Friday, February 22, 2013

February 2013: Ninth Anniversary Letter

Obligatory Historical Reflection:  My February Letter is my anniversary letter.  I began sending out these letters in 2004.  I have done so every month for nine years.  That means I have sent out 108 of these letters.   This February 2013 is my 109th letter.   This letter is also the first letter in the tenth year of doing this.  I am amazed that I have done this for so long.
As many of you know, this all began a few years before I emailed my first letter to friends and family in February of 2004.  I started writing one page a day on June 25, 2002.  That was the day I turned 49.  I thought I would chronicle my 50th year.  That plan was that it would brilliant, insightful, and wickedly funny and engaging.  I would get fifteen, maybe sixteen, minutes of fame.   It was a great plan.  I did, in fact, write every day that year.
The funny thing is that the end result was nowhere near what I envisioned it would be.  The writing was too introspective.  It had a fine whiney tone that did not deserve to see the light of day.  As for the wickedly engaging and funny;  it was neither.  Yet, I did not give up.  I have kept writing a page a day, every day for ten and a half years.  Honestly, it is the single best personal habit I have developed.  
Simply it opened my mind.  My writing has improved simply from having done it so long and so consistently.  It took nineteen months to go public with my writing.  After a few years, I even had enough confidence that I did not fear others reading what I wrote.   It has been rewarding move because it got me to get away from journaling (just a pretentious way of saying keeping a diary) and forced me to prepare a finished product once a month. 
These letters were always typed.  But the daily writing was all handwritten.  That practice continued until 2009.  In that year, I began typing more and more of daily writing pieces.  By 2011, I was typing everything on either my PC or iPad.  It was also in 2009 when I put everything on a blogger site.  For the past two years I had posted more four times a month.  Three of the posts are shorter, about 500 words, or what I would write in a day.  The monthly letter which I post and email is longer.  It is about 2400 words or about four days of writing.  Besides this I also post twice a month on my business blog.
This year, having finally joined Facebook, I began to post links to my blog there as well resulting in over 1500 hits a month.  This is hardly viral but good enough for me. 
I am still considering writing that great American novel.  I still want to call it An Attempted Midlife Crisis.  I just like that working title.  The monthly letter and blog?  It will remain This Side of Fifty which is the witty and perfect name that my friend Marilyn Zavidow came up with. 
Also, every year I reflect on Aram J. Kevorkian.  He was born in Philadelphia on New Year’s Eve in 1928.  He died on December 20, 2003.  He went to the University of Pennsylvania and then Harvard Law School.  After working in New York for a period, he and his French born wife settled in Paris representing Americans and American companies there.    Aram Kevorkian began writing a newsletter, The Kevorkian Newsletter, in 1978.  By the time of his passing, he was sending the letter out about once a month to over 3,000 people in 72 countries.  The letter started out as a legal letter to inform his clients and potential clients on the legal differences between doing business in the US and France. 
Overtime, The Kevorkian Newsletter became something much more.  They became essays on life, politics, and philosophy.   Readers of his letters were avid and dedicated.  I was unaware of The Kevorkian Newsletter until he had passed.  I received a few of them via email.  I was immediately a fan.  I also knew what to do with my daily writing.  I would send out a monthly letter to friends and family.  I started doing so in February of 2004 and have not stopped since.  The idea came from The Kevorkian Newsletter but I knew mine would be different.   I had no expectation of writing letters like Aram Kevorkian.  Instead, I have found my own voice.  And yet, because the idea came from his letter, I feel like I am, in my own way, continuing on his legacy.  Minimally, I am indebted to him and wish that I had met and got to know him. 
Slice of Life:  It is February 7th.  We have a classic snow storm today. 
 In this day and age of The Weather Channel, the storm itself was not really surprise.  The day began with a freezing rain that was to turn to snow which it did around noon.  The forecast was not clear about the accumulation because they could not quite predict where the snow rain would exactly be.  As it turns out, Lake Forest was definitely on the snow side of the line. 
