5 Rules for Managing a Book Club

Diversity is key

I’m not one for small talk. I’m not good at it and I rarely see the point. All the idle chatter is time better spent reading in my opinion. Unless the talk is about books, of course. Then pull up a chair. Let me buy you a drink. If you’re the type of person that views carrying a book as a necessary escape hatch for any excursion outside your front door, then you are my people, no questions asked. There is little I like more than reading, browsing, chatting or arguing about books. Book stores are my pilgrimage and book clubs are my catnip. At my day job, the one meeting I will not view askew is the monthly book club. It’s one hour where time doesn’t drag on and business buzz words don’t choke the air. It’s my oasis in the management wilderness.

That doesn’t mean it’s easy to cultivate and maintain such a swath of erudite discussion among the cubes. After two years, I’ve come to some conclusions about the best ways to run a successful book club. Continue Reading

Running a Half Marathon

5k braved the monsoon

The Half Marathon needs a better name. It sounds like a cop-out, doesn’t it? Oh, you couldn’t do a full marathon, huh? Opted for the halfsie? By the end of 13.1 miles this past Sunday, I was quite ready to take any abuse, any insult, just to be done. I staggered across the line, legs like dead wood, chest heaving, eyes zeroed in on that finish line with a zombie-like stare. Sounds like fun, right? Why would I possibly subject myself to this? Good question.

In the days leading up to the Providence Rock N Roll Half Marathon, I asked myself this question a lot and came up with two reasons. I blame my co-worker and Christopher McDougall’s Born to Run. The co-worker because he innocently handed me the book and McDougall for writing a very convincing and very entertaining book that certainly made distance running seem fun and romantic. Before I go further, let me say I’m not a barefoot acolyte. I do own a pair of minimalist trail shoes and I did make a conscious decision to change my stride this year to more of a mid-foot strike to ease the burden on my knees, but please don’t attack me with do’s or don’ts of barefoot running. My advice? If you’re running without pain (or little pain) there is probably little reason to change. If you find yourself bogged down with injuries or returning to running from a long layoff, you might give the arguments in the book some thought.

The second reason was more esoteric and tangential. I play basketball once a week with a group of like minded, competitive guys. We recently switched leagues from the open league to the over-35 one. Seems rather banal, and definitely a good decision given how the 20 year-olds were buzzing by us like we were playing in cement shoes, but I think it triggered some sort of urge to still prove I could compete. Even if I was only proving it to myself. Like I said, esoteric, but better than buying a Corvette or something, right?

I wasn’t starting from scratch. I was pretty fit and had a solid base of 15-20 miles a week of recreational running. Still, I knew I needed a plan for a half marathon. Sure, I could probably wing it and complete it, but being a type A personality, I had goals and ambitions of running it well. There are numerous plans out there on the Internet for free. Pretty much a plan for every type of runner, I think. I choose Hal Higdon’s Intermediate plan for a couple reasons. First, it wasn’t overly complex. A lot of plans had days (or multiple days) dedicated to speed workouts or splits or intervals or tempo runs. Undoubtedly that would probably help, but I the more I searched the more I realized I wanted less of a plan and more of a road map on how to  ramp up to sufficient miles without risking injury. Second, I have a full-time job, a toddler and lot of other demands on my time. Higdon’s plan was flexible. It allowed for me to slot in my weekly basketball game as cross-training and for flip-flopping training days when necessary.

With the training now in the rear view mirror, I can say Higdon’s plan was successful and the right one for me.

My form at the end of the race

Let me also pass along a few tips on the physiology of long training runs. I did come to welcome these runs (proves how short term my memory is) each weekend, at least until mile 9 or so, and definitely came to recognize a certain pattern:
Mile 0 – 3: This is a good pace. Nice and easy. I can do this all day.
Mile 4 – 7: Damn! I am flying. Half marathon? Screw that, I’m going for the full monty.
Mile 8 – 11: Where did these elves and their little knives come from? Why are they jabbing me in the knees, ankles and hips? Aw, gawd, it hurts!
Mile 12 – 13: Mental boot camp. Your numb lower body is on autopilot. A death-march to the finish.

