Can you ever get credit for averting a disaster?

avoiding disasterYou never get credit for averting a disaster, only for mounting a rescue operation once it’s in motion. At least that’s my experience from decades working in and around software development.

I’ve seen the debate play out time and time again: How much time and effort do you invest upfront in planning, analysis, quality assurance, risk mitigation? How much is enough? How much is too much? What’s the cost of averting a problem versus fixing the problem after implementation? We all know it costs more to fix it after Go Live, but was it worth the cost of avoiding, if the problem never materializes?

This is similar to the debate we are having across the world today. What is the cost of averting a catastrophic surge on our medical resources? How much of our wealth are we willing to give up to save lives? Does it depend on the number of lives? We’re investing up front in “flattening the curve”, but will we believe that the costs were worth it when it’s all over?

If a software Go Live is a success, no alarms are raised, no high impact problem reports are sent up the chain of command, no emergency meetings are called, or ‘business continuity plans’ activated. There’s a celebration cake, some nice words of thanks to the dedicated team, some photos taken and everyone moves on to the next project. It obviously wasn’t that complex or that challenging — there were no outside witnesses to the heroic work that went on behind the scenes.  The impact of the quality checks and testing on the final smooth implementation can get lost in the final assessment. Remember Y2K twenty years ago?

The projected COVID-19 deaths in the US are gradually dropping as we wrap up several weeks of Stay At Home orders across most of the nation. This is fantastic news! We achieved the objectives set forth by #flattenthecurve initiatives. This is the result of bold public officials making tough decisions — these are the unsung heroes.  And, I can already hear rumblings and second-guessings as to whether this was needed, precisely because the projections have dropped. Wait, don’t forget, that was the whole point. Questions are being asked as to whether the cost to the economy was worth it. This is sounding familiar.

If a software Go Live is a disaster, a hotshot SWAT team swoops in to the rescue. These saviors are treated like royalty — their heroic work is on display for all to see. Heroes are born that become legends of department lore. The unheard voices that had asked for more time to check, review, and test get buried or take the blame. Lessons learned are captured, After Action Reviews are conducted, and improvement task forces formed. We don’t want to repeat this ever again … until we do.

We’ve witnessed COVID-19 disasters in many places across the globe. There were many unheard voices trying to issue warnings and caution. Some were buried and some may be looked to for blame before it’s all over. New heroes have been born. We’re doing military style flyovers to honor our doctors, nurses and medical professionals. Infectious disease experts, scrounging for research funds, mostly hidden in their labs until this point, have found themselves on the international stage. They are getting fan mail … and some hate mail too, I”m sure. I hope they have their grants written so they can strike while the iron’s hot. We want to be better prepared next time … until we forget.

Reading about the 1918 Spanish flu has fascinated me the past few weeks. As with software projects, it would seem that we do repeat mistakes and we do forget. The German philosopher Friedrich Hegel seems to have got it right when he said  “The only thing we learn from history is that we learn nothing from history.”

What will the future say about the decisions made and the resulting consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic? I’m sure we’ll already know a lot more in a year from now. However, wouldn’t you love to come back in 100 years to find out what history will write about the year 2020?


Meet our Extraterrestrial Neighbor

ET on Drummond

I’d like to introduce you to my new neighborhood friend. Meet the extraterrestrial who moved in a few streets away from us when the lock down started. It’s our very own COVID ET, also nicknamed by us the Mannekin Pis of Braesheights.  The story of our Braesheights Mannekin Pis is not as glamorous as the original and it’s traditions not yet as well established as its Belgian cousin in the center of Brussels. It’s early days, give it a chance to catch up.

It hasn’t saved a king’s castle from fire by putting it out with its urine and hasn’t been the symbol of our neighborhood for hundreds of years, but it is supported by a dedicated team of wardrobe managers, who change its outfit daily — with some humor and forethought. It has been a source of delight and wonder for our nightly promenades through our oak-lined streets, similar to the tourists wandering from the Grand Place in Brussels.

