Friday, August 30, 2013

Labor Day: Reflections on a Life of Work

Labor Day feels different today than in the past. Maybe it's all the talk about retirement these days, both at home and in the news. Maybe it's because I got an e-mail from Social Security today-you know, the one that shows you how much you've earned every year since you started working. $36! That's how much I earned in 1968, which isn't too bad considering I only worked during December. I made a whopping $1578 in 1969, then $1623 in 1971, the year I graduated from high school. However, after 45years of jobs, my Social Security earnings record is only a small and relatively insignificant part of my work story.

The Job I Had

As one of the oldest of 8 children growing up in a crowded, chaotic household, there was always work to do. Taking out the garbage and scrubbing floors led to paper routes and lawn mowing jobs. My first real job was at McDonald's, where I started the day after I turned 16. New employees began by wearing a hat that was blue and had "Trainee" on it in big white letters.  It might as well have said "LOSER" on it.  You wore the Trainee hat for about 30 days until you got your McLegs under you, then you were given the regular white crew hat that everyone else wore. You were still a loser, just not as big of a loser.  I started working on the milk shake machine and when I mastered that job, I was moved over the station where you "dressed the buns" which then put you in direct line of the most coveted job in the joint..the Grill Guy. Guys that worked the grill were like Maverick and Goose in Top Gun, the few, the proud, the grill guys. Milk shake guys ...losers. Bun dressers...wannabes. Grill guys.....studs! The term "guy" is intentional here because McDonald's was an all male workplace until around 1970.
The actual McDonald's at the time I had my first real job.

The highlight of my McDonald's career came when I was named the Employee of the Month in August of 1969. Now before you mutter "loser" or "want fries with that?" consider what I received for being named the Employee of the Month:
 1) Dinner for 2 at one of the best steak houses in Des Moines. Just sign the check. I took a date and ordered the 16 oz. Porter House, medium rare. Sweet. Not sure what she had.
2) A 15 cents per hour raise. I went from $1.50 an hour to $1.65 an hour.
3) 2 tickets to the new wide screen Cinerama movie theater where we saw "Krakatoa East of Java".
4)  $25 dollars in pocket money for incidentals. Is beer an incidental?
5) A trophy with my name on it and a color picture of me in my uniform. 

Employee of the Month, August, 1969
I thought the first 4 items were pretty cool. The trophy was alright. The picture of me in my uniform? I could have done without that. The trophy and picture were placed on top of a shelf above the fry station near the front counter where all the customers could see it. This McDonald's was in a college neighborhood and directly across the street from a  bar that was the place to be on a Saturday night. Students would wander over to McDonald's to grab some munchies and a few may have had a little too much to drink. Eventually they would notice the picture and then they would look for me. "Is he working tonight? Hey, there he is!" From back in my grill station I could read their lips and they weren't saying things like, "Oh, look  at that fine young man. He's the Employee of the Month. Isn't he cool?" 

When my month was over, they gave me the trophy and the picture and I took them home and placed both on a shelf in my bedroom. When I went off to college, I stuffed them in a box with my personal artifacts and they rarely saw the light of day.  That all changed in 1991 when I decided to share my McDonald's picture with as many people as I possibly could. And I have. You can count yourself among the thousands who've seen it since I began sharing it. I told my wife that I wanted it on display at my funeral. She said she'd think about it

The Work I do.

What lies between that first job at McDonald's and the job I have today is my life's work. Yesterday, a manager came to see me to talk through some challenges he was having with a couple of his employees. He left more encouraged. I spent an hour with one of our clinic supervisors and her boss talking about her growth and development. She left feeling valued.Today, I got an e-mail from a newly promoted supervisor asking for some ideas on how to get off to a good start with her new team. She'll spend the weekend feeling more supported.  That is the work I do. I encourage, listen, advise, coach, teach and counsel.

Like most people, I've had some really good jobs and some really bad jobs. Jobs I've loved and jobs I've hated, but I've always pursued work that I love. In retrospect, I can see the threads of my best work woven through every job I've ever had. I've feel very fortunate to have been able to do what I do best, most of the time. Not everyone is that fortunate. Out of economic necessity, many people toil in bad jobs or jobs where they don't have the opportunity to do what they do best.

