Life

life

Step Away from the Paper Cutter!


There’s one maxim from my early school days that will probably be etched into my mind forever.

The paper cutter maims.

It’s the sole universal truth that each elementary teacher — from Mrs. Tortorello in kindergarten to Mrs. Hundertpfund in 4th grade — could rally around (yes, I had to learn some doozie name spellings in my early years).

With the fervor of religious zealots, these ladies convinced me and my fellow pupils of the boundless evil locked within that sharp-toothed demon. It’s a fear that continues to emerge each time I see that clunky contraption with the swinging arm.

Their hysteria is understandable. Even though the lawsuit era had yet to fully dawn, the threat of a severed finger must have loomed large. And no sweet young educator would want something like THAT hanging over her head.

Looking back, I’m most confounded by the lunatic logic of banning butter knives in the cafeteria while equipping each classroom with a giant dagger.

Also interesting to me is how my teachers’ stern warnings continue to exert such influence over me after so many years.

I guess it’s the mandates that carry negative (ideally, painful) consequences that are the ones that stick. Sometimes well past their useful lives.

Fear can be such a powerful motivator. It can compel us to do the right thing. It can keep us in line. Unfortunately, taken to the extreme, it can also hold us back from fully experiencing life.

Of course, my irrational discomfort in operating a paper cutter really has no bearing on my personal success and fulfillment.

But I’m not sure I’m talking about paper cutters anymore.

Nine-Eleven Times Ten

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Ten years ago, I didn’t die.

My helpless body didn’t endure the angry flames that engulfed the twin structures symbolizing America.

Ten years ago, I didn’t rescue.

My heroics weren’t tested and refined as I risked everything to drag charring carnage from the remains.

Ten years ago, I didn’t sacrifice.

Not a single family member or close friend perished alongside the 3,000 who did.

Ten years ago, I didn’t crumble.

My life and lifestyle carried on with barely a nick.

But ten years ago, I shared.

Shared a horrific tragedy that reshaped humanity.

And ten years ago, I hurt.

Hurt for the thousands of relationships senselessly severed.

Ten years ago, I lost.

Lost an innocent naïveté that believed evil couldn’t thrive.

I watched.

I listened.

I felt.

Ten years ago, I remember.


Who Else is Tired of Playing Password Roulette?

As a security measure, it used to work like a charm: utter a secret code word and gain VIP access to my neighbor’s tree fort.

It was simple, efficient, kept out the riff-raff.

At some point, however, the concept of a password shifted into some sick, sadistic game whose rules keep changing to increasingly favor the house.

Now, nothing conjures up anxiety and dread quite like a vacant box beckoning for me to enter my unique string of letters/numbers/characters.

Such a seemingly straightforward request, yet it demands some masterful sleuthing skills on my end.

You see, my password history is long and rocky and littered with debris.

My original password was simple and memorable: something along the lines of “mike” (though not quite that obvious).

Soon I was asked to complicate it by adding a number, so “mike55” (also bogus) became the norm.

Next, I had to add a special character to the mix, and “mike55$” was the ticket.

And the latest – and most grueling – demand is that I create an entirely new, unique password every 30/60/90 days.

Given that I have active passwords created during each phase of this evolution, I think you get a sense of my frustration. I’m guessing you may relate.

It’s sometimes helpful when the empty password box is accompanied by an offer to retrieve a lost password — that is, of course, unless I can’t recall the answer I provided to a security question posed months or years earlier (as if I can remember which “childhood best friend” or “favorite teacher” I cited…)

My work BlackBerry is arguably my least merciful opponent, granting me just eight attempts to hit the jackpot before it wipes itself clean (and I know first-hand that it means business). This ticking time bomb loves to threaten its self-destruction while I try to recreate the convoluted logic my mind used to concoct the latest password. Maddening.

I’ve heard about those apps that serve as a master repository for all your passwords. Seems like a good idea, but guess what’s required to access it…that’s right, even my passwords need passwords.

Oh how I pine for the day when a simple retinal scan or iris scan is my ticket to ride. Heck, I’d even submit to a urine test if that’s what it took.

Unfortunately, all of this really just proves one point: that I’m too old and crotchety to play in tree forts anymore.

Got any password tales of your own to share?


 

Counting the Cost of Free

A funny thing happened on the way to reaching for my wallet.

I didn’t need it anymore.

It’s hard to fathom that so much of what we had to pay for a few years ago is now 100% free.

