Thursday, April 26, 2018

The Importance of Employee Ownership

I attended SOCAP 2017--a conference organized around social impact investment--about a week and a half ago. With a series of issues that arose at The Lancaster Food Company related to financing the company, I missed most of the sessions, which was frustrating but necessary.

I don't know if anyone talked about employee ownership, but a search of the agenda shows nothing related terms; it's possible someone discussed it but it wasn't programmed.

But a number of sessions featured discussions about equitable access to capital for new or growing businesses, which is critical for social change (I do wonder if impact is becoming as co=opted and diluted as sustainable and socially responsible (Blackwater had impact, as has Halliburton and Williams Partners; they each frame their destructive and extractive impact as positive).

I believe employee ownership is crucial for social change as part of a set of family-sustaining employee benefits, and while I feel it should be mandatory for any company describing itself as an impact company, but all companies should consider it as part of making their communities and countries stronger.

Here's why.

First, employees should benefit from the value they help to create. Not everybody agrees this should come in the form of ownership, that employees get a wage, sometimes receive raises (largely for retention to the benefit of the company), and whatever other benefits they might receive, like health insurance, which only 45% of companies in the US offer (Kaiser Family Foundation, 2016). 

While wages generally stay flat, the value of a company tends to grow until it reaches the limits of its market. And while not all companies survive, or throw off net cash, the ones that do survive are by nature profitable. Owners take those profits in the form of dividends or increased salaries for themselves, depending on the form of company (S, LLC, etc) and tax implications, and only increase wages to meet labor market requirements.

Too many companies seem to see employees as temporary, as transients there to serve output and productivity until they're either no longer useful or no longer interested. The employee shows up and does her job, and the company gets the benefit of the labor and the employee goes home with a check--it's a transactional relationship, with an annual picnic and holiday party, if they're lucky.

Many employees (likely most) view these jobs as just that--work to get a paycheck to survive, and perhaps as a way of building their resumes to get a better job. Jobs with weak benefits and low pay inspire job hunting, which costs the person time and energy, and their departure costs the company the time and energy of recruiting, hiring, and training a new person, which they rarely quantify.

But the costs of losing an employee are substantial. You lose their experience, knowledge, and personality, as well as your investment in them over time, and the cohesion (or disruption) they contributed to your team.

You then lose your own time, money, and energy recruiting, training, and learning to trust a replacement, filling in for them or paying overtime to others to fill in, and then the hidden costs of the new person and team learning the new interpersonal dynamics.  Employees are people, and people are complicated, as are their interactions and personal dynamics.

The impact of low wages, poor benefits, and the lack of continuity within companies also negatively impacts communities.

Employee ownership--or something that mirrors it--stabilizes families and therefor communities. Help with housing and transportation gives people the ability to spend more time with their families, neighbors, and communities, which strengthens their relationships, benefitting all of us. The stronger our relationships are with each other, the less likely our blocks, neighborhoods, and communities will fall apart from neglect, crime, poor investment in housing stock, lack of consistent, positive supervision and nurturing of children.

This is all to say to other business owners and community leaders to consider employee ownership. To embrace it. It can make the difference between strong neighborhoods and communities and not.

