Category Archives: caregiving

Teaching and learning

The kids in the INCubator program at our local high school.

A number of weeks ago while speaking with a friend who runs the INCubator program for high school students in which I’ve served as a Mentor and Presenter the last five years, we talked about how schools are adapting during the ongoing pandemic.

“A lot of people are out,” he told me. “We need subs.”

Getting certified

I dug into the requirements to become a substitute teacher and learned that people without a teaching degree can register to become a short-term substitute. That means teaching according to the lessons plans provided by the full-time teacher.

It took several days to fill out and submit the paperwork, gather transcripts from college and high school and file it through the Illinois website. Then I needed to register through the county website and get fingerprinted. Finally it was time to fill out the district paperwork.

Much of that signup could be done online. But wanting to put a face with a name and forms, I stopped at district offices to meet briefly with human resource directors. It is always good to become a known quantity.

I was impressed with the relative efficiency of all that registration. The districts I’m serving also have a great way to sign up for substitution assignments.

Middle school subbing

My first days of teaching were in middle school, running physical education classes all day, managing a language arts class and becoming a “floater” as teachers were getting vaccinated and needed someone to oversee class time and assignments.

Conducting a live art instruction at the Candlelight Dinner Playhouse for an audience of 900 children

I’ve spent many hours in classrooms and teaching in other ways over the years. My late wife was a special education teacher for ten years and a preschool teacher for twenty. She asked me to teach her class now and then. My mother was an elementary school teacher for twenty years. I visited her classroom many times to talk about birds, art or other subjects. I’ve also been a guest speaker for the “art people” trained by the Art Institute of Chicago to share art with student at all grades. Some might say teaching is in my blood. Perhaps it should have been my profession. But it’s never too late to start…

Learning abilities

My next round of assignments were in an elementary school two miles from our house. At the front desk, a fellow substitute and I met with a teacher and administrator to determine who would take the music or ILP classes that day. ILP stands for Individualized Learning Plans, a term describing students with specific needs. My mother often tutored children in our home that needed individualized learning. She’d tell me, “These are your classmates, and you can go out and play after their lessons, but you need to let them learn while they’re here.” She also told me to keep their tutoring a private matter. “They learn differently than other kids,” she explained.

To some degree, I was one of those kids too. Only late in life did I ascertain that there is a certain amount of attention-deficit disorder at work in my brain. Looking back at my education years, I now recognize patterns of difficulty, obstinance, and outright frustration or failure when it came to certain learning circumstances. I’ve had to work a bit harder than others on certain kinds of tasks, and build discipline and good habits into my routines. I take pride in that now.

I think it can be accurately stated that every human being on earth has some kind of learning disability if a fine enough focus is placed upon it. Some excel at math and stink at English. Others love the social sciences and history while some find it excruciatingly boring.

Individualized Learning Plans

I chose to work with the ILP children earlier this week even though teaching the music class that day seemed like it would have been fun. I’ve played in bands and can sing fairly well, but I knew that past experience in classrooms with special education children would help me help them.

The ILP teacher walked me through the day’s lessons, materials, and tools used by the students to practice and learn. Each child had their own ‘best practices’ to follow. They took pride in pulling out their respective memory cards, books, and speaking devices.

The first boy I worked with was a charming child with Down’s Syndrome. He applied himself with energy for the most part, with only occasional drifting or distraction. His favorite part of the lesson was going through a series of slides depicting people expressing different kinds of emotions. While he did not recognize all the words, some of them were pretty long, he loved working with me to imitate the facial expressions and body language of the kids in the photos. We had a particular laugh at my imitation of the person exhibiting a ‘dubious’ expression. I turned my head to the side and lifted my chin, looking at him out of the corner of my eyes. He came back to the slide several times to coax me into the dubious mode, and we’d laugh all over again.

Then it was time fo reading, and he read me a book about a cat named Puff who liked to hide.He pulled out another book about a Mama Bear gathering berries, nuts and fish for her family. We talked about why the characters liked to do what they were doing.

Teaching is about helping people make connections.

By then he’d earned his ten stars for progress and I moved his behavior code up to blue from green, a promotion! He’d been good for me. Then he could grab his Chromebook and spend time with Baby Einstein software. He plunked his fingers on the screen to make a pool of faux water send ripples all around. It looked like fun. And gratifying.

Speed it up

The next student on the morning’s schedule was a charming young girl who arrived at class upset about something that had happened on the way to school. She was comforted by the paraprofessional and following a quick hug and a reminder to wear her mask the proper way, she got her stuff put away. When it came time for me to learn with her, she informed me that I was dawdling with the word cards. “Too slow,” she frowned. We sped it up.

Later when I needed help getting another student logged into their Chromebook, she washed her hands first and jumped over to log him in. I thanked her, and she asked, “Are you going to be here tomorrow too?” She was missing her regular teacher, I knew. “Probably not,” I replied. “But I want to thank you for being such a good helper today.”

“I like to help,” she chirped, then hurried to her cubby to prepare for recess and lunch.

Non-verbal

Some of the students in class were non-verbal. We worked together on reading. I was quite impressed with their ability to key in words and letters and hear them read aloud by the device. One of the students keyed in the entire first half of the Dr. Suess book Green Eggs and Ham. You know the one: Sam I am. When he finished reading, I hummed a little tune, and he hummed back. I’d noticed that he was singing to himself before class. Why not speak the same language?

Autism

The fifth child was the most challenging for me to teach. Instead I tried to learn from her. Her autism gives her a keen energy and a need to jump up now and then. She engaged in some massively dreamy stares at times. I thought about her parents and how much they must want their child to learn on her own terms.

We read two books together and my instructions were to ask her to speak clearly, well above a whisper. She did fine with that, but ultimately felt like she’d had enough and pulled out a sheet of paper to repeatedly “knuckle” a symbol in the middle of the sheet. She wanted something specific to happen, but I could not tell what it was. One cannot learn everything a student needs or wants in one session. We do our best, and move along.

Toward the end of our fifteen minute session, she broke free from all of that and leaned toward me to study my face or simply break the tension of having someone new in her presence. It felt to me like she had three strong signals going through her brain, competing for space. I don’t know if that’s an accurate description of how autism works, but I could relate to that, and perhaps that’s what counts.

The teachers who work with these students have the knowledge, compassion, and commitment to help children learn despite their supposed limitations. That’s all that any of us can do. Keep on learning. That’s the Right Kind of Pride.

