June 29, 2009

Blooming Plants, Blooming Idiots

This is Michael T, nestled in his favorite hiding spot in the euonymus. I caught him settling down for a nap yesterday, which was a beautiful sunny day to be wandering around our garden.

Surprisingly, things still seem to holding up OK, given all of the rain we've had lately. I have to say, however, that things are not blooming according to plan. For instance, My Sweet Baboo has some 20-year-old mums, and they are already flowering. In June. Who woulda thunk it?

Here are some additional pictures of the garden.

But, as you know, my garden is not the only thing that's blooming. There are these guys, in Albany, who still haven't figured out who's in charge, what their BiCauFoF is all about, what they're in charge of, and they certainly don't remember why they're in Albany in the first place. All talk of reform aside, they're still goofballs, and we deserve better. Chalk these folks up as the blooming idiots of this post's title.


June 28, 2009

The Man in the Mirror

Day Three: the death of Michael Jackson. On your TV, radio, internet newsfeeds, blogs, magazines, newspapers, and just about everywhere else, we’re in King of Pop overdrive. Yesterday at Home Depot, a gentleman a few years older than My Sweet Baboo rang up my purchase, and as we were walking away, he said to another employee (of his same generation) “Hey Bill, it’s been what, 20 minutes since we heard a Michael Jackson song on the radio? That’s the longest they’ve gone all day!” The two of them chuckled, and to be honest so did MSB and I. It was pretty clear that the four of us fell on the ‘less is more’ side of MJ coverage, but it feels like we’re in the minority. Here's another illustration: later yesterday afternoon, sitting in the nail salon, everyone who was talking was talking about him – their favorite videos or songs, or what he meant to them. Some of the folks who were talking about him were only about 15 or 16 years old, yet they had their own very vivid ‘Michael memories’ just the same.

Thursday started out pretty unremarkably. I was on vacation, and MSB, Jim and Mare had all taken the day off. We visited a few west-shore Cayuga Lake
and east-shore Seneca Lake wineries, stopped at a great place for lunch on a deck overlooking a beautiful little perennial garden, and then swung around through Watkins Glen and headed up the west side of Seneca for a few more stops. We got rain only at the very end – and a huge rain it was – but it ended quickly and the ride home was an uneventful end to a great day. It was only later that night, when I went online to check emails that I learned we had lost both MJ and Farrah Fawcett.

So what to make of these two now eternally-linked passages? Farrah had lost a lengthy battle with cancer, one made all the more maddening by the tabloid coverage that she fought almost as fiercely as she did the illness which eventually took her life. For some reason, I was more moved by scenes of her and Ryan O’Neal (taken from the recent documentary of her struggle with cancer
) than I have been by any image or story of MJ that I’ve seen, including sentiments pouring in from all over the world; call me sentimental, but I’m a sucker for an endearing love story, I guess. Maybe it’s a blessing that she died the same day as MJ – her friends and family will be able to grieve outside the spotlight, in peace and surrounded by love, while everyone else focuses their attention elsewhere.

Michael Jackson also fought a lengthy battle – but he was his own worst enemy. Somewhere along the way, the cute little kid who sang and danced his heart out back in the late sixties and early seventies became a grotesque caricature. There’s no doubt that his was an extraordinary talent; we immediately recognize his songs, and his trademark dance moves, and the one glove and the short pants and sparkly socks. He inspired the same kind of devotion and fanaticism that the Beatles and Elvis did, and his death, in the way that only a handful could, has seemingly caused the world to stop for a bit.

He was the self-proclaimed King of Pop, but for the past 25 years or more, MJ has been as famous for making news as for making music. We immediately recognize the picture of him sleeping in a hyperbaric oxygen chamber; the face masks he wore as accessories; his ever-changing appearance; his ‘marriages’ to Lisa Marie Presley and to Debbie Rowe; his kids, always with their faces covered (as if they had something to hide); and Neverland. We remember the allegations of bad behavior, and we think (even though he was acquitted) that it’s likely he could have done what he was accused of because of the general weirdness of the life he lived.

