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Archive for September, 2015

Who Would You Be If You Lost It All?

“When he lost his life, it was all he had left to lose.” –Lynard Skynard

Catching up on newspapers piled up while I was away I happened upon an article written by David Gregory, former moderator of “Meet the Press”. Mr. Gregory was on a bit of a spiritual quest, one that coincided with some turmoil in his professional life. As part of this journey he spent some time with the educator Erica Brown. After listening to his professional laments she offered this stunner: who would you be if you lost it all?

Stopped me right in my tracks, that one did.

Think about that for a minute. How the question was phrased and what she was asking. Not “what would you do?” or “how would you handle it?” but “who would you be?” The implication is that who you are at any given moment is only one version of who you might be capable of being given different circumstances, however wonderful or unpleasant.

Spend a few more minutes thinking about what it means to lose it all. For Mr. Gregory it meant losing his dream job, a job in which who he was became inextricably linked to what he did. I get that, but Mr. Gregory is still able to seek employment as a journalist, still able to work in his field; he’d simply lost a particular job. What if you could no longer do that, work in your field? Say you’re a doctor and you lose either the ability or the right to practice medicine? Think “The Fugitive”. Trust me, doctors are way more wrapped up in the “what I do is who I am” thing than journalists. Just thinking about that makes me sick to my stomach. Now imagine that you couldn’t work at all. Couldn’t support yourself or your loved ones and had to depend on others. That’s starting to close in a little bit more on “losing it all” I think. Who would you be then?

There’s no way of knowing if Ms. Brown meant to go this deeply, but in the developed world we live pretty well, and there’s actually a boatload of stuff we take for granted that could easily be lost. What if you lost your freedom? You are incarcerated, or in some way someone gains so much leverage over you that you must do their every biding. Who would you be, what part of who you have the capability of being would come to the fore if you were no longer free? Joe Coughlin, the central character in a Dennis Lehane novel I just finished compromised his father’s position as a police captain in order to buy favor and therefore survive in prison. He’d lost his freedom, and then he became a man without a moral compass. The rest of his life was spent ruining and even taking lives in pursuit of other men’s goals.

Even at that, Coughlin hadn’t yet lost everything. What brought him to that precipice was the loss of his people. You’ve watched “Law and Order” I’m sure. I don’t remember many individual episodes of any series I ever watch, but one “Law and Order” dealing with loss comes to mind. The detectives discover a man in an institution who is mute, nearly catatonic. They need his testimony; he is the only witness to a heinous crime. In order to gain access to his memory they obtain a court order to treat his depression. His recovery is miraculous, and initially he is grateful for his awakening, grateful to meet distant relatives who are equally delighted with his return. All well and good until it is time to testify and we learn that he lost his job, his ability to work, and his entire immediate family in that heinous crime. Awakening for him means remembering that he has truly lost it all.

Who would you be if you lost it all? This poor man had nothing, and he discovered that without his people he literally was no one. Who would you be? His answer was no one at all. He refused treatment and slid back inward to nothingness.

There’s a point here. A couple of them, actually. The first is that each one of us has much, much more of pretty much everything than we realize. Most of what we might lose is not really all that close to any type of “everything”, and that should inform how we view what we do have and what we might be willing to do to keep it. Who would you be BEFORE losing something in order to not actually lose it? To know this is to starting to know what we are willing to do if we need to fight not to lose everything.

Read this backwards from here. It hurts to lose stuff. It’s hard to get by with less money if you’ve tasted more, especially if you think you’ve become someone else because of that stuff, that money; it’s worse if you kinda like that someone.Losing the kind of job that gives you that stings. Time and again, though, we see that true loss is less easily quantified than a spreadsheet or income statement or title. To lose your people is to truly lose everything. No amount of fight is too great to not have to learn who you would be after this type of loss. Losing your freedom makes it easier to lose your people. Someone else plots your every course. Who you are needs to be someone who does as much as humanly possible to remain free.

Mr. Gregory seems to have made this leap. In the end his job was simply what he did at the time for work. Losing it actually brought his spiritual quest home, to his people. That’s the other point, right? It’s your people. You’ve not lost everything if you’ve not lost your people. Find your people, man. Know who your people are and hold them close. Cherish and nurture them. Do it out loud and without either fear or shame.

Do whatever it takes to never have to learn who you would be if you did, truly, lose everything.


