Saying Goodbye to My Best Friend

For the past 11 years, I have had the honor of sharing a household with the most amazing dog. He didn’t leap tall buildings in a single bound or learn to speak Portuguese in a weekend or anything like that, although he was hands down the most athletic dog I’ve had in my 45 years of dog ownership. However, what made Rusty special among the many dogs I’ve owned and met was his startling ability to read the human situation.

Rusty saw our family through divorce, new love, marriage, blending households, death of friends and family members, work layoffs, illnesses, graduations, and – up until this weekend – an unprecedented lockdown due to a global pandemic. It is not hyperbole to say that he knew what you needed. He could read a face better than most humans I’ve met. He knew when we needed love sometimes before we did.

On Thursday evening of this week, Rusty went to jump onto our bed and he seemed a bit stiff. No big deal I thought. He’s eleven. On Friday, he stiffened up a bit more; Hopping on his back legs rather than trotting. Again, I’ve seen this before. A few years ago, he had a tight back for a few days. He came out of it in less than a week and was back to his full athletic prowess. I called the vet and told them the situation. With his reduced mobility and the lockdown, they agreed to prescribe the same meds as the last time. This time, things would not fare so well.

By late Friday afternoon, Rusty was hobbling. It was as bad as things had gotten the last time. Something felt wrong, but he was still moving, eating and drinking. I sat with him until 10 PM. He was stable, so I went to bed. At about 1 AM, I woke up to thumps and dragging noises. I rushed downstairs to find that Rusty had gone to the bathroom on the floor and was nervously dragging his back half around the room. He was panicked, looking to me for help. It was heartbreaking. I stayed up with him the rest of the night and carried him outside every couple of hours, petting him to keep him still in between. He had lost control of his bladder and bowels. I knew it was dire. Before the vet opened, I put him in the truck and we took him for his last car ride.

It took the vet about an hour and a half to call me and tell me what I already knew. My old friend wasn’t going to make it. I’m crying as I write this. The vet’s best guess is that he had a spinal blood clot that caused the shockingly fast paralysis.

Like me, Rusty was a runner. Actually, Rusty was a real runner and I’m just a plodding middle-aged trotter. I have plenty of videos of him running happily in the dog park. Just this past weekend, we were on a trail run with an old friend and his dog. I’ve never seen Rusty happier. The trail was full of mud and standing water. He and I were filthy by the end. His post-run glow and doggie smile were perfect. He came home and got an unwanted shower. He was a boy’s dog all the way. As I replay these memories in my mind, it is difficult for me to resolve that he’s gone.

The thing with dogs is that they touch us so completely but are comparatively short-lived. Our co-existence sets us up for this agony. I always knew he wouldn’t live forever. But with Rusty, he sort of made you forget about that. He retained his youthful exuberance up until his final 24 hours. I guess from that perspective we were lucky to have such incredible healthy and loving companion for 11 straight years. It still hurts.

Rest easy old friend. We love you.

Separated by Ideology

Earlier this week, I went for a run with a dear friend of more than 30 years. It was special. He’s a better runner than me by magnitudes, but he slowed down to my hobbling pace for a nice 6 mile run in a beautiful state park as we discussed life After COVID-19 (AC). We’re both introverts, so we mused that life AC hasn’t changed too terribly much for either of us personally. We had a thoughtful discussion about our direct experiences thus far. He is a paramedic, so to say that he’s on the front line of this thing is an understatement. I work in corporate America with access to some very good economic reporting, so I was able to bring that perspective. It wasn’t long into our run before our attention turned to some of the conspiracy theories about the virus.

“They’re saying that this thing was developed in a Chinese lab and was released just in time for the US election.” “I also heard Bill Gates had the patent on the vaccine.” “Oh, and let’s make sure we talk about the chemical trails, the 5G Network, and how wearing a mask is a form of government control.” We chuckled them off. Not because we have direct knowledge that they are false or that it wouldn’t be more dramatic to believe that there is something bigger going on. Rather, our experiences and our education have taught us to see the world through Occam’s Razor. Boiled down into my own terms, Occam’s Razor is the axiom that in the absence of direct knowledge, the least complicated explanation is generally the best. Applying Occam’s Razor means that this COVID-19 is a natural occurring phenomenon and our best way to deal with it is to follow expert advice on social distancing and wearing masks until we can sort out a vaccine. I know… Boring. The best things in life usually are.

