Thursday, December 14, 2017

What is your estimate?


Your power is down to your island.  You haven't even had time to assess, and there are people who need answers today.  How many lines need to be repaired?  How many lines need to be replaced? How many towers do you need?  How many transformers?  How many insulators?

Just days before I arrived here in Puerto Rico, there were a hundred people in a massive meeting, and they came armed with forms and numbers and assistants who carried more of pieces of paper with more numbers. The cost estimator stood up, pointed to the spreadsheet projected on the screen, and explained (through a translator, for those who spoke less English):

What we have here is every region in Puerto Rico, with the number of miles of power lines associated with each area.  What we need you to do is help us figure out how much damage there was for each of the lines in your district.  We need two estimates:  how many poles per mile you think are damaged, and how many poles per mile you think are destroyed.

"Arecibo, there exists in your district 72 miles of the 230kv transmission lines.  How much do you estimate is damaged?  How much destroyed?"

The three people from Arecibo start working through their reports, looking for answers to provide  to the group, hoping to get the number right.  Guessing too low would mean that there would be areas left undone.  But it needs to be a serious estimate, and any fluff would take away from areas of the country that have need.

 The transformer lines - the big metal towers - are the easiest, because helicopters flew the lines and counted downed towers.  All those need to be replaced, and we can estimate damage to  the others. The answer is 50 miles.

"Good.  Now let's do the next one.  How about the 115kv lines?"

One by one, line by line, region by region, the estimates are provided, and once everyone agrees, Derek puts them up on the spreadsheet.

And that is the estimate that we have been using for our work on ever since.

We immediately ordered half of what the spreadsheet said we needed.  The spreadsheet reflected a wish list, and most of the system needs to be replaced - Puerto Rico has struggled to invest in and provide upgrades to the infrastructure.  That wish list is huge.

More importantly, though, we needed materials to start arriving.  Puerto Rico does not have the resources to produce wire, transformers, insulators, and poles (well, some limited production of poles from a local concrete company).  So everything has to come from the mainland.  By boat.  It is a logistical nightmare.  As we have refined estimates of damages, we have ordered more as needed.

84 days after the storm passed, and we are just now seeing some of the materials we ordered that first day.  Hangups in Savannah.  Issues in Jacksonville.  And other areas of the country are also needing the same resources, so we are competing for scarce resources and paying more for them, which means the money doesn't go as far.

The local power authority folks are running as hard and as fast as they can. They have hired crews and put thousands on the ground fixing lines and scavenging the parts from the downed lines.  The USACE-contracted crews are doing the same.  We are working in complimentary distribution, and connecting the grids as quickly as possible.  And it is working.  Today we have provided 60+ percent of the load that was recorded historically in the system.

That doesn't directly translate to people with electricity.  Just that we have power to the lines.  But it is an important step, and a needed step.  Now, the steps that follow have to be done very carefully.

One major issue has been dogging us from the start: who does the Last Mile?  The Last Mile refers to the final step - hooking up the power to the house, and giving people back their lights. Most people on the mission agree that we are here to provide temporary power to the people of Puerto Rico, not just power the grid.  So the Last Mile is seen as taking that final step, regardless of the liability issues, which are not inconsiderable.  I am working on another blog entry specifically on the Last Mile, so look for that in the coming days.

Our leadership has agreed, and we are under current direction (electricity pun, anyone?) to make it happen.  We are going to do the Last Mile.  And it will be expensive, difficult, and fraught with problems.  But dangit.  That is why we are here.

Estamos aqui. 

Friday, December 8, 2017

Turn! Turn! (Too late).

All I wanted to do was get to the other side of the interstate.

This week, we got moved to a different office across town, and in this new space, I don't know my way around.  There is an center with a few shops right across the highway, and I decided on the first day that I wanted to stop by there on my way home.  The road that I use to get back onto the highway is not well marked.  The brilliant traffic engineers responsible for this masterpiece created a series of access tunnels under the highway that would make a hobbit proud.  It is a warren of unmarked burrows, and each one takes you to a different magical place.

My first entry took me on an epic, and completely unexpected, journey along the highway to the west.  I honestly have no idea how.

A half hour, three illegal left hand turns later, and a few near misses with massive buses and trucks, and I am back where I started.  Second try at the intersection:  OK, the left road took me the wrong way, so I will try the middle road, which will surely take me across.

And suddenly I am headed eastward on the highway.  And again..... I honestly have no idea how - I am convinced that the passage through the space-time continuum at this location does not follow normal rules of physics.  I swear there were four left-hand turns underneath the Escher print of a highway, and the road bent inward on itself, and I emerged in front of a tractor trailer who was barreling merrily along at 95 miles an hour.

Sunday, December 3, 2017

Christmas Lights

When I got here two weeks ago, there were no functioning traffic lights, and the rules we normally follow for lights that are out of service do not apply here in the land of San Juan.

For that matter, I am not sure that I understand the traffic rules that do apply here under normal circumstances.  But we are definitely not in the land of "All lanes stop, and traffic proceeds in turns from the right".

In the post-Maria environment, driving in San Juan is a winner-take-all, devil-take-the-hindmost clustermess of the first order.  And rights of tonnage do apply: the biggest, baddest vehicles win every head-to-head confrontation. Literally.

There is also a scarification system in place, where battered vehicles have an advantage over pristine ones.  (Drafting on the bumper of a semi as it barrels through the intersections, riding the wave of scattered vehicles and honking sedans.... well, I find it to be an effective technique, when I can manage it.)  The driving, as I mentioned before, appeals to my chaotic nature, and brings out a different personality in me.  I love it.

