Monthly Archives: October 2009

Writing to Strangers, and Then You Meet Them

In the update a year ago, I wrote this:

You would not be surprised to learn that in addition to Talking to Strangers, I have for many years written to them. On October 30, a reply arrived from Daniel Smith in Arena, Wisconsin. A few weeks earlier, in my hotel room in Madison, I read his essay in the UW alumni magazine about selling their dairy herd, and was reminded of my long relationship with David and Katherine Kelly, dairy farmers and enduring stewards of the land east of Hudson, Wisconsin. When I got home, I wrote Daniel, and was so delighted to get an answer. He opened:

Dear Rob,
Yes, your letter has reached me and I am very glad that it did. Thank you for taking the time to write concerning my essay on selling the dairy herd. It arrived on a cold gray day typical of late fall in southwest Wisconsin – your kind words and the story of your relationship with the Kellys warmed my heart.

I made note to try to meet him next time I visited Madison (Arena is about 25 miles west). Reaching out is such a joy!

And so it was that on the bright blue Sunday morning that was October 18, Jack and I motored west on U.S. 14 toward the Smiths’ house on Knight Hollow Road. The ride was delightful, me recounting stories of riding along this road 50 years ago, to and from Chicago to visit grandparents and other kin.

In the Halloween Spirit, Main Street, Mazomanie

In the Halloween Spirit, Main Street, Mazomanie

We stopped for a coffee in Mazomanie, its center right out of the late 19th century, railroad depot, commercial buildings with brackets on the cornices, solid.

At 11, we pulled into the driveway of the Smiths’ log house in a beautiful southwest Wisconsin glacial valley, autumn color in all directions, a red barn immediately in front of us.


But as lovely as the landscape was, the company was even better. Daniel Smith had been a dairy farmer in northern Illinois for 30 years, following his father into a hard life. His wife Cheryl was a city girl (I think I’m allowed to write it that way) from Cleveland. We told a bit of our stories out on their front deck. Jack and their son Austin, a poet and scholar recently graduated from UC Davis with a Master’s, fell into their own conversation of music and life.

Cheryl had fixed potato soup, creamy and wonderful, and a salad. We yakked over a fine meal. After they sold the farm, they moved up to the hollow, to be close to UW, their alma mater (and that of Austin and his two brothers – proof of the powerful pull of that great state university). Cheryl has been teaching kindergarten in the Madison schools, and Dan does two jobs: some soil and ag consulting, and a far more challenging one: he’s on a team from the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture that helps farmers, mainly dairy producers, who are in financial crisis. City people don’t usually take the time to understand the lives of those whose work sustains them, but your correspondent has understood for 35 years how hard it is to be a farmer, at the mercy of the weather and markets far beyond their control. Unhappily, for a variety of reasons, the milk market is a mess, and many dairy families are struggling. Dan tries to help them.

I’m afraid I did too much talking and not enough listening. I’ll have to remedy that next time I visit their valley. Jack and I have made new friends.


It was also fitting that five hours after visiting the Smiths, I wrote these words in the Wisconsin Union, the student union that is the very heart of UW. It is quite a place!

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Back In the New World, and Thinking About the Old One

After a fortnight in Sweden, I was glad to get back to the U.S. It was home. Re-immersing myself in stuff like the debate over universal health care made me think about differences between our two worlds. A few nights after returning, Linda told me about a teenager who appeared in front of her in juvenile court. He had parents, but the state had terminated their rights years ago; he and his brother, 19, had lived with grandparents and other relatives, then friends, and now it was just the two of them in a small apartment. Brother, who was appearing in court on behalf of his sibling, earns $400 a week working at a 7-Eleven, “just enough to live on.” The story made me sad. The Swedes would never accept a situation like that, but it happened all the time in the U.S.

No, we are not going to move toward social democracy in my lifetime, or even our kids’, but the story of the brothers, and two weeks in a society where people are looked after, did make me think. And one of the conclusions is this: people everywhere will do stupid things, or will fall victim to things beyond their control, like illness, and what matters is whether society as a whole steps forward and helps them.

