Thursday, November 29, 2012

Brazilian Laptop Project

This week my technical editing class covered cross-cultural communication. It seemed appropriate to share a professional international success story, especially one that sounds so much better here than the one-liner version on my résumé.

My last corporate project launched the first mobile product delivered to a Brazil local market for Compaq Computer Corporation (now Hewlett-Packard) in 2000. Pulling together a team comprised of third-party Taiwanese suppliers, ego-centric American product developers, proud Brazilian engineers and factory planners, a patriarchal Brazilian sales force and reporting to a Mexican national executive, we began the arduous task of building the first branded laptop in the country.
Brazil has one of the most complicated taxing structures in the world, raising the street price on laptops by more than US $1000. All components were historically manufactured and assembled into finished products by a third-party vendor in Taiwan, a role they were invested in retaining in full. The goal was to buy unassembled components and ship to our local factory for build; a role the Brazilians felt was their overdue right. Spanning twelve-hour time differences, four primary languages, and three continents, together we succeed in bringing a Brazilian-built laptop to the retail market on schedule.
I am largely missing from the story above, yet the project would not have happened without me.  Pregnant at 29, I certainly was not doing the heavy lifting to make this project a success. However, I had invested years into the relationships with all of the key players and was instrumental in keeping the team communicating and moving forward.
The on-schedule project delivered incremental revenue of US $6.4m and gross margin dollars over US $1.8m (39% GM) in the first quarter. The proud Taiwanese crew sent a smiling photo of them wearing the team shirts emblazoned with the Brazilian flag. I was on maternity leave before market share figures were published. The day my son was born ten positions were added to our three-person department.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Yearbook Queen

For three years I produced the yearbook for my daughter’s middle school as a parent volunteer. Still in its infancy, the school was beginning its third year with nineteen students when we joined the community. The traditional first day of school takes place on the rolling fields of Genesee Valley Outdoor Learning Center in Parkton, Maryland. The nervous smiles, the fearful faces as they looked at the 40-foot tower they were expected to climb and the pride in their accomplishments as they rang the bell at the top were all captured in digital images. I reviewed the hundreds of photos I took that night and knew the school needed a way to capture the special role it played in each of these families’ lives.
As a parent, I attended the majority of school events with a camera around my neck. As photographer, I took over 75% of the images submitted. Then as parent volunteer, I facilitated student activities to get the kids involved in recording their memories with funny stories and interviews. As publisher I identified production options and reviewed publishers. As editor-in-chief, I culled through on average 3,000 images each year to select 450-750 for print. Then the fun began with hours of page layouts, captions, colors and titles. By the time I distributed the first books, I pronounced myself “Yearbook Queen.”

The yearbook captures the memories of each year, marks the physical and intellectual growth of its students, and provides prospective parents a glimpse of why they should consider the school for their children. When my daughter graduated, the underfunded school offered me a position in order to retain my yearbook services.

The Albatross at
Genesee Valley Outdoor Learning Center

Monday, November 12, 2012

Fearless, Reckless, & Feckless

“Art is a personal act of courage, 
something one human does that 
creates change in another.” 
― Seth Godin

Visit Seth Godin's site to learn more.
As assigned reading in a graduate writing class, Seth Godin’s Linchpin: Are You Indispensable? speaks directly to his readers and puts the responsibility for their future, their careers, and their interactions squarely on their shoulders. His motivational book is a plea for the artist inside each one of us to stand up and shine.

One brief section, “Fearless, Reckless, Feckless,” immediately reminded me of my class of 8th graders. A tight-knit group of 9 students, they were preparing to graduate from middle school and spread out to various high schools.

Instead of launching into the planned yearbook activities, I assigned an essay entitled the Technology –Less Essay: Fearless, Reckless and Feckless. I first posed the question, “What use is technology if you can’t use what you find?”

The assignment required research at multiple websites and included the following components:
  • To define each term;
  • To provide an example of each term;
  • To provide a quotation representing at least one term; and
  • To indicate which quality they admired or aspired to be and why.
Their essay had specific formatting guidelines and required them to apply new word processor skills. Unaccustomed to essays in computer tech class, the students responded with either blank or incredulous stares.

One student, indeed the first one I thought of when reading this section of Linchpin, submitted a two-sentence essay: “I think that recklessness is manly and correct. I am very reckless and aspire to be even more reckless.” The head of school personally delivered the formal Teacher Note regarding his incomplete essay with my attached observation that he “certainly understands one term from the assignment.”

