Saturday, November 30, 2013

"Drawing Warmth Out of the Cold"--Dar Williams

On the last day before I begin my Advent blogging in earnest, I will reflect on lights and warmth and the spirit that binds people together at this time of year.  Over the past several years, at this time of year, I have reflected on a song that I believe I first heard on WTMD—the Towson University radio station.  It is a song by Dar Williams called The Christians and the Pagans.  The song is a nice example of story telling about things that have the potential to draw us together even when they also have the potential (sometimes just as strong) to pull us apart.  The basic plot of the story that is told is that a woman and what I presume to be her partner from the way the story is told were celebrating solstice near the home of one woman’s uncle.  They call the uncle looking for a place to stay.  As the story unfolds the pagan traditions of celebrating solstice are shown to be not so different in spirit from the Christian traditions around the holidays.  And the feeling of love and family that comes from this gathering of individuals is projected onto other family relations.

I am someone who just likes to see people get along (although I won’t quote Rodney King here).  I am someone with the conviction of my personal beliefs; however, I am usually unwilling and uninterested in imposing on others.  I like to think that when all is said and done most of what different cultures and religions believe is not interchangeable by any means but comes from a common sense of humanity that can be shared rather than driving divisions between us.  So, the song speaks to me.

At this season of the year, this type of theme makes me think of the Festival of Lights at the Waldorf School of Baltimore.  The festival does not celebrate pagan traditions—except to the degree that a basic human motivation is to enjoy light in what is otherwise a time of darkness as the shortest day of the year approaches.  The Festival does not celebrate the pagan traditions directly but celebrates Chanukah, Advent, and Kwanzaa.  All of those festivals involve bringing light.  All the festivals focus (as in the song by Dar Williams) on making sense of history. The common theme is clear.  The music that comes with each of them is generally music of joy and rejoicing that there is hope where there might otherwise be despair. 

The song by Dar Williams ends with the phrase “drawing warmth out of the cold.”  This goes along with hope when there might otherwise be despair, and this line has so many meanings as I read it in the lyrics online and listen to the song.

First, it could mean the warmth of being in the light. Warmth in this case being a feeling of protection.  Being able to find my way when I am lost.  A sense of security. 

Second, following on the first, it follows that light comes from fire on the candles.  Fire on the candles is a small version of the fire that keeps me warm.  Fire can be a bon fire.  Fire can be in a fireplace.  Fire can even be natural gas being burned in a heater to make me warm at home. 

Third, it could mean the warm feelings that come from being part of a family or community that celebrates the Advent or Chanukah tradition (or even a pagan tradition) together.  The feeling of being part of a group.  The feeling of being surrounded by those who share the tradition.  Who share the values.

Fourth, it can be running at this time of year.  I know this is on a non-religious tangent.  But, running at sunrise in December is certainly a situation in which I am surrounded by people whose values I share (when it comes to running) and in the cold seeking warmth.  The celebration is of nature even when it is cold.  On the NCR trail, even with the temperature being just at 20F, the stream was running with the sound of the water running over the rocks being just audible.  The annual trees are bare and seeing the light of the sun rise and shine through the trees is beautiful.  The animals are out early in the morning and a runner or group of runners can see squirrel, rabbits, deer, and others.  Quiet on the trail brings its own beauty.  The warmth also comes from the sharing of values, the seeking of excellence, the attainment of goals—the number of miles, the speed, etc.  Just doing.  Most of the celebration described here may be linked to what some consider to be “God-given” talents or gifts from God including fitness, health, and speed.  But the celebrations of nature, silence, the noises of nature, trees, etc., could be just as much pagan celebrations and reasons for a spiritual warmth as Christian tradition or any other religion.

Fifth, drawing warmth out of the cold can reflect what happens when we bake and share the still warm baked goods.  The oven warms the home.  The food warms the body.  The sharing of food (specific to Chanukah like latkes) or otherwise, warms the soul.

Sixth, it could mean coming together over wine or anything else in this time of cold and dark.  Just coming together with a common bond wanting to enjoy and share. 

I’m sure if I spent the time, I could think of other things that drawing warmth out of the cold represents at this time of year.  In some cases a physical warmth.  In some cases a spiritual warmth.  In all cases, things that make people feel safe and secure and bind them together into a whole that is greater than the sum of the parts—no matter what the world view, motivation, or tradition that results in being bound together. 

