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Mud flats

After two very intense days I am humming John Denver’s Leaving on a Jet plane as my bag is (being) packed. It is early morning and the first rains have come. Raindrops stampede onto the corrugated metal roof. It took me a while to realize it was rain. Rain in Africa sounds so very much different than rain in Manchester by the sea. It sounds more violent, like a horde of people pounding on a big metal gate to be let in.

The two-day bi-continental strategic planning meeting is over. It was quite a rollercoaster ride. I have never used the ICA methodology bi-continentally with one team sitting in rooms in Lusaka and one team in Harpswell Maine. On the floor in our Zambia room there was a mess of cables and cords, speakers and computers and black boxes. Harpswell looked a little more organized but of course we couldn’t see the floor. They were sitting snugly, windows frosted, cold drizzle outside, cradling their cups of coffee to wake them up at 6:30AM their time while we were sweating it out in un- or poorly air-conditioned rooms at 1:30 after lunch. I don’t think I can imagine a bigger contrast.

On day one it took us an entire hour to get the connection right. On day two we did better although often either audio or video disappeared for a while.  Add to this that I was using a methodology with a group of people used to deductive planning, and needing a physical wall on which to put pieces of paper with ideas, then engaging with the group to move pieces of paper around as the participants discus the meaning and placement of all these pieces of paper. As we did our final reflection round at the end, with a marker as a talking stick, many people commented that there were times that they felt lost.  This is where my white hair helps – if I had been young I am sure they would have started to tinker with my process, or een take over.

Although I never felt lost, I knew what we were doing and where we would end up, I wasn’t altogether sure I could pull it off in the allotted time and given the bi-continental constraints. There were many times that we got stuck in the mud – I know there are always mudflats when you do strategic planning (usually people are surprised by those). It’s a discovery journey in my book which means there are rivers to cross, raging currents to bridge and oh so many places where you get may get stuck in the mud, or simply stuck. These muddy places are usually where the members of the organization are not aligned on something. In a traditional (deductive) strategic planning process where you start with the very abstract, mud places are camouflaged because of the vague general language people use. Later after the plan is finished and implementation starts they get tripped up when the different understandings of the vague language surface. In my view such a process does little to create energy and confidence among the staff lower on the ladder, especially when you have a dynamic of wise old elders (the older American board members) and young(er) local (Zambian in this case) staff.

I have once again surpassed the number of days that I contracted for, I was contracted for only Monday and Tuesday, even hough the retreat was planned for four days. There were limits to the time I could be engaged for. Since my flight is late on Wednesday (day three), and we didn’t get everything we wanted done, it was no surprise that I was asked to facilitate continued conversations until the time of departure for the airport.

This is the second time I have contracted for less than I am used for – I am resolving this, once again, by donating the surplus, if possible, as a tax-deductible contribution to this organization, health kids/brighter future. I do that happily as it is an extraordinary young organization with a passionate staff and passionate board, and no egos anywhere in sight. So very refreshing! Although my contract was a one off arrangement, I hope I will have more contact in the future. Now getting ready for the very long ride home.

Lost in Lusaka

It was my first trip to Africa in half a year, a hiatus I had not had for decades. I forgot things, not stuff, but information. After two long plane rides I arrived at 10PM in Kenya. I had booked a guesthouse room that was , supposedly, near the airport (Airport Homestay), for 36 dollars. I figured it was pointless to spend a lot of money on a fancy hotel room at the airport for a very short night as my plane to Lusaka required my presence at the airport the next day at 5AM.

The driver wasn’t there with the sign with my name, as agreed in my communication with the guesthouse. A friendly taxi driver called the guesthouse on his phone and was told the driver was there. The taxi driver hovered around me, concerned but also hoping he get the ride. Another, this time female taxi driver approached me as well, to help. I was by now one of the few people standing in front of the arrival hall and it was now past 11. Finally, the driver was spotted with a crumpled sign that had my name (defensively and cryptically saying that he had been there all along but had stepped away). I shook hands with the helpful taxi driver who must have been disappointed. In hindsight it would have been hard to find the place as it was hidden away from the highway in a gated apartment complex. I don’t think we would have found it.

