Saturday, January 23, 2016

Keeping Track

I spent the other morning hanging out at the car shop. The spouse was on the hook for this, but woke up sick. So I arranged to hang out and work remotely while they gave the car its 120,000 mile service. After about an hour, they came with the news. In addition to the thorough tuneup and inspection, we needed new spark plugs (expected) and a new oil pan gasket (unsurprising, but unpleasant news nonetheless). I took a look at the quote, took a deep breath, and then they went off to improve our car and degrade our bank balance.

I was frustrated because it seemed like this was the second or third big repair for this car this year. So I plugged the amount into my list of car repairs. Then I texted the spouse about the cost of the car over the past year, which as I suspected was pretty high. His response, wisely, was that this was about $170 a month in repairs and that this was an atypical year (with new tires, struts, shocks, and now the plugs and gasket). He reminded me that in previous years the costs were much lower. Yet even in this very high year, that's a lot less than the payment on a new car, especially for a nice hybrid that still runs well and looks good. I also noted, that our even older vehicle, which runs OK, but doesn't look that great only cost us $60 a month in repairs for 2015.

Note: This isn't total cost of ownership by the way (registration, gas, etc.) it only includes maintenance and fixes that we wouldn't have with a new car.

Attitude adjusted. Even though our car cost us a lot in the past 12 months, it's still far less than a new version of itself, or even a new car that's not as good. But without my tracking, I would have been going by my gut feeling and remembering how much work we put into it recently and, well, there I was at the dealership surrounded by bright shiny new cars... this is how poor decisions are made.

Before I get too full of our l33t family decision making, I should point out that it's the tracking that's the secret sauce. By keeping track of repairs over time, it's easy to get an accurate perspective. Of course I'm prone to this kind of behavior. I'm a PM by vocation and blood and just enjoy keeping on top of stuff. But I'm constantly amazed at the benefits of keeping track of things. Here's a list of items that I track, and how they benefit our family:

THE BUDGET
Of all the things I keep track of, THE BUDGET is the most important (see, it's even in caps). There are lots of way to keep a budget, including nifty tools that might be provided by mint.com or your bank. I happen to keep our budget in Excel because it's fun (I realize I may be a minority opinion on that topic) and I can make it do whatever I want. I've got income, bills, spending, savings, and debt going back to the beginning of 2011. I have nifty charts and graphs. I can tell you how much we spent on gas for our cars for the last 5 years or medical expenses in March 2013. I can even tell you how much I spent on the cars themselves. I don't think I have to explain why this is important, but let me just say that without THE BUDGET, we'd be totally screwed.

Dinner
This is new, but I've started keeping a list of what we have for dinner. Why? Two reasons. First is that the more we cook and eat at home, the better (for our budget and our health). So using the Don't Break the Chain technique and my outliner, I mark the days where we cook dinner. Then, I make a quick note of what we had. This is to solve an issue we have with leftovers. Often, we'll look in the fridge and see some leftover (either meal or ingredient -- like half a jar of tomato paste or something). But no one will be able to remember how old it is and, therefore, whether we should eat it or toss it. We were trying to get into the habit of putting dates on things when we put them away, but it's easier to just keep a short log of what we ate when. For example, this morning I found a chunk of pot roast in a container. Checking in my list (which I can do by searching for 'beef') I discovered that we ate pot roast on the 12th... yuck. So that will get tossed out.

Exercise
This is another break the chain effort. But in addition, I've been noting why I didn't exercise. It's usually some early appointment, meeting, or activity. It makes me think I really need a backup time for when I can't exercise before work in the morning. Exercise is a new habit I'm trying to make, so it's easy for me to get derailed by any other change to my schedule.

My Balanced Scorecard
So how do you pull all that tracking together for something useful?

For the last few years, I've been making myself an annual balanced scorecard. This is what I do instead of making new year's resolutions. The balanced scorecard is a tool that businesses and organizations use to align their higher level goals to their day to day activities. It's a way of making sure that everyone in a company is working toward the same strategy and that everyone's performance is based on measurable goals that fit into the overall plan. Of course, I had to shake things up a bit to create my own version.

The original balanced scorecard included four categories: financial, customer, internal business processes, learning and growth. For each category, the business can identify objectives, measures, targets, and initiatives that meet the goals for the category. The theory is that all successful business enterprises should be focused on similar classes of goals. And you could absolutely use the business metrics or adjust them slightly for personal use (customer = family?). My four categories are based on the things in my life I'm currently working on and include: prosperity, health/fitness, artistic/creative, and family. For each category, I try to come up with actionable steps in four areas: physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual/magical.

