Friday, August 29, 2008

Growing Pains: America's Got Guts

Ok get ready. Here comes # 3,809,899th blog post on the DNC acceptance speech hitting blogosphere – you know I can’t resist!’

It’s ironic that I had written my past blog post about great speakers before I watched Obama’s speech. Quite obviously, he hits all the high notes when it comes to a talented speaker – and I don’t need to paraphrase once more what everyone else is saying about the impact of the speech (that was more than self-evident) nor the terrific tactics of his delivery. But I felt as I watched that I owed this man a blog post. After all: “Be the change you wish to see in the world.”

It was perfect how I watched it. On streaming video the morning after in a high rise above ground zero. Yep. I didn’t even make it home in time to catch the live speech last night. At first I felt like Id committed some kind of treason to the crown punishable by disenfranchisement, guillotined from my own Gen Y, excommunication from my Obama facebook group, or hell, even social media altogether. ME? Miss THE DNC acceptance speech? Or, in the words of a friend of mine when he found out I missed the live broadcast, am I really “slipping”?? But I did watch it. And it seemed appropriate that I’d watch this man deliver this speech of the future under my wide-open, dusky Colorado evening sky at our very own Invesco stadium, while I ate instant oatmeal over ground zero in glassy 7 World Trade and picked up a voicemail from my sister and cousin who had called me from the crowd at Invesco the night before to tell me I was there in spirit.

The man’s got guts. And that really means something. Because life takes guts. Things like families, economies, day jobs, politics, break ups, deficits, careers, international diplomacy and Biphenotypic Leukemia – they take balls. Big ones. But not necessarily ones of steel. Just (at the risk of being graphic) regular, everyday ones. Obama did rise to the occasion – he didn’t leave McCain with any excess praise or unneccessary competitive compliments. Nor did he leave him with too much mud on the old mug – slinging one or two small handfuls of mud is probably healthy for the pure scale of a pending presidential election. He showed that he’s got ‘em. And I like that. Be brave America. GOP republicans like to talk to Americans like theyr are babies. Don’t you wowy, lil guys, big president gonna take care of dem big bad terrorists for you. You just sit back and suckle, hushed sweetly by downloaded videos of Monica Lewinsky and rocked gently to sleep with inactive phrases like moral fiber. No, there was none of that. Which will probably thin the ranks a little by those who, lets face it, just want to have a presidential sugar daddy. Obama even talked about individual and mutual responsibility. This isn’t about me, he said, its about you. Hey guys, this isn’t just my problem. And its not yours either. It’s ours. Now there’s a moral dilemma for you. Government wobbling on the psychological divide between you and I, us and them. The ever-present political pickle – how do we make a thing work for US, both united and divided (depending on the issue). But I thought he dealt with it well – ok, then you do your job. So I can do mine. And We can do ours. Whatever that looks like. Isn’t that just the real kicker anyway. Think about the moral ambiguity of having cancer – well your own cells are turning on you, so we are giving you a medicine that is supposed to kill a part of you but not all and hopefully the part of you that lives is the part you want to keep. When I was sitting with my brother in the hospital while he finally slept through a tremouring fever that visibly shook his shoulders, I told him one thing in his sleep because it was the only thing I could think of to say. And it was similar, in my opinion, to what Obama could think of to say to America yesterday under the sky of my homestate. I said “Be Brave, Alec. Be brave.” What would you have said?

And Obama did say some other great things. It was a magnificent middle class message, aimed tactfully at the hard workers of this country. He said things I liked about education (and would like even more if I saw them in actualization), led an interesting counter-attack on outsourcing strategies, paid simple homage to the Divided We Fall bumper stickers and rhetorically marched steadfastly among middle Americans, never straying too far to the coasts in vernacular or subject matter. He didn’t pay a fleeting compliment to the Nouveau riche, not even a tip of the hat to the Main Line. It was a squared shouldered handshake with the middle managers and the working class. Risky, yes it was. Brave? It was that too. He would have wasted a lot of time trying to make oratory eye contact with all socio-economic segments of America. The results of this election should be more than interesting. Above all the other things Obama said (many of which were both powerful and moving), I liked that he told us to get our s*#t together. Buck up. Face the morning. Because there is no going back now. This is where the rubber hits the road. You can do it at top speed hanging halfway out the window of the passenger seat or you can buckle up and drive. Reverse doesn't work on the freeways of international politics or the 6 lanes of life.

