Be the change

I was out-of-town for the last several days and was catching up on my reading when I came across a post written by one of my favorite bloggers. In her article she asked the question, do you ever involve yourself in a cause that doesn’t personally affect you?

I like to comment on other blogs. It’s my way of saying, no your words didn’t just vanish out into the ether when you hit the publish button, but her question had me stumped. What do I do? I’d like to believe that I don’t have to be personally affected to know something is wrong and to want to do something about it, but when it comes to taking action, do I? Do I regularly?

Ultimately I had to answer the question with an “it depends.”

Protest sign
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I have to ask myself, does the call to action make sense? Do I truly think my participation will make a difference in the larger scheme of things? It is really easy to be one of the thousands of faceless individuals marching down the street holding a sign with some catchy phrase that may or may not make the evening news. But it usually takes more than participating in a single walk to really enact a permanent change. Someone somewhere has to actually take the lead, become a movement’s face, and act to change the law.

Unfortunately, that means that someone has to get political, and oh how we love to hate politicians.

Two election cycles ago, my dad chose to run for local office.  He was one of several candidates vying for a handful of commissioner seats in a town known mostly for its proximity to a larger city and a body of water. He ran and lost. Then another election cycle came and went. One of the existing commissioners was elected to higher office leaving a vacancy. Suddenly my dad was faced with the very real possibility of being asked (as first runner-up) to fill the seat. Other possibilities were the remaining commissioners would appoint another individual or arrange a special election (Proving election cycles are never truly over).

Our road trip this week took us close to my aunt and uncle. I tried to fit in as many updates about my family as I could over a short lunch. I told them my dad’s latest news to which my uncle replied, “why would anyone want to do that?” I didn’t have a ready answer for him. All I could think of was all the reasons why someone wouldn’t want to get into politics. Putting the sickening amount of money needed to fuel the effective modern campaign aside, why would anyone want their private lives (and the lives of their immediate family) made public, their off-hand remarks taken out of context, and other decisions scrutinized in infinite detail? Why would someone want to voluntarily subject themselves to endless meetings, premature aging, political gamesmanship, and soul-crushing bureaucracy? Netflix’s House of Cards is awesome and terrifying to watch. It may very well be how things are done at the federal level, but I’ve been told that politics closer to home are much closer to NBC’s Parks and Recreation. At the local level, it appears to be a relatively thankless calling.

And yet my dad actually wants this job. He really wants it. He is under the belief that he might actually be able to make a difference. While he does not claim to have all the answers, he wants to contribute toward finding a workable solution. It is at this level where change actually has the strongest likelihood of happening.

My dad and I agree that there are problems that need to be addressed. We do not necessarily agree on how these problems should be solved, at least not completely, and that is okay. He’s never asked for my endorsement (not that it matters – I don’t live in the same town he does and as a result am not as informed about his local issues).

Don't be calm or carry on
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As this gets published my dad may be finding out whether or not his ‘golden’ years are about to get a lot more stressful. I am on the fence regarding the outcome. I hope he gets the chance to make a difference, and at the same time it is a little like knowing your younger sibling has been granted a driver’s license.

Whether or not he gets the nod, I respect that he has done more than just tie his shoes and go for a walk or pin a ribbon to his sleeve in pursuit of change. He’s put himself out there and the system hasn’t crushed him yet (it’s still early). Perhaps if more average people who are tired of the status quo were willing to do the same (or vote in every election – even the ‘unimportant’ ones or volunteer/educate more) maybe just maybe we’d be walking more for exercise and less out of frustration.

What the world needs now may be love, sweet love, but a few new ideas might go a long way too.

How to create a dinner of champions

I may have actually stumbled upon the secret to get my toddler to willingly eat more than mac n’ cheese and applesauce at dinner time!

My eldest son spoiled me rotten. As a baby he loved sweet peas, and as a kindergartener one of his favorite meals is chicken nuggets with a strawberries and a side salad. Yes. A side salad. And not just lettuce smeared with ranch dressing. No, he prefers a drizzle of balsamic glaze. I was therefore fully unprepared for the challenge that is my youngest son at meal times.

