Sunday, November 29, 2009

November 2009: It’s the Stupid Economy

November 6: Was that the quote that Bill Clinton used in the 1992 election? No, it is not. Clinton said “It’s the economy, stupid.” He used this to convince voters that George Bush was out of touch with what was important to the American voters. It helped win him the presidency.

The unemployment report that was released earlier this month showed unemployment at 10.2%. These are the highest numbers since 1983. These numbers, the official unemployment rate, are reported by the Department of Labor. This rate represents 27.4 million Americans who want full time work and cannot find it. Not included in this rate are another 12.4 million people who want full time work but have part time jobs, temp jobs, or have simply given up and stopped looking for work. If these 12.4 million people are counted, the so called “real” unemployment rate is 17%. Ugh, that is a depressing number.

President Obama announced this week that he will be having a job forum in December. It is the right thing to do for the unemployed and it probably a good thing to do before the 2010 mid-term elections. The last time this was done was in 1993. It was called by the newly elected President Bill Clinton who wanted to follow through on the “It’s the economy, stupid” message that helped get him elected. Clearly, the economy is still a huge issue despite the indicators that show we have bottomed out and that we are supposedly in recovery.

November 13: On Friday afternoons, when I can, I venture over to Hemingway’s Cigars in nearby Highwood, IL. In a smoke free state, it is one of the few places I know where you can smoke. The place is owned by an Armenian fellow, Raffi, who has big screen TVs and leather chairs to accommodate guys like me. I go there and meet up with my friend Dro Kholamian. We smoke cigars, watch TV, and talk about things.

Today, we talked about the economic state of this country. It was not just Dro and I but also other patrons all of whom are pretty serious businessmen. The mood was not as gloomy as it was earlier this year, but it was not optimistic by any means. Everyone was concerned about the high unemployment levels, the difficulty still, to get home loans, and the looming commercial real estate collapse that was once a recurrent story in the press and is, of late, suspiciously absent.

Dro and I were in agreement on a few points. First, with the number of manufacturing jobs that have simply gone off shore, we wondered if we could maintain any economic prowess as a service based economy. Second, will we come out of this recession a different country then we were before this recession? Would we come out of this downturn permanently altered looking more like a European country, say UK, Italy, or Greece, than the United States at the turn of the century? These are excellent questions that have been on my mind for some time.

It would not be so bad to more like Europe. People live well and live with less. We are too used to excessive consumer spending and accumulating simply way more goods than we really need. I have even written about this in March 2007 http://thissideoffifty.blogspot.com/2009/01/march-2007-consumerism.html. We could stand to be more like the Europeans. Many of my friends lament, however, the direction in which we are headed. They worry about having a Value Added Tax imposed on us. They worry about, not only a return to the welfare state, but surpassing what we ever had here. I am not so sure.

I voted for Obama. I am still giving him a chance though, like the cartoonists, and late night television hosts, the luster has worn off a bit. But, I am not as worried as everyone else. I have great faith in the fickle and malleable voters in these United States. In the elections earlier this month, Republicans gained two governors and the press with rife with interpretation. Next year, 2010, how will people vote if unemployment is still high?

Not to worry, we have an unemployment summit looming.

November 16: President Obama is in Asia. He was visited China over the weekend and is in Japan today. There were several articles about his visit to China and how the Chinese officially and unofficially view the US and will treat the President. This article I read on Yahoo, http://news.yahoo.com/s/mcclatchy/3356993, kind of summed it up in a quote of one Zhou Jun a 38 year old owner or manager of a garment business in Shanghai:
The U.S. is a very big and strong country, military-wise, economy-wise. It's still important. But compared to before, China has a lot more influence on the world.
This is the same kind of thing we heard in the 1980’s from Japan. Back then Japan was a more dominant economy then I perceive it to be today. They were a juggernaut in autos, consumer electronics, and many other industries. Back then a bulk of our trade imbalance was with Japan. The Japanese were buying US companies and real estate at an alarming rate that worried many people. It is not so different than what we are seeing and worrying about the Chinese today.

The Japanese economy overheated and suffered major problems in the 1990s from which they still have not fully recovered. Does a similar fate await China? Perhaps. But, a difference in China is that they have one quarter of the world’s population i.e. their own very large base of consumers. They have a growing proportion of the world’s manufacturing base. It will be interesting to see what happens in the next five to fifteen years. But, if I were to make a prognostication, I would say that China will continue to grow in terms of GNP, national wealth, militarily, and thus have a greater influence on the world stage.

Consider the following list of countries that hold US Securities, basically our creditors. The numbers are billions of dollars.
China, Mainland 797.1
Japan 731.0
United Kingdom 225.8
Oil Exporters 189.2
Carib Banking Ctrs 180.2
Brazil 137.2
Hong Kong 124.7
Russia 121.6
http://www.treas.gov/tic/mfh.txt
China holds $797.1B in US Securities. Hong Kong holds another $124.7B. All together this means the US owes China $921.8B or almost one trillion dollars. No wonder the Chinese government and people believe they are or will soon be the dominant economic power in the world.

Note that with all this talk and worry about China, let us not forget about Japan. This country is our number two creditor at a not so paltry $731B! Between these two Asian countries, they hold $1,652.8B. This is a serious chunk of change.

I heard a talking head on television or maybe National Public Radio say the following. “If you owe the bank thousand, then the bank owns you. If you owe the bank millions, then you own the bank.” We owe China a trillion dollars. I am not so sure we own them, but we certainly are mutually dependent economically. China is most interested in having a vibrant US economy with a strong dollar.

November 23: I also heard on a radio talk show another talking head. I believe it was a conservative comparing yesteryear with today. The speaker was referring to the 1950s and early 1960s. These were the golden years after World War II when the United States had the strongest and most dominant economy in the world. We also were the only industrial power that did not have most of their industrial base destroyed during the war.

At the end of the ware, we simply turned our factories from the production of war supplies and munitions to commercial goods. The world had no place else to buy many of these goods. They did just that… for about twenty years.

The speaker compared those times to now. Stamps were 3¢. Only one person, most always the husband, worked. Health care was readily available. Homes were easy to buy. Food was cheap. Gasoline was 25¢ a gallon. Now, both husbands and wives have to work to support the home. Stamps are 44¢, gasoline hovers between $2.50 and $3, homes are expensive and all of a sudden harder to buy, and so on. The speaker had really compelling examples that made me miss “the good old day” for a few seconds.

Sure, things were simpler then. But then, most households had only one car. That is laughable today. Houses were smaller, there were way less conveniences in terms of appliances and the appliances today are infinitely more reliable. Sure stamps only cost 3¢, but I can e-mail this letter to almost 400 people for about that. It quickly became an unfair comparison. I worry more so about what we will look like in the years to come when we emerge from this morass.

I remember reading an article on the auto industry in The New Yorker, a few years ago. It was relating the health care burden for retirees. This was costing General Motors between $1,000 and $2,000 per vehicle. It contributed in some part to their filing bankruptcy earlier this year. These benefits date back to the UAW negotiations with the company back in the 1950s – the good old days. The New Yorker article (gee I wish I had saved it) mentioned that after negotiating this with General Motors and the auto industry, Walter Reuther advocated a national health plan. He was summarily pounded down and vilified as a communist by many business leaders led by the then head of General Motors. The article pointed out that if we had listened to Reuther then, the US Automotive companies would have been better off at the time the article was written circa 2006.

I remember when I started working at Ford Motor Company in 1976. Everything was covered: Salary and health and life insurance. I remember thinking that this was a kind of capitalist socialism. The state in this microcosm was Ford Motor Company. Looking back, my thinking was not so far off.

Yeah, I was some kind of visionary alright. That and $2 will get me a double espresso at Starbucks.

November 26 – Thanksgiving Day: It is early Thanksgiving morning. We are in Detroit at my parents’ home in Livonia. Save for the hum of the refrigerator, the house is quiet. I am sitting at their kitchen table finishing this letter. I am looking out the window across the backyard at a little wooded area. The trees are free of their leaves, the sky is a pale blue striated with purple grey clouds that are visibly moving from west to east. The thermometer in their window indicates that it is a balmy forty-five degrees. It is a perfect time to reflect before the football, family, and food.

As mentioned earlier, we could come out of this recession looking more like a European country. Generally, we view that as a negative but that may be too harsh a view. In such a case, taxes will grow at a crazy pace making just about everything more expensive. As a result, people simply have to worry less about consumerism and more about the quality and durability of the goods they buy.

Note that the same double espresso that cost me $2 at my local Starbucks cost me $8 when I was in the UK two years ago. Are we headed in that direction? Without a manufacturing base, I cannot fathom anything else. How will be pay for health care, roads, military, and education? Will we end up with the European style Value Added Tax on top of our Income Tax? Um… I can see that coming as well.

What we are living through is basically watching the economy re-set and get to a new level of equilibrium. It sounds pretty a natural and inevitable progression. It seems harmless unless you are on the negative side of living through it and having your lifestyle dramatically adjusted because of it.

An ancillary benefit of all this might be that we simply focus more on the quality and durability of our lives than on the quantity of things we accumulate.

That may not all bad.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

October 2009: A Meandering Potpourri

I have written before on the how I come to choose the topics of this letter. This month no topic jumped out at me. So, I am providing a true mix of musings and meanderings.

