Thursday, September 29, 2011

Just In Case...

I haven't been doing much writing on this site, but this is the best place to point people who find me through Ignite DC. So, if my talk is why you're here, I want to make it easy for you to read the more relevant posts.

To read my thoughts and experiences with loss, go here.

To read just about Eva, loss included, go here.

More recently, I found myself commenting on another blog and writing things that I hadn't really said publicly before. The act of doing that and the response I got is partly what led me to submit a proposal for Ignite DC in the first place. So, if you'd like to see all of that too, it is here and here. James is an amazing writer and inspires me to express this stuff in a much more open way than I ever considered doing. I wish I could link directly to the comment thread to make it easy, but I haven't figured that out yet.

There is a bit of overlap in these terms, so I apologize in advance. If you like this stuff or have anything you want to share, feel free to drop it in comments or to find me on twitter - @sandman_va

Friday, November 05, 2010

Instantaneous Kneecapping

I think I am mostly over the loss of my daughter, but I think it is just as likely that I never really began grieving in the first place - I just moved on because it felt like somebody had to. So, it should really come as no surprise that I can be moved back to that time, what it felt like to have the future hanging in the balance or to simply spend every waking moment wanted to be dead, by something as simple as an image or a song. There are even sensations and smells that can do it - the rush I feel when cold water hits my face reminds me of the moment when they put a bag of ice on Eva's face to get her heart rate to drop. I look forward to a lifetime of having every early shower remind me of my dead child, by the way.

In any case, just a song and I'm on my emotional knees, hoping to vanish before the song is over. There is no safe place to go, no desire to run home or to a beautiful hilltop. I guess I mostly want to get under the covers, but I really just want to be by her bedside again.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

On The Right Track?

In my post about trying to determine where to buy clothes that do not undermine or go against one's own values, I mentioned how difficult it is to know much of anything at all about the clothing - where it was made, the corporate policies behind it, the company's own values (if they really have any), etc. I do know that the time to find this stuff out is not when you are in the outlet mall, looking at a great pair of pants that are 50% off. It would be nice if clothing stores would start to advertise the information about their practices and manufacturing in the store, much like how some restaurants (particularly fast food joints) are putting up posters that show the nutritional information for every item on the menu. But, I won't hold my breath here...

What I did find recently is a few companies that seem to be making clothing in the US and adhering to at least some of the things that matter to me. And, even more interestingly, I found one large clothing and gear company that is amazingly open about all of this stuff, even if they are not perfect. Quickly, some of the locally-based manufacturers - like pretty small and in one or two locations in major cities - are Bonobos and BetaBrands. As you might expect, the clothes are a bit costlier than the $39 pair of Levis at the department store, but that cost is reasonable if it is a fair value for the product as well as its true cost (with some profit built in, of course). I don't like the idea of spend $70-100 on a pair of pants, but I think I should do it if I a) need pants, b) want someone to actually get a living wage making pants, and c) want the company manufacturing my pants to be doing so in a way that aligns with my own values. Money talks, right? The more people buying clothes with this in mind, the better these companies might do and the more of an impact there will be on the textiles industry at large.

The other big surprise for me, one that I should not really been surprised by, was a company named after a region in South America. You know, starts with a "P", ends with an "atagonia". They have extensive information on their website about their various practices and policies, are amazingly open about what they do and why they do it (even admitting where they can do better), and they provide a downloadable file that lists every factory the work with and its address, in case you want to check in on them. Not only is that amazingly refreshing to me, but the list itself is really quite interesting to look at - lots of countries on the list, all over the planet. And, they still use a fair number of factories in the US, although it is a fraction of their overall manufacturing effort.

Good stuff here, all around. It makes me feel hopeful that I can buy clothing with a conscience, although the pennypincher in me is cringing a great deal.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

A New Equation for Capital Punishment

I am no student of criminal justice or the law, although I sometimes find ethical and legal arguments to be pretty interesting. While have an on-going internal monologue this morning, I found myself chewing on the application of capital punishment to what are currently considered non-capital offenses. More specifically, it occurred to me that it seems entirely reasonable to consider the use of capital punishment in cases of major fraud or financial impropriety. If a banker or an investment professional, a Bernie Madoff or someone with similar reach and influence, commits fraud and wipes out the financial stability and life savings of hundreds of families, the cumulative impact of those actions should be grounds for capital punishment.

Again, no legal scholar here, but if capital punishment - the death penalty - is only applied in cases of truly heinous crimes, that is far too narrow a view. In truth, we think of the death penalty only really in relation to horrendous murder cases, but it can and has been used in other cases, like treason and espionage. So, if one can be killed for crimes against the state, wouldn't the destruction of people's livelihoods, savings, and "way of life" be on par? Is it not a crime against the state, a crime against society at large, to undermine the people's trust in our financial system, let alone to cause the partial or total evaporation of retirement savings for family upon family? What price must be paid if the fraudulent acts lead some victims to commit suicide? Is that not involuntary manslaughter?

