Lessons Imparted, Lessons Learned: Making Them Personal

May 18, 2022

The trainer-teacher-learners I most admire are those who understand that every learning opportunity we facilitate provides us with an opportunity to learn alongside our co-conspirators in learning (aka our students).

It’s an idea that inspires me to review, after each workshop or webinar or course or even a highly-interactive keynote address that encourages participants to learn with me, what I myself might learn from what we have just done together. It proves to be a rewarding, comforting endeavor each time I take the time to complete it, as I’m reminded today during a review of some of the sessions in which I’ve recently been involved.

Those sessions are a part of a continuing series of facilitated conversations, arranged under the auspices of Claremont EAP, on a few dozen workplace issues with which we all struggle at various levels. Each session comes with a PowerPoint slide deck provided by my colleagues at Claremont. It also comes with a workbook that can be integrated into the hour-long conversation. But the real payoff for the learners and for me comes from open discussions I facilitate and which are inspired by what’s in those decks and workshops. Using small chunks of the time we have together to show them slides about mindfulness in our workplaces, or adapting to change, or managing priorities, or incorporating acts of gratitude into our daily routines as I’ve done over the past few weeks through Claremont sessions with clients around the San Francisco Bay Area, is just the starting point. It’s the questions I pose in response to information contained on the slides or within the workbooks, the avenues I pursue with them vis-à-vis how those topics apply to what they are facing in their own workplaces, and the inevitable final question I pose at the end of each session—what is one thing you will do differently during the next week as a result of having spent time together today?—that brings it all together and transforms what on the surface appears to be an ephemeral conversation into what any learning opportunity should be: an opportunity to pursue positive change and to take away some level of pain that a learner is currently facing.

The conversations about adapting to change, being grateful for things we tend to overlook, and being mindful (attentive) to what is happening to us in any given moment and cherishing what it offers were not exactly at the forefront of my mind yesterday afternoon after I finished the latest offering of “adapting to change”; it had been a rewarding, inspiring day of meetings and sessions, but nothing out of the ordinary. All three of those topics, however, have been on my mind pretty steadily over the past several months as a lovely cat that has been an integral part of our lives for more than 14 years has been steadily declining in response to the progressive ravages of kidney disease. We think about her and respond to her at a deeply emotional level, but I also think and respond to her in terms of recognizing the massive change that will occur in our lives when she is no longer with us. When she appeared to be entering end-stage last September, and we were actually about to set up a time to put her out of the misery she was experiencing, we viscerally understood the importance of being mindful—cherishing every remaining moment we had with her. And when some new medications and simple, non-invasive measures suggested by the wonderful vet who has been treating and supporting her produced a turn-around none of us really expected to see, we were relieved and tremendously grateful for what the vet accomplished and for the unexpected gift of additional time we were being given with her. And we were mindful. Recognizing that this beloved companion was once again (at least temporarily) comfortable. That she was displaying as much joy as any six-pound ball of fur has ever displayed. That we might have her for a few more days or weeks. And that this was nothing but a postponement of the day, all too soon, when we would have to make the difficult decision to let her go—that moment when the lack of a decent quality of life overrode our desire to have her with us.

Those mindfulness conversations I have been having with learners have made me conscious every day—every time the cat sits on my lap and naps while I read, every time she goes skittering across our hardwood floors chasing a ball as if it were her sole mission in life to protect us from any harm that evil ball might bring us, every time she puts her sometimes damp nose in my ear at three or four a.m. to remind me that she expects a bit of attention in gratitude for all the joy she brings us—of what a magnificent gift those simple moments have become. The gratitude and mindfulness has always helped me enjoy the in-the-moment pleasures of having her with us, and helped me to not fritter them away by worrying about when her moment of departure might arrive.

So, I was surprised and not surprised, early yesterday evening, when I noticed something radically different about her. She suddenly seemed unsteady. Unsure of herself. Continually, slowly, moving her head from left to right and back again as if looking for something that remained beyond her field of vision. As if she were bewildered by what she was or was not seeing. And then it struck me. She was bewildered because regardless of how much she tried, she wasn’t seeing anything. Testing my suspicion, I moved my hands across her field of vision and saw no obvious response. I looked closely into her eyes and saw that her black pupils were filling the entire space that just a few hours ago had been mostly filled with luminescent gold-green—a color that now had completely vanished. I tried again to elicit responses by quickly moving my hands toward her face and stopping just short of the moment of contact, without eliciting any level of reaction. A quick internet search confirmed for me that sudden loss of vision was one of the signs that kidney disease in a cat was in its final stage. So, with heavy hearts and mindful that these could well be our final moments with her, my wife and I took turns holding her on our laps. Hugging her with every bit of love she had earned by being such a joyful companion over such a long period of time. Doing everything we could to figure out how the loss of her vision was going to impact her ability to function around the house. And seeing her gently bumping into walls and furniture whose position had been familiar to her over a period of many years, we were mindful of what this sudden change meant in terms of quality of life for her. So we made the call.

We’ve had to do this before. It’s never easy. But it is, for us, part of what we feel we owe to the cats who have relied on us to be there for them during the easy as well as the difficult times. The rest of the evening, of course, is already a bit blurry in our memories. Comforting her as we transported her to the vet’s clinic. Having a frank discussion about what was reasonable and not reasonable in terms of expecting her to adapt to the unexpected change she had just experienced. And what quality of life she was going to have as the loss of vision was just one of a rapidly approaching series of losses that would make her more miserable and ultimately result in her death. None of that made the decision easy. But it made it the best of the decisions we felt we could reach, given our desire to offer her the gift of sparing her additional pain at a moment when her life—and ours—had inevitably changed.