My 36 dollar room was a bedroom (with bathroom) in a regular house tucked inside a fence tucked inside a gated apartment complex. Not quite as close to the airport but to no too far either, a 20 minute ride. I was welcomed by Lilian in her tiny living room. She pointed me to the bedroom right next to it. It contained a bed, a mosquito net, towels and bottles of water. Everything I needed and nothing more. I fell into a comatose sleep, instantly.

The next morning everything was dark. I called out in the hallway to Lilian but no peep. I opened the door and was faced with a fence that was locked. There was no guard and Lillian was clearly fast asleep. How was I going to get out with my luggage? I looked at the possibility of climbing over the fence with its sharp points – no way. I banged on the large metal gate until I recognized the voice of my driver. He had been there at the appointed time but had no key to open the fence – I had been tired when I arrived to consider this possibility of locked behind a gate. I did not have a working phone (a big handicap) but the driver had, and he woke Lillian up. She came down the stairs sleepily and full of apologies. The gate was opened and we made it to the airport in a short time. Everything went smoothly from then on. A few hours later I landed in Lusaka. 

The smooth ride continued. Going through immigration was a synch – no long lines, no forms to fill in, no finger printing or photo taking, just 50 dollars. And then the thought occurred to me what if there was no one to pick me up – as I know these things happen fairly frequently.  I didn’t have the phone number of the driver, and I didn’t even know the name of the guesthouse, the latter more problematic.  It was Sunday and I didn’t even have the address of the organization’s office.

Indeed, the driver didn’t show up. I found myself at a loss, and really stupid that I hadn’t written down the name of the guesthouse. The airport in Lusaka doesn’t have internet, so an email or Skype chat was out of the question. What now?

I had noticed a woman with a Dutch passport standing behind me in the immigration line. I asked her about the taxi fare into town and then she offered to give me ride to where I was staying. Her driver was helpful and eventually helped me find the phone number of a friend of a friend who had worked at Save the Children where one of the senior staff of my client organization used to work. He took me to the mall where I might be able to find a café with internet connection so I could try other options.And so we were sitting at the Mug & Bean at a Mall, sipping my Capuccino when the Board Chair and the organization’s president found me – it had been two hours since I arrived, no longer lost in Lusaka. Thank God for small cities and a well connected middle class that works in the health field. I learned my lesson: get the driver’s phone number (he had mixed up AM and PM), and the name of your lodgings. I am clearly out of the habit of traveling in Africa.

The stuff of transition

I got out of the habit of writing – I am too busy and have not been spending much time in airports where such writing is a pleasant pastime. But now I am in the KLM lounge in Amsterdam, probably my last visit as the Delta lounge membership will no longer be honored by KLM as of 1/1/2019. 

I am stunned at how busy Schiphol is. I walk slowly and baffled, as if I just came from a remote rural village in a faraway land. And I wonder, maybe I am done with traveling to Africa, or close to done. The crowds are spectacular at this early morning hour. 

I am on my last trip of the year, this time to Zambia, a country I have never visited in my nearly 40 years of traveling to and from the continent. My other trips, since I left MSH have been to Chapel Hill (three times) and Japan. Not as much as I used to travel and so Axel and I got used to being in the same place, waking up together, having breakfast together, lunch even, like newlyweds. We like it, and the parting was a little more difficult this time because of our new routines.

I have been much busier than I thought these last 6 months. I teach two online MBA evening classes which requires an enormous amount of prep work as I am learning the ropes of this new venture, learning to grade, and plowing through many articles and videos. It is as if I am a student myself. I am getting exposed to a whole array of new articles and videos that are so very relevant to my other work of organizational consulting. I realized how stale I had been getting, swimming in circles in the same small pond.

I am also deepening my coaching skills by attending several webinars a week and registered in a peer-coaching program sponsored by the International Coach Federation. I am coached by one peer and coaching another. I asked my coach to help me (or us really) get some clarity about this next phase of our life which I have only halfheartedly entered. She asked what I was transitioning to and I realized I didn’t know. That was my homework for the week.

Axel and I talked about it – I am transitioning to a less frantic, calmer life, with time to look at our stuff and start carting boxes and boxes to the secondhand store. After I was laid off I said I was going to go through one kitchen cabinet a day and remove everything that we had not used in a year (never did so); then I’d tackle the books with the question “Am I ever going to read this book again?” It seemed a simple question but it was difficult – I have Dutch books I will not read again, and they can’t go to the second-hand store. But to throw them away?

