Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Easy Stuff, Hard Stuff

Some things are easy.

Some are even so easy that you and I could do them, even if we suddenly had to do it on a professional level.  For instance, we could score an empty-netter from 20 feet away.  We could run the first 100 meters of a marathon at the same pace as the eventual winner.  We could sink a two-foot putt at the Master's, take an intentional walk and make it to first in the Bigs, or probably even hit an uncontested layup on a fast-break at just about any level of basketball.

Then there are the hard things that come with that stuff -- that's why we're not professional athlete millionaires.

Lately, I've seen a few people ranting and raving about how the U.S. should "do something" in Syria.  The something is never really defined, because that's where it would get really, really hard.  Do we risk inserting ground forces into yet another Middle Eastern, Muslim nation?  Do we commit even more blood and treasure overseas?  Do we just bomb the Syrian government into submission until a new government can take its place?  If we take that option, what do we do when the transition gets messy?

The hard decisions fall on the National Command Authorities -- people like President Obama, Vice-President Biden, and SECDEF Panetta.  They would have to wrestle with questions starting from the ones listed above, and those questions would only become increasingly complex once things got started, and an official, named Operation was underway.

Saying the U.S. should "just do something" is great for amateur hour in the parlor or on Facebook.  It requires about the same level of effort as the two-foot putt, and even better, it provides the writer with some moral high ground as things continue to spiral downward in Syria ("...see what I've been saying...").    It's easy to be really critical of all the times that the U.S. or NATO have intervened (never mind the way that public health changes alone have saved up to 1 million Afghan lives in the past 10 years) while simultaneously being critical of all the times they have not (never mind that the Rwandan genocide was committed by Hutu and Tutsi neighbors spread across the country, as opposed to warring sides in distinct regions that could have been easily separated by outside peacekeepers).

I would give a lot of credit to someone proposing a rational, comprehensive plan for dealing with Syria that accounted for secondary, tertiary, quaternary effects, and so on.  That's the seven three-pointer night, or the 8-under on the back nine that takes real work.

Chin-scratching over vague policy proposals, coupled with some kind of faux high-minded moralism, however, is kind of like a garbage-time empty netter that the scorer confuses with a one-timer that sneaks past a glove to wind up just inside of a pipe.

Let's not confuse the two.  

Monday, May 28, 2012

Memorial Day -- Three Quick Thoughts

(1) There is an AP article out today in a lot of newspapers discussing how the percentage of veterans now seeking a disability claim with the VA is significantly higher than it has been after other wars have ended or tailed off.  The article rightly points out that battlefield medicine means that many veterans who would have perished in past conflicts now survive, that many of today's veterans have TBI and/or PTSD, and that the uncertain state of the economy leads more veterans to seek service-connected benefits before receiving their DD-214, which discharges them from active duty.  

It's also worth noting that today's military is an older force than it has been in years past.  In bygone eras, the military relied heavily on young conscripts.  With the advent of the all-volunteer force, of course, that changed.  Benefits packages changed along with incentive structures in order to keep a group (caste?) of professional soldiers in the ranks for many years.  With a younger military that featured shorter enlistments, it was probably the case that unless a servicemember had a very visible war wound, he was thanked for his service and sent on his merry way -- 0% VA-service connected.  Today, you've got way more soldiers in their thirties, forties, and even fifties out on patrols, flying around the battlespace, carrying  heavy loads of gear on their backs, etc.  Multiple deployments are the norm for nearly all of these people.  Because the military takes a total ownership policy towards its people (anyone on active duty is considered to be so 24/7, even while on leave, and is always subject to the Uniform Code of Military Justice), it applies a 'Pottery Barn' standard towards its people..."If we break it, we'll own it."  So the category of 'disabled veteran' includes a lot of people with knee injuries, back injuries, shoulder injuries, etc.  It's not what everyone thinks of when they hear 'disabled veteran' but someone who slipped and fell during a pickup basketball game on an aircraft carrier might be 20% disabled for life if a serious ankle injury resulted.  A 48 year-old man who has documented his back and knee problems that he didn't have when he entered the service 25 years ago is almost certainly going to be "VA service-connected."  But to keep that in perspective, ask yourself this:  What 48 year-old man do you know who doesn't have any back or knee problems?  

Another point worth mentioning is that the VA is very savvy about its outreach.  That's almost entirely a good thing -- it means that veterans who might otherwise be reluctant to seek the help they need are now likelier to get that very help, but there's also a flip side:  during our demobilization at Fort Dix, we were flat-out told more than once that "you're headed out into an uncertain economy.  If you've been having any pains at all since you deployed, or any bad dreams/anxiety, etc. come talk to us and we'll see what we can do for you."  

Trust me, I'm not trivializing the very real, and very important, concerns and needs faced by disabled veterans.  However, I just want to add a slight bit of perspective here to say that not every one of the 45% of veterans seeking a VA disability claim is what people would typically think of when they hear "disabled veteran."  

(2) I caught something in the Globe today on the Op-Ed page that spun the tired narrative about how the nation pawns off military duty onto just "the poor and the brave."  As I've tried to do here on this blog and also via comments on other blogs like Dick Howe's  and Cliff Krieger's, I will once again counter that author's prevailing notion.  Today, the following Massachusetts communities will mourn sons or daughters lost in service to the nation in Afghanistan since 2001:  Belmont, Duxbury, Sudbury, Marblehead, Needham, Scituate, and Danvers.  One community will mourn the loss of a Medal of Honor recipient (Raynham).  Meanwhile, the following communities do not share the distinction of having suffered Afghanistan battlefield losses:  Springfield, Lowell, Lynn, New Bedford, Cambridge, and Lawrence.  

