A Few Words on the Team Oregon Motorcycle Safety Course

A post shared by Mike Hall (@pdxmph) on



I don’t remember why I got it into my head that some sort of motorized, two-wheeled conveyance seemed like a good thing to have. I mean, I already have one, but it requires pedaling. I’m pretty sure I was irked that I needed a bag of dogfood, the car wasn’t available, and I didn’t want to go get it on a bike.

What I do remember is that as I sat around wondering what sort of motorized conveyance I might want I did a quick search on electric scooters to see what the state of the art was looking like since I bought the Felt. That took me to the Genze page, where a few concepts became clear:

  • If you operate anything with a motor without any help from human power, the law has an interest in its performance parameters and opinions about where you should operate it.
  • If you want to go faster than 30 miles per hour, or operate something with a motor with a higher displacement than 50cc, you need a motorcycle permit.
  • If you want to go on a freeway, you need something with a displacement of at least 150cc.

I walked down to the local Genze showroom and talked to a pretty helpful guy who made a few more things clear, including that the 30 mph top speed might be sort of optimistic. Going home and tracing a few commute routes out told me the Genze—or any vehicle I could operate without a motorcycle permit—might not be my best option: My eight-mile commute takes me through a few places where being held to 30 mph or less could feel sort of fraught.

So, I spent a week poking around online forums learning about ways you can derestrict a 50cc motor to get more speed and sneakily dodge the need for a motorcycle endorsement. I learned a few things there, too:

  • Some brands are more amenable to DIY derestriction than others.
  • Fines can be pretty hefty if you’re caught doing that.
  • It’s worth considering the wisdom of taking something whose brakes and other systems are engineered to go no faster than a certain speed and helping it go half again as fast.

On that last point, I’ve got a bit of familiarity owing to a terrifying childhood incident involving a fairly steep slope on a coal road in the Allegheny mountains and a Korean touring bicycle I’d bought with saved Christmas and birthday money. Its wheels seemed so smooth and its braking so effective when used to swan around the church parking lot next door. Similarly, a really rash incident involving a ’73 Dodge Polara with a sweet Chrysler 360, about 120 mph of built up speed, and a screaming, spinning panic stop wherein I slid across SR15 during morning rush hour taught me everything has its limits.

Anyhow …

All that thinking led me to the conclusion that if I wanted to go faster than 30 mph on a two-wheeled vehicle of some kind, it’d need to be on something bigger than a 50cc scooter, and that I’d need to go get my motorcycle endorsement.

In Oregon, you get one of those a few ways:

  1. You can go get a learner permit, practice for a while, then go take a knowledge and riding test at the DMV when you’re ready. Unlike some states, where learner permits allow you to ride solo during daylight hours, Oregon requires you to have a motorcycle-endorsed adult riding alongside.
  2. You can enroll in a Team Oregon motorcycle safety class, attend classroom sessions and a two-day riding course in a community college parking lot, and then take your graduation certificate to the DMV and get your endorsement on the spot.
  3. You can enroll in the e-learning version of the Team Oregon class, do all the classroom stuff online, then do two days of training in a community college parking lot, in which case the state will waive the DMV driving test and require you to take the knowledge test.

I picked the third option. Even though there’s an option for scooter-specific training and to ride a scooter during the hands-on parts, it seemed like a better idea to just learn how to operate a motorcycle with a clutch instead of learning just a subset of the two-wheeled world.

Maybe less rationally, the more I thought about learning how to ride a motorcycle, the more I realized that I’ve always sort of pushed aside the thought that I’d really like to ride a motorcycle as an impractical one. So there was something atavistic going on in there, too, since that thought has been with me for longer than I’ve counted myself a reasonable grownup.

The e-learning experience

It’s pretty good, really.

The course is broken into six chapters that use videos of motorcycles out in the real world or instructors to teach you about proper gear, riding technique, and assorted edge cases (e.g. carrying people or lots of things on your motorcycle. Each unit is pretty substantial, and five of them took north of 30 minutes to complete, with mid-chapter quizzes and lots of interactive exercises.

From a design point of view, it’s all a little bit “bulbous plastic UI” looking, but it’s a very responsive site (in the sense of speed, not flexibility for mobile devices, even if it does support use of a tablet) and the touch interface works pretty well.

From a content point of view, I sometimes felt my attention drifting a little, but the quizzes served to snap me back to. The UI offers ample opportunity to go back and re-watch a section, and accessibility options make it possible to simply display the text and read it for yourself instead of enduring the stately cadences of the narrator.

The content is also very good at impressing on you that you’re considering doing something with potentially severe consequences for yourself and others. I pretty quickly shifted from an attitude of antsy impatience to a more receptive attitude as the courseware nudged my internal movie from “hop on a bike, ride away, maybe tackle 205 during rush hour in a month and not a day” to “consider the many ways in which a slow ride around your neighborhood could cause you to break bones or flay skin.”

For instance: I already knew in principle how to operate a motorcycle. I lived a few years in rural Pennsylvania where it seemed like all the children of coal miners and farmers had a bike of some kind, ranging from tiny mini bikes with lawnmower engine bolted on to 125cc dirt bikes to 250cc standards, so I had some memory of how to do it. I can also drive stick. When I got to the chapter about getting underway, which teaches the basic controls (brakes, clutch, shifting lever, accessory buttons, and the processes for using all of them to start riding) I was given the option to take the test up front and skip the chapter. I did take the test and missed a few questions. The software said I was welcome to proceed, but that I might want to go ahead and sit through the instruction anyhow for my own good. I took the hint, learned a few things, and was in substantially better shape when it came time to do the hands-on part.

Similarly, the section about what gear to buy was useful on a few levels.

First, it educated me about things that seem like reasonable ideas that are not (e.g. denim jackets instead of armored leather or sturdier fabrics), things that look cool that are dangerous (e.g. black helmets, or any helmet that’s not full-faced), and things that you might tolerate as a hardy bicyclist (e.g. taking a soaking in your riding kit rather than sweating up a soaking in your rain gear) that will probably make you miserable and unsafe on a motorcycle.

Second, the interactive exercise to choose the best gear reinforced those lessons, and also quietly reminded me that my investment in anything—a scooter or motorcycle—wouldn’t stop at the cost of the bike alone. I mean, I knew that intellectually, but now it’s part of my time and money planning in a way it wasn’t before.

