March 2010


I had nursery duty at church last week. At one point, I was by myself with ten 3 to 4 year-olds. Factor in my level of patience, which is about on par with that of a squirrel in a Planters Nuts factory after drinking a pot of coffee and you can imagine how much fun I had.

There was an interesting moment, but I didn’t realize it was interesting until much later. Before music time, the kids were sitting in a circle and their teacher asked each of them to tell the group something special about themselves. The answers varied from “I really like playing with dolls” and “I like playing my piano” to “I’m good at making animal sounds.” Without exception, the kids answered the question of “What makes you special?” with statements that began with either “I like…” or “I’m good at…”

What makes you special? I believe that the things that make us feel special (i.e. feel significant) are the things that we like and/or are gifted at. No major breakthrough there, but think about the implications this has. For many people, their job – the thing they spend the majority of their waking hours doing – may not be what they are gifted at and certainly is not something they enjoy.

Here’s where it gets tricky. You can be good at your job, but if you’re good at your job and gifted at something else that you enjoy, there will be a constant tension. This is the tension between earning a good paycheck for doing something you are good at and finding significance through doing something you are gifted at. This is the point where most people end up settling. They are content to spend a lifetime earning a great living and building a successful career while daydreaming about having a career that allows them to use their giftedness.

As individuals become richer, I believe our society becomes poorer. We feel we’re supposed to have the big house, nice cars, nice clothes, and coolest electronics. Too often, we choose those things over significance. Not only does this prevent us from using our giftedness, but it prevents others from benefitting from it. And when other people benefit from your giftedness, that is when you discover significance.

There was plenty of news about Ponzi schemes in the last few years. Named after Charles Ponzi, these are essentially schemes that pay returns to investors from their own money or from subsequent investors without generating any actual profit. For example, say I guarantee you a 20% return on your investment. Enticed by such a good return, ten of you give me $100 each to “invest”. Rather than investing the $1,000, I could pocket $800 and put the other $200 in a separate account. When I get 10 more investors, I could pay each of your guaranteed 20% returns (totaling $200), take their $1,000 and repeat the whole process all over again.

It sounds great until you realize that the scheme is destined for failure. If there are no actual profits, the only way to keep it going is to keep counting on future investors. In other words, if you invest, you will not get your money back until several people continue to invest after you. Eventually, no more additional people invest and the system fails.

Bernie Madoff is credited with creating the largest financial fraud in history by a single person with his $64.8 billion Ponzi scheme.  Or was it ?

The recently passed health care reform bill will cost $940 billion over the next decade. Congress claims that the bill will reduce the deficit by $138 billion over the same period, leaving a gap of $802 billion. Oh yeah, we already have a federal deficit of over$12.5 trillion. Actually, it was $12,673,341,070,536 as of 7pm on 3/22/10. From 9/28/07 to today, the deficit has grown at a rate of $4.05 billion per day!!! To let this sink in, go to http://www.brillig.com/debt_clock/. This is the national debt clock – a website that tracks our deficit. Once on this page, wait a few seconds and hit the refresh button to see how much the deficit increased in a matter of seconds.

So basically what we’re doing is spending money that we don’t have on the assumption that future generations (and China) will continue to pump money into the system. Maybe we were a little too harsh on Madoff.

I know this is a touchy subject. I’m not saying that we don’t need to get costs under control and make some changes regarding healthcare. I also believe that we need help care for those who have fallen on hard times or face severe medical problems and need assistance, but like any other system, people will abuse this one. People who are fully capable of paying their healthcare bills will allow the government (that’s you and me, fellow taxpayers) to pay their bills for them.

I’ve got two little girls that we are heaping insurmountable debt upon while drastically cutting funding of their education. When we cut funding to their education, we are taking away the tools that enable them to build their future (and their ability to pay down today’s spending).

All of this comes from the same government that sent me two letters letting me know that they would send me a census, sent me a census, and sent one additional mailing letting me know that they sent me my census after I had already filled it out and sent it back in. Maybe we could focus a little more on excess spending guys…

My wife’s birthday was Sunday and I decided to make her a special treat. I bought the family a soft-serve ice cream maker last Christmas and we hadn’t used it yet, so I decided to try it. She loves mint chocolate chip ice cream and we happened to have all the required ingredients to make it (fat, sugar, mint extract, and food coloring).

It was the first time I used this ice cream maker, so there was a bit of a learning curve. The ice cream maker consists of a bowl that is frozen prior to adding the ingredients and an auger and agitating arm that constantly moves through the ice cream and keeps it soft while it’s freezing. I put in all the ingredients and turned the machine on. So far, so good. I then added the chocolate chips, which jammed up the auger, popped the top off the machine and spewed green ice cream ingredients all the way up my cabinet and onto the ceiling.

After a cleanup of the sticky mess, I got all the chocolate chips out and started the process over again. This time, I added the chips as I dispensed the ice cream. It turned out great – Sara loved my ice cream and Olivia ate two bowls before telling me I was the best dad in the whole world. Amelia kept begging for more, but she’ll beg for dog food too if you let her have any of it, so that is not necessarily an enthusiastic endorsement. Overall, it was a truly triumphant dad moment.

