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Dangling Conversations

Michael K. Shaub, November 3rd, 2022

The songs of Simon and Garfunkel were part of the soundtrack of my youth, touching on a wide range of emotions from throughout life. I wondered how singers so young could have insights into all the stages of life, but several of their songs still strike me as remarkable. “Old Friends” spoke of two men who “sat on the park bench like bookends,” and included the haunting phrase, “How terribly strange to be seventy.” Even as an adolescent, it made me aware that I would be old one day.

The fourth song they released was called “Dangling Conversation,” about a middle-aged-or-older couple who had lost contact with one another emotionally. It was less of a hit than their first three, perhaps because it was so inward-looking, including this verse:

“And you read your Emily Dickinson

And I my Robert Frost,

And we note our place with bookmarkers

That measure what we’ve lost.

Like a poem poorly written,

We are verses out of rhythm,

Couplets out of rhyme

In syncopated time.

And the dangling conversation

And the superficial sighs

Are the borders of our lives.”

We have two chairs in our living room, side by side, where we read our versions of Dickinson and Frost—Beverly Lewis and The Wall Street Journal or, on a bad night, Facebook and Twitter. But we also have an oversized chair in the next room that we share to watch a movie or the news together. We have our dangling conversations, but they mostly resolve themselves around a bowl of popcorn or through a walk around the neighborhood.

 

And there are other chairs in our home, placed around an Amish table, that remind us that life is not just about those adjoining chairs in the living room, but about the investment of our lives in people. Last night we gathered again and heard the stories of students’ lives, captivated by the complexities they have lived through in their childhoods and the lives they wrestle with today. They shared tales of challenges overcome to get where they are—significant surgeries, living away from family as a teenager, even military service.

 

Next to me was the woman they come to see, listening intently, noting important details, and sharing insights. I often sit quietly, not just to hear the stories but to watch her deft touch with hearts. She does the same thing weekly with mothers of young children and with international students in other settings. She cooked the meal and prepared the setting that would allow them to connect with one another. And they did—while waiting for the last dinner preparations, at the table, and even standing around waiting to go out the door. I had the sense they really did not want to leave each other at the end of the night.

The dangling conversations never fully resolve in these evenings, leaving the door open to the next opportunity. That next chance to connect could happen with each other in an apartment, a classroom, or a coffee shop. Sometimes those connections continue in my office. But they were triggered by the desire of one woman to invest in others’ lives to make them richer.

I know because she has been doing the same thing for me for 45 years. And I know because of what my students have told me throughout the years. Last night, after the students left, I plopped down in my Robert Frost chair and checked my email. It contained a request from a former student for a recommendation for a PhD program. Several years ago, she had been in the exact same class that the students around the table are in this semester. After updating me on her life and talking about how helpful one of my colleagues had been in counseling her, there was this: “I hope you and Linda are both doing well. I had dinner at your home once and I’m pretty sure I had two servings of blueberry crumbles.”

My students generally know my wife only by her title, The World’s Most Beautiful Woman. I can say with confidence that this student met my wife only once. And yet she remembered not only her name, but the taste of the dessert that said to her, “You are welcome in our home.”

There may be a day when the two of us are “couplets out of rhyme,” as Simon and Garfunkel would say. There are days we live our lives in syncopated time, like any other couple. But the Dickinson and Frost chairs are not the only chairs in our house. And when the conversations dangle, I will be there, sitting by her, until they resolve.

Would you like a recipe for driving yourself crazy if you are a control freak? Then follow your fantasy football team on the Sunday before a national election. It is hilarious for me to think that I have any control over how anyone on my fantasy football team will perform. Not only do I get incensed when Philip Rivers throws another interception, I somehow attribute it to his character, as if he was a bad guy. (By the way, I will never play him again unless, of course, that no-good Josh Freeman fails me today against the Raiders.) It is equally useful for me to read every story on both Fox News and MSNBC about how the latest “most important election of our time” will turn out.

When I was younger, I thought that I had a lot of control over my environment, and I pushed forward with decisions as though I did. This often works out well, because in areas of a person’s environment where no one is actively intervening, there is little resistance to imposing your will. For example, people will allow you to be slightly impolite or endure your mild insults that help you to get your way. In the short run this leads to the belief that you have more control than you do. In the long run, it can lead to habits of thinking that can drive you slightly bonkers. It also leads to unrequited anger, which includes muttering short syllables under your breath in traffic, random honking, and yelling at referees.

