A dose of mortality

“Hi Donald, it’s Mom. Have you got John’s phone number handy? I wanted to give him a call.” I thought it was a strange request, but passed it along without much thought. John is family. Maybe Mom just wanted to discuss an idea for the upcoming Christmas holiday.

As a young person in America it is easy to forget how short life really can be. Fortunately there are those moments – two to be exact – when all of the dreams and unfinished plans rush back to ultimately remind me there is much to be done and little time for it. The first, taking-off and landing in an airplane. Something about the bumps, various tones and bells, and of course leaving the ground that is the perfect recipe for a sobering moment. The second, receiving a phone call from my Mother about her reoccurring brain tumor.

I first learned about meningiomas when returning home during the winter break senior year of college. My parents sat me down to break the news to me; my younger Brother was not yet home. They offered to have this chat at the kitchen counter, or to sit down in the living room. This peculiar behavior certainly had me exploring the realm of possibilities. Could my parents be getting divorced? Maybe they had decided to move south? Mom was always malcontent for the cold and the often obnoxiously dreary winters of southern Maine. I was overcome with impatience and began blurting out all of these thoughts and more. Nervous smiles crept onto my parents’ faces as Mom shifted closer to me on the couch. I recall my Dad sitting more distant in an adjacent chair. I took the hint and shut up.

“You know all of the headaches and visits to the Doctor’s office? Well I had an MRI done and they diagnosed me with a brain tumor.” Shell shocked, I searched for some comic relief. Finding none, I asked what seemed like the most reasonable question: what does that mean? Within a couple of minutes they had relayed the only bit of knowledge they had on the subject. And I lunged at my Mother, squeezing her tight and not letting go. I later learned the tumor was a meningioma, a type of tumor that develops on the surface of the brain. They continued to tell me they had found all this out a few weeks prior, but did not want it to distract me during final exams. And they told my friend and mentor, John, so he was prepared to talk with me about it.

I became obsessed about brain tumors and even asked my aunt to fax me what seemed like endless pages from the National Institute of Health, the World Health Organization, and whatever other credible information sources were available.

It was hard to say what was in store for her and for us. She was still — and would always be — my mother, but this was a revelation I had not ever considered. (No surprise there.)

Shortly thereafter, while driving from Worcester back to his house, I asked John — always a spiritual person — what is God? “Who is someone you care about?” John asked, not seemingly answer my question. “Mom”, I responded. “Where is she right now?” “At home”, I said defiantly. “But how do you know that?” He asked, sure I would have no response. I guess I did not, but it was a Sunday and where else would she have gone? The fact was, I was so comfortable knowing exactly where she was at that very moment without any evidence to support it. I could picture her and everything.

“That’s God,” he said. “God is love.” I’ll never forget it.

Originally written in 2009 at the suggestion of a dear friend, Houman Younessi, who always encouraged me to write and “write what you know”. It doesn’t get any more personal than this, I suppose.

Semi-unsolicited career finding advice

A few years back, I was concerned my younger brother was not living up to his potential. After a number of phone calls, I knew I was being that overbearing family member, telling him all the buzzwords when it comes to getting a job. I decided to — as best I could — craft a list of actual goals and tasks, beyond the cliche advice. 



Hello Chris,

Here are some things I think you should do or to keep in mind with the UMaine Career Center people and jobhunt.  These are just my thoughts, but I would seriously consider them – maybe even bringing a complete list of questions with you so you make sure you cover everything you want to go over.  (I don’t know how much time you have with them, so you obviously need to be mindful of that, but unanswered questions could always lead to your next conversation with them!)  I know it can be easy to say “You should be networking!” or other such generic and meaningless suggestions.  I hope these are a bit more specific and useful.

I’ve broken this down into three parts, which is how I think of it:


  • To personally connect with the staff at the UMaine Career Center; they can become huge advocates for you and are often gatekeepers to professional alumni and/or University Relations contacts with corporations that hire UMaine graduates.
  • To identify ways for you to connect with professionals, perhaps UMaine alumni in engineering or university relations at companies of interest; sub-goal: to gain their advice and maybe leverage their connections in finding not only a place to apply, but a “good fit” for you
  • To get their advice on how to talk about or sell yourself to a prospective employer, i.e. how do you talk about what you’ve been doing in the last four years and relate any transferrable skills; sub-goal: identify ways to practice your interviewing skills, and to refine your resume
  • To be prepared for your meeting with The Career Center; 2 days prior to your meeting, confirm your meeting time, and ask if there is anything they recommend you bring.
  • What goals do you have?

