Monday, August 29, 2005

How many dogs?

“How many dogs do you have?” is the question that carries that disapproving intonation. As a single woman, presumably, I am only entitled to one, or perhaps two, if we admit that dogs need company during the day.

I do agree that four was too many, and particularly when the fourth was the Evil Buppy, a Newfie mix with something unaccountably aggressive, a wild youngling that took on Toby and left him with gashes and rips in that startlingly fragile Rottie pelt. Toby is actually a Rottie/Shepherd cross, or so I was told by a woman outside a Chinese restaurant on Seventh Avenue in Brooklyn, and she assured me that she knew the truth of his ancestry by looking into his deep brown eyes.

The Evil Buppy, transmuted into mild Clyde, now lives with twins and their mom in Atlanta. He is an only dog, as he was always meant to be, and he guards them with a ferocity that is unknown to Newfoundlands and a gentleness unknown to the other parts of his heritage.

But two is good, and three was okay. I will soon have three dogs: Max, the 11-year-old shepherd with artificial hip, heart murmur and buoyant outlook; serious Toby, the 9-year-old Rottie/Shepherd cross; and Baby Cassandra, my first purebred German Shepherd.

So when people ask me, “How many dogs do you have?” I will reply, “Three.” I know that this number is all too temporary. I hope that Max has plenty of opportunity to teach the little girl a thing or two and to come to trust that she will be able to take care of us. I hope that she keeps Toby guessing, hopping, off balance—keeping him young for a few more years. I hope we learn again how to walk on a leash, come when called, and romp in Vermont fields. I hope I have three dogs for a long, long time.

Friday, August 26, 2005

Color me crabby

Sheesh. Why do they ask for feedback if they don’t want it? I sent back the customer comment card. No, I was not happy. If I place the call for air conditioner repair for the building I manage, I expect that I will get a call back letting me know what work was done and what followup is required. At a minimum, I expect that if I have to track down the company to find out what was done that I will get an explanation and—perhaps—an “Oh, we’re sorry. We did explain this to the person onsite, but we understand we should have called you back.” And if I have had to provide my credit card to cover payment for the work, I am all the more sensitive to wanting a followup call.

Color me crabby when I make the followup call and get attitude and huff. Surely it is not unusual that a building owner (the firm that employs me) is offsite?

So I filled out the customer satisfaction questionnaire. And I said that I expected to get a call back and I expected that if I had to make the followup call that the information would be courteously delivered. I don’t demand an apology, but I do demand courteous followup.

I believe in customer service. I give a lot of credit to vendors who attempt to improve their service levels. So when someone sends me a customer satisfaction questionnaire, I fill it out, particularly if I think there is some clear step that the vendor can take to improve their service. Seeking disconfirming information is a sign of maturity and good business practice.

But, guys, if I am not happy, you will not bully me into being happy.

It is not my fault that you had trouble finding the building—you had my phone number and could have called me, you had the address and could have used Mapquest, you could see from the exchange that my location was not the same as the building’s location. (Yes, we can still make that calculation in Vermont.) But did you call? No.

It is not my fault that you didn’t meet my expectations of getting a call back. I do expect this of vendors: if I make the service call, I expect to get a call back that the work was done and what followup is required. I accept that I have to educate vendors the first time I work with them that this is my expectation, and I accept that some will not be able to meet my expectations. And in certain fields, demand for vendors is such that I have to put up with behaviour that does not meet my expectations. This is not one of those fields.

It would not have been a deal breaker if, when I tracked you down, you had delivered the information courteously. But instead you gave me a lot of defensive guff about how you had a hard time finding the building and how 99% of your customers have the requesting party onsite. The 99% figure is suspicious, but even if it were true, I am not interested in how things are for your other customers. And if you had a hard time finding the building, why didn’t you call? We cannot take cell service for granted in Vermont, but as it happens, there is good cell service around the area where this building is located. If your service technician could call your dispatcher, certainly one of them should have been able to call me for directions. But nobody called for directions, nobody called me when the work was finished, and when I tracked down someone for information, you took out your frustration on the customer. Way to make sure I don’t want to repeat the transaction!

The vendor called me when my customer satisfaction questionnaire arrived back in their office. I took a deep breath and called back, hoping for an improved interaction, but the pseudo-apology was really just a defensive “explanation” of why they did what they did. In the end, this firm does not offer any advantage over their competitors. In fact, I have existing relationships that don’t require me to pay upfront with a credit card, but I took a chance on them in order to get a quick response. Still there are other options. Smart competitors recognize that there are always other options.

I would have been happy to give them some feedback, would have been happy to provide information rather than simply voting with my feet, which is what most unhappy customers do. I give them credit for asking for feedback, and I wish them well in the future, but I won’t be exposing myself to a repeat of this negative experience. Ironically, it was not the failure to call me that was the negative experience, it was the badly managed customer satisfaction discussion. Perhaps they will get it right with the next customer. I hope so.

Monday, August 22, 2005

Dog tails

Today I picked out my puppy. Baby Cassandra is three weeks old and weighs four pounds. It shouldn’t be possible to tell anything about her at all, but somehow both the breeder and I know she is the right puppy. Pix to come soon, but for now, enjoy this half-sibling who had the same father but a different mother.