Friday, November 29, 2013


When I talked about all that I am grateful for  yesterday, I realize that I am grateful for an abundance of things.  And, as importantly, the things for which I am grateful I tend to have an abundance of.

My life is characterized by a great deal of abundance.

This, of course, is not a bad thing. 

In fact, abundance, is a pretty good thing to have a lot of.

Except when it is ideas and I am not a person who stays completely focused all the time.  In fact, my graduate school advisor warned me as I was preparing to leave Michigan that the only problem I would have is having too many ideas.  

Well, I never worked in a single research area for a very long time.

I have lots of different ideas about what might make the programs at the business school work better.  Although that over-abundance of ideas is tamed in a different way than having too many research ideas is tamed since I have a boss who asks for reports on progress on a regular basis.

I love lots of foods.  And I love to eat lots of it.  And I have the blessing of having access to a lot, a lot of the time.

I have lots of friends.  I have a smaller number of close friends.  Having both an abundance of friends and close friends with an abundance of caring is an incredible blessing.

My kids take part in an abundance of activities.

I run an abundance of miles.  

I have had an abundance of fun and celebrated an abundance of positive experiences with Sherry over the years.

There is an abundance of places to run nearby--nature and otherwise.

One thing that I don't feel there is an abundance of is time--although the fact that I can carve out time to write suggests that there is plenty of time as long as I structure it right.

Another thing that I don't always feel I have an abundance of is silence.  But I do find time to think.  Sometimes driving--not exactly silent.  Sometimes running--near silent, sometimes just the rhythmic tapping of feet.

I sometimes feel like I could use a greater abundance of naps--or sleep in general.  Then, I wouldn't doze during the day.

And I don't have an abundance of tattoos.  Just one large one--I suppose it covers an abundant area of my skin

But as I think about the symbols and the stories that mean a lot to me moving forward, I would have to say that stories of abundance.  Having abundance.  Experiencing abundance.  Enjoying abundance.  Sharing abundance.  And not worrying about the things that are not abundant any more than absolutely necessary.   Those are the stories that I hold close to my heart. Those are the stories I want to share.  Those are the types of stories that I hope to help others to make come true for themselves.  

And that is why if I ever get another tattoo the cornucopia will be a central feature of the tattoo.     

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Thanks--30 Days in 1

Many of my friends have been participating in 30 Days of Gratitude in the month in which the United States celebrates Thanksgiving.  I decided not to at the beginning of the month as I was not sure that I could maintain participation.  However, with a little bit of extra time on this Thanksgiving day, I figured I would put in all 30 days at once.  So that this entry does not go on forever, I will write just a few sentences about each thing I am thankful for.  

1-Sherry...from some "chance" meetings in the dining hall in East Halls when she ate dinner at a crazy early time because she was working some evenings and I ate dinner at a crazy early time because I was just hungry to 21 years, 5 months, and now 8 days of marriage, I have an enormous amount to be thankful for.

2-Chance meetings...chance meetings back in college were not always as random and chance as they may have appeared, but chance meetings in general are fun.  And when they happen with family and good friends, they bring a smile to my face that is worth an enormous amount.

3-Randomness...chance meetings are just one reflection of randomness in life.  Serendipity.  Things happen by chance in a way that turns out to lead to wonderful new opportunities and insights into life.  Sometimes the randomness can be a curse, but more often than not in my life it has been a blessing. way to keep a marriage going is to live in a community of good friends who listen, who are willing to be straight with me when things are not going well, who share their burdens with me, who share my goal of a lasting marriage for me, and with whom I can laugh.  Of course, all these things need to go for me and Sherry as well, but having close friends you can turn to for advice is a great way to help to keep things going.

5-Serenity prayer...this is another aspect of keeping a good marriage going.  To realize that there are some things that cannot change.  To truly have the courage to change the things I can.  And to have (and pray to God for) the wisdom to know which is which.

6-My sons...having mentioned my thanks for Sherry and the community of close adult friends, I have to reflect on the fact that Sherry and I have raised three pretty incredible boys.  We'll never know what would have become of the two other pregnancies but the lives we were lucky enough to bring here to live independently on Earth have turned into pretty amazing people.

