Category Archives: Life Moments

Know What You’re There For

I am beginning to worry that ours may, in retrospect, be called “The Age of Obliviousness”.  Worrying studies show that the almost 18/7, if not 24/7 barrage of “noise” (via cellphones, Ipods/Pads and whatnot) are producing people with a reduction in the literal ability to hear (an almost 20% reduced ability in some cases). Everything is on “full blast” — nothing gentler need apply. So too with garish visuals that numb our appreciation for subtler visual nuance, increasingly explicit movies where the visceral nature of the guts and gore on display somehow are acknowledged as “realism” (though the action scenes are almost cartoonish and outlandishly caricatured and only the destructive aftermath has any realism at all), and even cable channel “news” shows that resemble a bout of extreme fighting (an actual debate requiring attention to ideas would be doubtless far too onerous).

Last night my wife and I attended the 25th anniversary celebration of the musical Les Miserables at the O2 Hall in London (which usually hosts rock concerts)…over 30,000 people attended, it was beamed live around the world…quite an occasion for those of us who love this exceptionally stirring, evocative, powerful, edifying, musical masterpiece. Alas, the mike volume was at times so high that I wondered if everyone had a hearing problem…or would leave with one otherwise.

But far worse, at the end, when the original cast came on, and various songs were reprised, with current cast stars and the original stars singing together, no sooner would a song begin but the crowd would start clapping and cheering, thereby drowning out the very song and performers they were cheering for!

Though they were utterly drowning out key parts of the songs, yet people had a euphoric look on their face! It almost begged the question of whether they came to hear themselves scream or to enjoy extraordinary performances at an historic event.

Some of these original artists may not ever be heard again in these portrayals — certainly not in concert (pun intended) with younger stars at such an occasion. Rather than revel in the moment, to drink it in, to swoon (silently) over the performances being lavished on us, why scream, clap, and holler, competing to outdo everyone else in terms of frenzied volume, as if the main aim was to participate in an orgy of squealing delight? Let the performance conclude, and then indeed, let’s give back our appreciation and share our joy for all we’re worth if we’ve been overwhelmed.

To me this was a microcosm of forgetting at many junctures where we are and why we’re there. We tap distractedly on our “Crackberries” while allegedly with those we “love” in intimate moments. We listen half-heartedly at key moments when customers tell us what they need — though these same customers may well hold keys to our livelihood and flourishing. We arrive at a stunning spot for an unforgettable sunset, and are too busy posing in front of it for pictures, to take in the fullness and majesty of the experience. We kiss someone wondering how to progress romantically to the next step, rather than making the kiss worth lingering over and carrying on from in itself. We speak not to communicate but to project, we listen not to understand but simply to polish our own response. We have to manically look and act like we’re having a good time, rather than relaxing enough and being open enough to actually have that good time.

Our fascination with our own tastes, peeves, selves, as projected by twits who twitter endlessly, and Facebook-induced self-absorption, is producing a culture in which the exalting of who we are, rather than evolving and developing who we are, celebrating our egos over our potential, and wanting desperately to bask in the reflected glow of someone’s celebrity (rather than becoming justly celebrated among those who matter in a calling of our own), exemplified by the artistic obscenity of drowning out those whose talent you’re there to bask in (as at the O2 Les Miz performance), is becoming worryingly pronounced.

So what to do? Let’s remind ourselves that we are here to experience life, to experience and express our own potential, to learn and teach, to receive and to give, and to thereby meaningfully connect with others. Our sense of isolation and irrelevance is not dispelled by drowning out our doubts with unremitting loud noise, or dissipating consciousness with every pop-cultural or technological distraction out there.

Rather, our sense of existential futility is better transcended when we can fully engage and commit — to things we care about, to areas we are seeking excellence in, to those we love, and to purposes that require our genuine commitment. We grow up and outgrow our haunting fear that we are the sum of all things…and worrying perhaps the sums don’t quite add up. We instead tap into the generative, multiplier benefits of passion, community, love and engagement.

