Category Archives: Musings

Embracing the Seasons

It’s easy to wax eloquent on the marvels of summer or to proclaim that I wish [insert season here] never had to end.

But in reality, time marches on. After only a week away, I returned from Italy to a thoroughly autumnal Elgin (several blog posts are coming soon). The day I left, it was over 80 degrees, sunny, and definitely summer. Exactly one week later, nearly to the hour, it felt like fall as I stepped off the plane into 50 degree weather, with a certain bite in the air. The next day, while driving around, I saw leaves on the ground and others beginning to succumb to fall colors. The nights have grown colder, and I’ve re-embraced my jeans and cords and pulled my scarves from the back of the closet. It feels good to  curl up under a down throw on the couch and to pull the comforter up at night. The heat came on yesterday morning for the first time.

And then I saw exactly the right words to describe this, on my friend Emily’s Facebook timeline:

“Live each season as it passes; breathe the air, drink the drink, taste the fruit and resign yourself to the influences of each.” — Henry David Thoreau

Precisely. I’m starting to cook my fall favorites again and have noticed the light changing from full and strong to softer and more fleetingly precious. I spent a big part of Saturday outside, walking through Tekakwitha Woods and Jon Duerr Forest Preserve in St. Charles, noticing the leaves and the crisp air, the bright blue skies and the herons and egrets, gracefully soaking up the last rays before a trip south.

Rather than fighting the change, I’m embracing fall and all that comes with it, just as I’ll (likely more reluctantly) embrace winter when it arrives all too soon.

What’s your favorite part of fall? Any must-do Elgin-area autumn activities? I plan to soak up as much outdoor time as possible.

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The Summer of Crysta

Labor Day traditionally marks the end of summer, but I’m not done yet.

In June, as I graduated, I proclaimed it the “Summer of Crysta.” I was going to spend as much time as possible outdoors and take full advantage of a summer with no schoolwork and plenty of free time.

Of course, the second I graduated I was sucked into plenty of new things. But I’ve still managed to have a very satisfying summer. I wish it didn’t have to end. While I echo Katie Leigh’s sentiment that some of the “best living” of this summer will remain unblogged, tucked into my memory and sure to conjure a smile even on the darkest winter day, here are a few highlights:

New bike: I bought a new bike in June and have been spending a lot of time on it. (Not enough, though.) It’s more comfortable than the 19-year-old ride it replaced, and it’s nice to have a fully functional piece of equipment.

 

Concerts, concerts, concerts: I’ve attended at least a dozen outdoor concerts this summer, from the Wing Park Concert series to a rain-shortened 7th Heaven concert at Brewfest, to Wilco at Kane County Cougars Stadium and Death Cab for Cutie in Grant Park. There’s no better way to spend a summer evening. Two weeks ago, as the Wing Park Concert series ended with the US Air Force Mid-America Jazz Band, the breeze hinted at autumn, and the sunset much earlier, leading me to ride home in the dark. Great way to end the summer

At (on?) the Wooded Isle in Jackson Park.

Exploring: I’ve explored more this summer than any other (and I’m not done yet). I finally did the Devil in the White City Tour, discovering the gorgeous Wooded Isle in the process. (Despite living in Hyde Park for three years, I never knew it was there!) I went on a foodie tour of Bucktown and Wicker Park, sampling six restaurants with a heavy side of history. I’ve visited several forest preserves that I’d driven by for years, seeing owls and a buck and a turkey vulture.

Hammock time: My favorite purchase from last summer was the hammock that spans a good portion of my backyard. I can’t even count how many hours I’ve spent in it this summer, reading (for fun!) in the sunshine, or just watching the stars come out at night and feeling very small.

