Wednesday, April 21, 2010

The Balanced Guy Fails, Grilling, Economics and Unicorns

After a plea for decency (with no doubt an out-and-out decidedly moralist bent) in last week's posting, I'm going a bit lighter here this go around. In an effort to conjure up a frothy offering replete with rainbows, unicorns, and cherubs I'll tackle a review of a seminal work in economics: The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money (1936) by the incomparable John Maynard Keynes. This page-turning, beach-reader opens with the hero engaged in an epic battle with "The Man".
OK. I'm really NOT going to review The General Theory (as it's commonly referred to). In truth, while I am currently reading it (along with about 5 or 6 other books), I can think of few things I prefer not to do more than offer a critique of one of modern history's more influential books (yes, it really is). On to the froth.

I actually will start out with some "feel-good" froth. In his recent contribution to The Huffington Post, blogger Jeff Howe discusses his current efforts using the latest online craze, Twitter to have everyone in the world share just one simple thing in common as a start for dialogue - namely reading the same book (the concept was started by Seattle librarian Nancy Pearl in 1998). Her idea, "One Book, One City" was embraced by her home city as thousands of Seattlites read The Sweet Hereafter by Russel Banks. Jeff calls his "One Book, One Twitter" or on Twitter, #1b1t. You can also find him there @crowdsourcing.

At Jeff's column on Wired, you can see the finalist books that are up for voting (sorry, I just came across this today so missed out on the nomination round). The list includes such greats as Slaughterhouse Five, Catcher in the Rye, and Brave New World. Take a peek, vote for your favorites and in the next week or so be prepared to read and find common ground with someone completely different than yourself!


Face it. Grilling is a man's world. And why is this? Three words: fire, steel and meat. Although I don't doubt many of you are more manly than me in this respect, I've figured out how to grill a perfect burger and whole chicken (but not at the same time - I'm not that technically sophisticated). Disclaimer - this applies to gas grills only although the rules for burgers could be used for a charcoal grill I suppose).
Rule #1 - Burger preparation. Store-bought, fresh or frozen: no prep needed; you don't even have to defrost the frozen ones. However I highly recommend buying them as low-fat as possible. The 80/20's tend to create grease fires and taste, as you might expect, greasy. If you make your own, try to shape them so they are evenly thick from center to edges.
Rule #2 - Heat that mother up! Turn your grill up...way up. Light it, turn it to high, shut the lid and go drink a beer. You want it screaming hot.
Rule #3 - Cooking the burgers. Toss the burgers on the grill, turn down the heat to medium or so and shut the lid. If cooked properly you should only have to flip them once. How do you know when to flip them? When the blood rises to the surface of the burger. Wait a min or so after the first bits appear on the surface until there is a good amount on the top. Then give it a quick flip and shut the lid again. The second side usually takes less time to cook than the first, especially with frozen burgers as by now they've been thawed. Don't forget to drop some cheese on them when you first see the blood rise to the surface on the second side. By the time the cheese melts, they'll be done (although standard American cheese melts much faster than say cheddar or provolone).
Rule #4 - Enjoy.
Want to enjoy a tasty, juicy whole chicken grilled to perfection? Here's how.
Rule #1 - Chicken prep. Bring your chicken to room temp, split it in half along the spine, and clean well. Season it however you like, but I prefer a liberal rub of Everglades Seasoning (while the company makes several varieties, including one for fish and chicken, I reach for the classic "All-Purpose Seasoning".
Rule #2 - Again...light 'er up and turn 'er up. Get that grill good 'n hot! The key to easily grilling chicken so it cooks thoroughly without drying out is to have a grill with at least three separate burners; four is even better.
Rule #3 - Drop the two chicken halves on the grill to sear them; maybe 20 seconds on a side.
Rule #4 - Here's the critical step. Place the two chicken halves on the center of the grill, one to the front and the other to the back. TURN OFF the center burner(s) and turn the two outside burners down to just a bit above low. Shut the lid. By turning off the center burner over which the chicken directly sits, you eliminate the heat source which results in those family reunion grilled chicken sandwiches where the edges are burned, the outside is dry and tough and the center is still pink. The side burners provides a nice, even, indirect heat which circulates around the chicken, cooking it slowly and evenly. This is why it's critical to shut the lid and keep it shut.
Rule #5 - Have a beer while you wait 30 mins. Do not open the lid to continuously check the chicken (you'll go blind). After 30 minutes has passed you need to flip the chicken over (that's 2 or 3 beers, an episode of the Simpsons or This Old House, or roughly 8 songs on your iPod - unless it's a 1970's rock anthem in which case you might hear 2 songs). Shut the lid. Wait another 30 minutes. However this time around you might want to slow down on beer consumption.
Rule #6 - After an hour of cooking time, your chicken should be grilled to tasty perfection without being dry. If you stick a knife or fork into the joint where the leg meets the body, the juice should run clear. If your chicken was cold when you put it on the grill, you'll need to add up to 10 minutes per side in additional cooking time.
Looking to buy some flowers for your lady but aren't sure what to buy or cringe at the cost? My tried-and-true favorites are daisies. Here's why: 1) They're simple, happy flowers, definitely not overused like roses; if you're in the beginning stages of a relationship they aren't pretentious and overbearing 2) they last and last and last...and last; I've had bunches stick around for 2 weeks or more, 3) in this economy they're relatively inexpensive compared to other flowers.

