Dulce Domum

I haven’t liveblogged much of the last week of the road trip, primarily because I was doing broader ribbonfarmesque things, rather than meeting readers. Expect to see some blog posts out of my travels between Omaha, NE and Jackson, WY soon, both here and over at ribbonfarm.

I am now in Vegas, and I’ll be here for a few weeks before hitting the west coast. All our stuff is currently in storage, and we are subletting a part of our in-laws’ house for a few months while we figure things out.  Arriving in Vegas felt strange. It wasn’t like coming home because it isn’t my home. Over the years, I’ve moved so many times (14 times in the last 14 years, across 5 cities, so an average of once a year) that my sense of place and home has mostly been about a few possessions that have traveled with me through all of them.  Getting used to true nomadism and living out of others’ homes for the last 3 weeks has deepened that sense of comfortable rootlessness. Now I am going to be living in limbo for about 6 months.

These thoughts reminded me of one of my favorite chapters in The Wind in the Willows, “Dulce Domum” (Sweet Home), which is about the sudden attack of homesickness that descends on one of the characters, the Mole, after he’s been on the road having adventures for way too long. Sample this chapter.  You don’t need to understand the plot or characters to appreciate this chapter. Here’s a particularly eloquent chapter.

Home! That was what they meant, those caressing appeals, those soft touches wafted through the air, those invisible little hands pulling and tugging, all one way! Why, it must be quite close by him at that moment, his old home that he had hurriedly forsaken and never sought again, that day when he first found the River! And now it was sending out its scouts and its messengers to capture him and bring him in. Since his escape on that bright morn ing he had hardly given it a thought, so absorbed had he been in his new life, in all its pleasures, its surprises, its fresh and captivating experiences. Now, with a rush of old memories, how clearly it stood up before him, in the darkness! Shabby indeed, and small and poorly furnished, and yet his, the home he had made for himself, the home he had been so happy to get back to after his day’s work. And the home had been happy with him, too, evidently, and was missing him, and wanted him back, and was telling him so, through his nose, sorrowfully, reproachfully, but with no bitterness or anger; only with plaintive reminder that it was there, and wanted him.

The call was clear, the summons was plain. He must obey it instantly, and go. “Ratty!” he called, full of joyful excitement, “hold on! Come back! I want you, quick!”

“Oh, come along, Mole, do!” replied the Rat cheerfully, still plodding along.

Please stop, Ratty!” pleaded the poor Mole, in anguish of heart. “You don’t understand! It’s my home, my old home! I’ve just come across the smell of it, and it’s close by here, really quite close. And I must go to it, I must, I must! Oh, come back, Ratty! Please, please come back!”

The Rat was by this time very far ahead, too far to hear clearly what the Mole was calling, too far to catch the sharp note of painful appeal in his voice. And he was much taken up with the weather, for he too, could smell something—something suspiciously like approaching snow.

“Mole, we mustn’t stop now, really!” he called back. “We’ll come for it to-morrow, whatever it is you’ve found. But I daren’t stop now—it’s late, and the snow’s coming on again, and I’m not sure of the way! And I want your nose, Mole, so come on quick, there’s a good fellow!” And the Rat pressed forward on his way without waiting for an answer.


How Clock Time Replaced Narrative Time

A central idea in Tempo is that of “narrative time,” which used to be the default approach to time till the mid 19th century. In my research for the book, I read up on how railroads (American railroads in particular) helped drive us to a universal clock time standard. So it was particularly nice to find this exhibit on time and the railroads at the Union Pacific Railroad Museum in Council Bluffs, Iowa (just over the state line from Omaha, Nebraska, well worth a visit. It’s free and in some ways way more interesting than the more popular Durham museum in Omaha). I am now in North Platte, Nebraska, four hours west of Omaha, for another visit to Bailey Yard. I was here last year and blogged about it, but I have slightly more ambitious photography plans this year.

The Best Chips in the World

I suppose I must seem crazy to some people. I added a whole hour to my drive to Nebraska just to pass through St. Louis. Not for the arch, but for Billy Goat chips. I first found them in the Chinatown Coffee Company in DC, and decided they were the best packaged chips I’d ever had, easily beating out all but the freshest house-made pub chips. They are local to the St. Louis area, and Chinatown Coffee special-orders them.

When I stopped by and announced I wanted to “buy some chips,” the folks inside looked puzzled. Then they explained that they only made the chips there and that I could go to a retail outlet a few blocks down the street to actually buy them.

