Deep Thoughts / Shallow Pool

Deep Thoughts From the Shallow End of the Pool features essays from PR, business and life, which means they might be as random as any of the rest of the content on this site!

S.O.S.: Save Our Stories!

My father in law Jack Shannon, a Korean War Rakkasan

My father in law Jack Shannon, a Korean War Rakkasan

A call to action in honor of Veterans Day 2018: Save Our Stories!

Lt. Olin “Short Round” Hardy was beloved by the men he served with, not just because he was a great forward observer, but because he managed to bridge the infinite divide between Artillery – his trade – and the Infantry of Company L. His misadventures bringing scavenged creature comforts to the foxholes at the front, or in bringing extra fire to bear on enemy positions, made him legendary, even 60 years after the Korean War. Today, his remaining brothers in arms toast his memory and the deeds that drove them to advocate that he earn the Combat Infantry Badge, an honor normally exclusive only to Infantrymen.

The men telling Hardy’s stories are in their 80s, and the size of the once-large group has dwindled to only a handful. The memories – the stories – pass away with the infirmities of time and age, and eventually, death. For Veterans of “The Forgotten War” in particular, the opportunity to capture their stories for forever is quickly passing by. But it doesn’t have to be that way.

In the same war, Sgt. Jack Shannon jumped out of airplanes, then waged combat at close quarters with both North Koreans and Chinese regulars. I only know this by inference, though, because my father-in-law never talked to me about any of the details of war, though I could see those things haunted him to the end. Instead, I heard about him helping loosen the airplane cargo pallet carrying a Jeep over its drop zone – only to have the pallet break loose and take the Jeep – and Jack – with it. A few heart-stopping “ass-over-elbows” moments later, he managed to get hold of the Jeep mid-air, climb in and hold tight for a hard – but survivable – landing. Or there’s the story of a fellow soldier who was afraid that a Chinese regular might creep into camp at night to slit his throat as he slept, so he set booby traps all around his quarters – and almost blew himself up, along with everyone in a 10-foot radius.

Then there’s my own Dad, Airman Third Class George Bishop, who enlisted for the noblest of reasons: to get away from home as young as legally possible. He was also in Korea, and served as an electrical technician on some of the world’s first computers. In his free time, he dealt blackjack in the Officer’s Club, and infamously came up with a number of schemes for getting ahead in the world the fast way – which invariably is the wrong way. This led him to get busted down in rank at least twice. He certainly also had adventures and close calls, though of a graft-and-greed nature, far from the front – experiences that reflect a different man than who I knew and loved as my father – a man still in his youth and still learning, albeit the hard way.

Besides Korea, the one thing in common among these three heroes – and to too many others – is that no one captured their stories firsthand. While I’ve told some of them here, what I’ve recounted is hearsay – subject to my own frame of experience and to my shabby memory. Sadly, then, what’s retold in sparse detail is pretty much the extent of which I know about any of these situations – and thus, what anyone knows about them. Details about the experiences – the smells, what they were thinking, what they were feeling, what they learned from what happened and so much more – are lost forever, because each of these men – and so many more of our Veterans each day – has passed away.

These stories, then, are a gift; I am proud that the ones I have, as few and limited in detail as they are, were entrusted to me. I’m trying to save them for my children and for their children. But I didn’t get much detail, and I didn’t get many stories. And now it’s too late to get any more of them.

When they were alive – and elderly – I thought it might be unseemly to ask to hear them, and especially, to record them. That’s my greatest regret now. My then-16-year-old son saw this through me, and he immediately understood it. For his Eagle Scout service project, then, he led a group of young men to capture video histories of other Veterans for their families, for historians and for the public alike, through the Missouri Veterans History Project, a part of the Library of Congress’s Veterans History Project. He didn’t get his grandfathers’ stories, but he will get others’ grandfathers’ stories.

Each of us can do so, too, whether as a volunteer for one of these programs, or less formally with our immediate circle of family members, friends or neighbors. From my own experience, I’d pass along the following and encourage everyone who knows a Veteran to:

  • Ask to hear their stories
  • Ask to see pictures or other “artifacts” from their service – patches, uniforms, souvenirs, etc. – and ask them to tell you about them
  • Ask to record their stories – audio or video – for exact capture of their words, but also for non-verbal information like body language or voice tone
  • Realize they may not appreciate what a big deal their stories are to you or to anyone; they did not grow up with social media and its associated narcissism
  • Be OK if they decline your request
  • If they won’t let you record them, or if you don’t want to ask to record them, then jot down as much as you can recall hearing, as soon after you hear it, as possible
  • Recognize that there may be some things they never want to talk about
  • Accept that there may be some things that they won’t talk to you or a loved one about, but they might talk to a total stranger about
  • Realize that many of these stories are connected to wounds seen and unseen; be prepared for reactions that may surprise you – and them
  • Go Barbara Walters: engage your best conversation skills to elicit information and details with insightful questions and good follow-ups that take the conversation deeper
  • Listen … truly listen to what’s being shared with you
  • Don’t judge what you hear
  • Let them know that you appreciate them sharing their stories with you

To learn more about capturing Veterans’ stories, visit the Missouri Veterans History Project or the Library of Congress Veterans History Project website.

Do you have any Veteran stories that you’d like to share? What advice do you have for someone who wants to ask a Veteran to hear his or her story?

Copyright 2015

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This post previously ran on the 131st Bomb Wing website May 4, 2015. You can find that story here. It was subsequently posted to my LinkedIn page, here, May 13, 2015.

