Tuesday, January 27, 2009

January 2009: It Began with an Air Bath

January 19: There was a television mini-series I watched some many years ago. It was about the American Revolution. It might have even been about Benjamin Franklin, as the only parts I remember about this mini-series were about him. In fact, I only remember one part. This would be that Ben Franklin took an air bath daily. In the mini-series, he would stand naked in front of an open window letting the air bath and cleanse his body and soul.

Of course, I Googled “Ben Franklin air bath” and found many sites confirming the air bath story. A site dedicated to Franklin’s 300th birthday, www.benfranklin300.org, seemed the most official:
Did you know that Franklin was so sure that fresh air was important for good health that he took a daily “air bath”? He wrote to the French physician, Jacques Barbeu-Dubourg, describing it thus: “I rise early almost every morning and sit in my chamber, without any clothes whatever, half an hour or an hour, according to the season, either reading or writing.”
Not quite the visual impact of standing in front of an open window but definitely making Ben Franklin somewhat of a nudist.

This air bath idea popped into my head this past weekend and I decided to take my version, a fully clad version, of an air bath. Like Franklin, I believe fresh air is important to ones health. My belief is that really cold air cleanses the soul and gives provides a unique kind of solitude and clarity.

As Chicagoland and much of the Eastern US have experienced extreme cold temperatures, I got it in my mind to take a walk in the cold and refresh myself. At first, I thought to walk the neighborhood. A second and much better thought was to drive across town to the Lake Forest beach on Lake Michigan.

So I donned my boots, two layers of coats, the warmest gloves I could find, an anorak, and a hat. I drove down to the beach and walked. It was cold, the landscape was covered with more than a foot of snow, the sky was pure blue, the sun provided bright light and little warmth, and the wind was blowing… perfect conditions for my version of a wind bath.

I really should have done this last week when the temperature never got above -3 degrees Fahrenheit. While the temperature today was a balmy 14 degrees by comparison, it would suit my needs just fine.

There are two piers that define the boat launch. The mooring area was further cordoned off with jetties made of large rocks. I walked out to the edge of each of piers and looked out over the choppy water of the lake. It reminded me of being at Compo Beach in Westport, CT but without the salt air.

It felt great, all bundled up, no one around, the biting cold, and looking out over the lake. I like a view now and then when there I can see no evidence of humanity or any of our alterations to the landscape. Looking over the lake provided just that. Ice had formed on the jetty rocks, freezing in layers that made rings that looked like those on a tree trunk.

It was enjoying this moment when my thoughts drifted to the air baths of Benjamin Franklin. I laughed at the conceptual similarity and the glaring differences in our approaches. I have to assume, just because of his stature in history that he had it right. Though I must admit that I really enjoyed my version very much.

Thinking of Ben Franklin next had me reflecting on the history of the United States. I noted I was doing this on Martin Luther King Day and the day before Barack Hussein Obama was to be inaugurated as the 44th President of the United States.

I then realized that January 19th was also the second anniversary of the assassination of Hrant Dink (read my April 2007 letter). I stood there in the cold and a thought popped into my head: Hrant Dink is like the M.L. King of Turkey. When the country and the government honor him as such, maybe an Armenian or half-Armenian might be elected as the President or Prime Minister of Turkey.

January 20: It is Inauguration Day. I was up and out early. I went to a networking breakfast in Downtown Chicago sponsored jointly by the University of Michigan and Michigan State University Alumni Clubs. About fifty people came, partook of a surprisingly lavish breakfast buffet, and then participated in a rapid fire table to table networking session for an hour or so. About two-thirds of the participants were looking for a job or in-transition. I met some very nice people but no one that could probably help me.

When the session was over I had to drive to Oak Brook were I was meeting another fellow, Aravind, for yet another networking discussion over lunch. We decided to meet halfway between where I live and he works. We decided on the India House Restaurant in Oak Brook which ironically was right next to the Sanford offices.

As I drove there, I was listening to NPR coverage of the inauguration. If I were at home or almost anyplace else, I would have probably watched the historic event on television. Call me odd, but I enjoyed listening to the prayers, musical offerings, oaths, and acceptance speech on the radio. I listened to the commentators paint a picture of the surroundings and it fired a different image into my memory than watching it on television would have done. I probably heard the words of the prayers and acceptance speech more intently.

It still amazes me that we have an African American President. I thought when he announced his candidacy that he did not stand any chance of being elected. I thought the prejudice was too deep. Clearly, I was wrong. In the end, I even voted for him. What surprised me was not so much voting across some racial or prejudicial lines (I like to believe there are no lines in my head or heart to cross), but crossing the party line. I have voted Republican for President every year with the exception of voting for Ross Perot in 1992. Yes, that means I voted for W not once… but twice.

January 24th: I have an acquaintance here in Chicago. He is an attorney with an Ivy League undergraduate degree and his JD from the University of Chicago Law School. He told me that Barak Obama was his professor of Constitutional Law. He told me that “flat out Barak Obama is the smartest person I have ever met.”

Maybe it is in contrast to Bush, Cheney and their team. There is some buzz about the return of the best and brightest to government service. There is a feeling or buzz around that with the election of the Barak Obama that it is OK again for the best and brightest to consider a career in government service.

Of course, the best and brightest sword is two sided. John F. Kennedy brought in the best and brightest including McGeorge Bundy and Robert McNamara. This group of the best and brightest got us into the Vietnam War. When the best and brightest do not go into government, my theory is that they go into investment banking and finance at the highest levels. If this has been the case for the past ten years, then I have to add another word. This group of the best and brightest is also the greediest and engineered us into the worst recession/depression since the 1930s.

Frank Rich wrote an Op-Ed piece in the December 8, 2008 New York Times, “The Brightest are always not the Best” http://www.nytimes.com/2008/12/07/opinion/07rich.html. It is worth reading, but be warned it could take the winds out of whatever optimism you are feeling after the inauguration. I do not recall reading that piece when it was published, but I must have since my views track too well with the first few paragraphs of his column.

There is at least another way to look at this. If the socio-economic conditions of this country are cyclic, we have to be near the bottom of the cycle. We have a new team coming in and taking over in a crisis. They are focused mostly on the elements of this crisis: the two wars, the banking system, real estate, and unemployment (gee whiz… did I miss anything). Part of me thinks that they will have to do better, things will have to improve. When you are standing on the South Pole any step you take will be northward.

To me, the country has the same feel as when Ronald Reagan was elected. People wanted him and his team to succeed. The economy was a mess and the Iranian Hostage Crisis had zapped our collective national will. Reagan swept in dawning an age of prosperity and military build-up that ended up bankrupting and causing the fall of the Soviet Union.

What are we expecting? What do we need from the Obama administration?

January 27th: It has been a week since the memorable inauguration. Yet, nothing has changed. I have not found employment yet. The recovery has not fully kicked in. Every turn of the TV News Channels, click to a news website, or turn on the old fashioned newspaper reports on this company letting 2,000 people go and that company eliminating 4,000 jobs.

Even though I seriously try to avoid reading depressing news, I could not pass up the breaking news today regarding the State of California. It seems that California is seriously considering sending out registered warrants, basically IOUs, in place of state income tax refund checks. The state has not had a positive cash flow since sometime in 2007. This is probably a ploy on the part of the state controller John Chiang to get the legislature and governator to pass enact some sound budget and tax legislation but it is very distressing news in a very distressed time.
“We are the eighth largest economy," Chiang said, speaking of California's rank among the world's nations, were it an independent country. But comparing it to other states, he said, "We have the 50th or we are tied for last in the credit ratings. We are a world economic power, but we have fiscal mismanagement in this state." http://worldnetdaily.com/index.php?fa=PAGE.view&pageId=87175
Luckily in Illinois where I live, we have Governor Rod Blagojevich and his ridiculous impeachment defense to take our minds off of the economy.

What are we expecting from the Obama administration? I think that people, the people, in general are expecting things to get better and to get better quickly. That is what I would like too, but it is not what I expect. It took months and years to get into this mess, it will take at least that to get out of it.

I would like to give the country an air bath like I took that I took on the January 19th. I would like to have a blast of cold air clear our collective minds and give ourselves a much more basic view of what our place and stature in this world should be. I would like to clear the cobwebs of excessive consumerism and “irrational exuberance” out of our collective minds.

It would be good if we could take a longer range view of many things such as the environment and global warming. I would like to see us invest in good basic research on how mass transit could really work in this country or at least parts of this country. I would like to see us have a more balanced view of politics in the Middle East and not just siding with Turkey and Israel as a default. I would like to see us pay a bit more for food and use that extra money (did someone say tax?) to ensure the safety of the food supply chain. Of course, I want everyone to think like me.

Personally, I would like to be able to smoke a cigar in more venues then is now allowed. But, I don’t think any kind of mass air bath would help make that happen. I guess I will just have to settle for an economic recovery.

————— ¤ —————

In closing, I would like to provide this link to photos of the inauguration sent by my friend Asaad Samaan. His message was “Cool stuff regardless of who you voted for.” I couldn’t agree more: http://www.boston.com/bigpicture/2009/01/the_inauguration_of_president.html

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

December 2008: Inspiration Under $20

It is December. It is time for thoughts of Peace on Earth and, for our family, to celebrate Christmas. For some reason, it has always been a time for introspection. A year is about to end. Certainly, the media reminds us of this at every turn. A new year is looming. We evaluate ourselves and the circumstances of the current year and what the next may bring.

2008 has been a mix for me. Both my children got engaged Aram to Anoush Varjabedian and Armené to Michael Kapamajian. We had very lovely parties to celebrate these blessings and as precursors to the weddings both of which will be in 2009. Both couples are in love and looking brightly to the future which provides a great measure of joy and happiness to parents and grandparents alike.

Yet, 2008 has been a tough year. Times are tough. The economy is in the dumps. People are losing their jobs by the thousands. Wall Street is rife with mismanagement and worse. The government is providing funds to stabilize banks and for people with absurd mortgage terms and amounts to refinance. After considerable debate they have done the same for the automotive industry. Retail sales are down, chain stores are closing. Times are tough.

I have also lost my job. It was not so much due to the economy but more so to changing out the entire management team. Think of it as a new football coach arrived and brought his own assistants. The blue team was out and the red team was in. Bottom line, I am looking for my next challenge.

It is times like this when people need a little inspiration and motivation. It is certainly a time when I am seeking both inspiration and motivation. We need to see that things are not necessarily as dire as the headlines make them out to be. People need to feel good. I need to feel good. We all need inspiration.