I’m numb and filled with grief today. I feel her presence everywhere around our house, and think about and visualize all the things she was doing here less than 24 hours ago. But I also am mindful of the fact that I have a great community of friends and colleagues around me who are already doing all they can to join the circle of grief and, through their caring comments, offer me a lifeline out of this overwhelming grief and back into life when I’m ready to begin adapting to the terrible change that has just occurred. I’m grateful that I have the continuing opportunity to work with people who trust me enough to help them through the small-, medium- and large-scale changes they face just as others now are doing that for me. And I’m grateful, that because of their attentiveness and dedication to lifelong learning to produce positive changes, they offer me the gift of lessons imparted and lessons learned through every interaction we have as co-conspirators in learning.

Remembering Paul F. Signorelli (April 7, 1930 – August 16, 2021)

August 24, 2021

The following post is the final draft of the eulogy I delivered at my father’s funeral service on Tuesday, August 24, 2021. The draft—as all drafts do—differs a bit from the spoken version delivered to family and friends who gathered to commemorate all he meant to us during his long and richly rewarding life.






These are the beginning of the numerous words that come flooding into our minds when my sisters and I think about our father.

We received The Call last week—just eight days ago. That long-dreaded, inevitable call letting us know that the classy, funny, loving, generous, unpretentious man we had known all our lives was gone. Our father. Our sweet father. Who worked hard all his life. Who loved family and friends above all else. Who remains a tremendous source of inspiration to us for all he did and all he offered throughout the years we were lucky enough to have him.

It doesn’t make it any easier to know that his last four years were difficult for him. That during his final months with us, he openly expressed the wish that he could die. Which is not to say that he didn’t have plenty of lovely moments during those final four years. When dementia wasn’t eating away at the core of all he was, he maintained a sense of humor and engaged in interactions that led even hospice workers, in those final days, to refer to him as a “classy”  person. None of that, however, erases an indisputable fact: He never recovered from the death of my mother, in January 2017, and his two-year descent into dementia leading to his death last week were difficult for him and my lovely sister, Carol, who took him into her own home when he was no longer able to care for himself.

Our mother and father were a finely-matched pair, one of those mystical two-in-one entities where each had a fully-developed individual personality that symbiotically was made stronger for the intertwining of those two personalities into one united presence. She was focused. Businesslike and loving all at once. Deeply immersed in her faith. And never happier than when she was cooking and spending time with her family. He was playful—a prankster whose humor was never mean-spirited and often made the person on the receiving end of those pranks smile every bit as much as anyone else present. And he had an innate sense of humility that meant he never displayed the slightest hint of pretentiousness. He, like my mother, was fiercely protective of family and friends; if anyone made the mistake of in any way attacking a member of Dad’s family, that person quickly learned to not make that mistake a second time.

We admire our father for the lifelong work habits he maintained—a great example of teaching by example. As someone who spent his entire working life as an employee, then a manager, in grocery stores in our hometown, he was up early. Worked late. Never complained about the levels of responsibility he assumed. And always made sure he was home for dinner. He somehow also managed to carve out time to do community service work: he served as president of St. Bernadette’s parish council. And he was also active, long after he retired, in Stockton’s Oak Park Senior Center, where he served as president on the center’s board of directors and, more importantly, loved to dance with our mother. (Oh, those two could dance! They met on a dance floor near my mother’s hometown in upstate New York while he was completing his military service in the U.S. Air Force near the end of the Korean War. They danced at church functions. I even remember watching the two of them dance one foggy Sunday morning when they were visiting Licia and me in San Francisco; went out into Golden Gate Park; stumbled upon an outdoor ballroom-dance gathering; and they stepped into the crowd and held their own.)

Dad had a lifelong passion for fishing. I still have memories of sitting with him on the lovely levees that create an incredible network of waterways in rural areas outside of Stockton. Sometimes we would talk. (I don’t, of course, remember a word of those conversations. What remains in the priceless memory of time spent with a loving father.) Sometimes we would just stare out at the water while waiting for the fish to bite. (Or not!) What I didn’t know until my two sisters and I were talking about it last week was that my father did the same thing for one of them long—Marie—after he realized I would much rather be sitting somewhere reading a book than waiting for a fish to strike. (Mea culpa.)

He also loved to build things in his backyard. Storage sheds. A patio cover. A deck—not always well, mind you, but he always tried. And if you wanted to get him angry, you asked him for help when you needed to put something together. (The frustration he often felt in trying to follow instructions for self-assembly items seems to be something he lovingly passed on to me.)

He took immense levels of pleasure in planting and maintaining a vegetable garden and a handful of very productive fig, plum, apricot, and peach trees, along with several enormous citrus bushes and numerous rose bushes, in our backyard. That endeavor provided opportunities for three generations of us—my father, his father, and me—to work side by side in planting, watering, weeding, and gathering (with my mother and sisters) fresh-grown produce that often found its way onto the family table for lunches and dinners that are among the numerous memories he provided. The love of stepping out into that magnificent garden creating beautiful floral bouquets for the family dining-room table, or picking fresh produce from plants and trees, were labors of love that he passed on to his children and grandchildren and greatgrandchildren. And it wasn’t all about family; my mother and father shared those flowers, fruit, and vegetables with neighbors and other friends for many years—which, of course, made it very difficult for any of us to ever be completely satisfied with produce we bought in supermarkets. (To this day, when I buy fresh produce at a wonderful neighborhood market near my home in San Francisco, I occasionally find memories of my parents’ garden flowing through me when I bite into a particularly delicious peach, plum, fig, or tomato.)