Unfortunately, I haven’t experienced the same thoughtful dialogue or boring conclusion from other loved ones. I see old friends or family sharing conspiracy videos and taking a very real stance on calling COVID-19 a hoax designed to further enrich the ultra-wealthy or influence the US election. Wearing a mask has become a question of personal freedom. Protest signs reading, “My body, my choice. End the lock-down now” pock mark the lawns of US state capitals. This thing seems to have tipped into a special kind of lunacy where people are risking their own lives or the lives of their loved ones to prove a political point. But why?

Looking Back at Historical Health Calamities

For clues, I looked back at the bubonic plague. The plague killed roughly one third of medieval Europe’s population. Until it was well understood that it was being spread by fleas from rats to humans, the plague was a similar invisible enemy. Thanks to reasonably good record-keeping from the era, we know that society reacted in all sorts of kooky ways. The following excerpt offers up just a few of the popular preventive measures for the plague.

Fires were a popular method of warding off miasmas [corrupted airs believed to cause the plague]. They were burned at street corners; even the pope sat between two large fires. People were urged to burn aromatic woods, but other scents would do as well, including rosemary, amber, musk and fragrant flowers. When they walked, people took their scents with them, carrying packets of herbs. Some plague-proofed their homes by putting glazes over the southern windows to block the polluted southern wind. People were advised not to eat meat or figs and to avoid activities that would open the pores to a miasma, including bathing, exercising and physical intimacy. Stranger recommendations circulated as well, including not sleeping during the daytime and avoiding sad thoughts about death and disease.

excerpt from How The Black Death Worked by Molly Edmonds

OK, you might be thinking. Avoiding eating figs or not taking a bath are very personal decisions. They’re not conspiratorial – unless maybe you’re a medieval fig farmer or a soap manufacturer. Rest assured dear reader, that medieval Europe was not safe from conspiracy theories either.

In the 14th century, when the plague ravaged Europe, nobody knew how the illness had originated. Soon after, unfounded rumors surfaced that Jews caused the outbreak by poisoning wells in a bid to control the world. Jewish people were accused of being behind the plague — and were subjected to deadly pogroms and forcefully displaced. 

excerpt from Coronavirus and the plague: The disease of viral conspiracy theories by Christopher Nehring

The same is true for the more recent Spanish Flu, which Nehring writes was believed to be developed by Germans as a weapon after WWI.

Introspection

I find it both fascinating and frustrating that our human response to calamity is – for some – to assume others have set it in motion. When we should be pulling together to solve a common problem, some portion of us dream up dark schemes assigned to others and posit them as truths, which catch on and cost even more lives. What drives this abhorrent behavior? Perhaps an inward view will offer more clues.

I recall back to my younger days when I was more willing and even eager to buy into conspiracies. The difference between the younger me and the current model is a question of power. 20 years ago, I worked in small factories for a low salary and I had no say in how my company, my neighborhood, my favorite sports teams – anything – ran. I also had a lot more time to sit and stew about not having any power. On the lower rungs of the societal pecking order, it was tempting to think that the cards were stacked against me. Or even better, there are puppet masters pillaging the world for their personal gain and keeping it all to themselves. Now I had, if not an individual person, a group of people that I could direct my dissatisfaction for my lowly station. The man was holding me down.

The Truth is Usually Quite Boring

As I have gotten older, become better educated and furthered my career, I’ve begun to get access to power. Not real power like the 1% or the 0.1%, but some marginal levels of financial stability and the ability to have some influence in my various organizations. I’m learning the downright boring machinations of how the organizations work. I see clearly that I was never being held down. What was holding me down was my own ideology borne out of my dissatisfaction with the current state of my life. I wanted more. More stuff, more money, more importance, more say in how things went. In short, I wanted more power. Because I didn’t perceive that I had enough power, I looked for dramatic and sinister stories about the world around me to keep pushing the dopamine button. The man was holding me down. He was. His name was Troy.

Perhaps it isn’t fair of me to project my youthful feelings of powerlessness onto others. Perhaps they have firsthand knowledge that brings real credibility to these alternative positions. But generally speaking, the conspiratorial arguments fall apart quickly. When asked for more proof than some slick social media video or report from a alternative news source, there isn’t anything other than a fervent willingness to believe in the malicious motivations of others.

