Janis Ian – an original truth teller (a reprise)

About a dozen years ago, my wife and I got to see a concert where two old favorites regaled us for a wonderful night. I remember the evening to this day. Don McLean was the closing act and he is always worth the effort with songs that go well beyond “American Pie.” Yet, just as entertaining, was a tiny Jewish girl who came on stage by herself and mesmerized us – Janis Ian.

Many women (and men) within ten years of my age will know her immediately for her huge hit which told the unvarnished truth she learned “At Seventeen.” This song spoke to so many as most of us are not blessed with model like looks and effervescent charm. And, when you are not, you face a different set of challenges. Yet, the other part of this “truth” is even when you are born with looks and charm, you need to be able to find and be yourself, because looks don’t last forever, even with Botox. Here are a few lyrics, which ironically were penned by two men, Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff.

I learned the truth at seventeen
That love was meant for beauty queens
And high school girls with clear-skinned smiles
Who married young and then retired

The valentines I never knew
The Friday night charades of youth
Were spent on one more beautiful
At seventeen I learned the truth

And those of us with ravaged faces
Lacking in the social graces
Desperately remained at home
Inventing lovers on the phone

Who called to say, “Come dance with me”
And murmured vague obscenities
It isn’t all it seems at seventeen

…To those of us who knew the pain
Of valentines that never came
And those whose names were never called
When choosing sides for basketball

It was long ago and far away
The world was younger than today
When dreams were all they gave for free
To ugly duckling girls like me

Yet, if you download her body of work or purchase a greatest hits CD, you will find a number of enchanting songs. Once you do, pour yourself a glass of your favorite wine, light a few candles or stoke the fire and listen. Here is an excerpt from “Between the Lines” written by Janis which speaks to how people do not know what to say to each other after the games and banter end.

There’s never much to say between the moments of
Our games and repartee
There’s never much to read between the lines of
What we need and what we’ll take

There’s never much to talk about or say aloud
But say it anyway
Of holidays and yesterdays, and broken dreams
That somehow slipped away

In books and magazines of how to be and what to see
While you are being
Before and after photographs teach how to pass
From reaching to believing

Another one of her classics, is called “Jesse” by  Columbier and Michel Jean Pierre, about her loneliness over her lover Jesse’s departure. The pacing of this song is emblematic of her style. She is never in a hurry and she has a voice that soothes, as well as portrays her pain. So, you can find the words amid the tune.

Jesse, the floors and the boards
Recalling your step
And I remember, too
All the pictures are fading
And shaded in grey

But I still set a place
On the table at noon
And I’m leaving a light on the stairs
No I’m not scared – I wait for you

Hey Jesse, I’m lonely, come home

Many people likely do not know Janis Ian. My older brother was the first person who turned me onto Janis Ian. She followed in the tradition of similar singers like Joan Baez and Judy Collins and a contemporary Phoebe Snow. If I had to find a more current performer, I would liken her to Traci Chapman. But, I think her words and music resonate with people as she would never be considered a glamorous person. In fact, when she walked on stage with her guitar, she came in from one side and walked all the way to the other side and exited the stage. This shyness was characteristic of her and her music.

A link to Wikipdedia will help tell her tale. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Janis_Ian

So, if you do not know her music, you are in for a treat. Every 17 year old girl (and boy for that matter) should listen to “At Seventeen.” If you know her, please use the opportunity to revisit her songs. And, remember the glass of wine and the candles.

Oh, those dating miscues

My wife and children seem to love stories about my dating miscues. I share them to impart an important lesson is to always carry with you a sense of humor. Laughing at yourself, means the world laughs with you. As I have gotten older, I think on some of my miscues, faux pas, etc. in the dating arena.

My loudest miscue occurred at a community theater which was held at a church hall. The fold out chairs were placed on elevated choral risers to give an amphitheater effect. My date and I were on a double-date sitting on the back row, about two feet elevated. After intermission, where we picked up a plastic cup of wine, we proceeded back to our chairs Unbeknownst to me, one of my rear chair legs had moved off the riser. So, when I sipped my wine, it appeared my date was moving forward. To my surprise, I was falling backward to a loud crash. Fortunately, I was alright, but the whole theater and my three companions got a huge laugh later.

Another funny incident happened at this same woman’s parents’ home, which I had to tell her about later. She had moved back home for a time living in a basement apartment in her parent’s house which was outside of the city.. Since she had younger siblings, her mother asked me to leave before the night was over, so as to avoid their seeing me the next morning. Leaving the first night, it was very dark outside and the drive way was near a fence. As I sheepishly opened my car door, a horse in the pasture close by snorted and scared the life out of me. If I had to go, I probably would have. The next day I called her and said “I did not know you had a horse”

Different woman, same city. I was supposed to be on a date with someone who I had gone out with a couple of times in college. I had traveled early with some friends back to the city before classes started and asked her if we could use her car, so my friends could use mine. She said no. After driving thirty minutes to her house whose drive way was diagonally up this hill, I learned my request to use her car was offensive, so she did not want to go. So, in a huff I tried to back down this diagonal drive way. Bad move. I ran off into a rock garden and my car got stuck. While she fumed at me from the window, her father had to tow me off the rock garden.

