Thursday, December 3, 2009

144. Decade challenging, rewarding

I watched "Scrooged" last night with my wife, a movie which can certainly make one start to think about his or her own life. I have also been reading about "people of the decade," and can hardly believe that the first decade of the 21st century is already coming to an end.

I remember the 1990s in two parts. The first part I spent finishing my undergraduate degree, and while I was also working full time-it was a security job, whose only burden was the third shift hours. But any trouble this may have been was offset by the free time I spent playing both baseball and racquetball, traveling the country with friends and teammates-having a great time.

The second half of the 1990s was spent meeting, dating and marrying my wife. As most will remember-it is among the best years of your life. We went to racquetball tournaments together, spent the summers watching Indians baseball, going to movies and plays, and took vacation/weekend trips we could not afford. We were on the poor side-heavy credit card debt, living in a mobile home-but we had fun, with few worries and lots of laughs.

This decade, however, has been the polar opposite. It has been about work and school and doing the things, that, well, I probably should have been doing in the 1990s.

In February of 2000, we moved into our new house, and while excited, we faced the American responsibility of a mortgage and taxes and insurance, and everything else associated with owning a home. That excitement was mellowed with the declining health of my father. I coached baseball that spring at Keystone High School, but recall the burden of wanting to spend time with our new home and trying to make the trip to the Cleveland Clinic to see my ailing father. He passed away in June of that year, without ever seeing me coach, read a column, or attend my graduation. He saw my new house only once. One of my last memories with my father was sitting in hospital room watching the Browns beat New Orleans for their first win in their return to the NFL.

In September of 2000, I started my MBA program. From 2000-2002, my routine was consistent-work all day, school all evening. I specifically recall a dinner with my wife at a point where she knew I was overwhelmed-she said, "You just get through this, I'll take care everything else." It provided me with inspiration I needed. When I finished my MBA, I said the same thing that I said when I finished my bachelor's degree, "That is the last class I will ever take."

In 2002 we still faced heavy debt, as the MBA did not have the immediate payoff that I had hoped. I coached baseball again that spring, this time at Lake Ridge Academy. In early 2003, I entered the Nursing Home Administration intern program-working with a woman that I met in my MBA program. The internship paid next to nothing, so I worked a second full time job at May Credit-sometimes until 3:00 am. In between, I worked a third job at Five Season Country Club, part-time, just to get through it. I knew healthcare was an up and coming field and was likely to offer more opportunity that manufacturing. Until now, however, I thought that was the most difficult time of my life. I hardly saw my wife, and we rented out rooms in our house to my friend and my brother just to make ends meet.

In October 2003, the internship ended and I started substitute teaching in Lorain, while still working at May Credit. In November, the nursing home I had worked for had an interim administrator opening in Toledo and asked if I was interested. It was a "real" job again-even if it was only temporary and even if it was in Toledo. I kept my job at May Credit however, because I knew this was an interim position and I had yet to hear whether or not I had passed my licensing exam.

I started writing for the Amherst News-Times in August 2003. I remember my first column-I was away from home, staying in an interesting $25 per night room in Columbus. We spent our last dime-even once having my debit card for the room refused-getting me through the required "Executive Education" course at Ohio State. My wife called me to tell me my first story had run.

In December, I learned that I had passed my test. I was stuck in a snowstorm in Toledo when my wife called and asked how this room was. She simply said, "Is it nice enough for a licensed nursing home administrator?"

In 2004, the nursing home offered me a job closer to home in Milan-but there was still uncertainty about my position. The days were long and difficult, the pay still wasn't that great, and so I kept my May Credit job. I applied for many other administrator positions, but the competition turned out to be steeper that I had realized-many of the people also had master's degree and had spent their entire professional lives in nursing homes.

I entered the Leadership Lorain County program in September of 2004 looking for a bit of a competitive advantage and had a professional awakening-learning about Lorain County, meeting new people.

Finally, in 2005, my hard work paid off when I was offered a job at the Alcohol and Drug Addiction Services Board of Lorain County. I had a job close to home, relatively secure, that I found to be rewarding. Later in 2005, I heard that my job at May Credit would be coming to an end-the company had been bought out. I kept this job until it was officially closed in early 2006.

In 2006, I spent my free time as president of the Center For Inquiry of Northeast Ohio. It was an overwhelming task which not only took every bit of free time that I had finally spared with the end of my second job, it also took most of my wife's free time-but at least we were finally seeing each other again.

Then, in 2007, I made the decision to go back to school, for one final time-this time law school. I felt that professionally, to achieve some of my goals, I needed this additional education. In 2008, we spent our tax return to fly me out to California to take the required "Baby Bar."

This year, however, has been, without a doubt, the most challenging of my life. I began freelancing with The Chronicle Telegram in February to help pay for some of the costs of going to law school. I've enjoyed the experience meeting and learning about the people of Lorain County-but it has taken a toll. With six law school classes, and my job at the Alcohol and Drug Board, I barely have a moment to breath.

This decade has been a whirlwind, and while there has been some professional progress, my health has become dismal-and without a new focus, this hard work will have been for nothing. And my poor wife . . . what she has endured-the ups and downs, the new endeavors. I can't imagine trying to have gone through this without her.

In addition to the hard work, I'll remember the decade in many other ways. I became involved in politics, moving left in becoming a Democrat and a vegetarian, and joining several political and community organizations like the Lorain County Solid Waste Policy Committee, Lorain Family YMCA, American Civil Liberties Union and American Constitutional Society. I'll remember the elections of George Bush and Barack Obama, and the terrorists attacks, wars and country's economic meltdown. Finally, I'll not forget the personal moments, such as my wife's miscarriage, the loss of my wife's father and death of our dear dog, Shea.

Goals for the next decade include finishing law school and passing the bar. I also want to write a book or two. But, more importantly, I want to have more free time, and time to take better care of myself. I want to play racquetball again, this time just for fun. I also would like to play golf, and maybe softball. I would like to spend more time with friends and family-relaxed, taking the intensity down a level or two. And I want to be there more for my wife and our dogs-they deserve it.

Consider this a toast to the holiday season and a new decade. What goals do you have, what is on your bucket list-what will the ghosts of Christmas future bring you?

Thursday, November 5, 2009

143. Issues were decided by marketing

A few post election thoughts.

As expected, Issue 2 passed and is now engrained in the Ohio Constitution. With the farmers raising four million dollars and the opposition barely scrapping up enough for a few door hangers, the result offers a peak into modern American democracy.

Although those of us in opposition did everything we could in terms of sending emails and using social networking to speak out against it, the sad fact is that as long as Americans remain disengaged in the democratic process, things like this will continue to happen. Without researching the issue further, many Ohioans were subject to marketing ploys that included keeping "outsiders" or "radical" groups out and bipartisan "robo" calls from Governor Ted Strickland and U.S. Senator George Voinovich.

This was bad government pandering to corporate interest-and the truth is that people just did not understand. What happened to the small government people, the people who do not trust large corporations, the people who want to protect the state constitution, and the people who like animals? Republicans and Democrats alike, this should have been very easy to defeat.

In my many discussions on the subject, I heard a few things that surprised me. First, many people do not understand what a big business factory farming really is. There was a continued misperception that local famers represented the farming industry. Many small farming organizations/unions opposed Issue 2. Factory farmers are a powerful political group dedicated to profit above anything else-which includes your health and the welfare of their animals.

Secondly, I did not realize the prejudice there is against vegetarians and animal groups. Some people relished in the opportunity to "stick it" those who think that animals should a decent life before ending up on a dinner plate. Few had actually read Proposition 2 that received overwhelming support in California-but they were determined to defeat it before it got started.

Then there were the absurd, arguments that had no basis in reality. One person told me that chickens have more room than children in classrooms. Another told me that if this failed, eggs would go up to $12 a dozen. And, then, there was the nearly incomprehensible response from Representative Boose, who, of course, said the issue was about taxes. If this issue had anything to do with taxes, those in the state legislature that supported for that reason ought to resign from office for deceptively misrepresenting a constitutional amendment to the public. The aim presented to the public was the creation of a "standards board." The reasons presented were safety and the fear of "radical" animal groups. The motive was clearly profit.

The surprising reality of the situation is that this does not prevent reform of the farming industry. The Humans Society of the United States did not spend money in opposition because a new amendment, one that includes actual farming standards, can just as easily be proposed to the voters of the state in a year or two. In the end, the whole thing was ridiculous.

I was not surprised that Issue 3 passed. It was only a matter of time and this seemed to be the best proposal presented thus far. Too many manufacturing jobs have been forever lost and the state needed to find new job opportunities. If money was going to be spent by Ohioans on gambling, it is probably best that it is spent here. I do fear that gambling problems will ensue, and it is usually the poor that is enticed to gamble away a rent payment.

Conversely, I was a bit surprised that Issue 4 failed. It is true, however, that many people are still feeling the effects of the recession and just do not have the money to support any tax increase. Yet, this issue was geared at safety and failure means that citizens of Lorain County will continue to feel the effects of reduced safety forces (and other social services). It's unfortunate that we have to choose between low taxes (which Lorain County has) and safety. I thought the tax was fair, since it was a sales tax, but many people are now against all taxes.