Quicksand, Amnesia, and One-in-a-Million Shots: I was watching a movie the other day. It is one of my favorite movies: Apocalypto. It is one of those movies, in this day and age of cable television, that always seems to be on. It is one of those movies that whenever I run across it, I will watch. It is one of those movies that I do not believe I have ever seen from beginning to end. Yet, I have seen the entire movie several times.

This film was a Mel Gibson production and takes place in the waning days of the Mayan Empire in present day Guatemala.

I have actually been to the Mayan ruins in Tikal in Guatemala and Copan in Honduras. They are quite impressive and showed a culture that was incredibly advanced in their understanding of astronomy and at the same time quite brutal in terms of human sacrifice. Apocalypto pays tacit acknowledgement to the astronomy and focuses more on the brutality.

Quicksand plays a large role in adventure movies. It always involves a chase scene when a hero is being chased by the villain. Either, as in Apocalyto, the hero falls in causing the viewers to believe that all is done. Or the hero avoids the quicksand only to have the villain fall in. In the case of the hero in quicksand, there is always a twiggy branch to grasp onto or a trusty horse (did anybody say Trigger?) that allow the hero to escape. In the other case of the villain, the quicksand either makes quick work of them with the audience thinking they got exactly what they deserved. Or, the hero actually saves the villain and brings them to justice.

Where does one ever see quick sand? It does not seem very prevalent. Sure, I have got my shoe or boot stuck in some pretty mucky mud, but never quick sand. So what is quick sand?

It is nothing more, or less, then fine sand heavily saturated with ground water. The sand looks stable but it will not support weight. The few websites I read stated that quicksand is found near river banks, coastal areas, and marshlands. Quicksand is rarely more than a few feet deep. People do die in quicksand but it is not from suffocation. Death comes from simply being stuck and dying of starvation or, in the case of coastal quicksand, drowning in the incoming tide.

Yes, people get stuck in quicksand. They get stuck because they struggle and wedge their way deeper in the struggle. In can be very hard to get ones feet out when they get stuck in the denser sediment at the bottom of quicksand. The best thing to do is not to struggle and get prone to float on the mixture, which is denser than we are.

Remember Teddy Roosevelt's mantra: "Walk softly and carry a big stick." Walking softly is sensible, but it's the big stick that could save you.

If you fall into quicksand, resist the natural instinct to kick your way out. That just separates the sand from the water, forming a very dense layer of sediment at bottom where your feet are. Instead, you need to stay calm and lean back, so you get as much of your body surface on the water as possible. That's where the big stick can help; if you can place it under your back and perpendicular to your body, it can help you float.


Courtesy of the Discovery Channel: http://dsc.discovery.com/survival/how-to-survive/how-to-survive-quicksand.html

In other movies, another ploy is often used: Amnesia. Generally, a key character gets some type of temporary amnesia which becomes central to the plot. In dramas, the person with amnesia is most likely the witness to a murder or other heinous crime. The audience is held in the suspense of hoping the hero will get his or her memory back and solve the crime before the criminals do in the amnesiac.

There is also a comedic use of amnesia. In these plots, the amnesia is caused by a bump on the head. In this case, the poor amnesiac keeps getting conked on the head falling into and out of amnesia as the madcap plot unfolds.

So how common is amnesia? I cannot tell. I searched the web and found lots of information on amnesia, learned that there were many kinds of amnesia, and decided most importantly to you, the readers, not to get to deeply into the various kinds of amnesias.

There was a movie like story that took place back in 2006. A fellow named Jeff Ingram was found walking around the streets of Denver, CO. Authorities did not know who he was and while he was fully functional, his memory was gone. He was shown on TV and his fiancé in Olympia, Washington saw the national newscast and recognized him. He was going to visit family in Canada but never made it there. They have no clue how he got lost or why he did not have identification on him. The news reports talked about him having spells of amnesia before but this one being much worse.

The fiancé, Penny Hansen, was the primary spokesperson for the family. As of last report, in 2007, the then 40 year old man was falling in love with his fiancé all over again. I could find no information on whether they got married or not. Oh well, I guess the reporters simply forgot all about them.

Another often used plot ploy involves the one in a million shot. All is lost, the bank is about to foreclose on our heroes. Financial ruin and loss of lifestyle is looming. Our hero takes his last piece of paper money, hits a casino, and through determination (as if probability is altered by determination) wins a fortune to not only stave off ruin but to provide enough to live happily ever after. Needless to say, this ploy requires a Vegas setting of the film.

A variation on the one in a million shot is, of course, Luke Skywalker’s improbable shot guided by The Force resulting in the destruction of the Death Star and saving the universe from the tyranny of the Empire.

The Halloween Queen: It is the evening of October 27th. I had just gotten home at around 7 pm. I heated up some leftover pasta, dished out some salad, flipped on the TV and sat down to eat.

I was watching the History Channel because I was watching the History Channel during breakfast eleven hours earlier. In the morning, it was a show called Vampire Secrets. It explored truth versus lore about vampires. In truth, most of it is lore. This evening it was Modern Marvels: Halloween Tech. Well it is the week before the big holiday after all. This show delved into the business of Halloween: a six billion dollar business. There were segments on Knot’s Berry Farm’s 35th Annual Halloween Haunt, the business of costumes, a profile of Spirit Halloween, and the Castle Halloween Museum.

I was fascinated on the segment on Spirit Halloween http://www.spirithalloween.com/. This company runs all the stores that magically pop-up in empty retail locations around October 1 and magically disappear by the first week of November. They have about $7.5 Million in sales and 80-90% of that all comes in the last ten days of October. In 1999, they had 63 seasonal locations. This year they will have over 600! That is amazing growth. They are a one month retail business and an eleven month planning and logistics business.

The story that caught my attention and the reason any of this is in this letter is because of the Castle Halloween Museum segment. This museum in Wheeling, West Virginia has over 35,000 Halloween items including noise makers, noise makers, masks, folk art, toys, candy, and almost anything else you can think of.

The Castle Halloween Museum is run by a lady, officially the curator and owner, who is dubbed the Halloween Queen. This caught my attention because we used to decorate our Connecticut house so much my wife, Judy, was called the Queen of Halloween by the neighbors. Then they said narrator gave the Queens name: Pamela Apkarian-Russell. Imagine that, the Halloween Queen was Armenian and she looked every bit of it too!

I perused the Castle Halloween website (http://www.castlehalloween.com/) and learned a bit more about Pamela Apkarian-Russell. She is authored several books, is a deltiologist (collector of postcards), appraiser, public speaker, and story teller. Of her nine books, five are Halloween related and two are on collectables. Two of her books are part of the Arcadia Publishing Images of America series. The first published in 1997 is Around Swanzey about six communities in southwest New Hampshire. The second book published in 2000 is The Armenians of Worcester. The Halloween Queen is indeed proud of her Armenian heritage. I will have to scoop up a copy of The Armenians of Worcester, perhaps the oldest Armenian community in the United States.

Milton Supman (1926 – 2009): Milton Supman passed away on October 23, 2009. Milton Supman? I never knew that was his name until I read an obituary. I knew him by his stage name: Soupy Sales.

I woke up early on October 23rd. I had to catch a plan to go to Washington, DC. We were attending the engagement party of Ani Jerikian and Vicken Khachadourian. I was catching a 9:20 flight in order to spend time with my son Aram and his lovely bride of one month, Anoush.

I got on-line to check to see if my flight was on time. It was. While on-line, I did a quick check of e-mail. I noticed that my grade school friend David Ouzounian (a reader of this letter) had sent an e-mail with a foreboding title: In Memoriam. I had wondered who had passed away. There was nothing in the e-mail but a youtube link - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kcb87xi8cVg. Of course, I clicked on it and was delighted and saddened to see a clip from The Soupy Sales Show, circa, I am guessing, the early1960s. I did not know that old Soupy shows were on youtube. I was saddened because had meant that Soupy had passed on. I watched the entire 8:14 minute clip. It was classic and funny.

Pookie the lion, actually a lion puppet, popped in the window as he always did and was lip-syncing Mumbles a lovely jazzy scat number by the Oscar Peterson Trio. It was classic Pookie and featured some of the great dead pan looks from Soupy. I loved it. It took me back to my youth. I was glad Dave had shared it.

Soupy was born in North Carolina but had a most definite Detroit connection with people of my generation. He had a show, Lunch with Soupy, on the ABC affiliate WXYZ from 1953 until 1960 when he went to Los Angeles and then to New York where he gained national fame with a late afternoon show using the same format he had developed and perfected while he was in Detroit.

Lunch with Soupy in Detroit and later The Soupy Sales Show in New York were both kids shows. These were live TV shows, as a lot of television was in those days. Soupy entertained the kids with his goofy antics, his animal puppets including Pookie and his two dogs, the gruff White Fang and the loveable Black Tooth. We would laugh, most certainly, at the pies in the face, for which he was most famous. But Soupy also appealed to the parents delivering comedy on two levels. I never really got much of the adult humor but relish them now in the clips that are on line. Watch the clip in the above link and you will see exactly what I mean.

Truth be told, I was not happy when Soupy left Detroit. A noon fixture in my life was taken away. I did not understand it and did not like it one little bit. It may have been my first lesson in realizing I was living in a world of constant change. It just did not make sense to me.