But then, one of them got curious when it became clear I knew nothing about the neighborhood and asked where I was from. I explained the DC Chinatown Coffee connection, and the guy said, “well, that’s quite a story, now you’ve got to sell him some chips.” So I scored a large, discounted wholesale bag of chips for $8 (no, it isn’t one of the huge bags in the picture, much smaller. I am not that crazy).

I am all set for the rest of the trip, as far as chips go.

I am not sure if you can order small quantities online, but if you do order any, mention my name and tell ’em to send me a free bag as a commission.

Now to see if I have enough time to actually do the arch. If not, that’ll be for the next visit.

Mississippi Flooding

The drive from Memphis to St. Louis promised to be extremely dull, and then there was the section of the road with some flooding.  Now I have a story for this leg.

Startup Deathwatch in Memphis

The paradox of creative destruction is that some of the most vibrant environments — like raw nature and the startup scene — are also the ones that best showcase those Darwinian dynamics. I mean, just look at the smiling faces here at the Seed Hatchery, a Memphis startup incubator co-founded by Eric Mathews, the guy in the blue t-shirt at the head of the table in the back.  I cadged an invitation to their regular Founders Dinner via Daniel Pritchett. These guys — about a half-dozen entrepreneurial teams — have just had a round of grilling from an experienced entrepreneur (Tom Federico, the other guy at the head of the table, founder of TeamRankings.com — he was surprisingly gentle, compared to some of the bloodier such scenes I’ve witnessed) and are still all smiles. I rarely find such all-around smiling in bigger companies. Okay, I provoked that by saying “Everybody say ‘Series A’,” but I bet you they’d still be smiling if I’d yelled “9 out of 10 of you will fail!” Heck, they’d probably be laughing.

What’s more, they are aware of grim realities like that. They even put up cues to remind them of the fact. Here’s their countdown clock till their investor day.

They already know that for some of them, this will be the end of the road. At least for whatever idea they are pursuing right now. Between infant mortality right out of places like Seed Hatchery, and death by old age as a large company with an obsolete business, every one of the business ideas in the picture above is going to eventually die. Contrary to the popular image of the entrepreneur as a delusionally optimistic breed, I find that among the ones I meet, the ones with the clearest perception of this stark reality tend to have the soundest strategic thinking in their business plans. Based on anecdotal evidence, I’d say they are also the most successful ones. There is a sense of intrinsic, organic urgency to their thinking that exists quite independently of such extrinsic urgency drivers as countdown clocks. It is an energizing, Sisyphean kind of fatalism.

Now that I’ve shifted over from the gold-miner side to the selling-pickaxes side in the entrepreneurship game via writing on themes relevant to entrepreneurship and product marketing/launch consulting, I find a grim sort of solace in contemplating truly intense creative destruction close up (not that writing/consulting careers are immune to the creative destruction cycle; they just have a less intense cycle).

Maybe that’s why I like to go around taking pictures of both rusting infrastructure and things bursting with youthful vigor. For those of you who have gotten through most of Tempo, you know that the book is based at a very fundamental level around mortality-driven (as opposed to immortality-driven) thinking and creative destruction. I think the reason mortality-driven narrative frames work to guide decision-making well is that they lend the right emotional tones to your actions. The right kind of tempo begets the right kind of sense of urgency appropriate for each phase of a birth-to-death story, and catalyzes the right kind of energy.






Week 3: Memphis, St. Louis, Omaha, Carhenge, Deadwood, Yellowstone

I am in Memphis, where I plan to meet up with Daniel Pritchett, some local entrepreneurs at a startup incubator, and anyone else who might be around. Next stop, St. Louis on Tuesday. As far as I know, I have no readers there, but I wanted to check out the Billy Goat chip company, maker of my favorite chips. If anybody is out there, it’d be great to meet up. From St. Louis I head to Omaha and after that, the road-trip basically goes into a sights-over-people mode, since my destinations in Nebraska and South Dakota (North Platte for a second visit to Bailey Yard, Alliance for Carhenge and Rapid City for Deadwood) aren’t places I am likely to find any readers. I’d be shocked to find somebody beyond Omaha. After South Dakota, I head to Jackson Hole in the heart of Yellowstone, where oddly enough I do have someone to stay with. After that, depending on how much time I have left, I might dawdle or dash my way to Vegas, the end point for this leg.

Posts from Week 2


Strategies, Counter-examples and the UnAha! Experience

I stopped for coffee and a chat with Peter Lambert-Cole at Highland Coffee in Baton Rouge. Peter is a mathematics graduate student at LSU and works on low-dimensional topology problems (knots, doughnuts and such). So naturally our conversation took a mathematical turn.

It is funny how a conversation with the right person will sometimes help me connect dots in my own thinking. Talking with Peter helped me figure out something about anti-strategies.

