27 August 2009

Turning it over

Life has a way of reminding me every so often that I’m not in charge. Take today, for example. I penned out a quick diary entry this morning, reflecting on yesterday evening’s events. And then two hours later, have a conversation with my realtor indicating that things are not moving along quite as effortlessly on the sale of my house as I had thought. It seems as though the buyers have experienced a bumpy ride on the road to line up financing and need to delay closing. And apparently, since their financing has not been completed, they have not yet gotten an appraisal on the house. Hmmm, lead time on that takes a week, so, let me do the math….this situation sucks.

Best case scenario: they get the financing terms they are seeking, house appraises in accordance with the value of the loan and both closings complete according to the revised schedule.

Modestly worse scenario: they need to extend the closing date even further, requiring us to extend the closing date on the house we are buying, but both transactions still complete, with just an added headache.

Worst case scenario: they do not get the financing terms they are seeking and back out of the contract altogether, causing us to back out of our contract too. Really bad.

Since I have no control over this, I need to turn it over with a little prayer to give me serenity. Events will come to pass and the world will continue to spin, regardless of my internal anxiety level.

Museum relics

I have not moved too many times in my life and consequently, have not been very diligent about discarding possessions from my past. I am not referring to random purchases that have made their way into my household through the years, but true relics from my childhood that I carefully packed up oh so long ago and have been storing for the past 30 years.

All that ended last night, for the most part, anyway.

New owners will begin moving into this house in just two weeks. Most of the rooms are empty because I have been packing and moving my belongings for a good while now. Besides my cleaning supplies, the only items remaining are things with which I have little connection. Many of these were boxed up in my attic, and last night I pulled down the ladder and ventured into that rarely traveled territory, the dust-covered museum of relics from my distant past.

I have literally dozens of dolls, most of them merely souvenirs from the vacations of various aunts and uncles. But some were my own dolls. I remember selecting their clothes, and lovingly wrapping them in the shoe boxes where I found them last night. I threw most of them away but there are 7 still remaining, and I stubbornly believe that some collector somewhere might like to have them. I don’t consider the dolls to be valuable, I just consider them rare.

I am no longer interested in storing them, but I do hope to find a home for these 7 dolls that is not in a landfill.

26 August 2009

Ghost in the machine

Our microwave oven is possessed with a playful, but very irritating poltergeist. It is a second-hand microwave oven, passed on from Cristy's niece who used it in her apartment while she was in college. Anything could have happened.

We first noticed that the spirit was there when the microwave began beeping for no apparent reason. Opening and closing the door only helped temporarily, unplugging the machine was the only remedy.

I use the microwave pretty regularly and dueling with this little poltergeist has become part of the standard routine. A challenge, actually. As soon as I connect the plug, I have to be ready to execute my strategy. It goes something like this:

Me: Placing item inside oven and closing door
Me: Connecting plug to wall
Oven: beep-beep-beep
Me: Quickly setting clock. Pressing 1-0-
Oven: beep-beep-
Me: open & close door. Pressing 0-
Oven: beep-
Me: open & close door. Pressing clock button (YES!)
Oven: beep-beep-beep-beep-
Me: Setting cook time. Pressing 1-
Oven: beep-beep-
Me: open & close door. Pressing 5-OK button!
Oven: Begins cooking, but beeps in protest the entire time.
Me: doing a victory dance then unplugging the oven with gusto!

Occasionally, my adversary will take advantage of the fact that I can be forgetful and will lull me into thinking that I am interacting with a normal microwave oven. This happens more often that I care to admit. There will be no beeping during our cooking transaction, no duel. I will forget to unplug the machine at the conclusion of the cycle and my adversary will chuckle to herself slyly. She has planned revenge. It will unfold precisely as it did at approximately 3:45 this morning.

Cristy: I'll get it.
Diane: damn.

24 August 2009

Roadside furniture

Cristy and I are in the midst of purchasing a house, selling our two respective houses and integrating our dogs, our personal belongings and our lives under a single roof. Our new house is large. Larger than our two separate places combined. We know that we don’t have enough furnishings to make it look lived-in, and we’re both OK with that fact. Part of the fun of embarking on this adventure will be selecting things for our home together, for perhaps many years to come.

