Pies Are Square

May 22, 2010

We were digging into our 13th or 14th slice of pumpkin pie before we found one that actually tasted like pumpkin. Jill was on slice number 18 or 19 before she found an apple pie that tasted like apple. Such are the tragedies of life for judges in the American Pie Championships. It’s a tough job, but somebody’s got to do it and, last month, we were among those somebodies.

Two words that always go well together are free and food, so what could be more fun than a weekend of sampling the best pie recipes from across the country? From apple to cherry to sweet potato and pumpkin, the buffet was open.

Between us, Jill and I tasted and rated more than 70 pies from promising (and not-so-promising) amateurs and well-established professionals over a weekend in Florida. Our fellow judges were food writers, bakers, pie equipment salesmen and plain old consumers like us. And, if we were paying any attention at all, we shared another journey into the every day is a model of life file. A few lessons from the world of pie:

Pies Are Square. There were very few hippies, yippies, bikers, artistes and other nonconforming types at the party. If you ever want to see Mainstream America, in a good way, check out the people whose passion is pie.

Keep it simple. A pumpkin pie should have pumpkin; an apple pie should have, um, what’s that fruit….apple. So many entrants came up with interesting concepts that went nowhere, simply because they made it so complicated that the recipe didn’t seem to fit in the category.

Life isn’t fair. A great baker in Arizona or Colorado is going to face new challenges in the humidity and altitude in Florida. If the competition was in Aspen, you’d take home all the awards, but it isn’t in Aspen, so you walk home empty handed.

Find the common ground. I got to be the table captain for one session, which gave me the chance to see the variety of taste preferences on our panel. Nobody doesn’t like Sara Lee, but lots of people don’t like much clove or ginger or brown sugar or eucalyptus or jalapenos in their pies. So how do you find a winner? The best is universal, pleasing everyone to some degree.

Everything becomes a job after a while. Even the role of honored judge gets to be a drudge by the time you’re analyzing the mouth feel of your 15th slice. Whatever you’re eating, nothing tastes as good, or bad, as the first bite. As in the rest of life, novelty is a treat, until it stops being novel.

The greatest gift is time. Spend a few hours in someone else’s world and you discover a whole new dimension to them. The friends who invited us to be pie judges are involved in the industry, but we see them at all kinds of activities that have nothing to do with pie. Taking a journey into their other world added a new dimension and spark to our appreciation of them.

All these great life lessons, and FREE FOOD!!! What could be better?

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Autobiography: Are You Worthy?

May 22, 2010

As our readers know, YNH Guide to Life is all about recognizing great stories from everyday living. That’s why I was intrigued by a new project by fellow blogger Janna Antenorcruz. Take a look at her post below:

As I read my grandmother’s short autobiography, I marveled that I was able to read about the beginning of her life and her adventurous ways as a little girl. Reading her story made me love her, appreciate her, and understand her in a deeper way.

I think each person has a special tale to tell, but few of us get around to recording those memories. That’s why I have started the blog Mommy’s Piggy Tales . The idea is for mom’s and other interested individuals to write a series of themed posts once a week for 15 weeks about their youth. This will be time well spent. Please visit the blog to learn how you can get involved in this project too.

The Parental Gods Have Spoken…@thedadblog

May 18, 2010


Geese Must Comply With New Rules

May 16, 2010

A woman is walking along the pier with her son when a wave rolls over the deck and washes the boy over the edge. He disappears under the water and she begins to pray. “Oh, Lord, save my son, don’t let him drown, I will do anything, I will be so grateful, he is my life…”

A few seconds later, another wave rolls over the pier and returns her son to her, coughing and soaked, but otherwise unharmed. She looks down at her son and back to the heavens. She raises her tear-streaked face to the sky as she cries out to the Almighty:

“Hey! Where’s his hat?”

I was reminded of this story as I read the latest news about The Miracle on the Hudson, in which Captain Chesley Sullenberger and his merry crew landed their Airbus 320 in the Hudson River and 155 people lived to tell the tale.

Several days ago, the National Transportation Safety Board issued its report on the accident, in which both jet engines died after ingesting undercooked poultry.

The NTSB investigation benefited from a rare luxury that is tragically lacking in most such inquiries: witnesses. Analysts could ask 155 people to recount the turmoil over three very tense minutes on the potentially doomed flight. Freed of the limitations of voice recorders and instrument readings, they could review, possibly for the first time, all the thousands of possible and actual events on a falling jet.

Shockingly, the NTSB discovered that not all contingency plans were activated and not every prescribed step was taken as the plane was falling from the sky. In some cases, the crew simply ran out of time to complete its checklist, which resulted from the fact that the bird strike happened at such low altitude. In his recent book, The Checklist Manifesto, Atul Gawande credits that checklist with keeping people focused and effective.

