Saturday, December 31, 2016

"...And What Have You Done?"

Our kitchen calendar, photo by J. Berta.

Greetings All:

"So this is Christmas and what have you done
Another year over, a new one just begun..."

You may recognize these lyrics from John Lennon and his song "Happy Xmas (War Is Over.)"  Although I normally shut off Christmas music in my car and in my head, I like this song because it has a sense of both reflection and hope.  Reflection for the year gone past and hope for the new year.  

I know for many people 2016 was not a banner year.  There were disappointments, some profound.  Recently, Facebook has become the online funeral home where we have been paying our respects to the celebrities who have left us in the past year.  Of note was the immediate passing of Carrie Fisher and her Mom, Debbie Reynolds.  My friend Alex posted this to Facebook and it is worth posting here:  

Carrie Fisher watching her Mom, Debbie Reynolds, perform on stage, circa early 1960s?  Photo credit is unknown.  Fair use/public domain claimed is respectfully claimed, no commercial use.

And yet, there were moments of joy this year.  For my Chicago Fan friends, over a century of heartbreak ended with an epic victory against an equally-determined Cleveland Indians team.  For many, this the below image will not soon be forgotten.

The image on my T.V. screen after the Cubs won the World Series.  Photo by J. Berta.

For me, this year's highs and lows came within a week of each other.  My Dad was diagnosed with blood in his brain and required emergency surgery.  Fast-forward two weeks later and he's back up and moving around, with the staples removed (from his skull) and no worse for wear.  At the hospital, shortly after the doctors explained his condition, they marveled at how high functioning he was with that much internal bleeding.  I commented:  "Gentlemen, this man survived Hitler and Stalin.  Do you think some internal bleeding is going to slow him down?"

Of course, I was making light of an incredibly serious, potentially fatal situation.  I am beyond grateful for both the health-care professionals AND his friends and patrons who mentioned to me that Dad was, "...just not himself."  

So as this year comes to an end, it is appropriate to reflect upon it.  It is also fine, normal actually, to look to the year ahead.  It will be interesting, that is a certainty.

As for ourselves, we may be tempted to pursue resolutions.  I am not against them in the least.  I just happen to believe that they are folly and a fool's errand for they never last.  Unless you are willing to change habits, then all the good intentions are meaningless.  Case in point:  Go to any gym the first few weeks of January and good luck finding a machine.  Show up in early February and you'll have your pick of the place.  It's just human nature.

If one is interested in some degree of self-improvement this coming year (and I include myself with that ambition) then I'd suggest looking at goal-setting.  The difference, in my opinion, between resolutions and goal setting is that while a resolution is an aspiration ("I'm going to lose weight this year!") goal-setting involves a plan to accomplish the goal of "I am going to lose five pounds by St. Patrick's Day."  

I highly recommend Vic Johnson's book,  The Thirteen Secrets of World Class Achievers.  I first listened to the audio book and liked it so much, I got it in book form.  You can order it here from Amazon.

Whatever 2017 holds for you, I hope it is full of joy and satisfaction.  I am certain it will have its challenges.  That is OK.  Without challenges, life would be dull, painfully so.  I'll leave you with another set of Mr. Lennon's lyrics.  Its the best final holiday season wish I can think of:

"A very merry Christmas and a happy new year
Let's hope it's a good one without any fear."

Be well my friends...and Happy New Year!

Sunday, December 25, 2016

Be of Good Cheer

Two faiths, one family, my house, Hanukkah/Christmas 2016.  Photo by J. Berta  

Greetings All:

Today is Christmas.  Last night was the first night of Hanukkah.  We had friends over and a great meal and great company.  The dreidel spun and gelt was won and lost.  Then, as we were asleep Santa came, bringing gifts and joy...and Cassie a most unique and appropriate mug.

This is going to be a shorter blog post.  I just want to say to everyone, enjoy the day, the season.  You have the right to "be of good cheer."  

For some, that may be a challenge.  If you are suffering from illness or illness in your family, I can appreciate your a point.  My Dad had brain surgery last week to deal with some (a lot) of internal bleeding.  He's doing just fine now, all things considered.   I'm in debt to the health care providers who took care of him and his friends who noticed something was not quite right with him.  