I know that state help sometimes gets excessive in social democracies, and that taxes are high, but the absence of a safety net – for those two brothers, for example – is just not right. And as I have often written in these pages, the economies of the social democracies seem to be humming along just fine: new construction in Toronto, late-model cars on the streets in Sweden, Brits boarding our Silver Bird for vacations. My conservative friends also tell me that all that coddling stifles innovation, and makes people afraid to try new things (and perhaps fail). I do understand the vibrancy and innovation in our economy, but I don’t think it logically follows that all that good would go away if we chose to take better care of the most vulnerable among us.

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The View from Above: A Friend’s Perspective

Jeff, a former colleague in International Planning who is now CFO of a major company, wrote me recently with the following. It was so right on that I decided to post it, with just one image to pay off his points:

I am flying back from Europe to SFO. We are taking what the captain described as the most northern route he has ever flown. So we are soaring over some of the most spectacular scenery on the planet. Of course, I can’t see any of it, because the airlines have all gone to insisting all passengers fly with the shades down so that the passengers all turn into video zombies. To me, this is a tragedy of unintended consequences as the airlines have installed ever more sophisticated inflight entertainment systems. I fly every week, yet the magic of flight and the views of the planet earth are always inspiring to me. I get to see them less and less, however. Today we all just sat in the dark with most people watching TV and while my tired old eyes tried to read with my malfunctioning reading lights.

Now I am generally a very mild mannered guy who does not like to make waves. But since I am now a full fare paying first class passenger when I fly, this is one issue where I can get cranky at times. But after having an AA flight attendant a while back literally shove me out of the way when I was slow to close my window, and after having a fellow first class passenger today (on UA, who actually said “there’s nothing to look at out there anyway!”) almost get into a fight with me while a flight attendant tried to mediate, I guess I will surrender henceforth and forget one of the majesties of flying that I formally never got tired of. To be overdramatic, this is just one more sign of the decline of civilization into mindless media and video gaming . . . and of the loss of one of the special things about commercial aviation.

The Alps, on a flight from Zurich to Milan

The Alps, on a flight from Zurich to Milan

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The Rest of September: The Heart of Texas, Toronto, and Norrland

Two days later, on the Friday of Labor Day, Jack and I pointed the Toyota southwest, headed once again to judge in the World Championship Barbeque Goat Cook-off in Brady, Texas – me for the 19th consecutive year and Jack for his second. Father and son together, what could be better. We yakked the whole way there, about matters of substance and matters of fun. At Stephenville, we stopped for a late lunch at Jake and Dorothy’s Café, a small-town eatery so awesome that it was recently on the cover of Texas Monthly. Jack had been there earlier in the year, when his former employer dispatched him to count widgets at a Stephenville factory.

The newly-renovated McCulloch County Courthouse, Brady, Texas

The newly-renovated McCulloch County Courthouse, Brady, Texas

We landed at the Best Western in Brady after six, watched a bit of TV, and headed over to the Hard-8 Barbeque for dinner. Lights out.

Up and out the door to the Judges’ Brunch, back slapping and greeting old pals, folks like Jim Stewart from Lubbock, Mark Pollock of Alpine (Texas, of course!), and dozens of others, including a bunch of new ones. We were out at a muddy and messy Richards Park by eleven, Jack peeling off to judge the cooking rigs, and me to visit with more old friends and some new ones. Judging started a bit earlier, and there was a lot to sample – 175 teams entered in ’09, up from 125 in previous years. Once again, we ate a little great goat, more than a little terrible meat, and a lot in the middle. The judges at our table were well aligned – our scores varied only slightly, the mark of true professionals!

Rookie Cook-off judge Alphonse Dotson, former tackle for the Oakland Raiders, now a vintner in Central Texas.

Rookie Cook-off judge Alphonse Dotson, former tackle for the Oakland Raiders, now a vintner in Central Texas.

Another total blast. We said our good-byes, hopped in the car, and headed home, stopping (by tradition) at the Dairy Queen in Comanche for some treats. And a treat awaited us at home: Robin and Dylan had flown in for a three-week visit. How cool was that?

