Developing Thorns

1339259The ocotillo in my yard grows each year, usually during Monsoon, when it rains. I’ve written about how it drops and sets leaves in a matter of hours, but I became interested in the thorns.

How does a plant set thorns? Do they grow out of the stems in a separate stage? Do they appear overnight? (I’d believe almost anything about the octotillo).

During the last two weeks my octotillo went into a sudden growth spurt, and I saw, for the first time, how the thorns are formed.

The first thing that happens in the growth spurt is that the stem lengthens and new leaves set. There are two different kind of leaves, and the first ones that set are odd. They have long stems and the fat part of the leaf bends at an odd angle.

Leaves turning into thorns.

Leaves turning into thorns.

The leaf stems are green, but they quickly turn thick, brown and . . . sharp. The leaf ends drop off, leaving the sharp thorns on the stem.

New leaves forming at the base of the thorns.

New leaves forming at the base of the thorns.

And then, almost at the same time as the thorns are forming, small new leaves form at the base of the thorns. They are the real leaves of the ocotillo. They will stay until it becomes too dry to sustain them.

I’ll leave you to see all the metaphor in the ocotillo–how they form protection that looks like a helpless piece of the plant. How thorns aren’t always sharp. They start out as stems, bendable. They harden with time, based on what the plant knows already. And then the leaves come out, at the base, to soften the look of the plant. That should fill your journal for several days.

Quinn McDonald keeps a nature journal because it’s just like real life.

Collateral Damage in Architecture

The phrase “collateral damage” generally means the innocent victims of war–people who got in the way, didn’t understand orders shouted in a foreign language, or those in the wrong place at the wrong time. I hate the word, it makes me cringe. It makes killing the innocent seem somehow accidental and explainable.

Another senseless outcome of war is the destruction of historic buildings. Beautiful, graceful buildings that hold sacred memories, prayers, and art, smashed to dust in seconds.

I’m not interested in knowing that the destruction was necessary or that war is awful. That’s a given. Ask anyone who remembers Kristallnacht, November 8 and 9, 1938, as the Germans smashed their way through Jewish neighborhoods.

The hallways of the Great Mosque of Aleppo.

The hallways of the Great Mosque of Aleppo.

The buildings I’m talking about are in the Middle East, the uneasy part of the world we don’t want to think about. The Tomb of Jonah, sacred to Muslims, Jews and Christians, is now just rubble.

The Buddahs of Bamiyan, giant statues hewn out of a cliff in the year 500 were bombed to dust by the Taliban in 2001.

Another one that breaks my heart is the Great Mosque of Aleppo. The architecture was breathtakingly beautiful. The complicated vaulted ceilings begged the eye to look up into the heavens.

The legend is that the mosque holds the remains of Zachariah, the father of John the Baptist. It was built in the eighth century. It is a house of prayer.

syria_aleppo_great_mosque4The land it stands on has been under siege from one faction or another forever. War is as old as the emotion of fear and anger. Religion has been used as the excuse of hatred for as long as formal (and splinter) religions have existed.

The Great Mosque of Aleppo as it looks now.

The Great Mosque of Aleppo as it looks now.

I don’t have an answer to collateral damage. I just mourn that along with people, so much art, so much history, so much spiritual growth is ground to dust under the boot heels of war.

–Quinn McDonald knows that art describes the rise of culture and the destruction of art brings the destruction of culture.


Book Giveaway: Just My Typo

No, the title is not a typo, the book title is Just My Typo, a compilation of mistakes, goofs, slips and typos by Drummond Moir.

9780385346610I talk a lot about making mistakes, so it seems like a good time to give away a book full of them, from misheard instructions to fat-fingered keystrokes. Twelve chapters that will make you grin, cringe, and push the comma over just a little.

From page 42: “In 1924 Mr. Rockwell compiled the genial orgy of the Rockwell family.”

The chapters include:

  • To be or To Be: typos in Literature
  • The Fourth Mistake: typos in the media
  • The Word Stage: typos of historical and political significance
  • The Lingua Franca: typos abroad
  • Food for Thought: grastronomic typos
  • The Cost of a Comma: the most expenxive typos
  • Immaculate Contraption: kids’ typos

It’s a short book, 168 pages of typos and an excellent index so you can find your article-1290338-0A3CD984000005DC-923_634x402favorites again.

From page 68: “Chocolate potato cake: 6 oz. margarine, 1 oz. cocoa, 4 oz. mashed potato, 5 oz. self-raising flour, 433 eggs, size 3.”

There are typo photos and collected typos and favorites of editors and writers.

