Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Nothing changes if nothing changes

This seeming tautology, which sounds like a Yogi Berra quote, is actually a pearl of wisdom. It tells me that if I want change in my life, I've got to do something about it. Nothing will change if I keep on keeping on in the same old way.

What can I do to effect a change? Here are some ideas that I've acted on:

  • Read a book on self-change and follow one or more of its suggestions. This blog is a result of a suggestion in Becoming a Technical Leader by Gerry Weinberg. He suggests keeping a journal, writing in it 5 minutes per day. He further suggests that if I can't do that, I will have trouble making more significant changes. This blog is my "journal", although I yet haven't managed one per day consistently.

  • Take a class in something new to you, and use it in your life. I recently attended a workshop at church on developing a spiritual discipline, and I've been trying to put pieces of it into practice.

  • Accept an invitation to do something that you're not quite comfortable doing, but that you wish you could do better. I accepted the challenge of being a "visiting steward" in my church's stewardship drive.

  • Look closely and honestly at yourself. Make a list of your assets and the areas where you'd like to change or improve. Look at the things you want to change and ask yourself why you do those things? What benefits do they provide? What other assets or benefits can you replace those with? Is it easier to make the change now? Pick one and work on replacing it. Then pick another. (This process is at the core of most 12-step programs, but you don't have to be in one to use it.)

  • Take a challenge that you're not sure you can accomplish, but that will be fun trying. I'm participating in a "365 project" on Flickr. For this, I take at least one picture every day and post it to my Flickr account and to the Project 365! group. It has been a challenge, and you can tell from some of the pictures I've posted that I don't always manage to get an interesting picture for the day. Also, I'm way behind in posting. But I'm still doing it, and still (mostly) enjoying it. I think that I look at my world in a slightly different way, on the lookout for photo opportunities, than before I started.

  • Tie your new activity to a social network. When I was in grad school, a group of us committed to attending aerobics together. We did very well, because we reinforced each other's attendance. The Flickr Project 365! group is another, and I'm motivated to keep my posting up, because there are online friends who will see them and give me feedback. I'm now tracking my walking with a pedometer, and recording it on I have "comrades" on the site, who will see my progress (or lack), just as I can see them. It helps to keep me motivated and diligent. I started out aiming for 5000 steps/day, and am currently at 9000 steps/day.
What other ways have you found to make changes in your life? How well do they work for you?


Sunday, October 21, 2007

Eating Locally

Today's sermon was "Food Sacrificed to Idols" (I Corinthians 8, 1-13). Or, "A harvest message about the price we pay for inexpensive food; about how our starving souls and the soul of the earth can again be nurtured and fed." What are the "idols" of today's world? The mega-corporations that control some 90% of food in the US. We were challenged to eat one meal a week that consists only of locally produced foods.

That was the second time in two days I had heard the idea, so I knew it was something I had to try to do. Since today is Sunday, I couldn't go to the farmer's market, and most grocery stores don't tell you much, if anything about the origin of the food you're buying. I ended up at the People's Food Coop.

For dinner, we had

Organic chicken breasts, grilled and smoked, "raised by Michigan Farm Families".
Organic green beans from Tantré Farms, steamed.
Squash grown in Homer Michigan, (might have been Sweet Lightning variety) baked, filled with
Applesauce made with apples and pears bought at the farmer's market, and starting to get soft.
Salad comprising leaf lettuce grown at the church,
radicchio grown in an Ann Arbor community garden,
and basil leaves from my back yard.

As I started to plan the menu, I realized that certain ingredients were not available locally, such as salt and pepper, olive oil (or any oil?) and vinegar. I couldn't sweeten the applesauce, because I didn't have any local honey (our white sugar might have been made in Michigan, but there's no way for me to tell for sure.) Luckily, it didn't need sweetening. I could have gotten local butter, but I didn't think of it until I was telling my daughter to put a pat of butter inside each squash. I don't mind the salt and pepper, because those have always been shipped, and the transportation cost per meal is tiny. I'm not sure I could give up olive oil, though. I probably could find locally produced vinegar.

Ok, so that was one meal. It wasn't too hard, but it raised a lot of questions. I can buy locally baked bread, locally made pasta, and the like. But where does the grain come from? Probably not anywhere nearby. Am I not able to have any grain products in my local meals? Or, is "locally made" sufficient? What if I wanted to use tofu? I can buy tofu that was made in Ann Arbor, but where did the soybeans come from? And it's still possible to find local produce, but what about in the dead of winter? Should I be blanching and freezing veggies?

