Tuesday, February 22, 2011

On Wisconsin! On Wisconsin?

There  is much going on in the world.  There has been regime change in Tunisia and apparently one, maybe, in Egypt.  People have taken to the streets and demanding better lives, equality, and democracy.  The unrest has spread to Bahrain, Libya, Iran, and even Wisconsin.  Yes, Wisconsin.  

People have taken to the streets in Madison the capital of the Dairy State.  They are demanding justice and calling for regime change.  Who are these people?  Why do they want regime change?  What the heck is going on?

The people in the streets are teachers and other state workers.  They are fighting the Republican governor and Republican led state legislature who want to balance the state budget by changing the collective bargaining rules or in this case actually eliminate most of the collective bargaining rights of state workers.  By essentially busting or weakening the unions, the state would lower the overall compensation of state employees, save money, and balance the budget.

Governor Scott Walker has become to some the Moammar Khadafi of Wisconsin and to others, well, the Sarah Palin of Wisconsin.   The Democratic members of the legislature have left the state and taken refuge in IL and MN so that there will not be enough members to actually vote on the governor's proposal.  Doctors have given teachers notes to justify their "sick" leave so they are free to protest in Madison.  For the past few days thousands have shown up to protest the governor’s actions.  There were close to 70,000 protesters on Saturday, February 19th.

70,000 is a lot of people.  It is a meaningful number.  Does that mean all the people are behind the teachers and other state workers in Wisconsin?  I am not so sure.  I am not so sure there is a strong base of support for unions in this country anymore.  In the past year or so, we have transitioned from to have the majority of union members in the US working for local, state, and the federal government.  This is a first.  For most of the history of organized labor, government employees were a minority among union members.  Union members were factory workers and truck drivers.  With the movement of large swaths of our manufacturing to Asia or to right to work states in the south, union membership in these sectors have shrunk dramatically.  Remaining unions in these sectors have less and less power.

Why less power?

Unions get their power from being able to withhold their labor and disrupt commerce.  Steel workers, UAW members, and Teamsters were once able to do this with great effectiveness and led to a broad based prosperous middle class in the US during the 1950’s through the 1970’s.  But, with globalization and the right to work sun belt states, corporations have moved their manufacturing and warehousing to non-union venues.  If existing unions are too demanding, companies will simply up and move their operations and essentially bust the union.  Union membership and power have waned to the point we are where we are today.

Furthermore, most non-government US workers have seen the elimination or severe limitation of their pensions.  They have also seen the erosion of their other benefits such as health care coverage.  Not only has coverage changed but there has been an increase in how much employees must contribute towards to support their benefits.   By comparison, government workers have kept their pensions and experienced less erosion of their health benefits.

In Wisconsin, we have seen a lot of snippets of teachers and others determined to save their collective bargaining rights.  The rhetoric is a throwback to the heyday of organized labor.  Their words are passionate and strong.  I actually have empathy for the teachers.  They chose this profession and took jobs essentially buying into the unwritten contract that they would work 25-30 years retire with full pensions and health care.  They would never get rich but they would certainly be comfortable, working in a generally fulfilling profession, and getting two and a half months off.
Now imagine you are ten, fifteen, or twenty years into this career and the state is about to do to you what has happened to most of us in the private sector.  Anyone would be mad as hell and quite vocal about protesting what can only be perceived as a rape.  

My question is what kind of support they will get from the rest of the taxpayers.  Government workers in my mind have been the final frontier in pension reform/elimination and benefit erosion.  The recent recession resulted in a reduction of revenues to the states and we have all heard of the astronomical deficits in California and Illinois to mention just two.  This has put the spotlight on government workers.  Their jobs, their wages, their pensions, and benefit packages are all vulnerable as states try to cope with balancing budgets.

I have great empathy for what many of these workers will be experiencing.  I have somewhat less sympathy because, sadly, it is simply their turn in the barrel.

The American Dream?  Does it now exist only in the history books?

