Lake

Lake
Near Yellow Mountain

Saturday, December 24, 2016

Thoughts on Milestones and the Passage of Time

I love the last few days of December. Christmas has never stressed me out which probably indicates who does the heavy “Advent lifting” in our house. The kids come home, caloric and workout concerns are suspended. Prohibitions against binge watching series on Netflix, Hulu or Amazon Prime are ignored.

Spending time with my daughters is great especially since, at this stage in life, I learn more from them than they do from me. Maybe that was always the case but it is not the point of this installment.

It is enjoyable to talk to both of my kids about their future plans and how they plan to get there. I take pride that each one has identified what they want to focus on in life. It took me quite a bit longer.

I have always been an early riser; however, neither my progeny nor my better half fits that description. It is in the morning quiet hours spent with just the company of my faithful dogs (well, normally, at least one of them) that I reflect on the waning moments of the current year and consider the prospect of the upcoming trip around the sun.

In 2017, I will mark the passing of another milestone birthday and experience my 還暦 (kanreki) which means I will have made a complete revolution (5X the 12-year Zodiac) around the lunar calendar. Please don’t tell anyone. The concept of kanreki is that since you have completed the lunar calendar journey you return to the beginning… or childhood. In Japan, for many people, kanreki marks the end of a life of gainful employment and stepping aside to make room the younger generation. As much as I love Japan, I am “passing” on the retirement aspect of kanreki but I am hoping for the party (hint, hint).

It takes five circuits of the Zodiac to make the lunar "trip"

As the youngest child in a big family it takes some getting used to being the “old guy” now in many settings. Seems like it was just yesterday that I had a dual role as freshman class president and the 125 lb. starting varsity QB playing behind a line of seniors that averaged about double my weight.

Although my hair color may tell a different story, I feel like I am just getting the hang of trying and learning new things. This year I focused on learning the benefits of Wim Hof breathing and ice baths (www.wimhofmethod.com). I also tried to diversify my workout portfolio doing some things my 30-year-old self would never have considered. My marathoning days are long past not because I couldn’t make it 26.2 miles but after going the distance more than 25 times – there are more interesting ways to spend my exercise time. Running a few miles seems like enough these days.

I was fortunate that my very brief forced early retirement at 55 turned out to be more of a work style transition than anything else. My 350,000 frequent flyer miles this year put me on the doorstep of 5 million lifetime miles so when I say “my life is flying by” there is a literal and figurative aspect to the statement.

I am not a fan of the word retirement. Four years ago when I found myself suddenly forced into a “brief” period of not working; I knew we could survive economically with a modest pension and a nest egg built based on a lifetime of living below our income. My larger concern was - not finding something interesting to do with my time and being relegated to the purgatory of boredom at a relatively young age.

I need not have worried. It is amazing what good friends, business contacts, reading the right things, reflecting on your situation, journaling and listening to the stories of people smarter than you are via quality podcasts can do for your brain. Take those factors and add a dash of Legal Zoom – suddenly you have a global business. My tiny company has clients on five continents but doesn’t even have a website. Linked-In, Twitter, We-Chat and Skype are the global communication tools.

Last week I signed the legal documents to start my LLC’s pension plan and 401K. Four years ago I was worried about ennui and planning to live life primarily off my savings. The reality is that with a (lot of) help from my friends I am now turning down more opportunities than I accept.

The best part of being free from the shackles of working for a big company is that I can spend the majority of my time focusing on creating value for clients rather than “managing up” which is what I was often told was the key to success at my former employer. Since I have been working for myself, I have been blessed to work with dozens of interesting people around the world who I learn from on a daily basis. Yes, I have many friends that have rich, full lives working in the corporate world but once I was out; I knew I would not return. Although I realized many years ago that I would rather be working for myself, I didn’t have the courage to jump off the big company band wagon. Fortunately, the big company decided to “double nickel” me (a term I just learned last week flying home from Chile).

Twenty years ago the technology did not exist for me to reach a global market on a daily basis from a converted bedroom in my home. Even as I began the new business I wasn’t smart enough to use more than email and the phone initially to make contacts. My “twentysomething” daughters had to guide me into the world of social media. A year after I started my business, it was my wife who pointed out a glaring “miss” in my business. After listening to her and making one change - something that takes less than 20 days a year of my time earned me more in 2016 than my previous corporate salary. It isn't just books and podcasts I continue to learn from.

