Mask Charade

From my earliest childhood memory, going to church is something I’ve enjoyed. Whether getting out of bed on Sunday mornings during college, or Kathy and I taking our three kids each week through their high school years, or now when it’s only the two of us, remaining committed to attend is a priority. While faith is involved, it’s also about focusing on something greater than myself and expressing gratitude for blessings.

The past two months of a global pandemic changed our Sunday mornings from getting dressed and driving to a building into sitting on the couch barefoot and watching an online service with empty pews. While churches are starting to reopen with proper social distancing and limited attendance, I don’t plan to hurry back anytime soon.

The ‘aha!’ moment as I reach age 60 in two weeks? It’s not about the building; it’s not about the pageantry; it’s not about the ‘big T’ or ‘little t’ traditions. Nor the dogma. Nor the shared beliefs. Nor the time, treasure and talent. All that is human construct.

What does matter is do I place – 24/7/365 – the needs of others ahead of myself? If the answer is yes, then it’s not important which religion I resonate with or what location I attend. There are no points given in Heaven for showing up. The question I’ll someday have to answer is did I keep the new commandment to “Love one another as I have loved you (John 15:12)” for more than just an hour on Sundays?

Class Dismissed

About a month into her freshman year of college, our youngest called home and said, “I don’t want to major in math anymore.” While she may have worried we’d be disappointed, that quickly dissipated when we said, “What do you want to do?”

Kirsten switched to Corporate Communications with a minor in Business. Got a job at the Daily Texan – which last year was named the best student newspaper in the nation. Worked her way up from editing, to copy desk chief, to associate managing editor. Spent a semester in New York City interning at an entertainment management firm.

Then came the last semester of her senior year and – like so many – she’s finished up taking online classes, homebound to stay safe from the pandemic. That meant missing out on celebrating with friends, saying goodbye to coworkers and, with hiring on hold, having a chance to interview for her entry into the workforce.

Today and tomorrow, the UT-Austin Class of 2020 holds remote online commencement. Kirsten won’t get to experience the walk across the stage with her Moody College of Communication classmates or the music and fireworks celebration with all 8,000+ graduates in front of the Main Building. She’ll dress in her cap and gown, we’ll play ‘Pomp and Circumstance’ on my iPhone, and raise a toast in the backyard.

The end is different; however, the achievement is the same as past generations. Four years of hard work. Youthful rites of passage. Growing into an amazing woman. Graduating with Honors. Life filled with adventure ahead.

During our honeymoon, Kathy and I made a list of near-, mid- and long-term goals. It’s amazing how many came true during the past 31 years. One is my favorite: “Our children graduate from the University of Texas.” While we later encouraged all three to consider other schools, being raised in a home where the mother did a burnt orange laundry load each week, the father spent way too many hours talking Longhorn football, and a UT flag flew on a tree out the front door, perhaps they were predestined.

Thank you to Kirsten, Kyle and Kelsey for joining mom and me as five graduates from the Forty Acres. The Eyes of Texas ARE Upon You.

Culture Stars

Celebrities are often criticized for stating their opinions – a majority leaning to one side of the political spectrum – while living lavish lifestyles. “Stick with acting and keep quiet.” “If you don’t like America, move somewhere else.” “I don’t see you out helping the poor; put your money where your mouth is.”

During the past many weeks, though, it’s nice to see famous folks donating their time and talents (and maybe even treasures) to raise money for those impacted by COVID-19, especially health care workers. From Broadway stars singing in unison in their social-distanced homes, to movie stars voicing over pictures from the front lines, to TV stars reprising iconic roles – like Tony Shaloub as ‘Monk’ – so many are trying to be a ray of light during these difficult days.

A personal favorite of ours, Matthew McConaughey, Minister of Culture for the University of Texas, agreed to hold a chat forum on The Athletic last month. Technical difficulties caused it to start a half hour late. While a lot of celebrities would have immediately thrown blame, ‘Hey, I was here… not my fault,’ the Academy Award winner who teaches acting to UT students, typed: “McConaughey here—tardy for class… excuse me—password glitch—what up—let’s jam”

There’s a good chance when we finally come out of this, human nature kicks in and we’re back to our same old habits. On the other hand, perhaps we’ll have new appreciation for each other and the challenges we face together. It would be great if that respect and concern carries over and continues in the new normal.

New Abnormal

One of the benefits of having several events cancelled during the shutdown – including a return trip to Nigeria – is I attended quite a few Zoom meetings and webinars about what business might look like once the U.S. reopens. I also asked my clients in health care what they’re experiencing. Here are some things I heard:

– The pandemic will transition into an endemic that remains close by… returning intermittently in waves until a vaccine arrives
– People are comfortable working from home… and the office will never be the same; there are more important things to care about than a child making noise or the dog walking into frame
– Transparent communication is essential at all levels of the organization… including frequent updates and checking in with direct reports and peers on how they’re doing, not just work
– A little over two months ago unemployment was at a generational low, now there are 26 million people receiving benefits. When the economy picks up, there will be a lot of talented individuals anxious to get back to doing great things
– While calendars are packed all day with virtual meetings, attendees recognize the need to be efficient and effective… and many are ending five minutes early to give everyone a small break

One client – an executive – told me that he scheduled a meeting for 90 minutes and someone challenged him when it ended 30 minutes early: “Why did you take up that block on my calendar? Someone else could have booked it.” My client answered: “It’s the end of the day, I figured you might appreciate the extra time.” The person responded: “You’re right. It’s 4:30 and I haven’t even eaten lunch. Thank you.”

I saw a LinkedIn post today that suggested skipping the Oscars, Emmys and Tonys next year and holding an awards show for doctors, nurses, EMS and other front-liners who are the real stars among us. I’ll watch that one.

Focal Point

When Kathy and I took birthing classes during her first pregnancy, there was a suggestion to have a personal item – like a teddy bear – with her at the hospital during labor. That focal point served as a distraction during painful contractions… taking her mind to a different place as she took in a series of ‘he-he-hoo’ breaths.

While 30 years have passed since our first experience in the birthing suite, the technique seems relevant today. With everything going on in the world, it’s easy to be sucked into a swirling whirlpool of negativity around the latest news.

Headlines. Twitter. Briefings. Every bit of information combines to impact how someone views their situation right now.

Using well-intentioned words with family and friends like ‘it will all work out fine’ doesn’t alleviate what they are experiencing… and it might add to their frustration. Perhaps the best thing you can do is show empathy: acknowledge their feelings and let them know you’re there should they need someone to listen.

As for your own health, take a daily break from news outlets and the online rabbit hole. Spend time reading the novel you never got to, binge watching a comedy you haven’t seen… or focus on a teddy bear and allow yourself a few minutes of peace. And be sure to breathe.