Thursday, February 26, 2009

Who is Running My Show?

I just read an article on Leonard Cohens new tour even as he turns 74. I have always found him to be an interesting artist with unique singing style and meaningful lyrics. The mixture of his traditional Jewish background tied to pursuit of "Zen" provides an interesting approach to understanding self and the world around you. His most interesting quote that caught my attention in the article was..."The older I get, the surer I am that I’m not running the show".

I have had a running battle of reason pretty much my whole life between how much in life is "pre-determined" by forces greater than us, and how much is SELF determined. Coming from strong religious influences early in life, I have not been able to escape the sense that life has "destiny"...that there is a certain level of predestination that determines what events shape our lives, who we spend life with, and which influences our minds and therefore our actions. Based on that perspective, I have never doubted that the things I go through are for a reason and part of an overall pattern my life is "supposed" to go through. I also have NEVER had one suicidal thought even in my darkest moments...and there have been some. Yet, I have had a number of people in my life who have admitted to times where they considered ending their lives because of extreme anxiety or pain related to what they were living through. To that extent, I have always been grateful for the basis of meaning in life my core roots provided me...perhaps it's even a genetic thing. I come from some pretty strong, productive family members who shaped my life early on.

On the other hand, I have also had a strong sense that we all have "free will" and have significant resource in our lives to shape our own futures. I believe in basic scientific facts and theories, such as "A is A", and "to every action there is an equal and opposite reaction". Based on these reasonings, I am not fatalistic nor irresponsible for what happens to me in this life. I am the ultimate reason either good or bad things happen to me. I put myself into certain situations or relationships that can hurt me or help me. I alone am responsible for my daily choices of how I spend my time and with whom. To that end, life has a certain amount of clarity in my mind and I have a sense of self determination where I can accomplish any rational objective that I can think of if I am willing to discipline myself or move self in the right directions.

Even in this interview with Len Cohen, he describes how he now has to make more money in his life because his manager who he completely trusted with his money and livelihood stole about everything that he had. Now at 74 he HAS to go back to work in order to have enough "juice" behind him to support his life and style. It appears his focus on the "spiritual" and lack of attention to his bank accounts put him in this precarious position. Now, on one hand we can just blame the manager/friend who was just too freewheeling with someone else hard earned money and took advantage of the situation. But ultimately, it was Cohen's decision to not think or worry about money and let a third party totally have that control. Cause and effect in action.

Throughout life I have run into various attitudes and beliefs about fate, life and self. It concerns me how high percentage of people in the first world society I come from have what I call "fatalistic" attitudes about life or their experiences with success and/or failure. Many people of faith have a core value of trusting God for their welfare and fate. I think as a core value, it is a healthy thing to believe that there is an order to the universe, a benevolent and loving God who cares about you and created you for a purpose. I personally believe that we all are born with purpose and potential, no matter what religion or culture we were born into. The Einsteins, Beethovens and Buffets of the world come from a variety of backgrounds and belief systems, yet they have contributed immensely to overall values and ease of life we currently enjoy because of their inventions, art or example of financial management. Each productive person in history I believe draws from a certain level of inbred values that pushed them to produce, create and perform at levels that have few comparisons. Is the source of their success human or spiritual? Do we thank God for their contributions to our world, or do we thank them directly...or is it maybe a combination of the two?

Many of these questions have no provable definitive answer. It goes back to the old rationalizations of "what came first, the chicken or the egg?". Obviously there are many things that WE have control over and thereby responsibility for. What and how much we eat, how we sleep, our psychological state of being all contribute to how healthy and productive we are on a daily basis. Some of us are almost fully utilizing and pursuing our potential and focused on some goal(s) and contributing positively to the world around us. Others are so weak mentally or physically that they are producing little or nothing and are usually a load on the society around them versus a "producer". Many have no goals, no direction, no future. Many look at life so negatively and maybe from a super depressed state of mind that they just cannot be counted on to elevate the people around them to a higher purpose or state of mind. That leaves a majority living in a mode of "victimization". We can't do things or change what we want to change around us because of what OTHERS have done to us or the world at large. We get so bitter, so frustrated and so discouraged that we can hardly get out of bed in the morning. Even if we do, many people cannot think of anything else to do but plant themselves in front of the TV or computer screen and just watch life pass by us in the eyes and viewpoints of others. We have no fire, no originality, no will to make things better at least in our immediate vicinity.

I think people like Len Cohen have had the luxury of spending a lot of time in monasteries or some in "divinity schools", contemplating life's meaning or more than that, to discover "God". Most people in the world are so busy just surviving, finding food and clothing for them and their children, they have no time or energy for this introspection. There is no doubt in my mind from what I have observed so far in life that having a simple outlook or focus based on strong, un-questioned "absolutes" brings a more simple happiness to daily life for most people. The more educated and "advantaged" among us have a more complicated task to sort all the options and know for sure what to think or believe. It is easier to choose between 1-2 options versus almost unlimited ones that lie in front of some people.

I understand to a certain level Cohen's statement about "not running his own show". I think he is inferring that all things fall back to a divine predestination in life which when you think about it can make things real simple to digest whatever happens to you and takes all responsibility off your shoulders. I'm not quite least yet. I think our results in life are based on a sum of all the people we have known, all the books we have read, and all the first hand experiences we have been through. Some of those people, books and experiences we had no choice about...they were forced on us by circumstances in life that we have to work through. Yet, I would argue that MOST of our lives WE run the show regarding who we pursue to spend time with, what books or information we pursue, and what experiences we want to have. There are a few things we cannot obviously control that happen in life, but I do believe in a God who gave us a mind and spirit to control our own destinies, at least within the confines of life's "game board" we find ourselves playing in.