In local races, I was disappointed that several political offices ran nearly unopposed. Voters cannot have it both ways, they cannot continue to fight everything local politicians are trying to do, and then vote them back into office year after year.

Voters need to step up and be accountable-they need to understand the issues, question candidates on their values, and get involved in politics. Do not let issues be won be on the basis of money or slick marketing campaigns. Government belongs to us only if we understand it, and participate in it. Our democracy depends on it.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

142. Republican Party schizophrenic

Undeniably, Jesus would be a socialist.

In the Gospels Mathew, Mark and Luke, Jesus is quoted to the effect, "If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me."

This unselfish perspective is at the heart of the unusual marriage created by the Republican Party-that of fiscal conservatives and social conservatives.

Fiscal Conservatives believe in capitalism through free trade and a small government, one that carefully manages the deficit. At the heart of this mind set is every man for themselves-the free market. There is little sympathy for the lower classes and social services-"work harder" is their mantra. President Reagan, a proclaimed fiscal conservative, worked emphatically to lower the taxes on the rich from 70 percent to 28 percent in seven years. He spoke of "trickle down," but what he ensured was more for the wealthy. When the government runs out of tax revenue, social services are cut-if you don't like it, get a job you bum.

Conversely, social conservatives have traditional values-often based on religion. They generally vehemently oppose abortion and same sex marriage. They promote public morality, exemplified in censorship and the death penalty. If they are truly socially conservative, in tune with the teaching of Jesus, they should favor social programs that engage in a humanitarian effort. It is about living one's life morally, giving away more than you keep, and reaping the ultimate prize-spending eternity in Heaven.

So how is it that these two groups have come together to form what is today the Republican Party? Why is it that social conservatives are willing to sacrifice their values of the rich helping the poor-through social programs like Medicare, welfare, unemployment, fair wages, unionization and health insurance-in adopting the economic system of the fiscal conservatives?

Jesus certainly would not approve of the corruption that takes place in capitalism, the "greed is good" in producing shareholder wealth mentality. Jesus would not approve of the destruction of lives, the foreclosure of homes, and the lack of healthcare that occurs as a result of Wall Street's thirst for profits. Presented with that alternative, Jesus would have been a socialist, I am quite sure.

I have often said to poor social conservatives that the Republican Party does not represent your economic interest. I think that most fiscal conservatives could not care less about abortion and gay marriage. It is a distraction that they use and something they wear on their sleeves to bring along the social conservative voters in order to get elected. They care about money, first and foremost, and will do whatever it takes-including selling the American dream-in order to make sure they can keep their money away from the government, and subsequently those in need. Think about the 2004 election when gay marriage brought out lots of social conservatives, despite the fact that party leader, Vice President Cheney, had a gay daughter. Fiscal conservatives played social conservatives like a fiddle.

In reality, social conservatives should create their own political party, combining the economic values of the Democrats with the current social values of Republicans. Democrats believe in making the government as large as necessary to provide necessary social services. However, Democrats, particularly liberal Democrats, will never engage in the censorship and discrimination that encompasses the traditional values of the social conservatives. And fiscal conservatives have no particular interest in providing for the poor-"sharing the wealth," as President Obama famously called it.

The difference in party economic interests is exemplified in the current government deficit debate. Fiscal conservatives were willing to run up large debt during the war, in order to protect their economic interest (terrorist attacks crash stock markets). Conversely, liberals seem willing, if necessary, to run up a deficit in order to provide healthcare for everyone.

Conflicting interest is also marked within the Republican Party itself on the subject of illegal immigration. Fiscal conservatives enjoy the cheap labor but cannot stand the idea of paying for their healthcare. Social conservatives often engage in the discrimination of other groups, but must surely feel a humanitarian responsibility.

Presently, what it comes down to is that social conservatives, when it comes to American politics, do not have a home. They have to either sell out their economic or social interest.

Maybe it is time for social conservatives to identify themselves, break ranks, and ask, "What would Jesus do"?

141. Issue 2 not about animal rights

The passage of Issue 2 this November would create a "Livestock Care Standards Board," which shall have, "authority to establish standards governing the care and well-being of livestock and poultry in this state."

At first read, Issue 2 doesn't sound like such a bad idea, and the literature and commercials supporting it are sure to be warm and fuzzy. Unfortunately, underneath the surface, there are problems-several of them.

At the heart of the proposal is the deception and lack of integrity that has been brought forward by the factory farmers and state legislature. Placing the Issue on the ballot as a constitutional amendment is clearly a preempted move to prevent the animal compassion movement that has changed the laws in several states-most notably in California last year.

Ohio Against Constitutional Takeover (OhioACT) agrees, "While masquerading as an attempt to improve food safety and animal welfare, Issue 2 in reality is an attempt by big industry to preempt statewide initiatives like the most recent Proposition 2 in California, which phased out problematic animals production practices like battery cages for chickens."

For the factory farmers and state legislators, it is an act of cowardice, and a classic case of bait and switch. At first glance, the issue seems to be about animal care-people might assume that the "standards" will be favorable to animals. It is not, it is about money. It is about state-sponsored corporate greed, and every legislature that voted for this, and governor who signed it, ought to be ashamed.

The Cleveland Plain Dealer is one of several Ohio newspapers that smell a rat, "No sooner did the livestock measure surface than Gov. Ted Strickland irresponsibly endorsed it. There seems to be more going on here than meets the eye -- but more than enough that meets the nose. The amendment and the "process" that produced it invite a pungent description."

Another problem, being fought by OhioACT, is that this is a constitutional amendment at all. As the group explains, "The Livestock Care Standards Board, once cemented into the state constitution, would have the power to override any act by the Ohio Department of Agriculture, or any initiative or referendum brought before the Ohio public, other than another constitutional amendment."

The Columbus Dispatch agrees, "The Ohio Constitution is not the appropriate vehicle for determining how the state should regulate the care of livestock. Yet political interests continue to try to amend that venerable document to push their agendas. The agriculture lobby, with a proposed constitutional amendment to create a statewide board to set care standards for livestock, is just the latest."

The issue would give "exclusive authority" to the Board, which could ignore public opinion. The Plain Dealer further notes, "But at its most damaging, the proposed Ohio Livestock Care Standards Board would pre-empt real Statehouse debate on farm animal standards."

Of the thirteen board members, ten members would be appointed by the governor and another two appointed by the state legislatures. There would be no election of members, like, for example, those that are elected to serve on the Ohio School Board. Three seats on the board are reserved for family farmers and one is reserved for a county human officer, but there is nowhere near the representation that would be required to influence the standards or represent the public.

A third problem is that the Issue would actually harm small farmers because the standards would inevitably favor the large factory farms-the only ones that are really supporting it. The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) states that, "Issue 2 is opposed by the Ohio Farmers Union, the Ohio Environmental Stewardship Alliance, League of Women Voters of Ohio, and the Ohio Sierra Club." Furthermore, OhioACTS notes that "Ohio has a disconcerting number of factory farms-and that number could increase if an industry-based Board decides to ease regulations on animal production."

The Columbus Dispatch immediately picked up on the hypocrisy, "Farmers aren't typically eager for more government regulation, but the proposed board is an attempt to avoid rules they would like even less: a state law banning common practices that confine pigs, chickens, veal calves and other animals in tight spaces."

Despite the outrage, the issue, according to Paul Sharpiro of the HSUS, is likely to pass, "All of that said, unless there's a group willing to spend tens of millions of dollars over the next month, Issue 2 is very likely to pass by wide margins. The agriculture lobby will certainly be running millions of dollars in advertisement (they claim about five million)."

It is interesting that the factory farmers and the Ohio Farm Bureau Federation have five million dollars sitting around to ensure that they can continue to abuse animals for corporate profits. What they are betting on is an easily-influenced and uninformed public. For them, I am sure that it is worth the investment-compassion would cost them much more. Please vote No on Issue 2.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

140. American capitalism is broken

Although I will, I don't need to see Michael Moore's new movie on capitalism to suggest what I already know: the American version of capitalism is broken.

What has become increasingly clear. . . the one common link to most problems in this country, from the banking industry and Wall Street, to the mistreatment of animals on farms, outsourcing of American labor, political corruption, the war in Iraq, illegal and legal immigration, and, yes, healthcare, is the corruption of capitalism.

Self-interest, greed, corruption and oppression have become capitalistic principles rather than abuses and exceptions.

It is amazing that people remain unable to make the connection. Opposed to American jobs being shipped to China-that's capitalism. Upset that the Indians had to trade C.C. Sabathia and Cliff Lee, declaring bankruptcy because you can't afford your medical bills, or think it's unfair that illegal aliens are here taking American jobs-that's capitalism. Think that the college football "Bowl Championship Series" is absurd, compassionate enough to think animals should have room to turn around in their cages, or had to close your small business because Wall-Mart moved to town-well, that's capitalism too.

One percent of the population continues to own as much as the bottom 95% of Americans combined; CEOs make 550 times that of their lowest paid workers. Yet, the American dream is sold to the public and its people, who ferociously defend the system. It is a system, as presently applied, that keeps the very wealthy, well, very wealthy.

