I Don’t Know a Single Person on This Earth Anymore…Not One

The below essay was written by a childhood friend of mine, Louis M. Profeta, M.D., who is now an emergency room physician in my hometown of Indianapolis, Indiana. It’s worth a read:

I couldn’t get him out of my mind. He woke me up at 2 a.m. and I paced the room, blew my nose and stared into my bathroom mirror studying my own aging features. He wasn’t my patient.

He belonged to my emergency physician colleague, Dr. Brian Thomas Fletcher M.D., who posted the case for some of us to read. It simply stated, “Saddest case ever.”

95-year-old male comes in for suicidal ideation. When asked why, he said, “My last friend died last week. I don’t know one single person on this earth anymore. Not one.”

My heart stopped when I read it, pausing a few beats perhaps, but I’m fairly certain it stopped. Now, the words woke me up.

I tilted my head under the faucet and took a long drink and laid back down. I didn’t take care of him but I could see him. Thin, balding in a shirt and slacks that once covered a robust six-foot frame now five-nine, a face etched by more than 34,000 sunrises that perhaps saw the decks of a destroyer, or the inside of a bomber somewhere over the Pacific or Italy. His silver, wire-rimmed frames magnify eyes with wrinkles that held tears for perhaps the first time in years, the last being when he buried his wife.

He looks off to the side, staring past the wall and reaches in his pocket and wipes his face with a handkerchief, and I hear him say to the wall since it will listen:

“I don’t know a single person on this earth anymore, not one.”

And the wall stays silent, but I can see Dr. Fletcher as he lowers his clipboard, swallows hard and briefly holds his breath trying to figure out the words. What is there really to say? Like all of us, he thinks to himself, “We failed you.”

Some years back, I wrote a piece that went viral, “Your Kid and My Kid Are Not Playing in the Pros,” and I got more than a thousand e-mails about the article. Most were supportive, some not, but what I was completely unprepared for was the correspondence I received from grandparents. For the most part, they were all absolutely heartbreaking. The central theme was that they did not know their grandchildren because travel sports had robbed them of weekends and Sunday night dinners and countless other opportunities to interact. Going to their baseball games in the middle of the summer — or sitting in a loud gym — was just not a bonding experience for them; it was physically exhausting. Besides, you can’t talk about rationing sugar during the war, or marching on the mall, or sitting through the Watergate hearings between timeouts. It doesn’t work like that, that’s not enough.

“I want to teach him how to make pickles, just like my grandmother taught me…how to needlepoint, how to build a chair, or change the oil. I want to tell her about the time I was a little girl and made my own clothes, or how to play gin rummy. I want to go fishing, or show him the books I read when I was 10 because I still have them. I want to tell them about stamps, and record players, and how Elvis took the world by storm. I want to talk about Jim Crow and Tuskegee and jazz and how to make greens and about the time we all sat transfixed trying to figure out who shot J.R.”

But as worlds do, the world changes, but it seems of late that while we spend our days lamenting the fracturing of the polar icecaps, we pass over the fracturing of the generations and we are leaving many staring at the wall and thinking to themselves:

“I don’t know a single person on this earth, not one.”

I know sadness. I know depression. Who hasn’t? I know fear; real fear and the feeling that there is no possible way things can get better (although they usually do eventually). But what I realize is one thing I do not know is loneliness: true deep, dark, all encompassing loneliness has blessedly never been with me. Brian’s words burned into my eyes and I thought of the thousands of elderly we see in our ER every year and the millions that must be shuttered behind countless doors that we drive by every day, how many of them are sitting in faux leather recliners, peeking through the shutters perhaps and watching a neighbor they do not know, play with their child and wishing to themselves:

“I’d like to tell her about Elvis or teach him to make pickles.”

The Sheppard Law Firm has its main in Fort Myers and also in Naples by appointment.

© 2017 Craig R. Hersch. Originally published in the Sanibel Island Sun.

