Thursday, September 11, 2014

Historical Relativism Regarding 9-11

Perhaps it is just that this year has been especially stressful; or that the news has been rampant with killings and mass murders and beheadings and speculation. But I have been more preoccupied during the last couple weeks than I have in a very long time, and it came to a climax today, September 11, 2014.

Last night I was watching a movie on cable and my husband and dog were on the floor of our family room sleeping soundly and blissfully resting. I was staring at both and beginning to feel the personal ritual that plays in my head every year feeling more and more intense.

In 2001, I awoke in my Midtown apartment near the United Nations on Manhattan's East Side to a phone call from a lovely woman named Michelle who worked with my husband at the time. “Hello?” I said. “Turn on your TV!” she replied. I found the remote and did just that and found MSNBC just in time to see the second plane hit the World Trade Center (WTC). “Hello?” I said again; however the line had gone dead. At that point I began to awaken more completely when I realized the terrifying fact that my husband was supposed to be at a meeting inside WTC. I took a few minutes to try to call him on his cell to no avail. Then I tried to reach my mother, then his parents.

After determining that those efforts were futile, I began to internally debate my next steps. It did not take long for me to realize, that there were only two likely scenarios. My husband was dead or not. If he was alive, I needed to stay where I was and wait for him to return home. As I held my grey tabby Kiddiot and watched the commentators try to come to a comprehension of what was happening, I looked outside my window and could see the smog (for lack of a better word) all around my block. I then sat back on the bed watching the rest of the incident play out. When I saw the structures completely collapse and the gigantic vibration that seemed to emanate throughout my body at the same time, I simply discussed internally with myself the wisdom of my choices and what my next steps should be. Once again, I determined that the wisest course of action was to do nothing. For the record, doing nothing goes against every personal philosophy and instinct I have ever known except for one: That my husband, if alive, absolutely needed for me to be here if/when he arrived, or it would destroy him. So I waited.

To be honest, I still am not entirely clear how long the time passed. I am sure there are specific historical facts in all the newspapers and websites even as I write this, but frankly, it is irrelevant. I am not sure if shock, or disassociation or what was happening to me; but I was not reacting outwardly at all. Well, except for the realization after close to an hour that Kiddiot had been being nearly strangled accidentally by me while I watched everything on television and when I noticed, I relaxed my grip and she looked extremely grateful.

I tried a couple more times to make calls to no avail and then I walked around our apartment trying to think of contingency plans that I could make at that point to determine when an alternative course of action was required and/or when I should begin to reevaluate the situation. Meanwhile the news media chose to play the 911 impacts and collapse over and over and over again on the TV. I had even begun to count them in my head and was up to around 10 when the world changed.  It was a quiet sound of a key in our apartment door.

My poor tabby was almost flung against the bed pillows while I bolted for the door and wrestled it open to find a woman named Linda, a man named Jeff, and yes, my husband holding a six pack of beer. Before I had a chance to say any of the thousands of things that were going through my head at the time, I simply grabbed the six pack exclaiming, “Mine!” I then ran into the kitchen, opened and downed a beer in almost 12 seconds and then ran back to where they stood warmly saying, “Hello! Who are you and why are you with my husband? Welcome! Come have a seat and I am so glad to see you!” I honestly know how utterly egregious that behavior sounds. It looked almost like a very weird episode of Monty Python’s Flying Circus. After all of us sat and readjusted for a few minutes and they all watched the 11th and 12th replay of the incident and the latest speculation by the commentators all over the airwaves, my husband and our new adopted brother Jeff, decided to go in search of a way to take positive action, so they went off together to Red Cross to see if they required blood donations. I sat with Linda and tried to regain my rational equilibrium that I generally maintained constantly.

I have in the years since that day listened to thousands of experiences of others that day. In the years that followed, my husband became an Emergency Medical Technician, an Auxiliary Policeman and an Instructor for American Red Cross. I went directly to Red Cross and offered to assist in any way I could, which began as an IT professional and moved toward media relations after I began to realize that the equilibrium that I somehow maintained in my body and mind while I had no control that day was a rare aptitude that I should use to help others. So I consciously chose to change my career path to emergency response and crisis communication and when I instruct volunteers for Red Cross and other organizations I am often asked what started me on that path.

I went to many memorial services, funerals, wreath-laying events and numerous others over the years, but the one I found impossible to participate in until more recently, was the 911 memorial each year. I remember annoying a volunteer recruiter one year who asked me why I did not feel I should be involved in the memorials. I thought it through and simply replied, “Look. I am unwilling to look a spouse, child, friend or other loved one of the 2,977 people who did not survive and try to tell them I can understand or truly empathize.  I cannot. For whatever reason, my beloved came home. He lived, and he still lives. So on every anniversary, I must admit, I pray for all of those who lost their loved ones, then I thank God that he came through that apartment door. I do not feel worthy of being part of a ceremony that I am honestly too blessed to deserve. The memories and the spirits are far more important than the anxiety of a woman as lucky as I was. So I simply give back everything I can to the people I can help, and I do everything I can to offer myself as a vessel to absorb their pain during hurricanes, fires, floods and even other plane crashes; but not for 911. For that, they deserve better.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

It Is Impossible For Your Platoon to Be Effective if They Don’t All Absolutely Believe Their Sergeant Would Never Shoot Them in the Back

I have spent the last ten years living two professional lives simultaneously. The first is working for a federal agency and being branded a pariah. The agency leaders and contemporaries outside of my immediate department valued and appreciated my work and who I was. My immediate department’s fundamental nature was hostile. No matter how much effort I made or how much I created or produced, middle management made deliberate choices to devalue the work I did and consciously undermine me professionally to peers, clients and management. Fortunately, the second life I lived concurrently was through voluntarily supporting an agency that has continuously mentored me and trained me and trusted me to develop into the leader, spokesperson and advocate I now am.

