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.

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.

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.

Iowa, Nice

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This video has gone viral and is a reaction to all the negative coverage about Iowa. I have always said that Iowa plays a critical role as America’s great filter. I believe this because Iowa has the highest percentage of educated and reasonable people in the US. In fact, it is Iowa’s number one export.

When I was in New York and we had to have any kind of group interaction, the ability of the group to function predicated on a minimal number of stable, reasonable people. The reasonable persons index is basically the number of reasonable people divided by all the people in the group. A midtown modification of this is all the reasonable people and their entourage divided by the people in the room and their intended audience, but I digress.

The minimal index for a group to function in my experience is 0.20, meaning one in five of any group has to be a reasonable individual. The average New York City subway car has an index of 0.05. The average city council meeting, 0.15. The average fully loaded cab headed to three different stops on a rainy day, 0.00, my apartment, 0.50. What I noticed in various committee meetings that was part of my job back in New York was that the reasonable people were either Jamaican or from the Midwest, and of those from the Midwest, the least insane were from Iowa.

When I moved to Iowa, for obvious reasons, I realized the impact of the high reasonability index when I visited the motor vehicle department for my Iowa Driver’s license. It was packed, and there was a sign asking me to please take a number and wait for it to be called. My wife was pushing my son, then a toddler, in a stroller, and was immediately offered a seat by several reasonable Iowans, including some who needed the chair far more than my wife. As we sat, the numbers were called and the people moved up to the desk with a beautiful dignity –none of the expected sighing, looking up to the sky, and loudly complaining into the cell phone that would have been expected behavior back in New York. When our turn came, the clerk noticed I hadn’t filled out a section properly and patiently waited while I filled out the missing parts. My wife who is the typical non-patient type A New Yorker was smiling Mona Lisa-like through the whole experience –a surreal, psychedelic ethereal moment of serendipity.

The average Iowa is college educated and well read. I have a patient who is a farmer. He holds a dual masters in agricultural sciences and business. While he sits in his air-conditioned combine feeding the planet, he is trading commodity futures on his Blackberry. We had a nice discussion about the writing program at University of Iowa where his sister, a budding novelist attends. He’s skeptical of climate change, but only so far as he is skeptical of anything on the Huffington Post, but has noticed the wetter summers and is adjusting his farming accordingly. He has an investment strategy based on climate projections and economic growth data –in a name Brazil, and he has prospered. He has never visited Manhattan and sees no need to, being very comfortable in his maxed out Ford F-150 which has all the appointments of the coziest leather chair in a quiet corner of an exclusive midtown club. He doesn’t see what the fuss is about gay marriage, but is very upset about our wars abroad. He wishes the Republicans would field a more reasonable candidate, basically an Iowan like him, and is on the fence.

When candidates crash and burn on the Iowa Caucus stage, it’s usually because the Iowan reasonableness burns through the spin. Howard Dean, fun guy, would have been a terrible president and scared Iowans to death with his primal scream. And people focus on the GOP caucus which is the one place where the reasonability index falls below 0.50. You should look at the people Iowa rejected and understand what is going on. Howard Dean, John Edwards, Hilary Clinton (narrowly), Gingrich, Bachmann, Paul, Perry, Mitt Romney ‘08 and I would argue ‘12. The more I listen to Governor Huckabee, who won in ‘08, the more I respect him for his reasonableness on many issues, even though I disagree with him on some very important ones –and that is why he won in Iowa.

The caucuses are Iowa’s Exposition of American Democracy. If you show up, you vote physically by moving around the room and gathering (caucusing) for your favorite candidate. That candidate may even show up or prior to that, at your favorite lunch counter, bistro, or living room. In the hyperconnected, hypercaffeinated media world, the Iowa Caucuses are a time warp to the 19th century of mustachioed men orating on soap boxes. Given the audience that the candidates face, it is no wonder that the least reasonable just wilt. It wasn’t the internet spawned image of Bachmann fellating a corn dog at the Iowa State Fair that lost her. She lost by failing to convince Iowan’s that she deserves to lead the country. Got that? Not money, though it helps, but on fitness to lead. Isn’t that the whole point?

So as we move our attention to New Hampshire (state reasonability index of 0.02, both of them from Iowa), and South Carolina (-0.35, negative when person so unreasonable that they negate the positive of those around them, like some in-laws), I think we should all celebrate and be grateful for Iowa, America’s pith.

