Category Archives: Navel Gazing

A Big L On My Forehead

While the “L” on my forehead would normally mean “loser”, today it has a different meaning. It is the Roman numeral representing 50 which happens to be the birthday I’m celebrating today. Yep, it’s a landmark and I’m enjoying it – full confession, I LOVE all the “happy birthdays” I’m getting Facebook and LinkedIn, and the emails and texts from my brother, kids and other family members wishing me the same – beginning with some wonderfully thoughtful gifts from my (much) better half this morning and an edible basket she had delivered today at work.

I’m also very lucky in that I’m the son of a writer and as such I get my very own “origin story.” I haven’t asked her permission to share it, but I figure she sent it as a gift so I don’t really need to. Mom’s a helluva writer and this is something I’ll cherish forever.

It was Monday, still a bit warmer than is the norm in southern Germany in mid-September, but not so hot as it had been in August, when little droplets scurried down the sides of a belly that no longer fit inside the maternity blouses unless they were unbuttoned at the bottom.

This was day 21 – a full three weeks after the due date.  But then the due date was known to be less than dependable.  This child had been conceived after the last birth control pill and before the first menstrual cycle.  It was not supposed to happen that way, but if mothers have any sixth sense at all about such things, this mother had a pretty reliable read on what occurred.

They’d been in Garmisch, “skiing.”  When one owns no equipment and has no experience, one “rents” from the military.  In that, as in so many things, one size fits all – that is, all of the non-elite.  Boots came unstrapped, poles and skis were all the same no matter what height the supposed skiier.  He, of course, went right down the slope first time out.  She tried and fell, tried and fell, tried and fell.  Gave up.  There was no ski lift working, because there had been an avalanche.  The ski area is essentially a bowl on the top of the mountain, so they walked back, falling against the side of the mountain when they met anyone coming the other way.  One such traveler looked at her and said, “Ma’am, if you feel anything like you look, you should get back to the lodge NOW.”

A variety of effluents – tears, snot, saliva – created a small grotto on her face.  Her hands and feet had no feeling.  The thawing out that happened in the lodge was (though she had no way of knowing it) training for pain tolerance that would be needed in the Heidelberg hospital 10 months hence.  Later they got warm.  Nice and warm.

They determined she was, indeed, pregnant the same day that he had hernia surgery in Heidelberg.  He had no real reaction to the news, but then he’d been shaved (The hair on his chest looked like the tree line on a mountaintop.) and cut open.  Reason enough.

The months that followed were full of new experiences.  All pregnant women went to the clinic on Thursday.  The waiting room had all the appeal of a cattle barn – no mooing, but there could have been, given the size, shape and gender of those assembled.  

There was no obstetrician in evidence.  She never really knew what the specialties were of the three who saw her on any given Thursday.  About all she learned was the baby seemed normal, she should eat correctly and take vitamins, and if she allowed her weight gain to exceed 20 pounds she would be put in the hospital and fed whatever way was necessary to take it back down to below 20 pounds.  That meant each visit was preceded by a half-hour or so in the bathroom trying on all possible combinations of ugly tent-sized garments to see which was the lightest.  Pre-electronic scales, in that bathroom and at the clinic, praise be.

Even with the restricted weight gain, she had to master the art of waddling.  Somewhere there is a Super 8 tape that is embarrassing testimony to just how inept she was.  It’s a video taken from behind as she stumbled more than strolled through the gardens near Lake Constanz.

All in all, though having no baseline to which to compare her experience she didn’t know it, the pregnancy was uneventful, even comparatively comfortable.  No morning sickness, no swollen ankles.  The only real issues were that many body parts seem to have ballooned in the most graphic sense of the word.  The bra size went from 34 A to 36 C. (No complaints from the prospective paternal corner.) All 18.5 pounds stuck straight out front.

When the due date passed, and then a week elapsed, they literally spent one Sunday driving the back roads, looking for bumps.  The second week, he as building captain was supposed to paint the fence out front.  He had issues at work, so she painted – belly facing parallel, shoulders turned, white paint on her elbows.   Lots of energy.  “Maybe, oh maybe,” she thought, “this is what Aunt May called ‘lightening,’ that surge of energy just before labor.”

