The Spirit of Volunteerism (3rd of 3): David Moebs

June 6, 2009

 

Having spent time recently writing about Sarah Houghton-Jan and Lori Reed, two trainer-teacher-learners who embody the true spirit of volunteerism in all they do, I’m turning toward another friend whose volunteer efforts in the world of nonprofit organizations provide a timeless example of how those facing tremendous challenges sometimes keep the rest of us inspired.

David Moebs has touched and changed a lot of lives through his commitment to the arts. A professional clarinetist and teacher working with children through the San Francisco Conservatory of Music Preparatory Department, he attracted significant numbers of undergraduate- and graduate-level students to the school while also employed in its admissions office, and his efforts on behalf of his fellow musicians in the Sacramento Symphony until the organization folded in 1996 gave him a level of credibility others might not have achieved.

Like Sarah and Lori, he accomplished much of this after learning that he was facing severe physical challenges: he was diagnosed as being HIV-positive in 1985.  During the initial years after he received that diagnosis, this wonderful educator volunteered for clinical tests designed to find ways to lessen or eradicate the effects of AIDS. He maintained his position as a Conservatory employee, a Prep Department instructor, and member of the Sacramento Symphony. And he continued, with whatever free time he had, to work on behalf of those he cared about by volunteering to serve on the Symphony musician union’s negotiating team during extremely stressful discussions even though he understood that the effects of that stress might have devastating effects on his health.

Remembering some of the difficulties he had as a young gay man in a less than accepting environment, he looked for ways to help others in a similar situation better cope with the challenges they faced. Wanting to use his knowledge of and passion for the arts in those endeavors, he enrolled in a creative writing course and considered adding coursework to his already busy schedule so he could earn a counseling degree which would qualify him to work with gay teens who needed all the support they could find.

When David’s health took a drastic and potentially fatal turn for the worse with a diagnosis of Progressive Multifocal Leukoencephalopathy—PML—most of us assumed he was finally out of time. As PML rapidly progressed over a two-month period by consuming significant levels of the myelin sheath around his nerves, his ability to play clarinet rapidly disappeared. Along with his ability to move and talk and maintain his independence. But his sense of humor during that awful period of time never failed; as a few of us were watching television together one evening and sat through a commercial citing the symptoms of diabetes—all of which matched parts of what he was experiencing—he looked at us, smiled, and struggled to say, “Oh, thank God; I thought I had PML.”

The rapid decline appeared to reverse itself on Thanksgiving morning that year; without warning or explanation, he was able to get out of his bed, walk around a little, and eventually join us for a Thanksgiving meal. Over the next few months, he began feeling well enough to attempt to play the clarinet again. He took steps to register for those counseling courses he had been hoping to complete. And he even began driving short distances again.

But at the end of what appeared to be an entire year of recovery, the effects of PML became apparent once again, and within a few months he was no longer able to remain at home even with the around-the-clock care friends and professional nursing staff were struggling to provide. So in May 1998, he moved into Coming Home Hospice, in San Francisco’s Castro District. As he drifted in and out of consciousness, his friends would sometimes see him reach into the air and flutter his fingers.

“Was he a musician?” one of the hospice attendants asked. “It looks like he’s trying to play an instrument.”

We gladly volunteered to hold his hands and rub his back long after he stopped giving any sign that he knew we were there. His eyes stared blankly up toward one of the corners of the ceiling.

“We call it ‘watching the angels,” a hospice worker told us. “It’s very common when the end is near.”

I read him passages from his favorite books even though there were no visible responses, and I didn’t care whether he was trying to communicate with me or was simply displaying reflex actions when I felt his hand squeeze mine a couple of times.

And when he passed away, exactly eleven years ago, I knew I’d lost an irreplaceable friend. Who continues to inspire me to watch for the angels in my life. And to volunteer in every way I can to carry on the spirit they embody.

–In memory of David, January 27, 1959 – June 6, 1998


Resilience

February 15, 2022

I’m exploring and practicing resilience this afternoon. Which is not a particularly difficult undertaking since I was scheduled to facilitate a conversation on the topic of resilience earlier today.

