“Both kids are good to mom — Blood’s thicker than mud — It’s a family affair…”

Friends:

I never thought I’d say it, but I think I have actually heard it all.  I wish I could say that I am surprised by people and how they act and react, but frankly, it isn’t true.  And each time I hear a story about the brother who did this or the aunt who did that, I resist the urge to do one thing.

I resist the urge to feign surprise.  When a prospective client tells me their story, they portray it as if it’s the most exceptional story ever, as if it must be equally as surprising to me as it is to them.  But with what I do, nothing surprises me anymore.  The brother who demanded a copy of the Trust at the funeral because he wanted to know how much he was going to get now that mom was dead.  The sister who didn’t call the coroner when she found her father dead on the floor of his house, but instead searched through the house for the family heirlooms so that she could have them before her siblings found out.  The brother who buried his mother without notifying his other siblings as to the location or date of the funeral.

Honestly, it seems as if I have heard every story out there.  I would like to think that when I tell a prospective client that it doesn’t surprise me that it engenders confidence in me.  If I am not surprised by the story then I must know how to address the issues, right?  Wouldn’t you prefer to have an attorney who has seen it all and done it all then the attorney who is equally as flabbergasted as the client?  It’s funny- when you are a young attorney the only thing you can’t be taught and won’t come fast enough is experience.

I hate to say it but people can be so mean to each other.  I hate to say it because I am a firm believer in the tenet that people are good.  That people are decent.  That people, if given the opportunity, will do the right thing the majority of the time.  But the stories I hear certainly make me have second thoughts about all of that.  What does actually surprise me is that people are sometimes more willing to act despicable towards a family member then they would towards a complete stranger.  They say that blood is thicker than water, but money and control are sometimes even stronger.

I am often astounded by the attorneys who practice in the area of divorce law and wonder how they go home at the end of the day and keep a strong marriage.  Yet it is so very clear to me how they do it.  They take all of the negativity that they see every day and they turn it into positives by focusing their energies towards avoiding the horror they see others go through.

I have taken that to heart and try to keep it in mind with my own family.  It just simply makes sense to me.  When all is said and done, don’t we all want someone we can go to, to share happy occasions with, commiserate with, cry on the shoulder of and celebrate with?  I get the concept that money and power corrupt, and for some people they have been waiting years, even decades, to finally have that upper-hand, to rectify the wrong that was committed on them so many years ago.  But seriously, aren’t there more important things that that?

I have heard it all.  Conceptually I understand that you cannot choose your family but you can choose your friends.  But it doesn’t mean I have to like it… or accept it.

But having heard it all, I think it makes me better at what I do, that’s for sure.

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“That reminds me, I was going to ask you. What exactly *is* our team concept?”

Friends:

As the baseball season is about to begin again, I am reminded of something that the head coach said on the first day of my only week of junior college baseball.  As the group of 50 players huddled together near the pitcher’s mound of the field at Los Angeles Valley College, the fall semester having just started and practice games beginning within two days, we all looked to our fearless leader for words of wisdom and inspiration.  Instead, we received words of idiocy and absurdity which immediately reduced credibility in my 17 year old eyes. 

I am sure that on the first day of spring training, all of the teams had meetings during which the goals and expectations were set out; and each team, without fail, had one goal in mind—winning the World Series.  Maybe the players have individual goals, such as stay healthy, hit .300 or win 20 games, but baseball is a team sport and there is no higher achievement than winning the championship.  The season is a long one, a marathon not a sprint, and there are going to be good days and bad days, successful weeks and slumps.  But of all sports, the law of averages is most prevalent and controlling in baseball.  So despite the wins or losses on any given day, if you win 2 games out of every 3, your chances of going to the playoffs increase.

Being a true student of the game and understanding that any team can beat any given team on any given day, I was expecting that the goals as set out by the coach would be reflective of this.  The goal of the team should be to win the league championship.  To do so, the team has to play hard every day and play as a team and not as 25 or 50 individual players only out for themselves.

Instead of this, however, the coach offered these words of inspiration:  the team’s goal should be to go 42-0.  Not win the championship (although going undefeated surely would result in a championship); not give 100% each and every day.  Win every game you play.

When I was in high school, our coach was an ornery, burnt out man who made it known to everyone that he had many other places he would have preferred to be.  However, he made sure that whenever you made a mistake, you heard about it.  I remember one instance, an away game, when our pitcher was struggling so badly that the coach yelled from the bench that our pitcher shouldn’t have gotten off the bus.  So you can imagine the stress with which we played the game, the concern that any error or blunder that we made would be met with verbal attacks or benching.  Baseball is a game that requires relaxation—the tighter you get the more prone you are to errors and strikeouts.

The same goes with the junior college coach’s goals.  One misstep, one error, one blown game in the bottom of the 9th and the team had failed in its only goal.  How is a team supposed to respond to that? 