So sayeth the toddler

Greens need not touch his plate. In fact, go ahead and extend that to most other food groups. If the food on his plate wasn’t a complex carb – well he just wasn’t interested. We tried plane sounds. We tried rewards and other bribery such as promising deserts. He sealed his lips tighter than Fort Knox. We tried trickery. He returned the favor by hiding it all in his cheeks and spitting it out later. We told him that if he didn’t eat his dinner he would be sent to time out or even to bed. He chose time out. And I don’t just mean by continuing with attitude. I mean my toddler actually said, in clear English, with a smile on his face, “I wan time out.”

My toddler is now two and a half, which means I only have to live with the terrible twos for another few months. [Then I get the joy of the trying threes! Yippee!!!] As a result, you may believe that he will naturally become more willing to try new things as maturing. Perhaps. But perhaps he requires more incentive to change his behavior. Perhaps we all do.

Vision without execution is hallucinationI recently read a post suggesting that everyone should find themselves an accountability partner. I loved the idea and brought it up with my hubby. He and I are both idea people, and idea people tend to make terrible executors if left to their own devices. Not because they don’t want to execute on their original idea, just because there is always a nicer, shinier, new idea just waiting to be developed. I asked him if he’d be willing to start setting a personal goal each week which we’d discuss over Sunday dinner. He agreed to try.

Sunday rolled around and we started discussing what we wanted to accomplish this week. Our kindergartener caught on and wanted to come up with his own goal for the week. Excellent! We agreed that we would all take on one small bite sized goal for the week. If we were all successful at the end of the week as a family, we’d award ourselves with a single star. If we could all earn twenty stars then we’d go on a vacation. Kiddo was sold. He loves winning, no matter what the rules of the game are. Then he asked what his brother’s goal should be. We thought about and agreed that he had to try his food every night this week.

Sunday dinner went smoothly. Monday’s too. Then Tuesday night, toddler stubbornness was back in full effect. I sighed and said, well I guess we aren’t getting a star this week as I tried to figure out my next strategy. Suddenly Kiddo was by his brother’s side cheering his brother along. My toddler may enjoy tests of will against me, but adores his brother above all things and wants to be just like him. His mouth opened and in went the food. The star was saved for another day and there was much rejoicing.

Execution is made easiest when you allow your team to take ownership of the method, and the best incentives are the ones the team comes up with themselves. All the leader is supposed to do is provide a clear vision of where they want to go and then get out of the way while his or her team does what they do best in order to get there. It would seem this is just as true in the house as it is the office.

It has only been a few days, but I am optimistic that my family will be healthier and stronger, or at least better fed, as a result of this experiment. With a little determination and a lot of accountability, the seats around out dinner table on Sundays will soon be filled with champions.

It is hard to keep a closed mind on the open road

I spent the majority of my recent business trip in Hong Kong, but not all of it. I ventured into mainland China towards the end of my stay into a city I’d never visited before. Though Hong Kong is considered one of China’s assets, it is its own country and there are quite a number of differences between the two. One of the most noticeable, for the casual traveler, is how traffic is handled. Hong Kong has one of the best public transportation systems I have ever experienced. I rarely needed a car to get from one point to another, and that is a good thing for me considering they drive on the right hand side of the road. Mass transit wasn’t an option for me on the other side of the border.

Chinese traffic is similar to American traffic only in that you drive on the left. I was more than a little glad that arrangements had been made to keep me away from the steering wheel during my travel as there are significantly less traffic lights than I am used to, in fact there were several miles that lacked any lights at all. Upon closer inspection I noticed a distinct lack of stop signs as well. These missing elements combined with anything goes type attitude looked terrifying to my inexperienced eye. I thought that in this chaos it was only a matter of time before an accident occurred, but somehow cars were able to maneuver around each other as well as bicyclists, and pedestrians, albeit with excessive (in my opinion) horn honking.

