Reflections on Life, Leadership, Mindfulness, Change, and other Important Stuff

Month: April, 2020

Quarantine: Lessons from the Bunker

No doubt we’ve all borne witness to everything from the courageousness of healthcare providers and retail employees to the foolishness of hoarding toilet paper during the past five weeks of so complying with stay-at-home orders and social distancing. And it seems to me there are some lessons to be learned, or reminded of in the midst of the COVID19 pandemic.  So what are they?

I’ve realized, more than ever before, it’s better to have something and not need it than to need it and not have it.  When the virus first began to impact our behaviors, all of us saw the panicked buying that went on.  Fortunately, because I’ve tend to buy in bulk, I didn’t have to rush into the fray.  I’d had experience with an extended power outage or two in my life, and I had learned how grateful I was to have coffee and a French Press for making my favorite beverage—on a gas stove.  I’m neither a prepper or a hoarder.  I just don’t like to run out of stuff.  I also had a battery operated AM/FM radio (old school, I know), a battery operated charger, and plenty of batteries.  During the power outages and pandemic, I’ve was glad to be able to keep up some of the comforting rituals of daily life.

Another lesson I’ve reflected upon is that it’s hard to get the anchor down in the midst of the storm.  The pandemic has exposed the cracks in our government, healthcare, supply-chain, and the operating models of our businesses.  It’s also exposed them in our mental health and relationships, or lack of them.  In this case, and those elsewhere in this piece, anything I’ve inadvertently done to get through this crisis has been little more than an accident of my personality and the good will of other people.  Time for reflection and to write is something I enjoy.  Meditation, music, and reading have both helped me prepare and get me through this dystopian period.  My friends, a circle into which I was invited by a business acquaintance about five years ago, have been a remarkable source of encouragement.  His wife made me a mask which both makes me feel pretty and for which I’m immensely grateful.   And talking and texting with them, and my mother, daily has given me a renewed sense of purpose of offering encouragement to them as well.  I’m glad I had this little tribe before all this started.

Having come to the realization a few years ago, when I quit a perfectly good job, to pursue something I was passionate about, I had already decided security is something of an illusion.  That doesn’t mean it’s not wise to save and invest money.  Or to be mindful of our emotional and physical well-being.  But back in 2008, when I was still in banking, I watched as people around me—talented and diligent professionals—get lose their jobs.  For those of us who were fortunate enough not to be caught up in those reductions in force, we went several years with reduced salaries and no raises. Years ago, I heard a wise man say we are little more than a few weeks away from a personal, professional, or societal crisis.  But humans are terrible at understanding risks.  Every year people slip, fall, and die from the simple act of bathing.  Car crashes kill us by the thousands.  And accidents with lawn mowers, fire crackers, ladders, and power tools maim, blind, and kill us.  Yet we fear being murdered or dying in plane crashes far more than we should.  If security isn’t an illusion, it’s definitely something of a relative perception.

Hopefully, I’ll continue to be mindful of  all these things.  But, like everyone else, I have a short memory.  We all have to go to the school of hard knocks, I think.  But we don’t have to take every course—or worse, repeat them because we’ve failed to learn from the one’s we’ve already completed.  So, as we return to whatever normal looks like once this crisis abates, I will be investing even more of my time and energy in  my relationships and well-being.  I’ll try to be less attached to my sense of what security.  And, to be sure, I’ll continue to make sure I have enough coffee, batteries, and toilet paper on hand.

Fifty Things Jim Can’t Live Without

Today, whether we like or not, much of the world is staying home most of the time in hopes of avoiding spreading or contracting a potentially deadly virus.  For some it’s a minor inconvenience.  Others are struggling with balancing the demands of working from home and insuring their children are entertained or completing school assignments.  Many are having far too much time with their spouses to enjoy it. But for all of us, save for victims of domestic abuse or mental health issues, those who are trapped in poverty—the ones just struggling to survive while some of us bitch and moan about petty things–perhaps this is an opportunity to reevaluate our lives.

This morning, I picked up a journal—I have several laying around my house—and began to run through an exercise I’ve done repeatedly over the last few years.  I sat, once again, and tried to make a list the fifty items that, if I could own nothing else, I would want most.

  1. Phone—I want to keep in touch with family and friends.
  2. One phone charger.
  3. One laptop (I like to write) and charger—that’s two items.
  4. One car. It could be a place to sleep.

