Consider This the Soft Launch

As promised, the new website is now live! It's not yet perfect, but it's live! Sort of like Dr. Frankenstein's gruesome buddy.

Things to note:

  • I'm still proofreading (cross-eyed, at this point) and tweaking the language here and there to better describe what I do, how I do it, and why it's valuable to the people who hire me.
  • I'm adding testimonials as I go, but decided to launch with the basics and insert the quotes from happy people over the next few weeks, after I've dug through my emails to find them!
  • The navigation is super different. Please explore! You'll see that the blog is no longer right up top. Instead, it lives within the section that has to do with my own writing projects. That's because I rarely write about communications and marketing. Instead, this is for the people who want to see me as a writer/thinker/author person.

Feel free to let me know what you think. Or not. New websites are nifty, but this was a utilitarian upgrade, so perhaps not as fascinating as a really substantive change! 

Mind the Mess

Thanks for your patience, friends! It's been a few weeks since my last post and it will be another week or two before I post anything of particular interest.

When I launched this website and blog nearly three years ago, I had just gone out on my own and I was at the beginning of my graduate work. My goal was to create a workable presence for the short term that would serve both my book-writing audience and my communications audience equally. And that's exactly what I did. 

Now, a year after my graduation and three full years into self-employment, it's time to kick things up a notch. That's why I'm reworking, rewriting, and relaunching my website. There will be more space devoted to the services I offer clients, with a special section just for the writing I'm doing on my own, including this blog and updates about Mr. Khanjani's Roses.  

Until I get it all finished and switched on, you may notice some weirdness. Just pretend there's a skink crawling around in the background, messing up the code. Once I find him and get him out of the works, everything will be all pretty and good to go. (There will be another slight update later this summer to reflect some new branding, but that will just be about appearances.)

Stay tuned for a fresh look soon!

Looking Back at Love Languages

A battered index card slipped out of the blue plastic folder I'd dropped on my desk a few days ago. Just one more piece in my ongoing tossing of things I've picked up along my way. 

As I glanced at the names and descriptions on it, I instantly found myself back in a friend's cozy, bright living room more than a decade ago. Nineteen friends and family gathered every week for nearly all of 2006, some driving from an hour away after work each Wednesday, to study together amidst uproarious laughter, rapid shifts in conversation, and whatever snacks the lady of the house had picked up on her way home.

One particular night, the group's facilitator (and purveyor of snacks) mentioned that she'd been reading The 5 Love Languages, which had made her curious about the way our group members might align with the different "languages" described in the book. We tended to go off track at the slightest opportunity, so we all set aside our materials for the evening and agreed to identify our preferences and discuss them. It seemed, after all, like a fun way to learn new things about old friends. 

The goal was to identify the way we each preferred to receive love, which may or may not have echoed the way we demonstrated love for others. It was no surprise that the group's best distributor of hugs preferred to receive physical contact. Nor that another, always willing to pitch in and help, liked to receive acts of service. Four more valued receiving quality time, marked by undivided attention and the sharing of thoughts uninterrupted. The largest number, seven, preferred to receive words of affirmation, whether compliments, encouragement, gratitude, or acknowledgement.

Then there were the four of us who most preferred to receive tangible gifts ... or treasures, or any expressions that someone was or had been present. We took a fair amount of razzing, especially since none of us were the type to ask for gifts nor the type to expect them. It also sparked quite a lot of discussion about exactly what gifts are. 

One friend of mine was surprised that I, the person who deals with words, didn't gravitate toward words of affirmation. I remember explaining that working with words was the very reason why I didn't care for them. That I understood how words could be used as a commodity to make people do or think what the speaker wants them to do or think. In the context of receiving love, I didn't trust pretty words tossed out into the air. 

When someone takes the time to handwrite a card or even type an email, though, words might count as a gift, at least in my opinion. So could the fortune from a fortune cookie, a flower picked from the yard, a pebble lifted from a path, a tiny bundle of leaves, or the pocket-sized Dala horse that accompanied me on last summer's travels. Gifts, after all, have everything to do with thoughtfulness and care ... and nothing to do with the hard dollar value of a particular thing.

Already far off track that evening long ago, we carried on exploring how we each preferred to receive an apology. A few wanted to receive sincere words of regret. A couple preferred to receive a genuine promise to change. None, interesting to note, wanted to receive someone's acceptance of responsibility or for someone to admit wrongdoing. The conversation there had to do with the lack of a change in behavior.

The remaining nine of us preferred to receive an apology in which someone demonstrated action and made restitution in some way. Of course, we all noted, we didn't want to have to explain that to whomever had wronged us. We wanted them to be of such character that they would, of their own volition, right the wrongdoings. 

As I flipped the card over in my hands the other day, that was the idea that stuck with me. Ultimately, whatever way we prefer to have others interact with us, doesn't it all come down to character?

If ... Then ...

On this grey northeastern day, complete with actual slush (slush!) falling from the sky, I once again reminded myself of the adventure I've been on these last five years. And the adventures yet to come. 

Everything ties together in unexpected ways, like a giant, never-ending logic problem. It's only with the benefit of hindsight ... and four to six months of winter ... that the patterns become clear.

If I had been content with my semi-predictable office job, then I never would have jumped into a less-predictable office job.

If I had found that less-predictable office job totally fulfilling, then I never would have gone in search of a master's degree.

If I'd been denied access to the MFA program at King's, then I never would have had the courage to go into solo work, nor would I have given myself the time to start working on the book that continues to take shape.

If I hadn't been working on the book, then I would have missed the opportunity to learn so many details about stories I'd known in general for a lifetime, or to make so many friends and writing allies, or to fall in love with a beautiful Canadian city on the edge of an island on the edge of North America.

If I hadn't gone into solo work, then I wouldn't have been free to take on a harebrained research idea at the conclusion of my studies.

If I hadn't pursued that harebrained idea, then I wouldn't have realized how much stuff I'd collected through the years, or how much I needed a fresh start, or how cathartic three months and a car full of necessities could be.

If I hadn't spent three months driving around the country, then I wouldn't have realized that North Dakota is stunning, or that eastern Montana looks like Nevada, or that Idaho tries to kill Eastern drivers, or that I have bridge and cliff issues, or that SFU has an on-campus hotel, or that Seattle is super-hilly, or that the Oregon coast is the most relaxing place in the world, or that California's not the same without Grandpa Mel, or that beat-up pickup trucks and cowboy hats can be accompanied by country or Tejano and they're still just right.

If I hadn't had to balance work and research and driving and planning, then I wouldn't have had to find a way to avoid southern California at the same time I avoided a diagonal swath of overpriced eclipse lodgings.

If I hadn't decided on Tehachapi and Laughlin and Flagstaff, then I never would have found my way to the one place in the country that I had no particular desire to go.

If I hadn't spent a week in the oldest new place I'd ever been, then I never would have realized that Albuquerque feels like a place I've always known.

If I hadn't been enchanted by Albuquerque, then I wouldn't have had such a great visit with an old new friend, or met a new new friend with whom I share old new friends, or spent all one day baking in the blazing sunshine amid flora and fauna and a fantastic zoo train.

If one of my old new friends hadn't been taken down by the heat, then I wouldn't have been wandering around plazas and patios by myself late on a Sunday afternoon, which made all the difference. 

If I hadn't left Albuquerque, then I wouldn't have cruised across the open grassland of Texas and Oklahoma, or stumbled across the Ozarks where I did not expect to find them, or arrived outside Chicago wishing to be literally anywhere else.

If my contact for the Chicago conference hadn't been translating for displaced neighbors in the middle of a hurricane in Houston, then I never would have realized how out of place I truly was.

If I hadn't felt so out of place, then I never would have shared a table with a lovely family at IKEA, who restored my faith in basic courtesy with smiles and quick translations.

If I hadn't wanted to avoid the awkwardness of conference programs, then I wouldn't have been able to experience a late summer sunset at the Mother Temple of the West.

If I hadn't needed to kill time before my next scheduled interviews, then I wouldn't have spent a week in Nashville.

If I hadn't been in Nashville, then I couldn't have caught up with one of my favorite childhood pals, nor stumbled into two of the most delightful and useful research interviews of the whole trip.

If I hadn't completed those interviews, then I couldn't have taken the backroads through the grassland and mountains of Tennessee and Kentucky and Virginia.

If I hadn't stopped for three days in a mountain hotel in Virginia, then I wouldn't have met my deadlines and I wouldn't have gotten sick.

If I hadn't gotten sick, then I would have been much more fun wandering the battlefields in the Virginia Piedmont and visiting friends in DC and I wouldn't have been so afraid that I might have infected my interview subjects in DC and Philadelphia (as well as my wonderfully welcoming hostess).

If I hadn't spent the next six weeks in familiar territory, then I couldn't have realized that I needed to get my ducks in a row before changing everything altogether.

If I hadn't found a place to sit still and get things done this winter, then I couldn't be planning for my next small adventure right now, reading calendars of events forwarded by a new new friend, comparing travel plans with an old new friend, crossing important tasks off my lists, thinking about coffee options, and counting down days. 

