Sunday, December 30

Reflections on 2012

I know there are a lot of folks who do a Christmas or holiday letter about this time of year.  It’s a sort of highlight reel of one’s life.  I like to read them.  I like to know what’s going on in my friends’ lives.  We don’t write letters any more.  We post on Facebook so there are short bursts of information, or whatever we choose to post: pictures, pithy sayings, commentary, etc.

In fact, I just read something on Facebook about not being able to look forward if we insist on looking back. I agree and disagree with that. We can’t dwell in the past, but we have to learn from it. That’s what reflection is all about. I can’t change other people. I can’t change circumstances. But I can change me.

Everyone in media, or so it seems, is producing some sort of "Best of" highlight for 2012. The pictures, the books, the movies, the news stories, and more that moved us most in 2012. The names of luminaries who died in 2012. The tragic moments held forever in a snapshot, literally and figuratively.

2012 was somewhat tumultuous for me, but no more so or less so than for others. My significant moments were my significant moments. Some of those moments were shared by others who experienced them and remember them differently. As I think back on 2012, I know there are things I would do differently. . . because I know more now and see things differently now.

So as I think back on 2012, nothing in particular leaps out at me as a particularly timeless moment, but perhaps my memory is faulty. I recall the joy and exhilaration of riding in the open cockpit of a biplane. And the pure joy of just being out riding a bike. Moments of personal triumph for a project done well. Moments of reflection when the last page of a really good book is turned. Afterglow of an enjoyable and fun time with a friend. All in all, with all of its highs and lows, 2012 was a pretty good year for me.

I generally don't make resolutions. I think they are a waste of time because we can make resolutions whenever we want, but I completely get the symbolism of making resolutions with a new year. So I have three resolutions that do not start nor stop with a calendar year.  First, I want to be a nicer person.  Second, I want to give more thoughtfully. Sure, I'd like to lose weight and exercise more and I know some of those things will make me feel better about me. But I also know myself well enough to know that even though I aspire to being a recluse who writes brilliant works of fiction and non-fiction alike, I'm truly and profoundly grateful for being able to give to others, whether it is my time, my money, my expertise. Third, I want to enjoy moments as they occur. I don't want to be so busy that I miss moments. The last will be the hardest because, as I look at my calendar and see how busy I will be once I go back to work officially in the new year, moments will quickly blur.

Even if I don't remember all of the moments of 2013, this time next year I want to be able to know that at least I enjoyed them as they occurred and that somehow, even if in small ways, they made a difference in who I am and how I see the world.

Sunday, December 23

Giving the gift of giving

Looking for that last-minute gift for the person who has everything? or won't give you a list? or is just hard to buy for? Check out DonorsChoose.org, a classroom-focused charity to which a friend, Jules Burke, introduced me.

There are bunches of similar charities: Kiva.org, heifer.org, and more. But what I like about DonorsChoose, in spite of Oprah Winfrey being in on the endorsement action, is that classroom teachers are identifying specific materials and resources for specific reasons for their kids. I've supported music, math, and science projects. Just recently I supported a teacher who wanted to buy chess games for his students because of the many things they can learn through playing chess, and not just chess. One of the reasons I like giving certificates for DonorsChoose is that the individual can choose the project to support and reap the benefits of that grateful teacher and those delighted kids.

So if you're stuck this year, find a way to give a gift that allows that difficult-to-buy-for person to pay it forward in a meaningful way. And if you really want to make a difference that goes on and on and on and on, support a teacher who is seeking to find ways to teach her students to love learning, who is working to keep his students in school.

One of those kids in one of those classrooms may be the one who discovers or invents or does something astonishing.

Or one of those kids may stay in school because of what you enabled a teacher to do.

And that is no small thing.

Saturday, December 22

Moving My Cheese

I started Friday morning in the culvert. It was about 14F and the wind had blown the garbage can into the culvert. So before the garbage truck came, I put on some clothes I didn't mind getting slimed and pulled on my rain boots and went to haul the garbage can, which was handle side down in the muck) from the culvert, which I did and shoved the thing to the side of the road.You can be sure I was especially grateful for hot water and soap.

Later that day I had a conversation with my boss. I work for a fairly small company that is growing, burgeoning, quite nearly exploding. We are doing good stuff and it is a challenge to keep up because rapid growth often means making changes to keep up with that growth. No one can get too comfortable with any organizational structure or with any organizational process because we are constantly adapting.

For a period of time I had consulted for a company and we had daylong strategic planning meetings every month, and then we had executive something-or-another meetings every week. We spent a lot of time in meetings, which was good in some ways, but often it seemed as though we didn't move. We planned. We discussed the plan. We reviewed the plan. We reviewed decisions made because of the plan.

