Book It

By Lloyd Graff

It’s holiday gift giving time for those of us fortunate enough to be able to do it.

Let me make a suggestion. If you have children or grandchildren young enough to be read to, find a book that you would love to read to them, buy it and then read it to them when they are preparing to go to bed. And read it with GUSTO.

My favorite books these days are by the fabulous American illustrator and writer Mo Willems. The beauty of his works is that they are both extravagantly illustrated in vivid colors and enormously entertaining for both kids and the pseudo adults who read them. They lend themselves to exaggerated dramatic rendering. My older grandchildren know them by heart, but they love to hear me stumble through them as they wait for the punch lines, which I do with over the top zest while they launch into riotous laughter.

That is the beauty of a great kids book. It can be heard 50 times and it gets better with each telling, if the storyteller gets into it.

This is why a Mo Willems book beats a video game by a mile as a gift. The video game is a one-way present, but a book like Goldilocks and the Three Dinosaurs and Nanette’s Baguette are totally interactive fun.


I find it fascinating how “analytics” are changing the sports I have always loved, baseball and basketball.

If you have watched a basketball game lately you will have seen how it has evolved into a game of 3-point attempts and drives to the hoop. The stats tell us that midrange jump shoots are a loser if they comprise more than 50% of the shots put up in game.

If you watch the Golden State Warriors and Houston Rockets you see the trend being played out successfully. Both teams have tremendous 3-point shooters to execute the plan and coaches who gladly embrace the approach.

Boston with Kyrie Irving now has the point guard who can make the strategy work, though his outside shot is not as beautiful as Steph Curry’s or James Harden’s. The Cleveland Cavaliers with LeBron don’t have the perfect personnel to execute this drive and kick out strategy, but they may by the end of the season.

The baseball version of the drive and kick for the 3-pointer is the walk and homer approach. This year you saw more players take walks and change their swings to hit home runs because the analytics told teams it was the way to win.

It is possible the ball was juiced a little bit, but the primary reason that there were so many homers this past season was that the players changed their swings to elevate the ball when they hit it. They also took a lot of pitches trying to tire out the pitchers and look for the right pitch to jack.

Of course, the defense reacted by hunting for ground ball throwing pitchers and 100-mile per hour relievers. The baseball cliché is that it is a “game of adjustments,” and in this case that is certainly accurate.

Personally, I miss the turnaround jump shot at the free throw line in basketball and small ball with bunts and stolen bases in baseball. But the beauty of sports is that they constantly evolve. With the Japanese Babe Ruth, Shohei Otani, coming to Major League Baseball in 2018, who can pitch and play outfield to take advantage of his power hitting, we will be seeing a new kind of player. I can’t wait. Hopefully he’ll be with the Cubs.

Question: What is your favorite children’s book?

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Machine Sabatoge

By Noah Graff

I spent last weekend in Prague, Czech Republic—a wonderful place. One of the most famous tourist attractions in the city is the Prague Astrological Clock or Prague Orloj built in the 15th Century. The clock was a remarkable feat of engineering in its day for its multiple features, including a display of the position of the sun and the moon, and a monthly calendar.

As I rode through Prague’s Old Town Square on my excellent bike tour my guide enlightened me about the clock’s dark history.

Some historians dispute this story, but who knows what information you can trust these days. So lets embrace the juicy story of this clock, as told by my Czech tour guide.

Clock Master Hanuš built the clock, commissioned by the councillors of Prague. Master Hanuš was an engineering visionary for his era. People of the time may have seen him as a Steve Jobs type figure.

The fantastic clock helped Prague grow into a hot tourist attraction—much like it is today, minus the club scene and centuries-old Jewish cemetery. Unfortunately, the mayor of Prague became paranoid that the clock master would be recruited to build another fantastic clock in a different city. A competing clock in a another city could hurt Prague’s tourism business, so the mayor took drastic action.

Prague Astrological Clock or Prague Orloj, Prague, Czech Republic

To prevent the clock master from building any new clock towers the mayor hired an anonymous henchman who gouged the clock master’s eyes out and cut out his tongue. The clock master then holed himself up in an apartment for many years, helpless and dejected, until one day someone divulged to him that the mayor had been behind the abduction.