Take a moment this Labor Day weekend to pay tribute to those around you whose work benefits you or your community, regardless of how much or little they are paid. My Social Security record will not tell you anything about the work I did. It will only tell you how much I earned. The day will come soon enough where I may no longer have a job. But my hope is that my work will continue as long as I live.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Creative Musings

 I recently came across an article in a health magazine whose headline really got my attention-"Getting Tipsy May Inspire Creativity".  Really?  Is there a connection between intoxication and inspiration? The article seems to suggest there is. Because if there is, I'm left out again. You see, I don't drink alcohol. Period. Nada. Not a single drop. Not a sliver of champagne at a friend's wedding toast. Not a can of beer after mowing the lawn. New Years Eve, I'm putting down the diet sodas like crazy or at least until 11:30 when I can no longer stay awake. So whatever creative advantage there is in lubricating your right side of your brain with booze, grog, firewater, moonshine, hooch or whatever you choose to call it, I'm shit out of luck.

Now before I go any further, let me set the record straight. I'm am not a teetotaler, a temperance advocate, a prude or an advocate of prohibition. If you like to drink, that's your business.  There are plenty people who drink normally and get along just fine. In fact, I had a 25 year love affair with alcohol. Then we broke up and it ended badly. Believe me when I say, if I could have a few drinks of what ever new micobrew they are making these days and be a little more creative, without it ruining the rest of my life, I would. However, I don't believe I need alcohol to enhance my creativity anymore and I don't need to drink alcohol to have a good life.  But I used to.

In HS, this held my creative muse.
It started out innocently enough. Sneak some beer to a junior high party and everyone thinks you're cool. Act a little stupid, act a little silly, no harm done. Sneak an empty Plochman's mustard bottle filled with cherry vodka  into the bell of your saxophone and take it with you on the marching band trip. Have a mixed drink at halftime of a football game and while you're at it, pour a few drinks for your friends. Every now and then, drink till you puke, scribble creative writings on the back of a record album and call it being creative. Got a 10k run in the morning? Go ahead and drink too much the night before. That hangover will wear off by mile 3. Oh, and lest I forget, go to class, get good grades, get a job, fall in love, go to college, get another job, and act like nothing is out or order in your life. Drinking became a part of every normal thing I did-the good things, the bad things, the ordinary things.

For most people, drinking enhances an ordinary experience, takes the edge off our worries and lightens the load. And I suppose it makes them more creative, so the article suggests. It didn't me. I forgot how to enjoy the good things in life just as they were. A great concert...make it better with booze.  Got some sadness in my life? Drown it away with with a couple of cold ones. From simply wanting to enhance the ordinary, I got to place where I couldn't live with or without it. For people like me, drinking is a deal you strike with the devil. I took all I wanted in the moment, but I paid for it in the end. I had no idea of what kind of a tab I had run up until it came time to pay up. I reached the end. I was done. I was out of options. I made the biggest decision of my life and stopped drinking. That was 23 years ago.

Learning to live without alcohol after having it woven into nearly ever part of your existence is no easy task. But with the support of people who share this common malady, it can be done. By any measure, my life is better in every way without alcohol in it. I've learned how to experience every thing this life has to offer, the good the bad and the ugly, with all of my senses fully intact. Not always as gracefully as I'd like, but I am a still work in progress. I still remember vividly going to my first big concert after I got sober-would it sound as good and would I enjoy it as much as I thought it did when I was drinking? Armed with a cup of black coffee, I can still hear Paul Simon and his 18 member band of world class musicians that night--the music was crystal clear, all frequencies firing, I was totally immersed in the moment.  I was sure the tulips were brighter that first spring I experienced it sober. Today, to play on the floor with our beagle, to get swept away by the sounds of music, to walk on a mountain trail or around the neighborhood with my soul mate by my side, to sit and listen to friend who is sick and afraid-these are enough they way they are. They need no altering. They are to be experienced as they are and that is the gift of sobriety.

The world of creative people is full of stories of those who used alcohol or drugs as their creative muse. Some got away with it, many crashed and burned. The article goes on to state that men who were moderately drunk solved problems more intuitively than sober ones. Seems an impaired executive function may be helpful for these types of creative functions, they stated. Executive functions? Is that like when you can't remember where you parked your car or what you said that insulted your friends? Or when you thought you needed one more beer only to wake up and find yourself sitting in the the living room at 3 am, with some bad infomercial playing on the TV and there is a full can of beer still sitting on the end table? 

