Meaningful Conversation

Eat Your Own Dog Food

How would you answer these questions?

How would you answer these questions?

You gotta eat your own dog food, Mom,” my son said to me one day.  We were in the midst of creating the set of Picture a Conversation cards and were making up questions, matching them with photos, sharing them with families, women’s groups and therapists to use and test.  I had participated with some of the women-only focus groups but hadn’t actually used them with my friends or family.  Ergo my son’s dog food comment.

He was right, as he usually is with his mom’s endeavors.  Elliot is a great sounding board and idea bouncer off-er. He designed my first website and over the years has amazed me as he stays a few steps ahead of emerging technologies.  He told me about Twitter when the phenom was still wet behind the feathers; and years before it came to pass, he realized that privacy would be the world wide web’s next great commodity.  So when Elliot talks, I listen.

Martin and I began taking the cards with us on our walks, and as we meandered the trails in Sedona, our conversations began to take on similar movement. We’d start with a question only to have it branch into conversations and sub-conversations like tributaries splitting off from a river. Some questions let us to reminisce about loved ones, now gone, whose wisdom helped shape our choices and thus our lives.

New BudOne day our daughter surprised us and brought the set to a restaurant.  Like a Vegas dealer, she deftly dealt us each a couple of cards.  “I know some of these answers,” she said, “but I want to hear what you’ll say, anyway.”  Over a leisurely meal we looked back on our early days of parenting. To the question What advice would you give new parents? Martin answered that babies aren’t as breakable as he had feared. We talked about the traits of ours our daughter shares, and the qualities she’s developed by following her own path.  By the time dessert arrived, we three had shared experiences past, present, and future on a new and valuable level.

When I was coming up with Picture a Conversation’s 75 questions, I knew they were good. I strove for depth and breadth, wanting to give our future users opportunities for meaningful self-reflection and sharing. I wanted there to be a lot to mull over each time someone chose a card. My son was right — you gotta eat your own dog food. But not just to discern what is gold and what is lead. Eating your own dog food can be a reward in and of itself. It’s the process by which you reckon with your creation and deem it worthy.

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Out of the Box and Keeping it Local

The box was the crux of it all.

The box was the crux of it all.

When we decided to take the plunge and create Picture a Conversation, the idea of staying with local fabricators wasn’t my prime concern. I did have a printer who did a wonderful job on our greeting card sets, but he didn’t have the capability to fabricate a box. I set out to find someone who could do both jobs.

I cast the net wide, getting estimates from companies in Florida, Maine, New York and even an artist in Santa Fe who called herself a “creative doula.”  That title was pretty enticing; I’d created something and it needed some big-time birthing. By having factories in China, each of these firms could give me the kind of box I wanted — hinged top, magnetic closure. But international shipping would have taken up 20% of our production budget, and I was getting cold feet working with people I hadn’t met face-to-face. I began looking closer to home again.

A friend gave me the name of a colleague who could print not only our cards, but the boxes, too.  His office was a ten-minute drive from my house. He couldn’t make the kind of “presentation” box I wanted, but he could manufacture what’s called in the trade a “doughnut” box. Think Krispy-Kreme and the way that lid lifts.

In the end I split the job between two local companies — family-owned Skip Printing with whom I already had a solid business relationship, and family-owned Tepel Brothers Printing whose representative came up with a wonderful box design and walked me through every stage of production. (The image at the left is the very cool backsplash designed by Harriet Tepel who assembled old type pieces.)  Beyond the fact that I needed boxes at a reasonable cost, it felt right to stay in Michigan, to keep the jobs in my home state.  In fact, when I called the salesman from the Maine factory to thank him and tell him I was staying local, he said, “God bless you! We need to keep jobs in America.”

I didn’t know it then, but using local firms was the right move for reasons beyond our bottom line. Being able to meet face to face during this process was crucial. There were glitches along the way; I was learning things I had no idea even existed. Rob (from Skip) and John (from Tepel Brothers) never stinted on the time they gave me explaining things each step of the way. Our job was small, probably minuscule, in comparison to their other jobs but I always felt our project was important to them. They were dedicated to making sure every detail came out exactly as we wanted it to.