Blind dates can be a challenge. After moving after college, I met many good friends, many of whom were married. And, what married people like to do is set single people up on blind dates. I met a lot of nice folks on such dates, but chemistry was lacking in many cases. Of course, this goes both ways. My favorite story is about a lunch date who was quite the conversationalist, asking many questions about what I did and liked,. When I said, that is enough about me what do you do? She said I am minister. I did my best not to flinch. I am a Christian and have been a church goer, but meeting someone who is already minister is different than falling in love with someone who becomes a minister. I recognize this is petty, but I felt I would not measure up and lusting after a minister might send me to the bad place.

It is funny how different one can become. If I met the minister later, I would have been more mature and handled it better. My wife and I met at the right time. I had been through dating some folks who were very nice, beyond the blind dates, but was not ready for the one. The irony is my wife asked me for a drink as our first date joining her brother and his wife. Then, she asked her brother to join us. He came alone and they worked out a signal for him to leave if our date was working out. He left and the rest his history.

Laughter is the best medicine. It can salve many funny situations. And, it certainly can remind us of our frailties and shortcomings, then and now.

Workouts need not be long to add value

Having spent more than fifty years working out in some fashion, I have learned that workouts need not be elongated affairs to add value to your body and mind. The key is to do something that is sustainable, something you can do with regularity. And, the amount of time needed can vary based on age, body style, health, etc.

I would also encourage you to start slow and build up to the routine that makes the most sense, listening to your body. Don’t do things that will cause harm – backs, knees and hips are very dear, eg. I am very careful with my back as I am tall.

For several years now, I have gravitated to a routine that makes sense for me. I workout for fifteen minutes AFTER I shower in the morning, so it is not too intense. The shower loosens the muscles and my back. I vary the daily routine between three workouts based on Yoga, Pilates, isometrics, calisthenics and light weigh-lifting using two 20 pound dumb bells as a maximum, but the weight can vary and be effective for you.

But, a key to each of these workouts is breathing. Since these exercises are not heavy duty, I breath in and out through my nose. If you feel the need for more oxygen, try breathing in through your nose and out through your mouth. I used to do more of the latter, but have learned I snore less at night when breathing more naturally during exercise. On repetition exercises, breath in on the lesser portion of the exercise and out on when you exert.

The first set of exercises are standing stretches, a series of about a dozen exercises, but for those who cannot stand well, several can be done while seated. I will highlight two of the more productive exercises.

  • The Yoga warrior pose is one of the best exercises, which is a stretch and hold routine to twelve nice breaths. varying my arms three times for a total of 36 counted breaths. One leg is out front with foot pointed, the other leg being behind with foot slightly perpendicular to your body as you bend into the front leg. I start with my arms over each leg with palms down, then arms over my head and ending with arms out palms up. Then, I switch sides and do 36 more. It is one you can start with a count of three and build.
  • The other is a calisthenics exercise. Standing up put both arms over your head straight up from your shoulder. Then bring one leg up bending at the knee as you lower your arms. Then raise your arms again as you lower your leg. Then do the same with the other leg. You breath out when you raise your leg and in when you lower it. I do 24 of these.

The second set of exercises for the following day is a floor routine of about a dozen exercises, as well. These focus more on the legs and core areas. Let me focus on two exercises.

  • On your back, bend your legs so that your knees are are up and feet on the floor. Now, gradually swing both legs toward the right, not touching the ground with your knees and then swing them to the other side. Breath out when your knees approach the ground and breath in when you move them up. I do a count of 24 of these. Try to be smooth with your movements.
  • Again on your back, do stomach crunches which is an easier way to do sit-ups and not hurt your back. While bending your legs at the knee with your feet on the ground, put your hands behind your neck and lift your chin up and part of your upper torso off the ground. The key is to make your stomach muscles feel the exertion. Then, return your torso to the ground. Breath out when you exert and in when you let you head back down. I do 24 of these, but like the above start with a few and build up.

The third set for the next day is light-weight lifting exercises.

