Category Archives: musings

In with the new

January is half over as of this writing. The new calendar year debuted with stunning fireworks displays and occasional object drops ranging from a ball covered in Waterford crystal  to some truly bizarre items. It is also a time for new laws and taxes going into effect and for some old laws getting “sunsetted” or repealed. Of course, we know that for every law repealed, there are four new ones to take its place. Car makers showed prototypes of their 2017 model line before the opened champagne from the 2015 New Year’s celebrations went flat. Companies are hiring, merging, acquiring and divesting with “new money” for the new year.

New diets and exercise routines are common New Year’s resolutions. By this time of the year, most resolutions have already failed. Changing behavior is not easy, especially if trying to achieve an unrealistic goal. No matter how hard I work out, I definitely will never be the same weight I was in high school, because I am about four inches taller. No matter how much I write, I will probably never write a best seller because there are millions of authors striving for that goal. Nevertheless, I can set goals to eat healthier, to exercise more, and not obsess over metrics, especially misleading ones like Body Mass Index. I can keep writing for enjoyment and improve my writing style and audience reach. Dropping a couple of inches in the waist or seeing an increase in readership are two realistic goals. For me, dropping 60 pounds or setting a goal of 1,000 new readers this year is unrealistic (I don’t consider Facebook “Likes” a meaningful metric because of click farms). Gradual small changes are more effective for changing behavior than sudden major changes. New Year’s resolutions are an anachronism unless the goal has several achievable milestones. The old saying “Life is a journey” applies as does “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step”.

Becoming a better person does not occur overnight. It takes time, it takes support from loved ones and friends, and it takes determination. I set a goal of becoming a better person, and for 28 years, I had Lucy help me do so. The last (almost) three years have been a challenge without her guiding me, but I have had some wonderful friends step up and keep me mostly on track. In return, I strive to be a better friend to them.

Mutually beneficial goals are better than personally beneficial goals. It is a way to change the world one little bit at a time. Stick to your resolutions, but don’t be afraid to reassess the goal and objectively review progress. A stretch goal is only useful if one is not drawn and quartered while achieving it. Try being a supportive friend or loved one to someone trying to achieve a goal. Your boost can make all the difference.

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Scrambling towards the holidays

Here in the United States, we have three major holidays between the end of November and the beginning of January: Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s. Christmas and New Year’s have fixed calendar dates and are exactly one week apart. The trickier holiday is Thanksgiving which Americans celebrate on the fourth Thursday of November, a date range of between the 22nd to the 28th. Obviously, the later in the month Thanksgiving falls, the fewer shopping and preparation days there are before Christmas. This year, Thanksgiving was November 27th, allowing for the second fewest number of days between Thanksgiving and Christmas. Retailers are keenly aware of that fact as people are scrambling towards the holidays. Thanksgiving does not fall on November 22th again until 2018.

The weather has mostly cooperated to this point. No blizzards, no ice storms, no extended period of sub-zero Arctic air settling in, so traveling to retail establishments is mostly unimpeded. Parking lots are staying filled with shoppers racing to complete their lists, checking them twice, and trying to stuff over-sized SUVs into parking spots that are too small for mopeds. Never mind that the driver spent twenty minutes trying to park because that closer spot saved him or her a minute or two of walking. College chemistry and physics courses should show videos of quickly moving shoppers in crowded stores to visualize kinetic theory and optimal packing theory. Many retailers hope that sales meet or exceed expectations despite fewer shopping days. Increasing revenue from online shopping is apparently cannibalizing Black Friday sales, and my hope is it ends Thanksgiving day sales.

In addition to the scrambling to get shopping, decorating, baking, and housecleaning tasks completed in a shorter time, there is the end-of-year scramble beginning in mid-November. Most businesses in the United States align their fiscal years to the calendar year. There are some businesses that start their fiscal year in February, March or June to avoid completing their year-end accounting while in the throes of a peak time for business. Strategy meetings, budget requests, accounts receivables collections, sales and earnings forecasts, staffing requisitions and other business centric critical tasks require large amounts of time, caffeine, analgesics, and antacids for completion. Even those best laid plans go awry when a C-level or D-level executive asks “Can’t we just…?” while pondering a project timeline. My consulting collaborator would say those executives have a befuddled facial expression much “like a dog looking at a phonograph“. Those three little words, “can’t we just”, take about a second to say but they will add days to project completion even though the deadline is immovable. No wonder people celebrate New Year’s with particular fervor (and sometimes with copious quantities of adult libations).

