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May 2010

A Visit from the President

The President of Mexico was our commencement speaker on Wednesday.  He graduated from our school ten years ago and that made it very special.

When a head-of-state travels, the planning is complicated.  The schedule is often subject to change and the security measures are extraordinary.  This visit required a planning meeting with a contingent of about fifteen Mexican security and press people two weeks in advance, and then another five days in advance.  The Mexicans were delayed coming to the second meeting, and that kept me at work until 10:00 last Friday night. 

I was a part of a great team taking care of the arrangements. My role was to manage the ticket distribution and to work with the graduating Mexican students who, of course, wanted to meet with their president.  As plans or times changed, they had to be kept informed.

Back in 1998, I went on a recruiting trip to Mexico City to interview candidates for admission to our school.  At that time, the now-President was chief of his party, but his party was not in power, and I visited him in his modest office.  Whether I deserve it or not, I take a lot of credit for getting him to apply and ultimately to come to our school.  I guess I could say that we became “friends.”

After his speech, he was unable to stay for a reception, but he did shake hands with the thirty-or-so of us in the front row before being rushed off.  The front row included Mexican students, dignitaries and school officials. 

I was the only one the President of Mexico kissed.



I work very hard not to cry when we say “good-bye” to our Brazil-residing son after we see him.  When we visited Seth in Sao Paulo last year, the plane was high in the clouds before I let the tears fall.  And last Sunday, when he left after a brief visit home, I didn’t cry at the airport.  But all day long, I felt awful.  It was instant depression.  I asked Peter if he was sad.  He said he wasn’t.  So I think this is a mother/umbilical cord thing.  It is a wrenching feeling in the belly that I have each time either of our kids leaves us.  Fortunately, after I get their sheets and towels into the laundry and make the house look like they haven’t been here, I am fine.

On his way back to Brazil, Seth stopped in Maryland to see his brother Jeremy and his family.  Our grandchildren and Seth adore one another.  He visited Grady’s pre-school on Monday morning, and gave a presentation on the Brazilian rainforest to Leo’s kindergarten class in the afternoon. 

The children accompanied their father on the trip to the airport to drop Seth off Monday night.  Jeremy reported that Leo sobbed when Seth left.

Like grandmother, like grandson.

Our First-Born Turns Forty

At 6:15 this morning we drove our son Seth to the airport. He lives in Brazil, and we hadn't seen him since Thanksgiving. He was home for a total of eighteen hours, and, if you subtract sleeping, we had eleven hours with him. Better than nothing, but never enough.

On Saturday, he will turn forty. How can that be? Weren't Peter and I just recently referring to the occupant of my belly as "Pumpkinella" or "Pinocchio"? Wasn't it recently that I said that he would never be allowed to cross the street alone, and that he would be home schooled through college?

We had a great visit. We had lunch on the patio on a gorgeous June-like day. We went for a long walk. I cooked one of his favorite meals for dinner. We talked about his next assignment. Just before he arrived, the mailman delivered a disk I had had made of four hundred photographs—from our wedding through our grandchildren-- and we watched a slide-show of our lives together. So many wonderful memories.

And then, this morning, he was gone.

Pay for Performance

We have a new performance review system at work that ties an individual's bonus to the quality of his or her performance.

Many people were involved in developing this new compensation plan, and a lot of resources have been devoted to training every employee on goal-based performance evaluation. What this means is that we set measurable goals, and our success (and pay) is determined by how well we meet them. Sounds to me that you might be able to do that if you manufacture widgets, but that's not what we do.

I have been thinking about the five people who report directly to me. They are all quite good. Yet I am not permitted to give all of them a top performance rating. What makes this hard for me is that I don't really believe this is an effective system. To me, it's artificial. Instead of assigning numbers in a very limited range (1 – 4), it should be more nuanced. We should be talking regularly with each other about how we are doing, and how we can help each other and our organization to succeed, rather than just once or twice a year. And we should evaluate our employees one by one, not according to a "forced curve."

Maybe setting individual goals will make us a more effective organization, but there is a downside.

For the first time, we will be competing with one another.



A professor I know asks his graduate students to write their obituaries, and then to read them to their classmates. I haven't tried writing my own obituary, but I think it's a good way to reflect on one's life.

