Monday, June 30, 2008


This year has seen a number of endings. Bill Gates is retiring from his day job at Microsoft to focus on his foundation. Justine Hénin, the best woman tennis player in the world, retired at the age of 25 while still ranked #1 to focus on the rest of her life. Euromad is moving back to the U.S. after two years in Europe and slowly winding down his blog. And, after eleven years, three jobs, and several hundred plane flights, I am retiring from the business world.

I have been planning to retire for a long time, but didn't want to discuss it here until the announcement to my company, which happened two weeks ago. I will be going to Yale Law School starting in September, with the eventual goal of becoming a public interest lawyer - probably working as a public defender, in legal aid, or for a civil rights organization. I've wanted to make this change for several years now, ever since listening to an episode of This American Life entitled "Perfect Evidence," about four teenagers who were framed by the police for a rape and murder and spent fourteen years in prison before being exonerated by DNA evidence. It's an old cliché, but I want to help people. Of course, there are many ways to help people, many of them more obvious than spending $130,000 in tuition and three years of your life to go to law school, in order to become a member of one of the most despised professions in this country. But my hope - or fantasy - is that as a lawyer you can help people in a very concrete way, one person at a time, when they need help the most. In any case, we shall see.

Of course, the hard part of opening one door is closing the other one behind you. One problem is that we grow up expecting our lives to be a linear progression onward and upward in which we monotonically accumulate skills, work experience, titles, money, and prestige. On paper, I should be staying at my company until we go public, or I should become a vice president at a bigger company, or I should start another company, or I should use my glittering resume to get a job in venture capital or private equity, or, if I have a philanthropic bent, I should get into the burgeoning field of social entrepreneurship.

But there's an opposite perspective, which I heard best summarized in an episode of This American Life called "Quitting." (Yes, I think that virtually every significant life experience can be illustrated by one or more episodes of TAL.) In one segment, a woman who wrote a zine about quitting (this was the mid-'90s - today it would no doubt be a blog funded by AdWords) talks about the central importance of "the quit" to ... well, to everything. Before you can ever do anything new, you have to quit whatever you were doing before. This is most obvious in the case of jobs, but it applies to many other things. Before you can have a child, you have to quit that simpler, easier state of not having children. Before you can be a vegetarian, you have to quit eating animals (and yes, I like eating animals - especially In-N-Out hamburgers, and New York City hot dogs, and roast chicken, and on and on). In many cases, in order to do something new that is good, you have to give up something that is also good. Quitting is empowering. Quitting is door-opening. Without it, your life would be the same thing, over and over.

And so I'm quitting career #3 (business) to start career #4 (law). When I was younger I regretted careers 1 and 2 because they seemed in retrospect like a waste of time and energy. In college I wanted to be come a professional musician, and auditioned for the conducting program at the Curtis Institute of Music (at the time, I was the music director of one of my college's orchestras). I was going to conduct Mozart Symphony #40 at the audition, but when I stepped up to the podium the parts weren't on the musicians' stands, so my slot was delayed until they could get the music. However, my friend Ben was also auditioning that day, conducting Mozart Symphony #39, and I knew that equally well because my orchestra was performing both of them that same night. One of my few regrets about my life is not volunteering to do #39 instead on the spot. But in any case I didn't get into Curtis, and after a couple more years of indecision I gave that up. Instead I got a Ph.D. in history at Berkeley, but by the time I finished I had neither the scholarly track record necessary to get a good job, nor the real interest in and dedication to the field necessary to stick with it. So I became a management consultant at McKinsey, for no particularly good reason other than that they gave me a job, and it was prestigious and well paid. I had no ambition to make a lot of money or start a company or anything, really.

Now, though, I look back and I feel lucky to have spent my college years playing cello and conducting, and I feel lucky to have spent most of my twenties learning about history and living in Berkeley and traveling around Europe. And while I have very mixed feelings about the business world, I feel extraordinarily lucky to have spent seven years at a company that I founded with five friends and that has provided a great working environment to hundreds of people and great products to thousands.

