Tuesday, January 28, 2014

"Salami!" -- Ah, the Memories

The great comedian Carl Reiner once gave a memorable lecture -- gag fest, really -- that my husband and I attended and have never forgotten.
He joked about the issue of name recall as you get to a certain age. The problem, he said, isn't that you lose the name. It just takes longer to find it in the encyclopedias of information you've stored.

 So, he said, when a name is slow in coming to him, he substitutes the word "salami."
As in,  "I bumped into… salami.. at the deli the other day." Or, "I'm reading a really great book by… salami."

Since then, my husband and I shout out "salami" and laugh when the wurst thing happens and don't feel so bad about any slippage.
But now, the New York Times reports that Reiner might be right on pepperoni.  Our brains are just too stuffed.
"The larger the library you have in your head, the longer it usually takes to find a particular word," it reports of a study on word retrieval.
Published in Topics in Cognitive Science, the study talks about two kinds of intelligence -- "fluid" intelligence, which "includes short-term memory, like holding a phone number in mind, analytical reasoning, and the ability to tune out distractions, like ambient conversation," according to the Times article. And "crystallized" intelligence, which is "accumulated knowledge, vocabulary and expertise."
What really may be happening as you age is that "crystallized" intelligence accumulates to the point where there's less room for "fluid" intelligence.
"Crystallized knowledge (as measured by New York Times crosswords, for example) climbs sharply between ages 20 and 50 and then plateaus, even as the fluid kind (like analytical reasoning) is dropping steadily — by more than 50 percent between ages 20 and 70 in some studies," the Times reports.

To me, that "crystallized" knowledge sounds a lot like "wisdom" -- the kind of contribution that elders could make to the workplace, our communities and to our families.

Ah, if only they would listen. ...

Friday, January 24, 2014

Burnishing Olympic Gold, 50 Years Later

The victorious Vesper 8, posing in 1964. Bill Stowe is on right.

As Olympic rower Bill Stowe says at the end of his book, "All Together," about winning gold:
"There is no greater high and it can endure for years."
50 years, to be exact.
It's been that long since a motley crew from the Vesper Boat Club won gold at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics in the eight-oared boat. Many of those men in that surprise upset will be honored tomorrow at a banquet  hosted by Vesper. For that occasion, I wrote a piece in today's Philadelphia Inquirer, which I'm reprinting below.   Interestingly, two of the rowers -- Bill Stowe and Emory Clark -- have written books about this seminal experience in their lives. (Clark's is yet unpublished). And all of them, every four years, at Olympic time, are asked to talk about their victory and show their medals, now touched by thousands of hands.

By Dorothy Brown

'Old men." "A curious crew." "A crusty bunch of adults." That's what the
press called the eight-man crew from Vesper Boat Club as they swept the
national trials and, in a huge upset, headed for the Tokyo Olympics.

The year was 1964, a half-century ago, and the ragtag Vesper crew had
just upended six decades of collegiate dominance of the Olympics'
premier rowing event. Their feat also placed Boathouse Row in an
international spotlight, secured its prominence as a coaching mecca, and
helped catapult the sport here and around the country.

Playing a significant role was Olympian Jack Kelly, brother of Grace and
son of John B., for whom Kelly Drive is named. Jack Kelly, a longtime
city councilman and Vesper officer, lured the nation's best rowers, even
arguing for "special assignment" for Olympic hopefuls in the military.

Who were these men?

Tom and Joe Amlong, a brawny pair of loud-mouthed brothers in their late
20s, one in the Air Force, the other in the Army; Hugh Foley, 20, and
Stan Cwiklinski, 21, quiet, hard-working students at LaSalle College; Bill
Knecht, 34, a father of six with a sheet-metal business; and three men
who had rowed in college - Marine Lt. Emory Clark, 26, and Boyce Budd,
25, (both Yale) and Navy Lt. Bill Stowe, 26, (Cornell).

Their 115-pound cox, Bob Zimonyi, was a 46-year-old Hungarian refugee
who often muttered his commands in his native language.

"A boatload of men will beat a boatload of boys every time," boasted
their diminutive, hard-driving coach, Al Rosenberg, after his "men"
outpaced the "boys" of undefeated Harvard and the University of
California at the trials.

