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June 2009
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August 2009

Getting things done

Rod asks perceptive questions.  We've been having a good time.  He's been here this week for his second site visit as part of our participation in the NLM/AAHSL Leadership Fellows program.  During his first week, back in April, we tried to structure the week to give him a broad overview of the library and its relationships to the rest of the university.  This week we've been digging in more depth into how the library itself runs, so we've had long and intense discussions about budget and personnel issues and strategic planning and all of the things involved in moving the organization forward.

"Don't let perfection or 'better' be the enemy of good."  My colleague, Jim Shedlock, uses this phrase as the tagline on his sig file.  It indicates a theme that Rod and I have returned to many times this week. 

I'm often grateful that I'm not a perfectionist.  Like the quest for perfect information in decision making, the impulse towards getting things exactly right can be paralyzing.  Or at the very least, time wasting.

We've been talking about how to achieve that delicate balance of engaging all of the members in a group, getting all of the opinions and issues on the table, and then deciding which to take into account and which not, in order to keep things moving.  Time and again I've seen situations where, in the quest for perfect consensus, the desire to accommodate the opinions or concerns of a single member of the group end up either derailing the process altogether or, at best, resulting in a solution which is actually not as effective as it might have been, had it not been for the desire to adjust the result for that single individual.

It's a very difficult judgment call on the part of the leader.  If you don't accommodate every objection or issue, you run the risk of having members of the group feel that their views are being insufficiently respected, and that can sabotage your group process altogether.  And sometimes, the views of that outlier might be exactly the brilliant idea that is needed.  On the other hand, trying to come to perfect consensus all too often leads to the result found when trying to "write by committee."  By the time everybody's edits have been incorporated, the document is a stilted, bloated, caricature of what might have been.

There's no magic formula that tells you (the leader) what to do in these cases.  You rely on experience, good listening, asking the right questions, and an intuition for when it's the right time to pull the plug and move on.   You hope that you'll get it right more often than not, but the fact is you're going to get it wrong sometimes too. 

Fortunately for me, I'm comfortable with that.  It's good enough.

It'd kill a perfectionist.

The Future Is A Playground

I have this vague memory that it was Peter Drucker who said something to the effect that, "Planning is an exercise in predicting the future.  The odds are you're going to be wrong more than half the time."

I find that to be extremely comforting. 

What paralyzes a lot of people is that they find it terrifying.  It could be a simple test for one's fitness as a library director (particularly in the first decade of the 21st century).   What's your immediate visceral reaction to that statement?  If you're dismayed, you'd best look for a different line of work.  If it relaxes and invigorates you, then dive right in.  You can't predict the future, says Drucker.  So see if you can create it.

We're on an October 1 fiscal year, so July is always the crux of budget and annual planning.  The budget model needs to be finalized by the end of the month and sometime in late July or early August I have my annual planning meeting with the President and the Provost where we sit down and review the past year and try to plot out the key objectives for the next one.  This year, the planning meeting was yesterday afternoon.  I'll finalize the budget model when I get in to the office this morning.

I've got about $4.2 million to play with.   Over half of that goes to salaries & benefits.  Another quarter million keeps the lights on -- phones, office supplies, computer support contract, copier leases & maintenance, postage & delivery charges.  All the mundane costs that are fairly fixed.  So the choices really come down to how to spend that last $1.3/1.4 million.  How much do I need to set aside for upgrading the ILS?  Can I squeeze out another librarian position?  What do we need for computer upgrades, for sending people to conferences?  And with what's left can we buy enough content to meet our commitments to the university community?

And then, given the current economic climate, how much should I hold in reserve in case the governor decides to declare proration and take some of what I think I have back two months into the fiscal year?  And how much do I need to save to cover what the budget cuts for the next year might be?

Of all of the Star Trek movies, my favorite is The Voyage Home.  And my favorite moment in the film comes near the end, when Spock is trying to calculate the speed and trajectory that will get the ship around the sun at the right angle to swing them back into their own time.  He doesn't have all of the information he needs to get the calculations exactly right.  McCoy tells him he'll have to guess.  Spock says, "Then I will try to make the best guess I can."

Story of my life. 

King Lear at the Shakespeare Theater

The actors came out for the curtain call.  Cordelia looked shell shocked, even though in her last scene she’d had nothing to do but lay there naked.   Goneril was still wiping the tears from her eyes, looking slightly stunned at the audience applauding, as if she couldn’t quite believe that it was, after all, just a play, and she was not really the nightmare she’d spent the last three hours becoming.  

We applauded and whooped.   The rest of the company stepped back then as Keach walked out.  We stood up and roared.  He smiled, and bowed to the audience, his face full of gratitude, as if to say, “We survived it again. All of us. Together.”  Then they all left the stage quickly, to go through whatever their individual rituals are, to reassure themselves that they are actors and privileged to be doing this work and that the real world is not as dark and hopeless as the world they try their best to create on stage night after night.  I was in the front row, a couple of seats right of center.  It’s not always my favorite spot to see a play, ‘cause I don’t quite get the full effect of the staging, but it’s the place to be if you want to see if any of the actors are faking.  They weren’t that night.