Preparing for the conversation was, itself, an exercise in resilience. We had originally scheduled the workshop for April 2022. But something happened in the workplace that inspired the client to request that we conduct the session sooner. So we reset it for today, and I gladly re-immersed myself in this extremely familiar topic over the past few days. Thinking about all the conversations I’ve had with Ruben Puentedura and other ShapingEDU colleagues on the topic and its close cousin, antifragility—the ability to experience something extremely challenging and, as a result of having had that experience, emerging stronger than before. Recalling people I have known and adored who displayed that desirable combination of resilience and antifragility. And watching for examples of resilience in what I have been reading over the past few days.

One of the people who came to mind was David Moebs, a cherished friend who succumbed to AIDS more than 20 years ago but who still feels consistently present in my life because of the resilience he displayed in the darkest of times. There was the devastating period during which he had been told he had an incurable, rapidly-progressing degenerative disease connected to AIDS and that he had less than two months to live; as he, my wife, and I were sitting together one evening and watching My Fair Lady on television (he did love his musicals), he suddenly sat upright as a commercial describing the symptoms of diabetes came on and included much of what he was experiencing.

“Oh, thank God,” he cried out in mock exaltation. “I thought I had PML.”

He was, in some ways, lucky and incredibly resilient. PML didn’t take him down at that point; he actually experienced a period of remission, during which he lived his life as fully as he could under all the constraints accompanying PML And when he did finally leave us, he left a gaping hole in our lives—one which has been accompanied by an ongoing sense of awe over how resilient he was in the most difficult of circumstances.

So I suppose it wasn’t particularly surprising that, as I thought of resilience within the life-threatening situation David experienced, that I sat upright myself as I was continuing to read Beppe Sala’s Società: per azioni (Society: For Actions) this morning and came across an extremely moving passage in which this inspiring and resilient politician (mayor of Milan) described having received a diagnosis of cancer and the resilient approach he took to that diagnosis. He recalled how his father had also been diagnosed with cancer years earlier and had surrendered to it rather than fighting it—something he refused to do. He talked about his own personal discoveries/revelations stemming from the diagnosis and his responses to it: “I discover that time is not money, but that money is time. The definitive measure of value is time. More time, more life. The battle against time. Time that flees.” (p. 33) And that beautiful set of passages continues: “It’s not easy to understand what hope might be, the humblest of virtues, a risky virtue because it is often hidden….Hope is the question that permits the response of trust, of a faith.”

All of this flows through me as if it were an electrical current jolting every cell within me, for I realize that is that moment of inspiration. That moment when preparing for a learning opportunity that I’m about to facilitate has come together with everything I need to lead a successful session. There are the opening stories that flow one into another seamlessly. The anticipation of using those stories to create a context for the transformative experience all of us are seeking as co-conspirators in the learning process. The joy of anticipating being with a group of learners I’ve come to know and admire over the past few months. And the pleasure of sharing stories that help us bring some level of understanding and encouragement that will, by the end of that hour, looking at the topic of resilience with widened eyes and some sort of plan for what we will do differently, in the week ahead of us, as a result of our having spent time together.

I set my notes aside. Prepare my workspace for the online session I’m about to facilitate. Pull a few books off my shelf as points for reference for the conversation that is about to begin. Settle in to wait for the first learners to arrive. And nothing happens. It’s just me, my notes, my PowerPoint slide deck, and a clock showing that I’m five minutes away from the scheduled beginning of the session. Which does not actually begin because it turns out that the person organizing the session had intended to reschedule it again, but lost track of the need to notify me.

This was not something that left me angry. (It helped to know that cancellation with little or no notice means I’m paid my facilitator’s fee.) This is not something that was even deeply disappointing. Because I know we will reschedule that conversation. And that the preparation that went into it will serve all of us well when we finally do gather to explore what resilience means to each of us in our work and in our play. Because, we know, we want to be resilient. And we are. Resilient enough, in fact, to recognize that the time I would have dedicated to leading the session could just as easily be used to write a new piece for my blog.


Coming Full Circle with Digital Storytelling in #etmooc

February 11, 2013

After dabbling with digital storytelling last week as part of the work I’m doing as a learner in #etmooc, the Education Technology and Media MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) organized by University of Regina professor of educational and media Alec Couros and several “co-conspirators,” I circled back on the theme in a more focused and serious way. And found myself in far deeper emotional waters than expected—as is often the case with any completely engaging learning experience.

etmoocCouros and his colleagues have offered us choices among eight different digital storytelling challenges ranging from simple acts (writing a six-word story and combining it with an emotionally engaging image) to an “ultimate challenge”: “Write a story, and then tell that same story digitally using any number of digital tools and freely available media! For inspiration and story creation guidance, see Alan Levine’s 50+ Web 2.0 Ways to Tell a Story.”

