Posts Tagged 'OBTC'

Turning corners

Over the last 7 years I have developed a ritual at OBTC, which is the writing and reciting of a poem that chronicles the conference from beginning to the (nearly) end. It arose spontaneously one year and since then there is a bit of an expectation that I do this each time. For 6 years in a row I have been more or less successful at this. The poem slowly writes itself as the conference progresses. On Friday’s talent night it is ready for the microphone.

This year I was too preoccupied with my own sorry self state and the muse was not able to cut through the stress. Cheryl said, it is OK, you don’t have to do it, but I saw Jerry sit with his sign up pad and he indicated there was a spot for me. I surprised myself when I did not feel any of the self-imposed pressure I am so good at generating.

The appearance of the hummingbird on Thursday morning, the focus on design, the invitation of possibilities brought the muse back. What emerged was not your ordinary detached chronicle poem but rather a poem about turning a corner, the process of letting joy back in. I marvelled at the resilience of the creative process and surprised myself (and others) when the finished product emerged.

I knew some form of stress is important for any act of creativity but I didn’t think on Thursday that the tangle of my emotions could let anything creative through. But it did and with that I place my final step across the watershed.
And so, at the last day of the conference I finally began to enjoy being where I was and let in the new ideas that are to nourish me for the coming year, inform my practice and guide my sense making. Late, but not too late.

By the time Peter Vaill showed up, on an immense video screen, I was wide open to receive his wisdom about learning, co-inquiry and practice. Addressing an audience of academics he spoke about practitioners and in doing so he spoke directly to me.

Feeling, judgment, sense, proportion, balance and appropriateness – he kept repeating the words over and over, like a strange hypnotic mantra. Together they form the essence of Practice. He compared it to the dark matter without which the universe would disintegrate. In this case the universe of practitioners, that what holds it together in the face of the daily onslaught of emergencies, tangled relations, unspoken expectations, pressures, strong emotions and other messiness that need to be acted on, one way or another, or else; amplified in my case by the cross-cultural experience of living in Afghanistan and the stress of knowing what can happen in that place.

It was a very comforting image, this dark matter: allowing for feelings, judgment that draws from experience, common sense (is that what he meant?), relationship to the whole (not too big, not too small), balance between me and them, here and there, now and then, and appropriateness, this is Afghanistan I live in, not the US.

I left the conference more (though not completely) centred so that I can enjoy the last two days of my vacation, and get that coveted rest and recuperation.

After a day of flying East I was picked up by Axel in a small shiny black car – the result of a trade in of our tired old Blubaru that is nearing its quarter million mile anniversary. This one has only a tenth of that and should therefore be able to serve our household for the considerable future.

At home I found everyone plus some enjoying a fire on the beach, making music and enjoying the cool summer night, bathing suits and towels scattered all over the place, the remnants of lobster tacos and, by our bed, a small gift from our offspring that we would not have tolerated in their bedrooms 12 years ago. It made me repeat, in my mind, the question, so often asked, why the heck did you move to Kabul? Indeed. I will have a fairly good answer to that later this week.


I was up in the middle of the night trying to arrange Axel’s flight back that would match mine, now that his passport was returned (mine not yet but on its way). If ever I needed to travel with my best friend it is now. Some people said, why, he can just take another route. But they don’t understand the extent to which I need him by my side now, all the time.

But the flights that were available yesterday were not in the middle of the night and I panicked. A nice Delta gentleman helped me out and was able to find exactly what I was looking for. When I woke up in the morning I discovered that my own ticket was bought for another route. More panic, more rushes of adrenaline, emails, phone calls, and finally peace. Everything is settled now. We are flying together back home.

When you are stressed out it is hard to exit. I could hear people think, com’on, snap out of it. The problem with stress and depression is that you cannot. It was a good reminder about one of the real tragedies of Afghanistan, namely that millions of people are stressed and traumatized. If my relatively small stresses affected my functioning in such elementary ways, one can wonder about those who are traumatized. I think life throws us these life lessons, so we can be better helpers, listeners. I know the acts of others towards me in this last week that were helpful and those that weren’t. And I certainly remember those that added to my stress.

