Can’t be Contained

When Culture Eats Breakfast…

The management guru Peter Drucker coined the phrase “Culture Eats Strategy for Breakfast.” I think it’s pretty self-explanatory but the gist is that no matter how well you plan out strategy, if it conflicts with culture, then the latter will win out. You have to consider culture when considering strategy.

Now, an obvious question, and the one I ponder today, is what happens when culture runs counter to your needed goals (which is more immediate than long-term strategy, obviously). The long-term answer is to continually tweak culture through messaging, signaling, language, actions, etc., until it allows for the goals to be met. But what if you’re in the moment and find the two butting heads?

I’d like to point out that this example is not about CalArts. It’s something inspired by conversations I’ve had with others, many at different institutions, and debated back and forth with those people.

For example, let’s say you have a policy, borne out of immediate necessity, that recommends but doesn’t require that people do X. Fill in the blank with whatever practice you wish. It’s a recommendation, not a requirement. You do allow, in your policy, for certain parties to make it an ad hoc requirement in certain settings, but you do not put any teeth behind it. You don’t enforce, and provide no recourse for those that need/want enforcement (you can insert various questions about squeaky wheels, minority opinions portraying themselves as majorities, whatever, here, if you wish, but please permit me to continue).

One option is to put some teeth behind it, but at a monetary cost (hiring staff, building out procedures, possibly investing in new technology to manage complaints, etc.) but, and this is the kicker, it runs counter to culture. The other, more sensitive option, is to stick to not enforcing things because your environment is not aligned with one that involves calling others out, getting people in trouble, etc. The culture is that it’s a free and expressive space without people pointing fingers or accusing each other of things, so tactics (in this case) and certainly strategy is “eaten for breakfast.”

So what does one do? Do you anger many by creating an environment contrary to long-standing culture because of an urgent situation? Do you frustrate and perhaps anger a different population by offering a policy with no enforcement (which is, as a colleague at another institution said, consequently just a suggestion)?

I don’t have an answer, though I’d love one of the 0 people that will read this to make a suggestion. Again, the long-term answer is clearer. Stronger (but not insensitive) central administration that is supportive of but does give way to (what will become) previous culture. Messaging that we do some things for the larger purpose to bettering this or that, followed up by action to that effect (this has worked for us in IT as we slowly shift the perception towards needing to pay more attention to information security). I’m sure there are many other tactics that I am not thinking of even if I wrote 3 more paragraphs about them. But if you’re faced with the short-term, here and now conflict, what might you do?

The Higher Ed Domino Effect

A recent article in the Chronicle about various attempts to measure the possibility of failure of private institutions had me thinking about things in a slightly broader perspective. The article itself was about a “Doomsday list” (as they described it) from a company that used a bunch of publicly-available data to say which schools were in financial trouble. Obviously this stirred up a huge amount of controversy, including threats of legal action against the company from named schools. The data eventually was not released.

But, in a broader sense…having worked at a small, liberal-arts college in the northeast, facing stiff headwinds of changing demographics and the realities of discount rates and admission pools, I started thinking about the domino effect of failed schools. Muhlenberg College is actually in a very strong position – it’s not a top 50 school, and it’s certainly not Bates or Williams or Amherst – but it has a solid endowment and an excellent reputation on a regional scale and a notable one on a national scale. It’s in a relatively healthy situation. But the fact is that there are a lot of institutions in that geographic and demographic area competing for the same students. Many of them are in fact in worse financial situation (at least on the surface, using the same partial-story-telling metrics like admit rates, discount rates, endowment size, etc.). This post isn’t really about Muhlenberg. It’s about the large number of schools like Muhlenberg.

Let’s look at discount rates. While it’s scary to think of an institution at 65%+ discount rates and it’s hard to imagine such measures being sustainable, the fact is that if an institution is discounting that much, that means they are offering a huge amount of aid to prospective students. This pulls students to those institutions, in these days of incredibly high tuition, and away from other, arguably more stable institutions. Rankings don’t matter if the first financial aid offer is 65% of sticker. The more stable institutions begin to face more and more pressure to meet class size, and then they suffer. The only ones left that are having a good old time are probably the top 25 schools (not even 50 is good enough) and that small handful of truly elite institutions.