Rosenberg, who died in December, will be missed Saturday<NO1>1-25<NO>,
at a banquet honoring the Vesper Eight and others who competed in the
'64 games. Theirs is an aging fraternity but their stories, to be retold
at the event, are a testimony to the championship spirit that continues
to draw elite rowers to Boathouse Row.

Athletes like Olympic-aspirant Vicky Opitz, 25, who trained at Vesper
before competing in the World Cup last year in Switzerland, where her
eight broke the world record. Her crew then nailed the World
Championship in South Korea.

"Part of my decision to train in Philadelphia," she said last week, "was
its incredible history as a mecca of rowing on the East Coast and the
stories that come out of there of people who are willing to push and
sacrifice to accomplish their goals."

In his diary, Emory Clark wrote of the pain and the joy of training on
the Schuylkill in the winter of 1964:

"You put the boat in and rain goes down your neck, but once you get out
and warmed up it's terrific - even if you are rigged low and you get
hung up every stroke and Al calls you on your release - I enjoyed it out
there tonight - lashing away at the water, cussing Zimonyi and counting
strokes.... Dark when we came in and still nasty. Wonderful. ... Pray
that the warm weather will see an end to our aches and pains."

Fellow rower Bill Stowe, in his 2005 book All Together wrote: "We rowed
six days a week in all kinds of weather, and we killed ourselves. When
we were not rowing, we weightlifted - tortured our bodies. ... We
greeted the sun in the morning and put it to bed in the evening. ... It
was both wonderful and dreadful."

It was nearly nightfall on Oct. 15, 1964, when, in a wind-delayed race,
the Vesper Eight churned its way toward the finish line, still 500
meters away. Suddenly, "there was a bright explosion and another, and I
had something else for my ravaged brain to focus on," Clark wrote.
"Could we have passed the finish line? Had I so miscalculated?"

Under flares bursting to light the way, Vesper streaked across the
finish five seconds ahead of the Germans. The interminable months of
workouts and weights and worry were over in 6 minutes, 18.23 seconds,
clinching gold for the United States and Philadelphia.

Dorothy Brown is a former editor at The Inquirer, and a member of Vesper
who rows only for fun.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Taking the Fork in the Road

               When you come to a fork….                    Courtesy

If you had been a fly on the wall, listening to our discussion, you might have come away with this conclusion:
Finding a new path after leaving a longtime career is a bit like hiking in a forest with few trail markers -- and no GPS.
You know that any trail will take you through interesting scenery, but which one to choose? Walking through the forest with some buddies lends support to your decision. Also helpful is not worrying about the destination.
As they say, “It’s about the journey.”
Or as Yogi Berra said, "If you come to a fork in the road, take it."
Thirteen of us recently chewed over this transition issue, each sharing insights and experience.  Judy, a U.S. bankruptcy judge is retiring in five months and just getting over the “terror” of that prospect; Margit, an entrepreneur who loves running a small company is contemplating a different challenge; Sharon and Cece, who had full time jobs when our Project Renewment group first met, worked up the courage to drop to part-time; Essie, a hearing specialist, Tobi, a scientist; Jean, a business school instructor, and Barbara, who carries huge responsibility in a large non-profit, still love their work, but want a glimpse of what’s around the bend.
Three others (Carol, Carole and Shellie) left their careers years ago and have considerable experience if not expertise in what’s on the other side.
As for me, now two years out, I’m plunging ahead on many fronts – and feeling a bit lost in the woods.

On the pull of work, aka "I don't clean, cook, shop…."
Margit, for one, has never spent time at home and doesn’t relish the idea of doing so. “My whole life, I got up in the morning and went to work. I took a month off when I had my kids,” she said. “I do nothing around the house. I don’t clean, cook, shop, nothing. I never have. I get no enjoyment out of that. I don’t know what the next phase will look like…I need to figure out what will even appeal to me. I don’t know what I want.”
For Essie, Thanksgiving with 30 people reinforced her determination to keep working pretty much full time. “I was so glad to go back to work on Monday and it wasn’t because I was tired.” The holidays, she said, “were  a long time at home.” On the other hand, work offers  “a place to go. I have an excuse to be out of the house, to have a routine, to have this definition of time where I’m supposed to be somewhere and I don’t have to be home looking at all this sh--. That I don’t like to do. And I get paid for it. I like to get paid for what I do. What’s wrong with that?”
Yes, concurred Cece, “There’s security about being able to get up and go to the office.” At work, “you’re focused.”  
The prospect of losing that focus – and identity --  is what brought Judy, a bankruptcy judge who has “loved every minute of it” for 28 years, to our meeting.
“I am retiring May 16. Gulp. The terror I feel about getting up in the morning without getting dressed up and walking out the door,  I’ve sort of gotten over that, I think. I’m excited about prospects and certainly that’s why I’m here.” Still, she said, it’s about “your identity.”
“You’ve had a working life all these years and you’re intertwined with that.”

