Thursday, March 27, 2008

Once in a while...

Today, I'm going to do something a little different. I had a post about chivalry and conscience nearly complete, but instead I think I'll present something a little lighter....a recipe, and its origins.

Called "Watergate Salad," it's not really a salad in the traditional sense. Since I'm not feeling too well, my girlfriend made up a batch for me. It's not healthy in any sense, but it does indulge my sweet tooth!

Here's the recipe:

Watergate Salad

1 can (15.5-20 oz) crushed pineapple
1/2 bag mini-marshmallows
1/2 tub light Cool Whip (or similar)
1 package instant pistachio pudding (I prefer Jello brand)

Just mix all ingredients together and serve! Must be refrigerated and covered for storage.

Watergate salad is a variation on "ambrosia salad," a dessert dish that appears to have originated sometime during the 19th century in southern America. Some sources place its starting point at somewhere around 1830, although given the wildly divergent recipes floating around both then and now, it's likely that it never had any single inventor or point of origin.

Another blogger who has posted this recipe, Dorcas Walker, has some more information and, in her comments, some variations you can try.

This recipe is great for parties. The next time you drop by SXSW, bring a carload of it and you'll be an instant celebrity!

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Forget the rules, tell a story.

Writing has taken on new meaning as I've gotten a little older and a little wiser.

Grammar and spelling, in particular, are not the twin unbreakable pillars they once appeared to be when I was in high school or earlier. Reading Tolkien, and considering his status within the literary world, is evidence of that; though his grammar completely defies the Laws of English Class in several ways (particularly in the Silmarillion), he is held up to be one of the greatest writers of fiction.

Originally, I believed there was only one way to write - the Correct Way, in which the form of the language matched the textbooks perfectly. Now, though, I have come to believe that not only are there multiple ways to write, but different forms of writing must be used in different contexts. The Correct Way is appropriate only in certain situations.

One of those situations is in business letters, resum├ęs, and other formal career-related communication. The purpose of the language used is to impart a sense of your competence and professionalism. For us twenty-somethings, this is the area that is most often lacking. In college, a scant two years ago, I proofread some classmates' papers in upper division courses and was appalled by the errors in what should have been fundamental form. Run ons, fragments, and similar literary atrocities abounded. This is no way to demonstrate our competence in the workplace, particularly for those of us who work as freelancers outside the relatively safe cubicle world. Our communication style is vital.

Now, while that professional Correct Way is appropriate and even necessary in the corporate world, it is often inappropriate for the world of fiction and narrative writing. As per Tolkien's example, there is a different kind of focus for narrative form - the telling of the story. Flowery language makes it more difficult to read, certainly, but using unusual words and sentence structures forces our brains to creatively interpret. Once we engage that half of our brain, suddenly these worlds that the authors are weaving for us take on a life of their own.

This kind of writing is also necessary for our development as individuals, though many people don't allow it to flourish...or even practice it. Flowery writing makes us think and produces new pathways in our still-growing brain patterns, something ever so vital for a twenty-something newly recovering from the culture of university.

Storytelling is an important skill, and being able to forget the Correct Way for awhile and forge new trails helps us become more rounded people.

So, the next time you find yourself free for fifteen minutes with nothing in mind to do, grab a sheet of paper or a word processor and tell a story. Forget the us your world.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Connect and Prosper.

omething missing in a lot of big companies - whether office, factory, or what-have-you - is a sense of community and connectedness. There is frequently no connection between You and the Team. In the case of freelancers, it's between You and the Client.

What do I mean by connection? I mean empathy. I mean that feeling you get when you really understand someone, and they understand you. There's way too much focus on Lone Wolf, out-for-number-one tactics out there.

I recently read Connection Culture by Michael Lee Stallard and found myself nodding at every third paragraph. Michael's research is impeccable and his findings are both simple and profound. He goes into great detail about the hows and whys of connecting at the workplace. His conclusions are that A) connections at work make that company a great place to work for, and B) in the case of customers and clients, that company becomes a great one to do business with. People are happier when they're connected.

Michael doesn't go too much into scale and volume, but he does make notable mention of the fact that big companies that encourage communication and connection do demonstrably better work, backed up by trustworthy data.

According to his research and my own personal experiences, people who make connections are happier, healthier, more optimistic, and generally more energetic than those who do not.


