Friday, February 26, 2010

The Halo Effect (a book review)

Phil Rosenzweig, The Halo Effect …and the Eight Other Business Delusions that Deceive Managers (New York, Simon & Schuster, 2007), 233 pages
This book provides a lot to ponder. Rosenzweig attempts the expose fallacies commonly seen in most business books, particularly the “Halo effect.” The halo effect refers to attributing positive traits based on another trait that may or may not have anything to do with the one another. Over and over again, Rosenweig shows how popular authors in their search for clues on success, look at performance and then inferred other positive traits. If a company is profitable (or if it’s stock value is rising), Rosenzweig discovered those attempting to explain the company’s performance will infer a number of positive attributes that may or may not be true. To illustrate his theory, Rosenzweig explores a number of companies (Cisco, Lego, ABB, etc) that grew fast and were praised for their positive attributes and then, after the company peaked and its value declined, showed how the same attributes were often blamed for their failure. While the companies were seen as profitable, they were also seen to have a number of good traits such as being seen as a good place to work, listening to their customers, having top-notch leadership and expanding their base. When declining, they are seen as not being a good place to work, not listening to their customers, having poor leadership and losing their focus. In many cases, Rosenzweig points out, nothing had changed but the companies’ stock value (and this shift had more to do with the marketplace than with how the company was managed).

Many of the other delusions (or fallacies) also involve an aspect of the halo effect. The other eight (followed by the page number where he begins to discuss each) are:

1. The Delusion of Correlation and Causality (72)
2. The Delusion of Single Explanations (75)
3. The Delusion of Connecting the Winning Dots (92)
4. The Delusion of Rigorous Research (100)
5. The Delusion of Lasting Success (101)
6. The Delusion of Absolute Performance (111)
7. The Delusion of the Wrong End of the Stick (121)
8. The Delusion of Organizational Physics (124)

Rosenzweig is critical of the plethora of business books that promise to show the successful habits of business leaders, but in doing so are clouded by the Halo Effect. Going back to Peters and Waterman’s
In Search of Excellence, which came out in the early 80s and gave rise to this new genre to more recent books, such as those by Jim Collins (Built to Last and Good to Great), Rosenzweig notes that most of the companies highlighted in these books have not continued having the success they once enjoyed. This shouldn’t be surprising, according to an understanding of economic theory of markets. Those who are on the top face more difficulty maintaining their position because everyone else is taking what they do and finding new and better ways to do it. So it’s “predictable and normal” for companies to lose their luster after periods of good performance. This can be shown in a survey of the S&P 500. In the fifty years prior to this book (1957 to 2007), 426 of the 500 companies have changed! Furthermore, performance is relative to the market. One can be doing very good things (which should lead to a strong performance), yet be killed in the marketplace because other companies are better. Examples would include General Motors (whose products today are far superior to their product in the 70s, yet their competition has also improved) and K-mart (who has improved, but still has fallen behind Walmart and Target. See pages 111-115).

Although critical of findings in many business books like
In Search of Excellence and Good to Great, Rosenzweig does have some praise for them. He credit’s the authors for being good at telling a story and suggest that there is a lot we can learn from such books. Stories help us to make sense of our world and illustrate value insights (136-137). However, we can’t just take the “truths” shown in the stories about one organization and apply it to another and expect the same or similar results. The market is too complex for such simplistic thinking.

Success, according to Rosenweig, is achieved by two things: strategy and execution. Strategy helps set one apart from rivals and execution refers to how the strategy is carried out (144). Yet, success is not eternal. Once finds a successful formula, others will copy. “Success is not random,” Rosenzweig notes, “but it is fleeting.” (103)

Although this book doesn’t discuss investment or historical theory, Rosenzweig’s thesis has something to say to each discipline. His data supports the idea that one needs to regularly rebalance a portfolio in order to “capture” profits. If a company is soaring, sooner or later its value will decline. One can never “time” the market (Rosenweig notes that markets don’t respond to research!), so taking the contrarian position and selling while everyone else is buying is the way to add value to a portfolio. Also, looking at the life cycle of companies and how fleeting success is a reminder of the need for diversification (see page 122). As for the study of history, Rosenzweig’s findings challenge the “great man” theory of history (he’s not the first to debunk this theory). He points out how leadership is often credited for success, but in the overall scheme of things, leadership has been shown to add only a small increase to a company’s success (a 4 to 10% gain, see pages 133-134). If you want to be seen as a good leader, it’s far more important to be at the right place at that right time than it is to have good leadership skills! It’s not that leadership skills are not important, they are! But other factors are more important.

