Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Conversational Jiu Jitsu

My old XO used to use the term "Staff Officer Jiu Jitsu" to describe this phenomenon -- if you want some action to be taken, you have to find the person who would carry it out, explain it, and then convince him that it was his idea in the first place. Compliment him on what a great idea it was, and boom -- it will happen.

If this sounds like it makes no sense or wouldn't work, try it before you dismiss it. You might be amazed by how well this works. Of course, you have to somewhat smooth and subtle about the transfer of ownership of the idea. But once you've done this, the old workplace maxim kicks in: "There's no limit to the amount of work you can get done as long as you don't care who takes the credit."

Well, a cousin of this idea is something I'll refer to here as "Conversational Jiu Jitsu." Again, it's going to sound absurd at first. But here it is: If you become extremely good at listening -- engaged, brow furrowed/lips pursed, with appropriate head-nods, "okays," and "I knows," -- people will actually think you're talking. You would simply not believe the number of times I've had "conversations" that lasted up to an hour where I purposely said maybe five or ten total words. What did someone else tell me at the end?

"This has been the most amazing conversation."

"I always come into your office and then get pulled into these conversations and the next thing you know, it's an hour later."

"You can really talk anyone's ear off."

If I had somehow been able to capture the conversations with a tape recorder, and play it back while juxtaposing it with the above comments, it really would've been theater-of-the-absurd type of stuff. But trust me, they're all real.

Now comes the part you're really not going to believe.

I'm guessing that you know me (I'm not entirely sure who reads this, but I would bet it's mainly friends and colleagues).

Here's my challenge to you: The next time you see me in either a) a group of three or more, or b) with someone who is not already a close friend, take a closer look at the conversation to determine who is actually doing the talking, and who is actually doing the listening.

You may be very surprised by what you notice.

Monday, April 28, 2008

Hail to the (Senior) Chief, An "Extreme Commuter"

There was a Senior Chief training me in some procedural stuff today. (He was great at this, and I've got plenty more entries in store about what it means to say that noncoms are the 'backbone' of the American military -- but I'll save it for later).

During the course of the training, he mentioned that he is what Mark Penn (Microtrends) would call an "Extreme Commuter." The man travels every day back-and-forth between New Milford, CT and Groton, CT. That's roughly 1.75 to 2 hrs each way, give or take.

Of course, I asked him why.

"I did a two-year unaccompanied tour, away from my family, and it sucked. New Milford is a great spot -- a scenic town. If you saw it, you'd know why I love it. It's where my wife wants to stay after I retire and where we'll raise our kids. Also, it's very pro-military."

I asked him about the time he spends in the car every day.

"I wake up every day at 4 to get ready to leave the house by 5. I'm there by 7. Then on the back end, I try to get out by 16 or 17 at the latest. I'm home to spend time with the family before I crash by 9 p.m. to do the whole thing over again. I realize the costs -- the miles, the gas, the wear and tear, etc. but it's worth it because of what I value -- my family."

I said nothing, but I thought to myself:

"Well, I'll see those two years unaccompanied and raise you three more. But I could pretty much plug in 'Lowell' and what he's saying would work for me as well. Senior Chief helped me put it in perspective with the emphasis on value. I value the search for 'community' more than anything right now."

Tonight was a great time. Even though I showed up late due to a flat tire outside Worcester, I made it to the Downtown Assocation meeting in time to meet some folks who live in and around my building. I got to hear their thoughts about things like the Hamilton Canal District, the recycling program in the city, and the clean-up effort this month. I got to meet Kathleen, who is a major community builder and also a big fan of this blog. I got to meet the guy who lives next door to me but isn't there right now due to renovations after a major flood last year. I got invited to an art show opening at the Revolving Museum on Shattuck. Then, I made it to the Blue Shamrock for (several) beers and the Celtics.

Coming to Lowell from southeastern Connecticut means roughly two hours in the car, each way. I'm using the time well (remember the whole audiobook thing), though of course there's still a cost attached. It's a cost that could probably be very neatly broken down and quantified in a dollars-and-cents sort of way.

But there's also a value attached.

And although the value of belonging to a community can't be quantified, I can assure you that it greatly outweighs the cost of a few tire rotations and oil changes.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Hip to be Square (Or, At Least Unafraid of the Possibly Square Idea)

One of the themes that I hope will emerge from these writings is how open-mindedness is critical to the good life. A big part of that means acceptance of new ideas, people, ways of living, spending time, etc. In other words, life can be a lot more interesting and rewarding when you don't torque things or scoff at them. Certainly, this is nothing new in the Judeo-Christian tradition -- the Book of Proverbs alone contains more than a dozen references to "scoffers" and how they stand against everything that is Good.

Much more recently than the time of King Solomon came a study on luck done by Richard Wiseman of the University of Hertfordshire in the U.K. Wiseman's ten-year study concluded that what separates lucky people from unlucky ones mainly comes down to mindset.

In a 2003 Skeptical Inquirer piece, he wrote, "Unlucky people miss chance opportunities because they are too focused on looking for something else. They go to parties intent on finding their perfect partner and so miss opportunities to make good friends. They look through newspapers determined to find certain types of job advertisements and as a result miss other types of jobs. Lucky people are more relaxed and open, and therefore see what is there rather than just what they are looking for."

In other words, lucky/successful people are too busy taking in the totality of their surroundings to spend their time rolling their eyes or scoffing at ideas, habits, or people that run against the grain of what they think is cool or even acceptable. This spirit of open-mindedness leads to greater and richer opportunities than does a closed-minded one.

And if you believe that "luck" is the intersection of preparation and opportunity, it should follow that more luck will result for the open-minded.

Friday, April 25, 2008

"Comms Are a Two-Way Street"

"That unit is so f--ed up. They never tell us anything."

"I never hear from you anymore."

"Something isn't right here. Our offices are right next to each other, but we never have any idea of what you guys are doing."

"I totally saw you the other day and you didn't say 'hi.'"

These are all real quotes, and unless the speaker was actively trying to engage the person on the receiving end, they're all incredibly stupid. (The fourth one is in its own category of stupid, because it indicates the speaker ID'd the recipient, but it's not clear that the reverse is true as well).

