Bubbles. Lots and Lots of Bubbles.

Mohonk Mountain House

Mohonk Mountain House

On a visit to Mohonk Mountain House earlier this year, I took the opportunity to reconnect with Dr. Nina Smiley.  Nina has the wonderful title of Director of Mindfulness Programming at this Victorian-era resort that has been in the Smiley family since 1869.  I first met Nina almost twenty years ago when she was serving on the board of the National Trust’s Historic Hotels of America, and she remains one of the most thoughtful, perceptive, strong, yet gentle people I know.  Talking with Nina is—to put it simply—a joy.

When we spoke in March, the topic turned—naturally—to mindfulness.  As the author of The Three Minute Meditator, Nina believes that mindfulness can be just minutes away if we give thought to how we communicate with ourselves.  That often requires recognition that our self-talk can be taking us away from the moment and leading us into a negative rut.  In the course of the conversation, Nina suggested as an exercise taking a simple task that you do multiple times a day—such as washing your hands—and using that as a cue to bring your thoughts back into the moment.

Three Minute Meditator

The Three Minute Meditator

It seems that finding a cue that works for you is key. Shortly after my conversation with Nina, I found myself at a wash basin in an airport restroom. I clearly wasn’t focused on the task at hand, but this time the outside intrusion helped bring me back to the moment.  Around the corner, I could hear a father speaking to what was clearly his very young son.  The dad’s instructions went something like this:  “Let’s begin with the water.  Now add some soap.  Begin to rub your hands together and create bubbles.  Lots of bubbles.  Lots and lots of bubbles….now rinse the bubbles off your hands.  Finally, let’s dry those hands.”

It was a simple and charming 20-second exchange. But I don’t think I’ll ever forget that moment.  It was the cue I needed to take something simple and use it as a way to reconnect to the moment.  It is an exercise, if you will, to move closer to mindfulness, which Nina and her co-author (and twin brother) David Harp, define as “a mental state characterized by clarity, insight, compassion, and serenity, no matter what is going on around you.”

Clarity. Insight. Compassion. Serenity.  Those traits appear to be in short supply in today’s world, where we are constantly bombarded by outside stimuli.  Perhaps you have your own cues to bring you back to the moment.  If not, feel free to do as I do, and think “bubbles” as you stand at the wash basin.  It may lead to a small step back to mindfulness.

View of MMH

View of Mohonk Mountain House

Have a good week.

More to come…


Multitasking (Or Another Word for “Not Paying Attention”)

How well do you think you can multitask?  Let’s take a little test.  Click on this one-minute You Tube video and see how well you do.  You will need your sound, so in an open office environment either use headphones or turn the volume down a notch or two.

If all of you are like the 30 colleagues I joined last week in a retreat, no one will ace the test.  That’s because it is impossible to give your full attention to two things simultaneously.  (Don’t confuse this with my recent note about keeping two opposing ideas in your mind.  Very different concepts.)

The retreat leader used this as the kick-off to the day’s discussion, and added a confession:  she often finds herself multitasking in meetings.  As recently as the Friday before the retreat, she was on a call with individuals from around the country.  She was also using the time to check email.  She confessed that more than once, she looked up and thought, “I don’t have a clue what was just said.”  In fact, she admitted to having to send two emails out over the weekend to gain clarity on what was discussed on the call.

I think we can all make similar confessions.  I take notes on my computer in order to have a paper-free office.  But the temptation exists to switch over and check email when a speaker drones on and on (perhaps that speaker was me on one of your calls).  Or perhaps you search the web at those times.  Or finish the on-line crossword puzzle you began on the commute into work.  In any event, attempting to multitask—and convincing yourself that you can follow both pieces of work simultaneously—is very human.  And, as multiple studies have shown, very wrong.

At last week’s retreat, we put our phones in a basket for the duration of the morning’s sessions.  I decided not to take notes on my computer, and instead jotted a couple of items down on a piece of paper while staying very engaged with the presentations.  Our retreat leader asked that we be present, and I found it was a very satisfying morning when I made the decision not to think about the 250+ emails, funding proposals, upcoming trips, and a hundred other things that normally call for my attention.

And if you respond, “But my meetings are boring,” then take a look at another recent note about how we can make our meetings more meaningful with better thought and planning on the front end.

Bedford Springs Resort

Bedford Springs Resort

By being fully present in our discussions and meetings with colleagues, friends, and family, I believe we can make our lives better.  That’s going to be my goal moving forward, and perhaps you’ll want to join me.

Have a great week.

More to come…


P.S. – For the retreat, we stayed in a wonderful historic hotel – the Bedford Springs Resort – in Bedford, Pennsylvania.  Revitalization News had a great story about how the restoration of the hotel had also rejuvenated the nearby town.  Check it out.