One of the things we joke about (I think we’re joking, anyway) is the abundance of abandoned furniture along side the road and the world of opportunity that exists for low-cost, high-style decorating à la Loop 610-Boutique. We’re not thinking of old cast-off furniture that people carry out to the curb for heavy-trash pickup day (although that is another idea altogether!). We’re just focusing on a few core prospects: a lone chest-of-drawers or easy-chair sitting alongside the freeway. Dust it off, spray on a little Fabreze, perhaps whip out a can of spray paint, and we’re in business.

Where does this furniture come from, anyway? That’s the point of this rambling essay. The most obvious answer is that these items belonged to someone who packed them into the back of someone’s pickup truck en route to a new apartment/condo/house. And then, as they say: “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.” Boy-oh-boy, I would be stinking mad if any of my chair cushions or box springs met that fate!

With my well-known frugal nature, I probably pay closer attention to these roadside specimens than the average commuter, but it is unlikely that I would actually ever attempt to retrieve an article of abandoned furniture. I’m not sure who really does pick them up, but I hope some of them do get a second lease on life with a coat of spray paint and a spritz of Fabreze.

Silent lightning

At 5:30 this morning I found myself standing outdoors and noticed the flash of lightning in the sky behind a dense blanket of clouds. There was an abundant amount of electric activity and the lightning randomly illuminated the clouds as if they were decorated with twinkle lights. But there was no thunder. The silence somehow made the lightning fascinating, nonthreatening; a discharge of natural electricity a world away.

Once when I was a young girl I awoke late at night during a bizarre electrical storm. There was no rain or thunder, but silent lightning was virtually everywhere. As I stood at my window transfixed at the spectacle of the delicate shards of lightning bursting through the brittle air, my mother came into my room and gently ushered me back to bed.

Phenomena of nature never fail to capture our imagination. No matter how many times I have seen lightning before, it is a renewed wonder. Perhaps, because it is not man-made, our consciousness labels it extraordinary. Lightning cannot be recreated on demand: we must wait for the next natural occurrence. I believe I will never again witness an electrical storm like the one I saw as a youngster, but if I did, I would still be amazed and riveted to the captivating sight.

23 August 2009

Things I love about Texas (part 2)

Since it is purely impossible to assemble a comprehensive list of things I love about Texas in a single brief essay, I felt compelled to extend the topic into two (or more) blog entries. After all, it would just be downright unpatriotic to leave anything out.

Bluebonnets – they touch the heart of every Texan. A harbinger of the coming of spring and a central character in both song and legend. A heartfelt thanks to the late Lady Bird Johnson for promoting the beautification of Texas through the proliferation of these treasured wildflowers. They are a true, blue symbol of Texas.

Longhorns – in a state where everything is big and vast, longhorn cattle are a quintessential ingredient that sets Texas apart from any other state.

Gulf coast – a large percentage of the state’s perimeter touches ocean water and the coastal plan has many contours: beaches, marshes, wetlands. The coast is one of my personal favorite recreational destinations. I love the sound of the surf, the warmth of the sun and the vastness of the ocean horizon.

Rodeo – a celebration of the skills cowboys have perfected in order to succeed in their vocation and a tribute to the agrarian heritage of Texas.

Ranches – a handful of vast family-owned ranches still remain in Texas, perhaps most notably the King Ranch in south Texas. The Kleberg family, descendants of the ranch founder, contribute to scientific innovations in agriculture.

The Mustangs of Las Colinas – the amazing interactive sculpture created by Robert Glen captures the untamed spirit of the wild horses it represents and transports visitors into that world, the essence of Texas.

Neiman Marcus – perhaps no list would be complete without tribute to the grand retail establishment, Neiman Marcus. A personal favorite shopping destination, and significant contributor to the founding backbone of the garment retail industry in Texas.

Broken Obelisk – in the midst of a quiet urban neighborhood in Houston, is a hidden treasure. This inspired sculpture, by Barnett Newman, is installed in a small reflecting pool in front of the serene Rothko Chapel. It is a memorial to Martin Luther King, Jr. and represents all that is possible when perhaps everything seems impossible.

22 August 2009

Things I love about Texas (part 1)

I am not much of a world traveler and while I do appreciate the natural beauty of other locations, I am a true Texas girl. This is not only the place where I live, it is the place that feels like home. These are some things that make me grateful to live in this beautiful land, that is home to so many others, who like me, truly love Texas.

Armadillos – OK, we all know that they are known carriers of Hanson’s disease, but really, what’s not to love about a gentle creature that resembles a knight in shining armor?

