The Right Skill Sets

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One of my favorite anecdotes comes from one of my brothers. He is a brilliant mathematician and engineer who designed the software for the navigation system of the International Space Station. To reward him for his exceptional work his company thought it would be a good idea to promote him to a managerial position. He had not been doing that type of work for very long when it became apparent to everyone, including him, that his skill set did not include directing and motivating people. He was more than happy to step back into his original position when all parties agreed that the best way to use his talents was in research and innovation, not dealing with people. To the company’s credit they decided to link his improved salary to his actual talents rather than trying to fit him into a one size fits all mold of promotion.

While there are indeed brilliant individuals who seem capable of succeeding at almost any level, most of us are best suited for rather specific types of work. All too often because we are particularly good at one thing, we are encouraged to climb the promotion ladder to test our abilities in other ways. As the Peter Principle notes we often find ourselves in a place where we are somewhat incompetent. This is because, as with my brother, we simply do not possess the needed skills.

In the world of education I knew phenomenal teachers who became rather ordinary administrators and somewhat mediocre teachers who found their niches in administration. The two areas are not mutually exclusive but they do indeed require different kinds of talents, and not everyone has the ability to succeed in both arenas. Sadly not even advanced degrees and training insures that a person will be a great leader.

My mom used to speak glowingly of her boss at the University of Texas Health Science Center. Ironically her department went through a series of managers all of whom flopped. They came in highly touted with doctorates and years of experience, but they had not before attempted to lead and inspire a group of workers. One after another they failed, until finally someone thought to promote from within. The woman who was chosen possessed only an associates degree from a local junior college. What she did have that the previous bosses did not, was a clear understanding of how to encourage people to work to their highest potential. Within weeks she had turned around the morale and the production of the department. She not only outlasted her predecessors, but remained at the helm for years sharing the honors that were bestowed on the group.

I have thought about the phenomenon of finding the best fit for people’s skills with regard to the office of the President of the United States. There is a huge difference between someone who is able to garner votes by dent of personality and someone who actually knows how to be a chief executive. President Trump, for example, has been wildly successful in the world of real estate, but he is not necessarily an exceptional manager. His work has relied on salesmanship, not the quiet day to day process of guiding the ship of a business. A CEO, CFO, head of HR and marketing manager each have very different jobs that require highly specialized skills and talents. So too, the President of our country should be someone with true executive skills, not just someone with great ideas or a charismatic personality. Sometimes that person may not appear to be as dazzling as many of the contenders for that office have been, but in the end they know how to balance all of the moving parts quite well. President Dwight Eisenhower is an excellent example of such a person.

What I’m also quite sure of is that we all too often give far too much credit and blame to our presidents. The fact is that every single situation is complex and subject to so many factors that to lay either congratulations or complaints at the feet of one individual is simplistic. The economy is a great example. For the most part what is happening at any one moment in time is the culmination of many years of particular policies, and yet we blithely blame a president if things go awry and celebrate that person if all is well. In truth what we are witnessing probably resulted more from predecessors than the person in charge of a particular era.

We are also inclined to credit the outcomes of natural disasters to a single president. The very idea of doing so borders on the absurd. Most of the time the damage is determined by the intensity of the natural event as well as the reliability of the infrastructures that local governments have put into place. By the same token the response to such disasters varies from place to place mostly due to how the state and local governments have prepared as well as what kind of attitudes the people in the area have. Hurricane Katrina, for example, was a tragedy waiting to happen not because of President Bush, but because of a long history of corruption in the New Orleans government as well as a neglect of infrastructures long in need of repair. What happened there was a travesty having little to do with the national response.

So too was the aftermath of hurricane Harvey a more positive event because the state and local authorities worked together along with the media and the citizens. It was an outpouring of support from thousands upon thousands of citizens that cemented the rebuilding process. It was a can do spirit among the people that made headlines. The fact that President Trump came to town was of little consequence other than his promises of pushing for funding for the victims. Ultimately it was Congress that passed bills to send relief to the city, and even there some lawmakers voted against the efforts but did not receive the bad press that is all too often attributed to a president.

I don’t think any president should either take credit or blame for most of the things that happen in the country. The truth is that there is a long history behind every calamity or success. There is also a reality that the best outcomes derive from sending the people with the appropriate skill sets to do each of the necessary jobs. The president should be someone capable of guiding the ship of state, and encouraging and supporting the individuals and groups who have the know how to get things done well. That’s how it supposed to be.

