Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Italy: Dead Solid Perfect Except No One Is Smiling

Italy. Near perfect weather on the Venice coast this time of year -- green, lush, a paradise filled with tall, rail-thin olive-skinned women, and even taller, darker men who could give one a complex if ego is an issue. Bottom line? They are beautiful enough to compete for naked space in most fashion magazines.

On its face, Italy is dead solid perfect, but for one nasty little fact that I have not been able to resolve: In developed Europe, say the researchers, the Italians (as a nation) are least satisfied with their lives. And, my anecdotal perspective is consistent with the numbers. The women are pouty and the men sound angry much of the time. Service (as in friendly) is not a common experience here. At best, it is not ugly, just frigid.

The giveaway is that almost no one smiles here -- except when they tell you "no, that is not possible," a phrase that seems to bring them a modicum of pleasure and even then it evokes only a guilty grin -- like a child who just peed his pants and takes some perverse enjoyment in the fact that someone else is going to have to deal with it.

To be fair, however, I readily admit the Italian culture is "cool" by any definition of the word. They wear the best clothes, shoes and without a doubt sport the most fashionable sunglasses to be had in this world, and they wear their "dark-as-legals" 24-7, including in smoky bars where their movements often mimic the blind. I saw one young man salting the table today since he completely missed his plate of food behind his Serengetti shades.

I (theoretically) have only another day to solve this conundrum: How can the prettiest people on earth living in an apparent paradise spend their time grousing about life while hidden behind dark glasses? I must know the answer which means I'll have to stay until the job is done. Such, after all, is the mark of a true professional. :)


Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Venice - Post-Modern Art

One car, two trains, two busses, two planes, another bus and a boat. That is the net-net of traveling from Newport, Wales to Venice, Italy. After a week of introducing Credible Connections to employers in Belgium and the U.K., I find myself in one of the great cradles of human development where any year of more than three digits is considered modernity, not history.

But just as raw numbers do not tell the story of travel, nor do they reflect the reality of the old world which has become the new world even here, a world no longer painted by masters but whose history is now being made by retailers. Not that Venice has fallen into a long line of t-shirt shops lining these streets of water. No, nothing that crass. Rather, shopping has become the new art here and just as Peggy Guggenheim brought modern art from its bohemian wasteland to the high brow that once called Venice their playground so Chanel and Ferragamo and other dealers of high end gemcracks has brought Venice to its post-modern era.

Shopping as art? Could it be? Or is it a caricature of the age old experience of buying, a grotesque hyperbole of a prurient observer who has taken in way too many espressos in the past hours to deal with a jet lag that will not go silently into that good night?

It is hard to know which, but in this part of the world where anything can be art, and is often so nominated, why not shopping? As one walks the canals, one can almost see the Napoleonic wing on St. Mark's being built with the likes of Vuitton and Dolce and Gabana in mind, leaving room to punctuate the Byzantine Venetian Gothic architecture with shops of leathers as fine as baby skin and glass so pure as to make one wonder if it exists beyond one's imagination, and sufficient space for electronics, of course, because what is life without a titanium flask?

Venice is clearly what Disney had in mind but he could only pull it off in the cheesiest form. It is much more akin to Rodeo Drive on steroids.

This sounds of criticism, but it is mere observation. I know that with the right eye one can still see the beauty of a time before trinkets and sense a Venice when art was not a black AMEX card lying on a fine felt counter at Chanel but was rather the work of an unnamed unremembered craftsman who framed the mosaics of the Basilica.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Maintaining a Healthy Level of Sanity

Preparing for a long trip that begins tomorrow involving all forms of transportation other than swampboat, connections close enough to require tipping baggage handlers amounts that would embarrass my accountant, and anticipating at least six colonoscopies courtesy of TSA in various lost luggage hangars, I have pondered what it might take to maintain sanity, at least that doesn't involve a liquid or a gel or anything you can't take on board with you these days which is, well, anything. About to strike out, timing was perfect for the piece you're about to read, sent to me by a great friend, and entitled "Ways to Maintain A Healthy Level Of Insanity." I haven't tried them all yet but I can personally attest to the effectiveness of items 1, 4, 7, and 17.

1. At Lunch Time, Sit In Your Parked Car With Sunglasses on and point a Hair Dryer At Passing Cars. See If They Slow Down.