These are simple exercises, again about a dozen of them. I warm up with an 8 pound medicine ball, then move to one dumb bell then two, each weighing 20 pounds. But, use weight that is comfortable to you. The key is the technique and repetition more than the weight. Just picking two:

  • Take a small medicine ball and while standing hold it in front of your waist in both hands. Rotate the ball to each side with a small twist breathing out as you do. Swing it to the other side, breathing in, then breathing out. This works on your love handles. I do fifty of these, 25 on each side. If you don’t have a medicine ball, you can use a small dumb bell or just interlock your wrists and twist.
  • Using one of your dumb bells, kneel down with your left knee and place you left hand on the floor. Using your right hand, lift the dumb bell up like you are slowly pulling a lawn mower cord. Breath out when you pull up the weight, breathing down when you lower it – don’t drop the weight, lower it. Build up to fifteen of these. Then switch legs and arms and do fifteen more. Start slow and with a light weight. This is the best way to work your back lateral muscles without harming your back.

Remember to start slow with fewer reps and lesser weight. The key is to use smooth movements and get your breathing right. Also, please check with your doctor or a trainer if you need to get counsel. Even five minutes will help each day, but whatever you do keep it sustainable. I have had many routines in the past that would wane after a few months. I have been doing a variation of these for more than five years.

The better part of me – a reprise

In search for another old post, I came across this one which uses a melancholy song about the flawed superhero in all of us. Even Superman is not perfect, so we should cut ourselves a break and accept our flaws and mistakes and those of others.

One of our favorite songs since the turn of the century is “Superman” recorded by Five for Fighting and penned by John Ondrasik. I am intrigued by the humanity afforded Superman in the haunting lyrics. But, the words that resonate the most with me are the lines spoken as Superman, “I’m just out to find, the better part of me.” Here is the first half of the song.

I can’t stand to fly
I’m not that naive
I’m just out to find
The better part of me
I’m more than a bird. I’m more than a plane
More than some pretty face beside a train
It’s not easy to be me
Wish that I could cry
Fall upon my knees
Find a way to lie
About a home I’ll never see
It may sound absurd, but don’t be naive
Even Heroes have the right to bleed
I may be disturbed, but won’t you concede
Even Heroes have the right to dream
It’s not easy to be me

To me, the song reveals even a superhero has insecurities, wants and dreams. Even a superhero is searching to find “the better part of me.” We are an imperfect people. While we have true heroes that live and breathe amongst us, they are imperfect just like everyone else. So, we should not hold people up to a higher standard, as they will only fail to live up to those standards. Even if heroic or a great leader, they will also be imperfect.

One of the finest people ever to walk the earth was Mother Teresa, a true light for many. Yet, Mother Teresa noted in her journal that she prayed to God when she felt less pious. When she was broken down and tired, she prayed that she could get back to a better place. She prayed to rekindle “the better part of me.” In a recent survey published in Reader’s Digest, ministers also noted that there are occasions when they feel less pious and need to find their way back.

Gandhi was in a similar predicament. Here was an attorney who decided his life’s calling would be to fight for the disenfranchised. He would use his voice and body to say things are not right through civil disobedience. Yet, he was imperfect and had enemies as well. Martin Luther King took to heart Gandhi’s civil disobedience and adopted the strategy in the US during the civil rights fight. Yet, MLK was not perfect either. But, both Gandhi and Martin Luther King lived “the better part of me” and because of that, helped millions and are heroes to many.

I wrote recently about the wonderful series on PBS by Ken Burns on The Roosevelt’s – Teddy, Eleanor and Franklin. All came from the elite and were by no means perfect. Teddy could be a bully and liked notoriety. But, Teddy hated unfair advantage and wanted folks to have equal opportunity, a “square deal,” he called it. Eleanor was strident in her convictions, but was shy and aloof and turned many off, until she learned how to cultivate relationships and use her powers of persuasion to do great things. Franklin would use his version of the bully pulpit to get things done. He also had several affairs. But, he helped save the world from tyranny, promoted the New Deal and helped America focus its manufacturing muscle on the war effort. Each accomplished a great deal for this country and our world is better place because of them.

These folks are all heroes. Yet, they are all imperfect. For some reason, we have forgotten this and want our leaders to be perfect in every way. By the numbers, Bill Clinton may be the best president we have had in the last fifty years, yet he had a wandering eye and an impeachment scandal evolved when one tryst occurred in the Oval Office. Ronald Reagan is touted as the paragon for conservative presidents and did many good things, yet he was almost impeached over the Iran-Contra affair and did not believe we should sanction South Africa for Apartheid, his veto fortunately being overturned. Yet, Reagan’s ad lib comment in a speech helped bring down the Berlin Wall among some of his other accomplishments.

We are not perfect either. We will  make mistakes just like everyone else. We should do the best we can and find “the better part of me” for ourselves. If we can do this, we can more legitimately expect others to do the same, especially our leaders. We can also treat others like we want to be treated. And, that includes forgiving others for mistakes, as we would hope they would do with ours.  No one is perfect, not even Superman.

You have a “towards” problem – revised old edition

Since we are in need of humor, the following is a revised reprise of an earlier post from several years ago. Although I left out some of the more colorful metaphors, I did include one or two that might sit less well, so please forgive. My wife does not like the prom queen reference, for example, but I wanted to deliver the line as uttered.