I was not aware until only very recently that he was making a comeback – and I learned of that at the same time I learned that he had taken to wearing designer clothes...women’s designer clothes. Doesn’t make his attempted comeback any less impressive, it just shows to go you that he couldn’t help himself. In his own words, from my favorite MJ song, The Man in the Mirror: “I’ve been a victim of a selfish kind of love.” How sad that line seems now.

June 23, 2009

The More Things Change...

My Uncle David and Aunt Alice celebrated their fiftieth wedding anniversary on Saturday. My Sweet Baboo and I, my Mom and her sister, my Aunt Betty, represented the western branch of the family at the festivities.

Mom had come over to the Valley Garden Bed & Breakfast and Gardening Dude Ranch on Friday afternoon, while I was still working. She got to enjoy one side of an unintelligible conference call -- trying to figure out why I, as a high powered insurance executive and someone who can barely clean up cat vomit without gagging, would be performing 'triage' on anything -- but was almost certainly more amused by a female cardinal taking a puddle bath in the folds of a tarp, her bright red beak flashing, as I babbled with one of my counterparts in our Rochester office.

Saturday morning, we headed off to Fulton to pick up Betty and then make our way to the village Crown Point, which is on Lake Champlain north of Ticonderoga. I hadn't been in that neck of the woods since I was a kid; I have a vague recollection of being at Fort Ticonderoga with the family when we were younger, but likely 'remember' it from having heard about the trip over the years, rather than as an actual memory. The same was true for My Sweet Baboo -- he hadn't been there in probably at least 25 or 30 years either. For the older gals, they remember the area differently, as my grandparents had lived in the neighborhood at some point; Mom & Dad also had stopped in that neck of the woods on trips to or from their time-share in Vermont.

The party itself was held at the church, just down the road from my Uncle David's house. There was tons of food, lots of old pictures of Dave & Alice and the family, and of course there was lots of family too, which is what makes these things fun. Or agony. Or something in between.

The agony comes in the shape of old photographs. Anyone who knows me knows that I do not like having my picture taken - never have - and so there aren't a ton of pictures of me around. At least I don't think there are. Nice people don't pull them out. But - yep - you guessed it. David, who until this past weekend has always been my favorite Uncle (OK, he's still my favorite), managed to pull out an awful picture of me from the late 70's or early 80's. My glasses are the size of coffee mugs - not thick like Coke bottles, but HUGE in circumference. I can't imagine ever wearing anything like that, but apparently that was what was available at the time, and considered stylish. At one point. By someone.

Not by my cousin Gary; he informed me that he thought they 'might have been in style, for about three weeks, the month before I bought them.' We had some fun with the picture, and the giant glasses; in fact, we tried to find similar pairs on other people in the retrospective DVD that played in a corner of the room, or on people who were at the party, since everything old is new again...

The DVD presented another moment, one that in hindsight I should have been prepared for, but wasn't. While several of my generation were watching it and chatting, there was a close shot of my aunt & uncle, and then it pulled back a little and Mom was standing to the left, and it pulled back a little more and Dad was standing on the right. I don't know if I expected there not to be any pictures of him, or if it's because it was Father's Day weekend. All I know is, boy did it take me by surprise. Happy surprise, but two years later, even the happy surprises are still tinged with sadness.

It was fun to see my cousins. As with many families, I think, we tend to be an 'event-driven' gang. Weddings, graduations, anniversaries, and funerals are the reasons why we get together, but we always manage to find ways to pick up conversations again, even if it's been years since we last talked. It was also particularly good for Mom and Aunt Betty to be together with David, and with one of their childhood friends who came down for the party. Mom, who'll be 79 next month, Betty, who's 83, and David, who's 70 or 71, don't get to spend enough time together. After the party ended, the three of them went wandering off around town looking for the old farm and other points of interest from their past.