Goodyear Blimp (in the past tense) – years ago, the town of Spring was home to one of the Goodyear blimp hangars. The blimp was a regular fixture in the Houston scene when it was not engaged for other endeavors. I vividly remember getting out of my car after I arrived home from work during the 1980s and being greeted by the blimp slowly flying past with its festive design of lights flashing a welcoming hello to Houston.

Tex-Mex – there is no contest. No one does Tex-Mex like Texans. Enough said.

Reckling Field – my favorite baseball field on the planet, located in the quiet enclave of Rice University. On a crisp late spring evening, there is nothing in the world like watching baseball with a perfect seat along the first base line and enjoying the spectacular reflection of the setting sun glinting off the backdrop of the Texas Medical Center. Pure heaven.

Moores Opera Center – a splendid gift from John and Beth Moores to the University of Houston, this smallish but grand performing arts center is a treasure for musicians, performing artists and those who love attending performances.

Central Texas – the collection of cities and towns in central Texas, mixed with the rolling landscape dotted with cactus and gnarled trees offer a true flavor of the heritage of our beautiful state.

Philip Johnson – the late, great architect, while not a Texan himself, left behind a legacy of architectural beauty that residents of Houston, Dallas, Fort Worth and Corpus Christi enjoy on a daily basis. His buildings are wondrous to behold.

Fireflies – as a child growing up in a suburban community south of Houston, fireflies were plentiful on summer nights. I rarely see them any more in Houston, but they can be found in cooler climates, toward northern and central Texas, much to my heart’s delight.

Azaleas – the crowning glory of the Houston garden, some azalea plants are decades old and when they bloom, they look like a giant pink furry caterpillar creeping along the lawn of some of the most beautiful homes in town. The rest of the year they look like a gangly shrub, but it’s all worthwhile for those two weeks of blooming magnificence.

Austin – like no other city I know, it has it all. Hip, quirky neighborhoods, smooth urban scene, gorgeous vistas, fabulous weather, centers of intellectual pursuit, excellent blend of multiple heritages, and a wonderful esprit de coeur among the residents.

21 August 2009

Letting go

A couple of days ago I received a telephone call from an old friend of my ex. I always get an uncomfortable feeling when speaking with people with whom I share this common bond, because before too long, I am certain that the conversation will veer in that general direction. The segue will be framed as a question: “So, have you heard anything from John?” My own answer is not relevant; the real issue lies with the broken relationship between my ex and the person on the other end of the telephone.

I will listen politely, express sympathy at the grievances or concerns aired, and sometimes remind the other party that John has a mental illness. While that alone does not serve as a carte blanche excuse for inappropriate or misunderstood behavior, it does help to frame some perspective around the reasons that certain events have unfolded in the way that they have.

I have no control over that illness and while it grieves me to know that it remains untreated, I find some relief with the knowledge that my ex has a relationship with the God of his understanding and I trust that His wisdom is a guiding force in John’s life. Turn it over. Let go. Breathe.

20 August 2009

Resurrecting language III

As a result of my technophobia, I no longer have music in my car. I needed to replace the car battery one day last year, causing the anti-theft feature for the audio system to engage. It has been disabled ever since, and consequently, I have become accustomed to driving in silence. Gives me time to think.

On the way to work the other morning, I started thinking about the difference between the words committed and devoted. In our society, we tend to think of love relationships in terms of the extent of a couple’s commitment to each other, but I seldom hear anyone speak about the extent of a couple’s devotion to one another. To me, devotion implies commitment of the heart, a bond far deeper and more personal than superficial words, actions and promises that can sometimes be mistaken for commitment.

My resolve is to enrich the devotion that I feel for my partner in life through words, actions and promises that are truthful, loving, compassionate and playful. I believe that if we continue to live our lives together with these four motives guiding the current of our interaction, then our love will construct bonds of devotion that perhaps few couples ever truly experience.

My father's logic

Not quite a year ago, I remember having a conversation with my brother and as I watched him speaking, I could clearly see the expressions of both my mother and father passing across his face. It was eerie. Not only do we carry the genetic makeup of our parents, we also carry their mannerisms, behavior and speech patterns.