I went to a session about Managing as Designing Activity that helped me get out of my funk. The trigger sentence was this: design invites collaboration and invites possibilities. Design is about ‘how can we make this reality happen, together?’ It was the magic phrase that lifted the clouds and provided the door through which I could get out of my fog. The opposite is ‘Managing as Problem Solving activity’ that is about constraints and limiting views. I had gotten a hint about that yesterday during my own presentation but I wasn’t able to pick it up then. Now I was.

As part of the session we were sent outside to scout the magnificent UNM campus for design principles: rhythm, balance, contrast, variety, patterns and then use what we saw to reframe our management challenges.

When I left the classroom I saw a small hummingbird. Years ago a Native American woman identified the hummingbird as my totem. I don’t get to see it very often, certainly not in Afghanistan, but it has shown up in times of crisis and stress, and so it did today. Hummingbirds are about joy, an element that had been rather absent since I landed a week ago. Some benevolent force in the universe sent it my way.

In rather inexplicable ways the hummingbird let me to a Rumi poem that had a few lines that resonated deeply – I am excited to go back to studying my Dari so that one day I can read Rumi in his own language:

Be with those who help your being
Don’t sit with indifferent people, whose breath
Comes cold out of their mouths
Not these visible forms, your work is deeper

Pseudo R&R

People at the conference ask me what new skills I am learning. I finally have some down time to think about this question in ways I have not before. I think I am much more aware of the American cultural biases in our work and in the ‘solutions’ that are proffered to Afghanistan from the West. I also think that I need to learn better coping skills, better stress management, exercise management and all that. Coming home from Afghanistan is stressful in ways that is different than living in Afghanistan. It has something to do with coming down and turning off.

During my flight from Boston to Albuquerque I tried to sort out my return trip, and Axel’s, in the presence of way too much ambiguity (will we get our passports back in time, for example). I realized I was like a tightly coiled spring. By the time I landed in Albuquerque, late because of high winds here, I had missed the kick off dinner, and was ready to crawl into bed and have a really good and long cry. I felt rather sorry for myself; this is not how I imagined passing my R&R. I don’t feel like I am resting or recuperating quite yet.

I think my final R&R will start when I get on the plane. We are not doing something right. And, given the wedding event at our next R&R, I am not sure how to right this during our next trip.

Seeing old friends last night at the conference opening activity got me out of my funk. I had a late dinner in a more authentic Mexican restaurant that the one we lunched at in Beverly on Tuesday. I had a real taco that looked and tasted better than any I had before. Magid accompanied me and we talked about working in a Moslem society and how our life has changed.

This morning, responding to the exhortations of my new acupuncturist, I rose at 5 AM and went for a walk around the campus. It takes exactly 45 minutes. It was a sensual delight, in the quiet pink dawn and the cool air. Given the (mid day) heat, dryness and altitude this could have been Kabul. Given the absence of razor wire, blast walls, sand bags and armed opposition groups, it could not.


Dorm sleeping at our age is only bearable for a few days, even in the fancy dorm. After a week on a plastic mattress we were happy to sleep in our own bed again. The conference ended on a high note as I picked up two more very useful exercises from the Saturday morning sessions. We said our goodbyes, to Charleston and to our friends and promised to show up next June, in Albuquerque, for the 37th OBTC.

We arrived back home while it was light. In between throwing the Frisbee to an attention starved grand dog (Tessa and Steve are creating their own Woodstock memories in a drenched Tennessee at the Bonnaroo Music festival) we surveyed the garden where everything is growing well because of the incessant rain. This includes intended crops as well as weeds and bugs.

We had a light meal because Axel’s stomach begged for something that wasn’t soaked in bacon fat. The southern food is tasty but we’re not used to that much fat. Luckily there was a CVS, well stocked with Tums, right around the corner from our dorm; the one that also sold wine and beer and ice-cream.

