Monday, July 30, 2007

Late Night Thoughts From Detroit

Detroit is memories of the days when the Big 3 were rolling, when GM, Ford and Chrysler were, for all intents and purposes, the only game in towns all across America.

That was then and this is now and today Detroit is home of the Big 3 who are being rolled over, beaten into total submission by, well, almost every other carmaker in the world. Earlier this year, Toyota took over King of the Hill status from the once invincible General Motors.

As I stare from the window of my hotel this late night, even if I didn’t know it I’d know it. You would, too. You can see in the faces of the people -- a disturbing dull-eyed stare of those who have lost their jobs and their middle-class lifestyles as their employers lost their market positions. They look like assault victims still in shock.

And I wonder why it happened. Who is to blame? Who is the next victim?

Good questions, and there are plenty who will jump headfirst into the blame-game. It is one of those strange situations where facts actually get in the way of understanding.

Employees point to the almost criminal-negligence with which American cars were designed and manufactured for so many years.

Employers point to unions that had so many rules that even the best-designed car could never be built, at least a price that anyone would pay.

Unions point to the employers who, after all, agreed to all that featherbedding.

Executives point to employees who didn't perform and employees point right back at them.

And they all are right -- so busy being right they are not open to seeing a way out or better said, a way back up.

Whether execs, employees, unions, or customers, each sees me, you, and them, and the object of the game is to get yours, to make sure your head stays in the feed bucket longer than all the others, that you stay fat, dumb, and happy figuring the others will take care of themselves and if they don’t, who cares?

It is a zero-sum game. Someone has to lose for another to win but in this case it turned out to be everyone who lost.

No one was open to the idea that it isn’t about the company, the execs, the shareholders, the employees, or the unions. It was about something else that they paid lip-service to, but never considered -- the product. It sounds reasonable but to have even uttered those words might have found you naked and dead in the trunk of a stolen rental car in west Detroit.

Yet, it was true. And it is true. In the 1970’s when I first came to Detroit I had a nascent sense that what I was experiencing wasn’t real, or if it was, it couldn’t last. It wasn’t just the lack of efficiency, but the lack of care that was palpable. The game everyone was playing wasn’t about making cars. It was about making money.

And when the game, any game, is about making money, no one wins for long. It is like telling a batter in baseball that the game is about the outfield fence. Looking at the fence instead of the ball only insures the ball will never leave the park.

The people I know who have made the most money focus the least on it. They focus on what they are doing and what they are doing is not making money. It is something else – it is their product or service, the byproduct of which is money.

The endgame could have been different for Motown if money and selfishness had not been elevated to virtues, if money wasn’t the measure of greatness but the result of it. If each of the nags at the feedbag had focused not on the money but on the moment, on what they were doing, and are doing, Detroit would be different tonight.

Monday, July 16, 2007

Presence: Hard to Define But You Know It When You See It

There are a few experiences that the moment they happen you know you will never forget. Sometimes you can seem them coming, as in the birth of a child, but sometimes epiphany can strike from just a word or two in casual conversation that changes your perspective forever, that makes you understand that the way you have known it is not the way it is, but only one way.

The Casa Hogar Don Bosco orphanage in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, houses 33 girls. It is run by dedicated Dominican Nuns who work non-stop to care and love these children. They receive no government or church support. Most of the girls have families somewhere, but have either been abused and removed, are unwanted, or their families are too poor to feed them. These girls are not typical orphans waiting for adoption. Instead, they are stuck in an unholy middle ground – they do not live with their families but cannot be put up for adoption because they have families somewhere.

When you walk into the compound that houses their simple collective they smile at you, not forced smiles but smiles of real joy. In a matter of minutes one of the girls will walk over and take your hand and she will not let it go until you tell her that you must leave. Her last question will always be the same, “When are you coming back to see me?”

A few weeks ago, our friends, Lisa and John, took several girls from the orphanage for ice cream and to the movies. For some it was the first time they had ever seen a movie. When Lisa and John returned, even though there was to be no movie that day, the joy was palpable.

Most of us go through life with a family. We have friends of our choosing. We go to the movies and we eat ice cream and we don’t think much about it. We know there is someone somewhere who loves us unconditionally. And, we take movies and ice cream and love for granted.

Last week Kelly took one of the girls, Maria Juanita, to lunch. It was far from a fancy place but when Maria Juanita saw the prices on the menu she would not order. Indeed, Kelly had to cover up the prices on the menu before she could even get the little girl to tell her what she liked to eat. The thought of spending three or four dollars for one meal was too much for Maria Juanita to bear.

As they were waiting for the food, Kelly was making small talk and asked Maria Juanita, “When is your birthday?” The cherub-faced little girl looked up at Kelly and replied, “I don’t know.” She did not say, “I am so sad that I don’t know my birthday,” or “Pity me, I don’t know my birthday,” but matter-of-factly, “I don’t know.” Kelly fought to hold back the tears.

After all, who are you if you have no family, or the only family you have has abused you, or one that doesn’t want you at all? Who are you if you don’t know when you were born or where? Who are you if you share a room with 15 other girls each with exactly the same stuff, the same experiences, the same yesterdays and the same tomorrows? Who are you if your greatest joy in life is the company of strangers?

Who are you if you don’t have a story to tell? Who are you if you don’t have a future to hope for?

It is the answers to these questions that are the epiphany that cannot be said but only experienced. That admitted, I’ll give it a try.

When you are with these little girls, you understand, if but for a moment, that you are more than your story, more than your past, and more than your future. You are more than your hopes and more than your dreams and more than your fears. You are more than your mind and more than your ego and more than your stuff. You are more than the world tells you that you are and you are less.

You are now. And, that is who these little girls are and, perhaps better said, when they are. They don’t dwell on their past lives before coming to the orphanage and they don’t wonder aloud what may happen tomorrow or next year or when they grow up. They are here now, and you can feel it when you see them playing, cooking, cleaning, or washing the two dogs that they love unconditionally and who love them back.

When you are in the presence of presence there is no word description for the feeling you experience but you know that you want to feel it again. Maybe not knowing your birthday is the price some pay for being here now, because the past cannot be infused with as much false importance. For others, the price of presence may be not to know what will happen to them when the day comes they must leave their sisters, because the future is unknown, must remain that way, and cannot become the focus of one’s present.

I suggest that if these are the prices of living in the now, they are worth it.

If you would like to know more about Casa Hogar Don Bosco, point your browser to


Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Wall Street Journal: 10 Years After

Thought you might be interested in a piece that appeared in today's Wall Street Journal Online, a follow up to a piece that appeared 10 years ago.

If you enjoyed this article, please leave your comment under the article where you will find a hyperlink that links to "Comments." Thank you and very best!