Tasty Licks - If you're fed up with Wall St, Washington, Hollywood, professional athlete and "reality" TV shenanigans, pick up a copy of Enough: True Measures of Money, Business and Life by John C. Bogle, founder of The Vanguard Group and its associated mutual funds. In it he lays out a very convincing argument of, quite frankly, "Enough!"...Enough with the focus on only the bottom line and not the customer or society. Enough with the lack of trust. As he states, people today focus too much on success and not enough on character; too much on process and not enough on good judgment.


Your Ride - I'll admit to a "Fail" on this effort. A few postings ago I expounded on the merits of performing minimal self-repair jobs on your car like a basic tune-up. So last weekend I have the shop manual for my minivan, tools, and other accouterments of car repair ready to go. After performing a number of the more basic maintenance items like fluid checks and top-offs it was time to get down to the nitty-gritty - checking and changing spark plugs and the like. Admittedly I could have done all the basic tune-up work myself...if I wanted to practically pull the engine in order to do so. While I have the tools and most of the necessary desire, it was the small amount of desire I lacked which prevented me from spending the entire weekend under the hood of the van in what would've been a couple of hours in an older car. You see, the engine in my van is situated sideways; thus three of the six spark plugs are on the back side up against the firewall..with the fuel injector, drive belt, et al in the way and which (according to the shop manual) must be removed in order to replace the plugs. Yeah, I probably could've done it but I'm not that much of a gear head. Today's cars are just not that DIY friendly unfortunately.

And just to keep the joke running a bit longer, I offer you yet another pic of Kim Kardashian...

