Saturday, June 29, 2013

Sitting Up With The Dead

I recently went to a family reunion, my mother’s side of the family. Each year in late June, what remains of the clan gathers in a small community southwest of Fort Worth. I am closely related to some. But with others the branches split so far back in the 1800’s that I lose track after the 3rd or 4th cousin by marriage explanation. The core group of relatives in this community descended from my great-great grandfather. His brothers and sisters spawned these other folks, only a few of whom look and sound like family. But, they seem genuinely committed to maintaining the tradition and, I suppose what they see as a link to the Old West. Not that this side of my family had much to do with the Old West. They rode horses and had a few cows, but mostly they were hard-scrabble farmers who came to Texas after the Civil War. Some were lucky enough to secure good bottom land along the Brazos River, but most ended up with land best suited for scrub oak, cedar brush and prickly pears. The area gets less rain than places only a day’s ride (on horseback) in three directions. Go further west and you better be into raising goats.

My grandfather was one of 15 kids (Methodists taking the Lord’s instruction to be fruitful and multiply quite literally.) I don’t remember the order of birth but my grandfather was in the first five. All but one are now passed on. The lone survivor was number 15, an eighty-eight year old aunt who was only a couple of years older than my mother. They grew up more like sisters than aunt and niece. Her mind is sharp as long as you don’t inquire about anything that’s happened since 2000. The closer to the present time the worse it gets. But the farther back you go, the better.

My aunt recalled when my mother died back in ’98 which led her to speak of other deaths and other funerals. The only present day reference she could muster was noting how fortunate they were to now have some gas wells around there to fund upkeep on the cemetery. To the extent that any royalties are left over is evidenced only by new improvements to the community church, once Methodist, now staunchly Baptist.
As she spoke of deaths and funerals, one of the old men sitting nearby recalled when family members dug graves for the departed kin. Back then they did not take their dead to the funeral home. They dressed them in their Sunday best and laid them out in the house. While the young men dug the grave, the family waited for more relatives to arrive; sometimes taking a day or two, but never much more, especially in the summer months. There was too much farm work to be done and dead bodies ripened quickly.

Lacking the proper filters, old people and children just talk about whatever comes to mind. And on this day, my aunt wanted to talk about “sitting up with the dead”. The fact that we were attempting to eat our Sunday dinner was of no consequence to her. She told of how folks would sit up around the clock with the dead body. One lady there with us, in her 50’s and married into the clan somehow, commented how that showed so much love and respect for family and that she couldn’t imagine people today making such a sacrifice. My aunt shook her head and laid down her fork loaded with green beans.

She said, “Love and respect had nothing to do with it. Someone had to be there to keep rats and mice from eating the body. And in the summer time with the windows open, cats would come in and eat the person’s face off if you weren’t watching.”

A few of us had heard of “sitting up with the dead”, but I don’t think any of us had ever heard that it was for the purpose of keeping vermin and critters from eating the body. No one knew what to say. I just started laughing and said, “That is great. I’d never heard that before.”

My aunt smiled and replied, “Well, that’s the truth.” Then she looked at me and asked, “Now tell me again, who are you?”

Before I could ask for more details, my wife managed to change the subject and soon my aunt was telling stories about playing paper dolls with my mother when they were little girls. She even remembered who I was and commented that she could not believe that I came out of my mother’s body. That comment made me put down my fork. Could we just go back to talking about cats and rats and sitting up with the dead?

Saturday, June 22, 2013

How You Make a Living

“Do you have any qualms about how you actually make a living?” – Dr. Jennifer Melfi
(Lorraine Bracco’s character speaking to Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini) in the HBO series “The Sopranos”)

James Gandolfini, the actor who so brilliantly portrayed the Mafia boss, Tony Soprano, in the HBO series, “The Sopranos”; died this week. He suffered a heart attack while traveling in Italy. He was only 51 years old. Mr. Gandolfini was a great actor and a gentleman, who by all accounts was nothing like his character Tony Soprano. I remember seeing him for the first time in the movie True Romance (1993) where he played the role of; guess what…a Mafia guy. His violent, bloody scene with Patricia Arquette is classic Quinten Tarantino and definitely not for family viewing. (True Romance is one of my all time favorite movies and the soundtrack is killer…no pun intended.) While he played other roles during his career; to me James Gandolfini was always first and foremost the Italian Mafia guy with that classic New Jersey accent. And he was totally Tony Soprano.

"The Sopranos" was a hugely successful series that ran for six seasons. Even though it was about fictional characters living out their lives on a very unique and violent fringe of our society, "The Sopranos" somehow resonated with many of us. Americans have always been fascinated by gangsters and in particular with the Mafia. Back in the ‘70’s and 80’s, The Godfather series captured our attention and our imaginations. Later in the 90’s movies such as Goodfellas and Casino drilled down even further into the evils of organized crime. For some reason, we just love to watch it. Perhaps we even need to watch it. Usually it’s the ‘good’ bad guys vs. the ‘bad’ bad guys and it matters that we recognize the difference. It matters even more that we always remember that they are all bad guys.