Free memberships. Free music. Even a free lunch.

The emergence of the consumer-pays-nothing business model is an intriguing one – at least to me.

Maybe the economists and futurists saw it coming, but I sure didn’t.

And while I appreciate freebies as much as the next guy, I’m troubled by the notion that all this free stuff can sometimes come at a hefty cost.

In short, I think we’re turning into spoiled brats (with me at the front of the line). We now expect something for nothing. As if it’s owed to us.

Even if I don’t pay a single cent, I still demand flawlessness. This blog, for example, is built on a platform that’s absolutely free for me to use, yet I get miffed when it crashes or doesn’t accommodate my blogging whims (and trust me, those aren’t just hypothetical theories…)

Sometimes, not having to pay for something equates to not having to care much about it. It devalues the entire product/service in that I have nothing to lose if I misplace it, destroy it or ignore it altogether.

Sometimes, though, the exact opposite happens. Facebook and Twitter are both free platforms, but have opened up new friendships and business connections while connecting me with family, neighbors and classmates from long ago.

Hard to put a value on that.  

Another slippery slope is the pay-what-you-want model. Panera Bread operates several non-profit cafes that replace cash registers with anonymous cash boxes and suggested donations.

A sign at the entrance says: “Take what you need, leave your fair share.” Customers who can’t pay are asked to donate their time.

Love the concept. Have no idea how it can possibly work.

But apparently it does work, with the majority of patrons paying retail value or more. Panera reports that about 60% leave the suggested amount; 20% leave more; and 20% less.

Guess humanity exceeds my faith in it.

I do know that I am often willing to pay more than what’s required for indie music if I’m particularly fond of the artist or feeling extra generous. And I’d probably pay at twice as much for a Chipotle burrito.

But offer me something I’m lukewarm about, and I’ll most likely grab it and go.

It will be interesting to see how this era of freebie economics continues to evolve — and how it will shape our lives and our concept of value.


Welcome to Snark Central

Two deflated figures huddle around a desk, eyes down, shoulders slumped.

This scenario accompanies a common ritual within the confines of my boss’ office: the marathon conference call.

It was during one such experience that the thought first came to me: What if we created a system to keep us actively engaged in these phone discussions, especially during those listen-only segments dominated by folks with a tendency to drone on and on and on?

Enter Snark Central, an ad-hoc exercise of writing down each business cliché, jargony phrase or ridiculous witticism that a colleague might utter (intentionally or otherwise).

It started as a lark to pass the time and make calls easier to endure, but quickly escalated into a full-blown game of dutifully logging these pearls of wisdom.

Before we knew it, we had completely filled out the front and back of the official Snark Central Logbook (a piece of notebook paper) and enlisted our teammates to join in on the fun.

The list soon became so unwieldy that I suggested our team vote for our 10 favorite phrases and whittle it down to the Snark de la Snark.

With so much rich, diverse content, there was no clear winner in our poll, but here were some favorites that exceeded garden-variety-cliché status:

– “Roll out the popcorn cart.”

– “The Washington Post smell test.”

– “News, not schmooze.”

– “Skillanthropist.”

– Make sure your stuff bubbles to the top.”

– “That’s capital ‘C’ communications work.”

– “Don’t give me coy and ominous quotes.”

– That’s where the fuzziness comes in.”

– “Down to the wire, but not over the wire.”

– “Jet it over to me.”

– “I have a buckedtload of questions.”

The beauty of our little experiment is that it’s an equal opportunity offender. These gems emerged from all ages, both genders, and numerous regions of the world. In that way, Snark Central actually exceeded my original intentions by illuminating the reality that we all say some mighty odd, inane, ludicrous, and sometimes illogical things.

In a strange way, I like to think that snarkiness actually helps bring us all a little closer together.

For that, I’m eternally grateful. And likely to hang onto your every word, so watch what you say.

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Chasing Real Value

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My cat, Chase, just loves it when I bring home a new jug of milk. Not because he enjoys lapping up the stuff (although frankly, what feline doesn’t?), but because he craves the free toy inside.

Now before you jump to vulgar conclusions, let me assure you that there isn’t a fake mouse floating in my dairy beverage.

Instead, Chase covets the small plastic ring that holds the cap in place. To him, it’s the coolest object ever, delivering far more entertainment value than any of the overpriced cat paraphernalia currently gathering dust in my basement.

