Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Death and Beauty

My Mom and Dad on their 48th Anniversary
this past February.

My father was diagnosed with esophageal cancer about two weeks ago. The specific type is a common one, but because of its location (at the junction between the stomach and the esophagus) it is very virulent and hard to kill. People who have this type of cancer, in this location, have only about a 14% survival rate past five years. It's an awful disease that steals your ability to eat and I'm going to go out on a limb and say that it will steal his ability to sing.

My dad and mom have always sung to me. My father taught me to sing in German. He taught me to sing in harmony. He taught me to play trumpet and my very first notes on the piano. My folks sang me a lullaby every night before I went to bed. I can still hear their voices as they sang to me in my tiny, little, room in our tiny post-WWII house. In my life, where song is like breath, my parents taught me to breathe, but most especially my dad.

Having been here at this point (where singing becomes harder and then disappears,) I woke up one morning last week weeping over this impending loss. I know, perhaps more than he does at this moment, how hard this is going to be. To hear a choir and know and feel every single note all the way down to your inner core, but not be be to join in the song, is a great grief.

One of the things that I believe about the world is that beauty transforms people and when people are transformed, they transform the world around them. Creating beauty and appreciating beauty both transform you, but it is in creating beauty that we truly share in the divine. I think that's one of the things that makes us unique as human beings --our capacity to create beauty. Not just in the sense that we are beautiful, but in that we seek it out, we want to appreciate it, and we seek to create it using the gifts that we are given.

My father's gifts are not the same as mine, though they overlap (DNA is a thing). Where my talents are administrative and musical, Dad's are innovative and musical. Where I want a piece of music to recreate, Dad can improvise. Where Dad likes to create outside the box, I like to see what I can use inside the box to make things better. This is illustrative of the reason that my father is a serial entrepreneur and I work in an office.

Creativity can express itself in many ways and musicians (really artists of any type) have to learn to embrace those other forms of creativity as life throws us curveballs and takes away our more obvious gifts. It is obvious, for example, that a person who can sing or write or draw is talented and that they are creative, but what may not be so obvious is the beauty of other things that they can create. One of the things that I learned when I lost my voice is that there are other ways that I can create beauty, but first I had to learn to see it in places other than the obvious.

Dad has used his creativity to solve engineering problems for years. Always looking outward, Dad has done much good with his life. I have no doubt that there are many families who still have fathers, husbands, mothers and wives because my dad's inventions changed the way that manufacturing is done in their industry, making it safer, while making it more reliable and accurate. And that is a beautiful thing, isn't it?

"A thing of beauty is a joy forever: its loveliness increases..." - John Keats

Maybe this is how we live on in the lives of our loved ones - by creating things that are beautiful. The fact that even one life was spared from a runaway extrusion of steel may be the reason that ten more lives exist in the world - and happily. Even the music, which disappears as soon as it's made, stays with me and has inspired many others throughout my career. It is true: we never know the impact we have in the world and the ripples we send out from one act.

It is in this moment, where death and life are converging, that I can finally see the beauty of all of my father's creative genius. It's such a paradox to know that it takes loss to make you see gain.

Monday, March 7, 2016

How Stats and Heidegger Showed Me that I Exist (or Happy Birthday to Me)

As the Nautilus ages it grows by adding additional
chambers to house itself throughout its life cycle.
As we age, we grow, too - just not as obviously.

Saturday was my 47th birthday. It's been a tough birthday to face down. In three short years, I will be 50. I kept thinking all weekend, "Wasn't I just 25 last year?" But I was not. It's time for me to face facts: I am getting older. I am not a girl; I am a woman and a middle-aged woman at that.

Between the breast surgery (the masses were not cancerous, but the surgery is still painful), the pneumonia I'm still fighting off, and the ups and downs of everyday life, I have realized that my life is passing by me very quickly. I am struck by the fact that I have wasted a great deal of time and I am filled with regrets.

This is not the first time I have faced down a tough birthday. When I was turning 29 I had been married for about 7 years and had two kids and had already had a couple of miscarriages. Something was missing and I couldn't lay my finger on it. I was not sure what I wanted to do with my life and time was passing me by in a flurry of day-to-day sameness. Struggling with depression, I checked myself into the hospital in order to sort out some of my more self-destructive issues and realized that I hated what I was doing. I was bored by the "sameness" of it all: Get up. Go to work. Come home. Eat dinner. Kiss kids. Lose time on the internet. Go to bed. Repeat daily.

As I looked back over my 20s, I regretted not getting to "have fun" as if "fun" was the end all and be all of existence. To shake things up, I did some things I am not proud of and destroyed many relationships in the process. It has taken almost 20 years to repair some of them, and others will never recover. No, fun was not the answer. It was a change, but not for the better.

As I entered my 40s, I can remember, once again, feeling like there was something missing. My kids were getting older, but I was not in a place where I could effectively help them navigate the transition into adulthood. After some soul-searching, I decided at 42 to go back to school and get my Bachelor's degree in Philosophy. Best decision I ever made.

Now, I am working on a Master's Degree I only partially care about having. I want to study Philosophy, but in the absence of a local program, I am taking a Master's in Business Administration instead. I enjoy learning and seek new information all the time, but Business Administration is not something that fascinates me. It simply doesn't captivate me like Philosophy did and does. So, as I was in recovery from my surgery last month, I decided that life was entirely too short to waste my time on things that I hate to do. I came back determined to finish the semester and then drop the program.

This Saturday, as I got up to attend my first Stats class, I was more annoyed about my chosen program than ever. What a way to celebrate my birthday: taking a class I was dreading and had no interest in taking. I made myself get dressed and go anyway. And I am so glad I did!

