Dirty laundry

DirtyLaundry2-LaundryBasketI hate to do laundry. I’ve always hated to do laundry. In fact, when I was in college, I once made it a record six weeks without venturing to that dreaded room in my dorm basement. My secret? Underwear, lots of underwear. After all, who really cares how many times you rotate sweatpants and jeans when you’re 18 and trudging around the campus anti-world? Underwear is a different story, though. One-and-done is my motto, so the key is to have A LOT of it.

My aversion to the washing machine took on a new dimension in those college years. When I ran dangerously low on unmentionables, I bought a couple of pairs at a boutique near campus. You can imagine how that price tag impacted my poor-student budget, so I knew I had to find a more sustainable approach.

Laundry time? Nope. I needed Target.

The problem was that with campus nestled in a residential area and the mall in the next town over–and me having no car–I needed transportation. None of my friends had cars either, so desperation led me to the city bus.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with the bus, and as I have cruised through adulthood exploring different cities around the world, I think public transportation is one of the greatest inventions ever. But as an eighteen-year-old from the Midwest, I had no idea how to use it. It intimidated me.

In fact, buses still intimidate me. Trains are pretty simple to figure out; there’s always a map nearby to offer the big picture, and whole system is generally well-mapped visually. It’s easy to see how many stops, how many changes, where to switch, etc.

Not so with buses.

Without a station structure to house maps and posters–and with less oversight to deter vandalism–bus huts have neither the space nor the maintenance routine to provide much information. In fact, there’s often just a sign marking the location of the stop sitting atop an abbreviated schedule that looks something like this–if you’re lucky:

bus-sched-1

So say I know I’m standing at Tunnel & Thayer. I can see all the times the bus will arrive to whisk me away. I can even intuit to which stops it will take me, but what then? How do I know where to transfer? What’s available to transfer TO at those stops? Where are they in relation to anything? And how much does this even cost? Is bus riding some elite club for people who grew up in the city, a conspiracy to make the rest of us feel like country cousins?

Today I’d pull up the Transit Authority’s website on my phone and try to figure it out, but in 1987, there was no internet, let alone smartphones. Heck, car-mounted cell phones were just starting to come out, and they were super expensive. But, I digress.

My point is that this is a communications disaster. It’s not intuitive and there’s no real way to get information when you need it. Good communications principles don’t just apply to marketing efforts, meetings, and manners. They should be ubiquitous. They apply to everything, even bus schedules.

When you’re trying to give people information, remember this:

  • Don’t leave out important information.
  • Make it easy.
  • Use visuals when possible.
  • Spread the word.

In the meantime, I guess I’ll just do my laundry more often.

If the shoe fits

IMG_5753After my Crunch time post last week, a friend told me he couldn’t wait to read the follow-up. I never expected to write one, but dang it, he was right.

My dog ate my Mophie.

Just days after I called out my kid for not taking responsibility, today it became my turn. My mouthy puppy gnawed on my phone’s external battery pack, and to add insult to injury, he did it while sitting beside me. I assumed he had his bone–belatedly I realized he didn’t.

So was it the dog’s fault? Nope. It was all mine.

I should have been watching. I shouldn’t have assumed. I should take better care of my stuff. The blame lies on my shoulders.

BUT.

There’s another lesson in this.

Stuff happens, and sometimes it happens fast. Sometimes it even happens right under our noses.

So while I still expect my kid to take responsibility for leaving his phone unattended–just like I’m owning up to letting my dog chew on my Mophie–I’m going to cut him some slack. He’s human; we all are.

And yeah, while you’re smirking and thinking that it always looks different when it happens to me, sometimes that’s the only way I learn the lesson.

Cut me some slack.

(Well, JD, you got your wish. Now stop laughing.)

Crunch time

IMG_5559Two perfect puncture marks, accented by a spiderweb of cracks, adorn the screen of my son’s new, only-had-it-since-Christmas, please-Mom-I-really-need-it smartphone. It actually doesn’t look that bad; I’ve seen people using phones that look as if they’ve been on the receiving end of a sledgehammer with nary a hiccup of service. Even so, those two marks that perfectly match our dog’s dentition are enough to ensure that the screen won’t respond at all.

