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Jerry’s Gumbo

Gumbo ingredients

There are three things at which New Orleans excels: food, music, and having a good time. 

Let’s talk food.

N’awlins cuisine is not just about eating it, but also about preparing it. For me, it was a combination of watching Justin Wilson on local public television, learning a thing or two from Leon Soniat (a Jefferson parish legend), and my friendship with Rita Godchaux. 

Rita was a grade ahead of me as were my two best friends Veazey and Alfred.  Rita made it through Louisiana State University (LSU) with a degree in “general studies” which, at LSU, translates into a degree in specialty #3, that is “having a good time.” In fact, I’m pretty sure that if there were a Dean’s List in having a “good time,” Rita would have been there – every semester.

After graduation, as many of my friends, Rita ended up working on offshore oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico. But women back then didn’t qualify for being a roustabout or roughneck. Rather, Rita apprenticed and later became head chef, knowing that being a cook for roustabouts and roughnecks is about as close to being God as possible. It didn’t hurt that Rita was pretty hot.

Like other rig workers, Rita had a “two week on, one week off” schedule. She would often spend her “off” weeks at The Palm Beach Club – aka Veazey and Alfred’s house just off Jeff Highway in the heart of Jefferson Parish’s Harahan. Rita would trade a week’s worth of lodging and partying for a day’s worth of cooking. The latter would generate enough food to last until her next appearance.

Here’s what I learned from Rita about cooking gumbo. (I learned a lot of other things from Rita, but we best stick with gumbo for now.)

Before you start, have a bottle of wine. Maybe two. Check that. At least two.

A good gumbo takes about a couple of hours and the better part of a bottle of wine. White for seafood gumbo. Red for sausage and ham gumbo. Let’s go with white and seafood.

Regardless of which color wine and dish you choose, the foundation of a good gumbo is a good roux. Like many things in life, a roux is simple but challenging. The ingredients are simple – oil and flour. Typically it is one-half or 3/4 cup each. 

The first thing to do is to heat up the oil in a large deep cooking pan. Put it on medium temperature. After a few minutes (use the time to open that wine bottle!) drop on a sprinkling of flour. Make sure that the oil is hot enough to make the flour sizzle. If so, slowly feed in the rest of the flour. Use the back of a spatula to work the flour into the oil until it is totally mixed together. Turn the heat down and spend the next twenty minutes using the back of a spatula to work the flour and oil mix until it is a thick golden brown.

Take your time. This is the zen part of Cajun cooking. A good roux requires requires patient attention. Rita said that you need to work the mix at least once every minute or so. In between, you’ve some time to (a) drink a little wine and (b) dice some vegetables. They’re both part of the recipe!

The vegetables consist of three onions, two bell peppers (one green and one red), and 4-5 stalks of celery. Find a sharp knife. Use your best dice technique. Mix them all in a bowl.

Take a sip of wine.

Once the roux is a dark golden brown (about a full glass of wine’s worth) toss in the vegetables and stir with the goal of coating all the vegetables with the freshly made roux. Continue to work the vegetables until the onions caramelize and the peppers and celery soften.

Now comes the multi-tasking.

In between working in the vegetables, do three things. First, find a place on the stove for one of your bigger, deep cooking pots. That is where everything is going to happen next. Second, open up a small can of tomato paste and a big can of whole or chopped tomatoes. Finally, open up a box of seafood stock. And when the vegetables are nice and soft, combine all three – the vegetables, the tomatoes, and the seafood stock – in that large pot and crank up the heat.

Have another sip of wine.

While the stew begins to heat up, prepare the shrimp. You’ll want a couple of pounds of medium size shrimp. I like them fresh and raw. Rita said that the best way to prepare shrimp is either to bake or steam them. Baking works best for bar-b-que shrimp but that’s another recipe, so Rita typically leaned towards steaming. That requires another pot with a couple of inches of water and a colander large enough to handle 2 lbs of shrimp. Once the water is boiling, put on the shrimp and cover. You’ll want to stir every 15-20 seconds or so. Shrimp cook quickly and, if overcooked, they get a bit rubbery so you’ll want to stop once the shrimp get nice and red and the skin begins to separate. Drain and let the shrimp sit for a couple of minutes.