We lucked out in our return flight home, zigzagging around massive cumulus clouds, and landing in Boston less than 2 hours after departure while colleagues heading for the Midwest and southern Midwest found themselves stranded in Charleston or Atlanta because of the weather, waiting in airports for hours.

I woke up early this morning to more rain and wetness and started to clean out my mailbox. I look at the contents now through the Afghanistan lens and so there is much that can be deleted without any further thought. But it feels that with every email deleted, a totally unrelated item is added to my to do list for our move east: what to bring, what to complete, what to cancel, what to find out.

I notice that today is the 14th. I used to pay attention to dates with this number because the 14th was the day of our accident now nearly 2 years ago. After July 14, 2008 I stopped doing that. But the accident is now more prominent in our minds again as we discover lesser ailments that went undetected two years ago and become more prominent as time goes by and body parts remain painful and make the full recovery we hoped for somewhat incomplete.

A bike ride to Quaker meeting today seems like just the right thing to do to still my mind and be in the presence of the divine so I can face the (daunting) immediate future with some tranquillity in my heart.

In good hands

We are slowly moving through the phases of the change process I teach. I am a little ahead of Axel and in the exploratory phase. There is much to think about and sometimes it is a little overwhelming. There is so much that has to be done and so few calendar days to squeeze it in.

The trip to Kabul on Monday or Tuesday has been postponed. This is both good and bad. The good thing is that we will have some quiet time together at home to think through what needs to be done and for Axel to make connections. The bad thing is that my entire summer is a series of carefully dovetailed events that now need to be disrupted. There is a combination of immutable appointments (the trip to Addis, the shoulder surgery with all its pre-op and post-op tests and follow up) and commitments (teaching at BU, a family reunion and the trip to Ghana late August). Sometimes my head spins. Right now I have no idea how all this is going to work.

Axel and I did our mind-mapping sessions and got some twenty people to overcome their fears. A few reported later that they bravely mind-mapped all sessions they attended after us; even business school professors can learn something new!

I attended a session on the Argentinean Tango and organizational behavior. Dancing the tango requires as much leadership as followership and my struggles with leading and following as we learned only one basic step illuminated possible pitfalls for someone who is switching from follower to leader. That would be me in a few months. I experienced the kind of gut learning that this conference was designed to bring about.

A matching dream last night produced another insight all by itself and I woke up realizing that one of the key skills that senior leadership requires is negotiation as I dreamed a complex scenario that required working across boundaries. We have an author of many textbooks about negotiation right here in our midst.

Friday night at OBTC is always the traditional talent show. There are many regulars: a few poets, a yodeler, an opera singer, a balad singer and then a few brave souls who stand up on the podium for the first time, including two dancers demonstrating the tango.

Over the last 7 years I have become the conference chronicler poet and the pressure is on as soon as people arrive on day 1 – asking me, ‘will you be doing the poem again?’ How can I say no? I carry a little notebook with me at all times and jot down things I notice; funny things, contradictions and stuff that’s weird.

I used to be nervous about making a commitment and then finding myself in front of a microphone with a mediocre or incomplete poem. But now I know it will come and I need simply be prepared with a piece of paper and pencil to catch the verses as they appear in my mind. It was my 8th such poem and chronicled the southern experience (food, Tums, dress and climate), the keynote speakers, the theme and the turbulence that Axel and I are experiencing as a couple over the imminent move.

We have lined up some eminent B-school thinkers as coaches and guides for our adventure and feel supported by a ring of admirers and caring colleagues. We are in good hands!

Not knowing

In this warm city, garbage left out starts to get ripe real quickly and so, every morning, between 3 and 5 AM a large dump truck installs itself in the ally below our window and empties containers with much noise. It wakes me up but not Axel.

Yesterday started with a reflection from one of our society’s sages, Andre Delbecq, about theme of the conference (from good teaching to good learning) as applied to his life’s journey. Illustrated with great quotes from Henri Nouwen and Parker Palmer he distinguished between what one thinks one should do, wants to do and is called to do. I understand the latter while Axel is trying to quiet his mind to hear it.