Lately much has been made about the Miami Heat and their amazing win streak, up to 26 games as of this writing, only 7 off of the record set by the Lakers of 1971-1972.  I remember hearing of an interview with LeBron James from last week in which a reporter asked if he would prefer to break the record for most consecutive games won or win a second championship.  If my memory serves, James said he wanted the consecutive win streak.  A lofty goal but if the team breaks the record but fails to win the championship, won’t the season be a failure?

The goal of every team is to win the championship and anything less than that is a failure.  But the thing about a goal like that is that it requires that the full season be played.  Jokes are made that on the first day of the season teams like the Royals or the Pirates or the Astros are already mathematically eliminated from contention, but that isn’t the case; every team has just as much chance of winning the championship as any other team and you have to play every game and see where the chips fall.  The law of averages will dictate success or failure.

But back to my junior college coach:  I am not going to say that not every game is important, in fact, they are all incredibly important.  But if your goal is set based on what happens every day and every day you have a chance of failing in your goal, then you will play tight, you will stress about at-bats and you will make mistakes.  Case in point:  the very first game of the season, our team didn’t just lose; we got creamed.  And just like that, we had failed in our goal.

I have taken this to heart when setting my own goals.  The goals have to be not only specific, but also realistic.  The perfect season is an anomaly.  Sure it happens every now and again, but any team can be any other team on any given day, whether it be T-Ball, high school, college or the pros.  Basically you need a whole lot of luck, the stars to align, and still more luck to have a perfect season.  So is perfection realistic?  I just don’t see how and I certainly didn’t think so at 17 years old.

Consider the professional football season; it is only 16 games, only 10% of the length of the major league baseball season.  And there hasn’t been a perfect season in over 40 years. 

Is perfection a realistic goal in any endeavor?  I don’t see how it can be and any goal which requires perfection is a goal waiting to fail.  Instead, the goal should be more forward thinking and broad-based.  Requiring perfection every day simply allows for too many unexpected forces to push their way in and muck things up. 

I cannot tell you how the junior college baseball season ended.  After the first week I was red-shirted, told I was too young and too small, that the team had 26 year old men who had children of their own and that I simply wouldn’t get a chance to play.  So by the end of the semester, I had transferred to a new school and hung up my cleats.  But I can tell you this—the coach sure isn’t coaching anywhere nearby anymore…

Have a great week.

“Are they made from real Girl Scouts?”

Friends:

I can honestly tell you that I have never done sales in my life and I confess that I know very little about that world.  And yet, a two-hour stint selling Girl Scout cookies in front of a Stater Brothers and I feel like I am an expert… because I have come up with some universal truths about the sales process.

1)    Location Location Location—A few weeks ago my wife went with our daughter to sell cookies in front of a Baja Fresh and I think she told me that for the two hours they were there, they sold a grand total of two boxes.  However, for a two hour stretch at Stater Brothers, we sold 95 boxes.  Why, might you ask?  Simply because more people walked past our table going into the supermarket than walked past their table going into a fast food restaurant.

2)    Timing is Everything – Did I forget to tell you that my daughter was at Baja Fresh at 4 o’clock in the afternoon and we were at State Brothers at 10am?  How many people do you think needed to get a Baja Burrito at 4pm?  But Saturday mornings are high traffic times for the supermarket, apparently.  This was further borne out by the fact that from 10am to noon we sold 95 boxes while it took the other girls 3 ½ hours to sell the remaining 90 boxes.

3)    Money Doesn’t Have to Be the Motivation for Your Sales Force – We like to think that our sales force requires monetary incentives to extract their very best efforts in selling.  That isn’t always the case.  I can guarantee you that the girls selling yesterday weren’t doing it because they were getting paid.  They did it because they believed in their product, they believed in their organization and they knew that they would receive some benefit from their efforts; it might be a party or a field trip or prizes.  But it certainly isn’t monetary.  And we surely got their best efforts at selling.

4)    Your Sales Force Must Be Genuine – It was immediately clear when we set up our table and began selling that the girls were excited to be there selling cookies and representing the Girl Scouts.  They didn’t see this as a chore to be endured, but as a rite of passage in every Girl Scout’s life.  And the fact that they believed in what they were doing resonated from our table and was infectious.  Our customers felt the energy and excitement and took the time to stop and talk and, more importantly, buy.  Even the customers who had to say “no” felt that they needed to give a reason why they couldn’t purchase.

