Thursday, January 30, 2014

Compared to what?

Perspective. It's an easy concept to grasp: What looks one way to one person, looks another to someone else, depending on their background and beliefs. The idea of perspective also brings in one's attitude. An optimistic mindset can really be an asset when confronting change. Fortunately, I am an eternal optimist.

I was having an especially difficult day yesterday when I stumbled upon the story of Katherine Stone of Atlanta who had driven 11 hours in the recent snowstorm to get to her kids. She explained how people with no jackets (because it doesn't get cold in Atlanta) had to abandon their cars and walk for hours. I stopped, reset my attitude, and gained some perspective. That's actually a parenting trick I've used in the past on my daughter: "I can see you're having a rough time, so can you please try to change your attitude?" I didn't realize it would work on me.

It's an old saying that bad news comes in threes and sevens. While I'm not superstitious, I have sometimes found this idiom to hold true. I'm dealing with my own sets of threes and sevens this month: my grandmother's death, as well as the personal tragedies of a long lost friend on Facebook, and a dear colleague. Add to this other concerns such as work rumors, repairing my condo, and the uncertainty of school and where to live, and I've got seven. Seven issues to keep my brain occupied, searching them over and over as if I'm panning for gold and if I think if I just think about it the right way, I'll come up with a gold nugget of an answer.

When things I've taken for granted suddenly change, I attempt to look at it as an opportunity. However, I am such a planner that I find it enormously challenging to remain steadfast in the face of change. Taking time off from my normal routine to reflect really helps. So does reading the wise words of Thích Nhất Hạnh

But other times, nothing helps. I have to just sit with my unsettled feelings and have faith that the right answer, the right course of action for me and my family, is going to become clear if I just hang in there. I love these words that Robin Roberts spoke at the MA Conference for Women in December 2013: "When fear knocks, let faith answer the door." Well, hello, fear. You don't scare me. I am equipped with the experience, the resilience, and the determination to keep on keepin' on.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

The life of the literate

I've been thinking a lot recently about how reading a good book really transforms you, transporting you to another reality where anything is possible. I possess a lifelong love of reading. I estimate I've read between 40,000-50,000 books since I started at 3, and I have no intention of slowing down. People ask me how I read so quickly, and I don't know, other than practice. My childhood friends can attest that my favorite spot was under a tree reading a book, and not much has changed. I read between 60-80 books each year and visit my library weekly, often daily. There's nothing else for me that can reduce the stress of a long day. I love curling up with a good book, and emerging transformed by a totally unique perspective. These pictures from Grammarly strongly resonate with me.

I will read just about anything: board books to my daughter, my online moms'  forums, Facebook, and Twitter. Literature remains my favorite, consumed in many forms: hardcover, softcover, eBook, audiobook on iPhone, audio CDs.

I'm currently listening to The Goldfinch on audio (iPhone), and I'm at part 28 of 32 approximately 1-hour sections. An unanticipated trip came up this weekend, with 5 hours of driving, and I was looking forward to the chance to listen to 5 more hours of the book. I drive best when I'm listening to an awesome book: mind engaged, eyes on the road.

The Goldfinch is a wonder, a masterpiece. Though at times some of the narrative is superfluous, at other, more frequent times, the prose is so eloquent that I feel transplanted into the lives of the characters. Without giving too much away, the main character gets into some trouble. Objectively, if I had just heard about Theo's situation, I would have an immediate distaste for him. But somehow, perhaps through Tartt's use of the first person and introducing the protagonist at such a young age, I feel true concern for Theo and his future, and like him despite his situation. The Goldfinch is the rare book that I will grieve over once I finish it, and wish for the time to reread it immediately. There's only a handful of books I place in this category, many of which I devoured in one sitting: The Handmaid's Tale, The Robber Bride, Freedom, One Day, Where'd You Go, Bernadette, The Marriage Plot, She's Come Undone. I'm sure I'm missing a few.

Literature is my most favorite art form, even more so than music. Captivating lyrics are the common thread in all of the musicians I enjoy, an otherwise seemingly random group including Ben Folds, Amanda Palmer, They Might Be Giants, Guster, and Regina Spektor.

