Wednesday, September 07, 2011

Small. Unexpected. Happening

Mr Chen's Sketch

"Some things and some people just kind of happen by. You've got to be ready for this. In smallness these things and people will present themselves. The presentation will beg you to notice. If you're asleep you'll miss it. But if you're awake, well then, your noticing will illuminate the magnificent. This can create a transformation." -Papi Conpello

August 11, 2011. Pujian Road, Pudong New District, Shanghai. The only restaurant I can find within walking distance is a McDonalds. Strange? Yes, but unfortunately true. One of the things I like most about being in China is getting to eat real Chinese food - the kind that is hard to come by inside the US. Not today. At least, not here on Pujian Road. And what is served at McDonalds in Shanghai is adjusted to this marketplace, but just as fat-filled as back at home. Sad? Um hmm. Much of what China now exports to the US fills our stores. Much of what we export to China fills their arteries and lungs. Oh well.

I buy my burger, sit at a counter and open "Winterdance" - Gary Paulsen's delightfully true story of the little events that changed his life during his first (1983) preparation for and running of the Iditarod. I love this story. I must. This is my second time through the book. Today is my day off. So with no one to talk to I will sit and be alone (surrounded by twenty-three million people) and read in silence (surrounded by the noise of Shanghai bustling around Mickey-D's). But some things present themselves and beg you to notice.

Moments after my first bite of burger a little man plops down beside me. He touches my shoulder and begins to talk. I look up, tap my mouth and ears, and shake my head - my best way of saying, "Hey, I don't understand because I can't speak Chinese." He (little chin whiskers, grinning face, half his teeth gone, arthritic but animated fingers wagging away) just keeps talking. I realize it is his accent I am attending to, not his words, because coming out of his mouth is near perfect English. He wants to know all about me. Where I'm from. What I'm doing here. Who is my family? What is my work? I start to answer. We begin to communicate.

What he then does is most uncommon. For more than eight years I have been traveling to China and Taiwan - to places like Taipei, Qu Fu, Xio Lan, Hong Kong, Jinan, Wenzhou, Hangzhou, YiLan County, Guangzhou, and a bunch of other cities and towns. Until today I have yet to meet someone who, without prompting, freely discloses himself. But today, that person appears. He is a civil engineer. He is well past his eightieth year. He is a father. His daughter lives in the US. He is a dedicated former revolutionary. He has full control of his memories. His politic and mine don't see eye-to-eye. But I still listen. He is alive. He is fun. He is almost cartoon-like. He is someone to spend time with and search with for common ground. When human beings do that (search for common ground) they generate respect. And every human being probably in some way wants to be respected.

I explain that I originally come from rural central Arizona, but for the past thirty-seven years have lived in northern California. I served as a soldier in an infantry battalion, then became involved with the world of human potential movement. Because of this I've been influenced by and found understanding from diverse perspectives. He gets it. How do I know? His head nods and he smiles. He starts rattling off the names of all of the fifty states of the USA, where each state is geographically located within the US and begins to rattle off the names of various capital cities. He accurately describes the general tendencies between the peoples of the regions throughout the US.

Then he proceeds to recall who the US presidents have been during his lifetime, and for some he names their vice-presidents. Now I begin to smile. While he is talking I find myself imagining Jay Leno (Tonight Show) doing his person on the street interview sketch. In my mind's eye Leno pokes a microphone in the face of some recent US college grad and asks, "Who was LBJ?" And the response he gets is, "Oh that's easy, LeBron James!" Leno shakes his head and retorts, "Actually, I was thinking Lyndon Baines Johnson." My imagined interviewee pops back with, "Oh yah, yah, him. He was in charge of something important." Leno rolls his eyes, then he stares into the camera, grins and offers, "Um hmmmm. OK, well, yes. Actually, he was a politician. So, I have another question for you. Who's buried in Tomb of the Unknown Soldier?" His subject chuckles, "OK, you're trying to trick me. It's that guy!" Leno: "Who?" Interviewee: "You know that guy!" Leno: "LBJ?" Interviewee: "You got it! Am I right?" Leno shakes head and walks off camera.

Back to McDonalds. He: "Who was your favorite president?" Me: "During my lifetime?" He: "Yes." Me: "I would have to say Harry Truman. But I was a small boy when he was in office." He: "Want to know who I think the best US president of all time was?" Me: "Sure!" He: "Lincoln. He understood the importance of people." And then Mr. Chen Kwang Yu begins to recite the Gettysburg Address. He knows that to go through the entire thing is too much, so he skips to Lincoln's ending words and emphatically says, "Here's what's important: 'that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.'" Me: (I'm listening and say nothing.). He: "You know what makes those words so powerful? Lincoln didn't say 'will not perish'. He said 'SHALL not perish'. And by using 'SHALL' rather than 'will' Lincoln put his personal determination and life into it."

