Wednesday, January 30, 2013

January 2013: Heroes

We love heroes.  We need heroes.  We adore them.  We embellish their personalities and feats to fit the image that we crave from our heroes.
I was fascinated with heroes.  I think I developed this fascination from my Mother.  We lived in Detroit and we were Ford people.  My Grandfather Levon came to Detroit with other Armenians to work in one of Henry Ford’s factory.  Henry Ford took on mythic proportions with many Detroiters and certainly in our family.  Henry Ford was friends with Thomas Edison and Harvey Firestone.  He and Edison both had roots in the state of Michigan.  I remember watching Young Tom Edison starring Mickey Rooney and Edison the Man with Spencer Tracey with my Mom.  Sportswise, we had Al Kaline on the Tigers and Gordie Howe with the Red Wings.  It was easy to be fascinated with heroes growing up in Detroit. 
Beyond Ford or maybe because of the fascination with him, I used to read biographies about great scientists, generals, and sportsmen.  I would go to the library check out books about Babe Ruth, Jim Thorpe, Alexander Graham Bell, Lou Gehrig, Winston Churchill, Ludwig Van Beethoven, George Armstrong Custer, Douglas MacArthur, Knute Rockne, Abraham Lincoln, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, and, of course, Henry Ford and Thomas Edison.  I watched biographic movies of these same luminaries.  I was very interested in how they grew up and how they achieved their fame and what they did to overcame adversities. 
The biographies I read as a boy were simple.  They were great stories of what made the heroes special.  These biographies celebrated what made them special as they were growing up and what made them famous and well known in their adult lives.  In these biographies written for young people, the spin was mostly good and noble.  In my teens, I began to read more sophisticated biographies and histories.  I began to see these heroes more as people.  I saw both their merits and their flaws.
I never paid much attention to celebrities that hadn’t somehow done something heroic.  This included movie stars, musicians, and fine artists.  In writing this, I am thinking now that it is a matter of taste as much as anything else.  I suppose it is ingrained somehow in creativity and contribution.
This month there were three sports heroes that were in the news.  They were all portrayed as heroes by the media.  In news that broke this month, two of them fell from grace.  They were Manti Te’o and Lance Armstrong.  The third was Stan Musiel who passed away January 20th:  he was all about grace, class, and style.
Courtesy of Armene'
Say it ain’t so Te’o:  Wow.  Unbelievable.  Bizarre.  There are the reactions that most people had to the very strange Manti Te'o story that broke this month. 
Manti Te'o is, of course, the Notre Dame linebacker who won several awards including the Outland and Butkus trophies.   He finished second in the Heisman Trophy balloting.  Manti Te'o was a good linebacker and huge motivator of his Notre Dame team.  He is one of the reasons that Notre Dame was undefeated in the regular season and played in the BCS National Championship Game. 
Many people became fans of Te'o and were pulling for him to win the Heisman.    Fans did this because of the heart wrenching story that unfolded in week three of the season.  On September 11th, his grandmother passed away in his home state of Hawaii.  Six hours after hearing of the passing his grandmother, his girlfriend (and I swear that I heard of read that she was his fiancé) succumbed to leukemia.  His girlfriend, from her deathbed, made Te'o promise not to leave his team to attend her funeral.  She wanted him to play in her memory.  It is something she really wanted and something that Te'o honored.  It was emotional.  Again, the words wow and unbelievable were uttered by most.  This kind of story and Manti’s performance in that game and the remainder of the season added to the Notre Dame lore.  They beat the Michigan State Spartans 13-6.  The commentators made a big deal of it.  The camera always seemed to focus in on Te'o who always looked emotional hurt yet resolved, looking to the heavens, or kneeling almost in prayer after a big play. Coach Kelly awarded the game ball to Manti after the game.  It was very emotional in both a gut wrenching and legendary way.
I remember thinking two things when I heard about the two losses in one day.  First, like everyone else, I thought how awful this was.  My heart went out to Te'o.  Second, I thought what a great inspiring story that Notre Dame lore and legend is made of.  I also thought that if he were to have a very good season, which he did, he might with the Heisman because of this.
As we all know now, the girlfriend, Lennay Kekua, simply did not exist.   It was a hoax. The hoax took in sport fans, broadcasters, and reporters alike.  The story of the hoax broke on January 16 on  The lead reporters for the story were Jack Dickey and Tim Burke.  When the story broke it was all over twitter, facebook, and other news and social media outlets.  The only comment from Te'o was a tweet that said he was the victim of a hoax.  The Notre Dame AD gave a press conference in the evening in which he said that he and University totally support, believed Te'o, and believed Te'o was innocent and a victim. 
This has become a wild and crazy story.  What really happened?  The reporters are now starting to dig.  The truth is slowly coming out.  I do not believe Te'o hands are clean here.  There seems to be too many contradictions in what he has said earlier and the stance he seems to be taking now.
If Te'o is innocent and a victim, he comes off looking like the most naive person ever or just a plain moron.  This is the best scenario I see for him at this point.  Anything else, he ends up bearing some guilt and comes off as a liar and manipulator. 
