Monday, November 24, 1997

Pigeon Psychology

"We banged the drum slowly and played the fife lowly, you know the song in my heart. In the turning of twilight, in the shadows of moonlight, you can show me a new place to start."

This week we got the answer to the question, "At what age does one become a mean old man?" It's 33. I was eating dinner at La Corvina with a couple of friends. The only other patrons in the restaurant were a man and his two children. One of the two children, a boy around four or five finished his meal and asked his father if he could play with son of the owner of the restaurant. The two boys proceeded to first play a game of Simon Says and then a game of tag where they tore all around the small restaurant. This was annoying in itself but when they began to screech at the top of their lungs, I finally had had enough. "Boys, can you please keep it down?" I gently asked. With a damper placed upon their frivolity, the boys gave me the old skunk eye the rest of the evening.


Actually the incident played out under the influence of a story I had heard a few days earlier in my Seven Habits of Effective People training course. The instructor told a story of a man who after a long day at work wearily climbed upon an empty New York subway car. At the next stop a mother and her four young sons hopped upon the car. The boys were unruly from the start, running up and down the subway, shouting and jumping upon the seats. The man looked at the woman who just sat staring at the floor in front of her. He was incredulous at her inattention to the undisciplined boys. When one of the boys bumped into him, his blood began to boil and he walked over to the woman. "Excuse me ma'am, but could you please keep your sons under control?" She looked up at him and for the first time he noticed tears in her eyes. "I'm sorry," she said. "We were just at the hospital and their father passed away and they are having a hard time knowing how to handle that." The moral of the story was how we often let our emotions dictate how we will respond to a situation while only knowing the tip of what the other person's feelings are based upon.


Which brings to mind another revelation from the past week. A week ago Friday I attended a training session learning how to better facilitate meetings. After the session the consultant who facilitated the training, a woman who knew me from other sessions, asked my boss if there was something going on in my life. Apparently she sensed a detachment, a distraction on my part in the way I participated in the training. Her guess was it had to do with some relationship issues in my life. When my boss told me this, I wondered if the inscrutable label that had been placed on me many times in the past few years has been inaccurate. Was I really wearing my emotions on my sleeve? Or was I hiding what was going on inside way too effectively? I left the training session feeling that my own participation was better than usual especially compared to many of the recent meetings I attended when I'd be the first to admit my enthusiasm and attention had been a bit lacking. So I was a bit surprised that someone else felt otherwise. As I have done in the past I have focused my energy on my work in order to keep my mind off other areas of my life. I shared this story with my friend and asked her how she felt I had been acting the past few weeks. She told me she thought I was in much better spirits than a couple of months ago and she thought I had definitely been moving forward. She told me she admired the way I was able to put things behind me. Of course the accurate picture of where I am at, either between the person who didn't know me so well and the person who knows me better than anyone probably falls somewhere in the middle. Strangers always see you differently than your closest of friends.

Next I attended a happy hour with some former co-workers from my days at the Department of Trade and Economic Development. I learned that my legacy there, the database I named DYLAN (data you're looking at now) is not being utilized much anymore. And all the procedures I put in place, all the things I was greatly rewarded for fixing a messed up contract processing system, have been reworked where things are back to the way they were before I did any of my work. How quickly they forget.

The week as disjointed as it all seemed actually began to reveal some common patterns that in the end actually made sense in their nonsense. There were many lessons to be learned and perhaps even a few sunk in. A person isn't thoughtful just because he thinks a lot. The need to explain is at least as deep as the need for an explanation. Just when your faith in fate wavers along comes someone who gives you one of the biggest compliments of your life, that she enjoys talking to you because when she does she always learns something. Just when you begin to wonder what you have left and how much you want to share along comes someone who you hope there's more to share. And just when you don't want to have to think, you have to think more than ever.

Monday, November 17, 1997

Covering and Cowering to Covey


10) Be proactive
9) Dopey
8) (tie) Begin with the end in mind/Sleepy
7) First things first
6) Sleazy
5) (tie) Bashful/Think win-win
4) Winkie
3) Seek first to understand
2) (tie) Synergy/Doc/Sharpen the Saw
1) Spunky

I got home from yet another all day training course, Seven Habits of Highly Successful People, to find my furnace turned down so low it had not run all day long. I looked at the control's thermometer and noticed it read somewhere below fifty six degrees. Max was a-hollering. He was one frigid, unhappy kitty. As I shed my work clothes he followed me into the bedroom all the while expressing his discomfort and unhappiness. He has a cat tree by his favorite window that he jumps upon to look out and make sure every thing is in place in his world. This time with eyes peering back upon me he wavered in his decision of where he wanted to be and just as his body was about to make the two foot leap upward his mind told him he needed to continue to scold me. Thus he clumsily missed his landing and his body slammed against the base of the cat tree.