We will shout less, and enjoy more. It may be time to reclaim aspects of our sanity and our souls from all the bedlam. As we pay more attention to where we are and why we’re there, we’ll also be less easily duped and manipulated, in tastes, in ideals, in decisions.

And more people fully present and engaged, “here” and knowing where here is and why it matters, is something the world, the business world no less than the world-at-large, could really use. Let’s join that crusade!

Communication Matters!

Yesterday we were flying from New York to Jeddah Saudi Arabia — an arduous trip, mellowed by the superb First Class Suites on board Emirates.

We had four hours to “revitalize” at our Dubai “home” of Raffles Hotel Dubai.

We arrived at the airport in Dubai to learn the flight had been delayed from 4:15 pm to 5:35. I asked why no alerts had been sent out, and why this wasn’t updated, as we had checked not long before. They said, “We just heard.” This, by the way, was pried out of someone at the First/Business Lounge. Our Boarding Card had been given to us with the new departure time with nary a comment. Only as we were passing through security did I notice the time anomaly and then inquired, with some concern, as we entered the Lounge.

The new departure time was 5:35. We arrived at the gate just after 5 to see “Boarding” flashing. We went in. Crowds milled, including those heading to Saudi Arabia for religious pilgrimage and others, like us, going on business. Apparently, “Last Call” was flashing outside. 40 minutes subsequently elapsed, with no announcements or updates!

People started cursing, getting restless, some had been on a connecting flight and waiting since that morning to get on this flight. Others swore they would fly Saudi Airlines on this sector next time. I had learned in the Lounge the first delay was due to a late departure because of boarding problems in Islamabad — these days certainly a hotbed of security concerns. However, virtually no one else in that teeming crowd had even been told that.

We pushed our way out to accost the gate agent, who was duly hapless and kept saying, “5 minutes, 10 minutes.” This after 40 minutes of no announcements or updates!! People started yelling about missed connections, others said there was no place to sit and they weren’t “dogs”. Not sure about the relevance, as dogs would have found a way to settle on the floor doubtless with less fuss than us humans. Or maybe, that was his point…

No manager was in sight. Apparently, if you’re delayed, due to the long processing times at Saudi immigration, if you miss your slot, you have to await a new landing time clearance from them. That then messed up Dubai Civil Aviation paperwork and the pilots experienced the bureaucratic nightmare from hell, seeking the missing person whose signature was needed on the revised paperwork!

Regardless…passengers in this day and age understand security delays, and will swallow (as we have no choice) stupid “paper” delays. What we saw was mounting anxiety, aggravation and anger at an otherwise superb airline because the absence of communication made people feel irrelevant and marginalized. To have “Last Call” flashing to herd us all in, when clearly the pilots must have known they had no idea how much longer the signature might take, showed a “disconnect” between technical systems and the real aims of the airline…paramount among them, transporting customers yes, but in a way that builds loyalty and hopefully an emotional connection with you. To then have no Managers or anyone visible and present, apologizing or handing out vouchers to a nearby coffee shop, or just expressing empathy, created a real furor.

On board, they were wonderful. I told all this to the Senior Purser who sought us out as we’re premium Gold Card passengers who travel for a living. He was shocked that there had been such evident detachment and apathy.

Communication matters. Whether you’re trying to explain Health Care in a way that connects to people’s lives, or when the “ally” we’re propping up in Afghanistan threatens in a Press Conference to go over to the Taliban, when a service provider deals with an unanticipated problem, or simply when we seek to convey a tough truth to someone we love. “Don’t communicate until you have something to say,” is a pernicious default setting.

That way, companies have lost productivity and passion, countries their will, families their trust, due to people not over communicating in times of crisis and challenge, and paying the ultimate homage to the humanity of others: caring enough to build a bridge from the situation to our willingness to make it better for each other…to truly connect and collaborate accordingly.

This matters…so make it matter for you, your family, your business and your community!

