Saturday, March 28, 2009

It’s surprising when…

The professor blogs the final. 

Sutton In my course "Organizational Behavior: An Evidence- Based Approach," I give the students the final exam question on the first day of class, and it is due the last day.  It is, "Design the ideal organization. Use course concepts to defend your answer."

It is really a hard question, but the best answers knock my socks off.

I wasn’t one of the best, but the question really made me think about the qualities I would like to create in the companies I set up.  It’s an interesting tension between getting work done with high quality and process compliance, yet still making it an enjoyable, rewarding, and motivating workplace.  I want things to be congenially flat and informal, but I still want the important things to get done well and for everyone to feel a sense of urgency and commitment. 

Translating those qualities into structures and rules for real workgroups is a difficult challenge: I spent weeks thinking about it and drawing diagrams of answers, trying to play-act and simplify.  It was a thoughtful class and a worthwhile set of exercises.

I agree with Tyler Bruhle.

 image At Brussels Midi rail terminal a fresh set of questions started swirling around. Who the hell designed this facility? It’s poorly signed. Traffic flow is dreadful. And the lighting is cold and far too dim … Tiles were coming off the floor and the whole place offered a series of first impressions that suggested Belgium’s not that interested in warm welcomes and isn’t too fussed about what visitors might think about the place.

I’ve been there, and Tyler, my favorite FT columnist, is exactly right.  Unfortunately, this holds equally well for the Brussels airport, above: both are outdated, unkempt, dark, and forbidding facilities.  Uncharacteristically for the Swiss, Geneva suffers the same shortcomings.

These should  be gateway cities welcoming large populations of international visitors and diplomats.  It’s curious that they don’t take more pride in their appearance and attitude.

My favorite Western movies get dissed.

Oklahoma 69Many “action” westerns of the late 1970’s reduced classic Western plots to amoral sagas of violence and greed. The demise of cowboy heroes and the cynical presentation of the heritage of the West frequently resulted in shorter lines at the box office.

I always thought that my favorite westerns, including Jeremiah Johnson, The Unforgiven, Dances with Wolves, and  other recent Westerns put a more realistic perspective and an intriguing moral ambiguity onto the genre, adding depth and drawing in new audiences.  It was a bit surprising to find that the keepers of the flame at the The National Cowboy & Western Museum in Oklahoma City credit them with destroying the genre.

The only recent films celebrated in the museum were some by Tom Selleck (who will always be Magnum PI to me) and the Lonesome Dove series.  How can Clint Eastwood or Paul Newman really be left out?

Then there was their take on Europeans…

Oklahoma 67

Comedy echoes real life so well.

image The Onion gets this one exactly right…Franz Kafka International Airport is someplace every traveler has been.

Lost beneath the Alps

Leysin to Lugano by 1 pm.  4 hours by car, according to Google; TomTom concurs.  Sure, it’s a bit of an overland route through the Alps, but it’s the end of March and looked like good secondary roads all the way.


I woke to find a bit of fresh snow in Leysin, a small ski village above Montreaux.  Sixt had upgraded me to a 4x4, though, so I maneuvered easily down the mountain and eased into the eastbound motorway traffic.  The mountains were gorgeous in the morning light, the valley a crisp 8 degrees and clear.  I was listening to podcasts, idly reflecting on what makes a scene picturesque.

I concluded that it’s not just the image; there’s a temporal dimension about having something revealed, or the light come out, or things slide into proper arrangement, that’s difficult to convey in a photograph.

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By ten, I was off the highway and headed through delightfully named Bitsch and Visp on the road to Brig.  The highway elevated, the snow reappeared, then deepened.  And deepened.  There were fewer and fewer cars and an amazing amount of snow, especially having come from Oklahoma only last weekend.


The signs for the passes were all looking an ominous red, but the roads weren’t closed, so I pressed onward, upward, trusting.  Until, at Obergestein, when TomTom pointed towards a route that was obviously snowed over, I finally pulled in to ask directions.


The nice fellow with the rivet through his lip directed me further along the road to Oberwald, where there’s an underground railway that can carry the car to Realp for 25 euro.  Swaying along through the pitch darkness, I was reminded of Frodo traveling through the Mines of Moria to escape the snowstorms above.

