Sunday, April 6, 2014

Disentangling, Control Freak-Style

It's a control freak's nightmare...having to slowly and inexorably release the grip on the helm and allow someone else to take over steering the ship. Never mind how competent, capable, energetic, and excited the new helmsman is (which he totally is!), it is still a very difficult thing to do. I only hope I can do it with grace and humor.

My Body Shop relief (BSR) showed up at the beginning of February. He's coming from grad school, an off-season transfer. Serendipitiously, he also took over from me on MAUI, so we've worked together (briefly) before. I'm just glad he wasn't so put off my whatever messes I left on MAUI (because inevitably, there were some) that he ran screaming into the night when he heard he'd be relieving me again.

It has been *great* to have this relief time with him -- we have an almost four month turnover period. BSR took the first few weeks to find his way around the building and attend some useful DHS budgeting training, which will serve him well. We also spent a bit of that time going over the basics about Body Shop issues. My (old) account (good grief, I can't even seem to talk about in a way that is not deeply imbued with ownership) is complicated and technical: FTP and FTE, actuals, enacted, PresBud levels, all slightly different; mandatory appropriations versus discretionary appropriations versus supplemental appropriations, and how they each affect the FTP/FTE numbers; military, civilian (temp, term and permanent) and SELRES workforces, all with different management strategies; PPA structure; how OE is different from AC&I is different from the other minors; Balanced Workforce Strategy (BWS) and the Balanced Workforce Assessment Tool (BWAT); the details go on and on.

One of the hardest things I've been trying to do since BSR took over (officially on 7 Mar) is to listen to a conversation and not jump in with my opinion, and instead let him form and communicate his own opinion. I've pretty much sucked at it. I'm trying to tell myself it's still ok...the subtleties of many of these issues took me more than a year to understand, so BSR is continuing to learn about the connections while I spout out the details.

But I think I know how he's feeling...or at least I remember how I felt after about two months with these accounts...like there was a mountain of information I was trying to dig through with a teaspoon, looking for gold nuggets of relevancy, but I didn't know what gold looked like -- and it was dark anyway. I spent many, many days wondering when I was going to get fired for being the dumbest person in the room.

So I'm trying to be encouraging, reminding BSR that this is complicated stuff, that I've been working with it for over two years, and I still get taken by surprise by nuances.

Another hard thing about any kind of relief is that new issues will continue to crop up even as others quiet down and return to their graves (sometimes to churn back up like zombies a couple weeks or months later). The bureaucracy chugs along. I joke that I have left BSR a bakery case full of shit-filled twinkies (thanks to my Company Commander from Boot Camp for that lovely twinkie analogy :)). I don't know what all the issues are; I know, or can guess, what some of them might be. But I can only do my best to give him the information and background to react to anything new that comes up.

With schools and leave (trip to Hawaii!!! Yay :D), I have about 18 days left in the office. I'm definitely ready to go on to the next adventure...but I'm not sure I'm ready to leave this challenge yet. Definitely the good kind of problem to have.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Selectively Direct

I'm going to tell two stories in this post; one is umm, shameful, if not sad and mortifying, and the other is exactly how things should be.

The summer my mother passed away, I was one of her primary caregivers when her health deteriorated to the point she could not do things for herself. My sister was her other primary caregiver. Towards the end, she was wheel-chair bound (but thankfully not for years and years and years like her own mother), and the circulation in her extremities was very poor. We put cloths on her legs to protect her skin. We had a process, and it was very particular. Cloths had to be set in just the right places to make sure Mom was comfortable. Getting her into and out of bed had to be done "just so." 

One day, I was helping Mom get settled for a nap. I was tired. Tired because I not slept well the night before; tired because I had been helping her for months by this point; and tired because I didn't know how much longer I was going to have to do this. Just tired. I was having trouble getting the cloths set right, and she was telling me how I was doing it wrong. Rather than jokingly saying, "I *know* how to do this!" and laughing about it, I became curt, barely giving one word responses. I'm sure I had a painfully pinched scowl on my face, and anything I said to her was spare and only exactly what had to be said. 

I made my mom cry. My sister told me later I had scared them both by being so icy. 

