Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Three Strikes - I'm Getting Closer

Failure can wrap itself in a cloak of many different colors. Unexpected job loss and life-changing events can become pivotal points in one’s life. It’s that water-shed event where what was once present is now past and the future is nothing more than a dim hope or vapid expectation on the horizon.

In her new book entitled: ‘The Up Side of Down,’ author Megan McArdle says that: “Getting to the upside of down often means letting go of your instincts, ignoring conventional wisdom and leaping for something no one has done before.” It’s changing course in mid-stream and forging ahead despite the uncertainty of what might lie ahead.

Ed Catmull is one of the founders of Pixar along with Steve Jobs and John Lasseter. In his new book ‘Creativity, Inc: Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration’ Catmull says that the ultimate goal here is to uncouple fear and failure. It’s changing that stigma that failure is bad and a sign of weakness. We must recognize that mistakes aren’t a necessary evil. Instead they are an inevitable consequence of doing something new. Echoing the mantra of many forward-thinking ventures: “If you aren’t making mistakes, you aren’t taking enough risks.”

I’ve been there many times in my life; three in particular stand out. Yet in each instance I never knew just how fortuitous my failure would turn out to be. I never planned to fail so there was never some grand plan to deal with my stumble. Instead some innate survival instinct kicked in and pushed me forward. At the time I didn’t see it as a failure as much as a minor distraction like a toe-stumble off the starting line.

The first failure was running out of money at a private college and transferring to the University of Minnesota. While a large University may work for a lot of other students, it was an unmitigated disaster for me. Beginning with 2500 students in the Introduction to Psychology class to the smallest class of 300 in Economics, I was lost before I stepped foot on campus. I lasted two quarters and was politely asked to ‘take a break’ by the Admissions Office.

Two weeks after dropping out, I got my draft notice and spent the next two years in this man’s army. I wouldn’t have wanted it any other way. It was two years of learning to live on my own, continuing my focus on education, writing, travel and the beginning of collecting a lifetime of writing material (only I didn’t know it at the time.)

My second failure came in my boss’s office at precisely 8:34 a.m. on July 23rd, 1993…but who’s counting. It began with the usual pleasantries and then quickly evolved into “…(blah-blah-blah)…so we’re going to have to let you go.” And with that non-descriptive lame-ass explanation I was out of my job of 13 years in public television.

Office politics aside, it was the best thing that could have happened to me. In reality it became a clean break from the old and mundane and political to a forced self-reliance on my own skills to survive in the marketplace. It made me focus on my business and real estate investments instead of five year forecasts just to satisfy my CFOs love of graphs and charts. And again I never looked back.

My third and final failure (thus far) came in the form of an obnoxious e-mail from an ego-inflated anal pretentious individual who didn’t like the video programs I was producing for local community television broadcast. His criticisms were ripe with subjective opinions and self-induced visions of grander. It was at that point that I declared to my computer that “I don’t need this _____ anymore” and with that eloquent announcement, I folded up my video production and distribution business and focused my energies on my writing.

Yet in retrospect each stumble, loss, rejection, distraction and life-changing event in my past has nudged me toward this stage of my life where storytelling in multiple disciplines has become my new passion. 

Catmull reminds us that: ‘we must think of the cost of failure as an investment in the future.’

Some folks are much quicker at failing their way to success. It took me fifty plus years and a life-time of learning just to get where I am now. Slow and steady with a couple of stumbles along the way…just like my writing. I’d love to say it’s all part of some grand plan but it’s not. Just one more attempt at doing what I love best and stumbling every couple of steps on the way to success.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

An Elephant without Class

It’s like the elephant in the room that no one wants to acknowledge. We’d all like to believe that this is not jolly old England. We don’t have class in America. Yet over the decades we’ve managed to graph out class divisions through economic indicators such as a lower socio-economic demographic which 2008 helped exasperate, all those rich folks we love read about or watch on TV and a shrinking middle class. Of course over the years, even that equation is being challenged by roller coaster economics and other factors. Hedrick Smith did a great job of chronicling the Death of the middle Class in his book 'Who Stole the American Dream?'.

Social class in America has always been a controversial issue. We don’t want to admit that it’s there and yet we can’t help but judge ourselves by the fortunes or misfortunes of others. Secretly we wonder where we stand in the great social order of America? Where do we fit in the model of social class?

