Darkest Hour: Reflections on Leadership and Words

I love going to the movies, but I don’t do it much these days. I feel like I should spend the time with the characters in my head, rather than with someone else’s characters on a screen. But this past weekend, friends and I went to see Darkest Hour about Winston Churchill’s early weeks as Prime Minister of Great Britain in 1940. The basic conflict is between Churchill who wants to fight Nazi Germany to the bitter end and others in the Conservative Party who want to negotiate peace. As the military news grows more dismal, Churchill is torn. He hates the idea of seeking a truce with Hitler, but (despite his famous V sign) he wonders if victory is possible.

Even though we know what happened—how the British army is rescued at Dunkirk—the tension in the movie is gripping. The acting was great and the relationships depicted between the characters realistic. I found myself caught up in the drama as if the fate of the Western World were truly at stake—which it was.

Married Love, statue of Winston and Clementine Churchill located in Kansas City, MO

Gary Oldman as Winston Churchill carried the film, but I also enjoyed Kristin Scott Thomas in the part of his wife Clementine. The movie portrayed their support of each other throughout his long political career. There is a statue of Winston and Clementine Churchill in Kansas City called “Married Love,” and locals here have often scoffed at the notion of honoring Winston Churchill for his role as a husband, rather than as a politician or author. But after seeing how Oldman and Thomas played the couple in Darkest Hour, I can almost see the reason for the statue.

I also liked the character of Churchill’s secretary, played by Lily James. I assume this is a mostly fictional or composite character, but her role allowed the film to show a human side of Churchill beyond his curmudgeonly, cigar-smoking, alcohol-imbibing persona. I wouldn’t call him charming, but he was compassionate toward her, after his initial blow-up that almost caused her to quit.

I watched this film in part as a study in leadership. While few leaders are as eccentric as Churchill, his power with words and his focus on pursuing right as he defined it (despite failures of his instincts in the past) are aspects of leadership to which every leader should aspire.

Although the film contains one scene of Churchill relating to common Britishers, for the most part it focuses on the political intrigue that complicated his early days as Prime Minister. It was the rivalries within the Conservative Party along with the menace in Germany that caused Britain’s darkest hour—which was most likely Churchill’s personal darkest hour as well.

The movie depicts Lord Halifax (played by Stephen Dillane) as the political rival most antagonistic to Churchill. Yet even Halifax has reasons for disagreeing with Churchill. While history proved Halifax’s desire to seek a truce with Hitler wrong, the film makes clear that at the time it was quite possible he would be right. We root for Churchill’s desire to preserve liberty and democratic ideals, but we feel the possibility he might not prevail, and therefore have some sympathy for Halifax.

And at the end, Neville Chamberlain (played by Ronald Pickup), who had been booted out as Prime Minister for his appeasement of Hitler, admits that it is a poor leader who cannot change his mind. He finally supports Churchill after scheming against him for months.

The film also depicted the relationship between King George VI (played by Ben Mendelsohn) and Churchill. Both represented British traditions—the monarchy and Parliament—and they developed from mutual distrust (and even distaste) to respect. Neither man had anyone else with whom confiding was comfortable, yet Great Britain’s future rested on their shoulders. Every leader needs someone to serve as sounding board, and perhaps these men found it in each other.

Darkest Hour also shows another aspect of leadership worth remembering—the importance of leaders telling the truth. Early in the film, Churchill lies in his radio address to the British people about the military situation in Europe. King George reprimands him for this. But Churchill is redeemed when he calls on the British people to overcome the enemy at hand, to fight to the end. And, of course, we know they do.

I had watched Dunkirk a few months ago, which depicted the travails of the soldiers on the beach awaiting rescue as well as the heroic efforts of the civilian fleet that rescued them. While that film did a good job of showing the horrors of war and in humanizing the bravery of both troops and civilian boatowners, I found Darkest Hour much more compelling. Darkest Hour did a better job of describing the stakes for Britain and the Western World in the early days of World War II. There are viewers who disagree with me and prefer Dunkirk to Darkest Hour. But hearing Churchill’s rhetoric brought tears to my eyes.

