The Day I Read a Book

by admin on January 11, 2012

There’s a wonderful old song by Jimmy Durante about the pleasures of reading. It goes like this:

Hey, I read a book!

I’ll never forget the day I read a book.
It was contagious, seventy pages.
There were pictures here and there,
So it wasn’t hard to bear,
The day I read a book.
It’s a shame I don’t recall the name of the book.
It wasn’t a history. I know because it had no plot.
It wasn’t a mystery, because nobody there got shot.
The day I read a book ? I can’t remember when,
But one o’ these days, I’m gonna do it again.

I was reminded of that over the holidays when I did just that; I read a book.

Now, there shouldn’t be anything wonderful or marvelous or unusual about reading a book, people do it every day. But I hardly ever seem to have the time to sit down and read a book cover to cover. Every day I read a couple of newspapers, scan several news websites and read a few political blogs. Each week I read several news or current affairs magazines. But read a book? Who has the time.

That’s why it was so delicious to have the time to put all those newspapers and magazines aside for a few days and open a good book (an anthology of Graham Green’s work including “The Heart of the Matter” – if you must know). It was a real treat to get lost in the world that the author created, to get inside the characters and try to understand their motivations and actions. I even enjoyed the little moments when I felt frustrated because I was going to have to stop reading so I could go and do something else fun!

Whenever I read a good book I’m always reminded at just how powerful words are, and how beautiful they can be. Too often in my work the words I write have to take on a very specific role and that’s merely to explain something complex or communicate something important. What little opportunity there is for flare or flourish or – god forbid – humor is quickly snuffed out by the legions of others who then have to approve and edit the work. The end product is frequently very different from the original one – sucked dry of any imagination or creativity and turned instead into a dry – albeit accurate – statement.

But good writing does more than that. It also reminds me that often we fall into a rut when writing, relying on the same words or phrases to explain or describe something instead of searching for some new way of telling the same story. That routine way of working makes for an efficient way of writing but not always for an elegant or the most effective way. It’s a shortcut but one that can produce a less-than-memorable end result.

Maybe it’s unrealistic to think about workplace communications and literature in the same way. One is all about efficiency and directness, and is often governed by legal requirements about what you can and, perhaps even more importantly, what you cannot say. The other is about creating new worlds, or helping you see your world in a different way. One is all about imagination. The other all too often shaped by a lack of it.

But I don’t accept that business writing has to be soulless. On the contrary, I think making it dull and turgid and leaden only makes it all the more likely that no one will read it or, if they do, that no one will understand or care what it’s about. To reach people, to get them to pay attention, you have to engage them, you have to entertain them before you can ever hope to really inform them.  That doesn’t mean that a memo from the boss to all the staff has to be done as a limerick (though that is not a bad idea come to think of it!) or that the annual report can be done in iambic pentameter as a dramatic play. But it does mean that they can be lively and engaging and still informative.

No one ever says their goal in life is to write ‘the great American memo’ but as most of us are more likely to write a memo than a novel, and certainly much more likely to read one then maybe it’s time to change the way we think about how we write at work and make it something someone actually wants to read rather than simply hitting the ‘delete’ button as soon as they see who its from.

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Biggest Bonehead lawsuits of 2011

by admin on January 9, 2012

You’ve probably read those lists of stupidest criminals, you know, the ones who try to rob a bank and write the note to the teller on an envelope that has the crooks name and home address on the back. Well, they are not the only dumb ones around. Here’s a list of the  Top Ten Most Ridiculous Lawsuits of the year, as ranked by the U.S. Chamber Institute for Legal Reform    

1. Convict sues couple he kidnapped for not helping him evade police.

2. Man illegally brings gun into bar, gets injured in a fight, then sues bar for not searching him for a weapon.

3. Young adults sue mother for sending cards without gifts and playing favorites.

4. Woman disagrees with store over 80-cent refund, sues for $5 million.

5. Mom files suit against exclusive preschool over child’s college prospects.

6. Man suing for age discrimination says judge in his case is too old.

7. Obese man sues burger joint over tight squeeze in booths.

8. Woman sues over movie trailer; says not enough driving in “Drive.”

9. Passenger’s lawsuit says cruise ship went too fast and swayed from side to side.

10. Mother sues Chuck E. Cheese – says games encourage gambling in children.

The only thing this list doesn’t have is the names of the lawyers who took these cases. Surely just accepting these people as clients is proof enough that these lawyers are not mentally competent to practice and should be disbarred.

