Friday, August 22, 2014

A Plea to Half of America

When I was a much younger man I spent four years as a United States Marine and one of those four years were spent practicing evacuating American embassies in places like Spain, Morocco and Tunisia. When I returned to the U.S. the very first thing I did was drop to my knees and kiss the ground. In ports of entry, to this very day,  I get misty-eyed when I see the words "Welcome to the United States of America". Make no mistake, I love these United States...but America....you really need to get over yourself.

There's a mindset, far too prevalent in this country, that America is the absolute best at absolutely everything. If you dare to even suggest  some countries are equally as good at certain things, maybe even better than us,  you're decried un-American, unpatriotic and...why, you might even be a socialist!

Have you ever heard any these phrases:  "American Exceptionalism", or how about "USA! USA! USA!" and my personal favorite "God, Guns and Guts made America Great!"

I'll get back to the God, Guns and Guts in just a minute, but let's first ask ourselves "what does it mean to be a great  country? If great is defined as being able to kill more people than any other country, then perhaps we are the best. Personally, I'd like think there's a lot more to greatness than that.

There are many who would have you believe that every person not already in the U.S. is simply marking time through a meaningless existence, just waiting for their chance to come to America. Why? Because we're so much better than them! Should you ask these people "What are you basing this on? How many other countries have you been to?" they often snap "None! And I don't need to!"

There's nothing wrong with having no desire to travel, but you shouldn't then offer your emotionally-charged opinion that America is the greatest country in the world. It's even worse when nobody asked you. It's irrational.

Just recently I spent two weeks in the Netherlands. I stayed with friends in their apartment and was able to experience the Netherlands much like a local. From grocery shopping to visiting someone in a hospital to taking out the trash and washing dishes, I lived more as a local than a tourist.

After experiencing two weeks of life as lived by the Dutch, I came to the  realization a country's "greatness" is simply a reflection of the quality of life of it's citizens. With that in mind the stage is set:  The Mighty USA vs teeny-tiny Netherlands (one third the size of the state of Michigan).  Let the battle begin. As a framework for our battle, I return, as promised, to "God, Guns and Guts".

God - The U.S. is one of the most religious countries on the planet. Only four percent of the population identifies itself as having no religion. Conservative commentators and news outlets would have you believe that the the ninety-six percent are in a "life and death" battle over the right of the ninety-six percent to exist. Yet, our currency says "In God We Trust". Several state legislatures open sessions with prayers and every single Federal office not related to defense, homeland security or law enforcement is shut down when Christmas falls on a weekday.

By contrast, forty percent of Dutch citizens claim no religion. That percentage will likely go higher as older generations fade away. The forty percent by and large aren't anti-religion. In my time there, the Dutch didn't look lost and aimless, nor did they look devoid of conscience. On the contrary, they were friendly, personable and helpful.



Guns - The gun situation in the U.S. is fairly well understood. There is no shortage of laws on the books, most of which are ignored. Following the inevitable annual "gun-in-school-tragedy”,  the answer always seems to be more "soon-to-be-ignored" laws. I am a staunch supporter of the second amendment, but there's something much deeper that needs to be understood about the gun debate. We'll get there momentarily.

In the Netherlands you can purchase a firearm and you can keep it in your home. You must be a member of a "gun club" in order to obtain a permit to buy a firearm, however. That being said, we learned from people "on the street" that you can easily buy a gun outside of legal channels. So, on the assumption that anyone that wants a gun can get one, here's a question that demands an answer:  Why is the homicide rate in the U.S. FIVE HUNDRED PERCENT that of the Netherlands? Guns are the means, not the reason.  I can tell you part of the reason:  anger. We are a very, very angry people. By contrast, the Dutch are largely content and happy. For starters, there seems to be much less of a class divide. Maybe guns would not be such a hot-button issue if we could figure out why we're so angry and inclined to take a life without so much as batting an eye.

