Friday, October 30, 2009

Harry Hemlock and the Juneberry Sisters - LIVE!

In honor of the felled black walnut (see "To Kill A Tree" 9/21/09), and to compensate my neighbors who now have a substantially increased view of the most unattractive side of my house, I purchased a hemlock tree and two Juneberry bushes to fill the empty space.  Both are native to Virginia and will thrive in the location.

Harry the Hemlock makes me think of a freckly faced schoolboy, fresh from an after-school tumble and ready for more.  He was on sale at the local garden center.  He will bounce back as his roots expand in the rich soil of his new home.  He has a lovely shape and a swagger-like confidence in his droopy branches.   He is sure to thrive next to his vivacious friends the Juneberry Sisters.

The  sisters had already shed most of their leaves when I chose them from among many. They are tall and I understand will broaden as they age and begin to bear more fruit - thus the female assumption on my part.

Best of all, I am told that the birds love the juneberries and that they also have a pretty flower. The berries are edible for humans, so in a dire situation, I will dine with my bird friends! 

If they could sing, I think they would form a trio called Harry Hemlock and the Juneberry Sisters and sing the blues.  They seem made for one another and even the men who planted them commented on how well they look together.  Perhaps late at night when the dog has gone to bed and the bunny rabbits and raccoons have taken over the yard, they will belt out their songs and keep the night things entertained.  

Maybe that old owl who ate my bullfrogs will come back and play the bass and the fluttering of the bat wings from their home in the tree above will provide acoustics.  When spring comes, they'll be joined by the buzzing things.  I can already picture the chipmunks sitting up on their hind legs, supported by their stubby little tails, rudely whispering stories with their mouths full during the concert.

I have paid my penance for the felling of the walnut.  In addition to the hefty cost of the purchase and planting of Harry and the Sisters, I have found ways to put the wood to good use:
  • My son made a rough log bench that is installed next to my pond.  It blends beautifully into the surroundings and will last for many years.  I can sit on it while I contemplate the frogs and fish and enjoy the sound of the waterfall.
  • A school is using some of the wood for their students to make crafts projects and possibly small pieces of furniture.
  • A local craftsman was able to use the largest pieces for making tables and benches.
  • An unemployed recent college graduate was paid by me to split the smallest pieces into firewood; more than a cord is in two large, perfect stacks and will be usable before spring.
Good things do come out of bad.  While the walnut had to be sacrificed, I gained knowledge, through Bill, a great bench, and the satisfaction of knowing I helped an unemployed graduate, students and craftsmen.  And, if I listen really hard in the middle of the night, I just might hear Harry and the Juneberry Sisters making beautiful music together.

If you have to cut down a tree, contact your local Department of Forestry or your county extension office and ask them for a reference for a wood recycler who will put your wood to good use.  Bill Merkel (Neighbor-Wood) in Northern Virginia offers urban wood recovery that aims to put trees to their highest use.  He also offers mobile sawmill services (making lumber right where the tree falls), hardwood lumber sales, customer carpentry and furniture production. Bill will use some of my wood to make tables and benches.  He arranged for the school to get the remainder for their student projects.   

I waited until after I had the tree cut to call Bill and his earlier involvement would have meant more usable wood (typical arborists cut the wood in shorter lengths because it is easier and cheaper for them); fortunately I had the foresight to request that the pieces be kept long.  Bill would have helped negotiate the cost and ensured that the cutting was minimal and more usable.  

Monday, October 26, 2009

Unemployed "Big Girls" Learn How Foundation Proposal Writing and Job Hunting Are Similar

The bonsai tree pictured here is almost 400 years old and lives at the US National Arboretum.  It has weathered a lot, grown stronger and survived.  And so will those of us who are unemployed.  Here's to us!

Recently, an unemployed friend and I took a day-long refresher course on foundation proposal writing.  We drove into the city at a very early hour, we joked that we had not commuted in some time, and that when we do have meetings in in the city, we aim to avoid rush hour.   We also made light of the fact that we felt like “big girls” again, donning our grownup clothes and hassling with the traffic just like real working people.  It has been a while since either of us worked in full time jobs.

It was possibly a tad exhilarating and good to learn something, too.  We were among the eldest of the students, but participated admirably and asked good questions.  

