The Closer’s Story on Foreclosure

When a property is foreclosed, the lender that owns the property sends a guy known as “The Closer” to do some digging (find out if the house is still standing, who is occupying the property, etc.). This is an excellent account in the New York Times:

Some people have been expecting me. Some claim they never knew they were foreclosed on or tell me that they have worked something out with their lender. Some won’t tell me a thing. If nobody is home, I have to determine where they are — at work, on vacation, in the Army, in jail, in a nursing home, dead or moved away. It isn’t easy.

And the honest, heartbreaking conclusion:

If they didn’t clean out the house, I have to ask them to sign a waiver stating that everything left inside can be disposed of. Hospital beds. Hundreds of boxes of shoes. A mannequin. A second grader’s homework portfolio. A wedding album filled with pictures with one person torn out. Get-rich-quick “business plans.” Sometimes I linger as I check the basement for mold and lead. I am the final period on so many significant chapters. I feign dispassion, but I’m not fooling anybody. There is no difference between myself and these people.

And you thought your job was rough?

The Importance of Coaches

Have you ever wondered why sports stars and musicians have coaches, but they seem to be less common in professional settings? Atul Gawande ponders the same thing in his brilliant piece in The New Yorker, “Personal Best.” His perspective is that of a doctor operating on patients, but I think Gawande’s hypothesis can be expanded to numerous professions:

I watched Rafael Nadal play a tournament match on the Tennis Channel. The camera flashed to his coach, and the obvious struck me as interesting: even Rafael Nadal has a coach. Nearly every élite tennis player in the world does. Professional athletes use coaches to make sure they are as good as they can be.

But doctors don’t. I’d paid to have a kid just out of college look at my serve. So why did I find it inconceivable to pay someone to come into my operating room and coach me on my surgical technique?

I like the extension of coaching to sports and Gawande contacting Itzhak Perlman:

Coaching in pro sports proceeds from a starkly different premise: it considers the teaching model naïve about our human capacity for self-perfection. It holds that, no matter how well prepared people are in their formative years, few can achieve and maintain their best performance on their own. One of these views, it seemed to me, had to be wrong. So I called Itzhak Perlman to find out what he thought.

I asked him why concert violinists didn’t have coaches, the way top athletes did. He said that he didn’t know, but that it had always seemed a mistake to him. He had enjoyed the services of a coach all along.

And how did Gawande’s coach help Gawande? Tremendously:

I never noticed, for example, that at one point the patient had blood-pressure problems, which the anesthesiologist was monitoring. Nor did I realize that, for about half an hour, the operating light drifted out of the wound; I was operating with light from reflected surfaces. Osteen pointed out that the instruments I’d chosen for holding the incision open had got tangled up, wasting time. That one twenty-minute discussion gave me more to consider and work on than I’d had in the past five years.

Of course, the piece would be incomplete without this disclaimer:

Coaching has become a fad in recent years. There are leadership coaches, executive coaches, life coaches, and college-application coaches. Search the Internet, and you’ll find that there’s even Twitter coaching.

A key takeaway here:

For society, too, there are uncomfortable difficulties: we may not be ready to accept—or pay for—a cadre of people who identify the flaws in the professionals upon whom we rely, and yet hold in confidence what they see. Coaching done well may be the most effective intervention designed for human performance. Yet the allegiance of coaches is to the people they work with; their success depends on it. And the existence of a coach requires an acknowledgment that even expert practitioners have significant room for improvement. Are we ready to confront this fact when we’re in their care?

Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to find myself a tennis and life coach, not necessarily in that order.

Michael Lewis, Coach Fitz, and Moneyball

Today, Moneyball hits the theaters nationwide. I read this Michael Lewis classic a few years ago, and I intend to see the film. If you’re a fan of the book like I am, you should not miss this classic Michael Lewis piece in the New York Times, “Coach Fitz’s Management Theory.” It’s an endearing read about Michael Lewis’s childhood years, in middle school and high school, and how much he learned from his beloved baseball coach.

A glimpse of Coach Fitz’s personality:

When we first laid eyes on him, we had no idea who he was, except that he played in the Oakland A’s farm system and was spending his off-season, for reasons we couldn’t fathom, coaching eighth-grade basketball. We were in the seventh grade, and so, theoretically, indifferent to his existence. But the outdoor court on which we seventh graders practiced was just an oak tree apart from the eighth grade’s court. And within days of this new coach’s arrival we found ourselves riveted by his performance. Our coach was a pleasant, mild-mannered fellow, and our practices were always pleasant, mild-mannered affairs. The eighth grade’s practices were something else: a 6-foot-4-inch, 220-pound minor-league catcher with the face of a street fighter hollering at the top of his lungs for three straight hours. Often as not, the eighth graders had done something to offend their new coach’s sensibilities, and he’d have them running wind sprints until they doubled over. When finally they collapsed, unable to run another step, he’d pull from his back pocket his personal collection of Bobby Knight sayings and begin reading aloud.