Earlier in the day, Max went to the vet and had his mite infestation officially declared as cured. We will watch carefully for a few days as he comes off the antibiotics. For eleven-year-old dogs with artificial hips, the slightest injury can be life threatening. Puppy or no puppy, we want to keep Max around as long as he is a happy dog. And Max is generally a happy dog.

One exception this morning. Max enjoys going everywhere, even the vet, and he greeted the receptionist and the lab tech with his usual élan. But when Dr. Paula came in the room, he lay down on the floor, curled into a ball and refused even to look at her. I was surprised at this reaction until she explained that she had just come from putting down someone else’s beloved old dog. “I’m feeling a little sad,” she confided, “and you would be surprised at how some dogs pick up on that.” Surprised, no. Max has always been a intuitive creature.

We walked back out front, and Max wagged his tail and said hello to the next person through the door, all sadness evaporated from his doggy world. Toby, meanwhile, was inconsolable that we would have gone somewhere in the car—just the two of us—without him. But intuition reigns at my house. This morning I came downstairs to find my most recent knitting project wrapped up and down the stairs, Toby's commentary on the state of affairs at our house: "Puppies? We don’t need no stinking puppies..."

Saturday, August 20, 2005

Seasons change

Last week there was a nip in the air, a certain aroma, and that was that….summer is on the downward slide. I remember how shocked I was last year when I realized that summer in Vermont only lasts two weeks. I’m enjoying looking back at what I wrote last year—before Vermont Diary was a blog—to see what was going on in the garden.

We are in the heyday of summer. Last week they took away dozens of large round haybales from the field across the road: first cut.

In the gardens, leaf and flower are exploding. The farmer’s markets, which just last week offered up veggie starts, now have radishes and lettuce, some broccoli and peas. My nasturtium window boxes are everything I could have wished.

And it is not a moment too soon. Last week, as I was sprucing up the house for fourth of July visitors, I stopped and sniffed. Surely not! The furnace had kicked on. After I turned the thermostat further down from its 58 degree setting, I did have to laugh. The fourth of July! Guess I should have had all the windows closed.

A friend called yesterday and said, “We need to do something fun. We probably only have this one weekend before the light changes.” Huh? When the light changes, she explained, the mood of the locals takes a turn toward winter. It ‘s still some time away, but there is wood to be gathered, houses to be painted, all the maintenance to be crammed into these few weeks of summer.

A gynecologist here in town has posters on his ceiling, a non uncommon tactic to distract patients from the indignity of drape and stirrups. His posters show a Vermont landscape in summer and in winter. It must be a standing joke—I have heard it twice last year—that the summer scene only lasts two weeks. It’s not so far from the truth.

Between July 4th (when the furnace came on) and next weekend when the light changes is only two weeks. There’s more of July to enjoy, of course, and all of August. There’s the two-week heat wave to come, and all the bounty of garden produce—the period when you have to lock your car so people don’t put zucchini in it. There is the second cut of hay, another important calendar marker.

Summer, by the way, is officially over Labor Day. It ends earlier here than in other places, but we know it is over because the Creamee stands close. The air gets nippy, and preparation for winter goes into overdrive. The constant awareness of where we are in the calendar is one of the things I love about Vermont. There is hardly ever a day that just stands still. Well, maybe for the two weeks of summer.

This morning again, I got up and closed all the windows, noticing that window and sash need a good scrubbing before winter comes. Time to close up that enormous mousehole in the room with the oil tank. Time to think about moving herbs into pots. Last chance to have a garage sale or do as Vermonters do and just put things out with a big FREE sign. Our local Senator opines that the change usually matches up with the Barton Fair—that’s the day she pulls out her flannel-lined jeans. My adaptation to this harsh climate and these dour, kind people is far from complete, but I was proud that last week I felt it for myself—the moment when the season changed.

Wednesday, August 17, 2005

The stars answer back

My horoscope for today seems a stellar response to my most recent rant/query:

It's okay to have a strong opinion about something but it's not okay if you come across as the kind of person who refuses to see anyone else's point of view. If you want to convince others that you know what you are talking about you must first convince them that you are not a fanatic. You won't do that by screaming and shouting.

Well, yes. But as a communications strategy, from time to time I want to say one unexpected, even outrageous thing in a meeting. And then shut up.

As a rabbit, I have to be aware that I thrive on ideas, while others may need more time to digest. As a rabbit, I have to be aware that other people may see me as flighty and disorganized. If only they knew what discipline it takes to manage in a bear's world when you are a rabbit!

Shutting up is another challenge.

Monday, August 15, 2005

More voices, more tools

You would think after seeking out so many big changes in my life, I would get used to people not believing me, people thinking I am wrong, and worse. But no.

Listening to me rant about training and infrastructure needs in the Vermont economy not long ago, a new friend looked at me and said, “You know, you are right about many things, maybe even most things. But you are Cassandra here—they will never believe you.”

Eureka! I have been looking for the perfect name for a new German Shepherd girl puppy.

Cassandra was the woman cursed by gods of old to be a prophetess, but never to be believed. What better name for a German Shepherd? If baby Cassandra (now just two weeks old, and I don’t even know which one she is) is anything like her mother or my old Max (see left in mid-lecture), she will be forever warning of aliens and axe-murderers, thieves and terrorists, all right outside that door that I am refusing to open for her. Can’t I see that she needs to investigate? Can’t I at least see that she is starving? And as for that last task—whatever I was doing—she hopes I know I did it all wrong.

