Monday, July 29, 2013

The Stream

I believe that no one or nothing is pure evil.

I believe that no one or nothing is pure good.

Every life, every event achieves a point of stasis on the good/evil spectrum and that point is subject to change.  Are you the "same person" as you were, say, twenty years ago?

Our being is subject to the eroding forces of the day-to-day, like a stone being moved by a stream from the mountaintop to the sea.  The stream of time inexorably compels us forward toward our destiny but every event, creature, obstacle and opportunity along the way serves to fashion us into the "us" we ultimately become.

The positives can be wonderful.  They are often the events that we consider the milestones of our life.

But it's the challenges that truly make us who we are.  Challenges are actually opportunities which allow us to choose the future path our life will take.

One of the most pivotal examples of this in my life occurred in my 20s.  I was an eager-beaver idealogue who believed that anything is possible (actually, I still believe that) with the right attitude, talent and perseverance.  I had been a Flight Attendant for a few years and thought my forward path should be in management.  So, when it was offered, I accepted the position of Inflight Supervisor.  What I didn't know but should have was that managing Flight Attendants is about as easy as herding cats!  There is some debate about my longevity in the job but it was either 87 or 88 days.  Why?

Because I encountered one of those life-altering erosive forces in that job.  The invincibility of youth simply was no match for the task of taking away the employment of another Flight Attendant, regardless of the odious circumstances that precipitated that action.

I had been tasked with the supervision of the Service Manager group, the onboard leaders of our workforce.  Theirs was a particularly precarious role because they were essentially Flight Attendants, like all others, with certain leadership responsibilities and accountabilities.  Flight Attendants are generally unaccustomed to direct, on-site supervision and were rankled by the concept.  The one in question felt as though a particular Service Manager was going to disclose to management his suspicion that she was stealing liquor and/or liquor money, so she took action.

In what was meant to be a pre-emptive strike, she participated in the fabrication and submission of a fake customer complaint against the Service Manager that she felt threatened her.  The complaint was detailed, specific and damning; it might have cost the Service Manager his position and ultimately his job. But by virtue of its detail, specificity and intent to damn, I called the veracity of the letter, which was received via the mail from a "customer", into question.  It took me three months to piece together what ultimately were the facts surrounding its production and submission and there was no question as to the outcome.  The Flight Attendant responsible would be fired.

And I was the one to do the deed!  I knew for approximately 2 weeks prior to her termination that the responsibility would be mine.  Honestly, I don't know how I got through it.  It affected my sleep and eating habits.  I was constantly anxious.  The thought of ending the career of a 23 year employee was all-consuming, regardless of the circumstances.  On the date of our meeting, I was a wreck.  There were 4 of us in that small, stark room that morning:  the Flight Attendant, her witness, my notetaker (and fellow, more tenured supervisor) and me.  The Flight Attendant asked as we got started if she could record our proceedings.  I wasn't sure but my notetaker said, "no".  I proceeded to read her letter of termination and when she realized what was happening, the Flight Attendant burst into a tirade of obscenities and threats. I was the focus of the tirade.  I was mortifed, although more for her than for me.  I remember looking at her witness who appeared to be in shock.  The rest is just a blur....

What resulted from that event was a 10 year "dark cloud" hanging over my life.  Through arbitration, the Flight Attendant was returned to work a few years later, in spite of the fact that we had proven the case against her.  She apparently took this as a positive sign and began legal proceedings against me and two others, in hopes of re-couping her financial losses.  She sued me!

Hour upon day upon week upon month upon year of consultations with attorneys, depositions, the contstant feeling of being unsettled, answering questions on mortgage forms about being "party to a lawsuit" left me feeling hung out to dry.  The company said that I was indemnified AS LONG AS no proof came to light that I had acted outside the scope of my supervisory responsibilities.  All the while, the Flight Attendant, having been returned to work, felt vindicated and vengeful.  She wasted no time telling her slanted side of the story to anyone who would listen.  Part of my indemnification was that I could not utter a word about the case, not even to defend myself.  It was hellish.