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Book Review: The Gendarme by Mark T. Mustian

Amy Einhorn Books/Putnam
September, 2010

I just finished this book which I received as a Christmas present.  When I first read the dust jacket blurb, I thought:  "eh... I am not sure I will enjoy this.  The premise is too far fetched."  I read it because I was interested, call it morbid curiosity if you would like,  in seeing how the author, Mark Mustian, would develop the plot.  I also read it because I have, as many Armenians do, an equally morbid curiosity in hashing, re-hashing, and forever trying to make sense of the Armenian Genocide.  So, I read it the book and must commend Mark Mustian for weaving what I believed was a lame premise into a very good and engaging novel.  

Mustian attempts to relate the Armenian Genocide from the point of view of Turkish Gendarme charged with taking a group of Armenians from Harput to Syria.  This fellow Emmett Conn, the anglicized version of the man born as Ahmet Khan, lost much of  his memory from an injury sustained after the Genocide at the Battle of Gallipoli.  Circumstances lead him to end up in the United States living in the state of Georgia.  At the end of his life, Emmett begins having dreams of his role in the ethnic cleansing of Armenians from Turkey.  The book is about the piecing together of his memory and coming to terms with his past and past actions before he dies.

I do not want to dwell more on the plot and the details of the book.  The power of the premise and how Mark Mustian brings it to life is powerful.  The reader needs to let the novel guide him and part of the experience is lost if the entire plot is laid out in a review.  It is noteworthy to add that Mustian has done a wonderful job writing about the Genocide and forced march form an Armenian region from the point of view of a Turkish Gendarme.  Armenians tend to portray Turks as villains and heartless enemies.  They are not often humanized in the way Mustian has.  I am not certain if any other author, Armenian, Turk, or one of another nationality has attempted this.  I believe it has been done with the Holocaust.  The only example that comes to mind is the 1974 film, The Night Porter which was quite a controversial and disturbing film.

Mark Mustian is a bit like Michael Arlen, the author of Passage to Ararat.  He came to realize and investigate his Armenian background later in life.  Mark Mustian knew of his Armenian heritage but he is not prototypical in that he did not have a grandparent or great-grandparent that went through the horrors of the 1915 Genocide.  In fact, his paternal grandfather immigrated to the Unite States so much earlier than most Armenians that he fought for the Confederacy in the Civil War.  If he has enough information and background, I would hope to see Mark Mustian write the story of his grandfather.    

In this 30s, Mustian became interest in his Armenian heritage was kindled when he read Peter Balakian’s Black Dog of Fate.  Reading that book inspired Mustian to learn more about Armenians in general and the Genocide more specifically.  He was so inspired that he took a trip to Turkey and Syria from August 1-8, 2008.  I can imagine the idea for the book was born from that trip.  Mustian has posted a brief travel log on the his website:  http://www.markmustian.com/mmustian-travelogue.htm  

Also like Michael Arlen, Mark Mustian embraced his heritage or part of his heritage.  The cynical would say both of them embraced their heritage because there was a book in it for them.  Maybe so, but I look at this glass as half full.  I am amazed how these two literary gentlemen responded when they were exposed to Armenian people, history, and culture.  Both of them were fascinated enough to make trips.  Michael Arlen went both to Armenia (Soviet Armenia in those days) and Turkey.  Mark Mustian went to Turkey and Syria.  That is no mean commitment to learning something new about ones background.

Both men also being fixated and obsessed with the Genocide.  Mustian’s entire book is dedicated to this huge, grim, and recent  episode in Armenian history.  And why should they become fixated and obsessed?  Most serious Armenians are obsessed with it.   We all think and write about it.  We are still trying to come to grips with it and get closure on it 96 years after the fact.  As Mustian points in the suffix of the book that many modern Turks do not understand why Armenians are obsessed with the events of 1915.  The Turks have moved on.

Of course, they have moved on and only dwell on these events from 1915 when Armenians raise it to the levels of national and international press and politics.  The victors, the vanquishers, never dwell on the negative parts of their wins.  Turkey survived and emerged from the ravages of World War I and the disintegration of the Ottoman Empire with a Republic that for the most part has thrived.  They celebrate that and do not dwell on how they secured that and who might have suffered along the way.  It is no different than the United States.  We celebrate our “purple mountains majesty from sea to shining sea.”  We do not dwell on the native peoples whose land, lives, and lifestyles we destroyed to take over the land.  Many Americans are surprised at how much the remaining American Indians are obsessed and fixated on this.  The dynamic at hand is quite clear... at least to me.

