Monday, July 31, 1995

Playing to Win

As was pointed out not too long ago in a scoop from our friendly Fridley folks, there's no "i" in the word team. I like to point out there isn't an "i" in the word abalone either. So I ask you, between the two "i" less words, which has a harder time seeing? Do we see better functioning teams than we do abalones?

We're (and when I say "we're" I'm including I) coming to the close of another softball season, and this is the perfect time to look back, reflect, and evaluate all the lessons that were learned. Playing for two different teams, won/losswise it was far from a successful season. The combined records of those two teams was five wins and nineteen losses. That's a winning percentage even lower than our lovable Minnesota Twins. During a long and difficult season, there were a couple of feats pulled off that I for one never thought I'd see on a slowpitch softball field- getting shutout, and watching an opposing pitcher strike out the side on us one inning.

The lack of success in the win/loss category made me have even more sympathy for our local baseball lads. As a player, I realized it's a lot more difficult to play well when the team is struggling as a whole, and you constantly find yourself behind and trying to catch up. It's hard to remain focused when everyone on the team is making those little mistakes that add up to another loss. Mistakes breed upon themselves. You find yourself making mental and physical errors you have never made in your life.

Losing is an unhappy attitude that is contagious. You begin to question your teammates' abilities and they look back at you and wonder when will be the next time you make a blunder. The little things all seemed magnified, and whatever enjoyment just playing the game once held, doesn't seem to bring any satisfaction anymore. Everyone is just sort of going through the motions, waiting for the mistakes to happen and knowing the outcome of the game before it is even played.

To develop a winning team, there are several things you have to learn and practice every week. Attitude is more important than ability. My Wednesday night team has played together for several years. The last few seasons we were clearly playing teams with more ability (not to mention youth) but we won as much as we lost. The only way we managed that was because we played exceedingly well as a team. We knew what each other was and was not capable of doing. When that key hit was needed, it always seemed we had the right guy at the plate. When we needed an out in the field, it always seemed the batter would hit it to a sure pair of hands.

This season has been a different story. It's the same group of guys, but early season mistakes, and games kicked away built a different attitude. Instead of expecting to stay close and win our share of games, we began to play as if we were afraid of losing. Almost every week one of us would make a mistake at a crucial moment of the game, and then the rest of us would follow by not being able to overcome the errors.

My Thursday night team is a fairly new team. It took us a while to get to know one and other so the first few weeks we struggled. But come the third or fourth game of the season we began to gel. The team wasn't blessed with a lot of talented players (bit player, journeyman David was perhaps the best overall player on the team, more of a comment on the lack of talent than any glowing scouting report on David's alarming deterioration as a useful player). But we hit a little winning streak simply because it was a team that didn't make a lot of mistakes to beat ourselves. Then the wheels fell off. We stopped playing as a team and while individuals were hitting better, we never were able to string hits together for a big inning. Someone would make a nice play in the field but it was negated because a teammate wasn't ready for the throw. The last few games were sheer torture as none of us played particularly well together. We expected to get beat, and we seriously did.

Thus the lesson learned this summer was to succeed, a team has to be able to play together and pick each other up. The attitude brought into a game was perhaps the most important thing that got away from us. When both of the teams started looking for ways we were going to lose, we were very successful in finding them. Individuals might play well, but the teams as a whole lost their focus and we no longer played trying to win, instead we played trying to avoid losing. There is a big difference.

The Tangled Web We Weave

Depending on how much you like Sandra Bullock, her newest picture The Net is either a) a deep philosophical look at one woman who has questions about the meaning of her own existence; or b) a thriller which aptly points out that sometimes we are being followed by more than just that little electronic shadow our computerized world has cast upon us.

As we move more and more into a world where people's memories are stored in megabytes on their hard drives rather than the electronic synaptic connections inside their brains, our reliance on what we know and what we remember and who has access to our most private information is a political and moral issue that needs to be focused upon. In our society, it is becoming more difficult to go anywhere or do anything without having to deal with information stored on a computer. Checking into a motel, bank transactions, reserving airline tickets, paying a restaurant bill, checking into a hospital, are all examples of activities that have become standardized and computerized. The amount of information about any single individual found in many separate though sometimes linked databases is staggering.