People pass by the window in front of our counter. They are on their way into the supermarket, wide-eyed and staring at this little jabbering fellow, and me sitting and jabbering back. [Yes, supermarkets exist throughout China. As do superhighways filled with Mercedes, Toyotas, Fiats, Buicks, Jaguas, Chevrolets. On thousands of corners you can find KFC, Starbucks, L'Oreal, Louis Vuitton. Along side them are billboards with Marlboro ads complete with coiled ropes and cowboy hats. These are not brand name knock-offs. They are the real deal. As are stock market worries, and economic concerns, and the fact that people in increasing numbers are in over their heads when it comes to mortgage vs. current home values. Home-ownership and mortgages in China? Sure! Didn't you know?]

A lady sitting three seats down from us catches the energy of what is going on between Mr. Little-guy (he) and Mr. Big-guy (me), and though she cannot speak or understand English, she is fascinated. How do I know? It's the look on her face, the crook of her smile and the twinkle in her eyes. She scoots one seat closer. Then another. Soon, she is joined by two more women, all wanting to catch some of the energy going on between me (what is that, a Wookie?) and he (who is that, Yoda?) and whatever this is (a Happening?). It's got to be the coolest thing at this location since, well, since Ronald McDonald. Doubtful that any of our eavesdroppers can understand what's being said, but they are attracted to the action and some corresponding potential. [Nothing odd about that phenomena when one considers Shakespeare, Janis Joplin, Jean-Paul Sartre, Einstein, James Joyce, etc. And, please - excuse any possible personal comparison. None intended.]

My new acquaintance begins to voice his opinion about the state of world, then how things in China are today vs. how they were in his day, then the comparative state of things in Europe and in the US and on and on. This is a well-informed human being. Our chat lasts an hour. My camera is back at the hotel so I can't take his picture. I grab my copy of "Winterdance" and ask him to sit still. I want to sketch his face inside the book's back cover. This blows his mind. It also blows the minds of the gals next to us straining their necks (and ears) to see (and hear) more. I tell him, "Look, it's been great to meet you. Yes, I will write (he gives me his address). But now, I have to leave." He says, "Oh, that's OK," and packs up his stuff to walk with me. Out of McDonalds and down Pujian Road we go together. He continues to lament about how things have changed since his beloved revolution. Again I reflect that this is altogether a very up-to-date person and accurate with an understanding as to what is going on - and how much he values personal connection.

Finally, I step off the sidewalk and head for my hotel. He waves. So do I. Goodbye.

August 31, 2011. I'm sitting inside my home office looking out the window at the corner of Prospect and Walnut Streets here in Petaluma. School just let out. The kids are walking home. A motorcycle cop rides by on his Harley-Davidson - blue light flashing. He is pulling over someone for who-knows-what. Most likely the driver will say, "Hello officer." The cop will reply, "Please keep your hands on the steering wheel. Do you know why I pulled you over?" Driver will probably respond, "Nope, haven't a clue." The cop will offer, "Should have been paying attention because it's minor, but in this case and with all these kids around, it's important."

Small stuff makes a difference. With it, each day is distinct, vivid and absolutely worth living.

Three days after I meet Kwang Yu at McDonalds on Pujian Road I walk along The Bund, a magnificent stretch of buildings spread along Puxi of Shanghai's Huangpu River. The place is packed. Easily there are fifty thousand people here enjoying the Sunday evening air. Seven days after standing along The Bund I'm in Hong Kong and catching The Star Ferry for a late afternoon cruise over to Kowloon. Here I hang out and watch the sunset before joining business associates at a fancy restaurant. It's great.

I'll definitely recall magnificent places and times spent with my associates. But as beautiful and as outstanding as these places and people are, it's the small, unexpected happenings that prompt my remembering. These are important. The seemingly insignificant gives rich perspective to life. It makes the whole thing spectacular.

At the least likely of places a frail little man walked over and tapped my shoulder. Why? Maybe he wanted to try out his English one more time before living his last day. Maybe he had a lot of stuff pent up inside and needed to get it out, knowing that only I could understand what he was attempting to communicate, and for that one instant of time he knew that he had this opportunity to freely speak his mind. Does my why to his need really matter? Probably not. But his why does matter. So, he opened his mouth and talked. I opened my ears and listened.

Who knows? Maybe he was bored and needed to talk so that when he arrived at home after riding his bus he could greet his wife and say, "Hello Xiaojing, I'm home! You won't believe what happened today. I met an American guy at McDonalds. We had a great conversation. He's going to write to me. Today was a good day!" Then Kwang Yu and Xiaojing could smile, have supper, hold hands and talk a few hours before drifting off to sleep.

Whatever. We connected for an hour or so. Small as he was, Kwang Yu topped everything.

"I enjoy life because I am endlessly interested in people and their growth. My interest leads me continually to widen my knowledge of people, and this in turn compels me to believe that the normal human heart is born good. This is, it is born sensitive and feeling, eager to be approved and to approve, hungry for simple happiness and the chance to live. It neither wishes to be killed nor to kill. If through circumstances it is overcome by evil, it never becomes entirely evil. There remain in it elements of good, however recessive which continue to hold the possibility of restoration."

- Pearl S. Buck, "Roll Away the Stone" (p. 21-22, This I Believe, 1952)

© Lance Giroux, September 2011

Sunday, August 07, 2011

Testing Time- A Day of Life Lessons Worth Living (part II)

Testing Time

-A Day of Life Lessons Worth Living-

(Continued from the July Ronin Post)

Mountain View

Papi Conpelo was never without his metal cup and his coffee. Maybe these were his touchstones, holding memories of special times and people. Perhaps they provided him some kind of mystical security, but I never asked. When Papi sat quietly he would gracefully roll the cup from side to side in his hands. He and his cup: old friends engaged in a conversation. This cup and its contents had become part of his identity.