This has, so far, been extremely personal, and that unfairly leaves you without the more nuanced view that comes from hearing stories from other family members. My brother-in-law, Tom, recalls him as “big-hearted” and remembers how my father taught him to barbecue a turkey for Thanksgiving celebrations. (Dad was an absolute master of the grill when he stoked the coals and placed something on a barbecue.) My sister Marie remembers going camping and fishing with him and family friends who would whimper about having to hike into backwoods areas to reach some of those streams; her friend was apparently surprised by Marie’s response to the question, “Why aren’t you crying, too?” “Because I know if I cry, he’ll never take me out here again!” she admitted. She also shares a memory I have about going out on fishing boats with him and trying to fend off feelings of wave-induced nausea while Dad was steadfastly enjoying every minute of our deep-sea fishing adventures. My wife, Licia, remembers how my mother and father were always such a great team. Cooking together. Canning fresh peppers from their garden. Sitting around our dining-room table while shelling walnuts from the two huge trees in their front yard. Dad, stirring candy on a hot stove for Mom in our kitchen when she no longer had the strength to do it. Even the little things, like opening jars for her when she didn’t have the strength to open those jars herself.

Two of Dad’s grandchildren, Rene and Tim, still laugh at the memory of Dad saying “I thought I was back in Korea” after one of his great-grandchildren ran shrieking through a room where he was sitting.

My sister Carol remembers that “his sense of humor was amazing; he had a sense of humor up to the end.” He also was tremendously concerned about others even when he should have been—and deserved to be—the center of attention. During those final two years when he was living with Carol and her family in Fresno, struggling with the ravages of dementia, he always somehow climbed out of it long enough to ask something simple like “Did you have enough to eat today?” and she would teasingly remind him “Dad, I eat all the time.” She particularly remembers how, as often as he could, he would end his day by looking at her, Tom, and their son Tim and say the words “thank you for another very special day.”

Which, I believe, pretty much sums up everything any of us who knew him would want to say to him if he were standing face-to-face with us here today: Thank you for all the very special days you were generous enough to give to me.

Adapting to Change, Loss, and Possibilities: Dennis Maness

December 6, 2020

It’s been a time of reflection. A time of thinking about how much I miss having meandering conversations with friends over coffee and dessert. And, most recently, thinking of long-time friends including Dennis Maness, who succumbed to cancer just a little over seven weeks ago. There was no opportunity to attend an onsite memorial service; the pandemic and sheltering in place made that impossible. But it hasn’t prevented me from thinking about this latest loss—and all the gains I had from knowing Dennis.

Dennis L. Maness

He and I worked together at the main library here in San Francisco for nearly 15 years—which was just a little over a third of his 41-year career with the library system. We had numerous brief conversations and countless laughs together over the years—the brevity of the conversations initially driven by the fact that they took place within the context and constraints of work interactions that didn’t leave us a lot of time to really kick back and get into long conversations about our overlapping personal interests. That brevity continued after his retirement, when his preferred form of communication always seemed to be short notes and shared links sent back and forth via Facebook. Which is why I have been thinking about Dennis with such great regularity since he passed away.

It almost always happens when I come across a link to an article or a video—generally something with wickedly humorous roots that parallel Dennis’s own wickedly lovely sense of humor. I read (or watch); I laugh; I think to myself, “Dennis would love this. Have to send it to him”; and then I feel a bit crushed to realize I no longer have a way to send it to him other than through recollections of all the lovely laughs we shared over the years.

Gumby in Ireland, by Dennis L. Maness

As is always the case, the very thick veneer of humor was a tough, but not impenetrable, barrier tightly wrapped around the core of a friend of great depth, empathy, and artistry. He was, among many other things, a lifelong photographer with a distinctive, engaging point of view that consistently shows up through the work he posted (and which remains available for viewing on the website he maintained). Glancing at that wonderfully extensive record of his photographs and skimming some of the many categories into which he had broken his work hints of his range of interests and the playful approach that he often took: “Scottish Games & Gatherings,” which included images captured between 2004 and 2017 and remind me of how much he loved all things Scottish; “Hula,” a stunningly beautiful set of photographs taken over a similarly long period of time and reflecting that facet of his interests; “Flamenco”; “Renaissance Faire”; “Portraits”; “San Francisco,” which included his fabulous effort to follow and photograph each of the 29 walks that were included in the latest (at that time) edition of Adah Bakalinsky’s Stairway Walks in San Francisco; and, of course, “the Adventures of Gumby,” which includes subcategories along the lines of “Gumby and the Ladies” (beautiful photographs of women holding Gumby), Gumby in Washington, DC, “On a Road Trip” with Gumby, and Gumby in Ireland. The Gumby pages make me giggle. Bring back memories of the Gumby figure he always had in his office at the library and which obviously accompanied him and his wife (Gloria) during their frequent travels. And make me wonder how Gumby is getting along without Dennis to chronicle his adventures…or whether, in fact, Gumby and Dennis are still, somehow and somewhere, hanging out together and sending photos to Gloria.

