Jul 222014
 

Ann Arbor City-20140718-00354

I could hear him before I could see him.   I was at the Ann Arbor Art Fest talking with John Russell, the guy who makes my pens, at his booth on South University Street.  It was Friday morning, the third day of the art show, and the crowd was building steadily.  John and I were talking about the various woods he uses and his unique process of incorporating exotic materials, like snake skins, into some his high end rollerball and fountain pens.  But the rhythmic playing of the karatalas cut through all of the crowd noise.

I heard the chanting and turned to see a man who appeared to be somewhere around my age dressed in off-white robes and bluer than blue high-top sneakers.  Due to the security protocols put in place after 9/11, the only place many of us now see a Hare Krishna is on a college campus.  I was now officially in Ann Arbor.  He chanted and danced to his own music.  He was not begging for money or food, just attention.   He was part of the scene, no different than the band that was performing a few blocks away.

Even though we were looking at each booth, we still managed to put about a block between us and the Hare Krishna.  This wasn’t intentional.  For the most part, he was in his own world and didn’t seek to make eye contact with the crowd.  Every now and then I could hear the karatalas or his chanting.

***

Sally and I were in Ann Arbor for my annual art shopping trip.  I still have empty walls in the Bogart, Cunix & Browning suite.  It is my goal to add a couple of interesting pieces each year.  I scored two clocks last year.  Two years ago I purchased the amazing digital picture from Beau Tudzarov.   This year I saw the new work from Beau, Ralph Rankin and Greg Billman.  Ralph, an incredible photographer, usually limits his art show booths to his ceramic works.  This year he also brought his newest passion, digital collage photographs printed on metals.  Bold. Surrealistic.  Mine will be shipped in a few weeks.  I’m already second guessing my purchase.  I’m debating whether I should have bought a bigger image or two of the pictures.  They are that cool.

***

It was the showdown at the OK Corral.  At one end of the block was the Hare Krishna.  At the other end, the most cluttered of minds, dressed in shorts and the usual offensive t shirt, eyed the infidel and marched into war.  Yes, it was a schmuck from Jews for Jesus.  The back of his shirt said that “Jesus made me Kosher” but he looked like someone who couldn’t find a Jew in a B’nai B’rith convention.  As I noted in Pigs For Bacon in 2010, few things offend me more than some guy hawking religion like an overpriced vacuum, foisting pamphlets on passers-by, and worse, dragging us into their pitch.  But I always worry that I could be overly sensitive.  More often or not, a simple “Get away” is enough to clear my path.  Buy this yahoo, also about my age, was enraged.  He marched up to the chanting Hare Krishna and began to berate him.

“You are worshipping a false god.”  The chanting continued.  He tried to dance around the pamphleteer.   He moved to the left, but was immediately blocked.  Standing in the middle of the street, nose to nose, one chanted an ancient mantra, the other chanting modern gibberish.  I thought about intervening, but realized that they were both getting what they really wanted.

Attention.

 

 

Jul 092014
 
The Vast Nothingness

The Vast Nothingness

I think this post is more fun if you click here first and then listen to the music while you read.  But that’s just me.

The Speech.  The My Life Had No Purpose speech.  You’ve heard it before.  I got to hear it again Monday evening.

Like all classics, the Speech has a time honored format.  The earnest young presenter (always earnest, usually male) tells his audience about his failures.  Sure he once made more money than most of his audience has ever made.  And of course he once had a nice home and better stuff that any of them have a reasonable expectation of owning.  But he was in debt and he wasn’t HAPPY.  His momma died.  His wife left him.  His dog snapped at him.  He wasn’t Fulfilled.  And then he found __________.

What did he find?  What turned his life around?  Jesus?  Yoga?  A new toothpaste?  It really doesn’t matter.  The only constant is that now that he and his life have been salvaged, he is ready to help you.  The price tag is somewhere between $16.99 and 10% of your income.

