Monday, September 28, 2009

Prayer #83: Saturated

Bad Religious Prank Calls

::ring ring::
"Excuse me, is your cup running over?"
"Then you better go catch it! Hahahahaha!"

Prayer #83: Saturated

When one's cup runneths over, where exactly does it spill? Can I scoop it up with a spare glass and stick it in the fridge? Maybe use it to water the plants or make a nice chicken stock?

I ask because You don't seem like the type of deity who would want good joy to go to waste. So many people's cups have leaks -- who am I to hoard a bowl's worth?

Just doesn't seem right. Or fair.

So I'd like to propose a reuse program. When my cup is runnething over, I will first thank You for all the good things You put in it. I will then drink the cup so all that love and comfort and worthfulness is sloshing around inside me. And then, fortified by the one cup, I will help pour the runneth-off into other people's empty mugs.

In doing so, we'll eliminate a lot of waste and inefficiency and get that joy where it needs to be -- in the cups of people who need it.

What do You think? Can You stand behind this project? Care to endorse me?


Friday, September 25, 2009

The Happiness Project asks: How well do you know yourself?

Happiness is ... finding a pencil? A warm gun? Or reading The Happiness Project blog by Gretchen Rubin?

For me, it's the last one. My coworker introduced me to Gretchen's blog several months ago, and the combo of strong writing, actionable advice, and genuine introspection (without veering into gummy self-help territory) has kept me returning. It's like happy crack.

I've been sitting on this particular Happiness post since May. Why I haven't written about it yet is beyond me. Maybe because it's called Quiz: How Well Do You Know Yourself?, and digging deep into what makes me tick always feels a little itchy, no matter how comfortable I (think) I am with myself, because if I find out something mind-blowing, my whole life could change and that's exciting in a terrifying sort of way.

Or maybe I didn't write about it because I'm perfect and know everything there is to know. Clearly.

So, in line with IMS's quest to nourish all parts of you, I'm finally sharing the short quiz so you too can feel equally itchy reach a higher plane of self-awareness without the aid of certain pharmaceuticals. Questions here:
1. What part of the newspaper do you read first?

2. What are three books you’ve read in the past year?

3. As a child, what did you do in your free time?

4. What’s a goal that has been on your list for a few years?

5. What do you actually do with your free time?

6. What types of activities energize you?

7. What famous people intrigue you?

There's no wrong answer -- just what's right for you. (For example, I answered "writing and/or reading and/or authors" to 5 of the 7 questions. I'm not sure, but I think there might be a theme.)

And if you're curious about your discoveries and want to keep the happy train going, look into Gretchen's book The Happiness Project when it comes out this December.

In the meantime, indulge my nosiness -- what did you realize about yourself?

P.S. Speaking of happy ... Happy Birthday to the Fran Man at Undergrad Rag! Enjoy the big 2-3.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

How to get your work approved without making a trip to Arkham

Photo by Leeni!

The approval process ages me. With each passing day and each new project, I feel less like I'm project managing, and more like I'm pushing an elephant through a Silly Straw. Hardly productive and bad for my back.

But what breaks approval processes in the first place? What warps the simple cycle of 'idea - execution - review - edit - approval' into an M.C. Escher-like bending of the space-time continuum? Causes I've observed include:

* An inability to take organizational processes to scale
* No clear decision-maker
* Micro-managing/hand-holding your implementers
* Need for consensus
* Not setting (or disregarding) project goals

And so on. If you're like me and operate at the do-er level, you won't have the oversight or pull to fix deep-seated organizational quirks, so accept that right now and move on. (Which will be extra hard if you are a control freak -- also like me.)

But there are some ways you can make an impact at your pay grade to keep the process moving AND keep your hair attached to your head.

1. Strengthen the first link in the chain. Before worrying about improving the entire approval chain, start with the first step -- you and your manager. Find out how he/she prefers to approve your work. A sit-down edit? Quick sign-off? Factor that information into your project planning and aim to nail that first step. Having your manager's total buy-in will prove helpful later if you need extra heft to keep the work moving up the org chart.

2. Batch your work. If you don't have a micro-manager at the helm, batching your work can save time and confusion on the front end. Rather than get one small piece approved at a time, collect all the moving parts and present together. This not only saves you the effort of pushing through individual pieces, but it creates more context for the approver. And if your approvers can see the big picture, you can skip all the confusion and re-explanation and go right to the edits/sign-off.

3. Budget in time for delays and changes. Work happens. People get held up, distracted, called on a business trip, etc. Or, they're just super-slow. As you learn the ropes in your organization, take note of people's working and approval styles and build that time into your approval process. This decreases your chances that one person will derail the whole project train. Bonus: If by some act of God everyone approves early, you can submit the final product early too!

