The first farmer was the first man. All historic nobility rests on the possession and use of land. Ralph Waldo Emerson

23 June 2010

Wanted: Decisive Leadership

First, let's make this point clearly: President Obama did not create the BP Oil Spill. It wasn't his fault and those who point fingers at him for doing so weaken their position on the issue before they even get started. Second, let's also concede that this is an extremely difficult problem with no easy answers.

But all that said, we're learning some disturbing things about our President in the midst of crisis. Namely, he's acting much more like the community organizer he is and not the decisive chief executive we both need and had hoped for. Too much has been made of the fact that Obama took nine days after the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon well on April 20 to visit the Gulf. While that's important in a symbolic way, it's not substantive and everyone knows that.

What is substantive, however, is Obama's lack of an aggressive, decisive response to the tragedy. Here are some examples:

  • In the early days after the explosion, Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal requested the federal government's help in constructing a series of sixteen sand berms along the Louisiana coast to protect the precious marsh lands from incoming oil. The Washington Post reported that Jindal "reached out to the marine contractor Van Oord and the research institute Deltares to assist with the project...and BP pledged $360 million for the plan". But when U.S. dredging companies and their labor unions objected to foreign dredging companies' involvement, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers indicated they would need to conduct an environmental impact study to determine what damage might be done by construction of the berms--this while millions of gallons of oil were headed toward the coast to do untold environmental damage to the coast!
  • Norway offered to provide a chemical dispersant said to be superior to the one used by BP with less harm to the ocean's sea life. It was rejected by the EPA.
  • In the weeks following the explosion, offers were received from Norway, the United Kingdom, and Saudi Arabia to send ships, skimming equipment, and other materiel to the Gulf Coast to assist in the clean-up and to attempt to capture as much oil as possible before it reached the coast. But thanks to a 1920's-vintage law called the Jones Act which prohibits foreign vessels and crews from entering American waters, such offers were not accepted and could not be accepted unless President Obama waived the Jones Act. To this day--more than 60 days after the explosion--such a waiver has not been granted by the President.
  • On May 5, the State Department reported that it had received thirteen foreign offers of help and that it would assess those offers and respond within 48 hours to determine which of the offers they might accept. Two weeks later, the Department finally responded--accepting none of the offers for help.
  • In early June, sixteen skimming vessels were finally deployed to the Gulf to vacuum as much oil as possible before it hit the beaches. Incredibly, the Coast Guard immediately took the vessels temporarily out of service to determine if they had a sufficient number of life vests on board.
An activist, involved, decisive Chief Executive would have swept the bureaucratic red tape aside. He would not have appointed blue ribbon panels of experts, including--as Obama has repeatedly pointed out--his "Nobel Prize winning Interior Secretary, Ken Salazar" to advise him, all of whom have twiddled their thumbs while the oil gushes into the Gulf. Instead, a decisive leader would have become directly involved--inviting all offers of assistance and working with the Coast Guard to coordinate their equipment and crews. He would have told the labor unions to pound sand--that this was no time for politics or protecting union jobs, but that it was a national emergency requiring the best minds and more able and trained hands than the U.S. was capable of mounting on its own. He would not only have approved Governor Jindal's request to construct berms, but he would have told the Army Corps of Engineers, the EPA, and any other bureaucracy to step aside while the work was getting done and sue him later if they chose to.

Instead, the oil continues to gush. The only hope--the only hope now--is the successful drilling and construction of two relief wells which are being drilled and which, we are told, will be operational sometime in early August. Clean-up efforts are, according to CNN and The New York Times, not well-coordinated. There's just not enough equipment being deployed and what is there is not being deployed in the right places.

In short, it's a fiasco. 

On February 20, 2009--during a visit to the Gulf Coast--President Obama told the residents this: "The residents of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast...are succeeding despite the fact they have not always received the support they deserved from the federal government. We must ensure that the failures of the past are never repeated." 

Now, a little over a year later, they most certainly are.

20 June 2010

The Privilege Of Being A Dad

I'm fortunate and blessed to be the father of three sons. This is particularly meaningful since I myself was raised in a family of three boys and no sisters.

Life in a household with three sons is, as one might imagine, a place loaded with mischief, fun, and testosterone. My sons are all young men now. Jeremy is 27, married, and lives in Costa Rica where he works for IBM and is making a very nice career with a fine company. Joshua is nearly 25, plans to be married next May, and manages a ranch as part of the family business. And Trevor is 21 and is about to enter his final year in college at the University of California in Santa Barbara.