There is no question that Churchill was a man of words—written words and spoken words, words that inspired his nation and the world. In fact, Churchill made most of his income from writing books and opinion pieces for newspapers and magazines. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1953 “for his mastery of historical and biographical description as well as for brilliant oratory in defending exalted human values.” His speeches to Parliament are some of the most rousing moments in the movie.

One friend who went to the movie with me decided to read Churchill’s A History of the English-Speaking Peoples, which is a four-volume history covering the almost 1900-year period from Caesar’s invasions of Britain to the beginning of the First World War. I’m not that motivated to study British history, but I learned a lot in the two hours I spent watching Darkest Hour. And I appreciated the opportunity to be inspired by a great leader in the midst of desperate circumstances.

What’s the best movie you’ve seen recently?

Why I Don’t Wish Friends Happy Birthday on Facebook

Another year has begun, and with it another round of birthdays. And another round of deciding which birthdays will I acknowledge, and which will I ignore.

Kids get recognized—that’s a given. (Or it should be.) My younger nieces and nephews will get a card and a gift. The recognition may come late, but until they’re in their teens somewhere, they’ll receive some form of acknowledgment from me that they are growing up. One group of youngsters has a cluster of birthdays—they’ll all get their presents in the same mailing. Another niece has a birthday right after Christmas. She’s the only one guaranteed to get an early gift—I put in it the Christmas box. But they all get something.

And until they’re of the age of reason, they’ll probably get a token gift when their siblings have birthdays also. If only to minimize the squabbles their parents have to deal with.

Adults are another matter. I have a list of family birthdays, and my siblings and their spouses get cards. Ditto on my husband’s side of the family. Grown-up nieces and nephews probably get cards. Most years. When I remember. I do get laxer as people age and family ties weaken.

But what do I do about friends?

My mother was very good about sending all her friends birthday cards. She was a more regular customer of Hallmark than I was—and I worked for the greeting card company and got my cards at a discount. She shopped at least once a month for cards for the next few weeks, wrote a long newsy letter to each person, and got the cards to her friends and relations on time.

One of the worst symptoms of her Alzheimer’s for me was when she started forgetting to send cards. My father tried to take over for family birthdays, but among my saddest birthdays was the year neither of them remembered the occasion.

Weeks later, my father said to me, “I forgot your birthday, didn’t I?”

Yes, he had.

And then a year or two later, he wasn’t there to remember it at all. A sadder birthday yet.

When I worked in Human Resources at Hallmark, I sent many, many birthday cards. And company anniversary cards.

I hadn’t realized that recognizing such occasions was one of the obligations of Human Resources managers, but I quickly embraced the habit. My administrative assistants kept lists of employees with upcoming celebrations, and I sent cards to the people I knew. They deserved that recognition—an opportunity to say congratulations and to thank them for the work they did. I enjoyed writing those cards.

Now I am retired. No more lists of colleagues’ birthdays and anniversaries. No more stock of note cards in the supply cabinet.

But there is Facebook. Facebook tells me when many of my friends have birthdays.

What should I do?

Somehow, it feels disloyal to Hallmark to simply type “Happy Birthday” on someone’s social media wall. If I don’t go to the effort of finding an appropriate card, writing a personal message, addressing the card and mailing it, does it really count?

So I usually choose to ignore the reminder from Facebook. And to ignore all the other birthday wishes my friends are receiving. I don’t post my own birthday, so my friends won’t be placed in a similar quandary.

If Facebook is the only way I have of contacting someone, then I might chime in. I rationalize that if that is the only method I have of recognizing the occasion, the convenience and minimal thought it takes is acceptable. But otherwise, it feels too trite.

So don’t take it personally if I ignore you. In my own way, I am preserving tradition.

Yet many of my Hallmark friends appear to disagree with me. I see them commenting on birthdays left and right, regardless of the impact to Hallmark’s bottom line when they do not send cards. Or maybe they’re sending cards also.