7-Extended family...this completes the circuit on family.  I have so many incredible people in my family doing interesting things in interesting places, and yet much of the family is still in the same area where I grew up making it relatively easy to get together when we can all find the time.

8-Time...mentioned at the end of #7 and something that is incredibly precious because so many people seem so pressed for it.  I am thankful that I have the time to think about the deeper meaning of things in life (even if Sherry and others sometimes wish I would focus on more basic things.)

9-Long many of life's finer points just take time to sort through.  Long conversations with one other person or with a group who can focus and give their full attention to an issue are always gifts.

10-Naps...another thing that time can be used for is naps.  Recuperative.  Regenerative.  Resting.  Just time to let the body heal or catch up.  Naps are a very good thing. thing that time can be used to measure is performance in races. I love races as they let me measure progress, performance, and my sense of value.  Of course, not all value is in my races.  There is value in my being a good husband, father, friend, family member, coworker, and manager.  And while time is not the only measure or even the most important measure for all the things from which I draw value, it is a sign of trying to measure up in all things in life. 

12-Sports...races are just one of many sports.  Sports are a key activity for one of my sons.  And a second has certainly tried his share.  They are such a nice way to learn so many of life's lessons about striving, focus, and accomplishment.

13-Teamwork...from sports I go to teamwork.  My sons who are either only a little into sports or not at all certainly have their share of teamwork activities (singing in choir and playing in orchestras or other music-based groups).  I have been lucky enough to be a part of many teams, too.

14-Music...I mentioned two sons' interests in music.  The third is interested as well, and it has been something that has brought my immediate family together (and extended family and friends together) in many ways over time.  My own musical ambitions and interests have always been sidetracked as it has never been the most important thing for me, but I do love to listen and play the best I can when I can. a particular type of music that I enjoy listening too in person when played well.  I particularly enjoy one aspect of jazz--improvisation.  So much of life is about making things up as I go along no matter how much I might want to lead a planned life.  Just taking it all in has worked wonders for me.

16-Storytelling...some of this is reading to others, which I have done for all three boys and found it extremely rewarding.  Some of this is why music is so interesting as it can be used to tell a story either with or without lyrics.  And some of this is what makes my work life go--telling stories as illustrative anecdotes or telling stories to sell ideas.  All of it involves sharing ideas me, these are a form of storytelling.  One that I can work with an artist to express in a picture. And a story so precious to me that I want to take it with me forever.

18-The NCR trail...while I have mentioned running and randomness, this ties together running with good friends and long conversations and just wanting a sense of certainty about something in life rather than randomness.  I have joked with fellow runners that for very long races on the trail the best and worst thing about the trail is that you pretty much always know what is coming.  Very little (but some) slope.  Rather straight.  A place to go when I want to run but not think about running and just lose myself in thought.

19-The Y...while I am not always a fan of the treadmill, to have a place I can go to exercise when the weather is inclement, or a place I can go for non-running exercise, where I can bring the family, and where I feel like the person at the front desk knows me and cares about why I come is a pretty nice thing to have.

20-St. Pius X...I grew up in a parish where my main exposure was going to mass each week and to CCD.  I know my dad participated in the archdiocesan appeal and we had baseball sign-up there.  I didn't feel involved at any deeper level.  For 17+ years now, St. Pius has provided me and Sherry and our sons with a place to become involved in so many interesting ways to meet so many interesting people.

21-Bread...something I love to bake.  Kneading is therapeutic.  Fruit and vegetable breads have a wonderful flavor.  Biscuits are wonderful for working the butter or shortening in. And bread something that I would love to have represented in a second tattoo if I ever get one.

22-Wine...this goes back to family and friends and long conversations and bread.  Good food and good beverages do so much to enrich the ambiance and promote good conversation.

23-Cold...goes back to my running and should be clarified as cold but not too cold.  A moderately cold day with a clear blue sky at sunrise (perhaps over Druid Hill lake) is a great experience for running.  It helps to clear the mind as I don't have to worry about dehydration so much.

24-Teaching...goes along with storytelling.  But teaching has become more than just a career for me.  It has been something that I think about in terms of how to do it well in my leadership position.  It has become something that I focus an incredible amount of my energy on.  It even extends to St. Pius X as I have taught Sunday school for a decade. has brought me together with some very interesting people and made it so easy to get answers to questions to satisfy my curiosity that goes along with the storytelling and teaching.