But when they were younger, they made for an active--sometimes chaotic--household. My job when they were little was to give them a bath after dinner, dress them in their pajamas, and settle them down by reading them or telling them a story. Now, I will freely admit that I never really got the concept of "settling the boys down". First off, I understand from fathers of girls that this process is rarely necessary. But with boys--especially three of them--it is a foregone conclusion. Still, I will here and now admit that I am guilty of stirring the pot with the boys from time to time--encouraging shenanigans and, yes, even being part of the mischief when I was supposed to be exerting some authority. There were more than a few times when I got them cleaned up and in their PJ's before an all-out wrestling match--or what I used to call "bear-cubbing" would ensue on the floor of their bedroom. Instead of having them bedded down and relaxed, they would finally crawl into their beds sweaty, charged up, and ready to go another few rounds with Dad.

I remember one time when my wife was away at a meeting and I was asked to babysit. Now, this was also a bit of a misnomer in that the four of us viewed Mom's meetings as the equivalent of Guys' Night Out. Jeremy and I were watching Monday Night Football while the two younger guys were upstairs. What were they doing up there? I had no clue. After all, it was a good game! About the time Mom came home from her meeting, we heard some crying upstairs. We went up to investigate, but it was weird: we could hear Trevor crying but we couldn't find him. Finally, I followed the sound to the closet and discovered that he was stuck halfway down the laundry chute which went from our closet to the laundry room one floor below. I quickly determined that, as long as he was crying, it meant he was breathing so he was okay. But this clearly represented an emergency. I am happy to report that we did not have to call the fire department (I had visions of seeing them hack away at the cupboards in the laundry room with axes to free the young lad) and that we were able, with God's help, to get him out on our own. When he finally emerged and got settled down a little, I asked him "Why would you try to crawl down the laundry chute????" His reply: "Josh told me that Santa Claus did it and I should give it a try." Sigh.

On another occasion, I decided to take the boys (the youngest was not born yet) and their grandfather to a minor league baseball game. I was pretty sure--given the young ages of the boys--that we'd be lucky to last until the sixth inning, but we thought it would be fun nonetheless. In a moment of self-proclaimed genius, I bought them peanuts once we got through the gates instead of candy. Why? Peanuts meant they would have to shell their treat, which would keep them busy for at least three innings. And that's about how it worked out. By about the 4th or 5th inning, Jeremy was starting to get interested in watching the game. Josh was sitting at the end of the row, happily grubbing around in his pulled-out T-shirt for any remaining peanuts that he had missed. This activity got us through the sixth inning and--as the boys seemed happily occupied and the game was close--my father-in-law and I decided to hang around for another inning or two. At the end of the 7th inning, I looked down the row to check on Josh. He had by this time gotten out of his seat and was sitting on the concrete in front of the seat with his back to the field. He seemed to be having fun doing whatever he was doing, so I turned back to the game. Another inning went by. I checked on Josh again. He was still down there, so I bent down to see what he was up to. I discovered that the people seated in the row behind us had left, but not before dropping a whole pile of nacho chips and cheese on the floor. Josh was (and had for the last 10 minutes or so) reaching for the chips one at a time, dipping them in the cheese sauce, and having himself another game-time snack. My father-in-law and I chuckled over this development, and he asked me what I was going to do about it. I replied "Well, let's first agree that--if his mom were here--Josh would be halfway to the emergency room right now to get his stomach pumped. But the way I look at it, he's already been exposed to whatever is in that stuff, it's keeping him occupied, it's a good game, so I say--Play Ball!"

I will conclude the story by reporting that a) we did see the rest of the game and the home team won; b) Josh was just fine, with no apparent side effects as a result of his culinary adventure; and c) yes, I did get into a little trouble with my wife when we got home.

There are loads of other stories I could share that would make our family life seem like the inspiration for Chevy Chase's Family Vacation movies.

Suffice to say that I am blessed and honored to have three fine sons. They make me proud. I remember the day Jeremy was born. I held him and came to a startling realization: he was the first person in my life who I loved at first sight. And it would happen two more times after that.