Physical items include the action and tasks you need to take to meet the goal. They are the real-world change to manifest whatever you want to accomplish. Emotional items include perspective change, affirmations, and actions that affect your emotional response to the situation in a way that helps meet the goal (these psychological tricks are super powerful and I'll have a whole post on them at some point). Mental items include tracking and analysis tasks as well as research and learning you need to do to reach the goal. Spiritual items include both religious activities (in the loosest sense: offerings, prayers, meditation/reflection) as well as magical activities. The areas are ordered from most concrete to most ethereal.

This is my actual empty scorecard for 2016
If you were going to fill one of these out, how would it work?

First, create a vision of the life you want. This is the personal equivalent of a corporate vision and like some corporate visions, it can be hard to articulate. Second, identify the three or four broad categories that you want to work on -- where there's a gap between your vision and your current life or where you need to change things up to continue making progress. Third, for each category, come up with a high level goal. Finally, for each area try to come up with actionable and, if possible, measurable steps that match the goal. I find that the steps across the different areas for a category often work neatly together to form the bones of what could be a nice PMPM working.

For example:

Prosperity goal: save 6 months living expenses by cutting expenses
Steps:
   Physical: create a budget based on current spending (this is always the first step to any kind of financial goal by the way -- if you don't know where you are, you won't get far no matter where you're going). Identify how to cut 25% from your spending. Cut your spending and auto-deposit that money directly into savings. If any bonus money comes your way, also put that directly into savings.
  Emotional: stop carrying around your credit card to avoid emotional impulse spending. Create an affirmation that reflects the importance of your goal ("my savings brings me peace of mind").
  Mental: create a nifty graphic (like one of those fund-raising thermometers) where you can track your savings. Put it someplace where you can see it -- put it someplace where everyone can see it. And keep it up to date every month.
  Spiritual: create a sigil for fiscal responsibility and carry it in your wallet. Create a household altar with symbols of prosperity. Offer to your ancestors to help insure the prosperity of your household. Do a honey/money jar to attract wealth. Etc. etc.

Here is one of my actual goals for 2016...

Health / Fitness goal: Improve my overall health by getting regular exercise
Steps:
   Physical: Rejoin the gym and exercise (swim, talk, workout) at least 3x per week, buy gear to exercise comfortably
   Emotional: State intention to be healthy, give myself permission to take care of myself and honor my schedule so that I can do so
   Mental: Track exercise -- don't break the chain
   Spiritual: Practice meditation more regularly by meditating in the steam room or hot tub at the gym

Not every goal will have items in each area and some will be more concrete than others, but the idea is to approach each goal in as many areas as is logical, and to make each items as measurable as possible. This goes for both project goals (where there is a specific end result) and operations goals (where the goal is the formation of a new habit or lifestyle change). Then at the end of the year, you can give yourself a score based on how well you did.

In 2015, I accomplished a 3.5 of 4 on my prosperity goal, which was an operational goal with a large emotional and physical component as well as a mental and spiritual project (which was successful). However, I only managed a 1 of 4 each on my health and family goals and a 2 of 4 on my creativity goal (where I gave myself credit for something I did that wasn't in my initial plan but did move me toward my goal).

See, even I don't reach every goal I set for myself. These tools make things simpler, but that doesn't mean EASY necessarily.

And not everything has to happen at once either. This year I'm starting by focusing on my existing health goal in the hopes of making a lasting habit. My prosperity goal is new for 2016 and I've identified a few things I can do starting now as well, but the bulk of the work will be happening in Q2 and 3 of this year. It helps that I can look at the previous year and figure out what went well and what fell down.

So here's to the strange and derided art of keeping track in order to keep on track.

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Sunday, January 17, 2016

Fly Through the Resolution...

I wanted to wait until mid-month to bring this up, after the first blush of the New Year wore away a bit and we all woke up and realized that, different calendar or not, we are still the same people we were a couple of weeks ago.

On New Years Day, I caught a really amusing news segment on resolutions already broken. People on the street who confessed that their resolution was to stop smoking while holding a cigarette or to eat better though they had doughnuts for breakfast. Of course this should come as no surprise as the media has also been filled with the encouraging statistic that only 8% of Americans who make resolutions achieve them. Since only 45% of Americans make them in the first place, that implies that only 3.6% of all Americans can keep a resolution that they make (though there may be people who don't make New Year's resolutions who can very easily keep what resolutions they do make, the anecdotal evidence is that the vast majority of people can't).

As people who use magic (by whatever title), we should be in that 3.6%. After all, the application of Will is supposed to be what we're all about. But I'm guessing that a lot of you, like me, have resolved plenty that we have then not accomplished (sometimes we're them).

