Thursday, February 11, 2016

Article 12: Gail Montgomery

I met Gail Montgomery on March 8, 1988, when I went to her home to attend my first counseling session with her.  We went into her very crowded office and sat across from each other--she in a big chair and I on a sofa that I shared with several stacks of papers.  I was just out of a relationship and felt that I needed to work through issues that kept producing the same results.  A good friend of mine, Cynthia Bassett, recommended that I go to see Gail, who was a practicing psychotherapist.  I found in Gail one of the most remarkable people I've known in my life.

Everything about Gail was large--her physique, her voice, her laugh, her beaming countenance, her personality, her wit, her knowledge, her intellect. She had been raised as a Southern Baptist in Alabama and spent time in the Philippines as a missionary (where she caught malaria), only to question the "truth" of her religious upbringing and then walk away from it.  She became well-versed in many religions and would certainly have stood her own in a debate with any proselytiser.  She knew the practices and sacred writings of those religions, not just Christianity.

Gail was at her best in combining compassion and truth-telling.  Her philosophy as a psychotherapist was that the patient should see results in a short period of time--not just after years of therapy.  I would say that she was incredibly intuitive, but that's not quite accurate.  She was incredibly attentive and knowing.  If you were prepared to hear the truth about yourself, she was prepared to tell you.  She would address you directly and challenge you on anything you said that seemed unreasonable or false to her.  I can hear her voice now, "Oh, well I have to tell you, Steve, you're wrong about what you just said."  And then with a great deal of compassion and insight, she'd tell me why.  I think she was right almost every time.  One was immediately challenged when you engaged in conversation with Gail, and you had the choice of either walking away from the challenge or allowing yourself to be honest and vulnerable to learn something about yourself.

Gail was more than a psychotherapist--she was a healer, a shaman--and she employed many alternative healing methods in her counseling, if you were open to them.  For years she had led vision quests for women and had explored and used the healing practices of different cultures, such as the Cherokee medicine wheel and dowsing pendulums.  She discounted most New Age practices and remedies as gimmicks, preferring hundreds of her own "nutsy, cuckoo" means and remedies, as she referred to them.  She could laugh at herself and share with you the most practical solutions to problems, but her healing powers, even regarding the mundane, were truly astounding.

More than once I was caught off-guard when Gail described something that had happened in my life--a specific event and the approximate date--that I had never mentioned to her!  That was Gail and her magic.  Then we would work on releasing the negative energy I still held surrounding the event.  I learned that there is a difference between placing blame and recognizing responsibility; a person may have been responsible for hurting me, but I could choose to stop blaming them and thus let the event go, finally and forever.  It sounds simple when I say it, but it was only a simple process because Gail made it that way.  I had struggled with some of those things for many years.

One of the most amazing displays of Gail's power was an episode that I still remember vividly.  When I would release all of my attachment to some negative event in my life, Gail would say something like, "Ooh, that was a big energy shift."  So, I asked her once what she meant by "energy shift."  She explained that there's an actual, physical energy release when we let go of attachments or change beliefs, and that she could see that energy wave and determine if it was a small (unimportant) or big (important) shift.  After my dubious response to that, she asked if I'd like to see an energy shift for myself, and I answered, "Sure."  She closed her eyes, concentrated intently for about twenty seconds, and then my entire field of vision began to quiver and move, as one might see heat waves rising from the sands in a desert.  I closed my eyes, re-opened them, rubbed them and shook my head; the energy waves did not disappear but even increased in intensity.  After a minute the waves suddenly disappeared, and then Gail immediately opened her eyes.  When I told her what I'd seen, she nodded and said, "That's what I see."  I never had to question Gail's powers after that.  (I have since learned that "energy shifts" are fundamental to alternative healing practices, such as yoga and acupuncture, although it's rare that you see them.)

Gail and I explored a lot of things in five years.  Much of the early exploration was focused on love relationships, since my original reason for seeing Gail was to get past a failed relationship.  In the first three weeks of our work together, she totally surprised me by her insights and understanding, and I quickly got past the disappointment I'd felt from the break-up.  Then I learned about the mistakes I'd been making for years.  Probably the greatest lesson I learned from Gail was how to choose a woman who was good for me and "easy to live with," rather than someone who might "look good on paper" (my term), but needed rescuing from something or someone.