Everyone has their own way of peeling shrimp. Rita said the tail goes first. Then you grab the legs at the top of the shrimp and peel around in a circular motion. Once that’s done do something similar to the bottom half. That works for me … but you do you.

This is optional, but if I’ve time I often get a pan and lightly sauté the shrimp in a garlic butter mixture. Low heat. Careful not to overcook. I find it provides a bit more flavor.

Then there’s the okra. Can’t have gumbo without okra. But watch out. Okra is a bit dicey to cook. Slice them to about ¼ inch. Then slowly cook 2-3 tablespoons of butter. Add the okra. Stir constantly. Consider adding a bit of Worchester sauce (but not too much!!!). Don’t overcook as overcooked okra can get gooey quickly.

Put the cooked shrimp into the large pot of vegetables, tomatoes, and seafood stock. Add a large can of crabmeat and – if you’re brave – a can of whole oysters (with sauce). Then add the okra.

Have another sip of wine.

At this point, you should have a hefty pot of gumbo. Boil then simmer. Once that’s past another sip of wine you add the basil, bay leaves, (very small) thyme, chili power (cayenne pepper is better), a dash of Worchester.

Now for the hot sauce. Feel free to toss in Colonel McIllheny’s Tobasco sauce. But if you’re really brave and want to show your native roots consider Crystal Hot Sauce from my hometown of Jefferson Parish.

While everything settles, get busy cooking a box and potful of Uncle Ben’s rice. A medium-size box of Uncle Ben’s Original Long Grain White Rice should do the trick 

Finally, know that gumbo tastes better over time. So if you’ve time, let it sit for at least a hour or so. 

Time to finish off the first bottle of wine and open another. 

When you’re ready get a nice, rounded scoop of rice and serve the gumbo over it so it surrounds it like a moat. Season and spice to your taste. Rita liked to add a dash or file powder to hers.

Sidenote. If you really want to show off, have a couple of baguettes handy, slice, butter, maybe a bit of garlic powder and lightly toasted in the oven.

You’ll have enough for anywhere from six to ten servings, depending on the size of the serving. Rita’s mix usually lasted the better part of the week.

Enjoy! As they say in the Crescent City, “Laissez les bons temps roulez!”


2 lbs of shrimp

2 dozen oysters (medium size can)

½ dozen crabs (medium size can)

¾ oil (or, if you’re adventurous, lard!)

3 onions, chopped

4-5 large cloves of garlic, minced

1 6-oz. can of tomato paste

1 16 oz. can of whole or chopped tomatoes

1 ½ quart of seafood stock

2 cups of chopped okra

½ tsp. of thyme

1 tsp. of basil

4-5 bay leaves

½ tsp. of chili powder (use cayenne!)

½ cup of minced parsley

Dash(es) of Crystal/Tobasco hot sauce

1 stick of butter (Justin Wilson)

The Other Debate: Footnote vs. Hyperlink

I work with a team of researchers.  I am old (over fifty) and my colleagues are young (twentysomethings).  I prefer my research that has footnotes.  You know, those things with numbers and text at the end of the page or article.  They prefer to use hyperlinks, the stuff you click on to get to a web site.

Suffice it to say it has been a challenge for both sides.  So in the spirit of fair play, I tried to imagine a debate – debates are pretty popular these days – between a Footnote and a Hyperlink.

You tell me who you think wins.

Footnote– I don’t get it.  As best I can tell the biggest distinction you guys have is that you’re underlined and in a different colored font.  That’s it.  I look at you and you tell me nothing.

Hyperlink– We’re highlighted so people know that with just a click they can get to the real source.  Jeez.  You old folks.  You know, you should get out more.  Take a walk or something.  Oh!  How about this?  How about going on the  Internet?  Ever heard of that?  Why waste type space with the endless dribble that you Footnotes put us through when you can take people straight to the source.

Footnote– Funny.  Well, not really funny.  More like impertinent.  Sad, really.  You young folks have an amazing ability to think you are the center of the universe.  That you know everything.  A bunch of baby Jesus’ out there walking around like you’re God’s gift to the planet.  Look, I like the Internet as much as anyone.  But what if there’s no 4G or WiFi?  And God forbid what if someone is reading this on a piece of paper?  What good is your “click” for then?  I’ll give you a hint.  Bupkiss!