Deep Thoughts From the Shallow End of the Pool features essays from PR, business, and life — which means they might be as random as any of the rest of the content on this site!

Standing up for Patriotism

Man wearing "I Stand For The National Anthem" shirt sits on a field ... using the American Flag as his blanket.

“‘Merica,” as captured and hurled at us by the interwebs.

On the occasion of Flag Day 2018

I will ALWAYS stand for the American flag and our National Anthem.

As the son of a Veteran who was an immigrant to this nation, raised at the height of the Cold War, in a generation where at least my Kindergarten class recited the Pledge of Allegiance, it’s simply what I was taught to do.

Later, I was lulled to sleep every basic training night by the refrain of Taps. During this time, I got to think critically about whether I indeed was willing to die for the cause of the virtues of my nation, (yes), and whether I was willing to kill for the cause of the virtues of my nation (also yes, though it took a bit longer for me to reconcile myself to this).

My reality has not yet matched my commitment, but not every veteran can say that. With firsthand experience that pales compared to most others, I appreciate the service and sacrifice of our all-volunteer military, whose members go anywhere on this globe and can endure unimaginable horrors on behalf of our nation — a nation that can sometimes be fickle about it all. It is for them that I stand.

As a free-thinking American citizen, also will I always stand. America, imperfect though she may be, has nonetheless striven to perfect itself to the standards of democracy and individual freedom, as a beacon of promise for other nations around the globe (in marketing terms: that is our brand promise)

With that said, we’ve fallen short of these ideals — too much, too often, and too recently to be tolerated. Among our various freedoms for all, then, is that of speech, one of our most powerful and precious among them.

Which makes me ambivalent about the NFL’s recent edict that all must stand. While I will always voluntarily stand, the service of our armed forces allows ALL Americans the right of free expression, to include the right to choose to stand … or to not. To the extent that our union’s expression of our ideal values falls woefully short for too many Americans, I’m grateful that others would seek to convict us of these inadequacies by these actions: their silent, principled protests.

I don’t like it, and I don’t agree with it … but here’s the shocking pivot to my message: I support it. Indeed, I would dare say that expressing this precious right — fully (and intentionally) offensive and alienating as it is — advances the cause of American freedom and democracy here at home, as much or more than does my military service in nations abroad. While military service has inherent risks and dangers for noble causes, political protests like kneeling for the flag, do too. These acts put at risk employment, income, reputation, and perhaps even health and safety. Nonetheless, this risk is voluntarily taken, toward an aim point that would ensure a strong America today and tomorrow, for the broadest swath of the American citizenry, procured at great risk and personal sacrifice. In this, then, is it not also one of the most patriotic things an American can do? And thus, also worth standing up for?

SIDEBAR: Toward a More Patriotic American

To be a true American patriot, you don’t have to suit up in body armor and kneel in a defensive fire position in Iraq; you also don’t have to suit up in pads and a helmet and kneel on the NFL sidelines at the passing of our flag.

While I understand the angst and frustration that my other fellow Americans feel when they see someone take a knee, there are many other things that many of us can — and should — stop doing in order to be more patriotic; because they are simply despicable:

  • At these same ball games, keeping your hat on, talking, and swilling beer in the stands — all while the Anthem plays.
  • Vote-dodging; jury duty-dodging; tax-dodging; bailing on knowing about local, state, national, and global issues; and dodging a responsibility to practice civic engagement are each every bit as despicable as draft dodging.
  • Using the flag as apparel. Old Glory boxers should not be a thing; your body sweat should never stain my flag.
  • Referring to our nation as “‘Merica” in anything but an ironic sense.
  • Giving up on our nation, its people, and our ideals. Good people fought and died for this thing; we just have to keep it running. Let’s do just that, can’t we?

Do you agree? What else should we stop doing — or step up to do — to increase our patriotic regard for our America?

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Deep Thoughts From the Shallow End of the Pool features essays from PR, business, and life — which means they might be as random as any of the rest of the content on this site!

Women’s History Month: Air Force Training Helps Collins Command Space Shuttle

Astronaut and Air Force Col. Eileen Collins conducts a press conference prior to her space flight mission as the first woman space shuttle commander, in 1999.

Astronaut and Air Force Col. Eileen Collins conducts a press conference prior to her space flight mission as the first woman space shuttle commander, in 1999.

In honor of Women’s History Month, this #TBT kicks it back to July 13, 1999, and an article from my interview as a military journalist with retired Air Force Col. Eileen Collins, a pioneer in American aviation and space exploration.

JOHNSON SPACE CENTER, Texas (1999) — This summer, Col. Eileen Collins will become the first woman to command a space shuttle mission. It’s a job she’s worked toward for more than 20 years. Along with Columbia’s payload and crew, Collins is taking Air Force training to space.

The colonel got started at Vance Air Force Base, Okla., in 1978 as one the first women to go through undergraduate pilot training there. As a new lieutenant, she was inspired to become an astronaut after seeing the first shuttle astronauts — including the first female astronaut candidates — go through parachute training at the small Midwestern base.

In 12 months, Collins was a pilot, and in 12 years, she was an astronaut pilot. Since her selection to 1990’s astronaut class, she has piloted two shuttle missions for NASA. She will command shuttle mission STS-93 July 20, to place the X-ray observatory Chandra in orbit.

Commander and pilot preparations include flying NASA T-38 aircraft or a Gulfstream II shuttle simulator, which is a commercial jet modified to perform and fly like the space shuttle. Collins and Navy Capt. Jeff Ashby, STS-93 pilot, practice landing at White Sands, N.M., or Kennedy Space Center, Fla., every week. That training is important because the shuttle has “the glide path of a rock” on re-entry, Collins said.

