Monday, March 28, 2011

Sundae Experiment: Jassen

This week's Sundae experiment presented me with a new challenge. My 'subjects' were relative strangers to me. As you probably noticed, my first three interviews involved friends, which in itself was cool and interesting, but they were 'safe', for lack of a better word. How would things go with someone I knew only in passing (e.g. getting ice cream every week)? Someone who didn't allow me the head start of already having a pretty good feel for who they were and where they came from. I must admit I was a little more anxious for these next two, but as luck would have it, I picked a couple of great and easygoing folks who made it as easy as chatting with old friends. It was a warmish sunny day, so I decided to take it to the backyard of the shop, overlooking one melting Nashawannuck Pond.

My two Sundae Experiment volunteers, Jassen and Ali, are married, and although there's definitely a similar theme to both of our conversations, I've decided to post just one at a time. I particularly enjoyed the story of how these two ended up together, but you're going to have to wait until Ali's piece for that part...

Up first, Jassen..

What’s the favorite part of your day?

I'd have to say when I get home and start cooking dinner. I like what I'm doing, but I've always wanted to be a chef. My mind goes away when I start chopping vegetables and getting spices prepared, just getting dinner ready. I love the smells that come off the stove or out of the oven.

What do you do for a living?

I work in sheet metal. I write programs that punch out the metal and bend it. Stuff like that.

Is your career a big part of your life? In other words, do you work to live or live to work?

I work to pay for what I live for. I go to work and while I'm there I'm completely dedicated, but the minute I get out, I'm out and it's time for my life. I try not to let the two mix. I don't bring work home. I do have to work overtime sometimes and once in a while I do think about stuff at home, but I try hard not to. Luckily, there’s not a lot I can do at home anyway.

Do you have any kids?

Actually, you’re the fifth one to know, we are now expecting.


It’s exciting and nerve-wracking a little. We've planned it so it's not like it's 'oh my god'.

I can edit that out if you're not ready to go 'public' with the good news.

No, it's ok. I think most people know already.

You've always struck me as a happy guy, with an easy laugh.

I am. Why worry about things you can't control. Live each day, enjoy it.

Do you think about it much or just live your life?

I don't know if I work at being happy. I just let the little things make me happy. Like driving to work and the sun is coming up, and the sky is bright red. That puts a smile on my face. It’s the little things. I enjoy the little things. At the same time, I try not to sweat the little things. I try to stay pretty upbeat about everything, as long as I'm healthy, my wife is healthy, and my family is around.

Which is more important - money or time?

Time, definitely.

I wouldn't sacrifice time for more money at work. What good is money if you're at work all the time, not doing the things you want to do? I don't know, I try not to live beyond my means, but money definitely isn't happiness.

Here’s a variation of a question I’ve asked a few times now, customized just for you – what advice would you have for your newborn baby as he or she enters the world?

Never eat yellow snow. (laughs)

I don't know. I guess it would be treat others as you want to be treated. I know it's very cliché, but it's also very true. Treat everyone equally. Never hold a prejudice before you get to know them.

Then it's fine to hate them. I’m kidding.

If you really don't get along with someone, you don't have to get along. Just don't be evil for the sake of being evil.

It's simple stuff, but it really does go a long way.

It is. I guess that's just the way I try to live.

Everyone tries get more, and have more, and do more. Just tone it back a little bit. This is fantastic; we’re sitting here by the pond on a sunny Sunday and eating ice cream. This is as complicated as I want to be right now.

Is there a person, place, book, or event that had a significant influence on you?

There's this one summer about five or six years ago, I'd just gotten out of a bad relationship. I went home to see my parents, not related in any way to my break-up, just a visit. I told my Dad a buddy of mine had taken me out fishing in kayaks recently. I told him we should buy kayaks. We'd always gone fishing. Well, we did and when we got the kayaks, we ended up going every Sunday for that entire summer. We’d meet at 8 in the morning, have breakfast, load up the kayaks, and go fishing. I spent every Sunday of that entire summer in this boat, on one of the local ponds. You learn a lot about yourself when you're trying to catch a fish with a little plastic worm. You think about a lot. There’s a ton of time while you wait for that nibble on the end of the line.