Soupy went on to be fixture on shows like What’s My Line and others. He was a regular guest on The Tonight Show and was even the guest host sometimes. His hair style changed with the times. Yet, always, there were two constants: the dead pan look and the pies. The New York Times obituary reported that “Some 20,000 pies were hurled at Soupy Sales or at visitors to his TV shows in the 1950s and ’60s, by his own count.” http://www.nytimes.com/2009/10/23/arts/television/23sales.html?_r=1&emc=eta1

I used to watch Soupy every day I could or, at least, every day my Mother would let me. Why not every day? As she would tell you today, both Soupy and The Three Stooges, my favorite shows, had an effect on me. I would get pretty wound up and act quite silly. If I got too silly, she would cut off the source of source of the silly energy and not let me watch the shows. Her advanced techniques in behavior modification worked and to this day I can pretend to be serious and well mannered for short periods of time!

RIP Soupy and thanks for all great shows and memories.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

September 2009: Significant Dates & Times

9-9-09: No this letter is, thankfully, NOT about my dating life oh so long ago. It is rather about significant dates and times. Why write about this? What motivated me to write about this in September of 2009?

The idea came to me on September 8th. I realized that the next day was 9-9-09. I was thinking about two things. First, what could I do at 9-9-09 at 9:09 am or pm to make it memorable? Second, as I was thinking of all these nines, I realized why 9-9-09 was more significant to me than 1-1-01, 2-2-02, and so on through 8-8-08.

What is it about the nines that made me decide to write this letter? Quite simply, it was my involvement in one of the greatest wastes of time in my working career: Y2K.

I was on the Y2K team of the Latin American Division of Colgate-Palmolive. Paul Neal led the team. I was in charge of Logistics, Tom Rochford headed up manufacturing, Augusto Ogando purchasing, and Stephen Sanders was our IT lead. Paul and Tom are readers of this letter.

Back in the late 1990s, a fear arose that when the clock changed from 1999 to 2000, many computers and programs would stop working or grind to a halt. The basis for this fear was that when personal computers became popular most were operating under a time and date function that stopped at 12-31-99. To save space in the early days they used a two digit designation for the year. So, after 99 came 00. Would computers freak out and think 1-1-00 was January 1, 1900 instead of January 1, 2000.

Furthermore, in the early days of programming, 999 or 9999 was the line number of the end of a program i.e. 999 END. Also, in many programming conditions, the if-then-else statements in programs that drive different scenarios, one option used a lot was “…ELSE GOTO 999.” Often the if-then parts of these statements had something to do with dates. So, the fear was that the GOTO 999 clause would be invoked often as the clocks changed. 9999 was also used as the code for an unspecified date, so 9-9-99 was the first worrisome date as the millennium approached.

We are so dependent on computers and micro-processors embedded in everything, there was a fear that the infrastructure could grind to a halt. Electricity generation might stop. Telecommunications might go down. Planes could cease operating and might even fall out of the sky. It became a very real fear. It became real enough that every major company, Colgate-Palmolive included, created a senior level VP office dedicated solely to Y2K mitigation.

So, I was on the Latin American Y2K team. Our Finance VP had executive responsibility for Y2K within the division. He recruited us for the project and named us “the Gold Team” indicate to everyone that we had put our best people on the team. On the team, we figured it was just a ploy to make us feel good about what we thought was a nonsense, make work, and money wasting assignment. As we all know, nothing happened. NOTHING HAPPENED.

Something, somewhere in the world, should have gone wrong. For all the mitigation large corporations did, I was absolutely certain some poorer countries did nothing. So, I reasoned there should have been a minor glitch somewhere. Let’s say Nigeria, Armenia, or any other place where they did not have the money to fund such a project and thus did nothing. As already stated: nothing happened.

I was watching the television news on December 31, 1999. I watched the New Year turn in Asia first and then Europe. There were only reports of celebrations and festivities. There were no reports of any issues. No electrical blackouts, no planes falling out of the sky, nada, zip, zilch.

We went to a house party that evening. We left early because I had to be at work early the next day, New Year’s Day, to go through our reporting drill. I recall being at a the train platform on New Year’s Day waiting for the train. There were twenty or thirty of us sad sacks waiting for the 6 am train. All of us, brief cases slung over our shoulders, heading into New York to go through the same lame exercise.

It was pretty hilarious. We had a war room stocked with a satellite phone in case communications were compromised, lanterns should the electricity go out, and enough food to last six of us a week should the problem be really severe.

We went through our scheduled phone conferences with each subsidiary. No issues. No problems. No nothing.

Then, the hotline rang. It was a phone dedicated to emergencies only. When I went to answer it, I caught the power cord of my laptop with my foot and my computer fell to the floor, mangling the keyboard. This was the only computer issue that I heard of at all and it was an accident. The emergency call? Our team in Colombia was calling in for their scheduled call and simply dialed the wrong number.

Because it was 9-9-09, I emailed the members of the Y2K Gold team with who I was still in touch: Paul Neal and Tom Rochford. I copied the members of the corporate team: Bob Martin, the VP, and the logistics folks Jim Davis and Ron Smart. I reminded everyone that this was the last check-point day in the project. I asked what the call schedule and protocol was as I had misplaced that information in the ensuing years. We all had a good laugh. Most commented that only I would have remembered this. How could I ever forget?

9-11-09: September 11th is an entirely different kind of day. It is one of those dates, 9-11-01, in which you remember exactly where you were and what you were doing when the planes were hijacked and crashed into the World Trade Center in New York City.

While I worked in New York City back then, I was not in New York on that date. I had flown to Brazil that Sunday as part of a task force looking at Logistics and Distribution systems in the Colgate subsidiary there. I had other business there on Monday. The task force began its work on Tuesday, morning, September 11.

We were just in the middle of the opening presentations when Luciano Sieber came into the conference room and told us that a plane had just crashed into one of the towers of the World Trade Center. After a few minutes of wondering how that could have happened, we went back to work. A few minutes later, Luciano came back in and said another plane had crashed into the second tower. As we were trying to comprehend this, the wife of Charlie Catlett, our VP of Manufacturing in Brazil, called his cell and told him that Washington, DC was under attack. Needless to say our meeting stopped for the day.

We did begin our meeting again the next day and somehow accomplished our mission and delivered a very good action plan. Each night, we had a quick dinner and went back to our rooms to watch CNN, call home, and read about the events on-line. It was surreal.

We did not know if and when we would get back to the States. At first, there were no flights at all within the US and, certainly, no international flights as well. I called our Security Office in NY, I was told not to fly any American carriers but to only take foreign carriers. So, if and when we were to fly home, it had to be Varig or TAM. As the week progressed, we learned that US carriers were getting priority over foreign carriers. At first, we felt like we were going to be in Brazil for a few weeks.

I had a wedding I had to play at in New Jersey that Sunday, September 16th. Would I get back in time to play? It was my band and I was a little worried. I called the groom who had hired us. I first asked if the wedding was still on. It was. Luckily, no one on either side of the wedding was killed in the attacks. Then I told him of my predicament and not to worry. I called Raffi Bandazian who was willing to fill in should I not get back.

We were scheduled to fly back on Friday night. On Friday, we packed and brought our luggage to the office. During the day, we called American Airlines in Brazil and in the US, trying to find out if our flights to the US were going to go or not. We kept getting maybes. They advised getting to the airport three hours early.

We did as we were told. Luis Solana and I were the first people at the counter… which, of course, were unmanned. We stood there and waited. The line formed behind us as time passed. At some point, just about when, the American Airlines employees were getting organized behind the counters, a CNN Portuguese film crew was there interviewing people. I got an email the next day from friends in Brazil saying they had seen me on TV.

Our flight was the first to leave Brazil for the US. We were two hours late, but we went. The mood on the plane was most somber. As it was American Airlines with a New York based flight crew, the crew knew their colleagues who had perished. I vividly recall landing at JFK the next looking out the window at both the smoke plume still coming from the World Trade Center site and the F-16s escorting our approach.

9-16-09: I played at the wedding on September 16th. It was at a country club in New Jersey. It was a most gorgeous, blue sky, and perfect temperature day as you can imagine. After all the chaos, fear, and angst caused by the attacks, people were more ready for a positive life affirming event like a wedding. It was truly a memorable wedding for everyone involved and we felt it at the moment.

September 16th is also Mexican Independence Day. Most Americans falsely believe the 5th of May, Cinco de Mayo, is Mexican Independence Day. Cinco de Mayo commemorates the Battle of Puebla.

While I admire Mexico and appreciate the many friends I have there. I include this date because of the 2000 Presidential Election. In that race, Al Gore and George Bush were the Democrat and Republican candidates. Most remember the race for the close election in which the results were based on a counting fiasco of hanging chads in Florida and the Supreme Court ruling that awarded the Presidency to Mr. Bush. I remember the election for the references both candidates tried to make to Mexican Independence Day.

Al Gore made mention to a largely Hispanic audience that he had a grandchild born on the 4th of July and would be delighted to have another grandchild born on Cinco de Mayo, clearly believing that the 5th of May is Mexican Independence Day. George W. Bush later pointed out Gore’s gaffe by saying that Mexican Independence Day is in fact "el Dieciséis de Septiembre." Bush added his own error by translating the date as the 15th of September. I found it all pretty funny and have remembered it ever since.

9-19-09: This is a most important day for two reasons. First and foremost at least to me and my family, it is my Mother’s birthday!

Her name is Manoushag the Armenian word for Violet which is her “official” name. Yet everyone knows her as Itchie. It seemed that most Armenians of her generation had nicknames. They were so popular and numerous, I assumed everyone had nicknames. But that is only the case in the Philippines (maybe the subject of a future letter).