Sunday, January 21, 2018

Lessons from the End of 2017

I'm not one for New Year's resolutions, but the time during (and after) a two-month pause in The Lancaster Food Company mission we've worked on for over four years gave me a chance to rethink a lot of things and have come to some conclusions, some of which are new, but most aren't.
  • Everyone deserves a second chance, and all of us get them. Some of us need the third, fourth, eighth chance to get it right, to find the groove, to align what we do, how we do it with what we believe. And as a friend reminded me once, we're all ex-offenders, just some of us got caught.
  • Don't believe everything you think. For me this translates to withholding judgment of other people's behaviors and choosing not to interpret intent. I wonder about assumptions people make about me, and how those align with fact, or my own thoughts and beliefs. And I'm am working on aligning my own beliefs with my daily routines and actions, which is difficult for certain personality types (mine) for whom routine is not routine.
  • There's a fine line between faking it until you make it and lying; it's a delicate balance. Internally you know the line, or at least should; if you know, you have a responsibility to be clear with people about that line, that everything is conditional until things truly come together.
  • List the worst things that can happen in case the worst does happen, and for each of those write what you would do in response. Acceptance is a valid answer to any of those, and perhaps a necessary step to recovering. It can be very freeing.
  • Listening is the best way to develop trust with people and to get to know them more deeply.
  • Health, family, friends and love are the most important things to me. This isn't linear; they're all interrelated and important, none exist in a vacuum, and they all take consistent investments.
  • Setting aside emotion helps you focus on the job at hand; suppressing emotion can lead to negative effects. It's better to sit with it when it happens, or at least on the day it happens, acknowledge it, and move forward. Force is not a good method for handling your emotional life.
  • Never underestimate the kindness an optimism of other people.
  • Don't make assumptions about other people, what they think, what's behind their decisions and behavior, how they feel, and what they will or won't do for you. It's fair to ask, but accept the answer for what it is.
  • Never give up. I watched Jimmy Valvano's farewell speech (he died of cancer soon after the speech) a number of times over the past six months, and it reminded me that it's not over until time runs out, and also reminded me that however bad things could be, I'm fortunate, and there's usually a new, fresh life ahead if you design it that way (within the limits of your circumstances).
  • Try to maintain an overall loving mindset. This isn't an easy one when people treat your poorly, or behave badly, or your situation is dire, but like acceptance, it's freeing.
  • Don't feel afraid to ask for and accept the help of others. I tend to resist this, but have been more and more open to it, especially over the past two months.
  • Seek advice from others. Not answers; only you can come up with the answers because only you fully understand the context of your situation.
  • Hire a coach. Coaches aren't your friends, they're more objective and can help you cut through the murkiness of your thoughts as you muddle through the tough stuff. I'm interviewing coaches and looking forward to having that help in the future.
That's what's been on my mind. I was excited to see everyone at the company meeting today, and grateful for the opportunity to get back to building the business. Their work and commitment is what gets me up every day, and it's a privilege to work with them.

*Disqus users: after however many years of offering advice and thoughts through comments I decided to delete my account, which deleted all of my comments on other blogs and also removed Disqus from this blog. If we're friends on Facebook, feel free to chime in there.

Monday, June 12, 2017

The Great Arms Full of Bread Incident of 2017

My arms hurt from carrying a broken bag full of packaged bread and rolls, and I could feel myself sweating from hoofing it a half mile from the parking garage to the skyscraper where fifteen angel investors awaited their lunch and a possible future investment opportunity. I was late. 

I’ve always been optimistic about my abilities to make everything happen, and push things to the edge with frequency (less so recently). It’s a great quality, except when it’s not, like when I think I have an extra fifteen minutes to read useless news or Facebook posts, when I really should have my bags packed and already be at the elevator. 

Or when I think I'll have time to shave when I get to the hotel, but then decide to take a later train and go directly to the event, like today. I'm presenting, of course, so like it or not I'm going to be the unshaved entrepreneur. I hear half-beards are in, though I'm sure the investors will want to see a more buttoned up version of me. Maybe I can break the ice: "funny thing happened on the way to getting a shave in Midtown..."

The Great Arms Full of Bread Incident of 2017 happened when I was in New York in May to raise capital from angel investors for The Lancaster Food Company. I had decided there was enough time to drive over to Long Island City to leave bread for a distributor, and we need the business so yeah, let's do that. “Ok, twenty minutes to LIC—that’s easy,” I thought to myself. That meant twenty minutes back, of course.

Except this is New York, and there are rules, and the rule is you never go to Long Island City late morning and expect to get back to Manhattan anytime soon. 

It took at least an hour to get to Park Avenue, and traffic was at a standstill, so I dove into the first parking garage I could find, scrambled out of the car and grabbed a fragile paper shipping bag full of bread and rolls from the back--and dammit, I hadn't tested the bag, which promptly ripped in half. So I gathered what I could in my arms and fast-walked through midtown Manhattan, bread man walking.