And if I wasn't doing all of that, then I couldn't be clicking through Trulia and planning my next big adventure ... in a place that sees far fewer grey days and nearly never experiences slush falling from the sky.

The Human IKEA?

For the last several days, my living room has smelled of birch veneer and plywood. That's because I was in Boston for the weekend, which provided the opportunity to veer sideways and take my list of IKEA needs to what I fondly think of as Little Sweden.

I've been considering for some time how to make sure I can actually get to my office supplies and files and writing books. And printer, for that matter. In day-to-day life, I just carry around my laptop and a Staples ARC planner. But sometimes, I do need to use a Post-It or my stapler. Stowing them in plastic tubs stacked to chest height behind other things was not proving an appropriate storage plan. 

Enter the Kallax system of versatile cube shelving, with drawer inserts and seagrass boxes to reduce my exposure to the dust that rivals only cats, according to my allergist.

Do I live at least three hours from the nearest IKEA store? You betcha. Could I have had some pieces of this system shipped to me? Sure. All pieces? Of course not! Besides, a $5.99 plate of chicken meatballs, gravy, lingonberries, mashed potatoes, and veggies doesn't arrive with every shipment. But it does accompany every visit to Little Sweden. 

In this case, Sunday at IKEA Stoughton was less packed than it could have been. Fresh off 45 hours at the Boston University/Boston Globe Power of Narrative conference, I needed the chance to process the reflections offered by exceptional writers. Strolling through the ruthlessly organized showroom and marketplace offered that opportunity.

The weekend didn't provide "lessons" so much as "refreshers," which was encouraging. It's been 20+ years since I took a basic journalism class, after all, and more than a year since I completed my master's in creative nonfiction. I'd spent much of the conference mumbling vague answers to versions of, "What do you do?" But more on that in a minute.

I realized as I looked back at my notes that I'd jotted down amusing turns of phrase more than useful information. That might have been because much of the content seemed to target the students in the room more than it did the folks who'd been working through the practicalities of the field for years. I spent a chunk of my time comparing notes in my head between the stringent requirements of reporting hard news and the freedom that a book's artistic structure offers to a writer.

Case in point? Sacha Pfeiffer (Boston Globe Spotlight team) and Emily Steele (The New York Times), who are both brilliant investigative journalists. discussed the need to get their sources on record describing in clear and clinical terms how they'd been touched by priests and celebrities. The point was to fully convey to their readers exactly what the level of abuse was within the power dynamics they described. Meanwhile, I was thinking about my specific decision not to press my sources about the details of their torture sessions, but instead to take my readers right up to the line where a source's eyes plead not to go further ... and then to use exposition gathered from in-depth, verified testimony to describe the nature and pattern of torture techniques in the same prison in a similar timeframe. It's a technique that works to preserve dignity and reveal truth in a book, but not in an investigative news article or series.

So what were some of those turns of phrase I mentioned?

  • "We come to these things to rub shoulders with people and maybe pick up a couple of things." - Barry Newman (Wall Street Journal), describing the purpose of professional conferences
  • "I say what I want to say, even though you know these wingnuts are gonna call your job." - Best-selling author Roxane Gay, explaining her perspective on whether she considers her audience's potential reaction when writing her essays
  • "I hate that word, peg. 'What are you going to peg it to?' I'm gonna peg it to fuck all, that's what." - Roxane Gay, getting into the relationship between her personal essays and news and current events
  • "Narrative can be the enemy of truth." - HuffPost Editor-in-Chief Lydia Polgreen, on the need for straight reporting as well as narrative technique
  • "News is what happened yesterday. It's always past tense. If you hear somebody talking in the future tense, turn that shit off. It's opinion." - Senior News Researcher Caryn Baird (Tampa Bay Times and Politifact), describing the importance of vetting facts before reporting anything (and facts are things that have happened, not things that might happen)
  • "You're the intelligent agent. The computer is stupid." - Caryn Baird, on the need to search alternate spellings, time ranges, locations, and more that a computer can't currently suss out
  • "I use the 'if you give a mouse a cookie' approach to sources who distrust the media or you." - Claire Galofaro (Associated Press), explaining how she introduces herself and starts a conversation, then asks if she can take notes, then asks if she can record
  • "My opinion doesn't matter. I'm just one person." - Ellen Gabler (The New York Times), on separating personal feelings from her role in reporting a hard news story
  • "I don't think we're advocates as journalists. I think we're truth-tellers and we need to remember that." - Claire Galofaro, describing how she approached writing about life in Appalachia amid the current political environment (and drew heat from both ends of the political spectrum, which told her she'd achieved her goal of balanced reporting)

Over my plate of Swedish delights, I considered the range of fascinating details I'd picked up throughout the weekend. Something that stood out was the way in which some of the women attendees asked their questions of the speakers. 

One mentioned the challenges of "asserting while female," while others seemed to be looking for permission from an authority (whatever that means) to do ... something. I don't even know what. I just know that I've never been aware that I was supposed to wait for permission from anyone, for anything. So I haven't. Perhaps that's among the reasons why I infuriate everyone I know at one time or another. 

So why had I been dodging questions about what I write all weekend? I told you I'd get back to this. Well. Because when I did my undergraduate work and even for several years after that, I wore my white hat. The journalist hat. The truth-teller hat. The principled realist hat. And then, 15 years ago or so, I stumbled over into custom publishing, sponsored content, and content marketing. While it was a necessary financial decision, it also felt like a sell-out. To someone trained as a journalist, marketers wear black hats. They spin the truth. They set out to alter opinions. They obfuscate. And nothing will make a trained-journalist-turned-marketer feel the weight of the black hat more than returning to the land of the white hats. 

That is, after all, a good part of why I went back and got my MFA ... so that I could begin to bridge my way back to a white hat. It's also why I am much more comfortable working under my own name ... so that I have some control over the companies with whom I collaborate as a marketer and can don a semi-altruistic grey hat.

And with all of those thoughts swirling in my head, I prepared to set off into the depths of Swedish Furniture Disneyland in search of my multipurpose shelving system. It could be a bookcase. With the right pieces, it could be a hutch. Or a sideboard. Or a room divider. Possibly a Murphy bed. It could, in fact, be hacked into all sorts of furniture and decorating solutions.

Professionally, I think, that's me. I span the gamut. Bridge the gaps. Combine skills and experiences, theory and knowledge. And offer something not just general, but in fact, able to be reconfigured and redeployed in all sorts of situations and circumstances. I am, perhaps, a human IKEA, in the sense of writing and content. I just smell less like plywood and particle board.

Welcoming a New Day

The young woman waiting on our private party knelt down next to my chair, her brown hair and eyes catching the flickering light of the candles on the table. "What are you all celebrating?"

I could only imagine what she'd been watching all evening. A table of close to 20 friends with accents and skin tones across the spectrum, in a range of ages spanning more than 40 years. Heads thrown back. Eyes sparkling. Voices chattering away, first one way and then the other. 

We'd wrapped her up in the good cheer and good manners. She'd heard a part of our prayer. And between the vases of roses on the table and the decorated cakes waiting in the kitchen, she knew she was part of something special.

"We're members of the Baha'i Faith." I though best to start at the beginning.

"It's a religion like Christianity or Judaism or Islam. You can check it out online if you want, just go to We believe that religions are like chapters in a book, and that this is the newest one, with teachings that are especially intended for the world right now." She leaned closer, intent on learning something new.

"Our new year begins on the first day of spring. We call it Naw-Ruz, which is a Persian ... Iranian ... word for new day. So, the first new day of the year, on the first new day of spring. For the 19 days leading up to this, the last month of the Baha'i year, we fast from sunrise to sunset, so when we break the fast at Naw-Ruz, we often get together to share a meal. And that's what we're doing today, since the fast ended last night."

She smiled, testing the new words. "Baha'i ... Naw-Ruz ... new day. That's so beautiful!"

A few minutes later, as our hostess for the evening was trying to figure out how to get everyone in frame so she could snap a photo with her tablet, the waitress walked over to her. "You should be in the picture! I can take this!"

And, when we'd all shuffled into place, from behind the silver block she held up to face us and, as if she'd been saying the words all her life, she called out, "Happy Naw-Ruz!!" 

Her words and the surprised grins they sparked put the icing on the cake made up of these last few days.

After all, Mr. Khanjani and his colleague, Mr. Tizfahm, were released from prison over the weekend. That dear man whom I've come to know vicariously has (I understand) finally been able to offer prayers at the grave of his extraordinary wife, some eight years after her funeral, which he was not allowed to attend.

As for me, I am determined this year, as I said a year or so ago, that I will honor the holy days on which Baha'is are supposed to suspend work, because it is the smallest bit of solidarity I can show with my coreligionists who are punished for stopping work on these days. And of course, because I am sticking to this, this week has turned out to be exceptionally busy.

My best solution was to put my computer on my desk, my phone in my pocket, and my email on stun. Just before sunset last night, I took myself to the nearest Moe's and ordered a Homewrecker, chips, and queso, which I took home to enjoy along with the 2009 version of Emma on Amazon Prime. Upon checking my email one last time, I discovered a message that made my night. And when I woke this morning, I dawdled over a book before joining a rarely visited friend for a mid-day snack and an afternoon-long, wide-ranging conversation, before heading off to dinner.

