November 22

I am among the youngest who remember JFK’s assassination.  My kindergarten class was gathered in our daily circle singing songs and listening to stories when we were interrupted by the principal’s voice over the public address system.  The president had been shot and killed, he told us, and Vice President Lyndon Johnson was being sworn in as President.  I remember picturing Johnson as a younger, handsome man (my 5 year old mind assumed a VP must be younger than a President, and weren’t all Presidents good-looking?) and being shocked when I saw the real new President, a weathered Texan who looked older than his 55 years.

Because I was so young, the actual memories mix with the endless video replays until I’m not sure what I witnessed live, but I remember watching so many iconic TV moments with my mother on our lone living room TV.  Jack Ruby shooting Lee Harvey Oswald, the funeral processions, John John’s salute.  All so long ago, yet seared in our collective consciousness whether we saw them live or many years later.

Now my sons share a similar universal memory of September 11, 2001. One was also in kindergarten. It makes me wonder if each generation is doomed to share at least one horrific moment. And it makes me hope, against all logic, that their generation has seen its last one.

Getting the Politics Right

Charles Krauthammer, a conservative columnist I’ve had the (mostly) displeasure of reading over the past 30 years in publications from The New Republic to TIME Magazine, to the Washington Post, is a writer with whom I almost never agree and I generally find neither compassionate nor insightful. Imagine my surprise – shock even – when I saw him on MSNBC’s Morning Joe last week and he articulated, better than I ever could, my own philosophy.

Krauthammer just published a collection of selected essays from his 33-year writing career. Initially he planned to focus on, as he said, “the fun stuff, the interesting stuff, the elegant and the beautiful stuff in the world” including “the innocence of dogs, the cunning of cats, the beauty of a perfectly thrown outfield assist. There’s a column on the proper uses of the F-word.” While I know many political writers and pundits share my love of baseball (what is the connection between politics and baseball anyway? It’s amazing how many political junkies  share a passion for baseball), I was surprised to hear that his top four topic mentions were frighteningly close to what mine might be. (And by the way, the only good use of the F-word is as an adjective ending in
-ing).

But as he began putting his book together, he realized he couldn’t omit what really mattered. He felt compelled to include his thoughts on a force that drives the ultimate direction for our lives, our country, and our world.

“…I realized you can’t do that, because all these things,
all the beautiful and elegant things, in the end depend on
getting the politics right. You can have the most flourishing of cultures,
you get the politics wrong, and you’ve got Germany 1933,
you get China during the cultural revolution…in the end,
politics is the…wall which keeps away the barbarians.”

Politics is the wall that keeps away the barbarians. It’s also the philosophy that moves us toward helping those in need, educating our children, ensuring citizens have access to adequate housing and health care, and guaranteeing that we all share the benefits of equal rights and equal opportunities. Or it can be the philosophy standing between the people and those benefits. Getting the politics right, as Charles Krauthammer said, is all. Getting the politics right, in the end, drives nearly everything that matters to us.

I could say that when I thought about how I wanted to spend my free time, I considered all that and decided to become a political activist. I could say the same about choosing a subject for my writing. But neither statement would be honest. My time and my writing took their own direction without any active decision-making from me. I work and write to communicate the messages and encourage the actions I believe are important for others to be aware of, to think about, and to pass on.

In the decades I have read and listened to Krauthammer, I can’t recall ever agreeing with his political positions, although I have enjoyed some of his personal stories. But with his statements on the critical role of politics, he spoke to me.  He was “killing me softly,” as the Roberta Flack song goes. On that political point we could not agree more. You have to get the politics right. And even though, in my opinion, Krauthammer rarely does, I’m grateful to him for spreading the word about the tremendous importance of the discussion.

Generation Next

DSC_2005_2One of the paper photos I still carry with me, even with a lifetime of photos immediately phone-accessible, is of my adorable 3-year old nephew. He’s looking down at his fingers while his bowl of blond hair falls just above his eyes. He was the first person who made me want to be a mom.

So how can it be that he’s 30 and about to be a dad?

It must have been 5 or 6 years ago I distinctly remember packing a box of baby gifts – a Gund bear with flat eyes that couldn’t be pulled or chewed off, outfits made for ease of diaper changing, black and white toys, a Pat the Bunny book – for him. I hate to sound all Sunrise/Sunset, but I don’t remember growing that much older – when did they?