Somehow, people who make $50,000 or $100,000 think this is a great economic system, they think they have "made it," that thanks to capitalism their "hard work" has paid off. The top one percent must just sit back and laugh when they see these people at town hall meetings fighting against "socialized medicine" or "entitlement programs." They are fighting their battle for them. They have been successful in marketing capitalism as patriotic as baseball and apple pie.

Not only have the very wealthy succeeded in balancing that fine line that gives the middle class just enough to keep them from uprising, they have succeeded in convincing the middle class to defend the system that allows this to happen.

Pure capitalism can work, and should work. However, it needs to be just that, pure. Capitalistic interest must be removed from our political system. Lobbyists and political contributions must be dismissed as a controlling influence on our political officials. Government rules and regulations have thus far been a pathetic attempt to curtail abuse-the wealthy are adept at finding loopholes. Bailouts should be unconscionable interference, however, capitalistic endeavors have put the country's fate in the hands of a few mega-corporations-whose failures would ruin the lives of millions of Americans.

In the current debate, it is the blatant failure of capitalism that provides the basis for the consideration of government-run healthcare. Any discussion on health care reform must start here. Insurance companies, Wall Street and corporations have nobody else to blame but themselves. They are the ones that have established the current system of healthcare in this country-one that is obsessed with profits and greed. It is a system that denies coverage to millions, one that is laden with fraud, theft and millions spent on self-preservation.

However, even today, they are the ones laughing as fiscal conservatives fight their battle. They are smoking cigars and toasting those who have been obsessively distracted by things such as deficits, illegal aliens, tort reform, abortion, and government inefficiencies. It's not that these things are not important, or don't matter, because they are very important. It is that people are acting on behalf of the insurance companies, pharmaceutical companies and other interested parties-and their arguments are smoldering in hypocrisy.

I learned all about shareholder wealth, market economies and the other arguments for capitalism while I was earning my MBA. However, I stopped drinking the Kool-Aid to see things as they really are. Maybe, someday, Americans will also put down their drink. Pure capitalism can work; our system is corrupt and oppressive. Unfortunately, that is no longer just an opinion.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

139. Express yourself in 140 characters

I often wondered why anyone would care what I was doing. Unable to answer that question, not only for myself, but nearly everyone else, I did not understand what was so exciting about "Twitter," one of the latest technological phenomenons. My opinion was somewhat confirmed by SuperNews!, who satirized Twitter as an addiction to "constant self-affirmation" and said tweets were nothing more than "shouts into the darkness hoping someone is listening." This addiction has even lead friends to ask each other to stop twittering things like what they had for lunch.

Still, I thought there must be something to it. Like MySpace, Face Book. LinkedIn and the other social networks, it had caught on like gangbusters. The only thing that even offered a semblance of making sense was the fact that I noticed that most people, within a moment or two of answering their cell phone, ask the caller, "Where you at?" It later became a slogan for one of the cell phone companies, and now is at least somewhat related to the twitter question, "What are you doing?"

So, I wandered over to the website, signed up in three easy steps, and answered the question, "What are you doing?" At the time, I was on my way to my niece's graduation party, and answered the question appropriately and honestly. But I again thought...who really cares. For although I was quite excited about her party, most anyone that would care what I was doing-knew what I was doing, because, well, they were doing the same thing.

The premise of twitter is not only to "tweet" what you are doing from time to time, but to also "follow" those people that you might care to know what they are doing. In fact, this is the reason that most people join- to follow their friends, the news, social organizations, sports teams or famous people.

In that respect, Twitter is more than just, "What are you doing?" It is a combination instant/text messaging and email-available by computer or phone-to potentially millions of people. Moreover, these people, these followers, have decided that they want to hear your tweet (rather than the random folks I bother with emails).

Twitter is now used by newspapers and media to provide updates of new events; it is also used as a news reporting system-as we saw in the election in Iran. It is also used for political news; it is regularly used by Sarah Palin- and Barack Obama used to it to announce his Vice-Presidential candidate Joe Biden. For those who like stars, many actors and actresses use twitter, most famously Ashton Kutcher-who has over two million followers. Athletes use it, including the Cavaliers' Mo Williams and Shaquille O'Neal, to communicate with their fans. Finally, it is used by advocacy organizations, and even scientists. In fact, Richard Dawkins (or his people) send regular messages with links to very interesting scientific articles.

It is short and quick, no more than 140 characters, about the size of a text message. It can be powerful, imagine immediately communicating with millions of people. It can be funny or sad. It can also be informative and interesting. One thing for sure is that it is up-to-date.

In continuum of writing, twitter offers short offbeat comments or opinions, blogs offer about 200-400 words of thought, columns are usually about 500-700 words and usually include some background, and, of course, books are as long as necessary and provide in depth detail.

So check it out; it is quick to sign up, easy to understand and simple to use. It works well with either a phone or computer. In just a couple of moments a day, you can find out all sorts of things, from all sorts of people and all kinds of sources. If you try it, look me up: If you have read my column before, you know that I always something to say.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

138. Second chance should be limited

I am all for second chances. Personally, I have been given a number of second chances, and, likewise, I have afforded the same opportunity to others. Fundamental to my liberal attitudes is that life is hard for many people. Not only is it difficult, it is inherently unfair-opportunities are readily available for those born into wealthy white families in America, while for others, such as those born into poverty, the socio-economic and political burden is more difficult to overcome. It is not impossible, but it does take more work with less room for error.

Michael Vick has been freed from prison and has recently signed what is potentially a multi-million dollar deal to play for the Philadelphia Eagles. Many, from the sports world to animal right supporters, have commented on this opportunity. Some feel that he has paid his dues and that he deserves the opportunity to make a living again. Others, many dog lovers for example, think that he does not deserve another opportunity.

Vick has been working the media-admitting his mistake, committing to remorse and speaking out against dogfighting. He has also been working with some animal rights organizations, which see this as an opportunity to educate the public.

Although I think I should forgive him for his disgraceful acts, and embrace his recovery, as well as the chance to use his celebrity status to combat dogfighting, I cannot. I have nothing but hate for this man and the things him, and his posse, did to so many dogs.

What bothers me the most is that here is a guy that had everything. He was a professional athlete-he had money and fame. He could go anywhere and do anything. He could have houses, cars, women, travel the world-anything he wanted. The world was his playground. And out of everything he could be doing, he chose dogfighting as his form of entertainment.

To engage in the activity of dogfighting, with so much to lose, hints at an insatiable lust for this form of animal cruelty. It is not just something he did-it is "in his blood." No amount of remorse will convince me that he has changed his attitudes toward the "sport." I do not think he can be reformed any more than a child molester can be. He cannot, or could not, help himself. As my bother noted, Vick is not sorry about what he did, he is sorry that he got caught.

The signing with the Eagles, says a lot about our obsession with professional sports. Vick is not the first scumbag that fans have supported because he or she can hit a baseball or throw a football better than the average Joe. I cannot believe that any dog lover would pay to see him play more than any mother would pay to see a child molester. Make no mistake; this is not about the "City of Brotherly Love" offering second chances, the Eagles and the fans that will support them care more about winning than the integrity of the organization. If Vick was even an average talent-no team would touch him. It is only that he is a truly remarkable athlete that an organization would sell its soul.

In the "real world," the slightest blemish in one's career is often difficult to overcome. Get fired, have a lapse in employment, declare bankruptcy or be convicted for even a petty crime, and one will have to sit uncomfortably in the interviewee chair-wondering how to explain what happened. Equally uncomfortable is the knowledge that there is probably a line of applicants, just as talented, with no such obstacle to overcome. Full background checks are now commonplace for many jobs.

In the end, I do support second chances-just not the chance to make millions of dollars. And not to have a job in which thousands of little kids will be running around with their Vick jersey on-wanting to be "just like him." I would give Vick a second chance, the chance at the perspective that most of us have. Let him work in a factory or at a fast food restaurant. Let him see how the rest of us live-those of us that have not engaged in such reprehensible criminal behavior.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

137. What does racism really mean?

Use a word too often, or too indiscriminately, and it loses its meaning. Seems like everyone these days is being accused of being a racist, or racial profiling-so much that I am not sure what it really means anymore. Highlighted by the Supreme Court nomination of Sonia Sotomayor and polarized by the arrest of Henry Louis Gates Jr., accusations of racism are being thrown around the political arena like an old rag doll. It continued last week when conservative talk show Glenn Beck host called President Barack Obama a racist, commenting, "I'm not saying he doesn't like white people, I'm saying he has a problem...this guy is, I believe, a racist."

Perhaps this quote exemplifies the confusion-"I am not saying he doesn't like white people, but. . . I believe he is a racist." He then went on to say that Obama has a "deep-seated hatred for white people or the white culture." Huh?

Again, because the word is used so erratically, I think we have lost sight of what it really means to be a racist? Perhaps we have also lost our discretion in using the word-it used to be a serious charge to make, for both the person making the accusation and the person being accused.

