Thursday, February 05, 2015

The Raisins of Turpan

We were about two weeks into our trip around the world, riding on the Orient Express, along China’s northern frontiers.   It was before we got to Dunhuang, home of the Singing Sand mountain, where we rode camels, and I trekked up the world’s biggest sand dune, so I could sled back down.  I still have my bottle of sand from that dune, which they claim holds the blood of seven deceased tribes, hence the seven sand tonalities.

But Turpan!  Wow.  I absolutely loved Turpan for its heat, ingenuity, raisins, and fox pelts.  The average temperature there was 104 F and I'm the kind of gal who loves the heat.  The vineyards there grow about 2 miles away from the Flaming Mountains bordering Turpan on the north, and the “mountains” are nothing but mud-caked, weed-choked precipices of eroded earth that are exceedingly high, maybe 2 or 3 thousand feet.  The Turpanese, send their young boys through underground tunnels from the vineyards to the Flaming Mountains to keep the tunnels open, repaired, and buttressed against collapse, for it is in those tunnels that the water from the melted snows flows to the vineyards, protected from evaporation.   The pride our Turpanese friends took in their ancestors’ ingenuity was evident, but most of us were so sight-seeing-weary that nothing shocked or amazed anymore.

I was hungry for a snack.   When you’re riding the Orient Express with the Stanford Alum, you either eat at mealtime, or you don’t eat.  I’d missed breakfast, and was thirsty.  When I saw the tablesand tables of thumb size grapes in red, gold, and black, I was ready to eat them all.  But I deferred, for I was traveling with the inimitable O. Lamar Majure and he had no interest in the raisins.  The doctor was not hungry; rather he was chatting up some Stanford Alum/Master of the Universe type, regaling him with the story of Malta, illegal flights, and currency exchange.   So as I often did on that trip; I drifted away from the Caucasian herd to play with the Asians.  I found a teen and a child near the fox pelts.  They had been laughing and playing, and my presence spoiled their fun.   I asked about the pelts, and the merchant told me they were skunks.  I did not try to correct him, but immediately purchased two for I knew my boys would prize them highly, as did I.  They were soft. 

Returning to the gaggle of eighty-year olds, I grabbed 2 bags of raisins, red and gold.  Nearly everyone had purchased some, so I didn’t share.  The softness ofthe fox pelts, the sweetness of the raisins, the chill of the aircon in the bus, and the coolness of the Chinese bottled water, brought me a peace that no one else noticed.  Turpan….hot, cold, soft  and sweet.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

The Eagle Project

It’s a wonderful thing; to see your 13 year old conduct a safety briefing for teens and adults who take him absolutely seriously.  He was preparing his crew of 9 for some trail building along a steep incline into a canyon that will connect one trail network  to another.  With strong supporting roles from his father, Walt, and the the Espanola Station Forest Ranger, Jennifer Sublett. My son Jack will make Eagle Scout at 13 and a quarter.  This matters because his brother made it at 13 and three quarters.

A lot of folks think scouting is quasi-militaristic and it is.  A lot of folks think it’s Christian, and it is.  And a lot of other people think it’s exclusionary to gays, which I really don’t know about.  All I know is that a private organization that fosters leadership and camaraderie while actually accomplishing something useful for the community is a rare bird.

I don’t “do” Boy Scouts.  I observe my sons and husband doing it.  And if it glorifying the power of uniform and rank is somehow brainwashing the youth of America, I just don’t see it.  Rank and uniforms are everywhere, in business suits and VP titles, on sports teams, in volunteer committees with their secretaries and treasurers. Uniforms are subtle but ever-present; conforming to the accepted norm for the group and locale.

The Christian accusation?  Yeah, so what?  You’ve got to be something or nothing; so if Boy Scouts wasn’t Christian, it could be Jewish or Sufi, or pantheistic, or atheistic.  I’m not one to say one religious or intellectual approach is better or worse.  I just try ot keep it in perspective.  Boy Scouts has a spiritual component, expressed via Christian tenets.  If that’s wrong; my guess is it would be deemed equally wrong if Boy Scouts expressed  the spiritual component through Sufi, rationalist, or atheistic tenets.  Including a spiritual component is what matters to me. As a parent I can discuss how that component fits with my son’s emerging spiritual views.  I’m comfortable with that.