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Vitoria Regia

I moved hotels yesterday, to a different area of San Juan, and was transported to a place in Belem, Para, Brasil, almost 40 years ago.

I had just turned eight years old.  Mom and Caroline and I flew down from South Carolina to meet up with Dad in Brasil.  He had been there for several months already, and was already thinking like a local: language, food, culture, pace, traffic; he had the rhythm down pat.

When the three of us arrived, Dad had some business to attend to for a couple of days, and so we stayed in Belem.  The place we stayed was the Vitoria Regia (pronounced Vit-TOR-eeya HED-gee).

When I moved into my new hotel yesterday, my mind flashed back to the Vitoria Regia, and I just laughed.

If you want an accurate review of the hotel where we stayed, check it out here or here.  The TripAdvisor reviews for my current hotel read much the same....
Victoria Water Lily.  Image stolen from here.

Vitoria Regia, which translates to the Queen Victoria, is a species of enormous lily pads that grow in Brasil and the adjacent British Guiana. I think that the intent was to name an enormous lilypad that was both fragile and strong after a strong leader.... and the intent of naming the hotel after the beautiful lilypad was to give a nice old world/new world vibe to the place.


There are no descriptive terms to explain the Hotel VR, but to call it a dump. The bathrooms are communal (the website says the hotel offers private baths now - an improvement, but all the reviews say that the private baths are all non-functional, which I would imagine fails to improve it).  The one bright spot I recall is the breakfast.

I was a peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich kid, and I ate anything else under great protest.  I had a particular revulsion of bananas, because of the brown spots.  So when Dad tried to walk me through the difference between fresh bananas and what I was used to, I fought him.  "But I don't like bananas," I said, with all of the whine in my voice that an eight-year-old can muster.

Eventually Dad won, and I reluctantly tried the banana.  Dad watched me, and smiled when my eyes grew wide.  "That is SO different!"

I ended up trying all kinds of new fruits that were offered as part of the continental fare.  I simply could not get enough, and it opened my eyes to something new and strange and different.  And very unexpected.

I also remember Dad introducing me to a man who was a US Navy diver, and being impressed with his stories, and especially with the pin he gave me.  I still have it somewhere.  The old salt and I got to talking about things, and he told me stories that I have long since forgotten, and I just reveled in the new experience of new smells, new tastes, new sights, and new people, most of which spoke a new language.

Later that day, we went to a Portuguese restaurant, which had the most amazing shrimp creole ever - teeming with tiny river shrimp that were served in a spicy sauce over rice.... Again, Dad convinced me to try a food with which I was unfamiliar, and again, I was blown away with how good the fare was.

I believe that day was the day that set me on the course of being an appreciator of local cuisine.

So when I checked in to a sketchy-looking hotel with dingy, tired sheets atop a sagging, low-quality mattress, and which looks to be in dire need of a deep cleaning, I start looking around for food to try.  And my heart just starts to grin like a fool.

Not all that bad.  But not as good as it looks, either.

Place is not defined in my heart by the amenities, but by the people and the food.  I am meeting nice people at every turn.  I am eating great food at every hole-in-the-wall place and food truck I try.  I feel fortunate just to be allowed entry into the society, in any small way, whatever nook I can occupy.

At the end of the week, my stay at the Sandy Beach Hotel will come to an end.  When it does, I will probably not work too hard to extend my stay.  Eventually, I will want a place with clean sheets, with mattresses that were bought sometime in this century, and maybe even one with a bar in the lower floor where I can watch the game.

But until then, this Victoria Regia, inexplicably, will just make me smile.

Saturday, November 25, 2017


"Que mucha poca p**a madre!"

I am behind the wheel in San Juan, screaming with absolute glee at the top of my lungs at the idiot in front of me that just came to an inexplicable full stop in the middle of the intersection.  And in mid-stream profanity, it really hit me.

I am back home.

Lemme 'splain.

No.  There is too much.  Lemme sum up.

My wife is the quintessential southern lady.  She does not leave the house without makeup carefully arranged, and follows rules I never had to learn.  If you think Steel Magnolia, you have the right picture.  And then she begins to speak Spanish.....

And her entire personality changes, and she becomes La Patrona.  The result is not bossy, but her style definitely does not invite question.  She is commanding, in the way that military officers are commanding.  She is still unstintingly polite; she is kind and friendly, but she is just different.

I did not learn Spanish in the same halls as she did.  My Spanish is grammatically incorrect, rough-and-tumble ad-hoc mixture of vernacular and modismos (and more than just a few vulgarities) that I learned from talking with farmers, hunters and fishermen.  The place where I learned Spanish uses profanity pretty liberally, and more than once I have had to apologize for my coarse language when dealing with members of polite society.

Thursday, November 23, 2017

Moustaches are as Cool as Fezzes

Bottom line up front: I am asking you to donate, at My facial hair has always been a little wispy. Way back in
high school, I followed my friend Brad’s sage teenage advice,
and shaved every day (I needed to shave once a week) to ensure that my beard would fill in. It never did. I have heard it all: "Tuft guy." "Cat died?" "Don’t worry; it’ll fill in." "I wish I didn’t have to shave twice a day...."
Horseshoe? Really? Only Hulk Hogan could make this style cool.
So why would I shave it all off and start again. On purpose? Because it gets me a chance to talk about getting checked out for prostate cancer. I work

Big Problems. And Thanks Giving.

Every day, I tilt at windmills. It is my job.

Deep in the heart of a very bureaucratic institution, I fight to get the projects I shepherd - I think of them as 'my projects' - through an arcane process.  I write memos using inscrutable acronyms, I call people, I prepare briefings, and I review documents to ensure that they are complete, reasonable, legal, and policy compliant.