On Truth

“In talking about the past we lie with every breath we draw.” William Maxwell.

If I knew who William Maxwell I’d be lying if I told you I could remember at the moment, even though putting that quote up makes it look like I do. That’s kinda the point anyway, isn’t it? There’s a certain amount of self-delusion in any historical account, whether it be small and personal or global, encompassing all of humanity. You know, history belongs to the victor and all. It’s possible to uncover the unvarnished truth; inexorable technological advancement makes even the best of lies fall open eventually. Tabitha King says that when you lie “all you do is postpone the day at which you’re revealed to be a liar.”

Memory is a funny thing; that’s sorta what Maxwell is saying. How we remember things oft times involves more than a little lying, to ourselves and others. Each of us remembers the part that was good for us, then or now. There’s a young readers story about a kid who wished upon a genie to repeat a day he felt was a particularly wonderful day. On further review, the second time through he was more conscious of those around him, and how his very excellent day impacted them. Naturally, some of them didn’t share his very excellent experience. For some memories there might not have been any part that was good and in those cases we remember the part that hurt the least. We can bury the pain if we fail or refuse to remember it.

The inability to truly remember challenges our very sense of self, a challenge that is unacceptable to the subconscious. We seek to defeat that challenge to our essence through confabulation, the wholesale creation of memories from the scrap yard of our mind. One who cannot remember lies out loud in the hope that he, and we, will believe what we hear. Being unable to remember is kinda like having a damaged hard drive. We might be able to muster the technology to repair the hard drive, exhume the memory, expose the lie.

But must we?

The truth is powerful. Like a powerful storm it washes away the veneer that the victor places on history. Like the sun that never sets the truth eventually bakes through the permafrost of the lies we tell ourselves. The truth, like the storm and the sun, is the proverbial double-edged sword that both cleaves the fat and cuts the flesh. One man’s truth unhinges another man’s lies. The sun shower might pre-sage a tsunami, as it were.

Where’s this all going? Talk of lies and history? I’ve been on a little quest, a walkabout of the mind if you will, examining the little lies of omission and commission that sit at the foundation of the house of cards that is my own little self. Seeking a more accurate truth by trying to wash away some of the veneer that covers my history so that I might own up to whatever part I might have played in creating hard stuff in my life, or the lives of those who travel alongside me. I find myself saying stuff like “boy, I really coulda done a better job of that”, usually followed by some version of “I’m sorry.” Find myself saying that quite a bit, actually.

I’ve now been at this for a while, enough to where it’s time to stop doing this, at least out loud; at some point the exposure of my own little lies might well produce a kind of destruction elsewhere. If you think about it, what appears to you as a little drizzle might be a raging downpour to someone else. All of those trite little sayings like “the truth will set you free” are balanced by “the truth hurts.” My poor Dad has no memory whatsoever of the horrific pain he suffered 6 months ago, and yet by this time today he also has no memory of today’s breakfast. He’ll have no memory of the lies he will tell to manufacture a memory of how much he liked his cereal.

For the rest of us, memory intact, the lesson is probably as simple as “tell the truth” starting now. At least “tell the truth” with kindness and compassion extended both to others and yourself. Some lies, some memories, should remain right where they are, in the past. For some, maybe most, we might be able to invoke the great philosopher Rafiki: “it doesn’t matter, it’s in the past.” After working through the self-imposed penance of reviewing mine I am now at that point. The lesson, of course, is that every little truth told now is a lie that need not be given breath, past or present.

Every little truth told now is the cornerstone for a house to provide shelter from storms yet to come.


How You Treat the People Who Serve You

In my day job I work in the ultimate customer service business, medicine. Ever listen to how people address folks on the providing side of the customer service continuum? Do you ever stop to listen to yourself, or think about how you will sound before you speak? Fascinating. In North America we are moving ever more swiftly to an economy that is majority a service economy; we don’t really make stuff so much anymore, we help people use stuff someone else made, or provide assistance based on a knowledge base or skill set. Listening to people on the receive side of the customer service equation is fascinating.

I’m prompted to this line of thought by three interactions at my day job, SkyVision. Three individuals not so much requesting a service but demanding it, doing so with a tone that implies not only a deep sense of entitlement but also a deeper lack of regard for the individual who will provide that service. Both in tone and content, the to-be-served make it clear to the service provider that he or she is there to serve only them. In fact, the server’s only reason to exist is to serve, as if the to-be-served were some kind of different, superior version of the species. It’s quite loathsome, actually.

