Wednesday, December 23, 2009


Some people think that Christmas is overrated.  That's it's nothing but a meaningless commercialized, materialistic money grab that has lost all of it's real symbolic juice.  These people are incredibly adamant that those who do dive whole hog into Christmas are foolish, naive people who are tricking themselves.  I heard a kitchen conversation at work the other day and it made me wonder about how I really felt about Christmas.  It took a while, but I think I know:

'The Christmas Season' is commercialized and materialistic, but it doesn't spoil what Christmas is really all about.  The symbolism of Christmas is, to me, what is really important...the part of the year where you unselfishly give to people just to see the smile on their face, a time when you spend time with friends and family and reminisce on the year that was, and a time when you celebrate what's really important in life.  Sure you can get carried away buying crap that nobody needs because it's ON SALE!!!, but it doesn't just automatically signify a 'cheapening of the holiday', because the whole gift thing is just a small part of what makes it so great.

I love this season because my Dad loved this season.  A guy who otherwise was quiet and pretty reserved went absolutely all out when it came to Christmas.  A guy who really didn't like shopping could be found trolling the malls right up until the night before Christmas.  A guy who wasn't really into embellishment would go to great lengths to professionally wrap all his gifts to me and my Mom, no matter how gigantic or oddly shaped.  He also made sure to sign the 'from' section on each and every one of the gifts with something ridiculous like 'Santa', or 'Rudolph', or 'The Elves', and he filled the stockings up with more gifts than most people got presents.  It was about giving.

I love this season because it's about traditions.  It's about the times that define your family.  It's about times like going out with your father to buy a Christmas tree, and remembering the first year your dad let you 'help him' carry the tree in, and you were strong enough to carry it in by yourself.  It's about putting all the ornaments that you had accumulated through the years on the tree, stopping to remember how you got that one, or who made this one for you.  It's about sitting down and playing the same record you play every year, and having the same special breakfast, that you HAD to eat before you could open presents.  These are the kind of times that define families, and Christmas is about the biggest one for a lot of those families.

It was about one special time in the year when no matter what else was going on, everything was perfect, everyone was happy, and everyone knew how much everyone else in the room loved them.  It was special, it stuck with me, and I already do the same thing.  I love Christmas.  I love that people drive around in cheesy Santa hats.  I love giving the bell ringer $20.  I love thinking back on all the special Christmas seasons that I spent with my family, and that I can barely remember any of the gifts that I got, but I can certainly remember how I knew how much I was loved.

So yeah, Christmas isn't necessarily about buying stuff.  It's about choosing your own way to express your love for the people around you.  If that means you buy some stuff, then hey, why not.  It's your money.  It doesn't cheapen the season to me.  Just make sure everyone you love knows that you love them.  That's what it's all about to me.

2009 in Review

Well it's here again.  Another year of Christmas spirit.  Here in Denver we actually get a White Christmas - we are in the midst of a 6-incher, which is exciting, except we are trying to fly out to Boston tomorrow morning.  Hopefully DIA has their de-icers warmed up and ready to rock...

This has been one crazy year.  It's my first full year as a married man.  My first year living somewhere not called Virginia or DC.  My first year being involved in selling a house.  (It sucks by the way).  My first year moving somewhat blindly across the country to a completely new place, where the amount of people I know can be counted using one hand. Yep, crazy year.  It was a great year though.

This year I learned a fair amount about planning.  Planning everything so that you can coincide a move, a job, a home sale, finding a new place, and moving into it.  It's stressful.  This year was a crazy year.  Did I mention that?

The year started out pretty nicely - we went to Aruba with Jena's parents, her sister and bro-law, her Aunt Louise, and our awesome nephew.  It was an awesome trip, mostly spent floating around the lazy river...

Spring was pretty uneventful.  We were getting ready to sell our house, and starting to do the awesome dance where you leave every weekend and are forced to clean every morning before you leave the house.  I got pretty good at being a better cleaner though, so that's good.  Also we always came home to a clean house.  Those are roughly the only two things that I can think of that were good about selling the house.

Over Memorial Day, we got a visit from Jena's sister and fam.  We went to Annapolis where our nephew learned to drive boats and dressed like a pirate.  We had a great time out on the boat and walking around town.


Over the summer, the house sale process dragged on, but it didn't keep us from doing a fair amount of fun stuff.

        La Jolla Cliffs

We did some boating on the Chesapeake Bay, spent July 4th in Annapolis with family, and I made it out to San Diego for the first time.  What a beautiful place.

We also took in a Tigers game in Baltimore on a beautiful day for baseball.  And we got a win!  It was a fun time and erstwhile Tiger Edwin Jackson threw a gem!  

