Monday, November 28, 2005

Twilight of the Gods

Five days ago, I announced the annual Thanksgiving Mud Football Classic for Friday at 2:00 PM. They say bad news travels like wildfire, but in this case it was sweet gospel that swept through town with blazing urgency. Navigating the hordes of Carmel High alumni thronging the local dives Wednesday night, the tension was palpable. Danger was more than just a posted sign. I don’t know if it would be fair to say that a table was prepared before me in the presence of mine enemies, but at least two Sierra Nevadas were. I smiled grimly at friend and foe alike, and slept soundly the next two nights, having made my peace.

Inevitably, at times like this, I recall the anecdote about the prisoner who, chided by his guards for dawdling en route to the gallows, quipped “Nothing will happen until I get there.” Evidently, thirty other people were thinking the same thing – in other words, the CVMFL enjoyed by far the best turnout in its nearly seven-year history. The result was a defensive coordinator’s dream and a tailback’s worst nightmare. The score at the water break, after which half of the players excused themselves, was a piddling five touchdowns to four (extra points are not yet attempted in the CVMFL). For the record, my team lost the first series and won the second, albeit in totally different types of games.

If I learned one thing from the fallout from the season preview, it was that I could not attempt to pay adequate tribute to all the athletes who participated, nor could I have foreseen who would emerge from the shadows of obscurity and decrepitude to reclaim his lineage. Nor, I should say, did everyone live up to the threats he made against your humble narrator for his crimes of omission. In any case, I am not naming names. Instead, I wish to salute every player on the field Friday, to a man. Whether it was the ability to kick mud in the face of an opponent at a crucial juncture, or a well-placed jab in the eye socket en route to a two-yard pickup for the first down, you all contributed something ineffable. We can look forward to the Christmas Classic knowing that the legacy of the kings is secure. As Brother Scott Manke put it, we left it all on the field. And there, where we laid that strange, dark burden down, shall we take it up again.

I have a few fond (and self-serving) moments from the game: recovering my own onside kick, coming off a corner blitz for one of the most vicious sacks of my career, and watching time and again as our defensive backs came up with the ball after the Flatliners forced a bad throw with our relentless pressure. Although very few of them came on offense, there were too many great plays made by both teams to enumerate here. Instead, I am going to request that everyone add his own in the comments section. Anything that you feel is worthy of publicity, feel free to write down. The battle to spread democracy to our planet has come right home to this blog.

(Cue bugles and drums).

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Sittin' On The Dock Of The Bay

More than a few of you (well, OK, that isn’t true) have noticed that the content on this site has been pretty pitiful lately, and I don’t have much to say in my defense except that, for the first time in I don’t know how long, I have actually been busy enough to forget to blog. New city, new job…but more on that later. The important thing is, I’m back in action. As Mo’Nique put it in the underappreciated Snoop Dogg vehicle Soul Plane, “It’s time to get straight down with the get-down!” But where to start?

I. Well, this one is easy enough: The annual Thanksgiving Mud Football Classic will be this Friday, 2 PM, at Carmel Middle School. I am predicting one of the best games in the history of the league, and I can tell you right now that we can look forward to a stunning comeback from one of the sport’s all-time greats. Who could it be? There’s only one way to find out. Names have been named. Shit has been talked. Brother has looked into the face of brother and discovered the reflection of his own searing hatred. Nothing else remains to be done until kickoff.

II. Over the past few weeks, I have begun an exciting new chapter in the ever-expanding account of my dirty life and times. After months of flirtation and intrigue, I turned headhunter, signing with Goodwyn/Powell LLC of San Francisco – or, as I like to call us, the Pirates of 208 Utah St. The job is simple enough, to describe it: we get retained to find the perfect executive for a new company, and then we make a concerted effort to steal that person away from his or her unwitting and hapless current employer. We are the Samuels of Silicon Valley, anointing the kings of the age – or, at the very least, directors of business development. If any of this sounds shallow, ruthless, or like a waste of my talents, don’t worry, it probably is. I’m not naïve enough to think this will be my life’s calling, but, in the meantime I don’t mind admitting that it’s pretty damn sweet.

The reasons for this are numerous. One of them, of course, is being able to share an office with Shams, an Australian shepherd known for drinking beer, noticing hot moms at Starbucks, and terrifying a certain no-good cat out of its life. Whenever things get too stuffy, I begin prancing through the suite with an elongated gait, and Shams hops to attention. After all, there’s a big world out there to conquer. Another major plus is my “boss”, Brother Peterson Conway VIII, who in the course of my first day on the job set up a number of secret email accounts for me with obscene user names, ordered us quadruple Laphroaigs at the Big Four, and compelled me to indulge in an ocean swim at around 9:00 PM. I haven’t swum that fast since May of 2000. I haven’t felt that small coming out of the water since, oh, about 1988. Finally, I would be remiss if I did not admit that I get a vindictive pleasure from the fact that I am now in a position to capriciously select and dismiss people from companies like McKinsey, where I couldn’t get a job last year. Not to mention doing it all while wearing jeans.

III. Random reflections from life in the big city:

The menus at the Indian fast food joints that grace San Francisco (Pakwan, Shalimar, and of course Naan & Curry are three perennial favorites) include some fabulous uses of the English language. Viz. “Lamb curry with dominant taste of tomato”. Amen, brother. I couldn’t have said it any better myself.

