Monday, May 30, 2022

3 Years, 3 Graduations, 3 Different Worlds


As a parent, college graduation comes with moments of pride paired with angst.

Pride in their big picture accomplishments, angst over the logistics.

Pride over this rite of passage, angst over making sure "everyone is happy.”

Leading up to graduation the student is finishing senior week, long days and nights of papers and parties, worries about packing up, sadness about leaving school, fraught about their next move, already missing their friends, unsure what to make of the fact that everyone keeps telling them these are the best days of their lives.

Eons ago in 2019 we went to Philadelphia with the usual graduation weekend challenges: finding a centrally located hotel, landing dinner reservations at the sought-after restaurants, transportation for the grandparents.

In 2020 we were spared the pleasure and the pain when it was canceled due to the emergence of Covid. A letter from the Dean stated in stark terms that they are canceling graduation and will “celebrate these seniors at a later date.” This was a gut punch at the time, it improved with age.

Our 2022 graduation felt normal with a hint of Covid sprinkled in. Worried about the logistics but the coronavirus still hung in the air like the remnants of a bad sneeze. Does the restaurant have outdoor seating, should the kids get near the grandparents, is Tipitinas really a good idea? 

It was on our minds, just not top of it. Maybe that’s why many of us returned from New Orleans with head-cold cases of the virus, typical of this vintage.

This year also brought a make-up graduation for the cancelled 2020 version, in what they appropriately called the “Comeback Commencement.” It felt a lot like a timely graduation with all the caps and gowns, pomp and circumstances of the original, but it was different. It was better...for the graduates.

The Comeback Commencement was equal parts reunion and victory lap. It was more comeback than prepare to check out.

There was still the need to land hotel rooms and dinner reservations, but the campus was emptier and more manageable. The kids were happy to be there, not stressed about leaving. They hadn’t spent the previous week staying up all night partying, they’d spent it working at their jobs, collecting a paycheck, making their own transportation plans.

At the make-up graduation they were enjoying this moment that had been taken away, made better by the distance and the delayed gratification. The comeback graduates better understood the need to enjoy the moment because on the other side of Sunday their adult lives were waiting, with projects to finish and emails to return.

The difference in perspective was laid bare by the calls and texts leading up to the two commencements. I heard excitement from one daughter and dread from the other. One felt like a commencement, the other like a termination:

“I’m so excited to see my friends” vs. “I’m so sad to say goodbye to everyone.”

“I can’t wait to get a Zingermans sandwich” vs. “I can’t believe it’s the last time I’ll have pizza at the Boot”

“I'm gonna walk through the Diag without having to go to the library” vs. “I just had my last walk in Audubon Park.”

In two years our daughter went from graduation apprehension to carefree commencement.

A suggestion: Let Seniors leave campus after final exams, get on with their lives and then bring them back for graduation. Let their lives commence before commencement.

"Life moves pretty fast. If you don't stop and look around once in awhile you could miss it." F. Bueller

Tuesday, February 15, 2022

Writing in the Q, Finding Inspiration in a Pandemic

Is this anything?

It’s the title of Jerry Seinfeld’s book in which he chronicles the jokes he’s written since the 1970s. It’s the question he asks himself, and fellow comics, when he comes up with a bit.

He writes that upon first seeing a comedian when he was in his teens he wondered: "How did the comedian know that what they said would get such huge laughs from a crowd of total strangers?”

Writing is of course a solitary endeavor. Writers are full of doubt wondering if what they are trying to say will ever come together, will anyone ever read it, will they like it, does it matter?

During the pandemic writing was particularly hard for two reasons: First, so many ideas come being where the action is, whether the action is a coffee shop or a football game, a grocery checkout line or sitting next to a stranger on an airplane. And during the past two years there was very little action.

The second thing that made it difficult was the lack of feedback. Ideas come and go, but how do you know, “Is this anything?”

I am a romantic at heart. I like to think writing at a cabin in the woods or a pub in London or with an espresso on the table helps stir the imagination so words fall to the page. But as I complete another trip around the sun it’s clearer to me that it’s often not about the inspiration, but the perspiration.

In the new Beatles documentary Get Back, the bandmates are tasked with writing and recording 14 songs in a few weeks to perform as a televised concert. Spoiler Alert, they don’t get all the songs completed, but it shows how the work is done, they need to get their butts in their seats and play and write and rhyme until something appears. And it’s damn hard work.