Reading: Now that I don’t have professors assigning mountains (or pounds) of reading material, I’ve been able to pick and choose what I read. I’ve been overwhelmed by the options and have several competing piles of “next to read” scattered around the house. So far, these are the ones I’ve completed:

This Side of Paradise – F Scott Fitzgerald – “I know myself, but that is all.” So very good.
The Myth of the Garage: And Other Minor Surprises – Chip & Dan Heath (available for free download) – This collection of essays from the authors of “Made to Stick” was full of interesting little tidbits and intriguing columns about the inevitability of $300 socks and why to trust your gut instead of your brain.
The Secret Life of Bees – Sue Monk Kidd – Quick novel, well-written and engaging.
The Big Short – Michael Lewis – I’ve been meaning to read this for at least a year. It was tough going, but interesting and gave me a new understanding for how our economy works – and how easily manipulated it is/was.
The Shipping News – Annie Proulx – I’d never thought much about Newfoundland and its people, but this bleak, raw, harrowing story of loss and loneliness opened my eyes.
Women of the Silk – Gail Tsukiyama – Fascinating look at women working in the textile industry in 1910s China. Girls were often sold into the factories to help their families make ends meet, and the story chronicles how they began to stand up for their independence.
Consider the Lobster (and other essays) – David Foster Wallace – My first foray into Wallace proved fascinating, with lots of food for thought about boiling lobsters, the defense of the English language, the adult film industry, and more.
The Girl with Curious Hair – David Foster Wallace – This collection of short stories contained the same fantastic writing as his non-fiction, but some of the stories were just…odd. I’m very glad I made the effort, though.

And I’m at various points in these:
Who Says Elephants Can’t Dance? – Lou Gerstner – Very interesting from my IBMer perspective.
Summer – Edith Wharton – one of my very favorite novels… as I bike through prairies, it always pops to mind
OK: The Improbable Story of America’s Greatest Word – Allan Metcalf – A history of a phrase? Why not?
The Innocents Abroad – Mark Twain. Twain spends a couple of months on a cruise around Europe. Hilarity ensues.

As summer winds down, I still have a couple more adventures tucked up my sleeve, and plenty of fresh tomatoes left to eat. What has your favorite part of the summer been? What’s still on tap?

Taking Chances

Over the past few months, several new businesses have opened downtown.

Before the Soulful Sparrow opened in June, the flurry of activity had passersby peering in the windows. And instead of the usual bland “Opening Soon” sign, the proprietors posted something else: a tear-off sign urging people to take a chance.

I tore one off, stuck it in my purse, and promptly forgot about it.

Except…

Over the next few weeks, I kept finding that little scrap of paper, again and again. And each time, I’d pause for a brief moment.

Because really, all these new businesses are the result of someone taking a chance. Each represents a leap of faith, someone crossing their fingers that their experience and vision will align into something the market wants and/or needs.

Sometimes, the market helps a bit. Since occupancy remains relatively low, some local landlords are offering businesses one of the most valuable incentives: time to grow before rent is due.

Just a couple of doors north of the Soulful Sparrow… who will take the leap?

Sure, you can – and should – do your homework and research the market and competition. You can become an expert in your field, take classes, be an apprentice.

But it still comes down to the very American urge to take a dream and translate it into something concrete, to work for one’s self, to be the creator of one’s own destiny and livelihood. Dreams aren’t always tangible or realistic. That’s why taking chances is so important – and rare.

Ribbon cutting for the Soulful Sparrow

A Woman’s Place

Late last night, I flipped the final virtual pages of Sinclair Lewis’ The Job: An American Novel (free for Kindle!).

I love books that fit the genre: set in the early 20th century, starring young women who find strength in fending for themselves and making it in the big, bad city. (See also: Theodore Dreiser.)

The Job spanned a decade starting in 1905, when Una Golden and her mother moved to New York City from a small Pennsylvania town. Una’s father had just passed away, and after the dust settled, the mother and daughter decided that a big city like New York held more opportunity for a young woman to earn a living (and support her mother).

Such “opportunities” were vastly different than what women expect today. After a quick stint at secretarial school, Una started her career by taking dictation, eventually running small offices. Throughout, her fellow secretaries and stenographers married and left their jobs. The message – and reality – were clear: women had to choose between work or family. Women tended to work only when they had to support themselves in the absence of a father or husband. Una struggled to reconcile her desire for a family with her career aspirations.