Rosenzweig may not be as easy to read as other business books. Although he tells a good story, his thesis depends on drawing from a variety of studies which tends to break the flow of the stories he tells. But this isn’t a story book; the book has valuable insights and raises many questions for one to ponder about the stories one hears. I recommend this book to anyone interested in business and leadership. Rosenzweig is a professor at IMD in Lausane, Switzerland and earned his Ph.D. from the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Finishing New Hampshire (well, almost) 1987 Appalachian Trail hike

The wind picked up in the early morning hours of August 5th. The door to the bunkroom kept creaking open and then slamming shut, keeping us awake. I got up and to attend to it. Stepping outside, I stepped into the middle of a cloud and couldn’t see but a few feet ahead. The wind was blowing so strong that I had difficulty standing upright. I went back inside and found some rope and tied the door shut and climbed back into my bag. I was staying at Lake of the Clouds, an Appalachian Mountain Club hut on the slope of Mount Washington. At this time in history, Mt. Washington had the record for the fastest wind speed ever recorded on the face of the earth, and I wondered if the mountain would set a new record.

The wind was still howling at daybreak, but it wasn’t nearly as strong and I could stand upright without feeling that I’d be blown off the mountain and into Canada. I got an early start on the climb to the top. At times, I was engulfed in clouds and couldn’t make out the cairn marking the trail. At other times, the clouds parted and it felt as if I could see forever. It was cold and I wore a long sleeve undershirt and a sweater under my rain jacket. I had on long pants and gloves. Coming up the ridge, I noticed puffs of dark smoke moving up from the other side, the first run of the clog railroad. I arrived on the top a little after 8 AM, and entered the visitor’s center where I got something to eat and waited for the postmaster to arrive. There is a post office on the top of the mountain which I had listed it as a mail drop for friends and family. I had also mailed two days worth of food here when I was in Hanover, as a way to lighten my pack a bit. Then I learned the postmaster wouldn’t arrive till the afternoon, so I made the best of the day. Changing into shorts, I explored the mountain top and then sat in the sun, behind boulders that blocked the wind, and read. I had 300 miles of hiking left, but reaching Mt. Washington was a milestone. From here on, barring a catastrophic accident or illness, I knew I would reach the northern terminus of the trail at Mount Katadhin.