On the Friday afternoon after I had signed off on the boxes, hours before we were going to print, John called me. “I think your bar code is too small to be scanned.” This wasn’t his job in the least but he was right, and he had just saved my derriere from disaster. Had I gone the Chinese route, I would have taken delivery of 1000 boxes whose QR code would have been worthless. It wasn’t John’s job to enlarge the bar code but he did that too, and still kept us on schedule.

Over the course of creating Picture a Conversation, I got a tour of the Tepel Brothers factory. I saw in action what a great group of people they have working for them. I learned from Rob that his dad was one of Detroit’s Mad Men who left the advertising business in the early 70’s to start Skip Printing. Rob now runs the business. His aunt, Sue, has done some great graphic design for us and even used one of our greeting cards as her family Christmas card last year. Small as our job was, it felt good to realize we were playing a part in supporting two Michigan companies meet their payroll.

We might be small now, but nothing says we won’t be mighty in the future. As we grow, that growth will spill over locally. Picture a Conversation merits Made in Michigan status, a designation that will open up new opportunities for us. I aim to keep it that way. Someone mentioned she has “resources in China” for when we get “big enough.” I don’t ever want getting big to mean disengaging from those who supported us when we were small. That’s one box I’m staying out of.

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Create Something, and the Possibilities are Endless

One of the delightful aspects of creating something, whether it’s a novel, a painting or Picture a Conversation, is that you can never anticipate all the ways your creative baby will be seen, interpreted or even used. A friend may be totally convinced that you used her as the model for your protagonist, even though you didn’t; the art critic will read symbolic messages into the red rooftops you chose to cap the violet homes that sit beside a cobalt stream.

We’ve been delighted as we  hear from people who have begun to use our Picture a Conversation discussion starters. Our box top reads, “Choose a card. Share your experiences. Let the talk flow.” We’re learning there are many ways all three of these prompts are being set in motion.

Martin snapped this sweet little rowboat in Venice, CA.

Martin snapped this sweet little rowboat in Venice, CA.

When I was crafting the questions for the card on the left, I wanted to encourage people to consider  what it means to choose someone to be there for you when you are going after a cherished goal. In life, we may also reach a point where we realize someone, even someone dear to us, is holding us back. Being able to reflect on this can bring healing. Sharing how we dealt with a such a situation can help a friend or loved one in a similar situation. The reverse side of this card asks:

Do you set daily goals to achieve? Do you reach them?   When we are “rowing” after a dream, what is the impact of the people we surround ourselves with?   Recall a time when you realized the person “rowing” with you was holding you back. What did you do?

For our first focus group, I gathered seven women and laid the cards out for them to choose.  Each woman was drawn to a different card, and they took turns sharing what drew her to the card she chose and what experiences the image and the questions summoned for her. When my daughter got her set, she and her friends chose at random and picked a question from each card to answer. A couples therapist uses the cards with her clients, inviting them to choose a card if they don’t know where to begin for the week.  She also has couples choose a card as their “homework” for the week and return with the insights their conversations led them to.

Someone who uses the cards with her kids — two boys aged 8 and 10 and a girl, twelve — told me her  her sons really got into the nature images first and then began considering the questions, while her daughter zeroed in on a question and instead of answering it herself, handed it to her mom. I was touched when I heard this story, because that was something I never considered — that these cards could be the gateway for a child who wanted to learn something specific about their parent’s life.

One of my favorite comments so far came from a man who brought the cards to dinner with longtime friends. Throughout dinner and dessert the two couples went round and around remembering events from their shared past, projecting forward into the future. His friend emailed him later that week, “Never had such a good time laughing my a** off and having tears at the same time.” And instead of forgetting the conversations, the man wrote that having the images to look at instantly brought back just about everything they had talked about. Again, something I never considered — that having images would help cement an entire conversation into memory.