In terms of dictionary definitions, the Macquarie Dictionary best summarizes my interpretation of racism: "the belief that human races have distinctive characteristics which determine their respective cultures, usually involving the idea that one's own race is superior and has the right to rule or dominate others." However, it is more than just the attitude that one's race is superior, it is acting on that attitude-often with anger and hate. It is also accomplished through socio-economics, denying opportunity to other races-usually to maintain the socio-economic status of one's own race.

However, even this perspective can get sticky. Imagine a private business owner whose only daughter just got married has a high-level finance position opening at his company. Further imagine that the only two candidates are his new son-in-law, who just graduated with a Bachelor's degree in finance from Ohio State, and another recent graduate, an African-American male with a MBA from Harvard. It is obvious who is the better candidate, but the question is, if he hires his son-in-law, is he a racist? The answer is probably not. The answer is that he wants to commit this opportunity to his new son-in-law, the man responsible for caring for his daughter. The truth is that he probably would have chosen his new son-in-law over any other candidate-regardless of gender, race or age.

Much has also been written about reverse discrimination in light of affirmative action programs-an area in which Sotomyer has been questioned. Here, the Supreme Court has ruled that in situations like college admissions, race can be a factor-to support a diverse educational environment. However, it cannot be an overwhelming factor, such that all minorities are accepted on the basis of race. Other situations though, such as the cases involving promotions, have brought different results.

Either way, whether you are the African-American that did not get the job, or the Caucasian that did not get accepted to college, it is difficult to understand. Both of these candidates will have to come to terms that these opportunities did not go to the most qualified person. Here, as anyone who has not been chosen for an opportunity knows, it is an uncomfortable feeling wondering why? Is it because of my race, age, gender, sexual-orientation or religious belief? Or is simply a situation where the opportunity is based on "who you know."

Perhaps the most discouraging use of the word ‘racism' is the emotional application to someone who does not deserve it. In the Gates case, there does seem to be an overreaction that included calling the cop a racist. Furthermore, it is discouraging how many African-American leaders, including President Obama, rushed to his defense. Is it true that there is some racial profiling in our police forces? Absolutely, the statistics are very concerning. Is this an example of it? I am not so sure. Furthermore, as African-American author Dr. Boyce Watkins wrote, this might have more to do with wealth and ego than race relations. The sad truth, on a couple of levels, is that had Gates been a poor African-American-nobody would ever have heard of this.

Racism is undoubtedly political, used both as a political ploy and a political philosophy. It is interesting that it has been Republicans such as Beck, Rush Limbaugh and Newt Gingrich are using the word more and more-usually in regards to reverse discrimination. Among those that would find this ironic is Bill Maher who said, "Being a Republican doesn't make one a racist, but if one is a racist, he or she is probably a Republican." That might be a low blow, but there is certainly a very conservative segment of the Republican Party that still maintains a racist mentality-not only in regards to African-Americans but also immigration.

In the future, let's hope that before Beck, or anyone else for that matter, uses that term again, they really consider both what they are saying about someone's character, and what it means to people that really have been the victim of racism-people who have been beaten and killed simply based on their skin color. When Beck was reminded that most of Obama's top advisors were Caucasian, Beck about-faced with a "he was a racist before he wasn't" take. However, even if Obama hired his friends and family-who can blame him? Heck, maybe the Harvard MBA is still available.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

136. Instead of watching television, exercise your mind

Have you ever just been sitting around the house, tired of the same old shows on television and thought, "Man, I would love to take a course on Thermodynamics and Kinetics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)"? If chemistry is not your thing, then maybe a course in Atomistic Computer Modeling of Materials is more to your liking. Still no go? Then maybe a class in the Philosophy of Film, Chinese, or Introduction to Algorithms appeals to you.

In fact, if you were considering a break from the television, or if you just wanted the chance to conveniently embrace continuing education, you could select from thousands of courses: Free! Not only MIT, but several other colleges now allow you to access their classes over the Internet, without cost. The courses differ, but not only do Internet "students" get the audio/video lectures, they also get a syllabus, class transcripts, lecture notes, reading assignments, exercises and practice exams. Again, not all classes offer all of the above, but enough material is shared that one can genuinely experience the course as is it offered by the university to its students.

MIT's program is called, "OpenCourseWare," though there are many universities, such as U.C. Berkeley, Carnegie Mellon, and Tufts University that are available to choose from. Although no academic credit is given for the courses, and nothing is graded, one interested in a quality education, for the sake of learning, has the opportunity that other self-taught students, like Albert Einstein and Alexander Graham Bell, could only dream of.

Surprisingly, these courses have been around for some time now; MIT's program began with 50 pilot classes in 2002 and officially launched the program in October of 2003 with 500 classes. Today, it offers about 1900 full-length courses, many with video hosted by YouTube and iTunes U. Today, MIT's OpenCourseWare gets an amazing 2 million visits per month.

I often enjoy the lectures offered by The Teaching Company, which also offers professionally-produced audio and video lectures from the countries best college professors. These lectures are expensive to purchase but are readily available in many libraries. Their promotion includes the idea that even spending an hour a day listening to their lectures would result in a course being completed in just weeks. The audio lectures are great for long car rides.

Science has long encouraged lifetime learning, and, although not conclusive, the latest research has suggested that exercising your brain might help prevent or delay the onset of Alzheimer's. However, even without the perceived physiological benefits, it can be fun to learn new things-at your time, place and convenience.

For some, it might be difficult to consider putting in the effort and not getting the college credit for it. These courses are not really something that belongs on a résumé. Rather, these courses offer the opportunity to take classes completely out of interest, and you do not have to take each class required in pursuit of a formal degree. And while these courses, if applicable to one's profession, do not garner official recognition, it is not to say that they will not help in the performance of one's job.

It is amazing what the Internet has brought to us; this is just another of its dynamics with the potential to change the world. For me, I'll pass on the Thermodynamics and Kinetics class, but I saw several others that caught my attention. However, and perhaps more importantly, I can't wait to see what the Internet brings us next!

Thursday, July 2, 2009

135. Animal cruelty is unconscionable

Leaving for vacation and not sure what to do with the dogs? There is, of course, the option of taking them to a kennel, asking family and friends to dog sit, or maybe even giving the neighbor kid a few bucks to watch over them. The other possibility, the one only a heartless, soulless Columbus firefighter would choose, is to take them in the basement, tie them to a pole, and fire eleven bullets into them.
Have a leisurely garden with those precious flowers that a pesky fawn insists on nibbling at? Again, one could choose to put a small fence up around it, feed the fawn, or get over it and plant something that deer will not eat. The other possibility, the one only a selfish, wretched, evil person would choose, is to grab a shovel, beat the fawn to death and then put it out for the other deer to see.
Running late and forced to stop for that annoying parade of Canadian geese? One could patiently wait, offer a couple toots of the horn, or even get out of the car to get them to pick up the pace (as my wife has done). The other possibility, the one only an impatient, cruel Oak Point motorist would choose, is to run one over a goose to what, “teach them a lesson”?
Have dozens of farm animals that you cannot afford to care for any longer? One could certainly ask the community for help, offer the animals to a shelter, or voluntarily surrender them to officials. The other option, the one only a wicked, brutal ignorant Grafton farmer would choose, is to do nothing but stand there and watch them starve to death.
The headlines have been horrific and for the people that care about animals, it is difficult to tolerate. Similar to my previous column about chained dogs, it is nearly unfathomable that so many people can act so cruelly to largely loving defenseless animals. I do not understand the pleasure that some people feel in watching an animal suffer or die. Is it a feeling of domination? Of superiority or power? Perhaps it is a psychological transference to compensate for shortcomings in their otherwise pathetic lives.
I do not often offer such harsh tones, but I have no respect for people that engage in the cowardice of harming an animal.
These headlines coincidently came to focus as Pamplona, Spain engaged in their miserable, archaic tradition of the “running with the bulls,” which draws national attention each year. The event leads bulls past a cheering crowd and “brave” runners into the bullring to meet the matadors and their almost certain death. The event is described this way by the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals:
Each year, more than 40,000 bulls are barbarically slaughtered in Spain’s bullrings. Most foreign visitors who witness a bullfight never wish to see one again. They are repulsed, disgusted and saddened by the cruelty of the spectacle.
At best, the term “bullfighting” is a misnomer, as there is usually little competition between a nimble sword-wielding matador and a confused, maimed, psychologically tormented and physically debilitated bull.
This absurd event has now seen fifteen people killed since 1924. I am sorry to say, and quite honestly, I am willing to accept as many deaths as it will take to end the event—because, as we know, our conscience is only measured in human deaths.
Columbus Fire Chief Ned Pettus Jr. has recommended that the firefighter who killed his dogs be fired.  The firefighter, who volunteered to take anger management courses, pleaded guilty to animal cruelty and was sentenced to 90 days in jail. Despite bragging about what he had done, his lawyer now says that he is “extremely remorseful.” The most ridiculous part of the agreement is that he is prohibited from having a pet for five years. It should be forever.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