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Our Fallen Unity

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When I was growing up my mom became emotional every December 7. With tears welling in her eyes she would attempt to describe the fear that she felt upon learning of the attack on Pearl Harbor, and the confidence that the nation gleaned from President Roosevelt’s address to the nation. In all honesty I was hard pressed to understand why she remembered that event each year with such great reverence. I’d listen to the repetition of her story and view it through the lens of ancient history rather than that of the life changing event that it was for her. It was not until I experienced the assassination of President John Kennedy that I began to have a fuller appreciation of why it was so important to her to never forget what had happened in her own youth.

When the horrific events of 9/11 unfolded in real time as I was getting ready to go to work seventeen years ago, I realized for the first time just how soul searing a violent act against our country felt. In that moment I knew how my mother had felt on December 7, and why she was never able to forget the shock of what had happened. Like her, I now find myself reliving the horror of September 11, and it never fails to leave me untouched by a kind of grief and longing for the world as it had appeared to be before that fateful day.

Of course, I like most of my fellow Americans had been far too blissfully ignorant of the undercurrent that had been building toward that brazen act of terrorism that might as well have been called an act of war. I was enjoying my life as never before, having reached a peak in my career, and measuring my contentment with a host of friends and the arrivasl of my first grandchildren. The times were so good, almost perfect, and my worries were few. I was far too busy living the good life to worry about signs that things were not as right as I thought. Suddenly on that September day I felt my confidence and even my trademark optimism collapse along with the twin towers. A kind of fear that I had rarely known invaded my psyche, strangling the fairytale world that I had created for myself.

I remember wondering if our country would ever again be the same, and in many ways that concern was well founded. I tend to believe that most of the political problems that our country faces today rose to the forefront on that day. In the ensuing seventeen years they have become more and more complex because of the divides in the way the citizenry viewed the event. Literally one fourth of the present population was not even born on September 11, 2017. Another significant portion was to young to really understand what was happening. Then there are those who watched the attack unfold forming the differing reactions that are inevitable given our human complexities.

I tend to believe that those who are of a more conservative bent are not really racist or any of the other isms that are bandied about so frequently. Instead they were simply shaken to the very core of their beings on that day. They see progress as being a way to reinstate the sense of security that they felt before that day. Others have a perspective of hoping to defeat terrorism by providing a sense of contentment and justice to more people. They truly believe that if we try to be understanding and make life better for everyone that we will finally be able to live in peace. Then there are the youngest among us who have moved on to other issues that seem far more important than dealing with terrosism. It is the friction, the push and the pull, between contrasting solutions that is causing the rancor and distrust between us.

In many ways the events of September 11, 2001, did so much more than take down two buildings and kill thousands of innocent people. It damaged all of the citizenry. We are scarred and our wounds still have not healed. The terrorists accomplished the unthinkable in turning us on one another. I doubt that even they ever thought that the ultimate result of their attack would create a psychological battlefield within families, friendships, cities, states and the nation. Essentially we have yet to come to terms with our biggest fears therefore everything that we touch is tinged with distrust.

I am reminded of my teaching days whenever I witness the misunderstandings between individuals with differing opinions that are now so commonplace, and often filled with hatefulness. It occurs to me that everyone is chattering, but nobody is taking the time to quiet the scene and make a genuine effort to hear and understand what each person is trying to voice. We can’t get to the heart of the issues because there is so much confusion about what people actually believe.

I suppose that if we were to really learn anything from 9/11 it would be that we are far more vulnerable than we ever thought we were. We all suffered in some way on that day. We internalized our emotions and considered ways to move forward, but we weren’t willing enough to share what we were thinking. As our pain grew we allied ourselves with those who appeared to be like minded and turned our backs on those whose beliefs differed. Over time we fell into the trap of justifying ourselves by vilifying anyone with whom we did not agree. The battle lines were drawn, and few among us have the courage to admit that in many ways we have all been wrong and in many ways we have all been right. Our real enemies have won, while we bicker among ourselves.

I had a more difficult time thinking about 9/11 this year than ever because our nation is so fractured. I even attempted to push it from my mind until my granddaughter interviewed me for a school project. All of my old emotions came rushing back into my mind. It was as though I was watching those terrible images all over again. Then on the anniversary of the event I cried as I heard the national anthem being played at the 9/11 memorial site. My chest heaved as I watched a New York City firefighter ring a bell for the fallen. I was reminded of how united we had been for a brief moment. I thought of President George W. Bush climbing onto a pile of rubble and assuring the rescue teams and all of New York City that we heard their plaintive cries. We were the United States of America, the united people ready to do whatever it took to restore a sense of well being.