I was thinking about this on Friday night after I had given a short presentation to the attendees at an alumni reunion at the school where I have worked for almost thirty years. It was a wonderful occasion for me. Former students from five to twenty-five years ago greeted me with big hugs and "I'm so glad you're still here." They told me I am an "institution," and that I had better be there when they celebrate their thirtieth reunion. They look a little different, but they wore name tags, and I could remember something about almost every one of them. They showed me pictures of their children and told me about their accomplishments. Some told me that I had made a difference in their lives. I loved every minute of it.

I haven't got around to writing my obituary, but after Friday night, I figured out what my tombstone might say.

"She loved her students, and they loved her."

CLL—a Year Later

It's been a year since I was diagnosed with chronic lymphocytic leukemia. So six days ago, I got a series of blood tests, and yesterday I went to the first of my annual checkups with my hematologist.

Friends have asked me if I worry about this "Stage Zero" cancer which can become more serious at any time. I tell them that my doctor said I might still be having the annual tests when I am one hundred years old so it doesn't make much sense to worry now.

My doctor is on the oncology team at my health plan. When I walked into the full waiting room, I realized that most of her patients probably do have full-blown cancer, and I wondered how they were doing. There are all kinds of reading material about living with cancer and cancer support groups in the waiting area. Yet there was a buzz of conversation. It seemed as if, although these people are living with cancer, the emphasis was on living rather than on cancer.

When the doctor walked into the examining room, she barely got out "Hello, sorry to keep you waiting" before she said, "Your numbers are fine." We went over them. They are not normal, but they are within the range in which no action needs to be taken. She looked for swollen lymph nodes and found nothing alarming. She asked me how I was feeling and if I had had any infections. I feel fine, and have had no infections. And that was that.

Until next year.

Push-Up Progress (This is not about a bra.)

We have a personal trainer who comes to our house four times a year. Her name is Kathy, and we love her. She is tough, but adorable. For quite a while now, she has been pushing me toward push-ups. First, she had me doing them from my knees, fifteen reps. I still do that. Last time she was here, we added planks. For those who are as uninformed as I was, you put your weight on your hands, with your arms straight and your legs stretched out behind you, and on your toes. That's a plank. You hold that position for ten seconds. The next step, of course, is to bend your arms at the elbows and lower your chin toward the floor. That's a push-up.

Recently, of my own accord, I've been trying to do the real thing. I can't get as far down as I'd like, but it's a start, and I was thrilled to do three in a row.

Then, this month's AARP magazine came, and there was a chart that said women my age should be doing four to ten push-ups at a time. Until I saw that, I thought I had been doing pretty well.

I may have to stop reading the AARP magazine.



When I became gluten-intolerant ten years ago, I had to give up a lot of my favorite foods. Two things happened recently that made me realize I haven't got over feeling bad about my restricted diet.

The first happened at Peter's recent high school reunion in New York City. A classmate invited the group to his magnificent apartment overlooking Lincoln Center for wine and finger foods. There were trays of sandwiches and sushi (prepared with soy sauce which is not gluten-free), but there was nothing that was safe for me to eat. I had a few gluten-free crackers in my bag, and those and a glass of wine were my dinner.

Then a few days later. I was asked to serve as a judge for a student-sponsored competition to raise money for community development in a depressed area in Mississippi. I like to support students, and was about to say "yes" when I saw that the competition was a baking contest. What I can't eat, I can't judge.

It still isn't easy to live a gluten-free life.




Last weekend we went to Peter's high school reunion. The number of years since his graduation was not a multiple of five or ten, but someone decided that with everyone turning eighty this year, they ought not to wait two more years until their sixty-fifth. So about six months ago, they started looking for fellow graduates, dead or alive. (We missed the last reunion because Peter was reportedly dead, so we didn't hear about it. By the time a member of his class saw a letter he wrote in the New York Times, it was too late.)

Over the years, I had met only a couple of Peter's high school classmates. So I was looking forward to getting the real scoop about my husband as a teenager. I was also looking forward to being in a room where I was the youngest, except for any trophy wives or husbands who might be there.

There was a cocktail party the first evening, and it was a whole new experience for me. Peter doesn't love social events. Normally, I take the lead in working the crowd. But that night, I pretty much sat in a corner and observed Peter as the social butterfly. He was engaged in lively conversations about I don't know what. Actually, no one paid much attention to me. This was so much the graduates' night that they didn't even make nametags for spouses or partners.

But watching him made it all worthwhile.