Monday, August 23, 2010

Tribute to a life well lived - by Judge Jim Gray

Recently, I received a telephone call from the daughter of Andy Blodget, a good friend of mine from San Luis Obispo. She told me that her father had died after having a heart attack the night before. This was a genuine shock, because Andy was only 52 years old and apparently in good health. Neither he nor his family had a prior history of heart disease.

In today's world, to die at 52 years of age of "natural causes" is simply too short a life, and I truly grieve for Andy and his family. But as I was driving up to his funeral last weekend, I was thinking that if I could design a good, useful and almost-perfect life, Andy's would be the one. First of all, and most importantly, he was devout as a husband and a father. In fact, in my view, the biggest insight into people's character is to look at the family lives they have led and the children they have raised. And in that regard, Andy was truly exemplary.

He was also a self-made man who was successful in his profession, to the extent that he was able to retire from the flower business in his early 40s. Thereafter he was a successful founder of a small bank and a winery, and also was involved in several notable philanthropic activities. And throughout all of his dealings, he acted with such integrity that I told many other people, as well as Andy himself, that without hesitation I would trust him with the safety and well being of my own family, as well as whatever treasure I had accumulated.

But the lasting message that this tragedy left me with is the reason I am interrupting my discussion about Iceland and devoting today's column to this subject, and that is to remember to enjoy and make use of your life while you have it. Our time on this planet is short and life can be fickle because, as I used to tell my jurors, tomorrow we could be hit by a train.

So at all times, keep in mind what is important and what is not. "My yacht is bigger than your yacht," and "I am more glamorous or beautiful than you" are false gods. And it is also true that our possessions can eventually own us if we are not careful. Yes, Andy made a lot of money, but family and integrity were always first and, as examples, his dependable Ford pickup truck and Timex watch suited him just fine.

Another way of looking at this, which I have tried to keep in mind, is to think that if you were on your deathbed and looking back over your life, would you feel that you had used your time on this Earth wisely? If not, it is not too late to change your approach. Unlike most people who have ever walked the face of the Earth, most of us are genuinely blessed to have many opportunities to try different things, and spend our time and resources on efforts that really matter.

So if Andy were still here, I think he would reaffirm that we should follow our passions — and not hold back. Another way of describing this thought is to cite a quote sometimes attributed to Mark Twain or Satchel Paige that in life we should "Sing like no one's listening, love like you've never been hurt, and dance like nobody's watching."

Yes, there is a time for caution, but mostly that is overrated. Pursuing reasonable but mostly unbridled passion is what makes a life worth living, particularly if it results in helping other people.

In a related but similar matter, before we take a position on anything, we should try to understand the opposite point of view. In reality, we really cannot intelligently be in favor of anything unless we can see the opposite side of the question through the eyes of someone who believes it. Yes, that approach takes effort and can slow us down, but isn't that the whole idea about acting with integrity?

So please join with me in remembering the life of people like my friend Andy Blodget. His life was too short but he did it right, and he will be an inspiration to me for the rest of my life for that reason. To take that a step further, please join me in a toast to Andy and the other people like him that you know that have lived such successful lives.

And if we follow their lead, maybe, just like with Andy, we too, when we face St. Peter at the Pearly Gates, will have him find our names in the Book of Life, review the lives we have lived, and look at us and say: "Well done!"

James P. Gray is a retired judge of the Orange County Superior Court and the composer of the high school musical "Americans All" (Heuer Publishing). He can be contacted at, or through his website at

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Where fire meets ice - by Judge Jim Gray

Many people in Iceland talk about trolls as nasty or evil ogres, plagued with a seemingly endless aggressive streak. But others will tell you that these are untrue and shameful images that say more about the ignorance of the storyteller than about the trolls themselves. Yes, trolls are quite large and tremendously strong, but by nature they are essentially peaceful cave-dwellers who only come out at night. The reason they are nocturnal is that if they are touched by the rays of the sun they will turn into volcanic statues. In fact I saw many of these unfortunate creatures while on our recent trip to that most interesting island, which is east of Greenland and south of the Arctic Circle.

Actually Iceland and Greenland are misnamed, because most of Iceland is green, and almost all of Greenland is glacial ice. The common explanation is that the two lands were intentionally misnamed because Icelanders were happy being left alone and so adopted that inhospitable handle, but people in Greenland wanted to lure more tourists and residents with the more enticing name.

