Saturday, November 22, 2008

SnowSprouts

DSC03122 The Dutch woke to snow this Saturday morning.

It’s not a common thing here: the climate is temperate marine, much like Seattle, and winters are similarly dark and wet. When snow showers blow in, it frosts trees and walkways for a few hours, then subsides to wet slush by mid-afternoon.

Thus, any snow day becomes an occasion. Children, bundled and booted, run to the park to jump in puddles, roll up a sneeuwpop (snowman), sled down the hills, and catch snowflakes on their tongues.

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Childhood should be filled with moments like these. As a parent, time spent with the kids sledding and having snowball fights is precious (mine turned 19 today, but it still doesn’t seem so long ago that we pushed and rolled in the snow). Kids know that snow is the perfect medium for building forts and caves, slides and sculptures. The creative urge is only abandoned in adolescence when we discover winter’s greater potential as a race track for skiing and tobogganing.

I remember riding the chair lifts in Colorado with my brothers, listening to the trees crack in the cold, assessing the skiers below, planning routes through the colored lines of the trail maps…starting blue (red in Europe), a black interlude, finishing fast. We could complete 20 or more runs in a day, top to bottom, reading the lift lines to minimize waits, scanning the runs for moguls and chutes.

I was reminded me again of how social media increasingly challenge our kid’s engagement with the real world. In the US, for example, PBS is kicking off Sprout, a new 24-hour television channel for “pre-social” children (ages 2-5). it combines “trusted, gold-standard shows with fresh and innovative originals, following the day of a preschooler from breakfast to bedtime, with daytime programming designed to get children moving and active and evening programming to help the family gently unwind...”

This is a sad evolution for kids and a challenge for adults. The resource pages are undoubtedly helpful, but as a practical matter, toddlers and pre-K’s grow and develop and learn and gain confidence by interacting with the world, with friends, with caregivers, not with a television or computer. Motts 4 tots (2)And, even though it’s made by PBS with high standards for what sponsors can add messages in what ways, the sugary temptations and consumer-driven socialization is still present. It just seems young, and it seems like it has the potential to get in the way of so much else.

‘Watching the kids playing in the snow today, families out enjoying the brief wonder of winter in the park together, I really hope that there aren’t too many parents bundling their kids away with Sprout.

And, enjoying the rare treat of a fresh snowfall in the forest, I hope that their parents aren’t missing out on the fun, either.

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Friday, November 21, 2008

Binnenland verhuizen (Moving within the country)

Yes, I’m determined to get the Dutch back in gear…

Apartment - Office last day 27 I’ve sorted through most of the tasks that have to be done as an expatriate when pulling up from one location and moving to another, all within the Netherlands. Although most of it is pretty common-sense, there are some peculiarities to watch for, so I’ll pass along my list (and please tell me if I’ve missed anything…)