Black History month

I closed out the day teaching a class of first graders about Ruby Bridges, the American civil rights activist whose brave story of being the first student to desegregate a Southern school was read aloud in a video we watched together. I paused the video to ask the children how they would feel in Ruby’s place. We also looked at a painting of Ruby walking to school in the company of federal agents. That tomato smashed against the wall held so much symbolism.

That story has taken on greater meaning in the last year with civil unrest unfolding around the rights of Black Americans that have been threatened or killed by police, chased down by vigilantes or otherwise abused by institutional racism in the United States of America.

I looked around at the kids in that class. They were the same age as Ruby Bridges, six years old, when she dared to learn in the face of massive bigotry that unfortunately, has not dissipated in the country where she continues her work in civil rights. Some lessons take so long to learn, while some people just refuse to learn them.

That’s not what I saw in the eyes of the children in class that day. It is a gift to be present for that.

A deserving burst of grief

While driving up a local road on some necessary errand last week, I turned up the radio and found the song “Somewhere Only We Know” by the band Keane playing.

I listened with trepidation because that song has deep significance for me. The album on which it appeared was released during an intense period of caregiving for my late wife Linda.

The lyrics are some of the most beautiful I’ve ever heard.

I recall so strongly one of the moments I heard this song during that period of my life. I’d spent three hard days and nights in the hospital after one of my wife’s many surgeries. She was beat up from the procedure and facing chemotherapy. Due to my work obligations, my mother-in-law spent the first night with her. When I arrived to take over, she warned me that the chair provided for hospital guests was far from comfortable. In recline position it bent backwards, forcing anyone trying to rest in the device to sleep like a dying dolphin.

On top of that, the nurses rolled in and out checking on her every hour. The machines beeped and the pumps pulsed. Doctors slipped in without warning. She’d greet them with a look of hope in her eyes that broke my heart. Was the cancer gone? Again?

Oh simple thing, where have you gone?
I’m getting old and I need something to rely on
So tell me when you’re gonna let me in
I’m getting tired and I need somewhere to begin

At that point my wife and I had been married for nearly twenty years. All she wanted was to be free of the disease, to work in her garden and teach her precious preschoolers. She wanted to love her children without fear of leaving them. She wanted to live.

I came across a fallen tree
I felt the branches of it looking at me
Is this the place we used to love?
Is this the place that I’ve been dreaming of?

After three days I needed to get back home and check on things around the house. She would spend two more days in the hospital watched by friends who volunteered to stay with her. I climbed into our car, leaving behind a wife still trying to fart to prove that her digestive tract was back in working order. It’s true: the things that stink about living are the things that keep us alive.

I drove back home through the black night on wet streets thinking “Why does she have to go through this? Is it worth it?”

And if you have a minute, why don’t we go
Talk about it somewhere only we know?
This could be the end of everything
So why don’t we go somewhere only we know?

I recall falling into a rage of sobbing tears that night. Felt guilt over being free of the hospital and driving back home while she lay there hooked up to drips of painkiller and antibiotics and fluids. Her blue eyes still twinkled through the haze of hospital dreams.

We were years into cancer survivorship by that point.

My strategy to cope with caregiving duties for my wife and my father, a stroke victim, was to work through a series of lyrical albums by Andrew Bird and Indie group CDs that my daughter compiled from her catalog.

Then I dug deep into the Beck catalog, so deep I thought I’d never come out. Then came Modest Mouse, Regina Spector, the quirkier the better. On and on the music played as I clung to jobs trying to take care of everything, protect our insurance and keep the money coming in. Always the money. The goddamned money.

On that night driving home with Somewhere Only We Know playing , I felt a cogent realization that her back-and-forth dance with cancer could not go on forever. The wild balance between hope and terminal completeness is one that we all face. Cancer just compresses it.

That’s why I let myself cry so hard in the car this week. This strange, hard year has affected us all in strange, hard ways. For a moment, I needed to be weak and vulnerable, to let it all out, and admit that life has been hard in some ways. This was a deserving burst of grief.

It is also important to say that I have found love again with a woman I appreciate and respect. We are also meant to be together. But there is great value in remembering all those you love, wherever they are. It doesn’t last forever, you know, this thing we call life.

Perhaps you’ll be moved to sing along when a song like this one comes along. Allow yourself a bit of deserving burst of grief in these times.

Oh, this could be the end of everything
So why don’t we go somewhere only we know?
Somewhere only we know
Somewhere only we know

wearing a mask is the right kind of pride

One of our Christmas gifts this year was a set of colorful masks. I also received a set of three free from a retailer where I bought gifts. All in the spirit of Christmas.

As Year 2020 grinds to a close, we can agree that we everyone has shared in the difficulty of a manic year. The pandemic disrupted all aspects of life and normalcy, and people are grieving loss and pain at many levels. The active symbol of that grief is the face masks we’re wearing to keep the pandemic from getting even worse than it already is.

Some people resist wearing face masks, claiming it is an impingement on their freedom. The reality is that wearing masks in public is an act of respect for the health of others and for ourselves.

The irony is that so many people seem determined to deny that reality.

Spreading disease––knowingly or unknowingly––is the least acceptable option in a civilized society. Wearing a mask is not a restriction of freedom, it promotes it. If more (even all) people wear masks in public we’ll all have greater freedom as long as this pandemic lasts.

All societies depend on etiquette to protect lives and get along in a civilized manner. The basic rule of driving on the Right side of the road in the United States is an excellent example of people agreeing that social order depends on predictable behavior to govern safety and protect lives. In other parts of the world, people drive on the Left side of the road.

Being required to drive on the Right or Left side of the road isn’t an impingement upon freedom. It is a guide designed to provide greater freedom for all. The same holds true with wearing masks during a pandemic. These are not political demands. They are practical measures designed to keep people safe.

The threat of getting sick and dying during this pandemic is real. More than 330,000 Americans have died from infection. The numbers continue to climb, and America’s infection and death rates are devastatingly real, as bad as anywhere on earth. But why?

It’s simple, and symbolic: some people still find the request to wear a mask in public a great affront.

A recent Huffpost story shared the heartbreaking tale of a man battling Covid-19 in the hospital. Days before he was intubated, he wrote his wife a series of messages, including this loving recognition of his mortality:

“If I don’t make it I want you to know that I lived a happy…life with you and would never have traded it for all the riches in the world.”

