Archive for the ‘Life 2004’ Category

The Thinker

Oh the Mundanity!

Oh the mundanity of it. It’s time for my annual vacation at home: that indulgent time off that starts a couple days before Christmas and ends after the New Year. During this time I am not just off, but I am off. I spend my days doing nothing much and reveling in it. Altogether it is ten days of staying up late, sleeping in late (which for me might be 8 AM) and doing not much. My brain is in a different time and space. I enjoy all the comforts of home because, well, I am home.

And my wife and daughter are on vacation too. My wife happens to be unemployed so in a sense her vacation is about two months old now. This annual recess from real life is a perfect way to end a year that was full of work, school, extracurricular activities, doctors’ appointments, family crises and numerous other things, most of them necessary but no fun. So now it’s that time of year to turn off the dutiful part of my brain and recklessly, deliberately and insistently slack off.

I thought perhaps of starting a project to keep me busy, but that thought was quickly dismissed. There are some doors that need to come out and be replaced by drywall. We need to purchase and install a new microwave over the stove. But I can’t seem to summon the energy to start. I’d rather be lethargic. There was no hurry to do these things six months ago so there is no reason to do them now either. Even trying to sum up the energy to go see a movie is proving difficult. My wife is deeply into watching two seasons of Buffy the Vampire Slayer on DVD that she got from me as a Christmas present. She doesn’t want to be disturbed by reality. My daughter is doing something similar. When she isn’t online (usually IMing her friend Laura) she is watching an Invader Zim DVD. When I can use the DVD player, which is not often, I am watching the appendices in the Extended Edition of Lord of the Rings: Return of the King. Mainly I exercise, eat a bit too much Christmas food, and surf the Net. It’s good to be a vegetable as long as the money keeps coming in.

Not that I’ve been permitted to totally zone out. There was the usual Christmas activities and obligations to attend to. The Christmas Eve dinner with the parents and my sister at our house went well. They arrived late and took off early, which was fine because we saw them all again on Christmas morning at my parent’s apartment. But by 3 p.m. my crew was anxious to rush home to do nothing in particular. There was too much socializing going on for their tastes. Time to go back to Gumby mode.

Once a year I use this time to go to areas of the World Wide Web I normally don’t bother with. I read obscure Usenet news groups. Foreign newspapers. Kos diaries that aren’t even recommended. Polyamory newsgroups. I watch online short movies at sites like Atomfilms.com. I even peruse the casual encounters section at Craigslist. (I have to wonder about some like this lady.)

I’ve decided though that with the remainder of the week I will reconnect with friends if I can. Since I’ve changed jobs I’ve lost regular contact with friends mostly made through work. It’s time to make a physical presence again instead of trading emails. My dance card is filling up. Tuesday I’ll lunch with my friend Sokhama in Silver Spring. But I will also show my friend Frank the virtues of my new Honda Civic Hybrid. And, as long as I’m near my parent’s apartment I’ll bring my wife’s laptop with me and do some modem diagnostics for my father. Wednesday I hope to see my friend Courtney for lunch, who also lives and works in Silver Spring. And Friday it’s Angela’s turn to endure me for lunch; we’ll meet at Union Station. And somewhere in there I hope to see Lisa and her husband Bill to fix a computer problem they’re having. But I’m hoping Lisa and I can abscond to a Starbucks for some long neglected chitchat.

Somewhere in all this time maybe I’ll see another movie. We’ll take down the Christmas tree and the outdoor lights. I’ll pay some bills. But mostly I hope to keep doing a whole lot of nothing. The most ambitious I’ve gotten so far on Day 4 was to work on the web site for the next class I will teach in January. Since it’s basically the same as the one it didn’t take too much time.

My wife and daughter are big into emulating vegetables. I have to admit there is something to be said for it. What’s the point of working hard for a living if there is not the reward of being able to recklessly slack off? I need to do more slacking. I need to chill. Instead more often than not (and mostly out of habit) I am running from one activity to the next. But for now I live in the moment and enjoy each day in its splendid mundanity while it lasts.

 
The Thinker

Grateful

It is Christmas Eve: my favorite day of the year. Christmas is always something of a let down. As a child nothing received on Christmas could meet my wild expectations on Christmas Eve. So Christmas Eve is for me a day full of boundless expectation, wonder and hope. It doesn’t hurt that the whole Christmas season reaches its wild crescendo today. The days are very short, the nights are very long and the houses spend their long nights ablaze with colorful electric lights. The Christmas tree (artificial in our case) is up and perfectly decorated. Presents are heaped up beneath and around the tree. Except for my daughter’s room the house is clean.

All this ritual and ceremony and yet I can’t actually claim to be a Christian. It seems there is little of Christ left in Christmas in 2004. After all it doesn’t take much research to discover that Yule celebrations are about as old as mankind itself. Christmas was set up by the Christians to counter the Feast of Saturn, or Saternalia by the Romans. Before the Romans got around to inventing their gods it had many other names. Pagans, Wiccans, Druids and many others celebrated the Winter Solstice. Christianity is but one of the latest traditions to latch on to this special time of year, Kwanzaa being the latest.

