Napa in 3 dots or less

By now you’ve figured out that I have way too many thoughts running through my head.  It has always been the case, but it can be harder to hide it as I write about diverse topics and try to weave topics together.  Most every day, I start a post only to realize it’s going nowhere fast.  Much like Hawaii, my blog has a minimum speed limit.  Those posts don’t see the light of day.  One day you’ll thank me for that.

Someone recently urged me to write about my last Napa trip so she could live vicariously though my blog.  That post never materialized.  Too many moving parts and too few coherent thoughts prevented that from happening.  But I do have a few things from that weekend.

  • Alpha Omega is fantastic winery. Thanks to my brother for getting us in and kudos to the staff for taking such good care of us.
  • Hartwell and Elyse remain my two favorite Wineries.    Both produce excellent wines and have fantastic staffs.  Hartwell is my luxury Cabernet Sauvignon and Sauvignon Blanc.  Elyse’s wines run a wide stretch of the varietals, each excellent.  I love their Cabernets and Petite Sirahs (on the Jacob Franklin label.) The Jacob Franklin Hayne Vineyard Petite is my favorite wine these days and the Quality/Price Ratio at Elyse is off the charts.  Rick at Elyse or David at Hartwell make both places warm, welcoming and must visits.  Drop my name, it might help.  But don’t be upset if it doesn’t.
  • If you must wear designer flip-flops this season, they should Gucci.  Prada is so 2010.
  • Sift in Napa makes great cupcakes judging by the half of the bacon cupcake I was allotted.
  • In Downtown Napa, I love the service, vibe and coffee at Caffe Molinari.
  • Sweetie Pie makes whoopee pies to die for.  Someone please send me a care package.
  • My BBQ is better than the 2 places I had BBQ at.  I’m not sure if I’m that good or they weren’t.
  • Dillon at Cindy’s Backstreet Café made every woman in my family swoon.
  • There was no Jello on the menu at any restaurant I visited
  • Bello Family Vineyards in St. Helena is an up and comer.  Nice wines, great staff and a spectacular tasting room.
  • I sat next to Abbie Hoffman, or someone like him, at the Oakland Raiders Training Camp.

Those are just some of the things I tried several times to weave into a narrative.  Continuing my homage to Herb Caen we have:

  • I have never had a better Greyhound than the ones at Van Kleef in Oakland.  There is magic in their grapefruit juice.  I do love a great dive bar.  Especially one with a Rhino, Boar and Bear holding court.
  • Keep your eyes open for Stag’s Luncheonette in Oakland.  You’ll hear about them soon.
  • Strange de Jim is not feeding me information. His silence frightens me.
  • The drama at work is never-ending.  I am thinking of asking Lemal to write a theme song.
  • I am very excited to being going to the Windy City for WorldCon.  The Brotherhood without Banners will be well represented.  An advance scout team from down under is in San Francisco and ready to drink.  Good times will be had.
  • If you learn nothing else from Robert Irvine, you need to use more salt and pepper.  And you shouldn’t get ice in restaurants.  Too many bad restaurants cause us to question all ice machines, even the clean ones.
  • A six-foot pallet makes a great planter.  But no fence is strong enough to support that weight.  Yes I might have bought 50 more succulents.  And some crazy grasses.
  • The donuts at Donut Savant in Oakland are great.  And small.  My mom would still try to limit me to half of the tininess.

And with that, I hope everyone has a wonderful weekend. Crack a few bottles, have a  whole donut or kiss your loved ones.  It’s all good.  Sometimes, its even better.


The Cupcake Conundrum

Some days, everything goes right.  The sun shines without making you sweat or burn.  You get the last piece of cake at the bakery.  You are a hero at work and your coworkers cheer your achievements and appreciate your help.  But then there are the other days, when you get less than your daily allowance of victories and successes.  I seemed to be having a lot more of those lately.