I'm going to make the argument that the problem are resolutions themselves.



The word resolve has two distinct meanings:
: to find an answer or solution to (something) : to settle or solve (something)
: to make a definite and serious decision to do something : to make a formal decision about something usually by a vote
-- Merriam-Webster online

The term resolution also contains this definition, which is what people are thinking when they make New Year's resolutions:
: a formal expression of will, opinion, or intent...

So, resolutions can be both decisions (and the expression of those decisions) AND solutions.

Well, no wonder we can't keep our resolutions! First of all, just deciding to do something (or stop doing something) isn't actionable. Decisions alone don't get you anyplace. You need a concrete goal, a feasible plan, and doable tasks that you can accomplish. This is a planning problem and you know how I feel about that sort of thing. But I'm not immune to it. There was a time, in this century, but before the kid was born, where I seriously had a resolution that I made like three years running, but never reached, to go to the dentist. And I'd like to nominate that as the most pathetic resolution, let alone resolution that you don't accomplish. After all, I had dental insurance at the time. And it takes all of 15 minute to find a dentist, call them, and make an appointment. But while "look up dentist on insurance list" and "make dental appointment" are both highly actionable, "go to the dentist" isn't. So I didn't do anything about it, for several years. Pathetic.

But even for more important or meaty resolutions, a solution to a problem isn't something you just decide to have. It's not starting point, it's a destination. You have to work your way to the solution. You have to find it and then implement it. If the problem is that you feel like crap, you can't just resolve to be healthier. Because "be healthier" isn't a solution to anything and even if it was, deciding to be healthier doesn't implement the solution. This is a temporal problem (jumping ahead to the result). Smoking is a great example of this. People resolve to quit smoking all the time. The problem is that quit is not an instant state, it's a process by which you work through the challenges and cravings and fail and restart, hopefully to end up at non-smoker sometimes in the future. Instead of "quit smoking" -- an effort that will fail at the first weakening of will -- a better resolution is "become a non-smoker." This is a decision you can make to implement a solution to a problem. Of course, you still have to come up with a plan. Will you go to the doctor, get on the patch, quit cold turkey with a carrot stick in hand and then forgive your inevitable failures? Until you know, you won't be able to do much.

Before any smokers complain, I should point out that in my early 20s, I was a pack a day smoker myself. But at this point I am a non-smoker and haven't had a cigarette for probably close to 20 years*. If you're curious, my process to become a non-smoker was a spatial one. First, I stopped smoking in the car (in winter, which made it easier because I didn't want the window open). Then I quit during my workday, which involved finding people to chat with who didn't take smoke breaks and getting snacks instead. Then I stopped smoking in our house, in summer when it was really hot outside (which meant that my boyfriend also had to stop). Then I stopped smoking in anyone else's house (which was easy, because most people don't like that anyway). Then I stopped smoking while drinking. Each of those steps took time and willpower. But eventually, there were only a few places and times where I could smoke. At other times, I'd promise myself I could have a cigarette later (I accidentally stumbled on this now well-researched trick). Then, at the end, I concentrated all my willpower on the few times left... and then I didn't smoke anymore. The whole process took, well, over a year I think. It was as far from a one-time declaration as possible.

* Yes, this means I'm older than you.

Below are 5 of the top 6 New Year's Resolutions in 2016 (according to some survey that is probably pretty unscientific). If this is what people are resolving, I'm not at all surprised that like 92% of people fail. Accurate or not, I'm going to take these in reverse order, explain why they're undoable, and then suggest alternatives. Now, I'm aware, that resolutions are traditionally short statements or declarations. It might be that behind the scenes, people are actually doing all the good goal definition or planning. But if they were, we'd probably see a better success rate, so assume that the resolution we have here is all that there is.

Don't do this.

Pay down debt
This is probably the most doable of the resolutions in the list, though it's still missing key aspects. I'm not going to complain that this isn't a good idea, in fact it's a very good idea that has all kinds of positive repercussions. The problem is that this is not yet a goal and there's no plan for achieving it. Before anything else, you need to start by understanding how much debt you have and what interest its charging. And then you need to do a budget to see where your money is going. This activity could take you a couple of weeks or more, depending on how nebulous your finances currently are to you. And that's only the first step.