As I read, many of the office dynamics were familiar, with hierarchies and break time confidences. But I marveled at just how far we’ve come in a century.

My own company, IBM, recently named a new CEO. As of January 1, Ginni Rometty was named President and CEO – IBM’s ninth CEO in a century.

Ginni Rometty is IBM's new CEO and president

When the news was announced in October, the gender-focused headlines bothered me. Why should it matter that she’s a woman? That our best and brightest, someone who worked her way up through IBM’s ranks since 1981, happens to be a woman? We should applaud the best person getting the job, regardless of gender.

But I know that it is a big deal. As long as Fortune and Forbes keep putting out lists of “Most Influential Women” and we have stand-alone “Women in Technology” receptions at conferences, the divide will persist. (Can you imagine if they had a “Men in Technology” night at a software conference?)

I grew up truly believing I could be anything I wanted to be. It never occurred to me that being a girl limited my career choices. I could be a doctor, a lawyer, a teacher, or even an astronaut, as long as I worked hard. (Funny, “social media strategist” never popped to mind as a career option back in the 80s or 90s.)

But not terribly long ago, that wasn’t really the case. When my mom applied for teaching jobs in the 1970s, she had to include a headshot and answer questions about her marital status and whether she intended to have children.

It’s certainly changed in the century since Una Golden arrived in New York. Even so, I look forward to the day when gender isn’t highlighted as something novel during such announcements.

We’re getting there. Our outgoing CEO, Sam Palmisano, reiterated the point: “Ginni got it because she deserved it. It’s got zero to do with progressive social policies.”

Congratulations, Ginni, and thanks for helping perpetuate the reality that a woman’s place can be in the board room.

The New York Times has an interesting look at women in technology, and specifically, women in IBM. 

Operation: No Snooze

I’m trying to wean myself from the snooze button. For years, I almost never snoozed – doing so was usually an early indication of impending illness or being up way too late.

But I fell off the wagon a couple of years ago, and with working at home, it’s gotten ugly. One snooze, two, three, four… suddenly I’m waking up 40 minutes later than planned. I started adjusting my alarm time to account for the inevitable snoozing.

I’ve never been a morning person, but this is ridiculous.

So I decided one of my 2012 resolutions is to stop doing this. Sure, 20 extra minutes of sleep is nice, but I could just set the alarm 20 minutes later and know I’ll get up the first time.

Unfortunately, the first week did not go smoothly. Eleven glorious (glorious!) days off work, coupled with the season’s coldest weather, made Tuesday morning kind of brutal. I woke up with the alarm, but laid in my warm, cozy bed, just listening to the radio for 30 minutes, stretching and trying to figure out my next day off. (Memorial Day, unless I take vacation days.) It didn’t help that one of the first things I heard was the newscaster saying the current windchill was -3 degrees. But I didn’t hit the snooze button.

Wednesday took a different turn. When the alarm went off on another very cold morning, I rolled over to turn down the volume, thinking I’d stay in bed until the news ended (about 4 minutes) and then get up. I didn’t know that the cat was curled up against me, as she often does when it’s really cold. I might have kind of squashed her. She didn’t react well, biting my pajama-clad arm as it reached for the alarm. I recoiled my arm, smacking myself in the face nice and hard. A few seconds later, I tasted blood. A bloody nose is really an excellent motivator to get out of bed, however cold. I can’t really blame the cat, though: I wouldn’t react well if something much, much heavier woke me from a dead sleep by crushing me.

Thursday and Friday morning were uneventful: I woke up, turned down the volume, listened to the news while stretching achy muscles, and then got up.

Hopefully, this means I have quickly conquered the snooze button with just a bit of bloodshed.

Which of your resolutions hasn’t gone quite as planned?

The Cost – and Joy – of Disconnecting

I plan to hit "Mark all as read."

586 work emails. 770 emails awaiting me in Gmail. 2700+ Google Reader posts. And untold thousands of tweets.

But it was so very worth it.