Even if we go on an abbreviated walk after supper, we have to make it at least as far as our friendly COVID ET to see what creative theme and costume it’s donning for the day.  My favorite to-date was the wash-day Monday outfit with clothesline and all.

One evening I spoke with the owners out in the front yard to learn more. Apparently they were clearing out the garage at the beginning of the lock down and found this old mannequin from a long ago Halloween party. Rather than than get rid of it they decided to keep it around a little longer and have some fun with it as a distraction. I hope they don’t get rid of it too quickly. It’s a highlight of our walks after supper.

I ran round this morning to see if COVID ET was also standing down after the “Stay At Home” order expired. I was crushed. The porch was completely empty. ET was gone without a trace. So disappointing. I was tempted to knock on their door and plea for a month’s extension, or at least an encore performance. I restrained myself.

When I reported back home, my husband suspected a prank thief. My daughter was convinced they had just taken ET indoors for a little privacy while changing out costumes. I hoped one of them was right — I’m not ready to give up my new friend just yet.

I waited until after lunch and ran round there again to see if one of their theories held water. And voila! There it was back on the porch with a new outfit ready for another day entertaining its fans. If these people have external cameras, I might start showing up as a stalker! Sorry.

So, what was today’s theme / costume? I’m sharing here below, so you can decide for yourself. Theories at our house are a) Game of Thrones, or b) Voldemort, or c) Puff the Magic Dragon with a vampire frolicking in the autumn mist? None of those options fit quite right.

ET on Drummond- vampire

Please help us solve the mystery! What do you think?

Thanks to our neighbors for bringing a little magic into the same-ness of our lives these days.

Mask Coming Out Day

Masks - 4Today was my official coming out day. It’s the day I’m marking in the calendar as “Started wearing mask in public“. I finally finished my hand-crafted creations. They do have a pouch for a filter, but are otherwise quite unremarkable. My housemates have been mostly polite about them, excepting a few comments about being uneven, or baggy, or weird smelling. I know these are not in their longer-term wardrobe plans — I’ve seen their orders for more colorful alternatives in our Amazon account.

Much about the future is unclear, but one thing I’m pretty sure of, is that masks are here to stay for a while. Regardless of the recommendations, requirements or regulations where you live, or what your personal stance is on these, they have arrived.

Fashion, culture and profit is going to make sure we buy more than we need and perhaps even keep wearing them longer. As we start venturing out into public and shedding our sweat-pant-pajama-workout-shorts rotation we might want a sporty one for outdoorsy gatherings, a more chic model for dinner and the theater, more formal for church, more business-like for interviewing, and so on. Will they need to match shoes and purse, or belt, or earrings, or what about glasses frames. And of course, we’ll need some new organizer gizmo for the collection in our drawers. I see a new complexity to getting dressed penetrating a world I’m constantly trying to simplify! The materials, the colors, the designs could become the next frontier for designers. They might even add tassels, lace, sequence, or who knows what?

But before we leap to all this, I have some basic questions, like how the heck do you really breath in these things if you have a filter in them? I felt like I was recycling carbon dioxide in the grocery store this morning to the point where I might slump over in a faint on the egg cartons.

Then there’s the fogging up of the glasses challenge. It would seem that if you put a decent filter layer in the pouch (that took all that extra effort to make), the best way for air to enter and exit is through the top, passing by your glasses. They then fog up.

How on earth do I train myself to not touch my glasses that keep slipping down on top of the material now covering my nose; to not touch the itch from the elastic on my ear; to not touch the mask over my nose that seems to be covering the one nostril completely; how to not touch anything above my neck that is all itchy and uncomfortable? How?

I learned how to walk in high heels, wear pantyhose in the Houston heat and painfully heavy earrings when that was in fashion, so I’m sure I can master this mask. But I might need to upgrade my home-grown pioneer version for a Nieman Marcus deluxe model at some point, if Nieman’s doesn’t go out of business.

