Spooky

 

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I have to confess that I like to scare little kids. That feeling of spookiness is one of those childhood sensations that you lose with innocence. The toddler’s wide eyes, the pursed lips, the knitted eyebrows, the scooching over to your side –these are fleeting moments that are quickly lost to school, electronics, and television. The stories I tell are more life lessons than actual tales –mostly of sad ghosts who regret telling lies, spirits who never let go of their anger, and being trapped by your own foibles. I have a feeling that I got this from my grandmother who would tell me folk tales and parables about boys who got eaten by tigers and had their faces erased by angry spirits who appeared alternately as beautiful women and sly foxes. The day the magic ends is when the kids figure out that Santa Claus doesn’t slide down the chimney and the Easter Bunny is some poor flub sweating in a smelly outfit.

Are you in?

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The generations since World War II have been separated into marketing niches of Greatest and Boomer, then X,Y, and Z, but I suspect that no set of people since Homo erectus figured out fire, speech, and monogamy, have faced as much rapid technological and cultural change as have the people born since 1950. This unmooring of cultural institutions, socioeconomic niches, and family structures is remarkable and deeply unsettling to many.
Modernity has atomized the family, but we are still the Pleistocene mammal subject to possessiveness, territoriality, and stranger anxiety. We are just a handful of base pairs removed from our mutual ancestor with the chimpanzee who kill and eat intruders. And so we naturally flock with our kind in our hominid fashion, and wish to destroy the other if they get in the way. What stops us?

Strong ideas keep us from burning witches. Ideas of justice, equality of human worth, and an appreciation of value of freedom and liberty bind us together in a common identity. These ideas are shared across borders instantaneously, usually in English, on the internet via smart phones and social media. These are rather old American ideals and should not be new to those wary of change. Instead, it is the broadening of the definition of *American* that jars people. It is an America that people are still looking towards as they overturn dictatorships and established tyrannies. We see it in the Arab Spring, in the continue march of the huddled masses to the gates, and in gay Americans fighting to achieve equal status. We witness it as a force that China is trying to subvert with overt fascism, with likely failure in the long term.

This neo-Americanism is the lingua franca of business and diplomacy. It is the common operating system that everyone demands. At home, to succeed in this new America, you have to learn how to pass for a new kind of American. It is a fact that if you make yourself smile, your brain will register positive in its happiness centers, and you will transition to happiness (try it!). If you carry a smart phone, participate in social media, and read at above elementary school level, the centers of the brain that are stimulated will drive change. Corporate HR policies, public school codes of conduct, and public social mores are aligning around and driving this change, even for older Americans who one would assume would be all for not changing. It used to be said that you are basically set in your ways by the time you are forty, but I think even that generalization is done because I increasingly see retired people with smartphones and tablets watching the latest Youtube videos and family photos on Facebook. This at least informs them about the tectonic shifts in society, and at best changes deep seated notions.

Public perceptions of gun ownership, healthcare, education, equal rights, and our relationship to the world are being debated because the minds of the people are changing. And contrary to what even the history books say, it was not the federal government and federal troops that desegregated the schools, it was We the People. The shibboleth of these times, our times, are the smart phone, social media accounts, and the networks connected by these. Are you in?

Etiquette–Doing is Being

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When my son turned 8, we enrolled him in an etiquette course at our country club. He was one of only two boys in that class, which had four times as many girls. Etiquette is as popular among boys, it seems, as ballet or gymnastics. So how is it that we teach our children, especially our boys, manners? In my experience in the Midwestern suburbs, for the presumptive future alpha males, it is through football that parents teach their boys how to behave in society.

The cult of football, which recently took a hit in the Penn State scandal, is very much the secular religion in the US, and its principles of individual sacrifice, self improvement, and group effort are laudable. The American ideals are poured into the public ethos of football. Much of America’s recent history can be viewed in a football context, explained in football metaphor, and historical events remembered like games and seasons. If you are a space alien needing education in American culture, you need only to review the past five Super Bowls’ worth of half-time shows and commercials. Football is America’s vernacular.

