Bringing conversation back into our lives

Aristotle was...pretty good at conversing.

Aristotle was...pretty good at conversing.

One of my favorite things about Freemasonry is what many organizations (including churches and the like) call "fellowship." In modern-day English, we call it "hanging out." When we're not in a formal meeting (or sitting formally at prayer, for instance), we're still gathered with like-minded folk, eating, drinking and, most of all, talking.

As someone who works from home and communicates with my coworkers via an online chat if we need to (sometimes we just sit around independently and work for 45 minutes or so without saying anything), I don't have an opportunity to grab lunch with a coworker or chat with someone at the water cooler or coffee pot.

And, in fact, in turns out, even people who do work in offices together aren't talking to each other as much as they used to. Same with people who sit around the dinner table, staring at their phones instead of talking to each other.

Author Sherry Turkle has been writing about it for a while now. She has a new book called Reclaiming Conversation, which is about bringing conversation back into our lives.

It's an extension, really, of work she did for another book on being alone, even if we're connected. Here's her TED talk on it from 2012.

She talks more about the new book on the Art of Manliness podcast.

In the lessons of the second degree of Freemasonry, we learn about the seven liberal arts and sciences we should really study to become well-rounded humans. Of the seven, three really relate to conversation: logic, grammar and rhetoric.

I won't go into detail here, not because there's anything secret in the ritual, but because practicing the art of conversation is so much more important than sitting by yourself reading this. But if you want want to learn more, The Masonic Roundtable has great discussions on each:


My dog is more interesting than you

Rufus, doing what he does best

Rufus, doing what he does best

Some of the things I find most interesting in people are:

  1. What they've tried
  2. What they've failed at
  3. What they've learned
  4. What they enjoy

In the most interesting people I know, item four stems directly from the first three. And each of those stems directly from the one before it. Try something, make a mistake, learn, then weed out the stuff you enjoy.

The most interesting people I know seem to have the following two traits in common:

• Curiosity
• Willingness to fail (or injure themselves, I guess, as a type of failure)

That's really it. You don't need anything else.

So why is it that so many people are so fucking dull?

It's because the majority of their knowledge comes from people more interesting than they are. It comes from listening to people's stories. From PBS. From The Discovery Channel.

If your story starts, "I once saw this show about a guy who...," I'd rather be talking to the guy who, not you.

Sorry not sorry.

So, my dog. He sleeps a lot. Typically I'm asleep six to eight hours, so I'll guess he's asleep for four to six of those. During my nine-hour work shift, he's asleep about six hours. During the other seven to nine hours of the day, if I'm home, he's asleep at least five. We're looking at 15 hours or more of sleep a day.

It must be exhausting being a dog.

Then again, I can see that it is. Dude checks out everything. Everything. He smells my pants as I put them on – no, really, I'll be sliding my right leg in and his nose is pressed up against my left knee – if a leaf blows across the yard, he investigates. He checks out the tree and the mailbox post on our front lawn at the beginning and end of a walk.

Each ingredient we pull from the refrigerator; every hammer, screwdriver or wrench we pull from the toolbox; every human who comes to the door, Rufus's nose is there, figuring out what it is and where it's been.

In fact, right now, he's sniffing at a closed door because he has to know what's on the other side.

He's curious about everything, and he investigates until he's satisfied.

You, on the other hand, just sit on the couch until you're satisfied you know enough about some other guy's trip to the Mojave to be interesting enough at dinner tomorrow to earn another invitation.

Here are some ideas for becoming a more interesting person. Report back if you try any.

1. Learn about something you use every day. Figure out how it works, why it does what it does, what its history is, when people started using it, and how you could make your own. Own that shit. Coffee, pencils, toilets, flowers, I don't care what it is. Get the first-hand knowledge, do your own research and experimenting.

2. Learn about something you have no interest in. It's going to come in handy someday. Electrical wiring, gravity, picture frames. Enjoy the process of learning. But do number one first – that you'll do for the joy of learning about the thing, this one you'll do for the joy of learning itself.

3. Make something. A website, a sculpture, dinner, a shirt. Do it from scratch. Learn the steps, put it together. If it's ugly, broken or disgusting, great. You still made it, and you learned something in the process. If it's amazing, pick something else. Keep making stuff until you fail. Every time you succeed, you put one more thing in your arsenal that you can do. Every time you fail, you put one more thing to improve at on your list.

