Sunday, June 29, 2008

De nouveau Paris

Sunday night and my 15 year old daughter Laura is packing for Paris.

Her room's a mess - piles of clothes here, shoes under the bed, books scattered pretty much everywhere. Charles Aznavour and French rapper Sniper alternate on her iPod. After a quick altercation with her mother over how big a suitcase she can bring - settled by Laura out-googling my wife and finding that Air France allows up to 50 pounds - I have been recruited to "make sure she packs and make sure you don't do it for her".

She'll be gone for a month - first visiting with my own mother, then in a two week course called "Paris through the eyes of its greatest minds". (Since when did college start at 15?!?!). I've always wanted my kids to speak French - they call me "Papa" - but despite a year of tutoring it wasn't until the dangling of a Parisian carotte that I got any traction with Laura. Now for the past month I have had to listen to daily reproaches that I wasn't speaking French to her enough.

I'm happy for her of course. Seeing Paris, for the first time, at 15. (Well, technically she first saw it at 2 but I doubt that even she remembers). She who is already well on that road that leads from girlhood to womanhood. Who over the last two years morphed from a Harry Potter obsessed semi grungee into a bona fide, Noam Chomsky reading, short skirted coquette. She is SO ready for Paris.

I wonder though, if I am. Ready for her to go to Paris; and to all the places she will go afterwards. This is the first step, watching her pack that bag, sway to that music, the emotions flitting across her face as she thinks those thoughts that she will no longer always share with me.

I know she has to go; after all, I went to Paris too once. Tomorrow I will take her to the airport, and watch her go through those doors beyond which I cannot go.

It's not so much the going. It's the knowing that from now on, when she comes back, it will only be for a little while.

Friday, February 22, 2008

The Journey - Epilogue

Back in Miami, and back to reality, big time. First a morning breakfast meeting with a new manager at one of our main clients. Then off to the office to prepare for a meeting with the head of procurement on a new account. There are e-mails to sort through, calls to answer, people to talk to.

“Have you come back enlightened?” people ask me. I don’t really know what to answer.

On the one hand it’s back to work as usual. Yet on the other, on some level I feel changed somehow. I feel even more responsible to the agency team, to lead by example and to continue making as big a difference as I can. This is not just about me, it’s about the group as a whole.

I also feel like there has to be more to what we do than just work as usual. I want to find a way to make a difference out there, in the bigger, realer world too.

It’s good to be back.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

The Journey - Day 6

I wake up to a morning of clear skies. The storm has headed north, and since I don’t need to go that way, my flight home should be fine.

For our last session the moderators turn the tables on us – we have to moderate the texts. (This is a problem because I haven’t finished reading them). We get broken up in teams, each with a different text. My team gets – you guessed it – the Greek one.

Moderating is not easy. You need to know where you want to go, but also be open to letting the discussion take you somewhere else. The conversation takes a life of its own, and you can discover things in the text that you hadn’t seen. I guess it is like any conversation – including the conversation between brands and consumers. You can’t be assured of where it will end, and you have to be constantly listening and adjusting.

The final topic is community. Where do individual rights end and the common good begin? How do we avoid the over consumption that is leading to a global ecological crisis? What is the responsibility of each person? As a final exercise the moderators ask us to place ourselves on an axis between liberty and equality on one hand, and community and efficiency on the other. Over the course of the session some people have shifted from the quadrant of efficiency and liberty to that of community and equality; but most feel that they can no longer define their beliefs on only one dimension, that we are smack in the middle.

We end the session somewhat subdued but contented. We have been given – and have given back in return – a lot to think about over the past week. With much hugs and promises to keep in touch, those of us who have to leave that afternoon pick up our bags and head to our various airport shuttles.

On the four hour flight home my mind keeps turning and turning. I never do make it to reading that Vanity Fair.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

The Journey - Day 5

The day starts off right as the call goes well. A quick e-mail to let the team know what came out of it and off to class with 2 minutes to spare.

For some reason it seems like each day we start with a Greek text – I guess the instructors think that they should get the hardest stuff out of the way first. Today it’s Plato’s Ascent from the Cave. Everybody is in a good mood and joking away until one of our fellow students relates it to a near death experience she had as a teenager when she was in a coma after a car accident. Then one of the instructors says how on his deathbed his father spoke of “going up a staircase”. For a moment we move from the mind to the spirit, and then back again.

