Please Don’t Tell Me You Know How I Feel

I don’t want to hear it. I don’t want to hear anyone say they “know how I feel.” You don’t.

I know you mean well, but how I feel has nothing to do with you. By saying you know how I feel, you’re redirecting the focus to yourself. It’s called conversational narcissism.

If you’re suffering — battling cancer, grieving over the loss of a loved one, going through a traumatic divorce or whatever — I don’t know how you feel. I can assume it’s really bad, but you don’t need anyone telling you that, anymore than you need someone telling you something you’ll never believe (that they know how you feel).

It’s not that I’m good at responding to people in crisis. I’m not. Usually, I don’t know what to say. Sometimes, it seems the best I can do is not say something I know is false or, possibly, counterproductive, such as “I know how you feel.”

It’s hard, because sometimes I think I do know how they feel. And perhaps I do, to an extent. But not fully. Each person, and each person’s experience, are unique, despite humanity’s commonalities. Respecting that uniqueness is important, especially when the other person is suffering.

So sometimes all I can say is, “I’m sorry.” Or “I’m sorry for what you’re going through.”

I can say more, but only if I truly mean it. I can say, “Please feel free to call me if there is anything I can do.” But, again, only if I mean it.

And sometimes, I think the best we can do is what I saw so many people do when I was growing up in rural south-central Pennsylvania. Sometimes, dropping off a fresh baked pie or casserole is enough. More than enough.

Oh, there’s one last thing, Vera — something you’re good at but, if you’re like many people, may lose the knack for as you grow up. You can hug the person. Or hold their hands.

Sometimes words just get in the way.

What Makes a House Perfect?

Your parents signed a contract this week to buy a house, Vera. It’s in their targeted neighborhood and school district. Finding a suitable house was a long process. Inventory in that desirable area of Indianapolis hasn’t been high, but demand has been very strong. Often, houses sold within hours or a day or two. It was common for multiple bids to be received by sellers, triggering bidding wars. I think your parents were outbid on at least one occasion; perhaps more. But, finally, they landed one.

I haven’t seen the house yet, other than the photos on the realtor’s website. It looks nice. I think you’ll like it there. I’m pleased because it isn’t far from the Monon, which means we’ll be able to bike to your place.

As with almost all houses in this part of town, the house was built some time ago (i.e., it has some age, just like me). I’m sure there will be some things that need updating. Or perhaps some renovations will be in the works. Age has certain advantages when it comes to houses (construction quality usually was better back then), but certain disadvantages (certain materials weren’t available then). The bottom line is, the house probably will be very suitable and nice, but not perfect. That’s where you come into the picture. You can help make it perfect.

A perfect house, you see, has nothing to do with the quality of construction or type of materials used. But it has everything to do with what’s inside.

Inside a perfect house you’ll find a loving family. One whose members nurture, challenge and support each other. Who are there for each other no matter what. Who are kind and forgiving. Who laugh and celebrate together. Who cry and grieve together. Who are honest with each other. Indeed, inside a perfect house you will find the world as it could be.

You are one lucky little girl. You have wonderful parents. And you have your health and a bright future.

You and your parents already have a perfect house. But you’ll be moving soon. It’s not far from where you currently live. You’ll be leaving your old house behind. But you’ll be taking with you all the things that make your old house perfect and will make your new house just as perfect.

I can’t wait to visit.

What Are You O.K. With?

One thing I appreciated about the candidacy of Roy Moore, who ran for one of Alabama’s U.S. Senate seats and narrowly lost yesterday, is that it brought bigotry into the open. Mr. Moore thinks we’d be better off if we did away with all the amendments to the U.S. Constitution after the 10th amendment (i.e., do away with all except the Bill of Rights). Those amendments that Mr. Moore would ditch include ones that abolished slavery and gave women the right to vote. These comments weren’t merely a slip of the tongue on the part of Mr. Moore; they were entirely consistent with other comments he’s made over the years and during the campaign. Clearly, Mr. Moore would feel more comfortable living in pre-Civil War Alabama. Regardless of what I think about his views, I’m glad Mr. Moore shared so openly.

