Introducing an Unexpected Villain

English: Picture of Val Beans (Dolichos lablab).

English: Picture of Val Beans (Dolichos lablab). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Lima beans have always mocked me.  There is no gilding that lily.  As an adult I more than avoid them; I run screaming from them.  As a bit of a foodie, I see them on menus as an accompaniment  and immediately eliminate that entrée from the range of possible solutions.  Even now they influence my worldview and limit my choices. Yes, I am scarred.

Growing up my mother made vegetables every night.  Well, not every night.  There were no veggies when we had spaghetti or pizza.  Or omelets for that matter.  Whatever.  Most of the time we had frozen vegetables.  I liked peas.  I liked peas and carrots.  My sister hated peas, so we didn’t have those two as often as I’d have preferred.  We never had asparagus; daddy hated asparagus. (My mother calls him daddy.  I call him Pop, but I refer to him as Dad.  Sorry to digress.)  My mother often chose the mixed vegetables, frozen of course.  We didn’t eat canned vegetables nor do I recall fresh veggies, other than carrots and corn.  No, I will not be hearing arguments that corn is not a vegetable.  It was when i was 10 and it still is now.  Mostly.

In retrospect, I’m glad we didn’t eat canned vegetables. Let’s be honest, they basically suck.  I often keep a few cans around for emergency pantry meals, but as I have gotten older even that bothers me.  I like my vegetables fresh.  No, I am not going out of my way to eat a ton of vegetables.  But I eat some.  Celery, carrots, bell peppers and root vegetables often find their way on to my table.  I make a mean butternut squash soup and Lambchop often requests my brussel sprouts.  Yes, they do happen to have a fair amount of bacon hidden in the bowl.  No one will accuse me of trying to force vegetables on my spawn, but I try to maintain the illusion.

But I digress. My mother fed us the house brand frozen vegetables from the store she shopped at.  Safeway? Lucky? Nob Hill?  Doesn’t really matter, does it?  What I recall is that the peas and carrots in the mix were fine.  The stunted string beans were weird and there was an over population of  lima beans that tasted like dry bat guano.  I hated eating those.  Ok, hate might be a bit of an understatement.  They mocked me as I was forced to eat them.  I could not get them down.  I tried. I failed at least as often as I succeeded.  Do you think that encouraged my mother to not buy those vegetables?  Of course not.  I think once or twice she even made “just” lima beans.  At least she only made liver and onions once.  The same with “salmon burgers.”  Canned salmon sucks, period, especially to a 12-year-old.

The details are fuzzy, but I recall some bits.  I must have been somewhere between 8 and 11 — maybe younger.  When dinner was done, I had 10 minutes to finish those vegetables that mocked me.  How do I know I had 10 minutes?  There was an egg timer.  Seriously.  I often tried to wash them down with milk.  Two problems with that solution.  One, they were too big for my petite throat to swallow whole.  Second, I was not allowed a second glass of milk.  This might not seem like much to you, Gentle Reader, but to my fragile psyche it was the seventh circle of hell.

I might have left out a few salient points.  If the timer had been set, my father was already pissed.  How dare I not eat the vegetables my mother bought with his pay that he labored for!  At 10, I didn’t do well with pressure.    I’m sure you are thinking, fine so there is a timer, it’s just vegetables — it is not like it was Edgar Allan Poe‘s “The Pit and the Pendulum.”  You’d be wrong.  The bell would ring, my very large father would yell and I’d be ushered off to bed, crying at my failure.  I’m sure it was 6:30 or 6:45 at the latest. Being early, I would be wide awake, reminded of those mocking beans; a telltale heart continuing to echo my incarceration and impending doom.

Clearly you realize that this blog is cheaper than therapy, not that I really need it. My upbringing is reasonably rich history from which to pull ideas and topic.  On the other hand,  I’m sure that many you know I make sure my parents don’t forget about lima beans the egg timer.  Or the preferential treatment my brother got.  I think he’s appreciative that I took those 9 years to break our parents in for him.

And just like that mediocre independent film, this post just ends, leaving you wanting more.  But no more lima beans please.

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Nights of White Bacon, Never Reaching an End

Bacon.  The final frontier.  And running the risk of becoming a cliche’.  But not if I can help it.

