Geri Moran - Second Thoughts

Small Talk

When at my favorite hairdresser (www.zokkoz.com),  I started making the usual chit chat with Maryann. Thinking she must be bored with other people always talking about themselves I started asking about her.  She laughed and said everyone asks her about herself – she wanted to hear about me!  Then she said something so interesting – over the years she observed that the two most frequent topics of conversation are the weather and time passing quickly. But the irony is that these are two things we have absolutely no control over!  So I am wondering, is that why we are obsessed with those topics – our underlying issue, the control thing?

Of course these are also socially safe topics. God knows only those near and dear to us, or dependent upon us financially, can tolerate listening to our latest medical issues. And start talking Occupy Wall Street with someone and you may end up with a placard being waved in your face, or an iPad, or a tax bill. Mistake an Independent for a Republican or a Democrat and you will be met with disdain and a lecture on stereotyping. (Well, I guess that’s only if you do that to me, not all of us are that sensitive to the matter.)

But maybe it isn’t safety. Maybe we are really just unconsciously venting our spleen over our lack of control when we comment on the twin topics of time and weather? Everyone I know has been talking about how relatively easy the winter was here in the northeast – like we gained back control after last year being captive by cold, snow and ice. Even changing the season changing of the clocks is an interesting way of having the illusion of controlling time in some small way.

So what else to talk about?

  • Read, read, read and be ready to mention an interesting fact you learned recently (did you know that in 1900 the census counted you as lower middle class if you did not have at least 2 servants on staff?).
  • Doesn’t everyone fantasize about winning the big one? Ask what that person would do. (I would get those 2 household staffers, that’s for sure)
  • Bucket list – what is on it? (a ride on a private jet)
  • If you could take all your friends and family (at least the ones you actually like) and move anywhere, where would it be. (Mystic, CT or maybe Montana)

Go now and sparkle in conversation.

P.S. I have been lazy and haven’t done Second Thoughts for a while. I am thankful to the people who noticed and nagged me back into doing it again.

“A gossip talks about others, a bore talks about himself – and a brilliant conversationalist talks about you.”   Anon

That’s Why God Invented Other People

This is a re-post of a popular entry.

My garage is empty – completely empty. You could actually put a car in it – a small one (they didn’t foresee mid-sized cars when they built this house in the twenties). No, it is not like winning a Nobel prize, but I suspect there are many of you out there who have some similar humble goals.

“How did she do it?” you marvel. Grit, hard work, determination and a little cash. Let me clarify, it was other people’s grit, hard work and determination, and my cash. I spent much time beating myself up for not being able to get it done by myself. Just a little each month to the rubbish truck, I thought, what’s the big deal? But everything was old, dusty, and frankly, too icky to deal with. And most importantly, there were show stoppers – like the paints and the tires and the 25 year old air conditioner – that the regular rubbish collection won’t take. Well, I finally took my own advice – You can’t do it all yourself, that’s why God invented other people – and I called someone. Well equipped, strong men who were unfazed by ick, piled it all into their truck and took it away. The high from seeing that garage empty was like getting a new toy. There are two types of reactions to gaining all this space: One is the George Carlin routine where you get rid of your “stuff” so you can buy more “stuff”; the other is to just simply bask in the space to the point where you don’t want to ruin it by putting anything into it ever again.

So, why do you care about my garage?  It is September and I know you, my dear readers, you are beating yourself up for not getting that thing, whatever it is, done all summer. It’s hanging over your head like an ACME anvil in a Roadrunner cartoon. Therefore, it is time for my periodic enabling of your inner delegator.  If there is any way you can possibly afford it, whatever your “anvil” might be, hire someone else to do it.  I was pleasantly surprised that it actually cost less than I was imagining, and well worth it to get rid of that anvil.

If you are cleaning out a large space you might actually be tempted to keep more if you do it yourself bit by bit. I had already given away things that were useful so when that truck pulled up all of the second guessing went right out of my head and just told them to take it all. Of course if you do this you have to promise yourself, no regrets. The day after the great riddance my son, Paul, called looking for a pair of safety cones that had been in the garage, untouched, since – I kid you not – 1993. Yeah, they were on the truck. It was inevitable.