But 65% isn’t sustainable. That’s just a slipper slope to higher and higher discount rates to make class size. We know that. So the healthier-but-not-affluent mid-level schools end up in a waiting game for the less healthy institutions to inevitably crack under the pressure. Then the competitive landscape changes, and there is less pressure for recruitment and making classes. It’s a terrible thing to think of – waiting for competitors to fold – but it’s the truth, as far as I can see.

I have no great conclusion to this post or line of thought. It’s just a sad reality right now. Can mid-level schools hang on long enough? Is the writing really on the wall for those schools with high admit and discount rates (and other metrics)? And most of us know that the writing is not bold enough yet to know when the dominos really will begin to fall.

my own fail: EDUCAUSE Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Task Force

I have had a strange experience as part of the EDUCAUSE Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) Task Force over the past 6 or so months. I was honored to be a part of this group and to be working on this important topic. The group was convened by John O’Brien, EDUCAUSE President, to tackle the issues of increasing DEI in higher education IT in general and at EDUCAUSE specifically. How do we make our work force more diverse, our leadership more representative of at least industry norms (higher ed IT lags behind even corporate IT in diversity, on several dimensions, much less against the population at large), and be more inclusive once we develop greater diversity? Wow, such an important topic.

For some reason, though…I found myself paralyzed as I tried to contribute. It wasn’t the people – many were friends of mine, and all were very accessible and engaged. I didn’t feel intimidated by them. It wasn’t the leadership – John and Joanne Dehoney (also from EDUCAUSE) were great, too, and both asked engaging questions as well as gladly accepted feedback. I just couldn’t…find a nook or cranny from which I felt comfortable contributing. For some reason I just couldn’t contribute! I was holding back on ideas and thoughts, for instance, or drawing a blank when I should have been inspired to new ideas.

It was all very surreal. And infuriating because the topic is so important.

So. The real question is what have I learned from this?

First, I need to critically evaluate how I can contribute before I agree to participate. I was so excited to be invited and included that I jumped in before I put in thought as to what I could offer. It’s not that I would have said “no” – it’s that I needed a game plan, from my perspective and of my opinions, of how I would take part. If I’m going to be part of something this important, I have to know that I will pull my weight.

Second, I need to be willing to be bold. There were times when I found that I didn’t speak up when I should have for some reason. There were even a couple of times that I didn’t say something that, later on, someone else did to much appreciation. I have no idea why I froze like that. But I did. I need to be willing to just say it and see what happens.

Finally, I think I need to accept that I have good ideas. This is related to item 2 but deserves it’s own spotlight. I might not have great ideas and I might have a dud now and then, but I cannot let the concern (fear?) of a dud prevent me from saying what might be a good suggestion. We all have both good and bad ideas. We’re allowed to have them if the point is brainstorming and sharing.

What Twitter Has Taught Me About Myself

Over a year ago, I decided to start reading up on higher education more actively. I fired up my Feedly RSS reader, updated my subscriptions, and now spend about 20 minutes a day at minimum reading through various articles. Inside Higher Ed, the Chronicle of Higher Education and Education Dive dominate the education space, and, CIO and Fast Company fill in with various productivity and business articles. Throw in probably a dozen individual blogs and I keep myself plenty busy with reading.

Now, I figured that reading wasn’t enough. I wanted to share the great things I was reading. So I took to Twitter. If I bothered to read all the way through the article, then I tweeted it. I didn’t mention people, I didn’t use hashtags. I just tweeted it. Partly as a record of what I’d read, but partly because I figured someone out there might appreciate my curation of all these articles. Maybe there’s one person out there that would find my specific reading habits interesting.

As I tweeted more, a few people started retweeting me, or replying. As I started to not only tweet out articles but also comment on them, I started a few conversations. I added a Twitter routine to my mornings and afternoons, going through as much as I could using Tweetdeck. I (re)discovered lists and sorted my feed a few different ways. As time went by, I followed new people, added them to various lists and things kept snowballing. Nothing new here for anyone that has spent anytime on Twitter at all, I know.

What I’ve discovered, though, is that there is a pattern to the topics I tweet about, engage in, retweet, etc. Twitter has taught me something about the things I care about. For instance:

College Affordability

Turns out the rising costs of college is really bothering me. Yes, between Sara Goldrick-Rab @saragoldrickrab (and her book, Paying the Price) and various articles I sate this thirst pretty easily. But I do care about it a lot. Considering I work at a small liberal arts institution in the northeast (and with a price tag consistent with this type of institution), I have found this passion interesting.