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At Zurndorf, TomTom helpfully suggested that I turn right and go up over the  St. Gotthard pass, but, with only skiiers in sight along that road, I opted to dive down a twisting canyon towards Andermatt instead.  TomTom grumbled, displayed a terrifying set of hairpins,  and added 30 minutes to the trip time.  It could get no worse.

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At the base of the twisting road, I then found myself at the entrance to the St. Gotthard Tunnel.  It was going to be my day for crawling beneath the Alps.  So, back underground for the 17-km trip to the south. Beyond, though, it was a nice downhill coast to Lugano, and I found spring waiting for me when I arrived at the lake.  Trees were in bloom, a gentle wind riffled the water, the snows were a reflection on distant peaks.  Amazing contrasts.

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‘Half an hour to spare, and the afternoon tests and meetings went excellently. As I got ready to head back to Leysin,  TomTom suggested that a leisurely trip south through Milan might be in order.  It takes an extra hour, but would be lowland and motorways the whole route.

Tempting, but I smiled, swung back towards the St. Gotthard pass, and took a leisurely and rewarding backtrack beneath the Alps at sunset instead.  No sense in missing springtime in the high country, or beneath it

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Thursday, March 26, 2009

Sometimes you get a good experience…

…Other times you get a good story.

DSC05864 I had to smile at the quote: the author applied it to taking your chances with hotels, not making reservations before arriving in a new town.  I think it applies equally well to the opportunistic and erratic course that life takes as an expat.

‘back on the road today; on my way to Lugano to see a physician who might be able to help with my foot.  I’m not yet confident as a patient in the European health care system, but, since the surgery requires a six-week convalescence, I have to consider the impact on my life and maintaining proximity to ‘home’.  A good US physician suggested this clinic, so I’ll check it out.

I was listening to a collection of “6-word memoirs” on a podcast last week: my favorite was “Picked fourth for prom; still overcompensating.”.  It’s funny how insignificant events like that can have such resonance on through life.   I suspect that the company’s decision to dissolve the research group had similar resonance with me; close friends commented that I was similarly overdriven afterwards.

It made me smile to remember prom, too.  I was raised among brothers and was bookish in high school, not socially outgoing or comfortable with girls.  When the time came for prom, I had little interest: my mother threatened that I’d have to take her if I didn’t find a date and I called her bluff. On summer exchange to Switzerland at 17 with a mixed group (first kiss), then dropped into coed dorms in college (first overnight), the opposite gender finally started to make sense, first as friends, then as partners.  I think that I needed to see women through their day, rather than just ‘on stage’ at school, before I could relate to them comfortably as people.  I re-connected with my first girlfriend a few years ago through a high school reunion. She was iconic for me, a genuinely nice person who I dropped after a year for a fling with a shallow, flashy girl.  It didn’t last, of course, and gave me a lasting appreciation for the value of a lasting relationship like we’d had.

I’m camped at Schiphol, waiting for the EasyJet counter to open, sipping coffee, reading Christmas cards.  A bundle arrived over the weekend with ‘late arrivals’ from January, and I’m enjoying the stories.  I know that many people grumble about Christmas letters, but I happily read them all and am personally gratified when there are a few personal sentences scrawled into a margin.  Lots of people share stories of kids and vacations: there wasn’t much grumbling about the economy, and fewer people suffered personal losses this year, fortunately.  Several say they’ll be in Europe and hope to get together: unfortunately, a childhood friend, now a renowned physician, wrote to tell me he’d be in Maastricht in February if I’d like to meet.  Several have gotten new children; some have gotten religion; everyone’s kids are growing up too quickly.

And lots send “Greetings to wherever in the world you are now”.  ‘makes me smile, again, sort of.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

The distance among close relatives

Evan Penny Distorted faceI was talking with a northern-Dutch friend the other day about North/South differences in the Netherlands.

The dividing line here is the Grote Rivieren, the three large rivers cutting across the middle of the country and separating the more industrial, Calvinist north from the more agrarian Catholic south.  As in the US, its a divide of both language and temperament; curiously, the qualities are geographically reversed in both countries as compared to the UK.

And, in all three instances, the north and the south glare at each other across their geographic divide.

I was surprised by stories of how a shopkeeper in Maastricht might delay service if he recognized a northern accent, or how locals seemed to make a deliberate effort to elongate the differences in southern pronunciation.  For such a small country, and with so many similarities, wouldn’t they tend to get along better?