On both the major and minor fronts, it does seem to be a bright new day. 

Where to Go From Here?

Yep, this week I've been asking the big questions. That's what happens when my to-do list is so long and varied that it seems impossible, winter just keeps going, and I'm nearly sitting on my hands to keep from spending money on anything not directly related to upcoming travels, necessary office organization, or the acquisition of a kitchen table ... in that order. 

Paralysis has essentially set in at the worst possible time. Exactly when I need to be launching forward on multiple fronts, I'm standing in one place and spinning in circles, it seems. My brain won't settle down, my body is too settled down, and my heart (as always) remains an unreliable contributor to the conversation. A bad combo if ever there was one.

I've decided the best approach is to continue to pare down things I don't need in the five categories of "stuff":

  • Physical stuff, which I've been jettisoning with a fairly high degree of comfort because I'm not using it, I have no one to pass it down to, and someone else might love it dearly and let it serve a purpose that I no longer do.
  • Digital stuff, which is threatening to drown me, since it's so easy to bookmark or capture things "for later." I have files that I still need or want to keep, just in case. I also have far too many photos that have never been culled, lots of bits of info that I used and forgot to delete, and work files that I will never have cause to consult again, ever.
  • Mental stuff, which I stockpile without effort or consideration and which then turns me into a human encyclopedia open to everyone I know. And I'm not just talking about work details that I need to retain for my clients' sake. Oh, no. Details of medical procedures. Lists of things I want to do or try. Dates and names and places and interesting bits of trivia and song lyrics and family lore and accents and ... it's rather exhausting to be on constant recall, honestly.
  • Emotional stuff, which I've done a decent job of trimming, pruning, and tossing over the fence in recent years in the name of bygones and openness. I just haven't replanted anything in those spaces. Which has both allowed an encroachment by the physical, digital, and mental ... and also left me interacting mostly on the surface. It's not my natural depth and it's deeply unfulfilling.
  • Spiritual stuff, which might seem strange coming from someone who doesn't shy away from talking about the interconnectedness of spiritual, physical, emotional, and mental realities. But I still need to gather up all my own garbage and periodically find a convenient spiritual dumpster into which I can offload it. Of course, this gets tied up with the emotional stuff too ... it's why I value close and meaningful friendships or relationships and shy away quickly from insincerity.

With luck, just picking away at those five fields will uncover some gems of opportunity and energy, some new ideas to pursue, and a few nuggets of shimmering gold inspiration. 

And if that doesn't work, then when I have a few days off while I'm in New Mexico this spring, I'll find a bench in the sun in a plaza somewhere with Andean music or Tejano or a brass band or strings and I'll park myself there for an afternoon to think and plan and watch the world go by ... and remind myself what it feels like to be going somewhere.

A Little ... and Slowly

Yo entiendo más que yo hablo. After an eight-day streak of racing through the beginner and intermediate sections on Duolingo, the app tells me that I am 50 percent fluent in Spanish. I'm guessing that's the half made up entirely of reading and listening comprehension. I understand more than I speak.

"You read in Spanish today. Is that because you love it or because you're trying to preserve a family connection?" The friend who asked the question slips seamlessly between unaccented lower-48 American English and the bright, fast roll of an adopted West Indian home, so it's a fair question.

Being a child of Northern California and the western Nevada desert, I spent my earliest days surrounded by the reassuring sound of Mexican Spanish. At the gas station, in the grocery store, on the street ... over the burritos on the coffee shop's weekly buffet. Some of my classmates were first- or second-generation American. Others were the children of the migrant workers who tended and harvested the broad fields of green alfalfa and pungent onions on the outskirts of town.

A continent away, when it was time to choose a language to study in school, I had only two choices: French or Spanish. Many of my classmates chose French, thinking they'd never use either, but at least we were closer (by far) to Canada than Mexico. I, of course, chose Spanish. Not only because I preferred it, but because I was certain that it would be useful. French is common among diplomats. Spanish is common among humans.

Thus began six years of study in junior high and high school, followed by four years of study in college, leading to a minor in the subject, despite never using it outside a classroom in the northeastern United States. In all that time, I had one or maybe two instructors who were native speakers, and one or both of them spoke the fast Spanish of the islands. All of my other instructors spoke Spanish as a second language, picked up in an organized fashion in Puerto Rico, or the Dominican Republic, or Thpain. They didn't speak the language I heard in my head. Yet still, when I was in high school and stood to read a prayer at a Baha'i event, a Colombian friend of my family looked up to see who the Mexican girl was. 

Is there a family connection to the language? Only tangentially. People are frequently disappointed when they see my last name and anticipate meeting someone Hispanic, only to find my pale Irish, Swedish, English, western European face in the room. For that, I give credit to my great-great-great grandfather Magnus. A mercenary with the Swedish army during the Napoleonic wars, the unfortunate man bore a too-common last name. [NOTE: A cousin has informed me that Magnus was too young for the Napoleonic wars, and was a hussar, or mounted soldier in the light cavalry.] And so, being assigned to a garrison where, we presume, he was one of several with the same name, he was given what's called a "garrison name." In short, in the days before service numbers, the Swedish army would simply and legally change soldiers' last names to make them distinct from one another. 

Magnus was given the last name Gomez. Unlike most soldiers who legally switched their garrison names back to their original last names when they left the service, Magnus decided to keep his. However, when he went to register it at the local parish, the Right Reverend Whomever pointed out that no Swede would be able to pronounce it, because that lingual construction doesn't exist in the Swedish language. Thus, we acquired a "T" and became Gometz.

My entire family is a little contrary about quite a few things. I come from a long line of people who simply don't follow the rules. Or, more correctly, they don't see the rules as they're blasting right past them. So I have no doubt that Magnus kept the name because it would annoy someone or otherwise set him apart from the crowd.

Perhaps the Swedes could have used a rudimentary Duolingo so that they would know how to talk about ducks and bears (not a frequent topic that arises in my life) and wine and beer (neither of which I drink, so, again, not exactly useful). I'm finding that the app is helpful at jogging my memory and recovering skills that are about a half-step above "Where's the bathroom?" 

What it's not doing, though, is improving my ability to pull words and sentences out of thin air when I might speak to someone who thinks in Spanish, even if they speak English as well or better than I do. Perhaps that's part of what appeals to me so much about the move I'm considering. It offers a little bit of a fresh start and a re-do at the same time, putting me someplace where more than one set of my skills might be brushed up and put to work for the benefit of myself and others. 

For now, though, my answer to all questions about moving plans and "Do you speak Spanish?" remains, "Un poco, y lentamente." A little ... and slowly. With luck, I'll have better answers, faster, after I visit my potential new home this spring.

Remembering an Old Friend

I strolled back to the couch after dinner tonight, intent on my scoopful of racial justice ice cream. If Ben & Jerry's thinks that One Sweet World, a caramel-coffee base with ribbons of salted caramel and marshmallow, and a hefty mix of chocolate chunks, somehow improves race relations, I will happily do my part for the cause. (Yes, that's said very spoon-in-cheek. While I celebrate the effort at raising awareness, race unity requires more friendships and, possibly, fewer slogans.)

As I was saying ... I'd just gotten dessert and was making my way back to the living room. I had in mind the idea of downloading Duolingo so that I can, in my spare time, try to reclaim at least part of the vocabulary I gained from studying Spanish for eight or 10 years straight. Now, some 20 years or so after I last sat in a classroom, I've realized that I can only speak in the present and, when the grammar gods are friendly, past tenses. This is a problem when I'm rather focused on the future. It seems that a refresher is in order. Claro que sí. 

In any case, that's what I thought I would be doing. Instead, the last segment of the evening news caught my ear. There was Dolly Parton, at the Library of Congress, reading her Coat of Many Colors, book number 100 million contributed to that institution. And singing her song that preceded the book by many, many years.

Which, of course, immediately had tears welling up in my eyes, as it always does. Because, you see, the year my parents and I ate squirrel, and quail, and venison, and blackberries picked alongside the road, and the basics that food stamps provided ... that year, my mom made my doll clothes and some of my clothes, too.

The best thing she made that year, though, was my very first backpack, for my very first day of kindergarten. And I think of it every time I hear this song. It has an artful seam down the middle of it. Exactly the same seam that ran down the outside of my Grandpa Mel's olive green polyester/denim work pants. And on the flap, with its super-strong snap that is still hard for me to close, my initials are spelled out in scraps of fabric, decoratively whip-stitched around the edges in bright thread. 

On my first day of school, and for a couple of years after that, my backpack was the prettiest one in the room. No matter what anyone else was carrying.

I knew we didn't have money at the time. But I never thought we were poor. And for that, I thank my parents ... and my pants-leg backpack that served me so well. 

"...  one is only poor,
Only if they choose to be.
Now I know we had no money,
But I was rich as I could be
In my coat of many colors
My momma made for me ..."

Find Your Family

The sonar ping from my phone snapped my head away from my computer screen one evening last week. I glanced at the text alert and grinned.