I think it’s my mother’s fault.  A few weeks ago when she bought dessert for a family dinner, she decided that no one needed more than half a cupcake.  You can’t make this up.  Of course this is the same lady that told my nieces parent that their daughter was fat.  For the record, I’m the only in the family who is fat.  One of my nieces is on the heavier side, but she is most definitely not fat.  And members of my family obsess over another niece’s weight because, in my opinion, she might be 3-5 pounds from her ideal weight.  Let’s be honest, they obsess over weight period.  Its not healthy.  Yes, my family is meshuggah.  Of course if this is all we have to bitch about, we are in good shape.  We have more, but I’ve no intention of talking about that.

That half a cupcake became my albatross.   Try as I might, I can’t get rid of my annoyance that my mother felt empowered to cut my caloric intake options.  I believe at 50 I am now the master of that domain and her need to make that decision for me hangs around my neck, dragging me down.  Metaphorically.

Things started to go sideways at work.  Not in a big way, just an overwhelming avalanche of pebbles, covering my feet and surging ever upwards with the intent of covering my face and inevitable suffocation.  Perhaps I exaggerate, but only a smidgeon.

I have been struggling with a few people lately.  My stress level is already up because my major project is a complete clusterfuck.  In the midst of trying to find alternatives and build temporary solutions, that direct work was taken from me and given to another.  Not that I’m still not responsible for the project, I am.  I felt like I failed to the top. Moved out of the way, as I was to manage all the subprojects that other people were managing.  It didn’t help that every one of those people took status straight to my boss and skipped me.  I could only get information from him, what information there is.

Oh, and that wonderful person that took over the issues I was trying to solve?  He decided that each strategy I employed, each decision I had made was wrong and took each project/issue in different directions.    it was hard not to read between the lines of his “you are so stupid, look how smart I am” game plan. It’s a cousin to the NIH (not invented here stratagem.) All I could do was watch and answer questions.  And of course the general feeling in the office reinforced my feelings of inadequacy.  A short conversation with my boss left me with the feeling he thought I was part of the problem.  And then he was unavailable for 4 days.  Nothing left but introspection.

I hadn’t felt like this in 10 years.  I had a bought with depression about 10 year ago.  I had a senior position with a Fortune 500 firm.  I was outspoken and always did what was in my boss’ best interests, defending his strategies and organization.  I was well paid and influential far beyond what one might have thought on first glance.  Sometimes I fought the edicts from headquarters because while it might make sense for some divisions, it was harmful to ours.  I also was good at telling the Emperor he was not wearing clothes. I now know that there is a downside to being right too often.   After finishing a horrible 2 year assignment handed down from the Ivory Tower and being a hero to my boss and his organization, I was immediately demoted and relieved of 95% of my responsibility and authority.  Seriously, backslaps on Monday and demoted on Friday. Someone even had the audacity to say that my job would be in jeopardy if I wasn’t in the office by 8am every day.  I worked 9am to 7pm (or later) every day at this point.

I sank pretty low.  At 40 a large part of my ego was tied up in my career and accomplishments.  I was seriously depressed.  Anti-depressants helped.  They kept me around long enough to finish another project and kick me in the head with “we can only give 60% of your agreed upon bonus, because corporate won’t let us give you more.” And “Today is your last day.  It wasn’t our decision.”  Those days were the bottom.  To some folks I must have been a villain.  I know I wasn’t to most of my team and coworkers.  Those were dark days but I got through them.

The last few weeks felt similar.  I felt my Joie de Vivre slipping away.  I pretended to be basically ok and pressing forward.  There were many other things weighing me down. I’m sure I wasn’t as affable and on my game as I should have been.  And still I was annoyed with the great cupcake decision of 2012.  Thank god they make great Greyhounds at Van Kleef, right?  Someone described me as having layers, like an onion.  Several were rotten.

Previously one of my coworkers answered my questions on the financial part of a subproject of my project with “Lee, you are asking questions that have already been answered.” In email, of course.  I immediately dragged the offender to conference room to explain that it was my job to understand the answers, and if I didn’t have them he should explain them.  He couldn’t understand why I would take offense at such a statement of fact. In his mind there was no way I should have inferred that he didn’t want to tell me.  I explained in no uncertain terms that his note was rude, insensitive and out of line and he needed to work on his communication skills.