Let’s be honest shall we?  I love bacon and so do you.  Yes, my kosher friends are excused.  They just don’t know they love it.  Well, some do.  Those are the keepers of kashrut at home.  Bacon is allowed when you are on the road, right?  When I rewrite history, I plan on making several minor changes.  World War 1 had nothing to do with some minor Archduke; Germany was hording bacon.  Watergate was about the break in at the local bacon smokehouse.   I don’t know why Thomas Jefferson rewrote the phrase, “Life, liberty and the pursuit of bacon.”

Most importantly, it won’t be the snake giving Eve an apple; the snake will tempt her with a bacon explosion.   That’s right, I said it, and you were thinking it.   Let’s just get this on the table, shall we?

Growing up,  my mother made bacon for us “on occasion.”  More than once a year;  less than once a month.  (If I am remembering it incorrectly, let’s recall my mother had the audacity to point out the gray in my sideburns, daring me to call her on her weekly trip to the colorist.  Funny, she never mentions that my goatee has substantial gray.)  In those dark days, the late 60s to mid 70s, bacon came home from the grocery store, packed by that Oscar M guy.  It went into a pan over medium high heat, gave up its grease to create a kiddie pool to swim in, and burned to a crisp in that over-exaggerated deep fry of a baste.  As a kid, bacon was nothing special.  I always ate it  when served, but I would have much rather have had another spare rib, slice of ham or piece of flank steak.

When did it change?  I know that about 6 or 7 years ago  I started buying apple wood smoked bacon from the butcher counter at grocery store I frequent.  Lambchop likes bacon, potatoes and biscuits (which she makes) for brunch, leading me to buy it more often than I might have.  I generally had used bacon as an ingredient, a highlight in a dish not as the main attraction.  Rice pilaf loves a kiss of bacon.  So does Macaroni and Cheese (ok, I don’t use macaroni, its generally penne and its far more than a kiss), filet mignon and several different chicken sautés.  Now I buy thick, luscious, apple wood smoked bacon regularly.

A few years ago,  a good friend introduced me to Sriracha bacon.  It is very difficult to make. Not. You lather good bacon with Sriracha and then grill it over coals.  Easy and exceedingly delicious.  Why didn’t I think of this?  Earlier we saw the rise of candied bacon, bacon chocolate and bacon flavored dishes.  Perhaps McDonald’s was on the forefront when they brought the bacon and egg biscuit to the market.  Sadly, however, they didn’t go far enough.

In 2008, the bacon world exploded like Teresa Guidice in her full rainbow of lunacy.  A competitive BBQ team in Kansas City invented the Bacon Explosion.  It might be the most decadent dish ever foisted on the world.  But damn, it is good.  It is elegant in its simplicity, devilish in its construction and deceptive in its preparation.  It rewards creativity and patience.  It helps if you know someone that makes it.  At its core, a bacon explosion is bacon, wrapped in sausage wrapped in bacon and smoked.  No, it is not greasy.  The traditional recipe calls for lots of bbq sauce.  I have reduced the bbq sauce and replaced it with Sriracha.  I also try to add different components to tweak the recipe.  I have included a layer chopped jalapenos – which is not as hot as you might think – and a whole andouille sausage in the middle to mixed results.  The first several times I made a batch of Bacon Explosions everyone got a slice and one nameless friend ate all the rest.  I got the scraps from the cutting board. I think I didn’t get any until the 4th time I made them.

I believe my latest batch was my best ever.  It was also my biggest batch. I usually make 1 or 2, this time I made 4.  I mean, there were going to be 14 of us for dinner and, clearly, 2 would not be enough.  I cut the sausage from 2 lbs to 1.5 lbs.  I made my mats of bacon in 6×6 squares (7×7 is floppy on the edges).  As flavor highlight, I made a puree of jalapenos, garlic, parsley and oregano; a touch of pineapple juice was to accent the fruitiness within the heat.  The key to a successful Bacon Explosion is the 2-4 hour smoke.  I use hickory and rotate them for even cooking.  A thermometer in one making sure it gets to 180+ is also important.

