Monthly Archives: October 2016

Every Breath I Take

My daughter Sarah’s goal for Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year holiday, was to make her congregants think about how they want to live their lives this year. She asked a member of her congregation, Lisa Goldman, to speak. Lisa was diagnosed with lung cancer three years ago. I found her talk extremely moving and asked her if I could pass it on to you. She has a blog that I highly recommend. lisa.ericgoldman.org
-Lloyd Graff

Rosh Hashanah Talk, Sept. 2016, By Lisa Goldman
Hi, my name is Lisa Goldman. Some of you may have heard my story, but others of you have not. In about a month, I will, G­od willing, celebrate my 44th birthday. It was not a day many expected me to see. I was diagnosed, at age 41 with Stage IV lung cancer. Statistics told me that I had about a 15% chance of surviving 1 year, and a 2% chance of surviving five years.

I had taught a spin class less than a month before I was diagnosed. I was a fitness fanatic, a never­-smoker, a non­drinker, an almost vegan of over 20 years. Yes, I got a swift and brutal education that lung cancer can strike young, healthy, never smokers, and it does so at a clip of tens of thousands of us per year.

I was shocked and I’ve had almost three years now to contemplate mortality. Rabbi Graff asked me to speak today because she’d read some of my public blog and surmised that some of my navel gazing might be pertinent to our discussion here today: What would you do if you realized your life might be cut short?

Some things are fairly obvious: tell the people you love how much you care about them, and why. I have done that for for some of the most significant people in my life, but not all, yet. Here is an example of the blog post I wrote for and about my father on Father’s Day last year:

******

Here’s how I knew this lung cancer thing was real. I was in the hospital. I’d had my biopsy and diagnosis the day before. Upon hearing the news, my parents had flown up and had been in my room all day, talking with me and my doctors, and when it came time for bed, my Mom jokingly offered my dad a Xanax. He turned her down, and then a few minutes later as he was heading out the door, he half­-jokingly said, “Barb, maybe I will have one of those.” Ho. Lee. Crap.

You see, I’ve never seen my father take anything stronger than an aspirin in my life. He doesn’t smoke, he doesn’t drink, he doesn’t curse, he doesn’t gamble, and he doesn’t joke about any of those things either. On top of that, he’s about as level­headed and unflappable as they come. When he gets upset, he uses the word “unequivocal” a lot and does this thing with his fingers, sort of like an “ok” sign with the middle, ring and pinky fingers sharply pointed at you emphasizing his unequivocal point. That’s it. If you get his three finger salute, you’ve gone a little too far. If he’s joking about taking a Xanax? Now it’s time to panic.

Sometimes I’ve bristled at his over­-the-­top wholesomeness and old-­fashioned ways. He ran a very tight ship when I was growing up. He woke me up in the mornings belting out Reveille on his pretend trumpet. He made me have a study schedule, allowing for only two 5 minute restroom breaks while doing my homework between school and dinner time. When I went to camp and later to college, I’d receive letters from him on his law firm letterhead, in outline format with line numbers for reference and footnotes. When it came time for me to rebel and establish my independence like any normal teenager, I did so by switching from his beloved Lotus Word Pro to Microsoft Word. You cannot imagine the amount of unequivocal triple finger pointing that earned me. I almost got disowned.

But, we made it through. Even in the midst of my wild Microsoft rebellion days, my Dad was my unshakable rock. Once, when I was about 15, I woke up to something tickling my arm. I went to groggily itch it and discovered a huge cockroach. I flung it off me, and it started flying around thrashing into things. I screamed like crazy. My Dad came barreling down the hall in his pajamas, wielding a baseball bat. When he discovered the cause of upset was a common beetle, he almost took the bat to me, but then he just laughed, swapped the bat for a wad of toilet paper and took that sucker down. That’s love.

Unfortunately, he can’t take down cancer for me with toilet paper, or even a baseball bat. Still, he’s trying just the same.