Yes, living with German Shepherds should be good training for the judgments of humans. And when my ex-husband accused me of selling out on moral, ethical and spiritual levels all at once because I chose to go to business school...well that was twenty-five years ago, so you would think I would be over it. What I said to him then—more calm and clear-eyed than I can believe in retrospect—was that I didn’t see why people who had bad motives should be the only ones with the good tools. Nor did I see why people with good motives should stay out of the fray. The fray is where real decisions get made and real good gets done.

Now stop it, stop it, stop it. Okay, maybe it is just the negative voices in my head and not you, my reader, but please know I do accept the value of the meditative life. I believe that what we do every minute is homage to God. I carve out time for mindfulness, and without that meditative space, I am nothing. But for reasons I do not understand, I am also called to the fray.

I also believe in the idea that each of us is called to do some particular work in some particular place. Based on my girlhood in rural Georgia, my business training, and my two decades on Wall Street, I have views to share with Vermonters. If I could only get them to listen! Here’s what I would say, if anyone were listening, and perhaps I should just keep saying these things anyway, felling my metaphorical trees in the metaphorical forest.

The world has changed in some interesting ways. It is much more about transactions, and—because we engage with more people and travel further from our local comfort zones—less about relationships. But people crave relationship, even in business settings, and we need to learn new ways to foster connection. A series of successful transactions leads strong relationships, not the reverse.

Customers are more demanding than ever. We need to offer the best solution with the delivery that is most responsive and lowest cost and lowest risk to the customer. The customer will not trust that we can deliver until we show it.

Success in economic terms (and, I would argue, other parts of life as well) is about creating as many options as possible, then delivering with excellence.

What this new economic world requires of us is skill and will: the skill to communicate and negotiate, the skill to deliver, the will to continue building new skills, and the will to hold fast to the belief that there is always another option.

I say these same things over and over again every day in my job in economic development. Some people consider me a skilled communicator, but I know that I am impatient and that I routinely underestimate the number of times that a message must be delivered before it is really heard. Lest you think I am the only person saying these things, I refer you to this blog I discovered over the weekend: Ripples post-corporate adventures I know that it looks like arrogance when I keep saying, “No, really. I have something to say here.” But I have to keep saying it.

I have to keep saying it, because I believe that in many ways Vermonters are well equipped by temperament and tradition for this fast paced, rough and tumble global economy. Vermonters are accustomed to dealing with impossible challenges, from keeping everyone warm enough to survive harsh winters to taking on global warming, healthcare for all, genetically modified seeds, agricultural policies and other really, really big issues in Town Meeting. Vermonters are accustomed to working two or three jobs, plus odd jobs and a little sugaring on the side, to make ends meet. Vermonters are good at inventing new options. Vermonters are good at putting it all in perspective, stepping back to watch the seasons roll, bringing new days and new options to the forefront. Vermont does not have good infrastructure, but Vermont has flexibility and innovation and sheer will to create opportunities.

What Vermonters are not good at—nor are humans anywhere—is listening to input from people that have different experience to bring to the table. We’re not trying to take over, you know, we just have something to say. We accept that we will never be accepted, but please, take our ideas!

I’m not from here, but I am from a place very like here. The county in north Georgia where I learned to love rural life is in many ways—economically, demographically, and topographically—uncannily, spookily, like my new home in Vermont, so I draw the line at being called a flatlander. And the years I spent away from rural life were years in Boston, Philadelphia, and New York, all great cities full of great people with lots of great ideas. If only all of us country mice and city mice could draw the magic circle wide enough to let in all the great ideas...and if we had the tools to process those good ideas effectively...then what might we all grow to be?

To get to that place, we will need to encourage more voices, more conflict, more inclusion, more tools. One of Vermont's challenges will be to get meaningful input from the business community, a group of people who do not gravitate to the public meeting, the ad hoc task force, the "visioning" and strategic planning exercise, all techniques at which Vermont excels. We are awash in non-profits in Vermont, with one for every 200 people, and we are short on business.

Why should we bother getting input from people who shy away from the processes and tools that dominate in Vermont? Because they have other, different tools. Tools that may be more effective in certain circumstances. Because the very fact that they have a different view makes their views new information and potentially valuable. There is a level at which if your view is what I expect, it is uninteresting to me. It is only if it is unexpected that it becomes information.

Please let my day be filled with people who have different views, with original and exciting visions of what Vermont--my chosen home--can become.

Saturday, August 13, 2005

Random harvest

I just finished W. Dale Cramer’s Bad Ground, a nice, tight, well characterized and plotted novel set on the gritty side of Atlanta. It seems it is his second novel, so now I will go and find the first, Sutter’s Cross. Something to look forward to.

Otherwise, I am braced against the harvest. I just put six containers of vegetable broth in the freezer, and I have two new zucchini recipes to try: one a new Cabot Cheese promotional and one for chocolate zucchini cupcakes.

It’s kind of a random harvest—beans coming in faster than I can freeze them, chard, beets, broccoli almost over, tomatoes and cucumbers just starting. Oh! Surprise! I have okra coming in, too, and maybe black-eyed peas. It has been that kind of hot summer. But so far, the peppers and eggplants and melons show no more than green leafy promise.
Pumpkins abound, and squash of all varieties, some I don’t even remember planting.

But mostly, I am avoiding cutting grass. It is just way too hot.