Monday brought the tipping point.  In trying to help Mr. Sensitivity with questions he had – making no judgments on if he really needed the information – I received an incendiary email.  He thanked me for my “layman’s” opinions, but he was an engineer and the answers I gave him were surely flawed.  He went so far to disagree with my principle motivation in one area, telling me he couldn’t believe that. There were further implications (if A, then B) that I was incompetent.  I was livid.  More than livid.

Others were on this email thread.  More than one laughed at his audacity and inept communications.  Another called him a douche.  I made sure I wasn’t over reacting.  I wasn’t.

Eliminating everyone else from the email chain, I shot off a strongly worded, but polite email that pointed out his disrespect, his implication that I wasn’t even qualified to ask engineers questions and relay those answers to him and why it troubled me.  Of course I added that as a layman, I wouldn’t trouble him with confusing him by trying to help him any longer by answering questions.  He could wait for others to be available.  If I hadn’t told my boss I would work with this guy, I would be working hard to change this.  In this case I can’t.

To make matters even worse he responded to my last email with an explanation of why I am a layman and that he’s an engineer and I must “surely understand…”  All he did was underline that he had no respect for my technical knowledge.  He had no reason to apologize, just that no disrespect was intended.  Seriously? For the record, there are few IT related topics I’m not qualified to chime in on.  The expert?  Rarely.  But I know the experts and I am a problem solver and this was my project.  I have lots to contribute and I planned on contributing.  I had had enough of all this related bullshit and I was tired of it spilling over to the rest of my life.

Things can be dicey when you are a contractor.  You are a guest, serving at the pleasure of the person who wants you to work for them.  I don’t want to upset the apple cart which is way to easy to do.  I like working here and other than the stress associated with this project and this one troglodyte this is a good gig and a great fit for my skills.

I fumed.  I thought.  I figured it out.  I am not a control freak and most definitely not a micromanager.  I sat down with my boss and cleared the air.  No I wasn’t part of the problem and I shouldn’t have received that message.  I explained what I wanted to do.  He agreed.

At my weekly meeting I didn’t call anyone out specifically.  I was direct, I was emphatic and I made it clear I was angry without yelling.  I emphasized 3 points:

  1. There was no teamwork evident.  We were all on the same team and they needed to act like it.  We have problems and we wouldn’t fix them as individuals.  The subtext here was the two people who always insist on talking over everyone and being the smartest person in the room needed to shut up, because they are not.
  2. This was my project and everyone owed me status everyday. I would update our boss, not them and it was ridiculous that they made me go to him instead of vice versa.
  3. No more bullshit.  You all answer to me on this project.

Yeah, they might have been stunned.  They’ve seen me talk or bitch.  They really haven’t seen me manage in crisis.  I was tired of being affected.  I took control back.  Let’s see if I get those daily status reports.  Unhappy will be the person that doesn’t send me one today.

The sun came up today in the east.   It seemed a bit brighter today.  And there was half a cupcake in an albatross’ mouth as he flew west.  I hope he liked it; I didn’t.

Opposing views

Wrong is wrong and right is right
Nothing changes overnight
I’ll believe it when I see it in black and white
Todd Rundgren  1976

When I was young, I really believed everything was black and white.  For example, my father was either happy or very angry, there was no in between; vegetables were peas and carrots and those were good or they were lima beans or cauliflower and they were hated.  I was the same way when I started my career things were right or they were wrong- the concept of gray did not exist.  I quickly found that didn’t go over well in the business world.

I am made of strong opinions.  People who don’t really know me see someone who is analytical and breaks everything down into an analysis that generates answers.  Like yes and no.  While I do have those skills and do that from time to time, I’m really much more intuitive, balancing facts, figures and formulas with perception, behaviors and politics.  I didn’t do that so much early in my career and found myself being a polarizing figure.  If you agreed with me or were persuaded by my arguments, you generally like me.  Otherwise, it has always been quite easy to dislike me.  I see that.  I still have strong opinions.  Sometimes I present them less forcefully.