And then, practically speaking, how can I safely take it off and put it somewhere that isn’t going to contaminate some other surface? How frequently do we wash them, or reinsert a new filter? There appear to be varying opinions and there’s no definitive right or wrong answer. As somebody, who likes to know how to do it right, this is very frustrating.

For the time being, I’m going to have to live with answers like ‘You’ll get used to it’, ‘Just do the best you can.’ and ‘Some protection is better than none.’  I’m washing them in Zum patchouli laundry detergent this afternoon, so that should help a little.

See you out there with your mask on 🙂 Wave in case I don’t recognize you.

Frozen in Time

cobwebbed flowerI went to enter something on the May family calendar in the pantry and realized that I had not yet turned the page to April. This is a litmus test of activity in our house. The master household calendar, the director of traffic in our lives, the synchronizer of all family comings and goings has not been needed. I haven’t referred to, or written in it since March, which ended 26 days ago.

We’ve come to a standstill. Parts of our lives are like a deserted house in a Scooby-Doo cartoon, where rooms are laced with cobwebs, furnishings covered in dust, and items scattered on a banquet table as if the revelers vanished mid-dinning.

Much of the city is like that. Frozen in time. People left spaces expecting to return in a couple of weeks, and didn’t.

White erase boards in meeting rooms and classrooms still marked up with work in-progress. Desks and lockers containing items that wouldn’t have been left behind if the duration had been known. Theater stage sets ready for the next performance.

Display windows in a boutique nearby remain static – they didn’t win the “essential” designation. School electronic signs blink with outdated information. Cars sitting in driveways gather a thicker coat of pollen. The neighborhood library is closed again — after finally reopening following a long post-Hurricane Harvey restoration. Are returned books piling up in the return box, or not being returned at all?

Playgrounds are taped up like crime scenes. The school zone blinking lights still flash at the appointed hours of day for those out exercising and the occasional car passing by. The Spring fashion season has been skipped – glad I hadn’t bought anything.  Billboards once vibrant with concerts, sports events, and festival posters have nothing enticing to say.

I wonder what’s going on inside empty churches, movie theaters, sports stadiums, schools, offices, museums, gyms and theme parks? Is dust slowly covering over the inside surfaces. Have the cockroaches and mice moved in, or isn’t there enough for them to scrounge on, now that the humans have fled. What is happening in these dark, quiet caverns left untended? I’ve heard reports of frantic rodents in shut-down restaurant districts. Read this NBC News report, if you want the details. I’m not offering more here, as I personally wish I didn’t have that image in my head.

As we start cracking open some of these spaces, what will we find?


What questions will the future want to ask us about the 2020 world shut-down?

List of ListsI often brainstorming ideas for my next topic, before narrowing down what I will write about. Today, I started listing reflection questions that have been dancing around in my head. Rather than picking one to write about, I decided to just put them all out there today. They could serve as food for thought for others. Here’s my list of starting points. The next step would be to take one and write as many ideas as I can for that topic. I’ll be journaling about these as the days crawl by. Pick one and give it a try:

  • What things have fed my soul during this isolation?
  • What don’t I miss at all?
  • What do I miss most?
  • What are my favorite memories of this lock down period
  • What things do I now appreciate … that I maybe complained about before?
  • What will I stop doing when life restarts?
  • What new things have I done?
  • What things do I want to do differently when I return to the world?
  • What have I learned to do myself, that I never do normally?
  • What have I learned about myself?
  • What have I learned about my family dynamics?
  • What things changed in my daily / weekly rhythm … that I want to maintain?
  • How has my neighborhood been different?
  • What things have I seen for the first time — either because I didn’t notice, or they weren’t there?
  • Who have I grown closer to during this time?
  • What new acquaintances or friends have I made?
  • What new passions have I discovered?
  • What people / things have been my greatest support?
  • What things do I anticipate being different the next two years?
  • What do I think I will feel nostalgic about when looking back on this time?
  • What things have I done to cope?
  • In what ways did I take advantage of this break?
  • What things am I still wanting to do, that I haven’t done yet?

Send me some more of your ideas ….