I am holding firm to these accomplishments: trips to the dump, the grocery, the garden and the compost pile. I am luxuriating in the world of the nap, with occasional foray to novel. The dogs approve and so do I. I am supposed to be doing all manner of other things, but the work-a-day world can wait.

Tuesday, August 09, 2005

A day among rabbits

I don’t remember if I have blogged about rabbits and bears before, but today I spent all day with rabbits, and it is time to talk about this difference, not just a difference of style but a distinction that cries out to be made. Before I start, though, let me fend off the fire of my more judgmental critics: I am an unusual personality type, and your kneejerk assessments of my motivations are likely to be mistaken. It has taken me years to learn that what people think of me is not what I am, but what people think of me can do real harm. So please, suspend judgment to the bottom of this essay. Thank you.

I am an unlikely revolutionary, an INFP in Meyers-Briggs parlance, introverted and intuitive, feeling rather than sensing, and perceiving rather than making judgments. God alone knows how I came to be led from a small, rural county in northern Georgia to a small, rural county in northern Vermont, but I do believe that I was led from change to change and from challenge to challenge. I continue to learn what it like to live in this unlikely skin, and I continue to be surprised. For example, I recently learned that extroverts think it is okay to talk at the same time as thinking. Introverts like me find this unbelievably rude. Extroverts think I am rude because I don’t concentrate on what they are saying. Well, uh.

Personality type is one thing, and communication style is another. Several years ago, I was having a lot of trouble communicating with others in the white shoe investment bank where I worked. People didn’t get me. And I didn’t get them. So I went outside the firm—an almost inconceivable step in the insular company where I worked—and attended a seminar on Communication Strategies for Women. It helped, you know, to take the gender issue off the table. And what I learned in that seminar changed my life.

After lunch, the facilitator instructed us to self-select into one of the following four groups: Owls, Tortoises, Bears, and Rabbits. The Owl communication style is the one favored by my ex-husband. Owls prefer not to talk to anyone, preferably not ever. Owls make excellent computer programmers as long as they are not responsible for defining system function. Tortoises are masters of consensus. They talk to everyone, and on that dimension are the opposite of Owls. Bears growl: “What is the bottom line here?” Rabbits are into process. Rabbits wouldn’t know a bottom line if it bit them. Rabbits talk with their hands, are very creative, and may not be able to finish sentences. Rabbits interrupt; Bears hate interruptions.

As I sat looking over the definitions, I turned to the woman to my left and said, “I really don’t know what I am. I can be pretty decisive when I need to be, so I guess I am more of a bear.” To my everlasting astonishment, she looked me up and down and said without another thought, “Oh no, you are a Rabbit.” Together, we walked over to join the Rabbit group.

Now here is where it gets interesting. I looked across the room at my second choice, the Bears. They were all wearing black, navy or charcoal skirted suits and sensible low heel pumps (remember, this group is all women). Hair was straight, blunt cut to the chin. Jewelry and makeup were understated. They were quietly waiting for instruction from the authority figure in the room.

In contrast, the Rabbits were all wearing bright colors and had curly hair. They were all talking at the same time, and nobody seemed to mind. I thought about how I was never able to control my hair until I accepted that I need really good haircuts that work with the curl. And I looked down at my bright red blazer. And I knew, for the first time, that I was truly a rabbit. I was with my own kind for the afternoon, but most days I worked among the bears.

The first takeaway for that day was that when you attempt to communicate with someone you need to have the skills to flex to their style. If you are a rabbit talking to a Rabbit, go nuts! Never finish a sentence. Revel in process. But if you are talking to a Bear, remember that if you want your message to be heard, you will need to speak Bearish. Cut to the chase. Skip the process. Go for agreement with next steps. If you try to feed process to a Bear, you will only annoy the Bear. And you will jeopardize getting agreement with your proposition.

This changed my life. Above all, I am practical. It is important to me to get to the answer I think is right; it is not important to me how I get there (well, we are presuming a baseline of ethics, morality and good will). But do I care if my personality is propped up along the way? Not one smidgen. So I stopped having moralistic judgments about the Bears among whom I worked (it didn’t happen overnight, and it was pretty easy for me since I don’t tend to be judgmental anyway), and I was astonished to discover that if I talked like a Bear, my ideas were accepted far more readily.

The second takeaway was that if you are talking to a group, you should aim your message to the person in the group most different from you. The others will come along of their own free will.

Today, I spent all day among Rabbits, and you would think I would find it restful. Oddly, no. A native Rabbit, I have been called to spend many years among the Bears, and I have come to appreciate their unique qualities. Most of us fall somewhere on the Rabbit-Bear spectrum and somewhere on the Owl-Tortoise spectrum, and we move one direction or another depending on...well, just about everything. And so I found myself at the end of a full day’s conference on Managing Conflict in Community saying: “Conflict, what conflict? We never got to the conflict.” And also feeling mildly cheated, that we didn’t get more done, that we had so few real specific recommendations. “Where’s the bottom line?” I growled, feeling very Bearlike.

And yet. We did move toward our goal, even if we didn’t get there. It was a step forward.