How to win the book: Leave a comment, letting me know why this is the book for you. Winner will be announced on this coming Friday, October 10 on the blog. Be sure to check back in to see if you won!

–Quinn McDonald loves typos unless she makes them.

The Last Swim of Summer

One morning, the water begins to chill instead of cool. I swim a little harder, warming it and warming me.

The sun stays off the water longer, hiding behind the hedge, slowly edging up. Not like the August sun, brassily reflecting in the water long before I dropped into the deep end.

palm trees reflected in a swimming pool © Quinn McDonald, 2009

palm trees reflected in a swimming pool © Quinn McDonald, 2009

Not like the summer sun that crisped all skin not hiding under a least one foot of pool-blue water.

The September sun kept the water warm enough to trust.

Until the last week of September, when the wind turned. Days still hot, but the night air sucked the warm right off the water.

I went in one foot at a time, hoping each time it was not the last.

Like saying goodbye to a lover, I always hope there is one more day, one more weightless hanging between dawn and work. One more sliding through the water looking at a fierce blue sky.

This morning it was too cold to swim and I did anyway, lips as blue as the last

August sunrise in Phoenix.

Sunrise in Phoenix.

berries in the store. Looking up, wanting the sun to rise, I saw the first V of migrators arrive.

The pool rocked water up the stairs as I ran for my towel just as a tired duck took up the space I left in the water. We looked at each other, as we exchanged places and the seasons changed.

-Quinn McDonald won’t be in the pool anymore this year, but she can walk the sun up every day.

Rumors and Rumor-Mongering

Last week found me traveling back from Dallas with a head cold I had picked up somewhere along the trail. The news of where I’d been hadn’t been out of my mouth for three seconds when a well-meaning friend said, “I hope it’s not Ebola.”

Big sigh.

Fear. Fear-mongering. Fueled by rumors. Let’s take a look: I was nowhere near



Thomas Eric Duncan while I was in Dallas–I was in a hotel and at a client’s office. The incubation period is from two to 21 days, making Dallas unlikely as a source for my cold, let alone Ebola. You have to come into direct contact with bodily fluids to get Ebola, so all of this is just stirring the fear pot.

Sadly, I’ve seen this twice before. Once in the 1980s, when AIDS first was defined as an incurable, death-causing disease. There were nasty rumors about gays then, too. The other time was after 9/11, when all Muslims became painted as terrorists. I sat in on a class of a fellow instructor, a Muslim woman who wore a headscarf, and shook my head at the advice she was given: just take off the scarf. Interestingly enough, none of the terrorists had been women.

UUaJbEDMeanwhile, we are growing a fresh crop of panic over Ebola. I’m not saying it’s a harmless virus, it is not. But I am saying that we have serious problems in this country—heart disease is the number one killer of humans in the U.S. About 68 people die every hour in the U.S. of heart disease. In a year, it adds up to 600,000. Over half a million. Not a single person has ever asked me if I still eat bacon. Or if I exercise. Nope. Because Ebola is more dramatic.

The people who are fear-mongering over Ebola are not nearly as worried about heart disease, diabetes, or cancer. AIDS has claimed about 636,000 lives, but we don’t talk about it anymore.

Let’s not get hysterical about Ebola. Yes, it’s a serious disease. No, there is no cure for it. Yet. (And there is no cure for MS, diabetes, ALS, cancer or the common cold). Take a deep breath and realize that you have better things to worry about. And let’s not talk about shutting down air traffic between the U.S. and Africa. That would have been a brilliant strategy in 1619, but we’re about 400 years too late for that.

Fear leads to fear-mongering. Leads to rumors. To lies. To hatred. To victimizing. Let’s stop it early.

Quinn McDonald is feeling well enough to rant.


I Hab a Code

It’s been a long time since I had a cold. I can’t remember the last time, although I do remember I was offended that it ruined the beginning of a good summer–so maybe 2013. Yes, I am very lucky to be healthy. While I do wash my hands often, I never wipe the handle of the grocery cart, do not carry hand-santizer in my purse, use the markers and eraser that others use in classrooms. Builds strength for my immune system.

What surprised me today was how completely unprepared I am to be sick. lazy4Having just arrived home from a teaching gig, and having to lead a celebration of someone’s life tomorrow, and then leave for another teaching gig on Monday, I had work to do. There is no time to be sick.

Yelling at your body doesn’t work. It’s better to be kind. A dozen times today, I reached for my car keys to run errands. Then I changed my mind. Instead, I created a to-do list of items that needed to be done, and grouped them into tasks I could do with minimum effort. Harder stuff can wait a day or so.

napSeveral tasks done, I headed for bed. In the middle of the day. And I took a nap. The best cure I know for colds, flu, general poopy feeling is lying down and staying down. Naps are suspect, but naps are a great idea. I’m fond of coffee naps–drink a cup of coffee and lie down. For 20 minutes, while your body revs up with coffee, you can get in a good nap.