Guts - My favorite topic of the three. I have first hand knowledge of guts as I am in possession of one that is far too large. The rate of obesity and overweight adults in the U.S. is sixty seven percent!!!.  It breaks my heart now more than ever because I've seen the answer and it is so simple…and yet so unreachable for us here in the U.S.  The answer is "move your body". For two weeks in the Netherlands, I dined out every other night. I ate dessert at many of those meals. I ate many breakfasts consisting of eggs, toast, bacon or corned beef hash. I did all this…and lost five pounds without even trying.

Every "city" of any size in the Netherlands is designed from the ground up to accommodate bicycles and pedestrians as equally as cars. I was astonished to see seventy year-old men and women riding bicycles through crowded streets, in the rain, on their way to buy groceries. Young parents pick up their children from school or daycare by bicycle. I've seen the mother of twins with one infant in a basket over the handlebars and their sibling in another basket over the rear tire. This was in February! The baskets are warm and padded and have a plastic cover to keep the cold wind off the infant. Lest you think this is harmful to the child, consider that the Netherlands is ranked 18th best in infant mortality rates and the U.S. 34th. Yes, simply by living their lives the Dutch stay slim and fit.

When I returned home and realized that I had to get into a car to go anywhere, I was furious at how badly we've failed to take lessons from countries who have better ways of doing things. No need to carve out an hour for the gym each day. No need for endless pills and fad diets. Ride your bike to work. Or as many Dutch do, ride your bike to the train station, lock it up in a bike rack, take the train for a bit, get out, unlock your other bike from the bike rack in that train station and then bike the rest of the way to work. Given a choice of an hour in a car or thirty minutes biking and thirty minutes on a train, I'll take the latter every day of the week and twice on Sunday.

So, there it is. A three-round knockout. The Netherlands, with its fit, healthy population, walking around content and happy, not shooting each other like life is a video game and doing all of this despite the fact that they should so obviously be lost souls because they're just not that into religion.  It is no wonder that year after year after year different polls and organizations cite The Netherlands, or Denmark or Norway as having the highest standard of living/quality of life in the world.  Three countries for sure that would be decried by half of America as "socialists!!". At the end of the day, does anything matter other than happiness?  I'm not saying The Netherlands is the greatest country on the planet. I'm just saying it sure the hell isn't the U.S.

So…I would respectfully submit that when people who've never been outside the U.S. declare us the best, at everything, they're shouting while having their head stuck in the sand.

You might think that so many Americans saying this nonsense would anger people in other countries, and to a certain degree it does. But mostly, they're not angry with you, America...they're laughing at you.

We have the lowest rate of international travel among the developed countries and yet have all these grandiose opinions of our place in the world.

In closing, I would ask you to make it a goal to visit countries on other continents and above all, don't define your worth and identity based on whether America is or isn't the best at something. Get out there. Travel, meet different kinds of people and experience different cultures. You'll be a better person for it.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

ADD & Me - Part 2

When we last left our heroes, I had just taken my first pill for ADD. In fact, I took it at 10:10 AM yesterday. I had a meeting at 10:30 AM and as I walked to the conference room, a feeling came over me akin to drinking 10 espressos. I felt pretty wired. Taking the pill on an empty stomach probably accelerated that feeling.


The meeting was about the design of some financial reports, a topic that would have had me fighting to stay awake and fighting even harder to focus on the mundane details of credits and debits. Instead, I felt alert, energetic and was intensely aware of the conversation. In the past, I would have drifted in and out of listening to people speak and have had to "catch up" by gleaning things from the conversation and trying to piece together things I had missed while my thoughts drifted elsewhere.

In fact, it seemed I spent half of the meeting out of my chair and pointing to the project on the screen to suggest changes to the report to make it easier to read. I left the feeling extremely excited about my new found attention abilities.


