Category Archives: Current Events

Ep. 118 – Coping with Stress at Work with Darcy Gruttadaro

By Noah Graff

Today is the final episode of our series about mental health in the workplace.

 

Our guest is Darcy Gruttadaro, Director of the Center for Workplace Mental Health at the American Psychiatric Association Foundation. Darcy’s organization works with companies of all sizes, giving them tools to support the mental health of their employees. She says that having a warm and social atmosphere in the workplace is more important than ever to keep people relaxed during these stressful times. 

Scroll down to read more and listen to the podcast, or listen with Google Podcasts, Apple Podcasts or your favorite app.

 

 

Main Points

Darcy explains how her organization works with employers of all sizes to develop programs, tools, and resources to support the mental health and wellbeing of employees and their families. (2:30)

Darcy talks about how she got into her profession. She has family members with serious mental health issues. She was a lawyer and had worked with some hospital clients related to their psychiatric units, work that she found interesting and important. She moved to Washington D.C. to work for the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), doing policy work mostly related to the public sector. She then joined the American Psychiatric Association Foundation, where she works with private employers to improve their mental health programs. (3:40)

Darcy says in the two and half years before COVID-19 hit in March of 2020, the number of companies taking an interest in the mental health of their employees was growing. However, when COVID-19 came into the forefront of people’s lives, the interest of companies in the mental health of their employees increased dramatically. (5:00)

Darcy Gruttadaro, Director of the Center for Workplace Mental Health

Darcy says that her organization provides employers with support around raising mental health awareness, eradicating stigma, and breaking down various barriers that stop people from getting help when they need it. It also works with employers to develop strategies to build a more mentally healthy company culture, so employees feel more safe getting mental help when they need it. Finally, it works to make mental health therapy accessible. She says most health insurance provides access to mental health care, but it’s important for employers to help employees navigate the mental health system, which is often complicated. (5:50) 

Darcy compares the mental health issues faced by people who are mandated to work at home to those faced by people mandated to work in factories during the current pandemic. She says since March of 2020, the CDC has been collecting weekly pulse data showing that nationally the number of people experiencing symptoms of anxiety or depression has tripled. (9:30)

Darcy discusses data that shows many people prefer not to work at home because they find the social connection with colleagues in the workplace to be comforting. On the other hand, she says many people go to work feeling anxious about COVID-19 but hide their feelings from colleagues and employers because they think they will look weak or flawed. She says when people allow negative stigma to prevent them getting the mental help they need it can lead to suicide. She says openness to talking about mental health in manufacturing environments is not prevalent enough. (11:10)

Darcy says that depression impacts women at a higher rate than it impacts men. She says she thinks it’s likely there is greater risk for substance abuse among men working in physical jobs, who may be using alcohol or painkillers to cope with pain suffered on the job. She says the stoic culture of people in trades such as manufacturing makes it less likely that they will get the mental help they need, but she admits she is not sure what research has found in this scenario. (13:20)

Darcy advises that business owners and leaders not be afraid to show some vulnerability to their employees because it can make them feel more at ease with their own mental issues. Also, it helps for leaders to simply tell people they realize the difficult and stressful times everyone is going through. She says it’s important for people to get professional help as soon as possible, because the longer people allow mental health issues to linger, the greater toll they take. (14:50)

Darcy talks about traveling through Texas where she saw an entire crew at a construction site stretching together before work. She talks about a utility company that had workers do group meditation to quiet their minds, help them focus, and prevent injury. She says management taking time for employees to do self-care activities demonstrates to them it cares about them, which has positive effects on moral. (18:00)

Darcy says during our current stressful time period it is more important than ever for people at work to be social with one another because people by nature need social connection. She prescribes that managers reach out to employees working remotely via video teleconference to tell them that they know they are going through difficult times. Even if people role their eyes or poo poo the gesture, it still makes employees feel cared about. (19:20)

Noah asks Darcy her predictions about widespread mental health when the pandemic is over and things “get back to normal.” She says there will be some strong concerns about mental health for at least three years, particularly for kids or teens, whose lives were drastically disrupted in 2020. However she says that after this difficult period people may have also developed resilience to difficult situations and learned new coping strategies. She says it will be important for managers to remind employees how they have weathered the storm together but still need need to stick together. (21:30)

Darcy talks about mental health in several different countries. Canada has voluntary workplace mental health standards that employers are asked to follow, which California is currently trying to emulate. In the United Kingdom the Royal Family has taken an interest in creating organizations that support workplace mental health. (24:00)

Darcy says to her the word “happiness” means feeling settled, feeling like you’re contributing to the world, having purpose, and looking forward to every day (26:30)

Noah asks Darcy what she learned last week. She said she relearned how much work (and fun) it is to get a new puppy. (27:00)

To learn more about the Center for Workplace Mental Health at the American Psychiatric Association Foundation go to workplacementalhealth.org.

