Friday, September 30, 2011

Changes

Leaves changing color on a lakeChanges

I love the fall and how the leaves change from deep greens to reds and orange and gold.  This natural riot of color takes place wherever there are trees with leaves and there’s almost no place better to watch the leaves change than in the Northeast.  This part of the four-seasoned ritual of life attracts tourists from far and wide and tugs at me to make a special trip to our home in the mountains there.  And this reminds me every year about the natural changes that are a constant in our lives.

Ever wonder why and how the leaves change colors?  

•    As summer ends and autumn comes, the days get shorter and shorter. This is how the trees "know" to begin getting ready for winter.  The trees will begin to rest and live off the food they stored during the summer. The green chlorophyll disappears from the leaves. As the bright green fades away, we begin to see yellow and orange colors. Small amounts of these colors have been in the leaves all along - we didn’t them in the summer because they were covered up by the green chlorophyll.  The bright reds and purples we see in leaves are made mostly in the fall. In some trees, like maples, glucose is trapped in the leaves after photosynthesis stops. Sunlight and the cool nights of autumn cause the leaves to turn this glucose into a red color.   It’s the combination of all these things that makes the beautiful fall colors we enjoy each year.

Ever hear o
f Thomas Coles The Voyage of Life series?  In 1840 he did this series of paintings that represent an allegory of the four stages, or seasons, of human life:

•    In childhood, the infant glides from a dark cave into a rich, green landscape.
•    As a youth, the boy takes control of the boat and aims for a shining castle in the sky.
•    In manhood, the adult relies on prayer and religious faith to sustain him through rough waters and a threatening landscape.
•    Finally, the man becomes old and the angel guides him to heaven across the waters of eternity.

In each painting, accompanied by a guardian angel, the voyager rides the boat on the River of Life. The landscape, corresponding to the seasons of the year, plays a major role in telling the story.  And in those paintings you can clearly see the leaves changing colors in the season (manhood) that represents the fall of the voyager’s life.

So what’s this mean to you and me?  Things change!  Always!  Life is full of changes and most of us are creatures of habit.  And because we don’t know what’s next, we tend to cling to what we already have and know and are comfortable with.  We reminisce about and cherish the past because it’s familiar, it’s already happened and we know how the movie ends.  And while that’s generally true, it’s the half of the story that we tend to recognize.  The other half is that the things we learn from the past should continually be updating our knowledge of life, and how to process the new things we see and experience, and how to better understand the meaning of who and what we are – that’s the harder part of the story to accept.

With each passing season, and the changes that occur, we need to grow and become wiser.  And that wisdom should create the stuff we need to constantly be better, to do the things we’re called upon to do each day better, and to help those around us to become better.  But you won’t learn anything or get better if you’re not open to the changes – natural or man-made – that occur every day.
I wish you could join me here at our camp to look across the lake at the beauty that is unfolding.  The scene is constant; the colors let me know that time is marching on.  On the one hand I could worry that the seasons of my life are marching on, or, on the other, I could be challenged by the things I’ve learned this year that will help me to be wiser and more thoughtful in the future.  One stunts natural growth; the other invigorates a sense of wonder about the world around us and the endless possibilities that potentially exist.  The choice is ours.  And while these leaves will begin to fade and fall soon, the inspiration that they trigger should last a lifetime.  That’s the voyage of life, and I’m sure glad to be on it!

My message this week is about being inspired to dream about improving our lives:

Arte Nathan“You are never too old to set another goal or to dream a new dream.”  -C.S. Lewis

Clive Staples Lewis (1898 – 1963), commonly referred to as C. S. Lewis and known to his friends and family as "Jack", was a British novelist, academic, medievalist, literary critic, essayist, lay theologian and Christian apologist from Ireland.

Got any new dreams today? Not the ones you try to remember and think about when you wake, but the kind that have you excited to try something really new.  Everyone can dream, but not everyone has the curiosity, energy, courage and stamina to try to attempt and achieve their dreams. Most want things to be smooth and easy, with no surprises or challenges that can potentially make you look silly.  Fact is, without those challenges or knowing how to recover from looking silly you’ll never get to experience what it is to learn from trying something new.  You can tell the ones who are into this – the twinkle in their eye, the bounce in their step, the way they carry themselves.  If that’s you, and you’ll know if it is, then set another goal today, dream another dream today and make a pledge to be creative and innovative today.  Go ahead – you’re never too old!

