Sunday, April 23, 2017

Lessons From "The World"


This is a tale of two very different vacations that happened all in the space of 12 days. One return flight, Mickey Mouse, a hurricane, ferries, and monorails were all in the mix. In all that, there were some lessons learned. If you have read my blog for a while you know I periodically rant about Disney awesomeness, and this is yet another in that series, but with a twist.

People who read my blog know I am a Disney fanatic and write about the Disney experience relatively often. So it may come as a surprise that I had never been to "The World" before October last year. Disneyland (AKA "The Land") in California is our family's go-to happy place and my own fandom centers around the Disney philosophy and business methodology, so making the long trek from Alberta to Florida was not a big priority. This past October however, we had a coincidental opportunity to be in Orlando, so we turned it into a vacation. What follows is the story of lessons learned when visiting "The World" and the unexpected contrast with "The Land".


Disney World part 1 (off-property) - In addition to being a Disney fan, I am also a Marriott fan so when we started planning this trip we researched Disney hotels and Marriott hotels in the park area. The Disney hotels offer some surprisingly good prices, but the "good neighbor" hotels are better, and when you look at a map, they appear to be just across the street from each other, so it made sense to book that way.

Wrong.

Hindsight is 20:20, but that is a topic for the next section. Heading into the vacation, we had to plan based on maps and reviews, hotel descriptions and some experience. Going on our Anaheim experience, we thought we could trust the fact that a "Good Neighbour" hotel was Disney-trained and endorsed with access to the park transit system as well as park pass sales. What we discovered was far from that.

Our first stay was booked for the full duration at a Marriott Fairfield hotel that was listed as a "good neighbor" hotel with "free transit to all Disney parks". Apparently, that means something completely different in Florida than it does in California. When checking in, we were asked to pick one of 3 departure times for the bus to the TTC (Travel and Ticket Center) and the options were 90 minutes apart. That was the only option available, which was a huge departure from our California experience of being able to hop on an ART (Anaheim Rapid Transit) bus at almost any time and be in the actual park within 20 minutes from just about anywhere on the route.

It gets worse.

The provided bus was run by a tour contractor who was clearly not Disney-trained, provided limited space (a 20 seat bus for a 200 room hotel? Seriously?) and refused to take any stroller larger than a compact umbrella style. Again, seriously? At Disney World? Fine. We booked the time and waited where the bus was supposed to be... only for it to be 20 minutes late... then fought with the bus driver over the size of the stroller... then it took nearly an hour to get to the TTC because contractors are apparently not allowed to use the same roads that authorized Disney transit staff can use. Keep that in mind for later. The net result was an epic journey that took us nearly 3 hours to get from the hotel room to the Magic Kingdom - something that would have taken us 15 minutes in Anaheim.

Deep Breath.

OK, so that was painful, but the park experience made all of that go away for several hours, until we had to go through it all in reverse... and then repeat it the next day. By the evening of day two, we were so frustrated with the experience, we had considered checking out and just catching an early flight home. I was convinced the vacation was completely ruined. The only reason we did not just pack up and head for the airport was the great experience we had while actually in the park. Disney saved the day and they don't even know it. We decided to try another option.

Look across the road.

Yup. 200 yards away was the edge of the actual Disney park. I could literally see official Disney hotels across the highway from the top floor of our Fairfield hotel. It was a 15-minute walk to sanctuary and a chance to salvage this nightmare vacation.


Disney World part 2 (on-property) - A quick Google search for "Disney property hotels" and a phone call later, we were booked into the Best Western that was literally 0.9 miles away and across the highway, but was actually located on Disney park property. This is also a "good neighbor" hotel, but from the minute you step onto the property it is obvious they are Disney-trained and proud of it. The difference in service and experience was tangible and it was available for a grand total of $3 per night more. This is where the revelation really kicks in and where I mentioned the hindsight above. Being on park property also means it is serviced by official Disney transit which runs directly between the park hotels and the individual parks about every 30 minutes ALL DAY LONG.

It gets better.

Since transportation is provided by Disney transit, they can use the Disney service roads that can get you from the hotel to the park in 15 to 20 minutes as opposed to an hour. The difference was black and white, night and day. This vacation was saved. Disney buses can take you directly from a Disney property hotel to any of the parks, but busses that travel from NON-property hotels MUST take you to the TTC only and you have to make your way to the actual parks via bus transfers, ferries or monorails. Also, many of the park property hotels are within walking distance to Disney Springs - That is "Down Town Disney" for fans of "The Land".