At this time of year, Christians celebrate Christmas. In the pure religious sense, it is an inspirational time of year. Given that the commercial part of the season is suffering from high inventories and consumers with a lot less appetite to spend, the inspirational and spiritual parts of the holiday will probably play a larger role. It certainly does for me.

December 21 is the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year in the Northern Hemisphere and the longest day of the year in the southern hemisphere. Throughout history the cusp days of solstices and equinoxes have held special meaning for people. Religious beliefs were created around them and are embedded in our collective unconscious. So, it is a very good time to look at the mystical and the inspirational.

The definition of inspiration the way I am referring to it here is three fold (www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/inspiration):

1. divine influence or action on a person believed to qualify him or her to receive and communicate sacred revelation

2. the action or power of moving the intellect or emotions

3. the act of influencing or suggesting opinions
At this time of the year and for purposes of this letter, I am firmly talking about a melding of the first two definitions. I am talking about the divine and spiritual influence that moves the intellect and emotions through revelation towards a positive action.

Barnes & Noble: The idea for the topic of this e-letter came on December 9th. I was at the Barnes & Noble at Hawthorn mall. It was a Sunday morning around 11 am. I stopped there to peruse the ultra-deep discounts on the remainder table but also to take advantage of the Starbucks Café on the second floor where I could write my daily page.

There was a display table right near the Starbucks. The table had maybe a dozen different 3x5, 4x6, or 5x5 inch sized books. You know the kind of book, more novelty, special topic, or monograph than novel or serious non-fiction. The sign on the table simply read: Inspiration under $20. I stood there staring and smiling for a few moments before checking out the titles that qualified for this most amusing category. The were books like The Prophet by Khalil Gibran, As a Man Thinketh by James Allen, The Daily Book of Positive Quotes, and The Mayan Prophecies for 2012. I suppose these titles would have qualified as inspirational reading. Certainly, the books by Gibran and Allen are classics. After all, what kind of divine influence or moving of the intellect or emotions could one expect for under $20?

There was a most interesting choice on the table: The Art of the Handwritten Note by one Margaret Shepherd. I actually picked this book up and thumbed through it. I do write handwritten notes and keep a supply of blank note cards and personal stationary just for such. It turns out Ms. Shepherd is a noted calligrapher and author. I was not surprised to learn that she lives in Boston. I expected either Boston or San Francisco though I am not entirely sure why. Mostly she talks about the personal touch of the handwritten letter or note. She did not talk about the utility of personal stationary… 25% or less the cost of a pre-printed card and the chance to be able to really express yourself to the recipient. She even had tips on keeping straight margins and other important things. I was motivated to send Ms. Shepherd a handwritten note telling of the inspiration her book provided without me even buying it .

I would have bought the Mayan prophecy book if the forward had been written by Nostradamus!

Fortune Cookies: Maybe I am older and more sentimental in a maudlin, and apparently redundant, kind of way. But, I believe that the fortune cookie manufacturers are writing more profound and touching fortunes in their cookies.

Recently, I opened one that simply stated that “Wealth is a state of mind.” I put it in my wallet and recently threw it away, after having committed the six words to memory. I did not expect to get such a memorable message from a fortune cookie. This certainly was inspirational and as the meal cost a modest amount I had Inspiration Under $20.

Over the years I have saved several fortunes that were inspiring in a timely manner. I had them taped to an index card that I would review every once in awhile. I have not seen the index card for awhile. It should be no surprise that when I looked for it to include the fortunes in this letter… it was nowhere to be found or at least nowhere I looked.

I turned to the internet and found, as usual, a wealth of examples. There were sites where you could order fortune cookies with your own message or messages. There was one site where folks posted particularly meaningful, serendipitous, or inspirational fortunes. For example, an aspiring novelist had opened a fortune cookie that said "You are a lover of words. Someday you will write a book."

Speaking of books, Amazon.com lists at least two books on fortune cookies. The Fortune Cookie Book: A Little Food for Thought is only $4.95. This could have been on the Inspiration Under $20 table. It was not.

December 23: I just read two quotes from Walt Disney. The first was provided randomly by gmail and posted just above the inbox:

The way to get started is to quit talking and begin doing.
This is especially meaningful and inspirational to me because I am one of the great procrastinators in the history of mankind. Or at least I have that potential. I can plan and plot with the best of them. But, the doing part is an entirely different story. It reminds me very much of my favorite quote that I have referred to at least once in these letters:

Knowing never equals doing.
This quote is almost as obscure as the person who said is not nearly as famous as Walt Disney. Mariah Smith, a weight loss expert and President of Prescriptions for Health and was quoted in a book entitled Thin for Life by Anne M. Fletcher. It had such an impact when I first read it, that I have made this quote my motto of sorts. It is a constant source of inspiration for me. Yet, it is not so much motto as it is more a statement of problem I have to constantly battle against. I know what the quote says and means but…

When I read the Disney quote, it triggered another question. Back in the 1980s, someone in a quality management lecture had said “It is always good to have at least one person on a project that knows what the hell they are doing.” The speaker attributed this quote to Walt Disney. I never got verification nor found a reference for this quote. So, as the random gmail quote had Walt Disney underlined, I clicked on the name and voila, I was led to the Walt Disney page of a quotations website (sorry I forgot to note the name of the site). The folks at Google are very clever. I looked for this very good quote to no avail. But, I did find this Disney one:

You may not realize it when it happens, but a kick in the teeth may be the best thing in the world for you.
December 30: Well, this second Disney quote certainly hit home and has certainly had an uplifting if not inspirational effect. It reminds me very much of what my friend Angel de la Puente told me back in 2006 when I was last in career transition. He basically said the same thing as the Disney quote above. He was right. Walt Disney was right. Others have provided the same advice:
1. When a door closes, another opens
2. When life gives you lemons, make lemonade
3. Look at the glass as half full
This is precisely the kind of inspiration that I need at this point. It would be easy, very easy, to let the economic news drag me down. It would be equally easy to let my own personal circumstances get me down. I cannot. I have to look forward and maintain a positive attitude and for the most part I am.

I am using this time between to better myself and to try to shore up what I think, maybe even know, are weaknesses in my abilities and capabilities. I am currently reading Execution: The Discipline of Getting Things Done by Larry Bossidy and Ram Charan. The authors advocate the mastery of three core business process: The People Process, the Strategy Process, and the Operations Process. Leaders that excel at what they advocate are fully engaged, no doubt self-actualized in the finest sense, in their work. On page 29 of the book, Bossidy and Charan state:
This is not “inspiration” through exhortation or speechmaking. These leaders energize everyone by the example they set.
At the halftime of the 1928 game against Army, Knute Rockne gave the famous “Win one for the Gipper” speech. The Notre Dame Fighting Irish went out, came from behind, and beat Army. The inspirational speech was featured in the classic 1940 MGM film Knute Rockne – All American starring Pat O’Brien as Rockne and Ronald Reagan as George Gipp.

Bossidy and Charan are correct; it was not the inspirational speech by itself. It was all the hard work and preparation. It was Rockne’s mastery of the people, strategy, and operational processes of fielding a football team. The speech alone would have done no good if the team did not have the right personnel and drilled and prepared to play competitively in such a game.

There is a religious component to inspiration as well. People look to God and rely on the base of their faith. We find comfort, assurance, and inspiration in faith and spirituality.

Sticking with the theme of Inspiration Under $20, allow me to present another little bit of inspiration from a book I bought not from a bargain table at Barnes and Noble but from Edward R. Hamilton Bookseller. Edward R. Hamilton is a remainder and overstock catalog and on-line store (http://www.edwardrhamilton.com/) based in Falls Village, CT. I am not exactly sure why I got this book. I am sure the title The Time is Now: 60 “Time Pieces” for Getting the Most out of Everyday had something to do with it. I probably thought it was about time management. The cost of the book? $4.95.

The author is Rabbi Daniel S. Wolk. I believe each of the 60 pieces were from sermons the good Rabbi gave during his thirty years at Congregation Emanu-El in Westchester County, NY. It was not so much about time management as it was inspirational. I really enjoyed reading the book. The book was neither too heavy nor deep. But Rabbi Wolk’s has a very easy style of writing and use of quotes from famous statesmen and thinkers in a way that made it profound and inspiring in a very understated laid back way. Here are some of the quotes that I wrote down from reading that book:
I am not upset by events but rather by the way I view them.
- Epictetus

I have learned that success is to be measured no so much by the position that one has reached in life as by the obstacles which he has overcome when trying succeed.
- Booker T. Washington

When I look back on these obstacles, I remember the story of an old man who said on his deathbed that he had a lot of trouble in his life, most of which never happened.
- Winston Churchill

If you are in danger of crashing into the rocks in a rough sea, pray to God. (Then with a wink,) but row vigorously away from the rocks.
- a friend of the Rabbi
I close with wishing you all a wonderful, healthy, happy, and prosperous 2009.

November 2008: Was it the Weirdest of Times?

My good friend and best man, Jack Hachigian, was visiting a few weeks ago. He and his wife Niky were visiting to attend the Michigan State vs. Northwestern football game. We have a lovely time catching up with old friends, the weather was great, and the Spartans were victorious.

During the weekend, we talked a lot about this and that: the then upcoming presidential elections, college football, and reminiscing about the days of our youth. While talking about our adolescent years, Jack said “I will always remember what you told me once.”

I am not sure how often I hear friends tell me this. I have no clue if I hear this more or less than others, but it always piques my interest for two reasons. First, it is most flattering to hear that I have said things people will always remember. Second, and this is true in each and every case, I wonder “What the hell did I say?”

What I had told Jack was that “We grew up in a very weird time.” I did recall saying that and believe it to be true. We came of age in the late sixties and early seventies. To me, increasingly so with each passing year, it was a very weird time.

I am not sure if any time was good or bad, weird or not, to grow up in. Were the 1930s any better? They were overwhelmed with the great depression. How about the 1940s? World War II certainly dominated the first half of that decade. While there was the Korean War, the 1950s were certainly a period of growth and prosperity in the US lasting until the mid-1960s when the turning point was somewhere between the assassinations of John F. Kennedy, the heating up of the Vietnam War, and the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy in 1968.

My parents’ generation was in grade school during the great depression. They were in middle school during the trying times of World War II experiencing rationing and seeing their mothers joining the workforce for the first time ever to support the wartime production of munitions and supplies. By the time they were in high school, the war was over and they were beginning their adult lives as the US entered a great period of prosperity.

The 1950s were not all peaches and cream. Beyond the aforementioned Korean War, there was nuclear proliferation and the development of the hydrogen bomb. The Cold War, the Iron Curtain and the Red Scare were realities of the era that clouded the decade with an underlining fear and paranoia that spawned what I have seen called “the American Inquisition” of McCarthyism.

