Saturday, August 30, 2008

the vacation exception

Thursday was a highlight to the vacation week, a reality check, a grounding experience.

Because I work and hour out of the Berkshires I am not as involved here as I wish I could be. While I connect with groups on nights and weekends there is this whole part that is missed.

Thursday I had the pleasure of accompanying my teens when the did their monthly work at a community dinner. They've been doing this for years but it is late afternoon when I am usually still at work. Rather than drop them off I joined them in-case they were short volunteers due to vacation, which they were.

At 3pm volunteers gather in the kitchen and its all hands on deck setting tables, making salad, preparing a main course, making the lemonade, cutting bread, helping make dessert, firing up the dishwasher and ovens. The menu varying by what might have been donated or purchased from its donations. Tonight it was stuffed shells and sauce, sauteed peppers, salad, brownies and lemonade. A team of volunteers, part of a bigger group of teams that rotate through 2 nights a week throughout the month.

About 430 people start drifting in sitting down, visiting. Some know each other other do not, some I know are homeless, some with issues, some just at a down swing of life.

At 5:15 I joined the volunteers as we served the 100 guests at their tables. A reason this is a community dinner and not a soup kitchen, people are served with greetings and kindness just as you would expect at a restaurant. People came up for seconds and often complimented the cooks and volunteers.

So what struck me about this this? The humanity of it all.

One team of volunteers worked set up and another served and did clean-up. (we stayed to do both) Three hours of work with friendly people who clearly had no pretense that they were doing charity work, they were serving people who could use a good meal. That was it.

What also struck me were the guests, the span of ages and appearances. There was a politeness and gratitude that was natural and genuine from both volunteers and guests.

Then 3 hours later the guests had left, the dishes were washed and away, the tables wiped down and floor washed and the recycling put in the bin. Just as quickly as they had arrived the volunteers had all drifted away. Some to return the next night, some the next week and some the next month.

As we left for home and for our own dinner I felt good that this was just a normal occurrence for my kids and something they actually looked forward to and recruited friends to fill in, good that I knew all the volunteers and was part of the church that sponsored the dinners, good that this was available for those who needed it for what ever reason even if the only reason was that they didn't want to eat alone.

This is one of those quiet parts of the Berkshires. Its not for the tourists, it doesn't involve the arts but is part of the fabric of life.

So I guess in the context of things my last post was whining. Compared with many that I saw here and having great kids who want to do things like this and want to have me along with them I can put up with the distress of the ants.

The vacation from Hell

I am usually not a complainer and sometimes when wave after wave of crap comes on I go either in the direction of wanting to cry or burst out laughing over the absurdity of the sequence. I think I've said this before, its like trying to keep dry in a downpour and then reaching a point of just giving up and letting it soak you.

This has had to be one of the worse vacations I can recall. Much of it sucked, except for one exception which deserves its own post. Starting off with a cold that has just ended, on and off through out the week I was tethered to work email sheparding IT consultants through a project that got finished at 5:30 pm Friday night. Then working on home projects it seemed that each project that I picked up became way more involved or extensive and either took 3 times as long or I threw my hands up. Then there was dealing with newly discovered carpenter ant and water damage. Listening to the contractors assessments and rough estimates rivaling a the price of a used car is alone enough to depress added to the frustration of trying to get estimates and reliable contacts had me ready to scream. To confess, when the house was empty of family I could probably be heard by neighbors an acre away screaming and cursing. A good try but it didn't work, I still feel like crap and thoughts of a hurricane, or remnants, working its way up the coast had me staring at the ceiling at 4am.

So two days left of the weekend and vacation and I'm tossing in the towel about chores. I am done. Tomorrow we get a family day in the city (Boston) and after figuring out what to do about dinner tonight I'm heading out with the kayak.

So what is the purpose of this ranting post? Well perhaps to make you feel better if you aren't dealing with stuff like this and guess-what, not all vacations in the Berkshires are great especially when you live there. They are just like your vacations at home.