Hyperlink– Dude, if you can’t afford to find a Starbucks then I don’t know if you should be reading.  I mean, really, even McDonalds has WiFi now.  Reading something on a piece of paper?  Please.  People used to read on clay tablets and scrolls.  You guys are still killing trees.  I bet you still use one of those 20lb telephone books.  Wake up grandpa.  Today people read on devices.

Footnote– People can read on whatever they want to.  That doesn’t bother me.  But at least with a footnote people get information.  You know, minor details like “author”, “date of publication”, “title”.  All that used to be important.  Check that; all that is still important.  At least for people who are more interested in the truth and real research, not just tricking  people into clicking on someone’s web site.

Hyperlink– Excuse me?!  While you’re sitting there in your wheelchair, I take people to the source.  Directly.  One click and boom.  You’re right at the source material.  In short, I actually do something.  You just sit there.

Footnote– You know, sometimes just sitting there is a good thing.  You might learn a thing or two by staying in one place, focusing and thinking about one topic longer than five seconds.  And please, spare the diatribe about source material and sending folks to “the source”.  Half the time when I click on you guys all I get is crap – stock symbols, press releases and a wikipedia entry.  Frankly, I don’t need your help to figure that out.  More often than not you “sources” are about as helpful as cheese sandwich to a drowning ferret.

Hyperlink– You just don’t get it do you.  It is about convenience and variety.  That is what people want today.  They want to be able to navigate sources without having go through the equivalent of a card catalogue.  And they want a variety of sources.  People like the offbeat, non-traditional perspective.

Footnote– Variety.  That’s a nice way to put it.  Others call it “promescuity”.  You hyperlinks will hook up with  just about anything or any body any time.  That is why you’ve got so many HTDs – hyperlinked transmitted diseases.

Hyperlink– Look, there’s protection for that.  And besides, hyperlinking is a good workout.  Please spare me the lecture on abstinence.  That’s been a great success, hasn’t it!  We’re way beyond that old man.  And please don’t tell me that all footnotes are pure.  I’ve heard stories.  Phantom publications. Footnote loading.  You guys have your issues.

Footnote– But at least we give people something.  We’re transparent.  We lay it all out.   Transparency, now there’s a word I hear a lot from you young folk.  Only problem – actually it isn’t the only problem just one of many – like in most things you guys don’t practice what you preach.  You guys are about as open as a Swiss banker.  And like a Swiss banker you’re more often than not laundering someone else’s trash.  At least with a footnote people know what they’re getting in to.

Hyperlink– Boring!

Footnote– (With a chuckle) I think you’ll find that as you get old boring is very under-rated.

Hyperlink–  O.K.  I’ll give you that.  Sometimes the hyperlink thing gets tiring.  And sure, there are a lot of hyperlinks out there that get carried away and end up doing some pretty silly things.  Chaulk it up to youthful indiscretion.

Footnote– Some?  Silly?  I’d say so.  Look, I think you’re a fine young man.  You seem to want to do the right thing.  And sure, there are a lot of us footnotes that have spent a bit too much time on the sofa.  We’d do well to get out there and have a bit more exercise.

Hyperlink– A bit?  Dude you’re a heart attack waiting to happen.  I’m telling you, this Internet and connectivity thing isn’t slowing down.  You need to get your game on.  Check that.  Just get in the game.

Footnote– So how about this, next time I reference source material I’ll ask one of your buddies to hyperlink to it?  How about that?

Hyperlink– Sure.  Too bad when people mouse over us we can’t do your schtick – the whole author, publication, date thing.  Maybe someone will figure that out in the next rev.  We’re always being update and rewritten you know.

Footnote– I’ll give you the contact information for the folks at the Chicago Style Manual.  Maybe they can get together with your programmer types.


Belle, West Virginia

They are easy to make fun of.

The women’s hair is a bit too big, their necklines a bit too low.  Men sport facial hair and at least one article of clothing is “camouflage.”  Men’s shirts usually don’t have sleeves.  Faces and hands reflect a hard scrabble living.  Cigarettes and obesity are hard to avoid.  A good percentage of the houses are “manufactured” – that is, mobile homes sitting on cinder blocks.  Many are abandoned.  Cars, or various parts of cars, dot the front lawns.  A lot of lawns need  mowing.

