Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Building New Lives, Building a Team

I savor my newspaper reading on Sunday mornings along with sleeping late, steaming cups of French roast, music streaming through the house, and generally luxurious laziness. After living in Manhattan for almost 15 years before moving to the Oakland Hills in the Bay Area, my Sunday paper of choice is still the New York Times.

Early in 2007, I picked up the Sunday paper from the front lawn in my pyjamas and bare feet and ran back in the house before the neighbors noticed. My eyes opened wide to see that the town--Clarkston, GA--in the center front-page story was my town, where I went to high school and my parents lived for 40 years. Clarkston is a small town about 15 miles from Atlanta that has experienced enormous changes in the last few years. Its apartment complexes built in the 70s and 80s have become the first homes for large numbers of refugees, processed in Atlanta and resettled to Clarkson, from all over the world. These refugees represent every continent, dozens of languages, and a vast array of skin colors, ethnic backgrounds, religions, and histories of horrible occurrences--persecution and death, for example.

All of this, of course, is in great contrast to the conservative, previously all or mostly all-white Clarkston residents who have lived there for decades, well before the apartments complexes were built and before the refugees began arriving in large numbers. As the author, Warren St John, pointed out, Clarkston is right next door to Stone Mountain, the home for many years of the Ku Klux Klan.The Times' article detailed this recipe for turmoil, both between refugees and town residents and among the many refugees themselves from so many vastly different areas of the world.

I know Clarkston well. I went to high school on North Indian Creek Drive in Clarkston. Our house was located about three miles south (and an hour on the circuitous school bus route) on Indian Creek Drive on several acres of land bounded on one side by Indian Creek and Snapfinger Creek on the other with trees, birds, a pond, enough lawn for playing softball and croquet and to hate the chore of mowing it all by myself. It was rural and idyllic. I left the Clarkston area to attend college and graduate school and to see the world as a Peace Corps Volunteer in North Africa. My siblings moved to more rural suburbs and our house was sold a few years ago but not before we noticed all the changes in the area. And I, given my Peace Corps background, became a dedicated traveler and proponent of global understanding. Little did I realize that I could have just stayed in Clarkston and learned as much or more about our new and diverse world.

The amazing Times article told the fascinating story of a female soccer coach from Jordan who put together a team of teen boys from multiple countries speaking multiple languages to play league soccer--their person trials and town clashes. Warren St. John has now expanded that story into a fascinating book--Outcasts United-- that uses the Clarkston story to examine what's happening in our world, well beyond the Clarkston city limits. We really do live in a global society now but can we cope with all the differences among people in our communities? Can we emphasize the similarities and begin to work together in meaningful ways? How can we even begin to communicate and find and nurture the best in our young people? How can we learn to respect each other so that we can find and enjoy the richness of this diversity?

I just finished reading Outcasts United, A Refugee Team, An American Town. In fact, I couldn't put it down. Bravo! This riveting story combines touching personal narratives with thoughtful observations that serve as a catalyst to some deep thinking about our current and future world. And it's all happening right now in my little, sleepy home town of Clarkston, GA, as it probably is in small towns all over America. For a look at Clarkston's new soccer team members, check out their site.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Open Source Technologies

Today I attended a conference on the state of Open Source technology--the Global Open Source Colloquium, sponsored by SD Forum, a Silicon Valley-based organization for technology entrepreneurs, and Microsoft, among other sponsors. From all reports by participants, ranging from industry analysts to venture capitalists to CEOs of open source companies to developers, Open Source is alive and well, especially in this downtrodden economy where price for value is more important than ever. I was excited to hear the CEO, Michael Doyle, of Medsphere talk about using the VA Hospitals' Vista Open Source electronic medical record software to adapt to the greater world of hospitals out there. Combined with the fairly dramatic incentives in the Obama budget for hospitals to get going on the EMR, we may actually be able to see progress soon. I certainly hope so.

The other big success story mentioned numerous times was Sugar CRM, clearly a value-oriented alternative to and growing at a whopping 20%+ annually, which is basically unheard of in this economy. But folks still need to sell. Something.

The issue has always been: how to make money with Open Source so that reinvestment and growth can occur and so investors will want to put their dollars into the stew. The answer seems to be in hybrid, partial, and mixed Open Source models. Build something proprietary on top, in the middle, or on the side and charge for that. Training, service, and hardware are not the way to go--thin margins and great uncertainty prevail. Outside of the US, revenues are driven by governments' need to cut costs. Standards on everything from contracts to who does what when are still a bit squishy but everyone agreed, creating community is the most important thing about Open Source. Loyal believers can make an app grow and grow fast. The key is looking at that what to do and how to charge as free downloads begin to move up the charts fast. After all, all this work does take $$$s to develop and maintain.