As it turns out, it was a hoax and he was a victim.  The hoax was quite sophisticated and it seems that one could have easily been taken in.  But, to call someone you never met your girlfriend?  That is not a girlfriend, it is a pen pal.  So at minimum, he is embarrassingly naïve.
He allowed everyone to assume that it was a real, normal, relationship.  You all know the kind.  It is where the couple goes to the movies, catches a bite to eat before or after, hold hands, etc.  I am sorry you cannot have a girlfriend that you never ever met. 
There is undoubtedly, in my mind, a component of complicity.  He may have been duped at the onset, but I believe he used the story to propel his stature and newsworthiness.  Early on in the reporting of this story, and less so now, Manti’s teammates were quoted as saying that he liked the attention and he went with story.  Heck, it almost got him the Heisman trophy. 
The whole thing still smells awfully fishy to me and Manti is a fallen hero.
Liar Armstrong:  While the Te'o story was unfolding another long standing sport story was coming to closure as well.  Cycling's greatest athlete, Lance Armstrong, was coming clean and admitting to the world that he used performance enhancing drugs during each and every one of his Tour de France wins. 
I had bought and read both of Lance's books.  I wrote and blogged about him in the most terms (my July 2005 Letter being the substantive of the blogs that referenced Lance).  His overcoming cancer was an incredible story.  His achievements were afterwards was even impressive. He was an inspiration to all cancer patients, all cancer survivors, and cyclists of every level all over the world.  He was an inspiration to me.  I rode my longest rides, most rides per year, and most miles per year when he was at his peak. 
There were always people, on the fringes, that were writing and suggesting that he was doping and using performance enhancement drugs.  He would steadfastly and vehemently deny every such allegation.  His argument was simple and sensible.  As a cancer survivor, he would never use any substance that might affect his health.  As a cancer survivor, he treasured his health too much.  He would, per his own words, in the Oprah interview, bully anyone who accused him of doing what he has now admitted to.  He bullied them well for several years.
Lance Armstrong’s achievements were truly unbelievable.  The operative word here is unbelievable.  Many people bought into his story because we wanted a superman.  We needed a hero.  I wanted a hero like Lance.  He overcame cancer and won the Tour de France a record number of times.  What a feel good story.  What an inspiration to us all.
What a liar.  What a con artist. What a fool he made out of us.  What a fool he made of me.
I watched the Oprah interviews.  He admitted, nonchalantly, his wrong doings.  I did not detect much remorse.  He seemed matter of fact, going through the motions.  I thought he might even write another book:  Mea Culpa and What I Learned or maybe Mea Culpa and I don’t Care.  I probably will not buy nor read that or anything else Lance Armstrong has ghostwritten for him.
All in all, I am not devastated.  I am not even really mad at him.  I am a little disappointed in myself for not being more skeptical and questioning about his absolute dominance in cycling including competitors that did dope their blood and use performance enhancing drugs.
Lance Armstrong was a hero to me and many others.  Manti Te'o was not a quite a hero to me, as he was for so many others, but I did admired him, his accomplishments, how he overcame adversity, and how he inspired and led his team.  Are their egos that unbelievably huge that they will do whatever they can to win?  And what were they really trying to win?  It seems fame and notoriety at whatever cost? 
I understand having a competitive spirit and a desire to win.  But, the ends do not justify the means. This is a message that we learn very young.  People cannot simply do anything they feel like simply to win.  At that point it is not a desire to win; it is more an obsession with fame, ego, and fortune.  That is all.  Lance Armstrong lies, cheats, and bullies others for fame, ego, and fortune.  No matter if Manti Te'o was duped up front or not.  He used the ruse to almost win himself a Heisman Trophy.  He too was motivated by fame, ego, and fortune.  Both athletes were addicted to an adoring public and basically lied and cheated.    There is nothing pure about sport when so much fame and fortune intertwined.  Undetected corruption is rewarded and the lure to behave in such a manner, given the fame and fortune, simply overwhelms many.
Who is worse, probably Armstrong but it does not matter. It was a crappy couple of days in the sporting world.
Stanley Frank Musial (1920 – 2013) was from another era and another cut of cloth then either Armstrong or Te’o.  Stan Musial played baseball for the St. Louis Cardinals.  He did so for 22 seasons.  Contrary to the free agent world today, he played with just one team.  Also contrary to what the celebrity style heroes of today do, he married once, to Lillian, and stayed married for 72 years until she passed away last year.
Stan Musial was a favorite son of Donora, PA but even more so of St. Louis.  He was a great player and hitter. He had many accolades and everyone agrees that if he had played for the Yankees instead of in St. Louis, he would be regarded with Ruth, Gehrig, Mantle, and DiMaggio.
Broadcaster Bob Costas eulogized Stan Musial and said:
What was the hook with Stan Musial other than the distinctive stance and the role of one of baseball's best hitters?  It seems that all Stan had going for him was more than two decades of sustained excellence as a ballplayer and more than nine decades as a thoroughly decent human being.  Where is the single person to truthfully say a bad word about him?

