Sunday, August 30, 2009

Things Left Unsaid

Well, I'm wrapping up Pres. Obama's book on the Audacity of Hope. I won't provide a summary on these pages. Wiki it or google it or something. But I warn you in advance that no summary can do the book justice. If you really want to know what is driving Pres. Obama's reforms in the United States, read the whole book. All of it.

A chief joy of the book is that none of the raging controversies are ignored or glossed over. Pres. Obama covers race, poverty, abortion, and religion among others. He speaks plainly where our society has failed - sometimes miserably. Don't think that Canada is immune. Very often where Americans go, we blithely follow. For instance, we may take comfort that we hadn't the slavery problem. But don't tell me we don't have an unstated class structure that leaves our Native population neglected and at times disdained. It sure is painful to see those failings in print. Thankfully we are not left there. The next critical step is to talk about where we can all agree to address these issues.

Agreement doesn't make good press, but if these critical issues are to be addressed, all sides of the ideological debate must start talking about our common ground.

This bold statement of the problem is something I am missing from my management style. I inherited it honorably. I am likely the third generation to be raised on the strict Methodist code of rule by silence. After all, the offender should know what they have done wrong. As a corrolory, why waste breath on praise? They should know that, too.

I've learned to praise publicly and often. Not only for others but for myself too. Hang the upbringing, I am motivated by praise. Everyone else is too. But it is still so very hard for me to tell an employee their obvious failing. There are people who have so obvious a defect it prevents them from moving on. My inner voice claims that they must know, or else they are so self-deceived they would deny it to my face anyways. But by not saying anything, am I condemning them without any opportunity for reform?

This is not the coaching way.

I am reminded all over again while re-reading Pike Place Fish's "Catch!" with my staff. These are fishmongers; rough and ready dudes. They respect each other enough to coach to greatness; every one of the guys. Why would I respect my own staff any less?

So in conclusion, silence is not an option. Say the tough things, in kindness. Say it with the intent to change. Say it knowing that by bringing problems in to the open might mean I must change too.

This is the way to change my office and help all my staff to greatness. This is also the way to turn a country and a world around.

Friday, August 28, 2009


I come from frugal parents, who were raised by my frugal grandparents who lived through the depression, who came from frugal Scottish immigrants. Did you know that copper wire was discovered by two Scotsmen? They were fighting over a penny. BADUMP BUMP.

I follow up to say it wasn't the penny that was important, but the principle of the thing. In our family, we live and would willingly die for our principles. Which can come across as noble or very, very stupid.

Only very recently have I been able to give away anything that works perfectly well but I just don't want it any more. Even harder is to allow myself to buy a new one while the old still lives. Two examples come to mind.

When I had a lot less money than I do now and raising two children on my own, I had an iron that I hated. I hated it when I got it and I hated it worse as the months went by. I can't explain fully why I hated it so bad but it was butt-ugly. But it worked. I let it "fall" more than once in the faint hope that it would descend in to irredemable disrepair, but it turned out to be a very sturdy butt-ugly iron. I had that old thing for years before a final smack on the cement floor demolished any hope of useful life. I had so much fun shopping for a new iron, and that new silly thing gave me so much pleasure.

The second example was a much-loved slow cooker. Now it was probably butt-ugly too, but it was reliable and it made great meals. Slow cookers are a working woman's best friend. But like any well-used appliance, it did begin to show it's age. It had hardened grease stains down it's side. It was that ubiquitous almond color that appliances from the eighties thought was "neutral".

When I was refreshing my kitchen, I decided to spray paint the cabinet handles rather than buying new. A single handle isn't that expensive, but then add them all up. You can't imagine how many cabinet handles you can squeeze in to a little kitchen. Lots of cabinet handles, big expense to replace. So I got an "old leather" spray paint kit and re-did all the handles. The results are charming, if I do say myself. But then the ghosts of grandparents past kicked in, and I thought, why stop there? There's plenty of paint left. That morning I also re-covered our wood-grain microwave (we still have it) and that butt-ugly slow cooker.

Hubby got up and saw our appliances out on the lawn and looking....different. What had I done? The microwave is not so bad, but the slow cooker never did look the same. It's tough to imitate the manufacturer's edge between painted steel and liner. It's going to look home-made. Home-made appliances don't inspire confidence.