The string of emojis translated to: "Phone handset. Phone handset. Transistor radio. Analog TV. Typewriter. Film projector. VHS tape. 35mm camera. Floppy disk. Clamp. Apple watch. Computer monitor. iPhone. iPhone. iPhone. iPhone."

Without hesitation, I texted back: "Rose. Dragon. Gorilla."

The response came a few days later: "Analog TV. Apple watch. and Pink bow. Bed. Dancing twins. Cool sunglasses smiley. Nerd glasses smiley?"

I waited 48 hours and replied: "Mermaid. Heart with a bow. Snowman. Donut. Waving hand. Cool sunglasses smiley."

This might all make more sense when you know that my correspondent was a 12-year-old girl whom I have know since she was born. I've known her dad since we were both about 13, and her mom since we were in our mid-20s. My young emoji pal was the first child born into our gang of friends and, until her brother came along a couple of years later, we joked that all of her friends were over five feet tall. 

Last summer, I had the opportunity to spend a few days with my mini-pal and her family at their home in Seattle. It was the first time I'd had a long visit with them since our crew of pals began popping off in different directions four or five years ago. In addition to their cross-country move, two other families headed out to Portland. One of the men moved to Africa, where he married and welcomed a son. Another family moved closer to home, but far enough away that visits require a plan. One of the women just married recently and moved into the deep woods of New England with her husband. The few who stayed local have kids, and homes, and priorities that are (as they should be) vastly different from what they were back when my emoji-happy buddy was a baby. 

Still, from minute one, when I stepped out of the car in a hilltop neighborhood in the Emerald City, I was back with my people. The kids were excited to show off new skills and new favorite places. And new texting capabilities. Their dad was thrilled to show off his office building. And their mom and I ran away for a day to wander the markets and sample the local delicacies and catch up on the kinds of conversations that deeply trusted old friends have when they reconnect, no matter how long it's been.

Since then, now and again, a string of emojis periodically appears on my phone. Just one of my kid-friends, saying hi. And I'm more than happy to send a hi right back. 

I was reminded of that this weekend, when another of those grand friends was in town briefly with her husband and girls. Over diner breakfasts, we skipped all of the small talk and got straight to the things that mattered. The color of skis. The state of their front-yard luge run. Help needed. Happy developments. Plans and planes and news of mutual friends.

Still another friend from farther back, just weeks ago, called on all of us from elementary and high school (now twenty- to thirty-mumble years back) in the final hours of her mom's life. Despite being on opposite sides of a continent, communicating by group messages, the waves of love and support that flowed that night were palpable. If we'd been in the same place, there's no doubt we would all have dropped everything to make food, sit in waiting rooms, or fiercely defend the family's space and time to gather themselves.

I have a few local friends who are my go-tos, and who will remain pals even if I take off for parts unknown. And no matter where I go, my gang of friends goes with me in heart and spirit, even if it takes years to see one another in person.

So, as I look ahead this year, it's the people who fit like that who are the ones I want to find. Wherever I go, I'll be looking out for the people who feel like family from the start. They're the ones who make a place worth being while you're there. And they're the ones who have your back, no questions asked, no matter where you go, down the road.

Some Words on Love

We've hit the point in the winter when my full attention is split between the seemingly endless list of big things I need to accomplish on every front, immediately if not sooner, and the awareness that the current layer of ice is likely to hang around until April. We've also hit Valentine's Day, a holiday with which I have a highly adversarial relationship. 

So, in light of that, my Valentine's Day gift to you comes in the form of just a few great words on love ... from people other than me.

“The minute I heard my first love story,
I started looking for you, not knowing
how blind that was.
Lovers don't finally meet somewhere.
They're in each other all along.”
― Jalaluddin Mevlana Rumi

“When we love, we always strive to become better than we are. When we strive to become better than we are, everything around us becomes better too.” ― Paulo Coelho, The Alchemist

"I met in the street a very poor young man who was in love. His hat was old, his coat was threadbare—there were holes at his elbows; the water passed through his shoes and the stars through his soul." — Victor Hugo, Les Misérables

"If I love you, I need not continually speak of my love—you will know without any words. On the other hand if I love you not, that also will you know—and you would not believe me, were I to tell you in a thousand words, that I loved you." ― Abdu'l-Bahá

“If nature has made you for a giver, your hands are born open, and so is your heart; and though there may be times when your hands are empty, your heart is always full, and you can give things out of that—warm things, kind things, sweet things—help and comfort and laughter ...” ― Frances Hodgson Burnett, A Little Princess

“As you wish ...” ― William Goldman, The Princess Bride

A Word About 'Mentoring'

About 10 years ago, give or take a few, I got an email from the head honcho in my office, which was one of three across the country that made up an ambitious, culture-driven marketing company. Two of my colleagues received the same message.

We were all women. We were all managers of teams and or task sets. We were all invested in what we did. And we were all acknowledged as valuable contributors in one way or another. 

We all, also, had no idea why we were being summoned to the principal's ... erm, chief strategy officer's ... office. We were pretty sure that none of us had done anything to jeopardize the health and well-being of the business. And none of us could recall having irked the same person or group of people in recent days. (We all routinely irked someone, just not the same someone at the same time.)

Together, our crew of 30-something females jogged up the steps to the glass-walled office above the bullpen in our retrofitted factory office building. One slim, high-strung, tall and blond, in conservative, very fashionable business wear. One strong, dark-haired, in a trendy casual outfit that belied her art career. And me, calmer, shorter, wider, and (never the clothes horse) likely in jeans and a sweater, because that's what I almost always wore.

Our CSO met us at the door. Then in his early or mid-50s, he bore a striking resemblance to an outdoor catalog model. Whip-smart, generous, ethically tough (and ruggedly masculine, athletic, and well-dressed), he no longer inspired awe among the three of us. We'd all been there for close to or just more than five years. And while we didn't always agree with his decisions, we certainly respected them and granted him a degree of trust that he'd earned by sharing the reasons for those decisions ... even the ones with which we disagreed.

With varying levels of grace, we dropped into the armchairs and sofas in his office. I teased the boss about knowing how meetings with no topic on 15 minutes notice were rarely good. He grinned and got right to the point.

The leadership team guarded the company culture with a remarkable level of zeal. Once a year, the entire staff, in all three offices across the country, took an exhaustive survey that gauged satisfaction and areas for improvement. The whole staff saw the results and the comments, every time. Staff volunteers joined managers and executives on task forces mandated to improve troubling situations or to investigate options and ideas. 

In the most recent survey, there had been a couple of comments about the lack of female leadership or mentorship. When the executive team got together to discuss the results, they looked around the table and noted that there was only one woman among the four or five faces. (The chief financial officer, widely respected as a brilliant financial mind, compassionate and dedicated team leader, talented triathlete, and all-around good egg.)

We nodded. In a growing company spread across two nonconsecutive time zones, the executive team was admirably small, with widening, cross-office circles of senior vice presidents, vice presidents, directors/managers, and specialists ranging from senior levels of experience to fresh-from-college assistants. 

Our fearless leader dove into the issue at hand. "Well, the executive team was discussing ideas about how to improve that situation. The idea of creating women's groups in each office came up. There was some thought that it might give women the opportunity to get to know one another better, to talk through challenges, mentor one another, build a network ..."

We three women assiduously avoided one another's eyes as we listened to the idea and the rationale for it. The one man in the room began to develop a mirthful twinkle.

"I said I wanted to talk to you three before something like that rolled out. There are a few others being consulted in the other offices, too. So, what do you think?"

"Fuck that!" 

"Yep. What she said."

"No fucking way." 

We all remained totally relaxed in our seats, a leg tucked up in the chair here, arms folded there.

"And that's why I asked the three of you!"

All four of us roared with laughter, exchanging understanding glances around the room. 

After the first reactions burst forth, our conversation turned respectful while remaining candid. All three of us thanked the CSO for asking our opinions and explained that we didn't just answer for ourselves, but for the women reporting to us. We expressed our gratitude that the C-suite had taken seriously the concerns in the survey and recognized the need for some level of attention that they, nearly all men, might be ill-equipped to provide.

Then, we pointed down to the open office space below. Of the 35 to 40 people at our site, only somewhere between four and seven were men, including the one speaking to us, and that stasis had existed for years, even with staff turnover. Every senior-level manager and all but one manager at our level, in our office, was female. One of the other offices skewed more male across all levels; the other was more evenly weighted. But in our office, the last thing we needed were more women exerting their personal opinions about professional growth.

All three of us explained that we wanted to learn from the people who did what they were doing best, whether they were women, men, or salamanders.

What we didn't want to do was to make institutional the unique challenges that often arose in a female-dominated workplace: cattiness, insecurity, a double standard for mothers and childless women, and the sense that senior women or entrenched peers sometimes felt threatened by forthright and rising talent. In short, we wanted those senior to us to advocate for and encourage us the same way we all tried to advocate for and encourage the women and men reporting to us. If anything, we explained, we actually found the executive team, men though they were, more invested in the unique talents and success of people at our level.

