Saturday, April 30, 2016

Parabola of talents

At JFK this morning, I had my first Shake Shack experience.  As I bit into my bacon, egg, and cheese, I started to think about what I was going to write about the sandwich and experience. And then I stopped and asked myself: "has the world asked me for a review of Shake Shack? If not, why do I feel compelled to offer it?"

So I stopped, and concentrated on the sandwich, and the music, and the people gliding past, and the general sensation of leaving one place and group of people that have meant a lot to me en route to another.

All was good. But the instinct to write, such as it is, that wells up within me, is always and everywhere a manifestation of a fundamental sense that writing is what I should be doing and that, if I have not done it, I am somehow incomplete, I have not fulfilled my contract with Being. Which is at once a little silly and perhaps in its own way tragic, as this urge pulls me ever onward, elsewhere and away from simple presence.

The sandwich, by the way, was good, though I found myself wishing that, at that price point, it should have been on a hard roll. But I know that is just me, and that the bacon, egg and  cheese on a hard roll takes me back to a special time in my life, when I had come to the Northeast and was casting off the complexities of a childhood and adolescence that were not without challenges, when I had met Hilary and was pointed forward into a new world full of promise. It is, in short, a special sandwich, one that I ask a lot of at times. But that is understandable, for something with a name like bacon, egg, and cheese. Of those to whom much is given, much is expected.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016


On the way back from Asheville the other night I stopped off at about 9 at a Sheetz to get gas and something to eat. Not the best food, but the quickest way to get something less than utterly disgusting and get gas. I was proud of my logic.

So I filled up and got me a fish sandwich, put some Dinosaur Jr. into the car stereo and was psyched for the last leg of my journey. I got back on the highway. A few minutes down the road I saw a sign that said Statesville 13 miles, Asheville 112 miles and I cursed myself mightily. I had made the rookie error of getting back on the highway going the wrong direction. I probably added 25-30 minutes to my trip by the time I was able to turn around.

I have speculated before on the way that Google Maps has caused my tendency to learn roads and internalize directions to atrophy. I trust the device almost entirely, so I space out and don't learn my way around. Cary and Raleigh, in particular, remain terrae incognitae for me to a great extent, especially Cary, because I let Sergei and Larry do the heavy lifting, space out, and coast along going tra la la or, just as likely, perseverating about something I will have forgotten about in 4 days.

But this was the first time that it made me think that not only was I not learning specific regions, but that my attentiveness to direction in general had somehow begun to slip. Now, it was, admittedly, rather late, and I had had a long day of learning about the ravages of the opioid epidemic, and I am also getting older, but still. Getting on the interstate in the wrong direction is a new one.

Excitement about the fish sandwich and rock and roll admittedly played their parts as well.

Monday, April 25, 2016


At the conference on Friday, I attended a session on Motivational Interviewing, which is a technique that docs working in the substance abuse world and probably other parts of behavioral health use to work with patients who are resisting change. Which is to say, practically, everybody.

So, if you have some ornery cuss sitting there saying he has no interest in quitting drinking and his wife is a bitch etc. etc., you don't fight it, you try to ride the wave of discontent, listen for core issues, repeat back what the person is saying in slightly different ways, establish yourself as an ally. The docs are all about staying calm, showing empathy, looking for openings.

It was all very professional and compassionate, but there was an emphasis as well on not being judgmental, keeping an even tone. There was some overlap with things I've heard on sales training CDs, honestly, but the accents were in very different places.

So we did some role playing, and I was paired with this very nice young doctor from Raleigh. It was a struggle for me at first, but then I got better. But at the end of the sessions when I was playing doctor I kept going back to enthusiastically praising him for the progress he had made ("It sounds like you're doing great!") instead of keeping it even keel.  And each time he cracked up and said something like "And that'll be $100."

It occurred to me how salesmanlike I must have sounded to him, with his trained clinical restraint. Which is kind of an odd place for me, to have gotten to that point so quickly. But, whatever, it is what it is.

Nice guy, good training, good learnings. I should dial it back a little sometimes. I effuse sometimes when I'm nervous, I reckon.

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Members Only

At the conference the other day somebody made reference to the metaphor of finding money in the street, and my mind drifted back to....