There is no present I can receive anymore that is likely to delight me. I have everything I want and amazingly I am satisfied with life. It helps I suppose that my dreams are rather modest. I do not feel the need for a midlife sports car, nor an estate, nor do I secretly crave for to be an executive. I have so much to be grateful for that it is hard for me to think up anything that I truly want. Those things I want are things I cannot really have and which seem corny. For me terrific Christmas presents would include world peace, the end of hunger and respect for our environment. No, I am not kidding. Alas money can’t buy these sorts of presents. Money could not even put John Kerry in the White House. I suppose I could wish for immortality. If not immortality then I could perhaps wish for eternal youth. But I’m not sure I’d want these either. I’m not sure I’d want to inhabit this same body 1000 years from now. The earth as it will be then will be so changed from the one I know now that I suspect living in it would be unbearably sad. Nor do I want to necessarily look like I did at 20 when I am pushing 50, because I don’t want to be thought of as someone quite as naive, headstrong and impoverished as I was then. Nor does the idea of attracting women that young appeal to me because for the most part they shared my naivety and immaturity too. Been there, done that.

Instead I find myself reflecting on how fortunate I am. In many households the loss of one income would be devastating. My wife lost her job at the end of October and it’s nice to know we don’t absolutely need her income. We can survive nicely on my income. I have perhaps the most precious gift of all: good health. Yesterday as a huge rainstorm moved through the area I counted my blessings that we have a roof. As the storm passed and cold wind followed in behind it I counted my blessing that I had indoor heat. Many in this world are not so fortunate. In Iraq families wait in line overnight to fill up their automobiles or for gas to heat their home. Our major “crisis” yesterday was having our Internet service go down for a couple hours. Poor us: we watched a DVD instead.

2004 was still full of personal struggles. Perhaps the most challenging was my parent’s relocation from Michigan to a retirement community in Maryland, all this while my mother’s health declined precipitously. Numerous hospitalizations and weeks spent in nursing homes eventually resulted in something resembling a real recovery. My Mom has been home in her apartment for a couple months now with no subsequent hospitalizations. Her mobility has improved, and with the aid of antidepressants, physical and mental therapy she is a much improved 84 year old lady. When she arrived from Michigan she exclaimed, “I made it! I actually made it!” She expected to die before she left Michigan. Now she gets around slowly, her congestive heart failure is being well treated and she can occasionally make visits. She will be at our house eating Christmas Eve dinner with us tonight. Most importantly some of her old spirit is back. No money can buy such a wonderful present. I had grieved it was gone for good.

I am grateful for my friends. While not large in number they are all dear to me. And I am grateful for my siblings. Though we are geographically separated we are all still very much one family. And I have had opportunities to see all of them over the last year, along with many of my nieces and nephews. I am grateful to have a wife who loves me, and a daughter who is very creative. I am especially grateful for my 18-year-old boy cat Sprite, my best companion in every sense of the word who wants nothing more than the pleasure of my lap and to look into my eyes while I stroke under his chin.

I am grateful for my job. While I could ask for a larger team, I could not ask for a better team, even if half of us are geographically separated. How unusual is it for any manager to have just one employee who gives 150% or more? I have a whole team of people who continuously go the extra mile and dig into the thorniest problems, during and after hours, with nary a complaint. And I am grateful for Susan, my wonderful boss, the best boss I ever had, who somehow manages to make her stressful position fun. But I am also grateful that my job, though often stressful, still gives me sufficient time off to do the things that are meaningful to me. I am grateful that it gives me time to take up my new hobby of bicycling. I am grateful for my many travels up and down the W&OD trail this year. I am grateful to have a job three miles away instead of thirty. I am thus grateful I have at least 90 minutes more on a workday to do with what I want, instead of commute to and from work.

I am grateful that for whatever reason I have left my midlife crisis behind at last. I am grateful that while there are major stresses in my life and there will doubtless be more that I can usually ride above them. I know that every year will have its ups and downs. But I am especially grateful that here, today, I am in a place of peace and contentment.

I hope your Yule time celebrations, in whatever forms they take, bring happiness and comfort to you and to all you love.

 
The Thinker

Two Years of Blogging – A Status Report

It will be exactly two years ago tomorrow that I created my first blog entry. So it’s time to do a little meta-blogging about Occam’s Razor. Here are some statistics.

– I have written 268 blog entries to date. I average 2.72 days between blog entries. Hey, life keeps me busy!
– But when I blog I tend to be verbose, not short and sweet. Approximate words per blog entry: 717 (assuming 8 characters per word). I think you’d be hard pressed to find too many blogs with an average entry length as long as mine!
– All this typing amounted to about 1,532,000 characters to date. (This includes embedded URLs.)
– I don’t generate a lot of comments. I get about one comment for every two blog entries. Number of non-spam, non derogatory comments to date: 136.

How do my entries shake out by category? Remembering that I sometimes put one entry in more than one category, I dwell mostly on politics, then mostly on just my life in general. Here are the number of entries per category to date:

– Best of Occam’s Razor: 23
– History: 2
– Life: 74
– Metaphysics: 14
– Philosophy: 23
– Politics: 91
– Sociology: 17
– Technology: 21
– The Arts: 24

What about my web site traffic? This is harder to say since I didn’t start collecting statistics until late February 2004. As I put more content on my site the site is more likely to have entries picked up by search engines. This I suspect accounts for the gradual increase in my traffic. Bear in mind when looking at the SiteMeter graphic below that December isn’t over yet. I suspect my traffic dropped in November because the election was over. I got a lot of hits from search engines on my political entries. (Why Bush Will Lose in 2004 was especially popular. Too bad it wasn’t prophetic.)

Occam's Razor Traffic Summary

Overall since late February I’ve had about 17,600 visits and 23,000 page views. So having been tracking my site about nine and a half months that works out to about 61 visits per day and 80 page views per day. I suspect the numbers will continually to gradually creep up over the next year as I keep adding content.

So Occam’s Razor remains a backwater blog and it will probably continue to be this way. I don’t do anything to market it beyond listing it in a couple blog directories. Overall it appears that about 80% of my readers arrive via search engines (and about half of those seem to be on searches for “Occam’s Razor”), the other 20% appear to have me bookmarked or type in my URL directly.