Two final things, having a time goal did help me. It gave me a tangible measuring stick to track my training progress. Second, I always thought the idea of a mantra was kind of silly, but in those last three or four miles when your mind is a blank slate of pain, they do help bring a kind of focused determination to finishing.

When & Where?
On further reflection, picking New England in August for my first attempt, was pure folly. If I had to do it again, I’d aim for September or October. Hot and humid were not just a possibility (despite the 7 am start), but a probability. Not a lot I could do about it. I had trained through August, sometimes timing longer runs at midday to acclimatize a bit. The one thing I didn’t count on? The rain.

What Happened?
Well, I did finish, but Sunday August 7th in Providence was a monsoon. And that is barely exaggerating. Fifteen to twenty mile an hour winds with driving rains for a good three quarters of the race. It did build a sense of solidarity among the five thousands that turned out, but man it was less than ideal, especially for a maiden voyage. Despite a fifteen minute delay at the start, leaving us packed and shuffling in the corral, the race was otherwise well organized on all fronts. They could have used more post-race shelter for runners, but I can’t fault them for not anticipating the storm. I would have liked to see them put the gear bags under tarps or something as finishing and picking up your soaked gear was a downer. The on-course stations, timing, and post-race recovery spread was good.

I made it around the course a few minutes under my goal time and despite some pacing issues (like an eager beaver I went out waaay too fast) will definitely be running another half again in the future. My last piece of advice? Reward yourself. Running 13 miles is nothing to sneeze at. Take a few days off recover and reward yourself. Me? I spent the next day lounging, stuffing my gut with BBQ and cupcakes.

Simple Summer Recipes: Lemon Verbena Sorbet

I love to bake. Bread, cupcakes, cookies, pies, count me in. But our house does not have central air and flipping the oven on in July and August for any length of time is an invitation to self flagellation. A cocktail party in Hell. I do my best to avoid it. Still, we do our best to only indulge in sweets we make ourselves, so how to satisfy the sweet sugar craving for dessert  when our kitchen turns into a sweat lodge? There’s only one answer. Continue Reading

10 Tips for Effective Meetings (If you really have to)

The same dungeon everywhere

Look as much as I’d like to spend my days puttering around the garden, baking, reading, writing, running or picking up more hobbies the fact is aspiring to be a career serial hobbyist doesn’t  pay the mortgage or day care bills. I have a day job. One that I really like with creative and competent co-workers, but it also has meetings. Lots of meetings. As much as I like my job, I really hate meetings. The vast, vast majority of these confabs wind up a meandering useless waste of time that just sucks the productivity out of a project. For what it’s worth, here’s how I try to run all my meetings when I’m forced (at knife point) to have any at all.

1. Objective
First, for the love of God, have an objective. A very concrete objective and purpose for the meeting. Remember by their very nature meetings should be a two way street of information sharing. Anything needing to just go one way could (and should) be handled via email or with one on one contact. One of my biggest corporate pet peeves is the regular recurring meetings that often exist just to get people in the same room.

2. Right Participants
Invite the right people. Invite the decision makers. On small project teams this often isn’t a problem, but in large companies and on sprawling projects this might take some due diligence, but worth the time not to run into decision moats were the meeting essentially grounds to a halt because no one present is empowered to make a decision.

3. Meeting Prep
Meeting time should be spent on tasks and useful discussion so prepare both yourself and participants prior to the meeting. Sitting around the conference room table is not the time to spring traps or argue over approach. You should discuss sensitive issues or agree on approach with key participants before the meeting.

4. Know the Technology
Part of your prep should be knowing how to use the technology in the room (phone/AV equipment) and any software you are using to present. Nothing deflates a meeting or takes the burnish of both a presenter or presentation than seeing them fumble their way through buttons, connections or cords before they get started. Take five or ten minutes to practice (preferably in the same room) and avoid the stumbling start.