Adapting: Technology and Wealth

As an estate planner, it is fascinating to me to see how some have acquired their wealth. When I began my career, many “wealthy” families had earned it the standard way, through careers, businesses and salting away a significant portion of their income.

It is even more fascinating to see how the rules of the game have changed so very much in the last several years. By that I mean solid businesses and careers can implode by becoming obsolete overnight. The microchip and the technological advances it offers has changed our society. Those who keep up with technology and incorporate it into their careers and businesses prosper. Those who don’t suffer.

And that’s because the microchip has caused many businesses and careers to fall victim to the “commoditization trap.” The commoditization trap, simply put, is the perception that the goods or services that your business offers are the same (a commodity) as any of your competitors. You see this most often today when shopping for goods. You might look in the bricks and mortar store but then go on the internet to find whatever you are looking for at a cheaper price.

And it isn’t limited to goods. Services are being commoditized too. Why should I pay the stockbroker his normal commission when I can trade for $6 on the internet?  Why should I pay the CPA to prepare my tax return when I can prepare my own for free using a web site? Why do I pay an estate planning attorney when I can prepare my documents on the internet for a fraction of the cost?

But there is a way for both businesses and service professionals to break free of the commoditization trap. They must first recognize the trap exists and then embrace the same technology that produces the gap in order to create unique, personalized value that consumers will flock to. Where everything looks the same, people search for someone who can provide three things – leadership, relationship and creativity. Those are elements that no computer can replicate.

Leadership, relationship and creativity enhance the consumer’s comfort, clarity and confidence.  Whether the decision involves which new car to purchase or how best to balance one’s investment portfolio, those that can help the consumer zero in on what’s most important to him or her will find success.

What this means is that it is the consumer and not the producer that drives our economy.  Large institutions – whether they are government bureaucracies or private enterprise – can no longer dictate how we live our lives. The old days of companies dictating what the consumer wants are over.

Take the music industry as an example. When I was a kid in the 1970s, if I wanted to buy a song that I heard on the radio, I would have to purchase the whole album for $15 or so.  That was a lot of money in the 1970s. Even though I only liked the one song but had to purchase the package – this was the way that the music industry packaged its product. The consumer had very little choice. Moreover, the artist got paid a tiny fraction of the album price. The music labels, agents and distributors got the lion’s share of the profit.

Today, if I hear a song that I like on the radio, I can go onto iTunes and purchase that song for $1.29 or less. I don’t have to purchase the entire album. Moreover, the artist realizes a much larger percentage of the revenue. He or she can upload his work into iTunes without the need for a record industry label. This is a consumer-driven (bottom-up) economic model. The record labels aren’t largely the players in the industry anymore. Without the microchip this wouldn’t be possible.

Another example can be found in the travel industry. When was the last time that you used a travel agent to book an airfare, hotel or rental cars? Consumers largely drive the travel industry economy. You can easily research destinations, read reviews posted by other travelers and decide on your itinerary from the comfort of your living room sofa. All driven by the microchip.

I can customize an automobile from the internet, design my own running shoes or even order custom golf clubs and have them delivered to my home within a few days. The companies that realize we are in an individual-oriented personal design economy prosper. They have circumvented the commoditization trap by offering unique-personalized fare utilizing the same technology that drives their competitors out of business.

These can be scary times for those who don’t adapt. But they also offer unlimited economic opportunity for those who understand the challenges and are willing to use technology to their advantage.

The Sheppard Law Firm has its main in Fort Myers and also in Naples by appointment.

© 2017 Craig R. Hersch. Originally published in the Sanibel Island Sun.

The Story of Uncle Benny

In my wife’s family lore they tell the story from many years ago about Uncle Benny who didn’t trust his doctors. One day Benny experienced crushing chest pains and was rushed by ambulance to the hospital. His wife and a host of other close relatives chased in a car behind. Once examined in the emergency room, he was transferred to a regular hospital room.