Sometimes I surprise myself at the realization that I am walking along a path my father cleared for me. Growing up, my lessons in fiscal responsibility came from my parents, but I attribute most of the lessons to my father. The lessons were:

  • Save money for purchases and pay cash, don’t buy with credit
  • Spend money wisely, not wastefully
  • Save for retirement
  • Maintain a liquid reserve fund for emergencies
  • For major purchases, borrow the cash from your own savings and make installment payments to yourself to replenish the capital.

I don’t adhere to all these principles, and I certainly do not hold myself up as an example of fiscal responsibility. However, the words of my father reverberate in my head as though they are my own. Case in point: within the past year, I spent down my liquid reserve fund to address some long overdue house repairs. As I dipped more deeply into that balance, I became acutely aware of an increased level of stress. I was veering off a charted and comfortable course living in territory that did not feel economically safe. And being the type of person who appreciates the boundaries of a safety zone, I felt vulnerable and that vulnerability expressed itself to me in a big ball of worry.

So of course there is something to be said for learning to be flexible and making decisions for the right reasons, even if they contradict a core belief. But no one ever said arriving at that beautiful equilibrium of flexibility and safety was going to be easy. One day at a time. Thanks Dad.

18 August 2009

Not for the faint of heart

About an hour ago, Cristy put a small flashlight in my hand, and equipped with a shovel, half a dozen plastic bags and some heavy duty garden tongs, we trudged outdoors to fish a dead rat out from under a stack of firewood. My job was to hold the flashlight. Cristy's job was to actually do the heavy lifting. I completed my job with all the requisite grimaces and gasps. Cristy made a few verbal exclamations too: "This is really gross. Stop squealing. Hold the light!"

Flashback several hours earlier. I was taking care of backyard dog doo-doo duty and noticed a few too many flies around the corner of the firewood stack. Upon closer inspection, I could clearly see some fur behind one of the logs and my lightning quick intellect concluded that it was a dead rat. I retreated as quickly as possible into the house and locked the door behind me.

I gravely delivered the news to Cristy when she got home and, to my alarm, she immediately determined that we needed to remove the deceased rodent. I could not persuade her to wait until trash day, I could not even persuade her to wait until I was not even there. It was gross. Hopefully, lightning will not strike twice in close vicinity and I will not be a party to dead rat duty again for a very long while.

17 August 2009

Describing the intangible II

The shape of anger, in two dimensions, is an asterisk and in three dimensions is more like a dandelion seed cluster. It has perforated borders, not solid because there are so many opportunities to diffuse the anger and return to a rational, peaceful existence. But on the other hand, anger is not linear and unchecked, can expand in any direction or even multiple directions. Anger is volatile and irregular.

The color of anger is stormy, greenish-brown. It is the color of the sky before a tornado. Anger comes prepared with a supply of adrenaline. Sometimes it is hard to breathe and most of the time it is difficult to assemble cohesive thoughts, they are racing so quickly. Just as in those dreams from which you desparately want to awake, but don't, your mind tells you to leave, but you are paralyzed and unable to avoid the storm of anger erupting.

16 August 2009

Happiness and shame

I follow Gretchen Rubin’s blog, The Happiness Project, and last week I read something about another blog, Work Happy Now. Both authors suggest thought processes and behaviors to promote a positive frame of mind and reduce the time we spend indulging in complaining and negative inner-chatter as a means of increasing our state of overall happiness. The methodologies seem to have plenty of merit and I have no doubt that if I spent a fraction of the amount of time thoughtfully addressing the way that I process my thoughts as I do watching television, I could certainly increase my baseline level of happiness.

Cristy and I were discussing happiness last week. We know a number of individuals that are going through a difficult period and others that always seem to be going through a difficult period. There are few to whom we would freely acknowledge the complete extent of our happiness. With others, the admission of personal happiness is modestly tempered with gratitude, and if mentioned at all to anyone else, we would tend to indicate our happiness only in passing then quickly change the subject to something benign.

The truth is that for some, there is shame attached to owning happiness. It seems to be such a rare commodity, as though there is not enough available to alleviate the stress, dissatisfaction and frustration prevalent in the lives of so many. We feel shame because we know what it is like to live with a diminished sense of happiness, so now, by contrast, living in a reality steeped in happiness seems indulgent. Our shame whispers to us in the darkened recessed corners of our consciousness that we don’t really deserve it at all; it will undoubtedly dissipate.

And unfortunately, the powers of negative thinking are as strong as the powers of positive thinking. If I permit the idea that my happiness will dissipate to develop into a belief, then I will begin to act as though it were true. My state of mind will have transformed my reality.