Ultimately, there was a jury trial held in state court in Honolulu.  It lasted +/- 8 weeks.  The result was that she lost, utterly.  I'm not sure what her attorney saw as a cause of action, she was as guilty then as the day she fomented her plan to have another employee fired.  Perhaps it was the lure of a huge corporation standing behind the defendants (me!) and the potential pot of gold at the end of that litigeous rainbow.  All I know is that one juror sustained me through the process.  One older, Asian lady who sat at the end of the back row gave me constant, reassuring eye contact throughout every day of that trial.  I don't know who she was but I would love to think she knew what her gesture meant to me during that awful process.

The culmination of testimony in that trial occurred when we returned from a lunch recess on what was to be the final day.  Large speakers had been setup in the 4 corners of the jury box.  When I asked our attorney what was going on, he replied that a recording had been made of the termination meeting and that the attorney for the plaintiff intended to play that recording for the jury.  I was gobsmacked!  I was about to relive the most traumatizing moment of my life in a court of law!  Our attorney asked if there was anything in that recording that he should know about.  What?!  I had done all in my power to minimize that event in my thoughts and memory in an effort at self-preservation.  What could I tell him now?

My anxiety was ill-founded.  My recorded voice was so weak as to be nearly inaudible.  My recitation of the termination letter was closer to a lament than a condemnation.  What did they hope to gain by playing my pitiful voice?

Then it came.  The moment in the recording when she launched into her tirade against me and mine.  It was truly awful!  But, on the whole, I suppose it was necessary.  It was almost as though divine intervention was serving to release me from my 10 years of bondage.  For in that terrible moment, I saw and heard myself for what and who I was in this event:  a pitiful pawn in life's chess game.

The Flight Attendant lost her case utterly.  The older, Asian lady-juror smiled at me and nodded as the verdicts (23 in all) were read:  "not guilty".  I was relieved, I was vindicated, I was transformed into the next iteration of Tony Reece, the one whose innocence and invincibility had been disproven by life's erosive forces.

I suppose that she, too was transformed in the process.  In the years since, I have had occasion to work with this Flight Attendant, often in the same cabin, working side-by-side.  My reaction?  "How awkward this must be for her!"  Her actions were those of a human being, doing what she thought was necessary to "survive".  At least, that's my account of it all.  Does it serve any purpose for me to remind her of those actions, to hold her up to public scrutiny for those actions, to hold it over her head like an ax, ready to fall?  I don't think so.

No one is all good.  No one is all bad.  Not her, not me and not you.  We are all trying to stay afloat on time's mighty stream.  When we bump into other people and objects on that journey, our shape, our constitution, our destiny is refined by the process.  I believe that we have some degree of input into how those erosive forces affect us and make us who we are meant to be.  Whether or not we exercise that input is our true measure.

Think about the path that led to the YOU of today.  Which events were more fundamental in affecting that YOU?  The easy ones or the difficult ones?  

I've had a few "life philosophies" ebb and wane in my 53 years: "everything is relative", "that which doesn't kill us makes us stronger", etc.  But my favorite and the one that has had the most staying power is, "if life were easy, what would be the point?"  I suppose my philosophy has a rather eastern flavor because I see the point of life as being "enlightenment" more than "success" or "winning".  

For don't we all come to the same end?  If that is the case, how is one more successful than another?  Our end is our end.  The state in which we arrive there is the point of the exercise.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

The "Sixth Element"

The four classic elements of the ancient world were earth, wind, fire and water.

In a relatively recent film whose premise was frustratingly lost in meandering (shout-out to Chris Tucker), Bruce Willis learned that the character played by Mila Jovovich was the missing "FIFTH ELEMENT". 

In this post, I would like to promote the existence of a sixth essential element; the element of trust.  Trust is the element which fundamentally binds all human relationships.  For if "no man is an island", then we all most certainly depend on each other in every aspect of life.  Trust is essential to that successful dependency.

MERRIAM-WEBSTER defines trust as:  "assured reliance on the character, ability, strength, or truth of someone or something."

Is there ANY interpersonal relationship, from the exalted to the quotidien, that does not absolutely rely on trust?  In the library (where I am now), we trust that the other patrons will preserve the quiet.  In the car, we trust that other drivers will observe the rules of the road.  At school, church, work, the supermarket, we trust that all those with whom we have even the briefest contact will fulfill their end of the mututal trust bargain and thereby assure that all will be well.  On the airplane, I trust that the aircraft manufacturer and the pilot-in-command are competent and trustworthy.