Almost immediately, what struck me were the parallels of writing a grant and looking for a job.  Here are actual notes taken during the class, with annotations about the applicability to job hunting and marketing yourself.  It was a useful exercise for me to write them out and to remember the next time I am writing a cover letter for a resume, or a foundation grant application for a client.  If you are looking for a job (or writing a foundation grant), I hope this will be helpful to you, too.

Writing a Foundation Proposal: Application to Job Hunting

Attachments are increasingly important.  In addition to the resume and cover letter, more employers are asking for work samples and references with the application.

Tell why the program is essential for your organization and your community.  Turning this around a bit, in a cover letter, it is important to tell your potential employer why you are essential to them.  What is special about you that will make you a good employee?

The person you deal with at the foundation, your advocate, is paid to bring good ideas to their board.  As the Foundation grants officer brings the good proposals to the board, so the resume-reader/ human resources person must bring good people to the hiring manager of an organization.  They look good when a good idea/candidate is presented so make them look good for recommending you for an interview!

Write grants in lay language because the screeners are not technical people.  Resumes filled with technical jargon cannot be understood by most of the people who initially read them (and don’t explain why you should have an interview).  Make it easy to understand and highlight your skills that are critical to their mission.

Follow the directions.  One of the main reasons grant applications are initially rejected is that they did not follow the directions.  Did you include the required attachments?  If they ask for salary history and a writing sample, provide it.  Employers may receive hundreds of resumes for one position announcement; don’t give them a reason to reject you before even reading the resume.

What is your reputation with their colleagues?  Employers are well connected in the community?  Are you?  What is your reputation with the people they know?  Who writes on your Facebook page?  Who are your references?  Do you have LinkedIn recommendations from people they know?  Would someone the employer respects make a call on your behalf?

Prompt their curiosity but don’t tell them everything (leave something for them to want to find out).  This applies to dating and a myriad of other selling situations.  Provide an intriguing resume but don’t tell them everything you would tell them in the interview.  The purpose of the cover letter and resume is to get you an interview so you can WOW them with the details of those gems that will get your hired.

Make it short.  There are 98,000 grantmakers and 1.2 million organizations.  Make your cover letter enticing without writing a thesis.  There may be 400 resumes and cover letters received for one job announcement.  You want them to sift through and notice the important points in yours right away.

Verbs should outweigh adjectives.  This is pretty obvious.  Yes you may need to have some quantifying adjectives (“I developed the only program in Virginia...”), but the action words will highlight your accomplishments.

Write with substance over style.  Your resume and cover letter need to address what they are looking for.  Graphics, flowery wording and colors generally detract from telling them why you are perfect for the job.

Hit me in the heart.  This was what one foundation grants officer said should be the result from reading the summary of the proposal.  Of course you should do the same thing with your cover letter to apply for the job.  Say why you absolutely are the perfect person to get it but you might not want to make them cry!

The Executive Summary should be the jacket copy for your best seller.  I loved this.  This applies just as much to a cover letter and resume package as it does for the foundation proposal.  Employers should know who you are and what you can do by reading the first half of the first page of your resume.  Your cover letter should specifically address what about you makes you perfect for their specific job.

This is what I will do...tie the request and result back to the mission.  What is the mission or purpose of the organization/company you want to work for.  What makes you uniquely qualified to help them achieve it.  Tease them with an unique idea where appropriate.

Define how you are going to change your piece of the world.  This applies more directly to the interview than the cover letter.  In the cover letter, you may want to tell how you have already changed your piece of the world (innovations, outcomes).  If you have ideas for the new job, allude to them; but tell only enough that they want to interview you to hear more!

Make sure you clearly understand the problem.  Do you clearly understand what they are hiring for?  Read the position description carefully and write your cover letter to address their requirements with your relative abilities.  If necessary, reorganize some of the accomplishments on your resume to address their needs first.

Are you low-risk?  No human resources officer wants to spend the time and the organization’s money to interview or hire you only to find out that you aren’t right for the job because of something that should have been obvious. Make sure you have clearly defined why you are right for the position and are worth the time to interview. 

Communicate and stay in touch!  If you are fortunate enough to get an interview, make sure you write a thank you note to each person who interviewed you, as well as to the human resources staff who may have set up your interview.  When you go in for the interview, make a point of meeting the assistant or secretary for the person who interviews you and thank them for their help.  A thank you to the support staff whose opinion often matters is a nice touch and always appreciated.

The process always takes longer than you think it will.  Well, isn't that the truth.  

