Twisted Sister and Enduring Hardships

I once went on a training mission where I nearly died. I had just arrived at my unit and we went out with the infantry battalion for a week- long event. The operation took place in the fall and the weather was cool and sunny. By the second day the temperatures had dropped to the low 40’S and it started to rain. I was drenched.

For anybody who has ever lived in the field for any length of time, it is well known that there’s no equipment that will keep you dry from incessant rain. Eventually you get wet and there is nothing you can do. During the second night it was freezing. I was frozen to the bone and could not get warm. My core temperature was dropping and I was shivering uncontrollably. After all of my training, I knew hypothermia was setting in and if I were to stay out there any longer, I probably would be dead within a few hours.

Twisted Sister I was a Second Lieutenant and this was my first command. If I showed any weakness or tried to get out of the field, I would forever lose the respect of the entire battalion and probably be sanctioned as well. So as any stupid 22 year-old Marine Officer would… I risked my life.  I waited and hoped for the best.

Just prior to this, I had learned that a group of 8 Army Rangers had died from hypothermia while training in Georgia. In short order,  4 members of my platoon had been evacuated for hypothermia and the rest of us were not far behind.  I knew we were in a serious situation. Fortunately, the battalion Commander stepped in and called off the whole event which undoubtedly saved lives. So my life was saved with my reputation intact.

It reminds of me the story of Jay Jay French, one of the founders of the band Twisted Sister, and his ability to endure hardships. Jay Jay French’s life is an amazing example of perseverance. When he started the band in the 1970’s, the group toured for 10 years working six days a week before getting a record contract.

After getting a record contract in the early 1980’s the group made millions. Their records went platinum and they toured the world. Yet by the end of the 1980’s Jay Jay French was bankrupt, divorced and the band had split up. After working so hard for so long and then losing it all, Jay Jay French took a job selling stereos. He went to work as a salesman at a local retail store in order to make a living and provide for his family.

He said the hardest part was going into people’s houses and seeing his records on their shelves. It was a brutal reminder on how far he had fallen. When installing stereos, his customers had no idea a major rock start was in their house nor would they probably have believed it. But he did what he had to do to survive. Yet, as he worked, he hustled and built his life back.

Jay Jay French sold stereos for 10 years before his next break came.

In the mid 1990’s, French was approached by a small band to produce an album. He agreed. The deal made millions even though he had no experience in the production end of the music business. He said yes to an opportunity and the door flew open.

In the Late 1990’s he got contacted by different companies to start licensing Twisted Sister’s songs, which he did, and the royalties started making the band millions of dollars. The famous song “We’re not Going To Take It” has been a favorite for political candidates all over the world and made the band rich.

Success, more often than we realize, is as much about endurance as it is about talent or skill. Its a fact that most people quit just before they are about to succeed. Jay Jay French is my new hero. Not only for his ability to hustle and endure… but for his ability to humble himself and do whatever it took to rebuild his life and career.

By the way, today Twisted Sister is reunited as a band…selling out stadiums worldwide… making millions… again.


Alone in New York

At various periods of my life I have lived in New York City. I both love and hate the place. Its full of energy and excitement but also filled with tension and stress. NYC is not an easy place to live. Because I have also lived in many other cities, as well as countries, I’ve developed a broad understanding of human nature. I have never seen as much loneliness in one city as I have in New York.

New York CityOn its face, NYC seems like it would be a great place to meet people and make long-lasting connections. While that is true for some people its certainly not true for all. The floor of the building in which I lived was a microcosm of the cruelty and despair that can be NYC. Over a 10 year period, I witnessed alienation and heartbreak… and from what I’ve read and heard from others, my observations were more the norm than not.

  • Donna, a retired secretary, died alone in her apartment. Her body wasn’t found for three weeks.  No one had noticed her absence until the smell from the apartment became unbearable and the police broke into it and discovered her decaying body. Her daughter lived only 20 miles away and had not been in touch with her mother for over a year.  Having no friends, no one had checked in on her to even see if she was alive.
  • Tom, a retired businessman, died in the same manner. Luckily he was found after two weeks when the delivery boy became nervous about all the papers piling up outside Tom’s door.
  •  Boots, my next door neighbor, lived in a rent-controlled unit and had used lawn furniture to decorate as she couldn’t afford  anything else. She had very little money, a terrible job and a family that lived thousands of miles away in the Philippines. She lived alone… always hoping that her fortunes would somehow take a turn for the better.
  • Clarice, the French woman whose husband had been convicted and was serving time for tax evasion, waited years for him to return from jail. When he did, he died  shortly thereafter of a heart attack. Clarice would smoke marijuana every night, crying endlessly over the years missed with her husband and the untimeliness of his death.
  • Doreen, the travel agent, did not date until she was about 50 and then got married to a divorced businessman. Prior to that time, she had spent years years living alone with few friends ever coming to visit.
  • Mike and James were a gay couple who lived down the hall. Mike was a drag queen and would have vicious, knock-down fights in the hallway every few months with Mike. Mike was in the habit of going out completely covered in winter attire even on the hottest days of summer. He died in his 40’s and the tragic loss caused James’s life to spiral out of control. He was kicked out of their apartment and never heard from again

In economics, they would call this phenomenon a “supply” problem because the supply of people being so great makes it easy to discard people for the smallest of reasons. There is always a new batch of people from which to choose. But in the end, what so many New Yorkers unwittingly do is discard all of their relationships and end up with nothing… ironically… because nothing real is valued. Many New Yorkers never even fully choose and commit because there is always someone new around the next corner and these new possibilities always seem better in anticipation than what they turn out to be… and so the pattern goes on. In contrast, people who live in smaller cities or towns where “supply” is limited tend to have greater appreciation for others and a willingness to commit to the work that any long-lasting relationship requires.