And the future? I’ll keep blogging. It remains a time consuming hobby since I am fussy about what I write and I can’t seem to say anything succinctly. It is also challenging, because as the blog gets older it gets harder to think up new things to write about. I can usually write something about politics if I can’t think of anything else, but increasingly I am writing fewer political entries. They are like club soda: they go flat rather quickly. I prefer entries that have more longevity to them. Unfortunately, these entries are harder to think up.

I edit every entry about three times before posting it, and sometimes months later I’ll find little typos and correct them. I wish I had the resources to afford a professional proofreader before posting a blog entry. But at least I spell check my entries! I never change the content of an entry after I post it, feeling that if I am wrong I’m not so headstrong that I need to erase my tracks. Although some of my predictions have proven wrong, others like the war in Iraq have proven dead on. You win some and you lose some.

But this blog remains a fun hobby. I hope it continues to provide insight and fun for my readers. Its primary purpose for me is a form of online diary. It chronicles what I am thinking about on a particular day. Before blogging I often felt like my head would explode if I didn’t articulate my thoughts. Now I do it regularly and it is great therapy. And in doing so I can see my own thoughts unfold. I fully expect that over time I will change my opinions many times. For me there is not much about life that is static, so it’s okay if my opinions change too. My opinions and insights try to keep up with the way things are now.

Are there things I won’t write about? Yes, truly private matters like my sex life or lack thereof won’t make it here. I do admittedly skirt around the edges sometimes. When I have personal problems they tend to be big ones. Writing about them, even tangentially, gives some relief. I also won’t directly name names unless they are public figures. And when I discuss my work life I keep a positive tone. It helps that this is generally the case anyhow. But too many bloggers have been bitten when private thoughts about people they know get out. I don’t think that will happen to me.

Hopefully I will still be here a year from now and still posting regularly. And hopefully those few of you who visit this site regularly will feel like you are getting a consistently good product.

 
The Thinker

Six Figures Ain’t What It Used To Be

Sometimes life’s milestones go almost unnoticed. In filling out the paperwork for my car loan this week and totaling up my income I discovered that my income alone was now just barely in the six figure range.

So why don’t I feel richer?

I always figured that if I were making this kind of money that my life would be a heap more upscale. Maybe I’d be driving a Lamborghini, but if not that at least a Lexus. Instead I have this lovely brand new but modest 2005 Honda Civic Hybrid. This hardly screams midlife-crisis babe-attracting-magnet mobile.

With a six figure income isn’t it time to get a McMansion with a three car garage? We seem content with our modest three bedroom single family home. The McMansions are all over the place in my community. It would not be out of our reach for us to trade up to a grander house. But the truth is I don’t want a McMansion. My income is now in six figures but apparently my neighbors have much deeper pockets. They have the McMansion, three cars in the driveway and a wife who stays at home and drives the children to ballet classes. But not everyone can be an executive vice president. Where do these people get the money? Am I underpaid at $100K a year?

Perhaps I could buy a vacation home, weekend getaway or timeshare condominium. But I don’t want any of them. I don’t want to spend my weekends driving somewhere to have some stolen moments in the country. I don’t want the hassle of maintaining another piece of property. I can hardly keep up the one I have. And I doubt that even on six figures that I could really afford two mortgage payments.

While I no longer struggle from paycheck to paycheck I find that my experience with poverty and struggling to make ends meet for so many years still controls my behavior. I cannot be reckless with money. I largely practice pay as you go. I won’t carry a credit balance. I typically buy used cars and keep them until they are just short of falling apart. (This new car is the exception, but even so we put $10,000 down.) As for style, I have none. I have no sense of fashion. Blue jeans and T-shirts supplied by technology vendors account for much of my wardrobe. My daughter says I need a visit from the Queer Eye for the Straight Guy folks. I have no idea how to be hip. Worse, I have zero desire to be hip. I am comfortable being indistinguishable from the crowd.

Still I have noticed the income creep over the years. A family vacation in Hawaii a few years ago would have been unthinkable at one time. It probably cost us $7000. It was paid for by extra paychecks and by dipping into savings a bit. I hardly noticed the cost. Similarly this year my wife elected to get some cosmetic surgery. The operation cost us $6000 or so. We paid for it out of savings and paid ourselves back within a few months.

Such things are helped by having low housing costs. Our mortgage payments are about $1500 a month. At one time the payment seemed obscene, but now new residents have a hard time renting a decent apartment for that kind of money. We have been fortunate in the timing of our housing decisions.

I spend money in places and in quantities I didn’t before. I give a lot more money to charity not just because I can but because I want to. And I gave thousands of dollars to political candidates and political organizations in the last election. It was too bad I didn’t get a better return on those investments.

So I’m certainly not complaining. Poverty sucked. Some part of me continues to be scared that I will be impoverished again. On some level I realize this is foolish. I have 401Ks, mutual funds and hundreds of thousands of dollars in equity that can be tapped in emergencies. It gets easier to spend money with every large or frivolous purchase. But I still feel the need to horde my money. I pay myself first but I often wonder why. Am I afraid to live the larger life? Or am I simply comfortable living in the trappings of a modest life even though our financial reality suggests more expansive possibilities?

I don’t know. But I often feel I should be more financially savvy. Trading up to a bigger house would make a certain sense at this stage in my life. Perhaps the class of my neighbors would improve (not that I have many problems with my existing neighbors). Perhaps the Rotarians would ask me to join. Perhaps I would feel what it would be like to be “in” or at least a member of the somewhat moneyed crowd.