Of course, they’re not only his views. Of the 1,334,397 people who voted in Alabama yesterday, 650,436 (48.4 percent) voted for Mr. Moore. They thought he was O.K.; they wanted him to represent them in Congress. They not only thought his views were O.K., but also thought his character was acceptable. Mind you, in this 30s, Mr. Moore preyed on teenage girls. Yet he was only 0.75 percentage points away from winning a seat in Congress.

I’m glad for this particular election because it helps us recognize that such views are out there. Often, they’re kept undercover for fear of social ostracism. But they’ve been coming out in the open more lately, in part due to people like Mr. Moore and President Trump. But these men didn’t create the ideas; they’re merely legitimizing them and emboldening those who hold them.

It’s easy for those of us who have a comfortable middle-class life to dismiss or ignore the threats to equality and justice. It’s tempting to think those ideas have been discredited and the battle for justice and equality is over. But it isn’t. In fact, it will never be over.

Some people find support for such views in holy books, principally, the Christian Bible and the Koran. Others find it in tradition. Others find it in a longing for a highly structured society that would yield its principal economic benefits to them and “their kind of people.”

Regardless of motivation, these ideas are a force to be reckoned with. If left unchallenged, they will ascend in power once again. And whether they ascend or not, they are stronger today than most of us privileged white, urban people recognize or care to admit. Much work remains, that is, if equality and justice are guiding principles in your life.

The questions each of us answers, either overtly or passively through inaction, are:

  • Should a person’s future be defined, in whole or in part, by their sex, skin color or ancestry?
  • What are we O.K. with?

You may think the answer to the first question is obvious. You just have to remember that there are others who think the answer is obvious, too, but their answer is different from yours.

History tells us that humanity wasn’t given a playbook to follow. We create the rules for the society we envision and think is best for our particular situation and the values we embrace. It always comes down to, Who is writing the rules?

Quite a few Americans wanted to bestow Mr. Moore with the power to write rules. The question is, Are the rest of us O.K. with that? And, if not, what are we going to do about it?

The Nonprofit Scam

It’s that time of year again, when nonprofits are beating down doors for end-of-year donations. Some time ago I explained why I no longer contribute to most nonprofits. But, of course, I don’t care if others do. It’s their money; they can do with it as they please. It’s just that I no longer desire to subsidize the gross waste, redundancy, extravagance and inefficiency (including lack of results) that permeate the nonprofit world. That said, I’m sure there are some nonprofits that are doing wonderful work and are good stewards of their donors’ contributions (so if you’re working for such a nonprofit, please don’t get upset by this post). It’s just that it might take some work to confirm whom they are.

My current position was triggered by my time working for a nonprofit college. But the seeds of it were present long before that. I had earlier served on an executive volunteer board for the United Way. That was my first exposure to the extreme redundancies in the system. And it was then I first learned of the number of nonprofits that exist mainly (if not solely) to provide employment and income to their founders or executives (or faculty).

But back to colleges for a second. Today the Chronicle of Higher Education ran a story titled Private Colleges Had 58 Millionaire Presidents in 2015. The president of Wake Forest University received more than $4 million of compensation (which, to be fair, was overshadowed by the $9.6 million showered on the president of Savannah College of Art and Design in 2014). You can find all the presidents’ compensation here if you’re interested.

Colleges have had a relatively easy time raising money because many of their alumni have a strong sentimental attachment to their schools, which, of course, if a good thing for Mr. Hatch (president of Wake Forest) and the other millionaires leading our nation’s colleges and universities. Meanwhile, of course, our nations’ students and former students are carrying nearly $1.5 trillion of student debt. What a system we have.

I used to tell my students that, to understand the dynamics of a particular situation, they should follow the money. Most of the time, it’s that simple.

Fortunately for many nonprofits, their donors aren’t all that concerned where the money is going. But if they ever get concerned, watch out. The nonprofit world will be turned upside down.

Soul in the Game

I was surprised recently to read these words written by scholar and author Nassim Taleb (and former equities trader). Nassim is not fond of liberals. He’s not in the conservatives’ camp either. He’s probably more libertarian than conservative. But he’s less harsh on conservatives. He holds a special disdain for liberals, especially if they’re academics or economists. Or do-gooders who want to tell everyone else how to live. So you can image my surprise when I read his assessment of Ralph Nadar, a liberal by anyone’s standards. Nassim wrote:

I developed a friendship over the past few years with the activist Ralph Nadar … . Aside from an astonishing amount of personal courage and total indifference toward smear campaigns, he exhibited absolutely no divorce between what he preaches and his lifestyle, none. Just like saints who have soul in their game. The man is a secular saint.

