Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Up In The Air Again

True confession, of which I am much ashamed: shortly after I returned from my stint in Vietnam, it was time to renew my passport. I haven't used it once tho travel overseas since. Until this week.

Now, some 24 hours in the air (including one 15 1/2 hour stint stuck in a single metal tube), three countries, and some 10 hours sitting in airports later, I am merely 3 more hours in an airport and one international flight away from my final destination. 

It feels wonderful. Old hat. And I probably won't want to do out again for at least another year.

Still, this trip is teaching me some lessons, new and old, already. Like:
  • When you get a new passport, sign it before the boarding gate attendant at your third airport finally notices. 
  • Yes, even if your final destination is 95 degrees and humid, do pack a down jacket for that first flight at 6 am and -5 degrees. You can use it as a neck pillow later. 
  • O'Hare sucks to hang out in. 
  • Yoga pants are great for long international flights. 
  • 16 hour flight? Go prepared for misery. Plan to read at least two books and watch at least one in-flight movie. Out won't seem as bad when you realize it's just going to be bad. 
  • Asia's version of the TSA  is worse than the regular one. You will get screened getting off the plane and transferring to your next flight (no filled water bottles allowed) and you will get screened yet again at your gate before you board your next flight. Again, no half-filled water bottles allowed. And if you forget, you will have tho chug that water while you hold up the ray of that line. 
  • Sleep is highly overrated. You can sleep when you're comfortable, or dead. 
  • If you have as many connections as I do, do NOT expect your checked luggage to make it. It didn't. 
  • Wi-Fi is everywhere now, but don't expect it to be on a plane, and don't expect to actually be able to connect to it. 
  • Do know where you're going. And don't rely on having a cell phone or internet access when you get there. 
  • Even if you're just transiting through Bali, you need to buy a visa. 
  • In the world where online check-in doesn't exist, you will have to wait until the appointed time too check-in for your flight. You can't just waltz in and expect tho spend 4 hours hanging at your gate. 
I haven't reached my final destination yet. I hope my next lesson is that this is entirely doable. 

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

My Simple Thoughts on “Christmas” Programs

There are ever and on-going controversies about the correctness of public schools offering “Christmas” (rather than “Holiday”) programs, having “winter” break instead of “Christmas” break, etc., etc. 

I was born, raised, and choose now to live in a part of the world that is still vast majority Christian of some stripe. To this day our local school district has annual Christmas concerts and programs with a mixture of religious and secular selections. (When I was in school the major controversy was the Jehovah’s Witnesses who didn’t allow their children to celebrate any holiday, including birthdays.)

I have lived overseas in two countries and traveled in more with many different traditions. Never once did I expect the communities I traveled to or lived in to remove their religious or cultural identities because it might exclude my beliefs. Schools took holiday breaks around major religious festivals and sang songs or performed skits with religious words, messages, or stories. Even if I didn’t agree with it all, I appreciated it. This was a celebration of their culture. If I were to raise children there, I would think of it as a great cultural opportunity to experience that way of thinking.

I sometimes wish we had a little more diversity of celebration and belief in our area. I think it would be great to include more ways of celebrating. But I do not believe it should be at the expense of eliminating one or all. I don’t expect others to hide their traditions when I travel or live among them. I don't expect my own people to hide their traditions when I am home and others are traveling and living among them.

But I do expect us to continue to celebrate while being respectful of outsiders. I hope we always continue celebrating and sharing our unique and festive culture, while adapting and growing it as change comes and new and blended traditions emerge.

God Bless Us, Every One

God Bless Us, Every One.

This morning I received this e-mail forward, sent with the good intentions of sending holiday greetings. At first I dumped it directly in my e-mail trash, but then couldn’t stop thinking about it. To say that this e-mail is ruining my days off would be overdramatic and to actually let it ruin my holiday would be “letting the terrorists win.”  But this year I can’t ignore the urge to say something in response (and yes, I will be sending a link to this post back to the original sender).

So I rummaged around in the trash and dug it back out.

I will be making a conscious effort to wish everyone a

Merry Christmas

this year

My way of saying that I am celebrating the birth of
Jesus Christ

So I am asking my email buddies, if you agree with me, 
to please do the same.

And if you'll pass this on to your email buddies, and so on...

maybe we can prevent one more tradition from being lost in the sea of

"Political Correctness".

