Wandering Dave has wandered off…..again

August 12, 2011

Please visit my new (comprehensive) website: BurkeDroppings.com


Channel surfing

July 19, 2009

She won a “Man of the Year” award in 1969 and accomplished many more “firsts” throughout her military career and in retirement. I recall her appearance on 60 Minutes 25 years ago where she explained nanoseconds. Hopper was a great scientist; and she was wise.

One of her most repeated aphorisms is “It’s easier to ask forgiveness than it is to get permission.”

I’ve heard that advice repeated many times over the years, including at a meeting that has been on my mind for the past four days.

One of the most promising resources in this area, when it comes to volunteering, is the new University of California. I feel certain that hundreds of students and scores of others who work on campus will be eager — not just willing, but eager — to serve the community as volunteers.

I have this confidence because of the content of First Lady Michelle Obama’s commencement speech this year and the crowd reaction to her sentiments. Her address was a call to action and, she repeatedly specified volunteer service to this community as a priority.

At our meeting last week, the topic of UC Merced volunteering came up. A fairly lengthy discussion ensued, the aim of which was to identify how the matter should best be brought to campus. There were arguments in favor of “going through” the student affairs office, the student government, the public affairs office and through one or more professors known to be friendly toward community service.

When I suggested that a direct appeal to the Chancellor might prove fruitful, I was quickly admonished. A direct appeal to the top man, it seems, just isn’t the way things get done. I pressed my notion, asking why not start at the top? Then I was provided a lesson on university politics and told the faculty doesn’t take leadership from the administration.

Well, I’m sure all of that is true and wise. And I’m definitely not qualified to have an opinion on the subject. Though I’ve attended seven colleges and universities and taught at six, I’ve only been on campus at UC Merced a dozen or so times. And I’m pretty ignorant about the UC system in general — I’m more of a state university type of guy, maybe more of a community college type.

Admiral "Amazing Grace" Hopper Anyway, when Admiral Hopper’s observation about seeking forgiveness after getting something done rather than risking being denied permission by asking for advance clearance, it occurred to me that it might have been more prudent to keep my idea about chatting up the Chancellor to myself and just call for an appointment on my own hook.

It’s the old process vs product case. My goal is to foster collaboration and that’s going to mean that I’ll be voted down pretty often. My ideas tend to test limits and that makes many people uncomfortable.

I’m a bit worried that I’m going to end up with a mouth full of hamburger, though, if I have to keep biting my tongue all of the time.

If I’ve overstepped any boundaries, please forgive me.

No news is … no news

July 18, 2009

Cool event on a hot day

Cool event on a hot day

I attended a community wide event downtown this evening. Evening, this time of year, is pretty much like high noon in most places. It was about 102 in the shade and there wasn’t nearly enough shade. Today’s high was 108, so 102 wasn’t as bad as it could have been — but it was hot.

I searched the newspaper this morning for an announcement of today’s event and found nothing. One of the outcomes I’d like to help with this year, in terms of infrastructure, is improving communication. The local paper has a bad reputation in regards to publishing news of activities of local non-profits. The criticism is somewhat deserved; but I say both the paper and those seeking publicity should take 100 percent of the responsibility.

The event, titled the “Art Hop” was well attended despite the lack of publicity. The streets weren’t crowded, but there were a few hundred souls wandering up and down the sidewalks, visiting with each other, taking in the artwork on display, listening to a few street musicians and looking for shade and cool drinks.

I ran into four or five people I know and felt like a part of the “in crowd.” In a smaller community, the old saying from ’60s radio commercials rings true: “Be there or be square.” Being seen is a big part of the scene.

I stayed longer than I expected, shot a few photos and met a few new people — I picked up some business cards along the way and shared a few of my own.

Earlier, I had breakfast with a long-time Merced friend and (as usual) did most of the talking about my new job. I mentioned that having a sounding board was valuable to me; but I can’t help but think I must be as boring as heck.