On Sunday the 20th, the Silver Bird that day headed north-northeast to Toronto, Ontario. I was headed to the second annual Bombardier Airline Executive Seminar. We landed at 2:30, and I hopped on the Airport Rocket, actually a Toronto Transit Commission city bus, headed 20 minutes south to the city’s westernmost subway station. It was a splendid late-summer day, clear blue and a bit of warmth. I rolled my suitcase down the hill toward the the district called Harbourfront, which until a decade ago was industrial land. Now it is teeming with condos.

Miami?  No, Toronto's Harbourfront, on Lake Ontario.  There seems to be no limit for highrise living in this downtown.

Miami? No, Toronto's Harbourfront, on Lake Ontario. There seems to be no limit for highrise living in this downtown.

I checked into the Radisson Admiral Hotel, worked a bit, then headed out for a late pizza lunch and a nice walk along the water. At the “blue edge” (a nice term, spotted on an interpretive sign) were wooden sidewalks, pubs, shops, bike rentals, and lots of people enjoying Sunday afternoon. The welcoming reception began at seven, and in no time I was greeting old Bombardier friends and making some new ones.

Next day was a set of presentations and speeches, capped by a late-afternoon tour of Bombardier’s suburban Downsview aircraft assembly plant, which I had visited in early 2008. They build their successful Q400 turboprop there, plus a couple of very cool, $50-million corporate jets. Plant process was not as slick as at Boeing Renton, visited three weeks earlier, but they knew it and were working to improve. What was impressive was that 50 of the plant’s leaders, including some union hands, meet every morning for a kickoff – very Japanese (indeed, the company has been spending time with Toyota in Japan).

We were back at the hotel about six, and I peeled off for Chinatown, hopping a streetcar up Spadina Avenue, and back to a place, Lee Garden, where I ate a couple of years ago. Toronto Chinatown is vast and interesting, and even on a rainy night it was vibrant. I had a nice dinner, and walked a couple of miles back to the hotel (the rain had stopped), past Rogers Centre, the stadium where the Blue Jays were beating the Orioles.

On Tuesday morning, I met my longtime (since 1993) Toronto lawyer friend Lorne Salzman for breakfast and a good catch-up. He’s a really good fellow. The sessions were to run all day, so I snuck out before lunch for a quick walk into downtown, north on Bay Street, Canada’s version of Wall Street, past the old and new city halls, and onto the grounds of Osgood Hall, arguably Canada’s premier law school (Lorne studied there).

Bay Street, the Wall Street of Canada

Bay Street, the Wall Street of Canada

Facade, Toronto Stock Exchange, Bay Street

Facade, Toronto Stock Exchange, Bay Street

I ambled back to Speaker’s Corner, on the southwest verge of Nathan Phillips Square. No one was on the dais. I was not brave enough to mount it, but I stood in front of it and gave a little speech in praise of Canada’s universal health insurance. While debate about its provision dragged on south of the border, I once again smiled and admired the simple reality that every single Canadian in my field of vision enjoyed what I take to me a basic human right.

The reward for the long day “in class” was a harbor dinner cruise, a lot of fun. In all my trips to Toronto, I had never been out on Lake Ontario, and it was really great. Took some snaps, had a great meal, and visited for a long while with Brian Lema, a nice young guy from WestJet, the new Canadian airline that is growing fast. He was a second-generation airline guy; his dad worked for Pacific Western and then Canadian Airlines.

On Wednesday morning it was my turn to stand and deliver, and I had the luxury of 90 minutes to provide an overview of airline advertising and public relations. It was a lot of fun. Afterward, Bombardier Aerospace’s PR guy, Bert Cruickshank, lavished praise, and that made me feel really good. A couple more talks, lunch, and out to the airport. My 3:40 airplane was broken, but no matter. Caught one at 6:30. On the ride home, I exchanged the Canadian banknotes in my wallet, a green $20, a red $10, and a blue $5 (yep, different colors, and different sizes, too – pretty bright, eh?), for a small wad of greenbacks that were in my passport wallet. The scene on the fiver made me smile: kids playing hockey. A country that chooses to put an drawing like that on its cash is a great country, a land that knows, collectively, who it is.