I worked through my list without the need to omit truly essential items like medicine, glasses, and food.

  1. Three pairs of blue jeans–’cause, you know, pants are important.
  2. Three button down shirts
  3. Five pairs of socks

It might get cold, so I added few things.

  1. One coat.
  2. Two pairs of boots (one for hiking, one to channel my inner cowboy).

I won’t bore you with the rest of the list.  But even those that list has only nine numbers on the list, there are nineteen items on it.  Just as always, the further I get down the list, I realize how little I really need.  Now, I’m not an ascetic.  Nor am I suggesting you should be.  But every time I work through this process, I learn something about myself.

The reason I have to put yet another load of dishes in the dishwasher or laundry in the washing machine is because I have so much of both.  As I write, I’m staring at a pile of pillows—four to be exact—that need to be clothed in cases.  And there are already three on my bed that have cases on them!  How the hell did I end up with so many pillows?  (It’s because I’ve bought some new ones in the last year, but never gave or threw away the ones I already owned.)

Why do I have a closet full of linens and towels, when I live alone and rarely have guests?

Why do I have so many—well, I think you get it.  But in case you don’t, the point of this “fifty things” exercise is twofold.  It’s an exercise in gratitude, as well as to remind me how little I truly need.  It helps me make sure I have my stuff and it doesn’t have me.

You can do this with a lot of other things, too.  You can ask yourself to list the friends, if you could only have—pick a number—you couldn’t do with out.  You can ask yourself about the club or civic meetings you attend and ask, if I could only attend one a week or month, which one am your truly passionate about.  And you can ask yourself, if you could only do one job—okay, you can pick two or three—for the rest of your life, what would they be?   Are you doing one of them?  Why not?

Every time I work through this I realize how easy it is to drift from the path of dispossessing myself of things that don’t really matter to me, both material and immaterial.  I can end up buying stuff I don’t need and chasing things that I think will fill me up.  But, over time, I do less of that—at least I think I do.  I hope I do.

Tomorrow, I have some work to do.  I have some things to pack up to give to a local non-profit.  I have some books to sort through to give away, some clothes, some pillows, and some coffee cups.  (Those damn cups breed like rabbits.)  There’s some stuff I’ve been “saving” that needs to go. And there are some ideas about life I need to rethink—again—to make sure I’m as close to living a life of purpose as I can be.

There will be a few things I will keep.

  1. Three books.
  2. One Leatherman multi-tool.
  3. One watch—my phone might die.
  4. One backpack—I need somewhere to stow all fifty items.

If my math is right, that’s twenty-four items.  To be honest, it gets a little harder to choose as I move down the list.  But I think that’s because that’s where I’m getting into things that seem to add relatively little value, or at least are of even value, to my life.  Which is even more the point, I suppose—being sure the things you have add value to your life. 

And what you do with your time, well, maybe it should be about adding value to other people’s lives.  You can do that as a banker, a lawyer, a business owner, or doctor and lots of other ways professionally.  (The guys working at Walmart and the grocery store are doing it for most of us right now.) But every now and then, check in with yourself and make sure your doing it for that and not something fleeting like prestige, power, or money.  Because if we haven’t all realized it by now, there’s always a virus out there lurking threatening to take away those three things—if not more—in a matter of weeks.


Fear, the illusion of safety, and the right to privacy

“I always feel like, somebody’s watchin’ me” –Michael Jackson


As concern continues over the public health and economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, a number of tangential issues have arisen which may result in an even greater long term impact to our nation. Some of them, such as innovations in our supply chains, changes and expansion of restaurant operating models, digital communication, and remote work may well prove to be beneficial. Others, such as the impact to the mental, emotional health, and physical health of Americans, the implications for the poor and other marginalized groups, mass unemployment, and the financial condition of the U.S. federal government, will likely prove negative. That said, one potentially insidious adverse impact may be further erosion of our right to privacy.

Although the U.S. Constitution holds no specific reference of a right to privacy, the Supreme Court has understood its existence by virtue of many of its decisions when the state has no compelling interest—such as a clear and present danger—to otherwise limit such rights. Their decisions in such cases as Greenwold vs. Connect, Roe vs. Wade, Eisentstadt vs. Baird, and Lawrence vs. Texas serve as a few landmark examples. Yet in times of national crisis—that is when we are afraid—Americans seem more than willing to relinquish their rights to privacy and other Constitutional rights without regard to their long term consequences.

