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Archive for February, 2009

Slumdog

Monday, February 23, 2009

Danny Boyle told TIME Magazine that he had a whole line-up of picture perfect male Indian actors recommended for the lead role – and lots of pressure to cast a young man from the subcontinent to portray the nineteen-year-old Jamal K. Malik.  But to everyone’s surprise, Boyle went with his gut instinct.  He chose a Brit.  Boyle was asked, “Why didn’t you go for a Mumbai lad?”

Here’s the director’s reply –

We did. I saw a lot of very talented guys, and the problem I had is that they all looked like heroes-in-waiting. I wanted somebody who looked like a loser. My daughter said, “You want a loser? You should see this guy in this TV show Skins in the U.K.” We auditioned him a few times, and he earned the right to play the part.

It’s a curious thing to think about.  Boyle certainly didn’t go with the loser look when he selected Frieda Pinto to play Lakita, Jamal’s childhood pal and then love interest.  But Boyle’s instincts for the leading man were spot on.  In casting Dev Patel, he gave the story credibility.  The young boy who grew up a Muslim in the rank slums of Mumbai endures unspeakable abuse, all the way up to the night before he hits the colossal jackpot.  The question that looms over the entire film is this: how could a street kid who grew up in the cruel poverty-ridden neighborhoods and gutters of Dharavi answer the obscure multiple choice questions of the nation’s favorite game show correctly?  Was he a cheat?  A genius?  Or was it destiny?

If the leading man had looked like Hollywood’s – or Bollywood’s – ideal young male Boyle explains, there would be something lost in the translation.  Patel’s Jamal appears to be the shy, quiet sort who is more comfortable hanging in the back of the room and deferring to someone else than advancing to take the lead.  But behind the reserve – the hesitation, the thoughtful pause – is a lightening quick, street-smart mind ready to take on anyone.  He knows what he wants.  He engages the opposition – ranging from a human trafficker, to an American tourist, to a brutal inquisitor, to a game show host.  Every encounter is a poker game.  No one can be trusted.  Assume they are lying.  And somewhere in the cool intelligence of an ordinary guy the wheels turn, the hand is dealt, the cards are played, and he trumps them all.  He even wins the pretty girl.

The movie earns its rating from the language and intense scenes that depict life in the underworld of India’s overcrowded, underdeveloped cities.  It is a superb piece of story-telling.  There are four or five story lines running in parallel, from beginning to end.  And you are never quite certain where it’s going.  A timid young man, groomed enough, appears on the stage of a televised game show stage that looks like the Indian version of So Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? meets American Idol.  If he answers the questions correctly, he moves to the next level.  As he makes his way up the ladder, the show’s ratings skyrocket.  The whole nation tunes in.  But early on in the film, we see the same young male contestant in a sweltering back office interrogated by a couple of thugs.  They rough him up.  Berate him.  Humiliate him.  Why?  What’s going on?  We won’t know until the end.  We care about this kid.  He may look like a loser, crooked nose and oversized ears, but we’re rooting for him from the start.

 

On Wednesday, I get on an airplane with twelve others, and we’ll fly to Dubai and on to Hyderabad in the state of Andrha Pradesh, India.  We’ll meet some of the people who are very much like those portrayed in the film that perhaps this weekend will be celebrated as Movie of the YearBest Film.  The Oscar buzz permeates the media; all around this little independent film that no one expected would strike such a resonant chord in post-economic-collapse America.   But did.

We will greet some of those children who grew up in the slums of Indian cities.  We’ll meet some of the people who believe that discarded children are fearfully and wonderfully made and deserve an education, good nutrition, affection and love.  We will be a witness to a graduation ceremony in which a collection of fourteen and fifteen-year-olds will be recognized for their achievement and launched to new opportunities that would never had been possible if not for the school built by folks who cared enough to give.

I’ll be gone for ten days.  I’m preparing myself for deep transformation.  I fully expect that my life will be marked in powerful ways.

 

It’s Monday morning.  We are leaders.  They keep telling us – it’s getting worse.  It will take a long time.  There is plenty of fear and gloom out there.

