April 9th, 2014

Neopolis, Nettuno, 007 & Nordic Raiders

I marked or celebrated my post-IBM, 90 day Sabbatical with a visit with my son now stationed with the Navy in Naples. My trip began with an EZ Jet flight from London to Rome and ended with a couple of hours at The Viking Exhibit at the British Museum. I’m sure that the raiding from the far north required a hearty crew as they traded and plundered their way about Ireland, Scotland, England and the coast of France some 1,000 years ago. On the other hand, I doubt if there was much hassle about the size and cost of an extra carry-on bag as I saw a young Italian woman demolish one suitcase and abandon another at the gate in order to comply with the carry-on luggage policy. Maybe we’re not as civilized as we think.

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Italy quietly delivers a humbling and historically disorienting experience. Everything is supposed not to work the way that things are expected to work or the way that it works as it should in Germany. Except when one has a coffee or a pizza or shops for shoes or inspects the civic art or considers its foundational contribution to the lives that we each live nearly everywhere (I don’t know much about India and China). I got the sense that Italians measure time with amplitudes different from my own.

In Naples (named Neopolis by the Greeks), one refers to the Greek streets, the Norman protectors and the Bourbon kings all of whom cultivated this culture long before it became part of modern Italy. Then there is Vesuvius, Herculaneum, Capri and Amalfi. I had this notion that they’ve seen most of it already and experienced the rest. A generation here or a government there or an inevitable looming crisis of some fashion will be outlasted. I still can’t get over the sight of lemons the size of large grapefruits or small American footballs. I am cross with the Neopolitans now that I know what is the texture and which are the proper flavors of genuine pizza.

Enroute to Naples, I visited the American Cemetery in Nettuno where 7,500 are buried. Retirement from a large company marks some personal milestone causing one to wonder what has one accomplished and what could be accomplished with whatever months and years and decades remain. Walking the rows of graves of young men younger than my elder son was an inspiring experience. Seeing the Italian landscape crew carefully tending each site, even scrubbing by hand the green mold from the base of the individual headstones (actually, crosses in most cases), yet again reminds me of our collective good fortune. So, I had Kid’s Meal and an Italian coffee at the MacDonalds across the street from the cemetery’s entrance. Of course, it’s not what they died for and I feel they would have understood such an indulgence on a beautiful afternoon in a quiet place so far from home.

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I kid my friends that the genuine splendor of Italy is not another church -boy, did those guys have a 1,000 year racket! – nor another incredible sculpture and not another ‘how did they figure that out moment?!, which is how I especially felt as the train travelled alongside the lengthy stretch of still standing Roman Aqueduct, but the food, the food, the food and the myriad of visual pleasures, principally human. Every Italian seems to make a statement just by being and acting Italian. My joke was turned on me when a I visited the Sansevero Chapel and saw the sculpture of the Veiled Christ. This is art bordering on magic.

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I returned through London quickly touring the 007 exhibit at London Film Museum. No collection of rocket-firing cars will ever eclipse the first sight by a 10 year old boy in New Orleans of Ursula Andress in Dr. No. The splendid British Museum hosts The Vikings. After Rome and Naples, they seemed like such newcomers even with their tougher than James Bond aura and actual Q-like inventions.

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We’re good and not as novel as we think that we are. All that we’ve accomplished is predicated on what others have done and even failed to achieve. I read that Vesuvius collects a depth of five kilometers of molten material so that when it explodes, the scale will be similar to that of 79 AD. I suppose that Pompei will be resealed. Meanwhile, in honor of those who lived full lives, those who lived memorable lives, those who gave much and those who gave it all, we should treasure our individual amplitudes over coffee or a pizza.

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12 April: related editorial in today’s NY Times.


March 8th, 2014

Maybe I could pretend to be George Plimpton?!

High school lacrosse season began this week. As I coordinate my referee costume (don’t repeat this description to other men referees), obvious is that even though lacrosse is a spring season sport, one has to prepare for winter, spring and summer weather and, periodically, for all three during the same game. For last night’s game, I wore gloves, leggings beneath my lined pants, two pair of socks, a vest and two long sleeved shirts all of which were camouflaged by the familiar black striped shirt and hat. The game began at 7:45 pm in 32 degrees temperature. By 9:30, blowing the whistle was an achievement of lip, breath and finger dexterity. Monday’s game will be played in near 70 degree weather which will present the short ensemble: pants, socks, shirt sleeve length.

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I referee high school lacrosse games, both women’s and men’s. Same game, worlds apart. Anyone surprised? The men’s game is about managing contact as the boys wear helmets, thick gloves and thin pads on the arms and shoulders. The women’s game discourages, even forbids, contact. Their variant of the game is committed to skill which comes with rules, lots of rules. The boys have their rulebook, for sure. If a ref enforced every rule or called every foul, a boys game would last longer than a cricket match presuming that not all players had fouled-out of the game in order to last that weekend.

