Tuesday, July 10, 2012
Wednesday, June 27, 2012
But at the very least I can stand up for them when I hear the foolish and uneducated use them as scapegoats for state budget overruns, lazy parenting, and those who say they value education but somehow think they’ll get there by blindly bashing those who provide it.
Wednesday, June 13, 2012
Friday, June 1, 2012
Sunday, April 29, 2012
Monday, April 2, 2012
Monday, March 12, 2012
The reality is, I don’t have an office and an increasing number of professionals don’t, at least not outside of the home. My office is my car or whatever restaurant or coffee shop I choose to work in. My office furniture is a backpack with a laptop in it and a smart phone in my pocket. I work often in the evening on the couch at home, but I rarely, rarely sit at a real desk to work.
A decade ago I built my real estate career as a “mobile agent,” hauling around a fat briefcase on wheels, looking forever like I was headed to the airport. I carried active files and blank documents. Eventually I got so busy, had so many files I had to take an office at Tucker’s location here just to keep everything in one place. But technology has evolved enough in just the past few years that I gave up that office in December, took all those sales awards off the wall, boxed them up and stored them away.
Truth is I spent less and less time in that office in the past couple years.
Now all the files are on my computer and I access the blank documents via the cloud where my files get backed up whenever I’m connected to a wifi network. The sales awards are noted on my web site. Just as the smart phone led me to shed my suddenly redundant wristwatch and alarm clock, increasingly efficient technology has led me to shed my office.
Yes, I know, it’s important to be connected to people. But which people? As nice as my fellow agents are, I never, ever sold a house in my real estate office. Everybody there has a Realtor (themselves). I only sell houses out and about in the community around the people who actually buy them.
Watching TV and drinking a beer with a friend recently, my cell phone
chirped several times around 10:00. It was a client – a buyer eager to decide which house to buy. That a client would share home-buying ideas with me a solid hour past the time my mother always insisted was the latest possible for a polite phone call was just a measure of how the notion of an office – and having office hours for that matter, has collapsed.
And I’m learning to be pretty much fine with that. I didn’t respond to the texts until morning, but at least I knew what my client was thinking. Last Saturday morning, as I sat with friends at the coffee shop, a Realtor sent me a counter offer on that buyer’s home of choice. Using my phone I emailed the document to my client. No fax machine needed. Besides who uses fax machines anymore? Later that afternoon, on my way to the gym to workout, I got a call saying our counter offer was accepted. Before I got on the exercise bike I sent my buyer a text, “Congratulations, you just bought a house!” I ended up texting business details back and forth with him while I peddled.
My company still has a conference room I occasionally use, secretaries direct calls to my cell phone, and they maintain a room of computers, printers and scanners for my use. I pop in once a day, check my mail, make copies. At the corporate office there are techno-nerds tweaking the web site, marketing people promoting my listings, and attorneys on call if something goes wrong. So they’re still, kinda the sun around which I rotate, but I don’t need a physical office with them.
Jeremy is a 30-something salesman for a big printer and a member of my morning coffee shop gang. He recently left his Indianapolis employer where he had an office and took a new job with an out of state company with no local office. “Will you move?” I asked. “Nope,” he replied, “will just work from home.”
What about the synergy of being in the same room with co-workers?
I sold a house to a friend a little over a year ago and seeing how she conducted her work life from that new place helped me realize that my office was a waste of money and space. One Saturday evening last summer I cooked dinner in her kitchen while she worked directing an international team of specialists who were dismantling a company’s mainframe database and reassembling it in the cloud. With white, Apple ear buds in place, the mouthpiece hanging along her cheek, she stared into the laptop screen on a desk in her living room, watching distant activity and talking with an international assortment of distant co-workers. Twice during dinner she scurried back to the computer for a moment to check on progress. She doesn’t have an office at a company headquarters. Besides, that’s a couple thousand miles away in California.
Yes, the world is changing, and it doesn’t seem like something to fear.
I remember a PBS program in the late ‘80s in which a historian explained the operation of a Roman-era water-driven mill and followed the connected step-by-step advancements in technology through the centuries until he’d gotten to the computer. He ended with predictions for the future, one of which was that computers would allow people to work from home and commuting would become less necessary. Back then, pre-Internet and smart phone it seemed hard to imagine. But here it is.
My bosses worry about my choice to be a mobile agent. From the perspective of the past, it’s hard for them to imagine not having the office with the awards on the wall. But even now I look at the big, over-stuffed office chairs, the wood-grained credenzas filled with paper files, the back-up hard drives, the fat, white, big clunky computer monitors and the ancient landline phones and think it all just looks like an unnecessary burden.
