Wednesday, March 24, 2010

House Update, or The Drywall Is Finally Drying

It's been about a month since I signed the supplemental contract for my house so it's time for a status report. So here's where we are: 
  • The drywall is hung and mudded. Since the house was open for several wet months, it took longer for the mud to dry than anticipated but . . . 
  • The house is closed up, the heater is installed and the house is heated. 
  • The exterior painting is almost done.
  • The kitchen cabinets and bookcases for the library/hall are under construction. 
  • The door frames for the garage doors and the pantry doors are complete. 
Next steps include hanging the garage doors and priming the interior. Laying the floors shouldn't be far behind. The bookshelves should go in this week and the kitchen cabinets a couple weeks after that. The drive will be re-graded and spread with small gravel in a couple weeks.

I've ordered the appliances and chosen the flooring. I'm looking at light fixtures, tile for the kitchen backsplash and fans this week.

You may recall that we had some legal issues with the contractor. He and Frank had a parting of the ways back in October and we ended up with a mechanic's lien against the property and a half-completed project. At the time of his death Frank was working on finishing the project on his own, acting as the general contracting himself. He found that some of the sub-contractors were happy to work with him, but he was having trouble replacing others. 

I know that Frank would not have approved of my continuing the project with the original contractor, but in evaluating the situation I realized I needed to accomplish four goals: 
  • Receive a warranty on the entire house. I didn't think a new contractor would warranty the first contractor's work.
  • Cancel the lien.  
  • Generate as little ill-will and publicity in this rural area where everyone knows my business.
  • Finish the project in which I have insufficient subject-matter expertise. In other words, I didn't feel qualified to act as the general contractor.
I feel disloyal to Frank in having chosen to work with the original contractor. It's not the path he would ever have taken. But in contemplating my options I've concluded that decisions that were right for us are not necessarily right for me

The supplemental contract requires the house to be completed by May 31. We seem on-track to meet that milestone. With a little luck we may even come in a couple weeks ahead of schedule.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

The Instrument You Were Born With: My First Sacred Harp Singing

Today I attended my first Sacred Harp Singing at Wofford College in Spartanburg. My experience was exhilarating, interesting and educational. 

What, you may ask, is Sacred Harp singing? Sometimes it's known as Shape Note singing. It's a tradition of a cappella sacred choral music that was popular in America from the eighteenth through the mid-twentieth centuries, and continues to be practiced today. Its notation uses the usual staffs and notes from conventional music, but instead of all the notes being ovals, different notes have different shapes. This notation was developed to help people without formal music training learn to sing multi-part hymns easily and accurately. The tradition today uses reprints of traditional hymnals, and some devotees still compose new hymns that use the traditional forms. 

The traditional Sacred Harp books are not "revised" like the hymnals most churches use today, so the lyrics reflect American Christian beliefs popular when the songs were composed: the closeness of death, the need for salvation, the expectation of being united with loved ones in Heaven, the magnitude of Christ's sacrifice. These songs are not necessarily politically correct. For instance, since I was raised a Roman Catholic, I was particularly charmed by one hymn we sang today, The Romish Lady, in which a young woman defies her mother's teachings, ignores her priest and dares to read the Bible for herself. 

At a Singing participants are divided into four groups: trebles, tenors, altos and bases. They sit on the four sides of the open square where the leader stands to lead each tune. The leader sets the pitch and tempo and selects the hymn. At our Singing, each leader led one song at a time in turn, in some cases a favorite, in other cases a song they'd not led, or even heard, before. 

The sound of Sacred Harp music must be heard, for it's indescribable. It is polyphonic; it employs fourths and fifths, largely ignoring third intervals. To me it has a sort of "drone" to it. The hymn still in use that's closest to Sacred Harp music is Amazing Grace, but our current version of it is different from the versions in the Sacred Harp books. Attending a Singing felt to me like sitting inside an organ.  

In the movie Cold Mountain, the congregation is played by experienced Sacred Harp singers and this clip gives you an idea of the sound. Notice that before the congregation sings the lyrics of the song, they "practice" the tune by singing its musical notes. Also, some of the congregation members keep time with their hands, just as the leader does. This clip is from an actual Singing rather than a Hollywood movie and gives a very authentic look at the experience. 

