The Day Death Chose Not to Stop

I remember hearing the sound of a violent crash. The next thing I knew, I awoke, only to see a spidered windshield and deformed car door pressing against me. Concussion-induced amnesia stole from me (perhaps protected me from) other memories adjacent to the collision.

I do recall emergency personnel being on site, but don’t recall being extricated from the car or loaded into the ambulance. Vera, I remember calling your grandmother from the ambulance because I was concerned she’d go to the airport to meet me as planned. But I don’t recall sending an email and photo to her and your dad and uncle, although later I was presented with proof that I had. It was an odd thing to have done.

I recall arriving at the trauma center, the hall lined on both sides with medical personnel anticipating my arrival. Once on the table, I recall someone struggling to remove my wedding ring, to no avail. I recall suggesting lubricant. It worked.

I recall someone cutting off all my clothes. And I remember a doctor examining my spine for injury. I especially recall the intense pain as I was rolled on my side as they checked for internal hemorrhaging.

I’m sure there had to be more, but that’s all I remember, until being moved for CT scans. A short time later, I recall the excruciating pain as technicians endeavored to move me into position for x-rays.

Twelve hours later, after IV drips, pain meds, more tests, sutures, a failed attempt to set a bone, and a splint being plastered on me, I was discharged, barely able to walk but one lucky guy.

Reflecting on this day later, the thing that stood out for me, through it all — the trauma, pain and vast unknowns — is that I hadn’t experienced a single moment of fear.

It wasn’t a matter of courage. It was more like an act of grace. And peace.

Beginning with the moment I regained consciousness to the present, I have been experiencing an overwhelming sense of gratitude, and the feeling that death had passed by on that road, but for reasons I’ll never know, decided not to stop.

The paramedic remarked that I probably would not have survived if I hadn’t been wearing my seatbelt. When looking at the crushed metal from my captive, scrunched position inside the car, and later when viewing a photo of the exterior of the car, I knew that it took more than the seatbelt to save me that morning and, at the very least, the injuries could have been much, much worse.

I’m healing now, as are the occupants of the other vehicle, who remain in my constant thoughts and prayers.

Yesterday afternoon, we picked you up from your school, Vera. I couldn’t lift you up to put you in the car seat, and I think you’re wondering why I have so many boos-boos and a strange thing on my arm. But it doesn’t seem to matter to you. And it doesn’t matter to me, either.

Today, I will be wheeled into an operating room for back-to-back surgeries. Bone stuff — nothing life threatening. And then I will get to know my oral surgeon and dentist even better. There are worse ways to spend time.

Along this short, intense journey, I’ve encountered people of compassion, ranging from health care professionals, taxi and shuttle drivers, airlines personnel, strangers who offered assistance at the airport, friends from Colorado extending their arms 1,000 miles, family and others.

I also encountered some people who weren’t helpful or, worse yet, were actively unhelpful. But I’m just going to pretend I didn’t.

Some people say they’re sorry. I don’t say it (because I appreciate their concern), but what I’m thinking is, “For what?” 

There have been times in my life that I’ve felt sorry for myself. But this hasn’t been one of them.

I used to close letters and emails (and sometimes still do) to certain people with the words, “Peace and grace to you.”

This past week, the words returned home to me.

 

Do You Have the Right to Have an Opinion?

I love this quote from Ray Dalio:

Ask yourself whether you have earned the right to have an opinion.

We seem to live in an age in which everyone has an opinion about everything, no matter how ill-informed. And many of us aren’t shy about sharing our opinions (me included). Worse yet, many of us seem to regard our opinions as fact. (I think of it as the age of rampant self-delusion.)

Which brings me back to Ray’s comment. I wonder what the world would be like if we thought we should have to earn the right to have an opinion. Or at least the right to express it in public.

I suspect it would be a better place.