What to Do About Those We Love

Now that I have written this post, I find hope in navigating this tricky space. I was once a brooding soul weary of the man holding me down. Now that I’ve come through that portion of my life, I hold on to hope that my loved ones will too. If I’m honest, I have not reacted well. I’ve become frustrated and harbored sharp-witted thoughts in response to the conspiracy purveyors in my circle of loved ones. But sarcasm and sharp wit aren’t the answer. It only leads to entrenchment because there’s always a counter-argument. I think the best thing to do is focus on safety. As long as a loved one is taking care of themselves, let them believe and post and share what they want. Perhaps it will run its course. On the other hand if our loved ones are not being safe, we must speak up. We must encourage them to follow clearly documented health guidelines. Then we will have done what we can.

Wishing you well in these challenging times.

– Troy

Being a Beginner

Several weeks ago, I posted that I am Learning to Climb. This week, I continued learning my new hobby by watching some instructional videos and continuing to apply the lessons at the climbing gym. I learned about static versus dynamic climbing and a few ways to move the body to reach new holds without relying on shear power. I went to the gym this morning eager to apply the lessons, which after about 60 minutes of bouldering, left my wimpy runner’s forearms and hands absolutely shredded. I took a break and while I did, I watched a couple of young teens easily scale the routes that had left my hands and forearms throbbing and nearly useless. Rather than being daunted, I cracked a smile. Just a couple of weeks ago, I wouldn’t have been able to recognize how much better these teenagers were than me. I didn’t know to follow routes or attempt to climb with any technique. That realization prompted a thought: I love being a beginner.

I didn’t always love being a beginner. In fact, I hated it. In my youth, if I wasn’t naturally pretty good at something from the start, I didn’t want anything to do with it. I see this same tendency in our younger children. It is difficult for them to have the confidence to try something and look silly in the process. I’ve read before that this is one reason adult learners have a harder time picking up addtional languages – they have gotten to a point of mastery in their first language and don’t want to make silly mistakes while starting anew. These days I’m quite happy to put on a dunce hat and try something new. To a point. You’ll still never see me strap on a set of dancing shoes and hit the club – that is simply not my scene. However, in many, many other things I am happy to try and fail and try again. So that realization prompted another thought – especially in light of inspiring our kids to try something new: what changed? 

Best I can trace it, I think it all started when I went back to college as an adult learner to pursue another degree. In this case, I was motivated by the potential for advancement in the workplace, and – let’s be honest – the money that comes along with it. I went into a business program at a local liberal arts college to pursue a Bachelor of Arts in Management and Leadership. The experience was life-altering. Up until that point, I had boxed myself into adult life with a wife and kids and kind of thought, “This is it. I’ll go to work, come home, sit on the couch and watch TV, play with the kids and then go to bed.” Rinse and repeat. I assumed development was now in the children’s boat. But my time in college courses exposed me to philosophy and interesting reading; to class room discussions about ethics and professional development. I built confidence through writing papers and giving presentations. I was way better at this stuff than my first go at university. Soon, I was developing in other parts of my life as well. I joined an adult soccer league. I started running to be a better soccer player. I got into much better physical shape, which made me eager to try more new things.

As I consider helping our kids find their passion for becoming beginners, I am a bit flummoxed. My motivation was intrinsic because I wanted to make more money and help the family continue to progress. It was an internal decision that no one asked me to make. The kids don’t have families or anything else depending on them to grow and develop. So I guess that’s the lesson. People develop at their own pace and I don’t know that there is much to do to speed it up. I will just continue to expose the kids to new things and maybe something will click. And… well, maybe it won’t.

What’s your approach to getting out of your comfort zone? Do you have any tips for helping younger learners be confident enough to try new things?

Planning for Next Year

It is November, which means it is time for my wife and me to think about next year. In our annual planning process, we like to revisit what we wanted to accomplish this year, check in on our direction, and then think about what’s next for the coming year. Today, we drove home from Nashville, TN. The 6+ hour drive afforded us some much needed focus time, so we used it for our annual planning process, which I have described below.