17 June 2010

Great Series, Lousy Outcome

I'm a lifelong Boston Celtics fan. That's unusual coming from a California boy, but I've always admired the gritty, tough team brand of basketball the Celtics play. Tonight the Celtics joined battle with their most bitter rivals, the L.A. Lakers. The Celtics led at the end of the first, second, and third quarters. But they melted down the stretch and the Lakers won the championship in an epic Game 7.

It was a fantastic championship series. Too bad it had a lousy outcome. Regardless, the Celtics went into the playoffs as the 4th seed in the Eastern Conference. Nobody expected them to reach the Finals. They had a great season and made all of us Celtics fans proud.

14 June 2010

Fly The Flag Proudly

Today is Flag Day. Since President Wilson proclaimed June 14 as Flag Day in 1916, America has celebrated this day by flying its flag.

But the idea of Flag Day has its origins going back some thirty years earlier. The Fourth of July was traditionally celebrated as America's birthday, but the idea of an annual day specifically celebrating the Flag is believed to have first originated in 1885. BJ Cigrand, a schoolteacher, arranged for the pupils in the Fredonia, Wisconsin Public School to observe June 14 (the 108th anniversary of the official adoption of The Stars and Stripes) as 'Flag Birthday'. In numerous magazines and newspaper articles and public addresses over the following years, Cigrand continued to enthusiastically advocate the observance of June 14 as 'Flag Birthday', or 'Flag Day'.

America is a flawed country, yes. But it's also the beacon of liberty for the rest of the world, and the most benign and generous superpower the world has ever known. Two weekends ago, I installed a flag bracket on the front of my home, and a big, bright 3' x 5' flag has been gracing it since then.

So fly your flag today, and everyday. And fly it proudly.

01 June 2010

My Speech To The Graduates

It's June--the month when many young adults will graduate from high school and college, and begin an exciting new chapter in their lives. I haven't been invited to offer the keynote address at any of these commencement exercises, but if I were invited, this is what I would say to the graduates of 2010...

Sweat the small stuff.  In spite of what they say, the small stuff often is the big stuff, and if the small stuff is taken care of the big stuff will follow.
Show respect for your parents.  Sure, we may have made mistakes when you were growing up.  In fact, I guarantee you we did make mistakes when you were growing up.  But if we're like 90% of parents, we did the best we could and we love you unconditionally.  Remember, living with you wasn't exactly a cakewalk either.
Write a real letter to a friend at least once a month.  Not an email.  Not a note.  A real letter.  Tell them what you're doing and what you're up to.  When they receive a letter like that in the mail, they'll be thrilled.  And you will have made their day--maybe even their whole week.  And all it cost you was thirty minutes of your time and a stamp.
Be content with your surroundings and what you have.  We really do live in the greatest country in the world, in spite of all of its problems.  Maybe you don't live in La Jolla or Carmel or The Hamptons.  (In fact, the odds are very high that you don't.)  But wherever you are, you live in a pretty wonderful place and you enjoy the freedom of our land and the beauty of our big, wide, open-armed nation.  Enjoy it.  Relish it.  Embrace it.


Be grateful.  We all have things to be thankful for.  When we focus on all we have rather than all we don't have, we're a lot more interesting to be with and talk to.  Even when the only conversation we're having is with ourselves.
Learn the social graces.  Men, walk on the outside of the sidewalk--even though the days of horse-drawn carriages throwing mud on the boardwalks is a thing from the last century.  Pull a lady's chair for her.  Help her with her coat.  Rise when she enters a room when you're in public.  Ladies, don't slurp your soup.  Don't talk too much.  If there is a lull in the conversation, don't fill it with needless noise; make room for poignant silence.  And by the way, it's perfectly okay to ask us guys to put the toilet seat down.
Take a walk everyday.  Take your dog if you have one.  Take yourself if you don't.  A daily constitutional is good for your body, but more importantly, it's good for your mind.  In this busy and fast-paced world where we're so conditioned to run, taking a walk is not only not such a bad thing, it's a very good thing.
Find a hobby and pursue it.  Make it a passion.  Whether it's learning to play the fiddle or planting and tending a rose garden or painting still lifes or landscapes, do it.  Spend time with it.  Improve and learn and grow.  It will relax you and stimulate you at the same time.  Besides, one-dimensional people are boring.