At the beginning of the third week, the Stars and Stripes carried a story of a woman who delivered a child without waking up from her afternoon nap.  She got calls and more calls.  “That’s how you should do it!”

Then on Sunday she began bleeding.  They went to the clinic, where the doc on call insisted he could not examine her because there were no grey ladies (volunteer nurses’ aides) available.  She insisted that the father would suffice.  It became clear, then, that the doc didn’t know what he was looking for.  He was an ophthalmologist.  He said he thought she had twins – he heard two heartbeats.  Back home they went.

Monday brought a bridge game, and at the table the first slight pains began. By the time the about-to-be dad got home from work, the pains had become regular.  He showered, and they left, leaving behind the grilled steaks that should have been dinner.  She rode the 30 kilometers to the hospital in an ambulance, while he followed in he car.  The two medics in the ambulance had no experience with monitoring expectant mothers or delivering babies.  They pleaded, “Why not lie down?  That way, maybe the pains won’t be coming faster.”

Less than nine hours later, a healthy baby with a deep, deep voice made his appearance.  Clearly, he had attended a lecture in preparation.  The rules he knew and followed were:

You eat regularly, every four hours.

Before the first month is out, you learn to skip that feeding in the middle of the night.

You can decide what you like to eat, within limits.  Carrots are great.  Spinach is not.

Pooping is a wonderful instrument of revenge.  She will put a “poop pad” on her lap, so the drama may be limited there.  He will not, so you can make a real mess.  (Big enough, as it turned out, that he threw away his slacks, lest the dry cleaner think the mess had been his.)

She really knows absolutely nothing about breast-feeding, so you can take charge.  Be careful, though, because someone has taught her to put a safety pin on the bra strap on the side she starts with, to make sure she starts on the other side the next time.  The pin can scratch your nose.

Laugh a lot.  Chortling is even better.

He made an “A.”  Then and forever after.

The Discipline of Listening Well

Harvard Business Review has a great article on good listening and it doesn’t involve keeping your mouth shut:

We analyzed data describing the behavior of 3,492 participants in a development program designed to help managers become better coaches. As part of this program, their coaching skills were assessed by others in 360-degree assessments. We identified those who were perceived as being the most effective listeners (the top 5%). We then compared the best listeners to the average of all other people in the data set and identified the 20 items showing the largest significant difference.  With those results in hand we identified the differences between great and average listeners and analyzed the data to determine what characteristics their colleagues identified as the behaviors that made them outstanding listeners.

We found some surprising conclusions, along with some qualities we expected to hear. We grouped them into four main findings:

Good listening is much more than being silent while the other person talks…

Good listening included interactions that build a person’s self-esteem

Good listening was seen as a cooperative conversation…

Good listeners tended to make suggestions.

The article has much more detail, but these main points give you an idea of where they’re headed with their findings. In a nutshell it’s not about just sitting there, nodding your head and saying “Uh huh,” and more about actively listening, asking questions at the appropriate time and even providing feedback.

In this day and age of constant interruption and distraction it’s becoming increasingly rare to find those moments when you truly engage with another human being. Your phone rings in mid-conversation and you feel compelled to answer, email and text “pings” chime and you glance down to read them while someone is talking to you, your to-do list hovers in the background of your mind and draws your attention away from the conversation, etc. All of this gets in the way of effective, concentrated listening.

Sadly, the people with whom we allow the most interruptions are those who are most important to us; spouses, kids and co-workers are often cut off while we answer the call from the boss, client or prospect. Why is that? Is it because we know they aren’t going anywhere and thus can talk to us any time? Maybe, but that means we’re devaluing the minutes we spend with them because of a perceived wealth of future minutes and that’s a fool’s trade because those future minutes tend to have a way of never materializing.

