A 9/11 Legacy

My friend Christine Lewis-Varley wrote this guest post for me in 2011 and it ran for the 10th year anniversary of 9/11 over at the HRSchoolhouse. Sadly Christine passed away in 2014. I’m re-running this post today in memory of Christine as well as in memory of those who perished in the attacks, the heroes, the survivors and the families.

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This weekend we’re going to be inundated by media hype – we’re going to see the planes go into the Towers time and again. We’re going to switch the TV off because it’s so incredibly sad and there’s nothing we can do to make it better.  We can’t take it back, we can’t rewind the movie.

In some ways it seems like a life time since September 11th 2001 and in other ways it seems like yesterday. Certainly none of us will ever forget where we were, what we were doing and how we felt.  I wanted to share a story with you.

Amongst the thousands of memories that I have of September 11th 2001 I have one very special one that is forever imprinted on my heart.  A young woman, by the name of Anya, was living in Brooklyn with her husband Alexander – they were from Siberia.  Alexander was a very young technology guru who was brought to the US by Leman Brothers to work in New York.  Alexander brought with him his young twenty year old bride, Anya.  After several months in the US Cantor Fitzgerald contacted Alexander and offered him a job working for them in the World Trade Center.  Alexander was very excited, it was more money and he and Anya had not realized how expensive it would be to live in New York and so additional money was going to be tremendous for them.  The rest is history! 

Alexander called Anya just before he died and told her what was happening.  All alone, Anya watched the television for hours and days until someone from Cantor realized that she must be alone – they sent people to sit with her, to comfort her until her young sister arrived from Siberia.  Anya was 20 and her sister was 19 and neither spoke English! 

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After September 11th 2001 I was very honored to join a small group of New York female executives in the rag trade who opened their hearts and their businesses to the women who had been left behind after their husbands, fiancées and significant others had been killed.  The mission of this small group was to help the women talk, share, explore and start to get involved in completely different areas of work than most of them had ever dreamt of.  The idea being to that these new and different areas would help the women have something different to think about as they moved through this agonizing period of their lives.   As a side note – it was amazing – the CEOs of fashion houses such as Ann Taylor, Perry Ellis, DKNY and others that I can’t think of right now, offered the women jobs, apprenticeships, days in the life of – anything they could think of that would provide a distraction for just a little while!  It was amazing and truly an experience that none of us will forget. (WITHH = Women in Transition Helping and Healing.)

We met many times with various groups of women and we talked and talked and it was at one of these gatherings that I had the pleasure of meeting Anya for the first time.  She was the most beautiful young woman, as you can imagine, blonde and blue eyed.  She and her sister sat quietly together, listening intently to the other women as they shared their stories.  I watched Anya very carefully and I could see that she was trying to figure out how to say something in English – I reached for her hand and squeezed it gently and attempted to send as much supportive energy as I could.   She started to speak – you could hear a pin drop.  Very carefully and quietly she shared with the room of strangers, united by a bond that nobody wanted, many of whom were understandably angry and frustrated and others who were silent and crying as they listened to the women share their feelings. 

Anya told of the horror she experienced – how she had sat in her apartment alone for the first few days and how she would hear the heavy footprints in the hallway outside her apartment; she would know they were coming for her to sign a receipt that another fragment of Alexander’s remains had been identified.  She told of her difficulty in understanding what was being said; she told of her loneliness and terror in a foreign country.  She told of her sister’s arrival days later and the comfort she’d found in being able to talk to someone in her own language.  She spoke for several minutes – nobody cared that she struggled hard to put the words together to make sense and often used her hands to show her meaning and other times asked for help to clearly make her point understood. 

She completed her story and then she shared something that was extraordinary coming from anyone, especially someone so young.  Anya said that she didn’t want her wonderful memory of Alexander to be marred by hate.  That she didn’t hate the people who had done this.  She said that she felt sorry – terribly sorry.  She wanted to understand why they hated so much and why they could do something so horrendous.  She said she would spend the rest of her life teaching love and helping children build bridges of love and understanding rather than hate and terror. 

You can imagine – the women in the room received Anya’s message with very mixed feelings – they certainly had a right to hate but here was a young women, who had gone through this terror alone, who was in a foreign country away from her parents – and her message was of love not hate. 

