Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Trying to Figure it Out

Written: February 19, 2007

After 56 years on the planet, I’m still trying to figure it all out. Perhaps, I’ll be trying to figure it out until my time is gone. I guess everyone else is trying to figure it out, too.

As an aging baby-boomer, I get glimpses of wisdom from the generations that have come before. I hear my elders say things I don’t understand and can’t understand. Then I get older -- to the age they were when they said what they said. I have an “ah ha” moment and understand. I even find myself saying and thinking what I formerly just didn’t get.

My father-in-law is 32 years older than me. He’s reaching the end-game. He tells me that he’s not afraid of death. This I get, but not at the visceral level that I think he gets it. The visceral understanding, I believe, comes from the sense of having had a complete, full life. I was very afraid of death as a child, moderately afraid of death as a young adult and less afraid of death now.

Don’t get me wrong, death right now would be a disappointment. I think it’s because I haven’t done everything I want to do yet. I haven’t fully launched my daughters on independence (from me, anyway). I don’t feel that I’ve left my mark on the world. I don’t have that sense of completion. Maybe all of this only comes from getting older and letting go.

As I get older, the possibilities that were seemingly infinite suddenly get finite. I’m in good shape, but I’ve let go of ever being an athlete. I’m getting to be a moderately skilled glass-blowing craftsman, but I’ve let go of ever being an artist. I’m a good singer, but I’ve let go of singing in a renowned quartet. As I age, my world narrows in the slippery slope to oblivion.

The flip side of this narrowing of possibilities, though, is the narrowing of pretenses. I no longer feel I have anything to prove. I less and less feel obligated to do things, and more and more do the things I’m inspired to do. It gets down to finding your essence – your inner core and expressing that, somehow.

Why express it? I think it’s to benefit others – younger generations and future generations. Somehow, to me, that’s the meaning of life, the meaning of everything – to make things better for others and leave the earth a little better than you found it. And that’s what keeps me going.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

My Mom's Dad

Written: March, 1996

My grandfather died two years ago and I miss him. He was a simple, good man -- but I imagine that’s how we all romanticize our predecessors. His life was probably pretty hard.

He was twenty-one when he married my sixteen-year-old grandmother on October 30, 1929. You know what happened the next day. The story is, though, he never lacked work through the Depression. His first job was a laborer -- unloading box cars for Fruit Growers. To help make ends meet, he cut hair on Friday nights. (Doesn’t everybody’s grandfather have a real barber chair in his basement?) By the time he retired, he was collecting two pensions -- from Fruit Growers and from Addressograph-Multigraph.

Even with a 4th grade education, he could fix anything. He was a self-taught electrician and a mechanical genius (in my eyes) fixing those balky machines for the FBI, no less.

In his spare time, he built his own first house (out of Fruit Growers packing lumber) and raised three kids. Apparently, he was a pretty strict and suspicious father to my mother. The fact that he’d occasionally take a nip probably made things worse. But by the time his first grandchild came around (that would be me) apparently all his strictness was used up. I think, in his eyes, I could do no wrong. He used to slip me money in a handshake when I did something he was proud of.

By fluke of birth, he missed out on serving in both World Wars in his lifetime and I think he felt guilty about it. He gave some embarrassed, murky answer the one time I asked him as a child whether he had fought in the war. But he served. He was a lifelong member of the Franconia Volunteer Fire Department. He founded the Rescue Squad and was its first President. He drove the ambulance on many a mission and when my mother had a problem and my dad was working the 4 to 12 shift as a DC policeman he’d be there.

The one time this happened that I remember is when my mother stuck a knitting needle in her hand and couldn’t get it out. Mom can faint at the mention of blood so we needed someone fast. Even though I was not yet school age, I somehow made the phone call, granddad arrived and all was well in short order.

Granddad LOVED to hug his daughter-in-laws, son’s girlfriends, grandsons’ girlfriends or, for that matter, anybody’s girlfriend. I think he was kind of a clean, “dirty-old-man.” But his first love was grandma, Helen, who he was faithful to and pampered. Grandma, for example, never learned to drive. If she needed to go anywhere, Murn (the way my grandmother said my grandfather’s name -- Marion) would take her.

Granddad was an emotional man. When grandma died, he was lost. Just thinking about her would make his eyes well-up. (But he found another companion in short-order). After grandma died, he saw his own declining health and feared death. He couldn’t express his fear but would have periods on sadness and welling up almost every time you talked to him. Even before that, he could get emotional thinking of departed friends, what a good man my father was (after my mom & dad separated) or what a good man Mr. Brown (my dad’s father) was. He loved animals -- he trained a succession of squirrels (all named Charlie) to eat peanuts out of his hand.