As a result, for the first time that I can remember, I'm back at home with absolutely no business trips planned and, besides a trip to Yellowstone with my father in August, no plane trips of any kind scheduled or even anticipated. I already earned elite status on United and Delta this year, but that will expire in February 2010 and then I'll have to wait in the long line with everyone else - a trade-off I'm more than happy to make. I won't have to get a new passport because there is no room left to stamp mine, like the cool kids. My last international trip was the three-day trip to, appropriately enough, Paris in mid-April, cut short because I wanted to get back to Yale for an admitted student program, and my last business trip of any sort, although I didn't know it at the time, was to our headquarters in late May for my last management team meeting.

I will miss the travel a little, and I will miss my company and my friends there a lot, but that's the price you have to pay to open a new chapter. And I'm grateful that the last chapter was one I will look back on fondly.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Traveling with Children

California Tortilla - 0 stars

La Cascada Taqueria - 1 star
2164 Center St., Berkeley, CA

Loco Pops - 2 stars
431 W. Franklin St., Chapel Hill, NC

I've decided to leave the business world - about which more later. One consequence, though, is that I will no longer be traveling "on business," as we say, which was in fact the original motivation for this blog. One of my colleagues - in fact, the one I was with when I ate the lunch in Columbus, Ohio that led to my first blog post over three years ago - said that she realized I would no longer have the "elite" status of frequent fliers on major airlines (although since I've qualified on United and Delta this year, I'm covered on five out of six legacy carriers through February 2010). To which, I said, I will be more than happy not to have frequent flier status.

Instead, most of my travel will be of the type I'm doing this week, with my family. My wife had two conferences in a week, at Berkeley and at Duke, and since she and my daughter Willow are inseparable, and someone needed to take care of Willow while she was working, all three of us flew first to San Francisco for three nights and then to Raleigh-Durham for three nights, where we find ourselves now. Over the last few years I have gotten quite good at separating myself from my work world, and this time not only did I leave my computer at home, but I didn't even bring a pen.

The week has had its rough spots, like Sunday, when I had Willow from 8 am to 9.30 pm and she threw up three times, which meant not only hand-washing three outfits but also washing the car seat cover and cleaning the stroller, all while keeping an eye on her, or Monday, when she boarded the plane happily, sat down and proceeded to cry inconsolably for 25 minutes straight until the plane took off, when she immediately quieted down. But there's still nothing I'd rather do than take a vacation and spend time with my daughter, even if it's just holding her in my lap as she slept in the plane.

Eating while traveling with a one-year-old is an exercise in finding the most casual option possible, so there were few highlights worthy of this blog. I had the old Dulles standby, a vegetarian burrito at California Tortilla (near gate C22), for perhaps the last time. I stopped at La Farine to get the morning buns, but Willow threw up on the sidewalk so we didn't go in. I did have a pretty good vegetarian burrito at La Cascada, where the rice and beans had a nice smoky flavor and the salsa was rich and spicy without being too hot. But the highlight so far has been Loco Pops, a tiny storefront with nothing but a freezer full of popsicles and a white board with the menu. There are about ten water-based popsicles and ten cream-based ones, ranging from classics like chocolate brownie and strawberries and cream (which Willow loved) to daring combinations like chocolate sesame wasabi (what I had - good, but perhaps wasabi wasn't meant for chocolate-based desserts) or mango chili. All the popsicles are $2, for every eight you buy you get one free, and the service is friendly. Some people order one, eat it in the store, and then order another one, which I would heartily recommend.

As for traveling with kids, I have two pieces of advice. One from my friend David: buy lots of small toys and bring them out slowly over the course of the plane flight. And one from me: don't expect to do or accomplish anything other than spending time with your family. Which is plenty.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

And So It Ends ...

Euro 2008 for France, that is. Although few of my readers will care (or recognize the names below), French soccer is part of the heritage I have gained from my travels around the world, and so the catastrophe of the last nine days deserves a mention. Today France lost 2-0 to Italy, in a match that was not as close as the score indicates (and 2-0 is a rout in soccer, as opposed to baseball) and was eliminated from the quadrennial European championship after tying Romania 0-0 and being obliterated by the Netherlands 4-1.

