Thursday, March 17, 2011

The Joy of a Normal Day

After a particularly long-winded telephone conversation I once complained to a friend, “Why are those calls so hard to endure?”  She answered, “Because, my dear, so little of it needs to be said.”  I firmly believe that if you don’t have something to say, you should keep your mouth (or your keyboard) shut.  And that’s where I’ve been for the last couple of months.  Not much to say.
But for the past week I, along with the rest of the world, have watched, stunned, as the people of Japan face the unthinkable.  Because I am human and, therefore, shallow and self-centered, I keep thinking, “That could be me” – and I’m wondering if you’re thinking the same thing.  So I decided to say something . . .
I realize I could be that dazed woman groping through the rubble, looking for anything that’s left of my life.  Someone I loved – missing and silent.  Some small thing I have treasured – a photo of my children with their soft curly eyelashes resting on plump, dewy cheeks.  A broken tea cup.  A sodden pillow. 
I cannot imagine what the people of Japan are feeling.  Perhaps, gratefully, for awhile they will feel nothing.  But their feelings will return, and I cannot bear thinking about them. 
What will they do?  Where will they go?
This is not a third world event, not one of those things that happen to other people in some other place.  We watch those other people in other places with compassionate horror – and because we are, for the most part, good people, our hearts do break.  We muster around “their” disasters with money, and aid, and all kinds of help.  But, face it, “they” are not like us.  Their lives are lived in a different paradigm.  It’s not a pretty truth, or one that puts us in a flattering light, but it is the truth.  We see our world as different from those poverty stricken regions of the globe.
Japan is another story.  This is not a developing nation – this is the third largest economy on earth.  This is the most technically advanced and equipped population on earth.  This is a country widely recognized and praised for their disaster preparedness.  The country with the best seismic building codes in the world.  Out here on the west coast, Japan is often presented as the role model of how to get it right. 
In the first hours following what turned out to be a 9.0 earthquake, I heard a scientist praising Japan’s earthquake prediction system.  “That is an amazing system,” he said.  “It gave a full minute’s warning before the earthquake actually happened.”  One single minute.  And that’s the best system in the world.
In the hundreds of eye-witness reports and interviews I’ve seen in the past few days, I haven’t heard one person mention how happy he or she was to have had all that warning.  Nor have they shared how they put those amazing 60 seconds to use.  Sure, it’s better than nothing.  But it’s not much. 
I read that people in one city had a half hour warning to escape the tsunami.  Half an hour is a lot better than a single minute – you might be able to grab something and run to high ground – IF the path to high ground isn’t clogged with other people trying to get there, and IF you already know which path you intend to take, and IF you don’t hesitate over any single detail of your escape.  But when a 30-foot wall of water is headed toward you at 500 miles an hour, 30 minutes isn’t all that long.   Do you take the time to round up your family, make sure everyone is coming with you?  Or do you go?  Get out?  Just go?  There’s no right answer.  Either choice leads to a path strewn with regret.
Think about it.  At 2:30 that afternoon, it was a normal day.  By 3:30 the world had ended. 
 Go ahead and call me obsessive about this event – you’d be right, and you wouldn’t be alone.  But, gee whiz, this really is big.  That earthquake knocked the earth four inches off its axis.  Big, I tell you.  The 9.0 earthquake alone would have been a game changer, even without the tsunami – or the nuclear crisis, which grew more ominous by the hour.
Japan was better prepared than any other country or population.  For something.  Not for this.
Maybe I’m obsessing here because next time the earth rocks on its axis, it really could be me.  I live in a tsunami hazard zone – the warning signs are all over my neighborhood.  They’ve become collector’s items – funny white and blue outlines showing a frantic little stick figure running uphill with a huge man-eating wave chomping down behind him. 

"Doood.  You're never going to make it!"  Ironically, these charming little signs are based on a Japanese woodcut.