We also discussed the fact that we rarely noticed whether we had men or women on our teams, unless we were dealing with a client who disregarded the female team leads. We kidded our CSO about sitting at the table when we needed his backup. That's because, when we asked him to attend meetings with clients who responded better to men, he arrived smiling and suave. Then, he introduced us like rockstars and deflected every question posed to him to the team member best suited to answer it. It just so happened that every one of those team members were female.  

I don't agree with everything the man did. Nor everything the rest of that C-suite did. It would be nearly impossible for that to be the case! 

For me, personally, though, our CSO was quite possibly the first person in a leadership position who verbalized a challenge that I have always faced. In reviews from my peers, I sometimes ran across the word "condescending." I don't doubt for a minute that I may have, at times, sounded condescending (or even been condescending). More often than not, though, I was actively trying to avoid triggering that perception. 

That particular leader finally put together that his wife, an accomplished and respected university professor, also often faced the impression that she was "condescending." Having heard her speak, he'd realized that what he considered sounding "knowledgeable" and "authoritative" was what her reviewers (and mine) deemed "condescending." Therefore, while it was something to be aware of, there was only so much that I could or should change.  

By taking the opportunity to help me polish my rough edges and excel in the areas where I was naturally inclined, he helped me build a great deal of confidence and experience. His interest, guidance, and compassion have stuck with me.

I dislike the word "mentor," as a general rule, because it still implies an ongoing hierarchical relationship. I prefer "friend" or "colleague" or "compatriot." But whatever the name, the task is still the same. It's not just upon the student to learn, but upon the more advanced student to teach, and to open doors, and to support development.

I've tried to do that for the women and men who reported to me or with whom I interacted. Sometimes, I think I succeeded. A few years ago, a bright and very capable college intern was taking notes for me during a series of interviews with world-renowned scientists at a global corporation. I told her before we walked into the room that I wasn't introducing her as an intern, and that if she heard something that she thought needed more detail, she should ask a follow-up question. Months later, long after I'd forgotten the event, she gave me a note thanking me for making her feel like she was a real member of the team and belonged at her place at that table. 

With all of that history behind me, it's no wonder that a Facebook post this morning caught my attention. It announced a new initiative from Lean In called #MentorHer. It's a movement encouraging men to mentor and advocate for women in the same way they may mentor and advocate for other men.

It appears that an unanticipated, but predictable, ramification of the #MeToo efforts is that men in the workplace are avoiding one-on-one interaction with female colleagues and subordinates, out of fear that the situation will somehow be misconstrued. This does a great disservice to businesses as a whole and to women who may (as I did) rely upon their male colleagues to help them blaze their own trail.

Clearly, the answer isn't to shut women out of what's considered "normal" interaction. Instead, it's to become even more invested in the success of capable women in all fields. And, it's to change the idea of what "normal" is, so that it's no longer defined by gender, but by capacity, capability, and character. 

The Message Behind a Hard Roll

The man who stands outside my local gas station and convenience store is pretty unassuming. He wears what I think of as the day laborer's uniform. Scuffed old work boots. Baggy, faded blue jeans that have seen better days and cleaner circumstances. A grey sweatshirt with a hood pulled up around his face. A grey cargo parka that might once have been black, zipped up to mid-chest or so. And heavy, black, weather-resistant mittens on his hands.

Except, we don't have day laborers around here. There's no gang of working men hanging out in a local parking lot waiting for a construction crew or landscaper to stop by and pick up a couple of able bodies. Especially not in the snow, ice, and biting wind of a Northeast winter. 

What catches my attention about this man is that he's unflagging and unfailing in his manners and friendliness. He stands off to the side of the pavement, much closer to the garbage cans than the door. When you get out of your car, he nods, gives a small smile and says, "Good morning," or, "Good afternoon." Just being neighborly, it seems, like anyone around here would. 

If you've been friendly on the way in, then on the way out, he'll ask you if you have any change. "Do you have a dollar, miss? So I can buy a piece of pizza?" he might say. Or, "So I can buy something to eat?"

This man's eyes are tired. The kind of tired I've never felt. But if he's turned down, he still gives a gentle smile and says, "That's okay. Thank you. You have a good day!"

The fact is, the first time he asked me for a dollar, I was caught off guard. He's not in one of the usual panhandlers' haunts around town. And he doesn't have the practiced pathetic look of the group of people who work together to stake out the exits of the local grocery store parking lots. He's lucid, never chattering to himself and the air as some of the downtown homeless do.

Most people don't realize this about me, because I make snap decisions all the time. But when confronted by something unexpected, I react first and then, about a minute later, realize what someone actually meant, or that they were kidding, or that I could have done something different. It's a hazard, I think, of too much time on my own. It takes me a minute to register the dynamics of a situation. 

That's why, that first time, I didn't quite know what to do. I almost never carry cash unless I know I'll need it. I don't give money to panhandlers, ever. I'll buy or give someone what they need. But I won't hand off cash. So I said, "I'm so sorry," and, "I don't have anything," and away I went. Two minutes down the road, I realized I'd been holding my debit card in my hand. The card I'd just used to buy a sandwich for myself. 

This time, when I stopped off for a soda on my Saturday morning errand run, I returned this man's cheerful greeting on my way into the shop. And I was anticipating his tentative, "Miss ...?" on my way back to my car.

"Just let me toss these in here." My soda bottle and snack landed in the passenger's seat and I turned to step back up onto the curb.

"Do you have a dollar so I could get something to eat?" His eyes apologized, even as the words passed his few remaining teeth, sitting like tree stumps in his deep walnut face. His skin was unlined, but the salt-and-pepper scruff of hair under his hood told me he'd long since passed my age. 

"I don't. But I'll run in and get you something." I drew myself up straight and spoke happy, like I was running an errand for a friend. "What would you like to eat?"

He shuffled a step closer. His answer came quick. "Just a hard roll is okay. Thank you so much!"

For once, my brain was firing on all cylinders. The hard rolls from this local convenience chain are a staple of many a blue-collar lunch. They come already split and spread with butter or peanut butter. And I could immediately see three things they might have going for them. They're soft (so a man with few teeth could gum them). They're swathed in plastic wrap (so they could ride around in a pocket for a day or more). And they're cheap (so pride doesn't suffer too much when you ask for a hand).

I kept my gaze steady on his, my voice upbeat. "Are you sure? You wouldn't like a breakfast sandwich or something?"

"... I suppose that'd be alright ... a breakfast sandwich on a hard roll. Yes, please." 

Turning, I bounded back into the store. A minute later, I was in front of the cashier who'd just checked me out, plunking down the loot. One hard roll with butter. For later, I thought. One hot breakfast sandwich of sausage, egg and cheese on a hard roll. For now, warm and filling and soft enough for those teeth. And one bottle of water. Because that's an awful lot of bread to have without something to drink.

"All in a bag, please." I thought that might be helpful, if someone had to carry things for later. 

Back on the sidewalk, I handed the bag to the gentleman standing alongside the garbage cans. 

"There's a breakfast sandwich in there for now, and I got you a hard roll for later, And a bottle of water, too."

"Thank you so much ..." He took the bag and peered into it. "That looks good!"

"You're welcome! Enjoy it!" I was already headed toward my car as he gently put the bag down on top of a trash can. He was tugging off his mittens as I backed out of the parking space and gave him a cheery wave goodbye. He returned it, seeming almost surprised.

I don't tell the story because I want credit. A little food is the very least I can offer, now and again, when I pick up the clue phone that's constantly ringing. 

And I don't tell it because I want to point out the horrors of poverty. We all have eyes and we can all see people in need. We're also all aware that sometimes the "need" is a con. And more times, it's not. 

I tell it because that man standing on the curb with his polite manners and his gentle requests for just enough money to buy something to eat was one of the bright spots of my day. Because he had his wits about him. Because he was gracious. Because he had honor, even when he might have little else. 

How do I know that? If a man wanted a dollar to buy lottery tickets, alcohol, or cigarettes, he wouldn't answer so quickly when given the chance to have something to eat, as he'd asked. And he wouldn't ask for just a dollar.  

But a man with honor? He'd ask for a dollar, precisely. Because a buttered hard roll costs something like 99 cents.

Today, I Fell Down the Internet Rabbit Hole

An hour and a half ago, I sat down to write this week's blog. I had a vague idea for a topic, but then 90 minutes had passed and I'd learned fascinating things, none of which had to do with that subject at all. 

It's an occupational and a personal hazard. I work, for the most part, in some level of isolation and rely on the nifty network of online stuff for my research in nearly every facet of my professional life. So my likelihood of finding interesting tidbits is rather high.

Then there's the fact that I'm naturally incredibly curious and something of a knowledge sponge. Anything related to people, in fact, catches my attention. So my likelihood of finding tidbits interesting is also rather high.

And I'm likely to remember whatever bits of info I find, which leads to my friends asking, "How do you know this stuff?" often and in exasperated tones.

When I'm actually researching something, this willingness to follow a stream of questions comes in quite handy. I learn the coolest things that way. However, when I have to-dos to be done, it's not exactly a great use of time.

So, let me take you along with me on today's journey, just for fun. 