Earlier in his writing, Taleb had commented about courage, sacrifice and heroism. He referred to a “new form of courage, that of the Socratic Plato.” He noted the privilege of “standing up for one’s values, … the highest form of honor.” He added:

No one has had more prestige in history than two thinkers who overtly and defiantly sacrificed their lives for their ideas–two Eastern Mediterraneans; one Greek and one Semite.

People who had soul in the game. People who exhibited “absolutely no divorce” between what they preached and how they lived.

Perhaps most of us don’t have it in us to be heroes. Or to be people who exhibit no divorce between what we preach and our lifestyle. I know I don’t. But it’s nice there have been — there are — such people. They inspire the rest of us. They give us hope. They confirm that words matter. That actions matter. That lives matter. That we matter.

America Needs to Rethink Its Views about Government and Corporations

Yesterday I read in the newspaper about a former executive of Volkswagen who had been sentenced to seven years in prison for his role in his company’s notorious scheme to defraud the U.S. by rigging the emissions tests of VW autos. I also read about the CEO of a company who resigned in the face of allegations of serious misrepresentations of financial information (another Enron although of much smaller scale).

Once again I am left to wonder, How did we get it into our heads in this country that government is inherently bad and corporations are inherently good? My reaction is always the same: people who think that way have never worked for a corporation (or at least never held an executive position in one).

That’s not to say corporations are evil and that everyone who works for one is bad. Hardly. And it’s not to say that everyone who works for government is good or conscientious, either. Hardly.

It is to say, however, that government has a proper role to play. Government is not inherently bad. It’s necessary. And, through government, a lot of good has been accomplished in the world. We should stop trying to tear it down and put a little more effort into making it as good as it can be. But that doesn’t seem to be our goal these days. Instead, we seem to be ceding control to our corporations, because, as we’re led to believe: government is bad, business is good. You’d think the flaw in this position would be obvious, but you’d be wrong. Many smart people now believe it to be true.

Most of us who’ve spent a career in business — and particularly those of us in the legal field — know that claim is a bunch of bull. Indeed, there is a helluva lot of criminal, fraudulent and unethical activity going on within our corporations. We should stop pretending there isn’t. Just read the frinkin’ papers. We also should stop pretending that corporations are so incredibly efficient. Most aren’t.

Some of the most conscientious, ethical people whom I’ve had the privilege of dealing with work for government. And for business. And some of the slimiest people whom I’ve observed in action have worked for corporations. And for the government. You even elected some of them.

It’s indisputable that there are good and bad actors in both government and industry. That’s the point. Both ethical and unethical behaviors can be found in both. And both corporations and government can be inefficient and wasteful.

I don’t understand what’s behind this extreme deference we’re showing to business these days, other than to conclude it’s just one more example of the power of propaganda. Republicans have been trying to tear down government for the past 40 years or more, and they’ve largely succeeded, principally through the tool of relentless propaganda. As a result, the corporations’ lobbyists are now writing our tax code, corporations (e.g., Facebook) are allowing themselves to be used by foreign agents to influence our elections, corporations are polluting our environment in violation of laws, corporations are shipping jobs overseas and still other corporations are acquiring monopoly power, unchecked by our neutered government antitrust enforcers. Indeed, we seem to be on the verge of handing corporate America the keys to the car.

We’re paying a steep price. And we’ll pay an even higher price in the future if we take these misguided ideas to their illogical extremes. But at least the corporations will be happy. And why shouldn’t they be?

I’m Declaring War on Sugar

In the mid-19th century, diabetes and obesity were not problems in America. Today, they represent an epidemic, not only in America but also in other countries that have adopted a Western diet and lifestyle. One in 11 Americans has diabetes. Most of us Americans are overweight (including me). Many are obese.

The situation is not benign. Far from it. People are dying prematurely. People are getting joint replacements at record rates. Most men age 60 and above suffer from heart disease. The percentage of people with high blood pressure is high. A substantial number of people are taking antidepressants and anti-anxiety drugs. Medical costs in the U.S. are the highest in the world on a per capita basis. We’re spending huge amounts of money (an estimated $1 billion a day in the U.S.) to deal with obesity and diabetes. It’s a big problem.

