A blog about nothing.

Friday, January 29, 2016

(RULE)BOOK OF LOVE


When I was in my late 20s I had what I thought was this great idea for a business opportunity. By business opportunity I mean money-making venture that would allow me to use my literary abilities, however paltry they may be, or were at the time. I had been living in New York and this flight of fancy came to me as a matter of fact while flying back home to Los Angeles for a visit. This isn't the only time that such a fit of inspiration has visited me. Something about being thousands of miles above ground, traveling through the air at hundreds of miles per hour, and through time zones too. Or maybe it was just the stiff Scotch that for some time had been my customary in-flight beverage. Who's to say? 

The idea was to become a professional writer of love letters. That simple. I'd make my literary services available to anyone wishing to send their loved-one their sentiments, be these as a token of appreciation, or condolences, sweet nothings, miss-you-lotses, or fond farewells or welcome backs, etc. I wouldn't even have to know the recipient firsthand. I'd simply create a questionnaire asking a few pertinent details, such as the nature of the relationship, of course names and personality traits, and physical features (perhaps via a photo). This information, coupled with the sender's writing sample so as to remain faithful to the source, and voila, a love letter in hand. 

I pitched it to my dad one night over dinner and he laughed the idea off the table. I didn't think of it again. That was 2000. But the idea came back to me when I saw the movie Her, and wouldn't you know the main character's day job is precisely that? He (Joaquin Phoenix) is a letter writer! The movie is fiction, and set in some futuristic society, but it made me wonder that my idea would have been the hit that I imagined after all. I started thinking of other ideas I have had, some of them while traveling, others while working out, many while consuming one or another tasty beverage. One idea in particular comes to mind. I'd write a rule book for lovers. Because the audience is huge, and built-in. Half of all marriages end in divorce, as the cliche says, and 2 million marriages take place every year in the US alone. That's 2 million books, or one for every better half. I'd call my book simply The Book of Love, or The Game of Love, despite their being numerous songs and books and movies already with these names. You cannot copyright a title, so anything is fair game. Again my father poo-pooed this idea. But his track record is not that good, so maybe doing what he says not to do will be my claim to fame. 

So I researched my idea. Of course anyone who's ever browsed the self-help section knows that nearly all books in this genre, whether they treat marriage, or worldly wealth, or beating addiction, offer step-wise approaches, which they guarantee to be successful. And some of these steps are even good. My favorite has for a long time been Miguel Ruiz's Four Agreements, which apply to life in general, that is to say all relationships in particular. I truly believe that if you never assume, if you take nothing personally, if you are impeccable with your word, and if you always try your best, the world will be a better place and your relationship will succeed. That is, assuming your other half also practices what Ruiz preaches. But that's a big assumption, and we're told not to assume. Interestingly it was my father who turned me on to these agreements. I wonder if the book had never been written and it was I who had suggested writing it, would my critical progenitor have laughed this idea away as well? Hindsight is 20-20 and success is always a sure thing after it happens. But I probably won't write my (Rule)book of Love, because 300 pages is about 299 pages more than I have to say on the matter, and far more pages than people to read it who'd care. And anyone who writes such a sentence has no business getting a book deal anyway.

So on behalf of the book I will never write, I nominate one rule in love, which if you promise yourself always to follow it, romantic fulfillment is guaranteed. And my rule is this: Always tell the truth. First to yourself. Then to your partner. Don't deny, dissimulate, ignore, or sugarcoat. Be blatantly honest, ruthlessly so if need be. It will do you both so much good. If you come from love that's all the sugarcoating your words require.

But keep in mind that the truth as you see it may not be Truth in the absolute sense. There is fact and there is your opinion, and opinions are like assholes - everyone has one (and they usually stink). Just like my father's opinion on what constitutes salable nonfiction. But expressing yours will sure make for some fun discussion, not to mention all sorts of relating, some sorts sweatier than others. And relating is after all what relationships are about anyway.


CHILD'S PLAY

What is the recipe for success? This is the ultimate question, and not because of the assonance. Did you catch that? Recipe. Success. Though spelled differently they sound very much the same. That's what assonance means anyway. Say it aloud three times for yourself and see. 

How to lead the perfect life? What should the ideal be? What are its ingredients? There are as many answers to this question as there are askers and tellers. But who to trust? Famous writers? Religious figures? Choosing someone who is both philosopher and mystic would be best, but so few religious figures wrote anything down, and many a writer has been a no-good, low-down lush. So???? 

There is Tolstoy, however. Heard of him? Familiar with his work? Tolstoy was a count who lived (mostly) in the 19th century, wrote a great many novels (7), and had a great many more kids (14). He also went by Tolstoi, but don't let the name fool you. Same dude. Among his books are the epics War and Peace and Anna Karenina. But it was his nonfiction that had arguably a wider impact, influencing such historical figures as Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. These works, many of them in the form of short treatises, were a product of an intense spiritual conversion Tolstoy underwent in the middle of his life and which transformed him from a worldly man devoted to the senses to a self-denying non-violent disciple of Christ. Of course part of his metamorphosis involved giving away much of his wealth, which made for a tumultuous home life. Ah, the price of charity.

