My Post-Retirement Performance Report

This was supposed to be a bonding experience with my daughter.

This was supposed to be a bonding experience with my daughter.

Five years ago, I took a leap scarier than jumping out of a plane. It was the last day I had a boss other than the one I married. I’m grateful for these years, particularly for the chance to:

  1. Be flexible with my time so my wife’s move 2-1/2 years ago to New York City for her work strengthened rather than strained our relationship.
  2. Live with my children as a better person than while I carried the stress of my corporate work years–and to be part of the lives of young adults and children we now consider to be bonus family members.
  3. Write five books, publish four of them and even start on a sixth.
  4. Volunteer with great groups like the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, No Stigmas, 360 Youth Services and the University of Illinois Leadership Center.
  5. Hike to the top of Humphrey’s Peak in Arizona, Yosemite’s Half Dome and several sites along the Appalachian Trail, along with into the Grand Canyon.
  6. Travel with my family, Mom, in-laws and brothers, developing deeper connections on each trip.
  7. Be present for extended family, and for people who gave me the opportunity to help them through tough challenges in their lives.
  8. Speak and teach, as a university guest lecturer, as a mental health advocate and as a judge for literary contests.

It hasn’t all been rosy. I’ve made mistakes along the way. I’ve struggled at times to find energy and motivation. I’m not in as good of shape as I thought I would achieve, though I’m far better off than when I started. Financial results from my endeavors are what I expected. Unfortunately, I had very low expectations.

To everyone who has been part of my life these last five years, thank you. To my former colleagues at Nalco, Quaker Oats, with Congressman Terry Bruce and at The Daily Illini, I miss my interactions with you even though I can’t say I miss the corporate world in particular.

I look forward continuing my efforts to make the world just a little bit better while enjoying its beauty along the way. And I promise myself I’ll spend just a little more time blogging as well.

Coaching Employees Out of a Depression Spiral

Version 2It was at least a year too late when I realized that my firing of a talented, once-energetic employee didn’t need to happen. Her bubbly, sarcastic wit had turned at times malicious. Her engaging personality became more frequently sullen and withdrawn. Work performance deteriorated after years of strength.

I didn’t know it then, but extremely difficult home circumstances triggered this woman into an episodic depression spiral, one she was not then equipped to pull herself from alone. Not knowing the circumstances, I mistook her poor results for apathy. I didn’t explore alternative explanations and enough options to restore her results. I failed her as a leader/manager. Remarkably, she has since forgiven my inability to discern the true situation and remains a personal friend today.

If any manager should have seen the symptoms of depression and known how to help, it should have been me. I had gone through several depressive cycles, the worst coming as a teen when my pain turned for long stretches to suicide ideation. But I had pulled out of these cycles through trial-and-error rather than a clinical understanding of my disease. I figured out which behavioral changes helped turn my spirals upward without knowing there was evidence that these were the right approaches for many.

I hid my disease for decades, fearful that acknowledging I sometimes struggled with depression would damage my career or cause others to avoid or, perhaps even worse, pity me. Once publicly acknowledged, I dove into researching mental health challenges as an author and volunteer for NoStigmas, the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention and other organizations.

What I’ve learned would have made me far more effective in several prior roles leading a global corporate team, a Washington, D.C. congressional office, and even back to long-ago days as editor-in-chief of a large college newspaper.

For managers, the struggle in managing a depressed employee starts with even recognizing the behavior.
[Read more…]

A Mother Turns Tragic Loss Into a Lifetime of Purpose

A varsity football starter, 16-year-old Kyle Braid led naturally. A standout among his peers for an inclusive, inspirational attitude in addition to exceptional athletic ability, Kyle’s positive presence created a deep, wide imprint at an early age.

Following his sophomore season, one of Kyle’s Florida high school football coaches informed him that he would captain the following year’s team, urging Kyle to work hard to build his speed, skill and strength.

To Colleen Malany, Kyle was much more than a leader. He was her only child, the fulcrum around which she balanced her life and a constant source of pride, joy and fulfillment. He was all that, and much more, right up until Feb. 28, 1994. In an impulsive flash during the middle of a second six-week steroid cycle as he tried to bulk up the fastest way he had heard was possible, Kyle died by suicide.