If you’re interested in learning more, there are ample resources and evidence available: books, news articles, magazine stories, research studies, etc. If you want to explore the topic briefly, I recommend this podcast of Gary Taubes.

There’s also ample evidence from observation. You’d have to be blind not to see what’s going on: what we’re eating, what we weigh, what it’s costing us (in both quality of life and money).

Given the size of the problem, I’m surprised we’re not doing more about it. Then again, I’m not surprised. I’m guilty. I love many of the food products that are bad for us.

Periodically, I try to clean up my diet. But I always backslide. So I carry more weight than I should, even though I know better. I hate it when my willpower comes up short. It makes me feel weak. And not in control. I hate it.

I like how I feel when I weigh less. And common sense tells me my joints appreciate it, too. And my heart. And especially my liver and pancreas. Perhaps even my brain.

It’s true I exercise more than most. But being in shape doesn’t compensate for being overweight. Or being addicted to sugar.

Perhaps you’ll have more willpower than me, Vera. Perhaps this won’t be a problem for you. But just in case, I’ve decided to be a better role model.

I have to keep it simple though. If the plan is too complicated, it’s more likely to fail. So here’s my plan: to declare war on sugar.

Clearly, sugar is the main culprit. If I conquer it, victory will be at hand. That’s a simple enough plan for me.

But it’s also hard. It won’t be easy. Sugar is a psycho-active substance. It’s addictive. It’s powerful. It will resist. It will fight back. The question is, Who is stronger? Who has the most willpower?

No one likes to lose a war. So in framing it as a war, I’m hoping to muster a psychological advantage.

I’m also using you, Vera, in my psychological warfare. You will help me with accountability. You don’t know it; you’re too young. But you have a role to play. When I think of you, or see you, you’ll be a strong reminder of what’s at stake.

I want to be able to do things with you. To play. Run. Ride bikes. Hike. Climb. Whatever. And I want to be around to see you grow up. And I don’t want to spend my time in doctor’s offices or hospitals. I don’t want to have surgeries. Or pay a lot of money buying meds. And, most importantly, I want feel good.

Feeling good is important. I think we underestimate its importance.

I feel better light.

So I’m waging a war. Sugar is my enemy. Prepare to die, sugar!

Is Medicine As Bad As My Surgeon Says It Is?

During my last appointment with one of the surgeons who operated on me following my auto accident, after discussing my latest injury and path forward, she changed the subject and threw me a curve ball: She turned the subject to my emergency care in the hours following my accident and offered her opinion that the hospital to which I was taken by ambulance had committed malpractice.

Now, malpractice isn’t a work doctors use lightly. In my experience as a lawyer, I find that most doctors are protective of their medical colleagues and their profession. Many dislike lawyers because they second-guess doctors’ decisions. And seek monetary damages for their clients. Frankly, I never thought I’d hear a doctor go out of her way to offer an unsolicited opinion that her distant colleagues screwed up.

I wasn’t surprised by the opinion, however. Indeed, I had reached the same conclusion on my own, although I hadn’t intended to do anything about it other than to call the hospital and share my concerns. I certainly had no intention of suing, and I still don’t have any such intention.

My doctor didn’t stop there. She began talking about the state of hospitals in general. She criticized what had become of most of the teaching hospitals, including some well-known ones. She opined that, outside of a few institutions like the Cleveland Clinic and MD Anderson, most have seen their quality erode. Finally, she said she would avoid most hospitals, including a well known one right here in Indy.

She offered quite a few specifics to back up her claim, but I’m not going to get into it here. Nor am I going to explain the basis for her and my opinion that the hospital to which I was taken had committed malpractice. I’m not going to get into it because, by and large, most of us have no choice in the matter. Or very little choice.

We will go to the nearest hospital to which the ambulance takes us or our GP or specialist sends us. Moreover, we lack the time and sophistication to research the quality issues adequately. Or at least we lack the commitment to take the time. That said, there is more we can do.