When I volunteered to make these bacon explosions for 14, a few people were skeptical.  The amount of work and the ability to produce them for a dinner 40 miles from home was questioned.  The occasion was Le Dîner à San Francisco.  Le Dîner is akin to a picnic flashmob.  A few thousand people show up at a secret location in San Francisco, dressed in white for a dinner party.  The party starts at 5 and the location is announced at 3.  Living in the burbs, I take the day off to cook and prep.   Parking is limited and taking BART/Muni is not an option for me with as much stuff as I need to bring.  This year I brought the main course, wine, wine glasses and a few other things.  Last year my mango chicken served on a bed of cannellini beans did not arrive much hotter than tepid.  I made my plans knowing that I needed to deliver fantastic food that was warmer than warm.  I’m not much for cold food.  Last year it was at the bandstand area between the Academy of Sciences and the De Young Museum.  The tables were in the trees, it was great and reasonably warm.  Would it be as warm or as scenic?

I spent the morning and afternoon making my bacon explosions.  When they finished around 3, I wrapped them tightly in foil, put each in a large Ziploc to manage leakage and put them all in a thermal bag. Yes I also made some brined, grilled chicken – I am the king of overkill. Because they were still whole, I needed to bring a cutting board and slicing knife.  As I have about 25 knives, this was a non-issue.  I also made a garlicky spicy chimichurri sauce for the chicken, but most of us used it on the bacon, to our mutual delight.  We left at 4 to get to the location by 5.  We actually arrived and parked by 5:10.

There we were, well at least most of us, dressed in white, setting up a table for 14.  LEDs, lanterns, fancy white napkins, practical plates and metal utensils.  Platters of food.  Lots of wine poured into mismatched wine glasses (I have tons, but bought over the years, so different sets.)  Oh yes, I neglected to mention where we wound up.  It was the Marina Green, 100 yards from the bay. At 5pm when we got there, the fog was rolling in and it was damp and cold.  The bay is lovely by daylight, but the sun set at about 6pm.  One victory was achieved; the bacon was served hot!  Well, at least pretty warm.

I wouldn’t want you to think we didn’t have a great time, we did.  I’m glad I brought my fancy black leather “shirt,” that was in the spirit of the evening, but far from the white that was de rigueur.  I needed it by 5:45.  By 7pm I was slicing bacon explosions and had traded the leather for an apron.  Even the skeptical took the bacon and sausage like ducks to water.  By 9:15 we were packing up to go home. Unlike last year, there was no entertainment and the cold broke our spirits degree by degree.  As members of our party gave up the ghost, it was clear that it was time to go.  As we packed up, we realized we didn’t need to keep things refrigerated, everything as nearly the perfect temp.  Getting back to the car was a tad easier than getting in.

We had a ton of leftovers.  For dinner I had rolls and cheese and bottled sauce on the table, on the off chance anyone wanted a bacon explosion sandwich.  At home, I slice off  .75 inch rounds and fry them gently, with a bit of the jalapeno sauce on them.  When they are lightly caramelized on both sides,  I top them with a bit of the chimichurri sauce and serve them on rolls, like a burger.  With 1.5 of these decadent treats left, we’ll be eating like kings for a while.

From the Platform to the Couch

Every morning workday morning as I stand on the platform and wait for the train, I perform a small, but significant ritual.  I reach into my left pocket and pull out my smart phone.  That statement in and of itself speaks to how my world has changed and that I recognized it.  Then I reach into my murse and pull out my headphones.  These day’s I use the yellow ones – I like how they fit my ears, but they are probably the least awesome pair have.  The jack slides in the top and I push the icon for the music to play.  I’m no longer another commuter with 200 others on a platform.  I’m in my own music booth, feeling the melodies, rhythms and emotions of any random 1 of the 1200 songs I have preloaded.

Each song brings with it its own set of emotions.  Sometimes, a stray tear finds my eye.  I have an emotional connection to many songs; “Dance Away” by Roxy Music always takes me back to my first real break up and I always sing “More Today Than Yesterday” by the Spiral Staircase to Lambchop.  Today my inner queen wanted to dance while I listened to the Tubes remake of Major Lance’s “The Monkey Time.”  In the 80s, The Tubes should have been bigger as dance band.  Maybe there were. I was a bit too cool for that in college. What is a blog if not for my Midnight Confessions?

What is always amazing to me is that my love of music was not learned.  I never played an instrument.  My parents did not particularly love music; the stereo console was more for looks than functionality.  My parents are young, contemporaries of the Fab Four.  One of my favorite party games is to ask my mother to name the Beatles.  She struggles for Ringo and then gives up.  I pull that out every 2 or 3 years to make my brother laugh.