He was also what all of my best friends and colleagues are: a combination of friend, colleague, muse, and mentor. During our years at the library, he often asked about the writing I was doing away from work. This was an extended period during which I was immersed in trying to produce and publish works of fiction. He consistently asked how the writing was going as I completed drafts of two novels and was working on a variety of short stories and other novels. He was consistently encouraging in spite of the non-stop series of rejections I was receiving from literary journals, agents, and publishers. And he provided no room for (rare, thankfully) moments of self-pity: he was always there to remind me that I was writing because I had to write, and that stepping away in discouragement would be a surrender I could not afford to accept. (I still have and cherish the multi-panel Grant Snider “All I Need to Write” cartoon he emailed to me in 2014—long after I’d given up the fiction and was focusing more on short nonfiction pieces for a variety of online publications/blogs. “All I Need to Write: a room with a view; no other work to do; a childproof lock; a ticking clock; natural light; a chair that fits just right; new paper and pens; some animal friends; the right phase of the moon; ancient runes; a world of my creation; or internal motivation.” And our personal, shared punchline was that we both had more than a lifetime’s worth of internal motivation to pursue what our hearts told us we had to do.)

There were three cherished encounters with Dennis, after he and I left the San Francisco Public Library system, that very much broke the pattern of talk-laugh-and-run: a half-day photo shoot he did for me when I was in the process of upgrading my website; an exhibition of his work arranged, sponsored by, and held on the premises of the Main Library here in San Francisco; and a breakfast with Dennis and Gloria at a Denny’s restaurant  (of course, fate determined it had to be Denny’s if I were going to have a meal with the friend who consistently, tongue in cheek, referred to himself as “Uncle Denny”).

Photo by Dennis L. Maness

The photo shoot came about as a result of my reaching out to him to find out what he would charge to do a series of shots I could use for the website and other publicity materials as I was making the transition from being a writer-trainer-instructional designer-consultant to being a writer-trainer-presenter in the areas in which I work. He was adamant about not taking money; he just wanted to do it for the pleasure of taking on another challenge with/for a friend. When I kept insisting that I actually had created a budget to do this the right way (e.g., doing it without taking unfair advantage of a very talented friend), he finally, with obvious exasperation, came up with an ultimatum: he would do it for free or he would do it for a million dollars. Not being able to afford the second option, I settled for the first and had one of the most wonderfully inspirational mornings I have ever had. Dennis and Gloria picked me up from my home that morning and took me on what I still think of as one of the most fabulous Magical Mystery Tours imaginable. We went out to areas along Crissy Field (with San Francisco Bay as a backdrop), then went to a lovely area near the Golden Gate Bridge, and finally circled back to my own neighborhood for a less formal set of photos taken on the Hidden Garden Steps ceramic-tile mosaic before having lunch together in the neighborhood. What still remains vividly etched in my memory is the process of watching Dennis think on the spot and find opportunities most of us might never have sought; as we were walking by a combination gift shop/coffee shop along Crissy Field, Dennis, on the spur of the moment, suggested we go inside for a minute. What I saw was tables and shelves full of tchotchkes, bookshelves lined with materials about the San Francisco Bay Area, and that very appealing coffee and sandwich counter. What Dennis saw—and used—was a small window where the soft morning light was streaming into the building. He positioned Gloria behind me with the collapsible circular reflector disc he had brought along; positioned me next to the window so I was bathed in the glow of that incoming natural light; and, standing in front of me, caught images that rival the best of anything I’ve ever seen come out of the controlled environment of a photographer’s studio. That was the brilliance of Dennis: he could see and capture things most of us could not even imagine.

Dennis, with Dennis

Our joint visit (again, with Gloria) to his retrospective “Summer of Love” exhibition held in San Francisco’s Main Library in Summer 2017, was equally playful and inspiring. From the moment we walked past the promotional image in the lobby of the building where he had served the public for decades until the moment we parted ways, he was in his element: talking with friends and colleagues who quickly left their work stations and went running over to greet and embrace him; looking at and talking (all too briefly and modestly) about the work we were viewing; and even staging a photograph that captured the Dennis I knew, admired, and loved: mirroring that image, in which he was leaning out of the Volkswagen Bug he and Gloria had used many years earlier when they relocated to Northern California, he peeked around the edge of the display and gently directed me on how to best capture the image of Dennis peeking around the picture of Dennis peeking out the window of the car. I believe it was a moment that would have inspired a round of applause from all his colleagues if they had been with us when he created and became part of that image.

Our final visit—that breakfast in Denny’s—started out as a result of a typical urban annoyance: someone had broken into my car (an act that produced nothing of material value for the vandal/thief and left me facing the cost of replacing that window). A few calls around the city led me to the decision to drive down to South San Francisco, where a vendor had offered to replace the window at a very reasonable price the morning after the break-in; the only problem was that I’d have to find a way to kill a couple of hours while the work was completed. Spotting the Denny’s restaurant across the street from the vendor’s building in an industrial part of the city, I immediately thought of Dennis—knowing that he and Gloria lived in South San Francisco. Less than 20 minutes after I reached out to him via Facebook, the three of us were sitting together in a booth and catching up on what we had been doing since we had last (physically) been together. And that’s when the punch in the gut came: Dennis told me he had been diagnosed with cancer, was undergoing treatment, and had no idea how much time he had left with us. But, in typical Dennis fashion, he spent more time talking about what he was doing than what he was facing, and he and Gloria did their best to assure me that they were taking advantage of every moment remaining to them—a commitment they clearly kept as he continued taking walks and producing photographs; sharing notes and links via Facebook; and interacting with friends as he always had: as a colleague, a friend, a cherished mentor, and a source of inspiration.