Our region is called the Cascadia Subduction Zone.  The fault, along which the San Juan de Fuca tectonic plate collides with the Pacific plate, runs down the west coast of North America, from just south of the Queen Charlotte Islands in Canada to just off Cape Mendocino in northern California.  In this collision zone, the plates are not sliding against each other, as they are along the famous San Andreas fault.  Along our fault, one plate is diving under the other.  When they move, they do so with an enormous bump and jolt.  Canada to California – that’s a long line of bad news.
I don’t pretend to be a geologist (the above paragraph would flunk me out of Geology 101), but I do know that subduction zone earthquakes are not for sissies.  They trend toward 9.0.  That’s what happened in Japan.  And that’s what will inevitably happen here.  It’s happened before and it will happen again.   It’s not speculation; it’s a sure thing.  The only variable is when.  Could be tomorrow.  Could be three hundred years from now.  But it will happen.
And that’s why I can’t stop wondering what is in the hearts and minds of the people I’m seeing flash across the screen.  This time it was them.  Next time it could be me.
Of course, they knew it could happen.  They probably even knew, as we do, that it would happen.  But when it does happen, how can you possibly react?  You can run to high ground and then, assuming you make it, you can watch the world disappear beneath you.  You might be able to survive, but how do you keep on living?
Such random thoughts pop in and out of my consciousness as I try to absorb what I’m seeing.  I envision my beloved old house on the coast, sitting there in peace for 122 years, collapsing like a discarded tissue under the force of an unspeakable wave.  I feel my heart break as its beautiful old walls buckle.  I make a mental inventory of what’s in the trunk of my car.  Water, check.  Nutrition bars, check.  Blankets, oops, need to get some.  Extra pair of shoes and socks.  Check.  Then I take off on a strange little mind jog – I have some valuable stuff in that house.  I should protect it.  Um.  How?  When the world as we know it has ended, is anyone really going to give me a candle and a bowl of soup in exchange for a sterling silver fork from my secret stash?  I’m guessing not.
As my thoughts twist and tangle, I try to imagine what that Japanese woman is thinking as she wanders through the ruins of her life.  Maybe something just as random.  When faced with a set of circumstances so far removed from the human context, the mind often retreats to the small, the random, the mundane.  Are the people who just a few days ago watched the world evaporate before their eyes really taking in the horrifying prospect of nuclear meltdown?  Or are they just trying to get warm, hunting for clean water, looking for some way to block out the smell, struggling to protect their children?  I wonder. 
This morning, I stood in the shower a little longer than usual.  I was acutely aware – and actively grateful – for the cascade of hot water pouring over me.  For the lights that invaded my morning sleepiness at the flip of a switch.  For the smell of the coffee happily brewing on its own in the kitchen.  For the bus I knew I would have to hustle to catch (and just missed).  For the job I sometimes gripe about, but that I knew was there, waiting for me.  For the pure everyday normalcy of my life.
I haven’t had many troubled times in my life, but I’ve had a few – just enough to make me understand the longing for the dull little details of life.  The “all I want is for it to be normal again” irrationality of grief.
The people of Japan are probably still too numb to ache for “normal.”  But it will come.  And when it does there will be no consolation.  For them, “normal” has been erased forever.   They will go on.  But how?
I just read an article about a woman, now 66, who was a five-year-old in Nagasaki when the bomb fell.  She said simply, “Japanese people are strong, and good at enduring.”  I believe she is right, but I’m not sure the same could be said of me. 
Today, I give thanks that my life is simply average . . . and normal.  God bless us, every one. 

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

What I Really Meant to Say . . .