Welcome Rituals

Each year if in New York for New Year’s Eve, my wife and I “run away from home”. We live on 56th, just off Park Avenue in New York. So to escape the bedlam of midtown Manhattan and to ensure we aren’t even tempted to go tromping through the winter slush in the direction of Times Square with its teeming crowds, we go 20 blocks north to the Upper East Side — a venerable and gracious part of Manhattan.

We check into the legendary Carlyle hotel, the art deco gem that has been a bastion of New York since 1930 — a hub of elegance and gracious taste.  Our suite has a baby grand piano, a terrace, and beds that you sink into, layer by layer.

Upon arrival circa lunch-time on the 30th, we walk over to Sant Ambroeus on Madison Avenue (which originally started life as a Milano pastry shop before migrating to Greenwich Village)…for a palate and soul-satisfying lunch — and arguably the best cappuccino in town. Then to Maison du Chocolat for a velvety dark hot chocolate. A traipse past numerous legendary retailers and we end up at Crawford Doyle, a book store reminiscent of how book stores should be. In short, knowledgeable staff, a carefully tapered and updated selection, civilized people capable of insightful exchanges or at least literate banter. They love hearing of our ritual in this store — it’s a succession of little experiences Henry James would have fashioned into an evocative tale with such aplomb.

A drink in Bemelman’s Bar at the Carlyle as a reminder of bars that invite human interaction and almost help you mature a few notches by being in them. Then dinner at the sumptuously appointed Carlyle Restaurant where classics like rack of lamb and Long Island Duck with Ligonberry sauce are rendered as they should be. A beautiful Cote du Rhone,  Chapoutier Hermitage (1999) caressed our palates with its power and finish.

An Ipod dock in the suite, a vintage cognac, a few puffs of my cigar polish off the first evening.

The 31st finds us lingering over Cinammon Toast and fruit, The Financial Times and some brief correspondence. Snow is falling — we are truly in the midst of a winter wonderland. Our tradition is a long walk through Central Park, to Belvedere Castle, across the Ramble and back, emerging near the Metropolitan Museum. We beat the crowds (just!) at J.G. Melon’s. Even the Michelin Guide gives it gushing mention. But generations of New Yorkers have already discovered and adored this place, for its jovial, no-nonsense, bustling atmosphere, and one of the best, most unfussy, but juicy and memorable burgers you’ll ever have.  A little shopping and we’re back. We’ll meet some friends for an early drink at Plaza Athenee (a bit of the Continent graciously transported to New York), then partake in another ritual, New Year’s Eve dinner at the exceptional Cafe Boulud (one of Daniel Boulud’s most exceptional restaurants, less flashy than his flagship Daniel, but with real soul). It’s across the street from The Carlyle, so the commute is just right.

We travel for a living…so for us familiarity rather than novelty is what we seek in our time to ourselves. But rituals of this ilk allow us to deepen enjoyment and appreciation each year, to bask rather than flit. Such times liberate our attention and energy and focus for each other, for other loved ones, and the abundant joy of life lived with grateful appreciation — a true “recharge” and “re-creation”.

Happy New Year everyone!

A Tour of Latour!

Superlatives tend to be gushed too readily. “The best ever,” “amazing”, “world class”, etc. But what can you say about the annual event at Hotel Beau Rivage in Geneve, where each year, a highly bespoke wine event, manages to  outdo rational expectations?

Last year, we tasted all the Bordeaux First Growths in the extraordinary 1947 Vintage. Added to their roster were Cheval Blanc, Mission Haut Brion, Gruaud Larose, Chateau Gillette and d’Yquem.

This year we were treated to a Vertical tasting of Chateau Latour…in particular legendary vintages like 1982, 1961, 1947 and 1945. What makes this wine tasting experience so special is a variety of truly “superlative” factors.

Usually only 10-14 people attend per occasion.

The Hotel Beau Rivage is the last privately owned hotel in Geneva. These wines were laid down when released and have never moved since. Zero bottle shock! The provenance is virtually guaranteed.

The evening began with a Deutz Blanc de Blanc Champagne from 2004 in magnum, with Foie Gras and Iberico ham among other canapes.