Of course, my position is somewhat silly. I’m not sending cards or writing on Facebook walls—I’m ignoring the occasion altogether. Right or wrong, that’s the position I’ve taken. At least I recognize my hypocrisy.

What do you think? Would you rather have me type Happy Birthday so you know I’m thinking of you? Or shall I continue to ignore Facebook and preserve a tradition I generally do not follow?

Random Photos: Ironing

With my ironing board from Santa, circa 1959

Despite an early exposure to ironing (Santa left me an ironing board when I was just a toddler), I have never liked it. In fact, I’ve done whatever I could to avoid it.

I’ve owned an iron since I was married, but I didn’t buy an ironing board until sometime after I had two kids. I remember buying it, thinking everyone should have an ironing board, but knowing I didn’t really want one. A towel spread out on a bed or counter had always been adequate.

Theresa ironing, November 25, 1977

What brought this topic to mind was finding a picture of myself ironing a shirt the day before my wedding. I found an envelope of snapshots taken the weekend of our marriage. I know I’ve seen some of these pictures before, but I had totally forgotten them. I didn’t remember the photo of me ironing.

There are only two times in my life that I have agreed to iron my husband’s shirt—and only once that I actually did it. That was the day before we were married, Friday, November 25, 1977.

At the rehearsal dinner, fiance in dress shirt I’d ironed

He said he needed his dress shirt ironed before we went to the rehearsal dinner. So I agreed to do it. This photo was taken in my parents’ basement, where I set up my mother’s ironing board and went at it.

I must have done an acceptable job, because he wore the shirt to the rehearsal dinner.

The other time I agreed to iron his shirt was Friday, May 10, 1985. How do I remember that date? Well, the day is memorable for many reasons.

I had spent that week in an executive development program in Lawrence, Kansas, with other managers and professionals at Hallmark Cards. I left Lawrence about noon on May 10, 1985, to go to my obstetrician’s office. I was eight-and-a-half months pregnant. After I got home, I called my husband to let him know I’d made it back. We were scheduled to go to a social event sponsored by his law firm that evening. He asked me to iron his shirt. I sighed, but said I would.

Then I went into the family room to lie down on the couch. After all, I was eight-and-a-half months pregnant, and had an evening event to attend. And a shirt to iron.

As I lay on the couch resting, my water broke. Contractions started immediately.

I called my husband again and told him I would not be ironing his shirt.

“Why not?” he asked.

“Because we’re having a baby tonight instead.”

What will you do to get out of ironing (or other detested tasks)?

Sick Days in Retirement: If a Woman Sneezes at Home, Does Anyone Hear?

This is a self-pity post. I’ve had a cold or the flu for the last week, and I’ve been miserable. If the news reports of the flu epidemic are true, then many other people out there are sick also, and many are sicker than I am. But at the moment, I’m pitying myself, not others.

I got my flu shot, so I shouldn’t be sick. I breezed through Christmas without any exposure (that I knew of) to illness.

But on New Year’s Eve I awoke with a scratchy throat. For the next two days, I didn’t feel well, but I didn’t think it was too bad. I kept up with my normal activities, even going to the gym on Tuesday. I took some cold medicine to help me sleep, but I figured the flu shot would do its thing and I would improve quickly.

This isn’t me, but I have a blue robe like this that I’ve been spending a lot of time in.

Then Wednesday hit. Congestion. Coughing. Fatigue. The proverbial freight train slammed into my body, and I didn’t want to move.

Ditto Thursday. And Friday, though Friday was a little better than Thursday. And Saturday a little better still.

Nevertheless, since my gym visit Tuesday, I haven’t left the house, and I don’t plan to until a meeting scheduled this coming Tuesday.

It has been a long time since I was sick enough to decide to cancel all non-home-based activities for a week.

Of course, while I was working, I generally couldn’t cancel everything. I never took a full week off for illness in twenty-seven years of corporate life. I don’t think I ever took more than two days. There were too many bosses and judges putting meetings on my calendar and imposing non-negotiable deadlines, too many people requiring input and output from me. Too much peer pressure to keep going strong even after the freight train struck.