The people I respect the most in my life and who I want to emulate are those who are "self made". People who have thought about who they are and what they want to do...then put a plan together to do it. They don't listen to or hang around negative "naysayers". They don't suffer fools lightly or need to be around other people very much because they are so focused and fulfilled in reaching their dreams, living to the max of their imaginations. They are not waiting for a next life to find joy or to do good. They are "running their own show" and watching their own money...not living under the shadow of third parties or religious icons.

So, in summary I would say...while I did not choose the time on this earth or the family I was born into, and while I cannot name the day or the hour of my last breath...I take full responsibility for running my own show while I am able. But that doesn't mean I can't be thankful to those powers beyond me who gave me the genetics and advantages in time and space that I have experienced in this life. I am nowhere near my potential...and I have no one else to blame but myself.

Perhaps the most succinct summary of all this is one of my favorite passages from the Jewish and Christian "good books"..."as a man thinks in his is he". Hows that for running your own show?

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Core Causes of America's Debilitated Economy

(Also go to to see the panel discussion on nationalizing US banks)

As I watched my normal Sunday morning news shows today I came away with a few summaries of our current dilemmas from the various leaders and talking heads. I heard everyone from Arnold Schwarzenegger, George Will and my personal economic guru Nouriel Roubini who they have now included on many of these talking head forums, agreeing that American has to come together, stop the ideological bickering, and unify on overcoming the economic devastation our markets have experienced.

Upon reflecting on all this, I have come to the point of a "laymen’s" summary of the core causes for America's instabilities economically and otherwise. Some of these are so simple yet profound, and in most cases, reversible...

US Currency is affected by Government debt. Let’s face it, the fundamental problem in all this is that governments do not have to fall under the same budgeting and balance sheet rules that corporations or we individuals face every year or quarter. They are uniquely allowed to spend what they don't have, allocate YOUR tax dollars to anything THEY determine to be in the national interest (Take an informative look at this compendium of links to see where our national debt is currently at THIS link). The executive office issues budgets and requests while Congress determines the budget and allocates funding. The balance of these powers...and their abilities to balance a financial statement is far from living in the realities of the rest of us. Having the government bail out the banks is really a misnomer. They are borrowing YOUR money to bail out the failed bankers, mortgagers and investment managers who came up with all these brilliant mechanisms to cover up their huge "Ponzi" schemes. Mr. Madoff is a small player compared to most of the culprits truly responsible in the financial houses of the world. Thanks to these combinations of political and market actions, our currency is no longer backed by anything of value and I believe will continue to fall against those countries that HOLD our government securities and China, Japan, Russia and other wonderful "friends" we have in the world.

Savings to Debt ratio of the average consumer is what REALLY has our citizenry helpless in light of this global economic crisis. 25-30 years of buy/borrow today, save tomorrow has gotten us to these alarming statistics taken from a 2007 report from "Financial Sense" I found online:

-Since 1990, 83% of today's domestic financial sector debt was created, as it increased by a factor of 6 times (2.5 times faster than the economy); household debt increased 60% faster.

-2006 was a new, all-time record high in debt ratios of the household, business, and domestic financial sectors - also record debt ratios owed to trust funds.

-In FY 2006 the federal government's bite out of trust funds of $328 billion set another record, bringing total trust fund debt to $3.6 trillion, including $1.8 trillion siphoned from the social security trust fund.

-In 2004, the average credit-card debt of US households was $9,300, up from $2,966 in 1990, according to research firm - - that's 214% more debt.

Wall Street and the banks are still hiding TRILLIONS of bad debt and inflated asset valuations from the world's prying eyes. No one seems to be able to get their arms or minds around the real numbers these bad debts and valuations represent. Until they do, even the largest of institutions are not trusting governments OR banks with holding their funds. As an American investor here in Panama told me a couple weeks ago..."who can we trust with our hard earned money? The bankers? The government? Investment funds? All these people have let us down...where are we to go now with what little we have left?" The days of blind trust in bank accounts and government securities are now behind us I am afraid. Of course, that COULD have some upside for small business and entrepreneurial enterprises. I think people will want to be "hands on" and invest in THEMSELVES more going forward.

Government entitlement programs and funding of warfare is sucking the lifeblood of our economic system...primarily our tax dollars. As I have stated in previous blogs, this is what I think the original masterminded intent was of the 9/11 terrorists...and I think they have succeeded far beyond their wildest imaginations...or maybe not. Get us committing to worldwide armed conflicts and suck out vast resources of both money, oil and intellectual energy focused on the "terrorists" while ignoring our own internal demise based on entitlements and welfare spending.

Domestic education levels continue to drop against foreign students. The dumbing down of American youth is making our whole country less competitive in the international marketplace. Yes, they can do well on computer games and running networks, but most don't know how to drive a nail, fix a mower, or do simple math in their heads. Many high end jobs are being farmed out offshore or foreigners are being brought onshore, and it’s not just about payroll costs. It is about work ethic and capabilities of comparative laborers. The days of $20 an hour broom pushers and expensive entitlement programs for workers are over in light of global competitiveness. Education is going to be more key going forward than ever before...and I'm not just talking about college. Ongoing workshops and on the job training needs to be increased rapidly to recover our competitive industrial complex. And let's not forget the very real factor of America's use and dependency on DRUGS. Are the culprits the Mexican and Colombian SUPPLIERS, or the empty lives and minds of the USERS? This is a huge hole in our national soul.

Loss of money standards is quietly at the core of our valuation process of assets. The Gold standard is dead so inflation continues to rise against unchecked currencies being erroneously printed without any value or "reserve" behind them. The "good faith and credit" of most governments are becoming more and more suspect. The currency and trade gyrations are extreme as the world's access to real time information via new technologies is causing faster reactions to change in the international marketplace.

The rich and educated are not reproducing at the same rate as the poor and uneducated. The percentage of poor versus the rich continues to grow heavily on the side of poverty while we see the middle class being squeezed out of existence. Government rules benefit the poor masses (to keep them placated) or the rich who get these people elected and re-elected. Small business and entrepreneurs are increasingly without a voice and power. This will continue to erode the equilibrium in the world between the haves and have nots.