As I sat down to write today's post, I happened to be listening to Joe Tohonnie Jr.'s Apache Blessing and Crown Dance Songs. Which made me wonder who Joe Tohonnie Jr. is, for one, and what a crown dance is, for two.

That led to me reading "An Audacious Dancer's Apache-Navajo Mashup--and the Outcry That Followed." Which led me back to wondering what a crown dance is and what exactly Mr. Tohonnie's dancers are doing. 

So I watched a Native Media Network clip of the group performing at the New Mexico State Fair. I found a couple of other clips that said they showed crown dances from other Apache tribes--but it was pretty clear within the first couple of seconds that they probably showed traditional ceremonies that are intended to be private, so I clicked off. (Respect. Even when you're not the one holding the camera.) But then I was still left with the question about crown dancers, who represent mountain spirits.

So I read up a bit on the Apache legends of the mountain spirits in articles like this one, and this one and several more that I can't find again right now. But that made me curious about the distinctions between the various Apache tribes and geographies.

So I started at Wikipedia and then looked up some of the tribal websites. Which is when I couldn't remember from which group Geronimo hailed. 

So I went and read this entry and a couple more about his history, and then turned up his New York Times obituary from 1909. Which made me think of a song that I love, "Geronimo's Cadillac."

So I chased down the picture that the song is based on, along with a very interesting article about the other photos of the day. And then I watched several live videos of Michael Martin Murphey singing "Geronimo's Cadillac," including this one where he explains how the song landed him on the FBI's watch list. Which then took me to this video of the song being performed with acclaimed Native American flutist Gareth Laffely. (Check this out--it's so cool!)

So, of course, I had to look up Gareth Laffely and check out some of his tunes. He is Mi'kmaq and Cree. Mi'kmaq geography and history is somewhat familiar. Cree is less so, but is also synonymous to me with the Northern Cree Singers.

So that reminded me how much I like the Northern Cree drum (in this case, the drum is the group of performers, not the instrument they play), and that led me to this video of them playing for the women's fancy dance at a pow-wow last year. 

And that made me miss summer and want a frybread taco. And realize that I have absolutely no idea what my actual blog topic was going to be today. 

You're welcome.


A Contrast of Continents

"Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. ... Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly." The words are needlepointed in cream thread, perfect lines on a strip of cadet blue burlap that's been tucked into my high school diploma folder for going on 24 years, pressed between a $2 bill and my valedictory address. 

My English teacher senior year had also been my English teacher in seventh grade. We were the first class she looped, and she told us all how special it was for her to have been with us the year we entered the building as well as the year we left it. She stitched a bookmark for each one of us (all 88 graduates, if I remember correctly). Each delicate gift bore a quote she'd selected just for that student. Mine was the excerpt from Martin Luther King, Jr.'s letter from Birmingham Jail. 

I remember being profoundly touched by the thoughtfulness of the gift. Although many of the friends I've made as an adult might not realize it (I have a reputation for logic, rational thought, and a calming presence), I am prone to being swamped by emotions. That was certainly the case as my rather extraordinary high school class approached our graduation day. Seeing the quote my teacher chose for me brought on the tears. What an honor!

Every year on Martin Luther King Day, I think back to that quote and the fabric tucked away along with mementos from long ago. This year was far cry from the celebrations of African American culture and history that I remember attending during my youth. None of my friends were up for a gospel duo's concert marking efforts toward race unity (and the venue was small enough that I didn't feel right taking up a seat all by myself). Besides that event, the likelihood for speeches and comments to turn political (or personal), overtly or covertly, put me off public events. There's simply nothing constructive in that, no matter what position a person has taken.

Meanwhile, and from many miles away, the nightly news devoted its current zip-point-two minutes of international coverage to rough footage of the protests in Iran. For a nation that prides itself on the important role of journalism, they pretty much lost the lead. The story with some meat to it wasn't really the protests. It was the concentrated, systematic efforts to keep information about the protests from reaching the wider world. Just like the goal is to keep information about what happens to the Baha'is from reaching the rest of the world.

And just like the goal is to keep attention away from the Baha'i man in Yemen who was sentenced to execution last week, following the same pattern the Iranian government (which backs the Houthi faction in Yemen) used against the Baha'is in the early days of the Iranian Revolution. After four years in prison, under torture and duress, this man is condemned to die for the "crime" of being a Baha'i.

People ask me all the time why being a Baha'i is treated like being a criminal in some other countries. As Americans, we'd sum it up as, "He says different prayers." And everybody would kind of nod their heads and say, "You do you, dude."

After all, the U.S. was founded in some part by people seeking the freedom to practice their religion as they chose. In reality, it was 95 percent founded by people seeking riches and fame. But the 5-percent story of various English Puritan groups looking for a place to worship without persecution makes for a much more noble national lineage. Note that it was about English Christians of one stripe attempting to escape the yoke of English Christians of another stripe. We won't even mention the third major group of English Christians whom no one wanted on the boats or at home (I wonder if Plymouth still has stealth Catholics among its historical interpreters ... that was one of the most interesting parts of my visit there as a kid). 

The reason "you do you" isn't the response in Iran, or in an Iran-backed Yemeni court, is one of theology. Baha'is interpret a particular statement of the Prophet Muhammad in a way that really challenges a theocratic clergy's understanding of itself. That statement is that Muhammad was "The Seal of the Prophets." Among many Muslims, including those in positions of power in Iran, that title is taken to mean that God would never send another Messenger. Baha'is, instead, believe that Muhammad was the last in a now-completed cycle of Prophets that began with Adam ... and that Baha'u'llah was the first in a new cycle of messengers who will bring about universal peace, justice and unity over the next few thousand years.

To an American, the concept might be uncomfortable. Mostly because it has anything to do with religion at all. As a nation, we're not comfortable with large-scale issues of spiritual importance and the joining together of people whose prayers were revealed in unfamiliar languages (funny how we sort of blithely overlook the fact that even Christ spoke Aramaic, not English, ). I wonder sometimes what would happen if we asked, "Well, what if ...?" more often.

Perhaps it's that very unfamiliarity and discomfort with all things that don't fit neatly within the package of "America" stories that are passed down from generation to generation in school history books, that causes the general public to stay quiet and not look for details about what's happening to people in our own country or overseas.

On behalf of that Baha'i sentenced to die in Yemen, the international human rights community is sounding alarm bells in the halls of the UN and in the capitols of nearly every nation. But I have yet to see the name or the smiling face of Hamed bin Haydara in the national news here, with the exception of a short article in the Washington Post. This is a land where shining a spotlight on injustice is supposed to be in our national DNA ... despite that national DNA also bearing the marks of the still-unrecognized genocide that decimated our Native cultures, the still-expurgated slavery that outlasted that of other "civilized nations," the insidious aftermath of the Civil War that funneled the sentiments surrounding slavery into our national institutions, and the persistent tendency toward hatred for whichever immigrant group came after our own.

We have trouble comprehending injustice when it's directed toward people in shades and clothes and shapes that don't look like what we see in the mirror. When we do comprehend it, we frequently have no idea what to do about it in any practical way because injustice is one of those big words that stand for big ideas. And that require actual thought and curiosity to understand.

Said Dr. King: “When we look at modern man, we have to face the fact ... that modern man suffers from a kind of poverty of the spirit, which stands in glaring contrast to his scientific and technological abundance; We've learned to fly the air like birds, we've learned to swim the seas like fish, and yet we haven't learned to walk the Earth as brothers and sisters...”

So maybe we start small. Maybe it starts with noticing the people we see around us (smiling, waving and talking to our neighbors who seem alone and perhaps with the weight of the world on their shoulders ... especially if they don't look or sound like us).

Then, perhaps, doing something small to help correct the problems we see (the former coworker who frequently brought breakfast sandwiches to the homeless man roughing it on the street across from our office).

Maybe getting a little more systematic about it (helping out at a local senior center, homeless shelter, or other organization and actually getting to know those being served).

Maybe looking around a little father afield.

Maybe raising our voices on someone's behalf (we have a representative democracy, after all ... those folks have phones in their offices).

Maybe telling someone's story to our friends (do you know what's happening in...?)

Dr. King said: “The first question which the priest and the Levite asked was: 'If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?' But ... the good Samaritan reversed the question: 'If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?” 

Every great army moves forward on the individual steps of each of its soldiers. And when we're moving shoulder to shoulder for love and for good, we move the world. It doesn't matter whether the injustice we see is here or there. None is more or less unjust than the other. Each of us needs to find our place alongside our brothers and sisters and move things forward.

"We are inevitably our brother's keeper because we are our brother's brother." Those are perhaps my favorites of all the words Dr. King said. Now, I just need to live up to them. We all need to live up to them. 

Green Smoothies Haven't Killed Me Yet

If you'd told me two weeks ago that I'd be voluntarily blending up spinach and some variety of fruits (including bananas) and liquids each day, the look on my face would have said, "You're nuts." But it's becoming my new normal. And it's not nearly as disgusting as expected.

Why, of all the things, am I writing about spinach smoothies this week? Well, because life is busy, the weather's been very cold, and small successes are worth celebrating. 