Of course, my boyo is mad. His best buddy in the world took a bite out of his social livelihood. What a jerk, right?

I’m not so sure. After all, Wallace is a puppy. Chewing has been etched into his DNA since before time began. At seven months old with new molars erupting, the urge is stronger than ever. He might know he’s not supposed to, but that beautiful, shiny toy was just lying there in plain view on the couch like an open invitation. And the fact that it smelled like his favorite human-brother must have sealed the deal.

Wait. It was lying on the couch unattended? In an environment where we have to put shoes on high shelves to avoid Wallace’s mouthy attention? Where boyo insists on keeping his bedroom door shut so his favorite puppy can’t wander in unattended and chew stuff up?

Hmm. Who should have known better here? Whose fault was it really? The dog’s, for doing what he has been genetically programmed to do? Or the kid’s, for failing to take Wallace’s into account puppydom and properly safeguard his possessions?

Boyo didn’t like that when he called to plaintively report the transgression, my first question centered on why he had left his phone unattended–and the second on why he had left the dog unattended. I would have reminded him of Aesop’s fable about the snake (You knew what I was when you picked me up, so why did you do it?), but he wouldn’t have listened.

He wanted to kennel Wallace for the rest of the night, shame him on the internet, and refuse to talk to him for weeks. Sorry, bud, but it doesn’t work that way. Punish him in the moment to deter future bad behavior, but the responsibility rests on you. It’s your job to take care of your stuff. YOU knew better.

He doesn’t want to hear that. He wants to whine and point fingers and lash out. He’s mad, but deep down, he’s really mad at himself, and here’s the reason, whether it involves a puppy or anything else:

Placing blame is easy; shouldering it isn’t.

We could all use a reminder of that from time to time.

When you point your finger ’cause your plan fell through, you’ve got three more fingers pointing back at you. –from Solid Rock, by Dire Straits

puppy

Puzzle me this

Not long ago, a friend told me a story she had carried with her from childhood. I felt honored, because the memory was painful so she didn’t share it often. With her permission, and a few details obscured, here’s the story:

When I was a kid, my dad took me to visit an elderly friend. The guy had a problem with barn swallows, and since his hand wasn’t as steady as it used to be, he handed Dad his pellet gun and asked him to see if he could get rid of them.** Dad agreed, and off we went.

Hoping I might be the next Annie Oakley, Dad had been teaching me to shoot, so when we got to the barn, he handed me the gun. When one of the birds tried to dive bomb us, I shouldered the gun and took a shot. I couldn’t believe it–I hit it on the first try!

When we walked over to where the bird fell, we saw that it was still alive and struggling. The humane thing to do was to put it out of its misery, and of course, Dad told me to do it. I felt sick. I agonized. I cried.

When I finally took the shot at point-blank range, I missed. I have no idea how, but I missed. I put down the gun and walked away, leaving Dad to do my dirty work. To this day, I feel like I failed. I couldn’t do the hard work when it needed to be done. What’s wrong with me?

Nothing, friend. Nothing is wrong with you.

Here’s how I see it. We all have strengths and weaknesses, and we spend a lifetime amassing experiences that illustrate those. If we so choose, we can use those experiences to better understand ourselves and grow from them.

My friend recounted her story to me when she was anguishing over a tough situation in her life right now. She contends that she has never been able to do what she calls the “dirty work,” and because of that, she’s a failure.

I learned a different lesson from her story, though. I saw that hurting others causes her excruciating pain, even when she knows it will lead to the best outcome. That’s not a strength or a weakness; that’s just part of her character. What she didn’t understand, though, was that when the going got tough, she leaned on someone whom she knew could do the job.

Isn’t that what we’re supposed to do? Ask for help when the job gets too big?