Why are they so logically bass ackwards?

Because they all presuppose that somehow the person being spoken to is solely responsible for the communications breakdown between the two parties.

My former chief and I (the one I worked with overseas from 2006 to 2007) heard the first quote said so often among the units on our base that we just began to reflexively say, "Well, comms are a two-way street" so often that it became a sort of buzzword/catchphrase for us.

We dropped the hammer pretty hard on our own guys when we heard them lament that "[Name of unit] never tells us what they're planning." It's like, did you ask them? Unless all your fingers are broken, they're just seven short digits away on any of the phones we have. E-mail tends to work pretty good, too.

We threw it right back on anyone who used it on us, too. I'm not normally sarcastic, but I'm sure I added to my reflexive "two-way street" retort with a little barb to top it off. It's amazing how otherwise-intelligent people are just dumbstruck by the idea that they, too, can initiate comms. It's like, if I'm at my desk 16-18 hours a day, and my desk is next to a computer and a phone, I'm pretty doggone easy to reach, right?

Again, if the person saying this has made the effort, it's a totally fair point. But more often than not, they haven't.

To take it away from a military setting, quotes 2 and 3 get used all the time in everyday life.

And for all the same reasons, they're just as dumb. Quote #2 in particular can be mildly insulting when the person hearing it made the initial effort and stopped after being originally rebuffed or ignored by the speaker.

If nothing else, you have to admit that's very ironic. It also shows an astonishing lack of self-awareness.

My challenge to readers: the next time an otherwise-intelligent person says anything like quotes 1-4 with a straight face (again, assuming there hasn't been a good faith outreach attempt on the speaker's part), call it out for what it is.

Throw our catchphrase at them: "Comms are a Two-Way Street." You will have won a tiny skirmish in the Global War for Common Sense.

Somewhere, a Chief Petty Officer and a Lieutenant will be smiling.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Article on Suffering Small Cities

The above link is an article focusing on Youngstown, Ohio with some side info/photos on other American cities with similar profiles and stories. If you're into urban planning and the small city revival in America, check it out.

New England: The Six Best Months Anywhere

Maybe I'm a little bit biased (the name of the blog kind of gives that away) but I really believe that the six months from mid-April to mid-October in New England really are the best six weather months anywhere in the States. Because of our other six months, I won't get into the year-round argument with places like Hawaii, Florida, or California. But having lived in most of the major regions, I can tell you this:

** New England is the best place to be in the summer because it stays warm at night. There are no sudden 30- or 40-degree temperature drops like you have in the SF Bay Area. No need to run out and put a jacket on to go out in the middle of July or August.

** It's not truly stifling heat the way you have in Texas and other parts of the South and Midwest.

** There's enough weather variance (clouds, storms, etc.) to make it more interesting than the dry Southwest...and way more suitable to those of us who are prone to sunburns..

** There's no serious natural disaster threat -- tornadoes, floods, hurricanes, mudslides, etc. are all theoretically possible but we really don't get them.

** If you're into surfing or ocean-going, you've got great water temperatures here in late summer, which you never really get out West.

** Thanks in part to the year-round climate, it's way greener here (during the right times) than most other spots.

And lastly, there's the intangible benefit of the way things just sort of come alive in a place that lies more or less dormant for half the year. It's what you notice when you walk down Palmer Street (between Market and Merrimack) on the first nice weekend. All of a sudden, every seat at every table on the sidewalk is full. People are out. They're eating, drinking, telling stories, and laughing. Everyone knows that on some level they have a limited time to enjoy the great weather that allows them to do this, so it's not taken for granted.

This is a great time to be out here. No extended training or deployments on the immediate horizon and what looks like an entire summer to enjoy and get to know this area.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Quick Update and a Segue

Well, to wrap up a mini-saga from a prior entry, Men's Wearhouse made good -- quite good -- today. I now have $130 store credit, and they have me back as a customer for years to come.

If I were to keep writing about this without any connection to a larger point, that would be an example of bad talk (see my Feb. 20 entry if you need a reminder as to what exactly 'bad talk' is -- it may not be what you think). You shouldn't care, and I don't expect you to care, about my dealings with a retailer at the Waterford Crystal Mall in Waterford, CT. I certainly wouldn't care if the shoe were on the other foot, as I also wouldn't care what you ate or bought on a given day.

However, this does provide a nice segue into another topic -- the difference between being 'nice' and being a tool.*

Back in the days of all-the-time day games at Wrigley, home run hitters who weighed 160 lbs., and five-figure salaries that grabbed headlines, Leo Durocher's Cubs were known as the baddest baseball players around. They spiked, they dipped, they spit, they swore, and they offended anyone who got in their way on the road. When asked about his players' behavior, Durocher coined the now-infamous phrase: "Nice guys finish last."

It was a great turn-0f-phrase, and it's been endlessly repeated in nearly any context possible -- dating, business, politics, diplomacy, you name it.

But I'm just not sure that I fully buy it.

If being 'nice' means giving people the benefit of the doubt, smiling at strangers, caring about others, and respecting generally-held courtesies, then yes, I am nice. Even though I endlessly tease my friend Taryne for calling me 'nice' I'll take the label, even with its negative modern-day connotation.

But I would say that being nice (as I define it) helped me get the massive store credit today, just as it has probably helped me in many other situations where something was in dispute and a solution needed to be reached. 'Nice' in the sense of respecting others and being friendly/courteous is a good thing that probably can't be overdone.

The problem with the word nice, however, is that it often gets conflated with tool.

So who is a tool?

A tool is someone who carries himself without confidence. A tool may appear 'nice' on the surface, but harbors serious passive-aggressiveness and always fails to take a contrary stand. A tool complains about things in his power to fix instead of taking the action needed to fix them. A tool always bends to the will of others, even when he disagrees on principles or specifics. A tool is always available for people -- even those who don't respect him back. A tool is the guy in high school who did the cheerleaders' homework for them but wondered why he could never take one to the prom. In short, a tool knows how to be agreeable and 'nice' to others, but has no spine.