So I suppose my suggestion to "be of good cheer" is easy for me to say since I have much to be cheerful about and for.  I am aware of how fortunate I am for my particular set of circumstances and others may say, "Thanks for the suggestion, but you don't know me or my world."

Fair enough.  And I do not mean to push the issue but I will say this:  For those who are still reeling from the election results, you absolutely have the right to NOT care about it, at least for today.  What is done is done and you should focus on fun and joyful things.

To you I say, I offer the sincere suggestion:  "Be of good cheer." 

"The Carol of The Bells" is one of my favorite carols.  The opening lyrics are:

"Hark how the bells,
Sweet silver bells,
All seem to say,
Throw cares away
Christmas is here,
Bringing good cheer,
To young and old,
Meek and the bold."

Here's a link to version with the lyrics being sung.George Winston is without question my favorite pianist (I know, I know, some of you will say:  "Come on, Jeno, how many pianist do you even know?  Cut me some slack, please, it's Christmas.)  Here's his version.

In about an hour, I will join my Dad for Mass.  I'm not likely to win any awards for Mass attendance but for today, I will be an active participant.  I'll even sing (off-key) and take in the season.  I'll do my best not to think about how Christmas coincides close to the Winter Solstice and might have been a recruitment tool.  Nope, today I accept and believe the central truth of Christmas:  God loved us and sent his son.  Mary was his mother and Joseph was a father in a most real sense.  It is a time to be thankful, of being joyful.

Today, maybe we can't throw our cares away.  But let's at least put them in a box and throw it in the garage.  It will be there tomorrow.

Happy Hanukkah & Merry Christmas to all. of good cheer my friends. :)



Sunday, December 18, 2016

Crime Never Pays (enough)

My 22 year old briefcase.  Photo by J. Berta

“A lawyer with a briefcase can steal more than a thousand men with guns.”

Greetings All:

If you've seen the movie, The Godfather, Mario Puzo's epic (and ultimately tragic) story, you may recall this opening line.  Don Vito Corleone says it not with anger but with a shrug, as if acknowledging rain is wet.  As a practicing attorney for two plus decades, I've always stood at the intersection of amusement and regret for the actions of some of my "colleagues" in the legal profession.  While most of us work hard and are honorable, there are those who view bar membership as a license to steal.

I'm a fan of the news service Flipboard.  It's a way to get customized news and read it on your phone by "flipping" thru stories.  I think it is pretty cool and they cover a wide range of topics.  This morning, I read, "The Psychology of White-Collar Criminals."  It was re-published (I presume with permission) from The Atlantic.  Eugene Soltes writes a terrific story about how those who, on the surface, were the epitome of success and respectability, were simply criminals.  I particularly like this line from Soltes story:

"At first, I was struck by their lack of remorse regarding either their actions or the harm those actions had caused. One executive even joked with me about how he’d been practicing with his $1,000-an-hour lawyer to convincingly, albeit falsely, express regret during his upcoming parole hearing. Troublingly, those who received lenient sentences for testifying against others often told me stories that differed from their sworn testimony."

I encourage you to read this story.  Here's the link. 

From Enron to WorldCom to Tyco to "fill in the blank" there have been epic examples of business tycoons who simply decided to break the law in order to achieve (or attempt to) achieve their goals.  One of the more more brazen that comes to mind is John DeLorean.  He was a car executive whose car was featured in the "Back to the Future" movie.  He also was arrested in 1982 of attempting to distribute 55 pounds of cocaine with a street value of $24 million dollars.  Here's a story on him from The History Channel. 

The Delorean DMC-12, from Wikipedia, Fair Use Claimed, link to photo here.

DeLorean's story reads like a crime novel.   Maverick car exec runs into obstacle after obstacle and turns to crime to keep his company afloat.  Although he was acquitted on the cocaine charges, he could not escape the civil consequences of his actions.  

How's the story ends?  Epic failure.  Ryan Holiday discusses DeLorean's crash into the guardrail of life vividly in his book, Ego is the Enemy."  Here's a super snippet of his take on this sad tale from Nir Eyal's blog, Nir and Far.

So why do people do such stupid things?  Why do people who have so much engage in crime to get more?  I suppose it is ego.  I also think there is a heaping side order scoop of justification.  The dreaded "ends justify the means."  