Question: Do you prefer working around a lot of people, or very few people?

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More Than Seven Questions on My Mind

By Lloyd Graff

These are a few questions on my mind. I think you get smarter by asking questions, not showing off how much you know.

***

1) Does CBD oil work for you? I have experimented with it after friends told me it worked wonders for them. Here’s what I have found. It helps with the arthritic pain in my thumb and index finger of my left hand. It isn’t miraculous, but it is useful. My sore knees and shoulder don’t seem to improve from it.

How do you use it?

Do you have a brand that is superior, or is it all the same brown, smelly stuff?

2) If you have some money to invest and you have no taste for hoarding cash, gold, or collectibles, where do you put it? Would you go into business with a CNC mill or lathe?

Let’s say you are 40 years old and plan to work 25 more years. Would you look for real estate, perhaps a fixer-upper? Would you buy as much house as you can afford and hope for appreciation while you enjoy living in it? 

Would you consider the stock market? If you have a taste for equities, would you buy tiny amounts of high-priced stocks like Amazon and Google, or buy a low priced stock, hoping it will become the next Apple or Costco? 

Would you look for an advisor who, for a fee, invests for you and others? Would you put it in a fund like Fidelity or Vanguard that spreads it out over a huge number of stocks, figuring it is impossible for an individual to beat the averages over time.

3) Is Bitcoin a gigantic fraud or the next big thing? Right now it is on a huge roll. Cryptocurrencies have achieved credibility, but maybe it is a huge Ponzi scheme. It is still difficult to use Bitcoin to buy much, but smart guys like Elon Musk think it is real money.

4) Is the electric vehicle really going to take over the bulk of the transportation industry over the next 10 years or is it way overhyped? Tesla is the only manufacturer to get any traction, and many believe that its growth is primarily because of government subsidies and the flamboyance of Elon Musk.

Ford, GM, Volkswagen, and BMW all proclaim they are going all-electric. Do you believe them? Are you planning on buying an electric vehicle over the next few years? Do you really think electric vehicles will save the world’s environment?

5) This brings up my next question. Do you believe climate change is an existential threat to you personally? To America? To the world? I have my doubts, but I’m over 70, so nobody really cares. Do you think about climate change every day and do your small part to limit it?

6) Is saving the environment today’s religion? Has it replaced Christianity, Islam, and Judaism as the true religion of the day for many young people?

7) I will end with a big one. Are you a racist? Many African Americans say that if you are not black and have been brought up in America, you are racist by definition. I think there may well be some truth to this claim, not because every non-black person raised here is full of hatred, but because our society has taught us to think and behave that way. Do you agree?

These are not easy questions, but hopefully they will make you think. Maybe even write a comment.

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Ep. 117 – Mental Recovery with Dr. Ari Graff

By Noah Graff

On today’s podcast we are continuing our season about mental health.

Our guest is Dr. Ari Graff, a psychologist at the Shirley Ryan AbilityLab, a nationally ranked rehabilitation research hospital based in Chicago. Patients come to Shirley Ryan to recover from severe illnesses and injuries. Dr. Graff’s job is to help patients mentally heal from the emotional trauma that comes along with being damaged physically.

The opinions in this podcast episode are solely those of Dr. Graff. They are not on behalf of the Shirley Ryan AbilityLab.

Scroll down to read more and listen to the podcast, or listen with Google Podcasts, Apple Podcasts or your favorite app.