I don't know if drinking alcohol gives as person a creative edge, but I'm going to stick to diet lemonade and coffee. Life seems to go better that way and besides, I've been drunk and I've been sober and I like sober better.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

My Career: The Band Man and Why the Soybeans Are Turning Brown

The question comes up a lot more now than it ever has in the past..."when are you going to retire?" I suppose my gray hair bespeaks the question.  The fact is that retirement, or shall I say, the decision about when to retire,  is upon me. I don't have an exact date but I do have an idea of about when I'd like to retire. Georgette, on the other hand, is zeroed in her retirement date and is in range. Like jets lined up to land at O'Hare, she has the runway in sight and  just waiting for the "you are cleared to land" command from the tower. Me? I am somewhere over the Atlantic on autopilot, with the folks in back in the cabin settled in for long flight.

I began my professional career some 38 years ago when I took my first teaching job at a small, consolidated school district in north central Iowa. I was hired as the grade 5-12 instrumental music teacher for the 1975-76 school year. The Band Man. That's what the superintendent of schools called me. When I interviewed for the job, I was told that  the program was down and could use some improvement. The previous year had been a difficult one and  I would be stepping into a situation where things could only get better. The "band man" who began the previous year had long hair and a beard, which drew the ire of the superintendent. He was dismissed mid-year for having students over to his house where there were allegations of alcohol being served. He lived out in the country in a rented farm house and the kids saw it as a cool place to hangout. Not good. Of course, the students loved him. He was replaced by a teacher who was a woman (Band Woman perhaps) and certified to teach strings, but as the Superintendent told me regretfully, she was hired anyway because there just wasn't anyone else available. The students, still angry about the party guy being let go, took it out  on her and she spent most of the semester in tears. I'm not sure if her contract wasn't renewed or she chose not to return, but the position was mine if I wanted it. I had time to interview for other jobs. Maybe I could do a little better than this.  The job came with a modest 6 week summer teaching contract and I could start June 1st, if I was interested. I signed the contract.

I can list out and rationalize all kinds of reasons why I took that job when there were better jobs out there for me, but all that really matters today is that I took it.  That being said, here are some of the things that might have led me to accept this job:

1) I had interviewed for a job in another small district just prior to this one . It was a much better position, they had a brand new school, the program was in better shape. I wanted it. I didn't get it. Still remember getting the rejection letter in the mail. Nearly the end of the world.

2) My wife at the time was 2 years into her teaching career, hated her job and had decided not to return. Our plan was that once I got a job, she would look for one in the area. The pressure was on me now.

3) 1974, my parents had divorced and my family, which included 7 brothers and sisters, was all over the place. Nothing seemed stable. Get a teaching job and everything will be OK.

4) I had no means of support other than my wife's salary and that was coming to an end so I'd better get a job otherwise it was back to McDonald's for me.

5) My self-confidence was shaky and deep down inside, I had doubts that I was worthy of getting a better position, even though I hadn't really applied to many schools yet and had only been turned down once. Yes,  I would be graduating from a good music school but I had rarely been the best or first at anything so I better take what I could get.

In truth, it was probably a combination of all of the above. I signed the contract and found a house to rent for $90 a month at the end of the Main Street in Farnhamville, Iowa. The goal I first set when I was in junior high school was accomplished.

Taken from the 1976 Yearbook
Cedar Valley was the official name of the district and was made up of 3 towns that had begrudgingly consolidated  in 1956. The high school was in Somers, (pop.150),  the junior high was in Rinard, (pop. 90) and the elementary school was in Farnhamville, (pop. 350).  All three buildings were built around 1915- brick 3 story schools with steam radiators in the rooms and a small gymnasium that doubled as the lunch room and basketball court. There is a distinct odor that permeated these buildings that I call" old school smell"- a combination of lead paint, cleaning solutions, kid sweat and whatever was being served for lunch that day.  I lived in Farnhamville since it was the largest of the 3 towns.  I began my day by driving up the paved county road to the high school, then moved to the junior high after lunch.

My summer teaching contract paid me about $600.00 and included teaching music lessons to interested students and directing a summer band concert at a ice cream social/girls softball game event in late June. I was fortunate because the district had purchased a portable building to be used as a music room and it had air conditioning. I was spared having to teach in a hot, old smelling classroom. The time came to have my first rehearsal with the high school band and get ready to the upcoming summer concert. I was guessing about their abilities as most of the students taking lessons were elementary and junior high students. But I managed to put together what I thought was an easy, nicely balanced mixture of marches and pop tunes that would be playable with little rehearsal and still entertain the locals. 

One by one, the students wandered into the band room on that June  evening. Part of the anxiety I was feeling was because I had no idea who would show and since the band was very small to begin with,well, it could get interesting in a hurry.  "Let's begin with a concert B, flat scale. Whole notes up and down. One, two, ready, play.....". Ever have a moment where what's going on in your head and what you are projecting on the outside are at complete odds with each other? On the outside, I'm conducting the band, smiling perhaps, looking encouraged. On the inside my brain  was playing a different tune. "Oh my God, they can't be this bad. It is summer, they haven't played for awhile. What did I get myself into. This is embarrassing."

