Tuesday, December 27, 2011

The Visibility of Man

The title of this post is a combined reference to two very different works of fiction: Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man and Chuck Klosterman's The Visible Man.  The former I read decades ago and remember only vaguely as the eye-opening story (at least for a white girl from the suburbs) of being black, and therefore metaphorically invisible, in racist mid-century America.  The latter I read about a month ago and remember somewhat less vaguely as the story of a rogue government scientist who absconds with top-secret cloaking technology that allows him to be literally invisible for long periods of time. 

Whereas Ellison's book means to spotlight larger societal values and norms (and dysfunctions) that can cause the lives of an entire population to go unseen, unrecognized and unacknowledged, Klosterman's book inverts the spyglass and looks inward to the private spaces each of us inhabits when we are alone.  Through a series of bizarre events that are recounted in a psychologist's office in Austin, Texas, Klosterman explores the idea of what a person might observe if he or she had the ability to peer into our private moments; to watch and observe people in their own homes and apartments, completely unnoticed.

The idea of invisibility and what you could do with it is a big one.  Once you load this thought into your brain and then launch it with the bizarrely compelling tales that Klosterman provides, it is nearly impossible not to hit the flashing, red "TURBO" button that your imagination has illuminated off to the side of the story and blast off into your own universe of "what if."  I mean, for some of us, this idea could take up hours, days, even weeks of time that is meant to be spent reading legal briefs or making dinner or sleeping.

In an election year, the temptation to drop-in on some of our notable presidential candidates, for example, would be irresistible.  One could imagine going to Rick Perry's campaign headquarters, say, and watching the staff watching him during a debate -- the head-slapping, strings of expletives and eye-rolling would have to be of rarely seen proportions, right?  Or to see his handlers readying him backstage, checking to be sure his shoes are tied and that his bus number is pinned inside his jacket.  Or what about hanging out with Michelle and Marcus Bachmann?  Her denial seems pretty firmly anchored from what I can tell, but you never know.  Maybe they pray away the gay together every night on bended knee in flannel jammies next to their respective twin beds.

And presidential politics is just the beginning.  I mean, a person with the power of invisibility could go to Twins' games for free, figure out which house in Palm Desert is Jerry Weintraub's without provoking a swarm of golf cart driving private security staff buzzing up the driveway, and really mess with Tim Tebow.  Such a person could also totally hangout backstage or even on stage at First Ave as much as they wanted.  He, or she, could see how Jeff Tweedy writes a song or Joan Didion writes a book or how Tina Fey writes a T.V. show. 

After a few weeks of pondering the possibilities, though, it seemed like eventually it wouldn't be all that much fun to just be an observer.  You could go to the Twins games, but you couldn't order a beer or yell at the ump for calling a ball a strike.  Plus, invading the privacy of others isn't really anything I've ever aspired to.  As much as it would be interesting to see and observe what is behind a few individual curtains for a short period of time, the real intrigue, I think, is the reality that there are such curtains.  That we all have some sort of barrier between our public and private selves.  For some it would appear to be a gauzy film of the sheerest variety with no desire to really conceal anything at all (e.g., Snooki), and for others it might be the thickest, darkest brocade behind which lies a version of the Berlin Wall complete with armed guards and fiercely gnashing canines ready to be released at the slightest fingering of the velvet (e.g., J.D. Salinger from 1965-2010).

Regardless of the nature and design of your particular curtain, I am fairly confident that, to some degree, we are all different when we are by ourselves.  That when alone and unobserved, some of us are crotch-scratching, nose-picking, gas-releasing, Hoarder's-watching freaks.  That we still experience some amount of personal invisibility in that we cannot really be ourselves except in solitude.  Or, stated differently, we cannot be some part of ourselves when we are with each other.

We have certainly come a long way from the world Ellison showed us in bridging the gap between private reality and public acceptability.  In large parts of this country, or at least the major metropolitan areas, one can be minority and/or female and/or LGBT and still find many types of gainful employment while sitting in any seat on the bus that takes you there.  But the hippie in me that wants to buy the world a Coke and keep it company was thinking that for as much progress as we have made in advancing the boundaries of tolerance and acceptance and visibility, there is still progress to be made even here in one of the freest of societies. 

So, with this idea of tolerance and acceptance in my head, I trotted off to yoga one recent evening.  A little bit of namaste can go a long way towards expanding my own capacity for patience and tolerance, I've found, at least when it comes to my own family, so what better place to go and contemplate personal visibility and invisibility.

I set up my mat in my usual spot, arranged the small towels the gym provides for mopping up sweat just so next to my water bottle, and stretched and readied myself for The Practice. Now, while I enjoy yoga a lot and attend yoga classes regularly, I feel compelled to explain that I do not really speak yoga or go all-in for some of the attendant aspects of yoga, like the business with the third eye and the various chakras.  I'm not dissing them, I'm just saying that I enjoy a good yoga class mostly for the exceptional physical and mental discipline it instills, not to mention the sweat and muscles it produces.  I like it and do my best to learn from it, but I have not adopted it wholesale as a personal philosophy or lifestyle.  In other words, I do not consider myself a yoga Nazi, but you may need to be the judge of that.

As I am waiting for class to begin I can't help but notice that a huge dude has set himself up near me.  He was huge in the sense of huge.  Just built on a different scale than most of us.  Thicker, taller, wider, huger.   A really thick-cut piece of bacon.  So fine, whatever.  I have nothing against dudes in yoga.  Not even fantastically huge dudes.  In fact, the yoga classes at my gym are often 30-40% men.  The workout is legit and the word is getting out.  Plus, the hot part has you sweating your face off.  It is not for sissies.

After noting his hugeness, I was all zen and acceptance.  "Good for you, huge dude," I thought to myself.  Because I like to think I know what it is like to be off type.  To show-up for something and not be in the physical form, or of the gender, that others might have been expecting.  So, "good for you, huge dude."

But then I noticed the unusually loud breathing and the tendency towards grunting when stretching.  Surely this would cease once class began.  It didn't.  In fact, as the class gained heat and momentum the grunting was audible across the room.  Even those of us who do our best to heed the instructor's urging to engage in ujjayi pranayama breathing (also know as "oceanic breath" or sometimes as Darth Vader breathing) could hear the sporadic grunting over the rolling waves of breath.  But still, I tried to quiet myself and remember, "good for you, huge dude."

Then, at some point in the middle of class, I became aware of some very bad air that seemed to have been leaked.  As no warning sound preceded the release, I cannot identify the perpetrator as either Huge Dude or Not Huge Dude.  But it was at that moment that I realized my desire to make room in public for other people's private selves had reached a very precipitous edge.

"People," I thought to myself, "this is not your own private yoga class!  You need to clench and hold that sh*t in.  That is what the sphincter is for and I will not be having bad air in my yoga class.  No matter how at peace you are with your body, I am not at peace with those aspects of your body."

I left class that day with a less idealized notion of what the world might be like if we were all as comfortable on the other side of our private curtains as we are behind them.  And it did not smell good.

So what I'm saying is, I fully respect and support your right to be a visible and recognized member of society no matter your race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, political affiliation or love of the New York Yankees (though that last one is particularly difficult to abide).  I respect your right to scratch yourself and watch bad television in the privacy of your own home.  But when you show-up for yoga, just please rein it back in a little. 


Sunday, December 11, 2011

A Few of My Favorite Things

Most human beings have an almost infinite capacity for taking things for granted.  ~Aldous Huxley

I know we have already passed the officially sanctioned time for annual thankfulness, but all that football and turkey drenched in gravy makes it kind of hard to concentrate and focus on the not taking things for granted part.  Sometimes it is better to wait until the din of Thanksgiving toasts and proclamations has died down before gently tinging one's blogging fork against the crystal goblet of the internet.  Also, I might have started drafting this before Thanksgiving, but only managed to finish it just now. 

