My mom turns 91 this weekend.  That is a pretty amazing accomplishment.  While she probably only weighs about 91 pounds, she still lives on her own.  Having lost my Dad seven years ago, she keeps going even though she is very lonely.  When you reach that age, not many of your friends are still around.  Despite her back aches, she makes herself take multiple short walks many times a day.  I guess I got my persistence and discipline for working out from her!

I was reflecting on how far our lives are different from each other. My Mom was the daughter of two immigrants, neither of which spoke English when they came to America. She grew up during the Great Depression. Her father died when she was in her early teens. So here is she is as a teen: three kids, no father, and a mother who barely spoke English, all trying to make it through the Great Depression. They made it and thrived. Hers is a world I cannot even imagine what it was truly like.

I spent five days last week taking care of her.  While it is a much slower-paced world than I am used to, I was glad to do it.  I realize that the time together is all about her – not me.  I got to take her to the store and to the mall to walk. We looked at some of Nate’s articles on-line.  A walk down the street is a very slow stroll – but better than most people her age can do.  She is just looking for companionship and conversation.  If that means she gets to complain every day about the person across the street who has not mowed their lawn and has too many weeds, I just need to listen.  If she got confused about some facts, that’s okay.  I can let her talk and then try to set the record straight. Cooking her meals meant I was “the best cook in the world”.  She got to brag on the phone to a couple of people about “how great” it was to have me around. So we had a good time together.

So, while her world may be a lot smaller than it was a few years ago, and she doesn;t get around as much, she is still doing pretty well.  Happy Birthday Mom.


Money and Influence

Is there anything money cannot buy?  This is a relatively recent (last couple decades) phenomenon.  Are we having a dialogue about this or are we just allowing it to happen?

For example, we would all probably agree that it is not right to sell one of your children.  That goes against the morals of our society.  Yet it is okay to have a surrogate mother carry our child if we can reach an agreement on the price.  Our society has agreed that bit of commerce is acceptable in this situation.  Many people cannot have babies for various reasons.   If we both agree to do it, it is a “win win”.  But let’s take it a little further.  What happens when we “outsource” the surrogate mother to India?  Does that cross a line?  If I can find someone in India who is willing to be a surrogate for 1/3rd the cost of a surrogate in the USA, is that okay?  That is what the market is willing to bear.  It is a “win/win”.  And that is a business that is going on right now.  But is it morally right?  Is it okay to have someone you will never meet have your child?  Is it okay to pay much less money to a poor person to have your baby?

It gets a little more dicey when you look at more examples.  When Congress is holding hearings, there are a limited number of seats in the hearing rooms for spectators to watch the proceedings. Seating is on a “first-come-first served” basis. You stand in line as long as it takes. Once they open the doors, you go to the seats. Seems fair. In the last few years a new type of business has come into being. The business is “line standers”. For a fee – at least $50 per hour, a company will stand in line FOR YOU. When the doors are opened, the standers simply surrenders their place in line to allow the person who bought the service to go in to the chambers. No one is hurt. No one “cut the line”. Someone got paid to do a job they are willing to do and someone gets the seat they want at a cost they are willing to pay. That is an efficient market at work. But is it FAIR? The buyers are usually lobbyists. They don’t want to waste time standing in line.  So they buy their way into hearings.  Is this fair to the regular citizens who don’t have as much money to spend?  Isn’t one of the basic tenants of Democracy an involved citizenry?  If money can buy anything, how are most of us ever going to participate fully?

Interesting questions.  So think about it the next time you see something commercial in a new spot (ads on police cars, schools who get free materials in exchange for commercials by companies, paying kids to read books).  Are we having a dialogue on whether that is acceptable or not? (if you want to read more about this, I recommend “What Money Can’t Buy” by Michael Sandel)

Connecting with Others

I recently received this article “The 7 Pillars of Connecting With Absolutely Anyone” (thanks Jason).   http://www.forbes.com/sites/theyec/2012/04/25/the-7-pillars-of-connecting-with-absolutely-anyone/  It is a short read.

It connects with one of my recent posts about Interesting people being people who are Interested in others.  It talks about connecting with others because you want to.

Two of the pillars that add to my original post are: “Persistence wins most battles” and “Remain Unforgettable”.  It is so hard to be persistent these days.  We send e-mails asking for jobs or advice or trying to get someone’s attention.  Too often we are met with silence.  And so we give up (I know, I have done that myself).  We assume they don’t care.  Or don’t have time for us.  Or read whatever we said and think it is not worthy of reply.  The problem with that is WE do all of the assuming.  We need to all learn again not to give up.  Follow up at the appropriate time.  Find another way to get the other person’s attention.  If it was important for us to communicate with that person, it still is important.  “Never give up, never surrender”.

