Thursday, December 14, 2017

A weekend in Porto

Michael - Thursday

On route to a conference in Lisbon, I squeezed in three days with long-time friend and wine fundi Neil Pendock in Porto.  We’d been there before some six years ago, and remembered it for the wonderful scenery along the Douro, the wonderful food, and, of course, the excellent wine and superb port.  Indeed, this I where all true port originates and can be tasted in its natural habitat, so to speak.

We arrived early on Saturday morning after a trip from South Africa on TAAG (Air Angola), which is a story in its own right. After a taxi ride from the airport to the hotel (which told us to come back in eight hours when the rooms were ready), we took a walk around the sleepy town as the mist started to lift.

With its key setting near the mouth of the Douro River, Porto has been settled since around 300 BC. The Romans occupied it, and then the Moors took over in 711 and held it for 150 years. In 1387, John I of Portugal married Philippa of Lancaster starting the alliance with England that has lasted ever since. Their son—Prince Henry the Navigator—set off the age of exploration when his fleet sailed from Portugal to explore the coast of Africa. Not that it’s all been smooth sailing since then, what with Napoleon, revolutions, and a few world wars.

North bank Porto from the river

From the bridge
Seagulls have no respect for the heroes of the past
Wonderful porcelain tile mosaics at the main station

Did I mention the fresh fish?
I really should have mentioned the fish
The Douro is the world’s oldest declared and controlled wine appellation. This time we focused on the port, and we were very fortunate to have the opportunity to visit Graham’s—one of the premier port houses—with the very knowledgeable and delightful Isabel Monteiro as our host.

Although England’s love affair with port started around 1700, W & J Graham’s was founded in 1820 when the two Graham brothers, who had been trading in textiles at Porto, decided that making port would be more lucrative and, presumably, a lot more fun. 

John and William Graham
Graham’s was bought by the Symington family in 1970. It remains a family owned and operated business and now includes several other respected port houses. Graham’s, however, remains their flagship.

The Symington family
Isabel took us down to the cellar to see the vats and barrels where the port matures quietly over the years.

VV Old Tawny means from the 19th century
Port comes in a variety of styles. The tawny ports are the ones that age for decades in old wood, generating their smoothness and complexity in a way similar to, for example, bourbon. Once bottled, they remain essentially unchanged, waiting to be opened and enjoyed. The ruby ports are more similar to wine, continuing to age in the bottle. Each producer declares only a few vintage years, blending the others. Graham’s is among the most particular, careful to preserve their vert high reputation for quality. Their recent vintage years are 2000, 2003, 2007, 2011.

The view from Graham's
We finished with a stunning tasting of their high-end wines, each more remarkable than the previous one, and finishing with the 1972 single harvest tawny.

Six Grapes, 2000 vintage 10, 20, 30 year old Tawny, Single Harvest
Isabel Monteiro discussing the great wines
A never to be forgotten afternoon!

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Let's call Office Politics by its real name

Leye - Every other Wednesday

Photo by mattbuck

Why do they call it office politics when it is clearly simply bad behaviour? 

The terms, Office Politics, Workplace Politics, or any variance with the word politics in it seems to suggest that it is something less evil, less conniving, less manipulative, and less destructive than it is. Why the embellishment? Why not just call it what it really is: bad behaviour. End of.

If someone's kid habitually kicks your kid in the stomach, we don't call it playground politics, do we? No. We name it for what it is: a demon possessed child whose parents must now be summoned to a gathering of the school authorities and the other kid's parents for a cleansing session of ritual shaming. We must do the same with this wrongly named behaviour witnessed in our workplaces. We must call it what it is: unacceptable bad behaviour that shall not be tolerated.

In my job as an agile coach I often come across the worst in workplace behaviour. It's everything from wearing the most ill-fitting, colour-clashing, looked-better-on-the-mannequin outfits to work, to the huge Tupperware of What-on-Earth-is-That reanimated to life in the office microwave oven. The times I've approached the microwave only to beat a hasty retreat as wafts of the latest aberration to be sacrificed in the oven threaten to purge my lungs of everything good and cling to my clothes forever. 

But where some forms of bad behaviour require nothing more severe than a strategically timed turned-up nose and eye-roll, some particular behaviours deserve an instant red-card. All behaviours perviously classed as office politics deserve this one-strike-and-you-are-out approach, as far as I'm concerned.

This then calls for a classification system. How do we group various behaviours witnessed at work into the benign, the slightly annoying but not so bad, the irritating but 'I don't need to punch you yet', and the 'Your voodoo doll is getting it tonight'?