Student Debt (and Loan Forgiveness/Borrower Defense)

This is certainly related to affordability, but a bit different. We all know student debt is rising, and default rates are, too (though some good nuance to this generalization in a book I’m reading now – Breakpoint by Jon McGee). So that’s a big thing right there. But then there are a lot of students that have been seeking forgiveness due to debt accrued while attending defunct institutions (I think mostly if not all for-profit ones). The current administration has made these borrower defense options harder and harder to take advantage of, which is just upsetting in general.

I am lucky that I finished at a very expensive undergrad institution with little debt. But I did loans for the vast majority of my MBA and I’m still paying that off. Overall, it’s been over 18 years of paying off education debt, and I certainly wasn’t bilked out of my money by an institution that went belly-up and left me high and dry without a degree.

Viability of the Small College Business Model

This might be more about the college model in general, and it’s related to affordability. But I find myself reading a lot about this school having to layoff staff or even faculty, another school going through troubles, and a few schools even closing down. I’m fascinated and dismayed at the dynamics of this situation. Bryan Alexander in particular does a great job analyzing not only the space in general of failing smaller institutions but of specific failures, queen’s sacrifices, etc.

And other technology stuff

Kind of had to have a heading for this one. Obviously miscellaneous technology stuff interests me. I’m particularly intrigued just the last few days by the wild back and forth swings of opinion on smart devices (such as Amazon Echos and Google Homes) in the higher ed environment. Some institutions are using them in residences, adding new “skills” all the time to make them more and more advance and integrated with the educational experience. Some faculty are using them in classrooms to augment learning. You get some writers commenting on the powerful impact of these tools. And others that feel it’s Armageddon. I”m not sure where I sit on it. I certainly oppose a surveillance type of situation; I’m just not sure where these tools are in terms of the type of surveillance I oppose. Are there positives to them? Can they engage students in new ways that affect retention and success? Can that ever justify the other things they do? Is there a middle ground, with some kind of new smart device that is more narrowly focused in its design and data gathering?

taking your network up a notch

So the other day I was thinking about CAT 6 vs 6E plenum vs non-plenum networking cable and…

Just kidding. This post isn’t about that. And honestly I almost never think about networking cable (not because it’s not important, but rather because there are many out there that know it better than I do and I rely on them for their expertise).

A while ago, there was a product called inmaps. I think it started as an independent tool, then was acquired and then shutdown by LinkedIn. Inmaps was just great because it visualized your entire network. It literally drew a visual representation of all your connections, how they clumped, how certain long distance connections could be used to “shrink” the world, etc. It even color coded things in a logical way. I could have red be my old Stanford classmates, blue my co-workers from Santa Clara, and green various vendors with whom I’ve connected over time.

When LinkedIn shut this service down, it was sad news. With as many connections as just about any of us have, getting a different view of things can be very powerful. Being able to see that many linkages all at once can really say a lot about not only what connections we’ve made but the choices we’ve made in creating those relationships. I realized, for instance, that I had been too willing with vendors. Yes, they are useful connections, especially if they move to another company. But it’s a double-edge sword – as I’m able to leverage existing relationships with them at new companies, they are also able to connect them me from new businesses that I’m not even interested in. My mistake. And I could really see it when visualized.

There are some replacements coming out – the best so far is from though I’m not a huge fan of it’s actual visualization clumping method, and it is limited to 499 contacts. For those of us that went a bit contact-crazy for a while, that’s not enough. It generally clumps connections in a logical way, but not nearly as cleanly as inmaps did. I’ve heard linkurios is pretty good, too, but you have to install python and whatnot to get it working. More of a DIY deal.

While visualization is a great way to get further insight into your network, there are lots of other ways to leverage your connections. The easiest is to just take your closest connections and go to the next level, where you are interacting outside of purely professional settings. Usually we see each other at conferences, or send the occasional email when we have a question on something someone else is working on. “How are you doing video conferencing?” or “what help desk software are you using?” Stuff like that. But, while we all want to maintain a professional demeanor as often as possible, the fact is that we do grow close to some of our contacts, and we can in fact be informal and even – gasp – friends in the long run.