Which response did I have to all the new space? Last weekend I had to replace my big old CRT computer monitor. Paul asked me where he should put it. With a single tear dropping down my cheek in classic Demi Moore fashion, I haltingly whispered “put it in the garage.”

Prepared

The recent weather drama made me realize I have woefully disregarded my Girl Scout motto to always “Be prepared.” I did not take Hurricane Irene seriously until the business continuity preparedness e-mail began flooding my inbox that Friday. Upon being asked if I was prepared, I realize my refrigerator contained six eggs, a bottle of Champagne, and a cucumber.

After buying a little food and tying down the deck furniture, I thought I was done. But then someone asked if I had a “go bag” packed. I found a bag and tossed in a pair of jeans and a couple of tees. I had time to think about what else I would put in this bag – what would I want really want to take? I have no jewelry of any great value, too many photo albums to lug, and way too many objects of sentimental value for me to actually have to choose which would make the cut. What I did realize was that the most important thing I would need to have was information. I already had all of my logins and passwords on a CD, so I tossed it in the bag, now prepared for the worst.

Fortunately, I was lucky enough that I didn’t have to use the go bag, but the process made me realize that this digital age does have some advantages with regard to preserving our important info and even some memorabilia.

Passwords

While I regularly back up my computer data online, I am a little skittish about uploading my passwords. But if you are comfortable with having yours stored online, writer Elaine G. Flores recommends LastPass.com. This password manager website securely stores your logins and passwords so that you only have to remember one.

Photos

I like having hard copy picture albums, but now I see the advantages of uploading even your old photos to a site such as Shutterfly.com so that you can have a backup if your originals are destroyed.

Account Numbers

With online banking most of us can easily access our various account numbers. If you want to have all of your bills come to one central place online, you can try a site like manilla.com, which acts as your bills mailbox.

Years ago I actually did have to flee an apartment building fire. It was early in the morning so people were in various stages of dress as we gathered outside. I saw people clutching the things that were important to them, the hands of children, rosary beads, jewelry boxes, or photo albums. But I will never forget one hapless looking woman standing in her nightwear, resignedly holding a large speaker under each arm. Her husband was holding a tuner and turn table. Yes, her husband made them take the time to save the stereo. Yes, I believe they’re divorced now, but they are very prepared.

“Expect the best; prepare for the worst.”

~ My mother, Agnes Moran

Set Things Flying

Free Stuff, Valuable Memory

It is time to finally share with you my most satisfying organizing experience ever. After a ruthless clean out of “stuff”, I had a garage full of old Christmas decor that didn’t move me anymore, surplus craft supplies, books, records, various serving pieces, picture frames and knickknacks too numerous to want to clean any longer. There were even some old chairs I was going to refinish – you know – someday….

I had gotten rid of the true rubbish, but what to do with the rest? Donate it, yes, but a lot of the stuff were things they didn’t want at the normal outlets and even so I dreaded boxing it all up and schlepping it somewhere. Garage sale? Lots of work and then how much would I really make – I didn’t have high end things to sell.

Then it hit me – just let it go, a giveaway. On a clear Saturday morning I spray painted the words Free Stuff on a big piece of plywood and stuck it at the end of the driveway. I dragged about a third of the stuff out to see what would happen. Nothing – I thought I was going to have to drag it all back in, that is, until hour two. I was in the house and saw people wandering into the driveway, looking around questioningly. So I came outside and a woman said to me “Can I really just take whatever I want?” “Yup,” I said, “want boxes?”

And it was like a signal went off somewhere and more cars pulled up and it turned into a kind of party atmosphere. I dragged the rest of the stuff out of the garage. One woman came up to me, shook my hand and said “You are the smarted woman I have ever met. I spent an entire weekend sitting in my driveway in the heat, and I only made $40 – this is the way to do it.” One elderly woman had tears in her eyes as she held 3 beautiful Christmas table cloths that I no longer needed. She told me she never could afford to have matching tablecloths for her big family at Christmas. Tears came to my eyes and I was hooked – I went around the house looking for more stuff to put out! I felt like Santa Claus.

There was, of course, one Debbie Downer who watched a guy with a van pick up two lamps and a bowl. “He is probably going to sell that stuff on eBay,” she said, accusingly. “More power to him,” said I.