The next thing I noticed was my unwillingness to have unsatisfactory things around me. For months, the network cables that connect my VOIP phone were about 2 inchest two short, causing my phone to rest nearly on top of my laptop keyboard. I just never did anything about it. It reminds me of a joke I once heard told by the motivational speaker Les Brown. It went something like this:


A man was walking down a dirt road down south. He passed an old rickety house and on the old rickety porch sat an old man and an old hound dog. The hound dog was just moaning and groaning. The passerby stopped and asked the old man "why is that dog moaning and groaning?" To which, the old man replied "because he's laying on a nail". The passerby, not quite able to believe it said "well, why doesn't he get up and move?" The old man responded "because it doesn't hurt bad enough to get up and move".


On the surface that sounds like a story of incredible laziness. But.. what if one's mind is just wired differently? In the eyes of a person with a brain wired correctly, it seems like a rational statement, but not when you're brain is miswired; not if you suffer from ADD (BTW, I do not suffer from ADHD. No hyperactivity, just attention deficit) And so, I wrote an email to request a couple of longer network cables. When they came, I calmly untangled the wires under my desk and plugged them into the phone and now the cables have sufficient slack to put my phone anywhere on my desk. I next tacked my chronically messy desk. I sorted the stacks of papers on my desk, filed everything in its place and cleaned up my top desk drawer. I'll get to the others in due time.


Likewise, when I went home, I tamed the beastly stack of weeks-old mail and magazines from the top of the dresser in my bedroom. Each day, I would check for important mail on top of the stack, but anything unimportant... I would just leave there until the stack was so obnoxious that every couple of months, I'd waste an entire evening sorting and trashing stuff. Now, I have made a stack of magazines and have resolved to skim through one a day and then discard them until the stack is gone.


Returning to the workplace, the quiz I took to determine if I may have ADD ( http://add.about.com/od/evaluationanddiagnosis/a/adultaddsymptom.htm ) mentioned that many people feel completely stressed out, that the world is moving to quickly and that what they may actually be experiencing is undiagnosed ADD. I can complete testify to this. Whenever I worked on one task, I stressed that all my other tasks weren't getting worked on. The bigger the list of tasks became the more I stressed because now I was spending ALL my time analyzing the tasks, trying to determine which was the highest priority. As a result, EVEN LESS would actually get done, intensifying the stress even more. I felt paralysed.


Now.. I am still aware that all of these projects/tasks exist. I also know I can only do so much. I take what I think is the highest priority task and I work on it until it's done, or until somebody decides something else is a higher priority. It such a relief to not feel that self-induced stress anymore.

In short, I would have to say there were a myriad of ways in which I knew I was "deficient" and now those things seem to come easily to me, without effort. In the past I'd either be unaware of them or ignore them with a nagging feeling of guilt.. "but not enough to do something about it."


In the 21 years I've been married, the words my wife (Ramona) said the most to me were not "I love you" but... "you only hear half of what I say". It was true. It was very hard to keep my mind focused on the person in front of me if my mind wanted to be somewhere else. All I can do is thank her profusely for hanging in there with a guy that must have not been too much fun to live with at times. I will make it up to you... I promise.

One last thing I thought was interesting about the conversation with my doctor... I told him that despite the fact that I have a great career and do very well, I have ALWAYS felt like an underachiever. I look at people my age or younger who are CEO's, successful entrepreneurs, governors, congressman, etc and I think to myself "where did I go wrong? I think I am fairly smart guy...what do they know that I don't know?". And I've discovered that in the great competition of the business world, I've been battling with my hands tied behind my back, relative to my comeptitors. At this point, I have no great aspirations, but it IS helpful to finally know the answer to this mystery.


OK, I lied.. one more thing. The medication I am on.. Adderall is a pretty strong appetite suppressant. Today, I ate lunch BECAUSE I know it's important to eat something, but I had absolutely no desire to eat food. I have a feeling there will soon be a lot less of me, and that's OK :) I have a bit of circular question though. If I lose a signficant amount of weight, the first explanation people will come up with is "well, you're on this medication and it causes loss of appetite. Of coure you've lost weight.. you can't help it." They may be right, but, we'll never know if that's the ONLY reason. In other words, I used to spend time on what I wanted to spend time on, oblivious to important but "mundane" things that needed doing. Likewise, if I wanted to eat, I ate. Was it a lack of "will power" or was it my brain simply focusing on what I wanted to do and not caring about the consequences. Interestingly enough, if Adderall had no appetite suppressant to it whatsoever, I think my whole approach to my diet and eating habits would be different now... now that I can think clearly and do what's right, not just want I want to do.