We bought a new slow cooker within the month, while the old still lived. I covered over it's dial as I gently removed it from my home, so it did not have to see it's replacement. A good old appliance deserves some dignity.
I borrow the appliance picture from Donnaz Chaos' blog. Thank you, Donna.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Obama and my Day Job

I am now halfway through Pres. Obama's book, "The Audacity of Hope". This is one of the few books I am compelled to mark. Here's one paragraph where he talks about the potential for electronic forms management can dramatically reduce administration costs. He speaks of it's use for health care, but it's application holds true for nearly every other way that government collects information.

"To further drive down costs, we would require that insurers and providers who participate in Medicare, Medicaid, or the new health plans have electronic claims, electronic records, and up-to-date patient error reporting systems - all of which would dramatically cut down on administrative costs, and the number of medical errors and adverse events.... This simple step alone could cut overall health-care costs by up to 10 percent, with some experts pointing to even greater savings."

Amen and amen. If you don't create the paper in the first place, you don't have to worry about how to manage it. There are physical realities with paper besides the environmental impact; it takes up space. Someone has to physically move it. And there will never, never be instant retrieval. Electronic file management takes care of all these issues. I find over time also that people are impatient with the space, movement, and time it takes to take care of paper filing. Why? Because we are quickly adapting to the electronic world and the conveniences it offers.

Why isn't there a greater adoption across the board for these e-forms? There are a few remaining policy issues that have to be dealt with, especially around signatures. This can be worked out, though. The biggest resistance, I believe, is from the paper pushers themselves. To implement an electronic forms forces us to review our business practices. Inefficiencies and redundancies will be exposed. We're starting to shave very close to home here; we can threaten jobs that may very well become obsolete.

The e-forms team may receive confusing and conflicting information, long lists of exceptions, and unusual reasons why an electronic form won't work in their circumstance. A true danger for the developer is that an apparently straightforward process is quickly mired by exceptions. The process for form completion and submission suddenly becomes complex.

Take a step back.

Was the original paper form ever so complicated?

Design for the rule, rather than the exception.

Before implementation, do testing with the end users of the form. Make sure in the process of e-information collection, you create something simple and useable for the client.

At the same time, the underlying fears of the administrators of this information (the former paper pushers) must be addressed. Are they working in a culture of trust, where they are reassured that their employer is concerned about their employment future, and is willing to retrain to new tasks? Addressing the fears directly can go a long way in reducing complications.

In the end, it's not technology that's the issue. This is a human problem, and we need to deal with the issues humanely. It's working with people, allaying their fears, and empowering them to believe in a hopeful future.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

My 100'th post, on habits

Do you think I've successfully made blogging a habit? I do believe so. There's a part of my nature that just quits..when something gets too boring, or the appreciation is just not there any more. I can tell myself to go on, but something inside my soul just digs in and refuses to budge. Perhaps it is my subconscious telling me to move on. On top of that I then get a little voice inside my head whispering, "quitter". The drive to avoid failure is so much less motivating than the drive to excellence. Think of the difference between a mule being driven by a stick and the same mule being tempted by a carrot.

I do hope I won't quit blogging. Writing is a drive deep in my soul. My instincts tell me to keep doing it, audience or not, as joyful work always pays off.

Anyways, my intent was to talk about habits today. I've thought long and hard about this; both good and bad habits. There's eating habits for instance; those that will help me be fitter and lose weight, and habits that will slowly kill. (I am diabetic). Why is it so hard to turn around old habits around food, and why do we turn it in to such a drama of abstension and a symbol of discipline (or lack thereof)?

I am reminded of a story dad told me of a surveyor was asking questions about nutrition and food habits. It became obvious that the author of the survey was seeking confirmation that improved education would improve society's food choices. Dad got mad, and asked to speak to the author. As he ranted to me afterwards, there is no lack of information in our society regarding nutrition. Food choices has to do with self-discipline.

Which led me to thinking (for years afterward), if self-discipline and choices is the problem, how do we teach self-discipline? Or, as I am pondering lately, maybe it is not a problem of self-discipine at all. Maybe we fight our basic nature when we turn around an old habit or start a new one.

What got me thinking along these lines is a proposed list of instincts in Stephen Pinker's book, "The Language Instinct", that may be hard wired in to every human being. The instincts of:

2. intuitive biology (understanding how plants and animals work)
4. Mental maps of large territories
7. Food: what is good to eat

These combined instincts gave me an image of prehistoric woman grazing along her habitual route, taking note of where food sources are, and checking them on a routine basis. As I've mentioned in the past few weeks, I've learned a bit about efficient grazing by watching the bee.