Moscow, 1998.  I was walking down the street, I think with Mary, when a plastic bag of US bills, most likely hundreds, fell from the waistband or pocket of a pasty, somewhat heavy-set fellow who was wearing, if memory serves correctly, a Members Only jacket. Rather quickly, a younger dude processed what was going on, grabbed the bag of money, looked me in the eye and gestured to an adjacent alleyway and said, quietly, "come on, we'll split it 50-50."

It all happened in seconds, too fast to do the absolute right thing, which would have been to yell to the guy who had dropped the money. But that would have been interjecting myself into a conflict which could have escalated quickly in what was, in many ways, a rather lawless environment. In any case, I passed on the opportunity to share in the windfall, and the second guy scurried off into the alleyway as quick as he could.

I feel bad about it to this day. Who knows what happened to the guy who dropped the bag? If it was enough money and it wasn't all his, he could have been killed for being so stupid and careless. If it was all his, he got hosed. Either way, he was an idiot for not having secured his cash better. Almost certainly, he went and got shit-faced and hid from someone, either his boss or his wife.

Moscow was a place for members only.

Saturday, April 23, 2016

On the Road Again

After some months of not going anywhere, I drove to DC and back, then to Asheville and back this week.  1150-odd miles, all told. courtesy of the Dwight D. Eisenhower National System of Interstate and Defense Highways, numbers 40, 85, and 95 (and tributaries thereof).

It was good to get out, I had some good meals, saw some friends, met with some clients, as well as some prospects.

It was all capped a visit to the Addiction Medicine Conference sponsored by the Governor's Institute on Substance Abuse, of which I am now a board member, thanks to Matthew Sullivan of the Chapel Hill Police Department and now running the Fire Department, who had the good sense to throw my drunk ass in jail back in 1991, nudging me in the direction of recovery, eventually.

This was a good conference, as conferences go. It was pretty awesome to be in the company of doctors almost exclusively, to observe them trying to figure out how to do best by their patients. Mostly there was talk of heroin and other opioids, which are the things killing the most Americans these days. It was pretty amazing to dig into the complexity of it all.

Take Buprenorphine, for example. On the one hand, Bupe, as it is known in the field, is a promising tool in the treatment of opioid addiction, and there's a desire to expand its use in general. Unlike methadone, addicts don't have to go into the clinic every day to get a dose, you can write a month's prescription, making everyone's life easier. On the other hand, addicts have figured out that if you grind up certain types of Bupe (the generic, for instance), you can inject it and get really high. In some sense, it's not even the addicts doing the figuring out, it's the disease of addiction driving the process, using the addicts as slaves.

At about 6 yesterday, at the end of a long day, maybe 150 doctors were sitting there arguing the fine points of what type of Bupe should be given to pregnant women addicts: the straight variety, or mixed with Naloxone (long story).  They dug pretty deep into the discussion for 15 minutes. It was impressive, because they really cared.

Overall, that was the impression of the conference. A bunch of doctors who really cared about their patients trying to figure out how the heck to make their lives better. Full stop. I'll go back next year, if I can swing it.

One codicil: most of the doctors seemed to be Republicans, at least the older ones. I know that they work in a heavily regulated domain and resent the extent to which the government makes it hard for them to do their jobs and earn the livings they thought they would earn when they gave up years of their earning lives to med school and residency. But they also work closely with lower-income populations and people of color all day, and overall care deeply about these people's lives, you can see it and hear it when you talk to them. I would like to get to know more of them better to get a sense of what they think the right policy approaches are to our most vexing problems but, like all things, those are long and complicated conversations, and time is the most precious of all commodities in most contexts.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Mashing comfort

Got home this evening stressed out about a couple of things I have to do tomorrow, and was a little bummed that Graham hadn't done his homework, which meant there was no hope of watching Next Generation together while mashed together in the 20-year old, fast-degenerating armchair in my study, as we are wont to do. Nonetheless, we were able to get in about 40 minutes of reading on the couch while playing footsie.  I got better. Prolonged bodily contact with a child is so calming and grounding. Whatever will I do when he ages out of it, as Natalie did so long ago? (As documented here)

It is nice to snuggle with Mary too, admittedly, but it is somehow different. And she comes to bed so damned late.

Monday, April 18, 2016

Return to Northgate

I hadn't been to Northgate Mall in I don't know how long. Mostly I have fond memories of going there with my mom's parents and hitting the K&W Cafeteria and ordering pretty much one of everything: fried chicken, baked spaghetti, garlic bread, pie, cornbread. It was ridiculous, but beautiful in its own way.