But it is no mistake that Iceland is a totally volcanic island, because it sits on the fault where the American tectonic plate meets the European plate. These plates are actually moving apart from each other at the average rate of about two centimeters each year, and that opens the earth for occasional but violent volcanic eruptions.

The most recent of these was in May when Eyjafjallajökull erupted. This actually added another page to the book titled "Who Says Life is Fair?" because the airport in the capital city of Reykjavik was closed just as a precautionary measure for about two hours, but due to the volcanic ash being spewed into the air and the direction of the prevailing winds, airports in England, Belgium and even Spain were shut down for weeks.

Volcanic eruptions actually occur comparatively frequently in Iceland. For example, between 1963 and 1967 there were a series of eruptions that created a new island that was named Surtsey in honor of Surtuk, who was the mythological Norse god of fire. Originally the new island was 1 square mile in size, but with subsequent erosion by the ocean's waves it has been reduced to about half that. It also has a bit of a comical history, because a group of Frenchmen actually landed on the island while it was being formed and claimed the new land for France. The attempt was unsuccessful.

Icelanders are a hardy people who are proud of their history and identity. Their language, which is based upon a combination of Nordic and German, is functionally unfathomable to non-speakers, and the Icelanders are actively trying to keep it that way. To that end they have constituted a native committee to coin new Icelandic words for any new developments that may occur. Thus they have their own word for "e-mail," "taco," "baseball" and others.

During the summer months, the sun almost does not set, which can, of course, cause a significant change in lifestyle. One example is that there is an annual golf tournament in June in which the participants tee off at 10 p.m. and finish about 4 in the morning. And parents have to be careful, because if they tell their children in June as they are going out to play to be back just before dark, they might not see them again until August.

Iceland was originally blessed with a significant growth of beech trees, but these were cut down by the early settlers to be used for their houses and boats. Some trees have been replanted, but because they are slow growing, most of the trees that now are on the island are still small. This has given rise to the comment that if you are lost in a forest in Iceland, all you have to do is to stand up.

About 40% of the exports from Iceland are fish, but that industry only employs about 6% of the workforce. The other money makers are lamb and sheep for their meat, iceberg-pure bottled water, and tourism. They once had an abundance of lobsters in their waters as demonstrated by one of our guides who told us that even her cat used to eat lobster. That leaves them with their primary fish — cod, salmon and halibut.

Iceland is also deservedly well known for its bird population. The ones that bring in the tourists are the puffins, which are truly amazing creatures. With their bright orange beaks, legs and feet, these birds that are about the size of a dove look like cute little flying tugboats. They live at sea except from April to August. In April the male comes ashore to make a tunnel in the dirt on the top of a shoreline cliff, and, because they mate for life, he waits for the female to arrive. If he gets impatient the male will allow a different female to share his nest, but if his "true love" appears, he kicks the new one out.

The female lays one egg per year, and then both parents go out to sea and dive up to 150 feet to capture anchovies or other small fish to bring back to the youngster. Amazingly enough, the average lifespan of puffins is about 25 years, and the oldest on record is 38.

Another remarkable bird found in Iceland is the Arctic tern. This is a sleek bird about the size of a robin that has a twin tail and comes to Iceland during the summer months, which is their mating season. But the amazing thing is that this small creature migrates every year down to the Antarctic! Considering its size, it would be the equivalent trip for us humans to fly back and forth to the moon three times per year.

Another interesting feature of Iceland is the presence of geysers, hot pots and other geothermal activity. This is so prevalent that about 80% of all homes and other buildings in Iceland are heated by piping in the naturally hot water. In addition, geothermal is also used to generate most of the island's electricity. But those are subjects we will explore next week.

JAMES P. GRAY is a retired judge of the Orange County Superior Court, the composer of the high school musical "Americans All" (Heuer Publishing), and can be contacted at or

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Breaking the cycle of poverty - by Judge Jim Gray

One final thing I wanted to share with you from the FreedomFest convention in Las Vegas a few weeks ago was the program that has spawned an upcoming movie, "To Catch a Dollar." This program provides small loans to people who otherwise would not qualify for any financing, so that they can start their own small businesses and break out of the cycle of poverty.

There are several similar programs around the world that focus upon this activity, such as Technoserve and the Heifer Project, but the one that was presented at FreedomFest was started in Bangladesh by the an economist named Muhammad Yunus. He observed that many people on the bottom rungs of the economic ladder had feasible ideas for starting businesses, but were totally unable to borrow any money to get started. So, 30 years ago, Yunus loaned a total of $27 of his own money to 42 different people for that purpose.