Here's a quote from The Goldfinch I especially enjoyed, about how the way we enjoy art is so personal: “If a painting really works down in your heart and changes the way you see and think and feel, you don't think, 'oh I love this painting because it's universal' 'I love this painting because it speaks to mankind'. That's not the reason anyone loves a piece of art. It's a secret whisper from an alleyway. Psst, you. Hey kid. Yes, you. An individual heart shock. . . .A really great painting is fluid enought to work its way into the mind and heart through all different angles, in ways that are unique and very particular.” 
― Donna TarttThe Goldfinch

Look for me on Goodreads, where I try to review everything I'm reading. I also finished Maxed Out: American Moms on the Brink this weekend. A very courageous, honest story, and a must read for moms working outside the home.

I'll end tonight's musings with one last image from Grammarly.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

The view from the eye of the storm

It was a long night. Lu came down with the stomach bug that's been going around. Thankfully she is resting comfortably now, alongside her dad who stayed up most of the night with her. One of the hardest things I've had to do as a parent is to watch my child struggle with discomfort or pain.

I've felt uncomfortable and unsettled a lot these days. As a Boston resident, we have to enter into a lottery system to determine which school Lu is assigned to for kindergarten. I've watched many friends receive a coveted slot in a good school, or a reputably mediocre placing that ended up happily surprising them. However, I've seen many other families leave the city in droves or go the private school route. After an amazing preschool experience, we will move before accepting a spot we are uncomfortable with. Last year, we opted for another year of paid preschool rather than take a spot that would be a 45 minute bus ride across town at a school rated 3 of 10 on Great Schools where the parents are asked to supply the toilet paper.

Regrettably, this random system also affects where we will live. Boston has become our home over the last 12 years. Most of our good friends live here, and I feel shaken at the thought of selling our condo and moving to a town with better schools. And which one, where to start?! It has been so hard for me not to have a 5 or 10 year plan, let alone a 1 year plan. I'm trying to embrace this unknown future as a new opportunity to create the life my family and I envision.

We mark the passage of time with these arbitrary measurements: seconds, minutes, hours, days, weeks, and years. Amid the current upheaval of my daily existence, I've tried to focus less on the passage of time and more on the moments. Holding my daughter close while she finally naps after a long night of sleeplessness. Smiling to see that I've received a message from a friend. Creating content to share with my family and friends, finally releasing the torrent of words that I didn't realize I'd been stifling by not writing.

Most importantly, focusing on the moments helps me to be the person I strive to teach my daughter to be. I can have a bit of a temper and impatient personality, probably inherited from my mom and her Irish roots. I know you're readings this, so thanks, mom! Fortunately, this is balanced by my dad's stoic English stock. My dad taught me to be patient and kind. I remember he admonished me as an adult for not stopping to greet some workers outside my building. Never forgo an opportunity to be nice to someone, he said. My dad proudly displays posters around his house with adages like "lost time is never found again" and "do unto others as you would have them do unto you." My advice to myself is displayed on my fridge in magnet form: "Be kind. No exceptions. -Secret Agent L." I may not know where we'll live or where my daughter will go to school next year, and that is a scary thought to me. But if I can enter into this journey showing grace and compassion to everyone I encounter, I will be better off for it.

Friday, January 17, 2014

What's In Your Inbox?

Are you an empty inboxer? If you don't know what I'm talking about, then you're probably not. I am, and always have been, someone who loves to prune away at her inbox. It's more satisfying to me than pruning hedges or weeding. My goal, which happens infrequently I'll admit, is to have 0 messages in both my personal and my work inbox. Getting to 0 means I have no more obligations or action items, at least as far as my mail is concerned. I love the clean appearance of 0 unread and read messages in my inbox. Nothing to do! It's an illusion, of course, but a welcome one.

I am a compulsive filer of emails. I have 55 labels in Gmail, and 47 folders in Outlook. I was surprised that the number is so similar. I guess my life, both personally and professionally, conveniently breaks down into approximately 50 categories.

I've collected email management tips over the years the way a hobbyist might collect stamps or baseball cards. Beyond the standard folders labeled by subject or product, I use 2 awesome folders. One of my favorites is the Pending Follow Up folder. This is for the email that you can take no further action upon, but that you can't forget about. It might be something that you'll need to remind a person about a few times before they reply. Ultimately, it's something you'll be held responsible for, even if it's someone else who drops the ball, so it's in your best interest to keep track of it. But, it's sitting there cluttering your inbox! Move it to the Pending Follow Up folder, and your problem is solved.