The reason I brought up the bad relationship is because that summer it was fresh in my mind - what went wrong, what happened, how did it happen? What do I want out of the next one? I’m always trying to improve. That's just where everything kind of clicked. Just fishing and thinking about life. What do you want out of it? I used to be on the go all the time - in Boston every weekend, go, go, go. Just slowing down that summer is what really changed my perspective on things. Slow it down. This is all your need – a piece of string, a hook, and a worm. And someone to hang out with. That's really all you need.

Relationships can be good like that, even when they end badly. I think it's when you actually grow the most. It’s easy to not think about stuff when things are going well.

That summer was awesome. Talking with my Dad. We had separate kayaks - he'd go one way, I'd go the other, and we’d meet in the middle. ‘How'd you do?’ Then there were other times when we'd just follow each other along the shoreline and just talk about stuff. ‘What do you think about this? What should I do about that?’

I bet if I interviewed your Dad, he would probably tell the same story. Quality time like that with Dad can be rare and precious. Guys don't usually have long conversations with each other.

I agree, even now if I call him up it's a three minute conversation. ‘How are you doing? Good and you? Fine, I’ll talk to you later.’ But we do still go fishing. Our schedules have changed a bit, but when we go it's just like it was that summer. How's married life, the house, the job, etc.? It expands from there. It starts with a simple ice breaker then goes on to many things about life.

Things are clicking right along for you. That's great.

Life is good. That’s not to say I don't have any stress, because everybody does but I try to make the most of it. You never know what's coming next.

You know one thing that's coming next for you, good luck with everything. I'm sure you're going to be a great Dad. And thanks for joining me, it’s been fun.

I agree, this was fun, and thanks for the ice cream.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Sundae Experiment #3.

I don't need a lot of words to introduce this next sundae experiment volunteer. Suffice to say, the project is progressing nicely. During this great conversation about life and change with my good friend Joe, I began to discover that this whole interview process is more about not holding onto the questions so tightly, listening, and just letting the natural flow of the conversation take itself where it wants us to go.

Art imitating life once again.

What’s the best part of your day?

Breakfast. I made breakfast this morning. It's nice to make breakfast for someone who appreciates it.

Is that a different answer now that you’re with someone?

Yes, my time alone taught me an appreciation for the simple pleasures. Now that I’m with someone again, sharing those things is key. Breakfast is something simple; it's how you start your day, and it sets the tone for the day.

Define happiness.

Happiness is a tough call for me as it encompasses so many different things. You can be happy with different parts of your life, but not necessarily be happy overall. Right now, it goes back to simplicity for me. A year ago did a re-evaluation of my life, and I figured out what made me tick, who I was as a person and what I was really looking for out of life. I cut a lot of things out of my life I felt weren't necessary. The things that make me happy are the simplest things. It’s not about money for me, it's about my kids... about seeing them... about seeing smiles on their faces. Bringing a little joy to someone else brings a huge amount of joy to me now. Whereas before, I think I was a very selfish person and really didn't think about other people a lot. I went through a rōnin period. I discovered that happiness is not about money or things. It’s about surrounding yourself with people that care about you and that you, in turn, care about.

I know some things about your past. You lost your father after a long illness. Yet, it doesn’t seem that this triggered such a self-evaluation. Why now?

It was a culmination of many things. I think it was mostly my divorce which became final February of last year. All through the separation I sort of abstractly understood that my life was going to change. At that point, I realized I had a chance to remake my life a little bit, in the way that I wanted it to be. It was a chance to make changes that I'd only given half-hearted attempts before - an opportunity to start over.

Did you have any help with these changes? Books?

