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Sunday, April 30, 2017

These Are Days

Friday, April 28th
By the numbers:

160 hours of classroom instruction
About 3500 textbook pages read
About 560 hours spent studying & researching
About 175 hours spent writing papers
About 20 hours spent on group projects

Yes, the education part of my graduate degree is finished.  My only remaining requirement for graduation is to pass an industry examination, which I'll do in the Fall.  

Relieved?  Not sure, mostly at the moment I am rather numb.  My final act as a graduate student was a final exam for an HR Metrics and Statistical Research class.  It was probably the most difficult exam I've taken in the program, and I think I probably did a bit better than average.  Heck, basically I would take just about any grade at this point, as I'm pretty darn spent.

Looking back, well, it's been a long road.  See above.  I'm not sure I would do it all over again, and I know for a fact that my formal college education is now over with, as I simply don't have this kind of effort left in me.  It feels rather like I've taken a turn, and now I need to focus on some other things.

If there is one regret in all of this, well, it would be that I wish my Mom would have been alive to see this day come.  As I've noted in prior postings, my mother was a tough human being, and while expressing (positive) emotions was not her forte, I knew for a fact that she was proud when two of her sons graduated from college.  She was, without a doubt, the best-educated person I've ever met who didn't have a college degree.  When she was alive I had talked to her about going back to school, and her comment was always "well, what's stopping you?", usually though including a foul word or two in the mix, just for emphasis.

(1986:  My Penn State undergraduate degree graduation)

I Did It Mom!

Very few things in life are achieved without the help of others, and that's especially true of this particular milestone.  

First and foremost on my list of people to thank is my wife, who has been just incredibly supportive of my continuing education, going back to when I first started seriously thinking about it in 2012.  She has also been my fearless editor, literally reading hundreds of pages of academic stuff I've produced over the years.  

Secondly, thank you to all those who have offered words of encouragement and support, including co-workers (at two different employers), many of my managers who took an interest in my professional development, and my daughters who were always encouraging me, even when I felt like a complete looser as I struggled to master APA. formatting.  All have given me mental booster shots that always seemed to come at precisely the right time.

Finally, thank you to my classmates and instructors in the Villanova University Graduate HRD program.  Formal learning aside, just the experience of meeting and working with so many talented and diverse fellow Human Resources professionals has enriched me significantly.  The degree itself is just an added bonus.

* * * * * *

Sunday, April 30th
Rubber band.

Yesterday and today have been what I'll call the "rubber band" days, namely that time when, after you achieve something important, you have this kind of spent, empty, vacant feeling.  I have had these from time to time in my life.  This is, by the way, a great testimony to how my mind was programmed to work for so many years.  I'm using the past tense in that last sentence, more so out of hope that I'm slowly but surely evolving to a better state, likely reaching a point where I can genuinely celebrate a success, probably a year or so before I leave this life (which hopefully won't be for a very long time to come).

Anyway, part of the rubber band feeling, I'm sure, stems from a kind in incessant wanderlust to aways be doing something important.  That's all the more remarkable given the fact that I have a mental list many rows long of the things I promised myself I'd do once I was finished with school.  You would think I would feel some sense of satisfaction knowing that I can begin to tackle that list, but alas, the feeling escapes me.

Speaking of motivation, in my rubber band state, I was thinking about why I did this...why I decided to go back to school at age the first place.  The unscientific results of that pondering are noted below.

Yes, guilt is something of a major driver in many things I do.  Catholic guilt (and the very closely related Jewish guilt) is one of the most powerful forces in the universe, right up there with gravity and overly caffeinated beverages.  In this case, it would be the guilt over not completing the degree, as it would let down one or two people who really encouraged me to pursue it in the first place (along with a few other choice-but-rotten chestnuts).  At the end of the day, I suspect that guilt, like caffeinated beverages, can be a force for good or bad, depending on the frequency and amounts in question.