134. A dog doesn't belong on a chain

Usually billboards are either trying to sell us something, advertising a political candidate or serving to tell us God’s latest thoughts. However, driving down Route 58 a couple of months ago, I encountered an unusual billboard. This one delivered a powerful and overlooked message; it spoke to the idea of dogs being chained up. Unfortunately, I do not remember the exact quote, but I do remember the website,
By chance, I ran into the seller of the billboard and I told him that I was really impressed with the message. He mentioned a bit of how the billboard came to be—suffice to say that there are people out there, like myself, that think it is cruel for an animal to live most of its life outside tied to a short chain attached to a doghouse.
For me, I have never understood the purpose in having a dog that is left outside, for the dog is more often than not lonely, neglected, bored and unhappy. In fact, I believe that this type of treatment is nearly as inhumane as physically harming an animal. One might be mistaken to believe that a life enslaved to a six foot chain is better than no life at all. A couple of meals, a bowl of water and a quick pat on the head are not how dogs were meant to live.
The website has an abundance of information, not only concerning the unethical nature of chaining up dogs, but also the harm it causes them.  It notes, in terms of the inhumanity:
“A dog kept chained alone in one spot for hours, days, months, or even years suffers immense psychological damage. An otherwise friendly and docile dog, when kept continuously chained, becomes neurotic, unhappy, anxious, and often aggressive. In many cases, the necks of chained dogs become raw and covered with sores, the result of improperly fitted collars and the dogs' constant yanking and straining to escape confinement. Some chained dogs have collars embedded in their necks, the result of years of neglect at the end of a chain. Chained dogs frequently become entangled in their chains, too, and unable to access food, water, and shelter.”
The website also mentions that chained dogs sometimes become aggressive in defending their territory, are often neglected, not only in terms of affection, but also veterinary care, and that they are easy targets for other animals and humans. The idea of isolation is also in conflict with a dog’s natural social order—the need to live in packs (with families).
In addition to ideas about passing laws to prevent chaining, educating dog owners and adopting a dog, the website offers “21 Ways to Help” a chained dog. Much of the advice is obvious, like bring the dog inside, build a fence, put up a runner/trolley system and make sure it gets proper medical attention. It also notes that if you see a neglected animal that you can attempt to talk to the owners, offer to purchase the dog from the owner and find it a new home, or contact your local animal control office.
Finally, the theme offered is that dogs deserve better. As true as that rings, I think the message is best felt and understood from the perspective of the dog. Here is one possible interpretation, in a poem entitled, “Chained Dogs’ Plea,” by Edith Lassen Johnson:
I wish someone would tell me
What it is that I’ve done wrong.
Why do I have to stay chained up
And left alone so long?
They seemed so glad to have me
When I came here as a pup.
There were so many things we’d do
While I was growing up.
But now the Master “hasn’t time”
The Mistress says I shed.
She doesn’t want me in the house,
Not even to be fed.
The Children never walk me.
They always say, “Not now.”
I wish that I could please them.
Won’t someone tell me how?
All I had, you see, was love.
I wish they would explain
Why they said they wanted mine,
And then left it on a chain.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

133. 'Green' once a year not enough

April 22 is Earth Day and, thanks to the many events throughout Ohio and the country, it is a day for raising the awareness of environmental issues. The idea has come a long way, and I hope that one day it will be a national holiday.

The problem is that only raising environmental consciousness on Earth day is like only attending church on Christmas Eve and Easter. Environmentalism is something that needs to be practiced every day, it needs to be a part of every decision we make.

I am grateful for the many Earth Day programs that one can enjoy, including the Cleveland Zoo and the Lorain County Metro Parks. EarthFest, promoted by the Earth Day Coalition has many fine events including green home improvements, clean transportation and many environmental exhibits

The Lorain Metro Parks similarly have an Earth Day Extravaganza which advocates the simple things like replacing burnt out light bulbs with florescent bulbs and composting. The day includes crafts, games, hikes and activities.

However neither of these programs, nor many of the others I have run across, include programs that speak to vegetarianism as one of the best, if not the best, methods to promote environmentalism.

I am sure the problem considered in the planning of these events is a matter of interest. However, if the issue cannot be discussed here, among a crowd of people supposedly dedicated to preserving the Earth, where can it be considered?

The truth is that promoting environmentalism through recycling aluminum cans is like promoting fuel efficiency by making sure your tires are properly inflated. Sure it helps, but if you really want to spend less on gas, the better suggestion is not to drive-walk or ride your bike. If you must drive then drive a small hybrid. To drive a large Sport Utility Vehicle with properly inflated tires is better than driving one with poorly inflated tires-but, in comparison to other solutions, and in the grand scheme of things, both are practically useless alternatives.

The issue is so significant that one vegetarian group even sells a t-shirt that says something like, "If you are not a vegetarian, you are not an environmentalist." The argument is well settled as noted by,

"In November 2006, the United Nations released a massive report that details the environmental consequences of eating meat. It's called Livestock's Long Shadow, and it concludes that raising chickens, pigs, and other animals for food is "one of the top two or three most significant contributors to the most serious environmental problems, at every scale from local to global."

It is spelled out in detail in the environmental magazine, "E,"

"E, the respected environmental magazine, noted that more than one-third of all fossil fuels produced in the United States are used to raise animals for food. It takes up to 16 pounds of grain to produce 1 pound of animal flesh. If we have to grow massive amounts of grain and soy-with all the tilling, irrigation, crop dusters, and so on that are required-truck all that grain and soybeans to factory-style farms and feedlots, feed it to the approximately 10 billion land animals who are raised for food in the U.S. each year, truck those animals to automated slaughter facilities, truck the dead animals to processing centers, run the processing and packaging machines, and then truck the packaged meat to grocery stores-well, there's a lot of energy being used up at each one of those stages."

The result, according to John Robbins, is that,

"the average vegan uses about one-sixth of an acre of land to satisfy his or her food requirements for a year; the average vegetarian who consumes dairy products and eggs requires about three times as much, and the average meat-eater requires about 20 times that much land. We can grow a lot more food on a given parcel of land if we're not funneling crops through animals."

This is just the tip of the ever-melting iceberg, as it does not even include other environmental issues such as water usage, water and air pollution, global warning, and the destruction of the rain forests and aquaculture.

When you consider the impact of eating meat on our planet, one wonders what exactly these Earth Day program committees are thinking about. Surely they understand, don't they? Are they afraid to challenge people's values or morality; are they afraid that the farmers will protest? Talk about the elephant in the room!

The obvious point is that we keep ignoring the major environmental factors-the ideas that will result in significant change. Whether it is due to power, greed, ignorance or the inability to make personal sacrifices, we keep cowering in the corner when it comes to the one real solution to our problems.

I am not suggesting that it is realistic to expect everyone to live a completely environmental life-such as a vegan diet, recycle, and drive a hybrid or electric car. There is so much that can be done, to the point that our lives could be paralyzed in indecision. However we can all do more.

In this respect, I understand change takes time, and I appreciate that doing something is better than doing nothing. Everyone doing the little things can have a positive impact on the environment; the numbers do add up in a hurry.

However, at the same, we need to be able to have honest conversations about the things that can really impact the environment, not just those small things that make us feel better about ourselves. This is the conversation that is necessary to initiate the consideration of change.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

132. Respect is earned, not ordered

There was a lot of media attention last week concerning President Obama's trip to England and his meeting with Queen Elizabeth. Michelle Obama also made the trip, and, likewise, was introduced to the queen.

The meeting was drenched in tradition and etiquette. And there was some controversy about whether Michelle Obama inappropriately touched the queen, or whether the iPod was an appropriate gift (the Queen, by the way, gave President Obama a picture of fitting!)

She is the Queen of England (she is also the Head of the Commonwealth, Supreme Governor of the Church of England, Duke of Normandy, Lord of Mann, and Paramount Chief of Fiji, according to Wikipedia)-and there are rules as to what you can say, how you are supposed to act and a list of those things that you cannot do.

According to various sources, some of the rules include:

Do not attempt to touch the queen. Wait for the queen to extend her hand.

Do not bow or curtsy (this would be the rule if the subjects meeting the queen were British).

First greet the queen as "her majesty," then as "ma'am."

Do not turn your back to the Queen.

I think a show of respect is a courtesy that should be extended to all human beings, regardless of your age, sex, race, socioeconomic status, religious preference or last name. It is something that we as Americans probably do not do well-we often rush to judgment, declaring our own interest superior to others.

However, the idea that queens and kings still exists, let alone that they are still privileged to special treatment and etiquette, is outdated and preposterous. A quick historic review of monarchies offers the reminiscences of war, revolution, power and greed. Is that not in part what Americans fought against, the idea that people should not be controlled by royal dynasties-unaccomplished kings and queens, declared such simply because they were delivered from the noble womb.

Think about those people you have respect for. Are they those people that have worked hard-gone to school, worked two and three jobs, endured both success and failure, and who not always act in their self-interest, or is it someone born into privilege, deserving of admiration simply because of their family name?

In this specific case, who do you think deserves more respect-an African-American, born to a middle class family who works himself through law school and the American political system, or the current queen, who was born into privilege, and unexpectedly became the queen only because her uncle, Prince Edward, Prince of Whales, never had children?

Let's be serious, if there is a matter of respect to be shown, it should be the queen offering it to President Obama.

