Etiquette–Doing is Being

SNC14648

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

20120613-122658.jpg

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.

20120613-122917.jpg

Plague, Inc. A Review

20120612-085846.jpg

This is an addictive game that takes macroeconomics, epidemiology, and microbiology, and creates an ultimately bittersweet game out of human extinction. I called my first plague Paltrow, and it defeated humanity by taking advantage of human behavior -why let a “cold” epidemic derail the London games which can spread disease to the four corners? If you make the disease a tropical one, the “developed world” ignores it. Make it go to the first world by conferring cold resistance and interest spikes in a cure. Remember not to make it too deadly at first or it won’t leave the country.

I remember in the 80’s playing blue and red team games for the government interested in seeing how some Ivy Leaguers would play out a Kobayashi Maru type WWWIII scenario. This is a red team scenario and it proves one thing -an extinction level event needs a steady hand to guide it.

20120612-085755.jpg

Hilton Head, o beautiful muddy island.

20120414-051838.jpg

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

20120211-044816.jpg

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

IMG_1524

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.

Tilted Sideways, a Colander of Death

20120118-131937.jpg

The tragedy in Italy comes so soon after our cruise vacation that I felt compelled to comment. We were passengers aboard the Ruby Princess over Christmas. It is in many respects a sister ship to the unfortunate Costa Concordia, built by the same ship builder with similar tonnage and sibling like launch dates (2006 and 2008). The thing that struck me about our voyage was this: it was very clear that the ship was well run. The ship’s commander was Commodore Giuseppe Romano, whom we briefly met. The whole ship ran with obvious discipline with the first order of business on leaving Ft. Lauderdale being an evacuation drill where we understood the series of events in the event of a disaster before the first shrimp cocktail was served. During the cruise, there were several crew based drills, and I could appreciate the importance of top down leadership.

This is further contrasted by the events last week in Italy, which will be studied extensively, not just in a court of law, but in business schools as a case study of poor leadership. Bad decisions and bad discipline compounded by the elements made this the perfect example of why we have rules and expectations about professionals and their behavior. It also is a sobering reminder of how far we’ve strayed from chivalric ideals of women and children first. In a classroom, the idea of chivalry can be seen as revanchist, antiquarian, vestigial, and oppressive, but in the scrum of a mob climbing towards a lifeboat, the reports of grown men cutting in line, stripping life jackets from pregnant women, and abandoning the disabled all headed by this captain illustrates something.

It’s the death of honor.

Iowa, Nice

qLZZ6JD0g9Y

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.