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Archive for the ‘Lifestyle’ Category

Lost Boys of Integration

In Entertainment, Lifestyle on June 21, 2010 at 3:13 pm

Welcome Home Roscoe JenkinsI was pleasantly surprised to learn that “Welcome Home Roscoe Jenkins” had premiered on USA Networks this past weekend. It is rare to see mainstream attention awarded to African American films that don’t involve drugs, crime or poverty. Perhaps Hollywood is turning the page on how African Americans are portrayed in media.

I first saw the movie when it was released in theatres in February 2008. Despite negative reviews from Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic, it ranked #2 on its opening weekend and earned $16 million. So it begs the question, how did so many critics get it so wrong?  My motivation for seeing the movie was three-fold. First but least importantly, I support black filmmakers. Second, I am a fan of Malcolm D. Lee and his parents, who live across the street. I enjoy chatting with or getting chatted up by his mom and dad from time to time; I wouldn’t want to risk being caught having not seen a work of their son. I catch enough hell whenever I miss one of nephew Spike’s films and can’t imagine what might happen to our friendship if I missed one of Malcolm’s. Third, Malcolm (I call him Malcolm) tells stories with which I can relate and WHRJ was definitely one of them.

Malcolm D. Lee“Welcome Home Roscoe Jenkins” is a coming of age story for RJ Stevens (played by Martin Lawrence). He’s a southerner who escapes his humble beginnings in pursuit of a better life in Los Angeles. To reinvent himself, he loses the name Roscoe Steven Jenkins in favor of RJ Stevens and alters his diet to exclude certain Southern delicacies, amongst other changes. When the transformation is complete, he finds himself atop the talk show ratings with all the accoutrements of mainstream success. It is only when he returns home for his parents’ 50th wedding anniversary that he learns that no transformation had ever taken place. Instead, the boy from Georgia learns that his once suppressed childhood anxieties can’t stay hidden forever.  I call it a coming of age story because, despite being a grown man, RJ Stevens’ transition from childhood to manhood doesn’t occur until he faces his demons and insecurities during this visit.

The story of Roscoe Jenkins is all too common for boys/men of my generation. I was born in 1965 and represent the first wave of a new generation of Americans, Generation X. After segregation was abolished, my parents emigrated from the Caribbean and I grew up fully expecting to inherit America’s promise of equality. For black boys of that era, achieving that dream required us to depart from commonly accepted stereotypes as we forged a new path. Some of us did, many of us didn’t. The end result was the forming oWhites Only Drinking Fountainf a rift within black communities that served to divide us from each other. This is ultimately what happened with Roscoe Jenkins.

By the time I turned 5, my family had moved to the suburbs and we lived amongst the Jews and WASPs of Dix Hills, Long Island. Education was a big thing in my community and our public school system was probably ranked better than most private schools in America. Every few Sundays after church, it was a ritual for my family to jump in the car to visit relatives in the Laurelton section of Queens, which is where many Haitians bought homes. While my  parents chatted with aunts and uncles, I played with my favorite cousin Louie and his friends in the neighborhood. While I spoke differently from them, we communicated just fine. I probably acted like a know-it-all so it doesn’t surprise me that I earned the nicknamed “Professor” at the ripe age of eight or nine (ironic, huh?). The moniker was a term of endearment but I didn’t feel endeared to Louie and his friends. I always felt that the nickname was their way of telling me that I wasn’t one of them. I am in the books, they are from the streets. This is a theme that played itself out many times throughout my life. In high school, the students from the junior high school south of the Long Island Expressway used to call me an Uncle Tom or a sellout because I socialized with different people and in different ways from them. As a student at Dartmouth, a fraternity brother dubbed me WBLI. It is a radio station not far from where I grew up but what he really meant, though, was White Boy from Long Island. Other names that hurt just as much include “Oreo” (black on the outside, white on the inside) and Incognegro (or incog for short).

Have a twinkieI have since come to learn that intra-cultural divides are common across all races. Asians who integrate within the mainstream culture are often called “Twinkies” (yellow on the outside, white on the inside). Even worse is the term reserved for Indians, namely “coconuts” (brown and hairy on the outside, white on the inside). I chuckle now when I think about it but, at the time, it was no laughing matter. They say “sticks and stones can break your bones but names will never hurt you” but I disagree. I can recover much faster from an ass-wooping than I can from an assault on my identity. Physical wounds heal, emotional wounds linger. Just ask Roscoe Jenkins.