One grandmother keeps a set in her glove compartment. She frequently carpools her grandchildren and intends on using the prompts on the cards  instead of asking the usual, “What did you do today?” when she picks them up from school or other activities. On a long drive, someone else brought five cards with her and let her friend choose from that five. Their conversations eventually led them to reflect on the time their friendship faltered and they lost touch for years. “Each conversation led to another one and another one and even into the next day we talked about things we never would have otherwise.

Now it's your turn.

Now it’s your turn.

We call the card at the left “Take Flight” and the questions on the back reflect this theme. So we ask: Recall a “take flight” moment in life. What are the risks of leaving  a safe harbor and taking flight? What’s the difference between taking flight and running away?

Now it’s your turn. How would you answer these questions? Share with your friends and loved ones and let the talk flow.


Ready for more ? Order your own set of Picture a Conversation here.

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Debra Darvick — I got by with the help of my friends…

This is what 27,000 cards looks like.

This is what 27,000 cards looks like.

This is what the delivery of 27,000 Picture a Conversation cards looked like. Not pictured are the five boxes delivered a day or so later that contained the makings of the 1000 boxes into which we would place the 27,000 cards.

Our work was cut out for us. We had one week to collate the cards, wrap them with a little belt cut from card stock, seal the ends of the belt with a sticker, and put each set of 27 cards into 1000 boxes that also needed folding. And then seal each box with a clear label. Piece of cake.

the assembly line assembler

the assembly line assembler

Martin is a master organizer. Thank Heavens. Whereas I would have arranged 27 piles representing each of the designs, and then walked around the table creating sets, Martin saw it differently and oogobs more efficiently. He “dealt” sixty cards of each design on a table, working his way through all 27 cards.  Round and round the table we went, assembling 60 sets of cards at a time and stacking them all over the den until the next step of banding them together with the card stock belt and sticker. Had we done it my way, I think I’d still be assembling.


the “belting station”

It would not have been possible without the help of an army of friends.  Beth and I passed a snowy afternoon ferrying stacked cards to the “belting and stickering station.” (Look closely and you’ll see the stickers on the edge of the table.) Diana came in-between depositions for some marathon belting and stickering and then stayed for lunch. Liz popped over for a quick hour or so to help assemble and got us further down the road, as did my friend Brenda who was also one of our testers.

The Night of the Huge Assembly, Sara, Naomi, Ginger, Rhona, Etta, Stacy and her eight-year-old son Brady came to assemble boxes, put the pre-assembled stacks of cards into the boxes and then organize the individual boxes of cards into shipping cartons. It felt like a barn raising or a quilting bee where everyone comes together to help one of their own. I made lasagna and salad to fortify us at the start and cheesecake at the end.  While we worked, talk flowed.  After learning about one another’s businesses Stacy (owner of the Home Life Center) and Rhona (owner of Dance City ) began brainstorming ways to collaborate on a mother-daughter dance and body movement workshop.

While we worked, I thought about the strong thread of American ingenuity and the kitchen table entrepreneurship that brought us Liquid Paper, Spanx, and Slinky. How many men and women have come before me testing ideas, hoping, flailing, breaking out of the pack toward stratospheric success?  No one succeeds without the support of friends and loved ones. I am blessed indeed.

Brady's favorite card is about keeping life balanced.

Brady’s favorite card is about keeping life balanced.

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“Dumbing it Down” dims our inner light

photo credit: Birney Summers

photo credit: Birney Summers

More times than I want to count, I’ve been told that what I am doing, whatever it is, will never reach the masses. That I need to dumb down whatever it is I’m writing. That my concepts and ideas are beyond the reach of “regular people” whomever they may be.

Years ago, I worked for a textbook publisher writing copy for first grade primers using pre-approved word lists.  We could not modify the list in any way. For instance Johnny had a goat was fine. But Johnny had a boat was not, because boat was not on the list. When I balked, incredulous that kids shouldn’t be challenged to figure it out, I was told that those were the rules. (Decades before, similar rules turned Ted Geisel into Dr. Seuss. I didn’t have that option.)