I’m drinking copius quantities of liquids. I “brewed” my third huge container of sun tea today and I think I’ll cook up another tomorrow. It won’t take me far into the week, but it’s a nice alternative to plain old water.

And there went Saturday.

Old dog? Or…oldVISTA of destiny

July 17, 2009

Can an oldVISTA learn new tricks?

Can an oldVISTA learn new tricks?

I guess I should have known better.

The problem may be that I just have never had an opportunity like the one facing me now: the chance to work directly under a charismatic leader whom I’d be wise to simply trust and follow, patiently.

I may just be past the point of recovery, though. I may simply be the old dog that can’t be taught new tricks. I’m pretty sure I can follow my new boss because so far I haven’t heard him say one word I didn’t agree with — and he has some amazing insights that are really helping me sort through a lot of new information; but I’m not so sure that I can be patient. I’m trying.

After all, I’m just (barely) two weeks into my year of service. When I began, I promised to be patient, accepting, subservient, obedient, trusting, loyal ( uh oh, I’m even starting to sound like the family dog…).

Anyway, I haven’t received a clear “go” or “no go” on ideas I’ve come up with to define my role and it’s …. driving …. me …. crazy!

I’ve been thinking about my work history; and I don’t believe I’ve been really “under” somebody else since I was a student worker at Lake Miramar back in 1967 — at age 18, when this old dog was just a pup.

Even as a playground leader — when I was near the bottom of the pecking order back in the San Diego Recreation Department days, I was the “leader” on my ground. I was left to my own devices about 95 percent of the time. And once I started working full time, I was director … four times. Never a supervisor, superintendent, or other subordinate; always the top dog (aging and perhaps losing the ability to learn to respond to “sit!” “stay” and “lie down.”

I had a short stint as a real bureaucrat with the Los Angeles County superior court system when I was still in my 30s; and that didn’t work well at all, even then. Now that I think back on it, maybe it didn’t work out because I’m (yep, you guessed it) not too good at taking orders.

Academia, where I spent most of my second career, featured academic freedom. I was protected from any significant supervision by tradition and by my colleagues — and by a union and a collectively bargained contract that protected my independence. Even so, I still had trouble, on occasion, accepting input from “highers-up.”

And I have to admit that I wasn’t really a very good “kiss-up artist” during my relatively short stints as a newspaper reporter. I was fortunate. while writing for the Los Angeles Times, to have a great editor who gave me free rein and nothing but support and encouragement. I got a taste or two of the more heavy-handed top-down system that operates at many newspapers (and is actually a part of that industry’s tradition); but I was always temporary enough or part time enough to just ignore most of the commands and demands of my “betters.”

I should probably be more patient and should accept that I’m not in control of my own destiny. But I am so eager to get to work implementing a course of action that has yet to be approved that I just can’t help chomping at the bit (to continue the “reins” metaphor from the previous paragraph).

Well, I made it to my second weekend (the past 5 days flew by at a disturbing pace). And now I’ll no doubt fill the “time off” with frenzied activity. For example, I don’t think I can keep from working on a brochure that describes the project I haven’t been told I can go ahead and implement. Maybe I should go see someone — my health coverage includes psychological care…

The good news is that I’m still having FUN. It’s probably better to be eager and anxious to get up to full speed rather than scared, uncertain and wishing I wasn’t in this situation. I’m HAPPY to be in this pickle and if I have no choice, I think I may even figure out how to learn a new trick or two.


‘FIRE! Ready… Aim…’

July 16, 2009

Go to Meetin'

Go to Meetin'

My momma worked from sun to sun but loved us in between
And out there on the farm we all wore flannel shirts and jeans
We learned to value simple things and did our daily chores
But every sunday morning we’d get dressed up for the lord

In our sunday-go-to-meetin’ clothes we tried to look our best
In that little country church in a valley way out west
Us kids were always scrubbed and clean and checked from head to toe
In our sunday-go-to-meetin’ clothes

–Joni Harms
I spent a few hours in a meeting. I knew about the meeting and knew it was critical that I attend. But I wasn’t notified in any systematic fashion (email, etc.) of the time and place. I knew it would be on a particular day and in the afternoon, though, and when I asked for and received the details it became unnecessary to invite me “officially.” So, it’s quite possible that I would have been notified “in time,” if not in a timely fashion.

