The Agony and the Ecstasy

The Agony and the Ecstasy was my favorite dish at a stylish Japanese restaurant on the Upper West Side during the ‘90’s and has stayed with me since that time as a short hand description for living. As a dish, it was tarted up with wasabi and overpriced Tokyo style curry poured onto rice, but as a metaphor, is aptly descriptive of my life as a constant outsider. What curry and wasabi agony that was offered by the dish was paired well with the moderately ecstatic Asian sweet potato humming nicely with some carrots, interposed by the mediating beef, its fat and broth filling out the dish. It was a particularly nasty looking green which gave it the look of Star Trek food, the kind that would give Scotty and McCoy fits when offered by alien dignitaries.

One of the habits that I have is that if I like a particular dish at a restaurant, I get stuck on it and will only order that same dish over and over again. The corollary to this rule is that after about two years, I stop going. Two years is about when I get tired of it. As I had mentioned in prior posts, the half life of human desire is about six months. In two years, whatever passion I had for the dish drops by four half lives or over 90%. Without a meaningful change in the dish, the natural refractoriness of my dopamine receptors kicks in –refractoriness refers to a nerves inability to give off the same intensity of signals if used again and again. The dish, once ambrosia becomes sawdust.

I am ecstatic when reveling in the new. I like the new car smell on the latest gadgets as they come out of their box, and figuring out the essence of a new surgical procedure has that same allure. New people, new surroundings, new foods –this is what gets me going. Of course, life wouldn’t be what it is without the agonies, and I engage these with the conviction that no matter how overwhelming the circumstances, brain chemistry dictates that the intensity of feelings on the agony side of things will wane too. All bleeding stops eventually, we say in the OR. So it is that life change takes about two years to settle into a steady state. A new job, a new relationship, fresh grief – any life change takes about 2 years to reach a digestible state. It took Tiger Woods two years to win again after all.

Which makes you think about marriages and how they survive romantic love. The old coffee machine that we got on our wedding day lived with us for the past 17 years. It was a Krups combination drip brew and cappuccino maker. My wife, Jennifer, says it was a metaphor for our marriage. At the start, we kept a variety of beans to grind fresh for every pot, occasionally making espresso and cappuccino, but eventually, we settled on cans of Melita Classic, which we found to be a superior ready to brew grind. At about year 7, I broke the pot, but Jen found a replacement. Two years ago, the heating element broke, but Jen managed to find a source for spare parts and she performed the necessary surgery on it to repair it. It was this year she realized that our coffee was not as good as it used to be after she tried the coffee that came out of our friends very expensive European coffee maker, and it was it some sadness we are saying goodbye to the old machine –the new one arrived from Amazon. It’s letting go of the past, accepting change, and anticipating the new that is both agonizing yet full of hope. Marriages, by definition, are rife with moments of agony and ecstasy, but when faced together with your partner, they become surmountable.

If I am to escape the fate of the old coffee maker, I have to actively engage, fearlessly renew, and aggressively freshen. Sophomore slumps are the result of passivity and laziness of the mind. Looking back on seventeen years of marriage, I can see that at some point, I was a drip coffee maker, once shiny and new, but now I am a fully automatic, self cleaning espresso machine, slightly used, but perfectly serviceable. Ciao.

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The Perfect Game

Wakond Club No. 1, from blue tees, May, 2011

The perfect game in baseball is a rarity among rarities. Only a handful of no-hitters are seen in a season of baseball, but the perfect game of 27 consecutive outs and no base runners has been achieved only 18 times in baseballs modern era. In golf, the perfect game is all 18 holes played in par or better, and it is a seemingly reachable perfection. Like a dangling fruit just out of hand’s reach, par golf sits there printed on the score card. For the majority of golfers, it is as unattainable as pitching in the major leagues.

The quixotic and perverse nature of golf is that anyone with the means can play a round where a professional tournament is held (aside from uber private locales). And during that round, the average golfer may get a glimpse of perfection in the form of a par on a famous hole, a perfect sand blast to within a foot of the cup, or a chip that clatters against the pin and settles into the hole. These transcendent moments of golf perfection are gobsmack hits of opium for the golfer that brings the poor hack coming back for more. On the score card though, these bright spots of perfection are just holes in the roof letting in shafts of celestial light. I used to keep a golf log, and over the course of two years, my best scores on every hole on my home course resulted in a perfect 72. It was in me, but I suppose I never let it out.