While I believe men of my generation comprise a segment called the “Lost Boys of Integration,” our childhood was not all bad. Much of my identity was forged from within the diversity of images seen on television and cinema. I rejected the Lamont and Rollo characters from “Sanford & Son” but connected with the original Lionel Jefferson (played by the late Michael Evans) on “All in the Family.” What I appreciated most was that his character was authentically black but not stereotypical, confident & engaging but neither arrogant nor offensive. I thought he was a better foil against Archie Bunker’s ignorance than was flower-child son-in-law Michael Stivic (played by Rob Reiner). When the Jefferson family was featured on its own show, I had hoped more stories would be developed for Lionel’s character. What actually happened was event better. Michael Evans left the set of “The Jeffersons” to write for “Good Times” which featured a character named Meet the Evans FamilyMichael Evans (played by Ralph Carter) whose innocent defiance is the trademark of a certain confused enthusiast we all know. In fact, my best guess of President Obama’s personality growing up leads me back to episodes featuring the “Militant Midget.” My most admired portrayal of a black man of my generation, however, was Denzel Washington who played Dr. Philip Chandler on St. Elsewhere. In one episode, he uttered his frustration about being “too black for my white friends, too white for my black friends” and, for the first time, Hollywood wrote exactly what I felt.

Throughout the 1980s, the images of African American men was that of a fish out of water. Whatever gains were achieved in the 1970s were quickly undone. In “Trading Places” Eddie Murphy played an outsider who momentarily looked into the world of Wall Street. On “Different Strokes” Willis & Arnold were exceptions to the rule, not the rule itself. No two movies did aWhatjoo talkin 'bout Willis? better job of telling African American men they didn’t belong than “Strictly Business” featuring Tommy Davidson and “Livin Large” featuring a young Terrence TC Carson. I might also have pause to complain about the Steve Urkel character on “Family Matters” were it not for the character being based on me or someone strikingly like me. If you don’t believe it, check out this picture of me in 1986, three years before the show first aired. I was Urkel before there was Urkel.

All in all, the journey of African American men of Generation X (aka “Lost Boys of Integration”) comprises a unique collection of stories worth telling via television, cinema or online video. Malcolm D. Lee gained notoriety with the short film “Morningside Prep” about an African-American male teen caught between black and white culture. His most prominent films “Soul Men,” “Undercover Brother” and “The Best Man” continue to explore the journeys of black men, as does the story of Roscoe Jenkins. If you missed the airing last weekend, you can catch WHRJ in July and August when it gets re-aired on USA Networks. The film is also available to rent via Netflix.

With Barack Obama in the White House, America is beginning to recognize that black men don’t fit the Hollywood-controlled stereotypes anymore. Like all other people, we come in many different shapes, sizes and archetypes. I applaud the works of Malcolm Lee, Chuck Stone III (“Paid in Full“, “Drumline“), Mario van Peebles (“Posse“) and many more who have aspired to broaden America’s embrace of its black male brethren. Their contributions help make my journey easier and they render my limits endless. For them, I am truly grateful. Well done!

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Great Moments in Brand Management History

In Business, Cooking, Grocery, Lifestyle, Marketing on December 1, 2009 at 10:33 pm

Erik B. & Rakim penned the lyrics “it’s not where you’re from but where you’re at” but I disagree, especially as it pertains to innovation. Where you’re from matters! History matters! Entrepreneurs who demonstrate a thorough understanding of historical innovations are the ones best positioned to guide the next generation of commercial ideas. I tend to think that I am one such entrepreneur.  In the interest of praising history, the following is my salute to:

GREAT MOMENTS IN BRAND MANAGEMENT HISTORY

1883 – Kroger acquires independent general stores to form the first grocery chain

1893 – Coca Cola distributes the first paper coupons

1920 – Women gain the right to vote

1930 – Kroger president ignores employee Michael Cullen’s ideas on self service

1930 – King Kullen launches as the first self service supermarket, though it hardly gives juggernaut Kroger a run for the money

1930 – Northwestern students write a sorority sketch called “Clara Lu ‘n Em”

1930 – WGN Chicago airs “Clara Lu ‘n Em” live, radio’s first daytime soap opera

1931 – Colgate-Palmolive sponsors “Clara Lu ‘n Em”

1931 – P&G develops brand management to maximize sales of Camay & Ivory

1967 – Amana debuts the first microwave oven for the kitchen

1971 – McDonalds tells housewives not to cook (“You deserve a break today“)