“It’s a glider, in the sense that it doesn’t have any engines in the landing phase,” she said, but added that the space shuttle drops out of the sky at a much faster descent rate and at a higher glide angle than typical gliders.

“Our lift-to-drag ratio is on the order of 4- or 5-to-1, where, for example, the T-38 is on the order of 9- or 10-to-1, and a true glider could be on the order of 40-to-1 or more.”

Besides the shuttle’s unique approach, there’s also the challenge of a night landing — Collins’ first. And this shuttle will be heavier, and thus faster, than normal, because of the mission’s payload.

Because there is so much at stake, Collins said each shuttle pilot must fly at least 1,000 approaches and landings in the trainer before flying as shuttle mission commander. Collins and Ashby will also be able to practice the landing on orbit, with a special simulator stick connected to a laptop computer called “Pilot.”

In addition to flying more than 1,000 simulated shuttle landings, Collins has logged more than 5,000 flying hours in more than 30 different aircraft — including two flights in the space shuttle — and has knowledge far beyond what she had flying T-37s and T-38s at Vance. Nonetheless, she said she still uses much of what she first learned in undergraduate pilot training and as a first-assignment instructor pilot.

“What a pilot learns in the early stages of his flying training stays with him throughout his career,” she said. “In military pilot training, the intensity and the stress of it — there is stress there — is forcing you to learn. And the repetition is very, very important.”

Collins said the skills learned through that repetition almost become second nature, and stay with a pilot the rest of his or her career.

“When I fly the T-38 here at NASA, I still remember all the little formulas and all the little, neat tricks that my instructors taught me,” she said. “I taught those same things to my students, and I still use them today.”

The former first-assignment instructor pilot added that skills like how to use a checklist and the control-and-performance concept of how to do a cross check even apply to aircraft like the space shuttle.

Being shuttle commander involves much more than piloting the orbiter, however. To train for its mission, the entire crew employs the crew-resource management training Collins first learned working with a crew of up to seven people as a C-141 commander and instructor pilot at Travis Air Force Base, Calif., from 1983 to 1985.

“As a commander, I’m big on crew resource management — the way the crew (members) communicate with each other,” she said. “Every person has a job, they do their job, but they need to be aware of what the other crew members are doing, and they need to communicate well.”

Lt. Col. Catherine Coleman, an Air Force polymer chemist and NASA mission specialist on the flight, said she appreciates Collins’ approach.

“I like the way she works with people, the way she thinks about … what kind of help they need, what kind of help they don’t need,” said Coleman. “I just enjoy the way she manages the flight.”

“You need to learn how to work with people and use people to get the mission done effectively,” Collins said of her time commanding heavy-aircraft. “I think all of that experience has really helped me with this job here.”

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Deep Thoughts From the Shallow End of the Pool features essays — and here, and article — from PR, business and life, which means they might be as random as any of the rest of the content on this site!

Fear, Forgiveness and the Pinewood Derby

Photo of Pinewood Derby care modeled to look like the Chicago skyline.Let me not bury the lead:

I DROPPED MY SON’S PINEWOOD DERBY CAR!

Today.  On the cold, hard concrete floor of the garage.  My 10-year-old’s vision of the Chicago skyline, wrought from Sculpey and paint and glue, with a to-scale level of skill and craftsmanship and hard work to rival that of the architects and engineers and steel workers who erected the full-sized Windy City skyline.  Broken — the beautiful thing shattered like glass.

When it happened, I wept like a child — like I knew my child would weep when he found out.

My folly was thinking it needed just one more layer of clear coat varnish.  My folly was holding it gingerly by the tires between my fingers and not firmly grabbing it by its wooden base.  My folly was my hubris in thinking I knew best what his car needed.  And that my age and experience relative to his were enough to prevent harm from coming to his craft.  I was wrong.

What could I do?  I grabbed up all the pieces I could find — I found all of them.  Some had just popped off the base, but some — like the giant Sears Tower (my son’s first experience with America’s tallest skyscraper was NOT in the Willis Tower, thank you) — snapped in three places.  Its twin antennae — as much a part of the building’s signature as it’s boxy-tubes shape — had snapped off as well.

I mixed up some two-part epoxy and started putting the rolling Humpty Dumpty back together again.

When I finished, I felt like I’d done a good job restoring his fantastic job.  We would have to make new antennae, but the main of the Chicago skyline was restored.  I did my best.  But …

Would he notice?  It didn’t matter — I knew that I would tell him.  How could we team up together to design and build the car in a values-based program like Cub Scouts and have me try to sneak something like that past him?

Would he be shattered, as his car had been shattered?  Yes, I knew he would be.  And when he came home from school and I told him, he was.

But by  God’s good grace, kids are resilient and unlike many of the “more wise” adults around them, kids are also generous with forgiveness.  My son calmed himself and listened to my apologies, listened to my pledge to help him repair it, and listened to my assurances that we could make it look as good as it had when he’d put the finishing touches on it only the night before.

He forgave me.  And he taught me about forgiveness.

Tonight, the car gets checked in.  Tomorrow, it will glide downhill at up to 350 (scale) miles per hour.  It might win.  It might lose.  And it might fall off the track and shatter again.  But having experienced the tragic and having recovered from it together, I know for my son and me that whatever happens tomorrow, everything will be o.k.