Starting simply, I tackled the six-word stories; saw the emotional depth others were achieving; and went back to the drawing board until I found one that promised to carry me into the level of exploration others had achieved: “Through stories, our departed remain alive.”

One of the departed who remain alive for me is David Moebs, who died from AIDS-related complications in June 1998, yet remains amazingly present. He was a person whose understated generosity made a substantial difference to his friends during his lifetime: at least three different times, he gave substantial amounts of money to friends in need, knowing that the money, if used wisely, would make life-changing differences for them. He had no expectation of receiving anything in return; he simply wanted to take action at the right moment, with people he perceived to be the right people.

It was not a complete surprise to me, therefore, that when I wrote about his spirit of volunteerism and generosity and posted the article online (more than a decade after he left us, in a rudimentary form of digital storytelling long before I ever heard the term), it touched a few people who still carried strong, positive memories that were rooted in his actions.

David_Moebs

David Moebs

I was, in preparation for the #etmooc digital storytelling assignment, already going back to unpublished writing I had completed about David. I was also trying to find the appropriate way and tools to give new life to an old story. Video still felt a little beyond me; blogging felt as if it wouldn’t force me to stretch in ways the assignment was designed to make all of us as learners stretch. So I started looking for tools I hadn’t yet explored—Prezi and Vuvox among them—to see if I could revisit David’s story in my ongoing role as a learner. My starting point was to storyboard the effort using PowerPoint: I actually completed a draft that placed the script into the notes field of each slide; incorporated images licensed through Creative Commons and posted on flickr; began moving the images into Prezi and Vuvox; and recorded the script using Audacity.

That’s when I hit the sort of glitch we expect to find while learning: Vuvox wasn’t cooperating, and Prezi didn’t want to take the audio files in the format that Audacity produced and stored them. I did find an online service that would, for a fee, have transformed the recordings into a format compatible with what I had developed visually in Prezi, but I held myself back with a challenge to either locate a free online tool or find a new way to use existing tools that I already had acquired.

The solution proved simple once I returned to PowerPoint. Using the “sound” function that is under the “insert” tab within the program, I was able to easily re-record the individual elements of the script and insert them into each slide—and even pull in an audio clip from YouTube to pull the story together at a multi-media level.

And while I don’t expect to win any awards for innovations in digital storytelling, the entire exercise not only offered a wonderful opportunity to revisit an old friend, but to benefit further from the learning opportunities that #etmooc is producing at a time when so many of us are exploring what MOOCs are and will continue to offer as part of our overall learning environment. 

N.B.: This is the sixth in a series of posts responding to the assignments and explorations fostered through #etmooc. The digital story described in this posting can be viewed online in “Slide Show” mode; to produce the audio, please click on the audio icons on each slide.


ALA Midwinter Meeting 2017: The Stuff You Don’t Plan For

January 22, 2017

Anyone familiar with the richly rewarding experience of attending an association’s conference knows that the most precious gems often are those we don’t anticipate.

alamw17_logoWe fall into a business deal we didn’t even know existed. We see someone we didn’t even know was there and, as a result, rekindle a relationship. We learn about an innovation that directly and positively affects the work we do. We discover and quickly act upon opportunities to better serve the onsite and online communities we absolutely adore.

everylibrary_logoAnd that, to absolutely nobody’s surprise, is what has been happening for some of us here in Atlanta since the American Library Association (ALA) 2017 Midwinter Conference formally opened yesterday. I know, from the numerous intensively action-oriented conversations I had throughout the day yesterday and today and well into the evening hours, that there were abundant enticing opportunities—expected and unexpected—to pursue. Several colleagues and I, as a result of chance encounters, continued the conversations (inspired by our EveryLibrary co-conspirators) designed to help us identify and take positive, concrete, results-generating action in response to opportunities to build productive, meaningful collaborations between libraries/library staff members and other stakeholders in our extended, multi-faceted, tapestry-like onsite-online communities. These were and are not pipe-dream “wouldn’t it be nice” discussions; each of them ended with commitments to taking small-scale individual as well as collaborative steps that, when combined with similar steps within our extended communities, will lead to community collaborations with potentially far-reaching impacts. (The 2017 EveryLibrary Agenda, on the organization’s “Leaving Our Silos — Coalition Work in 2017” page, is a seminal online document that offers an opportunity to become engaged and is a wonderful call to action for those within the library world as well as to those who currently are not; friends and colleagues can expect to be hearing plenty from me about what this offers us and those we serve.)