Speaking at University of Illinois leadership development program.

Colleen Malany during her keynote speech at a University of Illinois leadership development program.

As Colleen talked about Kyle with 200 students and alumni mentors taking part in a recent University of Illinois leadership development program, I found myself frequently wiping tears, in part thinking about the horror of being a parent subjected to the worst imaginable pain and in part contemplating my own struggles with depression-driven suicide ideation as a teen. Several fellow alumni mentors, including many who had met Colleen but didn’t know her history, had to leave the room. Other mentors and student Imprint leadership program participants focused intensely on every word.

Colleen acknowledged that she still cannot accurately describe the agony that tormented every moment in the days, weeks, months and years following Kyle’s loss. Colleen’s story, though, doesn’t just reach an ending with losing her son. It also starts there.

“We had to find a purpose, some way to take Kyle’s life, to take our experience, and turn it into a gift for others,” Colleen told us. “It was the only way to make sense of our pain.”

As she and then-husband Ken Braid grieved, they considered the best way to memorialize Kyle’s life. They found it in creating a program to provide high school student leaders with the skills to create even broader impacts within their schools and communities. Colleen and Ken created the J. Kyle Braid Leadership Foundation. [Read more…]

Lessons from Civil Rights Legend Timuel Black

It could have been one of life’s passing pleasures, a serendipitous opportunity to spend an evening absorbing the insights of 96-year-old civil rights leader, educator and World War II veteran Timuel Black, Jr. on what it was like to create his own pathways through life.

As we talked, however, it seemed that there must be a purpose to our fortunate table placements beyond my simple fascination with his living history. There were lessons to be gleaned, insights that apply to any young adult but seemed particularly relevant to an intensely dedicated and gregarious African American man who has lived as part of our family between college breaks during the past 18 months.

Graciously, Mr. Black was willing to share during our extended conversation.

Timuel Black, Jr. has both endured and created dramatic events. The grandson of slaves, he survived the Normandy Invasion and Battle of the Bulge during World War II before making a lifelong commitment to human rights after seeing the horrors of the Buchenwald Nazi concentration camp. An educator who received his master’s degree from the University of Chicago, he brought in Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. for his first Chicago appearance, organized Chicago’s Freedom Trains to the March on Washington, helped elect Chicago’s first African American mayor and introduced around a young man named Barack Obama who became another important first.

His history is extraordinary: his insights are equally important.

“If Demetrius were sitting here instead of me, what would you tell him?” I asked from my seat next to Mr. Black at a fundraising dinner for the Kennedy Forum, a group founded by former Congressman Patrick Kennedy to improve mental health awareness and treatment.

Chicago 96-year-old civil rights legend Timuel Black, Jr. and his wife Zenobia

Chicago 96-year-old civil rights legend Timuel Black, Jr. and his wife Zenobia

“I’d tell him to prepare himself; academically, if academics are the right direction for him. But whatever he wants to accomplish, he needs to be prepared, really prepared. The door of opportunity doesn’t swing open very often. If you’re ready, you’ll find a way through, but you have to be prepared,” Mr. Black replied. “Barack Obama didn’t become President just because he wanted it. He was ready when the time came.

“And I’d also tell him to persevere,” Mr. Black added. “There’s always someone or some institution to stand in the way of your success. If you know what you want to achieve – and you know it’s right – keep working, keep pushing. Don’t give up. You may even achieve beyond your dreams. I didn’t grow up dreaming about a black President. But we persevered. Something greater than my dreams happened.”

[Read more…]

Creating Golden Rule Social Services

“Each individual has different needs, different capabilities, different dreams. What I see in government programs is an effort to fit people into boxes, to make people easy to administer, rather than to provide resources we need to become our greatest selves.”

Tamika Jackson
Doing Unto Others; The Golden Rule Revolution

With more than 100 government welfare and life-improvement programs potentially available as sources of support, Americans most in need of assistance are often overwhelmed by the sheer magnitude and complexity of government support structures.

Every year, elected officials debate adding to or deleting from this over-mixed structure, providing never-ending fodder for the divisive hate game dominating politics today. During these debates, accusations quickly turn overwrought.