BT

When KISKA was attempting to return to homeport after spending an extra few days in Honolulu unsuccessfully chasing that damn shaft vibration gremlin, it was a snotty, snotty day. Winds were howling at 20 knots sustained, gusting to 30-35 knots from the northeast. The Alenuihaha channel was 12 to 15 feet with wind blown waves. I was not really looking forward to the trip, but we were all ready to go home. We got about half-way through the Kaiwi Channel between Oahu and Molokai, special sea detail was secured, and most people had laid below to secure themselves for a shitty transit. There were probably four or five people on the bridge, watchstanders, break-ins and maybe one or two folks who just weren't ready to rack out yet. As we pounded through the waves, with the waves spraying over the mast, the gremlin came back with a crazed vengeance. 

The engineers made a mad scramble for the engine room, while we shut down the starboard engine from the bridge. Nobody on the crew could have missed the noise and feeling of the vibration, so they trickled up to the bridge to find out what was going on, and what they could do to help. Within about seven minutes, we had about 10 to 12 people on the bridge. The radios were turned up to hear any local traffic and comms with Sector about what had happened. There was traffic around us, a tug maybe, that we needed to figure out what we were doing with it, since we had come about so precipitously to provide a better course for the troubleshooting ninjaneers. People were all talking at once. We were losing the bubble. *I* was losing the bubble.

"SILENCE ON THE BRIDGE!" I commanded. 

Yes, it was a command, given with authority and directness. Everyone immediately shut their mouth. The radios got turned down. XO started sending people below, to make preps for returning to Honolulu. Movement returned to normal speed.

But for that split second, there was *silence* on the bridge. 

In both these stories, I fell back on what I think of as my training -- which was, at the time 12 years of military service where orders are given and received with minimal need for anything extra. The operational community of which I am part values directness...maybe more than values, maybe actually survives and thrives on directness. 

But Sheryl Sandburg in Lean In talks about how women who are direct tend to be thought of as bitchy and mean (I'm paraphrasing here since I don't have a copy of the book in front of me). Women are supposed to be nice and non-confrontational, empathetic and supportive. And anytime we step away from those characteristics, we risk being labeled "ball-busters." 

I'm ok with that. But I'd like to have my cake and eat it too. Because I think that I should play to my strengths, get as much value as possible out of being supportive and nice. There is no better way to build a strong team than having a team-member in a leadership position who visibly cares about and values the other people as individuals. The individuals are the building blocks of the team, and when they feel valued, it just makes sense to me that the team is better at what it does. 

I also want to have access to the power of that "silence on the bridge" moment. I want to know that I can be stunningly direct to achieve immediate results. No one on that bridge thought I was harsh or bitchy for cutting through the chaos that morning. In some ways, I think they may have been grateful for being given direction and a sense of purpose.

But in between those two ends of the spectrum is a whole lot of space. A close friend sent me a text a few days ago, "How do I stop being a pushover without becoming a mean, nasty person?" I think she is struggling with how to energize her apathetic team. My half-asleep answer was, "Set expectations and hold people to them. Including yourself." After thinking about it a little more, I would refine it to "Communicate clear expectations, and hold people to them. Including yourself." 

My expectation for myself is to be a caring person with strongly-held high standards. I think that works in both personal and professional settings. There is definitely a personal aspect to this, especially having opened with the story about my mom. But I've also been reminded lately that I can be direct in just daily interactions, especially if I haven't eaten in longer than I should have. So step one for success in meeting my own expectation is to not get hangry. Hangry or tired directness is the bad kind. Clear-eyed, know-thyself directness is the good kind. In my mind anyway. 

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Penciled In

Tuesday was a snow day. Big OPM closed federal offices since we were supposed to get up to eight inches of snow. I went into the office before the snow started, partly to check what was going on, and partly to pick up my laptop so I could "work" from home. I didn't have anything immediately deliverable, but wanted to make sure I was available if taskers came in despite most things federal being closed.

And I wanted to stay "green-dotted" so the Assignment Officer knew I was not too busy to talk to him. I thought of if like putting a fishing line into the water while the ship transits between tasking. Fishing for a Detailer, if you will. I spent a lot of time catching up on the message board on Tuesday.

At 1222, an IM popped up at the bottom of my screen. "Charlotte, do you have time for a call?"

OMG, OMG, OMG, it *worked!!* "FISH ON!"

"Absolutely! I'm working from home, so call me on my cell..."

Two extremely long minutes later, the phone rang.

"I'm happy to tell you I have you penciled in for [your First Choice]."