Sports develop character and teach us about ourselves, the Fields of Eton notion. Refereeing a sport can be equally revealing about our true selves as this role requires a mixed breed of self-love, servitude, leadership, intentional deafness and a smiling distrust of each and every human being on the field and at the sidelines that you volunteered your free time to be with.

There is one law of lacrosse that all referees are taught. When the game concludes, leave the field directly and immediately. Accept a salutation or a kind word of thanks as you keeping moving towards the parking lot. I know this to be valuable advice because of the one time that I paused on the way to my vehicle to congratulate one coach on a game well-played. Her school’s team was new to the sport, the outcome of the game required three overtime periods and her girls played well and fairly into the twilight of the evening.

“Good game, coach. Well played,” I said.

Without hesitation, she replied, “Do you know how many F@#$%G calls you missed today?!” It didn’t seem like she meant only 1 or 2.

I don’t think anyone heard her besides the 15 players on her team, 10 or 12 of their parents in the stands and a guy walking his dog across the street from the field. Incredibly, I was inclined to answer her non-question. Luckily, I realized that she was yelling at The Ref and not at Christopher. I nodded with diminished authority, pivoted and marched to my car. I want to believe that the radio and closed windows disguised my screaming at her in retort. Then I enjoyed a 90 mile drive from Greenville back to Durham.

A broad range of men and women qualify to be lacrosse referees. Many are school teachers and PhD candidates. Most played the sport at some level, particularly the women’s referees. How else could one learn the rules and the application of the rules! Many of the referee’s on the men’s side are also football, basketball and soccer refs as it seems that $55 to $65 per contest can add-up nicely. Some refs are confident of their knowledge of the rules and manage the game from this base; others rely on their own playing pasts, tending to ‘let them play’, although the attention to the potential of head-injuries in all contact sports has reduced such interpretive perogative. In short, there are mandatory fouls for hits to and about the head. Fields of Eton, indeed!

The best referees call the game as they see it. They are not looking for a game to turn-out a particular way as though there is a pattern to be followed. They would rather miss a call then to make an unnecessary call and players prefer this approach. They don’t want to be influential in the game or even noticed at the conclusion of the game (Mr. Perrien seconds the motion). The superior referees have compelling presence and are credible even when they are mistaken. All refs make mistakes in every game.

When the helmets and the eye guards are removed; when the crosses are put down; when the kids rush their goalies in celebration, they all become suddenly so young to me. Or I’ve just became twenty five years older as suddenly. The transition from armored athlete to high school, fun-loving jock is instantaneous.

A similar transformation happens to referees. They metamorphose from demigod and the keeper of the peace to a building contractor or a county employee in the distance between the goalie’s cage and the parking lot. A well refereed game is a combination of suspended disbelief and pursuit of common objective. I guess that character is built by characters.


February 25th, 2014

I Just Read This About Banking…Feel That It Applies to Many

The outside world is disrupting the very fabric of the business of banking.

The business as we used to know it over the past 50 years relied on several things:

Heavy and costly marketing and sales to acquire customers and build trust.

Locking in these customers so that switching to a competitor was hard*.

Investing in relationships with wealthy customers to provide custom advice, while at the same time treating the less-wealthy as a mass market, with one-size-fits-all products.

Generating repeat revenues through percentage and transaction fees, which resulted in banks’ preference for less frequent but high-volume transactions*.

Very costly investment in infrastructure: networks, back office, branches, compliance. This was an upfront investment that discouraged or blocked new entrants from the market*.

From American Banker, 22 July 2013. Author: MARIELA ATANASSOVA


January 30th, 2014

Australian Open: What did Wawranka’s win over Rafa say about Federer

For starters, his win got Roger to agree to play in Davis Cup starting tomorrow. We’ll have to wait until Roger and Rafa retire to argue about who is the better and who is the best ever. I’m of the mind, for now, that Rafa is the best on clay ever. And that clay is just a side-show surface compared to hard court. I guess that the immediate argument is that grass – Roger’s won Wimbledon 7 times – is an off of the circus grounds affair given that its season lasts only one month. Grass and hard court have more in common than either do with clay. BTW, I prefer clay to them all, having played on this surface regularly for the better part of thirteen years.

At the Australian Open. Stan won because he served well and returned serve well. Federer played well, perhaps his best since winning Wimbledon in 2012. It’s all about match-ups. Did Roger tire Rafa? How much did this match contribute to Nadal’s diminished play in the Championship? Would Berydich have fared better if he and Nadal had traded sides of the draw as he and Stan split sets, one break each, with Stan winning both tie-breakers. Could Stan have defeated Nadal in the Semis and Berydich over Roger in the Semis. Would Nadal have defeated Stan and then Roger in the Championship?

Whatever the parlor game, Stan won three difficult matches in convincing manner over Djokovic, Berydich and Nadal. Nadal seems to have played his Final versus Roger so was unable to elevate his game or his health for the Championship. It appears that last weekend was one version of Davis Cup; tomorrow begins another.