I have had multiple experiences in the last year where I have felt that my life was completely out of my control. I move from challenge to challenge, and I start noticing that more people are asking me about how I am feeling, which is never a good sign. Though I acknowledge their concern, I quickly move on to the next assignment, the next event, the next class. In a cause-and-effect world, it makes sense for me to do what I know to do. Where I can choose, I want to choose well. It is in the times that I do not get to choose that I am concerned about my response.

I am not suggesting that I should just lie down and let the world roll over me. Though my faith is central to me, I have a responsibility to act. What scares me a bit is that I can consciously recognize that a situation is beyond my control, and yet still emotionally react as if it ought to be something I fix. I think that this is unhealthy, and I see it reflected in a number of scandals in the business world.

Insider trading is an attempt to control the uncontrollable, or at least to control what is not justly supposed to be controlled. Raj Rajaratnam was a master of the game in his years running the Galleon Group, mining all the information he could regardless of the legalities that might be barriers to obtaining it. He used many people, including the former Goldman Sachs director, Rajat Gupta, to help provide him with the ability to control the uncontrollable. And after his conviction last month, Gupta will be joining Rajaratnam in federal prison as a result.

Corporate executives are often expected to control the uncontrollable. Public companies receive annual opinions not just on their financial statements, but on their controls. Of course, the quality of their planning will impact the company’s results. But pervasive economic trends, taxing structures, and commodity prices can only be planned for to a limited extent. There is no way to eliminate all of the uncertainty, despite marketplace expectations. Many corporate executives have crashed their companies by misleading investors, trying to give the impression they were overcoming forces beyond their control. (For those of you who are concerned, I am currently tied in my fantasy football game because two of my players are totally worthless.)

As a father of five, I see this tendency manifested in my attempts to control my children in areas where I ought to give them choice, even though they are transitional adults closing in on independence. When children are younger, we can control much of their environment, and we make many of their choices for them. We cannot protect them from every harm, but it is reasonable for parents to intervene and make choices that will help prevent serious damage. We can control where they go to school, who they play with, and what they eat. But we have to transfer that control to them, and our attempt to retain control beyond the days they are entrusted to us can only lead to long-term dysfunction and their inability to stand on their own. Even though our youngest son is a high school senior, we are still learning in this area. (While I was writing this paragraph, Josh Freeman completed two passes totaling 84 yards to Vincent Jackson, who is also on my fantasy team. I am now ahead by 21 points, and I am, by the way, a genius for having them both on my team. Sit down, Philip Rivers!)

If I am convinced that it can lead to various negative outcomes, how do I stop trying to control the uncontrollable? I would love to hear from you on how you have learned to let go of those things that you cannot control. Meanwhile, I need to go check and see what the polls say about the swing states so that I can question the credibility of the sources that disagree with me.

Categories: Athletics, Business, Politics

The picture above looks innocuous enough. Students are often in line—waiting to get into an exam or a class, waiting for tickets to a football game, waiting for a bus. But this line was different. Without my knowledge, my TA emailed my class and told them she would have a get well card for my wife, who has been challenged with heart issues over the last few months. What you see is my TA’s snapshot of the 30-minute-long line that ensued.

These students are currently in my class. Except for one or two, I have only known them for four weeks, and I am still learning names and faces. They have never met my wife, and they know her only by her official title, The World’s Most Beautiful Woman. We have not mentored them or invested in them. In fact, I have not even given them an exam yet.

What you are seeing expressed is honor. Honor is why we blow Silver Taps every month to remember fallen Aggies and why we softly call the Muster. I saw it last Saturday night at Kyle Field, as the entire stadium rose to honor the oldest living Aggie. I saw it even more intensely as everyone rose to applaud for a small group of disabled veterans who were sitting in the end zone bleachers. And the crowd repeated it, section by section, as those veterans moved by on their way out of the stadium in the second half.

Honor, freely given, is a powerful antidote to cynicism. I have observed that one of the characteristics most frequently mocked by detractors of A&M is our unflagging optimism, even in the face of contradictory evidence. I teach professional skepticism to young auditors like the ones you see standing in this line, so it is easy for me to let skepticism devolve into cynicism. But the experiences of my life since coming to Texas A&M have changed me, and I think for the better.

I am looking harder to find the good in things, and I am reconsidering my views when they are not well-informed. I am sitting still more often and taking a step back, rather than immediately trying to solve everyone’s problems. When I receive criticism, it still hurts, but I am less likely to lash back at the critic, and more likely to consider how I should change.