Old, cold and dented on the outside. Fresh, warm and fluid on the inside. His cup. His coffee. His yin. His yang. One July morning after breakfast he handed me a greasy skillet, plate and fork. "Here," he said. "Will you clean this up?" Keeping his cup, he tossed its gritty contents laced with old black grounds hissing into the open fire. "You know," he added, "it's impossible for coffee to be a container." Then walked away whistling Gershwin's Summertime.

-from the Life and Times of Papi Conpelo

[Picking up from last month - Mountaineer Carlos was our guest this morning forConversations With Interesting People at the Organizational Behavior Teachers Conference (OBTC) hosted this year by Marquette University. Dr. Joe Garcia, Associate Dean & Director, Center for Excellence in Management Education, Western Washington University, did the introductions and kicked off the ninety minute session. I attended and was fascinated with the lessons Buhler brought. He is one of the top high altitude climbers in the world, and specializes in small team first ascents, using no oxygen, and carrying minimal gear. To refresh on this see July's article archived at]

1:30 p.m. Friday, June 10, 2011

AMU Building, Cafeteria. Marquette University, Milwaukee, Wisconsin

A tray of food is in my hands. Lunch is almost over, but the place is still full. There are only a few empty chairs scattered around the room. I find one. People will soon end their mealtime conversations and scatter off to the afternoon sessions. I decide to slowly enjoy this meal rather than rush to get somewhere else. I glance over my left shoulder. There, at the adjacent table sits Carlos Buhler. I eat. The room clears. It's quiet. I step over to thank him before moving on to another session where I'll be late.

He looks up at me and we engage.

Carlos: "Hi good to meet you. Where are you from?"

Me: "Sonoma County, north of San Francisco."

Carlos: "Ahh, great place. Did you enjoy yourself this morning?"

Me: "Yah, very much!"

Carlos: "Can you stay and talk with me a while? I mean, what'd you think? What did this morning mean for you?" (He really wants to know!! - like I'm going to be one of those people who will show up in his room in twenty-five years.)

Carlos again: "Is this OK? I don't want to keep you from a session, but I want to know. Can we talk?"

[I sit down on the floor next to his chair, between him and Joe Garcia. I feel like I'm in kindergarten all over again. We chat, until a moment appears and I get to ask my question from this morning.]

Me: "Are you familiar with Lawrence Gonzales' bookDeep Survival: Who Lives, Who Dies and Whyl?

Carlos: "No!" (He grabs a piece of paper) "Tell me about it."

Me: "Gonzales writes for National Geographic. His childhood love for his dad, a survivor of two airplane crashes during combat in WWII, fostered a life-long study in the physical and emotional responses of achievers in high stress situations. From that he began a serious and well-researched inquiry. He wrote about this. Included were episodes of F-16 pilots flying on/off the USS Carl Vinson, and the climbers Yates and Simpson on Siula Grande, and Ken Killip's tragedy in Rocky Mountain National Park."

Carlos: [He's intent, silent and listening]

Me: "Have you ever found yourself in moments when you knew the risks are too high? Something inside you overrides your system and your ability to stop, so you move forward even farther into danger or disaster and later you realize you shouldn't have?"

[There is a silence. His eyes moisten and redden. His skin color changes. In an instant a distant gaze tells me he is now living in some far off land full of vivid memories. Then he returns and his eyes bore directly through my skull.]

Carlos: "I know what you are talking about. I was lead on a climb. There were three of us. [pause] We knew the risks. We all agreed that we were individually free to turn back at any time. We were very clear about this. Any choice would be honored. Our investments had been huge - years getting to this point. We were very close to the top and at that altitude our bodies were slowly dying. I had to summon enormous force to take a step, then I had to wait to gather the strength to take the next. Each time I waited the image of what I had done to get here floated through my mind. On every step my internal voice told me it was time to turn back. But then the feeling that I was driven to climb this peak would surface. I knew if I turned back that I would be here again in four or five years. I would have to reassemble all the resources to attempt another climb of this same mountain using this same route. I knew I would stand again on this exact same spot and I would have to endure this same internal conversation one more time. So I moved forward. I figured that maybe one or both of the guys behind me had turned back. When I reached the summit we were still together. It was glorious. On the way down, tragedy struck. One died. The other man and I were in a hospital for quite a while. I was lead on this climb. I had to go and meet with the father of my dead friend. When I did, his question was, 'How could you kill my son?' I had to answer. How he received and felt about my answer was out of my control."

Me: [I can't say anything. I sit on the floor, witness this lone human being feeling his memory, and realize that I have just invited into his world to share in something profound.]