Not using, doing, or thinking about …

Things I'm not doingEmptying the dishwasher this morning I noticed the unused go-mugs for our coffee and tea staring at me in the cupboard – like neglected favorite toys in a nursery. It got me thinking about all the things that used to be a part of my routines that I’m simply not using, doing or thinking about.

Like ….

  • a crowd squeezed around our dining room table
  • filling up the gas tank
  • nice clothes — actually, any clothes other than workout gear
  • booking airline tickets
  • getting stuck in traffic
  • make-up — maybe I should make an effort for the Zoom calls, but meh
  • classes at the gym
  • driving up to my dad’s for the day
  • the smell of popcorn in the movie theater
  • juggling calendar conflicts
  • doctor waiting rooms
  • blow drying my hair — even washing it most days!
  • cash for the housekeeper
  • packing for flights to faraway places
  • live theater performances
  • checking out library books
  • cramming to finish my book club book
  • meeting friends for tea, lunch or dinner, or anytime at all
  • sitting in a church pew
  • … … …
  • … …

I’ve been longing for a simplification of my life. Be careful what you wish for!

It’s all over but the shouting

24x24-DONT-MESS-WITH-TEXAS-TABLE-TOPLast night the White House briefing introduced the new 3-Phase plan to open up America again. The gating and phasing concept was all very familiar from decades of working on IT projects. It seemed very well structured and sensible. The key figures on stage were poised and calm and speaking with unity. This is what I expect. Very nice – a welcome change. 

Early today I started receiving texts from friends anticipating an announcement from the Governor this morning, that would open up Texas again – maybe as early as today. Really? Just like that? What happened to May 1st, to us not having peaked yet … to schools out for the rest of the year? Let’s see, maybe it’s just wishful thinking.

In the meantime, we went out for a long bike ride around town. Cycling has been a real pleasure these past few weeks — rather than feeling like you’re risking life and limb mixing in with impatient drivers blind to anything smaller than a truck. As soon as we reached the end of our street, we could tell something had happened. Something was different than even yesterday.

There was more traffic, there was more rushing, there was a greater buzz. As we passed small shopping strips the parking lots were noticeably filled with cars – a week ago they were empty. People were coming and going from businesses. Did we miss the memo? Did our Governor really take the lock off?

I checked the news-feed and found an executive order issued this morning from the Governor that “establishes a temporary “Retail-To-Go” model that will allow retail outlets in Texas to reopen beginning Friday, April 24. Under this model, reopened establishments are required to deliver items to customer’s cars, homes, or other locations to minimize contact.” Isn’t that a week from now, or did I lose a week already? What unleashed all this activity?

It seems to me that Texas is done with this “Stay At Home” order. This is after all the state with one of the most successful public service ad campaigns, ever, built on the logo “Don’t Mess with Texas”. They’ve been messed with long enough. The executive order signaled a leak in the damn. People are busting out. They are moving on.

I’m going to be watching this unfold from my little patch of isolation and hoping that we know what we’re doing!!


I’m in an MRI tube and don’t know when I’m getting out!

claustrophobia-2If you’ve ever had an MRI, you have your own story to tell, but I’m guessing most of our stories include some coping strategies. I don’t think of myself as claustrophobic, but being cranked into one of those tubes can turn it on for me like a finger in an electrical socket.  Little panic thoughts start racing through my brain — they are creative and crazy.

What if the tech forgets about me? What if the thingy that moves the tray in and out of the tube (with me on it!) gets stuck? What if there’s an earthquake, or a power outage and I’m stuck here? What’s my exit plan – could I wiggle my way out if I lose my cool?

“Breath” … “You can do this” … “Say your mantra”

So far that’s always worked to keep me fixed in place as I watch the minutes faithfully march towards the end of the test. I know it will be over; I know when it will be over; I can manage this.

This “Stay At Home” order is starting to feel a little like that MRI tube. I didn’t think this was going to be so hard for me. Stick with your schedule, keep meditating, exercising, etc. You’ve got this. It will be over soon enough. I can manage this. 