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Out of the mouths

by admin on November 7, 2011

When Shirley was growing up her mum once told her “Christmas is just around the corner.” Being a kid Shirley immediately ran out of the house and around the corner to see Christmas. Naturally she was really disappointed to see it wasn’t there and figured she must have run around the wrong corner. She was getting ready to run around another corner when her mum caught up with her to say that wasn’t what she meant to say.

I think of that story whenever I’m around the fabulous Emma Danger. It reminds me to be careful about what I say. Not just to avoid cursing or using rude words – though that’s definitely important – but to make sure that she understands what it is that I think I am saying. Kids that young are like sponges, but without any kind of sophisticated filter.

What you say is what they hear, whether that’s what you intended or not.

And the same applies to so-called adults. So often at work you think you are saying one thing only to have a big misunderstanding because someone thought you meant something completely different.  Or you thought it was clear you were joking only to find out no one else thought it was funny – that’s when you end up with headlines that scream out “Sinead O’Connor: ‘I was only joking about wanting to murder the Pope.’

What you write can be wrong

That’s even more true for email. With in-person conversations you have body language to help guide your understanding; with phone calls you have tone of voice to give you a clue as to meaning. But with email there is nothing to go on except for the words in front of you, and your perception of the person writing them.

Or just your mood at the time you read them.

Words are tools. Use them well and the results can be amazing. Use them poorly and you can be surprised at how quickly they can blow up in your face.

Open mouth, insert foot

That’s a lesson I have learned painfully as a media relations spokesperson. You think you are saying the right thing only to see your words thrown back at you later and used to make you look silly, stupid or duplicitous. Or all three.

It’s not fun. But it’s taught me that it is so much easier to take the time to pick the right words, and use them in the right order with the right tone, than to spend a lot of time later trying to correct a false impression.

And if all else fails I fall back on the old Will Rogers maxim, “never miss an opportunity to shut up.”

 

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What we learned about life on our vacation!

by admin on November 4, 2011

We’ve been on a whirlwind vacation that happily was combined with a job in Washington D.C.  I don’t know where the time went as we cruised the museums and experienced the fall colors and east coast personalities.  It seems that everyone in Washington D.C. is a lawyer – even our waiter!

Being from the “west coast” really is different than living on the eastern shores.  For one thing Washington D.C. is such an icon of democracy!  I mean California certainly has the views and a free wheeling attitude that is open and wonderful, but being in the presence of the Bill of Rights and the Declaration of Independence can certainly be heady stuff for a born and bred Californian.  If you ever get to D.C., checkout the Capitol!  Most of the museums are “FREE”,  yes…Free!

Innovation and Creativity is Alive and Well

Consider the Air and Space Museum, it’s just amazing to be there,  admiring     the Wright Brother’s perseverance, creativity and stamina as they tried to get      a  winged crate off the ground.  Then, finally, Orville Wright took the flyer for     a 12-second, sustained flight on December 17, 1903. This was the first                   successful, powered, piloted flight in history. Incredible!

 

Then, we walked over to the Apollo 11 exhibit, Apollo 11 was the spaceflight which landed the first humans, Neil Armstrong and Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin, Jr, on the Moon on July 20, 1969. That’s only 63 years after the Wright brothers first took to the air!

Can you imagine?

So when you consider the imagination that went into creating the Declaration of Independence, and all the visionary ideas that it still holds.  The courage that it must have taken to stand up against the King and all his men and the will of the colonies to create a land where freedom is the goal, even though the fight for all to enjoy this “right” is still a battle.  When you consider the innovation and creativity ordinary citizens take into their own minds to create ideas that lead to Apple computers, and smart phones and new ways to do all the things we do everyday.  How can we take anything for granted?

 

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How dirty are you?

by admin on November 1, 2011

There are many famous germaphobes in history, people who are literally terrified at the thought of coming into contact with germs.

Nice shoes Howard

Take Howard Hughes for example. The billionaire aviator, movie producer and business tycoon was deathly afraid of germs. He spent the last few years of his life in darkened hotel rooms that he believed he had turned into germ-free zones. Even then he had tissue paper spread over the floor, and wore tissue boxes on his feet when he walked around so he wouldn’t come into contact with the carpet.

Businessman, TV “star” and erstwhile Presidential candidate Donald Trump is almost as wacky. He refuses to touch the ‘ground floor’ button in an elevator because he is convinced it’s the dirtiest button in the building, and tries to never shake hands with anyone, particularly teachers.

But while those two represent the extremes of germaphobia there are many other folks who just like to protect themselves, as much as they can, from the routine, everyday germs. And who can blame them.  The problem is how do you know what are the places most likely to contain the most germs?

Well, a new study has a list of the skankiest places around, the locations and objects that are absolutely teeming with things you’d rather not think about let alone touch.