It seems that at this point in my life, I am surrounded by the pain of growing up. As if my number has at last come up and its time to turn in my term paper and freakin graduate. Most adults (who are adults) remember this painful phase of their own, when IT happened and they had to take responsibility for their own lives and not the life they had been “given”. Moving far away, building a life on your own, paying bills, finding that that laws of logic also govern the laws of relationships (and that the Beatles were 100% wrong when they said “all you need is love” - what is that statistic, is it financial discord that causes 70% of all divorces?), watching your parents struggle or someone you love fight hand to hand combat with mortality. It’s like watching Cinderella die an unclimactic (and a very adult) death. Many adults remember the day Cinderella died for them. What’s different is just how she met her untimely end. Was it the wicked stepmother in the kitchen with the frying pan, the prince himself with the knife in the ballroom, or a freak middle aged liposuction accident in the conservatory? However it happens, her fate is inevitably sealed and the screenwriters have really got it out for her, one way or another. She’s like Kenny in South Park. She and her awesome (free) dress, perfect life and flawless relationship. But its not all bad. Once she is dead you can forget about being perfect. And start focusing on being brave. Thats where the real change, the real growth and the real good stuff happens. So maybe that is what Obama was asking of America last night. Maybe he’s asking us to just grow up at last.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Mathematics and Metaphors: What Makes People Listen?

My job here in New York is all about listening. And those of you who know me well know that listening, being the antithesis of talking, is not my strongest suite. As my work now requires that I do so more frequently, I’ve been doing a little more listening than usual. Now, as someone who works out life’s issues verbally instead of cognitively, I found to my surprise that listening occasionally leads to thinking. And thinking hard. This is all just to say, “so I’ve been thinking”…

about what makes people listen-worthy. They say in presentations, the audience will remember some miniscule percent of what is said – some 5 or 10 minutes of a 1 hour presentation. What material gets listened to and, better yet, what delivery can make plain material worth listening to?

I’ve met people in life who are great speakers. And most of those great speakers are also great people. Which makes sense simply because being a great person, thrown in with a little sing-songy syntax and a subject the speaker really cares about, is just plain compelling to other great people, as well as people who are good people looking to be great…you get the point. So I’ve been thinking through these people I’ve met – my parents both more than qualify, a political leader here and there (I like the way Obama has turned “Hope” into more of a verb than a noun), as well as this New York City spiritual leader I’ve been following named August Gold, my friend the master of mutual inspiration Simon Sinek, and a few others I’ve met along the road. Another one of these people came to our offices this morning and as I found myself yet again mysteriously, well, actually listening, I started asking myself why. I was sure it didn’t have everything to do with just how white his teeth were or the way he referenced his eight-year-old son in a conversation about business communication. No, there was surely something that all these people whom I enjoyed listening to had in common. A common trait, trick, knack or know-how that made me pay attention. I’ve decided the answer lies in two things:

1) Gravity. Good speakers have gravity. When they come into a room and sit in front of you they really sit there. And you can feel Newton’s second law at work on you. This seems frivolous and, well simple, and it is. But to get a commitment from a listener to listen the speaker must first commit to, literally and figuratively, sit with the listener. The good ones can sit with large groups of people even. When someone approaches you with a weight and a presence, being with only you for that whole half an hour instead of with their horrible mother-in-law, their cross-dressing Austrian burlesque dancer/ lover or their breakfast….People worth listening to can somehow sink to a sublevel below that frequency at which most people operate hovering above the ground, buzzing from apartment to office, lover to coworker, project to project, struggle to bliss, all just a foot’s length from the ground but never quite touching down.

Most of the successful people in the world learn quickly that life isn’t that condusive to growing “roots” – the minute you root yourself somewhere and say “this is forever”, your life goals change, your dog runs away, your career path takes a mean right turn into the trees, your supposed life partner leaves you for a (much prettier) Minnesotan, or someone steals your doormat. That’s life -you can sign in blood but there will always be a plasma-proof legal loophole. Great speakers, though, these really great speakers Im talking about who are usually at the same time really great teachers and leaders, they manage to grow roots everywhere for whatever temporary period of time. Every relationship, every conversation, every project, every moment, they grow roots. It takes lots of extra effort, risk, vulnerability, time, loss and an extraordinary amount of trust in strangers. But for those who can do this, those who can touch down to the ground and bring a gravity, a realness to their conversations, they are always listened to. Because others know that when those with gravity talk, they talk from the bottom up. Not just from themselves as a business executive, an entrepreneur, a mother or an underpaid divorcee from Kentucky, but as all these people, as themselves. You see how I try to explain it and can’t with any words other than one? Gravity. You’ve met these people too. You know what I mean.