Most recently, the Patriot Act was hastily passed only 45 days (and later renewed with some amendment) after the horrific events of 9/11. Ostensibly, that legislation was designed to make the collection of data easier for law enforcement to identify and prevent potential terrorist activity. It gave federal law enforcement officers the power to issue National Security Letters (NSLs) to obtain bank, computer, phone, and credit history records without a subpoena and allowed it to be retained indefinitely regardless of a subject’s indictment, much less conviction of conspiracy to commit or actually carry out terrorism. Yet Patriot Act does not stand alone in regard to the infringement upon our rights to privacy.

With the passage of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act in 1978, whereby the Foreign Surveillance Intelligence Court was established, Congress broadened the power of the federal government to peer into our lives with little justification. And with the historical evidence for abuses by the FBI—an institution for which I have great respect—its abuse of FISA warrants by overzealous and irresponsible players has been well documented. And long before abuse, we should be reminded of J. Edgar Hoover’s practice of building and maintaining dossiers on individuals he deemed to be a threat to his own sense of what it meant to be a loyal American.

Legislation alone has not been a source of our willingness to have our freedoms eroded for the illusion of safety or even convenience. We willingly allow our internet searches to be collected by Google, Yahoo, and search engines. We grant “location services” access in the privacy function of our phones without regard to how that data is being used. And we wander about—or did before the pandemic—our communities where we are being filmed dozens, perhaps hundreds of times daily.

The initial imposition of stay-at-home orders by state and local governments, though well-warranted by the compelling state interest of public health, however, are now being expanded. In Philadelphia, law enforcement officers have forcibly removed a man from a public bus for failing to wear a mask. In Los Angeles, the Mayor has created a reward system for reporting violators of social distancing guidelines. In Michigan, the governor has expanded her initial executive order to limit further limit travel into and around her state. Meanwhile, the federal government is contemplating electronic contact tracing methodologies which, while intentioned, might become an even more invasive look into our personal lives.

We may comfort ourselves with the notion, we have nothing to hide. We may trust those of our particular political persuasions to act nobly in the application of law, while distrusting those who do not. And we may believe in the inherent integrity of all law enforcement officers, believing we might never be falsely accused of misconduct. But history, both domestically and internationally, should tell us such trust is misplaced. And we should remember that the Constitution, with its balance of powers, was meant to protect us from tyrants and the tyranny of the majority.

Our rights to assembly, speech, freedom from unreasonable search and seizure, interstate travel, and privacy, must be vigilantly guarded, lest we become proverbial frogs in a boiling pot. The institution of policies designed to stem the tide of this pandemic, where our freedoms are limited, must not be hastily adopted out of fear. (For fear is what gave America the McCarthy Era and caused the internment of more than 120,000 individuals of Japanese descent during WWII.) And they should include specific conditions by which they expire. Without such clarity and vigilance, we may all one day decide George Orwell was not just a prophet when he penned 1984, but that he was an optimist. Let us not give into such fear that would lead us to such a conclusion.

Buried Treasure: Sørensen Unearths Remarkable Find

Recently, archeologists have reported a remarkable new discovery.

“This tells us so much about the values of this ancient culture,” said Dr. Birgitte Sørensen.  “We’ve wondered about this for so long.”

The find was unearthed by Sørensen and her team in a once densely populated area of North America.  “We’ve been excavating this site for several years.  Until now, we’ve only found a number of tools they used for daily living.  And we’ve known for some time that this culture, at some point, began to fall apart.  They fell into tribes, warring with one another, which ultimately lead to their destruction.”

A once shining example of their cultural ethos, the newly found artifact was marred by time, pressure, and what appeared to be the scars of both blunt force trauma and surgical quality incisions.

“Our linguists, who use the most remarkable artificial intelligence, have studied it carefully.  They’ve uncovered an inscription that appears to read ‘civil discourse,’” said Sørensen, the head of Ancient Studies at the University of Copenhagen.