Which brings me back to “The Sopranos”. Somehow “The Sopranos” was different from all of the other mafia/organized crime/mob stories. Just when you thought Tony and his crew were the ‘good’ bad guys, they would do something so awful that you knew they were just plain old bad guys. There was great writing and superb acting. It was an award-winning show all the way. But along the way to winning awards, “The Sopranos” became something more. It became a portrait of dysfunctional life in a wealthy American suburb. Tony Soprano just happened to be a guy whose ill-gotten gains were a bit more ill-gotten than those of his neighbors.

Meanwhile, back in the real world McMansions were being built throughout Northern New Jersey in neighborhoods very much like the one portrayed in "The Sopranos". And not just in North Jersey. Gated McMansionvilles were popping up everywhere. And more than a few of those McMansions were occupied by people who made their living polishing and selling turds; aka Structured Investment Vehicles (SIVs). Polishing and selling turds is legal as long as you do the paperwork and add the appropriate legal disclaimers in the fine print. These folks are not Bernie Madoffs, hatching illegal ponzi schemes and literally stealing money. But they aren’t much better. They are certainly not members of the community of ethical financial professionals who actually play a valuable role in the efficient deployment of capital resources. Perhaps we should just call these turd peddlers creative capitalists. Creative capitalists invent new investment vehicles and know how to spin even the most risky ventures into what unwary investors view as AAA grade safe havens. They understand the power of money and the value of diversification. They know how to H-E-D-G-E and that it is unwise to hold in their hands for too long even the most well-polished turd.

“The Sopranos” ended their run in 2007. A year later many of the polished turds started to stink and soon thereafter we had the Great Recession. A lot of people got hurt, including some of those “creative capitalists”. But the truth is that most of those who got hurt never moved into their own McMansion. The power of money tends to hold up pretty well, even in a Great Recession…if you have enough of it and you understand how to use it. So now five years later, those McMansions are occupied once more and new ones are being built. The creative capitalists are still running their magic show, moving money around the world while finding new ways to keep more of it for themselves.

What I found most interesting about Tony Soprano was that he was a tortured soul. He struggled to reconcile his life with the way he made his living. Few of us make our living from felonious pursuits. Even fewer of us end up “whacking people” or having people “whacked” in the process. But, if we have a conscience, most of us will at times question if we are “doing the right thing”. And then there are those who polish turds.

“Yeah. I find I have to be the sad clown: laughing on the outside, crying on the inside.” – Tony Soprano’s response to Dr. Melfi’s question.

RIP James Gandolfini

Friday, June 14, 2013

Heavy Burdens

When I moved back to Texas a few years ago, I reconnected with some old friends. Guys I grew up with back in the day. Still kids to me, although like me, now older and grayer and wrinkled; gravity and time and life having taken their toll. Over the past four years we’ve gathered for golf and birthdays and dinners and concerts. We’ve bored our wives with stories of our youth and embarrassed each other with tales of misadventures, old girlfriends and the time when you know who drank a pint of gin and threw up in the back seat of his best friend’s car. Mostly true stories that get better with age and the entitled embellishment that comes with the passing of years and the fading of memories.

One of my old friends called me this week. I could tell immediately that something was not right. He sounded anxious and may have been about half-drunk. He rambled on with a gee-whiz, can-you-believe-it tale of moving and lost or stolen credit cards and debit cards. Of changing banks and having funds tied up in the transition. Of how he did not realize what had happened until the day before, when he was unable to pay for repairs on his pick-up. Of how another of our friends stepped up and bailed him out with a $500 loan. Now he had a family emergency and needed travel money to see his sister down on the coast who was in dire need of his help. He could probably get by on a $1000 but really needed $1500. He hated to hit up his buddies, but since we were kind of like a band of brothers figured it was the logical place to go. And, besides, he would have all of the banking and credit/debit card mess worked out by next week and would pay me back immediately.

It’s been some years since I had a conversation like this. I used to have them on occasion with truck drivers (or their wives). I was born at night, but not last night and my bullshit meter still works. My old friend’s story was bullshit. I told him that I would call him back. I actually took the coward’s way out and said that I needed to run this by my wife. That I would not want her giving $1500 to one of her friends without talking to me first. I owed her the same consideration.

I called the friend who supposedly loaned him $500 the day before. Sure enough, that story did check out….up to a point. He had given him the money. When I told this friend that our “friend in need” had hit me up for money, he realized that he had been taken. He said he knew the folks at the repair shop where our friend claimed to have had his truck repaired. He quickly checked and called me back. Of course, there had been no repair.

I did call back to the “friend in need”. I told him that I hated to be a jerk, but that his story wasn’t adding up. He had kids and family and even an ex-wife with whom he was on good terms (I mean really good terms…friends with benefits good terms.) Had he reached out to any of them for a quick loan? He assured me that they would help him out but he just hated to go to them and he felt silly being caught short like this. Then he quickly started withdrawing his request, saying that he understood and it was no big deal…blah, blah, blah. I told him that if worse came to worse, call me back and I would help him.