I was not able to spend the day with her. But she had a very nice day. My father took her to breakfast. Then they went to Milford to see my nephew and their grandson Kyle play tennis. He is on the JV team at Milford High School. My Mom is a lifelong tennis devotee, so this was good. They went and had lunch.

When I called to wish her happy birthday, they were not home. So, I sang Happy Birthday on their answering machine. When she called back, I learned that my Dad had taken her out for an ice cream cone. It sounds like she had a great day.

I am glad she had a great day. My Mother is a wonderful lady. Happy Birthday, Mom.
Secondarily to me, but far more important to a much larger group of people is Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. This year Rosh Hashanah began at sunset on Friday, September 18 and ended at sunset on Sunday, September 19. We are beginning the Hebrew year of 5770. What a rich and long heritage. Shana Tova Umetukah, a good and sweet year, to all.

9-26-09: Out of all the days I have wrote about this month, this is a most special date for our family. It is the day that my son, Aram, married Anoush Varjabedian. Clearly this was the highlight of this month and a date we will note and celebrate moving forward. We had a wonderful time in New York City. We had a wonderful time and have memories that will last a lifetime.

There are many kinds of dates: There are days of numerical interest of curiosities like 9-9-09. Yet, they are relevant only in the modern calendar we all use. Does it mean anything in the Jewish calendar? Does it mean anything in Mayan or Chinese calendars?

Dates like 9-11 are critically important to those of us who lived through them. For those of us who lived through it, we all know where we were and what we doing. The significance of this date will fade with time just as December 7th and November 22nd have become in my opinion.
I am not entirely sure of any specific point I am trying to make, but I enjoyed writing this letter and reminiscing about Y2K and 9-11.

Monday, September 14, 2009

September Blog Bonus #2: Missing Olympics - What Were We Thinking

For the first time since 1986, none of us attended the AYF Olympics. 1985 was the year our daughter Armené was just eight months old. Our son Aram was just starting kindergarten. It didn’t seem practical to attend. Or so my reasoning went.

The reasons are pretty simple and straightforward this year. Armené got married to Michael Kapamajian on July 4th. Aram is getting married to Anoush Varjabedian on September 26th. I am starting a new business. So, the reasoning was the same as in 1986. So, I told Judy the same thing. “It doesn’t seem practical to attend the Olympics this year.” Michael and Armené came to the same conclusion; Aram and Anoush the same.

None of got very far into Labor Day Weekend, when the practicality of it all was overwhelmed by “what were we thinking? Why aren’t we in Providence?” This was pretty close to exactly how we felt in 1985... at least it was how Judy and I felt. Aram and especially Armené were too young to have been missing Olympics back then.

In this age of e-mail, texts, and cell phones, we were getting updates throughout the weekend. We heard about the hot competition between Providence and Philadelphia making for one of the classics Olympic Games of all time. We missed it. We heard about Hachig Kazarian retiring on the fiftieth anniversary of playing his first Olympics, also in Providence. We heard about the touch speech and presentation our good friend Mitchell Shoushanian made to Hachig. We missed it. We heard about another wonderful Water Fire concert. We missed it.

We began to question my decision even before the weekend started. On September 1st, my cousin David Gavoor sent an e-mail:

Subject: I can't believe y'all won't be in Providence this weekend!!!
Message: It is just wrong, and on many levels!!!

We missed seeing old friends. We may only them once a year at Olympics, but we see them. These are people we have known almost all our lives, whose children we have watched grow up, and whose children are our children’s friends. For example, every year for as many as I care to remember, we end up, totally unplanned mind you, to have dinner with Peter and Marianne Bonjuklian. It is one of the great Olympic coincidences. We catch up and have a great time. There are so many other people. That is the magic of attending every year. And this year, we missed it.

We did get an Ad Book. Judy’s brother Jack was kind enough to drop one over the house upon their return. Judy and I fought over who would read it first. It was not much of a fight. As it was my “practical” idea not to go, Judy read the Ad Book first. There were many great ads. I was touched and loved the ads that honored those that have passed, especially our dear friend and Olympic King, Jack Papazian. I loved the simple ad, “Remembering Penny.” My sentimental favorite was the ad taken by “The Four Stepans”: Knarian, Piligian, Altounian, and Panosian. They had a photo circa 1976 and another taken within the past year. I smiled at the photo and thought that it doesn’t seem all that long ago…

It took us twenty-three years to forget how odd and, well, dumb it felt not to be at the Olympics. We missed the 1986 Philadelphia Olympics. Practical or not we plan to be in Philadelphia next year… all of us.

Our Last Name


Our family name is Gavoor. People are always asking me about out name and its origins. These questions come in two forms.
First and foremost, we are Armenian. People that are not Armenian always try to guess what our ethnic heritage is. Most often I am asked, “Is that a Hungarian name?” I know that is coming from the three Gabor sisters, Zsa Zsa, Eva, and the third sister whose name always escapes me though google informs is Magda. When you say Gabor and Gavoor, they sound the same. Others think the name is Dutch. I have no idea why they think this. Maybe it is the double o’s? I am not sure. Then, if the non-Armenian inquirers knew anything at all about Armenians, they add a follow-up question, “I thought most Armenian names ended in ‘ian’?”
Second, inquiries come from Armenian. While I feel I have an Armenian name, the name is not Armenian, technically. It is a Turkish word. But, it is not just any Turkish word. It is indeed the Turkish derogatory word giavur or gâvur in modern Turkish which means infidel. It used to be Karagiavurian which is even worse. A karagiavur is a black infidel. It is akin to a Black American having Nigger as a surname. Actually, in Kharpert from where our family is from, the name is pronounced, Kharagiavurian. The “Kh” is a country or rural pronunciation of “K.” So, Armenians question why I have such a shocking surname.
I am writing this short piece because of a recent question posed by a new friend Dikran Aprahamian. He was not so much shocked but wondering moreso if the name meant what he thought it meant. I gave him my standard answer and he thought it was a story well worth documenting. I already thought I had documented this recently for my cousin David Gavoor, but upon scouring my gmail and hard drive, there was nothing. So, for family, friends, and Dikran, I am writing about it now. Dikran kindly posted this article on his wonderful website www.kegart.com.
Less so now then when I was younger, the Armenians of my grandparent’s generation, that generation that somehow survived the 1915 Genocide, would ask me my name. They wanted to know whose son or grandson I was. I would tell them and see their faces contort from smile to disbelief. In Armenian, they would say “Giavur, what kind of name is that. Do you know what it means?” When I told them that I knew what it meant, they would then say, “Why do you have such a name? You have to change that.” I never really gave a good answer. Usually, I said that if was good enough for my grandfather, it was good enough for me and I would never change it.
Later, probably from my failed attempts at being a defiant hippie, I actually liked the fact of having non-believer as a last name: Non-believer, not buying in, doubter. I applied it more to the organizational rhetoric created by man than to anything religious. The bottom line was, however, that I was not going to change the name. I am a Gavoor. I am proud of that. If I ever were to change it, I would only consider Gavoorian and even more likely, Kharagiavurian. Of course, that might limit my ability to visit Turkey.
Many Armenians have Turkish surnames. Often these names have to do with the family profession back when last names were being adopted. It must be noted that in that part of the world, the adoption of family names was a relatively recent event. I am guessing with the past 200 years. I know Palandjians (Saddle Makers), Zildjians (Cymbal Makers), Odabashians (Inn Keepers), Kouyumjians (Jewelers), and more. Some Armenians would like to rid our nation of these Turkish rooted surnames. My last name makes these same folks even more agitated.
How did we get this name? How did we become Black Infidels? I asked my Great Uncle Rouben this once. He told me the following. The family was originally from Sepastia (modern day Sivas). The name was originally Eflian (I have no clue as to the meaning of this surname). One day, during the harvest season, the family was working in the fields into the night by the light of bonfires. As it happened, the Sultan and his entourage were either encamped nearby or passing through. The Sultan noticed these bonfires in the distance and was curious about what was going on. He sent an emissary or scout to check out the situation. The scout came back and said, “Armenians are harvesting in the light of these fires.” The Sultan then ordered that the leader or eldest of the Armenians be brought to him. Upon being brought to the Sultan, my presumable greatnth grandfather was asked, “What are you Armenians up to?” My ancestor responded, “We are working our harvest. We didn’t finish in the daylight and as our family motto is ‘do not leave today’s work for tomorrow,’ we are working under the firelight to finish.” The Sultan thought a moment and said, “Ah, you giavurs are something else.” He reflected another moment and added, “In fact, that shall be your family name, Khargiavur, from now on.” Voila, upon decree of the Sultan we became the Kharagiavur clan or in Armenian Kharagiavuriantz of the Kharagiavurs or sons of the Kharagiavurs. In time, it simply became Kharagiavurian.
Uncle Rouben went on to say that other branches of the family go by Gavoorian and Karian which got mistranslated to Stone thinking that ‘Kar’ was of the Armenian for stone and not Turkish word for the color black. Uncle Rouben’s brother Sisak had the surname Gavoorian. The Karian branches of the family were in Los Angeles, Fresno, and Paris. I have no idea where I might find the Stones but my guess is that they were more interested in being part of the American melting pot than maintaining and sustaining their Armenian heritage.
Uncle Rouben was the youngest of the children of Mardin and Mariam Kharagiavurian of Keserig, a village of Kharpert. There were three daughters: Markarid, Arshalouys, and Yeghsa. There were also three sons: Aram, Sisak, and Rouben. I knew all of them with the exception of Markarid. I know or knew all of their children born in the US. Arshalouys had been married in Keserig but her husband was killed in the massacres and her daughter was left behind never to have been heard from. Aram and Arshalouys seemed to be the most knowledgeable according to family lore but had passed before I was old enough to seriously discuss any of these kinds of issues with them.
In the early 1990s, I was talking with Arsha’s daughters Florence and Grace. We were talking about family history and they were relating stories their mother had told them. I brought up story of the Sultan and how we came to be Gavoors. Grace, the oldest, said, “That is a story Uncle Rouben used to tell and my mother said that it wasn’t true.” I was a little disappointed. There are very few stories like this that survived the Genocide. The vast majority of Armenians do not know very much of their family history before the generation of the survivors. So, I let the story go.
Shortly after that, I was at our church, The Armenian Church of the Holy Ascension in Trumbull, CT. During the coffee hour, I was talking with Varoujan Kochian. I always liked Varoujan. He reminded me of that first survivor generation. He was from Yozgat and a sturdy man of the land. He embodied hard work with a humble though proud attitude. Varoujan was about my parents age. He asked about my last name. I was about to give the standard speech explain what I have explained here when he offered a story that he had heard. He basically told the same story Uncle Rouben told. Varoujan did not mention the Eflian name, but other than that the story was the same. I was a bit stunned and impressed especially since Yozgat was not near Kharpert and closer to Sebastia. So, maybe Uncle Rouben wasn’t so far off. The mathematician in me could ignore one data point, but with two I can establish trend, I can draw a line through two points. I think that this story is definitely legend, but a legend rooted in some truth. I would love to know the name of the Sultan to at least get a time frame on this story.
There are other Kharagavoorians. I corresponded for a short time with a gentleman in Aleppo, Syria. He is a friend of the choirmaster at our church in Glenview, IL. Given our families were rooted in different regions, we concluded we were not related. I asked about the uniqueness of the name to our cousin and noted historian Richard Hovannisian whose mother was a Kharagavoorian and whose family took the Karian name in the US. He said it was more common than I had thought and attributed the Sultan story to lore.
I wonder why my grandfather Aram shortend the name Gavoor? I never got to ask him as he died in 1959 when I was only six and not yet aware of all this. Yet, I know some of his contemporaries from the same village or region took names like Kamar and Karentz. My guess is that as a group they decide to not use the typical ‘ian.’ I like to think they wanted to be different and, in their own way independent. I like that and think it adds to my own desire to maintain the Gavoor name. My grandfather was pretty well educated having gone to school and even college in Kharpert. He most certainly knew the meaning of the word giavur and selected this one part of the family name as his. I like to believe he did it in defiant pride.
Uncle Rouben is the only Gavoor that I know of that has visited the Republic of Turkey. I asked him if he had any trouble with the name there. He said the spelling Gavoor versus the modern word gâvur was different enough that no one even suspected.
My sister Nancy’s middle name is Carrie, an anglicized version of Kara. My sister Ani went a step further and named her daughter Kara.
As I said, I wear this name proudly and a bit defiantly. After all, it may have been bestowed upon us by a Sultan.