This, my dear zealous Christian friends, is why Christians and non-Christians alike are annoyed and fed up with you. Sadly, some to the point of hatred.

Because, rather than simply and purely wishing the best of what true Christianity wants this holiday to stand for: peace, love, hope, sharing, bringing relief of the physical and mental strain many suffer, etc., once again, you make it all about you.

And not even your personal joys and hopes or witness. It’s all about you and your fears. You take a simple pledge to wish your fellow man a Merry Christmas instead of handing over the beautiful rose e’re blooming, you turn it into a dagger to stick into your neighbor’s eye.

Have you ever personally been attacked for smiling and wishing somebody a simple, Merry Christmas? Not just heard about it from a friend/relative/fellow church-goer or pastor/TV evangelist/Internet source?

And if any of you in northern Wisconsin have been attacked for wishing somebody a merry Christmas, consider that perhaps you – or the friend that you forwarded this e-mail from – did not wait to turn a cheek. Rather, somebody threw the first dagger as they approached the holiday with the idea that the best defense (against what?) is an overly active and paranoid offense.


I can’t end on that note. Regardless of your personal beliefs, and even whether or not you agree with my thoughts, I truly do want to wish you all a merry, blessed, joyous, and renewing Christmas. This is my way of saying that I am celebrating the birth of the one who told us:

The second [greatest commandment] is, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’


Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom.
Blessed are you who hunger, for you shall be satisfied.
Blessed are you who mourn, for you will laugh.
Blessed are you who are meek, for you shall inherit the earth.
Blessed are you who are pure of heart, for you shall see God.
Blessed are you, the peacemakers, for you are the children of God.
Blessed are you who seek justice, for justice shall be yours.

My prayer for you is that you go and share the peace. And not leave others thinking of you as an asshole.

Wednesday, March 05, 2014

Ash Wednesday

All religious intentions and pretensions momentarily aside, cultural Catholicism was, is now, and probably always will be the ruler of the blood of my veins. So, I admit, it feels "right" to be back in Wisconsin, the land still ruled by Friday night fish fry, St. Nicholas Day, and Good Friday as a County holiday.

Yet, this is my 5th Ash Wednesday in my job, and my 5th Ash Wednesday at some large training/conference/event where no meatless meal option was offered. And there was an over-abundance of chocolate, which, in my experience, was the major go-to give-up for Lent.

Are we, oh citizens of the great frozen tundra, not the reputed masters of making misery attractive, maybe even almost desirable? Aren't we the part of the country that invented Friday night fish fry to give people a way out on Fridays? The original Lenten loophole? You would think that Ash Wednesday here would be our Mardi Gras of denial, our own "Verhungert Mittwoch," Slim-pickins Wednesday. A day to celebrate with all those time-honored, farm table standards of egg salad sandwiches, tuna noodle hotdish, hot German potato salad, and coleslaw proudly representing the vegetable food group.

Why is this not a thing? This should be the one day everybody in the Midwest goes vegetarian because, thanks to the stoic German Catholics and Norwegian Lutherans that gave us our Old Fashions and fish fry, this is just the thing we do. We expect tomato soup and macaroni and cheese, but hold the jello, I need to deny myself dessert today.

(Wait - jello is a fruit, you say? Well, okay, but just a little bit.)

And then, the truly expressive among us can continue the tradition every Friday during Lent. At least make it a prominent (and guilt-inducing) option. "Just the grilled cheese for me."

I feel my cultural roots melting. I feel as though I have witnessed the death of Lake Wobegon.

Saturday, February 01, 2014

These are a few of my most energizing things

Immediately after writing and posting that last post, I felt an intense urge to respond to myself with all the things that excite me about where I am and what I am doing, and, mostly, who I am working with.

Because, the reality is, I have a hard time imagining a position that is a better fit for my my intellectual, professional, managerial, and leadership skills, as well as my personal preferences and values in mission and workplace culture. There is so much I love about my job and the interactions it gives me with other professionals (which reminds me even more just how glad I am to work where I do).

So, these are just a few of my most energizing, work-related things:

- Independence: the freedom to set my own agenda based on an assessment of community needs balanced with my own interests and skills and ability to respond to them. Also, the freedom to set my own schedule.

