Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Lessons from a Bakersfield Funeral Home

Its amazing at times to reflect on all the unusual/unexpected/unplanned and unintended sources of learning and inspiration that have been part of my life’s journey!  From errant cabdrivers, fellow airline passengers, an aging “dancer,” and literally the list of unusual sources of inspiration go on and on!  Once again, my list of “sources of inspiration” expanded recently after a “chat” with a Director of a Funeral Home in Bakersfield California.

Over the past eight years, I have travelled extensively to Bakersfield.  As the home of Bolthouse Farms, I started working out of “Bako” late in 2009 and have learned the “ins and outs” of the town over the past few years. I have found my favorite Basque restaurant (Noriega’s for sure), my favorite watering hole (The main bar at The Padre Hotel), and my favorite breakfast spot, the 24th St. Café.  My typical routine is to get up early and check in with my family back in Atlanta (usually around 5am local time.)  After the call, I hit the pavement and get a walk in through the Westchester neighborhood of downtown Bakersfield, and usually hit the 24th St. Café on my way to the Bolthouse Farms plant on the east side of town.  It was earlier this month, that I crossed paths and shared an amazing breakfast with the director of a major funeral home in Bakersfield.

Sitting at the counter on a dark, rainy January morning, I ordered coffee, eggs and sourdough toast, and got caught up on email.  Soon after a small, immaculately dressed older gentleman came into the café and found a stool two places down from me on the counter.  Dressed in a pressed black suit, crisp white shirt and a red tie, he cut quite a figure that rainy morning!  After exchanging pleasantries and a cheery “happy new year,” he introduced himself (first name Ray), describing that he was in his early 90’s and had been in the “mortuary business” since he was a young man.  Asking about my business, I described my work at Bolthouse Farms and we both complained about the amount of rain (too much) and its impact on all the agriculture in the central valley of California (long term great, short term very challenging).  After ordering his breakfast, Wheatena, brown sugar and coffee, he asked if I wanted to know the “three secrets of success” of the funeral home business.  Not your typical question at 6:30 in the morning, at the counter of the 24th St. Café, but not missing a beat I said an emphatic YES!

Leaning in close, almost like he didn't want others to hear, he held up three fingers and shared his “secrets:”

        1) “Be Strong:” Ray said that when people lost a loved one, they have experienced a loss and possibly a tragedy and they were weak and vulnerable and needed someone to “be strong” on their behalf.
        2)  “Be Professional:” he shared that the funeral home process was bewildering, foreign and at times scary, and his clients often don't have a clue what to do, thus they needed his “professional leadership.”
        3)   “Never lose your love of life:” being surrounded by death and loss everyday, you were constantly reminded of the value of every day.  Ray said that even on the very bad days, he reminded his staff how fortunate they all were to have the chance to live another day, enjoy life another day, love those special to them for another day, etc.

Inspiring to say the least!!  As I walked out of the café, I wished Ray well, and thought about those three “secrets” and how deeply they connected to my life today. 

“Be Strong;” working with clients across a number of industries, all dealing with challenges and issues, I was tempted at times to “get sucked into” the problems/issues facing their businesses.  While I need to be empathetic, I need to “be strong” and work hard to help my client’s organizations work hard to find solutions/responses to their problems.

“Be Professional:” again this connected to my current consulting work across a number of clients.  Whether a global pharmaceutical company, a fledgling startup, or my old company, all of my clients need me to bring all of my professional capabilities and experience to bear on their projects/problems.  Not discounting the need and importance of building relationships in professional settings, their primary need and expectation of my work was and is deeply professional.

“Never lose your love for life:” this lesson has resonated all across my life, since I lost my mom to breast cancer when I was a young teenager.  Life is precious and fragile, and we have all lost loved ones who passed too early.  I have written a number of essays of my experiences with an old boss and friend, Bruce Paynter, and his battle with ALS and his passing in the summer of 2009. (See more at http://fylegacy.blogspot.com/2013/11/a-return-to-appleton.html). 

I wonder all the time what Bruce would have given to have just one more day, or one more week, and I remind myself not be casual and cavalier with the possibilities and potential of one more healthy day.  A very important daily reminder!

As I mentioned at the outset, another unusual source for a moment of inspiration!  I hope that Ray’s “three secrets of success” ring true in some way for you and you can find a way to apply them to your day-to-day work and life.  The next time you are in Bakersfield, try the 24th St. café.  You definatetly won't be disappointed by the food and you never know who might be sitting at the counter with you!!