I made it to the building about fifteen minutes late. They were eating lunch when I got there, and for some reason I was to join them, so I did but skipped the lunch--I was too nervous to eat, and I had to present to them in a half hour. I didn't want them to see me eating. I did fine--we raised some money and it worked out in the end--but it wasn't great. I hadn't slept well the night before, and, well, you know the rest. 

Today when I got to the New York Penn Station I made the calculation: it's 3:40 pm, taxi shifts end at 4 pm (or they used to) so it's a lot tougher to get a cab, I don't know the subway system anymore and need to make a quick decision--head to the hotel, head to Macy's to get a new belt because I've lost weight and my pants keep sliding down, or get a cab and head over early for the 6 pm start. I chose the last of these. Unshaven and giving in to it. 

Rewinding to the beginning of the day: I took my time getting up. Instead of shaving and showering, I took Bear to summer camp and went out for breakfast. I delayed leaving for the train to respond to employee emails, so I no longer had time to shave but I showered. Instead of getting the train, I decided I needed to see a few employees, so I went in to work, thinking I'll get a later train and head to the hotel to get ready. 

And so on, and so on. 

Each decision introduced risk to my main purpose for the day: get to New York and give a great presentation to investors who will subsequently drain their bank accounts to invest in the most amazing social impact company ever, ever, ever (a little confidence helps). 

What was different this time was I made it on time, well in advance. So now I can practice a bit, make sure my bit is under the 4-minute limit, review financials, take a deep breath or too, and Just.Sit.Tight. No wandering around the neighborhood. No quick bite at the corner. Reduce the risk, do a great job, don't worry about the stubble. 

You'll be fine, I say out loud. You're already good, as Jerry used to say to me. 

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Lancaster's Primary Election--Who I Support

I wrote this because I care about the city, and hope some of you share my concerns and will vote for the candidate you think addresses those concerns. There are risks with voicing an opinion, but this election cycle is incredibly important for Lancaster and I'm very worried about the direction of the city.

It's a tough call for a lot of us left-leaners in Lancaster--three good candidates, especially Kevin and Danene. I like and respect Norman, but he moved back into the city just to run for Mayor, which, to me, isn't enough commitment.

Whoever wins will face at least two opponents in the Fall, and hopefully by then they'll have addressed the issues I care about.

I'm as concerned about process as outcome when it comes to governance, because process often determines outcome, and systems are often designed with that in mind.

It's just my outsider opinion, but the City consistently shoots itself in its municipal foot because it opts for less transparency in its processes instead of fully embracing it, and that turns people off, makes some bitter, disillusions others. Some become distrustful, and many, many feel left out of of their own democracy, and that their voices aren't valued.

And they are right: their voices are inconvenient to progress in the apparent view of some in the administration, as expressed through their own actions and the decision-making processes the City embraces. It's a shame; a lot of good people work hard to make Lancaster a better place, including the administration, but that work is often tainted by what must be a certain confidence that they know best, and because they know best, no other voices matter, aside from what's required by law.

Well, I've had enough of that.

Local elections, local public meetings, local government are the only means through which people can influence the decisions that effect their daily lives. And the people in this city--largely working class and poor--deserve better than the access they've been given by an administration that often appears mistrustful of the public it should be designed to serve.

The choices for mayor come down to several key questions:
  • can they lead and manage an organization
  • are they willing to restructure City government, including decision-making processes to make a more equitable, transparent set of systems that embrace participatory democracy and respect the rights and voices of the people who live here
  • will they insist on transparency and greater accountability to the public, and stop the cynical practice of privately pre-casting decisions or outsourcing decisions to unaccountable organizations
  • are they willing to challenge the Police department and radically transform the practices and culture there, with the goal of more equitable treatment of citizens, better handling of problem cops (only after 6 separate lawsuits against a cop did the City finally get him off the force, after many years), and a force more reflective of the people it serves.
  • will they address poverty head-on as the primary economic issue of the city. That's not just one good job, it's transportation, healthcare, home ownership, finance, personal finance, education, childcare, food access--it's a lot about establishing the equality of opportunity in the city, which it currently lacks, partly because of the focus on supporting visitors through visitor-centric economic development.
  • will they drop the City's terrible, Guffman-esque tagline "a City Authentic". Read that again: "The City of Lancaster, a City Authentic" reads like "The City of Lancaster--we really are a city. No, really." Terrible. 