Breathe, C, remember to breathe! I expressed my excitement, and we went through a few more details about what happens next in the assignment process (brief the command, issue orders, etc). I didn't really have any professional advice-type questions, since I must be doing the right things right to get my first choice. I'll definitely be reaching out to OPM towards the end of next tour to try to figure out what I should do for my next staff tour, but this one was kinda a no-brainer that I needed to get back afloat.

We chatted another couple of minutes about some other AY14-related issues (the unexpected WPB decomms in the FY14 budget), and then hung up so that he could get on with his other calls.

Thanks to all my friends, family and co-workers for being patient with me as the news sinks in and the giddiness abates. I didn't quite go skipping down the halls of Headquarters on Wednesday, but it was a close thing.

I'm being cagey about which boat it is for a reason. Orders aren't officially on the board, so things can still change. And I still need to figure out how to approach this blog thing as an XO. Which means talking about it with my new CO. Up until now, I have been relatively free to talk about what I want, how I want. The stuff I'm writing about here is distant enough from real people, that I don't risk getting crosswise with my boss about leadership or personnel issues. And when I was writing on KISKA, I was writing as the CO...my opinion was the one that mattered at the end of the day.

It's not going to be that way as XO. I will have my opportunity to express my opinion behind closed doors to the CO, but when the door opens, and decisions are presented to the crew, there is no room for daylight between the CO and XO. The XO is the Executive Officer...the title could just as easily be the Executor...the person who executes the commands. I don't get to have my own public opinion.

There are a couple of huge benefits I have gotten from writing this blog:
-- When I was on KISKA, it was a fantastic way to make the crews' daily lives accessible to their friends and family. I got *so much* positive feedback when I posted about normal, mostly boring details about patrols. The details are normal and boring to us who live them, but they are nuggets of insight into how we spend our days for folks back on the beach. Pictures of  something as routine as boat lowering detail can show loved ones that their sailors are *good* at what they do, professional and dedicated in ways that families don't always see.
-- I use this blog as a way to work through leadership and big picture issues in my head. I might not have any idea of where I'm going when I start a post, but by the end, I've usually distilled the issues and come up with some sense of what is important about whatever it is. And I'm forced to write about things because I have people reading the blog. It would be much easier to not expend so much brain power on thinking about any of this leadership crap, but because I have an audience, I write, and because I write, I'm a better leader.

I think that moving into the XO position, those two goals are likely mutually exclusive. I can see keeping an open forum for the first topic. I'm not so sure about keeping an open forum for the second. It will depend largely upon how comfortable the CO is with what I have to say. And also largely upon how well I think I can separate out the issues from the details. A ship's crew is a very small, self-contained world. There are not many secrets onboard a ship. And I will not jeopardize people's privacy for the sake of my blog. As FMR reminded me, I am accountable to the crew and the wardroom first and foremost, before being accountable to any readership I might have.

On the other hand, I think there is a definite need for continued consideration, analysis, reevaluation of leadership issues in today's Coast Guard. The issues are changing, the system is calcified, are the people caught in the middle? What can I do in my small part of the system to improve the dialogue, and come up with creative solutions that support the individuals, enhance the mission and improve the flexibility of the organization?

I'm facing a quandary here. I welcome any input about how to approach the details of this next challenge. I talked briefly with the incumbent XO. He started to read me into some of the challenges the ship and crew are facing, and sounded a little beat down by all of it. He's been there for almost two years, and I know how he feels right about now. But from my view, if there are no challenges, if there are no problems, I don't have a job as XO...now where's the fun in that?

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Total.Budget.Geekery.

On Friday, the Senate passed the FY 2014 Omnibus bill, and sent it to the President for signature. It's been all over the news, especially since this bill finalizes funding for FY 2014 which was a particularly contentious year, spawning the first government shutdown in nearly two decades.

I was on leave Tuesday when the House released the text of the bill and the explanatory statement (link under "Bill Text," explanatory statement is in "Divisions D-F"), flying back from four days of amazing skiing in Park City, UT. First sign of Total.Budget.Geekery: scrambling to download the bill to my tablet while still in the airport so I could read through it on the return flight...all 1,582 pages of it, not including the explanatory statement. Thank goodness for the "Search" function.

It's hard for me to tell what the bald numbers in the text of the bill actually mean. For example, the bill says, "$7,011,807,000" between two semi-colons, and that's our funding level for our Operations Expenses appropriation. Yup, not particularly helpful without the context of what went into making that number up. That's what the explanatory statement is for...but I wasn't ready to go there yet.