And when you can become friends, with a foundation of professional context, things get really powerful.

There are some of us that know each other from the SIGUCCS annual conference that have, over time, grown closer and closer in a personal and social way. When we talk, we still sometimes talk about professional matters. I recently grabbed a white paper from one about ITSM-based ticketing systems from a member of this group. But largely we interact in purely social ways. Joking about things at work or, on the other end of the spectrum, griping and venting about frustrations. The bulk of our conversations are in the middle, though – seeking advice from each other about how to handle things. There are many times when I’ve taken suggestions from this group and directly applied them to my work. It’s truly a group of peers, and we’ve fallen into a culture of sharing as such quite quickly.

Similar connections can be built from something as simple as a regular lunch group (though taking that up a notch, too, can be even more powerful than the straightforward decision to eat together) or getting together outside of work occasionally. It builds, at the least, a set of confidantes that can be valuable sounding boards or even peer mentors.

Of course, you can throw in formal mentors-mentee relationships that have grown out of professional connections (I am very thankful for the ones I’ve built over of time, as those people have made such a difference for me) as one of the undeniably most powerful “enhancements” to one’s standard network.

My point is that we can all take our networks above and beyond a set of connections with others. Whether through visualizing something as potentially-superficial as LinkedIn connection to building friendships to formal mentoring relationships, we can enrich our experiences so strongly through just a bit more commitment to such efforts. Just asking – “hey, can we get lunch together, I really value your opinion on a topic?” or something a bit more brave such as “will you be a mentor to me as I move forward in my career and face new challenges?” can lead to a exponential benefit to your overall existence.

I encourage you to take the next step, build your own tribe of friends from professional contacts, and transform your network into something else.

if you don’t put up a new building, you might as well give up

The title of this post is purposely provocative.  Over and over again, we are seeing examples here at the Leading Change Institute of these innovative, collaborative and creative spaces that are parts of new or heavily renovated buildings.  Redo all classrooms, put in tools for untethered teaching, and now you’re an examplar of innovation.   Tear out all the traditional materials in one space and convert it into an innovation space and you are cutting edge.

The depressing part of these examples is obvious – if one cannot do such extensive renovations or new builds, are we destined to fall behind?  Should we just give up?

Of course I am aware that it’s very possible to be very innovative while utilizing existing spaces, or perhaps with only minor changes.  We can put in untethered teaching tools while doing a “standard” technology refresh for a classroom.  We don’t need entirely new buildings.  A conference room with new monitors, screens, and white boards is suddenly a dynamic collaboration space.

But the examples, time and again, are of new buildings, and it is depressing at times.  Let’s start focusing on existing spaces that have been converted, without massive related changes.  If you have to completely alter one practice in order to free up space – that doesn’t count.  Can you take a location, building, lounge, etc. and modify it in perhaps several small ways and provide dramatically improved teaching/learning/social interaction aspects?  Let’s hear about those.  Let’s see photos of those spaces.


brain space

Something else I’m learning from the Leading Change Institute from CLIR/EDUCAUSE?  That a lot of people keep track of a lot of trends, articles, and ideas, all the time.

“Have you read that article from X?”

“I was thinking about the writings of Y and how they apply to what you are saying”

“Well, if you consider the ideas put forth by Z then you can really understand your point better about topic ‘something I don’t even understand yet'”

All of this makes me wonder if I just need to spend more time reading things, need to spend less time worrying about the “weeds” and day-to-day (those first two go hand-in-hand of course) or, perhaps, if I just don’t have the brainspace for all of this.  I have not even heard of the things people are referencing, much less unaware of the specific article being cited.

This is humbling more than anything else.  And instructive. To be an effective leader and one recognized as being knowledgeable, I do need to read more.  I need to track trends but, more importantly, I need to keep track of who is saying what.  If I know what one author has been saying about a topic, then I can more effectively track other ideas coming out of that field.  I’ve always been a pretty prolific reader, but I need to take it up a notch in sophistication.

Here’s to all those other attendees with me in this room with their incredible pool of knowledge.  I am truly impressed.

the great pretender (syndrome)

This is one of those posts where I”m choosing to be really honest about myself.  The good thing about that is that I’m taking the time to look at myself, consider who I am, where I am, and where I still need to go.  My shortcomings as well as my strengths.  And that’s, generally speaking, a good thing to do.  The bad part is that I could reveal something about myself in a very public forum that allows readers to focus on only the weaknesses and miss the strengths.