However, I’m starting to experience fleeting panic thoughts creeping around in my head and causing some havoc. The cool veneer is cracking a little. I’m getting a little testy. Just ask around.

When is it going to be over? What if we get stuck in here for a really long time? Will things ever be the same? What if I freak out? What if I dissolve into a heap of misery? Mantras and deep breathing can only take me so far. What kind of escape strategy can I fantasize about? 

I can’t bail out of this one. It won’t be a matter of rescheduling another appointment or appealing to my doctor for some relaxation meds to smooth the way. Alcohol, sugar and carbs appear to be the best anesthetics we have right now, but they will leave us crying over the “COVID 19 pounds”. Also not ideal.

After all the spiritual, metaphysical, exercise, etc. tips and techniques are exhausted, at the end of the day I just need to put on my big girl pants and get on with it. That’s what I know my mom would have done, and my Depression era grandmother, and my pioneering great-grandmother.

That’s my pep talk to get me through another day. Hope you’re hanging in there too.

7 Habits of the Highly Systematized Meal Planner

Brain with PuzzleHow do you explain how you do something that is automatic for you? How do you breathe? It just happens — I don’t think about it. How do you speak English?  I just do — I don’t know how not to. How do you solve puzzles? I might be able to say something about that, but it’s clear that I “don’t have privileged access to my own mind” (heard that in an interview with Errol Morris this morning – it struck a chord).

Questions about how I plan meals, after my menu planing terrorist post a couple of days ago, stumped me. Did you notice that I missed my daily posting yesterday? I felt compelled to answer, but the words didn’t fly from my fingers. How can I access that part of my mind?

Morris, the documentary film maker, believes that we often need to be interviewed to unpack and organize our thinking. In lieu of any such deeper excavation process, I’m flying solo on what I came up with – just me and my keyboard. 

What follows is an attempt at unpacking the micro-decisions that go into solving the meal planning puzzle and then summarize them. I’m no expert, this is just how I get through my cooking week. [A welcome relief from obsessing about the virus]

Here are a few simple considerations I was able to tease out of my mind. Maybe they will offer some insights – maybe you’ll just order take-out instead. More likely, you already know this stuff!

1.  Begin with the end in mind.

What is the last meal in the sequence? What could you purchase today and make fresh two weeks from now. Park that at the end of the list. That’s your starting point. Something like baked sweet potatoes with Edamame and peas – I like it topped with some grated habanero cheese. Those veg I usually get frozen and the potatoes can keep a long time. Red beans and rice is another good one for the end of the line, or scratch mac and cheese with baked cauliflower. Big favorites at our house.

If you see something at the store that will be ripe in a week-or-so pick it up and re-jig the menu when you get home — on a recent trip I saw a hard-as-rock green pineapple that was delicious after sitting in the fruit bowl ten days. Avocados, pears, cantaloupe and tomatoes are notorious for being green – ripen them on your counter.

2. Front end Fish and fancy foods.

Firs things first. Serve fresh fish on the first night. Unless I’m getting fish at the fish market, I assume it’s been frozen already, so best prepare it as quickly as possible – definitely do not re-freeze. Also slot in the impulse purchase of the special fruits you were lured into buying as you walked in the store. They are trying to unload them, because they’re about to go bad. Maybe some mangoes, avocados or raspberries. Get these perishables on the menu early on.

3. Back end dry goods and things your grandma put in the cellar.

The second week’s meals are filled with the roots, cruciferous veg, apples, pears and citrus accompanied by a variety of grains and legumes or beans. If you’re a meat eater, I’m sure you will have put something in the freezer to handle the extra protein – you’re on your own with meat planning. If not, like me, you will have a stash of tempeh, tofu, seitan or rice and bean combos to round things out.  Now you have your first couple of meals and your last ones, so just a few more to fill in between.