Why do I think our time was so weird? Certainly it was a time of a lot of change. We were in an unpopular war, we had this thing called The Generation Gap, recreational and mind expanding drugs entered the mainstream, censorship in films vanished, and then there was that odd concept called Free Love. A lot was piled into a short period of time, it was tumultuous. It was a period of desperation filled with hope. Maybe is it was a period of great hope sprinkled with desperation. It was a time of dichotomies. And then… we had to get jobs, work, and be adults. It really seemed to be a transitional era. We were the transitional generation and, oh yeah, the Pepsi Generation at the same time.

In trying to make sense of my adolescence, I have tried to think about what the main drivers were for the abovementioned changes. What are the underlying factors?

The first thing that comes to my mind is drugs. By drugs, I mean both the getting high kind and pharmaceuticals. Penicillin was created in the 1920s and mass produced in the 1940s. Stronger and better antibiotics were developed and marketed making such life threatening diseases such as pneumonia and tuberculosis practically eradicated. By the time my generation baby boomed into the world, there were vaccines, first for polio and then quickly for other childhood diseases such as rubella, measles, mumps, and whooping cough.

Mine was a generation, the first, to be freed of childhood illnesses that could cripple and kill. We were decades away from realizing we were breeding antibiotic resistant bacteria. It is not too far out of the realm of possibility that we may have a flu or plague like pandemic of drug resistant bugs that could kill millions. Even today, we are only speculating on the side effects of immunizations. What is their role, if any, in the spike in both severe allergies and autism.

A major breakthrough came in the early 1960s with the introduction of what simply became known as The Pill. The Pill was perhaps the first of a plethora of what are now called lifestyle drugs. The Pill was the oral contraceptive composed of synthetic hormones that fooled the female body into thinking it was pregnant and thus suppressing the production and release of eggs. Thus, a women taking The Pill would not get pregnant. For the first time in history, women could engage in sexual relations without fear of becoming pregnant. Women in this sense were liberated… until the really scary side effects of became known and widely publicized.

There was truly a “Better Living Through Chemistry” feel in the nation. This phrase was a variant of the DuPont company slogan that became a tongue and cheek mantra of the generation of which I am writing. Not only did we take advantage of the marvels of modern science for physical health, there was a large segment of the population that used drugs both natural and pharmaceuticals to “turn on, tune in, and drop out” and “think for yourself and question authority” per Timothy Leary.

People did just that. They used natural opiates and hallucinogens such as marijuana, hashish, opium, cocaine, psilocybin, and peyote to alter their consciousnesses and see things in a different light, from a different point of view. Many did exactly what Timothy Leary prescribed.

I first heard of Dr. Andrew Weil back in 1972 when he authored a book entitled The Natural Mind: A New Way of Looking at Drugs and the Higher Consciousness. He was advocating drugs as one path to a higher consciousness but natural drugs like psilocybin and peyote versus their laboratory equivalents such as LSD and mescaline. He theorized that in their natural forms the drugs are better tolerated than the refined versions. In retrospect, he was using a precursor to simple carbs are bad and complex carbs are good argument. I read the book, understood what he was saying. I had never used a hallucinogen and did not experiment with any after reading his book. I felt enlightened enough already. My consciousness was sufficiently altered.

That era was also a time of liberation movements. There was the Civil Rights Movement followed quickly by the Migrant Workers Movement, the Women’s Liberation Movement, and Gay Rights. While it might be a debatable point today, this country was run by white males back then. These other segments of society were most definitely second class citizens. Winning World War II and the subsequent global pre-eminence of the United States business, military, and culture led us all to believe in the superiority of our democracy and the way we governed ourselves. The words “all men are created equal” and “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” were taken ever more seriously… by every segment of society. Everyone wanted a piece of the American Dream. Everyone felt like they deserved it. No one wanted to wait any longer.

Television contributed to this. Ours was the first generation to grow-up with television. From Howdy Doody and Captain Kangaroo to The Donna Reed Show and Leave it to Beaver. We are a generation of unique independent individualists all fed the exact same pabulum of the 1950s and 1960s American Dream. Beyond this, we also watched the assassination of John F. Kennedy and the murder of Lee Harvey Oswald real time. We had front row seats to what Michael Arlen Jr. called the Living Room War: The Vietnam War.

Television, in my view did two things to contribute to the attitudes of my generation during those times. First, idyllic lifestyles were beamed into every house every day. I referred to Leave it to Beaver and The Donna Reed Show… nice houses, upper middle class… life was good. All of a sudden, people could easily see that their lives did not measure up and they wanted a piece of it. It was no longer an abstraction of haves and have nots. People were impressed, surprised, with just how many “haves” there were in this country. It was beamed in front of your face, every day, in living color. There was an attitude of I want it and I want it now that fed into the revolutionary mindset of the times.

The second major influence of television was that in every major drama problems were solved in less than an hour including commercial breaks. There was nothing that couldn’t be solved quickly. Some of the bigger problems, like world hunger, plagues, nuclear terrorism or earth destroying asteroids, required an hour and half maybe two hence requiring the length of a feature film to solve.

The point is that we were geared to want quick answers and quick solutions with minimum sacrifice. After all, how much do you really have to sacrifice in an hour to solve to resolve a major crisis or solve a major problem? Sure, you might have to walk 200 miles across a burning desert. But what does that take 5-6 minutes tops? This social impatience evolved to the instant gratification of the 1980s and 1990s. We want it, we want it all, and we want it right now.

There are many reasons for the generation gap. This attitude of wanting change and wanting it now was a contributor. Drug use, long hair, loud outrageous rock music, and dressing certainly widened the chasm. Our parents had experienced the depression and World War II. They knew you had to hunker down, work hard, and endure hardships and then maybe, with the grace of God, your dreams might come to fruition. You had to pay dues. You had to earn your dreams. “Hell with that,” we said. We want it and we want it now. These two mindsets were doomed to clash and create a generation gap.

“Hell with that” turned into “Hell no, we won’t go” the chant my generation used to protest the Vietnam War. The older generation was used to supporting the government and the troops no matter what. There was simply no questioning. In World War II, we were good, the Axis powers were evil. We had a job to do, and we did it. We were in the right. We were noble. They were WWII and Korean veterans. They did their duty and expected the youth, their children, to do the same. No no, Uh-uh… Nay nay…

There was another reason we were able to be so independent, so free, and so “revolutionary.” Looking back now, this might have been the important reason of all: the economy was amazingly strong. You just needed to graduate from college, not get drafted, and you could get a job. The American Dream for many was on autopilot. As hard as that is to do today, it was just that easy in the late 1960s and early 1970s. As soon as the economy and jobs tightened up with oil crisis of 1973, the movement began to erode. It became more important to do well in school in order to get a job. It became more important to do well on the job in order to keep your position and advance. The party slowly ended.

I saw cracks in the wall of the Utopia we thought we were creating. When I went to the University of Michigan, as a freshman, I saw things that made me truly question the whole movement. Everyone, well 99.9% of the students wore blue jeans. Not only blue jeans but Levis. Hell no… we won’t conform. We all adopted the same damned look, in the name of freedom, non-conformity, and liberation. I will be different by, uh, looking like everyone else. It is pretty comical when you look back on it and it is more amusing with each passing year. But, to us back then, it was important stuff.

Back in college, I saw students who were wearing jeans but had really expensive and very fashionable boots. It just didn’t go. Lots of people were wearing army field jackets or shirts but one fellow donned a red ringmaster jacket complete with tails and gold braiding. He was a charismatic guy but revealed too much of his need to lead, need for attention ego with that outfit.
We used to fight with our parents about getting haircuts. The more they insisted, the more defiant we were. In the early 1990’s, I recall that my cousin’s son wanted to get a buzz cut. My cousin, his mother, would not let him. She didn’t allow it. I remember thinking, “Oh my, we have come full circle.” But even that was a humorous exchange and had none of the drama such altercations in our era would have had.

What began as liberation and personal growth, peace and freedom, flower power turned to something else. Drug use morphed from turning on, tuning in, and dropping out to more and more simply “getting wasted.” Jeans were still the fashion but the fashion industry adapted and began capitalizing on the look. I recall the emergence of and rage around Jordache as a chic and trendy take on jeans. Jeans became part of fashion and no longer an icon of the counterculture. For some reason, I was truly offended when “they” started marketing pre-faded jeans.

Rock and Roll the soundtrack of our generation became more about Alice Cooper and Kiss donning gothic make-up and doing outrageous things on stage. I never saw the point in biting the head off of a bat in front of thousands of “totally wasted” fans. In fact, it was about this time I turned from pop music to a full time devotion to Armenian and Turkish music. The clear defining point for me was watching an Elton John performance on TV where he was playing a piano while he and the piano was suspended above the stage and actually rotated and flipped. I knew then and there that something had fundamentally changed. The era whatever it was had ended.

I will still listen to the music of that time and think back. I listen, occasionally to Jimi Hendrix, The Doors, Cream, and Jefferson Airplane. But moreso, I listen to Joni Mitchell and Crosby, Stills, and Nash. They provide a smoother path to the past.

As one segment of the youth turned down the path of progressively getting more and more wasted, another wanted to get more dressed up, dance, and have a good time. Saturday Night Live and Disco was their answer: Polyester, wide lapels, dance moves, and dance floors that lit up. The times had certainly changed.

I was pleased, delighted, that my children had a more sane time traversing adolescence. Sure, we had the normal and expected stresses as young adults want more autonomy and parents are not quite ready to give it up. But, it was not all knotted up with major social and lifestyle changes as it was back in our day.

I was right in what I said to Jack. It was a weird time. But, for better or worse, it was my time, it was our time, the time of my generation.

My Generation

People try to put us d-down (Talkin' 'bout my generation)
Just because we get around (Talkin' 'bout my generation)
Things they do look awful c-c-cold (Talkin' 'bout my generation)
I hope I die before I get old (Talkin' 'bout my generation)

This is my generation
This is my generation, baby

Why don't you all f-fade away (Talkin' 'bout my generation)
And don't try to dig what we all s-s-say (Talkin' 'bout my generation)
I'm not trying to cause a big s-s-sensation (Talkin' 'bout my generation)
I'm just talkin' 'bout my g-g-g-generation (Talkin' 'bout my generation)

This is my generation
This is my generation, baby
- The Who

The Times They Are A-Changin'

Come gather 'round people
Wherever you roam
And admit that the waters
Around you have grown
And accept it that soon
You'll be drenched to the bone.
If your time to you
Is worth savin'
Then you better start swimmin'
Or you'll sink like a stone
For the times they are a-changin'.