He also gave his wife a blessing to live a happy life and find love again if he passed away. That is the right kind of pride: Gratitude and selflessness are the two greatest signs of character in this world.

Yet some people don’t get that. Some people thumb their noses at the idea they have to listen to anybody when it comes to wearing masks. They appear determined to hold out due to some selfish sense of tribal pride. “Don’t tread on me?”

The irony in that the same people determined to avoid wearing masks seems so eager to obey the cynical directives uttered by politicians, business moguls and religious public figures eager to exploit the masses for political, financial and personal purposes.

That’s because the wrong kind of pride vanquishes conscience and steers people away from the truth in favor of arrogant, selfish motives.

Bathed in the light of vainglorious cause, the people that claim to hate wearing masks seeks out alternate views of reality to replace those they hope to avoid. There is a massive psychological game being played in American culture in which people that respect others enough to protect them from disease by wearing masks in public are being portrayed as ignorant and sheeplike. That is gaslighting.

The wrong kind of pride encourages people to embrace resentment, greed, and fear over genuine conscience and consideration.

Even religious channels are being used to communicate this alternate view of reality. This brand of corruption is toxic and painful to witness. It encourages people to care only about themselves, or their tribe. That is the exact opposite message of the world’s major religions, all of whom seem to embrace some form of the Golden Rule: Treat others as you would have others treat you.

While most of us mask up and recognize that this pandemic can end if people use common sense and gain enough perspective to know that the suffering will someday end, those who refuse to do so literally separate themselves from the norms of humanity and in the process, bring more suffering upon themselves and others.

That man dying from Covid who wrote loving last words to his wife knew better than everyone the value of life, and love. That is the message more people need to hear; that life is precious, and the right kind of pride is having the humility and respect to care about others.

I started the day teaching about storytelling

This morning I taught a session for the INCubator program at a local high school. In the past I’ve served as mentor to groups working together to create a product, service or solution.

Today’s session was on storytelling, a major component of marketing. to explore the subject of what makes a good story, we discussed some of their favorite television show. One young man shared his interest in a show about corrupt superheroes owned by corporation. We talked about how the contradictory nature of the show’s subject was an immediate attraction.

We talked as well about the branding success of the Nike slogan “Just Do It.” We discussed the fact that the phrase has been used for a couple decades and somehow still feels fresh. “How does that work?” I challenged the students.

The Nike approach works––we decided––because it allows the company to show examples of Just Do It while also issuing a Call To Action. That way everyone gets to be part of the story.

Culling a brand message down to such a simple, useful form of marketing takes a bit of inspired thinking. It’s easy to get caught up in all the associated stories and lose sight of what you want customers to do: Identify with your brand.

That sense of ownership is vital. We talked about how customer stories actually become the product when they offer strong enough testimony to its value. I also shared a hint that could help them find that brand messaging the easiest way possible. Ask questions, then listen.

Listening to people is the most powerful tool to build ownership on the whole earth. It is true when you’re a brand marketer. But it’s also true when you’re a caregiver, a team leader or any number of other positions of responsibility in this world. Your brand is composed of the character it expresses. Its authenticity depends on how well people trust what is being said. That’s why influencers have such powerful voices in today’s marketplace. They are the storytellers that people trust for word of mouth advice.

With all this information swirling around, I shared one last image to help the students understand the process of revealing the main story of their product, service or solution. I showed them a fossil (at top) that I’d collected years ago. It has the back of some segmented creature protruding from a sedimentary rock. “Your job,” I told the students. “Is clearing away the material around the creature inside the rock. That’s what you want to show them.”

Every fossil is like a new product emerging from the rock of creativity. It is a revelation when the whole thing is revealed. The reward is sharing that discovery with other people in a way that invites them to participate in the story going forward. That’s what Steve Jobs did with Apple… from the personal computer through to the iPod to the iPhone. Those devices were locked in the rock of perception. It was his genius to see them lurking there and dig them out.

Jobs once stated: “Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it, they just saw something. It seemed obvious to them after a while. That’s because they were able to connect experiences they’ve had and synthesize new things.”

Having the will to persist in that exploration and discovery is the right kind of pride.

Take pride in that aging face

Originally published on my blog WeRunandRide.com

Posted on November 18, 2020 by Christopher Cudworth

Let’s talk about aging faces. I have no real way of knowing the age of the people who read this blog. There are about 1500 subscribers, and there are some who don’t subscribe but read these words through social media and other portals. But no matter what age you are, we all deal with the aging on our faces.

When you’re in your tweens and teens, those facial changes have profound impact on your self image. Getting zits and growing facial hair is a part of growing up. Dealing with tweezed eyebrows and the right makeup mix, or watching a callow jaw shift to manhood are all part of the process. Hair length also affects how facial changes are seen.

So the process of dealing with our aging faces starts early in life. Add in the impact of getting braces on your teeth, or in my case having a baseball accident smash a front tooth, and the changes never cease.

Those of us that compete in athletics put our faces through an entirely different kind of strain. The grimace lines wrought by the pain of endurance sports begins the process of forced aging that continues throughout our lives.

The effort shows in our faces.

So perhaps it’s time for all of us to take a healthier form of pride in that aging face we see in the mirror each day. That face of yours has so much to tell about all what you’ve gone through. There is laughter, joy and excitement. There is sorrow, fear and depression. All in the same face. It’s a wonder we don’t wear them out with all these emotions.

In recent years, I’ve worried that the look of my face has begun to limit opportunities in life. The ugly specter or ageism creeps up on you secretly. People aren’t going to tell you to your face that they consider you “too old” to do a job or fit into a workplace culture, but it happens. By law, age discriminate is illegal. Yet we all know that it still happens.

Wattled and tired

I was sickened one day while reading an article that popped up in my social media feed. A younger writer crowed that he wants nothing to do with people whose faces are “wattled.” That’s a disqualifying factor in his mind. His thinking seemed to be centered around the idea that if someone looks old, they must be unable to think clearly or creatively.

That would be news to millions of people throughout history whose contributions to this world continued or even began in their later years. I think in particular about the life of R. Buckminster Fuller, one of the most creative yet practical individuals to ever live. One of my favorite quotes by Mr. Fuller evolved from an experience of great sorrow and near defeat in his life. He’d experienced a great personal tragedy and was depressed beyond imagination. He indulged in a period of intensive personal isolation to figure out what to do next and emerged with a vision of new purpose, “You do not belong to you. You belong to the universe.