As I’ve gotten older, I’ve tried to have fewer opinions (mainly because, with age, I’ve realized how little I actually know), but I’m sure I still have far too many. Undoubtedly, I haven’t earned the right to have some of them.

I’m going to strive to discard those opinions which came cheap, that is, for which I haven’t earned the right to possess. And I’m going to endeavor to become slow to form new opinions. And to form only those that are earned and necessary.

Will I succeed? Probably not. At least not entirely. But even if I succeed in part, the world will be a better place — only to an infinitesimal degree, of course. But every little bit helps.

So with what shall I fill the void — the void left by these discarded and unformed opinions?

I think I’ll fill it with questions and hypotheses, things that opinions often stifle and suppress.

It should make for a less obnoxious and more interesting person.

Just Be Mindful of What You’re Up Against

According to a story in today’s Wall Street Journal, there is a “boom in federal prosecutions alleging theft or attempted theft of trade secrets.” I’m not the least bit surprised.

I’m not surprised because, if there is one thing life has taught me, it’s that most people are dishonest. Not all people, to be sure. But most.

I can’t prove it, but it seems as though dishonesty — in particular, stealing — has become more widely accepted during my lifetime, whether it’s stealing from the government (actually, from other citizens) by cheating on one’s taxes, stealing trade secrets, shoplifting, padding one’s expense reports, overbilling a customer/client/patient/etc., insurance fraud, bank fraud, securities fraud, hacking a database, price fixing, misrepresenting the quality or character of services or products one sells, or any of the other garden variety ways of taking something that isn’t rightfully yours.

I don’t recall anyone warning me of this when growing up. To the contrary, I was led to believe that people are basically good, the inference being they are to be trusted. Right.

I have absolutely no interest in the philosophical debate over the true nature of humans. Whether they are “inherently” or “basically” good is of no consequence to me. I’m too practical for that. I’d rather focus on dealing with what is.

And what is isn’t a pretty picture, Vera. What is is this: if you assume a person is honest, you do so at your peril.

I suppose I should be grateful for this. After all, I’m a lawyer. I’ve drafted many contracts and been involved in suing quite a few people and organizations that have reneged on their commitments. In other words, I’ve profited from the shortcomings of humanity.

The security industry undoubtedly is grateful, too. They prosper from the threat posed by the untrustworthy in our midst.

But that’s not the point. The point is, don’t let your guard down (which, of course, is one reason we’ll continue to have a lot of lawyers — to help guard people and companies from the lies and false promises of others).

Fortunately, there are some people who can be trusted — people who would never dream of taking advantage of another through lies, misrepresentations or outright theft. Insofar as possible, try to funnel your business and dealings to such people. And try to avoid as best you can the other people.

Often, however, there isn’t any way of knowing whether someone is trustworthy or not. You will be tempted to infer trustworthiness even if the evidence is lacking. Again, you do so at your own risk.

In the meantime, companies will continue to steal each other’s trade secrets, and many will continue to rip off their customers in one fashion or another. People will continue to cheat on their taxes and shoplift. That’s life. I suppose it will never change.

At times, it may seem as though everyone is doing it and, therefore, that it’s O.K. If you ever have that sense or feeling, stop and reflect.

Ponder what it means to be willing to take or keep that which isn’t rightfully yours. And what you’d be giving up if you live your life in such a manner.

I could be wrong, but I think it’s a lot.

Perhaps the Amish Can Teach Us a Thing or Two

I grew up in Pennsylvania, not far from Amish territory. We always regarded Amish territory as Lancaster County, although since my childhood the Amish turf has expanded. There are now quite a few Amish living in close proximity to my childhood home.

The Amish were always a novelty of sorts: buggies and horses; no cars, electricity, or phones; plain dress; bad haircuts; detachment from the broader society. It was never a life that appealed to me, yet I was aware that most kids who grew up Amish remained with the community throughout their lives, even after being given an opportunity to leave.