Come writers and critics
Who prophesize with your pen
And keep your eyes wide
The chance won't come again
And don't speak too soon
For the wheel's still in spin
And there's no tellin' who
That it's namin'.
For the loser now
Will be later to win
For the times they are a-changin'.

Come senators, congressmen
Please heed the call
Don't stand in the doorway
Don't block up the hall
For he that gets hurt
Will be he who has stalled
There's a battle outside
And it is ragin'.
It'll soon shake your windows
And rattle your walls
For the times they are a-changin'.

Come mothers and fathers
Throughout the land
And don't criticize
What you can't understand
Your sons and your daughters
Are beyond your command
Your old road isRapidly agin'.
Please get out of the new one
If you can't lend your hand
For the times they are a-changin'.

The line it is drawn

The curse it is cast
The slow one now
Will later be fast
As the present now
Will later be past
The order is
Rapidly fadin'.
And the first one now
Will later be last
For the times they are a-changin'.
- Bob Dylan

October 2008: Halloween

Sometime in September, the various grocery stores and pharmacies are done with Back to School and stock their seasonal aisles with Halloween candies and decorations. Halloween, in the past twenty years, has really taken off. When I was a youngster, we had one pumpkin. We bought it a week before Halloween and carved it a few days before the hallowed evening. We had almost no decorations. Maybe, we had paper cutouts of witches, jack-o-lanterns, and ghosts taped to the windows. Maybe, we had Glass Wax stenciled silhouettes on our windows… and this really does date me.

Now, more and more folks spend as much time and money decorating their homes for Halloween as they do for Christmas. We have a pile of pumpkins by our mailbox, ghosts and a skeleton hanging from two of the trees in our front yard. Orange lights adorn the boxwoods lining our front walk. Other houses blow our décor scheme away. They have more intricate lighting, several of those huge monstrous real pumpkins, huge blow-up pumpkins and ghouls, mechanical arms that look like corpses trying to crawl out of their graves, and severed bodies on their lawns. Yes, Halloween has gone as commercial as any other holiday.

But, I am totally OK with this. Halloween is a fun and very kid centric holiday. It is not a major religious holiday that has been usurped of all reason by commercialism. It is fun and people take it as such.

A little Halloween history: Halloween is clearly a harvest festival. Wikipedia, that almost definitive source of internet information, confirms that it is a harvest festival of Celtic origins. The festival was called Samhain. Bonfires were lit and animals slaughtered for winter stores. It was the end of one growing season and the beginning of the next. It was sometimes thought to be the Celtic New Year.

There was a belief that at this time of year that “the boundary between the alive and the deceased dissolved, and the dead become dangerous for the living by causing problems such as sickness or damaged crops.” People donned masks or costumes to either please or scare off the spirits that may cause them harm. Hence, the origin of costumes designed to scare.

It makes sense, in these northern climes the world can be an eerie place at this time of year. Everything that was lush and green becomes barren and brown. It is as if nature has died. The wind blows sharper and colder. Winter is in the air.

I have only lived in the Midwest and Northeast parts of the United States. We experience the four seasons not unlike Ireland where the holiday was born. When the harvest is over, and mind you I have never harvested anything beyond raking leaves when I was growing up, the moon is big and full, and the leaves are all off the trees. To me, it has always been the cusp between autumn and winter.

The name, Halloween or All Hallows Eve or All Hallows Evening, came when November 1st was made All Saints Day by Popes Gregory III and Gregory IV (I am totally mystified why such a thing would require the attention of two popes). All Saints Day was previously May 13th. It was moved to November 1st, as often done in the early days of Christianity, to supplant pagan holidays. Oddly, All Saints Day was set on May 13th to replace another pagan holiday.

The great symbol of Halloween is the Jack-o-Lantern. Originally, in Europe, carved out and illuminated turnips and rutabagas were used to assist in scaring off the evil spirits. In the United States, pumpkins took the place of turnips and rutabagas. Pumpkins were in greater supply here and they were larger and hence easier to carve. The carving of pumpkins was a tradition in the United States long before being associated with Halloween in the mid-1800s.

Carved pumpkins are called Jack-o-Lanterns. Lore is that the name came from Stingy Jack a tough minded, hard drinking, and gambling Irish farmer. He played a series of tricks on the devil such as having him climb into a tree and then trapping him there by carving a cross on the tree trunk. The devil cursed Jack, making him wander the land at night by only the light of a candle inside a carved turnip.

Aram’s Holiday: I always enjoyed Halloween as a youngster. It was great fun. But, really it was only Halloween day and perhaps the day or two before. That was when we carved the pumpkin. That was when we settled on the costume. We would wear our costumes to school either on Halloween day or the day before and then again for Trick-or-Treating. That was it and really that was enough. It was a special time of the year growing up.

That all changed with my son Aram. Aram was born in 1981 and from when he was old enough to be able to put videos into the VCR by himself, at the age of two, he loved movies laden with potions, special powers, and seemingly epic battles between the forces of good vs. evil. Sure, he liked Sesame Street, Barney, and Mr. Rogers. But, he really loved Transformers, He-Man, Power Rangers, and the Wizard of Oz.

His favorite movie by far was the Wizard of Oz. When I was growing up, we would watch the Wizard of Oz once a year. It was shown on, if I recall, a January Sunday in the early evening. The entire family would gather around the TV and we would enjoy the annual showing. The first few times I saw it, I never got the full impact of Dorothy waking up in Oz. Out television was black and white. I was impressed when I finally understood the cinematic trick of having all the Kansas scenes in black and white and the magical land of Oz being in color.

With the VCR in our house, I was really surprised by how many times our children would watch movies. Aram must have watched the Wizard of OZ a thousand times over a two or three year period. I do not think I am exaggerating at all. Some days, he would watch it twice. It was by far his favorite movie: wicked witches, flying monkeys, the tin man, the scarecrow, the wizard, all of it fascinated him. I actually wondered if we were warping his mind.

It really was not a problem. He has grown up and is a responsible lawyer in the US Department of Justice. Wait… maybe he is living out these early impressions. He is fighting for good over evil; he is using his magical knowledge and powers of The Law… hmmm.

When we went to Disneyland the first time he was six. His favorite attraction was the Haunted Mansion. When we went in and the octagon reception room began to descend transforming the room, he climbed into my arms and whispered, “Dad, I think coming here was a very bad idea.” He was quiet the entire time but either held my hand or grabbed my arm. When it was over and we were outside again, he said with great glee, “Let’s do it again, Dad!” We did.

This love for things magical, mystical, mysterious, and eerie made Aram a great fan and participant in Halloween. Early on, he would wear whatever costume his mother would prepare for him. Around the age of eight or nine, he would start planning his costumes, plural mind you, around the beginning of October. There would be several Halloween events: school, church, local shopping center parades. We would attend them all. Aram would wear a different costume to each.

He preferred black costumes. He was a witch, Dracula, and a variety of related things. Come Halloween evening, he tended to merge the costumes into wearing a witches hat and a Dracula cape, perhaps carrying a sword, and maybe wearing some kind of molded mask. He was so excited he could not choose just one theme.

When we moved to Connecticut 1990, Judy began hosting a pre-Trick-or-Treat party at our home. We would serve hotdogs, chips, and sodas. All the neighborhood children would come over with their parents. It was a great way to kick-off of the evening. I believe the neighborhood still does this.

Wilton, Connecticut was a great place to Tick-or-Treat. There were no street lights, the houses were far apart being on two acre lots, and it was heavily wooded. There was no ambient light save whatever moonlight and starlight there might be. It was dark, cool, and the wind rustled the leaves on the ground and whistled through the trees all around. It was a delightfully eerie place Trick-or-Treat. It was very Sleepy Hollowish, which by the way was only 37 miles away.
Aram would be so excited so full of pure delight with Halloween that I could not help get swept up by it. It was a joy. When we began the Trick-or-Treating, he would run, skip, and jump from house to house. It was like his feet barely hit the ground. I thought we would trip over roots, rocks, or ditches which were all over.

To this day, we call Halloween Aram’s holiday. We decorated beyond what we might have ever considered simply because of his enthusiasm. He still takes it seriously, when time permits. I have no doubts that when he becomes a father, he will make Halloween fun for his children.
The Halloween House: Our house in Wilton became known as the Halloween house. It was something that I took pride in.

We always decorated the house. It was always good but certainly nothing over the top. We had a scary sound effects tape we would always play that gave a very eerie feel to the place as the trick-or-treaters walked up to the house. These things were the foundation upon which we built the Halloween House reputation.

It began, no surprise here, with Aram. When he was a senior in high school in 1998, he was clearly too old to trick and treat. But as we have established earlier in this letter, he enjoyed the holiday immensely and he wanted to still be part of it. So, he decided to pass out the candy.
Aram decided to add a very Aram like twist to it. He dressed in jeans and wore a bulky sweatshirt. He stuffed the front of his sweatshirt with crumpled newspapers, wore a latex wolf man mask, and sat limply in a chair on the front porch looking as much like a dummy as he could. When trick-or-treaters approached, he would come to life and scare the kids. He was pretty effective at this.

As he was away at college the next year, I decided to follow Aram’s example. I donned the same getup and sat on the porch. I only really scared one person, one of the mothers, and she may have had a few drinks. One of the neighbor kids walked right up to me. I waited to scare him until he reached out to touch me. He did not try to touch me but instead just whispered, “Your son was much scarier last year.”

Well, I took that as a bit of a challenge. I thought about what to do. I wanted to come up with something unique and really scary. Being inherently cheap and not much of a handyman, there was no way I was going to spend money and time building anything elaborate. What to do? What to do?

I was loading my PA system into my car one day to go and play some music. I thought why not put a speaker in the bushes and say something scary and booming. I figured this would make anyone jump with fright. We would still have the decorations and the eerie sound effects playing. It could be pretty cool.

It exceeded my expectations. I placed the speaker in a dark place in the bushes. I ran a wire into the house where I had the amplifier and a microphone set up just inside the front door. I had the volume kicked up with a lot of reverb. As trick-or-treaters and their parents were nearing the speaker on the front walk, I would bellow out, “WHO DARES APPROACH THIS HOUSE!!”

I believe that the technical way of explaining the effectiveness of this scheme is simply that I scared the bejeebers out of them. Children would squeal and parents would jump. Trick-or-treaters that had already experienced the scare would tell others “you have to go to the scary Halloween House.”

One group of youngsters came to the door, laughing and oohing and aahing, “Man that was great.” Another said, “I wasn’t scared at all.” His friend added, “No way, man, you squealed like a baby.”