I like and admire Danene a lot, and think she's generally been a positive force on City Council; she's made it a very tough call, but it became very clear to me she isn't the right choice at this time for the City. She lost me when she pledged to build on Mayor Gray's "success", which includes a 50% increase in the poverty rate during his terms and the continuation of systemic and structural inequity in the City.

Further, she hasn't led aggressively with some key issues:  policing the police, the lead contamination crisis (it's a daily imminent threat and the city's response has been slow and continues to be weak), decision-making systems, accountability, and transparency--I'm unsatisfied with both her performance on council and with her campaign on these topics. That said, if she wins she'd possibly address them; she is thoughtful, caring, intelligent, and collaborative.

Transparency, inclusiveness, and participatory democracy are important because they can change the outcomes of decision-making processes (I'll leave the other issues aside--this is already too long).

The City takes advantage of the use of Authorities and the Sunshine Laws to shield information from public scrutiny.  It outsources key responsibilities  to private nonprofit organizations that are unaccountable to the public and not subject to the already weak transparency laws on the books, and that undermines democracy and prevents public participation in it. These are a few examples of the arms-length, closed-door decision-making supported and advanced by the Gray administration:
  • Internet Financing--City Council did not publicly review the financial statements of MAW communications before approving a loan by the City. I hate to give credence to LIP News because of its often personal and unnecessarily vitriolic tone, but it published a letter from the City that revealed that Council didn't evaluate the company's finances prior to making the loan.  Danene is the Finance Chair and should have been the active steward of this process, and should have made the financial statements available to the public and discussed it specifically in public session. There is nothing in the law that requires this, but the public deserves greater public discussion, transparency, oversight, and accountability when handing out multi-million dollar loans. We have no idea whether this is a good deal or not; "trust us" is not an adequate response from the City or Council.
  • The Lancaster Alliance led the economic development plan. The City outsourced the plan to a private nonprofit unaccountable to the public, whose board is largely from outside of the city and does not adequately reflect the people who live here. The plan arrived prior to public participation, complete with a map showing where they intended to focus resources. The "they" is unclear; that part of the process was not part of the "community meetings", which came after the fact. I'm not saying they didn't listen in those meetings, but showing up with a pre-determined map indicates they were looking for buy-in to existing plans, developed behind closed doors, with real estate development as a centerpiece; it was not a ground-up, grass-roots informed plan that addresses the actual economic needs of the city, though they have marketed it as such.

    Further, the word "poverty" was at the beginning of the final presentation; the presenter said "but this plan doesn't address that." So the forces behind the economic development plan don't believe that the 30% poverty rate is the City's primary economic issue, or don't believe the economic development plan can or should address poverty. There's something wrong about that.
  • LCSC operates the public surveillance system. LCSC is a private nonprofit not subject to public transparency laws. It operates in secret; having an "open house" does not equate to public transparency, nor does having a board with a member appointed by the mayor; it is not accountable to the public, and I believe it was set up in that way specifically to avoid public scrutiny. Yet it controls and operates a powerful network of cameras that can be used for both bad and good purposes. It is, in effect, a quasi-governmental agency; it performs a government function, it has one primary client (the police), and is partially funded by the City even though the mayor pledged it would not sink money into it. The camera operation should be subject to public scrutiny (or shut down), which can only happen if it's operated directly by the city.
  • The city's redevelopment authority sale of city properties. I've written about this before, and since then the City has done a bit to address it--that was encouraging but inadequate
That's a small dive into what dissatisfies me. I'm also a proud resident of the city, boast about it when I can, support it how I can, and have invested a lot of blood sweat and tears here over the years, as many others have. But I'd like it to be a great city for all of its residents first, before being featured as the "next Brooklyn" elsewhere, and I'm not convinced Danene is the best candidate to achieve that goal. 