Rant over, turn the page

Monday, August 25, 2008

End of summer blahs

The clouds blow in, the rain comes, the clouds blow out. That seems to have been the rhythm of this summer. Rain more often than I wanted, making the grass grow faster then not giving enough dry days to keep up with it. The dampness seems to add more chores to the list. Water seeping in where it hadn't before, mold growing on the leaves of trees, the porch plants that always thrive are under attack. Ants are finding the dampness of wood and discovering a feast.



I usually find summer restful although it is always busy. This summer seems different. I am tired. Not in a sleeping sense as I am still keeping up my 13 mile a week running pattern that I started in the spring, but a fatigue that has set in, a fog on the mind and like the rain it seems to leave for a bit but then comes back.

So this week I am on vacation. Nothing scheduled but a totally unrealistic chore list , a summer cold settling in on me and the need to stay a little tethered to work email. Blah.........

So if you notice I'm not posting as frequently its where I am at the moment. The camera is hidden in the car as I am tired of taking pictures of mists and rain. Its too much like the fog that I am working to get free of.

We'll see how the week goes. Does this cold set a different schedule for me than the list that is on the frig? Do the work emails give good new that the project I've been sheparding has been successfully uploaded and I can then shut them down? Can I get enough painting done to get through to next year? Well I get a warm afternoon out in the kayak? My complaints for the day.................................



An then I recall yesterday when I traveled back to Springfield for the wake of the husband of a former co-worker. Several years younger than I, he was diagnosed with brain cancer a year ago and despite an active fight succumbed. Barely 50. The body in the coffin I did not recognize. Not the same person I had seen before his illness or vibrant person in the family pictures on display.

Something like that gives you another perspective, a sort of dope slap up the side of the head. Yeah I am tired, yeah I am fatigued and getting a cold, yeah I feel like I am fighting a war against ants, yeah feel resentful that I need to check in with work emails while on vacation. Yeah I feel totally blah.........

But I feel...... I am living....... I am healthy........my family is healthy......I have a choice of doing chores and even complaining about them. The fatigue will eventually fade as will the fog and this cold will also fade. So life ain't all that bad, its life.

So that is where I am at. It is the end of summer in the Berkshires. The nights are cooler, the sun comes up later. But the sun comes up for me and it sets and the moon rides and it sets and that isn't something to be taken for granted.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Before moving to the Berkshires we lived for many years in a suburb of Boston. While there are many wonderful things about living near a major city quiet was not something we found easily around home. I could go to places that were quiet, but home was not one of those. We lived on a street that was lined with pastures but we learned too late that it was also a shortcut known by locals between two towns. Swish, swish, swish was a most common sound at all but the deepest hours of the night. Plus the flight paths to Logan and the interstate in the distance provided for fairly regular low level, and sometimes not so low level if noise.

Over the years I found this wearing and one of the several things on the list of musts when finding a new home in the Berkshires was quiet.

Now nested against woods on a dead end street and the nearest interstate 15 minutes away and state highway at least a mile and jets that only pass over at 30,000 feet, the sound of nature is dominant. As I have written before, nature is by no means always quiet but it is rarely jarring.



But one of the sweetest sounds is one not from nature but one I hear mostly in the middle of the night and when the windows are open [which is May to October] since we don’t need air conditioning.

In the stillness and dark of the night the bells of the "Church on the Hill" a few miles away softly chime the hours. Floating across town over the hills and trees the chimes seem the sole guardian of the passing of time through the night. Drifting awake I count the hours and then drift back to sleep in the peacefulness of the night knowing that daylight is still a while to come.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Crisis = Danger+Opportunity ???


Recently I was listening to someone speak about the Chinese characters for crisis being danger and opportunity. In the context of the discussion was about good that can be found even in the worse situations. Very Taoist I thought.