We’re not super talk­-about-­your-­feelings type of people. So, I haven’t said this to him directly. But, I want him to know now: I see you, Dad. I see you quietly visiting your mom twice a day for decades, and I learn what family means. I see you forcing me to pick up all the softballs left in the outfield after practice, and I learn a little humility. I see you showing up to my tennis matches to root me on, and I learn about unconditional support. I see you running a business that not only affords your family a comfortable life, but stability for half a dozen employees and their families, and I learn about hard work and responsibility. I see you with your military history, and I learn about duty and honor. I see you keeping in touch with your childhood friends, your law colleagues, your college and army buddies, and I learn about loyalty and friendship. I see you driving the same broken down car for decades so that I don’t have to pay off school loans, and I learn about values. And in this past year and a half? In this past year and a half, I see you burying yourself in your work, so you can think less about what it might mean that cancer took your father when you were only 27 and now it’s threatening your only daughter, and I see love. I see you offering to help cover any medical expense I might need without the slightest hesitation, and I see love. I see you quietly staying home by yourself, while Mom comes to take care of me for weeks at a time, and I see love. I see you not complaining once about the burden this has put on you in so many ways, and I see what it means to be a parent: above all else, love.

I’m not very good at expressing it in person, Dad. But I see it all, and the sheer magnitude of it just crushes me with awe and gratitude. I spend my life trying to live up to the high standards you have always set for me. I hope to do you proud. Happy Father’s Day, Dad. I love you.

******

Sharing your feelings with loved ones is almost always a worthwhile endeavor. Facing this diagnosis has made me more free with my “I love yous” and that has been a good thing. But, I hardly have all the answers. Almost three years into this process and I still haven’t said and done everything I’d like to do. I haven’t even organized my photos — something I panicked about in the hospital room just days after my diagnosis.

Here’s the problem. I cannot compose letters like that one to my father every day. Whoever said “live every day like it’s your last,” clearly never really had to,­­ it’s a terrible place to operate from.

When the oncologist gave me my diagnosis, I swiftly adopted a new identity. I left my previous identity as a mom, wife, fitness instructor, school volunteer, and crafter, completely behind. I became “Lisa the LC patient.” I immersed myself in the LC world: surviving treatments, managing side effects, researching, blogging, advocating, thinking about LC and my mortality in some form or another almost constantly.

At around the two year mark of living this way, I grew weary of living like this. I wanted to reclaim some of my previous self, but, letting go of LC as my primary identity felt terrifying. I knew exactly how much I had to lose, and how devastatingly quickly I could lose it. For a long time it felt naive, stupid even, to re­engage in my pre­cancer life. I didn’t want to open myself up to that excruciating wake­up call again, and I wasn’t sure how to avoid it except to constantly be prepared for the worst,­ to curtail living in order to be ready to die within weeks.

Most people have the luxury of avoiding thoughts about their mortality until it is very close. Even many cancer patients are able to cope by telling themselves that their cancer isn’t real, isn’t deadly. That’s not me. I am acutely aware that everything I experience in life will forevermore be through the lens of having this diagnosis. BUT,­ I need more. About eight months ago I made the conscious decision to resume living. It finally dawned on me that it’s not necessarily an either/or proposition, it’s both/and. I can live both with the knowledge of my diagnosis, my mortality, and proceed with my life. I can be a diligent patient, advocate and blogger AND resume teaching, traveling, mothering, attempting art. And I have. Because until I’m dead, I’m not.

I don’t know how long I’ll get to live here, but none of us do. What if I AM in the 2% that survives five or more years? What if my diagnosis wasn’t a death sentence, but an invitation to live life the days I have left as fully as I can? I can live like I’m dying AND like I’m living. Because I am. We all are.

Visit Lisa’a blog at lisa.ericgoldman.org.

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Sweet 16

By Lloyd Graff

Today I am celebrating the 16th anniversary of Today’s Machining World. I have learned a lot about the writing business and myself by doing this thing that you are reading now. Please indulge me as I share my thoughts about it.

I started the online prototype of TMW, then called Screw Machine World, in 1999 in full hubris, coming off the lush business years of the 1990s. I was full of confidence about the future and was sure that I could make the nascent Internet-only publication a success because of my creativity and brilliance. I hired a cocky young assistant to help me.

After a few months of publishing exclusively on the Web I realized we were way ahead of our time. Also we were hacked incessantly and probably being read by 13 people on a good day.

I decided to convert it to a print publication, coming out every other month. I wrote an Editors Note, a lengthy “Swarf” column, often a long interview piece, and an Afterthought column on the back page. Screw Machine World had my imprint all over it, and honestly, I am extremely proud of the work in those issues published in the first three years.