One can also read a short biography of Mark Mustian on the website.  You will learn that beyond being an author, he is a lawyer and city commissioner in Tallahassee, FL.  If nothing else, I highly recommend reading the backstory  http://www.markmustian.com/mmustian-gendarme-backstory.htm.  It is exactly like the backstory in the novel, I would have called it a suffix, appendix, or have put it at the beginning and called it a prefix.   Read it... it is a good, short, piece of writing.

The Gendarme is quite well done and worth reading if the subject matter appeals to you.  It is interesting if you are Armenian and should be of interest to Turks as well.  I would generally recommend it to anyone. 

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Stress Kills

This is going to sound like a major “duh, well yeah.”  

I came to the conclusion this morning that I really do not like stress.  Not at all.  Not one little bit.

My favorite definition of stress is an old and humorous one:

Stress is the most unnatural suppression of the most natural urge to choke the living shit out of some asshole that desperately deserves it.
OK, I might have left out the profanity and violent suggestion thereby making the definition more politically correct, but the profanity and violence really does drive the point home.  Stress is the churning up of emotions and feelings until they cross from mind to body causing the adrenaline to be released but where there is no real fight or flight option to dissipate the adrenaline.  The result is tension, aggravation, anxiety, and physical discomfort.  

The Merriam-Webster definition is: 
A physical, chemical, or emotional factor that causes bodily or mental tension and may be a factor in disease causation.  http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/stress

Prolonged stress can may manifest itself in an illness.  General lore seems to link it to hypertension and heart attacks.  Minimally, stress makes me sullen, irritable, or ornery.

Sure there are external causes of stress.  There are any number of political self-serving people that we are forced to deal with.  There are mean nasty folks that revel in creating situations in which others twist, turn, cringe, and suffer in the stress they induce.  There are overbearing bosses, family members, and friends that we have to deal with.  All of these, can and do cause stress.

I am writing this because I spent a stressful weekend dealing with some office politics which could have some bearing on my immediate future.  I hated the feeling and hated having the stress dominate my weekend.  As I mulled over who I ought to be strangling per the comic definition of stress, I came to realize that I was the culprit.  Me?  Causing my own stress?  Impossible!  

No very possible!

The best way I can illustrate how this is possible is by these very profound quotes that I also referenced in my October 2010 letter.  http://thissideoffifty.blogspot.com/2010/10/october-2010-motivational-quotes.html
  • I am not upset by events but rather by the way I view them. -  Epictetus
  • The chief cause of failure and unhappiness is trading what we want for what we want at the moment. - Suprina Berenyi
    Most of the people that induce stress and stressful reactions are just being themselves.  Their behavior probably will not vary much if the same situation, the same set of circumstances, happened over and over again.  Why then must my reaction always be the same?  

    Epictetus is absolutely right.  People that divert stress the best have learned to deflect both the inane and self-serving behavior of others that causes stress.  If the external stimuli are not likely to change, the prudent person ought to adapt and change his or her ways so not to experience undo and unwelcome stress every time the stimuli is present.   Simple to say... harder to do.

    Suprina’s quote can also be changed slightly to apply to self-induced stress.  Constantly trading off what I supposedly want for what I want right now can be very stressful.  Watching it happen to day after day is quite stressful and truly ends up causing chronic unhappiness.  This exact dynamic is why Twelve Step Programs exist to help those truly addicted to this kind of behavior.

    Getting back to Epictetus, I must note that his name is not near the top of Greek philosophers.  Plato, Socrates, and Aristotle seem to have a much greater fan base.  Who was this fellow?  Again via the magic of the Worldwide Web, I can easily report that Epictetus was a stoic philosopher who lived from 55 -135 AD.  The crux of his beliefs were essentially in the quote referred to above and these few lines from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Epictetus
    To Epictetus, all external events are determined by fate, and are thus beyond our control, but we can accept whatever happens calmly and dispassionately. Individuals, however, are responsible for their own actions, which they can examine and control through rigorous self-discipline. Suffering arises from trying to control what is uncontrollable, or from neglecting what is within our power.   
    I like the practical approach of Epictetus.  I really need to know what I can and cannot control.  He calls what cannot be controlled as fate.  I may call them random events or shocks.  Probably, we are in agreement that we cannot really truly control the actions of others.  Thus, I need to learn not to get stressed by these kinds of things.  

