Thursday, January 13, 2011

It's About Time

I remember seeing a documentary years ago about the transition from the Carter White House to the Reagan era.  In the film, the Carter Chief of Staff is talking to his incoming counterpart and says something to the effect, “you’ll be managing the most valuable commodity in the entire world – the time of the President of the United States.”

In the years since then I’ve thought often about that statement – and about how much planning and effort must go into scheduling the time of the president.  But I never really think about it without also thinking of my own time – and realizing that my time is likely the most valuable commodity I’ll ever manage.

In the month or so since retiring I’ve given even more thought to the management of my time.  My first thoughts were about how much more time I’d have without the “deadlines and commitments” Bob Seger sang about – no longer forced to figure “what to leave in or what to leave out.”  No longer would my calendar be filled with the meetings and phone calls that have dominated my days (and nights) over the last few years.  Finally, my daily “to-do” list would shrink and leave the margin in my days that I’ve dreamed about for years.

But upon further reflection I’ve come to a few simple conclusions.  First, I still have exactly the same 24 hours in a day I had before.  And while I have fewer people trying to dictate what I do, this has NOT translated to fewer demands on my time. 

It HAS however, made it abundantly clear that I am the one responsible to manage my time- my choices are generally mine and mine alone.  There is no one to blame but me for any misuse of my days.  This leaves me more keenly aware of the need to be strategic with my investments of time – to choose wisely, with a sense of balance and a constant eye toward the things that are truly important to me. 
You see, I am my own “chief of staff” – but then I really always have been.  And from time to time it’s good to be reminded that I am managing my most precious commodity.  Dare I ask who your chief of staff is?  How well are they doing their job?

There’s a lot more I could say about this, but I really don’t have the time.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

First Things First

The “new year” is finally here.  I can now say this is my “first” blog post of the year.  There will be a lot of “firsts” in the coming days.  The first time in 2011 that I make it to the gym, the first healthy meals on a new diet, the first smart spending choices keeping me within my new budget – or my first chance to show I care about people and do something meaningful for them.  

But I figure other firsts in the coming days will include the first time I blow off the gym in favor of a nap on the couch.  The first time I stray from my new diet – the first time I overspend – or, the first time I treat someone I love in a way I would never dream of treating people I don’t even know.

I love the concept of a clean slate!  And, isn’t that why we make such a big deal about the start of a new year?  We long for the “fresh start” – the chance to close off things in our past that had gotten messy or had begun to weigh us down.  We want the chance to start clean, no mess – no heavy load.

Often my resolutions have been to start “doing” this or stop “doing” that.   In the beginning I am motivated by the clean slate – I want to keep it clean.  But in time, that simple motivation isn’t enough.  Just wiping the slate clean doesn’t really change who I am or how I think and behave.  So this year I have resolved to focus more on who I am becoming than what I’m doing.  

Oh, and I think I will try wiping that slate clean every morning – why wait a whole year?

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Traveling with a VIP

In the early years of the Clinton administration I found myself booked on an all night flight from Santiago, Chile to Miami. 
Although there was a plane at the gate, our boarding was delayed so I asked the agent if there was some sort of problem. “Oh no,” she said, “It’s that we have a VIP traveling with us tonight.”

Eventually the boarding ritual got underway, and as I stepped onto the plane I recognized George Bush, the former President of the United States, already seated in the plane’s first class cabin.

Feeling a little bit of a rush at being so near someone so famous I was actually conscious of how nonchalantly I walked to my seat – only six feet from the former leader of the free world.  I settled in and began to watch as all the other passengers filed by.  Some, like me chose the nonchalant approach – hoping to project this as no big deal, and trying to respect his privacy.  Others, however, took much different approaches as they encountered the president.

Common to all was that silent buzz – the sort of excited whisper that sweeps through a room when everyone is suddenly very alert to the fact that someone special or famous is near by. Have you ever noticed how some of us feel a need to connect with that special person? Some asked for an autograph, some shook his hand and said hello, some didn’t even know who he was.

Others wanted to connect in even deeper ways. One man chatted with the president and then gave him a business card, like there would be some need for a follow up visit or phone call. Another said, “You don’t know me, but my Aunt Sue met your wife one time.” One by one as they passed by, I was fascinated to watch how each person nervously played out their own need to connect or relate to Mr. Bush. I wonder what it would have been like if an old friend of the president had boarded the flight. Would that exchange have been different from all the rest?

Last night, as many of us do at Christmas time, I was thinking about Jesus coming to this world. And for some strange reason I wondered what it would be like if He were seated on an airplane as we all boarded. What sort of buzz would that create? Would some pretend it was no big deal? Would some say, “You don’t know me – but I believe you’ve met my Aunt Sue.” Would some not even know who He was?

Or, what if we stepped on board and recognized a good friend who met us with a warm greeting – and then we simply settled in for the flight, ready to talk and enjoy each other’s company? I think this is a good time of year for each of us to look at just how we would react to the VIP traveling with us tonight.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

The Other Side of the Fence

From the third through sixth grade I attended East Elementary School – about two miles from my house.   I remember walking home from school those days, and one memory stands out more than any other.  No, it wasn't that it was uphill both ways, or that I walked barefoot in the driving snow – which is so prevalent in Texas.  It was a dog – a German Shepherd that I had to walk past in order to get home.  Granted, the dog was kept inside a fenced backyard – but I really don’t believe that fence was any match for this ferocious animal.  Every day when I walked (or ran) by, he came running at me – growling, barking, and trying to jump that fence.  His paws would come flying over the fence, and I just knew that sooner or later he would indeed make it over – or the fence would collapse and leave me defenseless.