Younger children were the most fun. They would leave our house and from the street yell back, in defiance, “I’m not afraid of you.” There was one young fellow dressed in full Jedi garb that began swinging his plastic light saber when I scared him.

I did feel bad, however, about the youngest Trick-or-treaters. Many of them would turn tail and run back toward the street or climb right up into their parents’ arms and refuse to come any close to the scary Halloween House. I would switch to a nicer voice and tell them not to worry, not to be afraid, and to come and get their candy. But, no one that ran ever came back. As this was inherently unfair and almost cruel, we came up with a solution. The last year we did this, my wife, Judy, waited at the end of the driveway with candy to give those totally scared youngsters their treats. It worked out well.

I really thought some of the parents of the tots that I totally scared might complain about me traumatizing their little ones. They would have been justified. On the contrary, throught the rest of the year, people would stop their cars when I was getting the mail and tell me how much they all enjoyed being scared out of their shorts.

Our driveway and front walk were relatively long. I would move the location of the speaker. They Trick-or-Treaters would remember the house and being scared. They would know, they would expect it, and still they would be scared. It was a lot of fun.

After moving to Illinois, we take a much more traditional approach. We just give candy to the Trick-or-Treaters. Part of me still wants to scare the pants off of them… maybe next year.

September 2008: Political Meanderings

I have mostly avoided religion and politics in this letter project. I did try to address the three monotheistic religions, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam in the December 2004 letter. The only politics I have addressed have been Armenian-Turkish related.

Over the past month, with the Democratic and Republican conventions, Russia’s invasion of Georgia, and the state of the US Economy have been a large part of my daily writing. Allow me to share some of my thoughts and observations on these topics.

August 28 – Barack Obama: I am sitting outside of the Hyatt Place Hotel in Atlanta. Barack Obama is just finishing up his acceptance speech at Invesco Field in Denver. He delivered the speech outside so that more people could attend. It was also the 45th anniversary to the date of the Martin Luther King March on Washington. Dr. King gave his famous “I have a dream” speech that day. That speech was a milestone in the civil rights movement. Thus the Democratic party wanted to both pay homage to that historic event and link Senator Obama’s nomination as another milestone in this progression. Thus, a large audience outdoor acceptance speech made a lot of sense.

It is a very pleasant Atlanta evening. As I came downstairs to go outside to both write this page and smoke a cigar, I passed a TV in the lobby on which the Senator was giving his speech. A black lady, one of the front desk agents, was standing in front of the TV listening to the speech. Her right forearm was parallel to the ground across her abdomen. Her left elbow was perched on her right wrist with her forearm going straight up where her fingers were touching her lips, her mouth open and her eyes fixed on the TV. This was clearly an engrossing and historic meeting for her.

At exactly the same moment this lady’s body language and Senator Obama’s speech registered in my mind, I realized that the hotel Muzak system was playing the Beatles’ “Here Comes the Sun.” This made it an historic moment for me as evidenced by the fact that I am now capturing it in my journal.

I did not plan to listen to Senator Obama’s speech. I really did not plan on watching any of the Democratic National Convention. Being an equal opportunity ambivalent, I had no plans to watch the Republican National Convention either. It is not that I do not care, but my own personal issues of survival at work overshadow any of these well crafted and staged events designed to garner donations and votes.

I did, oddly, wish I had heard Ted Kennedy’s speech earlier this week. I never really liked Ted Kennedy. I liked both of his brothers more. Senator Kennedy is near the end of his days as he is suffering from a cancerous brain tumor. This was likely to have been his farewell speech. I guess I am easing up on my opinion of Senator Kennedy. He has served a long time in the Senate and truly held steady to his core beliefs during his entire tenure. To me this was the closing chapter of the Kennedy mystique.

In thinking about Ted Kennedy, I thought about the presidential campaign of his brother, John F. Kennedy back in 1960. I was only seven years old, but I remember that it was a pretty big deal that JFK was both Irish and Catholic. I mean it was a huge deal. Until then there had only been White Anglo Saxon Protestant presidents and presidential candidates.

Now, in 2008, the Democrats had nominated Barack Hussein Obama a half black man with Moslem names. While this is truly an historic happening, I do not believe it is as controversial as JFK. Think about this, the nomination of an Irish Catholic in 1960 was arguably more controversial than the nomination of a black man whose name rhymes with Osama. The country is definitely more tolerant these days. No matter who you vote for, this must be noted as a very good thing.

August 29 – The Russian Invasion of Georgia: As the Beijing Olympic Games were beginning, Georgia, the country bordering Russia and Armenia not the state bordering Florida and Alabama, had a military operation within it’s borders: South Ossetia and Abkhazia. The peoples in these regions are not ethnic Georgians. Georgia has treated these minorities like second class citizens as they have the Armenians in Tiblisi, the capital, the Armenian region of Javakh. They want Georgia for Georgians and are looking to Georgify these minorities or drive them out. The Abkhaz, for sure, are afraid of losing their language and culture. As a people, the Abkhaz are even smaller than the Armenians.

The Georgians launched their attacks while the Olympics were opening and Bush and Putin were in Beijing. The Georgians launched a rocket attack on the South Ossetian capital of Tskhinvali. Perhaps they thought that the world leaders would be preoccupied with the Olympic Opening Ceremonies and would not notice.

Russia noticed and reacted. The Russians quickly responded coming to the aid of these “oppressed peoples” or, rather, maybe looking to re-assert their influence in the Caucuses a la the old Soviet days. The words “sphere of influence” was bandied about in the media quite a bit in discussing this situation. The Russian forces easily overwhelmed the Georgians and now occupy large portions of the country.

The presidents of France and Germany went to Moscow to try to mediate the situation. They do not want a return to any Soviet style icy relations. They view Russia as an import neighbor, even part of Europe, and an important trading partner.

The US protested loudly against the Russian invasion of Georgia. They protested because Georgia was looking to join NATO. This was another likely reason the Russians attacked. They do not really want any more of the former Soviet states joining NATO.

Our protests struck me as odd. We were pretty busy intervening in the same general vicinity. We have major military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. These operations are so large and consume so much of our military resources, that all of our saber rattling towards Russia rang embarrassingly hollow to the entire world. We attacked these countries trying to bring order and democracy to these predominately Moslem countries. We attacked these countries in order to “free oppressed people.” Russia intervened in a country on its border. We attacked countries half way around the world.

The US had also protested when Russian, then called the USSR, attacked Afghanistan. We helped by arming and assisting what we then called Freedom Fighters defeat the Soviets in what we were calling their Vietnam. Those freedom fighters are now called the Taliban. If memory serves me correct, didn’t we support Saddam Hussein in his war against Iran? Then we attacked him. Hmm… What is that aphorism, again, about the enemy of my enemy?
I think we are hypocritical and it is kind of embarrassing.

September 20 – Sarah Palin: On August 29th, John McCain named Sarah Palin as his vice-Presidential nominee. Sarah Who? Never heard of her. Governor of where? Oh, Alaska. Alaska?? OK, Alaska. For some reason, all I could think of was Dan Quayle.

I couldn’t be further from the truth. The choice of Sarah Palin was a brilliant move on McCain’s part. Her speech at the convention was electrifying brought a lot of interest to the ticket. The Republican poll bump coming out of the conventions was greater than the Democrats. All such bumps are temporary. As this one subsided, McCain was essentially dead even with Obama. Before Palin, he was behind.

Sarah Palin appeals to the conservatives and seems to fit the mold that has energized the religious right as well. She counters Obama’s blackness with her feminity. According to a poll result I heard about on the radio, Sarah Palin has brought a majority of white women to the McCain ticket. As further evidence to her popularity, women are seeking both Governor Palin’s hairdo and her rectangular glasses.

Not everyone is as enamored with the choice of Sarah Palin. The opposition complains about her lack of foreign policy experience. She only got her first passport in 2006 and that was to go to Kuwait and Germany to visit our troops. Secondly, if elected, she will be a heartbeat from the presidency. People question her experience in governing as well. She has been Governor of Alaska for less than two year. Before that she was mayor of Wasilla, Alaska with a population of a whopping 9,000. Lastly, she just rankles feminists. Check out the following website to see just how rankled they are: http://womenagainstsarahpalin.blogspot.com/2008/09/introducing-sarah-palin.html.

No matter if you are a Sarah Palin supporter or not, it has been a pretty rapid rise for the 44 year old Governor. Maybe it is even more rapid then ascension of a 47 year old Senator named Barack Obama.

What amazes me, however, is reaction to the pregnancy of Palin’s 17 year old daughter, Bristol. On September 1, it was announced that Bristol was five months pregnant. She was intending on having the baby and marrying the father of the child. Up until perhaps this century, such a revelation would have disastrous to the McCain ticket resulting in Palin having to withdraw. Now everyone thinks it is kind of OK.

The religious right is kind of dichotomous here. First, they are both right and consistent in supporting Bristol’s decision not to have an abortion. Yet, I am mystified that they advocate family values and do not criticize the Palins for failing to live them and instill them in there family and children. She got pregnant, out of wedlock, as a teenager. I am wondering what the reaction might have been from this same constituency if this had been Barack Obama’s daughter or Chelsea Clinton. I think the religious right would have been much more moralistic and vocal.

This is simply more evidence that this country is much more tolerant and understanding. We have a half Black man with Moslem names running for president against a ticket with a woman Vice-Presidential candidate whose 17 year old daughter is pregnant out of wedlock. No matter who you are voting for, you have to admit that the country has changed.

September 21 – US Financial Companies: Bankruptcies, Mergers, and Bail-Outs: The state of financial companies is pretty dismal. Lehman Brothers went out of business a week ago. Bear Stearns was acquired by JP Morgan Chase earlier and Merrill Lynch is being acquired by Bank of America. AIG is being bailed out by the US Government to enable them to sell off the pieces. Now, Congress is considering and will undoubtedly pass a massive bailout at the taxpayers’ expense to stabilize the US financial infrastructure. It is very tough times. The stock market has been on a roller coaster mostly in a downhill direction.

This crisis is the result of the irrational and greed related mortgage mis-management of the new century. With the booming real estate market in US, people were given mortgages larger than the tried and true rules of thumb of yore i.e. a borrower had to put 20% down and mortgage payments should not exceed 30% of one’s income. People were taking mortgages for amounts that violated both parts of this rule of thumb. To compensate, the lending companies concocted a variety of variable rate and interest only mortgages that allowed people to “live the American dream,” the modern American Dream, of owning a house you cannot afford. As the economy changed, the housing market stagnated, and interest rates began to go up, the risk of these loans being all too apparent hurting both households and the aforementioned financial companies.