It seemed like eternity until a doctor arrived. The family nervously gathered around Benny’s bed while the doctor looked at everyone and smiled. “I have good news, Benny!” the doctor exclaimed. “You didn’t suffer a heart attack! You might have had gas or something else, but you’re just fine. It will take a few minutes but as soon as we process the paperwork you’ll be released to go home.”

Everyone in the room exhaled, chattering away with pleasure over the news. But not Benny.

As soon as the doctor left the room, he picked up the telephone and dialed zero on the rotary dial to reach the hospital receptionist.

“What are you doing, Benny?” his wife hollered at him.

“Shush!” Benny waved his hand in her direction pressing the receiver to his ear. “Hello? Is this the hospital receptionist?” Benny shouted into the telephone. “Tell me please. What is the condition of a patient you have by the name of Bernard Leber? ……CRITICAL!? CRITICAL YOU SAY?!?!?”

You see, Benny didn’t believe his doctor and instead chose to call the front desk of the hospital to see what condition they had him listed in. That was back in the day when you could call a hospital’s switchboard and find out a patient’s condition simply by asking.  Benny’s condition hadn’t been updated yet, and he believed what the receptionist told him over what the doctor had said.

There wouldn’t be such a funny story if Benny had been in a hospital today. The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) prohibits doctors and hospitals from discussing anyone’s medical condition or history without that person signing a release. When you go to your doctor’s office these days you are typically asked to sign such a release naming the individuals the doctor is allowed to talk to without violating your privacy rights.

To violate HIPAA could result in the doctor or hospital committing a federal crime. Which leads me to today’s estate planning topic – and that is the important document that everyone should have as a part of their estate plan – the general HIPAA waiver and release.

Suppose that you are in an automobile accident. If you are rushed to the hospital and are unable to sign that hospital’s HIPAA waiver, then the doctors and other hospital support personnel are prohibited under federal law from discussing your condition even with your spouse or children. I would agree that this law is overzealous and borders on silly – but that’s what we have.

And if you don’t believe that a hospital would limit your spouse’s access to you in such an event – take it from me – they will. You see, thirteen years ago while alone on training ride on my bicycle, a car hit me. I was actually on the Summerlin Road bike path and not on the street itself when a car coming in or going out of a subdivision caused me to crash.

I don’t remember much about the accident. Whoever hit me fled the scene. A Good Samaritan must have called 911 – I was unconscious – and I was eventually rushed by helicopter to the Lee Memorial Trauma Center downtown. I had suffered skull fractures (my bicycle helmet saved my life) and was bleeding out of my ears.  I was a John Doe in the helicopter since no one looked in my bike’s saddlebag where I kept a health insurance card exactly for this scenario.  Eventually I was able to tell them Patti’s name and cell phone number. She got a very scary call and rushed to the hospital.

Where they wouldn’t let her see me.

Why? Because I hadn’t signed a HIPAA waiver! I was semi-conscious being treated in the emergency room.  But since I hadn’t signed a HIPAA waiver they wouldn’t let her in to talk to the doctors or to learn exactly what my condition was.

Luckily I have good friends who are doctors who also rushed to the ER and let Patti know what was going on. But it was frustrating for her.

After that incident I decided to include in my client’s general estate planning portfolio a standard HIPAA waiver and secure, mobile access to that waiver that allows each client to list any and all individuals he or she would want to receive their health status from doctors and hospitals in case they hadn’t signed that specific hospital’s waiver.

I believe that many other estate-planning attorneys are now following this protocol. If you don’t have such a document in your planning portfolio, you might want to ask your estate-planning attorney for one.

Because unlike my wife’s Uncle Benny, your family can’t dial the hospital receptionist to learn your current condition – even if that condition isn’t exactly up to the second accurate!