It was a steady snow.   It was a big flake wet snow, perfect for sticking to trees.   It made everything look clean and beautiful.  It was good to have this storm after a seriously snowless winter last year and very little snow this winter. 
As beautiful as it was, the storm made the roads treacherous.  The snow was falling faster than the plows could do their job.  I witnessed an accident.  It was nothing major.  A lady in a ginormous SUV was making a right turn while talking on her cell phone.  She was oblivious to the conditions and she skidded right into an incredibly expensive SUV.  It reminded me of two important facts about driving.  First, you can still skid and slide with four wheel drive.  Secondly, if you are going to use a cell phone while driving and don’t have Bluetooth in your car, invest in a hands free device. 
I was on facebook and saw a post from another Armenian from Detroit who now lives in Chicago:  Pat Keyorian.  He posted, “Was hit by a snowball while driving today.  Brings back memories of those days back in Dearborn Heights and Telegraph Rd.”  His posting certainly brought back a memory for me. 
I remember back in the city of Detroit on a day just like this. It must have been 1965 or so.  The snow was what we called great packing in that snow balls were easily formed.  Just grabbing a handful of snow made a crude snowball.  Packing simply made it more it more accurate and more of a weapon.  You could make big fluffy softball or compact it down to a hardball.  I had gone to the alley behind our house.  I walked down the gravelly alley and came out on Lyndon between Strathmoor and Hubbell.  For the first time ever, I was about to hurl a snow ball at car.  I had packed a big softball.  I was going for the big splat.  I placed myself behind a telephone pole and waited for the right target.  Lo and behold a bus was coming west bound on Lyndon right toward me.  What a great target.  At just the right time, I wound up and let it rip.  I aimed for the window next to the driver and hit it.  There was a beautiful splat.  I stood there admiring my handiwork.  Then, I noticed the driver shaking a finger at me, not in anger, but more playful.  Just then, I recognized the driver.  It was Mr. Sirounian from our church:  St. Sarkis.  He was a friend of my parents.  I played baseball with his son.   As he never ever mentioned it, I assume that he simply did not recognize me or quickly forgot all about it.  I never forgot it.
Business Writing Services:  Until 2012, I never got paid for anything that I wrote.  I have written articles for Armenian newspapers and a few for trade magazines.  Certainly, I wrote my monthly letters and now my personal blog and my business blog.   I always wondered how I might monetize this hobby that I am quite dedicated to.  I never attempted to make that happen though.  I just kept writing.
As is usual in my life, my old friend serendipity played a role.
In March of 2012, I landed an engagement with a contract company in Chicago.  A small public warehouse provider had received a formal Request for Proposal (RFP) from their largest customer.  This customer accounted for 26% of the company’s revenues and they could not afford to lose that business.  They also had never had to respond to an RFP.  Most of the time they simply quoted the job and that was it.  An RFP requires a much more intensive response.  There is a quotation for sure but an RFP also asks for explanations of business processes for managing every aspect of the operation.  RFPs also require more detailed financials as well as biographies of the company management team.   I was asked to help them given my supply chain background and experience in both preparing RFP and reviewing responses to the RFP.
I had more fun with this engagement as any assignment I have had as a consulting.  I was also really able to help this company.  They had many of the various pieces of their response in various stages of drafts.  I edited and re-wrote sections to give the same business tone throughout their response.  I cleaned up the financial displays and formatted the document to give it a crisp professional look.  The end result was positive.  The company retained the business and they were pleased with my assistance.
I learned three things from this engagement.
1. People either understand business or are good writers.  It is hard to find people who do both.   Larger companies have writers and PR people on staff.  Smaller companies have to hire out for such.