On not brandishing one’s accomplishments:

Fitz’s office wasn’t the office of a coach who wanted you to know of his success. There were no trophies or plaques, though he’d won enough of them to fill five offices. Other than a few old newspaper clips about his four children, now grown, there were few mementos. What he did keep was books — lots of them. He was always something of a closet intellectual, though I was barely aware of this other side of him.

This is my favourite passage in the piece:

We listened to the man because he had something to tell us, and us alone. Not how to play baseball, though he did that better than anyone. Not how to win, though winning was wonderful. Not even how to sacrifice. He was teaching us something far more important: how to cope with the two greatest enemies of a well-lived life, fear and failure. To make the lesson stick, he made sure we encountered enough of both. I never could have explained at the time what he had done for me, but I felt it in my bones all the same. When I came home one day during my senior year and found the letter saying that, somewhat improbably, I had been admitted to Princeton University, I ran right back to school to tell Coach Fitz. Then I grew up.

I highly, highly recommend reading the whole thing.

Oktoberfest in Helen, Georgia

One of my favourite Georgia getaways is Helen, Georgia. Less than two hours away from Atlanta, the city sits close to the Chattahoochee River and is home to the annual Oktoberfest. Why? The city is modeled after a small Bavarian town.

And while I’ve never made it to Helen during Oktoberfest, I enjoyed this profile of the city (published about two years ago).

On the declining economy of Helen:

The one sound the hills have not been alive with lately, though, is the music of cash registers. As tourism and construction falter everywhere in this straitened economy, Helen grapples with a $200,000 deficit in its general fund; rows of shuttered gingerbread storefronts that look as haunted and darkling as something out of Grimm’s fairytales; changing blue laws on alcohol sales that have realigned the area’s tippling privileges; and a police force—patrolling in cruisers labeled “Polizei”—that has a reputation for rounding up hapless revelers with all of the sweeping efficiency implicit in that German spelling.

And what’s an Oktoberfest without beer (bier)? But believe it or not, Helen used to be a dry town:

By 1977, liquor sales by the glass and bottle were legalized. Helen became the only soaking “wet” spot for the hard stuff, as well as beer and wine, in the northeast Georgia mountains. The rest of surrounding White County, including Cleveland, the county seat, remained staunchly dry.

Fun paragraph describing the city:

 So the city serves as a sort of geographic id for intensely vital Scots-Irish characters who are governed by the countervailing forces of the church and that ancient Celtic impulse to go wild, to kick ass, to self-destruct. Among the sepia-toned, old-timey costume photos displayed in the window of a souvenir photography studio are shots of an adorable baby—snuggling with a bottle of Jack Daniels in front of a Confederate flag backdrop. Despite the cultural homogenization of recent years, that old Saturday night/Sunday morning dialectic of Southern life persists.

(via @JustinHeckert, an Atlanta-based writer)

Waffle House and Hurricanes

After Hurricane Irene last week, you might have become more familiar with the Saffir-Simpson scale that assigns a number, from 1 to 5, for hurricane strength based on wind speed. But in today’s Wall Street Journal, I learned of another measure. It has to do with Waffle House…

Turns out that Waffle House gains goodwill from being open when customers are most desperate, and so they try to either keep their establishments open during a hurricane, or recover as soon as possible.

Per the WSJ, after Hurricane Katrina, Waffle House decided to strengthen its crisis-management processes:

Senior executives developed a manual for opening after a disaster, bulked up on portable generators, bought a mobile command center and gave employees key fobs with emergency contacts. In a recent academic paper, Panos Kouvelis, a business-school professor at Washington University in St. Louis, pegged Waffle House as one of the top four companies for disaster response, with Wal-Mart Stores Inc., Home Depot Inc. and Lowe’s Cos.

So how can you glean the intensity of a hurricane? Cue the Waffle House Index:

Green means the restaurant is serving a full menu, a signal that damage in an area is limited and the lights are on. Yellow means a limited menu, indicating power from a generator, at best, and low food supplies. Red means the restaurant is closed, a sign of severe damage in the area or unsafe conditions.

The article is interesting throughout.