Be, Do, Have

I mentioned this in The Business of Relationships, but to save you the extra clicks, I’ll revisit here. When we talk about our goals, we like to use the format of Be, Do, and Have – in that order. Like most people, when we started out in life as young adults, we approached things from the opposite direction: Have, Do, Be. We decided what we wanted to Have, which then dictated how much money we needed and therefore what we Do, which in turn informs who we will Be. Now that we’re older and a little wiser, we like to approach things in the order that works for us these days: Be, Do, Have. Like Stephen Covey, we want to start with the end in mind. How do we want to be remembered? That’s the Be. Who we are (Be) dictates what we will then Do; for a living or as we give our time and money to various causes, which then informs what we’ll Have – whether that means things we need to acquire in order to support our goals or postponing personal purchases in order to direct funds towards the big stuff.

Direction

Consistent with the Be, Do, Have approach, this year we gave some extra thought as to who we are. What are the things that we spend our time and money on? We affirmed our statuses as spouse, parent, family member, business professionals, and then dug into our hobbies and other items on which we spend time and money. Then we revisited our direction as a couple to make sure we’re still aligned. We agreed to continue our direction from last year:

  • Simplify our lives
  • Reduce our impact on the environment
  • Choose experiences over things
  • Participate in our community
  • Be life-long students
  • Reduce stress / improve the quality of our lives
  • Improve our financial future

Current Year Progress

Last year, under each of the directional bullets, we listed out sub-bullet goals. So we took the time to check in on our progress for each one. For instance, under the heading of Simplify our lives, we said that we wanted to declutter and organize several specific areas of the house to help keep from buying things that we didn’t need. We checked off the parts of the list that we accomplished and sustained, which provided a great sense of accomplishment as well as a little motivation to have another great year in 2019.

Planning for Next Year

As we came across goals that we didn’t accomplish for 2018, we reevaluated them. Do they still fit with who we want to Be? If so, we moved them forward to 2019. Then we thought about what else we want to accomplish under the directional bullets detailed above.

By now, I think it is clear that this is not a New Year’s Resolution process. We’re not looking to lose 20 lbs. or finally quit smoking. This is really more of a balanced scorecard approach to the business of our family. We sign up for a lot of goals, some of which stretch us beyond our comfort zone and we have no idea how to get them done. We don’t always get everything done. But if it is worth pursuing, then we carry it forward and try again.

This coming year, we’re excited for some big goals. Melanie is making great progress on her fitness goals this year and she’s looking to hit her target measures in 2019 while figuring out how to sustain them. She’s looking to do that while working full time, volunteering with her sorority, and pursuing a Master’s degree in the evenings. This year, I’m looking to step up my involvement in my hometown community as an Alumni with my college alma mater; I’m looking to run my first ultramarathon, and summit Mont Blanc to name a few. Like I said, we may not get it all done, but it should be one heck of a ride just trying!

What are your goals for next year?

Do you have a similar planning process?

Words Are Anchors… Or Only Clouds?

Words matter. We hear it all the time. We experience it all the time. We can be in the midst of a fantastic day and then BOOM, some words happen and we become completely thrown off. Maybe the words were a sharp criticism or back-handed compliment. Maybe they were a flirtation that you never expected. Maybe it was a social media post not necessarily aimed at you, but it hit home so hard that you can’t ignore it. Words anchor us to meaning. If you’re like me, you walk around (or run, or sit Zazen) and ruminate about words from time to time.

In the last few years, I have learned that resilience is perhaps the most valuable skill in my life. Resilience, Emotional Intelligence, grit, mindfulness, whatever we’re calling it this week, is the skillset that we use to bounce back from a setback to be able to focus on what is going on right now.

I mentioned earlier that words anchor us to meaning. To expand on that, think about the words that people have used to describe us or to give us feedback. If you’re like me, at least some of those words have stuck and turned into labels – some good and some bad. But either way, they anchor us and limit our possibilities. I have always been on the thin side with a slight frame, which my family lovingly referred to as “skinny.” Now 40 years later, I still doubt my athletic ability before going out for a long run or a soccer match. Will I be strong enough to compete?

One of the ways I’ve recently been able to build resilience around words is to think of them as clouds. Clouds are amazing. They can be beautiful formations in the sky or a grey blanket between the sun and us terrestrial beings. They can provide life-affirming rain or life-threatening lightening. But as with all of these cases, clouds change. Today’s dreary morning is this evening’s sky-on-fire sunset. Like clouds, words are impermanent. While words may represent “reality” right now and they should be given appropriate attention, the situation can and will change.