But, I guess we'll never know, because the medicine IS an appetite suppressant, so it will remain a mystery.

If you suffer from the symptoms I mentioned in part one of this note, please take the quiz... a much more satisfying life could be just a doctor's visit away.

Thursday, June 30, 2011

Attention Deficit Disorder and Me.

Back in the seventies, John Denver sang "Rocky Mountain High", which contained the lyrics: "He was born in the summer of his twenty-seventh year, coming home to a place he'd never been before".

I've always understood what those words meant, but from a distance; they weren't personal, until yesterday. At the behest of my wife, I went to see my family physician to see if I indeed suffered from ADD. I took a brief quiz prior to visiting the doctor's office. I sure seemed to have most of the symptoms: frequently losing things (wallet, keys, etc), disorganized, starting projects and not finishing them, etc.

After a semi-lengthy discussion with the doctor and a review of the quiz results, he agreed that I do indeed suffer from a mild case of adult ADD. He prescribed a medication and talked with me about it. He said that unlike heart or blood pressure medication which must be taken daily, I could decide when I needed to take the medication, though never in excess of the prescribed dosage. For example, if I don't need to focus that much on the weekends, no need to take a pill that day.

At any rate, I filled my prescription and took my first pill. Within twenty minutes, life as I knew it changed. And so like the object of the song "Rocky Mountain High", I've been born in the summer of my forty seventh year. Better late than never, I always say.

Tomorrow, I will post some details about how life is different. It is amazing the difference a day (and a pill) can make.

Loving life even more than before,

Joe














Friday, April 15, 2011

Atlas Shrugged Part 1 - Review


I was the second person in line outside theater #13 (?) at the MJR Theater in Sterling Heights, awaiting the 7:20 PM showing of Atlas Shrugged. By the time the film started, I had counted approximately seventy-five people in the audience.

Where to start? First, if you've read the novel, you know that Atlas Shrugged (AS) is a monster-sized novel. over 1,000 pages and the print is small to boot. There's a TON of material in this story. Worse, much of the most meaningful story as told by Rand occurs in the minds of the characters which then explains their actions. This meaningful information is difficult to get out on to the screen.

Secondly, and I may not have every exact detail on this accurate, but.. this movie was allegedly made for ten million dollars, which is to say, next to nothing. The story goes something like this. A group of people including the producer of this movie procured the rights to make the film from the estate of Ayn Rand. How long they had them, I do not know. But supposedly the rights were to expire within a couple of months and if the film had not started, the rights would revert back to the Rand's estate and we'd probably be waiting a few more decades for AS to come to the big screen. So, instead with only a few months to go, a script was written, characters cast and filming began. Both the screenwriter and director are relatively inexperienced.

Even in three parts, AS may prove to be too much material to be adapted to the big screen, at least too much for three parts, if part one is any indication. As I watched the film, my mind was equally focused on two different tasks. Task number one was simply to enjoy the film as a fan of the story. I very much did enjoy the shift in time period to 2016 as opposed to 1950 or so. The second task I tried to keep in mind was watching the movie as if I had not read the book. My recommendation: read the book before seeing the movie. The material is simply doled out so fast that I can't imagine what was going through the minds of viewers who haven't read the book. Clearly at least some of the audience members at my showing had not read the book. This was evident by sincere whispers of "who is that guy?" when clearly the character on the screen was John Galt.

At times the dialogue is a bit contrived, but not too badly. At other times, it matches the book verbatim. And at other times, it is dialogue in the spirit of AS splashed with a hint of the twenty-first century. Random things I noticed... Frisco calling Dagny "Slug" with audience having been given no reason why. It is revealed in the film that as young adults they were lovers. It was not revealed that they had indeed been childhood friends and Slug was Frisco's nickname for Dagny.