My take away: Many VCs will shut their doors this year. The ones who are left are likely to look at companies differently than they have in the past and hopefully, will abandon the herd mentality and choose ideas on their merits. Open Source technologies, especially creative plays on them, will have a shot at getting funding and growing into what will later be their natural place in the ecosystem.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

I Like Feeling Productive!

I feel so fortunate to be living in Northern California with farmers' markets close by, overflowing with fabulous local produce. I usually go to the Temescal Market on Sunday morning because I like the low-key atmosphere, the long lines for a personally brewed cup of organic coffee (I rarely stand in it but I like seeing it), and lots of parking since it's in the DMV lot. I arrive in my Prius and load up my reusable bags and trot over to my favorite vendors.

Spring is on the way and I can tell. Winter squashes are no longer the mainstay and artichokes, asparagus, and butter lettuces are in abundance. I am almost always seduced by the allure of fresh food at the market. I therefore overbuy. To avoid my husband's sarcastic comments, I then spend Sunday cooking "for the week." Today I listened to James Brown, Mariza, and Angelique Kidjo, and cut up beautiful blood oranges, red onion, and fennel (great with a little olive oil, balsamic vinegar, salt, and pepper to be eaten alone or mixed with baby lettuces). I then moved on to lovely red chard, starting with my standard approach: some minced garlic cooked for a couple of minutes in olive oil ready for the cleaned chard stripped from the chunky stem. I usually throw in a handful of raisins, some hot pepper flakes, salt, and pepper, and a hearty lemon squeeze. So delicious. And so simple.

On to an Aisan noodle dish--adapted from Everyday Cooking on PBS. My niece, Margot Olshan, is a regular chef so I watch every chance I can. I also go to her restaurant--Margot Cafe and Wine Bar in Stamford, CT-- every chance I can. Really delicious!! The noodle dish is so easy and good cold (I'm thinking lunch tomorrow): soba noodles for 7-8 minutes in boiling salted water, remove to a bowl, and use the same boiling water for 6-8 ounces of cut green beans for 7 minutes. Remove to the bowl. Add some diced silken tofu, a couple of minced green onions, and a quick sauce of 3 tablespoons of soy sauce, 2 tsp. of sesame oil, a pinch or so of sugar, and 2 tbsp fresh lime juice. If I have any fresh cilantro, I throw that in, too. Really great after a night in the fridge. Meanwhile, I've been cleaning and cutting cauliflower (the white, orange, and green "spacemen" types), turnips, carrots, sweet potatoes, brussel sprouts, red and orange beets. So easy. Mix with some olive oil, thyme, salt & pepper and roast in a hot oven for 45 minutes. Roasted veggies are good as a side dish, as a main dish, or in salads during the week.

In the middle of the afternoon, I took off for a charitable event--a tasting of fabulous desserts to raise money for Rubicon Programs, who've helped over 1000 people find jobs. My host is writing a novel, in fact two at once. I became depressed because I am not as disciplined and don't feel I've done anything significant lately. But I got back , hit the kitchen, and felt productive again. Forgot to mention the delicious curried cream of broccoli soup from Jane Brody's Good Food Cook Book, one of my faves.

Work. Yes. A good feeling. Yes. Ready for the week. Yes. Nutritious and tasty. Yes.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Is Travel Addictive?

For me, travel is addictive. I really like getting out of my comfort zone when I'm traveling and in a different culture, language, and place. I just got back from a month in Vietnam and Cambodia and I'm ready to take off again in a totally different direction. I think it is a good addiction. My father was a Navy guy who had traveled all over the world and loved learning about the cultures and geography of the rest of the world. I treasured the slides from Turkey, the linens from Ireland, the stories from Russia, the glassware from Italy (and the stories), and the silk slippers from North Africa. I was convinced my father had been everywhere. And indeed, he had been to most places in the world except for the Pacific. Although when I moved to the Bay Area in California, he told me about his trip around South America from New York to the Port of Oakland! So maybe I came by this urge to travel naturally. My younger siblings are not so interested, I've noticed. I can't get enough.

So starting from much earlier than my Peace Corps days in North Africa, I've enjoyed learning about other cultures,their history, art, commerce, food, language,writers, and religion. I've been fascinated about the nuance of other ways of looking at the world. Point of view can be influenced by so many things and it's so interesting to parse through those "things."

Here's my theory: travel (the way I do it) is both physical and intellectual. I'm not a "tour" person because I really like to have some idea about how real people live so I stay in very low-cost hotels, travel by bus and train when I can so I can see more and interact more with real people, and eat street food or choose small, local restaurants whenever possible. I like to talk to folks in other countries to find out what they're thinking about and how they see the world. I walk everywhere, miles and miles a day when I'm traveling.