I say let's start by renaming the class of behaviours formerly referred to as office politics. Let's start by listing the behaviours and naming them for what they really are:
1.     Harmful gossip about colleagues
2.     Conniving to destroy collegues
3.     Plotting against colleagues
4.     Spreading lies about colleagues
5.     Withholding information from colleagues so that they may fail
6.     Withholding information that might exonerate or lead to praise for a colleague
7.     Knowingly giving false information to colleagues
8.     Taking credit for achievements and work done by colleagues
9.     Wrongly apportioning blame to colleagues
10.  Forming alliances to destroy collegues
11.  Practicing a strategy of tearing colleagues down to cover one's incompetences and / or mistakes
12.  Spying on colleagues
13.  Bossing colleagues just to feel important
14.  Bossing colleagues to make them cry
15.  Bossing colleagues, being unfair, unkind, and harsh on them because you don't like them
16.  Getting colleagues fired
The list goes on and on, hence the need for an all-encompassing term such as office politics - which is the wrong term. For the sake of brevity, let us simply refer to the afore mentioned as 'bad behaviours.' Let us further agree that no form of bad behaviour shall be tolerated. Let us go even one step further and state boldly, 'Call me out if I'm being bad.'

Now, that is a work environment in which I would love to work. A place where it is unacceptable to be bad in any way to the people you work with. A place where we shall only do onto others as we wish them do onto us.

An important part of my job is the wellbeing of the members of my teams. My measure of how well or not I'm doing at any point is whether I have reason to suspect that just one member of a team is waking up and wishing they didn't have to come to work because someone is making the workplace unbearable for them. I know how that feels and I cannot stomach the thought of anyone going through it: waking up at four am, unable to go back to sleep as your mind tosses and turns over the issue at work. The issue invariably is a person and what it is about the person is usually their behaviour; their scheming, their conniving, their plotting, their manipulating, their bullying, their violence in communication, their work place violence.

Hey! We just found the correct term: Work Place Violence!

Let us stop giving tacit approval to bad behaviour by employing euphemisms like Workplace Politics. Let us boldly identify all bad behaviour, name them and point them out when we witness them. Let us spread the word that Work Place Violence will not be tolerated.

I'm lucky; in my role I get to contribute to the creation of environments in which Work Place Violence is starved of the oxygen it needs to thrive, that oxygen being a potent mix of rigid hierarchy, lack of transparency, a thriving blame culture, the setting of impossible targets and inhuman expectations and much more. 

I have witnessed so much of the damage done to people by Work Place Violence that I am now instantly nauseated when anyone refers to it as Office Politics. It is not politics; it is violence. And it is not acceptable.

Monday, December 11, 2017

What I Learned About Writing from Cole Porter

Annamaria on Monday

When you read this, I will be in Cuba, where--I am told--I may be able to pick up emails once a day, if the power doesn't go out.  I am leaving you with one of my favorite topics: the ABSOLUTE brilliance of Cole Porter when it come to using our language.  Here is a rerun of a post from my past.  Please leave your comments, but forgive me if I cannot respond until I get home next Friday.  Then I'll be able to show where I've been.  

Having been brought up on a heavy diet of Verdi and Puccini and the music of the great American songbook, I hadn't a chance.  It was a foregone conclusion that the romantic and rhythm centers of my brain would be highly developed (in the case of the romantic part, undoubtedly overdeveloped!)  These things certainly affect the kinds of stories I write and how I strive (but with only intermittent success) to write them really well.

While listening to a Cole Porter song recently, I realized that Cole has set a high standard of how to tell a story.  We can learn a lot from him.  The song that brought this to mind is “Down in the Depths.”   Read the lyrics first; then we’ll talk:

“Down In The Depths" by Cole Porter

With a million neon rainbows burning below me,
And a million blazing taxis raising a roar,
Here I sit, above the town,
In my pet-paillated gown,
Down in the depths
Of the ninetieth floor.
While the crowds in all the nightclubs punish the parquet,
And the bars are packed with couples calling for more,
I'm deserted and depressed
In my regal-eagle nest,
Down in the depths
Of the ninetieth floor.
When the only one you wanted wants another,
What's the use of swank and cash in the bank galore?
Why, even the janitor's wife
Has a perfectly good love life,
And here I am, facing tomorrow,
Alone in my sorrow,
Down in the depths
Of the ninetieth floor

Without the repeats of the refrain, there are just 102 words.  Yet look how much Cole tells us about his song's character.  And he does it without ever describing her from the outside.  Every piece of information comes from her thoughts, her hurt.  The vivid pictures we see are in her imagination, born of her grief.  The words are gorgeous, and though they evoke the era when Cole wrote them, they still communicate today.  In fact, they come to us twenty-first-century listeners with a sheen of elegance gone by, and for me anyway, that intensifies the woman’s plight.