1972 – Congress passes Title IX, increasing educational opportunities for women

1974 – McKinsey, IBM, Kroger et al. collaborate on a bar code system to alleviate bottlenecks at the checkout counter

1981 – MTV captures teen’s attention with music videos

1981 – Nickelodeon provides programming for kids who outgrow Sesame Street

1989 – Peapod allows consumers to order groceries online

1990 – 20th Century Fox releases “Home Alone” and draws attention to latchkey kids

1992 – Al Gore invents the internet

1993 – Catalina Marketing distributes contextual coupons via grocery checkout

1993 – Food Network teases Generation X’ers who don’t know how to cook

1996 – Professor Herm earns a masters degree from the Kellogg School at Northwestern University (#1 BusinessWeek), receiving a Distinguished Dean’s Award at graduation.

1998 – Coupons, Inc. distributes the first printable coupons over the internet

2001 – WebVan burns through $1.2 billion in 18 months, files Chapter 7

2007 – Venus Williams demands and gets equal pay for women athletes at Wimbledon

2007 – Grocery iQ emerges as the first digital grocery list for the iPhone

2008 – Kraft launches iFoodAssistant, a recipe engine/grocery list for iPhone

2009 – Coupons, Inc. acquires Grocery iQ for an undisclosed amount

2010 – HomeShop emerges to help millenials “Fight the war on take-out” and lure them back to the kitchen

I am a Food Criminal

In Cooking, Grocery, Marketing on September 25, 2009 at 1:43 pm

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My parents are Haitian immigrants and they raised me to obey the law and set an example of leadership.  Their advice served me well for the first 40 or so years of life but a recent experience has converted me to the dark side. I am not ashamed to have joined the ranks of New York’s felonious underworld. The following is the story of how I came to be a food criminal.

Last August, I attended an industry event in Lower Manhattan. It was hosted by the National Association of Specialty Food Trade, the sponsors of the Fancy Food Show.  It was there that I first experienced Alili Morocco’s harissa. Business events are often cold and impersonal; I expected no better when I entered the conference room. There was a food table and so I helped myself to the offerings so lavishly provided. After spreading a little harissa on a piece of french bread, I chomped away.  The first bite ignited a culinary explosion inside my mouth; the second bite caused me to tell somebody. Within minutes, the room was sticken with harissa-fever. Everyone tried it and we all experienced something profound.

We live in a world that values conformity, convergence to the mean and (quite frankly) blandness. It was uncommonly refreshing to experience the unique and bold blend of spices that make up Morocco’s third greatest export (behind Wm Shakespeare’s Othello & Humphrey Bogart’s Casablanca). The harissa shook us all up. That shared experience was the ice-breaker that ultimately brought us all together.  Suffice it to say, we had an extremely productive meeting.

At the close of the session, everyone shook hands, exchanged business cards and went on their merry way.  I, on the other hand, had a more grandiose plan. It isn’t fair for industry professionals to have sole exposure to this North African delicacy; it belongs to the people! Fancying myself a Robin Hood of the kitchen, a Babyface Nelson of spices and a culinary Jesse James, I swiped an unopened jar for my personal consumption.

I shared it with some colleagues and often bring it to picnics, brunches and dinner parties.  In doing so, I have rescued countless palates from the gastronomic mediocrity of most processed foods. Just as Robin Hood “stole from the rich and gave to the poor,” I steal from the enlightened and give to the bland. My harissa campaign, if you can call it that, is to “Spread the spread.”

As the Alili Morocco brand is not yet carried in local New York supermarkets, I have had to get creative in order to satisfy my harissa addiction.  I frequent their website to learn about upcoming trade shows. At the ones I attend, when nobody’s looking, I apply a five-finger discount toward the acquisition of my next harissa supply. So far, I haven’t been caught and I doubt that this public confession will alert the authorities.  After all, who reads my blog?

I am a food criminal. So goes the story of my entry into a life of crime.

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The Inefficient Grocery Shopper

In Business, Finance, Grocery, Lifestyle, Marketing, Politics on August 21, 2009 at 1:14 am

Last week I walked into the grocery store expecting to spend $20 – $30. After all was said and done, I found myself debiting almost $130 from my Chase account. I would love to tell you that I was surprised, but I cannot. This happens to me all the time; upon further inquiry, I found out that this happens to many people with an alarming frequency. Why is that? and why isn’t anyone doing anything about it?

