23 February 2009

On a mission...

Snow by mabufeu
When I come to write my book1 on skiing the Bar 50-fifty in Meribel will feature prominently.

Not for the cheap vin chaud (though it was) and not for the live cricket on TV (though there was some), and nor even for the unusual sextuple vodka-shot holder.

No, bar 50-fifty would be listed for the quality and precision of its mission statement.

In the business world large corporations waste spend millions of pounds on consultants who can find out for them what their mission is and then write it down in a single sentence.  In our case it turned out to be "Partnering with our clients in innovative ways to create real shareholder value" which in my view lacks a certain je ne sais quoi to the extent that that I am never quite sure when I read my mouse-mat each morning whether it entirely captures what sort of company we are and what it is really like to work there.

In Bar 50-fifty they don't have mouse-mats (and anyway laptops are not allowed on the bar, mate, sorry) but instead, fixed to wall just above the Yard of Ale, there is notice which says, in red marker pen

Served all day

The perfect mission statement...in just seven tight words.. what more about Bar 50-fifty could you possibly want to know?

Underneath the Yard of Ale was scrawled the best times achieved this season, that week, and that day2, which did nothing at all to change my favourable impression of the place.

And because the mission statement is so clear and so precise, the staff of 50-fifty actually live by their values: I know this, because I tested them “A plate of chilli nachos please, and a side order of sushi
“Sorry, mate.....”

As it happens, the famille Botogol are partial to neither chilli nachos nor sushi, so looking for a place to take them that evening I wondered a few bars along to Cactus where there were cheap pizzas and rumours of an apres-ski live band.

“What sort of music do Bigfoot & the Mirabelles play?” I asked the not unfriendly barman.

“No mate, sorry we don't have any apres tonight”, he told me, “It's half term – the place just fills up with families sharing pizza and not spending any money”.

I told him I could see how that would present a problem. That evening: we stayed in

1No Poling by Alibert Botogol: The lazy skier's guide to motorway reds, sleazy apres ski, biere pression (bien sur,  tres grand) and the campaigning against pistes that are not actually sloping.

22 mins and 13 seconds by Dwayne Wright of Preston

Close Calls, and Deep Regrets

frozen light in a snow weekend
by Paulo Brandão
In life they say that you regret the things you didn't do much more than the things you did: for while the bold mistake is easy overlooked, the fork untaken (or, worse, the fork unnoticed) gnaws the soul.

And it was in that spirit last week that I boldly attempted all the jumps in the snow park (I stacked), and it was in that spirit that I raced with middle-child madly, recklessly down the mountain (it was an epic tie) and it was in that spirit that I persuaded Mrs Botogol, a determined but improving skier to attempt the blue run down to St Martin, to return over the mountain via the gondola.

The previous few days, careering round the well-groomed pistes of the Three Valleys in bright sunshine, pausing only at high altitude bars to enjoy a €6 glass of vin chaud and free wi-fi, it was  possible to imagine that the Alps have been tamed.

Not so.

For when Mrs Botogol and our party found ourselves an hour behind schedule and 2600m above sea level, the sunshine long gone and a light snow falling, sliding and stumbling as fast as we could for the very-soon-to-close gondola which was Mrs Botogol's only hope of making her way safely down the mountain that evening short of an emergency helicopter, well the thin-aired, steep and freezing mountains were suddenly about as tame as a polar bear.

It wasn't as if the decision point that afternoon had gone unnoticed either: the metaphorical and literal fork in our road had been 45 minutes earlier and 800m lower when, behind time on a run that had proved too demanding by far, we had found ourselves at the top of Biolley piste and the bottom of the St Martin 2 chairlift.  The safe option was obvious: the five us should continue down the mountain to safety: an easy blue run, no more than 5 mins on a good day 25 minutes at current pace but to the wrong side of the mountain, and a good 30km taxi ride back to Meribel.