The agency’s analysts say the crew wasted too much time trying to restart the engines, indicating a need for better sensors to tell the pilots when it’s useless to even try. (It is impossible to imagine a pilot trusting such an indicator, after the impact of a bird strike or other incident, and NOT trying to restart the engines anyway.) Worse, they suggested that maybe these sensors could be designed by NASA. NASA?

Equally significant, the passengers were unprepared for the emergency because 70% of them ignored the safety briefing. You know, the prescribed, word-for-word briefing that begins with instructions on how to fasten a seat belt…a briefing so boring and rote that they don’t even bother to have living people deliver it on most flights.

The NTSB now wants the airlines to find catchier ways to deliver the safety briefing, so people listen. (My recommendation: show a video of USAir 1549 sinking in the Hudson River.)

The agency also recommends that water landing equipment be mandated on all flights, whether they are expected to travel over water or not. Of course, the equipment was on Flight 1549 and most people couldn’t figure out how to use it.

Most of the issues raised by the NTSB were tied to the idea that the process can be perfected. Nothing will be in the wrong place, passengers will arise, or sit, as a Crackerjack Evac Squad, bird strikes won’t occur below 2,000 feet….

Ah, the arrogance of human beings.

I was a bit surprised they didn’t add a requirement that all bird strikes and engine failures occur within one mile of a smooth body of water. Crew competence notwithstanding, the Hudson River was the ultimate salvation of the plane. Along with dozens of tug/ferry/barge operators, of course.

In any complex situation, thousands of things go right and thousands go wrong. And the fixes that would have worked in the last crisis might actually make things worse the next time disaster strikes. Best intentions notwithstanding, you can’t fine-tune fate.

Every so often, you just have to accept the limitations of human endeavor and be very, very grateful.

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And So, Fellow Graduates…

May 8, 2010

I was hoping my commencement speech at Harvard this year would help me promote Your Name Here: Guide to Life as the ideal gift (Unisex!! One size fits all!!) for graduates entering the real world….but their invitation got lost in the mail for the 57th consecutive year.

I had the speech already written, though, and it would be a shame to let it go to waste. And so, (breathless anticipation) graduates and families, here is the speech you should be hearing….

Graduates, I bring you warm and heartfelt congratulations today, not merely for earning 120 class credits but also for your brilliant financial decision not to attend Harvard. (If you attended Harvard, insert some other name here.)

By taking the cheap route, you’ve put yourself well ahead of those peers who enter the real world with a prestigious degree and $300,000 of student loans. After about one year on the job, few people will ever ask you where you went to school, and even fewer will care about the answer.

So congratulations. You’ve avoided paying $300k for 12 months of bragging rights. If all your other financial decisions are this good, we’ll all be working for you five years from now. (Remember that I was your friend before you were fabulously wealthy and famous.) Of course, there will be pitfalls along the way, and you’ll need some special insights to avoid the traps that lie in wait for recent graduates. Herewith is almost everything you need to know to succeed in this world.

1. Relax. You aren’t the future of our nation and the universe doesn’t rest in your hands. It’s tough enough finding both a job and a good deli without the extra burden of saving the world. Don’t worry about it. You’re responsible for yourself and, if you choose to have kids, raising them to be responsible for themselves. Being responsible for yourself sounds easy, until you try to do it, so take great pride if you get it right.

2. You’re going to fail most of the time, but you only need a small number of victories to have a great life. Remember that a baseball player who fails to get a hit 60% of the time is almost guaranteed a shrine in Cooperstown.

3. Listening is the most underrated form of persuasion. If you want people to like you and trust you, learn to listen more than you speak.

4. There is always a camera. Wherever you are, whatever you are doing, somebody within 20 feet has a camera. If you’re doing something really stupid, it’s going into your permanent record. On YouTube.

5. No problem ever gets resolved by e-mail. If there’s a real issue, pick up the phone, pay a visit and, oh yeah, listen to what the other person has to say. E-mail is great for forwarding links, but terrible for linking people.

6. Unless you have a billion dollars already, nobody is going to bring you a billion-dollar investment opportunity. Somebody’s going to invent the next e-Bay or Google or FaceBook. Most likely, that person isn’t coming to you for seed capital. Just spend 10% less than you earn every year, sock money away for retirement and you’ll probably do just fine.

7. The bad stuff is the price of admission. You’ll put up with all kinds of nonsense as you start your career, date, raise a family, and pay off the mortgage. We all pay a price to get what we want. Eventually, we get comfortable enough that we can mock the next generation of whiners.