A Year in Two Seasons



There are two seasons in a year, winter and golf. This past golf season just came to a close as the Wakonda Club and Des Moines Golf and Country Club covered their greens this past Monday. The season opened for me with cold rainy rounds at the Legacy GC where snow banks could still be seen in the rough. It took a miraculous 2 weeks to go from three feet of snow to lush green fairways and greens at Wakonda as the past three years’ investment in turf paid off. Despite the spring rains, the grounds crew somehow managed to groom the course into playable condition day after day. As the weather stabilized, the course blossomed in mid summer and Wakonda became a destination as it hosted multiple outings and events. What impressed me was how the course recovered after heavy usage. I credit this to favorable weather, knowledgeable members, and the grounds crew under Mr. Temme.

The weather mostly favored us in the latter summer and fall, creating a bumper crop of turf. The deep root systems, now several years old, allow for nearly instantaneous recovery if properly repaired. This is where the membership came through. Despite the unrepaired ball marks and unfilled divots after bouts of heavy play, the majority of members took it upon themselves to repair all the defects they came across and not just their own. Personal observation of the #10 green showed after an outing, the green had multiple unrepaired ball marks, which after a few days of play by membership and grooming by the grounds staff was basically tournament quality within several days. This was not possible in the older greens where heavily trafficked areas were susceptible to permanent damage requiring direct returfing.

This did nothing good for my handicap because the greens rolled very fast all season. At the Broadmoor for example, they were in the process of a yearlong grooming for the Ladies’ US Open next year, and this resulted in slower greens that I could hammer at –I shot an 86 there on the high course with no 3 putts, playing with three strangers who became good friends at the end. Wakonda gave no such quarter this year.

My favorite away-course this season? DMGCC –after many years, I am beginning to appreciate some of the lumpy bumps, and more importantly the friends I have to play a round with over there. This year included discovery of a no longer used set of Maruman irons in my dad’s garage. They are very light but launch the ball very high and long. Along with these came vintage Taylormade steel hybrids with the Raylor sole plate in 15 and 19 degrees. I have hit the 15 degree as far as my three wood on occasions but can land it with sore feet on long par threes. There really is no need to buy the latest and greatest but rather stick to what works. That said, my happiest moment came with my new set of Taylormade Burner irons, a birthday gift from my wife. I was 216 yards out on Wakonda #4 after fluffing the drive. After considering my choices, I had a great feeling about my 4 iron –I was on a slight downslope and there was wind at my back. I aimed left and set up for a smidge of fade. The pin was mid green to the left. I landed on the flat on the left of the fairway and the ball rolled on and came to a stop 2 feet from the cup. The shot of the year.

The Turkey

The grocery store turkey’s evolution from the wild turkey is an echo of our journey from our wilder, free-range origins.  The wild turkey, whose intelligence caused Benjamin Franklin to recommend it for our national bird, is a far cousin of the overbred, overmedicated artifice that is the plastic wrapped bird that you plunk into your grocery cart. In the passage from our free-range origins to our over-cultivated existence, are we just overbred, overstuffed turkeys? Three things confirm this: the outsourcing of our basic food functions, the reduction of work into processes, and no reduction of stress from our surrender.

Outsourcing of Basic Food Functions

The wild turkey is known to be the most cunning of birds, requiring stealth and deceit to bring it close enough for a shot. I would assume the human in the original state of nature to be no different and no less intelligent. The urban legend is that the domesticated turkey is so stupid that they can’t be left out in the rain because they look up when hit on the head with raindrops, subsequently drowning. While this is untrue of domesticated turkeys, it may be true of domesticated humans, Homo sapiens sapiens familiaris.

We use to hunt for our food or gather it from the fields and forests. At a critical point, we domesticated the game and started farming the fruits and vegetables that sustained us, creating enough surplus calories to sustain larger populations that could then specialize in crafts, trades, and services, to where eventually the majority of the population could outsource food production to a minority of the people. If you’re lucky, you can buy a luscious apple out of season brought in by jet transport directly to your Costco from the Antipodes. This is not too much different from the turkey who willingly or unwillingly entered into the similar bargain with humans. In doing so, the turkey increased its population to an estimated 660 million turkeys currently in the world –technically a raging success on the chromosomal level. The outsourcing of the finding of food proved to be a Faustian bargain for the turkey whose life is rendered short and brutal. Depending on your outlook, the human bargain is no less Faustian because there are 6.8 billion humans, the majority of which now depend on this outsourced food production. If you are reading this on the internet, you are clearly benefiting from this arrangement. The recent economic downturn shows how easy it is to fall from the grace afforded by this system. If you can’t afford the fancy fruits, vegetables, and viands, you are stuck eating the processed corn and petroleum byproducts offered as stock feed for the masses.