This leads me to where I find myself today – not ready to throw away my principles, but always willing to listen and try to compromise.  The best solutions are not the ones you think of in isolation and force on others.  When you look around you and see who our workplace leaders are, who really holds power in your office or influences others, it is generally not the rocket scientists.  It is not the people who insist on being right 100% of the time.  It is the people who listen, cooperate and communicate.  It’s the people who traditionally did not have all the answers and learned to work well with others.  They probably shared their toys too.

Being able to solve most problems quickly and have the “right” answer has hurt me in retrospect.  It retarded my growth as a person and kept me from building some bridges and relationships that might have helped me in a previously unforeseen manner.   I am not perfect now, but age and my inability to stay in one job help change perspectives.  I no longer am the senior manager/executive who people look to for the answers and leadership.  I’m a consultant.  That’s a fancy name for a contractor with gray hair.

I often find myself disagreeing with the decisions and tactics my coworkers take.  I try to persuade them to consider other angles.  This generally works.  In many discussions with my “boss” I will disagree with him, give him my opinions and why I believe in them.  And then I reiterate that I will do what he wants – it is his shop after all.  I know I am a guest here and I really don’t want to be asked to move out.  Not everyone thinks like that.  I work with a few people who not only have to be right all the time, they need to be continually validated as the  smartest person in the room.  I stopped believing that is possible when I was 35.  Besides, I can usually tell who the smartest person is and it is rarely me.

The other day I overheard another person loudly tell another, “that isn’t best practice and I will fight you on everything that isn’t a best practice!”  Really?  I was appalled.  Beyond the fact that this was confrontational and counterproductive, it was unrealistic.  The concept of best practices is great, but what company is ready to institute best practices across the board?  Most aren’t.  Best practices are like recipes.  It’s great to have recipe, but you don’t always have all the ingredients. I think of recipes as frameworks to help me build the best thing I can. Life, work, cooking are all about improvisation in my opinion.  Except baking.  Baking must be exact and now you know why I rarely bake.

I actually fled from the confrontation I described .  Neither party was willing to listen to the other nor was I in the frame of mind to be the adult helping these two to grow up.  Sadly, I often take that role in the workplace. I had too many other things going wrong to also shoulder their immaturity.  Another thing I’ve learned along the way is that in order to really communicate with someone, they have to be in a place (emotionally, intellectually etc.) where they are open to listening.  They have to want to listen; they need to be receptive. In my mind this wasn’t in the realm of possibility,

One reason this confrontation bothered me was that hit too close to home.  In my world, I try to make politics off limits with my father.  He is very strong in his convictions and cannot discuss politics without yelling and demeaning.  Yes, he does watch much too much Fox News.  He doesn’t need a reason to get upset.  A picture of Obama will do it.  For the record I forced Clinton to have sex with Monica Lewinski and helped railroad Nixon. Its easy to pick on the right wing because they are so preposterous with both their attacks and their stance of being attacked.  But, I don’t care if you are watching the “liberal media” or the “right wing propaganda” both sides are screaming that the other is wrong and they are being attacked unfairly. Really?  In reality it seems to me that they have some similar thoughts, but insist that “theirs” is the right one.  The other is wrong.  and they will do anything to discredit the other.

Neither party gets along with the other.  Both use sound bites to make the other look bad with creative editing.  There are people on both sides of the aisle that are a bit nuts, that’s a given.  And both parties seem to have developed the strategy over the last 20 years that if you won’t do it my way, I’ll stop you from doing anything.  It drives me crazy in life and I saw that in the confrontation at work. When did we substitute compromise with stubborn opposition and blocking tactics?

You know what happened when Ned Stark refused to compromise. Did it matter that he was right? I think we all need a touch of gray.  Right?

But destined to take the place of the mudshark in your Mythology

We all know that sex sells.  Humor is memorable and indirectly sells too.  Another key emotion that advertising pulls on is nostalgia.  On Mad Men, Don Draper is always pulling out concepts that bring back happy memories to induce consumers to the products he is marketing.  Music is one area where nostalgia has lived for a long time.