The topic is leadership, and it is probably no coincidence that our readings are the most accessible so far (well, except for that Plato). Instead of the absolutes of being, they talk about the realities of how humans behave. Instead of one solution they talk about pluralism and the importance of underlying values.

The grand moment has finally arrived: this afternoon we put on our post modern, media mad performance of Antigone! We meet first for a final rehearsal, make last minute changes, and are ready to go on. As the teachers arrive – an audience of three – I realize that we need to give an introduction. I ad lib that I am “Jean Jacques Rousseau, artistic director of the Theatre de la LibertĂ©”, ask everybody to turn off their cell phones and three way pagers…and we’re off.

Antigone and her sister Ismene argue on the Charlie Rose show, then later get fired from The Apprentice. King Creon holds a press conference at the Palace of Thebes and says he’s “the decider”. Antigone reappears as Princess Diana fighting with Creon as Prince Philip. Antigone’s fiancĂ© Haemon dukes it out with his father Creon on The Jerry Springer Show. Teresias the seer becomes a televangelist from 1-800-ZEUSNOW and saves Creon to resounding “Amens” and “Hallelujahs” from the audience. Stan Messenger from WThBS interviews Creon’s wife Eurydice live from the palace as she hears the news that her son is dead. Creon laments everyone’s death in Spanish in pure Univison telenovela style. But the scene that steals the show is Antigone as “Lonely Girl” on ZeusTube, complaining about being grounded to her tomb and how her uncle Creon has “ruined my life”.

The applause is thunderous (well, as thunderous as three pairs of hands clapping can be). We debrief the meaning of the play for an hour, then go to our celebration dinner. Many speeches are said, we receive our diplomas (although we still have another session tomorrow) and go for our last evening night cap.

Someone checks the weather report for the next day: it’s expected to snow. Will we be snowed in and have to stay another day?

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

The Journey - Day 4

Good morning E-mail! Yesterday was President’s Day, but today everybody is back to work and so is my Treo, blinking with new messages. The real world is starting to intrude on this, our philosophical retreat.

For the first time when I get outside the sky is cloudy and the temperature – freezing. Up until now it really has been too good to be true.

I love today’s readings on equality and social welfare. We start off talking about the trade-offs between economic efficiency and giving people an equal opportunity. Next Simone de Beauvoir’s “The Second Sex”, which everyone, especially the female members of our group, really feel is still incredibly relevant today. I posit that it doesn’t just speak to women but to anyone – black, Hispanic, muslim, gay – who is seen as somehow “less” in our society. What I especially like about it is that while de Beauvoir talks about the external prejudices women (and all minorities) face, she doesn’t let them off the hook either: you have to step up and “carry the weight of the world on your shoulders”. Into this heady mix we add readings from Martin Luther King, The Communist Manifesto (good thing I read it on the plane!) and a Burmese political prisoner.

It’s almost a relief to go back to my room and run through my e-mails. There is a mini crisis at work that will take some telephone client intervention tomorrow. To clear my head I go for a walk in the snow along the river and listen to the immense quiet.

At 4 o’clock the whole group – minus the instructors – meets in the theater where we are to put on our Antigone. We do our first run through of the individual sketches, to see how each works and how they hang them together. Since I had the bad sense on the first day of introductions to say that I had done some amateur theater in the past, I have been named the unofficial director of the proceedings.

Sophocle’s Chorus has morphed into three couch potatoes channel switching and commenting on the news as Antigone’s tragedy plays itself out. (Actually in our interpretation it’s more comedy than tragedy). I get a technician to hook a camera up to the plasma screens on each side of the stage so that some of the scenes can be transmitted on them. We cut here, add there; it actually seems to work! We are a bit concerned though that the actors for one of the scenes don’t show up. Didn’t they get the memo?

Dinner and an early night – I have to get up early for a business conference call – about that work crisis.

Monday, February 18, 2008

The Journey - Day 3

(President's Day)

It is only the third day and I am already skipping breakfast to sleep in a bit longer – spending a day analyzing philosophic texts can be exhausting.