At the end of the day 95% of the stuff had been taken and though there were some things that I wondered if I should have parted with, mostly I felt released from the weight of it all. But the unexpected thing is that I was left with a great replacement for all of that stuff – a memory. I will never forget how happy that woman was to get those tablecloths, or how delighted another person was with craft supplies she was going to use in a school. Those memories alone are worth more than the proceeds of any cash garage sale I ever had.

If you decide to do this too, you can post it on a freecycle website or notify local charities, especially if you live in a less populated area than I.

Of course, since then I have bought more “stuff” – so keep an eye out for that sign in my driveway – I am sure to put that there again one day.

“Be not penny-wise: riches have wings, and sometimes they fly away of themselves; sometimes they must be set flying to bring in more.”

~ Francis Bacon

Fighting Overwhelm

Even though the winter holidays like Thanksgiving, Christmas and Chanukah are the ones that most come to mind when we think of busy, hectic and sometimes overwhelming seasons, I have recently realized that the longer sunnier days of spring and summer have caused me a new kind of overwhelm caused by too much daylight. I can now clearly see all of the dust bunnies, window streaks, dull wood finish, hand prints on the wall and the “oh, my GOD have I been really letting other people use this bathroom!?!” stuff that I was blessedly unaware of under the cloak of darkness.

Without the blessing of coming home in the dark to artificial light that casts comforting shadows across things I do not want to see, I have become overwhelmed by the amount of housework it takes in order for the place to look like trolls are not living here. I became so overwhelmed the other day that I took to the couch and did not one single thing. I thought it might be easier to just sell the place but then I realized that my trusty Realtor friends, Mairead O’Sullivan, Eleanor Rice and Rosemary Camus, would insist on my cleaning it before it they showed it. And forget about all the outside stuff – weeds? really?

So I have had to come up with another way. I thought, what would I tell my beloved readers to do in this situation. Well, of course, normally I would say hire a housecleaning service because while it is important for the house to be clean, it is not important that I be the one cleaning it.  However, since I blew my budget on a wonderful out of town vacation, the housecleaning service has to stay on the wish list for now. So Plan B is to not look at the whole thing at once. Pick a corner – not even a whole room – just one corner or area of a room.  I actually started with my stairs – which in my house is just another form of shelving. Amazing the difference in the feeling when just that one thing was accomplished. It sparked me to do another small space after that.

Mini-tasking rules! Apply the same principle to all your other tasks as well – just clean out one drawer or part of a pile of paper, or attack one aspect of a big project. Even if you promise yourself to do only one thing, it can unlock the procrastination that goes hand in hand with Overwhelm.

I am not getting delusional though – it will take me a gazillion little corners to get this place up to par. But by the time I finish I will be rewarded with several months of early darkness during which I can forget about it all again.

Don’t Assume

Years ago I worked as a business consultant for a company that specialized in increasing the revenue and productivity of small companies in the office products industry. One of the services we provided was an audit of the work flow to uncover flaws in the system that could affect profitability. Most clients didn’t have their procedures written down (big mistake) so that was usually the first recommendation. But one of our clients actually bragged about how everything was in writing and everyone followed the procedures. He practically dared us to find any holes in his system.

As part of the audit we followed the process desk by desk using the the written documentation. I came to on woman who was splitting paperwork – keeping some on her desk and putting others on a desk behind her. I had been impressed up to that point because everything was tracking perfectly. The next step brought me to the desk where the woman had been placing the papers. It was piled high – some had actually spilled over into a nearby wastebasket – and they dated back a couple of months. So I asked the woman why the papers were put there and she told me that they were things that needed to be billed to agencies. I asked why it was so backlogged and she said the person who did the job had left months ago! That was all she could tell me – it wasn’t her job, so the buck (literally) stopped there. I was stunned (though I will admit to also feeling a little bit triumphant since we had been so robustly challenged).

When we reported back to the boss, he was incredulous. There were thousands of dollars of unbilled service tickets on that desk – our audit paid for itself with that discovery.

So, the lesson is – don’t assume all is well because there are no obvious “fires”. It isn’t enough to have something written down – audit your own processes or, better yet, hire someone outside the company to do it for you. Fresh eyes won’t make the same assumptions that you might.

Audit your own processes for your personal business as well. Check that your automated payments actually went through and that they were for the correct amount. LOOK at your bank statements and bills and don’t assume they are correct. It is especially important to review bank statements now when there seem to be new types of banking fees every month. Don’t let any money fall into your wastebasket.