So, it was a good learning experience. Way better than online courses I’ve done in the past. By the time I finished I felt much more mentally prepared to be a motorcyclist (or scooter drive) than I did going in.

Motorcycle Training

The hands-on part of Team Oregon’s course involves two morning sessions in a local community college parking lot. You can ask for either a scooter or a standard motorcycle, and they provide a helmet.

The instructors I had showed a lot of presence on the first day. They stuck to the clock and politely but firmly sent a late student packing, exactly as threatened in the confirmation email sent out at enrollment. They projected the sort of “don’t fuck around” gravitas I don’t think anyone in my group really required, but that some surely must.

I mean, motorcycles are one of those things out on the same end of the spectrum as guns: Most of the population doesn’t spend much time thinking about them, the complexity and risk of operating them are poorly represented in the media, and there’s a portion of the population that learned about them informally before being forced to satisfy Johnny Law by enduring a safety course and applying for state sanction.

It’s been a long while, but I remember range week in basic training. The boys in my platoon from Tennessee, Kentucky, and Georgia—bothered and frustrated by three weeks of drill and ceremony and constant reminders of their own incompetence at soldiering—adopted a certain swagger when the unit armorer pressed an M16-A2 into their grasp.

“I know I can shoot. This part’s gonna be cake!” said one private.

The drill sergeants just smirked, and after a few days of being reprogrammed and unlearning bad habits, he was crying and miserable, suddenly unsure of his ability to put down even a 150-meter target. It was another one of those times I was glad to be a mostly blank slate. Breathe in, exhale, squeeeeeze when you hit the bottom of the breath. After a week, I knew when I’d missed before the bullet could kick up dirt by the target. Private Kentucky was still jerking and swearing, and none of those boys did better than 37 of 40 exposures in the final range (to my 39, which was the highlight of basic training for me in an otherwise tedious eight weeks).

Similarly, though, a quick look down the line of a dozen or so riders in our class suggested that we had a few folks who’d been riding dirt bikes most of their lives and were fully expecting to just hop on a bike and go. One already had a Harley at home, and he didn’t let us forget it, even as he struggled through some of the riding exercises, trying hard to unlearn bad habits he’d picked up in years of buzzing through back pastures and maybe even bombing down streets without his permit.

So I’m guessing the instructors have their share of know-it-alls to contend with, and our pair seemed politely but firmly able to cope with that, should it have reared its head.

Anyhow, we all got to pick a bike from a selection that included a few standards, a few dual-sports, a few cruisers, and a pair of tiny Honda Groms. I picked a Suzuki TU250X, a little standard bike that sat low enough for me to easily plant both feet, and that felt pretty easy to manage. At one point, when I lost my balance turning to listen to an instructor walking up behind me, it was easy to keep it upright.

We started the course by learning to put our motorcycles into gear, putting our feet down, and waddling in a straight line across the parking lot. After a few repetitions, we were welcome to put our feet up and actually ride in a straight line if we felt comfortable doing so.

From there we learned to shift, and then how to to handle curves, and then how to weave through cones. By the end of the first of the two weekend morning sessions we’d probably put about three miles on the bike, all within a parking lot and seldom driving riding for longer than three minutes at a time.

Not everybody had the coordination needed to ride a motorcycle. Several students lurched and weaved around while trying to operate the clutch. Others simply couldn’t get the clutch to work consistently. The student who arrived in a brand new set of full motorcycle kit — armored pants, jacket, boots, gauntlets, and her own helmet — struggled to avoid cones. Another was too tall for his bike and struggled to apply both brakes, clutch, and shifter at the same time. Still, no motorcycles were dropped and nobody spilled.

By the end of the first of those two mornings, I was pretty tired. The classroom material had done its job of putting me in a more cautious, vigilant state. Nearly five hours of paying close attention to the instructors and managing a motorcycle was draining.

Day two involved more complex stuff: weaving through offset cones, sudden stops, swerving, and sharp turns. As with a lot of physical learning, I could tell a night’s sleep had helped a lot: I could manage the clutch more smoothly, it was more instinctive to look at the exits on the curves on the course, and felt a lot better running the bike up to 20 mph to get back into line after completing an exercise.

Some folks were still having a hard time, and the instructors got a lot more aggressive about pulling people aside and talking them through where they were going wrong.

Personally, I found a few things helped me:

I already knew how to operate a clutch, and understood that I needed to develop a feel for the friction zone on my particular bike, and to figure out how much throttle to feed it to operate it at slow speeds.

A few years on an electric bike taught me a lot about counter-steering and budgeting traction in a curve.

I also realized that I routinely operate my bicycle faster than we were usually allowed to go in that parking lot. There’s something bracing about the power of a motorcycle even at slow speeds because you can feel all that potential under your throttle hand, but once I realized I was going about 25 percent slower than I manage on actual streets mixed with real traffic, the sense of peril abated and I sort of internalized the difference between speed and torque. That has affected how I’m looking at my first motorcycle purchase.

By the end of the second morning, we’d put on close to ten miles in a couple of hours, and then we lined up and started the skills test.

The Skills Test

It was hard not to be anxious about this.

Prior to taking the course, I did as much reading on online forums as I could about the course and the test. Some people claimed that their classes had 75-percent fail rates. Others claimed that the instructors were merciless and rigid in their grading, penalizing people for minor things. Folks who claimed they’d been riding for years said they had to retake the test after an initial failure. Some of that I wrote off to people rationalizing a failing score or failing to unlearn bad habits, but a 75-percent failure rate suggested a level of rigor that surpassed the sour grapes I might have been seeing.

So, I went in a little nervous and unsure what to expect. I was way more proficient than I had been the morning before, but I’d also radically adjusted my expectations about what I’d do if I passed. I stopped imagining commuting to work on week 1 and started thinking in terms of developing more proficiency in the confines of my neighborhood, and at a nearby park-and-ride parking lot that’s vacant on weekends. I’d been vacillating between getting a small motorcycle and a large scooter, and I was thinking more in terms of a scooter, just to see if I could get to a safe level of proficiency on two motorized wheels at all.

We got tested on five things:

  • Sudden stops
  • Swerving
  • Sharp turns
  • Curves
  • Weaving through offset cones

If someone messed up (e.g. braked too soon or slid on their back wheel for the sudden stop exercise, put a foot down while doing the low-speed weaving, or failed to get up to correct speed for an exercise) the instructors would allow them to repeat the test once.