I ***VERY MUCH *** like the casting of the characters of Hank Rearden (Grant Bowler), Dagny Taggart (Taylor Schilling) and especially Francisco d'Anconia (Jsu Garcia). Though Bowler makes Rearden more charming and less "intimidating" than the book-version of Rearden, he is still excellent in the role of Rearden. In the case of Taylor Schilling, she does an admirable job portraying Dagny Taggart. That she is extremely attractive certainly didn't hurt the cause. However, at least to my mind's eye, Jsu Garcia's appearance comes the closest to what I expected Francisco d'Anconia to look like (and he's my favorite character from the book as well!). Other characters were nowhere close to what I visualized them as...Ellis Wyatt, nope, Owen Kellog, no way and Paul Larkin.. NOT! Especially troublesome is John Galt himself. While we see him only in the shadows I could tell he's tall and normal-to-a-bit-larger-than-normal build. With Paul Johansson as John Galt, believability could be in doubt in parts 2 and 3. Remember, John Galt is the man whom Dagny has been searching for her whole life.. the man at the end of the railroad tracks. In the book, Galt is very slim and slight in stature (maybe 5' 10", tops. Johansson looks like an NBA-power-forward in a trench coat and hat. How this resolves itself will remain to be seen.

One quirky little minor thing that I really enjoyed was the appearance for all of one minute by Rearden's secretary, Gwen Ives. Her appearance is short but extremely enjoyable. She's like a twenty-something clubber, but very competent in her job and the brief interplay between her and Rearden is cool.

Lastly, the first run of the John Galt Line on the Rio Norte Line is actually quite magnificent, especially when they cross the new, ultra-modern bridge made of Rearden Steel. Dagny is so relieved that the track and bridge held together she gasps and hugs Rearden, which is of course is a harbinger of their activity later that same night.

In the end, AS Part 1, can be in no way a "short cut" to "get" what Rand was trying to say in the book. Rather, I view it more as a visual reward, long over due for those devotees of the book who already "get it" and simply want to give their overworked "mind's eye" a rest. They can finally relax and watch the timeless story retooled for the 21st century. If you've read the book (at least once), you'll enjoy the movie. If not, you may be scratching your head and wondering why this story has such a devoted following.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

The MCTWF 2010 Christmas Party Videos

Well, thanks to "da boss", we finally have some of our Christmas party band performance on YouTube. As the tape is slowly digitized and the links trickle in from YouTube, I'll amend this page so all links are in one location. Enjoy!


U2 - Verigo

The Fray - You Found Me

ColdPlay - Clocks

ColdPlay - Yellow

Cream - White Room

The Allman Brothers Band - Whipping Post

Aaron Evans - Mary Did You Know

Monday, January 3, 2011

Happy New Year!

It's back to work today. First work day of the New Year. I fought vicious "tug-of-war" battle this morning... to get out of bed or to stay in bed. Of course, I lost.

Whatever lingering remnant of holiday/vacation bliss I had was shaken loose upon arriving at work. The typical voice messages, emails, pleas, demands, problems that make up the days of my life were there waiting, as if I had never left.

I've always wondered, from time to time... about the significance of how I spend my life and as I get older, I seem to dwell on this question more and more. I don't have a definitive answer of what I should be doing, only nagging questions about what I am doing.

To make matters worse, I saw one of those year-end recaps on TV where they show all of the celebrities or otherwise notable people that passed away in 2010. Every year the list seems to contain more and more people representing a larger and larger slice of my own life. And naturally, you know where that internal conversation leads...how much time do I have left? What am I doing with it?

One of the things I am trying to do more of from here on out is writing on a more frequent basis. Frankly, that's the reason I am writing this now. I need to write, write, write, every day... something... without fail. Very often, I am sure, it will not be good. That's OK, but I must do it. Who knows, someday something good may come out.

That's all for now... Happy 2011 and may you feel good about how you're spending your days.





Monday, December 13, 2010

Crazy? Really?


Daniel Indiviglio of "The Atlantic" magazine has a piece published today that I read on Yahoo's finance page.

