No One Expects

“We are going to walk the dog,” I said to my husband.

“Good! I’ll be able to take the sink apart and fix the drain without the dog in the way.”

I didn’t say it, but I thought it. Right now? Is this the time? It’s a holiday tomorrow. A plumbing project right before a holiday means we can’t call a plumber if it goes wrong.

We came back and it had gone wrong. I still didn’t say anything.

Oh well, we could brush our teeth in the kitchen sink. One day of a plugged-up sink, alright. We’ll get through the 4th of July and call for help on Saturday.

This is pandemic marriage. Let go of the things you CAN let go of. We’re all stuck in this together.

My holiday morning started nice and cozy, me and the cat, then my daughter and dog all joining in lazy activities.

But Chris woke with a mission. He would keep working on that sink. And that faraway look in his eye made me nervous.

This time I said something: “I don’t’ think this is a good idea. Is this how you want this holiday to go? It could go very wrong and you’re going to be frustrated no matter what.”

I said it.

But he had a mission.

Great. My holiday down the drain, because the drain wasn’t working.

Situation: Huge plug of my hair down the drain, and he had tried to snake it, but it went past the trap and deeper than he could reach.

We’d tried using our decrepit plunger in the sink, but it was good and stuck

Action plan: but Liquid plumber from the hardware store and a funnel to pour it in past the trap.

At least he took the daughter to the store and let me and the cat to pursue laziness.

Result: liquid plumber was added, and that didn’t clear things. But some time passed and

EUREKA!

He had bought a new plunger and that plunger in the sink was the key. Six Dollar plunger for the win!

This plunger had an adapter to work on smaller drains.

Neither of us were aware that plunger technology had made this significant advance. We know a lot, but that one had complete escaped us. For six bucks, this was a no special fancy thing.

I was braced for an expensive and time-wasting hassle. But the solution was waiting right there.

I know very little about plumbing. I do know a lot about remote collaboration and communication.

I knew, when this stay-at-home thing started, that it was waiting for everyone. It wasn’t painless, but it was there.

I’m proud of us for not blowing up and sticking to the point, getting work done. Things are working out.

Good for me for not losing my cool at my husband either. With a little patience and persistence, things got unstuck.

Who does own it?

A colleague recommended the book Extreme Ownership: How US Navy Seal Lead and Win by Willink and Babin. These veterans fought together, came home and started an executive consulting company. Then they wrote this book. The book reads more like a war movie than a business book. That’s probably what made it go so fun.

It starts off with a war story describing a nightmare scenario. So many things going wrong, his men dying and Willink has to give a report to the higherups. How could he isolate key misstep from all the chaos?

This is the linchpin:

He was the one in charge, and he hadn’t caught the problems as they happened. It was his fault.

I am not a veteran. I have not been in the military. But there are times when I have told my team “We are playing with live ammo.” It’s a figure of speech.

The authors use live ammo. And live ammo is used against them.

That clarifies things: every choice has a consequence. SOMEONE has to make a decision and keep things moving. That someone on a project is me: The Project Manager.

I’ve heard it said before, ‘The Project manager is the one who is ultimately responsible for the entire project.’ Me and my peers would hear that and roll our eyes to one another. If we are the ones ultimately responsible, why do we have so little influence on the work we are given?

Okay, I’ll play. Let me take the two toughest jobs of the last few years and re-examine them with this standard.

Project A was a job handed to me by the BEST office in the company. I had only been with this firm a few months and they told me this one was going to be a great experience for me. I’d see how it was supposed to be done. I also had a highly experienced local crew.

The first week was ok. Then customer came on hot, with requirements not identified in the contract.

Things degenerated into daily meetings between the customer and top brass from both offices.

It seemed that the other office missed a ton of stuff. The installers used their experience to find ways to get overtime instead of head off issues, and I was scrambling for ways to make it end.

THESE WERE OUTSIDE MY CONTROL.

But what if re-examined the project with Extreme Ownership?

I realized that I had let myself trust these other people, the designer and the installers. They presented themselves as the experts. I had not asked enough questions. If these guys were as hotshot as they claimed to be, it would not have been hard for them to review it with me.

If I gone over the design with them in greater detail, I likely would have caught the oversights sooner. We could have adjusted the plans. I didn’t follow my usual policy of asking ALL the questions beforehand regardless of how stupid I sounded.

I trusted when I had no proof. The rest of the project pushed me closer and closer to failure.

No wonder the customer didn’t trust me. I hadn’t trusted myself.