When I was young, I had thought “the Fool on the Hill” a Petula Clark song.  Please forgive me I was 6.  I’m over it.  But it was a Beatles cover.  More fool me.  That’s how I learned about cover songs.  Granted, it was long after the original.  When I was 16 there was a new band.  They did a cover of “You Really Got” by The Kinks.  Of course that was Van Halen in 1978.  At the time I thought it was clever that they picked such an old song; It was 14 years old at the time.  No one disputes Eddie Van Halen’s guitar chops, but I’m sure the exercise of remembering the original and contrasting it with the late 70s production and sound was part of the appeal.

I often wonder what would make a good cover.  I think about songs in the 10-15 year age range. Of course there was only 7 years between The Rolling Stone’s “Connection” and the Montrose cover (you are all closet Sammy Hagar fans, right?)   I realize that many songs I think of for covers are much older than that.  Closer to 20-25 years.  I think as rock and roll ages, it stays fresher longer.  The distance from the Kinks to Van Halen (or The Pretenders) might be larger than the distance from REM to Rise Against. I keep thinking it’s time for someone to cover “Me in Honey” or “Up in the Neck.”  I am sure I am alone in those thoughts.

Music does funny things to people.  As I was growing up, my parents often politely said, “Lee please turn your stereo down.”  I’m paraphrasing of course.  It was closer to, “Shut that Crap OFF!”  It didn’t matter if it was the majestic sounds of Rush, the heavy beat of Led Zeppelin, the driving urgency of UFO or the Baroque tone of Yes.  My parents hated it all, especially at the volumes I chose.  I think they would have been prouder had I adopted The Ray Conniff Singers as my teenage soundtrack.  In 1995 the old man bought season tickets to the Oakland Raiders.  I probably went to a game every year with him.  It was always amusing to me to see him “rocking out” to AC/DC’s “Hell’s Bells” when the team took the field.  Previously this was a band he hated when it came thumping through my bedroom door, but there he was bopping and cheering to the music.  Who knew?

The feelings evoked by music have long been an arrow in the quiver of advertizing firms.  I recall the row that erupted when Michael Jackson licensed The Beatles’ “Revolution” to Nike.  We often forget he had enough money to buy the rights to the Lennon-McCartney catalog.  A few years ago, Cadillac licensed Led Zeppelin’s “Rock and Roll” for their CTS commercials.  Call me silly, but I believed that was the 2nd sign of the apocalypse.   The men responsible for the Cry of the Mudshark lent their talents to sell rich old men luxury cars.  It was sad.  Of course “Rock and Roll” is the 2nd most overplayed Led Zeppelin song, so I had no trouble tuning it out when it came on the tube.

There was roughly 33 years between Led Zeppelin 4 (or Sticks or whatever you and your friends called it) and the Cadillac campaign.  This year, there is a movement afoot to tie late early 80s music to back to school sales and office (school) supplies.  First, we have Target with the Go-Go’s “We Got the Beat.”  Of course everyone loves the infectious nature of the song. Perfect for Miss Prissy Pants Teacher to be singing with cute kids.  Me?  I’m thinking about the song as a battle cry for Belinda and Jane to pick up make groupies to abuse.  You knew they made most male rockers look like altar boys right?  Now you do.  Think about that next time you see that commercial.  Changes things doesn’t it?

Staples decided to use Depeche Mode in their back to school sales ads.  When I think of Depeche Mode (and I’m not the world’s biggest DM fan) I think, “Electronica with thinly disguised BDSM themes.”  I don’t have a problem with that.  But I bet others will when they realize that their children are being seduced and tempted into the lurid world of “office supplies” where they “just can’t get enough.”  I know, like you needed me to point this out, but that’s my job.

The latest Target (I call it TAR-Jhzay) ad features Thomas Dolby’s “She Blinded Me with Science.”   Seriously?  It doesn’t matter what lyrics they’ve changed the ad to.  Everyone hears the original in their head – it’s the overwhelming familiarity and nostalgia that pulls at the strings of your emotions. Do you think Target means savings with these lyrics?

As deep as any ocean
As sweet as any harmony

I don’t’ think so either.  Perhaps next season someone will want to use Grace Jones’ “Warm Leatherette” or Khia’s “My Neck, My Back”  as their call to arms.  Maybe that will be Chick-Fil-A.