8:16 p.m. Friday, June 10, 2011

AMU Building, Room 163. Marquette University, Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

I'm leaning against the wall at the back of the room, and listening to Dr. Jerry Biberman cracking jokes. Jerry, Professor of Management, University of Scranton, is, as he has been the past few years, the MC at tonight's festivities. On the final night of every OBTC these college professors host a talent show. Some of them are accomplished poets, others are musicians, others are singers, and there are some magicians and storytellers. Some, like Jerry, are jokesters. His delivery is as good as Billy Crystal's at an Academy Awards ceremony. Tonight is a gut-busting gas of a time! To my right sits Carlos Buhler, present to his moment, laughing and enjoying himself along with everyone else. Clearly, my private conversation with him this afternoon was my reason for being at this year's conference.

If I could summarize Buhler's lessons for me they would sound something like this: "We practice so we can learn. We learn so we can draw on best that we have internalized. We draw on our best so that we can serve at any given moment. Sometimes we push through. Sometimes we have to turn back. We're responsible for both. We have to keep practicing. We have to keep learning, because we, or our children or colleagues, might be back here again some day."

Tuesday, 6:56 p.m. June 14, 2011

Two Rock Aikido dojo. Petaluma, California

I'm at the front of the attack line now. I hasten forward to engage my training partner. His energy, already shifting in harmony with my movement, begins to affect my balance, yet physical contact won't happen for another seven feet. When it does, I grab his wrist. He lifts me. My body turns so I can begin my fall along the same line that I took to engage him. But his energy cuts diagonally through my center and off to the side, something I hadn't anticipated. My shoulder impacts the mat in an odd way. I feel pain. I hear a ripping sound. As I try to rise off the mat I find myself desperately denying that something bad has happened. Reality sets in. My shoulder has separated. Sitting on a bench outside the dojo and feeling nauseous, I tell my sensei, "No test for me." My sensei replies, "Maybethis is the test."

Tuesday, 9:45 p.m. June 14, 2011

Petaluma Valley Hospital. Petaluma, California

I sit between two dear friends. They drove me from the dojo to the emergency room. Our sensei tagged us long ago with the name "The Litter Mates" because we have tested together for most of our individual journeys covering the past eleven years. Our friendship is tied solid. We are connected with an invisible rope woven of respect, care, love and forthrightness. We give each other honest attacks and honest feedback, and we enjoy the ride we've shared. In private we refer to ourselves as "The Mat Dogs". Here tonight we munch hamburgers while we wait for the doctor to give her diagnosis. We have to wait because a lot of people here are in pretty bad shape. The ER crew's time is best directed at them. My situation is minor.

I chew my burger. From somewhere deep inside me I hear Buhler's voice whispering: "In climbing, as in life, it DOESN'T MATTER that you ever summit. What MATTERS is that you learn."

© Lance Giroux, July 2011

Tuesday, August 02, 2011

Testing Time- A Day of Life Lessons Worth Living

Papi Conpelo was never without his metal cup and his coffee.

Maybe these were his touchstones, holding memories of special times and people. Perhaps they provided him some kind of mystical security, but I never asked. When Papi sat quietly he would gracefully roll the cup from side to side in his hands. He and his cup: old friends engaged in a conversation. This cup and its contents had become part of his identity. Old, cold and dented on the outside. Fresh, warm and fluid on the inside. His cup. His coffee. His yin. His yang.

-from the Life andTimes of Papi Conpelo

6:55 p.m. Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Two Rock Aikido dojo. Petaluma, California

I stand in line waiting to move and give my training partner an honest attack. My exam is scheduled to happen in four days. Eleven hundred plus days have come and gone since my last exam. A part of each is dedicated to what will soon happen. Without the generous support of my colleagues helping me grow I wouldn't be here. The last six months have been particularly delightful and agonizing.

8:50 a.m. Four Days earlier. Friday June 10, 2011

AMU Building, Room 227. Marquette University, Milwaukee, Wisconsin

I'm sitting in a room with forty of the brightest educators from the United States and abroad. They teach leadership and organizational behavior. Every year a different campus hosts the Organizational Behavior Teacher Conference (OBTC) and attracts over two hundred people like these surrounding me. This is my eighth OBTC. Dr. Kathy Kane, University of San Francisco (USF), is sitting nearby. She is this year's OBTC program coordinator, responsible for the success of the entire week. At her invitation Carlos Buhler is also in the room. Kathy has introduced a new series of presentations called Conversations with Interesting People into the schedule. Carlos is this morning's interesting person. He is 57 years old, lean, wiry, relaxed, composed and alert. Nothing in the room escapes his gaze.

I spent a lot of time hunting in the Arizona desert where I grew up. Hawks would perch themselves on the poles supporting high-tension lines stretched across barren terrain, and from there they would wait to silently drop, strike and then carry off their unsuspecting prey. Buhler's appearance is hawk-like. A distant feeling comes over me. His energy will soon descend, but not take. Rather, he is about to give to us from what he has learned.

The film Touching the Void (have you seen it?) documents the 1988 successful first-ascent of the west face of Siula Grande in the Peruvian Andes. Simon Yates and Joe Simpson made that climb. But the film is dedicated to their descent and its emotional aftermath. From my hunting days I know that the real work of any outing happens after your shot has reached its intended target. Then every move you make becomes important. Living in remote country, hours from cities and medical help, with dirt roads being the norm, drinking only the water I could carry or find in streams, I've never thought of hunting as a sport. It was the way we gathered most of our food. To my father, hunting bordered on the sacred. He taught us (my sister, brother and me) to respect the land and what lived there. It sustained us. Mountaineering shares a similar respect. The "what-we-do-now-that-we've-made-it-this-far" is crucial.