We finally sold the house this Summer.  Wow, what a pain in the ass, dealing with the most unreasonable buyers and agent, but it allowed us to finally realize our dream of moving to Colorado!  With the house sold, we moved in with my parents-in-law while everything fell into place for our journey.  Jena was allowed to keep her job at WeddingWire, and I lucked into a job at eCollege in Denver.  I traveled out for an interview in August and did some house hunting while I was here.  I found a great rental that had everything we wanted in a great neighborhood, and got the job offer, all in the same 48 hrs!  It was finally time to roll out!

We got everything packed up in a POD and shipped off to Denver while we waiting for our moving date to arrive.  It was a long and tiring process, but the POD worked out great, and everything made it cross-country in one piece.  An amazing feat, and it was a pretty good deal too.  We moved in with Jena's parents, which was not bad at all.  I am blessed with a great pair of parents-in-law, and I think they enjoyed having their daughter back home for a while.  We took some time out to attend a beautiful wedding in Vermont and watched Jena's cousin KC get hitched to his beautiful bride Annemarie.  Once we got back, it was pretty much go time.

We made it out here pretty quick.  We made a couple stops along the way - we saw my grandparents:

And then we stopped in Iowa to see our friend Tricia, who showed us around her wacky little town:

Then we hightailed it the rest of the way to Denver where we were met with an awesome housewarming surprise from Jena's friend Meredith's mom...what a great welcome!

So anyway, this is where we live now.  Denver.  It's weird, because I keep calling the DC area home, and it's not really home anymore.  It's a place I grew up, and it's where I am from, but it's not where I live, which is quite a change.  I have three months under my belt in Denver, and the other 380 were spent in DC.  The good news is that we love it here.  We love the friendly people, the great neighborhood we landed in, and the wacky weather is even growing on me a bit.  Our house is nice for a rental, but we look forward to buying something that we can call our own.  Work is going really well - I couldn't be more pleased with my manager, my team, and the work that I get to do.  It's been a really pleasant surprise, as I went in pretty much blind.  We have had a lot of good times since we got here.  We've done some sightseeing, beer tasting, skiing, and we've been pretty busy sampling all the great restaurants in our area.  It's been quite a year, but I can't wait for next year.  We are all settled in now, and we can put all our energy in enjoying everything that Colorado has to offer, including snowshoeing, hiking, more beer tasting, and skiing.  

Goodbye 2009!  Bring it on 2010!

Thursday, December 3, 2009

On Intiators, Blockers, Supporters, and Observers

In reading Sway: The Irresistible Pull of Irrational Behavior, I found myself fascinated with the chapter on the four personality types -

Initiators, who have ideas and drive innovation, and are the general optimists.
Blockers, who are the doom-and-gloom, are you sure that's a good idea types.
Supporters, who pick the side of the initiators or blockers.
Observers, who simply provide comments.

I have done a lot of thinking about what the right balance of personalities is for a team.  In a perfect world you want a bunch of initiators, because they can just think up all kinds of good ideas and knock them out, moving the team and the organization forward.  This generally doesn't end up happening this way.  I can speak from experience when I say that having a manager who is an initiator and an employee who is an initiator is not necessarily a good mix.  This can lead to something of a whirlwind of work that might all be interesting, but isn't necessarily good for the organization.   

You also don't want a lot of blockers and nothing else, because you will sit around spending endless hours justifying why something has to get done, even when it seems relatively clear why it's a good idea.  This is the other end of the spectrum.  Instead of doing too much and having some of it not be the right stuff, you end up doing not enough of anything.  People get fired because of this.

A perfect balance in my opinion is to have a team made up of an initiator, a blocker, a supporter, and to have the manager be an observer.  The initiator gets people fired up, introduces ideas and enthusiasm, and generally dives in with gusto.  The blocker is there to make sure the initiator doesn't get carried away, questioning whether something is the right thing to do, or whether it's necessary.  The blocker makes the initiator better, because in order to do something new, the initiator knows they will have to pick their battles well, and to justify their enthusiasm with a business case that can sway the supporter and the observer.  In my opinion, a manager should be the observer, but can play a bit of a supporter role as well.  A manager who is a blocker won't get very far, and a manager who is an initiator can be seen as a little too gung-ho or overzealous by their employees.  As an observer, the manager can interject when they see fit, shaping the way that the work evolves without forcing their will on anyone.  This makes for happy employees.

It's just interesting because my office now sort of fits this dynamic, and the give and take is really great.  Coming from other places where the balance was definitely lacking, I think it's a great place to really grow.  Blockers can become more open to new ideas, and initiators can learn to harness their enthusiasm and be more thorough.