I’m wondering whether now “old fashioned” protocols have changed that dramatically in the five years since I was part of an organization and involved with lots of meetings. Maybe the prevalence of cell phones, personal data assistants and internet-linked digital calendars have made formal notifications obsolete.

The meeting also operated without an agenda. I was unaware that a major project was to be considered — in fact that single topic filled nearly all of the three hours. I was unprepared, not having studied the matter. And when it began to look as if I may be heavily involved — one attendee suggested that the AmeriCorps members (me included) might spend 20% of our time on the project between now and the end of the year — I felt compelled to ask what must have appeared to others who had done their homework to be rather dumb questions.

I probably should have remained silent and merely LOOKED as if I was dazed and confused; but I opened my mouth (at some length) and removed all doubt.

Well, maybe I AM getting too old for these modern times. I’ll be breaking in my own state-of-the-art iPhone pretty soon. I love gadgets, but the myriad of features is daunting. I’m still old enough to remember when a phone was a phone, not a phonograph, camera, compass, map, television, and more — including features I’ll probably never even realize the thing has…

Who needs an agenda when you have texting and more than a million aps downloadable from iTunes? It’s Modern Times and I’m a throwback.

No ‘I’ in T-E-A-M

July 15, 2009

Happy? You bet!

Happy? You bet!

We had a quorum this afternoon at our weekly gathering. “We” are the five AmeriCorps ‘vippers’ — members assigned to the Volunteer Infrastructure Program in Merced County.

Tomorrow we’ll have a more formal gathering with our site supervisors present and THAT will (finally) be the first time all five of us will be in the same room together. Somebody better bring a camera.

I like our team. We have common goals and are all dealing with too much to do and too little time to do it. I am certain that we’ll work together, if only by serving as sounding boards and support systems for each other — and by collaborating, I know we’ll be more effective as individuals.

Spending an hour or so together today sort of highlighted the theme I’ve been experiencing over the past couple of weeks: we’re really trying to help people (including each other).

Since arriving at the United Way office, I’ve encountered three or four people who are “down on their luck.” In each case, I’ve taken time to listen to their stories. I’ve tried to display compassion and concern and I’ve both tried to help and invited them to get back to me if they wish.

Today I had a chance to speak with my site supervisor and shared the good feeling I’m experiencing when I take time to focus on others and try to help without judging. I said I was very pleased to be in an office where helping is the whole point.

I’m liking this.

I went out to one of the small towns not far from our city yesterday and spoke with a group of 9 or 10 young men who are in a summer work program. I shared my experiences and opinions about volunteering. But I tried to make the exchange mostly about them and not about me.

That approach really got results. I used Ben Franklin’s “terms of modest diffidence” and avoided pontificating or judging; and it proved to be a very relaxing and (for me, at least) enjoyable hour and one-half.

Oh, I’m still very results-oriented. And I’m dreaming large, thinking I may be able to do one or two “big” things. I like global, outside-the-box thinking and grand plans. And I’d like to make my mark in the larger scheme of things.

But I’m pleased that any great accomplishments this year will be performed in the context of working in an office where people want to help people.

I’m in a good place with TWO good teams, my United Way colleagues and my vipper teammates.

Lucky me.

Call me ‘run-of-the-mill’

July 14, 2009

Meet in the middle

Meet in the middle

We writers work alone; but most of us yearn for an audience. I don’t write for readers; I write for myself. But I want (boy! do I want) readers to get from me the kind of magic I get from really good writers.

I know I’m a good writer. But I also know that I’m NOT a “really good writer” and that I’ll never be a great writer, no matter how much I study and practice. But knowing that doesn’t prevent me from wishing that my blog would become “viral” and that people were inspired and touched by my prose.