Interestingly, I’ve also been thinking about my words; especially, my words for others. Even though I’m building resilience to words by imagining them as wispy clouds moving across the sky, I have to recognize that other people aren’t where I am. So these days, I’m being careful to not anchor anyone with my words. I’m finding that it really doesn’t take that much extra time or care. Instead of, “You always do this,” I’m offering up, “I noticed that this happened when I did X.” I am finding that simple adjustments to my words are enriching my relationships because… words matter.

Does One Bad Apple Really Spoil the Whole Bunch?

I’m currently fascinated by Bad Apples. Bad Apples the metaphor for people, not so much the fruit. But of course there are corollaries. So the first question at hand is, “does one bad apple really spoil the whole bunch? For fruit, the answer is yes. Because ethylene. But what about people? From my experience, the answer is also a resounding yes. But don’t take my word for it. Check out this University of Washington study overview, which defined Bad Apples as “negative people as those who don’t do their fair share of work, who are chronically unhappy and emotionally unstable, or who bully or attack others.” They found that Bad Apples elicited coping mechanisms in other employees such as “denial, social withdrawal, anger, anxiety and fear.”

I know, I know, this is not really new. The saying exists for a reason. However, it does set the stage for some further inquiries I’ve been making around Bad Apples. So stay tuned for the Bad Apple series as we explore Bad Apples in Sports, how to deal with Bad Apples in your circles, and how to avoid becoming a Bad Apple.

The Business of Relationships

My wife and I are both on our second marriage. Neither of us intended to be divorcees. Everyone in our families’ prior generations stayed married, so neither of us knew what divorce looked like. Given that second marriages are even more likely to fail than a first marriage, my better half and I have spent a lot of time thinking and writing about what went wrong and how we can work together proactively to keep our marriage healthy and happy. While there are countless tomes written on the topic, I’m going to offer up a rather business-minded approach to the successful components of a long-term relationship. With this approach, I’m also going to skip over what I consider to be table stakes for any committed romantic relationship: mutual attraction, love, fidelity, honesty, and communication. Because let’s cut to the chase, if even one of these is missing, there’s no foundation upon which to build a long-term romantic relationship.

My wife and I have found that the for a long-term committed relationship to work for a long time, the relationship needs some things that are pretty important in business. Of course, we are both process engineers who have worked in a variety of industries, so there’s an inevitable business environment bias here. But, we’ve also gone through a good bit of couples therapy in our prior relationships, read several books on the topic and applied them, and – now because of our experience – helped counsel many friends and family members going through similar crises – small and large. Oh, and my wife is more than two-thirds through her Masters in Psychology from Harvard University. So… this isn’t a slap-dash-throw-some-stuff-on-the-wall idea. These ideas are tried and tested in many circles. So let’s get to it.