I do not mean to imply that being here has fixed my character problems. (If you cut me off in traffic, I will probably still honk.) But it has undeniably made a difference in my life. These voluntary expressions of honor—by my TA in arranging a card, by my students standing in line—have made it impossible for me to just careen into being a grumpy old professor.

Today I am trying to figure out ways that I can do things better and make the classroom experience richer for my students.

I keep going back to that picture of the line. What do you see there? Boredom, texting, a smile or two, conversation. What do I see?

I see the reason I invest my life at Texas A&M.

Categories: Texas A&M

As I begin the final week of Accounting Ethics, I am overwhelmed by the ground we have covered and the issues we have encountered over the past five weeks. Of course, many of them have been centered in Arkansas: the firing of head football coach Bobby Petrino for lying about a relationship with someone hired in the athletic department, the questionable hiring of his replacement who had only been head coach at Weber State for 4½ months, and the burgeoning Wal-Mart Foreign Corrupt Practices Act scandal. We have heard first-hand accounts of events at Adelphia and Enron, and we have been face-to-face for a conversation with an insider trader waiting to be sentenced.

By the middle of next week I will have read something close to 2000 papers and exams written by my students. I can only imagine that they are, as I am, sometimes overwhelmed by the constant drumbeat of bad behavior and excuses. It is only too easy to become cynical as we constantly focus on the bad guys and try to examine the motives for unjustifiable actions.

But there is something going on in some of my students that gives me a sense that they understand the importance of struggling with these issues now, rather than waiting until they are in the midst of an ethically problematic situation in a few years. I have seen leaders emerging in the classroom in ways that are not as evident to me when I teach Auditing, because they must wrestle with challenging one another about what is true and right, while still respecting one another enough to listen to opposing viewpoints. As usual, their freely chosen outside reading is varied, but I have had a number of students take on very challenging thinkers. Many of these students would not embrace the viewpoints they are reading, but they want to understand why others have come to different conclusions.

At the end of the week the students will submit to me ten or fewer principles to guide their professional lives, and their reasoning for anchoring on those principles. Some will arrive at them through their reading, some despite it. Some of those principles will be influenced by other members of their ethics accountability groups; many will come from their historic commitments to faith, to family, and to habits that already exist in their hearts.

For six weeks I am the conductor, not so much of an orchestra as of a train. I set the thing in motion in a direction, and a number hop on for the whole ride. As I look in my mirror, I can see others bailing out of a boxcar and rolling down the embankment along the tracks. I even get the occasional call from someone who was left behind in the station.

But there are some who will discover at the end of the week that this train is just a short hop run to the central station, and they will have to make a choice about which train they will hop on next. What is exciting is that I can already see some of them pulling the money out of their pocket to buy that next ticket, because their ultimate destinations matter to them.

They are well aware that they could be headed for honor or for shame, and that the choice is largely theirs. One of the most frequently repeated words I have seen used in their weekly reading summaries is “courage.” It is a virtue that they will need in great measure if they are going to swim against a societal current that does not always value ethical leaders.

But as I turn the train around and head back, I can tell you that I am hopeful. I have had long conversations with students in this class that give me great hope that they will choose well. If they do, it will not be because of me. But they have learned something of valuing the company they keep and the habits they build.

What lies ahead of them, on tracks that will never be seen by me, is the great adventure of a life lived well. It includes investment in people, valuing others and not simply personal gain. It includes the ability to say no to bad priorities and unethical people. It will also involve saying yes to things that matter and things that cost them something.

Of course, some of them will sit in the station, look at the choices, call a cab, and go home. I am not teaching this course for everybody, but for somebody. I may never know who that somebody is. But I have no need to, as long as that somebody catches the right train.

That is why I teach ethics.

Categories: Texas A&M

I have written on multiple occasions about the tendency in our society for competence to trump integrity. Highly skilled individuals who accomplish the goals of those who hire them are regularly given free rein to succeed by whatever means necessary. People with integrity who fall short of the goals, and who refuse to compromise their integrity to get where they need to be, are often cut loose.

Since Bobby Petrino’s much publicized motorcycle crash on April Fool’s Day with a 25-year-old football program employee on the back, there has been significant discussion about how the story would end. Athletic director Jeff Long announced yesterday that Petrino was being terminated immediately “with cause,” meaning that there would be no buyout of his contract. Long determined that Petrino had violated the morals clause of that contract, something pretty much everybody else had figured out by the end of the day on April 1.