Ah, well. I’m certainly not unique in my wanna-be-ness. A lot of folks would like to be incredible singers, dancers, athletes, money managers, inspirational speakers, game show players and thousands of other kinds of performers.

It’s not a tragedy to fall inside the most curvy part of the bell-shaped curve — after all, there’s not much room on the flatlands to the left and right. Most of us, by statistical necessity, are a little above or below average in the majority of ways we can be measured (or percieved).

I’m an above-average writer. And, darn it, I’m a below-average musician, artist, athlete and navigator — among other things. Though it’s predictable and “normal” to be less capable in some regards than most other people, it still stings a bit and is kind of hard to admit even to myself.

Ah, well. One could suggest that God must love people who are slightly above or below average — he made so many of us. To be more statistically correct, I’ll just note that hanging around the mean (average) offers plenty of company — two out of three of us are within one unit, called a standard deviation, of that average in most measures; and there often isn’t a very noticeable difference between us.

Those we envy and those we pity are the “outliers.” Seven-foot-tall basketball players and four-foot-six jockeys live in the rarefied territory in the “tails” of that famous curve, where very few others share their traits.

I’m not sure why this topic rose to the surface when I logged in to post today’s entry. Somehow I don’t think it’s going to help me build readership. I’ll have to remain an unappreciated, above-average-but-not-close-to-great writer.

Meanwhile, I’ll see you back at the median, mean and mode. Come early, we’re expecting a crowd.

Going with the (ebb and) flow

July 13, 2009

The weekend was timely. I was ready for a break from the self-proclaimed “chaos” that is United Way Merced County. But my two days “off” — which included a couple of one-on-ones downtown and a good deal of writing and research — flashed by.

I allowed myself to tarry a while in bed and then felt a bit rushed as I showered, dressed and packed up my laptop and accessories for the short drive to work. I realized that during that commute I was girding my loins in anticipation of diving into the mosh pit.

That “girding” crack reminds me: I need to buy a new belt. I’m getting too skinny for the one I’ve been wearing and am still too fat for the next size smaller in my closet. But, as they say, I digress…

I’ve developed the theory that the level of “frantic” rises exponentially in our office based on the number of people present: When I’m there alone, I’m still (as a newcomer) mildly frantic — say at level 2. But add Mary and we move to level 4. Fred appears on the scene and it’s 8 and Theresa and Flip take us to 16 and DefCon 32, respectively.

Well, I didn’t get to test that theory today because Theresa and Flip were no-shows. Fred and Mary came and went, and their comings and goings lent support to my “grows exponentially” hypothesis; but I’ll have to wait until tomorrow, when everyone may be back in town, to take readings at levels 16 and beyond.

Today’s relative calm gave me a chance to get fairly well organized. I’ve developed a plan of action for the next week or two and that makes developing daily “to-do” lists pretty easy and also creates short-term goals that are achievable. So, I have a good chance to be on-task, focussed and successful for the next ten days or so.

And I’m hoping that by the end of the month (Golly! I’ll only have about 92% of my service time remaining at that juncture) I hope to have a clear mission statement for the whole year. A vision of such a document is beginning to coalesce in my head, but it remains to be seen whether my local and regional overseers will see things my way.

Having this job gives me an excuse to walk up to strangers and engage them in conversation. I’ve been doing that a lot lately, sort of picking people at random. That has been great. Talking to people about volunteering (that is, about doing good deeds to help the community) is easy. And I’m not finding any negativism or mean-spiritedness … at all.

I think I’m going to like being a “do-gooder” for a year. Accentuating the positive makes me feel all warm and fuzzy. Purrr.

OK. That’s it for blog entry #26. Tune in tomorrow for another update. But now …. The tide is running out and I’m ready for some sack time before tomorrow when high tides are expected with a chance of tsunami.

What’s the plan?