And how about the spiritual aspect of this change? Did making and eating this meal feel different, somehow? Am I enriched by being closer to the producers of my food? Do I feel good that I "saved" some ounces or pounds of CO2 because my food wasn't trucked or flown long distances? Is it a good thing that I'm helping local producers of food keep their livelihoods, vocations, and farms?

I don't know. Certainly, I can answer yes intellectually to most of those questions. I think I'll have to keep doing it before I can know if my spirit is lifted, or whether I'm dragged down trying to find new ways to fix food from a limited palette.

Have you tried, or would you consider trying, to eat at least one meal a week completely locally? What rules would you use to define "local"? How do you think it has/would change your life?


Sunday, October 14, 2007


Recently, I participated in my church's Men's Retreat. The theme for the retreat was Take me to the river. In our "lodges" (small discussion groups), we explored our lives and beliefs using water and rivers as a metaphor. Each lodge session began with a guided meditation/visualization exercise in a river setting. We then explored ideas related to the meditation. I found it to be a great way to explore where I came from and to think about where I'm going and my relation to the community and the world.

One of the themes focused on "watershed moments". One of the men asked "what is a watershed moment?" Well, we weren't sure, so we had to talk about it. Back up a bit... What is a watershed? It is the region which drains into a river, lake or ocean. The Mississippi watershed, for example, covers most of the central US. One interesting feature of watersheds is that they nest inside one another. In Michigan, you might be within the Huron River watershed, as we were at the retreat. Or, you might be in the Grand River watershed by going a few miles west. Both eventually flow into the Great Lakes and are part of the St. Lawrence River watershed. On the other hand, if you're in, say, Colorado and you go west from Denver, you'll be moving from the Atlantic watershed to the Pacific watershed. So, moving from one watershed to another will certainly make a difference in your journey to the sea. It might even land you in a different sea entirely.

From this, we came to the notion that a "watershed moment" is one that has a significant impact on the direction of your life. Interestingly, you might not realize it at the time, as the boundary between watersheds need not be dramatic. But as you continue on your life journey, you can look back and perhaps see that one decision, that one branching point where you shifted from one journey to another.

In my life, there have been many such moments, some having a small effect, as my new stream rejoined the old a few miles downstream, and others making a much larger difference in the course and conduct of my life. In our lodge meeting, I identified one that, now half a decade down the line, looks to have been a big one. It didn't seem so at the time. It began with me seeking help for some troubles in my life. But that one decision had a snowball effect. As I started looking at myself, and waking up to my interior and spiritual lives, the change became more profound. I found my way back to the faith of my youth and started attending church regularly. Shortly thereafter, I joined the First Unitarian-Universalist Congregation of Ann Arbor as a member. I became interested in, and active in, our religious education program, did some teaching, and became a lay leader in the program. I went to a retreat. I joined a men's circle. I am reading and thinking about spirituality more than I ever did.

How big is this change? Did I cross the continental divide? Or am I just heading towards Lake Michigan instead of Lake Erie? I don't know. But I do know that my new journey is much more interesting than the old one was.

What have been watershed moments or events in your life? How do you think they affected the course of your life?


Stretching my comfort zone

I got an email from my minister asking if I would be a "visiting steward" for our stewardship campaign. In other words, would I go visit fellow congregants, asking them to pledge large amounts of money for the upcoming year. I'm not comfortable talking about money, let alone asking people to give money to a cause.

Well... That means I'm looking a "growth opportunity" in the face.

So, I said yes. On Wednesday, I attended a "training" session, where the campaign was explained, and we did some role playing. I haven't made my calls yet, though. I need to have pledges in hand by the end of October. That means that I need to make calls this week to set up appointments to meet in person. At which I will sit down, face to face, and ask them to make a significant contribution. I will need to talk about my pledge, and what it means to me. Whoof! Strangely, I am looking forward to it.

When were you challenged to take on a task outside your comfort zone? What did you do? If you took it on, did you feel fulfilled and enlarged, or did your fears come true? What will you do next time?

(I'm not doing too well at the "write something every day" thing, am I? I have started a bunch of these in my head, but it doesn't count until they're written and published, does it?)


Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Running away

Weinberg (see "Why the Chambered Nautilus") asks some hard (for me, anyway) questions. Here are related questions from the chapter "The second great obstacle to motivating others" that are hard for me.

