Thoughts on a Liberal Arts Education

Thoughts on a liberal arts education:

“What you need from college is an excellent liberal arts education that will give you a broad base of judgment and perspective that will stand you in good stead no matter what sort of career you pursue.”
- Garrison Keillor, August 18, 2010

I graduated from college with a degree in Cell and Structural Biology with an emphasis in Immunology. As I neither became a lab technician or a doctor, my specific skills have never been useful to me.

However, my upper level college classes taught me systems theory, how everything is interrelated to everything else. In biology, the increase of one hormone would change the expression of a protein or a molecule, turn on or off a gene, or make an organelle grow big or tiny. Certain things counteracted other things, a constant movement of weights and levels.

Much of what I learned 15 years ago is now hopelessly out of date. However, those skills and that way of thinking has been invaluable in my working life. System theory is true in every part of life, and not relegated to microbiology. Economics is the easiest example of systems at work, but so too are organizational structures, supply chain develop and quality control procedures.

So, to every person who graduates college from some obscure field or discipline with a narrow focus, keep in mind that what you learn is never half as useful as how you learn.

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Brief Snatches of Poetry among the Traffic

One of the more annoying things about modern life (or at least my modern life) is that things that I do to relax or stay current with the world can quickly mutate into an additional “need to” items. It’s silly, but there are definitely times I find myself saying:

-But, I haven’t read all the NY Times yet. That’s a waste of good paper. Or the Atlantic, the Economist. There are several articles I really wanted to read.

But, free time isn’t really something I have much of these days. And quiet time reading a magazine if often perceived in our house as sinfully gluttonous. You know, because there is always SO MUCH TO DO.

However, as I do drive for hours and hours each day, I do like to listen to audio programs, podcasts or audiobooks, often by the dozens.  One thing I like to do is listen to “The Writer’s Almanac” hosted by Garrison Keillor. Each day it has some minor literary trivia followed by a poem, sometimes contemporary, but often not, and usually not by someone I would normally go read. Also, their catchphrase “Be well, do good work and keep in touch” is probably the best and most elegant send-off I know. So, every few days I will download the latest 5min segment and listen to it while I drive or do some minor task. There are few things I do nowadays that really remind me of my graduate days in creative writing. I suppose this little thing keeps me from feeling like I’ve lost all literary sensibility.

Today’s poem I listened in the car after dropping the kids off to school. I think it will become one of my favorites, or at least for awhile.

Graduates of Western Military Academy by George Bilgere

One day, as this friend of my father, Paul,
was flying over Asia,
he vaporized a major Japanese city.

True story. They’d been chums
at a military academy in Illinois
back in the thirties.

My father was the star: best in Latin,
best in riflery and history,
best in something called “recitation,”

and best at looking serious.
In the old yearbooks he has exactly the look
you were supposed to have back then:
about fifty-two percent duty, forty-eight percent integrity.
Zero percent irony.

But somehow, all my father got to do later on
was run his own car dealership. A big one,
but still. While Paul
got to blow up Japan. My father
ushered in the latest models.
Paul ushered in the Atomic Age.
It seems unfair, but there you are.

Paul had been an indifferent Latin scholar. Weak
in history and recitation. For these and other reasons
My father took a refreshing swim
across a large, inviting lake of gin,
complete with strange boats and exotic shore birds,

which resulted in his internment
under some shady acres I occasionally visit.

While Paul went on for decades,
always giving the same old speech. Yes,
he’d done the right thing. No doubt about it.

He improved his skills at recitation
and developed a taste for banquet food.
To this day he struggles with his weight.

“Graduates of Western Military Academy” by George Bilgere, from The White Museum. (c) Autumn House Press, 2010.

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Still Life with Lawsuit

It’s been an interesting couple weeks here at Chez Bark. After weeks of writing and posting most of my thoughts online, I started having to work on something that I didn’t feel comfortable writing about. Or, at least, not in any way that was appropriate, funny or vaguely interesting. So, I’ve been silent.

