Friday, November 30, 2007

What's It Like in Afghanistan? Read Here To Find Out...

Last June at a Red Sox game I sat next to a guy in the Canadian Armed Forces; Clay Cochrane was set to be deployed to Afghanistan and drove down to Fenway to treat himself to a Sox game before his departure.

He's been in Afghanistan now for five months and periodically sends "SITREPS" (Situation Reports) about his deployment. Lest you think it's just Americans defending peace around the world, here's his latest update...

I should start by saying that when I last signed off I believe that I said I will talk to you in a month; that was way back in September. Man I don't even remember September. I don't really remember October to tell you the truth.

But I heard that there is 5cm on its way to Ottawa today and that makes me very happy. Not because I am glad you guys are cold, but because when I left Quebec City it was mid summer, hot and humid. And that means that not only have weeks and months gone by, but entire seasons. There are now less than 25 shopping days till Christmas. I plan to write you once more before then. Famous last words.

Sometimes at my home unit back in Victoria I would look at the pace of activity (dive courses, training, exercises, live EOD missions, Assistance to Sea Training, PERs, budget and infrastructure meetings, Force Protection briefings for the ships, the Timmy's Telethon Paddle to Port Angeles, ect, and I used to say as the OPSO back then, man are we ever busy. And we were busy for sure.

We were then and are today very busy in all the units within the Canadian Forces, no question. In fact the units back home, a lot of them you can easily forget, they are dealing with an increased workload due to the 3,000 soldiers here in Afghanistan. Some/most of those units and Headquarters are directly supporting those soldiers in the war today and we often forget that. Busy, yep, I remember busy.

But this stuff over here isn't busy. I don't know the word for it, but it's not busy. It's like running a 400m race. I used to hate the 400m because it’s a sprint and I could never sprint all the way around the track, it just hurt too much. I usually puked after the race and came in dead last with guys not even out of breath looking down at me wondering what the hell I was doing on the ground.

This type of “busy” is well… It's more like a feeling. It's sort of like when you do finally get to sleep over here you can't wake up or don't want to, or it physically hurts to force yourself onto your feet sometimes. Then you shower and shave and say to yourself in the mirror, “Man, you skipped PT again today, not good dude.” When I do that if nobody is around in the latrine, I usually try to do my best Arnold Schwarzennegger voice and say: “Look at yourself Clayton, you look like such a little girly man. Get a grip!” Yes, wars also tend to make people with weak minds talk to themselves.

Busy, yeah that’s a word for it. It's a feeling of, “holy crap, I am up to 16 pending reports which take one hour each to finish and I have 3 more coming in today, that makes almost 20”. Then there is a phone call and you are off sorting out a sometimes very serious emergency situation where somebody's life may actually be in danger or worse. Then you make several other urgent calls to get helicopters and other types of help and then you find out that a whole two hours went by and your uniform is all sticky and uncomfortable and you realize that you've been sweating quite a bit in a perfectly well air conditioned space and its starting to dry and you feel really gross. Then you find out you just missed the General's O Group, but that's OK, because you had a good reason, you could always say: "I was busy."

So I am saying the reason I haven't written in a couple of months is just that, I have been what shall I call it? I'm thinking of Bill Murray in Caddyshack: "I was unavoidably detained."

Yes that's what it's been like these past few months, a kind of pace which just never lets up, at least not until your HLTA (military vernacular for a free vacation paid by Her Majesty). That is another reason you didn't here from me in October, I got two weeks of pure joy back in Victoria and it was easily the highlight of 2007 for me. And that's saying a lot, because 2007 was a good year, a very good year in fact.

I want to first tell a quick story about HLTA. In my "normal office job" back in Victoria I do a fair bit of travel. I don't know how many times I have been picked up by the family at the Victoria Airport or how many times I have been dropped off, but its a pretty big number over the years. When I get picked up, I always see three very happy little boys, Duncan now 11, Holden 8 and Carter 5 and I get very different types of hugs and kisses on every re-acquaintance.

Usually it's: "Hi Dad, missed you, what's in that bag? Is that a present for me?" or "Hi Daddy, we saw your plane land, where were you sitting, don't kiss me there are people looking." The usual. Not when I came home from HLTA in October.

Something had changed. When I came home all three of them ran at me, full sprint across the airport Arrivals area, and Duncan who is now a full up "Too Cool Pre-Teen" jumped up into my arms and wrapped his legs around my back and it felt like he would never let go. I had to let go of the hug first. Same thing with the other boys. Seeing that kind of reaction in a self-conscious eleven year old is something special. That was an experience I will never forget.

The remainder of my blessed two weeks of leave went uphill from there. It actually was so good, I noticed that one Sunday night we were out of milk at around 9:50 pm. I thought, excellent, we are out of milk. That's great! No problem, I'll just grab my keys and wallet and jump in the car and go to the store and buy some fresh milk. Beautiful, fresh cold delicious 2% milk.

Yes 2% white milk, not yellow dry powdered water, which smells like old eggs. Before I would have looked at the TV and my Sunday Night Football Game with Al Michaels and John Madden and with considerable resentment in my heart I would have gone out to get the damn milk. The other night I stood in the market and marveled at how glorious it is that we have a place to get fresh milk in the middle of the night.

It's funny when you live in a place like this, a couple of things happen, you really miss the things you hold dear for sure, but oddly enough you adjust to the “new normal” and that is even more bizarre. It's like a rocket attack for example. First couple of weeks here, I am diving off my cot and I’m on the dusty dirty ground (in my gitch) and lying there with my flak vest over my back and trying to find my helmet in the dark. (Sorry about that visual I must have just given most of you there). Take aspirin for headaches.

But a couple of nights ago, same thing…….WIZZZZZZZ ……..BOOOOOM! No joke, I just rolled over and thought, "900 meters North North West". And I don't say that to sound like some cool grizzled vet, because I am not, far from it. They still scare the crap out of me every time but sometimes you just have to get some sleep and tell the Taliban buzz off before you roll over and go back to your interrupted dream about Mary Jane Rosencrantz from High School.

By the way, I should qualify my last terminology. The soldiers use that term a lot over here: “Buzz off!” It can be down right Walt Disney like here at times.

So I promised myself I would write my next SITREP with some humor and hopefully I have a bit already, but I just have to take a moment right now to remember the three soldiers who we lost on this mission since I last wrote you. Without their sacrifice and the thousands before them, in Canada’s other conflicts, we wouldn’t be as free as we are today.

Corporal Nathan Hornburg.....Zhari District…...The Last Post....September 24th 2007

Corporal Nicolas Beauchamp...Panjwai District..The Last Post....November 16th 2007

Private Michel Levesque...Panjwai District…The Last Post…November 16th 2007

Three of the bravest young men you would have the honor to meet or know. And so too are the injured who I did not mention, may they all recover and live full and happy lives surrounded by those who love them. And may our latest three fallen brothers in arms rest peacefully and may their families look to their lives with only the warmest memories of these brave Canadian patriots.