Also, while I appreciate my direct supervisors and managers, I also sort of do appreciate the fact that the nearest one is two hours away. Sometimes distance does make a relationship smoother.

- Really damn smart and committed and striving colleagues. In our office, and really, organization-wide, some of the smartest people are the people who answer the phones, respond to the public inquiries, and generally keep the ship afloat and on a right heading. Really, when both of them are gone from our office at the same time for whatever reason, I feel as though I've had a lobotomy. Not only do they know the ins-and-outs of daily tasks, but when they get the question of, "Did an falling star just land in my vegetable garden?" on the phone, they don't (just) laugh out loud, but the actually figure out who to call to get an answer.

And then, there are my fellow educational colleagues, who have the same charge of independent action as I do (see above), and love nothing more than challenging themselves to save the world. As a department head, I hardly have to manage in this office. Instead, I get to practice being a leader in the true sense of the word, while challenging each of them to one-up me in that leadership game. And they oftentimes do it. There is nothing better than working in a collegial, challenging atmosphere made up of a variety of viewpoints, backgrounds, and skills, and a willingness to collaborate out of a sheer love of problem solving. Then step one county over, and one county beyond that, and beyond that, and there is a whole new nest of the same sort of collegial and intellectual skill and ambition.

Does it get any better than that?

Then there's the actual work I do. It's a lot like the weather in Colorado: if you don't like it, wait 10 minutes, it will change. Granted this is a personality thing, but I thrive on changes and new challenges. This job is perfect for the life-long learner. Since we're changed with keeping up with and responding to emerging community needs, and my focus area is "families," that mostly means the sky is the limit for creative programming. In my first four years, my programming has included (but not been limited to):
  • Developing a local exhibit to complement a traveling Smithsonian exhibit on the history of food in America, to which I suggested and partnered with our nutrition educators and local food pantry to add an additional theme of "food insecurity" and what happens when people don't have enough food to eat in our community.
  • Teaching "Raising a Thinking Child" parent education classes and joining a state team and developing ways to improve the delivery of the program around the state, including now beginning to develop an online version of the curriculum.
  • Collaborating on presenting the Leadership Oneida County program for professionals in our county to learn about programs and services offered in the community, to become better connected to professionals outside of their own professionals circles, and to develop leadership skills that could be transformed into greater commitment and contributions to the local community. Through this I developed an improved Community Services Day program which includes a hands-on mini-poverty simulation, lobbied for and got a both a Medical Day program presented in a major community center outside of the county seat, and a Business/Tourism/Culture Day in another community center, thus improving the participants' exposure to smaller communities in the county.
  • Developing a curriculum for and teaching life skills classes to inmates in both medium and minimum security at our local county jail. This ranks among the most personally rewarding projects I've ever undertaken, though it was unfortunately short-lived as it was also the first program to go after I assumed the additional administrative duties. Hopefully I will return to it someday.
  • Presenting Poverty Awareness for Community Engagement (PACE) workshops to various audiences, including (so far) one half-day full-fledged poverty simulation in which participants are assigned a role within various households living on a limited income. Over the course of four, 15-minute "weeks" (and 5 minute weekends in between), their households must negotiate and problem solve completing essential household tasks (paying the rent, buying food, going to work or school or applying for jobs, and getting transportation between all of them). This and the mini-simulation I do with smaller groups are among the most powerful and eye-opening educational experiences I have lead.
  • Applying my own personal skills and love for technology through collaborating on a Digital Leader's grant together with my office colleague to purchase several e-readers/tablets to loan to local librarians who are on the front lines of the digital "tsunami" (err, stream) and providing them with support and developing a website to teach them how to use mobile devices so they can assist others. 
  • Strategic planning and professional development for public sector and non-profit agencies providing services to families and community members. Currently the largest project I have underway is working with the Tri-County Human Service Center (which provides programs and support to those living with developmental disabilities, mental health or behavioral health, alcohol and other drug abuse challenges in a three-county area) on several levels, including organizational strategic planning, professional leadership development for administrative staff, and advisory support on innovative programming development and implementation. It is an honor to be guiding those surfing on the tidal wave of changes overtaking the Center, and it is both nerve-wracking and thrilling to see what new things each year brings.
  • And, just because I swore I'd never do anything related to Home Ec (er, Family and Consumer Sciences) in my life, I am now teaching safe food preservation workshops. Can you believe it - I now can my own food, including pressure canning meat and spaghetti sauce, and dehydrate food, and I teach other people how to do it. That is something I would have never guessed I would ever do, much less enjoy so much!
There are tons of reasons to love the job I do and working where I do. Sure, a steady income of a decent sort and good benefits are also big factors, but I would leave any job that provided those things but wasn't worth the time I invested in it. I only hope I can increase my focus on the rewarding aspects of my job.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

These are a few of my most exhausting things:

I'm exhausted.

