Thursday, November 24, 2011

Lessons from Rudolf, the Red-nosed reindeeer

Some years ago I did a post on Rudolf the Red-nosed Reindeer. It's a song that always troubled me, as it seemed so out of keeping with the general aspirational holiday cheer.

Rudolf, the Red-nosed Reindeer is such a straightforward statement that if you are or look different, others will ridicule, shun, humiliate and reject you. As you may recall, the other reindeer "laugh and call him names/They never let poor Rudolph/join in any reindeer games."

That is his life until everyone suddenly discovers that the very thing that made him different will in fact deliver a unique and crucial skill that will overcome what had been an insurmountable obstacle. Of course, "Then all the reindeer loved him/as they shouted out with glee,/Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer,/you'll go down in history!"

Clearly, for some people, anyone that is different is seen as a threat.

Perhaps some people assume if something is different it must be an enemy (?)

Perhaps some people think that, since they are perfect, anyone that doesn't resemble them is less than perfect, and must be eliminated (?)

Perhaps some people think they are perfect, thus everyone else must also think they are perfect, so their differences are in conflict, and are an alarming threat to some people's own belief system, sense of self-satisfaction and comfort (?)

But some people appreciate differences in others.

Perhaps they respond to the fact that evolutionary theory rewards those species that have variety, as it gives them more options for species survival to respond more effectively to a changing world. If a species becomes too uniform, then one problem can wipe out the entire species, because all are equally vulnerable (?)

Perhaps they realize that variety enhances survival because not everyone wants the same thing at the same time, diminishing competition and allowing peaceful coexistence (?)

Perhaps they have internalized the Rudolf lesson, that the very things that make someone different may offer key skills to the team and make the sum far greater than each individual part—a central theme in romances (?)

And clearly, the trial by fire that so many live through in environments that penalize differences can forge powerful, creative and remarkable human beings.

But it is hard on the young. For the lessons we learn in Kindergarten are not pretty and many live their whole lives trying to overcome or find forgiveness for what happened then.

In an effort to prevent teen suicides among kids with gender and sexuality issues there are resources. It gets or The Trevor Project are two.

The focus there is gender, but the basic issue is the same. Being different may not be an easy road, but it gets better—even for Rudolf. And adults have only to pause for an instant to think of all the people who were "different" that have transformed their lives and the world around them and value and support the gift of being different.

Here's hoping that the coming season gives us all things to be thankful for—the gift of accepting—indeed of celebrating our differences.  For therein lies our strength.

Isabel Swift

Monday, October 24, 2011

eReaders--Isabel Swift wonders: what's with the "But I love BOOKS" response?

I'm sure you've had the same experience--or have been one of the players in this conversation.

But first, a bit of background….

In addition to being VP of editorial for Harlequin, over a decade ago I also chaired a digital/eBook task force charged with exploring this new business opportunity. Additionally, much later, I was part of the new business group launching a number of new digital initiatives. So I guess what I'm trying to say is: I swing both ways. And in the course of my work, I had a lot of conversations with people--readers, writers, booksellers, digital entrepreneurs. Today, I still love to find out what people are reading--and how they are reading.

Back to the present. So, I'm at a dinner party, or cocktail party, or just striking up a conversation in line or traveling--and the subject of books and reading comes up. Often one person has an eReader (frequently a Kindle, sometimes an iPad or other eReader) and is either extolling its virtues, or reluctantly (or not) going through the learning curve.

Someone else invariably chimes in (sometimes with passionate intensity) "But I love BOOKS! I could NEVER get an eReader!" Then they go on a bit about the smell, turning the pages & the multitude of pleasures, information and sensation that a physical object offers. The self-confessed eReader reader is given the hairy eyeball, or at best, a pitying look. Emotions can (and have) run high over this line in the sand, this perceived chasm.

And don't get me wrong--I love books too. Physical books. But I am stumped as to why there is such a prevalent and passionate assumption that physical Vs digital is an either/or choice. Like once you purchase an eReader, a scarlet TTTWW (for Traitor To The Written Word) will be emblazoned on your forehead and a magnetic force field will drop down (visually similar to the Cone of Silence in Get Smart) preventing you from ever touching another physical book with your dirty digital hands. You have not remained faithful to the books that raised you--dipping your wick elsewhere is clearly felt to be a relationship ender.