He used that perspective to face the world in a new way. Among his many inventions were the geodesic dome, a mathematical breakthrough in architecture. His influence and thinking continue to expand to this day. No one cared that he looked young or old. What matters is how he thought. We all need to grab that truth and never let it go.

We should also never forget that our faces are attached to our bodies. Today I read an interesting article in the Chicago Tribune about the fact that people who do something more than walking in their exercise routines wind up having better efficiency and posture as they age. While walking is beneficial, it doesn’t stress the body in the same way that cycling, running or swimming do. It’s the classic training principle that applies to life itself: you have to push past your boundaries to gain the most benefit.

That seems to be the principle at work when we consider the condition of our faces as we age. If you’re engaged and passionate and pushing yourself to continue learning and trying new things, it shows in your expression and even the condition of your face.

Facing life

Until a few years ago, I’d never heard the term ‘resting bitch face’ applied to the baseline expression of someone who looks dour or unhappy all the time. Is that term as bad as dissing someone through ageism? It certainly seems cruel. Yet there is a reality at work in how we project our emotions through our visage. I’m perpetually aware of the value of smiling during conversations with people.

That’s especially true in business situations. I once had a boss tell me, “I like you a lot more when you’re smiling.” He was right. I wasn’t a happy person during that period. My late wife had just experienced a recurrence of cancer and had a nervous breakdown as a result. I was scared, felt alone, and had little tolerance for the daily vicissitudes of business, which seemed so insignificant compared to what was going on at home.

Those internal conflicts showed in my face. There was little I could do about it at the time. Just put on the best face I could, and get through it.

Facial control

So we perhaps don’t always have control of what our faces say about us. There’s always the possibility that a person with a ‘resting bitch face’ has gone through so much in life their face reflects that path. But then again, some people develop attitudes of victimhood and duress that dominate their existence. There is such a thing as becoming so bitter about life that it shows in everything you do.

I’ve got enough life experience now to look back and understand the causes of the challenges I’ve faced in life, and the reasons for the mistakes I’ve made. I’ve come to realize that a native anxiety affected many of my decisions. So did a likely associative form of ADD, a lifelong challenge that often determined the manner in which I processed information, or did not. In summary, I’m proud of having dealt with these challenges and adapted to succeed in some ways along the way. It all comes with knowing yourself well enough to accept past mistakes and not let them rule the present.

I can look at my face in the mirror now and see all sorts of experiences etched there. I see miles of training and racing, and the self-belief emerges from all those tests. But they keep coming. A former coach once told me, upon hearing that my late wife was diagnosed with cancer back in 2005, “Your whole life has been a preparation for this.”

He was quite right. That coach later faced cancer himself. He passed away a few years ago. The thing I remember most of all about him is still his face. I don’t see him as young or old. There’s a spiritual aspect to that, I believe. Take pride in that aging face, no matter what age you are.

Tests of character

When I published a memoir titled The Right Kind of Pride in 2014, my goal was twofold: to write about the journey that my late wife and I shared through cancer survivorship, and to share some of the things we learned along the way.

Eight years of dealing with the physical and psychological effects of medical treatments, surgeries, chemotherapy and its side effects is enough to test the mettle of anyone. Toss in the emotional components of dealing with medical scheduling and recovery, insurance premiums and bills, financial changes and losses, and the whole thing gets overwhelming in a hurry.

During those years of dealing with cancer and remission, work and family challenges, I kept sensing that there was a message in it all.

That’s the other reason I wrote The Right Kind of Pride. I learned that taking care of business in the face of a crisis comes down to three critical components. These are:

Character: the mental and moral qualities distinctive to an individual.

Caregiving: the activity or profession of regularly looking after a child or a sick, elderly, or disabled person.

Community: a group of people living in the same place or having a particular characteristic in common.

To address how understanding these three factors helps one through a crisis, we’ll begin with the subject of character, and what that means to each individual.

Character is not a fixed trait

We often view “character” as a fixed quality in a person. But people respond to crisis in different ways. Some grow resolute, facing whatever comes their way with what seems like determination and courage. Others appear frightened or worried at the onset of bad news. There is no real predicting how someone will react to a crisis. Sometimes a seemingly strong person reacts with fear. At other times a seemingly timid person responds with great strength.

Character can even shift with age. Many character traits are subject to change over the years, especially as stress or life changes affect the emotional bottom line. Character can even radically shift within minutes if shocking new arrives. The death of a parent, a spouse or a friend. The birth of a child. All sorts of events, good and bad, affect how character is held or expressed in a given person.

That’s why it is important to understand the nature of “character,” and how to support it in yourself or the people around you.

Character tests

We might like to assume that character is the foundation that carries us through all kinds of tests. We speak of a person with “solid character” almost like they’re a piece of granite able to withstand all sorts of conditions. Yet if you’re in a position of helping another person get through a test of some sort, it is vital not to assume how they’re feeling, or even trust what they’re telling you at times. Most people don’t like to show or share their fears.

That is why it is important to be patient when it comes to placing expectations on others during times of crisis. Some want to avoid attention or engage in denial, wishing it would all go away. Others want to tell the world what’s going on in their lives, as if that alone could cure the problem. Most of us fall somewhere in between or run from one end of the spectrum to another.

Out of character

If someone responds in a way that seems “out of character” for them, it is clear they are trying to process whatever news or stress they are experiencing. Even good news can be a source of stress to a cancer or heart patient used to hearing nothing but frightening words about their condition. It is hard to trust good news because we don’t like to let our guard down in case something bad is about to happen again.

That puts us into a state of mind where character, “the mental and moral qualities distinctive to an individual,” needs to be considered a tool for monitoring the emotional health of anyone facing a crisis. There really is no such thing as behaving “out of character” when we think about it. No one on this earth possesses a permanently rigid nature. Nor should we.

It is what it is

Obviously it’s desirable to stand strong and deal with necessary actions as they arrive. My late wife and I treated medical regimens with a brand of objectivity. We compartmentalized the cancer and its treatments by saying, “It is what it is.” In other words, let’s not fool ourselves or try to avoid medical advice that might be hard to hear, much less endure. But if you put that practical activity in its place, it is much easier to support the character or the person or person’s involved.