After that, we need to make the goal more concrete:
  • pay down $10,000 in debt
  • pay off high interest credit card
  • pay off car loan early
  • pay extra on the mortgage
All these goals require sending more money to the debt than you have been. So where will that money come from? Maybe your goal is really "make more money and use it to pay down $10k in debt." That's better, but even better is including how you will make that money. Or maybe instead of making more money, you want to re-purpose the money you have. So now your resolutions look like this:
  • take a weekend job and use the money to pay down $10,000 in debt
  • cancel the cable and use the money to pay off high interest credit card
  • sell comic collection on ebay and pay off car loan
  • stop buying Starbucks and pay extra on the mortgage
Finally we should include a time frame that depends on the means and the size of the debt:
  • take a weekend job and use the money to pay down $10,000 in debt by the end of the year
  • cancel the cable and use the money to pay off high interest credit card by August 2017
  • sell comic collection on ebay and pay off car loan six months early
  • stop buying Starbucks and pay $50 a month extra on the mortgage
From this longer, but much more actionable resolution, you can easily create a list of tasks you need to do go accomplish this goal, from applying at the coffee shop to buying coffee to make at home, or photographing your comics or calling the cable company. Things you can actually do.

Spend more time with family and friends
Human connection is something that's really necessary for health and happiness. When people make this resolution, they are probably feeling lonely and disconnected. We're fundamentally social animals after all.

This is a somewhat concrete goal, but what's missing is the HOW and WHY. First, how much time are you actually spending with your network and how much would you like to? This is your gap to fill. And how do you see these people now? Do you have breakfast together, watch movies, play poker? The next question is why don't you see them more? Are you working too much? Are they? Are your kids massively over-scheduled? Are you disorganized and don't return calls or reach out as much as you want? This is an exercise in understanding and scoping the problem.

Once you have a better grip on the problem, you need to clearly identify whether this issue is even in your control. You can't resolve to spend more time with friends and family if THEY'RE the ones who are too busy/distracted/disorganized. It's not within your control to change people. At best, you can reach out and encourage them into your cause (let's spend more time together). And if it's your family, you will obviously need to all cooperate to make it happen. If you're really craving connection and your friends and family aren't, then the best you can do is replace them or, more likely, subsidize them with additional people who are. You can only make resolutions for yourself on things that you have some control over. So change your behavior (reach out, work less, schedule stuff) but don't expect to change others'.

Maybe the result is a resolution that's more like:
  • work with my family to get support for having supper together 5 nights a week
  • make some new friends who have more time to get together
  • cut back on work and hobbies to make time to see the people who love me
  • make a point of reaching out to people twice a week
Save more, spend less
This is similar to number five above. A good idea, but needs more specificity (how much savings, what type of spending). Even more importantly, if you can't point to exactly what you are spending and what you are saving every month now, you aren't going to make much headway with this. And once you do know where the dollars are going, this is all about priorities. What will you spend less on? Where will you cut? Fundamentally, this is an exercise in what you value. No wonder it's hard to accomplish this sort of goal! If your resolution was "understand all my expenses and then determine and document my values and priorities in order to cut costs so that I can improve my savings" you wouldn't expect to be able to flip a switch and have that change happen starting January 1st, right?

Lose weight
This seems like a good idea, but it's actually not. First of all, why do you even want to lose weight? To have more energy (exercise is a better goal)? To avoid a health issue (don't diet, change your diet)? Or to look hot in a bikini (a combination of eating less/better and exercising more is a good start, but you may also need to look at skin care, cosmetic procedures, and so on)? The plan will differ greatly depending on the reason.

Next up, how much weight and how fast? People are terrible at being realistic about this sort of thing. If you gained 10 lbs in the past year, then losing that 10 in the coming year is the sort of sane goal you may actually be able both accomplish and maintain.

Finally, how will you lose weight? Eating less and being hungry has all sorts of repercussions, which is why the consensus is that calorie restrictive diets don't work. There are reasons that this is the actually the worst of all goals, but we'll be getting to that in my willpower post soon. My recommendation is to avoid this resolution altogether and exchange it for concrete exercise goals and concrete nutrition goals. You'll feel better and be healthier and may lose some weight in the process (bonus!).

Live a healthier lifestyle
Please. This is the perfect example of an undoable goal. In fact, this is really about six undoable goals rolled into some kind of undefined meta goal. There's no way someone will resolve this and then be able to wake up the next day and actually do... what exactly? Situps? Eat kale? Stop drinking a fifth of Jack for breakfast? What does this mean!?

One of the primary pieces of advice for making resolutions is to pick one goal and work on it. So, of all the ways you can live possibly mythical "healthier lifestyle" pick one. Then turn that into a real resolution like:
  • Go to the gym three times a week and work out for 30 minutes
  • Replace soda with water and have a veggie-based lunch or dinner five days a week
  • Stop drinking a fifth of Jack for breakfast (this is actually a really good idea, if it applies to you... though you might need some help)
Now even these aren't enough to actually accomplish the goal, but at least they are concrete and measurable and you can make a plan to do them.

