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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

Regina Brett and her 50 Life Lessons

Regina Brett was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1998. A columnist for the Cleveland Plain Dealer, she wrote a column entitled “50 Life Lessons” in 2006. This has become the most widely distributed column she’s had to date and reading it, it is easy to see why. It’s a wonderful combination of pith, common sense and wisdom that can speak to us all. It came to me at a particularly weak moment and immediately captured my attention so I’d like to share it with you.

More on Regina Brett

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Originally published in The Plain Dealer on Sunday, May 28, 2006

To celebrate growing older, I once wrote the 45 lessons life taught me.

It is the most-requested column I’ve ever written. My odometer rolls over to 50 this week, so here’s an update:

1.    Life isn’t fair, but it’s still good.

2.    When in doubt, just take the next small step.

3.    Life is too short to waste time hating anyone.

4.    Don’t take yourself so seriously. No one else does.

5.    Pay off your credit cards every month.

6.    You don’t have to win every argument. Agree to disagree.

7.    Cry with someone. It’s more healing than crying alone.

8.    It’s OK to get angry with God. He can take it.

9.    Save for retirement starting with your first paycheck.

10.    When it comes to chocolate, resistance is futile.

11.    Make peace with your past so it won’t screw up the present.

12.    It’s OK to let your children see you cry.

13.    Don’t compare your life to others’. You have no idea what their journey is all about.

14.    If a relationship has to be a secret, you shouldn’t be in it.

15.    Everything can change in the blink of an eye. But don’t worry; God never blinks.

16.    Life is too short for long pity parties. Get busy living, or get busy dying.

17.    You can get through anything if you stay put in today.

18.    A writer writes. If you want to be a writer, write.

19.    It’s never too late to have a happy childhood. But the second one is up to you and no one else.

20.    When it comes to going after what you love in life, don’t take no for an answer.

21.    Burn the candles, use the nice sheets, wear the fancy lingerie. Don’t save it for a special occasion. Today is special.

22.    Overprepare, then go with the flow.

23.    Be eccentric now. Don’t wait for old age to wear purple.

24.    The most important sex organ is the brain.

25.    No one is in charge of your happiness except you.

26.    Frame every so-called disaster with these words: “In five years, will this matter?”

27.    Always choose life.

28.    Forgive everyone everything.

29.    What other people think of you is none of your business.

30.    Time heals almost everything. Give time time.

31.    However good or bad a situation is, it will change.

32.    Your job won’t take care of you when you are sick. Your friends will. Stay in touch.

33.    Believe in miracles.

34.    God loves you because of who God is, not because of anything you did or didn’t do.

35.    Whatever doesn’t kill you really does make you stronger.

36.    Growing old beats the alternative – dying young.

37.    Your children get only one childhood. Make it memorable.

38.    Read the Psalms. They cover every human emotion.

39.    Get outside every day. Miracles are waiting everywhere.

40.    If we all threw our problems in a pile and saw everyone else’s, we’d grab ours back.

41.    Don’t audit life. Show up and make the most of it now.

42.    Get rid of anything that isn’t useful, beautiful or joyful.

43.    All that truly matters in the end is that you loved.

44.    Envy is a waste of time. You already have all you need.

45.    The best is yet to come.

46.    No matter how you feel, get up, dress up and show up.

47.    Take a deep breath. It calms the mind.

48.    If you don’t ask, you don’t get.

49.    Yield.

50.    Life isn’t tied with a bow, but it’s still a gift.

Categories: Personal

My Aunt Died of Stubbornness

2010/08/11 2 comments

My aunt died of stubbornness. That may sound like a strange statement, but I’ve never been more sure of anything in my life.

Let me back up. We all die. Someday. If we eat badly we may die of a heart attack. If we hang around dangerous areas in the city we may die of an impromptu stabbing. If we drive recklessly we may die in a fiery crash. But if we do none of these we still die.

However, if we die of the heart attack, people say “He never took care of their diet. He died because of their diet.”

If we die of stabbing they say “I’ve told him a zillion times to be more careful where he goes. He died because he went where he should have avoided”.

If we die in a crash they say “What can he expect driving the way he did? His driving killed him”.

So even if we expect that death is inevitable and that we all die of old age eventally, there is a recognition that certain events can bring on death. And that is why I say my aunt died of stubbornness.

My aunt was 83 when she passed away. She was one degree away from being a recluse, leaving her home less than 4 times a year. She was overweight. She had cholesterol level up the wazoo! So you may think it obvious that she died of those things.

But three years ago I decided for myself that she was no longer functional enough to live unattended. I didn’t push it, but I recognized the time had come when the situation  was becoming untenable. I wasn’t ready to push the family yet, but I knew in my mind the time was coming.

Every year we get together (got together) at my aunt’s house for a “near-Christmas” dinner,  This was where we made a point of visiting her in a party mood with a timetable that did not conflict with the zillion plans everyone has for the holidays. At this last one, my sister noticed a really abnormal amount of mosquitoes. Please realize we live in South Florida so enough mosquitoes to raise our attention is a huge amount of the things. I pointed ths out to my sister and to my aunt’s granddaughter to indicate “the time has come”.

Now with their support we found a great ALF (Assisted Living Facility). I cannot praise these institutions enough. They are almost the exact opposite of what we used to call “Old Folk’s Homes”. These are organized as individual houses with 5-10 residents. They are in residential neighborhoods. You could have one next door to you. The key is that their quality of life is far beyond what we used to think of when “we need to send x to a ‘home'”.

My aunt refused to go for 4 months.

No matter what I did, what my sister did, what her granddaughter did, she refused. Sometimes in a quiet way. Sometimes in a boisterous way. But always in a concrete way. “I’m not going”.

Eventually we had the “disaster”. I got a call from a cousin that she had tried to call my aunt and gotten no response. She visited my aunt and was not able to get in, but my aunt said through the door that she had fallen and was unable to open the door. My cousin called me, I rushed over, and the short story is that we spent the night and part of the next day in the emergency room. Best as we could determine she had spent two days on the floor.

The one good thing that came out of that episode was that my aunt had no choice but to move to the ALF. She went directly from the emergency room there.

And there was a big surprise. She loved it. Within a couple of days she was comfortable. By the end of the week she was telling family how nice the other residents were. The situation seemed to have turned out much better than we could ever have hoped.

The second Friday we got a call from the ALF just to let us know that they had sent my aunt to hospital because she was complaining about upset stomach. I assumed that was the ALF being extra cautious with a new patient. But when I visited her on Saturday I immediately realized this was not the case. She was bloated and looked absolutely awful. Talking with the doctor let me discover that she had a serious pool of blood behind her abdomen. That by the time she had come to the hospital a significant amount of damage had already occurred to her organs.

Also not to belabor this episode, she was dead in two days.

What I learned from all this

(a) The ALF was the right choice. Not by my estimate, but by my aunt’s reaction.

(b) My aunt was “healthy” enough to have lasted another year or two.

(c) My aunt missed out on a couple of years of higher quality of life than she had been living by refusing to go earlier.

Those years were stolen by her own stubbornness. She did not need to die when she did. She could have stuck around a bit longer to the natural end of here life. All gone.

So it makes me think, what am I stubborn about. Are all the things I fight for worth fighting for. What am I missing out by refusing some path. I am sorry she is gone, and hope that stupid stubbornness never bring another episode like that into my life.

–Al-

Categories: Personal