Notice the verbs.  They marvel.  Neon rainbows  “burning.”  He could have said “glowing.”  But that would not have spoken of pain.  Likewise, the crowds in the nightspots are not merely “dancing,” a word that would have lightened the tone.   These denizens of the dance club “punish the parquet.

Even Cole’s nouns work wonders.  His character may own a Matisse or a Picasso, but her once-prized possessions are nothing but “swank” to this millionairess who envies, not just other women, but “the janitor’s wife.  

All this within the constraints of a killer rhyme scheme.

Listen to rhythm of the words.  You don’t need to hear the melody to feel it, to have it enhance your emotional response.

Speaking of melody, that too came out of Cole’s heart and mind.   Here it is:
[A note about this music video: It is the best rendition on YouTube.  There are many, but the others play games with the original lyrics as the performers try to put their own stamp on the song.  Stamps that I think should be cancelled!  It also does something almost every singer does with this song--changes "OF the ninetieth..." to "ON the ninetieth..." which spoils Porter's bitter joke.  Other than that, the version I am posting sounds good and true, but its director betrayed the singer by having her make silly faces when she sang.  So close your eyes as you listen and conjure your own visuals of neon rainbows and elegantly shod feet dancing a bit too frantically on the floor at El Morocco.]

I have no delusions that I could ever follow Cole’s example.  But he sure demonstrates how it is done in the hands of a master and gives us a pinnacle to shoot for.

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Yule Love Tokyo in December

-- Susan, every other Sunday

Last night, my son and I landed in Tokyo for a 17-day business trip. He's here for job interviews, and I'm here to finish some book research and to meet with my immigration representative about the visa application I'll be filing in March of 2018. (I'm planning to return in late April or early May for a year, during which I'll attempt to climb the Hundred Famous Mountains of Japan and write a book about the adventure . . . more on that in the months to come.)

Today, I helped my son buy an interview suit in Akihabara. Tonight,  I visited the first of several Christmas Markets I plan to check out while I'm here: "Dream Christmas" at the Tokyo Skytree.

Dream Christmas!

Although most Japanese people identify as either agnostic/athiest, Buddhist, practitioners of Shintō, or "more than one of the above," Japanese people love holidays - and the Japanese culture embraces any excuse for celebrating, cute displays, shopping, and the exchange of gifts . . .

. . . making Christmas a regular hat-trick of awesomeness from a Japanese cultural perspective.  

"Dream Christmas" at the Skytree's Solamachi Shopping Center consists of a massive LED light display and a small Bavarian-style "Christmas Market" featuring a variety of traditional European food and beverages (glühwein, anyone?) - all set up on the outdoor fourth floor patio of the Solamachi Center.

Welcome to Christmas!

Twinkling colored LED lights decorate the patio area, creating a ten-minute strolling path lined with shimmering trees and sparkling stars.

It's full of stars...

At the center of the patio,  a row of shops re-creates a miniature Bavarian Christmas market, complete with warm soft pretzels, German sausages, and spiced mulled wine.

A little bit of Bavaria in Tokyo.
Jesus, Mary, and Joseph - and those are some nice hot pretzels too...
Red Riding Hood and Hanzel & Gretel - over the mulled wine shop.

Beyond the marketplace, the lights continue . . .

Sparkly. So sparkly.

. . . with a combination of traditional Christmas themes and uniquely Japanese elements -- including flower beds adorned with elves.

Nothing says Christmas like surfing flower elves.

Some of whom appear to have consumed far more than their share of spiced adult beverages.

It's all fun and games until someone throws the first punch.

Above it all, the Skytree - lit in Christmas colors - rises over Tokyo.

The Tokyo Skytree.

Visitors can purchase tickets to visit the observation platform at the top of the Skytree, though I didn't go up tonight. Instead, I opted to heed the siren song of the fabulous Indian restaurant in the Solamachi Center. (Hot pretzels and spiced wine are all very well, but they've got nothing on a bowl of chicken curry.)

I'd never been to Japan at Christmas before, although I knew about the Japanese fascination with cultural holidays, and was looking forward to the experience. Although I've been here only a single day, my Japanese Christmas experience has already reminded me of an important truth:

Joy depends far more on your state of mind, and on your choice to be joyful, than it does on any system of belief.

A 30 foot Christmas tree entirely covered in live flowers.