That is long gone. In its place is a food court which is occupied, oddly enough, by chains you have never heard of. There is a fake Sbarros, an estwhile Cinnabons, etc. All the regular types of food stalls are there, they just aren't name brands. Which is odd, in some sense.

In another sense, it's not. Northgate is now a distinctly lower- to lower-middle wealth mall. Most of the people I saw there were people of color, and those that weren't weren't the fanciest.

I saw categories of stores I'd never seen before, including a cafe of smells, selling scented candles, oils, etc. It was presided over by a woman in hijab. There was a carousel, and a bouncy house. In the jewelry store, a woman was talking to a friend on the phone..

But most importantly, I found what I was looking for, a Radio Shack that was still open, and though they didn't have the adapter I needed for my phone headset, they had another perfectly nice and functional headset for 20 bucks.

My overriding feeling upon leaving the mall was that I really hope that Jeff Bezos does not succeed in his mission to consume the world. There were all these small shops there, selling people things they needed and things they didn't. Nobody was making much money, but they were all getting through the day in good form. And there was a bouncy house and a carousel, which Amazon conspicuously lacks.

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Newfound limits

A couple of weeks ago, during a preseason soccer game, I pulled my right hamstring sprinting flat out on an overlapping run, which was a shame, because I had gotten past their striker, then the midfielder, and even the wing back, and all that was between me and the goal was their sweeper and keeper (both of them admittedly quite decent). It was a moment of considerable potential glory. And then my left calf seized up, followed immediately by the right hamstring.

So I nursed them and went kind of easy on them, went to practice a couple of times to play my way into shape, played another game. Then yesterday, I had gone forward, had an opportunity to strike the ball from not too far outside the opponent's box. I wound up and struck the ball well, and felt a vicious pain in my hammy.  I gave a good shriek, and was told subsequently that I cursed loudly.

I think I am starting to see some patterns here. My first season back I strained ligaments at the top of my quad from kicking goal kicks. My second season I sprained some fingers after leaving my feet to make a fantastic defensive play running at tippy-top speed. And now this.

I keep thinking that individual muscle groups are getting accustomed to playing flat out, while at the same time I'm getting a little education on the holistic limits of my body. I had no idea shooting the ball hard would mess up a hamstring like that. Never did before. I wonder why?

Josh says that he no longer kicks the ball hard, period. In general I have a hard time restraining myself. Take yesterday for example. I've never scored a goal from the area where I was shooting from, though, in principal, there's no good reason why I shouldn't. I can kick the ball pretty durned hard, and if I could just put it on target... well, it would be frickin awesome.

But my body has newfound limits, or at least at the level of conditioning where I am. The real question, then, is why I care. What does it matter to me that I ever score on a long shot? If I can acknowledge the danger of it, why can't I get it through my head that my body, at least as currently constituted, resists a wide range of actions carried out at 100%?  Why can't I learn to operate at 85%?

Part of it, I think, is that I still haven't fully overcome growing up scrawny and not all that athletic. Puberty was immensely helpful, yes. I became an athlete, but most of my athletic success was on account of gross motor skills (speed, jumping, fearlessness, kicking the ball long), not skill and control. Or at least that's how I conceived of myself.

So I am loathe to let that go, even though I know that I have to graduate into a more statesmanlike role. Net net, I have to let go of the idea of chasing the dream, the highlight sequence for bedtime in which I strike the perfect strike or run the perfect run. Which is all the harder when the very idea of playing sports like soccer when already greying is holding on to the glory of adolescence.

Saturday, April 16, 2016

Karl Ove Knausgaard, My Struggle, Book 3

So I just wrapped up Book 3 of Knausgaard's somehow stupendous work, and cannot wait to move on to Book 4, wherever it takes me. One of these days he's going to start about the crazy mass murderer fascist guy up there in Norway, for those of you who remember him. Here in America we have so many it's hard to keep them straight in our minds, sometimes.

In any case, it continues to be a remarkable piece of work, first and foremost in the extent to which, by digging deep into his own experience and holding nothing back (how he cried all the time even at the age of 13 and was mocked for it, how he was called a "jessie" [apparently an effeminate male] and fag-baited in middle school) he lets the reader -- or this one at least -- access his own memories. Of course, this is the most standard stuff of realistic narrative -- reader identifying with narrator -- and in theoretical circles one of the most hotly contested claims of literature, that it's all illusory blah blah blah.