26-Books...I love to read about ideas that people have found a way to string together in an extended format and to really explore ideas.  In addition to long conversations and telling stories of my own it is great to read what other people have thought and the ideas and themes they have explored.

27-Back on My Feet...while there are many aspects of running and I don't get to run with Back on My Feet as often as I would like any more, the number of stories and long conversations that came out of my participation in this organization is amazing.  Both resident and community members alike have amazing stories to tell.  And both symbolize hope.

28-Home...our house is not as big as we'd like.  Our house is not as neat as we'd like.  And our house has more issues than we'd like.  But it is the place we call home.  It is the place we come together to talk, to eat, to cook, to work, and to share.  And it is ours.  And it is home.  For me it is the home I have lived in longer than any other.  The only other place I really thought of as home was where I lived from 5th grade until I graduated from high school.  This home in Baltimore is the only home my boys have ever known. be out in it is just amazing.  And for me any question of whether there is a God was answered by seeing some of the sights of natural beauty.  While it is just a matter of faith my mind could not wrap itself around the idea that some of the natural wonders of the world arose completely at random.  Of course, other parts of nature may make me question the judgment of whatever God there may be, but nature is amazing.

30-Silence...this goes along with time, the NCR trail, running, St. Pius X, and many other items on my list.  Sometimes silence is all I need.  Silence to think. Silence to test how comfortable two people or a group are.  Silence just to experience the world as it is.  To watch.  To observe.  To take it in.  And to use what I learn in the silence to become better.

Reading through, I find that even my gratitudes are woven together to connect dots and tell a story.  I can't escape the desire to see things in a way that brings them together and closes a loop in my mind.  And those who read the whole thing will have a pretty good idea of what makes me tick.  

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

The Spirituality of Advent

In the past several years, I have made it a habit of writing groups of blog entries.  I have experienced two years of trying to blog every day during the Christian season of Lent--using it as a time of preparation for my own soul for something new and a time of reflection.

After running the Boston marathon this year and being too close for comfort to the explosive events of the day and thinking that I might have been on the train with one of the suspects, I wrote 26 healing essays.

Starting on September 1 and leading up to the Baltimore running festival I posted the 40 Days to Better.  Ending with a reflection on how if I could improve my faith, fitness, and function that would line up nicely with family needs and lead to a better outcome.  And that a person who had called on me to become better professionally and facilitated that development had also helped me to see ways to be better as a person in general--particularly with respect to family.

So, as we enter another season of preparation, this time Advent, I am going to blog about four themes.  I have debated which for themes.  One website just talks about how the three traditionally purple candles represent penance, the whole season represents waiting, the pink candle of week three represents joy, and we are waiting on a Savior.  Another site lists the candles as being of hope, preparation, joy, and love.  I definitely like the idea behind the second one a little better.  

So, as we enter a season this Sunday in which I try to appreciate the spiritual enormity of Isaiah 9:2, "The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light: they that dwelt in the land of the shadow of death, upon them hath the light shined" I will write each week (or part of a week in the case of love) about a topic and after reflecting for 24 days see where my heart and soul have ended up. It will be an interesting journey.  

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Mother Nature's Prank

This morning I was preparing to go to the Dunbar track for a workout at approximately 4:55.  As I put on my contact lens, got dressed warmly, and raced out the door to try to avoid being late, I noticed that it seemed to be sleeting.  As I quickly sat in the driver's seat of my car, I noticed that I had somehow missed a call from one of the two people with whom I was supposed to run.  As I quickly called my training partner back (I don't usually call people at 5 AM), the sleet continued.  We decided that since we did not know how long it would continue, we would call off our workout. 

As I checked on how much more to expect, I noticed that the local online weather indicated "light ice pellets".  That term surprised me, so I posted about it on Facebook.  Much to my surprise, the post ended up with more than a dozen comments about the difference between sleet and ice pelled.  My one friend who is a trained meteorologist commented that the term ice pellet was more accepted internationally.  So I joked that just like The Artist Formerly Known as Prince (see the symbol to the right), I could call the weather The Precipitation Formerly Known as Sleet.  Clever, perhaps.  But some friends claims their local weather coverage said there was still a difference.  