This daily panic-induced adrenaline rush eventually brought me to the point of asking my dad for help.  I still remember his words – “Oh, there’s nothing to be afraid of – if the fence ever fell down, that dog would tuck tail and run the other way.”  I don’t think I ever truly believed that if the barrier of the fence were removed, the dog would really turn and run – but since the fence held up I will never know.

However, I do still have a chance to test the concept.  For over 40 years I’ve been working at a job somewhere – the last 31 all at the same company.  With a few short, but notable exceptions I’ve always loved my work – maybe even too much at times.  I also came to feel a sense of obligation and responsibility to my work and its constant and growing demands.  Whether for love or obligation I often let it become a barrier to doing many of the other things I’ve always said I wanted.  It’s kept me from time with my family, from fishing, golfing, camping, woodworking or finding a group of folks I could “pick & grin” with regularly.  I’ve wanted to volunteer more than I have – to learn to speak a foreign language, and the list goes on and on.

But last week I retired – and for now, the work barrier is gone.  I guess it's time to see if I’ll really go after all those things I’ve been barking about – or just tuck tail and run.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Enjoying the Sixth Grade

The drive was one of those up by 3 and on the road before 4 AM affairs signaling the end of our week of Thanksgiving holiday travels.  As we pulled away from town, lights faded into darkness, the ride was smooth, and the hum of the tires on the pavement seemed more like stillness than noise.  While I settled in for two hours of driving it looked like Susan was hoping to sleep the trip away.

There was something refreshing about those early miles that caught my attention.  Those quiet moments were the first ones I’d really known all week.  It was the first time I had really taken to soak in the silence – to stop thinking about what was coming next long enough to enjoy what was happening now.

Is it any wonder?  Even something as simple as packing should have been a clue.  I had packed for three unique segments of the trip – Thanksgiving on the road with the family, a four day “get-away” with Susan, and then our return for a visit with my folks and my sister.  This last segment included setting up my mobile office and working for a full day before this early morning return home.  While I enjoyed each part of this trip, I felt my constant focus on what was coming next had caused me to miss too much of the “now.”

It felt a little like back in sixth grade when they repeatedly told us how much harder things would be in the seventh grade.  If we didn't knuckle down today, we might not be able to do the seventh grade work.  In the seventh grade we heard that we had to prepare for the eighth grade.  And yes, the eighth grade was really just preparation for high school – which, of course, was intended to prepare us for college and/or life in general.

Admittedly, this advice carried a fair amount of scare tactic aimed at getting, and keeping us focused on our studies.  It also served to reinforce a message we had subtly been learning all our lives – the focus of today is to prepare for tomorrow.

Planning is good – even biblical.  Proverbs includes multiple admonitions toward good planning.  My own previous post highlighted the value of being prepared.  But during my drive home it became clear that we can't afford to focus only on tomorrow at the expense of today.

The good news is, I have a chance for a do-over.  Christmas will be here in just a few short weeks.  We already have plans for three different events with family – one each on Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, and the day after.  My goal is to be mindful of each moment, to be fully present in that moment.  This time I want to enjoy being in the sixth grade and face the seventh grade when it comes – not a moment before.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010


Three or four years ago we planted a couple of maple trees in our yard. I’ve noticed that each year these trees are the first to hint at the coming of fall. They begin early to show the most vibrant colors of any trees in the neighborhood. Day by day, the green leaves show shades of yellow, then orange and finally settling into a deep fiery red. For weeks I’ve enjoyed this almost inspirational display each morning as I open the garage door and step outside. But yesterday as the door went up I immediately noticed that both trees were completely bare.

I was shocked to see that overnight they had changed so dramatically – so completely, so quickly. And this final step of transformation seemed to come without warning. But then I began to understand that all the weeks of changing colors were preparation for this “sudden” & total transformation. And I think because of that preparation the change came gently – it seemed graceful & not harsh. There had been no storm, no pouring rain or high winds overnight, but the natural process that comes with the changing of the season had simply run its course.

As I walk through the dramatic changes coming in my own life may I begin early and prepare well – may I inspire others in the process. May the changes be graceful, gentle – natural, and may I not loose sight that spring always follows winter.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Lessons from Brandi Lea

When our dog Brandi was a puppy we didn't want to lose her in the house, we didn't trust her to not pee, poop, or chew anytime, anyplace, or on anything yet. In order to contain things and keep a closer eye on her we placed a baby gate across the doorway that led to the upstairs and other guest rooms of our house.

After a few weeks of us all stepping over the gate every time we went through that doorway we started to just move it aside - and eventually we stopped putting it back.

By this time we trusted Brandi more - and yet, she had learned to never go through that doorway. Now, almost a year later and fully grown (I hope) at 87 pounds, she still never goes through that doorway. We can all go upstairs - last weekend we spent the whole day cleaning up there - and then coming and going from up there moving our son’s stuff to his new apartment. She laid on the floor at the doorway - never once offering to step over that threshold.

Sometimes I feel like Brandi. Early on in life I learned some things - things that at that point in my life may have even been good for me. Maybe in some cases they were just perceptions I had formed...but the result is that I never stepped through some doorways. And now - fully grown (my own weight will remain omitted) I still am laying on the floor - and not stepping through some doors.

Maybe its time - maybe I'm ready to not pee, poop or chew on things I shouldn't. Maybe.