But the great thing about being out of the business of literature is of course that I don't have to care about any of that. I can just read and think and write whatever I freaking please, without having to worry about the theoretical legitimacy of what I'm saying, which is another way of saying I don't have to be concerned about marketing and positioning my writing. I can just fart it out.

Thursday, April 14, 2016

The monumental egocentricity of me at 50

I will confess that I want the world to revolve around me today.  It is my 50th birthday, and I would very much like the traffic to part, the trees to bend down, and water to flow uphill. Even still, it was a little odd to launch a new screen in my browser and find that Google was wishing me happy birthday. Sergei and Larry are so sweet, so thoughtful.

In general, however, it is not happening. Though my work is buying me lunch, and my boss sent me home early, and a bunch of people have texted congratulations, and we are going out to dinner tonight, it is still very much a day like any other, albeit a lovely one,

My desire for world domination differs in degree if not in kind from my job in general, in which I endeavor to bend the world to my will by convincing people to entrust their financial wherewithal to me and my firm. Which is by no means easy. It is a world of continual attention begging, like the Hispanic kids in the subway crying to their mother:  "Mama, mira mira." (I don't know why this phrase and behavior stands out to me more for Hispanic kids than Anglo ones. I know my kids never begged for attention...).

At any rate, as always, let me just reiterate how much I appreciate the continued readership of all of you, even as I am able to dedicate ever-varying levels of attention to the craft of writing here. I would say that I do it for you, as in the immortal words of the dying nanny in The Omen ("It's all for you, Damien"), but of course I do it for me, because I appreciate your attention, which is, in this world of limitless communication channels, media, distractions, and demands on people's time, that most precious of commodities. Purest gold.

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Life/Schedule: full vs. empty

On Sunday mornings I awake all too often with a sense of scarcity: my schedule for the day stretches about before me, leading too quickly into Monday, when it all begins again. This is particularly true on a day like today, when I have:

  1. A memorial service
  2. A soccer game
  3. A charity concert
And also laundry (must do at mom's house while we wait for our new machine to arrive), summer scheduling, business trip scheduling, emails to friends. In the evening Graham and I will finish the last of the Bourne movies.

The fact is, I will enjoy these things and all of them will be done with people I love and are for good causes, but viewed beforehand they exhaust me (not the Bourne movie, to be sure).

A large part of me just wants to sit and look out the window and read and think and, yes, write. There are all these books on my shelves that call out for attention, as do my guitar and bass. Deep in the basement, my bicycle is also neglected.

In short, my life is full, and part of me resents the external things that pull me away from the things that I "want" to do.  But I also know from experience that, when I have lots of free time, and this has happened during periods when I have been in "career transition," I panic and cannot focus on the long-term things that I theoretically should be doing. 

And hell, even now, as I am building my business, during the week it is not as if I am always overwhelmed with client work. Much of the time I am out looking for clients, really looking for attention. It is the nature of being relatively early stage in a business.

So, in some sense, this is just a short-cycle "grass is greener" thing. I need to learn to use the fallow time during the week to do some of the things I want to do on weekends.

Saturday, April 09, 2016

Vive la difference

I had coffee this week with an older African American gentleman whom I had met recently, and it came too light that he was a Republican. It surprised me to meet a black Republican,, especially in North Carolina these days, so after we talked for a while about business and basic getting to know you stuff I brought the conversation around to politics.

He said that he felt that Obama had done a lot of things to mess up the country, and especially around gay marriage.  Earlier that week, he said, while doing some outreach work for his church, he had taken a fellow parishioner who was blind into the county clerk's office. While there, a marriage between two women was being officiated. It seems from his recounting that they had their hands all over themselves, because he gently launched into a little peroration about marriage being about more than sex and affection and so on.

He also said that he was on the board of some charter schools and that he was astounded at the attitudes of kids that things should and would just be handed to them. The fundamental grounding for his support for the Republicans was that he felt they were just more pro-business, as he was. I must say, being out in the business world, I get that. Compliance is hard, and in many ways it is much easier to promulgate regulation than it is to right-size it. It honestly gets scaled back by the sheer difficulty of funding and administering its enforcement.

It is difficult to engage in values-based discussions of politics with people who come from backgrounds different from your own. For one, we're always just working on earning our own livings and/or taking care of our own offspring. Or writing our own blogs. But there is very little that is more important.