Of course that amount of money went a lot farther back then and in that country, but it still was a truly modest amount. Nevertheless, Yunus was amazed at the results. Within six months all of the women he had loaned money to had paid it back, and all of them had a new business started of some kind.

So over time he put together the Grameen Bank that made similar small business starter loans – but just to women. No collateral was required, but the loans had to be paid back within a year, complete with interest at 7.5% per year. The program also required that groups of at least five potential borrowers get together and approve each borrower's individual "business plan," as well as a plan for repayment before any of the loans would be made. Then that group would be required to meet together for an hour each week, at which time they would make payments of 2%of the principal and also compare notes about how they were progressing. In a world in which there are more than 4 billion cell phones, there are only 1.5 billion bank accounts. So the Grameen Bank became a bank for the unbankable, and it has been successful.

One of the truly noteworthy features of this program is that if one woman in the group does not make her payments in a timely fashion, not only is she forced to leave the group, none of the other women in the group will ever be qualified to receive another loan. So that really brings home the concepts of accountability, participation, teamwork and problem-solving. Knowing this, the group members unfailingly screen out women from the program whom they believe to be unreliable. And once the program gets started, frequently many of the group members have such an incentive for their colleagues to succeed that they often become each other's customers.

All of this has also resulted generally in giving women a higher status in their communities, which has in turn reduced the abuse of women and allowed them to succeed in their desires to implement better education and nutrition of children in their communities.

In the last 30 years, the Grameen Bank has implemented its program in many other countries in the developing world, with the result that literally millions of women have improved their lives by developing their own businesses, such as catering, cake baking, hair dressing, sewing, food and ice cream sales carts, and many more. Thus at this time the bank has more than seven million borrowers and $1 billion in outstanding loans, at an average of $200 per loan, in countries like Zambia, Nicaragua, Guatemala, the Dominican Republic, and Mexico — and they also have a 98% repayment rate! And for all of these successes, Muhammad Yunus has been rightfully awarded a Nobel Prize.

Now Yunus has begun a similar program with the Grameen Bank on the streets of Queens, the New York City borough, and has plans to expand it to at least five additional states in our country. The differences in our programs are that the borrowers cannot be on welfare, and, given our economy, the minimum loan is $500 and the maximum is $3,000.

I find this not only to be amazing, but also embarrassing. A bank from Bangladesh comes to New York City — the financial capital of the world — to give people the opportunity to show their innovation and entrepreneurship and create thousands of small businesses. I thought that America led the world in innovation and entrepreneurship, but in this area it seems to be Bangladesh!

As they say in the movie, "Microcredit ignites the tiny economic engines of the rejected underclass of society. Once a large number of tiny engines start working, the stage can be set for bigger things."

Last week I talked about Greg Mortenson going to small villages in impoverished parts of Afghanistan and Pakistan and building schools with the commitment and assistance of the villagers themselves. And now we see a program from Bangladesh that empowers the lowest economic classes of women to get them on the road to financial solvency. Where are the headlines? Why can't our foreign aid system implement programs like those started by people like Mortenson and Yunus?

Instead, our government throws lots of money at foreign problems that, since there is seldom much accountability in where it goes, often result in foreign government officials driving fancy cars and their Swiss bank accounts getting fatter. But for about 1% of what our government now spends, these programs actually achieve positive and lasting results. So why are we not insisting upon a fundamental change in approach?

If you agree that we must change our approach, please use every opportunity to contact your representatives in Washington, and encourage them to implement these changes. And if you want more information about Muhammad Yunus' program with Grameen Bank, you can find it at

JAMES P. GRAY is a retired judge of the Orange County Superior Court, and the author of "A Voter's Handbook: Effective Solutions to America's Problems" (The Forum Press, 2010). He can be contacted at, or through his website at

Dachau death camp revisited - by Judge Jim Gray

During the summer of 1965, between my junior and senior years at UCLA, I traveled to Western Europe with a friend and, among other things, visited the former concentration camp at Dachau, in the German state of Bavaria not far from Munich. This event changed my life, because it brought home to me man's potential inhumanity to man.

Dachau was one of the first extermination camps established by Adolf Hitler. It was where thousands of Jews, gypsies and other "undesirables" (in Hitler's mind) were gassed to death, and then cremated en masse. And it was also a place where perverse and sadistic "experiments" were performed on human beings by demented so-called doctors.

