to pretend my life doesn’t always revolve around food, but evidence suggests otherwise and you wouldn’t believe me anyway. There were several places I wanted to eat, but the only minimum required was lunch at Specialty's. It’s a sandwich shop which had only one or two locations when I was there 8 years ago, but now it's growing like crazy. I spent years waiting for Jamba Juice to make it to NYC, and I’m still waiting for Specialty's to come east.

Tina indulged me and my urgent need to get there before they closed Friday afternoon, though it wasn’t until she bit into her sandwich that she truly understood: she was eating the very best sandwich she’s ever eaten in her life. Except for perhaps mine, which I think was even better (but only because she had wheat bread, and I had the potato poppy bread, which is way betterer).

When I first moved to SF in 1998, Specialty's was the first lunch place I happened across, and it was so good I proceeded to eat lunch there every day for the first few weeks I was working downtown. Their bread, their cookies… everything about what they do is staggeringly good, and eating with Tina in the same place I used to eat when I worked there 8 years ago was as terrific as I anticipated.

During this trip I finally got to meet Tina’s two girls, Ally and Katie, aged 8 and 6. Though I enjoy children, and think I do pretty well with them all things considered, I don’t of course have any of my own and I forget how much fun, and exhausting, being around them nonstop can be. Their energy is nuts! When Tina and I were looking for places to nap, they were still going… forget that energizer bunny, bottle the power of a six year old.

It was fun playing house this weekend with Tina, as much as we did. Not only would everyone naturally assume we were all a happy little family when at brunch and such, we did happy family things like go to the beach together and cuddle up for a nap together. Can’t help but come face to face with wondering if I will ever have any of my own, and if I do, will I have the energy to keep up with em?

Sunday morning it was time to head home, though first we had brunch at Squat & Gobble, which was my go-to Sunday brunch place when I lived there. A quick goodbye and it was back to SFO, and back to NYC. My travel karma however, did not hold up...