In the spirit of not wanting to take things for granted, I decided to take stock of the bounty and good fortune I have in my life; the things without which my life would undoubtedly be very different, and not for the better.  I am, of course, grateful for my eyesight and hearing, though I have often wondered if my speaking voice is audible as my children never seem to hear it.  I am appreciative that I have a job, a healthy family and health insurance in case that changes.  It's also quite nice to have friends, take vacations, be literate, not be ashamed of my President and enjoy the benefits of Amazon Prime membership.  But when you peel it all away and really get down to it, there are some fundamental elements that are the bedrock of it all:

Comfortable shoes:  Think about it.  How miserable would your life be if your foundational footwear was faulty?  Pretty miserable.  Being a double-X, chromosomally speaking, I am indeed inclined toward the love of shoes, but I have never been able to sacrifice comfort for glamor or sex appeal.  While I confess to owning many more shoes than I have feet, they were all selected with comfort as the chief criterion.  Stated differently: Nothing in my closet is likely to also be found in Snooki's closet, which is a good thing because such a collision of cobbler matter and anti-matter would annihilate us all instantly.

But just because I don't own any eight inch Manolo Blahniks, doesn't mean I don't appreciate quality footwear.  To the contrary, I am a big fan of shoes.  I wear them every day.  My favorite shoes at the moment are My Adidas:

There's so much to love about these shoes it's hard to know where to begin.  Not only are they gray with the trademarked white stripes and accented with a hint of lime green (which happens to be one of my favorite colors), but they are lightweight, good for sporty activities and pretty much an all around kick-ass pair of shoes.  They are particularly good at standing for long periods of time at First Avenue and in running around the lakes and trails of Minneapolis.  If I could wear them to work every day, I would. 

My other favorite pair of shoes is this pair:

They are by Donald Pliner and they are exactly what a non-Adidas pair of shoes should be.  In the summer, I do wear them to work every day.  I'm not kidding.  Ask anyone in my office and they will tell you.  I don't care if it is socially inappropriate to wear the same shoes nearly every day for an entire season.  If you had these shoes and wore them you would understand and then it wouldn't be inappropriate anymore because we would rise up and revolt until the social appropriateness czar was toppled and flogged and then we would be free, and light and goodness and comfortable shoes would finally rain down on all of us.  I have lots of other pairs of shoes that I really like too, but in the event of a fire, these are the two pairs that I'm going to grab before we bolt for the neighbor's house.

Carbohydrates:   Bread and its brethren have been badly abused in these carnivorous, protein-centric times we live in.  But I am steadfast in my carbohydrate devotion.  I heart carbs deeply and refuse to repent.  I don't care if all of you Adkins-Zone-aholics out there are having seizures at the very thought of a life filled with flour, gluten and yeasty goodness.  I really don't.  You can have your protein-filled hunks of flesh without a bun and I will have mine on a nice, fluffy, lightly toasted kaiser roll.  Or maybe I'll have a baguette with cheese or a big bowl of cereal or pasta.  Someday, I might actually dedicate an entire blog post to my love of cereal and peanut butter & jelly on toast.  (I know you won't want to miss that so I'll be sure to alert you in advance.)  Sometimes, I go to my favorite bakery in Minneapolis, Rustica, and buy several loaves of different kinds of bread, plus cookies and pastries and other flour-based items that I haven't tried before.  Just because I can.  (Note: this is where the convenience of wearing my Adidas all the time comes in handy, so that I can put down the bag of baked goods and go for a run in order to justify consuming what I have just purchased.)  I have ordered bagels from New York and luxurious loaves from Zingerman's in Ann Arbor, Michigan.  And I have never regretted it.  Oh, and by the way, my cholesterol level is something like 163.  Bam!

That stuff outside the windows:  It's pretty simple, really.  Sun + trees + blue skies + lakes + mountains + running/biking/hiking/walking/canoeing/kayaking/skiing + sweat = happiness.  Also yoga, but I do that inside during the bitterly cold Minnesota winter so as not to go completely insane.  I have also determined over a statistically valid sample period that one of the primary reasons I have not yet set my daughters out on the curb with a sign that says "Free" is that the time that would be required to pack their things and make the sign is usually already blocked for some outdoor activity or another.  So, in other words, getting outside is not only good for you, it is good for the people who live with you, especially if "you" in this case really means me.

Alcohol:  You knew it was coming.  Yes, I regularly enjoy a nice "glass of grape", as Mr. Lyle Lovett would say.  Also beer.  And some gin.  The other ones I've mostly wrecked as a result of user error in the past.  And while I know alcohol is a serious subject, my aim is precisely to avoid seriousness and boredom and drudgery and that general feeling that you have been tightened one turn too many.  A touch of fermentation can make all the difference in your evening.  It is amazing, really, how much a glass of red wine can improve your outlook on pouring the box of Annie's mac 'n' cheese into the pot of boiling water for like the sixth-gazillionth time, or explaining to your 8 year-old that she really does need to take a shower this week, or strategically sliding across the hardwood floor in your socks in an effort to beat the dog to the fresh pile of cat barf that the cat's cacophonous contortions recently expelled on the living room rug.  With a glass of wine or two in your system, all of this becomes much more entertaining.  It is possible that as a side effect, you also become much more entertaining to those around you, but I have never concerned myself with this.  Plus, it is scientifically proven that it is good for you.  At least that's the part that I read.

First Avenue:  Do you enjoy being alive?  Me too.  One of the primary reasons I enjoy being alive is that I live in the city where First Avenue is located.  First Avenue is one of the best places I've ever found for re-affirming that being alive is a pretty good gig.  Because inside First Avenue one can order a beer, chat, dance, sing, order another beer, shove the huge drunk guy off into a different trajectory, holler and whistle, sing some more, watch the social phenomenon of band-crowd banter, order another beer, sing again, go to the bathroom, feel kinship with your fellow music lovers and somehow come away from it all simultaneously exhausted and fully re-charged.  Plus, it looks like this:

And sometimes, if you are lucky, you will see someone with a highly specialized ability to express themselves take the stage and pour it all out.  If you see it coming and manage to catch it, for a fleeting, phantom moment, you will feel all of it pass right through you, and it will make you feel good inside.

The Internets:  I know they've been around for a while, the internets, but I am still grateful for them.  Perhaps it is my lack of maturity or the ease with which I am impressed, but I still think it is pretty awesome that you can sit down on your couch, open up your MacBook and instantly become your own tour guide to nearly any virtual experience you can conceive of and reduce to search terms.  From ordering groceries for next day delivery at 10 p.m. (which I do often), to paying bills, to satisfying a late-night yearning for . . . one more viewing of that e-trade baby commercial, there is content for everyone:

(Thanks to this video, my children and I now regularly mimic the baby's defiance in our house.  One might hear the following from any one of us, "Apparently, farting at the dinner table like it's no big deal is frowned upon in this establishment!")

If it weren't for the world wide web, I wouldn't know how real it was getting in the Whole Foods Parking Lot, what the Crazy Nastyass Honeybadger's approach to life was (he doesn't give a shit, he's hungry) or how to make Frosty the Cheeseball Snowman if the need should ever arise for a wintry, sadistic, cheese-food appetizer.  I also wouldn't have learned what a "murmuration" was and been able to watch this breath taking force of nature with my own eyes at 1 a.m., while still under the covers:

If I am in the mood for news of world events, I can get it no matter what the time of day.  If I am feeling blue, I can peruse the offerings on iTunes for music that is appropriately themed or search YouTube for live performances by The Shins or Cat Power.  I can research a blog post or potential vacation destination or figure out what "schwa" is so that I can help my sixth grader with her language arts homework.  And where else can you get into a heated political debate with a person you don't know and have never met, but who you would probably be perfectly nice to if introduced at a cocktail party?