Woe betide the golfer who yearns for more and tried to do something about it. I have finished reading the testimony of John Richardson,  who did such a thing and is the proselytizer of the perfect. His book, Dream On: One Hack Golfer’s Challenge to Break Par in One Year (link), is an engaging story that requires golfist faith -the faith that the honesty of the player is a given and that his tale is as true as a score card submitted for handicapping at the clubhouse. It is no big fish story, John’s tale.

I find a lot of things in common with John. We are of similar age growing up in areas where golf is part of the social mesh -me in North Florida, and John in Northern Ireland. I spent many years at the now defunct Baymeadows in Jacksonville, Florida, dreaming of playing with the best while struggling to break 90. Both of us admired Seve Ballesteros and his swashbuckling approach to the game. Both of us gave up golf to become working adults -me to go to college, medical school, and postgraduate training, John to work at becoming a successful  entrepreneur. And both of us took up golf again at similar points in life, after marrying and starting families.

What is different about John was that he took his obsession and channeled it into a deliberate path to perfection. At  the start, he struggled to break 100, but within a year, he broke par. While it was no surpise, the ending of the book in the kind of ethereal round of golf that all hackers dream of, the tension and drama were there nonetheless. The great thing about the book is not necessarily the end result, but the year long journey he took. John proved that all the well worn excuses that golfers have about themselves -including mine about not letting myself be scratch, are mistaken justifications for continued hacking. In fact, whenever he fell into a rut, it was revealed to him that it was a swing error, something as elemental as grip, posture, stance, and alignment, and not always his negative thoughts. That is correct -it’s not your negative thoughts, but instead bad form and lack of practice that leave your game rotting at bogey or worse.

He does seek professional help -and I have taken this advice by taking my first lesson with our amazing new club professional, Mr. Aaron Krueger. He also sought clinical motivational advice -not a shrink, but very close, because a golfing rapture is limned by golfing madness. And he practiced. A lot. Particularly his short game.

This is like one of those miracle baseball movies you can get where some average Joe all of a sudden is throwing heat in the big leagues. I read his book with the same suspension of disbelief that I have for big fish stories, with golfing faith. It gives me hope, and a renewed sense of purpose. So what does it all mean?

I will hereby publicly declare my intention to break par by the end of next season (October 31, 2012) and bring you along with me. May good golf come walking with me and endow my ball with angel wings.

Extreme Golf

I took tax day off and played a round during an ice storm. Good for building character, playing in inclement weather is useful in testing your game against many more variables than just the usual yardage, light wind, lie, elevation, incline, etc. Add to it slickness of grip, 35mph prevailing winds, stinging rain and sleet, and hypothermia and you have a sport -Extreme Golf.

Swing 2011 v1.0

The winter is ebbing and spring’s arrival is a bird’s song chirping behind the grey fences of March. This is when my golf ambitions begin to rise, and I’m back in the golf hut for a another season’s preparation. My swing is much better than it was several years ago when I began this blog, but the real barrier to lowering my handicap was never ball striking, but rather the short grass and the grey matter. I’ve studied books on mind-spirit-action-golf, taken lessons from great masters of the game, and have electronically tracked and analyzed every aspect of my game. This year, I’m just going to go at it with just me, the sticks, and the tiny white ball. What’s promising about this approach -dumping several 15 footers for par over a weekend in a warmer part of our country a while back and managing my game for 2-3 strokes onto the green with twenty year old clubs that weren’t my own -my first round since last fall with no warmup or practice from the tips on an unfamiliar and challenging course I shot a 96 with three triple bogies. Just swing.

 

Lady Gaga is …Meadow Soprano!

I watched network television for the first time in years on Grammy night. In the lead up to the show, I caught the Anderson Cooper interview of Lady Gaga. I have been a big fan since her first album, and have always thought that her music was the thinking man’s pop music. Cooper notes in his interview that Gaga never looks the same twice, and it is true. Watching her music videos, not only her costumes change but her look changes, many times in the same video.

Gaga complained in the interview that photographers are always asking for her to show her real self. Without any irony, she points out she is sitting in lingerie with just eyeliner on for Cooper, and even here, it’s hard to see what she really looks like. She has perfected the mask of fame. What we really yearn for is a kind of candid Gaga photo of her sitting in a pink polo shirt and Bermudas drinking a gin and tonic with just some

minimal eye liner, natural lighting – something to connect her to our mundane self. She understands this and studiously avoids ever assuming she is off camera.

So we have to go to the source. Youtube only hints at her underlying self, and what comes out is a basically attractive young Italian-American woman (right) who went to private Catholic school and NYU.It is very hard to link this picture with the mostly nude pop superstar being interviewed by Cooper, but then a light went off.