More importantly, as I returned to the warm interior of my house, it gave me a chance to rethink my priorities for the morning.  Yes, I would have loved to do a track workout.  We had planned 800 meter intervals and I would likely have done six or more at a very quick pace.  But instead, I began by making semolina flour pizza dough.  It ended up making a decent dinner, but my eight year old is rarely sufficiently patient to get the best pizza out of a dough.

Then, I took my dog for a relatively long walk.  She was incredibly happy.  That made me happy as well.

Next, I did run.  Just 3.1 miles at an easy pace.  But that was what I needed.  No pressure.  No hype.  Just a relaxing opportunity to use my legs and get the heart going a little.

Then, I went to the grocery store.  And eventually, I did make it to work on time and had a good day at work.

So, my friends and I decided not to take a risk and instead of getting a great workout and feeling incredibly pressured otherwise, I got a good workout and had an opportunity to take care of some other quite important things.

That is a good lesson to learn--sometimes a change in plans creates new opportunities.  Each change should be taken not as inherently a setback but as an opportunity to take another path that may turn out to be even better.  

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Dr. Seuss & Connecting the Dots

This week, Dr. Seuss has come up twice in my life.  First, when I was teaching a graduate health economics course to students interested in medical services management, I mentioned the Lorax when talking about externalities.  It was not the first time I had done this.  For this particular class of students--yes.  But it is something I have used before.

More interestingly, last night I was reading The 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins to my eight year old.  In all the times I had read this story before (although this is probably one of the Seuss stories I have read the least in 17+ years of being a parent), I had failed to note what Bartholomew was carrying into town when the King's caravan passed him.  He was carrying cranberries.

Perhaps I never noticed before because I have not read the book in the late fall when fresh cranberries are most typically available in the mid-Atlatnic states with my family buying a LOT of them.

We have already made between 4 and 6 recipes of cranberry sauce and plan to make more.

So, if Bartholomew were around today I could have done business with him--sort of.

If he were around today, the easiest way I could have done business with him would be if he brought his berries to a farmer's market and I actually managed to make it there.  While I don't often get to the farmer's markets in Baltimore city, I do like doing business this way.  It keeps the money local.  I feel confident that the person who is selling me the item truly cares about the work and the produce.  And, if I manage to return enough times, I get to know the person.

This is just like other local business interaction.  

And it is good.

The rest of the story has nothing to do with cranberries, although it would be fascinating to know what possessed Seuss to write that into the story.

Regardless, the fact that a type of fruit so near and dear to me at this time of year was in a book I read to my eight year old made a big impression--connecting the dots and nourishing the soul.  Always thinking of how things fit together and why and how I can take that set of ideas and make it into something bigger to help me understand the world.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

A 19:10 5K Translated into a Bible Verse--Ecclesiastes 1:9-10

So, my last entry of something truly new was the entry regarding self-actualization where I talked about playing my bass versus running and academics and teaching Sunday school, etc. 

What is interesting is that at my recent 5K (on November 9), I ran a 19:10.  I had not run that fast since high school.  Great.  I had not yet taken the time to write about it in terms of a Bible verse.  What I stumbled on was Ecclesiastes, chapter 1, verses 9 and 10.  Here is the text from the US Conference of Catholic Bishops website:

What has been, that will be; what has been done, that will be done. Nothing is new under the sun!
Even the thing of which we say, “See, this is new!” has already existed in the ages that preceded us.
This seemed like a particularly apt set of verses given my recent thinking about self-actualization.  "What has been, that will be" and "what has been done, that will be done."  I am making choices that are similar (practically identical) to choices I made 27 years ago.  Even the statement "Nothing is new under the sun!"  I have always been a person who tries to cram in too much.  Who tries to make myself too busy.  Who does not focus.  I am learning now to get focused.  I am learning to be more careful with what I commit to.  Am I perfect?  No way.  But with my new job, eight months in, I am definitely moving in the right direction.

I'm not even sure I would say "See, this is new!"  The choice existed before.  And I will probably face another choice some time in the future in which I have to think about how to cut some things short and focus on others.  

What was also interesting in this situation, was that I ended up sharing this situation with my oldest son's girlfriend.  She asked me what had brought me to the electric bass.  I shared with her the story.  Learned a little guitar when Christopher started.  Never got all that good.  Wanted to do something along with Christopher when he started in the worship band at church.  Couldn't keep up on guitar.  They needed a bass player.  And the rest was history.