Early January, I rapidly try to process all of my remaining tax tasks from the last year, while scheduling new projects to start about mid-month. Cabin fever sets in hard and I pine for opportunities to get outdoors without chancing frostbite or a tumbling skid down the uncleared sidewalks. 

So, in an effort to avoid going entirely stir-crazy, I'm concentrating on creating small habits that I can build on later. The smoothies are part of that. Trying something new, figuring out which flavors and textures I like, and doing a great job of getting nearly the daily recommended servings of fruits and veggies. 

The bonus is that I can sip my breakfast in front of my computer while I crush through the early January financial exercises. Yesterday, for example, I successfully unsubscribed from several services I don't need (both professional and personal), completed my business and personal budget guidelines for the year, and exchanged a bunch of emails about upcoming projects. All before noon.

Still haven't mastered the ability to launch myself out of the cozy covers early enough to get a workout in before my smoothie. But I'm working on it. And that won't kill me either.

'Little by Little, Day by Day'

Kam kam, ruz bih ruz. The words, in my mother's handwriting on a hot pink index card, stood out from the surrounding phone numbers, notes, and directions. The small slip was one of many tacked to our kitchen bulletin board, within arm's length of the phone attached to the wall. I saw it daily from the age of 9 or 10 until the board and its contents were downsized and eventually entirely removed from the family environs, along with the corded wall phone they accompanied.

I don't know where, exactly, Mom had come across the phrase, or when. But I do know that she was quite taken with it, because it was apparently something Abdu'l-Baha often used as a guide for how to go about completing a Herculean task. It's akin to the familiar business advice that the way to eat an elephant is one bite at a time.

That's where I see myself at the beginning of 2018. As much as I would like to be raring to go and full of excited energy, as I have been at the turn of recent years ... I'm just not. In fact, I'm battling the periodic depression that runs through half of my family. Don't be alarmed: It's not the critical, existential crisis type of mental illness that requires professional intervention. This just makes each day both too long and too short, amplifies each emotional trigger, and makes me feel as though I'm slogging through never-ending mud. I've been through it before and I'm sure I'll face it again. At least this time, I know what it is and I can fight against the urge to let it drag me down (onto the couch, with pints of Ben and Jerry's and all the sappy movies ever made).

If you're a long-term reader of the blog, then you know I don't make "resolutions" for the new year. But I do set a few goals around which I can focus my energy. Unlike the last couple of years, when I've attached hard numbers to these efforts, I'm concentrating on progress this year. After all, I need to push myself, but I also need to cut myself some slack. Little by little, day by day. 

So, here's the list I've tacked to the kitchen wall:

1. Develop and stick to a healthy routine. I'd like to say that my lack of an existing routine is due to finishing grad school earlier this year, spending three months working at an incredible pace, spending four more months on the road, and then moving into a four-walled backup plan. But the fact is, when you live by yourself for a really long time, it's easy to lose track of "good" routines because there are no external influences on your habits. Approaching each day in a measured and predictable fashion, though, redirects my focus to simple steps that show real rewards. Not only does a healthy routine keep the depression issues somewhat controlled, but it mitigates the desire to become a hermit by preventing the inevitable self-castigation and withdrawn socialization that follow more indulgent living. That's why I'll be doing my best to stick to predictable sleep, nutrition, and exercise schedules this year.

2. Find a place to call home. As much as I am happy to have a place to live right now, it's not home. My landing here serves some essential purposes, but it's a one-year, temporary solution (given the heating system and the rare cold streak this winter, that's now evident). I'd also be lying if I said I didn't fear getting stuck here; a year is a longish time and circumstances can change quickly. That possibility is really doing a number on me, right now. So to keep that feeling from winning, I'm tentatively making plans to be back out in Albuquerque this spring to investigate an actual move in detail ... complete with LLC information, real estate chats, pipe band introductions, and a round of visits to the local Baha'i communities. At the same time, though, I'll be seeking out free or low-cost events with my friends right here, because if I don't make that effort, I can go weeks without speaking to anyone except the checkers at the grocery store. And, in an effort to stay sane, I'll start planning and packing for a November move in August. If all goes well, I'll head west; and if not, I'll at least find someplace that feels a little more "me."

3. Build the business with long-term contracts. I like having a mix of projects in the hopper at any given time (I'm line-editing a book this month, among other things!). I'm also a fan of predictable cash flow. So this year, I'll be taking the practical step of making sure my moderate ongoing costs are covered every month by ongoing engagements with a few different clients. I'm nearly there already, between firming up plans with a few existing folks and reaching out to new prospects, especially during the next couple of months. To make it all work, I'll be experimenting a bit to see what sustainable schedule will let me produce the highest quality work most efficiently ... while giving me the freedom to go outside, even when my planner seems full. That should allow for plenty of less predictable work endeavors, too, built on a stable base. I'll leave the elimination of net 30 terms for another post! 

4. Prepare the book for print as best as possible. There are an awful lot of people looking out for this book and I feel very much behind. I've decided to force myself through an exercise that may seem crazy, but should get things moving. This week, I'll rework the structure (again), with the summer's trip to guide me. Through the rest of this month, I'll transcribe my interviews, thereby overcoming the inertia that set in because I'm not a very fast typist and I don't like my own voice. There's no option but to do it myself, though, because I can't use a transcription service due to sensitivities around information and sources, as well as the English spoken with a heavy Persian accent (go figure). Then, starting in February, I'll be writing five pages per day, no more, no less, until the middle of April. It can be absolutely horrible, and that's fine. I have to get the manuscript through what amounts to a security review to ensure it won't put people in Iran in danger before I can start seriously querying agents and publishers, and I can continue editing and refining during those months. So the goal is to get a rough draft into review this spring, while I turn my attention to chasing down possible agents and refining the proposal.

5. Stabilize finances and planning. Everybody has self-soothing techniques when they are sad or stressed. I, for example, try to organize every aspect of my world to perfection. That's very time-consuming. So I'm going to square away the area I revisit most. To make it work, I'll be doing my best to stick to a modest budget that allows for purchasing needs but makes me identify and delay the purchase of most wants. Sounds like fun, right? Well, fun takes different forms. In this case, I'll have a much better view of what a normal year looks like (less the fun, chaos and expense of the last two). It should let me max out my contribution to my solo health savings account in the first half of the year and fund my next move in the fall. Anything else I save can go toward filling my emergency savings and paying off a chunk of my graduate loans. All of which increases my ability to start looking forward again. 

All of this sounds very ambitious, I know. But if this year is going to be good for anything, perhaps it's advancing where I am in each of these areas. I've already got my eyes fixed on a check-in for myself at Naw-Ruz, New Year in the Baha'i calendar, which falls at the spring equinox in the northern hemisphere and involves a lot more sunlight and the promise of temperatures above freezing. 

Kam kam, ruz bih ruz. Little by little, day by day.

The Quiet Week

This morning, I had every intention of rolling out of bed bright and early to get a head start on the day. Instead, when the sweet sounds of "High and Low" rolled into the room, I poked my nose and eyes out from under three layers of quilt and blankets, confirmed that my room was definitely cool, if not cold, and that the quality of light through the blinds promised frigid sunshine rather than another morning snow. Then, with apologies to Joshua Radin, I tapped stop on my phone, flipped the covers back over my head and granted myself 45 extra minutes of sleep. 

It's rare that I do that on a weekday. Even though I work for myself (and by myself), I aim to be at my desk and functional no later than 9 a.m., so that at least part of my workday is in sync with my clients. Around lunchtime or after, I often change things up. I'll run errands when shops and offices are empty and then come back to the screen in the mid-afternoon or evening for a while. That lets me roll with clients in different time zones or who are on rush schedules that require turnaround after they leave their desks for the day. Or, I might eat lunch at the computer but finish up the day in the mid- to late afternoon and turn my attention to housework, some unpaid pursuit, or in the summer, a little outdoor adventure. 

Sleeping in throws off the rest of the day, so I avoid it except on weekends. And this week. This is the quiet week. Some of my clients are closed between Christmas and New Year's Day. For others, I'm covering for people who are away. And, in general, anything that hasn't started yet isn't starting right now. 

So I cut myself a break. Unless I'm on a firm deadline, a little more sleep is okay. I try to line up everything that comes next, but I don't necessarily start it. This year, I'm slowly tackling the transcription of this summer's interviews so I can get back to writing my book over the course of the spring, with fingers crossed that Mr. Khanjani will be released in the meantime. I'm also puttering away at office organization and decorating, now that everything's unpacked. And, as has become my habit, I'll spend New Year's Day figuring out what gets my attention in 2018 and straightening up all my finances and taxes for the coming year. 

This week is not one of my favorites each year. As much as the professional value is incalculable, it's too quiet on the personal side. I am usually entirely alone. My parents were here for a few days, leaving on Christmas Eve to beat the snow, since this isn't really a holiday we celebrate amongst ourselves, anyway. And for the rest of the week, it's too easy to find myself thinking of long-ago holidays with my grandparents, all four of whom are now gone. Or of laughter and parties with now-distant or departed friends. It's too easy to see ahead of me about two months of icy cold, wind, snow, and holidays that I last anticipated when I had them off from school or received punched-out Valentines from classmates. Now, I know I'll spend these months with my head down, plowing forward toward the relief of Ayyam-i-Ha, the 19-Day Fast, and springtime. 