Thankfully, my level of happiness is far stronger than my shame at being happy.

Animal dynamics

It is 5:29am and I am sitting on the sofa with Marlow, my orange tiger cat who is curled into a comfortable circle, sleeping. Three dogs are sleeping on the floor all around us. The kitty stirs and purring, walks back and forth across the sofa, traversing over me as he paces. It is his first night in this house that will be home for our entire family of 2 people, 5 dogs and 1 cat for at least the next 2 months.

He has become comfortable with most of the house but is still rather afraid of venturing outside. We went outdoors to the front porch area for two brief visits this morning. I acted as chaperone, giving Marlow a sense that he was not alone in this unfamiliar territory as he struck out into the garden foliage to take care of a little kitty business. In short order he was ready to return indoors.

The remainder of this day, as Cristy and I nervously await the results of our house purchase negotiations, we hope that Marlow will gain the confidence he needs to interact with all the dogs since we will not be present to impose our supervision during the work week. The two little dogs, particularly curious about living with a cat, are somewhat eager to interact with him and Marlow is not exactly keen on this idea at present. The dynamics of their relationships, not unpredictably resembling their individual personalities.

15 August 2009

Natural architecture

In Ayn Rand’s novel, The Fountainhead, Howard Roark struggles against society’s tendency to conform to architectural and design standards of mediocrity as he attempts to break away from predictable patterns and create useful, beautiful buildings in harmony with their surroundings. Mother Nature provides a range of examples of naturally occurring architectural excellence – a perfect blend of form, beauty, simplicity and function. Honey bees, beavers, birds and ants all possess the intrinsic ability to act as architect, engineer and builder.

Mollusks are perhaps my favorite example of architecture in nature. Seashell homes provide shelter for the tender soft-bodied creatures with unimaginable beauty. Each home unique, an example of perfect geometry covered with a splendid range of colors, ridges and enamel-smoothness. Finding the shells empty on the sea shore offers a glimpse into the artifacts of the ocean, an impromptu tour of a secret world; an example of architecture unmatched by human creation.

13 August 2009

Recapturing language II

I have a happy friendship with words; they trigger emotions and memories and I occasionally find myself searching my consciousness for some old friends with whom I have lost touch from mere neglect on my part. Today, I reacquaint myself with a beautiful word that I rarely use: splendid.

I recall a colleague once describing a progressive dinner group to which he belonged. The group gathered once in a while for a full evening of delicious food and delightful company. On one particular occasion, he served as the designated host for the evening’s point of origin and organized the invitations. To elevate the group’s expectations for their evening, he suggested that everyone dress splendidly. I thought that was an absolutely perfect description. It allowed each participant to select attire that made them feel splendid: as though they were participating in a grand occasion.

No one uses the word splendid very often. It seems we often select the word special instead. As a result, a special event might seem perhaps just one step removed from ordinary in our imagination. Days, occasions or activities could be special merely if they occur outside of their normal schedule. But to describe a day, occasion or activity as splendid invites our minds to join in the brilliance and true exhilarating spirit conveyed through that lovely word.

A loving salute to this old friend, and an invitation to all to savor the thrill of describing an enchantingly perfect experience as splendid.

10 August 2009

Basket weavers

My family surname is a German word; it literally translates to the English noun, basket. Consequently, I have invented a personal theory that my paternal ancestors were basket weavers, artisans. I imagine they created beautiful, useful baskets, undoubtedly valued by those who possessed them.

Today my mind lingers over the latter part of the word basket weaver. Weaving is a method of joining together, bonding, adding strength. Pine needles alone have little strength, however, when birds weave them together, the needles create a sturdy nest: a home for baby birds. The basket, as a metaphor, is beautiful on many levels.

Just as humans have the capacity to hold love, knowledge, compassion, baskets complement through their basic function of holding the necessary commodities of life. Human hands weave together reeds, creating a product both intricately lovely and durable to function as an accompaniment to daily human life: collecting herbs, mushrooms, vegetables, transporting products to market, carrying a meal.

We covet the modern descendants of baskets: purses, handbags, utilitarian totes, satchels, bookbags and backpacks. But in an effort to recapture simplicity in our lives, we still turn to baskets to lovingly hold special personal items, our bathroom towels, kitchen spoons, pencils, flowers. The charm of the basket in our home today is linked to the knowledge that it originated as an ancient human expression of creativity and practicality.