And like many real French people around the world today, I blame the manager, Raymond Domenech, he of the abstract philosophizing, empty gestures, exaggerated sense of self-worth, and questionable loyalties. He stuck with Lilian Thuram (a great player and a great man, but now 36 years old) at center back although he languished on the bench at his club team, Barcelona, until the disaster against the Netherlands showed to the world why Barcelona left him on the bench; when he finally decided to blame Thuram for the loss and replace him against Italy, he had no one to turn to (having used Thuram in that position in every important match for the last four years) and inserted Eric Abidal, who plays left back for Barcelona, where he is not an automatic starter either, and who played left back against Romania and was replaced for the Netherlands because of his poor performance in that first match. Not surprisingly, Abidal committed an enormous blunder that Luca Toni should have converted into a goal, then committed another enormous blunder against Toni and fouled him so obviously in the penalty area that we had the unheard-of: a penalty that no one could argue against, which gave Italy a 1-0 lead. Abidal was sent off (which was a bit debatable, but is according to the regulations), and Domenech responded by taking off a midfielder for a central defender, leaving France in a 4-3-2 formation that gave Italy complete control of the midfield for most of the rest of the first half, until he finally realized the problem and moved Karim Benzema, probably France's best center forward, back to left wing. (I would have taken off Thierry Henry, who is one of my favorite players of all time, but now flits around the penalty area like a ballet dancer and refuses to play defense, and left Benzema up front - like Arrigo Sacchi, the Italian coach in the 1994 World Cup , did against Ireland when, after his goalie was sent off early, he removed Roberto Baggio, the most talented player on his team but not, in his words, a "fighter" - and Italy won that game, 1-0.) When Italy scored their second on a lucky deflection, the game was over - France needed a win, which meant three goals, to stay alive in the tournament - but Domenech then replaced a winger with Nicolas Anelka, another center forward who doesn't even start for his club team (which is, admittedly, Chelsea), leaving France four defenders, two defensive midfielders, and three center forwards, two of them playing out of position.

Of course, there are many other questions to ask Domenech: why Thuram and Abidal were playing in the first place; why he included Patrick Vieira (great player, great man, but injured most of the year and recently injured again, making him unable to play in any matches) instead of Mathieu Flamini, who had a great season for the 3rd-best team in Europe's best league; why he started Willy Sagnol and Francois Clerc at right back instead of Bacary Sagna (voted best right back in Europe's best league) or Lassana Diarra, who did an excellent job during qualifications; why he played a 4-4-2 in which both central midfielders were defensively minded (although Toulalan had a good game today); why he started Henry, who had a lousy season and a mild injury; and on and on. Perhaps the 2006 World Cup made him feel infallible, although France only had two good matches in that tournament (the only team they beat in the group stage was Togo, and after beating Spain and Brazil they were outplayed by Portugal and drawn by Italy), but overall his record over four years is one of startling mediocrity given the incredible talent at his disposition.

The silver lining is that in all likelihood, France will now look for a new manager, who will start over with a younger team. And although few people expect it now, look for France to be a powerful force in 2010 when the younger generation finally takes over.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Another Country

Claude Postel - 2 stars
75, rue Notre Dame Ouest, Montreal

I've always thought Montreal would be a nice place to visit - I could indulge my francophilia and maybe eat some good desserts, without having to fly across the Atlantic. But when I visited last weekend with my wife, our daughter, and my wife's parents, I quickly gave up most attempts to speak French. Not that I couldn't understand Québécois (the accent is a little different from Parisian, but no more so than some of the French regional accents, and a few of the words are different, but nothing you can't figure out), or that they couldn't understand me - it was just that everyone there speaks English so well it seemed pointless. I hear as you get away from the center of Montreal this is less true, but it's an astonishingly bilingual place.

With a toddler in tow we were somewhat limited in our restaurant choices, but we did have some very good French-style desserts at Claude Postel in Old Montreal, near the Notre Dame Basilica. For lunch you can get custom-made sandwiches, a selection of panini, salads, pastas, soup, and so on; I had a tomato soup that was almost certainly made on the spot (I could tell by the tiny bits of tomato peel and the little fragment of bay leaf that you wouldn't find in a processed product) and a fresh Greek salad. We had a raspberry tart, a pear-frangipane tart, and a chocolate cheesecake, and the raspberry tart was the best.