My other favorite email folder is Thank You. Any time a colleague notes something I did well, it goes here. I save up all of this feedback, both verbal (which I save in Excel) and the emails, and track it on a weekly basis. Or monthly when things are too busy. This evidence of my performance comes in handy for quarterly reviews and self assessments at the end of the year. Also, this is a great folder to peruse if you're having a difficult day, to remind you how much of a difference you make.

When's the last time your inbox got to 0? In a stroke of fortuitousness worthy of a blue moon, I'm anticipating that today I'll make it to 0 in both my Outlook and Gmail! Right now I have just 2 mails in each, respectively. I will savor the moment of getting to zero, transient as it might be.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Confessions of a former perfectionist

I was reading HuffingtonPost yesterday and came across this article on Type A personalities. I laughed and shared it with my friends because it was so like me (except the fatalism part, I tend not to obsess over nightmare scenarios and am an eternal optimist). But I do embody many Type A and perfectionist qualities, such as impatience, stubbornness, and frequent multitasking. And, as you'll learn in some of my upcoming posts, I am a ruthless time and task manager.

I struggle to think of my days with any perspective other than a race to conquer my never-ending to-do list. However, just like Sisyphus and his rock, the tasks keep mounting and I keep plowing through them. On a Monday, I challenge myself to check off as many tasks as possible to add a buffer to the remainder of my week. I recycle emails in an effort to write something well once and reuse it. On a weekend, I try to defy the space-time continuum, dropping off a donation to Savers (and shopping a little), sailing through the grocery store, then getting back in time for the plumber to install the garbage disposal.

In an effort to break out of my habits, I did 2 things differently this week. At work, when I would have used a boilerplate email to get updates from 7 colleagues on the same project, I paused. I pictured each colleague at his desk in Atlanta, London, Milan, Bellevue, Baton Rouge, Herzliya, and Paris. I crafted each message to what I knew about the person, and tried to cater each message to that person in that moment. It took a little longer, sure, but I was more satisfied with the result. I had made a human connection, not just checked off a box.

The second came when I had the pleasure of a quiet lunch out by myself. Normally I come armed with a book and my iPhone, eager to immerse myself in another world. On this day, however, I sat quietly, savoring the food, noticing its temperature, consistency, flavor. I sipped chai tea and enjoyed the navaratan korma. I reacted to the music, favoring the Bollywood hits to the traditional style Indian music. I imagined the conversations of the friends seated 2 tables away, and invented stories about the life of the other sole patron. I had a few moments where I wanted to reach for my phone and scan my Facebook or Twitter feeds, but I resisted. And breathed.

Am I going to become a laid-back, relaxed, go with the flow type of person? Never in a million years; it defies my identity. But more and more, I am learning to enjoy small pleasures such as a genuine email thank you from a colleague. Or sitting quietly with my thoughts rather than worry about what else I want to accomplish that day. My worth and contributions are so much more than a series of checked-off boxes.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Typical Saturday morning

I rushed my daughter Lu to ballet class this morning. She was not happy to leave the house with 5 minutes left in her Scooby Doo episode, and I threatened no TV for the rest of the day if she didn't stop whining. Fortunately she pulled it together and apologized in the car. We usually run late to our 9:15 class, regardless of whether my husband or I take her. I found some parents at the cafe whose child attends Lucy's preschool, so I had a nice chat and enjoyed tea with them while she danced.

Like most times spent with kids, this morning was a roller coaster. Refreshed from a relaxing tea with my daycare friends, I lost track of the time and arrived a few minutes after ballet class had ended. She greeted me with a worried expression, saying she didn't know where I was, and buried her head in my leg. I felt terrible, but it was a good opportunity to tell her to sit tight with an adult she knows in case I am outside or downstairs when she's done.

Next we went to brunch. Lu had to use the bathroom right away, so we spent what felt like 10 minutes there before we'd even ordered water. When we got to the table, she chose pancakes. Then she asked if the flower on the table was real or fake. I told her fake, and she asked if it was meant to look fancy. I told her it was, and she was disappointed that I would not let her put water in the vase for the fake flower. She immediately assumed a grumpy disposition, and started ducking her head under the table. If I looked under, she'd pop her head up, and vice versa. I was worried she'd bump her head and told her so, and sure enough, 2 minutes later she did. I looked around the room, desperate for escape, silently hoping for a better mood, reminiscing about when I could come to brunch straight from bed at 10:30 and enjoy a mimosa and peace and quiet. Why did I take her to brunch myself? Luckily the food came soon after and she quickly forgot about her boo boo in favor of sausage and scrambled eggs.