Being able to say “It is what it is” provides a clear focus on the most difficult aspect of life in the moment. That’s at least a degree of control, and knowing the truth and having a plan to follow takes pressure off the character of a person. Then the mental and emotional aspects can be addressed on their own terms.

Character on the line

The same holds true for many circumstances in life. A business or other venture has a “character” of its own. Applying these same principles; identifying the central challenge, categorizing the necessary response, and setting aside conflicting emotional, competitive or selfish aims to address problems is vital in facing life or business challenges. That is how to manage character as a rule.

Despite all our best efforts, there are often selfish aims at work behind the scenes of everyone involved in a crisis. Our primal instincts are to protect our own instincts. Fatigue and stress, fear and self-doubt all work to undermine our character when facing our own crisis or helping someone else face get through difficulties.

The important thing in understanding character is that it is the cumulative experience in a person’s life their character is built upon, including weak moments and strong. The key to supporting the character of an individual, a team or an organization is to identify common traits of belief, hope, determination and goals, then relate those back to the character of those involved.

Asking questions to gain answers

That means asking questions in order to gain answers about how people feel about their own character. These don’t need to be probing psychological ventures. A simple question such as “How are you feeling about this?” defines the person’s character in the moment. That’s what you need to know first. In what mental or emotional state are the people involved?

When I first found out that my wife had cancer all those years ago, a longtime friend and coach called me on the phone with a message of encouragement. “Your whole life is a preparation for this,” he told me.

That was his way of saying that I’d faced adversity before. Dealing with stress. Managing emotions. Setting near-term objectives. Reaching goals, however fluid they may be.

Every person on this planet has a foundation of their own from which to build and maintain character. Helping others do the same in times of crisis is one of the highest levels of compassionate behavior in the human sphere.

QUESTIONS TO ASK YOURSELF ABOUT CHARACTER.

  1. What are some of the most formative events in my life?
  2. When were some of the times I was required to respond to crisis?
  3. What do I consider some of my most important character traits?
  4. How do I measure ‘character’ in others?
  5. Why do I value character in myself and other people?

I’d be interested in hearing some of your responses to these questions and would like to post some (named anonymous, your choice) to this blog.

Send your answers to cudworthfix@gmail.com. Your answers if you choose will posted anonymously. We can all learn from each other if we share.

About dogs and cats and appreciation of kindness

Lucy the dog. She’s about 18 months old now.

We have a dog named Lucy adopted from a foster parent who got her from a non-profit called Safe Haven. That organization rescues abandoned dogs in states like Tennessee and brings them up to Illinois to find them homes.

Lucy is somewhat named after Lucy Charles, a triathlete that my wife Sue and I both admire. Her foster name was Bliss. We found that too hard to say.

She seems more like a Lucy anyway. Upon adoption, we received a breakdown of her breed background and it turned out to be 50% and a mix of border collie, boxer and beagle. She’s all that and more, as she’s willful and playful and silly all at once.

We’ve had her a year. It’s taken time, but she’s adapted to a nudging friendship with our cat named Bennie. He came to us from a vet friend who took him into the pet hospital after someone found him burned with a broken leg inside their car engine. He apparently climbed up there as a kitten to find warmth and got badly hurt.

Bennie the Cat. He’s five or six years old.

They called him Bernie (get the pun?) at the vet’s office but we changed it over to Bennie. He’s an orange and white charmer who escaped once and lived for ten days out in the neighborhood before Sue’s kids captured him down the block. He ate like a hog when fed that day and has never left the house since.

Lucy chases Bennie sometimes, but only in play, or when the cat sticks his nose into her food. Then Lucy charges to rid her bowl of cat cooties.

There are days when all this dog and cat caregiving get to me. I’d rather read the paper in peace some mornings than grab the leash, go out for a walk and wait for Lucy to pee or poop. Bennie, meanwhile, wakes us at 4:30 to be fed. I do the duty and go back to bed.

I was previously a dog dad to our family pet Chuck, the Schnoodle mix that my son saved from the streets of Chicago. That pupper is going on twelve years old now and lives with my daughter Emily.

But even these pups and kitties are not enough for me in this world. I ask permission to pet many a dog when I’m out and about. Sometimes the owners say, “They don’t usually like strangers. They don’t seem to mind you.”

That’s the biggest compliment one can get. To be something other than a threat in this world may be a small achievement in the scope of things. Yet if more people had the character to show kindness toward others we would all be better off for it.

Chuck the dog. He’s about twelve years old now.

The cats and dogs that need a home in this world are a testament to the difference between being kind and being a threat to others.

That is not to say that everyone should go out and adopt a dog or cat. But the number of abandoned animals left to fend for themselves, especially in certain states where the problem is rampant, is a clear indication that people are making raw and often selfish decisions about the value of life.

Then there are puppy mills where female dogs serve as breeding labs for commercially profitable pets. Some of those operations are run by people claiming to be almost holy in other aspects of their lives. It’s amazing what money ultimately does to the theology and ideology of so many people.

That harsh reality illustrates the dividing line between the selfish notions of what people expect from animals and what their grasp of humanity really is. I’ve heard many people say there is no gratitude like the loyalty of an animal who knows they were saved. I’ve seen that grace firsthand. Even on my most selfish days––and we all have a few––the only reminder I need to be kinder and more attentive that day is to look in the eyes of these cats and dogs. They teach us to appreciate all that we’ve got in this world.

“I’ve BEEN A WAITRESS SINCE THIRTEEN…”

One afternoon while heading out of the college cafeteria during the last semester of college, a classmate clearing plates and cups from the tables in the Union lost control with her hands and it all came crashing to the floor. That moment inspired a poem that I wrote based on how she responded.

WAITRESS SINCE THIRTEEN

Although the saucer fit the dish, she turned too quickly, threw the cup,

and watched in vain as coffee stained her shoes and left her morning drained,

“You’d never know,” she said to me, “I’ve been a waitress since thirteen.”

Last night I was writing at a local eatery and overheard the head waitress talking about her previous places of employment. Both are well-known restaurants. They’re not cheap places to dine. She talked about the fact that some of the clientele was snooty, and that the establishments charged way too much for what they provided. Now she’s happier working in the open bar and restaurant atmosphere where customers are more down to earth. She works the room with candor and kindness. An expert waitress in her element is a sight to behold.