Huh? I just don't get it. My reading world is not monogamous! I believe in choice! I love stories. I love storytellers. Books have not changed my life--stories have, with their information, insights, compelling worlds, emotional challenges and eye opening truths. Stories that are shared though listening (conversation, audio, radio, lectures,...), seeing (performance, films, TV, museums,…) or reading (books, newspapers, magazines, documents, letters,…).

Yes, the story's trasmission vehicle can make a difference in the impact of a story. Watching the Rolling Stones' Steel Wheels concert live Vs at an IMAX theatre with rabid fans Vs on a DVD alone at home delivers quite different experiences. Reading a hardcover, paperback, listening to the story on audio, reading it on an eReader all deliver a different experience.

Sure, there may be preferred formats for certain stories. Haven't you heard people say "You don't need to see that movie in a theater, it'll be fine on DVD"? I assure you watching The Rocky Horror Picture Show live at midnight is a great example of the transformative impact of how you experience a story Vs sitting at home with the remote.

But everyone understands the benefits of access, choice, convenience. As a reader, I don't like to be without something to read. And while I am usually a fairly committed reader, I must confess I'm not entirely monagamous. As a frequent traveller I have found myself lugging stacks of material: manuscripts, educational/business reading, fun reading, recommended reading, themeatically appropriate reading, books 2 and 3 in the series, just in case… You know what I'm talking about!

Now I can have everything on one slim tablet and people no longer ask me if I am carrying rocks in my suitcase. Maybe I'll have a paperback in my purse too--cheerful in the knowledge if I tire of it or finish it, I have other options. Bedtime reading with sleeping spouse can cease to be an issue with a back-lit iPad. And another interesting aspect of the digital reading experience is product privacy. No one knows what you're reading.

(Though for some that could be a drawback, as looking intellectual, educated, in-the-know and generally superior could be the key driver behind plowing through an improving literary tome. But surely a secondary market will spring up of sheaths for one's tablet that will say perhaps: "Don't bother me...Riveted by Rushdie!" or "Intellect @ Play" or "I'm improving myself. And you?")

Alternatively, maybe you really don't mind carrying two or three volumes around in your gigantic purse. Perhaps you are unmoved by the ability to download a recommended read instantly at the dinner table in The-Back-of-Beyond. Unlike me, perhaps you may have a house filled with empty shelves, just waiting to be filled, with your other bookshelves are stacked with easy-to-find, easy-to-search titles. But that is not my world.

So enough with this "I love BOOKS!". Of course you do. But I love stories….

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Ask a Busy Person...

You know the aphorism: "if you want to get something done, ask a busy person." ?

Well, I am here to say: "So True!"


"Let me explain!"

Because why is it true? Why is asking a not-busy person--a seemingly obvious choice--so challenging and problematic?

Well, let me walk you through it. Let's just say you have nothing to do and someone (a spouse with a full time job, perhaps) approaches you with a task: a request to pick up some dry-cleaning. Because hey, you're not doing anything, right?

"Honey, could you pick up the dry-cleaning? I have a million things I have to do & don't have the time," they'd ask.

What has just happened?

Well, your workload has just hundred percent (100%) !

You're laughing, but that is exactly what it feels like.

Because what is not appreciated is that in addition to a massive workload increase (and the sense that a steaming turd has been laid in the center of your delightful and bucolic world), by taking on that task, numerous other tasks will have to join it. It can be overwhelming.

Because now you have to...

- get up, take off your pajamas, take a shower
- dry off, select and put on clothes, do makeup, brush hair
- find the laundry ticket, money, the dry cleaner's address
- figure out how to get there: drive, walk, bus, etc., figure out when to leave
- research the route, or figure to park,
- mentally prepare yourself to encounter numerous strangers and unpredictable people, respond to questions
- gather articles, transact business, carry everything back & put everything away

It's exhausting to think about.

Whereas if you had a hundred things to do, one more is only 1/100th. Often, that's what it feels like. And likely it seems like you're wading through crap all day--what's another bit?

And while everyone has an upper limit, usually one more thing is nothing. You're already up, showered, shaved and out the door. Depending on location, there are a number of slots that picking up the dry cleaning would fit into--on the way to work, at lunch, on the way back; it's just a brief detour, no trouble at all, really!

Somewhat frighteningly, often the less you do, the less you can do. And the more you do, the more you can do.

