Friday, December 17, 2010


The major work exertions of the year are over. There are minor loose ends and continuing projects to tend, but nothing that should require dressing like a grown-up and leaving the house. What’s left to do is a combination of writing, thinking and daily email-tending. The sense of relief and, yes, victory is real around here. Shea gets home today, and once she’s here the rest of the weekend is Christmas: getting and putting up the tree, decorating the house, making cookies, getting ready for tomorrow’s tree-trimming party, trying some more to understand the nightly dance of the dogs. This week’s site visit overtaxed my available energy in a costly way, so there’s also time for a ton of just resting.

A stray comment by a colleague this week got me to thinking about how much the texture of our lives has changed in recent years, personally and societally. She has a son still in grade-school and was ticking down the (high-stress) list of things to be done to “make” Christmas. The feeling of that internally-generated stress isn’t at all hard to access. For me, it was always meeting the standard set by the who-knows-how-accurate memory of how my mother managed all kinds of feeling-related events, and also some of my own driven tendencies. In part because I’ve been a mother longer than my colleague has, that conversation exposed just how much I’ve relaxed about this stuff over the years, coming slowly to focus more on the events and activities that bring good family feelings more than a checklist of “has to” be dones. There’s not much that has to be “just so” any more, from how the cookies look to the order in which things are done, if everyone is having a good time. Also, there are things that, over the years, I’ve learned that I don’t like and am not good at (package wrapping, exterior decorating), which are therefore stressful. For things in that category, if it really matters that it get done well, outsourcing through trading tasks, barter or direct pay is an answer that sure takes some of the frantic edge off the holidays. The new balance is in a good place. We have rituals we all enjoy and we have lots of time devoted to just being.

That change in texture, from “how it must be done” to more what the holidays should be and mean, got me thinking about other changes in texture of recent decades. The most obvious is that, sometime in the last little chunk of time, I’ve transitioned into being an old person in certain situations. I have been the old person in the classroom for some time, of course, which is fine and works for me. Changing into the old-timer in meetings and work settings is an entirely different kettle of fish. Having previously almost always been the youngest person in the room, it’s been an abrupt and unsettling change. This week, I even caught myself twice explaining the "history" (from 1984, so give me a break) of how something came to be on campus that is now forgotten and totally taken for granted, but took a major battle at the time.

Other changes are ones we all talk about all the time: undressing instead of dressing up to travel (my mother putting us in our best clothes and herself in a hat and gloves comes to mind), using Dr. Google to find out even the most arcane pieces of information instantly, stuff like that. (I was able to learn why the campus flags were at half-staff again the other day while riding past a building and idly asking what that day's reason was. No one knew, so I searched: it turns out that, in Illinois, the Governor has mandated that all state flags fly at half mast whenever an Illinois soldier killed in action is buried. That's both worth knowing and sobering and I'm not sure how I would have found that out without Google.) I typed most of my papers in college on an electric typewriter and erasable paper. Even the stuff you used to keep a typewriter for--labels, etc.--aren’t necessary any more. If you lost track of a child or other family members in public, it was stressful. Now, you just call their cellphone and figure out where to meet. So on and etcetera. We didn’t have central air conditioning until well after Kearney was born. Michael’s parents never did have a dishwasher.

And then there’s the social etiquette: I sat in a meeting last week and observed once again the social contagion of devices. The first person to pull a phone out of a pocket and check messages led, within minutes, to everyone else in the room responding in kind, like some kind of twitchy reflex. In another meeting, one person setting up a laptop and gazing at email during the meeting spread across the room like a pandemic. It was amazing to watch. There are so many used-to-be norms that large numbers of people don’t observe any more, including visibly paying attention to the business at hand. Sure, there used to be doodlers and letter-writers during meetings, but the general etiquette was to affect engagement while surreptitiously thinking one’s own thoughts.

