Thursday, December 25, 2008

Lutherans Rule Christmas!

One of my favorite things about Christmas day is the afternoon entertainment on public television, a procession of musical programs by Lutheran Colleges - St. Olaf's, Luther, and Concordia - although it wouldn't be fair not to mention the Mormon Tabernacle Choir's awesome program during the same time slot.

I love to sing, and I sing bass in our church choir. The Eastman School of Music is in Rochester, so I have year-long opportunities to indulge in hearing excellent choral, orchestral, and instrumental music. That's why I'm so impressed by these three Lutheran colleges; their music "competes" at an extremely high level, and they're just "kids". Musically, they are pro's.

I hear voices in these choirs that could audition successfully at Eastman (or Julliard). But they are not at Eastman or Julliard, they are at St. Olaf's, Luther, or Concordia. Student of practical economics that I am, I conclude there is something about these places that many high quality musicians value over the prestige and excellence of a top-rung school like Eastman.

That high value "something" may be not having to practice roughly seven hours every day, as Eastman kids do. But it's more likely that the nurturing cultural and spiritual element, and the tradition of these colleges is what draws them. I don't know for sure, but I'd also be willing to bet that many of these students have had generations of their family graduating from these institutions. A tradition of excellence breeds excellence.

So thank you, Lutherans, for being so serious about making beautiful music. I suppose it may emanate from the German origin of Lutheranism - the Germans love music and have always put great emphasis on precision and clarity. It's too bad these colleges don't have programs for all the other holidays - I'd watch and listen.

At this time of year I'm reminded that Martin Luther wrote the famous carol, "Away in a Manger", setting the tone for his followers. Martin, you are probably looking down on this Christmas with satisfaction, hearing the angel choirs of the Lutheran colleges you inspired!

(Postscript 12/27/08 - A loyal reader has pointed out that the attribution of "Away in a Manger" to Martin Luther is incorrect. The song was attributed to him 400 years after his birth as a way of according him some additional glory. However, Luther did write a number of carols - just not this one. Truth must prevail!)

Saturday, December 20, 2008

"Global Warming" Suspended in Rochester, NY!

Just when we Rochesterians were well on our way to the least snowy Oct/Nov/Dec in many years, Mother Nature decided to remind us about who is really in charge. So, I was forced to make the difficult transtion from a weekend in San Diego to a weekend at the southern reaches of the north pole, currently in Rochester.

It's times like this when I bow down and praise the guy who invented the snow blower! It truly saves a person from hours of back-breaking labor and the agony that follows.

On the other hand, the snow is beautiful and I don't mind the cold. As far as I know, the awful roads didn't cause any fatalities - only lots of fender-benders. We had nine calls at Pittsford Ambulance, and thankfully no major heart attacks when our ambulances were having much difficulty fighting through clogged traffic.

The skiiers are in heaven. You see, God provides for all of us at different times! Merry Christmas!

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

A New Man

If you've read me for awhile, you know about the angst I felt when my #1 grandson enlisted in the Marines. Although he had excellent high school grades and test scores, he just couldn't seem to take the next step. Each time he moved that right foot toward a new opportunity, he soon pulled it back. His life was in a holding pattern for an entire year - and then he announced he'd enlisted and intended to be a combat soldier. Surprise, surprise!

Times have changed since I was a soldier. Now, the Marines make you wait for a few months before you report for duty. In the intervening period they expect you to attend pre-reporting training sessions with your recruiter and others. They expect you to get into shape. They give you some idea of what being "screamed at" is like. Then you jump into the real fire. Michael reported about 12 weeks ago to the Marine training base in San Diego, and his transformation began abruptly - no doubt with someone yelling unintelligible words in his face and calling for pushups at every turn.

Mike's first letter, after three weeks there, opened "I hate boot camp!" The second letter, after six weeks there, opened "I love boot camp!" He miraculously recovered from a bout with pnuemonia, earned an expert marksman badge, and finally completed the grueling three-day exercise aptly named "The Crucible". Then came graduation day, which I attended last weekend.