I was thinking because someone in Victoria asked me recently to describe: "What's it like for you every day over there? Describe your normal day." Well that all depends really on where I am.

You see for me, unlike a lot of the others, I have two Aghanistans. Yeah, really, I see two totally different views of this war. One is safe and fairly comfortable but smells of feces constantly, well relatively comfortable and I can't stand this more safe locale, which probably sounds crazy. That’s the War in Afghanistan on Air Base (KAF), an air base that is miles away from most of the fighting.

It's an air base with 20,000 people and not one child. Women and men everywhere, but no kids. It’s like in that old Dick Van Dyke Disney movie, he’s in a city with no children. Sorry a city with no children, which smells like the Paris Subway System. We do get rocket attacks but the base is surprisingly full of civilian contractors, like Tim Horton’s staff for example. And I never go there by the way, which is even crazier. I just have no time, the line up is a minimum of 25 minutes. Brutal.

The other Afghanistan is dark and can be frightening at times. It’s “Outside the Wire” it's out on the FOBs (Forward Operating Bases) or out in open country with the enemy. It’s a part of Afghanistan full of nothing but soldiers, mostly men, hard, brave men who have seen hard fighting and plenty of it.

There are some women but only a small handful and trust me they are just as tough and just as capable as any of the fellas I assure you. It is a place full of shocking black humor and language, which would make a Navy Mess Deck sound like a Christian Baptist Bible Study Hall. I actually learned out there not that long ago that you can use the “F” word as a verb, a noun, and an adjective and as a coordinate conjunction all in the same sentence. Incredible. And I’m in the Navy for crying out loud!

And it is a sad place too sometimes and has moments which seem totally insane and completely like nothing I would ever want anyone I love to come within 10,000 miles of ever even seeing or experiencing first hand.

Yet when you are “outside the wire” it has one thing which safe, smelly KAF doesn’t. It has kids. Young local boys mostly who will come into the FOBs and earn some money with their dad’s or uncles as they help us clean kitchens and keep things tidy. They are nice kids and they look at me and the other soldiers with such wonder whenever we speak to them. They are fascinated, many of them with the idea that we too have families and that we left our kids to come here so they could have a chance like my boys do back in Canada.

When I show them pictures of my kids they get it, you can see it in their eyes. It fascinates them and the adults as well to see pictures of my kids, sad little Canadian boys saying goodbye to their dad in Valcartier, Que, the day I left to come here. They get it; they see the look in my eyes and the eyes of my own boys through the magic of a digital camera. They see the sacrifice that others, not just the soldiers have made to help set them free from evil and oppression.

And so that is Afghanistan out on the FOBs, very different from the main Air Base. And I actually wish I was there right now. Is that crazy? And I don’t want to be there tonight because I’m some cowboy or have some bizarre wish to be shot or seek some type of sick glory. Not at all. In fact I can tell you first hand that getting shot at is only one thing: Bad. But I want to be there tonight only because my men are there and I am their Commander in the field.

I am responsible for each and every one of them. And that’s why I want to be with them when they go out on Operations tomorrow. I want to be there demonstrating without saying out loud, that I will not ask you to do something I would not be willing to do myself. And it's not hero crap either, it's how I really feel. I love those boys and I’d do anything for them.

Anyway, I’ll be heading out soon enough, there is no rush and I have a job to do here as well and its important that is gets done right. I have to always remember that, we are a team. And just like a hockey team, somebody has to stand behind the bench and call the plays and rotate the lines. That my role, I’m the coach in many ways. And it’s the job of the coach to take care of the players and help them win and that’s what I do here. But still I miss my troops.

I am the General's Explosive Ordnance Disposal Officer (EOD). If that sounds like I am bragging, trust me I'm not; I have to report through about half a dozen other Army Officers before the General even hears boo out of me. And because of the operational nature and sensitivity of what I do I am afraid I can’t give out a lot of details. Instead I will have to use a lot of analogies to describe my work.

But when my phone rings in the middle of the night and I grab my shoulder holster and run out of my tent to the Canadian Headquarters it can be pretty tough sometimes. Sometimes, not very often but sometimes, late at night that phone rings and at the other end in broken French-Canadian English is a young private: “Sir, is this Lieutenant Cokrain? Sir, they need you in the POC, there’s been an IED.” I walk in there sometimes at 2 in the morning and its all quiet but it seems like everybody and his uncle wants me to fix what's just happened and I can't. I often find it funny that those other 4 or 5 officers I have to report to before I go to “The Boss” are nowhere to be found.

Truth be told, it's not their fault, it's my job actually to start to call a lot of them and give them the information they need to make some pretty hard calls. But I tell you, when you are standing there and it feels like the whole world is on fire, it’s the most lonely and powerless feeling you can possibly imagine. You can make the calls you have to make, you can wake people up, move men and equipment to help but at the end of the day you feel like you have failed somehow. It's so bad sometimes, I can’t even really talk about it. I think maybe that’s why I write these SITREPS. I think it helps me somehow. I don’t know. I have to tell somebody about it. It’s hard.

I hate it when my phone rings, especially at night, because it means that something really bad has just happened. There are no exceptions; it’s always bad when that little piece of plastic and circuit boards and wires starts to ring at night. If I let it get to me and sometimes it does, I will tell myself a nasty story, which isn’t true. I will tell myself about how it also means that somewhere, somehow, I didn’t do my job well enough that day. I will tell myself that I have failed.

I am in an organization, (called a Squadron) over here, which is responsible for defending the entire force in our area from IEDs (Improvised Explosive Devices). It’s the primary weapon the enemy use against our troops. I am Second in Command of the Squadron (which in the navy we would call that guy the XO). But trust me the term XO used in an army setting like this wore out its welcome about 1.5 seconds after I first offered it up as a possible nametag for me. So I try to give my boss and his boss and even “The Big Boss” the best possible advice and council I can muster each and every day. Sometimes I think its really working and some days not so good. It’s hard to always get it “right” every day. But luckily the good days way outstrip the bad ones.

In Afghanistan, my Explosive Disposal guys and my Investigators (it's usually my guys and not me anyway) jump out of helicopters or armored vehicles and do the exact same thing, minus the police tape. But unlike TV, its not beautiful Miami Beach Florida and everyone in the scene isn’t perfect looking like they belong in GQ Magazine. We are sometimes getting shot at by a bunch of terrorist clowns, usually with AK-47s, mortars, or rocket propelled grenades (RPGs). Sometimes it’s a combination of all of the above. And usually these terrorist idiots aren’t exactly too thrilled that we showed up in the first place. But once things settle down we go about our work.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Guys: They Are Successful Business People Who Happen to Be Women (and no, they don't want to sleep with you)

In a previous blog entry, I discussed the issue of a female coaching football. The ire raised by this matter spurred me to investigate further the true extent to which women have penetrated the glass ceiling and become accepted as valuable co-workers.