I am extremely fortunate the business I spent my career learning is now in a boom period but even when boom ultimately busts I am confident that as long as I keep learning and looking ahead, good things will happen.

I play golf regularly with a group of retired corporate types. I am frequently asked when I will “finally” retire. “Hopefully never” is my standard reply. If what you do everyday is fun, why should you quit?

Yes, my kanreki, is less than 3 months away but it seems more of a beginning than an end.

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

The End of an Era


I have been coming to Thailand for fifteen years. I was always aware that Thailand had a King and that he was very popular. He died a few weeks ago and the country was still in mourning when I arrived early this week. It seemed like a good time to ask my local friends more about King Bhumibol Adulyadej.

I was surprised to find out the King was actually born in Cambridge Massachusetts while his father was studying at Harvard. My response “so the King is an American” generated a smile on my host’s face and the conversation about the King continued. His family moved back to Thailand when he was still very young but he wound up being educated in Switzerland. A global perspective seems like a good thing for a King (or a President) to have but we will get to that.

If you haven't been - consider a trip to Thailand

The King took the throne at 19 and reigned for over 70 years. In all my visits here I have never heard an ill word said about the King. On this trip, everywhere I went it seemed his image was looking down at me amid an incredible amount of flowers: in hotels, offices, on the street.

It is not my intention to give a history lesson here but for those interested there is plenty online about the world’s richest and seemingly most popular monarch.

I was in Thailand on business. Many of the people I deal with were educated in the US, Canada or UK so given the time of year the subject of the Hillary vs Trump Presidential “food fight” was an embarrassing juxtaposition to the passing of a beloved King after a 70 year reign.

Most of the people I deal with here also happen to be women so I found it very interesting that I did not hear one positive comment about Hillary – zero, zilch, nada.

This is not to say “The Donald” is viewed as a great option but in my statistically insignificant sampling of very well educated Thai women, Mexican wall jokes aside, Trump seemed to be perceived as the lesser of two evils which was a great surprise to me.

As I have spent more time in the last 20 years outside the US than on American soil, I have always enjoyed the take people in other countries have on our political system. I will board a flight to China in less than two hours. I am looking forward to hearing my friend and former driver, Philip’s take on the election. I will spend election night in Osaka, Japan where I will see how our Presidential food flight concludes or will I? I was living in Japan 16 years ago when the hanging chads prevented us from knowing the winner for far too long.

As a proud American, I have to say my pride is being sorely tested as I try to explain why America can’t find better options for our top job.

I feel a little jealous that the Thais had a King for 70 years that seems universally loved while American politics seem reduced to a Saturday Day Night Live skit.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Memories

September 10, 2016

I seldom write in my personal blog these days; however, on the eve of the 15th anniversary of 9/11 memories are abundant – both for September 11th and, in recent years, September 10th. This year is also a little different - I recently attended the funeral of a friend that died too soon and have been reflecting on, as Seneca would say, the “brevity of life”. Perhaps a blog post about three disparate events is too much but that is where I am.

A Day I Won't Forget
My family was living in Japan on September 11, 2001. I returned home shortly before 10PM Japan time – 9AM in the New York after having dinner with my boss who had just arrived from the US. I recall, as if it were yesterday, walking into our living room and saying to my wife that I wanted to “watch something interesting on TV” before going to bed. I was about to discover that thousands of miles away, events that would change the world were just beginning to play out.

At that time, our English language options on TV were limited so I turned on CNN first and saw a distant shot of the World Trade Center.  I turned up the volume and heard an announcer say it appeared that a small, private plane had crashed into one of the towers. It was a clear day and immediately something seemed amiss. It did not compute that even the worst pilot on the planet would hit the World Trade Center on a cloudless, September morning. A few minutes later, more cameras were on the scene from close range and soon a second plane appeared.

It was many hours before I believed that the first plane was in reality an airliner and that a second plane with the same mission arrived 17 minutes later and ultimately rendered the Twin Towers a pile of rubble. My wife stayed up all night transfixed in front of our TV. I went to bed firm in my belief that one of the many gifted teenage computer geeks in Japan had created a simulation and hacked into CNN Japan’s feed. Google was not a verb at that time and smart phones didn’t exist. I could have called my US office and asked about it but I was tired and resolute in my disbelief.