    Yet, there are things in my control.  If these things become the cause of stress, they are entirely on me.  I therefore would have to choke the living shit out of myself.  In the work environment, the actions and behaviors can be mitigated by the things I can control.  If I am proactive, control my numbers and results, and am always sharing these outputs, a lot of what others do to bend the truth in their direction is easily thwarted.   Beyond being proactive in dealing with others, I need to be very active in working for what I want and not trading that off for what I want right now.

    It is funny to note that Epictetus did spend some part of his childhood as a slave.  That had to have greatly influenced his philosophy.  There was a lot he did not have control over.  I would guess slaves do develop an accepting go with the flow attitude simply to keep from going insane.  While going with the flow, he probably also learned that if he was proactive and stayed ahead of his chores and out of the way of whoever might mean him harm, he would also be OK.  This sounds pretty darn stoic to me!

    There seems to be another approach and I alluded to it earlier.  Instead of being a major stress magnet, I could be a consummate stress inducer.  History is full of these kinds of characters.  I believe they are called despots and dictators.  Consider the stress that has been caused by the likes of Stalin, Castro, Hitler, and others.  By creating incredible stress in everyone else, I supposed these guys slept well.  But, this is not for me.  The only person I can consistently induce stress in seems to be myself.  

    I like the practical approach of Epictetus and Suprina.  I shall attempt to live more by this code.

    Saturday, February 5, 2011

    February 2011: Seventh Anniversary Letter

    My monthly letter is now eight years old. I am amazed when I think I have been writing this letter consistently for so long. I am even more amazed that I have been writing five hundred words a day since June 25, 2002. It has been a wonderful ride that just keeps getting better and more fun. Writing is definitely a major part of my life these days. In January 2009, I created a blog, http://thissideoffifty.blogspot.com/, and have posted all sixty of my letters there. I have continued to post letters there and mail them out by email.

    In September 2009, I wrote and posted my monthly letter as usual. But, I used my daily writing to write two articles both of which I posted on the blog. I liked the idea of using my daily writing more productively than meandering about until the theme for my monthly letter popped. This began with my writing for our business blog: http://www.demandcaster.com/supply-chain-physics-blog/. I also thought to move from handwriting in a notebook to writing more on my laptop. In these regards, 2010 has been a great year.

    Just on This Side of Fifty, I posted 44 pieces or 32 postings beyond my monthly letter. June was the only month I only posted once. I posted 8 pieces in both April and December. In April, 7 of the postings were my travel log and reflections while in Istanbul. In December, I just had a lot to say. I also continued to contribute to our business blog.

    In July 2010, I realized that blogger, the google based blogging service I use, actually tracks hits. I could track hits by posting. It tracks hits by country and search words used. In October, I finally realized people use twitter and Facebook to drive traffic to their blogs and websites... duh. In July, I had 801 hits. By December, I had 2,016. I had 6,491 hits from the United States as the number one country source. Surprisingly, Germany is number two with 235 hits. I have even had 124 hits from Turkey and 64 from Armenia. These are not stellar numbers by any means but it has been fun to track and try to grow the numbers.

    Speaking about stellar numbers, there is a blog called Monday Morning Quarterback by Peter King of Sports Illustrated. His blog has hundreds of thousands of followers. He has over 920 thousand followers on twitter alone and has posted over 9,000 tweets. This fellow has created something of a writing career that is very successful and very Internet based. This is something to aspire to. It is not enough simply to write well and often, one must get an audience. There is a need to go viral i.e. to build up a critical mass of readers and followers who recommend you to others so that readership and followers grow, well, like a virus. It is slow at first and then mushrooms exponentially.

    I am very familiar with the slow growth part of the curve.