I persevered reading through the bill, and found a little *gem* of goodness. "...That without regard to the limitation as to time and condition of section 503(d) of this Act, after June 30, an additional $10,000,000 may be reprogrammed to or from Military Pay and Allowances in accordance with subsections (a), (b), and (c), of section 503." It tickled at my brain, making me think, oh my -- is it really possible?? I had to wait until Wednesday when I returned to the office to get clarification on what that provision actually meant. The FY 2016 Coordinator confirmed my inkling -- it means that the Coast Guard can transfer up to $15 million to or from PPA-1 (Military Pay and Allowances) without having to go to Congress for permission. Huge, fantastic, massive, incredible *win* for the CG!!

Second sign of Total.Budget.Geekery: having this little provision make me so excited it obliterated the hassle of coming back to work after 8 days out of the office. Seriously, I was giddy for days!!

Now, I'm guessing you are wondering what the heck I'm so excited about. You sure you really wanna know? It's Total.Budget.Geekery lameness, i.e., deadly boring. Here goes, but if you get two sentences into it and wanna poke yourself in the eye with a pen because it would suck less, don't say I didn't warn ya...
The Coast Guard is funded through five main discretionary appropriations (Operating Expenses (OE); Acquisitions, Construction and Improvements (AC&I); Reserve Training (RT); Environmental Compliance and Restorations (EC&R); and Research, Development, Testing and Evaluation (RDT&E)). There are others, mandatory and discretionary, like Retired Pay (RP), the Gift Fund, the Yard Fund, but the first five are the bulk of our funding.

OE is the largest appropriation, at $7 billion. That's a lot of money to manage all in one account, so it gets further broken down into PPA's (Program, Project or Activity). There are six:
PPA-1: Military Pay and Benefits
PPA-2: Civilian Pay and Benefits
PPA-3: Training and Recruiting
PPA-4: Operating Funds and Unit Level Maintenance
PPA-5: Centrally Management Accounts
PPA-6: Intermediate and Depot Level Maintenance
I won't get into AFCs, the next level below PPAs.

Still with me? So, by appropriations law, previously we could transfer $5 million between PPAs to end the fiscal year as close to a zero balance in each account as possible. If we needed to transfer more, we have to ask our Appropriations Committees for permission to reprogram funds (it's a reprogramming request if it is within a single appropriation (like OE), a transfer request if it is between appropriations (between AC&I and RDT&E, for example). I remember sitting in my Federal Budgeting class at UMD, and having the professor kind of gloss over this detail, like no big deal. Well, it *is* a big deal. Because first we have to clear the request through DHS, and then OMB, and then it gets to Congress. Any request gets heavy scrutiny all along the way (rightfully so), so we try to limit our reprogramming requests.

But it's *really* hard, especially within PPA-1, which is the largest portion of OE, at $3.4 billion, and particularly volatile because it has to do with people and their personal decisions. As the Military Pay Manager says, his predictors are all solid, but because the account is so large, his pencil width is $10 million. Increasing our below threshold reprogramming (BTR) level for even just PPA-1 will help the CG to spend its money more effectively, as well as  reduce the management burden for our financial folks...*huge* win!!

There are some numbers within the budget that I know from the top of my head, from having worked with them so closely. So when I saw the following in the AC&I section, "$113,395,000, to remain available until September 30, 2014, shall be available for personnel compensation and benefits and related costs," I kinda knew my first day back at the office was going to be hectic. Total.Budget.Geekery Indicator #3 -- knowing why $113 million is a significant number. I spend a lot of my time on AC&I Personnel. It is a challenging account to manage because of the appropriations structure. It is a sub-approp within AC&I, but all the other sub-approps within AC&I are multi- or no-year funds. AC&I Personnel funds are one-year money, and so funds can't be reprogrammed in or out. In OE's PPA-1, it's hard enough to hit zero in a $3.4 billion account with a $15 million BTR level...in AC&I Pers, we have to hit zero in a $113 million account with no ability to transfer money *at all* (I reread this sentence before posting, and it made *my* head hurt...sorry for the gory budget details). And it mixes military and civilian personnel compensation systems, which are very, very different. I saw this number and chuckled in frustration.