In light of the event described below, I’m not encouraged. I understand, however (since I did attend Vassar College, after all), that being a white male immediately excludes me from speaking authoritatively on this matter, so I went to the source. Several sources, in fact.

I have numerous female friends who own businesses and a few female clients, so I discussed this matter with them. When I asked them whether or not they felt accepted as female sole proprietors or business owners, they regaled me with alarming (and amusing) stories of innuendo, subtle sexual harassment and overt “sleep with me” propositions from male co-workers and clients.

They quickly added that many of these incidents were exceptions, so it’s not like we’re still in the Stone Age—although the incident described below may cause you to think otherwise…

One of my female business owner friends recently received a positive review in a local publication about a new initiative she’s spearheading. The article, which specifically mentioned her age and a personal feature (of her appearance), also included a photo of her. Since she’s a savvy marketer, she got a pdf of the article and sent it to her friends, colleagues and clients.

While my friend was displeased with the column's mention of her personal feature, she let it go because she has a personal relationship with the columnist. She knows he meant it affectionately, and she's grateful to have that personal connection.

Beyond the fact that her age and her appearance have little to do with her initiative, here’s where the story gets interesting: One of her male colleagues (who also happens to be a client) replied to her email with a completely inappropriate, sexually suggestive remark. Without getting into specifics, it alluded to her photo.

My friend is now legitimately concerned with the influence the piece will have on the broader audience whom she does not know and with whom she may in the future seek to do business. She wonders, will these potential clients recall her age and the reference to her personal feature and view these things as "aww, isn't she cute" (and thus a reason not to take her seriously)?

As a young female entrepreneur she already confronts a substantial challenge being taken seriously. The column, while well intentioned, heightens that challenge. Being labeled as anything other than a business expert has deleterious consequences for her and her business; the reference to her age and a personal feature have absolutely nothing to do with her business acumen or her nascent initiative.

Here’s why the reference to her personal feature bothers me:
One, such terms would NEVER be used in that way to describe a male; they are quite simply condescending and dismissive.
Two, continuing to use such words captures the inward-looking perspective and inbred attitude some males still have regarding females in the workplace and as entrepreneurs.
Three, the reference is a diminutive that has no place in a serious piece about an important, substantive issue.

The lewd remark is infinitely more concerning, because it reveals a tacit undercurrent of chauvinism, sexism and discrimination—-all of which have no place in a mutually respectful business environment. In an office, sending such an email represents creating a hostile work environment and is grounds for dismissal.

My friend feels disrespected as a female and as a business person. In the freelance world, because she doesn’t want to alienate this client and lose his business and his connections, my friend is understandably uncomfortable sharing with him her true feelings on this issue. Yet she is similarly uncomfortable with the steady stream of similar remarks coming from this clueless client.

Faced with this quandary, I turned to the one woman who has throughout my life answered such questions and generally provided good advice regarding how women should be treated, both in and out of the workplace: My mom.

She shared with me the following story: Sally Quinn, before she married Ben Bradlee (Editor-in-chief of The Washington Post), while interviewing a well-known senator, felt his hand on her backside. Did she remove the hand? “Hell, no,” she said, “if the guy is giving me a good story he could leave his hand just where it was.”

This time, mom is wrong (hope she’s not reading this entry, or I’m in trouble!).

When a woman (or anyone, for that matter) feels marginalized, discriminated against, taken advantage of or made to feel uncomfortable based on her sex, color, religion or sexual preference, it creates a hostile work environment for everyone. That’s not conducive for productivity, team orientation, and morale.

The fact that this still happens on a seemingly regular basis is not encouraging.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Fly the Lead-y Skies: Textron to Make Cessna Plane in China

In light of the slew of reports of tainted, defective and downright deadly products coming from China, it frightens me to read in today's Wall Street Journal that Textron Inc.'s Cessna Aircraft Company will become the first U.S. manufacturer to turn over complete production of an airplane to a Chinese partner.

Earlier this month (November 8), you read a list of "Made in China" product recalls: From sunglasses to lawn mowers to power adapters, it appears that manufacturing in China is sufficiently suspect to cause me to doubt China's suitability to build highly sophisticated machinery like, oh, AIRPLANES...

"If you are going to field a low-end product, this is about the only way you can do it," commented Cessna President Jack Pelton, referring to the agreement under which China's state-owned Shenyang Aircraft Corporation will build the new Cessna 162 SkyCatcher.

This plan disturbs me on many levels:

1) When it comes to manufacturing, quality control and production of highly sophisticated machinery (like, oh, airplanes), China's track record is simply not encouraging. Answer this question: Would you feel confident flying--much less breathing--in a plane that was "Made In China"?

2) Textron makes vehicles for the U.S. Military; while I know the company has divisions that are run as entirely separate companies, China has a rich history of subtly and gradually penetrating American organizations and gaining access to sensitive information. Whereas we think in terms of hundreds of years, China thinks of thousands of years. I'm not saying China will gain access to sensitive information; I'm merely suggesting that they have done so in the past--and not just with American organizations and companies.

3) From a PR perspective, this is a pretty sizable faux pas. If I were working for Textron (and believe me, I have tried to), I would in the very least have coached Mr. Pelton to address the concerns Americans have regarding China's unreliable manufacturing and quality control record.

I especially don't like his aforementioned quotation. "Low-end products" suggest shoddy workmanship, mass production, and poor quality control. I certainly would not refer to my company's products as "low-end."

But I don't think this is a PR issue. I think it's a safety issue. At this point in time, given China's manufacturing and production track record, I believe Americans would be concerned if they knew that the plane in which they were flying was made in China.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

It's a Charlie Brown Christmas: The Anchors of Our Youth

Every year around Halloween, Thanksgiving and Christmas, the networks trot out the usual Charlie Brown specials: It's The Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown, It's a Charlie Brown Thanksgiving, It's a Charlie Brown Christmas. Why do these simple cartoons tug at our heartstrings?

For many of us Gen X'ers, Lucy, Charlie Brown, Pigpen, Woodstock, Peppermint Patty, Linus and his ubiquitous blanket are the anchors of our youth. They bring us back to nights with three channels on the TV (unless a lucky neighbor had cable), no Internet, playing in the cul-de-sac until mom called us in for dinner...

Not exactly the 1950s, but a less complicated time without cell phones, Wii, Playstation, iPods, iPhones, and all the modern accoutrement that allegedly make our lives so much more convenient.

Life is captured in these timeless cartoons: Charlie Brown's angst, Patty's bossiness, Shroeder's piano talent, Pigpen's dirt and dust, Sally's pining, Snoopy's carefree dancing, and a whole cast of characters that remind us of our grade-school classmates, curfews, and holidays that were more about family and less about "getting stuff."