 

 

 

Main Points

Noah introduces Dr. Ari Graff, who happens to be his older brother. Ari has been a practicing psychologist for the last 14 years. He has a private practice doing therapy mainly with adults, and he also has been working at the Shirley Ryan AbilityLab for 11 years. The Shirley Ryan AbilityLab is a rehabilitation center for people who have suffered severe illnesses and injuries such as strokes, brain injuries, spinal cord injuries, and amputees. (2:30)

Ari is the psychologist of Shirley Ryan AbilityLab’s outpatient clinic. Patients there are in the process of intense rehabilitation, often doing physical therapy, occupational therapy, and speech therapy. (4:00)

Ari says he sees around half of the roughly 150 patients who attend the clinic throughout the week, usually seeing patients only once for an hour. Sometimes patients request to a see a psychologist, but often they are referred to him by their rehab team or a physician. He says often he is the first mental health specialist patients have ever worked with. Generally they are not expecting to speak with a psychologist because they have been focusing all of their energy on their physical recovery. (5:20) 

Ari says it surprised him at first how much impact just one hour-long session can have for patients. He says they get a chance to feel understood about what they are going through. They learn about what to expect from rehab. They also hopefully gain a better understanding of their own mental state. (6:40)

Ari says a common issue rehab patients have is that they don’t feel like they are in control. Becoming disabled is difficult for people to adjust to. One thing Ari tries to help them cope with is the uncertainty whether they will recover from their current disability.(9:00) 

Ari says he tries to make people focus on the things they have control over rather than what they can’t control. He encourages people focus on their diet, sleep, and ability to manage stress. He encourages people to try to understand their condition and limitations. He also suggests to patients to communicate with their doctors and health providers to understand the recovery process and to advocate for themselves. (10:00)

Ari says it’s important for him to educate patients about what to expect during the rehabilitation process. He says after a stroke or injury to the brain, the brain needs time to recover. Research says this recovery usually happens in six months to a year, so it’s important for patients not to feel frustrated when they are not back to normal quickly. He says it’s important to give people hope as well as realistic expectations. (12:00)

Ari talks about the mental recovery for people who have been injured on the job. He says those people might have anxiety about going back to work. It’s important for them to process their feelings about how they were injured and process feelings of blame for coworkers, as well as blame for themselves. (14:00)

Ari talks about people he works with who are recovering from severe cases of COVID-19. Some people suffer the effects of being on ventilator for a month or two. Some people are weak or immobile after being in bed for a long time. Others suffer brain injuries if not enough oxygen gets to their brain. People also suffer psychological trauma from the illness, particularly if they were not able to see their loved ones while in the hospital. (15:00)

Noah asks Ari if he has advice for people whose coworkers are exhibiting mental health problems. Ari says some companies have employee assistance programs that provide some limited mental health support. He says it’s probably tricky for a coworker or boss to help another worker seek mental health support. (18:00)

Dr. Ari Graff, Psychologist at Shirley Ryan AbilityLab

Ari compares talk therapy with prescribing medication to help people with their mental health. He believes both methods of therapy can be helpful if administered the right way. He says people should not assume that prescription medication is being abused. He says that sometimes for patients he sees at the rehab center, opioids can be very helpful for them during a physical therapy session when their pain would otherwise be so excruciating it could hinder doing their rehab exercises. (19:00)

Ari talks about helping his patients manage their pain. He says that pain is not just a physical experience. It’s a cognitive experience, an emotional experience, and even a spiritual experience. He says research has shown that negative thoughts and emotions have the power to increase pain while positive ones can alleviate it. He uses therapy methods such as mindfulness and meditation, which can help people observe their thought processes about pain and then start to make shifts from a negative to a more positive and realistic thought process. (22:00)

Noah asks Ari if everyone could benefit from therapy. Ari says he thinks most people could get something out of therapy, but there are a lot of different types of therapy available, so people need to find their right fit. He says it is important for people to attend to their mental health the same way they attend to their physical health. (24:00)

Ari says to him the word “happiness” means contentment, fulfillment, and purpose. He says that most people desire a sense of meaning in their lives, not just joy. (26:00)

Ari says people in recovery need to know that they can find value in themselves, even if they have limitations. He says our culture emphasizes measuring people by how much they can produce and achieve, but people need to know that we all have intrinsic value. (26:30)

Ari explains mindfulness, which is an important method he uses in his therapy. He explains it as non-judgmental attention to our present experience. It’s a way to be, without trying to fix or do something in the moment. He says it is important for people to be aware that they can still find value in life—take some downtime for pleasure, interact with family members, etc., while still working toward their big goals. (27:00)

Ari concludes by saying that people should not see their medical problems only as a setback. He says the people who cope the best with their problems are those who look at their situation as an opportunity to learn or grow from. Instead of only seeing their injury in a negative light, its helpful for people to try to find the positives they can get out of it. (28:45)

Question: When has therapy helped you or your loved one?

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Resilience

By Lloyd Graff

Noah challenged me yesterday as he often does. He said to me, “Dad, what three things have you learned in the last week?” 