Project B was far more complicated. No one told me they had it figured out, but they did tell me that it had to be perfect. Night work, high ticket customer. Four rooms to be de-installed/installed every night and handed over in working condition to the customer to use when they arrived next morning.

FOR SIX WEEKS

Highest level of scrutiny in the company. All on no sleep. I planned this one out, and I was in on every moment of the project. We had three meetings a day. A crew meeting to kick off the work, a check-in at the end of every shift at 3 in the morning and a meeting at 9 AM with the customer to review status and punch list items.

This one had been designed better, but the customer was even more tightly wound.

I had grabbed onto it with both hands and all my toes. I EXTREMELY Owned this one.

Me and the lead tech are blood brothers now.

When I look clearly at what I did and didn’t do, without casting blame, I have a much better sense of closure. I know what should be done differently.

I’m a convert. Total ownership is the way to manage projects. Yes, there are things out of my control. But everything is under my influence. It helps to ask enough questions to identify those out-of-control-items. I can use the knowledge to mitigate risks.

There really is no downside to Extreme Ownership. Things would go better if everyone acted that way, but I’m the only one I can control.

Essential

“Come here, Veronica, I want to show you something.”

“It’s not a plant thing, is it?”

Busted. I’ve been paying a lot of attention to my yard and my plants. There’s not much else to occupy my time in these times of quarantine.

We planted all new plants about a year and a half ago, and I’ve been puttering over them and seeing how they will turn out.

I’m having to pay attention and see what they need from me. We have 7 trees now, 3 fruit trees, 2 shade trees and 2 sculptural trees.

That’s what the garden designer called them. But this whole time they have just looked like bushes. Compared to the fruit trees, they are not growing very fast.

When I’ve watched plants grow from seeds, I’ve observed how the plant looks when it’s a baby, the leaves look a certain way. Then when they are only a few days older they change again. There is a whole cycle of what the plants will become throughout their life.

The sculptural tree are Crape Myrtles, a pink flowering tree that I can see in the neighborhood around me.

I’ve seen these trees, but I have not had a relationship with one. These baby crape myrtles have been with me for a while and they look like bushes. I have been watching what they do and checking them for what they seem to need. They go dormant, which is unusual in my warm climate. They turn dead looking in the winter, which worried me until I realized that this is what they are supposed to do.

Now is the time that they flower. So Pretty!

I’ve noticed that they are not really growing up as much as I would have thought. So I asked the internet about it, and I realized that I had to help these trees.

They want to be trees. I pass these types of trees on my walks and I have examples of how they are at their best. They are lovely, and their trunks and branches arch in a graceful way.

My trees, which I had mistaken for bushes, had a lot of suckers coming off their main trunk. I trimmed the suckers off, even though some of them were as big as the main trunk of the tree. The thing is, I couldn’t’ recognize what the essence of the tree until it had grown more.

Ah. And that is what is becoming true about this quarantine. It looked one way at the beginning, but has gone through several changes along the way.

It’s taking some attention to see what need to be fostered and what needs to be pruned. I can’t stop paying attention for a while.

Self Made

If they have ascended high, they have built their own ladder.
Frederick Douglass 
 

All my routines are off track, and I’m having a hard time reading. I am trying something different: re reading books.
 
I picked up a career book from last year Do More Great Work. Looking for my next job, this is on point. This book has a lot of exercises, which I skipped over the first time I read it. It’s time to dig in.
 
I got to the part where he asks me to come up with role models. Tough. Real people are more complicated than books. I started with people who had written books about themselves:
 
Benjamin Franklin and Frederick Douglass
 
Ben Franklin is the man on the money. His autobiography reads like almost every other businessman autobiography I’ve read.  Because they all copied him! He was a great inventor, and he may have invented the autobiography too.
 
As the oldest founding father, and the one who had the most popular writing style, he created the template for the “self-made man.” He starts his book by saying he was the fourth son of a fourth son.
 
IF you’ve read anything, you know that the fourth son doesn’t inherit anything, not the cat OR the boots. That’s supposed to be how it is for Americans. We make our own luck. Franklin told his adventures from when he was quite young, following ideas and making friends all along the way. He wrote in friendly humorous style. It was written originally in French, but has been translated and remains in print to this day. He wrote the book on being a successful American.
 
He had a little help from his brothers and friends, but I feel like I could follow his methods and be successful too. He was a nobody when he was born and became a great man.
 
That’s America! Cue the music. How could it get better than this?
 