When's the last time you made an effort to make connections in your workplace? Do you know the name of the guy in the cubicle across the way? If not, introduce yourself. Get to know the people you work with, for, and above, and you will find that the rewards greatly outweigh any remotely possible cost to yourself.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

3 lists that will save you time and keep you sane

In today's online culture of GTD, productivity, time management, and so on, we are focused on getting more done in less time. We are told that quantity is generally preferable to quality. What this mindset doesn't take into account is another important aspect of life - happiness. Too often, I find myself thinking that line from Jurassic Park, "[they] were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn't stop to think if they should."

Time is valuable, yes. The most valuable currency in the world. Now think to yourself - do you spend all your money? Do you have a plan for every dime you will ever earn?

When you get right down to it, you have a finite amount of time available to you during your lifetime. There is no chance you will receive more, but frequent opportunities to get your supply shortened or even cut off permanently. So, you must spend your time wisely...and that includes leaving some flexible time so you can catch a breather and just relax!

To that end, here's a few lists of things to think about when you plan for the future.

One day every week (Sunday works for me), write down a list of three goals you want to accomplish over the next week. These goals don't have to be work-related; rather, they should be things that you really want to do. For example, my weekly list might read:

  • Ride 5 miles on my bike (Biking)
  • Draw 5 new illustrations for my game (Art)
  • Complete a perfect back-spin kick (Taekwon-do)
Your second priority (never, ever your first) should be to make a list of three goals you need to accomplish over the next week. This list is of things that need to get done, but that you don't necessarily enjoy. For example:
  • Pay gas bill (Bills)
  • Shovel sidewalk (Chores)
  • Turn in P3 report (Work)
Finally, make a list of three goals to meet for the next week that you should accomplish. These can be just about anything. For me, the list might look like this:

  • Find a good local dietician (Health)
  • Finish my current novel (Reading)
  • Spend half an hour learning about leadership (Education)

Keep in mind that all of these things should only make up a PART of your time. The rest can and should be fluid, allowing for sudden shifts in schedule and just plain old relaxation. Personally, I try and incorporate some daily rituals into my life, but that's just what works for me. Experiment to see the best solution for you.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

The Art of eating M&Ms

hen you rip open a bag of M&Ms, how do you eat 'em? Pop one at a time, rapid-fire? Pour the contents into your waiting maw? Or do you slide a single one into your mouth, suck on it for awhile, then finally swallow and consider, possibly, having another?

The way you answer that question could have remarkable ramifications for how you approach life in general. Are you the type of person who consumes new experiences at a phenomenal rate? Do you let everything go by in a rush as you focus on something else? Or, perhaps, do you savor each experience one at a time?

Interestingly, conventional wisdom might be right for once. Savoring one experience at a time lets you take in more, and more importantly, understand more. I once met a maharaja who visited my cultural anthropology class in New Zealand. He insisted that it would take many years to learn what he was about to try and teach us in an hour. Being young and inexperienced, after the lesson was over I privately scoffed at the seeming simplicity and easiness of the concepts. How could it possibly take years to learn this?

Now, eight years later, I understand.

Some things, like the meditative world view the maharaja tried to teach us, are intellectually very easy to disassemble...but very difficult to actually ingrain into your being. Learning and understanding are two very different, though interrelated, concepts. In order to fully understand a lot of the seemingly simple productivity and personal growth concepts floating around the Net right now, you must experience them over an extended period of time instead of merely seeing them, analyzing them, and casting them aside.

So the next time you open up a bag of those candy-coated chocolates, try savoring them one at a time. You might be surprised at how much more you enjoy them.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Another Clash of the Generations

Recently, a student at Ryerson University in Toronto was charged with over a hundred counts of academic misconduct. His crime? Running a chemistry study group on Facebook.

Now, while I'm sure there is more to this story than what the article states, the case seems fairly clear: a professor considers online communities different from offline ones. This is despite the differences being negligible for the purpose it was intended for.

Though I graduated university last May ('07), I still live two blocks from campus. I'm plugged into the college community there, and it's definitely not the pure-offline world that a lot of the older professors seem to think it is. The majority of students at SDSU seem to have a Facebook account at the very least. Even some professors do, though they're almost entirely the younger ones.

This is not the first clash between old and new ways of thinking about human interaction, and I guarantee it won't be the last. However, we as young adults need to work with the older generations to demonstrate three things:

  • Technology is not a replacement for traditional forms of communication, it's an enhancement of it.
  • The Internet is not lawless, despite it being unregulated. There are rules of behavior online just as there are ones offline.
  • Education is more and more becoming inseparable from the Internet, and things such as online study groups are inevitable evolutions of that paradigm.

