Monthly Archives: April 2012

Clear Eyes, Full Hearts, Can’t Lose

So many smart friends had told me over the years that they liked the television series Friday Night Lights. “It’s about much more than football,” they told me. If memory serves, it was a Jonah Lehrer tweet about how the finale was the best 43 minutes of television he’d ever seen that pushed me over the edge (more specifically, pushed me to log onto www.netflix.com).

A few weeks ago I finished all five seasons of Friday Night Lights. I have not read the book nor watched the movie version. But the TV show was awesome.

The show worked for me on several levels. First, the marriage porn. The marriage between Coach Taylor and Tami Taylor has been praised by critics as one of the best ever on television. The marriage is perfect in part because it’s not a perfect marriage, but they manage to muddle through, and so to viewers their relationship dynamic seems at once amazing yet attainable. The husband-wife gender roles are also realistically complex. Sometimes it’s traditional, with a strong breadwinner man and loyal wife who raises the kid and follows him wherever his career takes him. But other times the roles reverse to a more modern dynamic, with the wife becoming principal at his high school and telling him (indeed, having the power to tell him) that she ain’t taking any of his crap. This interplay in gender roles approximates how many 20 and 30-something men and women today envision their 21st century marriage playing out; thus, how Coach Taylor and Tami Taylor work through their issues makes for fascinating viewing.

Second, the show let me enter a world I’m out of touch with: small town, middle to lower class America, by way of west Texas. The characters, their dilemmas, their evolution, their dialogue, their life choices — much of it was familiar enough for me to get emotionally invested, yet foreign enough where it felt like I was genuinely learning about a different part of America and the people who live there.

Third, the cinematography and music. When you watch the opening montage of small town Texas life with the Explosions in the Sky soundtrack playing in the background, it’s hard not to get a little reflective on What It All Means.

Fourth, Coach Taylor’s leadership — on the football field and off — was reliably inspiring. Tim Riggins says in one episode that Coach is a molder of men. You get fired up after his locker room pep talks. And in the way he keeps a steady voice and clear gaze when confronting one of his players, you want to emulate his style.

There are many TV shows people rave about that I have yet to see: Breaking Bad, The Wire, Lost, among many others. I’m holding off on committing to another show because many months of Friday Night Lights cancelled out time I would have spent watching movies. And while the character depth and emotional investment you build with a cast over five seasons cannot be rivaled by a two hour film, at the same time, the creative energy and money producers pour into a two hour film vastly exceeds that which goes into two hours of TV. A movie is a more intense experience. I find that a great movie (like Extremely Loud, Incredibly Close which I recently saw in Palm Springs) can hold my undivided attention for a full two hours — which is a rare treat in our always-on, always-connected culture.

In any case, here’s to Friday Night Lights. A show that I did not foresee would draw me in so deep, and a show I won’t soon forget. Clear eyes. Full hearts. Can’t lose.

The Sweep of Nostalgia

Joan Didion once advised you remain on nodding terms with your past. I returned to Chile last week to do just that.

All told, I’ve spent about 9.5 months in the long skinny country, mostly in Santiago, though I’ve been as far south as Patagonia and as far north as the Atacama desert — and most places in between. I was last there in August, 2010.

I returned to Chile for a visit because right now I’m prioritizing depth in my relationships with places and people. And also because I worry about the slow fade of memories, especially the fade of memories associated with important personal and professional experiences (such as beginning work on the book, which happened in Chile).

On my first day back in Santiago, the sweep of nostalgia was strong. Memories started coming back in bursts, like how a Polaroid photo takes shape with a few good shakes. There were things I hadn’t thought about for 15 months; the memories were in my brain somewhere, they just needed to be activated into present consciousness.

It’s funny the little things that you remember upon prompting. When I checked into my hotel in Santiago, I noticed the door handle was similar to that of my old apartment, and so was the lock and key. Door handles and locks are the same everywhere in Chile, but only in Chile. When browsing the shelves looking for a bottle of water, I had forgotten that supermarkets play American pop music hits from 10 years ago. When lying in a park listening to locals chat with each other, I had forgotten about the small idioms and slang that define Chilean Spanish, cachai? When ordering a lunch menú, I had forgotten that you should always order mashed potatoes as a side dish because while Chilean cuisine is on the whole forgettable, its mashed potatoes remain the best in the world.