So lighten your load with care, or nothing will get done.

Isabel Swift

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Control Vs Lack of Control

Holding on. Letting go.

Just met a photographer at a two hour batik/dye class who said she was there because she wanted to push herself creatively in areas where she wasn't—and couldn't be—in control. Because she knew she relished and enjoyed the control she exercised over her photographic images—it was aligned with her natural inclinations. And she knew as an artist, she needed to challenge her comfort zone on occasion.

She did watercolor for the same reason. You can't "fix" a "mistake" with water color. You have to listen to the medium and figure out how to reimagine your vision to work with whatever happened. Which can sometimes mean heading off in new, unexpected and eye-opening directions.

Then some years ago, walking into a group of office crafters—knitting, crochet—it seemed a homogeneous gathering of like-minded souls. But mention the word "felting" and the room divides, half enthusiastic, half appalled. Because for some, knitting is about choice and control of all the variables—patterns, colors, materials, tools and talent. And felting, with its 'lets-just-toss-that-thing-in-the-washing-machine-and-see-what-happens' attitude is utterly antithetical to what they do, what they enjoy. Because it's out of their control. And for others, that's the point and the fun.

Of course people aren't all one way or another—they usually have areas where they want and need control, and other areas where they are totally laissez-faire. Though some can be judgemental about another's excessive (or shocking lack of) control in whatever area they differ on! But I will have to explain the Janci Curve in another post....

Do you have areas that you think are too tightly wrapped and could benefit from some loosening or experimentation? Or areas where you're a little too experimental and need some focus and discipline?

My answer is...all of the above!

Isabel Swift

Friday, June 24, 2011

Drink Local - Thoughts on trends by Isabel Swift

Finally, I can be trendy!

When I'm at a restaurant and the waiter arrives and asks..."Would you prefer sparkling or still mineral water?" I no longer have to be branded as a plebian, one of the unwashed, uncultured and/or possibly just cheap types, as I have in the past (responding with the low-brow..."Actually, tap water is fine, thank you.")

Now I can say, "Thank you, but I prefer local water."

I can even give them the hairy eyeball for suggesting any right thinking human would insist on importing their water, complete with non-bio-degradable plastic or costly glass not to mention the diesel/gas costs for lugging the tonnage from whatever pure-sounding, exotic, or just plain expensively packaged product to my table.

I mean really! When fresh, local water is available (free of charge, I might add) bubbling from a tap RIGHT THERE in the restaurant. Their own private and locally grown pipe-fed spring. It doesn't get much more local than that!

And filled with locally grown minerals and other nutrients, each local water has its own individual and unique bouquet. That's what local is all about, isn't it?

(Add in as much of the rest of the pro-local verbiage as you choose).

Take my word for it, you are definitely on the moral high ground here.

Drink up!

Monday, May 23, 2011

The "R" Word... by Isabel Swift

I thought I'd share a talk I gave on "The Substance of Romance" for the University of Pennsylvania Humanities Forum almost ten years ago (October 17th 2002)! I am indebted to Anne Maxwell/Elizabeth Lowell for her ideas included in a talk she gave at a Novelists Inc. conference many years ago. I don't have the dates, but do know I have internalized her insights on literature/popular fiction and incorporate them here. Hope you enjoy!

The Substance of Romance/Isabel Swift:

I love reading romances. I love reading what might be termed “literary” romances. I love reading romances that are part of what would be defined as “popular fiction.”

Today I will be taking you through: a definition of terms; a brief historical framework of the genre; the wide ranging, broad and successful aspect of romances; criticisms the genre faces. But I plan mostly to focus on the remarkable timeless appeal of the romance genre, how it crosses boundaries of time & culture, how it has changed and continues to change as it continues to grow and thrive

So what is a romance? It is a work of fiction where the focus of the story is on the developing relationship between two people. The story’s climax resolves it and delivers a sense of emotional “justice” and satisfaction.

As with any genre, there must be essential narrative elements, or it’s not a romance: The center of the story is a love story with an emotionally satisfying ending. Archetypic narrative elements broadly include 5 things: Meeting; Attraction; Barrier; Destruction of barrier; Declaration.

In a tale well told, the destruction of that barrier frees the characters from their constraints. It empowers them to choose; it enables them to act—and the reader rejoices.