I really hope she learns to see it that way. Knowing what she’s not cut out to do will allow her to call on those to whom it comes easily–and I guarantee that she’d be the first one jumping in to help me when I run into my own edges. That’s not failure; it’s why we’re all here. Humankind is like a giant puzzle, with each person filling others’ gaps to make a complete picture.

Know your limitations. Ask for help when you need it. Share your strengths generously.

**Remember, folks, we’re talking about rural Indiana, decades ago. This isn’t a gun debate or an animal rights discussion.

Special delivery

special_deliverySometimes it’s not just what you say, but how you say it. I always have a good laugh remembering one time I drank a healthy dose of that particular truth.

You see, my ex is a quality guy. That’s not a character judgment, but rather a statement of his commitment to the best–the best tools, the best playthings, the best electronics, the best everything. And usually the best comes with an equally superlative price tag. Whenever he set out to make a purchase, I braced myself. It’s no wonder I became such an easy target…

Shortly after we moved into our first house, Mr. Quality worked on setting up his stereo for surround sound. Something wasn’t quite right, so he diagnosed the problem and headed for the electronics store. When he got back, he gave me a sheepish grin and said he had something to tell me.

What is it? I asked cautiously.

Well, he said, remember I told you the tweeters in the big speakers weren’t working? 

Yeah… I trembled.

Well, when I went to get new ones, I realized we could use some other things, too. Don’t worry, though; these new speakers will really sound great when we watch movies!

How much? I demanded, unamused.

Two thousand dollars, he replied.

WHAT?! I shrieked.

All hell was about to break loose in my kitchen. Only a couple of years out of college (me) and the military (him), we weren’t exactly making a ton of money. Then things took an unexpected turn.

Nah, said Mr. Quality. I’m just teasing. It was only $600.

I exhaled forcefully. Oh, thank goodness! I said, practically crying with relief. That’s not so bad!

Yeah, he said chuckling, I wasn’t sure how you’d take the news about $600 if I just told you outright.

Wait–what? I had totally been played. He was right; I wouldn’t have taken a $600 announcement well. We didn’t have much room in our budget for it, but $600 seemed to be a pittance after I thought we had shelled out $2000.

Thankfully, I’ve always been able to laugh about that little trick. Every time I think of it, I am reminded of how much presentation counts. It really is, as they say, all in the delivery.

And it doesn’t hurt to know your audience, either.

What’s cookin’

cookbooksI love cookbooks. I like to page through them, reading the recipes, mentally putting them together to figure out if something will work. I like the background stories that some of them include, and I imagine what it must have been like the first time that steaming dish made its way to the table. Mostly I like the way yet another assemblage of words–not prose, not poetry, not carefully crafted essays–can make the neurons fire in my brain to conjure pictures and flavors and smells. [Oh, how I love words and their power.]

Lately, though, I notice my cookbooks gathering dust. Never fear, I’m still feeding my family, but unless I’m reaching for a specific recipe that resides in the pages of my collection, I find myself reaching for my phone or my iPad to search the internet for inspiration.

I’m still trying to decide how I feel about that.

My approach is the same; I read through a recipe to assess it. I compare several different options. I imagine the outcome. It just feels so…impersonal. I miss holding the pages and smelling the paper, not to mention the fact that the screen on my phone gets pretty nasty from my internet cooking forays.

Still, it has its benefits. I have access to more resources than I could ever fit into my kitchen. I get the benefit of others’ reviews and commentary. [Note: ALWAYS read the commentary.] My cuisine choices are no longer limited by that which sits on my shelf. The world is really and truly at my fingertips.

As much as I love my hard copies and hope that paper cookbook publishing won’t fade away, on the whole, I think I’m far better off in this brave new world. I think we all are, actually, and two reasons stand out to me in particular:

  1. Accessibility. Anyone can find just about anything with an internet connection (free at most libraries for those who don’t have it at home). No longer are we limited by resources, e.g. how many/which cookbooks we can afford, what’s available in local stores, whom we know who can help.
  2. Competition. As a pretty firm believer in the corrections of the free market, I have to believe that increased accessibility and the corresponding increase in options will positively impact the quality of all. While things may look different in the end, I believe that survival of the fittest will make the winners–whatever they may be–far better than the original offering. I just have to be open-minded and keep a broad perspective.