So. The more things change, the more they stay the same? When it comes to family, I think that is the case. We're still the same people we were when we were younger, all of us. Lives are different, don't get me wrong - but we're the same people. My uncle still loves me -- after all, he did give me the glasses picture, so at least I can control when it gets shown (never) and to whom (no one). He and Alice have been married for fifty years, and have renewed their vows in advance of the next fifty. My cousins are maybe married, and maybe divorced; they may have kids who are growing up and establishing themselves in their own right. Those of us that were irreverent as youngsters are still very much so; our familial sarcasm is at our beck and call just as it was some 40 years ago. And collectively, we clean a mean kitchen! Time apart doesn't really change things for us.

Those glasses, well, that was one thing that changed for the better!


June 15, 2009

The Value Proposition (part 3): The Land of Enchantment

Some of the fun of all this nonsense in Albany is trying to make sense of what everyone’s saying. After all, there’s nothing like a paper trail, or audio trail, to keep things on the up and up.

One of the comments I thought was interesting in the press release from Dean Skelos, the new Vice President Pro Tem and Majority Leader of the Senate and its new Bipartisan Caucus For Our Future (BiCauFoF) was the note that they’re not in this thing alone. Other states, including New Mexico, Alaska, Texas and Tennessee, are going the bipartisan route. So, just for fun, I decided to see what I could find out about these other legislatures.

First up was Alaska. They’ve had a coalition-governed Senate since 2006, when some Republicans joined with the Democrats. The President (Republican) and Senate Majority Leader (Democrat) are both members of the coalition, and the Minority Leader (Republican) is not. Interestingly, instead of only two rogues, Alaska looks to be much more of a coalition than what we’re passing off in Albany.

I couldn’t find a lot of details on how Texas is like NY’s new BiCauFoF but I did find information pointing to the recent successful session, including a balanced budget, increased funding for education, and tax cuts for small businesses. Admittedly this is likely a somewhat biased take on things, since it came out of the body that’s getting its collective back patted. Here’s another take on it, including reader comments expressing fears of Texas being “the laughing stock of the nation.” Rest assured, Lone Star Staters, that honor will be ours, I can promise you.

New Mexico proved to be much more interesting and very different from what we're used to here. My Sweet Baboo and I have actually been to the Round House (pictured above), the home of the New Mexico State Legislature, in Sante Fe. Not only is the building different, everything is different. Here's a little comparison between the Land of Enchantment and The Empire State. Much of this information comes from The National Conference of State Legislatures.

Legislator Salary:
New Mexico: $0
New York: $79,500 base, plus committee lulu

Per diem for showing up to work:
New Mexico: $144
New York: yep, they get one of those, too, in addition to the salary & lulu

Length of legislative session:
New Mexico: 60 days in odd-numbered years; 30 days in even-numbered years
New York: started this year on January 7th; scheduled to end soon (we can only hope)

Number of members in the Legislature:
New Mexico: 112
New York: 212

Here’s what they accomplished in New Mexico: cut spending in all state agencies, transferred money from other funds into the general fund, and closed a $454 million budget deficit for this year. Then, they balanced the new fiscal year budget through federal stimulus money and legislative restraint – something pretty much unheard of around here. And they passed a little bit of ethics reform, including limiting campaign contributions and opening critical committees to the public.

So what can we learn from all of this? Clearly New Mexico and New York are vastly different in terms of size, population, and issues. What the Legistatures should have in common, thought, is putting the best interests of the State first, then their own constituent interests somewhere further down the line, and at the very end of the line, their own self-serving interests.

This doesn't seem like too much to ask. And it doesn't seem to be the kind of thing that requires some manufactured 'majority rule' to make it happen.

June 14, 2009

A Perfect Weekend

I'm not at all sure what they were doing in Albany yesterday and today - probably working on the Bipartisan Caucus For Our Future (BiCauFoF), or at least working on Hiram what's his name (the one with the slashing charge hanging over his head) to make sure he stays in the fold. Last seen, he was walking out of the Senate leaving the BiCauFoF behind and the new reform majority in doubt.