What does that all really mean?  Not a ton, because we're talking about extremely tiny sample sizes (1 combat loss in Afghanistan as opposed to 0).  Still, it should serve as somewhat of a counterpoint to people who still peddle the old idea that military service is something *outsourced* to someone else by the people holding all the cards.  Not only is it just factually off-the-mark, but the idea that military service is only experienced by those with "nowhere else to go" (apologies to the fictional Zach Mayo, who later kicked his Drill Instructor in a sensitive place!) is somewhat offensive to those who wear the cloth.  

(3) George DeLuca came by City Hall on Thursday to scoop up some filming material to use for a Memorial Day message.  One thing I talked about is the tradition of raising a flag all the way up in the morning, and then bringing it to half-staff until noon on Memorial Day.  At noon, the flag is then brought all the way up where it remains for the rest of the day.  I think the symbolism of this is very important.  Yes, Memorial Day should involve remembrance and contemplation of those who have given all, as well as the neverending emotional toll that leaves on those left behind.  However, it also seems like a perfect opportunity for those of who "hold high the torch passed from falling hands" (roughly paraphrasing Flanders Fields) to enjoy this day with the people that we hold dear, and to appreciate the opportunity to do so, whether that means going to the beach, barbecuing with the neighbors, or maybe just reading the "Backyardigans A through Z Adventure Book" to our one year-old daughter for the 5th time today.   

Which, right now, sounds like a most excellent idea.  

Friday, May 25, 2012

...And Up 'Til Eight / They'll Let You In

They don't call it a Quarter Pounder with cheese? 
No man...
Then what do they call it?
They call it a Royale with cheese. 
A Royale with cheese! What do they call a Big Mac?
Well, a Big Mac's a Big Mac, but they call it Le Big Mac.
Le Big Mac. Ha ha ha ha. What do they call a Whopper?
I dunno, I didn't go into Burger King.

One interesting factoid I learned about Lynn today is that their City Hall hours are somewhat quirky.  Ours are pretty straightforward -- 8 to 5, Monday through Friday.  They go from 8:30-4 on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays.  On Tuesdays they stay open until 8 (they also schedule all their municipal meetings on Tuesdays, with Council meetings twice a month starting at 8.  On Fridays they take a 'make-up day' from Tuesday, and close up at 12:30 p.m. 

Neither way is necessarily right or wrong -- they're just different.  We've got more total hours of accessibility, but the big advantage Lynn has is that the once-a-week extra availability works really well for people who work at jobs that are either out of town or don't allow them to *break away* during work hours without having to use vacation time.  I'm sure people in Lynn are frustrated on Friday afternoons if they need something, but those who know the deal can work around it.  

Last week, I was talking to a guy who lives in Westford and works in Lowell.  Westford's Town Hall is open for business from 8 to 4, Monday through Friday, which means that if he needs to pick up a legal document, take care of something that he can't just mail in, or otherwise do anything official with the city, it requires him to either request special permission from his boss to take a longer lunch break or just schedule those errands on a day off.  If there were a single day each week, or even once a month, that the Town Hall were open later, he could plan around that and avoid the hassle.  

One other interesting factoid: I learned that Lynn is poised to develop 280 acres of oceanfront property soon. Yes, 280 ACRES.  They floated a bond that enabled them to remove all the power lines that were standing in the way of development of the big tract in the no-man's-land jutting up against Revere.  It's not entirely certain yet what they'll do with it, but it obviously has the potential to change their tax base and transform a major portion of their city.  

Thursday, May 24, 2012

The Power of the Proper [Noun]

"The only thing about Googling yourself to be ashamed about is doing it badly."  -- Freud

Blogspot just changed up some features that make the blog stats accessible with a single click.  Maybe they were there all along, or maybe I would've just add to paste in some code, but either way I never had anything that tracked readership here other than the turnstile-thingy at the bottom of the screen.

Anyway, once I saw that I could access stats about pageviews, curiosity led to me to see which entries had the most.  It wasn't even close.

The runaway winners were summaries of candidate nights at which either prospective City Council or School Committee members all spoke.  There was nothing particularly interesting or even relatively profound contained therein.

What those entries had, though, was a lot of proper nouns.  As in, people's names.  If it's true that social media is just a giant cocktail party in which everyone is talking and no one is listening, this definitely feeds that idea.  It allows everyone to do what used to be called "The Washington Read" (by 'reading' a particular book it really just means you went into Politics & Prose, scanned the index for your own name, read all the pages you were on, and then put it back on the shelf).  Today, we Google ourselves - but with the fan turned on to mask the noise, of course.

But what about the soul-baring entries about not-so-secret hopes and fears?  Attempts to turn social conventions on their head, like insisting that when your friends come to visit you, you should be the one thanking them and not vice versa?  References to the only remotely original thing I've ever said -- that the world needs better talkers, not better listeners?  Barely noticed by comparison.  

The bright side, though, is that this confirms something I've said before about blogging -- insignificant though it may be at the time, it can fill an important historical niche, thanks to the Internet's long memory. If I'm the only person blogging about the Taunton River Meteorological Knitting Society (yup, the guys with that edgy slogan 'Knitter Please!') it's possible that virtually no one is reading my summaries of the meetings.

But if someday, someone were ever going to try to understand that group, the blogger who covered those meetings would have not just the rough draft, or the first draft, of its history, but perhaps the only draft.  And unlike some old leafy or microfiche treasure buried down in the basement on 12 Pleasant Street in the Silver City, it's right there on people's computers, phones, or their iPads to be easily found.

Another bright side is that if you're blogging something that you're trying to get factored into the debate,  throw the right proper noun in the headline and in the entry, and you can help steer the discussion.  Even though no one immediately around me might've cared, the entry I did about my former platoon leader who is running for State Senate in Maine is one of the most viewed, ever -- not because of anything particularly profound or well-written contained therein, but simply because it has his whether it's his campaign, his opponents, or curious undecided voters, it's out there to be found.  Of course, that only really works because his name isn't already prominent on many other web pages.