signorelli200x300[1]But it gets even more personal. A wonderfully serendipitous encounter in the ALA Store resulted in another sale of the book Lori Reed and I co-wrote a few years ago (Workplace Learning & Leadership) and an impromptu, tongue-in-cheek book-signing for the buyer of that book. Which then unexpectedly led to a conversation about potential involvement in another results-oriented training-teaching-learning project scheduled to happen during the second half of this year. And, as if this were all being choreographed for the muse of publication, I then found myself involved in a conversation about writing a new book—a conversation that ended with a tentative agreement to pursue the project as soon as we can take care of all the elements that are part of codifying a formal contract leading to publication of a book.

The day continued at this frenetic, almost dream-like level well into the evening. More discussions. More confirmed opportunities for positive engagement with members of my ALA professional family. More reminders that, even in the most troubled of times, we never are really alone. And a reminder that the aforementioned precious gems often arrive when they are most needed.

For, in the midst of all this positive engagement, I was also fully engaged in that most horrible, inevitable rites of passage: the impending loss of a loved one.

The news that my lovely, vibrant, dynamic, inspirational mother—my lifelong parent, mentor, friend, confidante, and fellow chocoholic—is in the final days or even hours of life on the other side of the country was not unexpected. (A sign of how much I rely on her: after initially receiving the news that she might be in her last 72 hours of her life, I quickly ran through the short list of people I could call for comfort, immediately thought of her, and then found myself laughing as the words “Oh, wait, she already knows about this” ran through my mind.) She has been suffering from congestive heart failure for several months now, and the options for providing her with comfort and any acceptable quality of life have been dwindling rapidly during the past two weeks. Receiving “the call” from home shortly after I arrived in Atlanta was a nightmare emerging into a darkening day: she was back in a hospital emergency room, where my father and others were onsite to be with her during what a Franciscan friar I know once referred to as “the most sacred of times.” The subsequent calls involving arrangements for hospice care quickly followed. And then the news this morning, just before all the conversations and activities I’ve described in this post took place, that the hospice plan had been abandoned because treatment that might have offered her another 72 hours of comfort were failing. We were quickly reaching the point where we were counting hours rather than days.

When you have two parents who have led wonderfully blessed lives for 80 or 90 years, you’re always aware that each day could be the last. You go out of your way, as I have for more than a decade, to thank them every time—every damned time—you talk to them and let them know in very specific terms how grateful you are for all that they have given you. And yet “the call” is always as shocking as you know it’s going to be. Always overwhelming. And yet somehow manageable because you viscerally understand that, at that horrible and devastating moment, you are right where you were meant to be. Like here, in Atlanta, among some of the best friends, colleagues, and confidantes I have. Caring. Understanding. Sympathetic. And capable of shining sparkling-gem light where only darkness would otherwise seem to reign.

So I’ve had a day of precious gems that included wonderful stories from friends. Plenty of cross-country conversations that had me right there with my family even though we remain physically nearly 2,500 miles apart. Time spent working with wonderfully sympathetic and responsive United Airlines representatives arranging for an earlier-than-expected return to California. Positive paid and volunteer opportunities that I will be pursuing for months, if not years. Just as my mother and father always encouraged me to do. And as I prepare to try to catch a bit of sleep, I relish the bittersweet words a member of my ALA family shared during a conversation earlier today: It’s always the stuff you don’t plan for that has the greatest impact—for better or for worse.

[Deepest gratitude to my former writing coach/mentor Margo Perin, who always insisted that the best writing was that which was most difficult, honest, and drawn directly from the heart. This piece would not exist if she had not led me, nearly 20 years ago, through the process of working through a dark night.]

Addendum: In loving memory of Josephine V. Signorelli, August 5, 1925 – January 22, 2017. She lived and passed with grace.


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