Why the fear of leaving work? 
 “We grew up thinking we had to push, we had to achieve,” said Marlyn, a  psychologist. What effect does that early conditioning have in terms of how we face the rest of our lives? The fear of not doing something. The fear of finding something that you think is really meaningful. I think you’re dealing with some really ingrained issues.”

Taking baby steps into the thicket

Said Sharon, a speech pathologist: “What really helped me the most was that I began thinking about the process.” Sharon decided she wanted to retire from the hospital where she worked, “but I didn’t want to retire from working. I loved what I did and felt that I had reached a certain level of experience and expertise and I wanted to keep doing it.” Through planning, she was able to piece together two days a week of work – one teaching and the other seeing patients. “I still feel that I’m contributing and doing something that I love, but I’m no longer rushing.”

Margit, the entrepreneur: “I think we’re talking about doing the kind of work that we find meaningful. A number of people here work in therapy type situations. They work one on one with individuals and their satisfaction is from helping a given individual. Others of us are helping a system or a community.” Either way, she said, satisfaction comes from being “in a
dynamic situation that’s alive and where you can play an important role.”
Still, the trick is to find the venue for that satisfaction. “It’s almost as if we want people to ‘show me THE road,’ but there isn’t one road.”

To quote my neighbor, Ellen, a later-age artist enjoying increasing success and too busy to come to the meeting: “Retiring is like job hunting. You have to go out and research it,” she said. “You network, you meet with people, you figure it out.  If anybody is sitting around feeling like there’s nothing to do, they’re not trying.”

Is there a roadmap? Or just blind turns? 
“Change is the new norm,” said Jean, a business school instructor. “So we can assume that we will not go forward on a straight trajectory, but we’re changing according to what our situation is at the time and maybe that won’t stop.”
Echoing the notion of change,  Margit said,
“I think we look at retirement as a time when we’re going to do The Thing, but maybe I’ll do something for two years and then I’ll lose interest in that and find something that excites me more. I like the idea of approaching it  like looking for a job. But reinventing yourself multiple times.”

Now, the conversation turned my previous blog about Wisty Rorabacher, a woman who transplanted herself from the Ozarks to Greenfield, Mass. Her walk in the woods – a fast-paced jog, actually -- was particularly exciting. Without a roadmap, she just put one foot in front of the other, quickly connecting with others, discovering needs and drawing on her skills and interests to serve her new community. “She didn’t have a roadmap,” I told the group. “It just evolved.”

“It’s scary not knowing what the road is,” said Sharon. “But if you’re kind of there and open to it, then other things come about that touch you and connect with you. You get into it.”

A slow walk or triathlon?
Pace is my particular challenge. ”You want to feel like retirement is the time when you have the time to do the things you really want to do, but then you don’t have the time to do them,” I said.
Quipped Carol K, reminiscing about her dream list. “I haven’t gotten to many of them. I thought I was going to be fluent in French.” Then, she noted that people are who they are. ”People who are over committed are constantly driven. It doesn’t matter if you’re employed or not.

Shellie loves the rushing. “I’m very happy being retired. Don’t ask me what I do, but I’m busy all the time. And I’m still rushing. Maybe it’s because I do too much, and that’s ok, too.”

On friending
The meeting ended in a kind of kumbaya – talking about the importance of  having each other, of having community at this stage of life.
For Shellie, that community is the Y, where she goes every day. “My volunteering is volunteering to be there for my friends and helping them through all the things they’re going through. Of course, they help me with the things I’m going through, too.”
Margit noted the loss of communities as we move on. “A lot of us have communities from our work and a lot of our friends are from our work, so whether or not we’re moving geographically, [when we leave work] we’re suddenly in another city. It’s called the City of Retired. And we have to figure it out.”

And for Barb, who works with many older people in her non-profit, the value of women’s friendship is “clearer and clearer” as she grows older.
“So many people come to the center where they create new groups. Much to their shock and surprise, they find they’re able to make meaningful relationships at any age.”

