Saturday, February 24, 2018

Greasy palms

In the early 1990's, I had a client from General Motors come to our offices to discuss an advertising/PR project. The usual coffee, bagels and schmear were on the conference room table for morning refreshment. Our friendly, loyal customer said, "Thank you. It looks delicious but, sorry, I can't participate. New rules"

Revamped company policy prevented GM employees from accepting any gifts or any refreshments from their vendors. Not even a donut or a cup of coffee. The recently crowned GM global purchasing czar, J. Ignacio Lopez, dictated an ethical distance between the automaker and its suppliers. He wanted company reps and buyers to be free from any sense of debt or favor toward those who sold to them.  He demanded steep cost reductions and would bid work to more than six sources in hopes of getting them to beat each other up and slash prices to win contracts.

Ironically, Lopez eventually left for Volkswagen along with three other purchasing colleagues who all  faced accusations and lawsuits in the U.S. and Germany. GM alleged they took trade secrets with him.

Although I wasn't a fan of Lopez's excessive bidding processes and ridiculously extreme rules about buying a customer a coffee or a burger, I appreciated the concept of ethics and keeping unsavory gifting or favoritism out of the procurement process. Some suppliers would shower lavish gifts on clients and spend exorbitantly on their client entertainment to cement cozy relationships that were based more on grease than great work. From time to time, you'd hear about employees at corporate giants like GM and Ford who got the boot and their vendors who had to hire lawyers.

This week we watched a high school student grill Republican U.S. Senator Marco Rubio, Florida, challenging him to refuse campaign donations from the National Rifle Association (NRA). Of course, conservative pundits were quick to raise the issue of money from labor unions and other sources that flows to the Democratic Party. Fair rebuttal.

The vicious shooting that left 17 dead in a Parkland, Florida high school last week has definitely turned up the volume on the gun rights debate and it has turned up the heat under politicians who accept NRA money. This controversy could lead to reforming our entire electoral and legislative process and how the money flows around the executive, legislative, and judicial branches at the state and federal levels.

It is beyond me how we continue to allow any politician to accept large campaign donations from any individual, organization or corporation. The U.S. Supreme Court may have declared money speech, but we know what talks and what walks.

To avoid a traffic citation, if I proposed to a traffic cop that I'd donate to the policeman's ball or grease his palm with a contribution to his pension fund, I'd likely be sitting in the back of his cruiser. Yet, a congressman, presidential candidate or political party can accept thousands and thousand of dollars in  so called campaign contributions, year after year. Why should any candidate be able to accept more than $100 from any donor? At that limit, can you imagine how many voters each candidate would have to engage to garner support for office? Politicians would actually have to run on issues and records accomplishments instead of generalizations, lies, partisan red meats, innuendo and mudslinging.

How can we expect elected officials to be free of undue influence as long as we permit them to build huge war chests with funds from special interests? Or take international trips paid for by corporations and lobbyists?

As high school students plan major marches and events to protest gun violence, I can't help but think back on the sixties when non-violent demonstrations by college kids shook the foundations of our government and society contributing to the civil rights movement, ending the Vietnam War, expanding environmental protection and the woman's movement.

The articulate and passionate students from Parkland seem dedicated to fearlessly speaking truth to power and calling a lucrative campaign donation what it is ...  a bribe. Look out. This feels familiar. The times just might be a changin'  ... again.

Sunday, February 18, 2018


It was Ash Wednesday and Valentine's Day and I was in a fight for my life.

It's the same one I endure every day. The battle of the bulge. A confirmed addict, I eat too much. I make a daily effort to change my habits, even if it's just a little bit. Those who know me well recall when I was much rounder and significantly heavier. Over the past 20-plus years, I've made major progress. But it's a constant struggle not to backslide. I can't quit fighting.

So, earlier this week, I was pumping my legs on the exercise bike at the gym while watching information flash across the big TV screens that span the width of the mammoth workout facility. I'd just finished reading a daily dose of "Killing Pablo," the intense best seller about the pursuit and eventual police shooting of Columbian drug kingpin, Pablo Escobar. It's a thoroughly researched and violent story by journalist, Mark Bowden, that chronicles the dramatic rise and fall of the monstrous mobster from South America.

I plugged my earbuds into the jack on the upright stationary bike and turned up the volume on the news. Just then, the anchor led to fresh footage from the day's mass shooting at a high school in Parkland, Florida. It was video from a student's smartphone and I could hear the hammering sounds of semi-automatic gun blasts peppering the school.

A woman stepped into the foreground between me and the TV. She read the captions that scrawled across the bottom of the screen, because the sound is muted in the gym. She froze and stared at the images and began to cry. She covered her mouth with her hand and sobbed. The woman's boyfriend   came up next to her and put his hand on her shoulder.

I couldn't help but see the symbolism. We watch the violent horror and the vicious loss of life unfolding again and again, but were not hearing the victims. It's as if we're deaf to their cries for help and genuine compassion. It's as if we're codependent. We can't do anything because we're addicted to the addict.