2. In smaller companies, people that have to prepare RFPs, respond to RFPs, or write business or strategic plans, are often paralyzed facing the mountain of writing that these documents require.

3. Consultants are often accused of borrowing their client’s watches to tell them the time.  That may or may not be true.   When it comes to preparing the kinds of business documents mentioned in #2, it is absolutely true. 
After the engagement with the warehousing company, I told everyone what a cool engagement it was and how much fun I had working on the project.  Most of the time, I was in my home office in a warm up suit working on this document communicating with the client by phone, email, and conference call.  Because of my enthusiasm, I was fortunate to be asked to work on a strategic plan for a financial services company.  This was a much more intense project but equally engaging and enjoyable. 
Design by my friend
Rose Kostan-Schwartz
Because of both of these engagements, I decided to add Business Writing Services to the services that my Supply Chain consulting company offers.   I thought about creating a separate company and website for this business.  I decided against that for the time being.  The reason was simple, the revenues from both parts of the business did not in any way justify creating a second business and website.  Hopefully, the revenues will grow and justify two distinct entities.  I did, however, create a separate business card.  My tag line is “Write with you… All the way!”  Check out the Business Writing Services page on my website.  The logo was designed by my friend Rose Kostan-Schwartz. 

Political Postings:  It has been great nine years.  I really appreciate all the encouragement and warm comments.  This is generally true except for when admitted to voting for Obama.   I got some pretty serious feedback on that one.  I should have expected such given my demographic.  Because of all the flack I received about that, I wrote two of my favorite pieces:

I bring up this issue of having voted for Obama in 2008 because the post in which I revealed this, November 2010: Mid-Term Elections, is for some reason the most read post on my blog this month.  Why?  I have no clue. 
Closing:  I enjoy writing these letters in general.  But I truly enjoy the February anniversary letter.  It is good for the soul to reflect on where this all started and how far it has come. 
Special thanks to Mark Axelrod, Tim Miller, my wife Judy, my mother, and my cousin David for all the great feedback this past year.   I love to hear from any and all of you. 
Of course, I simply have to mention Ara Topouzian… it is just easier this way trust me.
Random Interesting Quote:  The future is just a whole bunch of what you do right now strung together.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Raffi for President

      Tomorrow is Election Day in Armenia.  Raffi Hovannisian, a distant cousin, as close as any first cousin, is running for President.  No one gives him much of a chance because his party is smaller and because of the history of elections not being as open and honest as we might want.
      He has run an amazing campaign from what I have seen.  What I have seen most of are youtube videos which his campaign has email blasted throughout Armenia and around the world.  Theses videos show him well... everywhere in Armenia and Karabagh.  He is always amongst the people, the common folk, the villagers.  These are the people Raffi has always loved and they seem to love him.  He  has musicians like Ruben, Harout, and Nersik supporting him and performing at various events with him.  His campaign seems very well organized and, from my perspective half way around the world, making an impact.
     Will he win?
      This is a hard question to answer.  I am not sure if there are polls in Armenia.  If there are polls, I am not so sure how accurate they are.  My guess is that it will be hard to predict.  The general feeling is that Raffi will not win because he is facing the corrupt establishment.  Votes will be bought and counting will be suspect.  This is why most feel that Serzh Sarkisian will win his second term.  
     Even for having lived in Armenia since 1990 or so, Raffi is still kind of an outsider.  He never was an apparatchik and whatever it is that ilk has become.  He has been committed to Armenia his entire life.  He moved there when he was named the first foreign minister when the current Republic was established.  He has stayed ever since.  He gave up his US Citizenship to be a Citizen of Armenia.  He has an incredibly deep and strong passion to help lead Armenia, his country, to better place.
     My feeling?  I am holding out for Raffi.  He is and has always been popular with the common folk.  In my mind, they are the wild card.  They could be the difference that puts Raffi over the top.  Life is not good for them.  There is little hope for them.  They see nothing from Serzh and the establishment machine.  Raffi, at least, is offering them a plan to change the country that includes creating an atmosphere to attract more business and thus create more jobs.  He offers a vision where he wants people that have left the country to come home.  It is a hopeful message.
       People with money and power, I am sure, look at Raffi as a populist candidate.  I don't think he is.  I do not look at him like I do the populist candidates in South America like Evo Morales of Bolivia, Hugo Chavez of Venezuela, and Jose Mujica of Uruguay.  I actually believe Raffi will set a sensible plan to move Armenia forward.  I do believe his plan will be well conceived and gain traction.
      This is why I hope the people give him a chance.  I hope they give him a mandate.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

The High Cost of Greeting Cards?

It is Valentine’s Day.  It is a day for expressing, acknowledging, and celebrating the special loves in our lives.  This includes family and friends but truly the holiday is focused on our romantic loves and mates.  I did so in my own way today.  Included in the various festivities and gifts, I bought my wife two cards as I have been doing the past few years:  one humorous and the other serious.
I went to a Walgreens earlier this week and perused the card section to find the right card of each type.   I found the perfect humorous card and a touching sentimental one.    I took them to the checkout to pay for them.  I was shocked when I learned the price was over $15 for the two cards.  $15!  One card cost $8 and the other one was $7.50.  I certainly picked very nice cards.  The humorous card had sound effects and the serious sentiment card was very nicely decorated with a ribbon and separate cut out heart.  But, really are you kidding me?  $15.50!  That is insane.  That is crazy. 
I bought the cards anyway.  I was committed.  I had invested twenty minutes selecting the cards and liked my choices.  I really should have put a price on such things but ugh… it kind of hurt. 
I made another purchase yesterday as well.  I bought two dozen tulips.  They only cost $10.  I recall a time when greeting cards cost $2 and flowers were $20.  The relative price of flowers and cards seems to have flip-flopped in my adult lifetime.  I definitely like the price of flowers but hate the price of cards.
I used to make my own cards.  I would make them using 4x6 index cards that I would decorate by hand.  I would draw and write on them with colored pens and Sharpies.  I would cut photos out of magazines (this was well before the internet) and paste them in as well.  I would personalize the card to the recipient.  I would tape the two index cards together along the 6 inch side and thus create a card that folded.  Depending on the recipient, the occasion, and how many cool photos I would find, I might use three or four index cards thus creating a small booklet card. 
I took great pride in the last page of the card.  I would draw a crude bar code and write some fictitious code under it.  I wrote the name of my card company which was “I Made it Myself Card Company” just in case it was not already clear.  I had a lot of fun making these cards and it often took less time than I spent at Walgreens yesterday.  Needless to say, the cost of these cards was almost nothing.  It is definitely time to consider resurrecting my old practice. 
I may have to also invest in Hallmark. 