I think the application of capital punishment should be based on a different equation - a combination of the horror of the crime, the clear inhumanity and immorality of the acts, and the overall damage and impact of those crimes. A gruesome, premeditated murder is an obvious choice - heinous, horrible crime with clear impact on the victim(s) and family members. Insurance fraud, financial scandals, or embezzlement on a grand scale may not seem heinous, but they are most certainly a horrible violation of people's trust and an offense against society. And, unlike a murder, the impact of these acts can reach hundreds or even thousands of people. We should be calculating that impact and weighing it in the decision as to whether to apply capital punishment or not.

Teresa Lewis, a woman diagnosed with borderline mental retardation, was executed recently in Virginia for her role in killing her husband and stepson. She did not fire the gun, the guys who did were sentenced to life in prison, but she was considered the mastermind. And, she sat next to her husband for 45 minutes, watching him bleed to death, before calling 911 to "report" the incident as being caused by an unknown intruder. The judge on the case said her act "fits the definition of the outrageous or wantonly vile, horrible act". Premeditated, inhumane, heinous...all for insurance money.

Now, consider the case of Jerome Kerviel, the rogue trader who blew 4.9BIL euros while working for Societe Generale SA. He has been hit with a fine that he can never repay and sentenced to "at least" 3 years in prison. What is the impact of his trading? How many people lost money or employment? What about Nick Leeson, the guy who lost 1BIL and destroyed his employer, Barings Bank, in the process? How many people lost everything because of his actions? How many people need to lose everything before it adds up to a crime so terrible and massive that capital punishment might be acceptable? Is it not sociopathic to bet massive amounts of other people's money without any concern for the risks that you are taking on their behalf? How about when you do it and lie to people about the risks or the returns on those investments in an attempt to attract more money? What kind of monsters are Bernie Madoff or Robert Allen Stanford, guys who ripped off billions from their investors? Wouldn't society be best served by executing these individuals and redistributing all of their remaining assets to the victims instead of simply fining them and throwing them in jail for a few years?

Here is where the argument gets really serious. If someone made a decision that resulted in the death of thousands of men and women and that decision was made knowing that the information the decision was based on was inconclusive or likely incorrect, should the individual making that decision have to pay for it with his or her own life? Should a president who knowingly uses bad information to justify a war be convicted of any crimes, like treason, and should capital punishment be considered?

This last one is hard to answer. I think the nature of the business of being president means working with incomplete information all the time. And, when dealing with security and military intelligence, murky details and high pressure situations, I think it is extremely hard to not make mistakes. But, the president is not above the law and should be held accountable. War is heinous, but is not a crime unto itself. Unjustified war is, but the crime is in the lack of justification. The death of soldiers and civilians is horrendous, but linking the lack of justification, the decision to go to war, and the end results which are generally understood while being impossible to quantify all together in a way that provides for the application of capital punishment seems impossible and the ramifications of making such legal remedy possible may be costlier than we can imagine.

Wednesday, October 06, 2010

Moral Consumption

I cannot avoid buying things, although I'd like to. I wish I never had need of another pair of pants or shirt or shoes again. But, I will clearly need to buy some, if not for myself then definitely for my children. But, I hate the fact that the clothes that are most affordable are so clearly linked to a horrendous global supply chain that has all sorts of ramifications I'm not cool with. In other words, I am tired of buying products from China, as well as other countries with undemocratic regimes, corrupt governments, poor labor and environmental practices, and national goals that are clearly not in our own best interests. I have nothing against the Chinese or Chinese Americans, but I do not want to buy products made in China given everything involved in that transaction.

The big question is...then where can I buy things? What can I buy? What is okay? I don't want to buy $17 sweaters at Old Navy, since they are all made in China, but I also cannot afford to spend $300 to buy a sweater made by a small manufacturer based in the US. Where is the middle ground? Where can I find clothes that are reasonably affordable, well made, and that come from companies that I feel I can "support"? Is it okay to buy products from Canada? What about Mexico? What about Vietnam or Egypt or Indonesia? I've seen lots of different countries listed on tags in my clothes and I have no idea which ones are "okay" in some sense and which are definitely not. Where can I buy a good pair of jeans?

I think the key is to start by making a list of what matters to me in terms of what my money is supporting. Then, I can try to find out if a company fits with some or many of those items. So, not necessarily in order of importance, here is what is important to me:

1. As little environmental impact as possible in the manufacturing and transportation process. Made in the US is better than made overseas, but how can I even factor in the transportation cost once it is in the US? Maybe all brands are effectively a wash on that front, so it does not matter.