5)    It Doesn’t Hurt to Be Cute – I hate to say it, but the girls were so cute in their uniforms and dancing around the table and singing their cookie-selling songs.  Brooklyn got numerous hugs from customers, just because they felt a magnetism from her that called for some affection.  I dare you to name one child who isn’t cute.  Seriously, on cuteness alone I bet children could sell ice to eskimos…

6)    Some People May Not Want Cookies; But They Still Want to Help – For as much as we would like to think that everyone loves cookies, the fact of the matter is that there are people out there who, for one reason or another, cannot purchase cookies from you.  It may be that they don’t like cookies, or we’re out of their favorite flavor, or they have allergies, or (as one gentleman told us) they are diabetic.  It occurred to me after we had been there for about 15 minutes that we weren’t really there to sell cookies, we were there to raise money.  The cookies were an added byproduct of our efforts.  But the customers only saw us as selling cookies.  We needed to educate them as to the purpose of our efforts.  Don’t want to buy cookies?  Would you like to donate a box instead?  People typically don’t like to just give money away; sure some people were eager to just give us five bucks, but many of the other people felt like their option was buy cookies or not buy cookies.  Once we educated them that they could donate boxes, we touched a nerve in some customers who saw us as only a cookie seller and we took advantage of their generosity to raise over $70.00 in donations alone.

7)    Not Everyone Will Be Your Customer – While there were some people who apologized for not purchasing cookies for one reason or another, there were others who were much more gruff in their rejection or ignored us completely.  The one guy who threw up his hands at us as he stormed off… whether he thought we were selling cocaine or something, I don’t know; but it was clear that he just wasn’t going to be our customer.  For the others, it’s a roll of the dice sometimes as to whether someone will stop and purchase.  If you asked me to judge the people as they were walking up and guess as to which of them would stop and purchase and which would avoid us, I would have failed miserably.  But for the girls, it seemed to not matter if they received a rejection.  They still thanked everyone who walked by and wished them a good weekend. 

8)    Know Your Product – Is there another product out there that is as universally known as Girl Scout cookies?  It was my expectation that everyone had a favorite—why thin mints, I will never know, but that seemed to be the winner hands down.  But there were still customers who either didn’t know the cookies at all or were just testing the girls to see how well they knew their product.  It was excruciating to watch the girls stumble over the cookies when the customer would ask what they have or what they would recommend.  What’s the difference between samoas and do-si-dos and tagalongs?  Ugh.  The other part of knowing your product is knowing what your customers want.  If you ask me, I would tell you that there is no better pairing in the world than peanut butter and chocolate.  Sonny and Cher, Simon and Garfunkel, Laurel and Hardy—you guys can all eat your heart out, you will never be chocolate and peanut butter.  And yet, that was one of the poorest selling cookies we had.  But we sure sold a lot of thin mints, so it was quite prescient of our leader to stock us up heavily in the little green boxes.

9)    Divide and Conquer – I understand that the girls are young and inexperienced in selling, but when the two of them were helping one customer, three other potential customers were walking past without any interaction.  I had to tell Brooklyn a few times that she should let her friend handle this one while she tried to reach out to the other passersby.

10)                       Competition is Out There – As was to be expected, we were up against some stiff competition.  Frankly, I would expect that the vast majority of you know someone who is either selling Girl Scout cookies or can at least get them for you.  So you may not be surprised by the number of customers who had to inform us that they had already bought boxes from their nieces, their grandchildren, their co-workers, their fellow students or their dealers.   

Selling seems pretty easy when you boil it down like that, right?  Don’t worry, I’m not quitting my day job… but I may just man the table again next year.  But next time, there are gonna be some changes…!

“Why is my reflection someone I don’t know?”

Friends:

I don’t envy those of you who have to commute to work.  Friday morning I had to make the drive from Valencia to Century City and, of course, it was during the onset of the torrential rains we saw this weekend.  But sometimes getting out into “the world” can open your eyes to some amazing things.  One thing in particular served as a reminder of a very important fact.

Someone is always watching and making notes about us.

When I was a kid and I would be out in public with my parents, as soon as I started to talk loudly about someone I knew, my father would stop me and remind me that I needed to be careful because I couldn’t knew who might hear me.  I try to consider that at all times because I never know whether my next client is sitting in the neighboring booth, is walking towards me in the mall…

Or driving in the car next to me.

Every single one of us is a reflection of something and someone is always judging us and those of whom we are a reflection.  I was reminded of this Friday morning as I saw a van with the name of an air conditioning company plastered on its side cut off three lanes of traffic in the pouring rain to get into the carpool lane.  And the thought going through my mind at that moment, other than that I hoped the driver doesn’t kill someone, was that I would never use that air conditioning company.

I am sure that the company is exceptional, but when you never have a second chance to make a first impression, my first impression of that company was poor.

I wrote before about the tow-truck driver who came to our aid one Saturday and, simply by doing his job, made me a lifelong fan of his and his company.  The reverse is certainly possible as well.  We can make lifelong fans from one impression and we certainly can make lifelong opponents.