So there you have it, an academic milestone achieved, and a special kind of empty feeling, all in the span of two and a half days.

In the end, it will get better.  It always does.  The screed above is really part of my tried and true method for getting out of mental funks, namely proclaiming my weaknesses to the entirely of the Internet, mostly in the hope that I will then feel guilted into getting over myself.  It is all so wonderfully circular.  

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Birthday, Flowers, a Tooth, and Water

I truly miss Beavis and Butthead.  Anyway, one more complete revolution around the sun for me.  With a bit of luck, I'll be revolving (and evolving) for many more times to come.  If not, well, thanks for all the fish.

* * * * * *

Today was only the 3rd time in 29 years when I've worked on my birthday.  I've probably told the story here before about why I usually take my birthday off, but suffice to say it's a nice tradition when you can pull it off, which I couldn't this year.  Usually, by the way, when I would take my birthday off, my tradition was to plant flowers in front of my house, wherever that house happened to be.  This year, well, the flowers will have to wait for another day, but that's okay.  There's always next year to start a new tradition.  I did get a truck-shaped planter though as a birthday gift from my biggest cheerleader, best friend, and editor:

A notable event today, outside if it...a) being my birthday and b) being a working birthday...was the fact that I managed to crack a tooth while at work.  Luckily there is no pain, and in fact, it's not even sensitive to hot or cold.  I hope that's a good omen.  Tomorrow it will be a call to the dentist to see what's up.

* * * * * *

“There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says "Morning, boys. How's the water?" And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes "What the hell is water?”
- David Foster Wallace

The above is from the book This Is Water:  Some Deep Thoughts, Delivered on a Significant Occasion, About Living a Compassionate Life.  You can find it HERE on Amazon.  I haven't recommended too many things over the years (almost 9 of them) on the blog, but I recommend this book.  It's well worth your time to read, so much so that I keep a copy at my desk at work.  It's also an incredibly quick read as well, making it all the more attractive.

I think that one of the advantages of getting older is that, like the older fish, you begin to have a far greater sense as to just what it is you are swimming in.  At least that's the case for me.  It's also one of the reasons why I think I'm more content now  than I've ever been:  I finally have some sense as to the water.

* * * * * *

There's another reason, why I used to take my birthday off:  I simply didn't like the attention.  I'm like that, by the way, in the sense that I can be the center of attention in an executive meeting or while facilitating some classroom event, but make me the center of attention to hand me a birthday card?  I become very uncomfortable.  Maybe, as I grow up/older, I'll get better at handling that sort of thing. Regardless, I am deeply touched by all the birthday wishes, be they on-line, at work, or at home today.  It means an awful lot to me, even if I have trouble expressing myself.

I am, in a word, blessed.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Easter (thinking about my brother)

(Chris & Rich, post some big holiday meal)

My late brother Chris loved to cook, so today being Easter made me think of all those times when he would be proudly planning some big holiday meal...and I would find excuses to mostly not actually have to eat it.  Now, in all fairness, my brother was a pretty good cook; it's just that I am not a very good consumer of food.  Chris did like to sometimes experiment with food, mostly in later years Hispanic dishes, which I, having the eating habits of petulant 7 year old, would not eat.  My mother would also complain that the food Chris would cook was "bland", but that was mostly her just finding a reason to be critical.  My late mother and my late brother both secretly relished arguing with each other, even when it was over the silliest of things.

Another part of not wanting to go to Chris' house for big family meals was the fact that, for so many years, I was always running from one family to another around the holidays.  It was maddening and not fun.  Instead of a holiday being something to look forward to and an opportunity to relax, it instead was this exercise in stress.  That constantly running around the holidays is something that I try to not impose on my own daughters, in that while I do want to see them as much as I can, I don't want to be the source of what I hated so much in years past.  I hope they understand that point.

