Thursday, June 28, 2012

I Thought This Might Be Useful..

Well, it's still technically June, which means it's still kinda sorta the season for useless advice about roads less traveled, regretting the paths you didn't take more than the ones you did (would that one withstand a Logic 101 midterm?  Think about it..), and yearbook captions about futures SO bright that protective eyewear is required.

Never relenting from my quest to steer things back to the useful and practical, here is something I recommend: try buying your groceries online. 

Let me guess a few things about you:  You're busy.  You might even be so busy that you answer in duplicate or triplicate when asked how you're doing:  busy-busy, or perhaps busy-busy-busy.  As a variant on those, you may opt for the word smash-up of "crazybusy."  Because I would define someone as "busy" if their to-do wish list exceeds the time in the day available to check all the blocks, I'd say that's just about everyone, save for the very young and the very old.

But okay, back to the advice -- not only are you busy, but when you finally have time away from the things that are keeping you busy, you'd prefer it be your own.  Because you don't think of "going to the supermarket" as one of those activities that piques your interest, you avoid it.  If your spouse or partner also avoids it, and if you have young ones to complicate said efforts (or at least to provide the excuse), maybe you don't make it into the supermarket as much as you think you *should.*

Enter online grocery shopping.  I'm not shilling for any one website or brand, so I won't even mention any of them.  You can get all the basic stuff you need with a few mouse clicks, you can schedule a delivery window right to the house, and a pretty darn simple process can leave you with a homey fridge full o'delectables.

Yes, it's somewhat more expensive, but only sort of.  You're avoiding impulse buys on-line, you can scout the *store* out for sale items, and you can use manufacturer coupons from the Sunday paper, or even ones you find online.  Those are all major cost mitigators, but perhaps the biggest of all is the fact that you may be breaking a terrible habit of just saying "screw it" and ordering take-out night after night.  If you've done that enough times, always vowing that you would eventually find more time for Market Basket or Hannaford's, but didn't really do it, you'd be living up to Einstein's definition of insanity.

So yes, a straight-up cost comparison might point one way, but a holistic approach that considered the real alternative would give you totally new numbers.  On top of that, you haven't burned up any gas (let's say the tip to the driver more than negates that, though)...but the real savings comes from the fact that you haven't surrendered the opportunity cost of doing something you view as a chore.

If you think time really is money, and you value your personal weekend freedom, as well as not having to play parking lot bumper cars at Market Basket (note to all drivers everywhere: I just want to park, I don't care where, and I really don't give a rip about the spot that's 25 feet away from the store as opposed to 35's all yours!), and then make that annoying left turn back onto Broadway, then online grocery delivery may be the biggest bargain there is going.  

Oh, and here's something else useful that I heard recently:  photocopy, or at least write down, the inventory of whatever you carry in your wallet.  If you lose it, or it gets stolen, you'll have a way easier time doing damage control that way -- you'll know precisely what's gone, you'll have the numbers handy, and you can nip the identity theft risk in the bud.

Oh, and don't smoke in bed, no forks in the toaster, and no funny faces if you're near a speed bump. 

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Calendar as Subversive Tool? Sure...

So the City of Lowell recently rolled out an integrated, interactive calendar:  Its purpose is to integrate the various calendars which co-existed previously into ONE single, "go-to" site where anyone can learn about what's going on in the city.  Other than one major design flaw (it only lets you peek a week into the future), it's an awesome resource.

The reasons why it's great are mostly obvious -- transparency, visibility, inclusivity, etc.  Another reason that I like it is that it takes power away from self-important types who like to complain about "not being told" about events that take place.

Now, this isn't a Lowell thing, or a local politics thing, or anything specific to any certain place or environment.  Based on the way I spent my 20s, one thing I can very confidently say is that I've been a lot of places and seen a lot of things...and complaints about people not communicating well are universal.  Ironically, they often come from people who are themselves poor communicators -- 9 times out of 10, someone who complains about someone else "not communicating" has not made the effort himself or herself to reach out and find out about whatever it is they feel slighted over (the only time the complaint is valid is if someone made multiple attempts to reach another person and they were ignored...but simply not hearing from someone does not give you the right to call them a poor communicator).