I'm a very introspective person, so for me it was more internal than reading any sort of self-help books or anything like that. All along I knew the kinds of things I needed to do, but it wasn't until I was forced to that I did. The dynamic changed. With the kids, it certainly changed. Most people do this when they have the kids. Their outlook changes. They become much more focused on the kids, and for me I don't think that ever happened. I think that was what was wrong with my life. I didn't understand that for me, my kids are a huge part of what I do and my motivation. Now I really think about how my decisions affect them.

At that point, you were no longer living with kids. The empty apartment effect perhaps?

One big point for me is I have a good relationship with my ex-wife. We have issues from time-to-time but for the most part it's very good. We get along better now than we did for years. We both are focused on the kids. Both of us just failed to live up to what was needed in the relationship. She’s become the friend that I think was lost along the way.

It was two years ago, Thanksgiving day. I went over and had dinner with the kids. It felt like a family. It felt good. Then I went home to an enormous house where I was house-sitting at the time. Suddenly, I was surrounded by this other family's happy life. It was really depressing to realize I truly was alone...alone of my own doing... the result of a choice that I had made – my getting divorced. It was a point where I realized I didn't like, in a lot of ways, who I had been. I realized if I was ever going to be happy again, if I were to ever get to a point where I liked who I was, liked the dynamic between me and my kids, me and anybody, I needed to make some major changes in myself.

That’s the upside of when bad things that happen to us, sometimes it forces us to deal with stuff.

I think that's true and you know this from our conversations already. But my ex-wife and I did not have the classic “bad” relationship. We weren’t fighting constantly. The kids weren't aware there was anything wrong. We were just incapable of communicating with one another. I knew my life wasn't right and wasn't going where I wanted it to, and as much as I loved my ex, I wasn't doing her any favors, nor myself and certainly not my kids.

More often, it's easier to do nothing.

I understand the power of entropy in your life. To make a change often requires an enormous amount of effort and a lot of soul searching. Thanksgiving was the cornerstone, and I think the capstone was moving over here to Easthampton and really feeling I had created something new.

That's a great story. Suffice to say, you're happy now. Or happier?

Happier. I have my moments of course. My problem is that professionally I'm not where I want to be. I'm doing a job, I don't have a career.

Sometimes you have to break things down, and work on one aspect of your life at a time.

A part of this worst time in my life, right around when I split with my ex, my personal life was in the toilet. I was miserable all around. It was just so overwhelming for me. I'm not a person who would classify myself as depressed, but I would have to say I was depressed. There were times when I'd come home and just want to sleep. For me, it was definitely a step by step process, getting my life in order one thing at a time. It was my personal life most of the time, although I wanted to get my professional life in order too because that affects where you want to go. I got my personal life in order first. I feel fortunate to have someone in my life now who's important to me, that has similar interests, similar problems as well, both of us struggling to find ways to do what we want to do versus just what you have to do to get by.

As a father, you can answer this question better than my first two interviewees. What advice would you give your kids when you drop them off at college?

I've actually thought about this one, since I read it in the first interview. I've expressed this to my children already. Don't rely too much on planning. Don't feel like the decision you make today is something you will have to live with the rest of your life as far as the kind of things you're looking at in college. I think back to when I went to college myself, and my life is in such a different place than it was at that time. Back then I was reacting to all the things around me, and I didn't know who I was. You're a kid and you're expected make a decision – What's your major going to be? Where are you going with your life? It's absurd to ask someone that at that age, an eighteen year old kid, to make that kind of life decision. Circumstances are going to change, you just never know.

But you may just need to pick a direction. I went to school for engineering, and look where I am now.

For me, what I will always express to my children – do what you love. Look for that thing you want more than anything else. I think for me I always was thinking along the lines of ‘what do I need to do to have enough money to buy a house?’ and all the other transient things you go through in your life. But, the overarching theme in your life... What do you love? What makes you tick? What makes your heart beat a little bit faster? Too many of us get caught up in a career. What's going to pay the bills? What's going to move me up the ladder? What do our parents want? For me, my father never pushed me in any direction. He was physician, and Mom was a nurse. I had no desire to go into medicine. He was an old school doc and did house calls. The medical profession is not that world anymore. I wasn't interested in the direction it had gone. I didn't know what I wanted. I was interested in aviation and wanted to fly. But I didn't want to go into the military. To become a professional pilot as a civilian is nearly impossible. I bounced around for a long time and don't think it was until I moved to Massachusetts that I really got that love of the arts and writing. It had always been there, but I had never thought of it as a viable career choice. But I was fortunate, I landed in the best place in the U.S. for the kinds of things I wanted to do.