I’ve been in finance most of my adult life. What I came to realize living in NYC and elsewhere was that whether its commodities or relationships, a “glut” in the market tends to have an inverse effect upon value. Its a bad enough situation in finance. Its tragic in human interactions and may explain the alienation so many wind up feeling who flee small towns for the bright lights and glitter of the “big city.”

NYC it turns out is like having a hero. Better kept at a distance than up close and personal… where its all too easy to see the imperfections.

Stuck in a House

Starting at the age of 4, my parents use to send my sister and me to Ecuador for the summers to live with our grandparents. For the next 5 years, that house in Ecuador became my home. At the time I was living in Florida and had a slew of toys and friends with which to play.

boredGiven that both of my parents worked, and did not have much money, it seemed like a good idea at the time for them to send us to South America as they  were then able to work more hours and make more money.

My grandparents lived in Guayaquil.  Their home was in a nice part of town but very removed from any real activity. My grandfather owned a small cologne company which distributed perfumes and colognes throughout the country.  My grandmother spent almost all of her time in bed as her heath was so fragile that just walking around and limited movement was all she could muster.

After the morning breakfast, my sister and I literally had to figure out how to occupy our days. Aside from the occasional visitor that came by, we were essentially on our own all day… every day… for 3 months.

There was only one television in the house, it had no programming until 3PM, was in black and white… and Spanish. Even the cartoons were in Spanish! There was literally nothing to do all day long. My sister and I spent countless hours figuring out ways to entertain ourselves without any toys, games, TV or computers.

We learned to explore the inside and outside of the house all the way to the roof as well as the details of the backyard. Midday, my grandfather would come home for lunch followed by a two hour siesta whereby the whole city would shut down. So after spending the whole morning completely bored out of my mind, I was forced to my room to lie down for the next two hours for a nap. I absolutely came to detest the place!

The weekends offered the only respite from the grueling monotony. I would get together with my cousins on Sunday to frolic and play. I have numerous aunts, uncles and over 30 cousins so those days were active and quite a lot of fun. They ended way too quickly as they were the only times I was able to play with other kids.

But here’s the rub.

1.  In Ecuador I learned some valuable lessons. I learned to speak Spanish, a skill that has gotten me countless jobs and opportunities I never would have been qualified for without that second language.

2.  I developed a love of solitude, reading and the ability to entertain myself without any external “bells and whistles.”

3.  I learned about poverty at an early age. All of the maids that lived and worked in my grandparent’s house came from very humble origins. Most of them lived in mud houses two hours away from the city with no running water. The workers were paid $100 per month for the work and they were happy to live and work in a house that had electricity and running water. It made me aware that a lot of the benefits in my life were strictly based on the circumstances of my birth. In small and humble ways it made me sensitive to the needs of those less fortunate and charitable in whatever ways I can help.

All of those early experiences, so painful at the time, helped me later in life to have more depth as an individual, more understanding as a parent and more opportunities as a businessman. The point is that I learned that life is always presenting us with chances to grow if we choose to make the best of them. At the time, they may not seem like building blocks for a better life… but they are.

This irony is that today, with 6 kids and a house full of obligations, I long for those summers in Ecuador and the endless days when there was nothing to do and plenty of time to think.  I believe it was the 1960’s folk singer Joni Mitchell who said, “You don’t know what it’s like ’til its gone.”


An Epidemic of Hypocrisy

I have little patience for hypocrisy. I didn’t like it when Bill Clinton, sworn to uphold a legal oath and code of ethics put his hand on a bible and lied under oath. I didn’t like it when George W. Bush, after allowing the Saudi Royal family to fly out of the U.S. immediately following 911 as all other aircraft were grounded, picked up a bull horn and said to the Saudi terrorists “We hear you and now you’re soon you’re going to hear us.” I don’t like it when people like Gwyneth Paltrow or Chelsey Clinton come across as if they’ve gotten where they are professionally by working hard while dismissing who their parents were that opened doors for them that the average person couldn’t find with a map and a flashlight.


I especially don’t like it when Barack Obama gives an inaugural speech about parting the seas and reuniting the Nation when he has been the most divisive President to hold office in my lifetime. I don’t like it when he condemns the “arbitrary” and “racist” killings of black youth by white police officers then blatantly ignores the slaughter of black youth by black youth in his hometown of Chicago. I don’t like it when Congress passes the Affordable Care Act (the name itself is hypocritical) and then exempts itself from having to live under it.

Its New Year’s Day, 2015. I awoke to find “the dollar strongest in a decade” and the President’s approval rating “soaring to 50%.” Why? Because the dollar and the DOW are up and gas prices are down?

It’s certainly not because the average person is doing better financially. It’s certainly not because there is peace in our streets. It’s certainly not because the abortion rate is down. It’s certainly not because our college graduates are able to move out of their parent’s home, get a decent job and pay off their indebtedness for college loans. It’s certainly not because race relations are at an all-time high. It’s certainly not because our youth have a knowledge and understanding of the nation’s history. It’s certainly not because we have tamed radical Muslim extremism and lowered the tensions in the Middle East.

There have been a lot of “smoke and mirrors.” It isn’t unique to this Administration. It’s not a Democrat or Republican thing. It’s a “human failing” thing that happens when people obtain power over others. The DOW and the President’s approval ratings are not indicators of a healthy society. In point of fact, they are distractions from an ailing one.

When are we going to awaken to the realization that each one of us, not our elected officials or our investment advisers, are responsible for the world in which we live and the quality of existence that we create? When are we going to be willing to take personal responsibility and opt out of the game?

I hope the answer to that question is 2015. Happy New Year.