Most Aces
Wawrinka 81 #1 (11+ per match)
Federer 53 #9 (9+ per match)
Nadal not in top 20

1st Serve Points Won
Wawrinka 82% #6
Federer 79% #14
Nadal not in top 20

First Serve % In
Nadal #9 71%
Neither Federer nor Wawrinka in Top 20

1st Serve Receiving Points Won
Wawrinka 146 #1
Nadal 135 #2 (18 per match)
Federer 124 #4 (20+ per match, played 6 matches)

2nd Serve Return Points
Nadal 136 #2 (19+ per match)
Federer 119 #7 (19+ per match, fewer matches))
Wawrinka 109 #9 (15+ per match)

2nd Serve Points Won
Nadal #9 and Federer #10 at 59%
Wawrinka not in Top 20

Break Points Won
Nadal 27 #2
Federer 23 #7 (6 matches)
Wawrinka 23 #7


January 30th, 2014

First Month on the Lam: KPIs of Retirement

Heed these words all ye who pass. Just kidding! Life after a job is still life. As with everything else these days, from Ubering a taxi cab to discovering The One and Only, retirement is different also. I’ll explain.

If one has not been to the or an office in 15 years, there is no office not to go to. As well, there is no gossip to miss nor routines to unwind. There are fewer conference calls, fewer emails and way less instantly appearing Instant Messages or Chats. Others have taken note of my departure, including several that I have not spoken with in years. They wrote me to say that they didn’t know that I was leaving. I interpret this to mean that they wonder if I can make it away from the herd. Today is the second anniversary of not receiving a paycheck every two weeks. The lights are on and our credit seems worthy.

The working day seems more purposeful; maybe it’s the anxiety of keeping the lights on and bank paid monthly. Side note: I’m helping my wife’s mobile app development studio and have been part of it for 5 years so it’s not a stark transition to the other world. It’s satisfying to control all of one’s time; it’s invigorating to be at the smaller company end of the business world where decisions are made rapidly with clear measurement of the desired objectives. Here are my tips for those who follow.

- it’s true, take care of your health. This is an obvious investment given the enormous pay-off. It’s also the one that too few of us take advantage of. Two words: better and time. You’ll look better, think better, act better, sleep better and be better off in the long run. You’ll make time and money by not spending time and money recovering your health.

- know where you live. several commented to me that they would not know how to leave their current positions because they have no contacts nor sense of what is around them. Understandable. A weak link. Maybe it’s a simple equation of “what would I do if I retired or otherwise lost my job this month.” One day, this solution will be required.

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- I read this one in the Wall Street Journal ten years ago so I will pass along without taking credit. Hobbies and interests outside of your job are vital to a sense of inclusion or avoiding the sense of displacement when that life-defining job is lost. I qualified as a lacrosse referee four years ago and play as much tennis as Nature and my family permit.

- the economy stinks. People are uncertain, angry, unconfident and wonder what does the future hold in store for their children. As I am now much closer to the small gears of the economy – the schools, the start-ups, our Federally funded science programs which are the engine of our Research Triangle Park – I see how difficult it is and will be to correct the course of our broad economy. Whether healthcare, education, retirement, defense posture or infrastructure upgrades, plenty of someones will have to be hurt, in a financial sense, in order for the others to find their way forward. Someone’s ox has to be gored. Think patient, provider or payer in the healthcare marketplace. Two can make it if one takes it on the chin.

- on the financial front, I cannot decide if the prudent path is to spend more, save less; spend less, save more; get out of stocks and buy things (my Dallas friend’s comment of ‘commercializing one’s debt.’ “When the bottom falls out, at least I’ll have a boat and a trailer,” he says). Put away 15% to 20% of every paycheck or source of income. It’s never too early nor too late to start. Nothing contributes to a good night of sleep as does a financial cushion of savings equivalent to six months of former income or expenses.

- I understand the need for Obamacare. Our health insurance fees tripled for half of the coverage. This monthly cost for two healthy people and an 18 year old will only increase and is now twice the price of our home mortgage. Crazy is that the policy is riddled with clauses and co-pays and deductions except if I go to the Emergency Room. Then I pay $75 per visit.

I don’t miss the exasperating meetings; the middle management who’s been displaced by the Internet and doesn’t know it yet; the numbing processes that discourage decision-making and squelch a sense of contribution and achievement. I know that I am lucky because I’ve been lucky. Be prepared. Live in the moment. Help others now so that you might earn the right to ask for help later. Be an example in a self-effacing way.

From this Instance, Reader,
Be encouraged to Diligence in thy calling
And distrust Not Providence.
(Ben Franklin)


January 11th, 2014

The Jeopardy of Watson: How I Would Improve IBM’s Business Performance

Been retired 11 days now. Feels good even though I’m still adjusting to the verb and the adjective. The reaction of others is “lucky you”; my reaction is “am I as old as my father once seemed?! I am working on the straight-faced retort, “Yeah, I retired. How much money does a guy need?!”

The sobering reality is that at a meeting with the staff of a prospective client yesterday (it turns out that I need some more money), I asked about the profile of their typical customer. One replied, “Old. Like in their thirties.” I hoped that she referred to their geographic latitude or their winter weather. Nope. Age. I was calm and continued taking notes on my Underwood.

