Turkeys Remind Us

Turkeys sacrifice. Themselves. That’s what they do. For us. Just look around the table today if you don’t believe me.

But it’s not only turkeys. There’s a lot of sacrifice out there. It’s just that most of it goes unnoticed.

You might wonder why people sacrifice. After all, we’re not turkeys. They don’t have a choice. Usually, we do.

I suppose there are several reasons people sacrifice.

Sometimes, it’s for a belief. Some people believe it’s important to live an ethical life. To have integrity. To not do something they believe is wrong. Yet they can’t control what comes their way. And sometimes what comes their way is a demand by more powerful people to do something that conflicts with their beliefs. And sometimes the demand is paired with a threat. Go along or suffer the consequences. Some people decide to stand firm on their principles and not to compromise. Sometimes, this means they have to sacrifice. Sometimes, it even means their death.

Sacrifice also can be rooted in love. Most of us parents would do anything for our spouse, children and grandchildren. We’d even sacrifice our lives if necessary. Parental love is that way. It knows no bounds.

Kids (myself included) tend to overlook or minimize this sacrifice. We tend to focus on what our parents did wrong. Or how they messed us up. Or their flaws. We fail to see the sacrifice. Or we don’t think it makes up for the wrong. Perhaps it doesn’t. But it’s still part of the equation. It can’t be written out of the book of history. Sometimes we acknowledge the sacrifice at their funeral. Sometimes we never do.

Today is a day we set aside to give thanks. To express gratitude. To count our blessings.

For starters, I’d like to thank the turkey. The ultimate sacrifice is unlike any other. It’s a big deal, even if you don’t have a say in the matter.

If you do have a choice, it’s an even bigger deal.

To my parents and grandparents (most of whom are gone), thank you. I get it. I’m a parent, too. I know what you’ve given. And what you were willing to give. Wow. Just wow.

To my wife and best friend (they’re the same person), gratitude doesn’t begin to capture what I feel. If you needed a heart, I’d give you mine. And be glad I could.

To my sons and you, Vera, my only grandchild, and your mother, the wife of our son, each of you is a blessing beyond measure. I’ve made mistakes. And probably will make more. But never doubt I would be willing to be the turkey if necessary.

To all our ancestors and contemporaries who worked so hard and gave of so much to make the world a better place, thank you. Your sacrifices may have gone unnoticed, but that doesn’t diminish them in the slightest.

If there is a spirit out there who cares, and loves us, thank you to you as well. Thank you for allowing us to experience the joy and blessing of sacrifice.

To care enough to find joy and blessing in sacrifice is indeed a gift. The source of this gift is a mystery. Yet it’s existence isn’t. It’s real. And precious.

The turkey will never experience it. But we can.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Never Trust Anybody

“Never trust anybody.” That’s one of the lessons President Trump says was imparted repeatedly by his father.

Trump added, “Then [my father would] ask me if I trusted anybody. I’d say, ‘No.’ ‘Do you trust me?’ [his father] would ask. I’d say, ‘Yes.’ And he’d say: ‘No! Don’t even trust me!'”

I had two reactions to this story:

  1. This lesson was probably one of the reasons Mr. Trump was successful financially.
  2. I wish someone had taught me the same lesson when I was young.

If I had learned this lesson, my expectations would have been more realistic. I would have better protected my own interests. And I would not have left myself so exposed to the back-stabbing tactics of duplicitous people. In short, I could have avoided some painful experiences and probably achieved more success than I did. Maybe I’d even been happier.

Some people might be tempted to think you just have to trust others. They don’t want to live in a world in which you can’t trust others. But why? I know the downside. What’s the upside?

The upside of not relying on trust is that you leave yourself less exposed. And are less inclined to operate on flawed assumptions and, therefore, less likely to make missteps or be ambushed.

Now, some may say that, if you heed Mr. Trump’s advice, you’ll end up like his son: a self-absorbed narcissistic individual seemingly devoid of empathy and ethics. But I’m not so sure about that. I don’t think it’s fair to point to that one lesson about trust as the culprit in the formation of a flawed personality disorder.

But perhaps it was a factor. I don’t know.

What I do know is that, in my world, there are few things worse than breach of trust. It’s a big deal to me. It’s the one thing about the Mafia I always respected: the willingness to go to jail or be killed rather than breach the trust your family placed in you. (Obviously, I didn’t like the Mafia’s objectives or their criminality and brutality.)

But I’ve found that trust frequently ends up being misplaced and leads to disappointment and pain. Because there always will be breaches of trust. Eventually, even the Mafia learned this lesson the hard way, as one after another ended up ratting out their family members to protect their own hides.