We are currently, as a couple, in the turbulent headwater of two currents coming together with, for now, no land in sight as we are left in a state of not knowing. Not knowing whether we are travelling to Kabul or not next week. Not knowing what Axel will do there. Not knowing what will change in my work relationships when I am in Kabul and not knowing what comes after Kabul. And, more practically for me, not knowing what will change after the presidential elections over there.

Where I was buoyed by Andre’s talk, seeing an affirmation of my decision to move to Kabul for a year, Axel was not because he missed it. He had not slept much the night before, a combination of the effect of the southern fried food and the news about Kabul and so he slept in.

We skipped the paid for dinner at the college cafeteria and instead had a dinner à deux in a lovely Flemish restaurant (mussels and sweet potato fries) to sort out how to handle the turbulence, the strong feelings that are created and the support we need from each. There is a heightened need for communication under these circumstances – and making time for each other. I should know this.

The sessions in the conference are of great use to me. I am looking at all through the Afghanistan prism and pick topics that I think I will need to learn more about. Some are concurrent and I have to make choices. I am collecting names from people to become my support network when in Kabul and everyone happily agrees to serve this purpose. Both of us feel tremendously supported, encouraged and loved by this community of professional colleagues – some of whom have become dear friends as well.

Today is our session – a skill building workshop about mind mapping, which we also planned over dinner, in between talking about Afghanistan and our imminent move. We feel like one eyed teachers in the land of the blind – not pros at it, as people think, but just a little ahead in the practice. We have only skimmed the surface of all the writings about mind mapping and I am a little intimidated when I Google the word. Not knowing but knowing enough for now.

Off duty

We finished our last day of Board meetings yesterday at exactly 5:30 PM after another full day of meetings in our plush board room. We ended with a high energy exercise about everything that we knew needed attention and repair. That is now for others to fix and attend to, as we outgoing board members hand over our batons to the newly elected ones.

Part of the reward for doing board work is that you get to eat out in interesting restaurants a lot and have long and leisurely dinners for three nights in a row. We celebrated our accomplishments and the transitions in Virginia’s Kitchen, a lovely restaurant in an old house; we had the upstairs room which looked like a museum, all to ourselves; this time there was no music to compete with.

Over dinner people took turns to speak about what Magid and I had brought to the board. It was incredibly affirming and at times surprising to hear people talk about what I, as an outsider to this academic society, an interloper in my view, had brought to the table. I am, they say here, from the real world, with the emphasis on ‘real.’

I spoke about my introduction to this society now nearly 20 years ago and what a journey it had been and how incredible to have been elected to the Board. Still, despite the fact that I know many people well, it remains an alien culture and I will never speak its language like a native.

The menus in restaurants here are so very different from those in the north. Yesterday’s dishes were variations on fried food encircled by grits and collard greens or sausage and seasfood in a rich soup or sauce. For Axel the combination required an emergency visit to CVS to buy antacids. Lucky for me CVS also sells wine, beer and ice cream – attractive items to put in our oversized and entirely empty refrigerator as we are getting ready for the conference to begin later today.

Axel has learned much about the southern perspective on the civil war. People are still upset and the view is quite different from the one we get up north. Today I am partially off duty: we have to refine out design for the session we are doing on Friday about mind mapping. But most of today we can play untill about 5 PM when the conference starts with much shrieking and hugging and kissing as we see dear friends we have missed for an entire year.

The limbo continues about Afghanistan and I check my mail several times a day in the hope of finally knowing, one way or the other, so I can make plans about the future. But the Afghanistan team has not made its decision yet. And because of that no one is travelling to Kabul on Monday, not Axel, not me. The bad news is that this was about the only window for such a trip; the good news is that I now have a chance to use up some more vacation days that will go ‘poof’ in 2 weeks, weed the garden and eat our first harvest of lettuce.

May 2018
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