Sunday, January 15, 2017

John Lewis is a national treasure!

I am outraged today to see the online comments from the president-elect pertaining to our congressional representative John Lewis.  I have the pleasure of living in the 5th congressional district of Georgia and have had John Lewis as our member of the House of Representatives for the past 20+ years.

A few immediate points of rebuke/commentary:

> Over the past fifty years, John Lewis has been an icon of the civil rights movement, marching arm in arm with Dr. King, Ralph Abernathy, Jesse Jackson and so many others.  He marched in Selma, was beaten by southern police, took part in the "freedom rides" of the early 60's, trying to expand voting registration across the south for those whose rights had been trampled by Jim Crow laws.  Since the late 70's, John Lewis has SERVED his country, his state and his district in Congress, fighting hard for ALL of his constituencies!  Over that same fifty-year period, what has the president-elect actually done?  He built a business that expounded his own name, fraught by bankruptcies, unpaid contracts and labor disputes, built a personal fortune of unknown size (awaiting unreleased tax returns), and built a non-profit foundation of considerable ill repute -- nowhere in the same league as Representative Lewis!

> The 5th district and the City of Atlanta is a thriving, growing, diverse community far different than the images mentioned by the president-elect.  Home to numerous thriving/growing/diverse major colleges and universities, ranging from Morehouse and Spelman, to Emory, Georgia State and Georgia Tech to name just a few.  It is also home to major non-profit organizations including CARE, The American Cancer Society, The Arthritis Foundation, and many more.  It is also home to major corporate headquarters, including The Coca-Cola Company, UPS, Home Depot, again to name just a few.  The president-elect obviously does not know much a about what he is commenting on which is nothing new, it is something we will have to deal with and "CALL HIM ON" in the months and years ahead.

> The president-elect has spent the last year making offensive remarks about women, muslims, Mexicans and Mexican-Americans, democrats, his republican primary opponents, African-Americans, actors, and now a civil rights leader and my congressman!  Some of these quotes were caught on video, many on his twitter feed, but all are offensive!  As a proud father of two children, I am using this behavior of our upcoming president as an example of how NOT to handle yourself publicly.  It is hard to imagine, but I actually think our country has elected an individual to our highest office who is a paragon of how NOT to act in public, how NOT to communicate with others, how NOT to react to those that you might disagree with, and how NOT to listen and learn from others.  I cannot even find the antonym (opposite) of the phrase "role model" in my thesaurus, but our president-elect certainly fills the bill!

> Finally, our president-elect once again has demonstrated THIS weekend, (this MLK weekend!!) that he is not much more than a thin skinned bully.
Quoting from an article on bullying from the Center for Parenting Education (centerforparentingeducation.org/library-of-articles/...bullying.../playground-politics), they define bullying as:

Bullying can take different forms.  Boys, more than girls, tend to use physical bullying by tripping, shoving, or hitting another.  Verbal bullying is the most common type used by both boys and girls and includes cruel criticism, name-calling, racist slurs, intimidating emails or texts, or sexually abusive remarks.  The most difficult type of bullying to detect, but often the most devastating, is relational bullying, which diminishes the targeted child’s sense of self through rumors, shunning, ignoring, or excluding.  It is most frequently used by girls in the middle-school years and involves rolling of eyes, aggressive stares, frowns, and hostile body language.
Careful to attack when adults are not watching, bullies often select targets who are vulnerable and/or unassertive.  While improving interpersonal skills may be helpful to prospective victims, authority figures may be needed to supervise the interactions more closely.

Unfortunately this describes our situation all too well, and the closing line is important, "authority figures may be needed to supervise the interactions more closely."  In our democracy, I think that the "authority figure" has to be US in the broadest sense of the term, and it has to be an active and independent press.  It also has to be active and concerned citizens who need to pay attention and call him on this and other unacceptable behavior to come.  Finally, it has to be members of congress from either party, like our courageous representative John Lewis, who will stand up to the bully in our midst and not let him manipulate or dominate the "playground" of our political landscape!

Postscript: on this special weekend, commemorating the life of Dr. King, you may want to take a few minutes and follow this link to a PBS site highlighting the "Freedom Riders" as it adds more detail on the accomplishments/hardships of representative John Lewis and others. www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/freedomriders/people/john-lewis