A healthy number of people had to repeat one part of the test or another. Personally, I used the wrong cone for the outside of the curve exercise and had to go back through the correct pair even though my form was good.

The experience reminded me again of basic training with its “go/no-go” testing, which involves a quick demonstration, a little repetition, then a quick test you can spot-retake if you fail the first time. I’m not an instructional designer, but it seems like the stress of “getting tested” has its instructional benefit.

We also did the tests in reverse order of how we learned them, so we were freshest on the hardest tasks, and got them out of the way first, and coasted to completion on the easiest task.

At the end of the test, the instructors had us all line up, then set up a little course for a final exercise that simulated a few four-way intersections. We were free to ride around inside the course and practice stopping, lane changes, cornering, etc. We weren’t being graded, but the instructors were paying close attention and offering help. After ten minutes or so of that, we all lined back up, got off our bikes, and helped pick up all the cones while the instructors compiled our grades.

They were pretty respectful about how they delivered the pass or fail news to each student, standing apart from the group and keeping their voices low. Everyone got the same manilla envelope with a few brochures, a motorcycle map of Oregon, and a Team Oregon sticker, so there was no way to see, like, a diploma exchanging hands. It occurred to me, as I stood around waiting to be called, that I had no idea how people knew how many people in their course had failed or passed and wouldn’t know how any of the tales of 75 percent carnage could be told with any certainty. I overheard one instructor say to someone “you didn’t make it,” but it was the least surprising person in the class. I couldn’t tell with any of the others, and my own passing score was delivered with a quiet “congratulations” I doubt anyone could have heard.

So, I’ve got no idea what the passing rate was. I just know I did pass. I got my certificate in the mail a few days ago and need to go down to the DMV to take the knowledge test to get my endorsement, then I’ll feel free to go talk to motorcycle or scooter dealers.

What’s Next

I’m still on the fence about what to get once I have my motorcycle endorsement.

The Team Oregon course was pretty sobering: The online portion sensitized me to a lot of the risks, but also did a pretty good job of explaining how to mitigate them. The hands-on riding section left me confident I could ride a small bike competently at neighborhood speeds, but also convinced me I wouldn’t want to go out on some of the faster arterials nearby for a little while. But when I think about it, I still want to get there, and I think I want to do it on a motorcycle, not a scooter, because I want to get proficient enough to tackle highways and longer trips. We live in a beautiful state, and I’d love to see it on the back of a bike. Between signing up for the course and taking it, we took a trip down the coast and I was so envious of the motorcyclists out on the curves of 101.

My current candidates for motorcycles are the new Honda Rebel 300 or 500, and the TU250X I rode in the course. All are low-slung, small bikes with mild engines, manageable levels of low-end torque, and strong reputations as get-around commuter/starter bikes that could handle some quick exit-to-exit on the local freeways and more relaxed backroads trips, but not lengthy cruises. The TU250X was so easy to handle that I want to climb on the Rebel 500 and see how it feels: It’s the same dimensions as the 300, just heavier due to the larger engine (which is still reportedly quite manageable for beginners).

I’m also looking at a few scooters in the 200-300cc range, less out of a concern for being able to operate a motorcycle, and more because scooters are simply the more practical city machine: More onboard storage, a bit more nimble, and no clutching to deal with on congested, stop-and-go streets. There are even some scooters that could handle that ride down 101 I want to work up to, but they’re big and bulbous things that’ll be a squeeze in the garage.

Journals Against Stories

DSCF2456.jpg

This is about a supplemental habit I’ve picked up to go along with my recent anti-story practice, and it’s also a mini-review of the DayOne app.

I’ve known for a while that it’s good for me to have some sort of journaling to help deal with ADHD. I slip in and out of it, and use a variety of means to journal, including this blog, plain text files, and physical notebooks .

For a while, my practice involved a pair of daily entries meant to help me figure out the day ahead, then retrospect. It evolved from something I learned from one of my commanders at Fort Bragg, who started and ended each day with a sheet of legal paper she kept by her keyboard.

Over the past month, though, I’ve come to use journaling as a way to capture thoughts and feelings quickly and as on the spot as I can manage. I’ve adopted an informal template, making sure to capture most of the classic five W’s. My journaling tool supports hashtags, so I have a loose taxonomy to connect related entries. Sometimes I’ll make an explicit link between entries, too, if time allows or if an entry is so fragmentary that I want to make sure to connect it to one with context.

An entry usually involves what I was thinking about, how I felt about that (the emotional truth), what I think about that (the considered response), and what I want from all of it, either as an outcome/resolution, or a next step. I try not to self-censor if I can help it, avoiding the quiet temptation to record my best self in these entries.

I guess there are a few kinds of value to be gleaned:

First, I can see the ways in which the inner story-teller is always trying to impose a narrative, even in a moment of relative remove.

Second, I can see the ways in which thoughts and feelings are always changing. It’s a “two steps forward, one step back” sort of thing. Sometimes they refine and improve, sometimes they’re not super worthy. Getting that—understanding and embracing that variability, acknowledging my own messiness—makes it easier to engage a more objective self. I know about the messiness and imperfection of other people. Stepping back from myself long enough to see my own messiness—the messiness I forgive other people for all the time—makes it easier to cut to the ethical heart of hard things. I’m just another human. What would I tell another human if they asked me about this problem? What things would I remind them of? How would I counsel them to act?

It has helped me a few times so far in the past month. It has created a book-ending joy to go with the joy of those moments where I catch myself making up a story in my head and manage to stop doing it.

Journal for the Mission

I’m more kind to others than I am to myself, but my inner- and outer-directed kindness are never too far away from each other. My ability to be kind to others seems to have a ceiling set by how kind I can be to myself. The connection between those two capacities for kindness can be a liability, or it can be leveraged.

When I’m not objective about myself—when I allow uncomfortable or messy truths about myself to go unconsidered and unforgiven—I’m harder on others. I guess the ego casts about outside itself when it’s not comfortable with what it sees in itself. It distracts and comforts itself with the failings of others.

When I think about that small gap between my inner- and outer-directed kindness and try to apply the forgiveness I can muster for others to myself, then the ceiling on my kindness to others goes up that much more the next time around.

That’s important.