Monday, August 31, 2009

August 2009: For Love of the Music







One of my favorite letters was the August 2004 letter entitled: Memories of August Festivals (http://thissideoffifty.blogspot.com/2009/01/august-2004-memories-of-august.html). It was in two parts, the first was about the famous Woodstock Music and Arts festival which took place in August of 1969. The second part, which truly makes this letter memorable to me, was about the Blessing of the Grapes picnic of the St. Sarkis Armenian Church in Dearborn, MI which my church until 1990.

The reason I love that letter is because it was special for me to capture the atmosphere of those Grape Blessing picnics. Central to that experience was the music and musicians that had an incredible effect on me and lured me into this world of Armenian Kef style music.

Growing up, I thought I wanted to play the clarinet. It was an obvious choice. All I heard around my house were the tapes from my maternal grandmother’s brother Samuel. He was a clarinet player. He played the folk songs in the real old country style from where our family was from in Turkey. My Father was and is a huge fan of Hachig Kazarian, the great Detroit born clarinet player who now lives in Las Vegas. I really wanted to play the clarinet and I really wanted to play the music that Samuel and Hachig played.

It did not work out that way. In fifth grade, when it was time to take music lessons in the fifth grade, I signed up for clarinet. I was very excited and knew this was the first step to virtuosity, fame, and playing the music that I loved. The very first thing the instructor, Mr. Magnus I believe, did was give a tonality test. He played some notes on the piano and we had to hum them back. I was so excited; I completely messed up this simple test and was rejected. REJECTED which rhymes so well with dejected which is what I was.

After about two weeks of dejection, my friend Mike Steele was going to violin lessons. He knew I was unhappy about the clarinet experience so he invited me to come and try the violin. I wanted to play something, so I went along. Mr. Ara Zerounian, an Armenian, was the teacher. He gave me the same simple test. I easily passed and voila, I was playing the violin – not the clarinet.

I seriously considered and believed I would be a concert violinist and perhaps even a composer, heck; I was taking lessons from Ara Zerounian who trained the Kafafian sisters and Michael Ouzounian. In fact, I took lessons from Michael Ouzounian for $2 a half hour. Who is Michael Ouzounian? Well after surviving his failed attempt to improve my violin technique, he went on to Julliard and became the principal violist in the orchestra of the Metropolitan Opera.

When my attention span and love of the violin waned, I drifted a few months or years musically before really and truly buying into the American male teenage musical dream. I thought I would take up the guitar. Ah yes, chords, rock and roll, Beatles songs, and ripping screaming guitar solos. I would woo the ladies with my renderings of Cat Stevens and Joni Mitchell songs. I would master the classical, folk, and rock styles. I had decided to eschew jazz, only because I realized I could truly master three styles. Four would have just been too much and truly unattainable. Oh yes, I forgot that I had decided to do all of this without taking one lesson on the guitar. Come on, this was the America of the 1960s a time when cock-eyed optimism was still very much alive in these United States and self initiative and desire was all that was needed to do any damned thing one wanted to do.

Predictably, that dream leveled out at the same lame level as my guitar playing skills. That’s OK. It was fun for the year or so that it lasted.

Then, in the storybook fashion of this tale, I was at an Armenian dance at St. Sarkis. I asked the oud player, I believe Ed Shargabian, how he tuned the oud. The next day, for pure kicks, I tuned my guitar like an oud. I tried playing a few Armenian tunes I knew. Wow. I liked it. I liked it a lot. In short order, I was playing a dozen songs. Nothing special, but I was hooked. Ed Shargabian lent me my first oud and became a friend and mentor until his untimely passing in a car accident.

That music had been all around me growing up. My father tells me a few stories of when I was a baby. First, my paternal grandfather showed my father my little hands and commented that I had long fingers and would be a concert pianist. Secondly, my grandfather would play Udi Hrant’s soulful lament, Agin, on the family record player. I would lift my head and look around. It was an even more significant sign of the role this music would play in my life. I truly believe I was more startled or intrigued with the unique raspy voice of the great master than anything else.

The music was an obsession of both sides of my family. My maternal Aunt Suzie who taught modern dance at the university level, taught folk dancing at Saturday Armenian School at St. Sarkis. She single handedly made sure that our generation knew all the village dances that the first generation of immigrants brought with them. This included the Laz Bar, the dance of the Laz peoples, for which my maternal Grandfather, Levon, was considered the master. We learned the dances of Van, Kghi, Erzeroum, and Sepastia. She formed a dance group and we performed at our church and ethnic festivals around Detroit. This helped solidify the roll of this music in my lfie. Truly, I never really had any illusions of being a great dancer. I liked it a lot, but knew my limitations.

I have also written about my maternal Grandmother’s brother Samuel. He had a band in Aleppo, Syria where he settled after the Genocide. He would send us reel to reel tapes of his very Kharpert style of clarinet playing. This and the constant Armenian, Turkish, and Greek music my father played in the house as I grew up. I was definitely conditioned and pre-disposed to this music. I also believe there is a genetic component. I believe it is in the core of my DNA. Yes, I know, I was probably conditioned but it is most definitely core.

This passion for the music is a something we call kef. It is a word in Armenian, Turkish, and Arabic. We refer to someone smitten with kef as a kefji. The word varies from something spiritual and soulful to an exuberance for partying.

I am not alone. My good friend and talented drummer Mike Mossoian once summed it up, as only he could say, “If I wake up one day and was no longer a kefji, just shoot me.” He was speaking not to any ethnic or even cultural arrogance though Lord knows we Armenians are entirely capable of this. He was speaking of his love of the music. If he woke up and no longer liked the music, his life would be empty. Indeed it would be, for him, for me, and for many others I know.

Ed Arvanigian: On August 7th, Judy and I drove to Detroit to attend the birthday party for a great friend, a pure kefji, and musical mentor: Ed Arvanigian. This birthday party was mostly a gathering of family and friends at his daughter Kari’s house in Dearborn. It was a beautiful summer evening, very comfortable, you could say perfect for an outdoor party.

Ed is such a kefji and such a fixture in the music scene in Detroit, there had to be a band. The band were all my friends and from my generation: Tom Gerjekian, John Harotian, Mike Mossoian, Kraig Kuchukian, Greg Nigosian, and myself. At one time, with Tommy, Greg, and I playing there were three oud players. There were only two musicians of Ed’s generation: Kelly Kuchukian the long time oud player in the Hye Tones band and Simon Javizian a wonderful clarinet player and leader of the Ardziv Band. Yes, Kelly is the father of Kraig who played keyboard that night.