The question forced me to assess what thoughts have had an impact on me, something I seldom do unless I am writing a daily diary. 

This week I’ve learned about resilience.

***

I have been corresponding with a casual friend who used to live in my neighborhood. She and her husband, a doctor, moved to Buffalo for a medical position more than a decade ago. He was struck down by a near fatal heart attack a month ago.

The story was so eerily familiar to my own. Doctor Mike and his wife Barbara drove to the hospital because he was feeling lousy but not awful enough to call an ambulance. The nurse listened to his heart, quickly called the emergency room and cardiologist, and Dr. Mike was whisked off to surgery.

A quintuple bypass operation in the nick of time barely saved his life. Since then, he has been in and out of the ICU, and on and off of a ventilator. He has suffered from arrhythmias and scared his wife almost to death. Part of her therapy has been to write to family and friends.

Because of COVID, only one person has been able to visit Mike at a time. The couple had recently moved to the Washington DC area where their daughter and grandchildren live, but there are very few people there who they know.

My connection with Barbara is that I can tell her about what it is like to have a heart attack, almost die, and live to tell my story 12.5 years later. It lifted her spirits and her children’s to learn of my experience. When you see your husband for days and days on a ventilator, hear the fears of the doctors that flit in and out, always cautious and frequently covering their behinds by telling the possible worst case scenarios, the time passes slowly.

I was happy to relate a real best case outcome for her to take home to her lonely apartment in DC. My wife, Risa, also wrote, telling Barbara what it was like for her when I was in the hospital.

Mike was supposed to come home today after more than a week of ups and downs in a rehab facility. Risa knows what it is like to be the first line of defense when there are no medical professionals around.

I was never that close to Mike and Barbara in Chicago, but this experience has brought us together. I wrote to her a few days ago, telling her that the fear never totally goes away. Live every day. 

Resilience.

***

Another story of resilience Risa told me about yesterday concerns the daughter of her Tae Kwon Do Master who lost her teenage daughter to cancer two years ago. She also suffers from multiple sclerosis. She is well into her 40s. 

She had an enormous desire to have another child and was able to harvest her eggs for an in vitro attempt. Her younger sister, who already has four children of her own and is also over 40, agreed to carry the potential baby. Against huge odds, they are midway through the pregnancy with high hopes for a healthy birth and baby. 

Resilience.

***

Monday night, Baylor beat Gonzaga to win the men’s NCAA basketball tournament. It was Coach Scott Drew’s 18th season at the school. He arrived in 2003 at the age of 32 after one year as head coach at Valparaiso.

Scott was attracted to Baylor because the basketball program was in shambles. One teammate had shot and killed another teammate, and the former coach had been caught giving under the table cash to team members. The NCAA took away most of the team’s scholarships. Scott took the job nobody wanted, perhaps because he felt there was no way things could get worse.

His first year, Scott held tryouts to find players. Most of the kids who tried out didn’t even go to the school. But Scott Drew was tenacious and Baylor received a bid to the NCAA tournament in 2006. 

The program got stronger and stronger, and it developed a reputation for being able to utilize the skills of different types of players. 

Last year’s team would have been a #1 seed if the tournament had not been canceled by COVID. This year, Baylor was ranked number two all year with Gonzaga undefeated and #1. The two teams had been scheduled to play one another in December, but COVID again had canceled that game. 

Monday night, Scott Drew’s Baylor Bears absolutely slaughtered Gonzaga.

Resilience. 

Question: When has resilience come into play for you?

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Money Vs. Respect

By Lloyd Graff

If you’re looking for poverty and violent crime, Bessemer, in the great state of Alabama, is your town. It was also Amazon’s pick for a huge distribution facility with 6,000 workers, which opened exactly one year ago. Today the results might be in for a landmark union organizing effort and vote at the spanking new facility, built in the former coal mining, limestone, and steel-making town of 27,000, just outside of Birmingham. 

Is the Tide coming back for unionism in America, with President Biden rooting for the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Workers Union and Bernie Sanders making an appearance?

Or, is the second biggest US employer behind Walmart going to use its $15 per hour wages plus hiring bonus and health insurance to carry the day? It’s a fascinating contest because Amazon pays so well in a starving community, yet the union feels it has a good chance to organize the facility. 

Both sides have a lot invested and think the election will be tight. Why? What does it mean for the machining world?