This morning, when reading a blog post about digital minimalism by Cal Newport (Study Hacks blog), I came across this statement about the Amish and their decision to reject much of the technology I take for granted:

The Amish, it turns out, do something that’s both shockingly radical and simple in our age of impulsive and complicated consumerism: they start with the things they value most, then work backwards to ask whether a given technology performs more harm than good with respect to these values.

Such incredible intentionality, I thought.

It’s hard to imagine a community that consciously evaluates technology in such a way. The English (the Amish’s term for me and you) rarely if ever undertake such a self-examination. Instead, we automatically embrace new technology if we can afford it and if it brings us pleasure. Or at least if we assume it’s going to bring us pleasure (whether or not it actually does is a different question).

But are we better off for it? That’s another matter. And it’s a question we don’t wrestle with much if at all.

I do know that the Amish don’t seem to be worse off for not having embraced many of the technologies that are part of our lives — at least if the measure is happiness. And if the measure isn’t happiness, then what is it? What should it be?

I suppose the Amish would argue we (the English) tend to undervalue community and relationships. Has it occurred to us they may be right?

And if they’re right, how would we live our lives differently if we better aligned our decisions with what we truly value?

Personally, I think we tend to undervalue relationships and time. Consequently, we have a plethora of fractured families and communities, and we tend to lives our lives like there is an inexhaustible supply of time when, in reality, time is a very limited, precious resource that could be gone in a heartbeat (literally).

There are some things I think we overvalue, too. Money and stuff head the list. I never cease to be amazed by the amount of storage space Americans rent in which to keep their excess stuff. And by the amount of debt Americans carry so they can buy more stuff.

But my goal, Vera, isn’t to convince you that my list of under and over-valued things is better than anyone else’s. Rather, it’s merely to raise the questions, might the Amish be on to something? And might we be well served by extending their question (does it do more harm than good) beyond decisions about technology?

I think they are and it does.

Life constantly tempts us to compromise our values for something else.

Often, the something else is something someone wants us to embrace (and value) because they can make money off of our decision to buy it. Or pursue it. Or acquiesce to it.

Often, the something else is merely ego gratification and short-termism — the failure to learn from history and to separate the wheat from the chaff.

It may be the right thing to do. But it also might be something that undermines our values and detracts us from the things — and people — that truly matter. The things that bring happiness into our lives. Or a deep sense of purpose or contentment. Or simply peace and grace.

Does it do more harm that good?

It’s not a bad question to ask ourselves each and every day of our lives.

Look for the Tailwinds

I never fully appreciated the impact of tailwinds and headwinds until I started cycling. I couldn’t believe the difference they make. Even when the winds are light, a tailwind does wonders. I wish I’d better understood this phenomenon earlier in life — not with respect to cycling, but with respect to life generally.

Recently, I read some comments by Warren Buffett about tailwinds and headwinds. Buffett stressed the importance of being in a business where tailwinds prevail.

“There are some businesses that are inherently far more opportunity than others,” he said. “So you want to give a lot of thought to which train you’re getting on.” It’s important to be “in businesses where tailwinds prevail rather than headwinds,” he added.

Take Mr. Buffett’s advice seriously, Vera. It will make life so much easier.

Twice in my life I joined businesses with headwinds: once with a chemical company and once with a small private college.

It’s not that either experience was bad. It’s just that there were limited opportunities. And the job was so much harder than it needed to be.

From an employment perspective, the chemical industry had been contracting for quite some time (still is). Technology, competition, demographics, globalization and commoditization had taken a heavy toll. It’s also a capital intensive business, which presents its own challenges, especially in this era of high-margin, capital-light businesses. In short, it’s an industry with headwinds, particularly with respect to employment and career opportunities.

That doesn’t mean you can’t have a satisfying successful career there. It just means there are industries with far more opportunity. And which are more exciting and dynamic. Why deal with headwinds if you can avoid them? (Of course, if you’re a chemical engineer, perhaps it’s the right place to be.)