2) Metaphors. Good speakers and teachers make all subjects into familiar, tangible metaphors. This includes things like unusual and interesting phrases of speech (such as “kick him out of bed for eating crackers” or “5’2” soaking wet and hanging from a pole”) to break up boorish business babble. Every day metaphors that simplify and domesticate complex, intimidating subjects. Personal anecdotes that reminds the listener, you and I are just the same, just people trying to be successful at both life and business. This is where speakers break what I call the B2B barrier – a business to business suit and tie conversation turns into two very real (last time I checked) people who happen to be in business and are having a conversation. The web is conveniently mimicking this move – businesspeople are now connecting via facebook, high-brow executives are making themselves vulnerable to the masses with informal, stream-of-conciousness and (gasp!) open-for-commentary blogs, Gen Yers are pouring into the business world with new expectations around work-life balance and it all converges in one crashing, virtual reality online called web 2.0. However comfortable or uncomfortable this may make the aristocrats of an old-world school of business, its happening. So that even the most traditional executives might want to have a snazzy headshot and favorite movie quote ready for their next product release or webcast. Not sure if you got the memo – but if you’re the CEO of a company, part of your business’ brand is your brand. If not your blog then your management style, if not your own social community then your vision and your visible purpose for being in business at all. What you are all about defines what your business is - and its getting easier for the world at large to see both you and your company. If you don’t believe me ask Google.

And this is what makes good executives like my mom, great. Not only are they sharp, strategic, efficient, managerial and articulate, they are personable. You can relate to them. And they speak in a language you understand, they can storybook a business plan better than Hans Christian Anderson could cannonize socio-economic dynamics. How? Its all about the metaphors. Stories. A way of approaching things that harken back to our childhood days. Stories that carry real meaning for us, about life and love and death and families and money and sunday baseball games and all that riffraff. (What is life anyway if not a series of different stories, all of our stories, told and retold in all different forms?) Suddenly "Return on Investment" turns into "Would you rather spend eight years doing something you hate for the title that you want or spend eight years holding titles you hate doing all the things you love." Get it?

You’ll notice also that these metaphors are never boring – they touch on something that the producers of Gossip Girl have down pat –namely that if you are writing a speech and trying to think of a metaphor, if at all possible, choose one with the most amount of blood, sex and scandal. It has a better chance of making it into that 5 minutes of material that the audience retains.

Overall, I am in utter admiration of these people who have this skill. The business world, and (case and point) the world at large that so informs the business world, needs more of them. My dad always says “life is all about showing up.” This is true on so many different levels –showing up at all, showing up authentically, showing up for others when you are needed, etc etc. And so to all those who are aspiring great speakers, teachers, leaders...a brief public service message from a recent listening convert – if you want people to listen, you’ve first got to “show up”. And when you do, make sure you show up as yourself.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Putting the "Heal" in "Health": Life Lessons Learned in Whole Foods

I take vitamins now. Yep, I am now one of those people. Those vitmin takers, those, worker-outers, those I-Can't-Believe-Its-Not-Butter-ers. I am that 16th girl in line in my work-out clothes at a crowded Whole Foods in New York City, waiting to buy a salad, a tub of yogurt, all-natural cookies that taste a bit like the lipstick I ate out of my mom's makeup drawer when I was 5, and a multi-vitamin that costs more than all the rest of it added up, not to mention the last DVD I bought. But all that does not matter because as I get closer to the cashier, I am feeling oh so trendy and healthy. All I need now is a good self-tanner (real sun would scramble my DNA and comprimise my current temple of health)... I look around at all the other aspiring healthy people in line around me, eating salad instead of ribs, buying all natural deoderant instead of lady speed stick, flipping through gluten-free cookbooks, tapping their feet impatiently so they can return to their Grammercy apartments and pop in their favorite yoga DVD, and I can almost hear their collective thoughts ringing down the line "Less trans fat, more crunches, gym tonight, bar tomorrow, no you canNOT have that, chapstick with antioxidants, thank God they finally thought of that." I turn my multivitamin over in my hand and remember why I ended up here in the first place looking for a superwoman multi-vitamin.

“Hi” said my brother.
“Hi, how are you, how are you feeling? Chemo today? More tests? Are you walking much, whats up whats up?” bumbling idiot. Stuffing his head with questions wont help him forget that he has cancer, Kate…
“I’ve been better.”
“Oh. Right. Yep.”