And finally the anti-gay thing?  Seriously?  Must all organizations be all things to all people?  Boy Scouts is a private, non profit association.  No one is forced to join.  If the leadership has made a policy decision to exclude gays, as not aligned with the rest of their tenets, that is their right.  Didn’t I learn in civics that rights not enumerated in the Constitution belong to the people?  Like the right to associate freely?  Somewhere the legislato-philes who seek creation of new laws for every knat that irritates them, forgot this.  

Boy Scouts made a good and true thing happen today, for our community and for my son.    And I believe such constructive work happens all over communities and families across the country.  We’re fortunate to be a part of it.

Saturday, June 05, 2010

Thank You Notes

I have to admit I’m a little suspicious when I get a thank you note for some trivial favor or minor meet-up. The question that lingers, when I get such a note from a bare acquaintance or friend of a friend, is “What’s the deal with her? Did she just channel Leticia Baldridge or is she trying to?” The vibe can be, “See how cultured and thoughtful I am? Are you? Well, enjoy basking in my erudite ways as I thank you with some fine paper and a 40-some-odd-cent stamp.”

Another observation...I simply CANNOT remember ever receiving a thank you note from a man. Has the genre been feminized and thereby ghetto-ized as "support-staffish," housewife-ish" or otherwise? In more affluent circles, thank you notes seem to flow more freely; perhaps because there are more personal staff or more females with time on their hands. But in the hurly burly of business, and garden variety dual-income family life, I'm not spotting this endangered species.

Don’t get me wrong. Thank you’s and thank you notes are lovely, gracious and wonderful. It’s just that in a world of online speed, the thank you note is becoming an artifact. Not many of my peers were trained on the convention. I hail from southern socialite circles; the original "wannabes" of erudition. But I was trained well—I believe. “If in doubt, go ahead and write a thank you note,” my mother explained. It can never hurt.

And so I do. But the truth of the matter is I write them for myself…not to draw attention to my erudite ways, but because I like fine paper, funny cards, fitting hand-written words into a limited space, lovely commemorative stamps, and the US Postal Service. I still consider the daily mail a treasure trove, even though it’s usually junk and bills. Just the chance that there might be something fun in there tickles me as it did when I was 9 and played the fishing game at the carnival with the safety-pin on a string, on a stick, bobbing behind the sheet and waiting for the tug. When I get a hand-addressed envelope, be it an invite, a thank you, or heaven help us--an actual letter, my heart accelerates ever so gently. “Someone out there found me and sent me something!”

I do wish thank you notes had not become so rare that “Employee Recognition Programs” had to be developed whereby a peer could recognize a peer with a coin or coupon or what–not. How about a direct sentence or two of esteem-enhancing acknowledgement in a thank you note? It still happens, but those hard copy notes have become infrequent, and my guess is they will continue to decline.

In the meantime, I’m going to delete those nutty emails that tell me to forward the attached poem of thanks and beauty to 10 friends. Instead I’ll use my carefully guarded time and attention on the tactile, visual, creative pursuit of selecting, writing, and stamping a thank you note every now and again.

Recipients may wonder what Court of Royalty I think I was raised in…but in truth, I care not. The note is for the recipient, but it is for me too. It is for a world of tangible, direct acknowledgement, that is slowly vanishing as automated e-cards, Tweets, Yelps, employee recognition coupons, and risk-managed reduced liability exposure displace it.

Thanks for the read. No…Really! ;)

Monday, October 05, 2009

It Happened to Me -
The Facebook Faux Pas

This little confessional is along the lines of the classic “and then he hit ‘Reply All!’" water cooler story. I blew it on Facebook, and am blogging my cautionary tale in the hopes of preventing anyone else from doing the same.

A perfect storm of events had to occur for this blunder to emerge, but the confluence of these factors is not that uncommon. Basically, I invited an entire contact folder of hundreds of employment contacts and assorted email folks to cheerily, “Check out my pictures on Facebook!” These are people that I know and don’t know, peers, subordinates, superiors, vendors transmitting info, basically everyone who has ever emailed me or who I have emailed.