Stay well!

Friday, September 23, 2011

True Blue

True Blue

“Everyone wants to be true to something, and we’re true to you” - that’s the marketing tagline for Jet Blue’s travel rewards program.   I know because it kept scrolling across the little screen on the back of the seat in front of me when I recently flew across country.  It’s okay in the context of what they’re trying to promote, but it also might apply to more than just loyalty programs.  And it may be that because people naturally want to be ‘true blue’ to so many things, it becomes overused and almost trite.  That’s too bad.  Because being ‘true blue’ can be a good thing.

First: ever wonder where the term ‘true blue’ comes from?

Meaning
• Loyal and unwavering in one's opinions or support for a cause or product.

Origin
• 'True blue' is supposed to derive from the blue cloth that was made at Coventry, England in the late middle-ages. The town's dyers had a reputation for producing material that didn't fade with washing, i.e. it remained 'fast' or 'true'. The phrase 'as true as Coventry blue' originated then and is still used (in Coventry at least).
• True Blue is an old naval/sailing term meaning honest and loyal to a unit or cause.
• And dictionaries say that true blue refers to “people of inflexible integrity or fidelity”.

And second: does ‘true blue’ really mean anything in this era of fast food and slick advertising?

There are lots of loyalty programs – hotels, airlines, slot clubs, retail stores, pop food brands, credit cards, clothing, wine, restaurants, movie theaters, travel sites, theme parks, computer games and countless more – and they all try to get you to stick with them by rewarding you in all kinds of ways: points, miles, free gifts, shows, food and on and on.  But it seems a bit contrived, as if there’s some Oz-like character behind a curtain trying to entice you with these awards (read: bribes).

Imagine if this kind of thing were done with going to school or work, singing in a choir, participating in some community event, volunteering your time to some worthy cause, remaining friends or staying in a relationship… doesn’t seem as appropriate in those, does it? Think of someone or something you really like: do you really and truly like them or it, or do you need to be bribed with rewards to feel that way.  Of course you don’t.  So why do the airlines and hotels and all those other things we purchase have to bribe us like them?

But – there are companies out there that do understand what it takes to win your loyalty:

•  Southwest Airlines was one of the first companies that made having fun and using common sense part of their strategy for success.  Singing the safety jingle, devising a different boarding routine and setting the record for on-time departures set them apart and won over customers.  They got it!
•  Zappos doesn’t give you anything extra to make you want to come back – they believe that great service plus free shipping and returns will do that. Everyone said that nobody would buy shoes online – wrong.  Zappos gets it!
•  Apple wins and keeps their customer’s loyalty by incubating and introducing cool new ideas and products all the time.  And they’re just about the biggest and most successful and most admired company on the planet.  They get it!

But for every Southwest Airlines-type great experience there are hundreds of others that under perform and underwhelm.  So they sign you up and hope that rewarding your loyalty overcomes the other things they do that destroys your loyalty.  Seems to me they just don’t get it?

Jet Blue says they give you more leg room – that’s true if you pay extra for those few rows that have it.  How come they just don’t make eye contact and smile more?  How come they can’t get the bags to the conveyor in less than 30 minutes (which may not seem like much to them but after a cross country flight an extra 30 minutes is painful).  How come they don’t get it?  I want to join their loyalty program so I can get another trip with them like I want to have my teeth drilled.  And then they spend so much time and energy trying to give you that free round trip ticket if you apply for their credit card – you know, the one that has annual fees and high interest rates.  How come they don’t get it?  Why can’t they just treat me like a loyal and valued customer, like someone they genuinely like and appreciate, like they’d like to be treated if they had to fly on someone else’s airline.  Seems to me they just don’t get it.

Most of the good things in life are rooted in quality, trust and respect.  People you work with and for, family that you live with and love, things you do for fun and relaxation, games you gladly play with others, friendships you’re lucky enough to have, clubs you join and actively participate in, activities you sign up for – they’re all based on the simple premise that things that are good are that way because they are genuinely good and fun and worthwhile.  And that’s why you stick with them loyally.