So as I sit and watch these pre-historic cartoons, I hearken back to a time when my life was just a little simpler and I'm glad the networks still air these timeless specials.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Women Coaching Football: What Do You Think?

The November 16th issue of The Wall Street Journal featured an article about a woman football coach at a small school in Texas. Entitled "Breaking the Grass Ceiling," the article described how Susan Myers, formerly a successful investment banker, grew so interested in football that she ultimately became the Wide Receivers Coach for this small school.

Coach Myers preaches and teaches "old school" football, emphasizing fundamentals such as blocking and tackling; she eschews flashy plays in favor of doing the little things that contribute to on field success.

As a fan of fundamentals--be they for any sport (football, soccer, rugby, swimming, tennis, etc.)--I really enjoyed reading about Coach Myers' philosophy. As a graduate of a former all-female college (Vassar) and a veteran U.S. Army officer, I have seen women succeed (and in fact excel) in all aspects of life.

I'm encouraged by the narrowing gap between men's and women's salaries, and while I disagree with women in purely combat roles (for my own selfish reasons), I know from experience they are integral parts of the modern combat team.

Reading the article, it didn't strike me as unusual that a woman would be or could be a football coach. I focused more on her intensity and coaching style rather than the fact that she is female. I was particularly amused when I discovered later in the article that to get her job she had to conceal her gender. With girls playing on football teams, why shouldn't females coach football teams?

The article generated a visceral response in the Journal's always entertaining letters to the editor section. A gentleman from Spokane, Washington wrote, in part: "A woman in a position of leadership in football would be akin to me advising women on childbirth. I cannot imagine anything more ridiculous. I would find another school in Texas for my son."

I guess they don't have male gynecologists in Washington?! I guess they don't have male obstetricians in Washington? You don't need to have the equipment to know to operate it.

This kind of attitude underscores the fact that we have a long way to go before women achieve genuine equality... But with Coach Myers spewing fire and motivation from the sidelines, scripting plays that shrewdly exploit defensive weaknesses, her players certainly are believers.

And that's a step in the right direction.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Thanksgiving: What It Means To Me

Each year on Thanksgiving, we gather with family and friends to thank God for the many blessings He has given us, and we ask God to continue to guide and watch over our country.

Almost 400 years ago, after barely surviving their first winter at Plymouth (sustaining a casualty rate of almost 40%), the Pilgrims celebrated a harvest feast to give thanks.

In 1789, George Washington proclaimed the first National Day of Thanksgiving and during the Civil War Abraham Lincoln revived the tradition. Since that time, our citizens have paused to express thanks for the bounty of blessings we enjoy and to spend time with family and friends.

In want or in plenty, in times of challenge or times of calm, we always have reasons to be thankful. Despite the challenges, despite the doubters, despite the nearly ceaseless stream of bleak tidings, let us not forget that America is a land of abundance, prosperity, and hope.

We must never take for granted the things that make our country great: A firm foundation of freedom, justice, and equality; a belief in democracy and the rule of law; and our fundamental rights to gather, speak, and worship freely.

Let us take a moment to thank those who have paid the ultimate price to secure and retain these liberties, for they do not come without cost. Throughout our nation's history, many have sacrificed to preserve our freedoms and to defend peace around the world.

Today, the brave men and women of our military, law enforcement and private services continue this noble tradition. These heroes and their loved ones have our gratitude. I am honored to have served as a veteran and to continue to work with law enforcement officers throughout the country.

Tomorrow, we should remember also those less fortunate among us. They are our neighbors and our fellow citizens, and we should commit ourselves to reaching out to them and to all of those in need in our communities.

This Thanksgiving I am thankful for all of our blessings and for the freedoms we enjoy every day. Our Founders thanked God (as they believed Him to be) and humbly sought His wisdom and blessing. May we always live by that same trust, and I pray that God will continue to watch over and bless the United States of America.

Happy Thanksgiving.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

One Small Step for My Health, One Giant Leap Backward for Health Care

I went to see my doctor today for a routine check up and to "renew" some of my meds. While I generally eschew going to the doctor, I like my current primary care provider because he actually spends quality time with me: He asks me how I feel physically, emotionally, spiritually, and physiologically, understanding that all of these attributes work together to form the basis of the health of his patients.

For me, his holistic approach is the right combination of "traditional" medicine and alternatives to medicine.

As it turns out, one of the meds I take for high cholesterol (despite my fanatic exercise regimen and scrupulous eating habits, my cholesterol was high, so a few years ago I went on Lipitor). Lipitor has worked very well for me, lowering my cholesterol to 164. That's one small step for my health.

Here's where we start going backwards, though. Lipitor is an expensive drug--one for which the insurance companies are loath to pay, especially when more affordable alternative "statins" are available.

Accordingly, Fallon, my health insurance provider, mandates my doctor switch me from Lipitor to a new drug called Zocor. I have no choice. Zocor is significantly cheaper than Lipitor (no surprise there), so--realizing that I may very well spend the rest of my life ingesting this drug--Fallon wisely wants to spend less over the long term to support my statin drug habit.

And yet... Two weeks after starting my Zocor (Simvastatin) pills, I will have to get my liver tested to determine whether or not the new drug is harming that vital organ (a possible side affect). Four to six weeks after being on Zocor, my blood will have to be tested to determine whether or not the new drug is continuing to keep my cholesterol within acceptable levels.

If in the course of taking Zocor I experience any unexplained muscle pain, tenderness or weakness at any time (some patients may have muscle pain or weakness while taking
Zocor. Rarely, this can include muscle breakdown resulting in kidney damage), I have to notify my doctor who will then have the excuse he needs to put me back on Lipitor.

Who pays for all the tests? Fallon.

At first glance, it doesn't make sense to invest all this money testing the effectiveness of the new drug when it appears more affordable to simply keep me on Lipitor and avoid all the expenses of switching me to a drug that may or may not work.

But health care is a business, and the companies in this field are in business to make money. Over the long haul, I understand it's cheaper for Fallon to put me on Zocor rather than keep me on Lipitor.

Problem is, the only way I'll know Zocor isn't working is when my cholesterol increases to unacceptable levels, making me a potential heart attack victim; or if my muscles start failing, which--given how much strain I put on my muscles--could result in more substantial damage. And then Fallon will have to pay more.

So I'm a spectator while Fallon gambles with my health.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Reminder: The Object of Football is to Crush the Opposition

In the wake of the Patriots' latest overwhelming victory, a 56-10 massacre of the Buffalo Bills, sports columnists, enthusiasts, talk-show hosts, and even mainstream media reporters are labeling the Pats and their coach, Bill Belichick, unsportsmanlike.