How did it happen? First, because of a workplace system crash, my entire system, settings and address book were backed up to an external hard drive, then rebuilt. My office did not provide external hard drives, so having a spare; I brought a partially empty drive from home into the office, and placed the work backups there.

Later, back at home, while Facebooking with my kids (competitively attempting to grow my Facebook “friends” in order to grow my Mafia and win an online FB game) I used the FB upload contacts feature. As I was scrolling through a “Contacts” folder for upload, I forgot that I had a duplicate contacts folder on my external hard drive, which is where the FB program's initial navigation had taken me.

The error was compounded by Facebook’s default posture of sending the invite to everyone. After culling the first 30 or so contacts, I used the Return key to move to the next panel of 30 contacts, and instead, sent a perky note of personal invitation to hundreds of my not so close friends in the unfiltered file.

Facebook is banned at my workplace, so sending an FB invite to work addresses is questionable at best; cheesy and ignorant at worst. So I shall live through my week of desperately seeking online friendship; and have more compassion for my teenagers’ frequent sense of embarrassment at the smallest things.

Well that’s the anatomy of the blunder. I’ve since closed down the FB account; gotten a workplace-specific external hard drive, and tipped off my bosses and IT Department about the FB Faux Pas. Looking forward to putting this one behind me. Can anyone make the clock tick faster???

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

So Defeeeensive!

Yup, I'm defensive alright. Whoever made up "web logs" gave birth to a genre that changes pretty fast. The idea of a log is daily or regularly. And I have no problem with that; except I can't and won't sustain such a pace. Is it music if no one hears it? Is it writing if no one reads it? Do I have to refresh my copy to gain online readership? I suppose. But fortunately, readership, profit, and aggregating eyeballs, clicks and hits is not among my aims. Experimentation and learning are.

So this week, this month; I return to the blog. To my fenced off topics of parenting, family, corporate wierdness and political absurdity, and the occasional local flavor. Let's see if I can be more pithy yet frequent.

Saturday, March 07, 2009

It’s All Opinion,
You Build the Facts

Frustration with the local newspaper is a bit like frustration with the dressing room mirror.  Both are simply reflecting the wicked or delightful truth, but making it worse or better with reflection mistakes.  There is no absolutely accurate reflection. Even the best mirror reverses right and left.

Dressing rooms have bad lights and weirdly colored wall paint that suck the life out of one’s visage.  Newspapers reverse letters in your last name, screw up their spell checks turning “college education” into “colleague’s education,” and they might even leave yesterday’s football sports caption under today’s tennis picture. 

Accuracy used to matter more in print…but not n 2day’s world o txt msgng, Twitter & revisionistic wikis and blogs.  Some just won’t abide by such lack of accuracy, finding it some sort of personal affront.  These folks want objective truth and a balanced array of facts in their text-based news story.  (No one bothers wanting that from TV…the medium has gone too far down the credibility drain.) These sorts of readers seem to expect some sort of objectivity from print news media. They can't seem to accept that the world is just full of lies and opinion.  Newsflash for the fair and balanced set; objectivity never existed; not even at the NYT level.  So get OVER it wouldja?

Anyone remember where newspapers ever came from?  A few seminal threads come to mind, but I’ll touch on just one; our friends across the Pond. (Thank you UC Berkeley for that fabulous class, The History of Journalism…I actually remember some of it!)  

Seventeenth century British pundits waited outside the doors of Parliament, to chat up the MP’s, then write it down and make fun, make criticism, make randy, tabloidesque entertainment for their news-sheets, pamphlets and magazines.  There also existed “newspapers” of the day, but these were not read by most  commoners and they were nothing like the newspapers we think of today--more like Pravda than like 1st Ammendment-protected, free speech media channels.

Seventeenth century newspapers existed, however they operated under severe libel and sedition constraints and penalties. These newspapers had better access to Parliament but less freedom. Hence it was the freewheeling pamphlets combined with the access-rich but content-proscribed “newspapers” that largely evolved into today’s print media.  No one expected objectivity then, they wanted entertainment, gossip, and opinionated, scathingly-worded critiques. The typographers of the day couldn’t set those letters fast enough, so popular were the pamphlets and news-sheets in the hands of the street hawkers.

