Monday, June 30, 2008

Oh, the Irony

The box from Amazon arrived - unexpectedly - two days early. All along, I'd been looking forward to it.

"Woo-hoo! It'll arrive Wednesday, just in time for the long weekend," I thought to myself, when the shipping notification pinged its way into my inbox.

Miraculously, we have no plans this holiday weekend. And I'd intended to spend it reading, at least for the most part. Maybe taking in a fireworks display, if we can find one.

But because I can't wait, I tear open the carton, and get started. One book, in particular, had been high on my list of must-reads, and I pulled it from the box in anticipation.

I cracked open the cover, and started reading the Foreword. It was short and snappy, and it took me until the end to realize it hadn't been written by the author. No matter.

The Introduction beckoned. And so I began reading.

And reading. And reading.

After a while, I bristled at the author's style.

The Introduction plodded on and on, in long, unbroken paragraphs with nary a subhead in sight.

I skimmed ahead - a 15-page introduction?! - and then I put it down. I ached for something more sound-bitey, more fragmented.

The book in question?

Distracted: The erosion of attention and the coming dark age, by Maggie Jackson.

Guess the dark age is already here.

(But don't worry, Ms. Jackson, I'll pick it up again.)

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Brave New Worlds

Yesterday, I had lunch with two old friends. And the short time we spent together reaffirmed why we're still in touch.

Each of us had big things happening in our lives, and it was exciting to reconnect and see the spark that the new challenges had to offer.

One friend is about to move to his first house, after having taken on a job at a start-up where he is clearly in "the zone" -- his clients clearly benefit from his expertise, and his knowledge is built upon every day. He clearly relishes the challenge.

Another is laying the foundation for a major life change that means he'll be following his bliss. (This one, you can tell by the twinkle in his eye and the change in his energy that he realizes he's onto something great.)

Me, with my new job, I'm following the peaks and troughs that come with stepping into any new territory. Overall, it's a mash-up between all the different aspects of communications that I've thrived on throughout my career.

At the end of our lunch, I realized how glad I was that I've kept in touch with these folks over the years. (I knew these two back in elementary school, for crying out loud!)

Variety, being the spice of life, is definitely in abundance in my new gig.

The same goes for my friends. And for that, I am both thankful and thrilled.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Not What I Ordered

It escapes me how prosciutto can be so often misspelled, in Italian restaurants, no less.

If I had a dollar for every typo I've found in a restaurant menu - well, I could hire a personal chef.

While it may not be your strength, communicating your offerings with the respect your customers deserve by composing a menu that is correct is simply part of the job as a chef or restaurateur.

Sometimes, when perusing a particularly badly edited menu, I find myself more distracted by the errors than the foams and reductions that should be catching my eye, instead.

It's heartening to know that I'm not the only one who feels this way.


Finally, someone has engaged in serious study on the subject of multi-tasking and its ineffectiveness.

All week, I've seen articles by Maggie Jackson, referring to her book, Distracted.

The office of the millennium is rampant with distractions. From colleagues' discussions through cheesy burlap cubicle walls that offer no sound buffer whatsoever, to loud arguments in the hallways, to impromptu brainstorming sessions between collaborating colleagues.

I'm not saying that offices should be silent. That people should squirrel themselves away in their cubicles, never to be heard from until lunchtime. And I'm really not in support of more interruption-oriented tools that purport to do the opposite. (A "whisper" is just as annoying as an IM, in my opinion.)

What I take issue with is how it's been said that all of this open-space office design is not just about cramming more people into less space than a traditional office with a door would allow (and to that, I say: ha!).

But the spin is that cubicles and open-space office interiors exist to foster collaboration.

Now, I'm all about collaboration. I applaud it.

However, I don't think collaboration can be fostered by the space.

It's about the people and their ideas, not the walls or lack thereof.

Collaboration is simply bound to happen spontaneously, when two people are chatting about a problem. And sometimes trying something out - evaluating it on screen, and fixing it on the fly, and whooping in celebratory appreciation of an intractable problem solved. That's how innovation happens.

I get that.

But I don't get that people disrespect the fact that you're obviously working, typing away, trying to get something done, and just walk right into a cubicle and interrupt without asking permission.

It's simple common courtesy. Office Etiquette 101.