But really, the best part of the internet is the part where I get to read posts from and learn things about friends, acquaintances, colleagues and even complete strangers on Facebook and Twitter.  It turns out that you are an incredibly smart, interesting, funny, insightful and inspiring group (current field of Republican presidential candidates excepted).  The breadth and diversity of passions and vocations, the shared challenges of parenting, the travel photos and status updates provide glimpses of lives and realities that would otherwise be lost to geography.  Although I now live very far away from where I grew up, online we can build and share a common neighborhood.  I can connect and engage with long lost friends from high school and college or former colleagues flung far and wide no matter on which coast, in what city or in what time zone we may each reside. 

So while I like the internets and all they connect me to day and night, what I really like is you, especially the six of you who read this blog from time to time, whoever you are.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Sometimes I Hangout with Pete Sampras

This year we spent the Thanksgiving holiday with my family in Palm Desert, California.  Palm Desert is about 20 minutes East on Highway 111 from the much more famous desert resort city of Palm Springs.  My parents now spend about half the year out in the desert, having sold the house near Pasadena, that I grew up in, many years ago when retirement meant that proximity to downtown Los Angeles was no longer important.  The days in the desert, as you might expect, are hot and sunny, and the arid, mountainous scenery unexpectedly beautiful. 

Although the natural qualities of the underlying desert can still be found and enjoyed if you seek them out, most of the desert is now a strikingly unnatural and unreal place.  First, you are apt to notice the endless series of gated communities as you drive around, all wrapped in bougainvillea-covered walls, edged with bands of deep green grass, and shaded with exuberantly flowering trees and shrubs.  Sprinklers seem to be constantly sprinkling these lush inland islands, and water features often welcome you at the entrance.

History tells that, in the beginning, there were naturally occurring groves of palm trees near a few naturally occurring springs deep in the canyons long, long ago (hence the name "Palm Springs"), but I'm pretty sure that the modern re-imagining of the desert in the style of a Hawaiian island was trucked in.  If nothing else, it goes to show what a difference water and imported, high-quality topsoil can make when you're building on a solid foundation of sunshine and an absence of winter.

(One might wonder where all the water comes from and whether it is part of the massive siphoning from the Colorado River.  The good news, I suppose, is that most of the water comes from a large aquifer beneath the desert floor.  The Coachella Valley Water District manages the aquifer and also coordinates the acquisition and distribution of some water from the Colorado River that is used to irrigate the huge and growing area of desert agriculture further to the East.  There are reports, however, that areas of the desert are purportedly sinking due to the depletion of the water table faster than it is replenished.) 

Once you re-fasten your jaw from gawking at all of the engineered greenery, you are then likely to notice that you are cruising around on a Hollywood Stars grid of street names: Bob Hope, Fred Waring, Gene Autry, Gerald Ford, Dinah Shore and Frank Sinatra, to name just the ones I can recall off the top of my head. You can nearly visualize these stars driving around the desert in the golden age of Hollywood and enjoying all the modern-ness of their now iconic mid-century modern hideaways.

Eventually, after you have driven over and across a goodly number of famously named boulevards, one comes to the particular community in the foothills of the mountains off Highway 74 where my parents can be found.  It looks like this:

It is a gorgeous and serene setting, largely because this development attempted to incorporate more of the native desert plants and landscapes than many of the earlier-developed desert communities.

As you might expect, due to its proximity to Los Angeles, the desert is loaded with movie stars and other famous types, who also happen to be loaded (often in more ways than one).  Flipping through the membership book of my parents' place, one can see listings for residents such as Jim Colbert (pro-golfer), Michelle Wie (pro-golfer), Kurt Russell (actor), Jerry Weintraub (producer), and Pete and Bridget Sampras.   (If you don't know Pete, then I really can't help you.  Also, I know she goes by Bridget Wilson for purposes of her acting career, but I'm telling you, in the directory they are listed as "Pete and Bridget Sampras.") The directory, unfortunately, doesn’t tell you who lives where, so it is only by word of mouth or eyewitness reporting that one can link a particular house with a noteworthy owner.  (We never get any gawkers coming by my parents' house, so I'm pretty sure that my dad's career as a lawyer in Los Angeles and my mom's career as a travel agent have been successfully kept on the down-low.)
In addition to the stunningly well-curated surroundings, the membership itself is equally well clipped and coiffed.  At the small market/Starbucks outpost just off one of the golf courses (there are two courses) and down the street from my parents’ house (but still within the community), one encounters a small sampling of the residents during the ritual foraging for morning coffee.  I like to get up, throw on my sweatpants and sunglasses, and walk down the street each morning for the requisite dosage of Joe.  (My mother doesn’t believe in caffeine, so house guests are left to flounder without coffee unless they veer towards the Starbucks or otherwise take matters into their own hands.) 

Despite years of visiting, however, I am still startled every time by how much better the other coffee-seeking patrons seem to look and act than me.  The 60-something woman in front of me one day modeled a tidy workout ensemble and crisp, white baseball cap which served, in part, to secure her neat, blondish-gray ponytail while also shading her evenly tanned and blemish free visage.  (In contrast, I was sporting workout pants and a t-shirt from Target, with a non-matching hoody vest borrowed from my mother, because I didn’t really think through my wardrobe needs, and I don’t have a matching, designer track suit or a complete fitness wardrobe from lululemon in any event.)  Upon discrete further inspection, the woman’s face had less wrinkles than mine and her butt was decidedly tighter.  She was no better at ordering coffee than me, but still, there was intimidation in the air, even if amorphous and conjured by larger societal forces with origins well outside our private little coffee house.  She was perfectly polite, smiling and saying good morning to all.  She did absolutely nothing snotty or scornful and then was out the door, undoubtedly into the sunshine of a beautiful life.  For all I know, she reads Thomas Pynchon novels for fun, stays abreast of every issue of The Economist and is only relaxing in Palm Desert on a short, but much deserved, break from her exhausting charitable work assisting with the public health battle against cholera in Haiti.  I was nearly ready to surrender before I'd even made it home with my coffee.

And that’s the thing about these beautiful oases of wealth and privilege: they are weirdly unsettling in their outward perfection.  The streets are incredibly clean.  The yards are immaculately landscaped and maintained in accordance with the numerous restrictive covenants, and the residents are always pressed and cleaned.   The attendants and caddies smile and waive and even the one time (years ago) I was reminded that I needed a collared shirt for my golf-round, the reminder was gentle and discrete.  (Note: the collared shirt requirement at many golf courses is one of the reasons I’ve never been able to nurture any love for golf.  It is not a flattering style, if you ask me.  Also, if tennis – the favorite sport of the Queen of England, for goodness' sake ---  can get over itself and embrace Agassi’s hair and the Williams sisters' wardrobes, golf should be able to do the same.)   

I can't help but wonder, though, with all of the time and energy that is clearly directed towards various exteriors -- house, car, grounds and person -- can there be much time left for the less visible interior matters of the heart and mind?  

Good thing living in the Midwest keeps me balanced and grounded.

One of the things I credit for keeping me so centered and down to earth is running.  The pristine and usually empty private roadways bathed in desert sunlight make for an excellent and scenic jogging track. 

I need not navigate traffic, cross busy intersections, or fend off fierce packs of bicyclists fighting for the same skinny strip of shoulder.  Instead, I can trot leisurely down the middle of the street and wind my way around golf courses, water features and some very, very nice homes. 