Once I got to the explanatory statement, there were definitely some details that took me by surprise, including decommissioning four WPB-110s and closing the AIRFACs in Charleston, SC and Newport, OR. I was very happy to see the $1 million for the Sexual Assault Prevention and Response (SAPR) Program, and $28 million restored to training. The "$7,459,000 realigned from Acquisition, Construction,
and Improvements to address a personnel imbalance between the two accounts" made me giggle, especially when combined with the "$6,100,000 is provided in the Personnel and Related Support PPA" in the C27 section. $18 million in AC&I for CG Housing was good to see as well.

Sign number four of Total.Budget.Geekery: viewing the budget as a career planning tool. The AC&I section of the explanatory statement includes the following regarding National Security Cutters (NSCs), "A total of $629,000,000 is provided for the NSC program. Of this amount, $540,000,000 is for the production of NSC-7, $12,000,000 is for the second segment of long lead time materials for NSC-7, and $77,000,000 is to acquire long lead time materials for the production of NSC-8." This means that there will likely be four O-6 commands available per year when (IF!!!) I ever make CAPT. Those are better odds than presented by having just six NSCs, which would be three commands available per year. So, I might maybe consider staying in to try for an O-6 command, instead of getting out after my O-5 command.

Sign number five of Total.Budget.Geekery: the level of excitement and relief I feel for having clarity and definite answers about FY 2014, and the ability we gain to be able to move forward on FY 2015. I feel like the log-jam is finally starting to break free.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Leaning In Alone

I have a feeling I'm going to have doubts about this post for a very long time. Is it really something I should be expressing so publicly? Or is it simply too personal? Too many opportunities to be misread or misinterpreted? Too girly?

Daring adventure or nothing -- so here goes.

I recently finished reading Sheryl Sandberg's Lean In. I was reading it kind of simultaneously with the aforementioned The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin. Both excellent books, full of amazing insights that I found profound and useful, easy reads and enjoyable -- my favorite kind of books. Maybe it was because I read them at the same time, but I was struck, and almost annoyed by the emphasis both authors placed on the importance of their husbands in their success. Sure. Great. Awesome for them that they have that type of built-in support. But what about when someone doesn't?

Couple this thought with the multiple, almost constant conversations I have with many of my single friends, and I've got the topic weighing on my mind.

Up-front disclaimer: I do not mean to suggest that working couples have it easy, or that stay-at-home parents solve every household logistics problem, or that marriage or partnership is uncomplicated and every one is wholly 100% supportive. I am selfishly focusing entirely on the challenges of being personally motivated, professionally successful and single. And I may make whiny, plaintive comments about the lack of assistance and empathy for the difficulties of being single.

First, there are the logistical difficulties. I work about 55 hours a week on average. Add to that my commute time on either end, any workout I wish to try to shoe-horn in, and I'm away from my house, unavailable for chores for about 80 hours a week. My Saturdays are consumed by laundry, grocery shopping, any yard work that can no longer be ignored, and thankfully no cleaning since I have a cleaner come in every two weeks. Sundays are prep days for the week -- food prep to make sure I have easy access to lunch and dinner, and making sure all the stuff I have to take in is ready to go. It is actually hugely disruptive to my schedule to have dinner plans out with friends or go for a motorcycle ride or enjoy some time hiking or whatever.

If *I* don't go grocery shopping, the fridge and cupboards become bare. If *I* don't do laundry, I run out of clean clothes. If *I* don't put gas in the car tank, the Honey Bee will leave me stranded. If *I* don't stock up on paper products, I am the only one to blame when there is no more TP in the house. If *I* don't leave work early to meet the repairman, no one will open the door to fix whatever has worn out in the house. There is no back up. There are no house elves scurrying around behind closed doors when I'm gone. The cats try, bless them, but they're really much better at leaving bits of food all over the floor, giving me some quality time contemplating the sustainability of using processed corn cobs as kitty litter, and staring picturesquely out the front windows at me when I'm on my way out the driveway in the morning.

Then, there are the prioritization issues. Fortunately, I haven't personally experienced the situation where I've been asked to cover holiday duty so that the married watchstanders can have time with their families (because that would make me crazy and probably spark an entirely unprofessional rant), but I have heard about them from fellow singles. Fortunately, my current co-workers are so entirely awesome that MC Hooligan immediately, with absolutely no hesitation, offered to cover Christmas week so I could spend the time with my sister and her husband.