Your body needs to rest. While you are resting, all those antioxidants you take can get busy fighting for your immune system.

For years I refused to rest when I was sick. I went to work, spread my cold to others and felt awful for two weeks. Now that I own the business, I’m smarter. No spreading the cold, rest and hope I’ll feel awful for one week.

Take care of your body. It’s the only one you will have in this life.

–Quinn McDonald will be happy when the cold goes to play with someone else’s sinuses.


The Mistakes that Build Success

When I opened the book at the client location, I nearly fainted. The material in the box on p. 6 was completely garbled. No words, just a collection of letters and numbers. It’s a mistake clients get upset over. I hadn’t checked the books because the printer had printed them before, and done it correctly. And there were three other pages where the material in the sidebar was a graphic element, but didn’t make sense.

The ladder to success can often look like a bleak staircase.

The ladder to success can often look like a bleak staircase.

I saw my opportunity at this client slipping downhill, fast. Trying to make it a teachable moment, I pointed it out to the participants. I explained that no matter how often something seems routine, we don’t know what happens at the printer–new people, new software, new techniques. Every book delivery needs proofing.

There are two points to making a mistake work for you. The first is to admit it. The second it to fix it. Checking with the person who organizes the class, I made sure she could distribute to the whole class. She agreed that if I sent her the pdf of the book, she could distribute it.

I told the class they would receive a pdf of the book to use. A few members were disgruntled and said this kind of mistake shouldn’t happen, and they would note it on the evaluation. Even though the mistake was fixed, the emotional damage was done. I spoke to one participant in particular, and he said if he were my supervisor, he’d fire me for such a mistake. And he would complain to the training department. I’m sure he will.

Mistakes happen. They need to be taken in context. The Powerpoint I had with me showed the material correctly. There were four pages with mistakes on portions of the page. I’m not trivializing my error, but taken in context, it didn’t diminish the learning possible in the class.

I’m a big proponent of learning from mistakes, it’s unfortunately the way most of us learn best. We never think, “Wow, that presentation really went well. Was it because I practiced or because I decided not to use a PowerPoint or studied up on potential questions?” Nope. If we do well, we feel lucky. But we learn more from mistakes.

Those people who don’t make mistakes are people who aren’t trying hard enough. Or who hide their mistakes or blame them on others. And those people, in many corporations, and in the government, are often the people who rise to the top. Or maybe I should say “float” to the top. By dodging mistakes, they look blameless. Notice I said blameless, not faultless.

They dodge and weave the effects of their mistakes. Because they make lots of mistakes–everyone does–they learn how not to get caught. Then they believe the problem is getting caught, not making a mistake. Admitting the mistake would teach them something. Instead, they bury their learning experience. I’d respect someone who made a mistake and admitted it and knew how to fix it and prevent it.

It would be an excellent idea if corporations encouraged mistake-learning early, and promoted people who solved their own problems and had the integrity to admit mistakes and the problem-solving ability to prevent them from happening again. That’s someone to admire and promote.

Quinn McDonald is a trainer, writer and mistake maker. She lives with all of it.

The Moment of Autumn

The coming of autumn happens early in the East. Sometime in August, the first crisp days start. Leaves turn, winds frisk, temperatures drop. Fall comes in differently in Phoenix. The days stay hot, often in the high 90s, but the night time temperatures drop from the 90s to the 70s. Doors and windows let in cool air. Last year it happened around September 12. This year it started the last week of September. The wind shifts from the South to the West. Fall is, quietly, here.

I start walking in the morning again. Flowers start to bloom again.  Migrating birds show up, slowly at first.

The subtle changes mredake you pay attention more closely. You look at every slight change in the oranges, which have started to grow again. The recent storm pushed over two dozen trees in the neighborhood, making me glad I spent the money to have mine trimmed to let wind pass through.

There will still be hot days, but it feels safe to exhale, to go out without a hat.

Fall in Phoenix is a lot like keeping a gratitude journal—the more you notice, the more you see to notice. These are the weeks that the son finally loses the battle with the horizon. The days shorten  enough to keep the temperature down. I celebrate New Year in the fall, because it feels like survival and rebirth all in one

–Quinn McDonald waits all summer for this moment of Fall

The Myth of Myths

In English, “myth” has two meanings. The first one is the story that tells a tale

Pandora, allowing the evils of the world to escape from the box.