The clock master vowed revenge. Killing the mayor would have been difficult for a blind man with no tongue, but he had a better idea anyways—an idea that would have a more dramatic and lasting impact.

Clock Master Hanuš committed suicide. He jumped off the top of the tower into the heart of clock’s mechanical innards jamming its mechanisms and disabling it. It would take a century before a new clock master finally repaired it.

Question 1: Have you ever wanted to destroy a machine?

Question 2: Do you prefer wearing a watch?

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Has the NF Fell?

By Lloyd Graff

Does the National Football League bore you like it does me?

I used to love the games. Thanksgiving was the day I would gorge myself on football and turkey. But last Thursday I watched a little of the Lions (who did they play?) and ignored the games that followed.

The NFL has a lot of problems. The players die young or damage their brains. It still attracts the gladiators, but a lot of parents are pushing their boys toward other sports because of the apparent dangers.

There are few good teams in the NFL these days. It’s the Patriots, the Eagles, maybe Minnesota and New Orleans. And who cares? Green Bay used to be fun to watch because of Aaron Rogers, but then he busted his clavicle and they are now just another awful team to watch with a pathetic quarterback who is afraid to throw the ball more than 10 yards.

The coaches of most teams play a boring, risk averse, strategic game of field goals, with most games decided by turnovers rather than brilliant offense.

There are virtually no great running backs in the game. Name one after Ezekiel Elliot of Dallas, who is suspended for six games now. Teams do not even draft running backs much because they are rarely good for more than two years after being chewed up by injury.

I watch football mainly to see the quarterbacks do their magic. Without Aaron Rogers playing, you have the great Tom Brady at 40, the magician, Russell Wilson, in Seattle, and a few interesting young guys like Carson Wentz and Jared Goff. Andrew Luck used to be the equal of Brady and Rogers, but injuries have really diminished him. He hasn’t played a down this season and is consulting everybody west of Tibet for a hopeful answer on his damaged throwing shoulder.

It is a crazy sport that devours its stars like they were s’mores.

TV ratings are down for the NFL, and the League cannot fill the stadiums. Even teams like Pittsburgh are having trouble because they are so predictable and cannot seem to find a successor for Ben Roethlisberger who is looking more like a statue each year.

The Colin Kaepernick kneeling act is not really the League’s big problem. It was a diversion from the boredom of the game as the season began, yet it did reflect the alienation of many African American players who see themselves as powerless pawns of the owners.

One of the advantages of Major League Baseball and the NBA over the NFL is that the players see themselves as partners of the owners to some degree, while the players have virtually no power in the NFL under Roger Goodell, who is paid a $50 million salary with use of a private jet for life.

Also, baseball and basketball are developing an international following with international players on every team. Football is strictly a U.S. game, and the experiment of playing one game a week in London has been a failure. Players hate it. Fans don’t show.

A good Super Bowl can still be a fun occasion, but week-to-week pro football has lost its pizzazz and lost me as a regular viewer.

Question 1: Have you lost interest in the NFL?

Question 2: Who is your favorite running back ever?

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Call if it Hurts

By Lloyd Graff

Today I have doctoring on my mind. I’ve spent the last 10 days in the throes of worry, tests, doctor visits and more tests. I came out the other side with a good diagnosis, but exhausted by the process. And I think of how much worse it would have been without my wife Risa accompanying me for every visit and comforting me throughout the experience.

I also have had capable and caring doctors who explained everything in depth at the University of Chicago hospital.

Still it was an ordeal.

It started with seeing blood in my urine. Not a little, but enough to mess up a bathroom. I figured I burst a blood vessel and it would self heal that day.

Unfortunately, it did not stop and I contemplated a trip to the emergency room or worse. I think I am like most guys, I’m a health denier, often believing everything works out okay and the body heals itself and all is well with the world — except when it doesn’t. As Risa all too frequently points out to me, I almost denied my way into the death penalty in the run-up to my heart attack in 2008.

In this case the bleeding persisted and I emailed my primary care physician to ask what I should do. My doctor is an extremely thoughtful and caring physician and he called me back within an hour of the email on a Saturday.

We discussed the symptoms. I told him I thought it was a ruptured blood vessel and he told me the odds of that were remote. He mentioned infection and bladder cancer as the likely possibilities.

He quickly arranged a CAT scan, cystoscope and a visit with a top urologist at the hospital.