That may sound like an unlikely combination, but it is primarily caused by the anomaly that effective management implies controlling your team rather than cultivating your team. When a few months ago, I finally got my courage up to begin a broader job search to leave federal service and professionally move onto a different path, the contemporaries in my second life, offered every piece of encouragement and advice they could. They reinforced my confidence and opposed the derogatory feedback from the leaders in my first life. During a near mental breakdown, where I was beginning to doubt any past achievements for them, one of my managers resolved my concerns quite effectively by noting, “Look. You’re a pro. If I did not believe you could do it, I wouldn’t have relied on you to do it. Don’t let their attempts to damage you make you believe the crap they’re feeding you.” They also recommended that I join professional organizations to further reinforce my confidence. I joined a few and found my niche. Helping people like myself to believe in themselves and value themselves enough to discourage abuse and enabling creativity and communication.
I have been a leader and a manager in many stages of my career. Often these roles came about by incidental need, but each time I led a team, I intuitively made sure that they knew I had their back. I believe that being a leader did not make me the dictator, but the one responsible for the task/project/response/result if we didn’t succeed; and the one to give the team all of the credit if we did succeed; (which we repeatedly did).

The primary lessons from my experiences of the last ten years are simple. 1) Everything does happen for a reason. 2) Other people behaving unprofessionally or cruel are not a license for you to act the same way. 3) There is always a tipping point in all abusive relationships where the effort to try to re-cultivate a professional rapport is simply enabling more abuse (and that no good ever comes from this). I watched so many co-workers who had been damaged to the degree where they honestly had nothing to hope for and no self-worth. I was determined to refuse that choice, and still take conscious steps to stay in touch with many of them to try to reinforce some positive impact on their psyche so that one day, they may be able to save themselves. Regardless of all of these things, I will continue to try to make the second aspect of my professional life, (and not the first), influence the third one I am about to enter. If I succeed, I will be an effective leader and unlike many who have led me in the past to dark times, I will never be worried about my platoon except for my responsibility to get them through our upcoming missions.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

An All-American RC Response

Today was going to be a slightly weird day no matter what, but as I headed out with my Aunt and my husband to go visit my cousin in hospice, I was completely disengaged somehow. I’m not sure if it’s due to my visiting so many people in the last year in assisted living communities that I have somehow psychologically checked out, but I guess it’s a basic defense mechanism. 

People at the end of their lives due to cancer all look remarkably similar to one another. The two most recent experiences were the most different men before their ailments got the best of them.  One of them, an egocentric, academic philosopher musician who approached the world as a way to assist in the growth of knowledge and critical thinking; the other, a loving philosophic socially self-sustaining man who was battling to reach a goal imposed by others and ultimately who later stopped trying to meet standards that were impossible and did not keep himself from realizing who he was and that he deserved basic human dignity.  While my aunt tried to be empathetic and was trying to say goodbye, I watched and finally just chatted with him for a moment, but we have understood each other for most of our lives and accepted and cared for each other without reservation for decades, so not much needed to be said, communication had been continuous enough to suffice without requiring a last rite of discussion or conversation. We were always able to speak without actually saying anything out loud to one another, and I was profusely grateful for that skill today.

No sooner had we left the hospice, that an incident in the Little Vietnam community near Bailey’s Crossroads, Virginia displacing nearly 100 Vietnamese and Korean Americans who were evacuated from their homes. So my husband and I went down to document the event and assist in the temporary sheltering and feeding as we were in town and available on Memorial Day weekend to volunteer.

Arriving on the scene in our poor man’s emergency response vehicle, nearly 100 Harley Davidson low ride motorcycles were parked all around the Best Western where Red Cross was providing temporary housing for the evacuees.  They belonged to many of the guests who were among the thousands in town for Rolling Thunder XVII “Ride for Freedom” to remember veterans listed as prisoners of war (POWs) and or Missing in Action (MIA). Several Caucasian males in Skullcaps, helmets and bandannas with chaps, vests and boots were mulling around the hotel trying not to have a complete flashback to their tours in Hanoi or Inchon while a huge white Hummer limousine unloaded the bride, groom and guests in every color of florescent satin and silk for an interracial wedding ceremony on the front lawn of the hotel.

As we pulled up and volunteers unloaded the poor man’s emergency response vehicles with meals from Miu Kee Cantonese Cuisine; additional Red Cross volunteers continued to feed and register the displaced residents upstairs, while affected residents were sitting downstairs with families and friends drinking in the hotel bar right next to the huge mugs of beer and the Duck Dynasty fan club.