During my upcoming two weeks in the USA I hope to get a first hand, refreshed interpersonal look at my friends and family's observations along these lines. Are Americans truly as "divided" and conflicted as the everyday media portrays us to be? What are the best solutions for these epic problems we face currently? I hope to come back with renewed insight and hopeful agenda that we all can work towards in building a common consensus of what SHOULD be done to secure our future welfare.

Final thought...don't sit back and wait for the governments and global mega corporations to bring you solutions. Cover your own a-- first, then contribute to the "power of one" mentality to restore sanity and reason to these global dilemmas.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

The New "Stimulus" Package

(As received from a friend today...)

Three contractors are bidding to fix a broken fence at the White House. One is from Chicago, another is from Tennessee, and the third is from Minnesota.

All three go with a White House official to examine the fence. The Minnesota contractor takes out a tape measure and does some measuring, then works some figures with a pencil. "Well," he says, "I figure the job will run about $900: $400 for materials, $400 for my crew and $100 profit for me."

The Tennessee contractor also does some measuring and figuring, then says, "I can do this job for $700: $300 for materials, $300 for my crew and $100 profit for me."

The Chicago contractor doesn't measure or figure, but leans over to the White House official and whispers, "$2,700."

The official, incredulous, says, "You didn't even measure like the other guys! How did you come up with such a high figure?"

The Chicago contractor whispers back, "$1000 for me, $1000 for you, and we hire the guy from Tennessee to fix the fence."

"Done!" replies the government official.

And that, my friends, is how the new stimulus plan will work.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

The Divinization of the World...Tying Religion and Climate Change Together

I continue to be perplexed by governments and even many of my friends/family's disregard or worse, disbelief, in extreme climate changes we are ALL experiencing in recent years. I have been reading/studying this subject for going on ten years now. I may not be a PHD or the most learned of us, but please don't call me "stupid" or "misled". Sure, there are plenty of people politicizing or over emphasizing certain aspects of "global warming", but that doesn't mean that their whole message or underlying truth should be thrown out with the political bathwater.

I read an article (link here) this weekend that has added a whole new perspective to my concerns about our human contributions to the extreme climate changes we are experiencing. I have been a periodic reader of "The Orion" magazine published by the Orion Society for over 20 years. I tend to relate to their core statement:“It is Orion‘s fundamental conviction that humans are morally responsible for the world in which we live, and that the individual comes to sense this responsibility as he or she develops a personal bond with nature.” From whatever walk of life we each may come from, this mantra is to me very adaptable to a wide range of human thinking and a unifier when it comes to dealing with many tough problems, including global warming and extreme climate change.

This particular article on "Climate Revelations"takes us to a whole new level of thinking regarding this momentous issue. Written by an espoused atheist, Auden Schendler, it is an interesting call to action for "believers" to see their role in this significant contemporary crisis as responsible activists towards uniting the world in the battle against our future extinction. I found his reasoning and observations to contain some of the most profound "faith based" reasons for action than I have seen in any other writings on nature from a Christian or religious perspective. To that end, I challenge all my family and friends who read this blog from a standpoint of faith to read and consider the idea that "the idea of the divinization of the world- of our lives- is a powerful and unifying concept tying together religion and the climate challenge".

A few of his main points that call out to me are:

1. ...contemplative prayer is a form of meditation, the goal of which is to cultivate an understanding of and relationship with the divine—the life force, the ultimate reality of the world. That ultimate reality might be a dignity that includes not just all living things, but all things. Father Thomas Keating has called the entire contemplative tradition simply “a long and loving look at what is.”

2. The world today is missing the clarity this "practice of contemplation" brings to life's realities...which is why most of us have not moved much towards resolving or planning for climate change.

3. Religion is one process of learning to live in a "dignified world", attempting to tailor men’s thoughts and actions towards what is good for the WHOLE of mankind, starting with our own thoughts and actions.

4. Our modern day mentality towards "work" should include pursuing jobs that contribute to the "sustainability" of mankind, not just potentially worthless dollars in our pockets. After all, if we destroy our world and our climate, what good are the riches we all seem to focus on for our work?

5. Finally, every job in the world in some way, great or small, influences the changing climate. From the menial laborer who cleans up our streets and highways to the architects and engineering companies who decide and execute what types of products and approaches to "building" we use for our cities and highways, to the world's farmers who do or don't incorporate organic farming methods...all our combined activities make some kind of difference towards the whole affect of mankind on this shrinking world we live in.

Personally, I am in the process of "connecting a few dots" from life's notes and support the "divinization of the world". I am beginning to think there is much less of a chasm between the divine and secular agendas. Challenges of nature and climate change are becoming "spiritual" matters in addition to the obvious scientific and secular ones. How can we look at ourselves in the mirror in a positive manner if we are not pursuing the sustainability of life? Climate change is a life and death matter for MILLIONS of humans, both present and future. I believe "God", however you want to call or describe Him, is much more interested in our relationship to nature and sustaining life than he is about our personal moralities or immoralities. This is a larger, more encompassing issue in my thinking than abortion, wars, poverty or famine. This subject overshadows ALL the above in affect on the future of mankind. If God does not share that concern, then I'm not sure I could ever understand or have faith in that "god".

I personally believe nature, God and reason are all together calling on each of us to join together and support solutions to the ravages and future devastation to be caused by climate change...

Monday, February 9, 2009

Panama's Azuero Peninsula...a Short Travelogue

(Check out my photo journal of this short road trip)
I just returned a few hours ago from a wonderful motorcycle over-nighter to the Azuero Peninsula of Panama. Bibiana had to go to Colombia for a week and I determined this would be a good time for a road trip on the ole BMW-650. It's not really outfitted for road trips for a’s more a city bike with no bags or paraphernalia for carrying "stuff". But for one person it is more than adequate to get you and one bag anywhere you want to go...and in a hurry. Actually, the bike had been at the BMW agency for almost FOUR WEEKS getting some touchups and repairs. Having to wait so long made me that much more antsy to get on the road.