But anyway, back to why I love this takes power away from the hyper-local and hyper self-important who are quick to throw others under the bus about the way they communicate.  All the information is laid out in plain sight, for ALL to see.  When a principal misses an event, or gets confused about the time or date, the old "throwaway" lines they might use to cast blame stop working.

People who think that Sierra Leone is the District Attorney's sister, that the "Deep South" is the Billerica town line, or that heart donors deserve 30 days of paid leave have now lost one of the quivers in their arsenal.

Sometimes, where you stand depends on where you sit.  From my perch up in Room 50, that's how I see it, and yes, that's an unabashedly good thing -- the information-afflicted are now comfortable (they can see all the city's events, laid bare), and the self-important comfortable and now afflicted (they can't feign ignorance or the cite the incompetence of others when they're caught off-guard about why they missed something).  

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Home Run Derbies

I read something in the Sun today that implied someone had really come out of his shell and taken a stand when he drafted a statement condemning the vandalism incident that took place early this year at Babylon Restaurant on Merrimack Street.  Apparently, he had vaulted forth from backbencher status within UML student government to a more serious role with the "Big Mo" that came from the statement.

Never mind that people who are professionally trained to figure these sorts of things out (and have years of experience doing so) have long since determined that the incident was the handiwork of a lone idiot/vandal from New Hampshire who had no idea what was actually in the storefront upon which he decided to leave his mark.

Back to the original issue -- although I obviously agree with the content of the condemnation statement, I can only give so much props to anyone who advocates for something that no one opposes.  In other words, if people were out celebrating that incident, and calling for repeat rock tosses, then yes, character would be at stake and it would be a marker of moral courage to get up and put those people in their place.  Absent that, however, it seems kind of like condemning the woman about to be charged for attempted murder on Branch Street -- but of course.

After a recent Council meeting in which there were a series of emotional speeches preceding what would clearly be a 9-0 vote, I was searching for a term for these sorts of things, and settled on "Home Run Derby."  Why?

Because everyone can get up, take their cuts for the fence in Barry Bonds-ahead-of-the-count-and-nothing-to-lose fashion, while the pitches are coming in straight to the wheelhouse and no one is playing defense.

Please please please don't get me wrong:  Vandalism is bad, and ethnically-targeted vandalism (or at least what was originally the appearance thereof) is even worse.  But while I'm at it, education is good, the environment is good, college costs should be contained, public servants should behave professionally, and the Constitution is a great document.

You can draft resolutions saying all those things, and yes, you're on record taking a stand, just like you would be if you were advocating for family-based daycare zoning in downtown Lowell (which passed unanimously, and was only an issue based on a zoning quirk which needed to be fixed, but not because anyone opposed it), an Immigration Assistance Commission (two hours of speeches to precede a 9-0 vote), or anything else of that nature.  Just as I would for someone whose resume said they managed the re-election campaign of an unopposed Statehouse incumbent, I recognize the feather in the cap for someone going 'on the record' to take a cut towards the bleachers, but only for about a second or so before moving on to something more interesting.

Posting 95 Theses to the door is what I'm talking about.  For a much more modern example, President Obama's recent statement about gay marriage is what I'm talking about -- by tacking to a stance that many people oppose (and taking a political risk that could hurt him in some states he carried in 2008), he put a stake in the ground and stood by it.  History shows that the people we call "visionaries" after the fact were saying or doing something that drew vehement criticism from at least some quarters as it was happening.

As Jim Rome said, if you want to be interesting: a) have a take; and b) don't suck.  If you stand up to say things like, "The environment is good," or that "racism is bad," or that "veterans are important," you haven't even made it to the second part of Rome's equation.  

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Resourcefulness, Examined

Someone mentioned to me this week that a frequent Desh-ism (quote attributed to Desh Deshpande) is: "I'd rather invest in a B concept being run by A people than in an A concept being run by B people."  