Hands-on, hands off

Two weeks ago in Florida, we celebrated a landmark birthday with a relative at their golf club. Our round was delayed by rain and there was a wedding going on upstairs where the main bar and grill are located. So we moved to the downstairs bar and ordered food and drinks. Things were getting merry among the members that had already played that morning. Several were showing the effects of drinking.

The waitress working the room is a veteran of such situations. I watched her deftly fend off the handsy attentions of a member well into his liquor. She kept a smile on her face the whole time while using her arms like fencing swords to redirect his advances. In those situations a waitress is something far more than a person who serves food and drinks. She was at once counselor and therapist well-aware that there would be a tomorrow even if her customer refused to recognize it in the moment.

Frontline dedication

During this pandemic mess, we’ve all learned who the real frontline workers are. They are people at the point of contact for all sorts of human interactions. This morning the Chicago Tribune reported that here in Illinois, customers will be required to keep their masks on while ordering food. That’s a small move to protect the health of those who wait tables. Surely some people will take offense to that requirement as they have toward the concept of wearing masks at all. But they would be selfish and wrong to do so. Sadly, some will refuse to comply.

That further places our wait staff in positions where they are forced to govern all sorts of human behavior. Here in America, waiting tables is typically viewed as some sort of servitude. Not so in other parts of the world, where being a waiter or waitress, or however you care to describe it, is considered noble work. It takes real character to be a good wait staffer, whatever the circumstance. It is a form of caregiving in real time. Our sense of community in this world comes from such dedication. Wait staff are the frontlines of civility.

In-flight service

The same goes for the people working these days as flight attendants. That profession has changed drastically over the years. Where full meals used to be served on many flights, these days it is more common to receive a bag of salty snacks and a glass of ice water.

The old standards about appearance that once applied to flight attendants are now gone. Travelers also don’t fly in formal wear they way they once did. Airplanes are now packed wall-to-wall with people to maximize profits for every flight. That strategy has backfired in the age of the pandemic, and the middle seats now sit empty.

The entire industry is a bit more low-brow and some regret that loss of glamour. Flying moved from an experience to be enjoyed to a gut-level mode of transportation. Airplanes are no longer a version of a flying restaurant for shorter flights. The in-flight movies can be nice, and Wi-Fi is appreciated. But these are more about sharing isolation than engaging in the communal experience of air travel with flight attendants as hosts.

Noble work

It is still noble work taking care of others, despite what the prideful and selfish among us care to think about it. In a world where so many people behave grotesquely in public while looking down on others for their manner of earning a living, it is the right kind of pride to look for the humanity in all those doing their jobs. Because unless we all do that, the world is doomed to its caste-like appetite for tribalism, wrought with greed, dismissiveness and abuse.

So to make the point about treating others right in public, we’ll leave with this video from the Monty Python movie The Meaning of Life. The first time we watched this in the theater my brothers and I almost heaved up our popcorn while nearly dying from laughter. Absurdity is often the best illustrator of graphic abuse. There’s a little too much Mr. Creosote in the world right now. That’s not the right kind of pride.

people can generally get along great, if you let them

Our neighborhood is diverse in almost every manner of description. Race and ethnicity. Sexual orientation. Nationality. Occupation. The list goes on.

Everyone gets along great because we’ve all gotten to know each other. Even when turnover takes place, and people move on to other places, new residents are welcomed.

Humanity on the block

We’ve held block parties every other year or so. These are informal occasions. Yet one year, a woman on our block who is one of the leading Latina marketers in the country brought a Mexican Senator to visit with us in our ring of lawn chairs at the end of the street. The Senator was in town to speak at a Mexican Independence Day event, the first woman to ever do so. Yet she confided in us that it was nice to be able to relax in a less pressured-filled situation, and just talk.

Someone suggested that we go around the circle that day and share a personal insight about gratitude. It was fascinating to hear the diversity in scope of those telling their stories. Then one of the families in attendance shared that they were glad to be alive. Only a few months before they had been in a dangerous car accident resulting in profound personal and emotional injuries. None of us had heard about that.

We all have challenges

That testimony illustrates that while we can all know each other casually and as neighbors, many times there are events and issues that we don’t necessarily share on a day-to-day basis. Yet the challenges we don’t share are often the most compelling parts of our existence.

We all sat stunned upon hearing the seriousness of the accident. Then someone quietly said, “We’re so glad you’re okay.” Yet the physical therapy continued, and the emotional strain too.

These are the feelings that connect us as human beings. While some shared quiet joys or happy accomplishments, others mentioned gratitude for having a trusted companion, or children, or a job that supports their household.

I don’t recall what I actually said about gratitude. But one of the feelings I had during that session was gratefulness for being around such an interesting and obviously compassionate group of other human beings.

Ethnicities are only the beginning of humanity

That brings us to the socially fabricated aspect of our neighborhood. Our ethnicities. According to traditional categorizations, there are four black families, three Latino families, an Asian household, several white or Caucasian families, a home with two women in a relationship, some elderly retirees and, of course, several dogs and cats that live in our cul de sac.

One of those families embraces several generation within the household. The head of that household is a leading law enforcement officer and former police chief of a Chicago suburb. But there are many variegations within the family, and attending one of their family parties means being introduced to visiting sisters, cousins, matriarchs and more.

Nacho diplomacy

One of the pre-teens who lives up the block loves to stop and talk with me now and then on our sidewalk. He’s got a curious mind and loves to test me with questions and topics of many kinds. Likewise, I like to ask him what he thinks about while riding his bike around, which he does all the time. Then one day he asked me, “Do you like nachos?”

For some reason that caught me off guard. “Yes, I do.”

He looked off in the distance for a moment and replied, “I love nachos.” So that became a bit of a joke between us. I’d drive by when they were out playing basketball in the neighbor’s drive and yell out, “Do you like nachos?”

I conspired with one of the same-aged neighbor girls to organize a “Nacho Day” when all the kids on the block were hanging around. She counted up ten children from the age of five through thirteen, and I called a local fast-food Mexican takeout and pre-ordered enough nachos for the whole group, who were waiting in the yard when I returned. Within minutes the entire stash was gone. I teased my friend again. “Did you even get any nachos?” I asked.

“Ohhhh, yeaaahhh,” he laughed while smacking his hands together on a basketball. Then it was back to playing pickup for him and the other kids.