“I apologize for the long letter.
I didn’t have time to write a short one.”
                                                               Winston Churchill

The soft lighting and goodwill of the holidays are behind us.  It’s time to get back to work. 
I’ve recently had the opportunity to clean out a couple of file drawers (looking for some things I misplaced during 2010, the Year of the Never-ending Move).  In the process, I unearthed a case of business files I somehow thought I needed to hang onto.  As I dutifully read through them, making sure I was not going to throw away something important (no fear there), I was dumbstruck by some of the language.  My files date back through several jobs, and I’m currently in yet another one.  These are different companies, different management structures, different businesses.  But they all use the same dictionary – the one with words that don’t say anything.
By all indications, 2011 looks to be a bit more spry than 2010, so I’d like to kick it off by cleaning out the language cupboard the same way I cleaned out those file drawers.  Just like an old tin of bread crumbs and that jar of dried oregano you’ve had for five years, words get stale.  In fact, during my fairly lengthy career, I’ve found that corporate words have a shorter shelf-life than most. 
So, in the interest clear thinking and even clearer speaking, I offer you words to eliminate from America’s corporate vocabulary for 2011:
§  Action plan – That’s the stuff you have to get done.
§  Actionables – That’s also the stuff you have to get done.
§  Analytics – What we talk about when we mean, “Are we making any money?”
§  Bandwidth – The people and money we need to get this stuff done.
§  Beta – What we say when we haven’t figured this stuff out yet.
§  Buy in – That’s what we look for when we want to make sure the right people agree with us.
§  Circle back – That’s for when we want to make double sure the right people agree with us.
§  Consolidate – That’s how we’re going to do this stuff with fewer people on the payroll.
§  Core competencies – That’s what business we’re in – we had to write it down because we keep forgetting.
§  Daylight – A verb, meaning, “Get some publicity for this stuff.”  I recently talked with a woman who kept saying she wanted me to daylight something for her.  The conversation was almost over before I figured out she wanted a simple publicity plan.
§  Deliverable – The stuff you have to get done. (see action plan and actionables)
§  Dialogue – (as a verb)  Please, can’t we just TALK?  (The next time somebody asks me to “dialogue about this” I believe I am going to tell them to “shut up.”)
§  End of the day – As in, at the end of the day.  Or, “When we’ve done all this stuff, will we make any money?”
§  Enterprise-wide* – The whole company.
§  Excess inventory* – Too much of anything – widgets, empty hotel rooms, people. 
* When these two phrases wind up together, as in “We have excess inventory enterprise-wide,” it’s time to polish your resume.  They’re compiling the layoff list – and it’s going to be long.
§  Fact-based – To ask for a “fact-based” report is another way to say, “I don’t believe a word you’re saying.”  (I have not yet figured out how “fact-based” decision making is different from plain old “good” decision making.)
§  Granular – That’s when we have way too much information about this stuff.  Granular is what you get when you drill down.
§  Hallway knowledge – This is that stuff people who got laid off knew – and nobody who’s left can figure out.
§  Incentivize – This is what the folks at the top talk about when there will be no raises this year.  They will, however, offer ways to incentivize valuable employees like us.  Really, they will. 
§  Key learnings – This is what we figured out when a bunch of stuff blew up in our faces.
§  Knowledge base –This is where we store the key learnings, in the fervent hope we won’t have to deal with them again.
§  KPIs – Key Performance Indicators.  In other words, “Are we making any money?”
§  Leverage synergies – In other words, “We’re not making any money, so we’re going to cut costs.”
§  Low hanging fruit – When you hear some dude talk about picking the low hanging fruit, he's really saying, “We’re making money without breaking a sweat.”
§  Marketing cadence – All the mail, email, web promotions, and sales deals the company keeps cranking out, hoping somebody is going to buy some of this stuff. 
§  Metrics – Another thing we talk about when we mean, “Are we making any money?”
§  Mission-critical – Do it or get fired.
§  Monetize – “Oh, for heaven’s sake, find a way to make some money, but don’t be too obvious about it.”  (I am frequently asked if I’d like to “monetize” this blog.  If an ad for adult diapers pops up while you’re reading this, I’ve gone to the dark side.)
§  Net out – One more time, “Find out if we’re making any money!”
§  Next steps – The stuff you need to get done.  (See action plan, actionables, and deliverables.)
§  Offline – This is how we talk about stuff that’s not important enough to talk about otherwise.
§  Overlap – Here’s where we find the Department of Redundancy Department – with layoffs trotting closely behind.
§  Paradigm – This is the thing that keeps shifting while we try to figure out what we’re talking about.
§  Plug-and-play – The only thing that’s truly plug-and-play is a crock pot.  Who are we kidding?