The quote stuck with me so easily because it's something I firmly agree with.  As I've written many times here on the site, I'm fascinated by the way different types of people can affect the outcomes experienced by their organizations.  People who are resourceful, people who *produce*, and people who learn from mistakes and then improve (rather than cast all the blame outward and avoid all the difficult introspection) are the ones I'd want to hire for some hypothetical enterprise I'll start someday.

If you've ever read the story "Message to Garcia," you'll know what I'm talking about.  I want the people who can deliver that message, rather than make excuses, or, worse, NOT even start and then respond, when asked about it later "Well, I wasn't sure what you meant."

Later in the week, I was speaking to someone who now works in government but has significant private industry experience from a past life.  He was talking about the interview and hiring process he had seen at a particular firm when he said, "The first test is the interview."

Nodding along, I said something like, "Okay, sure, you wan to use the interview to assess a person's demeanor, mentality, etc.?"

"Yes," he said, "But before even getting to those things, we were testing to see whether the person could get to the interview.  You see, we started all our interviews at 7 p.m.  Our building's elevator stopped being publicly accessible at 6:00, and the front doors were locked to the outside at 6:30."

"I'm intrigued," I said.  "Please say more."

He went on to explain that there were several possible ways the applicants could have reacted.  One obvious way that someone could have gotten to the interview was to just wait for someone to leave the building, and then walk through the door (if challenged, they might have muttered something about having business inside, or needing to make the appointment for the interview).  They could also have reached out to the scheduler.

You would think those points to be obvious, but they're not.  A certain percentage of prospective interviewees just becomes discouraged/frustrated and walks away.  They may send a "WTF" e-mail or call later on, but regardless, once the person walks away the firm has already figured out that that's not who they're looking for.

The elevator is another, similar test.  Again, they can access the elevator if they just wait for someone to get out (but without a card that only someone who worked there would have, they would not be able to access it after 6:00 p.m.)  The stairs are of course another option for any person with even a smidgeon of resourcefulness.  They just had to be a) found, and then b) used.

AGAIN, though, this helped them winnow out certain applicants.  

I love stuff like this.  It's hard to set up controlled situations and experiments, but if I could ever *test* for stuff like this, I would.  ANYONE can talk about how resourceful they are, how they can keep themselves engaged without requiring constant tasking and monitoring, how they're a team player, and whatever else they think an interviewer wants to hear.  It is much, much harder to observe people as they are, and then use that to make the right decisions.

The building and elevator/stairs challenges seem like tiny challenges that would not flummox most people, but the fact that they can even eliminate some applicants that way shows that they have some use.  Hey, it's a start.  

Monday, June 11, 2012

When Academia Spoofs Itself

A friend posted a link on Facebook about a study that purported to show the way racial bias was a significant setback (3 to 5 percentage points) against President Obama in the 2008 election.

The research methodology was interesting, because he used the prevalence of certain types of Google searches to see where racial animus against the President might be strongest (the idea being that people will Google things that are really on their mind, as opposed to what they tell pollsters).  Sure enough, he found that in regions likely to harbor such hatred, Obama 'underperformed' what would have been expected in 2008.

I take no issue with that idea.  It's very clear to me that there are many fellow Americans who hold despicable, contemptible, racist views.  To try to deny that would be the ultimate act of head-in-sand burial.  But as I read on, I was really looking forward to see how the author treated the net effect of Obama's race:  What would he say about people who might have been excited to see an important 'first' in America, and were swayed from the other side, or from just staying home on election day.  Here's how he treated it:
"Yes, Mr. Obama also gained some votes because of his race. But in the general election this effect was comparatively minor. The vast majority of voters for whom Mr. Obama’s race was a positive were liberal, habitual voters who would have voted for any Democratic presidential candidate. Increased support and turnout from African-Americans added only about one percentage point to Mr. Obama’s totals."
Yikes.  I may not be a Hahhvid Ph.D. (the author is studying for one there, the article notes) but I can answer this riddle:  What do Colorado, Florida, Indiana, Iowa, Nevada, New Mexico, North Carolina, Ohio, and Virginia have in common?

Then-Sen. Obama WON those states, but in 2004 John Kerry LOST them.  Also, the author himself does some racial typecasting with that last sentence in the block quote.  What about Americans of ALL stripes who came out and were excited to see the first person of color elected President?