But the morals clause didn’t require that he be fired; it only allowed it. And in the current environment of intercollegiate athletics, it is pretty easy to be cynical about what administrators will do in these types of situations. A CBS Sports report indicated that the value of the football program to the university has increased 59 percent since Petrino became the coach, and his last two teams finished in the top 10. With Arkansas playing in the SEC West along with the two teams who played in last year’s national championship game, this is no small accomplishment. Athletic directors are hard pressed to move against coaches who have the support of the university’s board and of boosters.

But when Long looks in the mirror, he knows that, as the incoming athletic director, he was the one who hired someone with a reputation for lying and dissembling. He also stole him away from the Atlanta Falcons in the middle of the NFL season; the coach left notes in his players’ lockers letting them know he was leaving rather than meeting with them as a group. From the moment he was hired, Long knew that this was a high risk, high reward hire. He was hiring a ticking time bomb. Some boards of directors hire CEOs using the same reasoning. And Long was smart enough to structure the contract to make it very difficult for Petrino to leave on a whim, and easy to fire him if he went off the deep end. Long thought that he had largely controlled his risk.

Petrino, using the terms of my profession, is a walking control weakness. He is the type of person who can override all the systems you have in place to insure compliance with the rules. And he did just that. He not only had an affair with a former volleyball player who worked for the university’s foundation, he allegedly gave her a $20,000 gift, and then he hired her over 158 other candidates for a position within the football program. The collateral damage is not just to Petrino’s family. He leaves behind him evidence of sexual harassment and violations of explicit university policy, if not state and federal law. It is hard to fathom the amount of time that university attorneys will spend cleaning up the Bobby Petrino mess. And that is assuming that there is not another shoe to drop. As an auditor, I would be reasonably skeptical about rules being followed in other areas of the football program.

Adam Smith once said, “To attain to this envied situation, the candidates for fortune too frequently abandon the paths of virtue; for unhappily, the road which leads to the one and that which leads to the other, lie sometimes in very opposite directions.” I am pretty confident that the road that Bobby Petrino was traveling down with a blonde on the back of his motorcycle was not the road to virtue. And from all appearances, despite his driving record, Razorback boosters were hopping on the back and hitching a ride. Kudos to Jeff Long for catching a cab back to town to begin the process of rebuilding Razorback integrity.

Categories: Athletics

Beren Academy is a modest sized school in southwest Houston, one that values both academics and athletics. This year their boys basketball team has experienced a successful run through the state basketball playoffs of the Texas Association of Private and Parochial Schools (TAPPS). They dominated their quarterfinal opponent, Kerrville Our Lady of the Hills, 69-42, advancing to the state semifinals this Friday evening in Mansfield. It is a game they will never play. You see, Beren Academy is an Orthodox Jewish school, and the game is scheduled for the Sabbath.

Coach Chris Cole readily admits that school administrators knew that this was a possible outcome for the team. Beren is only in its second year in TAPPS after competing as an independent in sports. Led by a slippery point guard and a skilled post player with a deft outside touch, the Stars were clearly the best team in their district, and they have been untested so far in the playoffs. Despite the fact that the semifinal and final games of the state championship have long been scheduled during the 24-hour period in which the Stars are unable to play, a past exception made for a Seventh-Day Adventist school in the state soccer tournament gave Coach Cole and his team hope that accommodations could be made.

This story has been picked up by the major newspapers and ESPN, so it is not my intention to belabor the issues involved. This story is somewhat personal because my son plays basketball in the same district as Beren, and the Stars were the only team in the district to defeat his school twice. The district is made up of four Christian schools and Beren. All of the district schools readily adjusted their schedules so that games against Beren could be played on Thursday night instead of Friday night. Coach Cole has been outspoken in his appreciation of the schools’ flexibility, as well of that of their quarterfinal opponent.

There are big problems in the world, and this does not qualify as a big problem. But there is a principle at stake. From Beren’s perspective it is a principle of honoring the Sabbath. But from most people’s perspective, it is an issue of justice. Perhaps Beren should bear some additional cost if arrangements have to be made that inconvenience other schools. But it does not seem like that cost should include not competing for a state championship.

TAPPS was in the news a year ago for its decision to oust Allen Academy, a Bryan private school, because of questions regarding allegedly improper tuition breaks to recruit players. Rather than accept probation from TAPPS, Allen joined an alternative private school association, the Texas Christian Athletic League, and has won the last two TCAL state boys basketball titles. But the decision made by TAPPS in that case was arguably a defense of the integrity of the association, one intended to insure fairness in competition.