I woke up early the next morning and as I was getting ready to take the train to Osaka to meet my boss, my wife gave me the bad news. We hadn’t watched the work of a hacker on our TV screen but the efforts of a band of committed terrorists. We woke up our young daughters and tried to explain that the two big buildings we had seen in NY during a visit a few weeks earlier were no longer part of the Manhattan skyline. Had the events of the previous night been proposed as a movie script a week earlier it would have been rejected because it was totally implausible.

September 11th is one of those dates that everyone who lived through it remembers where they were and what they were doing when they heard the news. For my parents December 7th 1941 was such a day. The only other comparable date for my generation is November 22, 1963. I was in first grade but remember the day JFK was assassinated in great detail. Days that change the world.

I was six when this happened but I remember it like yesterday

Each year September 11th brings back a flood of memories of the reaction in Japan. The normally restrained Japanese saw my gaijin face on the train and in the street and reached out to say “sorry” in halting English. My cell phone rang all day with condolences and expressions of disbelief that “America had been attacked”. I mentioned to my closer friends that called that I found it ironic that Japanese in particular did not remember another attack on America. More ironic, each person seemed to respond the same way to my soft reply that: “someone also attacked us in 1941”. “But Lowry san Hawaii was not a state at that time”. It was a uniquely Japanese perspective. Rather than anger me the party line that Hawaii was not a state in 1941 was the kind of comic relief I welcomed on that sad day.

My boss wanted to return home immediately but each day US bound international flights were canceled as America was uncertain about the risks involved with reopening airports. On the fourth day I told him we would get him on a non-stop to Toronto and he could drive to North Carolina from there. Gradually things calmed down.  Aside from the deep shock of America’s true vulnerability and the chaos at airports that I endured as a frequent flyer over the next couple of years - particularly when I flew to the US, there was no long term day to day impact on my life. That cannot be said for people who lost loved ones on or later as a result of that day. The second and third order impacts continue given 9/11 resulted in the “war on terror” and the rise of global terrorism.

For most people September 10th is an unremarkable day unless it is their birthday or anniversary of a significant life event. For me, that date is now deeply etched in my memory – at least after 4PM. Four years ago today I was RIFed in a late afternoon meeting. You know,  “downsized” or as I like to say “fired”. I really prefer the Japanese term best. I was “kubied” which literally means my “neck was cut”.

My most widely read blog post “Moving On” tells the story ( http://jpl-expatblog.blogspot.com/2012/09/moving-on.html ) so I won’t reprise those events in detail. In any case, although I couldn’t see it at the time, September 10th 2012 was the first day of the rest of my very different and much improved work life. I loved the expat life but struggled to conform to “PC corporate drone life” in the US. Getting fired enabled me to return to doing business overseas and to calling my own shots.

I didn't feel "lucky" at the time

To be clear, I am in no way comparing my small “bump in the road” of 9/10/12 to what happened on 9/11; both dates are significant to me but linked only by proximity on the calendar.

After 15 years I can still only see 9/11 one way – a human tragedy conceived and executed by an evil genius who now, thanks to US Navy SEALS, is no longer with us.

In the past 15 years there has only been one 11th of September where I did not spend much of the day dwelling on that day in 2001. September 11, 2012 was a little different. For the first time since I finished graduate school in 1984, I woke up without a job. I was just another (ex) long term corporate employee trying to deal with the shock and embarrassment of being fired but still needing to show up for work because I had guests in from Japan. I struggled but I walked into the office with my head held high and my heart in the pit of my stomach. Fortunately, the Japanese guests I was scheduled to meet with and take to Pinehurst to play golf were the key to my future. By the end of the week I had a commitment from the President of the Japanese company for my first consulting agreement. By December he had recommended me to another Japanese company and my small business was born. A man I often had very tough negotiations with was responsible for putting me back on my feet.

Two weeks ago I flew to Japan to attend his funeral – the first Japanese man I ever met and who was only a few years my senior passed away suddenly and too soon.