Our Facebook exchanges continued, but at an ever-decreasing rate, so I wasn’t particularly surprised in October of this year when a library colleague sent a note letting me know he had entered hospice. An attempt to reach him via Facebook did not attract a response…until, a couple of weeks after Dennis had left us, a family member saw and responded to the note.

So, Dennis is physically gone. The Facebook account has been removed. But our sporadic email exchanges and that lovely website remain. As does my hope that, somehow, he is seeing this. Being reminded of how much he meant—and continues to mean—to me. And taking the best photographs he has ever taken.

–N.B.: This is the twenty-fifth in a series of reflections inspired by coronavirus/ shelter-in-place experiences.

Telling Secrets (Josephine V. Signorelli, 8/5/1925 – 1/22/2017)

January 27, 2017

The following post is the final draft of the eulogy I delivered at my mother’s funeral service on Friday, January 27, 2017. The draft—as all drafts do—differs a bit from the spoken version delivered to the more than 100 friends, colleagues, and family members who gathered to commemorate all she meant to us during her long and richly rewarding life.

Let me share a secret with you. Josie was really concerned about how this was going to go. She and my father [who is still alive as of this writing] had attended so many funerals over the past several years, lost so many friends, that she had convinced herself that no one would be left to attend hers. She kept telling me she was worried that we wouldn’t even have enough people available to serve as pall bearers. Thanks for proving her wrong.

josephine-2012-08-05Our mother, wife, grandmother, great-grandmother, friend, parishioner, business colleague, confidante, and overall playground director had a thing for planning. She and Dad had this whole thing organized years ago, and occasionally revisited the arrangements to be sure that it would go smoothly and wouldn’t be burdensome for any of us. It’s the same way she led every day—every single day—of her life. She had a plan. Get up. Take her pills. Make sure Dad took his pills. Prepare breakfast. Eat Breakfast. Do the dishes. Take a walk. (During Lent, all of this would be preceded by daily attendance at Mass.) Clean the house. (God forbid she should leave home without having cleaned at least three closets, done five loads of wash, shouted “scat cat” at the neighborhood felines who were lounging in her backyard, baked 20 dozen cookies, and started a library. Well, maybe I’m exaggerating a bit on those last items, but that amazing, upbeat Energizer Bunny of a woman could send the rest of us to bed to recuperate from extreme exhaustion for weeks after we listened to her describe what she had done before noon on any given day of the week.)

Her afternoons often included reading time—for herself as well as for the other kids in the neighborhood! Recitation of her daily chaplet. Making sure Dad was comfortably situated to take his nap. Talking with friends by phone. (She and my sister Carol apparently taxed the limits of the local phone company with their marathon conversations.) Getting dinner ready. And after dinner, she was back to reading, watching television, and, if necessary, starting another library. (Ever wonder why there are more libraries in American than there are McDonalds restaurants? Now you know.)

I jokingly focus on the library part of my mother’s life because I know the earliest memories my sisters and I have are of sitting with Mom as she read to us from library books. Making sure we understood where the Main Library in Stockton was and what day and time the local bookmobile visited our neighborhood. (I checked this with my sisters: we may have been the only kids in Stockton who were familiar with the term “Library Summer Reading Program” before we knew who Captain Kangaroo and Captain Delta were on our local TV stations.) She worked diligently and ceaselessly and lovingly to instill in us an appreciation for and commitment to lifelong reading and learning. And she carried that commitment over into the work she did here at St. Bernadette’s, where she introduced at least a couple of generations of the parish’s youngest learners to the mysteries of their shared faith.

st-_bernadettes_churchHer church and her faith were the foundations of her sense of community. You couldn’t be at St. Bernadette’s without seeing Josie Signorelli engaged in doing the weekly readings from the front of the church. Or working with her colleagues in the Ladies’ Guild to organize social events—this was a woman who was a social maven decades before social media came along—or serving on the parish council, or helping to count the proceeds from the weekly collection plates, or or or…we could spend the rest of the day today (and part of this evening) recalling all she did with and for The Church and not even begin to scratch the surface. But an important point to remember here is that her Church was her family, just as in many ways her family was her church. She honored them. She worked tirelessly for them. She loved them. She embraced them. She cooked for them—oh, God, you cannot think or talk about Josie without thinking about all she cooked. And she never wanted or expected anything in return.

josephine-at-st_bernadettes1So, Church as family, and family as Church: let’s hone in on what family meant to Josephine Signorelli and how her attitudes and actions touched so many of us. I believe her parents, her nieces and nephews, her cousins, and other members of her extended family were with her in spirit every day of her life—long after many of them had preceded her in death. In fact, I know many of them were and are—we just need to look around the church this morning and see two of her beloved nieces, Peggy and Donna, who flew in from New York to be with us when they knew Josie was about to leave us. We look up at the altar and see Father John Peter and Monsignor Moore—yes, Monsignor Moore, who was the pastor at St. Bernadette’s for 30 all-too-brief years and surprised members of our family two days ago by driving up here from Monterey to sit with us for a lovely afternoon conversation filled with comforting reminiscences and appreciations for all she did for all of us. We look around this church and see my father, my siblings—including those who, by marrying into this family, were embraced as sons and daughters, not as sons-in-law or as daughter-in-law. We see the grandchildren, the great-grandchildren, her church family, members of the business community who were like family to her.