This situation is different. The only thing TAPPS is really protecting is convenience, and perhaps the pocketbooks of TAPPS members. It is not impossible to imagine a scenario by which TAPPS could find an alternative location for an early afternoon basketball game Friday Then, if Beren makes the finals, the game could be played Saturday night at 8 p.m., immediately following the last game of the day on the current schedule.

Is there a religious freedom issue here? Probably? Is there a religious accommodation issue? Certainly. But this is not about legalities; this is an opportunity for TAPPS to demonstrate something that you would think would come readily to an association that is primarily made up of schools that are explicitly identified with Jesus Christ—grace.

TAPPS cannot win this dispute in the court of public opinion, but that is not why they ought to let those Beren boys play. They ought to do it on priniciple. They ought to do it as a demonstration of respect for the convictions by which Beren unapologetically operates.

But, most of all, they ought to do it because it is the right thing to do.

Categories: Athletics, Religion

As I walked out of Kyle Field following the season’s last painful field goal, I could hear the interview beginning with Mike Sherman over the stadium speaker system. I had trouble understanding a lot of what he was saying, but the pain in his voice was clear. It was the same pain I could see in the faces of the mass of Aggies who were shuffling slowly down the ramp, periodically stopping for the human traffic jam at the bottom. Even the Longhorn celebration was muted in the mob.

I have seen this before. I am not talking about coaches being fired, though that is true; this is the third “final game” I have attended of an A&M head coach. What I have seen before is that I have seen people do everything right and then get punished for it.

What came to me in the days after the game was Rudyard Kipling’s poem, “If.” “If you can keep your head when those about you are losing theirs, and blaming it on you . . . .” I have rarely seen a better example of this in my years than Mike Sherman. I have never heard him blame others. He has never thrown players or coaches under the bus when it obviously would have been easy to do so. Pick a game this year, and any Aggie fan can identify the players who made the critical mistakes that changed the outcome. Not Mike Sherman. As much as he knows about football, when it comes to blaming he simply pleads ignorance.

As head football coach, Sherman had his own standard for character and performance. If you were unwilling to live by that standard, you would not see the field, and you might not even see the locker room. That was apparent during his first year in which he sacrificed a completely winnable game because of what seemed to me to be the obstinacy of a player who did not want to pull his weight. I knew then that he was not about records, but about developing a system of excellence, one that valued integrity and character above outcomes.

I do not mean to imply that outcomes did not matter to our head football coach. With each excruciating loss, he suffered openly, but with composure. He modeled for the men in his locker room, and even for middle aged men like me, what it is to walk through the fire with your head held high. He removed a popular quarterback last year for productivity reasons, just as he had removed the popular quarterback before that one. And yet both those quarterbacks were completely loyal not just to their team, but to their coach. This is leadership that is rarely found in the business world or in athletics.

Mike Sherman is not an eloquent man, and he is not a schmoozer. He is a football coach who worked his way up and has had the bright lights shine on him at both the professional and college level. He seems to never have lost the sense of who he is. I read this morning that he told one of our top recruits that he ought to come here anyway and have a great career. I am confident that he will stay in touch with that recruit to make sure that he does, and that he will offer that young man any help that he needs.

We ought to attract coaches like that to Texas A&M, and we did. I heard on the radio this morning that the groundwork that Coach Sherman laid will provide the next coach the opportunity to succeed early in his tenure here. A statement like that has to make Mike Sherman smile wistfully. Doing things right may enable another man to succeed in the place that I am convinced he really wanted to finish his career. But I am sure he recognizes that those kinds of comments create exactly the kind of expectations pressure that a nine-win season does. And I am guessing that he has empathy for what that new coach will face in the SEC environment.

But I don’t think he will sit around feeling sorry for himself. It is our loss that Mike Sherman will not be a part of the Aggie community in the days ahead. As with Kipling’s poem, his goal with his players was to help them develop the perseverance through hard times that builds the character that would lead to the poem’s final line: “And—which is more—you’ll be a Man, my son.”

I have sat in a large auditorium and watched Mike Sherman march his players in to listen to a lecture on integrity. But I can say with confidence that he was wasting his time doing so.

Because all those players needed to do to learn about integrity was to watch what Mike Sherman did.

Categories: Athletics, Texas A&M

A former student recently asked me to write about the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) movement. Today’s paper reported our own OWS march in College Station though, admittedly, it consisted of only about 60 people. I read an interesting article the other day in The Wall Street Journal that focused on the legitimacy of concerns that college is overpriced, one of the causes of debt that has led OWS supporters to argue that the American system is unjust. The link between quality and price in American universities is worth a column, but I will save that for another day.

