23 June 2009

The smells of success

My family just spent some time at a lake house as guests of good friends. It was a nice vacation: I think we all got the kind of readjustment that we were looking for. There was water-skiing, swimming, sun-worshiping, fishing, and ... we even got in a hike to a small jewel of an alpine lake called Crystal Lake (that's my happy place). There was also much consuming of barbecued meat, and, although you can do that back home, for some reason barbecued meat tastes better next to a lake at 5000 feet surrounded by friends and by pine trees that are catching the setting sun after a day of fun when you know you get to have another day of fun right after that. I think that's a culinary principle.

To get to this lake, we had to cross over the Pacific Crest, the high-elevation spine that runs through California. I love the change in atmosphere as you climb out of a hot-and-dry valley like the Hwy. 5 corridor. First the temperature changes--but not like you'd think: the air is crisper and feels colder, but the sun is more intense, so it can feel hotter. The air is thinner, which means you'll be out of breath for a few days, but your body will adjust. Then there is the smell. On a drive like this, I can't wait to roll the windows down and be done with the air-conditioning (and air-recycling) needed to survive a hot valley highway jammed with traffic: up high, the air seems so much more breathable. It's the smells.

Above 4000 feet, the air smells fresher, cleaner, and richer. You can smell the herbal shrubs when the sun hits them and they release their perfume. You can smell some of the giant trees, like the pines that cover these mountains. You can even smell the dirt ... and it smells good. One of the most powerful (and I'm ashamed to say, most satisfying) smells comes when a logging truck carrying felled pine trees passes your car. I know that's not so p.c., but the trees are logged sustainably in this area, and anyways, it is such a surprise to smell something good behind a truck that it catches me a little off-guard.

Speaking of trucks, two of the families at our house towed boats up to the lake. One was a fishing boat, and the other was a sport boat that pulled the water skiers. Both of these boats were towed by the original giant sequoia of the road, the Chevy Suburban. Though I am a low-and-green-tech kind of guy who would like to see less big gas-burning cars on the road, I can't deny that these are the very cars you need when towing six people and a boat up to the mountains. Or, as one of the dads said as sixteen of us piled into the two Suburbans for our trek up to the trailhead for an afternoon of hiking, "... Probably the most fuel-efficient way in the world to move 16 adults and kids up to 7000 feet. Prius just wouldn't do it."

I'm inclined to agree, and anyway, this is not the crowd to blame for SUVs crowding the roads in the cities and suburbs: these families are actually using their trucks as trucks. But too many people buy SUVs for their (perceived) safety, their (very-real) projection of power, or the (dubious) image of success they bestow, and then proceed to drive them like cars to and from the market and soccer games. The Suburban has the right size engine for towing and climbing mountains, but way too much engine when all you're towing is ego and attitude. Just because you can afford the gas to drive an empty truck doesn't mean you have a right to burn it: that aroma on the roads of Silicon Valley just may be the unintended smell of success.

When our families arrived at the trailhead for our hike to Crystal lake, one of the moms got out of the car, took a deep breath and said, "Oh! It smells so good here!" And it did. I said to her, "There's lots of good smells back home too, we just don't know it, because there are too many other smells on top of the good ones." I don't like the idea that it can only smell good far away from home. That sweet smell of the naked earth, uncluttered and unmasked, was one of the rewards at the end of our long ascent. But what about those hidden smells back home? How should our home towns smell?

As in the case of the giant, pine-scented logging trucks laboring over the mountains, one powerful smell can mask another. On mountain roads, I learned, pine trumps diesel (and how cool is that?). Back home in the Bay Area, the smells of nature are more subtle and diffuse than cut-pine: as a bicycle commuter who often spends time wedged between SUVs, I can tell you what smells are winning. I wonder: is there anyone still living here in suburbia who remembers what this place really smells like?

16 June 2009

A lover's quarrel

My friend Heather writes a beautiful, honest post about returning home to Georgia and the tension of how things change. She talks about Georgia like one might a former boyfriend--winsome memories of lovable qualities, and a hard encounter with all the reasons why it could never have worked out .... Her clear-headed reflection on the imbalance in the urban/rural relationship is itself balanced and evocative.

When I return, I feel...I feel betrayed. Atlanta has sprawled beyond her rightful and necessary boundaries. Or you could say the symbol Atlanta is of urban commerce has overrun its banks and flooded the rural landscape that gives that commercial river the right to flow in the first place. I'm not naive enough to say that commerce is bad or that cities are bad but I am principled enough to say that when the balance of urban and rural gets knocked off its fragile footing both sides lose.

From Heather's blog, Garden Street Farm: A song of you comes as sweet and clear as moonlight through the pines.

09 June 2009

Upside Down

Once I held the impressive title of Director of Marketing at a Java software company .... Ok, the truth is that the company belonged to my friend Steve, and he was in fact the only employee, #1 of one, until I came along. He asked me to help him staff his booth at the JavaOne conference in San Francisco. He made business cards for me with my new title on it. Steve had written a Java Obfuscator (what?) and I was doing some marketing/communication work for him at the time, so I understood his product as well as any of the other attractive young people who handed out brochures at conferences. Yes, I was a booth babe.

It was a blast being on the floor at a tech convention during a peak time in the industry, and we had a choice location. We were right inside the main doors, so that every single one of the 30,000 attendees walked right by our spot. I did a fair job of introducing his product and liked working with him. But the real fun was in walking around the huge hall at Moscone Center and just looking at all the stuff. When else was I going to be at a Java software convention? It was like walking around a city in a foreign country. This was back in the boom times, when companies gave away serious hardware for free. Each paid attendee at the conference got a brand-new Palm V, loaded with conference software.

I didn't do that well, but I came home from that event with a bag full of exceptional swag: logo key chains, stress balls, flashlights, all of it carefully designed so that we would remember ... something about some company being the premier provider of solutions that I'm confident had something to do with Java. My kids got it all ... except one piece of treasure I still use (and who can say that about their Palm V? Beam me your contact info, anyone? ... Anyone?). I visited the booth for Upside, a technology-and-money magazine that I used to read, where I managed to score a nice big UPSIDE mug. I'm drinking my coffee out of it as I write this, and I am almost awake.

This is still the largest coffee mug in my kitchen--almost ten years later--and that's saying something in America, where any technology for delivering food or drink doubles in capacity every decade (I believe that's Moore's law of American food consumption). It had the word "UPSIDE" printed in huge letters on it, with the words "PEOPLE TECHNOLOGY CAPITAL" in smaller letters under it. I say had, because those words are now entirely missing from the mug. Worn off, or faded, or gone to wherever all the money went.

Now you can just barely see where the words were. At the moment, it looks a little like one of those ceramic mugs that has a secret word or picture that materializes when you put a hot or a cold drink into it, the novelty item that reveals a hidden surprise when conditions are right. Only conditions will never be right for this UPSIDE to reappear. Sounds like the year 2000 and the promise of the dotcom market. Is my mug big enough to contain such an overblown metaphor? It is big enough that I will not need any more coffee today. After this post, maybe I should cut back.