Saturday, October 28, 2006

Exercise for School

This morning, I took a taxi to Bookpeople to do some long overdue browsing. I really haven't done anything personally indulgent since starting school a couple of months ago. Indulgent really is the word. I took the taxi because I was a bit constrained for time due to a meeting scheduled with my mentor later in the day and wouldn't be able to make it on my bike and get back in time, but it felt really luxurious to let someone drive me around. Just call me Ms. Daisy. When I got to the bookstore, it took me a long time to settle into a normal pace of bookstore browsing. I think I am so used to being pressed for time and approaching every task with a clear-cut goal, so I just walked the aisles, looking around at what the rest of the world looks like on a Autumn day at 9:30 in the morning. I know that I do my best thinking before noon, so I rarely do anything but work in the mornings. It felt strange to have my thinking brain primed but only using it to observe the world.

As I wandered through the store to get into the groove of book browsing (and usually, buying), I realized that I feel very disconnected from the world right now. Cassie says it's lack of sleep. I think it might partially be that, combined with very little news (I haven't read an entire newspaper since school started), but mostly I think it is because I don't feel like I'm in touch with the circle of friends I realize I have come to rely on so much. I've realized that if I had a question or problem, there was always someone who could help me. I realize that I have set up my world so that I wouldn't have to deal with my weaknesses. Now, in school, where I am personally responsible for everything, I have become acutely aware of my weaknesses, and frankly, it's messing with my brain. I have been seriously knocked down a couple of pegs in terms of my self-confidence. I can't tell if this is a good thing or a bad thing. Of course, we all benefit from being challenged, but I wonder if I am too set in my ways to be able to tolerate a great deal of upheaval in my life. Lack of sleep and a daily roller coaster ride of emotion has left me feeling continually drained and dumber than when I showed up at Acton.

At the same time, I have been amazed at how effectively I have begun to use my time. I have found that I operate pretty well on 5 hours of sleep, which is stunning. I hope that I can keep that habit when I leave school so I can squeeze more out of every day. When you are close to turning 40, squeezing more out of your day is a big deal. But I'm still a work in progress at this point. I still find myself distracted by e-mail, instant messages, web sites, audio files, phone calls and general tomfoolery. I still haven't completely shaken my Gen X Slacker heritage, although I could only feel whispers of it as I climbed the stairs to the second floor.

Out of general habit, I always tend to find myself first in the Business section of any bookstore. Cassie tells me I have a love/hate relationship with school, which is true. I also have a love/hate relationship with business. I want to be successful in business and yet consider most successful business people to be shallow and somewhat suspicious. I soothe my anxiety about performing well in school by reminding myself that Jeffrey Skilling, the Enron guy everyone loves to hate, finished at the top of his class at Harvard Business School. I scanned the titles. I saw books that I had on my list, books that had been recommended to me by friends, classmates and teachers. I didn't pull a single one off of the shelf. I moved to my next usual stop in bookstores, the self/help and creativity section.

Here, I actually looked at a few books. I grabbed a book about journaling with watercolors and prose. The illustrations were beautiful. I admired the paintings of coffee cups and the negative space around messy tables in the author's home. I looked at that Eckhardt Tolle book I haven't ever gotten to finishing. I looked at that book about Neurolinguistic Programming I have always meant to get around to reading, Twyla Tharp's book on creativity that people have recommended to me for years and I flipped through that Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain book - again. All those little projects I never seem to have time for. At that moment, I began to feel overwhelmed by all the books around me, all the ideas I want to explore, all the experiences I still want to have, all the ideas I want to consume. There's just too much. I sometimes wish someone would prescribe me Ritalin so I could focus just a little more, or maybe I could be like one of those folk artists who work over and over again in some limited medium, like Mr. Miller, the man who made whirligigs in rural Georgia. Sometimes the possibility is just too much and I feel frozen in contemplation of all there is.

Then, I heard an employee say, "Here they come." And I heard the little voices getting louder as they came up the stairs. An army of school kids, here to listen to some rock star children's author. Ah, the things you miss when you're always working at 10 in the morning. I enjoyed watching the kids as they listened to a rather uninspired author as she read from her book. They were so engaged and mostly deeply engaged in every word this person said. It was encouraging somehow. For a minute, I forgot the troubled world these kids were due to inherit from us, or maybe I just thought they could save it.