The scene is late 20th century Yugoslavia.  If it were staged in a traditional Elizabethan setting, you might be able to fool yourself into thinking that we're better than that now – that the horrific stupid cruelty and blindness was exaggerated by the playright.   But, no.  Bringing it into our time makes it clear that we still are those people.  Shakespeare was easier on us than we deserve.

Worst of all was the battle scene.   The stage is strewn with blasted rubble.  Overturned cars and piles of junk.  The sounds of battle rage offstage.  And then the women start dragging the bodies in, wrapped in bandages, like mummies.  We know they’re just props, made of paper and rags, but the way the actors drag them in, it's clear they're carrying the full weight of lost loved ones.  Then a man comes in dragging two small bodies.  That’s when I started crying.  They keep coming.  There will be no end to it.  Gloucester is dead on the stage now too, and Edgar has run off looking for revenge.   Two medics come out.  The only traces of nobility in this play seem to come from the nameless.  But they can't do anything more than pick up the bodies and throw them into the pit.  But the bodies keep coming.  The medics are exhausted and their faces are traumatized (we’ll see one of them later, in the last miserable killing scene, his wits gone with madness, dragging a teddy bear).  They throw Gloucester in the pit, and a couple more of the bandaged bodies, but then they leave the stage.  There are just too many.

I can well understand why the actors and the director and the designers and the crew want to sink their teeth into this stuff.  It’s magnificent.   And I kinda get why we want to watch it (although Lynn would have hated it).  Partly it's for the skill with which it's presented, of course, but mostly it's the way that art can enable us to face some of the dark truths about ourselves without making us go mad.

What I don’t understand is how somebody could write it.  He did a great job with those comedies and those history plays, and the earlier tragedies.  But what in the world must’ve been going on inside a man that he could write King Lear?

Tyranny of the Calendar

We were very pleased with how the shrimp & asparagus risotto turned out.   We'd asked Marian over for the 4th, so Lynn made the barbecue shrimp that her daughter loves.  Then she took the shells and made a fabulous shrimp stock.  What to do with it?  She suggested a risotto and thought that asparagus would complement nicely.  I told Marian I'd make some if she & Josie could come over one evening before my next trip to DC.

Now that Josie is spending two weekends a month with her Daddy, the scheduling is getting more complicated.  This is particularly the case now that my travel schedule has once again become ridiculous.  I've been able to take it for granted these past two years that if I was in town on a weekend, it was more than likely that I'd be able to pick up Josie in the morning and spend much of the day with her.  I didn't really have to make time to see her and her Mom.  And that was more of a luxury than I realized.

A couple of years ago I tried to institute a rule that would restrict me to one out of town trip a month, and for awhile I was able to do a pretty good job of it.  It helped to give me a bit of discipline to turn down some invitations.  This year, though, I've had to abandon the rule altogether. 

When I got back from the annual MLA meeting at the end of May, I was anticipating a fairly relaxed summer.  I didn't have any work travel planned at all -- there'd be the trip to Wisconsin at the end of June to see my Mom and my siblings, and a beach weekend with Queenie & Bispo in the middle of July.  Nothing else until the end of August.

Then the roundtable thing came up, with four meetings in DC between mid-June and early August.  A big commitment, but not something I was going to turn down.  Then Lynn's dad decides to get married in the middle of August, so that's another weekend gone.  And, as (un)luck would have it, the couple of remaining weekends that I'll be home coincide with the weekends that Josie will be gone.  Hence the need to pay more attention to scheduling, which is how I ended up making shrimp & asparagus risotto for four on a Tuesday night.

I do love making risotto, though.  I learned the basic preparation from Jack Bishop's Complete  Italian Vegetarian Cookbook a few years ago.  (I have several of his cookbooks and the thing I love about them is not just that they have great recipes, but that I learn things from him that I can then use to make up my own stuff).  I browsed the web for a bit looking at risotto recipes that used shrimp and asparagus and figured out how I wanted to put it together.  When I got home, Josie & Marian were already there, so I got everything prepped, and then when Lynn got home, it was a simple matter of assembling everything and doing the gentle stirring that makes cooking risotto such a wonderfully relaxing and restorative process.

Josie liked it once her mom got her to eat some.  She can be persuaded to try most foods, but she never eats very much.  She's always trying to negotiate with her mom over how many bites she has to eat before she can be excused, particularly if it's something that's unfamiliar.  ("It's just rice, fixed a different way.  You love rice!").  "Five bites!" her mother said.   And once she had that first big bite (for which we praised her extravagantly), she liked it just fine.   (I managed to trick her into six bites when she lost count after the first two).

The fall is no less harried than the summer has turned out to be -- worse, if anything.  Brisbane, Breckenridge, Frankfurt, DC again, Memphis, Boston.  I haven't decided yet about Charleston.  But we'll manage to fit it all in.  We always do.

In the short term, though, I need to figure out what to do with those last three cups of shrimp stock.  Maybe paella?  Lemme check the calendar and see when we're all free for dinner again...