So, the next time your small town local paper screws up, or reveals a bias, relax!  That’s why you were gifted with a critical faculty.  Use it.  Contribute to the medium and write a letter to the editor pointing out the flaws, but don’t get all insulted; just correct the record.  Blog your own news story.  Read some alternatives.  But whatever you do; please don’t get all hissy and prissy about your small town local news journalist, who is expected to master odd concepts, enormous egocentricity, and vast amounts of trivia, at hyperspeed, to produce some sort of typo-free synopsis to keep the townsfolk edified. 

She’s doing her best, she’s doing it for poverty wage, and she’s doing it on deadline.  Most people think they understand writing because they can read.  Most people think they understand deadlines because they got their Christmas gifts wrapped on time once.  Try it on a daily basis; try it for a miniscule salary; then try and sustain the pace for more than a month.  Then you can gripe about your lame local newspaper.  Although most reporters want to analyze and investigate their source data more deeply; they usually don't because it puts them out on a limb of  subjectivity and makes more work for the same amount of inches.  Safer to report it as you hear it, see it, or as the press release portrays it; then move on.

Brent Cunningham in the Columbia Journalism Review describes the "how" of journalism's failure to provide objectivity, much less perfect accuracy;

...provide a window into a particular failure of the press; allowing the principle of objectivity to make us passive recipients of news, rather than aggressive analyzers and explainers of it. We all learned about objectivity in school or at our first job. Along with its twin sentries "fairness" and "balance," it defined journalistic standards.

Or did it? Ask ten journalists what objectivity means and you'll get ten different answers. Some, like the Washington Post's editor, Leonard Downie, define it so strictly that they refuse to vote lest they be forced to take sides. My favorite definition was from Michael Bugeja, who teaches journalism at Iowa State: "Objectivity is seeing the world as it is, not how you wish it were." In 1996, the Society of Professional Journalists acknowledged this dilemma and dropped "objectivity" from its ethics code.

In this great and free country, there is no shortage of the written word, written news, and written opinion.  The facts however, you must construct for yourself. 

Monday, February 23, 2009

Self Starter or Loose Cannon?

I’ve heard it said that it’s easier to get forgiveness than permission, but I think it depends in large part on the length of your eyelashes.  And on the kind of environment that the leadership operates in.  Like a nimble Silicon Valley software start-up might be a little different than a federally regulated gas, electric and water utility; at least in how they might treat a person who demonstrates initiative.  The terms self-starter vs. loose cannon come to mind.

A Six Sigma Black Belt told me the other day that when he looks at an organization’s metrics, his radar is modulated to detect the three indicators of a lazy organization:  a dataset including only metrics that fulfill regulatory requirements, metrics that are structurally simple to gather, and metrics that make the organization look good.   Appearing nowhere in this dataset are metrics that actually help to get things done faster, better, or more cheaply.  In case you didn’t know, doing it better, faster, or more cheaply are the three best ways to put money in someone’s pocket, sometimes your own.

So which beast are we serving when we do our jobs?  The CYA-Metrics Beast that provides cover, fulfills compliance needs, makes us look good, doesn’t stress us out too much, keeps us free from blame, but doesn’t actually improve anything?  Or the Make-a-Difference Beast that actually applies those critical thinking skills that our parents and educators worked so hard to shape in us?  Joining that critical thinking with risk taking willingness-- by proposing  the new idea, by persuading a colleague to try it a new, more efficient way, or by daring to say, “The Emperor has no clothes!” at the next self-congratulatory metrics review meeting could bump our organizations (and our nation’s) productivity to greater profitability.  And given our dire straits in the macro-economy,  there really isn’t too much choice.  Like strategist Mark Nittler used to say at PeopleSoft, “Processes and tools don’t make up organizations…People do.”  Let’s wag that dog and take control of our processes and tools back.  Now is the time to think critically, to risk, and to be willing to improve.