Life Lessons from my Uncle and Waiting Tables

In my late teens I worked my way through college by waiting tables. Part of that work was with my uncle. In the lulls between customers, we often got a chance to talk and catch up. He hated waiting tables, but helped me to learn the ropes.

Of all the things he said, two have always stuck out for me.

(1) If you’re carrying a tray and you feel something slipping off, let it go. It’s bad to crash a plate on the floor. But even worse to lose the whole tray in trying to catch it.

(2) As soon as you serve coffee and desert, present the customer with the check. This is not to rush them, but to make sure they don’t have to wait for the check. If they do, the experience could be sour regardless of how well everything else has gone. Make sure to ask them if there’s anything else they’d like and let them know you’ll be available if they need you. If they stay for a while, drop by and ask them if they’d card for a refill of coffee. But make sure they have the check to they can leave the moment they’re ready.

WaiterPlatesThinking of these two subjects over the years, I realized they were also great life lessons.

When I’m taking on too much, it’s hard for me to let anything “go”. I juggle and try to keep everything in motion. The frequent result is “losing the whole tray”. I screw up parts of everything I’m working on. Or finally become fatigued and lose interest in everything, not just an item or two. I have to consciously say to myself, “You know, I really want to do ‘x’, but fact is I just don’t have bandwidth for ‘x’ right now. I’d rather put ‘x’ on the back burner and make sure I can pull off ‘y’.”

And when I finish a project, I try to remind myself to really finish it. The length of the project, fairly or unfairly, will be determined by the last item delivered. If you finish everything but one key feature, the user will feel “it took months and months to get what we requested”. If you finish everything but the documentation the project manager will feel “it took months and months to finally close that project”. So I try to look for anything that might prevent the project from feeling “done”, to be able to “present the check”.

–Al-

Categories: Personal

The Death Joke

ImageIn looking over recent posts I realize I’ve been a bit morbid. Just one of those life stages, I guess. So I want to move over to lighter material again, but let me talk one last time about death before moving on.

I’ll tell you a joke (it’s a groaner).

A piece of string walks into a bar and asks for a drink. The bartender tells him “Sorry, we don’t serve strings here”.

The string walks away dejectedly. But after thinking about it, he decides that’s just not right. So he disguises himself. He ties a knot towards one end. Then he unravels the rest into a punk hairstyle.

He walks back into the bar and again tries to order a drink. This time the bartender greets him cordially and serves up his drink with a smile. But about halfway through the drink, he notices the bartender eyeing him suspiciously.

The bartender asks, “Hey, wait. Aren’t you that piece of string I sent away just a little while ago?”

The string answers “No, I’m a frayed knot.”

So, bear with me. I loved this joke. It was me. And for some reason when I told it to my sister, I said that’s what she should say for my eulogy. She looked at me in that tolerant “you’re crazy but I still love you” way she often does.

But it stuck. I would often say not to forget the joke lest my eulogy be blank. I told it to other family members. Even told it at one of those rare Christmas dinners where our whole wide-flung family was able to come into town and be together. The eulogy became a joke onto itself.

It became so real that my sister experienced a certain level of angst. One day she tells me “I can’t tell a joke at your wake!”. I told her she didn’t have to, she just needed to remember it me telling it.

And with that I realized why the idea appealed to me so much. I had loved telling her the joke. It was one of those simple moments when everything is right with the world and you’re with a loved one and the entire world is filled with laughter that can only be understood by those involved. I don’t know what dark events may lead up to my final demise, but I know that when she thinks of me, I’d rather have her remember how much we enjoyed the telling of that joke.

And so I do think it would be a good eulogy. When I’m gone, remember me for the fun times when all was right with the world.

–Al-

Categories: Personal

Thoughts for a Friend

2013/05/19 1 comment

ImageA while back I wrote how there are no guarantees on how long we have. I was recently reminded of this painfully.  A good friend passed away. Not an old sick woman, but a vibrant, healthy lady barely entering middle age. Had a headache, was in the hospital that night, and cut off life support two days later. With a very young daughter.