The most interesting comments all day came from a woman named Susan who pulled two visual aids out of her back-friendly purse: a can of WD40 and a roll of duct tape. “When it comes to conflict management,” she opined, “we need tools. Tools for lubrication and tools for binding us together.” I spoke to her afterward, introduced myself and let her know how much I appreciated her practical advice that we need to find real tools to work our way through conflict. And when I spoke to the conference organizer, he admitted that he was hoping that the conference would make that leap to exploring tools to resolve conflict, while we spent a lot of the day in a group hug, affirming what is right about Vermont, but not making a lot of meaningful steps forward.

Now stop it, stop it, stop it. I am a Rabbit, remember. I support that affirmation is important and that process is a good thing. But I am driven to live among Bears—I honestly don’t know why, it’s not as if it is comfortable for me—and I found myself defending Bears to this group of Rabbits. Besides the disappointing lack of specific recommendations, I noticed something interesting about today’s conference: there were no Bears. Although rabbits pride themselves on their inclusiveness, there were no Bears. Well actually there were a few in the morning session, but they left.

What do I mean that there were no bears? Well, in Vermont there are regional development corporations, and I was the only RDC director in attendance. There were planning commission representatives, but we all know they are "quasi-communists," or that is how the Bears put it.

How sad it is that we all have these labels that we apply to each other—labels that allow us to believe that others’ views have less value than our own. When I walked in this morning, one well-dressed one woman was quipping to another, “Oh no, you have to go to the Economic Development session. You have to shut down all those traditional economic development types.” When she saw my face, she tried to make it a joke, but it really was not funny. I pinned on my nametag, complete with the name of my traditional economic development organization, and moved on.

As I stood talking at the end of the day to a couple of very excellent Rabbits, I realized that they had conducted a “community visioning” exercise in my town. As I inwardly wished for the earth to swallow me up, I confessed that every time they used words like “social capital” and “safe space for productive dialogue” it made the hair on the back of my neck stand up. I have been living among Bears. Bears have feelings, too, it turns out, and they are offended when people feel entitled to tell a store owner what kind of store they will or will not “accept.” They are offended when their (to them) rational requirements for efficiency are judged negatively. They are bemused, then offended all over again when their requests for “common” sense and “common” decency are mocked.

And you know what? After living with Bears for so many years, I am starting to get them. I am learning that Bears have skill sets--particularly in the area of conflict management--that are not intuitive to Rabbits. And yet Bears will not willingly engage with Rabbits. They vote with their feet, and we are all poorer for the lack of interchange.

That was one theme for the day.

The other was that for a conference that proposed to be about the how to work with conflict, there was surprisingly little conflict. And yet, why am I surprised? People don’t like change and they don’t like conflict. I embrace change. How else could I have come full circle from rural northern Georgia to rural northern Vermont, with some skills and capabilities to share? And I treasure conflict. That is the legacy of my New York investment bank life—a life I never knew I wanted, but that taught me so much.

Here are the few things I know about conflict:

People don’t always agree.

They often have good reasons for their viewpoints.

Pretending to agree does not work. We need to get the disagreement on the table if we ever expect to move past it.

Here are the few things I know about conflict management:

We need to accept that people will disagree. We need to avoid judging others as “bad people” or as simply misguided and uninformed if they disagree with us.

We need to conduct a respectful dialogue, but we need to avoid using the term “respectful dialogue” to shut off opposition to our views.

We need to say often and loudly “I could be wrong.” I was wrong at least twice today, not counting the times when I did not know I was wrong.

Conflict management skills exist, can be learned and can be taught (WD40 and duct tape)

Big values are in conflict:

The drive to decentralize versus the drive for cost effectiveness

The drive to make rules versus the drive toward personal freedom and personal responsibility

Today’s issues versus the issues for the long term

Once we start hitting the limits of the laws of time and space, we know we are having the right discussion.

Much conflict is subconscious, discernable only as emotion, which may be judged "inappropriate." But emotion has a message for us.

There are tools we can use, but it is important to use the right tool at the right time. WD40 is a bad tool if you are trying to get traction. Duct tape is a bad tool if you are trying to open up possibilities. We can disagree about tools and timing.

Nobody—neither native Vermonters nor flatlanders, neither rich nor poor, neither educated nor uneducated—can clam supreme knowledge of what tools to apply in what circumstance. It is important to recognize our own styles and capabilities and know what kinds of problems we are good at solving, as well as the kinds of problems where we need varied kinds of input.

Bureaucracies (state or town) tend to grow unless checked. It is important to understand how the checking process works--inevitably, it will involve conflict.

Here is what I—as a Rabbit—know about creativity:

It is all about creating options. And there is always another option.

I refuse pigeon-holes. I refuse to allow Rabbits to dominate conversations with unfair tactics. I refuse to allow Bears to opt out of important discussions.

Creativity depends on number of ideas (a Rabbit function), inclusiveness of many thinkers (Rabbits think they do this well, but they don't), and the skills to sort through ideas and move into action (really, Bears are better at this than we are). Another of the important themes for today that intrigued the Rabbits was that for successful projects, action often leads awareness (a Bear axiom). Rabbits far prefer to start with awareness, proceed into analysis...and are then paralyzed by possibility.

Disconfirming information—information that is different from what I have believed so far—is really useful to me. Therefore, I want to have the freedom to test ideas in (oh, how the term grates!) a safe space for productive dialogue, free of snap judgments of people less comfortable with conflict and ambiguity than I am.

And here is what I—as a human—believe about fundamental truth:

Once we recognize conflict, we have various approaches:
Talk the other person out of it (education? lobbying? influence?)
Trade, i.e. negotiate an equitable deal, or
Vote (one person, one vote)
Anything else is dirty politics.