Chinese Traffic Crossing
The Chinese open road

Ahead of my trip I had loaded up on reading material. By pure coincidence, two of the novels I selected were set in dystopian futures. One was Take Me Tomorrow by Shannon Thompson. Set in a world with extreme immigration control and anti-drug laws, the novel asks what is more important, security or personal freedom? The other was Matched by Ally Condie in which our future is made happy by limiting everyone to the mere minimum of personal choice.

In both books, there is an official who is fully aware of the bad qualities of their society, but supports the system anyway. These aren’t evil villains. In their minds order equals group happiness and is valued over individual wants. I have a soft spot for dystopian novels, ever since I first read 1984 by George Orwell. I had always related to the protagonists in these stories, rebelling against their totalitarian regimes. I thought there must be something deeply wrong with the antagonist’s mindset for them to think that what they were embracing was truly in the best interest of society, not just in their best interest.

But then I looked at the street corners where the traffic signs should stand, afraid that at any time a car might come barreling into my side, and realized that I was thinking like the officials, the bad guys/gals. Although I had been there only a day, I thought I knew what they needed better than they did. However, we were on the road several hours and the accident that I was so convinced was imminent never occurred. It might not make sense to me, but I had to admit that, somehow, the system worked for them. Who was I to think that the traffic rules I utilized at home, such as the concept of right of way, were in some way better than that what these people had devised for themselves?

I was reminded that the best leaders do not dictate the rules, but instead provide a tangible goal, and then allow their teams the flexibility to develop their own best method of reaching it. A method based on their own strengths, weakness, and most importantly, their own culture. Who else is better qualified to evaluate those traits than the people themselves? It can be hard to step back sometimes, but just because their method might be different from what you’d do, doesn’t make them wrong. Who knows? They might just surprise you too.

Is that a fire hydrant or a really odd garden gnome?

German garden gnome
German garden gnome (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

After staring at my computer screen for hours, I decided to go for a walk at lunch as a way to recharge.  There is a secluded nature park within a short walk that can be reached by passing through the adjacent residential area. It’s not particularly impressive, but it at least gives me a destination to go to when I need some fresh air.

It had been a partially cloudy day which had allowed me to walk at a rather brisk pace without worrying that I would stink up my office upon my return. At least it had been at the beginning of my walk. As I began the final stretch, the clouds parted and the sun beat down upon the payment. We’ve had an unusually wet summer this year and the ground was full of pent up moisture. Within an instant the humidity skyrocketed and I found myself wishing that I had gills.

Luckily trees with low hanging limbs draped the sidewalk ahead and I eagerly darted under their cover. I stood there for a moment to enjoy the last bit of shadow as the rest of my route was in full sun. To my left stood a fire hydrant.

Its paint was faded and it had a layer of mold and bird droppings that helped to blend it into the surrounding landscape. It certainly did not command a high degree of visibility from the street. There have been ceramic garden gnomes which have caught my eye quicker. I found myself wondering how often it was maintained. I wondered what would happen if there was a nearby fire. Would the firefighters even know it was there? I imagined the damage that could be avoided if only someone would do a better job of trimming those trees or applying a new coat of paint to that hydrant.

Most fires don’t put themselves out before they have reduced everything around them to cinders. It doesn’t matter if the fire is a physical one or the more metaphoric variety. However it isn’t enough to provide the tools to combat them, you have to make sure everyone knows they are there, and then remind them over and over again.

At my work, I am the documentation queen. I’ve written several hundred pages of memos, policies, and procedures. I placed these documents on the company network for all employees to share. I believed I had given the entire company a great reference tool. However it seemed that the moment someone encountered some situation they weren’t entirely sure of they would either panic or do nothing.  Senior management would get frustrated. Why are we repeating the same mistakes? Customers would get frustrated. Why were we making their lives so difficult? I grew frustrated. What was the point of all those hours spent refining those policies or putting them to paper if no one was going to read them?