Monday, February 11, 2013

Sitting in a Restaurant...

      I had a chance to speak with the renowned oud player Ara Dinkjian.   He is flat out the best oud player of our generation.  He tours the world playing with some of the best musicians.  He has composed some of the most memorable and heartfelt melodies of anyone that has emerged from the American Armenian music scene.
      We were at St. John's Church in Detroit where Ara and his father, Onnik, the equally renowned Armenian singer, were performing.  We were speaking about how well his father Onnik looked, the energy he had, and how great his voice still sounds.  He is a very young 83 years old.  Onnik is still performing and Ara accompanies him mostly on keyboard and sometimes on oud.  Ara related a few stories in which they were mistaken as brothers and even one where someone was confused which was the father and which was the son!
     Ara began one of these stories with "My Father and I were sitting in a restaurant in Dikranagerd..."  While the stories were engaging and entertaining.  It was this phrase, this opening "My Father and I were sitting in a restaurant in Dikranagerd" that will stay with me.
     Dikranagerd is the Armenian name for the Turkish city of Diyarbakir.  This mostly Kurdish city was once an Armenian city.  It was founded by the Armenian King Dikran  the Great (circa 140 - 55 BC).  Dikran was king of Armenia from 95 - 55 BC.  King Dikran built a short lived empire that was the largest in the history of Armenia.  He established his capital in this city on the Tigris.  Ever since, Armenians have called the city Dikranagerd:  the city of Dikran.
     Onnik's parents, Ara's grandparents, are from Dikranagerd.   While neither Onnik nor Ara were born or ever lived there, we still refer to them as they do themselves as Dikranagertsis:  people of Dikranagerd.  This is how important that place of origin of our parents or grandparents was and still is.  Two three generations later, we still refer each other with cities, towns, and villages that most of us have probably never visited.
This is why Ara's little phrase had such an impact on me.  He and his Father were doing something so very natural and yet so very rare.  They were having a meal in a restaurant in their ancestral hometown.
      This is a dream.  I would love to have a cup of coffee with my Dad in Kharpert (or Harput now known as Elazig).  My cousin David, of whom I often refer in these pages, wants to get his Dad who is my Father's brother, himself, my Dad, myself, and my son Aram and take a photo of the Gavoor men.  We are having difficulties to even arrange that let alone having such a photo taken in a restaurant in our Keserik village of Kharpert is now.  I know it is just a matter of planning and money.  We should really do it.  But, we all know how life works when it comes to arranging and financing such a venture.  Life gets in the way... of life.
     The first lunch on our first day in Yerevan back in June of 2001 felt like what I am talking about, what Ara was talking about.  I was sitting with my wife and children at a restaurant ordering and eating.  All the while, people were coming and going about their normal business.  They were simply living.  They were just living life where they belonged.  What impressed me were the little things, almost stupid things, that made me realize the impact of being removed from place.  At that first lunch, a bottle of soda was opened at the table.  Flip-flop and the cap landed right in front of me top down.  Written on the inside of the cap, in Armenian using the ancient alphabet that Mesrob Masdots had invented, were two simple words:  Grgin Portsir or Try Again.  I have seen the same in English and even Spanish countless numbers of times.  I had never seen it in Armenian or even thought about such a mundane commonplace bit of product marketing.  Yet, it hit me.  I am Armenian.  I feel Armenian... but without living in the homeland, I am really an American Armenian.  It was both a cool and yet very sobering moment.
     My Mother in-Law, Mary, was relating a story of her trip to Armenia.  She had stopped at the side of the road to buy rojig a delicious confection of dried grape juice and walnuts.  People would sell rojig simply to supplement their meager incomes.  Flies were buzzing around the strings of rojig.  Mom made a comment in Armenian "that we have to kill these flies."  The man selling the rojig replied "Sister, even the flies are Armenian."  The all laughed, but the man made a very good point.
     Yes, we are all humans and citizens of the world.  I get that and embrace that.  We are also an age old nation and culture that is equally worth embracing and preserving.  The number of languages in the world keeps decreasing with ubiquity of mass media and the internet (how do you say internet in every language on earth?), the overlaps of language and cultures is most definitely increasing.  Will it ever become one, two or some single digit number?  I doubt it but really I do not know.  As far as my Armenian heritage is concerned, I do not want to see it fade away and die from assimilation.  Too many have struggled and scarified too much over too many centuries for it ever to die from this quiet killer.
     Right now, the Republic of Armenia is the most Armenian place in the world.  We value and cherish it for all that is good about it while encouraging change in all that is not so good.  While we value that place, many of us still yearn for what was taken from us.  What might be had we been born there?  What would our culture be if we lived and thrived there?  This is all conjecture but laden with something missing.
     This is why the notion of Ara and Onnik sitting in a restaurant in Dikranagerd is so very cool to me.