This is not a rant of a guy on the other side of the company gate. Truthfully, I already appreciate IBM’s employee shield as I purposefully explore the US’s systems of healthcare, retirement and university education. Or Not! Our family’s healthcare cost could triple for less coverage; how long will we live for how much?!; is even public university price-worthy for the requirements of the modern, Internet world? Such deliberations reaffirm the need for cocktail hour.

Yes, posterity will record that I retired from IBM. And it feels much better to separate with a handshake than a cardboard box. The subtext of my exit is that employees of a certain age were told that we’re expensive; employed in the lowest revenue and weakest growth marketplace, North America; and would not be laid-off if we agreed to retire after an eighteen month period of reduced hours. I imagined a composite wanted-poster of us being nailed to telephone poles and pasted above coffee machines: “Have you seen these around? Encourage them to leave.” So I did.

As I worked from my home office for 15 years and met many more clients than I did other IBMers (the nature of my job was international travel to discuss technology strategies with senior executives of our clients), not much has changed for me so far. I do read IBM tweets and press with the attitude of an outsider. It’s the same way that I perceive news about the US Navy. I believe that I understand the language and the culture; I have no pretense that I am up to date on the details of decision-making.

Like you, I read this week that IBM will invest $1 billion dollars in its Watson Division. After three years of much promising without much related selling, the proffered solution is more investment. The logic seems to be “if we invest more, they will buy more.” I don’t buy this thinking for several reasons. Customers with whom I’ve spoken about Watson or Cognitive Computing do not relate to the feat of winning at Jeopardy. It’s an American tv program. International executives know it’s a game show and most don’t understand the game. The brains behind Watson’s development, Dr. Dave Ferruci, left IBM quietly over one year ago (he joined a hedge fund). This is not a positive sign for a fledgling technology.

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The secret sauce of Watson is the quality of its own data, the data that it uses to learn about a topic so that it can assess and understand what other target data sets might mean. It has to be taught all of the cities in the world to understand a question related to the location of Toronto. Few, very few clients have such high quality data sets. If they do, they guard this data carefully. Watson systems are expensive. Combining these two circumstances portrays why hospitals and banks are the first clients of Watson and why neither is making a related, profitable business for IBM. Hospitals may be willing to share some form of patient data and, in no way, can they afford the price of a Watson computing system. So they want to share a Watson system. IBM is trying this approach now with a Watson Cloud offering (details TBD). Banks can afford Watson computing systems and, in no way, have the correct data to teach Watson (what does your bank really know about you?!).

Now that the IBM’s Smarter Planet mantra is shopworn, there is a struggle to promote the next technology rallying point. Watson is the only wild card in their hand. This plus way too many unconnected acquisitions. Watson feels like another OS2 effort. By the time that it’s great, Siri, Dragon, Nuance and others will offer mid-range and personal equivalents.

What was the road not taken by IBM? The product climate of IBM reminds me of a too similar circumstance in the mid-1980s when I was an IBM client in Maine. Our young Boston-educated IT staff wanted to delve into mid-range computers and packaged software. The reliable and equally skilled IBM account team hardly knew what they were talking about. The company’s management sided with IBM and the boys returned to Boston to work for DEC. Then came the wave of personal computers, a storm that IBM weathered well. Unfortunately, the company considered PCs to be hardware products and allowed the Seattle startup, Microsoft, to develop and to own the operating system software. Hell hath no fury…and IBM began the OS2 march to Moscow. That did it and nearly did in the company. IBM has never again attempted packaged or end-user software development. I guess that the accuracy of my comment depends upon how one feels about Lotus Notes and recent acquisitions.

Frozen on the wrong MIS road, IBM fell to one knee in the early 1990s. Burroughs nearly purchased IBM. Outsiders Lou Gerstner from American Express and Jerry York from Chrysler were deputized to rescue the company from itself. The marketplace cooperated thanks to the ERP period, the Y2K scare and the e-business boom (bomb). They righted the boat, were thanked and dismissed. A veteran of the money-bleeding PC division replaced Lou as CEO.

Then began the march to the past. As the Internet-based technologies replaced dozens of markets and millions of users with millions of markets and dozens of users, IBM management pined for the days of the branch office (Lou closed them all to incite employees to go see clients) and the predictable profits streams of mainframe-based computing. This strategy exploded, ignited by the Financial Crisis of 2008 (banks are by far IBM’s best customers). Apple and the iPhone took center stage. Senior executives of IBM clients traded their Blackberrys for the phones that their kids were using. Promising a steady increase in earnings per share and tacitly admitted that they could no longer compete via internal resources, IBM went on an acquisition binge. To pay for dozens and dozens of acquisitions, a companion program of maniacal cost-cutting was implemented.

The world of Mobile, Social, Cloud and Big Data is being taken on by a machine called Watson. Ironically, the voice recognition algorithms used by Watson are licensed from Nuance, the same company that licensed Siri to Apple. Nuance got this speech recognition software from IBM (Via Voice) at fire-sale pricing from IBM Research as these Labs were pressured to earn their keep. It would be hard to make this up.