Ed loves the music, especially the Turkish music, of his parents’ generation. Basically, that is all we played. That is all we wanted to play. Sadly, the call for this music is less and less with each passing year. At most Armenian venues, the performance of Turkish music is banned and will cause a pretty strong reaction if played. Oddly, because of this most Armenians can no longer even recognize Turkish songs if they are not sung… so, we sneak them in. Also, a lot of Armenian popular music coming from California and Armenia is simply Turkish songs overlaid with Armenian words. It simply is what it is… as they say.

That night, for Ed, we played and sang the old songs. Mostly Ed and Kelly sang them. It was a total blast and very touching. We began playing Ipek Siyah Mantolu, coincidently my father’s favorite song. There is still a huge smile on my face when I write this. Ed and Kelly recognized the song from the open chords and like little children, eighty year old little children mind you, ran, at a surprisingly fast waddle, up to the microphone to belt out this song together. The music provided the same level of inspiration, excitement, devotion, feeling, elation, and kef no matter how old. If this music gets under your skin or in your soul, you are a devotee for life. It becomes part of your life bordering on your way of life. I truly hope that when I am 80 or more, I have the same kef spirit as Eddie and Kelly. (In the photo, Eddie has the orange glasses with his arm around Kelly.)

The musicians that evening all commented on how such parties once the norm are few and far between these days. Sure, we all have ALL the recordings in our iPods. But, a solo party between ones ears and a live band, open bar, mezza table, social event are two very different things. I can see why Sufis and some Alevis view music as a central part of their spirituality.

John Bilezikjian: I had actually planned to dedicate this entire letter to my friend and oud virtuoso John Bilezikjian. While he is not the only person I know that makes a living playing the oud, he is the only person I know making a good living playing the oud. (In the above photo, John is pictured with his 1900 Manolis Venios oud. Manol is considered the Stradivarius of oud makers.)

Yet, this is how my letter writing goes. Even when I am lucky enough to have a topic, or think I have a topic, at the beginning of the month, things change as the month unfolds. I did not think I would be in Detroit for Ed Arvanigian’s party and how it would influence me as I began to think about what I wanted to say about John and this music we love.

I will not burden you with a biography of John. His website is rich with his biography and significant number of recordings, film and TV work, and collaborations with such luminaries such as Placido Domingo and Leonard Cohen. Take a look and be impressed: http://dantzrecords.com/info.htm. There is also a wonderful article on John in the Gilded Serpent, an e-zine dedicated to Middle Eastern Music, Dance, Belly Dancing: http://www.gildedserpent.com/art42/artemisjohnb.htm.

First and foremost, John is a very nice man. He is sincere and easy going. Talking and being with John is so casual that I often forget just how accomplished and what an awesome talent John is.

In preparing this segment of this letter, I was amazed at everything John has done when I read both of the above weblinks. He did three international tours with Leonard Cohen. He has performed and written music in films like The French Connection, Schindler’s List, and others. If you hear an oud on a television show or commercial, it is probably John playing. He has performed with both the LA Philharmonic Orchestra and the Boston Pops. He mostly performs on the oud but is a master of the bouzouki, saz, mandolin, balalaika, and the violin. He was even the first to have conceived and craft a flat backed oud. He has even written an Oud Method book that is published in the Hal Leonard series of Method Books.

John is incredible. He has countless recordings from belly dance to Sephardic albums. My favorite is Music of the Armenian Diaspora. John plays two ouds and performs songs that define the Armenian-American experience for me. It is beautiful. If you are only going to listen to one thing, listen to this youtube link. This is a posting from John’s album The Magic of John Bilezikjian. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ncLBqEr9hOk

It is Bekledim de Gelmedim, a classic Turkish waltz by written by Yesari Akim Arsoy. Listen to John’s velvet voice and beautiful oud. Too bad you cannot hear him dedicate it to his grandmother as he does on the album. It was her favorite song.

As you can hear in the youtube, John has developed a unique style of playing the oud based on his chord system for the oud. Because of this, John can play almost any gig by himself and fill the place with just his oud and voice. He has a style of alternating between chording and melody that I swear sounds like he is doing both at the same time. Classical guitar players actually do both at the same time using every finger on their right hand to pluck the strings. John does it with a pick.

Other oud players do things that are pretty impressive. I hear a run here or trill there and can imagine doing it even if I cannot actually execute the maneuver. I have heard John do things that I cannot even imagine doing. Very cool and very impressive.

John knows the music. At the aforementioned Ed Arvanigian birthday party, Kelly sang a song a Turkish classic, Indim Yarin Bahçesine. I love that song and tried to look for the words on-line. There are many songs with that title but different words. So I cut and pasted the words I thought were right into an e-mail and sent them to John. A few minutes later we were on the phone. I told John that I was looking for the 9/8 song that Udi Hrant used to sing. John said, “oh yes, the Ismail Dede Efendi song” referring to the great Turkish composer.

Who among my peers would know this? Others might have pockets of knowledge but John for sure would know. He is a tremendous student of the music and an untapped wealth of knowledge.

John Bilezikjian is both a major talent and a friend. The friendship part differentiates him from almost every other major talent in our niche of the music world. There are people who might help others when asked but you know not to ask for too much or too often. There are others that you know way better than to ask for anything because it would just give them a great opportunity to say “NO!” accompanied by some belittling editorializing.

Not everyone appreciates John, however. In the countless and pointless arguments I have heard by the dwindling fan base of Armenian-American kefjis, many believe John has changed the style and purity of the core music. I used to think that to a degree. I was an idiot and gladly admit that now.

I have never heard John speak negatively about anyone.

There is a great memory of when John was in Detroit in the 1980s. He was at a picnic we were playing at. I invited him to play as he does any time I visit a club he is playing at. He dazzled the crowd. My beloved maternal Grannie called me over and said, “Vy you don’ play like dat?” I answered simply, “I ask myself the same question every day.”

Thursday, July 30, 2009

July 2009: Newspapers

Maybe I should be writing about Armené and Michael’s wedding in this letter. But, it is too soon. I am basking, yet, in the glow but it is too soon. Plus, we have another wedding in September. I should wait until after Aram and Anoush’s wedding in September. Maybe I will write about the weddings in my December letter.

It was, however, on the way home, on the plane, from Armené’s wedding weekend that the idea for this month’s letter came to me. I was reading an interesting profile on Carlos Slim Helú in the June 1, 2009 issue of The New Yorker. The wealthy Mexican investor, it seems is in position to take ownership of the venerable New York Times.

Back in January of this year, Slim lent the newspaper $250 million. The paper needed cash desperately as they were over $1 billion in debt. Carlos Slim negotiated some very tough terms as he usually does which included getting warrants on 15.9 million shares of the Times Company. So with the stroke of a few pens and the electronic transfer of funds, Carlos Slim Helú became the New York Times’ “largest creditor and was poised to become one its largest stockholders – after members of the Ochs-Sulzberger clan, which has controlled the Times since 1896.”

Whoa… back up. The New York Times was over $1 billion in debt and in such dire straits that they agreed to loan from what some consider a Mexican robber baron of Lebanese descent. How could this institution, a national newspaper, the definitive source of news, the unofficial newspaper of record, be on the verge of going under? How can that happen?

Well it is happening to newspapers all across the country. Readership and subscriptions are down. Advertising revenues are down. Literally, the physical dimension of the paper has shrunk. On the other hand, the prices of newspapers are going up but not nearly at the rate that loses and debt are multiplying.

The reasons for this are not hard to figure out. Electronic media are eating into market share of print media if not making them outright obsolete. There are several 24/7 all news channels on television. Almost every cell phone can access Google, Yahoo, or something equivalent. It is incredibly easy and convenient to look things up on a whim. It is even easier with an iPhone or Blackberry.

I am not immune to the convenience of the Internet: I was in St. Louis playing music the weekend of July 18-19. On the drive back on Sunday the 19th, we were discussing how dangerous the use of cell phones was while driving. In a matter of seconds, I had a New York Times article on the subject on my Blackberry and was quoting statistics to my friends. The article was very current. It was from that day’s paper. http://www.nytimes.com/2009/07/19/technology/19distracted.html?_r=1&scp=4&sq=distraction%20driving&st=cse

Ironically that day’s New York Times was waiting for me at home. I never saw the print article. I got home around 6 pm, had other things to do, and I was tired. I only read the Week in Review section of the paper. The next day the paper went into the recycling bin 90% unread. I hate when that happens, it seems like such a waste. On Tuesday, trash pick-up day, the Sunday paper, the only day I have home delivery was on its way to being recycled.

On that same Tuesday, I read an email from my cousin David Gavoor. He forwarded a link to the cover story of the Sunday New York Times Magazine entitled “This Boy’s Appetite” by Frank Bruni the restaurant critic for the paper. The article, which I have yet to read, is an excerpt from his forthcoming book and outlines his lifelong battle with his love of overeating. In this case I copy/pasted the entire article and saved it to read at my leisure as the hard copy magazine was already gone. http://www.nytimes.com/2009/07/19/magazine/19bruni-t.html?emc=eta1

I love the convenience of the internet. Information, news, opinions, statistics are at the tip of my fingers via my laptop or Blackberry. These were cases from the past two days. By providing the link, anyone reading this can be reading the same articles in a matter of seconds and few clicks. In the old days, David would have had to cut out the article, or photocopy it, and mail it to me. I would have gotten the information a week or so later versus the few minutes the scenario I described took.