When I was pretty young, my dad took me to our church’s annual conference. I don’t embrace that church or its kind of spirituality any longer, but the mission statement for the conference that year has stayed with me:

Do justice. Love tenderly. Walk humbly.

It’s a paraphrase of a verse in Micah, and it has become a sort of meditational anchor over the years. I think a lot about the ways those three directives depend on each other:

Justice without kindness or humility is cruel.

Love depends on fairness and humility, or it becomes mere neediness.

We must temper humility with fairness and kindness to ourselves. We must understand the ways in which unconsidered self-effacement can be deeply unfair and ultimately cruel to others.

It seems to me that the more I can participate in a cycle of reciprocal kindness, to others and to myself, the more readily I can accomplish that mission.

A Few Notes on Day One

DayOne is a journaling app available for both MacOS and iOS. It offers a few key features that have made it great for this practice:

  • The ability to make quick entries, with a keyboard shortcut from the Mac desktop, or with a long press on the iOS icon
  • Fast, transparent cloud sync between devices/computers
  • Passcode/Touch ID security, end-to-end encryption
  • Hashtags
  • Inter-entry linking

It also understands Markdown, and automatically records location and weather in each entry.

I love being able to make a quick entry anywhere, from whatever device I’m using: Quick, thumbed entries on my phone, or longer and more considered entries with a real keyboard on my iPad or desktop machine.

I like knowing the security is pretty strong. If I switch away from the app on iOS, I can set it to require a thumbprint right away. If I sleep my computer, it’ll require a password before opening. That’s all less about security and more about having a strong sense of privacy: I record a lot of stuff in there. If you picked a random entry to read, who knows what you’d get.

“That didn’t happen!”

So, I had to talk about something difficult recently. How do you do that? I mean, “you the reader,” not me. I know how I do it, and why.

I’m an introvert. For my purposes that means a couple of things:

Being around a lot of people doesn’t charge me up. Being 1:1 with someone, or in a small group, can. I’m not sure how typical that is of my kind, but I know my favorite parts of the work day are with “my people” in 1:1s, or with my managers. Big meetings are hard. Big social events are hard.

The other thing it means is that I’m not comfortable with a lot of spontaneous expression. I’m an internal processor.

So, when I think I’ve got to have a hard conversation with someone, I think about it a lot beforehand. I used to joke that I spent my morning commute spinning up virtual instances of people I needed to talk to so I could think through a few possible conversational directions. I though it was sort of cute to say that, but I don’t think it really leads to a good outcome.

I mean, it’s okay to decide you’re going to think about what you want to say to someone before you say it, especially if carelessness with your words could hurt them. That’s fine. We should all do that. We have these little phone rooms at work that are barely big enough for a chair, and I sometimes go into them a few minutes before I need to talk to someone about something that matters a lot and think through what I’m going to say. Sometimes I even write it down in a text file. I take deep breaths and close my eyes and settle down into myself.

The “think about what you’re going to say” strategy begins to fail when you imagine what you’re going to say and then imagine them saying something back, and then what you’d say to that and then what they might say back to that, etc. etc.

It took two things to help me realize the problem there.

The first was that one day, in the middle of a period where I wasn’t sleeping much, I realized how badly the lack of sleep was affecting my perception of things around me. Passing comments suddenly seemed like they might be insults. Hanlon’s Razor sort of went out the window.

So I had a pretty good fix for that: On mornings when I’d gotten little sleep — less than six-and-a-half or seven hours — I’d spend a few minutes on my commute thinking about that and what it meant. I’d talk to myself on my bike:

“You didn’t get a lot of sleep last night. You’re going to be feeling a little paranoid and on edge. You’re going to want to take offense at things people say to you. You’re not going to be seeing things correctly.”

Then I’d get into work and try to remember to talk to myself about that a few times over the course of the day.

Things started to roll off my back more easily. It was nice.

It also started making those little conversations with virtual people go down better. I stopped anticipating the worst, or when I would anticipate the worst I’d remind myself that I wasn’t very well rested. I’d make a little joke to myself to spin that instance down and bring up another one and try again anticipating better behavior.

You’re thinking about the ways in which that’s still broken, but this is my story of self-discovery, so either skip ahead or quit reading.

Anyhow, that was my little hack that made difficult conversations with virtual people in my head go better.

I didn’t get the second piece until I went off to a sample training for a program called Conscious Leadership.

If I had to describe Conscious Leadership in a nutshell, I’d say that it takes a lot of thinking around mindfulness and tries to make it work in a business context. If you’re at home with Zen Buddhism, you’d hear some things that are familiar to you.

I could go on and one about Conscious Leadership. I’ve given copies of the book The 15 Commitments of Conscious Leadership to managers who work for me and people I care about. I use its language in my daily living, and I measure myself against its standards.

The way it helped me in this specific instance was that it reminded me of how easily we can get pulled into the stories we create around things, and how we should always strive to take a story we’re telling ourselves and “explore the opposite.” Expressed as a commitment to sustainable behavior, the Conscious Leadership people put it like this:

> I commit to seeing that the opposite of my story is as true as or truer than my original story. I recognize that I interpret the world around me and give my stories meaning.

I realized the ways in which my virtual instances were just stories I was telling myself. I’d made a certain peace with the worst aspects of them by taking care to remind myself of the times when I wasn’t well rested and was making the stories worse, but I was still just making up stories and arguing with them.

The thing is, as an introverted internal processor, it was pretty easy for me to slip into those conversations with virtual people in the process of just trying to figure out how to say what I wanted to say when I felt a conversation was particularly important.

I had to pick up a new habit, which is really what this whole post is about.

A Walk on the Beach

Untitled

So, I went camping. On the last morning we were at the park I woke up pretty early and took my camera and went for a beach walk. I set out thinking I’d go down to the jetty, a few miles down the beach.

I hadn’t meant to spend much time thinking about things and mainly hoped to just take pictures, but there wasn’t a ton to shoot and I knew I was going to have to talk about something difficult, so I lapsed into thinking about that conversation, and that meant I started arguing with a virtual person. Because I was thinking about a difficult conversation, it got increasingly negative and fraught.

I caught myself doing it and got really frustrated, because I know I’m not supposed to do that. So I’d stop for a few minutes and think about other things, but then I’d fall back into it.

Then I remembered how I coached myself about being under-rested, and took a page from that practice.