These points were all helpful reminders for me as a job seeker.  If you are looking for a job, I wish you the best of luck.  We seekers need to support one another.  The competition for jobs, as for Foundation grants, is tough.  Stay focused, be good to yourself, and spend your time with people who are positive and supportive.  They will help keep your spirits up.  That is why I spend time with my "big girl" friends.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

The Grimace Glasses

At an auction several years ago, my youngest son bought a case of souvenir glasses that included several of the Grimace.  For a long time they were our primary water glasses, kept on the lowest shelf above the counter.   They were so silly and I was a little annoyed because I thought they were tacky and did not fit with our decor.  But they were funny and someone always made a reference to them, particularly the Grimace. 

When he left for college, I put his collection away.  It was a sad time.  I cleaned out closets, enjoyed a little more space and pretended I was happy about the lack of dirty glasses all over the house. 

I replaced the Grimaces with grown-up glasses for a year or so until he noticed that his special ones were missing.  Four Grimace glasses appeared back in the cupboard one day (and some went to college with him).  For the last two years I have enjoyed having the Grimaces back, the bright blue body, google eyes and pink mouth shining out at me when I open the white cupboard doors.

These glasses symbolize the need for a bright spot, for humor, and for preserving memories of good times, childhood and a time of growth.  I miss the cheery school boy faces drinking from the glasses and the brotherly joking that went on, glasses in hand. 

The Grimaces are an important reminder of the wholesomeness of childhood and the good sense of humor of a very entertaining son.  Grimace is a misnomer.  He makes me smile -- all four of him.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Glorious Fall

Oh Happy Days!  Fall in Virginia!  Perfect weather and a paintbox of foliage colors.

I took a friend to Charlottesville for a birthday treat.  After a delicious lunch, we tasted wines at Hill Top Berry Farm and Winery in Nellysford, VA.  Their fruit and honey meads are interesting and pungent with a variety of fruits and blends.  I purchased their Cranberry Table Wine for Thanksgiving dinner.

The drive to and from Charlottesville was lovely.    The countryside provided lots to see and talk about and conversation flowed with a good copilot!  A few hours dissolved in no time.In typical "city folks visiting the country" fashion, we bought the local produce:  two gallons of apple cider, some crisp just-picked apples, and freshly baked bread to have with our turkey soup back home.  Every now and then we stopped to admire the colors and take photographs.  What a spectacular time of year this is to have a little extra free time to appreciate the beauty of nature.  I tried not to let thoughts of the approaching winter interrupt my good cheer.

Back home in Falls Church, it is delightfully colorful and I take every opportunity to walk instead of drive and enjoy the wonderful show that nature affords this time of year.

Ode to the Kentucky Wonders

This was my first year growing green beans.  My son started them in pots and we transplanted them in late spring.   Today, I pulled the tired, shriveled plants out of the ground.  The last crop had only a few beans (see photo).  The leaves were brown; the flowers wilted in the chilly nights.  It was time.  They served us well and we enjoyed their fruit for many months.  With thanks to the Kentucky Wonders...

My bean plants, my bean plants
I’ll miss you so.
You gave and you gave and I
Regret that you must go.

It is the end of the season and
You produced such a crop.
We’ve eaten and eaten and
Now we must stop.

I said my good-byes as I
Pulled up your stalks.
I thanked you and blessed you
for talking the talk.

Your children will flourish
Next year when I sow
Your seeds in the well tended
Earth where they’ll grow.

Good-bye and thank you my
Kentucky friends.
I’m proud to have known you
Right up to the end.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Cucumber News

As we have done most mornings since his arrival, my guest from The Netherlands and I discussed the news over coffee before he departed for his commute on the Metro and a full day of classes.  This morning, I noted that the major front page photo and story in The Washington Post featured the farmer and his wife who grew the 2009 official White House Christmas Tree (not to be confused with the National Christmas Tree or about 24 other trees in the White House during the holidays). 

I felt rather embarrassed that, with all that is going on in the world, such emphasis was given to this story in the largest newspaper of the capital city of our powerhouse country. 

“We call that ‘cucumber news’,” he said with a grin.  “When there is nothing going on,” he clarified.  “I would hardly say there is nothing going on right now,” I replied, sheepishly, feeling even more ashamed.  Our conversation turned to other topics but I couldn’t stop thinking of this funny expression and what must be its origin. 