Somewhere along the way we forgot what we had set out to do. We lost our way. Now is the time to open our hearts and our minds and to remember who we really are as people. We should not fight with each other anymore. If we are to honor those who lost their lives, then we must find ways to get along or the very foundations of what we most cherish will fall. 

Three Days in August

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Some things are so traumatic that they leave a permanent scar on the heart. We vividly remember how such events felt even years later. For me those moments have been the morning when I learned of my father’s death, the day that President John F. Kennedy was assassinated, the moment when I heard that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. had also been killed, 9/11, and the three days of rain that flooded my city last August as a result of hurricane Harvey.

It has now been a year since fifty one inches of rain fell in virtually every part of Houston over that three day period. I remember all of the dire warnings that were being bandied about even before a drop of precipitation made its way to earth. I made a few preparations, but truly believed that the weather forecasters were overreacting. As a matter of fact, I joked with both of my daughters in a group text noting that the news reporters were all going to have egg on their faces when the whole incident became a bust. We all three worried that such wolf crying would one day lead to disaster when none of us bothered to listen to them anymore.

Most of the people in my neighborhood stayed home all day long getting ready for we knew not what, but before long we were bored and more than ready to get out and about. Precaution kept us home nonetheless and we reverted to binging on Netflix just to get away from the dire predictions on the local television stations. My next door neighbors baked cookies to fill the hours of waiting for a disaster that seemed in grave doubt of ever materializing. It finally began to rain in the evening, but nothing about the downpour seemed to be especially alarming. My husband, Mike, and I retired feeling content that the morning would find everyone doing well.

Of course that was not the case. By the time I awakened and turned on the television to see what had transpired during the night there were already areas of town that were severely flooded. Almost one third of Friendswood which is only about fifteen minutes away from my home had been hit hard. People were being evacuated in boats after their homes filled with water. All along Interstate 45 there were reports of grave problems. The images on television were frightening, and even more so were the messages from friends on Facebook who had been forced from their houses in the middle of the night.

The rain kept coming down, with no sign of letting up. I became more and more concerned mostly because Mike had been struck down by a stroke only a few weeks before. We had been told that he was in a critical time period when the chances of his having another attack were the most likely. I began to worry that he might need emergency medical care that would not be forthcoming, but I said nothing to him because I wanted to keep him calm.

Mike was sleeping quite a bit at that time, so I took advantage of the moments when he was dozing to slowly move items upstairs just in case our house began to take on water. I put many things on countertops and high shelves in closets. All the while I monitored the nonstop coverage of the event. The news was not good. The rains kept coming and the photos got worse and worse. I prayed for even a few minutes of respite from the inundation, but none came. My neighbors and I sometimes met outside to determine how well our street was draining. Somehow it seemed as though there was no way that we would ultimately be spared from flooding inside our homes. We promised to watch over one another to the end, whenever that might be. Day two ended with even more horrific stories than the first, but we were somehow safe.

Mike and I went to bed upstairs but I slept very little. The constant droning of the rain made me anxious. I checked over and over again to see if my home was taking on water. I’d also quietly turn on the television to see if there were any signs that the rains were finally going to end. Somehow all hope seemed to be gone. I cried over the images that I saw. I sobbed each time another of my friends or relatives reported that they had been forced to evacuate their homes. I thought surely that my beloved city was so hopelessly wounded that it would die an excruciating death. Not even the stories of courage and compassion that were so numerous were able to convince me that we would somehow survive the ordeal. Mostly I continued to worry about Mike and all of the unfortunate souls who had already lost so much. One of my students provided me with a small slice of optimism when he texted me to assure me that if Mike needed to get to a hospital he come immediately with his big truck to save the day.

There were fears of levees bursting in neighborhoods where dear friends and relatives resided. It seemed as though the news grew worse and worse and worse. Still the rain kept coming and I finally reached a point of sheer terror. I had done all that I might to prepare for the worst. I was exhausted but unwilling and unable to sleep. I kept watch all night on the third day, certain that my street and my home would soon have no place to drain. Many people that I love had already had to flee. It seemed that no area of town was untouched.