And often I come home frustrated and angry because I did not make progress.  The wheels of the burrocrazy grind slowly, and they grind everything to the finest dust.  My job is a part of this process:  Big Problems become small problems; small problems get broken apart into tasks that comply with policy, and the tasks are all verified against checklists.

Endless checklists.

Today, I am working on something different.

Monday, October 16, 2017

Risk Sharing in my Online Family

A friend of a friend had his car break down, and he could not get to work.  The next day, there was a gofundme account set up to help with the unexpected expense.

A friend had massive migraines, and the docs said surgery was needed.  The deductible was massive, but a couple of motivated friends got the word out, and dozens of people who had never met face-to-face were donating money to cover the cost.

A friend had a movie that she wanted to make.  Her kickstarter campaign provided backers with the chance to join in on the fun, get updates on the show, get the opportunity to download the final version, and for a certain level of investment, be allowed to attend the opening of the film.  (I seem to remember that you could even have your name included in the script).

A number of my friends in my new hometown shared information about a family in town whose house had burned.  Suddenly, people across the area - and beyond - are looking through their closets to find clothes for the five children, and figuring out how to help with replacement housing, bedding, dishes, furniture, and, well, everything.

I looked down the list for each one, and found that many of the donors were anonymous.  This was clearly not the equivalent of putting a wealthy family's name on over the door at the local medical center.  It is something different.  Furthermore, the people who did announce their donations were a bit of a surprise.  They were not 1% family members.  For the most part, the donors were friends living under tremendous financial strain themselves, with low-paying jobs in places with a high cost of living.  And giving anyway.

Giving generously.

In 1968, there was a group of anthropologists led by Evon Vogt in Chiapas, Mexico.  They were doing research on how small communities make their living: what the different spheres of life were and how they were intertwined.  Investigations touched on religion, work, family, life cycles, seasons, and how the universe is ordered. 

One of Vogt's students looked specifically at how the community dealt with risk, and observed that money was pooled within the community to help people who had need.  The money was considered a loan, rather than a gift, and the debt had to be paid back at the time of the next crisis.  The payback, as observed. did not conform to any traditional Western social rules of debt and repayment. 

The student decided to give it a try, and for his next field season, bought a one-way ticket down to Chiapas, and then brought enough money to buy the return flight.

Once he was down in the village, he did what he had observed.  Every time someone had a need, and asked him for a loan, he gave it to them.  He lived in the village, did his research, embedded himself in the work and politics of the village, and when it came time to go back to the US, he asked the villagers who had received loans to help him (and his wife) get back.  He got exactly the amount he needed to buy the ticket.

The story really stuck with me.  At the time, I thought of how very strange it was.  How foreign, how quintessentially 'other', to have a community that shared the risks by a series of debt relationships, and helping one another out when in need.

Growing up, I had learned that these risk management measures were the job of family.

I grew up in a pretty tight-knit family.  Other than my uncle Johnny, who left SC for Arizona, everybody in my family lived either in/around Greenville or in/around Beaufort.  I had family ties, places to stay, couches on which to crash everywhere I turned.  There were stories - many of which were probably apocryphal - of personal/legal/financial troubles that were staved off by using family connections.  The lesson - and one that I learned well - was you could go to family whenever you were in a pinch, and you could rely on them to help bail you out.

Now, however, my family is flung everywhere.  Any friends I had when I was growing up have all moved, some of them many times.  Military.  Job postings.  Grad schools and professorships.  So what is the basis of the community that I relied on?

I am also a new kid in a small town.  I love Vicksburg, and am building friendships here with people that I have already grown to love.  But inserting myself into a tight-knit community in a small town is kinda tough.

Where is my community now?  Where is the place that I can turn to for help?  Where can people turn to for me to help?

I am beginning to realize that the online community has started to function in some ways like the small community in Zinacantan.  Debts are accrued and paid as people have needs.  It is not important, really, whether we have ever met face to face.  You are a friend of Ben's, and he shared your need with us on a public forum, I will help a little, because of my love for Ben.  I will donate some money to Molly's 150-mile MS ride.  I will make a donation to the Southern Poverty Law Center because of my love for Suz.  I will help.

And y'all will help me.  I will pass along my concerns, and y'all donate to my causes, too.  I mean, I am not asking for booze money.  (Even if I did, I suspect that some of you would help pay down my bar tab - worthy cause that it is).  But we help one another, even sometimes when we don't agree - politically, socially, and ethically. 

I suspect part of the desire to help people on social media is a change in the way we do charitable giving. My faith in agencies and institutions has dropped, and I tend to investigate overhead rates before I donate money to any cause.  But if your friend needs help because there was a death in the family and they don't have money for the funeral?  I might be able to help.  Maybe not a lot.  But some.  Crowdsourcing the solutions to problems - be they big or small - brings my community closer together.

We are making our own communities; some of which include, but which is not limited to, our families of origin.  We love and trust one another, and care for one another when the chips are down.

And when I am in need, I might just come back to you.  So that I can get my plane ticket home.

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Change the world

"No, no, no, no, nooooOOOO!"

"Did Thib come out this way?"

It is a repeated conversation in my household.  I leave doors open where the dogs can get out and join me on the porch, in the yard, wherever.  They like to hang out with me, and love the freedom that being outside with me gives them.  I usually watch them pretty closely, so that they aren't eating stuff they aren't supposed to.  And they occasionally give chase to a squirrel or a chipmunk and stop listening for my commands.

Kathe is more of a preventive maintenance kind of gal.  She makes sure the gas level doesn't get dangerously low.  She gets her 50k mile car maintenance done at 45,000 miles.  Thanks to her, we have tp in every bathroom, clothes are clean and dry and in the closet, and there is always food in the pantry.