Granddad was a competitive man. My brother and I learned before we were ten, that we were not to win at RA (a Parcheesi-like game played at the firehouse) and expect to have a happy granddad. Matter of fact, we had to be careful about even looking like we were getting ahead! He excelled at horseshoes. We spent many a summer evening watching him and my dad play or, later, joining in the game. I don’t see many throw the shoe with his left-handed, shoe-held-backward at one point throw.

Granddad was a story-teller (but he only had a few stories). We heard them over and over and each time they were a little different and more embellished:

- Picking corn from his neighbor’s field and roasting it there

- Finding Civil War mini balls in the freshly plowed field and using them for fishing weights

- Hiding in a tree to get away from Uncle Lud.

The saddest story was about my great-grandfather Lovett (grandma’s dad). He couldn’t tell it, ever, without breaking up. Great-granddad Lovett, worked at Fruit Growers too. He always saved half his lunch dessert (a cake of some sort) for his youngest son, Paul. On the day he was crushed by two box cars, severing both legs and bleeding to death, his final words to my granddad, who was there, were “take care of Minnie (my great grandmother), Helen (my grandmother to be) and Paul. When granddad looked in great granddad Lovett’s lunch box -- there was his legacy to Paul -- half a cake. I’ve never put the two together before, but maybe his dad’s tragic death is what led to Paul’s drinking problem.

Granddad thought that if Kennedy was elected, the Pope would be running the country. After Kennedy was assassinated, part of grandad's treasure was a shrine to JFK. He also believed the men walking around on the moon were responsible for messing up the weather.

Toward the end, my Mom and her brothers sold the house. By this time, granddad was no longer capable of taking care of himself. Sarah (who was 6) and I stopped by as Mom was gathering up heirlooms (mainly photographs) the night before they moved out. We were looking at some of the pictures and Sarah spontaneously broke out crying. Without it being spoken, she could sense the finality in the air.

At my mom’s suggestion, I took a final look around the home where he had raised three children and lived for 50 plus years. She thought I might find something I’d like to have to remember granddad by. I looked at the collection of the treasures of a life-time. I smelled his hat and suit -- trying to etch in my memory the man he once was.

The one possession that stands out is a bushel basket of outside water spigots among the assorted electric motors and spare parts. No doubt, living through the Depression, he never knew when there’d be a shortage of spigots and he’d be set!

What did I take to remember him? I few hand-tools -- his hammer, his pliers and a few well- honed knives. When I have something to do in the house, I use his tools and am, in some way, connected to him, my past and all those who came before him. Oh yes, the summer after he died, I built my first horseshoe pit.

Monday, January 26, 2009

September 11, 2001

Written: September 23, 2001

The world has changed. The terrorist hijacking of four commercial airlines, the destruction of the World Trade Center and damage of the Pentagon has changed everything.

When it happened, our barbershop quartet was singing its first gig – a retirement ceremony at Fort Meade for an Air Force officer. When we arrived at the golf course clubhouse at 9:45, the MC of the ceremony, another officer, told us that a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center. We were in disbelief, but had to believe quickly – the pictures were being broadcast live on CNN in the next room. We watched a few minutes and then went to warm up. We were to sing the Star Spangled Banner for the opening of the ceremony. After seeing the Pearl Harbor-like footage live, it was all I could do to keep my voice from cracking as I became choked up with the tragedy and the symbolism.

As the events unfolded, even at Fort Meade, people were in a state of disbelief and denial. They continued to call foursomes for tee times all morning! Golf endures all, but I know for the rest of the week, I joined many others wondering about the significance of work and life, in general. I mourn for the dead, the hero rescuers, the bereft families and, especially, children who have lost a parent.

September 11th is a defining moment. It’s the start of a journey to an unknown destination. If it can be a call for world cooperation, greater civilization and an end to terrorism, the loss of life, although tragic, may not have been in vain. This is my strongest wish and hope for the future of the world.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

When My Dad's Father Died

Written: June 17, 1996

It was 1973. I was stuck in my own world of busyness -- in career limbo between selling real estate and trying to be a professional musician. It was a Friday night and Marcia came over to the apartment to make dinner. As we set down to eat, the phone call came that, at least temporarily, made everything else seem unimportant.

My aunt was on the line. She was trying to reach my father. It seems that my grandfather had a massive heart attack while tossing a small football back and forth with my youngest cousin. He was dead before the ambulance arrived.

Granddad Brown had worked 50 years for the Southern Railroad as an engineer. One of the engines he operated is now in the Smithsonian. He had retired the year before and was, to my knowledge, in robust health. I had no warning he was anywhere near the end. But worse than my shock, I had to find my dad and tell him.