What's That You're Reading??

I realized it's been a while since I shared what I had been reading, what was good, and what wasn't so good.  I have been doing a fair amount of reading despite being pretty busy.

What I've read so far:

Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions - This was a fantastic read about why people do silly things.  It's a discussion, reinforced by a series of fascinating and simple experiments, about how the human mind is wired to do things that just plain don't make sense.  What makes this one really good is Dan Ariely's easygoing writing style and the fact that the experiments were so well explained.  It was a really quick read, spanning only about 5 train rides, but it's the kind of book you could easily go back to a few times and get something out of it again and again.

Sway: The Irresistible Pull of Irrational Behavior - I liked Predictably Irrational so much that I went ahead and bought this one.  This is along the same lines as Predictably Irrational, and in fact cites that book a few times.  It's even shorter and a quicker read than Predictably Irrational, but takes a bit different tack on irrational behavior, by describing a real-life situation, then illustrating the forces that drive the irrational behavior using experiment results.  I especially liked the section describing people who are 'initiators, blockers, and observers', which I'll talk about more in another forthcoming post.

Fooled by Randomness: The Hidden Role of Chance in Life and in the Markets - Don't read this book.  The ideas in it are fine.  Randomness is all around us, and anyone who thinks they can take on the gravity of randomness is a fool, and will be ruined.  Good premise I suppose.  Unfortunately the author spends roughly 200 pages of the book describing how smart he is compared to the rest of the world, and how everyone else is a buffoon who just doesn't get it.  Right or wrong, man is he ever pompous, and it poisons what could be a pretty insightful book.

The Day of Battle: The War in Sicily and Italy, 1943-1944 (Liberation Trilogy) - I finally finished this tome about the Allied campaign in Italy in WW2.  Good gracious, if you read this book, you will be taken aback by some of the horrors of low-tech warfare.  It's amazing that people had to go through some of the things that were forced upon these soldiers by ambitious officers and politicians, and it's AMAZING that the Allies won with all the blunders they committed during this war.  It is a true testament to the courage and grit of the Allies that they could overcome this.  This is a really well-written and well-researched book, with much of the narrative coming through letters and diary entries from enlisted men up to General Patton himself.  Fascinating book.  I recommend it highly to any of my fellow history buffs!

Long Tail, The, Revised and Updated Edition: Why the Future of Business is Selling Less of More - This is an interesting book by the editor of Wired about how the Internet and e-commerce have changed the way people buy and sell things.  I was expecting something earth shattering, but I think the ideas in the book have been out there for so long that I kind of felt like I had already read the book.  Good, quick read, nonetheless.

Sherlock Holmes : The Complete Novels and Stories (Bantam Classic) Volume I - Ah, I can reread these over and over again and never get tired of them.  Anyone who hasn't read these should, and probably won't help but enjoy them.

1434: The Year a Magnificent Chinese Fleet Sailed to Italy and Ignited the Renaissance (P.S.) - This is the 'sequel' to 1421, which I talked about a while back.  The premise here, building upon the idea that the Chinese fleet led by the great Admiral Zheng He sailed around the world, is that the Chinese made visits to Venice and Florence in 1434, passing on great quantities of information that helped to spur the Renaissance.  There are endless references to ideas that European thinkers of the time passed off as their own, but are obviously based on something from China that had been invented decades if not centuries before the Europeans did it.  This book is not written as well as 1421, but was full of thought-provoking stuff.  It came across as more of a transcription of a bunch of notes rather than a well-written book.

What I am reading right now:

The Map That Changed the World: William Smith and the Birth of Modern Geology (P.S.) - A book by the author of 'The Professor and the Madman', this is a book about the life and times of the man behind the modern science of geology. So far so good.

The Whiskey Rebels: A Novel (Random House Reader's Circle) - I have already read David Liss' other three historical fiction works, and loved each of them. This one moved away from his previous books, which centered around European Jews, and is set against the backdrop of early America the Whiskey Rebellion. It's excellent so far, and I enjoy the way it's written, trading chapters between the two main characters in the book, whose circumstances bring them closer to an intersection.

Eating in the Dark: America's Experiment with Genetically Engineered Food - This is a so-far reasonably interesting book about the way that genetically engineered food made a sly entrance into our lives and onto the shelves of our grocery stores. There is no denying the bias of the author, but she manages to include some arguments from both sides in this slightly frightening book.

What's in the queue:

All the Pretty Horses (The Border Trilogy, Book 1) - If I like this one as much as 'The Road', then I'll be a happy camper.

An Army at Dawn: The War in North Africa, 1942-1943, Volume One of the Liberation Trilogy - I liked the book about Italy so much I bought the prequel to it.