8. In the first meeting, the answer is always ‘Yes.’ Whether it’s a job interview or a sales call or a friend who needs help moving, ‘yes’ is how you build relationships and lifelong success. You can work out the details and end up saying ‘no’ later, if needed, but at least people will know you were willing to make the attempt.

9. Like embezzlement, change is an inside job. You can’t change anyone else and nobody can change you. If you want to be better at something, nobody can stop you…other than you, of course.

10. You have power, because you have choices. Go or stay, buy or sell, love or hate, it’s all up to you. Never make yourself subservient to someone else by blaming them for your decisions.

11. Life isn’t about what you have or what happens to you. It’s all about how you respond. Everyone gets a share of pain and aggravation, but the ones who end up happy are those who deal with it and move on.

12. You have three reputations to protect in your career. Yours is first, your boss is second and your company is third. Never forget that yours is the one you’ll be renting out to your next boss and your next company—and passing on to your kids.

13. Everybody has something to offer in this world. The more you look for it, the more you’ll find it. That means you’ll have access to friends and resources that other people miss, because you paid attention to the people everyone else was ignoring.

And so, graduates of 2010, you now know almost everything you need to know to achieve happiness, love, serenity, prosperity and successful lives. The rest is contained in Your Name Here: Guide to Life and, if your parents really loved you, they would have bought you a copy by now. Forgive them, however, as they were smart enough to raise you to be a responsible adult (See Note 1 above.) and you should be eternally grateful for that gift.

Now, go forth and prosper as the world of joy unfolds before you. Remember, whenever your face hardships, setbacks and difficulties, that millions of others have faced the same and worse.

They survived it.

So will you.

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In (corner office) Space, No One Can Hear You Scream

May 4, 2010

Any dad who’s ever shot his kid’s birthday party knows the camera work in Undercover Boss is just too good to be true.

Reality shows are show-biz first and reality second, but the fact that it isn’t all real doesn’t mean it isn’t true. In fact, the truth of this show is astounding—although not in a good way.

For those unfamiliar with the premise, the CEO or COO of a large company shaves—or unshaves—and heads out to work with real people at the bottom of the food chain. He spends a few days with five or six employees who are hard-working and ethical and—verrrry coincidentally—have a sick child or a debilitating disease or a plan to make millions for the company, if only they could talk to someone high up in the corporation…….

By the end of the show, the suit has discovered all kinds of things he didn’t know before and brings in the people he worked under for a surprise announcement that’s he’s really Prince Charming and all their dreams are about to come true.

Leaving the other 149,994 employees of the company in the same crappy spot they were in before the cameras started rolling.

In the first episode I saw, the COO of Waste Management runs around doing various grunt jobs very badly for people who will not earn in a lifetime the amount he took home last year.

In one segment, the woman driving a truck indicates she needs to pee in a can in order to meet her schedule because nobody at corporate—as in, the genius sitting next to her—thought to put a bathroom break in the schedule.

The COO of 1800Flowers works in various menial jobs and is shocked to find that people at the lower levels don’t know the parent company offers training programs. He works in a candy factory where he can’t keep up with the workload and realizes he’s been asking the managers to cut costs even further—by increasing the workload.

At the end of the show, the captains of industry all vow that, gosh darnit, things are going to be different from now on.

Let’s all make a mental note to check back next year.
Because the problems highlighted on Undercover Boss are now the fundamental economics of these businesses. Waste Management’s profit model—and the stock option plans for top executives—rely on a cost structure that requires drivers to pee in cans. The budget for training at 1800Flowers would blow up in a minute if all the people who need and want training actually knew it was available and applied for it.

Which brings us to the number one rule of business pathology, a rule so fundamental that it is almost universally ignored.

Managing by the numbers is not managing at all.

It’s pretending to manage, as if the numbers were real and not the shadow of real people and products moving from the receiving dock through to the customer. The further we are from the plant floor, the less we know about our business and the less capable we are of managing it.

On paper, we can cut any cost and adjust any timing. We can trim costs 30% and send the sheet to a regional manager with the instruction to make it happen or be replaced. And the regional manager will make it happen, because he is more interested in saving his job than in saving the company.

So he’s going to cut short-term costs in a way that will absolutely make the company less stable or sustainable over the long term. But nobody asked him to make the company more sustainable over a lifetime; his job is to make it more profitable next quarter.

Five or six quarters from now, when some competitor starts digging into market share or some state’s attorney general files a suit, the people in the home office will be stunned that shortcuts were taken at the regional offices. It seems that we’re always shocked when we get exactly what we asked for in life—including business life.

Frankly, I think every CEO should go undercover. I know it isn’t really, really reality, but it’s all true.

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