  • Set a firm date: Everything keys on the date that you vacate the apartment and give up the lease: settle it in writing and get written acknowledgement from the owner / manager.
  • IND Registration: It is necessary to register with the village hall at your new community of residence. It should only involve a visit and a form to fill in, showing your residence card and passport. If you are changing jobs, then you also need a letter from your employer (and, of course, proof of health insurance). The new village will notify the old one that you are no longer living within their domain. If you registered with the US embassy, relocation support, or security service advise them as well.
  • Mail Forwarding: TNT has a form to complete, and will forward mail for one week, free. After that, there is a small charge: the typical duration is 3 months and costs about 20 euros.
  • Huisarts: You need to let your local doctor know that you are leaving, and shift records to a new one.
  • Banks: The banks have a transfer of address form that must be completed. Since your debit and credit cards, as well as your statement, is keyed to your address, it’s important to get a few week’s jump on that as well.
  • Utilities: Generally, they like a month’s notice so that they can read the meters, collect payments, and close the accounts. I have arranged to close utilities with Nuon and Vitens: Be sure to disconnect their direct withdrawal permissions from your bank accounts. They will want meter readings at the closing date, and will send cards for you to fill out, so be sure that they get your forwarding address.
  • Entertainment: UPC requires a month's notice and proof of the move (first and last page of the new rental agreement) before they would disconnect. They offered to transfer my Internet, cable, and telephone contract to my new address, but since the apartment already has most of those, I simply closed it. They required copies of the first and last pages of the new lease contract before they would complete the disconnection.  Note that getting new internet generally requires 4 weeks advance notice at your new address.
  • Insurance: I have personal insurance (Centraal Beheer) and auto coverage (ANWB): those both need to be notified. Centraal Beheer needs to know if there is any change to the goods being covered in the new location. Check that you have moving insurance to cover the transition. Since coverage for my personal possessions are covered by my US homeowners insurance, I notified them as well.
  • Taxes: My accountants are making the necessary updates with the Dutch revenue services: prepaid property taxes (which I had to cover under my rental agreement) are simply gone unless you have some prorating build into your rental agreement. Dutch health insurance taxes may also be affected.
  • Cleaning: Inspections will focus on bathrooms and kitchens. I tried to get ahead of them with a carpet cleaning and a day of scrubbing the tops of the cupboards and the bases of fixtures. If there are minor repairs to fixtures or appliances needed, get them done.
  • Outtake Inspection: There will be a formal walkthrough of the apartment to determine whether there is damage, to compare the contents of furnished apartments with the inventory checklist, and to return keys.  I asked my relocation person to be present (as I did at the intake) to help with any Dutch negotiations and to show the pictures that she took when I moved in, documenting the original state of the apartment (another wonderful idea).
  • US Records: I almost missed this one, but having registered as an expatriate voter with the State of Washington, they expect to find you where you said you would be. If you registered with the Embassy, remember to update them as well.
  • Other Address change notifications: Update credit cards, mobile phone billings, magazine subscriptions, and work forwarding so that you don’t lose important mailings. If you have a lease car, the company needs to know where you are taking it. I’ve also been sending lots of updates to friends and co-workers (and will add the changes to the annual Christmas Card note).
  • Company Profile Pages: I have profiles registered in our corporate directories and their travel, payroll, and benefits agencies. All of these should be updated and verified with the HR departments.
  • Disconnecting from community: I’ve been making the rounds of neighbors to say good-bye, and letting the local shops and services that I patronize know that I will be gone. Although there is no formal requirement to tear up a health club membership (although it may require a month's notice to break the contract), library card, or video rental agreement, I prefer to clean up the loose ends.
  • Reconnecting with Social Networks: Help the Cloud Community to keep up: change your location on LinkedIn, Facebook, etc. Don’t forget checking “Home Contact” information in your work directory. And change your .sig.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

And so it goes…

….away.

This is, however, not a sad post or even a wistful one.  Rather, it’s a last look back on a wonderful part of my expatriate life.

I’ve had a good run here in Arnhem, and great memories of people and events that mean a lot to me. 

I closed things out at the office, wished my GM well, and made a last pass through the building, now largely empty and for sale

Apartment - Office last day 32 Apartment - Office last day 08

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Then a last commute back to my neighborhood and apartment,

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‘An evening of stacking; a day of packing.  Then, life was finally loaded and gone.

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‘Just in time to notice the last leaf has fallen from the ‘countdown tree’ behind the house.

Apartment - Office last day 24

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Tearing down the pile, high and deep

Maastricht evening 1 It’s been a busy month: my job officially switched location from Arnhem to Maastricht on the 1st of November, and I’ve been playing catch-up with finding a place to live, getting ready to move, taking on the new job, closing out the old one, and plying the two-hour commute a day or so each week.

Add to it the need to find another job, to visit physicians to assess my ankles, to finish planning and grant submission for the startup in England, to help structure the course I’m co-chairing in Cambridge, to attend the occasional conference, and to save time for the people who matter most in life.

Toss in the unexpected: my father’s bypass surgery, which had to be a priority…

..and my life has gone from crowded to difficult to stressful in rapid jumps.

Maastricht evening 2 Yes, it’s my own fault: a period in life where I over-committed, under-planned, and mis-prioritized.  At the end of the day, I’m predictably harried, irritated, frustrated and stressed to the limit.  Quite-not-fun, all things said.  Exhausted, I took an hour to sit down with an advisor last week to see if I could sort things out.

Clearly, lightening the load has to be at the top of the list.  Even though my main job feels a bit lightweight at the moment compared to what I was doing, augmenting it with a half-dozen other jobs to prove my worth has not been smart.

To scale down the pile, I’ve taken a few hours to organize a list of *everything*.  Then I’ve prioritized the things that can’t wait and the things that can.  I’ve tried to communicate a more realistic schedule of who can expect to get what, when, and am sticking to it.  Finally, I’m being firm about not taking anything else on until this is excavated.

