Monday, January 31, 2011

I had a busy weekend, and it seemed to carry a message: Don't give up. Now, I'm not sure why that message came at this particular point in time. Yes, I'd just exhausted the obvious publishers for a particular book proposal, but I had already decided to buy the current Writer's Market and seek out the less obvious ones.

Still, the message was there.

On Friday afternoon, Roland and I went into Chicago to attend "Strictly Sail," the annual sailboat show. Since we weren't in the market for anything, we managed to leave with minimal financial damage. I bought a $6 book, and Roland bought a DVD documentary about Zac Sunderland's circumnavigation. We also heard Zac talk about his experiences as the youngest person to sail around the world alone (16 when he started and 17 when he finished just over a year later).

Zac's boat was named Intrepid, which means "fearless" or "courageous."* But it's also a good word for someone who doesn't give up when things don't go his way. In Zac's case, things like rough seas, multiple equipment failures, and a close call with pirates.

Then on Saturday, I saw another example of people who refused to give up.

That's the day my Alma Mater, Hope College, and its near neighbor, Calvin College, televised their men's basketball game. Fans from both schools gathered at satellite locations around the country to watch the game, and I attended the local rivalry party.

There seem to be more Calvin alumni than Hope alumni in this area, and I was feeling outnumbered. It got worse when the game began with Calvin running up eight unanswered points. And even worse at the half, with Calvin up by twelve or thirteen.

The Hope players could have given up. They must have been tempted to say, "That's too big a lead to overcome," or "We're too tired to give it our all." But they didn't. Hope won 76-70.

Zac Sunderland and the Hope basketball team showed what people can do when they don't give up.

If the message is for me, I get it.


* No, that isn't Intrepid in the picture. It's our boat, Freizeit. No copyright issues that way.

Deja Vu

Monday, January 24, 2011

I'm currently reading a book that discusses a multi-million-dollar Ponzi scheme and describes some of its victims. They included politicians, the president of a major transportation company, and a number of other presumably savvy businessmen.

These two (apparently true) stories are good examples.
One businessman was talked into investing in a mine belonging to an ex-senator. Although the mine existed and was very profitable, the senator had not authorized the sale, and no documents evidencing ownership changed hands. The businessman regularly visited the brokerage firm to talk about his investment, and he often passed the ex-senator, who would be sitting in the lobby. However, the businessman had been told not to speak to the ex-senator because he did not want his involvement known, and the businessman obeyed. In reality, the ex-senator was there for other reasons and apparently had no idea what was happening.
Another man was taking a trip to Europe and gave the brokerage firm partner $50,000 to invest for him. When he returned from his trip, he stopped in at the firm and asked if he had made any money. The partner promptly wrote him a check for $250,000. After looking at it, the man returned the check and asked the partner to "set that hen again." Of course, he never saw a cent.
So were these men Bernie Madoff's victims? While their stories are similar, Madoff wasn't the crook in these examples.

Or were they victims of the 1920 fraud by the infamous Charles Ponzi? Again, they could have been, but they weren't.

The book is The Autobiography of Mark Twain, and the pyramid scheme was operated by Ferdinand Ward in 1884 (pre-dating the man for whom these frauds came to be known as Ponzi schemes). Ward was the active partner in the brokerage firm of Grant and Ward, where the Grant in the name stood for the former President Ulysses S. Grant and his son (both of whom were naive but apparently innocent). President Grant was himself a victim, losing all of his money and--for a while--his reputation.

As with most things, some good came out of the tragedy. For years Mark Twain had been urging Grant to write his autobiography, but he refused. After losing everything, it was the only way Grant could make enough money for his family to live on. So without Ward's betrayal, the world probably would not have the benefit of Grant's memoirs.

Still, why can't we learn from the past? Over 100 years ago, George Santayana said, "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." But many of Madoff's victims were sophisticated investors who were surely familiar with Charles Ponzi's history and perhaps even with the Ferdinand Ward scheme. So I'm changing the saying to, "Those who choose to ignore the past are condemned to repeat it."

As long as this world is composed of sinful human beings, there will be Ponzi schemes and there will be victims.