2. Support for progressive labor practices, unions, OSHA-type laws, etc. Again, buying US-only is clearly easier than buying overseas items. I believe that some American firms probably do extend similar practices to their overseas facilities, but I can't believe that it is the same as a shop in this country. If I buy some Ralph Lauren suit made who-knows-where and sold off the rack in Macy's, can it really be similar to a Hart Schaffner Marx suit made by unionized workers in a factory in Chicago? The RL will cost less, but what does it cost me as a taxpayer when I'm not supporting the people in Chicago? How does that affect my healthcare costs, my overall tax burden? And, when the suit is made on the cheap, can I really expect it to last?

3. Support for liberal governments and social justice. Admittedly, no corporation is perfect and our government is far from what I think it should be. But, there are some big differences between firms and I'd prefer to not buy products from companies that prop up totalitarian dictators, violent despots, or just relatively unfriendly leaders (unfriendly to the US, that is). Again, I can buy stuff from China, but I don't want to help power their economic engine when they use that same engine to increase a trade imbalance with us and to manipulate their currency in a way that undermines our own. I don't want to buy products from countries that have weak IP laws, allowing their own firms to steal every idea that a US firm can come up with.

4. When I do buy a product from overseas, I'd like it to be from a country where that commerce is legitimately helping the people and the country build a successful future. If I buy a shirt made in Brazil or Costa Rica, am I helping to keep a lower class worker employed in a stable manner, allowing them to send their kids to school and to build a future for themselves and their family? Am I supporting a relatively open government, a positive work environment, and good international relations? If I buy the shirt from Egypt, do I have any way of even knowing what I am supporting other than a lifelong dictator?

I just want to be able to buy goods, once in a while, and feel good about where that money is going. I want to vote with my dollars and do as little damage to the world in the process as humanly possible. Any ideas?

Off the Trails

So, in a recent span of four weeks, I effectively lost the three most important male influences in my life. Not necessarily role models because some of what influenced me was witnessing what not to do, but certainly the most influential people on my life Two through death and one through what I will loosely call exposure therapy.

My best friend's father died in mid August. He had cancer, but had been doing relatively well with treatment and had one last appointment for chemo. He was in his sixties, which is not tragically young, but clearly not so old these days that anyone would have expected him to pass away, particularly since he was not in bad health (other than having cancer, of course). It was rough to see his wife and sons try to deal with this loss, three people I care deeply about. And, this man, the first man who I've known to be able to freely and openly express his love, had always been a bit of a dream to me - the father I wanted to model myself after. He loved his kids in a way that my parents never seemed to be capable of - unconditional support, warm embraces and constant affection, firm parenting with clear consequences. He was just a wonderful, loving, amazing man. I'm not saying perfect - his hubris got him into some trouble, he learned some harsh lessons, and his devotion to his sons sometimes clouded his judgment. But, still...he was like a second father to me; the father that I wish I had.

My grandfather passed away in mid September. He was 88 and it was certainly no real surprise. He had issues with his heart for the better part of three decades and had recently lost kidney function, requiring him to get dialysis twice a week. We had all noticed that he did not have the energy nor the mental acuity that he used to have, but he was still "there" and was living his life. I knew he'd be gone soon, but I was not quite ready to let go of this giant from my childhood.

Both of these were men who I considered surrogate fathers and who loved me as a son in return. It sounds corny to say, almost as if I'm taking it from the dialogue of a TV show, but both men said those very words to me. I'll never forget hearing my grandfather say it on the phone one day, nor the moment when the younger son of my friend's father hugged me close, and through his tears, whispered in my ear "he always thought of you as a son".

I need an entirely separate post to hash through my recent experiences with my father. This is already rather long and writing about Dad will only extend it to a point beyond that threshold of any reader's patience or interest. I will say this, though, any illusions I still had about my father have been dissolved and I think I finally see him in full.

What I am trying to do is not to memorialize these men or the end of my relationships with them, but to mourn the loss of guideposts in my life. They gave me a pretty good start, but that does not change the fact that I still feel adrift without them. They were my strategic reserve - I rarely needed them, if ever. But, it provided a great deal of comfort having them in my life. Beyond this and my fear of continuing to find my way without them, I can't help feeling a bit more alone. My life is lessened without them.

Monday, October 04, 2010

What Does One Deserve?

I'd like to believe that everyone gets what they deserve, good or bad. That those who work hard are rewarded, that those who are lazy only miss out. That opportunity and fortune is only bestowed on those who plan, prepare, and put out enormous effort. That those who are respected have earned it, that those who have authority have shown the capacity to handle it.

I'd like to believe in karma. I'd like to think that a man who tried to always do the right thing, who worked hard to provide for his wife and children, who made every effort to be a good and loving husband and father, would find that his effort was returned to him. I would like to believe that loving your children, encouraging and supporting them, would lead to those children becoming adults who would honor you and your memory with the lives they've built and the people they endeavored to become. But, I know that not to be true. Shame of it is, kids likely do whatever they want and you have to just hope for the best.

