A Plea to Half of America

When I was a much younger man I spent four years as a United States Marine and one of those four years was spent practicing evacuating American embassies in places like Spain, Morocco and Tunisia. When I returned to the U.S. the very first thing I did was drop to my knees and kiss the ground.

At points of entry, to this very day, I get misty-eyed when I see the words “Welcome to the United States of America”.  Make no mistake, I love these United States…but America….you really need to get over yourself.

There’s a mindset, far too prevalent in this country, that America is the absolute best at absolutely everything. If you dare to even suggest some countries are equally as good at certain things, maybe even better than us, you’re decried as un-American, unpatriotic and…why, you might even be a socialist!

Have you ever heard any these phrases: “American Exceptionalism”, or how about “USA! USA! USA!” and my personal favorite “God, Guns and Guts made America Great!”

I’ll get back to the God, Guns and Guts in just a minute, but let’s first ask ourselves “what does it mean to be a great country?” If great is defined as being able to kill more people than any other country, then perhaps we are the greatest. Personally, I’d like think there’s a lot more to greatness than that.

There are many who would have you believe that every person not already in the U.S. is simply marking time through a meaningless existence, just waiting for their chance to come to America. Why? Because we’re so much better than them! Should you ask these people “What are you basing this on? How many other countries have you been to?” they often snap “None! And I don’t need to!”

There’s nothing wrong with having no desire to travel, but you shouldn’t then offer your emotionally-charged opinion that America is the greatest country in the world. It’s even worse when nobody asked you. It’s irrational.

Just recently I spent two weeks in the Netherlands. I stayed with friends in their apartment and was able to experience the Netherlands much like a local. From grocery shopping to visiting someone in a hospital to taking out the trash and washing dishes, I lived more as a local than a tourist.

After experiencing two weeks of life as lived by the Dutch, I came to the realization that a country’s “greatness” is measured simply by the quality of life of its citizens.

With that in mind the stage is set: The Mighty USA vs teeny-tiny Netherlands (one third the size of the state of Michigan). Let the battle begin.

As a framework for our battle, I return, as promised, to “God, Guns and Guts”.

God – The U.S. is one of the most religious countries on the planet. Only four percent of the population identifies itself as having no religion.

Conservative commentators and news outlets would have you believe that the four percent are winning a life-and-death struggle against the ninety-six percent over their right to exist.

Yet, our currency says “In God We Trust”. Several state legislatures open sessions with prayers and every single Federal office not related to defense, homeland security or law enforcement is shut down when Christmas falls on a weekday. So despite what the majority claims, religion is intertwined with many fundamental aspects of our society.

By contrast, forty percent of Dutch citizens claim no religion at all. That percentage will likely go higher as older generations fade away. The forty percent by and large aren’t anti-religion. In my time there, the Dutch didn’t look lost and aimless, nor did they look devoid of conscience. On the contrary, they were friendly, personable and helpful.

Guns – The gun situation in the U.S. is fairly well understood. There is no shortage of laws on the books, most of which are ignored. Following the inevitable annual “gun-in-school-tragedy”, the answer always seems to be more “soon-to-be-ignored” laws. However, there’s something much deeper that needs to be understood about the gun debate.

In the Netherlands you can purchase a firearm and you can keep it in your home. You must be a member of a “gun club” in order to obtain a permit to buy a firearm, however. That being said, we learned from people “on the street” that you can easily buy a gun outside of legal channels. So, based on the assumption that anyone who WANTS a gun can GET a gun, here’s a question that demands an answer: Why is the homicide rate in the U.S. FIVE HUNDRED PERCENT that of the Netherlands? Guns are the means, not the reason. I can tell you part of the reason: anger. We are a very, very angry people. By contrast, the Dutch are largely content and happy. For starters, there seems to be much less of a class divide. Maybe guns would not be such a hot-button issue if we could figure out why we’re so damned angry and inclined to take a life without so much as batting an eye.

Guts – My favorite topic of the three. I have first hand knowledge of guts as I am in possession of one that is far too large. The rate of obesity and overweight adults in the U.S. is sixty seven percent!!!. It breaks my heart now more than ever because I’ve seen the answer… and it is so simple…yet so unreachable for us here in the U.S. The answer is “move your body”.

For two weeks in the Netherlands, I dined out every other night. I ate dessert at many of those meals. I ate many breakfasts consisting of eggs, toast, bacon or corned beef hash. I did all this…and lost five pounds without even trying.

Every “city” of any size in the Netherlands is designed from the ground up to accommodate bicycles and pedestrians as equally as cars. I was astonished to see seventy year-old men and women riding bicycles through crowded streets, in the rain, on their way to buy groceries. Young parents pick up their children from school or daycare by bicycle. I’ve seen the mother of twins with one infant in a basket over the handlebars and their sibling in another basket over the rear tire. This was in February! The baskets are warm and padded and have a plastic cover to keep the cold wind off the infant. Lest you think this is harmful to the child, consider that the Netherlands is ranked 18th best in infant mortality rates and the U.S. 34th. Yes, simply by living their lives the Dutch stay slim and fit.