So, why would I -- who really can't sing -- attend this event? The sound appeals to me. The music is visceral. A Singing is not a concert; it's participatory. I thought that if I spent a few hours literally singing my heart out I would find comfort and catharsis. I was right, but I also found wonderful, warm, friendly people -- and the altos were too nice to kick me out for my very inexpert efforts!

If my experience has piqued your interest, you might want to stream the video Sweet Is The Day: A Sacred Harp Family Portrait or rent the video Awake My Soul: The Story of the Sacred Harp. And the Wikipedia article on Sacred Harp is informative.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Clearly Stated

I’m taking time out of my busy schedule to provide, as a public service, a geography lesson that the world sorely needs. You know how there are some places in the world whose names you've heard, but you don’t quite know where they are? Like Tajikistan  and Burkina Faso and Liechtenstein? Well, today is your lucky day. After this lesson you’ll have added an obscure place to your body of knowledge. You’ll know where it is and, even better, you’ll know where it is not. The place? South Carolina.

About five years ago Frank and I bought 29 acres in rural South Carolina. Frank was from South Carolina, and we figured we’d eventually build a home here when were ready to retire. And ever since then, I’ve had to explain, over and over, that we were moving to South Carolina, not North Carolina.

Apparently when I say “South Carolina” most people hear “North Carolina”. I’d be a wealthy woman if I had a dime for every time I told someone I was moving to South Carolina and he said, “Oh, my brother-in-law went to Wake Forest (in North Carolina)/Chapel Hill (a branch of the University of North Carolina)/Duke (also in North Carolina).” Or she said, “I love Ashville/Charlotte/Raleigh-Durham (all cities in North Carolina).” South Carolina is not the home of your cousin’s favorite sports team, the Hurricanes, the Panthers or the Sting. And South Carolina is most certainly not the bastion of vinegar-based bar-b-que sauce.

News bulletin, my friends: There are two US states with the word “Carolina” in their names. They were named for Britain’s King Charles I. North Carolina is like the more popular, outgoing sister, the one who was the cheerleader and the prom queen. But South Carolina is real. It has an Atlantic coast. It's between Georgia and North Carolina. It boasts beautiful cities like Charleston and Columbia and Greenville. It's home to two national forests, numerous national parks, many Revolutionary War and Civil War battlefields, and historic sites galore. You just have to stop, and look around, and seek out South Carolina.

I’m beginning to think South Carolinians are partially to blame for this confusion. They don’t toot the South Carolina horn much. I think they prefer that when people hear “South Carolina” they head a few miles north to Wilmington or Winston-Salem or Greensboro. They relish the idea that South Carolina is less well-known, and they can keep it all to themselves.

But you are welcome to visit. Just be sure that when you come to see me you turn right, not left when you get to Knoxville.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Reunion With an Old Friend

Frankly, I really don't have a whole lot to do these days. I've registered my car, got my South Carolina driver's license, filed our 2009 tax returns, done some legal business. I know when the house is done I'll have PLENTY to do sorting through all our stuff in storage, setting up the house and getting rid of the excess. In the meantime I'm metaphorically twiddling my thumbs.

I figured this would be a good time to do some sewing. I'm behind in making class samples of several of my quilt designs. I have, of course, sewing tools and fabric aplenty, but the thought of trying to find quilting paraphernalia among a couple hundred boxes was pretty daunting. Yes, as you might point out, I could have planned better and put together a kit of essentials in a clearly-marked box when I packed -- if I were as smart as you are. However, this is the real world, and one brown cardboard mover's box looks astonishingly like another. There was no way I could find the literal needles in the proverbial haystack.

So I hied myself off to the nearest fabric store. Now, coming from Southern California via Houston, I was used to a quilt store at every major intersection (between the nail salon and the dry cleaner). Here in rural South Carolina? Not so much. I did some web surfing and asked for recommendations on my quilting lists. The closest place is about 40 miles away. It's small but had a nice selection of fabrics, so I got the yardage I needed for my pattern Raising Cane. Then one day last week, as it turned out the day of the sleet and snow storm, I drove about 50 miles in the other direction to Hancock's Fabrics for some tools.