§  Realign assets – This is what you do when you have overlap with excess inventory, enterprise-wide – layoffs are coming.
§  ROI – Return on Investment.  When the answer to “Are we making any money?” is “Yes” and we want to know “How much?”
§  Scalable – This means somebody else might also be able to use it somewhere else in the company, but we’re not sure who or how.
§  Scope creep – Meaning Murphy’s Law is coming into play and your budget is toast.
§  Seamless – A change that goes so smoothly that nobody even notices it.  aka Never happens.
§  Siloing – This is what happens when managers take authoritarian control over their departments and refuse to share information, people, or money with any other part of the company.
§  Solutions – What consultants try to sell you when you really only want to buy copy paper.
§  Spit test – A way to figure out if something is authentic – the way you lick your finger and rub it over a signature to see if the ink smears.  Like you do.
§  Sustainable – The folks up in PR would like us to think this means something good for the planet.  In reality, it’s more likely to mean “something that sounds like it should be good for the planet.”  Truthfully, nobody knows what’s “sustainable” – none of us have lived that long.
§  Talking points – What you meant to say and realize, after you sit down, that you didn’t.
§  Touch points – What you meant for the meeting to be about and realize, after it’s over, that it wasn’t.
§  Transparency – When we ask, “Are we telling the truth?” and wonder “Do we really want to?”
§  Tree people – These are the people who are so busy counting the lines in the bark that they fail to see the grandeur of the forest around them.  To tree people everywhere, look UP!
§  Uninterrupted service – What companies think they’re providing while they make huge changes to their systems.  Hint:  they’re not.
§  Unsiloing – What happens when somebody with the authority to do so tells all the heads of all the departments that they have to, like, talk to each other.  Hint:  they won’t.
§  Vaporware – What the consultant’s solution will consist of.  And you’ll still be out of copy paper.
§  Vet – That’s the word we use when we ask somebody to find out, “Is it possible for us to make any money with this stuff?”
§  View from 10,000 feet – “I’m tired of doing the grunt work so I’m going to go read the mission statement.”
§  Wallet share – How much money you have left after you’ve done business with our company.  Hint:  not much.
§  Webinar – Oh, good grief.  It’s an online seminar – did we really need to make up that word?
§  Wire frame – This makes more sense if I’m talking about my great-grandmother’s corset than when I’m discussing where things should show up on a web site.
With your agreement, let’s get rid of this vocabulary list (and whatever you’d like to add) once and for all.  However, there are a few phrases that continue to help me get through the day.  Here are a couple I’d like to keep . . .          
ü  Ready – Fire – Aim
I believe this is self-explanatory.  One of the smartest business people I’ve ever known introduced the concept to me.  In other words, get it done.
ü  FUD factor
When you’re trying to get your customer’s attention, never underestimate the power of Fear-Uncertainty-and Doubt.
ü  It’s hoof beats
Shorthand for, “When you hear hoof beats, look for horses, not zebras.”  Or, don’t ignore what’s under your nose.
I believe more American business decisions hinge on this than we’d be comfortable knowing – the Scientific Wild Ass Guess.
ü  Don’t open your kimono
It’s from that same smart business guy (as is the next one) and it’s the essence of the art of the deal.  Don’t reveal your terms too early in the negotiation.  Keep your kimono closed while they still care what you’ve got under there.
ü  Get the camel’s nose inside the tent
Another essential step in the art of the deal.  Get the other guy nodding in agreement with you.  Wait for him to ask, “What do YOU think we should do?”  The camel’s nose is now inside the tent.
I’ve known this one for so long I’m not even sure where I first encountered it – I think it was in the newspaper composition room.  A BLIVIT is “10 pounds of [explitive] in a 5 pound bag” – or 15 inches of type in a 10-inch column.
ü  PBP
Paralyzed by Perfection.  Ask yourself, is the 43rd rewrite honestly all that much better than the 42nd?  Closely related to Ready-Fire-Aim – get the thing done and out the door.
Mine Eyes Glaze Over – something that often happens when I’m confronted with rhetoric designed, as my favorite Chicago editor once wrote, “to amaze the gazing rustics ranged around.”
ü  Hot Rat on a Stick
To appreciate this one, you have to be a Monty Python fan (guilty).  Remember that movie when everyone was dying of the Black Plague?  They were rounding up bodies in a wagon and the guy on top is yelling, “Not dead yet, feelin’ bettah, actually.”  And in the background is a street vendor walking around hawking “Hot rat on a stick!  Get your hot rat on a stick!”  One of the best, most talented, efficient, and creative units I’ve ever had the pleasure to work with used that moniker for “those” projects – the ones that won’t go right and won’t go away.  Still works.
ü  A goat rodeo
For me, this is the perfect way to describe the chaos that surrounds some endeavors – and it’s also why this post is a little late getting to you.  I spent several late evenings rounding up goat rodeos last week.  For now, they’re back in the pen. 
What works for you?