Describing the intangible

In my former professional life as a management consultant, I often helped my customers work through decisions by applying innovative thinking techniques to problem solving situations. The same techniques work extremely well when guiding a group through an unfamiliar task, like crafting a mission statement.

Innovation can be fueled by inviting the brain to make new associative connections. Since the human brain is so highly adaptive, all it takes is one or two examples of the new thinking process and then the new ideas start to flow.

Association is an excellent, quick exercise for anyone that is trying to generate ideas, and a wonderful way to get started is by describing the intangible.

The color of rhythm is orange. It is. To me, at least. Rhythm is voluptuous, hypnotic and vibrant. Rhythm leaves me breathless and yearning. The orange is bold and ultra-saturated; no pale peach to be found. It is the color of a hot summer sun-kissed zinnia blossom.

The beauty of this exercise is that the possibilities are limitless. Even the thought process of selecting an intangible idea and describing it with something dimensional and finite is itself, an exercise in creative thinking. I invite my readers (both of you!) to give it a try by answering the following questions:

What is the weight of solitude?

What is the flavor of opulence?

What is the timbre of liberty?

7 squared

The other day, Cristy mentioned that by the time we get married, I will be 49. I was momentarily silent, thinking that she must be mistaken. What kind of number is that? Certainly not my age. I have no mental connection with 49. But, point in fact, she is correct.

If I am kind and gentle with myself, I would quickly point out that I really look ten years younger than my true age. I wear flattering clothing and accessories, use a light hand with cosmetics and have migrated toward a lighter, softer hair color. If I am completely honest with myself, I would concede that my body is not the same as it was then years ago. I feel chronic pain in my joints, have lost some flexibility, and there are other more subtle changes that are not entirely welcome. I also have difficulty staying awake past my prescribed bedtime. When I am tired, my body just wants to fall asleep.

I consider myself a woman accumulating substance at this young age of 48. I value myself for my contributions, ideas and creativity. I value others for their sincerity and the manner in which they contribute within the scope of their chosen professions. For many years, I have been aware of an internal alarm system that tries to alert me if vanity appears as a guiding force within my decision making processes. As I progress through my own journey of life, I prefer to be a woman who seeks information to build thoughtful opinions, explores opportunities to channel creativity and appreciates the expressive creativity of others. My vanity-alert signal will check my internal motives to steer me away from pastimes that are inconsistent with becoming the mature woman of substance to which I aspire.

At 49, I do not aspire to have 500 friends on Facebook. I do not aspire to have 500 followers on Twitter. I do not aspire to stand in a spotlight or wield position and influence to get theater tickets or a dinner reservation at a coveted restaurant. I aspire to make a big fuss over Cristy when she completes her green-belt project, to cherish the days that we spend together and to reflect with gratitude on the trials I have faced and the lessons I have learned.

09 August 2009

Hypothesis on consumer behavior

How many opportunities do you have to make a mistake before the mistake adversely affects customer loyalty/retention? My hypothesis is that this number is getting smaller and smaller. Consumers, me included, have a reduced level of tolerance for mistakes, even perceived mistakes. This intolerance is attributable to both an abundant supply (purchase options) and attention to spending (perceived value of goods received).

Example 1: This morning I awoke early to take care of an errand. My morning ritual includes coffee and my coffee of choice is a flavor infused selection. Today, I opened a new package of Seattle’s Best hazelnut cream blend. However, I was disappointed to discover that the coffee was indeed not hazelnut infused at all. It was plain ground coffee. Did I brew it? Yes. Was this coffee substandard in any way? No. Did it taste bad? No. Did it meet my expectations? No, only because I wanted hazelnut instead of regular. Will I purchase Seattle’s Best products again? Maybe not.

What is the logic behind this decision? I am trying to be very objective about this. Coffee is not a luxury item; it is not exceedingly costly. I could go to the grocery store and make another coffee purchase right now if I felt that strongly about having hazelnut coffee on hand. However, my level of confidence in Seattle’s Best has diminished because I know that, at least once, there was a quality control error in their product packaging supply chain. I suspect that by now the quality control error has been remedied, but my overall personal experience with this brand has been affected. There is greater likelihood that the next time I select ground coffee it will be a brand other than Seattle’s Best.