What would I do if I were CEO for a day? I’d adopt the tools that I try to sell to others. The company has no widespread and reliable customer management system; sales are managed on Excel spreadsheets; employee productivity tools are nearly the same as they were 15 years ago: Lotus Notes, Lotus Instant Messaging and a company portal. Conference calls and emails predominate the distribution of information in a cascading model. There is nearly no way to talk back or up or over. Never in 15 years of speaking with the most senior executives of IBM’s biggest clients did I ever have access to a CRM system. No one ever knew what I learned.

Meanwhile, Apple earns as much in a quarter as IBM promises to earn in its much heralded 2015 Roadmap. I’d appoint executives who talk to their employees in a modern, meaningful way. Lou was good at this; Sam didn’t try; Ginni was handed the job because Moffet went to jail. The strength of the company is its incredibly talented, and sadly underutilized, employees.

There may always be an IBM as there may always be the local utility company. Success in the urgent near term requires widespread revitalization of the company’s morale and a determined focus on competing where it matters to clients. Watson knows this.


January 10th, 2014

Blue Pane Studio delivers its 63rd app

For the Association of Event Professionals in Nashville, TN.

AEP Nashville 2014 app

Apple Store , Google Play for Android , AEP 2014 info.


December 27th, 2013

Retiring from IBM 4: Accident & Emergency at Heathrow Airport

I am a person of routine and habit. Such surprises some who know me well and most who do not. The devil of routine is travel which I both enjoy and, over the past five years, endure with frequency. I read that the airlines consider charging we passengers for carry-on luggage.

Prior to leaving London recently, I stocked my backpack in the airline lounge with two small cans of pineapple juice, an apple, and packs of crackers and cheese that I would wave away anywhere else. I bring my own pillow, eye shades and entertainment. If I am to be charged for my carry-on luggage, the irony will be that 75% of these items simply replace what the airlines use to offer. Such a charge for carry-on items will be the Tom Sawyer Fence Painting Con at 30,000 feet. “Well, Huck, ya kin hep paint this here fince, but it’ll kost ya $2.” ‘I’m gonna hav ta charge ya for the handbag that I’ma makin ya kerry-an-bord thisa here air-o-plane’.

International flights are long ones. I admit that its fun when heading easterly, usually back to the States, to rewind my watch instantly regaining four hours of my eclipsed life. Kind of like my personal episode of Lost or Groundhog Day. ‘Let’s do noon again. I’ll have that baby portion of faux cheese lasagna instead of the fake chicken pot pie.’

As we know, the body has its own routines guided by its own timing mechanism: a couple of mine are breakfast upon awakening, lunch about 5 hours later, dinner after dark, sleep at 10 pm in addition to other insundry, necessary and not-to-be-mentioned-in-public personal activities, unless one is French. One of my unspeakable routines occurs about 6:30 am daily. Adjusting for British Standard Time, this is about 10 minutes before American Airlines flight 173 departs London’s Heathrow Airport for its 8 hour journey to the USA.

Like a school student, I can usually wait until I get home. Last November, I could not even though I waited too long to calculate my urgency. Be alarmed not, dear reader. This will not be gross.

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As I meandered past the numerous Airline Lounge facilities, all of which seem to elevate the unexceptional to the extraordinary by simply deflating the expected and customary to a variant of a visit to the dentist, I spotted the Air Emirates Lounge on my way to my departure gate. I knew that I could not get into the AE lounge. I did conclude that their departure gates must have excellent personal facilities befitting a high rolling, oil sheik, Airbus flyer. I changed course and headed in that direction. I found the AE gates, but only their gates?! As time was not on my side, I asked the courteous lady at the AE boarding counter for directions to the men’s facilities. She recommended the way back where I came from, near the center of the concourse! Like Columbus, I was not to be deterred by a slight navigational miscalculation on my part and a lack of inspiration on hers. I thanked her and carried-on my initial route.

Spotting the international symbol for personal convenience above a broad door- and this polished portal was configured to handle wheelchairs- I cautiously turned the handle and was granted entrance. All my own. Spotless. Vast. This chamber was the size of the sum what all of the accommodations on my pending airplane flight would equal.

I’ll spare you the details, certainly. Everything proceeded according to plan and habit except for the conclusion. May I be quick to say that I am used to all manners of plumbing actuation, aka flushing: levers, knobs, switches, sensors, manual, semi-automatic, automatic and magic. I could not figure this dude out. Nothing looked like anything that I ever used before. And I needed to get back asap to my own departure gate. Confronted with a cord from the ceiling and a one inch square, illuminated button in the wall, I opted for the bright, shiny button and pushed it in.