I spent a few minutes today reading I Moved Your Cheese by Deepak Malhotra. It's been on my pile of things to read. Once I picked it up, I realized it would take about an hour to read. If you've read Who Moved My Cheese? you'll know that book was meant to be a motivational work to help you understand how to manage change, which is inevitable. Mr. Malhotra came along to tell us that we are not mice and we do not exist in a maze.

The older, wiser mouse points out that the younger mouse, by escaping the maze, "refused to accept the assumptions, the rules, and the constraints that others had accepted" (p. 65).  The older, wiser mouse explained that most mice defined themselves in reference to the maze.

The point?  Perhaps the inevitable is not inevitable.  Perhaps what we take for granted shouldn't be taken for granted.

My Friday morning did not start well, and certainly not as I had planned. As I walked down the driveway, I thought about all of the things that could go wrong and how I might manage those. I hadn't counted on being able to brace against the culvert pipe which made my task a bit easier, though no less smelly.

At the end of the day, my cheese had been moved. A few times. I think about the folks who spend so much time talking about strategic plans and working according to expectations and trying to follow whatever rules they think are in place. That is their maze. I think about my current situation in which there seems to be no plan, and sometimes there isn't any actual plan.

At the end of any day my cheese is moved, and probably several times because so few things go as expected, because there is an unexpected problem or situation or phone call or something. Over the years I've learned to ask questions or to try to understand some of the changes I've experienced, but also to try to recognize those that simply are.

I suppose the bottom line is this. It is the rare day that everything goes as planned. It is the rare event that is executed absolutely flawlessly. Sometimes in the midst of an unpleasant or difficult task there is one small thing that can make the difference, an unexpected change in circumstance. There is change we can manage, to which we may need to adapt, and about which we may be able to gain some understanding or perspective; there is change we must simply accept. We can become blind to our circumstances, allowing them to define us and accepting any limitations as immutable. Or, we can refuse to accept assumptions or conventional wisdom and we can refuse to be limited by constraints everyone else has accepted. We can, as a colleague of mine has said, work out of the box and off of the page. Now that's moving some cheese.

Monday, December 17

Hey! Intrigued by the Duck Commander

Just recently I wrote about reality shows.  Over the weekend I was introduced to Duck Dynasty. I kid you not. On A&E. Self-professed rednecks from Louisiana who have become multimillionaires by selling duck calls. . .and assorted paraphernalia related to the show.

Duck Commander is a family-owned business. There is sibling rivalry, conflict between generations, and some actual hunting. It would not be my first choice for any kind of television watching, but I was fascinated. And not just because each episode ends with the entire family around a big ol' table praying before dinner. And not just because the patriarch is a Bible believin', Bible preachin' man. And not just because Si (short for Silas) is one of the most intriguing characters on TV.

As I watched with my friends, I could not help but think about how some might react to this show and these people. Among the watchers was a down South boy who grew up hunting and knows his way around sundry hunting equipment. Like the men of the Duck Dynasty, he is educated. Yes, two of the brothers are college-educated. One is quite an impressive sales guy.

In some ways, the men of the Duck Dynasty know they are parodies of themselves. There are times what they say and do is just over the top. But one of the brothers seems to be the main cinematographer, so they maintain significant control over what is shown and how it is shown. Which tells me they are perfectly okay with making fun of rednecks, making fun of themselves.

In one episode, Miss Kay, the matriarch of the clan, was able to take over a local restaurant. She prepared the kind of food she's accustomed to cooking, though nothing too extreme for the citified folks. Still, there was someone at a table who announced they were pescatarians and that one of their group needed gluten-free food. The redneck boys mocked the pescatarians for their pretentiousness. Miss Kay fairly soon realized the restaurant business is harder than cooking for a house full of somewhat wild and bushy-faced men.

Papa Phil has serious disdain for Yuppies, which is just about anyone who cannot live in the woods and kill their own food. He is a smart guy. A bit scary. But the guy I'd like to be around when the lights go out.

I like this show. Mostly. I won't go out of my way to watch it, but Si cracks me up and I truly appreciate the self-awareness of the family. The other thing I appreciate is that they are who and what they are, and if you want to make fun of it, they probably already have. And hey! if you don't like who and what they are, they don't care. . .and they are armed, Jack!

Wednesday, December 12

Right to work

There has been much brouhaha in the past several months about the "right to work" legislation, often perceived as attacks on unions.  Just recently Michigan, apparently a former bastion of unions, became a "right to work" state amid protests, lofty rhetoric, and threats.

This is controversial for a lot of reasons, and not just because a lot of folks are having their cheese moved.  This isn't a small move from some, but possibly even changing the type of their cheese.

I've said this before but will repeat it, I'm not a fan of unions.  I think that too often the threat of strike puts a stranglehold on the possibility of actual negotiations; however, I also think that far too many management structures claim to be transparent but are not so workers are rightly suspicious of motives and just how much truth they're really getting.  But I also think publicly-owned companies fail to give enough credence to the impact Wall Street and stockholders have on decisions being made.  I also think plain old greed and hubris have hands in this game, too.  So, in my opinion, it's not simply a matter of worker versus management.  Ever.

