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It's a fine line between living for the moment and being a sociopath.

Patricia B McConnell: For The Love Of A Dog.

Pema Chodron: The Places That Scare You

Daniel Wallace: Mr Sebastian & the Negro Magician

All paths lead to the same goal: to convey to others what we are. --Pablo Neruda

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Location: Oxfordshire, United Kingdom

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Sunday, April 30, 2000

LA Unconfidential #4

L.A. Unconfidential
Number 4
April 30, 2000

Welcome to Redondo Beach, my new home. I’m in recovery after my initial conniption about living in a place featured so prominently in a Beach Boys song. I moved today, so y’all can come visit, now. Before, you would have been snuggling up next to me at the un-homey Homestead Village. As of today there’s a spare bedroom here for any of you who want to take part in the sport of visiting giddy mischief upon the unsuspecting locals. Just as soon as I figure out how to work the garage door, I’ll be seriously dangerous.

The experience of finding and moving into a new home has proven to me that “Internet time” has ramifications beyond the obvious. Normally, I can’t stand spending money on things I don’t really want. When you move into a new place, in a country with different voltage standards, you’ve gotta fork out for a whole lot of stuff that brings none of the normal joy of a consumer frenzy: washing machine, refrigerator, vacuum cleaner and an unintoxicating list of other crap that distracts disposable income away from real priorities, like a candy-ass red convertible.

In real life, you can ameliorate the pain of draining the sports car fund by buying second-hand. And, normally, that’s how I walk away from the process thinking I’m pretty smart to keep my shekels from gracing a retail margin. So, off I went this morning, driving around looking at four-year-old Maytags. My forbearance—normally short-wicked enough to stump an atomic clock—has definitely been influenced by my new professional environment. I gave in to the “fuck it” paradigm in record time. After about the third classified ad-inspired suburban appliance inspection, I ran stop signs on the way to Best Buy, collared a sales guy, and had him walk me around the store telling me what to get. Done in 46 minutes. Right down to the freakin’ ironing board.

Why’s that Internet time? Because with the time I saved, I went to the office.

Actually, shopping with the salesman at Best Buy was perversely fun. Guys know how to shop without turning it into Gestalt experiential therapy. It’s hunt and kill, not gaze in wonder. But you still do a weird kind of dance. Two guys talking about spin cycles, for instance, is hilarious. Both he and I knew, beyond any whisker of doubt, that I would never, ever give a spin cycle another thought regardless of the length of my natural life. But there we both were, doing our level best to pretend that spin cycles really are pretty damn important. And I have now thought more deeply about reverse agitation than I ever conceived possible. Don’t even get me started on automatic fabric softener dispensers.

On much more important matters, I have been startled to realize that, because of my move, I have to re-learn a bunch of stuff about which I was once confident. California wine doesn’t taste like Aussie wine. And before you get your panties in a wad with the exhalative force of your “No duh!”, consider for a minute just how weird it would be if, all of a sudden, a chardonnay didn’t taste like a chardonnay anymore, and a merlot washed over your tongue like some alien elixir. Having to taste varietals with which I thought I was familiar, seemingly for the first time, is disorienting to the amateur wine wanker such as I. It’s also a good excuse to drink buckets of the stuff in the name of re-education.

A brief professional update: work continues to get more challenging and more fun each week. Another day passes and I’m further behind. In the course of normal daily work, there is no way to avoid rounding corners that reveal new alleys of activity demanding pursuit. It is the source of fascination and frustration, excitement and anxiety. At a start-up, there is no way to “get all caught up”. It even exceeds consulting in its relentlessness. For those of us who are dysfunctionally intense about our passions, it is a candy store.

The biggest event in the last work week was an addition to my little Media and Content team: a web editor. This is a strange beast. Like almost all ‘net job titles, this one is almost meaningless, yet no web-based company can function without such animals. If you buy them at maturity—which comes not only after puberty, but also after the exhaustion of any fascination with Starbuck’s products—they command a pirate’s chest of Doubloons. You can, however, grow your own, which is my approach. High risk, but cheaper and more fun. I just hope she can spell.