My Facebook and Twitter feeds are filling with tales and pictures of this year’s baking and decorating accomplishments. I consider baking successful if the smoke detector did not go off, I did not use a fire extinguisher or first aid kit, nothing dented or broke, I only swore in English, and the result was edible. Nearly everyone posting is working full-time, and many have kids still at home, yet they found time to make lefse, krumkake, pirakkas and other delicious but time-consuming seasonal delicacies. Christmas trees lovingly decorated with heirloom ornaments and some recent additions from Hallmark adorn living rooms despite a pet’s best attempts at turning the tree into an oversize chew toy. Scrumptious cakes, pies, pastries and treats with all the calories magically removed (or so we wish) pose seductively on counter tops and tables. It is all inspiring and wonderful, so thank you for sharing!

As you are scrambling towards the holidays, take a couple of moments to breathe and to collect your thoughts. You deserve the break because you earned it. If you are lucky enough to have a special someone, give that person a long and meaningful hug, and for that precious interval, leave the scrambling to quarterbacks and eggs.

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Thanksgiving 2014

Thursday was Thanksgiving in the United States. The weather created an unexpected travel challenge into many people’s plans. I-90 from Albert Lea to Fairmont had either ice or snow pack on the roadway.  Thursday also saw below zero readings along most of my route. Snow and ice do not melt at -13°F, and road salt quits working at around +25°F. At temperatures colder than -4°F, ice and snow begins sublimating, going from solid to vapor without becoming a liquid, but the process is quite slow. A 3½ hour trip thus became a five-hour trip. Freezing drizzle Friday afternoon meant adding a day to my stay. Today’s warm temperatures, sunshine, and slight breeze melted off the offending ice and snow and ensured an easy drive back home this afternoon.

Thanksgiving was not intended to serve as a springboard to the most frenzied shopping time of the year, but to give us a time to pause, reflect, and give thanks. We tend to lose sight of what we have in our life that gives us hope and strength because of fast-paced lifestyles, unsettling news reports, too much caffeine, retail stores opening on Thanksgiving rather than waiting a few extra hours, and too much stress. Each of us has at least one reason or one person for which we are grateful.

Several months ago, a “tag, you’re it” style Facebook posting circulated asking the tagged person to list three to five things they were thankful for each day for three to five days, and to tag three to five other people for participation each day (I saw four distinct variations). I disagree with the principle of putting someone on the spot and asking that person to inconvenience between nine and twenty-five of their friends. For some people, the reason or reasons are very personal. The amount of sharing on Facebook can cause someone’s list to get lost in all the chatter and cross talk. A blog is a better forum for a gratitude list, because not everyone has a Facebook presence.

My gratitude list consists of people, either groups or individuals. If you have a list to share, please use the “Leave a comment” feature at the end of the posting; you can remain anonymous. Happy Thanksgiving!

10. Authors

Three former co-workers are authors published on major imprints, and I look to them for inspiration.

Jade Taylor  (her nom de plume) wrote a story that Harlequin Romance published. Harlequin is a very difficult imprint for first-time authors because of the amount of unsolicited manuscripts. Lucy enjoyed reading “Wildcat and the Marine”. Those of us lucky to work with “Jade” enjoyed her sense of humor. She was very fun to work with.

Elizabeth Hamilton-Guarino wrote two children’s books before writing “Percolate: Let Your Best Self Filter Through” with Dr. Katie Eastman. I worked with Elizabeth at two different companies. “Percolate” was a fun and though-provoking read.

Greg Schulz now has three books published focusing on storage networks. Greg worked with Lucy and me over twenty-five years ago. His grasp of extremely complex technical matters and his ability to help others make sense of them makes him a highly sought subject matter expert. Greg is also very personable with a great sense of humor.

Each of these authors has distinct writing styles in different genres. Their successes result from connecting with the reader and having the reader feel that the time spent was worth it and enjoyable. It is something I strive for in each blog posting.

9. Entrepreneurs

It takes a lot of courage, planning, and preparation to be one’s own boss. People working a full-time job usually work 40-45 hours per week. Entrepreneurs work at least that many hours, and then work extra hours managing the books, developing the next advertising campaign, negotiating with vendors, doing interviews, handling shipping and receiving, and many other essential tasks. It is not for the faint of heart or for someone wanting to ease into a new career, especially in a still fickle economy.