As stated in the Michigan article listed above:
As 1 of 24 states with right-to-work laws, Michigan will prohibit requiring nonunion employees to pay unions for negotiating contracts, representing them in grievances and other services. Supporters say the laws give workers freedom of association and promote job creation, while critics insist the real intent is to drain unions of funds need to bargain effectively.
Now I have to say this is cleverly stated.  One of the ideas behind this legislation is to give workers the right to choose to be a union member.  Those who are not union members, however, may get the benefits of the union negotiations.  By the same token, they may also bear the consequences of any negatives.  But if they are not a member of the union, there are certain rules they don't have to follow.  Some may see getting the advantages of union representation and negotiation as a sort of freeloading; others may not.  Those of us who have never had the so-called protection of unions struggle to understand the general fairness of unions when it is considered across all types of workers as opposed to the usual pitting of workers against management, typically portrayed as greedy and unconcerned about the plights of their workers.

There is always more to the story.  Always.

As reported here
Right-to-work laws forbid contracts between companies and unions that require all workers to pay the union for bargaining on their behalf. Although business groups and conservatives cast the issue in terms of workplace freedom, unions note that the laws allow workers to opt out of supporting the union although they reap the benefits of the collective bargaining. Since the laws tend to weaken unions generally, unions, as well as President Barack Obama, call the legislation "right to work for less."
But if you really want to know more about the genesis of the right to work movement, you need to read the Taft Hartley Act of 1947 and then go to the NLRB site to see the amendments made to that Act, and why.

Once you have done that, you will actually be better informed about the right to work legislation and make your own decisions about its validity and quality, and stop listening to the media and politicians for anything remotely akin to objective and accurate information.  And don't take my word for it either.

Thursday, December 6

Why "reality" shows are bad for us

NPR recently reported on the Honey Boo Boo-ification of American television.  Mike Rowe and Dirty Jobs will be no more.  I won't miss it as I never watched it, but I do appreciate what Mike Rowe does and how he celebrated a layer of American worker we choose not to think about, or simply ignore.

I've never watched whatever show has catapulted Honey Boo Boo some level of infamy.  I know she's a child.  I understand, from the NPR piece, that the producers give the show subtitles.  I'm guessing the way it is edited makes those who watch it feel smarter and superior to Honey Boo Boo and her family.

Reality shows are not reality, of course.  They are completely fiction created by adroit editing.  I do watch some shows of that ilk.  I'm a huge fan of Chopped and some of the other competition shows on the Food Network Channel.  I have watched The Glee Project and this is the first year in a while that I haven't watched Amazing Race.  But I'm also very aware there are editors busily choosing and splicing to tell the kind of story they think will bring viewers.  I know that's true even on the Food Network Channel shows even though I think there's more than enough drama without manufacturing it.

So not only do we lose the remotest possibility of any decent story telling with these heavily edited and heavily skewed "reality" shows, but we lose the remotest possibility of being able to experience legitimate drama that gives us some sense of hope in the quality of humanity.  Instead, the garbage tends to make us feel superior to those poor schmoes which encourages us to be condescending, which encourages us to be bullies.

Reality shows are our version of yellow journalism, our version of sensationalism, which even Jon Stewart deplores.  In that article, NYU journalism professors Mitchell Stephens that "sensationalism is unavoidable in news - because we humans are wired, probably for reasons of natural selection, to be alert to sensations, particularly those involving sex and violence."  Stephens also seems to believe that sensationalism "serves a function by promoting the spread of information to less-literate audiences and strengthening the social fabric."  I'm sorry.  That last bit made me throw up in my mouth.

Talk about condescending and talk about misguided.  So less literate people are capable of processing so-called information only if it's in the context of sex and violence?  That's because they are less cultured? less sophisticated? less smart?  Or maybe it's because less literate people are simply more prone to sex and violence.

Balderdash.

If this out-of-context paraphrase is remotely accurate, Professor Mitchell is, in my opinion, an idiot.  I'm not sure I have enough energy and heartburn medication to read his book for myself to find out.  But if this is what television programmers believe, then heaven help us all.

We already know that too many politicians think the "average" American is stupid.  With the media believing the same thing, our culture will be increasingly dumbed down and we will be an increasingly bullying society.

It is an appalling commentary on the American public that one of the best ways we seem to have to feel good about ourselves (because some psycho-babble, TV evangelist charlatan told us we needed to feel good about ourselves and we bought into that bullsh*t) is to belittle someone else.

That makes us a culture of bullies.

If you're looking for an anecdote to some of what ails you culturally, check out Jeremiad by Josh Mason.  I have other ideas, but that may be the least controversial.