My father was not better musically.  He had a copy of “Cheap Thrills” (Big Brother and Holding Company, but most of you are probably thinking Janis Joplin) and “Born on the Bayou” (The pride of El Cerrito, Creedence Clearwater Revival), probably because someone at work said he should get them.  I don’t recall my ever hearing my father play those albums, though I’m sure he did twice, just to justify the purchases.  I’m sure he identifies “Proud Mary” with CCR, but I am positive if I mention Big Brother and the Holding Company he won’t know what I’m talking about.  Nor will he think twice about the iconic R. Crumb cover of that album.  I knew all my album art backward and forward.  Yes, my dorm room was covered in Roger Dean art.

As I think back, I recall getting a cube of a clock radio when I was young.  I had it through high school, but I must have gotten it in 2nd or 3rd grade.  I remember listening to it at night, setting the sleep time for the full 60 minutes and listening to the local pop station.  Yeah, I really wasn’t that cool for a 4th grader.  But my growing up was probably a bit different from most of my peers.  My parents were young and ambitious and while we were undoubtedly loved, I don’t think any of us look back and think of them as nurturing.  Dad had a temper to be avoided and mom was always busy with charities or cleaning the house.  We had a black and white TV and it was not be our babysitter. I think we also watched what Dad wanted, but I could be wrong. I learned to enjoy reading.

I was never the most popular kid, but I was also not the weird kid, ostracized by others. By extension, while I often played with the kids in the neighborhood, I also found myself alone in my room, with my books. I read quite a bit and the backdrop was always music, never silence.  Music became part of my environment and 40 years later, I couldn’t be happier about it.  After my bar mitzvah, I added a small stereo to my room, thanks to my grandparents.  This allowed me the freedom to buy my own music – or more accurately have others buy it for me – and define my own tastes, far beyond the reaches of pop and bubblegum.  I think that junior high defined most of us.  I made new friends, my world expanded beyond the square half mile I lived in and I like what I saw.  I embraced these changes.

One of the first bands I grew to love was Genesis and by extension Peter Gabriel.  I didn’t discover them until after Peter Gabriel left the band, but nevertheless, I spent countless hours listening to “The Return of Giant Hogweed,” “The Musical Box,” “Supper’s Ready” and other jaunts into to fantasy and escape.  It should come as no surprise that I saw both Genesis and Peter Gabriel several times once I learned to drive.  I have great memories of those shows, but I haven’t wanted to see Genesis since they went pop and I haven’t seen Peter Gabriel since 88 or so.

Several months ago Lambchop announced that she’d never seen Peter Gabriel and she’d like to see him.  Seeing no reason to deny this wish — I mean I had made her seen UK and Marillion among others — I bought tickets and the seeing was scheduled for the large and anything but intimate Shark Tank in San Jose.  The first 2 times I had seen him at been at the San Jose Civic (1980) and The Greek Theater in Berkeley (1983) both fairly intimate (especially where I sat.)

Peter Gabriel’s first 3 albums are all entitled “Peter Gabriel.”  It makes it hard to keep them straight, but we fans manage. The third album (often called Melt), one of my favorites, is filled with songs about alienation (“Not One of Us” and “Intruder”), introspection (“Lead a Normal Life”)  and politics (“Biko” and “Games without Frontiers”.)  Delightful, no?

No Self Control” is about anxiety, introspection and an inability to solve ones issues.  Did we call it OCD then?

I know I’m gone too far
Much too far I gone this time
And I don’t want to think what I’ve done
I don’t know how to stop
No, I don’t know how to stop

Musically, it moves quickly and the song is urgent, pleading and self-aware.  There is no mistaking this as anything but straight ahead rock and roll, though I believe it was a bit boundary pushing for the time.  He recognizes his problems and won’t give into them.  The song is a metaphorical cleansing scream as he tries to figure out how to not give into his issues. Its powerful and bordering on anthemic.

Music, like people, changes over time.  I used to think of it as static, but music is organic; it grows and changes if you let it.  The Grateful Dead embody this philosophy.  We have all seen singing competitions on TV where one of the judges tells the contestant that they’ve brought nothing to the song.  Sometimes an artist brings new life to a song, with that one wrinkle that changes everything.  I saw that when we saw Peter Gabriel.