Then it got wet.


You may have heard about hurricane Mathew. Yeah, that was us up on the 14th floor watching the hurricane come in off the coast. Did we panic? Heck no. By this time we were in full Disney mode and nothing could touch us. This was one more proof point that staying in a Disney park property hotel was worth it. The management took the crisis and cranked up the Disney effect, opening up the restaurant and bar to full-time access, setting up a makeshift theater in one of the conference rooms to show Disney films for the kids. They generally went out of their way to make storm-enforced quarantine almost unnoticeable.

Just do it.

If you are planning a trip to "The World", don't even think about booking a hotel off-property. A Disney hotel is better and actually worth the money, but if you cannot get into one, at least get a hotel that is on park property. You will not be disappointed.


The Park(s) - This place is freaking HUGE. The Anaheim property is all on one plot of land where you can literally walk to every single attraction in a single day as long as you don't stand in any lines. I know because I have done it. This was core to Walt's original idea of a family park for all to enjoy; A place to take your kids for an afternoon for some inclusive family entertainment. Orlando is not that at all.

From Wikipedia: The property covers 27,258 acres (43 sq mi; 110 km2), housing twenty-seven themed resort hotels, nine non–Disney hotels, four theme parks, two water parks, several golf courses, a camping resort, and other entertainment venues, including the new Disney Springs. 
~ https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Walt_Disney_World



There is a great post from here from Parker Monroe that clearly shows the Disney World property lines both now and from the original "Project X" days. To make it more clear, I have superimposed the Disneyland property (the black blob) over the area occupied by The Magic Kingdom circled in red in the image here.  While the seem roughly the same size, Disneyland has much more greenspace, where Disney World packs in more attractions (and walking, and lines).



That image above was from an eye level of 1.32Km (4300 ft). You have to fly out to nearly 15Km (49000 ft) in order to see the entire Disney World property as shown circled in red in the image left. That small red dot represents the area of Disneyland as an overlay on the Magic Kingdom.

The point here is that if you are used to the Disneyland park in Anaheim being highly accessible and compact, you are in for a surprise when you visit Orlando.

The important lesson from vacation experience #1 is that if you stay outside park property represented by the red circle, your stay will probably be miserable. 

Now for the specific park differences. Being used to the tight arrangement in Anaheim, I was really quite amazed at the expanse of the Orlando property. My observations about the parks are below.


-- Magic Kingdom -- 

When you first arrive, it makes sense to go here first because this is where the Ticket and
Transportation Center (TTC) is and is where you will likely need to buy or convert your park passes. From here you can get to any of the parks, resorts, and administration areas. The magic Kingdom is just across Bay Lake from here, a quick ferry or monorail ride away.

Getting through the main gate and entering Main Street through the train station arches is very similar to Disneyland, but bigger - everything here is just "bigger". The walk down Main Street and up to the castle was magical, you can really feel Walt's touch here. It is clear that this is what his original vision was all about and for Disney fans, this is a real treat. Unfortunately, when you leave Main Street, it is pretty clear that Roy's vision took over and the most of the rest of the Magic Kingdoms seems to have been designed by accountants, with a few notable exceptions.  Prices are higher, there is less green space, and there are more lines.  Most notable is the active funneling of traffic into purchasing areas.  For instance, every ride seems to exit into a gift store that aggressively targets the smallest of your children with expensive toys and there are no alternative routes out.  This is in sharp contrast to our experience at "The Land".

The prices were really a shock.   A spaghetti dinner that would have cost $13 in Anaheim was $26 in Orlando.  A T-shirt we bought a few months earlier for $14 in Anaheim was $28 in Orlando (for a children's size 4!!!) We will be more prepared for that on the next visit.

The bad stuff:

 - Small World had been jammed into a closet and looks like some fan's backyard homage. Seriously. I was shocked at how hacked up and half-assed this recreation was. If you are from the East Cost and have never seen the *real* Small World at Disneyland, PLEASE take a trip to California just to experience the attraction the way it was originally designed. If you are a Disneyland regular making your first trip to "The World", prepare to be sadly disappointed.
The *Real* Small World in Disneyland
WDW Small World - A miniature recreation

 - Pirates of the Caribbean is another example of a really poor reproduction. No Bayou lagoon, creepy banjo player, lightning bugs or crickets. No scary drop into Davey Jones locker, and no ride back up to the land of the living. Just a ride. So sad. If you have never experienced the original Disneyland version of this attraction, then you have no idea what you are missing. For all the Disneyland fans I know, this ride is a virtual religious experience and many people will start and end their days on "Pirates". I walked away from the Florida version wondering what I had just experienced.