Thus the premise of The Net is that Bullock's character, Angela Bennett, finds herself in a whole lot of trouble when she accidentally stumbles upon a program that allows the villains access to any of the world's databases, with the ability to change and control information. Bennett, a computer program analyst, becomes the target of the villains who erase her existence in key databases creating a nonperson, as they try to kill her in the physical sense of the word too.

The suspense created by all the computereze is actually pretty good. Having personally come off a week where an ATM machine confiscated my cash card telling me I was committing an "unauthorized use" of my account, the movie struck a nerve. Worried that someone had gained access to my checking account and my vast fortune of twenty six bucks, I called my bank. The customer service representative checked the Norwest database, and found no discrepancies that should have flagged my card's abduction, yet I had my card taken away nonetheless. She could offer no explanation at what might have caused the error. I was assured a new card would be mailed shortly, not to worry about my money, and given an apology for the inconvenience. Inconvenience? Not having cash? No problem.

The Net falls apart however because it becomes this year's version of last year's annoying chase movie, The Firm. We get Sandra being chased on the beach; Sandra being chased at an amusement park; Sandra being chased at a crowded convention; Sandra being chased on the Santa Monica freeway; and finally Sandra being chased on a rooftop. She has men chasing her, women chasing her, and the law chasing her. After awhile, you want to tell her to stop her damn running and deal with the creeps face to face.

Bullock has received good reviews for her work in the movie. As in her other roles, she comes across as a likable actress. Whatever way The Net succeeds, it is due mainly in part because of her screen presence. There are a few suspenseful moments that get the old thrillmometer creeping ever so high. Unfortunately, it isn't until Bullock does stop running and begins to use her knowledge of computers that the movie hits its own stride of sorts. There is a point being made somewhere in the story about our proceeding in a computer reliant world without addressing some really important moral and data privacy issues. Who controls information will control the future. Ultimately the movie argues that computers can be fixed, but the human mind cannot. Bullock stumbles or rather runs into this revelation by which time even her spunky charm has been overrun by cliche.

Monday, July 24, 1995

You Don't Need a Weatherman to Know Which Way the Wind Blows

Sitting here on a Friday night with the closing sound of rolling thunder, ominous looking clouds on the horizon, as the storm blows towards me, wondering if one of these wall clouds is going to drop the final curtain down, I study the progress of my mutual fund (steady as always- keep long term in mind) and check my horoscope (five star day, -keep short term in mind). Thus it's an evening of introspection and reflection.

I learned this week, as if there wasn't enough to make one feel insignificant and small, the statistic that there are more people alive today then the total amount of people who have died since the beginning of time. And in approximately eighty years, the size of our current population will double. Talk about the individual being just a small drop in the bucket of primordial substance.

There has been one constant with all those people. When you slide further down the age/time continuum, you begin to feel the need for lessening the shock of the unexpected by trying to anticipate the future. Several of our noblest professions are devoted to predicting how future events might unfold. From stockbroker to weatherperson, from oddsmakers to gypsy fortune tellers and horoscope writers, there are many here among us who earn their livings off reassuring the rest of us on how things will be.

As you pass through more and more days, the gift of intuition tends to replace any desire for a greater imagination. Values change and any wish one might have held for spontaneity takes a back seat to the peace of mind of routine and knowing what comes next. Some people look up at the sky and see cumulonimbus wall and funnel clouds, others look up and see cats and clowns.