Hate the poor. Burn taxpayer money. Racist. Enabler. One percenter. Cultural rot. No accountability.

When it comes to social service programs, this debate misses a more critical issue.

Existing programs are bureaucracy centric, designed to remain within the purview of particular legislative committees or to ensure the legacy of a particular elected official. Each has its own application, funding requirements, auditing processes, staffing and timelines aimed more at fulfilling process requirements than at providing support. Many programs are established with set financial cliffs that force participants to lose nearly as much, and sometimes more, in support than they gain in income when they work additional hours or earn a raise, providing dramatic disincentives to career development.

People and their needs don’t fit neatly within congressional or state legislative jurisdictions. [Read more…]

Traveling with the Oldies (Music and In-Laws)

Taking my 70-year-old-plus in-laws on a 1,800-mile, seven-day road trip had potential relationship calamity written all over it.

My in-laws’ vacation history includes sit-down meals just 15 minutes into the start of a long day’s drive, genealogy-inspired gravestone stenciling and anguished moans at missed shopping opportunities — none of which I find comprehensible.

I wondered how three decades of strong in-law relationships would survive an excess of 50s music and Cracker Barrel consumption, particularly after my father-in-law let me know he had mapped every possible stop at those “Old Country Store” restaurants on our route.

Once the trip was gifted at Christmas, there was no turning back. We would travel from Chicago’s suburbs to Washington, D.C. to New York City and back home in seven days.

The reward for me was time with my wife, who recently relocated for work to Long Island City, New York. For my in-laws, it was play time with the D.C. grandsons, drinks and dinner with three of their four children, the 9/11 Memorial, a couple of shows (Jim Parsons’ play was a particular treat to diehard Big Bang Theory fan-in-laws) and a two-hour side trip to photograph a Brooklyn apartment complex my grandfather-in-law lived in during the 1930 census.

Somehow, it worked. While we didn’t discuss rules before departing, several elements contributed to the trip’s success: [Read more…]

With Family Afar, Thankful for An Unlikely Friendship

From a distance, the 350 pounds Jim Bowen packs into his thick, muscular frame appear menacing. A shaved skull and elongated Van Dyke beard edged with the first trimmings of grey only add to the suggestion that he must be a bouncer at an edgy Daytona Beach bar.

As Jim approached my wife’s Aunt Annette, he pulled open the passenger door and reached in to extricate her from the passenger seat. She looked up at him, reached immediately for her inhaler and prepared herself. Sharp, relentlessly combative and attractive despite a series of medical misfortunes, Annette knows the routine. The long-ago Miss Otis Air Force Base turned world-roaming travel agent has been widowed for more years than she cares to count and, equally challenging, now requires daily living assistance thanks to a shattered hip too dangerous to replace.

Jim gently wedged his thick hands under her arms and waited for her to move her legs to the side before slowly lifting her from the car and carefully spinning her into a waiting wheelchair. It was my first trip to visit Aunt Annette since she lost her ability to live independently, a tough adjustment for such a strong-willed woman.

Jim Bowen with Aunt Annette

Jim Bowen with Aunt Annette

That Annette is accepting the adjustment is partially a testament to Jim. Through several years of physical turmoil that have turned even more troubling in recent months, Jim has been her protector, her friend, her handyman and, more recently, her escape from confinement.

In many ways, they are opposites:

  • Jim dwarfs the petite Annette in physical stature.
  • At 51, Jim is youthful and vigorous. A lifetime of battling Lupus never slowed 74-year-old Annette in the way recent challenges have confined her.
  • Since moving from Upstate New York to the Atlantic Coast of Florida as a child, Jim has rarely departed the area other than during his six years of Air Force service. Annette enjoyed decades of world travel with Uncle Ed. She set off to Antarctica not long after his passing, never afraid of overseas adventure.

The unlikely relationship between Jim and Annette formed initially at the Moose Family Center, a lodge dedicated to raising money for the Mooseheart Child City outside of Chicago and Moosehaven retirement community near Jacksonville, Florida. A regular at the Moose Lodge who has taken on leadership roles at times, Jim worried when Annette hadn’t been around for too many days.