I turned to Heidi Cool who was sitting next to me at the Barking Spider and told her that I could give the next line of the Speech.  Two guys on a book selling tour were at the Spider to read a little from their latest tome on Minimalism, Everything That Remains.  In a little over three years Joshua Fields Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus have co-authored five books and have spoken at SXSW, World Domination Summit, TEDx, and numerous schools, organizations and meetings.  In other words, they have built an impressive empire out of eliminating excess.

I couldn’t tell which I found more depressing, the predictability of the Speech or the audience in attendance.  I studied the faces of the people listening to the authors.  I was looking for that sense of déjà vu, that acknowledgement that they had heard this before.  Because some of them had.  They were seekers, wanderers in search of some path to ease the dull throb that wouldn’t go away.  Even though these unhappies had heard much, if not all, of this before, it was all new to them.  The oldest of the group smiled knowingly as one of the authors described in exaggerated detail his IKEA shopping experience.  The youngest, unemployed or underemployed, were looking for validation for the choices life had made for them.

And all they needed to do was buy the book.  Really, you will be happy with less stuff.  Eliminate what you don’t need so that you can fully appreciate what you will have left.  And one of the things you don’t need is the money in your pocket that would pay for this book.  I didn’t stay around till the end.  I couldn’t.  But I wanted to just to see if they would accept credit cards.

The purpose of this post isn’t to knock these guys or anyone else who makes a living leading people out of deserts.  What’s great is that every once in a while someone may actually benefit from a speaker evangelizing a particular religion, lifestyle, or hair care product.  But if you cut through the BS what you will find is that someone hated their crappy job and what they had to do to make a living.  So they drank.  Or they gambled.  Or they cheated on their spouse.  Or they spent money foolishly.  And one day, they got a new job.  And now they feel good about themselves.  As is so often the case, the new job is to stand in front of a group of people and share with them how happy they now are.

Will playing pinball all day make YOU happy?  Neither will some book.

Jul 072014
 

Mayfield Heights-20140707-00349

 

I didn’t leave my office till a couple of minutes past six.  I knew that it was Sunday.  And yes, I have lots of windows.  I could see that it was beautiful outside.  But being a health insurance agent is a full-time job.  Work in a Chinese restaurant full-time.  So I put in over four hours yesterday afternoon.

This is not a complaint and I am not a martyr.  I played golf Sunday morning with Big Muddy and I found time for a walk before dinner with Sally.  Being self-employed or owning a small business requires a lot of self-discipline.  You must be willing to work until the job is completely done.

Most of yesterday’s office time was devoted to renewals.  Thirteen clients have policies renewing August 1, 2014.  In each instance I had to shop for new, 2014 policies that included the new required benefits and the new, often much higher prices.  I then compared the old policies against the new ones, decided what would be their best option, and then either prepared a handwritten note or sent an email.

Only one of the clients would save money by switching to the new policies.  A couple of young women could pay about 50% more for a new policy if they want maternity.  The rest should do nothing.

The hours I spent to determine that almost all of these people should do nothing were not wasted.  How would I have known if I hadn’t run the numbers?  How would the clients know if I didn’t prepare the reports?

Prep work is the real work.  Prep work is why a restaurant can serve you a dinner in minutes when it would take you hours to make it at home.  Prep work is why your physician is ready to examine you the moment he/she walks into the room.  The hours our teachers devote to lesson plans, grading, and evaluation long after our children have left for home may be the most important example of prep work.

So yes, you can find me at my office most Sundays.  The dress code is casual.  The music – loud.

Jun 252014
 

Mayfield Heights-20140625-00339
The Lord of The Rings opens up with the Shire preparing for the most remarkable of parties.  New wonders arrived each day for the September celebration.  There were fireworks.  There were cart loads of party decorations and favors.  And there were toys for the children, some that had been made in distant lands and were obviously magical.

Sally’s daughter, Raquel, is getting married Labor Day weekend.  Since Raqui lives in Baltimore, my office is the delivery spot for everything she has ordered for the upcoming event.  One day it is a huge box, the next it is a couple of satchels.  Today I got an envelope for her from China.  Thank G-d I’m invited.  I’m dying to see what’s in the packages.