Yeah, tell it to the judge.

And it is tragic.  Because in the end, it will never, ever be enough.  The fame, the wealth, the covers of Forbes or the 20 minute prime time interviews.  It all dissolves, like ice in March, first a slow drip, then a puddle, then nothing but cold cement.

But there is some good news.  There are those out there who are hitting the cover off the ball in business and are doing it right.  From Tim Ferriss to Elon Musk, there are plenty of wildly successful (in the purest capitalistic sense) and still not wrapped up in the trapping of wealth and status.

Then there is perhaps the best example for the post:  Gary Vaynerchuk.  Here is a link to his website.  Here is a guy who rarely wears a suit yet is all about hustle.  I so admire him for not only what he has done but the way he has gone about it.  He is profane and direct in a way that could easily put off those of us in (frozen) flyover country.  I gently advise:  Get over it and listen to him IF you're looking for more out of your commercial endeavors.  He has a YouTube show, DailyVee.  If you watch just one of his videos, check out episode 101 here.

This is a guy who made it truly on his own...and his own terms.  He offers the way, the path.  He just won't walk it for you.  Sounds like a fair deal to me.

And I suppose my point is that when you look at a guy like Vaynerchuk you see someone who profanely renounces those things that ultimately trapped and snared the "subjects" in Soltes' article.  The cynics might say it's part of his act, his shtick.  I'd argue it's his suit of the form of a t-shirt.

The briefcase I featured in the opening photo is one dear friends gave me when I graduated law school.  Although it's not my primary "go to" court bag, I'm glad to still have it around.  And I'm also glad I can say it has never been involved in anything remotely related to the type of crimes The Don was referencing.  

When thinking back on the article that inspired this blog post, I think that the greatest "crime" perpetrated by those "white collar" criminals was not what sent them to prison and banished them from their current gilded age.  No, it was something else.

They all had talent, and drive, and hustle, and vision and work ethic and all the things we want, we demand in successful people.  Yet they did not have (or perhaps lost is a more accurate description) their own internal compass of right and wrong.  And that is a crime for which they will all serve a life sentence.

The Stoic and Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius said it best:  (And thanks to Nir Eyal quoting it in his above-mentioned blog post:)

"It can ruin your life only if it ruins your character."

Be well my friends,

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

On Heroes...and Their Perils

John Glenn in his Mercury Rocket spacesuit, public domain from Wilipedia.

Greetings All:

A few days ago, Senator John Glenn passed away.  He was 95 and to put it mildly, had lived an amazing life.  This son of Ohio became a true son of America.  Raised in a small town, steeled in adversary through The Great Depression, he went on to fly combat missions in both WWII and Korea.  A test pilot, he grabbed the brass ring of the early astronaut program.  Yet it was there where he had his most bitter disappointment.  He wanted to be the first man in space (well, for the good guys at least.  I think the Soviets beat us to that punch).  It didn't happen.  However, he did get a nice parting gift:  Being able to orbit the Earth three times in 1962.

There have been chorus of obituaries sung to his life, his accomplishments, and rightfully so.  Here is a link to my favorite one from The Pittsburgh Post Gazette, "Godspeed John Glenn."  I will not hesitate to call him a hero, especially in the American sense of the word. 

Glenn's parade after his 1962 orbit, public domain, from Wikipedia.

Yet even John Glenn's life did not have that storybook ending.  His bid for President in 1984 (an election I am proud to say I volunteered for in 1983 as a kid) ended early.  Then there was the Charles Keating scandal where Senator Glenn, along with four (I believe) other Senators met with a savings and loan executive whose intentions were far from pure.  As an aside, this would be such a small and laughable scandal by (ahem) today's standards, but it devastated him.  

As I was working on this post, I thought about the hauntingly accurate quote from F. Scott Fitzgerald:  "Show me a hero and I'll write you a tragedy."  Sadly, there's a bunch of truth to those lines he scribbled in his notebook.  (For those of you who want to jump in the deep end of the pool, here's a link to a short, yet thought-provoking article on Aristotle's definition of a hero.)  