How meta... my resolution is to remember to resolve to follow through with my resolutions.

If you want to be one of the 8%, you need to choose goals that are definable and doable and not just nebulous woo-woo. The number one resolution from that survey is to Live Life to the Fullest, which is a great idea in theory, but in order to do that, you have to determine the gap between what you're doing now and what you want to be doing to have that full life. From there you create the goals. Pick one, make a plan, and get busy. Because just deciding or announcing isn't enough to get you to a solution. 


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Tuesday, January 12, 2016

PMPM Execution -- Logistics

Note to any new readers: the Overview page includes links to all my various series and intro posts and whatnot.

This is part of my PMPM series. For other posts related to magical project execution, see the main Execution post.

When I look back at the times I succeed in executing my projects, workings, and goals, I can see that part of my success comes from having sorted out the logistics. At times when I failed, logistics were often to blame.

In the spirit of the start of the New Year, I've been working on a new personal goal and I'm trying to learn from my mistakes by getting the logistics sorted out in advance.

If you haven't seen Office Space you won't know why this is funny... or what it has to do with logistics

According to the dictionary, logistics is "the detailed coordination of a complex operation involving many people, facilities, or supplies." Its origins come from military science and in this context it's the effort involved in keeping an army supplied with equipment, supplies, and lodging.

In the corporate world, logistics and operations are both part of Supply Chain Management. We've discussed operations before. It's managing the reoccurring and ongoing processes that provide value for the company. Logistics on the other hand are the processes that coordinate where and when people, supplies, and facilities are needed to do that job.

They are both distinct from project management, which is, as you recall, "a temporary group activity designed to produce a unique product, service or result. So, projects have starting and stopping points, goals and deliverables. Operations and logistics on the other hand are ongoing and track success over time as opposed to by reaching a certain result.

So, example: Let's say you own a sandwich shop chain. Launching a new store is a project. The processes that you set up to make the very best sandwiches are operations. And getting the right people and supplies to your shops are logistics. Making sure there are enough tomatoes, but not too many, that the bathrooms don't run out of TP, and that you have enough people for optimal shift coverage -- logistics.

Logistics also have the most boring corporate imaging I've ever seen.
Pictures of boxes? We've got your pictures of boxes right here!

Only the largest companies have dedicated supply chain management departments, however operational and logistical concerns impact all kinds of efforts. There's a particular impact on the execution phase of projects. If I need my team to deliver new SW product features as part of a project, I need to make sure they have the right resources to do that -- everything from the right computers and software to develop the code, the right skills on the team, and a good environment in which to work. I can assure you that while engineers don't think of coffee as a development tool, if the break room runs out, things will immediately grind to a halt in our office.

As always, these lessons can be applied in simple form to your own projects and life. When you decide to take on some new tasks, how easy have you made it on yourself? Do you have the supplies and equipment you need? Do you have the schedule and facilitates?
  • You have a list of regular magical workings that you want to accomplish as part of a PMPM working. These include full moon libations, burning candles and offering incense weekly on Mondays, and anointing your sigils and charms on a monthly basis.
    • Do you have a stockpile of incense and candles?
    • Are they stored where you can easily access them for your magic?
    • Do you have a lighter and matches right there as well? Does the lighter fricking work?
    • Do you have the libation you need? Do you need to get more on the regular?
    • Have you entered the schedule of activities into your calendar? With reminders?
    • Do you have a supply of anointing oil?
  • You want to start going to the gym on your lunch break to get into shape.
    • Do you have a gym membership already?
    • Have you blocked your schedule at work and so that no one double-books you?
    • Do you have the gear you need for working out? Do you have a gym bag packed with the workout and cleanup gear you need?
    • Do you know the best route to get there in lunchtime traffic and how long it takes? Have you done a trial run to see how crowded the gym is at lunch and how long it takes to get a decent workout, shower, and back to work?
    • Do you have a plan for when and how you will actually eat lunch on gym days? If you will pack lunch, do you have the supplies you need? If you buy lunch, have you budgeted for it?
    • Do you have a process for getting your gym gear washed and back into your bag before the next workout?
    • Do you have a backup plan for days when you do get double-booked?
  • You want to spend time every day meditating and doing energy work.
    • When will you do this? Does the same time work every day?
    • Where will you do this? Will you be interrupted?
    • Do you have a little agenda for what you will do, so you actually accomplish something?
    • What will you do when you are traveling or have a major event during that time or are sick?
I know this sounds ridiculous. But people (and I am so people here) will make a goal for themselves, even have a plan in place, but then neglect the logistics that help them get the thing done. Now, that doesn't mean that if you don't have all the logistics sorted you should just do nothing. It means that you have to figure this stuff out as part of the activity, so that you can reasonably keep it going.