But all these other kinds of loyalty programs are contrived. And yet we sign up for them like they’re free and worthwhile.  They’re not free – we pay for the increased costs of these rewards.  And they’re not worthwhile - we’re treated poorly by those who have the attitude that the cheap rewards they give are enough to overcome the thoughtless and robotic service they go through the motions of providing.  Next time someone asks if I’ve signed up for their loyalty program I’m going to give them a tip:  treat me nicely, treat me fairly, treat me respectfully, act like you really do care, thank me like you really mean it and treat me like you really do want me as a customer – and I’ll come back as often as I can or need to, willingly and freely.  When are all these marketing geniuses going to wake up?  When are they going to be ‘true blue’ to the Golden Rule?

My message this week is about how excellence can lead to greatness:

Arte Nathan
”If you want to achieve excellence, you can get there today. As of this second, quit doing less-than-excellent work.” -Thomas J. Watson

Thomas John Watson, Sr. (1874 – 1956) was president of International Business Machines (IBM) and oversaw that company's growth into a global force from 1914 to 1956. Watson developed IBM's distinctive management style and corporate culture, and turned the company into a highly-effective selling organization.  He was called the world's greatest salesman.

Do you want to achieve excellence?  Some people don’t – they’re content to work alongside others, doing just enough to get by and satisfy their basic needs, content to have a few toys, take life easy and not make waves. But is that what you want – would that be enough for you?  If not, then you’ve got to decide right now to start going farther, looking to help others, caring more, trying harder, and being more  of what you can be today.  You’ve got to take it to the next level – in commitment, in energy, in enthusiasm, in being a role model, in paying closer attention to details, in always striving to do and be all that you’re capable of.  As of this second, you’ve got to quit doing less-than-excellent work.  That’s how YOU can achieve excellence - (note: the emphasis is on YOU)!

Stay well!

Friday, September 16, 2011

We Remember

9/11 StampWe Remember

Where were you on 9/11?  For most of us the answers are permanently etched in our minds.  Like the attack on Pearl Harbor and VE Day for our parents, or the moment John Kennedy was shot or Armstrong set foot on the moon for the baby boomers, 9/11 has become one of the iconic moments in time for all who were alive then.

I remember exactly where I was, what I was doing, who told me and how I felt the day Kennedy was killed; and like most people I was watching on our little black and white TV when Ruby shot Oswald the next day. I remember my teacher bringing me into the assembly hall to watch when Armstrong took “one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind”.  There have been literally trillions of moments in my life, but these iconic ones stand out, frozen in time and in my mind.  And then there was 9/11.

In these weekly blogs I try to write about things that catch my attention.  These stories tend to take on meanings beyond the specific incidents I mention, meanings that relate to life’s larger issues and that can possibly teach us something.  But this one goes way beyond any of the moments and incidents that caught my attention - 9/11 caught the attention of everyone on the planet.  There aren’t many things that reach that level, things that stop time, that leave indelible memories about where we were and who we were with, that immediately bring back visceral feelings and emotions of a long ago but clearly remembered moment in time.  9/11 does all of those things and more.

My wife and I were in NYC: preparing to get on the George Washington Bridge to go into Manhattan when the first plane hit; coming to a complete stop on the road and in our lives; watching in fear and confusion as the second plane hit; staring in horror as first one and then the other building fell; hearing about the other plane crashes in Washington and Pennsylvania; staying glued to the radio and then the television while the world stood still.

We drove away from the City that day in fear and confusion – trying to get as far away as possible and to make sense of how and why this happened.  As we drove we came upon a rise in the road where all the cars were stopped; people were standing beside their cars and looking back in the direction we came from, so we stopped too.  In the distance there was smoke where the towers so recently stood; nobody was talking; everyone was crying. We eventually made it to our home in the Adirondack Mountains, safe and overwhelmed by the fear and confusion that enveloped the world as we knew it.  I can see and feel that day now as if were yesterday.  I guess that’s what an iconic moment is: something we remember – clearly and forever.