 

Reduction of work into processes

Somewhere the idea of work, trade, and craft as virtuous activities became lost as the management professions became elevated. I remember having dinner right out of college with a bunch of young lawyers and consultants in Boston, none over the age of thirty. All were entrusted in some way with managing, valuing, judging, and giving advice on billions of dollars, thus affecting the lives of many people. None of these guys had really worked a day in their lives (including me except maybe stocking groceries throughout high school), but were clearly inside some kind of membrane that separated them from everyone else who did have to work for a wage and save a lifetime to afford a lifestyle that these young men were having straight out of college. One boasted that the yearly return on their fund outstripped the gross national product of whole countries, reaching for some kind of irony that I used to think was cool and now I think is depressing.

I have nothing against capitalism, and know second-hand through my parents and my wife’s parents the horrors of totalitarian communism, but there is a problem when theory trumps practice. Business management allows the reduction of any human activity into processes. The inputs and outputs of these processes can be tabulated, analyzed, and optimized. The logical end result is a human worker confinement pen like the factories in Shenzhen that make my gadgets –the workers live in dormitories adjacent to the factories allowing them to run 24/7. What we are witnessing is the ongoing triumph of totalitarian capitalism, and we’re going to either compete with China on their level or borrow furiously to maintain our relatively luxurious, free-range confinement pens. Neither is palatable to a country having just ended America’s Century in the dust cloud of falling towers.

 

No Reduction of Stress From Our Surrender

The majority of us don’t worry about food because it’s always there in the mega-mart, piled high and cheap. By surrendering our food production, we give up a load of stress but gain new ones. The ancestral stresses of hunger, climate, fear, and disease have been swapped for financial, social, and domestic stress. We outsourced our security functions to the local constabulary and our military, but rather than bask in security, we worry about terrorists at home and an endless war abroad. This stress is basically the same stress that the Thanksgiving turkey feels confined to a few square feet among thousands of other turkeys. That turkey fears not the fox, coyote, or bear, but it must feel something is terribly wrong with its world.

 

Taking It Back

The populist anti-elitism that elevated the dancing Palin against far more qualified, limber, and graceful competitors bears poorly for America’s continued excellence. The problem is not with the elites, but with the complicity of the turkeys in their continued confinement. Rather than cheap corn and petroleum based feed, they should demand the variety of diet that was available only two generations ago right out of small family farms and home vegetable gardens. Rather than dismiss food reform as the socialist dalliance of elitists, people should confront the source of their predicament.

The second half of this is the realization that the solution to outsourcing is In-Sourcing -which means work. It means that the service industry jobs that move quants and utils over the intertubes must be abandoned for work, trade, and craft. It means taking it down a notch as a society and lowering expectations while elevating living. It means a lot more people working in food production and repopulating small towns. It means reconnecting with community and family rather than moving every three years from Charlotte to Atlanta to Houston to Tampa to Denver. It means sweeping, hoeing, weeding, hunting, fishing, gathering.

Worse catastrophes have happened to people –go ask the Carthaginians when you’re in line in purgatory. People want a return to the past, to the golden age of the 50’s and early 60’s. What we’ll get is the 1920’s and 30’s. If you aren’t Howard Hughes, it’ll be a lot of work after work, with canning in the fall.

 

Holding your hand in the fire

In some parallel universe of his choosing, Dustin Johnson would be a two time major winner. Instead, by his sin of ommission, he will be burdened with the mark of Cain for the remainder of his career. Dustin Johnson tried to get away with grounding his club in a bunker on national television. That is the only conclusion I can come to after seeing the video yesterday. The players received notification prior to starting the tournament (and it was posted in the lockers) that all of the bunkers, even the ones trampled by spectators, would remain bunkers. On addressing his approach after slicing his drive to the far right, he grounded his club but then stepped away as if he noticed he made a serious mistake. He can be seen considering the situation, and he hit his shot without grounding the cub a second time.

After his round, he was brought upstairs to review the tape in a scene familiar to shoplifters and mall cops. I have no doubt that Mr. Johnson is very talented, but his narcissism was revealed for the scrutiny of the voyeurs. His profession is to compete and uphold the rules of golf. Ultimately, the golf must come from a pure place. The PGA saved itself a lot of controversy by taking care of the issue before any playoff ensued. By signing his card, Mr. Johnson signed his confession. This burden will be his albatross and may end up consuming his swing thoughts, but I doubt it. If he is to compete again at this level, he will have to be continue in his selfish, thoughtless way, with total focus on dominating and winning. Champion golfers are different from you or me, and I think Mr. Johnson will redeem himself in this world.