Mashed potatoes may be a memory held by many, but so much of what I remembered during my trip was utterly personal. There is nothing special about a bench along Av. Andres Bello that looks out across the river to Cerro San Cristobal. Yet I once had an important stream of thoughts while sitting on that bench, so returning to it on a sunny morning while listening to “Catch Me” by Demi Lovato on my iPod was a blast.

When you call upon dormant memories, you change them in the process. You remember the most recent version of your memory + whatever present lens you’re using at the time of recall. In other words, how I changed since I left shaped how I remembered what I once experienced.

Some months ago, I watched saw the beautiful documentary Nostalgia for the Light. It’s about the astronomy done in the Atacama desert in the very north of Chile. Here’s the trailer. The Atacama desert is the driest in the world and the only place on earth with zero humidity year-round. Soon, 95% of the world’s astronomy will be done there. The film juxtaposes the work of scientists in the desert who look to the sky for answers, with old women just miles away who look to the ground for answers, searching for the bones of relatives assassinated by the Pinochet regime and buried in the desert. The film is about the connection between the past and the future, ground and sky. It’s also about memory.

In the film, director and narrator Patricio Guzman says, “Those who have a memory are able to live in the fragile present moment. Those who have none, don’t live anywhere.”

The Upside of Taking a Chance

Will Wilkinson has spent more time than most digging through happiness research in an analytical way. In his post announcing a major career move — he says he’s going to do less political punditry in order to get an MFA and start writing novels — he reflects:

I think the most important thing I took away from all that time with my nose in happiness research and behavioral econ is that we overestimate the value of what we already have and so underestimate the upside of taking a chance, leaving something behind, and making a big change. Most of us end up where we are through a sort of drift. Sometimes that works out splendidly. And drift hasn’t not worked out for me. I really like what I do. But, alas, I don’t really love it. I never wanted to be a pundit or a “public intellectual.” I always wanted to be an artist of some sort and I still want that. I want to make awesome shit people love. It’s my new motto: make awesome shit people love. So here we go!

Sentence of the Day

The most highlighted sentence from the Kindle version of The Start-Up of You is:

The fastest way to change yourself is to hang out with people who are already the way you want to be.

I did have a feeling that sentence was a winner when we wrote the book, but in the electronic age it’s interesting to be able to see data around it.

I should note that there is a rich-get-richer effect with highlights on the Kindle. Unless you turn it off, as a reader you begin to automatically see flags on the sentences that other readers have most underlined. This no doubt influences you to highlight the same.

Book Short: Creative Capitalism by Michael Kinsley

Have you ever read a well argued essay or op/ed on a topic, felt yourself persuaded, but then wondered, “I wonder how a really informed person on the opposite side of the argument would respond?”

I ask that question a lot. It’s disappointing there are not many books which, in their format, enable a multi-voice conversation that’s full of respectful disagreement.

Creative Capitalism by Michael Kinsley is, however, one of these essay-books. It opens with Bill Gates’ Davos speech on how the free market doesn’t perfectly serve the world’s poor, and what for-profit companies should do about that. Then there’s a conversation between Warren Buffett and Bill Gates on the topic of CSR and related themes. Then there’s a slew of essays in response by all sorts of super smart people like Richard Posner, Gary Becker, Brad DeLong, Robert Reich, Larry Summers, and of course Kinsley himself (who’s always worth reading). Best yet, Kinsley gives people the opportunity to respond to responses — Posner rebuts Gates, Ed Glaeser challenges Posner, Posner responds again.

If you’re interested in whether a for profit company should try to “do good,” what Milton Friedman meant by the invisible hand, and whether capitalism needs to be tweaked in some way to make sure the world’s poor are best served, check out Kinsley’s book.

Quick Impressions of Qatar

It was my first time to the region and my time in Doha was all too brief, but I will share a splattering of thoughts:

  • The people of Qatar I met were friendly, hospitable, ambitious, and keen on continuing to improve their country. The world cup arrives in 2022. That event creates a natural timeline by which they want to achieve big things before they enjoy the global spotlight.
  • The talking point within Qatar that I heard a lot is that the country needs to become a “service economy.” They are also looking to foster entrepreneurship in order to diversify their economic base.
  • By day, the Doha skyscrapers juxtaposed next to the desert landscape looks bizarre. And because of the heat, no one is walking on any sidewalk…anywhere. By night, with the buildings lit up, the landscape takes on an alluring, Vegas-like quality. And with the cooler evening breezes, the foot traffic on sidewalks picks up to a normal pace.
  • When I sat down to lunch with some local businesspeople from the region, I asked where everyone was from. I should have known better. Apparently, it’s easy to tell someone’s home country by how they wear their hijab (headscarf). As it was explained to me, Saudis wear a red patterned hijab. Omanis wear a hat, no scarf. Qataris fold their hijab a certain way; folks from the UAE fold it a different way. Walk down the street of Doha, and you’ll see all kinds of hijabs.
  • Doha’s critics say the city is trying too hard to be like Dubai: too many sky scrappers, too many five star western hotel brands, a national airline in Qatar Airways too hell bent on being more luxurious than Emirates. Doha strives to be better than Dubai on these fronts but isn’t, they say. By forcing an apples-to-apples comparison, Doha gets relegated to second class, instead of a place like Muscat which aspires to be something different. I’m not agreeing or disagreeing with this view — I’ve never been to Dubai nor spent serious time in Doha. I’m simply repeating it because I found it interesting in terms of how a city’s identity gets constructed vis-a-vis another city’s.
  • When women are covered up except for their face, it makes the face the singular signal of beauty. There’s nothing else to go by. I saw many beautiful faces.
  • I flew Emirates, SFO-Dubai and then Dubai-Doha. I loved that the ceiling of the plane turned into a star-filled sky during sleep hours. Also, the window shades opened/closed electronically, and they were all shut automatically during sleep hours. (It’s annoying when someone leaves the window shade open and sun creeps in when you’re trying to sleep.) The weakness of Emirates (in my brief experience) was around staff friendliness. The flight crew just didn’t seem as uniformly professional and friendly as a Cathay Pacific or Japan Airways crew, for example. I wonder if the diversity of the flight crew on Emirates matters in this regard. The four Emirates flights I took were multi-ethnic to an extreme degree; when they announced the languages spoken by the crew, I truly had never heard of a couple of the languages. I love diversity generally, but for within crew maybe the cultural differences translate into inconsistent hospitality styles. The person serving food approaches the relationship with the passenger differently than the person handing out customs forms. On a 16 hour non-stop flight, these little things become a little noticeable.

All in all, big thanks to my hosts in Qatar for the opportunity to meet and share ideas, and I look forward to getting back to the region soon to spend a more significant chunk of time.

Rahm Emanuel’s Ideas for Improving Higher Ed

From this profile of Rahm Emanuel in the Atlantic, there’s this excellent nugget on how he’s reforming Chicago’s community colleges:

IN HIS 2006 book, The Plan, Rahm proposed that all Americans go to school for at least 14 years. Like Presidents Clinton and Obama, he has long seen community colleges as crucial to preparing the American workforce for global competition and to saving young people who would otherwise be condemned to poverty. But Chicago’s city colleges have become dysfunctional, with graduation rates a pathetic 7 percent. (Nationally, only 15 out of 35 community-college systems graduate more than 50 percent.) “We have 9.4 percent unemployment, 100,000 job openings, and I’m spending a couple hundred million dollars on job training,” Rahm tells me. He pauses to let the absurdity of this sink in. “So we are going to reorganize it.”

Rahm fired almost all the college presidents, hired replacements after a national search, and decreed that six of the seven city-run colleges would have a special concentration. Corporations pledging to hire graduates will have a big hand in designing and implementing curricula. “You’re not going for four years, and you’re not going for a Nobel Prize or a research breakthrough,” he says. “This is about dealing with the nursing shortage, the lab-tech shortage. Hotels and restaurants will take over the curriculum for culinary and hospitality training.” Already AAR, a company that has 600 job openings for welders and mechanics, is partnering with Olive-Harvey College; Northwestern Memorial Hospital is designing job training in health care for Malcolm X College. Equally important, the city colleges are overhauling their inadequate guidance services and contacting the 15,000 students most likely to drop out. As of March, all 120,000 students are being tracked, and those in danger of slipping through the cracks will be counseled. Thinking big, Rahm wants Chicago to be the national model for rescuing the middle class.

Makes a ton of sense. If a kid is in a community college trying get trained for work in a restaurant or a hotel, why the heck wouldn’t the potential employers of those students have their hands all over the curricula? Hopefully Rahm’s model inspires imitators.