In his book My Religion, Tolstoy lays down five simple ingredients of the ideal life, and since he was both a sybaritic seeker of pleasure on an intense quest for truth who also happened to have a knack for expressing himself eloquently,we'd do well to take heed. Here are Tolstoy's five tips for doing it right.

The first condition of happiness (he writes) is "that the link between man and nature shall not  be severed." This means being outdoors - under the sky, in the sun, breathing pure, clean air and enjoying the fragrant verdure of nature. Tolstoy noted the paradox that the greater one's worldly success, the less one often is able to enjoy the delights of country life. Stuck instead in artificial light, surrounded by the products of industry, and the roar of machinery, breathing an atmosphere heavy with distilled perfumes, weak of stomach and traveling about layered in fabrics and enclosed in stuffy compartments (carriages in Tolstoy's time; cars today) - we are so many "captives shut out from the conditions of happiness." So get out and cultivate your garden, preferably barefoot.

Second, in order to be truly happy, work. Work includes "intellectual labor that one is free to choose and loves." But it must also include "the exercise of physical power that brings a good appetite and tranquil and profound sleep." If you enjoy your work but are like the musician or writer who plies his trade while sitting down, rather than like the athlete or builder who creates while moving around, then you must exercise for its own sake. Exercising outdoors allows you to meet the first condition of happiness, which requires time spent in nature. The moderns would call this "killing two birds."

Thirdly comes the family. Sadly, the more wordly success we achieve, the more we are cut off from domestic pleasures. We leave our kids in the care of strangers (maids), send them off to be brought up by strangers (teachers). So, be a good provider but see that your profession does not obstruct quality time with spouse and kids - especially if you have 14 of them, like Tolstoy. Goodness knows how he found the time to pen his epics!

The fourth condition of happiness is "sympathetic and unrestricted intercourse with all classes of men." And yet the more entrenched we become in our profession, neighborhood, social circle, the more we are cut off from regular exchanges with members of other levels of society. So enter into friendly relations with individuals who are your social superiors as well as with those whom fortune places at your feet. How you do this is up to you. The current flavor du jour is fantasy football, but that's not for me.

Finally, indispensable to happiness is bodily health, which neatly follows from worthwhile creative endeavors combined with hearty physical exertion in nature, plus moderation in alcohol and a simple unprocessed diet - which you can find in my book The Paradigm Diet. Had to get that in somewhere.

So follow Tolstoy's advice and your years will be as long as they are distinguished. Born nearly 200 years ago he lived to be 82, which isn't child's play even by today's standards. Perhaps because he was also doing a lot of it - child's play, that is (criterion 3).

Tolstoy looking like he's straight out of the pages of GQ.

Thursday, January 28, 2016

DON'T TAKE LIFE SITTING DOWN


So the old man sprained his ankle - again. This is the second time in as many years that my father is out with the same injury and unable to walk. Last year it was his right foot and now it's his left. What's strange is there was no frank insult that he can remember. Nothing like a fall or landing funny or stepping on uneven ground, the kind of things you usually think of when you think sprained ankle. After the first injury he was on crutches for nearly a month. This time it's been a couple weeks and he's still mainly sofa-bound. But he has the swelling and discoloration so I know he is not faking it. Or is he? Could it be that there is a psychosomatic component to what appears to be a purely physical ailment? I wonder...

Last year being away from his law office for so many weeks gave rise to thoughts of retirement. My father is almost 77 years old and a dozen years past the traditional retirement age of 65. But he has always been the "die with my boots on" type, joking that he'll breathe his last over a stack of legal documents and expire face down at his desk. But having time on his hands allowed him to consider a different life, one in which work doesn't play such a prominent role. And it would be a major change. Since graduating law school when he was 25 my father has worked from 40 to 60 hours a week almost every week. That's over 50 years, and with hardly any time off for vacation. Even on trips he answers emails and composes legal documents. During this time he has had few hobbies. He was a cyclist for a spell back in the mid 1980s, and sometimes he still hops on the bike for a jaunt around town. But such a sedentary existence as my father's makes working out more difficult rather than less. Though this seems paradoxical. You'd think in a life spent moving from one seat to another, from breakfast table to car to desk and finally to his couch which doubles as a bed, my dad would jump at the opportunity for an hour or so of vigorous activity. Surely he meets the 150-minute weekly minimum recommended by health experts, right? Alas, it is not so.

Because the more time on one's rump, the easier it is to remain sitting. They don't say "an object at rest remains at rest" for nothing. And this sedentary life poses a lot of health risks, as I have written about in another post. Which is why sitting is called the new smoking. And I think that my father's ankle injury stems at least in part from his life of the mind, which I call a life on his behind. Ligaments get lax, muscles get weak, joints get stiff and bones become porous. Not good, not any of it. But society makes sitting so easy. It's moving that is hard to do. Even my portable heater comes with a remote control - to save me the inconvenience of getting up and walking 10 feet to turn it off! So after a full day sitting over paperwork, my father would rather spend his leisure time driving his sports car fast, or watching football, basically doing more of the same (sitting still while staring at something). Anything but move around. And when dad does get in some cardio, it's sitting on his bike. 