I was very fortunate to become Anya’s surrogate mother in the US until she left three years later.  We spent many hours on my porch in West Hartford, talking about her future, her past – what she was going to do with her life and how what had happened to her was going to influence her future.  Anya went on to graduate from NYU and is now home in Siberia with her family, she has found a new love and one day she says she may get married.  She’s a teacher, and best of all, she has founded an organization with a friend in New York to bring Siberian children to the US and American children to Siberia.  Anya would often tell me, as she laughed with delight, that when people found that she came from Siberia they immediately asked “how?”  She said the Americans she had met thought that Siberia was made up of snow and bears – they had no idea people actually lived there.  The truth is that Anya lived on the second floor above an open shopping mall – she would make me laugh when she told me how she would have a date and have to run downstairs to the shops to buy a pair of tights!  (FYI – her clothes were off the charts – fashion in Siberia is very high style).

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I will never forget Anya and her amazing soul – old and wise beyond her years and blessed with a grace that is almost impossible to comprehend.

I met so many women, there were so many stories – those are the people I want to hear from this weekend.  I don’t want to watch the planes go into the towers – that happened, there’s nothing we can do to change it.   I want to hear and see about the incredible guts and determination that those left behind have harnessed and used to do extraordinary things with their lives – those are the people I want to hear about.  

This Sunday I will go to church and thank God for standing by my side – even when I ignore him as I have done so many times.  I will hang my American flag this weekend and I hope you will too.

Perhaps I shouldn’t be so hard on the media – I have just heard another great story of a wife of a young husband and father of three who lost his life in September 11th 2001.  She has started a foundation to help Afghanistan women create small businesses so that they can make their own money to buy materials and build schools to educate their children. 

I wonder what I would have done had I been one of the women left behind – would I have had the guts to carry on?  I wonder! 

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Join the Club. Or Not.

club clubhouse

I’ve tried to like Clubhouse. I really have. I joined on January 1 of this year, dutifully invited other people and have popped in to assorted rooms on a variety of topics a few times each week.  

I don’t like it.

Apparently I’m in the minority (of the minority; more on that later). Clubhouse has 10 million weekly active users and is ranked #5 in the Apple App Store under the Social Networking category. In January the app was downloaded 2.3 million times and 30% of all downloads have happened since then.

Look; I love checking out new tech and new social networks although I have never been the sort to “force” myself to become an active user just because it’s the newest thing (reference my early-adopted and very very very inactive Snapchat and TikTok accounts). And Clubhouse, for all the buzz, just annoys me on a visceral level.  

  • Exclusivity.  Between the invite only aspect of the beta rollout and the fact it’s only available to iPhone/iOS users, it feels like yet another access tool that pits the haves vs. have-nots.
  • Data Security. Clubhouse collects users’ contact lists as the only way to send invites is to share your contacts. Furthermore, the transmission of data and discussions to both an unaffiliated Android app and, potentially, the Chinese government, raises some serious concerns.
  • Designed for “Influencers.” We’re in the age of the self-anointed celebrity; a world in which IG likes and viral tweets are, for far too many, their raison d’etre. Clubhouse, with an eye towards monetization and revenue, has built the app with this in mind.  (and if there’s anything worse than “thought leaders” it’s “influencers”). Even in this nascent stage I have found the posturing and self-promotion of far too many Clubhouse users to be absolutely vomit-inducing.
  • Trolls and Grifters have Arrived. Back in September, the conversation in a room devolved into anti-Semitic stereotyping. Ali Alexander, in hiding (and raising money!) after organizing #StopTheSteal that kicked off the Jan 6th insurrection at the capital, still has time to host Clubhouse sessions.

And to boot, even aside from those items listed above, I just really don’t get the appeal of the entire experience. Oh sure; there are similarities to podcasts but this feels different. Like everyone is trying too hard.

If I want to hang out on yet another conference call and listen to folks pontificate I can convene a meeting at work or join a SHRM webinar. If I want background noise while working I can fire up my Spotify or run some HGTV shows in the background. If I need to get in the mood a la Jeffrey Toobin I can certainly find a better way.