Sunday, April 03, 2016

Bread crumbs

I was at a very foody event towards the end of the day Friday, and the chef was describing the bread crumbs that were the component of one of the dishes:  "The bread crumbs come from bread from bakery X in Durham, which was made from organic flour from farm Y somewhere out in the country," honestly there were probably significantly more words involved than that. It was more than over the top. He just kept talking so much.

It reminded me of my resistance to excessive adjectives and other modifiers on menus in fancy restaurants up in New Jersey.  I see I have written about this before.

Mary pointed out that it was really just marketing and, as being someone engaged frequently in sales and marketing, I suppose I should get that. Even still, it was a bit much. I would have rather had more time to just eat and chat with the people at my table rather than be hit over the head by this authoritative voice from above telling me about the virtues of all the small producers and farmers in the region, which is really just one story, made flesh by many hands.

Saturday, April 02, 2016

Driving self and family

In the middle of volume 3, young Knausgaard and his family are driving north to his mother's parents' farm in summer. He describes passing rest areas along the road where people stopped and had picnics.

"I would ask after seeing such a rest areas because breaks, alongside ferry crossings, belonged to the high points of the journey. We, too, had a cooler bag in the trunk; we, too, had a thermos, juice, and a little pile of plastic glasses, cups, and plates with us. "Don't pester me," Dad would say then, desperate to cover as many kilometers as he could in one go. That meant, at the very least, we would have to drive to the end of Setesdalen, past Hovden and Haukeligrend and up Mount Haukeli, before the question of a break even came into consideration. Then we would have to find a suitable place because we would not take the first opportunity, oh no:  if the stops were few and far between, then the location of the rest area had to be something special."

I won't go so far as to say that my dad was just like this, but it rings very true, both for him and for me. I recognize even in myself the intense focus on covering enough ground to justify the stop, as if there is some sort of metaphysical or moral measure there. How could one stop after only 35 minutes? We have not earned it. Where does this logic come from? Whence this excess sternness, this completely superfluous goal orientation.

I know that, on long trips, I am constantly counting time, miles, gas mileage, thinking about traffic we are likely to hit around DC, or New York, or whatever. I am, at least, pretty decent about taking rest stops whenever. I am, indeed, the prime urinator on our trips, though I get it honest, to be sure, as a man fast approaching 50. So I'm not a stop Nazi about that stuff.

But there are other things. I hate to cross over so that we need to make a left turn when we're done with our stop. I had totally forgotten it, but Leslie assures me I got this from dad.

Friday, April 01, 2016

Reading Buffett's letters

A couple of years ago I got a copy of Warren Buffett's collected annual letters to Berkshire Hathaway shareholders, from 1965-2012. Like many books, it sat on my shelf for some time, calling out to me occasionally for attention. A couple of weekends ago I started making my way through it, and I've now read through 1976. Here are a few initial observations.

  • The early letters are pretty dry. He hasn't yet found his sea legs as the "Oracle of Omaha," but you can see wisdom emerging in them. Or maybe I'm just imputing it to the text because I know what he develops into later.
  • He never talks about Berkshire Hathaway's stock price. Although in the charts and tables at the beginning of the book (not published by Berkshire Hathaway itself) we can see how the stock did relative to the S&P 500, as well as the growth in its book value (Buffett's preferred metric), he never brings it up.
  • In fact, there aren't that many numbers at all. Buffett talks mostly in broad strokes about factors impacting the various operating businesses.
  • He is unfailingly gracious. Mostly, he praises the executives running the underlying operating businesses by name. When a business unit has a failure, he doesn't call out people by name.
  • Berkshire Hathaway was originally a textiles business, and it was going south already by the time Buffett bought it, but Buffett continued to prop it up because the business was a major employer in the New England towns where it operated. He cites the importance of these businesses as employers explicitly as reasons to keep the businesses going. He was a good guy from the beginning, and outside shareholders weren't pressing him to make profits at all costs from day 1.
  • Odd things impact businesses in unexpected ways. Nixon's going off the gold standard and putting in place wage and price freezes in 1971 messed up the textiles business pretty good. More importantly, jury awards in the mid-70s changed what insurers had to pay on policies, effectively extending the liabilities of Berkshire's insurance subsidiaries and screwing with their businesses. Buffett just calls this "social inflation," explains what it is in few words and how it affects the insurance subsidiaries, and gets on with his business. He does not bemoan fate, or call in armies of lobbyists. Or at least he doesn't talk about it.
I'll keep reading and report back periodically.