I think it’s more important to be honest, sometimes, even in an open space, than not.  So here I am.

Right now, I am at the EDUCAUSE/CLIR Leading Change Institute, their top leadership workshop program.  There is a part of me that feels out of place.  Perhaps even a pretender at times.  I am around campus leaders at universities that are orders of magnitude larger than my institution, both in student population and level of IT complexity and sophistication. We might be facing the same challenges, conceptually, but the basic fact is that the specific topics they are working on are far beyond what I’m doing, at the least in terms of scale and sometimes for bigger reasons than that.  For instance, we have an ERP, and so do other schools.  We have to deal with the data integrity issues that accompany such a system just as other schools.  But our ERP is small enough that we literally moved it from one location to another by picking up a single box and carrying it from one building to another, whereas other schools have dozens of servers and incredibly complex network environments that would make such a concept a herculean operation.  In this case, I enjoy freedom from the smaller size of Menlo College, but I also find it hard to relate to such a dramatically different environment.

In the “scarier” case, the other institutions are dealing with challenges that aren’t even on my radar.  Items that are just beyond the scope, entirely, of what we need.  I don’t spend any mental cycles on these topics at all, yet they are important to the overall field of higher education IT.

I have spoken with a few other CIOs about “imposter symdrome.”  This isn’t a new idea – someone gets a job and feels he or she doesn’t below there.  They feel they are not qualified, the others are way more qualified, etc.  Since I got to Menlo College, I have felt this at times.  However, I feel it more when I am away, working with those from other institutions.

It’s not that I think Menlo College is an easy place where just anyone with a brain can be CIO.  It is a challenging place for a leader and manager, and the kind of strategic planning required takes skill and focus.  My job is not easy by any means.  But I feel I have earned a spot at the table.  I definitely don’t feel I am over-qualified to be at the leadership table, mind you.  Just that I am comfortable being there, at Menlo, where I have established my credentials (I think and hope).  I certainly still feel quite in awe of the others at that table more often than note, and sweaty palms prior to speaking up are still common.

Here at the Institute, “big data” came up over casual dinner.  Now, I’m well-versed enough to know what big data is and the hundreds of ways different schools approach interpreting and managing it.  The challenge of big data is how to analyze it effectively.  Beyond this basic understanding, though, I felt lost.  We don’t have big data problems at Menlo.  Take our ERP example.  Our entire enterprise database fits on a single server.  The stories from others at the table were  astounding, in terms of scale, and sophisticated.

To my left were two people talking about not only data warehouses and technologies such as Hadoop, but how to effectively utilize data warehouses beyond the basic notions.  They were past the fundamentals, and onto how to be more efficient, more effective, etc.  Business process that leads to business intelligence.  They were on step 2 (or, depending on your institution, step 10 or 100).  Others at the workshop speak of managing departments of dozens of staff.  An introduction from another attendee spoke of the initiative to design a new integrated IT/Library/”knowledge center” of the 21st century where the budget had been slashed to “only” $1.2M.

My entire budget is $1.5M and our entire department is 7.5 FTE.  Including myself.

I have to admit, I felt like a pretender and a bit of a crisis of confidence arose.  I almost forgot what Hadoop was for a minute, and then, in a terrified state of ignorance, couldn’t think of other alternatives at all.  And I have never been involved in a business intelligence project beyond the superficial, despite my professional goal to bring greater awareness of operations to Menlo.  My version of business process improvement is to get people to use our ERP tools more often.  Yes, I still think that the breadth of what I work on justifies my title, but I was reminded of how small my world is compared to others.

This morning, while ruminating on this sensation during my walk to breakfast, I tried to think of analogies that would help me wrap my mind around this sensation of not belong.  I first came upon the idea that while I’m not ready for the majors just yet, in my most optimistic mood I was at least a top prospect in the minor leagues.  The organization (EDUCAUSE) thought I was worth some investment, and I was hitting well with a good OPS+.  I’d be called up in a year or two.  I felt this was a good analogy, and felt a surge of confidence about my future.

