Monthly Archives: November 2005

The Missing Staircase

Sometimes I dream that the staircase is missing. I’m in a large building and I don’t know my way around. I enjoy the feeling of being lost, but I know I have to get to the next level up. It can be a huge mansion, or a block of flats. Once it was a tower block with a crazy elevator system running around the outside. Another time it was a hotel lobby with ceiling several hundred feet high and only a hydraulic platform to take us up to our rooms, high above. Last night, it was just a stairwell in a run down block.

Sometimes there are other people. Last night there were other people. They were all taking the elevator. The lift. I didn’t want to take the lift. My instinct told me there was something wrong with it. It was broken. So I tried to see if I could find a toe-hold where I could jump across the missing stair and grab on to the edge of the floor above. There wasn’t.

Then a single person elevator stopped, ding, right next to me. I got in. The door closed and somehow it became a carriage on a train. Trains are good in dreams. Not just the ones that take you through tunnels. Trains are full of interesting people, going on interesting journeys. Trains can take you anywhere. They can also dump you out in stations that look familiar, like somewhere in London, but with no-one familiar around and all the landmarks in peculiar places. Once you’ve gone up the stairs into the sunlight.

One time I was living in a building without stairs right at the top. I worked my way around the tiniest scrap of ledge, no more than a picture rail, on the top floor of a building just to get the door to my room. Another time I discovered a secret society thanks to an elevator that circled a new tower block and descended underground to the hidden railway system. And then again, there was the time where it was simply an enormous train station and no trains. I wound up in the pub next door, which was warm and cosy and full of friends.

This morning, my elevator train sped me across a huge bridge, across a river. I thought we were going to shoot up into the air because I could only see out the top and it looked as if tracks went across the roof and the roof looked like a ski jump. But we pulled safely into a station. I knew I’d have to make it back across the river, over the bridge. It looked like a long way although we’d got there really fast. I like these dreams. Where the staircase is missing and the trains are crazy. I like the feeling of being lost, the sense of exploration, of discovering the unknown.

Many mansions and fascinating places wait to be discovered. I’ve seen some of them in my dreams. I’ll see them again in real life. And I’ll open every door and discover all of the hidden staircases. Then I’ll walk on air without realizing I’m flying until I look down to see my feet aren’t touching the ground.

Give The Yak Some Toast

Laura belongs to some kind of CD swap meet thing. Every so often a group of cyber-friends exchange compilation disks of their favorite songs, or something like that. Lately I’ve been playing them to death in the car.

There’s one track by Lauri Anderson, wobbling on about living in a South American village with her anthropologist brother and unapologetically making bad tortillas. “Now all the other women’s tortillas were 360 degrees, perfectly toasted, perfectly round; and after a lot of practice mine were still lop-sided and charrrrred.” To get the effect of this, you have to hear her doing a bad pirate impersonation as she delivers the word, “charrrrrred” like “arrrrggggh!”.

She continues: “When they thought I wasn’t looking, they threw mine to the daaaags.” It’s hard to convey Ms Anderson’s complete immersion in her own pretension here. But, for me, it’s her inability to comprehend her lack of engagement with reality that’s really irresistable. At least if you like mocking Americans doing bad pirate impressions. And I do. Like gurning when the wind is changing, there’ll probably be a price to pay but it’s the neurons make me do it. “They threw mine to the daaaggghs! Aaarrrrh, Jim!”

Another track is a reggae version of the James Bond theme, which has to be heard to be believed. I totally love this. And then there’s Yak, the story of a farmer told by this fabulous stoner guy. The farmer has a yak and the yak gets sick. The yak gets a fever. “You have to feed the yak,” the farmer’s wife tells him. “The yak has a fever, you must feed the yak. Give the yak some toast. Give the yak some toast.” The word “toast” explodes preposterously from the vocalist’s mouth, capitalizing the T and taking him so much by surprise that he has to repeat himself.

“Give the yak some Toast! Give the yak some Toast!” My car journeys just fly by.

Deep End, Shallow End

Laura’s take on things: inside Keith’s head is a pool of neurons, all freely associating and calling out “Pick me! Pick me!” I pick one at random and the words appear, formed, unformed, uniformed, completely naked… it makes no difference. Then I pick another one.