As I made my way down the beach, each time I’d get into an argument with that virtual person, rather than getting frustrated and beating myself up, I’d just stop and say out loud “this isn’t happening. That didn’t happen. You didn’t say those things.”

Conscious Leadership advocates moving your body when you’re feeling something strong and need to process it, or see it differently, so I’d shake myself a little, too.

Reader, it felt pretty good.

By the time I’d made it to the jetty, miles down the beach, I was smiling to myself because I knew what I needed to say. I knew it miles back down the beach. I’d just fallen into my old habit of wanting to think it all the way through, to know just what to say to each possible response or argument.

Untitled

And of course the conversation went fine, anyhow. They usually do. I pay attention to people and how they’re feeling, and I’m careful in the initial framing and get things off on the right foot, so just taking the care at the onset is usually enough. When it’s not, well … I stay calm in the pocket, too.

Since then, though, I’ve been using that practice a lot, and it is incredibly helpful. I’m an introvert! I think about what I want to say to people before I say it! I’ve got a life-long habit of spinning up virtual people and arguing with them, which is to say a life-long habit of telling stories to myself that aren’t true. It’s tough to break, and I haven’t broken it. But I’ve added a little thing to the loop: When I catch myself doing it, I say to myself, “that didn’t happen” and it has made me feel lighter and happier each time. I think to myself “I don’t really know what they might say, but they didn’t say that, and they could say something completely different. You’ll just have to find out.”

On Progress Toward 365^H4 Pictures

I take joy in photography. Some time late last year I found myself down on the waterfront on a rainy night trying to get a few good pictures of downtown Portland from across the river, and I had this to say about the experience:

It was pouring on the way home tonight, but I’d brought along a tabletop tripod and loved the way the tops of the skyline were shrouded in mist, so I got out the camera and played around for a while despite the problems that little tripod and all the rain were causing me.

I’m so happy I get to live in such a beautiful place.

And I love the inner quiet that follows when I open my eyes and heart up to what’s around me. I’ve only felt that when writing, or when sitting with another person and setting aside everything but what they’re saying and feeling. Now I’m finding it in moments like this, when I’m out with my camera trying to pull off the Magic Eye trick of seeing nothing to see something. It feels like the thing is to practice enough to marry the quality of the craft to the quality of the inner state.

I haven’t felt happiness the way I felt it out in the rain tonight for a long time.

So at the beginning of the year I decided to do a thing I forget to do every other year, which is commit to taking at least one picture a day for the next year.

Sadly, sickness in early March caused me to forget a day. There’s a picture of me looking sort of miserable and wrapped in a bathrobe, then a woozy picture of a bottle of Jack Daniels in a darkened kitchen. In between? Sickness. So I’m not going to have a picture for every single day of this year.

Another thing happened, too, which is that life sort of got bumpy and didn’t straighten out for a little while. It made picture taking hard, because EVERYTHING was hard. I managed to get through the period sticking to my commitment, but one day’s picture was literally a hole in the ground with a chunk of concrete sticking out of it, because a picture of a hole was about all I could manage before getting home and going to bed.

Somedays all you can shoot is a hole

There are also some days with self portraits because I’d forget to take a picture until I was home, then I’d be unwilling to go out and look for stuff, so I’d drag myself into the garage where I have my little studio with flash and backdrop and take a picture of myself, because, you know, fuck it: Nothing says defeat like a half-assed selfie shot 10 minutes before bedtime.

DSCF0726.jpg

At some point during this spell I was so unhappy with what I was taking that I considered quitting, but I thought about that a bit and realized a few things:

  • Even on my worst days, I’m still pointing the camera at a thing and thinking about what I’m doing, even if it’s just for a split second.
  • Even on days where I hate what I shot, I’ve probably been spending at least part of the day with my photographer’s eyes on.
  • I’ll be happier if I don’t quit.
  • This project has made me learn a lot about my camera. I’m way more proficient with it than I was a few months ago.
  • Looking back over the year so far, there’s a certain eclecticism that even the bad days reinforce. It’s not so bad as a whole.

Then I thought a bit about what was making the whole thing less pleasant to do and realized I’ve built up a pretty dense workflow that involves Lightroom automation and dealing with RAW files, and it’s not very fun. It’s also an invitation to rathole on salvaging images.

So, because I have a shooting engagement coming up at the end of next month and need a second camera, I picked up a new one that’s better suited to walking around, got it a small bag, and played around with a few presets meant to make it easier for me to quickly capture shots in a few styles but output in JPEG, and that has made a huge difference. Files download more quickly, there’s less goofing around to do because JPEGs are less forgiving of manipulation, and I’m being punished for my mistakes with a less flexible image format, which is GOOD because I wanted to do this to learn, and fiddling around with RAW images doesn’t incentivize learning behind the lens. I guess you could say it encourages more intentionality up front.

Anyhow, I’ll be sticking with it for now, but looking forward to summer camping and travel to help me shake up my subjects and break me out of a few ruts.

Here’s the project so far:

2017:365

Supporting an Open Door Culture by Listening

The soul of our politics is the commitment to ending domination.  — bell hooks

Next week I’m going to give a talk on how men can support women in the tech industry. I was uncomfortable with the idea when first approached: My thoughts turned to images of me clicking through a deck and reading off bullets of things you shouldn’t do that I probably did myself at some point before someone undertook the effort required to get me to stop. I hated the idea of standing in front of a room and implying there’s something I get that maybe the men I’d be speaking to don’t. 

After a brief back and forth with one of the organizers, though, I proposed building a talk around a project I undertook a few years back to author guides for a company open door policy. She was supportive of the idea, and that made me more comfortable: Even though I had designed and led the project, it was never “mine:” It happened at all because our CEO had been listening to women who were telling him what they needed to feel more safe and heard at work, and I was just there to help make it happen. 

I suppose this entry is to help me firm up some of my thoughts before I present, but it’s also to provide a link to a repo that has the output of that project that’s consumable by anybody who’s interested in having a supplement to whatever fossil of an open door policy their company has tossed up on the intranet. I wanted to be able to share the work with the folks at my talk, so I scrubbed the guides down and dropped them on GitHub (along with a small todo list of things that could make them better in the project issues). I’ll link to it a bit later, too, but here it is right now in case you’re curious and don’t care about anything else I’ve got to say on the matter:

https://github.com/pdxmph/open_door_guides

The initial brief for these things was to create a guide that made it easier to understand how to use our open door policy at all. I was asked to work with HR to deliver something that we could position within the open door policy itself, perhaps as a diagram or flowchart. I met with our VP of HR and one of our HR business partners, and we tried to whiteboard a basic “open door process flow.”

