Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Restoring the balance

Today I am 45. Today I am the same as I was yesterday when I was 44.  Except that today I am a little bit older. I dreamed only last night that I was my child self being held in the arms of my self as a much older woman with wrinkles and wisdom.

Today I find myself seeking balance. Balance in work and art and rest. Balance between child self and wise woman self. Balance in relationships.

I feel that I have stolen but a small and precious piece of the world’s enormous heart. I hold it shakily, tenderly, in grateful and greedy hands. The world would run off with my entire soul. (Not even a ransom note.) In this, too, I feel the need to restore balance.

The shadows may be lengthening, but soon the balance will be tipped by Nature, and again the sun will be ascendant. Whether I seek it or not, this balance also will be restored.

Still the clock ticks. Still the trees strip and the frost spreads across the pane. And still we wait for God to speak in the most unexpected ways.

Happy birthday to me.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

The Change Agent’s Toolkit: Seven Components of Positive & Sustainable Change

How strange to be pondering a theory of change upon the eve of Advent, a season more generally reserved (in theory, if not in practice) for contemplation, reflection, and silence.  At least it seems strange on the surface.  But just below that smooth meditative surface is the churn, the anticipation, the “hurry-up-I-can’t-take-all-this-waiting” desire for THE change that Advent points us to.  There is no change as remarkable as new life – and for most believers I know who choose to celebrate the season, that new life means transformational change on a global scale.  Really paradigm-shifting, earth-shattering stuff.

And so I am here thinking about such things and what it means practically for people wanting to make a significant positive difference in some small or large way on this planet (or simply in their own little corner of it).  The thoughts that follow are my best practical attempt at this time to articulate my own theory of change.  I include at the end of this post, as my holiday gift to readers, a list of books that have influenced my thinking on this subject and that I recommend heartily for the Change Agents on your gift lists.
Change can and does occur for individuals and organizations all the time without the application of any forethought or intentionality.  Sometimes it makes life better for us, and other times… not so much.  Most of the time, the change acts upon us without any significant impact.  The weather changes constantly (especially if you live in New England!), technology changes frequently, fashions change, and none of the agents responsible for those changes ask us for permission or if we believe in or embrace the changes.  (Well, they didn’t ask me.)  We simply choose to react or not react.

And that is the key: We choose to be active or passive in the context of change in our lives.  Many times the change is in response to an external adjustment to the status quo (such as weather, technology, or fashion trends), and other times it is mission driven.  Either way, the key difference is the decision to be the “Change Agent,” to no longer be a passive recipient but to be an active influencer.  Once an individual or organization has taken on the mantel of Change Agent, it becomes critical to approach the change with tools appropriate for the endeavor.

There are seven basic components that work together toward the goal of positive and sustainable change.  These tools are critically important for individuals or organizations that have chosen to be active agents of change.  They are not linear, and they are not always equal.  In some situations, one component will have far more weight than any other, while in different circumstances, there will be a fluctuation across all components, a give and take throughout a change process.  Yet in every serious change effort, each one of these components will need consideration and application.

Figure 1 shows how these components work together to move the change forward.

Figure 1: Seven Components of Change

Here is what I mean by each of these components:

1.       Specificity.  Identify the area of change in such a way that allows for clear goal-setting.  At a very basic level, defining the goal will let you know when you have met it.  It provides you with the ability to measure your level of attainment and to set new goals.  There is also an aspect of dissatisfaction in this component.  While the most effective Change Agents I know are joyful, they also tend to be constantly dissatisfied.  They see specific things (not vague angst) that can and should be improved, and they set personal goals to improve, constantly raising the bar for themselves and their organizations. 

2.       Belief.  Create and/or check for internal buy-in (within the individuals or groups that are the targeted beneficiaries of the change) that the specified change is necessary and worth the effort.  This includes individuals’ internal belief that they are capable of adjusting their behavior to accommodate the change.  Belief is not always necessary at the beginning of a change effort, but to sustain the change, it is absolutely required. 
3.       Expectation.  Create a sense of positive inevitability and momentum through external sources of encouragement and accountability (community, mentor, teacher, family, and/or friends).  This frequently comes in the form of someone (or some persons or institutions) that have an assumption of attainment, an external belief in the ability to make positive change that supports the internal belief. 