Kevin Ressler for Mayor
I believe Kevin Ressler is willing to take on these issues and he has the management background the other candidates lack. Kevin understands that poverty is the main economic problem in the city. He's committed to social, racial, environmental, and economic justice. He's a big proponent of participatory democracy, and I think as mayor he'll make changes to the decision-making processes and systems that have led to a downtown-centric focus and away from the key, core issues that effect most people who live here. And very frankly: I think it's time for a mayor who isn't a white candidate from the northwest of the city,  the edge of my current neighborhood; it will make a difference. I'd like to see a more diverse city administration, more diversity in the Lancaster County Community Foundation management and board (not a city concern, but it effects us), more diversity and more city residents on the Lancaster Alliance board, etc, etc. The outcomes will change when the players at the table change, and the 30% poverty rate is the outcome created by the decisions made by the current and former players. 

I think Kevin would lead that kind of transformational change--and if you want to change the City to something more reflective of the people who live here, to something more equitable and reflective of your values, you should support Kevin. I don't agree with every last detail of his campaign (and wish the messaging were more crisp), but he has my support and I hope he wins. 

School Board
I don't know all the candidates, but I served on the school board with Harvey Miller and can say without a doubt he's my top candidate. I considered serving again, and one of the big draws was the chance to serve with Harvey again.  

The other is Mara McGrann--smart, committed, and involved. One of the worst attributes of some board members are 1) they don't know their stuff and 2) they don't speak up--Mara will have neither problem. 

City Council
Again, I don't know all the candidates. Ismail Smith is my top choice, Matt Johnson is likely my second.

Norman might be the sleeper candidate--he's right on a lot of issues, and if people vote by ethnicity (it's largely so historically), he could pull it off (this is a political/demographic statement and nothing else). That's an un-artful way of saying it. Lancaster's demographics cry out for better representation, but voter registration among Latinos in Lancaster has been very, very low (like less than 20%) and turnout is even lower--I don't have the numbers but it's frustratingly low. Any candidate that reaches out to register and engage Latino voters could have establish a new political power that could change the political landscape. 

Democrats and Democracy
I can't vote in the primary--I changed to "unaffiliated" after the Lancaster City Democrats held their clubby endorsement party, which created unnecessary bitterness and division within the party. Endorsements are exclusionary by nature, but the party should be inclusive and nurturing of democratic processes instead of tipping the scales. This should have been an open primary. 

The collective arrogance expressed in the endorsement of Danene for Mayor was particularly galling--that the committee somehow knows what's best for voters (prior to debates, prior to full campaigning), when we have two other qualified candidates, who are, it turns out, minorities; it wasn't just a missed opportunity to embrace inclusion, it was an opportunity to inspire and engage previously (and still) excluded people from the political process.

This was narrow and shortsighted, and it was frustrating to watch.

Further, the party (the titular head is the Mayor) has had 12 years to nurture and develop leadership across neighborhoods, but has failed to do so, so many, many committee seats remain empty. Politically, if you want political power, you need to work for it and take it, so it's up to Democrats who care about diversity and equality of representation to do something about it. The status quo isn't going to fill those seats, leaving an opportunity for someone to organize and take control of the party. As it should be, I guess, but no--it's not as it should be. The party should have ongoing projects to nurture and develop voices from all parts of the city.  

Thanks for listening. Good luck to all the candidates. 

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Obsessions: Dimming of the Day

I developed a bit of an obsession this Fall, going into the winter. It's not often I fall deeply in love, especially with a song--so deeply I can't play or listen to anything else. But this one hit me like Romeo and Juliet from Making Movies, with its line "I can't do everything, but I'd do anything for you."