A girl next to me is talking loudly to her friend while trying on a too small, cosmopolitan-red Theory dress in Bloomingdales. “Why does this make me look so fat? My shoulders are huge? What shoes should I wear, they have to be the right color” Her face looks so pained that the desire to to shake her and say “yes but do you have leukemia??” passes and I go back to simply recognizing that familiar feeling I see in her face as she surveys herself in the mirror. A girl in a pink dress passes behind me toward the BCBG section, dragging her tortured boyfriend behind her. The mimes of everyday trifles, troubles and insecurities pass by me in the form of all different colors, materials and lipstick colors. Bloomingdales. A watering hole for the unfulfilled. And here I am in my usual spot among all the usual suspects under all the magnifying mirrors desparately inspecting my external imperfections in order to neglect the internal ones, buzzing from dress to dress...while my family watches the hospital parking lot empty car by car as they wait for my brother's bloodcounts drop into neutropenia (which is supposed to be a good sign).

“So the bad news is this second chemo treatment isn’t working they way it needs to. They are starting me on a new regimen.”

Heart hitting the floor and I am pounding on God’s (whoever that is) door and screaming profanities before slipping back to earth and sliding down the wall of Bloomingdales, taking a $500 dollar silk dress with me. I consider tearing it to pieces with my teeth and tying it around my forehead while the sky falls in sharp little pieces around me. Grief is 100 times sharper when you're not the one whose loosing something. You're just here to watch. Nothing. Makes. Any damn sense.

“The good news is – you are a bone marrow donor. A 10 for 10 genetic match.”

Merry Christmas, Kate. You’ve been a very good girl. Well, most of the time anyway. I know you asked for a Barbie mansion. Then a pair of rollerskates. Then a red iPod. I know you really wanted that red iPod. But this year, I thought you might like the chance to save your brother’s life. We don’t give many people this kind of gift here at the North Pole, as you can imagine. But I guess you earned it. Well, he did anyway.

They say the scar over his heart where they pulled a blood clot the size of a baseball out of his stretched atrium in a record 17 minutes (the biggest one they’d ever seen) is healing nicely. He hasn’t lost his hair yet, despite the battery of chemo drugs charging over his immune system, scything through his cells like pirates through a victim crew (except these are supposed to be the good guys). Its hard, they say, to look at him, at his current life sealed inside a hospital room without white blood cells, locked in an epic battle for but against his own body, without, well, crying. Or hating God. Or...something. He doesn’t wimper, my brother. He never really did that, not even when we were young. His is an ever-so adult struggle with an oh-so-adult life challenge. But oh do I want to whimper for him. Throw a fit against the unfairness of life and beat my fists on the table of whatever celestial monarch pointed to him and said "You. Leukemia. One year. Take him away." Those fits turn out to be for my benefit only. He just doesn't need my kicking and crying. No hero ever needs to be cried over. Only your sincere belief in their victory. This I can also give him. Along with a couple of stem cells.

Maybe someday that heart scar, along with the four other angry scars on his chest from various drains, chest tubes and biopsies, will barely be visible. Someday he’ll be able to distantly retrace his steps through hell, high water and late-night, perpetually well-lit hospital wards only via those scars as they happily fade. But I hope they never completely disappear. Because that’s what they are. Heart scars. People keep saying “things will never ever be the same”. Cancer or not, when do things ever stay the same anyway? I had a brother that I knew once. But this weekend, I’m taking my multi-vitamin and I’m going home to Colorado to meet the new one. I hope he likes me. Because I love the hell out of him.

So about this Whole Foods line. "Thinner, happier, prettier, cleaner, higher, firmer, purer, fresher, better, faster!!” Webster’s definition of healthy-“enjoying health and vigor of body, mind, or spirit”. Where is the whole foods aisle for mind and spirit? Is there an all-natural mineral oil for that? We health nuts, (from Boulder, Colorado or not) spend so much time saying No to ourselves. Maybe we just need to say Yes to the right things. And if we stopped saying No so often…that might be easier. Saying Yes often enough to remember how good Santa was to us this year, - these great legs (ok maybe with a little cellulite here and there) to stand in this endless line with. And the appetite to want that delicious, humongous chocolate bar at the checkout. I think I’ll skip the gym tonight, maybe walk home instead.
I put down the Lipstick-cookies and back away slowly. Then slip the chocolate bar in my basket next to the bank-breaking multi-vitamin. Viva la RevoluciĆ³n.

Monday, August 4, 2008

Magic Mountain: Take That Ride

Today is my brother’s birthday. 21 Years of hanging out in the world together. Ever wonder what its like to be 21 and have leukemia?