In economic terms, we call this phenomena a disconnect between realized behavior and prior intent.  For most Americans, purchase intent and purchase behavior aren’t even remotely correlated.  To better understand this problem, we collected anecdotal frustruations to identify the key sources of shopping inefficiency. Some of the mistakes were made in the grocery aisle, while others were made in the home.  The combined list included thirty-seven (37) unique actions, however near universal consensus was found amongst the following eight (8) behaviors.

  • Forgotten Purchases – suffering a memory block about a needed item but remembering it after you’ve left the store. | Tweet: I’m guilty!
  • Impulse Buys – purchasing items only because they were on sale, accessible and/or prominently featured.| Tweet: I’m guilty!
  • Binge Buying – buying items in extremely large quantities to avoid the possibility of it ever running out.| Tweet: I’m guilty!
  • Duplicate Purchases – making a purchase on a “just in case” basis only to find out that you already have more than is needed.| Tweet: I’m guilty!
  • Subjective Consumption – focusing deeply and purchasing items you use while mis-prioritizing items needed by others in the household.| Tweet: I’m guilty!
  • Recipe Roulette – risking the taste of a meal by substituting an available ingredient in lieu of making a special trip to the store| Tweet: I’m guilty!
  • Unplanned Trips – making an unplanned trip to the store for one or two essential items.| Tweet: I’m guilty!
  • Plan B Dining – ordering take-out or fast food because you don’t have the ingredients to prepare a decent home-cooked meal| Tweet: I’m guilty!

Using only three of the mistakes (impulse shopping, unplanned trips & plan B dining), we did some analysis to quantify the impact of the problem. We concluded that consumer inefficiency in the store was a $2800 a year problem.

  1. Impulse Purchases: The average household with children spends $119.30 per week on food and other grocery items. Of this amount, approximately 20% represent spontaneous and unnecessary buys that reflect the wants of the consumer, not an immediate need.  On an annual basis, impulse buys create $1240 of economic waste.
  2. Unplanned Trips: The average household makes 2 trips to the grocery store per week. Assuming one of those trips is unnecessary, a 10 mile distance between the home and grocery store, gas prices of $3.00 per gallon and fuel efficiency of 12 mpg, unplanned trips.  On an annual basis, unplanned trips create $260 of economic waste.
  3. Plan B Dining – One of the biggest sources of economic waste is switching the venue of food consumption from the home to a restaurant or take-out counter. In general, the cost of a meal prepared outside of the home (approximately $15 per person) costs between 3x and 6x the cost of preparing that same meal at home.  Assuming a family can eat one more meal at home and a markup multiple 3x, on an annual basis, Plan B Dining creates $1300 of economic waste.

In 2008, the median household income in the US was $50,233 and grocery waste represents 5.5% of that figure.  To put it in other terms, solving the shopping inefficiency issue has the same effect as President Barack Obama putting forward a $392 billion stimulus package that reaches every American family without increasing the federal deficit.

Surely, there will be opposition to such an endeavor. But no goal worth achieving was ever met without challenge or adversity. Solving the inefficiency problem has been a constant obsession and is the goal of my company, HomeShop Technologies, Inc. We surely hope you will join and support us as we embark upon this journey.

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Happily Every After

In Business, Cooking, Finance, Grocery, Marketing on July 17, 2009 at 8:11 pm


Can you tell a little bit about yourself? and most importantly about your passion in healthy and delicious foods?

When I was growing up, my mother cooked every night; the family ate dinner together and life was a lot of fun. As I grew older, it became harder and harder to orchestrate a family meal. With both parents working, we kids had to fend for ourselves. Sometimes I would eat at a friends house and I don’t remember what my sisters did. When we stopped eating together, we started to drift apart. I think this happens to a lot of families. In America, most people can count on one hand the number of days per year when they share a meal at home with more than one other person. I think this is bad. My generation works longer and harder than did our parents, we earn more money than our parents did but we enjoy life less.

I am now an adult and I don’t believe that success and isolation are inextricably linked. My primary focus in starting a company was not so much good food but rather the impact good food could have on making us feel more connected, more alive. I love bringing people together and have always viewed food as the ultimate lubricant for social interactions. I think that if we can get more people to break bread together, we can solve a lot of problems in terms of how we relate to one another, how we feel about ourselves and our place in this world. With this as my goal, I sought to figure out a way of getting people to cook more.

What is HomeShopr? What’s the goal? How did it start?