I have been pretty much all over the country of Panama that's worth going to. The one area that I had been hearing a lot about but not taken the opportunity to go was the Azuero Peninsula which extends off the south center portion of Panama into the Pacific Ocean. It is known for its rolling hills, good agricultural area, lots of national history relating to Panama's independence from Spain, and Las Tablas in the center of the area is the epicenter of the national "Carnival" which starts up in about 2 weeks. I have heard that hundreds of thousands of Panamanians flock there out of tradition for 3-5 days and over run the little town with a huge street party. Thanks to YouTube, you can see what it is going to be like at this link from last years party. For me, I decided it would be much more attractive to visit before the parades, water cannons, and general bedlam hit that area. Most people I know over the age of 25 leave Panama during carnival. We have seen it a bit the last couple years...and I'm over it, though I don't judge those who enjoy these kinds of "herd" events.

This is the perfect time of year for anything outdoors in Panama. I was so excited to hit the road, I didn't think to pack a long sleeve anything to protect from the sun...and no sunscreen either. It took me around 4 hours with a couple stops to reach Las Tablas Sunday afternoon...and I have a pretty good burn on my hands and arms for driving without gloves or long sleeves. Everything else is "white white white" so far in 2009 since I have been so busy in offices and at the computer this year. I now have a good farmers "burn".

The highway is four lane all the way to "Divisa" which is where the new overpass is that takes you south off of the Pan American Highway. I made good time on the bike as usual on the four lane. There are a few patches here and there of bad highway left over from the rainy season, but as usual, the road crews were everywhere trying to patch up and make things look "pretty" for the coming traffic hoards of "Carnival" break.

From Divisa it is only 40 kilometers or so to Chitre. Chitre has become the commercial center for this central part of the country and I was surprised how big and developed it was with a variety of banks, hotels, shopping and restaurants, including McDonalds of course. There is also a Golf Club, Fiesta Casino, and probably more to offer than I could take in on my short trip of passing through. I did stop for a lunch break at an open air restaurant in Chitre. A nice cold beer was welcomed after a few hours of highway cycling and I added to that a shrimp cocktail that came loaded with about 8-10 large shrimp in a nice sauce. When the bill came, I couldn't believe it was only $4.50!!! It would be more than twice that back in Panama City.

Next I found myself in Chitre's "sister city", Los Santos. This is an artesans center for the region, primarily pottery. It looked like a nice quaint village and probably a preferred place to live versus the traffic and noise of Chitre.

After Los Santos, the road turns hillier and more tree lined all the way to Las Tablas. You pass various little villages, each with their own little Catholic church and town square, or "Plaza". Sometimes living in the big city, you lose touch with the simplistic beauty of these small Hispanic towns. This area reminded me of many places I had been in my Mexico years...the tiny villages that families have lived in all their lives for scores of generations. Each pueblo with it's own colorful cemetery guarding the remains of all their forefathers. In many of these small town cemeteries you will see predominantly 2 to 4 family last names. Many of these areas go back to clans from pre-Hispanic times and I'm sure it would be interesting to study some of their origins. Ah, so little time in such a big world.

The road after Los Santos became more rolling hills, trees and flora. The nice thing about motorbiking is you get to smell the wonderful aromas of flowering trees this time of year. You get back to appreciating some simple pleasures that can evade one's existence stuck in a big city all the time, or in an airconditioned auto. The wind, the smells, the sounds of bugs hitting your helmet put you in immediate touch with all of God's good earth.

Finally in the late afternoon I found myself entering Las Tablas, my destination for staying overnight. A nice boulevard brings you into town and you soon realize you are in a fairly old little town which represents to many the beginnings of independence of Panama from Spain way back in the early 1800s. As stated earlier, this town in a couple weeks will be overrun with hundreds of thousands of Carnival revelers. Lots of noise, drinking, water cannons spraying the crowds, maybe an annual catharsis celebrating national pride and the pure joy of life. When I see these festivities in person or on video, I am thoroughly reminded of the main difference between us gringos and the Latinos. Latinos work to live...while we gringos tend to find ourselves living to work. You sometimes have to wonder which culture is truly happier during their lifetimes. Yet, I find myself happy to hit this town in its current quiet, peaceful, Sunday afternoon mode. Lots of people are milling the streets though there is little traffic and it is pretty quiet as I arrive.

After exploring the town and scoping out some motel and restaurant options for the evening, I decide to head out about 13 Kms to the beaches outside Las Tablas. I saw a sign for a couple seaside hotels and think maybe I will try staying out there. The beach road is a bit narrower and bumpier on the bike, but I finally find "Playa Uverito" (I think that means "little grape") and alot of local Panamanians enjoying a late afternoon at the beach. Lots of cars, lots of wind, and the waves are pretty large. Its a pretty setting, but marred by a lot of trash littering the parking lot area and the beach itself. I have seen this at most of the "locals" beaches in Panama, and I find myself not respecting the Panamanian's lack of couth when it comes to littering. Almost every day in this country I see brazen acts of throwing plastic bottles or fast food wrappers out of cars and buses. Here at the beach it is obvious people just leave their trash sitting next to their cars or at their beach blanket location when they are ready to leave. Who do they think is going to pick their crap up when they leave? There are no park authorities or "cleanup crews" budgeted in most of these little bergs. They did just pass some stricter heavy fines for littering in the country, but without enforcement or enlightenment, it does little to stem the problem. I guess there is no Mecca anywhere, huh?