But overall I sense that passing this particular milestone doesn’t mean that much anymore. There are plenty of other people in my fortunate boat and we are all trading up. This means that prices are going up, which means that my income doesn’t mean as much as I think it does. I’m doing well. I consider myself fortunate. But I still can’t see coming up with $24,000 a year to send my daughter to Sidwell Friends School, something she’d like us to do. I can’t see buying her a car when she gets her license. Although we have money set aside for her education I can’t see her in a preppy private school somewhere when a public university will do just as well. All these things still feel beyond our financial reach, or at least don’t seem prudent.

Perhaps I’ll do it if I ever reach the $200,000 milestone.

 
The Thinker

The Slimy, Icky Business of Car Buying

The last straw was when the air conditioner went out. I was fifty miles out of Raleigh heading back to my Northern Virginia home when the compressor died. If it had been a good day it would have been no big deal. But it was a hot and sticky day and it was interstate driving all the way home. With no AC I had to travel with the windows open. Yet I sweated like a pig anyhow. I had to make frequent pits stops for bottled water. The road noise actually hurt my ears. I arrived home a stinking mess with my shirt soaked in sweat.

The 250 mile drive home was a piece of cake compared to trying to get my 91 Camry fixed. It lingered for four weeks in the shop. Replacement parts repeatedly failed and had to be replaced. After three weeks the shop finally determined that the compressor clutch had failed. A new compressor would cost $700. I had already invested about $600 trying to solve the problem. Eventually I found a used compressor online and had them install it. It cost about as much to fix up the car so I could have cool air as it was worth. It was time to buy another car. I had finally exceeded my tolerance level for automotive problems.

Overall the Camry remains a great car. It may be a bit oxidized and scratched. Rust may be encroaching in a few spots. But it still runs well. I haven’t been as good as I should have been keeping it washed, waxed and polished. But it has been extremely reliable and could probably go for another 60,000 miles. I just don’t want to nurse it through its next 60,000 miles. I want a car that just offers basic and reliable transportation.

Hybrids are an up and coming technology. Although my neighbors in their gas guzzling SUV behemoths may not give a damn about the environment, for some reason I cared about it enough to put my money where my mouth was. A small hybrid car was all I needed to carry me the three miles or so to work when the weather didn’t allow me to bike it. My next car would spend a lot of its time in Northern Virginia traffic running errands. I would be driving it alone 90% of the time. Our 97 Honda Odyssey would suffice for transporting teenagers and larger items when needed. So a small fuel-efficient hybrid made sense.

So I got on a Prius mailing list to get on their waiting list. I waited and waited and was glad the used compressor was still working. Meanwhile my father finally got his Prius and I took it for a test drive. While a nice car I found that it didn’t accommodate my 6’2″ frame and long legs very well. Driving it actually hurt after a while. I had to keep my foot at 45 degrees to the accelerator and my thighs were touching the bottom of the steering wheel, even after it was adjusted up. However it was otherwise a surprisingly roomy car and a hatchback to boot. It pained me to have to say no to this hybrid.

My wife suggested trying the Honda Civic Hybrid. We took it for a test drive. It was noticeably quieter and had a smoother ride than the Prius. But its back seat was comparatively cramped and batteries behind the back seat kept it from being used as a hatchback. But overall it was an impressive car. And although we were in no particular hurry it was readily available.

Naturally the dealership where we got our test drive wanted us to buy it right then and there. We firmly said no and went home to consider our options. In other words we mostly went home and forgot about it since that’s what we do in our family. But both the Toyota and Honda salesmen kept calling us trying to close the sale. I just didn’t want to pay their inflated prices. (The Toyota salesman wanted to order one for us. No discounts at all, naturally.)

We discovered that our credit union offered United Buying Service. I did some inquiries to find out what it would cost to purchase the Civic through their service. We bought our Camry through UBS many years ago and it seemed to be the way to go. The UBS price was reasonable. Only I felt sorry for the guy at the Honda dealership who gave us the test drive and kept calling us. Once we had decided on the Honda Civic Hybrid I felt I should give him a chance to meet the UBS price.

In retrospect this was probably a mistake. Buying the Camry through UBS had been such a pleasant experience. We had none of the high-pressure sales techniques usually found in car dealerships. But when we walked into our local Honda dealership yesterday to try to close the deal with Sodik, our salesman, it was back to the “let’s see how much money we can squeeze out of them” salesmanship I grew to loathe during my car buying experiences in the 1980s.

There is this protocol to car buying that seems sacrosanct. Wildly inflated prices are offered and the expectation is you want to drive away with your new car today. It seems impossible to buy any car at a dealership without mud flaps, pin stripes and security packages. They wanted to charge for dealer preparation fees and transportation charges and they want you to ignore the dealer charge backs they were getting. But at least this time I had my UBS purchase certificate. I told them they could meet the price or I could leave. We spent a lot of time twiddling our thumbs while Sodik went back and forth between us and the sales managers behind the counter. Surely we would pay $450 for an appearance package? Surely we would not. Okay, let’s split the cost in half: $225 for the appearance package. But I don’t want the appearance package. Can’t you just order me the car I want? Eventually they met my UBS price after considerable wailing and gnashing of teeth. But I did agree to pay $150 for the appearance package since even the UBS dealership said all the cars came with it. Cost so far $19,829.

Of course it’s never over until it’s over. There are options available and a lady came by to let us know we could get 5 CD changers, all season floor mats and even a cargo net for the Civic’s tiny little trunk. I bit for the security package for $399 figuring it might pay for itself in reduced insurance premiums and passed on the rest.