“Remain unforgettable” really struck a chord with me.  When I grew up a thank you note was a must.  No matter what I received I was expected to send a thank you note to the sender.  I can remember many agonizing times of “I don’t know what to say” or “I don’t want to do it”.  But I did send the note.  In the end, it is a simple gesture.  This gesture may make you stand out in a crowd.  It can make you different.  And by the way, it is common courtesy.

Scott Adams, the founder of the comic Dilbert, attributed his success to notes he received.  He was the recipient of these last two pillars from a famous comic writer.  After sending the person some samples, Adams received an encouraging note back.  Adams, while grateful, kept trying his Dilbert but found no success.  Eventually he abandon his idea of doing Dilbert and went back to his cubicle job.  A year later (persistence) the same comic writer sent Adams a note encouraging him to keep trying.  Imagine the thrill Adams got when he received the note.  So he picked up his pen and started trying Dilbert again.  He is now a multimillionaire doing what he loves to do.

So who are you trying to connect with? Or who SHOULD you be trying to connect with?

What happened to banks?

I was reading an article the other day about banks complaining that they are not making as much money from fees as they used to.  This is because of Government regulations, not because we as consumers are getting smarter.  And that got me thinking.  What is the purpose of a bank? 

In the “old days” (maybe up until 20 years ago) banks were a member of the community.  People put their money in the bank in a checking account and maybe a savings account.  The banks paid a nice interest rate on the amount saved.  Heck, banks used to have something called “Christmas Club” accounts.  You saved money weekly for 50 weeks and the bank matched your deposit the last two weeks.  Then you had money saved for Christmas presents.  The local banker was a “big man” (always a man) in town and you could count on the bank to sponsor little league teams.

The other thing banks did was lend money to people in the community.  When you needed money for a home mortgage, you went to your local bank and got the money because they knew you.  If you needed a school loan for college or a loan to fix the furnace, ditto.  Banks made money basically two ways – on the difference between the interest they paid you on your savings account and the interest they earned on loans or on services like retirement funds or safe deposit boxes.  There just weren’t “fees”.  And the banks were profitable and happy.  So were the people.

Somewhere along the way, this all changed.  Maybe it was the self-service revolution.  Maybe it was all of the fancy computer programs that could show banks how to make a penny here and a penny there on various transactions.  Maybe it was the “quick profit” solutions such as banks deciding to sell your mortgage loans to mortgage brokers or out-of-state banks for a quick profit.  Most probably it was the easy way – prey on people’s mindsets.  Fees are small.  You have to pay for convenience.

So banks started charging fees for everything. Want to use someone else’s ATM network?  That will cost you.  Overdraft your account?  Fee.  Late on a payment? Fee.  Want a bank check? That’s a fee. Banks got hooked on fees.  They made billions of dollars on them.  Like a junkie on drugs, they ignored everything else – especially their customers’ needs.

The result?  Does anyone really have a bank that is “theirs”?  A bank that knows them?  All banks offer now are “reward points” as if you are a frequent flyer.  And they have lost that customer connection. It’s a pity.

Father’s Day

First off, Happy Father’s Day to all of you who are fathers.  Hopefully you have earned a relaxing day.

This morning when I thought about a post on Father’s Day, I was planning on taking a very cynical approach to the day.  So the next two paragraphs are what I wrote this morning.

As you might expect, Father’s Day came about after we had already been celebrating Mother’s Day.  If you read a little about the holiday, it was first proposed to match up with the already-popular Mother’s Day.  When it did not take off to be celebrated as much as Mother’s Day, the New York Retailers Association tried to get Father’s Day acknowledged – mainly to sell clothes and accessories to men.  Thus confirming what I always thought – this is a made-up holiday to sell something.  It was not until the mid-1960’s that Lyndon Johnson issued the first presidential proclamation for fathers.  So Fathers’ Day has not been a big deal for very long.

Do we really need to have a “Hallmark Holiday” for Fathers?  Most fathers “signed up” for the job.  We all have a special day already – it’s called our birthday.  Do fathers really need a day where they (theoretically) get to do what they want to do?