Frederick Douglass, who must have read Franklin’s book, takes it to another level.
 
Frederick Douglass was born a slave, and the story of his rise to prominence is just as impressive as Benjamin Franklin. Unfortunately, Douglass’s family was taken from him, beaten and killed. They couldn’t help him in life. Also, he was not able to explore other places freely. No trips to England.
 
But Frederick Douglass found success anyway. He took every opportunity he found. He learned skills as a craftsman, learned to read and educated himself while still in captivity.
 
He took a risk and began to teach his fellow slaves how to read even though it was against the law. Generosity for him was for other people. Eventually, abolitionists helped him escape.
 
 A few years later he wrote Narrative of the life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave. It has written in a more elegant style than Franklin. His books shook the world both because of the truth of the stories themselves but also the artistry of the prose.
 
He partnered with Susan B. Anthony to work for universal suffrage- the right to vote. He even ran for President, something Franklin did not do.
 
And I’m whining because I don’t have child care. Mr. Douglass, you make me ashamed and you inspire me at the same time. Maybe that’s what role models are for.

Don’t stop looking

I wished I didn’t have to read this book. But my daughter had been begging to read it. She loved Orwell’s Animal Farm and I’m trying to keep her occupied. So I agreed to let her read 1984.

3 days later, when she was more than halfway through when I realized that it was not enough to ask her what she thought of it. I was going to have to read it again.

I think most people read 1984 in high school. But I wasn’t assigned books in high school. I was a feral reader, and I didn’t read 1984 until I was 22. I had lived through a controlling church and homelife in high school and spend a year and a half in the newly post-soviet Russia.

Orwell’s Big Brother dystopia was scary but plausible that night I picked up my uncle’s copy. I’d seen these twists and traps before.

But the horror of Winston’s fate was one I was determined to avoid. I would never accept the something I knew wasn’t true

No
No
No

But life is long, Winston. And very little in life is indisputable.

Eventually I did get to take that literature class. And I heard what the professors said. I agreed with some of it. And I didn’t agree with all of it. I could still know that two plus two equals four.

Most of the time. Eventually.

And at the end of the book, with Winston’s sorry shamble of a life when he finally gives in, I understood that this was the cruz of the matter.

How do I tell truth?

Because I needed to get some truth out of this beast of a book to give to my daughter. Mothers are supposed to do that, make sense of messy things and hand over a neat child-sized package for her.

What did I just get myself into?

True truth should be easy. But if it were Big Brother would never have gotten away with it.

“Veronica, Winston gave up in the end. He couldn’t believe that 2+2=4”

Her eyes widened, “I know!”

“I need you to know how to tell what’s right. Remember when Winston was tired of Big Brother and wanted to fight? How when he finally talked with O’Brien and O’Brien made him promise that he would be willing to do horrible things, even throw acid in the face of a child to resist Big Brother?”

“yeah…”

“That’s the thing. You can’t do good by doing evil. It all comes down to love. Love never contradicts love.”

Her forehead furrows.

I go on: “Winston should have realized that when O’Brien made him promise to do horrible things to fight Big Brother. Doing bad things to fight bad things can’t be the answer. There has to be another way.

Love won’t contradict love. He’ll have to keep looking.”

What am I looking at

The pandemic is hard on all of us, but what the heck was she thinking? I had seen an innocent little science assignment on the calendar, but when I opened it on the day it was due I discovered it called for a science experiment.

Any science experiment of my choosing. Due to be completed, documented and turned it

THAT DAY

You can’t spring that on me! Science takes TIME and MATERIALS. I had neither. We were on serious lock down so I couldn’t run to the store. And how was I supposed to choose which science experiment from all the experiments in the world? Lots of them looked fun, but none of them were fast enough or with the stuff I had in my house.

I was turning into a volcano trying to cope with this curveball. Maybe my daughter should have documented ME!

And then it hit me. My earlier self had solved this problem.

A few weeks earlier (TIME!) me and Veronica had planted flower seeds in some pots. I had her help me with the intention of having flowers at some time in the future Both pots had the beginnings of a seedlings.

Now to manufacture an after-the-fact hypothesis, write it up and turn it in! She’s practically a pro.

The point of the seeds, after all was to get flowers out of it. It was easy the first couple weeks, because it rained constantly. Then it got hot, and I’ve been tending my pots with daily doses of water.

I want those flowers!