When I returned home and realized that I had to get into a car to go anywhere, I was furious at how badly we’ve failed to take lessons from countries who have better ways of doing things. No need to carve out an hour for the gym each day. No need for endless pills and fad diets. Ride your bike to work. Or as many Dutch do, ride your bike to the train station, lock it up in a bike rack, take the train for a bit, get out, unlock your OTHER bike from the bike rack in THAT train station and then bike the rest of the way to work. Given a choice of an hour in a car or thirty minutes biking and thirty minutes on a train, I’ll take the latter every day of the week and twice on Sunday.

So, there it is. A three-round knockout. The Netherlands, with its fit, healthy population, walking around content and happy, not shooting each other like characters in a video game and doing all of this despite the fact that they should so obviously be lost souls because they’re just not that into religion. It is no wonder that year after year after year different polls and organizations cite The Netherlands, Denmark or Norway as having the highest standard of living/quality of life in the world. Three countries for sure that would be decried by half of America as “socialists!!”. At the end of the day, does anything matter  other than  happiness? I’m not saying The Netherlands is the greatest country on the planet. I’m just saying it sure the hell isn’t the U.S.

So…I would respectfully submit that when people who’ve never been outside the U.S. declare us the best, at everything, they’re shouting while having their head stuck in the sand.

You might think that so many Americans saying this nonsense would anger people in other countries, and to a certain degree it does. But mostly, they’re not angry with you, America…they’re laughing at you. We have the lowest rate of international travel among the developed countries of the world and yet have all these grandiose opinions of our place in it.

In closing, I would ask you to make it a goal to visit countries on other continents and above all, don’t define your worth and identity based on whether America is or isn’t the best at something. Get out there. Travel, meet different kinds of people and experience different cultures. You’ll be a better person for it.

Angels and Spirits

At risk of sounding like a nut… I’d like to share with you a couple of incidents that have made me an absolute believer in angels and spirits.

To truly get the most out of this blog post, you should first read another blog post of mine and then come back to this one.

I have two specific stories to share.

The Calculator


In the summer of 1992, I was taking an economics course at Macomb Community College. It was one of those summertime cram-down type courses that are only six weeks long when the regular courses were many more weeks in length. I think this course met twice a week, four hours at a shot for six weeks.

At the time of taking this course, my wife was very pregnant, expecting our first child, a boy, we had already named Joshua Grant. And then… the unthinkable happened. Joshua was stillborn at full term. The “review” session for our final exam fell on the same day as Joshua’s funeral, and I was in no shape to attend class that night. I missed the review. Two days later, I arrived to take the final exam. I was in shambles. I could barely focus and I had missed the review. To make matters worse, as we sat down to start the final, I noticed everybody placing calculators on their desk. We NEVER used a calculator in this class, as the math was very basic. I had never brought a calculator with me to this class.

I asked the person sitting next to me “why does everybody have a calculator? We’ve never used them before.” My classmate whispered back – “he said last Tuesday that on the final, we’ll need a calculator”. So now, on top of being a wreck over the loss of our child, I was panic-stricken that I was going to fail this exam.

I bent over to my book bag to get a pencil and some blank sheets of paper. And there, in my bag…..was my calculator. I never brought that calculator to class, ever… and I know I did not put it in the book bag… and yet there it was. I felt my eyes well up with tears, by now convinced I must REALLY look like I was out of my mind.

I took the final and amazingly.. I’ll never know how, I got an A on the final and an A for the course. And I owe it all to my little Joshy who made sure his daddy had a calculator.

The Voice


In 1996, we were finally blessed with a baby, our daughter Monica. My wife had undergone a cesarean delivery and so for the first several weeks, I was the one who got up at night with Monica.

One night, she awoke crying and I went to feed her. She was really crying quite intensely and she didn’t seem to be hungry. I checked her diaper… dry. I rocked her, sang to her and walked around with her, to no avail. After a while I was really getting concerned because she was unconsolable.

My mind began to wander into that “what if something’s REALLY wrong with her” territory. You know, the one where a trip to the emergency room enters your thoughts.

By now, I was really starting to panic. I didn’t know what to do. And then….. as plain as day, I heard in my head a male voice say “her throat”. I looked down and realized that Monica’s pajamas were snapped right to the very top and appeared to be snug around her neck. I unfastened the top snap and she instantly stopped crying. Considering her brother, Josh, was stillborn due to the umbilical cord being wrapped too tightly around his neck, it sent shivers up and down my spine as a I realized that her brother truly was acting as her guardian angel.