Newspaper Memories: There is something iconic about reading a real newspaper. As a young boy, I recall my Mother’s father Levon reading the Hairenik, the Armenian Daily newspaper that has since become a weekly. I recall my parents reading the Detroit Free Press. We had home delivery of the Free Press. So there was always a newspaper in our home. The tradition of seven day home delivery continued when I got married and moved into first an apartment and then our home. It stopped when we moved to Connecticut. I bought my daily papers at the train station and had weekend home delivery.

I recall there being three major newspapers in Detroit: the Detroit News, the Detroit Free Press, and the Detroit Times. I never read the Detroit Times. It closed when I was in grade school. The Detroit Times was sold to the Detroit News. For a short period, the News had both mastheads but only to provide some comfort and ease the rebranding to the readers and subscribers of the Times.


The Detroit Free Press and the Detroit News were the two papers I remembered most. The Free Press was a morning paper. The Detroit News was an evening paper. I believe the News was the more popular paper. Men used to come home, have dinner and then read the paper. During my youth, television news which was primarily an evening event made the evening newspaper obsolete. The print news was always older than what was being broadcast on the television at 6 pm. The News continued as an evening paper but eventually succumbed to reality and became a morning paper. It had to do that to stay both relevant and viable.

I remember the era of paperboys. Some of my classmates were making $10-20 a week delivering anywhere from 25 to 50+ newspapers by bicycle. That was pretty big money for teenagers back then. They had rugged bicycles that would be called cruisers today with big baskets to carry their newspapers. They would meet at a central location where a truck would drop off bundles of papers. The newsboys in the district would unbundle the papers, take their allotment, and fold them to facilitate throwing them onto or somewhere near the front porches of their customers as they would ride by. Once a week or fortnight, they would have to collect from their customers.

The Free Press boys were up and out at five in the morning. The Detroit News boys were busy from the time school let out until dinner. They did this seven days a week, year round, no matter what the weather. They were out in the rain and frigid cold of the Detroit winters. I often thought about trying to do the job, there was some allure to it. But, honestly, it was a more demanding job than I wanted to tackle.

Newspapers today are delivered by adults in cars. I am not sure the last time I saw newspapers delivered by a teenager on a bicycle.

When I began working at Ford Motor Company in 1976, everyone seemed to bring a newspaper to work with them. I did the same. I remember my boss would sit at his desk at lunch with his sack lunch and read the Detroit Free Press for the full lunch hour. He would peruse every page.
When I was in Connecticut and took the train into Manhattan, the newspaper was part of the ritual both ways. I read New York Times or the Wall Street Journal in the morning and the Daily News or New York Post on the way home. I was amazed by how the real seasoned pros would fold the Wall Street Journal in half lengthwise and read the entire paper that way turning each page, in essence twice. It was an art form. It made it so you never had to intrude into your seat mates space when you turned the page. The column layout of the paper actually facilitated this.

Shrinking Size, Rising Prices: Over the past few years as this newspaper crisis has developed two things have happened. Almost every paper, certainly all of the papers I know of, have shrunk in size and doubled in newsstand prices.

Literally the USA Today and New York Times are smaller. The page size is smaller; I am guessing 10 to 15% smaller in terms of length and width. The Boston Globe was 75¢ on weekdays. In April, the price was hiked to $1 in the city zone and $1.50 further out. The USA Today started off at 50¢ and stayed that way for many years. It went up to 75¢ a few years ago and this past October, it went to $1. Just recently, the New York Times jacked up prices from $1.50 to $2 for the weekday paper no matter what region. On Sundays, the New York Times now costs a whopping $5 in and around New York City and $6 elsewhere. On May 8, 2009, the Wall Street Journal put it quite simply: “These days, newspapers are scrambling to remain relevant - and solvent. The Times is betting that people will be willing to pay more money to read the editions.”

It is a simply a sign of the changing times. Circulation is down. Advertising is down. Prices therefore have to go up. Because advertising is down, the papers simply have less pages. They are not as thick. The Sunday New York Times used to be three inches thick and laden with full color advertising supplements. The Sunday Times is now about the thickness the weekday papers used to be.

Early some morning, go and buy a paper from a newspaper box, the kind you have to put coins in and open the door to get a paper. First, it may be harder to find than you might imagine. If you do find one, you will be surprised at the very small number of papers in the stack. I remember when these boxes used to be full in the morning. Now, they only load them with four or five papers… even at train stations!

As Detroit is the experiencing the worst of this recession, it is no surprise that the Detroit newspapers are feeling the crunch the hardest. The two newspapers have a joint operating agreement i.e. use the same print plant to reduce costs. They print a joint Sunday paper. On December 18, 2008, much to the consternation of my parents, the Detroit Free Press announced it was going to only provide home delivery on Thursdays, Fridays, and Sundays. These are the heaviest advertising days. This move was made with the expressed intent of encouraging more internet delivery.

The Detroit Times was sold to the Detroit News on November 8, 1960 and ceased publication immediately. The reasons given for the sale of the paper ring hauntingly true today: “The sale was necessary because costs such as labor, newsprint, supplies, and equipment have risen far more rapidly than revenues.” It would have even been more relevant to today’s situation if they had mentioned that television was part of the cause for lower revenues.

July 29, 2008: Today the August 3, 2009 issue of The New Yorker arrived. The June 1 issue was responsible for the topic of this letter. The August 3 issue motivated the inclusion of this section.

There was an article entitled “A New Page: Can the Kindle really improve on the book?” by Nicholson Baker. The article explored the wonders and woes of the Kindle (www.amazon.com/kindle) which is Amazon.com’s e-book. It is connected to the internet and can download books, newspapers, and magazines. The device is on its second generation which seems to have much more appeal than the first generation Kindle. The Kindle costs $299. At a mere 10 ounces and 8” x 5.3” x .36”, it is a sleek compact device and seems to be gaining traction in the marketplace.

Every time I see someone with them, I ask them what they think of the product. On my very unscientific sample of four, the reviews have been stellar. They love it. They say it was a great purchase. In The New Yorker article, there were similar glowing quotes from devoted users taken from the Amazon.com website e.g. “If I dropped my Kindle down a sewer, I would buy another one immediately.”

The cost to subscribe to the New York Times on the Kindle is $13.99 per month. The monthly cost for the Wall Street Journal is $14.99 and the USA Today is $9.99 a month. The monthly cost for The New Yorker magazine is $2.99 or 75¢. The cover price for the weekly magazine is $4.99 and the subscription price is 82¢. So, the Kindle media subscription prices are low but not as free as the internet.

The Kindle can hold 1,500 books. There are more than 300,000 books in the Kindle store. Amazing! I could amass more books, newspapers, and magazines at bargain prices. I would probably not read anymore than I do now but I would avoid the clutter. I would also forego the guilt of physically seeing unread books piling up in my library, bed stand, and other flat surfaces around the house.

The last thing I want to do is carry another electronic gadget and corresponding cords around in my briefcase. But, the Kindle takes up less space than a magazine and often I have a few magazines and a book that I am lugging around. The Kindle certainly has some advantages plus it has a bigger screen than my Blackberry. The product has a compelling value proposition.
What it is missing though, is the physical look, feel, and sound effects of a newspaper. I could and would probably read things on the Kindle. Heck, I read them on the itsy bitsy Blackberry screen and on my laptop. It is the feel of the paper, the crinkly sound of turning the pages, the need to re-assemble a section when you fall asleep and the paper slides off of your lap.

The physical paper and ink of books, newspapers, and magazines are tactile and comforting in a way rooted in my earliest memories. If they go away or are minimized, I will feel bad and miss them but they will be replaced by something better and cheaper.

I recall the nostalgic reminisces of my Mother regarding the heyday of radio broadcasts. Television made radio change to music and talk. It survived but in a new format. Television provided moving pictures and was in many ways superior. Yet, the nostalgia remains.
When the downtown Hudson’s Department Store closed in Detroit people were in an uproar. They had great memories of the place and were indignant to see the venue close down. Yet, not enough people shopped there to sustain the business. The corporation did what it had to do. The memories survive.

We love our icons. They provide great memories and root us. Any change can be unsettling but the change usually happens after we have already changed our habits. I call this blog/e-mail, a monthly letter because it evokes a memory more personal and handwritten.

I do not read newspapers as much as I did just five years ago. I have gravitated to the internet for convenience, timeliness, and the very low cost of getting what I want when I want it. But, I love the option of poring over the Sunday paper… when I can.

I may buy a Kindle someday, but probably not until the sound of newspaper being handled and manipulated can be mimicked. I also wonder, especially as I age, if the device is robust enough to survive falling to floor when I fall asleep reading it.

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

June 2009: Annual Health and Fitness Letter

I have had the habit of writing about health and fitness in first the July and more recently the June issues of this letter. It is important to write about this for me, since living well and right is a lifelong challenge for me. I have written about diet and cycling. This year I will write about the concept of stress.

Well, first off, I have to acknowledge that I allowed myself to backslide over the past year and a half. I remained a vegetarian but I lapsed and ate too much and too much of the wrong foods. My biggest weaknesses are chocolate, sweets, and plain old simple overeating.

The secret formula of eating right and getting to a naturally good weight and lean body has not changed. It is to eat as little fat and simple carbohydrates as possible. This means, for me, the basic Ornish diet: no meat, no white sugar, no white rice, no white flour, and to avoid processed foods which tend to be rich in fat and simple carbohydrates. When I do this I am full without overeating. I stay full longer and if I snack, it is dried fruit and roasted chick peas.