Led by World Champion Sommelier Enrico Bernardo (having won best Sommelier in Italy, then winning the World Sommelier award, past Chef Sommelier at Le Cinq at Hotel George V in Paris, and now running a highly innovative restaurant “Il Vino” in Paris — a wine restaurant in that you select the wine, and they compose the dinner around the wine —  tipped to be moving from one to two Michelin stars), we then tasted 2002, 1996, 1990, 1982 and 1978. The 1996  is currently quite delightful, (evocative of the ’66), the ’90 is currently not at its best but promises future splendors, the ’82 was a revelation, and the ’78 a real surpise — probably at its peak now.

We then had a “pause”, but what a pause! We had Amour de Deutz champagne from 1999 in magnum, with a few more Foie Gras and Parma frivolities.

We resumed the “serious” matter of wallowing in the glories of Latour. We moved on to the ’75, ’61 (exceptional and will only improve), ’53, ’47 (at it’s very best now — feminine and elegant), ’45 (powerful and intense, and still likely to unfold further in appeal and impact).

But this was just the beginning! We then repaired to a stunning dinner at Chat Botte (“Puss in Boots” believe it or not), one of the best restaurants in Europe arguably, finally recognized this year by the occasionally wayward Michelin inspectors. The menu follows.

Then to a private room where we had Cigars especially rolled by Davidoff for the occasion with 100 year old Audry Cognac. Magnifique! And for once, there isn’t the slightest hyperbole in attaching that appellation to the evening.

There was debate about favorite wines, meditation on life and it’s often furtive pleasures, sobering reflections of the year past, aspirations and hopes for the year ahead, the sharing of laughter and friendship and oenophilic and gastronomic pleasures.

While our party was not nearly so  expansive in mood as in past years, we dove into these rare pleasures with special gratitude for those we love, appreciation for those we serve in our businesses, and a sense of just reflection at the multi-faceted textures, challenges and opportunities of life.

La vie est belle! (Life is beautiful!)


Cream of chestnuts and skewer of scallops with white truffles served with Mario Schiopetto Bianco 2006 Venezia Giulia


Tartare of Cape langoustine with melanosporum truffles and Moulin de Calanquet olive oil served with Pouilly Fume Silex 2006 Didier Dagueneau


Ile d’Yeu cooked white, with Sologne farmed caviar served with Batard Montrachet 1983 Bouchard Pere et Fils


Small foie gras ravioli and wild pheasant with truffle consomme served with Corton Grand Cru  1971 “Clos De La Vigne au Saint” Louis Latour


Bresse chicken cooked in two styles, with forgotten vegetables (“truffier de legumes oublies) served with Chateau Lafite Rotschild 1945, Premier Grand Cru Classe de Pauillac


Chilled Delight


Macaroon surprise served with Chateau Gillette 1937, Grand Vin de Sauternes

An Abundance of Experiences

Just landed in Hong Kong…what a week!

At home in New York last week, discussions with two potential partners, scoping two major assignments, sneaking in a lovely 10 kilometer walk from near the pier to the West Village to Soho to Chinatown to Little Italy back through Washington Square Park, to Union Square and finally up Park Avenue. What a city!

On a plane for an 8 hour lay-over in Dubai, signing papers, meeting with some people on our team. Overnight to Singapore — “jet advance” rather than “jet lag” taking over.

A quiet Sunday — taking the family of one of our partners out to Morton’s (of all places) in Singapore. Opened a Meerlust Rubicon 2004 that was stunning, followed by a Lan Rioja Private Edition 2002 that was also breath-taking. Other than the classic Morton’s Key Lime Pie having lost any residual tartness and therefore having devolved into an “impostor”, all was well. The Avo Maduro cigar capped a great dinner.

Monday saw three fairly intense coaching engagements, two client email responses that were needed on quite complex issues, a phone review of progress on a major project, lunch with a team-member…whew!

Today we’ve just landed in Hong Kong. We’ll take our hike up the Peak tomorrow, have our favorite Peking Duck at the 2 Michelin starred Summer Palace at The Island Shangri La, engage with a client, meet another prospective partner, and then meet and hopefully make some new friends (fellow members of the Chaine des Rotisseurs from the US who are in town) for dinner at M’s on the Fringe.