Studies have shown that interruptions cause workers to take 30 more minutes to get back to the task at hand. I get interrupted on average at least 20 times a day - so what does that say about my schedule?

No wonder it seems like our to-do lists are only growing, never getting shorter...

There simply aren't enough hours in the day.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Love Those Endorphins

Woke up this morning, scattered of thought, stressed about a big meeting.

Not only that, but I'd tiptoed out of bed toward our front window, having awakened to noises outside at 3 a.m.

Two cars and two passenger vans seemingly chock-full of people were parked in front of my neighbor's house, with people switching seats and making quiet mayhem in the street.

Peering out into the darkness, I wondered what was up, but could tell it was benign and orderly. (This morning, we realized it was probably their house guests, readying to take an early flight back home with a tour full of people.)

So... aside from a side dish of work worries, a lack of sleep played with my already-jangled nerves.

When the iPod revved up at 6 a.m. and woke us gently with some jazz, my husband suggested I take a walk to calm down and get ready for the day.

And lo, it worked!

Days like this, where the morning temps hover around 60 degrees are my favorite.

The air was clear, the humidity was low and the hydrangeas were just starting to bloom.


Sunday, June 15, 2008

Prescription: More Surprises

Some people find comfort in the rut.

Now, I can't say that I'm all about change - I can enjoy a good rut as much as anyone else.

The comfort of that repetition can provide some stability when the world around you is chaotic.

But opening up to the new can be restorative, soul-feeding, inspiring.

Like watching some of the Iconoclast series, recommended first to me by fellow blogger, Kitty, over at New York Portraits.

Just a few days ago, I was scrolling through the DVR, looking for something interesting to watch when I spotted the episode featuring Mike Myers and Deepak Chopra.

An unlikely combo if there ever was one.

As the episode unfolded, we learn that Myers has long been a friend of Chopra's, that he's studied Eastern philosophy and religions.

One of the most lovely quotes from the episode came from Chopra, who pointed out:

"Life can be a series of perpetual surprises - that's the most joyful experience you can have."

And it's true - most of the most joyful times in my life have been when I've been surprised.

By a situation I've found myself in...

By bumping into a friend unexpectedly on the street...

By how much fun I'm having at an event I'd dreaded attending...

By the connection I've made between two disparate ideas.

One thing I've found is that the joy can register as ultra-powerful within the context of surprise. It's as if the surprise factor ratchets up the enjoyment by 10.

What do you think: Does the element of surprise add to the joy?

Life from Both Sides

On Friday, when I first saw the headlines about Tim Russert's death, I suddenly felt very sad.

I'd long admired his ability to moderate all the discussions - whether roundtables of pundits or presidential debates.

Tim Russert was one of those people I think of as operating on a higher plane - by that I mean that state of flow where you're at the proverbial top of your game, perfectly in sync with your strengths and interests, informed and in total control of a situation.

And in reading about his devotion to his family and faith, and what they call his blue-collar roots, I only felt a little more melancholy.

But learning that he had just returned from a celebratory trip to Italy with his wife and newly graduated son, that he died at work, a place and a situation he clearly relished, my thoughts changed.

Here was a man who clearly left this world his own terms, his heart likely full of joy and love, instead of fear and a sense of foreboding.

We should all be so fortunate.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Top Chef Got it Right

Being somewhat reserved myself, I just cheered inside when Stephanie, with her controlled, non-flashy, self-doubting manner, and her ricotta poundcake with banana cream (huh?) took Top Chef Honors last night.

Despite keeping Lisa - um, why? - until the end, the judges got it right.

As another blogger reviewed, the Anthony Bourdain-led episode where Dale got ditched was the huge mistake. Lisa should have been sent packing and shown the door.

In the back of my mind, I'd pegged it as a contest between Stephanie and Richard, who just kind of fell apart in the face of the enormity of it all... (How Stephanie kept her cool when bossing around totally HAWT Eric Ripert - that accent! that hair! that knife-work! - I do not know!)

I feel bad for him to have been shown up by the girl who all season long churned out barely tolerable Asian-inspired food. Although I have not ever had pork belly, the dish Richard made looked just, unappetizing.

But just a tip? If you're ever making a show-stopping meal, anything with the words "pound cake" just won't cut it.

Sunday, June 8, 2008

Plan B

With the temperature in the high-90s and major humidity already thickening the air, a friend and I arrived in Center City Philadelphia just before noon.