Sports competition often provides us with comic relief. The more down time between shots or plays gives more time for one liners and jokes. Golf is ideal for comedy for this reason, especially when you fail more in golf than you succeed which offers fodder.

While golfing with an elderly couple with whom we were paired, my wife was apprised by the gentleman late in the round that he had diagnosed her swing  problem. On the 17th fairway, he quietly said she had a “towards problem.” A “towards problem” she exclaimed. “What is that?” He said, “Your are hitting the ball towards the wrong direction.”

On another occasion, yet another elderly couple played with us. I think we attract them when we play, but now we are the elderly couple. Again, the man said to my wife on the infamous 17th hole he also had diagnosed her problem. As she was all ears, he said, “You are standing too close to the ball after you hit it.”

I have seen some strange things on the golf course, some that I have done, as well. I watched the wife of a friend hit the ball and it went through her legs and struck a male friend in the face standing behind her, maybe two feet ahead. She swung and he sprawled leaving a golf dimple mark in his face – he was OK. I had a boss who could hit the ball a long way, but straight was usually not the direction. He would normally play the hole from another hole adjacent to the one we were on (a definite “towards” problem).

I used to golf with another boss, who had many one liners, some courtesy of TV evangelist Reverend Ernest Angley. If he hit into the woods, he would say, “Out Satan” or “Be healed” using his best Ernest southern drawl. If a tree knocked it back into the fairway, he would say “I played it off the tree.” Or, if he hit a ball into the water and it splashed out, he would say, “This game is easier when you know where all the rocks are.”

One of my favorite golfing buddies loved to offer his sayings. When he had a nice swing pattern going, he would say, “That swing was smoother than a prom queen’s thigh.” Another friend when he pulled the ball way left, would call it a “Babe Ruth.” When we asked what a Babe Ruth was, he said “It is a dead yank.” 

Another popular golf saying I think is traced to Lee Trevino, the very funny pro. He routinely hit a nice fade shot, not unlike Ben Hogan. Lee would say, “You can talk to a fade, but a hook just won’t listen.” When my Ernest Angley quoting friend lived in Dallas, he saw Lee in a McDonalds the day after Trevino won the tournament in Dallas. My friend complimented Lee on a memorable chip shot, but Trevino responded “Thanks, but I really have to thank my five iron, as it is the club that keeps me from having to dig ditches.”

Some of the sayings are not very flattering, so I will leave those behind. It should not be a surprise when a guy says something that could be offensive. Much teasing can go on when your fellow foursome member tops it, hits it into the woods, does not hit past the ladies’ tee box, hits it out-of-bounds or misses an easy putt. It should be noted, my golf swing created many a comment like this.

But, the funniest line I ever heard on a golf course was by a sassy beverage cart woman. She did not take guff from anyone which served her well around her usual customer base. One day, she had a stone hanging from a necklace. When our group inquired about it, she said “It is a sex stone.”   We asked what it did to deserve such a name. After sufficient baiting and time, she said “You don’t get it. It is just a f**king rock.”

On that note, I will say sayonara. May you find your golf balls in bounds and on the green ground. Please share some of your favorites, whether they are golf or another sport.

Harry Chapin made it “A Better Place to Be” – a reprise

Writing a comment on Deborah’s blog reminded me of an old post about a terrific songwriter and storyteller who left us way too early. Here is a reprise about Harry Chapin.

Like Jim Croce, another favorite story-telling songwriter of mine, Harry Chapin also left our world much too soon. Chapin died on July 16, 1981 of cardiac arrest that occurred either before or after a car accident on his way to perform a free concert at Eisenhower Park. He was only 38 years old. He never had the huge popular success that many performers crave, yet I don’t think that was his motivation. He wrote very meaningful songs which usually told stories or had lessons for us all. And, he was one of us – a guy we wanted to hang out with and let him regale us with his stories.

If your ever saw or heard him in concert, he was equally known for his story-telling between the songs. He would very often share how this weird story came to be, many that actually came from true events. One of my favorite songs of his – “I Wanna Learn a Love Song” is actually based on the true story of how he met his wife, Sandy, when she hired Chapin as her music teacher. Their family consisted of five children (two together and her three children from a previous marriage).  In fact, his most popular song, “Cat’s in the Cradle” was based on a poem Sandy had written about her childhood, but a lesson for her husband and all of us fathers – “when you comin home Dad, I don’t know when, but we’ll get together then, Son, you know will have a good time then.” As we all know, the Dad/ Son are switched at the end  “as I hung up the phone, it occurred to me, he’d grown up just like me. My boy was just like me.”