I don’t know about you, but I can’t afford to have someone get a bad first impression of me.  Everyone is a potential client.  But it sure is hard sometimes, isn’t it?  Hard not to discipline your child in public; hard not to reach for your “bird” finger when someone cuts you off; hard not to check your email one last time as the movie starts; hard not to sing at the top of my lungs to Frozen’s “Let It Go” with the windows rolled down.

It seems daunting at times, this idea that we always have to have our game faces on, that we can’t take a break and let our hair down.  Well of course we can, we just have to pick out spots.  We just have to know when. 

Because if we choose to do so during a torrential downpour, crossing 3 lanes of traffic and endangering many lives… well, that’s not my spot for sure.

“Take a good look around boys, because your future is about to change.”

Friends:

If you believe that our future is preordained, think again for each step we take has the possibility of dramatically changing our lives.  It just occurred to me a few weeks ago that something that happened to me 17 years ago altered the path of my life so significantly that if things had gone differently, I probably wouldn’t be where I am today or even writing these words.  It boggles the mind…

My favorite comic strip growing up was “Bloom County” followed by its spin-off “Outland” starring the loveable penguin (puffin) Opus, Bill the Cat, Steve Dallas, Milo and a host of others.  One strip that I still remember fairly well involved the character of Milo, a 10-year old boy wise beyond his years.  The end frame of the strip, if I recall correctly, is Milo, paralyzed in stupefaction, as he has just considered the myriad of twists in turns of the roads of his predecessors that led to his being born and the fact that any one different step by someone generations before him could have so significantly shifted the winds of fate that he might never have even been born.  When you think about it like that, it can be staggering.  Each step we take impacts the rest of our life and the lives of those around us.

One of the most popular books of 2013 was “Life After Life” by Kate Atkinson and it was a fictional view of the steps that one character took and the numerous different ways that her life changed as a result.  The story was a series of births and deaths for the main character and after each birth, she went through life taking different courses and her life spun off into drastically different ends as a result.  In some instances it was the difference between being 5 minutes early for the train or 5 minutes late; in others it was the difference between being swept up by a wave and avoiding it completely.

Despite the fact that I felt the book missed out on some golden opportunities to truly explore how isolated incidents can impact the course of one’s life, it did provoke me to think about my life and whether I, too, experienced any cross-roads which would have dramatically altered the course of my life had I taken a different path.  And the answer was, to my complete surprise, a resounding yes.  Who knew that something that happened to me at 21 would have such a dramatic impact on my life? 

But the fact of the matter is that had events progressed differently than they did, it is nearly a certainty that I never would have dated Amy, never would have married her and, even more upsettingly, my two beautiful girls would never have been born.  It is inconceivable to me, now, that this world could have existed without my two little ones in it; how the world would have suffered a great injustice by their never being born!  And they are thoughts like that that make me pause and consider the weight of the events that brought me to today. 

If you have seen the Disney movie “Meet The Robinsons” there is a scene at the end of the film in which the future of the characters changes so much that the background scenery changes gradually from a light to dark, from a paradise to a perdition.  As I thought about that one isolated event of mine of 1997 and how incredibly different my life would be now if that event had never taken place, it felt like that; like I was looking at the walls of my house as they faded away, like I was looking at my wife as she faded away and her history was rewritten; and like I was looking at my daughters as they disappeared completely. 

It can be a bit debilitating – trying to imagine this world without Brooklyn and Kensi, or my life without them, or my life without Amy?!? 

Being a glutton for punishment, I did try to imagine it.  I tried to imagine how my life would be different now if things had gone differently in ’94.  I am not going to say that the 17 years since then haven’t been difficult, they certainly have, but they would have been more difficult had things gone differently.  My relationship with my parents, the vacations, the holidays, my semester in London, my friends.  So much of my life would be different now…

At the time, I was devastated by what happened.  I was heartbroken, I was depressed and I thought that things would never get better.  But things had a way of working out for the best, something that you never could have convinced me of at the time.

You hear it said all the time that things happen for a reason and most of the time I think of it as just a throwaway remark to make someone feel better when a bad thing happens.  But man is it true!  I truly think that there is a higher power up there who put all of the pieces in place and led me to where I am today and who I am with.  How can I not believe that when I look into Brooklyn’s and Kensi’s eyes and see the special people they are?  It was destined for them to be born, it was destined for them to be mine.  And man, is it scary to think how everything in my life would have been different if not for that one solitary occurrence in 1997.

 

 

“Oh, obviously! The moment I sat down I thought I was looking into a mirror.”

Friends:

People always ask me what it’s like to be an identical twin.  Frankly, I have never given it much thought, simply because it is the only thing I have ever known.  For the 9 whole minutes of my life in which I was not a twin, all of the focus and attention was on my still-to-be-born brother and not me.  But lately it has become more obvious to me what the experience of being a twin is like.