Many professions are almost entirely sedentary. If you are not a manual laborer or a performer, then chances are you have a desk job of some sort or another, and chances are you spend the bulk of your time seated at your desk, or standing over it. But standing is only slightly better for you than sitting. Both postures allow blood to pool in the lower extremities, which causes circulatory disorders and can worsen varicose veins. Lying is actually better for your circulation than standing or sitting. And when my father lies down, it's in his lazy boy couch, which is really modified sitting. 

I don't know that many aspiring lawyers, or for that matter doctors, or teachers, or business execs, consider all the sedentary hours their prospective careers entail. If they would maybe they'd think twice about becoming the next professional, even if it means passing up the six-figure salary. But jobs are so structured as to monopolize our time, allowing for little recreation. So that like my father, when it comes time to retire, a person chooses to continue working, for lack of anything better to do. Studying a language or music or taking up painting seems the stuff of adolescence. And so they sit in front of the TV. The average retired person watches about 50 hours per week. That figure deserves a post all of its own. 

I hope my father learns the lesson his ankles are trying to teach him. I hope he exercises more, and sits less, and maybe trades in some work hours for one or more artistic pursuits. I know that these pursuits often involve more time spent standing or sitting. It's hard to get excited about time away from the desk if it only means time at the chair or stool. But at least learning music transports the spirit, or can. You'd think he'd know this. After all my parents put their kids in every extracurricular under the sun, indoor ones too. I had piano and guitar lessons, and karate and judo, as well as summer camp and summer school, anything to keep me busy. But these pursuits were all my mother's doing, not my father's. Nor did my mother participate with her kids. She just watched while we performed. It's true that I lost patience with music because it kept me seated indoors for longer than I cared to when all my friends were running around in the sun. And organized sports (my parents put us in soccer and baseball) certainly have their purpose, but as they get more organized some of the spontaneity is lost. The trick is to achieve the right balance.

A variety of pursuits makes for a very versatile young adult, yet how I wanted to be great at one thing! This was always my biggest lament. Rather than be a jack of all trades I wanted to specialize in something, anything. Little did I know that the specialists often pays for his expertise with tunnel vision and a narrow mind and lack of versatility, plus all the sitting that we've already covered. 

So what to do? How to be well-rounded without spending all day on your rump? That is the million-dollar question, and answering it requires a little creativity, but balance would certainly seem key, I mean a mix of mental and physical pursuits. And that goes for every age. My father's not too old to learn this. Nor am I. I think I'll go hit that piano. I wonder if I can play some standing up.

LIFE'S BIGGEST DECISION

I once asked my father for career advice. You know, that age-old question, "What should I be when I grow up?" I was 20 at the time and after two years of college I was still undeclared. So he broke it down for me. 

"Son," said he, "there are really only three decisions that count in a young man's life." (He meant in a life-shaping way.) "First is the decision of how far to go in school and what to study. Next comes choosing a profession. And finally, selecting a wife. Now, since what you do for a living is a result of your education, and your marriage prospects are influenced by your income, which is a function of your profession, there really is only one decision that counts, and that's how far to go in school. Whether you are content with a high school diploma, or get an associate's degree, go on to earn your college degree, or get a masters, PhD, JD, MD or what have you - your schooling is really the only decision you need concern yourself with. And for that I cannot help you. As a lawyer I can only say, don't do law."

Now my father was speaking 20 years ago and coming from his point of view, like most people. Nowadays the picture is a bit fuzzy because of all the new opportunities, some of them due to the Internet, others to technology and multi-media, that are available to today's young dude. A high school dropout can make $7.50 an hour delivering pizzas for a living, or if he has some ambition and the chips fall in his favor, he hits the lotto in the music or film business and is worth $200 million, like high school dropout Mark Wahlberg, who went back for his diploma in 2013 at the age of a 42. 

For traditional careers, those available during my father's time, yes a college and often times a graduate degree were and still are required. But these careers are few and far between. Law, medicine, academia, science, math and a few other fields pretty much cover it. Computer programming, which didn't exist 50 years ago, doesn't always require a bachelor's degree. Sometimes an associate's degree will do. And in the Internet age, more and more people are becoming self-taught and ditching the traditional classroom-based education altogether. It's pricy and impractical and can be boring. Hello YouTube.

But let's assume that my father's words still hold true, and that a young person's life is shaped by these three basic decisions. And because the first of these sets the stage for what follows, let's allow that life all boils down to your education. I think it would be best to delay this choice for as long as possible. By taking time off after high school (Eurorail passes were big when I was in my teens), or by staying in school longer, if higher education is your ultimate choice. Or even enter the working world for a few years in one's late teens/early 20s. Since the education you will get in the laboratory of life is often more valuable and engaging than what you learn in the lecture auditorium. And while you pay for your college education, being part of the work force allows you to earn as you learn. 