His first big hit was “Taxi” about a man who wanted to be a pilot and is now driving a taxi. He picks up a fare that turns out to be his ex-girlfriend who wanted to be an actress. It is a very melancholy song to which we all can relate. Other favorites include “W.O.L.D” about an old disk jockey who has seen better days and “Thirty Pounds of Bananas” about a funny trucking disaster that spilled boxed bananas everywhere. Yet, my two favorites are vintage Harry Chapin. I will save the best for last, as it appears in this title.

One of my two favorites is called “Mr. Tanner” which is a song about a man who loved to sing while he worked. And, all the shopkeepers nearby loved to hear him sing. Yet, when they encouraged him to perform, the critics were not as kind. As Chapin points out…

“But, music was his life, it was not his livelihood. And, it made him feel so happy and it made him feel so good. And, he sang from his heart and he sang from his soul. He did not know how well he sang; it just made him whole.”

You find yourself pulling for this man and are so heartbroken that his joy of singing was shattered. At the end, he only sang softly, so no one could hear him.

My favorite, though, is “A Better Place to Be.” It is a story about loneliness, a midnight watchman and a rotund waitress. The watchman tells the waitress his story as she says “I know I’m not no beauty queen, but I sure can listen good.” He tells how he met this beautiful lonely girl who, surprising to him, agrees to come home with him because “I’m goin nowhere and anywhere is a better place to be.”  After the most memorable night of is life, he leaves to get breakfast and when he returns, finds she has left, shattering his dreams.

The waitress dries tears from her eyes and eventually says “I wish that I was beautiful, or that you were halfway blind. And, I wish I weren’t so Goddamn fat, I wish that you were mine. And, I wish you’d come with me, when I leave for home; for we both know all about emptiness, and livin all alone.” After he finishes his last sip, he says “And, I know we both have been so lonely. And, if you want me to come with you, then that’s alright with me. Cause I know I’m goin nowhere, and anywhere is a better place to be.”

This is one of the most true to life, heartfelt songs you will ever hear. The song has many nuances and flavors. I hope I have given you taste of the genius of Harry Chapin. But, let me not stop there. On top of all of his storytelling songs and performances, Chapin was also a humanitarian. He was posthumously awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for his work on ending hunger in the US and abroad. He started an organization called “Long Island Cares” to combat hunger there and in 1977, Jimmy Carter asked him to be on a Presidential Commission on World Hunger.

So, through his songs and through his actions, Chapin told us how to make this world “a better place to be.” His epitaph is taken from his song “I Wonder What Would Happen to the World” and reads: “Oh, if man tried, to take time on Earth. And, prove before he died. What one man’s life could be worth. I wonder what would happen to the world.”  Harry, you live well beyond your 38 years. You keep on teaching us. You made the Earth “a better place to be.” Thank you.

This is a long video of Chapin singing “A Better Place to Be,” but grab some tissue, it is well worth it.

a better place to be harry chapin – Bing

The psychology of wealth can make you less compassionate – a reprise about an interesting study

After being reminded of this study in a comment on my last post, I decided to republish a post from 2013. I found it fascinating reading about the comparative psychology of the haves and have-nots.

This title may seem strange, but it is based on a study completed by the University of California at Berkeley and University of Toronto. The folks who scoff at this title and study authors would also be the ones who would say “what would you expect from a study done in UC-Berkeley.” Yet, the principal author Paul Piff, noted in the LA Times “I regularly hear the Berkeley idiot scientist who’s finding what they expect to find. Let me tell you, we didn’t expect to find this. Our findings apply to both liberals and conservatives. It doesn’t matter who you are. If you’re wealthy, you’re more likely to show these patterns of results.” Piff was interviewed along with Dr. Dacher Keltner on a PBS Newshour story by Paul Solman last month called “Exploring the Psychology of Wealth, ‘Pernicious’ Effects of Economic Inequality” which can be found with this link http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/business/jan-june13/makingsense_06-21.html.

The study concluded that people with wealth, whether it was real wealth or created in a game format, showed rather conclusively a higher propensity to have a sense of entitlement to get more than their fair share. It is not saying that every wealthy person would act this way and there are many exceptions, yet there was clear evidence to show a propensity to use their position to cut corners and gain further advantage. It also noted there tended to be a higher degree of compassion and fairness by those with less for others in similar or worse circumstances. In other words, it was harder for those who “have” to walk in the shoes of the “have-nots.”

I observe this often in trying to explain the needs of homeless or impoverished people. No matter how hard I try, there are audiences who can not be dissuaded from their pre-conceived notion that homeless or impoverished people are not deserving of help and that they should just get a job. This is one reason I always emphasize that 84% of the homeless families, an agency I work with helps, have jobs. We are also seeing it manifest in the United States with the increasing divide in wealth between those with and without and the decline in economic class mobility.