In 2003, I had my first retinal detachment, which was the beginning of seven eye surgeries over two years. I lost much of my vision in my right eye and had a tear in my left retina, which fortunately only required a minor procedure.

Lloyd Graff’s Editors Note from the first Screw Machine World. June, 2000.

I was in my late 50s then, and my sense of invulnerability was certainly shaken. The September 11th catastrophe and a 2003 recession didn’t make things easier. Prostate surgery in 2004 that included a Code Blue because my heart malfunctioned should have alerted me to future cardiac problems, but I wouldn’t accept that notion.

By 2004 my brother and business partner, Jim Graff, was getting tired of the losses from the magazine, which by that time had been renamed Today’s Machining World, and asked me to segregate the publication from our machinery business and buy out his ownership. This was good judgment on his part because printing and distribution costs were killing us, even though the publication was an artistic success.

In 2008 I had my terrible heart attack, which I have written about ad nauseam, and the wicked recession that almost sunk the country hit. However I decided to come back to work later that year and continue with TMW. By 2010 my son Noah was working in both Graff-Pinkert and TMW, and Jim and I were ready to go our separate ways.

Undoubtedly, my time and commitment to Today’s Machining World contributed to the breakup. Jim and I are competitors in the machinery business now, but any early bitterness has worn away.

In 2011, at Noah’s urging, we became online-only, focusing on the Swarfblog. Noah asked me what I wanted to do with TMW. I said, “I just want to write. If advertisers want to stay, great, if they don’t we will continue it anyway.” I was ready to let Managing Editor Emily Halgrimson go, but she convinced me that she could take care of the business and online side of things and make me money, so I gave her a shot and cut her back to part-time. For the first time TMW became profitable. In the past four years, it has made more money each year.

I’ve learned a lot during this 16-year publishing odyssey.

I started the magazine because I had “this writing thing” I had to work out. I knew I had a “gift” of making business, everyday life, sports and just about anything come alive in words. I could simplify and tell stories, and I wasn’t afraid to expose myself. I wasn’t fearful about trying stuff and being dumb occasionally.

As I’ve gotten older I have seen Noah find his own voice and excel as a writer. When I was teetering between life and death in 2008 the only piece of property that I explicitly discussed with my wife Risa was Today’s Machining World. I wanted it to go to Noah. Everything else would be handled by my will, but TMW was special, I guess.

During the first dozen years of the magazine I thought about it as a business and obsessed about it as a business. Now I do not obsess over the bottom line. I do the magazine because I love it, and now it makes money.

I think there is a big lesson there, and I’m trying to apply it at Graff-Pinkert. If you cut the overhead enough to be able to do what you are particularly good at, and you do not have to worry very much about covering expenses, you will be happier and probably more successful.

Over the years, TMW has become a yardstick of my creativity and mental acuity. I do not want to do Swarfblog if I’m going to write it like a PR handout. If it’s not great, why do it? I hope you feel the same way about it.

Question: Are there any TMW pieces that have stuck with you over the years?

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Wear Your Seatbelt

By Noah Graff

A few months ago I was at the Bucktown Art Fair in Chicago where I met an artist/entrepreneur from Tennessee named Clay Bush. Bush uses old seat belts he scavenges from junkyards to make stylish bags, including laptop bags, backpacks, purses and bike messenger bags. He also uses seat belts to create wallets and upholstered furniture. He makes waterproof inserts for the bags out of used airbags, also from the junkyard, to hold cellphones and laptops. The buckles on the bags are the metal seatbelt buckles from GM and Ford cars from the ‘80s and ‘90s. He told me that the cars from the ‘80s and ‘90s usually have the seat belts in the best condition because often the passengers back then didn’t even use them.

The bags look stylish and seem durable but that’s not that special to me. To me what’s special about these bags is the organic human spirit that is inside each one of them. Their raw materials—used seat belts and airbags—are salvaged from discarded cars. A car—one of the main places where we Americans spend our time. Then Clay—a real person—hand picks each seatbelt and hauls them in a big duffle bag to his workshop. He designs the bags himself and physically sews them together—himself. Every bag has Bush’s touch. Funny how the origin of an item with such human touch comes from such a mass-produced one, a car.