But there's another benefit to playing the waiting game. Delaying your career choice just a bit longer allows you to buy a bit extra time before "settling down." Such a nasty term. Like a hot air balloon that can no longer fly free because it has run out of gas. I'm sure that married life brings with it many joys, hopefully more joys than cares, but since the decision of who to marry, and ultimately whether to have kids, and how many, is determined by what you do for a living which is shaped by what you study, and getting married later in life is associated with a higher likelihood of staying married, then it is in a person's best interest to wait.

Of course childbearing is a decision my father left off his list of life-shapers. He believed it is ultimately the woman's choice whether to be a parent and if so how many kids to have. After all, it is the female who must carry her little burden around for 9 months; it is mom who often does the bulk of the care-taking, at least traditionally. Sadly times are changing and dads are helping out more, as are hired hands (read: strangers). This is somewhat of a shame, or can be. When I imagine what my upbringing would have been like had my father been more of the hands-on type, the word "basket case" comes to mind to describe me. Dad took us to Disneyland once when we were kids and didn't say a word the entire time. When it came to raising us, the man was all thumbs and left feet. While mom was so much more fun. Dad was a great provider (and stern disciplinarian), and I thank him to no end for the former.

And so I say, wait! And it seems that people are listening. Even if they don't read this blog. Because we find that the average age at which a woman becomes a mother is currently at an all-time high. In the U.S., women are waiting until age 26 to give birth to their first child. This is an increase of 3.3 years since 1980, when the average was under 23. And waiting is a good thing. Because with years comes experience, and with reflection on experience follows wisdom, and it's good for parents to be wise. 

My dad was 34 and my mother 28 when I was born. I am 42 and still don't know what I want to be when I grow up. Which is why in part I feel forever young, and also why I am still single - at least in part. But Jeff Goldblum recently had his first kid and he's 63. So I have time. Of course Goldblum's net worth is $40 million. And I don't have any money. Better get on it or stay single. But this points to a fatal flaw in my father's sage advice, which contains a glaring assumption. At least it's glaring to me now, though it wasn't when I was 20. And I'm not talking about the implication that a woman will heavily weigh a man's net worth in her decision whether to marry him, because this is true. That in mating selections women seek security first while men seek beauty has been recognized since the time of Charles Darwin, if not long before. Instead I speak of the assumption that a person will want to get married in the first place! Because if you don't, your career choice need not be guided by anything but your happiness, and you are free to study what you want, for as long as you want, whether it will make you any money or not. All bets are off, and you are free. And free is such a nice thing to be. Even if it means you are alone like me. Start being your own best friend today. Just don't tell anybody.


NEVERLAND


Side by side fell asleep two young lovers. One of them dreamed that together the couple took a trip to an exotic island. Such a fun place, where they got to stay in a quaint cabin along the beach and eat tropical fruits all day, and all night bask in the warm glow of passion's embrace. In the morning when they woke up, the dreamer turned to his partner and said, "Wasn't that fun?" Of course, the other had no idea what he was talking about, so the dreamer recounted the adventure. "That was your dream," his lover replied. "It was all in your head. I passed the night in deep sleep."

And so it is. Some of us like to think that our dreams take us to far away places where we interact with old friends or perhaps even the spirits of dearly departed loved ones. When in fact we never leave our bodies at all. Like day dreams, flights of fancy, and fits of inspiration, night dreams are figments of the imagination, I hate to burst your bubble. And as proof I offer you the nocturnal emission, a phenomenon you may or may not be familiar with, even if you are a male, and then, only maybe. 

The wet dream takes the dreamer on an amorous quest of its own, where the subject experiences the caresses and the charms of fair and not so fair damsels until on the point of full release - the subject wakes up and wets his sheets. Now, if it were true that the spirit was off in fantastic realms experiencing these irresistible adventures, then why should the physical body he has supposedly left behind be at all affected? It wouldn't be, unless of course the spirit at all times remains tethered to the body. Which it does, whether awake or asleep. So your flights of fancy may appear to take you to a land far away, but neverland is never real. It still is fun to imagine, and to dream, and despite the clean-up required, sometimes even to achieve a full release.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

WHAT TO BE OR NOT TO BE


My aunt and uncle visited for brunch this past Sunday. They brought their 20-year-old son, Austin. After two years at the University of Boulder with shall we say, "less than flying colors," Austin is back home and enrolled at the local community college.

Going into the get-together that's all I knew, and aware as I am that young adults can have thin skin I approached the young man gingerly. "How's Colorado?" is how I chose to broach the subject. From this question flowed a torrent of information. I learned of Austin's new-found passion for the piano, and his desire to pursue a career in the recording industry. Thence followed a three-hour-long discussion about whether or not it is in Austin's best interest to earn a degree or even remain in school, given his particular interests and the current collegiate climate, if you will. 