The other option, the silly option you could call it, was to head up the mountain the waiting gondola, 1000m above us and two chair lifts away.

I thought about it... and we blundered on.

It was when Mrs Botogol fell over getting off the first chair-lift that I knew for certain I had made the wrong decision, but by then there was no way to turn back and on we pressed, higher and colder, the pistes beside us all redder and steeper.

So, how close did we come to catastrophe?

Well, if I tell you that Mrs Botogol and her friend made it into the gondola but by the time the two boys – just a chair behind us on the way up - had taken off their skis and scrambled over to me the Retourner a Meribel door was shut and firmly padlocked.... well then you will realise that we had the nearest of near misses.

The ski down was fun though, and the boys and I easily overtook the mums in the bubble, who waved cheerily as we raced past.

“You skied down!”, they said when they eventually rejoined us at the bottom of the mountain, “but why didn't you take the gondola like we did”

“Well, you know, the boys fancied a run, so..."   

No regrets

16 February 2009

Explaining Religion, and work

I have been reading an interesting book:  Religion Explained, by Pascal Boyer.
Why is it that several religions feature things like:
  • a statue that can hear your prayers, if you travel to see it
  • a god who knows your thoughts wherever you happen to be
but religions never feature
  • statues that can hear your prayers, wherever you happen to be?
How is that people in most cultures can entertain countless superstitions  only some of which qualify as a religion and every one will know the difference?  How  do they know which is which? Certainly it's NOT happenstance - if you were presented with a collection of the beliefs of the obscure Kargasses tribe in Siberia's Sayan mountains you would be able to discern their folk tales from their religiin without much difficulty.
Boyer does a good job of explaining.

But perhaps he treats religion as too special a case - for instance it's not so different at work: in every company a thousand crazy supersitions ideas, invocations policies and rituals best practices float down from the C-Suite high on the 29th floor and, on the surface at least, every manager subscribes to them all.
And most of the memes are tacitly recognised for the casual fly-by-night superstitions they are, observed but lightly, with the occasional sideways nod and wink to one's peers: the importance of keeping expenses within our budgets (which are fiction), the need to develop our staff (we poach 'em ready-trained, later they leave for money) the importance of offering 'flexible' working (a boom-time luxury)
While other doctrines – with, really, no more grounding in reality or logic – assume religious importance: believed by most, followed by all, challenged only by the cranks and the self-destructively reckless: the preparation of cost-benefit analyses to accompany any decision, the fiction that we are motivated by generating profits for our company, and returns for our shareholders, the importance of the annual bonus.
But the oddest thing of all is that  - just as we know understand the difference insignificance between David and Goliath, and Jack and his Giant -  so every manager instinctively knows the difference between the trivial and the serious, can distinguish  superstition from the doctrine, but is only dimly aware of the dissonant implications.
Happily for me, this week I am not at work at all: it is half term and I am mostly skiing. Or to be more honest, mostly at standing in a cold, cramped corner of the chalet balancing my Jesus on the windowsill, trying to steal wi-fi from our neighbours.
If you are reading this it worked.

02 February 2009

Two Hundred Up

Blogger tells me this is my 200th post :-)

To celebrate I had planned a long retrospective posting telling the story of how I came to start it, why it has this weird name, why I have this weird name, telling the story of how the blog developed over the years,  nostalgically highlighting some favourite posts, showing how themes have waxed and waned, charting the gradual accumulation of my four (count 'em, four) followers....

And then I thought why not just celebrate by playing some African Jazz Pioneers1 instead... so here they are with Woodpecker, which lifts the spirits on the darkest of days.

1In 1994 we saw the  African Jazz Pioneers play live in a multi-story carpark in Rosebank, where they were publicising an extension to the popular Sunday market, they were superb, and we bought all their albums. 

They have hardly any webprint: here's the only video I could find on youtube, and even though there only seem to be about six of them in this performance (there were about 20 when we saw them) you'll get a taste of the atmosphere they create.