Rebecca didn’t bring her famous bread to Thanksgiving this year. Each year, her mom would greet her at the door, each time asking “Did you bring the bread?” even though her mom knew she’d always bring bread. “Yes mom,” she’d reply, holding up the loose paper bag, tented on top of a weathered and seasoned jelly roll pan. Her mom would squeak with joy, make awkward little fists with her thumbs sticking out, and punch them into the air…
When the third police car sped by the small children’s playground at the head of Harbor Road, lights flashing, Bernadette turned to me and said calmly yet slyly, “that’s unusual,” Then an ambulance sped by. Bernadette turned away to watch its trajectory, her hand slowly running through her straight brown hair, pulling it between her shoulders, in slow motion, as if time had gotten stuck and that moment was progressing at half-speed. She then turned back, scanning the playground for her daughter as any watchful mother would do…
Out of a former post office tucked away in an industrial section of Boulder, CO, startup Mod Robotics develops toys for children to help them learn and thrive in an increasingly complex world. Though the popular mantra of KISS (Keep it simple, stupid) rings true with many of today’s business professionals, Eric Schweikardt, Mod Robotics founder with a PhD in Computational Design, would argue that keeping it simple might actually cause future generations to become less capable of managing the realities of a highly technical world…
Boulder Colorado is a micro-culture, a unique place where you can still find hippie communities going strong along pale dirt roads, abutted against hiking trails that disappear into the trees. I was in Boulder to meet with two of the partners at Techstars, David Brown (also a co-founder) and Ari Newman. Both share an electric vibrancy that buzzes in the intensity of their eyes and the stillness of their postures. They are deep listeners, with algorithmic-process brains. They are living in the future…the film canisters of their brains capture more frames-per-second than the average brain. They shared five core values for success, which is basically “Karma wins.”
1. Give first. This might seem obvious in the realm of Karma, but remember Techstars is a tech accelerator program for start-ups meant to create millions if not billions of dollars in return on investments. This would seem antithetical to building wealth, but it works for Techstars…
I was sitting on the roof of a high-rise in the SoMa district of San Francisco, across 10th street from Twitter’s HQ. I was meeting with Wayne Sutton, the co-founder of Change Catalyst, an organization with a mission to increase diversity and inclusion within the tech profession. It was hot up there, much hotter than it was down on the street-level. I figured the temperature disparity must be a metaphor for something. From our vista we could see the hills and waterfronts of the bay area, and I imagined I was looking at the landscape through Trulia and all I could see was millions and millions of dollars all around us.,,
I waited for Maria Christina Gonzalez Noguera (who goes by “MC”) in the sunny lobby of an interactive agency in Union Square NYC. At the time, MC hadn’t yet started her new role as SVP of Global Affairs at Estee Lauder, and my office was in NJ, so meeting someplace central was ideal. As she exited the brushed-steel-door elevators whoever was in the perimeter slowed their step and turned their attention towards her. The cluster of hip-clad and smartly faced agency folks knew someone with clout had just entered their sphere. MC has a room-altering presence, a forceful combination of effortless grace, muted seriousness, and sparks of levity.
The fire had long stopped. The trees stood pole thin. Black charcoal towers jutting slight from the ground and lancing the sky. They creaked, a faint echo of the torrid crackling fire that turned them from lush green plumes into these stilts. The ground was a powder of grey and black. I thought of the astronauts walking on the moon. I paced slowly between the trees, hoping not to drag my sleeves along their skins to become soiled with soot, but after five minutes I relinquished trying to avoid the trees and after fifteen minute I was indistinguishable from the charcoal trees…
I sat across the small round eat-in-kitchen table from him as I had been doing most Friday evenings during the years we lived in Indiana. We’d drive the kids over after work for dinner with my in-laws on the west side of Indianapolis. It was the closest feeling I had of living in a family compound with an extended family all around us. Most of the time a revolving set of cousins and family friends would join us for drinks, dinner and tea. Sometimes it was just us.
My father-in-law was an understated person, soft spoken and economic with his words. That evening as we sat together he was fixated on piecing together fragments of music he was replaying in his memory. Every now and then a melody would break from his lips, he’d tap a rhythm on the table with his fingertips of his right hand and the palm of his left. He gazed someplace over my right shoulder, humming and tapping, trying to align the sequences as he remembered them.