  1. Couples need a shared vision. This already sounds like business school, doesn’t it? Bear with me. Let’s say one of you wants to be a medical doctor – or already is a medical doctor. That’s going to mean long hours away from home and very likely being on call. How does that fit with the partner’s goal of being a school teacher with summers off to go hike the Appalachian Trail? Well it might work, as long as consistent togetherness isn’t your main objective. Let’s look at another scenario: One of you wants to have a daily driving automobile that reliably gets you from point A to point B and then to also have a flashy sports car in the garage to take out on sunny weekends. Your partner wants to be a social worker who primarily helps children. Again, it can work, but its going to take a lot of discussion and compromise. Generally speaking, social workers don’t make a lot of money for flashy sports cars. Carried forward, social workers who want to help children also probably aren’t prioritizing pricey non-essential vehicles. See the rub? In both of these short scenarios, the couples do not have a shared vision of where they’re going. I can speak from my own experience that in my first marriage, we did not have a shared vision of where we were going. One could argue that we got married too young before we had a chance to figure out what our shared vision was. But I know lots of couples who met at 16 or 17 years old and have had very successful relationships now 25 or 30 years on. In all of those cases, they had a shared vision of where they were going. To discuss this with your significant other, I like the Be, Do, Have model. For the sake of brevity, I’ll say it this way: Each individual needs to decide who he or she is going to BE (the kind of person with what values, etc.), and based on that, what he or she will DO (what profession), which will in turn dictate what each will HAVE (material possessions and the like). So many people do it the other way around: they start with what they want to HAVE, which then dictates the budget and determines what they need to DO, which then begins to inform who they’re going to BE.
  2. Couples should have a shared Culture. If there is a yang to the yin of the vision, it is the culture. It informs where you start and how you go about pursuing your shared vision. Culture – unless it is being actively developed like in the corporate world – usually comes from one’s family of origin. Family of origin sets the stage for how individuals will communicate, work together, problem-solve, raise a family, and so on. It isn’t an insurmountable problem to have very different families of origin, but as my wife and I have both learned from experience, when times get tough, we race back to what we learned growing up. I’ll contrast my first and current marriages again for illustration. In my first marriage, our respective families had very different ideas about budgeting and bill-paying, about child-rearing, about the balance of power, and about negotiation tactics used in the relationship. I thought these matters were surmountable, but they caused a great deal of stress and arguably the downfall of the marriage. When I contrast that with my current marriage, our respective families of origin are magnitudes closer to one another. While each of our Mothers and Fathers have very different personalities, their approaches to the relationship overlap a great deal. This has helped my wife and I work collaboratively to blend and raise a well-adjusted family with four kids, run a household budget that not only pays the bills but offers up self-actualizing activities to each of its members, and to support one another as we pursue our shared vision for our family. Differences in family of origin are able to be overcome, but it takes a lot of work. I personally start with educating myself. Here is a list of books that might help. But after education comes the tough work of problem-solving.
  3. Problem solving can save the day. In both of the cases of Vision and Culture, couples who are equipped with the skills and committed to the cause of solving problems can overcome almost all set-backs. Interestingly, problem-solving is not a universal skill in the professional world much less the ewy gooey world of romantic love. In fact, this was another point of contention in my first marriage. My ex-wife repeatedly rebuffed me for trying to analyze our issues for root cause and corrective action. She would say, “this is a relationship, not a business.” I can’t fault her. I’m sure many people feel the same way. But while my first wife was satisfied with an accuse-argue-apologize cycle of addressing matters, I was not. I like solving problems. I don’t like futile repeats of past conversations and I don’t care for stalemates. So again, even our tools and commitments to overcome our differences in our vision and our culture simply weren’t there. When contrasted with my wife now, again, it is a world of difference. My wife is an industrial engineer and a natural born problem solver. She can meet me at my nerdiest point. While we started out with strong overlaps in both our vision and culture, those things aren’t permanent. As we each grow and take on new challenges, our vision and the associated goals grow and change. In these cases, problem solving saves the day. We’re able to collaboratively work through these new ideas and grow together because we have the skills to do so. While I could start a whole new blog and completely geek out on problem solving in all types of settings, I’ll offer up the following primer.
    • Clearly state the problem, starting with what, when, where, and how often. Avoid “who,” any assumed intent, and “always” & “never” statements if you can. For example, instead of saying, “You don’t respect me because you always load the toilet paper roll backwards,” you might offer up, “I notice that the toilet paper roll gets loaded in different ways, sometimes over the top and sometimes unrolling from the bottom.” The second statement takes the “you” out, it takes the assumed intent of not respecting me out, and it takes out the language of “backwards,” even though we all know the right way to load the toilet paper is over the top. 
    • Confirm the measurement. It is important to confirm that everyone is measuring the matter the same way. Something like, “When the trash has been packed into the bag so tight that it takes a shot of compressed air to get the bag out of the bin without ripping it apart, I think it is over-full. What do you think?” You will be surprised at how often we simply don’t measure things the same way.
    • Agree on a standard. This is very much related to the measurement problem. If there isn’t agreement on what “good” looks like, it is nearly impossible to measure it. This can get tricky in domestic situations because we all have our quirks. Dirty dishes in the sink and untreated spots on the carpet drive me bananas. My family thinks I’m a control freak, and, well, they’re right. But in the balance of power, I can’t bully my way into it. We all have busy lives. So it might be that the only option for my daughter was to grab a quick bite after school and then head to work while leaving her dish in the sink to soak. So, it is a process.

In closing, I hope you’ve already achieved domestic bliss. If you’re in the process of a long term commitment, perhaps the lessons I’ve learned through my own failures can help you build a healthier and happier relationship. Best wishes!