I realize and understand that there could be a book-length discussion on the queen herself, her responsibilities and that, in many respects, it is the tradition of the royal family that lives on. But the point is still the same-who cares? We make it important simply by adhering to archaic political and historical systems. That time has passed; it is time to earn respect.

As to how respect is earned, it is different for everyone. Some people are respected for becoming the best at what they do, for being elected to political positions or becoming highly educated. Others are respected for the amount of money they have, their athletic ability or their artistic talent. Finally, others are respected for simply working hard at whatever they do, providing for their families and making sacrifices for others-such as donating time and money to worthy causes.

I probably respect all of these people, and it is not that I am necessarily out to disrespect the queen. However, I think it is time to reevaluate, as a species, those traditions that are built on nothing else more than tradition itself. There needs to be a reason-a qualitative or quantifiable reason that is more than "She's the Queen!"

When it comes to matters of tradition, the question should always be, "what happens if..." In this case what happens if President Obama reaches for her hand first, calls her something other than "her majesty," or if Michelle Obama wore a sleeveless dress? Who is harmed? Who has suffered?

Most importantly, if it was done without the specific intent to be disrespectful, how silly it is that anyone would care-when there are more important things in this world to worry about.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

131. Customer service important now

Difficult economic times mean, among other things, that families have less disposable income. It also means that whatever disposable income that can be spent on entertainment or excesses-like eating out, going to the movies or attending sporting events-is precious. Businesses and organizations that rely on disposable income need to realize, under these circumstances, that customer service is more important than ever.

However, and unfortunately, acceptable customer service continues to be an increasing problem-so much that financial guru, Clark Howard, calls it "customer no-service." This collection of customer no-service, in his case, extends beyond entertainment and excesses and includes every service that is available for purchase. The idea follows a similar premise-I am spending my hard-earned money on a product, and I would like that product to be or perform as advertised.

The easiest way for any company or business to remain or become competitive is to keep their product as inexpensive as possible. And, this, as we know all too well, usually comes in the form of finding the most inexpensive labor possible. In American service industries, this usually means hiring teenagers or young adults, in manufacturing, this includes building plants in third world countries, and, in technology or technical support, this often means outsourcing customers service centers to places like India.

We all know and understand the frustration of calling a company's support line. First we have to navigate between several directories or menus, then we are placed on hold and then, finally, we are forced to speak to someone you cannot understand. Worse, this person is usually following a customer support manual-full of "if-then" decision trees. Often they are in no position to speak to anything outside the manual, prompting the advice, "Don't speak to anyone who does not have the authority (or ability) to solve your problem."

Worse than that, however, is the current state of domestic customer service. Sometimes it is nearly impossible to get anything done right the first time. The problem is not just that businesses are hiring the wrong people-it is that they are hiring people who, at times, do not seem to care. It is tempting to scribe a laundry list of examples, such as trying to purchase a meatless Big Mac. Sounds simple, right? One Big Mac minus the meat-that means please make me a Big Mac exactly as Big Macs are to be made, just don't put the meat on it. I have received a Big Mac without meat and cheese, without meat, cheese, and sauce, and a Big Mac that only had bun and lettuce. It is so bad that I never order it through the drive thru anymore-I have to go in and check it before I leave.

Nobody likes returning food or a faulty product, but when it is necessary, it is sure nice to be greeted with, "I am sorry, please allow me to correct our mistake." That's it, that's all I want. Rather, I am often greeted with grunts, or excuses, or arguments-like I did something wrong. My parents owned several small businesses and I know that customers are not always right. People will try to take advantage of situations, in which case companies should stand their ground-professionally of course, but they are not obligated to cater to every customer's complaint. However, when the business has made a mistake, I would like them to understand my inconvenience and frustration. I don't have the time to do things twice.

In these tough times, my wife and I have become less understanding. Treat us rudely, and we'll go somewhere else. Some of our favorite places are now on our "boycott list," which we will jokingly sentence them to after incurring problems. Really, when I go out, I just want people to be nice. I know times are tough for everyone-and customer service is difficult because at times the employee has to be an actor, putting personal problems aside.

Employees need to be trained better, perhaps paid better, and understand that if people are not happy with their service-the business owner that gave you this job will go out of business, and you will lose your job. In working for my parents, it was often easier to understand-if we lost customers, my whole family suffered. The truth is that we are all accountable to someone-whether it is small business owners, taxpayers or shareholders. For some this is a tough lesson to learn.

Recently, when our favorite local pizza place messed up our order, after a very stressful day, the manager on duty, rather than apologize, explained that he has a "bunch of teenagers" working there. Unbelievably, it was almost as though he was blaming us for having unrealistic expectations.

Boycott-six months, maybe longer, if we find a new favorite pizza place in the meantime.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

130. Recession might good for us

An early morning show was discussing the economy when I caught one of their guests suggest that she was glad that we were going through a recession/depression-that we need to return to our core values.

At first I was appalled, how could anyone be happy that people were losing their jobs and houses. But then I thought about it and understood where she was coming from. Of course, she was not being completely literal and her point was to consider our current way of life.

We have lost some of our human values, such as respect, time with family and living within our means. In some ways, we are a culture out of control, where now everything seems to be out of equilibrium and we do not know where to turn.

Where did things go wrong?

Maybe the answer to that question is where do we start? For many of us, capitalism has been operating on steroids for some time now-satisfying short term earnings with long-term consequences. It was not until the taxpayers got stuck with the bill did the arrogance and irresponsibility of the top executives in the banking, investment and automobile industries become exposed.

As a society, we have become very spoiled. We want everything now-big houses, nice cars, large televisions and hip cell phones. We have racked up large mortgages, undertaken multiple mortgages and maxed out credit cards-all while saving very little. We have become willing to sacrifice principle for price and convenience. We did not care where the product came from, whether it was at the expense of an American job, or through environmental exploitation.

We have allowed technology to consume us. No longer do we take time to really talk to people-everything is an email or text message. It is common while dining out to see families sitting together but not speaking. Often one member of the family is yelling into a cell phone, another is texting a friend and still another is listing to his or her iPod.

We are living a sedentary lifestyle and consuming an unhealthy diet. We are eating processed foods and fast foods. When our diet makes us sick, we want doctors to give us a pill to make us better-rather than change our lifestyles. We are again willing to choose the convenience of a cheap meal over quality and ethical food production. The result is drug companies that are out of control and a health care system in desperate need of reform.

We continue to be a throw-away society. Recycling and conservation efforts are still in its infancy. Until recently, we chose gas-guzzling sport utility vehicles over sensible alternatives-essentially communicating to the automobile industry that they need not invest in hybrids and electric cars. We would gladly destroy the environment or go to war for cheap oil. We are unwilling to take the time to recycle our precious resources or pay a little more for recycled products.

I am not lecturing, I am just saying. We are all guilty in some respect; we all created the mess we are in. I think our new president is correct when he suggests that we will have to work together to get out of this. We need accountability and common sense.

Really, we need to start caring-about each other, about our country and about our world. We also need to be informed; it is ignorance that contributed to our situation. We need to stop looking the other way when it is not our problem, we need to know how our government works, where our products come from and how they are made, and we need to realize that our choices make a difference.

I think what we really need is a time machine. We all need to spend a month living in the conditions endured by our great-grandparents. Maybe we would have a greater appreciation of our present luxuries, learn to work together a little more, and turn off the television and video games from time to time. Maybe a return to our core values would not be such a bad thing after all.

Friday, February 20, 2009

129. Grade inflation hides true worth

The University of Southern California (USC) Law School recently considered making the average grade a B-plus, moving the grading curve .1 from 3.2 to 3.3. The dean felt that their students were at a disadvantage in competing for jobs with other schools that had a higher average grade. Meanwhile, compare that to Harvard and Stanford who are all considering, or have, changed their grading system to simply "Pass/Fail," though there will be distinctions of "honors pass" and "low pass."

The question is what does it matter? It was interesting reading the responses from law students in response to this story and it appears that grading is all over the map. In my law school, a 60 is a C minus and an 80 is an A minus. Multiple choice and essay exams are very difficult, unlike any other program I have participated in, and most students end up in the B to C range.

Students from other law schools, however, claimed that they received an A just for showing up (probably an exaggeration. law school is difficult), and most seemed pretty disgusted with the whole system. Of course, for those wanting to practice law, the great equalizer is the bar exam.

But clearly grades should matter, and those that work harder in school should be rewarded with better opportunities. But does it? When was the last time you heard someone ask a lawyer how he or she did in law school? They passed the bar exam, and except for the most prestigious positions, that is all that legally matters. There is even a saying in law school, "C= J.D."

So how do we compare one attorney that was graded on a pass/fail system and another that had a B minus average at another law school? And if it doesn't matter, why does it matter-to the point that USC would change their grading system by .1?

It's not just law school. My Master's of Business Administration (MBA) program was predominately projects and written papers/reports. Many of the projects took place in groups, in which some people worked really hard, and, unfortunately, others did very little. Unlike law school, there is no exam to give someone the right to practice as an MBA. Certainly, there are those people benefitting from a degree they did not earn.