Since 2000, I have spent more time in Japan than the US. Japan will always be my second home. I am more comfortable in Tokyo or Osaka than most cities in the US. Despite abysmal language skills I learned to communicate in Japanese well enough to navigate daily life without concern.

As the only non Japanese at a funeral that can best be described by US standards as elaborate and well attended, it was hard to keep my emotions in check. I arrived early dressed in the standard dark suit, white shirt and black tie. A good friend helped me by bringing extra Buddhist prayer beads but wondered aloud if it was Ok to my Roman Catholic sensibilities to be seen with them. I replied that it was Ok because I had called the “dispensation hotline”. My “catholic” joke fell on deaf ears.

A very large picture of of my departed friend was displayed on a flat screen directly in front of my seat. It was hard for me not to smile in return to his unwavering grin from the above. There were still 20 minutes before the service was to start. I looked around the room and nodded at a few old friends and spoke in hushed tones to the two friends sitting on either side of me. There was music playing in the background. I wasn’t really hearing it until a traditional Christmas song was played. My head cocked and I looked at the smiling image on the screen before me. I wondered to myself if he was playing a joke on me from the “other side”. I was certain no one else in the room knew that song.

In Japan they say you are born Shinto and die Buddhist but I was hearing one of my favorite Christmas songs in a Buddhist temple close to where I had lived in Kobe and watched the events on 9/11. The temple was close to the golf course where I had my only “hole in one”. I felt completely at home in a foreign world. My friend had always been the consummate host so perhaps he pre-arranged a Christian song to make me feel comfortable.

The service began.  The various speakers spoke slowly, so I understood almost everything.  As the service closed I got in line to pay my final respects by putting incense in the censer on the altar and offering a prayer. That completed all that was left to do was to bow deeply to my friend’s family before leaving the temple. I was surprised when my friend’s wife stepped forward and shook hands with me. I guess protocol exceptions are made when gaijin attend services. I am still learning.

Suddenly I was outside. I spoke with a few more people that I had not seen in a long time and took a bus to the train station.

I spent the afternoon thinking about how just a few months earlier I was golfing with my friend and how he had helped me have the confidence to build a successful business.

Bottom line – life is short and fragile. Be grateful, take calculated risks and realize how lucky you are.

Sunday, July 3, 2016

Perspective

I have lived back in the US for five and half years after almost eleven years in Asia. This is my first personal blog post in over six months. For the past year or so I have been writing business related posts on Linked In which gradually seemed to replace my need to write on the personal blog. Blogging really was a “need” when I first started in November of 2010. 

I wrote more than one hundred blog posts over five years. I wanted to capture my memories of life overseas so that I wouldn’t lose them to the the passage of time. I also used writing as therapy to help me deal with the transition back to “normal life” in my home country.

Yeah, I know, we are dealing with first world problems here. Like anyone born in the United States of America, I have a natural advantage over most of the other seven billion people on this planet. Anyone living at what is considered the poverty line in the US is a minimum “five percenter” and closer to a “one percenter” compared to the rest of the world. Ok – you cynics go ahead and check Google before continuing. Better yet, get on a plane and take a walk in rural SE Asia, China, Africa, etc. I write this post from the perspective that I and anyone else reading this are part of the “lucky few” on planet earth.  

My buddy from a floating village in Cambodia  

My wife and I often ruminated about how the US changed during our lengthy sojourn in Asia. For the most part we felt the changes in the US were not positive. Political correctness had swept the land. I was often asked about living in “communist China” and caused more than one raised eyebrow when I would respond that in many ways there is more freedom in China than in the good ole USA. Many Americans have a really hard time with that concept. 

Don’t get me wrong. I love America and didn’t go “native” during my years in Japan and China despite my strong positive feelings for both places but as we learned in “expat training” before we left the for Japan, coming back is often a big adjustment after just three years outside your native country. However, when you stay away more than ten years the degree of re-entry difficulty is multiplied significantly.

My first twenty-two months back in the US were very challenging. During that time period I tried without success to reintegrate into what was often referred to overseas as the “home office” or “HQ”. I knew from day one back in Charlotte that the company and I had both changed too much for me to ever successfully transition. Like any bad marriage, I should have just ended the relationship and moved on but things like two kids in private colleges and being clueless about what “else I would do” enabled the inertia that kept me unhappily wed to my corporate masters.