Today’s topic is property and productivity. The texts – Plato, Hobbes, Locke – focus on how property appeared as the result of man’s first actions of self-preservation; and how this lead to the creation of the state. In fact, they seem more interested in the idea of individual and collective liberty. The medieval Arab writer, Ibn Khaldun, seems the most modern and practical: the ruler should stay out of the market, because he will discourage private enterprise and reduce his tax income in the end. Milton Friedman would have been proud.

It’s only the third day and I am starting to feel some “session fatigue” already. Since it’s such a glorious day and we get out early, three of us decide to skip lunch and head for the slopes: Joanne, a fund investor in non and for profit companies trying to improve the educational system; Americo, the COO of a chain of universities and vocational schools in Brazil; and myself. I am the only one without any ski clothes: I borrow gloves from another classmate, put on long underwear under my jeans and off we go to Buttermilk, which we are told is the best ski slope for the less experienced. Incredibly, within an hour we are fully geared and sitting on the chair lift on our way to the top. It is really a perfect ski day – blue sky, powdery snow. On the rides up we talk about surprisingly intimate things. I am nervous –it’s been two years since I last skied, and I never was that strong a skier—but from the first few slides I feel very comfortable and even end up on the blue slopes, with just one fall in two hours. Feeling very proud of ourselves we head back to the hotel, to start working on our Antigone sketches.

That evening we go out as a group to a dinner theater show. Are they trying to inspire us? It’s actually pretty good, the skits covering male menopause to Hillary Clinton to Botox (none of these are necessarily related).

Back to the hotel and a nightcap. One of the moderators says how excited he is by the potential of Barack Obama, and the group gets into a spirited political discussion over more wine. The Aspen Institute’s motto is “Mind. Body. Spirit.” We conclude “Mind. Body. Spirits.” would be more accurate.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

The Journey - Day 2

What a beautiful morning. As soon as I step outside I’m immediately hit but the crisp fresh smell of newly fallen snow crunching under my feet. I hope my thinking today will be as crisp and fresh.

A few stragglers are finishing up breakfast. I pull out a chair at a table where Todd, one of the moderators, is sitting with his wife, who is studying to be a school principal. We start talking and then one of my fellow students, Diana from the CIA, gets up to say hi to a white haired man in a blue shirt. Todd turns nonchalantly to me to say “that’s James Woolsey, he was director of the CIA, I believe under Clinton.” This is the Aspen equivalent of a Paris Hilton sighting.

Yes! They can do cappuccinos with skim milk. (I can get used to this place.) I grab my unfinished cup – I am going to need all the caffeine I can get today – and take it to the classroom. In the pitch dark last night I couldn’t see that the wall is floor to ceiling glass with a spectacular view of the snow covered Rockies in the midst of which Aspen is nestled.

The conversation begins anew. Are humans essentially good or bad? Are they born with a conscience or is it a byproduct of socialization? We get into a lively discussion about Machiavelli: does the end really justify the means? Absolutely says Kristen, the former COO of the NY public schools; it’s only through hard but unpopular decisions that Bloomberg and Klein have been able to push through the kind of transformative change the city needs. More lively debate after lunch on the nature of liberty, individual rights, the purpose of society, and whether or not everything comes originally from God.

God, I need a beer.

After dinner we have our first work session for our group project. Three days from now the whole group – all eighteen of us – have to put on a two hour performance of Sophocle’s Antigone. That’s right, we’re talking 5th century BC Greek theater here.

We have a very clear and overarching objective for the exercise: to get through this as easily as possible and without conflicting with our ski schedule. After brainstorming different ideas (a metaphor for the Iraq invasion?), we quickly hit on what we think is a novel approach. We’ll use live TV as a commentary on today’s increasing sensationalization of tragedy: “And now a CNN breaking news exclusive from the agora at Thebes”, as it were. We divide up the play into 12 smaller scenes, decide what genre we will use for each (Nancy Grace, Jerry Springer, Headline News) and assign them to sub teams.

Well pleased with ourselves and the one too many glasses of wine we have imbibed, we toddle off to start learning our lines – or more probably, to collapse in bed.

Tomorrow is another day.