There are lots of directions blog entries can take.  I have (literally) become a poster-and-promotional material guy for Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary, all because of a blog entry I wrote that contained the full name of the place.  Someone Googled, then wrote, then we connected, and now I can actually give something back to a place with a claim to a very special piece of real estate inside my rib cage.

In real life, the best advice I could ever give anyone is to become a better talker.  That's not about volume, or inflection, speed, or oscillation frequency, but about finding conversational flow and only saying things that are interesting to those in earshot.

On the Internet, however, don't hold back.  If you're trying to write something that could make its way into the unofficial *historical register* of whatever you do, keep it flowing.  And drop names.  Drop them early, and drop them often.  

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Lynn, Lynn, Come on In

One of the first things that comes to my mind when I try to characterize my job is that it's extremely varied.  One minute, I could be doing something very interesting and substantive (looking up policy pros and cons to prepare a memo), the next I could be trying to diplomatically handle a call from a "frequent flier," and the minute after that I'm trying to convince a group to meet in the Chamber in the middle of the day because the Reception Room is already booked.

One of the most interesting and memorable aspects of the job, though, is the tour guide aspect.  Yesterday, I got to lead a group of fourth-graders around City Hall -- gave the main tour, hit all the main points about the building (thanks yet again, Corey S!), and tagged along for the Police Department portion led by Paul Corcoran.

Friday, it'll be a very different crowd -- a lot of the major officials from within the Lynn City Government.  We'll have our own corresponding officials on hand to explain what's going on, but for this one I'm basically the coordinator, set-up, and protocol guy.  Classic aide-de-camp stuff.  

Why are they coming to Lowell?

Because they want to learn about a place that's doing a lot of things that they would like to be doing.  No shocker there -- journalists and city officials from all over the US (and sometimes outside the US) make inquiries about Lowell all the time.  If there were ever a *secret* about the city's revitalization, it's out.  Even among the Gateway Cities with which Lowell is often lumped in, Lowell stands out.  Other cities do well, too (Worcester has a similar profile in terms of what drives and sustains its economy), but the fact of the matter is that Lowell has a great reputation among those who are paying enough attention to know.

This is something that could be easy for someone inside the fishbowl to lose sight of.  Inside, there are struggles, there is frustration, and there are difficult compromises.  Outside, though, things look pretty darn good.  My desk is sometimes sort of a conduit from outside to inside, and that's the view that I keep hearing about.  

Monday, May 21, 2012

How Could He Not Be?

At Sunday's Memorial Day ceremony at the Lowell Cemetery, LTC Sam Poulten gave a moving introduction to his son, MSG Ben-Ari Poulten.  Amazingly, Ben-Ari had just returned the day before from a 426-day mobilization (that is the total number of days for a reservist's active-duty order, to include mobilization training in the US and demobilization dates afterwards).

The Master Sergeant made a great speech in which he he particularly noted the sacrifices of those who hadn't made it home alive as well as those who were still *over there.*  It wasn't in any way a me-me-me speech but at one point he did reflect on his own service.

He noted that the question, "What's a nice Jewish boy like you doing in the Army?" had been asked of him several times in the past twelve years.

"How could I not be?" was his rhetorical question response.  What he meant was that with so much going on, and this being such a critical period in time, he couldn't stomach a view from the sidelines.  He explained in a bit more depth, but his five-word answer made a big impression on me -- not only because I can personally relate, but also because I think it explains a lot of people's motivations for what they do. 

Everyone has had their motives doubted before.  We all know how much we dislike it, but we all do it, too, so my sympathy level towards anyone on this issue has its limits.  I know it's happened to me -- I've been keenly interested in writing, business, government, policy, and politics since I was 15.  So since I decided to join the military at age 22, I've taken a fair amount of ribbing -- some good-natured, some not so much -- about the motivation for the decision.  I think a lot of it has died down, especially because I'm long past the point where all the tickets have been punched, and I'm still there to stay [that's not to say I didn't vow otherwise once or twice while overseas, with plenty of four-letter words peppering the sentence before, during, and after said declaration out loud to no one in particular].

In my own case, I know there isn't some linear progression plan where one thing is simply a necessary inconvenience needed for the next.  In fact, as Ben-Ari's words sank in, they reminded me that all those things are really branches on the same tree.  For as much navel-gazing as I've ever tried to do, I'd say that what drives my motivation in any major decision is as much or more of a desire NOT to watch from the sidelines than a need to jump in headfirst.

So it was fascinating to head over to Concord later that day with the Mitchells (thx Jack and Salmira!) and hear Joseph Goodwin's stump speech at an event at his house.  Sure enough, he got up and talked about his feelings on 9/11 and how he had enlisted in a recruiter's office in Billerica the next day.  Joe had already worked for Sen. Wellstone, ran a State House campaign (Corie Atkins), and comes from a politically-connected family on a first-name basis with the President.  I'm sure he heard a lot of the same crapola from people when he told them he had joined.

Sure enough, right in the middle of his stump speech, it came: "...And my desire to sign up that day and to be involved springs from the same motivation that has brought me here, into this race, today."  

I take him at face value on that statement.  Obviously, there's no such thing as a completely *pure* decision in any realm.  As one of my first bosses used to like to say, "Well, I'm still waiting to have my first unselfish thought...and I'm not holding my breath."  And maybe you have to kinda sorta be slightly cynical just to get by in the world.