UPDATE Jan. 30, 2013:  My son raced the car, and clocked speeds at more than 216 miles per hour, against winning cars that sped downhill at almost 230 m.p.h.!  He stayed on the track, and while a couple antennae broke again (clearly the car’s Achilles’ heel) in the racing, it didn’t shatter on race day as it did for me.  Best of all, while others’ bested his cityscape for speed, his design took Best Design honors — cracks and glue and all!

THE END
Copyright 2013

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Deep Thoughts From the Shallow End of the Pool features essays from PR, business and life, which means they might be as random as any of the rest of the content on this site!

The Endangered Flavors of Christmases Past

With the red cup crisis of 2015 passed, a true Christmas catastrophe yet looms: Time-honored tastes from Christmases past are in danger of extinction, forever lost from the hors d’oeuvres plates and family feasts of future generations.

The list of most-endangered holiday-time flavors?:

1) Eggnog: This spicy beverage blend of egg, cream, sugar, egg, cream, sugar and spices perhaps took its fatal blow in the health-crazed ’80s, when cholesterol was enemy No. 1. Today, we have Islamic terrorists and/or climate change for that.

Yet, the sumptuous, frothy glass of eggnog never made its comeback — even though vinyl records have. Spiked or straight, and even removing the egg and most of the nog from modern blends (whatever nog is, we don’t want to know), eggnog to this day remains at high risk.

2) Cranberry sauce: A longtime staple of Thanksgiving and Christmas alike, this dish is too often sacrificed for the latest feast fad.  Maligned as neither a dessert nor a savory side, it’s nonetheless an essential flavor for tying together all others in sweet-and-sour harmony: turkey, stuffing, and potatoes and gravy, all on a fork with cranberries at the same time. Yum!

Aggravating its demise is a run on cranberries for other products; similar to ethanol putting a strain on once-abundant corn grain, cran-everything: drinks, teas, candies, lip balms and skin exfoliants — have robbed the dinner table of this once commodious treat.

Culinary historians mark the advent of canned jellied cranberry sauces in the mid-20th-century as the apex — and the beginning of the downfall — of this dish. Perhaps because, when that jellied cylinder is sliced and served, it closely resembles another endangered flavor: Beets

3) Beets: This red-hued holiday dish, best served not at all, could pass into eternity and like the mosquito, would not be missed, but would definitely be noticed. With great cheer.

4) Gingerbread: Long synonymous with Christmas, this treat in recent years has been moved aside to make way for its blander cousin the sugar cookie — the Wonder Bread of Christmas flavors. Even gingerbread houses have been made from grahams for at least a generation.  The deep flavors of molasses and ginger are too strong for today’s pabulum palates.

5) Sugarplums: The original gummy treat, these sweet, fruity, sugar-coated spice drops are the Christmas equivalent of a Werthers from grandma’s purse — too uncool even for the hipsters to adopt. So sad.

6) Nuts: A carved bowl full of in-the-shell peanuts, pecans,  walnuts, hazels and filberts used to be set out shortly after Thanksgiving, alongside the wreath, tree and other Christmas trimmings. These were mostly enjoyed by the menfolk of the house, with kids volunteering to crack the nuts as a sort of off-season firecracker.

My guess is that the labor involved in this treat — once the fun of explosively opening the nutty packaging, you must patiently pick tiny slivers of nutmeat from deep crevices of the shell — brought nuts their due fate. That, and also the pain of finding a shell shrapnel on the floor with a bare foot — a pain similar to, but inconceivably worse than that of stepping on a Lego.

We can’t take any of these treasured tastes for granted; licorice is already extinct. Even peppermint could find its way onto the list, supplanted by more common flavors of chocolate or the novelty of sour gummy worms.

Together, we must stem the tide before it’s too late. Do your part to save — by savoring — these threatened holiday flavors. Lest we forever change the meaning of the season.

Copyright 2015

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Deep Thoughts From the Shallow End of the Pool features essays from PR, business, and life — which means they might be as random as any of the rest of the content on this site!

This is 40? Meh.

I’m not so ignorant to think that 40 is the new black; “meh” sums up the experience quite nicely.  #40Meh.

License plate on sports car reads "MANOPOZ"

A few months ago, in anticipation of my 40th anniversary of living, I set out to write a commemorative blog post: to riff on the significant meaning of this significant milestone.  I didn’t have a thesis going into the project, but I was confident something profound would come to me.  And why wouldn’t it? We have a pop culture pantheon of promises; of discovery, of self-awareness and of meaning at mid life.  However, as the birth day approached, and then passed, a finished blog post didn’t — the passing of time and the process of introspection brought nothing.

Despite the onset of prescription eyeglasses and a rotator cuff injury, the mundane that I’ve found in the few weeks since joining the ranks of the middle aged is that not a lot is different between 40 and most of my 30s — if not the whole of my adult life.  Sure, I feel like I’ve gained some wisdom in proportion to grey hairs, but for the most part, the advent — and passing — of 40 has been more lamb than lion; more “meh,” than, well — it was just meh.

Deep thoughts? I have none — but I still need 500 more words.  What follows, then, is the best can offer:

Forty (not-so-)Profound, (hopefully) Entertaining-if-Not-Edifying, (suitable-for-Tweeting?) Thoughts on Turning 40:

1. My life thus far: bought with 4 easy payments of 10 years each.

2. This is the age of knowing … that a Soft tail will get your engine revving a whole lot faster than a blue pill.

3. When I was growing up, there was only Rock music. Classic Rock hadn’t been invented yet.

4. Cut my teeth on Pong. Dictated this to Siri. Can’t wait to see what tech I get at 80.

5. 40 is the new 25 … 40 is the new 25 … 40 is the new 25 …

6. The pace of the passing of time picks up the pace past 40.

7. Sometimes I miss my dad something fierce. Then I look in the mirror, and there he is.

8. They say the eyes are the windows to our souls. Maybe because they are the first to fail us, ushering in old age and eventually death.

