When the Cost of Living Becomes Too Great

This weekend was the weekend from hell. I don’t think I’ve ever experienced sustained pain of this magnitude. It was so bad Saturday night that, although I thought it might be a good idea to go to the ER at 1 a.m., I just couldn’t imagine getting to the car. My best odds were in lying perfectly still and popping one of those leftover opiates from my surgery. All of this came on the heels of a really bad Friday night and a couple other horrendous days over the past two weeks.

In the overall scheme of things, it’s nothing. And, indeed, the pain since Saturday night has been bearable.

I’m not worried about it, although I have to admit it’s a royal pain in the ass. It’s hard to focus and get things done when you’re battling this kind of thing. I suppose I’m too easily distracted.

The episode did spur me to remember there was something I wanted to tell you, Vera, that I hadn’t gotten around to sharing yet. As will be obvious, this is a message for when you’re an adult (as if all the other posts aren’t).

I know this is difficult for some people to accept, but here it is: There are limits to what I would do to extend my life, and there are steps I might take to end my life on my own terms.

Now, I’m certainly not suggesting my current ailment is life threatening or would precipitate any action. It’s not. I’m thinking ahead. Well down the road. When I’m old (an age that mysteriously keeps getting pushed further into the future).

I think I have a rather high pain threshold, and I could live with a certain amount of pain. But I don’t think I could live with severe daily pain, mainly because it would prevent me from living and doing any of the things that bring me joy. In my mind, living entails more than breathing. Perhaps I’m being greedy. Whatever.

Moreover, I have no desire to live through a hideous, painful death if I can help it. I watched my father (your great-granddad) go through such a death as cancer destroyed his body. It was terrible. If given the opportunity to avoid that fate, I’d seize it, even at the cost of a shorter life. So don’t be surprised if the time comes when I move to Oregon or Vermont (although I hope that’s a long way off!).

I also have no desire to be institutionalized. A couple of years ago your grandmother and I applied for long-term care insurance. Both of us qualified (physically and mentally), which was good news. We purchased a policy for your grandmother. I passed.

The reason is simple: I would be miserable sitting or lying in one of the facilities. If that were to happen, I’d feel as though the cost of living was simply too high.

Your grandmother points out I may not have a choice. She’s right. I easily could have ended up in such predicament as a result of my recent accident. I asked her, if that were to happen, to suffocate me. She declined. I have to come up with a Plan B.

I understand the human instinct for survival. I get it. And I’d never judge anyone who tried to squeeze out one more day, hour or breath, regardless of the cost or situation.

All I’m asking is that, if it ever comes to this, please respect my decision. Don’t expect me to continue on when the cost of living becomes too great in my judgment.

Frankly, I’m hoping that day never comes. But it might. If it does, don’t feel like a tragedy occurred, and don’t rationalize it away by saying he must not have been thinking clearly or was depressed. That would be insulting to me. And condescending and disrespectful.

More importantly, don’t worry about me. Ever. Now or in the future. And never fret over any decision I might make even if it’s different from the decision you’d make for yourself in the same or similar circumstance.

If you ever want to do something for me, just go about living your life to the fullest. Even at this early age, you have an unusual zest for life, Vera. It’s infectious. Share it with the world!

What I’ve Learned Over the Years About Flags and Anthems

Here is a recent inquiry to a law firm about an incident in Indiana:

I work for a prominent company in a small city here in the Hoosier State, and we are very involved in our local community. We sponsor a corporate softball team, and last night one of our team members “took a knee” during the national anthem before a game. His supervisor asked if the player can be disciplined for this conduct or at least transferred out of the supervisor’s department.

This comes on the heels of President Trump making political hay over the demonstrations by some NFL players (taking a knee during the playing of the national anthem to draw attention to racial injustice and police brutality).

The current stink over athletes’ nonviolence demonstrations caused me to reflect on some of the things I’ve learned over the years about flags and anthems.

Flags

They’re an object. A piece of cloth or other material. They have no inherent value or meaning. Yet people love to rally around them. I’ve done it myself.

Sometimes, the rally is for good (maybe). Sometimes, it’s innocuous (neutral). Often, it’s for bad purposes.

The mighty Roman Empire employed flags in its pageantry and celebrations of war victories. And to lead their troops into battle. Flags are useful in getting young men to charge into situations from which they might not exit whole or alive. The elite (rich, powerful people who pull the strings of war and government) are very good at using flags to manipulate the emotions of others. Consequently, many flags are stained with blood.