Strictly speaking, the simplest definition is the three class model that includes the rich, the middle class and the poor. But to muddy the waters even more, some sociologists have upped the ante with a class division made up of six distinct social classes; capitalist class, an upper middle class, a middle class, a lower middle class and so on.

But in all this wrangling to define social class and economic standing in America, I think they’re missing a more appropriate definition of the word. To be true, there are different economic dividers in this country. There always have been and probably always will be. But true class is not driven by economics.

The mistake here is not in the classification of folks based on their economic place in our society. Rather it’s the naïve assumption that rich folks have got all the class because they’ve got the money and the rest of us must somehow look up to them and their ‘Downton Abbey’ lifestyle.

Nothing could be farther from the truth. Class has nothing to do with accumulated wealth or inherited pedigree. It has everything to do with the way a person lives his or her life.

I’ve been fortunate to know a number of men and women who are some of the classiest folks around. They exude confidence and class seemingly without even trying.

And it has nothing…nothing to do with money or education or travel or life experiences. I know several women in particular. They are congenial and pleasant to everyone and I mean everyone they meet. They like most people and enjoy their company. They can make an old curmudgeon smile and a snob warm up. Their wit and intelligence can warm the coldest of hearts and break through most defensive facades. They exude class in their every action.

On the other side of the spectrum, I know a fellow who inherited his father’s business and is a pillar in his own little world of church and community and his profession. He is educated, rich, well-traveled and yet has less class than my three year old granddaughter. 

This fellow has mistakenly assumed that he hit a home-run and is a winner in the game of life. The fact of the matter is that he was born on third base and has never made an effort to do anything meaningful on his own. He has been coasting all of his life and will probably continue to do so for the rest of his life. He’s a nice enough fellow except for his mistaken assumption that he’s somehow better than the rest of his siblings and everyone else simply because of where Daddy’s money put him in life.

You can’t buy class. It doesn’t come from blue blood coursing through your veins or an Ivy League diploma on your wall. It isn’t defined by your bank account or your second or third home. It comes from within and you either have it or you don’t.

I made a point of examining these phenomena in “Love in the A Shau” because it’s a topic I find absolutely fascinating. In my novel, Colleen’s boyfriend Bradley is rich and successful and destined for great things in his old money east coast world. Colleen's old boyfriend Daniel comes from a broken home, has no money and is struggling to get an education.

Yet Colleen is able to recognize the focus and determination and self-reliance that is the essence of Daniel verses the easy soft lifestyle that defines her boyfriend. It is a clear and startling difference that causes Colleen to examine her own priorities in life.

You know class when you see it. It’s the candidate who loses the election but holds his or her head up high and perhaps tries again. It’s the team that loses but is quick to praise their opponents. I’ve seen wrestlers beat themselves up even though they knew they didn’t stand a chance of defeating their opponent. They did it for the team. It’s the author who collects rejections slips but keeps pounding away on the keyboard because that's what he or she ‘has’ to do.

If there’s one thing I want to teach my grandchildren; like there’s only one?...it would be to show class in everything they do. From school to work to interacting with others. Class is a mantra you want to acquire in life even if it isn’t always easily defined. I hope to do my best to help my grandkids become ‘classy’ little people.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Minnesota Tough

Minnesota endured two polar vortexes this last winter. It was hardly a new phenomenon; just another Minnesota season with a new label and dire warnings of impending doom. Call it the enthusiastic effort of news directors to get as many eyeballs glued to the television screen as possible…media rating wars and all that. Why not be honest and just say it was another cold winter with a polar ice cap nestled snuggly over Minnesota’s crown. Any veteran of the cold wars will tell you there is no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothing. It was hardly the first harsh winter and certainly not the last that Minnesotans have endured.

For the uninitiated, the polar vortex is a persistent, large-scale cyclone located near either one of the planet’s geographical poles. They usually span less than 620 miles in which the air circulates in a counter-clockwise fashion. They’ve been around forever but are a bit of a headache when they spill down over the states. I think it’s their length and the depth of their freezing temperatures that rankles even the toughest of Minnesotans. Combine those serious below-zero temps with constant snowfalls and it was a very tough time for most Minnesotans this last winter.

As a friend back home described the weather to me, he simply stated with a shrug: “It was either snowing or it was below-zero. Those seemed to be our only two weather options all winter long.”