The last stumbling block to starting my project was a sewing machine. Luckily I had the foresight to mark my machine clearly so the movers would keep it upright; the box was easy to spot. With some undignified crawling and wriggling, I was able to drag the box out from under the dining room table where the movers had placed it for safekeeping. 

So here it is in all its glory. Not much to look at, right? But it really feels like an old friend.  Recently I met Janet through a quilting friend. When I asked her if she quilts, too, she said, "No, I don't have one of those machines with 2,000 fancy stitches." I chuckled because I don't, either. My machine has, well, one stitch. But it's a doozy. It's a good, accurate straight stitch. I guess you could say it's got two stitches, because if I press down that lever on the right side, it sews in reverse. My sewing machine is dependable, simple, strong, low-maintenance, dedicated. What more could one want in a friend?

My machine is like my friends. I'm lucky in my machine and I'm very lucky in my friends.

Saturday, March 06, 2010

Thirty Years of My Life

Yesterday I retired from AT&T after over 30 years of service. 

I started with Pacific Telephone in Southern California on July 17, 1979. I remember chatting with a co-worker on my first day. We both said that we’d work as there for a year or so, then move on to something else.

I did, indeed, move on, but all my work was with the same company. One of the benefits of working for a very large company was that I had the opportunity to work in different parts of the company and perform different assignments.
For the last ten years I’ve led teams working in very different areas of AT&T’s billing organization.

While I’d never seen myself as a “leader” that’s where I ended up. As I look back on my last few assignments, I realize I’ve learned some helpful things and I’m sharing them in case you find yourself in a group setting – and, face it, most of life is a group setting!
  • Every group has the same people in it. This sounds counter-intuitive. Of course everyone you meet will be a unique individual. But each group will have certain types of people: the workaholic who can’t let things go, the insecure person who may just need a little push to become a star, and so forth. As you begin to recognize these “types” you can recall what helped you work with their predecessors. This is the foundation of the wisdom that’s your payoff for age.
  • Other people aren’t like you. What motivates you, what makes you happy, what annoys you may be very different from what your work-mates prefer. If you’re a hiring manager it can be tempting to hire other people just like you. Resist this temptation. You will create a comfortable workplace, but you’re likely to lack the dynamic (if sometimes frustrating) atmosphere that makes the strongest teams. And coach your people to be tolerant of one-another.
  • When you’re in a work situation, you’re on stage. All eyes are on you. You know how a two-year old will fall and look at you to see how to react? Adults aren’t much different in this respect. A good part of your job will involve keeping people calm and focused, in evaluating problems and keeping people on track to solve them, and in learning from errors so you don’t repeat them. Keep your cool. A single event when you lose your temper can send years of calm, professional behavior down the drain.
  • Don’t micromanage. If you have to check up on every whip-stich, in essence doing or re-doing your people’s jobs, you don’t need them and you won’t have time to do your own work. Surround yourself with people you trust. Within reason work progresses best if each of us tends to our own knitting and trusts our team members to cover their own responsibilities.
  • Deal with problems promptly. Nothing kills morale faster than a team member who’s not pulling her own weight, and whom the boss doesn’t handle. On the occasions I’ve wussed out and decided to “wait and see” I’ve betrayed my good workers and the consequences were more grave than if I’d acted promptly.
  • Be decisive and be flexible. This may sound like a contradiction; it’s the tightrope you walk. Sometimes the time comes when a decision is needed, when discussion and fact-finding have reached a point of diminishing returns. Sometimes you have to put a stake in the ground. Just know that most of the decisions you make will not be moral, ethical or legal decisions – they will be business decisions. Often there’s not one right way, but you must chose A right way. Do it, and be willing to make adjustments or even abandon the plan later if it doesn’t work just so.
  • Take the blame. Blame is like mercury. It’s easy for it to get spread around and impossible to recover. If someone’s made an error, deal with him. But in the end, it’s your shop, so own it.
  • Spread praise liberally. If a member of your team had the good idea, make sure everyone knows it. Never pretend you’re standing on your own. It’s your team that makes you look good. You’ll never lose by making sure your people get credit for their good work.
These were some of the principles that I developed over the last ten years or so of my career.

What can you share about how you work in groups?