” Shorris’s Assumption: Assumptions keep us awake nights.

~ Earl Shorris

Reading is Economical

Reading is fundamental AND economical. I got a letter from my oil company that said my oil contract was going to expire in 250 gallons and I had to renegotiate my price. I never had a contract expire by gallons before – it was always by date. Since the price of heating oil has accelerated with the same speed as the price of gas, this would have significant financial effects. I found the oil contract that I had signed and saw that there was a date and a number of gallons specified. I had a momentary panic until I realized that I would never have signed it without reading the details, so I read it again. Under Plan Type it said Fixed Price. At the very end of the contract was a section that defined the plan types. The type I had clearly stated that it expired by date – a different type expired by gallons.

I prepared for battle, ready even to retain one of those tv lawyers – the guy with the hat, or the guy with the mustache? (Both of those guys are in serious need of a stylist.) I decided instead to take what I call the assumptive close approach. I wrote a short e-mail saying that there was an error in their records and quoted the plan description from the contract.  The next day I got back a terse reply that simply said “your plan type expires by date.” Yay me, and thank you to the nuns who taught me to read and to write simple declarative sentences.

I don’t know if the company made a simple honest mistake, or if they were hoping that people would just renegotiate to a higher price without reading their contract (or even being able to find it!). Either way, this situation reinforces Geri’s Golden Rules of Personal Business Administration:

  • READ, READ, READ. I know, I know, a large segment of the population cannot read anything longer than a Twitter post without ending up staring blankly at the page wondering why there is no message flashing “your post is too long.” But every one of us has signed something without reading it and have been burned by it.
  • ASK QUESTIONS. I just had to read a contract that left me with some questions. When I spoke to the person in charge she told me I asked good ones. Nice to hear, since asking questions is a big part of my job as a technical writer. At the same time I was kind of horrified that in her experience people were signing the contract without having asked questions that I thought were important to  making a decision.
  • KEEP COPIES. Again, it seems fundamental, but I have several times been in situations where I was the only one with a copy of a contract in dispute, often giving me the upper hand. And if you are a paper hater and only keep things on your computer, make sure you always have offline backup AND that the document is in a format that will be able to be read long into the future, like a pdf.

And if someone becomes impatient waiting for you to finish reading, saying “it’s just a formality,” take it as a sign to read more carefully. You can also give them a contract of your own to sign – one that gives you half of their net worth – while telling them it is just a formality.

“Contract: an agreement that is binding only on the weaker party. “  Frederick Sawyer

The Tenure of Things

I recently cleaned out my kitchen to prepare for painting (yes, by someone else – remember, that’s why God invented other people). My son Paul was helping me and came upon an appliance that was unfamiliar to him. When I told him it was an electric frying pan he asked why you would need an electric frying pan when you have an actual stove. I have to admit I was stuck for an answer. Aside from having been of the era where everyone got one at their bridal shower, and some sense of using it to achieve even temperature control, I couldn’t think of much justification.

During the purge, ancient Tupperware was flung with abandon into the recycle bin, along with a zillion jars that I was going to use “someday.”  Odd mismatched mugs were relegated to the basement without a thought. My garbage can smelled interesting from the contribution of clearly outdated herbs and spices I released from their containers.  I succeeded in discarding lids long divorced from their containers. I even was able to admit that certain utensils were past their prime, despite my best efforts with Brillo. I showed no mercy to hordes of tins, containers, and crazed dishes.

White shoe polish? And bluing – I had bluing!?  I keep my OTC medications in the kitchen and was alarmed to find that all of the diseases I had been prepared to treat would have handily defeated the out of date drugs on hand. And which of my friends was I planning to poison with all of that clearly stale cake decorating icing?  Who knew that those vinyl covered wire shelf organizers actually get sticky when they are old. Yes, I WAS going to eat steel cut oatmeal every day, but that was in 2006. All out.