 - The Tiki Room is the last of the real disappointments in the Magic Kingdom. Again, if you have not experienced the awesomeness of the Disneyland original version, then you don't know what you are missing. I, however, was very aware that there were no singing Polynesian gods entertaining me while I waited for the show, but rather had a couple of comedic parrots talking by a waterfall effect - boring.

The good stuff:

The Little Mermaid was pretty cool. They have done a really nice job of storytelling in the long line before the ride. I know that sounds like a given for Disney, but it is not necessarily true at the Orlando park. Likewise with Seven Dwarfs Mine Ride, Big Thunder Mountain, and The Haunted Mansion. These all have similar versions in Disneyland, but like much of this park, it is kinda the same, but very different too.

One of the benefits of having this much space if that they can just add-on when they introduce new attractions. There is some argument to be had about the amount of space Disney actually has available to them, but so far they have been able to keep old rides while adding new ones as well. This is a luxury not available to the team in Anaheim. Disneyland had to replace the TTA PeopleMover many years ago to make room for newer rides. The same fate was true for Country Bear Jamboree, Swiss Family Tree House, and The Carousel of Progress, which are all still alive and well at the Orlando park.

Overall, I was a bit disappointed with the Magic Kingdom. It seemed overly commercialized which is a departure from the Disney experience in Anaheim.  I now understand all those people who claim Disney is a tourist trap with overpriced merchandise.  


-- Animal Kingdom --

This is a whole other park in more ways than one. Located about a 30-minute bus ride from the TTC, it is essentially a wildlife preserve and education center. I had originally likened this to visiting the San Diego Zoo, but it is considerably different than that. The Savana Safari, Gorilla Falls, and The Affection Section are only some of the many reasons to visit this park. When we go back again, we will likely make this a separate 3-day vacation and stay in at the Animal Kingdom Lodge right at the park.

-- Hollywood Studios --

This park is very similar to California Adventure Park in Anaheim but is about a 20-minute bus ride from the TTC as opposed to a walk across the maingate area. This is where you can still find Muppets, Ariel, and the Disney Junior kids, but there is also a great compliment of Star Wars and Hollywood movie excitement as well. I am not sure this is worth a vacation in itself, but certainly worth a day or two.



-- EPCOT --

I saved the best for last.  Another 20 Minute bus ride from the TTC will get you to what should have been Walt's city of the future.  Unfortunately, Walt died 16 years before EPCOT opened its gates and it never became the experimental city he envisioned, but the park it became under Roy's direction is still a great place.  Spaceship Earth (the giant golf ball) is impressive both inside and out, as are the Land and Sea pavilions, but the real meat of this park is the World Showcase. Here you can "visit" at least a dozen countries, taste the food, experience the culture, and maybe take a ride or two.  
There is a good blog post here on the EPCOT Story if you want to read more.


What could have ended in a very truncated and miserable vacation, turned out to be pretty awesome, but only because some Disney magic salvaged it. If you are planning your first trip to Disney World, I hope the lessons we learned can help you have a better vacation right from the start.






Sunday, March 12, 2017

Duality

A war rages between darkness and the light.  Good and evil, right and wrong, left and right, yin and yang, the story is ageless and has been written in every language, yet persists; evading the erosion of time.
YinYang

I have friends who wake every morning and thank Gaia for her gifts and others who converse with Vishnu.  Some of my friends are born again, and others think they got it right the first time.  Some friends would like me to believe that the world is only 6000 years old and the dinosaurs were once companions.  There are others who can show me evidence of intelligence more than 10,000 years old and have their beliefs firmly rooted in science.  The common thread in all of these compatriates is a belief that good will always win out over evil.  They all have creators that were inherently good, and those creators had enemies that were inherently evil.  At the core of all faith, we all believe the same thing.

Current world events may seem desperate.  The news seems to be full of earth-shaking historic events, but this has all been written before.  This story had been told again and again with different actors on various stages at various times, but the fight is the same.  The war between good and evil has periodic churn, and we now find ourselves in the thick of it.  In Greek mythology, Eris and Harmonia have been battling since the beginning of time.  Our written historical events can name a dozen antagonists and their counterparts.  In all of those events, what bears true is the truth of the dichotomy of yin and yang.  Good cannot exist without evil.  Life is impossible without death.  You cannot comprehend the "right" without an appreciation for what is "wrong."