Cucumber news is similar to another expression called the “silly season”, which is the couple of months in the Northern Hemisphere, starting mid to late summer, when exaggerated news stories appear in the media because there is nothing going on; in Washington, DC this is certainly the case because our newsmakers on Capitol Hill have all gone home or on fact finding trips to interesting places. In the Southern Hemisphere, this period occurs in the Christmas/New Year period, which is their summer.

In the Dutch, Norwegian, Czech, Polish, Hungarian and Hebrew languages, the “silly season” alludes to cucumbers (according to Wikipedia, specifically to gherkins or pickled cucumbers).  Their cucumber references translate to “cucumber time” or “cucumber season” or “pickled cucumber season”.  In England, cucumber season was a term for the slow business time for tailors.

Having grown cucumbers, zucchini and other squash relatives in my backyard vegetable garden, I can attest to the fact that it does become the silly season in late summer when they you cannot pick them fast enough and they grow to mammoth size very quickly.  Neighbors shutter their windows when they see you coming with yet another bag of vegetables to share.  Back in the 80’s zucchini bread, super-sweet and buttery cake-like “bread”, was all the rage; some of us are still trying to get the weight off from that effort to dispose of lots of zucchinis.

Perhaps over dinner tonight, my guest and I  will discuss my research into the meaning of “cucumber news” and have a little laugh about it.  What will be more difficult to explain is why, in a time with much real, dramatic news, an article about the selection of the White House Christmas Tree was the main feature of the front page.  I will tell him that sometimes the reporters decide to give us a break from the bad news of the economy, the circus on Capitol Hill,  deaths from the unending conflicts here and afar, and the local elections, to focus on something everyone can feel good about and be drawn to.  It feeds an old fashioned sort of longing for a human interest story with no blood and guts that makes you feel good all over.  That is what it did for me.

On reflection, I rather like the feature of the day being something positive.  Maybe we’ll be so lucky as to continue to have the false appearance of “cucumber season,” when in fact green leafy vegetables are more prolific and our beautiful, colorful fall will soon be winter and the problems of the world will still be very much alive.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Unemployment: Unintended Consequences: First Fire On a Rainy Afternoon

The first cold day arrived and I was home and feeling a little bit blue; building and lighting a fire in the fireplace was a perfect antidote.  I love the way the flames dance, the slightly wet wood crackles and the paper ignites quickly and spreads to the kindling.

A fire is welcoming and creates an instant gathering place.  When the boys were young, we worked puzzles in front of the fire and designed elaborate Brio train set villages.  We read stories and told stories and played games.  It has always been an important place for communication.

A fire creates an excuse to do a lot of things that are relaxing and involve just being.  Sitting and thinking about nothing in particular is great in front of a fire.  Taking a little nap on the couch is positively heavenly.  Reading a good book is more enticing by the fire and it is perfectly acceptable to fall asleep. Talking on the phone to Mom, who lives in Florida, is better because she remembers and understands how soothing and wonderful a warm fire can be when you are chilled.  Working on the laptop and sending out resumes is even somewhat enjoyable in front of the fire.  Bird watching through the picture windows is a wonderful thing to do as you enjoy watching the embers glow.

Popcorn is the perfect food to eat in front of a blazing fire.  Top that with a pot of tea or a mug of hot cider and you have a perfect feast.

Probably the best part of the first fire this season was that I got to do all those things in the middle of the day on a weekday.  What a blessing to be able to enjoy that simple pleasure.  And for a few minutes, it was comforting to just be and accept its radiance.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Lessons from a Shamrock

I have had my shamrock plant since February of this year.    Having just become unemployed, I was spending a great deal more time at home. The weather was miserable.  There was nothing else green in sight.  "Sham," this handsome, cheery, and inexpensive plant, was a perfect addition.  

Sham lives on a round oak table in front of one of the windows in my favorite room.  He gets sun all morning and a fair amount of light all day.  He has thrived in this location.  But his life, as mine, has had its natural and unnatural ups and downs.  

In his first eight months here, virtually the same time I have been job hunting, he has adjusted admirably.  I appreciate this plant for these lessons that give me something to think about when things don’t seem to be going quite right.  

Doing your best makes you look beautiful to others and feel good about yourself, but you can’t withstand too much intensity without a little rest and proper care.  When Sham really put out the flowers he looked fabulous, but soon after giving so much, he needed a new pot, some rest, and an increase in food.  I feel that way after the Christmas holidays or an exceptionally busy week job hunting.