* * *

I am totally unprepared for today.   I have had June 25th scheduled for three weeks.  I was to be in Medina, at Fox Meadow Country Club, playing golf with one of my clients.  Rick and I have talked about playing for years.  A few weeks ago I called and invited him to play at Tanglewood or Boulder Creek.  He belongs to Fox Meadow and asked if I’d ever been there.  I hadn’t.  We had a 10:20 tee time.  Have you looked out the window?  The last I heard, the club is closed due to the heavy rains.

So I’m here.  The crush of the Open Enrollment, annual Senior Enrollment, and usual end of the year stuff is way behind me.  It is too early to start on the 2015 season.  And, I was prepared to be off.  So, I’m here.  Not working and not having a lot to do is totally foreign to me.  Blowing out of here and heading to the art museum might be advisable, but I’m not sure I can really do it.

 * * *

The client didn’t want to talk about premiums, or claims, or even policies.  No, she called today to talk about coffee cups.  Mine in particular.  Of course, how often do you see a three legged mug?  Mine was picked out for me by Claudia of the Zeber-Martell Clay Studios.  I saw the new glaze and style and asked her to send one to me.  The client wanted one for her daughter.  I bet she’ll buy a lot more than one once she visits the gallery.

Heavy summer showers and three legged mugs and boxes and bags filled with who knows what are what filled my unplanned day.

 

Jun 222014
 

13L1LDNU (2)

I got to do one of my favorite things today.

I was running errands in Legacy village when I came across four women crowding together as a fifth was backing up, attempting to focus her disposable camera.  They smiled.  She clicked.  I walked over and asked the photographer if she would like to have a picture taken with her friends.  They excitedly squished together and I snapped the shot.

I love doing that.  I have volunteered on beaches and cruise ships, in Europe and China.  It doesn’t matter where I am or whether or not the people speak English.  The looks of surprise and appreciation are always the same, regardless of the individuals’ cultures, religions, or nationalities.

Jun 122014
 

You and your family are out to dinner at Applebee’s.  Riblets, salads, and burgers fill the table.  Out of the corner of your eye you notice that a young man has just entered the restaurant.  He appears to be in his early twenties, tall, blonde hair, dressed in fatigues.  Of course, what you really noticed was his holster, his ammo, and the AR 15.  He appears to either be ready for battle or trying out for the Yosemite Sam part at the local Comic Con.

Do you:

a)  Point out the young patriot to your 17 year old daughter

Or

b)  Quietly release the safety from your gun and calmly terminate the threat to your family’s safety

The answer, of course, is:

c)  Gather your family under the table, call 911, and pray the police get there quickly.

Are you in danger?  You bet.  The young man may be at the Applebee’s to exercise some awful murder / suicide (perhaps by cop) scenario.   But he may also be an ill-advised peacock, his display an array of destructive metal instead of colorful feathers.

The young guy with the rifle isn’t your only threat.

Every guy with a hero complex, every woman who knows somebody who knows somebody who was once mugged, EVERYONE IN THAT RESTAURANT CARRYING A GUN poses an immediate threat to you and your family.

Will you be caught in a crossfire between the gunman and the various armed diners?  Will this all resemble the coffee shop scene from Boogie Nights?  Can we trust the good judgment of the young man and our fellow diners?

Good judgment?   They are carrying loaded weapons into a family restaurant.  I don’t trust their judgment.  Do you?

So what can you do?  Constitutional scholar and philosopher, Samuel Wurzelbacher (Joe the Plumber), wrote an open letter to the parents of the college kids who were murdered during a recent rampage in California.  He noted that “your dead kids don’t trump my Constitutional rights”.    If you and your family are unfortunately seated between the gunman at the door and the well-armed paranoid at table 43, your rights take a back seat to the second amendment rights of both of them.  The Constitution does not guarantee your right to dinner out.