I think the combination of intense learning and intense physical activity is additive. It just feels good. Our brains and bodies know it's good for us. That makes us want more! I'd love to see some research on this topic! This is the best way I know to create new neuronal pathways and synapses as a brain fitness prevention tactic! I forgot to add: it's fun! (And maybe that's the most important thing about travel.)

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Miss Sarah Thornton: This Day Is for You!

Like so many Americans, I can remember when things were very different. I can remember when there were segregated schools, restrooms, and water fountains. Worse, I can remember racial jokes and epithets spoken as everyday social currency, accepted and encouraged. I can remember lawyers and politicians and educated professionals turning a superior, patronizing eye toward any person with black skin, not stopping to consider that person as real human being, unless he or she had on a service uniform or cared for and loved the family’s children or cleaned the floors and toilets of their house.

I grew up in the rural Deep South. I remember when the college I attended accepted its first two black students, who so bravely made their way to class, almost always alone and often taunted on the way. I remember the triumphant passage of the Civil Rights Act. I also remember my job as one of very few white teachers in a previously black middle school in a small town in northeastern Georgia as court-ordered desegregation rolled into town, changing it forever. The local all-white academy slurped up large numbers of white students from the community, and fear, mystery, and the tingle of change surrounded this new, and to some of us, exciting and formidable endeavor.

I also remember Miss Sarah Thornton, one of my fellow teachers or her “colleague,” as she liked to describe me. Sarah, an experienced English teacher, loved her job, rejoiced in her students, and enthusiastically embraced learning and change. Sarah was pretty, young, professional, smart, and always meticulously dressed in skirts and blouses, high heels, a good watch, and tasteful jewelry. She exuded enthusiasm about her great responsibility to help build young minds, encourage thinking and right doing, and lay the groundwork for life-long intellectual curiosity, especially using reading as an avenue to that end. Sarah Thornton was Black, when it was just beginning to be cool and progressive to use the term “Black,” just as the description “Negro” or usually “Negra” in the south, began to pass out of existence in everyday language, and before “African-American” replaced both.

Sarah and I had the same prep hour and so usually found ourselves alone in the tiny teachers’ lounge on a daily basis. We began to talk, at first sharing our lesson plans and teaching ideas. We were both determined to succeed in this new and different world of integrated schools. We wanted our students, our colleagues, black and white, our school principal and superintendent, and especially the parents to be proud of our students and even more proud of the great education they were getting from us. As time went by, we began to share more and feel more comfortable with each other. Our conversations evolved into discussions about life, family, beliefs, and hopes for the future. We found we had similar values. We each wanted to understand the other. We could see a time beyond the divide of color and we knew we were important soldiers in that war. We were exhilarated with our insights and plans and shared our hopes with each other. We became good friends.

As I moved on to new places, new degrees, new careers, Sarah continued teaching in our school, always enthusiastic and eager to learn. She kept up with me via irregular, late-night calls to where ever I happened to be--Boston, Manhattan, and Westchester. I remember her last call to me. She had had a mysterious illness, which she refused to name or describe in our conversation and she obviously was not feeling well. But I knew she really wanted to talk even though her voice was a wisp of its former self. Sarah always asked questions about my work. Business was not really something she understood. But she wanted to and I felt that deeply. Because it was my work and she cared about me. As the late night crept by, Sarah said a long good-bye, softly but earnestly. I can see her in my mind’s eye holding the telephone to her ear in her bed in her small house by the railroad down the dirt road off the highway rimmed by pine tress and cotton fields. We connected as people important to each other as we always had. Sarah died shortly after that call.

The inauguration of our new president, Barack Obama, is a moment, a time, an era that Sarah would have loved. In fact, she would have gone wild in her professional, actually quite conservative, and appropriate way. She would have known, as I do, that this huge change in this country is symbolic—it is one incredible man at an incredible time. But it happened. It’s a huge step I did not think I would see in my lifetime. And Sarah would have agreed with me. We would have buzzed on the phone about the platform that at least allows people of all backgrounds to come together and talk about our problems and issues and work hard to figure it out. Just as Sarah and I did in that hot, small room with the old lumpy sofa we called a teachers’ lounge so many years ago.

I contributed to the campaign, worked on it, and voted for Obama. I was also a volunteer at the Democratic National Convention in Denver. Every step of the way, I thought of Sarah. And today, as President-elect Obama becomes President Obama, a tear comes to my eye. I’m talking with Sarah in my mind. We’re excited and challenged by these incredible events. We know it will be difficult to translate these feelings into the reality of making it all work. But we are ready to chip away at this task together. We know the drill, Sarah and I.