July 12, 2009

An "A-Team" class planner
Way back in the day (and by “the day” I mean the ’50s) families with young children often loaded their car with food, drink, pillows, blankets and assorted items that could help create a home away from home. Then they traveled to a nearby drive-in theater for a few hours (It was always a double feature then) of family fun.

When I was introduced to movies, we were living in Columbus, Ohio And it was in that context that I first discovered planning.

One for the money
Two for the show
Three to get ready, and
Four to go!

That little jingle, combined with the packing and arranging going on, taught me that things worth doing were worth doing right. It taught me that desirable outcomes don’t just happen, that foresight and planning is necessary to ensure that we arrived on time, at the right venue, with everything necessary to have a good outing.

The money was number one. Our parents had been Depression-era children and lived through World War II (my father having served overseas). Even the reasonable entry price for a carload of people had to be fit into a tight budget. Gas was cheap, by today’s standards, but that expense was another factor.

Despite inviting cartoons featuring dancing hot dogs and popping popcorn, we never bought anything at the snack bar. We had paper shopping bags filled with homemade popcorn, a thermos filled with Kool-Aid or plain water, and wrapped candy bought in bulk handed out one piece at a time by our father.

Those trips to the drive-in exposed me to the whole world — through Hollywood’s eyes. They made me think about love, war, patriotism, adventure, exploration, mystery, fantasy and much more. But they also taught me the value of planning, of husbanding resources for maximum benefit, of making decisions carefully so there was something for everyone and of sharing the work so everything got done and we could arrive at our destination on time.

My parents’ attention to detail and their drive to consider options before selecting the best course of action certainly affected my approach to life. I like to develop systems. I’m a firm believer in the idea that if you don’t know where you’re going, there’s no reason to drive fast.

Two of my favorite processes are analysis and synthesis. First, you break the situation down and look at each component and variable; and then you build a new organism that addresses all of the most important needs in the most efficient and effective manner possible.

Only after determining what must be done and how it can be done well do I feel comfortable beginning work. By thinking things through and predicting what will happen, I believe I’ll be more likely to avoid pitfalls.

After all, who can argue that watching Clark Gable and Marilyn Monroe on the big screen is NOT made better when somebody remembered to bring the popcorn?

“I love it when a plan comes together.”
— Hannibal Jones, “The A Team”

Group dynamics

July 10, 2009

Wow. After six years away from the work world, life in a busy environment is generating a real culture shock. I hope I’ve emerged from seclusion in time to still be able to adapt to what my new boss sometimes (and pretty appropriately) calls “chaos.”

One thing that I’m struggling to manage is interruptions. Even before I retired, I spent much of my time with at least one wall or door between me and the rest of the world.

For most of my work life I’ve had a private office. I always had an open door policy and never discouraged folks from dropping by, but there was that door — and visitors literally had to cross a threshold to invade my domain.

As of Wednesday, my work station is a desk in the lobby — just inside the front door which is the only point of ingress and egress. In other words I’m the first to greet all visitors and the last to bid them farewell.

Of course, I’m in between everyone else in the building and the copy machine, the refrigerator and the conference room. And I’m within earshot of all conversation in the hallway — including frequent shouted exchanges between offices. In fact, everyone in the building has an open door policy and I can even hear many conversations underway inside offices.

The good news is that there are just five of us. On the other hand, the team is extremely collaborative — the director calls it “organic” — and that requires synergy. It’s amazing how often two or three (or four or five) of us are huddled in one office or another — or in the lobby (er…MY office).

It’s great. The energy is amazing and there seem to be dozens of balls in the air at once — being tossed from juggler to juggler in a kaleidoscope of confusing cooperation that is dizzying to this newcomer.

I’ve had quite a week. Two long days of intensive training followed by three days in the “cat bird seat” surrounded by organic chaos.

What’s not to love?

Unfortunately, it’s Friday and I don’t get to return to the new and exciting world of work for two whole days.

On the other hand, I’m exhausted and can use some time off.