When he and I would be alone in the kitchen after we’ve all eaten and washed the dishes, and most of the family had gathered in the living room to drink tea and watch TV, he’d occasionally ask me a small-talk question such as “how was work today?” I knew not to complain about work. I knew not to complain about anything as he never complained about anything. I usually tried to steer the conversation to his life before he was married, before he arrived in the states. Having been born in 1930 he had seen a world in transition. Still, he’d tell his stories in a contrite and undramatic fashion, very matter-of-fact reporting though the subjects of the stories were far from boring.
That night he wasn’t annoyed, though if you didn’t know him you might mistake his remoteness for frustration. But he wasn’t that kind of person and his friends knew that. He was often doing equations of sorts in his mind, analyzing a musical tone, a colloquial phrase, a poor translation or use of a word. A vowel sound. A minor key.
Once, during a Friday night visit, he turned to me and said, “Listen to the ‘O’ sound in the word ‘dog’ when saying ‘hot dog.’”
“Hot dog.” I said.
“Hot…dog,” he replied, slowly, as if teaching me to speak for the first time and hot dog would be my first words.
“Hot. Dog.” I stated slowly.
“Hot dog,” he re-stated, “there are only a few times in American english where that ‘O’ sound occurs.”
Once, during a family trip to London, he handed me a small somewhat furry bean. We were sitting on the enclosed porch of a connected home in Mill Hill. He peeled the surface layers away to reveal a familiar pale brown shell that looked like an oval duck’s beak.
“Pistachio,” he claimed.
“Pistachio,” I questioned?
“Pistachio,” he defined. His eyes sparkled, he slapped my shoulder.
As I sat across from him that Friday night, while he was figuring out the melody in his mind, I asked him about his time in the Iranian army during the 1950s, when there was great tension between factions of the government. He’d typically oblige, but he didn’t want to talk about it that evening. He felt I was asking him to be boastful. Instead he surfaced a familiar refrain, “I’m just a simple person, like a small stone on a pile of similar stones.” He was regularly humbling himself, possibly a remnant of his studious practice of Islam as a young man. “I am just a small stone…” he started again and I interrupted him.
“No you’re not.” I said pointedly. He lowered his gaze from over my shoulder and to my eyes. He stopped drumming his fingers. He paused whatever orchestration he had accomplished in his mind.
“What do you mean?” He asked, quietly and slightly antagonistic.
“Everybody, anybody you ask would say that you are not a simple person.”
“I see,” he leaned back in his chair, “and who exactly would this ‘anybody’ be? Who would you ask?”
“You’re not a simple stone, you’re more like one of those stones in the natural history museum, they look simple on the outside, but when broken open they reveal gems and crystals.” I was sincere.
“Well…“ he started, questioning my metaphor.
“Not everyone is like you, I’d say there are simpler stones than you…”
He interrupted me with a heavy sigh, a resignation. His shoulders dropped a little.
“Let me tell you a secret,” he continued, “when you believe in who you are on the inside, have trust in what you truly are, then your friends will see your insides as if they are your outsides. I am still a simple stone, I just know what I am on the inside (he raised his hands a little from the table and turned them palms up) and live my life.”
He paused and took another deep breath.
“One day,” he continued, “sometime in the future, I will be tossed back on the pile of similar stones and no one will ever know what I was on the inside, but if I believe in myself and live my life the way I think is right, then at least I can try to leave the world a little bit better than the world I was born into.”
With that he raised his gaze once again, as if he spotted a bird or a flower over my right shoulder. The song returned to his mind and he began singing the complete melody while tapping the rhythm on the table top. Then he stood up, turned his shoulders towards the kitchen door, and taking small steps while whistling, went to find a specific book within the multitude of books on his floor-to-ceiling living room bookshelves.
I love what Fran Lebowitz has to say. I love the way she says it. Her story-wit brain is always on, ever-ready to pounce on a topic that strikes her. She’s a rock musician of anecdotes, she prefers a groove. She starts with a low grumble, smirking on the details of things. She builds on it with a sly widening lens because she knows where she’s leading us, then reaches her three-chord chorus of what it all means and shouts it out load to a welcoming roar from the crowd. I want to hear her talk and talk and talk…
For the record, Lew is a great, great friend. We no longer live near each other and I miss our time together. He is existential, ruminative, and intellectual. Conversations with Lew run the gamut, but remain anchored to solving the mysteries of “the why.” Why does this happen, and why does this other thing happen too…