Is that the same thing an early 20th Century car repairman felt when he looked at the old blacksmith’s shop? Maybe.
I know it can’t work for every professional, but being mobile seems to fit the nature of my sales career. That’s because I have no guaranteed paycheck. The paychecks are all out there, somewhere. I have to go get them.
Tuesday, February 28, 2012
Few recent reads have amazed me as much as Daniel Gardner’s The Science of Fear. Using scientific studies Gardner examines in detail how fear works in the human psyche and then often gets misapplied in our lives.
As a regular consumer of news and information, I’ve long been convinced we often fear the wrong things while ignoring real dangers. Gardner confirmed a lot of my suspicions.
His first best example is fear of flying after 9/11. In the year after the terrorists attacks Americans avoided flying. Airlines struggled to stay afloat. When we could, we drove rather than flew. Yet, flying, even when factoring in terrorism is safer than driving. A study compared flying and driving statistics and increases traffic deaths in 2002. It estimated that 1,595 people needlessly died on America’s roads because they drove rather than flew in the year after 9/11.
Why do we make such bad choices about danger?
When a plane filled with 200 people crashes, our gut reacts and the event is indelibly imprinted in our memory. But when traffic deaths mount in a slow dribble – 1 at the edge of town, 3 a hundred miles away, and so on, we hardly notice. Yet, at the end of the year, for every 10,000 people who flew vs. those who drove, more will die in their cars than in a plane crash. Fear of flying in the year after 9/11 actually made travelers less safe.
How about silicon breast implants? They can leak and make women sick, right? We all know it to be true. Yet, Gardner goes looking for proof and finds that not one single medical study has been able to prove it. You’d never know it by following the issue. There were endless, emotional news stories of women, with tears in their eyes and agony in their faces relating how a ruptured implant led to a connective tissue disorder. It must be true, right? Lawyers saw an opportunity and filed lawsuits. As newspaper, television and magazine stories of ruptured implants and sick women mounted, public perception was universal; they’re dangerous! Manufacturers were forced to establish a $4.25 billion fund to settle suits ($1billion went to attorneys).
Gardner’s conclusion: “Humans are good with stories and bad with numbers.”
What numbers got lost in all the emotional stories of suffering women? The rate of connective tissue disorder in women who’ve never had implants is exactly the same as it is in those who did. That’s why the FDA has once again approved implants.
Gardner explains (with the help of volumes of social science studies) how dramatic, emotional media stories create a recognizable narrative. When future stories appear that create the impression of a trend, they’re reported no matter how meaningless the related story might be, giving us an impression of a trend much bigger than it is. After Timothy McVey blew up the Federal Building in Oklahoma City, the media dramatically increased their coverage of militia groups filled with angry white men with guns, no matter how unimportant the story or minimal the threat. It was part of the ongoing narrative. 9/11 broke that narrative and replaced angry white men with militant Muslims. Now actual terrorism committed by angry white men gets far less media attention than simple charges or suspicions of Muslim extremists.
Needless fear also gets stoked when danger is presented without context showing how dangerous it actually is. Fears of both child abduction and West Nile virus are great examples of dangers presented without context.
In 1999 West Nile virus became an exotic new threat and spread through eastern states. Media outlets tallied the death count daily. Public health official issued daily updates. Public fear spread. Yet, only 1 in 150 people who contract West Nile actually suffer any serious symptoms, and far, far fewer die. But news reports rarely gave that context. They instead said things like, “West Nile claimed it’s 18th victim today.” And 18 was the grand total of deaths from the virus in all of 2002. They didn’t offer any context, like 875 Americans die in a typical year choking on food – that’s over 48 times the threat of West Nile.
Where’s our daily report on choking?
Still, a 2002 Pew survey found that 70% of American were closely following the West Nile story even though the chances of getting it were tiny, chances of suffering symptoms were rarer still, and the chances of dying from it were statistically miniscule. Only 7% more (77%) were following the build-up to war with Iraq.
Few things scare a parent more than the threat of child abduction. We have Amber alerts, we have Anderson Cooper specials about bizarre abductions, we finger print children and train them in self-defense. Yet, the odds of a child being abducted by a stranger and never returned are freakishly rare.
Gardner documents routine claims by law enforcement officials, child advocacy groups, and the media claiming “50,000- 75,000 children were stolen from their parent’s arms each year.” He goes looking for the original source of these numbers and can’t find it. The phantom numbers were caught in a feedback loop. One group used them, another group sited the first group’s use of the numbers, and on and on until newspapers and TV anchors are reporting, “Child advocacy groups claim that 50,000-75,000 . . .”