I conducted a brief survey to understand why people don’t cook. The #1 reason was because they didn’t think they had the time to cook. The #2 reason was because they rarely had the proper ingredients in the cupboard. The #3 & #4 reasons were not knowing what to cook and not knowing how to cook, respectively. Of the four problems, I thought the second was the most important. When I started HomeShop, I was looking for a solution that would address the empty pantry problem. The first thing that came to mind was a grocery list so I examined the reasons why people don’t shop with a list.

The problems I found were two-fold. First, lists are hard to generate and second, people usually leave the lists at home. Any solution I came up with would have to address both those problems with tools to which everyday people would have immediate access. When Apple announced that they would allow third-parties to develop applications on the iPhone, I immediately saw mobile phones as the platform for delivering a digital grocery list. What I liked about the iPhone was the large screen and high quality graphics. The Treo and Palm Pilots called for small fonts that were very hard to read; but the iPhone offered design flexibility given its large face. The other thing I liked about mobile phones was that, like an American Express card, people never left home without it. I often tell a joke about how Brittany Spears doesn’t always wear her underwear but she’ll never go out without her phone. America, and the rest of the world, is very much the same way. The mobile phone is a constant and its ubiquity solved the problem of access to the grocery list. My only problem now was devising an easy way to get entries onto the list.

Can you tell me the story behind ReciClick? What were your goals in the first place? and how its going so far?

When I originally launched the company, I thought a hardware solution would be the most optimal. I purchased a laser scanner, wrote a serial driver for the device, hooked it up to a Mac-mini and built a barcode database for the 300 most commonly purchased items in my home. I positioned the scanner near a garbage can; whenever I ran out of an item, I would scan the barcode then throw the item out. It seemed like a perfect solution because we (me and my original partner Eric) had developed a solution for capturing product needs at the “point-of-depletion.” This solution was superior to the pen & paper because it was effortless. We also developed a wireless solution that would connect multiple scanners to a Mac-mini. By positioning one scanner in the kitchen, another in a bathroom, another in another bathroom and maybe one in the home office or other room where there was a garbage can, we offered significant flexibility for creating an accurate grocery list. And because the scanners were fixed in their positioning, they wouldn’t get lost.

It sounded like a great idea so we costed out the materials. We figured that we could build a stand-alone single-purpose computer that bridges to wi-fi, connect it to two wireless satellite scanners and sell it for $120. At that price point, we would suffer a slight up front loss but profitability would be achieved by charging a subscription fee for using our service. We also came up with alternative ways of monetizing the scanner information to further recover costs and meet profit and growth expectations. It seemed like a great idea until the economy turned and we came to the conclusion that people aren’t going to have an extra $120 to spend for what, to many, would seem like a “nice to have” product. When times get tough, people cut back on extras and the general feeling was that our model would not be feasible. Confident we had a killer solution, we looked for another way to monetize our product. At first we took the idea to an online grocer to see if they would give the product away in exchange our directing their grocery list information to their fulfillment centers; they said no. We went to an appliance manufacturer to see if they would incorporate our scanner in their refrigerators; they too said no. Innovation for innovation’s sake did not make sense. As 90% of the refrigeration market is controlled by 3 companies, we could not make the case that it was in anyone’s best interest to incur the cost and technological risk of our new gadget. After only nine months on the path to entrepreneurship in pursuit of Life, Liberty & Happiness, we gave up and started looking for jobs.

Later that year on Thanksgiving morning, I was sent to the store to buy ingredients for the meal my then wife was going to cook. When I got to the store I was greeted by an army of cell phone’d boyfriends and husbands taking orders from their significant others as they shopped in the aisle. One man’s wife was reading off the ingredient list from the web page of a celebrity chef while he navigated the supermarket aisles. A mental light bulb was immediately lit; instead of linking my digital grocery list to a scanner, maybe it would make sense to link it to online recipes. This was the genesis of ReciClick.

I put a few thoughts on paper and went to a pitch event to get feedback. It was there that I met our third founder, Maria, who worked at a marketing company that delivers contextual coupons alongside the receipt of a supermarket purchase. She was there to get feedback on her pitch for a real estate idea but heard my idea and sort of liked it. I thought her marketing expertise would prove useful so we kept in touch. Within a month, I invited her to join Eric and me on our journey, more like a bridge to nowhere, and Maria agreed. We clicked and started working together. After doing a little research, we found that most people shop at the grocery store based on habits. At dinner time, they look inside their cupboards to see what ingredients they have and, based on that, decide what to cook. When the ingredients run out (as they most often do), people then resort to plan B, ordering take-out. With ReciClick we can change all that. Instead of shopping first and selecting meal ideas based on the ingredients you have, we allow you to select from the web the meals you want to cook and we’ll then tell you the items for which to shop. Our ReciClick solves the empty pantry issue, thereby eliminating a key barrier to cooking. We changed our business model from purchase and subscription (razor and blade) to an advertising model. By converting to a software-based entry solution, we made the service free to the consumer thereby eliminating an adoption hurdle. We built a prototype of this functionality and are currently raising a seed-stage investment in order to launch into a public beta.