Of course, everyone bitched and complained about the brutal weather because that’s what most Minnesotans do during the heart of winter’s assault. But they endured and persevered and survived the cold and white-outs and accumulating snow. And they will do so once again starting next December.

I endured Minnesota winters for almost seventy years and wouldn’t want anything less for my own children and grandchildren. It’s what makes Minnesotans…Minnesota tough. I love Southern California during the winter months but four seasons beat plain vanilla temps every time.

When I was younger I’d heard the cliché that where you are born and raised leaves an indelible mark on your consciousness no matter where you end spending the rest of your life. I personally experienced that phenomena first hand when I was in the service.

Back in 1964, San Francisco was a pretty spectacular place for a young, untraveled, hungry soldier stationed just outside of civilization. Not far beyond those military gates were more than the Seven Wonders of the World. It was the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood, North Beach, Stanford, Sausalito, the North Coast, Half Moon Bay and Big Sur....just to name a few.

I was forever struck through conversations that where a person is raised imprints a pull back home no matter how strong their wanderlust might be. Many a night over pizza and beer my comrades and I would reminisce about our ‘life back home.’ It was nostalgic, exaggerated and ripe with fond memories, real and imagined.

If given a choice, I would have returned to Minnesota in a heartbeat. My buddy Danny wanted to go back to standing on a street corner in Brooklyn; not doing much of anything except just watching his life passing by. Joe wanted to go back to the Southside of Chicago where he and his buddies would also just ‘hang out.’ Johnson wanted to go back to Mississippi to be with his family. Cruz wanted to go back to East L.A. So there we all were in this glorious cornucopia of entertainment but like sailors on shore leave every man one of us would rather have been back home.

Certainly part of it was homesickness, missing our girlfriends, missing out on what our friends were doing. For me, it was a combination of a girlfriend back home and college which I left as a dropout; both now out of reach for at least two more years.

But what was it that was drawing my mind back to that hinterland of snow and ice and cold and long winter nights. Simply stated, I guess it was my origins. It was what I knew best and what ultimately had and still does define me. 

Growing up in Minnesota wasn’t so much an exercise in toughness as it was simple survival. You did what you had to do to earn, learn and play. And you don’t let the stupid weather get in your way. Earning was a paper route starting in seventh grade that included sub-zero winter weather at 4:30 in the morning, wearing galoshes and walking uphill both ways. Learning was shuffling across campus during a white out without hat and gloves because it wasn’t cool to wear them. Play was the pure pleasure was hiking the woods for the serenity there. 

I got a harsh reminder of Minnesota winters three times this season. We were drawn back home to help Melanie with her campaign for State Representative. It was truly Four Weeks in Purgatory.

We first returned in December for Christmas which wasn’t too bad, weather-wise. Then in January in the midst of their polar vortex and again in March for more cold weather and snow storms. Even the birds and squirrels were on hiatus during the coldest days. It was a cruel adjustment from t-shirts and flip-flops to layered clothing and hats and mittens.

So this year I was once again greeted with that old familiar chorus of complaints about record-breaking snowfalls and 60 plus days of below-zero weather. The polar vortex was camping overhead for days on end and the darkness of winter days was playing havoc with one’s mindset. 

On the flip side of that frozen coin, the first day of 30-degree weather brought out the t shirts, an abundance of runners, bikers and convertibles with their tops down. It’s what Minnesotans do when the sun comes out and the temp is above freezing. It’s seen a taste of spring even in February.
Both my kids have grown up in Minnesota. Melanie still runs outdoors year round and Brian, having moved to Colorado, is usually on some mountain top, skiing or climbing almost every winter weekend…with his family following right behind him.

The grandkids in Colorado are as comfortable on a mountaintop as are the Minnesota grandchildren sledding in sub-zero weather or playing king of the hill when Papa is back in town.

Forget the lame attempts of ‘Fargo’ clichés such as ‘yeah, you betcha’ and other Scandinavian accents to define a Minnesotan. If you were born and raised here and even if you’ve moved away, the toughness that helped Minnesotans endure Minnesota winters is ingrained in your very psyche. 

Once Minnesota Tough always Minnesota Tough.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Flying Low Level to Elgin

It was our first day back in town and we were facing two crises; a wet basement in St. Paul and health issues down in Wabasha. Melanie needed help with a wet basement and company arriving soon from out of town. Then it became apparent that Sharon’s mom Charlotte could no longer be left alone at home. By that afternoon, the basement got dried out and Sharon was recruited to spend several nights down in Wabasha looking after her mother. It was ‘welcomed back to the real world’ in very swift order.