In other words, this was a place where terrible things were done with the sanction of the laws of the time. Dachau should always stand as an example of what can happen without the vigilance of good people. Therefore, it is a place that should never be forgotten.

Recently a friend and neighbor of mine in Newport Beach, whose name is Don Pewthers, spoke with me about his recent and long ago visits to Dachau, and how they compared. I asked him to write them down so that I could share them with you, and he agreed. So the following comes from my friend Don, with a few edits from me:

This past summer my wife, Carole, and I were planning an extended trip to Europe. I wanted her to experience Bavaria, as she had not been there. It was suggested that we include a visit to the Dachau Concentration Camp near Munich. I was opposed.

In 1960, as a recent college graduate, I traveled in Europe for several months and spent a lot of time in Germany, where I had an American lady friend. Driving to Munich from Stuttgart, I had seen a small road sign which said "Dachau 10 km." We decided to visit as I had just finished reading a book on Adolf Eichmann and was interested.

When we arrived at the camp, we found that we were in the area where the gas chambers, the cremation ovens, and a mound with pansies in the form of the Star of David were located. The mound, a circle of some 25 feet across and four feet high, contained the ashes of 6,000 Jews who had been cremated. We were the only people visiting at that time. It was very emotional to enter the area where so many had died. You could see the barn-like building where families undressed, hung up their clothing, and prepared for a "shower," during which they were gassed to death.

After the shower, doors on each end of the barn were opened and bulldozers were used to push the bodies out of the chamber to the crematoriums a short distance away. There were two of these crematoriums with ovens that would accommodate about 12people at a time, with four in one and eight in the other. It was a very emotional experience and one that I did not want to repeat or expose my wife to. I was shocked that people who were my ancestors could be a part of this.

So now, in planning for our upcoming trip, I contacted an old college teammate and friend who has a business based in Munich, but lives in Atherton, Calif., most of the time. When the subject of Dachau came up he recommended that we add it to our plans. He said it was very interesting, etc. On his recommendation we planned for the visit. I had covered all of the gory details with my wife to prepare her for the visit.

But when we arrived there we found almost a "Disney World" atmosphere. There was a very pretty park-like walk from the parking area to the entrance where we were greeted at a reception area and given Audio guides. We noted that there was a restaurant and lots of high school age students who were there on an "outing," eating ice cream and enjoying a fun time. We started on the tour, which took us through the museum in what had been the administration building. They had the usual pictures we had seen since World War II, but most of the pictures were of people who were alive. We heard a recording of the prisoners' choir, saw the chess sets that the prisoners used, and were told that there were "comfort women" for the "good" prisoner workers. It sounded like a summer camp.

The barracks had been removed with the exception of two that had been left "as an example." The conditions in the barracks at the time must have been horrible. The bunks were constructed three high and nine across to accommodate 27 prisoners. But because the camp was designed for 8,000 to 10,000 prisoners, and there were 30,000 in the camp, three people had to sleep in the same bunk. The bathroom was open with 12t people using the toilets at the same time. Privacy was non-existent.

I was unable to locate what I had seen on my prior visit, so I asked about the gas chamber, crematorium, and the mound in which 6,000 people were buried. I was told that they were at the far end of the compound several hundred yards away. We would find a gate to that area. One of the crematoriums had been removed. We were told they were "experimental." The mound had been removed as well because it was "too stressful" for the local people.

It was stressful emotionally to think that human beings could commit crimes of this nature on other humans. Dachau was the first of these camps. It was constructed in 1933; the same year Hitler was elected chancellor. It could happen again, even in America.

After we returned from our trip, I had an opportunity to visit with my college friend who had suggested we visit Dachau. When I told him our impressions, he said that there is now a movement to remove the remaining parts of the camp. He said his son is married to a German girl and they live in Munich. He added that the attitude of the young people now is that anything that happened so long ago was done by their great-great grandparents and not something related to them. Naturally they would like to believe that it never happened. I would, also, like to believe that it never happened — but it did happen. And I think that everyone should be reminded from time to time that it could happen again. As a history major (who obtained a master's from Stanford in 1958), I keep reminding myself that history does, in fact, repeat itself.

JAMES P. GRAY is a retired judge of the Orange County Superior Court, the author of A Voter's Handbook: Effective Solutions to America's Problems (The Forum Press, 2010), and can be contacted at or through his website at

Monday, August 2, 2010

Effective fights for freedom - by Judge Jim Gray

This week I will continue to discuss the recent Freedom Fest convention in Las Vegas, where one of the speakers was Greg Mortenson.