But I also shared with her that I had to make a conscious choice that involved giving it up.  And that this was the second time in my life that I gave up something musical.  And that gave me a chance to excel at the other things on which I chose to focus.  

In contrast, she and my son had chosen music at every opportunity.  And it has taken them and hopefully will continue to take them far.

God gives us choices.  We have free will.  We have to make the choices to give God glory.  I feel I am making the right ones.  It is amazing how I have to learn and relearn the same lessons.  But it gives me hope that I can share with others.  Maybe I'm not the only one who looks at a verse likes this and reflects on how many times I have had to relearn the same things.  What that says about me.  And how I will take that reflection into the future.  

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

More aggregated writings

Here is the aggregation of my post-Boston Marathon writings.  Again, just putting stuff up at this point.  

Monday, November 11, 2013

Aggregated Writings

Here is a link to how I assembled the work I did from early September to mid-October in a book format for "40 Days to Better".  I know that many who read the blog read each entry.  But seeing it all in one piece may be interesting.  


Yesterday (Sunday, November 10) I had a wonderful day that included a run with a training partner with whom I had not run in three months, teaching about the Beatitudes, preparing a homemade stromboli, and mass.  All four of these are part of what I think about when I consider Maslow's triangle--ranging from shelter, safety, and food up to self-actualization.

In particular, I was thinking about the issue of self-actualization during mass.  The worship band that I played with off and on for seven years, is now down to about seven people--two guitars, a drummer, a piano player, and three singers.  One of the singers does extra percussion sometimes.  And all but the drummer sing.  Still, the group sometimes jokes that it is now "20 More Days" rather than "40 More Days" since it is about half the size it used to be.

As I was singing along with the band as part of the congregation, I was considering whether I miss playing my bass.   I decided that there was really no question.  I do miss playing my bass.  But I also asked, what would I miss more?

Would I miss playing my bass more than teaching Sunday School?  No.

Would I miss playing my bass more than all the baking I do?  No.

Would I miss playing my bass more than running?  No.

On the running issue, yesterday was a particularly good day for running.  I was out on the NCR trail.  The trail was soft and somewhat soggy in places.  The running was soft on the knees and muscles and other joints.  We ran an 8 minute mile pace--a very comfortable pace compared to most of the training we had every done together.  There were colorful fallen leaves on the trail.  I met my training partner just as the sun was rising.  It was a beautiful morning. 

All three of baking, running, and teaching are more important to me than bass playing.  I had to give up something, so I gave up playing bass in the worship band.

Maybe I will return to playing bass at some point.  Maybe just for fun.  Maybe for a worship band again.

Or maybe I will finally learn to play the mandolin.

I guess it is a "first world problem" to have to choose which of several things that could all be important for self-actualization are the ones I will choose to continue and the ones I will choose to give up.

I have only ever commented that running is what I do to reach the top of Maslow's triangle--particularly contrasting it with running for basic safety and food.

As I think about my choice, baking is something that was traditionally for the lowest level of Maslow's triangle.  I am now doing it as part of my self-actualziation as well.  I find myself feeling a sense of fulfillment with my baking.

I also think that I achieve fulfillment in my teaching.  Being involved in the educational process is what I was meant to do in my career and in my work with the church.

It is so interesting to think about how all the pieces of life fit together and what brings fulfillment and what does not.  And what brings more and what brings less.  And how I have made choices and how I will continue to make choices.  It reminds me of the verses in Ecclesiastes about a time for things and a time not for things.  I have determined it is not the time for music.  It continues to be the time for other sings.

So it goes.   

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Being Pleasant

I find myself wanting to share some fairly simple things recently.  In particular, today I am going to share a few thoughts on being pleasant.  It pays off in so many ways that I don't even expect it to sometimes.

First, I am a frequent customer at the local grocery store early in the morning.  Often after a run.  Often still sweaty.  Often looking a mess.  But I always have a conversation with the cashier.  There is one rather dour cashier who is always talkative and pleasant in conversation but never terribly happy looking.  Yet the other day when it happened to make more sense to go to the other cashier (they actually had two on duty very early) the cashier I most often interact with made sure to say hello and wish me a good day.  My pleasantness to her on all the other days came back to me by her taking a moment out to specifically wish me a good day even when she didn't have to.  That was pretty cool and made me feel like my efforts to be pleasant were appreciated.