There was a point in the past where I was riding my bike at least a half an hour every weekday that the roads weren't icy. I rode in rain, wind, and blazing heat.

Now maybe this doesn't sound like a big deal to you, but if you know me you know that physical exertion has always been a challenge to me. I am, and have been since childhood, scrawny, out of shape, weak, clumsy, bad at sports, and generally traumatized by athletics of any kind. Yet I found myself happily getting regular exercise, even being athletic, without any issues or concerns. I felt great, I looked great, and it was honestly no big deal to do it. How did this happen in my life?

Logistics.

At the time I was living in a location that provided a 15-20 minute bike commute to work, on a combination of back streets and bike paths. The building I worked in had a locked parking garage with bike parking and a private locker room with showers. I had a street bike and bought some rain-proof panniers that all my gear fit neatly into. I started riding in lovely April when it was not too hot or cold or wet. I actually did a practice run on a Sunday to make sure that I knew the safest route and how long the ride would take. I got in the habit of washing my riding clothes in the evening and packing my bags before bed. Oh, and it was downhill in the morning and uphill in the afternoon. So all the real puffing and sweating and straining happened at the end of the day.

At first it took me longer (like 35-40 minutes), but as I got in better shape, it took less and less time. I also got really good at dealing with my gear and getting changed at work. I could park and lock my bike in seconds.

Then we moved to a new house much farther away. I still kept riding. In the morning I had a 30 minute ride in, more stressful with traffic, but with at least a bike lane. In the afternoon, I'd pop my bike on the front of a bus instead of taking the much steeper and way more dangerous ride home (why put a bike lane on one side of the street and not the other?). Still I found myself riding less often.

Finally I got a new job, one that was technically closer to my house... but in terms of bike commuting a logistical impossibility. And I haven't been on my bike much since. For the naturally fit among you, I know that sounds lame. But at that point, if I wasn't going to ride to work, there was just no room in my life to ride. The idea of getting on my bike every afternoon and circling the block a couple of times just to get exercise wasn't going to work. There was a lot else going on at that time too, but at the core, the change in location caused a failure of logistics.

The truth is that so many of the tasks we need to accomplish, either to meet our goals or keep our lives running smoothly, could be made so much easier if you just think of the logistics. For any tasks you have to execute, sheer will power isn't enough if you don't put any practical thought into how things will actually get done.


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Monday, January 11, 2016

Goodbye Ziggy

Yesterday, the spouse and I watched David Bowie's video for "Lazarus" after Gordon mentioned that a new video was out. The kid said "I saw it last week" and we were like "why didn't you tell us!" It was great, though not as haunting as the "Blackstar" video.

Last night about midnight I was having a deep dream when the kid ran in, shoved a phone screen in my face and announced: "David Bowie is dead!" The kid was actually pretty upset. She's a huge fan (and, being 12, only a very recent one) so this was a major blow. It's actually a blow to us as well... to all of us.

Being a parent, my first response was "why are you still up?" My second response was "I think I dreamed this" and the spouse and I spent some time trying to figure out if it was true. I woke up thinking it was a hoax or a dream -- frankly, I was pretty out of it last night.

Goodbye Jareth
Avatar of Loki, vehicle for aliens
With your farseeing eye
With your deep, deep knowledge

I don't know where you've gone, but I'm sure it's someplace interesting
Someplace UP

Safe journey Major Tom

Monday, January 4, 2016

Magical Eating in a Mundane World

My food posts are surprisingly popular. Surprising to me at least. Sure, it's a topic I'm passionate about, but it's also a topic that seems far from the core purpose of Circle Thrice. But maybe it's not as far as it looks at first.

One of the reasons I am so very passionate about food is because I see food as having the possibility of being incredibly magical. Food gives love and energy, it strengthens family and community, it nourishes us literally as well as spiritually and emotionally, it bonds us to place and time, and it mines our deepest memories and can change the future.