    The top ten most read postings are:

    Nov 21, 2010, 3 comments 
    310 Pageviews

    Dec 25, 2010, 2 comments
      213 Pageviews

    Nov 20, 2010, 6 comments
      176 Pageviews

    Aug 11, 2010
      169 Pageviews

    Oct 28, 2010, 1 comment
      150 Pageviews

    Dec 12, 2010  
    145 Pageviews

    Aug 31, 2010, 2 comments 
    121 Pageviews

    Oct 3, 2010, 3 comments 
    118 Pageviews

    Sep 12, 2010
      118 Pageviews

    Dec 30, 2009
      110 Pageviews

    Note that only #10 was a monthly letter. Numbers 1 and 5 were also posted on www.Keghart.com. Many of the hits on “Buried Armenian” Treasure came from Turkey. I am wondering who is reading this there and why? I got the highest compliment ever from cousin Richard Hovannisian, the esteemed Professor of Armenian History at UCLA, who simply said “very meaningful piece...” I felt like I got an A in a very demanding course. I wanted to show that report card to my Mom. In fact, I think I did.

    I am amazed that “How to Choose a Speech Topic” is number 4 on the list. I have done nothing to promote it. It was simply something I wrote after attending the meeting of my Toastmaster’s club. It also turned into the speech I presented at the next meeting. I have done nothing to promote that page via twitter or any other means. I suppose when people search “speech topics” they find this posting even though it is not on the first page.

    In December when I was writing a lot, I really felt like a bona fide writer more than anything else. I was actually wondering how I could begin to perhaps, you know, even try to make some money writing. I even began envisioning writing as a second career. Ideally, I would love to retire to a career of teaching, speaking, and writing. It is still a viable aspiration. The path is and has been to write a book. I still like the title of “An Attempted Mid-Life Crisis.” I had better get cracking on that while I am still in mid-life! When does that end by the way?

    In January, I began another blog, Song to Aging Children - songstoagingchildren.blogspot.com, it is dedicated to people of my generation. The goal is to have baby boomers who came of age in the years 1967 - 1975 to reflect on their adolescence and how what they thought then influences how they view the world today. Whereas This Side of Fifty is all my own writing, I want Songs to Aging Children to be less than 10-20% of my writing. I want to hear from as many others as possible. I think our perspective is unique because of the nature of the times when we were growing up. This was inspired by my November 2008 letter, “Was it the Weirdest of Times?” - http://thissideoffifty.blogspot.com/2009/01/november-2008-was-it-weirdest-of-times.html. If you are of that certain age and want to contribute, I would be most appreciative. I would love to see hundreds of postings on this blog and thousands of visitors. Oh, the aspirations and delusions of grandeur!

    Google Docs: Usually in these annivrsary letters, I write about the kinds of pens I use to write my daily pages. I switch between Rotrings, Caran D’Aches, and Uni-balls for the 25% of the time I actually handwrite. As mentioned about, I mostly type these days. At first, I used to use Microsoft Word exclusively when working by PC. That is no longer the case.

    One of the big issues with PCs is that I use several different PCs in a given day. I use my laptop at home. I have a desktop at my client and use school computers at the College of Lake County (CLC) and Keller where I teach Statistics in the evening. If I begin writing on any of these work or school computers, I have to remember to email the file to myself or carry around a thumb drive. There are problems with both of these options. I simply forget to email the files about half the time. Yeah, that is so me. As for thumb drives, they are a most efficient way to transmit viruses to my personal laptop. I found this out the hard way. The CLC network is a viral cesspool with some of the latest and nastiest viruses. My poor little laptop needed some serious attention. So, the thumb drives sit idly in my briefcase.

    Ara Surenian, my valued business partner and all around technology guru, pointed out the possibility of Google Docs. Basically, it is a cloud based equivalent to Microsoft Office with word processing, spreadsheets, and presentation applications. Instead of saving the files on a hard drive, they are saved on a Google server like my emails, photos, and blog. I can access any file from any computer from which I can connect to the internet and sign on to my Google account. As a result, I have a virtual hard drive that follows me around wherever I go, like a cloud over me head... hence the terms Cloud Based Computing or Cloud Based Applications. It is very cool. For business, Ara and I share and collaborate on documents this way.

    I have written this letter entirely in Google Docs.

