Friday, June 29

A reflection on why and how and faith

Earlier this week I was at ISTE2018. ISTE stands for the International Society for Technology in Education. There were about 24K attendees from all over the world, quite literally. There were thousands of exhibitors in the Expo Hall at McCormick Place. In addition to hundreds of sessions, there were playgrounds and poster sessions. There were dozens of options for every hour of the day. It can be just too much.

I'd made a decision before this particular ISTE that I was just going to go with the flow. There are lots of people I'd hoped to be able to see but knew that without planning it was going to be impossible. It's the purest of serendipity when you run into people you know at an event the size of ISTE.

I also decided I was going to take a lot of selfies and I wasn't going to get a lot of those tags to add to my name badge. Why? Well, that's the point. The why.

You may be familiar with Simon Sinek's Golden Circle. He did a TED talk in 2009 and published a book, Start With Why, that same year. a while ago and his concept--and book--have shot to the forefront of many folks' thinking.

Why? It's a simple question, one of my favorites. Young children love to ask this question and for good reason: they are trying to understand the world in which they are becoming a part. Sinek reminds us that we each need to start with our "why?"--why do we get up every morning? 

My why is actually quite a lot like the example of the young woman in  Chapter 1 of Find Your Why: because I want to help people be and become their best selves, to help others to excellence with excellence.

It occurred to me before this conference that I needed to recharge; I can't help others become their best selves unless I'm able to be my best self. So I worried less about what I wore and who I might see and with whom I might be seen and focused more on what I might learn.

To me, that is part of the how. How do I become my best self? How do I further support my why? 

Faith is also part of the how because it fuels my thinking of the possible. Each day is a gift brimming with possibilities. Faith reminds me that God is in control. Faith encourages me because God can guide me as I strive to seek His will to do that to which he has called me. And that brings me back to my why, which is to help others be and become their best selves, to help others to excellence with excellence.

I'm in a weird place in my life. Old enough to start to wonder if people think I'm too old to be capable or to do what younger folks can do. Old enough to know how little I know and how much I have yet to learn and how much I want to learn, but also with clarity of what I don't want to learn.

I get impatient, yes, when I feel like I haven't been asked to do something that I believe is a great fit for me. But I can't control what others decide or want, so I continue to seek opportunities that may lie elsewhere. Because that which is the best for me in a given situation to do best what I do best is out there. 

I'm happy about the folks I got to see and hug at ISTE. I have small regrets there were some I did not see or get to hug, but I hope they know I love them just the same.

In the mean time, I'll process what I've learned and heard, and all that I've collected because I've still got a lot of reading and thinking and processing to do so. And that is my why right now: to continue to learn and expand my own knowledge and capabilities as well as my circle of professional acquaintances and friends because sometimes others will be the best resource I can offer those with whom I get to work. In the quiet of these hot days, I will read and think and write and learn. That is my how. And I believe with all of my heart that in the days that lie ahead will be possibilities to help others to excellence and with excellence that I cannot imagine.

Friday, June 8

The Demon of Dementia

BrightFocus Foundation
My mother has dementia. Over the past four years, I have witnessed her slowly slide into a mental oblivion. For a while she was able to put thoughts together and express herself with some coherence. While her recollections were occasionally humorously fantastic, some of her older recollections were spot on. There were times I'd take her out and she'd make comments that made me want to correct her, but I soon realized that she articulated what was in her head and whatever connections made sense to her so I let it be. In fact, there were times I learned more about her as a result of those connections that often made me want to pause and process a bit.

I went to see her a month or so ago. We don't live in the same state and I try to visit her at least every other month although I'm beginning to feel as though I need to try to visit more often. She had obviously declined further, which came as no surprise but that still didn't make it easy to witness. I sat with her while she cleaned the tines of her fork and then spent several minutes attempting to spear a piece of macaroni. She didn't seem frustrated. I found myself getting more and more tense as I tried to appear to be patient and not just reach out to do it for her.

I saw her again just after Mother's Day, a day we didn't really acknowledge in any real sense. I found myself sitting with her at the table again and found myself again clenching my hands in my lap as she fiddled with her food, though part of it was simply trying to figure out how to eat it. Early on the house caregiver picked up the half sandwich and put it in Mom's hand and did the same with another resident. She explained, "Sandwiches are easy to eat once they have it in their hands but they have a hard time remembering how to pick it up and eat it."