That same morning, I went to the service desk to ask if the store had cards for the local public transportation system.  These are cards that allow a person to not carry cash but to put a certain amount of money on the card to spend.  My 14 year old needs one.  The person at the customer service desk just past 7 AM looked busy and I was not even sure if the service desk was open.  So I began with, "I'm sorry to bother you this early and I'm not even sure if the desk is open yet but could I ask just a quick question."  She gave a smile and a pleasant answer (unfortunately she didn't have any of the cards) and even told me about how she had been to several other stores in the chain that also did not have the cards but that she could call for me.  I told her I could take care of it, but I was again happy with how my pleasantness turned into pleasantness in return.

Then, I had two situations with colleagues.  One was in a meeting in which there is often an adversarial relationship with a particular group.  However, when I started by telling my colleagues, I need their help and their input, they were gracious and offered exactly what I needed.  That made things easy.  Several colleagues were surprised by how helpful these other colleagues were.  I find that sometimes it is all a matter of context as well as how the situation is approached.  If we can leave past issues behind and just focus on how I need help now people are willing to be pleasant in return.

Finally, a new group is now part of my office.  I had a chance to meet with the group and surprised them by not sounding like a politics driven bureaucrat.  I hope I never sound that way, but I may.  In any case, it was just about telling them "here is where I come from and I know you all have skills and information that can help me to do my job and achieve my goals."  That made them feel appreciated and they did the same for me in return.  

Lesson learned from four situations in one week--being pleasant pays dividends.  I hope I never lose this outlook on life.   

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Speaking (or Not Speaking) as Necessary

In my role in leadership in an academic institution, one thing I have learned is that there are certain times to say things and certain times not to say things.  And both can be very important.  Going one step further, what to say is also quite critical.  I have had several poignant examples in the past week.

First, last Thursday I was asked to attend presentations by some of our students.  The presentations were made by students in the second year of their academic programs.  The audience was first year students and anyone else interested in hearing about interesting summer internships that crossed between public health and business.  On the day of the presentations, I was asked to give some closing remarks.  The students actually made it very easy on me.  Nearly every student who mentioned a specific course mentioned "Decision Models."  It was one of the least loved but most often mentioned courses.  The other point nearly everyone mentioned was networking.  Putting these two together and wrapping it in a set of comments where I was enthusiastic and expressed enthusiasm for the program and for the students' accomplishments made my commentary much appreciated and positively commented on.  This was actually a great example of a combination of listening and speaking, taking just enough time to make a point, and giving a clear message that added value for the school I represent in the partnership in which these students are involved.

Second, earlier this week, I sent an email that a staff member interpreted (based on the email response) as being directed at one person.  In fact, the email that I sent was really directed at everyone on the email--four people including myself.  It was a little reminder that sometimes we need to include everyone who has a stake in the decision sooner rather than later--while recognizing that everyone hates getting too many potentially unnecessary emails.  In any case, when I noted just how much she seemed to be defending herself, I sent a return message making clear that I didn't intend to single her out and that I actually appreciated her efforts at acting as a bridge between offices and helping to "keep the trains running on time" as my boss likes to say.  She pointed out that the comment was a breath of fresh air and that she was surprised I would take the time to write such a note.  People who do good work deserve to be recognized.  Giving that recognition when it is due gives me a lot of room to call on a person's help later and just develops a better sense of "we are all in this together" as we go along.

Third, I saw an example of when not to say something.  Colleague A brought information about Colleague B that Colleague B had not intended for general consumption.  When Colleague B was told by Colleague A that I knew, Colleague B sent off an email to make sure that I did not share it.  Colleague B had shared other things with me before, so I reassured Colleague B that it would go no further.  In fact, I had spoken with Colleague B even before the email exchange and did not mention what I knew.  Discretion in what to say and when is just as important as saying good things and important things at the right times.  And the trust that I have developed and work hard to keep is one of the most important assets I have moving forward.  If I ever betray that trust, I will go down in flames quickly.

Important lessons.  So many in just a week.  Lots to continue to learn as I move ahead.