Now while I wouldn't necessarily eat at my brother Chris' house over the holidays, I always did stop by to say hello.  In the early years, well, a hallmark of those visits would be the inevitable series of political debates.  In hindsight, I've found a word to describe those events:  Stupid.  Yes, they were stupid.  Arguing politics is about like arguing ice-cream flavors.  Subjectivity actually was the word of the day back then, but I just didn't realize it at the time.  As the years went by the political debates with Chris became less and less ardent, mostly because, in hindsight, my brother's interests in outside things was becoming slowly diminished.  Of course, in later years there was also the advent of having the drug dealer over for dinner, which at the time I found annoying, but then again my brother did have something of a bent towards the ironic.  Hindsight being what it is, I should have been far more than just annoyed.  Part of me wants to type "I should have carved the dealer instead of the ham", but I'm not a violent kind of guy.

So now I'm sitting here, stalling from having to change cat litter and then get ready to go to church (something I don't do all that often).  I am having my two (remaining) brothers over for Easter dinner today, which actually is something I'm mostly looking forward to, truth be told.  Part of what makes it enjoyable is the fact that I know they won't be running from place to place.  My sole NEPA-residing daughter will be stopping by later today as well...I just hope this doesn't require running around on her part.

Happy Easter one and all.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Existential Terror & Graduate School

I'm more than halfway through my final graduate school class, which when completed leaves me with just an industry exam waiting to be completed before I could add letters after my name (which I won't).  The better time to write about this might be when I am actually done with things, but by then I'm probably going to be so full of relief that actually writing about it will be #127 on my list of things to do.  While "counting my chickens before they hatch" is a valid argument against this post, recent events have shown that I'm likely going to, in fact, pass this final class (and in the spirit of full disclosure, I've passed all of the others too).

Why did I even do this?  That's a good question.  I think part of it was my late Mom.  While I've noted many times in the past that my mother could be a difficult human being, she did truly value education.  While not a college graduate herself, she was never the less encouraging of her kids getting an education, and I know that she was secretly very proud when two of us earned college degrees.  Over the years I had mentioned to my mother that I thought about going back to school, and her response was always "well then just do it" (or something similar, all be it coupled with a taking of the Lord's name in vain, as an added form of punctuation).  While she passed away before I started school, I know she would be proud of my having gone back.

Another reason to do it was simply that I enjoy a challenge, even when I know it will be a royal pain in the posterior.  It's almost as if I can see the "suck" coming at me, and I never the less have to stand there and meet it head on.  It's far less about an actual and formal education and far more about validating to myself that I'm actually capable of doing it.  Call that one vanity, or maybe even better so, a kind of searching for simply being worthy ("Well I must be pretty okay if I can get through this"), but mostly call it the truth.

A final reason?  Well, at the risk of sounding hokey, I just enjoy learning.  Of all the things that I am, one thing that I absolutely know to be true is the fact that I simply enjoy learning new things.  Not just things that make me a better person, father, employee, etc., but things simply for the fun joy of learning something new.  That's as true a statement about Steve Albert as any could ever be made.

What made it an easier decision was the fact that my (former) employer offered a generous educational benefit, although it's worth noting that, when all is said and done, I will have paid for about 40% of the degree on my own.  That's an easy one to get down about, but hey, they paid for more than half of it, and while I'm not there anymore (I'm a "retiree"), I get to keep the graduate credits they paid for never the less.  Good deal if you ask me.

Saturday, April 8, 2017

Scranton is the 7th Saddest City in the United States (and here's why)

According to a list compiled by the website, Scranton Pennsylvania is the 7th saddest city in the United States.  You can find the whole list HERE, with the Scranton entry HERE.

I don't disagree with the placement.  Heck, it possibly should be ranked even higher.  I note this as someone who was born and raised in Scranton.  The city will always be my home, no matter where I live, for the rest of my life.  I realize though that Scranton is broken, badly.  Here's why I think "The Electric City" earned its placement.