Just let it happen

The kids on our block are a living example that friendship and trust and conviviality are all possible when people just let it happen. The same goes for the adults of all these different backgrounds who live in our neighborhood. It’s only when people are pushed apart by selfish interests and traditional fears that people don’t naturally get along.

The desire for control that stems from fear is the source of all racism. Yet it also drives other forms of prejudice as well. These lead to bigotry and authoritarian discrimination. Nothing splits up a society––or a neighborhood––or a country––like allowing selfish fears to depict people as “the other.”

Because rather than forming relationships around gratitude, compassion and shared aspects of humanity, such bigotry invests only in the “I’ve got mine and you can’t have it” aspect of existence. When that happens for reasons of tribal priorities, and these range from religious beliefs to racial identity to political or economic platitudes––civil society is at risk. Those priorities only lead to hate and division while the “live and let live” philosophy of a neighborhood sharing in commonality and humanity succeeds far better. That’s the right kind of pride.

People can generally learn to get along great, if you let them

I believe that everyone gets along great, if you let them. That may seem naive to say, but it’s proven so often and in so many parts of the world that despite all the conflict it is still true that people can learn to get along together when they aren’t told that other people are a threat.

Those that refuse to get along on those terms need to be held accountable for their selfish ways, and made to understand why that isn’t acceptable. They will often resist and brand themselves the “victims” of reverse discrimination or claim to be “persecuted” for being exposed for their bigotry. Those habits go all the way to the top in this world.

The self-inflicted will even attempt to turn around and call the compassionate among us inhumane, as if caring for other people and standing up for the meek or disadvantaged in this world was an act of oppression.

That is the gaslighting defense of those possessed of anger and fear who are eager to avoid facing their own inhumanity and the flaws it so often reveals. They refuse to accept vulnerability as a legitimate condition of human existence. These are the people that love to claim higher ground and preach unity while playing people against each other to create opportunities for control.

We should not let this happen. Not in our neighborhoods. Nor in our nations. People can generally get along great, if we let them.

No masking these emotions

 

Mask picWhen my stepdaughter set to work a month ago making masks for those of us in the household and her friends, the sound of her sewing machine was a constant presence in the front room from the moment she got home until she fell exhausted into bed. This went on for a week or so. Then she distributed the masks and soon set about making even more.

At first, I took the mask she made for granted. The Stay-At-Home order here in Illinois made them almost superfluous. But as pressure grew to wear masks more in public, I took to wearing her creation to the grocery store, Walgreens and Pet Supplies Plus. I figured it was my social responsibility. Not that hard to do.

I kept the mask in the car so that I would not forget during these small travels. It didn’t bother me much to have it on my face for fifteen minutes at a time.

The real deal

But today I’m staged at a premier medical facility to tend to a friend going through a crucial procedure. It is a requirement to wear a mask during the whole time you’re in the facility.

Having a mask on your face for ten or fifteen minutes in a grocery store is easy. Wearing one for eight or so hours at a time is not so easy. While the mask I own is well-made, it is not some custom deal. It has elastic that binds the ears a bit after a few hours. So I discreetly pulled off the mask to take a break while eating lunch. No harm done. No one here complained. I kept far apart from everyone and ate in peace. Then went back to wearing the mask.

Sharp glances

I did get a sharp glance this morning when approaching the door to the hospital without my mask on yet. It was raining like crazy and I hadn’t pulled it out of my coat pocket after parking the car and running down the street. That’s when a tired-looking physician was headed out the door to get some air or wrap up his day. Who knows the work he’d just done? We can only imagine in these times.

There are likely Covid-19 patients here for sure. But there are also necessary heart surgeries going on and procedures being done to help patients back to health. That sharp glance at the door was justified. Get with the program, it said.

Operational kindness

While sitting in the waiting area, I overheard a surgeon talking to a man about his wife’s operation this morning. The woman surgeon described the process of implanting an artificial valve or a vein stint of some kind in his wife. He listened carefully to her patient words. She was eager to let him know that things had gone well.

Her operational kindness made me think about a sign I’d seen in the lobby while entering this facility. It said something about the fact that any kind of aggressive behavior would not be tolerated.

We must suppose that happens occasionally here at the hospital or the sign would not be posted. Some people have no patience while waiting for patients. I’ve seen that firsthand, including the day that my father was having quadruple bypass surgery. While sitting in the waiting room, I witnessed the moment a surgeon came out of the operation room to tell a woman that her husband had come through bypass operation well. But there had been challenges. From the description he gave her, things were quite serious with her husband’s heart condition. The surgeon spoke softly and slowly so that she would understand the gravity of her husband’s condition. Yet her first reaction after the surgeon finished talking was indignation: “What took you so long?” she demanded.

I was sitting next to my mother at the moment, who was a naturally nervous wreck waiting for my dad to come of surgery. Watching that exchange did not help her feel any better. How was dad doing in there?

Ingratitude redux

Fortunately, my father’s surgery went well. The next day while visiting my father in his hospital room during recovery, I saw the woman we’d seen the night before sitting with her husband in the same room with my father. The curtain was mostly drawn, but I overheard him ask her, “Can I have a cigarette soon?”

I thought to myself, “Seriously? The day after heart surgery all you can think about is smoking?” Then I glanced at my mother and she just shook her head.

Clearly, there are many people in this world who appreciate the work and skill of medical professionals such as that surgeon. Yet there are many who do not. Some are so self-absorbed they can only see a situation through the lens of their personal priorities and their selfish notion of what constitutes their “rights” as a patient or a caregiver.

And many of those people are distrusting or losing patience with medical professionals at the highest levels of our country. They’re turning to conspiracy theories and a wide array of alternative narratives to justify the worldview that people charged with protecting lives are somehow trying to ruin their own.

The painful gap

Perhaps this painful gap between gross indignation and gratitude is the product of a willing ignorance about what it takes to perform medicine––or science for that matter–– of any kind. Medicine is not an entirely predictable occupation in many ways. It’s admittedly an art, but dependent on science to inform the recommended treatments and actions. It is also true that because it depends on testing and evidence to arrive at those conclusions, science and medicine take time. And Americans, as a rule, hate waiting for anything.