4.       Exposure.  Be open to and seek out opportunities for newness. Change occurs when something new is introduced into the status quo.  Specific changes require targeted exposure, which frequently comes through education, training, and review of leading resources in the topic.  Such exposure can (and frequently will) lead to unexpected opportunities for further goal setting in the specified area of positive change.  It is simply the “Oh, what a great idea, I must try that” effect. It is what incents large organizations to invest heavily in things like benchmarking, research and development, and competitive intelligence.  It is what causes individuals to try a new form of exercise, or a new recipe, or an iPad.  Exposure leads to innovation.

5.       Will.  Fuel the internal fortitude and energy to start something new and see it through.  Will is different from belief – you can believe that something is necessary without possessing the will to make it happen (e.g. most people agree that exercise, a balanced diet, and a smoke-free lifestyle is better than the alternatives, but that belief by itself will not make someone alter behavior).  You can also have the will to make a change without fully buying into its necessity, if external forces and other incentives are strong enough to support it.

6.       Practice.  Create a habit through repetition, ritual, and mindfulness that leads to sustainable lifestyle change.  Take action that will get you closer to your goals. Putting plans into action and celebrating early successes can feed will, belief, and expectation in very positive ways.  But practice is more than taking those important first steps.  Repeatable habits have to be practical, usable, and meaningful. 

7.       Integration.  Engage holistically, integrating mind, body, emotions, and spirit toward the specific positive change.  Achievable and sustainable change is not done in siloes.  In the context of organizational change, integration of the change (particularly if it impacts multiple stakeholders) must occur across teams, departments, and levels.  In this way, all seven change components work together for meaningful, sustainable change.
These components are infinitely applicable, yet may not incorporate all aspects of change that occurs at the micro or macro level.  What have I missed?  Which components ring true for your situation?  How are you preparing for the next big change in your life?  Do share your story of change and expose others to new ways of being a force for positive and sustainable impact. 

My Change Agent Book List
These are just a handful of my muses, those major Change Agents who have inspired, strengthened, and sharpened my thinking on this subject.  I am sure to add to this list over time.  Let me know what books have influenced you in your positive change initiatives and I will add to this list with a credit for the recommendation to you.

Change or Die: The Three Keys to Change at Work and in Life by Alan Deutschman

First, Break All the Rules: What the World's Greatest Managers Do Differently

Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap... and Others Don't

Love Is the Killer App: How to Win Business and Influence Friends

The Power of Pull: How Small Moves, Smartly Made, Can Set Big Things in Motion by John Hagel III

Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation by Steven Johnson

Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within (Shambhala Library) by Natalie Goldberg

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

How a weekend in the woods changed my life

“We are not necessarily doubting that God will do the best for us; we are wondering how painful the best will turn out to be.” – C.S. Lewis

It was a dark and stormy night. Or perhaps I should say “morning” that turned into a gray and drizzly day.  That was the night/morning that my husband and I crawled out of bed at 3:00 a.m., loaded our luggage into the Land Rover, drove to the airport to get on a commuter plane to switch at another airport to fly half a country away to then drive an hour and a half further to get to the middle of nowhere in the piny woods of Texas. 

Not being a morning person or much of one for travel, the entire relentless time in transport from Maine to Houston, I was thinking, “This better be worth it.”

It was.  The C.S. Lewis Southwest Regional Retreat & Writers Workshop at Camp Allen in Navasota, Texas (October 27 to 30, 2011) was the beginning of something remarkable in my life: friendship.  

“Friendship is born at that moment when one person says to another: ‘What! You too? I thought I was the only one.’”  - C.S. Lewis

Oh, don’t get me wrong. I have many dear, close friends who have been “knit to my soul” through years of shared joy, pain, and sheer hilarity.  What is remarkable about the friendships forged through this past week is what is remarkable about all friendship – that moment of recognition, of “You too?” 
What makes the CSL workshop so worthy of remark is the sheer pace and rapidity of those “You too” moments.  I suppose it was to be expected.  The conference drew folks who were there for their love of Jack Lewis and gang (Tolkien, Barfield, other Inklings), and writers who wanted to develop their craft.  How could I not find kindred spirits among such a crowd?