Food is magic. Recipes are spells. Meals are potions. If you are looking for ways to get more magic into your busy life, if you want to integrate your witchcraft/sorcery/magic more deeply into your day to day activities, get into the kitchen. Here's a list of ideas on the cusp of magic and food making, followed by some thoughts on how to get more of those magical meals into yourself and the people you love.
  • Tea. There's a poncy shop at the mall that sells overpriced teas. Some of the teas are honest high-quality blacks and greens that really should cost more than Tetley. But others are herbal blends and I'm always surprised how much they get away with charging for basically potpourri. But making your own herbal tea (or herbal flavored black or green teas) is easy and so easily amenable to magic. I collect herbs, flowers, dried fruits, even oils. I make drinking teas and medicinal teas (there's sometimes little difference) and all of my teas are magical. The equipment is simple (mesh tea balls and jars, basically) and the ingredients don't have to be expensive. It's super effective for enchantment, to the point that I'm surprised that anyone doesn't occasionally blend up a tea to deliver a spell. (Also note that bath sachets are kind of like "people tea").
  • Yeasty pursuits. From brewing to baking, anything that uses yeast is perfect for the kind of magic that sets things to growing and multiplying. And by the way, since the little creatures are alive, you are technically sacrificing them in the baking process. The history of baking is rife with magic and magical symbolism. If you want to brew up something longer term, mead making is a perfect vehicle (ditto wine and beer).
  • Preserves. The point of a preserve is to capture the bounty of one period of time and save it for later. When you open a jar of homemade strawberry jam in the dead of winter, it's like a little dose of early summer coming into your day. Think of your magic in the same terms. You enchant your pot of jam with something and then access it later when you need it. Kind of like wind knots, but nicer on toast. Jam making is one of those things that has a high payoff for the time input. And if you grow your own fruit or buy in bulk from local farms and markets it can be lots cheaper (OK, maybe not cheaper than Smuckers, but much cheaper than an equivalent quality preserve). I haven't bough a jar of jam in over five years.
  • Baking. I love to bake and I'm sort of relieved that I don't have more time for it (we'd all end up a zillion pounds). Baking is like a honey jar spell wrapped in pastry. Want to charm the hell out of people, enchant them to your cause, align them on a course together? The most modest homemade cookie will get praise all out of proportion to what you'd expect. And a pie? With homemade crust? People will follow you anywhere. I used to bring a handmade baked good to my team's overnight software updates to ensure a smooth update with no glitches. 
Of course you don't have to brew, bake, or can to put magic in your food. Any meal you make can be enchanted. The more handmade it is, the more enchantment you can squeeze into it. Pots of stew and soup are basically cauldrons full of delicious potions that you can imbue with nourishing magic (or, lets be honest, which you can hex and then deliver to your enemies -- but that's not the angle I'm going for here). They are also incredibly frugal, tasty, and practical. There's a reason that peasants throughout history and the world over eat soup and that soup is the number one home remedy for illness.

If you enchant a roast chicken on Sunday and enchant the stock you made from the bones and giblets, you are set up for a week of magical meals. If you make and enchant a huge batch of chili or enchiladas, you can freeze multiple meals of enchanted leftovers for days when cooking isn't in the cards. Even the simplest supper of grilled cheese, pasta with a basic tomato sauce, or a salad can share love, comfort, wellness, or togetherness.

New Years is one time of year when symbolic food hits the mainstream. The idea that what you eat at certain symbolic times of year is what you are calling to yourself is deeply magical. But it doesn't have to just be at the start of a new year. Every meal you make from scratch (or mostly from scratch) can be imbued with this kind of symbolism. And when you get into the habit of cooking, the magic starts to permeate your very pots and pans. One of my most powerful household charms are two very old wooden spoons that belonged to my grandmother. When they became too worn to cook with anymore, I turned them into a kitchen blessing charm. Other friends have cast iron pans that have been handed down through the cooks in their family. All my cast iron is first generation, but they and their patina will be passed down to our descendants in turn.

This blog will not be turning into a foodie blog. Don't expect glossy semi-professional photos of our dinners or tweaked recipes or cookbook reviews. Still, food is an important link to sustainability and magic in my life (and you guys seem to like my posts on it). Here's to nourishment in the coming year.

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Friday, January 1, 2016

Interstitial -- Thinking about Your Value Model

One of the really weird things about growing older is how the repeating patterns in your life just get more and more pathetically obvious. After enough years it just starts to get embarrassing. Yes, I will be making the same three fucking resolutions I always make. Yes, this is my time of year to vacillate between complete lethargy and frenetic energy (must. do. all. the. laundry). Same annual planning, same 'creative' ideas. Yes, by next month I'll be stressed about that other thing -- because I do every fucking year.

And it's not decision driven. I decide to do new things and change stuff up, I promise. I've lived in different states and cities and had different jobs and hobbies. I'm excited by change. But underneath lurk the same seasonal cycles and personal patterns. Honestly, the reason I stopped keeping a personal diary was to try and preserve some sense of surprise.