Maastricht evening 3

Second, I’m accepting that it can’t all get done.  I’ve resolved not to stress out if I have an 80% successful day.

If several big things get completed and a lot of little things get closed, then the day has been good.  If the list is smaller at the end of the day then at the beginning, that’s a win.  If the things I’ve started get completed and I’ve made a good job of it, that’s success.

At the advisor’s suggestion, I’m strengthening ties with a couple of close friends who I can talk with about what’s going on.  She suggested that I just pick a couple and ask if they would mind if I called occasionally to talk about what’s going on.

It’s been nice to know that the support is there if I needed it.  And I have sometimes called to talk about the evolution of work, prospects for my father’s recovery, to share travel stories or plans, and to laugh about some event or bit of news.  It helps to put things into perspective, lighten the mood, and head off temptation.   And a weekly chat with both of the kids is always palliative.

Maastricht evening 4 Finally, I’m making guilt-free time for non-work activity on non-work time.  It can become a viscous cycle, letting work spill into off-hours to catch up, which creates the illusion that I’m on top of it, further encouraging me to take on work.  Keeping work in a limited box and holding fast to limits reinforces the commitment to holding the line at a reasonable number of tasks.

I’ve wanted to get more time for learning Dutch, to exercise, for taking drives, to read a book, for joining a social club, to fiddle with art and writings.  No worries, it’s not becoming a ‘leisure list’ of things to do.  But it is a palette of relaxing and stimulating things that I can pick up as, and if, I choose.

The job worries have, in particular, been a source of concern.  Time seems to pass quickly, and resolution is moving very slowly.  I’m really trying to pull back from having to actively manage the search as intensively as I have.

I’ve talked to the people that I need to, I’m aware of the opportunities being offered, and I know the process and timeline for being likely to hear something.  I am moving towards setting a few personal deadlines, and I’m actively pruning the leads that are likely to be non-productive.  It’s time to play more of a waiting and watching game, and to stop reminding everyone that I’m still looking (even the best house becomes suspect if it stays on the market too long).

This too will pass…quickly, I hope.

‘More good suggestions at the Mayo Clinic’s ‘Stress Solution’

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

The significance of the Obama vote

A lot of European have asked me about the significance of Barak Obama’s election as president. They, along with the media, sees this as symbolic of the historic change in American attitudes towards race and national origin.

I do agree that the election is terribly significant in this regard. The county-by-county vote, shown above, shows support that would have been unthinkable for the civil right’s marchers of the 50’s and 60’s. The country has rightly celebrated the progress that has been made in the past 40 years.

But I don’t think that many Americans cast their vote with civil rights, or even that symbolism, in mind.

Instead, given the choice between two alternatives, people voted against the Bush administration and the Republican party, voted for principles that they believed in, voted against existing policies for Iraq and the economy, voted for the individual that they had confidence in. Race was a peripheral factor; generations have come of age since civil rights legislation. Nobody has said that they consciously used their vote to make a statement supporting equal opportunity and justice (as many supporters of Hillary, in fact, said they would on behalf of women’s rights). Instead, people seemed to vote in a color-blind manner for substantive positions regarding issues of concern to them.

This does carry a downside, though.

If things go badly for the Obama administration, then I think that increasing numbers of people could draw simple associations to skin color. And they would, sadly, think twice about setting race aside in the future.

Kennedy transcended his Catholicism; nobody is concerned that the pope would direct policy in Washington as a result. But many have become concerned about how Bush’s evangelical faith influenced policy, and it will affect their willingness to elect a Christian conservative in the future.

The weight that Obama carries is not the symbolism of his election, but the continuing credit earned by his governance.

Map credit (and many more maps): politicalmaps.org

Monday, November 17, 2008

Two sides of the matrix

I’m realizing that a lot of my current frustration and stress can be traced directly to where I live in the business development matrix.

I’m a “core team director”, a manager who leads a focused, cross-functional business team.  Together, we act as a “small in large” entrepreneurial unit, chartered to define the market, create the product, demonstrate the feasibility, and remove the risks for a new business opportunity.

Entrepreneurial programs always live or die by their projected revenues, their success against budgets and milestones, and their value relative to other projects.  Thus, there is constant competition to prove the worth and practicality of an idea, based on collecting customer, experimental, and clinical evidence.  This is the ‘up' side of the program director’s job.