4. Worry about the only thing you have control over: you. Also known as, accept the inevitable. For me, this is the hardest technique. Priorities will shift. Projects will get delayed. Higher-ups will demand work by a certain date, and then let it collect dust on their desk. You just have to let it go and do your work the best you can. Because you won't do anyone any good if they have to pry the project plan from your cold hands after you die from stress.

That's what I'm learning in my little corner of cubicle nation. My fellow do-ers: What techniques have you discovered for keeping projects moving and your sanity intact?

Monday, September 21, 2009

Prayer #82: Hand It Over

Fr. Greenfield on trusting God: "There are already three persons in the Holy Trinity. Don't try to be a fourth."

Prayer #82: Hand It Over

I could slip it under the door.

I could drop it in the mailbox.

I could fax it from the office.

I could gift-wrap it and place it under the tree.

I could strap it to a carrier pigeon's leg.

I could seal it in a time capsule for later discovery.

I could roll it up in a bottle to be cast in the ocean.

I could place in a brown paper bag and leave it in an undisclosed location.

Or, I could simply hand it to You.

But no matter the delivery method, my desire to be in full control must reach Your hands eventually if I'm ever to have peace. Just be prepared for it to arrive in separate shipments and over great lengths of time.

Oh, and God -- thanks in advance for accepting the package(s). Knowing You're signing keeps me from going postal.

Signed, sealed, delivered -- Amen.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

If Eddie Izzard can do it, so can I

Two weeks from today, I will be participating in my first triathlon. Yes, two weeks. Yes, triathlon.

But that seems like nothing compared to what Eddie Izzard accomplished. He ran 43 marathons in 51 days -- after only 5 weeks of training -- to raise more than 200,000 pounds for Sport Relief (and shed a few of his own in the process).

I'm in awe. I'm also thinking I better not complain about swimming 750 meters in a training wheels tri -- I mean, a relay sprint triathlon.

So off I go to the pool to swim my laps, not to be confused with napping. I will wrestle into my swimming cap without tears. I will toddle along next to the old man sharing my lane, and try not to think about how doing this in open water surrounded by hundreds of people might signal my untimely demise.

Then again, I might meet new people from all over while we're splashy-splashy in Lake Anna. Or see inside a castle. Or get some jelly beans.

After all, it happened to Eddie Izzard. He did the impossible. So maybe I can too.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Climate change is getting personal -- tell me YOUR story

The post in which Julia explains what kept her from IMS for five days.

I love campaign launches -- the strategy, the ideas, the breathless anticipation. (Not so much with last-minute changes and long days, but hey, they get you where you need to be.)

Launches are even more exciting when they're centered around critical issues, because then you suddenly connect to an entire community of people passionate about and committed to a similar cause. And in this case, the cause couldn't be more urgent: stop climate change.

Enter It's Getting Personal, a grassroots-facing initiative designed to highlight climate change's immediate and dire impacts on humans. As we say on the site, it's not just about polar bears on ice floes -- it's about people too, and what will happen to them and the things they love most.

It can be as big as losing your coastal home to rising sea levels and erosion. But it's also as basic as not having French wine anymore, because higher temperatures will push vineyard production north to Scotland. Or about eating pancakes dry, because warmer climes are sapping sap away ... which means no maple syrup.

Some people might say that bringing climate change to this level is flippant. How can we possibly compare destroying indigenous cultures to giving up a favorite treat?

But I disagree. It's easy to ignore climate change when you never visit Antarctica and don't see the ice melting. It's far harder to turn a blind eye when the things that make up your daily life start disappearing. So by putting climate change at the kitchen table, we better show just how pervasive and dire it is.

Our immediate target, of course, are the Copenhagen climate talks in December, where we hope to influence a global climate change agreement by sharing your deeply personal stories with world leaders and demonstrating the human impact.

After that, though, we'll have to reevaluate. Right now, the buzz surrounding Copenhagen is pessimistic. WSJ says the talks are in danger of failure. Reuters warns success is not guaranteed. So if the deal is as impotent as everyone fears, our quest to save our rock will become much more Sisyphean.

That's why we need to act now. And it's as simple as telling your story. What will you miss? What will you lose? What is climate change taking away from you as we speak?

Submit your story here at It can be photo, video, or text. Send what you uploaded to friends and family. And check yes for updates so you can stay posted on further action.

Share now -- help save later. Thank you so much for adding your voice to the cause!

Monday, September 14, 2009

Prayer #81: Graveyard

This prayer brought to you by my recent stint at the Historic Congressional Cemetery (volunteering, not staying).

Prayer #81: Graveyard

Each day, we have a funeral. We die a little, cry a bit, bury a teeny grave, and leave our woes and frustrations and expectations in hidden mounds around our existence.