One of the exercises we learned in class was to identify our most desired goal, why that goal was so important to us, the obstacles preventing us from reaching that goal, and to write a personal mission statement on how we were going to reach that goal. As Max so aptly if not so agilely demonstrated, it's important to keep your mind focused on your goals and destination because once you make the leap, or are in midstream, to turn back can lead to undesirable results.

According to Stephen Covey, the guru behind the theories presented in Seven Habits for Highly Effective People, being an effective person means understanding that we can control our attitudes and actions to shape our lives. Proactive thinking means using our values and principles rather than letting our perceptions about our circumstances dictate how to make our decisions. Covey's seven habits follow the path from our natural dependent state at birth, to independence as we struggle to shape our own identities, to interdependence where working with others and on the quality of relationships in our lives leads to the ultimate effectiveness.

Another essential element behind Covey's theories is that the only thing we can control in our relationships with others is "the deposits we give and the withdrawals we take." Covey likens our emotional state to a bank account; ultimately what should be striven for is a balance between what we put in and take out and what we give. Deposits build trust between people. Covey says that in every encounter we have with another we either "lift them up" or "break them down." To recognize the value of those important in your life is one step, to be able to communicate those feelings to the other is the bridge hardest for most people to cross.

My own life is a good model or anti- model for whether or not you believe in what Covey has to say. The theories presented did not distinguish between professional and personal, public with private. According to Covey his principles are universal, and the things that make one effective in a work environment are no different than those in the home. I have spent the past few years drawing a distinct line between those areas, coming to believe what fulfills me at work is entirely different, if not even remotely related to what I do at home. Ultimately what I sensed separated me from the rest in the class was every person I talked to told me their goals were based upon seeking a balance between work and family. My struggles or what makes me ineffective as Covey might define it, has more to do with the example of Max's clumsy indecision, trying to decide whether it is a leap or lack of faith that causes the muse to feel so confused these days.

While I certainly see value in trying to clarify and define goals to figure out strategies to reach those goals, I had a hard time understanding one of Covey's underlying principles- that so much of our own effectiveness is based upon our relationship with others. Breaking things down that way sets people up for perpetual disappointment and is too easy a formula to get trapped into. People can only relate within their own terms and since all of our terms are different we can never really understand another. We are ultimately alone and it is up to the individual to figure out the best way to determine for our own peace of mind how successful and effective we have been. Covey is right in that it is our interaction with the people and the world around us that defines so much of who we are, but it is breaking away from that mindset that will ultimately decide our final effectiveness.

Cold Omaha

News this week of the imminent expansion of Cheapo to parts south, east, and close to home is certainly exciting. It speaks well of the company and its employees that such ventures are being launched. This week was also the week where we as a state took one step closer to losing major league baseball. Hey Al, could I talk you into subsidizing a new newsletter office/house in some town that has a baseball team?

For those of you who watched the House debate a bill that proposed paying for a new stadium solely through "user fees" saw a lesson in just why our legislative process has become as ineffective as it has. The bill would have been funded by the taxes collected on the ballplayers, and additional ticket, concession and souvenir taxes. The legislature has had over a year to examine the stadium issue and this bill was the best they could come up with. The bill's supporters argued that such fees would mean the people using the stadium would in essence pay for it. Never mind that some of these same people were the ones complaining about how much it now costs to attend a baseball game. If it cost too much for a family of four who last year could get in to selected games for $25 (which included four tickets, four hot dogs and drinks, and free parking) how much would such user fees add on?

Opponents of the stadium instead of coming out and saying they were against the state trying to play a role in saving major league baseball in Minnesota, had to cloud their stands with emotional rhetoric that was as hollow as their hypocrisy. Never mind that the state does subsidize many private industries including ethanol, tobacco and private companies like Northwest and Fingerhut. Representative Tuma from Northfield gave a speech that had to be heard to be believed saying a vote for the stadium meant extracting general money funds that would end up kicking his Grandma Looney out of her nursing home and on to the streets.

One study showed that to build a $400 million stadium would cost each current taxpayer around $5 a year for the next five years. Still there were opponents of the stadium willing to spend hundreds of dollars to manufacture anti-stadium hankies and other demonstration devices. And since people seem so unwilling to lose their five bucks a year in order to pay for a stadium that would enhance either downtown area, once the Twins leave we can expect there will be no more hungry children in the state, or senior citizens who have to worry about how they are going to make it until their next social security check arrives.