Every year, the week between Christmas and New Years is my time for deep thinking and long-range planning, for acknowledgement of the "too much" that surrounds the holiday season. The week for plotting changes, but without the stress of having to make any of them yet. When I determined that I was down to a week of vacation time, I had a decision to make: take the week before Christmas or the week after? Week before would be less stressful. I'd have more time for last minute shopping and mailing and baking and cleaning. But the idea of returning to the quiet, quiet office after the holiday was just too depressing. Better to get the work all done early and then spend the week after just resting and enjoying myself... oh, and thinking. Lots of thinking.


Gordon kicked off a really interesting discussion about the importance of animism. In his response to my comment, he mentioned the "model value" of animism versus what I'll call the cerebral masturbation worldview (it's all psychological). Fundamentally, animism is much more hands-on, and therefore more satisfying and useful. And this got me thinking about value models in general.  

Corporate speak time: At a high level, a value model is a method for measuring the value you provide to your customers. It takes into account the processes of creating that value, as well as managing that process and supporting it. The goal is to provide value for customers in a way that drives the profit of the organization. In any company, there are three groups who impact company value: the customers (who receive the value for their money), the employees (who create the value and reap the rewards), and the investors (who fund the creation of value and gain a benefit).

In a best case scenario, the needs and priorities of the three groups are aligned. Value is created and customers, employees, and investors are all happy. Unfortunately, this best case scenario is rare. There are many companies where the groups run at cross purposes, and providing value to one steals value from another. Usually, it's the investors needs who end up winning, to the detriment of both customers and employees. I don't think this sort of situation is sustainable in the long run, but companies do it all the time (as several hiccups in my own resume demonstrate).

OK, stop yawning, this is getting relevant right now. You have a value model. Not just in a career or business sense (like your value to your employer or whatever) but personally -- and magically. In your value model, you are the customer and the employer and the investor. You invest in yourself so that you can create more value that you can then enjoy and use. But even though you play all three roles, you aren't alone.

There are others who invest in you, who help you create value, and who are customers for the value you create. In our non-hierarchical, symbiotic world your investors, customers, and employees may have considerable overlap: Ancestors, Deities that you have relationships with, spirits you work with, family, friends, colleagues and mentors. And just as in the corporate world, things work best when the needs and priorities of the various groups are aligned... not that this is always easy to do.

You'd think that if you are a prime member of all the groups, then creating value would be easy. Which is why humans are so uniformly happy and fulfilled, right?

In fact, investing in yourself in a way that pays off, doing the right things at the right time, and above all creating a life for yourself that actually brings you value... super, super hard. Add in all the other folks in your life (both corporeal and non) and it gets even more complex. In fact, people in general are terrible at knowing what really makes them happy and fulfilled and what brings them joy and contentment. This is why people's value models often include things like "make even more money," "win against that other person," "stare mindlessly at a glowing screen alone," and "argue with people I don't know about things I don't really care about." Even things like "kill those who disagree with me," or "hate those who are different."

Back to animism then. The animistic worldview is fundamentally alive. It's full of meaning and of purpose, even if you can't always see it. The natural world is numinous, each aspect working as part of a giant interconnected whole and yet driven by its own instincts, needs, wants... each plant, animal, bacteria, even rivers and rocks and forests have their own value models. Everything has a spark, a drive, a destiny.



Now before we get all fluffy, these value models do conflict, they do go wrong. But what's fragile at the micro level can be highly antifragile at the macro. And together they create something larger than the individual parts, something with its own sense of beauty and order. Our world is teeming with spirit, animated at every level. It's a living example of, well living (even in dying). And living in a way that is full.

It's the opposite of the nihilistic emptiness of the existentialist model: the idea that only your own thoughts are meaningful or knowable and that the greater world lacks meaning.* Alternately, by seeing the world as inherently full of spirit and meaning, it puts our own search for meaning in context. As we strive to make our way in the world, to create value for ourselves and those we care about, we can look beyond the values of faith and philosophy. And because the whole world is alive, that means the whole world is communicating. If we can just understand some of its language, we can tap into a much larger, and potentially more interesting, data set. The inter-net of things... literally.

Finally, animism greatly widens your potential network. Sure, many of those connections may be weak, but weak connections have been proven to give the most access to change and opportunity. And in an animistic world, you can never be alone.

As you think about resolutions and projects and all the busy todoing of our lives, don't forget to think about your value model. And as you imagine a valuable life, look around at all the animate life that surrounds you.

* The ultimate example of this is the idea that everything around you and that you experience is a creation of your own mind. That you are the only real thing and the only thing that matters. I read a book a number of years ago that makes this supposition and suggests that you can therefore create exactly the sort of life you want. I suppose this may have been one of the sources of The Secret.

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