We followed the directions, placing the seeds the correct distance apart. The result (as documented) was only one tiny sprout in each pot. That was sufficient for the post facto science project, but I actually wanted flowers. I scattered the rest of the seeds in each pot.

One pot kept just the one seedling. The other pot sprouted a few more. They are still only about 2 inches tall, but the one seedling is getting big.

Keep watering, let time and sun do its work.

That one seedling though, it getting big! Last week I even saw the beginning of a flower bud. And it’s not even June yet! Flowers are coming.

I’ve been checking even more often.
But something was bothering me. I googled the plant on the seed packet.

Uh oh

It looked nothing like the plant I’ve been tending.

For a month and a half I have been nurturing the growth of a weed.

This is embarrassing. Is this funny or shameful?

I can find a metaphor for anything, but this one seems basic: I’m an idiot.

Part of the problem could be blamed on the fact that I lost my job partway through. I was distracted.

But not really. How come I didn’t realize that this sprout had a very familiar leaf shape for so long?

I believed in the seed package. I visualized the outcome.

So much so that I missed the actual outcome.

Oh. That’s happened before. At that job I lost not so long ago. I was sure sure sure that my vision was going to grow and be realized. I would not give up.

And it’s happened before at jobs I lost long ago. I’ve been taking personal inventory of my career as I look for a new job. I do have a pattern of holding on longer than most.

It was a weed in the yard which looked EXACTLY like my precious potted plant. My story first was “I must have dropped a seed over there!”

Denial ain’t just a river in Egypt. I knew my last job wasn’t headed in the right direction. I gave it extraordinary nurture, but it was not the flower I envisioned.

It wasn’t for lack of trying. It’s just the nature of things.

I’m sticking by my weed now. It has a flower waiting to show me. I’ll let it bloom. And I’m gonna laugh at myself the whole time.

I hope I can learn to pay attention to what’s in front of me.

Technology and Faith

When I went to England, I had to see Canterbury cathedral, mostly because of Chaucer’s Tales.

That night I shut my eyes that night I felt myself flying through the arches up and up and up. I was freed from gravity by those layers of rock sending me to heaven.

But it took time to make those arches. It took trial and error and it took donations from a lot of poor people over generations. I just picked up Ken Follet’s Pillars of the Earth where he talks about the time of cathedral building.

It was science and blood and dirt, and it was faith and spirit. That is powerful stuff.

One of the glorious things of these cathedrals is how many people came. The church was open to everyone. And it was so beautiful!

I try to create beauty with my home, and I’ve been able over time to make it a bit nicer.

But the cathedral is the most beautiful and it is for everyone.

Everywhere I looked was crafted and beautiful: centuries of planning and singlemindedness.

My church does not look like Canterbury. But it too is beautiful. It does not have Gothic arches and flying buttresses, which were the science of their day.

We have stained glass windows for inspiration and loveliness.

We have a sound system with wireless mics, and we have WIFI.

These technologies were not invented for churches like flying buttresses were. But we use them because of the faith we have and to spread love and peace.

Right now, we are not using the church or the wireless mics. We are shut down, doors locked. But we are not oppressed, we just can’t come together in the church.

We can still use technology to spread peace and love and talk about our faith.

Tom, the mason in Pillars of the Earth, in the very first chapter, talks about how he learned to improve his craft and make the pillars even straighter and smoother because cathedrals were special

I am seeing faith leaders from all over coming to terms with my technology. 20+ years in this industry and faith is finding a new way to stretch this remote communication.

Because they believe in what they must share. And this technology—which is awkward and foreign—is being formed into art with their handling.

Just like the cathedral. Art, engineering, blood and faith.

Time for accomodations

Time hung spinning in the now with nowhere to land.
-The Russian American School of Tomorrow

I never miss a meeting for work. I am obsessively careful with time, not letting even casual phone calls go too long. There was an order to things.

There is no order now. It’s a joke “what day is it?” There is nothing to make our days different.

At least when I had my job, I had some flashing signs to direct my traffic.

There is no one waiting for me to show up and go through an agenda. Now it is just me.

But I’ve been here all along.

For 9 years, I had a job with a vehicle. It was shared, but I was officially the one who drove it most.

I did not set the radio buttons to my stations on that car for years. It didn’t feel like I was allowed to.

I remember that car now. This has been my life all along, and yet I have not set my presets.

My inbox piles up and I don’t clean it out. It’s just me. And maybe all those mass mailings will give me just what I need.

Can’t throw it away. You never know.

My fairy godmother could be in one of those.