Next, it was time to play through one of the marches that I had selected. After a few reminders about the key change at the trio and the style I was looking for, it was time to count off the march. "OK, let's give this a run through. From the top, One, two, ready, play......" What I heard as I went through the motions of conducting this motley group of students might have been the worst sounding band I had ever heard. If not the worst, one of the worst. It was awful. Like what Mr. Holland hears in the movie "Mr. Hollands Opus" when he conducts his school orchestra for the first time. Growing up, I had been fortunate enough to play in pretty good bands as I progressed from junior high through my college days. Fresh out of music school, my rational brain was expecting a different level of performance than what I was used to, but my emotional brain was freaking out. Looking  back, nothing could have prepared me for what I heard that night. It was one of those life events I just had to experience. And yet, we had a concert to do in a few days. And we sucked.

And so like I've done so many times in my life, I sucked it up, took a deep breath and set about to make the best of it. After all, I was a professional now.  I got through the  ice cream social where I was introduced many times as "our new band man". The summer went on and soon it was time for school to start.

My first marching band.
I learned a lot that year. Students weren't going to respect me just because I had a college degree and good intentions. Small towns can be difficult to live in if you aren't from there. Winters in rural areas are very different than winters in the city. Farm kids bring all of things into the building on their boots and clothes and radiators amplify the smell.

My house was just south of the Lutheran Church parking lot,
seen here in the upper right  where the white gravel parking lot is.
One incident that has occupied a prominent place in my memory has to do with soybeans. Being raised in the city, I had no idea of what really went on out on the farm. I drove from the high school to the junior high every day after lunch on about 5 miles of gravel roads. As autumn harvest neared, I noticed that the soybeans were drying up and turning brown. One evening at a faculty-school board social after a football game, I was chatting with one of the school board members who was a farmer. Trying to fit in and act as if I belonged, I said, "It sure must be dry this year because those beans are really getting brown." This was met at first with a blank stare then followed with, "No, it hasn't been that dry. Soybeans dry naturally and turn brown on their own, then we harvest them. If they are too moist, the farmer will get a lower price at the elevator because they will have to be dried before they can be sold on the market."  Farmer-1, City Boy-0. You know that feeling when you get caught with your zipper down? That feeling you get when you pass gas and try to pretend it isn't coming for you? Seems like a minor deal but I think of it every fall when I see a field of soybeans.

I moved on to a different school district the next year where I stayed for 4 years. The superintendent told me he was throwing out every application where the candidate had a beard or was a woman. Hopefully no bearded women applied. The new Band Man was hired in late spring, sans beard. But when he stopped by the school just before the year ended while on a house hunting trip, he was donning a full beard. You could see the steam coming from the Superintendent's  ears.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Let Sleeping Dogs Lie

Grace, the beagle, has been lounging all afternoon. She had a full morning, which included an hour long walk on the Keystone trail, lots of sniffing, getting a scrambled egg in her dog food bowl (a Sunday morning ritual), barking at the dogs next door, and finally, an afternoon of lounging and napping. It's a dog's  life for sure.  I envy her. She doesn't have a plan for the day. Instead she watches us to see what's up next. We read the paper and have coffee on Sundays so she followed that cue and slept on a pillow. When Georgette finally got around to putting on her walking shoes, Grace noticed and sat in front of the front door in anticipation of a walk. She was right. When Georgette was making breakfast, she heard the crack of an egg and saw the  bowl go into the microwave and knew that "egg" was soon to be served. As breakfast was being cleaned up she hung around the dishwasher looking for opportunities to lick a  dirty plate or spoon. With the morning  rituals completed she went into full lounge lizard mode. Here is what the rest of the afternoon entailed:

1) Nap on the living room floor then wander to the crate and nap for a while.

2) Listen for the dogs below us to be let out then go racing down the steps and down to the fence and bark like there's no tomorrow.

3)  Wait to get scolded and chased back into the house.

4) Act like you didn't do anything wrong and show only minimal or no signs of remorse.

5) Retreat to the bedroom and lie in the sun.