So yes, tools get to wear the nice label, but that doesn't mean all 'nice' people are tools. In fact, the reality is far from it. Based on my previous definition of nice, I would say that nearly all the people I consider close friends are nice -- but I wouldn't consider a single one a tool.

If Leo Durocher had been speaking in modern vernacular, it's my hope that he could've slightly adjusted fires and said, "Tools finish last."

Nice guys don't have to. There are plenty of 'nice guys' at at the apex of business, politics, sports, entertainment, the military, and any other profession you can name. Undoubtedly, they got there mostly with natural-born talent but also with the 'soft' personality skills that correlate with 'nice' and the backbone/focus that 'tools' lack.

It doesn't matter what realm we're talking about. I saw some of the "Mystery" shows on VH-1 and if you cut one layer through the abracadabra, hocus-pocus stuff, he's actually a very smart guy. In a nutshell, here's what he's saying: "Value yourself and project that to others. When you're able to do that, you'll attract others to you." The show was about dating, but the advice could have applied to business or just friendships in general.

I stumbled upon a blog via a GoogleSuggest search called "" that basically deals with a lot of the issues I bring up here (self-improvement, social networks, etc.) Some of it is a little bit polished and cheesy, but his basic message is the same -- being nice does not mean being a tool. It does not mean losing your backbone, or your faith, or anything of the sort.

In sum, being 'nice' in the denotative (though not necessarily the common connotative) sense is going to work to your benefit in 99% of daily situations.

And it just might get you a huge store credit at the mall...

* A lot of credit for the nice v. tool dichotomy described here goes to DT, who helped come up with this concept and embodies it as well as anyone I know.

Key to Not Being Tired: Waking Up @ Same Time

Of course, sleep is good. It regenerates, rejuvenates, restores, etc. But I think it's possible that too much sleep on the weekends can be a bad thing, esp. when you have to wake up before 6 a.m. every weekday. If you're sleeping past noon on the weekends, and then trying to throw everything back into balance for a totally different schedule during the week, it's wreaking havoc on the internal clock. I used to have a terrible habit of doing this at my old duty station, and it was so hard for me to fall asleep on Sunday nights that I sometimes barely slept at all.

Just a quick, practical tip for readers -- if possible, don't throw your personal schedule way out of balance on the weekends or days off.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

01 April Post Revisited

The Economist just ran a quick piece about university acceptances ( that includes one line echoing the point I was making with my April 1st entry -- the cachet of a specific degree is variable over time. It can rise (the article names Bowdoin and Middlebury specifically) or can fall (take your pick of the post-gender integration women's liberal arts schools).

Remember, I wasn't making the hackneyed but often-true "degree doesn't matter" argument (though I will add here that the two *best* Navy JOs I've ever worked with -- in terms of smarts, competence, and drive -- went to small schools in Illinois and New Jersey that most folks may not recognize and far fewer could geo-locate) but something I hope was a little more novel -- if the students make the school great, more great students should equal more great schools (which is true....and it's why American higher ed is the world's envy).

The Road to Four Hundy: The 20-Push

To return to a prior entry's theme, I'm still slogging along on the Road to Four Hundy. I'm trying to spend more time inclining and declining these days, but I'm still making sure to hit my regular 5 x 5s and the Kraft Singles. Another key component along the way is something called the 20-Push, which I am doing whenever I'm home and have 20 minutes to spare but don't have time or feel like going to the gym.

I recommend readers try this, because if you stick with it, you're going to see serious gains in your chest, shoulders, forearms, upper arms, back, and abs. And because you're incinerating a massive number of calories while doing it, it's going to help you with all-around tone, too.

All you need is a floor and a stopwatch, though a radio or iPod will help a ton as well.

In exactly twenty minutes, do as many diamond, regular, and wide-grip pushups as possible. Don't worry about how many you get at first -- it really doesn't matter. Just focus on form -- above all else, keep your back straight. Don't do the butt-in-the-air pushups, and don't let your lower back sag so as to make you look like a marine mammal. Also make sure you're getting the range of motion -- locked up at the top, and to that special 90-degree mark on the way down. If you're not sure about your form, just have someone watch you at first.

Now, back to the workout. Use a notebook or scrap paper with three columns (in-mid-out, or diamond-regular-wide) to keep score. Let's say after twenty minutes you've gotten 15 diamond, 40 regular, and 30 wide. Great. Your score is 15-40-30. Wait at least 24 hours before going again. Next time, your goal is 16-41-31. This is a pass-fail test. If you got 16-41-31, congrats, next time shoot for 17-42-32. Don't go past that. Every time you go, you're just trying to beat each category by 1, for a total of three additional pushups. If you don't reach your goal (one more in each category) that's okay, but you're still stuck where you were before you started. So if you had 75-100-82, and then you got 76-101-82, you don't advance. Your baseline is still 75-100-82, and it stays there until you beat all three in one session.

I've just started to augment this with Hindu squats (just Google that term to see how to do them) using the same principle (beat the # by 1) with 10 minutes as the allotted time.

My promise to anyone reading this -- forget excuses about not having time or space. I don't care whether you're stuck on a submarine, in a berthing on an aircraft carrier, or if you're getting your PT on the roof of an old regime palace in Tikrit or Ramadi. All you need for this is a stopwatch and a flat surface.

If you stick with this, you will get yoked. After a couple months, people will start asking you what happened. With the wide-grips widening your lats, and the diamonds swelling your arms, you will start to fill out all your suits, shirts, etc. much more fully.

And it will add pounds to your bench, too.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Information Sharing as Real Value of 'Networks'

The term 'networking' often gets a bad rap, as it's associated with slick glad-handers, business cards, glib banter, and social climbers who look over others' shoulders while engaged in conversation to see if someone 'more important' is around.

But in a very informal sense, there are 6 billion people out there who are part of some larger social organization, and they're 'networking' every day, though they may not refer to it that way explicitly. And they're doing it for the same reason that humans developed language and formed societies -- in order to share information.