And the dogs do not spend any time running free in the yard.

They are two approaches, plain and simple. Neither one is better than the other.  My way leads to unnecessary excitement from time to time, when that 25-gallon truck tank gets down to 0.056 gallons left.


The dogs are not as well protected from harm under my care.  They might find something to munch on that would give them a bellyache or worse.  And Thib is notorious for eating stuff he isn't supposed to.... and has the enterotomy scars to show for it. (Not my fault, for what it's worth)

But without letting them run 'free', I have no chance to teach them what is allowed and what is not.  Which means if they do get out, I have no control.

The occasional loss of control allows me to teach, correct, and get them to accept the commands I give.  We can practice what we expect.

Trade off.

I work at an agency that works on the assumption that if you follow the process. the same way, every time, you end up with a consistent product.  We are engineers, and we are military, and we follow orders and we follow procedure, and we love templates and predictability.

There is truth to the old joke - you ask an engineer what the volume of the blue rubber ball is, he looks it up in his blue rubber ball table.  Same result, every time.

I was recently in a class.  It was a really good class on the procedure that our agency uses, with the compelling and immediately understandable acronym PMBP.  The class was good.  The speaker was engaging, and kept my attention for the full 8 hours of the class: no easy feat.  For some reason, however, my ears perked up at one of his assertions.  I had heard variations on this theme over and over through the years:

"Faster, Better, Cheaper.  Pick two.  You cannot do all three."   It is one of the basic tenets of project management.  If you require something fast, you have to cede efficiency on one level or another.

But there was something in that simple statement that bothered me, and it related to my aforementioned loss of control with the dogs.  After the class was over, I stopped him and challenged him on the statement.

"Sir, Eli Whitney, with his cotton gin.  Henry Ford with the assembly line. Edison with the light bulb.  Al Gore and his internet."

"OK," he said, "I'll grant you that. But those were not ordinary efforts.  What you are talking about are all things that changed the world - they are actions that changed the course of history."

"I understand," I told him.  "And during a lecture of process is not the right time to discuss it.  But what you describe here is the rule of efficiency, using the way that we are currently doing business.  If we look at things differently, there is a possibility of making changes that can do all three.

"If we are not allowing ourselves the possibility of thinking differently, we have no chance to change the world."

I know that the inside of a large Federal burrocrazy is not the likeliest place to look to make that kind of change.  But the principle is more pervasive than that.  Instead of working to train people in good planning, we are creating templates that even an idiot cannot screw up, with checklists to make sure that we did everything in the template.  We work at preventative maintenance, rather than at creative problem solving.  We look for our answers in look-up tables, and we make sure that the details are right. We use the everlasting go-by because it was approved before, rather than re-framing our documents to fit the organization of the problem and solution.

And sometimes, in our attempt to avoid loss of control, we miss the fact that our question is wrong, because we have never left our dogs running free in the yard.  There is no chance for learning, because we have prescribed the process so completely that there is no room for error.

Innovation should not be exclusively in the domain of the private sector.  It needs to be part of our Federal process as well.  We need to take a chance that something small will go wrong, so that we have the possibility of learning, growing, and creating for ourselves, making it so we can come up with the better solution when the big questions arise.  Without an investment in innovation, and without that commitment, we will have empty process, and no inculcated ability to think beyond the template, the checklist, the go-by.  In the process, we are safe.

In the process, we lose the chance to change the world.


A friend who is an artist agreed to sell me a piece of her art.  I collect art from friends, and the wall in my office has been slowly been overtaken with fun pieces of quirky, beautiful art.

I set aside a few dollars a week over the course of several months, and walked down to the Trustmark bank downtown and paid for a money order.  I sent it to the address the artist had provided me.  Her response when I sent her a note to look for the money was classic, and made me happy:

"Thank you for supporting my art!  It helps me want to make more!"

A few days go by, and I haven't heard that she received it.  I ping her once; she says she had not received the check.  A couple more days go by, and I get the following:

"You check got stolen out of our mail!  We havr had our mail stolen in the past so we get this USPS service that sends a picture of what should have been delivered every day.  The check was delivered Friday and we never got it."

It is labor day weekend, so I can't do anything.  But on Tuesday, I walk over to the Trustmark Bank near where I work, and ask for them to cancel the check.

Back a year and a half ago, when I first arrived in Vicksburg, I needed a local bank.  For convenience sake, I chose the bank immediately adjacent to my work. Regions Bank promptly closed down that branch and several others in town.  So the convenience I had counted on is not there.  As a result, I am in the market for a new bank.  Trustmark carries my mortgage, and I was impressed with the folks in that department.  This interaction - cancelling the money order - is working a little bit like a trial run.  Will the service be worth changing banks for?

I felt like it was a little bit like taking your car to a dealership to be serviced.  Are they going to gouge you?  Can you trust them when stuff goes wrong?  Or are they only interested in new car sales?

From the outset, I was treated with great suspicion, as though I was somehow gaming the system. The Head Cashier explained that my only recourse was to pay a fee to have the check canceled.  Then I was going to have to pay to have the new check issued (I had already paid for the money order once; now it was going to be twice).  And I could pay for it in cash, or they could deduct it from my 'account' (you know, that account that I am trying to decide whether to open with them?).

"What would you like to do?"

Well, you just told me that I have no choice.  Or rather, you have explained that my choice is a Hobson's Choice. (As much as I love game theory, this one sucks).  I can lose the money, or I can pay the fine.  To add insult, the ATM charges $3.  And it is out of order.