The route I usually run when I’m visiting is an out-and-back route that zigs and zags around the grounds and crosses the community from one side to the other.  The last part of the route before the turnaround is a very steep hill that ends with a cul-de-sac that is home to a large water tank:  

It is important that when you run this route you go all the way up to the water tank and touch it.  Don’t ask me why; just accept that this is true.  Accordingly, no matter how much I am huffing and puffing and occasionally walking up the hill, I am not "there yet" and cannot turn around and begin the more pleasant downhill return until the water tower has been touched. 

(If you look closely, you can see the hand prints on the tank, which evidence two of my runs during this most recent visit.)

Whenever I run this route, I think about two things: (1) I must go all the way up the hill and touch the water tower or it doesn’t count, and (2) I wonder which house is Jerry Weintraub’s?  At some point, my parents mentioned that they thought Jerry’s house was somewhere along my route just before the water tank crescendo.  Ever since, a little home movie plays in my head as I near the final turn-off to the water tank.  It goes like this:

[Scene:  A middle-aged woman with shoulder-length brown hair, medium build and about 5’4” tall, wearing C9 by Champion shorts and tank top, black elastic headband, armband with iPod and some kickin’ Adidas sneaks, jogs gracefully and athletically down the middle of a beautiful yet empty street flanked by large houses and against a backdrop of rock-piled desert mountains.  She is mentally preparing herself for the punishing hill that looms just ahead, when she sees a man walking briskly down his driveway as she approaches and waiving her down.  The man is older, well tanned, and well dressed in Armani shorts and black t-shirt.  He is wearing sunglasses and has what looks like a glass of scotch on the rocks in one hand.]

Man:  Hey!  Hi there!  Yes, you jogging by.  Can I talk to you for a minute?

[Woman jogger removes her earbuds and slows to walk, while trying to catch her breath.]

Woman jogger:  What?  I’m sorry.  Are you talking to me?

Man:  Yes.  Hi.  I know this is a bit odd, but I’ve noticed you jogging by the past few days.

[Woman jogger works to catch her breath, looks at the man and feels as though she recognizes him, but she’s not quite sure.]

Woman jogger (slowly and somewhat skeptically): Yes.

Man:  Well . . . have you ever done any acting?

Woman jogger (confused and uncertain):  What?  You want to know if I’ve ever done any acting?

Man:  Yes.  You know . . .  Have you ever done any modeling or acting for hire, like in a play or a movie, for example?

Woman jogger:  No.  I have not done any modeling or acting, basically, ever.

Man:  Well.  Hmmm.  Its just that I’m in the movie business and I’m casting a new movie that stars a middle-aged woman in an intense action-thriller-romantic comedy, because there is HUGE demand for that kind of thing, and, well, you seem to be just the kind of woman I’m looking for.  You know, regular and ordinary and not all pouty-mouthed and artificially inflated and nearly dead, like Angelina Jolie. 

Woman jogger:  Huh.

Man:  I mean.  We’d need to get you out to the studio and do some screen testing and maybe read a few scenes, but I have a really good feeling about this.  The male lead will be a little younger.  Probably someone like Ryan Reynolds or Colin Farrell – do you like those guys?

Woman jogger:  Uh, yeah, I like those guys.

Man:  Because if you don’t like them we could certainly consider others.  Maybe, you know, someone like Ryan Gosling or Robert Pattinson. 

Woman jogger: The first Ryan and Colin seem fine, I guess.

Man: Great.  And, you know, we’d get you into hair and makeup while we’re at it, but really I don’t think we’ll need to do too much there.  The touch of gray in your hair is just perfect and you have just the right amount of fine lines around your eyes and the more plush physique is really trending up lately in our audience surveys.

Woman jogger:  O.k.  So, if I am following this correctly, and I am not at all certain that I am, you are basically asking me if I want to star in a movie that might also star either Ryan Reynolds or Colin Farrell.  Is that correct?

Man:  Yes!  Yes, that is exactly what I am proposing.  Because, again, you know, I’ve been watching you jog by my house and you just strike me as the perfect new leading lady.  My name is Jerry, by the way.  Nice to meet you.


Really, the only problems I see with this scenario are twofold: (1) I really don’t know which house is Jerry’s, and (2) I don’t actually want to be in a movie.  Still, it seems like it would be nice to be asked, and maybe Jerry really is getting tired of all that Hollywood perfection.  It could happen.  You never know.

If I am being completely straightforward (and I never represented that I was or intended to be), then I would have to admit that the Jerry Weintraub fantasy is not the only fantasy loosed by proximity to celebrity.  The previously referenced Starbucks outpost is also the scene of my one and only encounter with Pete and Bridget Sampras.  The actual encounter occurred one March during a spring break trip to the desert a few years ago.  Not to let you down too abruptly, but the encounter really just amounted to Pete, Bridget and I all being in or around the coffee shop at the same time.  There was no conversation or acknowledgment of my existence, really, which is perfectly understandable.  I didn’t have a matching designer track suit back then either.

Still, sometimes when I am down at the tennis courts hitting a few balls, I prepare myself for the possibility that Pete Sampras might show up.  He might come down to workout with the ball machine or practice some serves, but then catch the action on our court out of the corner of his eye.  He might watch from behind the dark green mesh and observe the well-grooved forehands and backhands and find that he was curious about who was hitting these shots: 

[Scene:  A row of tennis courts next to a clubhouse in a private desert community several hours east of Los Angeles.  Pete Sampras, the seven time Wimbledon champion and winner of 14 Grand Slam singles titles, observes a few strangers casually hitting tennis balls as he approaches the courts.  In particular, he is impressed with the skill of the middle-aged woman.  During a break in the action, Pete walks over and strikes up a conversation.]

Pete:  Hi.  I was watching you hit.  You have nice form and really solid ground strokes.

Middle-aged woman tennis player:  Hi . . . err . . ..  uhhhh . . . .  Thanks.  [Gulp.] You have really nice ground strokes too.

[Middle-aged woman tennis player feels her face flush and mentally chastises herself for her stupid remark.]

Pete:  [Laughs.  Smiles.]  Thanks.

Middle-aged woman tennis player:  [ . . . . .]

Pete:  Did you play in college?

[Middle-aged woman tennis player clears her throat and looks down at the tennis court as if to affect a casual, relaxed air while trying to keep her heart from beating itself out of her chest and flopping onto the tennis court, creating a horrible and unseemly mess.]

Middle-aged woman tennis player: Yeah.

Pete:  Where did you play?

Middle-aged woman tennis player:  Um, well, I played D3.  Carleton College, actually.

[Pete nods knowingly, indicating that he is very familiar with this obscure but excellent tennis program out of Northfield, Minnesota.] 

Pete:  Cool.  So, did you play #1 singles?

[Middle-aged woman tennis player’s eyes bulge and her heart begins to race even faster than it was before.  “Deflect, deflect, deflect,” she thinks to herself, desperate to change the subject because, in fact, she did not play #1 singles.  She coughs and begins to choke. Then, pointing to her throat, she walks quickly to the water fountain and takes a long drink of water.  Eventually she comes up for air and notices the look of concern on Pete’s face.]

Middle-aged woman tennis player:  Sorry about that. [Laughs. Coughs one more time.]  Hey, I was wondering, how is Bridget’s film career going these days?


Like I said, the desert is a pretty unreal place.  If you don't focus on what's real and true and important, you could really get out of whack in a hurry.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Thoughts on a Funeral

I attended a funeral today.  I am fortunate that it is the first one I've been to in quite a while.  It was for the husband of a colleague at work who died tragically and unexpectedly at the age of 41, leaving behind my friend and her two daughters.  Daughters the same age as mine who seemed numb and bewildered during the funeral service.  Pictures of her husband, who I had never met, covered poster boards in the back of the church and I found myself trying to create a memory of him as I looked at them, even though I had none. 