Then a day off to visit some favorite haunts, get a massage and get ready to head back to Singapore on Friday for an action packed afternoon. In between, replying to requests, counseling colleagues, reading some superb books, and realizing that an abundance of experiences is a great gift — it keeps us fresh, sharp, open, responsive.

Boredom is a choice. I realize this is an atypical week by most standards, and we’re blessed by stimulus: cultural, culinary, relationship-based and business-related. But that’s come by plying a trade with passion, seeking out new frontiers, keeping eyes, hearts and mind (relatively) open.

We’ve got some major challenges and opportunities ahead this month, and if we tackle them imaginatively and effectively, and get a few friendly winds…wow!  Either way, it’s worth nothing else but full engagement. Whatever happens, we’ll be richer in experiences, more abundant in insight and understanding. We’ll be richer.

I’m tempted to say “I can’t wait!” But I can. To think otherwise would be to miss the precious now — the abundance of possibility in this next moment, the  next idea, the next flutter of emotion, the next shimmering of perception…flowing from everything that abounds right now.

Let’s wallow… in life!

Normal is as Normal Does

It’s July 4th in the United States, and we here celebrate the audacious experiment in self-government that was launched through the Declaration of Independence. “We hold these truths to be self-evident…,” it’s hard not get chills and goose-bumps,even  centuries later. We must remember though that the Declaration launched a war and the Founding Fathers would have been hung as traitors had they failed. Hence the Declaration concludes with a statement that “…we mutually pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes and our sacred honor.” This wasn’t rhetoric, it wasn’t chest beating, this was existential, it was the giving of a life to advance a cause.

In the 19th century the Civil War came, and Abraham Lincoln spoke about the nation having a “new birth of freedom”, as it struggled with the implications of its founding principles and grappled with the pragmatic compulsions of competing interests to assess indeed whether “…any nation so conceived could long endure.”  I grew up with this and it seems “self-evident” to me that these are rousing sentiments and moments in history.

Last week we were serving a client in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. It had been twenty years since I had been back. My wife had to wear an Abaya (it’s not a veil, it’s something that goes over your clothes, and covers your hair, but not your face).  It made sense in the desert heat, and as every other woman had one on, she didn’t feel singled out. Our clients were a Shariya (Islamic law) compliant bank. They were well informed, well educated, curious, eager to hear what was happening in the world, interested in books and ideas — it was very encouraging. Moreover, they pointed out Saudi Arabia has the largest number of new business schools and educational institutes opening of any place in the region, and in percentage terms, they said the world. That these are true educational institutes not madrassas or propaganda mills is fantastic. The local papers told stories of courageous women campaigning for women’s rights arguing that the relative subjugating of women is tribal and parental, and has no real basis in early Islam. They have a way to go, but it’s wonderful to read that this is a matter being debated and hopefully advanced.

The Abaya is normal in Saudi Arabia, our fireworks are to us with hot dogs and beer and hopefully shorts and t-shirts (despite the torrential rains we’ve had in the Northeast this year). We all think our heroes are the right ones, our mores the most moral and sane, our “normal” the right barometer for civilization-at-large.

I am not a relativist. I prefer shorts, and I like a place where women can fully exercise their rights and express and hopefully fulfill their personhood. But I also realize condescension is fatal to understanding. And without understanding we can’t communicate, we can’t help build bridges from other cultures to some of our insights. Equally we cannot then learn what they may have to teach us.

Preferring my “normal” doesn’t mean ignorance of what others cherish and value is what I should aim for. Perhaps I can expand my sense of the normal, perhaps I can grow and extend my vision. Perhaps we can choose to be more together, rather than less, apart.

When cultures make this choice, and countries, and communities, and perhaps even families and other affiliations, like companies, the world moves forward. Let’s dedicate this 4th of July, or any other observance globally of freedom and possibility, to this perennial movement.