But out of sight is not out of mind. These graveyards of our lives are fresh earth. They give way beneath our feet. They remind us we are flawed and fleeting. They are our-fault lines.

So what would happen if we didn't bury our imperfections, but embraced them? Didn't hide them in shame, but released them? Then the ground would be unbroken. Wisdom from the deed -- rather than knowledge of where we hid the bodies -- would guide us.

We wouldn't perish, but simply let go.

God of the living, uncover all the little graveyards of my life. Exhume the tired ghosts; let them evaporate. And as soon as You've lifted my gaze from the ground, my eyes are Yours for the seeing.


Friday, September 11, 2009

My 9/11 Day of Service (Or, How Japanese garden knives are instruments of peace)

When life hands you violence, make peace. Or, when life hands you a Japanese garden knife, pull out weeds.

That was my contribution to the 9/11 National Day of Service, an event honoring those who died and served around that touchstone date. This year, through Greater DC Cares, three colleagues and I helped out at the Historic Congressional Cemetery in southeast DC. This 200-year-old private cemetery is the eternal resting place for many politicians, well-known DC families, veterans, and more, including John Philip Sousa and J. Edgar Hoover.

You might find it morbid -- or worse, flippant -- to spend 9/11 gardening in a cemetery, as if groundskeeping could really make a difference, or as if we really needed any reminding about that day's death toll. But by the end of our volunteer session, I knew we'd made a good decision, because in the peace and quiet of those hallowed grounds we found the space to open up about what 9/11 meant to us and for us.

One Chamber of Commerce employee told us how when the third plane struck the Pentagon, he was on a conference call at his downtown DC office. "I'm sorry, I have to go -- we're under attack," he said. Then he wandered out into the street, only to find that thousands of other DC residents had wandered outside too -- and were standing in absolute silence, looking toward the White House.

My colleague shared that her friend's father, only 57 years old, was killed in one of the Towers. His body was found in November, along with those of a group of policemen. It's unclear whether they had gone back in or never made it out. His son -- my colleague's friend, a highly educated intellectual -- became "virulently" anti-Arab, a stance she says has lessened only a little over time.

And I thought about my morning up at college, when a friend in NYC frantically IMed me: "We're being attacked!" Confused, I walked into our dorm floor common area where the TV was blaring -- just in time to watch the second plane hit. I remember wandering across campus in a daze, attending peace vigils that weekend, and watching our significant NYC student population constantly talk and cry and hold each other for weeks thereafter.

Today I got perspective on what 9/11 meant to others around the country. Today I grasped how this horrific event, though known for its global repercussions, was really more about personal impact. And I remembered, truly remembered, my realization 8 years ago that the world in which I was to become an adult was not going to be the one I had expected -- and for the first time, I have enough years behind me to understand just how different those worlds are.

All this with a Japanese garden knife in my hand, hacking at stubborn weeds on the brick path with grave markers on all sides, marveling that somehow we manage to keep this crazy world going long enough to need to keep doing this at all.

The people beneath those tombstones are never coming back. The bricks -- the cemetery's originals -- will eventually wear down under rain and feet. But those weeds will always return, because they are resilient and tough and determined. It's how they're built. And there will be a new batch of people, fresh and eager and energetic, ready to tackle them. Because it's how they're built too.

Today I gave a little beauty and order back to a chaotic, inexplicable earth. It's not enough to save it, I know. But it might be enough to hold the chaos at bay, just for now. And I hope the more we remember and the more we restore, the stronger that protection becomes, so that one day we can put aside the knives completely and enjoy the path together.

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Friends make good diving boards (and 6 other snapshots of a wonderful life)

I'm pleased to report cappuccinos still taste best on barstools, but I'm not too sure where America stands on Zombie Response Plans.

* When grilling in the dark, employ a head lamp to check your food. This earns you cool points AND keeps you from contracting salmonella.

* The pit in your stomach at saying goodbye is best alleviated by immediately planning your next visit.

* 'Woot' is an acceptable Scrabble word.

* A friend's shoulders make the most unexpected and entertaining ocean diving board.

* Never underestimate the blessing that is a male friend's non-jealous girlfriend.

* Salt water gives you superpowers of your own devising.

* No matter how long the dry spell, rain comes eventually. And as you do with rest, and love, and the ocean ... let it sweep you away.

Monday, September 07, 2009

Prayer #80: Season You Later

Photo by heterotopia

Prayer #80: Season You Later

Creator of cycles and patterns and seasons --

Carry me in a wooden boat down this smooth river
Away from the heated day and into the cool night.
Already, the lights along the shoreline dim,
Earlier than I expected. Revelers grow quiet.
The river will soon widen into the dark ocean.
I feel the stillness pooling -- the same still
That greets me each year, yet always catches me
A little off guard.