But on a more intimate level, the element of trust may be even more apparent.  How do close relationships form without it?  The brief answer is, "they don't"!  Taking that concept a step further, even the most intimate relationships of long standing will not endure the loss of this one key element.   Examine those relationships that YOU find most meaningful:  parent/child, spouse, master/pet, best friend, close family member, boss/employee.  When I reflect on those relationships in my life that I feel have been and continue to be the most "successful", invariably they share that one common element.  Conversely, I can think of none that has thrived in its absence.  At home, my partner and I have built a successful, 27 year relationship whose foundation is our mutual trust.  

To measure the value that our society places on trust, think about the measures we have in place to address its loss:  divorce, DFACS, employment termination, expulsion, prison, the death penalty...  We do not suffer lack or loss of trust, nor will we long abide those whom we deem to be untrustworthy.    Trust is essential to maintaining "the peace".

THE BIBLE (1 Corinthians 13:13) cites "faith, hope and love" as being the three most important values for humanity, the greatest of these being love.  

But don't faith, hope and even love rely on "the sixth element"?

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Milestone: "Maturity"

So, how will I know when I'm "mature"?

What's the absolute test that determines one's maturity?

Philip and I spent this past week at my respite, my heaven on earth, my "true north" as I sometimes have referred to the small home we own on the mid-coast of Maine.  To be sure, he and I see it in an entirely different light!  MooseWalk Cottage has played and continues to play a significant role in my maturity process.  

The cottage recently took on the role of "gut check" catalyst when we signed a contract to sell it in the fall.  While not particularly robust, the mid-coast real estate market has strengthened from its plummet of 2006 and it has become clear that our needs for a Maine retirement home have evolved since the days when we felt that MooseWalk would be perfect.  Alas, the inevitable has arrived.

To preclude my casting Philip in the role of villain where this action is concerned, I independently made the call to sell but based that call on cold, hard facts that the two of us had discussed.  I have so much emotional capital tied up in the cottage that to sell was truly one of the most difficult decisions of my life.  But the things that we "clutter" our lives with, that WE imbue with so much importance, from possessions to friendships, can be seen as both assets AND as liabilities, just like in accounting.  When any of those things morphs from being a clear asset to being a clear liability, we must act.  

The recognition of that bothersome fact and the fortitude to do something about it is what I call maturity.  

Maybe it's a little naive to think that "the cosmos" have a reward in store for us when we find the courage to make the truly hard decisions.  So, call me naive!

As the week grew bleaker and bleaker for me with the realization of what, exactly, I was committed to doing, we began the search for a potential replacement that would be more suitable for our dotage.  Several areas and properties seemed promising but none really "ticked all the boxes."  Almost in desperation after a long day of "go sees", I decided to drive past a condominium that we had seen almost 2 years ago in the Topsham/Brunswick area.  For whatever reason, a home that we had discounted then suddenly had all sorts of potential.  We arranged a walk-through which confirmed our hopes that THIS might be the place.

So now we begin the arduous and very uncertain process of selling and buying real estate...ARGH! be continued (I hope!)

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Hard Questions

While mowing the grass this morning, it occurred to me, "Isn't it time we Flight Attendants asked ourselves some hard questions?"

Prior to last Saturday, how many of us can honestly say that they would look favorably at being seen as a "peer" of an Asiana Flight Attendant?

If we answered honestly, we likely said something like "not me".  And why is that?  Many of us are as guilty of seeing non-U.S. crews through the prism of stereotypes as the U.S. traveling public is in their view of us! I include myself in that rather broad accusation.  I was admittedly surprised that the 777-200 that crashed in SFO was staffed with 12, rather than DOUBLE that number which my preconceived notions dictated.  I thought that all 12 would be aged 35 or younger with little to no seniority.  I believed that a Korean airline would be staffed with "Flight Attendants" in name only; meaning that their service role was the entirety of their job.  How wrong I have been!

With those rather perjorative stereotypes in mind, I would not have looked favorably on being compared to a F/A for a Korean carrier, or most other foreign carriers, for that matter.  In my own mind, I HAD GREATER VALUE.  Oh what a difference one ill-fortuned landing can make!