You probably know of Mortenson as the co-author of the book "Three Cups of Tea," which describes his experiences in building about 50 schools for boys — and girls — in mountain villages in Pakistan and Afghanistan. His new book, "Stones into Schools," provides an update on this amazing success.

Mortenson is a fairly shy, humble and self-effacing man who stumbled upon his life's work project that is bringing a measure of peace to those two troubled and unstable lands. As was descending from his attempt to climb K-2, the second highest peak in the world, Mortenson became lost, sick and disoriented, whereupon he was nursed back to health by the people of one of the villages.

In gratitude, Greg promised to come back and build them a school, which he learned, was the most closely held desire of the villagers. Thereafter he kept his promise, and that began his story.

Mortenson does it right by employing the methods I was actually taught during my training for the Peace Corps. He understands that no program will be really successful unless it addresses what we in the Peace Corps called the "felt needs" of the community.

That means that the people in the community must actually want the project, and be materially involved in the decision-making and implementation process. And then the project only has a real chance to become permanent if it will continue to prosper without us.

In that regard, during training we were told the hypothetical story of a Peace Corps Volunteer, who was asked by one of the visiting Peace Corps staff members what he had accomplished during his two years of service.

The volunteer responded by pointing to some people working in a field and growing some drought-resistant grain, which he had introduced into his village, and pointing in another direction to the people working to install a new water treatment plant that he had initiated.

Finally, he pointed to a neighboring house in which a woman was working on her loom. She was doing work for the coop he had helped to start and that weaved native cloth in traditional designs to be sold in the tourist trade. And all of this was happening while he was sitting down and having breakfast.

In his work in building schools in remote mountainous villages, Greg Mortenson considers it essential to take the time to build up relationships with the tribal elders in the communities, listen to them, work with them, and be guided by them.

And he will not build a school unless the village is completely involved by donating the land, the necessary wood and the labor. As a result, none of his schools have been attacked by the Taliban, because the elders have influence and a strong following in their villages, and the Taliban does not want to alienate the villagers.

One example he discussed involved his being approached by the elders from a remote village in Afghanistan that was heavily infiltrated and controlled by the Taliban. Nevertheless, these elders requested that he help build a school in their village. Given the location, Mortenson was naturally skeptical of being able to do this, but he invited the elders to visit a school that he had built about 50 miles from their village.

When these elders met him at the school a few weeks later, they were all dressed in robes and turbans, and each was heavily armed with a machine gun. But, as he tells it in the book, when they saw the playground, the men dropped their guns on the ground and each man started playing on the swings and slides. And it was a sight to behold, with turbans flying in the wind and big smiles all over these stately and (for us) normally terrifying-looking men.

After a full hour and a half, Mortenson told them that it was time to stop playing and to address the issue at hand. So they sat down with him and soon invited him to come to their village to discuss the building of a school. Although it would normally be quite dangerous for a Westerner to go to that area, he later traveled there safely as their guest.

When Greg arrived the village elders unanimously agreed to his terms and requested a school — as long as it would have a playground! Mortenson agreed, but remained humorously concerned that the adults would be using the swings and slides so much that they might not be available for the children.

Before he left the village, Mortenson asked the chief elder (who is almost always the one who has the most silver in his beard) why they so badly wanted a school. The man responded that when he was 12 years old, the Soviets invaded the country.

So he was pulled out of school, and taught to hate and to fight, which he had been doing ever since. Thus he never really had a childhood. But now he not only wanted to make up for his own loss, he also wanted his children to have the childhood and education that he never had.

Our government actively solicits Greg Mortenson's advice, and, as a military veteran, he gives it openly and freely. But he goes out of his way not to accept any money from our government. If he were to do that, he would be seen as an arm or instrument of the government, and that would in effect terminate his effectiveness. And unfortunately, the government does not often follow his advice about developing relationships with the elders in the various villages.

But there is no reason why each of us cannot fight for freedom like Greg Mortenson — each in our own way. Obviously most of us cannot affect an entire world, but we can be effective in the smaller worlds that we do live in. And, like Greg Mortenson, we can begin by listening better to the people around us.

JAMES P. GRAY is a retired judge of the Orange County Superior Court, the author of "A Voter's Handbook: Effective Solutions for America's Problems" (The Forum Press, 2010) and can be contacted at or via his website at