I wrestled with myself for weeks over wether or not to include my brother’s recent saga in my blog. Too public? Too exposed a forum for such a delicate topic? Too heavy, too self-important, too scary? Too presumptuous to discuss a topic that isn’t mine to share? But when I woke up this morning celebrating not only my brother’s 21st year of life in general but also the way he’s living it…I figured if we built the blogosphere to share everything except empathy and inspiration along with business best practices, then we’re moving backwards instead of forwards and the web 2.0 movement is simply a 21st century online reprise of the industrial revolution. Eat your heart out, Dickens.

But let me get this straight -I'm not speaking for him (when he decides to speak about this, believe me the world will listen), I'm just speaking for me. A person like him is just too precious not to be shared with the rest of the world

It’s not really the details that matter. They matter to him, they matter to us, but details aren’t what is worth celebrating in life so I wont include them here. Don’t get me wrong, details are a necessary part of getting things done and even for moving forward through life. Nothing gets you out of bed like an unpaid rent check or a crowded Laundromat that opens at 7 or intimate results of an abdominal CT scan. Details can be a blessing in comparison to the things that make you not want to get out of bed in the first place. In general, details are a necessary, trifling and yet ok, kind of mindlessly satisfying aspect of life. I mean, how else were you planning to spend 31025 days of being alive? Just as long as you use them for what they are – not something you’d write a novel about. In New York, everything is about details. You can spend, if you so choose, your entire life getting to the Laundromat, let alone picking up your laundry, getting it home and putting it away in your closet. I realize that normal people don’t have the distgustingly high number of dry-clean only knit tops that I do, but you get the idea. You see? Even thinking about details, I digress…

Ok, so my brother got cancer. It took me months for me to think or say that word in association with someone I love so much, let alone write it. You know, that feeling that THAT word just doesn’t apply to me. It’s a phenomenon of human conciousness developed acutely during the, what was it, anal phase of pre-speech psychological developement? (oh I dunno, ask Freud) – there is "me" and "not me" – and THAT word, cancer, is decisively not me or us. Kind of like no matter who you are, “them” doesn’t ever apply to you (and you can arbitrarily choose the peramiters of your core group of course, then redefine them throughout life as you choose). I guess that’s how I felt about cancer and my family- like that is the kind of stuff that happens on Lifetime and then goes conveniently away once primetime news come on. Once again I find use for this darling paternal phrase of mine – denial is more than a river in Egypt. You don’t need to tell that to my 21 year old brother.

Here are all the details you really need to know –

One. Life can be like a head-on collision – a lot can happen in 1 second of it (no doubt right while you are idiotically and self-absorbantly fiddling with your air conditioner and botching the words to Madonna's "Like A Prayer") and chances are you’ll be damn near unrecognizable afterward. College graduation with honors today, leukemia, chemotherapy, open-heart surgery and a bone marrow transplant tomorrow. No need to buckle your seatbelt – you’ll get used to your new face. And you know what? The new one will be even better. Long live the resilience of the human spirit and the synergies of real-live unconditional love once all else falls away.

Two – Doctor’s usually know 30% less than they say they do. I wouldn’t suggest getting statistical with any Doctor, especially not oncologists. That said, the good ones have mastered this thing called hope. Optimism. And honesty. And these things (among others) are crucial to any human undertaking. To all those in the medical community-- the harsh reality is of course that you’ll never beat death full-stop. None of us can. But you can sure as hell get in some really good rounds if you give death a few worhtwhile reasons to sit back and watch for another 60 years.

Three –Is there a rule against having a role model who is three years younger than you? If so, I suggest the books be reviewed. Because you just don’t meet a man like this every day. And I still can’t believe we happen to share the same last name.

21 years ago my brother and I turned up on the same doorstep of existence. Maybe every other day since then I’ve taken for granted being able to share things with him (after the age of 6 he stopped wanting to share them of course, which was fine, more Dancing Disco barbies leftover for me). Life is a hard thing not to take for granted. If you happen to know someone who lives every single second to the absolute fullest then I’d like to meet them, chances are they’ve never been dumped cruelly or had a yeast infection. But there are people out there who, simply through their presence in a room, a family, a life or a world, remind us to go ahead and ride the big roller coaster while we’re here in this derranged little human amusement park. The lows are pretty darn low on this ride but it’s only down there you’ll learn how to enjoy the highs. Why spend the whole day on Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride and the Teacups (a ride which could potentially be used to simulate what regular chemotherapy must feel like...)? When you get off you’ll be glad you went for Magic Mountain.

And as for you, Alec, on your birthday. You’re an inspiration. To me, to your parents, your family, your friends, your Doctors, your community…and now to the blogosphere. All that inspiration in 2 months, not to mention the last 21 years. Now that’s an achievement. Good on ya, kid. Happy Birthday, Mr. (future) President.