Researchers at the University of Arizona enrolled hygienists to swab the surfaces of 350 of what they considered the most frequently touched surfaces in city’s like Chicago, Los Angeles, Atlanta, Dallas and Philadelphia. They then measured the level of contamination of those surfaces to see which ones had the highest levels of illness-causing bacteria.

Here’s where they found the highest concentrations:

  • 71% of gas pump handles
  • 68% of mailbox handles
  • 43% of escalator rails
  • 41% of ATM buttons
  • 40% of parking meters
  • 35% of crosswalk buttons
  • 35% of vending machine buttons

Nasty eh! And they’re all everyday objects that are hard to avoid, unless you want to live in a vacuum or a darkened hotel room wearing boxes on your feet. So, what’s the solution?

Soap. Water. Hand sanitizer. Never touch your hand to your face until you’ve washed it. Never touch your hand to someone else’s face until they’ve washed it. Never touch anyone. Never let anyone touch you. Or stand near you. Or breathe near you.

Or you could just face up to the fact that you already have billions of bacteria on every part of your body and in every part of your body so you are already pretty much infected and the things you’ll come across on those surfaces are probably no worse than what you already have.

You could try to live inside a bubble, or avoid contact with other members of your species. But then you’d end up looking like Donald Trump. And you really don’t want that to happen now do you!

Hair-raising thought

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Wasting Time is such a, well, Waste of Time

by admin on October 14, 2011

It always starts out with the best of intentions. You are going to go online and look for a recipe for something for dinner, or to see how your favorite sports team got on, but as you are looking for that information something else pops up on your computer – latest on Michael Jackson death trial, or which Republican Presidential candidate has a hidden secret – and you think “well, let’s take a look”. Five hours later you stagger away from the computer with absolutely no clue about what you just saw or why you went online in the first place.

It happens to all of us. It’s a like a giant sinkhole that just draws us in. Even if you are aware of the dangers it sometimes feels as if you have no power to prevent it or stop it once it’s happening.

And it’s such a waste of time

I mean how often have you ever needed or even wanted to have a conversation about 98% of the stuff you read online. And yet you read it. So, what’s going on here and how can you break that habit?

Well, procrastination for one thing. You are avoiding doing something you don’t really want to do, by substituting something else – even if it turns out that you didn’t particularly care about that either. All you’ve done is find a meaningless replacement for something that might be useful.

There’s also the ‘sleaze’ factor. We’re drawn to gossip and chit chat about celebrities, to find out their weaknesses and secrets and sins. And the internet makes that easier than ever. You don’t even have to go looking for it, it seems to find you. And once it’s right in front of you it’s really, really hard to ignore.

How do you break it?

Well, it’s not easy. If it were there wouldn’t be books written about how to break bad habits, there wouldn’t be entire professions devoted to helping people change their minds.

But the first step is wanting to. If you have reached a point where you are just bored about being bored then give yourself some credit for at least recognizing the problem and looking for a solution.

After that, come up with any number of different ways of avoiding mindless surfing and staying focused on what you wanted to find out in the first place. It could be something as simple as writing down on a piece of paper (I know, writing, how radical eh!) what it is you are looking for and keeping that in front of you as you work on the computer. It will help keep you focused on what you set out to do and if you start to stray you just look at the piece of paper and get right back to business.

Time to make time

You could give yourself a set time to surf and even have a little alarm set on your watch or phone or computer that goes off after 15 minutes or 30 minutes or whatever, reminding you that the time is up.

You could allow yourself 30 minutes a day for random, pointless, self-indulgent goofing around online. This way you don’t feel deprived, you get to read up on the latest celebrity gossip or whatever it is that is your weakness, and then once you are done you get on with the rest of your life.

None of these distractions are going away. In fact they are only likely to multiply as we become increasingly ‘connected’ in every aspect of our lives. But just because you are ‘connected’ does not mean you have to become ‘disconnected’ from the rest of the world around you.

All you have to do is decide just how much is enough.

 

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The Award You Really Don’t Want to Win

by admin on October 10, 2011

Some awards are really sought after – the Nobel prize, an Oscar – and then there are those no one wants to win – such as the Golden Raspberry, the flip side of the Oscars, given to the person judged to be the worst actor of the year.

Add to that list the Ig Nobel prizes, given to some of the strangest research projects and studies of the year. And believe me, some of these are really strange, to the point where you wonder how on earth did they get funding for this and why on earth would they even think that if they did get money that the findings were worth reporting.

Anyway – here some of this year’s winners.