Jeff Bezos hates unions when they threaten his company, though his newspaper, The Washington Post, has been friendly to organized labor, unless it pertains to Amazon. 

You don’t go to work at an Amazon distribution facility if you are looking for a picnic. The work is physically demanding, repetitive, and very tough on the hands and wrists. If you work on the line, you are likely to be exhausted after a 10-hour day. Many of the workers are not young and have never done hours and hours of handling boxes, day after day. It isn’t coal mining or steel making. The facility is air conditioned and well lit, but make no mistake, Amazon pushes its people very hard, hand and forearm injuries are common, and many people do not last.

A woman who did domestic work once a week in our home eagerly took a sorting job when Amazon opened one of several facilities in the south suburbs of Chicago. She hoped the hourly wage, health insurance, and opportunity to use one of its perks, paying for a community college course in surgical instrument sterilization, would raise her up in the world. She ended up with severe hand and wrist disabilities from continually handling boxes, a common malady.

It is hardly a secret that Amazon is hoping and planning for robots to do more and more of the demanding and difficult work in its spectacular facilities, but we’re not there yet, and Amazon needs a million humans to pack and drive everyday.

These days, unions are seldom interested in attempting to organize smaller machining companies. My observation is that workers in such firms are generally heartily anti-union. In the machining world today, there is a shortage of skilled people. Workers who show initiative have ample room for advancement in a highly competitive milieu for talent.

If Amazon loses the election today, it will be more about working conditions than money. One of the biggest gripes about working for Amazon is that employees don’t even have time to use the bathroom in private. Drivers routinely take plastic bags with them to relieve themselves. 

Amazon always wins these elections because money talks. Amazon has argued that the cash and perks are worth the sore wrists and urinating in plastic bags. It builds facilities where Google doesn’t recruit. If it loses in Bessemer, that does not necessarily mean the Tide has turned, even if Joe and Bernie will cheer the results.

It will just mean we will get robots and driverless vans a year or two earlier.

Question: Have you ever been in a union? What was it like?

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Supply Chain Guilt?

By Lloyd Graff

A question that has troubled me for many years is if I fit into the supply chain of destruction.

I struggled with this following the Purdue Pharma controversy over its magnificent painkiller for cancer patients and surgery survivors, OxyContin. I took this wonder drug in its time-released form after my knee replacement. It worked beautifully for controlling my hurt, although it had a side effect of constipation. I understood that it was not a drug I wanted to take for more than three days unless I was in total misery because of fear of becoming dependent. I stopped taking it after two days. 

Mail order outpatient pharmacy, North Charleston, SC

Purdue Pharma was bought by members of the Sackler family in 1952. The company had made earwax remover compounds and other home remedies. The Sackler brothers were doctors who eventually moved the company into pain alleviation medicines, which were morphine derivations and substitutes. The business grew rapidly and moved from New York City to Connecticut, finally culminating in the making of their blockbuster product, OxyContin. The Sackler descendants became one of America’s richest families–and most charitable.

They were fabulously successful in convincing doctors to prescribe it. Over time it became the drug of choice for aching backs and aching souls. People shopped for doctors who would prescribe it liberally. Eventually it reached the street peddlers. More and more people’s lives were ruined by addiction. Things only got worse after Purdue complimented OxyContin with Fentanyl, a powerful drug with dramatic pain-killing power and addictiveness.

The Sacklers just kept getting richer and richer, having an estimated net worth of $13 billion in 2013. They contributed to hospitals, and gave massively to colleges and art museums. But lots of people, often young people and veterans, got hooked, stole it, and committed suicide. Millions of lives were damaged, many ruined. Millions of people also took the drug successfully and benefited greatly.

Are the Sacklers awful people? Are they murderers because so many people abused the painkillers they manufactured? I don’t think they are. But they are a significant part of the supply chain of destruction. 

Nor do I think the people who make the firearm parts that are sold to sportsmen and hunters and law enforcement are bad folks, just because a tiny number of metal pieces they turn and mill go into weapons used for evil purposes.

I think about the pharmacists and doctors who helped fill the painkiller supply chain. Most of them were good people in the healing field. Yet a small number of the billions of pills they prescribed were used destructively. How do those druggists and MDs feel when a client or patient becomes a pusher or an addict? How often do they know when it happens? 

A 10-year-old CNC lathe I may have sold in 2018 to a job shop in Oregon might have made a part that ended up in a gangbanger’s weapon in Chicago. I’ll never know, nor will he or she. 

Life is never simple. Purity of heart is a myth. 