Although I had found the White Mountains difficult, I was enjoying the hike. On August 2nd, I’d left Liberty Spring’s campsite. It was cold, but the views were terrific as I enjoyed my time above tree line. I spent much of the morning hiking with a law student from the University of Connecticut. He was hoping to practice in Alaska. We crossed Mt. Lincoln and Garfield. He stopped at the Galehead Hut, and I continued on another three miles to the Mt. Guyot Campsite. Along the last stretch, I came across a southbound hiker that looked like Sharon, a former girlfriend. I had to take a second look and it wasn’t until she spoke with a New England brogue that I realized that it wasn’t her. The encounter was spooky.
I’d remembered Mt. Guyot from the Smoky Mountains (and a decade later I’d be on another Mt. Guyot in the Sierras). I was surprised to learn that there is also a crevasse in the ocean floor named for this nineteenth century explorer. The campsite was crowded and I took refugee in the shelter. It was looking like a rainy night and I’d hoped not to have to pack up a wet tarp in the morning. After dinner, a group of eight people from an Episcopal camp moved into the shelter. Michelle, the caretaker, took pity on me and invited me up to her wall tent for tea. We talked fairly late in the evening about life and goals and hiking the trail. She insisted that instead of having goals, she wanted her life to be a part of the flow of a river, enjoying the journey, a concept I questioned in my journal.
I woke up at 6 AM on August 3, listening to the rain beat on the shelter and thinking, after my evening conversation with Michelle. This morning, I knew it was going to be hard to get into the flow, but that I just might be in the river today. I stayed in my bag and wrote in my journal, catching up on my thoughts. After nearly a thousand miles under my feet this summer, I realize more than ever how my thinking impacts my hiking. When I have “good thoughts,” I am freer and enjoy the hiking. But when I let bad thoughts invade my mind, thinking of things I’d like to redo or even of revenge, and then I find myself struggling. I’ve been reading Thomas Merton’s Contemplative Prayer.
Realizing that I was going to have to hike in the rain, I pack up. I was hoping to see Michelle again, but she’s not around this morning. I hike four miles in the rain and stop at Zealand Hut, going inside to warm up and get out of the rain. One of the workers asked if I’d like some pancakes. She told me she wasn’t allowed to give them away, but I could have all I could eat for 25 cent. It sounded like a good deal and then she comes out of the kitchen with a platter with at least 25 whole wheat and strawberry pancakes and a container of syrup. I eat my full, enjoying the hot coffee, before setting out. Zealand Falls is running strong with the rain. I hike on to Ethan Pond, where I decide to stop early in the afternoon, instead of continuing on in the rain. The shelter is empty and I set up in one corner and take a nap. An hour or so later, a large church camp comes into the camp and also piles into the shelter. Some of the kids have sleeping bags that are soaking wet. One, that is a goose down bag, is so wet you can see through it. The shelter is crowded, but its too late to make an additional four miles to the next shelter. I start to look for a place to pitch a tarp, when Jim, the caretaker, invites me to move into his large wall tent. He even fixes me dinner and we spend the evening talking. He’s in his mid-20s and an electrical engineering student at Cleveland State. Before college, he’d spent time hiking in New Zealand and Australia. The next morning, before heading out, he offers me a bag of bagels, telling me that he’s going to be off a few days and won’t be eating them. They are a welcomed gift.
I leave Ethan Pond at 7:30 AM. I take it easy, enjoying the day of hiking without rain. At the trailhead beside the railroad tracks in Crawford Notch, I’m surprised to find a logbook from Martha (Larry of Larry and Mo, who I’d met in Pennsylvania). She was asking about all of us, (Slim Jim, Daddy Long Legs, the Brits and me) and informs us that she’d gotten a job working at J. C. Penny’s. I’d been dreading the climb out of Crawford Notch, but find it is not as bad as its reputation. I arrive at the first of the Webster Cliffs, a very steep climb of 1.8 miles, in just over an hour. There were a number of places where it seemed the trail was going straight vertical and required all fours (hands and feet) to navigate. I stop by Mitzpah Hut and again, a Appalachian Mountain Club employee offers me a deal, three huge pieces of chocolate cake for a quarter. It becomes my lunch and is so rich that all I want to do is take a nap, but I hike on.

I arrive at Lake of the Clouds hut at 5 PM. They have a bunk area for backpackers and for those with reservations, a nicer area upstairs. They did have room for dinner--$9 for all you can eat, and I sign up, putting away the food. At dinner, I sit at the table with a naturalist who invites a group of us on a hike afterwards. We walk around the mountain, as he describes the geology and botany of the area. As we are above tree line, most of the plant life is Arctic. I am surprised to learn that the landscape is relatively new, that when the last glaciers retreated 6000 years ago, the mountains were much smoother, but the frost-cycles since the glacier retreat has caused the cracking and splitting of rock, creating the landscape we now have. It is also interesting that the north sides of the Whites are more gradual, as the glaciers smoothed out the rock as it pushed up and the south side steeper as the glacier pressure is downward. Throughout the mountains, on the south side under the steep cliffs, there are pools or small lakes, the remains glaciers. After our hike, we all watch the sun setting from above the lodge.

The mailman finally arrives on Mount Washington at noon. In addition to a small package of food I’d mailed to myself, I have a letter from my mom and another from Debbie. Debbie doesn’t say too much. She tries to encourage me, referring to a letter of mine where she felt I was complaining, and tells me that “Christ often tests us.” I’m left to wonder what this means. Something has happened and I know that we are not going to pick up where we left off in the spring. My mother’s letter, on the other hand, is most encouraging. She tells me that she is proud of what I’m doing and that she’s glad I didn’t listen to her (she through the hike was a crazy idea). Mom also sends a photo of my new niece, Kristen.