Always Resetting a New Normal

My wife and I have just returned (despite all manner of resistance from the weather Gods) from Victoria, BC.

A few years back, this was an annual pilgrimage to attend what used to be called “The Cherry Blossom Walking Festival”. It was an IML (International Marching League) sponsored event, and we used to participate in the 10k (6 mile) and 21 kilometer (13 mile) events.

Victoria is a gorgeous town, scenically and architecturally. The walks, particularly the 21 kilometer take you on a stunning tour of Victoria, through the city, along the water and more. The first year we participated, we did so without any training. Boy did we learn the value of preparation! Amidst an international collection of walkers, some from Asia Pacific, some in military regalia (a contingent from Germany as it turned out), we limped across the finish line barely able to walk.

This set off a new hobby, distance walking and then race-walking. It’s amazing that what we barely completed in 5 hours, 3 years ago, we now do in about 3 hours and 30 minutes on a good day, or 3 hours and 45 minutes after taking too much of a winter off. And the 10 kilometer walk that once was such a challenge to do in an hour and a half, is now something we do several times a week at home in New York. Believe me this is not due to great athleticism. Anyone who has followed the ‘palate titillations’ portion of this Blog knows the hedonistic joys and excess to which I’m very happily prone.

Rather, the point is that you can re-set what’s normal through engagement, through application, and by willing to be uncomfortable enough — purposefully and in a focused way for a definite outcome (not masochistically) — to grow. You actually get ‘comfortable’ being ‘uncomfortable’ when it’s for the purpose of gaining a new aptitude or capability. That’s the only way we progress. We are willing to be ‘bad’ for awhile en route to learning how to be ‘good’ at something. My mentor and later collaborator M. Scott Peck used to say that there is a “paradoxical joy” that comes from being able to handle a greater magnitude of problem than you once were able to, and to be able to take it (relatively) in your stride. So the caliber of challenge that once knocked you for a loop, is now no issue. You are able to take on greater problems with the same expenditure of emotional energy, and perhaps even physical energy, that once was required by relatively trivial issues. That is the very essence of growth.

And indeed the walks seem perceptually now far more abundant in visual stimuli, in opportunities to savor the company of my walking companions, as well as some refreshing solitude for large swatches of the walk, because of the energy that isn’t needed to somehow force my feet to keep moving.

Two years ago, the organizers decided they could no longer keep the walks going. They said they were too ‘expensive’. I made so bold as to mention to some of the city authorities that since versions of these walks were running from the hills of Japan to Vancouver Washington, from Castlebar Ireland to Arlington Virginia (hence demographic density could hardly be an issue), that perhaps the problem was not the event, but rather how it was being run! Of course they disagreed! You will see this with clients as well, and frankly with many of us. We claim that our problems demonstrate that something is impossible or not doable, not that we’re handling it without the necessary acumen, acuity, perseverance or imagination! Much easier on our ego — but devastating in terms of opportunity cost. All those people who once came over to Victoria, presumably stayed in hotels, ate at restaurants, went shopping — surely there were ‘non-event’ windfalls for the city of Victoria? And therefore, surely sponsorships and other advantages could be secured as they have by other global cities to create “viability?”

Some local walking clubs decided to resurrect the walks under the title, “Phoenix Walking Festival” (from the ashes literally). They had over double the anticipated registrants for this barely publicized walk, organized by these non-profit clubs! So at least it’s back, albeit as a shadow of its former self, with far less by way of revenues, global PR, or people from around the world!  But hey, now it’s ‘viable’. Go figure…

Anyway, let’s all beware of assuming the problem is in the stars rather than in ourselves as the Bard suggested so provocatively and insightfully.