Carver Flowers is a great example of pursuing a dream and dedicating the time for the dream to become a reality. Annette and Al have done an outstanding job building their business on trust and quality along with showcasing Annette’s talent and creativity.

MBF_MSC Virtual Administrative Services is an example of seeing a need and developing a business fulfilling that need. Mary does quality work, is very enthusiastic, and works tirelessly at growing her business and giving back.

It is so gratifying seeing these businesses succeeding. They admirably represent the American Dream.

8. Those who keep us safe

Public safety does not take time off. Firefighters, police, snowplow drivers, first responders, and dispatchers routinely work weekends and holidays. The Highway Patrol busily cleared accidents Thursday. Some of those accidents required dispatching an ambulance or fire truck. Snowplows did what they could to keep the roadways passable, though there were areas where the ice and snow accumulated too quickly.

Public safety workers sometimes deal with the worst in humanity, or get dispatched to a tragedy. Yet many of them stay with their jobs for many years because they know they are helping others.

7. Healthcare and hospice professionals

Lucy’s cancer battle required dedication and compassion from several dozen healthcare professionals. Lucy and I have nurses in our extended families. I also have friends who are doctors. It takes thousands of hours of training, followed by passing board exams and licensure to begin either career. One difficult part of the job is knowing not everyone receiving care has a positive outcome. Nurses in particular tend to dying patients, diligently focused on making that person as comfortable as possible, while being compassionate to that person’s loved ones. Lucy always thanked her doctors and nurses because she was grateful that they were doing their best while caring for her, including the emergency room doctor who told her that her battle was ending and there was nothing more that could be done for her.

It takes a special person to become a doctor or nurse. Hospice workers are very special. They tend to a person transitioning from this life, and they help the remaining loved ones begin adjusting to losing that person. Lucy’s hospice workers were professional and compassionate. Her hospice nurses were incredibly supportive of me while I helped tend to Lucy in her last days. The hospice team gave Lucy the chance to be at home, surrounded by her loved ones, in the house she loved. It was an incredible gift.

6. Blog readers

Your comments and criticisms help me be a better writer, and your continued readership gives me confidence to continue. All of you help me be a better person. I hope you get something enjoyable and entertaining out of my musings.

5. My brothers and extended family

I have a small immediate family which unfortunately became one smaller nearly eighteen years ago. My two surviving brothers live over 250 miles away from me, in opposite directions. They remain a big part of my life.

I am fortunate to have a large and loving extended family. My cousins are supportive, wacky, intelligent, compassionate, and a very fun part of my life. Most of them live fifteen hundred miles away or farther from me, but each of them holds a special place in my heart.

4. Good health

Like many of you, I have endured a number of physical challenges. I won’t even try to estimate the number of hours I spent in general anesthesia, much less physical therapy or lying in a hospital bed. I have a dear friend who easily eclipses my numbers, so I know how lucky I am. It took a lot of work to put Humpty Dumpty back together. My career in IT was three decades of high stress work with constant career reinventions because the technology changed rapidly. Yet I am in surprisingly good health and fitness, though I could improve on the fitness part.

3. My parents

Love and sacrifice. My parents gave up so much while I was spending a chunk of my early years in the hospital. Dad worked a full-time job and ran a farm so Mom could raise my brothers and care for me. Most of my surgeries and recoveries happened in Rochester, about eighty miles from home. They made a lot of trips for me. I was a huge challenge for them. It took a number of years before it sank in what they sacrificed for me, but I am lucky it did sink in, and I am still awestruck. They are still both alive and recently celebrated their 58th wedding anniversary. I love them dearly!

2. Close friends

Everyone needs a support system and my close friends have helped get me through the past thirty-one months since Lucy passed away. Friends are best measured by quality rather than quantity, and I hit the jackpot with mine. These are people I trust, with whom I enjoy spending time, who generously listen, and offer advice when I need it.

Lucy’s passing is a difficult adjustment. I am extremely fortunate to have one close friend who has invested (and still invests) a lot of time with me, who gets me out into the world, who challenges me to think, gets me to laugh, helps inspire me, shows genuine interest in how my day is going, and is a lot of fun being around. That is the sort of person who can brighten a day with a simple text message or a long phone call, and I do my best to reciprocate, though I think I have the better end of the deal.