Skeptics might observe that the ironic part of all these future seers and experts is that the "legitimate" ones, the stockbrokers, the meteorologists are right about as often as the fortune telling, horoscopic, crystal ball reading, palm readers. Somehow the fancy suits with their formulaic models and the scientists with their Doppler radar give us comfort with their technology and education while most of us take the words of the spiritual with a grain of salt. Yet what was the last lucrative stock tip you got? When was the last time you heard an accurate weather forecast? I read my horoscope every morning. It tends to hit the mark more often than the chance we are told of precipitation that day. So with one eye currently gazing at the spinning clouds coming my way, and the other eye reading my day's horoscope telling me I'm having an excellent day, and with one ear listening to the serious, glum doomsayers telling me to take cover in my closet, and the other ear trying to hear the score of the Twins game, I continue to type away.

Yes there is some boredom in waking up every morning at 5 a.m., using my morning coffee as a replacement for sleep, working my ten hour days and coming home to a microwaved meal. Seems to me in another age I used to be a tad less predictable, but the paychecks are steady, and the mood swings are less drastic. The old eccentricities haven't exactly disappeared, they have changed themselves into different forms. In a year where the externals are wild and drastic, the internals have balanced out and become a source of comfort. There may be another lesson to learn if the roof over my head flies off into the sunset, but for right now I guess the only thing I can think of is that reassurance only goes a little ways. Ultimately it is the self, the little voice inside the individual that must guide the way into the future, and try to make sense of what happened in the past. The radar may have more visible technology than the crystal ball, but in the end it's that stuff inside the person that must decide what the hell all this is about.

Monday, July 10, 1995

God Sometimes You Just Don't Come Through

There is an old axiom in baseball, that the team that is in first place come July 1, will be the team that finishes at the top at the end of the season. So what does it mean when our local lads were a mere twenty four and a half games out when June ended? It means we keep a watchful eye out for any glimpse of that dreaded word, potential for the rest of the year.

When I was a child when we didn't dream of being the next Harmon Killebrew or the next Amos Otis, we all aspired to be either John Lennon or Paul McCartney. Now days, all the kids want to be either Tori Amos or Alanis Morissette. You explain it to me, is this progress, or have we as a civilization come to a collective, difficult end?

If I may be so bold, I would like to offer a word of advice to Ms. Morissette. Remember the lesson of Lyman Bostock. Bostock was a young, talented centerfielder who came up to the Twins back in the mid seventies. He had a Rod Carew type batting stroke and he covered centerfield like a gazelle. He had a flash, a cockiness that extended beyond his basket catches, and seemed to point to an inevitable clash with stardom.

Unfortunately just as he was beginning to show some of his talent, he became worth more than the Twins could afford to pay him. He signed a huge contract with the California Angels, where he got off to a miserable start in his first season. Being a man with a lot of pride, Mr. Bostock offered to give his first month's worth of pay back to the ballclub. Just as he was starting to pull himself out of the unusual slump, he was tragically shot and killed outside of Gary Indiana. Baseball rolled on, but somewhere in the hearts of some fans, the game never seemed the same. There is nothing sadder than being labeled with that dreaded "p" word only to have fate snatch it away so quickly.

According to the kids today, Ms. Morissette is the hottest thing since Pop Tarts. So what is it about the "next big thing" that would make one want to waddle through a gathering of thousands of sweaty Minnesotans on a hot and humid afternoon, munch down a foot long corn dog, and stand so far away from the small band shell that the only time the music makers were at all visible was when the crowd swayed a certain way in unison, revealing the side of the drummer? The songs themselves seemed unremarkable, although Ms. Morissette displayed an impressive voice with a range from an effective shrill to a growling lower register. She certainly seems an angry young person. The band was steady if not spectacular and the music seemed to keep the masses entertained. Not actually being able to see the band was a bit of a drawback, and all the nearby trees were full, so the group I was with grew a bit restless. Fortunately, we ran into a friend who happened to be working as a security person for the concert. Following her lead, the five of us squeezed our way through the densely packed adoring fans and somehow found ourselves situated right in front of the stage, with the volume from the speakers at a range where the ears felt like bleeding.

The song that has gotten a lot of attention is You Oughta Know, a bitter, vitriolic diatribe directed at a former lover. The performance in front of the majestic background of the State's Capitol, was as impressive as any of the soggy fireworks fired off the following day. It got the crowd groovin, and witnessing the transformation from blind, uncomfortable heat sufferers, to the looks of recognition on the faces of the body movin', toe tappin', dancing fools (they actually began passing people through the crowd) made for an entertaining spectacle.