This was one of those great examples of someone setting out to prove something, gathering up a bunch of data, and then jamming everything into the pre-cut, pre-shaped hole to make it all fit nicely.

Just to sum up my point:  Is racism real?  Yes.  Do I dispute the author's idea that it may have cost Obama 3-5 percentage points?  No.  But does the author of this do something extremely sloppy in totally neglecting to factor in the "counter-ballast" positive effect against the original number to come out with a net figure?  Yes.  

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Breaking Eggs, Making Omelettes

Sometimes the deft touch is a valued thing.  Sometimes, ironically perhaps, when a deft touch applied to something is truly deft, it isn't even noticed at all.

Other times, though, the bull-in-a-china-shop routine might have merits.

Yesterday at the Acre Festival on the North Common, Dr. Julio Carvalho was speaking to Mayor Murphy and brought up the need for executives to make difficult decisions, consequences be damned.  That led us to refer to Michael Bloomberg's decision several years ago to ban smoking indoors at public establishments in NYC.

People said he was on a power trip.  People said he would ruin the restaurant business.  People even said he was just plain nuts.

Years later, however, indoor smoking bans have become the norm across much of the country.  Besides the better air quality for patrons casually passing through, who knows how many medical problems bartenders and waitresses have been spared from?  The difficult of proving negatives means, of course, that we won't know...but it's safe here to assume better quality of life for several service industry types.

There may not have been an incremental way to do it.  And besides, the whole point of representative democracy is that we don't just do everything by an all-hands plebiscite.  We elect people, they make decisions, and then if enough people don't like those decisions, we can elect different people the next time around.  Sometimes, leaders can actually "lead" in the sense of driving public opinion to somewhere that it currently isn't.  Sometimes, as the old cliche goes, an egg needs breaking for an omelette to be made.

I thought about this yesterday when I got a "nastygram" e-mail from a Major at my unit.

I have been dealing with a painfully slow bureaucratic process of a unit transfer (from Reading to Devens) which should be relatively simple and not require much paperwork.  The problem is that the person who is the "linchpin" in the whole process is anything but proactive.  E-mails and phone calls aren't responded to, so I'm forced to either be totally passive (and just let NOTHING happen), or try to be a squeaky wheel.  The squeaky wheel strategy meant asking another full-timer at the unit to check up on the status of a certain memo, which led to the ruffling of some feathers, which led to the nastygram about respecting the chain of command, letting an NCO do her job, not trying to go rogue, etc.  Just so you know how the tone of that one went, the words "cease and desist" were actually contained therein.  Seriously.

Knowing better than to let e-mail skirmishes flare up into full battles, I sent a mea culpa sort of response, with some details about my understanding of the situation.

Somehow, that led to another dressing-down, to which I simply didn't respond.  However, the story took a turn for the better when the guy sending it decided to call, perhaps because he realized his second e-mail was over-the-top (usually you don't ratchet up the firepower to someone trying to make something better, right?)

The phone call went well, and as a result, he agreed to set up a conference call Monday morning with the key bureaucratic nodes in the process to identify what things need to happen, and to then see to it that they happen.

Predicted end result?  The impasse will break.

It won't be pretty, but who cares?  Ironically, by doing the *wrong* thing and bringing negative attention upon myself from that Major, I will have finally moved the chains ten yards down the field.  It's not like I wanted to break the chain of command, bend rules, or take matters into my own hands when they belonged in someone else's.  If that key person were more willing to do her job, none of this would have happened.  

But none of that is relevant to me.  I got someone riled up, and may have kinda sorta burned a bridge, but the only thing worse would have been the alternative of inaction.

So as great as it is to be diplomatic, and to have a deft touch, and keep everything smooth, some occasions really call for the ballistic option.

Whether that's a politician advancing an unpopular but wise idea on which he's really just ahead of his time, or a person frustrated with months of bureaucratic logjam trying anything he can to move something along, sometimes it's frankly worth it to piss people off.  