"Dimming of the Day" is one of Richard Thompson's most covered songs--it's simply beautiful. The other day I played it in the car for a friend, who said "oh I know this, it's a Bonnie Raitt song, it's so sad".

I also originally heard it as a love song, a broken-hearted, post-meltdown of love-gone-bad song:

This old house is falling down around my ears
I'm drowning in a river of my tears

It made me think of the quiet but crushing end of my marriage, and the years of working through everything wrong with me (both real and imagined). A good song will do that to you.

When listening through the filter of a continued yearning for a love gone bad, a lost best friend, it's touching and heartbreaking:

You pull me like the moon pulls on the tide
You know just where I keep my better side

What days have come to keep us far apart
A broken promise or a broken heart

and the refrain
I need you at the dimming of the day. 

My obsession led me to the somewhat all-knowing Internet. The Wikipedia entry suggests it was not written as a romantic love song, but an ode to God. Richard and his then wife Linda had recently converted to the Sufi Muslim faith, which his manager notes here:

'Richard came to me and said "look, my Mullah doesn't want me to play electric guitar. I don't know what I'm going to do about my career... I'm not going to be working."'

Linda is quoted as saying  "'Pour Down Like Silver was when Sheikh Abdul Q'adir said we could make music as long as it was to God... "Dimming of the Day", "Beat the Retreat", "Night Comes In", they're all about God...' 

The article suggests the song was written "in a centuries-old Sufic tradition of expressing divine love in earthly terms."

It's a different and differently beautiful song through that lens, but knowing Thompson I suspect he intended it to be interpreted both ways. My obsession (like playing it daily, learning it on guitar, signing it daily) ended when I started writing again; my new obsession is my own stuff, which I'll share sometime.

Live performance and complete lyrics below.

Dimming of the Day

This old house is falling down around my ears
I'm drowning in the river of my tears ("fountain" in this version)
When all my will is gone you hold me sway
I need you at the dimming of the day

You pull me like the moon pulls on the tide
You know just where I keep my better side

What days have come to keep us far apart
A broken promise or a broken heart
Now all the bonny birds have wheeled away
And I need you at the dimming of the day

Come the night you're only what I want
Come the night you could be my confidant

I see you on the street and in company
Why don't you come and ease your mind with me
I'm living for the night we steal away
I need you at the dimming of the day
Yes, I need you at the dimming of the day

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

The Lancaster Food Company: 20,000 Loaves Donated

One of the biggest challenges of building a commercial bread company is handling unsold product, otherwise known as waste.

From the beginning we donated any unsold product, initially to the Council of Churches Food Bank because I had a previous relationship with them from my Lancaster Community Gardens days. Over time we added a variety of food banks, kitchens, and churches, including Crispus Attucks and Water Street.

One of our key indicators is our "return rate"; it's the measure of invoiced products vs. unsold product; we give full credit to stores for unsold bread. We lose money when there's a lot, and we make money when there's only a few. When there are no returns, we're leaving money on the table because we don't really know the strength of the demand.

The ideal scenario is that we keep increasing the amount we deliver, and it always sells out, but that doesn't happen ofter, so the next best thing is we find the bottom of the market, which is indicated by just one or two unsold units of each variety.

We don't currently disclose our unsold rate, so I'll just say we've helped feed thousands of families since 2014. While it's been a source of pride for us, it's also a painful reminder that not all customers at all stores want or know about our products, and we have to do a better job marketing them.

And donating bread doesn't align with our goals to get to profitability: we want to donate less--not because we don't care, but because we need to be self-sustaining before helping others (put your own mask on first).

So we've been testing selling previously unsold product at Grocery Outlet, which has 22 stores in PA and over 300 in California. It's going very well, so we'll continue to add more of the PA stores, to the point we expect to reduce our unsold product to a very low percentage. This strengthens the company, gives people with lower incomes access to tasty, locally made organic bread at a lower price, and keeps read out of the waste stream.