I spend every waking moment of each working day on the “serve” side of the equation, whether I am at SkyVision plying my profession or CrossFit Bingo coaching. Having achieved some measure of expertise in both it’s very rare that I am on the receiving end of this type of behavior, but it does happen. More often is the case that it is someone lower on the org chart who gets this. The receptionist, phone operator, or check-out person who gets this “lower life-form” treatment, not the doctor or business owner.

Life can be hard for these front line people in a service business. There’s not only a “customer is always right” mentality on the other side of the interaction but also a sense that being a customer who will get what they want is as much a human right as Life or Liberty. That’s what it sounds like, anyway, if you are off to the side listening. No matter how frustrated one might become from a service situation gone wrong it’s important to remember that there is no continuum in the relationship when it comes to the inalienable rights, nor is there any evolutionary hierarchy across that desk or over that phone line. Being served if you are the customer is not a right at all, not even one up there with the pursuit of happiness. Server and served both have the right to life, liberty, etc.

In a funny little side note, the more effort I (and my partners and staff) make to be better at the whole customer service thing, the less tolerant I am when I am on the receiving end of poor customer service. Actually, I should be a bit more specific on this point: I am much less tolerant if I am being served by an organization that openly preens about its excellent customer care but won’t deliver. Heaven forbid if I detect a cynical lack of effort, either institutional or on a more personal level, when the expectations that I’ve been led to have are mis-met because of this. The harder we try and the better we get at providing an excellent customer experience at SkyVision the less likely I am to choke down indifferent service or a lack of effort when I’ve been lead to believe (and paid for) something extraordinary. The difference, though, is that I initially engage with the expectation that all I have to do is be polite and kind to those folks charged with taking care of me; my first shot across the bow is not to treat them like serfs.

Danny Meyer, the great NYC restauranteur, is probably closest to correct when he says “the customer is not right all of the time, but mostly right most of the time. A customer [only] has the right to be heard.” How you express yourself when you are on the “receive” side of the customer service experience is not only an important measurement of how you value the person across from you providing the service, but frankly is probably also a predictor for how likely you are to be successful in being heard. It’s instructive that none of the three SkyVision clients who made difficult (bordering on unreasonable) requests in an unpleasant manner were accommodated because doing so would have required an extraordinary effort which may not have been successful in any event. After being treated a some sort of sub-human primate, who would make such an effort?

Sorry, no pithy statement to wrap this up. In the end we all want what we want, and we all need to be heard. It helps to look at the person on the other end of the service divide as if you were looking in a mirror. Would you say that, like that, to the person in front of you then?


Work to Live/Live to Work: Surf Version (Adopted from Sunday musings)

1) Red eye. Ugh. How do you road warriors do it?

2) Maui. OK. I get it now. Mahalo to everyone there who took such good care of us.

3) Snorkel. Ditto. Never did it before, at least not where/when it was worth doing. Imagine, 55 and never saw coral.

4) Companions. It’s always a bit of a risk when you travel with friends. Are your travel styles compatible? Do you eat the same stuff at the same time? Are you the type who worries about your funds running out the minute you land, or do you just go with it? Can you stand either the back seat or the driver’s seat for the whole trip? Will you still be friends at the end of the trip?

Mahalo to Kathi and Scot for being such wonderful travel partners as we shared Anniversaries and Birthdays 6 time zones from home. 8 days together and Frida made it out alive.

5) Bunk. “I’m giving you an inexpensive bed on the beach; what you do with it is up to you.” –Bob H.

My Father-in-law is a time share maven. I may have shared this before. Over the last 20 or 25 years he has accumulated 3, one for each of his daughters. Two are rather opulent, and one is in a rather opulent location. As with any place you visit when you don’t need to wake up and go to your job, each day is special kind of opportunity. Hang out at that inexpensive bed, or get outside the walls and explore?

Traditionally I’m a bit of a slug on vacation. Hang on the beach or by the pool, restaurant and bar near at hand. Mrs. bingo is much more like her Dad. No adventure, no opportunity to explore is too small to miss. On my Anniversary trip I channeled my wife’s philosophy so completely that I literally have no idea where the restaurant attached to that cheap bed is.

Great way to get to know someplace.

6) Surf. Live to work or work to live? Live where you find your dream job, or find your dream life and do whatever it takes to make enough money to stay? Tough call, that one. Happy are the few who pull off the double dream: job you love in the place you find your dream life.