Then it was upstairs to the guy with the green eyeshades. There were extended warranties and paint sealants available too. Surely I would want them. He had never sold a hybrid, he told us, without the extended warranty, since it was “new” technology. I said there is a first time for everything. He gave us a jaundiced eye but eventually put the order together. Add sales taxes and titling fees and my $19,829 car now cost $20,922.78.

I’m still wondering if I got a good deal or not. Why am I paying $40.46 for a “Dealer Business License Tax”? But anyhow it’s done, except for the pesky matters of getting a loan (we put $10,000 down), adding insurance for the car, the property tax stickers, our special clean fuel license plates (which lets us drive with one person on I-66 HOV lanes), selling the Camry and, oh, actually taking possession of our new car. We do that tomorrow evening after the security package is installed.

Despite the friendly but aggressive salesman and despite the gleaming Honda showrooms I still find I have almost no interest in my brand new car. I don’t find myself lusting for my first drive in it. If I had any of these feelings they went away after the slimy business of buying a new car. I should have just used the buying service and avoided the hassle altogether. I should not have felt sorry for a salesman who gave us a test drive and kept calling us. Now I feel unclean.

I hope if I ever decide to buy through a dealership again that the car buying process will have improved. But the quintessential car buying experience in America must include high-pressure salesman in dazzling suits and endless shuffling back and forth to sales managers.

Next time I’ll use a buying service for sure.

 
The Thinker

A Lesson in Leadership

Management is a blessing and a curse. I’ve experienced a lot of the downside of management recently. Perhaps that is why it was such a pleasure to experience the upside this week.

To be fair I shouldn’t have much to complain about. My employees, geographically scattered though they may be, are all terrific. Each gives 150% or more of themselves than most employees, and all but one are civil servants. Most of the time I don’t need to direct them. If something needs doing they just take the initiative and do it. This week for example one of my employees volunteered to sift through a user requirement document, pick out the requirements that were meaningful to my team, work them into something we can use and organize them into a meaningful engineering specification. I didn’t even have a chance to ask if anyone wanted to do this grunt work. She just jumped in there with both feet.

I have another employee, a super geek type, who routinely goes way beyond the call of duty. His job is mostly investigating emerging technologies. I frequently find that he has visited the local Barnes & Noble and returned with some dense computer books on things like web services or current practices in software testing that he bought with his own money. But he digs into the not so interesting stuff too. He’s passionate about high technology but is still disciplined enough not to let the high tech stuff interfere with the routine work that has to get done. And all my employees are this way.

But still management often feels like navigating a minefield with a gauzy bandana tied over my eyes. I expect eventually I will step on fewer mines. But it has been a rough first nine months at times. I don’t feel all that great when I learn that I’ve inadvertently stepped on some toes in the organization. Nor do I like discovering I made a mistake by doing work traditionally done by others. And these are just but a few of the mistakes I have made. There were times when I wondered if I should have stayed working for Health and Human Services. I should take some comfort in knowing that many of these issues predate my arrival. Perceptions about my team, good and bad, formed years ago. It doesn’t help that we are geographically separated and rarely meet in person. Consequently inferences get made based on words heard over speakerphones or in snippets of email. There is no body language to read.

For whatever reason there have been long standing bad feelings between my team and another team. I didn’t quite understand the depth of the animosity until recently. I have been groping for a way forward. But this week when the team leader of the other team came to town I had an opportunity to sit down with her and work through some of these thorny communications issues. It was valuable face time. I learned the history of frustrations from her perspective. I went through some of the issues on my team that contributed to the problem. Simply airing the issues in a business-like manner was enormously helpful. We put a plan in place to get the key people together (via teleconference of course) and resolve these issues. It involves first acknowledging the problems of the past then putting them behind them once they have been vented. Then we hope to move rapidly forward because we have issues that need to be settled soon. Neither side can afford any more bad feelings. As a manager I have the duty to get past them so that we can do our work.

This was also the week that my user group came to town. The group had been formed twice before and had failed both times. All this preceded my arrival. In past groups there had been personality issues and presumptions of empowerment on issues that did not exist. For six months we had been working through tedious but necessary issues of creating a new group charter and getting executive sponsorship. Finally we got around to picking members for the group. Most had never met each other before and I only knew about half of them, and all superficially. I delegated most of that work to the chairman of the group. We spent weeks preparing for the meeting. We worked through agendas several times. The list of issues, many of which needed quick action, was very daunting. To hedge my bets I beat the organization looking for a professional facilitator and finally found one. My chairman and I met with her before the meeting and outlined our needs carefully. Would all this preplanning make a difference this time?

8:30 AM on Wednesday found us all meeting each other for the first time in a conference room. I had packets of material on the table prepared for them, and table tent tags with their names on them. But I had no idea if this combination of a dozen people would actually be able to work together. Would it become yet another toxic team experience? Was it the gods, the good preparation or just blind luck? For whatever reason we all quickly bonded with each other. When I suggested we all go out to dinner that night everyone enthusiastically agreed. I realized that I too was getting this management stuff. Social engineering had become an important part of my job. If I couldn’t relate to these people as people then I figured our team was doomed. Over dinner at an Italian restaurant we relaxed, joked, traded our life stories and basically discovered we enjoyed each other’s company. I had no more worries about my new team. We had jelled. One guy even came over and put his arm around my neck. I was both surprised and flattered.

But could we get through our daunting agenda? Fortunately our facilitator Cheryl was with us every step of the way. It turned out she didn’t have to do that much facilitating, but she let us know when we were getting long winded. I had no one to take notes so I tried to take them myself. This was hard to do when I was doing a lot of the speaking. Cheryl took up the slack. She captured ideas on large pieces of paper that were being continually stuck and restuck to the walls of our conference room. In the evenings she assembled formal notes of the day’s events in electronic form. I was free to do what I needed to do: engage in conversation and lead the team where it needed to go.