Today, most of us are eager to stand on the shoulders of our Asiana peers and proclaim their heroism, as though we somehow share in their accomplishment by virtue of the fact that we are Flight Attendants, like them.  Really?  I'm more than a little ashamed of myself for a couple of reasons...

#1  The very reputation that Asiana and other foreign carriers' Flight Attendants enjoyed prior to the crash of OZ 214 was one of service.  Somehow, in the American lexicon, a profession of service is not worthy of honor or respect.  Who's responsible for that?  Is the public with their uninformed, thoughtless public pronouncements guilty or we who proclaim ourselves as "safety professionals" and do nothing to promote the value of our service role (a role which we spend 99.9% of our time at work performing!).

#2  Isn't it just a little hypocritical to distance yourself from a peer one minute and the next, proclaim them heroic due to an unfortunate circumstance?

Many of us are fortunate that we will NEVER have to face the circumstances faced by the crew of OZ 214.  In my nearly 30 years, I've had two instances of rapid decompression with mask drop, once on a DC10 and once on a 737.  While both were traumatic, neither can be compared to OZ 214 on any level.  Two Flight Attendants were EJECTED from the fuselage upon tail strike, before the wheels ever touched the ground!  Just imagine...

My grandmother often said (well into her 70s) that the day she stopped learning would be the day she didn't deserve to "take up space".  I'm 53 now and happy to say that I live by that advice.  What has this lesson taught me?

I will continue to proclaim the heroism of the Flight Attendants of OZ 214 for they SO richly deserve it!  But I will honor them, AND MYSELF, further by holding up their OTHER reputation, the reputation of service, in the light that it deserves.  In my SERVICE, I will honor, respect, and uplift my profession in hopes that it reflects as positively on Yoon Hye Lee, Tae Sik Yoo, Woo Lee Han, Jung-Ah Hong, Sook Young Hyun, Soo Min Jeon,  Ji Youn Kim, Yunju Kim, Jeong Mi Lee, Jin Hee Lee, Tinnakul Maninart and Singhakarn Siritip as their actions have reflected so positively on me.

Monday, July 8, 2013

Someday soon...

I'll get back to regularly posting on this blog!  Right now, other issues have my attention...


Issues don't arrive "BIG".  They just "show up" and we choose to make them big...or small.  Which way we go with them depends a lot on how we see ourselves.  Things that we think make us important, we make big.

And that's where all the trouble starts...

In the meantime, focus on a remarkable outcome brought about by some genuine, certifiable 21st century heroes.  There are 4 of the 12 Flight Attendants of Asiana 214 that crash-landed in San Francisco this past weekend in this photograph.  The lady on the far left is Ji-Youn KIM, the dimunitive woman who passenger Edward Rah described as carrying injured passengers "piggyback" out of the aircraft just before it burst into flames; all the while, tears streaming down her face.  I find the photo of her, in particular, to be very evocative; her face, her hands, her uniform almost perfect except for her lack of shoes.

I can only hope to be as brave and capable as this crew proved to be, should the need ever arise (God forbid!).

Thursday, July 4, 2013

The Significance of a Flag

THE STAR SPANGLED BANNER is such an effective vehicle for conveying the significance of the flag which represents our country that little more can or should be said about it.  I remember learning in fourth grade that the red represents the blood shed for our freedom, the white, our purity of purpose and blue, the loyalty to our cause.  In Boy Scouts, I was taught to venerate the flag and to treat it respectfully, both in spirit and in handling.

How about you?  What special significance do the Stars and Stripes hold in your life?  Is it possible to be one of the most fortunate creatures on Earth, a citizen of the United States of America, and NOT feel a lump in your throat when our nation's banner is raised?

There is one flag that harbors special meaning to me and it occupies an unique place in my heart.  In 1994, this particular banner flew over the Capitol Building in Washington, D.C. to honor the accomplishment of Harold and Alma Reece, my grandparents.  What feat did they accomplish to merit such honor, you might ask?  Well, the flag flew to recognize their 70th wedding anniversary.  But really, it represents so much more...