Friendship is always worth a grueling trip.

“You can make anything by writing.” – C.S. Lewis

I am still a bit too close to this event to tell you what it looked like.  It’s sort of like that old fable of five blindfolded people asked to describe an elephant by touch, and they come up with five very different animals.  Sort of like that, but not really.  I can tell you a few specific things I walked away with, ways my life will change as a result.  And that is not nothing.

MiniWriMo. Five hundred words a day for the next thirty days. That is what I have committed to, with accountability, feedback, and support from two other like-minded friends I found lurking among the Texas pines.  It is my version of the vaunted NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month in which writers from around the globe attempt to pour out 50,000 words each toward a draft novel), but I am not going to write a novel and I’m not going to aim for 50,000 words.  Always doing it my way.  I want to use this focused energy and accountability over the next thirty days to flesh out my vision, mission, goals, and values that make up All Nine, my consulting business.

I have sculptor/author/speaker Bridgette Mongeon to thank for this gem.  I attended her session on “Getting Past the Voices in My Head” with expectations of a nice pep talk and walked away with this very practical challenge.  

The whole conference was like that; expecting one thing, getting something altogether different, much more necessary, and terribly practical.

Servant Authorship.  Several speakers spoke on the importance of writing for your reader, but nobody provided a more clear, consistent, and (again) practical message on the matter than Thomas Umstattd, Jr.  Umstattd, owner of Umstattd Media and author of Author Tech Tips, provided a clarion call to view your writing platform as a servant leadership role.  More importantly, he showed how to do this by example.  Over the next month, I intend to reread all my notes from his sessions, imbibe everything he has written on website and e-newsletter design, and do everything he says.  Watch for changes to the All Nine web presence!

Spontaneous bursts of creativity.   One of my favorite moments of the workshop/retreat was the “Villanelle Throw Down” at Bag End (the informal fellowship and sharing of artistic gifts at the end of each night, hosted by Andrew Lazo) on Saturday night.  Earlier in the day, I was chatting with my friend Dr. Holly Ordway about how writing is both a communal and a solitary act, how all writers are responding, reacting, and building upon other writers both past and present.  We talked about how John Keats and Leigh Hunt, two English poets of the Romantic era, would set up little competitions between the two of them for fun. And then it was, “Hey, we can do that! Let’s each write a villanelle and read it at Bag End!” 

And so it was on, and that is what we did between sessions throughout the day, in spite of the fact that I have not rhymed in years (my main focus as a poet lately has been haiku) and Holly has been steeped in sonnets.   The funniest memory is catching us both simultaneously counting our iambic pentameter on our fingers as we were attempting to meet the challenge.

We stood together that night, Holly and I, and as we each read our offerings, I was filled with deep joy.  It was truly a splendid moment of realized spontaneity, and indeed, we both won that throw down.  I intend to throw down more challenges in the not too distant future to unsuspecting friends, for the sheer pleasure of creative spontaneity.

If I had to sum up the whole experience, I would say that I was reminded that anything that matters in life – like friendship, service, leadership, and really solid writing – is worth a bit of trouble, even getting up in the middle of a dark and stormy night.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Taking Stock

If you are in the business of comparing yourself to others to gain a sense of your own worth, I have good news and bad news for you.  There will always be someone else in the world – and even in your relatively small corner of the world – who is prettier (or uglier), smarter (or dumber), wittier (or duller), stronger (or weaker), richer (or poorer), better and more passionate than what you are best and most passionate about, less fashionable, more tactful, less concise, more influential, less popular, more educated, less experienced, nicer, and so on.

Comparison with others is a zero sum game.  May I suggest an alternative?
If you simply cannot shake off the need to compare, then compare yourself with the only other person that you can legitimately compare to:  You. 

