It should be easy, it’s just talkin’ to people…



It’s one of those things that I’m not comfortable with, makes me feel awkward, but I acknowledge is absolutely necessary, like taking your shirt off at the beach.

Even though I’ve struggled with it, I have had some success over the last few years. What’s below is a short how-to article I wrote for my grad program’s alumni association newsletter.


In 2009, my wife and I moved to Chicago so I could start work at my current job. After a few months of settling in, I decided I wanted to put myself out there and become some small part of the city’s larger preservation community. At that time, my professional circle was limited to my immediate coworkers. I knew I needed to “put myself out there” but wasn’t sure where or how to start.

Then I remembered some advice my mom gave me. Advice which I ignored for years but that I now (grudgingly) admit was spot-on.

  • Step One – Read all you can get your hands on regarding the local scene. Newspaper and magazine articles, blog posts, tweets, you name it. Become an information sponge.
  • Step Two – Leave your house; get away from your desk. There are probably lectures, exhibits, roundtables, meet-ups. Go to them. For now it’s ok if you don’t talk to anyone. Steps one and two are all about learning the issues, learning the names, and becoming conversant.
  • Step Three – By now you’ll probably have learned the names of some individuals, organizations, or projects that interest you. Google the heck out of them and get the all-important contact info.
  • Step Four – (This for me was the hardest part) Write an email. Make a phone call. Trust me; people are way more friendly and giving of their time than you assume they’ll be. My email went something like “I’m Mike Plummer, I’m not from around these parts, heard you speak at/read your blog post about/walked by your project and thought it was really interesting. I want to get more involved. Any suggestions?” Of course, the actual conversations were much wordier and/or flattering, but you get the idea. Mom also suggests offering to buy someone coffee and ask them about their work, which is a.)a good idea and b.)terrifying.

In any case, I (who totally self-identifies as socially awkward) was able to stumble my way through those four easy steps. Within a year of moving to the area, my professional circle was exponentially larger, I was invited to join my local preservation commission, was asked to join the board of a foundation that runs a historic house museum, was asked to present at the statewide preservation conference, and (far and away most importantly) met some great people and got my name out there.

In no way, shape, or form am I now “Mr. Connected”.  But I now know several Mr. and Mrs. Connecteds and am more than comfortable shooting  them an email if I need to be put in touch with someone. In my mind, that’s just as good.

It worked for me, it can work for you too.

PresConf 2011: Thouhts from a Delta Aircraft

I’ve been sitting on a plane today for what seems like much longer than I’ve been flying. I’m currently in plane #3 of my two leg Chicago to Buffalo flight.

“How’s that?”, you ask. Mechanical failures.

Weather delays I can deal with, because weather is inherently unpredictable. But, and maybe I’m a cynic, mechanical issues just make me think that someone somewhere wasn’t doing their job.

At this point, I have little chance of making it to Buffalo before the opening keynote of this year’s National Preservation Conference. This is unfortunate, because I love those sorts of things. They really focus you in on what’s important and set the stage for the next few days.

In any case, I’m looking forward to seeing colleagues and friends, to discussing and thinking about the present and future of historic preservation, and making the connections – intellectual, emotional, and real world – that will carry me through the next year.


This past Wednesday was the monthly-ish meeting of the book club that I’ve weaseled my way in to.The club started with a group of Urban Planners, so it’s called the Chicago Urban Planning Book Club. We read books about Urban Planning, or Chicago, or the intersection of the two. Or really, anything that’s tangentially related to either. We also drink beer and eat an irresponsible amount of calories, so that’s obviously part of the appeal. But the books and the conversation are interesting too.

For this meeting, we ready Devil in the White City, Erik Larson’s look at the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893 and turn-of-the-century Chicago, of Daniel Burnham and his influence on not only the fair but on architectural theory and urban design, and on a transformative moment in American history.

This month I lucked out, because I’d read the book not once, not twice, but three times before. Just because. Because I’m a huge nerd, I suppose.

Burnham and the other Exposition planners decided on monumental buildings of white, electrically lit, of large scale and classically influence. They were laid out in a logical, efficient, yet picturesque manner. The fair itself was kept clean and safe, with ample opportunity to learn or become cultured, or find a meal and relax. For Americans used to dirty, unsanitary, dark, and unsafe cities (and, for that matter, for rural Americans still immersed in an agrarian lifestyle) the Exposition presented something of a transcendent moment. Here was America not as it was, but as it could be. The means to that end were easily within reach. A newer, brighter, better future was close at hand.

For those who saw it, understood it, and believed it, that must have split their life in two. Everafter, their lives were made up of what they saw before the fair and what they believed after the fair. Larson pulls two good examples of this: L. Frank Baum was so enraptured that he shifted the color slightly and turned the White City Emerald. And a young Walt Disney would listen to tales told by his tradesman father of the time he helped to build a gleaming palace surrounded by a picture-perfect city. Years later, old Walt would adopt the same model in building his Magic Kingdom.

Fascinating stuff, and it got me thinking about the transformative moments in my life. What moments, experiences, eras have I lived through that do a good job at splitting my life into before and after? Here are four, right off the top of my head. I’ll list them chronologically because any other ranking would be unfair. Interestingly, they’re all related to the definition of family. They are:

  • 1988, My parents get divorced. Maybe my first lesson that life is shades of grey. Learned that “family” isn’t a definition in a dictionary, cannot be imposed by others. Family is what you choose to make of it – family is defined by you, on your terms.
  • 1995 – 1999, The College Years. Forty eight months of self discovery. Get your head of the gutter, I’m talking intellectually and emotionally. I discovered in the most profound sense who I was. I applied the lessons of the self defined family and surrounded myself with one hell of a group of foster brothers and sisters. That new family gave me confidence.
  • November 2002, My cousin is killed. Learned about all the things left undone and unsaid when those you love are taken unexpectedly. Learned not to take Family for granted. (Am still struggling to apply this lesson.)
  • Sometime between 2003 and Today. Met Emily, dated Emily, fell in love with Emily. Proposed. Planned. Wed. Somewhere in there, although I cannot pinpoint the when of it all, I learned about the commitment to family. That there comes a point where you learn that you have to live your life as much for another as you do for yourself. That selfishness can only go so far. That you need to give of yourself. And that it will be immensely rewarding. I’m not perfect, but I do try awfully hard. I imagine this same lesson will become even more important if there are ever any mini-Mikes running around.

Transformative moments need not be good or bad. But they are always eye-opening. The result is a smarter you, a more savvy you, a more complete you.

Daniel Burnham’s perfect city never came to pass, but in striving toward that goal, I’d argue that he and his followers made a better America. And individually, we might not always be able to perfectly apply the lessons of our own transformative moments, but as long as we make the attempt, I think we’ll leave ourselves – and the world – a little better off.