9. Condiments — it’s like I’ve discovered a whole ‘nother amazing dimension within our own world.

10. New vocabulary word: Analgesic.

11. My generation is the only to have seen Star Wars episodes 4-6 in our youth; episodes 1-3 with our children, and will see 7-9 with our grandchildren.

Original Star Wars poster

12. Corn. Not just a food. Or a band.  Now, a sore on my foot.

13. I was a teenager when the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles were born.

14. All of a sudden, I can be a victim of age discrimination. Wow.

15. On the Air Force Fitness Assessment, a “Passing” score at 39 becomes an “Excellent” score at 40.  Best. Gift. Ever.

16. On a road trip, I’m that guy that pulls over every hour for a comfort break.

17. Surprise parties: Awesome for 6-year-olds. Not so sure at 40.

18. I’ve developed a telescopic, go-go-gadget arm for extending my phone far enough away that I can read what’s on it.

19. I’ve finally matured into the hairline I’ve had since 28.

20. I’m 42 already and I just turned 40 last October. What’s happening?!

21. Obsessed with the 2015 Ford Mustang. Not a midlife crisis; I just hope I look that good when I’m 50!

2015 Ford Mustang in red

22. We were so spoiled back in the day: there used to be a special phone number dedicated to providing citizens with the time and temperature … Back when there were telephones, of course.

23. Crows feet, laugh lines and greying temples. Entering the “distinguished gentleman” phase of life.

24. Knowing is half the battle.

25. Deny all you want, but when Metamucil starts posting ads to your News Feed, you have to concede that you are over 40.

26. Ye shall know them by their socks: 40-somethings = white ankle sport.

27. Stayed out ’til the street lights came on.

28.  Can no longer be a fast food dumpster.

.cupcake

29. Wisdom = Smarts + Experience + Time.

30. My hairline turned 40 a full decade before I did.

31. Black crepe. Not cool.

32. In the gym every day. For physical therapy, not physical fitness.

33. Big Bird. G.I. Joe, Pete Parker, Obi Wan. Characters who shaped my character.

Duke from G.I. Joe action figure illustration

34. After 40 years, I’ve gotta have at least 10,000 hours toward expertise in something.

35. So let me get this straight — a new motorcycle, hobby or sports car in my 20s is cool, but now it’s a mid-life crisis?

36. I saw a red minivan with Sublime and Beastie Boys window stickers on it. Talk about my generation.

37. All the best songs of my youth were novelty songs. Top 5:

5) Abracadabra / The Steve Miller Band

4) Mr. Roboto/ Styx

3) Whip It / Devo

2) Rock me Amadeus / Falco

1) I Wanna be a Cowboy / Boys Don’t Cry

Mr. Roboto Album Cover

38. If I don’t know myself yet. I think I might not ever.

39. Into weed: obsessed with getting rid of the crabgrass in my lawn.

40. The only things that’ll make me give a double take today is a shiny fender, a spoiler or pipe noise.

There could be more things to say, but I’ve hit 40 of them, and I’m supposed to be ready for a nap now.  So here’s to deeper thoughts at 50, 60 and beyond.

A well done if more colorful list for the sisters:  40 Effed Up Things About Being 40.

THE END
Copyright 2015

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Deep Thoughts From the Shallow End of the Pool features essays from PR, business, and life — which means they might be as random as any of the rest of the content on this site!

Feedback: The Perfect Gift

 

Businessman shakes present to figure out what's inside.

Didn’t get the gift you really wanted under the tree this year?  Or from your boss or a co-worker?  As New Year’s comes around, make a resolution to ask for the perfect gift — the gift of feedback!

It’s the most wonderful time of the year – a time to run around stores late into the night, looking for the perfect gifts to give to family, friends and even co-workers.  Workplace holiday gifts can be the most problematic – there are all those ethics rules, hierarchy sensitivities and office politics to consider.  How do you decide the perfect gift for an office colleague?

Though it’s somewhat of a management and leadership trope, for colleagues, arguably the best gift you can give – for the holidays or anytime – is the gift of feedback.  Maybe they’d rather have a coffee shop gift card or, “hint, hint,” maybe a promotion.  But feedback truly is the “bestest” gift you can give them, ever.  Here’s why:

  • Like Clark Griswold’s 1-year membership in the Jelly-of-the-Month Club Christmas bonus, good feedback “truly is the gift that keeps giving.”  To validate this point, just think back to valued feedback that you got years ago that you still use today.  I recall a senior leader applauding the quality of my work on a project, but advising me that getting it to her the night before it was needed didn’t give her enough time to review it and make use of it the next day.  The lesson – that 90 percent quality early is better than 110 percent quality late – has served me well in the intervening years.
  • Feedback enhances performance, and that’s great fun!  Of course feedback can be positive – praise is great fun to give and to receive, and when given it can reinforce desired performance and behaviors.  But often feedback needs to address a need, and as such, at first it’s going to be like getting socks and underwear from one’s parents.  But once they try it on and wear it, it’s going to feel like a superhero-costume Underoos or like those awesome Spring Shoes they’ve always wanted – it’s going to enhance their performance and agility and speed in the workplace like nothing else.  That’s a lot of fun, for the entire workplace family!
  • If done, right, it’s a perfect fit.  Feedback is like a new sweater – it’s got to be just right for the person getting it – not too big, not too small, not too heavy nor too light, not scratchy and in the right colors and pattern for the recipient.  And what’s perfect for Susie won’t at all work for Bobby.  Feedback is not a one-size-fits-all gift, and if attention to detail and tailoring to the exact specifications of the recipient are missed, it makes for a disappointed, confused and frustrated receiver.  Although you can’t really use a gift receipt to return feedback, if it’s a good fit for the recipient, they won’t want to.
  • The packaging that feedback comes in matters almost as much as the gift itself.  Some people wrap their gifts in the Sunday Comics papers.  Similarly, some managers try to use humor to soften the blow of difficult counsel.  But such feedback is a serious gift and shouldn’t be delivered with jokes, but rather with sober seriousness.  Alternatively, don’t be the one that takes a gift and puts it in three different increasingly larger boxes to trick the recipient into thinking he’s getting something different.  Don’t play games or beat around the bush with your delivery – just give it to them.  A nice, attractive paper with a simple bow to adorn it is best, meaning: keep your delivery simple, straight-forward and pleasant.
  • Give the gift on time.  I’m that guy that misses the U.S. Postal Service mailing deadlines; you’ll get your Christmas cards and packages from me in mid-January.  I’m just not that organized.  But for feedback to be useful to the recipient, you have to have your thoughts collected, and you have to deliver it in the appropriate season.  Cheeseballs and feedback are great when fresh, but once you get past the “best if used by” date, neither is any good for anyone.
  • Finally, like nothing else, the gift of feedback truly says, “I care.”  Surely you’ve been in a situation where you’ve wanted to call a colleague or a subordinate on the Clue Phone to give them some much-needed advice.  If it was someone you didn’t much care for, you probably took a pass on the opportunity.  Why?  Because there’s some risk in giving feedback – risk that it will be rejected, that you’ll hurt the person’s feelings.  There’s a lot of potential workplace drama that comes with those emotions.  So it’s just not worth it.  That is, unless you really care about the person.  For the recipient, it’s worth keeping this in mind, and a help to receiving the gift with gratitude and in the spirit it was given.  If someone’s taking time to speak honestly to you about an area for improvement, embrace the momentary suck and remember that this person is doing it because he or she cares about you.

What’s the best feedback gift you’ve ever received?  How has feedback benefited you in your work?  Why is it difficult to give – or to receive – the gift of feedback?

THE END
Copyright 2014

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Deep Thoughts From the Shallow End of the Pool features essays from PR, business, and life — which means they might be as random as any of the rest of the content on this site!

On Becoming A Renaissance Man: The Book of the Life My Dad Lived

Wood block with pencil self portrait ready for woodcut

A Self Portrait of the Artist

My Dad, Georges B. Bishop, died Dec. 20, 2013, at 74 years of age.  Unassuming and sometimes curmudgeonly, he was also a noble gentleman and a scholar who was loved and admired by his family, friends and all who met him.  These sentiments are overdue for sharing, and are offered with love and admiration, in honor of his memory and of his life.

“What do you want to be when you grow up?” my Dad would ask me.  I don’t know for sure which of the two of us was so interested in the topic, but for as many times as we talked about it, at least one of us was.

“I dunno,” came my typical kid answer, as I twirled a wood pencil in my hands, trying to think of something cool to draw.  “Maybe a comic book artist?” I offered.  I started to draw something that might have looked like Spider Man.

“That sounds neat,”  he said, taking a draw from a Kent III cigarette.

At that point, my pencil went in its own direction, and Spider Man suddenly had a horn on his head.  In my anger, the drawing became another paper wad, flung hard to the floor with the others sent there earlier.  I thought about breaking my pencil, too, but I knew there’d be other drawings to make later.  So I just threw it to the floor, too, crossed my arms, and turned away.  I’d never be a comic book artist.  I’d never be any kind of artist.  Not like my Dad.

I sat and pouted, but no one bit.  So my mind wandered.

“I think I want to be a pilot,” I said.  I’m certain that I’d seen Top Gun recently.

“That sounds cool,” Dad said.  “You have to be pretty good at math, though,” he added.

“Maybe an architect?” I said.  That trip to our cousins’ in Chicago had made an impression on me.

Dad chuckled and exhaled smoke through his nostrils.

“You have to be good at math to be an architect, too,” he said.  “You want to be a lot of different things, don’t you?”

And then he passed on a tiny pearl of wisdom, borne of inspiration and experience.

“I think what you want to be is a Renaissance Man.”

Indeed, as he explained what a Renaissance Man was, I knew two things: First, that my Dad was already one.  And second: that I wanted to be one, too.

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A Renaissance Man is someone who has mastered — and who effortlessly employs — a wide variety of skills,  This was the ideal person of the Renaissance period, which spawned “universities” to train all of its students to this standard: to have “universal” qualifications across many different areas of knowledge.

If Dad, who passed away in December, had written an account of his life, the book could have the same title as this essay: On Becoming a Renaissance Man.  He’d recount many of his life’s accomplishments, if not also a few adventures, and in doing so, he’d spell out the how-to-do-it that he did.  With only the lessons that he passed on by example, here’s the rough outline of the lessons of his life:

1) Be curious.  That’s how you get started down any given path — you are intrigued by it.  You look into it.  You ask questions about it.  You try it.  You get stuck.  You keep trying it.  You ask for help.  Then you do it.  You’re doing it.  You’ve mastered it.  You are it.  But it all started by FIRST being curious about it.  Dad had an insatiable curiosity, and you knew he was interested in something when he’d say, “Hey, that’s really neat.”