I’m a terrible offender when it comes to this bad habit of not actively and effectively listening, but I’m making a concerted effort to change that. To that end I’ve developed some rules for myself that I’m hoping to get better at following. This isn’t a particularly extensive, or comprehensive list, but it’s a start:

  1. Never, ever answer the phone when someone is in front of you having a conversation. (I’m actually pretty good at this, likely because I hate talking on the phone). The only exceptions would be if not answering could lead to very serious consequences like losing your job, sleeping on the couch for a week or getting the cold shoulder from your kid for a month. If those are possibilities then you’re likely expecting that call so that leads to rule 1-A: If you’re expecting a call you should tell whoever you’re talking to that you’re expecting an important call before you even start the conversation. That way they can decide if they want to risk being interrupted or wait for a more opportune time to talk.
  2. Mute your mobile so that you don’t even see/hear alerts for email, texts, etc. while you’re talking to someone. (I’m okay at this, but I need to get better).
  3. At home, leave your phone on your bed stand or in a drawer so you pay attention to your spouse, kids, roommates, etc. (I go through stages with this one and want to get better at it).
  4. At work, leave your desk and talk while standing in the hall or meeting in the conference room or on other neutral ground, and while you’re at it leave your mobile on your desk. Your almost guaranteed to have a shorter, more effective conversation that’s beneficial to all parties involved.
  5. Pay attention. I don’t think I’m alone in struggling with this one. My mind wanders – it goes off into la-la-land and returns via To-Do List road – so I’m trying to trick myself by pretending that I’m going to be tested on what’s being talked about. Results are mixed so far, but I think I’m getting better.
  6. Do what my wife does. She’s a WONDERFUL listener. She remembers everything, offers feedback and opinions and is empathetic, almost to a fault. If I can channel just 20% of her ability I’ll be on the right track.

I wish I could offer up some simple, listicle-like solutions to better listening, but I think it’s a lot like losing weight – you just have to work on developing good habits and stick to the program. Before you know it you’re skinnier and more attentive, which I think most of us would agree is a good thing.

Getting Back Up

Fred Wilson has a post at AVC that isn’t mind blowing, but it is oh so right:

I recently had breakfast with a friend who is an entrepreneur. He had a really rough start to 2015. His business had a tough year in 2014 and he realized at the start of 2015 that if he didn’t make some big changes to the team and operating structure and costs he was going to hit the wall. He sort of did hit the wall to be honest.

He cut out a layer of management, he cut costs across his entire operation, he got back involved in his product and operations, he worked harder and longer than he has ever worked, including when he started the company…

After he told me all of this, I told him that I’ve never met a successful entrepreneur who didn’t get knocked down in the ring at least once or twice. I told him that you can read all you want and get all the advice and coaching that is available and you still will not learn the hard lessons that one has to learn to become best in class at what you do. I’ve come to the conclusion that you have to learn some things the hard way to really learn them well.

Back in the 90s I started a small b-to-b newsletter publishing company. For the first couple of years things went well, and then they didn’t. Before long the business was running on fumes and my personal life was in a shambles. In retrospect the traits that allowed me to start the business in the first place – being young, dumb and brash enough to think I could do it – ended up being my greatest weakness when the business struggled. I didn’t know how, or who, to ask for help. I thought I could figure it out on my own and I couldn’t.

In the end I shut the business down because I didn’t have the energy to save it and my marriage/family life. I moved on to another publishing company and actually got to do some pretty cool things for them that I probably wouldn’t have been able to do on my own. My marriage and family stayed intact and became stronger as a result. Eventually I went back out on my own as a consultant and had a great run before taking the job that I’ve enjoyed for six years (and counting).

The lessons learned from that “failure” included:

  • Family first. Always, and forever.
  • Know the value of humility. You can’t, and shouldn’t, do it all and you should surround yourself with people who can do the things you can’t.
  • People actually like being asked to help, and if you do ask almost everyone will do what they can to help you.
  • Never stop learning and trying to grow. This applies both professionally and personally, and as Fred points out in his post, your failures are actually great opportunities to learn and grow.
  • Don’t be penny wise and pound foolish. Small example: I didn’t use a payroll company because I didn’t want to spend the $100/month for their service. Let’s just say the mistakes I made ended up costing far more than that. One of the first things I did at my current job? Got us set up with a payroll company.