It was early in the morning, about five, when I realized that the rain had stopped. I held my breath expecting the inundation to return at any moment, but we had finally reached the end. Four and one quarter feet of rain had come done without even a short pause. There were people whose houses flooded only thirty minutes before the end came. Some who had survived the deluge went under water when the county had to open two reservoirs to prevent the downtown area from going under water. As a city we were wet and tired and overwhelmed by what had happened. I truly believe that we may have suffered the largest case of mass PTSD ever recorded. Little did we realize that the work of repairing our city had only just begun, and it would continue for months, and in some cases, more than a year.

I used to love rainy days. I reveled in the sound of thunder and the raindrops falling on my roof. I have yet to find storms as relaxing as I once did. I watch the weather reports religiously. I have been on high alert all during the current hurricane season. I sometimes suffer from guilt that I was spared while so many had to endure sheer terror as the water rushed in through the weep holes of their walls. I am thankful for my good fortune, but not able to celebrate because I know all too well how horrible the past year has been for so many others.

Even with flood insurance or assistance from FEMA most people had to dip far into their savings to return their homes to a livable state. Those without such funds still walk on concrete floors and lack the privacy of walls. For many it will still be a very long time before life returns to normal. It’s difficult to know who they are because from the outside it appears that Houston is as normal as it ever was. Still we know that the suffering lingers.

We are proud of how we behaved and the ways in which we helped one another. We will be eternally grateful for the kindnesses extended to our city from people all over the world. We will move forward as we always seem to do, but we will forever be haunted by far too vivid memories of those three days when biblical tales came to life. I suppose that if we make through a few years without a repeat performance from Mother Nature we will eventually calm down, but for now we just want to reach the end of hurricane season without any excitement. We remember what happened on those three days in August all too well.

We Never Know

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We hear it over and over again, and may even experience it, yet we so often seem to momentarily forget. Perhaps we do so because to consider the possibilities of such horror is just too difficult, and so we find ourselves being shocked by reality again and again.

Of course I am speaking of our need to cherish and appreciate all that is wonderful in our lives because we may one day find ourselves all too sadly staring into the abyss of a tragic loss. I learned that fateful truth at the age of eight when I awoke expecting to spend a day with family at the beach, but instead learned that my father had been killed in a car accident. There was so much that I might have said to him had I known what was to happen, so many questions I might have asked. Like so many I was blindsided and left with a nagging feeling of wondering if he ever truly understood how much I loved him.

Over the years I’ve seen such situations play out for me and others that again and again. There was the death of a dear friend from a heart attack, and my mother-in-law’s stroke both of which came so suddenly and unexpectedly. Beloved students died far too soon from car accidents and even murders. I comforted a cousin through marriage whose own cousin and best friend was killed in a freak accident while he was vacationing. A long time family friend was close to death after being injured while having an adventure with good friends. That time we all got lucky, and he did manage to survive but not without a long battle to regain his health. Like most people I might go on and on with examples of tragic and shocking events that knocked me off of my feet. 

Each of us has endured far too many such incidents. They tear at our hearts and sometimes even leave us with regrets. We want just one more hour with loved ones who are ripped from us so quickly, that we feel as though big chunks of our hearts went with them. We may have complete trust that God’s will is being done as it should be, but still feel as though the very earth has suddenly been pulled out from under our feet. We tell ourselves that we are going to be far better at opening our hearts to the people that we love. We pledge to never again take our lives for granted, and then we let the business of the world intrude.

I was reminded of that hollow feeling in times of great and unexpected loss by a heartbreaking post from my niece. A sweet family including a young couple, their two year old child, and their mom and dad had gone to Canada for vacation. They were traveling in a van down a mountainous highway when something quite terrible happened. They had a head on collision with another vehicle and in the aftermath six people lay dead and two were in serious condition in the hospital. Miraculously the toddler was unhurt, but his father and grandmother had died and his mother and grandfather were injured. The other victims had been in the other car when the fiery crash turned deadly.

My niece, Katie posted the article because her daughter’s kindergarten teacher was one of the survivors. Katie asked for prayers and explained that the young woman was an angel who had been exceedingly patient and kind to her little child. Katie was quite naturally very upset and concerned about the wonderful woman who had made such a lasting and beautiful impression on the children that she taught each day. 

Knowing Katie as I do, I am certain that she went out of her way to let this teacher know how much she was appreciated. Katie’s daughter truly loved this woman and in turn felt safe and secure in her classroom. There are probably countless other parents and students who feel the same way, but how many of them actually let their feelings be known?