What are your concerns? What have you learned along your path that you can share with others.

(For previous posts on our Project Renewment meetings, google "Project Renewment" and "UnRetiring")

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Out of the Park: Phillies' Icons Off the Air

Gary Matthews and Chris Wheeler (Photo, courtesy Rob Maaddi)
It's happened again! Icons in their field are unceremoniously dismissed by big corporate money. This time it's a duo I've become fond of, even though I'm not a regular or diehard Phillies fan. Chris Wheeler and Gary Matthews, the Mutt and Jeff guys in the Phillies broadcast booth, are history. Wheeler let you know what was happening and Matthews, whom I especially enjoyed, always seemed to have an insight, a quip, a stratagem to add.  Their commentary on the game revealed to me some of the reasons people love baseball… there's so much more going on than you realize in the slow-moving sport.

Both Matthews, 63, and Wheeler, 68, lost their jobs in the Phillies broadcast booth after the team struck a multi-billion-dollar 25-year deal with Comcast SportsNet. They'll continue to have some kind of jobs with the Phillies, maybe public relations, according to this article and this one in the Philadelphia Inquirer today.

But as Inquirer sports columnist Bob Ford says, the "old Phillies" would have handled it differently if they'd chosen "to dump Wheeler in the river" after 37 years with the franchise. At spring training, they would announce this as his final season "and he would have gotten the farewell tour and the decency of a more dignified exit."

 "Maybe that's the price of doing business now," he writes,"but Wheeler won't get the chance to commemorate his long on-air career with a final broadcast and one last chance to warn against the possible dangers of no-doubles defense and middle-in pitches that drift over the heart of the plate."
Apparently there were rumbles from folks who didn't like the duo. An Inquirer online poll (clearly not scientific and probably skewed to the naysayers) so far, has 13,313 people voting for or against the dismissal of Wheeler and Matthews. More than half (54%) agree or strongly agree to their replacement, 36% disagree. (Another 10 percent don't watch them anyway)

What do such high-profile dismissals say about how we, as a nation, value long-serving, well-respected and and dedicated employees?
What message are we sending Americans young and old about how hard work is valued?

For previous blogs on other controversial dismissals, see:
On severance
Swim coach Dick Shoulberg
Medical Assistant Sofia Escobar

Saturday, January 4, 2014

To Go Silently Into the Night -- Or Not

Muzzling a departing reporter may seem an extraordinary step for a media company to take. Think about the constitutional rights that news organizations work to uphold -- Freedom of the Press, Freedom of Speech -- not to mention their commitment to being public watchdogs.  Nonetheless, requiring reporters to sign away their right to speak out about their former boss has become a standard part of severance agreements.  Just as it is for departing workers in the rest of corporate America, should they be lucky enough to be offered severance.
Blythe (USA Today)
Will Blythe, who was fired from the digital publishing company, Byliner, won't have that problem.   As is standard these days, Byliner would only pay Blythe severance if he agreed to sign a "termination" agreement. He balked when he read the "no disparagement" clause: 

"You agree that you will never make any negative or disparaging statements (orally or in writing) about the Company or its stockholders, directors, officers, employees, products, services or business practices, except as required by law."

Blythe, the victim of budget cuts, thought about it and discovered that such clauses are difficult to enforce. Still, he chose to walk away from two weeks severance pay rather than agree to stay mum.  
"To disparage is but one tool in a writer's kit, but it's an essential one," Blythe explains in his op-ed piece in the New York Times. "That a company would offer money for my silence, which is what this boils down to -- well, I've seen many a mob movie about exactly that exchange."

I happen to know that some severance agreements bar the employee from suing the company for age discrimination. And, quite unbelievably, like something out of the gulag or Guantanamo, they also state that the employee is not allowed to acknowledge that the severance agreement even exists, except to a spouse, lawyer or accountant.

On the other hand, termination agreements also may counsel the employee to consult a lawyer before signing – something that departing workers, in the anguish of losing a job, perhaps with no notice and a security guard ushering them out the door, and needing the money to tide them over – may not do.

I wonder what Blythe would have done if his severance package had amounted to six months of pay instead of just two weeks? And if, for reasons of age,  he faced little chance of future employment (instead of having the stature he has as a book author and writer for such publications a Sports Illustrated and the New Yorker).
Would he have taken the same stance?

What is the price of silence?