Findings form Sørensen’s work was published in the January 2520 edition of The Journal of Antiquity   She and her co-authors say their discovery was buried below the accumulated weight of anger, ignorance and selfishness.  Further, it indicates there were some efforts by a few to salvage this so-called piece of “civil discourse,” before the downfall of this civilization.  While scholars cannot be sure of time the artifact was buried, they currently estimate it was lost somewhere between 1960 and 2000.

In summary remarks to us about this remarkable find Sørensen noted, “We are continuing our search, looking for evidence that this treasure was more commonplace than we currently believe.  Only time will tell.”

Clear and Present Danger: The Questions We Should Be Contemplating Now

With the disruption daily life that the COVID-19 pandemic has caused, many of us were willingly limiting our contact with others long before the imposition of state-mandated stay-at-home orders. We did, and continue to do so recognizing our responsibility to our families, friends, neighbors, and the people we work with, as well as to protect ourselves from the virus.  But in so doing, as the state has rightly—for now—mandated limitations on our liberties, several interesting questions arise.  How we answer them may profoundly affect our future, both in the short and long term.

Though I’m no legal scholar—and I didn’t stay in a Holiday Inn Express last night—I have spent some time contemplating the First Amendment. It guarantees, among other things, our freedom of speech, right to assembly, and grants Americans the freedom to worship as they will.  Case law has also set out parameters in which the government may limit those freedoms in the event of a clear and present danger and/or compelling public interest.

The novel coronavirus, for many of us, seems to meet the test of a clear and present danger—again, for now.  But we are required to limit our assembly with one another (including worship), businesses are required to close their doors or dramatically change their business model, and thousands of people are losing their sources of income, we, along with our elected officials must ask how we will define when the “clear and present danger” has passed? 

Clearly, this is new territory for this generation of our scientists and government officials.  As many pundits and politicians cast stones at one another, attempting to lay blame and gain advantage from for the impact of the virus, we would do well to ask them “under what circumstances shall we restore our freedom of assembly, freedom of worship, and allow ourselves the ability to allow us to choose, wittingly or not, what risks we will take?”  How will we know when the state’s compelling public interest is no longer outweighed by our individual interests?  Will it be when the “curve” has flattened?  When transmission rates fall to a specific number?   When we have enough masks, ventilators, and medicine to treat the ill?  Or only be when we have developed a vaccine or find an effective treatment?

I won’t claim to know the answers to these questions.  And while my words may be distorted by extremists of all ilk, those of us who would think reasonably about such matters should be searching for those answers.  Leadership requires contemplation about the future.   Let’s hope our elected officials are contemplating more than just the next sound bite or how they can find political advantage in the midst of this challenge.

The Upside of Adversity

If you’ve been brave (or foolish?) enough to read or watch the news lately, you’ll find plenty of reasons to despair.  And, without a doubt, the short term economic, social, and mental health implications of the novel coronavirus pandemic have had, and will continue to have, profound adverse implications.  But there can be a long-term upside that will arise from the current disruption of our lives because adversity always fuels innovation.

     To be sure, I’m no Pollyanna.  But here are a few possibilities once things stabilize. 

     First, investments in science, medicine, and technology by both the private and public sector will grow.  If necessity is the mother of invention, we will find new ways to conquer both viral and other sorts of illnesses.  The research and development of new drugs to diagnose and treat viruses will be found useful in ways we had never dreamed of, as research to solve specific problems always leads to unanticipated benefits.

     Education will find new and more efficient ways to deliver learning.  While internet services will need to find their way to the most disadvantaged of our communities, with time, we will see children who are now being left further behind have access to accredited and more affordable learning opportunities.

     Manufacturing of drugs and other essential products will return to the U.S. as the federal government, like it or not, will offer incentives for their return from other countries.  In turn, this will allow for the repurposing of vacant plants and the construction of new facilities, both of which will lead to new job opportunities.

     Business start-ups will rise as those displaced by the economic downturn, feeling they have nothing to lose, will finally become entrepreneurs or otherwise choose more fulfilling jobs.  And they will act on their creative bents to produce remarkable new paintings, sculpture, music, poetry, and literature.

     Philosophers, thinkers, and writers will propose new ways to think about and address social and political dysfunction.  New and refreshing faces will enter the political arena.  Yes, some of them will rise to pursue divisive ideologies, yet others will emerge look for pragmatic solutions to seemingly intractable problems.