Most of the meal progressed uneventfully, enjoyably. I think Lu had been irritable because she was hungry, and she started acting more like herself. Near the end of the meal, she discovered the delight of blowing bubbles in her water. She squealed with excitement, and beamed a smile of pure joy. She asked me to try, so we took turns for a while. We were quickly back in our flow. The innocent pleasure of discovering a fun new trick was evident on my daughter's face, and so rewarding to watch.

She had to use the bathroom again before we left. This can create havoc, but this time, she was cooperative and we played little games like "my boot fell off." She told me, "mommy, you're the best mommy ever!" This is why I take her to brunch, I reminded myself. As we walked out, satisfied, suddenly she began whining that her leotard felt uncomfortable and tugging at it. I attempted to adjust it without success, and begged her to just come with me and fix it in the car. She dragged her feet and whined most of the way, and was crying about how uncomfortable her outfit was by the time we got to the car. She cheered up on the way home, comforted by cheerios.

I titled this post typical because it sums up my experience with parenting thus far. Just when I think, this kid is the best, and I have it together today, she humbles me in the same thought with some tantrum or unmet need. And as soon as I draw in an exasperated breath, thinking, I just have to make it through this unpleasant moment, she pulls me close and makes me wonder why I would ever think of being anywhere else.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Why Technology?

People often ask me how I got into technology, given my upbringing in rural Maine and my undergrad education at Bates College in English literature and French. I began my career logically enough, as an editor. I was teaching readers how to use a software called SAP, with articles specializing in finance, HR, supply chain management, and data warehousing. The challenge was that a lot of our authors were subject matter experts, and some were decent writers. However, many more of them spoke English as a second or third language. So on top of the language barrier, they were attempting to explain a complex technology. They all had day jobs and the articles were at best a side project and at worst a nuicance, so the article drafts were often hurried, confusing, and missing vital steps.

So imagine you're an English literature major trying to decipher how some consultant wants to optimally structure your InfoCubes in an ideal data warehouse. There was a lot of jargon, acronyms, and ideas to research before I could even get at what I thought the author might be saying. I often ended up learning about the topic online, rewriting the article based on what I thought the author had been getting at, and asking for a fact check of the new article I'd written. What I discovered through this process is that I was fascinated by what SAP software could do to streamline, automate, and transform a business. With my background, the editing came second nature, but the technology grabbed my attention.

Realizing how exciting technology was, I founded a research department at the publishing company to study what users wanted, and ultimately deliver articles, newsletters, and conferences to meet their needs. I later learned that this is considered product management, which I fell in love with all over again in grad school.

I had the good fortune to land a job at this software company I had written articles about, SAP, for almost 5 years. While at SAP I attended a conference that transformed my future in technology, the Grace Hopper conference for Women in Computing. Even though I was working for a software company, I still suffered from impostor syndrome, a term Sheryl Sandberg popularized in Lean In. Attending this conference, surrounded by thousands of technical women, instilled a new confidence in me that allowed me to apply to, and graduate with honors from, the high tech MBA at Northeastern University.

So my career in technology has been a circuitous route. But I wouldn't have it any other way, because I bring a unique perspective that someone with a more traditional business or computer degree lacks. As my classmates and colleagues inform me, I "write good." :)

Thursday, January 2, 2014

A new year, a new project

I've contemplated starting a blog in the past, and have been told by numerous friends that I should start one. I have resisted, using the obvious excuses: I don't have time, I'm concerned for my privacy, and I don't know what angle my blog should have.

2014 is the year! I plan to blog about everything: my life, career in technology, family, and interests. I'll just tag the posts appropriately so you can read what you like.

I really admire several blogs. My local friend Casey's blog has been internationally republished, won awards, and amazingly, she managed to post every day in 2013. Such an inspiration! I go to Jenny Lawson's site for laughs. I also read 2 other moms' blogs, written by a local mom Joy and from a formerly local mom living in Alsace.

Professionally, I follow Ms. Mind Body, Peter Bregman, Michael Hyatt, Kathrin Winkler, and Pat, The Work Options Adviser on Facebook.

And so it begins! I hope you will find something here that you enjoy.