I was going to write a post completely on that topic and how often kernels of good come from a bad occurrence but decided to do a little more research first. I was dismayed to find several articles written by authoritative sources that present this theory as an almost urban myth. One PhD in Chinese linguistics described that the characters actually are “danger and incipient moment; a crucial point (when something begins or changes)” and that making “incipient moment into opportunity is a significant misinterpretation.” Another scholar,in addition to parsing out the characters and their actual meaning, thinks that the perpetuation of this myth is Pollyannaish and dangerous in itself. There seems to be an almost market of sorts for items with this theme of finding opportunity in crisis. Here is one source of the commentary. http://www.pinyin.info/chinese/crisis.html

So at first I scrapped the idea of writing on this but as I mused further I was intrigued not by the clinging to of something that is completely false. I think humans do that very often in varying situations with an attitude of don’t confuse me with the facts and don’t mess with my fantasies.

I don’t think here it is clinging for the sake of clinging but rather a core optimism that is part of the human spirit. The desire to see order in things; to see good surpass evil; to see all things end well; to see that happy ending.

After coming through a crisis, with its fear and sometimes despair, and sometimes heap of a mess, either physically or emotionally, we innately want some good to come from this terror. That all the error and pain endured and energy expended has some gain to it.

I know myself I have tried hard to identify and in a way honor valuable lessons and useful tools that have come from the process of working through and coming back from a job loss or health issue. I don’t think that there is anything na├»ve in that and I am not glossing over the crisis as having been valuable in itself. No thanks, I‘ll learn the lesson another way if you please. But it is a way of recentering and reconciling with the bad that has occurred. That even in a mess and a disaster we are able to comb something positive out of the wreckage to keep us moving forward.

Optimism, yes. Blind optimism, absolutely not.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Help wanted

One of the more challenging and sometimes interesting parts of my professional job has been recruiting for open positions. I oversee a reasonably sized division that for many many years had very little turnover and the people being hired were all for new positions added due to growth.

Then starting last summer, one long time staffer quit to care for a terminally ill spouse, then another two got once in a lifetime opportunities with much more pay and closer to home and another had the opportunity to retire early….and so you can see the pattern. Several years worth of normal turnover happening all at once,

So it’s been pretty consistent reorganizing, redoing jobs, finding temporary fixes to get the work done while at the same time trying to recruit.

But what has changed dramatically during this latest round of hiring has been the quality of the candidates.

Gone are the days when I would run ads and get 50 applicants and potentially have a half a dozen to choose from. Now if I get 6 responses it’s been a success and the quality, to be very blunt….sucks big time.

So I may rerun ads and change the wording a little to see if that works. It hasn’t.

The common response is the email with the resume attachment. Often the email will be canned and not pertain to what was actually written in the ad; sometimes there will be an email with the subject line “applying for job opening” and an attachment. If I run the ad in different papers I may get the same email/letter/resume combo as many times as papers it’s appeared in. If I run it multiple weeks running I may get several duplicate resumes.

This is not good for jobs that often have “attention to retail” as a key requirement.

This week came the resumes attached to an email with no introduction or even a subject line – which sent them electronically into the SPAM bucket.

And then there are the excuses.

When I have had enough of the crap I will occasionally respond back suggesting that the applicant have someone else read their resume as it has errors in it. [such as misspellings of the person’s previous employer, the word resume, or their address is spelled wrong and the zip code with letters in it.]

One response I received back was that I must have opened a resume of his that was not the final version. It’s the one he sent and the only one I had. While another asked me “what they had applied for”. Yesterday I wrote back to the person whose resume went in the SPAM bucket because of no email, letter or subject line giving some feedback [me being a nice guy]

The response I received was a curt one word SORRY! in triple sized font and then the resume was copied and pasted in the email.

So from SPAM bucket to “delete” and the applicants don’t even have a clue. It was clear that I had offended the applicant by pointing out why she will rarely hear anything when she sends a resume out. SORRY…..NOT

Then there was the “post it” cover letter. A resume coming by mail with a 3x5 post-it note stuck to it with a full cover letter written in tiny hand writing. I couldn't read half of it even with my glasses on.

A couple weeks ago I reran an ad for a position I have recruiting 6 months for and added the requirement of responding with more than a one sentence email reflecting on how the applicant fit with the description.

The first response was from a guy who had previously sent a two sentence email with a resume and had no relevant experience.