I pack up my extra food and leave Mt. Washington and the crowds who’ve gathered there and head out across the ridges and over Jefferson, Adams and Monroe Peaks. On the summits, I can see clouds coming in from the northwest. They work their way up to the saddles between the peaks and disappear as they meet the warmer air on the other side. I’m also intrigued by the small flowers (sandwort?). They grow about five inches tall and produce white blooms. I feel good hiking and the walk across the top of the Presidents is too short. Late in the afternoon, I find myself descending along the Osgood Trail. It’s rocky and steep and my knees hurt as I make way back down toward tree line. Boulders are everywhere and it feels like I’m in Satan’s garden. I hear thunder, yet there are no thunderheads in the sky, and have a weird apparition of Satan abandoning me in this barren rock garden before the coming of the Lord. A coolness sweeps over me and in terror, I keep hiking as there is nothing else to do. There is no one around. This is strange too, as there have been so many hikers on the approach to Mt. Washington, but since leaving the summit, I’ve seen few people. The feeling of dread quickly passes, but I spend much of the rest of the afternoon questioning what I experienced. At 7 PM, I arrive at the Osgood tent site, fix dinner and crawl into my sleeping bag under my tarp as light fades from the sky.
During the night, I wake up with painful spasms in my knees. My body has taken a beating during the descent down the Osgood Trail. In my bag, I try to stretch my legs out then pull my knees up to my chest, which gives me a little relief. Soon, I’m back asleep. I’m moving slower the next morning, but get on the trail in time to arrive at Pinkham Notch at 10:45 AM, a hike of a little over five miles. There are showers and I enjoy a hot one and decide to wait around for lunch, $4 for an all-you-can-eat buffet. While waiting, I meet the trail coordinator for the Appalachian Mountain Club and we talk for a few minutes about the trail and my experiences. I’m so full after lunch that I can’t get back into the grove of hiking. I climb back into the mountains, up to the lake below Carter Notch, where I stop to fix dinner. It’s 6:30 PM. I’m not sure where I’ll camp tonight as it is nearly seven miles to the next designated campsite. I move on and decide that I’ll bivouac below the summit of Carter Dome. I find a place a few hundred feet from the trail in a grove of firs, their needles making a soft bed. I lay out my bivy sack and leave the tarp next to me in case the 30% chance of showers materializes. It’s just a little after 8 PM and already almost dark. The summer is fading fast. I lay down for a fretful night of sleep. I know that in the White Mountains you are suppose to camp in designated campsites and this isn't one of them! I pray there are no rangers taking a night hike, but it’s unlikely they’ll find me this far from the trail even if they are out.
Several times during the evening I wake up. The first dream I remember comes at 3:30 AM. I am living with a child in a house with my mother and grandmother and they kick us out because of something the kid has done. I wake up worried as where we are to go. Then I realize that I don’t have a kid and haven’t lived at home in ten years and have never lived with just my mom and grandmother. I assume it’s my conscience playing on the idea that I’m spending the night in a no-camping zone. My second dream takes place back at school. Jim, a friend of mine (the one that I spent time with in Duncannon, PA), is cleaning out his room and going home. He tells me that he’s not coming back to school and I’m sad, but then I wake up and realize that what I’d dreamed about had already happened as Jim, who was on academic probation, had decided to not to return to school.
I’m up early the next morning and am on top of Carter Dome by 7:50 AM. It’s hazy and to the east, fog covers the valleys, leaving the mountains sticking up like islands. I can trace the Androscoggin River by the fog. There is only a light breeze and the only noise I hear is the buzzing of insects. I hike on and reach Imp Shelter at 11:45 AM and stop for lunch. Reading the log, I realize that Slim Jim had stayed there the night before and I wonder if I’ll catch him in Gorham later in the day. I fix couscous for lunch and then hike on. I reach U.S. 2 a little after 5 PM and hitch a ride into Gorham. I’m beat by the White Mountains and decide to splurge on a room at the Breckenridge Rooming House for $15 a night. The place is ran by an older woman and I’m her only guest. It’s comfortable and I soak in a warm tub of water before heading out for dinner and to do laundry. I find a place with a pizza buffet and stuff myself with salad (which I’ve been craving) and the pizza and beer. Next, in the laundrymat, I indulge myself with a pint of ice cream. While waiting on the clothes to wash, I meet a Catholic priest from Cannonsburg, PA, who has hike the entire length of the AT. We talk for a few minutes. Then I run into Slim Jim and he tells me that he’s staying in a barn with other hikers. After my clothes are dry, we head over to the barn. It’s been converted to a hiker hostel, with an open sleeping area. The price is right, $5 a night. They have showers, but the hikers must sleep in their own bags… I’m a little jealous of Jim when I see, among the half dozen hikers, a young woman in a bikini, splayed out on her sleeping bag reading a magazine. She’s Stephanie and I realize I’ve been I’ve been reading about her in the shelter registers ever since she started hiking at Port Clinton, PA. Jim and I agreed to meet up the next morning. After chatting for a few minutes, I go back to the rooming house and make an early night of it, enjoying sleeping in a nice bed with clean sheets. There is only fifteen more miles to go and I’ll be done with New Hampshire.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