Is that still where you're headed?

I've been revisiting projects I had been wanting to do for a long time. For the most part, I had only been thinking about them. Having someone behind me that needles me if I don't do it, that helps a lot. It's one thing to have supportive people around you (‘you can do this, you have the talent... ability’), but I've never had someone consistently behind me saying 'Why aren't you doing that?' Why aren't you working on that project?' At times, it's a slippery slope. You don't want to feel like you're being hectored into anything, but you also want a strong force behind you. I'm not good at self-discipline by any means.

There's always a million reasons not to do something.


This metamorphosis has made you a better parent.

Very much so. And I think I'm supportive of anything my kids want to do. I give them as much guidance as I can. But I realize they're going to go off and make their own lives. My father was the kind of person that never gave any specific direction or push towards anything as a career. But he was a larger than life figure, and always gave me a sense of approval or disapproval with everything I did – very strongly. Whereas with my kids, while I'll support them, I would never tell them not to do something because it's not practical or not a good way to make a living. We often end up falling into a career we don't like and makes us miserable and then twenty years later find ourselves wondering where we went wrong.

It can be hard for parents to encourage kids to go into a profession like art or music where they know it will likely be a struggle.

Absolutely, but they will have that struggle inside themselves regardless. An artistic type, if they are working in a lab someplace or as an insurance adjustor, will have that feeling that the soul inside of them is just withering. And the struggle that you have as an artist is nothing compared to the struggle you have doing something you don't love.

Thoreau says most of us live 'lives of quiet desperation'. Do you agree?

Certainly. Absolutely. The thing is, I think a lot of people are very good at fooling themselves, at least temporarily, into feeling what they're doing is ok - they've made that choice to sell out, or do what they feel they had to do. It hits people on a cyclical basis where they understand they aren't doing what they should be. When that happens... that realization is a terrible thing.

This realization can spark two reactions – ignore it or fix it.

Yeah, you bolt. I think that's partially what I did to a certain extent. For years, I didn't know what I wanted. I still don't know exactly what I want. But at least I know the parts of my life I want to examine more, and I know that it's impossible to ignore those things. They’re always going to rear its ugly head down the line if you don't take the time to at least put some effort into doing what you want.

Any last thoughts?

For my daughter on her fifth birthday, I made a little container with five things I thought she needed throughout her life. Two of those were a pencil and a pen. The pencil, in order to write down those things that change, and the pen to write down those that are constant. I told her that she will be tempted to use the pen... to hold it in her hand and start to write with it often, but always to use the pencil. She should be open to change and not to think about life in absolutes. You can always make changes in your life.

Did I earn my ice cream or am I going to have to pay for it?

No I think that's a keeper. Thanks for sharing your story.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Sundae Experiment #2.

Just wrapped up the write-up on interview/sundae conversation number 2. Interview skills slightly better. Questions a little more refined. This time my 'subject' actually had the sundae, so I got to see how the timing worked out. Not sure yet if his sundae consumption speed is typical, but he finished in around 15 minutes, nearly perfect amount of time for me to fire a generous number of questions. The project is progressing nicely. Now it's about 'just doing it'. Got a good number of takers, but can always have more, so don't hesitate to drop me a line or mention your interest next time you're in the shop.

So without further delay, let me introduce Peter...

How would you define happiness?

Happiness to me is about having things and people you like around you and having goals with those people and things. These are goals that are attainable, that you believe are attainable, so you can make progress toward them, so that you’re content with what you have but also seeing something growing from that.

What makes you happy?