This actuated the Call For Help light, at least on my side of the locked door. It was one of those moments when you are so frightened that everything moves slowly and you are aside yourself watching yourself behave. “I wonder what Chris is going to do now?!” Of course, I took some of the precious seconds available to me to wonder what will be the consequences of my greed, deceit, disrespectful and insulting behavior. I wondered if the Emirates had territorial authority in a handicapped bathroom? What language would my attorney need to speak? Would I suffer an incarceration similar to that dope-runner in Midnight Express?  Seriously though, I did envision a SWAT team in desert garb blowing the hinges off of the door to rescue what they had to perceive was the desperate soul pleading for assistance. As I stared at the amber, flashing light and enjoyed the melody of its whirring alarm, my only option was to try what works with computers and computer software. If one click makes it go on, maybe the same click will make it go off. I did. It did. Instant quiet and monochrome illumination.

I like to think that those assigned to rescue the truly needy in such situations don’t alert immediately the airport ambulance as false alarms are a common or not uncommon occurrence. Kind of like the aggravating car and home alarm systems.

Now that order was restored, at least on my side of the door, I squared my shoulders, channeled my best 007 look of aplomb- you know, while the bad guy’s vehicle burns, Bond slips into a taxi initially hailed by a beautiful woman and they head to the casino. Just as Mr. Evil’s car explodes into vicious flames, James quips, ‘that’s one way to be fired from your job’- and pushed open my door.

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To my relief, there were no Balaclava-clad men kneeling with weapons drawn- which I thought might be standard procedure for a false alarm; there was no gurney poised with an Accident and Emergency team; there was no one. I walked away as slowly as my desperate to run legs would allow me.

At the check-in process for my own flight, I was especially polite and thoughtful in answering the questions related to my journey and personal details. I was prepared for the Columbo retort,” thank you sir; have a good flight.” “Oh! By the way, where you the one in the handicapped restroom near the Air Emirates gates?” I would try to run and would be tackled by a dozen plain-clothes Bobbies and MI-6 types meandering nearby in disguise as fellow passengers.

I boarded alone and seemingly unobserved. I sat in my window seat. I ate and drank everything offered to me. I complimented the flight attendant on the quality and quantity of food. I paid for in-flight WiFi service so that I could email the Chief Executive Officer of American Airlines with a list of members of the flight crew that I felt should be immediately promoted. While online, I donated my frequent flyer account balance to charity. I purchased 4 bottles of Duty-Free scotch. I’ve learned to change my habits.


December 24th, 2013

You Don’t Want It, Monsieur; It Wants You.

No longer permitted business-class air travel, even to Australia, India or a morning client meeting after an overnight flight to Europe. Since the 2008 financial crisis, employees have had to absorb ever more of our own business-related expenses. We pay for our own Internet access from home; our mobile phone allowances are capped. The company suspended the Thanks Award program where an employee could grant a nominally valued gift to a fellow employee. Instead, we can send e-cards.

Black-Tuxedo-Wine-Champagne-Bu-40162

I had a premonition of what would be because I played tennis in 2002-2004 with a veteran employee. He began in the heyday of the mainframe when Miss Connecticut, the beauty pageant winner, was automatically offered the receptionist job at the branch office in Hartford. This afforded last year’s Pageant winner a promotion to Assistant Marketing Manager. Don Draper would understand. As my tennis pal plotted carefully his retirement, “seven years and counting” (at that time, I wondered who worked anywhere for 7 years), he offered me some poignant career advice: “I never argue with women managers; I never argue with accountants; and I never, ever argue with a female accountant.”

Early in 2008, I travelled to Belgium to meet with the executives of a Brussels-based bank who wanted to spread the aura of innovation from their personal offices down the halls and around the building to those eager to think for themselves. I visited in June for two workshops. My first meeting was in their executive building, 11th floor, manned by two women attired in the blue company uniforms complete with Hermes scarves. The walls hung recognizable art; it was the largest office space I’d ever seen for so few occupants. I learned that these guys were the bank of record for a European government agency. After the bust later that October, the government rescued the bank, sold the art work and co-located all of the employees, except for these executives as they were no longer employees.

June weather in Belgium can be warm; absent air-conditioning, it can be hot. After the bank briefings and before spending the next week in London, I toured Brussels. The food is delicious, the architecture is interesting and there are battlefield monuments nearby ranging from Waterloo to Bastogne.

On a Sunday, I meandered about the the Grand Place in search of simple souvenirs that I could afford. At the chocolate boutique, I asked if the milk chocolate pralines would travel well. “Of course, sir” was the reply. “If you will keep them in the packaging on the floor of your car, they should be fine when you arrive at your hotel.” I asked, “how about the flight back to America?” Heathen-alert! I received the retail store version of the Terminator’s stare whenever they conclude that you don’t have what it takes to either appreciate or afford their goods. “Non, Monsieur.” End of pitch, conversation, dialogue and meeting. Au Revoir, Monsieur Mars Bar.

I am compelled to return with souvenirs when I am away from home for more than a few days. I feel that this helps to include the family in the journey and procures a measure of good will for the next extended trip. Although I do notice that the days of my departures are met with upbeat, hearty well-wishes from my son and wife as they make a list of places where they plan to eat-out in my absence.