How he responded to the new ad was a one line “I sent you my resume a couple of weeks ago, am I being considered or not”?……………not.

So I am thinking there must be a market for educating and coaching people wanting to switch jobs on how to do it and on the basic organizational skills to manage an effective job search. But I also suspect that many of those who need critical feedback will be the ones who will be offended by the feedback and they will see themselves be the “victims” of over critical people.

Meanwhile I’ll continue to tweak the ads and bring in recruiters to lure people away from someone else. Gradually working my way back up to fully staffed and hope for another several years before another wave of turnover and retirements hits again

Monday, August 4, 2008

1000 visitors and growing

Wow I feel a little like McDomald's as I see the official Blogger visit counter hit the 1,000 mark. Of course I'm not selling burgers and actually haven't been to a McDonald's in several years (another story for a future post).

So thanks for visiting and of course thanks for commenting.

Jeff

Friday, August 1, 2008

Learning from your kids…….

As I have written before I have kids currently in their mid teens. Parenthood for us has been a blessing and a joy and a lot of fun. Sure there are challenges and issues and fights that go along but we genuinely like our kids as people and not just because they are our kids. They are thoughtful, funny, inquisitive, opinionated and smart, kind, healthily industrious and full of life. They are very different from each other and in many ways different from my wife and me and yet very much the same.



Since the birth of my oldest, being a dad has been a learning experience. Not just in learning the practical aspects (for there has been tons of that) but in an experiential way. For as my kids grow and mature I find I am learning more and more about life and myself. When they were babies and then a toddlers it was as if I was being given a peephole into my own childhood and the rare opportunity to gain perspective on that early stage of my life. Memories of experiences that I had never remembered before came back as deja vu.

They were a reason, or should I say excuse, to play at the playground, climb on the climbing structure and slide down the slides and swing on the swings. Who would ever question the motives of a dad keeping up with his little ones, when in fact I also saw this as an opportunity to play and relive and have fun. I learned that it is ok to say yes even though my parents might have said no or that other parents might give that look. The time the rain caused the front yard to get muddy and rather than shoo everyone away because of what it would do to the lawn, I encouraged the neighborhood kids to join mine sliding in the mud. There was the time of chasing a group of kids around with a water hose and everyone, especially me was drenched. Though safety was always paramount, it was through those moments I learned it was ok for other parents to wonder where the adult was in the group.




Though I’ve always been curious, having kids opens a new world of seeking and exploring even the minutest thing. When sharing music and rocking with them in the dark or playing with the puppets, time seemed to be suspended; seemed surreal.

As they each face new challenges and opportunities and are unsure, I learn much from how they respond and how we have to encourage and coach. Setting limits and also expecting responsibility; but learning to hold back my fears and to consider the source of my caution and to decide when its best to just let them go and be on the side lines if needed. The way that I have learned and become was not necessarily how they should be or experience life.




As they face their fears and I have had to be brave for them I learned something about myself as well as them. When they fell down and picked themselves up I was also reminded of how durable I really was. When they laughed and laughed at my goofiness I was reminded to not take myself and life so seriously. When they just jumped into a group of kids they had never met and just began to play I am reminded how easy it was before we all stopped to think before doing that and more times hesitated than was good.

When they asked to come to work just to meet the people and spent a day seeing what I did, I was reminded of the nice people I work with who thought this was cool and feel good years later when my kids talk about that day. I am reminded to say yes more that no.

As they struggle with school and with friendships and with relationships I am relearning what that was about back then and that this newer perspective can be healing. I am also learning that because they are friends with each other, they will often seek out the other's perspective or advice, as being more relevant or current than what dad and mom could provide and that this is ok and good.



As my oldest nears college age I am reminded about how things will change so dramatically. For him it is an awesome and scary time and my job is to hold my fears in check and be there to talk to and guide and to hug them tight. As parents we are not only coaches we are also sometimes partners. I know that in that process they will learn; and as we help them through this next stage they will teach me as well.

I have often said that having young kids keeps you younger and more on your game and that is good.