Papa and Granna were Americana incarnate!  Papa first asked to marry Granna when she was just 15 years old.  It was The Depression and no one in the rural South had much.  But Granna's family owned an estate known in the area as "Cloudland" and were better off than many.  The patriarch of the Cloud clan, my great-grandfather, told Papa that if he still wanted her when she turned 18, that he could have her.  They married on her 18th birthday (Columbus Day, October 12, 1924).

Granna wore a robin's egg blue dress that Papa Cloud bought for her at a shop on the square in Marietta, Georgia for $24, a princely sum in those hard days.  (She still had that dress in her possession on the day the flag flew to celebrate the 70th anniversary of that wedding). The rawness of those times is unimaginable to most of us today.  After the ceremony, Papa and Granna were allowed an afternoon and evening to celebrate their union.  They were both back in the fields working the very next morning.  What was my Papa Cloud's parting remark to this young upstart who had taken his daughter?  "You know that you are getting my best worker."  That day of toil that was their honeymoon was just the first of so many that became the rhythm of their life together.

With little help other than what they provided one another, they started their family:  a child was born every two years for twenty years, eight of whom survived to adulthood.  After my father, Neal's birth, they managed to secure $500 credit to purchase their own 100 acre farm.  (That amount was financed over the standard 30-year term).   Together with help from his brothers-in-law, Papa felled trees and gathered stone on the property and built the simple house that was to become our family "homeplace".  It was there that an idyll, at least to these 21st century eyes, was formed.

For how else would you describe Americana perfection but as an idyll?  The land, the trees, the gardens, the animals, the barn and sheds, that house, the clothes drying on a wire line, the breeze, the red dirt, the SMELLS, the TASTES, the cool water from the well, the ABSOLUTE LOVE AND COMFORT AND SENSE OF PLACE & BELONGING that are the very definition of the word "home".  

Papa and Granna lived on together for a few more years after that special flag flew in their honor.  They lived together in that little house under the watchful, loving care of their family, just as they always had. Papa took his leave of this world first, peacefully in his own bed.  When Granna finally became "conscious" of his passing a few weeks later, she rushed to join him that same day.  It seems they were always meant to be together.

The tears that form as I write this re-affirm just how important all of those things continue to be in my life....and most of them exist now only in lovely, comforting memories. 

So, if you and I ever share a moment when the Stars and Stripes are raised, maybe you'll understand the significance of that moment in my life.  I can only hope and pray that all who read this attach their own significance to our flag and to the warmth and comfort that it can provide.

Monday, July 1, 2013

Setting Expectations

I've been working in A-zone galley this month, a fairly task-oriented position that normally has little/no direct interaction with customers. While I enjoy the challenge of something different, I've missed the face-to-face with the people who pay the bills. So, the last 2-3 trips, I've been trying a "twist" on accepted galley position Flight Attendant responsibilities.

Once I have the galley mostly sorted out, I take a breath and step out into the cabin to say "hello". Something like this, "Good morning. My name is Tony and I'll be working in the galley today. You won't see me very much but I'm here to help make sure you enjoy your flight. If you have any special requests or if something doesn't meet your expectations, please pass the word up to me. We're here to do what we can to make you happy. It's nice to have you with us!"

At the very least, I always get a "surprised" smile...usually a comment, often a question...or two...or many. It's interesting how VERY well-traveled customers can be so surprised by something so innocuous. And it's ALL SO POSITIVE!

A genuine desire to please is an honorable, powerful thing.

Just this past Saturday, on the return from Heathrow, catering was a total disaster. Just one example: we were surprised with two different chicken entrees (morel sauce [the one in the menu] and Tandoori) which, of course, we weren't prepared for. When two of our highest level frequent flyer customers who'd ordered the morel sauce version received Tandoori, the potential for dissatisfaction was great. Partly due to THEIR disposition (who can say where it comes from?), partly due to the excellent Tandoori entree, partly due to our genuine willingness to please, WE HIT A HOME RUN! They raved about their meals and at the end of the flight, when I went by to thank them for supporting my airline-employer, they both said, "compliments to the chef."

Is it silly to strive for excellence, no matter what you're doing?

When you set out to set an expectation, aren't you setting it for yourself as well as for the customer?