Luckily, our exit from the parking garage where we'd stowed the car meant we started viewing the Rittenhouse Square Fine Arts festival from the shady side of the park.

There were many interesting artists, but I'd forgotten how painting-centric this show is - and this year it was more of the same.

In tent after tent, artists offered a window into their worlds - some more literally than others. Each had their own style, but some really had a shtick: one artist displayed nothing but paintings of sides of buildings, with the action taking place inside sporadically placed windows. One of these paintings stopped us in our tracks, two were kind of interesting, but after that, it felt like a production line mentality, the same theme rendered in different hues and buildings so visitors could choose one in a color palette that matched the sofa.

We meandered around the square, and for the first two sides we visited, we each found works we responded to - and in pointing out a Raku-fired series of tiles in one artist's booth, my friend mentioned off-handedly that he'd been a serious potter at one point in his life - who knew?!

After making our way around the square, and hitting the organic farm stands that lined Walnut Street, we set off for the David Sedaris book-signing.

As we approached the bookstore, hundreds of people were already waiting in line outside - in the broiling heat. Quickly, I procured a book from the table just in front of the entrance, and asked the sales staff how long Mr. Sedaris would be signing books.

"Until the last customer's book is signed!" a woman answered. As she spoke, an ardent fan tumbled out of the tiny bookstore with a friend, gushing: "It was *so* worth it!"

With hundreds of people still waiting to be admitted into the bookstore, the bright mid-day sun beating down on them, my friend and I decided to grab some lunch to cool off, before getting in line. We headed off to Tria, a wine and cheese bar, for iced tea and salads with figs and gorgonzola.

Refreshed an hour later, we headed back down the street to the line, which hadn't budged.

So we set off to shop a little, and ended up at Capogiro, for the best gelato in the city. Blood orange sorbetto and strawberries and cream gelato were the perfect antidote to a sweltering day.

Do you see a theme?

We got back into line, standing just a couple of people away from the same group of women we'd spoken with when we first stood in line. And now, thanks to the sun's trajectory, we were standing in shade! Glorious, cooling shade.

Only after about three minutes, we were ready to faint from the heat, with 100 more people ahead of us. At the rate they were admitting people to the store, we would have to wait another two to three hours.

I'm sure if we had stayed, we'd have experienced David Sedaris' patented brand of humor up close. Been able to pay tribute to a writer whose style I've long admired. Tell him how much I enjoyed his recounting the verbal fumblings of his French class, explaining the particulars of the Easter celebration to a non-Christian classmate.

So we bailed.

At first, I explained it away that the heat made the whole process intolerable. And it did.

But in talking about how, "Oh, in the fall or late spring it would be lovely to have an excuse to stand outside for several hours," I realized that I couldn't imagine anyone for whom I'd be willing to stand outside for five hours in a row on the sidewalk.

No matter which way I thought about it, standing in line for hours just seemed such a tremendous waste of time.

Because a gorgeous fall day could mean walking through the park, or touring many of the city's gardens, or trudging from museum to museum.

Waiting in line - even for someone whose work I respect - couldn't hold a candle to any of that.

Saturday, June 7, 2008

Hot Child in the City

That old Nick Gilder song always runs through my head during the sticky, summer-swelter days, like the one that's on tap for today.

Today, despite the heat I'm headed into Philadelphia for a day of fun that includes checking out the Rittenhouse Square Fine Arts Show with a friend, and standing in line for the David Sedaris book-signing event at Joseph Fox Bookshop in center city.

The art show is one that I've visited before but not for many years. Fine artists set up their wares under canopies, and you can talk to them about their work and approach and what inspires them. There's one artist whose painted wooden boxes are a unique collaboration with her artist husband. There are a few on her website that look just wonderful, but I have no idea of the price.

In a unique twist on the usual book-signing for Mr. Sedaris - which I've heard can involve standing in line for four (four?!) hours - the bookstore has collaborated with nearby merchants to throw a block party in his honor. Aside from making the wait more tolerable, it could be provide a fabulous people-watching venue.

More to come...

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Mid-Year Checkpoint

At the start of this year, full of hope and clean-slate promise, I made a list of goals for myself.

Here, at the almost-midway checkpoint, I'm revisiting what it was, in an ideal world, that I saw myself doing for 2008 and how I've fared so far, and maybe any lessons learned along the way.