The caution to dumb things down reared its head again while beta-testing our set of Picture a Conversation™ discussion starters. Someone I respect deeply told me the cards couldn’t be used in the organization’s  programming. Word had come down from on high that any and all written material had to be on a 4th grade reading level so that it would be accessible to all. Someone else told me that my word choices would alienate potential users. I vacillated, wondering if they were right. I want Picture a Conversation to reach as many users as possible. Was I unnecessarily sacrificing accessibility by not “dumbing down” the language?

Pablo Picasso, 1901 - 1902 Femme aux Bras Croisés (Woman with Crossed Arms)

Pablo Picasso, 1901 – 1902 Femme aux Bras Croisés (Woman with Crossed Arms)

Did anyone ever tell Picasso Too much cerulean or Easy on that dark marine blue? Well, they probably did, but he didn’t listen.  In the end, I tweaked a few phrases, clarified here and there but I pretty much left the vocabulary alone. Moms who used the cards with their kids told me that they loved the experience. When needed, one mom helped her kids (8, 10, 12) with an unfamiliar word or two. The words  “cherish” and “grief” might not appear on a fourth grade reading list, but I bet every fourth grader cherishes something whether it’s a friend, a baseball mitt, or a book. And if that friend has moved away or they’ve lost their baseball mitt or favorite book, they have felt grief as well.

I am already imagining a future edition of Picture a Conversation specifically geared to youngsters and their parents. For now, I trust this set of conversation starters will find the folks who are supposed to be enjoying it. I don’t think any of us should dim our lights or assume others are incapable of learning a new words. Nor should any of us allow insecurity to prevent us from growing in word or deed. That would be the dumbest idea of all.


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Introducing Picture a Conversation™

Although I’ve been scarce for several months, I’ve not been idle. Here’s what’s been happening. Some of you are familiar with the greeting cards Martin and I have been creating under the His Lens/My Pen imprint.

A while back I saw a family of four at a restaurant. Everyone — kids and parents — were all looking at their cell phones. The image of that completely disconnected family stayed with me for weeks. Until one day a thread of an idea alighted somewhere in my brain.

Could our His Lens/My Pen images and texts be used in some way? To create a set of conversation cards?  Designed to get people talking to one another face to face, without iPhones or texting or e-anything? In that moment, Picture a Conversation was born. Actually the name came to me a few weeks later while I was waiting at a stop sign, but the idea was firmly lodged in my noggin and wasn’t budging.

So this is where I’ve been for the past half year or so, developing the idea, beta testing since last April with families, women’s groups, couples and couples therapists. Even a home for pregnant teen moms and a shelter for women rescued from the sex slave predators. Heavy, yes, but the cards bring light and connection time and again which just thrills me.

How does it work?  Thank you for asking! On the front of each Picture a Conversation card are the images you know and love from His Lens/My Pen. On the back are three questions and/or statements designed to get you talking to one another, face-to-face, in real time. Like this:

Our daughter Emma has been in charge of graphic design and she’s done a wonderful job creating a cohesive visual theme the whole way through. I love how she incorporated that little river/snake icon evoking ancient petroglyphs out west. She has transformed my clunky and busy attempts into simple and elegant. And God bless her, she’s been more patient than the saintliest saint when it came to re-dos and changes.

Now we are moving forward, having ordered 1000 sets of Picture a Conversation. In  future column I’ll share what that really looked like.  I feel like I’ve thrown myself off a cliff with no idea where or when I’ll land. What I do know is that more than anxiety (almost none) there is excitement (a whole heck of a lot.)  Like you, I’ve read and/or noticed diminishing eye contact with the younger generation and how they would rather text than talk. Like you, I find myself falling into that trap as well. I believe in this concept so much, knowing how dearly we all need to set aside the devices and reconnect.

If you want a set of your own, you’ve come to the right place. Look to the column on the right or go to the “Get a Set” page.  Marketing and distribution are the Gordian knot to any venture. If you have ideas of places or people who should know about Picture a Conversation, please share your contacts. Corporate team building? College campuses? Retreat centers? Your uncommunicative grandson? At the very least, may I ask you to share this post with your friends and others? Email a link or share it via Facebook.

I’ll be posting relevant articles and short essays on the different aspects of this project in the weeks to come. Until then, check it out, share your feedback. Stop texting. Start talking.

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