As an aside, that initial diagramming session was one of the best things that’s ever happened to me. Up until then I had a pretty dim view of HR. I’d worked in places where the HR org wasn’t just “there to serve the company’s interests,” but had become a sort of political center in its own right, controlling the path to promotion by gate-keeping mandatory training or obscuring promotion standards and practices. I’d never spent a lot of time thinking about the nuances of the HR discipline. 

By the time I was done working with that VP and business partner, I had a new appreciation for the complexities HR people deal with (and a huge amount of admiration for those two in particular, because they had an architect’s perspective on some of the problems we were discussing but were as engaged with making the architecture amenable to people as I was).   

I’d also decided the idea of just making a diagram or flow chart was a terrible idea: It was too rife with edge cases, and no amount of detail at the “step 1, step 2, step 3” level suggested an awareness of how it actually feels to have a problem you can’t fix for yourself that you have to go get help with. I took that idea away, digested it, talked to a few women around the company, and sent a note to the CEO:

… the issue is less “what are the steps?” and more “how do we get everybody to an equal place in terms of their confidence that when they use the steps they’ll get a good outcome?” Your public statements about non-retaliation a few months back are important, but there are things beyond retaliation that matter, too, and these came out in interviews:
  • Will my manager place the burden on me to fix the problem once they hear me out?
  • Is my manager attuned to the idea of discriminatory behavior that flies below the radar of outright bigotry? (microaggressions, which are not universally understood to be “real”)
  • Is my manager attuned to the idea that bringing my concerns to them sometimes feels like I might be marking myself as a troublemaker/”difficult,” if not to them then others. (confidentiality as a cardinal component of the process)
  • How will I know what’s going on with my issue once I bring it to someone?
  • How can I know I’m not going to inadvertently bring a hammer down on someone?
That’s 20 percent “process” and 80 percent human factors.

The next few months involved some document design, some writing, and a lot of listening. One of the people who worked for me had the misfortune of experiencing one of my people management failures, and I was incredibly lucky that we’d reestablished enough trust that she thought it was worth her time to explain to me how I’d fucked up. 

Another woman told me a deeply personal story about what it was like to be condescended and talked down to by a male colleague. We spent an hour talking about her experiences, and even then I was catching myself drifting toward thoughts about the ways in which her patronizing male colleague probably didn’t mean any harm, or surely hadn’t acted that poorly. We ended the meeting and went back to our desks. A few minutes later, I saw her at a nearby whiteboard with that colleague, so I stayed at my desk and listened to the interaction from afar, and it worse than she described, which caused me to realize that even in a relatively safe context she was still protecting someone who had treated her terribly. I’m glad I was able to engage in some empirical verification; I’m sorry I felt the need to. 

As the work progressed, I invited more and more people  into the documents to help shape them. At one point I had three copies of each document so stronger voices wouldn’t drown out quieter ones in the comments. When it was clear that the very idea of “microaggressions” was controversial, I asked women to help me list some examples: The documents don’t have that word in them (even if they probably should), but they articulate the idea and provide examples from womens’ experience. 

After a few months of work, either writing, listening, or reconciling the viewpoints we’d brought into the project, the VP of HR signed off and we shipped them to the CEO. He said he liked them, and he named four women he wanted me to meet with to get final approval. I was a little chagrined because I’d already talked to each person on his list as part of the work, but I invited them all to meet and discuss the finished docs, anyhow. They turned up a few more small things and we fixed them on the spot, which taught me it never hurts to listen for just a bit longer. 

We ended up with two guides, meant to be used as a supplement to a generic open door policy of the sort you can just go download from the web: 

The first guide is for employees. It’s written to strongly suggest our values around the process of escalation. The language is about “expectations,” and you could think of it as a bill of rights that compels certain behaviors from managers. The language is meant to be supportive and affirming. It’s made clear that if those expectations aren’t met,  the interaction is in trouble and the employee can bail on it, escalating to the next level.

The second guide is for managers. Structurally, it closely parallels the employee guide. The language is less on the “supportive and affirming” end of the spectrum than it is quite imperative. 

The employee guide references the manager guide a few times, not to avoid repetition and certainly not as a requirement to understand the employee guide, but to accentuate things we’re telling employees: “We told you to expect this behavior, and here is where we’re telling managers, in imperative language, to do exactly what we told you to expect. If you observe your manager not doing these things, you can see right there in the manual we wrote just for them that they’re supposed to be doing those things.”

Since releasing them just over two years ago, HR has made them part of the management training program, and our HR business partners make sure new employees hear about them when onboarding. When I’m involved in a conversation with an employee about something sensitive, I will often share the link after telling them about their rights to confidentiality, and I’ll make clear to them that the bedrock values of those docs include consent and confidentiality. 

I don’t have any way of measuring their success. Personally, I find them comforting: Even though I helped write them, I still find myself going to them to remind myself of my obligations to the people who work for me, and people have told me that they’ve been glad to read them. 

And they’re also a valuable reminder to me of a few things: 

First,  the piece of work I’m most proud of during my time at Puppet wasn’t really my work at all: It was the result of deciding I didn’t know everything I needed to know, that I didn’t have all the answers, and that my reputation as someone who understood womens’ concerns and was a good manager in that regard wasn’t something that I had—something that was part of my nature—but rather was the result of knowing to listen, and accepting the idea that “I know that I know nothing.” 

Second, that the thing I’m most proud of as a manager came not from “taking charge” and leading, but from deciding the best use of my authority was to assert my right to be guided by others who hadn’t been given that authority. 

Anyhow, if you see some values in these guides, they’re on GitHub. The README has a few suggestions on how to use them that preclude simply downloading them and tossing them up. Instead, I’d suggest you fork them and make them your own, preferably after talking to people in your organization and learning what would make such a guide more useful to them.  