And now, in what seems like no time at all, ten years have passed and the memorial to those killed has been unveiled. The reading of the names this past Sunday stopped and stunned us all over again.  The tolling of the bells in New York, Washington and Shanksville brought us back to that moment in time.  The sight of the grieving families and friends as they touched and etched the names of their fathers, brothers, mothers, sisters, relatives and friends brought us together now as we were back then. The pettiness and partisanship that dominates the news was pushed aside for just a moment as we all stood in solemn and shared tribute to something that transcended all the comparatively meaningless stuff that normally seeks to grab our attention.  As sad as the memories are, the togetherness helps us get through the memories now like it did when this terrible tragedy first happened.  Why can’t we make that feeling last?

A man named Al DiLascia from Chicopee, Mass. wrote a letter to the editor of the New York Times this week that summed this up:

For one brief moment on September 11, 2011, time seemed to stand still.  People sought family members and recognized the importance of family. Acts of charity were plentiful.  There was an assessment of life and what is really important.  Places of worship were full.  People unashamedly prayed.  For one brief moment...

Let’s try to remember – not just the events that make up these iconic moments, but what they really mean, and what’s really important.  Don’t let a day pass that you don’t tell those you love how much you care and to show it in thoughtful and meaningful ways, to touch the people and things that are most important to you, to reach out and give to those in need, and to quietly count and give thanks for all the blessings that are in your life. Do whatever you have to do to make the meaning of your iconic moments last!

My message this week is about being loyal to the people and things that are important in your life:

Arte Nathan“Loyalty is something you give regardless of what you get back, and in giving loyalty, you're getting more loyalty; and out of loyalty flow other great qualities.” 

-Charles Jones

Colonel Charles Edward ("Chuck") Jones (1952 – 2001) was a United States Air Force officer, a computer programmer, and an astronaut in the USAF Manned Spaceflight Engineer Program. He was killed in the attacks of September 11, 2001 aboard American Airlines Flight 11, the first plane to hit the first World Trade Center building at 8:46am.

All of the great values we read and write about seem to be interconnected, and loyalty may be the one at the hub of them all.  Think of the people and things you’re loyal to, and then note the other great qualities that come from that loyalty.  Friendship, success, pride, humility, professionalism, integrity, team spirit and passion are a few that immediately come to mind.  These are the qualities and values that you hope to find in others, and certainly they’re the ones to which you should always aspire.  But to get loyalty you need to give it, and that means you must be true to your work and family and friends, forgiving in your nature, humble in your approach to others, sincere in your dealings with all, and understanding in the complex and competitive world that we live in.  Look for ways to give loyalty today without attaching any strings for reciprocity. And don’t be surprised if you then start to get loyalty and all the other great qualities flowing back to you in return.

Stay well.  And please say a prayer for these heroes and all the others in your life who’ve passed.

Friday, September 9, 2011

The Point!

Crew teamThe Point

Vacation homes in the Adirondacks are commonly referred to as camps – my family is fortunate to have one and, as you know from some of my previous blogs, we’ve spent a lot of time there this year.  These are not to be confused with day and overnight camps that parents send their kids to.  This is about the second kind of camp.

I went to an overnight camp as a kid and loved it, but that’s a story for another time.  This tale begins at Camp Nazareth (that’s the name of the overnight camp at the end of our lake). Its run by the local Catholic Diocese which has had little success in recent years attracting enough kids.  More often than not, this wonderful facility – it can hold up to 300 kids at any one time - is terribly under used.  Fortunately, it seems that they’ve now discovered ways to attract alternate users like family reunions, corporate retreats and, just this past week, a high school crew team (Google “rowing sport” to learn more about this sport on Wikipedia).  And that crew team caught our attention.