The genre is a diverse one, with many sub-genres, from contemporary to historical romances: Sexy, Sweet, Suspense, Paranormal, Humorous, Fantasy, Inspirational, Western, Regency...the possibilities are endless and endless possibilities have been explored. Romances have a universal and timeless appeal.

There is no unanimously agreed upon “first” romance, though romantic texts have been cited as early as the 4th Century B.C. The crusades, Arabian fables & chivalry all incorporate elements of romance. But in 1740 Samuel Richardson’s PAMELA delivered a clear romance novel and a best-selling one at that (interestingly beloved of both men & women at the time). In Clara Reeve’s Progress of Romance (1785) she notes that: Novels were seen as “pictures of real life and manners, and of the times in which they were written.” Whereas romances used “lofty and elevated language, describing what has never happened, nor is likely to.”

Some of what we see now as ‘overblown’ prose clearly springs from this historical vision of romance. Henry Fielding (1707-1754) an 18th Century kind of guy who wrote a take-off on PAMELA— SHAMELA scorned romances. Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832) a 19th Century type of guy and a ‘romantic’ scorned a novelist like Jane Austen (1775-1817). But both Scott and Austen wrote romances—one wrote larger than life stories, drawn on a sweeping canvas; one more intimate tales, realistic and of the times.

Romances in general represent over half adult popular mass market fiction—depending on your definition of “romance.” It was a 1.5 billion dollar industry last year (2001), with more than 2,000 titles released. 50 million women in North America read romances. Clearly romances are a vital element of our lives and in our literature. The stories cross cultures. They cross centuries. They continue to have phenomenal appeal.

While I want to focus on exploring that appeal, I did want to respond to some of my favorite criticisms of the genre: I must note that almost all criticisms are voiced by people who declare—without shame, I might add—that they’ve never actually read any romances. Interestingly, they do not see this fact as a disqualification for an opinion!

There’s the ‘pornography’ one, which I can’t imagine anyone who has ever read a romance lending any credence to. The essence of a romance is about the unique rightness of uniting these particular two people and the challenges they face in creating a good partnership. The stories are about both the emotional and physical connection—body and soul. Some romances are certainly sexy—but the physical is always in the context of a connection between two unique people.

Romances are sometimes faulted for having romantic conventions and being part of a genre. Like Homer (and I feel that one could convincing argue that the Odyssey is a quintessential romance) and the Homeric epithet, these familiar elements are ways the teller of the tale communicates to her reader that she is in a genre—a world both familiar and new. While humans can enjoy change and uncertainty, many also enjoy elements in their life that can be depended on and are relaxing. The issue of “sameness” is the point, not the problem. If we turned some of these principals to, say, sports—I think we’d find some interesting commonalties and insights....

162 baseball games every year—year after year. Football, basketball, hockey, all are much the same....Same number of players, same positions. Now isn’t that boring? Don’t guys get tired of it? Don’t they wish everyone just switched places every inning or so? Or we added a few players? Or took some away? Just think of what the response would be to that—Outrageous! Absurd! It wouldn’t be baseball! (or football, or whatever). By the same token, a romance without the essential elements would not be a romance—it would not deliver the key elements that inspired the reader to select that genre and that story to begin with.

People decide to watch a basketball game because they want to watch a certain number of players of a particular sex play in a specific setting under a clear set of rules. And even within basketball, viewers are highly specific, many preferring to watch only professional or college or women’s basketball (or whatever). The rules are different; it’s a more exciting game, or less political (or whatever). Now that seems to me to be a fairly rigidly codified entertainment viewing experience, doesn't it? Yet those same viewers express surprise at hearing similar types of preferences voiced with reading romances. Go figure.

With the sports viewing experience one could argue it is the suspense of finding out who wins that makes each game interesting. But the fact is that some people enjoy suspense—I really don’t.

Romance readers enjoy reading about relationships—they are interested in how the relationship puzzle is worked out. We read because we are optimistic, and we enjoy the genre's assurance that sometimes things work out for the best. We believe in the positive power of love and in its ability to overcome obstacles. It gives us strength and hope as we face our own lives and the world we live in. In the stories the heroine—and she is a heroine, not a “protagonist”—has a right to find happiness. She must discover what that means for her—which is often a process of self discovery and self acceptance. She must also have the courage to go after it. And happiness may not be what is expected.