When you’re exhausted, your whole body suffers and it takes a while to bounce back. Food and water and going dormant for a month were necessary for Sham’s recovery from his glorious showing in early spring.  Today, I was exhausted after a weekend of activities and not enough sleep (too many late nights reading Dan Brown’s  book, The Lost Symbol), although I was never bedecked with flowers.

Moving into a new house is hard on you.  The new pot, new soil, and new compost were big adjustments.  It took a while for Sham to absorb all of this and use it to help himself grow stronger. The last time I moved was 11 years ago and it was mentally and physically exhausting for months. 

A regular routine of going to sleep when the day is over and get up with the sun is good for you.  Sham shuts down at night.  His leaves fold up (see photo) and he retires until the light comes through the window the next morning.  Rest is critical to good health and getting up early and taking advantage of the day keep you in a healthy routine.

Changing routines is hard on you.   Seasonal light differences and a new watering schedule required Sham to adjust.  Right after moving in, he rallied, but then needed some down time. I definitely feel a loss when the days get shorter (and colder) or when my routine is simply not what I am used to, such as when I don’t get out of bed to go to the gym because it is dark and cold!

Getting a haircut boosts your spirits.  Sham's blossoms wither and die and need to be cut so that his energy goes into producing more flowers and keeping his leaves healthy.  I feel fantastic when I get a haircut.

Rich food can make you sluggish.  The new soil was rich in organic plant matter.  It may have been a little too rich for his roots, much like having a huge healthy meal might be after you have fasted for a day. What about that pint of Ben and Jerry’s that disappeared when I didn’t get the job interview?

Temperature and humidity affect you and sometimes you have to shed a bit to adjust. Many of Sham’s leaves dried up and fell off when it got hot and dry this summer.  Paring down a bit and reducing the load seemed to help.  We’re fortunate we can change our wardrobes with the seasons; currently I am digging out sweaters and blankets as the chilly weather has set in.

Drink more water when you are dry.  This is pretty obvious, but easy to forget and when you are a plant you have to depend on someone to give you a drink.  The physical effects of dehydration can be painful and it is easy to get so busy you forget the very basic need to drink water.

When your roots can’t expand, you need a new house.  Sham was pretty badly pot-bound and unable to get the nutrients he needed.  Being stuck in a house that is too small can stunt you and when you are feeling depressed about not having a job, the last thing you want to do is stay in a confining space.

You feel good when fed by your friends.  When I went away for a few days, Sham didn’t get the right amount of water.  He was droopy and lethargic when I came home.  My friends feed me in many ways every day; without them I would be very droopy.

When you have your house in order, and you are well taken care of (whether by yourself or someone else), you can thrive.  When something is missing, it becomes obvious pretty rapidly. This plant has reminded me of this again and again.  Right now, he is gorgeous.  He’s going to suffer again soon as the dry heat from the gas furnace and the wood-burning fireplace permeates his space, and the days grow shorter.  He will need some extra love and attention and maybe a little bit of food. 

Next time you wonder why you’re feeling a little low, or tired or out of sorts, think about whether you might be affected by some change that you can counter with a little adjustment; give yourself some time and don’t overdo it.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Best In Show - Orchids at the US National Arboretum

This weekend at the US National Arboretum in Washington, DC, the National Capital Orchid Society is presenting the 62nd Orchid Show and Sale. The show runs through October 12.

Hundreds of incredibly beautiful orchids are on display and for sale.  It is a show worth seeing, and an opportunity to explore the vast grounds of the Arboretum, enjoy the cooler weather, and see the colors of fall beginning to settle in.  

Many outstanding plants were laden with ribbons and commendations.  What struck me is that orchids, like people, have beauty that may be subtle or overwhelmingly powerful.  But they are all beautiful in unique ways.

With orchids, beauty may indeed be only skin deep.  It lasts such a short time before the plant, which is generally not very attractive, sheds its blossoms and puts all of its energy into producing flowers the next time - often a year away.

Choosing a best in show was impossible for me; the judges clearly had guidelines to go by that I was not aware of.

The more I saw, the more they started reminding me of fairies, cartoon characters and aliens. They have distinct characteristics that are unusual and sometimes comical. Most often they looked to me like fairy princesses with skinny little arms and southern belle ball gowns.

These photographs highlight only a few of the beauties.  Which do you think is the best in show?