Are these common sense bromides that you can find in any small business/entrepreneurial website, book, blog or magazine? Yep. So why am I sharing? Because I read all those things and the lessons still didn’t sink in until I lived through them. I’m hoping at least one of you will be spared the pain if you hear it from one more source.

I also believe in paying it forward, so if you ever find yourself in a bind and think there’s no way out I’m more than willing to listen and hopefully find a way to help. If nothing else I can offer a sympathetic ear.

There’s no shame in failing but it’s a huge mistake to not get back up and push on. Another well worn sentiment that you’ve probably heard a thousand times, but it’s worth saying again because it’s true. Believe me, I learned the hard way.

The Lonely Christmas Curmudgeon

This weekend my wife and I spent time with some friends and I was (pleasantly) surprised to learn that one of them was a Christmas curmudgeon. For years I’d always felt like I was alone in my sentiment towards the holiday, but lo and behold there was a comrade-in-curmudgeonliness in my own circle of friends.

The life of a Christmas curmudgeon is largely spent faking it. Pretending to enjoy all the trappings, like hanging lights, trimming the tree, hanging stockings, buying gifts, etc. When our kids were little I did truly enjoy watching their excitement build in the week before Christmas, the anticipation of Christmas Eve and their sheer joy on Christmas morning. Outside of that I’ve just never liked the rest of it. The stress of gift buying, of determining where you’re going to spend the holiday, of trying not to offend family or friends if you don’t spend the holiday with them and the accumulation of small annoyances like crappy music played endlessly and people getting their panties in a twist if you say “Happy holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas” all conspire to cause me to view Christmas the way most people view an audit.

So it was kind of refreshing to meet someone who generally feels the same way. When it’s just you it feels like you’re abnormal; everyone else seems to love Christmas so if you don’t you must be broken or emotionally warped. I do think almost everyone gets stressed during the Christmas season, but the vast majority seem to think that the rest of season’s trappings far outweigh the stress.

Not me. I’d love to see us return to the days when it was all about the religious ceremony, the quote-unquote true meaning of Christmas, and not about the trappings of the season. Actually that might be the biggest annoyance of all – the pure hypocrisy of the people who complain about the commercialization of Christmas and then proceed to hang 8 gazillion lights around their house and buy new cars for each other as stocking stuffers.

So let this curmudgeon end on a high note: I do love the lights and I do love seeing family for any reason, so it could be worse.



10 Years

This is a bit of navel gazing, but I figured I'd put it here for future reference. After 10 years of volunteering with the Town of Lewisville, first with the Zoning Board of Adjustment and then with the Planning Board, I had to step away due to other commitments in my professional and personal life. The folks on the Town Council were nice enough to give me a plaque at the January Council meeting (video below). 

It was truly an honor to work with a lot of great people.


Middle X

What happens when those of us born between 1965 and 1980, the infamous Generation X, enter middle age? Well, for one thing, we don't make nearly the noise about it our predecessors did:

People heard it loud and clear when the baby boomers crossed over to midlife – you couldn’t avoid it. Radio talk show hosts probed into the transition, newspapers described boomer women coping with crow’s feet and men reclaiming their vitality in tribal drum circles. For the generation born after – in the ‘60s and ‘70s, raised by television like no previous generation and with the divorce rate skyrocketing during their childhood years — there is no media watch broadcasting their new trajectory. Few have even noticed that this small, notoriously rebellious clan – those born roughly between 1965 and 1980, which means about 46 million Xers versus 80 million boomers — has entered middle age. It’s a transition that, until now, has been captured, mulled over and ridiculed for each generation for more than a half-century. But not this time.