Then came the cleanup.

The freezer bowl, auger, and agitating arm were filled with leftover ice cream that didn’t come out of the dispenser. I started by licking the auger and arm clean. Sara was in the living room with the girls while I was in the kitchen telling her what a mess this was and how difficult the cleanup would be. Little did she know my “cleanup” primarily consisted of eating more ice cream.

With the auger and arm licked clean, I moved on to the freezer bowl. This metallic bowl spent 24 hours in our deep freeze prior to making the ice cream. Blinded by the delicious combination of fat and sugar, I mindlessly went from licking the other machine parts to licking the ice cream out of the bowl… the metal bowl… the one that I took out of the deep freeze only a few minutes ago.

Big mistake.

Remember Flick from A Christmas Story? You know, the kid that got his tongue stuck to the flag pole. That was me, only instead of a flag pole I had an ice cream freezer stuck to my tongue. Fortunately, I was standing at the kitchen sink and had an endless supply of warm water.

I guess I need to be more cautious at home. If I’m not careful, I’ll shoot my eye out!

I have two daughters. When you have two girls, the toys strewn throughout the house usually consist of dolls, tea sets, makeup kits, and princess outfits. I love my girls, but there is a limit to how many tea parties I can take in one day.

Olivia has developed a habit of waking up way too early in the morning. To a four year-old, any time they wake up seems like a great time to wake mom and dad up. To encourage her to stay in bed longer, I told her that if she stayed in bed until it was light out every day last week, I would get her a surprise on Saturday.

Usually Sara gets the surprises for the girls, but this was my chance to shine! As a kid, I loved Star Wars, GI Joe, and Transformers. It just so happens that two of these recently put out movies and the stores are full of action figures. Don’t tell me that there’s not some marketing genius behind this. Think about it… people my age who grew up playing with GI Joe and Transformers are now buying toys for their own children and have the opportunity to buy the very toys we were crazy about 25 years ago!

I walked through the toy isle at Target… past princesses, ponies, and fairies… and ended up sorting through the selection of Transformers. This was the first toy that I bought for my child that was really for me. I was so excited about getting to play with my… I mean Olivia’s new Bumblebee. What’s interesting is she knew that I was buying the toy, so she already assumed it was a Transformer.

My Bumblebee

I remember my old Transformers well. I could go from car to robot in about 10 seconds. Toy design has come a long way in the past 25 years. I’m a mechanical engineer and it still took me about half an hour to transform that thing! Olivia is far too young to do it on her own and Sara is way too Sara figure it out, so every time Olivia’s mood changes from robot to car or vice versa, I have spend 10 minutes trying to figure the stupid thing out. Seriously, these “toys” are like 3-D jigsaw puzzles designed by a committee of expressionist artists.

 

Olivia's Bumblebee

My great idea to revisit my childhood and play with Transformers seemed to be backfiring on me. It looked like this toy was just going to be a big hassle and I was beginning to regret buying it. That is, until Olivia told me she would do a good job staying in bed so I could get a Transformer too. Then we could play Transformers together. Looks like I’ll be heading back to Target.

My wife was called in for jury duty last week. She went in Monday for selection. After seven hours at the courthouse (30 seconds of which were spent actually talking to someone), she found out she was selected.

My wife is a PA and sees 40 to 50 patients per day – all of which had to cancel their appointments for the days she was in court. She spent all of Tuesday listening to the prosecutor and found out she would have to come in the next day. She spent Wednesday listening to part of the defense and found out she would have to come back the next day. She spent Thursday listening to the defense and closing arguments, only to find out that she was an alternate and had no say in the verdict.

While the jury went into a separate room and deliberated, she had to remain in another room in the courthouse for three hours doing nothing! Finally, the judge had mercy on her and let her go home. He just told her to be near a phone in case she was needed.

This whole thing got me thinking about our judicial system. First of all, its inefficiencies are unacceptable.  Thousands of tax dollars were wasted and the jurors lost thousands of dollars of revenue. I’m all for providing civic duty, but that is no excuse for inefficiency.

The other thing I thought about was the judicial process. It’s a little scary to think that a handful of common people with little legal knowledge have the power to decide if someone spends a portion of their life in prison. I guess the system works, but I’ve seen the people around here. If I were accused of some crime, I would be terrified to turn my fate over to someone whose judgment led them to decisions like, “You know what, this mullet rocks! I think I’ll keep it.”

Lesson time kids…

If we feel it is terrifying to let common people with little legal knowledge have the power to decide if we spend a portion of our life in prison, why do we let those same people decide what kind of house we should have, car we should drive, job we should take, or how much money we should make. Think about it. A lot of the stuff we buy and do is nothing more than a status symbol. If we allow others to dictate what we do with our lives, we are allowing people with little knowledge of our gifts and passions to imprison us in our own little self-constructed cell. The only way to free ourselves is to get beyond what others think and actually seek to do that which we were created to do.