We all know that diseases and medical conditions of many kinds can appear to go away only to come raging back later on. I’ve experienced that with several types of infections over the last eight years. One “bug” got into my left-hand middle finger from a seemingly innocent encounter with a sliver picked up while gardening. At first the oral medicine seemed to work. But then the infection flared up and the finger swelled. The doctors told me that if it “went osteo…”, meaning if it entered the bone, I’d likely lose the digit. That meant surgery followed by weeks of treatment with self-administered antibiotics. Then came many more weeks of hand therapy to reclaim relatively full use of my middle finger. And we all know how important that finger is to displaying public sentiment at times.

Cellulitis and a bad tooth

Three years later I contracted cellulitis from a cat that nipped me on the back of the hand while playing with her at home. That diagnosis led to antibiotics that wiped out my good gut bacteria and gave me a dangerous condition called c.diff in which you suffer intense gastrointestinal stress (I did) that if left untreated can actually kill you.

And finally, late last summer I had a tooth go bad from some less-than-optimal dental work performed by a mall-front practice when our insurance options were limited due to my late’s wife’s condition and a crappy plan offered by the small business where I worked. The infected tooth suddenly leaked through to my jaw and my entire face blew up with a sublingual infection. The oral surgeon sat me down in the chair and said, “If we don’t fix this you could die.”

I’m glad that happened last year. If it had happened this spring, I might indeed be dead.

Infectious diseases

So I know what it’s like to deal with infections. This Coronavirus pandemic that is causing Covid-19 illness is a serious infectious disease. It drowns the lungs and is deadly for those with pre-existing conditions.

That is why I’ve kept my mask on all day while waiting in the lounge of this amazing hospital. If I’m not the one at risk, I would never want to infect someone else. That hardly seems like it needs to be a point of pride for most of us. It’s the humane thing to do. But some people are so selfish or politically stubborn they take offense at even the smallest favors extended to the rest of humanity.

Granted, the backs of my ears may hurt a bit from wearing the mask all day. But let’s be pragmatic: no matter what you believe in these times, it’s still critical to do what you can to block the spread of Covid-19. That’s true even if you’re asymptomatic. I heard someone say that a friend in Florida was approached by a man who said hello and tried to shake their hand. When they declined, the man blurted, “Oh, you’re one of those Covid people.”

As if that were the real disease: protecting others by protecting yourself. Yet that’s what America has come to in many quarters. Such selfishness is a disease that infects the mind and quite possibly the soul as well. If anything, the Coronavirus epidemic has provided some clear delineation of how so many Americans think. And it’s nothing to be proud of.

Social distancing

img_4405

Here in the waiting room, we’re all sitting far apart but the hospital is not crowded. In fact, many hospitals across the country are actually hurting for business during this pandemic because Shelter-in-Place orders canceled many forms of medical procedures. Even dentists aren’t able to practice because they can’t find enough PPE to cover their practices. That’s ironic in my eyes because I’ve seen firsthand what neglected dental issues can do to your health. Gum inflammation is even associated with health problems such as heart disease and other internal problems.

We live in a world twisted apart by the threat of death from a disease that afflicts relatively few but conducts itself with consistently deadly properties. And we don’t yet know whether it can ever be prevented or cured with a vaccine. So we’re living with the unknown while people are literally forced to die alone.

Taking a deep breath

Our entire economy has been sort of breathing in with anticipation that the Stay-At-Home orders might relent sooner than later. That led to a nation holding its breath for weeks on end. The start of the exhale finally began with businesses shedding millions of employees that they can no longer afford to pay. That exhale blew away the employment prospects and income for millions, and millions more are likely hanging by a thread. People are afraid. Most of us, in fact. Are afraid.

That means there is anger brewing in the hinterlands. Predictably, the aggressive behavior of armed protesters in Michigan flared up again today. This time it caused the legislature to shut down in order to protect the safety of all those involved. One of the protesters displayed a naked brunette doll hanging from a noose. It was obviously a dog-whistle threat against the female governor. Such displays signify a willing intention of violence. Militias across the nation have been complaining for decades about supposed government overreach. Now they have a keen illustration that suits their narrative, so they marched into town with guns displayed as if they were itching for a fight. They are hoping to bully the nation into opening up the economy to satisfy their personal belief that there is no real threat from the virus. To quote an old McDonald’s campaign, they want to “have it their way.”

And unfortunately, if they are successful, that may be exactly what they get. Coronavirus, their way.

We’re all hopeful that America can find a middle ground as other countries have done. But that will require a cooperative spirit and intelligent consideration. And it can’t be politically or even economically motivated, as the original denial of the threat of the disease most certainly was. Real Americans really are hurting. There are proposals on the table to send everyday people $3T in aid to help the population through what threatens to be a major Depression if not commitment is made to the nation’s citizens rather than the money sponge of corporate welfare and stock buybacks that help no one.

Freedoms and pride

The complaints of those militia types are thus misguided. For they are largely griping about being told what to do by the government. As a tradition, Americans have long taken “pride” in their freedoms. The nation is founded on an escape from tyranny under English royalty. Over the centuries it has become popular to claim that America represents freedom worldwide. But that claim is ironic when the most we seem to have gained from that freedom is a terminal brand of impatience and ignoble immaturity that manifests itself as ingratitude toward the law of the land, and the land itself. That’s not freedom. That’s victimhood and selfishness disguised as patriotism. There’s nothing to be proud of there, because it makes us weak.

Disgustingly, some of that selfish ire is even being aimed at the heroic works of medical professionals and government officials trying to work together to protect lives. But let’s be straight about our situation: Fixing this pandemic stuff isn’t easy, and it isn’t a question of counting on miracles or religious faith to set things straight. And for all we know, God thinks America has been behaving like a pack of selfish brutes and it’s time to clean house. That’s what scripture warns us about. God does not abide by the selfishness of men. Or women. Or anyone for that matter.

The love of money

But scripture says that God is particularly disgusted when the covetous love of money drives all decisions. Yet economic fear is a special type of awful emotion to most Americans, and some just can’t mask it. We are a nation quite accustomed to having most of what w want, when we want it. Everything about our culture seems to scream “Gimme gimme” from guns to fast food to contestants on reality TV competing for someone else’s goddamned attention.

So I think back to that woman in the heart operation waiting room who stood before that exhausted heart surgeon demanding to know, “What took you so long?”

Our nation may represent liberty in some fashion, but portions of the American public are cut from the most ungrateful kind of cloth. Now those people want to protest putting a little cloth across their faces, and the President claims that it might make him look ridiculous. It goes to show you that no sacrifice is too small to use as fodder for selfish pride.

And that’s not the right kind of pride.