A St. Louis fan summed it up best: 
He's been a hero to us for four generations. He was such a good man, somebody you can hold up to grand-kids and your own kids as an example of who they should be.

 The above quotes were from Huffington Post - Musial.  You can also watch the moving Bob Costas eulogy on this site.
Stan Musial only made $100,000/year twice in 1958 and 1959.  In each of his other years he made less.  He made much less than Lance Armstrong and whatever Manti Te’o will eventually make.  Stan Musial got the fame.  He achieved his fame through his pure dedication and performance.  His true fortune was the mark he made on everyone that ever knew him.
I could write much more on what made Stan “The Man” Musial so special.  Rather, watch the Costas eulogy or simply read the wonderful piece in Forbes by Ken Makovsky:  My 'Thing' for Stan Musial.

I would take one Stan Musial over ten Lance Armstrongs and Manti Te’os any day.

Monday, January 21, 2013

January 21, 2013

It is Martin Luther King Day.  By serendipity or plan, Barack Obama’s inauguration for his second term was also today.  This past Friday was the sixth anniversary of the assassination of Hrant Dink whom many Armenians and Turks consider the Martin Luther King of the Republic of Turkey.  Since I first made this King-Dink connection in my mind, I have read that others have  made the same link.  For the past few years, part of this day has been reserved for reflection on these two great martyrs.  Given that the inauguration of Obama was made possible by Kings work and there was even more reason to reflect.  In the last few years, I have listened to Kings “I have a dream speech.”  
Until writing this piece in the eleventh hour of the day, I have not really given much thought to King, Obama, or Dink.  My son and daughter in-law actually went to the inauguration.  I caught bits of it on TV but it was only commentators.  I saw none of the swearing in and none of the President’s speech.  
I hate to say it but this year I was too busy.  I have been on the go all day that began by generating a to-do list and then knocking things off the list.  Plus, and I hate to admit this, I had less interest this year than previous years.  I was thinking about trying to feel guilty about this but there was no guilt.  Zip.  Nada.
Earlier today, I saw the cartoon that is posted in this blog.  I saw it on the True Activist Facebook page.  Shortly thereafter I saw a post that said something akin to “I have a dream that we will find a way to reduce our deficit and get the country on a firm financial footing.”  Of course, financial concerns motivate us way more than social, environmental, and global politics.  Extreme financial angst creates revolutionaries, but medium financial angst just gets people worrying more about themselves and their immediate futures than tackling larger social and environmental issues.  It is hard to worry about global warming when one is worried about their home being foreclosed or losing their job. It is simply where one is on the Maslow Hierarchy of Needs.
The United States has changed.  Our strength or what had been our strength, the middle class, has been decimated.  The very idea of retirement is all but gone for the vast majority of us.  We are not Greece by any stretch but we seem closer to Italy.
Clearly, I did reflect on day and the state of our country and our planet.  I guess I did it in between all the things I had to do.  It may not have been about King and Dink as much I wondered if Obama would be able to implement the change that he so had us believing in during his first campaign. 
Well that is this year... lets see what next year brings.