In the day or two since those calls, I’ve discovered that my “friend in need” has fallen back into the black hole that is his gambling addiction. Having been away for many years, I did not realize that this had been an issue in the past. I have been told that he has called others in our circle of friends, who knowing the history, have turned him down. I have now learned that he has even exhausted the patience of his kids, his family and his ex-wife. Our “friend in need” is in big trouble. But, he will not admit it and will not seek help. It breaks my heart.

I could get on my soapbox and tell story after story of people’s lives that have been destroyed by gambling. It is a terrible addiction. But we all have our demons. Some worse than others. I’ve written in the past about “living on the edge”. It is a real place and it is real fun while it last. Then it’s over. I will not and cannot judge my old friend. There but for the grace of God go I. I will pray for my friend. It can’t hurt and it might even help. But, I’m not sure that my prayers get through. I’ve seen too many friends and family members fall under the weight of whatever addictive burdens they were bearing. I look in the mirror and see a man still struggling with his own demons. We all break hearts; our own as well as the hearts of those who love us…and even the heart of the One who saved us.

“When an impure spirit comes out of a person, it goes through arid places seeking rest and does not find it. Then it says, ‘I will return to the house I left.’ When it arrives, it finds the house unoccupied, swept clean and put in order. Then it goes and takes with it seven other spirits more wicked than itself, and they go in and live there. And the final condition of that person is worse than the first.” – Jesus, The Christ (Matthew 12:43-45).

Saturday, June 1, 2013

Career Makers, Career Breakers....Part 4

“No man is an Island, entire of itself.” – John Donne

In the final installment of Career Makers, Career Breakers, we’ll look at perhaps the most important “Maker” and “Breaker” issue: Networking

Career Maker #7: Network, Network, Network
Here’s a news flash for all of you high performers out there who believe that you can ride your accomplishments all the way to the top: YOU CANNOT MAKE THAT RIDE TO THE TOP BY YOURSELF.


You may be the smartest person in the room. You may have achievements out the kazoo. You may even be a great boss and mentor to those in your charge. But, if you are not “connected” beyond the immediate circle of people in your work group, you are falling behind in the “race to the top”. And if you are not even well-connected to the people with whom you work, then you are not even in the race.

Career Breaker #7: Don’t Network

There are different levels of networking. The good networkers know how to do it in a way that is genuine and they don’t even seem to be networking. The bad networkers always seem to have an agenda and everyone knows it. They just try too hard. You keep waiting for them to try and sell you something or convert you. But there is even something worse than the bad networker. It’s the non-networker. This is the person whose professional existence is known by only their co-workers, whose accomplishments only by the boss and whose personality is known perhaps by the resident bad networker who will attempt to connect with anyone who has an open door or an empty chair beside them. Non-networkers are otherwise invisible. If you are not highly motivated to advance in your career it may not be that big of a deal. But if you aspire to advance at all, much less advance to professional greatness, you better figure out this networking thing and get on board.

So am I saying that all of the folks who make it to the top are just glad-handing, hail-fellow-well-met types? Not at all. But, I am confident that they were and still are great networkers. This is not meant to diminish the talents and accomplishments of Fortune 500 CEO’s, but I think most of them would agree that there are a number of other executives out there who have (or had) the talent and drive to reach their level of professional success. It just didn't happen. The difference often comes down to being in the right place at the right time with the right people. And if you want to improve your odds of being in the right place at the right time with the right people, you must “network” with the right people at the right times in the right places…and in the right way (note comments above regarding bad networkers.)

Volumes have been written about networking, so I’ll not go much further other than to say that if you are not spending at least one hour per week “networking” you are seriously short-changing yourself. And this is more than polishing up your “on line” presence or brand. This is personal and it involves talking to people in your industry; customers, competitors, vendors, investors and yes, even headhunters. Of course, there are things you cannot and should not talk about. So be careful. But, there are plenty of things you can talk about and you can build safe, ethical and responsible relationships; even friendships. The “race to the top” is challenging. You will need guides, counselors, insiders, good PR, supporters and most definitely friends along the way. It doesn’t just happen. You have to help it along with a good dose of honest, sincere networking effort. Even if you don’t make it to the top, you’ll have more fun on the journey.

So that wraps up my take on Career Makers and Career Breakers. If I had taken more of my own advice along the way, I might not be blogging about such things today. I might even be rich and retired, or just tired. I can think of no better way to close this out than with one of my favorite poems:


An old man, going a lone highway,
Came at the evening cold and gray,
To a chasm, vast and deep and wide,
Through which was flowing a sullen tide.
The old man crossed in the twilight dim-
That sullen stream had no fears for him;
But he turned, when he reached the other side,
And built a bridge to span the tide.

"Old man," said a fellow pilgrim near,
"You are wasting strength in building here.
Your journey will end with the ending day;
You never again must pass this way.
You have crossed the chasm, deep and wide,
Why build you the bridge at the eventide?"

The builder lifted his old gray head.
"Good friend, in the path I have come," he said,
"There followeth after me today
A youth whose feet must pass this way.
This chasm that has been naught to me
To that fair-haired youth may a pitfall be.
He, too, must cross in the twilight dim;
Good friend, I am building the bridge for him."

-Will Allen Dromgoole