In Victoria, to mention those hedonistic aspects, we had a lovely suite at the historic Empress Fairmont. We found a place for savory Pho Soup (that gorgeously addictive Vietnamese delicacy), had superb Sicilian Pizza for lunch, luscious Gelattos, an impressive Raj-like Indian buffet one day at the Bengal Lounge at the Empress, a superb dinner at the Empress Room with a beautifully seasoned and textured crab bisque followed by a succulent canon of lamb with a Quintessa Cabernet 1999 and capped by a hot croissant bread pudidng (astonishing!), and the eclectic ‘Schnitzel House’ scored big once more with its escargots, Goulash and “Cordon Bleu” Schnitzel (with ham and cheese). We spent time together, with a beloved friend, took carriage rides, walked beautiful streets, and toasted the metaphor of our ‘new normal’ as we savored the challenge and exhilaration of the half marathon on Sunday.

We’ve decided that for us,  this time in Victoria, these challenges and joys, are VERY viable! We just have to continue to work on ourselves and our lives to ensure they remain so.

When walking or otherwise, that’s the game!

A Voice Heard Around the World

Last week-end, Susan Boyle stepped friskily onto the stage of a show I’d never heard of (which indicts my militant lack of pop-cultural savvy not the show’s popularity), BRITAIN’S GOT TALENT.

Not particularly telegenic, looking decidedly frumpy, this unemployed woman, who lives alone in government housing with a cat called ‘Pebbles’ (how wonderfully Dickensian can this get?), and who said she had “never been kissed”, was treated to jeers and eye rolls from judges and audience alike. You couldn’t help but cringe on her behalf as what seemed like an impending train wreck continued to roll on.  In fact, she seemed oblivious to this, and hammed up her moment in the limelight, making her seem even more potentially ridiculous.

It wasn’t actually ridiculous at all, it was courageous, and endearing. This was her moment and she wasn’t going to be embarrassed out of it. She opted to sing “I Dreamed a Dream” from the extraordinary operetta Les Miserables which musicalized Victor Hugo’s immortal novel so unforgettably and which continues to play on the West End over 20 years after it made its appearance at London’s Barbican.

I was at Oxford when Les Mis opened, and recall Patti Lupone (remembered best in the US as Broadway’s Evita, and having recently wowed audiences in Gypsy), doing a heart-wrenching and soul-stirring rendition of this song. It is a song that captures the despair felt by anyone who has been abandoned by life. Yet it is sung against the backdrop of a play that is itself ultimately about protecting a divine flame within us, about the indestructibility of goodness in the face of evil and despair — it is about love and redemption above all.

What a perfect song for Ms. Boyle to have selected! Anyone who has read THE WASHINGTON POST, been online, or watched television over the last few days, knows what happened next. As she began to sing, she was transformed, the listeners were transformed, the frumpiness fell away, and suddenly there was a beguiling angel on stage with a voice of beauty, pathos and power. It is hard to watch this without cheering along with the almost immediately ovationary crowd and judges. Watch it even now and it is hard not to be misty-eyed. Her performance is an anthem to how we humans can be so much more than we seem. And while we can deride the cynicism she was initially met with and how readily it converted to adulation based on ‘performance’, there is something to be said about the ability of passion and commitment to transcend doubt.

Back in the tiny village of Blackburn, West Lothian Scotland, she has returned as a celebrity among the 5000 souls who inhabit the village. Camera crews are pouring in, she received a welcome ovation at Mass in her Church, and people are even going back in droves to hear the original cast recording of  “I Dreamed a Dream” and will hopefully rediscover Les Miserables as a result too.

It was a Renaissance moment.

Why do I say that? One of the seminal works of art of the Renaissance is Michelangelo’s David, which continues to inspire awe timelessly in Florence. If you look carefully at it, you’ll see that a large part of its impact comes from the juxtaposition of power and vulnerability. There are rippling, almost God-like muscles, and yet a young boy’s youthfulness, the exposure of humanness in his unprotected nakedness. It is neither the Medieval glorying of the Divine nor the modern narcissism of the ego. It is both fragility and possibility in one. That was the high water mark of Renaissance philosophy, a true watershed in human history. It is arguably the essence of what it means to be human.

And it is precisely in those human terms that Susan Boyle became such a wonderful hero this week. Bravo! And dare I say, not only to Ms. Boyle but to all who have found this inspiring: “Encore!”