Gardner instead found a 1999 study that finally laid out the actual numbers. That year 797,500 people under the age of 18 were reported missing. If you take that number, subtract the runaways and the family abductions (one parent or other family member taking a child in a custody dispute), and then subtract the 18 year old boyfriends who drove their 16 year old girlfriends across state lines, and concentrate on just stereotypical kidnappings of children under the age of 14, you’re left with only 90 cases.
But then the personal stories of those 90 kidnappings get reported over and over along with unfounded numbers, “50,000-70,000” thrown in for effect. Without the context we’re left thinking our children are in terrible danger. What are the real odds your child will be kidnapped? 1 in 608,696. But an American child is 2.5 times more likely to drown in a swimming pool and 26 times more likely to die in a car crash.
So why is there so much fear in our world and why do we spend so much energy fearing the wrong things and ignoring real dangers? Gardner states it pretty well; “We are safer and healthier than ever and yet we are more worried about injury, disease, and death than ever. Why? In part, it’s because there are few opportunities to make money from convincing people they are, in fact, safer and healthier than ever – but there are huge profits to be made promoting fear.”
Friday, February 10, 2012
We so often avoid change. Yet, it almost always does us good.
On my first day of kindergarten I avoided change I with a vengeance.
I was the youngest of four children, separated from the nearest sibling by three years, so I’d had my mother’s undivided attention a lot. The idea of going off to school like the big kids didn’t sound at all appealing.
To put it simply, I was not going.
Kindergarten was held in the basement of the Methodist Church four blocks from our house in the tiny Indiana town where we lived. On the appointed day my mother drug me out the door.
We progressed awkwardly down the sidewalk like a push-pull toy - her pushing, me trying to pull away. And finally I did. Halfway there I tore loose and ran home. Inside the living room, I slammed the front door and watched out the window. When my mother came onto the porch I turned the lock, then sat on the stairs listening to her angrily pound on the door and call my name.
I saw her shadow pass the side windows as she headed for the back door. I beat her there, locked it, then ran upstairs and sat on the top step, listening.
If you’ve ever done something impulsive, out of shear desire, or fear, knowing every step of the way that all hell would break loose, you know how I felt. I could hear my mother calling out, trying to reason with the five-year-old that I was. She laid out a simple case: Of course this couldn’t go on forever. My brother and sisters would come home from school, followed by my father from work. And he had a key. I imagined all five of them pounding on the door.
Reluctantly, I unlocked the door and was pulled, not doubt with tears and snot and dirt on my face all the way to the basement of the Methodist Church.
Once I got done crying and shrieking and pleading not to be left there, I had an absolutely wonderful time. It turns out I loved kindergarten. Who knew it was so much fun?
When my mother came for me at noon, I cried because I didn’t want to go home.
Three years later as I reached third grade my parents announced we were moving. A nicer, bigger house had been bought in the nearby nicer, bigger town without us children being told. There was work to do to get the new house ready, so we would live in our old house while work was being done on the new one. I don’t recall how I felt about it at first, but I clearly remember the first day of school.
On that first day my mother drove us to the new town. As we drove the streets of the only neighborhood I had ever known, our car passed my friends walking to school – my old school, without me. I was going off to the unknown.
Our new house was a block from the new elementary school. I arrived to a classroom full of strange children who studied me, the new kids, like I was an alien.
I had never felt so alone.
At lunch the principal, Mr. Tresch, a little banty-rooster of a man with a stern voice and a face like a clenched fist came to every table and made each child take a bite of each item on their plate. I was forced, in a horrific moment of terror to eat a brussel sprout.
If you’ve never eaten a steamed brussel sprout – and I hope to God you never have, don’t do it. It is as vile and repulsive as any vegetable that ever passed my lips. There was more red-faced gagging involved than I dare describe, lest I trigger the involuntary vomiting reflex in the reader, as it was quite nearly triggered in me.
My mother had told me to walk the block to our new house when school was out and wait for her. When school let out, children gathered at the street in front of the old brick school building. Four older kids with orange sashes laid across their chests stood on either side of the street holding long polls with bright read flags hanging from the ends. I walked on down the sidewalk away from the group, figuring I would cross at the next corner alone.