1. Lucy

Most of the nearly 90,000 words written in this blog are reasons I am thankful for her, yet I would need a few million more to adequately describe my gratitude. I still miss her and I will for the rest of my life. She was my best friend, my rock, my confidante, my inspiration, my sounding board, my passion, my joy, and my universe. She was my once in a lifetime windfall of good luck.

Even though she is no longer physically here among us, she remains a part of me. My life is better because she was part of it and she still keeps me working on becoming a better person.

In closing, I have many blessings for which I am grateful. You probably have many blessings, too. As a reminder, if you wish to share some of the things you are grateful for, please feel free to leave a comment on the blog site.

If you are lucky enough to have a special someone in your life, give that person a long and meaningful hug to let him or her know how much you love them for making your life better. Give your loved ones a hug when you get a chance and I hope you enjoyed your holiday!

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Show me a sign!

“Show me a sign!”

How many times in our lifetimes have we encountered a difficult stretch and wondered aloud if it was ever going to end, asking for a sign from above to give us hope? How many times do people turn to fortune-tellers, good luck charms, psychics or horoscopes for a hint of the future? Would we even know a divination sign if we saw one?

Humans are supposedly the only creatures capable of rational thought. Rational thought is analytical: identify, quantify, specify. During our lifetimes, we absorb a tremendous amount of information and we use that information to make decisions. We can take events from our past, remember the outcomes, and use that knowledge to make an informed decision. In most cases, past outcomes become the basis to determine the most probable outcome for a future event. Most probable, however, is not an absolute certainty. Unknown or highly unlikely outcomes called “Black Swan” events can arise, sometimes favorable, sometimes not. For example, matching all the numbers in a huge jackpot lottery on one ticket is highly unlikely, usually in excess of 120,000,000:1.

My area participates in a number of lottery games. The MegaMillions game recently had a jackpot in excess of $200 million USD. Even by taking the lump sum cash option and leaving almost half the money on the table, it would be enough for me to stay retired. A friend of mine was having an unbelievable run of positive events happening, so we joked about spending a dollar each and buying tickets. About an hour before buying my ticket, I found a four-leaf clover while out on a hike. Four-leaf covers supposedly bring the finder good luck because of a rarity of one four-leaf clover per 10,000 three-leaf clovers:

4 leaf clover

A four-leaf clover is supposedly lucky, so why didn’t I select the winning MegaMillions numbers on my ticket?

The day after the drawing, I found I had matched one number. Unfortunately, it was not enough to win anything. My friend fared worse by not matching a single number. So much for using a good luck charm to forecast the future. The odds of winning the MegaMillions lottery with one ticket is 258,890,850:1, or roughly 2,589 times as rare as finding a four-leaf clover. I saw several people carrying a lucky rabbit’s foot buying lottery tickets. How can a rabbit’s foot be lucky because it came off an animal after an unlucky event? Other animals have fared poorly in our quest for divining the Divine. Goat livers or chicken entrails, anyone? At least other divination items like crystals look nice and brewed tea leaves is a healthy beverage.

Weather forecasting is seemingly a 50/50 proposition when projecting out over a week. Many people with a minimum of weather watching experience can predict if tomorrow is warmer, colder, or wetter than today. Those same people are unable to predict tomorrow’s temperature to within 3°F accuracy or precipitation within 0.1″. For most of us, a general guide to tomorrow’s weather is enough. Some occupations require accurate weather for ten days in the future. Certain types of concrete can handle small amounts of precipitation falling while curing; too much rain can damage or destroy it. Using a crane is not advisable during high winds. Planting crops before the final frost of the season will seriously influence harvest yield.

Weather very much affects farmers. A growing season stretches out over several months and a crop destroyed by an unexpected frost or torrential rain is a substantial loss of time and money. Weather folklore came about through thousands of years of observations and noticing certain natural phenomena. Some folklore roots are more wishful thinking (or wistful thinking if the year’s crop lies in ruins) rather than solid observation. In the Upper Midwest, woolly bear caterpillar stripe size is supposedly a harbinger of the upcoming winter. Woolly bear caterpillars eventually metamorphose into Isabella tiger moths, not meteorologists. Another forecasting myth involves the groundhog. If the groundhog sees its shadow on Groundhog’s Day (February 2, exactly the halfway point between winter and spring), six more weeks of wintry weather should occur. With an accuracy of less than 40%, which is worse than the expected 50% of pure chance, perhaps the groundhog is better suited for predicting winning lottery numbers.

woolly bear caterpillar

Does this sort of stripe on a woolly bear mean a mild or frigid winter?