5. Agenda
Don’t confuse this with an objective. The agenda is the flight plan. It’s the table of contents of what is to be covered in the meeting and should be provided BEFORE the meeting. Remember #1, a meeting is a team activity, a two way street. Save tasks that require a team effort for your meeting agenda.6.

6. Introductions (optional)

Know the tech

If you’re in a kick-off meeting or a large stakeholder meeting where it’s obvious the players might not know each other, as painful as it is, it makes sense to run through some quick introductions along with responsibilities. Note, if some folks have dialed in, as meeting emcee it’s a good idea to prompt them rather than wait in awkward silence as three people then try to talk at once. If people enter or join the call late, don’t break up the flow to ask who joined unless you’re waiting for a key stakeholder or there is a natural break in the conversation.

7. Stay on Track
You called the meeting. You set the agenda (and sent it out ahead of time). Manage to it. Don’t prejudge or dominate discussions and be polite but firm in taking the reins back when discussion begins to veer off track. Also, start on time. Respect other people’s time and they will respect yours (in theory).

8. Recap & Action Items
The last agenda item should always be a recap of the discussion along with a review of the pertinent actions items and who is responsible. If you meeting had a clear objective and agenda these items should come out organically as the meeting progresses and you need only to refer to your notes and make sure everyone agrees. I know that’s easier said than done. Don’t put off decisions or assume they will be covered in another (shudder) meeting. Things will pile up, time will be wasted and frustrations will mount as the project careens off course (which will doubltess lead to more meetings).

9. Follow Up with Meeting Minutes
It might feel redundant to do minutes, but it’s not. Especially not weeks (or days) later given the avalanche of meetings most people attend. As quickly as you can, write up some brief minutes and re-iterate discussions that were tabled (for the good of the meeting), action items assigned and other issues or follow up items.

10. Hold People Accountable
Don’t the let meeting fade away only to be repeated in two weeks. Actions were assigned, people agreed, hold them accountable. Politely follow up and remind them (okay, badger them) until the task is complete.

That’s it. It may look like common sense for the most part, but hold up a few of the meetings you attend this week to this list. It’s not hard, but it does take some effort to have effective meetings. Far better to hold off until really, really necessary.

Flicker CC images used clagnut, andresrueda, jblyberg

5 Steps for Overwintering Garlic

Garlic scapes, a rite of spring

In the side yard garden space is at a premium, so I decided to try overwinter garlic late last year. Six month later I think it’s doing okay. This is my first go round with garlic so the whole process is a bit of a mystery. We’re still feeling each other out to see if we’ll date again next fall. So far, so good.  I sunk three types of cloves into the ground around Halloween last year, covered it up with a good blanket of salt hay and then scoffed that anything would grow given the utter avalanche of snow we had in New England this year. But lo and behold, it did grown and it’s still growing (turns out cold stimulates the formation of the bulbs). Garlic is a hardy plant and given it’s preference or tolerance for cold, it’s a great way to extend the short growing season up here. Here are the five simple steps I followed (or plan to follow):

1. Get it in the ground
Plant it later, but before the ground freezes. That’s the one golden rule with garlic. This one I’m pretty sure I did right. If you’re in the Northeast, you’ll likely want to go with the hard-neck variety. The other variety (the one typically found in supermarkets is soft-necked). Garlic isn’t overly picking, like most veggies, it likes rich, well drained soil. I amended the rows with compost, added some additional soil and layered on the salt hay to control weeds and give the cloves a little insulation. Be sure to plant each clove flat side down, pointy end up. I kept the soil moist till the snow came. Then I just crossed my fingers.

After the winter...

2. Spring time maintenance
Around March, I pulled off a lot of the hay and was happy to find a number of hardy green shoots. I added a little seaweed fertilizer and largely left them alone other than some light weeding.