But, don’t take my word for it. I would encourage you to click on the link above and judge for yourself. The aforementioned study observed the following in multiple tests:

– At a four-way intersection, drivers of the priciest cars were 4 times more likely to fail to correctly yield the right of way than other drivers;

– In a waiting room with a jar of candy where the participants were all told the candy was being saved for a children’s meeting soon following, the wealthier participants took candy from the jar 2 times more frequently than non-wealthy participants;

– In a dice game to add up the results of dice rolls, with the person with largest dice tally winning $50, the wealthier participants were 4 times more likely to cheat; and

– Similar results were also found on other exercises around reporting of incorrect change to a small financial transaction or getting an incorrect grade on an exam when the participant knew they earned less. The wealthier participants reported the infraction in their favor fewer times.

The study went further to show the results of a weighted Monopoly game. One person would get to roll two dice to the other’s one, the same person would also get $2,000 to the other person’s $1,000 and get to use the car game piece to the other person’s lesser token. What the study observed, the person in the game who had the most money and best opportunity to win, used directive comments that showed a sense of entitlement to their success. When the study flipped the weighting, the person who in real life was less affluent, but who now had the upper hand in the game, would also exhibit some of the same traits of entitlement.

The troubling part of the study, is people with wealth, whether real or contrived, exhibited a sense of entitlement to their wealth. It is the same reason when I wrote a few months ago that Warren Buffett said he was also “lucky” to be as wealthy, it bothered people. He said he worked hard, but he was born a white male in America, which gave him a leg up. By the way, Buffett is definitely one of the exceptions to the rule about compassion.

Yet, there is hope. Dr. Keltner, who heads the Greater Good Science Center at UC-Berkeley noted: “One of the things that wealth and money does is it comes with a set of values, and if you want a deeper ideology, and one of them is, generosity is for suckers and greed is good. But it turns out, there are a lot of new data that show, if you’re generous, and charitable, and altruistic, you will live longer, you will feel more fulfilled, you will feel more expressive of who you are as a person. You probably will feel more control and freedom in your life.”

The above translates to business success, as well. In the highly acclaimed business book by Jim Collins called “Built to Last,” his team indicated that one of the reasons companies are much more successful than even their best competitors is called “Be more than profits.” These companies were terrific community citizens and invested their money and people’s time in needs of the community. As a result, people valued working there and the community was more supportive of the companies, in both good time and bad.

So, the key takeaways from this study to me are (1) do not let what you own define you, (2) do your best to understand what people in need go through – if you have not been there, you really don’t know what it’s like, (3) there is a huge psychic income to helping others and (4) doing the right thing can only be viewed in a good light. You will be on the “side of the angels.” Note, this post relied on several news articles in addition to the PBS Newshour piece mentioned above – LATimes,org, Dailycal.org and Highandernews.org.

Class matters, socio-economic class that is – a revisit to an old post that remains pertinent

The following post was written in 2012, but it still remains pertinent. When I hear people chastise people in poverty for not working their way out, I think of this topic.

When you read this title, there are several interpretations that come to mind. While I am a firm believer in acting in a classy way, treating others like you want to be treated, the “class” I am referring to here is socio-economic class. There is a body of work spawned by research conducted by the New York Times, which led to the publishing of a book under this same title – “Class Matters.” It also led to a revolution of thought and I would encourage you to visit “www.classmatters.org for more information.

In essence, the term class matters refers to the tenet that your socio-economic class is a key factor in your ability to ask questions of those who are trying to serve you. The higher strata of socio-economic class is highly correlated with better education and more confidence. This translates into the greater ability and lesser reluctance to question things. On the converse, those in lower socio-economic classes tend to have lesser education and more self-esteem issues. They have a greater inability and lack of confidence to question those in power or who are trying to serve them.  As a result, those in the lower classes often make poorly informed decisions as they are:

  • too scared to ask questions,
  • feel threatened if they do so,
  • feel they will show their ignorance if they do,
  • do not know the right questions to ask, and/or
  • fall into a trusting mode, whether legitimate or not, that the person serving them knows what they are doing as they are wearing a doctor’s coat or suit and tie.

To illustrate this concept using a real life occurrence, the current housing crisis we are facing has many areas of cause from the lenders to rating agencies to investment managers to developers to buyers. At the heart of the problem, we had too many developers and realtors selling houses to people who could not afford that price of house and mortgage lenders providing mortgages to people who should not have that level of mortgage or who did not fully understand the terms of the loan. The buyers did not understand what a variable mortgage is or, using one of the lender’s terms, what a “pick-a-payment” or flexible payment mortgage entailed. The concept of negative amortization is term that was not well-explained or fully understood. In “House of Cards” a line that resonates with me is lenders were providing money to people who could “fog a mirror.” Then, they packaged up all of these poor risks in collateralized debt obligations (CDOs) and sold them to investors who thought they were buying a less risky product. The rating agencies did not help by stamping these CDOs with a AAA rating.