Romances are usually by, for and about women. The heroine is the center, it is her story. They are stories of empowerment—stories where women succeed, her values are confirmed, her beliefs are validated. Ultimately, love is seen as a vitally important ingredient to life by both sexes. And all are worthy of love. But before hero or heroine can surmount the ‘barrier’ they each must become a more complete and whole person. Strong enough to partner with another—to love and be loved.

And who does not want to be loved, valued and appreciated for who we are? Most also want to grow, succeed and be challenged to be more. Romances celebrate the commonalties and the differences—and each story strives to find that resonant middle ground. Romances explore the compromises we must make to live with others. To understand what are reasonable accommodations, and what are not. They remind us of the challenges of building a relationship, but also the triumphs.

It is hard to live with others and to share! But these are skills we need to work on as humans—we only have to look at the news to understand why.

Ideally the process of the romance story is the alignment of the yin/yang and the expression of the reverse circle in each—black within white, white within black, Jung’s animus and anima. The partnership allows a balance between hero and heroine, freeing the woman to be more independent, sexual, confident; freeing the man to be more vulnerable, emotional, capable of compromise. The whole becomes greater than the sum of its parts and forms the basis for a partnership—a family.

One could divide literature through the ages into tragedy or comedy: Tragedy: usually political, focused on power, often pessimistic, and ends in death. Comedy: focuses on social issues; optimistic, often ends in marriage—a celebration of life.

Romances have a positive, life affirming resolution—a HEA (Happily Ever After). Love stories, or stories with romantic elements don't necessarily.

If we look at Shakespeare’s tragedies & comedies: Romeo and Juliet, though an intensely romantic love story is, of course, one of his tragedies because they all die. His romances—the Tempest being the best known—ends in marriage & his comedies do too.

Tragedies force us to face our mortality—a difficult, but necessary lesson. Works that address this are often deemed literature. The comic genre has a much harder time catching that ‘literary’ brass ring, but they serve to remind us why it is we are happy to be alive, and why we’d rather not die, though we know we must.

Romances are stories that are meant to be entertaining. They aren’t how-to manuals for life, but they express a belief in life’s possibilities and the potential for change—even if it is only change within. Romances make you feel good.

Romances authors usually start out or become readers. Their goals are to give back to their readers the pleasure they got from reading. They work to make the reading experience as enjoyable as possible. I don’t think anyone asks how many calories you’ve burned or weight you’ve lost going to the movies—you go to the gym for that! Romance writer's desire is to entertain, not exercise. Everyone should feel empowered to take some time for pure enjoyment, to relax, refresh and center themselves, whatever that means to them.

Romances remind us of the world’s possibilities and the belief that partnerships—though difficult to establish and maintain—are possible, and can deliver remarkable benefits.

The romance genre springs from universal myths, tales and legends: the moral lessons, quests and the struggle between Good and Evil. Romances celebrate the ability of hero and heroine to to have courage and compassion, to challenge themselves, perservere and transcend obstacles—both real and metaphorical—through the power of love.

And I think we should continue to nurture and cherish those beliefs, now more than ever.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Requesters and Diviners (or askers and guessers)

I have always enjoyed reading advice columnists, a pleasure which has increased with the advent of the net and the ability of others to post comments on both their opinion of  the advice as well as responses to the LW (letter writer in advice column parlance!).

My brilliant friend, Ellen Kushner, shared this link, which links to this link, which offers the following paradigm that  presents and explains the two different, and occasionally contentious cultures of the Asker (Requester) Vs the Guesser (Diviner).  It's a facinating--and I found very helpful--insight into how differently people react to the same stimulus.  Here's an exerpt from one of the links that lays out the paradigm in a response to a query:

"This is a classic case of Ask Culture meets Guess Culture.

"In some families, you grow up with the expectation that it's OK to ask for anything at all, but you gotta realize you might get no for an answer. This is Ask Culture.

In Guess Culture, you avoid putting a request into words unless you're pretty sure the answer will be yes. Guess Culture depends on a tight net of shared expectations. A key skill is putting out delicate feelers. If you do this with enough subtlety, you won't even have to make the request directly; you'll get an offer. Even then, the offer may be genuine or pro forma; it takes yet more skill and delicacy to discern whether you should accept.

"All kinds of problems spring up around the edges. If you're a Guess Culture person -- and you obviously are -- then unwelcome requests from Ask Culture people seem presumptuous and out of line, and you're likely to feel angry, uncomfortable, and manipulated.