We'll continue to make donations, and we hope to get back up to our previous levels, but only as part of our overall growth plan. We much prefer treating root causes of poverty (with income through thriving-wage jobs), and keeping the company on the path to profitability.

Monday, January 16, 2017

The Tree

If we're friends on Facebook you might recognize this tree.

This is the long rambling story of the tree.

For over a year I've posted this tree regularly. The Christmas tree from 2015: 

The rain tree: 

The New Year's Tree (2016)
...which earned a comment from my friend:

Angelique Arroyo I like this tree's capacity to be many things. 🙌🏼

The Spring tree (2016)

The green tree

And one of my favorites

At some point someone commented "what is it with the damn tree?"

I must have posted well over 100 photos of the same tree. 

I've taken many more. I have a love affair with trees, particularly the grand sycamores next to creek beds, with their bright, bark-less branches. I'm obsessed with these large, beautiful trees, and I've taken thousands of photos of them. There's something about the way they capture light that lifts my spirit, especially during the darkest days of winter.

These are two of my favorite trees, these close companions. In the summer they're surrounded by lots of green and share a beautiful canopy. I imagine their roots intertwined, sharing water and carbon and nurturing healthy soil for other living things among them. 

I love to visit with them, see how they're doing, see how they change. 

election day, 2016
So this is the story of our tree. It's not much of a mystery but it's meaningful to me and a lot of people ask me about it. 

Bear and I take walks in the woods or fields almost twice daily when I'm not traveling. On dry days we'd hit the Loop (Farm view) at County Park or F&M's Baker field, but when it rains we head here or Kiwanis because they're mostly paved. But once I started the year of the tree, City View became the daily ritual, with few exceptions. 

Before we met this tree I would take pics of the beautiful trees, the beautiful reflections in water, my beautiful friend Bear, the beautiful sky. I wanted the beautiful family, and that hasn't worked out. The perfect album, the perfect song, the perfect love, the perfect concept, the perfect justice--just perfection all around. But in my daily life I'd sometimes struggle to find the beauty, the good in people, and in myself. Especially in myself. 

My world fell apart in 2008 and didn't stop falling until about 2013, but even then I hadn't really processed things. Back then I thought I could do no wrong--I was, after all, the founder of successful software companies, able to make money out of thin air, make the big things happen, and of course, I was always right, informed by what I thought was a sense of justice. I was arrogant and self-assured.

But in 2008 the economy crashed and I crashed the project I had started, hurting people along the way. I spiraled down and ballooned up. I've posted about those years so I won't rehash, but in 2013 things started to turn around. But something still wasn't working. Sufficiently humbled, I might have gone too far in the self loathing. Even with the excellence of the new company, finally working directly on changing the world and having impact on people's lives, I still didn't have it right. 

Our tree is a sycamore. 

It's not tall, beautiful, or grand; it's a flawed, weak, struggling sycamore, fighting invasive weeds and vines for sunshine and water, growing far from any creek bed on top of a landfill. 

One day I was about to post a picture of the perfect tree,

on the perfect day, and realized my pattern. I sought the obviously beautiful, the ideal, the excellent, instead of finding the beauty in the ordinary, the flawed, the struggling. It was always about the future perfect and not the present. For several years I listened to a Thich Naht Hanh lecture asking "do you see" about the how the tree is fed by the clouds, sun, and soil, and "smile to your eyes" in gratitude for the joy they bring, in every moment.  

It's hard to articulate; I'm writing this post in pieces and not everything connects. But on that day late in 2015 I decided to find the beauty in our struggling tree instead of the perfect one, and committed to posting only that one for a year. I felt like I needed to develop a discipline of it. Some days the beauty was in the fog, sometimes the moon, sometimes it was Bear, sometimes the vines seeming to hold the tree from its aspiring but unlikely glory. 

Sometimes it was the glow of the city in the far distance to the right, sometimes the wind, sometimes the deep blue sky on a summer's day, and sometimes it was just the tree persisting, day after day, fulfilling its purpose, a grand sycamore. 