2) Be a lifelong learner.    When I left for college, Dad was at the age where he could get free cups of coffee at McDonalds.  I was the learner, he was the learned, defined as one who has already learned all that he needed to know.

That’s when he took a night class on wood carving offered by the park board.  To my knowledge, all he ever carved was his little version of the Travelocity Gnome.  But while he was there, he found out about a clock repair class.   Look around his home 20 years later, and you know where that took him.  A six week class to learn to carve in the round put him onto a path that arguably led to one of his greatest passions — and areas of expertise.  One curiosity led to another, and learning was the means of satisfying that interest.

3) Be somewhat OCD.  In the trades, they call it craftsmanship.  In manufacturing they call it quality.  In mental health, they call it OCD.  That’s what we called Dad, too.  But I don’t think you can be a bona fide Renaissance Man without mastering the various crafts you choose — indeed, after accomplishing one’s universal education, a medieval student would attend additional schooling where he’d “master” a specific skill — and thus, today’s master’s degree programs.

To be a master requires dedication and focus and continuous improvement.  You must maintain very high standards for yourself and your work and your finished products.  Clambering 25 feet in the air on a rickety aluminum scaffolding in the blistering summer sun, Dad used a heat gun and a putty knife to remove 120 years of layered, accumulated paint from every 2-inch board of siding.  He set and countersunk every nail.  He putty-filled thousands of nail holes.  He used the best quality oil-based primer and paint he could get.  Take a look at his masterpiece 15 years later, and it’s still held up to time.  His own minor Mona Lisa.  For Dad, call it OCD, but there was only one way to do things: the right way.  Which, as he’d tell you, was also his way.

4) Pace yourself.  You can do it all.  But even if you lean in, you simply can’t do it all at once.  Prioritize what you want to do.  Sequence things so you are building on other skills and accomplishments.  And as Dad sought to do, work to get some commercial wins to provide time-and-money capital for other less remunerative pursuits.

Looking back on my life thus far, and comparing it to his — there’s a list of skills, roles and jobs Dad performed at the bottom of this essay — clearly I’m no Renaissance Man like my Dad was.  But the lessons he left are widely applicable to all, whether you aspire to that standard or not.

There’s a final lesson from Dad, which I learned from his life post humously, that is necessary to any who would aspire to follow in his footsteps.  It’s this:

5) Get on with it, now!  While Dad lived a long life, and did some incredible things — created amazing works — there were still so many things he wanted to do.  He told of wanting to finish a few new projects.  At the end of his years, he selflessly cared for others, which was also one of his beloved Renaissance Man roles.  But his cataracts stole his sight, age took the steadiness from his grip, and cancer sapped his strength.  He had some unfinished business that tragically remains unfinished.

The lesson for each of us is clear: sharpen your pencil, get a new piece of paper, and get busy.  There’s a lot of life to live, but if you want to give it all your very best, and if you want to get everything you can out of it, then you’ve got to get on with living it.

Just like Dad did.

A List of Dad’s (Known) Vocations and Avocations:

– Veterinary assistant
– Chicken slaughterer
– Air Force Airman / Korea
— Computer system repairman
— Blackjack dealer
– Fine artist
— Wood block prints
— Watercolors
— Airbrush
— Silversmithing
— Enameling
– Entrepreneur
– Graphic Artist
– Framer
– Salesman
– Teacher
– Cubmaster
– Handyman — plumber, electrician, carpenter, painter, roofer, etc
– Shadetree mechanic
– Wood carver
– Clock repairer
– Collector
– Historian
– Husband and caregiver

And of course:
– Father

THE END
Copyright 2014

Other essays in honor of the memory of my Mom, Dorothy M. Bishop, and of my father-in-law, Jack G. Shannon, can be found at the links.

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Deep Thoughts From the Shallow End of the Pool features essays from PR, business, and life — which means they might be as random as any of the rest of the content on this site!

Thankful to Those Who Would Stop to Thank a Uniform

I’m proud to serve as a public affairs officer in the Missouri Air National Guard, and experienced the following during my recent annual tour of duty in 2014.

It’s 6:15 p.m. at the Wal-Mart in the small central Missouri town of Warrensburg. Aisle 17, Health and Beauty. A woman pushes her cart toward me; in the seat, a young child – perhaps her grandson – squirms; he’s had his fill of shopping. The woman tries to catch my eye. When she does, she smiles and says, “Thank you. Thank you for serving our country, Soldier.”

I smile back, a bit embarrassed and maybe a little ashamed, before replying with an obligatory, “You’re welcome.”

You see, she doesn’t know that I’m a new Guardsman; I’ve only been back in the uniform for about a year. I’ve never deployed in it, haven’t yet pulled state emergency duty in it. I drive across the state, train and go home. I work hard, but most of the time it doesn’t feel like I’m serving my country or my state.

Being in the Guard, the minimum standard calls us to wear the uniform one weekend per month, and two weeks per year. My identity, therefore, is more often associated with my day-to-day job than it is with this part-time job.

And right now, my co-workers back home are carrying my load while I serve.
And of course I’m not a Soldier, I’m an Airman, but that doesn’t matter – camouflage makes everyone look like a Soldier. I’ve learned that Soldier is simply short-hand for Servicemember.

