Thursday, August 25, 2011

Lessons From Birth

It wasn’t clear I was going to make it during my first six months of life.

While I have no real memory, it’s all there in my wiring. Experts have identified this period and what I overcame at the beginning of life as the source of some of the traits that helped me succeed in my now-concluded nearly-four-decade career as a community/destination marketing exec.

But I’ve also had to learn to moderate the downside of those very same strengths.

I was conceived in October of 1947, more than a year after my Dad returned from Europe and got out of the U.S. Army. My parents had eloped three years earlier and my Mom had lived and worked off-base as Dad went through basic training at Camp Roberts near Paso Robles, California before shipping out to Europe.

After the separation of war, they were eager to start a family.reg6-eastern

I was a bit overdue and born in 1948 in the midst of the hottest and busiest time of year on the 1200 acre cattle and horse ranch and related farmland that my paternal grandparents and great-grandparents had homesteaded and then assembled just a mile from the upper Henry’s Fork in the Yellowstone-Teton nook of Eastern Idaho.

My Dad rushed my Mom 50 miles south to the nearest hospital in Idaho Falls on a very hot July afternoon in a 1949 Ford that had come out the month before. I was delivered before he could park the car and make it to the delivery room. The pregnancy was a surprise because specialists didn’t think it was possible for Mom to have children.

But my parents were very determined. I was followed by two sisters, each of us spaced three years apart but, sadly, they also suffered three miscarriages.

I got off to a great start, weighing more than 8 lbs. at delivery but it all went downhill from there. My immediate reaction over the first few months of life was to projectile vomit regardless of whether it was my Mom’s milk or any number of formulas including the “tried and true” Mead’s Dextri-Maltose, developed nearly forty years earlier in 1911.

I’m not talking about the usual baby spit-up but vomit that shoots out six or more feet in a gush, often showering my Dad or grandfather.

At three-months, older women on nearby ranches and farms worried that I wouldn’t make it much longer. I was barely gaining any weight and nothing would stay down and crying was non-stop. In early January, as I turned six months old, the ranch was buried in one of the huge blizzards common during the winter there, erasing every visible sign that any roads had ever existed.

But this blizzard was epic, even for that part of the country, drifts were high enough to bury some telephone poles and they completely blocking roads and even trains for a month.

My Dad went down in the cellar to get a can of powder formula and couldn’t find any, although my parents remembered stocking up the week before the storm. Desperate, they gave me some of the whole milk that we sold to the creamery in nearby Ashton along with the even more valuable cream when we separated a portion.

Whole cow’s milk was believed to be the worst thing possible to give any baby but especially with this condition.

The “miracle of the blizzard of 1949” has been recounted at nearly every family gathering I can remember. Once I drank the whole milk I stopped crying for the first time in six months and began to immediately gain weight. They found that formula, by the way, hiding in plain sight the next morning; but from then on, whole, incredibly rich, cow’s milk was the centerpiece of my diet.

I was fortunate enough to dodge most the negative side-effects that can result from what medical professionals term “faltering growth” or a half century earlier by the myth-enshrouded term “failure to thrive.”

But specialists, including management consultants, have credited that adversity with honing several traits that were conditioned by my parents, teachers and mentors into strengths that helped me succeed in my school work, in athletics and in my career.

I’m living proof, however, that each of those strengths could also be liabilities had I not learned from them and adapted.

Here are a handful:

  • A passion for life and learning. My system had to kick-start so many times in those first few months that I have innately anticipated every day as though it would be my last. Life is not taken for granted. But I had to learn to moderate intensity.

  • An indefatigable drive and resilience to achieve both short-term milestones and long term goals while overcoming setbacks or obstacles. I’ve had to learn to appreciate and work with people who move more slowly and appear less motivated.

  • A hyper-vigilance that helps me see strategically and quickly identify threats which has been key to my work responsibilities. But I’ve had to learn that everything isn’t a matter of life or death and to be more trusting at one level and maybe a little less overall.

  • An ability to tolerate a certain amount of ambiguity and inconsistency that probably comes from a pretty ambiguous first six months but opened my mind up to new data,fresh ideas, innovation and growth. But I’ve had to learn to listen carefully to those who harden positions without backup for both/and alternatives.

  • An empathy for the underdog, the underprivileged, the disabled, the stigmatized and an intolerance for condescension, racism, sexism, misogynists and BMOCs. But I’ve had to learn not to tell myself stories and to listen beyond the messenger.

Of course, I’m grateful that I lived but I’m especially grateful for those who helped me condition the traits imbued by that early struggle into strengths.

In turn, I also appreciate what I learned from adapting and managing those strengths and I’m thankful for everyone who has been so tolerant and forgiving during this journey.

This bit of history may be of interest one day to my grandsons, who started 1st and 2nd grade yesterday and maybe their children or children’s children.

But I dedicate it to my Mom and Dad, just 19 and 24 years old at the time, who never gave up on me, even when covered in projectile vomit and sleepless through six months of constant crying.

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