Having worked around quite a few local pols over the past couple of months, I've asked myself several times why people subject themselves to something that involves a lot of long hours, thankless comments from the peanut gallery, and time away from home for what sometimes works out to be less than the hourly minimum wage.  And for most boards, commissions, and neighborhood groups, minimum wages would be riches by comparison.

In some instances, sure, it might be about ego or personal advancement.  But I would proffer that in the majority of the cases, it comes down to something far more likely to be scribbled down in Occam's notebook than in Machiavelli's -- sometimes, people just want to be involved.  

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

What's the Matter with Arrogance?

Last week, someone mentioned a book to me [Full Disclosure: I have not read said book] that has a basic premise of pointing out that people in the "flyover states" are manipulated into voting for Republicans even though it "goes against their interests."

The first problem I have with that is this: Who is to say what's in someone else's interest?  I'm not a social issue voter (I'm about as pro-choice and favorably disposed towards equality for gays as Michael Bloomberg or Bill Weld), but I can respect people that don't agree with those opinions.  And perhaps those people's best "interests" are served in the way they vote.  But never mind that, they can vote based on other specific pieces of legislation, broad-based philosophies, candidates' backgrounds, or the color of their ties.

That's the whole point of a representative democracy.  We can vote however we want.  Voter information levels can run the gamut from policy wonks to those who think there are only nine "Supremes" when we count the backup singers, too.  All the votes count equally, the winner holds the seat, and we can all go back out and vote the bums out in two years if we're so inclined.

So just on a primary, fundamental level, I have a hard time swallowing any school of thought that tells me one way is "right," another is "wrong," and if those silly, uneducated bitter clingers could just realize what's best for 'em, they wouldn't pull the levers the way they do.

On a more specific level, I have another problem with that idea: As someone who is going to be entering the job market in two years, MBA in hand, I am keenly aware that a low unemployment rate at the time of graduation is one of the few things that I can clearly say is "in my interests."  Therefore, I will root for pro-business policies like the recent crowdfunding legislation, I will cringe in fear at things like the Buffett Rule, and I will hope our state's tax policies stay competitive enough that our wealthiest residents don't pack up and leave (how many Massachusetts residents do you know who live more than two hours from another state border?)

Thankfully, Massachusetts is doing phenomenally well by many indicators (and a recent Slate article just pointed that out with a statistical composite).  Lucky for me, our current unemployment rate is 6.5%.  The lower it goes, the better the balance tilts towards prospective employees and away from prospective employers, based on the law of supply and demand.

Let's take a look at the states with the lowest unemployment rates:


Not so shockingly, many of these states are among the ones that the concept book described above might be ridiculing.  Some people may feel their residents are a bunch of country bumpkins who just can't figure out how to vote, but given the employment prospects of those very people, maybe just maybe they're on to something. 

But, if they got their act together and moved to places with fiscal policies more in line with those sort of "interests," New York and California might look appealing.

Except New York (8.5%) ranks 36th among states, and California (11.0%) ranks 48th.

If you're paying attention to Europe right now, the economic implosions happening across the continent are not in anyone's interest, and they're only going to get worse unless someone can step in to be the bad guy who fixes the broken systems that are sending entire economies over Niagara Falls in a barrel.

If you're paying attention to what's happening in California right now, Jerry Brown is trying his best to salvage a system that is facing more unfunded liabilities than it knows what to do with.  Soaking the rich is only good policy until they finally decide to get up and leave.  Regardless of what happens, that's another situation that's going to get a LOT worse before it gets better.

Meanwhile, places like Montana (tied with Kansas at 6.2 percent) and North Dakota (admittedly, flushed with recent natural resource revenue) are running big state budget surpluses.  Yes, surpluses.  If managed wisely, those type of budgets can allow them to make long-term infrastructure and human investments that will help those states prosper for years and years.

Maybe people in those states go to church.  Maybe they own guns.  Maybe they can even name country music singers other than Tim McGraw and Kenny Chesney.

Coastal elites can sneer at them for all those things, and are free to do so, but that might it extra awkward when they come knocking years later, hat in hand, looking for some help and advice.  

Sunday, May 13, 2012

What Success Looks Like

"A good plan, violently executed now, is better than a perfect plan next week." -- US Army General George Patton, 1885-1945.

The quote above is one of my favorite. Ever. I use another Patton quote in my e-mail signature -- one warning against Groupthink -- but as a manager or even member of any team, sometimes I like this one even better.

On Saturday morning, there were about 25 people gathered around the front steps of City Hall for the Give Lowell Back kickoff.  Mayor Murphy had the proclamation in hand, ready to read, and we were discussing when to get started with the founder of the event, Kim Jackson. After agreeing that we'd allow for a few more minutes for stragglers, Kim wondered aloud how the day's events would go.

None of us was sure, but we all agreed that events like this gain steam and build their own momentum, but it sometimes takes years (look at next Sunday's Cancer Walk and the Memorial Day event at the Lowell Cemetery..both are great examples). Anyway, Kim's response was "No matter how the rest of the day goes, I'm already calling this a success."

I had to ask why. We hadn't even started the opening ceremony, and the rest of the day's events were still all wildcards.

"Because we're standing right here and it's happening," she said.

I loved that answer. I think Patrick loved it, too, because after he read the proclamation he tacked on a Gaelic proverb that translated into something like, "Great things happen from small beginnings." Maybe almost every culture has this: "...journey of a thousand miles," or "poco a poco, se va lejos." 

[The event, by the way, really was a huge success. I only attended that first part of it, but walked past the Butler/Shaughnessy later that day and saw a sizable crowd working on a Lowell Give Back project. The Facebook pics I saw posted throughout the day showed a lot of involvement in other places across the city, too.]

