Thursday, November 8, 2007

106. Traditions should mean something

When I was a child, I anxiously greeted each holiday season by looking forward to my much loved television specials. Probably even unbeknownst to my Mom, I would wait for the television guide so that I could note the schedule of my favorites, such as "Frosty the Snowman" and "Rudolf the Red-Nose Reindeer." I had seen each of these shows several times, but in the spirit of the holiday tradition, I could not be more excited to see them again.

Families around the holidays usually have several traditions, whether it is where they visit (Grandma's house), when they visit (Christmas Eve or Christmas Day) what they eat (turkey, pie), or what they do (play games, sing songs by the piano or engage in a fun game of co-ed football). Family traditions usually originate subtly through a couple of innocent repetitive occurrences, after which they become something that is looked forward to.

I think time with the family is one of the best ways to spend the holidays, where you have a chance to be yourself with the people that know you the best. You can fool a lot of people at work, or in other social circles, but rarely can you fool your family. In seeing you at your best and your worst, your family knows the "real" you. Their love is most sincere, and perhaps, most importantly, your family will usually forgive you for your mistakes when others will not. They have seen you all of their lives, and ultimately, you are one of them.

Your family will also know when you do not want to be there; when you are simply going through the motions- only because it is holiday tradition. Holiday traditions, regardless of what they are, should be fun- not a chore. They should not remain a tradition just because they are tradition. In other words, just because you have done something the same way every year does not mean that it needs to be done the same way every year.

For example, for several years my family has played one of the gift exchange games. However, a couple of years ago, there grew an uncomfortable feeling when, at the traditional moment, everyone just stopped and waited for the game. Furthermore, the game became repetitive...the same small gifts were being purchased; people were saying the same thing at the same time in the game. To keep the tradition alive, we attempted to "bar" some of the more popular gifts that were being purchased each year- to inspire some creativity. Finally last year and again this year, we have significantly altered the game and completely rewritten the rules.

Traditions are largely a "script" of how the thing is to be played out. Often families, after years of doing the same thing every year, simply follow the script. Just following the script, can not only become boring, it can become void of emotion. Ironically, not following the script can lead to considerable unrest, when one family member dares his or her own rewrite.

So go holiday traditions, an ideology that I consider and reconsider each year (perhaps that is now my tradition). I think traditions are wonderful to the extent that they still provide the excitement and joy of what each activity originally meant when it became a tradition. However, too many traditions can lead to problems when families expand and the now "traditional responsibilities" become overwhelming in the attempt to satisfy all of them. Tradition is also rich in repetitiveness- that is, doing the same thing over and over. And sometimes, the activities become about living the traditions, not about enjoying the moment.

In worst case scenarios, the holidays become a self-imposed guilt trip, in which some families scurry around the state attempting to make each traditional family gathering and do those things they are supposed to do- as not to offend anyone and become the subject of a year of not-so-friendly gossip and criticism. This seems to be a burden, and one that destroys the meaning of the holidays.

Perhaps families might find new traditions exciting and fresh. For example, if the meaning of the holidays is spending time with family, does it really matter that it happens on December 24 or December 25? Is there room for new traditions, and similarly, do some traditions need to be retired? And, how about incorporating some surprises or improvisation into your "holiday plans"? We only have so many years to our lives, and I have no interest in living the same year over and over. There is too much in this world to be enjoyed and experienced, and the only traditions I think worth keeping are the ones you truly look forward to.

Thursday, November 1, 2007

105. Trying times call for serious people

I recently had knee surgery. Like most people, I took great interest in both the physician that recommended it and the surgeon that performed the surgery. I wanted to be sure that they had a medical degree and a fair amount of experience. It turns out that my surgeon spends considerable time working with the Cleveland Indians and other professional teams. My comfort was the result of the realization that he often works on very "valuable" knees, at least compared to mine.

But to continue, I'll soon need physical therapy, in which case I will refer myself to a licensed physical therapist. Beyond my knee though, if I need a dentist, I want a dentist that has graduated from dental school. If a family member needs a nursing facility, I will select one that has degreed, licensed and experienced nurses, social workers and administrators. My interest in personal welfare is not limited to doctors. When I have my taxes filed, I want someone certified in preparing taxes. When my car breaks, I want a certified mechanic. The trend is obvious, when it comes to the things that matter; I want people who are educated, licensed and experienced in their selected professions.

We just experienced another election season, and I am always surprised at some of the people that are elected and those that are not elected. Unfortunately, there is no educational or licensure requirement for becoming a politician. Nor is there a requisite of experience. As most of us know, becoming a politician is about connections, money and political strategy (often, "how low will you go"). It is a con-man's game, convincing people that you, as a politician, will objectively make decisions- independent of the influence of those people whose money put you in power.

We have seen people barely eighteen years old elected- in addition to those uneducated and inexperienced beyond a high school diploma and coaching little league baseball. We have also seen former criminals elected. To be fair, leaders, even great leaders, come in all dimensions, including the young, uneducated and inexperienced, but I wonder on what criteria they are then being elected.

There are no requirements for our political leaders, those people who are responsible for much of our lives. They are not required to have a degree in political science, business or law- let alone a high school diploma. There is no licensure program that teaches or provides experience in economic systems, labor laws, philosophy, negotiation, organizational management, ethics, public administration, crime and punishment, science and the environment, healthcare systems, administrative law, public accounting or decision modeling. Rarely is there a demonstrated criterion of leadership or experience.

Personally, I prefer a candidate with a diversity of experience and interest. I am not attracted to anyone that has done the same thing for forty years, without significant consequence. I want people who have experienced what I have experienced, and have an interest in the things I have an interest in. I want people that have endured trying circumstances, such as a job loss or living without medical insurance. I want someone that has donated his or her time to community service; someone who has been on the frontline of non-profit organizations and philanthropy. I want someone who understands both sides of an issue; someone who can reconcile business with the environment, and unions with management. Finally, I want someone old enough to have experience how difficult life can be, regardless of how talented a younger individual might be.

This year, one mayor-elect actually listed coaching CYO Volleyball on his Circum Vitae. How desperate must one be that coaching volleyball is perceived as a demonstrated value in leadership, community activity or volunteer work? This particular candidate promotes "safety," by driving drug dealers out of town and reclaiming our neighborhoods from criminals. This exhibition in brilliance might warrant a few follow-up questions, such are you going to do it? Is it feasible? By what standard will you measure success- the number of arrests or a decrease in crime rates? How is crime related to education and drop-out rates figures? What about the economic situation and unemployment, is that contributing to the high crime rates? Is it a socio-economic, cultural, racial or criminal justice issue? If the city needs more police officers on duty, how will you pay for it? Will you raise taxes on an already-depressed region? Or will you cut other services that citizen taxes currently pay for? How will you decide which services are cut and which are not? What will you do if city council does not cooperate?

Politics is not easy, and it is not for everyone. Many of the issues are endlessly intertwined and it takes a multitude of talent, education and experience to work through them. No longer should political races be popularity contests. Or about who can raise the most money. Politicians influence our lives and society no less than people in other professions, of which we require degrees, licenses and proven experience. It is time to take a comprehensive interest in those which we elect to represent us. And, it is time to expect more from our leaders- for if they are not performing to our expectations, we only have ourselves to blame. We review their résumés and conduct their interviews. And, ultimately, we decide whom to hire.