I have certainly oversimplified this. The mortgage business is a complicated morass of bundling and selling “the paper” in ways that the common man cannot fathom how money is made and lost in these deals. My neighbor, friend, bike buddy, and business guru, Ken Hachikian, told me that his father ran a savings and loan in the Boston area. Back in the 1960s, this bank and others gave loans in their geographic region. They knew the market, the neighborhoods, and the borrowers. They were careful to manage the risk of the money they were lending and thus were concerned about the borrowers’ having the appropriate down payment and then the ability to afford the mortgages. This kind of basic management horse sense has been lost and probably needs to be regulated back into this business.

I am impressed with the leadership the Secretary of Treasury Henry J. Paulson is showing. He took the job just two years ago and now only has a few months left. He was, before taking this job, Chairman and CEO of Goldman Sachs which hints of the fox watching the henhouse. But, honestly, he seems to be doing such a good job, Barack Obama said that if elected president he would keep Secretary Paulson on long enough to ensure a smooth transition.

When this crisis was forming in the past few years, I formed the opinion that the Federal Government should have made the banks re-finance the risky mortgages to help out both citizens and the banks. Either this idea was too naïve or too practical to ever have been implemented.

Either way it seems to me like it will get worse before it gets better. Whether we have the first black President or the first female Vice-President the new administration will have their hands full.

August 2008: The Friendly Skies

On the 15th of August, I was flying from Nashville, TN back to Chicago. I thought I was going to miss my flight as I got a later start to the airport than I had planned. It was an hour drive from our factory in Lewisburg to the airport and I would have 45 minutes to turn in my rental car and navigate my way through security and get to the gate for a 4:15 pm flight. It was tight but doable but there was no margin for error.

I was about ten minutes away from the airport on I-440 on the outskirts of Nashville. It was 3:15 and traffic came to a screeching halt. Immediately, I was worried about missing my flight. The worry intensified with each passing moment as traffic crept for about two miles until we passed a rather nasty looking two car accident.

It was 4 pm when I pulled into the Avis lot and turned in my car. Luckily in Nashville, the rental cars are in the parking structure right at the terminals. I still had a chance. I got into the airport and two escalators later I was look at the departure board and… was relieved to see that my flight was delayed an hour. Whew!

An hour later the plane landed, it was a regional jet. As soon as the plane was empty, we boarded the plane. We settled into our seats and then sat there… for an hour. The pilot welcomed us on board and informed us that we waiting to be refueled. We sat there without any air-conditioning since we were refueling or simply because we were at the gate. We sat in a full plane in the 95 degree and 90% humidity Nashville weather. It did not take long for it to get very hot and uncomfortable. I was dozing off in that heat induced sleepiness. In that twilight dreamy state my mind conjured up images from those war films set in tropical Asia where prisoners were tortured by being put in those cramped sweat boxes for days to bake in the hot sun. Mind you, my “torture” was only one hour and no where near as intolerable as Hollywood depicted the sweat boxes in those old films.

When consciousness and mental capacity returned when they fired up the engines cooled down the cabin, I could only think of one thing. Why did they board us and then fuel the plane? Why didn’t they simply leave us in the nice comfortable terminal while they fueled the plane and then board us?

Air travel, these days, especially air travel within the US, is simply a pain. The planes are jammed packed. Delays seem like the norm. Bad weather makes it even worse. The lines through security are a nuisance at best and more often just a different method of torture. Many of the airports are overcrowded but this often is the best part of the trip, assuming you can find a seat.

It was not always this way. It was more of a pleasure and more of a luxury then the crowded planes and multiple long lines make it today. The first passenger flights began in 1914 but were not profitable. Most airlines focused on carrying mail until 1925. That is the year that Ford Motor Company introduced the all metal Ford Trimotor. This twelve passenger plane could carry both people and mail. It made air travel potentially profitable. The introduction of the DC-3 in the 1930’s really had an impact. It brought the cost down to 5¢ per mile per passenger. It was still more expensive than train travel which was 1.3¢ by comparison. But, at this point those who could afford fare valued the savings of time and passenger air travel was here to stay.

Air travel back then was purely on propeller planes and the cabins were not pressurized. The seats were stiff and there was little legroom. Because the cabins were not pressurized the planes had to fly low and experienced more turbulence than today’s passengers experience.

Pan American Airlines became the first truly international carrier. Their first trans-oceanic flights used sea plane and could carry up to fifty passengers. Juan Trippe was the legendary founder of the airline. He had the legendary Igor Sikorsky, later of helicopter fame, design the S-40 and S-42 sea planes which Trippe designated as American Clippers to draw upon the image of the fast, at least in their day, Clipper ships of the 1860s that used to traverse the Pacific Ocean. Trippe was the nemesis of Howard Hughes, the founder of Trans-World Airline, as depicted in the 2004 film The Aviator starring Leonardo DiCaprio as Hughes and Alec Baldwin as Trippe.

A typical flight from San Francisco to Manila on an S-42 took 59 hours and 48 minutes, almost 60 hours. The plane which had a range of about 3,000 miles had to make stops in Honolulu, Midway, Wake, and Guam. It sounds grueling but it was fast given the only other alternative was ocean liner which could take weeks by comparison.

The airlines tried to mirror the service and amenities offered on ship and, until the Hindenburg disaster, on zeppelins. Since there were no movies, no headphones for music, and very little room for anything else, this meant food, drink, and a handout of an amenities tote bag. In these early days of air travel, the airlines had the best wines and foods, often catered by the finest restaurants such as Maxim’s of Paris. The finest china and silverware was used. Pan American was, in fact, the first airline in the world to have flight attendants and serve meals in mid-air (1929). They were the first to have facilities on board to heat food (1935). They were the first to operate fixed schedules for international passenger and mail service (1939). They were the first airlines to offer tourist class or coach service for international flights.

To learn more about the Pan Am Clippers and the amenities, go to http://www.pbs.org/kcet/chasingthesun/planes/clipper.html

When I started flying to Latin America back in 1990. I flew them from New York to Venezuela several times before they went out of business in 1991. For many years, Pan American was The Airline to fly to South America and the Caribbean. These routes were so important to them that they were the first airline to operate domestic non-stop service from New York to Miami (1946) to facilitate connections. In that same year, Pan Am created the Inter-Continental Hotel chain to provide high quality world class accommodations for their passengers. To this day, the Inter-Continental hotels are among the best places to stay in Caracas, Bogota, Cali, Lima, Buenos Aires, Mexico City, Guatemala City, to name a few of the major cities in the region.

When Pan Am closed up shop, American Airlines bought up their routes in the Western Hemisphere. From 1991 until I left Colgate, I flew American for the most part.
Over my tenure in the Latin America Division at Colgate, I flew quite a bit and mostly it was business class. I amassed frequent flyer miles and was Platinum Executive for many years in the American frequent flyer program. I hit 1 million miles and was given Gold status for life. A few years later, I crossed the 2 million mile mark and was bestowed Platinum status for life. Basically, I was spoiled by larger seats, lounge/club privileges, movies, free drinks, and better food including hot towels and warm nuts.

Upon coming to Sanford Brands two years ago, my travel frequency did not change but the trips have been in the large part domestic and for shorter duration. Bluntly, domestic air travel has pretty lost any cache of privilege and luxury.

The first flight I remember was in 1958. I was five and it was just before going to kindergarten. My paternal grandmother, Agnes Gavoor, came to visit in Detroit and I was flying back to spend like a month with her and my grandfather in August before beginning my education. We flew from Detroit to Boston. We flew on American Airlines. I am not sure but it was probably a DC-7 or a similar four propeller engine plane. It was very excited about flying.

My parents took us to the airport. We parked the car. My Dad carried the little luggage we had to the terminal. There were no extendable handles or wheels, we basically had suitcases. There was only one terminal at Detroit Metropolitan Airport and it was brand spanking new. It was built for the future, so it was incredibly spacious. There were essentially no lines. It was quite civilized and very easy. There was no security check-in. The would be Middle Eastern and Cuban terrorists who led the wave of hijackings that caused the time draining and yet oh so necessary screenings were probably just a few years older than me at that time. We checked in our luggage and carrying nothing (NOTHING) but my Grandmother’s purse, we all (even those who weren’t flying) walked leisurely to the gate to await boarding. There were plenty of seats in the waiting area. There was a small newsstand and one restaurant in the airport. It was really most civilized.

Of course, on the plane the flight attendants, then called stewardesses, were very nice to me. I got spiffy metal wings that they pinned onto my shirt. They took me up to the cockpit and pilots talked to me. It was very cool. I had a window seat next to my grandmother. I knew I liked flying. I knew I would somehow, at sometime, be doing a lot of it. It was romantic, cool, and exciting.

Whenever my grandmother came to visit, we would meet her at the gate. Whenever she left, we would walk her to the gate and wave as the plane was taxied to the runway. There was never an issue in those halcyon days of air travel. Even in the early days of security checks, it was no big deal for anyone to go through the magnetic arch to go to see someone off or meet someone arriving. There was never a very long line at these early check points. The readers were not set as sensitive as they are now. You simply put your change and keys in a dish that didn’t even go through the x-ray. I rarely recall the alarm going off.

I was not the only one fascinated with air travel. The whole country was. It was fostered both by cheap airfares due to cheap fuel and the changing and expanding business landscape of the eighties and nineties. Companies were becoming less regionalized and quickly became more national and international in scope. This meant putting people on planes to visit plants, suppliers, and customers. Quickly the term Road Warrior was adopted from the Mel Gibson film of that name for the class of business people who travelled somewhere upwards of 50% of their time. As the increased travel overwhelmed the baggage handling systems, people began to carry-on. Bags now have wheels and extendable handles. They are designed to fit into the overhead bins that planes were retro-fitted and retro-fitted again with even bigger ones.

New airports sprung up in Denver and Atlanta, becoming regional hubs. I have never been to Denver, but I remember when I first flew to Atlanta in the 1980s. It reminded me of going to Detroit Metropolitan Airport in 1958. It was huge vast and relatively empty. It was a pleasure to use. In the 1990’s and now the 2000’s, Atlanta’s Hartsfield Airport began to rival and eventually passed Chicago’s O’Hare as the busiest airport in the United States. The once vast and easily navigated airport has become overcrowded and burdened with long security lines. The trams which transport people to the concourses used to be a breeze, now you jockey and jostle for position like on New York subways at rush hour.

I like to get through security as quickly and easily as possible. As a result, I shed all metal and stow them in my briefcase even before I get into line. I have a well practiced routine for this ritual. I try to wear slip on shoes ever since Richard Colvin Reid tried to ignite his explosive laced shoes on December 22, 2001 causing everyone now to have to shed their shoes.