The headwinds at the college were even stiffer. The 20th century was the century of colleges; the 21st is the century of universities. For a myriad of reasons, the vast majority of students want to attend a university, not a small college, especially one that is nestled in a rural community far from centers of commerce and industry.

Small, under-resourced colleges have a tough go of it these days. Most are struggling financially. There’s never enough money. Many are struggling academically, too.

Maintenance ends up being deferred. Salaries can’t keep pace with wealthier institutions and research universities, and it’s tough to compete for the best talent. The colleges have a hard time competing for the strongest academic students, too. It’s a constant struggle.

Again, it doesn’t mean you can’t have a satisfying career there. But it does mean the opportunities will be limited. And it means the environment is one of scarcity and not abundance.

Why deal with such headwinds? Why not go where tailwinds prevail?

One of my faults (there are many) is that I’m a sucker for a challenge. It’s a fault because it makes life harder than it needs to be. Looking back, I’m convinced I’d had been much better off looking for tailwinds instead of being attracted to headwinds, even though, from a career standpoint, things worked out pretty well for me. But perhaps not as well as they would have if I’d ridden more with tailwinds.

Don’t make the same mistake, Vera. Life is hard enough. Strive to ride with the wind, not against it. It will make the ride so much easier.

Should Anything Stand In The Way of Making Money?

Last evening, I took issue with this tweet of a financial blogger whom I had followed for his investment insights (Cullen Roche):

The idea of a “sin stock” never made sense to me. Who is the arbiter of whether a company makes the world worse or not?

Cullen went on to say:

The point I am getting at is that if these companies were truly sinning then the economy would divest them. Their stocks would go to $0.

[I]f they operate legally & have customers they’re not sinners.

There you have it, Vera: the market is the arbiter of what’s right and wrong.

I’d feel a whole lot better if I thought Cullen was an outlier in this regard. But I’ve seen too much. And lived through too much. I know better. I know that, often, the market — more specifically, money — is the arbiter.

Who’s to say what makes the world worse? Or better?

Some people say, “Let the market decide!”

Others say, “There is such a thing as morality and ethics that should constrain the markets. And individual choices.”

Today, I am so thankful you have the parents you do.

The Boomers’ Last Hurrah

About 10,000 Baby Boomers (those born between 1945 and 1964) retire each and every day in the United States. And now a large number are reaching age 70 each and every day. Our last hurrah is about to unfold.

The aging of my generation will produce a couple of indisputable consequences. First, outside of health care, the massive wave of retirements will depress consumption — that is, spending — in a very significant way, which will limit growth and exert deflationary pressures.

Second, this retirement wave will exacerbate our pension mess by increasing pension and Social Security costs dramatically. This comes against a backdrop of underfunded plans.

Despite what the right-wing propaganda machine persistently spews forth, Social Security is a relatively easy fix. But the state and private pension fix isn’t.

State and corporate pension plans are grossly underfunded. Some have already failed. More failures are to come. In short, some will renege on their obligations and retirees will not be receiving the monthly checks they’re expecting. (The only “bright”spot for the pension plans is that Americans are now dying earlier, thereby reducing the plans’ payouts.)

Saving some of the public systems will require tax increases, which will further suppress consumption.

Third, equity prices and, therefore, investment portfolios, will take a hit. Take General Electric for example. GE’s underfunded pension hole is $31 billion. Yet the market has yet to fully price into the stock this huge deficit.

Many other companies have large unfunded pension commitments. This will not be good for asset values and, by extension, individuals’ and endowments’ portfolios. Less spending. Deflationary pressures.

There are 72 million Boomers in the U.S. My generation had a major impact on our economy and society as we moved through adulthood. Don’t expect the impact to be any less as we move through retirement. It’s just that the impact will be very, very different.