John Clayton, Senior Writer for ESPN, writes: "Face it, folks, Belichick plans to lay waste to the NFL. Commissioner Roger Goodell took away a first-rounder, so the Patriots will take away your firstborn. Belichick has assembled perhaps the most dominating team in NFL history, and he's intent on destroying all opponents in his path.

"Sunday night's game showed how Belichick plans to handle the rest of the season. Anyone thinking he will rest Brady in the final month before the playoffs is wrong. He will allow his future Hall of Fame quarterback to shatter every record imaginable."

I find nothing wrong with Belichick's "scorched earth" policy.

Football is often equated to war. While I disagree with the comparison--and I cringe when players liberally borrow words like "battle", "hero", and "epic struggle" to describe the game--football is a winner-take-all struggle between two teams, played under a defined set of rules that apply to each team.

(I'm going to set aside for a moment the fact that Belichick stole signals from the Jets, even though it did not affect the outcome of the game at all... And in fact, mark December 16 on your calendar, because the Jets are going to pay for angering Belichick).

Folks, make no mistake: The object of football is to crush the opposition. You crush them physically, you crush them mentally, you crush them spiritually. From the moment the game starts, your goal is to take away any semblance of belief that your opponent can beat you. You beat them in every conceivable way. And when you've done so, you don't apologize. You don't ask for forgiveness. You don't explain.

On a path to supplanting the 1972 Miami Dolphins as "the best team ever", the Patriots are laying waste to the NFL. They are making a mockery of parity. The way they are crushing their opponents (including my beloved Redskins) is mesmerizing in its devastation. You want to look away but you can't.

I hope the Patriots go 19-0. I hope commentators continue to use military terms to describe their exploits. Because football is like war.

(Aside: As a matter of foreign policy, our nation would be wise to remember that.)

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Who Are the People In Your Neighborhood?

As a child, I recall listening to Mr. Rogers sing, "Who are the people in your neighborhood, the people that you meet each day?" (forgive me for forgetting the song verbatim and for paraphrasing it).

That song is particularly relevant these days, as the growth of online communities and the constant relocation of people redefines the concept of neighborhoods.

With online communities, the people in your neighborhood could be scattered throughout the world, giving most people a stronger virtual neighborhood than the actual physical neighborhood in which they live.

That's why when they interview people who live right next door to a troubled family, a serial killer, or some other notorious character, the interviewee generally says something like: "He was very quiet..." "They pretty much kept to themselves..." "We didn't often see them..." Or similar statements indicating that they really didn't know the people in their neighborhood.

The same thing applies within our professional lives. Speaking for my extroverted self, I want to know the people in my professional neighborhood: I want to discover what motivates them, what frustrates them, their strengths, their weaknesses, their expectations, and--as the relationship permits--details of their personal lives.

I believe this information forms a comprehensive picture of the people in my neighborhood, so from that perspective, I guess my motives are selfish. But back in the day, when we didn't have online communities and we knew--I mean, really knew--our neighbors--the type of people they were mattered far more than what they did, or with whom they could connect us.

If we got along with our neighbors, we relied on them and they relied on us. In times of need, we helped each other. In times of plenty we shared--not everything, but just enough to cement those ties.

As for me, I'm getting to know the people in my neighborhood: Those with whom I am linked by bits and bytes, those with whom I share physical space, and those with whom I am connected professionally. I want them to know that they're important to me in the way that Mr. Rogers sang about.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

People Often Ask Me What I Think About When I Run...

Having completed 16 marathons, innumerable shorter races and thousands of miles of training throughout the world, I have enjoyed a lot of time in my running shoes. While I prefer to run with a buddy, often I go out alone, accompanied only by my thoughts. I run unadorned, that is, without a iPod or any other distraction device.

I run to get away from the distractions and minimize the noise in my life. On the road, things are simpler and clearer. When it's cold, my thoughts are crisp; when it's hot, my thoughts tend to wander.

People often ask me what I think about when I run. Truth be told, I don't really remember. But this morning was chilly and my thoughts focused on why I run.

Here's why.

When I was very young, I ran to win races. I thought that if I were talented and lucky and put my heart's blood into it, I could claim whatever little molecule of immortality might have my name on it. Now I run to trace the footprints I left in previous seasons, and to remember snapshots from the miles I've plodded. It connects me to all the things I used to believe.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Nice Work If You Can Get It.... You Can Get It If You Try!

I have become a professional interviewee.

I had heard of these people when I was working full time, but now that I am a freelance marketing communications consultant and simultaneously seeking full time employment, I have been sufficiently fortunate to participate in many interviews. I believe I've become very proficient in the spoken and unspoken rules of successful interviewing. I just haven't yet gotten an offer, but I'm confident and eternally optimistic.

Below I share some of the rules I've picked up during this process.

The title of this blog alludes to the entire job hunting process, including tailoring your resume to a specific position, conducting due diligence on the organization (far more than mere internet research, this means tapping your network for "insider" intel about your target company), formally submitting your resume (with a customized, brief and error-proof cover letter), and then tapping your network again to get essential personal references.

Having done all that, you still may not get called for an in-person interview. You'll first have to make it through the phone screening, which is usually with an HR person who may not understand how the experiences listed on your resume connect with the requirements of the job.

I always assume I'll get a phone screen. To prepare for this first hurdle, I plot a one-page "match the columns" table. This table connects specific experience indicated on my resume with the stated job requirements. When I speak with the HR official, I go through that table item by item. I stand up during the phone screening because my voice projects better when I'm standing. I convey my points energetically but not overwhelmingly.

I ask a few standard questions only the HR person can answer at this point (asking questions they cannot answer puts them in a defensive position). These include questions like how many people are you scheduling for in-person interviews, what is your hiring time line, and I close by asking with whom I will be interviewing. I suggest a specific day and time for an in-person interview.

A strong close is essential: I know that the HR professional with whom I'm speaking has a lot to do and I truly want to make his or her job easy... I do so using a strong, affirmative close.

Once I've passed the phone screen and scheduled an in-person interview, my real work begins: I return to the Internet and conduct more in-depth research regarding the company. I call Better Business Bureaus, Chambers of Commerce, and any organization with whom the company or organization is affiliated. I mine my network (both physical and online, such as LinkedIn) and find out if any one in it knows any employees at my target organization. The best situation is when someone in my network knows the person (or people) with whom I'm scheduled to interview and will vouch for my suitability for the position.

I also find out who serves on the Board of Directors and reach out to them with a quick phone call or email to introduce myself and ask a question or two about what they feel are the organization's specific marketing and/or communications needs.

I do this not to be pushy or overly aggressive, but rather because I understand that I am interviewing my target organization as much as my target organization is interviewing me. It's essential to gather as much G-2 (Intelligence) as possible about my target organization.