Then seven days into our family crisis, Charlotte’s only brother Kenny (K.D.) Bennett died. He hadn’t been well for a long time. While not unexpected, it was still a very traumatic event for Sharon’s mom. There was never any doubt but that someone would have to represent her side of the family at the funeral. Charlotte couldn’t travel any more. So out of the four siblings, Sharon was self-elected to go.

Sharon’s uncle was being buried in just a couple of days. Until recently there hadn’t been a strong connection between he and his sister but he was still family. Uncle Kenny was the last of Charlotte’s relatives in Nebraska and it marked the end of an era. It’s what families do for unity and closure.

Loaded up with CDs, snacks, a poor map and GPS, we took off flying low-level in a Kia Soul toward the great state of Nebraska. It would take eight butt-sore hours and five hundred miles plus one way. We gave ourselves two days for the obligatory sojourn then it was back to caring for Sharon’s mom. Fortunately, most of the downhill run was interstate but the last hundred miles or so morphed into two lane blacktop and more trucks than I’ve seen in a lifetime and every one of them chugging down the road in front of me in low gear.

While on the road there was sober conversation, great music and time for Sharon to reflect on an era that was ending. Kenny was the last of the Nebraska relatives from her hometown. The trip was more than just a wake and a funeral. Sharon was closing the book on that part of her life. She had been born in Elgin, Nebraska and spent her first eight formative years there. Memories came flooding back about the old homestead, Saturday afternoon shopping in town and spending time with Grandma. Those fond memories, especially of a nurturing, caring grandmother brought solace to an otherwise sad occasion.

Small town wakes always attract an interesting assortment of visitors and this one was no different. The two sons stayed in their respective part of the room and visitors chose one or the other or were politically correct and visited both. They were Sharon’s only cousins on that side of the family and she spent most of the evening renewing acquaintances and rekindling the few memories they both shared.

They reminisced about an era in farming that had long since passed and the cruel fate of so many small towns now on the dying cusp of their new reality. They talked about growing up in and around Elgin and the strong stock of German Catholic farmers who raised their families there.

Sharon's Mom - Fourth from the right (white shoes)

After the wake, we toured the small town and tried to rediscover those important landmarks in Sharon’s life. The old farmstead was now unrecognizable but Sharon could still remember being in the front yard with her brother and parents. Her Mom’s school was still in town after having been altered and changed and remodeled a dozen times over. The church where her parents were married and Sharon was baptized hadn’t changed much. Grandma’s house was gone but the grade school where Sharon left at noon everyday to have lunch with grandma still stood. We swung by the old cemetery where so many of the Schumachers and Bennetts came to rest. Small town cemeteries are always adorn with a plethora of flowers and plants. A lot of caring seems to go on there.
Touring old farm towns can be an exercise in futility and sadness for anyone who has built up collateral there. Most of those towns are barely staying alive and their future is always in doubt.

The funeral service was full of old townsfolk who remembered K.D. as well as a large gathering of his fellow American Legionnaires, Masonic friends and family members. At the internment, there was a Navy Honor Guard who folded the American flag in proper ceremony and presented it to one of his sons. It was a moving tribute from a ‘grateful nation...’ Then taps brought tears to everyone’s eyes.

Ironically enough, it was a man of color and a woman who represented the Navy at the ceremony. Everyone immediately caught the irony of that for Uncle Kenny. But times move on and his was another generation.

On the flight back home, we passed by the spread of a very angry man. Someone so possessed with the demons of change that he had to express himself on the side of a trailer; three times over. Better left unsaid but we’re in Nebraska where everyone speaks their peace even if their minds aren’t always engaged at the time. Therein lies a very angry man, I thought to myself. We quickly moved on.

Once we rolled out of Nebraska, there was a running monologue of times past and good memories. The trip brought closure for Sharon and marked the end of an era for that Nebraska gal. Yet out of those first eight years came a powerful influence that continues to provide focus and clarity and direction for Sharon. It was an icon she simply called Grandma. An icon that went on to shape the incredible ‘Nana’ that Sharon has become today.

Thanks, Grandma. You done good.