Go to Italy.  From the splendor of the Italian Alps in the north to the quaint Sicilian villages in the far south, it's a fascinating country.  You will eat some of the best food in the world and you won't ever have to set foot in a 5-star restaurant to get it.  You will drink some of the best wine.  You will rub elbows with some of the friendliest and most gracious people.  And you will see and learn and experience passion.  The Italians are lousy at city planning and they will never teach you how to be efficient.  It doesn't matter.  They will teach you how to enjoy and appreciate life.
Pray with your kids.  Don't just pray for them, pray with them.  Pray with them while they're still in the womb, so they get used to the sound of your voice when you pray.  Pray with them when they are infants and toddlers and young children and teenagers.  Pray with them when they are young adults and middle-aged parents of your grandchildren.  Pray unceasingly. 
Go ahead and dream.  Don't be discouraged by the naysayers who say that dreamers have their heads in the clouds.  Edison dreamed of harnessing electricity to make light and he did it.  Hillary dreamed of scaling Mount Everest and he climbed it.  Michelangelo dreamed of creating a masterpiece on a ceiling and he painted it.  Nothing great was ever accomplished that was not preceded by a dream.  So go ahead and dream.  Dream big.  Your dreams are the first step to getting there.
Don't worry about how much you have.  Worry about how much you give.  The great irony is that by giving, you'll ultimately be the receiver.  By getting and hoarding, you'll ultimately come away empty-handed.  Have as your goal at your funeral a church overflowing with family and friends and many who never knew you but were touched by your generosity.  It will be much greater and more interesting than a hearse and a brief graveside ceremony.
One more thing about the small stuff.  Remember to separate the minutiae from the small stuff.  The small stuff isn't small because it's not important.  It's small because it's a part of something bigger.  Minutiae--now that's unimportant.  Need an example?  Your son wants you to play catch in the backyard.  That's small.  That's important.  Your co-worker tells you that the shipment will get there a day late because of a blizzard in the Rockies.  That's minutiae.  You make a phone call and tell your customer what's happening, and you've already done all you can.  Beyond that, it's unimportant.

Laugh.  Laugh uproariously.

Hug someone or shake someone's hand everyday.  Hug your wife or your husband.  Shake your co-worker's hand.  You can even shake the hand of the person in back of you in line at the grocery store.  Whoever it is, and whatever the circumstances, you will be making someone's day a little happier and a little brighter.  And remember, by giving you're actually the one who is getting.  It works out that way.
Teach your kids how to save.  In our society of easy credit and instant gratification, the simple act of saving is becoming a thing of the past.  Our parents and grandparents lived through the Great Depression, when having clothes for school and a hot dinner every night was nothing to take for granted.  Nowadays we're not only complacent about that hot meal, but we choose between eating at home or eating out, between Thai food or Italian, between the local corner restaurant or our own dinner table.  We buy a new pair of jeans because they're on sale, not because we really need another pair.  We lease a new car every three years because the lease on our "old" one has expired, not because we really need a new car.  Old Ben Franklin was right: a penny saved really is a penny earned.  So teach your kids how to earn more by saving more.
Choose happiness.  It really is a choice.  Life does throw us curve balls, it's true.  And it is also true that sometimes life isn't fair.  But guess what?  When it happens to you, you're not the only one.  And in spite of what you may think, your circumstances are not unique to you.  It's not whether we hit that curve ball out of the park, because chances are that we won't.  What matters is whether we keep swinging, even when the curve balls keep coming.


Dwight Eisenhower said that those who fail to plan, plan to fail.  Always have a list of goals and review that list at least once a year.  How are you doing in accomplishing those things?  And if you're not achieving those goals, how do you kick yourself in the butt to do them?  The goals don't have to be huge, but you do need to begin achieving them.  It will boost your self-confidence.  It will help you bounce out of bed in the morning.  And--best of all--when you scratch those goals off your list because you achieved them, you'll be replacing them with new goals that are even bolder and bigger.
Be kind to yourself.  Okay, so you don't have the body of Elizabeth Hurley, the voice of Andrea Bocelli, or the brains of Albert Einstein.  Guess what?  The guy next to you doesn't either.  What you do have is your own uniqueness, your own style, your own way of doing things.  Every one of us has something we do do better than 90% of our peers.  So don't focus on what you aren't or can't or won't be.  Focus on what you are and can and will be.  You will be a lot happier, and the world really will be a better place. 

Oh yeah.  Don’t forget to sweat the small stuff.