My Sweet Baboo and I, on the other hand, spent two days in the garden and while we are exhausted, the fruits of our labor are clearly visible. Pruning, transplanting, weeding, mulching, watering, fencing (more him than me) putting a few last perennials, and getting the lawn mowed were our priorities.

We have roses, poppies, grasses, dianthus, coleus, geum, guara, coral bells, coreopsis, geraniums, sedums, spirea, peonies, brooms, flax, butterfly weeds, lilies, alliums, lavender, coneflowers, lupines, irises, spiderwort, red hot pokers, yarrow, bee balm, potentilla, veronica, salvia, poppy mallow, evening primrose, ferns, hostas, clematis, artemesia, yarrow, hollyhock, daisies, and I don't know what all else either here, on the way, or just winding down.

Here are the latest photos -- enjoy!

June 10, 2009

The Value Proposition (part 2): Sanctimony

Most voting-age New Yorkers, regardless of their politics, can identify with Sanctimony and his cousins Self-righteousness, Pomposity, and Hypocrisy. Sadly, we can do this because we’re so darn familiar with all of them coming to visit us from Albany, our capital and the home of America’s most dysfunctional state legislature. The Brennan Center report has been updated since it was originally issued in 2004, but sadly the performance of our Legislature has not. To wit, we have this week’s antics.

On Monday, two ethically challenged Democrats joined with the Republican minority to seize the State Senate and craft what’s being referred to as a bipartisan coalition. One of them is under investigation for campaign finance issues, possible misuse of taxpayer money, and he may not even live in the district he represents
. There are additional issues with his proposed ‘member items’ and the fact that they were not approved by the party leadership, making him ripe for jumping to the other side. The other allegedly slashed his girlfriend’s face in an argument (although she says it was an accident). The fact that the two Dems were previously objects of derision by their new-found Republican friends (some even called for their resignation) apparently doesn’t matter when the value proposition is based on ‘what’s good for me must be good for New York’.

Another key player in the coup was the billionaire Thomas Golisano. Noted for his many significant charitable contributions as well as his unsuccessful political career,
Golisano recently announced he was moving to Florida to save almost $14,000 a day in taxes. As a former New Yorker (and long-time backer of reform) he was frustrated with the lack of action on the part of the Dems he supported, as well as apparently miffed by a Crackberry in the hands of the Majority leader.

A non-player in all of this is our Accidental Governor, who has no choice but to sit back and hope that all of the dust settles, and quickly, so that the ctirical business of New York State can continue. He’ll be staying put in Albany until this all gets straightened out, since one result of the coup is a new lack of clarity around succession. Normally it would be the lieutenant governor, but he's currently the Governor because of the whole Client #9 mess. Next in line would be the president of the Senate, but now we don't know for sure who that is. Hope the Gov didn't have plans for the weekend.

So, with all of this nonsense, why do I think this value proposition is sanctimony? Let me count the ways.

  1. The Republicans had control of the Senate for decades and failed to introduce any meaningful reform; the chances that they will do so now, and the emphasis is on meaningful reform, is slim given that it’s basically the same cast of incumbents, including our local Senator for Life who had the honor of swearing in part of the new leadership.

  2. The new rules they released are hardly as bipartisan as they pretend, and hardly as fair as they pretend. For example, just about everything in the rules that refers to the minority party indicates that it will be ‘no less than 33%’. I think I saw only one mention stating anything about proportional distribution based on representation. Wouldn’t it have been nice to see something like 50-50? 51-49? Even 60-40? We’ve clearly seen that ‘majority rules’, regardless of party, doesn’t work for us; it controls (and by nature limits) debate, it discourages consensus, and it promotes retaliation against the dissenters. Just ask Mike Bragman.