Imagine walking into a room of 100 strangers and having all 200 eyes (assuming there aren’t any pirates in the room) turn and look at you.  That’s what it is like to be a twin.  The idea of blending into the background or standing in the shadows is a concept that is based more in fantasy than reality.  As a twin, you can’t just blend into the crowd.  You are the focus of attention.  And you better darn well get used to it.

Wherever my brother and I would go, we would be the center of attention.  It didn’t hurt that we were just the cutest kids (J); the fact that there were two of us exactly alike was intoxicating to people.  We were freaks of nature; to some people it was as if we were mythical figures that had never before been viewed. 

And the questions we would get asked were sometimes so asinine I don’t know how my brother and I kept straight faces; or how we refrained from making stupid comments in response.  “Who’s smarter?”  “Who’s better at baseball?”  “If I hit him, will you feel it?”  That one was always my favorite because I would tell them to try it and see what happened.  My brother wasn’t such a fan of that, though.

Being a twin meant I was always on some sort of stage.  I didn’t need to act out to get attention.  I didn’t need to sing and dance and make a spectacle to get people to notice me.  People noticed me just because of who I looked like.  When I meet other people who have twin siblings, my first questions is to ask if they are identical.  The majority of the time the answer is “no.”  At that point, I usually don’t have much else to say—because unless you are an identical twin, you don’t know what this is like.  Even fraternal twins are outside this club.

None of this truly occurred to me until recently.  Last week my dad and brother and I went to Dodgers fantasy baseball camp.  What better way to try to blend in, right?  Everyone wearing the same uniform, only the names and numbers are different.  Should be a piece of cake.  Not a chance—from the minute Phil and I walked in the room, everyone knew us.  In fact, our names were somewhat legendary already; we had new campers who said that they were already aware of us from a camp we had done 2 ½ years ago!  Of course, it didn’t hurt that we are still pretty good ballplayers; but still, the fact that we were twins was the draw.  But Phil and I, after 38 years, are so used to it, that it doesn’t faze us when people pay us attention. 

That experience gave me pause to look back on the past 20 years since high school ended.  All of the schooling up through high school was nothing more than popularity for being strange.  But college and law school and beyond, I realize that I was never terribly uncomfortable in large crowds of people or making friends or standing out in a crowd.  All of those years of people turning around and staring made it that much easier for me to go off and do it on my own.  Sure, there were times when blending into the background was a wonderful respite, but in truth, I wasn’t made for the shadows.  The fact that I am a twin and have always been the center of attention has made me better at so many things, such as making friends and even networking.  I am less intimidated walking into a room of strangers than most people because I have so much experience doing it and knowing the feeling of everyone turning and looking.  Performing in front of an audience, giving a speech or speaking in front of crowds was never as difficult for me as I know it can be for some. The idea of stage fright being debilitating is foreign to me, because the way I see it, Phil and I were always on stage.  If a kid acts up, he can be taken out of the room.  If a twin acts up, it is much more noticeable.  And I think that Phil and I thrived on that attention. 

So when I stand in front of a room and lead a networking group or walk into a new situation and find a way to get noticed, I truly think it is a function of my being an identical twin.  When so many people are looking at you all the time, you kind of get used to it.  At first, it seems like they expect you to do some sort of a trick; eventually you embrace the attention and get used to it.

What’s it like being an identical twin?  It’s like always being on stage with the spotlight on you.

What’s it like being an identical twin?  Beats the heck out of me!  It’s the only thing I’ve ever known!

 

“Take my wife, please!”

Friends:

I know I made a big deal a few weeks ago about how tough I was and how it was a matter of mind over body and stuff like that.  But something became very clear to me this week and it’s something that has been gestating for quite a while.

Frankly, I’m a bit of a pansy.

I know, I know—what kind of a man would ever admit something like that?  Well, a man who is comfortable in who he is… and who he isn’t.  This past weekend Amy and I were moving our offices, moving on up to a larger space with its own conference room, separate offices and even some storage space.  It was a long, tough weekend.  I don’t know how many times I went up those 21 stairs, hauling furniture and boxes and cabinets with the help of my dad and brother.  And by the end of the day on Sunday, I was wiped out.  Monday December 30th started off ok, but with each trek up the stairs with a box in my hands, it was another step down in my stamina such that by the end of the day, I was on the couch, shivering and coughing.

Needless to say Tuesday the 31st, New Year’s Eve, I was a mess.  And where did this illness come from?  From Amy, of course, who had been battling this same illness for what seemed like weeks.  But that is where Amy and I are different.  On Tuesday the 31st, I could barely get out of bed—no going to the new office, no arguing with AT&T or trying to get the computers up and running.  It was “Sofa City” for me.  Amy, on the other hand, was at the office, with our two daughters, emptying boxes, dealing with phone and computer people and the landlord and who knows who else.  Was she feeling that much better than me?  Probably not by much—but as I said, I am a pansy.  The first hint of a sickness and I am on the couch.  When I was a kid, my mom would be able to tell if my brother or I were sick and couldn’t go to school because she would hear the theme music from “Top Gun” playing, the video already in the VCR.  Who has sick-day theme music?  This guy does.