1) Nepotism
I'll list this separately from corruption in general because it (nepotism) isn't about immediate financial gain, as opposed to, say, pay-to-play governance (also known as "Cordaro").

Everyone who has lived in Scranton for any length of time knows that, when it comes to the public sector, Scranton is a "who you know" kind of town.  If you're not from a politically connected family, by and large, it's far more difficult to gain employment in local or county government.  An effect of the nepotism is that many folks* who end up becoming public servants aren't the best qualified for their jobs.  What's more, because nepotism is so rampant, many who would be a good fit for public sector employment, folks who could add real value to how the city and county are governed, don't even bother trying to find employment precisely because they know the game is rigged against them.

What makes this far, far worse?  The simple fact that you won't hear the Mayor of Scranton, for example, ever talk about nepotism as being a significant problem.  Nor will you hear members of the school board.  Or City council.  It is the "silent epidemic" of Scranton that everyone knows about yet few admit.

Nepotism creates a kind of vicious, self-perpetuating cycle that drives down performance and drives up a propensity towards entitlement (especially among politicians), stagnation, and corruption.  This is why it's #1 with a bullet on my list.  Deal with nepotism and you can begin to deal with some of the other items on this list.

(*) But not all...I know some very dedicated Scranton public servants.  It's just that they are the exception, not the rule.

2) Corruption
Just one of many examples can be found HERE.  Scranton and the surrounding communities breed corruption like puppy mills breed genetic defects.  What's more, corrupt practices are practically embedded in the collective psyche of the area.  Like its cousin nepotism, everyone knows that Scranton is a corrupt town, but yet few viable candidates for mayor, for example, make fighting corruption even a campaign issue.  Why is that?  Simply put, most mainstream candidates for office in Scranton want to perpetuate bad practices simply because they view it as a kind of job perk, akin to getting an extra few vacation days per year.

By the way, is "fighting corruption" a campaign plank of Mayor Courtright?  See for yourself HERE.  The short answer is "no".   In fact, his campaign website is a single page that proclaims that Scranton is "on track".  How's that for educating the Electric City electorate?

3)  Low Expectations
Scranton's residents have chronically suffered from low expectations.  When I was younger, an area resident was considered to have "made it" if they got a job working for the Post Office or Tobyhanna Army Depot.  Let that one sink in for a few minutes.  It hasn' gotten much better.

A part of low expectations, at least in my experience, is a habit of being overly deferential to authority figures.  This shows up in a population that readily fails to question the actions and motives of those in power, be they Bishops or Mayors.  It's a kind of genetic imprint from back in the coal mining days when one was happy to get ripped off at the company store. 

4)  Class Stratification
Growing up, my Mom would tell me that, in Scranton, there were two kinds of Irish:  The Shanty Irish and the Lace Curtain Irish.  That's something of a microcosm for the city as a whole.  There are a number of well-off families in the area, of the sort that sends their children to Scranton Prep, who end up being the parents of doctors and lawyers who end up living in the nice sections of Green Ridge and Minooka.  At the other end of the spectrum are those with far less in terms of economic resources or even a template for economic success.  Yes, this isn't a wholly Scranton problem, but the city is something of a Petrie dish for the worst that class stratification brings to an area.

5)  Voter Apathy
The coal miner mentality is alive and well in Scranton, decades after the last mine closed.  Scranton's population routinely vote into office individuals who won't even utter the words "nepotism" and "corruption", let alone actually make structural changes to address past problems.  Well, the 30% or so that actually vote in municipal elections.  This isn't a party line voting issues either, as the city and county have voted in plenty of shysters from both ends of the political spectrum.

Ask a city resident about nepotism or corruption and you're likely to get a "well, that's just the way things are around here" kind of answer.  See above:  It's the same answer that those miners probably gave after having been ripped off at that company store.