Unfortunately it was the same weekend as the Grand Prix of Montreal (a Formula One race), so the downtown hotels were wildly expensive, and we stayed in Laval, which in French must mean, as my wife pointed out, "the land of great shopping malls." As an American I'm used to having the biggest of everything, but I have never seen an expanse of strip malls like this, just planted in the middle of an enormous field around the intersection of two highways. But luckily, to prevent us from getting too homesick, Ronald McDonald was in town for a convention.

My daughter and I visited the enclosed mall one afternoon so my wife could rest, and when she started to melt down I bought her a soft-serve ice cream, and she sat down on the floor to eat it, just like at home.

The main event was our friends' wedding in a little town called Oka, northwest of Montreal, out in the middle of an apple orchard. The bride and groom were both bilingual, so the English-speaking officiant read the vows in English and the groom repeated them in French, and the French-speaking officiant read the vows in French and the bride repeated them in English - translating on the fly, I might add. It was a hot but beautiful day in an isolated, quiet place, just like the day and the place that my wife and I were married, nine years ago.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Baiji, R.I.P.

I was reading my news feed and saw this article saying that the Caribbean monk seal, last seen in 1952, has been formally declared extinct. The article also pointed me to a story I had missed back in December 2006: the baiji, or Yangtze River Dolphin, last sighted in 2004, can no longer be found and is effectively extinct. Robert Pitman, a scientist who participated in a search for the baiji, wrote:

"We came to say goodbye to baiji, but after its being in the river for 20 million years, we apparently missed it by two years. Sorry if I got a little emotional here, but the disappearance of an entire family of mammals is an inestimable loss for China and for the world. I think this is a big deal and possibly a turning point for the history of our planet. We are bulldozing the Garden of Eden, and the first large animal has fallen."

His full letter is here.

I am very sad.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Where's Your Bumper Sticker?

Well, the Democratic primary is finally over, and in commemoration I replaced the John Edwards sticker on my car (although I will continue to drink my tea out of my John Edwards mug and wear my John Edwards T-shirt).

More significantly, I finally maxed out my primary election contribution to Obama, although I haven't yet decided whether or not to give him money for the general election campaign; at this point, he's competing with MoveOn and the national congressional and senatorial campaigns for my wallet.

Loyal readers will know that I am not the most fervent Obama supporter. Oh, I think he would make a wonderful president, but I think Hillary Clinton would have been just fine, and my preference was for John Edwards anyway. I just think he's a weak candidate in an election we have to win (Stevens - 88; Ginsburg - 75; Souter - 68). He has the oratorical skill and the tremendous charisma, but he has trouble connecting with "ordinary" Americans (read: speak zero foreign languages, don't eat arugula, watch NASCAR, ... what does it mean that people like me aren't considered ordinary Americans?). He has the issue-that-shall-not-be-named. Most tellingly, he was unable to close out Hillary Clinton, who actually won the last three months of the campaign, which is simply not supposed to happen. Once there is a front-runner, everyone is supposed to jump on the bandwagon; they even jumped on John Kerry's bandwagon simply because he won Iowa, and there was a losing cause if I ever saw one. Instead, on Tuesday after Tuesday, the Obama campaign managed to snatch prolonged agony from the jaws of victory.

Now of course there is the drama of whether or not to make Hillary Clinton the vice-presidential nominee. On which I come down on the side of ... I don't know. Most people I know are emphatically against the idea, saying he needs a nice white man, preferably a governor, preferably with military experience, preferably from the South or the Midwest or the West, preferably with foreign policy credentials ... But there is a case to be made that this year, given the massive Democratic advantage handed to us by President Bush, Iraq, and the recession, all we need to do is to shore up our base and get out the vote, and choosing Clinton would come close to guaranteeing that every natural Democratic voter will vote Democratic.

In the end, it probably doesn't matter. While the Republicans cleverly managed to avoid nominating a nasty, paranoid megalomaniac who separated from his wife by press conference, a pathological flip-flopper who ran as a liberal in Massachusetts and an arch-conservative everywhere else, a lazy second-rate actor, and a man who claims to believe the earth is six thousand years old, they were left with a man with no charisma and no ability to raise money and not even the ability to deliver a joke line, and they are now forcing him to kowtow to the lunatic fringe of their own party, having decisively squandered a three-month advantage in the nominating process. So my prediction is a race that is unprecedented in its mindless inanity, ending with a 52-48 Obama victory.