Can you share tips for new start ups around the world? How should they follow their passion? Is it easy?

I attended top schools and received the best education money could buy. Nevertheless, nothing I ever studied could have prepared me for the life of an entrepreneur. Unlike in most professions, intelligence is not a factor in determining ones entrepreneurial success. The driving factor has been a passion for solving problems and the perseverance to see things through. I am not yet successful but I strongly feel that we are on the path to success; for this I am eternally grateful. There are times when I have wanted to quit or when I think my life shouldn’t be so hard. But then I step back and ask two fundamental questions: #1 Do people need help in cooking at home? #2 Would my digital shopping list be useful to them? For as long as the answer to those two question is yes, I summon the will to keep going.

In a more general sense, entrepreneurs have to be problem-focused, not solution-focused. When I started, I identified a problem and developed a solution to that problem. When my solution didn’t work out, I gave up because I was married to a solution, one of many possible solutions but I was not singularly focused on the problem itself. It took a few weeks for me to realize that the problem still needed fixing and I probably wasted a lot of time by not sticking with it. Thank goodness someone sent me shopping on Thanksgiving morning. A goal is only worth pursuing if a great deal of effort is required to achieve it. In other words, entrepreneurship, problem solving, innovation is supposed to be hard. If it were easy, everybody would do it and there would be no great rewards at the end of the journey.

Life is not a fairy tale but if everybody does their job, dreams can indeed come true.  Having been through all this, I am certain I will never take any bit of future success for granted. I have seen very high highs, I am experiencing very low lows and I feel that I am back on the path to even higher highs than ever before. No matter what happens, I can say with definitiveness that I was not cheated out of life. I feel more alive now than perhaps ever before; if I had it all to do over, I would not change a thing.

When all is said and done, I sincerely hope history determines mine to have been a life worth living.

The Man Behind the Man

In Interesting, Lifestyle on June 29, 2009 at 8:29 pm

Don’t judge a man until you’ve walked a step or two in his shoes. I agree with Alfred Edmonds of Black Enterprise magazine.  Michael died but Joseph Jackson is still alive. A true test of our sincerity might be to honor, in life, his contributions to America’s cultural fabric.

Joseph’s parents separated when he was young. He went to live with his father, however, upon attaining the age of 18, he left Oakland CA to be closer to his mother. I can’t imagine what it might have been like to have been raised by a single father in the 1940s. Maybe we’ll never know because people didn’t talk about “certain things” back then. Without proof or direct knowledge, I suspect that he was an abuse survivor but he persevered nevertheless.

After failed careers, first as a boxer then singer, he found work in Gary, Indiana operating a crane at the local steel mill. Despite a lifetime of setbacks, he kept going and held on to the American dream of achieving more for his kids than anyone had achieved for him.  From this foundation, Joseph Jackson ignited an empire.

Don’t judge him the way you would Matthew Knowles or Clive Davis. He had none of their advantages, except maybe a bigger dream, more courage and a tolerance for risk. He was black, poor & uneducated but figured out the music business and deciphered America’s racial hypocrisy. At a time when we were still trying to overcome, he out-produced, over-delivered, out-performed, out-negotiated and over-achieved. He did it all with neither a roadmap for success nor a support net to catch him if he fell.

The complexities of Michael’s affairs are tremendous. There are musical assets to consider, some his own, some acquired, some inherited. There are debts to be paid and children to be cared for.  For the most part, Joseph had been shut out of Michael’s life and it appears he’ll be shut out of Michael’s death as well. He was once head of household and head of an empire. The career in music was his dream and now, after Berry Gordy, Motown, CBS, MTV, Sony and countless others have benefitted from that dream, he is looking for affirmation as the seed from which so many successes were birthed. Surely we can empathize with Joseph’s loneliness at this time.

I listened to the press conference today and the BET interview yesterday; my initial thoughts were that of an opportunist. Having had time to reconsider, a different vision comes to mind.  I see a man striving to be recognized for his accomplishments, striving to become relevant again, striving to regain the dignity that so often eludes African American men born before desegregation.