For those of you who have been occasionally replying to L.A. Unconfidential, keep your e-post-it notes coming. In a land of 300 million people and no dinner date, your offerings, however brief, however filled with what might otherwise be considered trivial drivel, are a lifeline. And I’ll accept them as the best you can do if you’re too damn lame to come visit.


Monday, April 17, 2000

LA Unconfidential #3

L.A. Unconfidential
April 17, 2000

Don’t take anybody’s word that it don’t rain in southern California. I don’t know why every freakin’ Ally McBeal episode has to end with her walking down a Boston sidewalk in some kind of precipitation but, tonight, I looked out my Los Angeles window and felt like she and I were in the same town. When I was packing in Sydney, a few weeks ago, I looked at my Drizabone and my leather jacket, gave a chuckle, and shoved ‘em in a box to be shipped—literally, by ship. Now, Smartypants isn’t chuckling. I’m rifling through my bags this morning trying to find anything the least bit water repellent.

This dispatch will be a short one. I’ve been sinking all my spare time into trying to find a place to live. It’s one of my least favorite things to do: deal with real estate agents in a tight housing market. Just behind the smile and the handshake is a functioning brain solving the riddle “How can I screw this guy just a little more?” On the other hand, it’s amazing how many nice folks you run into when wandering around their apartment buildings. I’m sure this isn’t uniquely American or Californian but, damn, I’ve never had so many people strike up a conversation to tell me how wonderful their worlds are. “Hi! You lookin’ at an apartment in the building? Hey, you’ll love it here. Everybody’s real nice.”

I’m sure they are…and I hope they had some of their rent somewhere other than the stock market. I’m not usually superstitious, but no sooner had I written about the market being ready for rehab, in the last Unconfidential, than it decides to get intimate with the world’s worst withdrawal symptoms. The market crashed big on Friday; by Saturday people were calling me asking how that’s going to affect my future. Fortunately, we’re just slightly better funded than that. So, like, I’m good at least through the end of next week.

I’m in the midst of inking the first few important content deals for the business. For those of you who didn’t understand a word of that sentence, hears the translation: I’m buying a bunch of indexed material (text and pictures, mostly) that visitors to our site will want to access. There are a couple of ways to give our visitors access to the information they want: write it for them, buy it (or, really, rent it) from someone else and give it to them, or provide links to it on someone else’s site. We want to rent a bunch of stuff. Part of my first couple of weeks was spent finding the best stuff. Now, we’re negotiating with the folks who own it. It’s fun. On the other hand, it’s not that hard. Only time will tell if I pay too much. Fortunately, given the markets’ gymnastics, it’s a good time for any one who has actual money. It’s nice to be the customer, too, after four years as a client servant.

This weekend is Easter. Sylvana’s coming over to spend a week. Maybe I won’t be such a dweeb for seven days. We’ll be spending Easter weekend with my mom in San Diego. Beach. Walks. Mom talking about sex. The usual.

Being a relatively short drive from my mom is different than you might think. My sister, Sandy, was jubilant when I arrived in California—not because she was happy to have me closer to her—but because she figured she’d finally have someone who would understand what it’s like to live near Mom, but never get to see her…because Mom’s always gallivanting. I arrived in LA, had a celebratory phone call with Mom, then she choofed off to Baja. So, I’ve been about 90 miles from Mom’s house for the last three weeks, after ten years in Australia, and I still haven’t seen her. She just got back from Baja, so I’ll see her for Easter, then she’s off to Alaska. Who knows when we’ll catch up again? As my old workmate Miranda used to say: “Bless her.” I love having a mom everybody likes hearing stories about.

Before I check out for the week, I’d just like to course-correct something. Some folks have mentioned that these notes sound a bit down. Hang with me, fellas. I write these at my most reflective. Usually, you’re my Saturday night company, maybe after a movie and a quiet dinner for one. So, yeah, you’re getting the questioning, searching Houston, thinking about the trade-offs of life, the inspiration and tragedy of choices, and the wonder of the unknown that is so close at hand. You’re right; you’re not getting the unabashedly celebratory Houston in these notes—the one that aspires to grope each new day with giddy mischief. But you’re more than welcome to come visit him.