But anyway, back to the answer. This gets at the philosophy of pretty much everything I do. In order to orient good ideas -- which are, frankly, a dime a dozen -- into tangible results, you have to take that first step. You have to give yourself deadlines, you have to be willing to fail, and you have to be willing to then incorporate your "lessons learned" into your next at-bat. That's why Edison said what he did about inspiration and perspiration. That's also why Teddy Roosevelt said his famous piece about the Man in the Arena.

Planning is important, but only to a point -- there's no teacher like experience. Studying the biographies of highly successful people should teach that it's not just about dusting yourself off and getting back up, which is how Rocky Balboa said that "winning is done," but it's also about figuring out how to do it better next time. That's what gets you 4,192 base hits. Or three Super Bowl rings (shoulda coulda woulda been five though, right?)

A couple weeks ago, an 18 year-old senior from the Voke e-mailed Mayor Murphy. The e-mail just said, "I want to be successful. I'd like to have lunch with you so I can hear your thoughts on the matter." Happy to reach out and help, Patrick got in touch with the guy, who doesn't even live in Lowell, and took him to lunch at Cobblestone's (you won't read that in the Column, though!) They talked about a lot of things, like taking the extra time to compare financial aid packages (they're often way better at the deep-pocketed schools), looking for internships, and being unafraid to reach out beyond what seems immediately possible.

I tagged along to this lunch and had to jump in with a story. I wound up with an excellent full-time position for most of 2010 because I had failed well. Seriously. I saw a job posting at the Guard HQ in Milford for a position that I didn't meet all the pre-reqs for. (Unbeknownst to me at the time, the guys doing the picking already had someone in mind). I had no idea what to expect from the panel interview, how to handle the protocol (remember, seafaring pukes don't salute indoors or under cover), or what to prepare with.

I asked someone who asked someone who referred me to a guy that steered me towards a few Field Manuals and other official Army-ese type documents. I did everything he said, read all the material he gave me, and followed back up before the panel interview, which I bombed. All I can remember from the interview were a lot of "I don't know, sir" and "I'm unfamiliar with that process, ma'am" type of answers.

But the twist to all of this is that a couple weeks later, the guy who had helped me get ready was looking to fill a position. I was the right paygrade, he knew I was available, and I had made a good impression on him earlier. The day before I was set to start a job that would've paid barely above the minimum wage, my phone rang. That Major was on the other end, and had a full-time gig to offer (indefinite time period, but it wound up stretching all the way 'til we mobilized). I was doing meaningful work, and had gone from how-will-this-work type worrying to the northern reaches of the five-figure world in a heartbeat...all because I had initially thrown myself into something against long odds, and failed. Patrick followed up on that to talk about how running for Congress in 2007 -- and losing -- had prepared him for his upstart and ultimately successful 2009 City Council bid.

Right now, I don't manage anyone. But I have in the past, and hope to again in the future. When I think back to the people who I've really enjoyed having "in my stead" they are the people who, like Kim, see the value in just stepping forward and following through with something, soup to nuts. The headache-inducers, on the other hand, are the ones who get a tasking, sit on their hands, and when asked about why nothing has happened say something like, "Well, I wasn't really sure what you meant."

Planning is important. Foresight is important. But as long as you're making the right adjustments on the fly, those things can be part of an ongoing process. Meetings are good, but only when they end with everyone present understanding what the "due-outs" are.

Whatever you're trying to do, whether it's write a novel, lose weight, learn a language, start a blog, network more, or ANYTHING else under the sun, just start. Start with something that sucks. Then take that thing and make it suck less. If you're planning an all-nighter to write a 2500-word essay, just start off with 2500 words from your consciousness stream while the first pot of coffee brews. There, now 80% of the pressure has lifted. Keep making that better and better. If not, when the sky starts turning blue, and then the sun starts peeking out over the horizon, and you're staring at a blank white screen on a monitor, you'll wish you had just jumped in.

No endeavor is really any different. That's why the Nike slogan of "Just Do It" has endured for so long, or why so many cultures have proverbs to talk about the need to overcome that initial inertia. Or why Warren Buffett likes to say that "Life is like a snowball. The important thing is finding wet snow and a really long hill."

Lowell Give Back was a success in its first at-bat. From year-to-year, it will only get bigger and better, thanks to the snowball effect that Buffett talks about. But its exact course and trajectory are all in the fine details. What matters now is that the event has already taken the biggest, and most important step that it ever will -- its first.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Remarkably Unremarkable

There is a three-member delegation of Pakistani government officials visiting Lowell this week.  It's part of a bigger program, funded by the State Dept, that brings Pakistanis here to see how local government works, as well as gain some perspective about the good and bad things that make our nation what it is.

I saw one of them this morning at the kick-off event for Lowell Give Back Day.  I asked him what he thought of Lowell so far.  He described a lot of the things he had done, to include tours of various schools and municipal departments, in some pretty good detail.  So when he then added on how much he was enjoying his time here, it struck me as being sincere, rather than a perfunctory this-is-what-I-better-say type of answer.

Unprompted by any other questions, he added that he had donned his traditional shalwar kameez (baggy white pants and white tunic, sort of the unofficial *uniform* of Pashtun people in either Afghanistan or Pakistan) and walked quite a bit around Lowell yesterday.  His walk took him through a large section of downtown, the Acre, and Pawtucketville.  He noted to Mayor Murphy and me that during that entire trek, he didn't get a single uncomfortable stare, gawk, or even question.  A few people waved as he walked by, but other than that, no one really noticed him.  He mentioned that he and his two compatriots have felt comfortable the entire time they've been in Lowell for pretty much that reason -- despite some of the negative things they'd heard about the United States via the propaganda channels "over there," they've been able to blend in pretty much anywhere they've been here in the Mill City.