Suffice to say, that today I felt like an actress in a movie having an out of body experience watching herself in a Theatre of the Absurd comedy on film while the music in the background was Oingo Boingo’s “We Close our Eyes."

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Enlivening Easter Experience

Although I’ve volunteered for Red Cross for over a decade, I never know what to expect during a disaster response—but I always expect to learn something. When the Regional Disaster Coordination Center’s call came on Easter morning 2014, I woke, rubbed my eyes, threw clothes on and headed out. The fire was in Glenarden, Maryland in a nice apartment complex with roughly 100 units. Today, I had a special assignment to document a Red Cross response to an incident and to enable our photographer to get a telling image that could visually explain what we do at a Red Cross response.

As I drove up, I met Linda, the professional photographer Red Cross brought in for the project, and Red Cross Disaster Action Team (DAT) members Alex, Dorinda and Lennox were out front with a Community Emergency Response Teams (CERT) representative while multiple families were lingering outside with bags of belongings mingling and waiting with their neighbors. We all were determining the next steps and how to assess the basic needs of the affected families.

While the scene looked peaceful at first with the firemen long gone; the results in the top left unit were outside the building for all to see. The only visual around the building however, was the blackened glassless windows said quite a bit. So did the bed, dresser and various burned out shells of a person’s life laying out on the ground until facilities came and carted it away sometime later that week.

The preliminary conversations are always the hardest. Landlords are rarely receptive or proactive, so getting them rolling as always a challenge. On Easter Sunday, that challenge grows exponentially. At first they agreed to send an electrician, then they tried to let their handyman do it. Fortunately I intercepted the electrician and got him operational before they could cancel the request. As we went into the building, I spoke to some of the affected families and warned them that they had basic rights as renters and that they should know them. This did not make me popular with the property managers’ representative, when he arrived, but it’s impossible to please everyone all of the time.

As the DAT Team went up to the unit where the fire started, the first question that came to all of our minds was about the potential for asbestos and potential safety concerns in the apartment. With enormous amounts of insulation and plaster soaked out of the ceiling and the blackened walls, furniture and floors. We did not take long to determine that the unit was not habitable, and we moved on. The neighboring units were damp and a couple had some damage; but the primary problems would be easier to repair and other than the aggravation of a lot of cleaning and a large amount of laundering, they and their belongings were overall okay. While overall I was feeling very comforted about the overall assessments of the building and figured that the vast majority of the residents would be back in their homes that afternoon, it is always a conflicting emotion to look at a site and be relieved about a lack of fatalities while simultaneously empathetic about the destruction throughout.

As Red Cross DAT went through the units, we came upon a quadriplegic and his family who had immediate needs. It was a very humbling experience, for while many would have been terrified or angry, the parent, siblings, and nieces and nephews of the man were such a cohesive support group that it seemed like a very surmountable scenario somehow. They were sad, but also grateful that they and their neighbors were alive and they were confused about what Red Cross’ role was, but were pleased that we had come to assist them. A second family was in an adjoining unit was severely damaged with one wall cut out to get to the original unit were the fire began. They were also relaxed and calmly participating in the process.

There were a few others, like there always are, who inquired about Red Cross assistance. Their units were not directly affected and were simply awaiting restoration of electrical power, but each person’s preexisting needs were obvious. It is never a pleasant situation to explain to a person in preexisting need (in the kindest way possible) that Red Cross cannot assist everyone regardless of need, for if they did, they would quickly run out of resources to help the ones really in need due to the incident.

As we awaited the next stages to resolve themselves, from the property manager to do their own assessments, through electricians, waste disposal companies, government appraisers, insurance estimators and water damage contractors. Red Cross DAT members were doing due diligence, and getting all the data needed to assist the families to get temporary housing, and transportation to that temporary housing on Easter Sunday. It became bureaucratically complicated, yet it still came about. When one barrier came up, the DAT team members worked together to find alternatives and when we were winding down, the last step was to get the family with special needs to the hotel. After a series of unsuccessful calls to multiple places, Red Cross finally helped the family call an ambulance to transport the quadriplegic to the hotel. The ambulance team was very kind and helpful, but were unable to transport the wheelchair. So the Red Cross DAT took our truck, loaded the chair and took it to the hotel ourselves. Red Cross does have some liability constraints on what we do when we are working on a scene (and transporting a person in our vehicle is one of those). However, transporting a chair? For that, we could easily justify that and get approval.  As we closed down operations and were ready to leave the scene, Red Cross DAT spoke with the families and said our farewells, and went back home to our families and our lives. In hindsight, it looks remarkably simple.

It had been awhile since I had responded. But being Easter Sunday, it was a gentle reminder that the drive to voluntarily assist people is so primeval that it can easily become part of what we are as well as what we do. You can’t always help another person as basically as you can during a disaster response with Red Cross; but you can help. Today’s scene where complete chaos turned calm and ultimately kindness and concern translated into humanity, impartiality, neutrality independence, voluntary service, unity and universality—which are not considered core values for nothing!