Amidst the stone buildings and sea of outdoor cafes in the Old Town, I spotted a jewelry shop on a rounded corner of sturdy fortress-like building. I’m willing to buy dishes, linen, coats and even shoes for my wife. Jewelry is out of my comfort zone as I’m not confident that I understand the relationship between price and quality. I fall prey to the shiny object syndrome and am unsure of neck length, ear lobe size, width of brow, subtle eye color when queried by the sales clerk. I usually say, “she likes blue and green. Gold is good, too.” Then I ask for directions to the shoe department.

The windows of this particular jewerly shop, aka boutique, were decorated, as these upscale sort all are with the the tasteful, overt message that EU Ministers, Foxcom Moguls and Kim Kardashian welcomed.

The door was ajar. I peeked in to see a handsome woman; a small, rotating fan; and a bottle of champagne. Immediately, she beckoned me with a sincere wave and an entreaty to enter. “Entrez Vous, Monsieur, Entrez Vous.” As I ventured across the threshold, she switched to English because she recognized immediately Mr. Hershey Kisses.

She apologized for the warm air in the shop explaining that the air conditioning unit was ‘out of function.’ “Please join me in a glass of champagne” – the bottle in silver bucket on the counter. I guess that she was in her mid-50s, dressed as someone who not only purveys jewelry but also knows how to wear the rocks too. I am not sure about other men on the road, but I’m easy prey when afar for a glass of champagne, decolletage with a french accent, in a spot where Lady Gaga might stop-by.

One has to pass the time when sipping fine wine. Madame showed me a few baubles, asked me a few questions, slid open a couple of concealed drawers, re-filled my glass. She introduced me to her friend of the same profile who dropped-by to complain of the heat – maybe she was summoned by a we’ve-got-one-on-the-hook button beneath the counter. They asked about my wife’s interests and qualities. Is she tall? Does she have fair skin? How does she dress?

The more they spoke, the more I realized that women have many facets. Or it could have been the 2:30 pm champagne buzz. At any rate, it was revealed to me by my new BFFs (Belgium Friends Forever) that the purchase of a bracelet designed in Austria would restore to my marriage an element of joy and mystery that I did not even realize was either relevant or missing.

I felt like a Beaux-Arts dandy amidst their well wishes of Au Revoir, Bon Voyage, Merci with hands waving their golden bracelets. Yep, got the cheek kisses before I left, too.

The lacquered, outsized shopping bag with the gold threaded, blue crinoline ribbons was probably worth more than most of the other downmarket souvenirs that I’d purchased on prior adventures. I still have the branded, telescopic pen that Madame gave to me after I signed the credit card statement impressing my investment with the gravity of an international treaty ceremony.

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There are ways to save money and there are ways to make money. What Madame understood is that the best way to turn a few Euros is to have the customer feel as though he is part of a singular, lifetime achievement. I didn’t buy an expensive bracelet in Brussels; my wife possesses a souvenir of an experience that I never want to forgot. A Votre Sante’.


December 22nd, 2013

Steve, Cher & Daycare: a memory upon retirement

We live in an academic community in the small city of Durham, North Carolina; could be named Dukeham for the significance of Duke University to our local economy. Sometimes referred to with the “New Jersey of the South” moniker, but I’ve heard that as many students come from Florida. I don’t believe it.

As a consequence of the influx of these out of state, private tuition sources, Jersey or Miami, $58k per year per student including room and board, high achieving professors are recruited. Throw into the pot the doctors and scientists from the Medical Centers (only two cities have two such large and renown medical centers, ours with Duke and UNC, and the Bay Area with Stanford and Cal Berkeley) and pre-school for infants and toddlers costs plenty around town.

In the beginning, we carted our infant son to the other side of Chapel Hill, a 90 minute round trip twice per day, because that’s where the best-we-could-find pre-school was. Foolishly, we had waited until he was born to solicit invitations for our son’s attendance and our related funds. This is like trying-out for the middle school soccer team in order to get some exercise, have some fun and learn an internationally popular sport. One would be lucky to get an orange slice as a booby prize before a squadron of mini-vans with insulted parents escorted you from the field.

For awhile, we enjoyed the variety from routine and the car-time with the Howard Stern radio program. Then the call came that Our Child (OC) fell from his high chair, cut his head and ‘needed us to pick him up.” “Can’t we meet you at the doctors office?”, Mother implored. “Uh, no. We don’t have a car seat for a baby.” Quite the memorable occasion was the next hour as we motored over to the school then to the Emergency Room. Turns out, OC was ok – a few stitches now hidden by an eyebrow. Mother recovered also.

We dug out the phone book (remember? still had those in 1997) as well as the related tip sheets so that we could renew the begging of day-care directors. We found a sincere program at a Catholic school that was well managed and very diverse, although nobody was like us. Couldn’t enroll OC until he was 2, three months from now / then, and as spots in the “program” were going fast, our chances of securing one later were kind of like walking-on to that aforementioned middle school soccer team.