He went on to compare that to Amherst, where he had spent four days last week.  In Amherst, he wore the shalwar kameez and got a much less-friendly response.  There were gawkers, there were starers, there were blunt questions (i.e. Who are you and what are you doing?), etc.  He was the proverbial sore thumb there, and he knew it.

Admittedly, basing any kind of conclusion on a single walk on a single day is not exactly a standard that holds up to scientific analytical rigor.  It's also worth pointing out that Amherst has a much higher proportion of college kids, who may lack the maturity and experience needed to show respect to a person from an obviously-different culture.  The town itself has a much-smaller foreign-born population, too.

Still, I'd like to think that there's a Lowell quality in play here, too.  Unlike some other communities in the region with a "barbell" model of income/wealth distribution (with the very rich and very poor at opposite ends, and a slim middle class stretched out between the two weighty sides), Lowell is, by and large, a middle-class city made up of as wide a range of humanity as you can imagine.  We have diversity here but don't need to constantly tout it -- you could drive by ANY basketball court on a nice day like today and you would see people of all different backgrounds and ethnicities playing ball together -- and that's not in some forced, let's-pose-for-a-Benneton-ad type of uber-self-conscious diversity, but the kind that comes from being in a city with 25 percent foreign-born residents who all really live together.

That's the type of city that's going to provide the response (or lack of response) that impressed Habibullah so much -- not the type of place where people are going to threaten or intimidate a Pakistani person, but also not the type of place where people are going to stop one every five minutes to pose for pictures and ask questions about "your faaaaaabulous customs" and "woooooooonderful culture" in between unsolicited apologies about how terrible the rest of Americans are for not attending lectures about the Pashtunwali tribal code or being able to rattle off the five pillars of his religion.

Instead, they had found a totally diverse yet unpretentious place where they could just *be.*  And that really is special, because just as there's a veneer separating any place that brags about how tolerant and diverse it is (it isn't), or someone who needs to remind you that he's just a regular guy (he's not), or someone who passionately proclaims that they don't care about something that you never inquired  about in the first place (they do, and quite a bit in fact), there's something wonderful about experiencing the Genuine Article.  No one can define it, but with a hat tip somewhere towards Potter Stewart, you'll "know it when you see it."

Even with 8500 miles of land and ocean, on top of innumerable other potential chasms separating their homeland from their current residence at the ICC, they *got* that.  And it made a big enough impression that it was worth mentioning to a guy who led off with the most basic question possible while rubbing the sleep from his eyes on the steps of City Hall at eight this morning.

And I think that's nothing short of beautiful.   

Friday, May 11, 2012

Lowell in the Globe, Again

It was nice to see Lowell featured in the Globe today.  The context was this boxing article, and there is a slideshow and video on their website, too.

This seems like the third or fourth time in the past two months that Our Fair City got some prominent coverage in the Globe.  Not in a cheerlead-y sort of way, mind you, but all for different reasons that accurately depicted positive developments going on here.  

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Pronounced GRAHN-yuh

Tomorrow night, Grainne Murphy and Kathleen Boyle will be performing traditional Irish music at the Old Court.

Show starts at 8 p.m., and tickets are $18.  I am excited to go, in part just for the whole broadened horizons thing -- I've actually never heard Irish music before.  If the grandparents' grandparents who ducked out of County Wexford to escape the Protestants from my other ancestral island knew, they might be disappointed...but tomorrow oughta fix that!

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

The Intersection of Preparation, Opportunity, and Cliff Krieger

There's an old saying that luck is what happens at the intersection of preparation and opportunity.

I thought about that on Sunday when I read a great New York Times article about Chris Hughes.  I knew that Chris was worth several hundreds of millions, thanks to Facebook (soon to be the largest IPO ever), had bought the New Republic, and had been involved with the Obama Administration.  What I didn't know before reading the article, though, was that Chris had been a Literature major...err, concentrator -- not a tech guy per se. He was fortunate enough to be a roommate of Mark Zuckerberg and Dustin Moskovitz, who had the heavyweight programming skills.  They saw that he was great at *other stuff* -- he could communicate better than they could, he could work the phone calls and e-mails from clients, investors, and users, and was excellent with the customer/public relations bit.  He was savvy enough to strike when the opportunity presented itself.  Now, he's still in his twenties (with a few years to spare) and is one of the wealthiest people in the world, regardless of age.

Obviously, there's a great deal of luck involved there, but it isn't the *dumb luck* of a lottery ticket winner, a guy who finds $20 on the street, or even someone who shows up at one River Hawks game all season and walks away with Pavilion season tickets for all next year.  Instead, it's the luck of a person who had worked extremely hard to get to where he was, had demonstrated competence and trustworthiness to the people who mattered (in his case, the Facebook founders), and then worked even harder to help see their collective dream come true.  

I thought back to the Chris Hughes story when I caught wind of the rumors swirling around that Cliff Krieger is being considered for the potentially-upcoming vacancy on the GLTHS board.

Cliff didn't seek a seat on this board any more than Chris Hughes sought to stumble upon roommates with a conception of a business that would someday change the entire way that people communicate and be worth nearly $100 billion.  But, like Chris, he wasn't trying NOT to.

Cliff is well-known as a respected, thoughtful public intellectual who contributes to community life via the blogs, CityLife, guest columns in the Sun, the LRCC, MLF, and numerous other organizations and causes.  He has a rock-solid reputation in a field where that sort of thing is the coin of the realm.  By putting himself *out there* in the way he has, he's become part of the conversation.