6 Nap some more until you hear the vacuum or the dogs next door.

7  Repeat as often as you feel like it.

I'm never sure what is going on in that head of hers. Don't have a clue. I do know that she watches us like a hawk and anticipates her next move based on some cue that she sees or hears. She can be sound asleep on the couch, but if Georgette gets up and goes into the kitchen, her ears perk up. If she  hears the refrigerator door open, she gets up on the arm of the couch and peers towards kitchen. If she sees any kind of plate or bowl being brought back into the living room, she goes on full "I might get some" alert. She usually does. As I'm writing this, she is lying on the floor with her head between her paws, half asleep but also remaining vigilant, looking up from time to time with those beagle eyes so as to not miss any important cues.

Grace doesn't have any plans, goals or personal improvement objectives. She isn't trying to live up to her potential or make her mark on the world. She doesn't have a financial planner, a retirement plan or a life coach. She has no fear of impending doom or regrets about things she has done in her past. She has never had a performance appraisal, but she did a report card from doggy daycare that said she was "the cutest beagle ever!" Yes, it went right to her head.

Grace is having a good day. She will probably have a good day tomorrow even though she doesn't  care much about what is or isn't planned for her. I envy her. I've sent too much time in my life regretting my shortcomings or poor decisions and equally as much time worrying about the future. In short, I wasted a lot of time along the way. And yet, in spite of myself, I'm having a really good day today. And with a little bit of luck, I'll probably have a good day tomorrow.  So today, at nearly 61 years of age, I'm going to try to live a little more like Grace lives. Listen for the cues, then wait and see. Lounge around more than work. Be open to what the day brings. Bark more with less remorse. Live in the moment. Wag my tail when I feel good. Always be glad to see those I love and who love me back. Act silly at the most unexpected times. And perk up when I hear the refrigerator door open.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Audiences Create Performances

I’m going to do something tomorrow I haven’t done in a long time. I will be teaching a workshop to a group of healthcare folks, mostly surgical and clinic nurses, on the topic of developing and using your sense of humor. Back in the mid 90’s, when I worked as an Employee Assistance Program trainer and counselor, I put together a whole series of seminars and presentations on humor and well-being, Through my job, I was able to market and book this seminar in all kinds of companies and organizations. It was some of the best work I’ve ever done and it feels silly to even call it work. Some of my  talents lie in the areas of public speaking, teaching and working with people as a coach or counselor, so this was a natural extension of other work I was doing at the time. What was different then was the topic--one’s  sense of humor.  I thought I had a good active sense of humor, but to teach others how to develop and activate their own sense of humor, that was new territory for me. And somewhat risky, I might add. Needless to say,  my creative juices got flowing. I read everything I could about humor, I talked to people about their sense of humor, I observed, reflected and integrated everything I had personally experienced about humor. Eventually, I built a  seminar that I could take on the road and over a 5 year period I must have presented this seminar in various settings and versions at least 200 times. When I look back at everything I’ve done in my professional career, this ranks at the top of the list. It was really fun and gratifying to do as you might suspect. But the most amazing thing to me was that I got paid for doing it.

In 1999,  I changed jobs and  my new company needed me to teach a curriculum other than humor. It was good stuff,  very positive subject matter  and I enjoyed teaching it,  but it just wasn’t  humor. So I set my humor program on the shelf. For a while, opportunities to teach humor workshops came from people who had been at one of my programs and I was able to dust off the my material and put it back to work. But eventually the requests stopped coming and the dust grew thicker. And while I never lost sight of my own sense of humor and how to use it on a daily basis, my days encouraging other people to develop their sense of humor took on a different, less focused form.

That will all change tomorrow. One of my peers, a nurse educator, was looking for something different to have as the topic for the quarterly clinical learning program at the hospital where I work. When I suggested humor as a possible topic, I wasn’t sure how she’d react. After all, people in healthcare are known to take themselves a bit too seriously at times. Needless to say, we are expecting a really good turnout tomorrow. Turns out, the most common reaction to the topic has been, ”We really need that here!” The pressure is on.

It seems to me that some of the same things that can keep a person from developing and using their sense of humor are some of the same things that block creativity, expression, authenticity and encouragement. You can also make the case that looking for the humor in almost any situation requires one to be creative and open to different ways of looking at things, to have the ability to see things through a different perspective. Here are the 3 humor skills for adults that will be presented as part of my seminar tomorrow:

1)      The ability to find the humor or absurdity in almost any difficult situation.
2)      The ability to take your “self”  lightly while taking your work seriously.
3)      The ability to live a disciplined life of joy and gratitude.

I promise to write a blog article about each one of these skills in the near future. I have a feeling that tomorrow’s program will be the start of a whole new series of opportunities and adventures and that excites me. Wish me luck. Here’s hoping I don’t take  myself too seriously.