When my interview comes, I draw upon the intel I've acquired to involve myself in a discussion about how my specific skills and qualifications match the organization's stated and unstated job requirements. Often that which is unstated is far more significant than what is stated; I want to make it clear to the person with whom I am speaking that they understand I have done my homework and I "get" the needs of the organization.

As a result, I convey to them the certainty that I am thorough, diligent, attentive and engaged; I try to make them feel comfortable with my skills and qualifications.

Since much of effective communications is nonverbal, an important part of my efforts to make them feel comfortable is to reflect their body language: If the person with whom I am conversing leans forward, I lean forward. If they fold their hands on the table, I do so as well. If they cup their chin with their hand, I cup my chin with my hand. This breaks down barriers and establishes a comfort level for both of us.

Looking back on the first line in this blog entry, none of this is groundbreaking knowledge. It really reflects common sense: Actions I take to separate myself from equally suitable candidates.

Of course, there's one factor I haven't mentioned, and that's luck. You need a lot of it to get an actual offer. As much as possible, I try to make my own luck. I believe the steps mentioned above help me create my own luck.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

A Productive Day for this Public Relations Pro!

Professionally, today was a good day. Here's a recap, including some related thoughts on the flexibility, expertise and contacts a savvy public relations professional (in my opinion) needs to be successful.

This morning I attended a meeting I'd set up for a client with the editor of the local newspaper, The Auburn News. I returned home to check my email and was interrupted by the urgent trilling of my cell phone: It was another client, alerting me to an immediate opportunity to place him on national news. Later that afternoon, another client dropped by my office to discuss the work he required to support the launch of his new promotional brochure.

First, to the meeting with the editor of The Auburn News. My client picked me up and we drove about a half hour to our meeting. Getting a client in a confined space is truly valuable face time. In the enclosed space, sans prying eyes and ears, the client generally opens up to a degree you just don't get in a typical office or meeting venue. You also can talk about personal stuff, which in terms of strengthening a relationship is just as important as the business stuff.

Despite the fact that email is so prevalent and convenient, I believe there is no substitute for face to face meetings. This is especially vital when trying to build and strengthen relationships with local editors and reporters. My client runs a monthly column in The Auburn News; the owner of that paper also operates five other local papers in geographic areas my client is trying to penetrate.

During our fifteen minute discussion, we covered all of our objectives: Thank the editor for continuing to run the monthly column; position my client as an "expert source" for matters beyond (but related to) her area of expertise; and get contact information for the editors of the local papers in our target areas. We also had a collegial discussion about the role of community papers and saw photos of his recent wedding. In the PR world, productivity comes from personal, meaningful and mutually beneficial relationships.

Shortly after my client returned me to my office, my cell rang. Another client--this one owns and operates a business that trains corrections emergency response teams--breathlessly told me to turn on Fox News.

Fox was broadcasting live from the Waupun Correctional Facility in Wisconsin, where an inmate had taken a staff member hostage. Normally these types of incidents don't make the national news--corrections administrators prefer to keep things quiet and resolve these incidents quickly--so I realized we had a potential grand slam... if we acted decisively.

My client gave me the details (some of which came directly from his contacts in the facility), a number where I (or news media) could reach him, and I started calling. I called a buddy of mine who works for Fox in the midwest; he referred me to his contact in the news room. I called the news room, gave them a 30-second pitch on who my client was and why he was qualified to speak on the hostage crisis in Wisconsin, and gave the assignment editor my client's URL and direct contact number.

At the same time, I was drafting talking points for my client--he's not yet very media savvy and I needed to craft concise, direct and factual messages for him to use when speaking with reporters.

I also called a few news radio stations in Wisconsin, knowing that they were covering the incident (because I'd checked out their websites before I called). New PR pros, note: ALWAYS do your due diligence, even if it's five or ten minutes. You need to make sure in the very least that you know some rudimentary facts about your target media outlet. Don't sacrifice facts at the altar of alacrity.

Within a half hour I my client was on standby for Fox News national and had completed two interviews with Wisconsin radio stations. As it turns out, his spot on Fox got bumped for coverage of the earthquake in Chile and OJ's hearing (will OJ just please go away?!), but my client is now in their database and on Fox's radar screen. My client called and couldn't stop thanking me for my quick and decisive action.

Still flying from that PR success, I met later in the day with another client--this one in the hospitality industry--to review and finalize content I'd developed for his promotional/informational brochure. It's a stunning piece and the content was not as compelling as he--or I--need it to be.

Setting my ego aside, I worked with him over an hour to tighten the copy, suggest some changes to the design that would complement the new content, and then had a conference call with our designer to make sure he understood the changes. The promotional piece is stunning--one of the most attractive pieces I've worked on thus far in my career--and I can't wait to get copies for my ever-growing portfolio.

All that done, I went to the post office to mail some stuff and to the library to return and withdraw some books. I then returned home to make dinner for the wife, who isn't feeling well today. Now it's almost tomorrow and I look back on this highly productive day, pleased that I was able to serve my clients so productively and effectively.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Futurecasting: How to Project Future Possibilities

As many of you know, I serve on the board of the Yankee Chapter of the International Association of Business Communicators. We have monthly board meetings in which we discuss the organization's overall "health" as well as deal with the mundane issues of chapter governance: Budgets, upcoming events, promotions, publicity, membership, etc.

I am new to the board, so I try to put my finger on the pulse of the discussion before I add my two cents. It's taken me a while as a marketing communications professional to truly understand that you learn more when you use your ears as opposed to using your mouth (after all, God gave us two of the former and one of the latter--you'd think we would take the hint!).

Our meetings are pretty routine... except when they're not.

While discussing our collective desire to increase participation in our events--we have monthly events for professional development, networking, etc.--we stumbled upon an area to which I have, of late, devoted considerable thought: Futurecasting.

Paltry attendance at our events is a matter of ongoing concern. We considered several reasons why our events are achieving less-than-desired attendance: Lack of time, proximity to work/home, competing priorities, time of the event, topic of the event, etc.). We've surveyed members; the responses we received indicate all of the above are factors contributing to declining event participation.

I said: If we're not getting the attendance numbers we want, we need to change the way we offer the events. Perhaps it's event frequency, content, time, and/or the media we use to convey program information.

Three to five years down the road, are any of us going to be less busy? How will such seemingly ordinary issues like gas prices affect attendance rates? Who will be our target demographic, and how will they expect us to provide them programming and information?

Moreover, should we continue measuring the success of our events just on the basis of how many people attend, or do we need to consider other, undetermined measures that indicate success?

I suggested that we devote some time in an upcoming meeting to discuss the future; to brainstorm regarding the hidden opportunities of the uncertain communications future. As communications leaders, we can't get caught up in the present (although of course the present is the immediate priority).