In the real world (as opposed to the idealized world that tends to captivate my imagination at times), people act out of self-interest. They will do what they believe to be in their self-interest, or what they think is right, even if it means betrayal. We’re very good at rationalizing betrayal away. We won’t even think of it as betrayal or breach of trust. Sometimes, we even manage to convert it into honor or virtue.

I wish I’d better understood this. As I’ve matured (beaten up like an old car), I’m less inclined to think that others were or are the problem and more inclined to think the problem was my own unreasonable expectations. And my naive understanding of human nature. I can’t blame anyone else for those expectations and naiveté. That was my own doing. I think President Trump’s dad understood this.

Still, I can’t go all in. I can’t live without any trust. But what I can do is to reserve it for fewer people. Close friends and family to be exact. And never to trust anyone in the workplace.

I’ve learned there are friends and there are friends, and never to lose sight of the distinction. I learned that lesson the hard way. I wish my dad had done a better job of imparting that knowledge when I was young. I wish I’d done a better job as a dad as well.

Nevertheless, I consider myself to be very fortunate: I have some true friends and family whom I feel I can trust. So maybe Mr. Trump’s father was wrong. Or perhaps he was right about the general rule, and that the exceptions are rare. You can decide for yourself.

In any case, I understand why Mr. Trump taught his son that lesson. Perhaps he went too far. Twenty years ago I would have said that he did. Today, I’m not so sure.

P.S. Despite what I believe is often a mere illusion of trust, Vera, you can always trust me. I can’t think of anything more important than fostering and living trust within our family. And never betraying the trust we have placed in each other. Frankly, I’d rather die than breach that trust.

The Better Question Is, What Do I Have That I Didn’t?

I’m tired of having to explain my decision to move to Indiana to all the people around Carmel with whom I come into contact. Given my situation, many of those people are in the health care field, but there have been others.

Hoosiers are open and inquisitive people. I’m always amazed by how much you learn about them in a brief conversation. They’re eager to share. And they want you to share, too.

So invariably they learn we’ve lived here for only a short time. I don’t volunteer it, but they ask: “Where did you move from?” Colorado, I say (a mistake). “Why would you leave Colorado to move here?!,” they ask, with a tone that suggests they think I made a terrible mistake.

That’s when I tell them about you, Vera. And your parents. And how happy I am to be here, even though I love Colorado.

I then promise myself to tell people, the next time I’m asked, that we moved from Camden or Detroit. But I can’t do it, even though it would be only a little white fib.

Two events occurred this week that brought all of this to the fore once again. My physical therapist was working on my arm, doing what Hoosiers do best: sharing and probing. And sure enough, she asked, Where did you move from?” I stupidly confessed: “Colorado.”

She then caught me off guard, asking a question I hadn’t gotten from other inquisitors. “What do you miss most about Colorado?”

Perhaps it’s because I’m ill and had my guard down. Perhaps it was the pain meds. Whatever the reason, I didn’t take time to think about my response. Instead, I simply uttered the first thought that came to mind, which also seemed to be the most truthful: “Everything.”

My response was entirely consistent with my prior views, of course. Simply put, taking all other considerations out of the equation (which can’t nor should it be done), there is no place like Colorado.

I went on to tell my therapist that, even though I liked Colorado, I was glad we lived here, near you and your parents. And in Carmel, which is probably the best place we ever lived from the perspective of many of the things that matter to us (amenities, walkability, conveniences, no HOA, progressive, etc.).

Roll the clock forward to last evening. Your grandmother thought she was going to pick you up a day care without me. She said I should stay home. After all, I had pneumonia and perhaps other undiagnosed ailments. I needed to stay put.

Right, I thought. The pain wouldn’t be that much different in the car than sitting at home. I went.

It was at your day care that it occurred to me that the better question would have been, “What do you have here that you didn’t have in Colorado?”

Here is just a glimpse of what I have.

We walked into your room. You were playing with your classmates. You were holding a container and they were filling it. You hadn’t seen us arrive (I have stealth-like qualities).

I then spoke your name. You turned and, consistent with past practice, you immediately did your best imitation of Usain Bolt. I’m always surprised by your acceleration and speed — and recklessness.

You never pull up. Instead, you run full throttle into my arms.

And then we went home and played.

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.

Victimization and Vindictiveness

There are so many victims today. Not so many in reality. But many in self-perception.

Sadly, this sense of victimization leads to vindictiveness. Rooted in anger and outrage. Self-pity. Self-delusion. Entitlement. Fanciful expectations. Vile blame. Abdication of responsibility. Inaction. Passivity. Surrender.

Victimization abounds in our country today.

It’s nasty. Indeed, ugly. It diminishes our country. But that’s not the worst of it: it diminishes the individual.