The original “No Self Control” was a rallying cry for change; an internal attempt to reboot.  32 years later, Peter Gabriel is no longer 30, his perspective has changed.  The song I heard that night was not purely rock and roll; it had been give what I perceived to be a jazz beat and rhythm.  The vocals were no long pleading, searching for solutions.  Sad, mournful resignation reigned over a devastated life.  There was no mistaking the change in perspective and meaning.

You know I hate to hurt you
I hate to see your pain
But I don’t know how to stop
No, I don’t know how to stop

The implied fist pounding for change was gone in this version.  This was not the apology it was meant to be in 1980.  It was despair.  It was powerful and hit me in the gut.  As I looked around the audience I’m not sure everyone got it.  This was reinforced later when the crowded cheered in the middle of another powerful song, not knowing there was a break and texture change at the emotional climax. It was so off it was wrong.

We get older; we are no longer what we were or have gotten to where wanted to be.  There comes a time where we need to accept what is and what we failed to achieve. It is easy to forget what we wanted long ago, the dreams and ambitions of youth.  I’m not going to be 30 again, but that does not mean I have to let go everything I believed in. It is still important to have dreams and goals; they’ve morphed but I still have them.  If this was intended as a wake-up call for the audience, I hope it worked, but the cynic in me doubts it.

A Modest Apology

Earlier this week I decided that I would participate in National Novel Writing Month.  Lambchop has nudged for this off and on for several months.  I don’t think I have a novel in me, but what is the harm in trying? I mean besides my own ego.  I am sure you’ve noticed that my blog posting is irregular.  Sometimes I have 3 posts in a week and other times I can go two week s till I force myself to find something to write about.  More often the trouble is finding things I can write about.  No sense in digging myself into a hole.  Sadly I blame it on my muse.  She is as fickle as four-year-old picking out lollipops.

This has been an interesting year and a time of change.  No, I don’t think it’s my mid-life crisis; it’s still over the horizon, lurking behind the earth’s curvature.   At this point in my life I know what I do and do not do well.  Rather than focus on what I know I can do, I think I should stretch and try something I am pretty sure I’ll struggle with.  That which doesn’t kill us makes us stronger, right?  I hope so.

I’m sorry.

My first order of business is to apologize in advance.  I am positive that I will offend at least one person.  My imagination is not nearly as well-developed as it could be.  Someone will see themselves in a character.  Others will recognize a situation and say “How the fuck could Lee write that! He knows I don’t want people to know about that.”  They’ll know.  They’ll see.  They will know I know.  They just won’t know who you are; unless they already do.

I’m sorry.

Once wasn’t enough was it?  Seriously, it never is.

In a perfect world, the words will flow and images and concepts will transfer from mind to fingers to keyboard to keyboard to internet to you.  We both know that won’t happen.  I will probably find comfort and inspiration in the bottom of glass.  That worked well for Poe and Hemingway, and we know how they turned out, right?

Why am I doing this?  I don’t know.  Probably just because.  It is a good enough answer to give our kids, so it must suffice now.  But don’t think I’ll stop watching football, cooking or miss my niece’s bat mitzvah for this.  I won’t.  I guess it is as much of an obstacle course as it is a mental stretch and marathon.  Great.  I have the body all athletes aspire to.

In the end, it really is just an experiment.  I have no illusions that I’m the next George R.R. Martin or James Patterson (ok, I don’t read Patterson, but the Monkey does.)  With a little luck and perseverance it will improve my post quality and frequency here. We will know on December 1st, won’t we?

Now it is time to stock up scotch and maybe some of Evil Twin’s Wet Dream (damn that stuff is great.).  I already have plenty of wine. You knew that.

Coffee Talk (sans Linda Richman)

My beloved French Press is in semi-retirement.  Much like a child that has sent to timeout, it may reemerge to frolic on my counter once again, but not soon.  In a sense, it did its job too well, taking rough grounds of flavor rich exotic beans and turned them into delightful cups of caffeinated joy.  With any French Press, the drawback is the mouth feel.  Some grinds and sentiment inevitably join the party in the cup, often creating some gritty sips.  The fault may be as much mine as the method, but it is so much more fun to blame the equipment.