What I would like to focus on instead is a common thread in many problems today—our addiction to debt. There is a proverb that says, “The rich rules over the poor, and the borrower becomes the lender’s slave.” In my view, this has always been true. I find it humorous that people protest “greedy bankers.” It is like protesting hot summers in Texas. Bankers are greedy because they make money off their money. Ethics and banking are the lubricants of the capital markets, as we teach in Mays Business School. Only one is free and the other is a $500 oil change. Bankers do not produce anything; they enable others to produce things. And their goal is to make as much money off their money as possible.

All the big banks recently decided to raise debit card fees. Since it included bailed out banks, many people objected strenuously. The main problem I had with the policy change is that banks have spent the past ten years offering incentives to addict people to their debit cards, and then they turned around and charged for the behavior they incentivized. But how is that different from almost all marketing ploys, like satellite TV services offering me a twelve-month entry price and then continually increasing my bill once I am addicted to ESPN? Airlines have used checked bag fees to become profitable. But the master of this technique is the federal government. Just read your cell phone bill for all the fees they have dreamed up to charge you.

We still have control of the situation. Debit cards are broadly available from other financial institutions, and for most people a credit union will do everything a bank can do. And my biggest problem with Occupy Wall Street is that it implies that we have no choice in matters that lead to bankers being the master and borrowers being mistreated. Most debt is volitional, whether we admit it or not. Even where it is necessary, the amount of debt is volitional. If you speculatively borrow to buy a bigger house than you can afford because you think its value will increase, or because you want to live a certain way, you expose yourself to risk. I know, because I once bought a house that I could not afford. When I finally sold it, I walked away with $400 of my equity and the charred smell of the flame that almost consumed me financially. But it was my choice to do it.

In contrast, my son, who has had a good job for five years and is wealthier than I am, lives in a 500-square-foot apartment. And that is a step up. He used to live in somebody’s basement. If you use your student loan to fund a Starbucks lifestyle or an apartment in one of the high end complexes with all the amenities, you are presuming your ability to repay. And you have put yourself in a position that you may seriously regret one day.

There was a time when people saved to go to college. People argue all the time that the cost of college has escalated so fast that there is no way for most people to do that anymore. I empathize, as my fourth child is in college, and my fifth is a year and a half away. But my father fought a world war, and worked, and saved, and scraped to get his bachelor’s degree at age 31. He did not feel he had the inherent right at age 22 to become the research physicist he eventually became. He was convinced he had other duties, and he fulfilled them. He was a mechanic, and a bus driver, and a Marine before he was a white-collar worker. And while he was in college, he lived with my Mom and my brother in a small trailer that they pulled behind the car.

The debt that homeowners and college students burden themselves with is no different than Greece borrowing itself into oblivion to finance a welfare state. People riot rather than give up their benefits and say that their treatment is unjust. But Greece is a slave to their lenders, whether they are French, German, British, or American. And if they will not adjust their behavior, their economy will collapse completely. Even now, consideration is being given to their ejection from the European Union.

We are well on our way in the U.S. to doing the same thing. We are continuing to run obscene deficits that are unnecessary because we are addicted to our lifestyle. Serious discussions of how to cut are dismissed, and state-level cuts are objected to as cruel and unjust. We can yell all we want, but this will not go on forever. There is a day when you have to pay. And our “bankers” are not letting us borrow with our best interests in mind. They are doing it to make a buck. And when they can’t, they will call that loan.

So occupy Wall Street if you must, but you can’t change the proverb. The borrower is slave to the lender. What I plan to do is figure out how to eliminate my remaining debt and determine how much extra work my kids and I need to do to pay for their college.

And when it’s all paid off, I’ll get my lawn chair and come out to watch the protests.

Categories: Business, Society

Rich Kinder is a living parable.  Fifteen years ago he was denied the job he really wanted—CEO of Enron.  Instead, he was passed over for a financial engineering wunderkind, Jeff Skilling, who famously went on to crash and burn the seventh largest U.S. company.  Kinder went his own way, purchasing a modest pipeline operation that Enron no longer valued because of the “sleepy” nature of the business.  To Enron’s executives, there were better ways to make money, and they were the ones smart enough to leave the old ways behind and create new and better markets.  Jeff Skilling is serving 24 years in prison; Rich Kinder, on the other hand, is reportedly the richest person in Houston.