The value of good information anywhere should carry a high premium. Steven Pinker writes in "The Language Instinct" about how valuable it would be for two people in a more elemental society to be able to tell each other things like, "Well, the berries on that side of the hill are poisonous, so stay away, but the ones over here are wholesome and succulent. There's water in the bottom of this valley, too." To convey all of that, we need both language and some basic form of social organization.

Fast forward to Timothy Leary at Woodstock for a more modern version of this -- "...stay away from the green tabs..."

But seriously, folks. A recent, real-life example of this for me is learning about In simple steps:

(1) I spend a lot of time in the car back-and-forth between New London and Lowell.
(2) I know people.
(3) They know this.
(4) They know I like to read and listen to audiobooks.
(5) They say, "You should sign up for an account. It will give you access to tons of audiobooks and save you a lot of money (as opposed to buying all individually on iTunes)."
(6) I check out the site and I sign up for the account. I will continue to get cool books like "Charlie Wilson's War" on a regular basis for a better price than if I had bought them all individually.

No one 'lost' anything from the exchange. No one was used, no one suffered, and no one even exerted any significant energy.

But in the end, I benefited from being part of a network of people because of the valuable information sharing that resulted.

Friday, April 18, 2008

A Pox on Your (Wear)house!

I spent a small fortune at Men's Wearhouse in Waterford to be sure I was A.J. Squared Away for the wedding in Arizona. It was all well and good -- hey, I'll keep that suit for the future -- until I opened it out of the bag and found that they had 'forgotten' to tailor the pant legs. I had no idea what to do -- I was literally going to just tuck the pant legs into my socks and/or go home early -- until my friends Yum and Liza saved the day with some safety pins and expert on-the-fly tailoring work.

Well, this evening I went back into the store and explained what happened. I expected them to be tripping over themselves to apologize, probably offering me some serious store credit or a gift card in order to keep my future business. But strangely, they didn't. They sort of 'blamed the victim' because I didn't try the suit on in the store before taking it out in the bag (which I admit was a mistake) and they spun some line about how I should've known it would've needed to be "re-cut" because of my unusual build.

Well what the heck was that supposed to mean?

In any case, I have to pick the pants back up on Monday and "they'll see" about giving me some kind of credit for my pain and suffering. Pretty amazing. The way I see it, I'm a spoiled American consumer with tons of options for future suit/clothes-buying, and I don't ever have to go back to them unless they make it right on Monday.

Here are my takeaways:

1. Big thanks to Yum and Liza for the quick help. It saved the day and I had a great time as a result. If you guys hadn't have done that, it would have basically ruined my time and made it much harder to justify the overall colossal expense.

2. I will never leave a store again to pick up something tailored without trying it on first. Forget being in a rush (which I was, to meet the Chief and his wife for dinner in Gales Ferry), and forget expecting it to be right. Trust, but verify.

3. Unless Men's Wearhouse apologizes and offers me something (heck, throw me a tie or some dress socks!) they have just lost a potential lifelong customer.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Proactive v. Reactive and Why It Matters

As you might imagine, the post-9/11 world has seen a bumper crop of organizations, offices, and associations -- governmental and non-governmental -- dedicated to helping America prosecute the Global War on Terror (GWOT). Together, they present a dizzying array of acronyms (and sometimes acronyms within acronyms!) and they all sound great on paper. But as with anything else, they tend to range from the very useful to the very useless.

It can be hard to sort them all out, but here's the first shorthand that I use as a trouble sign: If I ask someone, "What do you do? What does your office do?" and get a vague answer that sounds something like, "Whatever you want," or "What do you want us to do?" I get very worried. Because for all the Pentagon dollars that support you, I expect an answer -- not a question in return, and not some mishmash about wearing several 'hats' or being a jack of all trades. Find a niche, fill it, and use it to support the warfighter. Tell me what you do, and let's work together to help find solutions. But if everyone just sat around being reactive all day long, nothing would ever happen.

To move to a totally private-sector hypothetical example, let's say I hired someone to help me with interior decoration. I closed on my condo almost three weeks ago, but still don't have furniture because I have absolutely no clue how to decorate the place -- I'm literally more afraid of screwing that up than I am of sleeping on the floor and stacking all my stuff in the corner. Well, if I hired someone with my own hard-earned money to help me figure this one out, I would be mortified if I brought him or her over to see the place, asked, "How can you help me?" and got a vague, reactive answer that sounded like, "You tell me."

It's no different for any other service provider, but in the public sector it's a little bit easier to get away with this type of stuff because you're aren't dependent upon customers in the same sense.

For a while, I went around asking all my friends who work in collaborative or managerial realms what they look for in employees and co-workers. The themes of proactivity and competence carried the day, greatly outweighing things like natural intelligence and likability.

Ben, who runs a social philanthropy website ( mentioned how critical one of his programmers was to his organization because he embodied the traits of proactivity and competence -- he saw what needed to be done, and did it without over-complicating things. Santosh, a Ph.D. student (and a future university faculty member) mentioned how the best people to hire for research projects were people who can task execute without excessive guidance/management.

The importance of the proactive mindset is key for me right now because of my work situation.

My Chief and I are basically starting our Department from scratch right now -- we are the first two people to do what we do for our command. We could either a) sit around on our bums waiting for some magical piece of guidance that will never come; or we could b) get out of the office, talk to the guys we work with and for, liaise with peer and subordinate commands in order to figure out what's needed and then git 'er dun. As you can imagine, we're going with option b, despite the immediate-term heartburn it may cause.

I consider myself extremely lucky to be working with this Chief, because he's smart, aware, aggressive, proactive, and competent. We share the aggressive mindset but our backgrounds and relative strengths are different enough that we complement each other without stepping on each others' toes.

So far, he's brought up tons of great ideas, points, and given the direction and bearing guidance that Junior Officers are always hoping for (but don't always admit they want) from Non-Commissioned Officers (NCOs, or Sergeants and Petty Officers).

So let me conclude by saying this -- if you're in a position to hire others or to draft your starting five, so to speak, look for proactive and look for competent before you look for any other traits. Sorry for the election year cliche, but those are the traits shared by those who "make a difference" in any organization -- way more so than intelligence and/or charisma will on their own (not to say all four wouldn't be great to fact, all four together in abundance is a phenomenal mix when it happens).