My wife, Licia, made an interesting observation as a few of us were talking this morning: we often focus on my Mother, and all too rarely explicitly acknowledge the complementary halves of what our mother and father bring to themselves and to the world overall. As Licia noted: Josie was the sun. Paul Frank was and is the moon, fully reflecting and contributing to the brilliance that the sun brings to our world. And I would add this: all of us in this room—and many who are with us in spirit today—are the billions of stars, the constellations that shimmer in a dark night of the soul that will lead us to much brighter days together.

We are family. We stand alone and we stand together in numerous ways. If Josie leaves any long-lasting legacy—and let me assure you, she leaves a legacy larger than the state of Texas—it is the extended family, now spread out all over the country, that will convey bits and pieces of her to countless people who will never physically meet her, but will know somehow they have been touched.

She was unique. She was an inspiration. She was humble. She was persistent. And in the end, when she told us she was ready to go, she left as quietly and peacefully as she could. But she was wrong about at least one thing. She may have returned to the God in whom she so fervently believes. But she is far from gone as long as any of us continues to build upon all she did and cherished and loved.

January 27, 2017

Smiles, Learning, and Missing Steve  

November 7, 2014

The most obvious thing missing at Stephen Dante Holland’s funeral this morning was his magnificent, all-encompassing smile.

Steve Holland with colleague Martha Rios at SFPL

Steve Holland with colleague Martha Rios at SFPL

Everyone who rose to speak about Steve during that memorial service mentioned it—and with good reason. You couldn’t walk into the Borrower Services area of San Francisco’s Main Library, where he worked for 20 years, without feeling the warmth of that smile and the generous personality and spirit behind it. You couldn’t have even the briefest of conversations with him without feeling as if you had been drawn under the protection of an all-encompassing force that seemed to melt any sadness and ephemeral concerns you had faster than an ice cream cone melts on a hot summer day.

It was the kind of smile that always felt genuine. Heartfelt. Drawn from some deep inner core. And capable of making everyone around him want to smile back—which is quite an achievement for someone working in public service and often facing all sorts of unhappy people with all sorts of complaints. But that’s just one of many parts of Steve that made him so special. So cherished. And now, so obviously missed.

So, how do we cope with that moment when the phone call arrives telling us that a 43-year-old friend/colleague/source of inspiration has suddenly, unexpectedly been taken from our lives because of a health problem many of us never knew he had? We gather, as so many of us did this morning, to tell and hear stories that deepen our understanding of just how magnificent he was, and just how much we have lost. We hear that he moved, with his mother, from Memphis to the San Francisco Bay Area when he was eight years old. We hear from a Riordan High School classmate about the time Steve ignored a coach’s plan and ended up scoring for his team—then incurring a penalty because of his exuberant behavior in the end zone after scoring that touchdown just because he happened to be in the right place at the right time to catch and run with a ball that unexpectedly remained in play. We hear about how this most gentle of men stepped in to help a high-school-aged niece at a time of need and ended up scaring the bejeezus out of everyone on her campus. (And no, we can’t imagine someone like Steve being the least bit frightening, so the story only makes us laugh that much harder at a time when we so desperately need to laugh.)

There are the stories about his love of children—the five he and his wife, Shari, raised during their 25 years together, and the more than 25 foster children they took in over the years (the last of whom was scheduled to return to her own mother the day Steve passed away).

“Steve, being the loving gentle soul that he was, didn’t mind having the children underfoot,” we are told in what had to be one of the greatest smile-inducing understatements included in the eulogy delivered in that San Francisco Mission District church that all-too-briefly served as sanctuary for so many of us this morning.

Looking around the standing-room-only space during the two-hour gathering gave us a reminder of what one person accomplishes in creating and nurturing family and community. We saw the obvious extended-family core of Steve’s family there. We saw what was referred to as his “library family”—a group of which I was proud to remain even though I formally left to pursue other endeavors more than seven years ago (and I note, in tribute to Steve, that I wasn’t the only former library employee to push everything else aside this morning to join the community which held him at its center).

Steve_HollandAll of which makes me ask the obvious question: what did we learn from Steve, and what can we continue to do to make the sort of positive difference Steve made in the lives of all he touched? And the obvious answer comes from that same deep place from which Steve seemed to draw that smile of his: we take a deep breath, look as deeply within ourselves as we can, and find a way to pass along our own version of his genuine, heartfelt, all-encompassing smile and warmth to all we see. And, as I once again discovered during the brief walk from a subway station to that Mission District church in the San Francisco autumn-morning sun, it was the greatest tribute I could pay to Steve. For even though my heart was aching from the loss I feel and I wanted to do little more than let pent-up tears flow freely, I found a way to pass on smiles which, in turn, drew smiles from nearly all of those I passed.