I had always chosen women based on how similar we were, but Gail used a wonderful analogy to debunk that theory.  I call it her "airplane and rope" analogy.  Two people can be as different as a rope and an airplane, as long as the airplane is attached to the rope and the rope is anchored to the ground.  The airplane teaches the rope to fly, while the rope keeps the airplane grounded.  That can work very well in a relationship.

Another life lesson that I learned from Gail is the art of manipulating people in a good way.  I made the statement to her once that I didn't like people who manipulated others, and she responded, "We all manipulate others. We just have to learn the difference between good and bad manipulation."  She gave the example of parents manipulating their kids to do homework all the time, which is an example of good manipulation.  It's a very useful tool for anyone to possess, and I learned it from Gail.

I chose to continue working with Gail once or twice a month until she and her husband, Ron Yukon, moved to Arkansas.  Thereafter, we spoke a few times each year, mostly to catch up on each other's life.  When I divorced from my first wife in early 1998, I immediately called Gail, and her compassion and comforting words were extraordinary.  She was my "first responder," and she set me on the course I needed for recovery.  I still give this advice to each friend who is going through an especially hard time:
  • Choose five simple things you can do to nurture yourself every day, and do them.  Those are your islands on which you feel safe.  I chose things like having a cup of tea and taking a walk with my dog.  I allowed myself to feel safe during those activities, and I allowed myself to hurt at other times.
  • Allow yourself to hurt and cry as much as you want.  Don't hold back for any reason.
  • Form a "support team" of people with whom you can communicate as often and as much as you need.  I found six people, including Gail, and they were my lifelines to normalcy.  I talked with them a lot.
  • Find a local psychotherapist you can work with face-to-face.  I found a wonderful woman, Kathy Wilkins, through one of my support team people.  When I asked Gail what I should say to Kathy, she told me to ask her to "be a witness to my grief."  Kathy liked that phrase; no one had ever made that request.
I said that Gail's compassion was extraordinary, but what she did for me was almost unbelievable.  It really speaks to Gail's powers as a psychotherapist and strength as a human being.  During one of our conversations, I noticed a slight catch in her voice near the end of our one-hour session, and I asked her if there was something wrong.  She paused and then said simply that they'd had a fire the previous night, and it had destroyed the house and everything they owned.  She had spent the entire hour working with me on my problems, while she was only hours away from having lost everything!  I don't think I've ever met anyone else who had such focus and thought so much of others before themselves.

Gail pushed me to be a happy person.  Although Gail and I covered a lot of territory in my years of working with her, it consistently brought me to a better place in my life.  After one especially probing session, I asked her what the purpose was of all the hard work I had been doing.  Her direct, all-inclusive answer was "to be happy."  I realized at about that time that I had changed from being a fundamentally unhappy person who had happy moments to a person who was fundamentally happy and had sad moments.  That was a huge shift in my life.

In effect, Gail gave me a paradigm for being a happy person.  Part of that paradigm was honestly facing events in my childhood.  Part of it was in learning how to better choose relationships in my adult life.  And a big part of it was in recognizing my own powers--what I could control and what I couldn't.

One of my fondest memories of Gail was when we parted after our last face-to-face session, almost five years after we'd begun.  She hugged me and told me that she thought I'd changed more than any man she had ever worked with.  That felt right to me, because I had really worked in becoming a happy person.

And finally....  Gail died of complications from diabetes on November 3, 2011.  Her husband, Ron Yukon, called to tell me shortly after her death, and we talked and cried for an hour.  A week later, Ron did an amazing thing--he hosted a memorial for Gail on the phone!  Moderated by another close friend of his, the memorial allowed all of us to tell stories about Gail, and dozens of people phoned in from all over the country to take part.

Gail holds the distinction of being the last remarkable person in my life.  Certainly I've known many people who were remarkable in their own right since then, but no one has had to reach out to change my life's path.  Gail's push set me in my final right direction.

In my last telephone session with Gail in March, 1998, I voiced the fear that, after my divorce, I would never find another woman to marry.  Gail immediately responded, "Oh, you'll find someone who you'll marry.  In fact, you already know her and will meet her again next September."  It was a few years later that Gail reminded me that she had told me that, and it had turned out to be true.  Nine years after first meeting Suzanne, I met her a second time in September, 1998, and we married in April of 2002.  Gail never ceased to amaze me.