Over the last 6 months or so, the thermal French Press became my week end go to.  When we moved 2 years ago, our lovely new kitchen was outfitted with new appliances.  The previous coffee pot had long lost its ability to be removed during the drip process and other issues became apparent.  The new coffee pot grinds the beans right before it brews the coffee.  It makes it as fresh as possible and goes off when I tell it to.  There are two problems.  First, it is really loud; even at the other end of the house it can wake me up most days.

More important, however, is the fact that it makes weakish coffee.  The size of the grind is not adjustable and adding more coffee can create a mess.  So I try to put in the maximum amount of coffee and cut back on the water.  Well, I’ve taught the monkey to do so. The results are acceptable, but far from fantastic.

A new wrinkle in my coffee lifestyle is the rise of medium roast coffees.  Peet’s – which by now you know is my favorite coffee – roasts their beans dark.  Those beans create a rich, slightly acidic cup.  These beans make a passable cup.  But if the roast is any lighter, we may as well be drinking water or Pepsi.  I have found over the last few year several wonderful coffee roasters that make magic with their beans.  The problem is they are all medium roasts.  They aren’t great out of the traditional drip coffee pot.  If you are so inclined, check out Equator Coffees (good enough for The French Laundry) and Intelligensia out of Chicago.  These are fantastic, but their roasts require a different brewing method for maximum flavor.

But of course, I have my trusty thermal French Press, bought years ago from Starbucks.  It is metal, retains heat and travels well.  I have learned to ignore the branding.  Boiling hot water, fresh ground beans (of any roast), a stir and time create a great cup of coffee in the French Press.  It has become my go to on Saturday and Sunday mornings.  It is large enough to fill Lambchop’s Tinkerbell mug (which she INSISTS on for the weekend) and for me to get 2 smaller cups.  That has been the routine the last several months.  It has been decadently wonderful.

Recently I discovered Modern Coffee in Oakland.  They describe themselves as a coffee “taproom,” serving beans from different roasters.  Four Barrel and Verve are 2 of my favorites.  What I discovered there changed my life.  They use a tool called the Clever Dripper.  It meshes the steeping process of the French Press, with the filtration of a drip.  Yes, it does need a filter, but it produces phenomenal results.  The flavor is deep and complex like a French Press, but clean and sharp like a drip.  There is no grit in the sip; no mud in the bottom of the cup.

The only downside is that it makes one 12-16 ounce cup at a time.   I grind the beans to be finer than the French Press, but not as fine as a drip.  I asked at Modern, they use a 5.5 grind.  I believe a standard drip is a 5 and French Press is a 10.  I  had them grind my coffee at 8 on some Peet’s Ethiopian Supernatural (which is phenomenal coffee by the way) and use a heaping scoop to make a great cup of coffee.  I let it steep for about 4 minutes, stirring twice and covered to keep hot.  Then I let it drip freely into a hot mug.  That’s about 5 minutes per cup, ignoring the time to boil the water.  Luckily, on the weekends, there is no rush, even for the first cup of the day.

Next time you want me to use my French Press you might need to remind me it is in the upper cabinet, gathering dust.  My Clever Dripper has moved front and center and my taste buds are very happy.

 

Disclaimer:

I’ve seen a few posts on the internet talking about how the Clever Dripper is prone to cracking under extreme heat or the dishwasher.  Mine won’t go in the dishwasher.  It hasn’t cracked.  3 weeks in and I’m thrilled.

Looking Beyond The Box Score: A Baseball Metaphor

Baseball is really an individual sport.  We think of it as a team sport, but when you analyze it, 90% of it is made up of individual contributions.  Yes the pitcher and the catcher coordinate on calling the pitches and creating the flow of the game, but 90% of that activity is dependent on the pitcher executing his pitch; the speed, location and ball movement have very little to do with what pitch the catcher called for.  While there is coaching, only the batter can hit the ball.  Fielding batted balls, throwing and catching are individual activities, chained together to make a play.  It really is an individual spot.

Of course, that type of thinking will get you in trouble.  Just look at the LA Dodgers <cue boos!>.  They were 2 games behind the SF Giants <cue cheers!> when they added 6 key players to their team – 3 of them stars with huge potential.  What happened?  Of course they imploded.  There is an intangible side to baseball which is what makes it a team sport.  When the team gels, mountains can be climbed.  When they splinter, they circle the drain (ok, the 72-73 Oakland A’s are the exception that proves the rule.)  It doesn’t matter how much of an individual contributor you are, if your teammates don’t back you, things fall apart, disaster ensues.

