Category: Careers

The Pursuit of Happiness

In late October 1997, I traveled from Chicago to Cleveland to co-facilitate a diversity training course for managers of a large financial institution.

Charles was the lead consultant on the project. We had teamed up before. He was black and straight. I was white and gay.

I felt inspired, watching him begin the session, explain the merits of an inclusive workforce, and preach the business rationale for embracing diversity.

The idea was to challenge the bank’s managers to respectfully acknowledge and maximize the differences of employees: skin color, gender, sexual orientation, disabilities, religious and cultural beliefs.

By maximizing the mosaic of its differences, the company would be better equipped to create a more collaborative, welcoming culture that would produce happier employees who could more effectively understand and reflect the needs of diverse customers. I believed every bit of it. I still do.

Charles’ dark skin color was obvious, but perhaps my sexual orientation wasn’t. I typically didn’t divulge my gayness, unless the training warranted it.

At one point, a male manager stood up. He said he believed gay people were immoral. He thought they didn’t deserve respect or equal treatment.

The room of forty managers and two facilitators froze. Somewhere inside, despite my anger, I mustered the words and focus to break the silence and challenge his thinking. Essentially, I said something like the following:

“I’m gay and I don’t believe I’m immoral. I can assure you there are lots of gay employees you work with you, who feel the same way. If they don’t feel respected here, they’ll take their talents elsewhere.”

The manager sat down and mumbled a few comments under his breath. The training continued. Charles smiled. He took the training reigns and proceeded without missing a beat.

It was a watershed moment for me in my personal development and professional life to have the opportunity to defend myself–all LGBTQ people, really–and feel the support of a trusted colleague.

In 1997, I never imagined that one day I would live in a country where it would be legal for two men or two women to marry each other. I never imagined I would have the opportunity to marry the man I love. But, remarkably, it happened.

On September 6, 2014, Tom and I were married before about sixty of our family and close friends. It was a shiny, crisp afternoon in Illinois.

Our sisters walked us down the aisle. Though she was ailing, Tom’s mother made it. She wore the paisley silk scarf we bought for her in Florence, Italy.

Tom and I were surrounded by sunflowers, smiles and a few tears that day. Six years have passed. Though all four of our parents have been gone for five years, with every passing season–with every highlight, loss or moment of vulnerability–our love has grown deeper. I’m thankful for that.

Despite marriage equality in the United States, we now live in a country with a president who believes it’s “un-American” to be different. A few days ago he directed the White House Office of Management and Budget to prevent federal agencies from spending money on diversity training.

I don’t know where this chapter in American history will lead us, but I have faith this dark period will end soon. We are a country founded on the notion of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness for all of its people.

Even with all of the hateful comments of the past four years, I think the majority of Americans still believe in freedom and equality. We’ll find out in November.

Pondering the Puzzle Pieces of Past Lives

AlbertJohnson_August1932

The dusty attics, dog-eared scrapbooks, and forgotten files of our past don’t always provide answers about mysterious deceased family members. But often they are all we have, once those who remembered them are gone too.

I have no memories of Albert Edward Johnson, my paternal grandfather. Just second-hand stories about the man with slicked-back blonde hair who died when I was three. Random photos and puzzle pieces that, when connected, leave me with an unsubstantiated picture of Albert. Tales of who he was, where he lived, what he believed and what he aspired to do.

Based on a patchwork of anecdotes, passed down from my parents, aunts and uncles, apparently this is the man I never knew.

***

Albert, an idealistic boy, was born in Duluth, Minnesota on January 10, 1884.

His mother Sophia Amelia Danielson and her family immigrated from Stockholm, Sweden when she was a teenager. They lived in Quebec, Canada for a few years before traveling to Minnesota. His father Bernt Franklin Johnson was born in Breen, Norway. Sophia and Bernt met and married in Duluth and had six children (Dan, Ben, Josie, Jenny, Albert and Carl).

When Albert was ten years old, he and his family moved to Anniston, Alabama where his father operated a grocery store on a Native American reservation. I don’t know what prompted them to move more than eleven-hundred miles south in 1894. Perhaps they simply needed gainful employment or were tired of the cold.

Subsequently, around 1900, the family moved to East St. Louis, Illinois, where the Johnson men worked in the meat packing houses. Evidently, the job didn’t suit Albert’s sensitivity. Helen, Albert’s daughter-in-law and my mother, told me the shrieks of the slaughtered animals were too much for him to bear.

Albert was a health-conscious and  athletic young man: an amateur wrestler; Mississippi River rower; and cross-country racer. According to family members, he competed in the 1904 Olympics marathon in St. Louis. I have no proof he participated, but I choose to believe it.