On Sunday nights, I was like a kid that gets a stomach ache at the thought of going to school on Monday. My first year back I made more trips back to Asia than I really needed to just because the I couldn’t stand being in the US office. I had a steady diet of seemingly endless corporate nonsense. Every meeting I attended started with a “safety share”. I will never forget the safety share about “not taking your shoes off on a plane until you reach cruising altitude”. How did I “safely” get four million frequent flyer miles before I heard that gem of aviation wisdom?” When I had to attend four or five meetings on some days; I often got  “safety share reruns” with immutable wisdom like: “lift heavy objects with your legs and not your back”. You can't hear that too many times in one day. I am all for safety but this was just another seemingly good idea taken past the point of common sense.

Twenty-two months after my return, I was the beneficiary of the “corporate euthanasia” program also known as a RIF (reduction in force). Normally in a RIF there is a certain group or class of employees the company is seeking to cut. For example, a new accounting system could lessen the need for payroll staff and the company might seek to drop the number of clerks from 12 to 8 by offering a package for people to leave. In my case the group was one person – me. Yes, they literally went through the charade of declaring my position to be a group that needed to be reduced. Details of that happy day can be found on a prior blog post. http://jpl-expatblog.blogspot.com/2012/09/moving-on.html

It has been almost four years since I became corporate “jetsam”.  Only the first few weeks were difficult. Fortunately, my ex-pat package enabled me to save more than 80% of my income for over a decade and the end of my tuition paying years were in sight. I planned as if our savings and modest pension payment from “early retirement” would have to fund our lifestyle going forward because I thought my future prospects as “someone of a certain age” were limited. Fortunately, my wife and many friends had a much more positive spin on my options.

I had worked for over two decades in a global but small market which was about to start a serendipitous boom. Better still, China and Japan, the two countries I lived and worked in as an ex-pat were at the center of the opportunity. Initially my scar tissue from getting fired prevented me from fully “connecting the dots” of the potential laid before me. Fortunately, I had several friends that helped me to figure out how to leverage my suddenly greatly in demand skill set.

Over the past few years, I have had the privilege of working with a diverse mix of manufacturers, investors, analysts and even a couple governments around the world. I have learned as much in this short time as in any other era of my life. Working for myself means I do not have to waste half of the day in mind numbing meetings with no meaningful agenda or participate in training seminars on topics from office ergonomics to diversity role playing - I think taking a train across Qinghai province China fifteen years ago and drinking “mao tai” with my "new best friends" might been an acceptable substitute for the diversity course.

When you have spent more than a decade traveling to places where people regularly ask to touch your skin or hair and occasionally attempt to touch your eyeball before trying to feed you delicacies that were formerly the internal organs of “some unidentified living thing” – having a white female who has never left North America teach you about cultural sensitivity probably isn’t going to have much of an impact.

At a time when most of the friends I play golf with on Tuesday mornings are either retired or about to retire, I am more concerned about how to balance my time between work and leisure because there are more interesting opportunities in front of me than at any time in my life. I don’t see any point to “retiring” as long as what I am calling work involves traveling to places I enjoy like Japan, China, Australia, Korea and Argentina; meeting people who are often more friends than business associates and getting paid to do it.

My time as an ex-pat working in one field for so many years has enabled me to work largely on my own terms now. My decision after getting fired in 2012 not to take another “job” with a big company was probably one of the best moves I ever made.

I originally started blogging at the suggestion of a well respected Asia expert who also counsels returning ex-pats. He told me I should write a book about my experiences overseas to help me put my time abroad in perspective. I didn’t feel my experiences were interesting enough to justify a book so a blog was my compromise.

I never wrote the book but my wife turned my blog posts into one
Tomorrow is the 4th of July. I am glad to be back in America and, despite all the problems the country currently faces, I am proud to be an American although the current election “process” certainly has me concerned about the future of our system.


If you made it to the end of my pre-holiday ramble:thank you. It may be awhile before I blog again. The blog did its job helping me transition from my ex-pat experience but now it seems like it makes more sense to focus on spending the next few years on having more interesting experiences than writing about my old ones.