It was great to be home, but the alarm went off after only six hours of sleep, at 4:30 the next morning. By 6:45, I was in the air again, on another 737, east to Raleigh-Durham. Landed at ten, and soon after met Mike Allen, a former copywriter at American’s longtime ad agency. Mike had invited me to give a talk to the local chapter of the American Advertising Federation (American told me almost a year earlier that it was no longer paying for those gigs – regular readers may recall me doing lots of them in 2007 and ’08 – so I had not been to an “ad club” since spring). Mike moved to his native North Carolina five years ago, and was really enjoying being home. We had a nice yak. About 30 folks showed up for the talk. Back to the airport and home, zip, zip, zip.

Or maybe it was yo-yo: less than two days later after landing from Raleigh,

Structural detail, Terminal 5, London Heathrow Airport

Structural detail, Terminal 5, London Heathrow Airport

I zoomed over to London, then headed to Stockholm and up to Umeå. Trip 136 to the Old World. It took awhile to get there, and after having Robin and Dylan in the house I felt a bit lonely. We landed in Umeå about six. I normally take the airport bus into town, but I had one big and one small suitcase, and was not keen on schlepping to a new hotel, the OK (yep, that was its name), so I hopped in a taxi, $26 to go less than 4 miles.

I was there for a teaching first: an entire two weeks of classes, seminars, and one on ones with students. I was looking forward to it.

Autumn color, Umeå University, 63 degrees N.

Autumn color, Umeå University, 63 degrees N.

The Umeå Business School was paying me for the gig, and in an effort to economize did not billet me at the usual spot, the Uman, with its sauna and free beer. The OK was just that, a bit spartan, but the hot water and shower was very welcome indeed. I headed out the door without delay, intent on dinner at a favorite (and nearby) restaurant called Sävargården. Unhappily, it was closed Sundays, as was the next choice. Option three The Bishops Arms, a sort-of English pub, was recommended by two young women at the hotel that housed option two, so I set off. It looked okay, but after 15 minutes at a table without an offer to serve, I quietly took leave – labor is expensive in Sweden, but that tested my limits. I ambled across the street to the All Star, an American-style sports bar, big-screen TVs in all directions. And what team was on half of them? Well, the Minnesota Vikings, suitably Nordic! It was really pretty funny to be watching the team from my childhood, named for the looters and pillagers (and, to be fair, intrepid explorers) that came from this part of the world. I ordered a beer and some food, and suddenly life was way, way better – and I was reminded of an immutable travel rule: ya gotta eat! The All Star staff were super friendly, and they had free wi-fi (the OK also did, but the reception desk was closed on arrival, so I could not get the code; I fetched the key from the adjacent gas station), so I got caught up on e-mails, another way to feel closer and less lonely.

I fell deeply asleep at ten. Woke less than three hours later, believing I had been dozing for eight. Fell back into Z-land, and the same experience repeated. Still, it was better than staying awake on night one across seven time zones. In the morning, Rip Van Winkle rose, walked up the hill, was at the B-school by 8:15, and installed in an office with Internet and all by 8:30. Spent the day writing some stuff and saying hello to a lot of old friends (this was the first overseas school I visited, all the way back to 1994). Delivered the first lecture after lunch. It was a good day. But the night was bumpy; I seem to have worked into a pattern – second night in Europe will be toss and turn.

Second day, much like the first. Amble up the hill to school, work the morning, lecture in the afternoon. At four, I met Jan-Erik Jaensson, a former faculty member who is now the Managing Director of Swedish Lapland, the tourism region in the far north of Sweden. Jan-Erik found out some weeks earlier that I would be in Umeå, and hired me to give a seminar on air service to his board of directors, the following day in Luleå, 160 miles north, even closer to the North Pole, at the top of the Gulf of Bothnia. We had a swell ride, chatting about the region, families, and stuff. The landcape was mainly flat, but some low hills to the west. The deciduous trees carried autumn color. Thanks to the Gulf Stream (the Atlantic was only about 240 miles west), there were farms and fields in between the woods. Europe’s largest iron mine was not far either, in Kiruna; despite high labor costs, the rocks were so iron-rich that the mines had been going full speed prior to the global recession.

He dropped me at a nice old hotel in the center of town and peeled off to his home out in the country. I headed down for a glass of Oppigårds microbrew (from a small place in Dalarna, northwest of Uppsala) and a plate of fish and chips at the same Bishops Arms chain that I briefly entered two nights earlier in Umeå. I was plumb wore out from little sleep the night before, and clocked out well before ten.