On my mind on any given day might have been trying to make payroll, or the Syrian refugees, or challenging news from last year's election, or life without a partner, or the list of things I needed to get to later.  

But when I'd stop at the tree, it was the start of a meditation to clear my mind of all of that, and listen to the wind, or the leaves, or Bear's feet on icy snow. 

The first time I heard the following analogy I hated it. Thought it was hokey. Uncool. Because I'm so damn cool, I guess. 

"Put your mask on first before helping others." 

I would try to help others before myself. Maybe I felt I wasn't good enough. I've felt that way about certain people, too--that I just wasn't good enough for them. My pattern was to super-commit to something, throw myself into it with a sense of higher purpose, and ignore my own needs--physical, mental, emotional, and financial. They are mostly interrelated. I went from a pretty good natural athlete in high school in great shape (soccer) to an overweight depressive during companies 1 & 2 and after. One big difference? My obsession moved from soccer to music to building companies, and left the physical component aside. 

I'd work out occasionally, but not regularly, because I hated working out. Training to be the best at soccer, sure, I'll do that. Surfing half the day, yeah I'll do that. But going to the gym for myself? No. Couldn't do it. So I substituted bad practices for good. I'd work late. When I got home I was too tired to cook, or it was more convenient to go to a restaurant and get waited on, served decent hot food but with mediocre ingredients, too much salt, and a few glasses of wine or scotch. The comfort of a few drinks and a someone sharing light friendly conversation helped me rationalize it. But really if I went home alone, made dinner, and then had the evening ahead, well I just felt bored and alone. I couldn't just sit with it. So eating out all the time filled that hole, and well, I don't have kids so I could rationalize not saving the money. And that bummed me out too--we had tried when I was married but it didn't work out for us. Part of that long stretch was coping with the reality that maybe I'd never be a father. 

This Fall I was moved by the people at Standing Rock and their commitment and dedication to the cause of justice against a deeply flawed and imbalanced system of power concentrated for the few at the expense of the many. It spoke to me on so many levels, and when the State of North Dakota started using violence against people desperate to preserve their sacred land, traditions, water, and lives, it moved me to want to join them and help in some way, even if just showing support by being there. So I went with a group to make Thanksgiving dinner, which turned into a meal for 2,000. It was amazing. 

The next day we went to the camps, and I was struck by the rituals--the prayer, the ceremony, the storytelling at the fire, and the list of principles that helped keep the growing camp organized, healthy, and sane. At the gate was a sign that said "No alcohol beyond this point." I smiled and nodded in agreement. I had already been moving in that direction, so it wasn't a big deal. It felt like it was time. Over the next few weeks I ate out less and stayed in more, spent more time with family. I've been dropping weight pretty fast, sleeping much better, and started working out. It all feels really good and natural, and it makes me wonder how I got into that rut of false comfort. I'll have a glass of wine with a friend now and again, but that late dinner out alone is over. 

Since the summer I've spent more time with family, especially over at my sister's with her very entertaining kids, who are pretty good at dishing out a bad joke. I make dinner and lunch for myself, and sometimes breakfast, but I like my breakfast routine so I'm not changing that too much. When I get home I fill the time with writing, writing music, recording, or a bit of Netflix or a book. Like normal people, I guess. 

It took me a long time to learn to put the mask on first, but now that I'm doing it it feel natural. This week I plan to start putting the money I would have spent on false comfort into a college fund for my kids, and if I never have them, which is possible, it'll be for someone else's. 

Trees are amazing. I'm so glad we got to spend so much time with our tree, but it's time to move on. Maybe the discipline of it worked. Some days it felt like Groundhog Day, where I was practicing getting it right, to become the person I wanted to be, or rather to love the person I am. 

We've spent well over a year with our tree, and while we'll see it again, we took a different path today and focused on the sunrise. It was a cold morning, just 25 degrees and the ground was frozen. The shapes in the ground from horse tracks, shadows cast by the rising sun against the fields, the spots of blue sky through cloud cover, it was all beautiful, and flawed, and perfect, and we walked and listened to the wind.