I continued my cruise through Cultural Studies, Graphic Design (I flipped through a fascinating and seriously creepy book on Russian Prison Tattoos), Comics, Architecture, Fine Arts, all those futurist books and the bargain tables. I ended up where I always do if given enough time: poetry. I read a couple of comfort pieces: e.e. cummings and Allen Ginsberg. Sometimes it feels good to be slow again.

I left without spending a dime in the store. Cab fare: $12 round trip, tips included.

Monday, October 23, 2006

Something I Need to Keep In Mind...

"Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything — all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure - these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart."

– Steve Jobs, in a graduation address at Stanford in 2005.

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Blasts From The Past
Our good friend Jason just sent us some photos from about a year and a half ago. What a difference the days make.

In this first picture, there are a couple of notable points. First, a friend once commented that in every picture Cassie, Santiago and I are in, we always seem to be gazing upon Santiago. This picture is no exception. But what a little butterball he was! Also, I still own that baseball cap (one of the few things I took with me when we fled the city). That's our way cool apartment on St. Mary Street. That place will go down in history as one of my favorite apartments of all time.

Here is Jason with Santiago

We were going to go swimming at the Pocket Pool but rain cut our trip short. We ended up at Cafe Luna, catching up on things before Jason took off to get his Masters in Urban Planning in California. Who would have known how things were going to get turned upside down a couple months later?

Here's me and The Boy

He seemed so much bigger then!

I think there is something pithy to be said about these pictures that recently appeared in our lives, but I am speechless more than ever these days.

Friday, July 21, 2006

"Coin-Operated Boy" by The Dresden Dolls

Most people who know me have had to endure my fascination with the Dresden Dolls. They have been described as "Brechtian Punk Cabaret," and I think this video has a lot to do with that. Music videos have long been an unappreciated art form. The Dresden Dolls have really leveraged the visual aspect of their work to create some very entertaining material. I will post the more vitriolic "Girl Anachronism" next.

Urban Population Growth Map

A very slick, fascinating and eye-opening map of world population growth from 1955 projected through 2015:

BBC Interactive World Urbanization Map

Thursday, July 20, 2006

The Acton Experience

I haven't been posting my work in a while.  Not because I haven't been working, I assure you.  The load is really starting to ratchet up.  Each week's assignment is taking me about 10 - 15 hours to complete.  On top of a full work load.  Ouch.  Here's a sample from Week 4:

The Goal 
Here's a novel idea: take a cutting edge economic concept called The Theory of Constraints and write a novel about it.  It's just crazy enough that it works.  A manager turns his factory around, saves his marriage and home life and throws out a bunch of management dogma in the process.  It's a quick read and the fact that it's written as a novel makes it far more interesting than a typical b-school textbook.  Virtually any process that creates a product could benefit from Eliyahu Goldratt's ideas.
Processes 101: Introduction
This is the first wave in introducing the ideas behind processes, essentially a discrete set of activities that can be both illustrated and quantified.

Processes 101: Variability, Quality and Process Types
This note introduces statistical variability and the different process types.  Far more interesting than you might think.

Operations Problem Set
Finally, we get a chance to cut our teeth on a few simple processes.  The assignment is to diagram and optimize the following: table manufacturing, running a dishwashing operation and an assembly line for baking cookies.  

Monday, July 10, 2006

The Acton Experience - 7/10/06

I am still working hard to get caught up on my readings for Acton.  If pre-matriculation is an omen of the work load I can expect, I am going to be in for a busy year.  Here's what the June 12 assignment looked like:

Your Entrepreneur’s Toolkit
This was a how-to for creating a journal to document all of the work that you do during the course.  There are columns for "lessons learned" and "what I still need to learn."  Basically, it's an approach for capturing your notes on your assignments in an organized and concise manner.