So this week, I'll take things a little easy. I'm savoring leftover pilaf, enchiladas and chili. Watching the yellow wax windows of my tiny sandcast casa glow each time I light the wick. Continuing to spend my evenings watching NCIS from the very beginning, despite having seen it almost completely from the very beginning when the episodes aired. Reading The Little Book of Lykke, just received today thanks to a fortuitous pre-order. And reminding myself how lucky I am to have a quiet week to set me up for a productive, calm, and creative year.

Clutter Is My Kryptonite

In week two, I learned about the cats. I am so allergic to felines that my allergist told me I "shouldn't have friends who have cats." It's no slight to the character of cat owners, but I am so sensitive to the little critters' dander that I react to the amount folks typically pick up on their clothes. For the most part, visiting the homes of cat people is right out. Five minutes in and my sinuses are simultaneously stuffed up and dripping, my eyes are so itchy they're tearing up and making it hard to see, I'm sneezing, and I'm starting to develop tiny hives on any exposed skin.

As you can imagine, then, learning that the former occupant of my new apartment had cats (yes, plural) went a long way toward explaining why I've been in a constant state of allergic unpleasantness since I moved in. Also, he's a guy and lived alone. So it's not like fastidious cleaning was at the top of his hobby list.

Don't get me wrong: My landlords are the kindest and most well-meaning people I can imagine. It just never occurred to them that evidence of Cat-Man and his Feline Followers couldn't be eradicated with a good scrub-down and a steam-clean of the carpets. And, due to the lack of attention to detail shown by the realtor in listing the rental, I was under the impression that the no-pets clause in the lease meant that the prior tenant also had no pets. So I didn't ask about prior furry residents. Whoops.

The Great Kitty Kachoo is just one of the things keeping me off kilter right now. People talk about creative types and how they thrive on chaos and disorder. Art allows them to create order from the chaos. They love the stimulation that comes from being surrounded by color and shapes and such.

What. Ever.

I'm certainly no minimalist, but I am a big fan of curated displays. From order and organization, I can absorb the information I need to inspire and inform creative efforts. (I'm also wildly allergic to dust and dust mites, second only to cats, so I really appreciate order, organization, and displays that are neatly housed behind glass or doors, or in drawers or boxes.) 

The bane of my existence is open shelving. And in this lovely little place I now call my own, open shelving is everywhere. Despite having lovely blue and green Ball jars to corral small items in Pinterest-worthy fashion, and despite all of my small kitchen appliances being fashionable stainless steel or empire red, the open shelving drives me bananas. And that's the part of the apartment that's organized, not still filled with opened storage tubs or stacked with things to donate or sell.

So what does this all mean? Well, on the surface, it means I haven't been able to relax since I moved in, because there's stuff everywhere. In the next two days, I'll be revisiting the Salvation Army store to drop off more things that I don't need, but might make someone else very happy (matching set of of Coke fountain glasses, I'm looking at you). And I'll be swinging by the local animal shelter with an armload of fleece blankets. And I'll be making a special delivery of cardboard to the local transfer station, because winter has fallen from the sky and I refuse to make the garbage collectors heave stacks of frozen, wet boxes into the trucks when I can just as well heave dry, unwieldy boxes into my car and from thence into a giant dumpster. 

At a deeper level, it means that I am forced to confront the concepts of need and want in a very physical way. As a Baha'i, I pay what is called "the right of God." This isn't the same as the tithes paid in some other religions, and it's not the same as a voluntary contribution to keep a building open or the lights on. In fact, it's more like a spiritual tax that's used at the discretion of the Universal House of Justice (the elected, global Baha'i leadership council) to pay for things that improve the well-being of communities around the world and that protect and provide care for those in need of assistance.

Adult Baha'is periodically tally up everything we own (cash, investments, property, real goods, etc.). We subtract the value of necessities, such as household furnishings, and we subtract a sort of "standard deduction" (there's a tax term for you). Then, we pay about 20 percent of whatever remains into this pool of funds. The next time we go through the exercise, we only calculate the 20 percent based on new wealth that we've gained since the last time we did the math, so we don't pay twice for the same vinyl record collection (hipsters) or kayak (me).

Like many Baha'i laws, much of the execution is left up to the individual. How often we pay is up to us. Some people do this daily, others every pay day, and still others only every few years. What counts as a "necessity" is open to interpretation, too. It's perfectly fine for Baha'is to acquire wealth; but a wealthy Baha'i is held to the same standard as a poor Baha'i when it comes to calculating the right of God. So both may say, "I need my car." But one may own a brand new sports car and the other a used pickup truck, and that's fine ... a third person may decide their car is a want because they live in a city where they could take public transportation everywhere they go. Ultimately, the "standard deduction" is the same for everyone, though, so the wealthy person will pay 20 percent of their significant wealth, while the poor person will pay 20 percent of very little wealth (or may not have to pay anything at all).

As I said, it's a spiritual tax. So a person has followed the law if they have made the calculation, even if they find they don't need to pay anything. Of course, if a person does possess enough wealth that payment is due, then that person has to hold himself or herself accountable for paying. There's no Baha'iRS (see what I did there?) chasing anyone down. The reason it's the "right of God" is because we see that money as never belonging to us to start with, so by giving it up to be used for the good of others, we "purify" what remains.  

What does this have to do with clutter? For me, clutter makes it very hard to calculate this number. I've moved so many times, and am so sentimental about the things that I've picked up along the way, that I have a ton of stuff. Much of it lacks any financial value at all. Case in point: Much adored, totally threadbare and squished Teddy who inhabits an interior corner of my hand-me-down cedar chest. Household furnishings comprise another chunk. Having grown up in a house with plenty of love and fantastic experiences, but without lots of conveniences that my peers took for granted (ahem, waffle maker), I wrestle with what counts as a household furnishing and what is really just a want in sheep's clothing.

The more stuff there is to sort through, the harder it is to figure out what's needed or wanted, or why it's there at all. And, the more likely it is that I will start comparing my own abundance (ahem, waffle maker) to the situation of people who are without a home or food. On one hand, that's a good awareness to find. On the other hand, our realities are different, and I have earned the funds to pay for some conveniences and luxuries, so there should be no guilt associated with owning them ... although perhaps I should be cautious about how many more things I acquire. There are many ways to share the wealth, instead, whether modest or extreme. It's a fine balance.

As a writer, my issues with clutter and the valuation of needs and wants are showing up in my current stymied state, too. The madcap research adventure of the last two years has left me with stacks of information to be organized, sifted, augmented, and molded into the story I'm trying to tell. Some of that is info is needed and some is just extraneous detail. The writing isn't the hard part (legions of writers just flung projectiles at me, I'm sure). Processing the research is the bigger challenge for me. Right now, the information wants and needs require some un-jumbling.

Little by little, I'm making my way through the physical clutter of this new place, so that I can wade through the information clutter that stands between me and a story that needs (finally) to see the light of day. And somewhere in all of that, I'll find a way to de-catify things, too.

'We Do Business for Profit'

The issue of business ethics has come up in my conversations quite a lot recently. It being the end of the year, I've been finishing projects for some clients and scoping upcoming work for others. Because of the role I fill for most of them, that means doing a little consulting about organizational change and corporate goals alongside the projects of the day.

In the course of these chats, I often hearken back to lessons from a former employer. One of the most meaningful was summed up eloquently in the beginning of the company's mission statement:

"We do business for profit. First yours. Then ours. ..."

That's not altruistic. It's simply factual. We did, indeed, do business for profit. We weren't working for free or from the goodness of our hearts. However, we also understood a deceptively simple concept, which was that guiding and advising our clients to make decisions that were good for the health of their businesses earned trust. That, in turn, drove the health of our own business.

What did it look like in a practical sense? We told clients if we thought a decision wouldn't generate a positive return on their investment. We looked at how best to help clients achieve their goals while saving money. We looked for efficiencies in our own processes and helped clients rework theirs to find even more efficiencies. We made things right if we goofed up. And we involved our clients in our charitable efforts.

Let me be clear: It was not utopia. The difficult aspects were similar to those in any business. But the transparency in running the company (in nearly every situation) created an entire staff of people who understood more than a little about corporate finance and held a high ethical standard for the treatment of coworkers, collaborators, and clients. Perhaps that's why so many have gone on to successful solo careers, entrepreneurial ventures, and leadership in a wide variety of organizations ... and why so many of us jump at the chance to work together even now.

The first time I was introduced to the mission statement, I so appreciated the way it put priorities in the order that felt right to me. Even now, this is the way I work. I prefer to be straightforward with a client and recommend a less-expensive, more effective approach, even though it means I might receive modest payment for the job. Why? Because it's just the right thing to do.

Whether I build a longstanding relationship with the client or simply earn a reputation as someone who works ethically, as long as I put my clients' interests (or, in the case of agencies, their clients' interests) first, I go to sleep at night feeling just fine about my efforts.

That's a lesson I think we can all take to the bank.