The anti-stadium faction was able to frame the debate from the beginning as some sort of take from the poor to give to the rich scheme. The pro- baseball faction was never able to communicate the rich history and legacy the game has brought to our community and the benefit that a baseball park could add (see Baltimore and Cleveland for examples of how well such a project works). Oh well, life without baseball is just another adjustment to be made. It ultimately means we all will have more time to spend with the Grandma Looneys of the world.

Monday, November 10, 1997

Dewa Mata

"I don't need to understand, I just need to know..."
-Buffy the Vampire Slayer

I'm in a very different place than one year ago and even further away from where I was a mere two months ago. Before my trip to Japan my sister gave me some advice. She told me to bring along plenty of Kleenex because many of the public restrooms didn't provide paper towels or toilet paper and many restaurants didn't have napkins. This proved to be accurate information. What she didn't mention, or didn't run across during her visits to the country was that every time a new business opens or has a sale, they have young women on the streets handing out packets of tissues with the names of the stores and products on the packaging to entice visitors into their establishments. So I ended up coming home with even more tissues than when I left. There has to be a lesson somewhere in that experience something about anticipating and preparing but in reality all it means is that I have an abundance of tissues. Life's lessons are only as hard or as simple as you wanna make it. Thankfully these are the types of things you can discuss with friends over a whiskey water (or two).

It was more of a grand social experiment than a happy hour to gather people from all periods and walks of my life together to see how they would mix. I was surprised but pleased that most everyone invited showed up. Only one person was actually missing and only one person was actually missing the missing. What was strange was the people assembled all knew me from different periods and different versions of my life and the person they sat with was in part both more whole than they knew and actually less himself than they had ever seen. Favorite moment? I asked the newcomer her sign. She told me it was a "stop." When I got home I had a revelation about how I never imagined I would reach the age the same number as revolutions a LP spins in a minute. In the grand scheme of things thirty three years ain't a very long time. It doesn't even qualify as a drop in the bucket. But try living that long and there are some moments it has felt like an eternity. I think it was about this age in life when my brother began to have some physical problems- with his back, with his shoulder and with his foot. I've been nothing if not lucky, my knees occasionally ache a bit but my ailments have been more the internal kind.

What is thirty three? When I was a kid one of the things I just assumed was that as I got older life would get easier. I thought the more experience and knowledge I gathered the more things would make sense. Actually the exact opposite is true. I'm more confused than I've ever been and I understand less than I know. Some of life's events make you age rapidly others pass by so quickly you have to wonder if they actually happened. You would think as you get older that at the very least the demons you've always struggled with would become more identifiable and thus avoidable. I have seen it is much easier not to learn from past mistakes than it is to actually make the necessary changes to avoid having to go through the same things twice.

They say the first thing you lose is your hair. It's open to interpretation whether or not that happened to me this past year. I do think that somewhere along the line I either went through a second puberty where my voice changed again or worse I may have lost my voice altogether. Growing up my day would not be complete until I got home and was able to write about it. It was my way of figuring out some kind of meaning to the day's confusing events. I stopped doing that ten years ago and just resumed two or three years ago. But now it is more an exercise in discipline rather than getting any tangible reward for my daily effort. It took a trip half way around the world to discover the reason for that. We were told that when the Japanese use English to name their businesses, it isn't so much the meaning of the words as it is the sound. Thus we saw names like OD Box for a sporting goods store and Nude for a beverage. I've gotten back to my roots in my writing because it isn't so much what the words convey anymore it is how they sound that I care about.

Life does fly by and I've been around just long enough to reach the point where little actually seems new, rather everything I come across feels recycled or filtered through past experience. And the dreams I have are less and less based on what might come to be but rather just a juxtaposition, a colored twist or bend of the already existing elements of my life shaped in a way that gets me thinking about things in a different way. The first mystery of my life was before I learned to read I could pick out any requested song from my collection of Burl Ives' and other kiddie 45s. I played those things constantly and I knew them by their touch and being so familiar that the slabs of black vinyl seemed like intimate friends. If I had to grade my life on the Cheapo vinyl scale of fine, good, fair, and green tag, I fear that my condition would be closer to the fifty cent assessment than $3.60. Grooves a bit worn, just a little too scratched but not actually moldy. Yet some of those hisses and pops add color to the next listen and though each play takes a little more away the enjoyment can often be worth the price.