In 1907 or 1908, Albert met and married Anna Louise Sendke in St. Louis. They raised three children: Thelma and twins, Violet and Walter (my father). Albert wasn’t home much during Walter’s childhood years (1913 to 1925). I’ve always wondered where his travels took him and who he met along the way.

According to my dad, Albert valued intellectual stimulation, political discourse and philosophical conversations. At some point (in the 1930s perhaps), Albert–a lifelong Democrat–pursued a career in local politics. He ran for state representative twice, but lost both times.

During that same period, Albert tried his hand at motivational speaking and received an honorary doctor of divinity degree. The public speaker you see here (standing on a stool in an athletic shirt in the foreground of a Depression-era, Milwaukee, Wisconsin gathering eighty-eight years ago on August 3, 1932) believed one should choose a career or path that maximized his or her greatest innate skills.

In his own words from a stained 1943 “Biodynamics: The Science of Power” handout he must have used in one of his lectures, “we will not be happy, healthy or successful unless we choose as our life work some line of endeavor towards which we have a strong biological tendency.”

In the 1940s, Albert, the man who earlier in his life only rarely brought his son with him on trips north from St. Louis to Chicago or Milwaukee, wrote and sent encouraging letters to Walter overseas to bolster his spirit as he fought in the Battle of the Bulge near the end of World War II in Europe.

During the last several years of Albert’s life, he and Louise lived with their eldest daughter Thelma and son-in-law Ralph at their home in north St. Louis County.

I vaguely recall sitting on the edge of Albert’s twin bed in his empty room in the early 1960s soaking up the silence. It was a few years after my grandfather, the one-time athlete, fell on the steps of a restaurant during the holidays, broke a hip and succumbed to pneumonia.

Albert died on December 30, 1960 at age seventy-six.

***

Until this moment, at age sixty-three and one month, I’ve never considered the collective attributes and personality traits of Albert and my three other grandparents–Louise, Sherrell and Georgia–and how they may have shaped the calling in my life: that of a late-in-life creative writer.

But as I think about each of my grandparents, I recognize their DNA strands coursing through me: Sherrell Ferrell’s love of nature and From Fertile Ground journalistic sensibility; Georgia Ferrell’s love of animals, gift of gab and laughter; Louise Johnson’s  sense of personal loyalty and soap-opera storytelling drama; and Albert Johnson’s quest for intellectual stimulation, personal fulfillment and public discourse.

I don’t believe each of us is simply a product of our biological past. We are each unique human beings … like snowflakes that fall and add irreplaceable texture to the sky. But I do think these varied qualities and preferences may have shaped my direction and influenced my choices on life’s path more than I’ve previously realized.

Of course, what you read here is all mine: ideas, opinions, stories and experience.  But history, both personal and societal, counts for something. It informs my stories about the power of nature, animals, relationships, family, diversity, sensitivity, and social justice. Because there is at least a little bit of all four of my grandparents–Albert, Louise, Sherrell and Georgia–in me.

You might say I’ve had a “strong biological tendency” to be a writer and storyteller all along. It’s written in my DNA.

 

 

 

 

 

The Columns and Buttes

MU_ColumnsRing_May1979

Our best memories–the ones cast in precious metals and inscribed with our names in cursive–far outweigh the cubic zirconium rings and balled up aluminum foil we choose to discard. But even the brightest ballast-laden snippets blur at the edges as they flash through our mind’s eye. They provide the weight we press against, cling to, or push away from.

My fourteen-karat gold college ring symbolizes the continuity of my University of Missouri years in Columbia. Resting in a dish with assorted jewelry in my bureau drawer, it features the school’s six iconic time-tested columns. All that remains of the university’s Academic Hall, which burned in a fire in the fresh snow of January 1892.

Out of the ashes, President Richard H. Jesse had the vision and fortitude to guide the school and transform it into a research-based institution. During his seventeen-year administration, the modern university Jesse envisioned was born. It grew and produced positive ripples around the ever-enduring stone columns … as well as generations who met near, lounged under or studied beneath them.

MU students have built lives and careers there. Succeeded and failed in times of war and peace. In the 1970’s, dozens of us tossed our Frisbees around the stone pillars … galloping across the Francis Quadrangle grass, running amok in the “Show Me” state until the next keg of beer or slice of Shakespeare’s pizza captured our attention. In my case, I walked across an outdoor stage to accept my Bachelor of Journalism degree in May 1979.