Michael Bloomberg can look back on his indoor smoking decision and bask in the glow of hindsight that he really was right when he stepped out and made that happen.  Hopefully, I'll be able to look back at that virtual "chewing-out" and say the same -- that the temporary pain associated with upsetting the apple cart is offset, and then completely overshadowed, by the end result.  

NEKWA's Message

At the Madaraka Day Celebration on the South Common yesterday, the President of NEKWA (the New England Kenyan Welfare Association) spoke.

One of her major themes was that the group needed to rely on its members to be great.  She told them, "We had an event in Worcester, and the Mayor of the City came.  Lieutenant Governor Murray was there, too.  Now, we're having an event in Lowell, and the Mayor is here to celebrate with us.  We are being taken seriously, so it's up to us to live up to it. We need to strive to become a great organization that reflects credit upon the Kenyan community here in New England."

I thought that was a fantastic message.  A lot of times, when interest groups of any sort get together, they talk about what they can get, and sometimes grumble about something they didn't (such as a group that recently complained about having to pay for a police detail from its own pocket, or another that didn't like the decor at an event and groused about it through back channels).

So it was refreshing to basically hear a group's leader talking to her people with the opposite sort of message.  She started with the idea that they were already getting recognition from people in positions of power, and then exhorted the members to live up to the billing.  One particular thing they're interested in -- and which dovetails quite nicely with one of the key initiatives coming from the Mayor's Office -- is breathing some more life into the relationship between Lowell and Nairobi.

But anyway, back to the message:  It was reminiscent of the famous JFK line about asking what you can do rather than finding out what you can get.  It's that type of thinking that helps foster strong civic organizations in strong communities.  

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Hey Grads: Work on Your CQ!

"The online world of social media -- Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, blogs, etc. is just like an oversized cocktail party in which everyone is talking but no one is listening."  -- Frequent critique of social media

"If you want to see a cocktail party in which everyone is talking but no one is listening, why not just go to an actual cocktail party?" -- My response

Well, we've officially entered cliche season, otherwise known as June, and otherwise marked by trite marketing cliches involving "Dads and Grads."

I've never had to give a commencement address, so I recognize that I'm playing the role of "critic who doesn't count." (to paraphrase TR)  Still, last night at the LHS ceremony, I was surprised to hear a student speaker reflect upon the amazing diversity of those present, and then talk about they all cheered together at a pep rally, and all preferred certain classes or hallways at the expense of others, so were really the same when you stop and think about it.  Maybe I'm being way too harsh on an 18 year-old, and applying the standards of someone who has had well over a decade's worth of additional life experience, but I thought that was kind of phoning it in.  [I'm not saying don't talk about diversity, but I would think a memorable anecdote or two, or a new angle/spin on the concept would be more novel].

But it's not easy.  You can be like the guy who gave the speech at Wellesley, who had the guts to "afflict the comfortable" by telling them they weren't so special, and generate a lot of controversy.  But that also involves a lot of risk.

You could also try giving practical advice, but the problem there, as Mayor Murphy pointed out in his brief remarks last night, is that no one typically remembers what gets said at those things anyway.

But if you've made it this far into the entry, I'll assume I've hooked you.  If you are familiar with this blog, though, I'll give fair warning that I'm about to wade into familiar waters:  conversation.

Quick: Think of three people in your life that you would really like to see at a dinner party.  Seriously, please do it.  Just close your eyes, think of your three people, and you're good.  Thanks.  Now, think of three people in your life you would really not like to see at that dinner party.  Again, thanks.

Here's what I can guarantee without even knowing who you chose:  Members of the first group each have a high CQ, or Conversational Quotient, and members of the second group have a low CQ.

No surprise, CQ has two important factors: Your ability to talk and your ability to listen.  Now, there are TONS of books out there that tell people to be good listeners.  In fact, almost every single book written about leadership, people skills, networking, getting ahead, etc. offers this piece of advice: be a better listener.  Generally speaking, it's good.

Not enough of it happens.  To see the proof, remove yourself from the equation.  Take a period of time - a day, a week, a month, whatever - and just make a point of observing all the conversations around you.  Really pay attention.  Notice how many people are either pretending to listen while doing something else, or doing the jaw-slightly-agape maneuver, just chomping at the bit for the speaker to stop so that they can say whatever it is they're waiting to say, never mind that it might be a non sequitur to whatever precedes it.