Hopefully you won't be among them.

Human Again

Monday, January 17, 2011

Nine months ago, my son enlisted in the Navy and signed up for a position with a waiting list. This week, he finally left for boot camp.

During the last four-and-a-half months John has been living at home because it made more sense than renewing his lease in September. Still, it interrupted the life Roland and I had as empty nesters.

Don't get me wrong. I love my children. I love it when they come home for a visit, and I love it when they return to their own lives.

That's because I also enjoy being alone with my sweetheart. And I feel more responsible for my children when they are living at home.

So I love being an empty nester. It makes me feel human again.

Well, not really. I've always felt human, so the "again" doesn't apply. But my return to empty nesting does have something in common with the furniture and the dishes in Walt Disney's Beauty and the Beast when they sing about being "Human Again."*

We'll be floating again
We'll be gliding again
Stepping, striding
As fine as you please
Like a real human does
I'll be all that I was
On that glorious morn
When we're finally reborn
And we're all of us human again!

Does any loving parent ever stop feeling responsible for his or her children? Probably not. But there comes a time when they have to be responsible for themselves. Roland and I raised our children to be independent, and being empty nesters is evidence of our success.

It's also evidence of our children's success.

Congratulations, John. We're proud of you.


*"Human Again" lyrics by Howard Ashman.

The Exercise Blues

Monday, January 10, 2011

I hate exercising. Yes, I know it's good for me, and I do it even though I hate it.

But I'd rather enjoy it.

For the last year, I've been riding my elliptical (in the picture) thirty minutes a day, five days a week. And it's boring, so I've been looking for a way to vary my routine.

Roland helped by giving me Wii Fit Plus for Christmas. I haven't yet achieved the same intensity I get from the elliptical, but the Wii is a lot more fun.

It's also much better at pointing out my weaknesses.

The Wii characters are soft-spoken and polite, but they tell it like it is. The first time I let the Wii "measure" me, it said my physical age was 10 years older than my chronological age. (I think that's partly because I had no clue what I was doing. My physical age dropped six years the next time.)

Then there is the blow to my self-confidence from the exercise games. I was a whiz at the hula hoop as a child, but I can't get the virtual one to revolve even 20 times. And I can't figure out how to throw a snowball at all.

I also stink at the downhill skiing and the bicycle race. With all the walls I've run into and the cliffs I've driven over, I should be dead. But in spite of their challenges, both games are lots of fun.

Oh, I'll continue to do the elliptical a couple of days a week, and I've put together a customized but more traditional Wii exercise program that gives me some variety while working on the areas that need it most. But I'll do some games, too.

Every year I resolve to exercise and lose weight, and I met that resolution last year. This year I want to add a little fun to the routine.

Let's hope Wii Fit Plus is the answer.

Wishing You a Flawed New Year

Monday, January 3, 2011

Flawed? Did I really say flawed? Yes, I did. I hope you have a happy 2011, but I can't promise it. I can promise that you'll have a flawed one.

I just finished reading Vanity Fair by William Makepiece Thackeray. It's a satire (heavily laced with sarcasm) written in the mid-1800s about "genteel" life earlier in that century. Its subtitle is A Novel Without a Hero.

In fact, Vanity Fair has both a hero and a heroine. The hero is large and clumsy and has a heart of gold, and I love the character. The heroine is gentle and soft-hearted and meek. Her meekness drove me crazy, but good fiction reflects life, and real people are flawed. Even the hero is blinded by his love for and loyalty to family and friends.

It isn't just the characters who are flawed, though. Each year they live through is flawed, too, and some of those years contain burdens almost too hard for them to bear. Fiction reflecting life again. And if the characters had it easy, who would read Thackeray's story?

If you're hoping for a perfect 2011, you're bound to be disappointed. If you're hoping for a happy one, you may or may not get it. All I can promise is that you'll have a flawed one, because that's what life is like. So I wish you a flawed and happy 2011.

* * * * *

The drawing at the head of this post is "Mr. Joseph Entangled," which appears to have been one of the original drawings for Vanity Fair. Thackeray drew his own illustrations.