On a cohesive team, when one person fails to execute, the others don’t feel the pressure to “pick him up.”  They want to pick him up.  They want to help everyone move forward.  Internal values will have been created that tells people it is time to do something for the team; excellence is often created.  In times of pressure you can see great teams work to cover “failures”, fix issues and exceed.  And you can see splintered groups place blame and try to justify why it isn’t their fault.  Often this comes from the fact that some players are more worried about their statistics and their next contract than the success of the team.  When the team is placed second, everyone suffers.

Other times, it is more about chemistry and how the team bonds and works together to build that feeling of wanting to succeed together.  I cannot say that there are selfish or “me first” players on the Dodgers – I really don’t know.  We all know one or two players added late in the season can be the catalyst to spark a team forward to over achieve.  In my mind, adding so many players to the Dodgers over such a short span may have fractured the camaraderie of those left and making it impossible to find that mixture of talent, desire and teamwork needed to succeed. It is clear the Dodgers did much worse after their roster revision than they did before.

We have all heard the phrase “there is no “I” in team.”  I have always understood it, but never really been in a position to see one or two seriously selfish people destroy a team.  Often, when you are an individual contributor you don’t think about how to interact with others.  You know your stuff and you make it right.  The problem is that there really are very few roles left for individual contributors in today’s business environment.  Most everything in today’s wired world requires a high degree of coordination, communication and cooperation.

I’ve shared some of the rough patches I have gone through recently in some past entries.  As rough as those were, they were nowhere near the roughest. The last 2 weeks were devastating in many ways.  I saw firsthand multiple contributors working on their portions of a project and refusing to effectively communicate with others and with me.  In some cases, there was significant lack of cooperation – ok let’s be honest, there was zero cooperation between most of the participants.  This lead to disaster after disaster; lack of communication leading to tasks that could not be done.  It was chaos, individuals telling other individuals they were smarter and better prepared than the others and more fighting than you can imagine.  There was zero teamwork and definitely less camaraderie.

The project was supposed to be completed Saturday at 5pm.  Here it is Tuesday – 10 days later – and there is still much to do.  We were able to cobble some things together and have some critical services available by 9am Monday and most of the services people see done by mid day on Wednesday.  And then the blame game came into full effect.  You can tell your team players, at least the ones that want to be on a team, as they own their mistakes and don’t look for reasons to blame others.  They are busier looking for solutions and trying to help others than in trying to look good.  The team already looks bad; there is no potential to shine. The divisive ones look to find ways to rationalize mistakes and blame others, trying to find a spotlight.  In a time of crisis or clean-up as we were, trying to blame others is counterproductive.  We needed solutions and teamwork, not to look for kudos.

I sat through meetings and side bars this past week (people talk to me and I try to be the glue on the team, but I didn’t do so well this time) blaming others and trying to rationalize why they were not at fault.  Everyone placed another comparatively at fault – 90%-10%.  In truth, it was 55%-45% in every case; basically everyone was at fault, but no one seems to be able to see it.  In retrospect this has been going on for 3 months, and I was completely unable to change things.

This was a huge lesson in teamwork, or lack thereof.  Sure, you can add a bulldog to a team to drive vendors and outside entities.  But you still need to think about how that force interacts with your team.  Even if you think you might have an underperforming team that can use some improvement, you need to consider how personalities mesh – and what is the cost of achievement.  I’m not sure the cost outweighed the damage in this case.  Certain things got done better than they would have been, there is no denying that.  Others were made worse as information became embargoed and fences erected to keep people away from fiefdoms.

As someone who tries to build teams and cohesion, I was both stymied and broken.  Yes, broken.  You can’t talk to people who aren’t ready to listen and even the strongest of us break under constant abuse and pressure.   I take a lot of ownership of this team’s failures.  It really wasn’t a team; it was 3 different factions, each trying to make the others look incompetent.  All that did was make it nearly impossible to complete the project.  I’m not placing blame, but there what little chemistry existed was corrosive.  I didn’t have the right chemicals to neutralize it.

Have you seen the Internet meme which proves, without a shadow of a doubt that there is an “I” in team?  After the last 3 months, it seems very appropriate.