Script Sunday: Fixing a Self-Inflicted Pinboard Nuisance

I really like the recent-ish share sheets in iOS, but I learned to my dismay that sometimes you’re not really sure what you’re passing from one app to another. After a week of using the RSS reader Unread in combination with the Pinboard app Pinner to save bookmarks, I learned that Unread was sending Pinner the domains of the things I was saving as the description, and not the title. So instead of a list of bookmarks that looked like this:

  • Reading in the dark
  • Archive articles from various sources to org file via IFTTT and Dropbox : orgmode
  • 9 Tips For Black And White Street Photography Post Production
  • How to Culture Jam a Populist in Four Easy Steps | Caracas Chronicles
  • E unibus pluram: television and U.S. fiction. – Free Online Library
  • The first days inside Trump’s White House: Fury, tumult and a reboot – The Washington Post

I ended up with a list of bookmarks that looked like this:

  • metafilter.com
  • reddit.com
  • lightstalking.com
  • caracaschronicles.com
  • thefreelibrary.com
  • washingtonpost.com

To be clear, this is a self-created problem brought about by my habit of saving anything that looks vaguely interesting and refusing to use the version of the Pinner share sheet that would have let me review title and tags before saving them. I’m okay with this, because the alternative is trying to peck in a description on my iPad while I’m hanging on to a strap on the Max.

Anyhow, there’s a gem for Pinboard that lets you run through your bookmarks and do stuff with them. Well … it lets you run through your bookmarks and learn stuff about them, and allows you to use the Pinboard API action to create a “new” bookmark. If you re-save a URL you had previously bookmarked, it’ll update the original item with anything that changed.

There’s probably also a way to programmatically determine whether a given string is a valid domain, but I went cheap and just check to see if the end of the description string is something like:

  • .ab
  • .abc
  • .abcd
  • .abcde

(plus a few other possibilities I’m willing to live with, since I’ve spent more time describing this than I did writing it)

Anyhow, the whole thing is short, simple, and dumb as a rock:

I’ve got a version sitting in my /bin directory that talks to the Alexa Web Information Service and extracts the categories for a given URL, but there’s some interesting taxonomical noise I need to sort through before I’ll actually use it in anger: Categories in Alexa seem to be a mix of topics (e.g. “photography”) and formats (e.g. “blog”). The former would be a great thing to programmatically tag a hastily saved bookmark with, the latter wouldn’t.

Probably also worth noting that Unread isn’t so much better than Reeder that it was worth having to run this thing every so often, so I switched back to Reeder, which does what I’d expect and passes a proper title to begin with.

Let’s Talk in 2017

tl;dr: I’m taking a little break from social media. I hate the thought of missing a direct tweet or private message from you on whatever platform we have accounts on together, so I’ve put some contact details at the bottom.

Otherwise:

I’ve been taking a lot of pictures lately. Probably more than I ever have.

I’ve been taking pictures for a long time: My first job after college involved photography to go with my reporting, so I learned how to get decent results with a film camera, and I learned some darkroom work. I’ve made it a point to have a camera with a few more features or settings than I know what to do with since Ben was born, and I’ve hated going on a trip or vacation without having a camera along for about that long.

A few years back I set aside my mid-consumer range dSLR for a premium point-and-shoot rangefinder. I wasn’t sure how I’d deal with having a fixed, relatively wide lens but it turned out okay.

This year I decided to upgrade. I got a mirrorless, interchangeable lens camera out at the high end relative to anything else I’ve ever bought. I love it. It’s as close to my ideal camera as anything I know of, and I’ve enjoyed shooting with it more than anything I’ve had since my Canon PowerShot G5. When I see something in the light I can make the camera see it, too. When I just want to grab it and go to take snapshots, it lets me do that. When I choose to be patient and take along a tripod and trigger, it rewards my patience. It’s a few steps ahead of me, which has pushed me to learn more. I’m taking it with me almost everywhere. Photography has become what I want to do when I have any time to do anything, and it’s something I want to get better at.

Something I’ve been thinking about the past few weeks, though, is that I haven’t been giving myself a ton of space to form my own thoughts about my work.

A friend recently observed that photography is great for me because there’s an emotive/artistic side and there’s a deeply technical side. It’s very easy for me to get pulled into the technical side, whether it’s optimizing the gear I use, figuring out how to automate or speed up a darkroom workflow, or figuring out how to best distribute an image. I love the combination of an iPad, SD card reader, Lightroom Mobile, and AirDrop. It’s really easy to capture, edit, and share an image from the Max or over lunch.

The other side—the artistic one—is harder to enumerate. I don’t understand it very well yet, and I need to learn and practice a lot more. I’ve started looking for teachers and people who are willing to let me practice the kinds of photography that involve humans with them.

I’ve also started thinking a lot more about what I’m trying to do outside of “capture an image competently,” and what it means when I take a picture, or when a picture survives the gauntlet it ran from previsualization to capture to “flagged as a keeper” to edit to printing/sharing/etc.

And I’ve also been asking myself about what I’m after at the print/share/etc. stage of the process.

So there’s one set of thoughts. Now for another:

My diary app recently started kicking up “on this day” entries from a few years back, when I went on a social media sabbatical. I was pretty unhappy with the state of my social brain. Everything went from being a vague impression still sloshing around in the limbic system to a tweet or a post somewhere, but with a layer of self-editing that really bothered me because it felt reflexive and unconsidered. I’d stop when I’d catch myself doing it and ask myself why I was doing it, and I never liked the answers. So I deleted all the social apps on my phone, deactivated my accounts, and turned off all the mail notifications the more obnoxious services will still send you when they can tell you’re not “engaged.”

I’m not going to try to sell you on doing that. It wasn’t like I experienced some sort of creative renaissance. I did just stop sharing everything for a while, and that meant I didn’t have to waste time wondering why I was sharing the way I did, or wondering what sort of reaction something I’d shared had elicited. I felt like I had a certain amount of mental space I hadn’t had in a while.

After a while, I drifted back in, and began the cycle all over. This past year has had its own set of challenges, and I’ve started to feel a growing disconnect between the person I am and the person I’m sort of performing on social media. I once read that younger folks usually take a break in the form of walking away from their accounts, never to return. They just establish a new account and build a new set of friends/connections, leaving behind their old identity. I don’t like the thought of that because I hate the thought of being read as having unfriended/unfollowed someone when I really just want to get a break from all of it, but I think I need another pause, so I’m going to take one. Here’s how to reach me:

  • Mail: mph at puddingbowl.org
  • Skype: michael_hall
  • Google Hangouts/Talk/Whatever-they-call-it: pdxmph
  • Signal: Please drop a mail and we can exchange info.