I gained understanding of a concept that eluded me before, and in that moment a hundred other pieces fell into place as well. I realized that it is through struggle and change that we know that we are living. Not just alive, but living. It is in finding Understanding, no matter where it is, that I find joy.

In his work Being and Time, Martin Heidegger characterizes Being (as in existence) as Da-sein. Translated from the German literally it means "There Being" or "Being There". The English doesn't quite capture the nuance of Heidegger's idea, though. There are a couple of ways that you can say "there" in German. There is "dort" which is a more fixed sense of "there" and there is "da" which contains a sense of movement, as well as a sense of arrival. Consequently, Da-sein projects itself into the future, and because of that, there is a sense of motion to Heidegger's Da-sein that pushes it forward. If you are always going to be "there", then you are never "here", because once you "arrive" you are not going anywhere else. (I know --dense --but stay with me.)

In highly simplified terms, Heidegger's concept means that when we stop changing, when we stop growing or decaying, when we stop moving forward, we cease to be. As I was learning how to calculate a standard deviation this realization hit me like a lightning bolt: pushing myself to be in the next place will never be a waste of time. As long as I am learning, pushing and growing, I am not wasting my life. I am simply becoming more of what I am created to be.

As I have made my way through the first few months of the MBA program, I have found that my passion for Philosophy has come into play in unique ways. I have used it in leadership and management classes, in Economics and now in Statistics. I have always believed that Philosophy is the root of all learning, but it is truly the search for Understanding that fires my passion.

There is a pattern to all life - there are relationships that are not always obvious to the naked eye -and understanding this is what fascinates me about Philosophy. So, taking these classes is an opportunity for me to see the relationships that I have missed between business and Philosophy. This should be interesting.

At the very least, I can say I exist.

Photo credit: "X-ray Nautilus Shell" by Bert Myers via

Sunday, February 28, 2016

6 Management Skills You Developed as a Stay-at-Home-Parent

I have a few friends who, after years of raising their families, have either jumped back into the workforce or have gone back to school to pursue a new career. Conventional job-search wisdom tells us that it is never a good idea to bring up our gaps in employment and correlate it with our families. But I have an argument to make. First, if someone would disqualify you on the basis of your parenthood, you probably don't want to work for them. Secondly, if you've been a stay-at-home parent, you have skills you don't even know you have, and, furthermore, these skills are in high demand. Be aware, while employers cannot ask about your family, marital status or anything else personal, you can be sure that they will ask about gaps in your work record. I believe it's in your best interest to tell the truth, but you have to figure out how to make it one of your assets, not a detriment.

When my mother-in-law entered the workforce at age 45 (or so) after raising six kids, she walked out of her first interview with a job. How? When she walked into the interview she told her prospective employer that she was completely overqualified for any position he might offer her. As a mother of six, she had solid leadership and management capabilities that were enviable and she wasn't afraid to tell her employer about it. Like what, you ask. There are some obvious ones, like bookkeeping and budgeting. But there are less obvious skills she picked up raising a big family, too.

Below are 6 Management and Leadership Skills that you probably developed as you raised your family. As you read these examples, think about times when you may have encountered these situations or similar ones and handled them exceptionally well. Have these stories in your back pocket to show your prospective employer that when you raised your family, you meant business.

1. Crisis Management

Every appliance or car breakdown...ever. These things never happen at a good time, so being able to manage flexibility and keep the house running is crucial. This is Crisis Management. And, let's talk about Science Projects: the important thing is making sure that once you set them on a course, you let them do it. You can't take time away from the other kids just because one had not planned ahead or their project was ruined in some way. This is also an exercise in time management and delegation.

2. Change Management

When you have a family, change happens not only every time you add a child to the household, but also when the children begin to change their level of engagement in the family. Every year, there are new activities and challenges. Every new teacher or coach has a certain standard for your children. Helping them keep up with those changes is change management.

3. Delegation and Leadership Pipeline Development

As your family grows, it becomes important to know how and when to delegate tasks to older children. Teaching your kids to take on household responsibilities is not only smart for you, but prepares them to take on roles in their own households as grown-ups. This is called Leadership Pipeline development. As with all development programs, there is a mix of set tasks along with flex assignments, designed to stretch them just a little and build skills they can use to help you more in those Crisis and Change Management situations. As they build skills, they take on more responsibility.

4. Team Building

If you have ever done a whole family project, you have demonstrated Team Building skills. You have assessed your children's skills, strengths and weaknesses, and put them to work in an appropriate capacity. You probably even know that in order to get good work, you need to give good feedback - clear, measurable and constructive. Relationship building and repair is a part of Team Building, too. Every time you have refereed an argument between your little darlings, you have managed to use negotiation and conflict resolution, too.

5. Logistics

Tuesday afternoon: Suzie has dance at 4 PM, Betty has dance at 5 PM (same place), but Johnny and Joey have baseball at 4:30 across town. You know what to do...

6. Market Analysis and Sales

Three Words: School. Candy. Sale. Whether you were heading up the fundraiser for the PTA, or just the one helping your kid make phone calls to Mom, Dad and all your brothers and sisters, you did a market analysis and sales training. You figured out who would buy sweets/magazines/gift wrap from your kid and you hit them up. You taught your child to say please and thank you. You taught them to get all the information ahead of time, how to collect the money, and how to deliver the product, too.

Identifying skills that you have honed as a stay-at-home-parent and coupling them with the hard business skills you have from your studies is not a cop-out. These are real skills that are in great demand in the workplace. Chances are good that you'll be asked Behavioral Interview Questions and that you'll be asked to weave your own experience into your answers, so by all means, use them! Don't hide your light under a bushel! You are a leader and you are good at what you do.

Now, go get 'em!

Photo by Talesin (1998) via Morguefile