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 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.