I have written before that I feel as though colleges have watered down their work loads and grading standards. I spoke to one professor who gave "bonus" points for turning in a paper in time. I asked if he was kidding, he said "no," that he received too many complaints for taking away points from late papers. Students complain, make excuses and think nothing of appealing their grades to department heads.

In some circumstances, it seems that a number of professors are afraid to challenge their students. It is easier to keep everyone happy by dividing them into three categories- A, B or F. That is probably also an exaggeration, and oversimplification, but what happened to the grading curve, in which the best students received As, most received Cs and others did not pass? Does it still exist?

I fear we are moving in the same direction as kid's sports, where we do not keep score and everyone gets an award just for showing up. And if we do not get our award, we complain and threaten the authorities until we do get it. I believe in equal opportunity, not equal reward. It is not win at all cost; it is that not everyone wins. Some people have learned to exchange hard work with good excuses. School and sports should teach us that it takes hard work to be successful, that there are few short cuts, and that results do matter-as does process, respect and integrity.

The diversity now seen in colleges is a positive reflection of our time. There are young students, old students, on-line courses, weekend classes, career centers and traditional campuses. The evaluating of factors and programs is becoming more difficult, particularly when an 80 is a B- in one school and an A- in another. The proof is in the job offers, and colleges like USC understand this. They want to attract students by stating, "Attend our school, and you'll get a great job."

It becomes more difficult, however, evaluating a young student from a notoriously challenging traditional program, with no responsibility except for school, with a single mom of two, working two jobs, and attending school part-time on weekends at a perhaps less demanding career center. Following graduation, what factors, in addition to grades, will be considered in hiring?

Today the competing environment for jobs is escalating; there are fewer jobs and intense competition. Everything matters. Applicants in most fields need to be well-rounded-education, work and volunteer experience, character (and it still does not hurt to know someone!). But education will always be a significant factor, and colleges, despite their need to attract and keep students, need to provide a challenging environment, one that adequately prepares a student for the "real" world. A world that does most certainly keep score-in dollars and cents.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

128. True cost of burger not on menu

Ever wonder how they do it? Ever wonder how McDonald's and other companies can sell their double cheeseburgers for one dollar. When I was in college, and struggling to make ends meets, I nearly lived on one dollar double cheeseburgers. Where else could I get a meal of two burgers, fries and soft drink for fewer than five dollars? It carried me through several semesters, and, secretly, I always feared that what I thought was a temporary promotion would end.

But even then I wondered: How was it profitable, except of course from the money made off of all other products like the soft drinks, to sell a double cheeseburger so cheaply? Consider all of the people that need to be compensated to make a double cheeseburger. There is the farmer that raises the cow, and all of his overhead-such as feed, water, antibiotics, equipment. There are the people in the slaughterhouse that must kill the cow and process the meat. The meat must then be packaged and sent to McDonald's (or their suppliers) who certainly does their thing to it-such as apportion, season and freeze it in preparation to send it to its outlets. Then the meat must be transported to those outlets, which assumes all of the costs of McDonald's management and transportation. Next, after getting to McDonald's, the meat must be cooked and served, so we need to toss in the overhead of running a McDonald's and the salaries of their employees. I am sure I missed a few steps, and I know there are economies of scale when it comes to a corporation as large as McDonald's, but it seems like one dollar is a heck of a deal.

I might be slow, but I figured it out, and it comes down to a single word: Corn. Michael Polland's book, entitled The Omnivore's Dilemma, has a shocking and insightful section on the agricultural background and economic influence of America's largest crop. Inspired by the book, some filmmakers developed the idea in a documentary entitled "King Corn," in which they grew an acre of Iowa corn and followed its process from beginning to end. Here is just a bit of the story.

Corn cannot be grown profitably by most farmers and in order to encourage its development, it is subsidized by the federal government. The days of the small ranch in which farmers grew corn in their fields and raised animals in their pastures are long gone. It is a business in which the only criterion is profit. Welcome to factory farming.

Much of the corn grown is not readily edible, it must be processed-and the truth is that a large percentage of it is grown strictly for feed. Farmers grow more and more corn, and enhanced by technology and fertilizer, and unhindered by a demand curve, the amount of corn grown far exceeds its consumption. The technological breakthrough has come largely in developing strains of corn that can be grown very closely together-yet maintain its military-like posture. Today, 30,000 plants can grow per acre whereas one generation ago it was closer to 8,000. It is a genetically-engineered hybrid whose offspring are not nearly as productive-which means that seeds must be purchased new each year.

This cheap corn, and here is what those that sell cheap hamburgers are interested in, is sold as feed to cattle-in differing capacities and blends, including the addition of antibiotics. If you know your cows, you are probably thinking, I thought cows ate grass. Well not much anymore, we have forced-fed cows corn in order to grow them more quickly. That is where the antibiotics come in. Cows did not evolve to eat corn and the large amounts fed to them give their stomachs painful ulcers-acidosis. If they were not taken to slaughter at such a young age, their diet would kill them. Another problem is bloat, which is the fermentation in the rumen that produces "copious amounts of gas." And when the diet contains too much starch and not enough roughage, the rumen can trap the gas, pressing against the animal's lungs and suffocate the animal.

Polland notes, "Here animals exquisitely adapted by natural selection to live on grass must be adapted by us-at considerable cost to their health, to the health of the land, and ultimately to the health of their eaters-to live on corn, for no other reason than it offers the cheapest calories and the great pile (of corn) must be consumed." It gets worse, and the truth is not only do the cattle gorge on corn, they also, as Pollan reports, eat other cattle, "The FDA ban on feeding ruminant protein to ruminants makes an exception for blood products and fat, (the cattle) will probably dine on beef tallow recycled from the very slaughterhouse they're headed to."

One farmer noted that on his grandfather's farm, where cattle were still permitted to graze, it took four to five years to get to slaughter. In the fifties it was two to three years. Today, cattle are slaughtered in fourteen to sixteen months going from 80 pounds to 1,100 in that time. One farmer in the "King Corn" documentary noted in part that that is why they are not permitted to move around-it would burn off calories and take longer to reach slaughter weight. It is sick manipulation of economics and science-all to feed Americans more inexpensively than any other time in history. Any suggestion of a "happy cow" is a bold face lie.

That's not the end of the corn story-not even close. Some of the corn that does not end up as cattle food is then processed into high-fructose corn syrup-a dirty word these days. This corn syrup, which was developed in the 1970s, is in much of our food and beverages, including the soft drinks at McDonald's. That, however, is a story for another day.

The American diet is out of control and as the 20-something year-old film makers note, their generation might be the first to have a life expectancy less than their parents.

I recently visited McDonald's. I still love their Big Macs, though now I replace their hamburgers with a veggie patty, making a tasty "Veggie Mac." On my last trip, I got the meat on the sides for my dogs (something I should not, and only rarely, do). However, I now look at the small hamburger patties as a disgusting blend of meat and fat-grown on corn, to the detriment of every moral value I endorse.

Though I am now a vegetarian, my diet still leaves a lot to be desired, so I am not necessarily the right person to lecture people on what they eat. However, I have spent some time recently learning about how our food is processed and the increased danger of the American diet-not only its effects on our bodies, but also our economy, environment and ethics. It is truly in a pitiful state, and Americans need to learn more about where our food comes from.

My vegetarian diet is kinder to the animals, healthier and more eco-friendly. Even as I struggle with my own fitness, from the damage done by the years in which I ate fast foods, I have a moral and ethical sense of contentment that I am doing the right thing. Michael Pollan sums it up perfectly in his book, "To eat with a fuller consciousness of all that is at stake might sound like a burden, but in practice few things in life can afford quite as much satisfaction. By comparison, the pleasures of eating industrially, which is to say in ignorance, are fleeting. Many people today seem perfectly content eating at the end of the industrial food chain, without a thought in the world."

Thursday, February 5, 2009

127. Pete is dumb, but he's lovable

They say that Bulldogs are one of the least intelligent dog breeds. Pete, our American Bulldog mix, sure seems to be as advertised. To say this kindly, he is a very simple dog. He wants to eat, chase things and be with you every moment of the day. While my other dogs were quick to learn "tricks," Pete barely knows how to shake hands. Easton, a beagle mix, meanwhile, has the full repertoire-learning to "roll over" in about ten minutes. He also will jump into my arms when I ask, turning as he leaps, landing nearly shoulder high. He did this by accident once and thinking that it was pretty cool we immediately rewarded him. Now, he does it just to show off.

Pete loves food. Really loves food. We often wonder not if he would eat an entire bag of food if left to it, but how fast he would eat it. You would think that he would be easily trained, since the food reward matters so much to him. Actually, he is too fixated on the food, and just offers his paw repeatedly. I am sure that a dog trainer could train him to be more focused, but our relationship is neither benefited nor enhanced by whether he can speak or rollover.

Pete also loves to explore, and has the not-to-be deterred resilience that is common to his breed. We occasionally have rabbits and other critters visiting under our shed. The prospect of catching a critter delights Pete to no end, and he would spend hours if left unattended looking for the animal. His process is simple: Look under the near end of the shed and then run to the other side and look under the far end of the shed. I can just hear his optimistic thought process, "No animal here, better check the other side." The success rate of this method of attack, thus far, is exactly zero.