In watching an etiquette class, I realized that the forms and routines –how a table is laid out, how you approach the chair, which side the drinks are, which side is the meal served, what the utensils are for, etc., create the physical input to dial in behavior and ultimately etiquette. Dressing and behaving like a gentleman makes you a gentle man. Let me explain. The mind can be changed based on what you do physically. It has been shown that simply smiling increases the dopamine levels and changes your brain patterns to one that matches happiness. Yes. Smiling can make you happy.

The mind can be changed based on what you do physically… Smiling can make you happy.

Martial arts like Tae Kwon Do or Kung Fu focus a lot on forms –series of rote maneuvers that are memorized which to me as a student seemed tedious but retrospect have the effect of shaping the mind. Focusing on the forms of courtesy eventually makes you courteous. So where does football and football parenting leave us?

As far as I can tell, it teaches impressionable young boys how to dominate the weak. It confuses narcissism as self-esteem. By its nature, football cannot teach empathy, courtesy, or thoughtfulness. There is nothing wrong with this if your goals for a society are to create a core group of warrior that will fight wars, conquer nations, and pull down an eight figure salary in free agency. The unintended side effect is that you readily miss the opportunity to prevent the development of psychopathic bullies and date rapists. You only have to watch parents at football practice to understand why this is so. It is why figures like Tim Tebow are such an anomaly not only because he seems to outwardly practice courtesy, respect, and reverence. It is why Penn State was allowed to happen, because football is more important that a few little boys.

If you want to teach your child how to compete while being civilized, you can try etiquette lessons, but more practically, you can do no better than golf. The first section of the USGA Rules of Golf is focused on etiquette, but in fact, you teach your child important lessons by having them accompany you for a round on the cart. You learn to wait your turn staying respectfully silent. You learn to be timely and considerate of others in your group and in the groups ahead and behind you. You learn to be honest and to be your own referee. You learn to impose penalties on yourself for transgressions and be transparent about it. You learn to post your scores (like submitting tax returns when running for president). You learn to behave in a way that would make you proud and not ashamed.

As a nation, we need more mediocre golfers than we do washed out football players. We will be far better off for it.

Golf is a Confidence Game

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In this my last year of golf at Wakonda as a member and resident of Iowa, I had hoped to make a splash by taking a winning turn at the Wakonda Club’s annual Blazer Days tournament. Blazer Days is a member-guest best ball tournament played out over 5 nine hole matches. There are 6 teams in a flight, and this year, there were ten flights (the tournament was oversubscribed). USGA rules apply and it is organized in such a tight manner that not a single player among the gathered type A personalities (120 in all!) could complain about a single blade of grass being out of turn. The success of this tournament reflects the success of the Wakonda Club in weathering the trends of the past two decades without losing its soul as a private country club, and it has to do with three key factors. First, the golf course is kept up to world class conditions with a fierce determination. Second, aggressive marketing to the future of the club, young families, is done both loudly and quietly. Third, and finally, the club is endowed with a critical mass of Iowans who by and large are the most reasonable, generous, and sweet-minded people on this earth.

My Blazer Days started auspiciously with a practice round skins game that delivered to me a skin on the first hole with a par -the only one scored that day, and ended with a 2nd place finish in the Derby -the highlight of which was my draining a 5 footer for par in front of a crowd of about a hundred of my golfing peers. The day of the tournament started with a terrible accident. I had laid my driver on the ground carelessly and hit it with a shanked ball off a 7 iron, cracking the carbon shaft at the grip. This took out the driver which I had been nailing above 50% onto fairways within 15 minutes of starting play. I swapped out for a loaner, but largely it sealed my fate. You see, golf is a confidence game. When I stood over that 5 footer for par the previous day, I had no fear. I had been practicing 5 footers relentlessly the past two weeks and it felt like I was all alone on the green. I was only aware of the sweetness of the air I was breathing and easy sound of the putter hitting the ball on the sweet spot. The clatter of the ball falling was a prophecy come true. What is amazing is how it can all be undone with something as trivial as a broken driver. I was able to hit 5 practice balls with the loaner and got the last two drives not to slice by making small adjustments. Without good drives, it doesn’t matter that you just drained a twenty foot putt for bogey to push -you can’t make miracle shots all day against a field as good as this. With confidence gone, the tournament was largely done.