Monday, January 14, 2013

The Stieg Larsson Novels

Stieg Larsson is the author of the of the famously popular trilogy of crime thrillers:  The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, The Girl Who Played With Fire and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets' Nest.  These books were all published after the author’s death.
Stieg Larsson was born on August 15, 1954 and died on November 9, 2004.  As is the setting and characters of his novels, Stieg Larsson was Swedish.  He was a year younger than me and died at the age of 50.  It bothered me when I read this on the author biography page of the his first book The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo which I read at Christmas break in 2011.  I wanted to know more about this very talented writer and storyteller but as is often the case, even in this internet age, I did nothing.  I read the second and third books in this series over this recent Christmas break.   
This year I did do an internet search on Larsson.  I found out that he died of a heart attack.  The elevator in the building where he had an office was not working.  He climbed seven flights of stairs to his office, had a heart attack, and died.  His death was not without controversy.  Some believe foul play was involved because of his lifelong struggle against right wing extremists.  This lifelong battle made Stieg some pretty unsavory enemies.    The second reason for controversy was because of his recent fame and the fact that he did not leave a witnessed will.  As a result,his estate went to his estranged father and brother rather than to the Socialist Party as was his wish.  The reasons for these controversies are intertwined.  
He had lived, as an unmarried couple, with the love of his life Eva Gabrielsson.  Per Wikipedia, “the two never married because, under Swedish law, couples entering into marriage are required to make their addresses (at the time) publicly available; marrying would have been a security risk.”  Marriage required, also by Swedish, that the couples register their addresses.  Larsson had many death threats from the right wing extremists and supposedly that is the reason that he and Eva never married.  These themes certainly are evident in his novels.  The crusade against right wing extremist is certainly manifested in both his main characters Lisbeth Salander and Mikael Blomkvist.  
Another theme, that runs through his books, is sexual violence against women.  Larsson witnessed three of his friends gang rape a girl.  He was only fifteen at the time.  He abhorred this act and railed against it all his life.  
Revenge is also a theme in his books.  Bad guys should always be held accountable for their crimes.  This crime can come from either the state or his major protagonist Lisbeth Salander.  As the consummate hacker, she wreaks revenge on those that did by hampering their ability to operate in this modern world.  She has always and quite literally have to fight for her life.  She was good at it.  Lisbeth Salander was as much vigilante as she was a top notch researcher and detective.
Mikail Blomkvist is either modeled after Larsson or is Larsson’s alter ego.  He is a top notch investigative journalist fighting corporate corruption and the Swedish ultra right wing.  He is hardworking and smart though without the photographic memory of Salandar.  The books are about the complex love and friendship between Salander and Blomkvist.  
The books are, all three, top notch crime thrillers.  Larsson is a Swedish modern Robert Ludlum.  Once you get into them, you simply cannot put them down.  I totally recommend them.

Monday, January 7, 2013


In the past few weeks, my fledgling writing business has engaged in bartering twice.  Bartering is the term we are using more these days.  It is a practice in which people exchange goods and services with no money actually being passed.  It is what newer, cash poor, businesses are doing these days.