So I think of taking sick days as a luxury. As a self-employed writer and community volunteer, I can decide for myself whether my presence at meetings is necessary or whether the risk of infecting others outweighs the contributions I could bring to a discussion. I can be self-pitying, and no one can chastise me.

Not me either. This woman looks how I feel, but I don’t have a teddy bear to keep me company.

But the ability to take sick days also means I’m expendable. No one relies on me for anything that can’t be postponed. Even my husband could manage to feed himself if I didn’t fix dinner (though I have been doing that through my illness).

I’m fortunate that I am currently at a point in my writing project that takes very little creativity. I’m doing a final polish on Forever Mine, which doesn’t require much more than the ability to spot typos. I’m pretty good at that, and even my fog-filled brain can handle that mindless activity.

Still, I wonder if I will regret this lost week, if it will set the tone for the coming year. And, in my self-pitying mode, I wonder who besides myself would care if I don’t meet my self-imposed goals.

When have you wallowed in self-pity? What got you out of it?

MERRY CHRISTMAS TO ALL!

I wrote two years ago about going to see Santa Claus at Lloyd Center in Portland, Oregon. I’m pretty sure the year was 1961. When I wrote that post, I couldn’t find the picture of my brother and me with Santa.

Well, now I’ve found it:

I hope Santa brought you everything you want for Christmas this year, and may 2018 be your happiest year ever.

Merry Christmas!

Our Fortieth Anniversary: Memories and Treasures Through Generations

This year I’ve posted several times about my husband’s and my courtship forty years ago. (See here and here and here.) Yesterday, November 26, 2017, was our fortieth wedding anniversary. As we did the year we were married, we celebrated throughout the Thanksgiving weekend.

This Thursday we hosted my husband’s mother, sister, and brother-in-law for Thanksgiving dinner. It was a smaller, older crowd than our holiday dinner forty years ago. Then, my parents hosted the entire wedding party and three generations of family members at two tables. My husband-to-be-in-two-days, at age 28, was the oldest person at the kids’ table in the basement. My parents, at age 44, were the youngest people at the grown-ups’ table in the dining room.

This Friday, we rested after our meal preparation for Thanksgiving. Forty years ago on Friday of the holiday weekend, we had the rehearsal and rehearsal dinner.

This past Saturday evening, my husband and I went to a Christmas music show at the Quality Hill Playhouse in Kansas City. On Saturday afternoon of Thanksgiving weekend forty years ago, we were married, followed by a low-key reception at a local hotel in my hometown. Late that Saturday, my husband and I flew to San Francisco, where we stayed at the Mark Hopkins Hotel.

On Sunday—our actual fortieth anniversary—my husband worked and I dealt with a temporary crown that popped off. But in the evening we celebrated with dinner at Piropos, a premier restaurant near our home (though to accommodate my tooth, I ordered soup and seafood ravioli instead of salad and steak, as I had planned). On Sunday of Thanksgiving weekend forty years ago, we had brunch at the Top of the Mark, then headed back to Stanford to prepare for our Monday law school classes.

On June 25, 1955, almost twenty-two years before my husband and I were married, my parents also stayed at the Mark Hopkins Hotel in San Francisco, driving there from Klamath Falls, Oregon, after their wedding. My mother wrote her parents a lovely thank-you note on June 27, 1955, while on their two-week honeymoon in Carmel. My grandmother saved the note, and I have it now.

I was a less grateful daughter and didn’t write my parents while on my brief one-night honeymoon. Nor did I contact them anytime in the week after the wedding. When I did first call my parents the following weekend, there were some hints that they should have heard from me earlier. My only excuse is that I had classes on Monday and a law review note to rewrite in three weeks. That, and I am less thoughtful than my parents were.

As I was going through our good china and silver (most of which we received as our wedding presents) to set the table for Thanksgiving dinner last week, I came across a box with a silver tray in it. The tray falls into the category of “things I forgot I had.”