And to tie it back to my lead-in, run for the hills quickly if you're ever dealing with any organization -- private, public, or non-profit -- that cannot concisely articulate its own mission statement and clearly explain how it serves its customer. When you ask what it does, and you receive another question in return (or mindless cliches about hat-wearing) make a mental note that your *business* would best be taken elsewhere.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Another 'This Side of Truth' update

Very quick post here -- just had to point out that this movie is literally being filmed across the street from my house. Perhaps there's a "celebrity encounter" story in the works that may rival "Subway Jared" from two entries ago.

First Impressions -- Overrated

I think the whole idea of the importance of "first impressions" is just extremely overrated. If I run through the mental catalogue of all the people I'm friends with, or even colleagues with, I honestly can't remember the first impression they made on me. That's probably because it's 99% likely they just put their hand out, said, "I'm [insert name]," and that was it. It probably came in the context of many other such greetings that day as it came on a first day of work, or school, or whatever it was.

I wasn't really judging them to see how their smile looked, or whether there was a ketchup stain on their shirt, and I can assure you that I wouldn't have cared either way.

In every case -- whether it's friend, colleague, boss, or whatever, the opinion I've formed has been molded by hundreds or even thousands of interactions. The first one was probably about as (in)significant as the 508th.

I do believe, however, that there's that 1% or so of occasions where a first impression can be exceedingly good or bad.

One civilian and one military example come quickly to mind where I met a person who was so instantly rude and/or obnoxious that it basically seared that impression into me (to protect the guilty, I'll withhold names and circumstances here). I think in both cases, however, it wasn't some isolated thing where an otherwise great person stepped out of line and acted out of character. In both cases, the person was acting more or less in line with their usual self -- the first impression really wasn't anomalous.

The same concept applies for great impressions -- they're equally strong, but also equally consistent with character. One person I'll single out here is Jean Ngangi for going out of his way to welcome me into Community Christian Fellowship (the non-denominational church on Princeton and Stevens) when I was coming in as a complete outsider. But again, I come back to the first point -- whether it's over basketball downstairs or at Dunkin Donuts in the Highlands talking about Rwandan economic development, the same warm, welcoming open-mindedness is coming through.

And even after writing all this, I'm still willing to admit that some may give a bad, out-of-character first impression for myriad temporal reasons. But as long as you don't "close the case" on someone too quickly, you'll see their character come through, and the first impression should eventually fade into all the rest.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

'Celebrity' Harassment -- Gets Me Every Time

I just got back from a good friend's wedding in Tucson, AZ. Like with any wedding, one of its best features was the chance to catch up with many friends who were all in the same place at the same time for one of the few times since college. Of course, many funny stories and adventures ensued. Here is one of the funny stories:

A friend of ours went into a McDonald's and she saw "Jared," the Subway sandwich spokesperson who lost like 200 pounds or something on the now-famous Subway diet. After doing a double- and then a triple-take to ensure that it was indeed him, she walked up and said, "Excuse me, aren't you the Subway guy? What are you doing eating at a McDonald's?" to which he responded with a no holds-barred onslaught of vile obscenity/profanity.

I'm sure he's tired of getting those types of questions but I'm not sympathetic -- if he wanted, he could stop doing those commercials and posters. But this story just hits me from all angles, and for the past two days, it's caused me to begin laughing uncontrollably for what must seem to strangers to be no reason at all. There's the funny/interesting side of seeing someone famous in person, there's the gutsiness and the wit to go up and ask the question, and then there's also the inappropriateness of Jared's tirade inside a public restaurant.

Put it all together, and you've got one for the ages.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Lovely REIT-a

In February, I made a financial decision based mainly on the contrary indicator of daily newspaper headlines. Everything you saw, every day, on, the radio, or the local paper, blared about the pending doom of the real estate crisis. The stocks of REITs (Real Estate Investment Trusts) tanked, and the CNBC loudmouths were predicting a falling sky.

I did some quick research using only these two criteria: Are they at or near a 52-week low, and have they historically paid a sweet dividend yield? I did zero additional research.

I picked up BRT, ABR, and NRF. All have done well in absolute terms (though BRT gave me some heartburn with an initial dip), and all pay a double-digit yield.

I still think they're good buys. Just think, even if the share price completely stagnates, you're still going to come out way on top b/c of the high yields (they earn their tax status b/c they pay out a sky-high portion of their earnings back the shareholders).

And the best part of it is that that's just going to keep compounding as long as you hold.

Quoth Albert Einstein, "The most powerful force in the universe is compound interest."

Thursday, April 10, 2008

'Whiteness' as the Third Rail

The following are all real quotes that I have either heard directly or heard second-hand.

"I'm not white, I'm Italian."
"I'm not white, I'm a Lithuanian-American."
"I'm not white, I'm Jewish."

People's rush to declare their non-whiteness seems to suggest that they're associating "white" with "bad" and probably comes from a natural tendency in people to side with/identify with the underdog.

But guess what? Among the many benefits of 'whiteness' in America is the everyday benefit-of-the-doubt that your skin color confers on you. It doesn't matter who you're dealing with -- bankers, police officers, teachers, judges, neighbors, real estate agents, store owners, etc. People are less likely to typecast and/or stereotype white people than they are others.

Let me give you an example. Let's say I'm upset with AT & T over my Internet service. I come in to complain, they're rude or unprofessional in return, and I then get more upset than when I started. Let's say I raise my voice or cuss. What are people in the store going to say? My guess is it would be something like this:

"Wow, that guy seems angry. I wonder what happened to get him to that point."

But if I were black or Latino, what do you think the chances are that someone would say or think, "Seems like just another angry black man," or "There goes another fiery Latino."

In other words, people of color will be stereotyped based on racial identity but I (a white person) get seen by most others (who are presumably white themselves) as just "a guy."

You can multiply that times a myriad of other everyday situations and start to see the advantage that whiteness confers on us European-Americans.

And you can quickly see how asinine the three statements at the beginning of the entry are. The first two, in fact, are so stupid that they don't deserve further analysis. But trust me, people really said 'em.