3. Scapes anyone?
This is like the trailer before the movie. Scapes are the curling part of the plant right before it flowers. Cut them off before they flower to force more energy into bulb development and to add some mild, garlic flavor to any number of dishes like stir-fry’s, eggs or pesto. I’m anxiously awaiting scapes now. This is a signal that the growing season is winding down.

4. Harvest
Once the leaves start to brown, it’s best to stop watering. When the stems start to collapse (but while still a little green), your garlic is ready to harvest. You can carefully dig down and check on the bulb size if you’re not sure. Be careful not to let it go too long or bulbs will start to rot in the ground. While some people like to use fresh, green garlic, most will want to dry and store cloves. I plan to try a bit of both. Place the bulbs on screens, or loosely braided, to cure in a dry, dark, airy place until thoroughly dry with papery skins. The bulbs can then be stored under cool, dry, dark conditions. Don’t forget to plant some of these cloves for next year’s harvest.

5. Enjoy
This is the whole point right? A little homesteading. Here are a few recipes I’m looking forward to trying with my garlic (and other veggies):
Roasted grape tomato and garlic pesto
Roasted Grape Tomato and Garlic Pesto Dip Recipe


Running with a Garmin: Friend or Foe

Never take an unrecorded step

As I’ve crept closer to my mid-thirties I’ve become better at curbing my instincts for buying up the latest gadget. Having to pay a mortgage and daycare bills will have that sort of mitigating effect. After seeing the new Garmin Forerunner however, I’m seriously fighting the itch. While mulling over my argument to Michelle about why I really need to upgrade my “virtual coach and training partner” I thought about how the Garmin (I have a now antiquated 305 model which feels like carrying a grandfather clock on your wrist) has changed the way I run the past three years.

Record Keeping
Even if you’re just running for health maintenance and not training for a race or other goal, not tracking and recording your runs can be a mistake. I’m not talking about religiously recording every step like a deranged fitness accountant (more on that in a minute) but not keeping any record of progress makes it hard to measure improvement and easy to slip into a rut and simply plateau.

There is a dark side to being able to capture all those stats. In those first heady months after you strap a GPS to your wrist you’ll be setting all sorts of personal records and pushing to reach new goals. It’s fun. It’s invigorating. It’s enticing. Up to a point. Eventually you’ll reach a barrier and those PR’s and goals become harder and harder to accomplish. In and of itself this is not a bad thing and can help keep you pushing, helping you avoid that plateau. But it can also lead to disappointment and drain the fun out of running. Beware.

Sweet, sweet technology

One benefit of pushing for those PRs and having constant access to pace and heart rate is the more closely you tune into your body. You’ll soon learn to judge your turnover in relation to pace and when you’re having a good day and a shot and when it’s not there. The latter is the harder lesson to learn. Not every time out is going to be a PR. Some days it will enough to just log the miles.

Letting Go
Something happened in the third year of running with the Forerunner. I started leaving it home more. I started running to just to run. I knew instinctively when I was loafing and when I was pushing. Some days I just plain didn’t care. I just wanted to go for a run and not be tethered to time and distance.

Did I just talk myself out of it? Maybe I just need to go for a run.

Chewy Molasses Cookies

I’ll come clean. I’m a soft cookie man. If you give me a choice between a soft and chewy or hard and crispy, I’ll choose the former every time. The only hard cookie I can think of that I eat willingly are biscotti (soft and chewy with tea or coffee aren’t natural bedfellows) and even then the shower of crumbs sort of annoys me when the pleasure of dunking and dipping is done.

With the price of chocolate going through the roof to a thirty year high (c’mon you’re telling me intervening in the Ivory Coast isn’t in our national interests) I’m increasingly turning to these versatile molasses cookies as my go-to staple for a cookie fix. In our house we aspire to two food rules. One, the Epicurean rule of everything in moderation and two, the Pollan principle of indulgence is okay as long as you make it yourself. Continue Reading