It is possible--sadly, it is more often the case than not--that education, lobbying, influence, negotiation, and voting can be misused. Up to here, we have been assuming a common base of ethics, morality and good will, but that is not always what we face.

If you want to have a voice, you have to show up.
People bring their own baggage and blinders to every discussion. It takes skill as well as will to discern the issue before us, but with faith, hope and charity, we will rise to these occasions and work through conflict to new action plans that will keep Vermont the exceptional place that it is.

The great thing about Vermont is that the entire state is chock-a-block with interesting, thoughtful and principled people, who are more tolerant of differences than in most places I have lived. When I walk with Bears, I ask them to stretch to be more Rabbit-like, to claim notions like the creative economy for their own. When I spend the day with Rabbits, I ask them to reach out and include the disenfranchised, unvoiced Bears. But I deeply appreciate the richness of a state that can accomodate this variety of ways of being with a commitment to dialogue and democracy. And I appreciate the democratic traditions of Town Meeting that foster certain common skill sets that lubricate the social fabric.

Another good comment today--that democracy is a contest of wills. Let us never pretend otherwise.

Monday, August 08, 2005

Home again

With the intent of allowing myself a day to re-integrate back into the rhythms of home before facing work challenges, I came back from my mini-vacation late Saturday afternoon. In years past, it took me a solid two weeks to decompress enough for a vacation to have any real impact, so I had some misgivings about a vacation that was only three days long in its entirety. Shouldn’t I take that extra day? Force myself to have some fun?

The counterargument is for a little nesting time. Coming back from full speed entertainment mode—well, okay, so that’s not really how I vacation—into a work world that is always full speed is too abrupt for me. I need transition time. I need nesting time. I have set up my home to be a place where I recharge, and I need to take the time to soak up its blessings.

Sunday was a day for cleaning, mowing, laundry, putting chard in the freezer. All these chores require attention, but if I wanted my life to be simpler, many could be avoided. I have consciously chosen to live in a house rather than an apartment, to mow rather than pay common charges, and to garden rather than frequent farmer's markets.

Not everything got done. There always seems to be more cleaning to do, and the beans need picking again. A neighbor has offered me currants for the picking, and that didn’t get done yesterday either. But I worked steadily most of the day, taking time out to cook my favorite pizza (usually broccoli raab and black olive, but chard and black olive works nicely, too) and play with the dogs.

A lost dog has come to visit. Known for now as Fred, he is a sweet half-grown Shepherd mix. My neighbors came by to ask if he was mine, and we are working together to keep him out of the pound for a few days while looking for his lost home. He has impeccable indoor manners, but sometimes tries Toby’s patience—not the strategy to get to stay with us for long. Watching them together underscores that the next dog will likely be a female, because at age nine, Toby deserves not to have to fight to be top dog.

Today’s theme is creating space, safety and reserves for myself and for Toby and Max. For too many years, I operated at the very edge of my capabilities, always pushing for greater accomplishment. I recognize the tendency in myself to go after challenge and intellectual stimulation—life can be so very, very interesting! I am learning, still learning, to find joy in daily tasks and to see limits as something to rest against.

Friday, August 05, 2005

Table for one

Dining alone, like vacationing alone, can be a deep pleasure if approached with a joyful spirit. Today, I am continuing my birthday weekend in Montreal. It is going so well that I may make a birthday mini-vacation an annual event.

After a healthy breakfast compliments of the hotel, I visited the tiny jewel Musee de Chateau Ramezay which boasts an exquisite potager complete with espaliered apple trees. Indoor exhibits on Montreal history, domestic life, traditional architecture and furniture hit just the right note. Oh my, I keep forgetting that my taste is so French!

Now (well, not right now when I am transcribing, but then when I was actually in the restaurant) I am enjoying lunch in an excellent restaurant, L’Epicerie, too expensive for me at dinner, but lunch is in the $15-17 range (Canadian!). Long ago I learned that one secret to getting good service when you dine alone is to ask solicitously on entry, “Do you have a good spot for one for lunch?” Today, as is typically the response, the hostess looked around for a moment, then seated me facing out at a small table for two where the other seat is in the path of people entering the restaurant. The waiter is typically French, and he typically recommends a glass of wine that turns out almost to double the price of my lunch, but he is enthusiastic about the food, which is not typical at all.

The décor is stylish. Square bistro tables are topped by crisp white tablecloths and a square of white paper, accented by a galvanized tin box full of coarse salt topped by a single green apple. Chairs are dark wood, dishes are simple white china, bread is presented in white enameled tin buckets lined with linen napkins, walls are stone, and the giant chandelier overhead is made of cylinders of multi-layered chicken wire.

The food exceeds the décor in style and imagination. Butter comes in two versions, plain and with curry. The table d’hote offers a choice of soup, salad or smoked salmon appetizer. I go for the salmon, which comes with thin-sliced cucumber, thin-sliced fennel, a swirl of herbed sour cream, and a granite of tarragon. Presentation is everything: the granite comes in one of those soup spoons used in Chinese restaurants, and its herby sweetness is perfect with the salmon.