My point is this:  Often times those we elevate to hero status either:  

A., Did not want it in the first place; 
B. Realized after they had achieved such a status it caused more grief than joy; 
C.  That heroism, like most bright and shiny objects, fade over time, leaving the owner feeling sad and unappreciated; and
D.  All of the above.

If you picked D., DING-DING-DING-DING!!!  You're correct.

One of my personal heroes is Raoul Wallenberg.  I've written and spoken about him in the past.  In summary, he was a Swedish diplomat who in Hungary in 1994 and early 1945 saved thousands of Jews from almost certain death.

His reward?  He died in Soviet captivity.  The Soviets did not buy his "mercy mission" story.  They thought he was an American spy and were NOT going to allow him to be available to impede their grand plans for post-war Eastern Europe.  

Photo of Raoul Wallenberg, public domain, Wikipedia.

I encourage everyone to learn more about his story.  Here are a couple of links to his life story at Wikipedia ( please don't judge, it's accurate, IMHO) and The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.

Sometimes heroes suffer a fate not even fitting for a villain. 
Here is another example, more recent and far less tragic.  Last week, euphoria broke out across wide spaces of social media with the announcement that President-elect Trump had selected Retired General James "Mad Dog" Mattis for his Secretary of Defense.  GEN Mattis is beloved by Marines for his four-plus decades of service to the nation and The Corps.  Others, myself included, deeply admire both his warrior skills and his deep intellect.  As Ryan Holiday wrote in his book, The Daily Stoic, Mattis carried a copy of Marcus Aurelius' Meditations with him on his many combat deployments.

He's known for his salty language, such gems as:  

"Be polite, be professional and have a plan to kill everyone you meet."

And my personal favorite:  "I come in peace.  I didn't bring artillery.  But I'm pleading with you, with tears in my eyes:  If you fuck with me, I'll kill you all."  (Source, Politico)

Yes, The General has a way with words.  And it is easy to see why he is beloved by his Marines and many others.  Yet he has his critics.  Retired Army Lieutenant Colonel Jason Amerine has leveled a most damning charge against General Mattis:  That he failed to send assistance to his men while in need.  In short:  Mad Dog left men to die in the field.  You can read the story here.  

There was an investigation and no wrongdoing was found.  Mattis was subsequently promoted three more times and selected for Central Command/CENTCOM.  If there had been any grave errors on his behalf, it would have certainly come out along the way.

Not that it does not weigh on him, I suppose.  I did not know that after retiring Mattis visited graves and the families of the fallen.  This was done out of the glare of the media and on his own dime.   Here's a link to a story ABC News did on this trip.

I suspect that GEN Mattis does not consider himself a hero.  He's a Marine, a leader, a scholar and the Secretary of Defense Nominee.  His record of service is extraordinary and worthy of high praise.   Yet I would caution anyone who would place him upon the mantle or pedestal for his exploits.  

And I level this admonition particularly at any of those "Call of Duty" game console warriors out there.  The saber rattlers who have never spent a day in uniform are also included.  There's an old Texas saying I recently learned:  "The littlest dog barks the loudest."  It is particularly applicable at those who are so giddy to go off to war yet have no clue as to the true and brutally high costs of it.  

Yes, Mattis' exploits have heroic tendencies.   However, these tendencies, however nobly undertaken and free of any culpability for fatalities under command still have death attached to them.  Death of our enemies and death of our fellow countrymen.  

Mattis understands this better than almost anyone.  He also knows that while it is a heart-breakingly high price to pay, it is better than the alternative, as eluded to in the below photo.

A quote and photo of GEN Mattis, from Facebook, public domain/fair use claimed.

My point with this post is this:  Yes, let us celebrate those among us who have done things, brave and noble, worthy of acclaim.  Yet let us also be wary of elevating any person especially while possessed of life and power to "hero" status.  When we do, we're allowing someone else to solve our problems or be so much bigger and better than us that we're off the hook.  "I'm not as _____ as _____, the hero, so why even try?"  The answer is we should try because within all of us is the potential to act heroic.  

And there is no peril is aspiring to that goal.

R.I.P. Senator Glenn.  As I mentioned on Facebook Friday night, while the view you had in 1962 was terrific, something tells me the view you're currently enjoying is simply spectacular.  

Be well my friends,