It doesn’t make me miss him less; I already know, from all-too-many losses, that we never stop missing those who are no longer physically with us. But it does remind me, as the minister reminded us so many times during the service, that we’re all eventually headed where Steve has already gone. And the best lesson we can learn from those who have preceded us is that a shared smile is one of the greatest gifts we can create and offer others—and the best way to keep their spirits and their contributions alive.

ALA Annual Conference 2014: Ernie DiMattia and Learning Moments That Change Our Lives  

June 28, 2014

Conference attendance, whether onsite or online, can be transformative. The planned and unplanned encounters with colleagues, the vendors with whom we work, the authors we adore (or are going to adore after encountering them and the work they produce), touch and change us in ways that sometimes are immediately evident and at other times require the passage of time to geminate and bear fruit.

ALA2014--LogoWe seek, come across, and learn from people whose work we have avidly followed in print or online, and sometimes are stunned to find that they just as avidly following and learning from ours. We have unexpected, intensively personal conversations in spaces like the American Library Association (ALA) Annual Conference Networking Uncommons and, in the process, deepen relationships with people we might otherwise not have come to know. We learn how much more challenging and rewarding the conference-as-learning-experience can be when we learn how to blend our onsite and online participation via the conference backchannel.

Relishing the collaborations that produce significant results through our volunteer service on committees or through participation in efforts like ALA Membership Development’s Ambassador program is just another part of mining conference opportunities for all they are worth; they help us understand how welcoming and supportive the ALA community can be—and is.

And even though the size and scope of the ALA Annual Conference has us sharing space with more than 20,000 colleagues, it’s amazingly easy to find the individual members of our community we want to find—and equally stunning to realize how much the absence of even one cherished colleague can affect us.

I had known that Ernie DiMattia, the chair of the ALA Publishing Committee, would not be with us here in Las Vegas this morning for our semiannual onsite meeting. All of us on the committee had been notified earlier this week that he was dealing with “ongoing health issues.” But I had had no idea, before arriving at the meeting, that he had been in the final stages of a long-time battle with cancer and that he had passed away last night.

Ernie_DiMattiaThere was a moment of silence as we all, in our own individual ways, struggled to absorb the news that this gentle, literate, vibrant light in the ALA community had been extinguished. And while I can’t speak to what others were thinking, I found myself reliving the moment, a couple of years ago, when Ernie approached me during an orientation session we were both attending, asked me how I was doing, was insightful enough to ask a thought-provoking question that significantly changed my perceptions about what all of us were learning to do in that session, and, as a result, sent me down a very productive year-long path as chair of an ALA advisory committee that completely changed the way it did its work.

Ernie’s simple question at the moment I was about to become a committee chair: “Who will you be serving as a committee chair?” And the obvious answer—ALA 2012-2013 President Maureen Sullivan while working with (rather than for) ALA staff—inspired a series of interconnected partnerships that was rewarding for all of us and the larger ALA community we served.

When my year-long term came to an end and I was lucky enough to be accepted onto the Publishing Committee with Ernie as chair, I continued to learn from the inclusive, collaborative approach he took to our work. I appreciated the fact that he went out of his way to stop and chat whenever our paths crossed in those wonderfully expansive conference hallways. I admired the way he fostered productive partnerships with our ALA staff colleagues to help craft a forward-looking strategic plan that will continue to make ALA Publishing an essential part of the ALA community’s operations.

I wish I could say that I knew Ernie better. I wish I could say we had numerous lovely and inspiring conversations, but they were far too few. And as I walked those Ernie-less halls today, I knew they would never again feel quite so vital as they were through Ernie’s presence. But I also sensed that they would remain important, comforting, and essential to all I do as long as I continue acting upon and sharing all I learned from Ernie’s unofficial and very informal mentoring.

Patricia Post: Fa la la la la, la la la la

March 5, 2014

Although I did not, last Saturday, expect to find myself joining others in singing “Deck the Halls” at a memorial service, I also didn’t expect to be saying good-bye to Patricia Vanderlaan Post so soon—she died of heart failure on January 1, just a few weeks before her 62nd birthday.

Patricia Vanderlaan Post (in pink shirt) at Hidden Garden Steps workshop July 2013

Patricia Vanderlaan Post (in pink shirt) at Hidden Garden Steps workshop July 2013

Patricia—Pat or Patti to those of us who knew her—was one of those wonderful people who are so deeply immersed in our communities that we hardly notice how much they are doing until they are no longer there doing it. Others at that memorial service last weekend recalled how Pat volunteered at her daughter’s school, or opened her home to a student from Kosovo for six years, or was an active member of The Gratitude Center community. We heard about how she “took delight in children of all ages, and worked to promote their welfare and education,” how she “was an ardent supporter of empowerment for women and social justice” and once told her stepdaughter that she would buy her any CDs she wanted—as long as those CDs featured women musicians to augment a CD collection mainly comprised of music by men.

She quickly won my gratitude and admiration when, after joining the Hidden Garden Steps organizing committee to complete that project that placed a second ceramic-tile mosaic staircase and gardens here in San Francisco’s Inner Sunset District, she offered to do anything that would help move the project toward fruition. She wasn’t looking for anything glamorous; she just wanted to help where help was needed most. When she asked how she could be most useful, I provided an embarrassingly honest answer: we needed someone to sit with me for an hour or two to complete the application for permits needed before installation of the mosaic could take place on City and County of San Francisco property. I knew that if I didn’t have someone to work alongside me, I would continue procrastinating about completing that simple task.