Monday, January 3, 2011

For RoRe

“In the cookies of life, sisters are the chocolate chips.”
~ Anonymous

By the time you’re reading this, the cat is out of the bag.
My sister already knows that I showed up at her retirement party as a surprise.  Even though we live in opposite corners of the continent (she in Georgia, I in Washington state), it was a surprisingly simple operation, involving only a chunk of frequent flyer miles, a fairly comfortable overnight flight, the conspiratorial help of niece, nephew, and brother-in-law.  And there you go – we pulled it off.
The party was wonderful and, as always, the visit far too short. 
The praises and sentiments from her colleagues and coworkers are well-earned.  Her career flourished among them for more than 20 years, endearing her to clients and team-members with equal recognition not only of her skill and talent, but of her absolute integrity and genuine charm.
This is the rest of the story.  A tribute to my sister , not as a business woman, teacher, trainer, wife, mother, or friend – but as a sister.
To put this in context, you should know that I am the youngest of three daughters.  Youngest by a bit.  My two sisters are two years apart . . . then a fairly long wait . . . then me.  In fact, my parents (and aunts, uncles, and cousins) often referred to us as “the girls and Martha Jean.”  Truth be told, not only was I sort of a hang nail, I was quite often a nasty little brat.  I tore up their paper dolls.  I messed with their records.  I interrupted them when they were with their friends.  The classic movie “Wizard of Oz” was re-released when I was about 4 and seeing it at the neighborhood theater was a much anticipated family outing.  I, however, took one look at those flying monkeys and lost it.  My two sisters had to take turns walking me in the lobby, trying to calm my 4-year-old hysteria.  I have only a vague recollection of the day – and I’m still not crazy about monkeys.  My sisters remember it vividly – they are still slightly bitter.
The August before I entered sixth grade, both of them left home at once.  The older one to get married.  The other to enter college.  And there I was, functionally an only child.
My oldest sister, Joan, married and devoted her considerable talent to homemaking.  We didn’t recognize it then, but the wrong sister in our family got named “Martha.”  The woman is amazing.
That left the middle sister and me officially living at home.  She had moved out, of course, to go to school.  But the times she bounced back were the highlights of my life – Thanksgiving, Christmas, spring break, occasional weekends, and the times I always looked forward to most, summer vacations.
Like all middle children, she was plagued by attention-grabbers on either side, the elder stateswoman and the consistent brat.  My mother said it best when she once comforted her, “Children are like sandwiches.  The best part is in the middle.”
To illustrate . . .
She got the best name.  Rose Marie.  It’s beautiful and melodic, just like she is.  She later consolidated it to the even more lovely Rosemarie to keep her Yankee clients from calling her “Rose.”  Decades earlier, I had given her a nickname that stuck in our family – and passed on to her wonderful husband.  Not being able to wrap my toddler tongue around Rose Marie, I shortened it to “Ro” and “Re.”  RoRe it has stayed.
She got the height.  The first sister is 5′4″.  I’m 5′5″.  Rosemarie is elegant at over 5′7 ″.  And she got the legs to go with it.  While mine are basically tree trunks with knees that make faces, hers are long and lovely.