Ultimately, by engaging in a rigorous conversation about the future, and involving professionals from other disciplines, we will benefit every organization and every individual we serve. We'll be better positioned to capitalize on opportunities as they arise, and less tied into "the way we always do things."

"The way we always do things" has gotten us this far; "futurecasting" will take us to the next level.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Delta Delta Delta How May I Helpya Helpya Helpya?

On the best of days, air travel is a grueling, exhausting, elbow-to-elbow, ego-reducing experience. On the worst of days, it's downright medieval. This summer's travails were aviation's modern-day equivalent of the 30 Years War--a battle with forces well beyond the control of mere mortals with repercussions that have irrevocably changed the way customers deal with airlines.

When you think objectively about flying, for you to depart and arrive on time, in one piece, with your luggage, requires a choreography well beyond our understanding (unless you've been in the military and either participated in a theater-wide operation like REFORGER or been deployed).

Just as one person can set this intricate choreography irretrievably off-track, so can one person make a positive difference.

I encountered a Delta employee who today in my travels made a positive difference, and I want to publicly acknowledge Sondra (who works in Fort Lauderdale) for her help.

My ticket was somehow screwed up, and I didn't know about it until I got to the airport to check in. The kiosk where I tried to check in actually ate my credit card, so there I was, with a confirmation number but no credit card and no idea of how my ticket was screwed up. I was becoming increasingly frustrated, and thought to myself, "typical, no agent in sight."

Well, out of the mist (ok, maybe it was out of the crowd) comes this vision in blue. As if selecting me personally from the other frowning travelers, she literally took me by the hand. Instead of asking me what my problem was, she took charge: She flicked open the machine and withdrew my card. She then looked at my ticket (which was also stuck in the kiosk) and said, "I'll be right back."

This was before I had said anything!

Ten minutes passed... during which I thought that she was an apparition and I was destined to remain eternally rooted in front of the kiosk. Sondra returned with a crisp boarding pass, two drink tickets, and profuse apologies. She said, "I hope you'll remember how we fixed the problem, not the problem itself."

Flying may once have been the privilege of the rich, who flew about in pampered style. It has since become an aerial bus, with very little personalized service other than the ignored safety message or hasty in-flight service (if that!). Today, a blue-uniformed Delta angel made me feel special, and I wanted to share that with all of you who have given up on your expectations of personalized service from the airline industry.

Thursday, November 8, 2007

Total Recall: When Consumer Products Can Kill You

If you want to get the news in its purest form, click your way over to PR Newswire ( and select "Today's News." You'll scroll down through press releases in time order, most recent releases first. It's fascinating when you compare which news "makes the cut" to reach mainstream media versus which news simply becomes a line or two on PR Newswire.

Today the overwhelming amount of news on PR Newswire pertained to the ongoing recall of unsafe consumer products--most of which have been imported from China (see my previous entries about China). To wit:

16:54 ET Curious George Plush Dolls Recalled by Marvel Toys Due to Risk of Lead Exposure
16:50 ET Cribs Sold by Bassett baby Recalled Due to Entrapment and Strangulation Hazard
16:48 ET Children's Sunglasses Recalled by Dollar General Due to Violation of Lead Paint Standard
16:47 ET Yamaha Recalls AC Power Adaptors Due to Electric Shock Hazard
16:00 GMT American Honda Motor Corp. Recalls Lawn Mowers Due to Fire Hazard
16:00 GMT Coby Electronics Recalls DVD/CD/MP3 Players Due to Fire Hazard
01:29:50 GMT California Firm Recalls Frozen Beef Tamales That May Contain Pieces of Metal

That's about 8,900 Wendy Bellissimo collection convertible cribs (made in China and imported by Bassettbaby); about 22,000 Honda HRX217KHXA and HRX217KHMA lawn mowers (made in the U.S. by American Honda Motor Corp.); about 12,000 portable DVD/CD/MP3 players (imported by Coby Electronics Corp. and made in China); and about 49,000 Yamaha AC power adaptors (distributed by Yamaha Corporation of America and made in China).

Product recalls are big news lately, with most of the focus (rightly) on defective products made in China and imported to the U.S. Consumers in the United States buy about $2 trillion worth of products that are imported by more than 800,000 importers through more than 300 ports of entry.

President Bush says identifying unsafe products at these ports of entry has become an "increasingly unreliable" approach, and that a more effective approach might be to make sure products meet U.S. standards before they leave their countries of origin.

President Bush says this, but the people who work for him disagree with his approach. In fact, according to Nancy Nord, acting chairwoman of the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), "the notion of having premarket testing and clearance of those billions of products would be pretty unworkable... It would be throwing a fence around this country with respect to imports and I don't think American consumers would want that," she said.

I don't think American consumers want to DIE because the products we've imported are unsafe. So while the government fiddles, we burn.

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Which Leads the Way: Copywriting or Design?

In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.

And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep.

Most of us know the rest: God created light, Earth, oceans, trees, animals, mankind.

Was God a designer? It certainly seems so. After all, before He got His hands on the universe, if you're a believer, there was no universe. But who wrote the plan? Who said, "OK, God, you want to have a universe? You want to build this vast amusement park for Your whims? Well, You need a plan. You need to hire me, a marketing copywriter, to help you write and implement this plan."

I know this sounds blasphemous, but is it possible that God hired a copywriting consultant to help Him build the plan to create the universe? And if He did, did the copywriter advise God about the whole creation campaign? Did God's copywriter advise God to create the first--and ultimate--viral marketing campaign (that's all of us bipeds, by the way)?!

I ask these questions because this evening my pal the Graphic Designer and I got into an argument over whether copywriting or design drives a project. Having had some tequila, I elevated our argument to the universal scale, wondering what God thought before He set about creating the universe.

Did He just start creating or did He--as certainly it seems--have a plan? And if He had a plan, He must have had some "Universe Consultant" advising Him. (Now that would be a pretty good consulting gig.)

My pal the Graphic Designer (add an 'O' between the words and you get God) believes that the copy should fit the design. I believe the opposite: That copy comes first and design should be built around the copy.

Certainly both positions have merit: On one hand, compelling design pleases the eye and engages readers with attractive and engaging graphics. Beautiful design is artistic, aesthetically appealing, helps visually tell a story, and can convey a message with greater impact far faster than copy.

On the other hand, compelling copy pleases the mind and engages readers by telling stories. Stories define us as humans; our history, our lives, are the sum of our stories. We have an insatiable desire to read stories and are influenced by them in many ways. Beautiful copy is artistic, intellectually appealing, and can convey a message with greater impact far longer than graphics.

My pal the Graphic Designer and I agreed on one thing: That all marketing and communications collateral--print and online--are vastly more effective when copywriters and designers work together throughout the duration of the project.

So God may have been the first graphic designer, but I'm sure He had a great marketing copywriter on His project team.