I note that if my body has become used to two pieces of toast for my breakfast, if I suddenly change that habit there is mild distress. Something is missing, and I become fiercly protective of my earned toast. Yet, if I am successful in transitioning to one piece of toast as the norm, I will feel overfull if I indulge in more.

The trick, it seems to me, is to avoid the whole abstention/indulgence cycle, which is too much like the ancient grazer's feast-and-famine, acknowledge our desire for routine, and slowly adjust our mind and body to new norms.

I am testing out another recommendation from a course instructor. He suggested a routine where days each week are dedicated to customer relationships, research, and so on. I was skeptical, as my week is a chaotic blend of meetings, working with employees, and pockets of sit-down time. Yet the new routine is working very well. My mind and body like routine. It is as if my body remembers that Thursday is sit-down day.

I discovered the same issues when I started working from home. My mind and body are geared to relax (thank God) the moment my toe hits the thresshold. How do I gear myself back in to work when I am sitting in my home office? I tricked myself back in to work by only taking materials home that I love to work on.

Now, of course, the problem is to switch myself "off" when I am at home.

I am using this same theory of routine to finish undone projects around home. I want to take up painting again. I want to blog. I want to remember my friends. Yet day after day goes by and these stated priorities remain undone. Blogging has been taken up again because I have successfully added "writing" to my lonely morning routine. Now I've designated days of the week to call friends and to paint. I've successfully called up two friends in the past month and reconnected, and it feels great.

As I've learned from Covey's book on the seven habits, how effective are we as human beings if we put off those activities that really matter? Adding these new routines is helping. Now, to add exercise to my daily routine.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Growing Gardens and Family

My little family had raucous, rollicking time last night and it was all over a bottle of hair colour. Hubby takes a lot of teasing over his hair. He's hiding the grey and everyone knows it. Me, I was ready to rid myself of the blonde so I offered to help him use up the leftovers. Horrified, he let me know on no uncertain terms that he was not helping me.

So my daughter came over to help.

In between it all, I took a call from my girlfriend in Grande Prairie, and my granddaughter Naomi popped in and out to help. Hubby was not too pleased with the results. Grey still shows at his temples. Naomi laughed at his garbage bag shirt, making him ever more self-conscious. For a few brief moments, my daughter and I feared my hair had a green tinge, but that thankfully did not last.

As we were rinsing and conditioning, my bathroom became a madhouse. It was never fit to carry three adults and a curious grandchild.

Rich relationships are built in the nooks and crannies of our day. More than hair-coloring was going on last night. It is too easy to let the memories slip away.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Visiting Dad

I followed up on a personal vow to spend some time with my dad before the H1N1 hits. Call it morbid, but a virus like that is just the thing that could take him out. I want to be sure I have some time with him, to hear him talk about things, to let him know the profound impact he's had in my life. Before he's taken away.

As usual, the conversation was a lot lighter than I planned. It comes a lot harder to say, "Your integrity, your example, shaped me who I am. Thank you." So we talked about family and work. Dad was suitably horrified when he found out how much I spend on my energy efficient furnace. The big difference from past conversations, I think, is that I am not devastated by his assessment. I laugh. I am allowed my foolishness. Without the lenses of insecurity, I see his concern and comments as a sign care and concern rather than judgement.

Dawn and dad have been having fun. They took a grand field trip through central BC and the coast. I lost track of how many ferries they took. One ferry trip was thirteen hours and they were accompanied by dolphins and whales. They toured hot springs, undeveloped, undiscovered. They found an unnamed lake with water as warm as bath water. They saw turkeys. Dawn says she thinks dad had as much fun watching her as the discoveries they made on the way.

They gave me a tour of their garden and watching their happy fussing gave me just as much pleasure. They have two compost heaps behind their shed, making me jealous for a yard big enough to play with. Their elevated garden is a delight. They pulled beets, carrots, and potatoes for me to take home. Dawn loves dahlias as I do and she has some great ones! She's storing the tubers this winter out at the campground where she says they keep a room just above freezing. I am jealous all over again.

We go for dinner and as we leave, dad mouths, "I love you". My answer was awkward I know, but the message was delivered. There were no grand words exchanged, but I got my wish.