In today's instantly connected world,  it is easy to get caught up in the rising tide of one argument against another.  We are swayed by political or religious rhetoric and partial information to force weight to one side or another.  No one seems to have time to do the research to make sure that the argument is valid and true, but ignorance and darkness are bedfellows.  Knowledge and truth are the companions of light.  Understand the darkness to embrace and defend the light.

Don't let the darkness win.



Saturday, February 25, 2017

Explore


In 1980 I was 13 years old and had dreams of working in space at some point in my life.  Solid fuel rocket motors, telemetry modules, and star charts littered my bedroom.  With STS-1, Space Shuttle Columbia took it's first voyage to the void and Carl Sagan was my hero.  That was also the year the Planetary Society was started by Carl Sagan, Bruce Murray, and Louis Friedman. I was one of the first card-carrying members.  I remember the excitement of receiving my card all the way from Pasadena California, which seemed like a billion miles away for a teenager from British Columbia, Canada.  The card itself was just a piece of paper, but what it represented was important to us as a species, and I was determined to be part of it.

Thirty-six years in, The Planetary Society has been responsible for S.E.T.I. (The Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence), Rovers on Mars, Lightsails, and a myriad of space science advances. We have driven the mission to discover Pluto and to chart near-Earth objects.  Its 40,000 members have funded research and pooled resources to search the sky for threats and opportunities.  The Society has lobbied governments, penned papers, and built backyard telescopes in the name of discovery and understanding our universe.  There is also an excellent chance you have never heard of it.

This week, astronomers revealed details around the discovery of three Earth-like potentially habitable planets orbiting the star TRAPPIST-1 in the constellation Aquarius.  The data shows seven planets in total with three in the habitable zone.  This may be one of the most important discoveries in space exploration history.  For SETI researchers, this is a gold mine of vast proportions.  While there have been other planets that could potentially support some description of life including Mars and Europa in our solar system, at least one of these new TRAPPST-1 planets could support life very similar to our own.

The discovery is remarkable in many ways and should provide decades of work for space science researchers.  Exobiologists will be examining data and hypothesizing on the possibility of life forms.  Astronomers will be trying to gather as much data as possible to accurately chart the planetary system.  Aerospace engineers will be redirecting their efforts to find ways to improve how we observe that portion of space for some time.  I would not doubt that at least some attention will be directed toward transport technologies to develop better rocket motors.

The TRAPPIST-1 system is more than 39 light-years from Earth.  With current technology, it could take 700,000 years to reach, but engine designs already in the conceptual stage could shorten that to 300 years.  A Heinlein style generation ship powered by a Hawking Starshot engine could be within reach in the next decade.  If a Star Trek style warp drive were a reality, at warp factor 7 (TNG) the trip would take less than 22 days.

I watched the official announcement and press conference with great excitement this week, followed by disappointment reading through the comments sections of posts and articles.  Aside from the obvious trolls who just hate everything and exist only to start a fight, there were genuine comments from people suggesting this was a waste of funds, a hopeless exercise, or useless information.  The number of individuals either commenting that this was junk science or irrelevant to us here on Earth now were overwhelming.   That thinking is just so wrong.

When space science researchers explore, they learn important things about Earth while they are gathering data about space.  We would not have a real understanding of oceanic tides had we not studied the moon.  Kepler's work observing our neighboring planet's interactions created a set of calculations that enable us to see a larger universe.  Recording the creation of new stars in stellar nurseries helps us understand the mechanics of our own sun.  Sending probes and rovers to other planets gives us insight into natural geologic patterns unhampered by humans.  They also allow us to look for colonization opportunities that we may need someday.  Most logical people agree that if the human race is going to survive for the long term, we cannot bank on Earth being our only home.

I am looking forward to following the spin-off research from this discovery over the next few years.  I can only hope that scientists will have the backing and resources they need to do the important work that is ahead of them.



Sunday, February 5, 2017

Lifeboat


I first tried the "lifeboat exercise" as part of a business management planning session several years ago, and I found it so useful in helping me stay focused and run a small team that just do it continuously now.  I was surprised to see that this is not standard business practice for many managers so I thought I would write about it here.  It seems that many of the things I do as a business manager are non-standard, but seem valid.  Maybe I really do need to sit down and write that book I have been joking about for a while.