When they are working on the song Something John tells George just to make up words until it works. And so the line, “Something in the way she moves, attracts me like no other lover” started out as “Something in the way she moves, attracts me like a cauliflower.”

I remember a train ride to New York a few years back when I found myself across from poet Calvin Trillin. On the table between us was a pad of paper, a pen and, wait for it, a rhyming dictionary.

And I thought to myself, isn’t that cheating?

But when Stephen Sondheim, the great Broadway composer and lyricist, died in November a slew of interviews re-appeared where he said one of his best tools is a rhyming dictionary and a 1946 edition of Roget’s Thesaurus.

“There are only so many possible rhymes” he said.

Seinfeld said he's afraid to stop writing every day, fearful he will somehow lose the ability. He puts up a big wall calendar and then marks an X for each day he writes and then after a while his goal is to just not break the chain. He said it’s not about being efficient, the “right way is the hard way.”

Paul Simon in his new audio book Miracle and Wonder, talks about where his songs come from. While there is discussion of the hits, he also discusses the misses. Like the time he heard Viola da Gamba and then wondered what it would be like to record with a Theorbo. So he found someone who played it, he flew to Paris to record with them only to realize after a few days that he, “got nothing, nothing that I wanted." No magic, no song, no tune, no rhythm.

“It’s all trial and error and there’s no reason to be upset about the errors,” he said.

I wanted to name my book, "At least one person besides me, liked these stories," because it is filled with stories that were published by someone besides me. When you are alone in a room writing it is very gratifying to have an editor somewhere on this planet read them, tell you they are worth publishing and sharing them with others.

This book represents thousands of hours of work and at this point more than 300 rejections over the course of the pandemic. But still we search for a sentence that works. A phase that means somethings. A connection with another person. As Hemingway said, "One true sentence."

Robert Frost said poetry should begin in "delight" and end in "wisdom". 

I think short stories are the same. 

I hope you find delight, if not wisdom, in these pages. 

Buy it at Politics & Prose or a paperback or Kindle version on Amazon.



Thursday, May 20, 2021

Returning Bugs

The cicadas are coming back on time, but the kids aren't.

Seventeen years ago I wanted to be that guy who took the photo and then re-created it when the kids were older.  The one with the foresight that one day things would be different, but I would insert something to make it rhyme.

And so when the cicadas arrived on our windshields in May 2004 I had our fearless daughter (Jessie) pick up the fat bugs, calm her siblings down and pose with them.  And then I imagined that in 17 years I would take the picture with bigger people and smaller-looking bugs. 

We forget about these things until something jolts us and we realize that it's been 17 years and the bugs are returning and the singing starts anew.

Without notice I slipped into our room where we keep the dusty photo albums and prayed with outsized strength that I would find the evidence with old pictures stuck behind the laminate. 

And then I found the year on the spine and turned the pages until I spotted the three shiny photos.  I touched them and made that motion one makes nowadays on photos to make it bigger, clearer, as if it were a mobile device.  But I couldn't get any closer to the photos, just as I can't get any closer to those kids who later that night probably took baths and got into their pajamas and were tucked into a bed in our house under one roof, with a book and a stuffed animal.

"The cicadas are coming" I told them all in a family group chat.

Seventeen years ago our family group chat was the kitchen table.

"They will be here in May," I wrote with excitement.  "Here are the photos from 17 years ago, can't wait to replicate..."

But what I failed to grasp 17 years ago when they were ages 4, 6, and 8 is the same misguidance I'm experiencing now.  At 21, 23 and 25 they aren't around for a picture.  During the month of May they are at work and away at school.  They aren't in the same city or even the same time zone, let alone the same house, bedroom or bath.

Cicadas are grouped into geographic broods.  This year's brood will emerge when the soil temperature reaches 64 degrees.  

My brood’s return is less clear.

And so trillions will soon rise from the ground clicking and chirping to a screeching pitch as they buzz, annoy and procreate.   

I could not have imagined 17 years ago that the cicadas would arrive just as we are emerging from our own cocoon. 

And so as the song in the backyard begins and I feel the power of nature's rhythm, I am reminded how ours has been disrupted.

If there is one thing we've learned from 2020 it's that making plans is a dangerous game.

I can hear their song in the distance.

A song seventeen years in the making.

But my photo will come.

Maybe not on my schedule.  But it will come.

Thursday, December 31, 2020

A Picture's Worth

What's a picture worth in 2020?

1,000 words?  10,000?

One of these pictures was taken at the end of 2019 looking forward to the Start of 2020.

The other was taken this week, looking forward to the End of 2020.