Of course, I discovered his affinity completely by accident one morning when I unknowingly dropped the ring on the floor. An hour later, my high-strung cat was still batting it around the kitchen, hallway, dining room and halfway down the stairs. He just couldn’t get enough of it.

The only thing that seems to curtail Chase’s antics is his tendency to knock the toy somewhere out of his reach – usually under the fridge. I personally think he does this on purpose, but I have no real proof to back up the charge.

Watching Chase stalk his plastic prey brings me an awful lot of pleasure. Everytime he runs after that “worthless” piece of plastic, he somehow snubs his little whiskered nose at the entire world. Like an excited kid on Christmas who’s more enamored with the boxes than their contents, Chase serves as a constant reminder of the true meaning of value, and how it doesn’t always line up with what others want us to believe.

Grateful as I am to Chase for this deep life lesson, however, I remain deeply resentful of his ability to sleep approximately 16-18 hours each day. Clearly, this boy’s no dope.

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Those Glory Days of Mood Rings and Pet Rocks

You can tell a lot about an era by the gadgets it spawns.

In the mid-’70s, two must-have items were the mood ring and the pet rock (both of which I owned, courtesy of my fad-sustaining mom).

Although both of these product niches flared out in fairly short order, I think they reflected some common values of the time – at least in America.

Both embodied the “Me Decade” mantra that Novelist Tom Wolfe coined to describe the passive individualism that took root in the 1970s (contrasting the communal lifestyle associated with the ‘60s). The mood ring, in particular, empowered each of us through its ability to measure – and share – a wearer’s unique state of mind at any given time.

Another intriguing characteristic of both gadgets is how they supported – even celebrated – a sedentary lifestyle. You didn’t actually have to ‘do’ anything to enjoy their benefits. Body temperature regulated the color that purportedly evaluated your mood, and the pet rock was, well, a ROCK.

(Of course, this elevation of inactivity would be dethroned in the early ‘80s by the Jane Fonda-inspired workout video craze).

In retrospect, probably the most amusing part of our ‘70s baubles is the fact that they were total farces – and we all knew it. Neither product actually delivered what it was supposed to, but we all played along with the gag as if for the sake of a clueless bystander (a role, oddly, also played by us).

I kind of understand the appeal of the mood ring. It was fun, gimmicky, gaudy-stylish. And from what I remember, comparing moods with others could be a hoot (stop snickering, I had a men’s version).

But the pet rock? It was an inanimate object devoid of any meaningful characteristic of owning a real pet. It was nothing more than a corny joke.

That didn’t matter – at least not to my mom, who thought it was hilarious. I think I played along for a while, until I got bored and decided to paint a monster face on the stupid stone.

We demand so much more from our gadgets these days.

Unlike kitschy jewelry or faux pets, our smartphone devices can’t be one-trick ponies. They need to connect us, direct us, inform us, entertain us, awaken us, and on and on.

So what will they ultimately tell future generations about what we valued during this era?

Certainly that we craved technology. Couldn’t get enough of it.

We liked to explore and were easily distracted by bright, shiny objects/apps.

We had short attention spans.

And probably most telling of all: that we were all too willing to increasingly devote our lives to a tiny device that promised so much (yet, like the ring and rock, didn’t necessarily deliver the satisfaction we hoped it would).

I wonder what gadgets will define us in 10, 20, 50, 100+ years? 

Confronting the Biggest Bully

As I step up to the podium, I catch my first glance of him. Big, burly, snickering widely. With an imposing presence that pollutes the space.

“Who IS this guy”? I wonder, turning away and inhaling deeply. My stage-fright angst turns to total dread as I consider the unlikelihood of delivering my presentation in a composed, confident way.

“Why in the world did I agree to this”? I wonder, mentally kicking myself for having to endure this needless stress.

The fight-or-flight instinct begs me to make a run for it, but instead I bite my cheek and prepare to begin.

Hooligan.

I launch into my presentation, hoping some magical autopilot instinct will propel me forward. Gently skimming the crowd, I can’t even fathom making eye contact with anyone. It’s hard enough to feign audience engagement.

Praying my peripheral vision will fail, I lock in at about 2 o’clock, a safe distance from my enemy. I try to convince myself he is sitting attentively, but my better judgment tells me he is probably snickering or sneering or whispering verbal attacks against me to his neighbor.

Thug.

I continue my speech, quite certain of its mediocrity. I imagine that some will demand a refund of their money – or their time. Perhaps I should apologize from the podium or refuse the token thank-you gift likely to be presented to me.