Amy, on the other hand, somehow pushes the sick feeling aside and gets to business.  I mean, come on, a few weeks ago she handled a two-day arbitration feeling about as awful as I did on the 31st.  Is she a robot?

When Amy was pregnant they were constantly prodding and poking, blood tests and all kinds of other procedures.  Yet when she ordered me to take a blood test to rule out some kind of infant disease, you would have thought I was being asked to cut off a leg.  Needles, shots, blood tests?  Count me out, that stuff isn’t my cup of tea.  But it was just a fact of life for Amy and grin and bear it she did.

And when the baby was ready to be born and the monitors were going off the charts and Amy was screaming and yelling, what was I doing?  Complaining that she was hurting my hand, that’s what!  Never in my life did I expect to see someone begging for a needle to be inserted directly into her spinal cord…

And the week after our daughter was born and Amy was back in the hospital again and I witnessed all kinds of tests, a spinal tap and blood tests and brain scans and whatever else they did, Amy soldiered on while I suffered in agony of how it all must feel.

Yes, my friends, I am truly a wimp.  I still think that the reason I got sick this past week is because I simply never got around to getting that flu shot like I should have.  It’s that damn “no needles” policy I try to espouse.  A lot of good that did me, huh?

So alas, while I am whimpering and whining and begging for chicken soup for my namby-pamby soul, there’s Amy, lifting pianos on her back and juggling two kids and making a 7-course meal for dinner, all with a 103 fever.

And there were people out there who had problems with women in the military??  You have got to be kidding me!

A happy and healthy 2014 to you—and if you have to spend a day on the couch, make sure you have someone like Amy to take care of you… and find that Top Gun DVD video for you.  I promise, it works like a charm.

It’s Time For The List — The Top 12 of 2013

63

12

5

30

2

Yep, it’s the end of the year, which means it’s time for “The List.”  You know you have been waiting all year for it.

One of my favorite things about having this weekly blog is the ability to prepare a year-end list of my favorite books.  I love reading other people’s lists because typically I find out about books I had never heard of and they sometimes even lead to new discoveries.  For example, a few years ago I was reading Stephen King’s year-end list and he included a book called “Tree of Smoke” by Denis Johnson, a Vietnam War novel which I had never heard of and quickly snapped up and enjoyed.  So who knows, you might make a new discovery from my list…

First, the key to the numbers:

63 total reading experiences;

12 books I rated at 5 stars;

5 classics of literature;

30 books rated 3 stars or less; and

2 books that I didn’t finish (Life’s too short, you know?  I used to feel that I had to finish every book I started, but I have too many books on my “to be read” shelf that I might as well move on if I am not enjoying a book after 100 pages—that’s my new rule.)

Aside from the 2 books I did not finish, here is the total:  46 fiction books; 5 non-fiction books (including 3 autobiographies); 5 novellas/short stories/short story collections; and 5 classics of literature.  Unfortunately, of the 61 reading experiences, I rated 30 of them at 3 stars or less and 18 of them at 4 stars.  This leaves only 12 books at 5 stars. 

Thus, I have termed this the “Year of Reading Disappointedly.”  A year of true disappointment in reading. 

In the past I have provided 2 separate lists; a Top Ten list of all non-classics and a Top Five list of classics.  This year, since the “5 Stars” were so few, I have combined them into one “Top Twelve” list, in no particular order.

1.         It seems poetic that I should start my “Top Twelve” list with the book called The Twelve by Justin Cronin, the second in a trilogy about government-engineered vampires that eradicate the vast majority of the world’s population and the aftermath of rebuilding.  After having read A Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood and The Stand by Stephen King this year also, it is obvious that both those novels were major influences for The Twelve and its predecessor The Passage.  I may be in the minority, but I think that The Twelve surpassed its predecessor and I cannot wait for the final chapter in the trilogy.

2.         Night Film by Marissa Pessl was the most interactive of reading experiences that I had this year.  A mystery involving the death of the daughter of a reclusive underground film maker, filled with newspaper reports, magazine articles, pictures, emails, websites and even an interactive application for the phone all contributed to a harrowing and nightmarish descent into the psyche of an ambitious reporter and his obsession with an unknowable subject.

3.         Brave New World by Aldous Huxley was nothing like I expected.  At times I found myself yearning for the society envisioned by Huxley, of no stress, everyone in his/her place, simplicity in relationships and general calm.  But at its root, it’s a cautionary tale, and one which reaches its true vision in its final pages of death. 

4.         The Invention of Murder by Judith Flanders is the only non-fiction book to make it on the list this year.  An education of England in the 1800s and its fascination with murder and the events that made murder glamorous and must-watch television (before television, that is.)  A perfect complement to my frequent endeavors into 19th century London crime novels.