2. Page Yourself Over The Intercom. Don't Disguise Your Voice.

3. Every Time Someone Asks You To Do Something, Ask "Do you want fries with that?"

4. Put Your Garbage Can On Your Desk And Label It "In."

5. Put Decaf In The office Coffee Maker For 3 Weeks. Once Everyone has gotten over their Caffeine Addictions, Switch to Espresso.

6. In The Memo Field Of All Your Checks, Write "For Smuggling Diamonds."

7. Finish All Your sentences with "In Accordance With The Prophecy."

8. Don't use any punctuation

9. As often as possible, Skip Rather Than Walk.

10. Order a "Diet Water" whenever you go out to eat, with a serious face.

11. Specify That Your Drive-through Order Is "To Go."

12. Sing Along At The Opera.

13. Go To A Poetry Recital And Ask "Why The Poems Don't Rhyme?"

14. Put Mosquito Netting Around Your Work Area And Play tropical sounds all day.

15. Five Days In Advance, Tell Your Friends You Can't Attend Their Party
Because You're Not In The Mood.

16. Have Your Co-workers Address You By Your Wrestling Name, "Rock Bottom."

17. When The Money Comes Out The ATM, Scream "I Won!, I Won!"

18. When Leaving The Zoo, Start Running Towards The Parking lot, Yelling "Run For Your Lives, They're Loose!!"

19. Tell Your Children Over Dinner. "Due To The Economy, We Are Going To Have To Let One Of You Go."

20. And The Final Way To Keep A Healthy Level Of Insanity.......

Turn someone onto this advice -- someone who will smile. Its called "therapy."

Sunday, August 13, 2006

30 days on the beach can change a man's life . . .

I remember when I learned the power of leisure. It was ten years ago this month. I had been working too many hours for too many years, flamed out, and fled to the beach for a month to get away from it all. Those 30 days changed my life.

I remember this clearly because at the time I was recording my life -- writing a newspaper column in my “spare time”. After the trip, I wrote a column I entitled, “30 days on the beach can change a man’s life.” It went something like this:

Thirty days on the beach seems more like two or three. Days drift into nights from which mornings are born and the cycle repeats itself, endlessly, like the tide.

No matter how long you are here, you can always tell day from night. But, soon the date becomes unimportant, and then the day of the week is, too, forgotten;

"Is this Tuesday?" I asked, mak¬ing conversation.

The lady fondling the lettuce smiled, but said nothing.

"Excuse me," I repeated, "but is this ..."

"I heard you," she said, looking up. "And, no, it; Friday," she said knowingly, like my question was some kind of cheap, pick up line she'd heard before.

"Thanks," I said, turned away, and headed for the cantaloupes.

"Excuse me," she followed, "but are you serious?"

"Yes, I am," holding a cantaloupe in each hand, "melon selection is a serious business."

"No, I meant the day. Did you really not know that today is Friday?"

"Still don't." I paused. "Unless I take your word for it. Want this cantaloupe?" I put the riper of the two in her basket.

"Well, no, not actually."

"Oh," I said, taking the melon back and putting it into my basket.

"It's just that, well, you look, uh, fairly normal," she observed, as if expecting to find a matching physi¬cal defect.

"I object," I said.

"What?" she asked.

"You heard me. I object. I'm a lawyer and I can object. It's my prerogative."

"You? You're a lawyer? No way."


"You don't look like a lawyer," she smiled, a condescending smile.

"What do lawyers look like?"

"I don't know," she replied, off balance, "but they don't have hair down to their shoulders, pierced ears, and they definitely don't wear roller skates into grocery stores dur¬ing business hours."

"They're inline skates, and who told you that?"

She paused, and I could see she was thinking hard, seeking a higher authority. Unsuccessfully.

"Well, no one, but you don't look like any lawyers I know."

She blew off my question, repeating hers.

"Are you sure you're a lawyer?" she asked.

"As sure as you seem to be that today is Friday."

"So, where do you practice?" she cross-examined me.

"I'm practicing now," I said, looking down at my skates.

"I don't mean practicing skating," she snapped.

'But, I do," I said. "I like skating. How about you?"

"I don't skate," she snapped, like I had asked her where she stripped for a living.

"Too bad. Floors in grocery stores like this are perfect, smooth, good to practice your turns," I said as I turned a perfect circle.

"The reason I ask," she said, by then exasperated, "is that I am a lawyer."

"Want a medal?" I asked, look¬ing down into my basket at my two fine cantaloupes, carefully selected, nearly ripe.

"No, it's just that ... I ...," her voice trailed off.