My grandfather passed away a few weeks ago. It was not much of a surprise, frankly. He had heart issues for a number of years, his kidneys had failed, and it just seemed like borrowed time. But, you are never prepared for the moment when someone you've known for your entire life is gone. I am fortunate in that I had 35 years with my grandfather, which is a lot more than my wife or many of my friends can say. I am particularly fortunate that I had this time because it gave me the chance to understand who he was and to learn a great deal about being a man, a father, and a husband from him. He gave me a great deal of his time and his love and I've worked hard to pass on those gifts to my own children. My grandfather taught me how to ride my bike - I've done the same for my son. My grandfather ignited my love for the Steelers and I've passed it on to both my children (you know it is working when both kids look for their Terrible Towels during a game). There is an endless list of things he gave me, some material and many not. But, he never asked for much from me. He just wanted love and I did my best to call him regularly and express it. And, he wanted me to be the best person I could be, a challenge that I struggle with every day. I continue to work at it, to try to bear witness to his memory, because I love him.

At his memorial service, instead of thinking about how much I miss him, I realized how ungrateful his own children are for what he represented and tried to do for them. It became painfully obvious, particularly in their words about their own father, that they never understood who he was. Their speeches, or whatever they were, did little to honor him. Instead, all three children spoke of themselves, of how he made them feel, of some recent encounter with him that gave them the opportunity to describe themselves in the terms that they prefer at this moment. My own mother talked about how my grandfather pushed her to start her PhD, which allowed her to talk as if she is currently a doctor of some sort. What she failed to mention was that despite my grandfather's support and encouragement, she has been working on her PhD for a decade and is not all that motivated or committed to ever finishing. My aunt used a similar story, a recent one that allowed her to show how supportive my grandfather was of her, but also allowed her to talk of herself as a published children's author. She provided a great amount of detail about the difficulties of illustrating her own book and how hard it was for her to accomplish, but she did not bother to mention that she is basically using a self-publishing company to push her material and that her real income is generated through part-time teaching at various schools near where she lives. And, to cap it all off, my uncle...the actor...

I don't want to be petty or childish here. That would not be doing my grandfather any favors and I don't think he'd really want to discuss it. It hurts me to think of his disappointment in his children. And, it would have been far more fitting for them to have told us all how much they loved him and how they felt about him instead of telling half-truths and building themselves up as they stood a few feet from his casket. I was insulted and since I could not do anything about it then, I am writing about it now. Shameful.

Just goes to show that it does not often matter what you do or how much you give, sometimes the people who are closest to you will still disappoint.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Personal History

When my wife was pregnant with our first born, I had a fear that I would die before he arrived. So, I started writing down everything I thought I'd want to share with him in the off chance that I did not get to do it in person. It was supposed to be a diary or a memoir that he could read in the future, filled with stories and all the details of my life. I wrote about 3 or 4 pages and that was it. He's now almost 7 years old and I am way behind in putting something together for him so he can a sort of backup copy of his father. The good news is that he's had the first seven years of his life with me in it. And, he not only knows a lot about who I am and how it relates to who he is, but he and I have lots of shared memories that would not have existed had this copy ever become important.

I wonder if I still owe him something, though. My own father has shared so little of his life, the facts and the stories, with me that it has taken me a long time to try and piece together enough of his history to really understand him. My father was in the Army, but I know almost nothing of his time in the service. My father grew up on a chicken farm and it is only in the past few years that I've started to hear about how many chickens they had and what it was like to gather eggs when he was a child. I do not really know why he left college or what he was doing with his life when he met my mother or whether he really ever did drugs or not. There is no language barrier and we have spent increasing amounts of time together as we've both gotten older. Yet, here I am, thinking about how to make sure my own son knows everything about me and I still know so little about my own Dad.

Maybe that is one of the things I've learned about my Dad. That it is better to be open and to share yourself than to not (something I still can had trouble with). That it is important to record and to write down, although I'm not good at it, because you might lose a lot over time. That whatever happens to you, you cannot let it cut you off from other people. My Dad thinks he's taught me a lot about life, but what he has never understood is that he has taught me by way of the inverse - to not do what he does; to not be what he is. That is not to say that he is a bad man, although he is greatly flawed. It is simply that I grew to understand that to solve my frustrations with him and to address all of the issues in our relationship, I had to accept that he would not change and that I needed to be the person that I wanted him to be. It is a corny and well-worn sentiment, but somebody has to break the cycle. I can either be the latest in a long line of men in my family who cannot relate to their sons or I can work at making sure my own son knows enough about me (and how I feel about him) that he can write the book for himself.