But that electric frying pan – I don’t really cook much any more and mostly use the microwave. Still, that Farberware pan is actually beautiful in its way – little legs so it sits daintily raised from the counter, stainless steel still shiny, pleasantly round shaped pan and elegantly domed lid. I wonder, does it resent that I have left it to humiliating disuse? I could give it to Goodwill. I could keep it with the resolve that I would use it – but that would be lying to myself, and to it. And yet…

Paul is much better about throwing things out than I am, well my things anyway. I think there were probably things he didn’t even consult with me about before sending them to the object body bag, though I haven’t missed anything yet. But I am hereby giving strict instructions for future dispositions – do not touch the electric frying pan. Not only did it make the cut, it has achieved tenure.

The goal of all inanimate objects is to resist man

and ultimately defeat him.”  Russell Baker

Ask Mary

Miscommunication - the funny and the frustrating. Between e-mail and working in the global marketplace, we are all at risk of an unintended interpretation of our communication. I had a co-worker who had recently immigrated from China. But he spoke English so well that I didn’t even think twice when I told him we were going to eat chicken fingers for lunch. Have you ever once thought about that literally? So you can imagine the look on his face.

And e-mail is a minefield. Unlike a phone call, it is a one way communication. When you aren’t clear and you are on the telephone, you hear the person’s immediate reaction and make a swift correction. But in email you may not know you have offended or been unclear until you get an angry reply – or worse, no reply at all. If I hadn’t seen the look on my Chinese friend’s face, it wouldn’t have occurred to me that I had horrified him.

It is also frustrating when you get a reply to a question, but not an actual answer. Recently a volley of e-mail involving several people resulted in an agreement that one of two actions had to be taken by “Mary.” When following up about the problem I specifically asked Mary was action A done or was action B done. The answer I got back was “Yes.” Technically speaking I guess that would be a correct answer if I only wanted to know if either action had been taken. But in the context of the e-mail I thought I was clear that I wanted to know which! So I tried again asking Mary WHICH one was done. The reply was “It was done.” I asked another recipient of the same e-mail if I was being obtuse, but she reassured that my question still had not been answered. So she offered to find out from Mary’s boss. When she asked him about it, his answer was “Mary did it.” At that point we actually stopped caring about the entire thing. I am certain that this question will come up again before the project is over. If asked, I will just say “Ask Mary.”

Meanwhile, buffalo wings anyone?

… if I turn out to be particularly clear you’ve probably misunderstood what I’ve said.” Alan Greenspan

Don’t Settle for Surly

At the end of a kind of a day that makes you want to buy a bottle of scotch and a straw, I had to go to the A&P supermarket. I was disheartened to see that the shortest line was that of the surliest checker (recently she told a friend of mine to put down a magazine unless she was going to buy it). I just wasn’t in the mood to to deal with rudeness on top of my already taxing day, so I went to another line.

Miraculously, I ended up with a checker who was cheery and pleasant and made you feel like you were in a neighborhood grocery store. Her cordiality made the three people on her line smile. It so lifted my spirits that I actually took the time to go to her supervisor to compliment her.

Big mistake. After my saying how nice it was to be treated so cheerfully, the supervisor made a face and essentially said that the checker wastes time being nice and has to pay more attention to making the line move faster. I was horrified!  Here I was paying a compliment to the employee and the supervisor starts criticizing her to me, as well as pretty clearly inferring that I was wrong.  My bad day came hurling back through this exchange. Rather than having a pleasant conversation about satisfying service, I end up complaining to a surly supervisor about her bad behavior.

Is this just a New York thing? Have we gotten so miserable, pressured, and jaded that we now prefer speed over civility? The cashier wasn’t slowing things down that I could see, just doing her job with cheer. And having seen how badly some customers treat the cashiers, her ability to remain pleasant was an achievement.

The thing that bothered me the most afterward is the feeling that I have no remedy. I can’t go to another market without greatly inconveniencing myself. Yet it irritates me to give them my money. In reality I know I am going to have to be content with writing one of my famous letters to corporate headquarters, and writing about it here on my blog. I may not get anything but a form letter in reply, if that. But, you never know when that one more letter will tip the scales.

Maybe it’s time for a new grassroots movement – complete with catch phrases for your placards: Don’t Settle for Surly, Profit from Pleasant, Rue your Rude, Nuke the Nasty. But what I really want to do is find another job for that great cashier, before they crush her spirit.

Have a lovely day, and come back again soon.

If you make customers unhappy in the physical world,

they might each tell 6 friends.

If you make customers unhappy on the Internet,

they can each tell 6,000 friends.”

-  Jeff Bezos