Projects end at handoff / market introduction, or when they miss a milestone / window of opportunity.  Then the program director is left to pick up the pieces and find a new position.

So, the life of a program director must, by it’s very nature, oscillate between funded certainty and transitional uncertainty.

Contrast this with the other side of the matrix, the functional departments that supply people and components to the active projects.

Matrix

Regardless of the composition of the project portfolio, there is always a need for electrical engineers, systems engineers, and product analysts.  Thus, the department heads have very stable, long-term jobs.  They evolve their departments to keep up with overall demand and to stay abreast of new technologies and processes, but unless the department is outsourced, their life has few ups and downs.

While seeking my next position, I’ve been reflecting back on the best times before this: exciting projects I’ve worked on and great teams I’ve worked with.  Sometimes, though, innovative ideas were lost when projects were abandoned in mid-flight.  Other times, talented teams were disbanded because projects were finished.  I have been thinking that there must be something very wrong within organizations that let waste happen.

But I’m coming to understand that change, good and bad, it at the very heart of the project manager’s world.  It’s a truth that all teams, all programs, are temporary and dependent.  The projects themselves rise and fall, coalesce and dissolve, within large corporate organizations as within small venture environments.

What I’ve realized is that project management is a short-term, unstable profession in any setting.

And, conversely, if I want to continue as a core program director, then living with organizational change comes with every territory.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

LifeScripting at the MoA

Mall of America

I spent Saturday at the Mall of America (MoA, above) picking up some clothes and sundries before headed back to Arnhem on the evening flight. The Mall was absolutely packed from parking lot to walkways, stores to restaurant. I didn’t think that the Christmas season had really started, and had heard that stores were emptied by the financial crisis, but there was no evidence of it in Minneapolis (below).

Mall of America (7) Mall of America (3) Mall of America (5)

I bought a sweater as a gift, a shirt, and a couple of pairs of pants that I needed: simple things. The exchanges with the clerks played out along familiar lines, the type of scripted exchange that Artificial Intelligence types studies for years trying to make computers smarter and more sociable.

I need some black casual slacks. The clerk presents a few choices. What is the range of prices? From reasonable to ridiculous. Let’s try a 32-32. The clerk caches my shopping bags and shows me to the fitting room. No, too tight in the waist; how’s the seat? Try these instead. Perfect: do you have a charcoal wool slack as well? Yes, but sizes run different. Let’s bring up the tailor…when can they be ready…I’ll be through town in mid December to pick them up. Do you have a Bloomingdales card..25% discount on top of the 20% markdown. Perfect, I won’t need a box, thanks.

Along the way, I was translating phrases into Dutch to see how I would have kept up if I went to the V&D or elsewhere. It wasn’t pretty.

The actual phrases aren’t too difficult, simple declarative sentences with second-week vocabulary for the most part:

Ik hoef enkele zwarte incidentele broeken. De griffier presenteert een aantal keuzes. Wat is het prijsgamma? …

Even so, the casual exchanges in Dutch can go too quickly for me to parse, or contain a few words that are unfamiliar and hang me up. I’ve learned to try to get the gist of the sentence and not necessarily translate every word, but if the conversation goes in an unexpected direction, that can cause me to lose the flow.

Further, I know that the literal translation of scripts may not yield culturally correct exchanges. I now expect to be greeted with “Are you okay?” in London (which sounds like “Do you have a problem?” to American ears), rather than “Can I help you? (Identical in the Dutch “Kan ik u helpen"?”). I can’t really spot the cultural flaws in my literal translation of the MoA script without going through the process of buying pants in the Netherlands.

Finally, there is the high-level problem of getting the process and measures correct. What is Euro-equivalent to a 32-32? Is it appropriate to ask for the tailor? Can I fill in a credit card application to get a further discount? I have to observe others, read signs, do trial-and-error, and ask lots of questions to get these things right, and I learn, but it complicates and slows the transaction.

In the end, I buy pants at the MoA because I can handle all levels of the lifescript fluently. My goal in learning Dutch is to be able to buy pants at all of these levels, not just the literal translation. It means getting out there and interacting a lot more with real-life than I’ve been doing in Arnhem. I’m signing up for more aggressive conversation courses in Maastricht through work, and am making a resolution to stumble ahead with my Dutch more often. It will slow life down, but I think it’s going to be the only way to really learn it all (vs. todays’ strategy of reading De Gelderlander every day).