That should be plenty for you to do for a while. Send me pictures.

When did DIY become a thing?

I was out in the backyard folding some tarps and looking at our (once again) overgrown lawn when I had this thought. When did DIY become a thing? Didn't it used to be that most projects were DIY?

This is the time of year for reflection for those of us ascribing to the Jewish calendar. The new year has begun and we're in the 10 days of reflection between the start of the lunar year and Yom Kippur, the day of atonement, when we look back on the past year, seeking opportunities for improvement over the coming year.

Reflecting on the past couple of months alone, I'm seeing some leaps in my life I never thought I'd take, and upon further reflection, it seems ridiculous that those are big leaps.

For example: I bought a couple of door slabs and hung them myself. It took some time and a second person to help out, but would I have been better off spending $100 per door to have someone else hang them? Certainly not. (For comparison, an interior door slab costs $30-$60, depending on what, if anything, needs to be cut.)

Also: I called AAA to come help me out with a flat tire. By the time they got there, I already had the doughnut on. I'd never changed a tire before, but then, I'd never tried. Why not? I dunno. Scared, maybe? It's a 10-minute job, once you figure out how the jack works.

And: Remember when we hired a company to find our lawn? They did an amazing job. But then we just went and neglected the lawn again, so it got overgrown. Rather than write another $81 check to them, I spent $91 (including tax) and bought my own weed whacker. It took longer than Yardsmith did (apparently they don't make those batteries for hours of continuous use, so I had to stop after about 30 minutes and charge it for a few hours), and sure it's not perfect, but mission accomplished on the lawn.

But back to my original question. When did DIY become a thing? When did it start being normal for us to hire out for virtually everything? I understand some of it. I'd want someone with specialized knowledge to repair my roof and look at my electricity. And I see the benefit of buying stuff instead of making everything for your wedding (check out all the stuff Ting and Ashlea made at their wedding – it was amazing, but damn it was a lot of work). Why is my first thought always, "Who can I hire to do this for me?" instead of, "Which pliers will help me get the job done?"

We've become such a service-based economy that for a lot of us, we don't know how to do some basic work on our homes or vehicles with our own hands.

Next up: I might just learn how to change my own oil.

4 tips for hanging doors

JB and I put up a couple of doors today.

As a human services and English major, respectively, we're not the most mechanically inclined people.

Because we already had door frames in, we didn't get pre-hung doors (also, that saved us something on the order of $150 a door).

Our doors were not standard sizes, so we had to have them ordered. Here are some tips we picked up along the way.

1. How to measure. Measure the interior of the door frame, then subtract an inch horizontally and two inches vertically. You need room for the door to hang, open and close.

2. Know which direction the door opens. I can't stress this enough. Whoever put in the previous door had it wrong at our place, and the latch for the doorknob sits too low on one of the doors.

3. Order the door with the hole for the doorknob drilled. It was so worth the $5 extra to have them punch that hole for me. It would have taken me hours.

4. Study your other doors first. Understand how you're going to have to hang it first; I put the first hinge on incorrectly three times before I got it right.

What else would you like to know about how we got the doors up?

[photo credit]

Effective Communication: Email Basics Part 2: Tips for Success (and Failure)

This is the second in a two-part series about effective email. I'm writing this primarily for communication around an office that is increasingly and reluctantly technology-reliant, but feel free to re-purpose it for your needs. You can read the first part here.

This is where we get into the nitty gritty of how to be an effective emailer. We'll look specifically at 4 common scenarios that many people don't think about, but that don't require a lot of experience or pre-planning.

1. Reply vs. Reply All. Many times, someone will need to email a bunch of people (such as a whole department), and require a response from each individual.

A lot of times, the whole list doesn't need to read each response.

When you click "reply," you are replying only to the sender. When you click "reply all," you are replying to everybody on the list. You can double-check who you are replying to by looking at the "To" and "CC" fields.

Consider this common scenario.

It's Monday morning, and your boss is wondering how your team is going to be motivated to reach its goals this week. S/he emails everybody for one goal, and one way you're going to reach that goal.

Within 5 minutes, one of your co-workers, with whom you're friendly, replies to everybody with a great answer. You click "reply all" and call her a brown-noser and maybe make a snarky comment, which she would appreciate because she's your friend.