But then you meet and work with the people you see something very, very different.

You realize that a lot of us “sophisticated big city and affluent suburban” types could learn a lot from the people in Belle, West Virginia – this town just outside of Charleston south of the Dupont Chemical plant.  A place where the McDonald’s is open all night to accomodate the shift workers.

I spent a week there with a bunch of high school kids from churches across the country – Texas, California, Illinois.  They divided us into crews and we spent a week in a family’s home cleaning, painting, doing odd jobs.  We all learned some things.  How to rehang a gutter.  How to fix a roof.  How to build a deck.

But what we learned most was from the folks in Belle.

We learned that there are people out there who still know and care for their neighbors.  One of our crews was working with an elderly woman whose son was in the hospital with cancer.  He passed away that Tuesday morning, just the second day we were on the job.  Within hours there were dozens of neighbors descending on the house with food and condolences.  They stayed all day.  As one person said with a smile, “we take of each other here in Belle.”

How many of us in our comfortable suburban neighborhoods could say that?

We learned that there are people who keep their word.  Our crew was assigned to the house of “Miss Ginny”.  We were struggling with a gutter installation that was part of our work assignment.  The pitch on the roof was too steep (at least for us) and ladders too unstable.  On our last day in Belle, I saw a handful of men, the oldest well into his sixties, in the neighborhood fixing the roof on a small house down the block.  I asked if he’d come down and look at the project. He did.  “How much?”  I asked.  “Fifty dollars cash.” He replied matter-of-factly.  I handed him seventy-five dollars and never saw him again.  A week later I got a thank you note from our resident, Miss Ginny.  “The gutters look beautiful,” she wrote.

I wonder if I could have relied on a random contractor in our community to do the same.

We learned that there are people who are grateful for even the smallest of things.  We worked the entire week at Miss Ginny’s house, often in blistering heat.  Miss Ginny always sat with us in the shade on the carport.  She was hard of hearing, a cancer survivor, and suffered from lupus.  But she was there every day.  She’d be the first to hold the ladder when someone was up caulking or painting.  She’d bring us home made brownies and store bought Cheetos.  She had water in the fridge.  Her small frame home was dark and simple but she made it our own and never complained about the sweat, sawdust, and grass that I’m sure we tracked in and out.  She was all alone.  Her husband died seven years ago.  The two boys were far away.  She lived off social security.  Not a hint of any modern technology – no cable, no computer.  Her health was failing.

But never a complaint.  Indeed, I’ve never heard anyone say thank you as much as Miss Ginny.  “You guys are doing a great job!” she said repeatedly (even though our work was very amateur hour).  “Thank you so much!” came at least once an hour.  Miss Ginny constantly reminded us that she felt very blessed and thanked the Lord every day for all the good things in her life.  She didn’t have much, but was always joyful for what she had.

And I thought to myself how often I complain about even the small things that go wrong in life.

Yup.  We all learned a lot from the folks in Belle, West Virginia.

Get past the surface appearances, the stereotypes and the things that – at the end of the day – really don’t matter that much- and you see people that we all would do good to aspire to.

Truth is good, but not popular

I remember being there in the Moscone Center.  It was July 19, 1984.  (Yes, I’m that old.)  “Morning in America” had not arrived.  Many thought Reagan would be a one-term president.  I was watching Democratic candidate Walter Mondale give his acceptance  as the presidential nominee of the Democratic Party.  It was a great speech.  Historic.   Then about half-way through the speech came this:

Let’s tell the truth. It must be done, it must be done. Mr. Reagan will raise taxes, and so will I. He won’t tell you. I just did.

And I said to myself:

And you just lost!

Of course, Mondale was right.  That is, what he said was true.  President Reagan did raise taxes.  But that wasn’t exactly the campaign promise that gets people elected.

Recently President Obama got into trouble for saying that the private sector was doing “OK”.  It actually is doing OK.  The private sector’s got record profits and sitting on $1.7 trillion in liquid assets.  Small problem.  They got OK by laying off people.

Similarly, Congressman Ryan got in trouble by saying that entitlements were bankrupt and that we’d need to raise retirement eligibility and reduce benefits.  Can you guess how that went over?

Al Gore talked about an Inconvenient Truth.  Ron Paul reminds us that as a nation “we’re broke!”.