  • What type of situation do you typically escape from? What is your typical escape pattern?
  • When was the last time you tried to convert some task to a technical task of a type you were better equipped to do? What happened?
He actually asks them in the opposite order and with some other questions between. I put them in this order because the second question illustrates one escape pattern for me.

I am uncomfortable in situations that require self examination. That is one reason I started this blog/journal. Hmm.... I just had a thought. When I was presented with the suggestion to journal daily, I decided to create a blog. Is that an example of converting "some task to a technical task..."?

I did get to spend some time picking a name for my blog, deciding on a look, and so on. I got to search for a nice picture of a chambered nautilus, although I haven't yet figured out how to put it into the masthead. That'll be a job for another day when I'm feeling uncomfortable with the writing task I've set myself for the day.

After some thought, I do see a pattern. Let's say I need to put together a design for a software component or system. That means that I have to think about things like use cases and workflow. I could get out a piece of paper and start writing and sketching. But my first inclination is to open up a design application instead. And if I don't have one, I might spend a few hours or a day finding, download, and installing one. Yes, the diagrams that I make with such a tool can be shared electronically, and they're more readable than my paper scratchings might be. But I think that's really not the point. The point is to turn a task I'm less comfortable with into one I'm more comfortable with. Maybe by the time I get the new application figured out, I'll also have a better idea how to solve the original problem. Or, maybe I won't.

In the broadest sense, I try to escape from situations that move me outside my comfort zone. I can do this by procrastinating, by "converting" the task into one with which I'm more comfortable, and by deciding that need to first get some new tools before I can tackle this new task.

Your homework: how would you answer the questions with which I started this post?


Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Leadership from a position of weakness

Tonight, I was part of a "workshop" whose goal was to develop a set of criteria and priorities for a proposed road construction project. The meeting was packed by members of a local golf club, because a couple of the proposed elements would encroach on their golf course. Feelings were high, and they all had a single agenda, focusing intently and almost solely on the elements to which they objected, although those were fairly minor components of the overall project.

Thus, I found myself at a table where I and one other person were the only 2 out of 12 people who were not members of the golf club. The meeting planners had developed a structure within which we were to work, and each table was supplied with a facilitator. Our facilitator did a great job, but at times was almost overwhelmed with the spate of emotion pouring from the club members. I found myself acting as a mediator, and to some extent leader, trying to help her guide the discussion along the planned lines.

Our first goal was to brainstorm evaluation criteria for the project -- that is to decide what measurements of success were important to the group. The club members, for the most part, were having trouble moving from "I don't want X to happen" to criteria that would be satisfied if X did not happen. But we did manage to get there eventually. I think that my examples and explanations helped that movement, that I helped motivate the group to move from focusing on their joint desired goal to producing a set of criteria, a list of reasons, if you will, that supported their desired goal.

I used a number of tools. I used, truthfully, statements such as "that's an important point" and "I think I see what you're saying". Usually, that would be followed by restated what they said in my own words. For example, one person said "I don't want any trees cut down", and I might have said "I see that is important to you, so one of your criteria would be preservation of existing vegetation?" It sounds almost hokey when I write it down, but it worked in practice.

The facilitator thanked me for my assistance at the end of the evening. So I think that I did help lead the group. In order to do that, I had to be able to see outside myself, to at least partially understand their motivations, and to work with their motivations to help them change "I don't want" into "this is what I want and why."

Have you found yourself in a situation like this, perhaps at work or church or school? How did you deal with it? What might you do differently next time?


... a photo ...

Courtesy Wikipedia


Monday, October 1, 2007

Why the Chambered Nautilus?

I'm reading Becoming a Technical Leader by Gerry Weinberg. The epigraph for one chapter is an excerpt from a poem by Oliver Wendell Holmes that expresses, for me, a potential obstacle to personal growth.

The Chambered Nautilus

Year after year beheld the silent toil
That spread his lustrous coil;
Still, as the spiral grew,
He left the past year's dwelling for the new,
Stole with soft step its shining archway through,
Built up its idle door,
Stretched in his last-found home, and knew the old no more.
That is, simply put, the fear of leaving our old, comfortable way of life (... knew the old no more.)

The poem concludes,
Build thee more stately mansions, O my soul,
As the swift seasons roll!
Leave thy low-vaulted past!
Let each new temple, nobler than the last,
Shut thee from heaven with a dome more vast,
Till thou at length art free,
Leaving thine outgrown shell by life's unresting sea!
If we take the risk of growing, of trying new things, we shall at length [be] free and leave our outgrown shell because we no longer need it.

You can read the full text of the poem at Blupete's poetry site.