I borrowed the picture from an article about Anne and Andy Dunstan's Dahlia farm.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Middle Age Glory

There is a thirty year old pine tree that graces my window. The early light gives his curved trunk a warm glow against the dusky green of his needles. I've enjoyed watching him grow from a stunted little stick. He had a rough start and was not given gentle treatment by either child or landscaper. After all, he was a little stick of a tree and for a while it looked like he would not amount to much.

I did note at one point a concerned board member took a few sickly needles from his top (I presume for testing). He did seem to perk up after that. You couldn't reach his top now.

Funny thing, that ignoble start has made him beautiful. He's got that pleasing curve in his middle that reminds me of bonsai. This crooked pine reminds me of the nobility of survival. Sometimes you just have to get through it all. You will come out strong, able to bear other's burdens. Bear the scars of your adversity proudly. It gives you character.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Hairy ponderings

There's talk lately about natural hybridization between coyote and wolf, the coywolf. It got me to thinking, have men interbred with bears...a hubear, perhaps? I pondered this as I watched hubby scratch his broad hairy back on the edge of a door. This he does several times a day.

Which led me to ponder how married couples, over time, build up an embarrassing list of little habits and favors we would not dare mention in public. It takes a long, long while for the trust to build where I can openly fart while watching television, or for him to brazenly ask me to "itch back" and then wander away with glazed look of goofy contentment.

There's a wonderful confort in just being who we are, failings and idiosyncracies included, and knowing there will be understanding. Or at least tolerance. And privacy.

Except, of course, if your wife is a writer.

Shortening the Queue

Back to Obama again, and The Audacity of Hope. This is one of those rare books I am compelled to underline, flag, and mark. Here's another quote that speaks directly to the original theme of my blog, "I am convinced - although I have no statistical evidence to back it up - that antitax, antigovernment, antiunion sentiments grow anytime people find themselves standing in line at a government office with only one window open and three or four workers chatting among themselves in full view." (p. 73)

I've tested this quote against a few of my friends, and they laugh. They recognize the image. It does make sense. My friend was reminded also of bank lines, where perhaps four or five bank tellers are at their counter, but only one is open. A supervisor perhaps, the receptionist, loans officers and the bank manager also will be busy (or not busy) at their own tasks. No-one takes ownership to shorten that line save the one designated bank teller. For the person standing in line, do they feel valued; is attendance of their needs a priority? Oviously, observably, not. In return, how much loyalty and good-feeling does the customer build for the bank?

I'm reminded also of the business pundits' warning that companies who want to remain competitive should invest their time figuring out what the customer really wants. From Covey's book, "Predictable Results", "Clearly, the App Store is successful because it allows customers to get exactly what they want immediately and in a simple and inexpensive way. " How do you find out what customers really want? The best results aren't from analysing satisfaction ratings or survey results. These may be filtered or distorted by the collection method itself. Find out by walking around.

A great example of customer service is Pike Place Fish. I am re-reading their book, "Catch - A Fishmonger's Guide to Greatness" and I am reminded again that every fishmonger makes a personal intention - every day - to give each customer a memorable experience. I am a head-over heels, starry-eyed fan of these guys. A couple years ago, I went to check them out myself. I was increasingly nervous as I approached their booth in the market. Would they live up to the hype? Why, yes, they did. In a very personal way. I didn't catch any fish. But they did make my visit memorable in many small ways. I have the autographed book to prove it.

Visit the counters and the waiting rooms. See what the customers see. Inspire your front workers to take a personal interest in every customer that comes across their desk. Don't ever let it become routine, dull, "take another number". Let everyone who visits you for services leave feeling they have been heard, understood.

Customers have memories.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Happy to see you!

There's nothing quite like the welcome of a dog. Especially if the dog is the aloof Afghan, a lean, tall, sliver-grey hound who runs at you in a graceful lope, hair flapping, mouth gaping in a doggy grin. She stops dead in front of me and gazes deeply in to my eyes, radiating friendliness. There's no rough jumping, horseplay, or sloppy kisses from this well-bred, well trained, elegant dog.

Her name is Ariel and she is a senior dog. Her original owner has left her in the care of my daughter, who has known her from a pup. It's a great pairing. My daughter has had an enduring passion for Afghans, but has never dared to take the step to ownership. She is acutely aware of the responsibility involved. Ariel is a sweet-tempered and gentle animal. At this stage of life she lives to eat and sleep. She does not care for doggy confrontations, walking away from other silly dogs. She mooches for treats, steals if she can. And she sleeps, picking out her spot on the couch.