The church was overflowing with attendees, including a large number of us from work coming out to support our friend in this most crushing of times.  As the traditional Catholic service proceeded, the casket was wheeled in, a blessing was said, we sang and said prayers and the emotions steadily mounted.  Then my friend had the unfathomable courage and strength to take to the podium and speak with inexplicable composure, warmth and humor about her husband.  Those not teary-eyed before that moment suddenly became so and the tears streamed down cheeks male and female.   We all moved silently in time as we dabbed one eye, then the other.  But there was palpable strength and unity in the room.  We were here together to help this family and each other and it felt as though we could have stood against a line of tanks.  There must have been several hundred in attendance, and although none of us from work knew the extended family, neighbors and childhood friends of our colleague's husband, it didn't matter.  In this moment, we were together.  We cried together and grieved together and sang together and shared what it is to be human together. 

Watching her and her daughters struggle and cry as the service concluded and the casket processional exited the church was wrenching in every possible way.  It undid me more than I was prepared for.  Because in these moments, we see our own lives in an alternate reality.  It could happen to any of us.  It did happen to her.  The plans and the assumptions of future days to be lived a certain way and in a certain measure suddenly rendered null and void. 

Back in the office, focus and concentration were predictably elusive.  We shared knowing glances and nods, but exchanged few words about the funeral.  What is there to say?  The mundane details of the day were exposed for what they are. 

I sat at my desk, looked out my window and thought back to that feeling of strength and solidarity in the church.  I visualized drawing a circle around the room and the positive force present within it -- undiluted compassion and goodwill and earnestness. I wondered how much bigger we could draw that circle and still maintain its strength.  What if we drew it just outside the church into the surrounding St. Paul neighborhood?  Would it still hold?  It seemed like it would.  What about into downtown St. Paul or all the way to Minneapolis?  What about into the beleaguered neighborhoods of North Minneapolis? What about around Minnesota?  The upper Midwest?  The entire United States?  Europe?  Africa? The Middle East?  It seemed clear that the circle would fail long before I ran out of places to include within it.  Our ability to support and empathize and stand together fractures the further away we get from the center.  The more the person suffering the loss, oppression, joblessness, homelessness, discrimination, hunger, neglect, torture or abuse is a stranger, the less we are moved to help.

I have many deep concerns about and disagreements with organized religion of all stripes, but this is not the time for those discussions.  Nevertheless, it is undeniable, I think, that houses of worship excel in bringing people together and creating a sense of community and fellowship.  From my perspective, this is less a result of the content of what is espoused in churches, synagogues and mosques than a function of the processes they facilitate: reflection, contemplation, and community.  When you bring people together for a common purpose, you create community and in community you create strength and bridge divides.  I am certain that the individuals at the funeral spanned nearly all possible spectra-- Republican and Democrat, conservative and liberal, atheists and Catholics, gay and straight, white and black, union and management, the 99% and the 1%, smokers and non-smokers, health nuts and addicts, yet there were no censors at the door.  We weren't segregated into sub-groups by race, religion or creed.   In the face of death and loss and grief, these dividing lines are magically erased, at least for a little while.

It is certainly simplistic and naive to extrapolate from one tragic death to all of global civilization and ask why can't we draw the circle that large, but I am going to ask anyway.  I would really like to know the answer.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Steve Jobs, Billy Beane and The Minnesota Lynx walk into a bar . . .

A few weeks ago, three things happened: (1) Steve Jobs died, (2) the Minnesota Lynx won their first WNBA championship in a three-game sweep over the Atlanta Dream, and (3) I finished reading the book Moneyball, by Michael Lewis.  (The last of these received even less media attention than the Lynx's championship, but it was an actual event in my life nonetheless.)  These three things kept banging into each other in my mind and making a terrible clanging sound.  Something about the three of them together kept bugging me.  True, I could have read Moneyball with a bit more diligence than I did and have gotten it out of the way before the other two came along and at least avoided the mental traffic jam that occurs when too many things that I need to think about happen all at once.  But taking the "pro" out of procrastination just leaves you with crastination, and no one among us wants that.  So, we're just going to have to take the three of them together.

First, some brief introductions.

Steve Jobs

Perhaps a Taliban fighter hiding-out in the famously harsh and inaccessible mountainous terrain of south-eastern Afghanistan whose T-1 line happened to be down for a few days missed the news, but otherwise word of Mr. Jobs' death was dispersed hastily across the globe.  It was the network television news lead, the headline on CNN.com and the dominant topic of discussion on Facebook and Twitter.  Heralded as a genius and visionary, he was known as much for pioneering product design as for the many incredible things his well-designed products could do.   Here's his take on design and the creative process:

“Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it, they just saw something. It seemed obvious to them after a while. That’s because they were able to connect experiences they’ve had and synthesize new things. And the reason they were able to do that was that they’ve had more experiences or they have thought more about their experiences than other people.

“Unfortunately, that’s too rare a commodity. A lot of people in our industry haven’t had very diverse experiences. So they don’t have enough dots to connect, and they end up with very linear solutions without a broad perspective on the problem. The broader one’s understanding of the human experience, the better design we will have. [Wired, February 1996]

And also this:

"It's really hard to design products by focus groups. A lot of times, people don't know what they want until you show it to them."  [BusinessWeek, May 1998]

But perhaps his most memorable statements came from his now widely-quoted Stanford commencement speech in 2005.  To those who must have felt that their futures stretched out infinitely before them, here's what Jobs, who had already been diagnosed with a rare form of pancreatic cancer and would be dead just six years later at the age of 56, urged them to appreciate:

“Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything — all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure — these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.   . . .

Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma — which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.” [Stanford commencement speech, June 2005]

Moneyball and the story of Billy Beane's reinvention of baseball

The book was published back in 2003, but I was busy having my second child that year and starting a new job and otherwise trying to hold it together with no extra time for reading.  It finally caught my attention this year on the swell of all the movie hype and, like many people, I wanted to read the book before seeing the movie, so that I could imagine the characters my own way and not mistake Brad Pitt for Billy Beane. (I still haven't seen the movie as every time I look at my daily agenda "go see a movie" somehow never seems to be on the list.) 

Moneyball is a great story, well written.  Without giving away anything that isn't already on the back of the book jacket, it is about how a once highly touted baseball talent, Billy Beane, turns instead to management and resolves to bring to it the one thing it had never had in all of its storied history: rational, data-based decision making.  When faced with the challenge of how to compete with the Yankees with nearly $100 million less in payroll dollars to spend, Beane dared to ask the most fundamental of questions: what actually helps you win a baseball game?  And then, he had the audacity to collect, analyze and follow the data and come up with new answers.  Turns out that long-standing assumptions about the five tools and the lore of the baseball scout's gut feelings had never been held accountable to scrupulous analysis.  As Lewis writes, Billy Beane discovered that, "there was still such a thing as new baseball knowledge."  (Norton paperback edition, 2011: p. 140.)

Among other things, Lewis recounts the story of the 2002 MLB draft in which the Oakland A's employed a draft strategy based on Billy Beane's newfangled baseball science.  The unorthodox approach resulted in a draft wish-list that included what many other teams considered to be the circus freaks of of the amateur baseball world; pitchers with flailing motions, catchers with weight problems and other unsightly types whose skills and contributions were overlooked, to the extent they were even recognized, as temporary aberrations that would never endure in the major leagues.  This, of course, presented a huge opportunity for a devout disciple of the new knowledge and allowed the A's to get an unprecedented number of the players on their wish list.  As Lewis explains:

"What begins as a failure of the imagination ends as a market inefficiency: when you rule out an entire class of people from doing a job simply by their appearance, you are less likely to find the best person for the job."  (Norton paperback edition, 2011: p. 115.) 