Kinder took that modest pipeline and transformed it through a series of acquisitions into what is now Kinder Morgan, Inc., which just announced that it would purchase El Paso Corp. for $21.1 billion, creating what would be the fourth largest American energy company.  It is a company with the potential to dominate the movement of natural gas across the U.S., particularly from the rapidly developing shale formations that are transforming the face of the energy industry.  Speculation that those formations may hold 100 years’ worth of natural gas has led to an explosion of capital investment, despite depressed prices for natural gas.  And Kinder Morgan will essentially charge for the transport of this gas, regardless of energy prices.

One can imagine the disappointment that accompanied Kinder’s denial of the Enron CEO job by Ken Lay, someone he had known since their days at the University of Missouri.  There was no way he could know what he was being protected from, but he did not go quietly into retirement or rest on his laurels.  Kinder knew pipelines, and Enron’s roots were as a pipeline company.  He knew what he had to offer, and he knew there was real value in that business, regardless of whether Ken Lay valued it or not.  And he went on to take his company private, then IPO it again, while maintaining a massive personal stake.  Forbes estimated his net worth this past March at $7.4 billion.

Here at Mays Business School, we do a good job of preparing our students for success.  What is much harder to do is to prepare students to fail, to fall short of goals, to finish second when only winning seems important.  The character that comes from remaining true to who you are in the face of obstacles, of unfair decisions, of shortsightedness on the part of others, is only developed through painful transformations.  Sometimes unfairness and failures make the wheels come off of lives that seem to be doing just fine.  Other times, these injustices fuel future successes.

But it is important for me to remind my students that they always get to choose their response to circumstances, even if they do not get to choose the circumstances themselves.  It is easier to complain than it is to get better.  And there are always sympathetic ears ready to help us wallow in our misery.  But that path is a dead end.

When we send students out from this place, they are works in progress.  What they are made of can only be revealed by time and experience.  They can protest in parks if they are unemployed, or they can improve their resumes and knock on doors.  They can leave when they are passed over for a promotion, or they can use that motivation to chart a different course, perhaps one they had not thought of before.

I meet very few students who expect to go out of here and fail.  And those who have failed are too seldom invited back to our classrooms to tell their stories.  The irony is that the very seeds of our success often dwell in the rotting fruit of our failures.  The opportunity to become someone they have never imagined comes when the barriers in their planned paths are insurmountable.

There is more than irony in Rich Kinder’s story.  There is the sweet fragrance of justice, of the end result being beyond all expectations.  In the end, Rich Kinder’s bio is a demonstration of the victory of substance over form.  And in a world that glorifies vacuous entertainers and makes people rich who have not really created anything, it is nice to see someone succeed who stuck to basics, thought long-term, and connected with other people of substance.  Whether the Justice Department allows the acquisition or not, I have no doubt that Rich Kinder will continue to overcome obstacles.

What I hope to learn from him is how to turn my biggest disappointments into greater opportunities.  Is anyone out there with me in wanting to learn how?

Categories: Business

We were driving to a former student’s wedding in west Texas this weekend, and our trip provided an up close and personal look at the damage that has been done by the wild fires raging across Texas this summer. Virtually every mile of the landscape was bone dry, but parts had been ravaged. We had to detour around Bastrop, which would have been our normal route, because the largest wild fire in Texas history had wiped out hundreds of homes and much of the state park. It likely will never be the same in my lifetime.

West of Austin, near Spicewood, the ground was charred on both sides of the road. The Pedernales River had no water in it where we crossed. Once we passed Brady, we were moving into what is traditionally west Texas, where the ground is always dry in the summer. It looked more natural there.

The winery where the wedding was held, near Christoval, could not have provided a starker contrast. Massive oak trees shaded the folding chairs from the evening sun, offering a majestic backdrop for those watching the ceremony. On either side were the rows of grapevines, lush and full, with a slow drip of water falling to the ground below them every few feet. The grass under the chairs was a luxuriant green. Everything about the setting, including the ceremony, spoke of tender care and careful attention.

Two west Texas families, one dressed mostly in cowboy formal, embraced the couple and one another in genuine joy. My wife and I were invited to join a table reserved for wedding party members that included two other former students. My primary observation sitting there was that I could not remember seeing more couples who were genuinely enjoying dancing together, not just dancing. I kept sensing that there was nowhere those couples would rather be than in each other’s arms. Daddies danced with daughters while Moms took pictures. The pastor danced with every woman who wasn’t chained down. There was the deep and unmistakable smell of life in the place. I was reluctant to leave, even though virtually everyone there was a stranger to me.