But halfway down the block I noticed the principal, Mr. Tresch (the brussel sprout Nazi), coming after me, calling my name. He grabbed me tightly by the back of the neck with one hand and pushed me, unnecessarily hard I might add, back to the crossing point with the crossing guards, forcing me to cross with the other children.
Other kids laughed and pointed as Mr. Tresch explained the proper, safe way to cross the street. I did as I was told and walked the block to the new house, my face hot with shame and wet with tears.
Once at the big brick house I climbed the porch steps of that strange place and let myself in through the big oak door. The massive, gloomy living room felt like a cavern. There was a gaping brick fireplace at one end, an endless expanse of oak floors that squealed and moaned when you walked across them, and a staircase at the opposite end. Feeling lonely, I called out for my mother, but she wasn’t there yet. I sat on the stairway, put my face in my hands, and cried.
For such a terrible start, things went better than I had any right to expect. In that neighborhood I made wonderful friends. I played Army in Dwight’s yard and home run derby in the street with Tom and Bill. Third and then fourth grade faded into middle school, which, whether you want it to or not fades into high school. In that town I would kiss my first girl, flip burgers at McDonalds, sing the lead in the school musical, and be student body president my senior year. I learned to love that old house that had seemed so lonely on that first day of school – learned to love the oak woodwork, the French doors, the wide, long, front porch that looked out over parades that marched down the street each summer.
And in my teens, when I passed the newly retired Mr. Tresch wearing Burmuda shorts and pulling weeds in his front yard, he didn’t look so menacing anymore.
After I got married and had children of my own, my children came to love that place as well. They spent weekends and holidays sleeping in the beds where I slept as a child, being spoiled by their grandparents, the same parents that I once thought so hard on me by making me move to this new house.
As the years passed there would be other moves; dorms, apartments and houses. Most came with eager anticipation. They weren’t forced, but chosen.
Sixteen years ago, when our oldest son, Cal was 7, my wife and I decided to move a block down the street from the first little house we restored in Noblesville. Now I was the one forcing a move. Though just a block away, it was a hard move for Cal.
Our house at 1242 Cherry Street was the only house Cal had ever known and when we moved to the new house he never mentioned being bothered. But a few weeks later the people who had bought our old home told us they often saw Cal in the alley behind their house. One day they saw him sitting on his bicycle, looking up at his old bedroom window with tears in his eyes. Being dear people, they invited him in and let him play video games on a computer in his old bedroom.
My wife and I have been separated for almost a year now. And we recently began moving back and forth between our houses so that our teenage daughter could stay in her familiar place – the only home she’s ever known. Twice so far, my wife and I have each loaded clothes and a few random personal items in our cars and traded houses. Our daughter goes about her life in one place. It’s the parent’s that move back and forth.
This business of moving and changing can be hard when you’re not ready for it, or when it’s forced, or a surprise, or when you simply can’t stay anymore. But we have a way of adapting, and remaking our lives, and things somehow take care of themselves. And we become something else, something we could not have guessed at. And that is usually a good thing.
Wednesday, February 1, 2012
Update on yesterday's post:
A friend who is an even bigger history nerd than I am did a little research on the Alexander family.
-The 1880 census shows Harry, aged 10 and his brother Alfred (Fred) living with their mother Lucetta (Lou), their grandmother, and two aunts. No address is given.
-The 1900 census shows Harry and Clara living at 148 S. 10 Street (their home, I believe was demolished by the City of Noblesville for their City Hall parking lot) with two children, Trent, listed as a 2-year-old son, and Ruth, a 1-month-old daughter. They had a live-in housekeeper. Harry is noted as an attorney.
-The 1910 census confuses things a bit. It shows Harry and Clara living at 154 S. 10th (also now demolished, I think) with 3 children. Harry's career is still law. This time their oldest child Trent is listed as a daughter, aged 12, Ruth was 9 and a third child, Joseph is aged 3. A fourth child that had died is also referenced. Strangely - a family with the exact same names are listed as living with Harry's mother Lou, and his brother Fred at 201 S. 10th.
-The 1920 census shows a Harry, Clara, Trent, Ruth, and Joseph Alexander living in Dane County, Wisconsin. It notes Harry as a traveling salesman.
-From 1920 to 1930, Lou lived alone on S. 10th St. She was 85 years old in 1930.
Tuesday, January 31, 2012
The best tings about being known as a local history nerd is that people bring me old stuff.
One day in the winter 2003 I got a call from the secretary at my office. She was confused and concerned. Someone I’d never met had presented themselves at the front desk and left a soot-covered bushel basket, asking that she give it to me, saying they thought I’d enjoy it.
I love getting calls like that.