Article 11: Chester M. Ratliff, Jr.

I met Chet Ratliff in late March, 1979, when I was one of the people who interviewed him for a job at Interactive Applications, Inc., where I worked from spring of 1978 through July, 1979.  I remember having a cup of coffee with him and conducting the interview at a small cafe near IAI, and it was immediately apparent to me that he'd be a great addition to the company.  Chet joined IAI soon thereafter as a systems analyst/programmer.

Probably two weeks after Chet joined IAI, he and I had lunch together, and the conversation quickly shifted from work topics to our personal lives.  I wish I could recall every detail of that conversation, but I don't.  I only remember my impressions of him--that he was thoughtful, modest, very bright, and as much interested in knowing me as I was in knowing him.  I found out that he'd graduated from the University of California, Berkeley, in pure and applied mathematics and physics, with a chemistry minor, and that he had grown up and still lived in Berkeley.  So, each day he commuted about 90 miles to work and back!

Although many things, including our diverse and common interests, drew me to Chet, one of the most interesting things to me was how he communicated.  Over the years I heard many people tell him that he was unusually quiet, even wondering if he was shy or intimidated.  From our first conversation I saw him much differently--as a person who listened intently and only spoke when he had something of interest to say.  That set him apart from most people, including myself.  If Chet was quiet for a short time, it didn't mean he wasn't "present."  I thought he was more "present" than anyone I knew.

Our early conversations soon led to our doing many, many activities together.  I think it's typical that a person does a few types of activities with a close friend-- maybe meals together, movies, shopping, one sport.  Chet and I had lunches and dinners together, saw many movies (I'm still somewhat embarrassed that I convinced him to see "ABBA: The Movie"), and went to classical concerts.  He introduced me to the comedy and late-night jazz clubs in San Francisco; I took him to a bluegrass concert in Berkeley.  He owned two beautiful Jensen Healeys, which he personally maintained, so what I know about cars I learned from watching Chet work on his cars.  We attended car road races at Laguna Seca and Sears Point Raceways, went to see the Reno Air Races, saw several A's and Giants baseball games, and traveled to Santa Barbara for a weekend to watch the Junior National Volleyball Championships.

One of our favorite pastimes was watching basketball together, and we often went to see the Golden State Warriors play, especially when one of Chet's four NBA-playing cousins was in town.  (He introduced me to Caldwell Jones and Major Jones after games in Oakland.)  When you sit court-side at a professional basketball game, you get a new appreciation for the remarkable athleticism of those players.

But what we probably loved doing most was skiing together.  Chet pretty much taught me to ski, helped me pick out all of my equipment, and coached me down many scary slopes.  Besides being one of the most graceful, beautiful skiers I've ever seen, he was infinitely patient and encouraging of someone a lot less accomplished than he.  He bought us a pair of fluorescent orange Northface caps so we could always spot each other while skiing on a crowded hill.  (I still have that cap!)  In all the years we skied together, I only saw Chet fall twice, both times when he skied onto a narrow strip of snow that gave way.

As I progressed to an advanced intermediate level, we had more and more fun together. Although I have many memories of those days, I have two favorites.  Once while skiing down a narrow, steep hill late in the afternoon, he saw me struggling a bit, and over the sound of our skis, I heard him say, "Ski the hill; don't let the hill ski you."  He showed me that I had the control and ability to be there.  And then there was the time we got caught in a white-out snow storm at the top of Heavenly Valley, on the California side.  You could not see more than ten feet in front of you, and it was getting worse by the minute, so he led me down the entire mountain without stopping--almost five miles of hills and trails--while dodging people who had fallen.  He knew I was right behind him, and he only skied as fast as he knew I could ski.  Those were great days.

Yet, what I remember more than anything from our years together is our conversations about life.  Although I consider Chet remarkable in so many ways, it is through our talks that he most influenced my life.  I also know that I influenced his life.