“The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.”

This observation was included in a recent online post about the history of jargon, and it got my attention.  I’ve been writing and reading a boat-load of reports, letters, and proposals in the past few weeks, and I know how easy it is to make the mistake of thinking that communication has “taken place.”  I’ve made the mistake myself recently, on more than one occasion.

“Excessive use of jargon can weigh down our communication and can be taxing to listeners. It may make it more difficult for others to grasp the full meaning behind our message. Worst of all, using jargon can be distancing. It may make some listeners feel excluded because they may not understand all the jargon and buzzwords being used—especially if it comes on thick and fast.”

So what, according to the author, tops the current list of bothersome business buzzwords?  Synergy.  Low-hanging fruit.  Thinking outside the box.  This summer I bought a card featuring the famous New Yorker cartoon by Leo Cullum showing a man talking to his cat, adjacent to the litter box.  The caption?  “Never, ever think outside the box.”  In my book, that’s a great use of jargon.  In most instances beyond New Yorker cartoons, however, jargon can be frustrating.  In preservation, we have our own professional jargon.  (Section 106, anyone?  Cultural resources?)  Business consultants who work for us also have their jargon.  (Quick, how many of you know that SaaS stands—in some minds—for Software as a Service? Or that CCN is a Change Control Note.  Nope?  I didn’t either.)

How to improve your communication?  First,

“…consider evaluating any jargon you might be in the habit of using. Carefully constructing your important messages to avoid buzzwords and replacing them with thoughtful expressions may pay dividends. For one thing, the absence of stock phrases or formulaic expressions may signal that you’re speaking authentically, from the heart, about things that matter to your business and to those you’re addressing. Buzzword-free communication can help you stand out above the din of the crowd.​”

Family members who don’t work in the field are a great test for the quality of your communication.  Ask yourself: “would a friend or family member not involved in (my) world understand the expressions I’m using? If not, change them to plain English. This is not about ‘dumbing down’ your content. It’s about explaining the same content in plainer language that’s widely understood.”

We all know and cherish people who write or speak clearly so everyone can understand.  Harry Truman is one historical figure known for his plain speaking, and it helps explain how a man who ran a men’s clothing store rose to become president of the United States. Truman memorably phrased his ability to get to the point when he said, “I never did give anybody hell. I just told the truth and they thought it was hell.”

So go out there and give ‘em…well, whatever is needed to clearly make your point.

Have a good week.

More to come…



Nats vs Phillies

Nats win on Sunday to reduce their magic number to 1…for about 90 minutes

You never know when you draw a September day at the park in the season ticket package if the game you pick will be meaningful.  But around Friday, I realized that today’s game could be the one where the Nats clinch the 2017 National League East Division title.

I had tickets for Sunday at Nationals Park.  Nats vs. the Phillies.  And the magic number of National wins or Marlins losses was two!  Woo hoo!

Sarah, a colleague from work, joined me, and we laughed when we both  showed up in our 2012 East Division champions gear.  I told Candice as I left for the ballpark that I was wearing my hat for good luck, since I bought it the night they clinched that year when we were both at the park.  Candice replied, “Well good.  At least you won’t have to buy a new hat.”  She needn’t worry…I’m not buying any new playoff/championship gear until we get to a World Series.

Today sure was a fun day at the park.  Stephen Strasburg was brilliant through 8, extending a scoreless innings streak to capture a franchise record.  Trea Turner blasted a home run and a double and seems to be fully recovered from his broken wrist.  Top prospect Victor Robles drilled a ball off the outfield wall and before you could look up he was at third…unfortunately, he was motoring so fast, he slid past the bag.  Gotta love that rookie exuberance.  The 3-2 win happened in the blink of an eye, and the magic number was 1.

Nats roots for Braves

Nats fans gather in the lower bowl after the game to cheer for the Braves to beat the Marlins

But the Braves vs. Marlins game was only in the 7th inning, so we moved to the lower level to watch the next 90 minutes of that game on the big screen at Nats Park.  It looked hopeless when the Braves were down 2 runs in the 9th, but they made a comeback to send it to extra innings.  Finally in the 11th, the Braves had a two-run walk-off homer, and the partying began in Washington.

Nats fans and players celebrate

Nats players and their fans celebrate the National League East Division title

2012 was different because it was the first time for the Nats, but today was very satisfying.  The Nationals have been banged up this year, but youngsters kept plugging the holes and the team kept winning.  The bullpen has been rebuilt from the first half dumpster fire.  The regulars are starting to come back from injury.  And they just kept winning.