Naturally, then, when the possibility of a vacancy came about, Cliff's name factored into things.  A phone call was made, and Cliff expressed an interest.  Maybe not as dramatic as Cincinnatus being called "back from the plow" but the concept is really one and the same.  Similar to the way in which Zuckerberg and Moskovitz viewed Hughes and brought him on board, people recognized Cliff's integrity, this thoughtfulness, and his work ethic.  The preparation was there -- not in the literal sense of a person 'preparing' or 'grooming' himself for a GLTHS board position -- but in the general sense of someone preparing himself to be closer to where the lightning might strike.  The opportunity (Lenzi moving) is like so many other external events that have launched political careers (like, say, the recall election of Gray Davis that brought the Governator, or the abortive Mexican endeavor that thrust Paul Cellucci into the Corner Office) -- it wasn't brought about or even influenced by the person who stepped in, but it happened because, in politics as in life, stuff tends to have a way of doing that.

Cliff would be an excellent choice to fill the vacancy if and when it occurs.  I would be thrilled to see it happen -- not because Cliff is a close personal friend, or because Cliff is a 30-year veteran, but because he is someone with the characteristics that we say we value in a public servant.  To think that we as a community can make good on that lip service by putting Cliff in an important position of trust and responsibility is, well, pretty awesome.  

Sunday, May 6, 2012

12-Day Weeks and Polygamy

Don't worry, this isn't some scheme or recruitment pitch for a religious cult.

Instead, it's a quick summary of some points I thought about after coming back from drill, which was my first required military event of any kind since February 10, which seems like quite a while ago.  I had to re-remember that first names and hands-in-pockets are not okay.  Because it's the Guard, though, first names can slip through sometimes, and hands-in-pockets aren't too hard to find.  So tomorrow shouldn't be too difficult.

Anyway, here are two quick points:

"Two wives."  My old OIC (Officer in Charge) used to say that being in the Guard or Reserve is kind of like having two wives.  The idea is that you have a full-time civilian career.  You love it, or at least tolerate it, but of course sometimes it grates on you.  When you get tired of the same faces, same routines, same office politics, etc. a drill weekend comes around and you've got a chance to be in a new environment.  Of course, by the time the drill weekend ends, you're ready to get back to wherever you were.  As he said at the time, "It's kind of like having two wives."

Being back this weekend definitely had me thinking about that -- I don't miss much about our deployment, but the exceptions to that are the personalities and the stories.  It was a great feeling to be able to catch up with 180 people that I know very, very well but hadn't seen in three months.  Of that total number, there are maybe 15 or so that I would say I'm close enough with to have a serious else could I see them all in one place?  True to form, one of my guys texted me just prior to our Change-of-Command ceremony today in Wakefield.  He didn't feel like standing at parade rest for an hour in the sun, so he just said, "I'm going to duck this one out in the port-a-john."  And five minutes before things were set to roll, he loudly announced that he wasn't feeling well, and made a beeline for the latrines.  Some seventh-grade-level locker room humor emanated from the ranks (he was advised not to be a simultaneous perpetrator and victim of any unseemly business) and then we got serious again right when the ceremony started.  I realize that might be a had-to-be-there type of story, but things like that don't happen often in the civilian world.  When you've spent that much time in close quarters with people, sometimes a single word, just uttered by itself, can trigger minutes of uncontrolled laughter.  A forty-three year-old man with nearly twenty years of experience and multiple overseas deployments hiding from a dog-and-pony show in a port-a-john was all the comic relief we needed at that moment.

Maybe I'm only saying this because it was an *easy* drill (we mostly just sat around and learned about veterans' programs at a hotel in Burlington, and then had the thing in Wakefield today) but it felt good to be in a new environment.  Yes, I missed out on some things I would've gone to (environmental event, flag raising, Mill City Skill Share) but sometimes it's good to break away from your immediate scenery.  It snaps you out of the patterns and thought processes that have become comfortable, and normal.  I've spent the past six weeks very immersed in all things Lowell, and it was good to be reminded that there are people doing important things in Medford, Attleboro, and Boston, too.  If you get too wrapped up in your own bubble, or your own echo chamber, you risk losing that.  Never mind the serious discussions about the consequences of deployment, or way some soldiers described a fear/panic that their kids felt when they saw Daddy or Mommy put a uniform on Saturday morning (no, no, honey, he's just going down the road), or the important stuff about our upcoming unit transfers and personal plans -- on a way more basic level, it's just good to be reminded that there are people who don't care about sewer hookups, home-rule petitions, and amendments to Rule 17.  It's not that those things don't matter -- they do -- but sometimes you have to step out of something, and then step back in, to regain your sense of perspective.

The 12-Day Week.  This is the downside to being in the Guard or Reserve while holding a separate civilian job (before the deployment I was 'transitional' and then employed by the unit, so I am charting new waters here) is that you work a five-day week, then come in for two more days of work (that usually start much earlier than the civilian job, sometimes in a location that's much further away), and then turn right back around for a standard, five-day week.  There are ways to ease that pain (for instance, just staying at the armory on Saturday even after final formation, which saves you from two drives and lets you sleep more on Sunday morning)...but either way, it throws a lot more on your plate because whatever you normally do on the weekends hasn't happened.  That alarm-clock-be-damned feeling next Saturday morning will be great, but the to-do list won't be any shorter once I'm vertical.

And on that note, time to steal some shut-eye:  Busy week ahead!  

Friday, May 4, 2012

Adam Yauch, Warren Buffett, and the Big C

"Dip, dip, up your ears and clean out your eyes/If you learn to love you're in for a could be nice to be alive."  -- Beastie Boys, Alive

This week, two people who have had fairly substantial impacts on my life -- albeit in very different ways and for very different reasons -- were in the headlines because of cancer.

Warren Buffett was diagnosed with prostate cancer and Adam Yauch is dead because of salivary gland cancer.  Some basic research shows that those are two VERY different things.  For local prostate cancers, the five-year relative survival rate (relative rates factor in that people may die of other causes), is very close to 100%.  It's not mathematically 100%, so it's not listed that way, but it's just about there.