When I came back, I am directed to someone else, who processes the entire transaction without looking up, except when I tell her that she has misspelled my name on the affadavit.  And her own.
In exchange for the fee, she tapped a few keys, canceled the money order, printed out a new one, and held out her hand.  I walked out, just under 50 bucks poorer, with a new money order.

Less than an hour later, my cell phone rings.

"Mr. Lawton, I just wanted to apologize.  I don't know where my head was this morning."

I nodded my agreement.  I had wondered the same thing.  

"I gave you the all the copies of the money order.  I was only supposed to give you the top two copies.  Can you come back and give the others to me?"

So in summary, I was robbed, treated like a criminal by the bank I was interviewing, charged an exorbitant fee for a few seconds of computer work, and then was asked to take additional time out of my day to do them a favor, to correct a mistake that was not my fault.

Sure.  I'll get right on that.  And you can expect my business just seconds before before the Pope sends me a piece of his own art work.

I just hope he doesn't want a money order.

Monday, July 24, 2017

Conference Call Bingo

Much of my life at work involves conference calls.  They are a necessary evil of the nature of the virtual team.  And, because of who I am, I have to take any opportunity to poke fun.

So last week, I copied a hand-drawn version of a Conference Call Bingo card, and passed out copies for a looooooong meeting that I was expected to participate in.

The results were hilarious.  People in the room were listening more closely than they ever had, in hopes of hearing one of the critical phrases.  Most participants also joined in by inserting one of the phrases into their own briefings.  ""Can you email that to everyone?"  "I'll have to circle back with you about that."  "Sorry, I was on mute."

After the call was over, I shared the card with other teams that I am on, partly for the humor of it, but also to emphasize how often we slip into bureauspeak.  A little reminder to all of us to speak like humans, instead of like the technocrats that we inevitably become.

Today, a group with whom I had shared the card held a call, and I had chuckled to myself as one by one I heard the old, familiar phrases come through.  Three "Sorry, Go Ahead"'s later, we were at the conclusion of the call.  Good information, good group of people, working hard to make sure that we communicate things well.  

Even so, I am a little flippant about it.  

The last item on the agenda was a round-robin discussion of what was going on in each of our areas. Four people talked about the projects where they were working on collaborative efforts in their region.  I followed with my own.

The woman online after me came on, and had a lot of emotion in her voice.

"I know that I am being asked to share what is going on in my district.  But there has always been a very family-like atmosphere within this group, and so I have to take a second to share something personal.

"As most of you know, my 10-1/2 year-old son was diagnosed with cancer when he was 6 months old. And we have been doing all of the things we are supposed to, and it has been a long process.

"We came from the oncologist's office five minutes before this call, and he just told us that we don't have to come back ever again.  My son is free of cancer, and I had to tell everyone.  I can't go thirty seconds without breaking into tears.... I am just so happy."

And all of a sudden, all of the topics we had discussed, all of the progress we had made, all of the plans we had shared, every bit of it went out of the window.  Time stopped as we shared in the joy of what Lynn had announced.  The next thirty seconds was a cacaphony of family members joining in shouting their excitement at the news.  

You know what?  Sometimes, it is important to take a beat and celebrate the amazing things that happen in life.  To breathe deeply and love on one another, reveling in their victories when they occur.  Taking that moment to really connect, and screaming out a yell when it is the right moment. 

That beat, that breath, that connection, is worth every moment that I put up with on every call - every buzzword, every sonorous recitation of unreadable spreadsheet data.  Because in that moment, I am suddenly part of the family. 

So I will be the first to call it out for Lynn:


Friday, July 21, 2017

Finding Your Bees

I went out for a walk (OK, it was my once-a-week smoke break) during my lunch hour yesterday.  Across the street from my office is a seedy, no-name motel - the kind of place that you seldom notice.  It is typical 1960s motel architecture: run down, no shade, with little-to-no green space, located in the middle of a downtown area.  Parking lot to one side, now-defunct bank on the other.  Not the most welcoming of places.

Testing the theory that stolen food tastes better
A year ago, I spotted a volunteer eggplant in the patch of grass next to the street.  On my walk this week, I wandered over to see if the volunteer had re-volunteered another generation of plants.

Sure enough, near the original spot, there was a big, green plant.  I lifted the canopy of leaves to find a host of small, beautiful, lavender eggplants.

I smiled, and picked one, slipping it into my pocket, while marveling at how wonderful nature was, to volunteer plants where there was once just a patch of weedy ground and a discarded eggplant.

Yeah, I don't know who discards eggplants, either.  That is to say, I don't know of anyone who discards raw eggplants in weedy lots.  I know plenty of people who discard cooked eggplant, and when I was a kid, I was responsible for some such discards when Mom was not looking.  But I don't think that kind of discard results in many volunteers.

But I digress.

Not much space.  Not much green.
The eggplant bush was in a tiny grassy area.  I looked around, and there were a bunch of weeds along the opposite edge of the parking lot, interspersed with decorative plants.  The nearest of the weeds, though, looked an awful lot like a pepper plant.

Dang.  Sure enough, it WAS a pepper plant.

A little further down, another pepper.  And another.  Twelve plants, interspersed in with the ornamentals. On a narrow strip of ground between the parking lot and the grungy parking garage of a sad motel.

Basil, too.  And mint.  And lemongrass.  Suddenly, I am seeing that this is not a volunteer location.

Instead, I had just raided someone's garden.  In a motel parking lot.  I looked around for the inevitable cameras that recorded my petty theft.

And then shrugged, with full smile on my face.  Someone had taken a crappy little corner of the universe and made it theirs.  They had found a way to bring something positive out of the peeling paint and auto-exhaust begrimed surfaces, and brought forth life for their table.