    February 2, 2011: As is my habit in these February Anniversary letters, I like to take one day’s writing and post it verbatim. Today is the perfect day for that as it is a snow day. Everything in Chicago was closed from 2 pm yesterday through the end of today. Many schools already announced that they will also be closed tomorrow. It was a great day to be home based, enjoying the massive amounts of snow that has fallen. I am not sure of the official measurement but it appears that we have had at least two feet.

    The snow stopped today at 1 pm or so. Almost immediately, the sun came out. With the sun, I ventured out to take some photos which is something I like to do after a huge snow storm. I love the snow covering everything in a blanket of pure white. It is one of the beautiful things about living someplace with four seasons. The pure white and quiet doesn’t last but that first day. As we dig out and get back to our routines, the snow settles and gets a little grayer from the grit and grime in the air and from our cars.

    People used today as a catch-up day. I certainly did. It was great to knock lingering things off of the to-do list. The backlog was getting to weigh heavily on me. I made a dent but not nearly as much as I would have liked. I could use another snow day. It made me realize just how much we have crammed into our lives in these times. I actually believed in the morning, that I would get so much done and still have time to finish and mail out this letter. Now, at 9:21 pm, I am certain that will not not happen.

    Today was also Groundhog Day. In Puxsutawney, Pennsylvania, the “official” groundhog did not see a shadow and thus, as tradition lore would have it, we are in for an early spring. That is kind of funny prediction seeing the kind of severe winter weather we have today and the fact that single digit temperatures we will have in the next few days. 

    One of the cable channels was running a Groundhog Day Marathon. They were showing the 1993 movie of the same name directed by Harold Ramis and starring Bill Murray and Andie MacDowell for 24 hours. The movie has become a classic. I watched it while grading papers this afternoon. The premise is that a jaded weatherman, Bill Murray, is sent from Pittsburgh, against his will, to cover Groundhog Day in Puxsutawney. A snow storm keeps him and his crew from leaving town that night and he keeps waking up in Puxsutawney and reliving Groundhog Day over and over again. He is the only one that knows this is happening. It does not end until he becomes a better person and realizes his love for his producer played by Anide MacDowell. It is very well done quite clever, thoughtful, and funny. I have seen it several times and thoroughly enjoyed half watching it while hopefully not mis-grading the papers.

    I am sure if every day was a snow day it would get pretty boring but every once in awhile, it is a most welcome treat.

    Reading Others: In every anniversary letter, I expound on other writers I have read and admired. First and foremost on that list is Garin Hovannisian author of Family of Shadows. I reviewed his book. It is #7 on the list of top ten most read postings on my blog. Garin wrote a very well done and touching portrait of four generations of the Hovannisian and Kotcholosian families.

    I also read and enjoyed The Lost Cyclist by David Herlihy. It is the #6 most read posting on my blog. Herlihy recounts a most fascinating tale of the early days of bicycling in the 1890s. A young Pittsburgh native, Frank Lenz, who set off to cycle around the world. Lenz is reported missing just outside of Erzeroum. It is a grim time in that part of the world with the 1895 Hamidian massacres looming. It was a fascinating story well told by Herlihy.

    I will not expound more as both books were reviewed on my blog. Please follow the links in the aforementioned top ten list to read them.

    Thanks: I would like to thank everyone who has been so supportive of my writing over the past year. Tommy Vartabedian, a great newspaperman, is first and foremost on this list. He is always encouraging and always complimentary. His support means a great deal to me. I thank my son, Aram, for his editorial contributions. Judy for here support in general. I thank Mark Axelrod, Marty Shoushanian, Dale Dvorak, Ruth Swisher, Nadya Uygun, David Gavoor, and Greg Postian for commenting on and acknowledging many if not every letter I send out.

    Thanks to Ara Topouzian for not writing and giving me grief for not mentioning or thanking him.

    Thanks to Raffi Bandazian and Ara Surenian for encouraging me to move things to a blog. Special thanks to Marilyn Zavidow, my Westport, CT to Grand Central train buddy, who was a great collaborator in the planning of the letter and actually came up with the name This Side of Fifty. Lastly, I thank the man I never met, Aram Kevorkian, whose own letters inspired my to write a monthly letter to friends and family. He passed away in December 2003 and my first letter was emailed out in February 2004.