The lifeboat exercise comes from a psychology discussion examining morality under pressure.  Consider this - "You suddenly find yourself in a lifeboat with 15 people. However, it can only support 9. If you were in command, who would you choose to survive?"  The traditional exercise continues on to give a profile of the 15 people, and you have to determine who survives.  This discussion, however, leverages that concept toward business survival and focusing on what your minimum viable team is and how this can bleed over into your personal life.

Small startups go through some well-known growth stages.  At each stage, the founders have some tough decisions to make, but those usually boil down to a choice between getting much bigger and risking everything or downsizing and sacrificing people, projects and dreams.  Even the largest, most successful businesses need to consider the concept of waste and bloat.  I have seen a company with nine CTOs and they indeed had to go through the process of who to keep and who to reassign.

If you manage a team, imagine the CEO coming to you one day in confidence saying that there was a critical need to downsize to keep the doors open.  You may have 10 or 15 direct reports or more, but in order to keep the company afloat, you need to reduce your team to 5.  Who do you retain?  Who needs to be let go?  Who stays on your team and who is valuable but should be reassigned to a different group?  These are tough decisions that no one ever wants to make, but sometimes it happens.  The idea of doing the exercise on a routine basis is to avoid having to make that decision under pressure.  You can tailor that to your own reality so if you have 5 direct reports, maybe you need to reduce that to 3.  

While on the surface that seems like a simple numbers game, the mental process can be gut-wrenching.  If you have fantastically creative and highly motivated people, then losing any one of them could have a critical impact, and that is where it gets really hard.  It forces you to think of the greater good, not only individual contribution, and it forces you to look inward.  You have to at some point consider that YOU may be one of the people left behind.  Do you sacrifice yourself for the good of the organisation?  Would you?

Luckily for me, I have not ever had to follow through on that mental exercise, and I think that is actually a result of doing it in the first place.  When offered the opportunity to expand and hire, I've been able to do a mental check on the results of my last lifeboat exercise and determine that our team could cover temporary workload increases or learn more without expanding unnecessarily.  This has helped to remove the spectre of having to reduce staff in leaner times and the whole team prospers.  I believe when an entire company operates this way, a smaller dedicated team can do amazing things because you are always assessing value and avoiding bloat.

This whole concept can be translated to other things as well.  I consider the same process when developing software.  Can I build a functional deployment with 3 features instead of 5?  Do all the extraneous frills actually add any value, or can you deliver a smaller, but better product?

You can do the same in your personal life too.  Ask yourself if you really need all the "things" in your world or if you could live without.  Ask yourself "If you needed to leave your home tomorrow and you could only take with you what you could put in the back of a pick-up truck, what would those things be?"  Clothes, pictures, furniture, heirlooms and keepsakes?  What is critical, and what is just taking up space in your house?

Running through this mental exercise monthly can save the stress of having to make critical decisions under pressure and helps me streamline my life and my work.  Hopefully sharing this will help you too.








Saturday, January 21, 2017

More

Read more.  Write more.  Golf more.


Last January, I promised myself I would complete that trifecta of soul management during the year.  The first I completed - the other two I did not have much luck with.

It turns out that reading more can be done by expanding your reading list to the point where you need an extra hour a day just to skim the headlines - the world is a busy place.  In today's world, generating a select news-feed is relatively easy.  The hard part is filtering the hundreds of headlines down to the few that actually matter.  It helps to follow a few key influencers like Bill Marriott, Richard Branson, and Bill Gates. There are also a great number of garbage, fluff, duplicate posts that can be ignored - I am amazed at what passed for journalism in 2016.

Catching up on news headlines to stay current is only one part though.  Sadly, most news is written for a grade 10 reading level at best and I find myself sometimes struggling to get past poor grammar and horrible sentence structure.  Exercising the brain requires a well written novel or technical journal.  Thankfully, there seems to be an endless supply available still.

I have a stack of books and other publications on my desk now that represent my "to read" pile so to keep myself honest, I'll review them here after I have completed them.  The stack already includes interesting titles like The First 90 Days and An Astronaut's Guide to Life.

Writing is more complicated.  With all that reading, it is hard to write anything in an unbiased manner.  Two novels in various states of creation, random short story projects, and a couple of blogging commitments have spread my efforts thin.  Must F O C U S ....

The funny thing about writing is that the more you do it, the easier it is.  Like 10,000 monkeys, if I type enough words, eventually something useful will fall out of it all.  The magic is in the editing.

Golf was a complete write off.  Who has time?  I will really need to make an effort to get out and walk 9 holes at least once a month this season.  If I recall correctly, the last time I did that it was quite relaxing.  I am not a scorekeeper and that annoys some people I have golfed with in the past.  All those numbers just get in the way of a great walk on a nice day.