The pace of change probably isn’t any different now than it ever has been, it’s just that now that it’s personal to me and to us, which makes it noticeable and noteworthy to us. In the lifetime of my father’s generation, cars took over from horses, and most of the diseases that ended lives young were eradicated or became survivable. That’s a lot of change. It seems likely that the pace of change is always startling over the arc of decades, and that it is just the human condition. So why don’t we, as a species, seem to get much wiser? Or, if we’re not going to get wiser, why do we have such a hard time accepting that people are pretty much the same everywhere? A friend who has been doing international site visits for schools observed recently that children playing on a playground universally sound the same, whether they’re in Urbana, Illinois or Cairo.

All those questions, and no answers! It’s time to drink my hot chocolate and browse cookie recipes. All that work and all those weighty issues will have to wait. May your weekends bring some peace and reflection.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Christmas is Coming

It probably shows how shallow I am that a television show got me to thinking about my father recently. A recent episode of Criminal Minds featured a young woman struggling with why she didn’t hate her father--a serial killer. My father was far (far) from a serial killer. Still, he wasn’t a good father in many ways and the show got me to wondering about what kind of people the script writers are and whether it’s them or me that’s badly flawed.

My dad got the basics down: we all got fed, and educated and shown the world and ended up with good work ethics, not to mention a pretty good genetic heritage: he lived to 96, and his sister is still going strong at 97. Without doubt, he shaped my personality in powerful ways, mostly because a lot of who I am is based on “I don’t want to be THAT.” It turns out, when you listen to other people, that’s not how most of them talk about their parents. It’s not my aspiration for how my children think about me. Still, much of who I am, if I’m honest, was shaped by him.

The TV character felt guilty for still loving her father who had done terrible things. Yet, as portrayed, still loved the father part, while not liking the serial killer part. Either that’s nuts or I’m not very evolved, or both. My dad outlived his relationship with several of his seven children and left other relationships in bad repair with residual damage. I maintained a relationship with him all his life for the most selfish of reasons, which is admittedly ironic, since his overriding personal relationship characteristic was selfishness. My selfish reasons were to think well of myself and my conduct toward him. Dealing with him required great boundaries, which is in many ways the foundation of my professional life. So I owe him much, but still would be hard pressed to go much farther than that. I’m still contemplating what that means in the big picture.

One core contemplation leads to others, and the one that’s at the top of the stack is what our recent travels have revealed about the overall balance of this new life of mine. At home and even when I travel alone, the tradeoffs are not as apparent as they become when traveling with Michael. He is a venturer. Together, we have always been goers-and-seers when we’re in new places. We have pretty catholic tastes, so we generally include a wide range of things to do and places to see.

The last three short trips we’ve taken, though, compressed as they were, threw into high relief how much this version of life requires a retreat to silence to pay for being out in the world. When we were in Sarasota, we’d read ahead about some things we wanted to explore, and never got to any of them. At the time, I just attributed it to the gloriously beautiful weather and the enticing swimming pool at the hotel when we spent most of a day just enjoying the sun (well, he always lurks in the shade) and the water. It felt decadently wonderful, though a bit like we were playing hooky, since we didn’t get out to see the museum or any of the local character.

The next two trips, though, led to the thought that perhaps that wonderful day wasn’t the aberration it had seemed: in both of those, the balance of adventuring and cocooning was the same, heavily weighted to cocooning after getting the work done. That got me to assessing my daily life, which has fallen into a routine, but one that is radically more home based than ever before. It’s a good life, happy, comfortable and most of all, functional. It’s just different than my self-image and it’s requiring thought. An even bigger question in my mind is the change in Michael's quality of life. If he doesn't venture because of my limits, how much does that cost him, over the long run?

While mulling that, I’m toting up the balance sheet and it otherwise looks pretty good: the end of travel for the year means I’m back in the regime that leads to gradual weight loss, and after a long plateau, the number is steadily drifting down again. The book draft is still percolating along and the new approach seems potentially promising. Baseline commitments seem more doable, once this week is over because, then, it’s time for Christmas. We’re having a two-day site visit for our ethics resource center this week, and that will take (is taking) a lot of energy. There will be a day or so of end-of-semester mop up, and then, done! I’m looking forward to it. A lot.