But because you clicked "reply all," everybody on your team, including your boss, thinks you're holding that person's answer against her.

Instead of sharing a joke with a friend, you've created the appearance of a rift on your team, and now everybody gets assigned to team building exercises that take up the next three Saturdays, and people really start to not like you because they were going to get in some time with their children.

Not so effective, right?

Action: Check the "To" and "CC" fields when sending an email, so you know who is going to receive the email.

2. Use an accurate and effective subject. Many people get a lot of email, like hundreds of messages a day. In an effort to manage that email, a lot of people have created systems that are effective for them. The two things that people base these systems on, for the most part, are the sender (that's you) and the subject field.

If you're sending an email message about a time off request, include that information in the subject line. If you're hoping to go on vacation in August, "August time off request" is a great subject line; "Sand castles and Frisbees" is a terrible one.

The next step, of course, is making your message match your subject line, so if you write terrifically effective subject lines but then write your messages about something else entirely (making your subject line inaccurate), all of your emails are going to become low priority, because the reader isn't going to trust that your high-priority subject line has anything to do with the message (see also: The Boy Who Cried Wolf).

Action: After you write your message, double-check to make sure your subject line is still accurate.

3. Stick to one subject. In addition to making sure your message and subject line are in agreement, make sure you (a) don't go off on a tangent and (b) you stick to just one subject in your email. If you have multiple subjects in an email message, one or more will get lost in a conversation thread.

4. Other tips for success. Here are some other tips for successful emails.

- Keep emails short. We don't read on the screen, we skim. Don't put too much extraneous information in your email message, or something will be missed.

- If you require an action, like signing up for an account or posting your results on an office Intranet, find a prominent place in your email for a phrase like "Action Item: Post your results to Intranet." Bold it if you like. Include a deadline. If it's "today," assume people will think you mean by close of business, so be specific.

- Some emails obviously require a response ("We're having an office luncheon, please email your order"). Some don't ("I hope you read this article and find it useful for your job"). If you need a response, include a note that you need a response. Include a phrase like "response requested," or "please respond." Include a deadline.

What did I miss? What else is required for effective email?

« Part 1: Anatomy of an email

Effective Communication: Email Basics Part 1: Anatomy of an Email

This is the first in a two-part series about effective email. I'm writing this primarily for communication around an office that is increasingly and reluctantly technology-reliant, but feel free to re-purpose it for your needs. You can read part 2 here.

All email messages have six basic fields you should be aware of. Some email clients (that's email programs in lay terms) hide some of the fields, but it should be pretty easy to get them to show in case you'd like to use them. These fields are From, To, CC, BCC, Subject, and Message.

Let's take a look at what each field does and why it's important.

1. The "From" field. This is the email address the message you are writing is coming from. In most cases, this is your primary email address. For those people who have multiple email addresses on the same client, it's important to choose the email address you wish it to come from (for example, personal or work).

In some cases, an incorrect "from" field will put replies in the wrong place for you, creating an inefficient work flow, and in other cases, you're giving people access to an email address you may not want them to have (for example, giving work clients your personal address).

2. The "To" field. This should be your primary recipient list. Even if you're replying to an email, you should ALWAYS check this field to make sure the person you want to read the email is the ONLY person (or people, you get what I'm saying) in the field. Not double-checking this field could mean you send an email to the wrong person, or it could mean that the person you meant to complain about to a friend is actually on the email.

Making a mistake there might be "cute" once at work, or it could get you fired with cause.

3. The "CC" field. For those of us old enough to remember putting carbon paper in our typewriters, CC means "carbon copy." The person or people listed in this field are meant as secondary recipients. For example, if you send a message to someone in another department and CC your boss, your boss is likely to file that as a piece of information you want them to have, though s/he isn't likely to give it a priority.

The person in the "To" field can see the name and email address of the person in the "CC" field, and vice-versa.

4. The "BCC" field. "BCC" means "blind carbon copy." This means you're sending a copy of the message to someone, and NOT disclosing that you're sending it along to the person in the "To" field. The best and most common use of this is to hide people's email addresses from each other on a mailing list.

Another common use is the "I need to tell you something and the person I'm corresponding with doesn't need to know about it." For example, if I, as someone in middle management, have a team member under me whose angry emails I need to respond to, I might add my boss as a BCC on my return emails so he knows what's going on, in case the problem escalates.