Pete, however, has indeed caught one animal, though it was by complete accident. My wife went screaming outside to get Pete when she realized that he had run across a baby rabbit in the grass. The rabbit was a cute fur ball, small enough to sit in the palm of my hands. What did Pete do to this animal, one that would make a nice snack and easily fit within his large jaws? He licked it, over and over. Maybe he was just tasting it, but, actually, I think he loved him and wanted to keep it as his pet.

Perhaps unfairly, we give Pete, in a primal anthropomorphic way, a "Neanderthal" voice. This is typically a two word sentence, with a third person self-reference, such as, "Pete hungry," "Pete tired," or "Pete cold." He is remarkably raw, and surprisingly kind and loving considering his strength. Our little Shea, older and now fragile, still keeps him in line. Nibbling at his ears when he "breaks the rules," he either ignores her or tries to play with her-completely missing the point.

Pete has learned, often from the other dogs, how to behave-well at least sometimes. He now waits patiently at the dinner table for us to finish, makes room for us in the bed (he used to get quite upset at the idea that he was being removed to the floor for the night), and has learned his boundaries within the invisible fence. But there is certainly room to grow. The house training thing has only been a marginal success, he still paces the room if there is an unconsumed morsel of food remaining on a plate after dinner, and he gets bored quickly-seeking attention through an annoying and loud exchange of playful growls and barks.

I think, most of all, Pete wants to be part of the family. He seems to appreciate his rescue from an unsheltered mud pit that he previously called home. His past might be responsible for his separation anxiety, I do not know. But I do know that he wants to be with us all the time, a loyal and patient friend that follows us from room to room, inside and outside.

He carefully watches our house, and when something a little too unusual is happening outside, he runs to me, stops barking and stares me straight in the eyes, as to say, "Boss, you better check this out." I trust him to protect us, however, I do remember one late night when I came downstairs to check on a noise I had heard. He followed closely behind me, step by step down the stairs, looking up as to say, "Pete thinks someone breaking in." I thought, you are the tough guy, run down there and find out!

At the end of "Marley and Me," the most perfect words are narrated, "A dog doesn't care if you're rich or poor, clever or dumb. ... Give him your heart and he'll give you his." Truth is, Pete has our hearts, and we care not whether he is clever or dumb, behaves or misbehaves or even if he follows behind me down the stairs.

I think he is smart enough to know that.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

126. Win at all costs, cost too much

Many have heard about the Texas girls high school basketball team that beat another team 100-0. For most it was not just that they won by that score, though the score says it all, but how they won-purposely running up the score by maintaining a pressure defense and shooting three-pointers until they reached the 100 point mark.

The Covenant School beat Dallas Academy, which is a very small private school of only 20 girls-eight of which play on the basketball team. They had not won a game in four years and their school specialized in those with learning disabilities. Later, recognizing the classless debacle, The Covenant School offered to forfeit the game to the Dallas Academy.

What was perhaps more disappointing after reading the story was some of the comments left on the Internet. Now I know people write stupid stuff in anonymity often just trying to incite conversation, but still, I was disturbed to see that many people defended The Covenant School in the "spirit of competition."

‘Robby383' quoted Mike Ditka, "Winners try harder...losers make excuses." ‘DefianceDefiant' said, "Welcome to the real world," in all caps. ‘Sbal" wrote, "This is nuts. The Covenant School won fair and square. You are teaching students not to take pride in their accomplishments (pride is not always a sin). You are also teaching Dallas students that if they pout enough someone will feel sorry for them and give them their way. . . .Grow up!" The ignorance continued from ‘KKSUCAT3,' "in no way shape or form should they apologize if anybody should apologize it should be the other schools coach for not having his team ready."

There was more, plenty more, as many turned this into a liberal/capitalism issue. And to be fair, there were many that argued against the unsportsmanlike behavior. Some even recognized the hypocrisy of a Christian school needlessly embarrassing a far inferior opponent. However, the unscientific poll on the website only registered a 52 to 48 percent difference in those that thought The Covenant School should not have to forfeit, because "all they did was play hard."

I certainly place a high value on playing hard, and you can include working hard and studying hard as well. I am also very competitive; someone that hates losing more than I like winning. However, I place a high value on class and integrity. And for me, it is a concerning perspective that some people, actually this country, has placed such a high value on winning-at any cost.

Last year I watched a few moments of the Little League World Series, another one of those events that has grown out of perspective. I watched in disgust as one young player stood to watch his home run against a team they were easily beating. If I had been his coach, he would be benched shortly after rounding third.

As kids get older, the game changes and players often keep each other in line. Standing to watch a home run means that you might get hit the next time up, or your teammate might get hit. Of course, most kids watch the professional players, which do manage themselves to a point (base-brawls), and think that it is cool to engage in such antics. Of course, the difference is that young kids will often just take their beating, innocent in competition, and move on. This is why coaching is so important, and why the 100-0 basketball game is a disgrace.

When I coached high school sports, I wanted my players to play hard-that is what we taught. However, we also taught respect, and for me, a lopsided game, on either side, was an opportunity to play other kids. I also knew from experience that running up the score put my players at risk-if the other team decided to make their point regarding the unsportsmanlike behavior (by intentionally hurting a player). Any good coach knows there are ways to "call off the dogs" and still work to improve your team.

Unfortunately, again due mainly to America's obsession with winning championships, we have become harden to the win-at-all-cost perspective. Many have lost the value of competition, the training, learning and skill it takes to be successful. It is more than just about the scoreboard.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

125. Change requires a commitment

The end of each year, though somewhat arbitrary in nature, often offers reflection of the previous twelve months. We consider our successes and challenges, and through this analysis, we postulate and compose New Year resolutions. For most of us, this is an annual routine in which we focus on both the things we want to accomplish and those bad habits we wish to break.

New Year resolutions are commonly made up of personal commitments to stop smoking, spend more time with family, and, my annual resolution, to lose weight. I am sure I am not unusual in that the same resolutions end up on the list year after year.

Losing weight is a battle for many of us, one that is often overwhelming and among the most difficult personal transition to make. I like watching the Biggest Loser, and was excited to see an Oprah show that talked to some of the previous contestants and whether they were successful at keeping the weight off.

It was nearly heartbreaking to hear that many of the former contestants had trouble keeping their weight off. Some, like the first year winner, had put almost all of it back on; while others, even those that were relatively successful at keeping the weight off, gained 30-40 pounds after the show.

One wonders, how does someone who is given a second chance, who leaves the show healthy, happy about themselves, and with an education about weight loss, put the weight back on? Obviously, in this specific example, there are some extenuating circumstances-life is put on hold while they are losing weight. They are away from the temptations of their "everyday" life, they are surrounded by people embodied in the same journey, they have 24 hours a day to focus on losing weight, and finally, there is that competitive spirit.

However, given their successes, and their second chance, the question is why do so many ultimately fail at keeping the weight off. The question is not just for them, in fact, it is unfair to single them out, because this affects many of us. Many of our New Year resolutions will ultimately fail, prompting the real question, why is it so difficult to make the changes in our lives that allow us to reach our goals?

Like the biggest losers, we are often successful for a brief time, maybe even a couple of years, but we often return to our problems. Research has shown that those most successful at keeping the weight off were those people who were organized and created plans that outlined their commitment to losing weight.

Losing weight involves not only a physical change, for example, exercising more, but also includes a mental change. We are often educated about what needs to be done to change a habit, we are "reasoned with," (which is often just an exercise in the obvious), but fail to address the mental state of mind that leads to the bad habit. For some, eating too much is a serious addiction, for others it is just frequent indulgences.

To make changes in our life requires a mental commitment, one that is equipped to handle "life" when it presents challenges to our resolution. I speak from experience when I say we are good at making justifications...where we make an excuse for our moments of indiscretion. We also look for short cuts, ways to have a great tasting cheesecake that only has 100 calories, rather than embrace the sacrifice required to really change our lives.

I remember when my father lost a lot of weight before he passed away; he was obsessed, as every conversation was about either what he ate or what he was going to eat. He was retired and, like those at the Biggest Loser camp, he had the entire day to focus his efforts. However, for many of us this is not possible, we require balance-we cannot afford to focus all of our energy to one specific endeavor or else our other responsibilities will suffer.

At the same time, we must change: Do what you have always done and you will get what you have always gotten. It must be a change that becomes part of our lives, but does not overwhelm it. In alcohol addiction, one is often referred to as being in "recovery" the rest of their lives after treatment for the addiction. In other words, it is life style change and commitment that must be dealt with every day.

Obviously, if I had the answer to this quandary, I would be making millions selling self-help books (and could remove this resolution from my list). However, what I will suggest is that losing weight, like trying to break other habits, requires attention to all areas of our lives. It requires that we change our lives-physically, mentally, socially, by educating ourselves, with familial support, and through the formulation of a "game plan." We need to use all of the resources available to help us reach our goals.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, once we accomplish our goals, we have to realize that the battle is not over-as maintaining our change is just as difficult as making it. Complacency will surely result in short-lived success, and a spot on next year's list of resolutions.