Remembering the Home Front

Production Award, Curtiss-Wright Corp., Buffalo

Production Award, Curtiss-Wright Corp., Buffalo

My grandfather spent the last ten years of his life in partial paralysis from a stroke. He couldn’t really walk, could barely feed himself, and had trouble using the toilet.

It’s hard for me to remember, then, that once he was a charming, dashing man. He played piano with a whole repertoire of standards from the 1930s, 40s and 50s. He always dressed well and looked great in a fedora.

During World War II he worked in the public relations department of the Curtiss-Wright Corporation, an aircraft manufacturer in Buffalo, N.Y. The Buffalo plants made C-46 cargo planes as well as P-40 fighters, which were made famous by the Flying Tigers squadron in China.

I imagine Grandpa as an engaging salesman, the kind you’d actually enjoy having lunch with, the kind who knew his stuff down to the smallest detail, who could explain Curtiss-Wright’s mission to the best of them.

When he died, we discovered in my grandparents’ garage a whole box of Curtiss-Wright material. He’d saved it all these years, which tells me he was proud of the work he’d done. Among the various marketing pamphlets were a few of these medallions.

The inscription on the reverse reads:

Presented in appreciation of your participation in the earning of this Production Award. Curtiss-Wright Corp. Airplane Division, Buffalo, N.Y.

It was in recognition of the thousands of aircraft the plants produced.

Whether Grandpa handed them out or received them doesn’t matter. On this Memorial Day 70 years after the end of the war, the medallion is a small reminder of the big work done by people like him to ensure a success that must have felt at the time all but guaranteed.


To get a flavor of what my grandfather was working towards, view this video of the flyover commemorating the 70th anniversary of Victory in Europe Day. The Curtiss-Wright P-40s appear at 1:29.

I Don’t Rush to Volunteer Anymore. Here’s Why

Recently, I contacted a public interest nonprofit to find out about volunteer opportunities. Without learning anything about me, the coordinator pleasantly asked “Can you help market an event to show a movie in your town about tax loopholes?”

Um, no. Public relations are not part of my skill set, and spreading the word about this movie would’ve involved a significant amount of what little free time I had. Politely, I declined and she never contacted me again. This got me thinking about why it is that I’ve increasingly avoided volunteering for anything.vol_comp

During National Volunteer Week (April 12-18, 2015) we will likely hear many appeals for various opportunities for service. Organizations such as schools, churches, civic groups, and nonprofits are always in need of volunteers. In fact, these organizations chronically lament the fact that they struggle to find adequate manpower and funding to support their missions. But just as important as donating your time to a cause is being aware of what you’re getting yourself into.

Generally, organizations that can’t afford to pay all their workers recruit volunteers by offering intangible incentives. But these incentives, I have observed, don’t provide all the value that they promise.

To varying degrees, organizations base their appeals for volunteers on one or more of the following:

  1. You will benefit from “giving back”: Giving back implies that you have received. However, many who are struggling to make ends meet, stuck in an unsatisfying job with no chance for advancement, or lost on the road of life are still waiting to receive. This makes the idea of “giving back” pointless. People have a need to feel needed and useful, and until that need is met, the “giving back” part doesn’t play.
  2. You will share your unique skills: Everybody wants to feel like they have something special to offer. In fact, that is exactly what we are asked to define when we apply for a job: the unique value you, as an individual, can provide the organization. However, volunteer organizations are looking for just the opposite. Most openings for volunteers are jobs that require no experience and very little skill, such as shuffling papers, raking leaves, or distributing food. Anyone with an IQ higher than a zombie can do the work. To the organization, you are not a person but a resource to be used as they see fit.
  3. You will network with a group of like-minded people: People who volunteer have a large amount of time on their hands. From what I have observed, this means they are either retired, supported by a spouse, or unemployed. They may share your interest in whatever it is you are volunteering for, but they are not a representative cross-section of society. It is highly unlikely that your association will move beyond that day or two of working together because these folks are just as struggling and disconnected as you. Despite the warm fuzzies, you won’t receive anything that could boost your network.

Unfortunately, all of these are based on assumptions that don’t hold true for everyone, and shaming people into volunteering or enticing them with false promises is bound to backfire. Organizations that are wondering how they can recruit and retain more volunteers should look at what they’re offering and see if it matches up to their volunteers’ actual experience.

In case anyone is wondering, I have volunteered many, many times. I spent two years on a citizen committee for my town, three years as a Cub Scout assistant den leader, six years on a committee at my church, and six years working at my county fair. Before that, at various times and places, I have shoveled manure, sorted books, manned booths, served food, and collected canned goods, all as an unpaid volunteer. I did all these things because they needed doing and I have no regrets.

But none of these—with the possible exception of the church committee—have provided any of the alleged benefits listed above.

Just to be clear, by “volunteer” I’m not meaning volunteer firefighters, or physicians who volunteer during disasters or epidemics, or lawyers who work pro bono. These are trained professionals donating their skills. They are certainly doing good work and personally benefitting from doing so. Rather, I’m referring to the incessant call from countless directions to donate your valuable time.

I’m sure that many people have had very fulfilling volunteer experiences, and that’s fine. Perhaps my need for these intangible benefits is higher, so that when an experience does not deliver on its promises, I notice.

If somebody were to offer me the opportunity to be part of something that I deeply cared about and to contribute my skills to a good cause, then I might renew my interest in volunteering. Until then, don’t bother calling because I’m not signing up.

Does Your Generation Matter? – Survey Still Open

The survey is still open!

It’s quick!

It’s easy!

(And I need more responses to get a good sample size.)

So take the survey today — and thank you!

Take a Survey: Attitudes about work and life

People have various attitudes about work and life. Some are enthusiastic about their careers while others are much less so. Some are optimistic about life while others find it a struggle.

Paper boys

Paper boys

Individuals, of course, are the product of a complex set of unique variables. But larger groups, affected by similar social and economic forces, tend to share similar views (called the “cohort effect”). These generations may collectively have attitudes about work and life that are noticeably different from each other.

Below is a link to a quick survey (three questions) that I hope will shed some light on this.

Let me know what you think in the comments section of this post. I will share the results at a future date.

Looking for Truth on Keystone XL

There’s an old saying that truth will out. Eventually. Given enough time. Someday, we can expect we’ll get the real story.

Which implies that for now, we probably aren’t.

Nearly two years ago, I pointed out the flawed reporting regarding the Keystone XL pipeline and its associated environmental impact statement. Specifically, I noted that

the State Department did not prepare the environmental impact statement. If you read the department’s web page on the project, you will see that they farmed out the EIS to Environmental Resources Management (ERM), a multinational environmental “consulting” firm.

I took issue not only with how the journalist was reporting the story, but also with the fact that, all too often, our government places undue confidence in private firms to conduct its business.

Art: iStock

Art: iStock

It now appears that Bloomberg Businessweek agrees with me.

In an article dated Jan. 23, Brad Wieners lays bare the clear case for ERM’s conflict of interest in being awarded the job of doing the environmental review for the Keystone XL pipeline. He states that, at the very least, there is not enough separation between the reviewer and the reviewee:

The State Department review process has a built-in conflict of interest, because contractors like ERM are paid for by the applicant—in this case, TransCanada, ERM’s former client.

Wieners’ article goes into much more depth than I could hope to get on my limited time and budget, but we’ve come to the same conclusion.

Which is refreshing.

Often, through all the shouting, I feel as if I’m off in a corner talking to myself. I’d rather feel like a contributor to a more rational conversation, one that leads in the general direction of truth.