Even so, there was no question of walking off. Here was a golf obligation. Despite the heat, the dyspepsia of a 9am beer and foul balls launched off the course, I was signed on to the end -barring a calamity. I sometimes wish I could teach my sons this absolutism of golfing duty, but then again, I think that they may have too much common sense to put themselves into this situation. I then noticed something that took my mind off my personal misery -the greens were the slickest I have ever seen in my life but they were at the same time lush and green. The putted balls rolled as if on smooth marble, but the grass was soft and would stop balls on a dime if they had back spin. The rough, no deeper than 2-3 inches on the cut areas, was tenacious as velcro. The fairways were like greens on lesser courses. On certain holes where the fairways ended on greens without false fronts, it was possible to putt on from 5 to ten feet off. The pristine fairways made the course gaudy. The course may never be able to host a US Open because it is land locked and unable to be extended to 10,000 yards, but it was Olympic’s equal in my eye because it was all mine for a time.

The supremacy of the golf experience has been the first key to Wakonda’s success. Four years ago, Wakonda decided to cut down over a 150 trees, scrape off the fairways and greens, and start over because the grass was inconsistent, and in parts frankly ugly with patches of Poa and old legacy Bent grass, each having sunshine requirements and water needs not met by a course that had aged since its inception with majestic but sometimes senile oaks (never mind the climate change, cough, cough). In the setting of the worst economic crisis of a generation, when the average age of members was rising, and when most of the membership was generally satisfied with the course, the leadership shut down the golf course for a year in the pursuit of perfect, unblemished, uniformly green grass. It was a huge gamble but in retrospect, the right move. Now, several years out, the grass is not only consistently great, it is resilient. The greens staff works tireless to create a premier golf experience and the avid golfer is immediately attracted to the logic of joining a club close to work with fellow members obsessed about golf perfection and excellent golf fellowship. Wakonda is full to the brim of avid golf amateurs -people who love and respect the sport and its traditions, golfists all.

The two days of straight golf competition were gruelling but a fitting valediction to my time in Des Moines. It was beautiful and the people were great.

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Hilton Head, o beautiful muddy island.

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Hilton Head is in the news this time of year because of the golf tournament on the Harbour Town course with the iconic light house on the 18th green. It made the news yesterday because an alligator interfered with play -the golfer unfortunately didn’t take the free drop being ignorant of Hilton Head and alligator rules.

The gators on Hilton Head are hogs -fat, mean, and not shy. All the courses have gator rules as well as poisonous snake rules, and the smart golfer takes the free drop. Hilton Head is not the place where you let your toddlers roam free or they might end up free lunch. It’s only a few steps from being a malarial swamp, but it’s blessed with a strange lack of flying vermin. Few mosquitos is very nice, but the island has hedge fund managers infesting the palmettos like velociraptors clad in Tommy Hilfiger. New Yorkers it has in spades like bed bugs on a transient’s hairy knee. It’s Aspen on the tidewater, the Hamptons unburdened by its Long Island umbilical to Manhattan, a New Yorker’s semitropical Hong Kong on the South Carolina/Georgia sea coast. Hilton Head, like Boca Raton, Austin, and Charlotte, is in the South but not of it.

Hilton Head’s isolation proffers it automatic business class status compared to the economy class experience of jitney creeping to the Hamptons on a Friday evening, but really it takes about the same amount of time to get to either place from midtown. Once you arrive, you will notice that Hilton Head is culturally indistinguishable from 78th and Lexington. Sunday mornings, you would be hard pressed to tell the difference between Harbor Town and Southhampton as you hunt and gather for coffee, bagels, and the New York Times.