The third one is slightly more interesting (in reference to Ashkenazim, not Sephardim who may really not be white), but I still don't buy it.

For one, my sister is Jewish (she converted w/marriage). So by that reasoning, is she now non-white although I came from the same parents and am white? It seems like all the day-to-day benefits of 'whiteness' would still accrue to her.

Second, if 'whiteness' means inclusion to America's elite institutions, it again wouldn't hold -- let's play a safe hand here and count the Senate, the Supreme Court, Harvard, Yale, Wall Street, academia, and the medical/legal professions as elite.

Third, if people can say "Well, I'm still not white because there are some places in America I wouldn't be welcome/feel comfortable," then guess what? By that logic alone, there isn't a single white person in all of America.

If the point is about historical exclusion, however, it does carry much more weight. Here is an excerpt from Mark Penn's essay "Pro-Semitism" from his book Microtrends.

"It wasn't always this way. America has had its share of anti-Semitism; in 1939, a Roper poll found that only 39 percent of Americans felt that Jews should be treated like other people. Fifty-three percent believed that "Jews are different and should be restricted." Ten percent actually believed that Jews should be deported. In the 1940s, several national surveys found that Jews were considered a greater threat to the welfare of the United States than any other national, religious, or racial group."

In noting how the times have-a-changed, however, Penn writes in the next paragraph:

"Compare that to a Gallup poll taken in August 2006. When Americans were asked how they feel about people of different religious or spiritual groups in the United States, Jews ranked the highest of any group in America, with a net positive of 54 percent. No one -- not Methodists, not Baptists, not evangelical Christians, fundamentalist Christians, Mormons, Muslims, Atheists, or Scientologists -- scored higher in the view of Americans nationwide.

Penn goes on to use other statistical evidence (hey, the guy is the leading national pollster) as well as significant anecdotal evidence to make his point about the sea change in mainstream American attitudes towards Jews over the past two generations.

But enough about this inclusion/exclusion thing. I'm getting away from my original point. 'Whiteness' in America is a system of advantage that works in favor of Caucasian people in millions of little ways, in millions of little places, every single day. It doesn't matter if your ancestors were on the Mayflower or if they just stepped off the plane at LaGuardia from Vilnius. It also doesn't matter whether your grandfather was an exploited Irish or Italian wage-laborer. And it also doesn't matter whether your holy day is Friday, Saturday, Sunday, or no-day.

The cab drivers, policemen, bankers, and neighbors that you deal with on a day-to-day basis neither know, nor care, about any of these things.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Why Extremely Self-Effacing = Extremely Annoying

I'm a huge fan of self-effacing humor. Like most things, it can be amazing when applied sparingly and in the right situations. It's disarming and often endearing, but only when it's authentic. By 'authentic' I mean someone poking fun of themself for something they actually are -- fat, short, bald, single, broke, disabled, uncoordinated, whatever.

And by 'sparingly' I mean once in a while.

But when self-effacing humor is just lathered on like it's going out of style, I find it very annoying. Here's why:

(1) It's insincere. I believe that deep down, everyone has an endless reservoir of faith in hir or her own abilities. We have different ways of showing it, but we all believe in our unique talents and will go to any lengths to rationalize about it (Just think, how many times have you heard, "So-and-so may be book-smart, but I'm street-smart.") So when someone makes a reference to himself being a caveman, a monkey, or a knuckle-dragger every five minutes, the insincerity starts to grate, quickly. No one really thinks that about himself.

(2) It's awkward for everyone else. Again, when self-effacing comments are just poured on with no end ("Leadership? All I've ever led was a drunk to the bar!") all you can respond with after a while is a groan. Not only is it not funny, but it makes you wonder -- is the person saying that just waiting for you to challenge it?

(3) Most important of all, it shows no 'ownership' of a situation. For instance, let's say you were trying to teach me how to drive a stick-shift. Your goal is for me to learn to do it on my own (that way, you can end the lesson and go home!) Well, if every two minutes I just say, "I don't know, I'm a caveman" instead of just taking ownership and responsibility for learning, that's actually unfair to you. One or two jokes about being uncoordinated is of course fine (refer to earlier paragraphs) but endless self-effacing comments aren't going to help anyone in the situation. It's especially not cool when the person doing it is the one in charge.

Here's the bottom-line: self-effacing humor is one of the greatest social skills you can have in your arsenal. It can quickly beat the awkwardness out of any strange situtation. It can instantly disarm people who've formed contrary opinions about you before they've even met you. It can be a great way to break the ice in front of a small crowd at the very beginning of a speech.

But like all great things, it has its place. Don't abuse it.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Congressional Medal of Honor

Rob, thanks for sending me the link to the Bill O'Reilly piece on "Stop-Loss." While it's not every day that I see eye-to-eye with Mr. O'Reilly, I certainly dig this column as it more or less dovetails with my original "Stop-Loss" entry. Here's the link:

Also, my apologies to readers if my 1 April entry seemed defensive. I just saw "comment deleted by author" and (wrongly) assumed the worst -- someone had posted something controversial, had second thoughts, and then scrubbed it. I made an ASS out of U and ME as it was, in the end, just a technical glitch that caused that. To wit, if there's anything I want to with this blog, it's encourage free and open debate. I throw a lot of my own views out there but definitely don't want to discourage dissent. I will almost always try to respond to comments, either to agree, disagree, or spur on more ideas.

But back to "Stop-Loss" for a second. Over beers tonight at the VFW, I mentioned this film and got some people pretty fired up. Here's why: one of the guys we were with (I'll call him 'Evan') was seriously wounded in Iraq. I won't go into details but suffice to say that one moment he was in northern Iraq and the next (as far as he knew) he was laying on a hospital bed in Germany. Well, get this -- after fully recovering at a veterans' hospital in the U.S., Evan changed his reserve unit affiliation in order to hide the injury (his old unit already knew, of course, but his new one wouldn't). Why did he do this? So he could return if needed. His old unit never would have allowed it, but he basically maneuvered around the system to remain deployable. The mainstream media, Hollywood, and the Harry Reid types in the Senate wouldn't touch his story with a ten-foot pole. They'll just keep insulting veterans and maligning the Bush Administration over decisions that were made in 2003 that are, frankly, irrelevant in 2008.