Instead, I soldier on. And on. And on, hoping to eat up whatever time is reserved for the Q&A. A typical highlight for me, this “open mike” section could only spell trouble by allowing my nemesis a platform to publicly maim me.

Fat chance, sad sack.

As I near the end of my speech, I muster up the courage to gently turn toward the guy who ruined my evening. Curiosity wins out and I just have to see what he’s up to – whether laughing, or yawning, or making obscene gestures. I will not allow this bully to bully me anymore.

But I’m not quite prepared for what I witness.

The chair is empty, except for a ladies coat and purse slung across it.

Sometimes the biggest enemy lies within.

Even My Dreams Taunt Me With Stories

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Everywhere I turn, someone’s flapping their gums about the amazing power of storytelling.

It’s a universal, deafening drumbeat bent on convincing all of us that it’s time to recapture the lost art of sharing stories.

OK, I hear you. I believe you. I even agree with you.

But to be honest, I’m a bit storied out.

That’s why I was particularly miffed (amused, actually) the other morning when I realized that my dreams were complicit in this storytelling conspiracy.

It dawned on me as I was trying to process the previous night’s dream and finally grasped the fact that I dream in stories.

Yes, my unconscious mind strings together a mishmash of mismatched characters, locations and themes. It weaves them together into a messy, but unmistakable story – probably with a moral that escapes me altogether.

I always neglect to write down my dreams, so I can’t even recall most of them. But when I do, I usually enjoy my mind’s ability to jumble up details and play fast and loose with logic. Accuracy rarely seems to be a priority with these tomes.  

Imprecise as it may be with details, though, my mind seems to be constantly trying to tell me stuff, and its megaphone of choice is the good old-fashioned tale.

Bet that’s true for you as well.

Which only reinforces the notion that, at our core, we are wired to communicate and connect through stories.

Guess that makes perfect sense, as life is pretty much a series of unfolding stories, complete with plot twists, tension, climaxes, lulls, and a final denouement.

As for those bandwagon-jumping story evangelists? I’ll try to be more patient with them. Even if they’ve found a way to invade my dreams.

 

What I Miss Most About Working with Architects

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It’s been more than eight months since I left my 9-year communications gig at HOK.

My time away from the AEC grind has allowed me to reflect on the many positive aspects of working in the design professions.

Beyond the creativity and fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants reality, I also miss those pesky architects. Challenging and incorrigible as they can sometimes be, those hybrid right-brain/left-brain creatures also bring some pretty dynamic traits to the table.

Here are a few of the qualities I miss most about working alongside architects*:

The Passion. For most architects, their passion propels them to thrive in an often-thankless field that is largely under-appreciated, undervalued – and underpaid.

The Perseverance. They willingly sacrifice time, food, money, etc. for the sake of the project/client. And we all know how most of them refuse to retire at a reasonable age, choosing instead to design until they take their final breath.

The Pride. I loved witnessing the proud papas (occasionally mamas) beam at the public unveiling of their projects. I imagine there are fewer more satisfying experiences for an architect than ushering a project from idea to built form that will serve people for decades to come.

The Idealism. Most architects possess an inherent desire to “do the right thing” (in the areas of design, sustainability, resources, etc.), even if it’s not practical or feasible. Ultimately, it’s because they believe in the power of architecture to change the world.

The Glasses. A signature accessory for many, quirky glasses symbolize a designer’s creativity, individuality and not-so-veiled desire to be noticed and taken seriously.

The Black. It’s an unwritten (but almost universal) maxim that serious architects don’t wear bright colors. Or, usually, any colors. 

The Aloofness. OK, this one can definitely be annoying to someone whose role it is to communicate with and engage people. But I grew to welcome the challenge of breaking through their independent-mindedness. 

The Writing. Sometimes frustrating, often confusing, the convoluted “design speak” of architects always served as a rich source of comic relief. I was frequently amused and dumbfounded by the number of big-ticket words could be strung together to say relatively little.

The Egos. A controversial characteristic, I realize, but this elephant-in-the-room quality of many architects can be quite endearing (because it is a direct outgrowth of each quality listed above).

Although not currently employed by the architectural profession, I retain special memories of my time there and am grateful for the special friendships I maintain with folks at HOK and throughout the AEC industry. Hope you enjoyed my commentary.

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* My broad definition of “architects” encompasses interior designers, planners, landscape architects, exhibit designers and other design professionals.