Students submitted essays with their interpretation of fearless, reckless and feckless. The class discussions about the true meaning of these words and their aspirations sparked a animated debate. One student struggled with writing, yet made an amazing conclusion. She found that we each represent all of these terms at different times. She aspired to learn from her recklessness, face her fears, and find her way back to responsibility from fecklessness.

After they presented their papers to the class, the group collaborated to select the strongest parts of each individual essay and build a collection of all components. Each student contributed a sentence or two to the group compilation, remastering a class representation of the assignment. The students each read their contribution, while we recorded an audio version of the class compilation. From defiant stares to total engagement, the students proved they are learning to be indispensable. 

Overall, I enjoyed Godin's easy-to-digest approach to challenging readers to find their gifts and figure out what to do rather than waiting for instructions. It preaches a heavy dose of enthusiasm to pump up the reader, but one that works well in the context of Godin's motivational message.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Review: Clarisonic Mia 2

After years of glancing at the pricey Clarisonic products at the spa, I finally treat myself to what at close to $150 might be the most expensive washcloth ever produced.
The Clarisonic Mia2 has oversized packaging complete with skin elasticity curve charts that explain little and after images of fluorescent makeup removed via Clarisonic or manual cleansing. Instructions indicate two speeds for a timed cleansing cycle of 60 seconds with three zones: forehead for 20 seconds, nose/chin for 20 seconds, then each cheek for 10 seconds. Now skeptical, I suspect even a washcloth if used for a full minute can improve results. Who has a minute?

Then I tried it. Then my fifteen-year old daughter tried it.

From the first use, my skin felt cleaner, fresher and tighter. I splashed on toner and could feel it penetrate the skin. By the second day, the pores across the bridge of my nose were visibly smaller and the tissue under my eyes looked brighter. By the third day, I wondered if I might be imagining the uneven texture pockets shrinking. The pores on my forehead were also retreating. By day five, I calculated how long it would take to use on my entire body.

My daughter wants one and I foresee never needing another facial. Now I might pay a monthly subscription fee to keep my Mia2. My face is as smooth as a Barbie’s thigh and flawlessly absorbs skin creams. Those lavish serums and moisturizers can now reach my skin and do their job. Yes!

No washcloth ever made me hold my head higher. That is worth any price.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Chaos & Cookies

The last two years have brought big transitions to my family. A twelve year stay at home mother, I added a thirty mile commute to a private school, a teaching position and graduate school. Picking up the equivalent of three part time jobs on top of my parenting, household, and volunteer undertakings has meant a whirlwind of activities, a massive reduction in reading, and chaos reaching every crevice of our home. No formal classes this summer finally allowed time to reign it all in and restore order. Writing (and blogging) has taken a backseat to getting my house under control. 

First up were personal finances. I might have forgotten to balance the checkbook, um, since last summer. Despite a bank merger, the accounts had not been reconciled in almost a year and seemed a little off. Like lost on a gravel road miles from the interstate off. The first week of summer bit the dust under a pile of bank statements.

Next up was household organization. In April I posted a two-sided list on the refrigerator completed with areas of the house and family member responsible for cleaning it out by June. They thought it was a joke. Summer hit and not one line had been crossed off. At my prompting my twelve-year-old son began the task of the mudroom. After three consecutive nights of late-night sleepovers, kid was not a joy.

He tried “cleaning” like he would on any regular day. This meant piling any shoe in the room onto white wire shelves and slowly backing away. He was dumbfounded when I cleared the hooks of umbrellas, half a dozen backpacks, winter coats, and reusable bags and told him to remove everything else. He was less impressed with my instructions to both sweep and mop the floor. I tackled the dusty wood blinds with a damp sponge. After thirty minutes of trying to clean grimy fingerprints and filthy cleat scrapes off the walls, we switched gears.

A few minutes later, I reappeared with a couple of gallons of paint, trays, rollers and brushes. Then I rounded the kid up again and handed him a roller. He opted for the walls and I took the trim. The original shelf worked well seven years ago when my youngest son was three. Now the room is filled with mini-man shoes and the little shelf no longer got the job done. In came a new black cubby unit to organize the shoes and shin guards.