Popular guys, right?

We hear a lot about honesty and transparency in the communications business these days.  But the fact is that honesty – that is, telling the truth – is something that most people don’t want to hear.

Honesty is only popular when it is something you agree with … or it is funny.  That is, when honesty makes fun of other people.  (We don’t like truth that makes fun of ourselves!)

That’s why David McCullough’s commencement speech at Wellesley High School went viral.  He was the guy who had the guts to tell students, “you’re not special!

Telling truth to power?  Not really, just digging high school students.

Then there’s that great ad movie, Crazy People.  Dudley Moore plays an ad guy who is goes to an insane asylum and begins writing ads that are “truthful”.  Memorable ad copy included:

  • You may think phone service stinks since deregulation, but don’t mess with us, because we’re all you’ve got. In fact, if we fold, you’ll have no damn phones. AT&T – we’re tired of taking your crap!
  • Volvo, they’re boxy but they’re good.
  • Forget Paris, the French can be annoying.  Come to Greece, we’re nicer.
  • Porsche. It’s a little too small to get laid IN, but you get laid the minute you get out!
  • Paramount Pictures presents ‘The Freak.’ This movie won’t just scare you, it will f@*k you up for life.

The fact is most of us don’t like the truth.  And rather than become popular like Dudley Moore, the better story about the effect of truth-telling is in Moliere’s The Misanthrope.  Alceste, tired of the vapid, obsequiousness, and politesse of his community takes a vow of truthfulness.  He quickly finds that truth can be a lonely endeavor indeed.

Fast forward some 350 years, truth remains a bummer.  Colonel Nathan Jessep was right.  Most of us can’t handle the truth.

Don’t get me wrong.  Truth is a good thing.  It can make you free.

Just be prepared.

I don’t see a lot of evidence that it has ever been very popular.

The price of citizenship

After 30 years of living in the United States, my wife is becoming an American citizen.  I’m excited.  More importantly, she is  excited.  She loves the land in which she was born (Holland).  And while she is proud of her Dutch family (and visits them often!), she has raised three children here and has worked as a caterer, teacher, and social worker helping American families.

A hard decision.  But she wants to be able to vote.  And she believes in both the idea and people of America.

Now I read the co-founder of Facebook recently renounced his U.S. citizenship to become a citizen of Singapore.  Originally from Brazil, he’s lived in Singapore all of that last three years.  Why is he trading U.S. citizenship for Singapore?  Taxes, I’m told.  He didn’t want to pay them.

Money.  I understand Eduardo Savarin is changing his citizen because we wants to save some money.  It isn’t because he is poor (he parents were wealthy Brazilians who moved to Miami for security reasons).  He is not only wealthy, he is obscenely wealthy.  And in Singapore, he won’t have to share any of it!  Oh, and there’s a bonus.  He’ll be able to enjoy cheap domestic help since Singapore has no minimum wage.

I hope this guy really like Singapore.  I hear it is a very exciting place.

But don’t bring Juicy Fruit.  I understand that they don’t like chewing gum.  They also seem to have a fetish for caning.  They do it for all sorts of things.  Including immigration violations!  They are also a big fan of executing people.  They are not fans of jury trials by your peers.  Got rid of that in 1970.  Too messy and inconvenient, I guess.  I read on Wikipedia that:

Amnesty International has said that some legal provisions conflict with the right to be presumed innocent until proven guilty, and that Singapore has ‘possibly the highest execution rate in the world relative to its population’.”

One thing everyone agrees on is this:  Singapore loves money.  I’m reading in Wikipedia that “the Singaporean economy is known as one of the freest,[62] most innovative,[63] most competitive,[64] and most business-friendly.  The entry goes on to say:

“Singapore has the world’s highest percentage of millionaire households, with 15.5 percent of all households owning at least one million US dollars.[94] Despite its relative economic success, Singapore does not have a minimum wage, believing that it would lower its competitiveness. It also has one of the highest income inequality levels among developed countries, coming in just behind Hong Kong and in front of the United States.[95][96]

It is a democracy.  But one of those where the same party has won every election since independence in 1959.

Don’t get me wrong.  I’m sure Singapore is a lovely place with wonderful people.

My wife is changing her citizenship based on family, service, and ideals.  That is America.