My daughter, steeped in doggy training lore, was stymied. She should not have allowed Ariel on the couch; that's an Alpha move. She should not have allowed treats from the table.

But Ariel is a senior dog, and well trained. If you ask her to move, she is happy to comply. She is tired, she is sore. She is happiest mooching a little treat or going for a little walk, not too strenuous. How can you turn down an old girl like that, the few treats she enjoys?

As I said, Ariel is normally aloof. She is loyal and friendly to her family, but not overly demonstrative even then. This is the Afghan way. I am touched that she has included me in her extended family. It may help that more and more I surrender to her charm and rush to the ice-box to see if I have a scrap of beef or chicken that she might enjoy. This might explain her delicate and whiskery greeting as she thoroughly sniffs my hand.

What impact could we have on our own families, if we took a few moments of our day to let them know, body and soul, how happy we are to see them?

Here's a link to my daughter's doggy matching service:

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Facing Fear Head-On

My daughter, my ever capable daughter, is facing a crisis. She is facing fears I had long buried, and brought them galloping forward. At the moment she is the only bread winner in the family. She is suffering burnout and her supervisor is not sympathetic. She can look for other work, of course, but a job hunt could not be happening at a worse time.

She is doing all she can to stay calm. She reminds me regularly that she must put all her fears on God so that she does not become embittered. She is practicing her smile. I worry.

The thing is, I thought I'd fought my battle with my inner fears, and largely won. It just goes to show how quickly they can come roaring back, and how careful I must be to remember the lessons from years past.

Fear can be helpful in a true crisis. A car zipping past my toes can set my heart racing, and for good reason. But of course in this wealthy society of ours, with it's vast web of safety nets, there are very few times to be truly afraid. There will be food on our table and a roof over our head. No terrors will come bursting through the door to threaten our family.

The fears that we usually face and are not so healthy are the grinding, niggling worries that all is not fine, that all I have could be taken away in a heartbeat, and that life could suddenly get much, much harder. This fear wears because the "enemy" is ambiguous, there is no fight to be fought, no place to run to. I've seen the product of this type of fear on some of my co-workers. Fear of the unknown "traps" them in a job they no longer enjoy. Bitterness does follow, and a formerly productive and happy person brings their own brand of poison to work every day. Besides their influence on others, I wonder how they can live such a compromised life? Every day must be a struggle. Surely the unknown is an adventure worth taking; both for their sake and for everyone around them.

Similarly, I caught myself projecting my fears on my children when they were young adults. I'd seen the results of fear parenting on other families, and I did not want that for myself. The mother who fears teen pregnancy (perhaps remembering her own failings) calls her daughter a slut in a moment of passion. Good parents burden a good child with curfews and ever higher grade expectations. Both parents want the best for their children, of course, but by projecting through fear they risk the very things they feared.

How much better to speak in to our children through our hopes and dreams, projecting our confidence, and reassuring them that they are smart and good enough to make the right choices.

Similarly at work, how much better to focus on the parts of the job that we love, to take control of our career, and to see change as an opportunity.

So anyways, my daughter's crisis brought home my own fears all over again. I want my daughter, her family, my granddaughter to be secure. If my daughter stumbles, how ever will the family be cared for? I am reminded of when I was a single parent, raising my two children alone, and facing a layoff with my employer. I was filled with fear that all that I'd worked for to provide security for my children would be ripped away. Our little family had come such a very long way. I feared the welfare line again. I remember applying like crazy for positions that came open. I fantasized having a few moments alone with the head of the organization letting him know personally the impact of the layoff on our little family.

Luckily I did not follow through on my bitter fantasy and found employment instead. I reached a new level of strength and independence. It turns out that the forced move taught me to walk with light feet and to seize opportunities as they come.

Now I must face my fears once again and be sure I do not project them on my daughter. When she faces me with that fragile smile, I'll smile back. I will tell her all will be well. Her confidence, her strength, her abilities will shine through.

Just give it time.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Obama, Media, and OJ

I am reading Obama's book at last; The Audacity of Hope. The title alone thrills. I've complained before that campaigns are won and lost these days on sound bytes and opinion polls. When did we stop picking candidates on calibre? Why would I care what Sally on the Street thinks, if I have no way of judging how much thought she put in to her answer. "I dunno, he he. I came here for the sale. What was the question again?"