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

How To Lose Business Without Really Trying

In case you haven't noticed, there's a new battle raging in the ongoing war for your telecommunications dollars: That is, the television, telephone, and wireless internet service you receive at home.

The trend among the major telecommunications providers--Charter, Verizon, ATT, MCI, Comcast, etc.--is to "bundle" these services: The bundles promise one bill from one provider for two or more of your telecommunications needs--local, long-distance and wireless phone calls, Internet access and pay TV service. You generally pay the same monthly fee no matter how much you use your services.

According to industry researcher TNS Telecoms, through the end of the second quarter of 2003, nearly 20% of consumers were bundling to some extent.

So this weekend the wife and I looked at our bills and noticed that we could save money by taking advantage of one of these bundling offers we received in the mail. We determined that we could both increase our wireless internet connection, get unlimited long distance telephone service AND get a DVR for 12 months if we chose a bundle offered by Charter.

Up to this point we had Comcast for cable and Verizon for our wireless internet and only local phone service. So we called Charter and signed up.

The representative with whom we spoke walked us through the entire transaction, clearly explaining every step and making sure we understood the installation process and timeline. He was thorough, professional, patient and proficient. In addition to calling Verizon to notify them of our imminent switch, he set us up with a appointment on Tuesday afternoon to install the necessary equipment.

This afternoon, while waiting patiently for the Charter technician to show up, the phone rang. I answered it and waited for a response.

The response was a pre-recorded message from Verizon. I listened to the beginning of the message: "At Verizon, we're constantly seeking new ways to retain your business. We've received notification of your intent to switch providers, and we'd like to try and win back your business..."

After that I stopped listening. Beyond my incredulity at receiving a tape-recorded sales pitch, I understand I am merely one of millions of Verizon customers. Verizon no doubt has reams of data indicating that once a customer switches service providers, the company from whom the customer switched must invest 5 or 10 times more to try and win back the customer. I know it's far more affordable to attract new customers rather than retain the old ones.

Still, if Verizon had called me first thing Monday morning and offered me the same wireless internet and telephone deal that Charter offered, I would have stayed with Verizon. A human voice, one to one contact, and a competitive offer would have ensured my ongoing loyalty.

Verizon lost my business without really trying to keep it. There's a lesson in this for organizations of all sizes and types.

Sunday, November 4, 2007

Is Too Much Winning Too Much?

We've been winning a lot this Summer and Fall in New England: Red Sox won the World Series, New England beat the Colts earlier today to remain undefeated (and reinforce the chatter that they may very well be the "best football team ever"), and the Boston College Eagles are ranked high atop the College Football charts. Why, even the Celtics appear to have a legitimate shot at reversing their poor fortunes (the seeds of which were sown WAY back with the death of Len Bias).

People around here are naturally thrilled about our recent winning ways: So thrilled that they have come to expect wins as a natural outcome, rather than the result of extremely hard work and a healthy dose of luck.

Fans of the Sox, the Pats, the Eagles and the Celtics seem so smug that their teams won, win, or will win simply because "they're better than the other teams." The players on these teams know better... Would the fans understood the kind of commitment--and the luck--required to win.

A similar conundrum confronts winners in the business world. Where the public sees a business that is profitable year in, year out, they may not see the leaders who toil every day to maintain their competitive edge.

Sometimes the urge to keep winning and the burden of expectations make athletes or business leaders engage in illegal or unethical activities to keep winning or to stay on top: Doping in the Tour de France, videotaping other teams' plays, stealing signs, "writing off" debt, steroids, point shaving, taking a car for payment instead of cash, the list is endless.

Don't get me wrong: I'd much rather win than lose. I just wouldn't cheat to keep winning. Winning isn't worth compromising my integrity.

I enjoyed watching the Sox win the World Series. Watching the Patriots (even when they crush 'my' Redskins) is a treat. I like the way Allen passes to Pierce who dishes to KG. I don't expect they'll keep winning, season after season.

I just hope that when they start losing, as is inevitable in any profession, that they lose with dignity--and they encourage their fans to understand that sometimes, too much winning is in fact too much.

Saturday, November 3, 2007

China: Communist in Name Only

Last year for three weeks the wife and I toured China.

During the tour, we spent several days in Beijing, Shanghai, Chongqing, Xian, Guilin, Hong Kong and other cities and towns. We hiked The Great Wall; saw the Terra Cotta warriors; attended a lecture by a victim of the Cultural Revolution; and meandered along the Yangtze for five days, cruising through and beyond the massive Three Gorges Dam.

Throughout the journey my overwhelming sense was that this didn't look like any communist country I'd ever seen (and I've been to the USSR, GDR, Czechoslovakia and Hungary--well before the Iron Curtain collapsed). No, every step of the way I saw a country that is capitalist in the purest sense of the word.

I'm not surprised by the fact that there are 106 billionaires in China--second only to the U.S. I'm not surprised that IPO's from China are the latest Wall Street darlings. I'm not surprised that China is subtly expanding its sphere of influence, establishing a footprint in Africa--intrigued and attracted, of course, by the continent's plentiful resources.

I'm certainly not surprised by the daily reports filtering out of China about the country's execrable pollution problem... A calamity of biblical proportions that--if unchecked--will unalterably affect not just China but our entire planet. After all, that's Capitalism, right? Expanding markets, exploiting resources, building wealth.

Much has been written about China (Douglas Fairbanks is a excellent source). I'm certainly not qualified to add to the scholarly works, be they historical, economic, sociological, or otherwise. My purpose with this blog entry is merely to offer a perspective on China that can be gleaned only by going there and experiencing how China is embracing and manifesting capitalism.

Ironically, our story begins with Western sickness. One of the people on our tour got sick, and she had to go to the hospital. Our tour guide explained this to us, adding that she had to pay for her care, in advance, as is customary in China.

At that, our jaws collectively dropped. Ever the provocateur, I said, incredulous, "You mean the hospital wouldn't treat her before they knew she had the money to pay for her treatment?!" (Much to the wife's chagrin, throughout the tour I seized every opportunity to ask Chinese people, through a guy on the tour who spoke Chinese, how they felt about Mao.)

The tour guide nodded, explaining: "Yes. In fact, because insurance is in its infancy in China, patients don't just automatically get treated--like they do in the U.S. You have to prove you have the money for treatment before a doctor will treat you." Whereupon he proceeded to tell us a story about a woman from his village, pregnant with twins, who prematurely went into labor.

Her family took her 30 miles to the nearest hospital, her condition deteriorating as each mile passed. When she arrived at the hospital, she was in bad shape (typical Chinese understatement). The family did not bring money and so could not prove they were able to pay for her treatment.

She died unattended in a hospital hallway. The twins died in her womb.

Imagine such a thing happening in the U.S., where treatment is BY LAW provided regardless of ability to pay. Not so in China, where capitalism in its purest, rawest form is manifested every day.