That is, until I realized that the minor leagues are no substitute for the majors.  Thousands of top-flight prospects in the minors never make it to the big show.  Hundreds make it and are complete failures.  How many actually succeed, truly?  And while such failures are hard to diagnose, sometimes it’s something very simple.  The competition even at the highest levels of the minors just isn’t the same as at the major league level.  The fastballs are faster and the curveballs break better.

This realization didn’t do much for my confidence, and I continue to struggle to find a good mental balance.  After a few hours into the first session, I felt much more at ease and of course realized that I have a lot to offer to the overall group.  And my ambitions for my career remain the same, and my drive undeterred.

I am truly honored to be in a workshop along side these other attendees, because I could tell just over dinner that they truly are campus leaders today, deserving of inclusion at such a program that will only improve their abilities down the road.  I am flattered that EDUCAUSE thinks I belong among them.  I know that what I do on a daily basis is in the realm of a CIO and not, say, a director.  But I was reminded last night that scale does matter and, while perhaps the “minor leagues” is not a good analogy, there is something to that idea that is perhaps more applicable than not.  And it is eye-opening in a good.

finding your inner avatar

I’ve probably given dozens of talks to students about the importance of being aware of one’s online presence.  The importance of having a professional picture on LinkedIn rather than using the one taken at a party with friends holding red Solo cups on Facebook.  Or even just cropping the party photo.  And I’m not even a career counselor.

Most of these chats have been pretty rudimentary.  Maybe just a couple of topics beyond the photo one and letting students know that many companies will do research into their social media activities in one manner or another.  My thoughts on this, therefore, have evolved towards what I like to think of as a higher awareness of one’s online presence.  More than just how one represents one self superficially, through pictures and the types of facebook wall posts or Instagram photos.  But at a deeper level.  At a point where what one posts online in all manners is part of a cohesive persona that is purposely chosen as a representation of your identity.

We use avatars all the time, but the most common instance is in video game play.  In those cases, a great deal of effort is often put into the avatar’s appearance, from clothing to armor to weaponry.  More than that, though, there is a conscious choice about the type of “person” that avatar will be.  The personality reinforced by actual behavior.  A wizard tends to be seen as sagacious, and I know many players who “speak” as their avatar in language tending towards the more knowledgeable and learned.  I know others that have chosen to be represented as warriors, and speak aggressively and sometimes even belligerently.  Certainly oftentimes these avatars are somewhat similar to the actual person – one that it perhaps a bit more fight-oriented chooses to be a soldier.  But sometimes the connection isn’t so obvious, and, again, some kind of decision has been made to not only look the part, but act and speak it, too.

Similarly, we should paying attention to not only how we look (better than that facebook party picture, hopefully) but also how we represent ourselves online.  Do you blog?  If so, what do you write about?  It could be about the intricacies of leadership and communication, which perhaps shows that I am one is a bit nerdy or bookish or about cooking, which demonstrates a life outside of work.  Something enjoyed on a different level.  Do you tweet?  About what?  Is the train late?  Or is there an interesting article about new trends in higher education?  What else do you use?  Might you actually use a facebook page as a discussion point above and beyond the purely social?

More importantly, have you made a conscious decision to do some combination of these activities?  If so, have you developed a kind of online personality through such an amalgamation?  Is it one that you like or intended to create?


I’ve started and stopped several posts over the past few weeks.  Stuff about my job, my career goals, technology in higher ed.  The type of stuff that’s become the focus of this blog as it has migrated towards one about my professional rather than personal life.

The reason why I kept stopping, though, is for a very personal matter.

On Saturday November 10, my father fell while walking down a set of stairs by his apartment in Brooklyn.  On the morning of the 11th, I found out the injury was worse than expected.  He had lost all sensation below his neck, leaving him essentially a quadriplegic.  That afternoon, I was on a plane headed to New York.  On Tuesday November 13th my father, having made his decision while completely lucid and with all his wits about him, started on morphine to control the pain he would be experiencing over the next few days.  He had opted not to have surgery that possibly – but not likely – would have recovered the use of his arms.  He would never have walked again in any case.

On Monday the 19th, a day after I had flown home and a few days before Thanksgiving, my father passed away.

