Believing in the (seemingly) impossible: Lessons from Amy Brillinger Pole, Rudy Giuliani and Alice in Wonderland

I make no bones about my frustration with our state government. In fact, there are times when I feel like I talk Ė and write Ė about nothing else. And not always by choice. Part of my job is paying attention to how decisions in Albany trickle (or in some cases pour) down to local communities and taxpayers.

Iíd have assumed that my frustration level would have maxed out at some point, but apparently it knows no bounds. As evidenced by that fact that itís increased exponentially of late Ė as Iíve sat through countless school board meetings and listened to the devastating affects anticipated by our not-so-esteemed governorís proposal of the day.

Frankly, all the doom and gloom is getting me down. Itís hard not to find our stateís (and yes, our countryís) fiscal situation depressing. And Iím probably not the only one who is starting to wonder if weíll ever dig ourselves out of this mess weíre in.

I am happy to say, however, that Iíve found new hope recently, and from some rather unexpected sources. One of those sources was a conversation I had with a truly remarkable young woman who has spent the last year battling a brain tumor. The other, a book on leadership penned by former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani.

Now, it might be hard to imagine that a conversation with someone who has had their life turned more than upside down by cancer, and had to endure two surgeries, radiation and a number of other treatments, as uplifting. But thatís exactly how I would describe meeting Amy Pole and her mother Kathy Brillinger yesterday. It was emotional, yes, and I found myself tearing up on more than one occasion (yeah, I know, youíre SHOCKED by that revelation), but I left with an entirely new perspective on a whole host of things. The most significant of which is that you canít let yourself focus on the ďwhy meísĒ and the negativity. The only way to get through the biggest of lifeís challenges is to stay positive and focus on beating whatever road block fate has thrown in your way.

For Amy, that roadblock is the tennis ball-sized tumor she had removed last year. Sheís the first to admit that there have been plenty of bad days since her initial diagnosis, but her fight has inspired others - including some she has never met - to throw their support behind her. (I know Iím proudly sporting my Team Amy bracelet.)

According to Amy, her 2-year old son Jack is her motivation for keeping up the fight. Her mom, though, is her motivator.

ďThis is your job right now,Ē Kathy said she told Amy after one of her surgeries, when her daughter was struggling even to get out of bed to see her young son. And Amy has made it her job, to both battle the tumor and to turn this negative event into the positive energy she needs to keep focused on getting well.

I canít thank Amy and Kathy (as well as their angel, Betsey Baio) enough for opening up with me, sharing their story and reminding me that we canít waste time with the negativity. We have to turn that energy around to move forward.

Itís a lesson I think our state and federal leaders need as well. New York has a tumor of its own, the result of far too many years of overspending and inefficiencies. Itís spread just like cancer cells, to such an extent that its hard to even conceptualize exorcising it outright, or even getting it under control. Like with cancer, there is no easy fix. And treating our problems in Albany will be painful and difficult, just as chemotherapy, radiation and all those experimental treatments patients like Amy endure. And rest assured, they all have their own horrible side effects.

But, as Amy and so many others are living proof, cancer can be beat. So too, our governmental woes. At least thatís what Iím trying to convince myself.

This is where Rudy Giuliani comes in.

My Leadership Chenango classmates and I were each tasked with reading a book on, well, leadership. My selection was the 2007 edition of Giulianiís book ďLeadership,Ē originally published in 2002.

This is a book Iíd been wanting to read for a number of reason. Not least of which is that Giuliani is a Manhattan College alum. (Go Jaspers!) His first term as mayor of the Big Apple coincided with my years on the Riverdale campus, and he was a frequent speaker at college events. From my Bronx stomping grounds I saw firsthand some of the ways in which he was able to turn New York around.

And when four and a half years later I watched the television with horror and disbelief as the twin towers crumbled amid smoke and flames, there was a part of me more than a little relieved to know that the city where I was born was in his capable hands.

I found parts of Giulianiís book difficult to read, because it went into great detail about the events of September 11, 2001 and the days, weeks and months which followed. It was painful to relive that tragic time through his first hand account.

But that, of course, was not the focus of the book. No, it was filled with tidbits of wisdom, insight into successful leadership principles and plenty of examples of how he put those principals to use during his years in the U.S. Justice Department and as mayor of New York.

I had forgotten what the city had been like when I first arrived on campus in the late summer of 1993, just a few months before Giuliani was elected to his first term in City Hall. There was a shooting on the first day of class, just a few blocks away my residence hall. The city was dirty and crime was at a staggering level, with nearly 2,000 murders being committed every year. More than 1 million New Yorkers were on welfare, and the city faced a staggering budget deficit. Times Square was a sinnerís paradise, with more XXX movie theaters and sex shops than you could count.

But under Giulianiís leadership, the city transformed into a safer, more prosperous place. Crime dropped, prison violence was reduced, taxes were cut, businesses and industries thrived, the budget deficit turned into a surplus, the number of people on welfare declined by 60 percent, city agencies were streamlined and Times Square got a family-friendly, Disney-style makeover.

Now Iím not saying this to try to entice you to support the former mayor to put his bid in for Patersonís position. (Sorry to disappoint, but heís already said he isnít interested in running. Which is a bummer, in my opinion.) But rather as a reminder that all is not lost. Pre-Giuliani the media had taken to calling NYC ďthe Rotten Apple.Ē But he proved that change and reform is possible. You just have to believe in it, and focus on doing what needs to be done to turn things around.

Unchecked spending, high unemployment, sky high taxes and the number of people dependent on welfare and Medicaid have turned New York State into something akin to NYC before Giuliani took office. Crime too is on the rise, at least locally, as the stresses of the beleaguered economy take their toll. But if we donít believe that we can restore our state to glory, or eradicate that tumor, we donít have a chance of overcoming our current situation.

I am not known for my glowing positivity. I prefer to think of myself as a realist. To me, the glass is neither half full nor half empty, but rather half a glass. But even from that standpoint, you have to admit that New Yorkís glass is at least half full. We have the people, the talent, the business savvy to turn this thing around. But it isnít going to be easy, because people donít like change. And itís going to hurt in a lot of areas, because the fiscal reality is that our state coffers are empty, and our taxpayers have already been bled dry. Getting through this is going to take sacrifice, creativity and perseverance.

Itís also going to take a little imagination, such as exhibited by Alice in her adventures in Wonderland.

ďWhy, sometimes I have believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast,Ē Alice is known to say.

Number one on my list of impossible things to dream of is New York State righting itself, and coming through the process smarter, leaner and better than ever before.

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