5.         The Black Country by Alex Grecian is the second novel involving London’s Murder Squad, taking place shortly after the Jack the Ripper murders and the creation of a new squad of detectives at Scotland Yard.  Almost as good as its precursor The Yard (which you will recall was in my top 10 of last year), Alex Grecian has become my new favorite.

6.         Frankenstein by Mary Shelley was so much better than I had expected it was astounding how wrong I truly was.  I knew that the novel was nothing like the Universal Studios caricatures and the classic films, but after having seen the Kenneth Branagh film from a few years ago, I was expecting boring and more boring.  Instead, I found the novel to be a fascinating study of the passion for discovery and the risks of playing creator.  My only detraction about the book is that it was quite scary enough.  But a wonderful method of storytelling and a great story.

7/8.     As you may recall, I typically do not include multiple books by the same author in my list, however this year I had to make an exception.  The Solitary House and A Fatal Likeness by Lynn Shepherd were both astonishing mysteries taking place in Victorian Era London with a wonderful new character named Charles Maddox.  If I had to give an edge to one of the books, it would have to be The Solitary House because of its use of characters from Dickens’ Bleak House and Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White.  But both books were absolutely fantastic and required reading for anyone interested in Victorian Era mysteries and literature.

9.         Living Dead Girl by Tod Goldberg is the rare novel that stuck with me weeks after I had finished reading it.  And it wasn’t just the story itself, but it was also the experience of reading it that stayed with me.  Even now, I think of the book and get chills about just how uncomfortable I was during reading.  To give you any more information about the book would be unfair to you.  Just read it, that’s my advice—you’ll thank me later.

10.       If you recall, my number one classic from last year was Animal Farm by George Orwell, a book I read in one sitting and grinned the whole way through.  So is it any surprise that 1984 by Orwell should make it on the list this year?  Another book that I was nervous about reading; a book which I had seen my friends struggle with in high school.  And yet, this one totally blew me away.  I couldn’t put it down.  It was absolutely riveting and would have been my number one classic novel for the year except for

11.       The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins.  I cannot say enough about this book other than to say it was marvelous.  A lengthy read and one which really required savoring, it was well worth the investment of time and focus.  I can count on one hand the books I would call amongst my all-time favorite reading experiences and this one is definitely on that list.  A mystery, a thriller, a novel of suspense and a social commentary all rolled into one makes for the perfect book.

12.       And no Rob Cohen book list would be complete without the annual entry from Michael Connelly, my favorite author of all time.  The Gods of Guilt, Connelly’s 26th novel, delivers yet again.  This one, the fifth involving Michael Haller, the famed Lincoln Lawyer, is a riveting courtroom drama involving the murder of a prostitute and Mickey’s defense of the accused.  My only wish is that the books were longer because I hate having to wait for the next Michael Connelly novel. 

So that’s my list for the year.  On the whole, a disappointing year but I am definitely looking forward to 2014.

What’s on your list?  I am always looking for recommendations.

“Wait a minute, Doc. Ah… Are you telling me that you built a time machine… out of a DeLorean?”

Friends:

It wasn’t exactly a nightmare, but it wasn’t a dream I’d want to have again either.  It started with a fire, turned into a flood and ended with a tall building falling through the roof of my house and burying me under tons of rubble.  I remember distinctly how I waited patiently for the sound to die down so that I could take stock of myself, catch my breath and figure out how I was going to get out of it.  And before I was pulled out of the rubble by my legs and rescued, I had a moment of clarity and this is what I thought…

Mind over matter—I can get out of this.  I can do this.

It occurred to me last week as I participated in the Spartan Challenge, a 5k run with 18 grueling obstacles and physical challenges, that the strongest muscle in my body was under my total control.  It wasn’t my leg muscle, it wasn’t my arm muscle, it wasn’t my 6-pack abs or massive delts… it was my brain.  As long as I kept my head, didn’t panic and focused on the task at hand, my mind could propel me to complete the course despite the fatigue and the cold and the pain.  Up-hill climbs, wet, muddy and rocky terrain, barbed wire, freezing water and unpredictable footfalls were insignificant.  I needed to keep my focus, keep my head on straight and ignore the pain and discomfort and I could complete the course.

And grueling it was.  I confess I wanted to quit.  About half a mile into the course, when it seemed like we were hiking up Mount Everest and the calves and thighs were burning and the cold air made breathing difficult, I seriously considered quitting.  I wasn’t in good enough shape for this!  I hadn’t been training for months, doing sit-ups and pushups and burpees and running 10 miles at a time!  I had been sitting behind a desk, staring at the calendar and procrastinating about getting ready – until the time for training was long since expired and the day of the race had arrived.