I just returned from 19 days in Asia. When originally planning the trip – as part of a class for my Master’s in Integrated Marketing Communications through Northwestern University’s Medill School – I had thought about how great it would be to travel this time while remaining connected to life back home.

But the more I thought about it, I realized that this 19 day trek provided a very real opportunity to escape from the fog of social media. And since Facebook and Twitter are blocked in China, that automatically made 8 days possible.

Could I do it? The thought made me nervous. Sure, I often pick a weekend day and cut myself off. 19 days is a very different animal, though, especially while traveling and likely encountering great pictures and Twitter fodder. And imagine the FourSquare points I could accrue!

I decided to go whole-hog and cut myself off entirely. I was bringing my netbook so I could write about my experiences – several blog posts coming as soon as I finish them – but I didn’t get an international data plan for my phone.

My plan was to not touch the internet for three weeks. No social media, no email, no phone. I communicated my plan to everyone who needed to know, providing emergency contact numbers. I scheduled things to auto-publish for work. And then I packed my bags and left home.

Landing at San Francisco after the first leg of my flight to Seoul, I checked in on FourSquare and texted a few people, nervous about the looming cut off.

The first couple of days, I found myself reflexively reaching for my phone during lulls while waiting in line or riding the bus. I kept trying to fill the downtime. Once I got through the digital shakes, though, it was fantastic. I was much more present, much more aware of and in tune with my surroundings. I observed things I wouldn’t have noticed otherwise. I stared out windows. I relaxed and wrote – some by hand, some on the netbook.

I didn’t completely attain internet-free nirvana, though. Since I was traveling for class, I did need to connect to email a few times to access files, prepare for presentations and send thank you notes. But when I did, I refused to open any emails not related to the tasks at hand, cringing a bit as I watched the unread count climb each time I logged in. (I’m thankful I proactively unsubscribed to several different email lists in the weeks before my trip.)

In China, I tried accessing several websites, just to test the limits of the Great Firewall. (Verdict: nope, you can’t access Twitter, Facebook, Wikipedia or certain books on Amazon.com. Some news sites were strangely “unavailable.” And even Gmail mysteriously went down for a two-day period in Shanghai.) Never fear, though, the Chinese government operates 16 TV channels to ensure you’re well informed!

Sadly, I can't mark all my work emails as read. But once I clear out all the newsletters, notifications and expired meetings, it should be manageable.

On the long trip home – nearly 28 hours from my hotel in Taipei to home, via Tokyo and DFW – I thought about my break from social media. My head is clear of distractions and detritus, and full of new ideas and connections that may not have been made if I was busy scrolling through Twitter.

Since my job as a social media strategist entails a lot of Twitter time, I know I’ll likely never get another such break again, at least not to this magnitude. But I’m glad to know that I can do it, and that I’ve been reminded that it’s possible to just be without needing a digital crutch.

And now to tackle my inboxes.

Thanks for the Memories, Q101

I was up way too late last night, but I had to see an old friend off.

For many who grew up in Chicago during the 90s, Q101 was a constant. It’s my longest-held radio preset, a fixture in my daily life since about 1993 or 1994. Q101 was there from the angsty, flannel-clad  junior high days through the whirl that was high school, for late-night college studying and working around my current house.

The last few years, I haven’t listened as much. I don’t spend much time in the car, and I wake up better with talk radio – something about shocking the brain awake. And with the ease of digital music and streaming sites like Pandora and Grooveshark, Q101 and other terrestrial radio seem terribly clogged by commercials.

But without traditional radio introducing us to new stuff and reminding us of the old, how would we know what to download? Before rewriteable CDs existed, I would record songs off Q101 onto cassette tapes, creating mixes marred by bits of DJ overrun or commercials. I listened to those tapes until they nearly wore out, and only tossed them about two years ago.

I heard a couple weeks ago that Q101 (and The Loop) had been bought (by Randy Michaels, the same man who tried to destroy the Chicago Tribune) and would likely be switching to an all-talk format. I hoped the switch wouldn’t happen. Early this week, when it was confirmed that Q101 would indeed flip formats Thursday at midnight, I turned my radio there – and it’s stayed.