I’ve been listening to a new (to me) young preacher named Francis Chan.  He seems to be a voice designed for this post-Wall-Street world of hours.  He talks about community.  The dangers of material abundance.  The pulsating and beckoning life of the city.  His passion permeates his story-telling – it’s a passion for authenticity.  For connecting with the heart of Jesus, who said “blessed are the poor.”   Poor in currency.   Poor in spirit.   And there’s plenty of that all around these days. 

And out of the poverty, God gives life, declares Pastor Chan.

The ordinary slumdog who is now a major motion picture star maybe typifies something that goes beyond Hollywood glitz.  He was a loser.  But he endured.

And in the end, he dances.

Care to join me?

Copyright Kenneth E Kemp, 2009

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Ice on the Wing

Monday, February 16, 2009

This weekend, our momentary celebration of aviation survival was shattered by the terrible crash of Continental Connection Flight 3407. 

Captain Sully (Chesley Sullenberger) became a reluctant folk hero these past couple of weeks for his cool demeanor and professionalism when crisis struck his US Air Airbus A320 over New York.  Some one hundred and fifty souls walked away from the aircraft bobbing on the surface of the Hudson River, and we rejoice with the survivors and the whole nation for that matter.

Some reporters referred to the passengers as “souls.”  It’s a traditional term used to describe passengers (as far back as those tall ships) and while it’s a throwback to an earlier time, it fits.  Those people on board are more than a list on a page – the manifest.  These are individuals each with a name and a story and a network of relationships.  To call them “souls” is also to imply that their identity transcends the physical body they occupy and that there is a destiny that transcends life as we know it caught in this timeline of days and minutes and seconds, as we seem to be.

Captain and crew made the media rounds.  (Does someone set up these tours from TODAY to LARRY KING to GOOD MORNING AMERICA to LETTERMAN?)   Sully handled the predictable “are you a hero?” question with panache.  He found that balance between genuine humility and open accessibility.  It allowed people to express their gratitude; which they all really wanted to do. 

But on a bitter, cold, wet Friday the 13th night, the terrible flames emanating from a little house on a residential street in Clarence Center, New York, five miles from Buffalo, broke the spell.  YouTube provided us with both the visuals and the sound track with an immediacy we’ve come to expect.  Terrified neighbors cried out in horror as the twin engine, seventy-four passenger Q400 Bombardier fell from the sky like a meteor.  Forty-nine souls on board.  One person in a seemingly random house, perhaps watching television, would never know the terrifying story that ended his life in an explosive split second.

Icing is a pilot’s worst nightmare.  As an aspiring pilot since boyhood, I can still remember studying the awful problem of ice on the wings.  Pilots need to know how and when it happens and what to do if anything at all can be done.  The biggest problem with icing is this: once it starts, it’s nearly impossible to reverse.  You are in big trouble.  Really big trouble.  The ice adds weight.  The build up disturbs the critical element of lift in the wing’s precision design.  Ice will take an otherwise fully functional aircraft, and cause it to drop like a rock.

A veteran private pilot from the North Country explained a device on the leading edge of the wing on his Beech Baron.  He told the interviewer that ice is a common occurrence for any instrument rated pilot who flies in cold weather.  It’s like a rubber bicycle inner tube, he said, running right down the length of the wing on both sides.  If ice forms at altitude, he hits a switch and warm air inflates the tube ever so slightly.  It doesn’t take much; but the expansion of the rubber on the wing breaks up the ice and the high-speed airflow blows it away in chunks.  The build-up will recur, but the pilot repeats the procedure as often as necessary until he can get his airplane safely on the ground.

The Continental Q400 Bombardier was equipped with this device.  I’m hesitant to call it pilot error.  To my knowledge, no one has yet suggested it.  But we know that the pilot and co-pilot saw ice forming on the windshield.  We also know that they dropped the landing gear and flaps shortly after they made the observation of icing.  The gear and flaps slowed the plane down.  And within seconds – it stalled.  From an altitude of perhaps three thousand feet, there was no time for recovery.

Did the pilot take the icing seriously enough?  Did he/she follow proven procedures to deal with the clear and present danger?  Could that on-board safety device have cleared those narrow wings of the ice that brought the plane down?  The NTSB investigators will let us know in time.  I hope I’m wrong.