The short of it is this: I have been called as a witness in a civil case to give a deposition.

On the face of it, it seems fairly straightforward. However, things do get more interesting. Much of the case centers on my activities and my advice. And, to top off the Shakespearean nature of this, my retelling of these events differs from either party. Or, I guess it’s more like “Rashomon”. I’ve needed to hire a lawyer, search for documents and scour through thousands of emails. It’s been long, laborious and more than a little frightening.

I have been tempted several times to go on a general rant about all this, but I believed and still believed it to be unwise to rave about the legal system, either of the warring parties, or how I’m completely blameless in all this and wish it would go away. 

However, as more time goes on, I find that I still have things to say about all this, but different than I would have expected. This process has made me think a lot about certain things: 

1. Lawyers are bad - To have someone working in the legal system that sees you as adversarial is really creepy. Lately, I’m constantly wondering if I’m going to be hit with a lawsuit over this case or dozens of other transactions for which I participated at some level or another. When you realize people can file a lawsuit over nearly anything, it makes you feel really exposed.

2. Lawyers are good – My stress level went down considerably when I hired my lawyer. I like to think I understand the legal system generally. But, to have someone who understands the intricacies of legal procedure, can talk shop with other lawyers, and who has my back (legally) is like having a very expensive bodyguard carrying a bazooka.

3. Lawyers are expensive… – Just engaging my lawyer for this process has already started racking up fees. I get an ulcer thinking how expensive any protracted legal activity could get.

4. …but worth it. – In a conversation with my mother, she stated that she thought it was strange I didn’t use a lawyer before. 
- well, who do you use to review contracts and make sure you don’t get into trouble? 
- I don’t. I’ve just done it myself.
- [long pause] oh.

5. Memory isn’t what you think it is – one if the more distressing things that come from an event like this is that all the major parties have different recollections of the same events, recollections of events that didn’t happen, or no recollection at all. Once again, “Rashomon”.

6. Friendships aren’t always what you think they are – both money and stress makes people act strangely, and I’m sorry to say that certain personal and professional relationships are weaker than I expected. 

7. Legal stress is like being bullied by ghosts – in the last couple weeks, I’ve wondered worriedly about the past, fretted at the future, and felt paranoid about a 100 things that I can’t control. But, when I take a moment to breathe, I have to remind myself that I’m a witness in a legal case, not a defendant and that the shadows on the wall are shadows and not ominous images of my doom.

Or, at least, not yet.

When I mention this situation to friends, most our sympathetic, but many see this situation or ones like it as inevitable. As my career and business grows, I seem to be interacting with more people who work out their differences through the courts. And it’s also true that handshake agreements or simplified contracts don’t cut it anymore for what I do. Often there is just too much money at risk. In recent years I’ve spent far more time than I would have ever guessed sitting in courtrooms or speaking with lawyers. I guess it’s one of the bittersweet aspects of my life now.

Joy.

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Do you ever imagine your life as a comic book character?

Ok, the last couple weeks have been a little difficult with the start of school and new series of clients coming on line, and several new challenges that I will have to go into more detail later.

In the meantime, I find myself identifying with comic book and movie characters. I don’t think I’ll be putting on a pair of tights anytime soon, but sometimes it would be really great to slice through a battalion of storm troopers without having to think of the political or social implications of telling off people that bother you.

Seriously, lightsabers rock.

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The New House – Progress

We started the move into the New House a month ago yesterday. During most of that time, we’ve been working solidly, if not consistently, to get ourselves situated and build a home that we could: a) not trip over piles of random objects/furniture/clothes/boxes; b) to be able to find at least some of the things we own among the piles of random objects/furniture/clothes/boxes; c) not feel like some weird depressive hoarder when staring at the random piles of objects/furniture/clothing/boxes.