For salivary gland cancer, not so much.  It's extremely rarer, so the statistics are harder to parse out, but it is a significantly lower number (though nowhere near as low as many other types).

I feel like that's important to point out.  Even though heart disease kills more Americans each year, it doesn't have the chill-up-your-spine power that the word 'cancer' does when it follows a pronoun and the word 'have.'  But the fine point is that there are at least 200 different types of said disease, and they all mean different things.

When I heard "Adam Yauch died from cancer," I instantly wanted to know more about what happened.  I saw that he had salivary gland cancer (a type of head and neck cancer) so kept reading and trying to dig more and more into the medical side.   Reading some of the comments about Adam Yauch in which people speculated about "lifestyle choices," I got a bit emotional.  No one really understands what causes cancer.  You could cram all the M.D./Ph.D. oncologists in the world into a room (or even into the 7th Floor of the Yawkey Center) and they would NOT agree with each other on the subject of carcinogenesis.

There are risk factors.  There are the well-known ones, like cigarette smoking and exposure to chemicals.  Some are sometimes viral (i.e. cervical and some oral variants).  There are even studies suggesting that alcohol intolerance is a risk factor for squamous cell carcinoma.

There are many millions of cancer survivors all across the U.S.  It's almost certain that you know several of them.  To each of them, the treatment and recovery experience is totally different.  It could literally be a single trip to the doctor's office, some anesthesia, and not much more.  It could mean a prostate comes out and a bit of radiation.  Towards the other end of the scale, it could mean months or years of painful, debilitating chemotherapy.  It can mean an entire loss of an organ, or maybe some high-tech surgery that makes new body parts out of old ones.  Some people are lucky enough to have great health insurance.  For others, cancer could mean the very real fear of bankruptcy or homelessness.

Because the experiences are so varied, and personalities are so varied, there are endless permutations to the way people might deal with it.  Someone might write something funny (Seth Rogen's buddy that wrote that screenplay), someone might make a TV special (Tom Green), someone else might wear a yellow bracelet, not wear a bracelet, participate in a walk, choose not to participate because of a Memorial Day event, quietly send checks to Dana Farber, or just walk away and try to never think about it.

So there's no right way to respond to a friend or relative that confides in you that he or she is about to go under the knife, or the poison, or that he or she survived said experience in the past.  Broadly speaking, there's not much of a *wrong* way, either.

But there is one thing that you should never say in that situation.  You should never take on an accusatory tone and demand of the person, "What did YOU do to get that?"  I don't mean honest curiosity -- that's natural, and people should have it, out of concern for their own health.  What I mean is a statement or a question with a tone that makes the person feel like a pariah, with either an insinuation or outright implication that he or she has done something wrong, is somehow contagious, or somehow, by some action, deserves to be victimized by renegade cell division.

Nearly all people, or nearly all adult people, at least, don't need to be told that.  But much like the person in Baltimore who influenced Countee Cullen to write the poem "Incident," those other people are sometimes easier to remember.

All the Ph.D.s in the world will never be able to definitively, precisely tell you why Adam Yauch got cancer in a salivary gland.  Nor will they be able to do that for anyone else.  To think otherwise is to confuse the definitions of "puzzle" and "mystery."  The Big C is the latter.  Always.  

Mispronouncing Mendonca

I'm going to miss the Polish flag raising on Sunday (12:30 at City Hall).

Duty calls.  Seriously -- I'll be in Wakefield.  We're doing our change of command over at Lake Quannapowitt.  Following on the heels of a "Yellow Ribbon" event involving presentations and seminars at a hotel in Burlington tomorrow, this isn't exactly a weekend of heavy lifting.  Still, it's gotta happen, and yes, I'm frantically tearing my condo up tonight looking for the ACU patrol cap and the rigger's belt.  And my Yankee Division patches that aren't the wrong color.

On Sunday, I will miss an important chance to hear "men-DON-sa" properly pronounced.

Last week, it was "Mendoca."  I understand the 'c' being pronounced in a cedilla-free sort of way, but they ripped an 'n' out of there in the process, too.

Two weeks ago, it was "Mendoza."  This time, the 'c' got twisted around a bit too far, and again, the 'n' just disappeared.

This week, I caught what I swore was a "Mendonkis" at a different event.

I will continue to post any future variants here on the site.  I am hoping to come up with a "Top 10" list eventually, but I'm not quite sure there are enough possible variants to do it.  

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

RIP to a Class Act

When I heard today that Junior Seau had assumed room temperature, I immediately thought of Todd Kobus.  Todd is perhaps the premier Intelligence Analyst in the Massachusetts Army National Guard.  From February 2011 to February 2012, I spent 16 hours a day with the guy.  The number of people who bring his level of intensity, drive, people skills, and sense of humor to the table is a VERY small one.  It's an amazing mix and I'm proud to say I worked with him in Kabul.

When he got shellacked at a Pats blowout against the Arizona Cardinals, he ran onto the field to hug Junior Seau.  The subsequent slip got reported as a "tackle," but Junior Seau was totally cool about it.  He did not press charges.  He even joked about it and blamed it on an aging Mike Vrabel.  With the help of then-State Sen. Scott Brown, Kobus beat the rap for this.  If Junior Seau hadn't been so gracious about the whole thing, Kobus' career might've been jeopardized, and - no exaggeration - Kabul would have been less safe last year.  A suicide attack plot against an installation may not have been foiled pre-emptively, as no one else had connected the same set of dots in the same way.

Todd is still banned from Gillette, but his wife takes a life-size cardboard cutout of him to games and cheers for the Pats, as wildly as ever.  I'm serious about that, too -- check the Attleboro Sun.  I think the Krafts should consider re-instatement.