Remember that humans are mostly rational thinkers when they are not distracted with associating completely unrelated events into a prediction tool (see “woolly bear caterpillar” above). Accurately spotting future trends is a holy grail humanity has sought for millennia. Economic forecasts, actuarial tables, weather forecasts, and lottery number picks all strive for accuracy. Some of the supposed economic forecast signs are which team wins the Super Bowl, women’s skirt lengths, men’s underwear purchases (men choosing to “go command” must skew the data), and during the period when Alan Greenspan headed up the Federal Reserve Bank, the thickness or thinness of his briefcase.

Public safety is also at stake. Predicting the virulence and spread of a pandemic has many variables. Invasive species affect certain sectors of the economy. There is a delicate balance between erring on the side of caution and “crying wolf”. A far simpler example of future prediction is the invasive species warning sign that I saw in a park:

wild parsnip warning sign

Even though no wild parsnip is presently in the park preserve, there is a warning sign because wild parsnip spreads quickly.

There is no known infiltration of wild parsnip in the park. It does spread quickly and may appear in the near future. If people see the warning often enough, the hope is they will avoid contact with wild parsnip if or when it appears in the future.

Perhaps the best harbinger of future events is being in the present moment. Decisions made in the present influence the future. While we cannot change the past, we might change the future by being aware of the past and applying that knowledge to the present. It beats slaughtering a goat or maiming a rabbit. Be flexible with your plans because Black Swan events can and do happen. Have a good support team in place to help you through the rough times and enjoy the good times; be prepared to do the same for them.

Those of you who have a special someone in your life have won a lottery with odds exceeding 7,000,000,000:1. You have found the one person on this planet right for you, a person who makes you smile and laugh, who brightens your day when times are dark, someone whom you unquestionably trust, who supports your dreams, celebrates your victories, dries your tears and calms your fears. That is a prize more valuable than a nine-figure jackpot. Give that person a meaningful hug and I will make a 100% accurate prediction for the future: you both will smile and feel content every time it happens.

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by | October 26, 2014 · 12:58 pm

The most wonderful time of the year

Most people living in the upper Midwest would argue that this is the most wonderful time of the year, not necessarily Christmas. In Minnesota, we have two groups of people, those who love summer, and those that don’t. In the interests of full disclosure, I fall into the former group. Lucy also leaned more towards loving summer.

One could argue that spring could also be the most wonderful time of the year, since like fall, the weather is not too hot or too cold, there are no winged bloodsucking creatures vexing outdoor activities and it is cool enough in the evening for bonfires or cooking outdoors.

Fall does have several advantages over spring. Television, cable and streaming service shows start their new seasons in fall; spring was rerun and replacement series season. Football and hockey fans rejoice at the start of a new season while baseball fans are either gearing up for the post-season or muttering “Maybe next year”. The days seem longer during fall though sunrise is a little later and sunset is a little earlier every day after the equinox. Lakes are still warm enough for some late season boating without hitting ice. Many gardens are still in bloom and migratory birds and butterflies begin flocking before undertaking an arduous several thousand mile trek in search of warmer weather.

Lucy had one reason she would pick fall over spring for the most wonderful time of the year: fall color. When winter transitions to spring, the color palette changes from white to gray to dirty gray to pale green to green before the flowers start blooming. When summer transitions to fall, the greens and tans are quickly infused with, and then replaced by, brilliant hues of yellow, gold, burgundy, red, orange and shades in between. It is as if summer knows it is going out, so it is going out with a lavishly attired party. Of course, like any large party, the clean up afterwards is time-consuming. Lucy and I had hoped to go on a hot air balloon ride sometime during peak fall color. She was receptive to doing this despite a fear of heights. Perhaps I will do that sometime in her honor.

Some areas of the world do not see much color variation between seasons. Large areas of the southwestern United States have two color palettes: green during the rainy season and brown the rest of the year. Areas of the Great Plains are nearly devoid of trees with some wildflowers during the wetter season. Other areas have trees, but the leaves stay on year around because there is little difference between the seasons.

I am lucky to live in an area where we get several weeks of incredible beauty every year. The Twin Cities has already had one evening of scattered frost and is nearing the end of an unseasonably cool stretch of weather. The maples are showing hints of red, orange and gold, so the transition party is starting soon. Now if I could be smart enough to get out of the area before the dreaded snow starts flying…

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