The bleeding did stop after 38 hours. In my next conversation with my doctor he told me that the urologist had told him that with my history of radiation therapy for prostate cancer eight years ago the cure for the cancer may have weakened the walls of some blood vessels which could quite possibly have resulted in the bleeding.

Ultimately, the CAT scan and the scope validated the urologist’s theory.

I discussed the process of fear, reporting, theorizing and diagnosis with my primary doctor on Tuesday. I told him candidly that I felt he dismissed what I told him about what I believed was going on and worried me unnecessarily. I brought up another situation which I thought was trivial, but he and my wife did not. I ended up wearing a heart monitor looking for an irregular heartbeat for two weeks, which I thought was ridiculous, and I was proved correct in that case, too.

My doctor was not annoyed by my questioning comment. He told me that the last four cases he had seen with blood in the urine were all confirmed as bladder cancer.

I shuddered.

Then he explained to me the burden that doctors carry. They know too much. Their job is to err on the side of caution. And they also know that patients get scared and the emotional trauma is significant. They also know there are times when they should not bring up the worst case.

He says he has made it a rule not to tell his family what could be wrong with them because it terrifies them. It’s quite a burden, if one is a caring doctor.

In the midst of this latest medical scare, Risa and I talked to her brother, John, who is an oncologist in Charlotte. I could tell he was parsing his words as we discussed my symptoms, not wanting me to worry more than I already was. He was encouraging about the notion of a blood vessel rupture caused by the 8-year-old radiation therapy.

Being a doctor is a tough life. I empathize with their dilemma about what to tell a patient, yet I also know that the patient sometimes knows more than they do about their own body.

Question: How do you feel about your medical care?

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Son Rises

By Lloyd Graff

I get to do this blog today partly because my son Noah is traveling and will not get a chance to edit my writing like he generally does.

I have the very fortunate opportunity to work with my adult son, Noah, in both the machine tool business and Today’s Machining World. I know “family business” may be passé to many people, an artifact of a simpler time when trades were passed on and farms stayed in the family because people felt tied to the land. But for a lucky few, father and child not only get along well enough to coexist in a business, the combination works to make the enterprise better.

Noah came into business reluctantly, with modest expectations. He saw himself as a self-taught filmmaker after college and living in Italy. I offered him an opportunity to work as a poorly paid member of a struggling print magazine that started out as Screw Machine World and morphed into Today’s Machining World. This connected with his artistic leanings and avoided conflict with my brother Jim who seemed to resent Noah’s mere presence in the vicinity of Graff-Pinkert.

This is the sticky and stinky part of most family businesses. Sometimes, one family member will just never accept the child of another family member. Noah made overtures to Jim, but nothing worked, even though Noah spent most of his time on the magazine side.

The longer Noah was around the machinery business, the more it started to make sense to him and even become fun, and the more the mutual resentment between him and Jim grew into hostility.

After my heart attack in 2008, Jim and his wife felt I was not going to be able to pull my weight in the machinery business and they would run it, but when I was fully able to participate it became apparent that our partnership would eventually end.

Meanwhile, Noah became more and more productive on the machine tool side and as my partner in TMW. I saw Noah maturing into a creative business person who was becoming a dealer who really got the nuttiness of the used machine tool treasure hunt every day, and was actually beginning to love it like I did.

The Obama years were pretty tough on American manufacturing and our business, but Noah made it fun most days and he was humble enough to learn some of the technical details that Rex Magagnotti was always willing to teach him.

Noah has begun to do almost all of the foreign travel, which has become crucial to becoming a global player in the business. This has been a great boon for him and the business, because my various physical maladies restrict my business travel and he absolutely loves the excitement of traveling to virtually every continent to extend our reach and our brand.

For me, watching his growth over the last dozen years has been an incredible gift. With all the surgeries and physical challenges I have had over this period, and the breakup with Jim, I highly doubt the company would still be in business or if I would even be doing this blog without him.

For me, Noah is probably the most interesting and fun person around, and definitely one of the most caring.

And now I get to the stage in my career that I have the chance to learn from him. He has a new idea to try out on me almost every day.

It is certainly a gift and I do not take it for granted.

Question: What has been your experience with family in business?