The Magical Money-Making Power of Imagination

As Freeform (formerly ABC Family) is wont to do, a Harry Potter marathon aired this week, and I got to thinking. The last installment of the Harry Potter films was released a six years ago this month – which I can remember raised an interesting dinner conversation that that film’s debut sparked between me, my wife and our three daughters. “What do you think,” I began, “about the fact that an immense amount of value and wealth was created by a welfare mom who hand-wrote a manuscript on a subway as she headed to work?”

My kids didn’t know what I meant by “value” so I explained further. “Value is created when someone appreciates something – be it a good meal, a good book, a movie – or even when someone might have a better job or other exciting adventure due to something that was created. Here, because J.K. Rowling’s imagination created the world of Harry Potter in written form – it spawned the books, of course – but also the movies and all sorts of things. And true value is eventually what spawns wealth.”

My daughters got excited by the idea – and caught on quickly. They identified all sorts of value that would not have otherwise been possible but for the imagination of J.K. Rowling. Daniel Radcliffe (who played Harry Potter in the feature films), for example, may not have ever become an actor. All sorts of people – from the rest of the movie cast, to publishers, to screen writers, to movie production staff – all had interesting jobs that may never have been possible but for the Harry Potter books – and Rowling’s imagination.

The new film series, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, that takes place in the same universe as Harry Potter, as well as many new books and websites are constantly cropping up.  Each stems from the imagination of this now famous author, raking in thousands of dollars every day.

Universal studios even built a replica of Hogwarts inside of its Islands of Adventure, which was recently followed by a recreation of Diagon Alley in its Universal Studios – allowing all sorts of people who visit Orlando to have an enjoyable experience, notwithstanding creating jobs for architects, builders and craftsmen. So there was likely billions of dollars created out of one divorced woman’s imagination.

My daughters started to think about others’ imaginations that had similar impact. The list goes on and on. Aside from entertainment you have those who work in technology to medicine to transportation. And, by the way – that’s why America is one of the greatest nations on earth– because our culture fosters and encourages imagination. We don’t care about how things were done under the “old way”. We are always looking for the new, improved version of things.

So how does all of this relate to estate planning? I think it does in many ways. One’s estate and financial plan could be a stamped out carbon copy of many others – or it could have an imaginative outlook that instead fosters the values, hopes and dreams of its creator.

The man who owns and runs the family business has any number of ways that he can leverage that knowledge, wealth and expertise for the next generation aside from just turning over the keys. The retiree who has the wonderful beach cottage could create a family compound that is enjoyed and valued by future generations. The man who slowly built family wealth through shrewd investment management can impart those skills with those that he loves with the use of imaginative trust provisions.

When thinking about your own planning – I would suggest that you not think about your death so much as your life. What are your hopes and dreams for yourself and your spouse? In the next three years, what do you hope to do and to accomplish? What obstacles might stand in the way of those hopes and dreams? What opportunities exist that can help you overcome those obstacles? What are your existing resources that you can capitalize on but haven’t yet?

If you were to sit down and honestly answer those questions – I would suspect that you might become excited about the future. The future would look like it harbors all sorts of possibilities – as opposed to the same old stuff you’ve been caught in over the last several years.

After you’ve done that exercise for yourself – use your imagination to the benefit of your children or if you have them – grandchildren. What are your hopes and dreams for them? What do you hope that they would accomplish? What obstacles do they have in accomplishing their dreams? What resources are at their disposal and how might you compliment those resources?

When I speak of resources, by the way, I’m not necessarily talking about financial assets or wealth. The kid who has the drive and energy to put himself through college by earning good grades, getting scholarships, working part time jobs and supplementing all of that with student loans is a kid who has used all of the available resources that he has at his disposal.

I bet that you and your family have untold value locked up in your imaginations. I hope that you can have fun tapping it sometime.

The Sheppard Law Firm has its main in Fort Myers and also in Naples by appointment.

© 2017 Craig R. Hersch. Originally published in the Sanibel Island Sun.