Wait for me at the lighthouse.
I will come past the wharf bedecked with faded flags,
Past river trees with firecracker colors hidden inside.
And all around I feel You waiting, expecting,
Ready to demonstrate Your awesome creation
As soon as my skiff crosses that invisible line.


Saturday, September 05, 2009

If you hate sand, don't read this post

Are you a sand hater?

Be honest. It's ok. A lot of people hate sand. And for good reason -- it's gritty and invasive and everywhere. Which is why I don't bring my laptop to the beach, because sand will be falling out of my keyboard for the next five months if I'm on the beach for five seconds. Oh, and it will break it.

As a result of sand's inconvenient effect on my electronic equipment, I'm forced to resort to such mundane activities as Frisbee, reading, castle-sculpting, long walks, swimming, inhaling Goldfish, etc.

And if I'm really bored and really can't find aaaaanything to amuse me as much as blogging ... I'll take a beach nap.

I know. It's rough. But I'm strong and I'll make it through. So while I'm suffering and struggling and enduring through these hardships, take a look at these happier beach times:

* Once more unto the beach, dear friends

* A brief meditation on the shore

Friday, September 04, 2009

Funny Baby Pictures: Are they done yet??

Little known baking fact: If you watch the biscuits, they bake faster.

May your Labor Day weekend be full of such breathless anticipation!

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Note to nonprofits: Time to disengage 'engage'

Photo by timoni

News flash for nonprofits: You are not exempt from business buzzwords. And of all the words that have ceased to pack their orginal punch, engage tops the list.

You've heard this rant in mini-form before. But my annoyance for this overused word came back with a vengeance when I went to comment on my dad's post about annoying business cliches and realized I was writing a novel on the subject.

My grousing will not sit well with the nonprofit community. Engage is one of our favorite words. We engage constituents. We engage donors. We engage volunteers. We engage students. We engage in dialogue. We engage in service. We lead engaging programs, write engaging emails, craft engaging websites, and build engaging social media profiles.

The only thing we don't do is engage couples -- at least, I thought we didn't, until I found out about this organization.

Clearly, engage has gotten out of hand. It's time to disengage.

The Definition(s) of Engage

Engage. Verb. Several of its varied definitions include: to carry out in an activity, to absorb, to hire, to be asked to represent, to betroth, to get caught, and to carry on.

This means that without providing specific context or concrete details, you could be asking your constituents/donors/volunteers to wage something, employ someone, be interested in whatever, participate in anything, or marry you.

The Twisted Path That Leads To Engage

When I retweeted the original article yesterday and added this word, consultant and author Bonnie Koenig asked me what I didn't like about it.

I replied that it's overused -- a bland, convenient fallback for people who can't or won't articulate their vision more clearly. Her response: "Granted that it may be overused, but when the walk matches the talk it’s a powerful concept!"

Ah, but therein lies the problem. Walking does NOT match talking often enough to warrant engage's widespread use.

Why the disconnect? Many nonprofits don't take the right amount of time to build out their goals and mission for a particular program -- that is, find their walk. And then because their walk is unclear, their talk is muddled. (Though here are some tips for fixing not-so-clear communication.)

Indeed, the "talk" is the best litmus test of whether a nonprofit understands what it's trying to achieve. When you can't articulate what you're doing, chances are you don't know what you're doing.

That's when engage creeps in. It's handy. It's accepted. It means anything to anybody and doesn't paint you into corners. Which is to say ... it's meaningless.

How to Move Past Engage

But have hope! You can move beyond this word and into a richer realm of new language that better says what you do and what you aim for.

First, define your walk. (See previous paragraph.) Second, know your audience, know where they are, and know where you want them to be.

Third -- and most important -- pretend that every time you say 'engage,' someone sticks you with a red-hot poker. To avoid the pain, focus on using active verbs that better describe what you're asking people to do and/or what you're trying to achieve. For example:

* We want our thought leaders to participate in our roundtable discussions.

* We want our constituents to send letters to their representatives.

* We want our personal networks to contribute videos and photos to our contest.

* We want our fans to share links and post comments on our Facebook page.

* We want our volunteers to spread the word about our literacy program.

And so on -- each one a specific, action-oriented statement about who you're targeting and what you want them to do. And if the red-hot poker is still flying, follow these five tips for eliminating jargon -- they have the added benefit of clarifying your messages too.

When to Reengage Engage

I'd love to say 'never' here. But I won't. Because 'engage' as a word is not the enemy -- just its misuse and overuse.

So in light of engage's innocence, protect it. Use it sparingly. Treat it like a security blanket -- a familiar item others recognize, but one you'd rather not be caught in public holding all the time.

Nonprofits, you're not blah. Your work is not bland. Your missions are not cookie-cutter. So find the distinctive language that tells the wider world these truths, and watch true engagement unfold.