The problem is, with adulthoods repeatedly shipwrecked by economic disasters, Xers might have neglected to track the crossing over. Susan Gregory Thomas, author of the resonant memoir ”In Spite of Everything,” says that many Xers “are always living in a state of triage, always in a survivalist mode. We’re not thinking long-term.”

And then there's this:

And one thing that’s clear: No one else is going to care that we’re moving into red-Ferrari territory. Sure we’ve been screwed. And there may be no Ellsberg in our bunch, but we drank plenty of American Dream Kool-Aid: the idea of real estate being a good investment, the platitude about working hard and getting a good education to secure a solid footing, and the assurance that you need to follow your dreams and not compromise. We are now the most educated American generation – and the first one not doing better than its parents.

There is a chance that being repeatedly burned by the marketplace may actually help us; our natural skepticism may be something American society needs to hear. Most of our trouble – from the Bush 1 recession to the dot-com bust and the more recent economic pit of despair – has stemmed from unchecked optimism. The Xers have paid for that trickle-down optimism repeatedly.

We Xers are sandwiched between two much larger generations in the Boomers and Echo Boomers, but 46 million is still a lot of people so there is a variation inherent to the group that makes it dangerous to offer up sweeping generalizations like those in the article. Still we are generally shaped by our shared generational experiences and the article does a good job of outlining some of the experiences that made a significant impact on us – a high rate of divorced parents, an adulthood punctuated by extreme economic highs and lows, a litany of political and business scandals covered in excrutiating detail by the exploding multimedia landscape – and how they likely influenced our development and outlook on life in general.

When I read the following excerpt I was instantly thankful that my lovely wife and I bucked the trend of our generation and started having kids in our mid-20s:

Many of us – busy building careers, wounded by family divorce, or just wanting to lay down the perfect foundation for marriage and family life — waited to have children. Studies reveal that a disproportionate number of us are sandwiched between dependent children and aging parents – fending off economic stressers while juggling a heavy load of family responsibilities.

Connelly, the Ford futurist, says that some of the postponing of the traditional midlife period may come down to a pushing back of all the major life milestones: “Some of that [midlife questioning] would be fueled by empty nesters – the kids are grown,” she says, explaining a feeling of “now what?” “Demographics have shifted such that with each passing generation, people are postponing marriage.” With dependent kids at home, everything has been pushed back. “There’s nothing midlife about my situation right now.  I think that’s why you don’t hear this conversation.”

After reading that who wouldn't want the traditional "red Porsche at 46" mid-life crisis prompted by empty nesthood and a sagging jowl?  I say bring it on.  Of course in my case it's a "burgundy Honda Pilot at 46" mid-life crisis which, if you ask a Boomer, would make me a classic Xer underachiever.

Five Seconds of Fame

Thanks to my job I'm occasionally interviewed by local TV stations. It's cool in the "I never thought I'd be on TV" sense, but on the other hand it's a little like jumping off a cliff because you learn pretty quickly that the TV folks can make you look as good or bad, smart or stupid, as they want.

Last Friday I was fried. We had our annual banquet the night before and my brain was little more than Jell-O as a result. Luckily I had a light schedule so I was cruising through my day until the phone rang at 12:30. It was the local Fox affiliate looking for some background on a story they were working, and also looking for a soundbite if at all possible. Knowing I was in no shape for an interview I claimed a full schedule. Nominally true, but I really just didn't want to do the interview. Eventually the reporter persuaded me to talk and we set a 2:30 appointment. 

The result? A half hour of prep work followed by a total vapor-lock of the brain as soon as the camera was on. Luckily they took mercy on me and only used about five seconds of the interview, thus minimizing my on-camera freeze

To Be Thankful

One of the benefits of getting older is that you have the opportunity to experience good times, bad times and everything in between. Sure we've all had varying degrees of both good and bad experiences, but the older you get the more of each you've seen and the more you can appreciate the truly good times. It's hard to know what it feels like to be out of work until you've done it. It's hard to understand what true heartbreak is until the person you thought was the love of your life ends up not being the "one", and the relationship you thought would last forever goes down in flames. It's hard to understand true loss until you've lost a loved one to illness or accident. It's hard to understand the burden of being responsible for another human being until you've been a parent and had to shepherd your children through the tumult of childhood and the hell that is adolescence. In short, when you're young you don't know s*** because you haven't experienced much yet, and in turn it would be unreasonable to expect you to have the perspective necessary to know how thankful you really should be for what you have.