The Romans weren’t lone, of course. Examples are replete throughout history, including the Pope as he extended the military reach of the “Holy” Roman Catholic Church beyond Rome, the king of England as he marched troops to the “Holy Land” to kill heretics, Hitler as he mustered support among the youth and other impressionable people to establish and expand his Third Reich, modern-day neo-Nazis who march in Charlottesville, and now Donald Trump, with his red MAGA cap as he uses bigotry, fear and hate to solidify and expand his political base even at the expense of driving a stake through the heart of America.

The president rails against those who supposedly disrespect the flag, while intentionally distorting and misrepresenting the motives and actions of the demonstrators and while assaulting the very Constitution he professes to respect (e.g., his blatant attacks on the First Amendment). Obviously, he’s doing this for purely selfish political purposes. Yet his tactics are effective.

If some people think anyone is disrespecting the Stars and Stripes, they get angry. And angry people are highly manipulatable. They become unthinking and unreflective people, the kind of people whom demagogues want and need to claim and retain power.

So here’s my take on flags — impressions more than 60 years in the making:

  • Flags are things. That’s all. One cannot respect or disrespect a piece of cloth or plastic. It’s what flags represent that matter. They can represent good things. And really bad things, too. Some flags represent both. But, in the end, it’s just a thing.
  • I don’t pledge allegiance to any flag. Allegiance means you’ll do whatever you’re told to do by your country — i.e., by its political leaders (who typically do the bidding of the wealthy powerful class). I won’t. I’ve seen too much. I know that some of those leaders have led us into immoral wars. Have engaged in torture. Have overthrown democratically elected governments. Have slaughtered — or, more often, have directed others to slaughter — defenseless native Americans and even entire cities of women and children, and, today, by its drones and other instruments of death, to kill countless innocent people, including children and babies. Some have run medical experiments on Americans without their consent. Imprisoned people without due process. I’m not about to blindly promise my allegiance to such people. (As an aside, I never understood how a Christian could pledge allegiance to a flag or nation. It’s so obviously antithetical to the life of discipleship.)
  • Despite what I just wrote, the American flag does represent something I value. Specifically, it represents the ideals and principles on which the country was founded and under which it has grown and thrived. It’s true we have not fully realized those ideals, and we never will. That’s what makes them ideals. We’re a work in progress. Yet I thoroughly embrace and adore the principles of freedom and individual liberty, and the right to choose for oneself and not be bound by the mandates of a king or president. The freedom of press, of expression, of religion, of dissent — these are ideals that the flag represents to me and which would cause me never to deface the flag. Yet I’m not so blind as not to see what the same flag may represent to others — to those who have been oppressed by people who pledged allegiance to the flag and claim to respect it so much.

Anthems

Much of what I wrote about flags apply equally to our national anthem. I have and will sing it. To me, the words “Land of the free” are the most important words in the Star Spangled Banner.

I don’t much care for the genesis of the lyrics or its glorification of war. There are better songs. But it’s what we got. To be honest, I don’t spend anytime thinking about it.

Freedom: The Thread That Supposedly Hold the Stars and Stripes Together

Observing the anthem/flag controversy in the NFL today reminds me of the dangers of being sucked into the hysteria of nationalists — the very kind of people who are prone to wrap themselves in flags. We ignore such people at our peril. Scared, angry people with power — especially those with strong nationalistic and militaristic tendencies — are capable of doing really bad things. We’ve seen it too often throughout history to take it lightly.

What all of this does, for me, is to highlight a truth that has been present for most or all of our country’s existence: many Americans don’t actually like freedom and some of the principles embedded in our constitution. Actually, they feel threatened by it.

Again, this isn’t new. The majority didn’t much care for Martin Luther King, Jr. and his nonviolent resistance to institutionalized racism, and they don’t much care for resistance today, especially when it’s delivered by people with dark skin.

Moreover, those in society’s dominant position (principally, white men) try to impose discipline — that is, penalties — to ensure dissent doesn’t spread or become accepted. Fire the employee! Transfer him (see opening request of the Indiana supervisor)! Kill the troublemaker’s prospects for promotion. Refuse to sign the athlete. Boycott them and hit them where it hurts: in the pocketbook. Erect statutes of white supremacists (known affectionately as Southern heroes) and fly the Confederate flag to remind them who’s really in charge! Scare them by shooting some defiant college students (Kent State). Try to intimidate them by carrying guns in the public square.

The underlying tactic is always the same: impose discipline through fear and preserve the existing power structure at any cost.