"It's just that you want to know how it's done. Isn't that what you want to know?" I said, looking up into her eyes, still blue, but now tragic.

"Yes," she whispered, "yes."

"How long are you here?"

"Through Sunday."

"Not long enough to learn," I said matter-of-factly.

"Learn? Learn what?"

"Learn how to do his," I said, gesturing to my skates.

"That's not what I meant," she objected.

"Yes, it is. You want to learn the fine art of dropping out. Gotta learn how to skate first, and that takes more than a week."

"Three days," she said stiffly.

"Oh, yeah. I forgot. It's Wednesday."

"Friday," she muttered. "It's Friday."

"You're right," I conceded. "It's Friday. But, until you can forget that fact, you will never learn."

I turned and skated to the check¬out counter, purchased my melons, and forgot it was Thursday before I left the store.

Since that fateful month 10 years ago, work has taken on a different meaning for me. I didn’t stop working like it was a bad habit, but I decided I was no longer my work. Work is simply something I do because I enjoy doing it. My life has been better since the shift.

Others have discovered the same but most have not been so fortunate. I have watched the workplace intently and I regret to report that most people still don’t skate -- they don’t get away at all. I get more Blackberry e-mails from clients ostensibly on vacation than ever before. And this is more than anecdotal perspective. A recent study reports that 25 percent of employees now take “working vacations,” which are not vacations at all; others take no vacations, and 82 percent take 5 or fewer days of vacation per year which is about as close to no time off as you can get without hearing the giant sucking sound of work sucking out your soul.

Why the societal dysfunction? There are many reasons. One is “gun-to-the-head syndrome.” 49 percent of employees aged 25 and younger say they feel “compelled” to stay connected to work when they are not physically present. Interestingly, only 26 percent surveyed from ages 25-34 said they felt similar pressure to do so. In other words, it is getting worse, not better.

While sad, it shouldn’t be surprising to anyone. Americans spend more time at work than any other people in the developed world. According to the American Institute of Stress, employees in the U.S. spent 40 more hours on the job during the course of 2000 than they did in 1990, and that doesn’t include unpaid overtime.

Regrettably, all this productivity and the bucks that come from it aren’t making us any happier. The U.S. continues to slide further down the world happiness scale each year. One can’t be sure it is all work-related, of course, but one would have to ignore the obvious to believe none of our growing dissatisfaction comes from too much work and too little leisure.

What’s the answer? Only the obvious . . .

Get away. Don’t call, don’t write, don’t take your Blackberry, and don’t take my word for it.

Jerry May, Ph.D., professor of psychiatry at the University of Nevada in Reno spent the last 15 years studying a group of 3,000 high-achievers in business, medicine, law and athletics. He found that those who incorporate more play into their lives aren't just happier, but have higher self-esteem and less stress, sleep better, and find more joy in life. And, yes, if you must know, they’re more productive, too.

So, buy a pair of skates, disconnect the television, leave the laptop, remove the batteries from your Blackberry, and spend 30 days on the beach if only to figure out what you’re doing and why.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

If You Ever Think Things Are Tough

Zacateros is a long stretch of road in San Miguel de Allende. It is mostly commercial, small businesses from tiendas to restaurants to a coffin maker. There isn’t a lot of zoning in Mexico.

Tonight, on the way home from a tavern I frequent on the tough days, I was in the midst of self-pity. A Board of Directors meeting had not gone my way. I was not able to use my persuasive abilities to make others see the light. I had failed. Combined with a little tequila, it can almost bring tears to your eyes. Almost, but not quite.

As I was slogging along the cobblestones in my beaten up van I noticed an old man walking – hobbling actually. As I got closer, I could see he had a cane upon which every other step rested.

No, that’s not a cane. I looked closer.

It was a stick. A plain unvarnished stick.

This man could not even afford a crutch, a cane, anything to help him make his way down the long thoroughfare to his destination. He was doing it all with a stick.

I slowed a moment and he stared at me. On his face was, well, nothing. Not sadness, not lamentation, just conviction. He was going to make it wherever he was headed. And, I thought, we all will, like it or not.

My problems faded. I was too embarrassed to consider them further.

As the gates to our compound opened I looked in my rearview mirror and thought I saw the old man again. But no, it just was my reflection. Like he, there was nothing to worry about. There was just a direction, a way, not good, not bad, just the next step, without judgment.