I can’t help but wonder if in some distant way I have contributed to America’s supply chain of gun violence. Do you?

Question: Do you feel any guilt about gun violence?

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Are You Up For Some Basketball?

By Lloyd Graff

The Men’s NCAA basketball tournament begins this week, an extravaganza of hoopla, gambling, and basketball. 

There are 68 teams, but only a few have a real chance of winning it. The eventual winner will likely come from one of the four No. 1 seeded teams in their regions. I don’t bet on sports. Machine tools are my game, but I love basketball and I find the four highest ranked teams and their coaches especially provocative this year. 

The No. 1 seed overall in the tournament is Gonzaga. If you do not follow college basketball, you probably have never even heard of the small Jesuit college in Spokane, Washington, which is pronounced with a hard “a.” Basketball has put the Gonzaga Zags on the map, thanks to Coach Mark Few. He came to the school in 1999, and the team has made the NCAA tournament for 22 straight years. 

And never won it.

But this year many think it will be different. The team is talented and experienced, and there are no traditional powerhouses with elite first round NBA picks to challenge them. This year it is the Zags with the NBA-ready players. Sophomore center Drew Timme, senior forward Corey Kispert, and guard Jalen Suggs, who has three cousins who played in either the NFL or NBA. If he turns pro after this season, it’s quite likely he will be a top 5 NBA pick.

***

Baylor is second among the four No. 1 seeds, although many believe Illinois may be just behind Gonzaga. The Bulldogs from Waco, Texas, were never known for basketball until Scott Drew turned the program around. He inherited the worst scandal in college basketball history. In 2003, Carlton Dotson shot and killed his roommate, Patrick Dennehy. They were both forwards on the Baylor team.

The investigation into the case revealed rampant drug use and cash payments by coach Dave Bliss to members of the team. Baylor basketball received penalties extending 10 years out. 

Baylor looked for a new head coach, who was as clean as Tide and who was clueless enough or brave enough to step into an impossible situation. 

It turned out to be Scott Drew, who had replaced his father at Valparaiso University in Indiana. Drew was considered as pure as a college basketball coach could be and naive enough to take a job where failure was a given. 

Baylor stunk for several years, but Scott Drew showed he could coach rejects and eventually he recruited guys with talent. For the last several years, Baylor has won 20 games a season, and this year they were undefeated much of the season, finishing with only one loss. Their guard, Jared Butler, is a first-team All-American.

***

Gene Hackman in the movie, Hoosiers

Illinois is coached by Brad Underwood, the epitome of the hard boiled, vagabond coach who has bounced from Hardin-Simmons to Daytona Community College, to Stephen F Austin, to Oklahoma State, and, finally at age 57, to head coach of the Big Ten Tournament Champion, Illinois. Underwood looks a little like Gene Hackman in Hoosiers. 

He’s seen it all and understands the game. And he really can recruit. His brute of a center, Kofi Cockburn, 7ft tall, 285 muscular pounds, is a rebounding monster. Super sub guard Andre Corbelo is from Puerto Rico via Long Island. But the top player is All American guard, Ayo Dosunmu of Chicago. 

He is a potential top 5 NBA pick and is probably the best player to come from the Windy City since Derrick Rose. Ayo is a terrific all-around guard, but what I like most about him is that he loves to take the last shot in a close game and usually makes it.

***

The fourth best team in the NCAA tournament is Michigan. Their head coach is a 19-year NBA veteran, Juwan Howard, who played on the great Fab Five Wolverines team. Howard, from Chicago originally, is in his second year of college coaching. 

Many saw him as a celebrity hire, but they underestimated the man. Howard is another basketball zealot, up at 5:30 a.m. to start his day. While playing, he took less money in one of his contracts to play for Pat Riley in Miami because he wanted to play for a coach who would push him to become the best player he could be. 

Howard inherited a mediocre team, but he recruited a 7ft tall center with excellent footwork, Hunter Dickinson, from Arlington, Virginia, and a transfer grad student from Columbia University of all places, Mike Smith. Add in Germany’s Franz Wagner and some good role players and Howard’s team can beat anybody

***

Gonzaga has the hype and three future NBA players. It’s Mark Few’s best team. Baylor and Michigan are capable of getting to the final game. Personally I think this is Illinois’ year.

Questions: Do you usually root for the favorites or the underdogs?

Which teams are you picking in your Men’s NCAA Tournament bracket?