Management Training

If I speak in the languages of humans and angels but have no love, I have become a reverberating gong or a clashing cymbal. — 1 COR 13:1

There’s a certain amount of pressure on the professional at some point in their career to create a Medium account and engage in some self-marketing. I found an old draft of a scuppered attempt at that while going through the digital shoebox that is my Evernote account, and realized that’s not going to happen. We have one Rands in Repose and that is enough.

However:

  • Today I learned a piece of good news about someone who once worked for me
  • I recently took some time off and got to talk about work to people who don’t see me at work
  • I shipped a book of koans off to a friend and selected a few that meant something to me, including one that touches on this topic

So, I’m going to share the anecdote I had in Evernote that was meant to be the core of a Mediumesque post on my tenure as a manager and instead use it for this much more distilled set of ideas I want to get off my plate instead of turning them into some awful “Stirling’s Gold” series:

I was out in the field at Fort Bragg on a week-long exercise. The chow truck came around to our site and everybody lined up. One of the soldiers in my little operations group ran up to the front of the line, filled a plate, and ran it back to the First Sergeant, who was sitting in front of his tent. He took the plate, set it inside his tent, and walked over to me:

“I need to talk to you, Hall.”

“Sure, Top.”

“Don’t ever let that happen again.”

“What’s that?”

“Fixing me a plate. Never, ever let one of your soldiers fix me a plate again.”

“Top, Private Goyer was just …”

“Don’t do it.”

And somehow I got it. I’m embarrassed that I got to the age of 27 before I learned that lesson.

Funny to write it out, but I think First Sergeant Rhodes and Shanley Kane would get each other. And speaking of her, go buy her book, even if it’s just to read “Values Towards Ethical and Radical Management.” She’s got way more useful stuff to say than I was ever going to waste on Medium.

Alien Architectures

I thought I’d give an ASUS Chromebook Flip a shot as a low-cost, novel alternative to an iPad Pro with a keyboard. After playing around with a Dell Chromebook 11 last year, I got to know the world of dual-booting Chromebooks.

The Flip itself is pretty neat. It feels sturdy (aluminum body), has a decent enough display for what it is (not Retina, a notch better than the Dell’s, touch-sensitive), and it can convert into a tablet by flipping the screen back. Load up the Beta channel of ChromeOS, and it can run Android apps natively alongside ChromeOS apps, which is sort of cool.

My thought was, “tiny, rugged, cheap writing and coding device” vs. the iPad Pro (sort of large, expensive, and you can write on it but coding is tough).

Sadly, the Flip uses an ARM CPU, which immediately makes things a bit tougher if you’re going to try to put Linux on it. For instance, it was no problem to get Trusty installed via Crouton, but the ARM architecture means some things aren’t readily available (e.g. a Dropbox client). The only distro I could find with docs for dual-booting was Arch Linux.

On the ChromeOS side, there was some stuff to like about it:

The Amazon Cloud Reader app worked well when it was in tablet mode. The Android app support made it possible to play Hearthstone. I was curious how fast it would run and it wasn’t bad: More smoothly than on a first-gen Retina iPad mini. It was nice for browsing around news sites in tablet form.

On the negative side, the touch support for ChromeOS feels a little off. Google Inbox isn’t great in tablet mode (which feels like the natural mode for it), and if you’ve ever tried to use Gmail or Google Calendar proper on an iPad, you now how bad they are in a touch interface. I also hated the on-screen keyboard. I haven’t taken the time to figure out what the difference is between it and the iOS on-screen keyboard, but my accuracy on it was terrible, even when typing slowly.

So, I think I’m going to wipe it and send it back (or pass it along to someone who has appropriate expectations for this kind of thing). It was interesting to fiddle with, and it helped me think about what I’d really like in a portable computing device. iPads are still a hair too locked down for my tastes. The new Yoga Book sounds sort of amazing and strange and closer to what I’d like.

I also wouldn’t mind someone finally coming out with an iOS terminal app that can support mosh, which allows a level of persistence in an ssh connection that makes whether or not you’re locally running your Ruby interpreter or Emacs instance less material. The last iOS ssh client to provide that was iSSH, but it’s no longer under development.

OmniFocus2Evernote

I like keeping track of tasks in OmniFocus (for now) and I like to keep notes in Evernote (most of the time). I don’t like keeping notes in OmniFocus outside of a few quick jots to add context to a task.

This afternoon I was setting up a series of tasks that will require some research, links to assorted pages, links to notes within Evernote, and some other stuff that further busted my willingness to keep notes in OmniFocus, so I came up with this script.

What It Does

It takes your currently selected OmniFocus task or project (henceforth referred to as “the item”) and makes a new note in Evernote with it. That note has a few characteristics that are useful:

First, the source URL of the new Evernote note is the application URL link of the item. It looks like this in Evernote:

Evernote Premium

That means if you’re in the Evernote note and need to find your way back to the OmniFocus item, you can just click that link and away you go. You can find that link in Evernote for mobile by tapping the note’s info button.

Second, it sets an Evernote reminder that matches the due date of the item. If you use reminders (doesn’t everybody?) then you will have a tidy list of notes that are associated with (and linked to) your OmniFocus items readily available.

Third, it prepends the new Evernote note’s link to the OmniFocus item’s note, so that when you’re in OmniFocus, you can easily find your way back to the Evernote note.

Making It Easier to Use

OmniFocus will let you save scripts in its script folder then set them up as buttons in its toolbar:

  1. Make sure you have the directory ~/Library/Application\ Scripts/com.omnigroup.OmniFocus2
  2. Save the script below into that directory.
  3. Open OmniFocus
  4. Right-click on the toolbar and select “Customize Toolbar …”
  5. Look for a black-and-white script icon with the name of your script.
  6. Drag that icon into the toolbar.

You can make sure it’s working by selecting a task or project and clicking the icon. In this case, “working” means:

  • A new note in Evernote is created with:
    • a title matching that of the OmniFocus item
    • a link back to the OmniFocus item
    • a reminder set to the due date of the OmniFocus item
  • A link to the Evernote note is appended to the top of the OmniFocus item’s note.

Bugs:

  • It’ll bomb if you try to do this with an OmniFocus context.
  • It is stupid and doesn’t care if you’ve already done this with the existing project or task: You’ll just get more links added to the item’s note, and more Evernote notes will be created.
© Michael Hall, licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 United States license.