Chet pushed me to do right things.  Because of the influence of my father, who I write about in the first article of this series, I grew up believing that I had a fairly good "moral compass"--the ability to do good and right things.  Not until I knew Chet did I realize that I had a bit to go.  I met Chet's parents, Chester Ratliff, Sr. and Christine Ratliff, soon after Chet and I met.  They were the most thoughtful, kind, generous people I'd ever met, and it was evident that Chet and his sister, Deborah, had acquired those traits from their parents.  Mr. and Mrs. Ratliff welcomed me as a member of their family, and I always loved spending time with them, even when Chet was not there with us.

I remember stopping by his parents' home with him once to pick up a basketball from his room.  I noticed some old handwritten notes (really, heart-felt aphorisms) taped to his wall and read a few.  His mother had written them when he was a young kid, and I was stunned by their wisdom, simplicity, and caring, such as "Always be considerate of others" and "Do your best in whatever you do."  (These may be inexact wordings, but they are very much in the spirit of what was written on each small note.)  What I saw that day reinforced what I already knew about Chet--that he was a consistently, uncommonly good person, and the goodness was instilled by his parents every day as he grew up.

But being a good person does not necessarily mean that you do "right" things.  I think you develop that quality on your own when confronted by hundreds of situations in life, if you've already developed a good moral compass.  It might be an action as simple as picking up an object that someone else has dropped or helping an elderly person open a door or letting another car change lanes in front of you.  Chet so consistently did "right" things that it pushed me to be aware of what could be done, if only you paid attention to those around you.  Many of us lead good lives but remain mostly oblivious of others.  A frequent part of our conversations was centered on how people could do more "right" things if they paid attention and put themselves in the place of others--sort of a conscious, consistent Golden Rule.

Chet and I were sitting in a theater one day in 1980, watching Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back, when the movie was stopped, the lights came on, and we were all asked to leave the building.  After about 20 minutes, they allowed us back in the building and continued the movie.  Chet looked at me and said, "You know what that was, right?"  I nodded, and he immediately got up and walked out while the movie was playing.  A few minutes later he returned to his seat, the movie was stopped and the lights came on again--this time with the theater manager standing at the front.  He announced that there had been a bomb threat, the theater had been searched (with no bomb found), and he'd like to offer a full refund to anyone who wished to leave.  Between 10%-20% of a fully-packed theater got up and left.

How many people would even think to reach out to the manager in that situation, much less act on their thoughts?  I never asked Chet what he had discussed with the manager, but it was obviously the "right" thing to do.  He thought every person should know what happened and have the choice of staying or not staying.  Many times I saw Chet do similar "right" things that were automatic to him.  He "pushed" me by being a constant example of "right" action.  Over the years I've tried to emulate that trait, with varying degrees of success, and I still chide myself when I miss or avoid opportunities to do "right" things.  I often think of Chet when situations present themselves and I act to help someone.

Chet pushed me to look at my biases.  Growing up in the Bay Area, you are inevitably in contact with people of different races, nationalities, religions and cultures.  For Chet to have a white friend was certainly not unusual for him, but for me to have a friend who was black or Asian or Latino or Muslim or some other minority was unprecedented.  I grew up on the east side of town in Rockford, Illinois, which is predominantly white and, in particular, Swedish.  There were fewer than twenty "minority" students in my entire high school (of 2,700 students), only whites in my Sunday school and Jewish temple, and only one black student in my college dorm or any of my college classes.  I did not serve in the Armed Forces, nor did I ever work at a large company, so I almost never had occasion to meet people of other races, cultures and nationalities.

Yet, I did not grow up with any conscious bigotries.  My father, for the most part, saw to that.  Being Jewish, I was exposed to some biases from other students at times, and my father probably used those incidents as examples of how not to treat people.  However, I was dimly aware of my mother's "southern roots" biases, largely unspoken, and the truth was that my own racial thoughts and feelings had never been challenged.  I had been far too isolated in my life.

Chet and I never talked about how people might be biased, and so it is somewhat inaccurate to say that Chet "pushed me" to look at my biases.  What we did discuss was that all people should be treated the same, with respect and dignity and compassion, and from those conversations I intentionally pushed myself to look at whether I had any biases toward other people.  Was I quick to judge this race or that religion in any ways?  For that matter, did I identify people primarily by their race, their religion or their culture, thus automatically considering them as different from me?