Our family’s camp (we call it “The Point”) is on the water and we can easily see when anyone is on the lake.  While sitting on our dock one morning we were surprised to see this crew team go by.  If you’ve never seen a crew team before, they operate in long narrow boats (like large kayaks) that are referred to as “sculls” – these are two to eight-person boats that are rowed by that many team members, each of whom operates one oar.  In this case, there were two eight-person sculls (one with all men and the other all women) that were practicing.  Mind you, this is not an everyday sight – there are a few motorboats and a lot of canoes and kayaks on our lake, so the sight of these two sculls was a bit of a surprise.  Alongside these two sculls was a small motorboat in which sat the coach who had a megaphone and was giving instructions and commands.  On the first day of what appeared to be one of their initial practice sessions, these two sculls were having what was obviously some beginner’s training.  And here’s another key bit of information:  the team has to row in very close order for the boat to move along smoothly.  If any of the rowers is out of synch (even a little) the boat can very easily (and visibly) miss a beat. And if any of those misses are overly pronounced the boats can stop altogether or even capsize.  So at the beginning of this training the coach definitely wanted to take it slow.

As the week progressed, however, the boats began to move more smoothly, and over time they got smoother and faster.  And since the object of crew is to beat the competition, smooth and fast is definitely better.  In order to get smoother and faster, the individual team members all have to practice at learning not only how to improve their own skills but also how to be in better synch with all the other members of their team.  In crew, as in so many other aspects of life, both are critical (as in one without the other is not worth much).

As we watched this unfold before us, we started to reflect on how the basic lessons being learned out on the lake apply to just about everything we do in life (and here I need to confess that my wife realized this before I did).  Being effective and functional at anything – playing with friends on the school yard, getting along as a family, working with colleagues, participating on a sports team, singing in a choir, building something with others, participating in community events – really is about learning how to improve your own skills while also performing in concert with others.  Learning anything alone is one thing, learning it together and then interacting with others is a whole different thing.  The key to life is learning both, because one without the other is really not worth much.  And here was a live metaphor for this right on the lake in front of us – and just like that my whole professional life flashed before me as I watched this training unfold.

Each of these young athletes was working hard to learn how to be the best they could be, they and their team mates were learning how to interact with each other more effectively, the coaches were seeing the results of their hard work and practice, and those of us on the sidelines were rewarded by seeing how things can and should work when effective instructions, practice and coaching all come together.  We don’t often get to see things so clearly, or watch how the rituals of cause and effect play out so clearly.  Simply put: this was a real lesson about life. And, in part because of where we were, and also because of what we saw and then realized, we were again moved to exclaim “that’s the Point!

My message this week is about finding things you can be passionate about, because they define who and what you are.

Arte Nathan“I know that I have found fulfillment. I have an object in life, a task ... a passion.” 
-George Sand

Amantine Lucile Aurore Dupin, later Baroness Dudevant (1804 – 1876), best known by her pseudonym George Sand, was a French novelist and memoirist.

Have you found fulfillment?  Not just a momentary or fleeting sense of accomplishment, but a lasting and on-going feeling that “this is it”.  We all do lots of little and mostly disconnected things – chores, work, hobbies – and these achieve short-term goals or complete individual assignments.  But every now and then one big thing comes along that is more about defining our style or purpose, and these make us who and what we are.  Now it could be a car or a job – those certainly say a lot about you.  But to find fulfillment – to know that something is really about the “you” that is truly you – that’s a real find.  And that’s the kind of thing that passion is truly built upon.  Something you love deeply, that you can’t stop thinking about, that you can’t wait to get up and do each day, and that you truly care more about than almost anything else.  That’s the kind of passion that is truly a treasure – and that’s the kind of object in life that you want to be on the lookout for – today and every day.  That’s the Point!

Stay well!

Friday, September 2, 2011

Mother Nature!


waves crashing on the shoreMother Nature

Last week was something else – an earthquake and a hurricane and tornados and sunshine and hot and cold…  I'm having trouble remembering where I am.

I grew up in upstate New York and experienced four distinct seasons each year – but there were no earthquakes or tornados.  I later moved to Nevada for nearly a quarter century and experienced dry heat – but there were never any hurricanes or tornados.  I then moved to the beaches of California where the sun shines 300+ days a year, the temperature rarely gets above 75 and earthquakes and wild fires are a nuisance – but there are no tornados or hurricanes. And now I’m back in New York (city and upstate) and just about everything but wild fires have hit here in the past 8 months.  What’s going on?