Okay, but all of that was obvious.  The problem with all those books that tell you to be a better listener, or even try to tell you how to be a better listener, is that they all presume an obligation on someone's part to listen to whatever jaw-jacking is going on in the first place.  As far as I'm concerned, that obligation doesn't -- and shouldn't -- exist.

So here comes the second component of CQ, which you won't see in all the advice literature:  Try becoming a better talker.  When you decide to open your trap, stop and think about whether you're "improving the silence."  In particular, ask whether the person you're subjecting your words to might care.  It's like, if you bump into your neighbor that's a huge sports fan, by all means bring up the Celtics and the Heat.  See where it goes.  If the interest is there, keep the conversation flowing.  If not, don't subject him or her to a 15-minute out-of-breath analysis about the impact of Chris Bosh's playing time on the series.  That would be bad talk in that instance.  To a different set of ears, though, it might be good talk.  That 180-degree turn hinged only on the way one variable changed.  Know your audience, and gauge your audience.

One thing I've observed is that High CQ people tend to land big on both components of the score, and vice versa.

Someone who subjects me to twenty straight minutes about her three year-old's dentist appointment (demonstrating Low CQ, and I was trapped), then unsurprisingly cuts me off when I try to get a single sentence in later about something that mattered to a task at hand.  Alternatively, some people are very quiet, but despite the stereotypes about "talks little, says much," they just aren't all that interested either way.  They're not going to corner you into a never-ending series of observations about their time at Martha's Vineyard, but they also might be tuning you out after about 15 seconds.  They're obviously way preferable to the former group of Low CQ types, but they're not exactly showing much spark, either.

High CQ types (the ones you wanted at the dinner party), tend to *get it.*  They are intellectually curious enough to listen to others when it's appropriate, and simultaneously possess enough interpersonal skills/empathy to know when it's appropriate to speak.  And when to stop.  Some are more loquacious than others, but that's not really what it's about -- it's the interaction that counts.  One of my best friends (I won't name drop but will say he stirs north of the mighty Merrimack) has a reputation for being talkative, which his wife gives him a ration of crap for, but he's actually one of the highest CQ people that I know, which is why I always welcome his company and/or his calls.  When he talks, it's what I care about hearing, and when I talk, he's listening.  By contrast, a particular senior citizen who calls me every morning isn't really interested in conversing, he's just interested in talking.  There's a mountain of difference.  I have all the time in the world for a conversationalist, but I would honestly prefer not to waste a single, irretrievable minute on a talker.  If you already knew the difference between the two, you probably didn't need to read this blog entry.

Part of CQ is probably innate.  There may be cultural factors, and some of it may be in the wiring.  However, it's something that can be improved upon, which I think is worth passing along to anyone about to leave a period of formal schooling to enter the workforce or do just about anything else.

If all this sounded like a lot of mumbo-jumbo, I have one last favor to ask you:  Spend some time thinking about which of your peers' (co-workers, siblings, classmates, roommates, or whatever) company you enjoy the most, and which you enjoy the least.  A garrulous Low CQ type is the worst possible combination, right?  Yet someone who is actually listening when you talk, and is simultaneously *aware* enough to respect your interests when s/he does, is a WAY rarer commodity than most people realize.

Which is why we like those people.  We hire them, we promote them, and we put them in leadership roles because we trust them and want to be around them.  With apologies to Jack Kerouac, the High CQ types are "the only ones for me."  I think they're "the only ones" for lots of other people, too.  

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Easy and Hard, Redux: Jose Canseco

"Mr. Madison, what you've just said ... is one of the most insanely idiotic things I have ever heard. At no point in your rambling, incoherent response were you even close to anything that could be considered a rational thought. Everyone in this room is now dumber for having listened to it. I award you no points, and may God have mercy on your soul."

Earlier this week, Dan Murphy sent me an article about Jose Canseco's political observations, which mainly revolve around the complete idiocy of a world that allows streetlights to go out, potholes to appear in roads, and restricts right turns on red in certain areas at certain times.  