Teddy Celebrates Nats 2017 East Division Title by Sarah Heffern 09 10 17

2017 National League East Division Champions.  Sounds great.  Now, let’s go win in the playoffs.

More to come…


There is Nothing Like Paradox to Take the Scum Off Your Mind


Paradox (photo credit: Brett Jordan from Byrdseed.com)

I’ve long been fascinated with paradox and its place in our understanding of the world around us.  When I recently heard historian Patty Limerick quote Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes as saying, “There is nothing like paradox to take the scum off your mind,” I sat up and paid attention.  That’s a more earthy way of phrasing the F. Scott Fitzgerald quote which I’ve often used:  “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.”

Paradox is hard, but writer Anne Lamott asserts that “all truth is paradox.”  Life is a beautiful gift. At the same time it can be impossibly difficult. As the old Albert King blues song puts it, “Everybody wants to go to heaven, but nobody wants to die.”

To keep from having to keep two opposing ideas in our head at the same time, we often find ourselves moving toward certainty.  Theologian Paul Tillich has described this challenge in the spiritual realm by saying that the opposite of faith is not doubt, but certainty.  Many of us are drawn to stories or perspectives or processes that provide us with a false sense of the truth.  Certainty—such as a historical narrative that fits our world view without accounting for a variety of perspectives or inconvenient facts—doesn’t force us to grapple with the paradox that is at the heart of so much in our lives.

Over my recent vacation, I listened to several podcasts and one in particular stuck with me.  It was a rebroadcast on “Freakonomics” of an interview with retiring Harvard President (and historian) Drew Gilpin Faust. One of her comments was noteworthy for its connection to the work my colleagues and I do at the National Trust for Historic Preservation and, I believe, to this question of paradox.  She said,

“Part of why I love history is it takes it outside ourselves and, at its best, enables us to look through other people’s eyes. That enables us to understand what’s contingent about our choices and our existence. We need to do that in our own time as well. We need to bridge beyond ourselves and take advantage of stories to serve as a road to other people, as a pathway to being able to look at the world through their eyes and to understand where they’re coming from, why they might differ with us on matters of policies or practice and have the stories empower us to be more than simply locked within our own selves. That seems to me an important part of what stories can do for us now.”

Understanding the rich, complex, layered stories that are told by the places we work to save at my organization—the National Trust for Historic Preservation—is hard.  That work of understanding often involves the consideration of opposing views.  But then we know that paradox is hard.

Embrace the paradox.

Have a great week.

More to come…


Welcoming Emily to the Family

Carol David Emily and Nathan

David and Emily Ghattas with my sister Carol (on the left) and nephew Nathan (on the right)

Candice and I spent this Labor Day weekend in Chicago at the wedding of our nephew David Brown Ghattas (catchy name, huh?) and Emily Ames.  David—an engineer just like his father and grandfather—is the oldest son of my youngest sister Carol and her late husband Raouf. Emily is a wonderful young lady he met while they were both in Istanbul a few years ago.  We had the chance to meet Emily at my father’s 90th birthday celebration in 2015, and have enjoyed getting to know her (and now her family) over the past couple of years.

As my nephew Joseph Brown said to me somewhere along the weekend, it is great to be getting together for weddings as opposed to funerals, and I couldn’t agree more.

Families are funny things.  When you have a relatively big one like ours (five siblings and lots of nieces, nephews, and in-laws), there are bound to be some differences.  The differences in ours are pretty substantial.  I’ll just leave it at that.  But love trumps all (pun intended), and it was great to see Carol as the radiant mother-of-the-groom, along with Emily and David looking so beautiful, handsome, and happy.  Raouf’s family came from all over the U.S. (and Egypt), and it was good to see them after too many years.  And David’s younger brother Nathan may win the award for best sense of humor in the whole crowd.  His toast at the reception was one to remember.

Ghattas wedding cousins

David and Emily Ghattas celebrate with their cousins from around the world

It was also good to spend an extra day in the city.  We saw other family in Chicago and spent quality time with the Crocker family (my other sister Debbie, her husband Mark, and their three girls along with Ashli’s daughter Kate).  We had a wonderful time over meals in this culinary destination while also taking the fantastic Chicago Architectural Foundation river tour.  This was my 3rd or 4th time, and it is a must-see when you come to this incredible city.

The Browns and Crockers

Candice and I enjoy a Chicago brunch with my sister Debbie and her husband Mark


Rehearsal dinner

My brother Joe and sisters Carol and Debbie join me in celebrating with Emily and David at the rehearsal dinner in Libertyville

We are delighted to welcome Emily to the family!  We couldn’t be happier for Emily, David, and Carol.

More to come…