The more guns, the more problems.  Who is a threat?  Who is standing his ground?  Every armed man is a good guy with a gun right up to the moment he opens fire.

What can you do to keep your family safe?   Less and less each day.  You can eat at restaurants that ban guns.  You can choose to patronize shops and offices that prohibit weapons.  And most importantly, if you’re an African-American, don’t wear a hoodie cause there is nothing in the Constitution that guarantees your right to comfortable clothing.

Just guns.

May 262014
 

Orchid

 

She has been on J-Date and Christian Mingle, eHarmony and Match.com.  She was a little hazy as to whether she had ever paid for any of this.  She said to me, “Please tell my story.  Just don’t use my name.

She was “The Babe”.  She was always The Babe.  She was born adorable and never spent a single day of her life where she wasn’t the cutest girl in the room.  Robbed of the magical transformation from the awkward and plain to the wonderful, she was allowed to focus on the same imperfections and luxuriate in her insecurities from pre-puberty till now in her early sixties.  She has spent her life second guessing everything, of never feeling truly confident.

The Babe could sing.  When she was younger she occasionally performed on stage or with local bands on the Holiday Inn, wedding, and Bar Mitzvah circuit.  Not achieving real fame or serious accolades only fed into her self-esteem issues.  A good Jewish girl, she earned her degree, got married, and had a child.   In that order.

Mother, performer, teacher, employee in her husband’s business, The Babe hardly had enough time to exercise all of her self-doubts.  But in that area she was truly an over-achiever.  And that was before the divorce.

Twenty years have passed since her divorce.  The Babe never remarried.  There have been a fiancé or two, lovers and boyfriends.  She’s been betrayed and she has been less than angelic.  She is remarkably unchanged in either appearance or temperament.   It is what has changed, what she has lost, that prompted her request.  She is mourning her loss, her loss of control.

She met him on one of those online dating services.  Recently divorced and new to dating, his daughter had to talk him into completing his online profile.  The Babe was one of his first connections.  He was thrilled.  After years of unhappiness he was suddenly in the company of a bright, vivacious woman.  They quickly fell into a committed relationship.

But a funny thing happened on the way to blissful monogamy.  His phone kept on ringing.  His email box was full.  He was still available according to the sites and he was popular.  Really popularWho knew this could be so much fun popular.   Girls didn’t call boys when he was in high school.  And even if they deigned to come to the phone, the girls could be cruel in their rejections.  “Saturday?  No.  I have to wash my hair.”  And now?  Now, women, desirable women, wanted to go out with him.  And he was going to miss all of this?

Needless to say, this didn’t last long.  He tried to discreetly meet with some of the women without saying anything to The Babe.  No one as insecure as The Babe would miss any of the signs of trouble.  There was time spent apart and promises made.  But in the end The Babe agreed to an Open Arrangement – he’ll date a lot and she’ll pretend that she doesn’t mind while she waits for him to “grow out” of this stage.

Was there something she could have done differently?  Should she have given him more space at the start, when he was first divorced and feeling his way?  I don’t think so.  That would just be assigning blame and feeding into her insecurities.  I don’t even think that it is an honesty issue.  He wanted a serious, permanent relationship when he met her.  It was all he knew.  The only option available.

He has his open relationship and he may never look back.  Or, he may realize a month or two from now what he had had with The Babe.  And it will be too late.  Did I mention that The Babe has been on J-Date and Christian Mingle, eHarmony and Match.com?  And this week she will sign up for Our Time.

Apr 222014
 

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My average morning includes sifting through a couple hundred emails. If I turn off the computer by 11 PM, I will have over two hundred emails waiting for me the following morning.   A week or so ago, I began my work day the way I usually do – I started the coffee, turned up the music, and checked my emails. One email caught my attention. The prettiest girl in Parma had sent me a message. It had only been a couple of weeks since I had revamped her health policy, so I immediately knew the purpose of this email. Yes, her account had been hacked.

