“Nobody Cares About Your Thoughts And Prayers”

The other day I ran across an interesting piece from a public relations firm called Hennes Communications about how companies respond to horrible events like the recent school shooting in Florida.  The piece is intended to provide some advice and guidance in a world where companies, like just about everybody else, feel compelled to take to social media to express their views on what’s going on — especially tragedies.

276d9b7a9329e9bcdc3465df84cb664f-atheist-meme-meme-humorEntitled “Nobody Cares About Your Thoughts and Prayers,” the piece takes companies to task for rote, mechanical reactions to bad events.  The piece notes that “thoughts and prayers” has become the reflexive response, and states:  “’Thoughts and prayers’ has become a meaningless message, a quick toss-off for those too lazy, and too disrespectful, to stop, turn off their smart phone, close their office door for a minute and think about the tragedy at hand.”  The article notes that other trite, overused reactions are “Our hearts go out . . . ” and “There are no words.”  The article says the latter phrase is “mortifying” and responds to the “no words” reaction as follows:  “Yes there are. You just said four of them. And if you really believe someone’s tragedy is not worth more thought and human emotion than that, then prepare to be pilloried by the always-vigilant, ever-righteous haters who troll social media.”

And, speaking of social media, if you google “thoughts and prayers” you’re going to find lots of “thoughts and prayers” memes like the one I’ve included as the artwork for this post — all of which express the view that sending “thoughts and prayers” is pretty much useless.

It’s an interesting issue, because we’re confronted with the need to react to tragedy with unfortunate regularity.  Occasionally it is a huge calamity, like a hurricane or a mass shooting, but more often it is something that is more personal in scale, like a death in the family or a horrible medical diagnosis or development.  When those bad things happen, and you want to acknowledge the profound loss or anguish that someone has experienced, it is hard to capture the right sentiment.  Words often do seem inadequate.

Both of my parents have been dead for years, so my own experience with being on the receiving end of condolences isn’t fresh — but I know that I appreciated it when people took the time to add a meaningful personal note.  Whether it was recounting some nice personal memory of Mom or Dad, or speaking from the heart about how they dealt with the loss of their own parents, those little personal notes meant a lot, and I still remember them.  When dealing personally with grief, I appreciated all of the good wishes, and I obviously wasn’t grading the condolences I received on the “rote expression” scale, as apparently happens on social media these days — but all I know is that the more individualized notes really had the biggest impact.

So, I agree that words do matter.  Basic sentiments of support are fine, I think, but well-chosen, thoughtful expressions of concern and support can really make a difference.


Does Early Retirement = Early Death?

Kish and I turned 60 last year, and naturally the prospect of retirement seems a lot closer now than it was when we were in our 40s.  As we think about what to do on the retirement front, we’ve taken out books from the library and we try to read articles that look like they may have some relevant information.

191073-131-0d844c57Sometimes the articles can be a bit . . . alarming.  Like this one, which provides 12 reasons not to retire early and suggests that people who retire early often run out of money, are sick and depressed, lose the social network that they built up when they were working, and deprive themselves of a rewarding second career, which apparently involves happily picking flowers in a greenhouse.  The grim list of reasons is accentuated by even grimmer artwork of troubled seniors struggling with financial concerns and thinking longingly about the good old days at the office.  In case you’re interested, reason no. 12 cites statistics that indicate that people who work longer live longer and that there is a correlation between early retirement and early death, “even when lifestyle, health and demographic issues are considered.”  That final reason is illustrated with a nice picture of somebody placing a flower on a gravestone.  Yikes!

You kind of wonder who comes up with these lists.  Is the Social Security Administration, which would love to have people work longer for system solvency reasons, planting stories like this on websites?  Or maybe the Russians have pivoted from meddling with American elections and have now decided to meddle with the retirement decisions of hardworking Americans just for the heck of it.

Does early retirement = early death?  It’s hard for me to see how you could possibly control for all of the variables and determine that retirement was the ultimate cause of death for anybody.  And, these articles being what they are, there’s a little bit of inconsistency between reason no. 1, which says that Americans are living so long and life expectancies are growing so rapidly that people are likely to outlive their savings, and reason no. 12, which says that early retirement will produce a prompt visit from the Grim Reaper.

I know relatives, friends and former colleagues who decided to retire before 65, who decided to work until 70, and who wanted to keep working after 70 and enjoyed doing so.  They all seemed happy and reasonably satisfied with their ultimate decisions — and incidentally I’ve not noticed the early retirees keeling over, either.  Their experience teaches me that everyone just needs to make their own decisions based on their own circumstances, comfort levels, financial situations, desires, and dreams.  Scare stories don’t really advance the analysis.