As you might expect, you don't end-up with a book being written about you, and from that a major motion picture, unless your story is worth telling.  In this instance, at the end of the 2002 season, Billy Beane's Oakland A's, the team with the smallest payroll in the AL West  ($41.9 million) win the division with a record of 103-59, while the team with the highest payroll in the division (Texas at $106.9 million) comes in dead last with a record of 72-90. 

The Minnesota Lynx - 2011 WNBA Champions 

The WBNA, as you are hopefully aware, stands for the Women's National Basketball Association.  It was formed by the NBA in 1996, with the first competitive season of play in 1997.  Originally comprised of eight teams, it now has twelve, including the Minnesota Lynx.  The collective bargaining agreement currently in place provides that, in 2011, the salary cap for each team was $852,000 (yes, that is the amount of payroll for the whole team), with a minimum salary of $36,570 and a maximum of $103,500.  The maximum roster size is 11 active players and the season spans the summer months to avoid competing with the NBA.  During the 15 years of the league's existence, seven different teams have won the title.  This year's champion happens to be the Minnesota Lynx, who finished the season with a record of 27-7, the best in the league and won their first franchise championship.

Although I'm sure they need no introduction, what with all of the prestige, endorsement deals and general notoriety that comes with playing for a WNBA championship team, I'll give you the run-down on the key players just in case you were on vacation all summer and are drawing a blank:

Maya Moore:  If you asked Maya Moore what losing was, she would probably tell you she's never heard of it.  She was U. Conn's all-time leading scorer with 3,036 points.  She captained the Huskies to an astounding 90 consecutive wins, finishing her college career with a record of 150-4, which set the NCAA career win record -- for men and women.  Wisely drafted by the Lynx as the first pick in the 2011 draft, she capped-off her rookie season with the WNBA championship.  Oh, and at a measly six feet tall, she can dunk.  (For those of you who are wondering, the net height in the WNBA is the same as the NBA: 10 feet.)

Seimone Augustus: Drafted by Minnesota as the first overall pick in the 2006 WNBA draft, Seimone also had a record setting career at her alma matter, LSU.  She started in a school record 140 games and was the first female athlete at LSU to have her jersey retired (which now hangs alongside those of Shaquille O'Neal and Pete Maravich.)  She averages 22 points a game and has a wicked cross-over dribble.  But perhaps the most impressive thing about Seimone is her ferocity.  When you go to a game at Target Center and Seimone is lighting it up, which happens often, the announcer initiates a call and response sequence that begins with "Seimone is" and the crowd responds with "IN THE ZONE!"  She was the MVP of the 2011 championship series.

Lindsay Whalen:  Lindsay is one of those women who looks like she has no business being anywhere near a basketball court -- until you see her play.  She doesn't look like she can do the things she's doing, even as you're watching her do them.  She's not particularly tall (5'9"), not particularly athletic looking and perhaps most debilitating of all, she hails from Minnesota.  But she's used to that.  During her college career at the University of Minnesota, she put the entire women's basketball program on her back and carried it to a Final Four appearance all while setting U of M and Big Ten scoring records.  During her tenure, attendance at the women's games increased from an average of just over 1,000 per game to nearly 10,000 per game.  She was the fourth overall pick in the 2004 draft, going to Connecticut, but returned to Minnesota to play for the Lynx in 2010.

Taj McWilliams-Franklin: She has been in the league for 12 years and has averaged 11.6 points per game over her career.  She is 6'2", 40 years old and the mother of three daughters.  According to her bio, she speaks Italian and Spanish, writes poetry and loves to watch professional wrestling.  And one more thing: do not drive the lane on her or she will give you some serious smack down finished-off with a scorching look that will send you straight to your room with no supper.


So.  Here we are with a universally admired genius in the field of personal computing, a baseball GM who was mocked and ridiculed by the baseball establishment until his success spoke so loudly the rest of baseball eventually adopted his methods, and a WNBA championship team that just happens to hail from my town.   None of these things really has anything to do with the others, except it seemed like somehow they did.

Then the obvious occurred to me: America loves a winner, especially after they've broken the tape.  Everyone thinks that Steve Jobs is brilliant now and isn't afraid to say so because he was and there isn't any legitimate room for debate.  That is what makes his death so poignant.  Not only was a life lost at the too-soon age of 56 (which seems younger and younger all the time), but we can only wonder about what else he might have created for us that we may now never know we wanted.  Of course, there were years and years where he struggled, was forced to resign from Apple, and where Apple seemed on its way to being a quaint little footnote in a war won by IBM and Microsoft.

The same is true for Billy Beane.  His genius was in daring to pick up the rocks that paved the roads to every baseball stadium in America and look to see what was underneath them.  Turns out, half of them were hollow or at least not as sturdy as they were assumed to be.  Of course, no one slapped him on the back and pronounced him a winner when he implemented new statistical tools for fielding a baseball team.  To the contrary, they were certain that he was doing it all wrong;  that everything that could be known and needed to be known about baseball talent scouting and management had long ago been figured out.  Only after he did what was supposed to be impossible -- produce one of the best teams in baseball for a period of time without one of the biggest checkbooks in baseball -- did he get any respect.  (Even then, much of it was begrudgingly given by those invested in the old traditions.)

That is the lesson we seem predisposed not to learn: that we are much, much less adept at predicting the future than we think we are.  We never see stock market crashes coming or corporate corruption scandals or new technology or, apparently, the decay of our planet (along with our own health) from decades of cumulative abuse and neglect.  We can't see what the computer geek sees or the baseball insider who always felt like an outsider sees until they grab us by the neck and force us to look at it.  With our iPhones and iPods in hand, however, and the A's payroll per win open for all to see, we can't argue with success.  We post and retweet their words of wisdom (now validated with hindsight), as if we hope not to forget them this time.

Which makes me wonder: who are the next Steve Jobs and Billy Beanes out there right now and what are they doing?  If Steve Jobs was on to something when he cautioned not to "let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice" and if "failure of imagination" is what causes even beloved institutions like baseball to become root-bound and stagnant, and if diversity of experience is what fosters creativity and innovation, then you would think we would encourage and support those who set-out to follow these directives; who seek to challenge our assumptions and stretch our minds.  But it seems we rarely do.

When I think about who is out there in our midst right now chipping away every day at dusty old worldviews and prejudices with little fanfare, the WNBA comes to mind.  The women on the Lynx and every other team in the WNBA go do what they do despite a public that still largely resists women's professional basketball.  They show-up and play for a fraction of what an NBA rookie is guaranteed ($400k) because there is no money in the women's game.

But 15 years into the league's existence, it is still here.  It has not failed or collapsed.  The players have not given up and gone away.  But, so what?  It's just recreation.  It's just girls playing basketball. 

Just a few decades ago, however, the WNBA was inconceivable.  Women my age (early 40s -- don't rush me), were among the very first to benefit from Title IX.  Passed in 1972 (when I was 4 1/2) as an amendment to the 1964 Civil Rights Act, Title IX provides, in relevant part, that:

"No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance..."

Though it may seem hard to believe now, back in 1972 women's athletics -- of any kind -- were still a controversial idea.  In particular, women had been barred from competing in marathons until Boston finally allowed women to register and run -- in 1972.  Indeed, the conventional wisdom for decades had been that running marathons was medically dangerous for women.  Speculation (from the medical community and elsewhere) abounded that running a marathon would be too strenuous for the female physique and that it was likely a woman's uterus would collapse from the stress, with death a serious possibility.  A women's marathon event wasn't added to the Olympics until 1984 (the summer before my senior year in high school). 