It takes so little time to voice gratitude or to tell someone how much impact he/she has on our lives. So why do we seem to hesitate or get distracted by work and worries? I’ve brought up this topic so many times because I know without a doubt how important it is to sing praises when someone is alive to hear them. We’d like to think that our dearly departed know how we feel, but why take chances when we might make someone’s day while they are still very much with us? A quick call or note or email is all that it takes, and it will not just make the recipient smile, but will also bring a sense of joy to the sender of the good wishes.

I cried upon learning about the tragedy of this precious family that will never be the same after their horrific accident. I understand in a visceral way the physical and emotional pain that they will endure. I’d like to think that as they travelled together that they had so much fun that once the horror begins to fade, they will have beautiful memories to comfort them. I intend to pray for them, and remind myself once again just how fragile our existences really are. As the saying goes, we just never know what will happen from one moment to the next. We should always be prepared in both the way that we live and the ways in which we build loving relationships with the people that we encounter along our way. It’s a bitter lesson, but one that teaches us the importance of appreciating beyond measure every single breath that we take.

Remembering

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We’ve all had those moments, the times when we purposefully walk from one room to another only to forget what we had intended to do when we got there. Our memories are rather funny things. We find ourselves recalling instances from our childhood but can’t remember what was said five minutes ago. Our brains are filled with so much information that unless we anchor our thoughts to something significant or routinely repeat sequences we tend to lose those ideas.

I have the strange ability to recall vivid aspects of my childhood, even details from when I was still a toddler. I once described an event to my mother that kept frightening me, but I was unable to place where and when it had happened. I was on a boat with many people who were happy and enjoying the view. I sat on my mother’s lap feeling content until everyone suddenly ran to the edge of the ship and began pointing at an awesome figure standing in the water. My mom lifted me and joined the crowd, pointing out the monstrous steel object with a glee that should have comforted me, but did not. Instead I felt frightened and confused by the dark apparition that I was seeing.

When I recounted this memory to my mom she thought for a moment and came to the conclusion that I was describing our visit to the Statue of Liberty in New York City. She even produced a photo album with old black and white photos of the two of us sitting on the boat that took us out into the harbor. The strangest thing was that I could not have been more than about two years old when we took this trip. It seemed implausible that I would have recalled the event so clearly, and yet somehow I did.

Researchers have now learned that some individuals like myself are truly able to remember incidents from very young ages. Generally such people tend to exhibit obsessive compulsive traits as well. Somehow our brains notice and internalize even small details about particular situations. Most interesting is the concurrent fact that we also may be incredibly forgetful in the course of our daily activities when occurrences are mundane unless we take the time to create memory structures for ourselves.

I’ve been known to lose my glasses, leave my keys in a public bathroom, forget where I placed some rarely used item. Thus I find myself consciously rehearsing my mind to be certain that I don’t neglect something important. I create rigid routines to keep myself on track. The fact is that the vast majority of humans might easily become forgetful whenever their normal schedules are somehow changed. It is as though our brains become rattled, short out so to speak.

In these exceedingly hot summer days we hear tragic stories of children left in hot cars who die. Many times the parent honestly asserts that he/she did not remember that the child was in the back seat. They had become distracted by some chance adjustments to their normal ways of doing things. While such occurrences may seem improbable, those who study the mind say that it is not as unlikely as we may think, and it may happen to any one of us.

I heard a man tell of how he always drove his son to daycare and then he went to work. One morning his wife’s car was in the shop and so he first drove her to her place of business with the intent of taking the child to daycare next. Somehow in the morning rush and because his routine had been disrupted he actually did forget that his baby was still in the back seat. He parked in his usual spot and went to his office where he worked for an hour or so before something niggled at his brain and reminded him that he had never dropped the baby off. He rushed to the parking garage and found his boy in distress. Luckily all ended well, but it might have been the stuff of an horrific news story.

What we are being told is that we have to create artificial reminders for ourselves for even the most mundane tasks if we are to be certain that we do not forget to do them. If we have children in a car with us, we might place something like our purse or shoe in the back seat as a way of ensuring that we do not forget that they are present. We can create alarms and reminders on our electronic devices.  We might even place sticky notes where they will be seen if we need tactile prompts. The point is to understand that it is actually a natural tendency to forget when our minds are preoccupied with so much information. It is up to us to create ways that work for us if we are to keep up with the overload of data that is passing continuously into our minds.

Too much forgetfulness can be a sign of bigger problems, but most of the time our lapses are just part of being normal. So go ahead and create routines, make lists, rehearse ideas, take enough time to be deliberate when in a foreign situation. It may save you from a real tragedy.