Friday, May 29, 2009


I have an on-again, off-again relationship with clarity: I aim for it in most things, but there are times when too much clarity makes me feel claustrophobic, as it forces me to eliminate options that I am not quite ready to discard.

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Many years ago, O’Reilly Media founder and CEO Tim O’Reilly wrote a memo to the company’s managers about our role. One of things he wanted was for managers to “tolerate ambiguity, resolve ambiguity, and create ambiguity.” We all laughed when we read it, but in many ways it has been a key element in the continued success of the company. As the company has matured, we’ve managed to strike a manageable balance between encouraging a certain amount of ambiguity even as we continually strive for something that passes for clarity. It is not always easy to make the necessary choices.

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There are people who would like to eradicate ambiguity entirely; they want to make a list, nail things down, get closure and be done with it. That’s a good way to approach cleaning one’s house: finally decide what to do with that old side table of Aunt Tillie’s that you’ve been tripping over in the basement for years. But it’s not a viable approach for the world that lies beyond your direct control, i.e., most of life.

I have a colleague at O’Reilly who is quite determined in her quest to resolve ambiguity, whether it’s getting clear about roles, goals, or marketing messages. But the thing that makes her unusual—and quite effective—is that her driving desire for clarity doesn’t override her willingness and ability to change course quickly when the situation changes. She doesn’t hang onto what was and try to force the situation back into that state; she lets go and begins from where things are now. And that makes her an excellent problem-solver, because she is always solving the problem as it is now, not as it was a week ago, a day ago, or, far too often, just a few hours ago.

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Ambiguity is a deal-breaker for most horses—they either look to their rider for leadership or they figure they’re on their own. To them, clarity is leadership. It lets them know what’s expected and what’s permissible in any given situation, and makes them feel safe. If you watch horses interact with each other out in the paddock, you see that they have very distinct ways of establishing hierarchies and setting boundaries. This is what “horse whisperers” have learned, and it is how they work what seems to be magic.

I try to be as clear and consistent as I can with Wolfie. Any indecision on my part leads to indecision (and an open door for unwanted behavior) on his. Sometimes it's hard to do. One has to let go of self-doubt and strive for consistency. I can't think: "I must be doing something wrong, since he's not doing what I am asking him to do." The truth is that if I always use the same cues and have the same expectations of him, every time, eventually we'll come to understand each other. Or at least he'll come to understand me.

Friday, May 8, 2009

Favorite Food Combos

I was having a root beer today as I was driving through Essex and remembered going to the A&W stand when I was a kid. Root beer and a hot dog with mustard and sweet relish. Yum. Every time I have a root beer, I can almost taste the hot dog. Every time I have a hot dog, I wish I had a root beer to go along with it.

So, of course that got me thinking about food combos that I love.
  • A hot dog with mustard and sweet relish, with root beer. The A&W classic.

  • Tuna fish sandwich on toast, with chocolate milk. Not great for dipping—tuna is kinda oily.

  • Peanut butter and jelly on rye bread, with chocolate milk. Excellent for dipping.

  • Hamburger with mayo and cherry tomatoes on a sesame bun, with a chocolate milkshake (what we call a frappe in these parts).

  • Bologna and chocolate milk powder. Take a slice of bologna and put a teaspoon of Nestle’s Quik on it. Spread it around a bit, then fold the bologna into quarters and enjoy. Gross, but the choc milk powder takes the greasy edge off the bologna—the main thing is to remember not to inhale as you take a bite or you’ll choke to death on the choc milk powder. I came up with this when faced with what seemed like an endless sequence of bologna sandwiches in my lunchbox.

  • Turkey (sliced very thin) with mayo on white bread, with a bottle of Dr. Pepper. In high school, Susie Hertlein and I used to skip out to lunch in Susie's blue Mustang to a place called “Serendipity.” We got these sandwiches and the Dr. P there: the best high school lunch ever. We told our teachers that we were selling ads for the school newspaper.

  • Oreos and milk. I’m not a “taker-aparter”—I put an entire Oreo in my mouth and then have a swig of milk and wait until the Oreo gets soft enough to smoosh with my tongue. Yummy. And only 50 calories per Oreo, but of course I never eat just one.

  • Bananas with sour cream. One of my favorite desserts from my childhood, always with lots of sugar on top.

  • Butter and sugar on white bread. The worst of everything. Depending on how much sugar you use, this can be a very gritty, very sweet treat.

  • Pickled herring and beer. Liked pickled herring even before I spent time in Denmark. Liked it even better when I was old enough to drink beer with it. And Danish schnapps.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Demon Alcohol

So, it seems that I can no longer drink alcohol. Or at least, not much. When I imbibe, headaches ensue frequently enough that I've come to understand that I need to avoid alcohol most of the time. A pity, because it's nearly summer and I love a cold gin and tonic on a hot summer evening.

It's been interesting to watch myself as I reach this conclusion. It's certainly not what I want to do. But the headache response is severe enough that it has made taking the risk and drinking a G&T or a glass of red wine--before I even get the headache--far less enjoyable than it used to be.

I hate things like this that narrow the range of what I can do. Does this really mean that I won't be able to drink alcoholic beverages for the rest of my life? It's not that I'm a big drinker; I'm definitely extremely moderate in that area (I eat way more chocolate and sugar--which may be the next to go, I'm afraid). But I really enjoy a glass of wine now and again, and I already miss everything about it, from the ritual of pulling the cork to admiring the color of the wine in my glass to the smooth finish of a good red wine.

Maybe, just maybe, this too shall pass.