Having something or being in a situation that isn't happy or is upsetting and figuring out how to turn it into something good. I try to look at it as a whole then break it down, and figure out ways to make it better. It makes me happy when I can help people appreciate how you can turn something into a happy situation even if it's not. It’s easy to be happy on Christmas morning, but it’s the not-so-perfect days that really help determine your level of general happiness.

Describe a person, place, book, or event that had a significant impact on you.

When I was in high school, I skied, but I wasn't very good. I really wanted to be better so I joined the ski team at Berkshire East. I was horrible at first, laughed at even. But I kept working at it and got better and better. It was the perfect time, because I was young and impressionable. I learned that if I worked hard at something I could be successful. It was a huge confidence booster. That experience has been a lesson that has carried forward my whole life.

What would you do if you knew you couldn’t fail?

That's what I'm doing right now!

Maybe I would become an astronaut and go to Mars. I’d love to explore somewhere new. There are so many other factors in that beyond what I can do, but I really like the idea of exploring somewhere unexplored. Mars would be good.

How would your life change if you won $5 million in the lottery?

I don’t think much of anything would change. Would I quit my job? I’d probably do something similar than what I'm doing now. The difference would be I’d have more freedom to experiment, since I wouldn't have to worry about it being profitable. Something to do with electronics - learn more about electronics and go from there. It would be fun to invent educational games for kids, on an I-pad maybe. A game that could become part of their classroom - interactive. Kids could play each other. They could do it at Mary's orphanage.

You’re dropping your kid off at college for the first time. What advice would you share?

When I went to college someone told me don't eat the pizza. She told me this because when she went to college she gained a lot of weight, and it was because she and her friends ate pizza all the time. So I never ate pizza in college.

That’s too bad. College is all about eating pizza.

I know, it’s true. I didn’t gain as much weight, but I really did miss pizza.

Why are we here?

For the free sundae.

You just finished it, so why are you still here?

The reason we're here sounds sort of egotistical. It’s to satisfy ourselves. I came about because I wanted to satisfy myself. But then again if I wasn’t here there would be no me to answer that question. Does that make sense?

So what really matters? Places like this matter. I can get ice cream lots of places, but what we need is a place that has good ice cream. It makes you appreciate good things. It’s about finding places and things that can be found everywhere but are just better. And they make you want to be better.

Ok, you can have another free sundae for that last answer.

Monday, March 07, 2011

Sundae Experiment: Volunteer #1.

Let me just start by stating for the record, Mary is a very good friend of mine, and perhaps the happiest person I know. She recently made a career change from corporate fundraiser to first grade schoolteacher, and she couldn't be happier with her new life. That, and the fact that she's the type of friend who would do anything for you, made her the perfect candidate for being the first victim in my Sundae Experiment. It was interesting and a little awkward at times as I fumbled through my questions and honed my interviewing skills on the fly. But Mary was a great sport about everything, pausing after each question I asked to really think about her response. I took it more as a dress rehearsal, and it turned out be extremely helpful to cut my teeth on a friend, so to speak.

I got a good feel for which questions seem to work and which ones don't (ie. blank stare in response). And I learned that, at least in Mary's case, my taking notes was much preferred over recording the conversation. Puts a bit more pressure on me, so I'm hoping I'll get the green light for recording from most of my volunteers. They say after the first few minutes, the interviewee forgets all about the recording so we'll see.

Confirming to her that I wouldn't publish anything before she got a look at it and gave the a.o.k. also helped ease any anxiety she may have felt.

I quickly discovered that I may have to ask more than 5 questions. My finished piece will include 5 answers, but the conversation will probably take a few more than that. Glad I have a few pages to choose from already. I'm still toying with the idea of providing the questions in advance. Which I suppose to a certain extent I will be doing by sharing her interview and others along the way..

One thing I didn't get to check was how long I would have to conduct each experiment. Having bought a pint of the maple bacon and shared it with friends earlier that day, she was 'ice cream'ed out' by the time our Sundae appointment came around. So instead she enjoyed an Earl Grey tea and took a 'scoop coupon' for her free sundae. I'm certain the conversation took longer than what will be 'usual', since, as I mentioned, ours was as much about me figuring out the interview process as her actually being interviewed. All that being said, it was fun, and I think it went pretty well.