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10 Stupid Ideas

By Noah Graff

Generating new ideas is one of the most important things in my life. I need to create to grow as a person and hopefully have a significant impact on the world. But the creative process is often really hard. It’s essential to get new ideas on paper, but it’s difficult to force the ideas out of my head onto the page.

I read a blog some time ago by Seth Godin called “Talker’s Block.” The point of the blog is that unlike writer’s block which tortures almost everyone, few people get “talker’s block.” If we have something to say on a subject we can usually get it out of our mouths in a coherent way; we don’t get stuck like we do in front of a computer or holding a pen to paper. Most people are great at talking because they do it constantly, as opposed to writing, which they practice less often.

One of these Today’s Machining World blogs unfortunately often takes me three to four hours to write. I know it’s possible to improve my writing speed, and I know there are tons of interesting ideas my brain could spit out. I just need to practice.

Noah’s Idea Notebook

For the last month every weekday morning before leaving for work I have been devoting 15 minutes to creative writing. Doing it in the morning is crucial. Studies show that the first few hours of the day the brain is at its most powerful and creative. I’m not necessarily writing a screenplay or a blog in these sessions. I’m writing down miscellaneous ideas. I turn on my iPhone’s timer with a firm limit of 15 minutes. The time limit is a positive because too much time to think can make me second guess my ideas—they will disintegrate before they reach the page. Also, come on—it’s 15 minutes. We waste so much time during the day on stupid stuff, there is no excuse for not giving up 15 minutes for what could be the most interesting and important activity you do that day.

I try to write down 10 ideas in a session. Maybe they are new ideas or maybe they are ideas fleshing out previous ideas I have already come up with. My ideas can be about anything—inventions, new types of businesses, movie ideas, scientific experiments. Sometimes I think of ideas on how to improve Graff-Pinkert or Today’s Machining World.

One powerful exercise I use to inspire ideas when I am having trouble is to try to think of 10 STUPID ideas. Sometimes the stupid ideas turn out to be the best because they are the most original and interesting. Sometimes by trying to think of a stupid idea my brain’s resistance reflex causes it to come up with “not-stupid” ideas. Also, if you can actually think of 10 stupid ideas, likely a few of them will be funny. That has value.

If still nothing is coming to me, I just allow whatever is on my mind to trickle out onto the paper, and I get a nice stream of consciousness diary entry.

I’ve listed a few of my favorite morning ideas below. Some may be stupid, and some I’m convinced are brilliant. But at least they are down on paper for the world to see.

1. A Website to help average people understand the laws of the U.S. government in a straightforward way.

2. A podcast in which Lloyd and I interview machining company owners or managers.

3. An experiment to see if my political views would change by reading only Breitbart News for an entire week (no other types of fake news).

4. One of my favorites: A baseball managing strategy for substituting bullpen pitchers. It consists of the following. A pitcher throws to a batter and gets two strikes, but then in the middle of the at-bat the manager brings in a new pitcher with a totally different throwing style from the previous one. Perhaps he substitutes a righty for a lefty or subs for a flame thrower with a guy who tops out at 80. It would totally knock the batter off balance! I’ve only seen a mid at-bat substitution because of an injury or if the pitcher is in trouble. Managers need to think outside of the old baseball code. I think this idea could change the world.

Question 1: What is your stupid or brilliant idea today?

Question 2: What is the stupidest or most brilliant invention you’ve ever seen?

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$100 Grand to Start

By Lloyd Graff

I have been into the topic of entrepreneurship lately. I see it as the creative driver of the American economy, but I’ve been struck by the lack of comments from readers on previous blogs on the subject.

Maybe entrepreneurs are too busy with their young or potential businesses to be reading Swarfblog, or perhaps the machining community, which is the bulk of our audience, is too beaten down by what they have seen in recent years to want to tackle a startup.

I did meet two business starters at Weekend With the Pros, a conference for machinery dealers held last weekend in Detroit. One fellow was on his third business and had used Kickstarter to launch a leather goods startup. The other guy had started his own CNC repair firm. I think we are now in a particularly fertile period to begin a manufacturing business.

I’m surprised to have discovered several facilities and groups where potential startup people can learn machining and find access to mentoring and potential investors in the Chicago area such as Workshop 88 and Make-It-Here. I’ve also found an active community in Milwaukee and Madison, Wisconsin. I have to believe there is activity like this all over the country. Companies like Tormach and Pocket NC make good inexpensive CNC machines that startups can afford for prototyping and experimentation. There are also many good affordable machines for additive manufacturing.