I’m not sure how we got to this place. Perhaps it’s inevitable as a wealthy empire matures. And peaks.

I’m not sure. I’m pretty sure, however, that it’s something to be avoided, for no other reason than it’s self-destructive.

Vindictiveness works that way. You think you’re hurting someone else. Or that your self-righteousness elevates you. But, in reality, you’re turning on yourself. You’re allowing the good within you to be eroded.

If you want to catch a glimpse of some of the consequences, read Peter Hessler’s “Letter from Colorado: Follow the Leader” in a recent edition of The New Yorker.

It’s hard to read. It’s sad. Disconcerting. Pathetic — not the people, but the situation that’s led to this.

I’m not sure there is anything worse than thinking of yourself as a victim. And blaming others or the world for your condition.

The moment you think of yourself as a victim, it’s a downhill slide.

Try not to succumb to the temptation, Vera.

You will be tempted. All of us are at some point in our lives.

At times, I’ve succumbed. I know better. But its alluring power sometimes prevails. Even when you know it shouldn’t. Even though you know you are the only one who will be hurt.

Vindictiveness works that way. It gives the appearance of being directed outward. But it never is. It always eats the soul of the person who harbors it. The person who allows it to settle in.

If it settles in, recognize it for what it is and work to evict it as soon as possible, not because your grievances aren’t real or legitimate, but because it will do you in if you don’t.

Today, victimization and vindictiveness threaten to do our country in. Perhaps it will be done in. Perhaps the tide has crested and is in the process of breaking along the shore of history.

But perhaps not. Perhaps we will take charge of our individual and collective destinies. Perhaps we will reclaim our collective can-do spirit. Our fading courage and vision.

Perhaps the day will come when we no longer countenance that which is turning us against each other. Against ourselves.

I don’t know. But I do know that it’s serious.

In the meantime, one thing is certain: if we allow self-pity, anger and the urge to be vindicated to prevail, we will become that which we claim to loath. Self-loathing works that way. It’s insidious. And deceitful.

My prayer for you, Vera, is that your soul will overflow with gratitude. And that you will never embrace victimhood. Or be vindictive. Or wish ill on anyone or anything.

As a two-year-old, you are pure. Cling to that purity and goodness as much as you can. The world will try to steal it from you. Guard it jealously.

In the final analysis, perhaps that’s what life is all about: nurturing and protecting the goodness that was embedded within each of us at birth.

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.

 

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.

Tipping: Backing Up Your Beliefs with Money

If you think that there should be a minimum wage, then you should pay–people who think there should be minimum wages should voluntarily pay everybody around them the difference between whatever they are getting and that minimum wage. And, when you go to McDonald’s, you should leave a $3 tip or $4 tip to the person. If that’s really what they want to do, they should do it themselves. – Nassim Taleb

I agree. In part. I disagree with Taleb concerning minimum wages. But I agree that we should spend consistent with our professed beliefs. Walk the talk, if you will.

I think we underpay many people for their work and contributions. Taleb would argue that the market decides. He’s right of course. But should we settle for market determinations? I don’t think so.

Market forces aren’t perfect. We alter those forces in many ways that benefit people of education, power and privilege (those born into rich families). We erect barriers to protect certain professions and people. We skew public policies and tax codes to favor one group over another, and to favor capital over labor. In short, the market isn’t allowed to do its will; rather, we alter market forces to favor the select few. So I don’t have the same confidence in markets that Taleb does. Consequently, I support a minimum wage. But it doesn’t end there.

Do the math. You can’t live on a minimum wage job. Yet political support for increases to the minimum wage simply doesn’t exist at the national level. So it’s up to people who think it’s wrong to pay people so little. It’s up to us to do some economic justice.

It’s not always easy to effect justice, but in many cases, it’s actually quite easy. We can tip.

Restaurants are an obvious example. Lodging establishments are another. The people who deliver my paper in the middle of the night are another.

We recently moved. Moving presents quite a few opportunities. The manual laborers who load and unload the vans. The people who hang the blinds. The men who constructed the retaining wall. Etc. Etc.

I lost count, but I spent several thousand dollars in gratuities over the past several months in connection with our move. I was glad I could.

I was a decent tipper at restaurants my entire life, but in recent years have turned it up a notch. Gratuities now range from 20 to 100%, depending on the size of the bill and level of service.

So what’s the point of all this, Vera. The point isn’t my tipping practice. Rather, the point is the same one Taleb made: we always have the option of backing up our professed beliefs with our actions. And the most telling action typically involves the way we spend our money.

Our spending has a way of separating the real from the fake words and beliefs. It’s not a bad thing to endeavor to be as real as possible.