I am glad to say that progress has been made. The biggest interior item was the purchase of three large bookshelves (Billy via IKEA) which now house our library of approximately 400 books (100 were recently unloaded to Goodwill and another 100 of business books and pulpy thriller/mysteries/sci fi being relegated to other hidden spaces). Just by getting the books off the ground gives a sense of permanence to living here.

Much of the challenge has been to integrate our old lives into the New House without breaking out the credit cards. There really isn’t any room in our budget for a “new furniture” fund. What is odd is that for living in a small house, it’s amazing how much stuff we packed into, around and under the Old House. With the exception of the bookshelves, the list of necessary items to fill this much bigger house has been relatively small.

K says we will have a presentable house when we have 4 bar chairs for the kitchen island and a new full-size dining room table. I think it’ll be presentable once we have the pictures and artwork on the walls.

Onward . . .

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Random photo outside the Los Angeles Central Library

The LA Central Library is one of the architectural wonders of the city. The old library has a subterranean aspect that goes five levels down and brings multiple football fields of book stacks to Downtown LA. None of this you would realize staring at the fountains out front.

The man in the picture near the fountain is Sam, one of my real estate mentors.

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Fourteen years in Los Angeles and my Spanish still sucks

One of the cliche’s of international travel is that Americans are horrendous with languages. I think that is an oversimplification, though essentially correct for the general population. Most people living in the majority of the United States have no need to learn multiple languages in order to do get along or do a job. People often talk about countries with far more multi-lingual cultures (ie. most of Scandanavia), but I would venture that Americans aren’t that different from many other large, egocentric countries. Additionally, American English has a way of absorbing the languages of the people that populate us, as opposed to more linguistically static languages like French which prides itself on it’s “French-ness”.

However, in most major American cities and definitely within the Southwest, that entire argument isn’t really true anymore. Spanish-speaking Americans, immigrants or long-term visitors make up 54% of Los Angeles county. The biggest radio stations in the region are Spanish-speaking. Many outlying cities (South Gate, El Monte) in Los Angeles have population which may be more ethnically diverse (Mexican, Columbian, Salvadoran, etc.), but nearly all speak Spanish as the primary language. In the Old House, I was surrounded on three sides by families that spoke Spanish part or all the time at home (the fourth side was a hill).

And, I don’t speak Spanish.

I’ve lived in Los Angeles for 14 years, and as culturally open as I like to think I am, I haven’t yet mastered the language in anyway that isn’t ridiculously juvenile. Not that I haven’t tried. I’ve bought CD’s, DVD’s, books, written language workbooks, even had an assistant give me tutorials (I lasted 3 lessons). Each one I will work with for a couple months and then I will get busy on something else. What it always seems to come down to is that I don’t have time to learn Spanish. There is always too much to do, too many other commitments, I have kids that need caring for, different businesses I’m trying to grow. I’m busy and I’ve always been too busy.

The problem is that after 14 years, no matter what the excuse, I don’t know Spanish any better than the first day I arrived in Los Angeles. This ties into a larger truth that has become apparent as I’ve grown older: There is always an excuse for not doing something. There are a lot of things I will make time for (spending time with my family, drinking, Facebook), and a far greater number of things I will not (watching reality television, sales calls, Twitter). However, some items I want to make time for but get stuck from poor planning or lack of resources. I have had “Learning Spanish” on my annual wishlist for years and years, but, have never really gotten it together. Therefore, there is a huge section of my city in which I’m a stranger and makes me feel unwelcome, if only because I’m uncomfortable with my own lack of understanding.

Yesterday, I had a contractor painting the interior of the Old House. He was a short man, extremely friendly and didn’t speak a word of English beyond the word “Ok”. After several minutes of mutually unintelligable Spanglish, I think I communicated to that he needed to paint one bedroom orange instead of white:

No, ni blanco. Por favor, pintar naranja, I mean anarananjo. Si! Pintar dormintorio aqui anarananjo. Gracias!

Either that or to paint an orange on the wall. I’m not really sure what I told him.

Either way, I think it is time to take it up a notch.

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