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

The Greatest Generation

There's a good chance you've heard the term "The Greatest Generation", coined by Tom Brokaw to describe those that grew up during the Great Depression, who fought and won World War II and then built our country into an economic world power. These men and women are in their twilight years now, but the lessons we can learn from them continue to burn ever so brightly, especially today when it seems in many ways our Nation has lost its sense of direction and common purpose.
What were their values? I cannot do them complete justice in such short space but will do my best.
Nearly the first 20-25 years of their lives were ones of hardship and sacrifice requiring them to rely on their family, neighbors, communities and fellow soldiers, sailors, marines and airmen to get by day-to-day. Born into the Roaring Twenties when times were flying high, things quickly spiraled downwards before most of them turned 10 and the world fell into the Great Depression. Many left school by 6th grade to enter the workforce to earn what little they could to help support their families. They sold newspapers, cleaned houses, worked on farms, shined shoes and some took on more dangerous adult jobs. Before most of them could even be called true adults our Nation was at war and they were called upon to serve. Before many could be drafted they rushed to enlist and fill their duty to country. Women took on roles at home traditionally reserved for men. In an all-out effort to win the war, every member of society made sacrifices and did their part from fighting on the front lines to nursing the wounded to building ships and planes to organizing scrap metal drives and planting Victory Gardens. After they won the war, they returned home to restart the lives they'd put on hold.
Think about that - they put their personal ambitions and desires aside for five long years in order to come together for the common good, many of them knowing they faced the specter of death. It's hard to imagine today's reality TV stars in our "look at me" culture to put aside their personal ambitions for five minutes to help someone unload the groceries from their car. I'm not saying we can't strive to live up to their example, but we've got a long way to go.
When the country settled down into peacetime rebuilding, they did so with the same determination, discipline and can-do attitude that won the war. Those qualities are still present today but in many ways it seems there is one binding element lacking today that was omnipresent in those post-war years: service. Service to the community. Their years of service to a cause larger than themselves instilled this quality. Running their businesses not only to be successful but with the guiding principles of providing service and adding value as well as making a profit. As American business has become increasingly corporate over the past 30 or so years, that service element has been downgraded or even set aside completely. Everything is run by the numbers, the bottom line, the metrics. Larger and larger corporations with headquarters 1,000 miles away seem to give little regard for the thousands of communities from which they profit. Small businesses are still the heart and soul of America today, but in their efforts to compete with or do business with the corporate giants, they face increasing pressure do away with time and money traditionally reserved for their communities. 
Not to completely demonize large corporations as many do put their tremendous resources to work aiding charities and their communities. However the missing element is the human one. It's easy to write a big check and then walk away feeling as though you've "done good" (although you have as money is needed). But what is needed just as much is time and human involvement. It takes money to buy the food served in a soup kitchen but it takes a volunteer to serve that food. It takes money to build the sports fields where kids learn the lessons of teamwork but it takes a volunteer to teach those lessons. It takes money to buy the land set aside as a park but it takes a volunteer to care for the park.
In his office at Princeton University Einstein had a quote which sums up life quite nicely (and this from a man who made numbers his lifetime work)*:
"Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts."
So what can you do to stop counting and do what counts? Here are 10 ways:**
1. Serve. Serve your community. Join local organizations such as Rotary, Scouting, and Lions Club. Serve on a local government board or commission. Do more than simply attend services at your house of worship: help with their community outreach. Get to know your neighbors.
2. Realize you can't take it with you. The bumper sticker "He who dies with the most toys wins" couldn't be more wrong. Find happiness in your family, friends, and the world around you, not in what you can buy. The true measure of a man is shown by how many people show up at his funeral, not by how much he leaves behind.
3. Do it yourself. Even if you aren't the ultimate handyman, chef, house cleaner, mechanic or landscaper, take pride in doing some hard work yourself instead of paying someone to do it for you (and save some money in the meantime!) You may learn a new skill and even find you enjoy doing it.
4. Say "No" to instant gratification. Tell yourself and your children "No, you can't have that gew-gaw or toy that really isn't needed." Make yourself and your kids earn it by setting a goal with the thing as a reward or have your children earn the money to buy it themselves. But don't be tempted to set the bar too low; you'll both be amazed at how much more you enjoy it when it's honestly earned.
5. Add value. If you are a business owner, ask yourself if you are truly serving your customers and community as well as adding value. If you find you are not as much as you'd like to, find ways to increase both. No doubt in short time you'll see your business and bottom line increase.
6. More trust, less paperwork. Be a person whose handshake and word are considered more binding than a legal contract. Don't look for loopholes to get out of the spirit of what you may have signed on for. If you must do business with someone who doesn't act in trust, make it the last time and take your business to someone who does.
7. Value your name. The most important thing you own is your good name. Do everything in your power to ensure your "brand" remains spotless.
8. Agree to disagree civilly. Recognize that you are not going to agree with everyone, everything or every idea you encounter in life. Hold firm to your beliefs but be willing to listen, learn and respect differences. As the quote, oft misattributed to Voltaire, goes: "I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it."
9. Be humble. If you work hard, give of yourself willingly, serve your community, and put the good of others before yourself, soon enough plenty of accolades will be heaped upon you without you ever seeking them. When they are, give credit to those that helped you achieve them.
10. Pass it on. Teach your children and any young people you may mentor these qualities, set the example and hold both yourself and children to them.
*Yes, I see the irony in using a mathematical term here.
** Again, I recognize the irony in counting what we can do to stop counting and do what counts.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Rowing, Financial Literacy, and Sunglasses

My last couple of entries have been pretty much focused on one topic after a period of writing more than I need to on many topics each week. I switched to just one topic because quite frankly writing a couple of paragraphs about 7 or 8 or more issues each week was pretty freak'n stressful...finding something to write about, then writing it all while trying to actually BE a Balanced Guy with a family, job, hobbies, friends, etc to tend to. But...writing on one topic was kinda boring and so I'm experimenting a bit. This week I'm going for less on each topic but more topics...I think. Of course I recognize the irony of this due to my posting from March 24 in which I extol the virtues of learning about fewer things but in more depth. I'm fishing around to make for the best reading so cut me some slack.
The Competitor - Big sports news this week were the Final Four and Tiger's return (even more so than season opener for MLB). What is that old saying? Something about "Catch a tiger by it's tail"..." Or is it "Tiger catching tail?" Those are the easy stories and no doubt you know the outcomes of them, so I'll go a bit more obscure. Have you ever driven past a body of water and seen those long skinny "speed canoes" (as they were monikered by a rural resident of South Carolina many years ago as we were traveling to Florida for winter training) propelled by people pulling on long, long oars? Of course I'm referring to the sport of rowing, sometimes called crew. It's the oldest collegiate sport in the US, dating back to 1852 and one of the oldest competitive sports in the world with the annual Boat Race between Cambridge and Oxford dating back to 1829. In fact, with some estimates of 120 million world-wide viewers of this race each year, it would be the most viewed single day sporting event in the world. Even if this estimate is a bit inflated, very reliable numbers of 250,000 people standing along the banks of the Thames River watching the 4+ mile race in person make for it to be bigger than just about anything in the US shy of a NASCAR race. And not to burst your bubble but the coxswain (the little person who steers the shell) does not shout "stroke, stroke, stroke...".