I have a friend who thinks you always need an advocate to help look after your interests if you find yourself hospitalized. I have another former friend who can recite the times her presence at the hospital (one of the top-ranked hospitals in the country) helped save her husband’s life. I have another friend who took her mother from Pittsburgh to Texas for an operation because that’s where the best care could be secured. In other words, there is something we can do; we’re not as helpless as we often act.

When I look back to my relatively brief hospital stay, I can see where an advocate would have helped. I had suffered a concussion that had rendered me unconscious for a considerable period of time — an injury to the brain. I was hardly in position to make important decisions or to question decisions being made by doctors.

I was fortunate though; the negative consequences of their mistakes may have been relatively minor. But others haven’t been so fortunate. Some mistakes have been costly. Some have been deadly.

There always will be mistakes, of course. We’re human. We’re imperfect. Mistakes are part of our makeup. But there are mistakes, and there are mistakes.

I’d argue that many of the mistakes today are the foreseeable product of a corrupt incentive system. My surgeon would argue — and I tend to agree — that most hospitals are being run by the finance department these days, which is a fancy way of saying that money rules. It’s not surprising. We see it everywhere, not only in medicine.

We see it in the fields of research (pharmaceutical and others), government (corporate special interests calling the shots), education (the atrocious quality of the student educational experience at most of our colleges and the abysmal results achieved by many K-12 schools), religion (despite Jesus overturning the tables, it appears the money changers won), and elsewhere.

But medicine is arguably different. Lives are at stake. But is it different? Why would we think it would be?

I’m grateful for the skill and expertise of some of the doctors, nurses and other medical professionals who worked on me and my case in the aftermath of the accident. But I’m also disappointed in the performance of some of the doctors and others.

I’m not going to forget what my surgeon told me. The next time (if there is a next time), I’ll be less deferential and more skeptical, especially concerning the judgment calls the doctors make. And I will ask for help from someone who isn’t in the middle of the crisis.

I know that money corrupts. History teaches few lessons that are as clear as that one. Is money corrupting our health care system? Or perhaps the better way of asking it is, Is medicine immune from the corrupting influences of money?

How could it be?

The Fear of Missing Out

Social media and internet usage are driven, in part, by the fear of missing out. In my case, despite knowing better, I check news sites, Twitter and Facebook far too often. I want to be sure I don’t miss something important. Unfortunately, the internet does a poor job of separating the important from the trivial, which means I spend too much time and focus on the unimportant.

The problem is, all of this is time consuming and distracting. It interferes with other things, namely, things that have the potential of being far more meaningful and valuable to myself and others.

The other aspect of the problem is the lack of discipline being exhibited. A well-disciplined person would not succumb to the temptations of immediacy that the internet provides. The person would be in control.

Finally, there are the detriments of information overload. Simply put, I know too much. And a lot of what I know is utterly useless — sheer clutter and noise. It doesn’t make me a better person or better informed, and it certainly isn’t useful in making better decisions. It’s just information overload, plain and simple.

That’s the problem as I see it. So what’s the fix? Here’s the plan I’ve been implementing.

The first step is to be clear about what I need to know. I have a national newspaper delivered daily so there’s no danger of missing something of national or international importance. Hence, I’ve been reducing dramatically my checks of internet news sites.

But it’s not that simple. There is some news that is critical to what I do, namely, investing and trading financial assets (stocks and bonds primarily). So I do need to keep in touch with developments that could impact significantly the value of those assets and the markets generally.

Which brings me to Twitter. It’s a great resource; however, like other sites, it can get out of control. So I’ve been culling the list of people and organizations I follow to focus on those who are more regularly adding new insights or material information that is more likely to have a bearing on investment decisions.

I’ve also stopped reading most of the president’s tweets. At first, they were entertaining and insightful, providing a window to a deranged mind. But, frankly, by this point he’s become a bore. A potentially dangerous one, but a bore nonetheless. I don’t need daily reminders of just how crazy it is that an individual like him occupies the White House.

Finally, on the email front, I’ve been unsubscribing from all but what are essential sites for purposes of investment decisions. And have been converting daily Google Alerts to weekly ones and dropping ones that have only marginal value.

I often say that fear is the most insidious and injurious force in the universe. I believe that. But fear takes many forms. It’s taken me far too long to appreciate the grip that the fear of missing out has on my life. Finally, I’ve reached the point where denial is no longer an option. It’s time to take control.