The sea air is a hint saltier off Montauk and Southampton. The terroir of Hilton Head is a twee riper with more ferment of low tide than is available in Long Island. The aborigines on both islands have been pushed out -on Hilton Head, the once Gullah speaking inhabitants and their white confreres commute from the mainland, unable to afford their island and its taxes. In the Hamptons, the aborigines are long gone, and the more recent inhabitants, the establishment WASP -an endangered species, survives by intermarrying with the new money like the English did with the Normans, only the invading hordes today sport last names like Cohen, Freeman, Chen, and O’Hanlon (the ethnic stereotypes, not the law firm).

When you see Harbour Town on the TV, you think about some kind of tradition, a deep south Cape Cod, but it’s all a pleasant sham. Look hard as you want for the humble shacks out of Conrack -they’re buried beneath the rusticated mini mall around Publix. You might even think the Harbour Town course is super exclusive like Augusta, but au contraire, you just need enough bank. The irony of the Masters getting annually harangued for their peculiar institutions is in the fact that Shinnecock out on Long Island, while no less exclusive and hidebound, gets off the hook because the USGA moves the target around like a 3 card Monte dealer. While it is unlikely that I will get to play on either Augusta or Shinnecock in this life, I can swing Harbour Town once every few years. That is great.

And I’ll finish with this. The Ayn Rand/Gordon Gekko creed of “Greed is good” does work in America because we lack the education and sophistication to dedicate ourselves to political ideals more sophisticated than “less taxes, less government, more God,” but once you get there, once you have arrived, after all the striving and self improving which can take generations from broken English immigrant green grocers to graduate school educated doctors and lawyers, to pretensions to establishment, you are equally bound by the other great American rule voiced by Marx (Groucho, not Karl), “I would never join a club that would have me as its member.” We’re happy to be on Hilton Head, but we know there is something better. Specifically, it’s a helicopter ride to Fisher’s Island.

Our Jackie Robinson

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Jeremy Lin is not basketball’s Tebow. He’s a barrier breaking Jackie Robinson for Asian- and Harvard-Americans. For years, all they thought we could do was be attorneys or urologists, but this shows there is more than one way to pass the rock. Now scouts will have to notice that non-black, non-Croatian dude dribbling the ball so well with the four color pen in his short pocket. Asian Harvard-Americans from Orange County to Westchester County are rejoicing. Free at last, free at last, thank God almighty, free at last.

Living Fossils

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This rock on a Pacific coast beach was weathered over thousands of years, and revealed within its sandstone this harder rock which is likely the fossilized remnant of an ancient coral or related creature. It reminded me that we have these fossils within our own DNA.

It was recently revealed that up to 2-3 percent of the genome of non-Africans have Neanderthal genes and a third human species, the Denisovans were found to be lurking. But this is just the recent past, being merely 20-50,000 year distant.

I was reviewing the lymphatic system in our bodies –it is the often overlooked third blood vessel system after arteries and veins, and its roots are older than either being present in our distant relations, the tunicates. Where arteries and veins are connected in a closed loop, the lymphatics are open to the extracellular space, and once in the past, to the ocean. This link to primitive chordates goes back nearly half a billion years.

They are now saying that there may be millions if not billions of earth like planets around middle aged stars, even in just this galaxy alone. Over cosmic time, and given those numbers of planets, it is a statistical certainty that life is common and not rare.

This feeling that life is a rare circumstance in an otherwise sterile universe has its roots in the narcissism of an idiot. The assumption that our clever ideas, petty jealousies, and unending appetites are unique is from the cosmic hayseed’s provincialism that gives certainty to the notion that a hundred years is a long time and that the universe disappears when you shut your eyes.

Starting from a single cell, our complexity is layered on like a gobstopper. Our DNA is not just a blueprint, but also a blog of life over three billion years. We are living fossils.

Addendum:

The fossil pictured above is Tiktaalik, a lobed finned fish from the Devonian. What it has that is unique is that it has a humerus, radius, and ulna along with shoulder, elbow and wrist that is the rubrik for all land vertebrates. The pattern of one bone with two distal bones are what we experience every time we eat chicken wings, and we owe  it to this class of fish which may be a direct ancestor or closely related to it.