Austin will be taking general education requirements while at Pierce, to pad his GPA and prepare him for a four-year college with a better music program than Boulder had to offer, and we hope better weather than their six-months of snow. Because SAD is a real condition, look it up. I suggested he research one or two music execs whose career he'd like to emulate, and possibly even work at a studio, even as an intern. Such experience could go far in helping him identify whether music is truly his passion or merely the flavor of the week, a whim or caprice. 

And why music anyway? This question was one of the few I somehow neglected to ask. What I do know is Austin's father, my Uncle Jamiel, had been a member of a high school garage-type band before becoming a lawyer. But that's really the only connection, if it even is a connection. Austin played drums for a while in grammar school, but he neglected to try out for the band, nor did he hang out with music buffs. He mostly played football, some lacrosse, and skated. So why not be the next Tony Hawk? I asked in partial jest. Because there really is only one Tony Hawk. It's that hard to make it as a professional skater. (And I'd wager it's almost as hard to make it in the recording business.) In the course of the conversation the 10,000-hour rule came up. About how it takes 10 years of four hours of daily practice on your own to make you an expert in anything. If Austin had stayed with drums, he'd be Tommy Lee today. Or Tony Hawk to the skating world. Practice makes perfect. But like so many other interests, Austin has since given drumming and skating up.

So, what to be or not to be. That's the question. 

I stand by my position, which is that a college degree is a practical choice only if you choose a career that requires a college degree, and most careers requiring one also require a graduate degree. Like law, and academics, and science. And medicine, but only sometimes. The only job that I can think of where you need at least a college degree but not necessarily more is teaching, and then only at the primary and secondary levels (through high school). And who wants to be a teacher??? I'm kidding. There are many great role models eager to shape eager minds. After trying for two years, I'm just not one of these. 

Austin's father wants him to choose a profession that provides financial security. But should money really be the number one priority? Granted, fulfilling basic necessities is an essential consideration, but what about happiness? And in fact after a certain income level, happiness level actually goes down. And the income is not that high ($75K, in case you're wondering). In fact, there are better predictors of emotional health, including health, which as I found in my medical training is often sacrificed at the altar of the almighty dollar. 

Many of these jobs (those a graduate degree will get you) offer as a lure more money than you really need. And what about a college education? I argued that having a college degree doesn't necessarily get you a higher salary than you'd earn with merely a high school diploma. Not true, said my uncle. "The data shows that those in the work force with a college degree earn more than those without one," he said. I do not doubt this, but among the college graduates studied are lumped those who go on to get graduate degrees, confounding the results. It is a no-brainer that the average lawyer or doctor or PhD will earn more money than the average high school drop out (if he can get a job, and right now there are more lawyers than jobs in law). But I am willing to wager that if you compare adults who have gone no farther than college with students who have gone no farther than high school you get incomes that aren't all that different. Think of all the waiters and Uber drivers and police officers and firefighters, and real estate agents, and so many other jobs where the college grad and the high school grad are on even ground.

So if you're goal in attending college (specifically the four-year university) is to make money, and Jamiel is suggesting that this is what Austin's goal should at least in part be, you (and Austin) must know that you will have to then pursue a masters or PhD to fulfill this goal and make it rich, and then only maybe. If going to or staying in school is simply to please your parents or to conform with society, as it may be for Austin, say so! But remember that happiness is the key, and it comes from doing what you love. And unless you know, as did my uncle, who decided to practice law while still in high school (and for the money), that college is the only path that leads to your destination, since lawyers need a bachelors, you won't necessarily be satisfied with those four years, which are less the destination than a necessary step in the right direction. But if your goal is to find what you love to do, you may very well not find it in a lecture auditorium. 

And I told Austin so much. As an undergrad, I took classes in English, art history, foreign language, psychology, communications, linguistics and a host of other fields before settling on history because not having found anything that really interested me I knew history was the quickest way for me to earn a degree, and that would please my parents. But college can be a sorry waste of time if your heart is not into it, as wasn't mine. My uncle loved college because it was his choice to go. He wasn't a student to please others. Where Austin stands is to be determined. He is a soft-spoken young man who doesn't lay his cards on the table. I wonder if he even has a full hand. At 20 he shouldn't be expected to know the answer to the question asked of all kids his age (and they are kids, not old enough to drink): what do you want to be when you grow up? He's still developing.

So I said use the vigor of youth to do things you won't have the gumption to do ten years from now. You who have dragon's blood flowing in your veins (in men testosterone peaks at around age 20). Work odd jobs. Travel. Make mistakes. You're young and resilient. Do it before embarking on a path it will be hard to get off of down the road should you desire to try something else, hard because you'll likely have a spouse and kids and mortgage and all the other things we acquire with time. 

I wish Austin luck. I don't even know if he wanted my two cents, though he listened politely to everything I had to say. Afterwards I sent him a YouTube video of early Elvis singing "Treat Me Nice." The King sings to piano accompaniment, which would be perfect for Austin to learn to play. He could be the next Biebler. That is certainly better than taking a bunch of general courses he enrolled in just to fill up time. At least it will make for a unique experience, which is more than is offered in the average college classroom.