  3. They are professing that this coup is also about Latino empowerment, because of the ethnic background of the rogues. Sadly, I believe that’s merely a convenient accident, rather than a goal, of this new coalition. Two possibly indictable goofballs do not an empowered movement make. Latinos must demand better. We all should demand better.

  4. While they do look to install term limits on the leadership and committee positions, there’s no mention of term limits as a whole. So, it looks like a coalition member can chair one committee for eight years – then chair another committee for eight years, and so on. Not seeing this as real reform; seems more like shuffling (and stacking) the deck – in other words, more of the same.

  5. There’s been a complete lack of sincerity coming out of any of the players in the time since the coup; rather, it’s been a gloating, gleeful, chest-thumping noise that detracts from the professed goals.

Do I hope that eventually, somehow, we manage to get off the top of the Brennan Center list? Sure – all New Yorkers do. Would I express the same opinions if the shoe was on the other foot, and the Dems had coerced a couple of rogue Republicans to play Red Rover? Sure – because I doubt the sincerity of any of them.

I have a friend who uses the phrase ‘noodling around’ to describe the process of digging around, determining magnitude or root cause, or just doing some thinking on something. I don’t pretend for a minute that I have the intellectual wherewithal to figure this mess out – but I do have time, while we wait for the coalition to coalesce, to do some noodling around on some of the comments that have been coming out of Albany in the past couple of days. Next up: New Mexico…

June 7, 2009

The Value Proposition, Part 1

We had a seminar at work this past week, one in a continuing series of ‘Reality Training’ sessions led by some consultants we’ve been working with for the past few years. Like many companies, we rely on consultants to help us do things we know we should do, or may already have tried to do (but without success). Sometimes the added oomph of an outside expert is enough to tip the scales in success’s favor, I guess- I’m not sure. Either way, we individually engage fully with the consultants that the company has engaged en masse. I try to have fun and learn something from these engagements.

The ones who did our session on Wednesday are helping us transition from being ‘managers’ to being ‘leaders’, helping to change the company from the inside at the same time we manage to change the company on the outside for our customers. This is a lofty goal, of course – and one which they think we’re doing well at, which is good for the long term survival of our company and (hopefully) my continued employment.

One of the things we got to talking about in our session is customer service. It’s a cornerstone of our industry – we have call centers across upstate New York. At our place, another of our lofty goals is to offer ‘best in class’ Customer Service. That’s not the official name of it, but you get the picture. Customer Service (with capital letters) is all about the value proposition for each customer.

Pretend that I'm typical. As a consumer, I expect a great, if not invisible, experience in all of my interactions with my ‘partners’. My partners are my banks, my grocery stores, my hair and nail salons, my online shopping emporiums, and so on. For me, a great experience includes a few key components:

  • I don’t want to have a problem doing whatever it is I’m trying to accomplish.
  • I want to be able to self-serve as much as possible.
  • I should be able to engage with my partners when it’s convenient for me (not just for them). Clearly there are exceptions, such as a wine tasting, for example, but generally I want to do things on my terms at my convenience.
  • I really don’t want to have to ask anyone to fix something, because that means the first two bullets haven’t been met and those are the most critical for me.
  • When I do need assistance I want the call, email exchange, or personal encounter to be friendly, helpful, efficient and complete.

Each customer has a different value proposition. Some people want to call every time they have a question; some want to call simply to rant and rave if something goes wrong; some (like me) never want to call at all. Clearly, the ‘value proposition’ for me is having everything either be perfect, be as close to perfect as possible, or at least close enough so I can live with it, otherwise I’m off finding a new place to do business. Happily, the vast majority of my customer experiences have been very positive; in fact, the majority of them are, otherwise I’d vote with my feet (or fingers) and find some new partners.

For a company like mine, learning all of the ins and outs of the value proposition, and managing those expectations, is a complex challenge, but one that’s critical if we’re to succeed. The same holds true for any business, and it also holds true in politics, whether on the local, state, national, or world stage. Not surprisingly, I have some thoughts on that…