Sunday, March 30, 2008

Travel: Food for Our Learning Machines (Our Brains)

As I was consulting the map for the upteemth time in Sydney, I was thinking about standing on my head to get a more realistic view of where I wanted to walk next. I began thinking about how good traveling is for our brains. I walked miles and miles (or km and km) everyday. I know that's good for me. I read maps (straightforwardly or on my head). I planned ahead--where would I go, what did I want to see, where would I be likely to have lunch or dinner, what would I do, what did I want to accomplish? My goodness! I was using those executive function skills to excess.

And Sydney was great! I went to all the museums and especially enjoyed the Aboriginal art. I walked around Darlinghurst and Paddington and went to lots of great galleries and shops. I ferried over to Manly and took the bus to Bondi Beach. I then walked the Spit Bridge to Manly walk (10 km) and the fabulous Bondi Beach to Coogee Walk, one of the great walks in the world.

My favorite: the rockpools. I felt like Burt Lancaser in "The Swimmer." Haven't seen that one? Get it from Netflicks. He relived his life swimming pool to swimming pool in Westchester County, NY (where I used to live). The Rockpools are the swimming pools that have been built into the rock formations along the coast of Sydney. They typically have two concrete walls built into the rocks that then form a pool, anywhere from 20-30 meters to 50-60 meters. They're all salt water pools. The tide washes over and refreshes the pool with a few new fish every day. I love these pools. With my goggles on, it's like the best snorkeling in Hawaii. There are 26 of them around Sydney. Why in the world doesn't the rest of the world have these? They are wonderful! I roamed around Sydney, swimming from pool to pool along my walks. Fabulous.

One of my favorites was the women's pool near Coogee. Although small--20 meters or so-- it was so lovely and friendly. Lots of scantily clad women and kids were jumping in the water, climbing over the crabs crawling along the walkway. I loved the outdoor shower and I unabashedly climbed out of my suit and into my clothes for the rest of the walk. Refreshing to be among the mermaids on the hill.

Everywhere I went, swimming, people asked me: "what about the presidential process?" They all admitted easily to hating Bush. But they were curious about what was next? They were worried about us.

I said, " I don't know what will happen but we hate Bush, too. We're just in a terrible mess. In every possible way."

All the men who wanted to race me in the rockpools nodded in agreement. They want things to be better for us. Because it will be better for them, too.

Thursday, February 07, 2008

In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto

Even though I had read Michael Pollan's lead-up article to this book in the New Yorker and his other books, I found this one a page turner--fun to read and truly informative.

Already oft-quoted, the first words of the book summarize his extensive research and beliefs about food: "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants." In other words, don't eat anything that has not traditionally been called food (recognizable by our grandmothers as food), which cuts out most processed concoctions in fast-food chains and much on grocery store shelves.

Eat plants because we need the complex interactions of the nutrients they contain. Pollan points out that there's no way to figure out which traces of what affect the whole nutritional value of what we need to eat. Singling out one vitamin, for example, and taking supplements of it is far, far inferior and may be quite deleterious to our health because we miss out on all the other interactions among minterals and vitamins in our food that we need to be healthy. Bottom-line: we just don't know enough yet so don't mess with the foods that have kept people healthy for centuries. I recognize this argument as one put forth by the scientists involved in the Washington Heights-Inwood-Columbia Aging project. After analyzing the diets of the participants, they concluded that those who had consumed a "Mediterranean Diet" (another way of saying "eat plants") had a dramatically lower risk of Alzheimer's. They hypothesized that one reason was because of the complex interactions of the many, many trace nutrients in plants

We've all been through the butter-margarine as engineered butter debate from the 50s on. And we finally now know that margarine is terrible for us, butter not so much (if we use it with a very light hand). There are many other examples of this kind of food engineering that moves beyond not making sense into really bad stuff.

I never really understood the arguments against genetically modified food until I read this book. I now realize that going for the most calories per acre cuts out the zillion varieties of fruits and vegetables that we have enjoyed--and all the complex mixture of nutients in that vast array. I now shop frequently at my local Farmers' Market and I have enjoyed the aesthetics and the taste of more variety. For example, have you seen those red and green cauliflowers sitting beside the omnipresent white ones? The green ones look like space helmets or part of an animation project. I'm discovering new tastes and new recipes and enjoying myself immensely in the process.

The "not too much" food is especially relevant to Americans who have a huge love of quantity. It's high time we copied the French on this one: quality trumps quantity every time.

I hope this book stays on the bestseller list forever. We all need to be aware of what we've done to our food supply and take steps to make meaningful and lasting changes.