Physiology prize – a team of European scientists won this for their study entitled “No evidence of contagious yawning in the red-footed tortoise”. This ground breaking piece of scientific exploration concluded that, unlike people, red-footed tortoises don’t start yawning just because one of their chums is yawning. That’s it. Nothing else. End of story. So, next time you see a red-footed tortoise yawning it’s not because it’s copying someone else, it’s probably just bored by all the scientists who keep following it around

Chemistry prize – a team from Japan won this for their work – and in determining the ideal density of airborne wasabi (pungent horseradish) to awaken sleeping people in case of a fire or other emergency, and for applying this knowledge to invent the wasabi alarm. You read that right. “To invent the wasabi alarm”. What’s wrong with a smoke detector or other alarm. Apparently they lack a pungent smell to alert you that something really really bad is happening.

Medicine prize – scientists in Belgium, the Netherlands, and Australia share the shame in this category for their work demonstrating that people make better decisions about some kinds of things — but worse decisions about other kinds of things‚ when they have a strong urge to urinate. No, really, that’s what they studied, how wise you are when you really need to pee. The best bit though is the title of their research: Inhibitory Spillover: Increased Urination Urgency Facilitates Impulse Control in Unrelated Domains

And if you thought those were crazy, check this one out.

Public Safety prize – John Senders at the University of Toronto in Canada, conducted a series of experiments in which a person drives an automobile on a major highway while a visor repeatedly flaps down over his face, blinding him. The goal was to test just how this might interfere with your ability to drive safely. I think the answer would be quite a lot, but what do I know. I’m no scientist.

But my favorite award is the

Mathematics prize -this was shared by a bunch of people who all made predictions about when the earth would come to an end. It includes Dorothy Martin who guessed we’d all be done by 1954, Pat Robertson (yes, that Pat Robertson) who guessed 1982, Elizabeth Clare Prophet (1990) and Harold Camping who thought it would all come to a nasty end on both September 6, 1994 and then again on October 21 of this year. Well done Harold for sticking to your guns. The Ig Nobel folks honored them for teaching the world to be careful when making mathematical assumptions and calculations.

Amen to that.

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Ah, the not-so-simple life!

by admin on October 5, 2011

Sometimes you just feel the need to get away, to get out of the City and head out to the country, the mountains, the lakes, the seaside, for some peace and quiet. To escape the constant bombardment of the senses by noise and traffic and lights and sounds and smells. So, recently Shirley and I decided to get away, to go camping. And we discovered that the simple life is not so simple at all.

Getting away from it all

Now we always travel light. When we got on vacation we bring one bag each, regardless of whether we are going to Portland for a weekend or Paris for two weeks (if we ever went to Paris for two weeks that is) so we figured camping would be an equally easy thing to do. Boy were we wrong.

Traveling not-so-light!

By the time we had loaded into the car the tent, the cooler with the food/wine/beer, the box with the cooking gear/plates/cups/utensils, the cooking stove, the sleeping bags, the blow up mattress (OK, so I’m a sissy) and of course books and ukuleles there was barely room for us. We thought that somehow we had overdone it but when we got to our campsite we realized that we were traveling light compared to everyone else.

Some of these campsites – and admittedly they had kids – had five or more chairs, extra tents to cover the picnic tables, bikes, assorted toys, umbrellas, even surf boards. In short, their sites were jam packed and you wonder how they managed to cram all that stuff into their cars – until you realized they were all driving massive SUV’s or oversized mini-vans (isn’t that a contradiction in terms, an oversized mini van!)

In the end we looked like the poor kids on the block living a bleak and impoverished existence.

It’s all relative

Looking around at all the campsites, and all the families trying so hard to get back to nature it reminded me of Gandhi. No, really it did.

Ben Kingsley goes camping

Gandhi always tried to lead a life of simplicity, weaving the cloth for his own clothes, eating frugally etc. But of course he also led a national organization and traveled extensively and worked hard to spread the word of non-violence around the world. And all that took a lot of money so it’s no surprise that one of his biggest supporters – a textile manufacturer – always used to laugh when people praised Gandhi for living a life of poverty, saying “It costs me a lot of money to keep Gandhi in poverty.”

That’s how I felt looking around at the campsite. It costs a heck of a lot of money and takes a huge amount of effort and equipment to get back to nature.

Call of the mild

But you know what. It was all worth it. Once we’d set up the tent, got everything unpacked, the fire going, the cooker cooking, the wine uncorked and beer poured, and looked around and realized that we were in a willow grove, on the edge of the cliff, overlooking the Pacific Ocean with our only companions being some raccoons and  owls, we realized we were back in nature. That night, with the sound of the ocean rolling in as the backdrop I slept better than I had in ages.