Example 2: About three weeks ago Cristy and I dropped into PF Chang’s for an impromptu dinner on a weekday evening. The restaurant was not full and we were seated promptly. Our overall experience that evening was beyond disappointing. Our young server was impudent, aloof and possibly incompetent. We did not receive all of the food items we requested, even after a repeated request. Even though the food we did receive was excellent, there is almost no chance that we will return to this restaurant. Dining options are simply too plentiful and we would prefer to spend our consumer dollars in an establishment where we have previously received a favorable experience, both in terms of product and service rather than choose to extend another chance to an establishment where our experience was truly abysmal.

Example 3: Over the course of three years, I have established a consumer relationship with Montrose Car Care Center based on two factors – their location and the friendliness and sense of confidence I felt in the former manager’s general automotive knowledge. About 9 months ago, that manager departed. I was told his departure was related to the illness of a family member in another city. This seemed reasonable, so I continued to steer my automotive maintenance service needs to this business. However, after two subsequent misdiagnoses, later remedied at another establishment, my opinion regarding the range of services realistically available from this repair shop has narrowed significantly. I still take my automobile here for an occasional oil change, based solely on its convenient proximity to my office, but it is extremely unlikely that I would consider asking them to diagnose a (future) mechanical problem with my Volvo.

I may or may not be a good model for an average consumer. I do not have enough information to compare my own consumer behavior with the range of customers that purchase Seattle’s Best coffee, dine at PF Chang’s or select Montrose Car Care for automotive repair services. However, if my consumer behavior is representative of the broader population, the conclusion is that there is a direct and correlation between a single negative experience and loss of customer confidence, or worse, complete customer defection.

08 August 2009

Technology enabled charitable giving

I am inspired by the variety of innovative ideas that leverage social media and technology channels for charitable giving. It also gives me pause for consideration to read and hear opinions indicating that perhaps the combination of social media and charitable giving is inconsistent with building a spirit of philanthropy.

This may be true. However, I am not convinced that every person who makes a financial donation to a nonprofit organization through more traditional methods is motivated by a spirit of philanthropy. Nor am I convinced that every donor has a desire to build a lasting relationship with every organization to which they donate.

Giving may be motivated by a sheer desire to help in a true time of need, or perhaps by a desire to share with others during the holiday season, or even for no particular reason at all, other than a convenient opportunity to give. In my opinion, nonprofits that leverage social media for the purpose of presenting a greater number of convenient opportunities to give are just plain smart. Technology enabled solicitations are simply another channel for giving, not much different from mature and stable direct mail solicitation programs.

Furthermore, nonprofit organizations that leverage social media to provide useful information about their programs and receive input in this same manner are offering an opportunity for basic communications exchange. This is an essential building block toward establishing a relationship. Of course, not all relationships beginning in this manner will mature and deepen.

In my opinion it seems short sighted to exclude opportunities to engage with potential donors through as many avenues as possible. As we so often meet our beloved life partners by mere chance, so it may be with nonprofit organizations and their loyal donors.

07 August 2009

Idea for a Simple Fundraising Activity

Disclaimer: It is possible that this is not an original idea, but I have no knowledge of this type of activity being conducted currently or previously as a fundraising event. As a result, I have no anecdotal or empirical evidence to suggest that it would be more successful than, say, selling candy bars. But, my intuition tells me that it would.

Premise: The fundraising activity is structured around a simple themed item-exchange party where invitees contribute an item and make a nominal donation to take home another item. Best explained through hypothetical example.

Theme: Coffee-mug exchange
Sponsoring Organization: High school marching band
Fundraising Activity Committee: 5 boys, 5 girls and their parents. Select an activity site and create a guest list suitable for the site. Create a budget for simple refreshments (donations from the committee preferred).

Party Theme/Activity Description: Students and parents invited to the activity arrive with one or more interesting coffee mug(s), preferably from home, that they are willing to donate to the fundraiser. Invitees also make a nominal gift to the event (say $3 for students, $5 for parents). Each participant takes their coffee mug(s) to the exchange table and throughout the event, may select or re-select another mug to take home. Extra mugs at the end of the evening may be sold at the next silent auction, kept for the next mug-exchange, or donated to the school’s coffee lounge.

Variations: Recipe exchange, Jewelry exchange, T-shirt exchange, DVD exchange, seashell exchange, etc. Themes are limited only by the committee’s interests and imagination.