There are some who firmly believe in the concept of “let the buyer beware.” In their minds, the people who bought these houses and took out these loans should have been more aware “like I would have been.”  As a consequence, they believe the buyers should be held entirely responsible for the housing crisis. This school of thought has some merit, but misses two greater issues. First, if you have ever bought a house, you are asked to sign more papers than in any other transaction. I would wager that an exceedingly high percentage of buyers do not read every word of what they are signing. The legalese is too complex. More often than  not, they will ask the attorneys to explain simply what they are signing. I would also wager that in these transactions people actually sign papers they do not fully understand.

Second, with that context, people in a lower socio-economic class will be even more trusting of those in suits and ties. They would ask even fewer questions and understand even less of what they are signing. When the American Dream is to own a home and people in suits and ties paint a picture that you can afford this home, the buyers believed them more times than they should have. In some cases, the seller put “perfume on a pig” to dress up the sale as best as possible. Individuals were shown monthly payment numbers and did not realize those numbers could dramatically change every two years. In some cases, their income and wealth numbers were inflated to show they could afford a house and mortgage they otherwise would not. The buyers trusted people showing these numbers and signed on the many dotted lines.

Two true stories will embellish these points. The poster child for one extreme end of what happened was a builder based in Atlanta. The CEO and CFO were convicted of criminal and unethical actions they helped perpetuate with home buyers. In essence, the company-realtors representing  new developments did not represent they would make an extra bonus if you bought in this new neighborhood. They did not represent the inspector was being paid off to inflate the price of the house and show no problems existed. They did not represent that the mortgage lender they recommended was affiliated with the developer. So, along comes the buyer who does not know this, does not know to ask these questions and who sees a financial representation that they can afford this house. Even people above the lower socio-economic classes were taken in by this criminal behavior, yet the lower class people did not stand a chance.

The other anecdote took down a bank of which I was shareholder. This bank bought  a mortgage bank who had developed the concept of the “pick-a-payment” mortgage. This flexible payment mortgage concept was geared for a very astute buyer, not the masses of people who bought it. Mortgage people at this bank wondered why the CEO of the acquirer was pushing these mortgages even up to six months before the bank was destined to fail.  A mortgage person for that bank said we are having “pick-a-payment parties” to promote the sale of these mortgages. We are selling these mortgages to people who do not know what they are buying. They do not understand when they do not pay enough, their mortgage principal increases. Like with the above example, the lower socio-economic class buyers did not stand a chance. The people in higher classes suffered as well.

Yet, the class matters concept goes beyond these examples. It happens in everyday life, whether it is visiting the doctor, buying a car or something on credit or being served by the bank on other issues. We have people who will go into debt as they do not know the exposure they are adding with each purchase. In today’s world, there is a dearth of customer service. You have to be the navigator of your own customer service experience. Many people do not realize this as the case and tend to delegate the responsibility to the customer service person. We don’t ask enough questions of doctors seeking alternative treatments or payment plans. We accept the terms of a store credit card without knowing that if we fail to make one of the 30-60-90 day payments, we will pay back interest to the point of sale. We do not understand that we need to pay more than the minimum credit card payment as it will take 30 years to pay off a washer and dryer purchase. We do not ask the question, do I really need yet another credit card? We do not realize we have the power to say “no.”

I tell my children “people want your money, so you need to understand that.” Sometimes, they want it by legitimate means. Sometimes they have enticing commercials which are too good to be true. And, sometimes they will try to steal it from you online or by lying to you in person. You have to guard against this. With this backdrop, someone in a  lower socio-economic class will not ask enough questions to be served. They will take that extra credit card that arrives in the mail. They will sign up for the 30-60-90 day store plan to get a 10% discount not knowing the full ramifications of the transaction. I have also witnessed in helping homeless families, budgeting skills could be improved and asking questions about “must have” purchases are not done often enough. Sometimes these “needs” are actually “wants” and could be postponed. They do not know how to zealously navigate the use of coupons or the best times to buy products. They do not ask for the manager or supervisor when being ill-served.

This week I read a series on the inability of hospitals to uniformly offer reduction or the abatement in cost to those without health insurance and in an impoverished state. Someone wrote in that they successfully navigated payment options from one of the studied hospitals asking why couldn’t others have done that. When I read the letter critical of the people short-changed, the concept of class matters entered into my head. The people in need did not navigate the system as they did not know or have the confidence to ask the right questions. They did not relentlessly pursue options. This is exacerbated by the lack of transparency of the payment system, so it takes a concerted effort to understand what is happening even for people in higher classes. There are other examples in our society where you have to make a concerted effort to understand the details.