 So if you've ever had an inkling of interest in sitting on your butt while going - which by the way is one of the premiere forms of aerobic exercise and calorie burners known to man - take note that June 5, 2010 is National Learn to Row Day. Click on the link to find out where you can learn to row at a club near you. You can also find out what the coxswain actually says.
Oh yeah. For a much better rundown on sports than I can provide, check out my buddy Dave over at The Savage Truth (just bring your dictionary along as he likes to use words like "umbrage").

Your Ride - Those spots of oil in the driveway are telling me that I've got to get underneath the minivan and repair something...but I'm not sure what just yet. Admittedly I'm avoiding it ever so slightly for two reasons: 1) it's messy and will take a good chunk of a day. and 2) while I'm pretty handy around the house, car repair is not my strength. However I'm willing to tackle it, although there will be plenty of praying before, during, and after that I won't, aren't and didn't screw something up in the process. Of course, the prayers will probably be augmented by brief periods of swearing. Should make for an interesting combination. Check out Haynes online for repair manuals for your ride should you want to save a few bucks and DIY.
Greenbacks - From the economic rubble around us, it's pretty apparent that many Americans are financially illiterate. Why is it we teach can high school kids how to calculate differential equations or debate the Middle East peace process but can't seem to provide basic life skills like how to balance a checkbook, assess a car loan or manage monthly bills. Not only this, but a lot of financial stuff out there is either excessively complex (even some of our supposed Wall St Lords of the Universe had trouble making heads or tails of some of the derivatives and other financial instruments proffered by their own firms) or not explained in clear terms. I'll admit that it sometimes takes me a few reads through financial documents to understand them despite the fact that I have an MBA in finance. So how in the world is the average American supposed to understand this stuff when less than 30% of Americans have a 4-year college degree?  Not that a college degree is required to be financially literate or even successful (e.g. Bill Gates) but the odds are not in favor of someone lacking one having at least some basic financial proficiency. Luckily, about 75% of the US population has internet access of some sort (obviously you do since you're reading this). Thus there are resources available to ensure that you AND your kids are financially literate. Take a look at Banking on Our Future as well as Wise Money Choices.

Now...if we can just get the bankers and folks on Wall St to hold up their end of the bargain and do the right thing...
I've also got a couple of books on my reading list: 13 Bankers  by Simon Johnson and The Road From Ruin by Matthew Bishop and Michael Green.

Arguing - The state of political discourse in our country has gotten ridiculous. How the folks in Washington and all over the country spewing venom (both sides) can't see that the majority of Americans are fed up with it is beyond me. If you are tired of the political and economic news being almost universally disheartening (at least as offered to us by the major news outlets), try stopping in at The Good News Network for your daily dose of "Good Things are Happening in the World Today". It may be a bit trite and escapist but it's a nice foil to all the bad, sensationalist, fear-mongering news constantly thrown at us. And the stories aren't sappy stuff about puppies and kittens. Just real news about real people doing real good in the world.

Black Sock and Flip-Flops - Growing up with a father who flew nearly 60 combat missions in Vietnam in an F-4 Phantom left an indelible mark on me. One of those was the sunglasses he wore - Original Pilot Sunglasses by AO Eyewear. The style has been around since 1958 and our men and women in uniform are still wearing it, although the official supplier since 1982 has been Randolph Engineering. It's no wonder they remain popular as, in my opinion, sunglasses don't get any cooler looking. They used to be hard to find but now you can get them through a number of online outlets. Fortunately for me, I got my most recent pair through my uncle, a retired USAF Lt Col. If, like me, you came of age during the Big 80's, you no doubt remember Ray-Ban aviators being worn by Tom Cruise in the 1986 hit movie, Top Gun. They were originally popular after WWII as a result of MacArthur wearing them. I still have my pair bought in 1987 but no longer wear them as they make me look like a deranged bug. These days I go with nothing but my AO's.

And finally, because I do it so often anyway, here's yet another pic of Kim Kardashian.