I find the Hotel Luna which while it looks like a fairly new building; I don't see any manicured lawn or tapestries that tell me this is of any quality. With seeing the local trash element around, I figure it may not be that relaxing to stay here. When a campesino gentleman comes out to greet me at the entrance, he quotes me $60 for a single room for the night. My suspicion is this is the "gringo" price and not worth it to me. Instead of dickering and dealing, I just head back to the city knowing I probably have more and cheaper options along with more restaurants to choose from for the evening.

I finally get a room for the evening at Playa del Sol Hotel in Las Tablas. It's nowhere near a beach so I don't get the name, but the price of $25 attracts me since don't plan to spend much time in the room and head out to Pedasi early the next morning. It has a good hot water shower which feels good after a day long journey on a motorcycle and I set out on foot to explore the little town and find a hot meal. I had spotted a small hotel near the main square when I first came in that had a restaurant, so I ended up eating there. Again, a low priced menu was welcomed and I had a large chicken dinner in a tasty pepper sauce, salad and patacones, washed down by another cold beer...and when the bill came I was again happily surprised at the $5 check. That means I ate today for under $10!!!

After dinner I walked around the village a bit more and ended up sitting in the Plaza between 8:30 and 9PM just watching the locals mill about greeting each other or chatting at various corners of the plaza. The evening church mass had ended while I was at dinner, but various people were still hanging about the plaza like they probably do each and every Sunday after mass. It was a full moon, a pleasant breeze was still filtering through the trees of the plaza, and little kids were running around, some curiously checking out the only "gringo" downtown visible at the moment. Little girls were riding around on their little bikes at going on 9PM. Teenagers were here and there flirting with each other...mostly groups of 2-3 girls walking by groups of 2-3 boys. It took me back 40+ years to what I view as a lost time in America when we kids would be out after dark running around on our bikes, visiting the neighbors, playing imaginary games. No one worried about bad elements or danger for us kids. We had no video games or computers to take up our time and attention. Life was simpler, cheaper and less complicated than it is now for kids. I found myself thinking THESE kids have a richer life and are more adjusted than most kids I see back in the USA in this kind of setting. Yep, I miss Mayberry, Andy, Opie, Aunt Bee and Barney Fife...

The next morning I was up bright and early...these little town people are up and about bright and early every morning. The trucks, people chattering, the many pedestrians in the street start right at sunrise. I can never figure out where all these people are going since most things don't open until 9 or 10AM...but they all seem to have somewhere to go at the crack of dawn.

I had a quick breakfast at the same hotel restaurant as the previous night…$2.50 for and egg and cheese scramble, bacon and coffee. Then it was direct into the eastern rising sun as I headed to the coastal town of Pedasi. Remember, you can really get your directions mixed up in Panama because most of the country runs east/west as an isthmus which means the Pacific is on the SOUTH coast while the Caribbean is on the NORTH coast. Since I was on a peninsula, I actually had to go east to get to the Pacific bay oceanfront. Go figure.

It was a beautiful morning to ride, passing lots of pickups and other farm equipment on the road. There is a large meat processing plant just out of town…and the farm vehicles were already lined up dropping off cows and pigs destined for processing. No PETA people in this country that I know of. Animals are not worshipped in this country like they are in some pockets of the home country. About 40 minutes of smooth sailin’ and I hit the town of Pedasi.

Pedasi is a quaint little village and happens to be the birthplace of the previous president, Sra Mireya Moscoso. There is a huge billboard as you come in depicting that fact. There seem to be a number of little hotels and restaurants…some quite new. It tells me that maybe tourism IS growing out here as I had heard. Still, I don’t see many gringos, tour buses or anything else of that nature. I DO see the signs directing me to turn left to the beaches…and the two projects I have come to check out in particular…”Andromeda” and “Costa Pedasi”. The paved road quickly turns into a large loose gravel road…not the most comfortable for traversing on a road bike. The trusty Beemer bumps along a couple kilometers to the first development…Andromeda. All it is one vast open large field. No trees and you can’t see the beach from the road. Someone had told me they would have a golf course here, but I see no sign or announcement of any such thing on their project signage. It’s looking to me more like a typical “track home” setup like back towards the city where they throw down slab homes all in tight formation for Panama’s lower and middle class workers. Doesn’t look like a high end or custom home layout to me. Well, let’s move down to Costa Pedasi and hope to find things a little more likable.

I head another 1.5 Km down the road and come upon the entrance for Costa Pedasi. There are a number of workers on the entrance and doing some plantings there. There are 10 new Palms planted at the entrance, but otherwise, a big barren, dry, brown piece of land overlooking rough seas. I still can’t see the beach, only the water over the high bluff. As I proceed down the narrowing beach road to the beach, I am shocked by what I find. I don’t know whether it’s high tide or low tide, but all I see is HUGE volcanic rock formations littered with lots of driftwood and surf junk. Very little sand and surely not an attractive swimming or walking beach. What were these people thinking? I guess maybe they got a good deal on the land, and I’m sure views from up on the bluff can be attractive. But, what are you going to do out here? Meanwhile its only 9AM and the wind is already howling off the sea and drying up the coastal land in a hurry only 6 weeks into “dry season”. I can’t even find a smooth flat stone to skip on the water…and I would have to be a professional rock climber just to get to a place where I could throw into the water. This is NOT my idea of high end oceanfront living. Sorry to those of my friends who are selling properties out here. I just don’t get it. My Lake Gatun developments are looking better all the time as I get around this country.

I quickly got back on my bike and headed back to the city. I find a sign telling me of about 10 more beaches further down the road past Pedasi, but I am newly inspired to get back to selling my prospects around the greenery and fresh water within an hour of Panama City. Maybe I’ll get out here again in search of a true sandy beach in Pedasi when I have more time.

On the bright side, life out here in Azuero is much less expensive than in or near Panama City. I’m sure it is much more secure and laid back. I’m also sure I’d get a lot more reading and writing done if I lived or spent more time in an area like Azuero. But, after a couple days out here I realize once again that I am a “city boy”…and to that end I am willing to work harder and pay more to have all the amenities, lights and pizzazz the city affords. But, it has been a peaceful couple days “on the road again”…

Saturday, February 7, 2009

A Revolutionary Road...