Email, Facebook, Twitter, we have too much access but not enough interaction. I feel compelled to respond to every contact. I compulsively answer every question. If someone sends me an email, I respond by email. Sometimes the message is nothing more than an acknowledgement of receipt of their email. Some friends and clients correspond primarily through Facebook. OK. I respond in kind. Phone calls? More personal so less common in 2014. But the people who take for granted that I will answer their questions, listen to their concerns, or simply point them in the right direction, often feel no need to respond to me. Did I answer your question? Do we need to meet? To talk? Are you still there?

Most of the emails I receive are either spam or sales pitches. I have become surprisingly adept at eliminating them. I have to be careful that I don’t inadvertently delete a legitimate email while dumping the trash. It takes the hand – eye coordination of a .300 hitter to weed through them as quickly as I do now. But every click brings to mind how great it would be if this In Box were filled with meaningful notes from people who actually wanted to talk with me. But it isn’t. There are three emails from the guy whose food will save my life and countless opportunities to check or improve my credit score.

Facebook has, in an odd sort of way, become more enjoyable. The pictures, children, grandchildren, and the pets, lots and lots of pets, seem to be more genuine and the emotions seem more real. I’ve seen countless pictures of my friend, Mirja, with her cat. I really hope that Cleo, the cat (pictured above), loves Mirja half as much as she loves it. And my friend Ellen just posted a new studio picture of her with all of her grandchildren. We, her Facebook friends, get to watch them as they grow up and share in her joy.

A new trend has popped up on Facebook. Tired of trying for mass appeal, I have seen people start to segregate their FB friends. Some posts go to everyone. Pictures of the kids and noncontroversial posts about TV shows are there for everyone. But the good stuff, the posts that give a hint to the person behind the name and safe picture, only goes to a select few. Who knew that L.C. was so adamantly an atheist? When did S.S. become a liberal Democrat? Was J.W. always that conservative? And now, instead of risking offending some of their friends, or worse, pretending to be without beliefs or opinions, they created their own communities. New friendships, built on more information and a lot more honesty, might actually become real friends.

Will it take hold? Will these new communities just be more fodder for Facebook’s insatiable need for more info so that it can sell our data to more advertisers? I don’t know, but I enjoy the new found clarity and sense the freedom that pretenses kept hidden.

I teased the prettiest girl in Parma that even a hacked email from her is better than nothing. She agreed that we should talk more often.

 

Apr 162014
 

matza[1] The master of the house breaks the middle matzah in the plate, and leaving half of it there, he puts aside the other half till after supper, for the Afikoman.  

Those of you who have ever attended a Passover Seder recognize this as Yackatz, the fourth step in the retelling of the Exodus from Egypt. There are several lessons to be learned in this particular portion of the Seder. One of the most important is that some slaves, the Children of Israel, ate a portion of their rations when it was given to them and retained the rest for later. These smarter slaves, these survivors, are our ancestors.

The Seder can not end until we eat that other half of matzah. Years ago, when my children were small, I would hide the Afikoman. The kids, mine and the children of my friends who were in attendance, would do a mad dash through the house looking for the napkin holding the matzah. I was tricky. I even planted fake Afikoman, napkins with notes that said that they needed to continue looking. Bookshelves, piano benches, behind the couch – it could be anywhere. And when it was found there were prizes for everyone.

And then the kids got too big. Their searching could have been detrimental to the bookshelves, the piano bench, etc… And so we created a new tradition. Someone would take the Afikoman when I wasn’t looking. Eventually it would be returned and there would be prizes for everyone.

Now I don’t share this story with you out of some desire to recreate the past. I don’t. I remember fondly different houses, blended families, and the children of friends that are long past childhood. And those are moments in time that I will always cherish. The last two nights have been our annual Seders, and it would be odd to not reflect upon nearly fifty years of creating and recreating traditions in the service of a bigger truth.  