Coming off Siula Grande, Simpson fell and broke his leg. Procedures dictated that Yates leave him and continue to the base camp alone. But he didn't. Instead, he selflessly decided, at great personal risk, to help his partner, and that became the fascinating and gut wrenching story. Rent the DVD. Experience it yourself.

So what? So, Carlos Buhler knows Yates and Simpson. He also knows those who made the ill-fated 1996 Everest expedition (read Krakauer's Into Thin Air) including the ones who perished. Buhler has climbed Siula Grande's west face and Everest. He is one of the world's top high altitude mountaineers. His specialty is doing it with small teams, no oxygen, and carrying minimal gear. He moves with negligible funding and tackles first ascent. He has taken on some of the most the world's most difficult routes, under the worst conditions.

This morning Dr. Joe Garcia of Western Washington University (Buhler's alma mater) is sitting to his left. At 9:00 a.m. Joe kicks off the conversation. Buhler smiles and extends his hawk-like gaze. Then his energy gracefully descends on us all. Our ninety-minutes with him begins to disappear.

The first question comes and he listens carefully. It is actually about six questions all strung together. He cocks his head to one side and exhales, "OK! Which one of these issues do you want me to take on first? Because this one will take our entire time." Everyone laughs. But he isn't joking. He dissects and addresses each point in a thorough and meticulous manner as though he is nailing pitons into a sheer cliff, connecting ropes, securing belay lines, checking the weather, coordinating with partners, and on and on. His reply to question #1 lasts a fascinating half hour. Then he cuts it short so other questions can surface. They come from all sides of the room, seeking connections between expertise, experience, management and parenting, education and ego, leadership in practice versus as discussed in journals, case studies, etc. He is inquisitive, too. "Why do you want to know that?" He wants to understand how his reply will serve the individual questioner and for what reasons (some reasons are personal) and for the long haul.

I find myself reflecting on Lawrence Gonzales' Deep Survival: Who Lives, Who Dies and Why. Does Buhler know Gonzales? What does he think of his research and work? How has he dealt with the issues that Gonzales writes about? And then our time is over. My questions (as with others from colleagues also in the room) are left unasked. But that's OK, I look down at the yellow piece of paper on my lap. My hand has automatically recorded important points for me to work and play with on a future day. When that will be I'm not sure. My scribble reads:

  • You are free to do things totally by yourself. I am here to give you best options on how NOT to do that!
  • I have survived so far because I learned to pull together and connect every facet of all I have learned. Relationship building is what you must do in any kind of enterprise that you will ever undertake.
  • You have to be willing to call on ALL the resources and relationships you have in order to achieve your goals. Understand something - everything you do, every person you meet may twenty-five years later end up in a room with you. You need to live like this will happen, so that when it does (they end up in a room with you) you are clean with what you did, and the people there are on your team and will count with you.
  • Don't think you can ever waste a single relationship. In mountain climbing an enormous undertaking happens years before you arrive at a base camp: finding sources of funding, assembling equipment, practicing, creating teams, making promises including those to your kids, making deals with airlines, creating contingencies, etc. You MUST make good on all of your promises. If you don't, then when you come to ask for help again at some future time (and believe me you will) those who are listening will be less apt to support your effort. The web of relationship is what makes a person's life possible and rewarding.
  • Understand that there is a structure underneath you that allows you to take a long-term view of the processes to achievement. Invest in, make and build upon that underlying structure.
  • In climbing, as in life, it DOES NOT MATTER that you ever summit. What DOES MATTER is that you learn. Yet, I was driven to become the first American to summit two of the fourteen 8.000 meter Himalayan peaks. And I did! Even so, it DID NOT matter that I ever summited. It only mattered that I learned. I am still climbing. My life can end in an instant.

1:30 p.m. Friday, June 10, 2011

AMU Building, Cafeteria. Marquette University, Milwaukee, Wisconsin

A tray of food is in my hands. Lunch is almost over, but the place is still full. There are only a few empty chairs scattered around the room. I find one. People will soon end their mealtime conversations and scatter off to the afternoon sessions. I decide to slowly enjoy this meal rather than rush to get somewhere else. I glance over my left shoulder. There, at the adjacent table sits Carlos Buhler. I eat. The room clears. It's quiet. I step over to thank him before moving on to another session where I'll be late.

He looks up at me and we engage.

Carlos: "Hi, good to meet you. Where are you from?"

Me: "Sonoma County, north of San Francisco."

Carlos: "Ahh, great place. Did you enjoy yourself this morning?"

Me: "Yah, very much!"

Carlos: "Can you stay and talk with me a while? I mean, what'd you think? What did this morning mean for you?" (He really wants to know - like I'm going to be one of those people who will show up in his room in twenty-five years!!)

Carlos again: "Is this OK? I don't want to keep you from a session, but I want to know. Can we talk?"