A Good Man Down

We lost another friend yesterday.  A colleague from work, Tom passed away after a short but valiant battle with pancreatic cancer.  He was only 60.

meteorWe met 31 years ago when I joined the law firm and was assigned to an office next to his.  We shared the same curse, both being diehard fans of Cleveland sports teams, and became workplace friends.  Because I had worked for a few years between college and law school, he was already a seasoned associate when I was a raw rookie, and he happily served as a sounding board for the kinds of questions that inevitably arise when you start working at a new place.  It quickly became apparent that he was extremely smart, a very talented lawyer, and somebody who was viewed by firm partners as a rising star.  He invited me to join a group of older associates who went out for lunch from time to time and swapped stories about the firm at a place that specialized in apple dumplings, and it made me feel included, and a little bit more like a part of the firm.  He didn’t have to do it, but he was just that kind of person.

After a few years in neighboring offices he exercised his seniority and moved to a better office, and we saw less of each other.  He got married and we both focused on our families and things like trying to build our law practices, but he remained the kind of guy who would send along an article and funny observation about the latest crushing Cleveland sports disappointment or email a wry comment about national politics or a development at the firm.  Since his death yesterday, several people have said that he had no enemies — and that’s true.  He was a person who was happy with his wife, happy with his life, and happy in his work, content with his circumstances and satisfied with how things worked out.

And that’s one of the things that made the news about his discovery, only a few months ago, that he had already advanced pancreatic cancer so difficult to accept.  It simply doesn’t seem fair that such a friendly, mild-mannered, fundamentally decent person could be taken so cruelly and never given the opportunity to retire and enjoy the fruits of his years of very hard work.  But after you’ve seen untimely death take a number of good people, you realize that fairness really has nothing to do with it and stop trying to make sense of it.  The key thing is to live a life that, when the time comes, hopefully leaves those who must move on with fond memories of a good person who will be missed.

Tom Ruby accomplished that.

Tree Fail

When we moved in to our house we had our back yard landscaped.  Kish hates direct sunlight, so a key element of the design was a new tree planted at one corner of the patio.  It was supposed to grow tall, leaf out, and provide lots of the glorious shade that Kish likes so well.

For the first year and a half, things went according to plan.  The tree grew like crazy and looked to be doing fine.  Then late last summer, the tree started to visibly struggle.  Beginning at the top of the tree, the leaves wilted and died.  We hoped that the tree would recover this spring, but the top half remained dead and the only new leaves appeared at the base of the tree trunk.  As a last-ditch salvage effort, the landscapers cut off the dead top part of the tree — leaving us with the pathetic looking elongated stump shown above — in hopes it would spur new growth at the bottom of the tree.  Unfortunately, that effort also failed.  Our little tree has given up the ghost.

I like trees.  I hate to see them struggle and I hate to see them die.  This tree death is particularly weird because there’s no apparent cause.  It wasn’t struck by lightning, and every other plant and shrub in our back yard is thriving.  I guess sometimes death just happens.

I’ll miss our little tree.

In The Grand Scheme Of Things

Yesterday I received word that a friend and long-time colleague had died.  Even though I knew it was coming, the news still was difficult to take.

It had been about a year since my friend was first diagnosed with cancer.  He had one of those “bad cancers,” where the survival rates are low and the prospects are grim and there just haven’t been many treatment advances that can give the afflicted some encouragement.  Nevertheless, my friend was unfazed.  He’s always been one of those happy warrior types, the kind who approach everything, even a terrible personal illness, with optimism and enthusiasm and curiosity.   He learned what he could about his condition and his treatment, engaged in spirited and intelligent discussions with his doctors about his options, and could give you detailed, knowledgeable descriptions of what was happening, and why.  It told you a lot about his true nature.

There was something inspiring, too, in how he dealt with his condition.  He may have had private moments when he cursed his luck and the dread disease that had befallen him, but his public face inevitably was hopeful and confident.  He came to work when he could, and spoke of days in the future when he could take an even greater role, because he loved being a lawyer.  It was an amazing display of spirit and fortitude.  He unfailingly projected the positive mental attitude and willingness to battle, undeterred, that doctors often say can make a significant difference in a patient’s prognosis.

Unfortunately, this wasn’t an instance where the mental could control the physical.  When my friend got the news that the treatments weren’t working, he accepted it with a kind of awesome grace.  He would speak of how his illness had opened up new channels of communication, made his talks with his friends and family more meaningful, and brought his already close family even closer.  He actually seemed to feel that, in certain ways, the bad news had nevertheless provided some important benefits.

The last time I saw him, Kish and I visited my friend and his wife at their home.  The cancer was taking its physical toll, but his mental outlook remained bright.  We talked and tried to say the things that need to be said without making it seem like we considered this to be the Last Time Ever, and as our visit drew to a close he mentioned that we should see his “trophy room” — which turns out to be his dining room, filled with pictures of his family.  As the inevitable end neared, he realized that that was what was important, and the pride he obviously took in his family left us moist-eyed and with lumps in our throat as we left his house and walked to our car.