"If you're an Ask Culture person, Guess Culture behavior can seem incomprehensible, inconsistent, and rife with passive aggression.

"Obviously she's an Ask and you're a Guess. (I'm a Guess too. Let me tell you, it's great for, say, reading nuanced and subtle novels; not so great for, say, dating and getting raises.)

"Thing is, Guess behaviors only work among a subset of other Guess people -- ones who share a fairly specific set of expectations and signalling techniques. The farther you get from your own family and friends and subculture, the more you'll have to embrace Ask behavior. Otherwise you'll spend your life in a cloud of mild outrage at the Cluelessness of Everyone.

"As you read through the responses to this question, you can easily see who the Guess and the Ask commenters are. It's an interesting exercise."

posted by tangerine at 11:38 PM on January 16, 2007 [859 favorites]

You will indeed be able to determine which are Ask and which Guess as you read the comments.  Though I hate to call them "guessers" as this type works hard to read the signals so they aren't guessing.  What seems particularly poignant is that even after the two positions are explained, some of the responders are still on their moral high horse of outrage, excoriating the hapless requester as being poorly brought up and horrifyingly rude.

This is what diversity training is all about! We tend to work from our own experience and make assumptions about behavior based, naturally, on ourselves.   And I must say it makes me nervous when people are vilified for behaving differently.  For, as Hamlet notes to his friend, "There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy." (Hamlet, Act 1, Scene 5)

So if you are a Diviner/Guesser, try to avoid feeling pressured by a request.  Channel your inner Asker and realize you can Just Say No.  Really.  They will likely not hate you forever.  They were just asking!  And by the same token as a Diviner, work on asking more, hating people forever less, and finding a reasonable common ground.

If you're an Asker/Requester, try to avoid putting pressure on with a request if you don't know the person well--or even if you do.  Try to offer a face-saving out or reassurances.  There are mine fields, and whether you choose to be aware of them or not, you may lose limbs and/or friendships!

I hope you found this as insightful as I did.  I confess to being a diviner, but have close family members who are askers.  I work on responding in kind and trying to channel their straightforwardness when I need it!

So...are you a requester or diviner?

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Travel Tip

Frequent air travelers may already have figured this one out, but this has proved helpful to me. I hope it will be helpful to you.

Advice on what to do when you are at the airport and discover your flight has been delayed:

It has been my experience that airlines representatives will avoid direct lying, but may not always tell the truth (exactly) and often not the whole truth (especially not in announcements). So the challenge is to figure out what are the right questions to ask. Questions that will compel them to deliver real information (Vs whatever they need to do to keep everyone calm).

So if there's a delay, start with the question:

- Is the equipment in? (that is, is the plane assigned to fly you out actually here). This is especially important when there are weather issues.

If it is not, where is it coming from? Has it taken off? If not, why not, are planes taking off from that airport? How long does it take to get here from there? Have there been delays landing at your airport.

If it is in, why is there a delay?

- Is it mechanical (what is wrong, what is happening, any time estimate? is there an alternative plane available if it doesn't get fixed? Is there an alternative flight available if it doesn't get fixed?)

If it is not mechanical, what is it? Are all the crew here? If not, where are they coming from? When will they likely arrive? This usually doesn't come into play unless a plan is delayed a long time & at a late hour, but crews can "expire" or time out. They are legally mandated not to work for more than a certain number of hours. Once thunderstorms kept all planes grounded for hours until quite late at night. Planes had to wait for a certain amount of time after any lightning event and there came a point that a couple of members of the crew would simply time out. There were no replacements available at that point, so the flight would be cancelled & we'd all have to go home & come back the next day. We squeaked in, but it's worth asking about the crew if you've had a long delay & need to get a clearer picture of the variables to make plans.

My eye opening experience was once when I was flying out of Toronto, and the plane was delayed.

- Airline: board indicates flight is 1/2 hour delayed. It's winter and there is "weather."

- Me to airline representative behind gate: why is it delayed? Is the equipment in?

- Airline: Equipment coming in was delayed, but is due in shortly & we'll turn it around quickly.

- Me: Where is it coming from?

- Airline: (pause) I'll have to check..... Chicago.

- Me: Thanks--but isn't the weather coming from Chicago? Has it taken off yet?