Pandora, allowing the evils of the world to escape from the box.

with a moral at the end. The myth of Icarus, with the moral of “don’t fly too close to the sun, or as we used to say, “don’t get too big for your britches.”  The myth of Achilles, he of the undipped and unprotected heel.  Of Pandora., who received a beautiful box she was not allowed to open. But curiosity got the better of her and she opened the box, which was filled with all the dreads of the world–war, sickness, anger.

We forget some of the best details of myths. Icarus was warned by Daedalus not to fly too close to the sea as well as not too close to the sun. Aiming too low

icarus and Daedalus

icarus and Daedalus

would soak his wings with sea-spray and kill him as surely as soaring too close to the sun. Pandora’s box had one last thing stuck at the bottom of all those evils. The last thing that fell out of the box was hope. The important thing about myths is the point of the story, and often that point gets a bit muddled in the retelling.

I digress. The other meaning of myth is a commonly-believed falsehood that a writer corrects. You’ve seen the articles, “Five myths men believe about women,” “Eight myths to avoid on the road to success.” In that case, a myth is a legend (urban or not) that need de-bunking.

What’s interesting is that in both cases the word myth means a story. In one case, it’s used as a model for a universal truth; in another case, it’s a falsehood foisted on us. In either case, it’s a story that is open to interpretation. Myth also is an archetypal story–as in the myth of the divine feminine. Whether it’s Eve or Lilith (Adam’s first wife, who was strong-willed and thus considered dangerous), myth gives context to our stories and archetypes.

Myths are stories with a point. We can believe them or not. Or we can explore them and find the interesting sub-text that colors our life with shadow and light.

-–Quinn McDonald is a believer in archetypes and myths. And in writing endings of the myths we live.

Ask for What You Need

I find it almost impossible to ask for special treatment at a restaurant. I know many people ask for special diets because they need them and have real allergies. I also know that many people want attention, control or simply want to be on a popular bandwagon and demand gluten-free, dairy-free, or meat-free dishes in public, while scarfing down bread, milkshakes and wings at home.

The Local is at 3rd St. and Roosevelt in Phoenix.

The Local is at 3rd St. and Roosevelt in Phoenix.

No one pretends to be diabetic. Diabetes, popular culture informs us, is a disease of weak, fat people. It is our fault we are diabetic, never mind genetics or that every food company within reach adds sugar, artificial sugar or “natural” sugars to keep consumers addicted to the sweet taste of. . . mustard, pickles, and bacon. All of which have added sugars.

I cringe at asking serving staff if there is honey in salad dressing, red wine or sugar in the sauce, or what is used to thicken the sauce. Often the server doesn’t know, and assures me that the dish is glueten-free. Great, but I don’t have a problem with gluten. When I tell the server I’m diabetic, I get shrugs or, “Can’t you just take something for that?” In short, no. And I no longer explain why.

Last night, I decided that unless wait staff and servers are mind-readers, I have

Adam Hargett (left), manager at The Local and Chef McKinley (right).

Adam Hargett (left), manager at The Local and Chef McKinley (right).

to ask for what I need. Because it’s my health and my body.

We (two couples) were eating at The Local in Phoenix. The staff knew it was my birthday, and brought me a glass of champagne, which I accepted and passed to my right, to someone who would enjoy it.

When the menus were passed and the server asked if we had questions, I asked if I could have my dish served without potatoes. I took a deep breath and said I was diabetic and could not eat potatoes. The waiter summoned the chef out of the kitchen. I’m married to a chef, and asking for the chef’s presence at a table is a serious occasion. Still, Chef Chris McKinley appeared, smiling. I wanted to know if I could substitute something for the potatoes. After all, striking an item from the dish unbalances the flavors of the entire course.

The chef said he could substitute farro, a low-glycemic-index wheat, for the potatoes. And he could make a vinaigrette without honey for the salad. I was amazed at how generously he made the substitutions. The server placed the meal in front of me, assuring me of the substitutions, as there was another order for the original dish. Both the salad and the main course were delicious.

In fact, the entire meal was delicious. I did not feel deprived, I felt heard and valued. It may not sound like much, but I had asked for what I needed and someone listened.

Keeping quiet out of fear makes no more sense than speaking up out of privilege. Health issues are not easy to discuss, but taking a calm stand makes it possible for others to know what you want and to help if they can. Asking for what you need is a step in the direction of self-care. And not expecting others to care for you more than you do for yourself.

Quinn McDonald will be back at The Local, because the food is excellent and the service attentive. The sticky toffee pudding, shared by the others at the table, comes highly recommended. The Local was named the best new restaurant in Phoenix by New Times magazine.