I remembered where he was. My brother Donald was in the high school band and was playing at an away game. I skipped dinner, got in the car and set out to find him.

By the time I made it to the field, the game was in the second half. I walked back and forth the visiting stands until I found dad. He seemed happy to see me but must have wondered why I was there. I don’t remember how I told him but I know it was no more than three or four sentences. I don’t know how I expected him to react, but on the outside he seemed unchanged. He was probably in shock. He left the game to go help grandma. I think I took Donald home.

From that point on, Dad took over. He helped grandma make all the funeral arrangements and was the pillar of strength through the whole thing.

The second hard moment for me was trying to explain death to my youngest brother -- Darren -- who was four. I was driving him to grandma’s house when he asked “is granddad coming back?” This was an unexpected question but I had to answer. It brought the finality of death home to me.

But the hardest moment was when it was all over. I asked my Dad, how he’d been so strong through the ordeal. He said that he had to be strong to get everyone else through it but when it was over, he set on his bed and “cried like a baby.” That really got to me. Men didn’t cry. My dad had never cried. To picture him crying almost made me cry.

After it was all over, a surprising change happened in my grandmother. She sainted my grandfather. As long as I could remember, granddad and grandma lived in the same house but in separate rooms. They barely talked to each other. If they had to communicate, they used one of the children to convey the message. After granddad died, he could do no wrong and he was all grandma could talk about. Death changes survivors.

But life goes on. Grandma lived another twenty years praising all the wonderful qualities of Earl, my grandfather. Dad survived the grief and I returned to my self-absorbed life to deal with death another, distant day.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Working Through Bad Times

As the year starts, it looks to be a tough one for employment. We’re living through what is, at minimum, a downturn in the employment market. It could be worse than a downturn, though. It could be one of the worst employment markets in 70 years – since the 1930’s. We won’t know until we’re on the other side.

Having been in the labor force since I was sixteen -- 42 years ago -- I’m experienced with down-cycles. I’m experienced with employment disruptions independent of up or down cycles. I say I’m experienced, but that implies lessons from the past that are applicable to today. Since every situation is different and no one knows the future, that may or may not be true. I should say I have experiences that may or may not be applicable to any future situation.

In 1972 when I graduated from college with a degree in music education, it turns out that my safety net – the education part of the degree – had more holes than safety. Even though I didn’t want to be a teacher, I majored in education because everyone knew, “you can always get a job as a teacher.” I guess the definition of “always” didn’t include 1972. Somehow I muddled through though as a freelance musician and real estate salesman. The real estate part went from boom to bust in 1974. Had I been paying attention, that might have been a lesson.

My next venture was nine years working for a musical institution which always operated in the red, was subject to perpetual labor strife and, thus employment insecurity. This lead to my longest period, to date, of unemployment – a four month lockout (contract dispute) in 1981. This wasn’t totally bad timing. My wife was returning to work after her maternity leave. So, I got to bond with my brand new favorite oldest daughter by tending to her every need and dressing her like a clown with whatever clean clothes I first laid hands on in the morning.

Although I kept busy by occasional freelance gigs and continued in my MBA coursework (toward a marketable skill, this time), toward the end of the labor dispute, I realized how important work was to me. I need to be productive. I need to contribute. Being out of work was making me crazy. Maybe it’s the man thing of having your identity and sense of value wrapped up so closely with your work. Who knows? I just know I was feeling worthless being out of work at the time.

Since that time, I’ve changed careers and, in spite of some dicey times, have not been unemployed. How have I gotten through these dicey times? Writing to myself to keep my head on straight.

Around the end of the last century, I spent some time working for a failing company. The payroll function reported to me and for a year, I never knew if we were going to be able to fund the payroll until the day the checks were cut (we always did, but just barely). Since it was a public company, many mornings the bad news hit the newspapers before the workday began. It wasn’t a dot-com company but had a dot-com operation. It was in trouble before the dot-com bubble burst and the bursting bubble made it worse. Needless to say, it was a tough situation and a period of job instability. How did I endure? For one thing, I wrote an article (not published) on working for a company in troubled times.

Once I jumped ship from that company I had a nice five-year run with a public firm, which, at the end, was purchased and liquidated. Again, a lot of news came from the press instead of internal communication and the last four months were pretty uncertain times for everybody. That’s when I discovered the value of bad poetry. Here’s what I wrote in January 2006, while stuck in a holding mode watching two bidders publically battle over the company while we could do nothing by watch our fate unfold:

Waiting Mode

There are times in life when it’s best to wait,
When nothing is done to operate,
When doing something is worse than not,
When less is more and more’s a jot.