The Entrepreneurial Journey: Course Introduction
An overview of the curriculuum involved in the Entrepreneur's Journey course: Introduction, Opportunity Analysis, Gathering Resources and Launching, Entrepreneurial Growth and Harvesting the Rewards.

The Ultimate Fit Checklist
This is the framework developed at Harvard Business School for evaluating business opportunities.  The framework is: Opportunity (What are the Key Success Factors?), People (Do we have the right people on the bus?), the Deal (How do we make the pie bigger?) and Systems (How do we keep on course?)
Birkman Test
This is one of the classic personality tests.  It took me about an hour to complete it.  We are scheduled to discuss it in class.  It's designed to identify your preferred job types, your motivations and assess your aptitude in various areas.  I took it a while back, but I'm interested to see what it tells me today.

My Money Autobiography
This is an assignment from the book The Energy of Money-A Spiritual Guide to Financial and Personal Fulfillment. I'm sure the title will make some people cringe; I think a lot people squirm when: a) they see people reading money books and b) see the word "spiritual" in a title, but it has already opened my eyes to how money influences our lives.
Putting Yourself in The Customer’s Shoes
An exercise in understanding customer motivations, written as a case study on a lemonade stand.  Once I got warmed up, this was a lot of fun.

Getting Inside the Mind of Your Customers
Our task here was to interview someone on their motivations when making a purchase.  My friend Kenneth was gracious enough to let me interview him for an hour and a half on his motivations for purchasing a PDA.

The E-Myth Revisited 
The gem of this week's reading.  What causes most small businesses to fail and how to fix it.  It was eerie seeing how much some of my past businesses were reflected in the stories.  This is one of those books that I will end up  giving to friends.

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Great article on politics in New Orleans:

First of all, this is an excellent snapshot of the politics of the great city of New Orleans, and while the stories are crazy, I have no reason to disbelieve them. The author does end on a downer note about the state of the city, and that I'm not so sure about. I'm waiting for the real pronouncement from my friends who live and work on the ground.

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

So, I am nearly through my first two week's of readings, compressed in to one week (!). So far, the quality of the readings has been excellent. They include:

“An Introduction to Creating Repeatable Arbitrage"
This is the program's philosophy for teaching the quantitative skills of business through practical application.

“Because Wisdom Can’t Be Told”
This is the Harvard Business School introduction to the case method, which Acton uses heavily.

“Stars and Steppingstones”
My favorite quote in this essay on finding your destiny: "The ultimate horror is not death. The ultimate horror is to wake up at age fifty-five or sixty and realize that you have wasted your life; either that time has slipped past while your dreams waited, or that you never had any dreams at all."

Mastery: The Keys to Success and Long-Term Fulfillment
I have read this book twice now. Once when I was trying out some of the books on the Personal MBA recommended readings and again now at Acton. George Leonard uses examples from Aikido, sports and other arenas to illustrate the path of mastery. It's a remarkably clear headed and visionary approach to how to improve performance by becoming better learners. In fact, this was the book that inspired me to pursue the Acton program.

Monday, June 26, 2006

So, this was my first week in the Acton MBA program. Actually, class starts in late August, but the deluge of "pre-matriculation" readings and assignments has already begun. I had considered applying to the MBA program at the University of Texas and even spent a semester in the MBA program at St. Edward's, but the Acton program was really the one that had captured my imagination and the one that I set my sights on. I was interested in Acton for a few reasons:

*A real world focus on the work. Class is taught by practitioners who are actually in business.
*The curriculum is built on business, but there is also an emphasis on "a life of meaning."
*Timeline. The program is designed to compress the standard two year MBA into less than one year of full-time study, although the pace is a grueling 80 hour per week program.

I will elaborate more on the program, how I got to it and my experiences in it over the next year. But first I need to get caught up on my assignments! That's a story in itself.

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Stephen Colbert Addresses White House Correspondent's Association

Brilliant, hilarious and chilling:

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

As a person who works primarily in the non-profit world, I think it gets easy to be swallowed up by the politics and the bureaucracy of it all. Sometimes, I need something to help remind me why I’m working so hard and why it still matters.