Having a terrific facilitator was such a blessing. We had focus, we had organization, and we were liberated to do what we did best. I kept a close watch on the clock and made sure we were meeting our expected outcomes for each segment of the meeting. I led many of the discussions. When I made suggestions they were largely listened to seriously. But it is hard or impossible to effectively lead if the elements are not in place. But this time they were. With our excellent facilitator Cheryl, careful preparation, a good bunch of people and everyone’s commitment to excellence we ended our meeting today on time and with our goals accomplished. We formed the sub-teams we needed, set out agendas for future meetings, made some tentative decisions and worked through thorny issues of how we would work together in the future.

I figure this is about as good as it gets in the leadership business. The days were long, but the people were fun to be with. It was terrific to feel so organized, empowered and to lead a team in the direction I wanted them to go. And I know I led the team because they followed me with great enthusiasm and with a genuine sense of commitment.

I felt pumped and energized. From out of nothing we created something very important to our little universe. I don’t think this team will fail like the other teams have. We will move forward with confident strides and with genuine respect for each other.

 
The Thinker

Blog Makeover, Part Two

Notice anything new around here? Same (I hope) quality content but a newer and better look. This time though I didn’t even bother to try to redesign my site by myself. I have almost zero skills in artistic design.

Fortunately I found someone whose site I greatly admired who agreed to makeover my blog for me. Definitely check out Lauren’s blog sometime because she’s where it’s happening when it comes to hip blogging sites. I did ask her to tone down my site a bit and she complied quite well. I am very happy with the new look. Lauren is the niece of my friend Lisa, who of course runs her own blog Snarkypants. Lauren’s design skills can be seen on Lisa’s site too.

The new design needs a few tweaks to it that you probably won’t notice, mainly in the way of navigation. But overall it is good to go!

Thank you Lauren for a quality job! As you requested a donation in your name to the American Cancer Society was made in lieu of payment.

 
The Thinker

Taking Care of Business

It’s one thing to go to work to work. It’s another thing to go to work to work.

This week was a week where my team and I had to put our noses to the grindstone. Separated by geography (I have three employees here in Reston, one in Alaska, one in Oregon and one in Montana) we needed to come together in the same room at the same time and work. I wish it could have been interesting work, like designing a cool new web interface. Instead it was hard grunt work: putting together detailed project schedules that we could commit to for our projects for the remainder of the year.

It was work that we should have done about the time I arrived in February. I had no idea at the time this kind of detail was either expected or required. So we are playing catch up. It meant inhabiting a conference room from 8:30 AM until 5 PM. Everyone brought their laptop computers. We borrowed a big computer projector and threw up Microsoft Project on the big screen. And then we hashed through in laborious detail how we were going to finish our work.

Of course we had an agenda, but it was a bit too ambitious to put together plans for all our projects. So we concentrated on the ones that we had to finish or at least start this year. None of us are Microsoft Project gurus, which made the exercise frustrating at times. Meanwhile since we were all of course plugged in we were all reading our email too. The usual stream of requests kept coming in and we kept answering email and troubleshooting problems even while we hammered away at our schedules.

The pace gave us headaches. But the real headaches came when we reached those fuzzy areas that were hard to define. For example we needed to clarify a lot of requirements in a fairly short time frame with another team that likes to procrastinate. How to get them off their duffs when from their perspective we had been sitting on our duffs? Well, we had not been sitting on our duffs. We were working on things at the time that seemed a lot more important. We sent out exploratory emails wordsmithed by committee. We pondered whether we should CC certain people or not. There are lots of unwritten rules in our organization. There are lots of potential landmines. Sometimes we are criticized for not keeping people informed about what we are doing. Other times we get criticized for keeping people too well informed. We pondered the egos of various personalities who act as gatekeepers for getting our work done and tried to figure strategies that would move us forward. Only time will tell whether we read the tea leaves correctly.

The pace was frantic, the typing furious and the stress level was high. But there were other tensions. Generally my team gets along great, but there are occasional personality issues between members. I am not the most tactful person but I had to find tactful ways to move the conversation along and soothe feelings. Meanwhile I learn one of my team members is not happy in their position. The member is crucial to the success of the team so it’s not like I can just let him go. I can’t keep him and hire someone to replace him. The headache reaches the acute phase. I pop two Tylenol at lunch but the headache doesn’t recede.

I try to find some solace in the evening at home. But the headache is still there. I still feel the frantic pace of the day. The news that one of the members of my team is unhappy in their job weighs heavily on my mind because I feel in an unwinnable situation yet I am still responsible, since I am a manager. I have to figure it out. Then the phone rings.

My wife is across the Potomac River in Silver Spring, Maryland with my parents fixing their computer. My mother, age 84, has fallen in the bathroom and has hit her head. She is conscious. They call an emergency medical technician who recommends a trip to the emergency room. My wife, bless her soul, goes with them. I take my daughter to and from choir practice and fret about my Mom. I phone my sister. I send out emails to the family on the situation. I stay up late waiting for my wife to deliver more news and come home. At 10 PM she is still in the emergency room. Don’t wait up she says. Eventually I go to bed but don’t sleep well. At 1:30 I wake up and my wife is not in bed. I get worried. I can’t get back to sleep. I call her cell phone. I get voice mail. I try not to worry and to sleep but I can’t. At 3 AM she arrives home. I get the update: Mom is okay and they are back home. I manage a couple more hours of sleep but am up at 6 AM to send my daughter to school. Then it is back to the conference room for another day of schedule planning, mine-laden emails, and breaks of humor between my team to relieve the tension.