There is a tendency to take for granted the reliability of the seasons, of rain, of the essentials being provided when we need them, of life. This summer has made me less complacent, and more conscious of preserving the things that sustain life. We are living on the edge. A friend recently had to call 911 because someone’s cigarette butt had started a grass fire in her neighborhood. One moment she was trying to beat it out with a blanket, the next it was a 20 by 40 foot fire ready to take off down the street. Only a quickly arriving pumper truck prevented a serious problem.

I have noticed that, for many people, relationships are a tinder box as well, ready to catch fire and run out of control. And what catches them on fire are careless words. Speaking without thinking, angry words stretch and break relationships that have held together for years. Economic pressures make people self-interested and magnify others’ offenses.

We have even seen it in the process of Texas A&M detaching from the Big 12, and not just in blog posts. People are ready to set on fire longstanding relationships, and they make comments designed not to persuade, but to anger and to cut.

It may be time to leave, but bridges burned are not easily rebuilt. I know that many Aggies are tired of one school being condescending and another clinging on for dear life. But there are also legitimate concerns when we walk away from commitments, whether or not there are official contracts. We ought to patiently listen, even if it can be tiring and unnecessarily contentious. We could have left last year when it would have been easier. But we didn’t. We cannot control what others say about the situation, but we can make the choice to say less ourselves.

The ground is really dry out there. What we need is the drip, drip, drip of wisdom to bring back some life to the soil, and to the vines. It is a lot easier to toss the cigarette butt out the window and see what happens than it is to stop the vehicle and stomp it out on the pavement. But we shouldn’t be surprised if the pumper truck doesn’t get there in time to prevent some unintended consequences.

Categories: Friends, Society

I have a high school friend who told me the other day that she could guess what I was going to write about this week. I am quite confident that more than necessary has already been written about the latest New York politician to implode. I watched a brief press conference today in which the moral high ground was held by a celebrity lawyer who specializes in taking high profile clients and ratcheting up the public embarrassment to squeeze additional dollars out of people who have morally compromised themselves. At least I think she held the moral high ground. It might have been the dancer next to her who just wanted her life back.

Anthony Weiner seems oblivious to the damage he is doing to his reputation, to his party, to his marriage, and to his causes. It is clearly all about him, with his life meaning inextricably tied to his ability to retain power and the benefits that go with it. He is what he does. It is hard not to wince.

But he is not the only one. West Virginia University head football coach Bill Stewart recently resigned under pressure after being accused by a former Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reporter of asking the reporter to dig up dirt on head-coach-in-waiting Dana Holgorsen. Holgorsen, who is now the head coach, made the job somewhat easier a few weeks ago by allegedly being escorted from a casino at 3 a.m. by security personnel, leading to other rumors. WVU athletic director Oliver Luck thought that it was a good idea to hire Holgorsen while telling Stewart he would be gone in a year. This was despite the fact that Stewart had been hired after being the interim coach for a huge upset of Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl, and followed that up with three nine-win seasons. This is roughly equivalent to being asked to wash the socks of your girlfriend’s new boyfriend (only you get paid seven figures to do it). I think it is safe to say that we will not see any more head-coaches-in-waiting.

Stewart was understandably upset at being dumped. But he managed to take a bad situation that elicited sympathy even from people who thought he should be fired, and turn it into a permanent divorce from the university. He could not accept that it was time to move on.

Last year’s news was dominated by this same story involving Brett Favre, whose closing chapter of his career managed to combine both football and sexual harassment. As his body and his season fell apart, he finally found it in himself to say that it was over.

UPDATE: Shortly following the publication of this column, Rep. Anthony Weiner held a press conference announcing his immediate resignation from his seat in the U.S. House of Representatives.

Or did he? Few believe that John Edwards can ever be a viable presidential candidate again after his scandal. But apparently the taste of power, and fame, and money can make men do strange things. Some things are apparently so precious that they must be secured at any cost, regardless of the damage to others.

Maybe we can think of Weiner, Stewart and Favre as the Fellowship of the Ring. But what they bring to mind for me is a song from the early 70’s that the Jackson Five made famous—”Never Can Say Goodbye.”

One day they will ask me to walk away from the classroom and not come back. My name won’t be on any statues or doors on the campus. My day will have passed. And that day will be here before I know it.

I only hope, when it comes, that I have what it takes to say thanks and walk away. Because, if what you do is who you are, you never can say goodbye.

Categories: Athletics, Politics

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