If the announcement of a record company is the vehicle that gives him this, then so be it. Joseph Jackson dragged a family from working class beginnings to world class status.  His attempt, however feeble, to shepherd next chapter of the Jackson legacy via the promotion of a record company, clothing line or other venture for wealth creation, is nothing more than a cry for attention and approval. He played more than a minor role in Michael and the family’s success. I would go so far as to say he has accomplished more in his lifetime than most of us ever will. For this, we need to show deference.

Did he make mistakes along the way, sure. He made a lot of mistakes… he pushed to hard, he controlled too much, he allowed his faults to cloud judgments, he considered the feelings of others too little, he let his drive be the driver at the expense of all else. And he paid and continues to pay for those and many other mistakes.  But who amongst us is perfect? Joseph is in his final years. He is in mourning, he doesn’t hear well, he has a gargantuan sense of pride and he is currently the face of the family. Lets give him a break. If this promotion turns out to be a freak show, so what. Since when have we been above participating in a freak show.

If we are to sincerely and honestly honor Michael, lets demonstrate respect for his legacy, his privacy, his family and his father.

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It was important for me to write this post because my relationship with my father is not unlike that of Michael’s with Joseph.  Despite irreconcilable strains, I haven’t lost sight of his influence on my values, my work ethic, my outlook, development and sensibilities. While I accept that our relationship may never improve beyond its current state, I would hope that his dignity be a reflection of the mountain of good he accomplished in life.

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A Simple Hug Will Do

In Lifestyle on May 4, 2009 at 12:01 am

Hugs are to life what twitter is to technology.

They are short form emotional bursts that require no formal relationship before the experience; they create no long form entanglements after the fact, unless otherwise agreed upon.  Hugs are quick and meaningful. And unlike a government bailout, which benefits recipients at the long term expense of the donor (in this case, we the people), hugs are symmetrically reciprocal. In other words, they benefit the giver and the receiver alike.

I grew up as a square peg in a round world, never quite knowing where I fit in.  And then I met other square pegs.  I soon realized that the world is full of square pegs all vying to fit into a well promoted and very popular, yet very limited, set of round holes. We converge toward the familiar instead of embracing the greater set of unique, less numerous but highly meaningful experiences the world has to offer.  Hugs are an onramp toward embracing that which is greater than ourselves.

With a similar goal, I started a social group, FeastUp, that focuses on dinner parties as a means of breaking down barriers between disparate people, cultures and ideologies.  You’ll be hearing more on this later.  But dinner parties are hard to plan and execute. So most of us do nothing… until circumstances necessitate our crashing into one another.  Well, crashing into someone is not the only way for us to recognize that a world exists beyond that which we currently know.  Sometimes, a simple hug will do.

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Why Good Mortgages Go Bad

In Finance, Lifestyle on March 21, 2009 at 11:27 pm

There was a time when the banker who approved a loan was the banker who opened the account, handled deposits, accepted the payments and issued a handshake when the debt was retired. Those days have long gone.  With the advent of teller-less transactions and electronic transfers, the movement of money has become so fast that nobody can afford the time to get to know you anymore. The bank on Wall Street whose tagline was “The right relationship is everything” was a liar.  That statement couldn’t be farther from the truth, because there are no relationships in the financial sector anymore.  Everything is a transaction.  And this, my fellow Americans, is at the heart of our financial problems today.

Specialization of duties was supposed to improve efficiency in the banking sector. But instead all it did was add complexity to a system that was already hard to understand. The pace of financial innovation was too fast for even the smartest and brightest of accountants and financiers.  Sufficient checks and balances were never put into place and this vacuum of mutual accountability is what allowed the barons of greed to corrupt America’s once proud banking infrastructure.  I do not envy the challenges faced by Tim Geithner; he carries a heavy load.

There are so many moving parts that comprise a loan transaction.  While no one entity was responsible for creating the house of cards, an attitude of indifference at all levels was absolutely responsible for tipping it over.  In any mortgage transaction, there are even more moving parts and the risk of system collapse was greater which each successful transaction.  Everybody was making money and no one thought to ‘slow things the fuck down’ because they assumed some other entity would do it instead.

America’s financial collapse was a creation of our own undoing.  While it is easy to point to Bernie Madoff or AIG for the failures of the system, their trepasses don’t scratch the surface of what is at the heart of the problem.  We are the problem. We, you and me, can at times be our own worst enemies. Until we take a good look at our contribution in creating the monster, there won’t be anything Secretary Geithner, President Obama, Sarah Palin or Rush Limbaugh will be able to do to save us from ourselves.  So where shall I start? The following is my list of culprits and the reasons they are in desperate need of an attitude adjustment.

