Sunday, January 31, 2016

Botanic Gardens, Orchids

The Singapore Botanic Gardens is a 156-year-old tropical garden and is the only one in the world that opens from 5 a.m. to 12 midnight every day of the year. The Botanic Gardens receives about 4.5 million visitors annually. More than 10,000 species of flora is spread over its 82-hectares area, which is stretched vertically; the longest distance between the northern and southern ends is 2.5 km (1.6 mi). The Botanic Gardens receives about 4.5 million visitors annually. You can read more about its status as a UNESCO world heritage site here

Map of Botanic Gardens
I visit the gardens regularly as they are one MRT stop away. The shops near the Visitors Center sell teas, jams, kaya, spice mixes for local dishes, and other items that are more curated than a typical museum's mugs and tea shirts. I sent a selection of teas and jams to friends and relatives in the states (mailed from the Tanglin post) to get an idea of the local tastes. They are beautifully packaged and more reasonable than jams or seas sold at specialty expat markets. Near the shops are restaurants and cafes, because it wouldn't be very Singapore if you couldn't eat before, during, and after your adventure. As I like to say about the venues, Shop/Dine/Eat!

The National Orchid Garden is at the forefront of orchid studies and a pioneer in the cultivation of hybrids, complementing the nation's status as a major exporter of cut orchids. Aided by the equatorial climate, it houses the largest orchid collection of 1,200 species and 2,000 hybrids.

Orchid Garden

I was fascinated by the different types of orchids and their shapes. Some were intensely bright with saturated color and others were dark and moody. 

Nicknamed "Pirate Orchid"
Bright Fuschia Orchid
Scarlet Orchid

Yellow Orchids
Orchid with Beard

My sister bought me a beautiful book about the Orchids, so I will be updating this post with the proper names shortly. 

Saturday, December 12, 2015

Nicer But Less Effective. What Harvard Business School is definitely not teaching.

Find a Fake Busy Meme
OK, I'm making an assumption because I actually don't know what Harvard is teaching. 

But when I worked as a Project Manager in Los Angeles and my meetings ended for the day, I focused on tasks to move projects forward--summary reports, meeting minutes, follow up emails, and user acceptance tests--all artifacts of a project. When those were completed and I waited for responses and updates, there were 2 to 4 hours remaining in my day before I could turn off my computer at 6 to show an 8 hour work day. Not exactly the long American work day you hear so much about. 

So you might wonder why I have been laid off four times, twice as a Project Manager and twice as a Technical Writer, if I am so efficient. Because companies--especially management, and especially Big Companies--don't reward efficiency. They reward status quo. The cake is a lie and the work is not the work. 

And though it is easy to get jobs demonstrating efficiency, it is almost as easy to lose jobs demonstrating efficiency. Because when I was cannibalising my workload people noticed. In the first three months it got accolades from colleagues, managers, and managers' managers. But when you're still banging out widgets at a furious pace in month six, everyone starts to worry that their workload will be your next meal. I've been that person four times. 

If job preservation is your goal, busy work is your friend. Here is why:

  • The warm and fuzzy busy blanket. Though management complains of being slammed out from endless meetings and reports, they won't cancel the meetings or simplify reporting because they don't want to admit to spending time on unnecessary work. No manager who enjoys playing that crappy candy game on their phone during the Thursday conference call that they started is going to suggest that the call should go away. It feels good to pretend everything is of critical importance and it feels even better when those activities are added to the Done column of the TPS report. And the latte they drink while playing the crappy candy game during the Thursday call is the highlight of their week.
  • Management creates the clock watch culture of inefficiency. Emphasizing face time encourages managers to arbitrarily label problems as crises and then evaluate workers on long hours, which makes everyone inefficient. As Project Managers we joke that "If everything always went perfectly we wouldn't have jobs." [throat clear] How can you look like the hero if there is no dragon to slay? You can't. Until you find a dragon. And if you can make that call bragging about slaying the dragon from the comfort of the carpool lane, even better.
  • Asking for work at Big Company is asking to be laid off. Not that getting laid off is a bad thing! Sometimes it leads to a better job, more money, and a nice three month severance package. But if you are NOT looking for this, don't ask for more work. It signals that you cannot identify what needs to be done. Instead, identify the problem that additional work would solve for YOU (boredom, looking for a promotion or raise, curious to work with the new Drupal expert) and solve that problem. 
  • Presenteeism is the norm. Productivity in large companies dips by one third when people go to work with presenteeism (not physically or mentally productive due to real or imagined illness). I added the "imagined" illnesses part. Big Company culture rewards showing up. It doesn't care if you get anything done because it focuses on quarterly profits, budgets, and not getting sued. Make no mistake, you will get fired eventually. It just takes a really long time being useless before anybody can take action. 
  • Cultivate a fake busy portfolio. Fake busy is a thing, especially if you work for Big Company, which is why there is an entire fake busy movement. You are either creating the illusion that you are busy so you can dedicate time to things that actually matter (such as building the portal for Q3) instead of updating decks (which don't matter but executives love) to place blame explain why the portal for Q3 is behind schedule. Or you are creating the illusion that you are busy because there is so much demand for your skills that you cannot be part of the next layoff.
  • Find fake busy that makes you zen. After my fourth layoff, I learned that finishing projects on time was not nearly as important as making everyone around me feel good and feel busy. So I carved out small blocks of time that were enjoyable. I meditated in my car for 30 minutes, spent 15 minutes walking up ten flights of stairs in the parking lot, took 30 minute walks around the neighborhood or wrote notecards to my nephew and then mailed them in the mailbox down the street instead of the one in the mailroom. Nobody noticed these little outings and they made me feel good. They made me more zen. People want to work with zen more than they want to work with productive. 