     Many state and local governments will begin to collaborate more effectively.  Recognizing our interdependence and mutual vulnerabilities, public officials will find more effective ways to respond to both natural disasters and public health matters.  Adversely affected voters turn out in large numbers, demanding more from their elected officials.

     Finally, and perhaps most importantly, as the virus changes our daily lives so dramatically, many of us are renewing old friendships, becoming more mindful of the homeless and those in poverty, staying better connected to our friends and families, paying more attention to our physical, mental, emotional and spiritual well being.

We are reading books we’ve meant to read for too long, we are going for long hikes (six feet apart) feeling the wind and sun on our faces for the first time in far too long, and offering our help to one another to get through this time together.  All of which will pay benefits to us for many months and years to come.

     Will all our problems vanish?  Certainly not.  Will our nation and the world metaphorically join hands, singing Kum Ba Yah and set aside all our differences?  Regrettably, no.   But rather than solely dwell the existential angst it now causes, reminding ourselves of the enduring human spirit and our propensity to overcome adversity, may be among the cures to the indirect effects of this insidious illness.

     For sure, we must now stare, with our eyes wide-open, into the abyss of the stark reality we face.  But we can do so with the knowledge that abyss, bright lights will emerge. And we may not yet have borne witness to all of them,

I believe they already have.

Liberty and Responsibility in a Time of Crisis

Amidst the political rhetoric surrounding the coronavirus pandemic, the notion that one should never let a crisis go to waste comes to mind. As it does, perhaps, as we guard ourselves and others from contracting this insidious virus, we should contemplate the delicate and fragile need to balance liberty and responsibility.

 To be clear, I’m supportive of the current advice of healthcare professionals to stay at home and socially distance ourselves from one another. That said, let us ponder a few things together.

Imagine, for a moment, America becoming a place in which even the most abhorrent of invectives are banned from social media, and, if it really exists today, from genuine political discourse.

Reflect on the possibility that we, as individuals, are permanently prevented from choosing when and if we gather for football games, large family gatherings, dine at our favorite restaurant or attend Broadway productions.

Contemplate living in a nation forbidding religious gatherings, where people faith must exercise their beliefs furtively, behind locked doors, fervently praying against an unwelcome knock at their doors.

Consider the possibility of our country becoming a place in which even the most outlandish of journalists are muted from reporting their stories and opinions by those who consider them anathema.

We would be wise to realize we are not immune to such possibilities. And we must be vigilant to guard against them becoming reality. Yet, as we become increasingly polarized as a nation, we see irresponsible conduct in our so-called political leaders, in those of faith, and within the media that may inadvertently, and perhaps with good intentions, may be leading us toward such a dystopian future.

Regrettably, some churches, unlike most, have continued to gather in large groups citing their freedom of religion and assembly. Fortunately, in our own state (and I am not of a religious ilk), Alabama’s largest congregation, Church of the Highlands, has wisely suspended its public services for a time.

When faced with opinions, or inconvenient facts, our President lambasts reporters and cries fake news. Alternatively, liberal pundits and politicians assuage those they believe hold morally corrupt opinions, as they cry for political correctness and so-called safe zones.

Under the guise of journalism, with the proliferation of social media and blogging, anyone, is free to write or say whatever they will, perhaps hoping to find a following, gain wealth or fame, or simply to preach to their own choirs. And while I claim nothing more using this and other such essays as means for sorting out my own thoughts, I note my own use of such devices.

The cost of our liberty, regrettably, has been paid for in the blood and sacrifice of our forbears. Today, more than ever, that liberty must be protected by a common willingness to demonstrate a deep and abiding sense of responsibility in both what we say and write, in when and how we gather, and in a demonstration of gratitude, both financial and emotional, towards those who do the back-breaking work of making, growing, transporting, stocking, and selling goods we have previously taken for granted, as well as toward those in health care. Absent that, I fear for what kind of nation we will become—and that those who either flaunt their liberty or shirk their responsibilities will bring bloodshed to our nation.

 This is our moment.

As we mourn our dead, as we contemplate what we have become, and where we should go, we have been given the chance to reconsider what we value most—and to act upon those values with understanding, sacrifice, patience, generosity, and civility. May we all rise to the demands. May we remember it not as one which brought us together, rather than one that inflamed our passions and served only to divide us. And we must be diligent to insure the restoration of liberty once this crisis has passed.