As a parent it's both frightening and bemusing to watch your children go through the process of discovering what good times and bad times truly are. Watching them learn that earning a "D" on a test isn't a tragedy, but not being able to go to school because your parents are out of work certainly could be. Seeing them suffer through a relationship because they don't understand that there are so many people out there who will treat them better, or on the flip side, watching them walk away from a relationship with someone who loves and respects them for who they are because of a short-term need. Or listening to them gripe about their crappy phone, and of course extolling the virtues of their friend's phone – you know, the friend with the cool parents who make sure they always have the latest and greatest – without ever considering how lucky they are to simply have a warm, safe place to sit and talk on their supposedly-crappy phones. It's bemusing to watch because we have the perspective that they lack, and it's frightening to behold because we know how much pain they'll need to experience to gain it.

If you've been on Facebook recently you've likely seen a new meme, or trend, that you could call the "Thankful" exercise; every day throughout the month of November people are sharing something for which they are thankful. Sure it's a bit hokey, but it's also useful to take a moment each day to remember how many reasons you have to be thankful. Of course I say this after having not participated at all to this point, so let me take a little of this space and your time to share just a few of the reasons I'm thankful:

  • First and foremost that I have a marriage that gives back to me so much more than I've put into it. Of course that means I have a wonderful wife – I'm not just saying that Celeste – but there are many marriages between two good people that haven't worked out, so I'm eternally thankful that ours has. As Celeste told me two nights ago, we're in a great place right now. I don't think we could know how great a place we're in if we hadn't had 20+ years of good, bad and ugly places up 'til now.
  • That I have three great kids who seem to still like their parents after all these years. Yeah, they do their share of weird and idiotic things, but they're great people and I look forward to seeing them gain some perspective.
  • That I have parents I can still call for advice and perspective – in particular a mother who calls BS when she hears it.
  • That I have a brother who I talk to as much as I ever have even though we live hundreds of miles apart.
  • That I have friends who have literally been with me for decades, through thick and thin, who know me better than I know myself and still let me call them friends. 
  • That I'm surrounded by aunts, uncles, cousins and in-laws and we all like each other.
  • That my grandmother has lived to the wonderful age of 93, and that my aunts are there for her – and that my aunts don't beat me up for not seeing my Grandmother as often as I should.
  • That I have a job that I truly enjoy and allows me to spend huge chunks of time with people I love and respect. 
  • That I've found a church that has welcomed my family and has made me feel at home. 
  • That I have a house/money-pit that has truly become a home – a vessel containing over eight years of memories with my family. 

I could go on, but I think you get the drift. Thanks for indulging me, and if you're so inclined please feel free to share what you're thankful for on this fine day.


Scott Adams, he of Dilbert fame, writes about his terrible memory and it sounds oh so hauntingly familiar:

In school, I could force myself to remember topics for tests, but it only lasted as long as the test. At home, we have a lot of conversations about what I might have heard or said at some specified time in the past and it almost never sounds vaguely familiar. Sometimes it feels as if someone else lived my life until this very moment and now I'm taking over.

The way I perceive the act of creativity while it happens in me is as a process of forgetting, not a process of creating. The mind is not capable of having zero thoughts, so when you flush whatever is in your head at the moment it creates a sort of vacuum that sucks in a new thought. In my case, that process of forgetting and then sucking in a new thought happens continuously. My memory isn't "sticky," so what comes in slides right back out in a nanosecond. Sometimes a new thought is worth writing down, which I either do right away or lose it forever. Usually the new idea is random garbage and it passes quickly, making room for the next idea. My mind feels like a slot machine that I can't stop pulling. Sometimes the diamonds line up, but not often.