I love that idea.

A friend likened it to my hunt for bees.  For most people, having an infestation of stinging insects is not something to meet with joy.  But everywhere I go, I always keep an eye out for any bees, anywhere, especially hives that I could steal, bring to my house, and give them a new home.  My friend challenged me to write about it.

So the "Finding Your Bees" series is dedicated to everyone who has taken something that is overlooked and made it into something wonderful.  And I ask for you to share it with me - either in the comments or in email form.  Examples can include:
New Orleans Container House....
  • Artists who make things with found objects 
  • Repurposing artists (my brother Parker is a master at this!)
  • Guerrilla Gardeners - who tame abandoned lots and make them into community gardens
  • People who build houses out of shipping containers (not as novel now, but somebody did the first one not so long ago)
  • Scientists who are working at re-introducing lost seeds to farmers
  • Archaeologists who are introducing old techniques to help improve the lives of modern folk 
  • Linguists who are working to revitalize languages in indigenous communities
  • Brewmasters who re-introduce old recipes, based on either historic data or archaeological evidence
  • Someone who figured out what to do with kudzu (or nutria, or water hyacinth, or Asian carp, or...)
  • Someone who makes musical instruments out of unusual stuff, or that make sounds that are unexpected (left handed sewer-flutists like Michelle Bowe need apply!)
If you know of a Johnny Appleseed character, group, or collective, let me know about it.  Or if you are doing something where you are taming - or wilding - a piece of the world in a novel way, I want to hear the story.  

Non-profits and other programs are fair game.  My sister pointed me to a news story that talked about writers who were invited to move to areas of Detroit that were hit hard by the economic downturn - with the idea that creative folk can lift up a neighborhood (see the story at

The world is an amazing place, filled with incredible people.  I love it when people see things in a different way than usual, and see possibility when the rest of the world sees none.  It is almost like they are giving the world the gift of a visual pun.

Tell me yours.

Saturday, July 15, 2017


"Crap.  They did it again."

I looked up, knowing that I was about to go from a good mood to a bad one.  Kathe was scowling at her phone.  "AT&T is charging me another $15 for going over the data limit.  I have not used anything since the last time they charged me.  This is now 3 times this month that they added $15 to my charge."

There's a bad mood on the rise.

Kathe has made five trips out to AT&T store, each time having the tech look and see if they can identify what is making her churn through the data.  She has turned off all of the usual suspects: FB, maps, anything that identifies where she is, basically all apps.  When we are at home, she uses the wi-fi, and essentially uses the data only when she suspects that a weather system might impact travel, while we are on the road.

She no longer listens to music.  She no longer watches videos.  She does not access maps, or download emails that are more than a line or two.  She uses her phone as a phone.  And she sends texts, which sometimes get delivered as much as three days later.

When she speaks to the folks at the store, they could not help.  Essentially, every single response she has gotten from AT&T was a shrug.  We can sell you a different plan.

Problem is, the plan would tie us to AT&T for another two years.  Not exactly a consummation devoutly to be wisht.  We've looked at the plans that offer to buy us out, and I have come to the conclusion that the cellular age just doesn't suit us so well.
Anybody interested in joining me in the neolithic?  I have a stone hatchet and a stone hoe I can trade you for some corn...

I tweeted my complaint, using the hashtag #classaction.  It got immediate attention.  Over the next two days, analysts analyzed, and techies teched, and there was a flurry of communication that ensued.  The end result was that I received 18 bucks.  

No explanation of how the overage happened.  No promise that it would not happen again.  Nothing like that.  Just $18.  

So now I will sit and wait for it to happen again, and hope for another flurry of messages when I next get mad.  Or, as I am sure that AT&T hopes for, I will decide that it is just not worth my time.  And that I will pay the money or change my plan.  Either way, problem solved!

Unless the problem is an unhappy customer.  In which case, problem not solved at all.

Thursday, May 4, 2017

No Rhetorical Questions

To say that I had fun watching Charlotte's Web is an understatement.  I got to see three showings over two days, and it was just cool.  But before the first performance, Caroline warned me that I might not be getting what I expected, and she was right.

See, when we were growing up, Grandmother Lawton would take us to the Bob Jones theater.  Say what you want to about the politics of the school, but those guys really invested in their theater productions.  Spectacular sets, glorious costumes, powerful voices, good direction, and casts and crews that knew their jobs.

And so, as a kid, when you went to the theater in my household, you got a stern warning ahead of time.


There wasn't even any suggested punishment offered as a quid-pro-misbehaving-quo.  You put on the coat and tie, shoes that pinched your feet, and went out to spend an evening with the grown ups. Often, but not always, the choice of play was Shakespeare, performed with lofty accents, and the expectations were every bit as high as the 'culture' we were getting.  The expectations and limits were clearly delineated.
  • No crawling on the floor.
  • No climbing on the back of the chair.
  • No talking - not even in a whisper.
  • No kicking the back of the chair in front of you.
  • Eyes front.
  • No, you cannot go to the restroom; you'll have to hold it.
Usually these rules were meted out one at a time for me throughout the performance, as though both my parents and I were checking off our own Thou Shalt Nots lists.  And by the end of the performance, I would inevitably feel my bottom to be strangely warmed (John Wesley reference, for those of you who would appreciate it).

As I grew older, and saw more theater in different places, I knew the rules - they had been inculcated into me early in life, and they stuck.

So Caroline was warning me to be prepared for something a little different.

The theater at Wheelock is very big.  I had expected a smaller, more intimate setting from which to watch the play, but the seats were comfy and there is not a bad vantage point in the entire stadium-seating theater, so I settled in pretty quickly to enjoy.