One of the other residents has a small dog. I have thoughts about the wisdom of a small dog, even leashed or especially leashed, in a converted duplex with 7 or 8 people most likely using walkers or wheelchairs, but the dog and her owner are there. The dog was whining and begging to come to the table; her mother was talking to her and trying to shush her. My mother turned to me and said, "I want her." I explained the dog already belonged to someone. My mother lifted that eyebrow and said very clearly and in a tone of voice I well remember from days gone by, "You wanna bet?"

So she can't really eat a sandwich by herself, but if she wants something, she can, in fact, put her mind to it. Disturbing, Daunting. Intriguing.

Some months ago I was having a weird headache and my doctor sent me to a neurologist to get an MRI of my brain. The headache thing proved to be nothing of concern (he said he could give me meds but it was hardly worth it and I should report to my doctor if the headaches in that location continued; a few weeks later they were gone). I'd asked about dementia and did tell me there were no indicators in my brain. At that time. He explained a lot about what doctors know about dementia, but also acknowledged there is a lot they just don't know.

Alzheimer's, the most common form of dementia, terrifies me. I'm fascinated by the tests, by the attempts to diagnose sooner. I'm fascinated by what I might do to try to make sure this doesn't happen to me though I also know there are no guarantees.

I have a sense of what might have contributed to my mother's descent into this particular hell of which she is, oddly, not aware. That is the blessing in disguise because I tell people how angry she would be if she knew this was happening to her. She didn't seem to go through the panic of losing her memory but mostly because she was in denial that it was happening; I realized that later. There are dozens of things I would do differently had I know then what I've learned over the past few years. Nothing prepares you for those subtle shifts in behavior so it's easy to be in denial or to delay getting any medical evaluation because you don't want to overreact. However, if I'd known sooner about her situation, I could have made plans differently and less jarringly.

I know that my living situation is very different and it's not likely that I'll repeat her particular scenario. I also know that once I hit 65, all bets may be off but that I can do particular things to try to reduce the risk.

What's interesting is that keeping the brain active and learning is not one of the main factors listed to reduce dementia risk: not smoking (check), drinking in moderation (check), regular exercise (gotta work on that), and healthy diet and weight (more exercise will help with the second of these), stress reduction (exercise will help with this, too), and good restorative sleep (huh; exercise could help with this, too). But I won't stop keeping my brain active and learning just in case researchers change their minds. ;)

I can't tell, though, which is worse: watching her decline and wondering what will happen next or wondering about my own situation. I couldn't remember the word "dustpan" the other day. Never mind I haven't mentioned a dustpan in possibly years, but I freaked a little that I could not remember the word. And then the round and round starts to happen as I do a sort of mental awareness and alertness check. Because wondering what will happen next is the best anyone can do. No one knows enough about this disease and it progresses differently for everyone.

What gets harder is to know how best to handle medical situations. Earlier this year my mother had an infection that required hospitalization followed by time in a rehab facility because of the antibiotic that had to be administered. That little jaunt did nothing good for her liver. When she seemed to have another flare-up of that particular bacteria, the nurse practitioner wanted to put her on a heavy-duty antibiotic that would require home health care and would nothing good for her already battered liver. The infectious disease doctor agreed with me that because my mother wasn't symptomatic, there was no point in stressing her liver and, given her age (88), palliative care made sense. The nurse practitioner was not happy with me, but we're now with hospice palliative care. Mom is visited weekly by a chaplain, a social worker, and a nurse.

At this point in my life, the best I can hope to do is keep her as comfortable as possible, do a better job of taking care of myself, and not let the concern about her or me consume me.

Wednesday, June 6

My Commencement Address

I wasn't asked to give a commencement address, but if I were. . .


Family members, friends, faculty: You are here today to celebrate a loved one’s graduation. It’s been 4, 5, 6. . .maybe more years in the making, but that day is at long last here. You will weep, you will laugh, you will heave sighs of relief, and you may yet groan a few more times when some of the final bills arrive. But, in the end, we all must believe that the entirety of this experience has been and will be worth it. 

Your stories are worth telling and I hope you will have the opportunity to do so. In fact, you may have noticed a booth in the lobby as you came in and some of you may have already availed yourselves of it. You are invited to tell at least part of your story: recording a message about your loved one’s journey to this giant stepping stone from university to what we call “real life.”

And now, to those of you who have one foot raised in anticipation of the final literal or figurative walk across this stage: that moment when you are handed what symbolizes this threshold of an end and a beginning.