Finding the simple life isn’t simple. But it is definitely worth the effort.

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How 9/11 is Creating Communities

by admin on September 14, 2011

I confess that on the tenth anniversary of September 11th I didn’t pick up a newspaper, turn on the TV news or listen to the radio. I didn’t have the heart to. I’d already heard enough and read enough and certainly seen enough reminders of that dreadful day and didn’t feel I wanted to wallow in it any more. It was just too painful.

Then I came across this email from one of the founders of a group called Meetup. What is wonderful is that it’s a story about how 9/11 had a powerful impact on us – not just in the obvious, tragic sense – and helped inspire some people to create new communities of their own.

Instead of succeeding in isolating us as individuals, fearful for our lives, the attack had the opposite effect. It made us hungry to know our neighbors and our friends. And that is truly something worth celebrating.

Fellow Meetuppers,

I don’t write to our whole community often, but this week is special because it’s the 10th anniversary of 9/11 and many people don’t know that Meetup is a 9/11 baby.

Let me tell you the Meetup story. I was living a couple miles from the Twin Towers, and I was the kind of person who thought local community doesn’t matter much if we’ve got the internet and tv. The only time I thought about my neighbors was when I hoped they wouldn’t bother me.

When the towers fell, I found myself talking to more neighbors in the days after 9/11 than ever before. People said hello to neighbors (next-door and across the city) who they’d normally ignore. People were looking after each other, helping each other, and meeting up with each other. You know, being neighborly.

A lot of people were thinking that maybe 9/11 could bring people together in a lasting way. So the idea for Meetup was
born: Could we use the internet to get off the internet — and grow local communities?

We didn’t know if it would work. Most people thought it was a crazy idea — especially because terrorism is designed to make people distrust one another.

A small team came together, and we launched Meetup 9 months after 9/11.

Today, almost 10 years and 10 million Meetuppers later, it’s working. Every day, thousands of Meetups happen. Moms Meetups, Small Business Meetups, Fitness Meetups… a wild variety of 100,000 Meetup Groups with not much in common — except one thing.

Every Meetup starts with people simply saying hello to neighbors. And what often happens next is still amazing to me.
They grow businesses and bands together, they teach and motivate each other, they babysit each other’s kids and find other ways to work together. They have fun and find solace together. They make friends and form powerful community. It’s powerful stuff.

It’s a wonderful revolution in local community, and it’s thanks to everyone who shows up.

Meetups aren’t about 9/11, but they may not be happening if it weren’t for 9/11.

9/11 didn’t make us too scared to go outside or talk to strangers. 9/11 didn’t rip us apart. No, we’re building new community together!!!!

The towers fell, but we rise up. And we’re just getting started with these Meetups.

Scott Heiferman (on behalf of 80 people at Meetup HQ) Co-Founder & CEO, Meetup New York City September 2011

NOTE: From Shirl, Wow!  I had no idea!  Thanks for letting us know.

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To save your brain you gotta work your heart

by admin on September 11, 2011

I have this theory that the rising rates of dementia and Alzheimer’s are connected to the increasing use of computers. No, don’t go away, it’ll make sense when I explain it. Probably.

Your brain in a computer

See, as computers get more powerful they need more and more memory. And that memory has to come from some where. I know, you probably thought it came from those silicon chip things they stick inside the computer. But I think that’s only part of the answer.

You can’t get something from nothing

I think there is a limited amount of memory in the universe and as you use more in one area you have to take it from somewhere. So, as your PC or Apple gets more and more powerful, and faster and has more memory, it’s coming from the universe – namely me and you. And that’s why, as you marvel at the speed that your computer is working you might also pause to consider that it’s coming at the expense of your Aunt Mabel who, as the rest of the family have noticed, is not quite as quick as she used to be.

Now, I bring this all up because while we may not be able to turn back the technological tide that is sucking up our memory, there are a number of things we can do in our everyday life to help reduce the likelihood that it’s our memory that is sucked up into the iPad.

Pump it up

One is that any exercise you do that gets your heart pumping could also have a big impact on your brain, reducing your risk of dementia or other memory problems. The study, from the journal Mayo Clinic Proceedings, examined 1,600 research papers and found that most of the science seems to point firmly to exercise as being a great way to not only promote physical health but also mental health.

The best part was that the exercise didn’t have to be hugely strenuous or demanding, it just had to be demanding enough to raise your heart rate and increase your body’s need for oxygen; that could be everything from going to the gym, to going for a walk, raking leaves or shoveling snow.

So, as the fall and winter draw near get out those rakes and shovels. They could help do more than just keep the driveway clear, they could help you keep your mind clear as well.

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