The first showing was a matinee.  Afterwards, Caroline said that it was a remarkably well behaved group of kids.  I looked at her.  "Huh?"

"I SAID THAT THE AUDIENCE TODAY WAS VERY WELL BEHAVED.  THE BEST WE'VE SEEN!" (She had to say it twice, so that my dazed brain could focus enough to actually hear what she said.)

The kids were out-of-their minds excited by everything.  Like the audience of a rock concert the moment before the opening chords, the audience of 600+ kids (and three adults, by my count - the rest, I suspect, were hiding somewhere under the seats) vibrated with unbridled energy.  And when the play started, they screamed their roar of delight at a decibel level that would make an ground controller at the airport look for a replacement pair of ear protectors.

To my utter fascination, the kids were engaged completely in the performance.  Not just appreciating the performances, as I was taught to do, but living the moments.  Excited honking back and forth between friends while watching the physical comedy of the geese perform on stage.  Bleating in imitation of the speech patterns and physicality of the sheep and lamb.

And answering the questions.

When the newly-hatched Wilbur comes out on stage (What?  I'm no farmer - I don't know how these things work), he asks 'Who am I?  Where am I?'  The existential questions of every philosopher-poet ever - from the bowl of petunias to the sperm whale.  And the line is intended to spur the remainder of the monologue.

No chance.  'Who am I?' was immediately met with a chorus of 600 screaming kids YOU"RE WILBUR!!!!!!

'Where am I?'


During the intermission, kids stood up and replicated dialogue.  They inhabited the characters they had been watching.  They shouted, ran around, pointed, and climbed.  They lived the performance in a way that I have never done.

The second performance was, if possible louder and more energetic.

CW run-through before I inserted the ear plugs.
The third performance was an evening performance, with parents and kids.  And I liked it.  I caught snippets of dialogue that I had totally missed out on for the cacophony of audience voices that accompanied each action of the cast.  I saw subtle physical cues between cast members that reinforced the relationship of the characters: a reassuring touch here, a side-eye there, an unconscious mirroring of actions between animals standing side-by-side.

The richness of the show is incredible, and much of that richness I missed in the first two performances.  With the overwhelming sensory overload that comes with 800 screaming schoolchildren, your senses have to focus on very specific sensory inputs to be able to follow.  You have to listen carefully for the dialogue, or you will miss it.  You have to watch for the spider's descent, or you will miss it. Whatever is outside of the direct focus of your attention gets lost in the roar and the wiggle.

The evening performance allowed for the audience member to pick up on a lot more that is unavailable to the school matinee audience member.

And it was, by comparison, boring.

Not that there was anything different about the play - the actors nailed their performances and I loved the play.  But the audience participation - especially in that uninhibited way that children play - is simply not going to happen with a mostly-adult crowd.  The rules will be explained, and the limits will be set (and tested) and somebody's bottom will become strangely warmed halfway through the first act.

But the audience is separated from the action.

Just before the first performance, I leaned forward to the girls sitting in front of me and said, "You want to know a secret?  That (pointing to the program) is my sister."


And for the rest of the show, every time Charlotte made an appearance, they would both turn around in their seat and whispersqueal "THERE SHE IS!"  ...and then turn back around and interact with the play, fully committed to the action.

When it came to the 'adult' play, there were some titters and oohs and ahhs, and some appreciative laughter.  And conversations during intermission.

But not a single bleat or honk.  And I found it terribly disappointing.  Are we adults just not as affected by the majick of theater as we were as kids? Has the venue become a holy sanctuary, where we dress up and whisper in hushed tones and worship at the altar of an amazing performance, only discussing it afterwards?  Have we moved from 'play' space into 'sacred' space?  Is there any way to infuse the experience with the spirit of a thousand kids?  (OK, maybe a thousand is too many.  But the idea is still the same...)

I think I'll start the trend of interacting with the cast members during the performance.  Who's with me?  Maybe in Romeo and Juliet, I will respond when she asks "Wherefore art thou Romeo?" with:


*Yes, I know what 'wherefore' meant....

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

High Flying

The lady in the theatre stopped me and said, "Your sister is so amazing."

I went to Boston this week to watch my sister in her play at Wheelock Family Theatre, Charlotte's Web.  And Holy Hammer in Hicksville, she is awesome.  The play is amazing, and the whole cast grabs you and doesn't let you go for the whole ride.  Templeton is snarky spectacle in her pure rattiness.  Wilbur is humble and radiant.  The goose and gander make me laugh every time they are on stage.  The baby spiders are ridiculously cute...

Gary Ng took incredible shots of Charlotte and Wilbur.
But the woman was right.  The high flying Caroline Lawton is amazing.  Her aerial maneuvers display an incredible strength and show off her dedication to learning new things - she just started circus school a few months ago when she was cast.  And she is mesmerizing - you simply can't take your eyes off of her when she is on the set.

But the performance was not what the woman stopped me to talk about. She continued:

"Your sister is so kind on set.  She has really just set the tone for the whole play, of one of kindness, and the way that she has been with my daughter...."

The woman looked away to giver herself a moment to gain control of her voice again.  "Caroline has been so wonderful to all of the kids.  Your sister is amazing."

The play Charlotte's Web is about what it means to be a friend.  What it means to go from thinking only about yourself to thinking about the needs and wants of somebody else, and figuring out how you can help them.  The theme, woven throughout the script, is of selfishness versus selflessness.  Charlotte embodies the latter characteristic, and Caroline inhabits that part of the character completely, both onstage and off. 