[I sit down on the floor next to his chair, between him and Joe Garcia. I feel like I'm in kindergarten all over again. We chat, until a moment appears and I get to ask my question from this morning.]

-- to be continued in next month's Ronin Post --

Sunday, May 01, 2011

Understanding The Leaders’ Retreat

"The Japanese word shibui summarizes all the best in life,

yet has no explanation and cannot be translated.

A person is said to be shibui when

he or she greatly contributes to others

without doing anything to draw attention to self.

The retreat is VERY shibui."

Derick Tagawa, DDS, Whittier, California

2003. On a drive up Highway 101 from Santa Clara, California, I receive a request to design a Leaders' Retreat and make it available to the public. The request is from George Hersh, Owner/CEO of the GMJ Companies. The idea - bring together a small mix of men and women from diverse backgrounds who understand that their lives impact the lives of others. Potential attendees need to make application on their own or be invited. Who to come? Business leaders, students, artists, moms and dads and grandparents, athletes, managers, academics, teachers, professionals, military and former military, retirees and young people: basically, cut across the spectrum of experience, skills, levels of income and educations, political and spiritual beliefs.

George’s motivation? He had just spent an exceptional weekend retreat with Dr. Kathleen Kane and me that we had put together for the University of San Francisco (USF) available to MBA candidates, alumni, staff, faculty and family – and guests. Our USF weekend included ample time for attendees to interact and relax, to study and play, to refresh and reflect – but MOST IMPORTANTLY to immerse themselves in The Dialogue Method – meaningful, purposeful talk and listening generated through experiential means.

Kathy was responsible for my introduction to The Dialogue Method. She was using it to enhance the core MBA Leadership Course at USF. Dialogue, as both art form and skill, requires keen attention and practice. It linguistically connects the right and left-brain functions. The word sounds simple, and it is. But by no means is the method accomplished without effort, focus and attention to mindful service to all involved. Dialogue empowers individuals, couples and teams to engage with each other in an effort to build understanding and deepen learning.

Persons often come together from polarized perspectives loaded with conflicting agenda. Therefore one’s attitude must be disciplined to listening and learning rather than convincing, cajoling, belittling or debating. Briefly stated, when I first encountered Kathy’s students in Dialogue, I saw, felt and experienced the same principles that are richly present in aikido. Yes, Dialogue is verbal, but it begs attention to individual and group reactions/responses experienced emotionally and physically.

George Hersh comes from a hectic service industry integrating multiple companies engaged with each other, the public, private businesses and government agencies across time zones in diverse transportation, moving/storage and records keeping businesses. He owns Sports Associated, Inc.; Topeka Transfer & Storage,; Capital City Distribution; Professional Records Management; O’Neil Relocation; etc. He entered our USF weekend filled with anticipation and a definite need to relax. His businesses demanded that he remain home and at work. Yet, he understood that the time for a retreat is often when it is least convenient to take the time to relax, i.e. when pressures are at their highest. What he found was exactly what he needed. Fresh ideas. New interpretations. Supportive communications. Rich experiences transporting him out of his norm. Positive and constructive perspectives and feedback. And a physical body (his) freed from tension and tightened muscles. He left refreshed and keenly more aware of what he could do to better problem solve, save time, energize, communicate and focus. On this basis came his request to me.

2004. The first Leaders’ Retreat – Scottsdale, Arizona. There were a handful of us. George, plus: a long-time friend of mine who owned a medical equipment company outside of Phoenix; an orthodontist from the Los Angeles area; the director of in-home services for two California counties (himself a paraplegic); a senior vice-president of a global construction firm; a fellow in the real estate development business. What to do? Dialogue, exercise our bodies, we play one constricted form of nine-hole golf that was quite revealing, Dialogue, take walks together and read, Dialogue, watch films, Dialogue, eat meals together, Dialogue, throw out ideas to assist our individual personal and professional lives, Dialogue and … Dialogue. At the end of three days we looked around and asked ourselves “Why stop?, When can we do this again?” So, a second Leaders’ Retreat was scheduled for the following year.

The second Leaders’ Retreat – Scottsdale. One year later. Some of the same people returned. Others joined in. What to do? - Dialogue, exercise our bodies (we integrated some aikido movements), Dialogue, eat meals together, Dialogue, take walks together, Dialogue, one person took time for a massage, Dialogue … get the picture? In other words – we kept things simple, purposeful and definitely in the Here & Now. At the end of three days the response - “Why stop?” Someone suggested, “This should be made available every six months, whether I can come or not. Give me a winter option and a summer option.” Another requested – “Scottsdale is great, but can you find somewhere out in nature, somewhere that we can get away from pavement and traffic and phones and restaurants and the stuff that’s normally in our lives?”

Another year later. The third Leaders’ Retreat. We are now using Four Springs Retreat Center, Middletown, California Some of the same folks return. Others join in. Our schedule expands by a full day. What to do? Guess. You got it – Select topics for self-study, Dialogue, take walks in the forest, Dialogue, laugh together, Dialogue, integrate somatic work, Dialogue, etc. On the second day a real Type-A businessman who spends most of his time traveling the globe makes an odd request, “Can you get me some construction paper, some colored pencils and chalk?” We do. He spirits himself away for that day into the small art studio under pine trees on the property. That evening he returns grinning and whistling with a pile of drawings to take home, “I’ve been jamming at life so hard that I’d forgotten what it’s all about,” he says. “How young and alive I used to feel and how important my wife and kids are. These are for them.” The same guy cooks supper for us all on our last evening together– traditional homemade Japanese cooking - another art form that he had set aside that once kept his youthful juices flowing.

The fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh, etc. Leaders’ Retreat (How many by now? I’m not counting anymore.) We’ve long since established (as requested) a six-month schedule with both winter and summer offerings. Four Springs Retreat Center is now our home for many years. What’s been added: walks through the forests to enhance situational awareness, centering practices, somatic education, Feldenkrais Method® classes, use of TED films to stimulate thought and understanding, music, creative cooking experiences, creative problem solving activities, a class to assist understanding the health benefits of herb and plants found in the forests we occupy – plus more. Yet, remaining consistent throughout is The Dialogue Method. Thank you Dr. Kathy Kane – who by now has attended The Leaders’ Retreat and is always an invited guest.

Who attends the Leaders’ Retreat? As the years have unfolded a number from our first two offerings held in Scottsdale continue to return, plus others: women and men from the broad spectrum of experiences, ages, beliefs and backgrounds. A retired school principal, a former professional baseball player, two young professionals both graduates from USF who (having remembered their days at the retreat Kathy and I created) jumped at their chance to come – and each more than once, a retired park ranger, a young man from Mexico who is into mixed martial arts, another from Mexico who delivers educational programs for children, a magazine publisher, a former Army Special Forces LT Colonel, a single mom raising two young boys, married couples attending together to get-away, an executive and a shift manager from a Native American casino, attorneys, a chef, financial planners, the former manager of a radio station, a consulting engineer key who played a key roll in cleaning up the mess that Boeing has made with their 757 aircraft, a retired military chief warrant officer, real estate brokers, a woman who owns and operates vacation rental properties in three states, and many other people.

Is the Leaders’ Retreat for you? It is certainly designed with you and your well being in mind. To understand its essence you need to grasp the notion that you are already a leader, i.e. that being a leader means you are indeed a person who in some way influences others to action. This fundamental and key principle was put strongly forth at West Point, the school I attended many years ago. It holds that being a leader is not dependent on rank or position or job title or level of education or the amount of money one has in the bank or gender or length of time on the planet or religious affiliation, etc. etc.

What The Leaders Retreat is NOT. It is not a “management” retreat, nor is it an “executive” retreat, nor a “bosses” retreat. It is NOT even a “leadership” retreat. And, it definitely is NOT a golf outing offered in disguise so that good old boys can sit around, chew the fat and tell each other worn out stories (and yes, as mentioned above, we did use golf at one retreat as a metaphor). This is The Leaders’ Retreat, i.e. a gathering of sincere individuals who understand their lives influence other lives, and who want to enhance their capacity to influence by taking time to rejuvenate, relax and exercise, deal with abstractions, think and play, study and serve themselves and others for the sake of creating a healthier and more constructive world – beginning with their own.

Our time together is simple and fulfilling, skill building and enriching, thought provoking and reflective. It is conducted in a most respectful, peaceful and pressure-free environment, void of criticism and “have to’s”. Moreover, the Leaders’ Retreat is a place where Dialogue is encouraged, studied, embodied and practiced.

To obtain an application for the Leaders’ Retreat download pdf document “Leaders’ Retreat Invitation” found at To register for the July 16-20 Summer 2011 Leaders’ Retreat call 707-769-0328 or email your completed application to or

It will be great to have you there.

“Very rewarding!

If your life makes a difference in the lives of others

then I highly recommend you attend

for yourself, your family, and your colleagues.”

Dr. Lulu Lopez, Former Principal

Mt Vernon Community Schools, Alexandria, Virginia

Monday, April 25, 2011

Reflections on Brian


Thursday, April 7, it's just past 8 p.m. Tonight's aikido class is over. I'm driving east on Middle Two Rock Road, Petaluma. I flip open my cell phone and, "Whoa - what's up?" A surprising number of messages are waiting. I pull over and stop the car to listen to what this may be about.

Today my friend, Brian Klemmer, lived his last day.

Our paths first crossed under a late afternoon sun on the grassy lawns at Battle Monument, West Point - July 1, 1968. There and then that we stood together and solemnly swore an oath to support and defend the US Constitution. With that we officially became plebes (new cadets) and members (Proud & True) of the Class of 1972. We journeyed four years in that historic place. There we shared classes and jokes and parades (in blistering sun and sub-freezing temperatures) and forced marches and inspections and the counter revolution (Woodstock was just down the road) and history (Neal Armstrong walked on the moon, Spiro Agnew and Richard Nixon made speeches in our presence) - and now and then slugged down cups of coffee and devoured dozens of donuts. Brian distinguished himself as a jock and first-string member of the "team of the decade" - Army's Intercollegiate Sprint Football Team that won many Eastern Light Football League championships. Upon graduation we both drew assignments to the 25th Infantry Division. There we served together as "Gimlets" - soldiers of the 1/21st Infantry Battalion.