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Billets and Booties

By Lloyd Graff

Amazon buys Central Steel and Wire.

That’s an odd couple.

Not really.

What Jeff Bezos wants is the 70 acres of land on the southwest side of Chicago near the old stock yards. No bundles of half inch 12L14 bars in with the bananas for the moment. 

The Central Steel and Wire Company and its real estate in Chicago was sold to Ryerson Steel in 2018. The firm was an odd duck because it had no debt. It was 56% owned by the James Lowenstine Trust, which was dedicated to using 1,200 acres of natural beauty in Northern Wisconsin as an environmental school known as Conserve School. Lowenstine, son of the founder of the company, died in 1996. He had no children. His will also left a loophole for the trust to be controlled by his Alma Mater, Culver Military Academy in Indiana. The competing interests fought over control of the trust, and therefore the future of Central Steel, for over 20 years. Today’s Machining World wrote a feature story about the conflict back in 2006. In 2018, Culver gained control of the trust, installed its slate of directors to run the Conserve School, and sold the company to Ryerson Steel for $150 million. It turned out to be a sweetheart deal for its old rival, Ryerson, also based in Chicago.

Amazon just paid $45 million for the real estate and leased it back to the company for two years. For a little more than $100 million, Ryerson became the dominant metal distributor in the Midwest.

Central Steel & Wire Company at 3000 West 51st Street in Chicago

The deal interests me for many reasons. Graff-Pinkert has been a customer of Central Steel for as long as I can remember. If a company, even for the smallest of customers like us, could exemplify caring, efficient service for decades, it was Central Steel. With Ryerson, it becomes a global “maybe,” with their interests in China and Mexico and elsewhere. 

But what is also fascinating is the shifting of real estate patterns over the past several years, with Amazon leading the way. 

Retail is withering. Find me a shopping center that is thriving. Few are even in the black. Rents of retail locations are falling. Many retail centers are being demolished or will be converted into housing, marijuana farms, or vaccination centers. 

Office space today is in disuse, but giant warehouses are proliferating near many highways, especially where there is easy access. The new real estate magnates are using cheap money to build massive windowless 35-foot high concrete wall rectangles with a lot of asphalt to enable vehicles to get in and out of fast. 

Amazon is employing hundreds of thousands of people processing boxes. That means loads of hand and wrist injuries now, but in the future robots will do most of the work. In 5 to 10 years, we will probably see driverless delivery vehicles. 

This is why Bezos continues to buy real estate, even in sick cities like Chicago. For an Amazon, the southwest side of Chicago, which used to have many small machine shops served by Central Steel that have since fled Chicago with its taxes, rampant corruption, and lousy schools, is now fertile ground for a company that needs huge numbers of $15 per hour employees to load vans with boxes of booties.

Amazon, for the moment, needs people. Central Steel has strategic ground and hundreds of motivated, well-managed employees. While Amazon says it is not interested in steel distribution, I can imagine Bezos studying the Central Steel operation and deciding Amazon can do it better. 

If it works for bananas and booties, it could work for billets.

Question: Do you think steel distribution could be improved upon?

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An Imperfect Union

By Lloyd Graff

Are schools that much different than factories? 

At this moment in America, virtually every factory is open and many are producing full out. Production is rising nicely. Confidence levels are high. The parking lots are full. Some steel may be a short delay and truckers seem flummoxed, but on the whole, business is jumping and the stock market is bouncing up and down off record highs.

Yet in many places, kids are still on Zoom if they own computers, and teachers unions and administrators are growling at each other. Parents are reaching their boiling point as they see their kids’ mental health sink dangerously and their finances fall apart because they can’t work when their children are at home. The quality of Zoom teaching and children’s ability to absorb content fluctuates wildly.

It’s a blown year of school that’s still continuing for many. 

In Chicago, teachers are retiring with $100,000 per year pensions. Yet they have kept their students at home or on the streets because they claim their classrooms are unsafe for them to teach in if students are present. Meanwhile, many students are leaving public school enrollment for Catholic schools, which have been open most of the pandemic.

My five-year-old grandson has gone to private nursery school throughout the entire pandemic. They have had a few cases, but never enough to close more than a couple of days. This has enabled my son to do his job as a psychotherapist in a hospital, helping COVID-19 survivors with emotional problems.