As you might have heard, women have been out there running marathons ever since their own will to do so was given priority over the paternalistic concerns of others.  Today, the fastest women can complete a marathon in about 2:15, and we've yet to have to scrape a uterus off the ground at the finish line.

But the promise of Title IX has been slower to be realized in some areas than in others.  Sure, we're now used to women playing tennis (gotta love those short skirts, right?) and soccer and skiing or swimming at the Olympics, but there is still a pretty firm line out there when it comes to the big four: baseball, basketball, football and hockey.

It's not that there is anything inherently special about playing these sports above others that women are missing out on.  The rewards of athletics abound whether you are playing field hockey or football.  But there is an inevitable and direct consequence of massively exalting at a societal level the sports that just happen to be (overwhelmingly) exclusive of women.  It propels and supports a message of discrimination whether intentional and mean spirited or not.

When I was a girl, my family went to a lot of Dodger games and listened to even more on the radio.  I also happened to have a younger brother who loved baseball (as many boys do) and a father who was willing to buy a mitt for and play catch with both of us.  I learned to throw, just like my brother did, by tossing a lot of balls in the backyard.  (Don't even get me started with the whole "throw like a girl" bit.  As with any skill, there are people who practice it and learn it, and there are those who don't.  There is nothing about the mechanical functionality of the female upper extremity that makes it incapable of throwing a baseball.  It's just that a huge number of female arms are never trained to do so.)  So, I spent a lot of time in my backyard throwing baseballs or our homegrown equivalent -- oranges from our orange trees.  I pitched and hit and ran like hell when one too many oranges would rocket over the wall and land in our neighbor's pool with a splash.  At some point I noticed that my brother could sign-up to play baseball and go to baseball practice.  I asked whether I could play on a team.  The answer I got was the best my dad could give me: there weren't any teams for girls.

I won't claim that my life was unalterably changed in that moment.  I don't think it was.  There are lots of "nos" as a kid and most of them don't make sense to you.  Still, I did feel the universe contract just a bit when I realized that there were some things I wouldn't be able to do simply because I was a girl;  that the realm of possibility for my brother was at least a little bit larger than mine.  There would be no try-outs or "sorry you didn't make the cut."  It would never get to that point because of my gender. 

(This is the part where people like to point out that girls/women can play softball.  I will spare you my more lengthy response and simply say this:  that is very nice, but softball is not the same thing as baseball and everyone knows it.)

I went on to find other sports that I liked that I was probably better suited for anyway.  I didn't drop out of school, take up with the wrong crowd and sink into a life of addiction because my baseball dreams were crushed.   But, unfortunately, decades later, my daughters and I go to baseball games and I have no better answer for their question about why girls can't play baseball than my father did for me.  History and habit are the culprits.

But when it comes to basketball there is now a different story to tell.  Although I don't remember ever seeing any women play basketball other than those on the teams we competed against when I was in high school (1981-1985; I was a mediocre point guard on my best day), twenty-five years later my daughters have been to more WNBA games than they have NBA games.  (True, the Timberwolves have been so bad for so long that no one wants to go to their games anyway.)  In the world they are growing-up in, there is such a thing as women's professional basketball.  They can watch Maya Moore, Lindsay Whalen and Seimone Augustus and see aspirational versions of themselves, just as boys imagine themselves as Albert Pujols or Joe Mauer (when Joe could still play, anyway) or Tom Brady.

I care about this because I think it matters.   It's not just that women's lives are actually or theoretically diminished because it is much, much harder to have a career as a professional athlete.  It's that all of ours are.  A world with more possibilities, more diversity of experience, more inclusion is a better world -- for all of us, men and women, boys and girls.   By now, we should know that the past does not predict the future.  Case in point: in the span of not quite 40 years, we have gone from having to mandate access for girls and women to the same muscle and character building opportunities long available to men, to staggeringly fast women's marathon times, Olympic and world cup soccer performances worthy of any highlight reel and a league of basketball teams made-up entirely of women.  Few people hanging out in 1972 would have seen any of it coming at all, let alone with the speed it did.

Who knows where the next generation will go from here.  As far as my daughters are concerned, women are capable of taking hard fouls, hitting free-throws under pressure, coming from behind to beat Brazil to stay alive in the 2011 World Cup semis, succumbing to pressure in the 2011 World Cup finals, being Secretary of State, not to mention being doctors and teachers and mothers and lawyers.  With all of this, their imaginations should soar and they may yet show us something we never knew was possible.

As we celebrate Steve Jobs and Billy Beane with magazine covers and movies facilitated with the clarity of hindsight, perhaps we can remember that we didn't always think they were right or see the future that they saw.  And perhaps we can give a little more love to the women of the WNBA who are out there changing the world for the next generation every time they take the court.  So I'd like to dedicate this song to the WNBA, from one band of girls to another.   It's by WILD FLAG and its called "Glass Tambourine."  These women can rock, but don't just take my word for it.   Stuff some of this in your imagination:

Sunday, October 2, 2011

I Hope I Go to Surf Camp When I'm 80

When I'm not busy ranting about the staggering level of intellectual laziness, if not willful ignorance, among the top Republican contenders for the highest political office in the land and working-over a nice, juicy spitball of a blog post in the hopes that, through the magic of the internet, I might somehow generate enough velocity to send it landing with a splat right between Ms. Bachmann's deranged-looking eyes, I spend my time thinking about other important things, too.  I think about whether it is too late into the Fall to get another pedicure.  (This being Minnesota, there comes a time every year when your toes disappear into sturdy shoes and socks for such a protracted period of time that investing in their polished appearance is as pointless as donning a bikini under thermal underwear.)   I also consider whether my effort at home-baked pie should be aimed at peach or apple.  But, inevitably, my thoughts always roll around to this one:  I hope I go to surf camp when I'm 80.

I think this thought not because I've determined that there is some special kind of enlightenment that can only be achieved by attending surf camp in your 80th year (though that seems pretty plausible), but because such a goal seems highly likely to avoid what I am really concerned about: self-inflicted petrification.  You may think you don't know what I'm talking about, but I assure you that you do.  I'm talking about those people, mostly of the aged variety, but not always, who have steadily relinquished whatever physical and mental flexibility and adaptability they once had in favor of rigid routine and familiarity.  They don't need to spend any time assessing or considering the choices before them because they've already made them before and they know what their answer is.  Their days consist of the same foods, the same schedule, the same TV shows and, most importantly, the same set of "Nos."  "No, I don't like Thai food."  "No, I don't want to travel abroad."  "No, I don't want to try anything new or reconsider my previous conclusions.  I know what I like and I'm just gonna stick with that.  Thanks."

To be certain, the power to pick and choose what you want to do and avoid what you don't want to do is one of the chief benefits of successfully navigating the obstacle course of childhood and adolescence.  If you play your cards right and land an apartment of your own and maybe someday an entire house of your own, the revenge of the long oppressed and misunderstood is soon at hand.  Finally, you don't have to eat the lima beans or pick-up your dirty clothes or even acknowledge the box of moldy, left over pizza from last weekend's kegger that is on the floor in front of the couch.  Or, if you are young, male, and aspiring to ski-bum status for a season in Vail with my younger brother in 1992, you can exercise your collective rights not to take out the garbage, clean the toilet, purchase toilet paper or otherwise employ any of the amenities of modern civilization -- in any way.  (Having personally witnessed these freedom fighters in action, I can tell you that their dedication to their cause was truly overwhelming.) 