Esben Østergaard, Universal Robots Founder at IMTS.

The equipment is available, and knowledge is being volunteered in many locations. I believe demand is always there for people who can solve a problem in the marketplace. Perhaps the classic current example is Universal Robots, whose founders in Denmark saw the problem and opportunity clearly. Companies desperately needed an inexpensive, easily programmable robotic arm in their factories. After literally living on crackers in a borrowed workplace, the founders built a viable prototype that won them seed money to produce a salable product. Within a few years they sold the company for $285 million to Teradyne, an American tech firm.

In Sunday’s New York Times Magazine, a long piece discussed the importance of Facebook in propelling fledgling businesses to stardom. The focus was on Hubble, a three-year-old startup out of New York City, that markets lower cost contact lenses. Facebook’s uncanny ability to target potential Hubble buyers using its vast data network has enabled Hubble’s founders to build a business valued at $210 million. The 20-something guys who started it show us that fortunes still can be made if you solve a problem and get to market quickly. In Chicago, childhood friends Peter Rahal and Jarad Smith are selling their protein bar company RXBAR to Kellogg for $600 million. They started the company in 2013, rolling oatmeal nuts and sweet goo in Rahal’s parents’ basement at night and selling the bars in local gyms during the day.

Kellogg is willing to pay $600 million for the still small company because they desperately want to crack the healthy natural protein bar market that caters to young health-conscious buyers.

Many entrepreneurs fail or languish, but the ambitious, tenacious, persistent person who can provide a product that solves a problem still can find success.

Question: If someone offered you $100,000 to start a business what would you do?

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Love the Tank

By Lloyd Graff

Over the last few weeks I have become addicted to the TV show Shark Tank. What is it that fascinates me so thoroughly that I will switch out of even a thrilling World Series game to tune into one of the mini dramas?

I love the energy of the fresh entrepreneurs. Often, they are working out of their homes, perfecting a recipe or constructing what they think is the best back scratcher ever designed.

Usually the products are made for consumers. Rarely do I see an industrial product or a sophisticated service. The show is for the masses so most of the products are relatable to by an unsophisticated audience. The products are often unique but to me the fascinating parts of the show are the backstories of the applicants seeking financial backing and the questions by the Sharks. The brilliance of the show to me is the thoughtful interrogation of the new business owners, and ultimately the competition of the Sharks to get in on a deal.

I always learn something by watching the show. I’m not starting a new business at the moment, but the rigor of the Sharks forces me to consider my current business practices. I always subconsciously ask myself whether my businesses would merit investment by one of the Sharks or Sharkettes.

They always ask about trends. “Is business up and down or are you growing, quarter after quarter, year after year,” they want to know. Kevin O’Leary, Mr. Wonderful, the tough guy you love to hate, grills the contestants in an arrogant way pushing them to come clean about their business history. “You don’t have a business, you have a hobby,” he often says derisively to folks who haven’t made significant progress over the course of their enterprise. He is harsh, but he is usually accurate. He’ll then often say, “you’re wasting our time,” dismissively.

The women, usually Lori Greiner and Barbara Corcoron are much kinder but are no soft touch. Mark Cuban, who owns the Dallas Mavericks NBA team, tends to make his mind up very quickly. If he decides a business cannot “scale” meaning grow quickly into a big business he’s “out” immediately.

Cuban often asks very early on about the cost of production and selling price. I always find these questions instructive. If the selling price is not at least four times the cost of making the product he has no interest. This is a far cry from the machining world and industrial distribution models I normally see, but the production world has minimal advertising and marketing expense generally. Neverless, I have learned from the Sharks to build my business in the high margin world the Sharks would fund. Banks tend to think like the Sharks. There is no glory in working thin. Google and Facebook live in the 90% profit margin world. Every business person should try to move their business into that territory.

A commodity business will never be bankable in the Shark Tank.

I attended a business get together of machinery dealers over the past weekend. I queried many of the attendees with the Shark Tank in mind. It was a group of sharp guys (virtually no women) but only one of those I talked to would have had a prayer with the Sharks. No plan, wildly fluctuating profit margins.