Rare for me, I'm marking the book where his words resonate with my unspeakable restlessness in the way things are run these days. The first I've marked, "...I had watched campaign culture metastize throughout the body politic, as an entire industry of insult....somehow profitable - emerged to dominate cable television, talk radio, and the New York Times best-seller list." (p. 21) and "I am convinced that whenever we exaggerate or demonize, oversimplify or overstate our case, we lose. Whenever we dumb down the political debate, we lose. For it's precisely the pursuit of ideological purity, the rigid orthodoxy and the sheer predictability of our current political debate, that keeps us from finding new ways to meet the challenges we face as a country".

I am reminded even of the days leading up to Obama's inauguration, when the media finally caught up with the news that they were witnessing a historic event, a historic figure. What were we given on cable television? Breathless blow-by-blow coverage of Obama's arrival in Washington. What Mrs. Obama was wearing, how many times she touched him. Speculation on the closeness of their marriage. The setting of the stage and speculation on how many people arrived. An endless stream of endless sound bytes, mindless, with no destination or no purpose other than to provide a blow-by-blow for the gawkers. Kind of like watching the O. J. Simpson car chase.

I am sure there are royalty watchers that got a great deal from that coverage. I thrilled listening to the musical quartet leading up to the inaguration. I also took notes of Obama's speech.

What value is the mindless information filler that disguises itself as news these days? Is this all we require as a public, to be passive observers?

The draw of the internet, though, with the opportunity for dialogue and an interactive audience, however, speaks to the even greater need for the public to be involved, to be heard.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Paper Pushing

  • A typical employee produces one pound of paper every three days. A tree is sacrificed every 4.5 years for that employee.

  • The average employee spends more than three hours a day processing information. Half of that time is spent searching for it.

  • Records staff specialize in organizing information, managing it, moving it, and search and retrieval expertise when needed.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

We are all so different yet the same

I am married to a Jehovah's Witness and I attend an evangelical church. My beloved neighbour is Wicca. I've attended services of all three. You can imagine, with that proximity, that I've done some deep thinking on my own identity, what it means to be a Christian, and the dynamics of the taboos, prejudices, and prohibitions between these groups.

The demographic trend watchers lump us all together, you know.

We are all "spiritually minded", deeply religious, and typically entrenched in our views. So why is each group deeply opposed to the other? I know from visiting with my husband's religious friends, that they have a deep aversion to "Christendom". They consider us to be under Satan's influence and dangerously deluded. I must say my Christian peers feel the same about Jehovah's Witnesses. Few have darkened the door of the other because of that very fear. I've listened to urban legends from both sides of divine or demonic influence whenever a person has attempted to breach this terrifying barrier.

Take away the barrier, and what do you find? I've found the typical Jehovah's Witness meeting to be punctual, predictable, and dull. It "feels" more like a sales meeting than a religious service. "Worship" is relegated to scheduled, numbered songs. Supporting music comes from a CD. I've described the generic format of a Circuit Assembly, similarly dull, but eagerly anticipated by the average Witness. After all, it is one of the few annual events they may look forward to since they have been deprived of Christmas, Easter, Thanksgiving, etc., etc., etc.

So why the aversion, the terror? I talked about the power of groups to self-identify, even to the exclusion of others. There's the power of granfalloon. There's the risk that a religiously minded person, who has committed at great cost, to face the folly of their own choice. A "soft boundary" between the distinctions of religion would force us to give up distinctions that may not be there. Perhaps some of the traditions and forms are not so exclusive as we think. Strip all those forms away and what do we have? Self-delusion?

For most committed people, such a prospect is unacceptable. Better to exclude and avoid.

Or, perhaps, if we strip away the forms the substance will be laid bare. Maybe it is as simple as loving your neighbour, truly. Perhaps when all else is stripped away we are left with goodness.

Or, maybe, the easier choice is to blame it all on "Satan".

Friday, August 14, 2009

People Flock

I'm halfway through a book that is a collection of studies on how people react to failed prophecy; the book is called "Expecting Armageddon, Essential Readings in Failed Prophecy" edited by Jon R. Stone.