It wasn’t that the paperwork was daunting, and it wasn’t that deadlines were looming before us. The real issue was that other committee members were too immersed in the short-term challenges and deadlines to spend time on preparing permit paperwork for an installation that was still at least 12 to 18 months away; the fact that the application process could take anywhere from six months to a year from submission to approval just wasn’t a compelling issue for most of us to address.

But Pat saw it. She got it. And, most importantly, she immediately set a specific time and day to sit with me so we could complete that fairly simple application and compile all the supporting documentation needed to start the application process. While others saw it as a distraction and as something that had no urgency, Pat and I completed everything in one afternoon, and I submitted the package to our City/County liaison a few days later, in November 2012. And when final approval was finally granted by our County Supervisors in October 2013—nearly a year later, and less than 48 hours before the installation was scheduled to begin—I couldn’t find enough words of praise to offer Pat for the underappreciated role she played in assuring that the mosaic went onto those concrete steps rather than having to sit in storage all winter and spring until we could be assured of having weather good enough to complete the installation process in 2014.

Lower section of Hidden Garden Steps, 16th Avenue between Kirkham and Lawton streets in San Francisco

Lower section of Hidden Garden Steps, 16th Avenue between Kirkham and Lawton streets in San Francisco

Those of us involved in the project saw Pat at other times. She was there to help with public workshops that allowed Steps supporters to create small parts of the mosaic under the direction of project artists Aileen Barr and Colette Crutcher. She joined others in laying background tile onto some of the Steps risers during those workshops. And my wife and I ran into her and her husband—Marty—a few times while all of us were taking walks along one of the small lakes in Golden Gate Park at dusk; we would stop, chat about the Steps and other things we were all doing, and look forward to the day when we would be celebrating a collaborative community success on the completed Steps themselves.

We never had the chance to have that onsite Steps celebration together. By the time we had our opening ceremony, in December 2013, Pat wasn’t well enough to join us. I did, on the other hand, feel as if the decision to celebrate her life and her spirit by singing “Deck the Halls” at her memorial last weekend made perfect sense after her husband explained that it was her daughter’s choice—in honor of Pat’s habit of singing her children to sleep throughout the year with “Deck the Halls” rather than something more mundane. After all, “mundane” is not a word to be connected to someone who so gracefully, charitably, and diligently worked to make her community a far better place than it would have been without her. 

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

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.

Remembering Terrence Wing

December 4, 2011

The unexpected passing of ASTD (the American Society for Training & Development) colleague Terrence Wing—President-Elect of the ASTD Los Angeles Chapter—has left another void in the ASTD family. (And make no mistake about it: being actively involved in ASTD at the local, regional, and/or national level does make all of us members of an unbelievably wonderful family that shares the joy of our successes as well as the profound levels of mourning that accompany the loss of any member of that family.)

To understand what it means to many of us that Terrence succumbed to a heart attack last week, you just have to hear a little about all that he was doing or about to do. He was on ASTD’s TechKnowledge12 Program Advisory Committee (PAC), which substantially shapes the face of this influential learning conference. He was in touch with the editor of the eLearning Guild’s Learning Solutions Magazine to discuss the content of his next column. He was continuing to write engagingly, concisely, and inspirationally for the Liquid Learn blog at the cutting-edge learning company he founded and helped to run (far too infrequently Terrence, far too infrequently; I’d give a lot of have more of your thoughts archived online at this point). He was a month away from beginning his year-long term as president of the ASTD Los Angeles Chapter. He was actively exploring Google+ with many of us and providing glimpses of those wonderful ephemeral moments of life that so often pass unnoticed.

And, knowing how Terrence operated, I suspect he was probably in the middle of planning or bringing dozens of other activities to fruition in ways that would have made a positive difference in the face of workplace learning and performance across the country and in other parts of the world.

One of the most stunningly positive aspects of Terrence’s presence is how quickly he became a part of so many lives—including mine. After mentioning a wonderful article Terrence had written about Twitter as a learning tool, I was delighted to see a comment he posted March 1, 2011, in response to the article I wrote about Skype as a learning tool in the same publication. A few email exchanges quickly made us aware of our ASTD connections as well as our overlapping circles of colleagues via LinkedIn and Twitter, and I was gratified that he participated, as an online audience member, in a session (“Blend Me”) a few of us did for the Sacramento ASTD Chapter in May. (He joined us via Twitter during a segment dealing with Twitter in workplace learning and performance.)

When I heard, from colleagues, that he was at ASTD’s International Conference & Exposition in Orlando in May, I mentioned how much I would love to extend our online connections to a face-to-face chat. Terrence graciously went out of his way to stop by an informal dinner several of us were having, and he extended an invitation to join him later that evening for a chance to talk at greater length, over drinks, about what we were all doing (which, in retrospect, I’m even more glad that I accepted even though it led to a very late night after an exhausting day of commitments). Through his presence, he stimulated plenty of wonderful conversation. Through his absence, he evokes memories of those exchanges that make me realize even more poignantly what we have suddenly lost—as documented by the comments being posted on an ASTD Los Angeles Chapter site.

Many of us know a lot of people; Terrence was one of those rare gems who knew how to bring people together in a way that changes lives. I suspect the greatest tribute we can pay him is to try to be the sort of person he appeared to be. Creative. Witty. Curious. A listener. A catalyst. And a cherished colleague whose voice will be impossible to replace.

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

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