Am I still “in” the club? Yeah I am. I’m the wallflower at the 7th grade dance trying to figure out why-exactly-in-the-hell everyone is so amped up.

I don’t get it. And doubt I ever will.

*****

Oh. And if you want to try the NEXT next thing – you can get in on the beta of Space or wait to join @TwitterSpaces. which is moving fast.

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When “Everyone” is an Online Celebrity

Six years ago, an eternity in HR years , there was a topic I presented via keynote and general sessions at several HR conferences around the country:  “Lessons from Hollywood: HR and Pop Culture.”

The gist of the content was that we, as HR professionals, are well-served when we realize how pop culture/”Hollywood” shapes the world of work, influence, organizational change and the entire HR agenda. Why is this important? Because human resources practitioners tend to become singularly focused on legislative or economic activities but fail (big time fail) to consider how OTHER factors impact the world of work.

So I discussed the need for constant environmental scanning (via the PESTEL model) and reminded my HR comrades to pay particular attention to pop culture – movies, music, literature, art, politics, design, fashion, consumer trends and even slang and memes – because those are the things that signal shifting or emerging ideas, perspective and attitudes.

Six years ago, signals could be easily picked up regarding things like gig work and the evolving definition of “family” and savvy HR leaders, even those in fly-over country, were picking up on the swiftly rolling tide.

Another trend I discussed was the rise of what I call “look at me (me! me! me!)” culture which was, admittedly, somewhat in its infancy circa 2015 when examples I refenced included the “discovery” of Justin Bieber and how Kim Kardashian and Paris Hilton were launched into the influencer-sphere via their sex tapes.  While we had been living with reality TV for some time by then this was well before the omnipresence of Instagram influencers making serious bank by giving make-up tips or grifters of every stripe “monetizing” their YouTube channels by spewing crackpot conspiracy theories.

Yet, even then, we could see the rise of the concept that “everyone” can be a star.  

And in those somewhat-innocent days, the exhortation was for HR practitioners to take advantage of this shift. We began, in earnest, to plead with HR to think of how their employees could be evangelists and brand ambassadors. We promoted having a plan for employees to widely share company-branded content or job openings via their personal social media channels.

Oh sure – the rise of micro-celebrities led us down some dark paths as restaurant employees posted videos of themselves bathing in the kitchen sink. And every now and again there would be a clip or tweet posted by someone of a bit more nefarious nature that prefaced a somewhat-public termination from employment.

And for the last few weeks, as we’ve been inundated with a tsunami of self-posted pictures and videos of Americans surging at the US Capital, it became abundantly clear that FAR TOO MANY PEOPLE believe that EVERYONE ELSE wants to listen to/see their shit.  

We’ve moved well beyond duck-faced Instagram selfies and masturbatory humble-bragging on LinkedIn. We’ve surpassed the desire of seemingly everyone to start a podcast. It’s more than just one rando employee – and TikTok star!!! – posting paint-mixing videos.

I’m not surprised at all.

But if everyone is a self-appointed celebrity in 2021…who’s in the audience?  

*****

image: “All right Mr. Demille. I’m ready for my close-up.”

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And Thus, 2020, I Bid You Adieu

Today’s the day. Midnight will arrive, fireworks will be lit, and we’ll say farewell to 2020. 

Does it mean anything? Not really. As we discussed on Drive thru HR last week, January 1, 2021 won’t be much different than December 31, 2020. We’ll still be in the throes of a raging pandemic. There are several l-o-n-g weeks before the new administration takes over in Washington DC. Global issues of injustice and inequality won’t magically evaporate.

Yet, for some reason, I always get a sense of hope on the 1st of the year. It’s akin to the start of a new school year when I succumbed to feelings of dizzying happiness merely by stocking up on clean and shiny new folders and notebooks with hundreds of blank pages. 

And I, personally, feel the urge to get back on track in this coming year. Crack open those notebooks and fill them with, well, something. Anything. Because as I’m sitting here reflecting on “what I’ve done in 2020” I feel like I’ve wasted the entire year. My accomplishments appear incredibly marginal next to all those things I had hoped to do and never finished.