Remember, finding jobs to apply for is the “easy” part.  Standing out as a candidate – being noticed – is another thing entirely.  You need to be doing both, and I hope The Career Center will be able to help you with the latter.  You might even say that to them.

Conversation Pieces, etc. (no particular order)

  • You should take the time to tell them about you (personal stuff too, about meeting your fiancé at the University, joining the fraternity, hockey, etc.), where you have been, where you want to be, your strengths and weaknesses; you want them to get to know you, and to be in your corner, sharing this information can help
  • Where you want to be: don’t worry about specifics, just speak honestly about how you are trying to get a career started and you really need help in figuring it all out (if that’s where you’re at right now); maybe mention your interests in environmental engineering, waste water treatment, etc., and that you have widened your search in the past year or two
  • Ask them about UMaine/Engineering career fairs they can recommend
  • What things do they recommend you should be doing right now?
  • Ask them about specific companies they might recommend, given what they know, who are hiring, where they might have strong University Relations contacts, perhaps an alumnus/ae whom they could refer to you (makes the introduction part a lot easier)
  • Ask them if you can leave a copy of your résumé, that you could setup a time to review over the phone
  • Do they have a résumé book?  i.e. a collection of student résumé that gets shared with companies
  • Bring copies of your cover letter(s) and résumé(s)
  • If you want, tell them your thoughts on leaving Walgreens by August, get their reactions, maybe even ask if it is a bad idea, and why.
  • You might ask if there are other graduates in similar positions – that is like you, and looking for a job – and what they are doing
  • (It’s okay to ask open ended questions, remember you’re there to listen too!)
  • Bring a complete list of companies and jobs you have applied for, if and when you interviewed for a position, and the outcomes (job descriptions if you have them too)
  • What are the challenges for someone who has been out of school since 2009 and is looking for work in their field of study with no prior professional experience?
  • Are there things you could get involved with immediately that might help give you some experience/credibility?  (e.g. I got involved with RPI’s Annual Giving Office as a volunteer formally just last summer; I met with the Director of Annual Giving at RPI and the VP for Advancement at Central Connecticut State University to get their advice on transitioning into a career in Advancement/Development/Fundraising; I was able to leverage both of these things on my resume, my cover letter, and in my interviews with RPI and Connecticut College.)  Maybe a local internship or project or something with a company could spur into a job, could lead to a more professional recommendation, etc.
  • Take notes!  Go with a pen and paper, write stuff down: jot down questions you think of, things to follow up on, anything and everything.  This becomes a list of things to follow up from, and some people see it as a sincere gesture that you are paying attention and possibly organized
  • Ask them about any Professional Development types of services/programs you might consider
  • Ask them about industry journals, publications, literature that you should consider reading.  (I am not quite where I want to be myself, but I am trying to build a better discipline to reading – I get the NYTimes on my iPad/web and The Economist.  I am also learning of other publications and conferences in my new job – asking my new boss on Tuesday if I can attend a conference in May.  You might consider this too – not these specific publications necessarily – as I think it is important to be aware of what’s going on in the world, in business, in science, in your industry, etc.  Employers are looking for qualifications, and they get this from your résumé, when they are interviewing you they are looking to verify your knowledge, but also looking for other things too, and I think reading helps round us out and keep us informed of other things too.  You can probably use my NYTimes and Economist login on your iPad too.  I’m sure Dad disagrees with my list of periodicals, HA, but it might be a starting point.  That’s my attempt at a joke, Dad.)
  • If you don’t know how to work a question into the conversation, try something like “My Dad/Brother suggested asking <insert question here>”.  It let’s them know that you are also talking with family and friends too.
  • What do you want to talk about?