Luckily, I attended Holy Name of Jesus, a Catholic school in New Orleans, and felt that I should employ this ADMG connection. Knowing the lingo of the Vatican, I asked, “can we start paying now and send our child later, after his second birthday?” Our request was processed up the chain of command or being. By the time we got home, we had a positive reply, i.e. acceptance, with address for the check, recorded on our answering machine (still had those in 1997).

Alas, not enough natural light, the diversity was too diverse – gratefully, no high chair flights- so, with much guilt (Once a Catholic, Always a Catholic), we met with Miss Rosa, the school’s Director, to confess and to accept the blame (O a C, A a C). She understood, suggesting that we contact The Lakewood Avenue Children’s School as that program seemed to be more like us. Our kind of market regulated diversity as we were about to learn.

We followed this advice, met that Director who became a dear friend, and enrolled. $900 per month in 1998 dollars moving to $1,200 over three years. We later learned that we were given a Disney-like Golden Entrance Pass bypassing the application queue as the wait list exceeded 100. Maybe she was moved by the sight of a begging mother and her clueless to the ways of the world husband.

LACS was quite the set-up: in a renovated home, large back yard, vegetable garden, rabbit hut, fox predators :( 6 teachers, 32 children in 3 grade levels and parents ranging from big time science prize winners; plenty of doctors; former and current lovers; trust fund hippies; the mayor. Once for a party game, we counted how many different last names identified the kids. I recall circa 18 and there were twins and siblings in the program. It was the kind of pre-school that you wish your college had been like.

Now for the good part. The teachers were smart, kind and capable. Turn-over was slight as they paid above the average with health benefits. LACS won a national recognition award and a citation in the Wall St Journal, pre-Murdoch the Fox.

Of our six teachers, Steve was the sole male. Fit in well with the rest of the teaching team and was especially popular on the days that he brought Mr. Happy, his pet snake, to school. I was content because mom was happy and OC was buckled in.

One spring day, Steve announced his resignation from LACS. Selected parents in the know, yours truly excluded, were atwitter- meant something different then. OC’s mother had seen Steve perform in Raleigh, the state capital on the other side of the Research Triangle Park. His celebrity impersonations were so good that Las Vegas made him an offer that he could not refuse. With minimum fanfare and less explanation, he cordially and, in high regard, headed West to what I’ve come to classify as that hell-hole in the desert.

About the same time that Steve arrived in LV, I did, too, as IBM negotiated a multi-year contract for thousands of off-season room-nights. Consequently, seemingly every sales conference and many client events were hosted in The Venetian, at Treasure Island or The MGM Grand. A couple of times it made sense for me to stay the weekend there because I was due back the following week. After 6 or 8 seemingly surreal, week-long trips there, I shaped my own Rat Pack world of dinners at Brennan’s, exercise at the Canyon Ranch Spa and roaming the Frontier Mall. I never managed to feel like James Bond at the baccarat table. “I bet $15.00, Goldfinger” doesn’t have the requisite aplomb.

Somewhere in the middle of this period of professional purgatory, I stood in the long, incredibly long taxi line at the Vegas airport for the short ride to The Strip. Arrival at that airport is like being sent down a chute into a perverse wonderland of big luggage, odd people, glittering advertisements, exits without identity.

Anonymity amidst the chaos begins upon airport exit with thousands of riders queuing for hundreds of taxis. Oddly or maybe perversely, for Vegas, the dispatcher solicited passengers headed to the same locations. Bellagio? Mandarin? IBM conference? were examples of his sorting pattern. Things happened fast at this point. Two of us were paired and pointed to taxi down the queue. “Which one did he say,” asked my newly assigned companion. I replied, “the one with Cher on top, that’s was my son’s pre-school teacher.” I think he replied “nice ass” as this was him/Steve/Cher in her Bob Mackie outfit. Arm in arm with Steve in the mobile billboard atop the taxi were Judy Garland, Joan Rivers and Mariah Carey. How’s Mr. Happy, I wondered.

I caught Steve’s act three or four times during my Vegas incarcerations, usually joined by an adventurous or equally desperate IBM colleague. He always provided me with front row seats, once next to the bejeweled and bewigged Joan Collins. Astounding and fun were the impersonations and at every visit I was invited after the show to have a drink with Steve-Cher-Celine (he did her too) and “Michael Jackson” from Greensboro, NC. Just guys making a buck.

Steve and his partner lived away from The Strip, a necessary survival technique it seems. By day, Steve had resumed his work in pre-school education. Vegas, Baby!

It worked out for us, too, back in Durham, especially when OC entered kindergarten in the public school system. We added the former Lakewood tuition to the mortgage payment for our small home in Forest Hills- the mortgage payment was the smaller of the two- enabling the purchase of a much bigger place in Duke Forest adjacent to – irony alert – Duke University’s West Campus. Actually, next to their golf course and their Inn which is next to their West Campus.

Steve is still out there with the same gig at a different venue. I hope that Cherilyn Sarkisian,The Other Cher, finds a program for eternal life, or lifts, so long as it’s good for Steve. Owen will be off to college soon; I’m retiring from IBM at the end of the month. The beat goes on.

Since you ask:

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