  1. homebuyers, especially the snot-nosed yuppies who want what they want, when the they want it and at any cost.
  2. the friends of homebuyers, who compete socially with their friends and one-up each other, resulting in peer-pressure to buy more house than they can afford.
  3. mummy and deddy, who spoil their kids with down payments for houses instead of teaching them the value of savings, trade-offs and deferred gratification.
  4. real estate brokers, who create a false sense of scarcity and urgency to drive up the values of homes and ultimately increase commissions.
  5. renovation contractors, who underbid to get a job then underdeliver until the promise of more payment is made from the proceeds of an unnecessary second loan.
  6. mortgage brokers, who steer borrowers into loan products, some of which may be unsuitable.
  7. home appraisers, whose payments are made by the mortgage brokers and lenders and whose compensation volume is tied to successful loan placements.
  8. boiler room telemarketers, who targeted the elderly with 30 year cash-back loans as a supplement to an underfunded retirement and social security.
  9. local governments, who don’t investigate local corruption because of the additional tax income generated by a corrupt system.
  10. lenders, who sell approved loans into a secondary market and bare little, if any, of the risk for the ones that go bad.
  11. subprime lenders, who compete with traditional lenders for traditional mortgage clients by offering ‘too good to be true’ teaser deals which end up being just that.
  12. moneycenter banks, who set up single-purpose corporate entities that package the loans into a new financial instrument that gets resold into a tertiary market.
  13. financial engineers, who bundle the new financial instruments with cute ‘tricks’ like credit enhancement, over-collateralization and tranches as a portable hedge against risk.
  14. insurance companies, who sell a credit enhancement product but don’t set up internal controls to limit exposures, monitor performance of the product or hedge the impact on the rest of the organization
  15. re-insurance companies, who use one financial ‘trick’ to hedge the risk of another financial ‘trick’ not realizing that, as a result of their being 4x removed from the original transaction, they’ve inadvertently doubled or tripled down on the same risk.
  16. rating agencies, whose investment-banker-wannabe underpaid salaried staff can’t tell the difference between a true credit enhancement and ‘lipstick on a pig’
  17. television networks, who canceled classics like One Day at a Time, Good Times, Alice & M*A*S*H in favor of aspirational shows like Dallas & Dynasty, effectively shaming the ‘have-nots’ for how little they actually have.
  18. financial regulators, underpaid, understaffed, underfunded beaurocrats who are  underinformed as to the newest financial innovations on wall street
  19. legislative overseers, who are as financially illiterate as homebuyers
  20. legislative aids, who spend less time on policy and governance issues (despite Ivy League political science degrees) and more time on raising funds and getting their boss re-elected so they don’t have to go into the private sector and ‘get a real job.’
  21. hedge fund managers, who think their Harvard & Wharton MBAs render them invincible so they start their own firms and lure investors by promising a higher return than is statistically possible, ceteris paribus.
  22. Robin Leach, whose Lifestyles of the Rich & Famous showed the ‘haves’ in America how little they actually have.
  23. hedge fund investors, who aren’t satisfied with the consistent 8% returns of the equity markets yet miraculously expect to achieve higher returns without higher risk.
  24. financial media, who are journalists at heart but eventually succumb to the market’s incessant demand for entertainment over information.
  25. lifestyle media, who stimulate demand for house and home products by encouraging a sense of entitlement while understating the responsibilities of homeownership with programs like ‘Extreme Home Makeover’ and ‘Design on a Dime.’
  26. real estate speculators, who played a game of hot potato by entering into ‘no-money-down, interest-only, balloon payment’ exotic (read toxic) loans but mistimed the market, abandoned the property, left the banks holding the bag and then pointed the finger at government-sponsored working class homeownership programs when the crisis was made public.
  27. people, who believe everything they see and hear, then act on what they believe; all without applying a scintilla of common sense or asking someone who knows better.
  28. Other _____________________________________

I can’t stress it enough. America’s financial collapse was a creation of our own undoing.  While it is easy to point to Bernie Madoff or AIG for the failures of the system, their trepasses don’t scratch the surface of what is at the heart of the problem.  We are the problem. We, you and me, can at times be our own worst enemies. Until we take a good look at our contribution in creating the monster, there won’t be anything Secretary Geithner, President Obama, Sarah Palin or Rush Limbaugh will be able to do to save us from ourselves.