Not tired. I get plenty of sleep, and I make sure of that. Yeah, sometimes I don't exactly bounce out of bed in the morning. But I know what tired is - that was what I was in college during mid-terms and finals and band tours. That was when I could fall asleep standing up in the lunch line and the moment the professor lowered the lights and turned on the overhead projector.

This is different.

This is the mental and physical pit of quicksand that sucks me down from the most contented and productive heights with the simple breath of a word. The stuff that turns me into an internal hedgehog at the glimpse of an e-mail subject line. The stuff that makes me wonder if McDonald's is hiring.

These are the things that let the air out of my balloon and leave me flat for the rest of the day. And most of them have to do with nagging, unresolved/unresolvable administrative issues.

This, currently, is the topmost among them: http://www.wjfw.com/stories.html?sku=20140124175215

Office space has been a persistent migraine for our office since well before I began working in 2010. For years our department has been told they were going to move to a new location, most likely in the county courthouse, once another county department moved out to a new location. So, little by little, our department gave up office space in our current location, consolidating ourselves and preparing for the day we'd start packing boxes,  putting up with deteriorating conditions and other "just get by" solutions for the time being.

Then, in 2012, after the departure of our office leader, I took the administrative leadership role. For two years now I have watched (and fought) as (unsurprisingly) temporary solutions become permanent, productive conversations and decisions are either delayed or, eventually overturned, and decisions forced upon us without collaboration or consultation. I have experienced some of the worst political two-faced dealings I have ever been personally subjected to. In short, I have found myself bitterly accepting all those negative stereotypes about local government as the veil of jaded cynicism for the future of good governance slips over my eyes.

This all makes me sad. Almost as sad as watching the small progress we'd witnessed in Madagascar be swept away in one quick African coup d'etat. Here we'd hoped that the big island might have grown beyond some of the stereotypes of the African continent. We'd hoped that the transition to openness and reform might be the beginning of a country extracting itself from the bottom of the pile of oppressive statistics that threatened to suffocate it. Instead, it was all washed away in a flash flood of violence and corruption.

Here, I don't hold the fate of a small African nation in my hands, but I am watching the systems that we (USAID, the US Embassy, etc.) were trying to instill through our Good Governance education programs overseas, fail at exactly the issues we were trying to hold rural African tribal communities accountable for. Through Chemonics, International's USAID-funded project, Kominina Mendrika (Champion Communities), we were charged with working with communities to develop collaborative, open, transparent forms of governance that would bring communities together to meet commonly-held objectives. The models we held up were based on those models we claimed to be so effective in promoting democracy in communities across the United States. By bringing community leaders together in open discourse, better decisions and more appropriate use of scarce funds would benefit the whole.

Do as I say, not as I do.

All of those those qualities that lead non-profit organizations to scoff at local officials in both Madagascar and Vietnam - lack of investment in training, lack of access to and capacity to use basic technology (i.e., updated computers, wi-fi networks, mobile technology, etc.), a graveyard pace of decision-making, and Titanic-turning responsiveness to new and emerging issues - are now the anchor and chain that drag on our programs here. True, it's a vast generalization, and nobody is content with the problems, but the problems remain. My youthful and perhaps naive optimism is challenged every day, and make me begin to wonder if these features of the public sector - world wide - are perhaps too deeply embedded to be changed.

Somebody in Madagascar once remarked that I was lucky to live in the United States, "where there is no corruption." I thought about that and responded that there was indeed corruption in the US, we had just institutionalized in it. How little did I understand the truth of my flippant response.

And this exhausts me.

Which leads me to believe that there might be hope for me yet. The day it stops exhausting me, the day I simply accept it, roll over, and curl into that little hedgehog ball - or, worse yet, the day that it energizes and excites me and leaves me itching for more - will be the day I have lost the battle. I may give up, but please, never let me give in.