We have reduced out inventory by several boxes but you wouldn’t notice it. And the kitchen cabinets are still full. I alphabetized the spices and threw some old spice jars out. I think they may be from Penny’s young bride days – but Axel says they are quaint and maybe even antique and pulled them out of the trash. At this pace it will be a long time to uncluttered our house.

Because we had the roof of the barn/studio replaced we needed a large container to dispose of the old shingles. Axel ordered oe size up form the one the roofer recommended, so we could throw things out, stuff that even the second-hand store won’t accept. It’s only half full with the roofing debris, just as I left for my trip to Zambia. It is better that I don’t know what is going in there – if I haven’t used something for a long time I probably won’t miss it. 

Christmas season has descended on us with the promise of getting more new stuff…so the major transition (in the short term) is from a lot of stuff to less stuff, in spite of Christmas. In the long run it is about staying in touch with people who matter, spending money on that rather than on more stuff.

Vision here, NYC blast there

When we arrived Sita whisked me away quickly to the piece of land in Westhampton she has had her eye on for some time. It is 70 acres that used to be a summer camp – remnants of it still visible here and there; cabins slowly rotting back into earth, some pipes, street lamps, an asphalt parking place, cement basement walls caving in foot by foot. And all the rest is back to the wilds, overgrown trees and bushes, brush everywhere.

Sita wants to buy it and turn it into a kind of retreat center, with tree houses, cabins for her parents and her sister (the dogs would love it!). It’s a wonderful vison I have already fully bought into but the owner of the land doesn’t want to sell – holding out for ever rising real estate prices in this part of Massachusetts. Although I can see what Sita sees, I also see a money pit and a project that will outlast us by decades, maybe even outlast Sita.

Sita gathers the most amazing people around her, far and wide, like burs on a fall walk jumping on one’s furry coat.  They traipsed along through the woods (the friends, not the burs), sharing her vision, even picking out the place where her parents will be living.

The friends are creators, inventors, optimists, go-getters, driven by a strong passion to make the world a better place for everyone, especially those having few chances now. Social mapsFuture Scouts…all very exciting. If anyone from my generation is worried about the millennials they are completely wrong. We discovered we will be in NYC at the same time as one of Sita’s new friends. I am sure we are unlikely to see each other, we have a full program, but we pretend as if.

And then, a week later, when we are in NYC it turns out the this person amazing is embroiled in a fight with his partners about IP and a lawyer is needed quickly. Axel’s cousin is mobilized to find a lawyer. And so we don’t see Sita’s friend but rather Axel’s cousin and my nephew and his wife. And then we see the fabulous performance of Duda Paiva’s Blind – the reason for our NYC trip.

We are lodged at the midtown YMCA to save money for nice dinners. It means Axel has to climb in the upper bunkbed in our tiny dorm room and we share bathrooms with about 100 rooms on our floor: two toilets for women. One is occupied a good part of the night by a young woman – constipated I suspect.

But down in the basement of the enormous Y are two swimming pools, two enormous and well-equipped locker rooms with a sauna and steam room and a large exercise room with bikes and treadmills and ellipticals. We can exercise to our heart’s content which leads to slow starts in the morning.

Every night we eat with abandon in interesting restaurants handpicked by Tessa who is good at this sort of thing (as we learned last year in New Orleans). We are always in the company of whichever family (or near family) members are around and enjoying the time together, with only me seeing the bill. It confirms why sleeping for less and eating for more is so much more fun.

Bulb gift

I gave Sita for her 38thbirthday a bag full of daffodil bulbs. I added the planting of the bulbs as an additional gift. The bulbs have to go in before the ground is hardened by frost. Since we already had two nights of frost – killing off the last reminders of summer – and next week we are in New York, this was the weekend. The weather forecast was rain, but hey, I am from Holland, rain does not have to interfere with yard work.

After two hours of hard work I was done: first there was the digging of soil full of roots, then putting in the fertilizer, placing the bulbs in neat round circles for special effect, shoveling compost on the other side of the house, trying first one and then another wheelbarrow with flat tires, carrying the compost in small buckets, and finally covering the bulbs with the compost. With that the last part of the bulb present was provided. All this happened under rain that started as a drizzle and then became a downpour. I was as wet and muddy as the kids, leaving a mess behind in the mud room..a kin mud room I wished we had in Manchester.