Saturday, April 08, 2000

LA Unconfidential #2

L.A. Unconfidential
April 8

Two weeks in Los Angeles. Two weeks in a weird web/healthcare startup. Two weeks feeling completely decontextualised. I remember feeling this way—for a much shorter time, if more intensely—the first time I jumped out of an airplane. Nothing familiar, a total absence of reference points, but a strong sense that the adventure would be worth it.

This past week, the stock markets went on an acid trip. Actually, more like a line of coke, followed by a Quaalude, followed by crystal meth. Everybody in the on-line world is frantically hoping the Dow and the NASDAQ quit screwing around and return to the Exstasy trip we’d all gotten so used to. When the NASDAQ was feeling particularly trippy last Tuesday or so, two folks in my office were ribbing each other about how soon they were going to receive margin calls from their creditors. Everyone’s been so stoned, financially speaking, for so long, I worry they’re not going to be able to live sober.

I was aware of this mentality in Australia. Surrounded by upwardly mobile Sydney-siders with disposable income, I heard far too many dinner party conversations about margin lending and how long the boom would last. But, however intense it got in some circles in Oz, it’s astounding, here. Everybody’s a player. They’re all hooked.

It’s not just the investors, of course. Money motivates lots of the people fleeing to work for startups, too. And, of course, that’s just stupid. The odds aren’t as bad as the lottery, but they’re steep. I know that in a year, I’m statistically more likely to be unemployed (or, I hope, in another job) than counting options in the money. All those folks that tossed me knowing grins when I announced I was leaving for a net startup must have only been reading the stories about twenty-three year-olds getting rich. Thirty-two year olds going bust aren’t newsworthy. But there are far more of them.

Those folks were missing the point, anyway, regardless of the stats. There are lots of reasons to flee the comfort of a blue-chip. I don’t think money’s number one for many people. Anyone who says the fantasy of skyrocketing wealth isn’t appealing is lying, but that doesn’t make it the reason for the exodus to the promised land of the Web. You know it’s unlikely to be milk, honey and pomegranates, but you think the trip may be worth it. It’ll be fun, you’ll learn a heap you wouldn’t otherwise and you probably become more employable even if you fail. Anybody with a brain knows that the chance of making a killing is tiny. On the other hand, I suppose it’s nice to have a lottery ticket when the jackpot gets big.

Still, I’ve always been risk-averse and security conscious, so this is one of the most nerve-wracking things I’ve ever done. I’m doing it for the same reason I jumped out of that plane…or moved to Australia nine years ago, or walked across Guatemala. I’m doing it out of fear: the fear of looking back and regretting things I didn’t do, the fear of playing life safe only to find I haven’t squeezed the juice out of it. When the market eventually goes to rehab, and the world takes the interconnectivity of the net completely for granted, I don’t want to look back at the biggest technological, sociological and economic discontinuity of my lifetime and say “I could’ve been a part of that.” I want to say I was a part of it, even if my part goes down the gurgler with a quiet, un-newsworthy sucking sound. I want to be at the revolution, not read about it in the papers.

For some reason, this all makes me think of my late stepfather, Bob, who captained Australia’s Wallabies in the 50’s. His was one of the losingest sides in Australian rugby history. He and his teammates got battered, literally and figuratively, playing injured more often than not. But it was the best time of his life. His memories were overwhelmingly bright. He was proud.

Maybe that just leaves me with an anodyne, insipid prescription: Live passionately, and if I get knocked about I’ll still have more to show for it than the fruits of timidity. Even if it’s my fear that drives me forward.

This week, I’m going to start doing a bunch of stuff I’ve never tried before. A lot is at stake for our business. I’ll see how my courage holds. I’ll let you know.

Saturday, April 01, 2000

LA Unconfidential #1

L.A. Unconfidential
April 1, 2000

I've been in Los Angeles for seven days. It still feels like a business trip. The suitcases and the hotel are pretty much the same. The work is intense. My office is like a lot of client sites from the recent past. But, tonight, I called the house that was home for the last two years and the answering machine doesn't have my name on it anymore.