Parents and kids protest closed schools

We know now that kids, especially younger ones, do very well managing the illness. Still, the teachers union in Chicago and in other big cities are using kids as hostages in the power struggle with government authorities they are looking to humiliate. In Chicago, it is a battle between Mayor Lori Lightfoot, a former teacher, and her arch foe, Toni Preckwinkle, head of the County, who was crushed by Lightfoot in the last mayoral election. Lightfoot wants kids to go to school. Preckwinkle wants the teachers union clout.

We are now seeing parents demonstrating against unions and the politicians who are in their pocket all over the country. Even my old high school, the prestigious University of Chicago Lab School, which now charges tuition of $37,000 a year for kids whose parents do not work for the U of C, is dealing with parents making a very big stink about the unionized teachers destroying the kids’ school year.

In California, Governor Gavin Newsom, who has managed to mismanage everything from power outages to his unmasked birthday party at a ritzy San Francisco restaurant, will soon be facing a recall election mainly because he has kept the schools closed. COVID-19 has accelerated many aspects of American life: working from home, Amazon deliveries of your morning coffee, the demise of the local barber, and now, perhaps, the ability of entrenched unions to be seen as the champions of education. 

In Chicago, the head of the teachers union idolizes the regime of Castro’s Cuba and goes to Venezuela to refine his communist tropes. Windy City students sit out the year and teachers can’t seem to find a mask that fits. 

The union has lost the PR battle in Chicago. This may be one of the best things that the pandemic has accelerated.

Question: Should kids go back to the classroom while the pandemic continues?

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A Typical Tuesday for a Machinery Dealer

By Noah Graff

Yesterday, I started my workday by returning a phone call to customer in Italy as soon as I finished my home workout. I had read their email to try to distract myself while doing wall squats.

Later I spoke with people in Czech Republic, Germany, California, Arizona, Michigan, Wisconsin, and New York, and emailed others in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Illinois, Albania, and probably other places. Most of the people were making parts or peddling iron like myself.

Customers often ask me how Graff-Pinkert’s used machinery business is doing, and they ask me how I think the manufacturing economy is doing. After all, I’m in contact with manufacturers worldwide, and of course, I’m “the journalist.”

It’s hard to make generalizations about the machining world’s ecosystem. The majority of customers tell me business is at least stable. Many say they made money in 2020 or at least held their own. When they gush about their success in 2020 I always joke to them, “damn, I’m in the wrong business!”

Anecdotes from customers are more useful barometers for gaging the state of the machining economy than looking at the day to day events of our own business. I’m sure my fellow dealers will attest that the business is a rollercoaster because of it’s illiquidity. There could be no cash flow for weeks, and all of a sudden three big deals happen in a day. Suddenly the economy must be on an upswing!

Noah Graff in the Graff-Pinkert shop

You have to be very patient if you’re a used machinery dealer. My dad likes to say that often deals are like fruit, you just have to wait for them to ripen before they are ready to harvest—sometimes years! God willing, yesterday we finally sold two beautiful CNC multi-spindles that have been ripening in our warehouse for several years. They were built in Germany, traveled to Spain, then to Texas, then to Chicago, and now if all goes well they will go back to the place they started from. I hope I’m not jinxing the deal by writing this. Until we have received compensation for them, it’s not a sale.

Right now we have three multi-spindles, almost as old as me, ready to ship Mexico. Two other multi-spindles, older than me, we are hoping will go to Australia. There’s also a sweet Swiss machine I hope is bound for Europe.  

We have a tool and cutter grinder that we are quoting to companies in China, Mexico, the United States, Spain, Brazil and Turkey, and the supposed value seems to fluctuate dramatically from country to country—and not exactly how one would predict. We don’t know what the sell price should be. It’s constant internal debate.

That was my Tuesday (leaving out quite a few details). I think the day gave me a decent survey of the international turned parts industry. I’ll reiterate, it’s important to listen to a lot of different people to get a feel for the industry. I can’t go by what one person says because I hear so many diverse views. I can’t totally trust my own business’s day to day vibe either because, I, like everyone, live in my own bubble. Lots of our customers say business is great right now, and as I write this, 5-10 good deals seem like they are on the verge of breaking. But right when I think I understand something, or a deal seems great, or a deal is about to happen, or a deal is going flop, or my favorite ice-cream shop will have the flavor I’ve been waiting for, things take a turn in an unexpected direction—not necessarily a bad one though.

One more thing. Shameless self-promotion–the Doosan TT1800SY in this blog’s email blast ad is a real find. You won’t find treasure like this on your typical Wednesday!

Question: How do you feel the machining economy is doing?

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