That’s what the NFL controversy is really about. It has nothing to do with a piece of cloth or song. It has everything to do with quelling dissent and keeping black folk in their rightful place — with reclaiming the white European culture and power structure that predated Brown vs. Education, the integration of our Armed Forces by President Truman and the Civil Rights Acts of the 1960s. It has everything to do with reclaiming the world that President Trump has promised will return. It has everything to do with fear. And insecurity.

Does that mean I think everyone who objects to the football players’ demonstration is a racist? Of course not. And it doesn’t mean I think the players’ tactics are effective or the best means of advancing the cause of justice and equality.

Personally, I have no opinion on the matter. I’m not black. I haven’t been the subject of racial discrimination and police brutality. I haven’t lived in a society that thinks I’m inferior because of the color of my skin.

It would be presumptuous of me to question the methods discriminated people choose to improve their lot, especially when their methods are nonviolent.

It’s their call, not mine. But I will respect them and support all people who strive for freedom, justice and equality. I will support anyone who yearns for the best of what the flag represents to me. And I will not defer to hatred and bigotry and the forces that seek to divide us even if such forces are wrapped in the flag. I can see through their disguise.

History shows in stark terms that such hatred and bigotry often hides behind flags and anthems. And it’s hiding behind our flag and anthem today. And under a red cap as well.

Well, perhaps it’s not hiding so much. Perhaps it’s come out and revealed itself in all its despicable forms.

The people who are taking a knee are merely trying to promote awareness and foster justice and equality. They’re not rejecting America or its flags and anthems. They are simply calling on America to live up to its ideals. They are pleading with the country to become more American.

On the other hand, those who are distorting the demonstrators’ motives and choosing to ignore the injustice that is rooted in our society are using the flag and anthem as a club. And as an instrument to reclaim and perpetuate a cruel and unjust social structure.

I do not and will not pledge allegiance to a flag if it stands for oppression. I will stand for a flag that represents the ideals of a just, fair and compassionate people.

But even then, one must ask why? Why the need for flags? Why not instead focus on the people — our actions, our values, our choices, our humanity?

In the final analysis, flags and anthems don’t matter much. But values and principles matter a lot.

I pledge allegiance to compassion, justice, equality and the inalienable rights of people for life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

And I oppose any person or method that seeks to deny those rights to others.

And I couldn’t care less whether anyone attends or watches an NFL game this weekend.

Just Because

Day care was closed yesterday for a Jewish holiday (Shmini Atzeret). So you did something better, Vera: you came over to our place.

At one point, I asked if you’d like to do something. I can’t recall what it was. You replied, “No.” I asked why not. You said, “Because.”

“Because.” I have to confess, I hadn’t expected such a retort from a 27-month-old. I laughed.

I didn’t push the issue because I thought your reply, although surprising, was sufficient. Basically, “because” or “just because” simply means you’d rather not, and you don’t feel compelled to justify your decision to anyone else.

That’s cool. You shouldn’t have to. The world would probably be a better place if all of us were more willing to take “because” for an answer.

Why didn’t you complete your homework, Johnny? Because.

Why did you not come to visit me? Because.

Why did you eat half of the peach pie? Because (and guilty as charged).

Why did you quit your job? Because.

Why did you vote for that person? Because.

Why don’t you have cable? Because.

Why did you move to Indiana? Because.

The older I get, the more “because” becomes acceptable. Often, it’s simply a matter of respecting boundaries and accepting the right of someone else to choose differently than we might.

Often, it’s simply a matter of perspective, and not allowing little things to blow up into big things.

It’s true that sometimes because is simply a dodge. But, if it’s their dodge and not yours, so what?

In my younger years, as a parent, I was probably more inclined to push the issue. With age, as a grandparent, I’m more inclined to think, That works for me!

Why the change?

Because.

At the Mercy of Other People’s Judgment

Sunday, Senator Bob Corker, the Republican chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, claimed President Trump (a member of his own political party) was treating his office like “a reality show,” with reckless threats toward other countries that could set the nation “on the path to World War III.”

The Senator said he was alarmed about a president who acts “like he’s doing ‘The Apprentice’ or something.” “He concerns me,” the senator added. “He would have to concern anyone who cares about our nation.”

None of this is surprising. I knew it was a risk, which is why I thought the election of Donald Trump to the presidency was the most reckless act undertaken by the U.S. electorate in our history — by far.

That doesn’t mean the worst case scenario will unfold. Rather, it means the risks are higher than they need be and we’ve put other people’s lives and welfare at risk unnecessarily (as well as our own).

That’s on a grand scale (casualties could exceed those of WW II). Everyday, of course, others make decisions that harm or threaten others (physically or financially) without most of us giving much thought about the matter.