Which reminds me of a lecture I was filming this week. Well, two lectures actually. The first one was by Robert E. Quinn who was talking to high ups in the U of M medical school about leadership.

Leadership is Mr Quinn’s specialized subject and the random neuron in my head prompts me to write that it’s about dealing with the unexpected, about culture change in the face of chaos, about making things happen, creativity, all that good stuff. Management on the other hand is about order, stability, keeping the comfort levels high. It’s not about creating anything. It’s about maintainance and lessening anxiety.

Make sense so far? Good. Bob said a whole lot more too. He’s the author of a book which I’m sure Lucy would love, Building the Bridge As You Walk On It. But “Pick me! Pick me!” Okay, little neuron. Simmer down. You’re up next…

Lecture number two was also about leading and given by Karl E. Weick. He spent the morning talking to the same business and med school leaders about how we revert to learned—or over-learned—behaviours in times of crises. Look at a company in trouble, said Karl (who’s relatives’ names all start with the letter K), and you’ll often see the people in charge behaving the way they did in the jobs they had just before the ones they’re doing today.

Karl showed us a video of life on an aircraft carrier. One runway, hundreds of people, hundreds of take-offs, explosives, all pitching and yawing, slippery with oil and sea water, and crewed by a lot of people straight out of high school and college. Scary. But it works. Why? Team work was part of Karl’s answer. Team work, based on trust in the leader and in the team. Trust based on being open and honest. Clearly defined roles based on overlearning and some very tight choreography. Celebration of the individual within the team. Pride in the team. Humility of true leaders who value the result and the team above their own ego.

We saw a video of smoke jumpers following a catastrophe in which a number of them died. The leader created an escape fire. “Jump in!” he shouted. No one did. They didn’t trust him. They ran while he jumped and most of them died. Why didn’t they jump into the fire? The answers to that were the essence of Karl’s talk. Fascinating. I prefered the video of the aircraft carrier, though. Something about dangerous noisy jets and beautiful photography I find irresistable.

Karl provided various very concrete examples about human behaviour and groups in particular that shed a bright light on leadership. Karl also defined what a good lecturer should be. He was smart. He knew his subject, thoroughly. He’d researched his subject first-hand. And he was extremely entertaining. He was so good, I’ll probably buy the book. One of them, anyway. Once I finish the Dune series. It could happen.

Now I go to finish editing and then there’s work to do on a feature. Yes, that’s right. A feature. Pilot Fish written by Norm Roth and Jim Selleck. Directed by Keith Jefferies. Will people jump when I shout frog? I think so. I think I built up those leadership skills with cable TV. Keeping a diverse group of people together in a tightly choreographed team to create something. Many things. “Pick me! Pick me!”

Another thought. A social pyschology experiment where the subject is placed in a room with unknown individuals. They all swear identical lines are different lengths. The subject knows it’s not true. Yet he goes last and he agrees with them. Black is white, white is black in the face of group pressure. But the effect disappears with one other dissenter. A second person to back up an observation based in reality. Trust in the light of honesty.

“Pick me!” And then there’s the escape fire. Fire is the result of fuel plus oxygen plus heat. Remove any one from the triangle, the nice man from Herts Fire and Rescue once told us, and the fire goes out. The smoke jump leader removed the fuel. The fire couldn’t burn. Science is always relevant and the simplest science is the easiest to remember. Triangle of fire, hydrocarbons plus oxygen burn to create water plus carbon dioxide. Hot air rises, reactions occur faster when you increase the surface area to volume ratio, light follows an inverse square law.

“Me! Me!” Cognitive dissonance. The start of this thought train. Learning happens when our perception of reality and our internal knowledge don’t match. Dissonance. Leadership is about being creative in the face of this dissonance. Some of the solutions won’t work but that’s not what’s important. The important thing is to keep creating. Learn more. Try new things. Try some more. Keep trying. Avoiding falling back too hard on old, over-learned behaviours, past habits. That’s what it takes to make progress.

Publish and be damned. But publish! The neuron has spoken.