So how does your reading list look? Is there an interesting book waiting on the bookshelf just dying to be read?

When was the last time you wrote anything more complex than a shopping list?  Start small - write a thank you letter to someone who deserves one.  Or jot down a few paragraphs that describe your day.  Before you know it, there is a full journal in your hands and you are searching for a new Moleskine to crack open.

See you on the golf course.










Saturday, January 7, 2017

Time for a refresh

The first week of January has always been a "reset" time for me.  While it can be argued that January 1st is just an arbitrary date on the timeline and should not be considered some magic time to cast personal resolutions for change, the changing of the calendar is a great excuse to pause, take stock and reset.

I always take some time in the first week of January to assess where I am, where I need to be, and what it will take to get there.  Maybe I should do that more often.  Maybe that will be something I do this year.  It reminds me of the Vorlon five questions from the amazing series Babylon 5 from the late 1990's.  

Who are you? Really, who ARE you?  Beyond your name and address, past your occupations and title, what are the things that make you, you?  

Where are you going? Not physically, but metaphorically - where are you heading to in your life and career?  What are the decisions and actions active in your life now leading you to?

Where have you been? Contemplate the situations and experiences that have compounded to make you the person you are today.

Who do you follow? The people you admire, emulate, aspire to be can say much about you. 

Whom do you lead? Even if you don't consider yourself a "leader", there may be people who look up to you, admire you, and try to emulate you.  Be aware of of your actions and be aware of those who may see you as a leader even if you don't.

I kick off 2017 with a revamp of my websites, new social presence and a renewed effort to create awesomeness.  I'll be doing my best to divide my blog efforts to separate technology posts from the political rants as well.   I plan to focus a whole lot more on helping kids adopt technology which is something I did a great deal of in the past, but have been quite lax in recent years.

Whether you make New Years resolutions or not, take the time this week to assess where you are in life and where you want to be.  If you don't like what you see, make an effort to change it.

Be awesome, change the world.











Wednesday, December 21, 2016

'Twas the night before

I could write yet another variation on Clement Clarke Moore's famous poem and struggle yet again to find a rhyme for "Vixen", but I won't do that.  I could just post a nice classic picture of the Jolly old man with his Caribou friends and a sleigh full of toys. I won't do that either.

At this time of year, most of us are enjoying the hustle and bustle of the busy holiday season, picking out just the right presents and decorations or immersing ourselves in holiday baking.  We rush from place to place searching for just the right thing, shop till we drop and gorge ourselves on turkey and sweets.  At least most of us do.

For many people, this is a season of despair.  It is a season of reminders that they have less than others or will soon be in that position.  It is a season filled with memories of lost loved ones, hospital stays, and empty chairs at the dinner table.  For many people, this is the most depressing time of the year.  The thing is that in many cases, those people hide their crippling despair very well.

So this year, I won't decorate my website with snowflakes and write a catchy Christmas poem.  I won't overtly push my Christmas joy on people who don't necessarily want it.  That will be difficult because it really is my favourite time of year.   I will however continue to support my local food bank and shelter with more than usual cash donations so they can multiply that into useful food, shelter, blankets, and clothing for those who need it.  It is cold out there and there are more unemployed friends and neighbors than any previous year I can remember.  People who were "fine" last year may be struggling to put food on the table this year.

One thing I can do as a writer, as a story teller, is to raise awareness and maybe remind people that the joyous season is not so for many.  This season, perhaps the best present you can offer is a shoulder to lean on, an attentive ear to listen, a warm blanket and a friendly smile.  Sometimes the people who seem happiest on the outside are disintegrating inside. At this time of year more than others, there is a greater divide and more tension for those who are struggling financially and emotionally.

That grocery store clerk who just rang through your $40 turkey, probably cannot afford one themselves and likely has to work through the holidays to pay the rent.  That neighbor who puts the tree up at the last minute is grieving the loss of a family member.  The college student you see at the bus stop every morning has lost hope of having any productive future.  For those people Christmas time just sucks.

So my gift to all my friends and family this season is an ear, a shoulder, a hug and a warm blanket.  If I reach out to you in some random way and ask how you are doing, it is because I really want to know and I really want to help, to listen, and to get you through it.   If I can take the time to donate to the food bank, I can take the time to hold your hand.  You are important and you are not alone.

May the peace of the season find your heart and warm it.