Savarin is changing citizenship based on money.  That seems to be Singapore.

I think they both made a decision fit for each other.

Reason and the Reason Rally

Today being Sunday, I thought of the Reason Rally.  That was the rally for atheists on the Mall yesterday that headlined scientists Dr. Richard Dawkins, comedian Eddie Izzard, and magician James Randi.  That and yesterday a good friend sent me a piece that appeared in the New York Times by Gary Cutting with the provocative title, “Does It Matter Whether God Exists?”

The event and the article got me thinking about all my atheist, agnostic and theistic friends and as a Christian, the many wonderful and oftentimes impassioned conversations we’ve had about God, faith and religion.  As I thought about my friends and read through Gary Cutting’s article I also thought about how many things atheists and Christians can actually agree on (that is of course, putting aside the question of whether there is or is not a God.) and how silly it was that we can’t embrace our agreements and move on to more interesting discussions and do so as Peter admonished Christians in “gentleness and respect”.

Here are at least three things on which I think many Christians and atheists can agree.

  • You can be religious and spiritual without a God.  This is most certainly true.  There are many people who are religious and spiritual and don’t have a belief in a God.  At least not the God that I know.  Now I’d be quick to say that most Christians wouldn’t advise this.  Jesus criticism of the Pharisees was, in part, that religiousity and spiritualism absent God quickly leads to legalism.  But  people can be spiritual and have a sense of ethic and moral rightness without a belief in creator God.  I know because I’m friends with many!
  • You can be a “good person” without believing in God.  Absolutely!  I know a lot of great, wonderful, decent people who are atheists.  They are honorable, trustworthy, and people of integrity.  Moreover, I’ll be the first to admit that there are a lot of people who believe in God (e.g. Christians) and who fall woefully short in this category – that is, behavior.  You have to go no further than me.  I’m a really good example.  There are a lot of people I know who are not Christians and behave much better than me.  I’ll be the first to admit that.
  • “Being good” is important.  Or as philosopher John Gray closes in the BBC article, “What matters is how we live.”  Totally agree.  (Note that Christians would challenge the prior statement  – that what we believe doesn’t matter – but that’s a whole different issue.)  A good part of the book of James talks about behavior.  What we do.  And if anyone wants to read the Gospels they can count how many times Jesus said that “if you love me you’ll do what I say”.  He said that a lot.  I don’t think he was kidding.  And what did Jesus say?  “Love your neighbor as yourself” – a pretty high standard of “being good” in anyone’s book.

So on this Christians and atheists can agree:  (1) you can be religious and spiritual without a God; (2) you can be a good person without believing in God; and (3) how you behave is pretty important.

On this, we agree.

All I’d ask of friends at the “Reason Rally” to consider, is that belief in a God is a quite reasonable and logical conclusion when working through the answers to three important questions about life.

  • How did life come from non-life?  This is a tough one if you exclude a Creator.  We can say we don’t know.  But the conundrum of how animate, sentient, spiritual life came from a big blob of earth, water and air is a tough one without injecting a Creator God.  String theory?  Sure.  But isn’t it reasonable to think belief in string theory is as much of a faith leap as believing in God?
  • Are there objective, irrevocable, eternal moral truths?  Is it right to tell the truth?  Is is bad to murder someone?  Is love the highest ethic?  And are these things all true regardless of when you were born or where you lived throughout history regardless of our evolutionary state?  God explains eternal truths in a very compelling way.  Without God we are left to genetics, evolution, and societal norms which by their very nature have and continue to change over time.  Without God eternal moral truths are hard to reason or logic.
  • Is there a purpose and coherence in life?  Absent a God, purpose and coherence become a struggle.  That’s not just me.  It is everyone from Darwin to Nietzsche to Sartre to Betrand Russell.  They understood, recognized and openly spoke about it.  One can conclude that purpose and coherence is self-made.  But then man becomes the measure of all things and its reasonable for some to worry which “man” becomes that “measure”.

You can disagree with ALL of the above.  All I’m trying to do is suggest to atheists, agnostics and those who challenge faith in God that (a) we agree on more than you might think we do; and that (b) while you may not agree or believe that a God exists, belief in God is indeed a quite reasonable thing.