Policy makers make decisions about trade, spending and other matters that could (and often do) have a material effect on our futures.

CEOs and boards make decisions about investments that could affect our livelihood.

Plant managers and railroad personnel make decisions that could make the difference between life and death for many people within range of their plants or tracks.

Drivers make decisions (or fail to make decisions) that can forever alter the lives of fellow drivers and their families.

I could go on. The list is endless. The point is simple: we are at the mercy of other people’s judgment in countless ways. And some of them may be at the mercy of ours.

So what is one to do about it?

I don’t claim to know what anyone else should do about it — that’s their decision. But here are some guiding principles I have acquired for myself over the years.

First, I try no to fret about it; rather, I try to focus on that over which I have some control.

So if my fellow citizens decide electing someone like Mr. Trump is in our best interest, so be it. My lot is part of theirs. I shall benefit or be hurt with the broader community we call country. Some call it fate. Call it what you want. I simply say, “It is what it is.” I’m not going to allow it to destroy my happiness.

Part of this is trying to avoid any sense of entitlement. And nurturing a sense of gratitude. I may not have complete control over such feelings and emotions. But I can influence them for the better. It’s most certainly preferable to fretting and worrying about things over which I have no control.

Second, I try to limit my reliance and dependence upon other people’s judgment as best I can. Stated differently, I try to avoid servitude.

One way of doing this is to acquire financial independence as soon as possible. If I got to live life over, this would be a major early goal of mine. The sooner, the better. Retirement age is much too late.

Third, I endeavor to associate with people of sound judgment and good character. This isn’t always easy because often there is misalignment between economic opportunity and virtue. Again, if I got to live life over, I’d try to spend more time and deal more with virtuous people and try harder to keep distance between myself and the other kind of people.

Last but not least, I endeavor to improve my own decision-making processes and, by extension, the quality of my own decisions.

I’ve made some really poor decisions in my life. I wish I’d spent more time reflecting on my mistakes and endeavoring to instill the rigorous discipline to reduce the number of mistakes going forward. And I really wish I had involved more people in the process and been less dependent upon my own perspectives and biases. 

I also wish I’d been more rational and less emotional. More practical and less idealistic.

I’ve made some good decisions of course. But decision making is a lot like investing: the key is to eliminate or reduce the size of your losses. Avoiding big mistakes is a key to a good life.

Charlie Munger is right: he and Warren Buffett got tremendous advantage from simply trying not to be consistently stupid instead of trying to be very intelligent.

I used to tell students that my primary objective in teaching was to help them become better decision makers, that is, to hone their judgment. Schools don’t talk about judgment. They should. It’s far more important than most of the other stuff that commands their attention.

I don’t know if the country will escape the Trump years without a major disaster. I do know we’re playing with fire and, when that happens, someone often gets burned.

In any case, don’t ever allow yourself to be overwhelmed by that which you can’t control, Vera. There is much you can control, including, to an extent, your thoughts and outlook.

Choose wisely. Become the very best decision-maker you can possibly become. Nothing will serve you as well as sound judgment.

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.

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.

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.

Too Afraid To Be Away From the Office

Americans don’t take roughly half of their allotted vacation time because of fear. Vera, if you ever find yourself in the position of being afraid to take your allowed vacation time, know that it’s time to take stock of your life.

Sixty plus years of life has convinced me that fear is the most persistent and powerful force in the universe. And that one key to a happy life is to overcome it.

It’s no easy task. In fact, some people may say it’s an impossible task. But they’re only partially right. It is impossible to conquer fear entirely, but it is quite possible not to allow it to dominant your life.

But it may take some planning. And willingness to take some risks (or what will be perceived by many people as risks).

If you’re going to be beholden to anything eternal to you, such as an employer, a particular client, an image or certain position in life, then it’s likely you’ll fear losing that thing. And it’s possible that that fear will lead you to do things you’d otherwise not do, and to feel things you’d rather not feel. It’s because the thing owns you.

The antidote to fear, in my experience, is freedom: the freedom to walk away, the freedom to live your life in harmony with your values and heartfelt desires.

Yet freedom can be illusive. Things seek to steal it, to deprive you of its glory. Fear tells us freedom is risky. Unreliable.

To the contrary, the risk lies in allowing fear to convince us that the other is the source of freedom and happiness. And that it doesn’t reside within.

We think we need more than we do. Fear convinces us of that.

Many people are afraid to spend time away from the office. They fear losing their job. Or their privileged position.

I hope you know freedom, Vera. My hope for you on this Labor Day is that you’ll never be afraid to leave the office and, if you find yourself in that position, that there will be a path out to freedom.