Sunday, August 06, 2006

Big, Inc. – Pigs at the Trough

Caution: This will not be your typical missive railing against welfare recipients living in mobile homes on the outskirts of town claiming 341 dependents, nor will it be a brutal flogging of the few deadbeats who have figured out a way to beat the “welfare to work” initiative that has dramatically reduced the welfare rolls of the poor in America.

No, today our focus is on welfare for companies who have found their own 341 dependents for which the government will pay. Collectively, corporate America rakes in more in subsidies and tax benefits than paid for the core programs of the social welfare state: Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC), student aid, housing, food and nutrition, and all direct public assistance (excluding Social Security and Medicare.)

These are the pigs at the trough. Collectively, they make up Welfare, Inc. They are on the dole. For this group, welfare began as accelerated tax deductions, morphed into subsidies, bailouts, giveaways, loopholes, debt revocations, loan guarantees, discounted insurance, and taxpayer extortion, just to name a few.

Television broadcasters were given control of a digital television spectrum worth $70 billion. Mining companies pay pennies per acre for valuable mining land which, if auctioned off, would net billions. Accelerated depreciation has provided big oil a porker infusion of tax benefits resulting in record profits. Federally subsidized electricity holds down the costs of running ski resorts in Aspen and gambling casinos in Las Vegas. The U.S. Forest Service has built 340,000 miles of roads in the last 20 years -- more than eight times the length of the entire interstate highway system -- primarily for the benefit of logging companies. Billionaire sports team owners pay for their new stadiums and arenas with tax dollars, often with the support of local politicians who receive donations to support math that never works out, except for the billionaires. Both political parties are culpable – all are pigs at the trough, too -- soft money and contributions from “employees” who have been leaned on by their employers to give to the “right” causes.

Corporate welfare has become so endemic that the equality that once existed in the tax code between corporations and individuals has been turned on its head. Today, says the U.S. Office of Management and Budget, the corporate share of income taxes has declined to a fourth the amount individuals pay.

But, welfare for the rich isn’t only for “Big, Inc.” The individual rich have their heads deep in the government feed bucket, too, and apparently intend to keep it there. The recent bill in Congress to raise the minimum wage, something that hasn’t been accomplished since 1996, is but one good example. It was held hostage, and ultimately killed last week, by those who made its passage contingent on the elimination of the inheritance tax – a bill that would have dumped cash by the carloads into the coffers of the wealthiest 1/2% of the population, those who need it least.

The situation sounds grim mostly because it is. Yet, all is not lost. When the most flagrant abuses are revealed, they can be dismantled. A good example is the “dead animal” loophole in the tax code, exploited by trophy hunters, one that allows those who define “sport” as taking a high-powered rifle and scope and blowing the brains out of helpless animals. Then, for good measure, they deduct these “adventures” by “donating” their “prizes” to “museums.” This swindle has cost the American taxpayer hundreds of millions of dollars, not to mention openly encouraging the slaughter of endangered species.

As the result of efforts by organizations like the Humane Society of the United States, these “donors” of animal carcasses to “museums” (many of which are set up in the hunters’ own living rooms), are now being investigated by the Internal Revenue Service. Indictments have been handed down for tax fraud and some of these brave bwanas will end up crying like babies in federal prisons for good reason. Hopefully, their notoriety will result in the exposure of other welfare scams.

To be fair, not all corporations or members of the gentrified class take government handouts. Prescient corporate leaders take social responsibility seriously, to include leaders of companies like Starbucks which has focused on the environment, Costco which has proven that paying a living wage doesn’t mean being uncompetitive, (regularly whipping their Wal-Mart competitor, Sam’s, in every meaningful metric.) Target is another example, donating more than $2 million a week to charities in the communities in which they do business. Build-A-Bear Workshop’s foundation donates more than $1 million a year to the cause of animal welfare, and companies like Intel, Herman Miller, Timberland, Cisco Systems, Southwest Airlines, Merck, and Medtronic, also have done the right thing.

So what? Who cares?

A growing number of people care, including investors and employees. In a recent survey, 73 percent of workers said it was "very important" to work for a company they believe is "socially responsible,” and 35 percent have reported actually leaving a company because they believed it was not socially responsible, that it was not doing the right thing.

A few corporate leaders have even expressed outrage against corporate welfare arguing that it creates an uneven competitive playing field and an unhealthy, incestuous relationship with government. They are right. This kind of introspection is what we need if corporate America is to repair its tarnished image of well-dressed thugs with nothing in mind except waddling up to the trough of government giveaways for the sole purpose of getting richer, regardless of the costs to society.