She also got the talent.  A voice like an angel.  In fact, I fully expect the heavenly choir to sound a lot like RoRe when I pass through the pearly gates.  She also plays the flute exquisitely.  When she was in high school and I was in grade school, I’d come home from school during the symphony season, finish homework, put on my nicest dress and Sunday shoes, then head out in the back seat of the family sedan to Chattanooga’s Memorial Auditorium where RoRe was playing in the flute section of the orchestra.  On Saturday mornings, I’d settle down with cartoons while my dad rushed out to drive RoRe downtown for her voice lessons.  She never got to sleep in.  While I did manage to play an acceptable clarinet in the school band, I still sing in a whisper as not to offend anyone.  And after almost three years of piano lessons, I gave it up without finishing the first grade book.
You get the picture.
Of course, there were years when ours paths separated, when our lives and interests turned inward.  As adults, she lived in Columbus, Georgia, a city so beautifully southern that it takes my breath away.  I lived in the Chicago area for a time, then “moved off out west” to Seattle, both magnificent urban centers.  The distances between us were sometimes as wide culturally as they were geographically.
But inevitably, we were drawn together.  Our bond is stronger than any distance or difference can break. 
It was RoRe who read aloud to me the first “chapter book” I ever experienced.  Heidi.  I still love that book (although I honestly expected goat cheese to taste a lot better).  It was RoRe who sat with me in the hospital room after my tonsillectomy because my mother couldn’t bear up under the strain (and it was RoRe who cleaned me up when I was sick from the anesthetic – she still goes green at the smell of ether).  It was RoRe who baked me a special heart-shaped birthday cake when everyone had to work late on my 16th birthday – and I still cherish the little silver heart charm bracelet she gave me.  It puts Tiffany to shame.
It was she who made sure I knew that our school system wasn’t going to prepare me adequately for college, that I’d have to do a lot of work on my own.  She who taught me how to wear make-up . . . to cook . . . to sew . . . to apply fingernail polish . . . to pull weeds in the Georgia heat all afternoon and still look cool and serene at the dinner table.
She taught me all of that, and so much more.
From her I learned that kindness is a gift, not one you are born with, but one you receive by giving.  She taught me that words are treasures, whether you’re reading them or writing them.  That being a “late bloomer” (a favorite phrase of our mother’s that made us both cringe), really is a wonderful thing.  That good manners are always in good taste.  That nothing is more becoming to a woman than a solid sense of humor.
I’ve seen her stand at her husband’s bedside – and at her child’s – watching the steel rod of her strength support everyone else.  I saw her sit with our father through his terrible final illness – and watched her visit our mother when she had to move into a care facility, comfort her, and care for her – every single day for five years.  Every single day.
My life has been blessed with wonderful people from whom I’ve learned exactly what love looks like – but she is chief among them.  Rosemarie Ward is not only my sister, she is my best friend.
So, RoRe, this one is for you.  Everyone who celebrates with you as you retire knows what an asset you have been to your company. 
What I hope they know now is what an asset you are to the world.
I love you,