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On Ritual Time

When was the last time you coordinated a rendezvous with someone saying “I’ll meet you before sunset?” I did that with my New Orleans host, Dimitry Lukashov because he keeps Shabbat, and I wanted to make sure I got to his place before he turned off his phone, in case I got lost.

You should try a sunrise or sunset based  rendezvous sometime. It is interesting to look at the sun as an actual practical time signal instead of just a maker of beautiful sunrises and sunsets. Very calming. Scheduling around natural times tends to add a natural fuzziness which can be relaxing or anxiety-provoking depending on your relationship to clock time.

Post-Shabbat on Saturday, we went downtown, wandered past Bourbon street and the touristy French Quarter to a nightlife block preferred by the locals (I forget the name). I felt my age I guess. It was still too chaotically “happening” for me.  We wrapped up the evening with a 1:00 AM breakfast at a famous local diner.

I am starting to feel my age. One of Dimitry’s housemates (he’s a graduating Tulane senior) said to me, “you’re staying with Dimitry, right?…. and are you kinda older?” That cracked me up. “Yup, much older,” I said. It is curious how blogging gets you connected to people in age-agnostic ways. The ribbonfarm/Tempo readership seems to span the age range 18-70. In almost any other context, I’d find it very weird, as a 36-year old, staying with a college senior. The blog/book road-trip context reduces it to “only slightly weird.”

Hard Takeoffs and Landings

This morning, I left New Orleans after a creole-inspired brunch. The restaurant had the biggest selection of hangover drinks I’ve ever seen, including a very complicated DIY Bloody Mary bar. I am afraid mine wasn’t very creative. Dimitry’s (on the right) was a work of art. I can’t do okra in a drink though.

I’ve been mulling Alain de Botton’s evocative description, in The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work, of the tempo of industrial age workdays: “the hard takeoffs and landings of coffee and alcohol.”

In New Orleans, where the day seems to start around noon and end around 4:00 AM (the town allows you to walk around with alcohol containers on the streets and there is no legal last-call time), Alain de Botton’s description must be modified for New Orleans to “the hard takeoffs and landings of alcohol. Period.”

Though the city has great coffee, overall it is a far more relaxed place than any similar-sized city in America I’ve been. The locals have a curious self-perception of the city as actually being part of the Carribbean. An embassy for island time in the middle of mainland time perhaps.

I am also surprised by the number of people I am meeting on my travels who have quit coffee. Maybe we are heading towards a softer tempo age.





The Author’s Journey and the Blogger’s Journey

I am in New Orleans, ironically pretending to be an author in the traditional publishing-industry sense of the word. I am sitting in a seriously cliched writerly cafe, the Rue de la Course near the Tulane University campus. Jazz is playing in the background. Its the sort of coffee shop that conforms to your expectations of an archetypal artsy coffee shop so well, it is surreal. Like The Simpsons’ idea of an artsy coffee shop.

If I grew an instant goatee, slapped a beret on my head and called myself a flâneur, (a self-descriptor preferred by a certain celebrated evil twin of mine),  I’d be a perfect parody of a writer. A tres French writer at that. The only way I can continue sitting here (and I want to because it is actually a very nice place and the coffee is good) is to do so ironically.

Jokes aside, being in this coffee shop, doing what I am doing, got me to a serious breakthrough concerning the difference between being a blogger and being an author, a question I’ve been pondering ever since I started out on this road trip to promote Tempo nearly two weeks ago. Though I have now published a book, I view myself (and usually introduce myself/prefer to be introduced) as a blogger, not “author” or “writer.” It isn’t really about what medium you use or how you write. It is about how you view yourself. Author is a profession within the publishing industry. Blogger is a trade practiced by an individual. Professions and trades both wrap around a skilled craft and a specific way of seeing the world (the “art”), but there the similarities end. Blogger and Author are very different archetypes that lead to very different narratives. Specifically, Author leads to a standard redemption narrative, while Blogger leads to a life-as-performance-art narrative.

So here we go; my first serious and long post on this blog. And yes, it may be a bit confusingly self-referential for those who’ve read Tempo, since it i s a book about archetypes and narratives, but I am sure you’ll be able to keep everything straight. If you haven’t read the book, you should probably read this post first.

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Functional Fixedness and Kata Learning

I am spending a couple of days here in Atlanta with Ho-Sheng Hsiao (Hosh). He invited me to join him for the monthly meeting of the Atlanta Ruby User Group (ALTRUG), and I jumped at the opportunity, since for whatever reason, a lot of programmers (and I think Ruby programmers in particular) seem to read my writing. The event provoked a fertile trail of thought on the nature of learning.

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