Listening to Ms. Morissette's disc, Jagged Little Pill, is much like the experience of her Taste of Minnesota performance. On the whole, all the parts seem OK, and upon closer examination there is a lot to like. The band sounds good and her harmonica playing is the most effective I've heard since, oh you know who. However, there are some flaws that spoil an otherwise impressive debut. She seems to try a little too hard with some of her lyrics. She doesn't have the minimalist poetic flair of PJ Harvey, Liz Phair, or Tanya Donelly; nor does she seem to have the authentic angst of Juliana Hatfield or Courtney Love. Her lyrics have the subtlety of a televangelist. Perhaps in an attempt at trying to be the next big thing, she over shot the mark a little. Her voice reminds one a bit of Tori Amos' with a little dose of Sinead O'Connor's thrown in, and with its sheer dynamic range, often overwhelms the content of the music.

Yet it is clear Ms. Morissette is an artist with a lot of potential. That her music could pique the attention from a fried food overdosed group of Midwesterners, suggests that she will eventually get over the largest hurdle facing any entertainer- to get people to listen to that which they don't know or understand.

Monday, July 3, 1995

What We Take for Hugh Granted

eing a grizzled veteran of a variety of different workplaces and having the experience of working with many different people may or may not look good on the resume, but somewhere along the way I learned the way something looks isn't always the way something is.

I've held different spots on the organization chart, different rungs on the old corporate ladder from the lowest bean counter to the guy in charge. I've had jobs where I could wear my most comfortable clothes and look overdressed, and others where an Armani suit would fit right in with the other employees.

Each workplace has its own rules, written and unwritten. Each workplace also has its own culture, personality, missions and visions. For those of us who have job hopped and job hopped, the quicker you learn these nuances unique to each job, the quicker you can get down to performing your job tasks in an acceptable manner.

Despite the vast differences, there are a few constants no matter where you end up. Retail to manufacturing, there are some principles that carry on through. Not the least of these is knowing who the end customer of your work is. In other words, you may be grading records, or you may be selling junk bonds, but you're still going to have to serve somebody.

Basically any job can be broken down into the following rules: 1) Get to work on time. 2) Work as hard as you can for the time you are paid for. 3) As best you can get along with the people you work with and for. That's essentially all there is to doing an acceptable job. It's really that simple. You follow those three rules and you will do okay in most places.

It's amazing then, that no matter where you end up you will find somebody that has a hard time following even those basic rules. Add a corollary to number two, that being not only should you work hard, but you should be competent and responsible and it's no wonder that the quality of the American workforce seems to be floundering a bit these days.

Too many places I've been, too many people I've seen, seem to view their work as an eight hour distraction from their personal lives. They put forth the minimum effort required, often distracted and seldom overly productive. The bad news is that this growing contingency of people cause poor workmanship and their attitudes are contagious, affecting the morale of all around them. The good news is that the few left who want to do more than a passable job, who strive to improve their situation and their own personal abilities, have more opportunity than ever to move up if the effort is backed up with just a little bit of ability.

As anyone who has looked for a job recently can attest, the job market ain't exactly prospering these days. Predictions have been made suggesting the days of careers are essentially over. More and more job opportunities will be of the temporary nature. Fewer and fewer people will spend their life working for a company. More and more we will work for ourselves. While this presents opportunities for freedom, independence, and risk taking -doing what you enjoy doing for your work, the safety of certainty and the calm of security will be stripped away replaced by stress and longer and longer work days.

Thus in the future, following the three rules will become more critical if you want to succeed. People that can't get to work on time, that spend their time making personal calls and wasting company time, who have a hard time getting along with different people will be out of luck. The competition for jobs will only increase and those that lack the essentials won't be given the opportunities to prove and correct themselves. What you are will give way to what it looks like you are.