My main dish of marlin in oyster sauce comes on top of a modest bed of black rice, itself on top of a swath of pureed carrot. Glacee vegetables turn out to be tiny haricot verts and celery cut to match. At first the fish seems too big to eat and too salty, but the carrot mellows it out, and the hazelnuts and capers in the rice add a bit of welcome complexity. I eat up every bite, even cooked celery, which I usually dislike.

Watching me scribble, one of the stylish women at the next table leans over and asks, “Are you a food critic?”

“No,” I confess, and we laugh at her idea that perhaps women who dine alone should always take notes at the table, and then we laugh again when we realize that real critics will do anything to avoid being recognized. Maybe restaurant staff wouldn’t want to bet on the double bind.

And here’s dessert--$4 Canadian! Crème citron legere gelee de baume melissa. That’s a layer of gelatin flavored with lemon balm topped by a layer of light lemon cream and a layer of thinly sliced strawberries garnished with a twist of caramelized sugar and a drizzle of pureed raspberries. Like the smoked salmon appetizer, each ingredient is perfect on its own, but the combination is something completely new and wonderful.

Perhaps I will become a food critic.

Meanwhile, dinner was in Chinatown. At $8 (Canadian!) complete, rice noodles with beef, pickled vegetables, salad, an imperial roll and that nasty fish sauce hits the spot. Continuing the herb theme for the weekend, this simple Tonkinese dish was enlivened with yet another herb that I don’t believe I have ever been served—lemon verbena. I have a nice specimen in a pot in my herb garden at home.

I am learning new words this weekend. Lemon balm is baume melissa. Les orties are nettles, which I learned today are beneficial to the soil in a potager. The hostess at lunch looked it up for me--she knew the French word, but not the English equivalent. And this afternoon, I enjoyed a spirited conversation with a bookstore clerk who spoke French and a little Japanese to my English and a little French. But somehow we managed to discuss knitting—she is an expert knitter, but has never attempted socks, which I assured her are really easier than they look—and where to look for the best fabric shops. That’s tomorrow’s outing, before I head for home and garden and dogs. And the promise of a patch of black currants all mine for the picking.

It was a good birthday

Extra pats for the dogs, pick the beans and drop produce with friends—a few will even pick while I am out of town—and away!

Which direction to drive, well, it doesn’t really matter does it, as long as I go north toward my Montreal hotel room. How about this road? Driving through Hazen Notch is beautiful, as expected of those roads that are closed during winter months, but honestly—I cannot believe that Vermont has state highways that remain unpaved!

Cross the border, lunch in Sutton. I am flattered that the tourism booth staffer speaks to me in French for several minutes, before I reply, cowardly, in English, although I have understood every word. She apologizes, I explain, and we giggle as if we have shared guilty secrets. She suggests a lunch spot, and I make it there just before an ear-splitting thunderclap makes me jump and giggle again. I sit outside under cover and a canopy of hops, eating cream of tomato soup and an open-faced sandwich of smoked salmon and artichokes. I was a little wary of the raisin bread, but the lemon balm leaf on top was the perfect unexpected touch. I wonder how you say lemon balm in French?

I know I am still too tightly wrapped, because it takes too long for the coffee and check to come. So what if lunch takes two and a half hours—if I were really in vacation mode, it should not matter.

On my checklist for this brief Montreal outing is a stop at Ikea. I drive straight through gruesome traffic, but find the store and score two new $79 (Canadian!) comforters. Synthetic fiber, because we may be getting a puppy, and washable is washable is washable is virtue. There is not much else that appeals. Having successfully decluttered my life, I am not about to go back.

Time to find the hotel. Chosen for its low price with a guess as to convenience, it turns out (oh the joy!) to be on the edge of Chinatown in walking distance to Old Montreal. The room is clean, quiet and boasts a kitchenette. And this morning I find a breakfast that surpasses all my expectations, including yogurt, boiled eggs, whole grain bread for toasting, fruit and good coffee. All this and internet connections. All the comforts of home, except for my dogs, who I miss.

Last night’s dinner was at a multi-Asian restaurant ($16—Canadian!—for four courses) where I threw myself on the mercy of the waitress to tell me whether to have Thai seafood or Vietnamese seafood. She was flattered to be asked and took personal delight in my enjoyment of my meal. Or perhaps she is just a good waitress, but I took it for sincerity and will continue to do so. This charming urban exchange was followed by another in a small shop where I spent $20 (Canadian!) on preserved black beans, oyster flavor and hoisin sauce, jasmine tea and other delights.

“What you gonna do with that?” queried the grimy twenty-something Chinese man with a broad grin.

“Gonna cook,” I gave it right back. The older Chinese woman behind the cash register started to explain to him how various ingredients were used.

“You cook like that, eh?” he continued.

“Oh, yes,” I explained, deadpan. “I have to. In Vermont, we don’t have good ethnic food like you have.”

After a brief argument in which he assured me that I was wrong, that there is in Vermont at least one restaurant that sources its ingredients from that very store, and I assured him that Vermont may be a small state but it is plenty big, he relented with a grin, “Eh, at least you have some good food today!”

I knodded solemnly, asked for a lunch recommendation for the next day, and with a quick “Merci!” was on my way. A few minutes later, picking up milk in another local store, realized that I was chatting about the change in French, having dropped into it unconsciously, apparently without a trace of the morning’s shyness.

There is something about a city. The interactions are brief, pointed as to purpose, but those very limitations can bound an intensely personal exchange. It is not the layered pentimento of small town life, which has its own pleasures, but the stark, staccato abstract of barely contained chaos—different modes and places for human connection.