What do you tell someone who will never really get to know her mom? I can tell her:

  • Your mom understood what I wrote in that post. Every day I talked to her she lived that day.
  • Your mom made some of the best cafe we had at work.
  • You mom was always willing to go out and try a weird new restaurant only I would come up with.
  • Your mom talked about you incessantly. Once you were born. not a day went by when I would not hear some story about you.
  • Your mom loved special peanuts — “Japoneses” — coated in a hard shell imported from Brasil. She was always scared she would run out of them before the next shipment.
  • Your mom shared those peanuts generously with everyone who stopped by her desk.
  • Your mom had a sharp sarcastic wit which could capture my attention anytime we talked.
  • Your mom was a hard worker, often coming in one day on her Christmas break to cut the final checks of the year.
  • Your mom made me laugh after a week when I had quit the job where we both worked. I was under the stress of a new position and I receive an email from her, “Ok, the joke’s over. Come back now.”
  • Your mom called me several times after that, showing me how good it was and how easy it was not to lose contact with good friends.
  • Your mom made my life much richer for knowing her.
  • Your mom…I will miss her, but one thing I can leave you with is that she enjoyed life while she had it.

–Al-

Categories: Personal

Bye-bye Knight

ImageLast week was my last at Knight Foundation. The departure is both sweet and bitter. I’m excited about the new gig, but am remembering all the good things about the last six years.

This was the first time I’d worked in philanthropy and It makes for a very different view of business. At one level, it’s very similar to a for profit business. You have IT. Accounting. Administration. HR. Office maintenance. People have jobs they come to in the morning and families they come home to at night. You make friends. You make enemies. You have quiet times You have time when you think all the time in the world is not enough for what you need to do.

But at another level it’s very different in that the business mission is “to do good”. It’s very fulfilling to work towards “doing good” as opposed to “sell more cars”. And it’s not easy. You would think it would be easy to give away money. But it’s actually very hard to give away money _well_. You are entrusted with someone else’s money and you have to to a good job giving it away. No, you’re supposed to do a great job of giving it away. If you give it away and find it didn’t do any good, you failed at your job. If you give it away and it does good, but could have done better elsewhere, then you could have done a better job. And it’s damn hard to measure “good” in any quantitative way.

This makes for a very interesting group of people to work with. In my case I was lucky to work with some of the smartest people I’ve known in my life. Philanthopries are interesting, Knight was fascinating.

But in my heart I’m a software developer through and through. I’ve been doing it since they invented dirt and in all those year have never gotten bored of it. Like many organizations, Knight is using more off the shelf software these days for internal use. And that’s an excellent fit for the organization. We had a older grants management system around which we had to write software to get the functionality we needed. Now we’re moving to an open source grant management system which works at a level the older enhanced system could only dream of. Absolutely the right choice for the organization. But a large chunk of the software I work disappears right there.

I also wrote a great deal of software in the first three years I was there. Most of that software worked excellently and was well designed. The result for the organization is great. The result for me is that now I do more configuring to prepare for the new year than developing new software.

The other challenge is that IT organization in philanthropies tend to be small to non existent. Our entire IT staff is four and a half people. And some of those people have active responsibilities in generating technical grants. I _am_ the programming department. I love the independence. I can say “I want to move to Visual Studio 2012″ and start right then and there. But what I don’t have is other programmers around me. I don’t have someone working with me side-by-side writing a new system. I don’t have someone who I can ask to grab a cup of coffee and follow me to the whiteboard to sketch out one of my crazy ideas.

And so I move on to my next gig, but Knight will always have a special spot in my heart.

–Al-

Categories: Personal, Tech Tags:

Staying or Going, Keep it to Yourself

ImageEvery so often in my professional life I encounter a situation where someone asks me “are you leaving?” or “are you considering leaving?”. I lump this question along with “do I look fat?”. I arduously not-answer it. Why?

 

 

 

 

 

If I am not considering leaving…

…and I say I am considering leaving, that just doesn’t make sense unless I’m sadistic toward coworkers or just looking to create angst.