When Debts Are Fun, and When They Aren’t

“Some debts are fun when you are acquiring them. But none are fun when you set about retiring them.” – Ogden Nash

I don’t mean to beat a dead horse to death, Vera. But I know you’re going to be bombarded with people, banks, credit card companies, stores and others encouraging you to borrow. And making it really easy for you to borrow.

Why wait when you can have it now? And you can have it all!

That’s the message. What you’ll never hear, however, is anything about the pain of paying it back (retiring the debt). And of not having enough savings to become financially independent and enjoying the freedom that comes from that.

Borrowing has come to be the American way. I’m not really sure why. But I am sure that excessive debt — and, in particular, the incurrence of huge amounts of unproductive debt — have caused all kinds of problems for people, companies, and local and state governments.

Yet we seem never to tire of debt. In fact, we borrow even more.

Oh, well, I suppose you’ll figure out what’s best for you. Just try to remember Mr. Nash’s point when you’re considering whether to get into debt: there is nothing fun about repaying loans.

That’s not to say that all debt is bad. Indeed, debt for productive uses can be good. Debt that yields a robust debt-income stream can be good.

But much of the debt incurred doesn’t. Paying that back will hurt the most.

A Series of Provocations

I suspect few would describe me as a provocateur. But it occurred to me that that’s what I’m being with these posts, Vera.

Part of me wants you to know me if I’m not around when you’re old enough to know or care. But that’s just a tiny part of it. The far more important part is the desire to provoke.

Provoke what?, you might ask. It’s simple really: Thought. Curiosity. Passion. An ethical bearing.

It’s my deep desire you become a thoughtful person. And a doer with intentionality, compassion and zeal.

But to think deeply, to become you — someone apart from the herd — you must be provoked. Many forces are aligned to instill obedience, compliance and herd mentalities. Indeed, many of our schools and workplaces are unwitting instruments of such forces. Consequently, it takes effort and intentionality to be an independent thinker, one who claims his or her own agency. One who fulfills his or her unique destiny.

It occurs to me that life might be easier for the unquestioning person. I would never fault anyone for choosing that path. But perhaps it’s the path that chooses us.

It also occurs to me that it is in the doing that life is lived. Thinking alone, living in one’s head, is a recipe for loneliness and despair. It is rare the person who can be contented there.

Work is a means of fulfillment. Dignity. Empowerment. Identity. And, ultimately, it can be the source of a sense of purpose.

Yet without thought we are merely instruments of production. Tools for others to use. And to discard.

You will be bombarded with many messages. Many claims of truth. Yet I have found many to be lies.

Distinguishing lies from truth is not always easy. More often than not, lies come well disguised. But reason (deep thinking) is there to help. Be wary of allowing it to be supplanted by the loudest voice.

The voice many claim as true is that of a taker. Yet I have found that it is in giving that the soul finds delight.

Your mind is a powerful instrument. Don’t be shy about using it. But don’t think it has all the answers.

Answers come in different ways. Never ignore that which tears seek to reveal. Or the lessons of laughter.

Sometimes, when we play and I’m sitting on the floor, you run and throw your entire body into me. And laugh.

It seems you are a provocateur, too.

 

Where You Choose To Live Could Have Dire Consequences

Watching news reports last week about explosions at one of my former plants in Crosby, Texas, rekindled these thoughts in me once again. To be precise, the plant really wasn’t mine. I didn’t own it. But I was responsible for it. I was the CEO of the company that owned and operated the plant.

But that’s not the point. The point is this: Why do humans fail to address threats until they’ve materialized?

The most notable example was 9/11. We had been warned that terrorists might fly planes into buildings. But we ignored the warnings and then, when the threat turned into reality, made excuses by claiming no one could have foreseen such an event (even though some did).

There are countless other examples. The Crosby plant is just the latest. The situation there was avoidable. So why was it allowed to happen?

Vera, the answer to my first question (why do we fail to address threats?) is this: I’m not sure.

I don’t know why people are so reluctant to address threats when there’s time to do something about it. Complacency? Poor judgment? Laziness? Lack of concern? I’m not entirely sure.