This, that and the other

I had great hopes to do a lot of writing this week. After all, my schedule wasn’t overbook and I had some extra time, but for some reason, my muse just didn’t show up. I should have know by now that I never really feel like writing unless life is chaotic and hectic and deadlines are staring me in the face… So, what did I do this week? I watched portions of the Olympics, trying to catch as much skiing as possible. I started out the Olympics being furious with the announcers who embedded a commercial for some new Dreamworks movie into their script. I wanted to scream, instead I struggled to find the mute button on the remote. Other than that, I have enjoyed the Olympics and the USA is really racking up the metals.

As some of you know, I’m involved with a fairly major construction project that go off slow and way too much work has had to be done in the winter. The good news is that we’re far enough north that we’re getting the benefit of global warming… We’ve had a mild winter and a lot of work has happened so on Tuesday, a couple of guys joined me and we prepared a Dutch Oven lunch of baked chicken, potatoes and cobbler for 44 construction workers. We had enough food, but there were no left-overs! It was a lot of fun and hopefully they know that we appreciate them working through the winter.

The cooking crew... Don't tell Osha that I wasn't wearing a hard hat.

Eating in the partly constructed building...
Another thing on my to-do list was to give the dog a bath.. There is a new doggie bath at the car wash and I decided to try it out instead of messing up a bathroom. It worked well, but next time, I’ll just mess up a bathroom because I can clean it for what it cost. Trisket wasn’t particularly happy as you can see from this photo taken on my blackberry. Or maybe it’s because the camera flashed and the dog doesn’t like that. The good news is that the dog doesn’t smell like one anymore… The have a number of shampoo settings for dogs, including a skunk-scent remover. I’ll have to remember that in case my dog ever decides to get personal and up-close to nature. But if he does, he's riding in the back of the truck, not up front.

Other than that, I hit the gym four days this week. I skipped Friday because I was a chaperon for the Middle School ski club in the evening. Even though the hills here aren’t as large as Vancouver, I can assure you they were just as icy. A night of skiing on icy runs does give a little burn to the thighs. I was hoping to do some more cross-country skiing, but the warmer temperatures have, once again, ruined the base we had. We’re suppose to get more snow this week.

Hopefully tomorrow, I’ll finish my next segment in my Appalachian Trail hike, where I hike over Mt. Washington and the Presidentials in New Hampshire. I also have some more stories to write about the desert southwest… Maybe this week, but that’s what I said last week.

What are you doing this weekend?

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Cross-country Skiing

I went out late yesterday afternoon for a couple hours of skiing in a local nature center that has six miles of trails. I decided to do my skiing self-portrait for this year and realize I now have a few more winkles around the eyes... I also realized now that I had some condensation on the camera lens.

I love the mix of the trails, from hardwood ridges and lowlands. I passed an old barn, sadly it's no longer in use, but I love how the red stands out against the white landscape.
I headed across Brewster Lake, noticing water seeping into the ski tracks.
I didn't take any photos in the wetlands, but out Cedar Creek I heard then saw from a distance several sandhill cranes. My trip ended, skiing through a Midwest prairie, under an ominous sky and failing daylight.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Getting Stoned with Savages (A Book Review)

I'm slacking. I haven't done a Travel Tip Thursday in a couple of weeks. Here's the next to best thing, traveling to the South Pacific via a book...