- Airline: (pause) I'll have to check..... No it is still on the runway.

- Me: Oh. Thanks. Are any flights taking off from Chicago right now?

- Airline: (pause) I'll have to check....yes, they have just started flying out of Chicago.

- Me: Do you know where it is in line for take off?

- Airline: I don't know, but it's on the runway, not at the gate, so it's in line (a bit long-suffering at this point).

- Me: Great! Once it takes off, how long a flight is it from Chicago?

- Airline: A little over an hour.

- Me: And then it's about 1/2 hour to turn the plane around, right?

- Airline: Yes (a bit terse).

- Me: So with waiting for take off, travel time and turnaround time, it doesn't look like the 1/2 hour late on the board is likely to happen, more like 2 hours if we're lucky, right?

- Airline: (surly) Yes.

- Me: Thanks. Guess I'll go get something to eat....

And remember, don't kill the messenger. They are a key player in helping you, so alienating them by venting is not only not fair, it is not in your best interest.

So the moral of this story (and so many others) is:

What questions should you be asking?

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

A Twist of Lemon

Have you ever had a cocktail? I remember when I was younger being curious about the mystery of mixing drinks, and watching and learning from my father. Cocktails were these magic elixirs, complex, mysterious, alluring. Cooking held little interest for me, but making the right twist of lemon was an art I delighted in learning.

My father enjoyed a martini and took pleasure in the details. The right glass, the balance of tastes, the brand, crushing the ice in his hand with a spoon to get the right size slivers, the perfect chill, the right additions. Everything had impact. Everything mattered. And when I would taste the drink, I had to acknowledge that indeed, it did.

As I recall, we were a lemon twist family. I don't think I learned of olives or onions until some much later date, though limes and even an occasional mint sprig would find its way into a seasonal libation.

But the lemon twist was what made the average drink exceptional.

It started with finding a firm, fresh lemon, with unblemished substantial skin. Not for us those thin-skinned lime-look-alikes. A small, sharp knife was needed and a lengthwise strip would be cut from stem to stern. A bit of white was acceptable, but you were looking to get a nice 1/4 inch (finger wide) ribbon of the yellow top coat, covered with tiny pores.

You'd take that ribbon and squeeze it over the surface of your completed cocktail, white inside toward you, the outer skin facing the drink likemy father would gleefully explainyou were squeezing blackheads. And oil did indeed emerge from the peel squeezing, creating a film of lemon essence, an oil slick on the surface of the drink.

You would then gently sweep the perimeter of the glass with the outside of the peel and drop it into the drink (twisting the peel would deliver similar oil-inducing pressure, but is less thorough, in my opinion). As my father noted, one didn't really taste much after the first sip of a drink. The chill, the alcohol, would often take over, so the fact the oil essence didn't last much beyond that initial sip didn't matter. What mattered was that first sip was exquisite, sparkling, aromatic, heady.

However my experience with almost all ordered cocktails is dreadfully disappointing in this area. Most bartenders take the words "with a twist" at face value, and some variety of a curlicue of lemon appears, extracted by an assortment of designer bar implements and it sits decoratively on the edge of your drink. Useless as teats on a bull.

The whole point of a twist of lemon is to add a touch of fresh lemon oil to your drink, for reasons of taste. Not solely to stick a piece of lemon rind in your drink! But almost everyone misses the point. They make a living doing this, and they still don't have their eye on the donut, the key deliverable, the "beef" and not the bun.

Missingor just not understandingthe point is not a new issue.  It can be a problem for aspiring writers too, who may dutifully following the letter Vs the spirit of instructions. Doing something without really understanding why it needs to be done, what value it offers, can lead you astray. It's often why editorial instructions, tip sheets, etc. can sometimes be non-existent, minimalist or vaguebecause the requesters know that some information can mislead instead of inform.

In fact, information can distract you from focusing on the point.  As an adviser, you really want the creator to understand that it's all about achieving the goal: creating the feeling, having the impact, making the experience happen for the recipient. Not (necessarily) about taking each step correctly, following rules, or delivering on the surface requirements, but not the substance. Instructions or information can be helpful, but when it comes down to it, the question will always be: is it delicious? Do I want to keep drinking (or reading, or whatever).

So if you're having trouble making your text behave, now at least now you'll know what to add to that beverage you're going to be fixing yourself!

Do it with a twist.