Crazy? Really?

Daniel Indiviglio of “The Atlantic” magazine has a piece published today that I read on Yahoo’s finance page.
The title of the piece is “Something Republicans and Democrats Agree On: Their Hatred of the Fed”.
There’s nothing earth-shattering in this article, but there is something with which I take exception:
In other words, a majority of Americans want changes. This goes beyond mere discontent. And this isn’t really a political issue. According to the poll, 19% of independents, 16% of Republicans, 12% of Democrats, and 21% of Tea Partiers want the central bank abolished. That last statistic isn’t terribly surprising, since one of the Tea Party’s favorite politicians, Rep. Ron Paul (R-TX) is arguably the chief Fed opponent in Washington.
Yet the idea that the Fed should be abolished entirely is rather crazy. A complex economy needs a central bank. Some calls for reform could be more legitimate, however.
Hmmm…. The idea that the Fed should be abolished entirely is “rather crazy”. Really?
Let’s have a look at the history of the Fed, shall we? First of all, the Fed’s ORIGINAL purpose was to maintain stable prices and prevent panics, in other words, generally smooth out the ups and downs of the economic cycle.
Price stability: Since it’s inception in 1913, prices have increase 19-fold, or 1900 percent. Said another way, the dollar has lost 95 percent (or more) of it’s purchasing power. That’s not my opinion, that’s a fact.
Grade: Complete failure.
Eliminate Panics/Smooth out economic cycles: Since the Fed’s inception, we’ve suffered through a crash in 1920, the mother of all crashes in 1929 and the Great Depression that followed. We’ve suffered through stagflation in the 70’s, Black Monday in the 80’s and are currently riding out The Great Recession, as it’s been dubbed. These are not my opinions, these are facts.
Grade: Complete failure.
OK, so the Fed was a complete failure on it’s original two missions. You’ll have to forgive them. You see, these missions are what was told to the public. The real mission of the Fed was to have a never ending money supply so banks can lend money even when nobody is depositing money AND, here’s the biggie… to “privatize bank profits and socialize their losses”. What does this mean? That when things go well, the banks win and when things go very badly, you lose. Does the term “TARP” ring a bell?
This was in the plans from the beginning, commencing with the Indianapolis Monetary Commission starting around 1870. The goal of the IMC was to convince the public that fiat currency would actually end panics and benefit them. Surprisingly, the most uneducated farmhand in 1870 knew much, much more about the nature of money and how it works than does the average person today. The public was very much against central banks and had a deep mistrust of Washington and Wall Street (sound familiar). The IMC was in the battle for the long haul, however. For decades, willing accomplices in the media printed papers published by the IMC on how things would be much better under a central bank. After decades of being bombarded by these messages, the old skeptics eventually passed away and newer generations were more open to central banking.
In 1910, presidents and vice-presidents of the largest banks in America converged on Jekyll Island, Georgia and began crafting a plan for central banking. Keep in mind that these men were competitors, or at least they had to compete when money was honest. The fruit of their labor became the Federal Reserve Act of 1913, and as I just mentioned earlier, the American tax payer has bailed out the banks. This is not some catastrophe. This was not unforeseen. This was merely part of the plan; the plan was activated and you and I are left with the bill.
Remember that mission about stable prices, one of the Fed’s original goals? It may interest you to know that from 1800 until 1913, the consumer price index was zero. That means that money bought the same general basket of goods in 1913 that it did in 1800. Disclosure: There was a central bank in the U.S. until 1811, until it’s 20 year charter expired an was not renewed. Incidentally, Andrew Jackson was the president who refused to renew this twenty year charter because he was vehemently opposed to central banking. Today, Jackson’s picture appears on the twenty dollar bill. Coincidence? I think somebody in the Fed at some point decided to have a bit of fun at Jackson’s expense, replacing Grover Cleveland’s face with his in 1928. Jackson actually warned the public about the dangers of paper fiat money in his farewell address to the nation.
But enough history. Back to Mr. Indiviglio.
Sir, are you really telling us, with a straight face, that 113 years of stable prices and far fewer financial crises is “crazy”…. and that a 1,900 percent increase in prices and severely deep recessions and depressions are sane?
Really? Really??

Walking the Walk

“What have you done to increase your human capital today?”

This is a phrase that my friend Mike Miller and I coined while trudging through our masters degrees at Walsh College from 2004 through 2007. Human capital is a term economists use to to describe the set of skills accumulated by an individual, specifically those skills that are in demand by the marketplace.

Mike and I were both in the I.T. profession at the time, gainfully employed and making good salaries. And yet, there we were, once a week, sometimes twice a week at Walsh studying finance of all crazy things, specifically, personal financial planning.