Since 2012 Bush has made his living selling the bags at art fairs around the United States and online. Bag prices range from $150 for the smallest bags to $250 for laptop bags. Appropriately the name of his company is Salvage Goods. You can find Bush’s works at his Website: http://salvagegoodstn.com.

Question: Have you ever re-purposed something old into something really cool?

Clay Bush Talks About His Bags Made of Seat Belts

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Peanuts and Crackerjack

By Lloyd Graff

My son Noah had been begging me to go to a Cubs game for several months.  Sunday morning, the second day of the National League Championship Series between the Cubs and the Dodgers, he called me and put the hard sell on.  I had no excuse to say no, except that it was so much easier and cheaper to watch the game on TV like I had done all season.  I hedged and told him I would think about it and get back to him in a few minutes.

For Noah, such decisions are pretty simple.  If you want to go, you go.  For me it seemed much more complicated.  I see the game so much better on my 60” Samsung.  I deal with constant double vision with one eye 20-300, the other 20-25, thanks to six retina surgeries.  Knee replacement, heart damage and 71 years make everything a little harder.

But Noah was persistent.  He texted me, “If not now, when?”  He used my own B.S. on me, and it worked.  I called him, told him to buy two tickets for $250 each or less off StubHub, and I’d meet him at the L station next to Wrigley.

I picked up the three o’clock train into the city.  A father and son were sitting across from me.  I was wearing a Joe Maddon Cubs jersey that I had just ripped the tag off of, and he had one too.  They were headed to the game and had been there the night before.  We started talking like we were members of the same family.  I guess we were.

These days most folks on trains have earbuds on, isolating themselves from the other passengers, but I was in a mood to engage.  A young guy next to me was wearing a Chicago Bulls sweatshirt and carrying a skateboard.  I tried talking to him about this year’s Bulls team.  He looked at me like I was a Martian, but a black fellow in front of me was delighted to talk hoops.  He knew the game, and I think he was amazed that I did too.  We talked about the seemingly brilliant trade the Bulls had pulled off that day of Tony Snell to the Milwaukee Bucks for Michael Carter Williams.

After the one-hour trip to the city, I got off the train and headed for the subway three blocks away to get to Wrigley Field.  There were 200 people there trying to get on a train that could accommodate maybe 100 more.  I squeezed on, inhaling deeply to fit in my ample behind ahead of the closing automatic door.  Just made it.

Lloyd and Noah Graff at the Cubs game at Wrigley Field.

At the Addison station I finally exhaled and exited the train.  Noah was parking a mile away at the lakefront tennis courts, the night’s only freebie.  I watched the teeming masses go by as I waited for him.  There were beggars with their pathetic pleas for dollars to fill their cups—to buy booze I imagined.  I gave to one of them.  Two fellows in electric wheelchairs looked upbeat.  A blind man in a Cubs jersey surveyed the street, crossing with all of his senses and his white and red cane.  Two sexy escorts with skirts wrapped tightly around their slender bodies ending just below their navels added some local color.

Noah finally ambled along.  We bought some relatively inexpensive bottled water at a little Latin grocery, liquor store.  We headed for the stadium to imbibe the vibe and met a cousin of my daughter-in-law who talked some baseball with us and then shot photos of Noah and me on our iPhones.

We entered Wrigley after traversing the metal detectors.  I think President Obama and Michelle were at the game, incognito, because there were four ominous black Suburbans parked next to a side entrance with a “Secret Servicey” looking guy standing guard.  On the way home the four Suburbans sped by us at 80 miles per hour, sirens blaring, headed toward the Obamas’ Chicago home.

We eventually shoehorned into our seats, about 50 rows up behind home plate.  Good seats for someone with some vision impairment.

Andre Dawson threw out the first ball, and Wayne Mesmer, the wonderful baritone voice of the Cubs, sang God Bless America and then the Star Spangled Banner.  I sang along as loud as I could and felt very patriotic and blessed to be an American and a Cubs fan, in that order.  If the rest of the game was rained out it still would have been worth coming.