In this season of golf senescence, I had taken to watching the whole of The Sopranos from Netflix, and the truth came to me. Gaga is Meadow Soprano (Jamie-Lynn Sigler, to left).  The face, the complexion, the eyes, all line up. It’s as if Meadow, instead of pursuing law, decided to go into performance art. Even more surprisingly, the internet rumor is that a young Stephanie Germanotta is has a cameo appearance as a high school girl watching Anthony, Jr., swimming in the 3rd Season episode, The Telltale Moozadell. 

Gaga takes these underlying bones and transforms herself with not only her masquerade and costume parade, but had some transformational moment where she decided she would no longer be just Stephanie Germanotta, NYU coed with a lot of fallback plans.

That was the question Cooper failed to ask.

 

Addendum:

I was watching the episode and found her -she is indeed in the scene as one of the girls on the bleacher smoking cigarettes and eating pizza while Anthony Jr., and a bunch of boys vandalize the school pool.

She enters the scene and it’s hard to tell if it really is Stephanie Germanotta, but as the camera pans away from her, you see Gaga revealed. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

 

The Flood

Genesis 9:17 So God said to Noah, “This is the sign of the covenant I have established between me and all life on the earth.”

As the waters rise, as the scientists warn, as Greenland is growing its own lettuce for the first time, the response from many Americans is basically some variation of the above verse from Genesis, where God reassures Noah that, no, I will not fill the world with water and make every living creature live on a Neolithic barge. Again.

The Reverend Timothy Keller, PhD, pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in NY, NY, wrote a wonderful essay on threading the needle between modern science and orthodox Christianity (link to essay http://www.biologos.org/uploads/projects/Keller_white_paper.pdf) where in a style which I learned to appreciate, he spells out the basic problems in a tripartite apologia –his preferred format for preaching to the yuppies. He writes:

Question #1: If God used evolution to create, then we can’t take Genesis 1 literally, and if we can’t do that, why take any other part of the Bible literally?

Answer: The way to respect the authority of the Biblical writers is to take them as they want to be taken. Sometimes they want to be taken literally, sometimes they don’t. We must listen to them, not impose our thinking and agenda on them.

Question#2: If biological evolution is true—does that mean that we are just animals driven by our genes, and everything about us can be explained by natural selection?

Answer: No. Belief in evolution as a biological process is not the same as belief in evolution as a world- view.

Question #3: If biological evolution is true and there was no historical Adam and Eve how can we know where sin and suffering came from?

Answer: Belief in evolution can be compatible with a belief in an historical fall and a literal Adam and Eve. There are many unanswered questions around this issue and so Christians who believe God used evolution must be open to one another’s views.

The response from the bench is predictable as this dispute between literalists and the interpreters predates Christianity. This dichotomy is likely a manifestation of human speech and all the neurologic wiring that entails. I can imagine this conversation between Erg and !Kerg, two chatty Australopithecines.

Erg: When the great Mother cried her tears and made the seas in ten days and she laid down to become the great Mother mountain yonder, that would mean that she would have had to cry about 1/10th of the volume of the world’s waters in a day… That’s a lot of water. Could this mean that a day in Her time was much longer than a day is now? Could this mean that she was much bigger once and made bigger tears and shrank to become the Mother mountain? Could…

!Kerg clubs Erg.

The commentary from the literalists on Dr. Keller’s essay ranges from, “…Professor Keller is trying to square the circle…[scripture quotes]…and therefore the day in Genesis is clearly 24 hours” to “club!” While I concede that many New Yorkers would welcome the opportunity to live in the belly of a whale, most thinking people scratch their heads and think that Hansel and Gretel’s cannibal witch is far more grounded in reality than a cetacean studio.

The fact and reality of science and modernity puts a great deal of pressure on an unchanging orthodoxy. Those most willing and capable of thoughtful change are never in the majority. The Malthusian concept could just as easily apply to this: the educated breed arithmetically while the orthodox breed geometrically.

Time and again, when learning and education flower, the bright lights of the world are drowned out by a flood of fear and ignorance. The execution of the Chinese scholars, the torching of the Alexandrine library, the sacking of Irish monastaries, Galileo, Darwin, and Rushdie –these are the normal patterns. When the creators of South Park have to stop their series mid-season to be censored by the orthodox of several religions in a country that places free speech before all other rights except the right not to have Congress establish a state religion, it confirms that before the great flood, there is an even greater flood of intolerance, narrow-mindedness, and incivility.

May God keep you and bless you, if you so tend to believe.