Mostly, it's funny stuff, but it makes me wish the former slugger could read the entry here about things that are easy and things that are hard.  All kidding and exaggeration aside, the fourth-graders from the Murkland who visited City Hall today have a more profound understanding of the challenges, tradeoffs, and difficulties associated with political decisions than he does (and that's based on the questions they asked, and particularly the follow-up questions).  

To put it in baseball terms, this would be kind of like someone saying, "What's the matter with these guys?  All those millions and even the best ones can only get a base hit 1-in-3 times?  Why don't they just hit the fastballs, not swing at the curveballs and sliders, and hit the ball into the gaps where there aren't any fielders?  Duh!"  

Monday, June 4, 2012

Hey There -- I AM those bums!

I just commented on something Cliff inserted into a post about the US Post Office.  That comment led me to choose this entry over the next best alternative (sleep), so here goes.

There is a certain category of things people say that, for lack of a better, more descriptive phrase, I will call "throwaway comments."  They're just what the name implies, and they're usually based on old stereotypes, old legends, old memes, or just received wisdom that carries on, even in the face of a lot of contrary evidence we could observe if we chose to.

The Post Office is a perfect example.  How often is the USPS the butt of jokes, whether it's about things getting lost, being misdelivered, employees having mental health issues, or whatever else someone thinks is funny?  But think back honestly to ALL the years you've used their service...what has the ratio of good experiences to bad ones really been?  Like you, I use the service less and less with time, but I'm still pretty amazed to think about something going from my hands early in the week into the mailbox at the end of the driveway of a friend in California with days to spare before the weekend, all for less than the cost of a candy bar.  So when a lot of people make jokes about the Post Office, they're kind of doing what people do when they make jokes about 8-tracks, Spam, or Betamax...just saying something they think is funny because it often precedes the laugh tracks on mindless sitcoms.  There isn't any malice behind it, but there often isn't any real thought there, either.

And from there, the list goes on.  Bad service at the RMV?  No matter how many times I go there and find that not to be the case, the vision that was my brain...still remains.  Cabbies' driving ability, tastiness of food served on airplanes, the honesty of auto mechanics, etc.  You get the idea.

One frequent theme we've all either said or heard is the black hole associated with civil servants.  Just think back to that warehouse from the last scene of Raiders of the Lost Ark -- you secretly fear that when you bring a check to City Hall, or you call into some office at Ashburton Place, that your correspondence will somehow be ignored/mistreated/mishandled, etc.  It's the old "bums at City Hall bit" that everyone will kind of nod along to if you bring it up as part of a story.  Within corporations, I'm sure there's an equivalent (within the Nat'l Guard, for instance, the part-time soldiers always say this about the full-time soldiers, no matter how responsive or unresponsive they actually might be).

Anyway, someone actually did this yesterday via online media (I am purposefully going to stay very vague here, out of respect for the purpose in writing this is to make a point, not to dredge anything up).  On a thread regarding an issue that I'm very familiar with, someone made a "throwaway comment" about how he had tried to find out about the issue, but had reached out to "the bums on Merrimack Street" (not his actual words) but of course was met with nothing but radio silence.

But here was the rub -- I knew the person, I knew the topic, and had personally corresponded with him on it.  Rather than make a virtual scene, I politely referenced some back-and-forth communications we had had, and offered to stay in further touch if need be.

Some follow-on discussions led to the person unilaterally deciding to delete the initial comment after admitting that "I never heard back" was a shorthand throwaway for multiple written and telephonic correspondences.  Admittedly, that previous back-and-forth had ended without the issue being satisfactorily resolved, which led to some frustration, but what the person said wasn't even a half-truth or part-truth.  What made it even worse was that the volley had actually ended with the ball on his side of the net, for what it's worth.

At no point was any malice intended on his part, and he never mentioned my name or office specifically, which is why I am staying as high above the fray here as possible and almost didn't even write this blog entry.

So what's my point?  What am I getting at here?

Especially in the on-line world, in which the words you write tend to *stick around* in a way they don't when you talk with your friends in person or over the phone, exercise some caution about things you say but either don't really mean or that you know aren't really true.