I got nothing on my calendar anymore. But I have a ton of things I want to do.

But if it’s only me, I’ll stand myself up every time.

My urgency and drive look elsewhere.

I’m trying, but this shelter-at-home situation makes it hard on everyone. That reminded me of the quote from my book, when we crossed the international date line and had no idea what day or time it was.

But I want to do stuff. I am doing stuff, just not at the same rigidity.

And here is the example. This Weekly Wonder was not ready. I was going to write it, like I always do. But things. And stuff

Got in the way. Things that were supposed to happen did, and stuff that was supposed to be shorter was longer and the staging of the piece didn’t happen.

I am still committed to creating my writing. I am still very grateful to my readers. But I’ve become unstuck in time. And I am willing that my self-imposed deadline be flexible this time.

I am making accommodations but still keeping the vision. This is my life. I get to life in it. I will make it more my own, but apparently it takes some time.

When It’s Dark

I had to get out and be by myself. This is a whole lot of togetherness. I wanted my thoughts to myself.

I grabbed my headphones and went for a walk.  I picked a sad soulful song, and as I walked I felt so free I sang out loud.

Like it was my first time and I didn’t know that I was out loud and in a wobbly key.

This time I did know, but I was glad to be alone.

Walking past all my neighbors’ backyard fences I wondered if I was actually alone. My voice could carry into their backyards.

I was okay with that.

It was worth it to me.

This shelter in place situation is asking me to learn a new way of being. Learn to get along with my housemates/family in new ways. New coping tools to get through the day.

And revive old coping tools.

I remember my cassette Walkman as a teenager. I remember learning what it meant to sing with the headphones in my ears. Embarrassing! I did not sound as good as I though. I learned not to sing out loud.

But today, why not?

This was a good song, and I could sing! Even if someone MIGHT hear me.

I could dance, even though people can see me.

This house arrest is not the boss of me. I am not going to play small. I get to choose.

I’m not hurting anybody with my steps. That’s what I came here for, to clear up my mind.

To remember who I am and what I love.

I haven’t lived through a pandemic before. But to borrow a phrase, I’ve had apocalypse-adjacent experiences. Remember the nuclear war that never happened?

This is happening, and I am willing to be messy while I am living through it. I want to be messy in the right direction.

Be messy more as my truest happiest self.

And that involves singing and dancing while loving and hiding from my family.

That’s me choosing life. Let there be light.

Arranging the pieces

He was arranging the pieces into words, but he could never quite manage to make the word he wanted

            The Snow Queen, by Hans Christian Andersen

We put a puzzle together last week. Not so many pieces, but at last she was ready. She’d never been patient enough for puzzles before. But now we are ready to try anything to pass the time.

So much time.

There would not have been so much time if I hadn’t lost my job. My job took a lot of time. But now we have even more time.


And we need a new puzzle. I asked around and a friend gave me one she had finished.

The magic cannot be invoked twice. It must be passed on.

This new puzzle magic was bigger though. We started it like the last one, on the kitchen table, handling the pieces and familiarizing ourselves.

It was not long before I recognized a problem. This was not a quick puzzle. We would need this table to eat from before the puzzle was done.

It had to be moved to another surface. We brought in side tables and this took some of the joy out. Still, we had made progress–we’d found all the corner pieces.

So the puzzle work was set aside in another room for later.

And later came sooner than I thought. That very night I work up in the dark. Hours passed. Sleep would not return.

But when the horizon turned light, I turned to the puzzle. 

Through the fog and the tired, I tried to arrange these pieces. My thoughts, my future, my goals, my life and I just found the corner of that book.  But where is the mouse right next to the corner?

I was sure we had lost pieces in the transfer. And in my sleepless fog I was sure I was missing pieces on the plan for the future, and the plan for the present which sure should have been better than trying to put together a cat puzzle alone.

Putting the puzzle together was not hard. I could do it. And maybe I could come up with a plan for the rest.

I remembered the story of the Snow Queen, one of the darkest scenes when the magic-deceived boy Kay is left by the wicked snow queen to put the pieces of the ice puzzle together. The wicked queen has left him to die of cold, but he is determined to put the pieces together. His faithful friend saves him from the impossible deadly task.

Oh there is the mouse, finally! I really thought I had lost the piece. I am not Kay. And even Kay was rescued.

This will come together. Yes, I may have lost a piece in all the moving, which will be sad. It will still be okay. Order will come out of chaos, with time and attention and a whole lot of little actions.