* * * * *

Patrick Lencioni’s little business book of fiction identifies “The Five Dysfunctions of a Team.”  I wish I’d read the book a few years ago.   They are interesting enough in themselves (Absence of Trust; Fear of Conflict; Lack of Commitment; Avoidance of Accountability; and Inattention to Results).  But for Lencioni, foundational to all five is what I’ll simply call the unwillingness to engage crisis

Even if a team meets regularly, without trust, commitment, accountability and intentionality, a crisis can be a clear and present danger.  And also be ignored.

Healthy teams engage.  Healthy teams communicate.  Healthy teams assist each other and work together to accomplish great things.

It’s Monday morning.  You are a leader.  You are part of a team.  Perhaps you lead a team.

When the cold blows in from the north, and the sleet sweeps across the wings and a threatening build up of ice forms on the leading edge, it’s your cue to call a time out from business as usual.  Call off the scheduled landing.  Rethink priorities. 

And hit the emergency switch.

Souls hang in the balance.

Copyright Kenneth E Kemp 2009 

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Gadgets and Critters

Monday, February 9, 2009 

I’ve met a few folks who are as gadget connected as me, but not many.  It’s not a matter of pride.  It may well be an addiction.  (Is there a twelve-step program for a gadget obsession?) When I’m traveling alone, as I did this week, my dashboard looks a lot like the back of my desktop computer.  Cables everywhere.

There’s a single strand of wire hanging out of my cassette player.  Both cigarette lighter sockets (which don’t light cigarettes much anymore in anyone’s car) are both occupied.  They power my iPhone and my GPS.  The little cable dangling over the opening where you would slip in a cassette tape is actually an adapter that connects to the iPhone, enabling me to listen to the device through the car’s surround sound stereo system.

That thin little iPhone goes well beyond any gadget guy’s wildest expectation.  It gathers up my e-mail on the fly, three different accounts, enables me to Google or Wiki from anywhere any time.  The little blue flashing ball on the onboard map gives me my precise location along with a red tack on my destination, just like a bulletin board.  I can tune in to Internet music, or play any of my on-board CDs or up-to-the-minute podcasts.  And because it’s in constant use, the battery might otherwise go dead accept that I’ve always got it plugged in to the cigarette lighter.  If I set an appointment, or update a phone number, the change goes up to the Internet and back to my desktop and laptop.  I can snap a photo and e-mail it off to my mom.  And as long as the Bluetooth headset is charged up, I can answer the calls by tapping a little button behind my ear and stay in compliance with the new California laws.

I don’t talk about these things much.  If I get going on a tech conversation with anyone who shows the slightest bit of interest, Carolyn will roll her eyes and attempt a subject change.  Guys generally shut down if you catch them not knowing stuff they think they ought to know, so a lot of this I just keep to myself.

So at the end of dinner at the leadership conference in Carefree, Arizona, my good friend Dathan Brown suggested we go to a movie.  It was an open night.  Sounded good to me.  So I pulled out my iPhone and within minutes had the movie schedule, the address of the closest theater with a map already plotted including distance and ETA all calculated.  Heck, we could have even watched the movie trailer right there over the coffee and lemon cake if we wanted.  But that was stretching it.

Dathan said, “Cool.” 

“Let’s go for it,” I nodded.  And when we fired up my car, I moved all the wires out of the way so Dathan could get into the passenger seat up front, and off we went just after sundown.

Under the Arizona stars, we drove on as Venus shone bright against the velvet black sky.  I let Dathan take a look at the GPS, blue dot flashing.  A jagged purple line marked the route to Scottsdale where the eighteen screens were waiting.  “Wow,” he said.  “That’s cool.”  I smiled.

I took a right turn off the main road just where the iPhone said I should.  We followed awhile, then took a left, and then another right.  It wasn’t long before the pavement ended, but confident in my gadget’s instruction, I followed on as Dathan and I chatted away.

There are no streetlights or sidewalks in the off-road desert between Carefree and Scottsdale.  Along the roadway at the intersection of gravel and dust, an occasional Southwest adobe house went by, fireplace aglow, Frank Lloyd Wright lamps illuminating the living room, paintings of horses and rocks and First Americans adorning the walls.  It was when Google maps took us to an unexpected dead-end with sagebrush and Saguaro cactus in our headlights that Dathan asked about my supply of fuel.  That’s when I looked at my dashboard, saw the red “CHECK FUEL SUPPLY” warning light and a needle on the gage well below the empty mark.