Certain destinations always leave me with the same sense if I’ve been there long enough to get to know the locals: whatever it takes to stay. There are several activities that tend to produce this kind of mindset. I’m very familiar with the skiing version having spent some 20+ years living in, or routinely visiting snow-covered mountains. Everyone you meet has built a life around skiing or riding every possible minute; no job is too small or too hard if it produces enough income to live in the mountains and buy your season pass.

Any reader of Men’s Journal or Outside is familiar with the surfing version of this phenomenon, but this past week was my first real up close encounter with surfing culture. Everyone…and I do mean everyone…surfed. More so, everyone builds their lives around surfing. Jobs are chosen and days scheduled around the local break. There was no apparent conflict between various types of surfers; everyone was happy to be on the wave, and it seemed like everyone who demonstrated even a bit of ability was welcomed.

You need to know a bit about yourself to make this kind of call. You also need to have one or two things you do that fire such a deep passion that you are thinking about your next encounter immediately after finishing today’s. It doesn’t seem to matter all that much what it is that fires that passion, only that the result of that passion is a desire for more. FWIW I don’t have anything like that in my life, any activity that I burn to do to the degree that it would drive most of my key life decisions. The way I’m wired is to be more about who I’m with, my people, than where I am or what I’m doing.

I see it, though, that passion for some pursuit. I do see it in others and when I do I am filled with equal parts respect and jealousy. What a gift it must be to have that one thing you can point toward each day. It surely must simplify that core, question, the one about work to live or live to work, huh? Work to live seems to work, at least in the mountains and on the waves.

Imagine if you were doing exactly what you dreamed of doing in the perfect place to do it. What if you were all of that AND surrounded by people you were also passionate about?

Something to work on, that.


A Happy 30th Anniversary

Monday September 7th marked our 30th wedding Anniversary. My wife Beth has put up with her Lesser 5% for 33 years (many of my friends call her my”Better 95%”). Hence, our first trip to Paradise, otherwise known as Hawaii (and Beth’s 48th state visited). For years I’ve been teasing my father-in-law about Beth’s dowry, asking him when it was finally going to arrive. It turns out that Bob is a Timeshare maven, and we are sitting on the porch of one of his finds, watching the surf and waiting for sunset, our lodging an Anniversary gift  from my in-laws. Well played, Bob…well played.

How does that happen? How did it happen so fast? It seems like just yesterday, of course. Bright sunshine and balloons. Birdseed rather than rice (Beth was way ahead of the green curve–turns out, birdseed is good for birds). There was a week’s worth of fun on the front side with friends from far and near in town to play with us, followed by a week’s worth of fun in another version of Paradise making new lifetime friends. My bet is that Beth could fit in the same clothes she wore on the honeymoon; me, not so much.

In my day job I have the privilege of spending time with many couples who have celebrated 30, 40, 50+ years of marriage. It’s very affirming of the whole marriage thing, and puts out quite an optimistic vibe. From them I’ve learned that there is no one, true way to do that, to foster a marriage that lasts, so I can only tell you one way that’s worked so far: Beth and I have never stopped dating.

Sounds simple, huh? Might even be. Never stop dating. Perhaps the nicest gift Beth and I ever received was a phone number given to us when our youngest, Randy, was a week or two away from his grand entrance to the planet. Attached to that phone number were two teenage sisters who babysat our brood once a week, allowing us to have “date night”. Every week, come hell or high water, we had a few hours to put “mom and dad” on hold and just be the sweethearts we were so many years before.

Our world is littered with the empty shells of marriages lost to inattention. Consumed with the important and quite worthwhile tasks of raising children and making a living, it’s so often that first relationship, the marriage, that falls by the wayside. One day, after the chicks have flown from the nest, you’re eating breakfast and you look over the corner of the newspaper at someone you used to know and wonder who they are. No malice, just distance, a certain ennui of sorts.

Not for us, though. Tipped off to the risks of routine we simply extended our courtship. Once a week we made sure it was all about us. Pretty basic, actually. A couple of child-free hours holding hands. For us, the secret to 30 years of marriage, to happiness in that marriage, has been date night. It’s been wonderful, and Beth and I sincerely wish the same for each one of you who may have embarked on this journey.

Happy Anniversary to my Darling Beth. Here’s to 30 more.


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