It’s hard to wait and let unfold
While time goes by and your life’s on hold
To take your hand off the steering wheel
And go for the ride while your fate is sealed.

But life is a cycle of ebbs and flows
Of stopping sometimes wherever it goes
Of pausing and waiting and watching and looking
While whatever’s happening just keeps on cooking.

So welcome these times of peace and of pause,
And have faith and hope that they’re there because
An exciting new journey is about to start
On a calling, an adventure you will soon depart.

Live every day while you’re watching and waiting
Notice and learn while anticipating
The new life that’s coming that’s meant to be
The excitement and service and joy you’ll see.

In service to others today and tomorrow,
In some small way to mitigate sorrow.
To immerse in joy, humor and peace
And let go, relax – even more -- release.

To a beneficent world with a grand design
To a world created with you in mind.
A puzzle immense, complex and unique
To be completed by you as the missing piece.

*******

Somehow that made me feel better.

Form the frying pan, I unknowingly jumped into the fire. I landed a new job and, for the first time for me in a job transition had the luxury of three weeks off between jobs. (My usual pattern was to take a weekend off between jobs.) It was a position where I thought I could make a difference, but the gild came off the lily early on.

Day 23

Sleep deprived, driven and striven
I sometimes doubt how much I’m givin’
How much I contribute, am I earning my keep?
But how much can I do in this my fourth week?

The commute is a bear and the transition a bore
The problem is that I’ve done it before
Diagnose the case and first year uncertain
Until a track record will lower the curtain.

On the test, the trial, the judgment, probation
To acceptance, to partnership to standing ovation
To be a key member of the leadership team
To be held by all in the highest esteem

Then back to real life to balance, enjoyment
Where my whole life is not just another employment
Because real life is not just a dress rehearsal
You live it once with no reversal.

And making money for someone is not the purpose of life
But serving mankind, bring joy, ending strife
To as many a person alive now and coming
To leave a gift to the world becoming

A place of purity, joy and peace
A civilized world where struggles cease
Where everyone lives a joyful life
And lives each day without any strife.

It’s a dream no one man can ever achieve
But a dream, none-the-less, we must conceive
A dream we must make real, alive and existent
And while it is not, we must be persistent

So do all you can to make the day better
To give love and laughter as gifts wherever
And whenever you see a chance to improve
And in this way you will help to move

The world, little by little, to a better place
And leave some small gift for the human race.

*******

It helped for a while but didn’t cure the situation. My personal Hell is to be bored to death. And I was. No matter how hard I applied myself, I couldn’t make things better. Here’s how I tried to rhyme my way out of it.

November 17, 2006

When your career’s in a rut
Life’s a pain in the butt
Work’s too time consuming
To spend bored or fuming

You think you know the score
There’s more less there than more
But you really are mistaken
Every day’s a road not taken

Within each pause a twist
A turn unwatched is missed
No one knows the future state
So, adventure just appreciate

Nothing lasts forever more
No one cares about the score
Live each day with anticipation
With interest and participation

Before you know you are engaged
In the right place for this your page
In the book of life that’s being written
That, looking back, you will be smitten

By how much sense it did make
Somehow the right turns you did take
It comes together and serves a purpose
Even though your life’s a circus.

So keep faith, hope and the dream alive
Celebrate blessings that’s what I’ve
Decided to do to renew the excitement
And live each day with joy and delightment.

*******

It didn’t work.

Saturday, January 20, 2007

The strain, the drain
The pressure on the brain
Of doing things again and over
Not deciding, stuck, moreover

Moving slow with no direction
Nothing done, but with perfection
Re-deciding past decisions
In the face of more derision

Why can’t we move the damn thing forward?
Without the stress and effort horrid
It shouldn’t be so awful hard
To execute and play the card

That you are dealt,
Place bets, move on
There’ll be another hand
Anon!

So choose, take action
Select, decide
Just move forward
Begin the ride.

*******

But I endured.

July 28, 2007

Celebrate life, don’t give into strife.
Remember each day as adventure.

Be alert for the clue, you’ll know what to do.
To live life as gift not indenture.

*******

Ultimately, I was fortunate to obtain employment where I’m able to help make things better for the people who work there -- what I really like doing. The time between interview and job offer was driving me nuts, though. As therapy, I reworked my poem from January 2006 and turned it into a never-to-be-heard song of hope.