Mike is a new man. He stands tall rather than slouching. He looks you in the eye when he talks to you. He speaks with confidence. His skinny frame is 15 pounds heavier than it was 12 weeks ago in spite of the pneumonia and constant exercise (they put him on double rations for awhile). He's still "young", but a very different kind of young. In the picture, you can see the implacable Marine expression on his face. I like that a lot.

After two weeks of leave and two weeks of assisting a recruiter, Mike will be back to Camp Pendleton for nine weeks of infantry combat training. He'll come out of that a trained warrior, although he will have no idea of what real combat entails. That may come later, and if so, he'll find out that there's no glory in it. It's chaos, fear, suffering, and an aftermath that goes on and on. Hopefully, he'll be able to get through whatever comes.
In the meantime, Marine boot camp graduation is a major production. These Marines look sharper and drill sharper than any of the services. You can sense the individual and group pride that will help them succeed in the small unit combat role they perform. Mike and 450 others became "new men" last weekend, courtesy of the United States Marines.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Power and Greed, II

A few days ago I wrote about a small group of people whose raison d'etre is accumulating power and wealth by whatever means they can get away with. They are smart, and they generally weigh their decisions carefully, but they are also ruthless. Most of us have never been close enough to people like this to really understand the depth of their lack of principle; they are sociopaths, and they know how to fit into society and manipulate people and organizations to achieve their ends. They are responsible for a lot of the pain in the world.

Since I wrote those words, three more people who seem to meet this description have been exposed. Illinois governor Blagojevich ran on an anti-corruption platform but is now accused of attempting to sell whatever an appointment to the U.S. Senate. Bernard Madoff, the former chairman of NASDAQ, has been arrested for masterminding a Ponzi scheme that may have cost investors a mind-boggling $50 billion. Marc Dreier, a well-know New York City attorney, has been arrested for allegedly defrauding several hedge funds of up to $380 million. They are three very smart and capable people who have likely caused incredible chaos by taking huge risks to accumulate power and wealth.

During the past week I've heard several financial experts claim that regulation can't keep up with the evil creativity of those who are driven to "succeed" at whatever cost. They may be right. But, why aren't the big-time con artists exposed more quickly? I suspect these people succeed largely because their "customers" fail to exercise due diligence when doing business with them. Their personal magnetism or pedigree is such that their proposals are not checked out appropriately for transations of the magnitude they deal in. And, they are not afraid to intimidate or ridicule people who may obstruct their plans. Consequently, one successful fraud serves as the base for the next, by increasing the perpetrator's power and wealth.

You have probably heard the word "transparency" often, lately. It means that the purposes and details of agreements or transactions should be completely disclosed to those who are affected by them. Government officials and corporate managements, in particular, are being encouraged to be more "transparent" because they can often gain unfairly by keeping their purposes and transaction details secret. In some instances, such as in the selection of an appointed senator or the awarding of a major contract, transparency before the act is impractical but a requirement to keep detailed records and submit to post-review may provide adequate oversight.

The primary objection to transparency is that it "slows the process" by creating unnecessary work before and after transactions. In my view, this argument usually comes from prime movers who hate the idea that outsiders would have some power over them. We should be sceptical. Hampering those who might sell senate seats, bilk people out of $50 billion or $380 million, or invest a bank's capital in ultra-risky morgages seems more reasonable every day.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Greetings from San Diego!

The palm trees are swaying gently in the wind. The wind feels warm to me, but others here are wearing light jackets. The early morning clouds and rising sun make for a beautiful sky. It's just another balmy day in San Diego, where I've come to witness my #1 grandson's graduation from Marine boot camp.

Michael gained fifteen pounds, learned how to stand up straight and sit up straight, and how to look you in the eye when he talks to you. He's quite a different young man than he was eleven weeks ago, as I expected. All the young graduates look alert and sharp, very different than their civilian counterparts at this age. Many, many years of Marine experience in transforming kids into obedient soldiers is obviously effective.

I'm here with my #1 son, Michael's father. He's proud of Michael, although one year ago he wouldn't have guessed he'd be here to witness this kind of event. Kids do what kids do, and parents must stand aside and love them as they work out their lives. I think this experience will probably work out very well for Michael, adding some self dicipline and drive to his high intelligence. Time will tell.