Anyway I found myself thinking about the kids I grew up with, and what became of them. This is me not being very scientific, since the sample size is small (10 or so), and the population is limited to the upper and upper-middle classes - in other words my "subjects" are members of such families who could afford to live in Beverly Hills, where I did two years of high school, or to send their children to a private high school that now costs nearly $20,000 a year to attend (I'm talking Loyola, where I did the other two).

There's Pete. Who got a bachelor's at USC before entering the family business. His dad and older brother develop property and own apartments, and that's what Pete does. College degree optional.

There's Jason, who does the same, and who's father before him also bought, fixed and sold houses. Jason barely graduated high school.

There's Bryan, who played baseball in college and got a job with a consulting firm through a teammate. If college helped, it was via connection. (Consulting jobs often do require college degrees, but as with many jobs of the same, I cannot understand who in their right mind would ever want such a career. Bryan has a family to support, which I guess is his alibi.)

There's DJ, whose parents owned a small business. DJ got into drugs in college. He eventually graduated college, though it took him 8 or so years. He's still into drugs.

Jeff went into investment banking like his businessman father. But a serious illness caused him to question this profession and consider other pursuits. Last I heard he is a part-owner of a doughnut franchise. Once a businessman, always one.

Steve became a doctor as he had dreamed of becoming in high school. His father is a psychologist.

Jonah's father played in the NBA. Jonah quit college basketball, and then quit college. Since then he has held a bunch of jobs in sales where a college degree is optional. He was also for a time a very successful male model.

Pablo's father was a film director. Pablo didn't even graduate high school. He went into film himself until legal troubles sent him back to Europe where he is originally from. I'm not sure what trouble he's getting into these days.

Then there's Bliss. His parents met as premedical students during the hippie era. They dropped out to live closer to nature. His father grows sprouts. They raised their son to be ambitious. He graduated from Harvard and studied law at the University of San Francisco. He does not practice law. The position he holds at a beverage company certainly doesn't require a JD, though the degree may have helped him land the job. Maybe it even earned him more money, but only maybe.

And Pat studied history with me at UCLA before entering his family's business. Leather goods, if I remember correctly. We have since lost contact.

Danny's father wanted him to go into the family's textile business. Instead he got a PhD in psychology and runs his own autism clinic and is doing well for himself.

Conversely, Fred's father wanted him to go into the family's medical business, but instead of becoming a doctor he went into textiles and is doing well for himself.

So what to make of all this? If there is a pattern, it seems the greatest factor in determining what career a kid (in this case a well-to-do boy) will choose is what his father does. Pete and Jason and Pablo and Pat testify to this. And the pool man, Paul, who took over his father's cleaning concern. Austin does not want to be a lawyer like his father, so by the process of elimination we are a step closer to truth. But what a small step it is! Because after that it's anybody's guess, as far as trends are concerned. 

One thing is sure: you can only want to do something you've been exposed to, and often it is what you're exposed to not in the classroom but in the real world that makes the strongest impression. Which is all the more reason to get out there and explore. With Austin's father, he saw how much money his big brother (my father) made and chose law that he might have the same. What he didn't foresee was my father's practice taking a dive, so that when he (Jamiel) became a lawyer there wasn't a place for him in the firm, which meant working out of the library, and sitting in gridlocked traffic to and from the Hollywood office, watching the days go by from the window of the new car he couldn't afford.

There is theory and there is practice. And practice makes perfect. The only way to get good at what you do is to do it. I  just hope with his busy schedule that Austin finds the time.

THE ART OF GROOMING


In high school some girls wondered whether I was gay. It's understandable. I wore tight shirts. I gave myself facials and made liberal use of lip balm and moisturizers. And I was always meticulously groomed. Most of my friends were not meticulously groomed; that is, unless they had learned a thing or two from me. But I was not gay in sexual preference, and having spent time with a lot of gay guys, I can say that in one other respect do we also differ. I am well groomed without appearing to look like I spend much time grooming, where if taken to an extreme an assiduous toilet, in the parlance of an age gone by, can be so obvious as to call attention to itself. And this is never a good thing. I mean eyebrows so pencil-thin as to be obviously plucked, even a beard that looks trimmed and sculpted. All this screams "I try too hard." The methods should never outshine the man. 

I came by my grooming honestly. My mother turned me onto skin toner when I was ten. She had three boys but by attending so diligently to our hygienic habits you'd wonder that she might have been better served by having girls. Not to say I am not grateful, although sometimes her methods hurt so good. She was popping my blackheads at 15. Retin-A followed at 17, as did masques, and scrubs, and buff puffs. Not to mention all sorts of gels, creams, and moisturizers. At my mother's prompting I "naired" my upper lip at 12 and suffered a second-degree burn for days. I started tweezing my eyebrows around the same time. I first trimmed my pubic hair at 13, using a pair of thinning shears for lack of anything more suitable to the task, and my mother took her electric clippers (which she also used to cut my brother's and my hair, my father's too) to my legs at 17. Hello manscaping. 