I’m not talking about identifying the very best you that you hope to someday become, the “Ideal You,” the UberYou, and then comparing your current self to that hoped for future you.  That can be worse than benchmarking yourself against Super Mom down the street; you know, the one with the two gorgeous well-behaved children, perfect body, awesome job, always clean Volvo, and who still finds time to volunteer for three charities.  [Not that I ever noticed…]  UberYou is such a nag – that shadow self out there in the distance who actually has no purpose in your life except to make you regret all the things you have not yet achieved. 
I am talking about taking stock.  Look back at who you were at 13, 25, 33, 40, … last week.  Give thanks for all you have been through all those seasons, and for what past versions of you have brought to you today.  Recognize the compassion you have learned to show to others by living through natural disasters like teenage insecurities or the arrogance of early management responsibility.  Now, can you show as much compassion to yourself?  Can you give yourself an “Atta boy” or “Atta girl” for the courage it took to get where you are today?

When you are grateful for who you are, for all that your genetic material and happy accidents and miseries and achievements have made you (all of which, I believe, are great gifts from a generous Creator who just cannot stop creating in our lives), you can be generous.  It takes courage to be generous, to take stock in this way, and say, “I am rich.  I have surplus.  I have something to give.”

Thankful stock-taking supercharges personal growth.  It allows you to look forward – with compassionate acceptance of the past – to who you are becoming. Not to UberYou (that boob!), but generous, courageous, grateful you.

Monday, September 19, 2011

What I love about Kindergarten

The other day, my son Sam was in the process of losing a wrestling match with his dad, when he shouted out, “Dad, that’s not letting your light shine!”

Huh? Where’d that come from? Oh, right. Kindergarten.

We started on this new adventure in education just a few short weeks ago, and already it has made a big impact on Sam and the rest of our family. Here are the top five reasons why I LOVE kindergarten:

1. My son wakes up in the morning doing math. “Mom, did you know that five cows times two is ten cows?” Seriously? “Yup, seriously, Mom.” Well, now I know.

2. Kindergarten is tiring. By 8:00 p.m., my little muffin man is out, and I get the rest of the evening to … fill in the blank.

3. My husband and I are not the only ones challenging our son to try harder. His teachers don’t let him give up on himself. I adore them.

4. There are now other adults in Sam’s life who like doing crafts and are teaching him how to draw. This is awesome for me, because I am not crazy about crafts or very good at drawing.

5. My days are focused with minimized “multi-tasking” schizophrenia. I work primarily out of my home office, so the routine and scheduling structure of the school schedule is a huge favor to my sanity.

For the most part, Sam loves kindergarten, too, in spite of the question he asked on the way to school last week: “Mom, how long do I have to do this?” This was a teachable moment for both of us. Rather than say what came to mind (“For the rest of your life…”), I adjusted quickly to the positive and reminded him that he was really looking forward to karate at school the following Monday.

I realize the book has already been written (All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten, Robert Fulghum), but I would be remiss to ignore the obvious. My reasons for loving kindergarten should apply to the rest of my life.

Am I learning something new every day that makes me excited to get out of bed? Does my work tire me out in a good way? Are people challenging me to try harder in areas that are hard for me? Do I tap into my network to complement and shore up areas where I am weak? Am I focusing on one thing at a time? Does my work schedule balance out well with our family’s schedule? When work gets to be a bit of a drag and I find myself asking how long I have to do this, do I look for new activities to keep myself motivated?

And most importantly, am I letting my light shine?

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Frivolous display

I was out in Northfield this past weekend with my family, visiting friends on the campus of the soon to be C.S. Lewis College. We brought out steak tips from The Meat House and corn on the cob from Zacks farm stand in York, and while all that was getting ready for the eating, I wandered about campus with my camera.

As I was looking up at the ever changing sun set sky, it occurred to me: God picks his favorite places to show off.

The clouds and colors were in constant movement, seemingly slow motion, and yet quicker than I could keep up with. A thousand shades of purple, pink, salmon, blue, swimming with indifferent fading light. And then gone in an instant, only to be replaced with something even more stunning.

It was a frivolous display of talent.