Tonight at the Skytree, I saw hundreds of people joyfully admiring lights and Christmas decorations, shopping for gifts, and embracing a holiday most of them don't celebrate religiously. They smiled and strolled, ate and drank, shopped and played and enjoyed themselves tremendously, simply because it's the way they chose to experience this season and this night.

Life is a gift, a blessing to treasure. Experience everything you can, and pull the joy from every possible moment. Not all moments will be good, or easy, or pleasant - but many more of them could be, if we take the time to live--and love--deliberately.

I, for one, intend to try. And I hope you do too.

In the long run, yule be a happier person for it.

Saturday, December 9, 2017

Turkey v. Greece, Round 2017

Turkish President Erdogan and Greek Prime Minister Tsipras


Flash!  Greek and Turkish leaders clash.

So what else is new?  Quite a bit actually.

On Thursday, President Erdogan of Turkey traveled to Athens, to meet with Greece’s heads of state, namely its President Pavlopouos (a largely ceremonial position) and Prime Minister Tsipras (head of its ruling coalition).  The event was billed as an opportunity for improving relations between the two long-time antagonists, but according to the press coverage I’ve seen, a hoped for kumbaya moment never occurred.

Presidents Erdogan and Pavlopoulos

No Turkish President had visited Greece in 65 years, yet what seemed to occupy Erdogan’s mind on this historic occasion was not the future, but an obsession with the past, 1923 to be precise. I’m talking about the Treaty of Lausanne, signed by Turkey, Greece, Great Britain, Japan, and Italy. That treaty carved the borders of modern day Turkey out of the now defunct Ottoman Empire, which had backed the losing side in World War I.

Please take note that I’m referring to a 94-year-old treaty, and not the 2015 Lausanne Accord establishing the framework for the Iran Nuclear deal, though the resentment by some to the latter seems to match Turkey’s attitude toward the former.

This was not the first time Erdogan had expressed his desire to redraw the Treaty’s borders, and I can assure you not with the intention of expanding Greece’s land mass.  Yet, to have made such an aggressive, face-to-face public demand upon Greece’s heads of state in their nation’s capital demonstrates what the French would call chutzpah.

But then again, why wouldn’t he?   Tough guys are all the rage in international diplomacy these days. And they’re getting what they want.  Just look around Erdogan’s neighborhood.

Russia annexed the Crimea and moved into Ukraine (yeah, I know, they’re not “really” in the Ukraine, Pollyanna), and what happened?  They’re still there.  Syria’s leader did whatever he damn well pleased to his people, and where’s he? Don’t ask, but while on that subject, where’s its benefactor Iran?—Answer: creating a corridor from its western border straight through Iraq and Syria to the Mediterranean, while battling Saudi Arabia via Yemen. 

Then there’s Africa and Asia. Tough guys getting rid of those they dislike (e.g., Myanmar). All following the same formula: offer PR justification, maintain the lie, and do as you please, because there’s no one to stop you.

The world today seems like a classroom full of very bad delinquents, freely bullying their classmates, because the teacher has left the building.

And, oh yes, let’s not forget China, subtly expanding its influence far beyond its Asia region.

Face it folks, the world today is a shopping cart for tough guys, because the EU is struggling to survive, and the US is retreating to within its borders.

This is not a good time for the weak, or the principled.  Beware.


Jeff’s Upcoming Events

My ninth Chief Inspector Andreas Kaldis novel, AN AEGEAN APRIL, publishes on January 2, 2018 and here is the first stage of my book tour:

Thursday, January 4 @ 7PM
Poisoned Pen Bookstore,
Scottsdale, AZ (joint appearance with Thomas Perry)

Saturday, January 6 @ 2 PM            
Clues Unlimited
Tucson, AZ

Monday, January 8  @ 7PM
Vromans (on Colorado)
Pasadena, CA

Wednesday, January 10 @ 7PM                   
Tattered Cover (on Colfax)
Denver, CO

Saturday, January 13 @ 2 PM                      
Book Carnival 
Orange, CA

Sunday, January 14 @ 2 PM
Mysterious Galaxy
San Diego, CA

Wednesday, January 17 @ 7 PM      
Third Place Books (Lake Forest Park)
Seattle, WA

Thursday, January 18 @ 7 PM
Janet Rudolph’s Mystery Readers Literary Salon
Berkeley, CA

Sunday, January 21 @ 7 PM
Book Passage
Corte Madera, CA

Thursday, January 25 @ 7 PM
Mysterious Bookshop
New York, NY

Friday, February 2 @ 7PM
Centuries & Sleuths (Forest Park)
Chicago, IL

Saturday, February 3 @ 12 PM
Once Upon A Crime
Minneapolis, MN