This week I saw about the best movie of the year so far, at least for my tastes"Revolutionary Road". Starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet, they turn in a fine performance representing a progressive married couple back in the mid 1950s who struggle balancing their original dreams and ambitions with the societal pressures of conformity and "pursuing the American dream". I won't go into detail on the movie so as not to ruin it for those of you who might yet want to see it, but it is the catalyst for my train of thought these last couple days.

America is going through a quiet revolution of sorts these days. This revolution is so quiet, a majority of Americans are clueless about what is going on and why. And this "revolution" is so multi-faceted that I think it is hard for anyone to get their intellectual "arms" completely around it. A lot of people are currently living in "shell shock" over what has happened to the nation's economy and to their personal investment portfolios. Everyone is pointing fingers at each other without really understanding who the real culprits are/were that caused this mess. The reality is...while American and much of the world has been busy the last 8 years REACTING to 9/11, the terrorists have already and continue to succeed in what was their ultimate goal...the economic collapse of the USA and elimination of our "Superpower" status in the world.

OF course, you can't put ALL the blame on these nameless/faceless "agents of terror". Few people are really asking the obvious question of "why are they after US? Why do they hate "America" so much?" Now, it’s easy to stay focused on the surface issues of cultural differences, the authoritarian religious and state regimes who want us to fall under the spell of the "American dream". It is true that MOST religions and states do not want their human subjects to truly be free and independent of their influence or way of life. True freedom is a scary concept for most inhabitants of our planet. How can we possibly live without our rules, regulations, trade controls, and legislated moralities? Wouldn't it be chaotic or even anarchistic to allow EVERYONE the freedom to go anywhere in the world they want to go and can pay for? Doesn't it seem impossible to conceive of truly free markets without government interventions or "price fixing"? And how could our own government ever survive with LESS taxation and less spending...or limiting them to simply pursuing their constitutional role of protecting our borders and national interests? Do we really need our legislators to tell us what we can smoke, drink or what we can or can't spend our money on? Do we need our government to allocate our tax revenues for bailing out the banks and finance companies that have been gouging our culture for decades...while offering nothing to the unemployed mortgage owners or individual taxpayers?

Here is how the revolution will play out in time. It won't all necessarily be in my life time, but perhaps it will. Currencies are going to have to go back to being based on "something". Between the eras of Roosevelt and Nixon, the USA legal tender became totally "paper based" on the good faith and credit of the United States government. That credit is now bankrupt by all standard accounting practices. It will either have to go back to being based on gold or some other melded into a regional or global currency (have you ever heard of the "Amero"?). Probably the later. This WILL be revolutionary.

Most federal entitlement programs will be liquidated and/or replaced with "global" programs. This somewhat melds with the regional or global currency scenario. Globalization will continue to overcome statist resistance or reluctance to give up national sovereignty in exchange for peace and security. International global funds and banks will force incoherent government systems to surrender their sovereignties in exchange for monetary security that will keep the masses from pure revolt. Just enough money and goods to the poor will keep them in line/place and buy the least for the time being.

These global banks or funds will be owned or funded by a FEW global billionaire companies controlled by billionaire families or persons. There will be layers of protection for the big money players while weak individuals and small business will march to the drum of whatever rules and regulations these big global players come up with. Some people will be exchanging a bag of gold for a piece of bread while a few will be eating free of charge.

The masses of world populations will continue to flock to extremist, fundamental religions...looking for meaning and answers in the "supernatural". Since free trade and ordinary causes will be harder and harder to count on, more people will be looking to "God" versus governments or corporations to give them security or a cause to live by. Life in THIS world will continue to lose its significance for the lost inhabitants who will flock even more rapidly to causes promising a better "after life". Exchange your "free will" for the sake of being a "team player" in the New World Order will be the direct or indirect cry of those whose media or voices control the masses. Mysticism will rule the day as realities of life become harder and harder to bear.

I truly hope my views are way off...but at this juncture...I don't think so.

So..."how should we then live?"...

For those of us who are not ready or willing to give in to the trends of the day...I have the following suggestions, most of which I have fully adopted or am in the process of adopting:

• Do not count on the “government” or your “company” to secure your future. They have their own priorities…and it is not YOU
• Spend less time at the “feeding trough” of force fed news and views from your national news and media. Read and pursue a variety of news and views from outside the border of your hometown and/or country. The world is too big and influential to ignore anymore. It all has a direct impact on YOUR individual life and future.
• Stop waiting for an institution or “someone else” to attend to your pet peeves. If you haven’t lifted a finger to change the situation in your direct reach or influence, don’t expect anyone else to. The world at every corner is crying for true LEADERSHIP. Leaders DO…not just DIRECT.
• Do not blindly accept the “rules” your family, culture, government or religion place on you. Question EVERYTHING and re evaluate ALL your presuppositions SOMETIME in your life. If you have never gone through that exercise, you have never truly lived nor know who you REALLY are.
• If the choice is between being an independent, productive thinker/worker or a “team player”, take the first option.
• Don’t go with the herd. Most of them are running off the edge of the cliff. Think before you take a step that direction.
• The only “commandments” you need to direct your life are “love your God/creator with all your heart, and your neighbor as YOURSELF”. In other words, if you don’t love and accept yourself, you will be a pretty worthless lover of God and man/woman.

I fully related to the previously mentioned movie, “Revolutionary Road”. It depicted so many people I have known in my life over the past 50+ years as I grew up in America. The struggles those characters…and the real people in my life from those times…dealt with are in many ways amplified in THESE times. Many of us are ready for a “revolution” of change in our world. Slowly but surely some of us are waking up to the fact that the revolution starts with each of us individually. The “Power of One” as I have mentioning often in my blogs.