04 August 2009

Minding our manners

Following a series of conversations with others pertaining to the manner in which individuals choose to share information in social media, it occurs to me that we are bearing witness to changes to the standards of polite society – the new etiquette in social media.

A sense of decorum, those beliefs to which we adhere regarding the boundaries of appropriate and inappropriate actions, is shaped within our individual life experiences. Family, colleagues and the social groups within which we circulate present a variety of models for the rules of etiquette.

However, as life becomes more mobile and less formal, our collective sense of societal propriety evolves in tandem. The only distinction between individuals behaving within the evolving rules becomes the rate of adopting this change. This brings us to social media.

Social networking via electronic channels is essentially designed to be convenient. Communication occurs in a one-way burst, at any time it is convenient for the speaker. Acknowledgments and replies are not immediate, and for that matter, not even required.

As with interesting website content that attracts attention and offers enough entertainment value or function for visitors to return, so it is with social media. The content is at the center of the equation for attracting friends, fans, re-tweets, followers, etc. And in the absence of truly informative or entertaining content, substitutes include a high volume of content, or even edgy (read: provocative) content.

Thus, leading to the types of conversations referenced earlier. This is an example of an economic formula applied to social norms. If the prevailing goal of society is to increase personal visibility in the electronic realm of social networking, then norms will change in order to maximize the level of satisfaction afforded to the greatest number of participants. A mere tradeoff of manners.

02 August 2009

The absence of sound

In an amped-up, sensory driven world, we are attuned to discerning particular sounds of importance to us from an array of noises. In my own household, at this very moment, it is relatively quiet, but this quiet is actually composed of layers of sounds: traffic, wind chimes, the clothes dryer, television, chirping cicadas, and if I listen closely enough, even my dogs snoring. This combination of sounds establishes a baseline environment of calm. Any noise added to this mixture will attract my immediate attention.

But what happens in the absence of sound? Do our brains easily ramp down and become accustomed to a baseline environment that is essentially quiet?

I have trouble falling asleep with a television or radio on. But many people have trouble falling asleep without a television or radio providing some background noise. It is not white noise, but to them, it serves the same purpose. Cristy finds it difficult to fall asleep without white noise; a standard electric fan serves that purpose nicely. Natural substitutes might include steady rainfall or the roar of ocean surf. Just in case we find ourselves in a destination that is too quiet, she and I travel with a small fan.

A few weeks ago, Cristy was out of town and I was alone in the house for the first time. It did not occur to me to turn on the fan at bedtime; it is not my habit. As I was drifting to sleep, I remember thinking that the wind chimes out doors were unusually loud. Only later did I realize that I heard the wind chimes only because of the absence of the sound of that electric fan.

Last summer, after hurricane Ike, my neighborhood had no electricity for over a week, but one by one, businesses opened their doors and operated with generators. I went to the grocery store, thankful that they had a source of power and thankful that they had inventory. Unfortunately however, the power went out while I was shopping. The change of sound from lights on to lights off was startling. A moment earlier, I could not hear the sound of the wheels of my carriage or the footsteps of my fellow shoppers. But in the absence of the sound of fans and the residual hum of overhead neon lighting, these more subtle sounds leapt into the front of my awareness.

The absence of sound may not require much of a comprehension adjustment from our complex brains. Perhaps it is simply the human condition of habit that causes us to forget about the nature of true quiet in the absence of sound.

01 August 2009

Food of love

Cristy likes to watch the food network channel on cable. She mostly likes the competitive cooking programs and I have watched some of these programs too. But I have a theory about cooking. I believe is that competitive cooking is inconsistent with the principal that stress and cooking are not supposed to mix. My theory is that cooking for yourself or for someone else is one of the most loving things you can do. Preparing nourishment in a thoughtful way is a true act of love.

Regardless of the outcome of the food, if the act of cooking originates from a pure spirit of sharing, then you will surely find joy from the experience of cooking. The product created from a joyful cooking experience is truly food of love. And sharing food of love enriches the experience only more. It is a circular equation, a renewable resource.

My opinion regarding competitive cooking is that the Food Network does a disservice to its viewers by portraying cooking as a stressful, disappointing, shaming experience. While I am open to celebrating the talents and culinary creativity these programs attempt to highlight, the backhanded television production methods focus less on celebration and more on failure. Competitive cooking eliminates joy, consequently removing the opportunity to create food of love.