I’ve always liked the phrase “in the grand scheme of things,” because it captures the sense of perspective that we should all strive to maintain.  In the vast spectrum of possibilities that we may encounter during our lives, some are important but most truly aren’t, even though they might seem to be at the time.  My friend fought his cancer with courage, faced his prospects with dignity and grace, and could find positives even in circumstances that many people would find unendurable.  He was able to see the grand scheme of things and distinguish the crucial points from the petty reversals and the minor annoyances.  We should all hope that we can do the same.

Marine Mammal Deaths At SeaWorld

On Sunday the San Antonio Express News published a terrific, but immensely sad, story by Richard about the deaths of orcas, dolphins, and other mammals at the SeaWorld parks.  What’s Killing the Orcas at SeaWorld? takes a careful look at the statistics of creatures dying at SeaWorld and quotes trainers, SeaWorld employees, research studies, and animal rights activists in an effort to address the care of marine mammals in captivity and whether they are more likely to die than members of their species in the wild.

Infections seem to be a huge problem for marine mammals in captivity.  Richard’s story reviewed reports that SeaWorld filed with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and calculated that almost 150 orcas, dolphins, sea lions, and beluga whales have died of infections at SeaWorld since 1986, and five dolphins, whales, and sea lions have died of various infections — such as fungal infections, bacterial infections, and inflammation of the brain — since May 2014.

wild-orca-alaska_siThe big point of contention is whether living in captivity contributes to those deaths, as animal rights advocates contend, or whether the creatures at Sea World are no more prone to infections than members of the species living in the wild.  As Richard’s article reports, that’s tough to assess, because there aren’t many reliable studies of the lives of these mammals in their native habitat.  Animal rights advocates argue that creatures that have evolved over millennia to range widely over large areas of ocean, hunt their own food, and form relationships in the wild simply aren’t suited to captivity.  The advocates believe the orcas become stressed (and show it by breaking their teeth chewing on concrete and metal) and the stress makes them more prone to infection.  Richard’s article quotes some former SeaWorld trainers who talk about the constant medication that some of the mammals have received.  And while we don’t know the prevalence of infection deaths in the wild, we do know this — orcas, dolphins, and sea lions have somehow survived and thrived in our oceans for centuries without have to be heavily medicated by human beings.

I should note that SeaWorld has criticized Richard’s story, saying on its blog:  “The article is unfairly critical of SeaWorld and misleads readers with incomplete sets of facts that are presented in a biased way.”  I respectfully disagree.  I think the piece is a fair treatment of an important issue that employs the tools of great investigative journalism, like review of public records, getting quotes from people on both sides of the story and experts, and then trying to piece things together.  The reality is that the death of the marine mammals in the care of SeaWorld is just an uncomfortable topic for SeaWorld.

I’ve never cared much for zoos or places like SeaWorld.  I feel sorry for the animals that are caged, and I think it reflects poorly on us that we keep creatures that are meant to be in the wild penned up for our entertainment.  It’s particularly appalling that we confine marine mammals that show clear signs of intelligence, like orcas, and then have to dope them up to try to keep them alive.  Richard’s story just heightens that view.

My First Momless Christmas

Yesterday I was baking my cookies, thinking about who would be getting their holiday tins and plates, when I suddenly realized that I’m going through my first Christmas without Mom.

IMG_7596It happened when I was cutting out the sugar cookies.  Mom always really liked them — or, in a reflection of the loyal, unflinching support we kids always got from our mother, at least said she did — and this year will be the first time in a long time she won’t be getting to eat an iced Christmas tree cookie that I made or sample one of my new efforts.

Of course, it made me feel sad and wistful, and the feelings caught me off guard.  When a loved one dies, time helps you deal with the everyday sense of loss because life goes on, but then a special memory or event that you shared with them sneaks up on you and you feel their absence all over again.  I remember one of my friends talking about how difficult it was to watch the OSU-Michigan game for the first time after his father’s death, because they had always watched it together.  In my case, baking Christmas cookies is what brought it back.

So I sat there for a few minutes, listening to the holiday music that was playing and thinking about Mom.  I thought about how I was with her the first time I ever helped in making Christmas cookies, when I was a little kid and the Webner family kitchen was a madhouse of flour-covered people with rolling pins and cookie cutouts and icing and bright sprinkles.  That’s one reason I’ve always liked making Christmas cookies.  And then I thought about how most of the Christmas music I listen to during my baking days, from Bing Crosby to the traditional carols to the Nutcracker pieces to the Chipmunks’ Christmas song, and just about everything in between, were songs that Mom loved, too.

IMG_7602And I’m sure I’ll think of her when I watch National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation at some point over the next few weeks, because Mom was a movie person and it was one of her favorites that always provoked some loud and happy laughter, and when I look at the little Santa mug with “Bobby” painted on it that she gave me years ago and I remember how there were little Santa mugs with names of each of the five Webner kids painted on top that were lined up on the fireplace mantle for Christmas — and then I’ll remember how much Mom loved Christmas all over again.

It made me realize that, although she’s no longer physically with us, her spirit and sense of fun and the little family traditions she created and the memories of those shared holiday events will always be with us.  I may be technically Momless, but there’s still a lot of Mom in my Christmas.