I’ve successfully denied getting older for quite awhile. Turning 40 didn’t bother me – I threw a party and enjoyed being surrounded by friends who shared my journey. While turning 41 was a bit of a shock (yes, the numbers get higher after the big ones, you don’t just stay there), I navigated the next decade with aplomb, immersing myself in kids, school, sports, and work. Even turning 50 never felt horrific, and the party strategy worked once again to divert my attention (I highly recommend this approach).

55 is a bit disturbing. Denying middle age is no longer remotely plausible, and 55 definitely rounds to 60. AARP stalks my mailbox. I’m seeing wrinkles. And, between highlighting sessions, some grey hair. Our youngest will leave for college next year. All the signs of serious aging are there, but nothing that has stopped me in my tracks.

Until now. My nephew got married a few months ago to a wonderful woman. When my brother asked me if I liked his son’s fiancé, I replied, “She’s smart, funny, beautiful, went to Brown, and teaches special needs kids. What’s not to like?” Their wedding celebration was lovely, beautiful and low-key, perfect. We were all so happy and excited for them.

Of course I couldn’t be more thrilled by their news. And they will be great parents. I only wish we weren’t 900 miles away.

But wow. My baby nephew is having a baby. And while he’s certainly old enough to be a dad, and I am old enough to be a grandmother let alone a great aunt, a new generation is arriving that I thought I still had a couple years to prepare for. While this is so not about me, I’m starting to feel old. I remember, in my late teens, beginning to identify more with parents than children, and how odd that felt. Now, even though I remain in a stage of active parenthood with 2 in college and one in high school, is it time to identify more with grandparents? I’m pretty sure I’m not ready for that.

I’m looking forward to becoming a great aunt, and to carrying a new photo of my little nephew – with his own little boy or girl. I’ll keep that one on my phone. But I’ll keep my old paper photo of that adorable 3-year old too.

The Nice/Smart Matrix

As anyone who provides a service knows, clients can be a pain. While working for my Worst Client Ever, I tried to figure out what made these folks exponentially more challenging than the others. Their fatal flaw, I concluded – and I’m talking about their whole team, not just one jerk – was that they added no value.  They were neither nice nor smart. That day a new theory of human worthiness was born for my colleagues and me, and I’ve found it applies far beyond the workplace.

Our first choice, of course, is to surround ourselves with those who are both thoughtful and intelligent. Smart folks tend to contribute more valuable insight, advice, and results than do the less smart among us. They expose us to new ideas, they challenge our thinking, and they make us better at whatever we’re trying to do. We’d also take the nice guy over the not-nice one. No one enjoys dealing with a colleague, client, or neighbor who’s mean, inconsiderate, or rude, and nearly everyone appreciates caring and consideration.

nice-smart graphic

But we don’t all fit in the Nice/Smart box and, as always, there are tradeoffs. I’m happy to work with those who are smart but a bit socially clueless (Not-Nice/Smart). Their insightful analysis or creative solutions help move a project, or a client’s business, forward. Many super-achievers, like Steve Jobs and Thomas Edison, might be found in this quadrant. Of course if their not-niceness is extreme, their personality issues may negatively impact the usefulness of their work and their recommendations. In those situations a Nice/Not-Smart team member might play a schmoozing role to compensate for colleagues who lack skills in managing relationships. Both these types add value, and we benefit from and appreciate their contributions.

All of us love people who are Nice/Not-Smart. While they may not be the ones we choose to debate world issues or discuss literature and philosophy, they’re often our favorite lunch dates, golf buddies, soccer mom friends, or board member colleagues, not to mention cherished family members. Similarly Not-Nice/Smart folks help make our town and school boards more effective or keep us current on issues or provide helpful advice in their areas of expertise.

Then there are those in the Not-Nice/Not-Smart quadrant. What about them, you ask? They make us miserable. They cause stress, bad decisions, unfortunate results, needless pain and suffering. We dread dealing with them, and they likely need more help than we can give them as friends or colleagues. Unless the relationship is one in which recommending counseling is constructive and appropriate, they are best avoided.  My Not-Nice/Not-Smart clients wasted time and money and wound up with a weaker plan because they lacked both people skills and judgment.

So that’s my handy tool for understanding who is worth your time, and why.  When someone drives you crazy you can use the matrix to understand what value he or she brings to the party. If you’re fortunate, you’ll realize that most of your contacts fall into the Nice/Smart quadrant, and those who don’t provide beneficial insight (smart) or needed diplomacy (nice). If you’re not so lucky you can at least identify the Not-Nice/Not–Smart folks more quickly. And run.