My parents gladly ceded the Seder to me as soon as I asked to be in charge of it. Second grade. Not their thing. Growing up the Afikoman, and all of the Seder from Page 4 to Page 28 of the Haggadah was simply something I had to get through before everyone lost their patience. The Four Questions, the Four Sons, Spill the 10 drops of wine “DON’T MAKE A MESS”, Wash your hands a couple of times, and then it was time for dinner. Why was Passover my favorite holiday? Surely not because of the Seder. I found the story compelling.

I found it interesting that the Children of Israel had to actually do something. They were forced to choose to be part of a community.

I had limited exposure to other Seders while growing up. I’m sure we went to others, but I don’t recall any specifics. But 40 years ago, Passover 1974, I was invited to spend the first two days of Passover with a Rabbi and his family in Wooster, Ohio. Though the Seders were in his home, there would be a large cross-section of the community in attendance. Congregants, relatives, non-Jews. There were well over twenty people crammed into their home. I ate different foods. One lamb dish, in particular, blew me away. And I learned that you could smoke throughout a Seder. (The Rabbi and I weren’t the only ones who smoked, we just looked the happiest. Remember it was 1974.)

Somehow I ended up with the Afikoman and when I returned it, he asked me for my terms. There was a ransom involved. I was unprepared.  Thinking quickly, I handed him the Afikoman, and said that I would reserve my reward for a later time. Now he was as surprised as I had been moments earlier. I heard the murmur of a couple dozen people wondering what would happen next. They were shocked by the audacity of this long-haired, bearded teenager. The Rabbi thought for a moment and then said that he would agree to my request and we all shared in the last of the matzah.

A few weeks later I met privately with the Rabbi. He was in Cleveland for the Brit of his first grandson. I told him that I was ready to discuss the Afikoman. My ransom? I asked for his blessing to marry his daughter. His blessing, but not his permission. He appreciated my choice of words and the respect that they carried for him, his daughter, and for our traditions. He readily agreed.

That was a long time ago. Many traditions have been created and set aside in forty years. But Passover will always be my favorite holiday, the Seder I lead uniquely mine, and the traditions kept and the stories told have been passed on to my children and our friends to modify as they see fit.

And it all works as long as you remember to finish the Seder with the Afikoman.

Mar 222014
 

Mayfield Heights-20140322-00291

Yes, I have been working ridiculous hours since October, but the time has not been spent without certain rewards.  The best, what has really made this worthwhile is the cast of characters that have passed through my gates.  Here are a couple of visitors from just the last week or so.

My house is haunted.”  She dropped that sentence apropos of nothing.  There was neither a hint of irony nor humor.  If I had said it, anywhere, I would have met a certain amount of derision, or worse.  But a beautiful woman can earnestly say just about anything.  Without missing a beat I asked, “Is that a good thing or a bad thing?”  She said that it was a problem at first, but that she’s OK with it now.  When asked if she was planning to move, she said that she didn’t know…

He was the world’s least interesting man and he took what seemed to be three hours in my office to prove it.

Defiant, the woman sitting at the table had been engaged in a war that had lasted over four long years.  And she had won.  She wasn’t ready to declare victory.  She was still prepared to fight.  And that was all of the proof I needed.  She was never really a victim, just someone who had been forced to overcome crippling personal and financial setbacks that might have defeated a weaker spirit.  I needed her email password.  She told me that it was F***You62.  And I laughed.

I was visited by a queen in search of a king.  Sure, there are people who say that they believe in the fairy tale, but how many of us will truly dedicate ourselves to achieving it?  Sadly, not many.  Too much work.  Too much commitment.  That was not the case with this woman.  And no, she wasn’t in search of financial security.  She was climbing Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs and was shocked to learn, again and again, that she was alone.  She wanted completeness, the whole package.  They, ex-lovers and an ex-spouse, were revealed to have only wanted the company of a pretty girl.

I learned the strength and resilience of the human spirit from these clients and others over the last few months.  I saw that nothing, not ghosts, not bad employers, not even the death of a loved one can’t be overcome in time.  And I learned to believe in fairy tales.