It’s More Than Optics

AIG that perpetual money sucking ‘living dead’ insurer, deemed ‘too large to be allowed to fail’, had a dispiriting announcement of huge bonuses. While ‘outrage’ has been expressed on both sides of the political aisle, AIG has claimed contractual commitments as a defense. People have said however that taxpayers who are hurting are unlikely to find that very reassuring. The ‘optics’ as one commentator put it, are terrible.

However, it’s more than optics. The denouement of the Jon Stewart/Jim Cramer dust-up which occurred on THE DAILY SHOW last Thursday (if you’re reading this in parts of the world where this has gone unnoticed and hence reads like ancient Greek, go onto the THE DAILY SHOW website and watch some of the exchanges — quite edifying as a journalistic ‘moment of truth’), was when Stewart poignantly pointed out that we need to go back to a time when you were rewarded for the fruits of your effort, for integrity, for being imaginative yet also playing by ethical rules, not by gaming the system, or partaking in a runaway orgy of greed and financial gamesmanship.

Yesterday, heading to an unusually satisfying movie (SUNSHINE CLEANING), I saw a book extolling the lost pleasures of conversation. It led me to consider how much of modern entertainment seems to be in the attention-diffusing business. Great conversations concentrate attention on the people you’re conversing with as well as yourself, and hopefully on the stimulus as well as the pleasure of the interaction.

Sadly, on review, the book didn’t live up to the dust jacket hype. It was ironically more about how to ‘game’ various conversations — be they romance conversations, business conversations or otherwise.  It was more about gimmicks, not the type of engagement and authenticity of exchange that real conversations are about. It has to, again, be about more than optics!

I’m convinced we need better conversations taking place now more than ever — in government, between government and citizens-at-large, between businesses and customers, between businesses and stakeholders, between families and friends, between intimates of all stripes.

“At a dinner party, one should eat wisely but not too well, and talk well but not too wisely (W. Somerset Maugham).”  In life, the well from which we draw our wisdom should not be the shouted assurances of Messrs. Cramer and co. and their ilk, but the more deliberate exchanges, and consideration of alternative points of view, afforded most often by wide-scale reading and wide-ranging conversation.

Mark Twain once suggested to someone that they stop “communicating” with each other so they could start conversing. Well, let’s at least stop communicating at each other. In the week ahead, let’s have some great conversations! And then, let’s keep them going…and expand them!

Not A Bad Idea For Valentine’s Day

We caught one of the last performances of a play from playwright Jane Bodie, RIDE, brought over to the US from Australia.  It chronicles some of the ironies and potential nihilism of contemporary dating mores.

A couple wake up in bed together, neither remember the other, how they ended up spending the night together, where they met, or even precisely what they got up to…the fact that they are both naked is indicative, but not conclusive.

He has the advantage, it’s his apartment. She doesn’t even know where she is geographically…’naked in North Fitzroy’ as it turns out (a suburb of Melbourne). They move cautiously around each other, they explore topics, dredge up partial memories (which still seem not to answer how they met until the very end), and wonder about whether they acquired ‘knowledge’ of each other (in the Biblical sense). He says with wry insight that they probably didn’t, “If we had, you’d be in a much better mood!”

At one key moment, she yells, “A few hours ago, you could have been inside me!” And he answers with almost equal intensity that yes he might have been, but he also made her toast,they explored various topics of conversation , played Scrabble, drank some wine, and danced to music, and they were still there together and it was now evening. “We’ve done okay,” he concludes. Indeed.

And while I hope you wake up where you expect to the morning after Valentine’s Day, the type of tentative but definite nurturing these strangers end up exchanging, albeit punctuated with both some flirtation and friction, wouldn’t be a bad anthem for this Valentine’s.

My mentor of old M. Scott Peck who wrote the extraordinary best-seller, THE ROAD LESS TRAVELED, suggested that love is the will to extend ourselves for someone’s nurturing and growth.While we plan how to woo and how to dazzle romantically, or even if  we’re contemplating a Valentine’s day without a partner, let’s make the day, the occasion and the sentiment, about nurturing.