What people typically say during a commencement speech has to do with celebrating what you have done so far and looking forward with boldness and anticipation for what you will yet accomplish, what you will yet become. Students are given admonitions to be men and women of integrity, to continue to challenge themselves, to be unwilling to settle for less than their best. Students are exhorted to discover their true passions and to strive to follow their dreams to help make the world a better place.

Of course speakers are making a lot of assumptions about you. We’re assuming you want to make the world a better place. We’re assuming you have hopes and dreams beyond paying off your college debt. We’re assuming you want to be a person of integrity and good will, that you want to do more and be more than you imagined possible. Maybe all you really want right now is a nap.

But right now all of us are caught up in the moment. We’re dazzled by the bright, freshness of possibility and opportunity. Some of us older folks are reflecting on the blur that was our own graduation, wondering what lofty words were shared with us and what we were challenged to try to be and do. Well, other than gainfully employed. I wonder how many of us have thought about the message we might write to our younger selves if we had the chance, now that we’re definitely older and quite possibly wiser.

This is the letter I would write to my younger self, the one who sat in that huge convention center with my department classmates and played dots on the program with my friend Gordon—yes, that much I remember.

Dear Elaine:
Don’t sweat the small stuff, not that you usually do. You have an idea of what you want to do next and that’s good. You have a plan, sort of. But you already know that plans change because of the thousands of factors you don’t even know to consider. This will be true for the rest of your life, so go ahead and make plans but be flexible. In fact, as much as you are able, be prepared for the unexpected because those unexpected turns may lead to the very best adventures.

Life is an adventure, by the way. It’s a collection of episodes, wrong turns, new people and situations, opportunities that don’t come to fruition and unexplained doors opened at random times. I could get preachy here but you’re not yet ready for that, but I’ll let you know that nothing is a surprise to the Sovereign of the Universe. All of those machinations of trying to make things work out a certain way will likely lead to greater frustration so, in the immortal words of Elsa, let it go. (Even without the character reference, you know what I mean.)

Do I have any actual advice for you? Sure. Look around you. Look up and around. There’s stuff going on in this big world and you’ll miss a lot of the important stuff if you’re constantly looking at your phone (which you don’t actually have yet so this will make more sense in time). And when you look up and around, take the time to wonder about the world around you.

There will always be negativity in the world. There were always be those who will believe the worst about anyone and everyone. Be better than that. When you see people, SEE people. See individuals, see personalities, see possibilities, see undiscovered talent. There will always be some people who are better able than you in many things and people from whom you can learn. There will always be some people who just set your teeth on edge. See them all as individuals and be prepared to learn even from those who make you want to scream. You have to trust me on this.

Most importantly, perhaps, don’t stop learning. I don’t mean just school learning because a lot of the most important things you’ve learned in this collegiate journey had nothing to do with the classroom or a content area. You learned from the way professors handled themselves; you learned from the way you interacted with your friends, your classmates, and those people foisted on you during group work who did nothing or not enough. You learned a lot about yourself and you learned some valuable skills, some of which you won’t recognize or realize for a while.

At a commencement address you will hear in the future, a provost will say that college is not a parenthetic; it is not just that bit between life before college and life after college. It is a part of your life experience. I cannot express how much you have learned about yourself and about the kind of human being you will be because you will not even know about it for weeks, months, even years.

Yes, graduation from college is a singular event. Not everyone gets to do this, and it’s possible that some in your graduating class and waited a lifetime to get here. It marks a significant milestone in the making of you though it is by far the last significant milestone in your life.

There will come a time you will look back on your college days—many of which you will choose to forget and some of which you will just forget. You will see these days much differently, and that’s part of life and learning in life, through life.

But today you are looking ahead. You are looking towards Possibility and towards Adventure. So go and be and do. Inhale deeply. Feel profoundly. Wonder. Be amazed. Learn whenever you can even about stuff that intrigues you. Be curious. Be prepared to be wrong, to be hurt. Laugh. Cry. Hug. Be considerate of others. Be passionate about what moves you. Be nice even to those who aggravate you. Be content. Push the edges of your boundaries. Be reckless on occasion but try to moderate the stupid. The world is a strange, frustrating, terrifying, aggravating, and amazing place. Experience as much of it as you can and learn from those experiences.

And now it’s time to put this particular experience behind you and take the literal or figurative step into your future. So go, and never lose your curiosity and your sense of wonder about the world.

Thank you.