The next evening I peddled again while I heard the mother of a Parkland school shooting victim scream into the lens of a television camera begging someone to do something.

There is a saying in twelve-step groups: "I was sick and tired of being sick and tired." That's the point where the addict or those who love him or her hit bottom. The tipping point when they develop the courage to change the things they can.

Seems like America may have hit its "bottom" this week with the latest of our mass shootings in Parkland. We won't know for a while yet. It will depend on what you and I do about it and how persistent we are. That is, will we change what we are doing and not quit? Will we continue to make progress and not give up, even in the face of tough odds and stern resistance?

The same goes for every other problem where we feel a sense of hopelessness. Whether it's the affordability of healthcare, access to mental health, a solution to homelessness or rampant violence on our streets and in our homes, nothing changes without courage.

Today, there's buzz about high school students in Parkland creating a "March for Our Lives" protest  on Saturday, March 24 with hope that the Florida massacre will be the last. That's a great start, but it will take more than one event, no matter how large. Just ask those who witnessed the civil rights movement, and the police dogs and fire houses trained on the peaceful marchers and protesters in the 1960's. Don't forget the church bombings and lynchings. Ask those who know the history of the suffragettes, women who battled to change the U.S. Constitution so they had an equal right to vote in the land where "all men are created equal." Or consider how many complaints across two decades it took before mass sexual abuser, Dr. Larry Nasser of Michigan State University, was arrested, charged, tried and sentenced.  And that doesn't begin to count the dozens and dozens of women who exposed the terror of his abuse during his sentencing hearing. Or take a page from those who join the "March for Life" and protest abortion year after year after year.  Persistence. Persistence. Persistence.
This is a life issue.

Doing the same thing and expecting different results is one definition of insanity. If we want any change, we have to change it.

Take it from me, transforming oneself is very tough business. Changing someone else, including corporations and government, is impossible. But we can draw boundaries and require that they not violate them. Then we can pray that they change while we firmly guard our boundaries.

For instance, if we want the media to relentlessly keep the heat on government officials regarding our nation's addiction to gun violence, we have to call and write our local newspapers, TV stations, radio stations and all the networks. We'll let them know that unless they report the death toll daily from shootings and mass killings, we're going to stop watching and we'll shame them on social media. We'll get a response.

When neighborhoods are struck by a spike in crime, some people hunker down. Others organize  neighborhood watches and begin to police the streets and inform the cops. The same could work for your local grade school, middle school and high school with volunteers taking shifts to stand guard. Let's not forget to reach out to retirees, they have time and skills. This might make life less cozy for drug dealers too.

We can use social media to urge friends and family to call local, state and federal officials week after week after week until we get genuine action. I've spoken to my congressman's office in the past, and I  know they monitor and count the calls. It makes a difference, almost as much as votes.

We can join groups like "Everytown for Gun Safety" and become active members with millions of others who have begun the fight. But groups must engage city hall and elected officials. Not have meetings and symbolic marches.

It would be foolish to forget the power of boycotts. After all, civil rights icon, Rosa Parks' refusal to give up her seat on a city bus in Montgomery, Alabama led to a bus riders boycott that financially crippled the Montgomery system forcing it to integrate or go bust.

It might be necessary to temporarily boycott all retailers that sell firearms, whether they're bricks and mortar or online services. Ultimately, the protest would not be designed to get rid of all guns, but to demand a sense of urgency, so constructive change will begin to occur quickly in our state legislatures and Congress. Money talks and now the U.S. Supreme Court equates it to free speech. So speak freely with your feet and your wallet. By the way, in 2015, Walmart instituted its own ban on selling "military style" sports rifles. They're no longer three aisles down from the diapers.

Make no mistake, it's not just about the guns. We need to tell Hollywood that it must dial down the violence in movies, shows and gaming. One media source reported 15 different Netflix offerings  glorifying the murderous Escobar narcos as well as other mobsters and their bloodthirsty approach to drug trafficking. Let's not overlook Tony Soprano in reruns, everybody's favorite psychopathic family guy. If we watch it they will make it. If we reject it, the programming will change. Look at what the #MeToo movement is beginning to do to tinsel town and Washington. Who was the star of House of Cards? That's because women and men are finding the courage to name their attackers and abusers. Why then would we watch programs about attackers and abusers?

Those are just a few thoughts on a very large and complicated violence problem that requires that we dive in, learn, volunteer, get involved and stay involved. I believe the richest nation in the world can solve any problem it has the courage to change.

And the next time we walk past a homeless man or woman on the street, each of us should ask ourselves, "Why don't I do something about homelessness?" Remember, many of the homeless are veterans of the U.S. armed forces. The next time we hear about a mother gunning down her whole family and then committing suicide, we should ask ourselves, "Why haven't I done something about access to mental health?" And the next time we hear about a cop getting ambushed or an unarmed kid being shot, we should say, "Don't all lives matter? Why haven't I done something?"

How will we find the courage?

In my personal life, it was chronic illness that finally got my attention. That was my rock bottom. I realized I needed to change my lifestyle or face declining health. There were many things to change. But I also discovered the healing power of that change.