Next Steps

It’s important to finish your conversation with them, but not to end it.  You want to be sure you identify – with them in some cases – your next steps.  The purpose of this visit is not just to get information and move on, it is to partner with them – realizing part of the University’s success is based on the professional success of its graduates – so if they become aware of a new opportunity they think “Oh, I bet this could be a good thing for Chris”.

  • You have asked about alumni/corporate contacts, maybe they have offered a name, maybe not, but ask them how best to get this information – perhaps they can make an email introduction for you and you can call the person back?
  • You have given them your résumé, maybe they can take a better look at it and you could connect by phone a week later to review together?
  • Send a “Thank You” note a couple days later.  I send a written note myself, but I do not have any evidence there is anything right or wrong however you do this.  (I just think a handwritten note stands out more these days with so much email.)
  • Anything you can come up with during the course of your conversation – it’s important to sit down, write other thoughts, observations, comments or anything so you don’t a) forget , and b) so you can follow up where appropriate – I recommend just walking up to the tables in the Union there and reflect on all of it.  I’ve even used the Reminder and the Voice Memos apps on my iPhone.  Whatever works for you.
  • Be explicitly clear on this stuff, even if it’s loosely defined (e.g. we’ll get back to you next week).  In the past sometimes we ask you when you might hear back and you say “I don’t know, I’ll call them next week if I don’t hear from them” – that’s no longer good enough.
  • What are the next steps you anticipate?

I am not sure if this is a complete list, but I think it’s a good start.  If I think of anything else I’ll add it and send to you.  I’ve Cc’d Dad/Mom to see what they think too. Let me know if you need any clarification.  Good luck!


—Your Brother

Vulnerabilities and Growing Old

As a 30-something, it is sometimes hard to fathom what our parents go through — empathy be damned. My father always said old age is tough, but with shows and documentaries being done on dying with dignity and physician assisted suicide it is something I am only learning about now.

I was having a rather difficult conversation with my own father about their health, in particular my mother’s. Not only has she suffered from raising me and my younger brother, she has sustained from two brain surgeries, radiation therapies, and countless doctors visits, not to mention the MRIs and other diagnostics that go along with it all. I have no idea what this is like. And as someone who found himself feeling queasy and passing out simply from the smell of the ICU, I applaud those willing to face their mortality-ridden lives. It can’t be easy, but I do think it’s what we do with that knowledge that can make a difference.

I have heard friends and others say wondering things about their mothers, often stating what a strong or heroic figure she was — an influential figure. I don’t think I have ever said that of either of my parents, but as time passes and as I have formed adult relationships with both my mother and father, I think I can begin to see these very same qualities in them. But it has taken this exposure of their vulnerabilities to see that. To call her, to ask how her day is going only to find out that she did not sleep well the night before from “stress” because of an impending medical appointment.

Stress is a huge topic, but suffice it to say that I am learning to understand theirs and the other source, predominantly my father’s, which stems from independence. Or rather, the need for it. The health issues experienced by my mom have, to a different extent, impacted my dad and his sense of independence. What I had not fathomed was what would happen when I challenged his handle on their stress — shared or otherwise. Specifically we were talking about being able to drive a car. I pointed out that mom didn’t need to be worried because she could use Uber, but he quickly pointed out the inconveniences. He suggested I would not like this, which I quickly contested. I would love not to drive again. Not to have a car to maintain, to fill with gas, to insure. (I think our transportation model is ridiculous, but that’s another topic for another time.) In short, while she could summon a ride whenever, it was not as simple as getting behind the wheel will always be. I would not argue with that, but I did suggest that the impact of this change would be lessened if only he would look at things differently, that the stress was only a function of perspective. He fired back that it was more than inconvenience and stress, and beyond independence, but a function of choice. I may be okay with not having a car and using a driving service, but I could drive, and either way it was my choice. For my mother — and while she is the person directly impacted, I think for all intense and purposes he was speaking for himself at this point — this simply is not an option.

At this point, I had clearly exhausted my father on this topic and he was just about ready to hang up with me; if not on me. Moments after the call, I had two main questions flowing through my mind:

  • Can you have high-quality of living without either choice or independence?
  • What is the relationship between independence and choice? Can you have independence without choice?