Ranting, raving, and threatening is most definitely NOT the way to prove to the older generations that our way of thinking on this issue is correct. Instead, we need to approach this on their level - and with their tools. We are one society, not two separate ones.

Personally, I think Ryerson University's wording of their academic dishonesty policy could use some updating. "Any academic advantage" being made illegal would seem to me to disallow reading textbooks.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

The Workplace? Nah, we need the Lifeplace.

Too often I hear people complaining about the workplace or chattering about the differences between the workplace and the home. Many people seem to enjoy making tremendous separations between Work and Play.

Wrong, wrong, wrong.

See, life's about three key concepts - Production, Play, and Provision. All three are necessary for all aspects of life, and cutting one out of any part of it makes life less fun, less whole.

Production. The art of giving something back to society. If you want your life to mean something, you produce. Writers write, engineers engineer, and If you spend a good deal of your life dedicated to one thing, you will become good at that one thing. People who are happy with their jobs almost always have combined their favorite productive activity into their working life.

Play. The art of doing something just for the hell of it, with no obvious return. While this doesn't directly create New and Better Stuff for society, it improves you and those around you as a person. It's a social activity. While Me Time has its place and is necessary for mental health, playing with others is a vital aspect of a healthy society and can really be refreshing for the mind, body, and soul. From a working standpoint, it encourages teamwork, communication, and energy, all very important concepts for Good Workers.

Provision. The art of keeping oneself and one's dear ones alive and happy. Feeding yourself and your kids (if you have them) is only part of the equation. In your working life, the ideal worker is one who cares about his colleagues, his projects, and yes, even his managers. Japan partially got this right in the Old Days before the bubble economy and after the Occupation, where every employee of a company was a member of a "family" of sorts. Caring employees are happy, more productive, and more fun to be around.

Think about it. In the perfect job, you'd have fun, have a recurring sense of accomplishment, and be a proud member of The Team, right? Everyone else would think the same too. This is much easier to do with startups, ala Silicon Valley, than it is with larger established companies, but it's still possible. Be proactive, and set up the change. You don't have to fight management to make this happen.

Make it all part of your life, who you are, who you will be. Change your workplace into a lifeplace, something that you are happy to include as part of your existence on this Earth. You'll find that everyone is happier, is more productive, and generally better people when it happens.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Get an awesome new hobby to improve and enrich your life!

Balancing a frugal life with a fun life can be difficult. Many hobbies and forms of entertainment cost money, and some are more expensive than others. Some hobbies - like yachting - are prohibitively expensive for the average joe. Others, like hiking, are practically free in the right circumstances. Choosing fun hobbies that don't hit up the wallet too hard can be a great way to reduce living expenses while still letting you lead the life you want.

Choosing a new hobby is a simple process, though some of the details can require a lot of thought. Follow the next few steps to gain a new, cheaper, more exciting handle on life!

  • Consider the cost. Cheaper is better, but there are multiple angles to think about. Entry cost is only one part of the equation. There are also incidental costs (like, say, the cost of buying more paintballs), maintenance costs (repairing your hiking boots), and upgrade costs (like getting more involved in the hobby's community). Cost is not necessarily monetary, remember! It can involve significant time and social commitments.
  • Think about your overarching interests. Are you a nature lover? An athlete? Do you like making things? How about challenging yourself? Thinking about these things will get your mind working on the possibilities.
  • Favor physical activities over sedentary ones. Being physically active is much better for you. Mental growth is important too, but if you're used to sitting at home, opt for the physical new hobby over the mental one.
  • Make a list. Considering the first three steps, do some research on fun activities that might match your interests. Don't just rely on Google, either; check out the local library and review your options in your home town. Some cities have extensive bike trails, while others might have public tennis courts. See what's available.
  • Narrow the list. Pick two options from it, and try out both. Go with the one that seems more fun to you after a month or so.
  • Enjoy your new hobby! Spend a lot of time with it. Hobbies can stagnate and become boring if you don't engage them often, so try and dedicate specific blocks of time to it every week.

Don't worry about retiring old, expensive hobbies. Just devote a decent chunk of time to your new hobby, and if you enjoy it, you'll find that your other hobbies won't seem as important and will fade in time...along with those expensive side costs that accompanied them!