Wednesday is the night for my team to go out for dinner. Some members of the team bring family to the Italian restaurant we chose. We are very good for business: there are more than a dozen of us altogether. I order a glass of house wine. The persistent headache recedes. I am tired but the company is good. Two of my employees bring their young children with them. The babies move from lap to lap. Everyone laughs. Everyone eats a bit too much. As their leader I feel I need to say a few words so I do. I tell them truthfully that I am blessed to have such a wonderful and dedicated team. In spite of their own periodic personality quirks they are a terrific bunch of people. While few in number they are top notch. My words must have been good because they were heartfelt. I think they like me. But I beg off their plans to play pool. I head home, do my chores, crawl into bed and quickly drift off into a narcotic-like sleep.

Today at noon it was over. We put everything away. I was glad to leave early. Many on my team had a long day of flights ahead of them. I felt sorriest for poor Joe, who had to make it home all the way to Anchorage before he could crawl into bed.

But before we leave I am still not satisfied. We did a lot of work but I wished we could have done more. We are still behind the eight ball. We have our twice-weekly conference calls but this face-to-face time is very valuable and infinitely more productive. We must do this more often. We must get ahead of the planning curve. We are supposed to have plans ready by mid February for the work we want to do in 2006. So we must meet again. At least we have the freedom to choose the location. After some discussion we choose Denver. We’ll meet again there in mid January.

At home my weekend plans to be full of activities. In addition to teaching tomorrow, today was my wife’s last day at work. She is inviting her slash friends over for a party tomorrow evening, and two of them will camp out here for the weekend. It’s going to be a noisy place full of talk about the homoerotic fan fiction universe my wife inhabits. I won’t get much downtime. A long bike ride may provide some stress relief if the weather cooperates. I contemplate the mundanity of a few hours at the local Starbucks with a laptop and a wireless connection. Perhaps that is where I will find my escape … if I can squeeze in the time.

 
The Thinker

Purple Pill Time

What was it? Was I more stressed out at work than normal? Did I get it from hitting the chili in the cafeteria a little too often? Did my appetite for Caesar salad become excessive? Perhaps I can blame the South Beach Diet? I am eating quite a bit differently than I was: a whole lot fewer carbohydrates and a lot more eggs in the morning. Whatever it was my stomach rebelled.

Even so I didn’t think I had something quite as ordinary as acid reflux. I got through 47 years without acid reflux so I darn well assumed I could get through 47 more too. I thought if I had stomach problems I would feel it in the pit of my stomach. Instead I felt something akin to a lump in my throat. I never felt pain. The lump I felt was actually below my throat in my esophagus. After eating something like a high protein bar it felt like the bar didn’t quite make it into my stomach. It felt like it was lodged there. I thought maybe the muscles in my esophagus weren’t working correctly. But if I waited a few hours the feeling went away. Yet if I ate anything else the feeling came back immediately and lingered.

My doctor prescribed “the purple pill”: Nexium. But the feeling of fullness wasn’t going away, at least not very quickly. So I went to see the Ear, Nose and Throat specialist. Yep, yep, he’d seen the same symptoms many times. But just to be sure he snaked a tiny little camera through my nose and down my throat. He showed me a full color picture of the opening of my esophagus. It was red and inflamed. Diagnosis confirmed. Stay on the purple pill. Keep my head elevated at night. Take liquid antacids after every meal. Don’t eat anything for several hours before bedtime.

So now wherever I go I bring the pink bottle of Pepto Bismol with me. It got noticed at the office. Acid reflux apparently runs in my building. One theory went that maybe it was something in the water. Or maybe my typically serene looking office mates were actually bundles of nervous energy. Perhaps I was a bit more stressed out in the role of manager than I thought I would be. So now I take my purple pill around 5 o’clock and swill two tablespoons of the pink stuff after every meal. Yum … not!

I want to go back to chili twice a week or so. I don’t like eating bland food. It is too much of a pleasure to give up spices. I want spaghetti with lots of sauce. I want slices of pizza. I want my Caesar Salad again, darn it.

This too shall pass, I hope. Another sixty days or so and perhaps I will (cross fingers) be back to normal. But maybe not. I have learned that my stomach has limits. Sometimes my body sends me messages I don’t want to hear. “Hello! Brain! Stomach here. I don’t like to complain but you aren’t listening to me. I’m an organ down here in serious trouble. Stop ignoring me and start treating me right! I don’t deal well with all that spicy and acidic food. You’ve got to give it up!”

No I don’t! I don’t want to! You can’t make me, stomach. I’ve suffered enough already. I’ve given up chasing after spicy women. In return all I asked was one small favor: I wanted to keep eating spicy food. Shouldn’t I be allowed to have one vice? It’s not like I smoke. I might drink two glasses of wine a year. You and the liver should be very happy.

But my stomach is not listening. Instead it is repeating the late Ann Landers: “Wake up and smell the coffee!” Middle age seems to be all about accepting limitations. I must eat less. I must exercise more (actually a lot more). I must embrace monogamy. And now I must not only eat less, but I have to enjoy less of what I still eat. It’s like nature is trying to get me to embrace monasticism.

Perhaps instead it is time to invest a little money in AstraZeneca, the makers of the purple pill. There must be gold to be made in the acid reflux market. A thirty-day supply of Nexium costs over $100. And Pepto Bismol doesn’t come cheap either. If I have to enjoy my food less and shell out big bucks to make my stomach happy then I might as well profit from it.

 
The Thinker

Covenanted

When you live in cyberspace can you find real community? Does having with a network of friends online amount to the same thing as a network of friends in real life?