But just in case, MoveOn is giving away free bumper stickers. So get yours now.

Monday, June 09, 2008

If It's June in an Even Year ...

I'm just back from a weekend in Montreal, on which more later, but while in the hotel I managed to steal a few minutes watching bits of some early matches of Euro 2008 (Switzerland-Czech Republic, Germany-Poland, and Croatia-Austria) - the quadrennial championship of European national soccer teams. The European Championship always falls halfway between two World Cups, and so every even year there is world-class soccer (or an approximation thereof, given how tired all the players are, following a nine-month competitive season with another month in the heat of the summer) to watch in June. Although I am one of those people who prefer club soccer to international soccer - I think Man United or Chelsea could beat any national all-star team, and for that matter the Celtics or Lakers could beat any basketball all-star team, including the American one - the latter draws more television coverage, and hence is more accessible in the U.S.

Since I began following soccer in 1994 when I lived in France, I adopted that country's soccer team along with its food and its language. France was not actually in the 1994 World Cup, having failed to qualify by somehow managing to lose to both Israel and Bulgaria at home in its final two qualifying matches, the latter in the final minutes0. But during the 1996 European Championship I was touring Southern Italy as a writer for The Berkeley Guides, watching matches in bars packed with Italian fans (Arrigo Sacchi, then coach of the Italian team, played with "very tight lines," one man explained to me), as an ultra-defensive French team made it to the semifinals. Then, of course, there was 1998, when the World Cup was played in France, and I spent the whole time in London working on a consulting project so brutal that I missed virtually every game. But I made it back to my hotel room for the last half hour of the France-Croatia semifinal, when Lilian Thuram scored the only two goals of his entire international career (over 100 matches and counting) to salvage a 2-1 win, and that weekend in McKinsey's Toronto office we photocopied the final binders and I headed straight to a bar to watch most of the final, when France stunned Brazil 3-0. In 2000 I was in California, nine hours behind Europe and working all the time (this was Ariba at the peak of the boom), and I don't think I had any TV coverage anyway, so I missed watching France come from behind to beat Italy 2-1 in the finals. Then there were the embarrassments of 2002, when I stayed up late to watch France fail to score a goal in the first round (against Senegal, Uruguay, and Denmark, if my memory serves me), and of 2004, when an aging, tired team got booted out in the quarters by Greece. By 2006, I had a DVR, so I watched most of the World Cup, suffering through the painful final against Italy and the media's maddening obsession with Zinedine Zidane, who was at best the fifth-best player on the team, after both central defenders and both defensive midfielders - all of whom were black, by the way, but one shouldn't hold that against Zidane, who is an admirable person who has spoken out against racism on many occasions, and did not cost France the final - that was David Trezeguet, who is a great player, but who missed his penalty kick. But I digress.

As always, France enters this year's European Championship as one of the favorites, which means that all of her fans are expecting her to self-destruct, either early or late. And to be aided in the process by the current coach, Raymond Domenech, who has always seemed out of his depth and has compensated by being not only illogical but vague and inscrutable. He is best known for reaching the finals of the 2006 World Cup, but under his direction France barely qualified for that event (squeaking by Ireland, Switzerland, Israel thanks to a tremendous goal by Thierry Henry in Ireland), needed to beat Togo just to get out of the group stage, and only qualified for Euro 2008 thanks to Georgia defeating Scotland in one of the last matches. On top of that, Domenech insists on starting players who have served him well in the past but are no longer good enough even to start for their club teams, for example playing Willy Sagnol at right-back despite his missing virtually the whole season due to injury and not even including Bacary Sagna in the team, even though he was voted the best right-back in the English league. Most shockingly, Domenech left off the team David Trezeguet, the second-highest scorer in the Italian league and one of the deadliest strikers in the world (and the focus of Adidas's promotional campaign), in favor of two players who don't even start for their club teams (Henry at Barcelona and Nicolas Anelka at Chelsea).

Which is a long way of getting to the point, that today France drew 0-0 with Romania, the weakest team in their group, and no one knows where the offense is going to come from. So it could be a long few weeks.