One percent of the 1%

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From Evernote:

One percent of the 1%

The recent focus on Kim Jong Il’s lifestyle brought gasps of astonishment -he sent his sushi chef on a private jet to Japan to shop for rice cakes while his country was starving. Fact is, among the wealthy, there are the über wealthy, and among the über wealthy are the super duper wealthy whose daily budget would feed maybe a thousand families. While we do not begrudge anyone success -as this is the cornerstone of America, even the most callous person has to admit there is some injustice in North Korean society. It does not come from a lack of guns -the noncoms always outnumber the officers, and the fact that people can bribe border guards to escape means that some independent thinking occurs. The fact is that a religion, a cult of personality, sustains the vast inequality of North Korean society. Religions demand faith over logic. Directing the resources of a nation to the sustenance of a few humans at the top defies logic. It is a religious-type faith and fear of retribution, fear of apostasy and heresy, and fear of change that causes this gangrene to linger. What are the idols that drive injustice here at home? It is the belief that success comes from being favored by God and that lack of success comes from sin. It is the belief in absolutes that define religion. This idea afflicts our politics as much as the cult of personality afflicts North Korea.

The subordination of logic to dogma and its use in organizing societies is a old tradition. It gets people across desserts, oceans, and helps individuals process grief and the unfathomable concept of infinity. It is a human trait as ingrained as circling three times before bedding in a dog. Yet this kind of thinking is also used to demonize the poor, write off the sick, and rationalize the unemployed. It is extended into contempt for anything for the public good that comes from taxes -clean water, safe roads, national rail, public health, education and safety. It sanctifies success defined as wealth and therefore denigrates anything that might take away from that wealth.

In our still free society, one’s success is the result of not only hard work, but favorable circumstances, good health, and the support of people who were midwives to the success -the family and community that nurtured the individual and the society that provided the fertile ground for success. It’s the good plumbing that provided fresh water for excellent development. It’s the public safety provided community police and fire departments. It is the critical mass of excellent citizens that allow for success and justice. I think that is the message of the OWS protesters, that the people who get tasty morsels flown in for them not get protections at the cost of the people making it possible.

I wish for the new year the restoration of reason and clear thinking guided not by desire for retribution or a return to a past that never really was. I want an America where everyone has available all the opportunities while being good citizens and supporting the community, state, and country that allowed that to happen.

Social Animal Network

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We’re inherently social. It is imprinted in our nature to bond, communicated, and organize as packs. This trait, the instinct to gather, seek out each other’s company, to seek approval, to argue, I would argue, is as much a distinguishing species characteristic as spots on a Dalmatian, and is one of the reasons for the explosive growth of Facebook. We, each of us, need to be part of a tribe, and when the tribes were destroyed by the onset of modernity, they awaited a mechanism to be reunited. Think about it –up to the 2000’s, people had to rely on the usual methods of connecting with their old tribe –telephone, email, actual contact which relied on deliberately remembering to keep in touch which none of us were really good at. The casual intimacy of living in a village with a commons, of having a favorite popular coffee shop, a dorm common room, when you move on the people you said hello to moved on as well. Now they follow you forever in Facebook.

It may or may not be a good thing, because if you have a village, even a virtual one, there will be a village idiot or two (I may be the village idiot). I have become reintroduced to my best friend from kindergarten and there are eerily similar things that we are passionate for –coffee, scatological extraversion, and Apple worship, that brings daily a smile. The shy quiet girl who sat in the back corner of high school English class turns out to be a world class smarty pants –a nicely maturing red wine with a kick in the middle and a lingering finish. I’ve even made new dear friends among friends of friends. They occupy my particular village, some I speak to every day, some every once in a while. It’s the tribe I’ve accumulated over the decades.

It also has implications beyond the sharing of holiday pictures and links to funny cat videos. It returns us to a kind of social organization that was only possible when people physically lived in villages and neighborhoods. The outside world is invited in by the denizens of these villages, but the human tendency is to be insular within the family, the tribe, the village. It may not seem like a big deal to us living in a constitutional republic, but when Facebook is available to those living in places less free, their time amongst their friends must be as important as air and water. Facebook has created a virtual planet for us to inhabit, a brave new world.