I once accompanied Chet to a party of a few dozen people, and midway through the evening I realized that I was the only white person in the room.  What stunned me was not that I was the only white, but that I had not noticed it before.  Our biases begin when we notice differences between people and then magnify those differences into value judgments.  When we notice, share and enjoy our similarities first, our biases dissipate and are tossed aside, like getting rid of old, ill-fitting clothing.  It is so much easier to live that way.  Of the things that Chet brought into my life, that's what I value the most--an ease of living with and accepting other people.  I guess that's the definition of tolerance.

And Finally.... Chet and I live about 55 miles apart, so we don't get to see each other as often as we'd like.  Still, I am reminded of him often and he is always somewhere deep in my thoughts.  Now that the Warriors are playing so well, we should try to catch a game together again.

Article 10: Michael Edward Cowan

Mike and I are brothers.  We have the same father but different mothers, and he is ten years older than I am.  He grew up with his mother's parents in Detroit, and I did not even know about him until I was almost ten years old.  When my sister, Sue, and I were told that we had an older brother, our first question was, "Where is he?"  I think we greatly surprised our parents when we expressed unbounded excitement about having a brother; we wanted to meet him right away.

Soon after we were told about Mike, he came to visit us in Rockford, Illinois, on Labor Day weekend of 1959.  I do have a vivid memory of us going to Comiskey Park in Chicago that weekend to watch the White Sox and Indians play.  The two teams were in a tight pennant race, and we sat along the third-base line on a sunny day to watch a great game, won by the Indians.

Over the next few years, Mike would visit us every year or so, and we would write letters to each other.  We admired and worshiped our older brother; everything about him impressed us.  I remember playing baseball with him at our grade school's blacktop playground one time.  The gymnasium of the school had an all-brick wall, save for two small windows, a couple hundred feet from the playground's home plate, and Mike managed to break both of those windows in one weekend.  Man, could he hit a baseball.

Mike went to the University of Detroit, majoring in management with a minor in economics, and then he served in the U.S. Air Force from 1961 to 1965, primarily as a contracts officer.  He spent a year and a half in Greece, followed by almost two years in Turkey. After his military service, he worked at LTV Aerospace in Detroit as a contracts administrator, but he moved to California in 1967 to take a job with Lockheed, where he initially wrote and managed large construction projects.  I often wonder how my life would have been different had Mike and I grown up together.  Would I have gone into the military?  Would I have moved to California sooner than 1976?  Would I have followed in his footsteps in other ways?

I came to a crossroads in my life in 1976, when I decided to move away from Illinois.  It would either be a move to New York City, to be near my sister, or a move to the Bay Area in California, to be near Mike.  I wrote him a letter about a prospective move, and he phoned me immediately.  He had just started his own software company, International Data Applications, and he wanted me to come to San Jose to "interview" for a job with IDA. By the end of my ten-day visit, I was very excited about the company, had already found an apartment in Los Gatos for me and my dog, and knew it was the right move for me.  Mike went out of his way to not pressure me into working at IDA, for he even set up interviews at other companies.  After the first one, I decided that IDA was the right place for me.

I actually worked at IDA three separate times (1976-1978, 1979-1982 and 1987-1990).  We did a lot of software applications together, in international banking, real estate trust banking and property management.  The two of us visited banks all over the country, and in those years of working together, we made up for all of the years we missed by growing up separately.  Mike was a multi-engine, instrument-rated commercial pilot as well, so I'd often fly in the co-pilot seat next to him on trips.

I can easily say that Mike has been the most influential person in my life.  I have gone to him for advice many, many times, and he has helped me in countless ways.  Although he literally changed the path of my life by inviting me to move to California, I didn't need much of a push to do that.  But there are three areas in which Mike went out of his way to change the course of my life.

Mike pushed me to finish projects. Perhaps the greatest lesson I learned from Mike, based on one discussion we had in about 1980, is that I should not only have the mindset for starting projects, but for finishing them.  Mike asked me to head IDA's software team when I returned to the company in 1987, partially because he knew I could finish projects that I started.  When I first began working with IDA in 1976, I couldn't do that.  After my return in 1987, Mike didn't push me to finish things; he would tell me what had to be done, and he knew I'd do them.