One of Jim’s checks found Annette in the midst of a serious medical emergency. In stubborn fashion typical for her lineage, Annette refused to allow an ambulance to take her to the hospital. Jim drove her instead. In the years since, he’s taken on a substantial role for Annette’s physical wellbeing, along with simply being her friend.

During the day, Jim toils at his single-man construction and handyman business. Several times each week, though, he turns into driver, bill payer, confidant, care provider and personal shopper (with coffee-flavored Haagen Dazs ice cream her clear priority based on my freezer check).

Annette’s handful of blood relatives reside 800 or more miles away and are able to visit only infrequently, as are several other relatives connected through her departed husband. Her nuclear family is too small and spread out to provide the assistance that close-knit, extended families historically delivered in difficult times.

Through a series of challenges, Jim’s concern and attention has helped save Annette’s life and, just as importantly, her mental health. The men and women at Kist Assisted Living who rotate in to help Aunt Annette with her daily needs do incredible work (including, in small world fashion, the sister of a man my wife has worked with for more than a decade). Even so, their attention is split among multiple patients. Jim’s visits are dedicated to her.

Jim doesn’t need to do this. There’s no family connection, no sense of religious obligation, no commitment to remuneration though Aunt Annette certainly tries to return his generosity when possible. He sacrifices some of his infrequent leisure time, a valuable asset for a single man, in order to take care of his friend Annette. He is gentle, patient and able to endure the routine needling from her that is traditional to family encounters. It turns out, he’s also well prepared, having worked for several years at an assisted living center before the heartache of losing too many residents who became his friends weighed so heavily on him that he decided to pursue a new path.

As nuclear families shrink and spread out, it’s relationships built on true friendship borne out of chance encounters that increasingly sustain people in times of need.

When I joined my wife and in-laws in a recent visit to Aunt Annette to spend time with her and share stories of times past, it was my first chance to meet Jim. It’s reassuring to see in Jim a gentle giant of a man who cares and worries more frequently than we ever could from our distance.

Jim Bowen is a difference maker in this world, making life better one person at a time. It turns out that he’s the antithesis of menacing.

When Pasties Appear on Guys’ Weekend

Staring at the pasties we caressed in our hands, we weren’t sure what to do next.

Do we envelop them in our mouths, wrapping our lips as far around as possible? Is it better to nibble at the edge while maintaining a firm handhold?

For the rest of the story, read my blog at the Huffington Post.

One hint. This photo plays an important role.

Launching over Volkswagen Rock in Piers Gorge with best friends Dave Steel (front left), me (front right), Mike Collins (middle right) and guide Forrest Smith on the Wild Ride.

Launching over Volkswagen Rock in Piers Gorge with best friends Dave Steel (front left), me (front right), Mike Collins (middle right) and guide Forrest Smith on the Wild Ride.




Leaving NYC Without My Wife

Manhattan skylineSweat dripped onto my glasses as my wrenched right arm stretched up the bottom of one sofa section, holding a nut in place while my left arm extended to twist an ingeniously minimalist tool. Pains reached every muscle when I earlier passed the one-man torture test otherwise known as dresser assembly. Still, backaches from the 20 hours I spent putting seven pieces of IKEA furniture together over Labor Day weekend were easy in comparison to what followed.

When I left New York’s Long Island City Wednesday afternoon to drive home to Illinois, I left someone very important behind: My wife, Cathy. Granted, I’ve known this day was coming since early June. That’s when she received an offer to take on her dream challenge; a chance to test all of the skills she has developed and honed since skating into her teenage years. I knew she needed to take it, and encouraged her to do so. I’m proud of her, happy for her and know that making this move is what is best for her.

Besides, now that I’m pursuing what I love as a struggling writer (the writing is the enjoyable part), I couldn’t logically argue that she shouldn’t pursue her dream. It doesn’t make it easier. Cathy has actually been based in New York for two months already, but the permanence of setting up her new apartment struck a bit harder than I had hoped during the drive home.

I’ve had time to come to grips with our separation. Logically, I know I have nothing to complain about. Military spouses go months and even years without seeing each other. We were separated for nine months at the start of our relationship while I was in Washington, D.C. and she was finishing up at the University of Illinois. The longest we are likely to go without seeing each other is three weeks, maybe four when she gets into her crunch season at work. We’re even likely to meet in places with more options for entertainment than Zanesville, Ohio, the host city of many of our early relationship dates.

