Not so unprecedented

In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.

Genesis 1:1

My daughter just finished a month of theater class. Theaters in the pandemic are dark. Shut down.

During this time

This uncertain time…this unprecedented time…Now more than ever…people pulled in for survival.

Food, Lysol and toilet paper were hoarded and everything that wasn’t needed in the next 5 minutes was jettisoned.

Now more than ever, think about what REALLY matters…I bought a 10-pound bag of pinto beans.

Last week I finished the last bean. Still here. Even bought a few more (smaller) bags of beans.

What really matters now? I had focused on keeping the world working, keeping systems working and keeping my kid learning even without a school.

And then came summer, which was not much different since it meant even less to do with no school.

I scrambled for activities. Didn’t ANYBODY have anything fun?

Online theater class. She’s a born theater geek. Fun is what I was looking for.

I didn’t realize how much more she was looking for it. Fun learning that required her to look inside herself. Finally, someone was asking her to bring herself to the moment.

That hadn’t happened since the pandemic. Math, social studies and spelling was not a reflection of herself.

But being a character—that she invented—was.

That brought me back to what really matters. As the story goes, in the beginning God created. And that is how God made up God’s days. I am supposed to be that same spirit. The spirit that creates.

Veronica was asked to create. It scared her.

Creating is scary for everyone. There is this high standard for creating, that it must be 100% unique or it somehow doesn’t count.

Genesis 1 tells us the story first thing: “In the beginning God created.” And just to put that impossible standard to rest, the bible tells the same story again, but different: John 1 says “In the beginning was the word”

It’s like he completely plagiarized!

Yes, and it’s ok. John had a new way of saying the same story. A way that echoed and created in its own way. Which means I can do the same, pressure is off.

Veronica had a great teacher, who showed her how and encouraged her and it made her happy. Not hyper happy, but grounded and at peace happy.

Which is what really matters.

I found some time to create this week too. My tight little worried soul got to stretch a bit. It was worth it to play some music with my hands. And out some colored pencils to color.

I’m grateful for those pinto beans. And I am grateful I get to keep creating and bringing myself to my life. Now more than ever…

Not again

If I have to do it more than once, I should do it better the second time. That’s what I aim for, and I mostly hit it. Mostly.

But if I’m staying in a hotel for a weekend, I don’t make the effort to organize everything. Doesn’t seem worth it. I’ll only be there a couple days.

That’s how I’ve been living in this pandemic. Like it was a weekend. It’s stretching out.

I’m doing these same things again and again, and I am not doing them well. It’s time to act like I live here.

Things have changed, while I was thinking they would revert. The world has settled into a groove when I thought we were at a traffic light.

I joined a virtual summit this week about how to communicate virtually. How’s that for meta?

But we are all talking through cameras and laptop speakers. I think that I need to get better at it.

Last month it was enough just to turn my camera on. But almost everyone is doing that now. I will need to bring more to the party.

Bringing More

How can I bring more of myself to my online communications? How can I be there for others?

Yes, I could buy a better microphone. And better lighting. I may do that.

But one of the keynotes at the summit had another slant: bring more of my best self. Fatima Doman had a talk about using authentic strengths while communicating.

I know this technology. It’s not the lighting, it’s the love. It’s the welcome and the curiosity that makes my communications addictive.

And when I say addictive, I mean addictive for ME. Sure, I want other people to want to talk to me. But I want to have my meetings and conversations be a sincere delight.

That means I can’t phone it is. I have to bring my attention to it, and find the miracle.

There will always be a miracle. It’s my job to spend enough time and attention to find it. It might not take long.

I’m not willing to settle for short-term living. Wherever the horizon is, it is too short. I need to aim past it.

I’ve been falling short. I’m going to get up, dust myself off and try again, with my expectations set for endurance.

Some things never change. I know for sure I won’t get it right the first time. But I will keep trying.

Preparing for the Journey

I got to hear Toni Morrison give a lecture at the Central Library in Los Angeles. Well, I wasn’t there, but I heard the recording a few years later

At the end, in the Q&A, she said something I can’t forget. I’m paraphrasing:

‘I remember taking it all so seriously when I was young. Being so hard on myself to GET IT RIGHT. You are asking if it would be cold comfort to give in to superficiality…At my age I take whatever comfort I can get.’

Times are hard. I’m living through a collective lonely experience, when time stands still and comforts are few. I don’t mean to be a downer, but it’s getting tough.

Toni was a wise woman. Take the comfort you can.

They made another change today, because of COVID. shutting down more things that had just opened.

We used to be able to make plans, with the only factor being if I wanted to. Now, there are a lot of locked doors.

So, I’ve been indulging in escapism: romance novels. I only wish I were better at escapism. Right now, I’d love to have a consuming low-level hobby. Like video games or Sudoku.

But this is all I’ve got. I’ve always been about books and music.

It’s down to me in all these responsibilities. A whole lotta sameness all at the same time.

I thank you Toni. It was a nice to have permission to have some comfort in my escapism. I got a breather from the unrelenting duty of staying home. I can get up to not go out for another day. That’s the endurance challenge.

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.