First and foremost in our mind, we wanted to know how to do something other than I.T. just to broaden our job prospects in the future in case it ever came down to that.

Secondly, we wanted something that could complement our current positions and certainly the core financial classes in accounting, economics, financial statement analysis, fundamentals of finance, etc, can come in handy when dealing with our corporate “users”. We can speak their language.

And finally, on a personal level, it never hurts to know how to manage your own money and the specialization in personal financial planning provided us with those skills.

For three years while much of the country was glued to the T.V. to see who was “voted off” their favorite reality T.V. shows, Mike and I were glued to our books, to our computers and to the Walsh library. Many people would consider it torture. We considered it fun. We were increasing our human capital.

Sometime after graduation, Mike observed that the large, international I.T. company he worked for was laying off more and more people. He began looking for a way to utilize his degree and move into financial planning. If you know Mike, you know that the word “prepare” is central to everything about him. Finally after many close calls, Mike received word that he too was being let go.

Fortunately the severance he received worked perfectly into his plans to study for and pass the multitude of exams required by the SEC and State of Michigan in order to become a financial planner.

Mike stopped by my house last night, invited there by me to look over some life insurance questions I had. To watch him at work you’d think he’s been a financial planner his whole life. He is not only surviving but thriving in his new career and is on track to earn more than he ever did as an I.T. professional.

The purpose of this blog post is not to boast (or whine) about hard Mike and I worked, rather it’s to illustrate the way I think we should all conduct our lives. One does not have to spend money on tuition to improve your human capital. There are innumerable ways to do it if you’re determined. Every day we should go to bed knowing more than when we woke up that morning. Yes, I’d like to come home and relax and watch T.V. for four or five hours every night. And that might even be a great plan if “T.V. watcher” becomes the next hot career, but I’m not holding my breath on that one.
In life, there are those that wait around, satisfied with the status quo until they become a victim. Once they become a victim there’s plenty of blame to go around: evil corporations, a bad economy, the governor, the president, the Congress… everyone except the one who’s unemployed. And there are those who make things happen. Mike and his family could have become just another “sob story”, the kind so frequently written about these days. But he took steps while he was working to drastically reduce the odds of that happening.Look, all the preparation and education in the world is no guarantee that you won’t become jobless. That’s not my point. My point however is that if you’re doing NOTHING to improve yourself then you have nobody to blame BUT yourself if you’re out of a job. If you’ve really made a good faith effort at improving or expanding your skills while you were employed and you’re still jobless, it doesn’t suck any less, but you can look at yourself in the mirror and say “hey, I did EVERYTHING I could to prevent this; it’s certainly not due to a lack of effort and preparation.”My buddy Mike refused to become a statistic. He worked his ass off, he studied the market and compared it to his own career likes and wants, he made contacts and preparations and when the time came, he activated the plan and came out smelling like a rose.

I want the very best for everyone. I want all the people reading this to never want for anything. My only question to you is, “are you doing everything possible to increase your marketability?”.

So, what have you done to increase your human capital today?

Sparky, I Hardly Knew Ye

Like so many, today I mourn the passing of Sparky Anderson, one of the great managers in all of baseball history.

In 1984, the Tigers were a meteor that shot out of the gate with an amazing 35-5 start. I am no statistician or historian, but I wonder if any other team in MLB history ever posted such a record for their first 40 games. That meteor continued for the remainder of the year, obliterating everything it its path. The San Diego Padres were nothing more than a sacrificial lamb and a mere footnote in baseball history that year.

When a pro sports team goes through a season like that, it carries a town. Especially a baseball team. I can’t begin to imagine the number of backyard barbecues, parties and other get togethers that summer where the voices of Ernie Harwell or George Kell weren’t present.

But imagine is all I can do…Sadly, while I can admire and appreciate how much Sparky meant to the Tigers and to Detroit, I understand it with my head and not my heart. That’s because I was serving in the Marine Corps from 1983 to 1987. I was in North Carolina up until June or so. One day over breakfast I read in a fledgling newspaper called USA Today that my beloved Tigers were 35-5! Wow! I immediately thought “damn! I wish I was there!”. Remember, there was no web, no smart phones, no MLB “packages”, no ESPN, etc.. It is strange now to think of how disconnected everything was back then. If a game wasn’t on national TV, there was no way to enjoy it… only read about it the next day in a newspaper.

In June, we boarded a ship and sailed across the Atlantic. In a bit of an unscheduled stay, we spent the next four months or so at the U.S. Navy base in Rota, Spain. Finally as the playoffs arrived, the Tigers’ games were carried by Armed Forces Radio. Every game night me and four or five buddies from Michigan would stay up to listen to the game. With Spain being five hours ahead of the Eastern Time Zone in the U.S., the games didn’t START until 1:00 AM. Those were some mighty tired days following a game.