The moment of triumph in the show for Charlotte is not the moment in which she saves Wilbur's bacon (#sorrynotsorry), but the moment when Wilbur comes to the realization that he needs to look for ways that he can be nice to others. When the gift of received friendship causes someone to move outside of self interest and find ways of doing something for others - that is the climax of the story.

How often do we do that?  Not me.  I am focused on getting my memo through the bureaucratic hoops.  I am worried about my Wednesday briefing, and how I am going to survive the next week of meetings?  I am aggravated about the paperwork, frantic over the emails, concerned about how overwhelmed I am feeling....

I.  Me.  My.

What if my focus instead were on the people around me?  What if I looked to see what Jenny is struggling with, and acted out of kindness, instead of just looking to use her to get my projects done? What if I stopped by to talk - really talk - with Brenda, instead of only leaving my desk to deal with the crisis at hand, exploding with anger that yet another memo had been hijacked and delayed?

What if I practice kindness?

I want to be amazing.  Just like my sister.

Friday, April 14, 2017

Just Sing.

Sharon Penley is the choir director at First Pres in Vicksburg.  Every week, as we choir members go to do the Sunday morning anthem, Sharon will make eye contact with whoever happens to be looking up, and will mouth the words, "Just sing."

And we do.  We are a pretty small choir, but the level of musicality is - for a small group of singers in a small town church - fairly high.  We work pretty well together, with a decent balance.  Our sound is made even better by the work of the virtuoso organist, Barbara Tracy, an unsung hero working a lovely pipe organ to its fullest potential.

This past week during rehearsal, Sharon clarified what she means by the phrase Just Sing.  During the rehearsals, she said, we are working on notes and rhythms and rests and blending, and all of the mechanics of singing.  During that time, we become aware of the physicality, and we work to make the song sound like it was intended - meeting the intent of both the composer and the director.

It is hard, she explained, to make the transition from rehearsal to worship without moving it into the performance realm.  And what we are doing, when we sing in the church service, has nothing to do with performance.  It has to do with worship.  "You are worshiping in rhythm and notes," she explained.

This week is Holy Week, and predictably, this past Sunday's church service had a huge number of powerful songs - Palm Sunday is a time for singing loud and joyfully.  There was a lovely duet between organ and piano.  Children's choir singing their hearts out while processing with palm branches.

After the Lord's Prayer, my friend Paul leaned over to me and said, "Have you heard her sing this one?"  I shook my head.  It was a powerful tune called The Holy City, and it was one of my favorites when I was a kid.  The late Doyle Langley, uber-tenor in my home church in Greenville, would sing it from time to time, and I would listen to his voice soar impossibly higher and higher, providing awe-inspiring counterpoint with the Pendleton Street organ.

(I heard the words wrong, of course, and my 10-year-old self could be heard singing my own mondegreen version for the weeks following Doyle's solo.)

This Palm Sunday, as Sharon took a breath and began, I glanced over at the other choir members, all of whom had unconsciously leaned forward in anticipation.  The song - a tone poem of sorts -starts out as recitation of a dream.  Low and deep, as if sharing a secret, Sharon built the image of children singing, and the power of her voice rumbled through the verse, a powerful engine building to the refrain.

And when she hit the refrain, her voice soared and the raw power of her song ran through the whole congregation like electricity.  Next verse, the same thing.  Impossibly, the organ increased its volume, and Sharon's voice did, too.  By the time the third verse was concluded, every eye - congregation and choir - was open wide, and every body leaned forward, not wanting to miss a single note.

Jerusalem, Jerusalem.  Sing, for the night is o'er.
Hosannah, in the highest.  Hosannah forevermore!

Sharon sang a duet with the full organ, effortlessly matching power and timbre, instrument to instrument.

It was thrilling.

In that dead silence that followed - the long beat between the last note and the universal congregational 'amens' - Paul leaned over to me and gave a stage whisper that the whole choir heard.  "That, Crorey, is what she means when she says, 'Just Sing'.

Our anthem was a beautiful, powerful piece that we all sang with wild abandon. We worshiped God, as Sharon says, through notes and rhythm.

There exist in my own life so many places where I get worked up about the song, the notes, the pitch, the breath, and the phrasing.  Through all of the overthinking and focusing on the mechanics, my voice comes out weak and timid, for fear of making a mistake.  I forget to Just Sing.  It shows up in a lot of areas of my life.

My faith is tentative, and sometimes I am uncomfortable sharing.

My work, where I fret over decisions instead of just taking the lead.

My friendships, where I worry about saying the wrong thing, and instead just remain quiet.

Some of those times, I need to hear those words from Sharon, and simply join my voice to the organ.
And just sing.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Cheese Straws as Family Trait

"I couldn't find the piece that holds the top of my pastry extruder on, so I made the cheese straws the way that my mother did, and it was so wonderful just reliving that memory."

My mom was sitting in the back seat of my wife's car, on the way to the airport.  Caroline, sitting in the front seat, looked at me strangely, apparently because of the look that had crossed my face when I overheard the conversation mom was having in the backseat with Kathe.

"She never measured anything.  She just took the block of cheese, and then added butter, and then added  flour until the consistency was right.  And it really struck a chord in my memory, because she would let me help with the mixing things together.  It really was a wonderful memory."

It was the strangest sensation.  All my life I had heard about my Nana's kitchen fiascoes.  The installed ceramic tile in her kitchen, with personalized designs from family members, one of which said:

Because Nana was, well... famous for burning things in the kitchen.

Family legend has it that my uncle Richard didn't know that scraping the burnt part off of the toast was not part of the toast-making process.  So much so, that one time when the family went out to eat, he demanded that the toast be sent back to make it right.