6)  Public Sector Incompetence
Think of this as being an output of #1 & #5.  Scranton has been functionally bankrupt for decades, yet city leaders continue to plug budget holes with one-time revenue sources, proudly proclaiming that the city is "on the road to recovery".  As I've noted on the blog before, even the recent multi-million dollar windfall from the sale of the Scranton Sewer Authority will not solve the city's fiscal problems; all it does is bide time until bankruptcy.  Why?  Consider this:  Pumping tens of millions of dollars into the city's municipal pensions will not make them even close to fully funded (meaning that there aren't enough assets to cover future pension liabilities).  Yet the politicians running the city want voters to believe that fiscal recovery is just "right down the tracks".  It's not.  As I said a few sentences ago, Scranton is functionally bankrupt; all that's missing is the legal designation and the opportunities that such a declaration would bring.  

More proof:  According to data on the city's own web page, despite the dire fiscal situation facing Scranton, the cost of municipal government is continuing to grow.

(from THIS page)

The first rule of getting yourself out of a hole?  Stop digging.  Yet Scranton's leaders seem intent on increasing the costs of a government that city taxpayers can't actually afford.  Why?  Because they benefit from it.

Another example of public sector incompetence in action:  The former president of the Scranton School Board was a public transportation bus driver with a G.E.D. and the vast majority of Scranton voters found that perfectly acceptable.  At the risk of sounding elitist, I'll note that I have no personal qualms with the man (who still serves on the board), by the way, but shouldn't the residents of Scranton want someone running the school board who has a background in education?  Or finance?  Or legal matters?  For a well-written piece on the dire situation facing the Scranton School District read THIS blog posting by Tom Borthwick.  

* * * * * *

In the end, Scranton is sad mostly because it's voters are comfortable living in that sadness, as evidenced by their continuing habit of electing people to public office who, at best, routinely deliver mediocrity.  They shrug their collective shoulders, sigh, and move on.  As I noted previously, I love Scranton, and it will always be my home.  Yet I have no desire to live there, at least not anytime soon.  It's a town frozen in a kind of 1940's time warp, full of back-room dealings and coal barons who actively teach miners to be grateful for the crumbs thrown their way.  The worst part?  It could change, but it likely won't.  

Thursday, April 6, 2017

What's In A Name?

I don't believe that women should change their last name when they get married.

There, I said it.

Now if they want to, well, who am I to judge (to paraphrase a famous Pope)?  I'm not capable of fairly judging myself, let alone others.  But this is my ramble, so I'll continue.

Anyway, I've never liked the idea of a woman having to "become someone else" just because she got married.  This is especially true for my daughters (hint, hint, ladies).  It just seems like, well, a kind of ownership:  Frida Smythe becomes the property of Mr. Benny Jones and is, therefore, Frida Jones.  Please, can we at least make it "Frida Smythe-Jones"?  Why shouldn't it be "Benny Smythe" for that matter?  Or Benny and Frida Smythe-Jones?  

I had this conversation with both marriages, by the way.  I'll note that the second time around I was a bit more successful, although not because of any efforts on my part.  Ms. Rivers had been going through a difficult divorce when she decided that she wanted to "take back" her rightful Rivers-ness.  All well and good in my eyes.  When we knew we were going to get married, she told me in a fairly direct manner that she didn't want to be "Chris Albert".  I think she expected me to be somehow bothered or upset; actually, I was relieved.  It made practical sense as well, given that:

1) There already was a "Chris Albert".
2) The existing "Chris Albert" was, in fact, a "he".

Complimenting the conversation was the fact that we both decided we had enough children (in part because I didn't want to be going to a high school graduation in a walker).  This took the notion of what to call the children off the table.  I know that's more of a real issue for younger couples, but see above:  hyphenated names sound cool and sophisticated anyway.

Reasonable people can disagree with me on this one, and to be honest, I did some checking on the interwebs and mostly found people who wanted to change their last names.  All well in good.  In the end, what's in a name anyway?  Unless, apparently, that last name is "Drumpf".