As today progressed, I read a few things about fathers and I spent a little time reflecting (one of my personal goals for this year).  And I realized that it is not the DAY that is important, it is the TIME we spend to reflect that really matters.  My Dad left a lot of lasting impressions in my mind.  Perhaps most importantly, I never wanted to let him down (even though I am sure that I did).  To Dad, family came first.  I realize now that is what makes life great.  I also learned from him that you can be a father figure to others who may need that guidance.  Providing that father figure may make a difference in someone’s life.  So while I probably do it in different ways from him, I’ve strived to be like him – welcoming to others, interested in listening to others, willing to help in whatever way I can.

So, I think Fathers’ Day is here for us to reflect on fathers.   Everyone has a different experience.  Some lost a father at a young age.  Some don’t have great relationships with their father.  Each of us see our fathers (or someone who is a father figure) in different ways.  In today’s world, where so much is going on all of the time and information is instantaneous, we get busy.  So if it takes a day like Fathers’ Day to cause us to reflect – even for five minutes – about fathers, then I support it.

I’d like to think that my father was up in heaven looking at me today gently nudging me away from this morning’s cynicism toward this evening’s more positive realization.  That is just the way he worked.  Happy Fathers’ Day, Dad!

Justice (?) in America

I promise not to make this blog a commentary on the American Justice System. But I read another bizarre legal case and am struck by our crazy system.

Once again, an appeals Court overturned the original verdict in a case.  It seems in 2008 18-year old Hiroyuki Joho, while hurrying in a pouring rain storm in Chicago to catch a train, accidentally ran into the path of an Amtrak train traveling 70 miles per hour. Mr. Joho died immediately. When the train hit Mr. Joho it threw “a large portion of his body” 100 feet into the air. His body struck a lady who was “knocked to the ground, her leg and wrist broken”. The lady sued Mr. Joho’s estate for negligence. The original court case was dismissed by reasonably saying that Mr. Joho could not anticipate that he would be hit by and train and that his flying bodies parts would cause injuries to another person. Oh but the defendant could not let that go.  She appealed the decision.

That is when the state Appeals Court provided its wisdom. It ruled that “case law around flying bodies is sparse” (there is a surprise) but “it was reasonably forseeable” that this event could happen.  Huh?   Somehow a person running to catch a train is supposed to “reasonably foresee” that if they get smashed by another train they might possibly injure someone else.

First of all, I feel badly for all who were involved. What a tragic way to die. And it is a very horrible way to be injured. But can you imagine being the family of a loved one who has just died horribly and you are sued under these pretenses? And what kind of person sues an estate under these circumstances, loses the case and then files for appeal? According to the lady’s lawyer, “if you do something as stupid as this guy did you have to be responsible”. Wow. And lawyers wonder why they are held in such contempt.

Besides the issues of basic humanity, to me this case once again brings up the issue of the wisdom of our judicial system. Is there no common sense left?

In the Garden of Beasts

I finally found the time to read a book for the first time this year.  Between school and working out, I just am not able (motivated?) to set aside time to read a book.  But now that summer is here, I get a chance to read.  So I thought I would write about the book I just read.

In the Garden of Beasts is written by Erik Larson.  I have read three of Larson’s books and loved them all. The books I read all followed a similar model.  They were  all non-fiction.  They told two parallel stories – one story line involves a significant event and the other involves a personal story of an individual or two.  They way he tells both stories – bouncing between the two – is very interesting.  And then the way he brings the two stories together is really awesome.  So I went into this book with high expectations.  In addition this was a New York Times best seller (and still is).

This book is the story of the new American ambassador to Germany who is appointed as Hitler is coming to power.  It tells his family’s story as they experience Germany in the mid-1930’s.  What was interesting is to get a first-hand account of what Germany and the World was like at that time.  Looking back now we can all say that the world should have stopped Hitler.  But there was a lot going on at that time (including the fact that Germany owed the USA billions of dollars that we were hoping to collect) that affected people’s decisions.  And with the Depression in full swing and many families having suffered losses in World War I, few people were concerned about the goings on in Germany.

To be honest, I was disappointed in the book.  Unless you are a history buff you probably will not enjoy this book.  It really got into a lot of detail about what was going on in Germany with various individuals.  In addition, it did not follow the style I had expected to see.

If you want to read a good book by Larson I would recommend either Devil in the White City – a story about the building of the Chicago World’s Fair with a parallel story of a mass murderer or Thunderstruck – the story of the development of wireless telegraph along with a murder that occurs in parallel.  Both stories are interesting and the way he weaves the two stories together is really good.