I would like nothing more then to blame this on the stress of the economy, my job situation, impending weddings, and what else? I could blame global warming, the North Korean missile launches, the Taliban, and perhaps even Pluto being officially declassified as a planet in our solar system.

The bottom line is stress and the subsequent trying to eat through it. First, I had to stop overeating and get back to eating style outlined above. No matter what other motivations I may have, the weddings of my children are on the horizon and frankly, I would like to look as good as I can in the photos.

Secondly, the motivation to live as long and as healthy as possible is still very real. The goal was to be able to know my grandchildren and share in their lives as much as possible. I would love to be at their weddings and dance with them.

Enough of this, I have covered all this in other letters.

The questions that I am wrestling with are why I have stress and why I allow it to ruin my dietary style. The breaking of this cycle is important to me. As a casual observer of people, I also believe it is very important to others.

It will also help me in terms of mental health as well. You are probably wondering what the heck I am talking about right about now. I guess I am talking about putting it all together to work towards both physical and mental health and fitness. Or so I profess.

Stress has two effects on me. First, as already laid out, it makes me want to eat through it. I am not alone in this. Many people eat their way through whatever their problems are, whatever they think their problems are. The foods that are available people like me are salty, sweet, or fatty. They taste good but are horrible for us. No one eats a bag of carrots to deal with stress. We eat a pound of Oreos. We eat a pint of Häagen-Dazs. Or, we do both. The sugar high helps only as long as the sugary spike lasts. And, that is not very long at all.

Second, stress also causes a paralysis that saps my will to act. So, it seems worthwhile to look at stress since it is apparently the root of all my, and let me use the scientific term here, stupid behavior.

What is stress? There is a biochemical component to this. In a state of stress, the body reacts chemically. For the greater part of mankind, stress was the reaction to a very real danger. Fight or flight was a very real choice that had to made instantly… for survival. Without getting too deeply into it, the adrenal gland releases hormones that spike the sugar level in the blood to fuel either the fight or flight. When faced with T. Rex or an invading horde, this is a most natural and very necessary reaction. When faced with a dictator boss at work outburst or an unreal traffic jam on your way to the airport, the same mechanism can kick in. In the later case, where does that sugar spike and energy rush go? If you are one who loves to fight or can translate this calmly into action, it probably fuels your activity. Otherwise, it is like eating too much sugar, you spike and then crash. It can begin an overeating cycle of spiking and crashing.

Fight or flight? I rarely choose the fight option. Why am I not choosing the fight option? These two manifestations of stress may well be related. Binge eating of simple carbohydrates and fatty foods cause these dramatic ups and downs. The downs, which I believe there are lot more of than the highs, probably re-enforce the paralysis and certainly the lethargy. Crazy as it sounds. I know this to be true about me and see it others as well.

I am slowly becoming convinced that stress does not exist. It only exists between my ears. It is contrived. I allow others people and sometimes events to create it. Dr. Wayne Dyer, a Detroit native and a fellow Wayne State University alumnus, was featured on PBS television a few weeks ago. He made this exact point. He said “there is no stress in the world.” He challenged the audience to go out and come back with a bucket of stress. He then said no one could complete the challenge. Why? Simply stress does not exist.

I have seen this and know that it certainly can be true. The problem is that I have witnessed this and seen it to be true only a select few. Allow me to illustrate what I mean by looking at an all too common situation. Let’s say something goes awry or off the plan at work. The boss, a surly SOB, explodes, motivates, berates, and possibly threatens your job. How do people react? Why do some people, eat their way through this, drink their way through it, or just stop with that deer in the headlights look? More importantly, why do a select few just take it stride like it were nothing really big, add a few items to their to-do list, and get to rectifying things?

What is the nature of this second and admirable class of people? Are they immune to stress? Do they just suppress it? Re-channel it to the task at hand? Are they fighters? Are they smarter, more organized? Are they simply advanced life forms?

You can tell that this is something that I have thought about for a very long time. Here is what I think I know about the people that have a non-stress reaction to what could be a most stressful situation. Sure they have a sense of urgency but there is no stress. They do not blame themselves. They understand the nature of the boss and that this is the way he or she will always react to such situations and thus do not take it personally.

There is a definition of stress that I have always loved. There are variations on this, but I have always liked this one. In fact, I like it so much that I have committed it to memory:

Stress is the most unnatural suppression of the most natural urge to choke the living shit out of some asshole that desperately deserves it.
Apologies. I do not often use profanity in these letters, but the use here is critical to the definition.

Even this humorous definition supports the points I am trying to make here. It is all in the mind. And, stress is caused by other people. Others are not actually creating stress; they are just being themselves, moronic, self-serving, maniacal as that may be. The stress inside of us is simply how we react to them.

Why do some of us have road rage while others weather it cool, calm, and collected? It is the same thing as the surly boss and the humorous definition. It is how people react to the situation so differently.

Well I understand this semantically. I even understand it philosophically. Sure stress is just a concept. But, it is a very real concept; at least the resultant behavior is very real. Road rage is real. Binge eating is real. Depression is real. But, so is the positive reaction.

Let’s go back to the surly boss. Why is it that some people crumble and are paralyzed by the surly boss outburst, while others just shrug it off and get to rectifying things? There is even a class of people who use the stress as fuel. These fighters look for chaos and conflict, they thrive on the fight. They look for the fight. They get power from winning every fight they can. They clearly apply the fight principle to every issue in their lives.

Can we change our basic reaction to stressful situations? Clearly, whatever coping mechanisms we have, fight, flight, fear, paralysis, binge eating, or some combination of all seem well ingrained. We cope and somehow get things done, some better than others. After all of these other questions, there is a big one that is the point of this letter. Can we eliminate stress i.e. change the way we react to stressful situations? Clearly, I have been thinking a lot about this. Yes, lots of thinking but no real good answers.

Change is possible. But, it is not easy. We have learned how to react from our earliest years. We have learned to cope with parents and teachers telling what to do and not to do. We have learned to react to their feedback, positive and negative, constructive and not so constructive, from an early age. I used to make fun of the way psychotherapists used to have patients revert to their childhood to find the root cause of the issues.

I am reading a book entitled Stop Self Sabotage by Pat Pearson. It is pretty good. The Wayne Dyer program on PBS was entitled Excuses Begone. Both are focused helping people get out of their own way and increasing the probability that we actually achieve what we want. Dyer began by talking about stress. Pearson never really talked about it. But they both got to the same point of providing advice on how to get rid of the excuses and barriers that cause us to stall and come up short against our dreams. Failing whether at weight loss, business, love, or whatever can be stressful if it is a recurring theme in one's life.

It is a cliché but admitting the problem or recognizing the issue is the first step toward changing the situation. The pundits all say variations of the same thing. We must work to recognize the stressful situations, how we react to them, and gradually change the behavior of reacting to these situations.

Pat Pearson talks about self-esteem and self-confidence. She looks at them as independent factors. They can be either high or low. Clearly, we want to be in a state where both are high and we do not want to be in a condition where both are low. The interesting concept is the interaction where one is high and the other is low. I am not sure if I have high self-esteem and low self-confidence or vice-a-versa. I am still sorting that out. Maybe it doesn’t really matter.

Another cliché is to envision the behavior you would like to model. In this case, I would like to be like those calm, cool, and collected folks that do not really react to the stress inducing surly boss. They take the pertinent points and turn them into action items which they knock off effectively and efficiently. That is what I would like to be.

Certainly, in truly stressful situations, physical emergencies that involve life and death or just work related crises of epic proportions. There is no time to think. There is only time to act. When there is a fire in a warehouse, you work to get it put out and then work to get product flowing again. There is no time to contemplate anything. In true stressful emergencies, events dictate your response. Even the surly boss doesn’t matter.

In non-emergency situations, I have been like that for short periods of time. It is a good feeling. Paralysis just adds to the stress which leads to a deeper paralysis et cetera. Binge eating adds to the spikes and drops in sugar levels, which also sustains stress. Then we induce more stress because we are not accomplishing what we want professionally or health wise. Maybe I need to develop an act first think later approach to life. That will be tough.

In reading over this letter, part of me wonders why I am subjecting anyone else to these true confessions. Another part of me feels very good to just write about this and get it off my chest. It is refreshing to do this.

I am embarking on a new business. I am joining my friend Ara Surenian in an Demand Planning and Inventory Management Consulting business (www.demandcaster.com). There is stress here. While trying to decide to do this, I felt like I was at the edge of a cliff and afraid to take that first step, that leap of faith. After awhile, I got a little of the Nike attitude: Just do it. I was stressing out about that first step. Sure, I have worked for large companies my entire career. There is a steady paycheck, but there is a lot of other nonsense that one must also deal with. Maybe I was not standing at the edge of a cliff but rather on the edge of a curb. I will never know until I take that first step. What is there to be afraid of? Nothing. I can hear Franklin Delano Roosevelt saying that the only thing I “have to fear is fear itself.” And this fake fear causes real stress that messes with me mind and body. It is as I said earlier in this letter, just plain stupid.

Surely, these habits can be changed. It is not easy and I know it will not be easy for me. But, I feel I must try. So for the next year, I am dedicating myself to both physical and mental health. I would like to see if I can put it all together: eating right and thinking right. Eating right and exercising is hard enough, thinking right to minimize stress and maximize my effectiveness, I think will be even harder. But, I am going to give all of this a shot. It could be very exciting. It should be the best year ever.