As I was singing I remembered my mom taking me to Wrigley 60 years earlier to see the Brooklyn Dodgers play the Cubs.  The Dodgers had Jackie Robinson, Roy Campanella, Duke Snider and an 18-year-old Sandy Koufax.  I think she paid 25 cents to get in on Ladies Day.  I recalled her dad, who was a kid in 1908 when the Cubs last won a World Series.  He used to regale me as a kid about meeting Tinkers, Evers and Chance from that team.  They used to buy liquor at his mother’s little grocery.  My Cubs lineage runs deep.

I loved our seats, not for the view, but for the people sitting all around us.  There was a mom and daughter right in back of us who really loved the game.  They had been there the night before to the watch the Cubs win.  A man and his wife held their two babies through the entire game next to Noah, and the kids never cried.  A very knowledgeable fan interpreted some finer points of the game to me next to my right shoulder.

We had blue towels to wave and stood up every time it got exciting.  Unfortunately that wasn’t that often in a 1-0 game won by the Dodgers with five hits, total, by both teams.  Clayton Kershaw of the Dodgers pitched like Sandy Koufax.

But it hardly mattered.  The game may be the “thing,” but the “vibe” was everything to me.  If not now, when?

Questions: What is the best sporting event you’ve ever attended, and why was it the best?

Are sports better on TV?

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Is America Great Now?

By Emily Halgrimson

I lean left politically and come from a family of Democrats, but most of my extended family are conservatives. I grew up with my father’s ultra-liberal ideals based on the most profound teachings of Jesus, and my grandmother’s traditional conservative values based on her moderate Lutheran church’s weekly preaching and her Norwegian family values. That upbringing helps me understand the American people’s visceral attraction to and repulsion by both candidates as I watch the political circus of 2016.

My grandmother’s world is disappearing, and it saddens and scares her. At 19 she married my grandfather when he came of out of the Navy after WWII. She left her family and everything she knew in North Dakota when my grandfather, an electrical engineer, received a positive reply from a classified ad job posting for an engineering position in Cleveland. Eventually he landed a job with Amocams, a division of Amoco Oil, in the western suburbs of Chicago, where the story goes he was on the team that created the first printed circuit boards. He also worked on automating the oil pipelines in North Dakota. He was there when the pipelines were first operated remotely and they no longer needed men to drive hundreds of miles across the plains to manually crank the valves open or closed.

My grandmother, Corinne Halgrimson, visiting her childhood church in Leeds, North Dakota. 2014

Visiting my grandmother’s home today is a journey back in time to the best of the 1950s. My loving aunts are often there, and I am greeted by smiles and hugs and offers of homemade sweets and coffee. Everything is cared for and in its place. At 93 she still irons pillowcases and plans her home’s decorations for each holiday. The Steinway grand piano takes up half of the living room, and the chairs face each other in a way that allows visitors to feel comfortable and see each other well. Her week is planned around church, her quilting group, and the daily letter writing that she depends on now for connection, as her hearing is mostly gone. It’s peaceful, warm, simple and lovely. When I need a pick-me-up, I drive the hour from my home to visit this old-fashioned place that’s full of love.

In contrast, I am a modern Millennial. In my day-to-day world I often feel skeptical and bitter. Like many of those around me I no longer make an effort to wave at neighbors or slow down to let people cross the street.

I think, “Why get married when we can live together?” I have dogs instead of children, I don’t trust anything I hear on TV or in the papers, I work two jobs, resentfully pay for my own overpriced $10,000 deductible health insurance, and my friends pay down student loans for decades and balk at the idea of retirement savings. Many of us Millennials have given up on religion, politics or efforts at community based on anything but drinking. Our world can be very very cold. In this world, meaningless distractions are too accessible and real connections aren’t always worth the effort.

I wonder if Donald Trump’s supporters live in the cold world I often find myself in, but long for my grandmother’s world like I often do. Maybe they long for the goodness of those days so much they’re willing to forgive his many sins on the small chance that his promise to bring back the old way can somehow materialize.

Trump’s campaign resonates with the bitterness in me that’s angry about the changes that have taken place since my grandmother’s time, as well as the part of me that longs for social niceties and politeness, community and uniformity. He appeals to the part of me that says “screw you” to the establishment and those who seem to take and take, that visceral and deeply angry part of me. The Clinton campaign tugs at the hopeful side of me that believes my grandma’s world can still exist among diversity, and that there’s enough for all to go around. It is the side that longs to recreate an even better version of the past for my future children and my potential community.