Tonight, Cassie and I got a reminder. We saw a screening of the film “Nobelity” at the stunning Paramount Theatre in downtown Austin.

“Nobelity” is the story of filmmaker Turk Pipkin’s journey to draw something coherent out of the bewildering jumble of our planet: to grasp the “big picture” of things and understand what each of us can do to address the most pressing problems of the world. His interest in these issues is hardly theoretical. His responsibility to his own daughters is the impetus, but his thinking draws us to wonder just what world we are leaving to our children and grandchildren.

His travels take him to interview nine Nobel Prize winners in peace, economics and the sciences. His conversations with each subject are powerful and thought provoking. The places in the US, Europe, Africa and India he visits also provide an amazing (and especially in the case of Calcutta, India, heartbreaking) backdrop to the discussions.

The movie was an energizing call to action to change the world. If you get a chance to see it, you won’t be disappointed. You can see the trailer here.

Saturday, April 01, 2006

So, we have purchased a new home. Specifically, it's a condominium not far from where we are living now. It's on the unfortunately named Robert E. Lee street, but it's close to the springs and Zilker Park. Here's a satellite map.

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

So, today I received an unsolicited email from a photographer by the name of Frank Relle who has taken a number of truly incredible images from New Orleans, both pre and post-Katrina. One in particular, "Felicity," comes from one of my favorite neighborhoods in the city, the Lower Garden District. Cassie and I had lived in that neighborhood until fairly recently, but many of my favorite memories of the city are from that neighborhood, long before we had lived there. I was thinking about some of the places I used to haunt when I was much younger and far more irresponsible: RC Bridge Lounge (long before its recent "rehabilitation," it was the bane of the gentrifiers as a music club), the Half Moon (which seems to have undergone a reverse rehabilitation over the years) and Pie In The Sky (the Sky Pie was the greatest pizza ever, before the restaurant's many misfortunes).

I miss visiting Gus the blind senior citizen who would have me and Steve over to drink room temperature Milwaukee's Best (his preference) in his sparse home with gunshots punctuating the night, a little too close for comfort.

That was the early 90's - a particularly low point in the city's history, but a time that I fell deeply and madly in love with New Orleans.

If you get a chance, check out Frank's work. It's beautiful and spooky, just like New Orleans.

Sunday, January 22, 2006

Since I spend about 75% of my work time either in or thinking about New Orleans but live in Austin, I am often asked to compare the two places. I spent the last five years of my life as a highly visible, highly vocal booster of New Orleans, so many people I meet are surprised when they hear that we have settled, at least for the near term, in Austin. For Cassie and me, the decision to stay in Austin was pretty easy. We didn't have any assets to protect in New Orleans. Our house was pretty thoroughly destroyed so there was no hurry to come back. We also wanted to find some degree of stability for our son; New Orleans is a dynamic place right now and since he had already spent about a fourth of his life in evacuation/gypsy mode, we decided we would try to give him a rest.

So we arbitrarily chose Austin off the map. It was a reasonably short drive away from New Orleans. It was the only really progressive city in Texas. Much like New Orleans, it's a blue island in a sea of red. Of course, I was anxious about leaving my home of 14 years, leaving friends that were as close as family and leaving the only city I ever really loved. I left my work, graduate school and 90% of all the people I knew in the world. We started out from scratch, something that gets harder as you age. When you are nearing 40, you're pretty set in your ways.

Picture of Night Time Austin

My feelings about New Orleans pre and post hurricane, are very mixed. A friend recently wrote an op-ed that made the case that the oft-quoted term "Big Easy" had long been a misnomer for the city and it should finally be shed once and for all. Living in New Orleans was never easy. Anyone who chose to live there sacrificed to do so. They struggled to find good wages. Crime was a palpable and daily concern for everyone. Car and home owner's insurance was expensive and hard to get before the hurricane. I imagine it will get worse now. It was and continues to be a city with a political culture like that of the Caribbean or Latin America, with personality politics and petty corruption a sad fact of life that stymies many efforts at progress. Prior to the storm, the school system had been mismanaged to near chaos and a tourism economy virtually guaranteed that the city would continue to be a city that gambled its long-term viability away for a quick buck. Weather and water were a sword dangling over the city. Everyone knew the big one was coming, but like gamblers who are unwilling to walk away from a bet, everyone figured it wouldn't happen to them. Until it did. And it wasn't even as big as it could have been.