Having the discipline of finishing projects that I start has influenced every part of my life.  I probably got in the habit of not finishing projects in the 1970's, when it was easy to start a song and not finish it or work on a never-ending, tedious project.  Mike changed my way of thinking about projects, so that, to this day, I will not start any type of project without having a goal, a plan, a clear start and a clear end in mind.  The alternative is having all sorts of unfinished work cluttering my life.

Because I am so project-oriented, it is not a surprise that Mike has so much influenced my professional career, but I am not alone.  When my last company, Quartet Systems, grew to its largest with eight people, five of us had started our careers at Mike's company more than 30 years ago.  Mike always looked out for his people, and he provided the work environment, corporate culture and support for a lot of good systems analysts.

Facebook has the words, "Done is better than perfect," painted on their walls.  Mike pushed me to adopt that policy in life long before Mark Zuckerberg was born.  Beyond being organized and creative, having the discipline to finish things has probably benefited me in life more than anything else.

Mike pushed me to write concisely.  As a contracts officer in the Air Force, Mike learned how to write very important, detailed documents.  Unlike anyone I've ever known, he could write a complete business contract off the top of his head.  (Sometimes he thought that he should have been an attorney, because his contracts were at least as good as any attorney could write.)  He also wrote a lot of technical and user documentation for Lockheed, Memorex and, most recently, Oracle.

When I began writing documentation for computer software systems in the late 1970's, I wrote like a novelist or songwriter.  My documents were twice as long as they had to be.  Mike pushed me to write in a much more concise fashion, without the use of a lot of adjectives and run-on sentences.  (My writing style in these articles is not the same style I use in my technical writing!)  Technical documents need to be clear and concise, unlike almost any other form of writing.

Mike gave me a phrase about presentations--both verbal and written--that he learned in the Air Force.  I think it's an invaluable guide in technical writing.  He said, "Tell them what you're going to tell them, tell them, and tell them what you told them."  Translated, it means that your presentation should have an introduction, a body, and a summary that all holds together.  Countless times I've edited my documents to be more concise, thanks to Mike's influence.

Mike pushed me to be responsible with money. Mike was the first person to urge me to be a saver rather than a spender.  He used to tell me, "Pay yourself first."  He helped me set up my first IRA and stayed on me until I'd contributed the maximum amount each year.  More importantly, he pushed me to have a "saving" philosophy, rather than a "spending" philosophy when I was young, and that has served me throughout my life.

Part of being a saver, rather than a spender, is to learn how to invest wisely, while minimizing risk.  Except for a couple of financial advisers, I really have spent very little time discussing investing with people other than Mike.  During the 2008 and 2009 recession, he was the voice of reason among the many voices of panic.  He taught me to recognize opportunity rather than fear loss.

I remember one phone conversation in 2008 with Mike, after the Dow had dipped another 500 points that day.  His initial greeting was, "Well, did you buy or sell today?"  Few people really have the discipline (and time frame) to "buy low and sell high," but we discussed market dynamics frequently, and he did not let me panic.  As a result of our investing talks and approach, my wife and I regained our losses within eight months of the initial 2008 crash.

Maybe the greatest lesson I've learned from Mike regarding investing and saving is that I should always be mindful of different types of risk.  As socially liberal as we both are, it is amazing that we are both fiscally conservative and always have been.  Mike really pushed me to be that way, and it has made a great difference in my life.

And Finally....  Mike retired a couple years ago and lives near South Lake Tahoe with his wife of 42 years, Sumaye.  We don't get to see each other often, but we talk frequently.  There is no one I would rather spend a day with than Mike.  He is one of the very few people who can always make me laugh.  His wit reminds me of a couple of the old comedians, like Mort Sahl and Jackie Mason.  Subtle, but not without substance and bite.

When discussing one business associate, Mike once used the line, "Down deep he's pretty shallow."  Sadly, that perfectly described the person.  It's a funny line, but you have to think about it.

And then there was the time in a Philadelphia bank's conference room when Mike and I were surrounded by a roomful of bankers.  One banker joined the meeting late, announced that he'd just found out that he had conjunctivitis, and received no response from anyone.  He then spent the next two minutes explaining what conjunctivitis is (we all knew), at the end of which Mike said, under his breath so that only I could hear, "Oh, I thought it was too many run-on sentences."  I nearly died laughing, and no one in the room knew why except Mike.