J. Marten Troost, Getting Stoned with Savages: A Trip through the Islands of Fiji and Vanuatu (7 hours, 30 minutes)
This was the first book I’ve read by Troost, but I’m sure it won’t be my last. However, I didn’t actually read it; I listened to the unabridged audio version, twice! Everyone at the gym thinks I’m crazy as I’d break out laughing while working up a sweat on the elliptical machines or while laid out on the bench with weights overhead. The later is not exactly a smart thing to do, but this is a funny book. Having read some reviews of this book, I found many readers saying it’s not as funny as Sex Lives of Cannibals. If that’s the case, Troost’s first book must be really funny.
Troost starts out his story in Washington, DC, wearing suits and working at the World Bank. As his bank account soars into the “4 digits,“ he begins to long to be back in the South Pacific, where he’d recently spent two years, tagging along behind a girlfriend who had a real job. Troost went there to be a writer, earning $350 during his two years. As one friend questions him, just how did someone who’d earned $350 in two years come to a position of influence at the World Bank, advising entire countries about their finances? In the end, it didn’t work out. Troost is ready to go back to the Islands and the World Bank is happy to assist. His former girlfriend, now his wife, has a position with NGO. The plan is for them to move to Fiji, but political unrest lands them in Vanuatu, a volcanic chain of islands where he finds plenty to get himself into trouble while writing his first book (The Sex Live Cannibals). Vanuatu is a chain of islands with a half-dozen active volcanoes, earth so unstable that one has to be use to silverware dancing across the table, and a shared history of cannibalism and French and English colonialization.
Packing for the South Pacific, according to Troost, is more a process of subtraction. Out go the suits and ties and long pants and socks. All that‘s left are a few pair of ratty shorts and colorful shirts, sandals and flip-flops. Once on the island, Troost and his wife set out to see the island and end up getting the car of a co-worker stuck. Troost spends his time on the islands exploring and experiencing life. They climb an active volcano, he sets out to meet someone who has “eaten the man” (the last known case of cannibalism occurred on the islands in 1969), experiences the ravages of a cyclone, and explore the corruption of the government. But mostly, Troost discovers his love of Kava, a narcotic drink. He’d had Kava before, in the South Pacific, but unbeknownst to him the Kava in Vanuatu is much more potent and when he drinks two “shells” of them, he finds himself out of commission for a few days.
After a couple of years on Vanuatu, Troost and his wife decide to have a child. As medical care on Vanuatu is limited, and Fiji is now politically more stable, they decide to move. Furthermore, as Troost muses, being born in Fiji will give his son the opportunity to snowplow down the slopes in a future Winter Olympics, as the only member of Fiji’s ski team. Troost goes ahead of his wife, to find a place to live and finds himself being harassed by transvestites’ prostitutes. He muses that the capital of Fiji, built by the British as their outpost in South Pacific, is the only place in the region to have mostly cloudily skies, a feat only the British could achieve. There, they lose their backyard to a landslide and watch rugby and have a baby boy. Troost explores the difference between the native Fijians (who are laid back) and the gung-ho Indians who were brought to the island as coolies by the British and who run much of the businesses on the island. The book ends after the birth of a son and with Troost becoming more responsible.
Although the book is humorous, Troost helps his readers learn about the island’s history, culture and politics. Yet, the book is mostly funny and I recommend it for its laughs.

Monday, February 08, 2010

Boy Scouts of America turns 100

Today is the 100th Anniversary of the Boy Scouts of America. Scouting in America began on February 8, 1910. That makes me feel old as twenty-five years ago, I was the staff person in charge of a large council “Rendezvous.” It was my last year of working for the Boy Scouts and part of the horrible Fall of 1986, where I found myself with scouting functions every weekend and just about every night, Monday through Thursday, from the day after Labor Day to the week before Thanksgiving. That January, I made the decision to go back to school and left the following September for Pittsburgh, but that’s another story.

The Piedmont Council Rendezvous was held at the Catawba County fairgrounds. I don’t remember the exact numbers, but there were thousands of Boy Scouts camping and probably an equal number of Cub Scouts who came in for the Saturday activities, as well as untold numbers of parents, former scouts, politicians and other interested folks. The weekend went off without a hitch. The weather started off a little wet, but it cleared up and by Saturday afternoon was gorgeous. There were all kind of mountain men and other folks doing demonstrations. That evening, we had a show that included live music, a speech by Miss North Carolina (who charmed us offstage) and James Broyhill, (our local congressman who’d just been appointed to the US Senate where as a Republican, he’d battle it out with Jessie Helms which assured his defeat in the upcoming elections, but that’s another story). The night was capped off by a firework display put on by Zambelli Fireworks.

Everyone did their jobs well and I found myself mostly walking around taking photos and talking to folks. On Saturday morning, I went up in a plane owned by a local scout leader and photographed the event from the air. On Sunday afternoon, after everything was cleaned up and I was home, I’m sure I took a nap.

After the event, I created a slide show of the festivities. The photos you see are copies of slides.