If you're willing to stand by your words about that lost letter you know you mailed, or that surly desk clerk at the RMV, or the annoying sales person who wouldn't let you get away, or a shady mechanic who gave you questionable service, then by all means write to your heart's content.

But if that wasn't actually the case, resist the urge to take the cheap shot against the easy target.


Because "dem bums" might also communicate via those same means, and challenge what you intended just as a throwaway sort of afterthought.  If you're lucky, they'll be thoughtful and calm enough to take a measured approach...they'll forgive and quickly move on (but not before writing a lengthy blog entry about the experience!)  However, someone with a lighter 'edit' button, or a testier temper, or just less prone to thinking about why something happens, might not take it so well.  A bridge that you might need to cross some day could be burned.

So own your words.  If you can truly live by the motto, "I don't say all the things I think, but I do think all the things I say" your sincerity and authenticity will shine through as important foundations of your character.  

Sunday, June 3, 2012

I've Got All My Sisters With Me?

Jen Myers put together a great summary of the Lowell Sister Cities Initiative meeting on May 19th over at Abu Nawas on Hurd Street.  What makes Sister City relationships so exciting is that there are literally endless possibilities for the ways they could enrich Lowell -- culturally, educationally, and financially.  A relationship might start with some Christmas cards going back and forth for a couple years but wind up blossoming into something much more substantial (i.e. an import-export business tie) after a few major twists along the way.  Or, it might just be a way to remind students that we're all global citizens who need to improve our knowledge of geography!  The bottom line is that no one knows...but with a nod somewhere towards Chairman Mao, even a single spark can start a prairie fire.

As for right now, we are working with a list of Eight Sister Cities.  However, there are almost certainly others.  For seven cities, we were able to get the official Council resolutions from the Clerk's office (Berdyansk, Ukraine; Bryansk; Russia; Winneba, Ghana; Bamenda, Cameroon; Barclayville, Liberia; Lobito, Angola; and Nairobi, Kenya).  For one other city, we were able to locate correspondence from that city, affirm the existence of the relationship online, and then further confirm it via Richard Howe, Jr., who remembers a trip his dad made there during one of his mayoral terms (St. Die des Vosges, France).

If you know of other Sister Cities, or even think you know of others, please call the Mayor's Office -- 978.674.1551.  We can't officially list another Sister City based solely off recollections, BUT a start point that includes a general timeframe that the relationship was created could be enough for us to find the proverbial needle in a haystack that could answer questions such as:  Is it Kilkenny or Limerick?  Neither?  Both?  Do we really not have a Sister City in Cambodia? Why not?  What about Greece?  Portugal?  In addition to the proverbial "lost in the sauce" problem, magnified by the general way these relationships go (initial flurry of excitement followed thereafter by dormancy), there is another issue that could be attributed to confusion/misunderstanding.  For instance, UML, Middlesex, NPS, or another entity could have created a partnership (for instance, UML has 80 overseas partnerships), but that would not be the same as a Sister City relationship.

All that said, absent anything tangible that says that a relationship is, the general assumption going forward is that it isn't.  However, it wouldn't be extremely difficult to just quell any doubt and formally establish something via a new resolution.

And speaking of cities and relationships, anyone interested in creating a relationship with any foreign city is encouraged to reach do not need to be a member of the corresponding ethnic group (for instance, if you're just really interested in Denmark, or South Africa, or the Seychelles, that's all that matters)...give the Mayor's Office a call and start a conversation about how to get the ball rolling.  Thanks!

UPDATE:  The minutes of the CC meeting on 15FEB1972 show that a motion introduced by Mayor Ellen Sampson to establish a Sister City relationship between Lowell and Limerick, Ireland passed 8-0. A Lowell Sun article provided by Eileen Loucraft (who provided the 'tip' that led to a search of meeting minutes from early 1972) showed that Mayor Sampson traveled with the Sacred Heart Marching Band to Limerick to celebrate St. Patrick's Day in 1972.  An Irish hotelier quoted in the article said that while the kids were "enjoyable" he would not be "kissing" some of the adults as they left the Emerald Isle.  So it goes.