During our Gimlet days I had the pleasure of introducing Brian to the world of personal growth seminars and human potential movement (a world in which he would decades later excel as a businessman and leader). I had attended a seminar in January 1975. It was eye opening. A lot of good things were happening for me as a result, one being an increased ability to shrug off negative distractions during intense situations - to stay positive and focused on tasks at hand. Some months later Brian strode into my little office in Delta Quad, Schofield Barracks, plopped down into a chair, put his boots (dirty) on my desk. "Hey! What gives you the right to be so happy around here?", he grumbled. "Don't you know this is the Army!" I informed him that on Wednesday night a group of folks would be getting together in Honolulu, that he was welcome to be my guest, and that he might find the answer to his question there. His reply was specific and goal oriented, "Will there be any women there?" I grinned wide, "Sure Brian, there will be women there. Some of them single." That Wednesday night we met at the Waikiki Travelodge. He went to an adjacent room to learn about the seminar. Forty-five minutes later he came back and asked, "Hey, are there more women at the real seminar than here at this guest thing?" I grinned again, "Yep!" He enrolled.

[Years later I would reflect back on that evening as an example of one of the lessons our (Brian's and my) future mentor used drill into us, specifically - "People do things for their reasons. Not yours. So you have to listen. Listen for needs and wants. Then find ways to help those you are listening to. Assist them with what they seek. It's called service. It's the key to everything. Don't concern yourself about there being anything in it for you. Forget about that stuff. It's probably the most important lesson you can learn."]

That battalion to which we were assigned once had a proud and brilliant history. But by the time we found ourselves there its reputation had sunk to the point of being one of the most miserable places at Schofield to be assigned, full of dissention and in-fighting. In fact, it was rated the lowest battalion in the 25th Division. There was general defeatism and angst, and amongst the officers very little trust. In two words - it sucked. The two of us made a pact. We decided to experiment with what we learned from our seminar experiences to help us function on the job. Though we oversaw vastly different responsibilities we started helping each other out. I'd stay after hours and help him with his duties. He'd stay after hours and help me with mine. We'd interrupt (or walk away from) other soldiers' negativity or defeatist conversations, making it known that we didn't want to live and work in that kind of environment. This synergy and stand became infectious. Other officers - commissioned and non-commissioned - began to notice and some picked up on it. A year later the battalion was turned around and once again become a solid and effective organization. On the record and after having every test and inspection thrown at us, short of combat, we were officially ranked as the number one battalion in the Division.

One day Brian and I conspired to meet alone with Major General Harry Brooks, the Division's commanding general. We made an appointment and opened our allotted fifteen minutes by declaring, "Sir there's a two-day leadership workshop coming to town and we think YOU should go." Brooks was shocked at our abruptness. What happened next was maybe the longest 30 seconds of silence we had lived through, before or since. That's another story, but the bottom line was this: General Brooks spoke some unforgettable words: "What the hell. I don't know everything there is to know about leadership. I'll go. Now, do you two guys want anything else? If not, you're dismissed." Brooks went to that workshop. He was introduced to the Behavior Matrix, the Three R Thought Process and ways to find alternative perspectives for better communication. He loved what he found. He immediately put the notions into practice, and began exposing 15,000 soldiers to their potential. A brilliant example of a leader listening to and trusting his subordinates. This introduction of General Brooks to what we were up to would never have happened without Brian Klemmer.

Two years later. June 2, 1977. On this day Brian and I stood next to each other in Oakland, California. Our last day in uniform. We out-processed from the Army, changed clothes and immediately walked into new careers working for the same seminar company. We were off. I hopped a flight to Salt Lake City to teach a seminar. He drove north towards Lake County. We had stepped - shoulder to shoulder - into, and became part of, the world of the human potential.

For the next seventeen years we transited many incredible highs and many bizarre disappointments that came with this phase of our journey. At times he worked for me. Then, after he left the company and was launching his own infant organization, I too left. He offered me an opportunity to help him. So I subcontracted and briefly served his efforts.

Simply put, looking back over the last forty-three years -- we kept each other's back and we kept each other's sanity. If there were a foxhole to share, he'd be in mine and I would be in his. We tossed a few beers together. We problem solved together. We camouflaged our faces, dug fighting positions and went for days without sleep in the muck together. We dreamed about and planned possibilities together. We shared our confidences and we kept each other's confidences. We did what friends and comrades do - we worked with and fought with and smiled with and yelled at and partied with and argued with and celebrated with each other. We shared a hundred thousand laughs and at least as many tears.

For four plus decades we saw each other through joy and pain, through love and loss - and love again. We watched each other's children be born and grow and mess things up, and then stretch out and blossom to begin to become the "Who It Is" that they have within themselves To Be.

We didn't always see eye-to-eye.

But we did see heart-to-heart.

That's what our camaraderie was about.

Thursday, April 7. It's 8:30pm.

Today my friend, Brian Klemmer, lived his last day.

I'm walking around inside an empty post office in downtown Petaluma.

I've been staring at my cell phone for almost half an hour.

I loved this guy. He was a man of service.

We walked a long road together. I will miss him tremendously.

I call his home. His wife answers. She knows it's me.

I listen.

© Lance Giroux, April 2011