There's a popular quote floating around attributed to Paolo Coelho. "Do something besides killing time because time is killing you." I like that quote, so while being killed by time at least enjoy some perks. 

Friday, December 11, 2015

Twice is Coincidence

What is coincidence?
According to science, repeating stories is a matter of focus and resource allocation. There is one central pool of resources and if we take away from that pool, there's fewer left to do things with
  • The Onion or CNN? Psychologists say that we tell the same stories to the same people because our destination memories are relatively weak due to lack of practice. We devote little mental attention to whom we are telling the story because we are trying to recall either on the origin of the information or the details of the story. For memory, To is harder than From. And destination memory worsens with age.
  • But enough about you, how about me? We say the same things to the same people because we are self-absorbed. When providing information to others we are preoccupied, thinking about ourselves and how we look and not our audiencePsychologists think there is a limited set of resources available. And the more self-focused a person is, the less likely their ability to recall their audience. 
But over the course of a few weeks I experience a strange phenomenon where people are telling me the same stories, asking me the same questions, and saying the same snippets at the same points in conversations. It isn't déjà vu, just repeated phrases with a wide range of acquaintances on different topics at different locations. 

"Have you also heard every single one of these stories?" I ask my husband while we are at the sink. He is washing and I am drying the good pots that don't go in the dishwasher. I list the stories, the replies, and the questions that I am hearing three and four times. 

"We all do it," he said. "We all repeat stories. And I'm sure it happens more as we age," he says.

"I think this is different because it's not just old people retelling the stories. It's happening with older people of course but also people our age. It's like I'm on a loop and if I mention a specific city or run into a certain person, I know what they are going to say. And then I get focused on trying to avoid hearing it again." 

We laugh at how ridiculous it is for me to attempt to avoid conversations that may occur.

If science tells us that resource allocation explains our inability to recall the audience, what is the purpose of retelling stories, asking the same questions, and saying the same thing at the same point in a conversation? It depends.
  • We may not feel heard. Or maybe we didn't get the response we wanted needed when we told the story or asked the question the first time so we retell (or re-ask) in hopes of getting a different response. 
  • We want to relive the moment. Maybe the event itself was enjoyable when it happened or the response we receive when we tell the story is enjoyable, so we keep telling it. 
  • Stories reinforce how want to be seen. It's not socially acceptable to say "I am a worldly and sophisticated person." But telling a story where that presents us this way is more socially acceptable, at least it is the first time we tell it.
  • We want to contribute. But we may be unable to articulate an opinion or need or we may be unable to add a meaningful addition to the conversation because of our own limitations. 

In the entertainment industry re-watching movies or episodes is called regressive re-consumption, watching movies again and again because they are emotionally efficientWe get the emotional payoff we are looking for with no surprises. Familiar things require less energy to process, and when something is easy to think about we tend to think it's good. So would it be too much of a stretch to think we look for comfort conversations the same way they seek comfort food or old movies?
When I mention my Groundhog Day experience to different people they also have their own experience with one person who retells stories. Everybody has known an elderly person who retells stories, and it is well documented that humans need to make sense of their past. Retelling stories is one way to serve that function. But nobody I talk to has experienced a list a series of disparate people repeating themselves. It cannot be about dementia because my experiences involve a wide range of people. 