Seeing and conversing with the Marine officers and sergeants takes me back to my youth in the 101st Airborne Division. These men are bright and motivated, and very sharp. They are more than a match for typical civilians in their age group. We Americans are fortunate to have armed forces filled with men and women of such quality.

Keep you posted!

Monday, December 08, 2008

Power and Greed

Here we are, hoping the government can somehow pull us out of this deep recession. We're so concerned about the present and the future, we don't think much about the recent past. It's the past, after all. But I've been thinking about how we got to this sorry state, and the answer is "power and greed". Nothing new. Over history, this combination of human drivers has caused more misery than the bubonic plague.

There are some people who are wired differently than most, or they get rewired through their life experiences. They love the feeling of control over others, and they will do anything they can get away with to establish that control. They also love the material trappings of success. The old saw about "What separates the men from the boys is the cost of their toys" is their mantra. These are the people who are primarily responsible for our economy being in tatters.

Looking back at the American financial system, we see a complex matrix of "credit default swaps", "hedge funds", and "nothing-down, no-credit-check, adjustable rate mortgages". Lots of these transactions had little more substance than air, or were simply another way to gamble. Yet the people who invented them, or approved them, or marketed them, or failed to regulate them, were generally very smart people. They knew better; they understood the potential for disaster if the value of these transactions reached a critical mass. So, why did they proceed? Simple. Power and greed. The short term success they achieved gave them great influence, and their large profits enabled plenty of flashy homes and toys. They acted rationally, for them.

The "free-market" zealots just don't understand the risk this small group of talented people presents. Although capitalism seems to be the best way we currently know to achieve innovation and productivity, unfettered capitalism provides the "power and greed" crowd with all the room they need to produce chaos. These people are willing to cross the lines of generally acceptable behavior if they feel they can gain an advantage by doing so. In a worst case scenario, you get a Hitler. In a more typical case, you get the guys who pushed Washington Mutual and Lehman Brothers off the cliff. If you were generous, you'd call them "unprincipled".

I've been up close and personal with members of this crowd. I've seen them make alliances with others of like mind in a large corporation. When they achieved the critical mass they needed, they simply broke the rules they all understood in order to cash in. To add insult to injury, they rigged their company's liablility insurance so that it had to pay the fines they ultimately got charged by regulators. All of them are mighty comfortable right now, their reputations ruined but their fortunes intact. They won the game.

When you hear someone say "Regulation stifles innovation", you can safely respond that "Lack of regulation creates human disasters". The trick with regulation is to get the level right. But, never forget, the "power and greed" crowd is always lurking close by, just waiting to find the chinks in the laws and rules that we depend on to make our society fairly predictable. Better to err on the side of caution.

Sunday, December 07, 2008

I Can't Get Her Out of My Mind

Working on the ambulance , as I do for over 100 hours each month, is the most rewarding activity that I'm involved in. I get back much more than I give.

These times are relatively tough. The news of my town, the country, and the world is disheartening. Problems, problems, problems. My IRA has taken a nosedive, too. I need some Christmas cheer, and the ambulance provides it.

Nothing is so elevating as meeting someone who really has it tough and is somehow staying positive. I met a lady the other day who has pretty much done this, although I expect some days are harder than others.

She had a great career in a big city until, one day in her late twenties, a freak illness almost killed her. For the past thirty years following her slow awakening from a coma, she's been coping with the aftermath. Operation after operation, disfiguring her and making her every day another chance at experiencing a sudden death. Can you imagine living like this?

I saw how her nurse hugged her tenderly when she released her to me for another trip to the hospital. As we chatted on the way and in the hospital triage area, she told me how grateful she was to her long-ago employer for giving her back her job after a year and half away from work. She smiled when she related to me that a female friend of hers was a WWII veteran. She lit up when I complimented her on a beautiful ring she was wearing, and she told me the story of when she got it. She was living in the moment, although she knew that she faced a lot of poking, prodding and deliberating with doctors over what to do with her today.

People like her shape my way of dealing with life's ups and downs. Nothing is guaranteed. There are far worse things than a fading IRA. At the end of the day, survival and the chance to experience a joyful moment, even in the midst of troubling uncertainty, is the core of what life is about. And, as a believer, I have hope even if the worst comes to pass.

Thank you, sweet lady, for making my day!