Upon my return from the Marines, back in Metro Detroit, I did get to see the Tigers (and Sparky) win the A.L pennant on the last day of the season, wrestling it away from the Toronto Blue Jays. In fact, I was at the game.

In the years that have followed, I have enjoyed three Pistons world championships, four Red Wings Stanley Cups, a U of M football (co) national-championship and a lot of success for the MSU basketball program. In 2006, I was at all of the Tigers’ playoff games except for Game one of the World Series. The highlight of that stint was being present for Magglio’s walk-off homer against the A’s to send the Tigers to the World Series. I was even at the game when Justin Verlander tossed a no-hitter in 2007.

No matter how glorious the celebration… the people old enough to remember always say “this is great!, but it’s not as good as when the Tigers won in 1984”. I am forever disconnected from my fellow Detroiters in that one special experience that bonds them all together as the city’s finest hour in their lifetime.

And so, all I can do is hope against hope that somehow the Lions can win a Super Bowl because I am sure that WOULD eclipse a World Series. I can also hope that I become a billionaire. Either one has an equal chance of happening.

Sparky, thanks for the memories, old friend. I sure wish I hadn’t missed the big one, but in due time, I am sure you and I can sit down, enjoy a root beer and you can tell me all about it.

Thank You Howard and Marion Cunningham

It was with sadness that I read about the passing of actor Tom Bosely, known to tens of millions as the lovable “Howard Cunningham” on the ’70’s T.V. show “Happy Days”. Howard Cunningham was “America’s dad” for a generation of this country and his TV wife, Marion, played by actress Marion Ross, was America’s mom.

I had my own special encounter with the Cunninghams, well…, at least Marion, who was known as “Mrs. ‘C'” on the show.

It was the day before Thanksgiving in 1984; the place was in Marseilles, France. I was a young Marine serving aboard the U.S.S. Shreveport as our unit was deployed to the Mediterranean Sea with our job of practicing the evacuation of U.S. embassies in the region. On this particular day, I found myself standing guard duty on the pier at the base of the “ladder” (stairs) that lead from the pier to the deck of the Shreveport.

A large motor-coach arrived nearby, bringing with it the members of a USO show that was to perform later that night. The members of the troupe included Marion Ross (Mrs. C) and Anson Williams (Potsie Weber) from Happy Days, John Walmsley who played “Jason” in the T.V. show the Waltons (he was the musician in the family) as well as many dancers/actresses from the movie “Flashdance”,

The group moved toward the Shreveport and arrived at the end of the ladder where I was standing guard. Marion Ross approached me, took one look at the little bit of red hair I had peaking out from under my Marine Corps “cover” (hat) and said ” Aw, you remind me of Richie!” and proceeded to tip-toe up and kiss my cheek.

Later that night, the USO show took place aboard the Shreveport. The tables and chairs of the chow-hall had been pushed aside. Marines and Sailors were crammed into every nook and cranny around as we watched the show, cheering and especially enjoying the girls from Flashdance. A lot of hooting and howling seems to ring a bell. At one point, Marion Ross took the stage and addressed us. She told us all what fine young men we were and how much she and the country appreciated us being on the job, protecting our country. She then spoke about our sacrifice, being so far from home during the holidays, away from family. She broke up a bit, emotionally, as she addressed us. Of course, she is a professional actress as well, so it was kind of hard to say if it was genuine or not, but we gave her the benefit of a doubt. I looked around the room to see if I was alone in my attempt to inconspicuously brush aside a tear or two. Through my blurred vision, I was relieved to see that I was not.

The show continued with the musical band playing “Splish Splash” which was sung by Potsie Weber (Anson Williams). It was just like being in a re-run of Happy Days!

As the show neared its end the Sailors and Marines of the U.S.S. Shreveport, predominately young men between 18 and 22, began chanting “Mrs. C!, Mrs. C!, Mrs. C!”. You might have expected throng of young men cooped up for months on a ship to be demanding more of the girls from Flashdance. What they really wanted on this Thanksgiving so far from home was a mother, and who better to stand in for their own mother than the lovable Mrs. C?.

I shall always remember that chanting crowd, her emotional address to us, and most especially her kiss on my cheek.

Thank you, Mrs. Cunningham, and I am very sorry for the loss of your husband, Howard.

A Sobering Dose of Reality

This evening I had a very interesting doctor’s appointment.

More precisely, the doctor’s appointment was pretty boring and average. It was the time spent in the waiting room that was interesting. There was one older gentleman waiting with me. He turned out to be seventy but looked much younger to me.

Sure enough it didn’t take long and he started talking to me. I felt a little guilty, as I was trying check Facebook on my phone. Normally, this is about the time when I start thinking: “Please!! Don’t start a conversation with me!”

With resignation, I just put down the phone and listened politely.