Fresh paint and a new system in place, it looks good and functions great. We started with a room scattered with dirty shoes. In true If You Give a Mouse A Cookie fashion, by the end of the day I repainted the trim of most of the first floor. And chances are if you show this mom a mess, she's going to repaint the house.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Pirates Don't Sing, Mom

My fourth grader participated in his first choir concert on stage last week. The pirate-themed performance had him pumped up about his costume, painting “dirt” on his face, and of course, totting a duct-tape covered foam sword. He couldn’t find his boots, but didn’t seem to mind heading out in a pair at least three sizes too big. He was set.

We gathered in the auditorium, also the cafeteria and gymnasium, depending on the time of day. The lights dimmed and the musical began. My son stood off-center in the first row, behind the Color Beard Crew. You know, the pirates Captain Blackbeard, Redbeard, Greenbeard, Yellowbeard, Purplebeard; well, you get the picture. Both bearded and hairless crew, mateys, prisonsers, buckaneers and even a stowaway are led in song by the King of the High C’s, a talented fifth-grade Elvis impersonator. Of course, the reviews were outstanding; the show an immediate success.

Oh, my son, you ask? Fine, fine. Well, actually, no, he did not sing. Sometimes I spotted his lips moving and he performed the required body movements at the right time. Except he did not really sing. He did, however, play the pirate part with beaded dreadlocks hanging under his maroon bandana and oversized brown folded hat.

I have lost count of the number of student musical performances attended over the years. I do remember exactly how many concerts in which my kids sang the selected songs. None. Not once in over a decade have any of my three children given more than a perfunctory effort at mimicking singsong effects. Of course, I did not remember this detail as I scoured the basement for the missing pieces of a pirate costume. I did not remember this detail as he selected silver duct-tape to cover the offensive primary colors on the sword. I did not remember this detail as I returned home for the forgotten camera. I remembered this only when I saw my son’s face blankly greeting a sea of proud parents, brothers and sisters, teachers and grandparents. And he did not sing.

Later at home, I asked him about the concert. He looked up from under that big brown hat with a slow spreading smile not unlike a ticking crocodile.

"Pirates don't sing, Mom," he said.

I would like to acknowledge the choir director, Kristen Engelke, who had the pleasure of working with all three of my charming children. Please join me with her in growling, “Aarrrrgg!”

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Review: Life After a Day at the Circus

The Greatest Show: Stories
By Michael Downs

181 pages. Louisiana State University Press  (March 15, 2012)

Visit The Greatest Show here.
“What difference would one day make, one day away?”

Ania asks herself, and slips two circus tickets in the waistband of her skirt.

The Greatest Show collects ten poignantly crafted stories that showcase the difference one day can make. Connected by the 1944 circus fire in Hartford, Connecticut, the powerful characters take center stage in stories spanning six decades.

The collection opens with Ania, the story of an immigrant housekeeper and her young family. With her husband, Charlie, overseas fighting the war, Ania steals two tickets and takes her three-year son Teddy to a matinee circus show. When a fire engulfs the main tent, they cannot escape the flames. Laced with raw emotion, Ania struggles to overcome her mistakes and adjust her expectations.

Ex-husband, Years Removed pulls mourners together for the funeral of a woman claimed by the fire. Her brother, Nick, and her former husband, Gal, reconnect and share their grief after the service. As old secrets rise out of the ashes, he finds a cathartic, new understanding of his still beloved ex-wife, his failed marriage and even himself. Gal’s sister, Lena, befriends Nick, foreshadowing romance to emerge from disaster.

The curious story of Mrs. Liszak weaves the visible facial scars of a long-ago fire with the invisible emotional scars of Suzanne, a thrice-abandoned teen. At the Beach paints the portrait of a budding affair. Downs repeatedly folds in unexpected elements with Elephant featuring the father-son relationship between Charlie and Teddy.

With The Greatest Show, Downs builds anticipation not unlike walking the tightrope. Modern-day performers and audience alike unite around incomprehensible events and begin to heal. Together, they form a collection of stories about remembering, forgetting, and the tenacity of our shared experience to pull us through the pain.

Surprisingly uplifting and replete with compassion, Downs reveals the dignity of the human spirit and our unyielding ability to love. Each piece stands alone; then slides into place in a larger jigsaw puzzle. Like performances in the big tent, every new act captivates with dazzling dexterity and complexity.

The Greatest Show explores the theme of visibility versus what is hidden from view: physical scars versus emotional injury. Captivated by life rather than loss, he breathes fresh air into his honest portrayal of relatable characters as readers settle in for a well-told story.
"Our sense of the day fades. We're left with a few facts, a recollection of dread and joy, and a sense that every damn thing disappears too quickly. Lucky us."

Lucky us, indeed.