The title of the piece is "Something Republicans and Democrats Agree On: Their Hatred of the Fed".

There's nothing earth-shattering in this article, but there is something with which I take exception:


In other words, a majority of Americans want changes. This goes beyond mere discontent. And this isn't really a political issue. According to the poll, 19% of independents, 16% of Republicans, 12% of Democrats, and 21% of Tea Partiers want the central bank abolished. That last statistic isn't terribly surprising, since one of the Tea Party's favorite politicians, Rep. Ron Paul (R-TX) is arguably the chief Fed opponent in Washington.
Yet the idea that the Fed should be abolished entirely is rather crazy. A complex economy needs a central bank. Some calls for reform could be more legitimate, however.

Hmmm.... The idea that the Fed should be abolished entirely is "rather crazy". Really?

Let's have a look at the history of the Fed, shall we? First of all, the Fed's ORIGINAL purpose was to maintain stable prices and prevent panics, in other words, generally smooth out the ups and downs of the economic cycle.

Price stability: Since it's inception in 1913, prices have increase 19-fold, or 1900 percent. Said another way, the dollar has lost 95 percent (or more) of it's purchasing power. That's not my opinion, that's a fact.

Grade: Complete failure.



Eliminate Panics/Smooth out economic cycles: Since the Fed's inception, we've suffered through a crash in 1920, the mother of all crashes in 1929 and the Great Depression that followed. We've suffered through stagflation in the 70's, Black Monday in the 80's and are currently riding out The Great Recession, as it's been dubbed. These are not my opinions, these are facts.

Grade: Complete failure.

OK, so the Fed was a complete failure on it's original two missions. You'll have to forgive them. You see, these missions are what was told to the public. The real mission of the Fed was to have a never ending money supply so banks can lend money even when nobody is depositing money AND, here's the biggie... to "privatize bank profits and socialize their losses". What does this mean? That when things go well, the banks win and when things go very badly, you lose. Does the term "TARP" ring a bell?

This was in the plans from the beginning, commencing with the Indianapolis Monetary Commission starting around 1870. The goal of the IMC was to convince the public that fiat currency would actually end panics and benefit them. Surprisingly, the most uneducated farmhand in 1870 knew much, much more about the nature of money and how it works than does the average person today. The public was very much against central banks and had a deep mistrust of Washington and Wall Street (sound familiar). The IMC was in the battle for the long haul, however. For decades, willing accomplices in the media printed papers published by the IMC on how things would be much better under a central bank. After decades of being bombarded by these messages, the old skeptics eventually passed away and newer generations were more open to central banking.

In 1910, presidents and vice-presidents of the largest banks in America converged on Jekyll Island, Georgia and began crafting a plan for central banking. Keep in mind that these men were competitors, or at least they had to compete when money was honest. The fruit of their labor became the Federal Reserve Act of 1913, and as I just mentioned earlier, the American tax payer has bailed out the banks. This is not some catastrophe. This was not unforeseen. This was merely part of the plan; the plan was activated and you and I are left with the bill.

Remember that mission about stable prices, one of the Fed's original goals? It may interest you to know that from 1800 until 1913, the consumer price index was zero. That means that money bought the same general basket of goods in 1913 that it did in 1800. Disclosure: There was a central bank in the U.S. until 1811, until it's 20 year charter expired an was not renewed. Incidentally, Andrew Jackson was the president who refused to renew this twenty year charter because he was vehemently opposed to central banking. Today, Jackson's picture appears on the twenty dollar bill. Coincidence? I think somebody in the Fed at some point decided to have a bit of fun at Jackson's expense, replacing Grover Cleveland's face with his in 1928. Jackson actually warned the public about the dangers of paper fiat money in his farewell address to the nation.

But enough history. Back to Mr. Indiviglio.

Sir, are you really telling us, with a straight face, that 113 years of stable prices and far fewer financial crises is "crazy".... and that a 1,900 percent increase in prices and severely deep recessions and depressions are sane?

Really? Really??