Aging (and how to be good while doing it)

My recent trip to the annual International City-County Management Association (ICMA) Conference in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, gave me the opportunity to visit my very senior aunts in Dayton, Ohio.  My mother’s two surviving sisters are well over 80 years old, and neither is in good health.  They can no longer walk and are highly dependent on others for comfort and survival.  In contrast, I ran into an old friend and mentor in Milwaukee who is older than either of my aunts but remains independent and vital.

I have reached the age where I think about my own aging and what I can do to retain my independence or, in short, be the person I want to be for as long as possible.  I also know that I have limited control over a number of things that will influence who I will be in days to come.  My friend Charlie is a retired city manager whose example gives me some hope.

Charlie is over 90 now, and I have known him since he was about 65.  He served as the city manager in three cities and retired from a one-year federal assignment just before I met him.  In retirement, Charlie served as a “Range Rider” for ICMA  for about 25 years before finally giving up his second career a couple of years ago.  Range Riders provide support to city and county managers by keeping them connected to their peers and offering the benefit of their experience in the profession.  Charlie started the program in Oregon and built it up to the point where there are now about five Range Riders in the state.  Throughout the years I’ve known him, Charlie has stayed active physically and mentally.  I remember going on a hike with him about 15 years ago and he led the way from beginning to end.  He is also careful about what and how much he eats.

Charlie’s other attributes include a great sense of humor, high integrity, curiosity, and tolerance.  Change does not seem to threaten him, and I do not ever recall him yearning for the good old days.  Like many of us, Charlie has a wealth of stories from his past that he’s not shy about sharing; but his stories inform and entertain without condemning the present or predicting doom in the future.

The September 5 edition of The New Yorker poses some interesting questions about our progress through life in a biographical article entitled “How to be Good.”  The author describes some thoughts of Oxford philosopher Derek Parfit in the following passage:

“A self, it seems, is not all or nothing but the sort of thing that there can be more of or less of.  When, in the process of a zygote’s cellular self-multiplication, does a person start to exist?  Or when does a person, descending into dementia or coma, cease to be?  There is no simple answer–it is a matter of degrees.”

I believe we can influence the rate or degree of our descent by following the good example of people like Charlie, who pay attention to the importance of both body and spirit.  The New Yorker article eloquently summarizes Parfit’s views on how our beliefs matter to the legacy we leave:

“He sees that we have the ability to make the future much better than the past, or much worse, and he knows that he will not live to discover which turns out to be the case.  He knows that the way we act toward future generations will be partly determined by our beliefs about what matters in life, and whether we believe that anything matters at all.  This is why he continues to try so desperately to prove that there is such a thing as moral truth.”

I have no aspirations to prove the existence of moral truth, probably because I already believe in it and its source.  I do aspire to a life that provides service to others while imposing minimal burdens on those who matter most to me.  Aging seems much more agreeable if I can live with the hope of achieving that goal.

A Broken Window

I came back to the office after Labor Day weekend and found that one of the windows on the Third Avenue side of my office had been broken.  I don’t know whether the broken window was an accident or a deliberate act of vandalism; and, since it is unlikely I will ever know, I prefer to believe the damage was done unintentionally by an irresponsible person. 

 The window is likely to remain broken for an extended period because the tinted glass is not available locally and can only be obtained from some place in Missouri.  Apparently, the glass is so rare that we are not even able to determine when we can get it.  I should point out that only the exterior pane of the double pane window is broken, and I was given the option of having it replaced with some un-tinted glass as an interim measure.  I turned down this offer because I don’t think it’s worth the effort or cost to replace the glass twice.  In the meantime, my view of Third Avenue is a little distorted, and I’m sure people will soon begin to wonder why we aren’t acting more quickly to repair the damage.

 I strongly subscribe to the idea that well-run places take care of problems quickly, but I am even more strongly committed to saving money when we can do it without hurting our ability to serve the public.  The broken window was quickly taped up by our Facilities Maintenance staff and seems to pose a minimal safety threat.

My week has been beset by irritations like the window.  I’ve been lucky enough to be stung by a bee while bending over to pick up the morning newspaper (an omen, I think), turn my ankle while running along the trail near my home, and be called to help someone move whom I didn’t know and who wasn’t really prepared to move.  It sometimes feels like if you’ve enjoyed a decent interval of good fortune, you need to have a run of minor bad luck to balance things out.  I am not, of course, the least bit superstitious; and I usually remember to count my blessings.  Nonetheless, the window breaking, bee stinging, ankle turning, and bad moving experiences can stop now that I’ve gotten the message.  I wonder if any of these events would have happened if the Ducks and Beavers had won their openers (LSU and Sacramento State).

I’m sure better days are ahead as the swelling from the bee sting has subsided, I can still run on my ankle, and the frustrating move is behind me.  The Ducks will beat Nevada this weekend, and the Beavers might do something positive in Wisconsin, although don’t hold me to the latter prediction.  (Editor’s note:  This column was written September 8, 2011.)  I’m sure the broken window will be repaired before long, and I appreciate the help from Ray, Craig, and Danny in making it happen.

Annual Conference Time

This post will appear while I’m attending the annual International City-County Management Association (ICMA) conference in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.  I go to these gatherings to maintain my status as an ICMA Credentialed Manager and because I learn useful things that I can apply to the work we are doing in Albany.

My conference begins with two ICMA University classes that involve a commitment of eight hours on Saturday to study and discuss “Effective Management on the Front Lines” and “Civic Engagement:  Public as Partners, not Enemies.”  I am required to commit to 40 hours of annual continuing education, and I can meet more than half of that obligation at the annual conference.  Sunday, I will participate in a forum entitled “Labor Relations in the Age of the New Normal,” in addition to a plenary session.  The remaining two-plus days of the conference offer a number of one- to two-hour topical sessions and several keynote speeches.  The daily commitments are generally followed by evening receptions where managers gather to talk about their communities, the profession, and ideas from the conference.

I enjoy attending the annual conference, and I always come back with some new enthusiasm for an idea I’ve learned about at a session or from another manager.  A couple of years ago, I attended a class on budgeting where I picked up a valuable idea that we’ve used in our last two Albany budget processes.  Last year, Bob Woods presented the Albany Dashboard at a session and has since helped several communities increase their transparency by using our model.  Reading about ideas is not the same as hearing about and sharing them in a live, interactive meeting.

Many years ago, I attended a conference presentation on performance measurement where I entered as a skeptic and left with a grudging willingness to look more carefully at the issue.  The class helped me realize that I needed to change my attitude about using data to drive improvement in the community where I worked.  I have since had this lesson reinforced many times by examples from around the U.S. and the world.

The concluding forum at this year’s conference is called “Changed for Good:  Leading Transformation in Your Organization and Your Community.”  I look forward to this discussion and will try to report what I learned in a future column.  When I think of how many times the rules have changed during my career, I can appreciate how important it is develop skills to help adapt.

I am taking a few days before the conference to visit some aging members of my mother’s family in Dayton, Ohio, as I have done for the past several years.  There are a limited number of people in the world who have cared about you throughout your life and will continue to care about you as long as they (or you) live.  It makes sense to pass some time with them when you get the chance.