Disgraced

I have always believed it’s important to take some time off on occasion to help keep a positive perspective on my work and life in general. My favorite recreational activities usually involve some kind of outdoor adventure; and, in the wintertime, I occasionally go skiing. It had been about two years since my last trip before I accepted an invitation from former Albany City Manager Steve Bryant to ski Mt. Bachelor last week. Steve had two reduced-price lift tickets, so City Attorney Jim Delapoer joined us.

I majored in skiing (not an official degree) at Central Oregon Community College many years ago and have skied Mt. Bachelor countless times. I am not a great skier, but I have always been able to keep pace with my companions even when I didn’t look very good doing it. The years have taken their toll. Steve commented that I looked exhausted just getting from the parking lot to the lift, and he was right. During the first run, Jim and I skied about a quarter of the way down the hill before falling at almost the same spot. I think it took more energy to just get back up than I used to expend in a day on the hill. We made it to the bottom without further incident, while observing that it could not be a good sign when standing in a lift line looked more appealing than skiing down the slopes.

Conditions at Bachelor were ideal for those who like un-groomed runs and choppy powder. Jim also pointed out that due to the number of people on the runs, it was like skiing a slalom course with moving poles. We made it about two-thirds of the way down the hill before realizing that skiing is supposed to be fun, and we weren’t having any. We hoped to sneak back toward the lodge before Steve spotted us, but he quickly caught us and agreed he would be doing everyone a favor by clearing the slopes of two old out-of-shape bureaucrats.

Many of you have been subjected to years of my writing about the importance of exercise; and, for any who might have been offended, this story should offer a touch of revenge. I have never felt so winded, exhausted, and out of shape as I did on the ski slopes last week. I also know that I will hear about this trip for the rest of my life or the rest of Steve’s, whichever is shorter. As soon as I could walk normally again about two days after skiing, I ran five miles in an effort to regain some dignity. I’m still out of shape, but I intend to do better in the weeks ahead. My plan is to go skiing again later this month under better conditions and minus a few pounds.

Apparently, I needed a lesson in humility this month, and I certainly received one. I won’t be bragging about athletic achievements other than my grandchildren’s for awhile. By the way, my five-year-old grandson Conner did win the state championship for his weight group in wrestling while I was floundering around on skis.

weshare image 02.05.2016

Connections

I realized a long time ago that while my profession emphasizes rationality, facts, and reason, human relationships govern much of what we are able to do in local government. I don’t know what else would explain the many inexplicable things all of us see every day. Why, for example, do seemingly rational, well-meaning people see the same set of facts and draw completely opposite conclusions? We can all be frustrating to one another, but I have also learned that the greatest reward of doing this work has been the relationships I’ve had with so many different people.

Oregon remains a relatively small state, and I am regularly reminded of this when I meet people who share some common bond. Often the bond is a common friend or, in some cases, the discovery that I’m related to someone. Not long after becoming Albany’s city manager, I was bragging about my pioneer ancestry to former Benton County Commissioner Linda Modrell and found out that we shared great-great grandparents. My wife is a graduate of Madras High School, and I’m always surprised how many people have connections to that little school. Notably, Councilor Floyd Collins is a Madras alum and Councilor Dick Olsen has a Madras connection.

We often seem to find ourselves dividing up into groups that distinguish us by our economic status, race, ethnicity, or our political beliefs, while forgetting the many things that should help bring us together. Our family trees, the places we’ve lived, our friends, schools, hobbies, or our workplaces connect us to thousands of people with something in common. Social media can help establish these connections, but I think it requires more effort to really make them matter.

I really enjoy conversations with Floyd about his memories of growing up in Central Oregon, and my discussions with Linda led to picture exchanges of common ancestors that helped me learn more about my heritage. Beyond the simple pleasure of sharing things in common, I believe these connections help us negotiate the many challenges of life. Our connections build understanding that breaks down barriers to communicating and getting things done. Sometimes we hear negative comments about “old boy networks” that imply favors or other forms of corruption. I acknowledge that danger while emphasizing that the antidote is not to cut ourselves off from old relationships, but to build more diverse new ones.

The rewards of a wide and rich network of relationships include a greater chance of career success in addition to being a better way to live. Regardless of whether the other person is a Mormon or a Muslim, a Libertarian or a Socialist, or heaven forbid, a Beaver or a Duck, building a positive relationship is an important step toward building a better life.

Learning from Curious George

Grandchildren provide endless learning opportunities, including the chance to watch television shows older people might miss. My grandson Isaac, age 1½, and I were watching Curious George a few days ago when the little monkey (George) addressed one of the great questions of life.

George and a young friend were visiting a farm where all the animals except one were winners of blue ribbons at the county fair. The only nonwinner was a hog named Howie, who just couldn’t seem to muster the energy to train for the grueling competition. His previous attempts ended in failure after he started out well, but quickly faded. George and his friend decided they would train Howie to win at the upcoming fair and received a hog training manual from the farmer who owned Howie.

The first instruction was to wash the hog every day and then find a stick to prod him to exercise for at least 30 minutes daily. Howie was fine with the washing but completely opposed to being poked with a stick. George discovered that Howie liked apples and decided to experiment with an incentive program rather than the recommended stick. Not surprisingly, the apples did the trick. Howie worked hard, performed brilliantly at the fair and was rewarded with both an apple and a blue ribbon.

The episode did not delve into the darker issues of what happens to blue ribbon-winning hogs after the fair is over and, like most cartoons, ended on a happy note. The lesson viewers young and old received from Curious George is that the carrot or apple works better than the stick. I liked the show and the chance to watch it with Isaac, who is a great cuddler. The message appealed to my own beliefs and caused me to think about occasions where I might have forgotten how incentives work better than punishment.

Daily stresses often cause us to reach for the easiest solution or the one we have grown accustomed to rather than a more creative and effective approach. I remember yelling at my children at different points in their life when, with a little patience, I could have tried a better technique. I don’t do it very often, but occasionally I still fall into the yelling habit with grandchildren when they do something that scares me. My only basis for requesting understanding is that I raised children and they are now raising grandchildren who have no respect for their personal safety. I haven’t figured out what the incentive is to stop children from racing motorcycles or diving off cliffs into water and would welcome suggestions.

Curious George also reminded me that in our work lives most of us respond better to incentives than we do to punishment. We try to recognize that fact by providing competitive salaries and benefits, but most importantly, by the way we treat each other every day. I can think of few instances where yelling at someone accomplishes much. If a behavior is damaging enough to require discipline, the consequence up to and including termination can still be imposed with respect. I appreciated my recent lesson from Isaac and Curious George.