At their essence, the columns represent more than a social backdrop for play and frivolity. They are larger-than-life markers of time and civilization, before automobiles, airplanes, computers or digital technology. Poetic and historic reminders of their permanence and significance under fire versus our relative impermanence and insignificance.

I no longer wear the ring, but I’ve kept it nonetheless. When I pick it up and examine the luster and sparkle of the tiger’s eye, I marvel at what I accomplished, recall what I survived, and “retreat to the chambers that I left behind”, a lyrical line from folk rocker Dan Fogelberg’s song Heart Hotels and his 1979 album Phoenix.

In the late 1970’s, as I turned up the volume on my stereo and escaped into Fogelberg’s melancholy music behind my long hair, I didn’t imagine I’d go west one day and create a whole new life near the base of another rock formation … the Papapo Park buttes; a natural one … but that’s what can happen over the course of a lifetime.

More than forty years later, I’ve discovered a longer view, which comes only with lengthening late-afternoon shadows and survival. Whenever I imagine my life on an eighty-year, bell-shaped curve (we should all feel lucky to live that long … Dan Fogelberg died in 2007 at age fifty-six), I see the columns as the launching pad after the first twenty years.

The geological formation of the Papago Park buttes, just steps from my Arizona condo and millions of years ago at the bottom of a vast ocean, are likely the landing pad on the down slope of life for my last twenty.

Global pandemic or not, none of us knows when the end point will arrive. What the circumstances will be. We might as well enjoy the flights of fancy–keep throwing and catching our Frisbee in our sixties as Tom and I do–and take comfort in the anchors of life. The symbols of strength around us. The columns and buttes that keep us grateful and grounded in good times and bad.

 

 

 

 

 

Splash

Splash_050320 (2)

It’s a long story, but true. For much of my professional life, I became a master of jumping ship. Making a quick splash in a promising job. Then, when it didn’t work out, finding and throwing myself a life-preserver that would rescue me until I could paddle to the next station in life.

Four months selling newspaper ad space in Jackson, Mississippi in 1980. That was a disaster. Four years writing mundane retail ad copy for Sears in Chicago. The friends I made there–Janet, in particular (our Sears years began on the same day)–kept me afloat.

Fifteen months with a small ad agency in Oak Brook, Illinois. Eighteen months crafting copy and PR strategies in starched shirts and suits for the high-powered Hill & Knowlton just off of Michigan Avenue. Six months with Weiser Group on the other side of town. Then, another deep breath before going back under water.

***

When I reemerged in 1988, I was holding onto another life preserver at Covia as a PR writer. This time I stayed for five years of creative moments peppered with senior executive hostility. The silver lining? Another lasting friendship–thank you, Mary Jane–and a few agonizing business trips to Tucson, Arizona. Dusty foreshadowing for a desert life … not a vanishing mirage … that would appear on the horizon three decades later without corporate shackles.

In 1993, I began a three-and-a-half year sprint underwater as a communication consultant for Towers Perrin in the Loop. That was followed by my first attempt as a freelance communication consultant. Sandwiched in between? Eighteen months as a communication manager for Ameritech and another authentic friendship–thank you, Bill–before diving into a misguided pool of piranhas at PricewaterhouseCoopers. That debacle of disarray lasted ten months.

On to February 2001. I tried my hand again as a freelance writer and training facilitator again. Things were going swimmingly until September 11. My business dried up over the next several months, but somehow I was able to tread water in the deep end.

***

In August of 2002, I resurfaced in Schaumburg, Illinois, as Director of HR Communication for Zurich North America, the Swiss-based insurance firm. The pay was good. While working there, I met another lifelong friend, Jillian (years later, Tom and I would ask her to be the officiant at our wedding). Still I felt like a fish out of water.

In spite of being “out” in various corners of my life, I was gaining weight and floundering personally at Zurich, another conservative company. Yes, I was going through the motions for all the right reasons. Making money to pay child support and contribute to Nick’s and Kirk’s college educations. But, at the end of each day, the feeling was the same. I was an outsider living in a straight world.

I realize now I wasn’t escaping jobs simply because I found them boring or overly taxing. I was casting myself into unchartered waters, because the stifling world of work and its many layers of homophobia–in addition to my own inability at that time to love my gay self–threatened my closeted existence. Think of it as a kind of toxic cocktail consumed for decades. A mix of liquid resiliency stirred by intense anxiety and a fear of entrapment.

***

In early 2006, I left Zurich. Something new happened for me, a gay man ordinarily adrift in choppy corporate waters.

In February or March, a search firm called with an enticing possibility. Hewitt Associates, a multi-national human resources firm, was angling for seasoned consultants to join their communication practice in Lincolnshire, Illinois.  I decided to turn the page and pursue a new gig.