4. Double up. Make once – Use twice – Think Win-Win.

This is more strategic than guaranteeing a simple pipeline of leftovers. This is making double of something that takes a bit more effort but doesn’t take double the effort to make double the quantity. Does that make sense … or did I lose you? A good example of this is pie crust. I made a crust recipe for a quiche last week, and made extra for a pan-sized pot pie a few days later. Another regular feature in busier times was making a massive volume of mashed potatoes – I served half of it at the first meal as a side, and the other half became the topping for a shepherd’s pie a couple of days later.

5. Throw in some wild cards when you get to the store. First understand what’s there.

You won’t have all the answers to your plan until you first see what’s on offer at the store. Build in space for something unexpected. This week I threw in a big red cabbage – it looked too good to pass up. It’s not anywhere in my meal plan, but I know I have a tasty Asian red cabbage and carrot recipe that would go great with some frozen veggie burgers and sweet potato fries. That could be an extra meal to stretch the next grocery run, or make a lunch if there aren’t any leftovers one day.

An add-on to this, is make sure to load up on basic fresh foods that last a long time – even if they’re not on the menu: I’m thinking primarily potatoes, onions, garlic, ginger, apples. Also have some basic frozen foods that are adaptable to lots of recipes: all kinds of green veg and some fruits that go in smoothies. This builds in flexibility.

6. Plan for large recipes. Be Proactive.

Large recipes become your lunch the following day. These are even more delicious during long isolation days at home. If however, your household has put the kibosh on leftovers, you can refashion them and disguise them as a side dish the following day.  Like copious veggies in a stir fry with a protein one night can be the side dish the next night baked with grated cheese or similar cover-up technique. The secret here is to never tell.

7. Get over the “I might not feel like eating it” syndrome. Synergize.

You can do some re-arranging as the week unfolds — this is, after all, your menu. Massage it, optimize it, re-create it. Look for the synergies across the different days and meals. I promise you that you’ll quickly get into the groove and get determined to make this work. Hey, in case of total melt-down, there’s always the college emergency backup of cereal or popcorn for dinner, or pizza take out. 

I’m sure I’ll think of much more to say as soon as I press the “Publish” button on this, but I’m also sure this is already more than you care to read.

Have some fun! Let me know what strategies you would add here.

The menu planning pantry terrorist

Menus-3Early this morning we geared up for our now once every-two weeks grocery store run at 7am. Masks, gloves, and extra sanitizer wipes at the ready and off we go. I’m still training myself to not touch the mask. This takes a lot of deep breathing. Are my eyes and nose that itchy normally, or only when I put on that blasted mask?

I’m not gonna lie, I’m pumped about our meal planning efficiency at this house. We’ve shifted gears from a very loose and frequent-trips-to-the-store approach to a tightly controlled sequence of meals and committed grocery items for each menu in the plan. Woe betides anyone who consumes an item “off script”, that was planned for a future meal.  The penalty could be as serious as being sent to the grocery store without a mask!

Arranging the menu to ensure two full weeks of three meals a day, including fresh fruit and veg right up to the last day, takes some puzzling out. I love the challenge. When I get near the end of the planning period I start moving things around to try to stretch the supplies even further. 

This drives my housemates nutsy and also increases the reign of terror over what you can and cannot use in the pantry. They get nervous — worried that if we let it go too long the stores will be emptying out and our pantry will be empty, and we won’t have any options. I guess we would just starve? Resort to more take-outs?

I’ve heard them complaining about me when they think I can’t hear. This is when it really gets fun. I am channeling my grandmother from the 1930s — I’m in my element. 

I’m a menu planning pantry terrorist and proud of it.

I sense a general rising nervousness about the food supply chain even though the press is trying hard to allay fears. Well, except for the reports popping up today about shuttered meat plants “pushing out country perilously close to the edge in terms of meat supply“. Personally, the only thing about a meat shortage I find worrisome is that the meat eaters might wander over to my veggie section and start hoarding that too.

If things get extremely tight I’m ready for the challenge. I may be pretty useless in a messy scramble to fight for a bigger share of the pie, but I’ll be great at maximizing what little bit of the pie I do end up with.