Before I left, when there was a chance I’d still be in New York when he passed and possibly there for the funeral, my sister asked if I’d be willing to give a eulogy.  I was torn.  This would be for a man from whom I’d become estranged for probably the last 15 years.  A man who spent much of his life feeling frustrated about how everything had held him back, had prevented him from being a success.  Someone who spent the last decade of his life finally accepting that he had in fact been the main culprit in these failed dreams and aspirations, and that he had in many ways let down everyone around him.  Someone who had left my mother, sister and myself to find our own ways.

I have spent the last 15 or so years – since leaving home for college – trying to become a man using my father not as a role model but as a counter-example.  I did not explicitly try to be the opposite of him, but he was a cautionary tale in almost every decision I made.

Yet, on that night a couple of weeks ago when my sister and I asked my father if he was in pain and wanted to start the morphine, when he asked me if he was brave or a coward for choosing not to have the surgery and live a life that he did not want, in a wheelchair and fighting through painful physical therapy, I cried.  I sobbed.  I felt that rare type of emotion that simultaneously overwhelms yet does not cloud one’s thoughts.  The sadness and sense of loss was one that came from somewhere deep in my core, a place that was beneath the logical, conscious level from which “normal” emotions exist. It is with the residual of such a visceral emotional experience that I offer the following.

Robert “Bob” Chen was not a perfect father, but he was my father.  He yelled, he was short-tempered, and he sometimes saw us as holding him back and preventing him from achieving his dreams.  Depending on his mood, he either felt it was his destiny or his curse to be successful, as the oldest child in his family.  In either case, it was always external forces – such as his family – that thwarted his efforts.  But he was also a man that did eventually change.  He spoke repeatedly over the last decade that it was us – his son and daughter – that were the true successes in his life.  That if there was even the tiniest bit of our achievements as adults, professionals and now parents that could be attributed to him, he would be happy and content.  We were not perfect children nor did we make a perfect family, but we were his children, and his family, and in the end he thought of us with pride and took every opportunity to say as much.

Even when he was in the throes of placing blame on others, he did not entirely forget his family.  When he ran an office supply company, he named his products after us.  It is perhaps telling and was indeed prescient that his lack of attention to detail caused him to stumble even in this effort.  When he used my name as part of the brand of a line of paper products, he spelled my name incorrectly.  I could easily look back and think of him as hapless and that it was merely a portent of years of frustration to come.

I prefer to remember that he thought of me as his “Prince Allen.”

My father was not a perfect man, but he was an honest man.  Sometimes to a fault, to an almost child-like degree of naivete.  When he asked to borrow money for some venture, he truly did feel it would be a success.  If only you would invest in his dreams, you’d be paid back many times over.  Each time he embarked on a new project he honestly felt that he would succeed, that this would be the one.  Whether he was trying to climb the corporate ladder at the United Nations or striking off on his own, he was on his way to success.  How can you not find a degree of merit in such optimism?  How can you not find some value in that innocent faith in one’s ability to succeed?  How can I not hope that I will have that confidence when I am faced with a challenge?  How can I not hope to be like him in this way?

My father would say things that seemed confrontational and perhaps even hurtful at times.  What is the point of doing this or that?  Why would you study history, or anthropology, when there is no profitable future in those fields?  Why did you not visit more often or even talk to me online?

Yet I came to realize that these not judgments.  My father lived in some kind of meta-space where he could truly, honestly feel that there was no point in studying something other than business yet also accept that we had our own reasons for choosing our own paths.  That while he was deeply disappointed that I did not write him as much as he wished, he did not fault me or even question the reasons – really excuses – that I gave.  It’s not that he chose not to judge.  He simply did not.  His questions were questions, and his faith in the honesty of others in response to his own rarely faltered.

My father did not really know how to maintain a friendship, but he was perhaps the friendliest person I have ever known.  Even to his last days, when he was not in pain, when the morphine was not too strong and he could be clear of mind, he was smiling, talking, and reminiscing.  I spent many years wishing to be anything but my father.  Yet when relatives commented that I inherited his personality and good humor, I found myself filled with pride.  I found myself hoping that I could make the most of such a gift.

Robert Chen was my father.  No matter what I think of, remember, or even perhaps dwell upon from the last 34 years, I have and will always know that he was my father.  Someone that helped raise me and shape who I am today.  Whether the lessons I learned were pleasant or not, whether I was blamed or praised, whether he is the rule or the exception, I cannot be separated from him, nor he from me.  And I will treasure this for the rest of my life.