I am still amazed at people who wait until they get to the x-ray machines and only then begin to shed their bodies and clothes of the various cell phones, beepers, pens, watches, chains, keys, change, incredibly large belt buckles, glasses, and who knows what. Most times it is comical. I just shake my head.

Since 9-11, people do not carry on quite as much. I think the federal regulations really limit the size, or rather over-sizes, of the bags that can be carried on. I used to be amused that the last person on a full flight would get on carrying what always seemed like a huge hockey bag chock full, bursting at the seams. More often than not, the person was sitting in the very last row of the airplane. They would bump everyone in the aisle seats as they make their way to the rear of the plane. The part that really amused me was the look on their face when they open every single overhead bin that had just been closed before they boarded. They get this bewildered astonished look that the bins were all full on a totally full flight with only one unoccupied seat.

What is amusing me lately in this era of very full flights and minimal service and amenities is a pathetic throwback to the days of luxury and privilege in air travel. United Airlines has a Red Carpet lane at each and every gate. Delta has a Breezeway lane. These lanes are dedicated, reserved for their first class passengers. These lanes are cordoned off opened only for these premier passengers. Each has a colored mat, red for United and blue for Delta. Look at the photo and read the text on http://tametheweb.com/2008/02/18/i-dont-get-this-uniteds-red-carpet/. Is there anything more ridiculous than this in these modern times? I cannot imagine having the “privilege” of walking on these colored door mats does anything for their customers.

Whenever I travel, I remember the words of my friend and former Colgate colleague, Manuel Arrese: “When I travel I am like Gandhi.” You cannot let long lines for ticketing, security, customs, and passport control as well as extremely crowded planes, delayed flights, and cancelled flights get to you. He is right you have to emulate the patience of the Mahatma. I keep working at this Manuel, I really do.

Perhaps if I could just walk on that red carpet, serenity would be mine…

Monday, January 12, 2009

July 2008: Changes

Back in the day, when I was in college, probably a sophomore, we were trying to be hippies. We were expanding our minds and our points of view. People, my peers, liked to be profound. We liked to “rap.” Rapping then was simply talking about things, discussing things in depth; it was even better if anyone could be profound or even pretend to be profound. Profundity, real or fake, would often evoke cool phrases like, “wow, man, that’s heavy” or “that’s some deep sh*t.” We like to be heavy and deep when we were sophomores.

I recall a conversation during a summer job between my freshman and sophomore years. I was working at a factory, a medium sized tool and dye shop, Forge Precision, run by three guys, two of them Armenian: John Kechikian, Don Arslanian, and Gordon Grossman. It was a great experience because after a kind of disastrous freshman year of “finding myself,” the honest, tough, and menial labor motivated me to want to do and be something more. I went back to school and excelled, never looking back except in reflection.

I had the conversation with a co-worker. I do not even recall his name. He had a bit of a southern drawl though I am betting that it was his parents that were born in Kentucky. This fellow was not going to college. I was nineteen and he was maybe 23 or 24. He liked to call me “college boy.” One day at lunch we were talking, no we were rapping. We were trying to be deep and profound. I said something like “nothing is constant, everything changes.” Yeah, baby, I was pretty deep with that. He countered with a word play that actually stopped me in my tracks and stuck with me all these years. He said, “one thing never changes… and that is change itself.” I wanted to say something smarter, more profound, and deeper. I knew even then that it was as much word play as it was philosophical. I paused for a pregnant moment and looked deep. I had nothing. I simply retorted, in the vernacular of those days, “that’s heavy.”

The year was 1972. We were probably using the word change maybe because things were changing or maybe because David Bowie had released a song entitled Changes in January of that same year. I Googled the lyrics of the song and read them. They are kind of lame, psychobabble at best. Maybe it is simply because I was coming of age then. But it seems that ever since then, there has been a lot of talk about change.

Everything changes except change itself. Is this true? While we are at it, why are we obsessed with change? We even try to “manage change” these days. Is that even possible?

Many business presentations advocating doing something new or different, beginning with the sentence: The pace of change is accelerating. They then proceed to give examples to illustrate this point and make the case for whatever it is they are advocating.

Can the pace of change… change? My theory is that the pace of change is unchanged. It is exponential, like population growth. The elbow of the curve when the curve changed from slow and steady to quite dramatic was arguably the Industrial Revolution. The theory is good but not quite original. Most people sense this. When my grandmother passed last year at the end of 100, I noted how much things changed from when she was born until she died. She saw and experienced more change in lifestyle, convenience, transportation, and, entertainment. Not surprisingly, this excludes the entire information boom of personal computers and the internet.

In 2001, the noted futurist Ray Kurzweil wrote an essay entitiled The Law of Accelerating Returns. He posted it on KurzweilAI.net, a kind of pre-blog. The essay opened with:

An analysis of the history of technology shows that technological change is exponential, contrary to the common-sense "intuitive linear" view. So we won't experience 100 years of progress in the 21st century -- it will be more like 20,000 years of progress (at today's rate).
How do people handle change? It certainly depends on what is changing and the kind of change. Some change, in the form of innovation, is most welcome. Consider the telegraph, the radio, television, video players, all the way to the current streaming video on demand available to many today. These entertainment and communication innovations have certainly made life more enjoyable. They have made breaking news events available to the entire world instantaneously.

Consider washing machines, dryers, dishwashers, refrigerators, microwave ovens, and every other home and personal convenience. Who today, certainly amongst those reading this letter, would consider wringing laundry by hand? These changes and innovations are welcome. They free us from time consuming and drudging tasks.

The airplane is or maybe was a good change. Military applications aside, the airplane allowed us to quickly move people and goods from point A to point B. It allowed for the expansion and globalization of business. It allowed for the making tourism accessible to many more. It both enables people to move where work opportunities are and then return back to visit family and friends.

Change in the workplace can be more daunting. There are two aspects to this one has both positives and negatives, while the second can cause a lot of angst.

First, technology enables us to save time and get more done. In most offices I see, everyone has a personal computer, many have laptops to giving us mobility to compute and communicate from wherever. Somewhat less have work cell phones or blackberries to facilitate communication to an even more granular level. The good part of this is that we can be in touch 24/7. The bad part is that we can be in touch 24/7. It is good because we can reach anyone, anytime, in almost any place when needed. The bad part is that this can easily eat into personal time. People complain they are always working, always on.

Second, is the change in economic conditions and re-organization both of which are part of the a company’s struggle to survive and prosper. Technology certainly plays a part here. Consider the number of secretaries working in any office today. When I first started working, the ratio was probably 1 secretary for every 10 employees. With the advent of personal computers and cell phones, that ratio is probably like 1:25 or 1:30 with most employees having little or no access to any of their time.

Consider the way companies are born and die. We tend to think these big enterprises are everlasting. Yet, they are not forever e.g. Enron. The Dow Jones Industrial Average was first published on May 26, 1896. It was then and has remained the most quoted stock market index. It is based on the largest and most widely held public companies. Thirty companies make up the list today. All are names you would easily recognize, especially if you live in the US or read any US financial magazines.

In 1896, there were only 12 companies on the list. What are the original companies? Not names you might easily recognize:

1. American Cotton Oil
2. American Sugar
3. American Tobacco
4. Chicago Gas
5. Distilling & Cattle Feeding
6. General Electric
7. Laclede Gas
8. National Lead
9. North American
10. Tennessee Coal & Iron
11. US Leather
12. US Rubber

Only General Electric is still a Dow Jones company. One is outright out of business. Two were broken up in anti-trust actions. The remaining eight have been bought and incorporated into other companies. There has been a lot of change.

When we look at the original Dow 12 vs the 30 companies that are in the index today and we certainly recognize that there has been change. The change has taken place over time and in retrospect it looks smooth and natural. Companies enter and leave the index every year or so. No big deal in the large scheme of things.

The same applies when I look at an organizational photo of my current department. The photo was taken at a management meeting in August of 2007, just one year ago. There are 29 people in the photo. Of the 29, 9 are no longer with the company. Most left on their own, a few were let go. That is 28.5% turnover. The change has taken place since the full year. If I polled our team without giving them time to think, I think most would have guessed 10-15% turnover.

The livelihoods of the employees are so dependent and intertwined with the enterprise that we have to believe our employers are here to stay. Any change, especially abrupt, re-organizational changes can stun people and hence the organization into what can be several months of people worrying more about what will happen to them rather than focusing entirely on their jobs. If in our team of 29 we experience the mass exodus of 9 people one day, it would have certainly had this stunning effect. Gradual or steady change is more easily tolerated. Abrupt changes are the things that throw us into chaos.

We live in the short term. As managers and leaders, we react in the short term. I wrote in the Food Shortage letter a bit about this. Are the external, business and environmental changes we are experiencing more dramatic and significant than our ability of to change with our myopic quarterly operating mindset? People refer to these kinds of futile too little too late actions as being as useful as rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic after it iceberg.

Often time the reactive actions we take to adapt to change are less benign than rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. We cut staff, squeeze suppliers, and other things to dramatically reduce the cost side of profit equation. By only focusing on the cost in a quick as you can reactive way, we often cut deeper than necessary and end up stressing the remaining workforce in terms of hours and workflow. You tend to cut the folks that are the poorer performers. This makes life more complicated on the really valued people that you retained. This can result in a general malaise and an increased turnover. This is a very real problem I am dealing with on a day to day basis.

So, why am I writing about this? Look at the six letters I have written in this Fifth Volume of this letter. Half of them are concerning and trying to cope with the general economic conditions and how it is affecting my work life. I wrote about Recession in March, Food Shortage in May, Laughter is the Best Medicine last month, and now Change Management. It is really all about trying to make sense and cope with the whirlwind of changes both in general and in my workplace in specific.

The workplace challenges are pretty significant. We are definitely not the Titanic but there seems to be too much deck chair re-arranging. This is not only our company but many other companies that I read and hear about.

As a manager, as a leader, I have always struggled with what seems to make sense in the long term getting traded off for the short term need to deliver results. I am sure I will address this topic in some form again but hopefully not the remainder of this year. I prefer to have a Monthly Letter of Musings & Meanderings rather than a My Obsessive Reacting to the Chaos and Economic Doom & Gloom Surrounding Us All.

To keep with the spirit of the June letter, I will close with this very old and groaner of a joke:
After a long grueling two day march through swamps and dense jungle, the soldiers were both filthy and exhausted, their sergeant said,

“Great job men! It has been tough and I know you are tired and dirty. Good News. You will get a change of underwear.”