I am endeavoring to live in that power and change the world around me for better. I am trying to be wiser. I am trying to treat MYSELF better. From there, I am trying to inspire the small circle of people closest to me in these times. And beyond that…and yes, through this blog tradition… I am trying to contribute to and enhance the global consciousness.

Let the revolution begin… or continue…in a more positive way.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Poker...the Game of Life

A few people lately have been asking about how my "Poker career" is going and others have probably been QUIETLY wondering. For those of you who may not know, I have been playing semi-professional poker part time for over 20 years now. Yes, in today's market that makes me one of the "old guys" in the game of Poker. It seems like most of what you see on the TV poker shows are young 20-somethings sitting around the table chattering in their reverse baseball caps and indoor sunglasses. From my old school, we don't do any of that.

I have been quiet about this over the years not necessarily because of any "shame" about the activity but more because of the public perceptions about "gambling" and spending a lot of time in casinos. A while back I sent a fairly long missive to my closest family and friends on this subject because there had been a lot of "whispering" about my Poker playing; if I was some sort of gambling addict. I hope that set the record straight at least from my end on the positive benefit poker has been in my life. I continue to believe that while I understand Poker being tied to gambling and casinos in public perception, to those who make a living off of Poker it is a game/sport of skill just like many others such as golf, tennis, baseball etc. When some guys consistently win big bucks in large major tournaments, you have to realize that maybe it ISN'T just about luck. Nobody can be THAT lucky all the time...

First, a little background on Poker… Poker traces its roots back to German and French parlor games of the 15th century. The English then adopted a form of it which along with the French version was introduced to the "New America" in the late 1700s. In America its popularity began, probably induced by the French, in the Mississippi Delta region, spreading north along the Mississippi River and then west during the "Gold Rush" of the late 1800s. Basically, it went from being a game of Kings to being a game of the poor early settlers in the western frontier. Of course, colorful historical characters like "Doc Holiday" and "Wyatt Earp" were fervent money players in those days. Since then we have seen somewhat of a return of the game to one for the "powerful and prestigious". President Obama is reported to enjoy the game on a regular basis as well as many former Presidents who held regular games for sport and pleasure. Most young men in America were exposed to Poker at young ages in neighborhood games, fishing/hunting camps, in the military or at the country club. It became a "gentlemen's" tradition with the "weekly poker game"...along with "bridge", chess, etc. The reality is that poker attracts educated and smart people because when you learn it you realize it pits your ability to evaluate and invest on each hand you encounter and also incorporates reading the other players. He who does all the above the best usually wins most consistently. It is not a game against a casino at stacked odds...but played against as many as 9 other players at the table…or in the case of tournaments against as many as 8000-10,000 other players online or at the world’s biggest events.

Sure, there is a "luck" factor as in any game of life. Luck or bad luck is with us always throughout every aspect of our life. Most successful people I have known from whatever discipline have alluded to a "lucky break" or perfect timing in an investment that made them successful or wealthy. The closest I ever came to a "hole in one" in golf was one of my worst shots of that round...slicing my drive into some trees which then bounced out to the green and stopped a foot from the hole. I could have sat there all day hitting at that flag and not come any closer. part of the game of life. Some days the cards just don't "fall right", but mathematically over time the laws of probability will fall the same for each player, and the only deviance is what each player decides with every combination of cards that is thrown at him in the game.

I learned to play back in the late 1980’s. I had played “penny ante” poker throughout my younger years with family and friends here and there, along with many other card games. It was in Southern California when I lived there that I first encountered a “card room”. Poker had been legalized and licensed in California for decades…and was a much better known sport to the descendants of the gold rush and “Mississippi Delta” folks than in the mid-west where I grew up. Through a business deal I was introduced to a large poker room filled with competitive players from all over the west. Some wore cowboy boots and hats; others were “City slickers” showing up in their suits and ties after a long day at the office to “play” their favorite sport. I soon found myself spending a lot of time in that place playing and learning the ropes. I call those my “poker university” days…and the tuition was steep that first year. I didn’t know it, but while I thought I was surrounded by “friends”, these smiling people were taking my money little by little. Yea…some nights I won. I had lucky streaks in small games like $3-6 limit where I would come away with $500+ dollars on a given night. Those nights I was convinced I had finally learned the game and on my way to huge success…only to have 3-4 losing sessions in a row that ate up that $500 and THEN some. Finally a couple older, experienced guys I had met there started to pull me aside and give me some basic instruction and counsel. I also discovered some of the first books that were published in those years about this new poker game everyone was playing called “Holdem”. After reading my first two books, I realized how TERRIBLE I had been playing and that it had nothing to do with luck…good or bad. It was about knowledge. The second year is when I started tracking all my play day after day…how much I won or lost per hour at the level I was playing. This is when I finally understood how poker was so much about “cause and affect”…the difference of making good or bad decisions…not about luck. My second year was up and down but I ended up with about $3500 income for my second serious year of play at low stakes games. From that time on, even though I have gone through long periods/years of not playing, I have not had a losing year since and have for short periods of my life actually lived off part time poker playing. I also have many good memories of various games or tournaments where I have played with many of the guys who now show up quite frequently on TV in poker ads and tournaments on ESPN. I have never aspired to be a full time professional because there are so many other things in my life I would have to give up. But, it is truly one of my favorite “activities” in life when I need some stimuli and challenge.