You want to know the one guy the Sharks would have backed? Sorry, he doesn’t need the money anyway.

Question: Do you or your children want to start a business?

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Living and Dying With…

By Noah Graff

Why did I devote the previous two weeks to watching the Chicago Cubs during the playoffs?

Sure—athletic feats are impressive and entertaining to watch. But why do I ecstatically jump up and down when my home team gets a big hit or strikes out an opposing batter?

Why do I hurt when we strike out, when we make an error, when we lose? And why do I use the first person plural when referring to the Chicago Cubs?

I don’t know any of the players personally, though our electrician Julio is friendly with fellow Dominican reliever Pedro Strop. Virtually none of the Cubs players grew up in Chicago. But I am a member of the Cubs religion. I was raised in a Cubs household. So what affects the Cubs players affects me as well as my family. During Cubs playoff games we have an active group text between my dad, my sister Sarah and brother-in-law Scott living in California. If you look up and down our text thread you will see plenty of color commentary filled with passionate “Yeses!,” superstitious animal emojis (usually sent by me) and questioning if “things are going to be ok.”

Why do I have such emotional investment in the games? Why do my dopamine levels rise when the action on the field takes place? When the Cubs win, why does everything just seem right with the world? When they lose why do I feel empty?

Cubs fan watching a game at Sluggers in Chicago.

My conclusion is that a sporting event is live theatre. The Cubs were the protagonists and the Dodgers were the antagonists. But the protagonists were not just the Cubs players, they were the Cubs fans as well.

Theatre starts with an exposition. “The 2016 World Champion Chicago Cubs were playing the Dodgers in game four of the NLCS playoff series trying to reach the 2017 World Series. (Indulge me as I try to hold onto the one highlight of the series). Cubs hurler Jake Arrieta was pitching against the Dodgers’ Alex Wood. It was a ‘win or go home’ elimination contest for the Cubs.”

The plot built until the climax when the Cubs’ Wade Davis stopped the final charge with a 6-out save! We won, and all was well. Sports competitions are dramas (often a tragedies). But unlike in a traditional drama on a stage, the athletes are the characters and they are REAL —not actors! The resolution (probably) does not cause someone to die, but the story is live and real.

The 2017 World Series between the Dodgers and Astros will be another great drama. But I am not a protagonist in this series like I was when my Cubs were playing. Some other lucky protagonists will live and die, on and off the field.

Question: Do you prefer watching sports on TV or live at the stadium?

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It’s Life

By Lloyd Graff

All this death is killing me.

The list of people with cancer who I care about keeps growing by the day. A friend from high school who was organizing my class reunion was hit by pneumonia and died in a week. Three hurricanes, an earthquake, the Las Vegas massacre, then the wildfires in California incinerating whole neighborhoods. It stinks, all that death out there.

I just “celebrated” (endured) the Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur where Jews spend the day fasting and considering who will live and who will die this year. More consideration of death. I hate it.

Maybe my close call with death nine years ago with my heart attack has sharpened my consciousness of the temporariness of life.

This morbid thinking does cut both ways. It can make you feel miserable and totally stuck or it can free you up because you so desperately want to take advantage of the today you have.

My wife is into saving money these days because she is fearful of all of the awful things that could befall her if she lives a long time. After my brush with death, correctly or not, I don’t figure I’ll have to worry about that so much.

For me, the fear of dementia is more of an everyday worry, unlike the longterm fear of death. I’m starting to hear of high school classmates who have spouses with it. It just seems so devastating and heartbreaking to have to endure the condition with a loved one.

What is the antidote to these depressing feelings? For me, it is work, writing, exercise and love. Creating, giving of myself—I don’t know if it pushes off the inevitable, but it sure is more fun than constantly contemplating my own death or somebody else’s who I love or care about.

As I am writing this piece, I keep circling back to the importance of my work to me as a vehicle for creativity. The element of chance in assessing the value of flawed aging pieces of machinery provides riskiness every day, but when there is no risk there is little reward. Risk carries the companion of validation and fun. Arguing about a deal with Noah and my associate, Rex, keeps my juices flowing. Being wrong in business means I lose money. It’s not life and death. It’s just life.

Question: Would you rather die at age 80 knowing you would be in perfect health until then, or potentially live longer with no health guarantees?

George on Death, Seinfeld

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