These are the thoughts that cross my mind as I accept what feels like unwarranted gratitude. She doesn’t see that I don’t necessarily feel like the well-starched, “capital-A” Airman that she sees before her in Aisle 17.

But maybe she does. Maybe she correctly sees me as I am.

Maybe she has a nephew or a daughter serving in uniform. Maybe right now, while talking to me in the Wal-Mart, she’s worried about a husband deployed to Afghanistan, doing a job that I might find myself doing in only a few months.

Maybe her home was once spared from a flood by thousands of sandbags stacked by others who also wear my uniform.

Or maybe she has a more abstract understanding of that uniform; an abstract appreciation for the value the uniform represents. Maybe for her it represents security and freedom – rights that Americans enjoy and that we strive to provide to others around the world.

I honestly don’t know why she stopped to say thank you. That probably doesn’t matter, though. I would do my job with integrity, excellence and service, with or without a thank you in Aisle 17. To do so is simply my duty as an American Airman serving in uniform in the Air National Guard. It’s the standard we all keep.

But the thank you is rejuvenating, like a big bottle of SportzAid on Aisle 12. It’s a fuel booster in my tank from the Automotive Department. It will help propel me forward, and will help me to do it with good cheer.

Ma’am, wherever you are right now, you are quite welcome. And in turn, to you and to all American citizens, co-workers and community members who loyally and unflinchingly support our nation’s Citizen Airmen and Soldiers serving in uniform at home and abroad:

“Thank you.”

THE END
Copyright 2014

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Deep Thoughts From the Shallow End of the Pool features essays from PR, business, and life — which means they might be as random as any of the rest of the content on this site!

Lessons for the Workplace Learned From Summer Camp

Gearing up for Summer Camp 2014 in a few weeks. Wondering what new lessons I’ll pick up this year? 

Each of us has a number of roles – and titles that go with them – beyond the one listed for us in the global address book / outside our offices / in our signature blocks. One of my alter egos is that of the Scouter, a term which means that I am an active and enthusiastically involved leader to Cub Scouts and to Boy Scouts.

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I get to be a Scouter one or two evenings per week and on at least one weekend per month. Additionally, each year, I’m also a Scouter at summer camp. During these activities, I feel a keen sense of honor as I invest in the lives of more than 100 boys – really, they are men-in-the-making – including my two sons, 13 and 10.

Reflecting on our most recent camping excursion, I certainly remember the heat of the 108-degree days and the ever-present stink of the bug repellent. I also recall the lessons that I gleaned from observing our boys growing up a little bit, right before our eyes. There are three in particular worth sharing, as they are just as applicable in our offices as they are in the woods:

1) Rely on the patrol method. The patrol method is designed such that the Boy Scout Troop is adult-guided but boy-led. Each Troop has a Senior Patrol Leader, along with a small number of subordinate Patrol Leaders who have a discrete span of control within the camp. If adults are running things, then they are working too hard; worse yet, the boys are not able to get from the experience what they need to get from it to develop into tomorrow’s leaders.

Organizations that operate well employ a similar model; in the military, it’s referred to as “centralized command, decentralized execution.” In an organization like mine, it means that I receive my mission, vision and top-level direction from my senior leadership, but I am empowered at a lower functional (or geographic) leadership level to carry out the mission day-to-day. Assuming that I and the people that I work with are well trained and qualified in our roles – and in most organizations, we are – then the organization runs extremely efficiently and effectively. Maximizing the patrol method model at all levels of your organization will enhance performance, morale and staff development.

2) Be Prepared. Abiding by these two words – the Boy Scouts Motto – is like having a Swiss Army Knife in your pocket. It’s helpful to anticipate what you might need in advance, and then do what you can to prepare for that – be it via having the necessary information, coordination, resources, tools or training for the task.

A Scout won’t hit set out on a hike without a buddy, a plan, a trail map, appropriate clothing, light nourishments and a first-aid kit. Don’t enter a business situation – be it a client meeting, a presentation, a conversation with your boss or any other daily work responsibility – without being similarly prepared.

3) Follow your Compass. By this I don’t mean a literal compass – for the most part, today’s Scouts navigate by GPS anyway. But rather, ensure your daily practices align with your values.

Every quality organization has a set of waypoints that highlight the values that show its members the way through all situations. Similarly, any military Veteran that you encounter will surely remember – and will still follow – the credo and values of his or her service (Air Force Core Values: “Integrity First, Service Before Self and Excellence in All We Do”).

The Scouts have a number of guideposts, including the Boy Scouts Motto, but also the Cub Scouts motto (“Do Your Best,”) and the Boy Scouts Slogan (“Do a Good Turn Daily”). In addition to those noted above, the Boy Scouts also have twelve points, called the Scout Law, which exist to guide boys through their Scouting careers and beyond:

A Scout is
• Trustworthy
• Loyal
• Helpful
• Friendly
• Courteous
• Kind
• Obedient
• Cheerful
• Thrifty
• Brave
• Clean and
• Reverent

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Regardless the source, be they from Scouts, the military, your own organization or from one’s faith – the concept of values – a compass to show the way – is not too deep a concept for young boys to learn and to follow. And just as they are for young Scouts, they are timeless to provide a waypoint throughout one’s career, be it in Scouting or in the broader world of work.

What other lessons for the workplace can be gleaned from the Scouting experience? In what way would your organization improve if the principles and values of the Cub Scouts / Boy Scouts were at work, well, at work?

THE END
Copyright 2012

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Deep Thoughts From the Shallow End of the Pool features essays from PR, business, and life — which means they might be as random as any of the rest of the content on this site!