One slight drawback to the cozy feel that makes San Francisco special: 795,000 people, 4 empty parking spaces. I suppose I’m not the first one to notice this.

I work not too far away from a mural honoring O.J. Simpson, who grew up in Potrero Hill and starred at San Francisco City College before taking his talents to USC. The neighborhood is no longer the uniformly rough place it was then, having attracted its share of startups, home furnishings, and import showplaces. Nevertheless, there is still a local strongman who maintains order in the streets surrounding our building, and used needles can be found by the pallets of junkies who sleep in the stretch of parking spaces under the freeway.

Even after all these years and the iconoclasm that has characterized most of them, nothing seems to epitomize northern California quite like the Golden Gate. Beautiful, vast – and expensive as hell.

A stampede of cockroaches across a restaurant floor isn’t necessarily a bad sign, especially to someone like me who sets so much store by authenticity. However, it isn’t necessarily a good one, either.

IV. Contents of my latest hand-burned mix CD, “Headhunting Music”.

1. Geto Boys, “Damn It Feels Good To Be A Gangsta”
2. Dr. John, “Qualified”
3. Glen Campbell, “Rhinestone Cowboy”
4. Gogol Bordello, “Occurrence on the Border (Hopping On A Pogo Gypsy Stick)”
5. Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, “Constipation Blues”
6. Tenacious D, “Fuck her Gently”
7. Warren Zevon, “Gorilla, You’re A Desperado”
8. Loudon Wainwright III, “The Swimming Song”
9. Johnny Cash, “Wanted Man”
10. Big Tymers, “No No”
11. Terror Squad, “Rude Boy Salute”
12. Crosby, Stills, & Nash, “Southern Cross”
13. Phil Collins, “Jesus, He Knows Me”
14. Randy Newman, “Short People” (Got No Reason To Live)
15. David Lindley & El Rayo-X, “Tiki Torches At Twilight”


Friday, November 04, 2005

Special Teams, Indeed

From 1987 through 2004, Frank Beamer’s Virginia Tech football teams blocked a total of 105 kicks in 213 games. That’s almost one block for every two games – something it takes some teams an entire season to accomplish (or not, in many cases). Beamer’s secret is, in fact, no secret at all. His special teams employ as many starters as possible, both offensive and defensive, in an effort to get the best athletes on the field. When the best athletes for the job do not happen to be starters, they are given the call. The result? Top ten teams year after year. Using the best talent available at each position - what a revolutionary concept.

It has often been said that we are living in a talent economy. Unlike my father and grandfather, no one ever told me to become a doctor, lawyer, or accountant. Instead, my parents, teachers, and mentors all said to do what I was best at. After a woeful attempt at learning computer programming my sophomore year of college, I decided that all other things being equal, talent and passion beat guilt and struggle every time. As a fearless communicator and writer, I’ve had jobs in editing, marketing, and headhunting. As a bumbling, incompetent, uncommitted programmer, I would have lasted two seconds if I’d even finagled a job at all. As a result, I’m a great believer in the talent economy.

Not everyone is, though. Last April, I got a call about an entry-level position with a sports marketing firm. Now, I’m a sports nut with a jones for relationship-building. I took the first slot available and the very next day I walked into their office, located in a slick commercial building next door to a major tobacco company. The interviewer was young, probably not yet thirty, and swore freely. He asked me two questions: 1) Tell me about a time you took on a leadership role, and 2) Rate your interpersonal skills on a scale of 1-10. For the first, I related my experiences as the anchor of my four-man kayak team, and answered a confident “10” for the second. The interviewer said “Great, that’s the interview – can you start next week?” I was shocked. I replied that I could not, but I left with an unsure feeling.

Perhaps I had just closed a door on myself unnecessarily. After all, I’d been looking for a new job for several months, without luck. Then it hit me: They’re more desperate than I am! How did it get this way, I wondered, if they were, as they claimed, an expanding company with a rock-solid customer base? My hunch is it’s an ingrained habit: when you make a practice of seeking anyone at all, and on short notice, anyone at all is exactly what you get. Maybe that’s how a company claiming to serve the sports markets of Oakland and San Francisco ended up in a small, depressing town in the no-man’s-land between San Jose and Sacramento.

Entry-level positions are the special teams of the professional world. They are taken for granted, and, at many firms, the least amount of care goes into filling them. For many people, they are more about not screwing up than distinguishing oneself, although a few folks do every year in almost every company. Too often, however, entry-level people are considered replaceable. Those sports marketers clearly believed that – I couldn’t name you one friend of mine with a college degree and decent grades who wouldn’t have landed that job provided he or she had bathed that day and put on clean clothes.

It sounds silly to say that the best companies are those that hire the best people – but the whole truth is that they don’t only do this for their best jobs, but for all of them. Frank Beamer has proved that even at invisible positions, talent proves to be anything but. Of course, football is different from the corporate world. While the star linebacker can also handle kickoff coverage, the CEO can’t take extra time and double as junior analyst. But star linebackers are born from kickoff coverage all the time. Similarly, a junior analyst candidate might prove, on closer inspection, to have “CEO” written all over him. The company that hires for an entry-level position with the goal of only filling that position has already lost the talent war. The question is not whether you can afford to invest the resources to hire top talent at the entry level. It’s whether you can afford not to.