And if you’re interested, read the thinking of legendary British philosopher and former icon for atheism Anthony Flew – “My Pilgramage from Atheism to Theism.”  We’re not that far apart.


Human silliness and $2.50 a gallon gasoline

You can learn a lot about people and politics just by looking at the silliness surrounding the price of a gallon of gasoline.

The discussion over the price of gasoline is downright bizarre.  In the strum and drang on the price of filling your tank (car, not stomach!) we see the frail irrationality of the human condition in all its glory.

  • Things that are small, we make big.
  • Things that are important, we ignore.

Let’s put the real bizarre stuff – that of conspiracy theories, the secret agenda of the socialist, Muslim Obama presidency, big oil’s manipulation to squeeze the common man until we all end up in “The Hunger Games” – let’s put that to the side for the moment.  (And if you’d like to delve into that read Krugman’s piece in tne NYTimes.)

Let’s focus for a second – just a second! – on the facts.  How much does the price of gas REALLY matter?  How much will a hike in gas prices REALLY mean to the average American?

How about we do the math?

For the sake of my own poor math skills let’s assume that we’re looking at the difference between $2.50 a gallon gas (a la Gingrich) and $5.00 a gallon gas (a la near term market reality).  And for our example let’s assume the average American drives 1,000 miles a month and has a car that gets an average of 25 mpg.

[Note that this OVER estimates the actual impact given that the real numbers are approximately 650 miles per month (Experian) and an average of 22 mpg (TruCar). But the math is easier so let’s stick with 1,000 miles a month and 25 mpg.]

That’s 40 gallons of gas a month. At $2.50 a gallon the monthly cost is $100.  At $5.00 a gallon the monthly cost is $200.

So let’s make this clear.  A DOUBLING of gas prices from $2.50 to $5.00 a gallon is going to cost the average car owner a total of $100 extra dollars a month.

$100 extra dollars a month.

Let’s see … that is …

  • the average monthly cable bill
  • a (very) cheap data plan for your smart phone
  • one (1) dinner for four at Olive Garden
  • a bad Starbucks habit

And that is what we’re excised about.  Medicare is broke.  Infrastructure is crumbling.  The cost of college is skyrocketing.  And we’re worried about the possibility of an extra $100 a month.

[Quick side note.  Since the Obama administration took office the Dow is up 60%.  For a lot of people with 401ks that real money.  Or consider that that home mortgage rates are down nearly 50%.  Again real money. And we’re getting apoplectic of $100 a month gasoline.]

Now don’t get me wrong.  There’s a lot of people out there for whom $100 a month is a LOT of money.  They are the type of people that my wife works with.  She’s a social worker.  Many of her clients live off disability or in section 8 housing or supplemental nutritional assistance (food stamps).

For them, a doubling of gas prices really hurts.

Then again, a lot of them don’t have cars.

And for the ones that do, I don’t think they were the ones that Rep. Gingrich was worried about when he launched his $2.50 per gallon campaign.

Fact is, for the VAST majority of Americans, $5 a gallon isn’t much in the scheme of things.

Which is why a lot of politicians make it such a big deal.

“You have to do this, before you can do that”

My wife and I were reading the paper the other day and noticed a movement afoot in Virginia that would require women to get a sonogram and receive a picture of the fetus before having an abortion.

That got me thinking.

What if we applied the same concept in other areas?  What if we looked at all the decisions that people make that could have a significant impact on them and those around them, and required them to watch, receive or do something before they took action?

Here’s a short list that I came up with.  Feel free to add yours:

  • You must watch a fatal car accident before getting a driver’s licence (when I was young, they used to do this).
  • You must go and watch cows being slaughtered in a slaughterhouse before eating a burger.
  • You must look at pictures of chicken farms before ordering chicken tenders.
  • You must view a vaginal birth before having sex.
  • You must look at pictures of overweight people before eating sweets.
  • You must review your bank account, credit statement and IRA before purchasing anything over $100.
  • You must watch “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf?” before getting married.
  • You must go to an AA meeting before purchasing alcohol.
  • You must spend time in a restaurant kitchen before going there to order a meal.
  • You must watch videos of someone unclogging a (a) garbage disposal; (b) toilet; and (c) gutters, before buying a home.
  • You must watch people clean the nightclub on Sunday morning before going there Saturday night.
  • You must visit an inner-city faith-based charity before giving up on God.

