Friday, January 20, 2012

You can't buy a reputation

Warren Buffett is on the cover of Time this week, while Newt Gingrich is attempting one of many comebacks. The world's second-richest man has designated 99% of his wealth for charity upon his death, drives himself in a 2006 car, prefers Cherry Coke to fine wines, takes most of his meals at the same local restaurant, and still lives in a house of quite modest scale in Omaha that he bought in 1958. The former Speaker of the House has a $500,000 line of credit at Tiffany's.

Buffett succeeded by focusing on fundamentals: as a "value investor," he picks underrated companies and holds them, as his profile says, "between ten years and forever." A single share of Berkshire-Hathaway purchased 47 years ago for $19 is worth $116,000 today.

Gingrich is perpetually at risk of destroying whatever he has achieved. Blamed for the government shutdown of 1995, he lost his "Contract with America" and was bounced from the Speakership a few years later over ethics charges.

Buffett can be justifiably proud of his achievements but is apparently a plain man. Gingrich presents himself as a pompous megalomaniac convinced that he alone can save the Republic from a dire fate. Buffett, wealthy enough not to care what anyone else thinks, speaks bluntly about the dangers of income inequality in our society and the bad example of the rich not paying taxes proportional to their wealth. Gingrich wants inner-city children to be put to work as janitors in their own schools.

Buffett married his wife, Susan, in 1950 and remained devoted to her until, late in life, Susan herself decided she needed to broaden her horizons a bit beyond what Omaha had to offer and moved, alone, to San Francisco, where she eventually died of cancer. Quite unconventionally, she actually approached another woman and brought her and Buffett together in a domestic partnership; the three even sent out Christmas cards as a group. Buffett accepted the arrangement but is still heartbroken over his late wife's death, according to the profile in Time.

Gingrich apparently broached the subject of divorce to his first wife while she was in the hospital recovering from surgery. Now, we learn from his second wife that he approached her about "open marriage." On that subject, a British woman, apparently a participant in a rather complex polyamorous arrangement, has weighed in via The Guardian. As she quite sensibly points out, Gingrich did not openly discuss his desire for a prospective new relationship with his then-spouse; he came to her after the fact and sought her acquiescence in a clandestine liaison that he had already carried on for some time. Whatever one may think of the unusual domestic arrangement of the Buffetts and Warren's new partner, it was undertaken honestly, without subterfuge and with the knowledge of all parties.

Forget Buffett's money; there is something in the character of such a man that is forever beyond the likes of Gingrich. Newt can fume about the media all he likes; in the end, one is reminded of a passage from Shakespeare's Measure for Measure:
There is a kind of character in thy life,
That to the observer doth thy history
Fully unfold.

© Michael Huggins, 2012. All rights reserved.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Meaning in no sound

I love silence. It is the place where thoughts are born, meaning is conveyed, and insight is achieved. What if no one said anything unless he had something to say?

Of course I love good conversation, beautiful music, the sound of the wind through the trees, a running stream, a child's happy laughter, or even the train whistle in the night. But silence, to me, has a message of its own; it speaks of things in good order and a mind at work.

At 3:00 this morning, briefly awake, I lay in the dark and noticed that there was absolutely no sound. It was not the emptiness of deafness but the peace of an hour that no one nearby felt moved to fill with mindless clatter. I felt like celebrating. I almost wished to stay awake to savor the beauty of such a moment.

© Michael Huggins, 2012. All rights reserved.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

I complained that I had no Bentley, until...

Six or seven years ago, a young woman slated to attend her state university on full scholarship was in a car wreck while driving home from a wedding reception, and it changed everything. She endured months of surgery and physical rehab; one still sees the place where they had to open her throat to insert a tube. She moves, walks, and speaks awkwardly, reminding an onlooker perhaps of a victim of a neurological impairment. Of course driving is impossible, and she works at home, telecommuting on a freelance basis for a non-profit organization, but the hours are few and the compensation very modest.

I met her last April as I was coming home from my lunchtime walk. She had just crossed a busy intersection; it would have been an ordeal for her in any event, but she was trying awkwardly to carry some sacks of groceries. I stopped her and offered to help, and we walked to her apartment complex, which is just down the street from mine, chatting along the way. She was quite forthright about herself and her background, said the car wreck had been caused by her own negligence, described her determination to make a real life for herself despite her limitations, and said the groceries were for her first foray into cooking; she had only recently moved out of her parents' house into her own place.

Near her apartment, we parted, and I had never seen her since; when I happened to think of her, I wondered if she even lived in those apartments any longer.

We met again just over an hour ago as I was heading home, once again, from my lunchtime walk. She was startled when an apparent stranger called out to her by name, but I reminded her of our long-ago meeting, and she remembered. She's still cooking and had even ordered a cookbook online, which she hopes her mother will pick up at the Post Office today. Her work with the non-profit organization continues, though the hours are still quite limited.

She also was returning home, in her case from International Paper headquarters, just up the street, where she had attended a Toastmaster's meeting. To improve her confidence and her speaking voice, she had begun to attend Toastmasters, where she has become a Club Ambassador, which involves visiting other clubs, and is now working on her Distinguished Toastmaster's ranking.

Amazing the resilience of an admirable few in responding to adversity. While many of us grumble because we didn't get served fast enough at a restaurant, or we don't have a better credit score, or the car we bought didn't have all the options we wanted, here is someone whose range of effective operation, unaided, is contracted to a few blocks along one of the city's busiest streets, dangerous for her to cross, but with her attitude, she prevails and makes it the scene of a series of continuing triumphs. What if we could all demand that of ourselves as a matter of course, without needing to suffer a setback first?

© Michael Huggins, 2012. All rights reserved.