For the last few years I have been puzzling over these thoughts. I have been wondering if my family’s social life has become too virtual. I was arguably the first. Back in the mid 1980s my Commodore 64 was hardly warm before I had purchased a 300-baud modem and was discovering electronic bulletin board systems (BBSes). It quickly became my favorite hobby. At first I was online to download software. But gradually I found discussion boards. I found connecting with people online fascinating. Suddenly my community expanded beyond family, established friends and immediate neighbors into a much larger and diverse set of people, many of whom seemed far more interesting than the people I bumped into in real life.

Back then the Internet was virtually unknown and certainly not available to the average person. Its closest equivalent in the mid 1980s was an online service called Compuserve. Unable to afford a service I found instead lists of local electronic BBSes put together by a man named Mike Focke and started dialing. When I got an IBM compatible computer I graduated to the much larger world of IBM compatible BBSes. While chatting on line with other people from the Washington area I started to care about silly things like whether PCBoard software was better than Wildcat software. One nice thing about BBSes though was they were local. Most of us were too cheap to pay long distance charges to chat electronically with people. So after some initial shyness I got a chance to actually meet some of the people I met online. To this day I maintain a core set of friends from those days including Frank Pierce, Angela Smith and Jim Goldbloom.

But those BBS days are gone for good. The Internet arrived in the home. The location of people on the other end of a conversation became irrelevant. This was both good and bad. I missed those BBS get togethers we had every 3 to 6 months, usually with the online gang from The Back of the North Wind BBS. I still hung out online but it wasn’t quite the thrill it had been. The BBS world slowly died out and in 1999 even the venerable The Back of the North Wind BBS shut down after 12 years of nearly continual service.

For my wife the Internet was a way to connect with people of a very narrow interest that she would never have met otherwise. Around 1999 she jumped into the homoerotic fan fiction (Slash) universe big time. She has been happy in that community ever since. She considers her online friends just her friends. While a handful live locally most are distant. And yet we have met many of them. On our recent trip to Canada we visited one of her friends in every city we visited. She’s very tight with her online friends and her world is certainly richer as a result. And while she has shared intimacies with people who in some cases live as far away as Australia we don’t know most of our neighbors. We know some of them because our daughter went to school with their children. We know our next-door neighbor but not the one on the other side. Those neighbors I haven’t met might as well be on the other side of the world. They don’t seem interested in me and I haven’t sought them out either. We are unlikely to interact at anything more than a superficial level.

My daughter’s friends are mostly people she knows from school or through Girl Scouts. They meet in person from time to time but spend much more time interacting in cyberspace. In that sense she is a wholly modern ordinary teenager. Instant messaging is her primary means of communicating with friends. When she gets phone calls it is often from a friend explaining why they can’t get online. And yet even she has her virtual friends out there who will likely always remain anonymous.

I sometimes feel hypocritical and tempted to declare that this sort of online life is unnatural and wrong. Yet it is not without its allures and benefits. For me in the 1980s and 1990s it was a godsend. It gave me a sort of a social life without leaving home. We had something of a social life in those days but it involved around our daughter and her friends. Through her friends we met her friends’ parents and sometimes we found things in common. But they were rarely meaningful relationships. The reality of those times was that they were packed with parenting chores. The computer offered brief escapes into a world populated with adults. There I could talk about things I cared about like politics at my convenience. No one wanted me to read the The Very Hungry Caterpillar at all! And I could do all this without leaving home. It felt good. I felt optimized.

This new way of making and meeting friends and lovers may be the way it will be from now on. Yet something in me still yearns for the traditional sense of community that I have largely spurned. So this year when my local Unitarian Church once again made the appeal for people to join covenant groups I decided it was finally time to try it.

A covenant group is a group of people who agree to meet regularly to talk. I asked our minister to assign me to a random group. I was hoping I might get into a group with people around my own age. But it seems in our church that covenant groups are largely full of people age fifty plus. Perhaps most people my age are too busy with the childrearing chores to attend covenant group meetings.

Yesterday I attended my first meeting. I actually know most of the people in my covenant group. I know them in the sense that I recognize their faces from services. Some of them I know by name because I have talked to them a few times. But I have largely not really talked to any of them. A covenant group provided a structured way for me to get to know them as people.

This particular group has been around for a year or so, but there were a few vacancies. I and another lady filled the vacancies. We met in a room in the basement of the church for about an hour and a half. We introduced ourselves. Since I was new I gave them a short biography, both professional and personal. And I unloaded on my problems of the moment: my ailing mother and my wife’s imminent job loss. And I learned about some of their issues and struggles.

Every meeting has a discussion topic chosen by the group. Yesterday’s topic was how we got to where we are with our religious convictions. Being Unitarian Universalists a lot of us didn’t have religious convictions. I heard more than a couple in my group confess to being spiritually vacant and left-brain dominant. There were more than a few ex-Catholics like me in our circle too. I confessed that while I spent much of my adulthood as an agnostic it didn’t quite fit anymore. In that sense I felt more spiritual than many of the rest of them.

Despite being the youngest in my group it was still an enjoyable experience. We may all be white middle class people but we are a fairly eclectic and interesting bunch. Our group includes a physician, a man working for the State Department, the manager of a childcare center and a number of retired people.

So although I have a busy life I have covenanted to spend one night a month for a year with these people. I am there to get to know them at something beyond a surface level. In the process hopefully they will get to know more than a little something about me. I have heard of covenant groups that blossom into tightly knit friendship circles. Only time will tell if that will happen with our group. But everyone in my group seemed to be nice, decent yet complex people struggling through their lives and their issues. Perhaps in some small way we will find an old fashioned sense of community. Perhaps in time I will grow to find more of my friends in my community and fewer online.

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