Yay, God.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Telling my life

Based on recent feedback, I’ve come to the conclusion that I am no good at telling about myself. My dad’s sister chided me gently the other day, “If it weren’t for your husband letting us know about your life, we’d have no idea what was happening with you guys.” That was in the context of various life changes, mostly related to our careers.

A few days earlier, I had said to my older brother Dan, “I don’t like talking about myself.” I remember that moment, because he seemed genuinely surprised and commented in a bemused sort of way, “Well, I think you’re interesting.” Thanks, Danny.

Maybe my reserve comes from being misunderstood when I have tried telling what I think is the important stuff. A friend recently told me, after I attempted to tell about current life changes, that, “It sounds like you’re making the best of a crappy situation.” Oh, dear. Failure to communicate.

Let me try again. See, it’s more like this: I want to make sure I don’t blow a golden opportunity, which is this moment, right now. I don’t want to miss it by wanting more or looking too far ahead. It’s not a crappy situation that I’m making the best of. It is this gift of life, and I get to live it. Isn’t that amazing enough?

But people seem to want the elevator pitch about how we’re making money. Why? That seems so boring to me. When I am with someone I haven’t seen in a while, I want to listen deeply to that moment and create a memory with them, not rehearse a summary of my resume.

If I have to talk about a job, what I really want to tell about my work is stuff like this:

• Today my five-year-old son watched a video about innovation with me as I thought through potential creative elements of an upcoming event. He seemed genuinely interested. I felt the pieces of my life beginning to come together in a strange, unexpected way. He wanted to watch it a second time.
• There’s this wiry older gentleman I work with. He has piercing gray eyes and makes the hair on the back of my neck stand up when he talks about how love can change the world.
• I sat in a meeting the other day as the president of the organization wondered aloud about the ripple effect of service instilled in the hearts of young people. Her candor took my breath away.
• I made my first call to a Congressional representative because of her. I cannot tell you why, except that I would not have been able to look her in the eye if I hadn’t.
• In the third toilet stall on the second floor of an office building I visit frequently, there is a magnet with a quote from Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. This part grabs me by the throat:
"…dismiss whatever insults your own soul, and your very flesh shall be a great poem and have the richest fluency not only in its words but in the silent lines of its lips and face and between the lashes of your eyes and in every motion and joint of your body."
• I always use that stall.

Is that what folks want to know? I can only imagine a blank stare if I tried to say all that in casual conversation.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Just show up, Part 2

“Rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep.” – Romans 12:15 (NASB)

Since I was a teenager, I have heard people give inspirational speeches and testimonials about giving 110%, going the extra mile, doing more, pushing harder than anyone ever thought imaginable. These talks are always admirable and frequently moving. And yet, the logician in me often has been left with this embarrassing thought: I don’t get it.

How do you divide up a whole and end up with more than you started with (well, ok, unless you're performing a miracle like Jesus with the loaves and fishes)? There really is no more than 100%, is there? And isn’t 100%, well, er… enough? Or, maybe even – if all of us really tried – more than enough?

Recently, though, I have found that there is something much harder (and more important) than all this doing. In fact, I believe so much of the doing is a self-imposed distraction from the difficult work of just showing up.

When a writer or speaker repeats a point, it is generally worth paying special attention. In the short couplet in Romans 12:15, Paul repeats the almost invisible words “with those who.” I say almost invisible, because I often skip that bit to get to the meaty stuff: Rejoice! Weep! That’s where the action is, right?

No. I humbly admit that I have missed the point, until recently. And by missing the point, I have missed so much action by not showing up to be “with those who” do/feel/are whatever “those who” are. Oh, I have been physically present, for sure, but a million miles away on next week’s to do list. I have achieved a lot by most measures, and I can multi-task with the best of them. But I am awakening to a painful reality: I could have been more useful by doing less.

I am allowing myself this season to rethink what life might look and feel like if I just show up. Maybe when I play with my son, I don’t stop mid-giggle to check on the laundry. In conversation with my husband, perhaps I let him finish his sentence instead of hurrying him on by finishing it for him. As a friend weeps on my shoulder, just weep. When I write, allow the words to tumble onto the page before editing myself.

This “just showing up” business could change everything.