Thereafter followed nose hair clippers, as a Christmas gift of course, because what teen doesn't need a trusty pair? By 13 I was cutting my own hair, and my brother's too. I learned by trial and error. They suffered at my expense, as did I. More than once I went to school with bald spots, usually around my temples. I must have got pretty good at cutting hair, because by 17 I had sculpted the "dos" of most of the guys on my baseball team. I essentially gave everyone my own hairstyle, which could be described as a bowl-cut, slicked back, with long side-burns. I started shaving my chest at 18, and at 20 had shaved my entire body. After college I moved in with three buddies and shared all my grooming tips, which I now offer to you. My brothers may have paid the price for my trial and error, but if you wish to be well-groomed without looking like you give a damn, read with care and reap the benefits.

First, the essential tools. And happily they are few. You will need a pair of scissors; tweezers; nail tools consisting of clippers (large-sized, so you can use the same pair for both fingers and toes), cuticle pusher and nipper and a nail file; fine-toothed hair comb; wooden paddle hair brush; electric hair clippers are optional.

Cosmetic supplies include a body buff and loufe/body brush;  a buff puff and or/facial scrub; glycerin soap; aloe vera gel; and vegetable oil for moisturizer (preferably olive oil); shampoo/conditioner and lip balm brands are up to you, as are deodorant and cologne, should you choose to use these. Make sure your deodorant has an antimicrobial, since those products whose ingredients only mask odor (such as Axe body sprays) are usually ineffective. But as any expert on the matter can attest, body odor is a function of one's daily habits, especially influenced by diet and exercise, so eat less meat and sweat more, and it won't matter whether you guard right or left.

You will notice that each of the above tools wears many hats. The scissors can be used to trim side burns, nose hairs, whiskers, and hair of the head and body. When trimming the nose hairs, your goal is merely to trim those hairs which obtrude from the nostrils. The goal is not to eliminate nose hair altogether, since nose hair serves an important function. It is to nose hairs that dust and other debris cling. And without some hair in your nasal passages you can expect to make a living off of sneezing. So much blowing and wiping can cause skin chafing and flaking not to mention noise pollution - that is if you have a honker like me.

Employ the use of the fine-toothed comb to trim both eyebrows and sideburns, taking care not to cut the eyebrows too short. Simply comb them upwards and trim the ends of stray hairs. Well-trimmed sideburns are a poor man's haircut. The tweezers are the well-groomed gentleman's best friend. Use them to eliminate the unibrow, and to shape the eyebrows, taking care to remain faithful to your eyebrows' natural lines, and not to over-pluck. You can be expected to overdo it initially, but some trial and error must be expected. Take heart: they grow back!

Judicious use of tweezers can make your eyes appear larger than they are. Use the tweezers for those pesky hairs atop the ears and for those that sprout from the cheekbones, as well as hairs that appear on the shoulders and back. I use mine to pluck stray gray hairs from my head, beard, and testicles, truth be told. But do not pluck out nose hairs, unless you want to bring on a fit of sneezing.

A manicure and a pedicure are a man's boon companions, and self-applied are the poor-man's best friend. Use toenail clippers to cut both fingernails and those of the toes, leaving only the barest smidgen of white nail exposed. Your sweetheart will approve of your efforts, since long toe nails can be like so many daggers delivered under the sheets. Let your battles there be only of the up and own and in and out variety, and breaking skin is poor form. Besides, long nails attract dirt and grit, which are especially unseemly. Next, file your nails. Before pushing back the cuticle soak in a mixture of water, soap and olive oil. Then, using a good pair of cuticle scissors, trim away excess skin to expose the half-moon. Finish with a dab of oil, for moisturizing. Do this once weekly. 

I think it best to wash the head hair two to three times weekly, and always to follow a good shampooing with adequate conditioning. Take care to keep your conditioner on the hair for the proper length of time, to reap full moisturizing benefits. Use glycerin soap and a body buff to wash your body, taking extra care with the pits. Follow this with a wet loufa or body brush, scrubbing vigorously to eliminate dead skin, but do not use soap a second time, or your skin will become over-dry. Pat your body dry with a cotton towel after showering, and use a vegetable oil as a moisturizer immediately, applying liberally to arms and legs when they are still damp, to seal in the moisture. 

The face is an area all its own, and you can largely combat the effects of aging with a regimen that is simple and easy. A good exfoliant is key. I like a buff puff with soap, or an apricot scrub, using each on alternate days. Apply in circular motions, avoiding the eyes and attending to the neck. On days you use soap, be sure to wash in and behind your ears. This and a towel dry are all your ears need. No Q-tips necessary. Wash your face in the shower so the skin is softened and the pores opened. Rinse with cold water and pat dry. Next, apply an astringent (Sea Breeze, Witch Hazel, or Neutrogena) on a washcloth and massage the face, again with circular motions. This completes the exfoliation process, while at the same time toning and invigorating the skin, and closing the pores. 