It’s cookbooks for me, but it may be something else for you–I think the lesson is universal. Still, if you borrow one of my cookbooks, please don’t forget to return it!

Just desserts

Holy_Cannoli!My daughter’s social studies teacher hosted a cultural fair last spring where the kids could present their year-end country projects. The kids had worked in groups to create elaborate displays, learn facts and anecdotes, and even whip up samples of local cuisines. The teacher expected the cafetorium to be packed, so she asked parents to sign up to bring a variety of international dishes to feed the masses, potluck style. I volunteered to make cannoli.

Okay, stop right there. Before I go any further, let’s all agree to ignore the notion that I shouldn’t have waited till the last day to get things done. This story won’t be any good if you won’t at least give me that much. Deal?

On the day of the fair, I assembled my ingredients and made something close to a vat of cannoli filling. I had planned to buy the shells rather than make them myself, so around 3pm I took off for the grocery store.

*Gulp*

My usual store didn’t carry them anymore. And neither did the next one. Or the next one. Or the next one. With three hours left till the cultural fair, I was out of luck and out of time.

No problem, I thought. I’m a resourceful person. I can figure this out.

And I did. Spying filled cannolis in the pastry case at my local Fresh Market, I asked the clerk if she would be willing to sell me some of the empty shells I knew they had in reserve.

I don’t know, she said. I wouldn’t know what to charge you.

Is there someone you can ask? I persisted.

Well, one bakery manager is at lunch, and the other one is on vacation, she replied, as if that were the end of the discussion.

Surely, I said, we can figure this out. There has to be someone in the store who can help. Please.

With a groan and a sigh, the clerk retreated. Several minutes later she picked up the phone and placed a call. After a round of hushed voices and furtive glances, she hung up the phone and returned to the counter.

Sorry, she said breezily, I can’t. And just like that, with no further explanation, she turned around and walked away.

I doubt the clerk has any idea what really transpired. Even in refusing to sell me the empty shells–I don’t believe she made anything resembling a valiant attempt on my behalf–and in purveying a haughty attitude about it, she wasn’t the one I resented. I resented Fresh Market. Perhaps she didn’t realize that everything she says and does while wearing her bakery duds and name tag represents the company. So how did she affect the store?

  1. Fresh Market lost a sale. They had the goods and I was willing to pay for them. A win-win turned into a lose-lose.
  2. Fresh Market ticked off a customer. I not only felt mistreated by the clerk by her annoyed demeanor and lack of concern, but I also felt as if I were being strong-armed into buying the filled cannoli. Which, by the way, I did not do.
  3. Other people heard of my dissatisfaction with Fresh Market. While I refrained from taking a scorched earth approach, I definitely shared my frustration with several of my friends. Negative word-of-mouth is not helpful to any business.
  4. Fresh Market lost future sales. Oh, I’ve shopped at Fresh Market several times since that day, but I have yet to pull out my wallet at the bakery case. I’ll get my sweet treats elsewhere for a bit longer.

Truthfully, I don’t really care about the cannoli shells (anymore), but I love the branding lesson here. It’s a great reminder that most often it isn’t the people in marketing who have the most impact on a brand–it’s the people talking to customers.

P.S. In case you’re wondering, I trashed the cannoli filling. The cultural fair got mini eclairs as my contribution, and my daughter got an A+ on her project.

Language lessons

Recently I worked on a side project that fell just a bit outside my realm of experience. It wasn’t that I hadn’t done similar things before; I just hadn’t done that particular thing. I viewed it as a surmountable challenge, and I dove in.

I made a few calls, asked a few questions, and got what I needed to move forward: the right words. You see, I knew what I needed to accomplish, but I didn’t know how to talk about it in a way that would make sense to the right people.