DSC01895 The whole situation reminded me of the perceptual distances I learned in art class.  My early efforts at life drawing were really just sticks and lines (upper right), good gesture drawings, but no Matisse.  As things improved (lower right) I was able to capture more character, but the faces sometimes looked bizarre and troubling.  Dave - Negative FaceMy instructor told me that there’s a point where things are close enough that they are seen as a distortion of the familiar, rather than unfamiliar, and therefore uncomfortable to look at.  The way people react to chimps, puppets, and “The Polar Express” are all examples of the phenomena.  In art, it suggests that you’re getting close to getting it right.

I wonder if there is a similar thing going on North / South.  While we are different from the French or the Japanese, maybe we see contrasts with our own countrymen as self-distortions.  The differences between Arnhem and Maastricht don’t seem very pronounced to me as an outsider, but it seems like people are very attuned to it here.

Wall sculptures by Evan Penny

Monday, March 23, 2009

Notching a visit to my 50th State

Oklahome Magnet My family traveled a lot when I was growing up, spending at least three weeks every summer pulling a trailer around the country, visiting cities and camping in national parks.  It instilled a footloose happiness that continued once I left home, taking road trips with friends at spring vacation and tacking sightseeing days onto business trips.

But I never visited Oklahoma.

It wasn’t a conscious omission: the state just never lay along the way to somewhere else, and I never had a personal or business destination down there to draw me in. The gap eventually became a running joke: Oklahoma was one place that I was going to try to avoid visiting my entire life.  My daughter joked that if she ever wanted to keep me out of her wedding, she’d hold it there.

My son moved down to Tinker AFB for his Air Force training, just outside of Oklahoma City, and is due to deploy up to Alaska as part of the wing patrolling the Russian border in a few months.  I had a trip to Minneapolis and it was a good chance to see him before he moves out of reach.  So, it was time to square my shoulders and trudge into the Sooner State.

  1. Oklahoma 03 Oklahoma is rolling and green, instead of the expected flat and dusty.  Parts of it remind me of the Netherlands, pan-flat and dotted with farmhouses,  a continuous roll of landscape from my feet to the vanishing point at the horizon.  And the wind never stops blowing.
  2. Oklahoma 02 There are wonderful bits of contrasting color: bright purple trees and bushes flowering in the warm spring sun, and wide, shallow river basins with watercolor accents, intense cobalt red dotted with viridian scrub and sienna rocks.
  3. Oklahoma 11Oklahoma has a lot of trucks, and American flags fly everywhere that trucks congregate. Most businesses and many homes had flagpoles, while the biggest flags rolled in the stiff winds above the truck dealerships.  Even the New England-style churches had fluttering flags beneath their slim white steeples.
  4. Oklahoma 46 I could not find a cowboy hat anywhere, although cowboy motifs were everywhere. The National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum is in Oklahoma City and is worth a visit to see the Remington paintings and the movie memorabilia.  There is a fine line between gritty reality and iconic symbolism in the Western legend, and the museum blends the two at every turn.  It’s a bit like the ubiquitous blending of God and Country throughout the state.
  5. Oklahoma 76 I may not have had a better, or bigger, steak than the T-Bone at Cattlemen’s Restaurant.  Advertised as “George Bush’s Choice” (apparently W was the only US president to eat there) it was aged and tender and one of the experiences I really miss in the Netherlands.  Oklahoma 79Add the baked potato, grilled mushrooms, red wine on the side, and cobbler for dessert, and its a true classic.   The restaurant sits adjacent to the Stockyards, and trucks rumble by filled with pungent cattle: I don’t think the table get’s closer to the source anywhere I’ve seen.
  6. Oklahoma 75 My TomTom Navigator was just an orange hole throughout Tinker AFB: I hadn’t realized that the maps didn’t cover the base; Google Maps is similarly featureless although, curiously, Google Earth has detailed and labeled satellite views.
  7. Oklahoma 43There was no escaping the billboards lining Interstate 35.  They tend to be unique and fun, whether advertising local chains like Love’s or universal brands like God.
  8. It was really great to get a Oklahoma 72 weekend of family time again, and to get a glimpse of the air force environment, Will’s work and his leisure life