I wasn’t even mentally prepared.  There was no dedication to the task at hand, no intense focus.  I was my usual self, cynical and sarcastic about the course and downplaying my own nervousness.  Until I had finished that first half mile and the thought actually occurred to me that I could quit, I could just throw in the towel, walk off the course and go get a nice hot chocolate.

It was then that I had my epiphany.  I was at a turning point; commit to the course and finish or take the easy way out.  So I made my choice and pushed through and got a better handle on my focus.  I put my mind to it and convinced myself I could do it.  And if I couldn’t, then darn it I was going to give it my absolute best effort. 

So what happened?  I finished in a little less than an hour and a half.  Was I physically able to complete all of the obstacles?  No – unfortunately the strength of my mind still couldn’t convince my muscles to climb up a rope, something I have struggled with since 8th grade.  But I gave it my best effort and I was proud of that.  The freezing water was no match for my intensity and focus.  The climbing walls and fire jump were surmountable. 

And it reminded me of something that sounds trite but is oh so true.  When you put your mind to it, you can accomplish anything.  Athleticism and brute strength are no match for the strength of one’s will power.  Unfortunately, we forget about this sometimes because we have to have a goal in place at which our will power is to be focused.  But once you find that goal and you set your mind to it, the goal is as good as reached.  Just put your mind to it.

Of course, you may get bumps and bruises, but those bruises are a symbol of your focus.  Bruises and scars are like medals.  Something you can look at to remind you of your accomplishments.

And the hot chocolate at the end tasted that much sweeter.

“I sent him out here to stay out of trouble and get a good education, but, Vivian, I also taught that boy the value of hard work and I don’t want him to lose that.”

Friends: 

I am a member of networking groups, trade associations, religious communities and business development groups and, with minimal exceptions, many of them at one time or another suffered from a shortage of members.  But it wasn’t just a shortage of members, but a shortage of participation and a shortage of attendance.  A member of one of the groups of which I am involved cannot seem to figure out why attendance is poor and why membership is falling.

My friends, I have the answer and it is a universal truth, whether it is in a networking group, a trade association, a fraternal or religious organization and even all of our own businesses…

When I conclude a meeting with a client or a prospective client or even a phone consultation, my final question to the other party is this:  “Was this helpful?” 

In this day of heavy competition, bargain shoppers and easy access to information, we must invent new ways to drive commerce.  It can’t just be because we are who we are.  The day of hanging out your shingle and expecting people to walk in the door is an artifact and belongs in a museum.  Instead we have to find ways to differentiate ourselves, to convince someone that their hard-earned money is properly spent for our services.  And how do we do that?  We provide them with something of value. 

I am currently a member of one specific networking group that is having terribly difficult times attracting members and participation.  Some of the members have expressed bewilderment as to why people aren’t coming more often.  “Why would people not want to come?  If they show up, they might get business!” 

This may be absolutely true, but even in networking groups, there is competition for time.  Whatever time the meeting is scheduled for, there is always something else that a prospective member could be doing.  Does he or she want to go to a meeting and hear the same introductions and the same spiels or does he or she want to help the kids with homework or respond to e-mails or simply do some work?

The attraction to the group cannot be the prospect of future business.  The attraction has to be the value that will be provided at the meeting such that missing the meeting is not an option.  And it doesn’t have to be a financial value.  It can simply be a stirring conversation, or an interesting presentation, or even the refreshments.,  The trick is not to keep the outline for the meeting the same, but to play around with options until you hit the one that works, until you find the option that provides the most value for the participants, so that they mark their calendar and ensure that they don’t miss the next and the next and then the one after that.

As attorneys, we like to think that we have all of the answers and that our clients should simply listen to what we tell them to do and follow our instructions; that because we have a fancy law degree and took an incredibly grueling examination that they should be happy to be sitting in our office receiving our wisdom.   But that isn’t the case.  An attorney’ job, an accountant’s job, a financial advisor’s job is just as much about making sure you are in tune with your client’s needs as it is in ensuring that you have the right strategies to employ.  For how impactful with the strategy be if it doesn’t actually accomplish the client’s goals?

The lawyer who gets the right result but burns considerable bridges along the way may not be providing the best value for his client if that is not his client’s ultimate goal.  The key is in figuring out what will provide the most benefit and value to the client and delivering on that expectation.

In my networking group, the key is in figuring out what will provide the most benefit and value to the potential members and delivering on that expectation.  In the bar associations, the key is in figuring out what will provide the most benefit and value to the potential members and delivering on that expectation.  In the religions organizations, the key is in figuring out what will provide the most benefit and value to the potential members and delivering on that expectation.

Are you catching my drift here?  It isn’t about hanging out your shingle and expecting people to walk in the door anymore.  It isn’t about tempting members with the potential for new business. 

It’s about the value you can provide to them so that they think twice before they walk past your door.