Beneficent World (12/4/2007)

There are times for everyone full of strife
With dark dead-ends just devoid of life
It’s hard to know then just what to do
When darkness seems all that’s facing you

But life’s a cycle of ebbs and flows
The darker the night, the brighter the glow
Of light, of brilliance and a great new day
Our problems resolved in an elegant way

So when you’re lost and can’t make a move
When time has stopped and you can’t be soothed
Remember the pain of a former day
And the power that lead to a better way

A beneficent world with a grand design
A world created with you in mind
A world created with excess heart
Unlimited paths to surprising new starts

Let go, believe, have faith because, The pain’s the lesson that gives us pause
To see the world’s beneficent design
A world created with you in mind.

*******

Somehow through all the dark times, I came up with hope and faith. I didn’t start there, but always ended up there, regardless of how dire the circumstances. Will this help me in the future? Will this help anyone else? Who knows?

The one thing I do know is that the future is not a straight line projection of the past. Continual boom to bust economic cycles tell us that. Until someone suspends human greed and fear, until someone solves the problems of “irrational exuberance” (Alan Greenspan) and irrational apprehension, we’ll see these cycles of boom and bust.

With any luck we’ve learned from the past and some of the tools in the government’s tool kit will mitigate this particular down-turn. Meanwhile, since no one person can change the market, how does an individual get through tough times? For me, it’s been a combination of hope, faith and action – seems like the American way.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Getting A Little Perspective

Written: November 25, 2007

About 230 million years ago dinosaurs first appeared. They hung around for 130 million years or so before leaving the scene about 65 million years ago. Somewhere after that some ancestors of mammals appeared eventually getting around to developing into cousins in the human evolution with the appearance of homo something about 2.0 million years ago.

About 250,000 years ago homo sapiens arrived on the scene. About 75,000 years ago some event almost wiped us out leaving, by one estimate 1,000 specimens and 100 breeding pairs left. That’s why we’re so close a family, I guess.

30,000 years ago Neanderthals exited, stage left, I presume. That gave us about 20,000 years to think about starting civilization as we know it, which our forefathers begin in earnest 10,000 years ago. About 5,000 years ago, someone figured out how to write and, thus, started off recorded history.

So, given that almost everything written has been in the last 2% of homo sapiens visit, and that we’ve only been civilized 4% of our time here, it’s hard to get too excited about the “history” of the last decade, century or millennium, for that matter. And if we are as successful as our dinosaur friends and last 100 million years or so (not likely given current trends), at 250,000 we’re just getting started -- .25% of a projected 100 million year stay.

What are the implications from being the new-bees here? First, I think it’s a little arrogant to be so sure of ourselves, our various and conflicting religious orthodoxies, and our alleged supremacy on the planet. Heck, we just got here (as Kurt Vonnegut says).

Second, I think we need to reflect on the role our evolution has played in preparing ourselves (or not) for life in these times. (I was going to say “modern times” but as soon as say that, it’s dated. This will look like the dark days 100 years hence.)

Mark Buchanan reflected on this second point in his book, The Social Atom. He makes some interesting points relating to understanding people in organizations and communities:

- The brain is the physical product of millions of years of evolution and bears, in its structure and function, the traces of all that history. It certainly didn’t evolve to solve mathematical problems, steer automobiles, or judge the sense of risky financial investments. It certainly didn’t evolve to see through forests of complex statistical reasoning. (page 59)

- We are not rational calculators, but …adaptive opportunist. What really makes the conscious part of our mind powerful isn’t logic but the ability to adapt – to take a step based on one rule, idea or belief, then to adjust depending on the outcome. (page 63)


- We are not rational calculating machines, but biological pattern recognizers who are able to learn from our mistakes. (page 110)


- Management theorists insist that some companies are more adaptable and resilient than others, and this has more to do with “organization” than with their better employees. (page 13)

- …at the core of the modern competitive firm we find that social cohesion created by cooperation is the main engine of success. Companies that succeed for long periods do so by sustaining the cooperative spirit in their employees and therefore gaining from their hard work. (page 184)

The core chapters of his book describe collective human behavior as adaptive, imitative and cooperative.

Food for thought.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

First Post

Although this is my entry into the blog-a-sphere, I’ve been writing – to myself and for myself for some time. It was my mid-life rite of passage. Instead of buying a sports car and trading in a perfectly good wife, I started writing some of the stories of my life to date.

Once I had that out of my system, I continued to keep a journal with sporadic entries, usually around some difficult time or issue (usually work-related) that I was dealing with. After thirteen years of these musings, the printed version is about four inches thick.

Most of it was written to help me get clear in muddled, complicated situations. Most of it would be of no interest to the world at large, so it will remain in my desk drawer. Some of it may find its way here in the interest of dialogue with my contemporaneous community – whoever that may be.