Hewitt’s hiring process was rigorous. A few rounds of intense interviews. Thorough discussions with six or eight senior executives and consultants I would be working with. Strangely, I remember feeling entirely at ease. Perhaps it was because I had decided I would “out” myself at the start and ask a burning question: “Can a gay man like me be successful working here?”

I could tell Lori, the practice leader, was surprised by my forthrightness. But she didn’t hesitate. She and Robyn, my future boss, insisted I could make a lasting go of it. So, in early April, I left Zurich and found myself unpacking my belongings in my Hewitt office. On Day One, I placed pictures of all the men in my life … my partner Tom, my sons Nick and Kirk … on my desk next to that of Maggie, our sweet basset hound.

Hewitt had the reputation as an industry leader with high standards for excellence and integrity. Along the way, I learned from my new colleagues that earlier in its history, when the company was privately held, the organization famously insisted upon sending its consultants to “charm school” to ensure uniformity in technique and approach. So, clearly this wasn’t the free-wheeling atmosphere you might expect I needed to find my stride.

Even so, from the start, I never veered from my true story. Quickly, my mates treated me with respect. I earned their confidence as a friendly, no-nonsense, collaborative colleague … forever at home brainstorming themes, concepts and brands in the comfy confines and chairs of the Creative Zone.

In those days, to encourage longevity with the organization, Hewitt offered a retention incentive called Splash. Essentially, for every five years you worked for the company, you would receive one week of paid Splash … a mini-sabbatical away from the bumps and grinds of a busy professional life … in addition to any regular accrued vacation time.

This program–along with the company’s ingrained culture of personal closeness and trust–produced dozens of long-service employees. Folks who worked hard and played hard together … many of them for twenty years or more.

The first few years passed quickly for me at Hewitt. I worked long hours for clients, who demanded excellence and timely turnaround. I mentored a few younger associates along the way. In 2008, I moved with three colleagues into the Chicago office to help build the communication practice in the Loop. Over the next several years, Robyn, Dina, Kim–three more lifelong friends–and I celebrated project successes. We endured a few failures, too. But they were good years. Obama was president and I was a happier man at Hewitt.

One morning, in July 2010, we all received a startling email. Aon Corporation, the global insurance and consulting firm, was buying Hewitt. In short order, vestiges of the old Hewitt culture … the constant collegiality, the “I’ve-got-your-back” spirit of oneness, the splendid Splash program … all vanished. Fortunately though, most of the relationships with friends there didn’t.

I logged billable hours for another three-and-a-half years as an employee of Aon Hewitt, before leaving in late January 2014 … worn from all the heavy lifting and my mother’s long, slow decline and death the year before. Little did I know I’d soon be resuming my professional life on my terms. I’d be writing my own, unvarnished personal stories. Soon From Fertile Ground fell out of my brain and landed on the page.

Since moving on, I’ve stayed in touch with many of my Hewitt friends on line. I still feel their love and encouragement. We root for each other from afar. Here in the desert, I’ve kept a box of cards they gave me when I retired. Each one reminds me of my eight Hewitt years–perhaps my best corporate chapter of all–before I dived headfirst into this literary life with enough money for Tom and me to live simply. But without having to ever again define myself by the salary I once earned.

As you’ve probably guessed, I never realized the benefits of Hewitt’s Splash. By the time I celebrated my five-year anniversary, Aon had dismantled the program. But, as karma would dictate, I’ve created my own version of Splash with Tom in Arizona. An open schedule. The unearthing of three books and an ever-evolving blog. A sandy sabbatical seasoned with swims.

For the last month or so, there haven’t been any opportunities to jump in the water and plunge ahead into the blue unknown. Like most of the world, our pools have been closed due to the global pandemic.

But on May 1, our community watering hole reopened under tight regulations. Only lap swimming is allowed. Most of the snow birds have flown home, so that’s a reasonable solution for Scottsdale, Arizona. There are fewer people to steer clear of here in the spring and summer months, because triple digits at 3 p.m. have become the norm.

For each of the past three mornings, I’ve submerged myself feet first, back in the water before 8 a.m. The air temperature is perfect at that hour … seventy or seventy-five degrees … and the water is refreshing. Just right for getting my stroke and fueling my energy for this story, which appears exactly two years since I began my blogging journey.

Fifteen or twenty minutes each morning is all it takes for me to feel free again, gliding through the water. Thirty laps of swimming from one side of the pool to the other. Then I dry off and come back inside to write my stories and share the companionship of my loving husband in the quiet of the Sonoran Desert.

That’s really all I need to make a splash.