Time has made it easier to alter my life plans and my mindset. It’s tough to not have her around, but knowing I’m not missing her at night gives me more freedom to connect with others and engage in activities she would just as soon skip. When we met in Washington, D.C., during July, I drove so I could hike in Western Maryland (Rocky Gap State Park) and in West Virginia (Spruce Knob and Seneca Rocks). On the way back from New York this time, I stopped to hike up ski trails at Camelback Mountain in Pennsylvania and spent a few hours at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Museum in Cleveland. It’s easier to accept the separation if I use some of the time apart in a way I find nourishing.

Why don’t I just move out to be with her full-time in Long Island City? The easy answer is that Cathy works long, hard hours and enjoys that pace. At least until I build up a new network, I would be lonely if Long Island City was my home base. I do have friends in the area and plan to re-connect during extended trips over the coming months and years. But most of my days would start in 587 square feet that offer more difficult access to the dozens of forests, parks and lakes I frequent for sunlight, exercise, writing and simple enjoyment of peace and nature.

I also try to avoid situations that could spiral the wrong direction. Having dealt with severe depression as a teenager, I’ve since learned important behaviors I can control to preserve my mental health. Maintaining connections with people I enjoy is important. Our daughter, the youngest of two, is a six-hour drive away at Mizzou, but I can see her more frequently from here than I would if I were based in New York. Our son is home. I enjoy our time together, particularly after having worked too many hours through his and our daughter’s childhoods. I also relish being part of a large family concentrated around Chicago, connections that would be far tougher to maintain from long distance.

So I’m focusing my energy on making this move work for both of us. We’ve had great visits since Cathy moved, spending more real time connecting than we had in a long time. Perhaps, after 26 years of marriage, this physical separation can bring us closer. Unquestionably, we are off on a new adventure.

We will build our altered life together one step at a time. Without pre-packaged tools and instructions, I don’t know exactly how it is supposed to turn out. I’m sure I’ll put a drawer liner in upside down or dent a surface from time to time, but I’m determined to make our life strong, stable and, hopefully, more than just a bit beautiful.

On my 50th, 50 Reasons to be Grateful

Reaching the half-century mark today seems an appropriate time to reflect on some of the reasons I have to be grateful in life.

To make it simple, I’ll go with 50 reasons, though I make no promise these are the most important. Having gone to Target earlier this week to pick up two items, only to need to walk aisles to remember one of them, I’m sure I’m leaving many people, places and events off that belong. In no particular order, I am grateful for:

  1. Suffering no long-term injuries and making at least one shot in each game while playing two-on-two basketball last night with my son, daughter and a very talented college basketball player. My son was not as grateful to be stuck with me as his teammate.
  2. Gelato in Italy.
  3. Doing a substantial amount of my writing and taking long walks at the Morton Arboretum and in other forest preserves and outdoor settings. I also appreciate the ability to support the Arboretum on its Advisory Board.
  4. The literally hundreds of accidents in life narrowly averted, including last Saturday when a gray convertible tried to run me off the highway while doing what must have been more than 100 miles an hour. I’ll leave the letters out, but Illinois plate ending in 9619, this is directed at you.
  5. Mike and Dave, with whom I’ve shared more than a few rounds of misguided adventures, and who, more importantly, have been good friends for the past 35 years.
  6. Colleagues, staff and mentors whose hard work, enthusiasm and creativity contributed to my corporate career and ability to retire early. There are literally hundreds of standouts.
  7. Congressman Terry Bruce, who gave me opportunities in my 20s that changed my life, and the many extraordinary people I worked with in his office.
  8. The police in St. Charles, Illinois, who exercised restraint with their weapons 32 years ago when they thought that our teenage plastic toy war games were an armed theater robbery and only weeks later that our retrieval of golf balls from the Fox River included a burglary stop because we walked through someone’s yard. A special shout out to everyone who sang “Happy Birthday” to me in the St. Charles jail as I turned 18 while the police were figuring out that nobody had actual weapons.
  9. Even the truly awful bosses I’ve had, who taught me much about how I did not want to behave.
  10. Aurelio’s Pizza, and my wife for making it a family tradition.
  11. People open to having fact-based discussions on political issues without severing friendships.
  12. A large family with all six brothers and sisters enjoying the time we have together, and the many nieces and nephews who make family gatherings surprising and fun.
  13. Apple fritters at Fleckenstein’s Bakery in Mokena.
  14. All of the teachers and coaches who molded me, and all of the coaches and teachers who molded our children, with a particular thank you to Stu Mansfield who taught me that only my best was good enough.
  15. Childhood camping at Woodhaven Lakes.
  16. Unrelated adults who helped me grow up. Deacon Stan and his wife Gay, Jim and Sharon, Ken and Betty, and so many more.
  17. All of the remarkable people who are no longer with us, but whose lives have touched me. Aunts, uncles, grandparents, cousins, classmates, Dad, Mindy, Shorty, Deacon Stan and too many more to list here.
  18. Writers who’ve educated my mind and influenced my thinking.
  19. Giving life a chance, even when I felt ready to give up.
  20. Shannon’s dog Snoop, who pawed my head at 5:15 this morning to demand to be taken on a walk. He barely made it outside before making it clear why he needed to be outside. Glad I brought a bag. I think it’s his way of saying Happy Birthday.
  21. The opportunity to see beautiful places, particularly when work paid for the visit.
  22. The Daily Illini, and all the remarkable people I met working there.
  23. New Orleans food. Café du Monde. K-Paul’s. Commander’s Palace. I could go on, but it would make me hungry.
  24. Tennis (playing) and soccer (watching) with Eric.
  25. Outdoor sports my wife will do with me, particularly whitewater rafting, tubing and ziplining, none of which require leg movement.
  26. The men and women who have protected our country, particularly those who’ve made the ultimate sacrifice. It’s a shame the abuse so many have taken, from those who targeted the soldiers during Vietnam to those prioritizing bonuses over patient care at the VA.
  27. All of the remarkable friends and family who have helped me with my books.
  28. Oktoberfest in Munich with my brothers and a friend. Hefeweizen.
  29. Skydiving and other extreme living with my daughter Shannon.
  30. My son Matt’s humorous jabs from nowhere, which contribute endless laughter to family discussions.
  31. My parents, whose love and lessons still guide and provide strength. Even though 18 years have passed since Dad was able to state his lessons, I still hear him when I’m making a crucial decision.
  32. Mom’s strawberry-rhubarb pie and apple crisp.
  33. Any day that includes street paella and hiking in Montserrat.
  34. Carol for giving me my first kiss behind the bingo sign at St. Matthew’s School in second grade.
  35. In-laws who accepted me with none of the challenges I hear some suffer from the families they marry into.
  36. The opportunity for reflection as I walked the prison grounds on Robben Island and thought about the life of prisoner 46664.
  37. Everyone who forgave me when I failed them. There are so many.
  38. Hot showers. Having lived even for short times in places with no hot water expanded my appreciation for this simple pleasure.
  39. Whoever invented eyeglasses, Ben Franklin for inventing bifocals, and whoever created the progressives my old eyes need to enjoy all of the beauty on earth.
  40. My wife Cathy for catching up last night on her commitment to cook one meal every four years. If she stays back on schedule, I only need to wait 30 months until my next home-cooked meal that I don’t prepare.
  41. Eddie Murphy and every great comedian who followed in bringing laughter to days that needed it.
  42. People who’ve helped me find my greater purpose in life.
  43. The founders of our nation. Despite some critical flaws, the Constitution and Bill of Rights established principles of governance the world had not seen, and which enrich my life today.
  44. Twenty-six years of marriage and the wisdom to help us through the next chapters in our lives.
  45. Our extra kids who’ve joined us in our home at various times. Each has enriched our family.
  46. My Mom for her decision to ignore medical advice and have me anyway. I wasn’t always sure she made a good decision, but I have no doubt now that I’m grateful for the decision she made.
  47. The Chicago Bulls, Blackhawks and Bears, for giving me reason to enjoy sports despite being a born and bred Cubs fans.
  48. Words in anger swallowed rather than said.
  49. Seven layer dip and seven layer cookies.
  50. Lucky breaks, often following years of hard work.