Article after article describes how a person can accept the most outrageous explanation, even when all evidence points to the contrary. One of the factors that helps a person accept unreasonable beliefs, is that he is surrounded others who believe it too. You might have heard of "groupthink". (Do follow this video link; it is hilarious)

It seems to me that we have some base instincts that drive us to follow the crowd. This would be a useful evolutionary tactic for creatures who live in packs; including humans. Once I identify with my "crowd", I will fiercly defend it. In return, I get protection by that "crowd". This ability to create groups with strong identities, even to the point of outrageous reason, may be called "granfalloons". What a grand word.

Besides the unreasonableness of some of these groups, I think another great hazard is the suppression of individuality. We naturally give up some of our rights to the crowd, in the interests of mutual safety. I suggest, though, that if the group insists in it's own identity being protected at the cost of individual, it has gone too far.

We see this happen in some groups (think high school) where those who are too different, and the dissenters, are shunned, mocked, or worse.

In Western society, where we worship individualism and tend to dismiss the power of groups over us, I think we underestimate the terrible power of expulsion from a group. The sense of loneliness and abandonment is severe.

What is the balance? Individuality must be protected, but extreme individuality is anarchy. The interests of the group are valuable, but a group that insists that it's own values and maintained at the sacrifice of the individual, suppresses.

The author who expressed this struggle best that I've seen, is Jean Vanier and his book Becoming Human. Jean Vanier is the founder of L'Arche, where people are invited to partner and live with people with mental handicaps, in order to get in touch with the essence of humanness. The commitment of these pairings is intense. Vanier's vision of a healthy group is one with soft borders, that has a shared vision of inclusion rather than exclusion. Healthy group, healthy individuals.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Birds are like people, too

I learn a lot from watching birds. When I was a child, I was taught to recognize the call and the flash of wing from my "Field Guide to Western Birds". The exercise taught me a new way of looking. As a result a trip through a field, forest path, or city street is rich with activity that many others miss.

I have vivid memories of bird dramas through the years. Like the morning a pack of summer birds caught an owl far from her roosting spot. They harrassed her down the street from tree to tree as if she were a hoodlum caught in the act. It was if the whole bird community conspired to squawk their disdain. First in line to harrass the poor owl were the crows, cautiously followed by the magpies. Next were the blue jays, robins, and far in the rear, the sparrows jeered.

Not too close, though. A sparrow has to be careful.

Now, closer to home, I have a chance to get to know my bird neighbours in their daily habits. The crows and the magpies, as annoying as they can be during the day with their raucus calls, are quiet while on the hunt. I've decided the endless calls in the morning are their hungry young. I suspect the crow and magpie parents do their chief hunting in the morning, quietly, snatching the young of their weaker neighbours, to feed their own.

Hunger is a hard taskmaster.

Chickadees, those tiny balls of fluff at the bottom of the food chain, never fail to inspire me. Their cheerful call can be heard through the dead of winter. They are survivors, they are flexible communicators, and they are optimists. Urban legend taught me that chickadees congregate in the winter night in the hollow of a tree for warmth, allowing their body temperature to drop near freezing, then erupting in a mass shiver. I've found out since that this may not be true. One article insists that chickadees are loners. These tiny bundles rather each find their own cranny to wedge themselves in for the night. From a bird feeder they will take away seeds to hide in their own hidden cache. For all their resourcefulness, a hard winter will take casualties. It makes me pause on a hard winter day as I gaze out my double glazed window.

I've also learned another hard fact about small birds...and bees, for that matter. The smaller you are, the higher your metabolic rate. Chickadees, hummingbirds, and bees must be on a constant search for food to keep their little engines running. As a consequence also, all three are highly territorial.

Hunger is a hard taskmaster.

So what does this all have to do with people? Well, people aren't all alike, either. Their habits and choices cannot be explained away in a short, brute list of motivations. My observations as a child that distinguished, say, mother from woman, matured as I got older, and is fine tuned even further as I watch people in place. What pushes people; what pushes me to react one way or another is not always simple. Understanding these nuances can keep me from making brute assumptions, and perhaps I can choose new ways to respond to new situations.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

People are Busy Bees Too

Yesterday I opined on the behavior of bees. Their efficiency as they grazed from flower to flower impressed me. It occurs to me as well that as former hunter gatherers, we also show a strong tendency to remember where our food is.

This was brought home to me in a most powerful way by Steven Pinker in his book, "The Language Instinct". Besides proposing that the acquiring of language is an instinctive feature of infant development, he suggests a list of more than a dozen "families of instincts" on page 437 that are hard-wired in to every human being. Notably missing is "love", though it might be included under his designated instincts of Kinship and Mating.