My 2020 accomplishments

  1. Survived a global pandemic
  2. Completed a deep clean and purge of closets, bookshelves, pantry and kitchen cabinets
  3. Managed Eddy von Schooling through onboarding and cultural assimilation

Things I Wanted to Do in 2020 but Never Did

  1. Far too many to list

I’m not complaining. Fortune was on the side of the Schooling family this year and we’ve done our small bit to assist those who have experienced tough times in 2020. As the saying goes here in the south…#blessed.

I am, however, disappointed in myself. Why have I not been able to shrug off the brain fog that has enveloped me for months? Why has 2020 been the year where I’ve been able to plan but then seemingly never execute? Why have I not learned to play the piano or bake bread? Why did I lose all joy in writing? Why have I been exhausted and tired and in bed, for months, no later than 10 PM, when I do absolutely nothing?  

I don’t know the answers to these questions but I do know that as of tomorrow – January 1st – I intend to turn to a fresh sheet of paper and start anew.

So welcome to 2021.

And GTFO 2020.

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Comfort Food and the American Worker

I don’t like to cook. Nor, for that matter, am I all that enamored of baking. It’s quite sad actually because my grandmother was fantastic in the kitchen; she could effortlessly whip up a kugel or get the weekly Sunday roast on the table with ease. My grandpa owned a butcher shop as did his parents before him. (That picture at the top of the post is from a receipt book from my great grandmother’s store on 10th & Hadley in Milwaukee, Wi – circa 1920 or so).  Somehow though the cooking gene didn’t get downloaded into my DNA.

My mother is a passable cook (hi Mom!) and my daughter is a whiz in the kitchen who loves to spend hours experimenting with new things and replicating old family favorites. Thankfully my husband loves to cook and bake; blessings upon my mother-in-law for teaching him. When he’s in the kitchen, which is quite often, he makes things like bobotjie, melktart and koeksisters. Thanksgiving dinner now means instead of my lackluster attempt at making a pumpkin pie, Mr. S. prepares a Malva Pudding.

When I’m the one in charge of dinner…I call Waitr.

Yet, I realized last night as I found myself IN THE KITCHEN AND AT THE STOVE (!!!), I’ve been cooking an awful lot lately. To the point where I paused for a bit, put down my wine glass, and thought it through. I ran through the several meals, per week, I have cooked over the last month. Granted, nothing spectacular, elegant, adventurous or exotic. Nope; I’ve been cooking “comfort foods.”

Tuna casserole (check). Au Gratin potatoes (check). Bacon and eggs (check). Spaghetti (check). Casseroles, in the US Midwest tradition, made with Campbell’s condensed soups (check). Ice cream for dinner. (check).

Comfort foods. All of them.

In 1966, the Palm Beach Post used the phrase “comfort foods” in a story and it’s often credited as one of the first uses of the phrase: “Adults, when under severe emotional stress, turn to what could be called ‘comfort food’—food associated with the security of childhood, like mother’s poached egg or famous chicken soup.”

Am I under severe emotional stress? Maybe. I dunno. I have my days. And things have ratcheted up at the office lately so, to some degree, there’s added stress. But nothing that a big old heaping bowl of cheese and carbs can’t satisfy if you know what I mean!

And then, the more I got to thinking about it, the human need for “comfort food” is why so many of the Wellness Programs launched by well-intentioned HR gals/guys are doomed to failure. Not that long ago I had a chat with a fellow HR lady about “Wellness Programs” and we meandered down the same well-worn path; healthy eating, weight loss, blah blah blah.

“I should just replace the junk food in the vending machine so our employees can’t buy crap!” 

“Everyone in Louisiana eats too much fried food; maybe we shouldn’t allow them to bring it on-site!” 

“That macaroni and cheese is just clogging up everyone’s arteries!’

Hey Pam in HR … listen up! There’s a reason, based on decades of research tradition, why donuts are the thing that everyone brings to the office in the morning to share with their coworkers. Walk into an office and saunter up to the coffee pot and you’ll find Kringle, King Cake and Kolaches……….not Kale.

Heading to the office to slog away at some bullshit thankless job for 40+ hours a week is hard enough; don’t take away our cupcakes and give us quinoa cookies.

We want comfort. Or at least a damn big slab of bread pudding.

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