In closing, my hope is for more people to understand that class matters in getting proper help and service. We have to make it easier for people to ask questions, search for answers and be better served or, at least avoid being ill-served. It is OK to ask questions. As the teachers often say “the only dumb question is the one not asked.”  Please help others remember that. Offer to go with someone to the doctor to help ask the right questions. Or, encourage people to write their questions down beforehand. Encourage people to not get into credit exposure beyond their means.  Share your wisdom of purchasing or not purchasing items. Sources like Consumer Reports, BBB , Angie’s List,  http://www.cars.com are vital tools, e.g. Yet, I guess the big take away is to not assume people are like you. You may have avoided stepping  in the hole, but you would have asked more questions. Not everyone will. Offer them your help and understanding.

How you leave a job is vitally important

As a former manager of people, I have observed extremely professional and unprofessional behavior. In exiting a company, I have seen people leave with dignity and class, even when they have been asked to leave with some downsizing, rightsizing or reduction-in-force. I have also seen people trash their company and not give much notice wanting the company to have problems in the transition, even when the person is pulling the rip cord to leave.

I have shared with my kids, their friends and children of my friends, how you leave a job is vitally important. Our business worlds can be small, so your reputation matters. Your name is your greatest asset. It can also be your worst liability. Your former co-workers see how you conducted yourself. Your new company also will get wind of it. So, what do you want them to hear?

Leaving a company with dignity and class is also common sensical. If your new job does not work out, you have left an avenue to return. If you trashed that place, not only do you not have such an avenue, you may have damaged a referral to yet a new job.

I have shared this story about a very talented consultant who gave us a three day notice. He was not very helpful on projects that he was working on, just giving us his notes and a quick summary. It was highly unprofessional and he wanted us to fail to serve his former clients well. It should be noted he tended to be a prima donna, so others had to acquiesce to him more so than the other way around. About three years later, he wanted to return to our firm, and was stunned to learn he was not welcome.

I mention all of the above given what has transpired over the last two months and, in particular, the last two days. If the outgoing president had handled his election loss with dignity and class. he could have assured his place to re-run again in 2024. He could have still asked for recounts and even pursued some litigation with evidence. But, he could have handled the process with class and seriousness of purpose.

Instead, he announced on election night that he had won and proceeded with a narrative the election was being stolen from, an action he had staged and planned for six months. Sadly, he continued this false claim even as the evidence mounted against him and people who took their jobs seriously said he lost time and again.. Now, with the actions of his extreme followers which he wound up, invited and encouraged, he put people in danger and four have died.

How you leave a place is vitally important. Burning it all down is unprofessional and dangerous. And, the outgoing president has no one else to blame but the person in the mirror who looks back when he shaves. People do not emulate this behavior.

The echo chamber feedback loop

“Everyone is talking about this,” says the outgoing president on more than a few occasions.. “Everyone knows this is true” or “Everyone knows” he might use as an alternative or add-on to the above, as he is prone to repeat himself. These are intentional phrases used to make the listener or reader skip past them and assume the statements are true. When you hear or read these comments, do yourself a favor and assume the opposite.

Why? Because you are hearing an echo chamber feedback loop. The echo chamber occurs when the same piece of information, rumor or conspiracy theory is repeated within limited sources of information. In fact, this is how disinformation is so easily shared, especially with an untruthful, unrelenting and unaware user in the White House. In fact, when a Russian, Iranian, Chinese or American troll hears the outgoing president repeat what they made up, it is like capturing lightning in bottle.

Here is how it works. One of these sources will concoct an outlandish story that has some link to the truth or preconceived notion. about a person or party. Hillary Clinton is a prime target, eg, she is imperfect and an easy foil for made up stuff. As of this writing, there is a North Carolina man who is in jail because he believed that Clinton was running a child trafficking ring from a pizza parlor in Washington and took action armed for bear.

The concocted story is then picked up by one of the conspiratorial websites or a known sensationalist like Alex Jones, Sean Hannity or Rush Limbaugh. Since the outgoing president is on the look out for props to sell with (meaning a good story), he will latch onto it and retweet. Since he is president, the news agencies may pick up on the story he is espousing. As it gets repeated more, the lack of veracity of the story does not get repeated each time with the story, especially within the limited sources of information.

Then, the outgoing president will hear these stories and repeat them again. The story is still concocted, but now the White House incumbent believes it to be true and will punctuate statements with the phrases above. What is also interesting is even when the outgoing president makes things up on his own, he will begin to believe his own BS. This is what has happened with fraudulent claims of wide-spread voter fraud. He staged this story for months, but now believes it to be truth. Why? Because losing cannot be tolerated.

Years from now, historians will look back at this period and define the outgoing president as the most corrupt and deceitful US president. The voter fraud story is just a subset of his deceit, but the real story is how a person, well documented as untruthful, has convinced his followers every else is lying. That may be the biggest con in American history.

Two rules of thumb to remember. Read and listen to multiple sources. And, if the outgoing president says it or writes it, do not assume it is true. The odds are well in your favor to consider it false.