The contents of that filthy basket were found in the attic of a home being renovated on South 10th Street. It was crammed with letters, programs, invitations, and wallpaper samples. They provided a glimpse into the life of the Alexander family of Noblesville, brothers Harry and Fred, and their mother, Lou, between 1888 and 1900.
Fred Alexander wrote the earliest letters home from California. In those days young men dreamed of testing themselves in the untamed West, to “grow up with the land,” as they called it. Fred wrote home to the local paper describing his 1888 train trip across the plains and through the mountains. He then often wrote home from Pasadena where he struggled to make something of himself, working in a shoe store.
Throughout that winter I read those letters in the evening after work. I’d spread a towel across my lap and open a few of the filthy, blackened envelopes and carefully read. I’m sentimental enough to get a pang of heartache to think that the careful thoughts and feelings of an entire family, a record of 15 years of their lives could be left strewn in an attic and forgotten, covered with the dry-rot of old wood shingles and filtered debris from a reroofing job.
Time and again I thought, “I’m going to stop with this and give it all to a proper historian like Dave Heighway.” But then, greedily, each night, I’d open a few more letters and read. It was like reading someone’s diary - a guilty pleasure.
Summers in the early 1890s, Fred’s brother Harry wrote to his girlfriend, a young schoolteacher named Clara. During the school year she rented a room in the Alexanders’ 10th Street house, but spent each summer with her family in Clinton, Indiana. Harry’s letters to Clara give tiny glimpses into life in Noblesville in the 1890s. He describes the flowers planted in the yard, vegetables tended in the garden, the town’s gossip, the newfangled concrete paving of a sidewalk in front of his law office downtown, and the political goings-on in the Methodist Church choir. The letters mention once significant figures in Noblesville – Meade Vestal, leader of the town’s brass band, and Thomas Boyd, then Noblesville’s big man on campus, a state senator who would stand trial in a scandalous paternity suit in 1893.
In these letters Harry Alexander can been seen carefully cultivating a relationship with Clara. Delicate hints of affection – but not too much affection, suggest Harry was uncertain if his interest was returned. In each letter, he calls the Alexanders’ home, “The Rest Cottage.”
In 1892 Fred Alexander returned from California to the little house on 10th Street, called Anderson Street in those days. He falls in love with a girl from Frankton, named Gertrude. Letters over the next year tell a tragic story.
In spring of1893 Fred finds work in Chicago during the opening of the World’s Fair, writing faithfully to Gertrude, expressing his undying love. He finds an apartment for them and describes the people and the places in Chicago that he dreams will make up their world after they marry. He writes home before the wedding giving instructions to his brother Harry to, “rent a horse and carriage,” and “buy me a new shirt.” In autumn he comes home to ride in that carriage, wear that new shirt, and get married. But Gertrude is sick from a disease the letters never define. After the wedding they stay with her family in Frankton.
Then, in early 1894, Harry, who had gone to Frankton to help Fred through the impending tragedy, writes to Clara, boarding again at the Alexanders’ house in Noblesville, opening his letter with the stark phrase, “Gertrude is gone.” Just months after the wedding, Fred’s wife had died. Amid the jumbled debris in the bushel basket I found a stack of printed flyers, announcing Gertrude’s death. In his misery, Fred returned to California, then wandered to Florida.
But there were many happy things in that bushel basket – hand made invitations to the club parties that filled peoples lives before radio and television, like Shakespeare Club meetings in which members took turns reading the works of the bard. There were colorful, intricately printed invitations to recitals where local children would sing, play piano, or recite famous speeches. There was a program from the dedication of the First Presbyterian Church, a ribbon from “Bromo-Seltzer Day” at the World’s Fair in 1893, a program from a play at famed English’s Opera House in Indianapolis, graduation announcements, and calling cards left at New Year’s Day receptions.
As my winter wore on I followed Harry’s Alexander’s summer letters to Clara. By 1896 his affections were out in the open, and I followed letter by letter their wedding plans and his work to make the “Rest Cottage” just right for her. That summer he traveled regularly by train between Noblesville and Clinton, staying with her family there, missing her terribly when back home.
The last letters come from Fred, fighting in the Spanish-American war, still trying to make something of himself – this time in the military. From a small island near the Philippines, he tells of deprivations, military ineptitude, and personal disappointments.
I don’t know what became of the Alexander family. Don’t know how many children Harry and Clara had, whether Fred ever married again, or when they all said their last goodbye to the “Rest Cottage.” But I think of them every time I pass that little house on 10th Street.