The troops were happy with this news. The sergeant continued.

“OK. Kelly you change with Manetti.
Kowolski you change with Johnson…”

June 2008: Annual Health and Fitness Letter – Laughter is the best Medicine

Recession, the Armenian Genocide, Food Shortages… enough already! It is easy in today’s world to worry about war, the economy, elections, terrorism, the war on terrorism, and so on and so forth. I do need to lighten it up a bit. No, I need to lighten it up a whole lot.

June has been the month I write about Health and Fitness. I could bore everyone with yet another bicycling vegetarian lifestyle droning sermon. Let’s instead talk about life and laughter, the sustaining force of humor and comedy. I borrowed the title of this letter from the Reader’s Digest feature of the same name.

Why laughter, why humor, why comedy? I simply believe people feel better, they cheer up, when they have something to laugh about. It always works for me. Except for the saddest moments, an inane infantile slap stick movie will cheer me up and make me forget about all the troubles, lunacy, and mania of the day. Yes, think The Three Stooges, always a perfect remedy for what ails me.
Humor is reason gone mad
- Groucho Marx
One of criticisms of focusing too much on comedy is that “life is serious business.” Anyone who has too much fun with things sees the amusing side of things, or laughs too much just cannot be taken seriously. Surely, this is in part true. During the saddest times humor definitely has to take a back seat.

I remember watching David Lettermen when he first came back on the air after the tragedy of 9-11. He was back on the air September 17, 2001. He was the first comedian to come back on the air after that horrible day. His first guest was Dan Rather. The show was appropriately more teary and touching than funny. His monologue was not comic. It was more a somber reflection on the senselessness of what happened. Even with all of this, he did get a laugh at the end when he said, “And thank God Regis is here so that we have to make fun of.”

I have also been to many funerals where humor helps ease the pain and sense of loss. People in the back or just outside of the room where the deceased is laid out quietly telling each other funny stories of the deceased said or did. People laugh and cry at the same time.

I do like to laugh. I love to be amused. It can be slapstick mayhem that is the hallmark of the classic Three Stooges shorts. Or, it can be social commentary as one would find on The Daily Show. There are certainly serious aspects of life and sad moments we all have cope and deal with. Yet, I do believe that most of us take too many things too seriously. We are unable to see the light side of situations and predicaments. We are certainly not able to easily laugh at ourselves.

Even though I love to laugh, love to be amused, and love to see the lighter side of things, I am not immune from taking things too seriously. Often the seriousness is not do anything all that important in the large scheme of things. No one close to me has died. There are no national disasters or terrorist attacks. Yet, I am in a most somber mood. Why? Isn’t it better to put things in perspective with a bit of humor and levity? Why not laugh a bit at the absurdity of what was causing the serious mood?

When I started writing this letter and decided that I was going to include quotations, I had one in mind to illustrate the point I just made is:
Don’t sweat the petty things and don’t pet the sweaty things.
- George Carlin
I love George Carlin’s observations. He has that biting humor that dances on the edge of blunt reality and complete cynicism. Sadly, George Carlin passed away at the age of 71 on June 22. I was sorry to see him go. Luckily, we have many of his bits and quips readily accessible through the magic that is the internet. Consider the following gems:
1. One can never know for sure what a deserted area looks like
2. Have you ever noticed that anybody driving slower than you is an idiot, and anyone going faster than you is a maniac?
3. Inside every cynical person, there is a disappointed idealist
In each observation is a core of truth. Each truth is exposed to the light of day, albeit a cynical light. Humor can certainly put things in perspective. This is the basis of political humor and satire. It is the basis for late night monologues of Jay Leno, David Letterman, and Conan O’Brien. They poke fun at our leaders and presidential candidates. I suppose some people can be offended especially if their political affiliations are extreme or extremely intense. I can disagree with a joke but still laugh at the counterpoint of satire.

One type of humor that people can and do take offense at is humor that is off color, humor that uses curse words and obscenities. George Carlin certainly used such language. In fact, every obituary I read with his passing referenced his famous Supreme Court case in 1978, FCC vs Pacifica Corporation. Carlin had a routine “Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television.” On July 21, 1972 he was arrested in Milwaukee and charged with breaking the obscenity laws. I would include the words here but this is a family e-letter. Those interested can simply Google Carlin and quickly find them. Over the ensuing six years, the case worked its way to the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court ruled against Carlin 5-4 upholding the government’s right to control the language used over the public airwaves. This whole thing was made moot over the years with the advent of cable television where Carlin himself thrived with his comedy specials on HBO. The same articles I read placed Carlin as carrying on the legacy of Lenny Bruce and Richard Pryor.

Another comedian that relies on blue language is Eric Bogosian. Bogosian is of Armenian heritage. I find him hilarious but he is dropping f-bombs left and right in his act using the most graphic and pornographic language. He used to come to Norwalk Community College to try out his latest stories and gags before incorporating them in his standup acts or plays. I took advantage of this once and my wife, Judy, ever the trooper went along especially since Bogosian is Armenian. She was not quite informed in just how off color his humor could be. We sat in the front row and I was roaring. She was totally offended and turned off.
Sometimes I lie awake at night, and ask, 'Where have I gone wrong?' Then a voice says to me, 'This is going to take more than one night.'
- Charles Schulz creator of the Peanuts comic strip
One thing that always has fascinated me is if humor and comedy is part of creation, part of God’s design. As is my habit, I did an internet search. Talk about funny, the first thing I typed in the search window was “divine comedy.” Needless to say the search returned with countless pages about Dante’s famous work The Diving Comedy. What was I thinking? I then did searches using the keywords “God, humor” and “God, sense of humor.” These searches were a bit more fruitful but not too insightful. Most of the sites that popped up are religious websites on which has a section like “Does God have a sense of humor” among other topics like “Why does God love us?” and “Does God change his mind?” One site was a discussion page on which people posted responses to the question, “Does God Have a Sense of Humor?” There was not an example on this entire website that I found remotely humorous. That in itself is kind of funny.
Humor is mankind’s greatest blessing
- Mark Twain

The answer to the question, Does God have a sense of humor, seems to be the same on each of these websites. God has a sense of humor because people have a sense of humor and God created man in His image (Genesis 1:27). This is not probably a valid PhD Thesis for the Harvard Divinity School. But it works for me. It is even more apparent when I look at the interaction of men and women. There is an inherent difference, a lack of understanding, that have kept poets, philosophers, psychologists, novelists, artists, songwriters, and comedians busy trying to make sense of it for years. “Women, we can’t live with them, we can’t live without them.” This age old truth, this age old adage, is evidence to me of a degree of whimsy in the Divine Design. It is part of the human comedy.

Consider the very act of physical love. People drop all reason and intellect and turn to the basic animal like behavior. There can be a confusing array of feelings and consequences positive and negative when it is over and reason has returned. This can be viewed as something of a paradox and possibly more evidence of a Divine sense of humor. To me it is an intricate architecture with definite comedic elements.

I know I am on thin ice with the devout and seriously religious. Salvation and belief are very serious things indeed. Suggesting God may have a sense of humor and perhaps even designed the aspects I just wrote about with a smile on His face is either sacrilege or perhaps real amusing. It is a matter of point of view. It is a matter faith, on more than one plane. Sure, I can see a very serious God, a vengeful God. I can also see a very benevolent God. I can also see a God with a really good sense of humor.

There is happiness and sadness in this life. There are things wonderful and horrible in this life. Sometimes there are no explanations of why these good or bad things happen or why others cause us such great joy or pain. Part of the good, part of the happiness, is levity and humor. It is part of the yin and yang of it all. We should embrace it and enjoy it.

I am not going to get into the various aspects of comedy. Simply Google “Analysis of Humor” and there will be plenty to read and study, more than most of us would probably want to read and study. One source that I did spend some time on is http://facstaff.uww.edu/shiblesw/humorbook/ which is a book by Warren Shibles a professor of philosophy in the University of Wisconsin system.
Humor, like poetry, transforms the world. We can thereby express what we could not otherwise express.
- Warren Shibles
To me, music and humor go along. Listening to and performing music is a joy. The musicians that I love to play with are a fun bunch. We laugh as hard as we play. We joke and enjoy a good joke with the same enthusiasm and joy we take in the music that we love and we play. It adds a dimension to this life that none of us would trade-off. I would add that it provides an insight into our souls and perhaps the Divine Design that no one could ever preach with serious words from any pulpit.
Never under any circumstances take a sleeping pill and a laxative on the same night
- Dave Barry
I define humor into two basic categories: Inane and insightful. I value both. The inane, which includes the stupid, the idiotic, and the slapstick is wonderful. Except in the most dire circumstances, good slapstick lightens both my load and spirit. I also know that so many just do not like this kind of humor. What can I say? It simply amuses the heck out of me and I like it.
The Three Stooges inherited a Beauty Salon in Mexico. They went there to take over the place. A lady came in and got Curly as her beautician. Their dialog went something like this.
Lady: I would like you to dye my hair.
Curly: What color?
Lady: Henna...
Curly: Lady, we got henna color you want.
The second kind of humor is insightful. This includes satire, political humor, and commentary on the general human condition. The Daily Show is an excellent example of make light of current events and politics while providing great insight. Consider the Armenian Genocide a topic of recurring and lengthy discourse in my letters. During the recent non-binding Genocide brouhaha this past October, the Daily Show had some real fun with this and provided some insights to the US Government and its relationship with Turkey. Watch the clips below in sequence.

This is pretty brilliant stuff and delivered without an obsenity.

I close the letter with a quote from William Saroyan in the preface of his Pulitzer Prize winning playoff 1939 The Time of Your Life. This puts kind of what I have been writing about into perspective especially the last line:
In the time of your life, live -- so that in that good time there shall be no ugliness or death for yourself or for any life your life touches. Seek goodness everywhere, and when it is found, bring it out of its hiding-place and let it be free and unashamed. Place in matter and in flesh the least of values, for these are the things that hold death and must pass away. Discover in all things that which shines and is beyond corruption. Encourage virtue in whatever heart it may have been driven into secrecy and sorrow by the shame and terror of the world. Be the inferior of no man, nor of any man be the superior. Remember that every man is a variation of yourself. No man's guilt is not yours, nor is any man's innocence a thing apart. Despise evil and ungodliness, but not men of ungodliness or evil. These, understand. Have no shame in being kindly and gentle, but if the time comes in the time of your life to kill, kill and have no regret. In the time of you live, live -- so that in that time wondrous time you shall not add to the misery and sorrow of the world, but shall smile to the infinite delight and mystery of it.
So, smile and even laugh “to the infinite delight and mystery of it” all. You will probably live longer