…and I say I am not considering leaving, then that leaves me open at a future time when I am considering leaving to have to lie, or face the consequences of admitting I am leaving, or revealing that I am leaving because I can’t answer “no” like all the other times I’ve been asked.

If I am considering leaving…

…and I say I am considering leaving, I am going to create angst.

…and I say I am not considering leaving, I’m forced into a lie.

None of those four are desirable. The only answer for me is a non-answer — to explain to the person asking, however close to me, the reasons above and that I am, as always, giving the non-answer.

What about being fair? About giving people a chance to pick up what you know? About getting all your work affairs in order?

That’s not for some final rush. That’s something you should be aware off every day. Are you the only one that know something? Discuss it with another. Some piece of software in a mess? Mod it to be implementable, even if some functionality is missing. Worried about some decision you took is selecting hardware/software/algorithm/strategy/…? Think about that beforehand, before you create a situation that only you can manage.

And keep your mouth shut.

–Al-

Categories: Personal

Mermelada de Tomate, Thanks to Christina!

A long time ago (late 60′s) in a land far, far away (Spanish Harlem), my aunt made…Mermelada de Tomate (Tomato Marmalade)!  No one really liked it, but I was intrigued and fell in love with it. When I asked my aunt many years later, she said she had tried a recipe at whim but did not have the recipe not remember the procedure.

I once found a canned version by Conchita, whose products I normally like, and tried it excitedly, only to throw it out as is was vile. This was obviously one of those things you had to make at home.

Lately, with some help from a good friend Christina (http://lacocinadechristina.blogspot.com) I’ve been experimenting and think I’ve come close to the memory. She had not heard of it but suggested:

Do you think it was fresh tomatoes with sugar? If so, try a two cup tomato to one cup sugar ratio. Place in a sauce pot and cook over low for two hours. That’s how I do the mango mermelada. Let me know.

My first thought was “No way, too simple”. For the first hour and a half I was sure it was a distaster, looking more like chunky tomato soup rather than anything I would have for desert. But the last half hour magic happened and it changed consistency and color and started resembling my memories.

Thanks, Christina!

–Al-

Categories: Food

Life is Tenous

2011/11/16 1 comment

This morning while I was walking to the bus stop I heard a car honking loudly behind me and turned to look. In a split second I clearly saw a car going by about ten feet behind me with a tiny ball of brown fur tumbling wildly as it disappeared underneath the front of the car. It was such a bad image I couldn’t do anything but close my eyes.

It took me a few seconds to recover but I knew I had to look no matter how bad it was on the off chance the dog had survived and needed help. I was shocked to see a little chiguagua running away from the scene as fast as it legs could carry it. If the dog had jumped the curb a half second sooner or later, or had run just a bit faster or slower, or the driver had swerved in either direction, the dog would have been struck by a wheel. But instead it went right down the middle of the car between the wheels. I could not believe the dog had survived and watched it run all the way down the street to make sure it didn’t’ suddenly drop dead right in the middle of it’s run.

Afterwards, waiting for the bus, I thought how tenuous life is. I know it intellectually. Yet as I ride the bus, I certainly expect to ride back home later in the day. I know I’ll die someday, but I go through today feeling pretty cocky that it’s not today. But there’s no real guarantee. None at all.

And so I look at this day a bit differently than I do a normal work day. I don’t feel quite as cocky as most days. While I don’t think today is “it”, I do look at my plans for the day. I do realize that while it’s unlikely, it’s not impossible that I may not see tomorrow. And it’s not a depressing view of life. It’s a positive introspection. To realize that the amount of life I have left it undeterminable, and I should use it as such.

I also thought today that the dog’s owner also would not have expected the dog’s life to be over. They would have expected the dog to be back as it came back every day. And yet they had no more guarantee that the dog would be around than the dog did. So I’m thinking not only do I need to live knowing that I have no idea how long I’ll be around for, but that I have no idea how long the people I love will be around for. I think I need to make some dates today to have coffee with good friends.

Life is uncertain. Eat desert first.

–Al-

Categories: Uncategorized
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