Within a few moments, he told me that he had recently been diagnosed with terminal, inoperable cancer – in his liver, lungs, bones, lymph nodes… everywhere. He had my attention. My mind began racing… Is he going to break down and cry? If he does, should I hug him??

He continued, saying that he wasn’t afraid of dying.. only of becoming a vegetable, a burden. He wants to go quickly but the thought of his wife and daughters grieving over him bothers him.

The past few days have been very emotional. His wife cries all the time. His daughters are upset. Yet,he has remained distant and philosophical about it, at least so far. He wonders when it will hit him… when he’ll break down… when he’ll “lose it”. I sensed that he waiting for the opportunity to talk to somebody who wasn’t family… who wasn’t involved.. who wasn’t close to the situation. He’d been carrying this around with him and he needed to get a lot off of his chest. Through sheer happenstance, I was the chosen one.

He went on. I marveled at his strength, at his ease with himself.. at the grace with which he was handling this most unfair hand of cards he had been dealt.

Today was his first day of chemo. Without the chemo, his odds of living one year are five percent. If the chemo works spectacularly well, his odds of living one year go up to thirty percent.

As I listened, I couldn’t help but project myself into his situation. I couldn’t imagine being as calm and dispassionate as him. It made me almost physically ill to contemplate.

By now, I was so glad that I was there for him. He obviously needed to talk.

I learned that he worked until age sixty-eight at which time he took a buyout from General Motors. Now, a mere two years into retirement, he’s staring the last year of life head on, in the face. “If you don’t have your health, you don’t have anything. Money doesn’t mean shit”, he said. If I wasn’t quite convinced of this before, I was now.

He talked about other things too…. His daughters, his son-in-laws. His three grandchildren, the youngest a little girl of two.

Forty five minutes late, the office assistant finally called my name. I rose from my seat.

I walked over to him and purposefully extended my hand. I looked him in the eye as we shook hands. Our hands stay clasped together longer than a “normal handshake” called for. “I sincerely hope that everything goes just the way you want.”, I said, releasing his hand. I turned away and followed the office assistant through the door, leaving him alone with his thoughts.

As you can tell, this has had somewhat of an effect on me. So many thoughts stream through my head, but the important ones are these: Life is fragile. Life is short. And, you can never have too much of the important things: Love, family, friendship, laughter…

So, my friends, while I am in this melancholy mood of mine, I just want to thank you all for being a part of my life… I enjoy each and every one of you. Each of us has a unique relationship and they all mean a great deal to me.

Peace, out.

District 28 Toastmasters Conference

Friday evening and all day Saturday, I had the wonderful opportunity to attend the Toastmasters District 28 Spring Conference. For those of you who don’t know what Toastmasters is, the short answer is it’s an international organization in 106 countries around the world, dedicated to helping its members improve their communication and leadership skills.

If I had to put my finger on just one single thing I enjoy most about Toastmasters, it’s being surrounded by people who are trying to improve and to be the best person they can be. If you surround yourself with toxic, negative people, there’s an exceedingly good chance that’s where you’re headed. However, if you surround yourself with positive, upbeat people who are striving to improve, to be the best they can be, and who have committed to help you do the same, well… let’s just say it’s a wonderful experience, a fantastic community and a great way to spend one’s days as we pass through planet Earth.

The keynote speaker and honored guest throughout the weekend was Lance Miller, Distinguished Toastmaster (DTM) and winner of the 2005 World Championship of Public Speaking contest. Wow… what a speaker. Perhaps the most inspiring topic Lance discussed was during his keynote address, titled “Losing My Way to the World Championship”. Lance did not sign-up of for Toastmasters and become a World Champion the next day. Rather, it took year after year of LOSING contests to achieve the world championship. It’s a great lesson for us all. The road won’t always be clear, nor the ground always level. Sometimes it’s an uphill battle and the obstacles plentiful. Still, keep your eye on the prize, honestly evaluate yourself, make corrections in your course and never, ever, give up the ship.

We also had another honored guest, Paul W. Smith, morning anchor on WJR (760 on your AM dial). Paul was a tremendously entertaining speaker and we all agreed we could have listened to him for HOURS! He was very entertaining and so gracious to accept an invitation from District 28 and to speak at our event. It’s amazing to learn that he never prepares a speech. He just gets up and starts talking. Well, let me tell you.. he is VERY GOOD at it!

I made some great new friends with some Toastmasters from across the border in Windsor, Ontario, Canada. We sat with them at lunch and engaged in spirited conversation about healthcare reform as we asked them about their system. One gentleman said “no system is perfect, but you’d be hard-pressed to find one Canadian who doesn’t like our health care” and immediately, Kevin, also a Canadian shot his hand in the air as if to say “hello! Here’s one right here!” Kevin was very passionate about politics and explained the Canadian parliamentary, multi-party system to us. Clearly, Kevin was more conservative than his fellow club members who rolled their eyes at some of his analysis. Kevin has a better grasp on American politics than many Americans, which was very interesting.