Now on to the next challenge, transforming my notes into a readable entry. Here goes...

Describe a person, place, book, or event that has had a big influence on your life.

Locust Street in Kansas City. That is where my grandparents lived and where I spent my summers growing up. The days were fun and carefree, spent with family that deeply cared about me. We shared meals, bike rides, trips to the library, long talks on the front porch eating popcorn and watermelon. The pace of life was comfortable and relaxed. Those were truly special times.

If you were to do your own 'rocking chair test' today, what do you see?

I'm most proud of my relationship with my grandfather. We were very close. I am so grateful that I had the chance to know him so well. In the last few years, I had the opportunity to care for him when he was sick and be by his side when he was in the hospital. He had a tremendous amount of gratitude for life and enjoyed simplicity. I feel like the person I am today has a lot to do with the time I spent with him. I suppose my only regret is I wish I could have spent more time with him. I think of what would have happened if I had moved to Locust Street after college. Then again, if I had done that, perhaps I’d still be living in Missouri. And I am very happy and grateful for where I am now.

If you were about to drop your kid off at college for the first time, what advice would you give him/her?

Remember to balance your day. Study and do well, but also try to take advantage of the tremendous amount of resources a university has to offer. The most frustrating thing about college is not having enough hours in the day to take all the courses that interest you, join all the clubs you want, participate in all the activities…the important thing is to learn about yourself so that you can allocate you time the way you truly want to.

What would you do if you knew you couldn't fail?

Dress like a princess and fly to the moon.

I'd also like make a significant contribution to the lives of children in need. I want to give them strength and stability and a nurturing environment. Perhaps find a way to improve the foster care system so that children that are in risky or difficult situations can have more support and stability in their lives. Maybe start a school where they can live and learn.

What's your secret to happiness?


I'm grateful for all the love I have in my life. I have a great family and a person who cares deeply for me. I have a classroom of students that appreciate what I have to teach them. I live in a nice place with a strong and tight community. To love something or someone is to have a deep appreciation for them. I find that you can apply gratitude to nearly any situation and instantly it becomes better. Gratitude is the secret to happiness. My grandfather taught me that.

So there you have it. I hope and expect to get better at this with practice, but a good start I think. Here's to good starts.

Thanks for listening.


Friday, March 04, 2011

Random thoughts & Images

As I wait for my first Sundae Experiment victim to review our conversation and provide the ok to go to print with it, I thought I might drop in a quick ICD entry with a few random thoughts and images from the past week. It's so easy to neglect the trusty old blog, especially now with the ease and immediacy of Facebook and the Mt. Tom's fanpage over there. I understand there are a few Facebook resisters, so I do still try to check in here from time to time. And when there's a topic that takes more than a few lines to chat about, the blog is definitely the way to go.

In any event, let's see what we've got...

Above is a cool cake created by crowd favorite and future Mt. Tom's hall of famer, Mimi Henault.
Just think, a couple months ago, the above shot may have been 'pretty cool'. Now it's just another reminder of the winter that's welcome to go on its merry way any time.

In the spirit of healthier living (ok, so we'll never be a health food store per se), we're in the process of phasing out the soda and replacing it with the above. Not to worry, we'll still carry root beer for floats and those cool Mt. Tom's bottles, but you've now got some healthier beverage options.

Wang-wa, adventures in dogsitting...

Meet our newest addition to the ice cream kitchen, a shiny new hardening cabinet (the one on the left). All part of the aforementioned, Operation Get Jim a Life. I know, it just looks like a shiny freezer, but it's a pretty big deal to me..

Sure, Easter is still a month away, but the Easter bunny made an early stop here to make sure all local E-bunnies are sufficiently prepared..

And to end on a much less wintery note, the annual Smith College Bulb show kicks off tomorrow and runs through the 20th. Always a nice trailer for Spring..

Thanks & See you soon.