For me, right now, I think the prioritization issue is that it is so very easy to get wrapped up in work to the exclusion of all else. Do I not have much of a social life because I work too much, or do I work too much because I don't have much of a social life? I'm really not sure which is the cause and which is the effect. I do know that my New Year's (not a) resolution is to try to keep in closer touch with my family. A year or two ago, Uncle Heathen started a weekly email named after an old BBC show "This Was the Week That Was" (aka T3). It was just a quick, weekly blurb to family with mundane news or happenings. We had a couple of good months of hearing from people, but then it just kind of fell away. I think folks felt like what they were saying was too much the same from week to week, and nobody was interested. Well, this year, tough luck for them if my life is boring! Because they're all gonna hear about it!! Both sides of the family, too!!!

Lastly, there are the emotional energy shortfalls. I have a friend who is single. She is beautiful inside and out, kind-hearted and sweet, smart, ridiculously hard working, out-going and energetic, and gorgeous. I have **NO IDEA** why she is single. She started seeing someone and things were great for a little bit. Then the guy just kinda turned off and disappeared. Her comment was "It's just hard to not feel inadequate all the time - I constantly get my ass kicked at work and now I can't seem to hold any male attention." My heart goes out to her, and unfortunately, the only solace I could offer was some lame platitude about "hanging in there." But I think that her plight is nearly impossible to avoid for the single person who is leaning in. Leaning in means taking challenges. If challenge was synonymous with success, everybody would challenge themselves. People don't because challenges inherently present the possibility of failure, and depending on the greatness of the challenge, the *probability* of failure.

To be faced with failure, even small ones, or maybe even just not sterling successes, in personal and professional facets of life at the same time, every day, all day is exhausting! It has made me question myself, every single decision that has brought me to where I am, every single future decision I will make, and undermines my ability to focus on anything but failure. "Of course I'm single, I'm too dumb to even figure out how to not get yelled at at work." "Of course I suck at this job, I can't even get a date." No matter that the specifics of the two things are completely unrelated, it is So.Very.Hard. to not comingle them.

So, I don't know how to lean in alone. But I also don't feel like I have any choice. I will continue to accept the challenges presented by my job. I will continue to work as much as I need to get the job done. I will continue to express my opinion, continue to build my credibility, continue to seek out new and greater responsibilities, continue to be an example to anyone who wants to look to me for mentorship (gawd help them!!), continue to be myself -- because I'm certain that's the only thing I know how to do with complete confidence.

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Merry Christmas!

First and most important, Merry Christmas to everyone underway, standing the watch, and otherwise on duty this morning! Y'all rock...thank you for taking the watch to keep the rest of us safe and secure!

I, however, am not one of those people on watch this year. I'm on leave, soaking up the sunny Southern California days at my sister's house. We don't have many hard and fast Christmas traditions in our family. Over the years, we've been so spread out that year-to-year everything is a little different. When Mom was alive, she insisted on playing Santa, handing out presents from under whatever was serving as our Christmas tree. We had to wait until each person was done opening their present before the next person could start. I'm sure, as a kid, this drove me *crazy!* But it definitely helps prolong the moment of everyone's joy, as we all get to ooh and aah appropriately over each gift.

Speaking of presents -- good gawd is there pressure to find *exactly* the right thing! It shows you know the person well, you're caring enough to get something they want, and in my family, there has always been a weird dynamic between extravagance and thrift, which I think comes from not having a lot of extra money when my sister and I were young.

I've usually been pretty good with gifts. I'm sure there have been some years where I failed spectacularly miserably (please, family and friends, no need to remind me of these!). But on the whole, I try really hard to make my gifts thoughtful, meaningful, helpful, useful and fun. And if they don't cost a lot of money, all the better! These are qualities I value in the gifts I receive.

I gotta say, this year, I slam dunked it :)

Spoiler alert: Dad, Steve and Jan, and Linda -- don't read any further if you don't want to know what you're getting from me! Dad, your's and Sandee's is in the mail; Steve and Jan, I still have some tweaking to do on yours, so I'll bring it down next time I visit or have it ready if y'all come up; and Linda, umm, well, here's the thing...I still have to finish yours, so ditto the delivery note to Steve and Jan :)

I had all these DCU's (desert camouflage uniforms) from when I was on MAUI/at PATFORSWA that were taking up space in my closet, see. I can't recycle them at the thrift store; they're still in good shape; can't just throw them out.  So I started trying to figure out good ways to re-purpose them. Looking on Etsy, I saw some folks doing really creative work with old uniforms, like Emily at Emily's Custom Bags. She totally deserves the $50+ she gets for making her gorgeous bags out of what are otherwise useless rags.