It was a very good day, a very good birthday.

Wednesday, August 03, 2005

Reluctant coach

Lately I seem to have encountered a number of people who want to be life coaches. They generally impress me as being alert, intelligent, insightful, and caring people of above average social adjustment. Occasionally, one will be a tad on the zealous side, displaying the fervor of the recently converted, but for the most part, they have definitive life skills that they would like to share with others. I am very glad these folk are in the world.

As for me, my office is intentionally client-centered. Few demands on my time can trump the needs of a person who walks into my office with an issue that has some relation to my function—employment, entrepreneurship, difficulty of finding space, conflicts with co-workers, need for training. Sometimes, I get caught up in personal tragedy less overtly linked to my role. It’s not that I mind any of it, not exactly, but the drain on my time and energy can be substantial.

I have one of those faces, you see. The kind face that somehow encourages a homeless man to walk from the far end of the subway car to talk to me, to tell me how he came to be living on the street. The open demeanor that says “Tell me all. I want to help.” A friend recently convinced me—if only for a few days—that it wasn’t that I attract people who need to talk; rather, she opined, people who need to talk will talk to everyone. It is just that I let them. Why?

I let people talk because I have a soft heart. I let them talk because they need to talk. I let people talk because occasionally I have a skill to share. I just let people talk. Sometimes they solve their own problems and thank me for it, but more often they not only don’t do what I suggest, but somehow feel driven to explain to me that I am wrong. Well, okay. I am learning not to be surprised that most people don’t really want new ideas, they just want to talk, and a non-judgmental person like me is a prize audience. I am cautious about whether or not I have skills to offer, or even whether I have adequate skills myself to deal with some of the things with which I am tasked. And I am very cautious about playing God with other lives, assuming that I know how it is to be in some of the ever so daily tragedies that play out in human lives around me. I don’t know how it is, and I don’t know what to say.

Over the last several months, I have become comfortable with taking on less. I don’t do financial models for clients—they need to have their own modeler. I don’t try to figure out clients’ accounting issues or their hiring problems or even how their website should look. Rather I refer them to the specialists—the bookkeepers and recruiters and web developers and marketing consultants and others—whatever they need to move their businesses to the next level. Perhaps I should add a category for personal coach. While it is difficult to displace a clingy client onto a professional clearly in the mental health arena, perhaps a more neutral helper will be able to take over some of the long, long hours of listening. It’s not that I don’t care, it's not that I mind, but a more specialized and well trained resource can surely do a better job than a reluctant coach.

Tuesday, August 02, 2005

Vacation (on exit)

Jean, over at This Too evokes the panic of leaving behind that daily grind for the mandated two weeks of bliss. Whatever mind games we play inside our own heads, time marches relentlessly forward, and one day, it is time. Time to play!

A blessed break, but too loaded, too short, too… too everything. Too tired, right now, too achy, still resounding with the huge, reluctant effort of trying to take control at work, so that crises won’t erupt and make me ‘look bad’ in my absence.

I deserve to look bad. I do a really crap job of things, only just managing to hide this, thanks to a well-honed sense of what will be noticed and what won’t.

We know we need the break—heaven knows we need it badly—but stopping our frenetic forward motion is harder than it seems it ought to be. Convinced that all our little shortfalls, accumulated into dust bunnies and virtual piles of stuff in the corners, we fret that all manner of oversights will come to light while we are cavorting elsewhere. Sometimes this does happen to people—the bookkeeper who put the property tax bill in the bottom drawer because he didn’t know what to do with it comes to mind—and the fact that certain states (New York) have laws that govern certain industries (banking) and require employees to sign a statement that they have been out of the office for two full weeks a year indicates that some people think a prolonged absence from the office should be mandatory.

The theory is that a fraud scheme would be uncovered in the two weeks that the presumed perpetrator is absent from the office. Personally, I like to think that if I were inclined to commit fraud that I would be bright enough to design one that could sustain a two week hiatus, but perhaps that is overconfidence on my part.

In any case, I’m sure that really bad stuff does come to the surface in the course of many a two-week vacation. But honestly, Jean, these things tend not to happen to overly responsible people like you and me. What tends to happen to people like us is that we come back and we look at the shreds and details that cluttered up the landscape that is our desk—and we find that many of them are irrelevant. What tends to happen is that we find the courage to drop—definitively—those items that always slide to the bottom of the “to do” list right off the list. What tends to happen is that nothing falls apart, except that maybe people missed having the “go to” girl right there on the spot and maybe they value us a little more, if only for a few days.

That blessed relief is what vacation is all about.

In my over-enthusiastic, over-committed, over-responsible approach to work, I have again and again had the experience of feeling torn as I leave for weekend or longer break. Sometimes I take huge files along with me, or the laptop. Within hours the excessive sense of responsibility has evaporated, leaving all that work just sitting. Waiting. With practice, I have gotten to where I can make it wait till the Sunday night before I have to go back into the work world, and it does ease re-entry if I can do a little organizing the night before. Mondays, especially the Mondays after a vacation, are wild roller-coaster of days, but then it is all better again. Then I can feel the renewed strength and the improved perspective that is the gift of a vacation.

I’m off for a mini-vacation, myself—three days in Montreal. A tiny treat to celebrate the occasion of not being required to go look for a better paying job, a break from the fray.