I've been thinking about the instincts as Pinker describes around Intuitive Biology, Mental Maps of large territories, and Food means that we build habits in our day around what we eat, when we eat, and where we find it.

The bees follow a routine. They come back to the same place around the same time of day and expect to find their reliable source. They prefer reliable sources.

Similarly, we like our routines. Since I am attempting to change my base habits around food, I am acutely aware of the portions I take in. If absently I put down a half-eaten piece of toast or a partially finished can of pop, a niggling reminder remains that it is "not finished yet". If hubby manages to interfere by scooping the half-completed can of pop when I am distracted, I am upset. I have a sense of being deprived.

Over time, I can reset my stomach settings of what "complete" means. Being aware that I am fighting base biology rather than personal weakness provides some comfort.

It also makes me wonder about the ever increasing portion sizes that the food industry has foisted on us here in North America.

I remember as a child that a restaurant cup of orange juice came in a tiny glass (by today's standards). Why? That little glass represented a whole lot of squeezed oranges. Over time, that portion became larger and larger. We lost track of where those oranges came from, and how much work it represented.

The cup sizes and portion sizes we take for granted today are all out of proportion for our needs.

I do see a trend towards "less is more"; the 99 c burgers and the 100 calorie snacks for instance. Perhaps this is a sign that our society now worships conservation rather than excess; not only for our own bodies, but for the world.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Flowers and Bees

One of my great pleasures, as those of you who know me, is watching my garden grow. Long hours of contemplation means I have come to know my garden, and it's bees, pretty well. The bees make their way through the garden methodically, checking each flower in turn. He makes his circuit and leaves. A few hours later, he does his tour again.

His grazing pattern reminds me of my Farm Town character, bobbing and weaving with an economy of effort to each task. It made me think that the bee's life, just like all others, is concerned with survival. His ability to find a good feeding ground, and avoid wasted effort, could mean the difference between life and starvation.

I find he has a strong preference for simple flowers that bloom for a short time only, maybe a day. Watching a bee harvest flax flowers is always a delight. The long stems bow under his weight and then catapault him away when he's done. The flowers drop in the heat of the day and then there is a fresh bloom the very next morning. I love watching flax.

He avoids the long-lasting compound flowers as long as he can. Is it because with the new flowers he is guaranteed fresh? Have we as humans, in our desire for complex and exotic shapes and long-lasting blooms, complicated the bee's life?

An exception to the compound bloom avoidance theory, was this bee. Naomi and I took pictures. But he wasn't acting normally at all. He was either drunk or very near death. He literally rested on the flower as he took his drink. This was the first time I ever saw a "lazy bee".

Linda's Bees is a blog I follow. She watches over her bees with an intensity that I can relate to.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Let's see how long this lasts

I'm going to re-start my blog. I fight a malady of my own making to do it. After taking on an exciting enterprise, I follow it zealously, completely, and determinedly until I stop. Why, oh why do I stop?

I stopped this blog on May 17, 2009.

Why do I stop so suddenly, so assuredly, and so completely? I am not sure, but I have some theories. Like so many other problems, my inclination is to study the problem in the finest detail. By knowing the problem, I find my resolution. Why does my motivation deflate like a punctured balloon? It might be a simple problem of boredom. Once I have mastered the media and I feel I have nothing to learn, I may not be able to maintain the momentum.

Or perhaps, recognition stops me cold.

I had just come to the point where I shared my blog with a person I admired deeply. I was exposing my work, my "self" to an external audience for the first time. I received some fine words of praise. I allowed myself the thought that I might have built something worthwhile, beyond the audience of one. Then I stopped.

I am reminded of one of Grimm's fairy tales, of a poor cobbler who had a sudden change of fortune. During the night all his work from the night before would be done. He prospered from this unexpected fortune, so decided to find out the why. Elves, barefoot, were laboring in his shop overnight. Grateful, he crafted small shoes for the industrious elves. That night, the elves celebrated their good fortune in song, then left, never to return. The now wealthy cobbler was happy to let them go. He had his good fortune and did a good deed as well.

I have always felt a deep connection to those elves, laboring through the night, unrecognized. I wondered why they could not bask in their good fortune, and remain? Perhaps that one ray of light was all they needed, and any more would be unbearable.

Anyways, I give myself lots to think on.

Let's see if I will be back tomorrow.