Ian Fleming wrote, "Once is an accident. Twice is coincidence. Three times is an enemy action." Reflexively saying aloud "My college roommate was Spanish" whenever the conversation is about Spain is not enemy action, it's a verbal tick. So how do we avoid repeating ourselves?

  • Be authentic. Understandably smalltalk is going through the motions, a warm up for a connection--nobody really cares about the weather or traffic. But after smalltalk, a conversation is an opportunity to learn about the other person. If you are talking to someone you care about, cherish that time together. Listen. Don't have an agenda.
  • Focus on them. If you forget the names of people as soon as you are introduced, recognize that it is because you are thinking about you, not them. The same thing happens when you go into repeat mode. Next time you tell a story, say the person's name, e.g., "Have I told you, Carol, that I was stuck in Hawaii during 9/11?" Saying their name forces you to focus on them, and probably remember you already told them this story.
  • Take a breath. When someone asks me the same question multiple times I think one of two things, a mental problem or they didn't believe my answer. But it just feels this way and most likely neither is true. Most likely we are just not being present (I know, this is an overused phrase) and are offering up verbal ticks in the form of rehashed conversation because we are distracted by something. So take a breath, slow down, and return to the moment. 
  • Acknowledge uneasiness. Most people on forums said they repeated themselves when they felt awkward or stressed. If you feel this way, just accept it. Continue to feel this way while listening to the other person. After the conversation, when you are alone, self-reflect, identify the cause of the awkwardness, and realize that it won't kill you. 

Monday, November 30, 2015

First 90 Days

I arrived in Singapore exactly three months ago. The first week we stayed at a hotel and I took the bus to visit my dog in quarantine every day. The hotel was near Orchard, the fancy retail area of Singapore, which is a weird mix of feeling as though you are on vacation every day because you are in a beautiful hotel drinking cappuccinos with breakfast while constantly being reminded that this is not a vacation, it's your new real life. But once we signed the lease, arranged for rental furniture, and moved into our apartment things became very real. This is what I learned. 

Plan breakfast. When I have moved, whether it has been down the street during a major remodel or across the globe, there are two things I make sure are in order before we eat dinner--beds and breakfast, and this goes for the dog as well as my husband and me. At some point we stop unpacking to buy coffee, cereal, fruit, and milk for breakfast. Waking up in a strange place is much less strange with the smell of coffee brewing. A weekday breakfast in the U.S. is Nature's Path cereal, but at $8.00 per box in Singapore accompanied with $6.00 almond milk we needed to make substitutions. Our Singapore regular breakfast is muesli with bananas or pears and granola, and topped with rice or oat milk. And coffee.

Start small. Week one we had to buy everything. We couldn't just drive to Target and load up the car, we had to buy the most critical things to get us through our first few days at the mom and pop store next door to our condo. Crammed into an aisle of the mom and pop store and crouching next to toiletries where the products and currency were foreign, (some of which had no English writing on them,) we debated about what could either be shower gel or shampoo, while every five seconds someone needs to walk by. (I don't know what it is about grocery shopping in Asia, but no matter where you stand within five seconds someone else always needs to be exactly where you are.) So that's what you do. You buy shower gel, a sponge, dishwashing liquid, dish towels, and trash bags and then go home, take a nap to escape the heat, and then have a glass of wine on the balcony. Because the next day will be easier and auntie and uncle will remember you.

Lists, lists, and more lists. One of the things to get used to in a new country is grocery shopping. Not only are the stores and products different but in my case I don't have a car, so everything I purchase must fit into my trolley, which means I shop more often and buy fewer things. Also there is not one giant grocery store to do all your shopping and you will likely specialize, buying different products at different stores:
  • Mustafa: Tahini, granola, Bob's Red Mill grains and flours. 
  • Phoon Huat: Anything dairy, dried fruit, nuts, flours, oils and anything related to baking. 
  • Wet markets: Produce and fish
  • Fair Price: Toiletries, paper goods, wine.
  • Aunty and Uncle: Anything and everything, especially in a pinch.
  • Expat markets: Cold Storage and various specialty butcher and bread stores sell gourmet items for unique dishes from home. 
I nearly cried during my first trip to Mustafa because the basket I was carrying was very heavy, I couldn't find anything, and the store was very crowded. Don't go on a weekend, stay hydrated, and buy only food. The house cleaning supplies you can buy anywhere.