Here was the other really neat thing about tonight -- I got to speak in-depth with a guy who just got back from twelve months in Kosovo and had nothing but good things to say about what we're doing over there which is, literally, nation-building in the truest sense. Kosovo, by the way, is a National Guard-owned mission, so I have a great chance of getting over there once I make that transition.

Just remember this -- the next time someone accuses America, or the American military in particular, of having some sort of anti-Islamic agenda, just throw one word back at them: Kosovo. Because not only did we intervene on two major occasions to save Muslim lives in the Balkans in the 1990s, but we midwifed a European Muslim-majority nation (one of three now, along with Albania and Bosnia-Herzegovina) very much against the will of other Great Powers, mainly Russia, a decade later. Kosovo is still fragile but the (quiet) efforts of the U.S. military are helping it to develop democratic institutions and rule of law now.

One last note here -- I just want to remind readers to pause today to think about Mike Monsoor's Congressional Medal of Honor (CMH). Bear in mind that before earning the CMH, Monsoor had already earned the Silver Star (Valorous) and the Bronze Star (Valorous) for completely unrelated service. So far in the Global War on Terror (GWOT), there have been four CMH winners, all posthumous. The three from Iraq are SFC Paul Smith, Cpl. Jason Dunham, and PO2 Monsoor. The one from Afghanistan is LT Murphy. With the two Somalia CMH earners KIA in OCT 93 (Shughart and Gordon), that means we still haven't had a living CMH recipient since Vietnam.

Merrimack Valley: Not that Liberal, Not that Nativist

If you don't already know this, I'm an independent. I harbor equal loathing for extreme lefties and righties because they both strike me as self-righteously obnoxious and closed-minded. (Fear not, I'm not going to spout the hackneyed, "I'm fiscally conservative but socially liberal" line because, well, that's not necessarily the case). But if I had a dollar for every time I'd heard that blurk, I could take us both out to a nice dinner anywhere in town!

But I digress. Most people from outside this area paint New England, and Massachusetts in particular, as being screamingly liberal. There may be pockets that really are that way -- parts of Cambridge and Northampton, for instance. But for all the people I've talked to here about the national and world political/military situation, it just doesn't ring true. People here are pretty darn moderate.

Another stereotype about New Englanders concerns their nativism. For sure, there really are pockets of this -- people whose mentality is, "If you're not from here (i.e. born and raised, preferably with parents both also born and raised) your view doesn't count." And I really have heard anecdotal stuff like the story of the guy who's lived in Rhode Island for 30 years but is still treated as an outsider and gets called "the new guy" by his neighbors just because he's not from Rhode Island. But by and large, I really believe people here are better than that.

As my own anecdotal supporting evidence, let me use my experience at the Lowell Film Festival on Saturday. I was in a room full of people who had just seen the movie "Farmingville," which deals with something very complex, nuanced, and many-sided -- how does a town of 15,000 people in Suffolk County, Long Island deal with an influx of 1500 day laborers from Mexico? As you can imagine, the answers aren't easy. The film captured some of the fear and outright racism that people from the town as well as the very legitimate points residents made about noise, crowding, and the effect that large numbers of males hanging around had on the town itself.

After the film, a discussion session broke out. Almost everyone in the crowd threw out at least one or two ideas. No one was excoriated for anything they said, and everyone's comments seemed balanced, usually starting with, "Yes, this is difficult, but..." It was hardly the type of partisanship you would see on any one of our nation's 24/7 cable news outlets.

And as far as the people in the room went, there were folks from all over -- Britain, Cambodia, Vietnam, the Merrimack Valley, and other parts of America, just to name a few. At no point did I hear anyone say, or seem to say, "Your view doesn't count because you're not from here." That was consistent across the board for people with identifiable accents (i.e. British), those who did not speak English as a first language, and those (like me), who pronounce the "r" in the middle of words, don't add an "r" to words like "idea" and use the flat, standard American English "a" in words like "rather" and "can't."

In other words, those who obviously aren't "from around here."

Monday, April 7, 2008

'Rope-a-Dope' and 'The Ultimate Awful'

A while back, I put out a word fugitive for a term that would capture this driving tactic -- when you need to change lanes, instead of getting into some kind of accelerating, aggressive drag race to get over, just hang back, let the car alongside you get ahead, and then skoinks your way into the lane you need. Chris Amatuzzi came back masterfully with "rope-a-dope."

For instance, you could say, "The lane to my right is just way too jammed up and there's no way I can get in. I'll just decelerate, hang back and then rope-a-dope my way over."

Rope-a-dope can be used as either a noun (describing the tactic itself) or as a verb. It's a great expression because it's easy to remember and use, yet it also *sort of* describes what you're doing -- accomplishing your goal by doing something somewhat counterintuitive that surprises others around you.

Another one that I'll throw out there is called "The Ultimate Awful."

Here's how it works: You're on the Interstate and you need to get over for your exit. Being the conscientious citizen you are, you check your mirrors and then give a quick visual to ensure the nearest vehicle in the lane you need to get into is several car lengths back. You signal to announce your intentions (again, doing the right thing) and what does the psycho behind the wheel of the other car do? Accelerates as if you getting into that lane will unleash nuclear armageddon.

I have absolutely no idea why people do this, but I think it must come from some place of raw aggression borne of an idea that one person's gain must be another's loss. In other words, they're thinking, "If you get into that lane, you're somehow 'getting ahead' and I will suffer."

I call this 'The Ultimate Awful' because I think that type of zero-sum, tit-for-tat, fight-for-every-square-inch mentality is just rotten. I know I'm *only* talking about driving but there are tons of other ways this mentality manifests itself in our daily lives. My hunch is that people who practice 'The Ultimate Awful' probably behave in many other ways that are, well, ultimately awful towards their neighbors, co-workers, and families.