I didn’t own a winter coat – and the record snow falls and cold last winter drove me to Land’s End with a singleness of purpose.  I didn’t own boots or an umbrella, and the wet snow and rains taught me a lot about what it means to stay dry.  I’m used to driving wherever I want to go and not having a car here to help navigate through the varying weather patterns has made me a fan of the Weather Channel.  I never thought about the weather, never worried about what I’d wear or looked at the skies for clues to what’s coming, and now that the weather changes in the blink of an eye I am obsessed with meteorology.

But last week, depending where you were in the path of all this weather, meteorologists either got it right, mostly right, or wrong.  Hey – they’re human so maybe we shouldn’t hold them to such a high standard as always being right.  I mean, is anybody always right? Maybe we should take what they say and apply some old fashioned lore to this inexact science – such as:

Red sky at night, sailor's delight,
Red sky in the morning, sailors take warning.

When the wind is blowing in the North
No fisherman should set forth,
When the wind is blowing in the East,
'Tis not fit for man nor beast,
When the wind is blowing in the South
It brings the food over the fish's mouth,
When the wind is blowing in the West,
That is when the fishing's best!

When halo rings the moon or sun, rain's approaching on the run.

When windows won't open, and the salt clogs the shaker,
The weather will favor the umbrella maker!

No weather is ill, if the wind be still.  

When sounds travel far and wide,
A stormy day will betide.

If clouds move against the wind, rain will follow.

A coming storm your shooting corns presage,
And aches will throb, your hollow tooth will rage.


I wouldn’t normally be thinking about these things, but all this crazy weather has me spooked.  Is it global warming or just the fact that weather seems unpredictable?  Were the winters way more intense when we were kids, or did it just seem that way because we were kids?  Can weather really be predicted correctly all the time by these meteorologists, or should we take what they say with a “grain of salt”?  Or should we rely more on our own common sense as aided by some of these old fashioned sayings?

Here in New York last week the mayor and the meteorologists got it wrong – but not by much.  The winds blew and the rains fell and, though there was less flooding and damage than predicted here, they made damn sure we were prepared by scaring the daylights out of us with their dire warnings.  Now some people are complaining because they scared us; but those same people complained when they didn’t scare us before last winter’s massive snow storm, or that they didn’t scare others enough before Katrina.

Fact is, lots of people are never happy, especially if they’re inconvenienced.  But potentially saving lives is better than trying to apologize for not saving lives: isn’t that what ‘better safe than sorry’ is all about? Maybe we expect too much from the elected officials who we don’t really like or trust anyways (especially when they are inconveniencing us).  I guess they’re damned if they do and damned if they don’t.  I’ve even read some editorials about how this should make us either for or against big government.  Come on, it was just a storm.  And even though lots of people got flooded out, and there was lots of damage to homes and fields and trees and power lines, and lots of high water and wind, I’m relieved because it was less than predicted here on my street.  I’m really sad for those to whom it was as much or more than predicted.  And even though I don’t blame anyone, I sure as hell would like to know what all this crazy weather means, and whether a red sky at night really does mean a sailor’s delight?
My message this week is about loyalty, and whether we need to think about how loyal we are to others and how loyal we need to be to ourselves:

Arte Nathan“Loyalty to petrified opinion never yet broke a chain or freed a human soul.”  -Mark Twain

Mark Twain achieved great success as a writer and public speaker. His wit and satire earned praise from critics and peers, and he was a friend to presidents, artists, industrialists, and European royalty.

Loyalty can be both good and bad.  People often remain loyal long after the reason for doing so has ended.  If the reason you became loyal has petrified then you need to re-examine your motives and goals; you need to break free when the times demand it and it’s the right thing to do.  Loyalty should be given to the best ideas, the highest principles, the most ethical leaders, the greatest challenges, and to the most extraordinary opportunities. But sometimes we remain loyal just because we are afraid to appear disloyal or we’re afraid to re-examine that loyalty.  This conflict can be a Catch 22, or it can be a moment of re-commitment and rebirth.  And just like a plant that’s been sitting for a long time, it’s a good idea to re-pot our beliefs to make sure that our roots continue to grow deeper and stronger.  So look at your loyalties today and make sure they’re where they should be.

Stay warm, dry and well!