We broke into a belly laugh – the kind two guys let go of when the prospect of complete embarrassment and maybe even a little bit of terror hit.  Dathan’s laughter had something to do with this near pathological reliance on gadgetry right before his very eyes.  Mine was a combination of humiliation and critter phobia.  We had read the warnings back at the conference center about scorpions and black widows and coyote and mountain lion and rattle snakes and javelina and jumping cholla cactus. 

Would we be in for a long night’s stroll through the open desert?  Coyotes howling?

* * * * * *

At the Shell station back on the main road, we laughed again.  Somehow the iPhone got us back.  The remaining fumes kept the pistons firing just long enough.  Slumdog Millionaire took us from the stench of heart-breaking poverty to the wild foot stomping of celebration and joy at the train station.

And the nighttime adventure left us with some thoughts on leadership.  It was after all, a leadership conference.

Monday mornings come upon us with relentless regularity.  And when our gadgets take us to a dead end in the black of night, we’re not alone.

You are a leader.  We are running together.  We may think the fuel’s run out.  We may fear the charge of a herd of javelina or a hungry mountain lion or the debilitating sting of a scorpion.

But the stars still shine.  We make our adjustments.  And we learn to trust the One who got us this far.

Copyright Kenneth E Kemp 2009

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The Audacity of Hope

Monday, February 2, 2009

I remember when I first heard the title of President Obama’s book.  It’s a writer’s phrase.  Hope would not ordinarily be audacious – as in outrageous dreams, or plucky plans, or fanciful intentions. 

The phrase puts two unlikely words together.  In combination, they make you think.  The verbal tension triggers the imagination.  What kind of hope is this?

It suggests this: when someone who has every reason to be hopeless turns around and embraces hope, there’s a near reckless abandon about it.  The one without hope will generally win sympathy.  Ah, but when the light of hope shines in the eyes of the hopeless, well, that is audacious.  When dreams and ambitions emerge in the context of grim and harsh realities, it’s daring.

The idea for the book came from his pastor.  I’ve talked to people who live in the neighborhood of the church – down the street from the University of Chicago.  Most folks who attend there believe they’ve been misrepresented and misunderstood.  The life of their church goes on – with a special brand of lingering audacity.

The book appeared in October of 2006, after Obama’s speech in the 2004 Democratic Convention – which is now history.  He wrote it himself.  I thought it was time for me to read/listen to it… so I downloaded the audio version.  I took along drive across the desert this week, a good time cue it up.

In the audio book, the author is also the reader.  Obama tells the story of the his commitment to community development that began on the South Side of Chicago,  There, a keen interest in politics emerged: including his first failed attempt to be elected to the Illinois State Legislature.  He talks about his secular upbringing; a mother who had little interest in religion.  He explains how he came to faith – and was baptized at the Trinity United Church of Christ.  Growing up without a father, he found Michelle.  He met her family.  Her father inspired him to become the dad he never had.

You may not agree with him – but read/listen to the book and you’ll get an idea why he captured the imagination of voters in 2008.

How hopeless is it out there?  Ask the former clients of Marcus Schrenker, an insurance agent from a town in Indiana called Noblesville.  He made headlines last month when his financial and marital indiscretions became public knowledge in an open courtroom.  A short time later, he staged an accident from high altitude when he made a false mayday call over the radio, set his high performance Pilatus aircraft to autopilot and jumped out the door with a parachute on his back.  The plane crashed.  The feds nabbed him.  He’s back in court.

The strange case of Marcus Schrenker captured the headlines because the high drama typifies something of the current era.  Spurious wealth.  Skirting the rules.  Hiding from the truth.  Once admired as success – the picture of the American dream come true.  Now known for what it really is.  All this from a town called Noblesville.

Who are the victims?  When Bernie Madoff made off with fifty billion, who suffers?  Everyone.  Cynicism comes over us like a flood.  Hope fades.

I like the idea of hope that is audacious.  It’s a precious commodity.  Maybe, in this world of global financial crisis, it’s making a comeback.

It’s audacious hope that would grip a young man without a dad, and cause him to embrace great expectations.  Big, hairy, audacious goals.  Noble goals. 

We need that now.

We are leaders on this Monday morning.  The odds have turned against us.  How powerful is the hope that stirs within us?  Is it audacious?

We’ll see.

Copyright Kenneth E Kemp 2009

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