And on top of all that, you're talking about huge, heavy boxes of steel and glass moving at high speeds. So it's not just like the un-neighborly rudeness of not looking behind you when you walk through a door -- it's a whole new level of rudeness when you factor in the completely unnecessary level of danger you're creating.

So that's how it earns its name.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

The Fish and the Pond

Three times this week, I've heard (directly or indirectly) about people consciously choosing a smaller pond to swim in. Here are the three cases:

** First, as I was reading "Den of Thieves" by James Stewart (this is a tale of insider trading and Wall Street corruption in the mid-1980s) he talks about Martin Siegel's decision to work for Kidder, Peabody, even though he was being courted at the time by several other firms with higher name-brand cachet. Siegel's reasoning behind the decision was that since Kidder, Peabody was both smaller in size and stature, he'd have more room to become involved more quickly and ascend to a leadership position than he would have at, say, Goldman Sachs.

** Second, my dad was telling me about a former co-worker of his who lived in Bayonne despite the fact that he could have easily lived in a place like Greenwich. When asked why he chose to live in Bayonne, the guy always said, "Well, I'm a big deal in Bayonne, and I love it. In Greenwich, I'd just be the next guy down the block." The guy had become a fairly serious philanthropist in the Bayonne community and greatly enjoyed the respect this conferred on him.

** Third, I was talking to a guy I work with who I'll call "Jack Bauer." This is a guy who is qualified as a no-kidding submarine-driving nuclear engineer yet also has a Navy Diver qualification, an Airborne qualification (gold jump wings) and recently graduated from Military Freefall School in Arizona. When I asked Jack Bauer why he didn't just go all the way with it and become a SEAL, the answer came quickly (I'm sure I wasn't the first to ever ask): "I'm one of only three people in the entire Navy with my qualification set. Against other sub guys, this makes me really stand out. If I were a SEAL, I'd just be competing against other SEALs, and I'd be lucky to even be considered 'one of the pack.'"

There's something I love about all three answers, because they're very matter-of-factly self-conscious/self-aware.

For all the oft-cited and repeated cliches about "Know Thyself," and being true to oneself that appear in works of philosophy ranging across many cultures and eras, how many people really stop and try to tailor their life around their personal vision of how they want to live?

That wasn't a rhetorical question -- I really have no idea, and perhaps many people already do this.

I know I wrote this in a previous post, but I think that if your goal is to establish yourself somewhere as part of a community, the best place to do it is in a small- or medium-sized city. The beauty of a city with anywhere from 40,000-200,000 people is that it's large enough that it will have several distinct niches and opportunities to become involved, yet it's not so big as to be impersonal.

New England is replete with examples of cities like this -- Manchester, Providence, Worcester, New Haven, Portland, Burlington, and, of course, Lowell.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

'This Side of the Truth' -- to be filmed in Lowell

Here's a link to a story from today's Globe about the movie that is going to be filmed in Lowell, starting this month:

'This Side of the Truth' stars, among others, Jennifer Garner and Tina Fey.

I dig Tina Fey.

Wisdom from the Skipper

One of the most impressive people I've ever come across was the CO at my old command. The guy just seemed to excel in everything -- intellectually, physically, logistically, etc. he had it down. I once asked him how he was able to keep up and these were two of the things I remember from his answer:

(1) Don't get caught up in the daily news cycle. If something really huge happens in the world, you'll hear about it. But staying glued to 24/7 cable news mostly means endless stories about the war on cholesterol and whether your child has the newly-discovered strain of Asperger's. It's mindless drivel, and your time is probably better spent delving into something that will actually make you think.

(2) Audiobooks. He mentioned that he got really into these during a period where he was working in DC while his wife and kids were in Hampton Roads. Naturally, he was spending many hours captive in his car traveling along I-95 and I-64, and used the time to listen to a lot of the books he had always wished he'd read but never had the time for. As he put it, "How many times can you listen to the same stupid songs over and over again?"

I wanted to pass this on to readers because I think it's outstanding advice. With the advent of iTunes and Podcasts on the web, it's easier and cheaper than ever to get the material you need to learn while stuck in the car -- no more fumbling around with CDs as you weave through traffic, either.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Letter just sent to NY Times

Well, I just fired this letter off to the NY Times. I doubt it will be published but it is one of the contrarian opinions I hold about "Fat Envelope Frenzy" (an actual title of a book I recently saw at B & N on Merrimack Street).

I will write more in future entries about this contrary-to-popular wisdom view but it stems from a profound life change that I underwent between my first and second years of high school. Of course, there's a lot more to it, but the immediate-term stimulus for the turnaround was the looming knowledge that the college process was coming, and I had been screwing up -- badly. It all could have ended differently but that's not the point. The point has everything to do with means, and has nothing at all to do with ends. And as far as the means go, I haven't stopped or even looked back since.

If that sounded vague or opaque, no worries, I'll expand on it later.

Anyway, here's the letter:

Dear Editor,

As your recent article indicates, admissions rates at many of America's most selective undergraduate institutions continue to drop. High school students, however, need not despair.

If you go to the campus of any selective American university and ask "What makes this place great?" you will consistently hear the same answer: "The students."

Therefore, it should follow that if there are more highly-qualified high school students than ever before, there would be more highly-esteemed institutions of higher learning as well. As logic would have it, there are.

A quick mental scan easily yields at least a dozen schools that are considered truly excellent today, yet were not regarded in the same way even a single generation ago.

Just as elite high school students are increasingly drawn to up-and-comer schools like Washington University in St. Louis, Emory, Tufts, and Carnegie Mellon, employers and graduate schools increasingly recognize these and other non-Ivy League universities' enhanced value.

- New Englander
Lowell, MA

Stop-Loss Phantom Comment

Not sure who posted and then deleted a comment for the 30 MAR post..I never saw it, BUT..

(1) If it was to say "How do you know about Stop-Loss if you've never seen it?" My response is that I read enough reviews to understand it to the point where I could write that.

(2) If it was to say "You don't know about PTSD issues, you don't have a Combat Action Ribbon" I would admit that's a fair point, but I am close enough to many who do to know that stereotyped Hollywood portrayals don't do them justice.

BUT if it was something else entirely, then who knows...