Slept harder. Up at first light, out the door for a brisk walk (it was just below freezing, but sunny, and the birches were colorful). Luleå was an attractive town, well planned in the Swedish manner.

1900s-era commercial building, downtown Luleå.  This industrial city of about 70,000 at the top end of the Gulf of Bothnia was remarkably pleasant.  The center was surrounded by water, parks were abundant, nice.

1900s-era commercial building, downtown Luleå. This industrial city of about 70,000 at the top end of the Gulf of Bothnia was remarkably pleasant. The center was surrounded by water, parks were abundant, nice.

Splendid Gothic Revival house, downtown Luleå.  It's amazing how much you can see on a brisk walk before breakfast!

Splendid Gothic Revival house, downtown Luleå. It's amazing how much you can see on a brisk walk before breakfast!

Met Jan-Erik for breakfast and a yak, and from ten to noon delivered a seminar on air service to about ten folks from Swedish Lapland. It was an engaged group, with plenty to discuss. Among the participants was Jalle Svanberg, a Swede who coached the U.S. Ski Team in the 1990s; we had a yak about some of the colorful team members.
A Taste of Swedish Lapland: small smoked fish and roe, colorful and savory.  Yum!

A Taste of Swedish Lapland: small smoked fish and roe, colorful and savory. Yum!

The seminar went well, capped with a “Taste of Swedish Lapland” lunch, so yummy. High point was (with apologies to Rudolph) smoked reindeer heart. It was truly awesome.
SSAB steel mill, Luleå.  Europe's richest iron-ore deposits are not far from here.

SSAB steel mill, Luleå. Europe's richest iron-ore deposits are not far from here.

After lunch, Jan-Erik was kind to drive me around town a bit, including a detour to the SSAB steel plant, where they make specialty steel (Swedes can still compete in the world market for fancier alloys). We then drove 20 km. to Gammelstad, a “church village” that is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The stone church from the 15th Century (i.e., before Lutheranism), Gammelstad.

The stone church from the 15th Century (i.e., before Lutheranism), Gammelstad.

The large stone church was built in the 16th Century, and because transport was slow and arduous, parishioners built more than 400 surrounding wooden cottages (painted in classic iron red and trimmed in white), used only on Sundays and holidays to house the faithful who could not return home the same day. As a person of faith, indeed a Lutheran, I found this pretty cool.
Cottages, Gammelstad

Cottages, Gammelstad

Jan-Erik’s in-laws actually owned one, and we looked inside – two small beds, a masonry hearth, just enough. We then headed 10 miles southwest to Boden, a former military town (the Swedes have long defended the north, mainly worried about the Russians). We poked around a bit, and I said goodbye at the ornate, wooden, late 19th Century train station. The bus back to Umeå would have been faster, but the train would be far more pleasant.
Railway station, Boden.  The dragons on the gable-tops are a nice touch!

Railway station, Boden. The dragons on the gable-tops are a nice touch!

My seat assignment was in the bozo coach (the train, bound for Stockholm, was surprisingly full, and there was a seriously undisciplined five-year-old girl shrieking, but she was just one of several annoyances). After the conductor punched my ticket, I relocated to the bar/café car, slightly old school, with velvet curtains, brass lamps on tables, and such. I watched northern scenery until it got dark: forests, rivers and lakes, low hills in the distance, small farms (hard to imagine agriculture at 65º north, but the summer days are very long). The scenes at dusk were simply spectacular, reminiscent of Linda’s and my autumn train ride across northern Ontario, enroute to Montreal almost 30 years ago. If you’re wondering “where’s a picture?”, unhappily it was already too dark — and the train bumping too much — to capture and post a decent snapshot.

At 7:30 PM, we stopped at Basuträsk, a tiny place. I had been writing some e-mails, and just for fun I turned on my wi-fi radio. It caught a free signal, and in 30 seconds the e-mails sitting in my outbox whizzed out, on their way to Jan-Erik, a client at Bombardier, a friend in Buenos Aires, and Linda. I was smiling and whispering my delight with technology, which caused a dour woman across the aisle to stare. The moon was full in the east, and I thought “I get paid for this; what a blessed life.”

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