Friday, February 05, 2010

A Day Off (Canoeing and Lentil Soup)

Outside the wind chime is ringing in the brisk wind. Inside, a fire is crackling and it’s warm. I’m fat and happy, having fixed a big pot of lentil stew and over-indulged. I think the bed is calling, that is if I don’t fall asleep by the fire first. It’s been a full day.

All the big storms have gone south of us and we don’t even have enough snow to really cross-country ski (you could ski, but you’d probably gouge pits into the bottom of your skis). So on Thursday, I was sitting in a meeting next to guy I’ve canoed with several times. As the conversation went on and on about important things, I leaned over and asked him if he thought the river was free from ice. “We can find out in the morning,” was his answer. I threw my canoe on the truck last night and this morning, after dropping his truck at the take-out, we started paddling. We were on the river at 9 AM. The temperature wasn’t bad, 27 degrees, and there was only a little shelf ice. The river has been dropping over the past week, causing the thicker ice to break up and leaving only thin ice in the eddies. We scare up hundreds of ducks and at least five swans as there is little open water this time of the year. We also see a few river rats, muskrats, swimming in the river… There are also a few muskrats, river rats, swimming in the river, but they always dive under the water when we approach. It’s a fast paddle. We talk about books we’ve recently read and our shared desire to paddle the Okefenokee Swamp and Suwannee River. It’s a fast paddle and we cover the 7 miles in less than 90 minutes. I’m home by 11 AM and ready to make soup.

Lentil Soup

3 cups of lentils
10 cups of water
A bit of salt

Boil the lentils for 3-4 hours (or, as I did today, cheat and use a pressure cooker)

A couple cloves of minced garlic
1 cup of chopped onion
1 cup of minced celery
1 cup of chopped carrots

Sauté in a tablespoon or so of olive oil and then add to lentils and cook for a few minutes, till vegetables are done.

1 ½ cups chopped tomatoes
2 tablespoons or more of red wine
¼ of a lemon squeezed
1 ½ tablespoon molasses
1 tablespoon of red wine vinegar
Chopped herbs to taste: thyme, oregano, basil (fresh if available)

Add these ingredients 30 minutes before serving and simmer. When serving, extra red wine vinegar may be added to each bowl.

Wednesday, February 03, 2010

A Southern Yankee

In my last post, I called author Michael Perry a “Southern Yankee.” Several of my readers shook their heads at my description, so maybe I need to explain what I meant. Let me tell you a little of my journey.


In 1986, having never lived anywhere close to the Mason Dixon line, I left the South for Pittsburgh. Some thought I was crazy. The staff I worked with in Western North Carolina gave me a good bottle of Scotch to keep me warm in those cold northern winters. I moved north and after a week or two, long before the snow started to fly, was shaking my head and mumbling, “And they think we’re rednecks.” Maybe it was because North Carolina was humming with activity and Western Pennsylvania was struggling with high unemployment, but the idea that we in the South walked and talked slow (at least in comparison to Western PA) I quickly discovered to be a myth. I w s always leaving people in the dust.


A few years later, after adding another degree to wall (metaphorically speaking that is, as I’ve yet to hang a diploma on a wall), I moved to a small town known primarily for its skiing, in New York State. I’d always vowed that I’d never live in New York, but when I made that vow, I was thinking of cities and not skis lifts. It’s amazing how quickly one’s priorities can change. In this village that had less than 2,000 permanent, I felt right at home. They may have talked differently, but that was the main difference. It wasn’t until after being there a while that I realize the county I lived in was considered a part of Appalachia. Then I understood. And now I live in a small town in Michigan.


In my travels, I have decided that much of what people think of the South has more to do with rural living. There are lots of similarities with small towns in Western Pennsylvania (and the small-town feel of the burgs in Pittsburgh), New York State and Michigan and the small towns in North Carolina. That said, small towns in North Carolina are more similar to rural life up here than to what goes in Raleigh or Charlotte or Atlanta. We hunt and fish and watch the sky and watch the crops and know who’s related to who. We tell our stories slowly, letting them sink in.


In my mind, I compared Michael Perry with Rick Bragg. In a way, Perry’s still is more like rural south that Bragg’s, who had lived in a mill town where things were always humming. Bragg’s writing is often fast-paced, while Perry’s is like waiting for the corn to grow. Both have a great eye to detail, but Perry tells his stories slowly and for that reason, I called him a Southern Yankee. I hope I didn’t offend him; I meant it as a compliment.

I took the photo on New Year's Day in North Carolina. The tide was low!