5. The "Subject" field. Simply put, this is what the message is about. It's a way for the recipient to file the email, to prioritize it among the other emails s/he receives, and to be able to follow the conversation thread through several messages over time. If your subject field is "Time off request," your boss is more likely to look at it and figure out when you need time off than if your subject field is "My cat is sick," even if that's your reason for requesting time off. Be effective, and be accurate.

6. The "Message" field. This is your email message. We'll get into this more in Part 2, but keep your email message about a single topic (the topic in the subject field), and make sure you mention any action items that are required, whether you desire a response, and what deadline you need the response or action on.

Part 2: Tips for Success (and Failure) »

Basic Skills for the Workplace: Excel

There are essentially three things you need to know how to do in Excel in order to provide a useful and accurate spreadsheet to a boss or colleague.

The first thing to do, of course, is make sure all the columns in your spreadsheet are useful and relevant. Otherwise, you're just wasting space and people's time, and too much time wasted means people might not even bother to read it.

Use Multiple Sheets

There are tabs on the bottom of the document. By default, they are called Sheet1, Sheet2 and Sheet3, but you can call them something more useful (like "Red Team," "Blue Team" and "Green Team," if those describe your project). You can also add or delete sheets. Right-click (or CTRL+click on a Mac) and select the proper action.

Sort Alphabetically or Numerically

The easiest way to look at data is in order. So why not present it that way? Select the column you want to sort by, by clicking on the letter at the top. Then, press either the "A->Z" or "Z->A" button, depending on which way you want to sort. You'll get a pop-up box asking if you want to "Expand the Selection." You do. It means that all the other columns will re-sort so that all the data remain in the correct rows.

Mathematical Formulas

These are pretty much the reason we still use spreadsheets. Here is how to set up your spreadsheet.

1. Click in the cell where you want the formula to calculate.
2. Click the equals sign (=).
3. Click a cell that has the first bit of data you want in the formula.
4. Put in the sign of the function you want to use (+, -, * or /)
5. Click the next cell in the formula.
6. Repeat steps 4 and 5 until you reach the end
7. Hit your "Enter" key.

You can ensure this formula reaches all cells in the column by clicking on the cell that has the formula in it, then grabbing the little black square at the bottom right and dragging it all the way down the column.

Basic Skills for the Workplace: Troubleshooting Your Internet Connection

There are three basic setups used in most workplaces for the Internet connection at your workspace. Before calling either your in-house IT professional or your provider, familiarize yourself with your equipment and basic troubleshooting. Here are some tips.

Setup I: Ethernet jack to the wall

You'll see this in most larger offices that don't run on wireless connections. It's a very simple setup from your point of view. An Ethernet cable (it looks like an extra-wide phone plug) is plugged into a jack on the back of your computer, and the other end is plugged into a similar jack in the wall.

Should your Internet connection conk out, take these steps:

1. Check both ends of the cable to ensure they are plugged in securely.
2. Restart your computer.
3. Before calling someone, check with your co-workers so you can let the professional helping you know if it's a problem with only your workstation, or if it's a wider issue.

Setup 2: Wired router

These are becoming increasingly rare, but they still exist. A cable goes from the wall to a modem, bringing Internet into the office. A cable then goes from the modem to a router, giving Internet access to the router and any devices attached to it. Cables then go from the router to various computers. Here are troubleshooting tips before you call someone:

1. Check all the wires to make sure everything's plugged in.
2. Move your cable to a different port on the router.
3. Turn off the router, then the modem. Start up first the modem, then the router.
4. Restart your computer.

Setup 3: Wireless router

This is a setup most commonly used at homes and at some small offices. If you're working at a bar or cafe that has wifi, this is the setup there, as well. A cable goes from the wall to a modem, bringing Internet access into the room. A cable goes from the modem to a wireless router, giving everything within range capable of receiving a wireless signal Internet access. Often, these are password protected. Troubleshooting tips:

1. Make sure your device is connected to the network, and, if necessary, the proper password is entered. If your device is connected to the network but you can't get Internet access, the problem is between the wall and the router.
2. Make sure all cables are attached securely.
3. Turn off the router, then the modem. Turn on the modem, then the router. Wait while they come up and run their self-diagnostics.

If you're still not online, call somebody.