Ah, so little has changed.  Same smiles.  Same head tilt.  Different order.

At the end of 2020 a picture isn't worth much.

The crises lie out of view.

We are changed in ways the picture can't capture.

So when we ask the kids what lessons they've gleaned from 2020 and they can't answer.  I think I understand.

It's still open, the wound too fresh, and most importantly it's not over.  Years end on December 31st, not viruses.  

But it will come.

We often don’t feel the impact of big things until much later.  

Even something physical like a punch to the gut, a bop on the head.  There is some immediate pain, but the real damage can take years.
What will last longer?  The grandparent cancelling all they look forward to, the parent trying to balance work and homeschooling from the same kitchen table, the lost years of childhood socialization, the lost school year, the single adult who lived for months without physical contact, the student who missed prom/graduation/freshman year, the business owner who was shut down through no fault or mismanagement, the career put on hold.  The adult "children" who again slept under the covers of their childhood binky.

And how about all the sandwiched adults worrying about their business, their aging parents, their aging adult children.

Asked to rank 2020 in terms of Work, Family and Personal a group of middle-age business leaders said:

Family ranked highest, with moments of sunshine through the clouds, an unexpected filled nest.

Even those most tormented by Work admitted to unifying moments:  The extra mile by the quiet employee, the appreciated company-funded healthcare, the government loan that built a bridge.

And here was the kicker.  No matter how good the balm of family moments or how rich the business pivot, their Personal well-being ranked far behind.

The business might have survived or thrived, the extra time with the adult kids might have brought new understanding, but deep down they are just are trying to hold it together because the maxim that "it's all gonna be fine" just didn't sound as believable in 2020. 

The nice thing about New Years is our mind change along with the calendar.

We talk about next year, not last year.  And that is the reason for the smiles which makes them believable and worth a lot.

Happy New Year.

Tuesday, November 3, 2020

Go Vote, We All Need Some Sleep

 I don’t sleep anymore

I know I’m not alone.  Nothing makes you feel less special than an article in the New York Times chronicling something you thought was yours.

According to the Mayo Clinic there are six keys to getting a restful night sleep.  Number six is "Manage Your Worries"

As someone said:  “Atleast in a nightmare you get some sleep.”

But it’s not just my nightmare, both sides believe this election is the beginning of the end if the other side wins.  

Eighty (80%) percent of Biden voters say that if Trump wins we slide into a dictatorship.

Ninety (90%) percent of Trump voters believe if Biden wins we slide into Socialism.

I don’t sleep well because I don't know the rules anymore.

I don't know what to believe.

I don't know where the guardrails are.

There is this fall back position that things always turn out all right, the pendulum swings back, what's the worst that can happen?

I don't even trust metaphors, truisms or conventional wisdom.

I want to believe that there are consequences for bad behavior.

I want to believe if you skirt the law you aren’t rewarded, if you skirt convention you’re not re-elected.

I can read history with all the clarity that distance provides and see that Nixon did something bad, he got caught, his own party turned their back on him, and justice was delivered.

This year isn't about listening to tapes 30 years later.  This is Mitch McConnell playing dirty poker in broad daylight, and winning. 

This is Lindsay Graham basically saying “read my lips” and then lying.  And there are no consequences.

I want to live in a country that believes in something, not someone.  

A country that believes in some science, some history, some ideas, some set of facts.  

I want to live in a country where institutions matter, where we can rely on medical testing or the CDC or NIH or the WHO or NATO or DOJ to protect us.

But it’s all been sullied now.

I hope this moment in our history is a parenthesis in our national narrative. 

A business colleague from Germany reminded me recently that "The world forgives when a country makes bad choices."

But will they forgive if we do it again?

Election Day used to be fun.  I would bring the kids into the voting booth, get a sticker.  

But now?

Springsteen said earlier this week we are "rudderless and joyless"

Fun has been stripped from our national narrative.

The bar for inspiration is so low that this 3-minute panel discussion from the Newsroom brought me backAsked what makes America the greatest country in the world?  The conservative says Freedom, the liberal says "diversity and opportunity.”  But wait for it…  

Watch the whole clip --link below-- because the answer isn’t just that we aren't anymore.  

But that we can be again.

 So go Vote.  We all need some sleep.

Newsroom/Jeff Daniels/Aaron Sorkin,


Friday, June 12, 2020

Measuring Demand in a Time of Uncertainty


What do you do if you are in the business of market sizing and predicting consumer behavior and the markets get shut and consumers forced inside?