Tonight is the last part of the present: babysitting while Sita and Jim have a night out on the town, a dinner and a music show.


Falsities and other adventures

While my relatives in Holland are (were?) enjoying wonderful autumn weather, we are skipping what is usually referred to as Indian summer and moving straight into blustery November weather, before the leaves have fallen and before the end of Daylight Savings Time and even before November itself.

I was corrected on the use of Indian summer because it refers to ‘the falsity’ of Indian promises. But that is only one of many explanations and so no one really knows and I will continue to lament that there was no Indian summer in new England this year. Interestingly, in my explorations I learned (whether true or not as we know about ‘the falsity’ of the internet) that in Germany this phenomenon is called old wives’ summer (falsities as well?)

I completed my first assignment for MSH after an absence of 4 month. It was a strange and yet familiar experience to drive the familiar route, park my car in my habitual space, and reconnect with people in the coffee area as if I had just been on a long trip. It was a joyous reconnecting, learning about babies being born in the meantime, projects won, some colleagues gone and new ones added.

For one and a half day, with the new occupant of my desk, we entertained three (socially) entrepreneurial Japanese women how to prepare for, or improve their leadership and prepare for the pitches they have to make. Their visits to several Boston-based social entrepreneurial organizations or initiatives, as well as a week long course at Babson, serve as a practice run, before they head back to Japan to scale up or extend the impact of their organization (existing or still to be founded). All these young women, the founder of the program hopes, will undermine the walls of patriarchy in Japan and help those who have been sidelined over the centuries to become productive citizens of this new Japan, somewhere over the rainbow.

When I returned home after the 2ndday at MSH I was relieved that this was  my one and only a two day commute for the rest of the year. I had to get up early again, drive one hour each way and miss having breakfast and coffee with Axel and simply being in charge of my time.

Being in charge of my own time has allowed us to do a lot of fun things, like going to concerts and plays, taking walks and making music (me the ukulele and Axel the guitar – though not yet together), watching movies, reading books. I also picked up my knitting needles again, a reflex when the days get shorter and there is a fire in the fireplace. We are also looking forward to some exciting trips, one in a couple of week to see Duda Paiva’s Blind [] in Manhattan with Tessa and Steve, and planning a short ski vacation in February with the whole family. Life is good.


No, no, professor

I have said a first no to an assignment offered, and received a first no to an assignment I had wanted. People around me tell me that saying no is something I have to practice a bit more.

I have started my teaching at Simmons University (no longer a college I just learned). It has been a steep learning curve, especially the online part and the grading mechanics. I had started to prepare for this  back in May when I was in Mali. At that point in time there was an assumption I would teach over the summer but there weren’t enough students. Now I teach two online classes, one on Monday night and one on Thursday evening. This is the reason for the ‘no.’ I could not possibly veer too far out of my time zone. An assignment in Africa would simply not work.

I teach one class called ‘Leadings Individuals and Groups, and another on ‘Negotiation and Problem Solving.’ The first class are mostly new MBA students, the second one are halfway through their program. In the latter group I am the newbie, learning the ins and outs of online teaching. In the other group we are all learning at the same time.

Since I have never taught classes for credit and grades, I realize that I have to be very disciplined about evaluating student work. There are grading rubrics I consult, but there is still a lot of subjectivity and judgment.

And so I find myself studying along with my students, reading materials, Harvard Business Review articles and cases, watching videos and trying my hand at their homework, so I know what they are going through. It’s challenging. Especially since life goes on, including other assignments that are on my plate (and so the second ‘no’ came in handy).  I suppose this is no different than what my students are experiencing, since all of them have full time jobs, families, and some even have weekend jobs.

I am addressed as ‘Professor Vriesendorp’ or simple ‘Prof’ which sounds strange to me. I only know one Professor Vriesendorp and that is my brother who is a real professor. I told the course director that I felt it wasn’t quite right to be given that honorific since I know what it takes to earn a professor ship. I have done none of those things that are required for the title: earning a PhD, doing research, writing books and countless articles, etc.). She told me that is what students do and to simply accept it. However, I could not put it on my CV (as if  would!).

January 2019
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