I have a new friend Rose.  She is an excellent graphic designer.  She has been very helpful in developing the logo for the writing side of my business.  Rose also designed a pretty sharp looking 2.5"x2.5" business card that is about to go to press.  Rose is doing this work in exchange for my re-writing and revising the content of her website.

I have another new acquaintance, Krishnan, that by early indications should also become a good friend.  He has a web design business that provides high quality websites at very reasonable pricing.  Krishnan focuses on small local businesses with local markets such as restaurants, home services, auto repairs, and more.  His point of difference is that he does two things.  First, his designs are optimized for all devices:  phones, pads, and PCs.  Second, he focuses on local Search Engine Optimization.   I am going to write the content for Krishnan's website.  In return, he will develop the website for my writing business. 

I believed I was taping into the oldest form of commerce.  I have to believe that in the crudest oldest societies people that were better at one thing, like arrow making, provided those services while others, who were better at hunting, provided the food.  Maybe this example is more communal than bartering. Maybe it was just the natural way their societies operated.  Perhaps a better example is a more agrarian society where heck, just one hundred or so years ago, fathers bartered their sons and daughters into marriage in exchange for livestock.

According to Wikipedia, there is no evidence of any society that existed only on bartering.  This does not mean bartering did not exist.  Investopedia tells us: 

Money, in some form, has been part of human history for at least the last 3,000 years. Before that time, it is assumed that a system of bartering was likely used.

It seems that there is not much history or evidence of bartering.  If we think of cavemen (highly unscientific as it may be), Caveman A is a better hunter than Caveman B who happens to be a gifted cave painter.  They agree that Caveman A will feed Caveman B for as long as it takes Caveman B to paint Caveman A's.  Sounds like a good way to live.   We can trade goods and services back and forth and live happily.

The problem with any exchange of goods and services is the same problem with a money based system.  Some people are simply better negotiators than others.  If these same folks have operational or managerial skills to boot, they will deal their way into an empire.  Warren Buffet is a great deal maker with operational skills. While he definitely uses money, he has the spirit of a trader. 

At least with money, the market sets the price for commodities and staples.  Imagine if we had to barter every time we wanted some food or to have have our lawns mowed.  Money is the medium through which supply and demand balance.  Money is the medium through which our individual labor is valued relative to each other and relative to the myriad goods and services available in an economy.  Based on our skills, experience, training, expertise, and the market supply and demand for such our pay is established.  We exchange our labor for pay whether we work for a company, provide a service, or make and sell goods ourselves.  We take that pay and use the money to buy the goods and services we need and desire to sustain and enhance our lives.  It is no wonder that some form of money has been around for 3,000 years.  It is the lubricant that makes market equilibrium work.  Prices are set by the market and we do not have to barter each and every time we need or want something.  All that bartering would be very tedious very quickly. 

So, I am bartering.  I am bartering for the first time since I was a kid and used to trade toys, gadgets, and other things with my buddies.  Now, early in this New Year, I am exchanging services.  I am using an age old method that is more popular in the new normal of today's America.  I am enjoying it and exchanging value for value.  Why am I and others bartering instead of just paying each other for the services each of us want?  The answer is simple in this new America... we do not always have the cash available to pay.  Therefore bartering makes sense. 

As stated earlier, my recent foray in bartering involved one friend who agreed to do my logo and in the next month or so, I will work on her website.  I agreed to write content for my other friends website, and he will at some later date work on my website.  We all trust each other to do what we agreed to do.   Trust is the key in bartering especially if the goods and services are not exchanged simultaneously.  Where there is no trust, paying with money is definitely preferable.  I pay for your services now and if and when you want my services, you can pay me.

While bartering is on the increase, there is no chance the US will ever become the first society ever to be based exclusively on bartering.

While I am enjoying this bartering, I do want and need more clients that will simply pay me.  Cash is important or as they say in many parts of the global economy:  Cash is King.  Having said this I am willing to barter with the Apple Store, grocery stores and car dealerships if any are reading this and willing to barter.