So now it is your turn.

What other things should people have to see (or do) before making decisions that could impact them and others?

The ‘self’ virus

I live in Washington DC.  I work in public relations.  I used to work in politics. I am a human being.  Consider me an expert in the self-driven life.

I was thinking about that a lot lately; trying to stitch together and make sense of some crazy things I saw at work, around me outside of work, on television, on the campaign trail.  Have you seen it?  Man, there’s some absolutely crazy stuff going on out there.   How could we get so dysfunctional?  I’m thinking that there’s a new disease, worse than HIV/AIDS, ebola, and avian flu combined.  It is the attack of the self-driven and the self-absorbed.

This is a bad thing, by the way.  A very bad thing.  I’ve a sense that we’re all infected with this virus in some form.  Because it is all about me, right!  But what happens when everyone, all around you, say the same thing:  “It’s all about ME!”  Well, when that happens you have a lot of the madness that is going on right now.

As best I can tell, here are the main symptoms of this virus:

A warped perspective of reality. If it is all about you, the reality of the outside world slowly begins to fade.  Why?  Because you can’t see the important things happen that don’t relate to you.  Just like pre-Copernicus astrologers, you have this mistaken impression that life evolves around you and your well-being.  The ‘other’ is only a consideration in as much as they (a) cross your path; or (b) provide you a stepping stone to the other side.  After awhile, this is not only a sick way of looking at life it is a false way of looking at life.  Living in your own self-absorbed cocoon, everything looks rosey.  You can’t see outside yourself (another word for ‘outside yourself’ … ‘reality’!)  Then, BAM!  That nasty real world slams you up side the head.  And you never saw it coming.

Destruction of meaningful and lasting relationships. This is close to a tautology but worth noting.  You can’t have a meaningful relationship with anyone or any thing if you are the #1, #2, and #3 most important things on your daily todo list.  When you hold the top position of what’s important in your life, relationships become shallow and matters of convenience.  People no longer become people.  We’ll all playing a game of “Survivor” or “Big Brother”.  People are disposable.  Relationships are transitory.  And you wake up one morning and there’s no body around you.  Go figure!

Death of moral values.  Objective moral values – universal truths of right and wrong – suffocate in the oppressive and feckless nature of the self-absorption.  Self sucks up all the oxygen.  The old fashion ideas of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ have about as much chance as a polar bear on a melting ice cap.  When it is all about you, concepts like honesty, integrity, service, dependability, and trust eventually lose their original meaning.  Everything becomes a function of what is good for you.

It is a nasty, nasty illness.

So what does any of this have about companies, organizations, and brands?

A lot.  I’ve seen this virus spread to them as well.  In this I’d go so far as to agree with Governor Romney.  Companies are, indeed, people.  And when they turn inward and begin organizing around self, they lose perspective of what is going on in the marketplace, the bonds they’ve built with their customers begin to fray, and they end up making really dumb decisions.

The vaccine?  Try putting something or someone ahead of yourself.  Maybe even more than one!

The people I admire are those who put themselves last, and put others first.  The same is true for companies, organizations and brands.

A resolution to change how I think, not what I do

So you have a New Year’s resolution?  I do.  And it was inspired in no small measure by my daughter who is resolved to focus in 2012 on “quality, not quantity” and my son whose resolution is less tech and more touch.

This year I’m resolved to change how I think about people – people I know, people I see, and the people I never see but reach through a career in communications.

I resolve to not think of people based on what they do.  I don’t agree with the old saying “you are what you eat.”  People are much more than their diet.  And I’ll dare to challenge Aristotole that a person is “what they do every day.”  A person is more than a collection of habits.  I resolve not to think of people based on what they have.  People are more than rich or poor.  They are more than their medical condition or position of authority.  I resolve to not define people by what they can do for me.  People are more than clients or business partners or even friends.

In business and life it is so easy to think of people as a commodity, a label, a category.  The people – and businesses – that I admire and respect most think better than that.  They don’t view their customers, neighbors, and friends that way.

So here’s a resolution for 2012.

A resolution to always remember that every person is sacred.  And regardless of their habits, possessions or what they can do for me or us … each merits respect, patience, understanding, mercy and love.

Happy New Year.