For those with whom I've been less than complete in my recent explanations, I left McKinsey, moved to LA and joined a start-up business -- a dotcom -- in the field of integrative medicine. After five days on the job, I almost know what "integrative medicine" is. Sylvana didn't come with me, sensibly concluding that LA is no place for someone who's in a pleasant place. But

I've moved the rest of my life: nine pieces of baggage and some portion of a container to follow me by ship. I'm committed.

I'm also having fun. Every day is a roller coaster, emotionally and commercially. In the morning, I realize just how huge this embryonic business is going to be. By lunch, I'm sure we won't make a fraction of our targets by the next funding round. By the time I leave to grab a burrito and fall into bed, I know we've got a shot again. Each day, those same reactions, in a different order.

Reading articles about the craziness of start-ups didn't give me much of a head start on the reality of it. However different I thought it was going to be from the structured work life I left, it's more different. And McKinsey ain't all that structured. Sure, I wear whatever I want to work, and I haven't taken my earrings out since my last week at McKinsey but, otherwise? It's not what I expected.

The disconnect was that I expected it to be something at all. That's what's most different: there's nothing to pin down. There's no way to say what it's like and how it's different from what I've known, because it morphs daily. That may be true in the first week of any job. In a start up, however, you know it's going to be that way indefinitely.

That said, it's not nearly as disorienting as I feared. Going with the flow is a core skill, a necessity, as you're busting ass to build the boat at the same time. I like that. Deterministic models of business never held much water, anyway. It's pretty damn fun to figure out, on the fly, what you can influence and then stick you're finger in as many holes as you can find.

I also "get it" for the first time-the biggest business challenge that I've written and spoken about with so many clients: the unsolvable question of how much time you should spend fixing what's broke versus leapfrogging it and making it obsolete. How much tactics, how much vision? Great conceptual question. A royal bitch at a start-up. And fun. So far, I don't think I've screwed up our future. Yet.

Funniest work conversation so far: I called up an old friend to ask if she'd be interested in working for us. I explained the kind of thing we needed at which I thought she'd be great. She said it sounded good. I went into some details of how she might work long-distance and so on. Then, she said, "Well, cool, why don't you talk to whomever you need to talk to and you can let me know." After a pause, I realized that my norms had already changed dramatically in just a few days. I said, "No, you don't understand. I just hired you."

Los Angeles is pretty much what I expected: a strip mall built for 10 million people. But the Mexican food is fantastic. I still fail to understand why such simple food is done so badly by the culinary savants of Sydney. Most cities come off pretty badly when compared with Sydney, so at least LA has fabulous fish soft tacos.

As for my life outside of work, predictably there isn't much yet. I'll have to find a place to live and then start pretending like I do actually live here: buy a bed and wait for the container to arrive and go from there. In the meantime, I've got my nine pieces of luggage around me. As a set, they pretty accurately represent me: three bags of clothes and general stuff, two custom-built metal cases filled with camera equipment and the negatives of my recent portfolios, and four cases of red wine (Australian and Italian). It's sort of a bulky CV of my personal life.

For those of you who know Sparky (Sparker, Zuzanna Skyvarova, Banatchi, Cruise Director, The Zip Queen), she was in LA this week and we had dinner together Friday night. I was muy (pronounced "mwee") chuffed to get a girly goss with her all to myself after such a long time without a fix. Our dinner bill was about 20% food, 80% margaritas, and she nearly missed her plane. I got her just pissed enough that she asked me to MC her wedding in Prague?with a translator. Fortunately, our IT Development Project Manager is Czech, so I'll get some tips on culturally appropriate sentiments I can butcher in Czech.

For those who attended any of the messy going away events -- and they were all pretty messy -- thank you again for making my last couple of weeks in Sydney so memorable. There was never any chance I'd achieve my goal of appropriately thanking all the people I've been so fortunate to have in my life in Sydney, but you made it wicked fun trying.