But exercising your right to live in health-code violating conditions is just one point along the way.  The journey usually requires that you spend all of your college years and perhaps a good portion of your 20s trying out all kinds of things so that you will know how to best use your newly-minted freedom of choice.  One cannot know whether one is in favor of sushi or against it until one has tried it.  (Although, interestingly and despite the obvious soundness of this logic, my children are evidently gifted with the ability to know in advance, without any direct personal exposure whatsoever, what foods they like and dislike.  Actual tasting and lifting of fork to mouth is not required, as they have passionately assured me on numerous occasions.)  Same goes for short haircuts, golf, and peeing in the woods.  Until one has experienced hair that is too short, the excruciating boredom and frustration that is known as golf, and participated in a camping experience where the bathroom consists of a shovel and a roll of toilet paper, these are open questions.  (For the record, I will take peeing in the woods over either of the other two.)

Ironically, the seeds of self-petrification are actually buried within the process of youthful adventure and exploration.  At first these new worlds are exciting and stimulating, but slowly you start to figure out what causes your hangovers and what gives you gas, and the funneling of inputs gradually begins to narrow.  Out goes the Rum and bell peppers.  Out goes the aerobics class at the gym, any movie that starts after 7pm, staying up to watch Letterman or SNL, and eggs still in their shell and in full possession of their innate cholesterol.  And so the process of evaluation and elimination proceeds until, one day, you find your 80 year-old self in a Denny's in Tampa in your regular booth for dinner at 4pm with half a box of Kleenex tissues conveniently pre-stowed (for ease of access) up the left sleeve of the over-sized cardigan you never take-off, watching Fox News and asking the waiter if the chicken noodle soup is spicy, because there was that one time a few months ago with the new cook who was fond of black pepper and your stomach was out of sorts for days.

I am afraid of becoming this person.  From my current vantage point in the middle of life it seems sad and depressing to consider that there may come a point where the unknown no longer holds any interest.  Where the new, untried, foreign or novel appears more as an irritating inconvenience than an opportunity.  

My fear of becoming this person perhaps borders on the irrational (and let's please avert our eyes from the other contents of the box of irrational fears because therein lie snakes and spiders and more snakes and temperatures below 80 degrees), but I have my reasons. 

First, however, if you are really intent on worrying about your inevitable decline appropriately, as I am, you have to separate out the issues and give each its due.  The threshold issue, of course, is ensuring that you actually live long enough to become truly old.  No sense worrying about what kind of old person you will be if you never trip the wire for social security eligibility.  This is why I have dedicated myself to drinking lots of red wine.  I hear the Mediterranean diet is the way to go in terms of longevity.  (Also, in the name of cultural sensitivity and appreciation, I am learning to swear like an Italian.) 

Assuming that I sufficiently marinate my cells in resveratrol to obtain the same life-extending benefits observed in fruit flies and nematode worms and that I don't find myself on the wrong-end of an argument with the Mob, contemplation of my elderly self then becomes relevant and necessary.  In my case, I happen to have hard evidence that there is reason to worry.  Now, I'm sure there was a set of circumstances that existed at some point that made this seem perfectly logical and reasonable, but I have personally witnessed my mother removing a frozen block of her homemade chili from her luggage (double-bagged, of course) shortly after arriving at my house.   Said brick-bag of frozen chili was then presented to me, without any trace of shame or hesitation.  When I failed to grasp exactly what was happening and apparently so indicated with my facial expression, I was informed that extra time had been available to her so she thought she would cook some chili and bring it along so that we would have dinner all ready to go.   No reason to fuss.  It was easy enough to do . . . .

This is what can happen when you get older.  You can somehow find yourself in a place where cooking, bagging, freezing and transporting chili from Los Angeles to Minneapolis via commercial air travel seems like a perfectly good idea.  From there, one has to believe it is just a few short steps to Bingo Night and an obsession with ensuring you will never be far from a Kleenex when you need one.

But no one starts out toting around bags of frozen chili or eating dinner at 4pm or wearing dark socks with shorts.  It just sort of sneaks up on you, one little bit at a time.  While, on the one hand, I have deep respect for the "screw 'em if they can't take a joke" frame of mind, in my experience, none of these people are joking.  They are all deadly serious.  (And this isn't born of ageism.  Rather, it's just simple math that the longer one has to hold-out against the comforts of complacency and the forces of inertia, the higher the odds that one will eventually buckle and give in.)

When I encounter people who seem to have closed and bolted shut the main entrance doors to further life experience, I always find myself wishing I could just give them a little sip of what they are missing.  "Here, have just a sip," I would say, and they would drink the magic elixir slowly and tentatively and then suddenly glimpse breathtaking new vistas of knowledge and possibility.  I imagine these sips presented in the small plastic "cups" that accompany children's liquid medicine.   You know, the clear, thimble-like caps that overlay the true cap of the Children's Tylenol.  And just as one often has to coax a child to drink even the smallest amount of syrupy relief, one would gently coax the consumption of new experience one tiny sip at a time.   If only this were a real thing.   Just think how fun it would be.  "Here, try this one.  It's riding a motorcycle across the desert."  Or, "I'm going to try this one.  It says it is what it feels like to ride a rocket into outer space."  Gulp.  "Huh.  Tastes like chicken."

I like to think about what I would choose to sip, if I could.  I generally choose experiences that are otherwise impossible for me to have or replicate on my own.  For example, I would love to know what it felt like to be Michael Jordan at his prime.  To have such a special relationship with gravity and a basketball net that you could do things no one else had done before.  To be able to take off from the foul line and dunk a basketball.  Or to find out what it is like to race down a snow covered mountain like Lindsey Vonn or have a mind that works like Douglas Adams'

Of course, if such an elixir existed, it likely wouldn't be limited to experiences that are triumphant or happy or entertaining.  What if you could know what it feels like to be wrongly convicted and on death row, or to have been in a Nazi prison camp, or to be slowly starving in Somalia?  What if you could experience what it is like to be taken down by ALS, like my father-in-law was, or to be bullied to the point of suicide, or to be jailed for refusing to sit in the back of the bus?  Thankfully, my concocted elixir doesn't really exist and we aren't faced with the choice of whether to sip those experiences and feel them as if they were our own.

But of course, in actuality we make similar choices all the time.  Through books and movies and the willingness to taste food whose flavor profile consists of more than salt, pepper and cheese, we can choose to get at least a little bit closer to the realities experienced by others and thereby perhaps a fuller understanding of the world we share.  We can read accounts of life inside Nazi Germany, or through news sources track the famine currently afflicting the Horn of Africa, or even channel some fraction of the joy of Michael Jordan flying through the air via YouTube highlights and television specials. We just have to choose to take those sips.

A good friend of mine used to employ a very effective drinking game back in our college days and in our post-college years in New York.  (You know who you are, PZ.)  She would go to the bar wherever we might be, order some shots or drinks and return to the table.  Then she would pass the drinks out and say, "Here. Drink this."  That was it.  Just "drink this."  Efficient, to the point and universally effective. 

So really, what this all comes down to is one request: if some years from now you see me heading to Denny's at 3:45, please pull me aside and buy me a drink (literal or figurative, either will do just fine) and set it down in front of me with my friend's simple command:  Here, drink this. 

I am thanking you now, in advance, because I may not be appreciative at the time.  In fact, it seems more likely that I will be pissed at you for making me late and I will be mentally occupied with developing a plan to bolt from the bar, hail a cab and dash for the big D so that I can be sure to get in before the rush.  So, thanks, and all that.  Now, though, I've got to go.  I've got some chili on the stove that I need to attend to if I'm ever going to bag and freeze it in time for my next trip.