But, frankly, I wanted something a little simpler (oh yeah, and I had procrastinated, and didn't think it was fair to ask her to make eight bags in 12 days on top of all her other orders). And I can be crafty if I wanna. So one evening, I broke out one of the blouses from the closet and started going to town with the seam ripper, deconstructing the shirt. I felt kinda like a butcher, wanting to use all the pig parts, saving them for sausage...I have plans for the collar -- maybe a wrist band with a pocket for running.

I wasn't sure how the bag was going to work exactly, but figured, how hard could it be -- rip a few seams here, sew them back in a slightly different construct. And once I got the system down, actually knew what I wanted to do, it was pretty easy.

Except, my poor sewing machine wasn't quite up to the task. I'd love to be able to say that I used my grandmother's treadle machine to make these gifts, but I broke down earlier this year, and bought an electric machine from Bryan at Brothers Sew & Vac in Silver Spring (great shop, btw -- very helpful and knowledgeable! Total small business charm!!). But I just got the starter model back then, not imagining that I might use it for a project like this. After I nearly destroyed it trying to sew through, idk, like 8 layers of heavy-duty ripstop material, I realized I could keep going with an underpowered machine, get thoroughly frustrated and probably irrevocably break the poor think, or I could admit my mistake and turn it in for an upgrade.


I chose the latter, and went back to Brothers. I got a very nice...probably a little too nice, what with all the extra decorative stitches and nonsense that I'll likely never use, but what the hey...upgrade that made the rest of the work a breeze.

I am happy to report that the bags were a total success with my sister. It took some explaining that these were uniforms that I couldn't wear anymore, and that I had made them myself (she said they looked professionally done!). In a stroke of good luck, she bought some bread for her husband yesterday, so I got to show off the usefulness of having used the sleeves as the sides of the bag, which made them perfect for baguette pockets. The straps are just long enough to get over a shoulder, but not too long where the bag drags on the ground if carried in hand -- didn't plan it that way, it just happened. The pants also turned out well. Definitely a smaller bag, but may be more useful for smaller trips to the store.

It drove me crazy the day I got the bags done, because I totally wanted to brag about them to someone and show them off, but couldn't post them to Facebook without all the recipients seeing them. It was worth the wait. And the work.

Merry Christmas, everybody! May you get all the presents you didn't even know you wanted, but will remind you daily of the people who love you!

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Gratitude the Hard Way

I was searching online a while back for a purveyor of *good* news, instead of the death, destruction, greed and inanity offered by many media outlets. I came upon the 21-day Gratitude Challenge, and signed up for their daily emails figuring I might get something in my "Promotions" inbox that was better for my soul than eBay and airline ads. I didn't expect to really pay too much attention, and I was right. However, one of the days' questions really stuck with me; it was something along  the lines of "what are you grateful for in things that annoy, frustrate or challenge you?" (Going back to the actual email, I find the question really was "what inconvenience are you grateful for?" Interesting how my mind morphed it.).

I waste a lot of energy aggravating myself over things that frustrate me, whether it's the jackhat in traffic who speeds up to cut me off at the last possible second before hir lane goes away when they've had 2 miles of notice that it's going to happen, or ooh, better yet, the Very Bad Driver who turns right from the *left* lane directly in front of me while I'm on my bicycle going straight (hate that intersection of West Virginia and New York on the way home!!). Or getting an email at work whining about an uninformed and parochial problem with no hint of any suggestions on how to fix it. Or the kitties (heck, who am I kidding -- I know it's only one kitty, and his name is Harry) gnawing through not one, but two sets of earbuds, and not realizing until I'm headed out the door to work on my bicycle, and have to ride both ways without my usual NPR fix. Or having to pour an almost entire half-gallon of milk down the drain because it has gone sour, because even though I know well and good that I can hardly ever finish a half-gallon of milk before it goes bad, the grocery stores I frequent don't carry quarts of milk, so I'm stuck wasting a lot, or going without. Hmph.