The DJs, knowing their time was limited, really rose to the occasion and played what they wanted – and it’s been spectacular, like revisiting my teenage years. You don’t realize how much music imprints with your memories until you start hearing a string of songs that you intrinsically tie to specific moments – driving home from senior year in the Blazer with broken AC, coming home after a party, or just staying up late, studying, plugged in with headphones to not wake my parents.

Last night, I got home from a tweetup and settled in to work on a presentation for next week’s Econ class. I curled up on the couch with my laptop, streaming Q101’s last hours. I was exhausted from a five-hour commute Weds night, but I was determined to make it until the midnight format change. I was transported, listening to all these songs that I knew after just a few chords. Suddenly I felt like I was 17 again, cramming for Mr. O’Leary’s AP Bio class, alone in a quiet house with just the radio for company.

On Twitter, thousands were commiserating – at one point, #q101 was trending worldwide, more than #hp7 or #harrypotter, despite the opening of the final movie. All day, we’d been tweeting about the station’s demise, compiling playlists and singing virtual karaoke as Nirvana, Oasis or the Smashing Pumpkins were played.

When midnight came, Chris Payne went into over time, but could no longer legally use the Q101 name, though it’s so entrenched he slipped a few times. I finished my work and flipped on my bedroom radio as I settled in for the night. I lay in bed with the lights off, listening to the last few songs, just like I used to.

They went out with the Pumpkins’ “Tonight, Tonight,” which was perfect, and then the Cure’s “Friday, I’m in Love,” which was the first song played on Q101 in 1992. At 1:01 AM, they went to commercials, and that was that. It was exactly the right way to end, and I’m glad they were allowed to say goodbye properly rather than a middle-of-the-night, unannounced switch.

Did you listen to Q101? What will your new preset be?

Celebratory Fireworks

I love fireworks. They inspire a certain little-kid sense of awe and wonder, as I look skyward and drink in the symmetry and precisely vivid colors and patterns.

As I write, I’m watching out my living room window as fireworks explode down the street and behind the Elgin Tower. Every year, people start celebrating with their large stash of (illegal) fireworks about a week before Independence Day, which means I often get a preview for my late-June birthday.

And indeed, a week ago, on my thirtieth birthday, I got home from work and school, discovered a cupcake on my doorstep, and watched some fireworks from across the river. Every night this week, there have been more and more, a crescendo of colors and lights and sounds popping above trees and buildings all around me. (Sadly, some of the best displays off to the east are now blocked by the thickening grove of trees across the street.)

Last winter, as part of the Reverb10 project, I had thought about advice for the year ahead, told from a vantage point of five years in the future. In the process, I had discovered the FutureMe site, which allows you to write an email to yourself to be delivered at a future date.

I received my FutureMe note on the morning of my birthday, and read it with a smile. Some of the advice has been heeded, dead-on. It was full of good reminders of what’s important, and also how fleeting and trivial some concerns can be. I even found myself rolling my eyes at one point. But it was really interesting, and reassuring, a sort of progress report on where I am, where I’ve been, and where I’m going. I highly, highly recommend it, and I’ll be sitting down and writing a letter for my next birthday in the next couple of days. (The site will let you select a date up to 50 years in the future, though I wonder if my Gmail address will still be active then.) I may write five and ten year iterations, too.

But back to the fireworks. I feel like we all need to take a moment for ourselves, and fireworks are such a great way to do that. I’m at the tail end of a divine four day weekend, full of friends old and new, miles of walking around my adopted hometown, ice cream, beer, late-night tacos and hot dogs, barbecues, staying up too late and sleeping long past sunrise.  I spent the evening in the backyard, reading for pleasure, sipping iced tea and ducking the mulberries the squirrels shook loose, watching the fireflies come out as the sun set.

My feet are blistered and I’m sunburned and mosquito-bitten, but happy.  So happy.  Even if twelve short hours from now I’ll likely be on my third conference call for the day.