The COVID-19 pandemic is the biggest disruptor to hit the global economy, and our everyday lives.

When this is all over, what will people want? Other than shaking hands, what else will change?

As one of our analysts put it: “Next month, if we are set free, you may schedule that business trip that you should have taken last month. But you will run out to get that long overdue haircut. The trouble is, you won’t get two haircuts. That money is gone.”

Most recent crises were financially driven: The dot com bust, the financial crisis of 2008.  So while deliberately shutting down many sectors of the world economy is a moment without history, our experience from other sudden changes give us guidance about how sudden shocks to these industries are resolved.

We believe consumer response to this crisis will be faster and more robust because of the strength of the underlying economy when this began, which differentiates it from the most recent economic declines. There will be pent up demand. The market for various products will change, but how much and for how long?

How do we frame this moment?

We look to past events to learn how product demand is affected by market variables and then use projections of those market variables to anticipate how demand will evolve in the future. But it’s not just the mechanics, the process, the numbers, it’s how and why those relationships held in the past and why they might change in the future.

This is not BIG DATA. It’s deliberately small data with big analysis. We take topics where there is limited information like copper piping or flat glass and we create market data and insights.

We are like the archeologists who find a handful of dinosaur bones, but can create the entire dinosaur skeleton from them.  We take a small amount of information, and through associated data, research, and expertise, build it out into the entire picture of an industry.

But it starts with data.  Take the healthcare market for sanitizers and disinfectants. There is no published data on this market at the industrial and institutional level. So we look at the number of healthcare facilities in a certain region, the square footage of these places, and the facility type to estimate how much they are using. Then we might look at hospital expenditures, healthcare acquired infections, and how that is driving demand.

And then of course, there’s the human factor.  After various historical events we have feared flying, feared trains, feared crowds. Now we fear people, closeness, nose scratching and running out of toilet paper.

Market researchers are modern day fortune tellers.

But we don’t read palms.  Beyond the data it’s all about relationships and the factors that make them change.  Predicting the future is all about understanding the past, even in a time without precedent.

Friday, May 15, 2020

PPP is a chance to Pause, Plan and Pivot


PPP is more than just a Payroll Protection Program, it is a chance to Pause, Plan and Pivot.

There are any number entrepreneur/investor idioms being thrown around about how to run your business in a crisis: fix the plane while flying is the one being tossed our way.

We are in the midst of the third cataclysmic economic event of our company’s life -- We raised our first round of financing just weeks before the dot com bust, launched our business nine months before 9/11, and then we purchased a business that sold into the financial markets just months before my CFO came to me and said, “Lehman Brothers can’t pay their bill.”  I told him he was nuts.

Years ago, during one very productive time a member of my team asked: “We feel like Lucy in the chocolate factory, when do we exhale?”

There is never a break, the machine keeps producing candy, the clock keeps ticking, but now we are being given a moment to breathe, sharpen the saw, check the compass, fill the tank.

The PPP program, while not perfect, for many companies is doing exactly what it set out to do:  help businesses keep their employees while they reassess and recalibrate in a market that’s been deliberately shut down. And I think it’s a perfectly good way for the government to act at this moment without precedent.

There are lots of arguments regarding government help for businesses in times of crisis, but what is a business to do?  Currently the government requires us, for the public good, to move from our office, set up our employees to work remotely, and try to sell our wares in an economy that we are deliberately contracting.

So the crie de coeur of an entrepreneur is to pivot.  Change directions.  Make ventilators not cars, hand sanitizer not gin. But not everyone can and so instead of crashing the plane this program says we’re gonna give you 8 weeks to pay your employees, bring back those you may have furloughed and figure out how turn to navigate.

The government here is acting as a partner and saying, “Look, we’re gonna shrink your market and squeeze some of your customers and maybe even your margins, but instead of figuring this out in mid-flight, we’re gonna build a runway for you in the middle of the ocean, let’s see what you can do.”

When the program was announced we didn’t give it much thought because our first instinct is always to turn inward, toward the team, our group of advisors, never to the government. 

But we’re a midsized company.  We’re not too big to fail. We’re too important to fail. 

Too important to our employees.  Too important to their families, to their children and their parents and their mortgage-holders and their insurance agents and their car leaseholders and their pets and their co-workers and our office leaseholders and our health insurance company and the hundreds of partners, customers and vendors who rely on the protection of this paycheck, from us.

This plan was conceived to help small companies and their employees.  We’ve been given the space, now it’s up to us to get back in the air and soar.