This election is revealing the intense ideological divide between us, and maybe within us. If we look beyond the political antics and listen deeper, the debate Monday night may as well have been a struggle between the world views of me and my father, and my grandmother, each grasping for survival of their way of life.

Question: Is America great now?

Emily Halgrimson has worked at TMW for more than 8 years. She plans on voting for Hillary Clinton because to her it’s a vote for inclusiveness over hate, experience over fame, an acceptance of inevitable change, and hope for an even better era ahead for all.

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Selling Out

By Lloyd Graff

I have been studying the process of buying and selling machining businesses for the past year. Companies have approached me to advise them on what to ask for their companies and others have called to find viable options to purchase. Our machinery business, Graff-Pinkert, has helped facilitate many transactions through the years and with baby boomers looking to cash out and other firms anxious to add sales and expertise, the demand for advice is growing briskly.

In this article I’ll give you a taste of what I’ve gleaned.

The market for small businesses, machining and otherwise, is extremely fragmented. Even with the Internet and some nascent business clearinghouse sites, it is disorganized. The market for a Haas VF-2 machining center is much more transparent than the market for companies that run them. Business brokers and advisory firms have traditionally rigged the system, much like real estate brokers on houses, by making it hard to gain visibility for small and medium sized businesses. In a lot of states you theoretically need a license to broker a business, though you do not need one to sell the assets or give advice.

From my observation business brokers who sell funeral homes and barber shops usually are out of their league trying to sell manufacturing companies. Their focus is local. If they are trying to go national they may try a few Internet sites or aim for buyout groups. This is a logical approach for somebody who can’t talk the talk, but it works quite poorly, from my observation, for businesses under $20 million in sales, which is the minimum that private equity groups are normally interested in. The exception is firms who are trying to consolidate a particular niche product. Job shops rarely fit that category.

Despite the fragmentation and the structural impediments of the brokers, buyers and sellers can ultimately find one another by luck, word of mouth, or thoughtful target marketing. Then the question of what a going business is worth comes into play.

A business owner must quickly learn the word “EBITDA” to play the game. It is the universal English code word for “Earnings Before Interest, Taxes, Depreciation and Amortization.” It gives a picture of a company’s profitability as a percentage of its total revenue. It is a handy way to measure cash flow.

Most potential buyers will pay a multiple of 3-5 times EBITDA for a profitable, stable machining business, but growth potential, customer compatibility and management acumen may push it up. Buyout groups tend to stick to a rigid EBITDA multiple while an operating firm with a specific need may pay a higher multiple.

Buyout groups gobble up a lot of ripe companies because they are proficient at the game and can move fairly quickly. A lot of sellers are looking for a rapid exit, and the buyout firm can oblige. The downside is that they bring in outside management that often screws things up quickly, and they have very little patience. If owners stay on after such buyouts, often the experience is quite ugly. There are many exceptions, but a private equity buyer who is just buying numbers often makes for a mess before they figure things out or the lender calls for the auctioneers.

I haven’t mentioned lawyers in the piece, but you can probably imagine that they often bring a lot of expense and legalistic hand-wringing to justify their fees. Non-disclosure agreements, which are a part of the buy-sell ritual, are often reviewed by lawyers, which usually slows the process but add to their incomes. I think it is difficult to enforce non-disclosure agreements, but they do put potential buyers on notice that they should be discreet, and they allow sellers to veto buyers they distrust.

With all of the impediments it is surprising to see that a lot of small and medium sized machining firms do change hands. It takes time and persistence, and usually some good counsel, but it can be done.

Question: Is it better to grow organically or through acquisition today?

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Refugee Flavor

By Noah Graff

At the beginning of September I spent some time traveling in Europe in search of lucrative machine tools, good salsa dancing and inspiration for an enlightening blog. These days the flavor of Europe has a bit of Middle Eastern spice thrown in, giving it a richer color and diverse tastes. The following account will give you a brief sample of the Middle Eastern spice that I encountered on my journey while in Denmark and Germany.

I arrived in Copenhagen on a grey day. I caught a taxi at the airport with a grouchy driver from Macedonia. He told me he has lived in Denmark for 30 years and that the only reason he has stayed was the money, as he dislikes Danish culture and Danish people.