I call Poker "the game of life" for many reasons...and most pro or semipro players look at it as one "life-long" game. Over one’s lifetime, good and bad things happen. Sometimes you are lucky and sometimes UNlucky. The key to succeeding in life is maximizing when the good things happen and you are running good, and minimizing the damage and not letting it destroy you when things are going wrong. If we are able to do this, life will overall be successful for us and that which doesn't kill us will make us stronger. The harder the struggle, the more success means and the sweeter it tastes. There are times in poker when no matter what you do, who you play, or where you are, nothing goes right for days...sometimes a time. The key to success during the bad luck streaks is not letting it affect the level at which you play or overcome your psyche with negative, fatalistic thinking. I have gone through enough bad times by now, in poker and in life, to realize that nothing lasts forever. Even success. You are only as good as your last win or success...and tomorrow you have to get up and push even higher and harder to become all you can be. The key to making a majority of GOOD decisions and then letting fate take its course. When things go bad, sometimes you just have to take a time out, think about and evaluate if you are doing everything possible to overcome the obstacles, and just keep trying to improve your game. If you are able to do this, you will be successful in poker as in life.

It is also the "game of life" because the same talents you develop in being a good poker player will serve you well in business, relationships and your overall mental capacity. To be good in poker you have to have discipline and self control. Don’t run on your emotions. Throw away the hands that are bad. If you know you are beat, throw them away and move on to the next hand. Don't throw good money after bad. Don't take things personal if someone at the table lucks out on you and seems to be the luckiest, worst player in the world. The odds eventually come back around and you just have to stay focused and ready to win back what you have lost. Just having the discipline, patience and knowledge to only play good hands that give YOU the winning odds is the first most basic lesson to learn in poker.

After learning the odds of hands and the power of position at a poker table, the next most important talent to develop is reading the other players. There's an old adage in poker that if you sit down at a table of players and in 15-20 minutes you don’t know who the "fish" are versus the "fishermen"...then...YOU'RE IT. Just like in life, you have to be realistic about your competition. You have to look for the right games and groups of people you can beat. It would be silly for me to walk up to Tiger Woods with $500 and say "let’s go play a round…no handicaps". Yet, in Poker I see moneyed players who don't really know the game walk up with THOUSANDS in their pockets wanting to test their "luck" against a table full of shark players. It is only a matter of time and those sharks will have all their money. So, the key of knowing and reading your competition is of vital importance...just like in any other business or sport.

The other most interesting factor for me in the game of Poker is the variety of interesting people you will meet. I used to say that the fastest way to know and observe a person's character is to play a round of golf with them. One's temperament and discipline is sorely tried in the game of golf. I have found it the same with Poker. Poker brings out the best and the worst in people, and being a pop psychologist at heart causes me intrigue and challenge in observing and knowing the other players in the game. I have met super rich and super poor people at the poker table. I have played with all nationalities and races I can think of. Young / old, male/ female, aggressive / passive, happy / meet them all at the poker table over time. So it could be said that the game of Poker allows you the best opportunity to know and even understand "others" better than any other game.

In Panama you will often see at the same table Jews, Arabs, Chinese, Korean, Greeks, Colombians, Panamanians and North Americans all playing each other at the same time in 4-5 different languages. The poker table here can definitely give you a quick education on the various cultures and tendencies in a hurry. It is interesting to sometimes see the rivalries and differences being sorted out at a Poker game. I would suggest that the game is often times a replacement for the street or a battlefield to take out aggressions and deal with repressed conflict. There are a lot of racism and status levels in Latin America...and the poker table is one place where everyone's money is equal and the rules "usually" are enforced equally on everyone. While sometimes the attitudes can be ugly and aggressive, to me it is all part of life's reality...and I would rather see it come out in a "poker battle" than on the streets with guns. will see some ugly behavior in poker games the world over. But again...that is the reality of "the game of life". It is VERY human.

Poker is a game that has taught me more about myself and others than any other activity or hobby I have pursued. I suppose "reading" may be more informative intellectually, but I would argue that poker exposes you to more real life information and interpersonal understandings than any book can teach you. Even books on poker cannot make someone a great poker player just by reading. It is the challenge of "doing", concentrating, reading the other players, reading your own emotions and reactions that combine to make one a great player.

And finally, to be a competitive poker player is no "light" goal to pursue. Like golf and other great sports, it takes LOTS of time, effort and energy to learn and play the game. While some people look from the outside in at today's poker pros on TV...sometimes making MILLIONS in a few day long tournament...and think how easy or "crazy" or "fun" it must be to just play poker for a living...think again. Better yet, try and sit at a poker table for 3-4 days in a row, 9-14 hours each day, concentrating, focusing, sitting, thinking, watching, with all the high and low emotions the game will bring you in a day...and tell me how much "fun" it is. You have to LOVE the game to want to make it a major hobby or a living. Just like the other pro sports...90% of the players who try and turn pro and live off poker will go broke and move on to another profession. With the huge explosion of competitive poker throughout the globe, it is no longer just a "gentlemen's" sport or the "game of Kings". It is a highly competitive game that has a whole new generation of MILLIONS of young players who are very smart, very dedicated, lots of money, and are very aggressive players. Believe me; you need to have mental AND physical endurance to play well over the long haul. And most of all, you have to have the right “bankroll” for the level or game you are playing at. There’s no sadder sight than a “busted” poker player…and there are a lot of them.

I am grateful to poker for teaching me discipline, patience, longsuffering, interpersonal skills, and negotiating skills...a whole list of virtues that are not always my strong suit. I have been beaten by bad luck, but most of the time I just beat myself because of bad decisions, bad judgment, or playing "over my head". I am proud of the fact that through many rough times and losing periods, I kept at the game and made back my lost money. I am proud that I can now sit down at a table and read the people in about 7 1/2 minutes...and know whether I should get up and leave...or not. I have become a better businessman because of skills developed in the game of poker. And, I think it has helped me understand myself and humanity at a much greater depth than about anything else I have pursued in life.

So...I leave it there for now. I actually have not had time or energy to play much so far in 2009. It’s partly because of my other priorities and relationships, partly because some of the games are in limbo here and not the best use of my time. But believe me, my goal is still to win a gold bracelet in the annual World Series some year. And yes, you might see me on TV if that happens...but when I get there it will be all about reading my competition and taking all their chips if I can. It's capitalism at its finest.