In the box with the tray was a note from my mother to my husband and me:

“Dear Theresa and Al,
Happy 25th Anniversary! As a silver keepsake-memento for this occasion in your life, this silver tray Nanny Winnie and Papa Gene [my mother’s parents] received from a group of their friends in Klamath Falls on their 25th anniversary at a surprise party (I believe) in 1954.
With our love and prayers, Mother and Dad.
November 26, 2002 — Have a wonderful trip to Aruba.”

My parents were as thoughtful in their choice of gift for our twenty-fifth anniversary as they were after their own wedding, by then almost fifty years in the past. I’m sure I wrote them a thank-you note after receiving the tray, though there is no evidence to prove it. And I’ve never used the silver tray from my grandparents, which is why it became a “thing I forgot I had.” It seems too nice to leave out, plus it would then need polishing on occasion.

This post rambles from events commemorating our fortieth anniversary this year, our twenty-fifth anniversary in 2002, our wedding in 1977, my parents’ wedding in 1955, and my grandparents’ twenty-fifth anniversary in 1954—which happened before I was born. Some of these events are part of my memory. Some were not my memories, but those of my parents and grandparents, and they survive now only as recorded in letters. Or in my blog posts.

Family memories live on through the ages, as long as we keep them alive. By writing them down, I do what I can to keep my family’s memories alive.

Perhaps I will pull out that silver tray from my grandparents this year to hold the Christmas cards we will receive over the next few weeks. That, too, will help me keep alive the memories that are mine, my parents, and my grandparents. And maybe I’ll even build some new memories, so that the silver tray becomes mine as much it was as my grandparents.’

What treasures are part of your family’s memories?

“When He’s Ten . . .” And Now He’s Fifty!

When our youngest sibling (a boy) was born, my ten-year-old brother announced in awe, “When he’s ten, I’ll be twenty!” As if it was impossible for him to consider ever being twenty, which it might well have been.

My siblings and me with our grandmother, right after the youngest brother was born. This might even have been the date when my ten-year-old brother said, “When he’s ten, I’ll be twenty!”

My grandmother loved telling that anecdote, and she repeated it often over the years. Of course, she was just a few months short of sixty when it happened and had already lost one husband to death. Even being twenty might have felt long ago in her past, which is what made it amusing to her.

My take on the story at the time was that in ten years, I would be twenty-one—out of college, an adult, and voting. (The voting age hadn’t yet been reduced to eighteen.) I didn’t say so when my brother made his pronouncement, but the notion of adulthood awed me as much as it did him.

Earlier this fall, that ten-year-old brother turned sixty. Our “baby” brother turns fifty tomorrow. It is fifty years—half a century—since that story became part of our family lore.

Baby brother when he was ten, escorting our mother into my wedding.

Obviously, fifty years ago, baby brother was not thinking of what his life would become. Now he has been married for over fifteen years, and he and his wife have two children. His career is well-established. I’ve written about this youngest brother before—his childhood precociousness, the fulfillment of his childhood desire to become a pediatrician, his devotion to our parents, and his steadiness after their death. He has become a better adult than any of us had in mind half a century ago.

Meanwhile, long before age sixty, the ten-year-old brother became estranged from the family for reasons of his own. I wonder when his perspective changed from awe at the possibility of turning twenty to a decision he didn’t need the rest of us. He is independent, but I doubt he has the type of adulthood he imagined through his growing-up years.

And in the intervening half century, my perspective has changed as well. After all, I am now older than my grandmother at the time of that incident fifty years ago.

Not only am I an adult—as I have been for more than forty years—I’ve been married for forty years, had two children, completed a corporate career, and launched myself into a “retirement” career of writing novels. In fact, I’ve been “retired” from paid employment for more than a decade—the same time period that so awed my brother when he was ten.

A decade doesn’t mean what it used to. At ten, it is an entire lifetime. At fifty, it is only 20% of a life. At sixty, it is even less significant. My perspective on time has changed as I have aged. A half-century still seems like a lot, but even that means less than it did fifty years ago.

How have your perspectives on time changed as you have aged?