But I do know one factor that plays a role: money.

Solutions often require spending money, either on capital or higher operating expenses. But you get ahead in corporate America by cutting costs, not increasing them. So the incentives reward deferral and avoidance. And the system usually doesn’t tolerate people who force it to confront risks, especially ones that require money to ameliorate.

(As an aside, this is why I’m bemused by people who say we don’t need regulation. All that tells me is the person is utterly clueless and has never run a business that has the capacity to inflict harm (to people, the financial system, the environment, etc.). Opinion grounded in ignorance can do a lot of harm and we’re seeing that play out on the national stage today. But that’s beyond the scope of this post.)

Well, I suppose there isn’t much you or I can do about it. Money rules. Safety often doesn’t.

So does that mean we can do nothing about it? Not quite.

We can limit our own exposure to avoidable risks.

In that vein, here is one thing we can do to reduce those risks materially: avoid living near train tracks or chemical or fertilizer plants (or certain other industrial plants for that matter).

I don’t want to share details because I don’t want to risk giving anyone an idea that may not have occurred to them. Suffice it to say the risks associated with living near train tracks, fertilizer plants and certain chemical plants are much higher than most people think.

Take Toulouse, France as an example. On September 21, 2001, a plant that was owned by a sister company of Arkema Inc. (the company that owns and operates the Crosby, Texas plant) had an incident. The explosion killed 31 people and injured more than 2,400. Property loss was massive. The only reason the explosion didn’t receive more attention was that it came on the heels of 9/11, which, understandably, still captured America’s attention.

In short, where you choose to live can have dire consequences.

If you can’t avoid proximity, at least be sure not to live downwind. Know the direction of the prevailing winds in your area.

I made the mistake of failing to take this into consideration when we moved to Westtown, Pa., not far downwind from a chemical plant that could put the community at risk. I hope not to make the same mistake again. (Fortunately, nothing happened at Westtown when we lived there, and, of course, I hope that nothing ever does.)

Now I realize, in most cases, the risk of something bad happening isn’t high. But I also know that humans tend to think the worst that could happen has already happened. Yet reason tells us that’s merely an embedded bias and isn’t supported by fact or reality. The worst that could happen may be around the corner.

And although the risk of something really bad happening may not be high, the risk of something really bad happening if an event does occur can be very high. Indeed, it can be catastrophic.

I’m aware of one chemical plant that could threaten (lethally) people 18 miles downwind. And I know that groundwater is contaminated at and around many chemical and other industrial sites in the U.S. (and other countries, too). And that a lot of bad stuff (including carcinogens) still spews from stacks and plants.

I’m also aware that few people know what’s being transported on our rail lines and what could happen if a breach occurred, in just one rail car, in a populated area. If they did, something would change.

But as it is, the companies and their lobbyists bend laws and regulations their way via their campaign contributions and other means and we go on our merry way — unless and until catastrophe strikes, that is.

Nothing good can come from living near a chemical plant or other industrial site that handles or produces toxic or hazardous substances or emits such substances into the air or disposes of them into the ground.

And nothing good can come from living near a train track.

But a lot bad can come from living near a chemical plant or train track. The fact that most people don’t appreciate what can happen doesn’t make the risk any less real.

It would be nice if we could count on our fellow human’s to avoid doing things that put others at risk. It would be nice. But we can’t.

Therefore, each person has to take responsibility for his or her own safety, Vera. We can’t eliminate all of the risks. A plane could fall from the sky onto our house. A driver could cross the road and hit us head on (I lost an aunt and cousin this way). The possibilities for something bad happening are seemingly limitless. But you can’t control what you can’t control. And, frankly, I don’t worry about those risks.

But there are things we can do to minimize unnecessary risks. One thing we can do is to be mindful about where we live.

Know your surroundings. There is no upside to taking avoidable risks when better options exist.