Yet, it was hard not to love the place. The food, the drink and the good times are all over the top. Perhaps continually looking in to the abyss frees the mind to take risks, to be playful, to look for a reason to have a party, to be a little dangerous. Like all flirtation, sometimes it can go too far. The danger was real in New Orleans. A culture of excess means that some don't come out of it. It means there are losers and victims. But surviving the place made you better for it. To steal a line about another city, if you could make there, you could make it anywhere. There continues to be a fascinating quality to the place. It is THE city of the body. We know how to dance, we know how how to drink and we know how to love with no compromises. It's a city that will hone your social skills. You will talk to strangers and like it. It's a funky, sweaty, earthy place. The part of the city that most tourists see is the spectacle that is designed to swindle the yokels from the colder and more uptight regions of the world. The real pulse of the city happens in hole in the wall bars and restaurants and in people's backyards and on their bikes and on the stoops of porches. It happens when you dance with 50 other sweaty people to a swaggering bass band playing hip hop beats at 3 in the morning and go to work the next day (probably smelling like you were dancing at 3 in the morning in a bar).

But the body eventually has to be balanced with the mind. When I visited Paris a couple of years ago, I was reminded that there was more to the world than pure indulgence (even though no one ever really wants to leave the proverbial candy store). Being in Cuba and Mexico stirred my political thought. Paris stirred that intellectual in me that had been so very thoroughly subdued for so long in New Orleans. Paris was and is a city of ideas and a city of possibility. I came back resolved the balance the two parts of my life, but that never really happened. It was just too easy for me to follow the fun.

So one day, you're hung up on the day to day crises of your life. All of the sudden, you are living in a new city and everything is changed. Now that we have found ourselves in Austin, we are surrounded by smart, progressive people. It was easy to be one of the smart folks in New Orleans. It just wasn't a city that was interested in intellectualism per se. The bar is much higher here. I have been delighted by the friends we have made here for their values and it's a friendly and down to earth kind of place. It's refreshingly open after enduring the many cliques and tribes of New Orleans. At a party here in Austin, I recently discussed my ideas about how to pay for health insurance for working people with a city council-member for 10-15 minutes over a glass of wine, something that would be unheard of in New Orleans, where political types expect and generally get the royal treatment and deference wherever they go.

Besides smart, progressive values and general friendliness, Austin is a good place to raise your kids. The public schools still sometimes work here and while it's difficult to balance the environment with a booming economy, the air and water are pretty clean and there are rivers, lakes and parks open to the public. Nice to be able to push the baby stroller on your morning walk and have enough mental space to simply enjoy a little bit of nature.

Austin isn't perfect. Like all Texans, they really love their cars here. The city's shiny, clean buses with friendly drivers roam the streets with only a handful of passengers as traffic jams double the time of even the simplest errand. Sprawl and McMansions threaten not only the feel of the city, but the quality of its most scarce resource, water. The very success of the place puts it most at risk as it tries to keep up with a soaring population growth. Gentrification is real here, with hispanics slowly being displaced from their long time homes and a quickly dwindling African-American population. But the fact that these issues and others are candidly discussed here and knowing that many people are committed to address these problems gives me hope for the place.

We are glad we landed here. I love New Orleans, but for now, it's good to be here. I expect that some New Orleanians, those stubborn souls that resist and resent change, will find it unacceptable that we would up and "abandon" the city. I am glad some of the best people have stayed and recommitted to the city. We each have our needs at this point in time.

There are pros and cons to both places. I miss my friends from New Orleans. I don't miss many of the city's dysfunctional qualities. I like to live in a clean, safe, friendly city with an actual diversified economy. Sometimes I find Austin to be a bit staid, even boring sometimes, but that can be a good thing every now and again. I like to live in a world that balances the corporeal and the cerebral. I like the friends we have made here. I like exploring a new world and I cherish my experiences from the old one too.