Can't say it's been the most goal-focused year so far, at least not according to these goals I set way back when there was snow on the ground and I was cooped-up in the house writing at my desk overlooking my little street. But in reaching for these goals, I learned a few things along the way...

1. Learning a new recipe every week:
Thanks to the influx of magazines that find their way into our house, we're trying new recipes fairly regularly. Although I far away from my goal of one per week. I did try a Cooking Light recipe for a lemon cake that was truly atrocious, so I'd warn you against that. Mine turned out like two rubbery disks cemented together with a gummy cream cheese/lemon frosting.

Lesson learned? When baking, go for the gusto, make the full-fat cake, eat two generous slices and then work out extra-hard to make up for it. Life's too short for unsatisfying, lowfat cake.

2. Seeing every movie that piques my fancy:
Wow, that seemed so much more important when I was cooped up in the house. But I did manage to see Sex and the City with my sister - she and I watched the last two years of the show together, so it was like old times.

3. Traveling to places that make me feel more awake and alive:
Well, I've incorporated a few of these into my outlook on life, like Number 3. The Gryphon Cafe (amazing chicken salad with capers and artichoke hearts, along with the best coffee) is a bit of a schlep at about 30 minutes away, near other places where I run errands every once in a while. Since my schedule's been crammed full lately, I've not had time to get out there in the past six weeks. But I'm hoping that will change - as early as this weekend.

4. Organizing more outings with friends:
Hm... This has been quasi-successful, but I want to do more. So this stays on the list.

5. Spending more fun time with my niece and nephew, smart creative kids who keep me smiling:
Some of my fondest memories of these kids will always be of the conversations we have. They're both really thoughtful, funny and egg each other on. Each has his or her own intelligent take on things, and I really just enjoy seeing how they think.

6. Adopting a better house-cleaning schedule, focusing on the relaxing sense of order that results:
Housecleaning? Feh. That went nowhere.

7. Reading more books that make me feel like writing:
Well, file this under best-laid plans. For now, at my new job, I'm reading all day long and writing and being incredibly productive. So I'll grace myself the reading-for-inspiration, although I really do enjoy the sense of escape that comes from a good story.

8. Taking a different approach to work by focusing more on learning-innovating-thriving:
A few things are making this difficult at the moment, but this week has been on where I've felt like I've leaped ahead in terms of knowledge and growth. Did you ever literally feel yourself growing? I've had that feeling many times in my life, and that's what this week has been for me.

9. Spotting the art in everyday life:
Bull's eye! With spring and the onset of summer, what's not to love? There are flowers everywhere you turn, leaves on trees in different shapes and sizes, fudgsicles, iconic sunscreen bottles, the sun hitting buildings at crazy angles, brilliant sunsets, still lives anywhere a bowl of fruit can be found. I've just not been so diligent at toting around my camera, unlike some people.

10. Enjoying the good parts of every day:
I sort of knew I was tempting fate by writing about Productivity vs. Drama, because then suddenly a little bit of drama unleashed itself. But paying attention is half the battle. So often we get caught up in the drama of whatever is going on that we neglect to see the good that's hidden around the bend.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Productivity Vs. Drama

This must be different for different people, and at different times of one's life, but I find that the less drama I have to deal with, the more productive I am.

I use the word "drama" as a placeholder for many things, but basically it's referring to something that stirs the pot to no apparent other benefit.

When the seas are calm, I find that my mind is relaxed enough to fire off quick decisions, write with more confidence, and see creative solutions through a lens that renders them more sharply than when the perfect storm is brewing.

Maybe energy is just sucked from a situation when the black hole of drama is present. I don't know.

All I know is that there has been fairly little drama in my life for the past month, yet it's been one of the most productive I've ever experienced.

Monday, June 2, 2008

Cures What Ails You

So many people at work are sick with colds or allergies today. I left with a lump in my throat, convinced that I, too, was working on a cold.

Coffee? Tea? I thought, on the way home, convinced the hot liquid would help.

My husband's feeling the pain, too.

"If it weren't so darned warm, I'd eat chicken soup," he said. Ditto for the coffee and tea - it just has no appeal when the weather approaches 80, and we haven't fired up the A/C yet.

Guess I'll just have to dig into the freezer and come up with a grocery-store remedy: Cookies 'N Cream ice cream. Yum.