After lunch we headed to training sessions before returning to the main dining room for the International Speech contest. Once again, we found ourselves sitting with our Canadian friends. Unfortunately, I can only remember the names of Kevin, Rick, Ada, Vladimir and Susan. There were a couple more (but I am terrible at remembering new names).

After the speakers had delivered their speeches, the room was cleared to prepare for dinner. Upon re-entering to be seated, Magda O’Hanlon (our treasurer) and I found ourselves seated completely on the opposite side of the room from where’d been sitting all day. Still, we landed with another table of Canadians – a different group this time. But alas, Magda tapped my arm and jerked her thumb over her shoulder. There were Vlad, Kevin, Ada and Rick sitting right behind us, back to back.

I have no clue how speech contests are judged. We are given scoring sheets so we can follow along and do our own scoring. I rate the speakers according to my own thoughts, but any speaker I rank as first has no chance to actually win the contest, and so it was again last night.

Let me tell you about one of the contestants, Lynn Fitzsimmons. When she was announced to speak, Lynn entered from the back of the room as all speakers do, but she was assisted by a companion who helped her make her way between all the tables and chairs in the banquet hall as she approached the stage. You see… Lynn is blind! With help from her companion and the Toastmaster of the Day, she climbed the steps and was lead to center stage. Lynn delivered a stirring speech of what it was like to be born blind, one of three blind sisters, to a blind mother and an angry, alcoholic father. She was misdiagnosed and put into a school for developmentally challenged children. Fortunately, one of the teachers saw the true Lynn and knew that she was not developmentally challenged. With this teacher’s help she made her way to a school for the visually-impaired and then a regular high school after that. She joked that when she was set up on a date with her future husband, he didn’t realize he really was getting a “blind date”. Lynn is now a mother, grandmother and successful business woman. Oh, and by the way, she’s also going represent District 28 at the World Championship of Public Speaking in California, because she won the contest! The new format of competition has eliminated the regional-level competition, so Lynn goes straight to the World Championship, though there are MANY semi-final rounds there to thin the ranks to a smaller group in the finals.

Whew… this is more typing than I planned on this Sunday morning, but I just wanted to convey to you the wonderful time I had at the Toastmasters District 28 Spring Conference. If you’re not a Toastmaster and this sounds motivating or inspiring to you, give me a shout and we’ll talk. It’s one of the best things you can do with your time.


A Soldier and Family Reunite

This evening I left work and was headed to a Toastmasters event and didn’t have much time. I ducked into a McDonalds to grab some dinner. The drive-thru line was really long, so I decided to just go inside.

I had no sooner sat down, when a soldier dressed in desert fatigues darted past my table, bent over at the waist to avoid being seen. He went to a nearby booth and lay low there. I happened to be facing him (he was about 20 feet away) and it felt sort of awkward, but fortunately, it didn’t last long.

Just then, on the other side of the Mickey D’s, a couple who appeared to be in their middle fifties entered, accompanied by a young woman and cute little girl with blonde hair, probably three years old at the most.

They turned the corner and were suddenly in front of the booth where the soldier lay crouched in waiting. The woman looked at the soldier as he stood up. “Are you kidding me?!?!?” she cried. They embraced. I’ve never seen people embrace so tightly that they were literally shaking. They embraced, they kissed, they embraced again. They embraced like people who weren’t entirely sure that the last time they embraced wouldn’t be their final time. It was as if their love for each other were transformed into electric energy. The room was absolutely alive with emotion. It was hard to tell whose eyes were more misty – theirs or mine.

The soldier then picked up his little girl and held her close. The shaking embrace of a spouse was replaced by the gentle but firm embrace of a father. He slowly stroked her beautiful blonde hair over and over as he whispered in her ear. Then he stood and hugged his wife and daughter together (group hug!).

I’ve seen these sorts of reunions on the evening news taking place at airports or at schools, but to see a surprise reunion, up close and in person moved me in ways that I don’t have words for.

I won’t poison this post with any debate or discussion of whether or not our military should be deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan. But, as a former Marine, I would like to point out the tremendous sacrifice our men and women in uniform WILLINGLY endure to do what they believe in, to protect our country, to protect you and me. It’s a sacrifice to serve when every waking moment may be your last. It’s a sacrifice to be away from loved ones and friends for months, or years on end… It’s a sacrifice to miss the only second birthday your daughter will ever have.

And so, it will be a long, long time, if ever, before I forget what I witnessed this evening. And, I hope in some small way my words might prompt you to give a moment of silent thanks for all those brave men and women who are willing to lay down their life, to protect yours.