That’s why we do what we do. We work to live, to make these moments possible. So here’s to celebrating our American way of working hard while carving out a balanced, full life. And I can’t think of a better way to celebrate than smuggling fireworks across state lines and blowing them up in a cacophony of war-zone pyrotechnics that have the ability to make us pause and draw inspiration.

Happy Independence Day.

Who Still Uses the Yellow Pages?

A few weeks ago, I saw something glistening in the snowdrift on my driveway. (Ok, maybe more than a few weeks ago. I’m behind.) By the glow of the porchlight, I saw a blue bag. I pulled, and discovered a Yellow Pages. Argh. At least this year I didn’t get two, I thought, since that has been the case every year I’ve lived here.

It was bitterly cold, so rather than trying to break the ice on the recycle bin to dump it directly, I carried the bag into the house, set it on the mat by my dripping boots, and forgot about it until morning. As I was straightening up the next morning, I looked and realized that the bag held two copies: a full size white/yellow pages combo and a smaller “fun sized” version that appears to just have some selected (higher priced?) Yellow Pages ads. Perhaps they think I’ll use the small one as a desk reference instead of a doorstop?

But the fun didn’t end there. Mere minutes later, I went to retrieve my newspapers from the end of the driveway/snowbank/neighbors’ yard. (I am consistently amazed that three papers, delivered by the same person at the same time, can end up so widely dispersed.) As I turned and walked back to the house in daylight, I saw another blue bag sitting on my front steps.

So apparently the legacy of this house being a two-unit continues? And they chose to leave one on the driveway and one on the steps? They also spammed the vacant houses on the block – I wonder how long their editions will sit before they disintegrate under the spring rain.

A recent HubSpot cartoon captured this nicely.

The whole yellow pages concept has outlived its lifespan. When was the last time you consulted the physical book when you need a number? I use Google, often from my phone, when I need to find a restaurant or business. Plus, I can read reviews rather than relying merely on a company’s own words. If I need a plumber or other contractor, I post something on Facebook and usually get a half dozen solid recommendations in a couple hours, which is far better than randomly picking someone out of the yellow pages.

And yet companies still pay for yellow pages ads. But who are they targeting? Scott Stratten of UnMarketing wrote a fantastic post about the phenomenon, examining the case that people use to justify the directories’ continued existence: “They work in some markets! People still use them! Like old folks, shut-ins and people who are still locked into AOL contracts!”

What do you think? Do you still see a use for the yellow pages? If you’re in marketing, is it part of your mix? As a consumer, when was the last time you cracked open the pages – or did it even make it indoors?

There are opt-out options, which I’ve now completed. Fingers crossed I don’t get more.

Hat tip to HubSpot for the spot-on cartoon

Scraps of the Day

What do you do with the scraps of your day?

How do you make the most of your cookie dough scraps of time?

As I write, I’m in that weird hour between when work “ends” and class begins. In reality, it’s about 45 minutes, by the time I factor in walking to class and getting settled before the Regression Analysis talking starts. (Shudder.)

Later this evening, I’ll have 40 minutes before my train departure. Again, it’s not really enough time to “do” anything of any consequence. And with no place to sit at Union Station, I can’t open up the laptop and write or work. It’s precarious in-between time. I usually end up chatting with a classmate, which is great, but I’d rather be home – and in bed – 40 minutes earlier.

At work, the worst days are those with several 30 minute gaps between five or six meetings. Those 30 minute blocks aren’t enough time to really accomplish any project or task that requires attention, especially after you spend a couple minutes reading the emails that came in during your meeting and prepping for the next meeting. What’s left? 20 minutes?

The other night, I was thinking that time isn’t like cookie dough. You can’t combine the scraps, roll them out and end up with tasty sugar cookies.

But maybe time is like chocolate chip cookie dough. The little scraps can be eaten raw, or blended into ice cream.

So I spend my scraps reading blogs or tweets, by reading the newspaper, or making lists, all the while feeling like I’m just killing time. And given how precious time is, that frustrates me.

Am I missing something? What strategies do you have for making the most of those scraps of time?