Find your ten. 
Most families rotate through ten meals for dinner regularly. Make a list of ten meals your family eats and keep that list in a notes app on your phone. Then make another list for the ingredients in those ten meals which will become the standard grocery list from which you shop. If you can only come up with seven or five meals that's okay. One of my ten was "Thug Chili" and I crossed that off our list because the idea of eating chili on the deck when it's 31 degrees didn't work. 

Make produce your bitch. When you move to a new country all the produce you eat like blueberries and kale is either impossible to find or outrageously expensive. Take a breathe and don't let the squash or long beans intimidate you. I haven't eaten blueberries or kale since I arrived. Instead I have found pears that taste like sorbet, potatoes that cost $1.50 per bag, and squash that tastes good in anything. And heavenly mushrooms. Buy what is familiar to you at first and rotate in a couple new pieces every time you shop. This week is going to be the week of Chinese greens for me. I will let you know how that goes. 

Learn how you will live. One thing we didn't want was the crazy looking expat apartment that people have because they need everything within reach at all times. I saw kitchens with spice racks and power strips with adapters on the counters in which electric kettles, coffee makers and grinders, blenders, toasters, and juicers were plugged. We learned that a toaster doesn't fit into our new life nor does a daily green drink or grinding our own coffee. We learned a lot living with minimal rented furniture and household items for two months and we are saying what I have heard many expats say after moving to Singapore. "You just don't need all the crap you thought you did." 

Go on a space diet. Read The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up on the plane so you can worry less about storing the stuff you don't like anymore and don't need in your new life. The biggest revelation came to me when I gave away my flare jeans that made my butt look awesome because they no longer make my smaller butt look awesome. So I thanked them for their service and dropped them at H&M. The big takeaways (after purging) from her KonMari method are her method of folding clothes, the wisdom of finding a home for everything, and putting everything away right now. Which leads me to post-it life lesson #2: "F-it. Just f-ing get rid of it." Feel free to write that down on a pink post-in and Pinterest it. 

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Chinese Gardens

On Fridays I do walks around Singapore with a Meetup group. It's not only a bit of exercise but we walk slow enough so that it's very social and on top of that I get to explore places on the island that I may not normally see. This Friday we walked through the Singapore Chinese Gardens. It's monsoon season now and it rains daily, which it was doing as I rode the train to the Chinese Garden MRT, but the rain stopped ten minutes before our walk just as we were gathering at the MRT station and deciding whether or not to buy coffees and umbrellas from Cheers. 

The east entrance was specially constructed in conjunction with the Chinese Garden MRT station to ensure easy access for pedestrians visiting the gardens. If you watch reality TV, the bridge served as the finish line of the reality competition series The Amazing Race Asia 2. 

Red bridge at east entrance

Red bridges are throughout the Chinese Gardens in various shapes and sizes as red symbolizes good fortune and happiness in Chinese culture. There is also a Japanese-style garden within the Chinese Gardens.

Red bridge to Japanese Gardens

The pagoda is the same in the picture with the red bridge. Pagodas traditionally have an odd number of levels and sometime attract lightning strikes because of their height, especially if the finial at the top is made of metal. 

Views of the stairwell from the top and the bottom reminded me of a conch shell. From the top you can see four ladies waving up at me. From the top floor, though you cannot see them, there are three geckos on the ceiling. There is something about their toes that I find adorable!

Four ladies at the base of the stairwell

Pagoda ceiling
Through lattice windows at the top of the pagoda you can see nearby HBD housing. It was during the Song dynasty that sophisticated lattice work began.

Lattice Window
The ‘Bai Hong Qiao’ (the white rainbow, 13-Arch Bridge) follows the style of the 17-Arch Bridge at the Summer Palace in Peking.

Bai Hong Qiao

Though not a religious person, the closest thing to spirituality I can sense is in trees. When I see light through green leaves and hear breezes rustling through the leaves it calms me. Which is probably why I feel pure rage when I read about clear cutting and slash and burn practices. There are relatively few things humans need to survive: air, water, food, shelter. Trees provide all these things. If you doubt that trees provide water, see what happens to rainfall patterns when trees are removed from the equation. 

Light through trees just after the rain stopped
Chinese Gardens also include Scholar's Rocks, which are especially prized if they have been pitted and sculpted by erosion. I don't know what the symbol is, but I loved the contrast of the soft, natural rock against the shiny Chinese red.

Scholar's Stone