After a wonderful much needed shower, understandably the first item on my agenda on my first night in Europe was to go salsa dancing. I’m trying to experience salsa dancing in as many countries as possible for a new blog I am starting. I quickly found that night’s salsa destination on the Web and caught an Uber taxi. The Uber driver’s name was Islam, and he hailed from Jordan. He was a nice guy and we stressed out together about finding the location of the salsa joint. Like my Macedonian driver, he said he came to Denmark just for the money and disliked the country and its people. On the way back to my hotel that night I had a Turkish Uber driver named Selman who had been born in Denmark. Unlike my previous taxi drivers he said liked living in Denmark and Danish people, though he wished he could move out of Copenhagen because he lives in one of the lesser known, dangerous areas of the city. When I asked him how he felt about Middle Eastern refugees in Europe he said he was conflicted. After a brief pause, he said that it was fine with him for immigrants to come into the country, but he believes they should learn to speak Danish and should not isolate themselves in their own communities. My subsequent Uber drivers in Copenhagen included Mohammad (from Spain), Abdelhafid (Morocco), and Shuaib (I can’t remember where he was from). The consensus among them was, “Money in Denmark is good, but there’s no place like home.” My first reaction when I heard this perspective was that these people should be more grateful for the prosperity and safety they have found in a beautiful First World country. The least they could do would be to appreciate the place. But then I tried to put myself in their shoes. What if I was forced to live in Saudi Arabia to earn enough money to feed my family? It is doubtful I would embrace Saudi culture, even with my worldly open mind. I would likely do my best to find an American community with people who would accept me, relate to me and speak my language. Heck, how would I feel if I was forced to go live in rural Mississippi? Maybe I could embrace the culture there, but I’m sure I would miss life in Chicago where I have spent the majority of my life.

Middle Eastern restaurant in Center of Copenhagen, Denmark.

I tasted my next spoonful of Middle Eastern Europe when I went salsa dancing in Stuttgart, Germany. Stuttgart actually has a surprisingly good salsa scene with places to dance almost every night of the week. That night I went dancing at a bar called “7grad.” I walked outside for some air and struck up a conversation with a tall, skinny Arab man who I had seen dancing inside a few minutes before. Ahmad was 29 years old and had come to Stuttgart from Syria 10 years before—he was a pretty decent dancer.

The dude had a lot on his mind. He was enamored with a blond woman inside the bar who we ogled as she danced with another man. Ahmad said he didn’t go out dancing a lot because he felt guilty about going out and having fun while much of his family remained stuck in Syria. When I asked him if any of his relatives had been killed in the war he surprisingly said that they were more or less safe right now because they had money. But still, Ahmad’s relatives remain trapped in Syria, and no matter how much money they have it is always dangerous living in a country besieged by a war that nobody knows how to stop.

An anti-immigrant poster in Berlin, Germany.

I asked him what he thought about the refugee crisis in Europe, and he said that the real solution was to stop the war in Syria—sensible answer I thought. But then when I asked him how to end the war he began muttering some conspiracy theories relating to Jews on Wall Street. I smiled and said something like, “Hey man, I’m Jewish, please stop with the Jewish stuff.” He kept on with the same nonsense but very calmly, more or less ignoring my comment. I again said, “Don’t talk about Jews like that, I’m Jewish.” But after a few minutes the nonsense ended. He had no hostility towards me. It seemed as though it had hardly registered to him that I was Jewish. He was just spouting some garbage he had been told in his community. He reminded me of Mustafa, my guide when I was in Morocco, who back in 2006 casually told my friend and me that Israel had been responsible for destroying the World Trade Center on 9-11. Both men were ignorant but not dangerous for me personally. On the other hand, when such hateful ignorance is widespread it is fuel for the extreme Islamic Terrorism plaguing the world.

But I digress. In a few minutes my conversation with Ahmad went back to talking about his crush on the blond salsa dancer in the bar, with me advising him about the delicate and strange intricacies of picking up salsa dancers. When our conversation ended I was not sure if Ahmad was more confused and stressed out about girl issues or war in the Middle East. I’m sure everyone can attest to the fact that both topics are eternally vexing. Yet I am happy to say that in the end I could tell Ahmad was at least feeling better having vented his anxiety to the wise American Jew.

Question: Would you like to visit Europe?

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