Imagine with me for a moment… a meeting at work in which everyone is fully present, not checking email or texting, listening to each other, not worried about the next meeting or deadline. In over twenty years of meetings, I can count on one hand those in which everyone “showed up” in that way. And they were amazingly productive and creative meetings. Game changers, if you will.

You can keep your 110%. Just show up to that one meeting – really BE there – and see what happens.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Just show up

I keep hearing this one thought threaded through all my other thoughts lately, repeating, pressing, insistent:

Nobody goes hungry at this table, no matter what you bring or don’t bring to the feast. You may come with empty hands, or you may contribute a slice of left-over slightly stale bread. Perhaps one time you bring a steaming pot of beef stew, another time a bottle of cheap red wine. Maybe your only contribution is cheerful chatter or sullen silence. Either way, there’s room at this table, and you will not leave hungry.

The only condition is that you show up. Come along, pull up a chair. Here, next to me, don’t be shy. Let’s eat.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Self-employment benefits

A friend of mine recently asked how I'm managing in this gap-between-gigs period. Partly in response, partly because I felt like it, I started writing down what I call my "unemployment benefits"... a list of unexpected perks of not working. I thought when I finished them, they might be my next blog post. It included things like being able to go to the grocery store when it is practically empty, wearing pajamas at noon, taking long walks and happening upon a family of baby squirrels in an ancient tree trunk. Stuff like that. It's pretty awesome.

But I'm also antsy. I don't truly know how to relax. Although, last Sunday afternoon I did a pretty good job of it. The light rain outside and raw weather required a fire in the fireplace and a glass of sustenance (Cabernet). So I read poetry on the couch for a few hours, feeling very much like my cat Lucy (comfy, lazy, snug), who sat close beside me and purred. Our house guest from England thought she was in heaven -- or at least very near home.

So, to answer my friend's question, I think I'm doing just fine.

Oh, about that list of "benefits"... I decided not to finish it. Maybe that's the whole point, the best perk of unemployment (or self-employment, if you will). I get to decide what deliverables I ship and what gets to slip.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Contrarian Values

Now that I have completed my course of study for my masters in business management, and have some time in between full-time gigs, I realize that I fundamentally disagree with several standard business assumptions. So much for the degree!

The following set of mutually exclusive and collectively exhaustive principles make up my best thought (at this moment) on the right way to “do work.” I cannot prove that this set of five will make me rich, but I will not lose sleep by acting within these values.

[Note: When I refer to “client” in this list, I mean anyone you do work for. Who do you serve? What transactions are you making? At any time, your client could be your employer, employees, peers, customers, the office janitorial service, even your family members.]

1. Search out redundancies. Don’t take a penny of a client’s money in exchange for work if you know they have the time, talent, and will to do the work themselves. “Value added” to me is not about doing more than what the client paid you for in the first place. Value add is why they hired you. They do not have what you’ve got, so they are willing to pay for your added value.

The reverse is also true (and, perhaps, more obvious): If you don’t have the time, talent, and will to do the job, don’t take it.

2. Create independence. Make it clear to clients that you are not interested in a lifetime commitment, but a short-term boost of value that will set them on the path to independent success. (Do I need to say it? OK… As counterintuitive as this may seem, such a generous and disinterested commitment to someone else’s goals will gain you a lifetime fan. You may or may not do work with and for them in the future, but your return on investment is exponentially greater this way.)

3. Be invisible. Shine the light on your client’s achievements, contributions, thoughts, and goals, not your own. (Reread point 2 parenthetical.)

4. Reinvent the wheel. Your cherished system was created to produce a particular outcome. Challenge yourself constantly to justify the use of a system/tool/”wheel” based on the outcome you now want to achieve. You may find you no longer need a wheel at all, but something altogether different. Like a box.

5. Ignore the problem. Focus on where you want to be, not where you are. If you are driving on the highway and your car gets a flat tire, you do not mentally pause to consider the flatness of your back left tire, wondering what possibly could have caused such a puncture, while going 70 miles per hour north on Route 95. You focus on moving as quickly as possible to the side of the road, and then getting a replacement tire on the wheel.