I certainly didn’t want to intrude or break up this happy reunion, but as I left, I walked past and caught the soldier’s eye. I said “Thank you for all you do.” He stopped, turned toward me and said “thank you for your support”. I am not sure whose words meant more to whom.

The Importance of Great Art

Though it ended production in 2005, it was only recently that I watched the entire HBO series Six Feet Under (Thank You, Romeo Public Library).

I first watched the final episode about three days ago. I have watched the final ten minutes of the final episode probably another ten times since then. Consequently, the beautiful song “Breathe Me” plays in my head 24×7. I am drawn to that final sequence for two reasons: considering my own life and mortality and, as an aspiring screen writer/director, this sequence has some symbolism (at least *I* think it’s symbolism) that is pure genius. Let’s take the last item first.
The final sequence begins with the Claire, the talented but often confused youngest of the Fisher family heading off to New York. Barely a couple of years out of high-school, she is looking for her first job in the world of photography and hoping to make it in the art world. Claire is the central character of the entire sequence. Actress Lauren Ambrose’s acting in this scene is gut wrenching as we feel her pain at leaving home.
As she pulls her car out of the driveway, leaving the Fisher and Sons Funeral Home in the distance, we, along with Claire are moving on and leaving the past behind. The point is underscored again when while still only a block or two away from home, she glances at the car’s side-view mirror only to see the image of her dead brother Nate, jogging behind her. Nate’s image slips away as the car continues on.
What follows is a montage of the years that follow in the Fisher extended family. We see the family grow, then grow old and then die, one by one. But Alan Ball keeps bringing us back to Claire, who by now is out of L.A. and heading into the desert.
It is here that I really love what writer/director Alan Ball does. Claire’s car is filmed from a helicopter (aerial shots) and we also see the desert countryside from inside the view of the car, with Claire’s eyes visible in the rearview mirror. Whenever we see the car from the external point of view, the film runs at normal speed, looking…well.. normal. Whenever we see the desert from inside the car (Claire’s point-of-view) the film is sped up so the car appears to be traveling unnaturally fast. The switching of the film-speed, juxtaposed to the steady pace of the music which ties both views together really emphasizes the quicker pace of the internal view. Of course, all the while, we are cutting back and forth to the montage of the deaths of each of the Fishers. In my mind, this is symbolic for how fast our lives go by.. how quickly time seems to pass. Because this sequence is SO well done, it gives me a small sense of satisfaction that I have one recommendation for Alan Ball on something I would have done just a little differently. When we see Claire’s point-of-view from inside the car, I kept focusing on her eyes to see if the entire film-speed was increased or only the outside image. And… it was not really noticeable one way or the other. I could see Claire’s eyes move about, but it was not definitive one way or the other if they were sped up as well. And of course, that is my suggestion. I would have done something more noticeable, like see Claire lift a bottled water and take a drink from it, and then perhaps glance out the window, turning her head at regular speed. I would have done something to make the action inside the car definitely noticeable as being run at regular speed and the landscape passing by at quick speed. This would have really driven home the point that while the moments of our life always seem to pass at normal speed, the collection of them , the totality of them, the landscape of our life seem to pass so quickly.
And like all good film or TV, it leaves an impact on us as we consider our own ever-slipping-away lives. Are we living them as fully, as happily, as lovingly as we can? The montage of deaths, one after another, not only mark the passing of characters we have grown to love, but drums into our head that our own death is coming. And while day by day, it may be a long way off, through the windshield of our life, it is coming faster than we want to consider.
And yet.. the last death we see is Claire’s. She’s 102 years old (it’s 2085, after all). She appears to have had a very successful life as an artist. She’s at home and there’s an attendant reading a book in a chair next to her bed. The camera pulls in very tight on the veiled eyes of this incredibly old looking woman. As the screen goes white in the classic Six Feet Under announcement of death “Claire Simone Fisher 1983-2085”, the next shot is an equally tight close up of young Claire, back on the road driving her car. Everything about this shot of Claire, the youth, the freshness, the utter innocence of an earnest young adult heading out into the world and all that lay ahead for her reminds us that “yes! life is going by too fast, damn it! But you’re here, now, you’re alive!!!… LIVE while you can, live before it’s too late.” The last scene of the series is Claire’s car driving into the distance, lost in the vastness of the desert landscape. The empty desert landscape might be seen as “a clean slate” for Claire and for us.
I am certainly not an artist, but I can appreciate art, especially film and (good) television. My own test for greatness in film/television is that days later I still find myself in a melancholy, introspective mood. Six Feet Under passes with flying colors. If Alan Ball’s work can make me, and others, consider their own lives and change them to live more life in the years we have remaining, then I would say that is meaningful and important work.
And I haven’t even discussed Alan Ball’s “American Beauty” yet. Let’s just say.. “same effect”.