Book promoters will tell you often that you can write the greatest story ever, but no one will read it if they don’t know it exists. This saying is true for so many things beyond the publishing world. It wasn’t that my co-workers were lazy. They just hadn’t needed to use the reference guide in a long time. They hadn’t been involved in its creation and had no reason to remember the contents of every single page.  I’ve since learned that the average adult has to hear something more than six times before it embeds itself into active memory. Six times! I couldn’t fault my colleagues for not retaining information I had only mentioned once or twice. My co-workers simply didn’t know what they didn’t know.

So now unless I want to have the written equivalent of a garden gnome I must trim back those trees, apply a new coat of paint, and repeat, repeat, repeat, or in marketing terms, promote, promote, promote.

Life is not a spectator sport

Lonely Spectator
photo taken by Nandakumar Subramaniam

My youngest son was late with all of his motor development milestones: crawling, sitting upright, even rolling over. When he was late walking, we just assumed he just wasn’t ready and was taking his time. It was par for the course with him. We joked that he was a lazy bum. We were concerned, but not worried.

During one of his pediatric check-ups, around the one year old mark, I repeated that same joke in the doctor’s hearing. Unlike me, he didn’t find it nearly as funny, especially not after taking a longer view at my son’s development charts. Within minutes I had a referral in hand to see a physical therapist.

I would have liked to have said that I scheduled the appointment with the therapist the same day. Instead, I placed the note to the side of my desk and continued on as I had before. I convinced myself that if I just gave my son another day, he would suddenly master the skill all on his own. My son was perfectly healthy. Every kid and every kid’s development is different. There was nothing to worry about.

A month passed with no progress. When I finally gave in and dialed the therapist’s number, it felt like I was admitting defeat, as if I was giving up on my child, but I decided a second opinion couldn’t hurt. Ever positive, I told myself that the therapist would examine him and tell me that he just needed more time. We would only be out the cost of an office visit. No big deal.

It didn’t happen that way. Instead we were told that our son has a condition known as hypermobility and low muscle tone. What this means is that due to additional extreme flexibility in his joints, he is going to have to work at least twice as hard as any other kid to do anything requiring movement. Any movement. This pronouncement was a little hard to take. Yes, she could have told us that the cause for his delayed development was something much scarier, but it’s not easy to hear that your baby is in some way flawed (on paper), no matter the diagnosis.

Lending a helping hand
Image by Kristina Alexanderson

We started seeing the therapist weekly. It was as if he had just been in need of the proper key to unlock all the secrets of the world. Never satisfied with his current status, she forced him to build another skill on each small accomplishment. With her help, he began crawling without dragging his body on the floor. Then he began pulling himself up-right and taking tentative first steps and walking at eighteen months. We wanted to throw a parade with each milestone. Instead, his therapist merely moved on to the next skill.

Now, a year later, he is now running, climbing, and otherwise finding ways to turn my brown hair grey. He is now practically caught up with others his age, and is no longer in weekly therapy. Yes, he tends to tire more quickly than others, but you wouldn’t know it watching him chase after his brother with a big smile on his face.

I don’t have many regrets, but not scheduling that first appointment sooner is right up there.

I didn’t want to admit to myself that there might be a problem and so I ignored the nagging voice telling me that something wasn’t right. I thought that time itself was enough to mend all things. I thought everything would work itself out, and everyone would be happy if I just left well enough alone.

I’ve never been so wrong.

Image by Blake Danger Bentley

Watching the final games of the World Cup play out and reflecting upon what I was doing a year ago, I have to acknowledge that I wasn’t a coach or a leader back then. At least not at home. I was too far in denial. Yes, I was creating a vision of a brighter future for my family, but I wasn’t setting a course for how we would get there. “Wait and See” is a tactic, not a strategy. Nor was I providing my son with the tools he needed to learn on his own.

I wasn’t a supporting teammate either. Followers like these may not set the game plan, but at least they actively participate in executing on the win. No, I was only a spectator. I was hoping for the best, cheering from the sidelines, but my passive watching and waiting was never going to score points in life’s big game.

A year ago, my son’s potential was untapped. But luckily it didn’t have to stay that way. All we had to do to get us both back into the game was to make that first call.