Humans are naturally wired to move to solution mode nearly instantaneously. Why don’t we carry that focus into our work? In many cases, it is because we are trained to identify the cause or causes of the problem before going to the next step (fishbone diagram, anyone?). When it comes to human and organizational behavior, however, causal analysis is limited at best. Stop getting distracted by “figuring out” the problems. Create a vision of the future that makes the problems irrelevant, then go toward that vision.

As I stated up front, these are my best thoughts about how to “do work” at this time. These have come from my particular set of experiences, readings, learnings up to this point. I can’t say that I have always acted according to these values. But I have reflected on what happens when I have not. It’s not pretty.

Bottom line, as contrary to conventional wisdom they may be, I have never regretted being in alignment with these values.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

The idea of tea

I love the idea of tea.

I collect tea pots. I grow herbs with the intent of brewing tea with them. Tea is comfort, warmth, gentle inspiration. Tea is my ideal.

The fact is, though, I rarely drink tea. My beverage of choice most days is coffee – hot, dark, and caffeinated. Some nights I go to sleep thinking, “I will wake up and drink a very dark, very hot cup of coffee.” Sad, but true.

Until recently, I could not explain this seeming schizophrenia of beverage loyalty. Recently, however, a friend showed me a piece of paper on which was handwritten in pencil two columns of words. In the left column were characteristics of left-brained people, and in the right were – you guessed it – characteristics of right-brained people. On the left were words like logical, analytical, and objective. On the right were holistic, intuitive, and random.

My friend, naturally, prompted me with, “Well? Which are you?”

I was stumped.

My reaction after scanning the list was, “I’m neither.” Then it was, “I’m both.” Then, ultimately, “It depends.”

It reminded me of a discussion of introversion and extraversion I had with my mom last Christmas. She told me I was neither – or both. She introduced me to a new term – ambivert – which is sort of like having an ambidextrous personality. An ambivert is outgoing when necessary and alone when necessary. It depends.

It’s like tea. Or coffee. It all depends on what is necessary for the moment. My brain is not confused about its orientation – it adapts to the need of the moment.

Which has led to another, even more recent, revelation. For me, sustainable, meaningful work adapts to the need of the moment. A time for creative collaboration requires open space, places to sit or stand or pace comfortably, a white board perhaps. Serious writing under a deadline requires isolation and an ergonomically correct workstation. Noodling on a problem – a comfy chair near a fireplace, soft music, a cup of herbal tea (yes, it occasionally fits the bill), and people wandering about that are just in the periphery of my sight line.

Work should be this wonderful. In writing it down, I make myself believe that it is possible.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Something Soup

The past few days I've been battling a bad head and chest cold, with little motivation for anything but watching endless episodes of Top Chef and cooking with garlic. The latter may be caused by the former, or it may be a need for aromatics to penetrate the brick that has become my head.

In between cooking shows today I decided to make soup with what was left in the cupboards (we desperately need to get to the grocery store for a full restocking). What I came up with is worth noting... it was, well, good. I could taste it throught the cold, which is saying something. I want to remember what I did so can make it again.

For lack of imagination, I call it "Something Soup." Measurements listed below are totally arbitrary.

1. Thinly slice about 4 pounds of red potatoes, and put them in a large stock pot, covered with chicken stock.
2. Boil until potatoes are tender, about 15 minutes.
3. Add 2-3 chopped jalapeno peppers, 4 cloves of garlic, and a 16-oz can of crushed tomatoes.
4. Add cumin, cayenne pepper, salt, and red pepper flakes to taste.
5. Let simmer about 5-10 minutes.
6. Take off heat, and blend with hand-held blender (or with a potato masher).
7. Stir in about a cup of shredded cheese (I used Monterey Jack, but cheddar would be good, too).
8. Put soup back on low heat, add a cup of frozen corn.
9. Heat until corn is cooked.

If I were to make this again, I'd add onion with the potato, and if I had any fresh herbs around, I'd throw them in, too. Otherwise, it was very satisfying. Would have been good with tortilla chips on the side (alas, we do not have chips in the house today, either!).