So I put myself out there and asked questions. I asked them until I could describe my subject in the vernacular of people in the know. The conversation to get there went something like this:

Me: Hi! I’m working on this project and I need to do XYZ. I also need a bit of an education.

Guy on the phone: Sure. Will you help me understand what you’re looking for?

*He asks as few specific questions, which I answer.*

Guy on the phone: Oh, you need [specific term].

Simple as that. Once I knew what to call my project, I was home free. My Google search results changed dramatically when I knew what to input. I found the right people to contact and could describe the project in their terms. Now I could get things done.

It’s funny how finding a simple key to a situation makes me giddy. And of course, I analyzed the heck out of it so I could boil it down to a couple of key lessons. First, don’t be afraid to ask questions–ask people who know and keep asking them till you get what you need. Second, speaking the right language gets results. When it comes down to it, words do matter.

Eye candy

EyesWhen I started cooking as a kid, I loved to try new recipes and even make up some of my own. I lived for the praise I hoped to get at the moment of truth, when I served my dish. I knew something wasn’t right when my stepmother would say, It has good flavor.

Now, those words may look innocent enough, but my first reaction was always to retort, But it looks like crap?

***

Years ago, I sometimes helped my former mother-in-law serve food when she catered large events. Although the food always tasted good, what really set it apart was its presentation. Sometimes I thought we spent as much time arranging each platter as my MIL had spent preparing it. (Did you know that a cheese tray looks terrific on a bed of red, curly lettuce? Or that there’s even such a thing as red, curly lettuce?)

I never minded helping her because her customers were always so profuse with their compliments.

***

When I lived in Germany, I tried hard to make sure I spoke using good grammar, but as a non-native speaker, I regularly made mistakes. What I did master was the accent. To this day, I have friends who tell me I speak perfectly, even as I stumble over an adjective ending. They just don’t hear it because the sound is right.

***

One of the toughest things to get used to in my job was formatting my work a certain way–even the drafts and the internal stuff. At first the requirement seemed like overkill, but eventually it sank in and became a habit. Now it comes almost naturally.

One day it all came together.

After reviewing some documents I had presented to a client, he remarked about how pleased he was with them–especially the format. I never get anything this well put together, he said. I expected to work on this, but I can share this with my colleagues just as you’ve given it to me. I am so impressed.

Time after time I am reminded that presentation is half the battle. If you make it look right, sound right, act right–whatever it is–people are more receptive to the content. The package is part of the experience, and people eat with their eyes first.

Balancing act

Balancing actSome time ago, a colleague introduced me to a quote that goes something like this:

Balance, dare I say it, is vastly overrated. In the end, you might want to consider the benefits of imbalance, and the achievements that come with pursuing a passion with a single-minded devotion. –Colin Cowherd

I chewed on it at the time, “getting” it but still somewhat skeptical. After all, single-minded devotion to, well, anything means the rest of the stuff in your life will suffer, right?  It seems to me that there’s a trade-off between being okay–or even pretty good–at a lot of things and being really, really great at just one. I’ve got a family, after all. Single-minded devotion seems like a luxury when there are so many demands on my time.

Then I went to a football game. As usual, my team’s performance was wildly inconsistent. We had a great first drive, then we fell apart for a big chunk of the game. The reason? We’re really good at passing (the focus of the first drive) and struggle a lot at running (subsequent play series). It was pretty frustrating to watch.

My uncle and seatmate is blessed with the ability to always look for the silver lining. When the outcome looked hopeless, he turned to me and said, I’m glad to see we are trying the run. We need a balanced offense.

Without thinking, I shot back, Who cares about balance?! I want to win!

Light bulb moment. I finally got it, skepticism discarded.

Figure out what you do well. Practice it. Hone it. Perfect it. Do it better than anyone else and own it.

There’s another part of that quote that sums it all up: And if that means they sacrifice balance along the way, they don’t care. They’ve found something more important: results.

Thankfully, my team figured that out. We eventually went back to the passing plays that we do best–and staged an amazing comeback to win the game. Results.