Monday, December 6, 2010

On Aging

My aunt, now 97, told me that if she’d known she was going to live this long, she would have recovered her easy chair, and maybe had the springs fixed, too, because they’re as she says, “rump sprung.” She is the last living member of her generation in the family and has lived in the same house since 1952. Her husband died 26 years ago. In talking about her life, she says the only thing she wishes she’d done differently is that she’d talked back more to her mother (a mean old bat, in my experience), though she doubts it would have made much difference. It’s an interesting question and what it makes me wonder is whether standing up to her mother would have changed other things in her life, in a ripple effect.

While we are talking, I notice once again that she has the same hands my dad did; when I remark upon it, she says that they’re her dad’s hands, and she thinks of him when she looks at them. Some of the family stories she tells are new to me, and some are stories I’ve heard before, but with a completely different slant to them. People and their perspectives are amazing. As the end of my visit approached, she summed things up by saying she’s content and enjoys her life. How great is that? One could have worse aspirations than to be able to say that at 97.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Rules to Suit

We live in Central Illinois by choice. Given that, it seems churlish to be unhappy that on the first of December, cold and snow have arrived for the first time. There’s a Jimmy Buffett song about finding a life that suits his style. For me, it’s more about adapting my rules to suit my life.

Writing this, as I am, while stalled/procrastinating on finishing something due today, I’m contemplating which of my rules are useful and which are not. This is relevant to the section of the book I’m working on as well because I’m struggling to write coherently and helpfully about how young professionals encounter a range of reactions to ethical situations and need to develop a personal code of conduct before getting too deeply enmeshed in settings that influence them for the worse. The challenge is to avoid being preachy (“do it my way because I said so, and I’m old and wise”) or too wishy washy (“whatever works for you”) in setting out options for exploring values and knowing what they are--and still saying how doing the right thing matters even when it’s not expedient or easy. It all boils down to how to develop rules that work and also help each person be a contributing and positive member of society. Conveying that clearly is turning out not to be so easy.

While that rumbles around in the back of my head, my task for this morning is cutting things down: a talk I’m giving next week and a summary of the Ethics Center project for an upcoming advisory board meeting. This is all connected to the concept of rules because I’m trying to focus more, and to adopt an improved less-is-more stance. This is all in aid of remedying a problem in my presentations in that that I typically try to teach everyone everything I know all at once. Conceptually, I understand this isn’t a great approach--more than once, participants at events have characterized the experience as trying to drink from a fire hose. All the stuff is useful and good, and still, there’s no point in trying to share all of it in every situation. Which gets me back to the basic conundrum: what’s the real point, and how best to focus on it?

Thinking about that question circles back to the question: what is the goal, anyway? That forces me to contemplate what’s shaping my responses and the “rules” that, for better or worse, govern my thinking. Here are a few that come to mind today:

It’s not about me, it’s about the audience.
The audience doesn’t always know what it doesn’t know.
I need to trust myself more and not second-guess so much.
We shouldn’t complain about the logical consequences of my our choices.

Hence my judgments about my grumpiness around the snow and cold. We’ve had a glorious, mild autumn, with shirt-sleeve sunny weather as recently as Sunday. It’s been a real gift. We choose to live in Central Illinois, and have reaffirmed that choice at many times over the years. We choose it because we wanted stability for our family, our children and, yes, us. We choose it because of quality of life. We choose it because we like the midwestern values and the people and because we could find satisfying work here, in a reasonable balance with personal fulfillment and overall life. When it comes right down to it, we’ve come to realize that neither of us much likes the trade-offs that beautiful weather brings in over-developing/occupying places that have a more appealing climate. Having recently been in Madison to visit Kearney and Brad, we appreciate anew the quality of the water produced by the Mahomet aquifer that runs out of our taps. We appreciate being able to get to work in 5 minutes and to be able to walk/bike/ride the bus with ease. We like the prairie sky and landscape, though we’re plenty able to appreciate flashier landscapes as well. Given all of that, there’s no justification for grumpiness, so I’m working on reframing my attitude about the snow and cold. Here’s my best shot: the snow on the ground really brightens things up on an otherwise grey day.

Back to work. May you find the brightness in your day.