As a nation, a society, and a world we have many, many chronic illnesses. Insanely, we continue to search outside ourselves for elected leaders to bring the healing. But they are nothing but reflections of each of us and our own level of compassion and intestinal fortitude.

Jesus said: "No one has greater love than this, to lay down one's life for one's friends." (John 15:13)

The heroes we're seeking are trapped inside each of us. Inside our addictions and fears. Waiting for us  to find the courage to say, "I'm sick and tired of being sick and tired." And to say we're ready to do the heavy lifting and to begin to love one another.

Saturday, February 10, 2018


"They speak broken English."

That's a line I heard hundreds of times as a kid after people had met my parents. Mom and Dad grew up in Nazi-occupied Poland and immigrated to the U.S. after the war.  My father was born in Dunkirk near Buffalo, New York. My mother, Revin, France. Both their families were expatriates, laboring in other nations while Austria briefly occupied Poland after World War I. When the invading troops exited, my grandparents and their kids returned to Polish farms they owned along the San River. Not too many years later, the whole world shattered as a madman and his followers tried to exterminate people who varied from his so called Aryan ideal.

As a child in Detroit, Michigan, I heard plenty of jokes about "dumb Polacks,"  as did my Dad on his factory job, at which he excelled. In time, it dawned on me that the "broken English" line was truly dumb. Usually those criticizing the quality of my folks' English, could only speak one language. Yet they were mocking those who spoke at least two.

I find accents musical and fascinating. There's a lot of music in our new home in Chicago, Illinois. Our pastor, Fr. Sam, is from Kenya. Maribel, the teller at the bank is Hispanic. My dentist is of Greek decent and likes to tell me about the German Octoberfest and great beer at a local church and the best restaurants in Chicago's Greek Town. There are so many diverse bistros here, from Peruvian and other South American joints to a Kenyan sports bar, Persian places, Lebanese eateries, Indian, and, of course, Italian, Mexican and Irish dining halls, cafeterias and pubs. There's even a genuine "Chinatown" or Asian community, and many entire Polish neighborhoods where I speak broken Polish to order sausage, cheeses, barszcz (borscht), smoked pork tenderloin, breads, chocolates and pastries. And nobody makes fun of my poor pronunciations. They smile and encourage me.

Here I thought I came from a diverse place, living more than 30 years in Dearborn, Michigan which includes the largest Arabic population in the world outside the Middle East. People who came from Lebanon, Yemen, Iraq, Syria, etc. Many of these families settled in the motor city's metro area beginning in the late 1800's alongside Germans, Poles, Irish, Italians, Indians, Jews, Muslims, Catholics and other Christians.

With the start of the Winter Olympics this week in Pyeongchang County, South Korea, I couldn't help but think about the harmony there. So many people, customs, foods, believers, unbelievers, languages and accents playing together.

It must be musical and not so broken with people from the whole world mingling in one place.

Sunday, February 4, 2018

Stop! What's that sound?

Do you need a reminder to put down your smartphone? To pause, breathe deep and realize you are where you are and not virtually everywhere else? Do you routinely forget to unplug and connect to the moment?

Reportedly, there are more than 1,000 apps available to help smartphone users remember to meditate or embrace peace and silence. One such electronic bell tower, Headspace has more than 18 million users. Then there's WeCroak which sends subscribers five messages a day so they don't forget they're going to die. Seriously. It's one of the top 10 apps in the health and fitness category. I wrote a spiritual book encouraging readers to embrace mortality as a key to happiness (Dying to Be Happy: Discovering the Truth About Life). My wife, Ellen's, breast cancer diagnosis in 2014 was a big enough whiff of death to get my attention for good and it inspired me to share that liberating emotion in the book. My research quickly revealed that Jesus was ever mindful about human mortality and spent much of his Gospel reminding us of this undeniable reality. We are not getting out of this life alive. 

But the Jewish Messiah also frequently made solitude a priority. He often snuck away from the crowds, far away, where he relaxed and prayed. “Come away by yourselves to a deserted place and rest a while” he told his followers. (Mark 6:31) 

Regardless of your faith or lack there of, that's unbeatable advise for quality of life. How much time do you spend unplugged everyday? Are you aware that today could be your last? Why don't you spend more time quietly alone?

Silence is a golden gift, but it requires courage. When I meditate for five minutes every morning, invariably I "hear" things in my head that are revealing about who I am, what I've done, said, and failed to do and say. The more time I take to sit in a quiet place the more I understand my life. I hear things others said to me that I really missed in the moment. I've discovered that information is not knowledge. With so much IT available, it's easy to confuse data with discernment or volume with veracity. 

My personal experience is that once you make time to be silent you will crave it. It is a rare space in today's world where ubiquitous technology buzzes and hums even when muted. For at least a few minutes a day, you  deserve to hear the sound of nothing but your heartbeat,  the rhythm of your body as it trades carbon dioxide for oxygen in a symbiotic relationship with all other living things. You might just hear the voice of your creator.