And then there's the bigger stuff that I find frustrating. Like our current federal budget situation (come *on!* politicians -- figure this stuff *out!!* Compromise is not a dirty word) and how that affects the daily grind of my job. Like being single again (very sadly, things didn't work out with the Rocket Scientist; distance, communications styles, emotional needs...I'm not entirely sure which hurdle finally took us out). Like feeling sorry for myself for *anything* when I know there are people very much worse off than I am, like my sister's friend who is herself disabled and unable to work, has a severely autistic child, and whose husband was just diagnosed with brain cancer -- goodness, what personal problems was I hacking on about? Why, oh why do bad things happen to good people?!?

So this particular question in the Gratitude Challenge definitely hits home with me. I want to be more positive and grateful about the big stuff and the little stuff; and I want to do this so I can be happier, and I can have a less negative impact on the people around me. This gets a little woo-woo here, but I believe that the universe reflects back at me what I put out there. So I'd rather send out happy, positive energy instead of negativity, anger, and frustration, both for myself, but also for the good of all of us.

In a happy coincidence, I started reading two books within the last couple of days. One is Leading at the Edge: Leadership Lessons from the Extraordinary Saga of Shackleton's Antarctica Expedition, by Dennis Perkins (yay for Books 24X7!) and The Happiness Project: Or Why I Spent a Year Trying to Sing in the Morning, Clean My Closets, Fight Right, Read Aristotle, and Generally Have More Fun, by Gretchen Rubin (yay for eBooks at my library!).

In the Shackleton book, there's a great section on cultivating optimism. Perkins talks about psychologist Martin Seligman who pioneered learned optimism, which is simplified into five concepts and related actions:
A - Adversity: Identify the adversity you have encountered (ex., some jackhole almost hit me on my bicycle commute)
B - Beliefs: Note your thoughts and beliefs about the event - that is, your interpretation (ex., s/he doesn't care about me)
C - Consequences: Recognize the consequences of your belief (ex., I feel insignificant, unimportant and disregarded)
D - Dispute: Dispute the negative belief with a sound argument based on evidence (ex., I have friends and family who care about me, and would be really upset if I got hit by a car)
E - Energy: Generate the energy and feelings needed to overcome the adversity (ex., I don't want to expose myself to the risk of being hit any more than I have to, so I will continue to pay close attention to the road and traffic around me, making myself better able to respond if someone else is not paying such close attention)

That might not be exactly what Perkins and Seligman meant, but hey, if it gets me through DC traffic without losing my mind (or getting arrested for shouting profanities in public), that's good enough for me!

As for the big stuff, I am grateful for my job, even as I bitch and whine about it. It's not just about the people I work with, who are the best of the best. I have been in more than a few meetings with a preponderance of Admirals, where I am the most junior member. And they listen to what I have to say. I am making myself a better leader by learning about the really big picture stuff that drives our organization, so that I can go back to the fleet and help make sense of it out there. I am (hopefully) influencing things in a positive, forward looking manner by the sole means of promoting questions that no one has wanted to face asking before. So, yes, all the frustration and head-desk feelings that happen frequently enough to be discouraging are worth it. And I'm grateful to have this blog/forum with which to remind myself that the fight is totally worthwhile and must go on.

I am grateful to have the personal space to realize that I really like spending time with my friends and family -- and that they love me enough back to have such amazing patience with me for taking so long to figure that out :) I'm also grateful for the personal space to figure out what makes me happy, without the influence of someone else's enthusiasm to sway me. You'd think by 40 I'd have figured that out, but it's still a work in progress, I guess probably because I have changed over the years, and continue to change.

But all this chatter about being happy in the face of adversity makes me wonder, at what point does trying to be positive about something, finding the good in a bad situation, drive me to neglect trying to change whatever the bad situation is? I mean, it's one thing if I can find a way to be more sanguine about annoying drivers, but what about when I do need to take positive action, but I'm too busy trying to be up-beat about whatever it is that I run out of energy to actually *do* something? Is it okay to talk myself into being positive about being in a bad place, instead of trying to do something to get out of that bad place? There has to be a middle road there.

One last note of gratitude the hard way -- I am grateful for being sick today and having to cancel on a 8k race, brunch with fellow military ladies and a later brunch with farm folks, all of which would have been so much fun. But because I had to cancel, I got this post written, and have two *huge!* pots of turkey soup bubbling on the stove. And best of all, I feel absolutely NO guilt for the nap on my couch that I'm about to take!