It goes without saying that should you choose to shave, shaving should be done after washing and before toning. If you use a good razor, then you can let your skin soap double as shaving cream, since the latter blocks pores and invites black-heads, I find. In the winter I prefer a dense beard, which saves on razors. If you grow a beard, let the goatee portion grow longer than your whiskers. Think of the beard as a frame for a goatee, and trim only once a week. Otherwise you look like a dandy. After the astringent, apply a dollop of aloe vera gel plus a dime-sized portion of olive oil. This will give your face a smoothness and shine that cannot be beat. Running a small amount of olive oil in the hair and over the lips will extend its benefits. Note too that longer hair requires less treatment, and contrary to popular opinion requires less care and attention, than shorter styles. Even the popular buzz haircut necessitates bimonthly visits to the barber, while shoulder length hair calls for little more than a twice-per-year trim that even a novice can perform on himself.

As for manscaping, I recognize that it has become a recent craze. I am an all-or-nothing sort. I advocate taking a razor to the entire body, including pits, two to three times weekly, perhaps during the summer months and especially if you are a competitive athlete. Otherwise I let the body hair grow like grass. Whether or not you choose to avail yourself of electric clippers depends on how hairy you are. These clippers can also be used on your beard and with practice you can cut your own hair. Just be prepared to make a bald spot. One or two are bound to ensue. As with everything there's a learning curve, but now you have your lesson.

As regards dental hygiene I leave the matter to the reader's discretion. I'll only say that hydrogen peroxide cannot be beat as a rinse, and whether you choose paste or gel, just remember to brush your tongue, and to floss.

ALL IN A GOOD NIGHT'S SLEEP

Strangest dream last night. One of many actually. I was on a carnival ride, rapidly spinning through the air. Conjure a ferris wheel having a child with the teacups at Disneyland and you can envision the ride I was on. But there were no seats. It was simply grab on. But at the same time I was trying to descend the flight of stairs that was somehow part of the ride, ludicrous though this may seem. I was eating a watermelon and dropping chunks as I descended. But this bit of sloppiness made the steps, which were plastic and smooth, slippery. An old couple followed me down. I looked down to notice I was wearing black patent leather shoes that looked the same but on closer inspection were different. One had a pointy toe, while the other was square-tipped.

Then without warning the ride malfunctioned and we found ourselves hurling through the air at a dizzying speed, struggling to hold on to whatever we could grab onto, in my case a pole, knowing that should we let go we'd fall several stories to our death. I said a prayer and held on for dear life, all the while watching as my possessions were flung from me. These included my wallet, loose change (all quarters), my quilted jacket and the gray wool sweater I had on underneath. 

The ride was fixed and we at last came to a stop. Only we were no longer high in the air but firmly on the ground. So even if I had let go there would have been nowhere to fall. I was safe all along. 

I went in search of my possessions, which park employees had collected and stored safely in a "lost and found" type area. Eventually I found my wallet and my jacket, but not the loose change or the sweater. Which was OK, since the sweater has holes. I looked in my wallet to find my ID and social security card missing. But I went through my plastic cards and found them at the back of the pile. I was relieved. This gave way to the next in a series of strange dreams that would follow. 

First I was with my high school chum and baseball teammate DJ. I was visiting him and his girlfriend someplace unfamiliar. She was cool and standoffish to me, as if I'd offended her in some way. For this reason he was not able to spend nearly as much time with me as we both would have liked. But we did try out this fancy new workout equipment. It was all round weights and spikes and ball-bearings, looking like a medieval instrument of torture. If you touched it the wrong way it delivered a very unpleasant shock. But if you handled it correctly it stimulated all your muscles and provided quite the workout.

Then I found myself the running mate of the nominee for US president, played by US Secretary of State John Kerry. I complimented him on how lean he was, and at 72 no less. In real life Kerry is an avid cyclist, and it showed in the dream. We were on stage about to make a speech in front of a huge crowd in some arena. I was nervous. No one ever seems to listen to what I have to say, but in the speech I was about to give the whole world would be listening, so I'd better deliver. The speaker before us was a neighbor from down the street; she could be Oprah Winfrey's little sister, only thin and pretty. She gave a hell of an address. To top that we had our hands full. I'd never find out, because...

The next moment I was in the audience with my father. We were watching the proceedings in lawn chairs set up on the sidewalk by where I live, in Westwood. I saw another neighbor as she walked her dog. We pretended not to notice each other. Later on I saw her come out of her house and we became very friendly; she invited me inside. She led me to the couch as if I'd been there hundreds of times and asked about "Frankie." Is his son still living with him, she wanted to know, "because I'm wondering whether I should f#@# him." I sat next to her and said "I want to f#@#$ you" and before she could answer I planted one on her lips. Wish fulfillment? I'll never know, because I woke up just as things were really getting interesting.

As they say, all in a good night's sleep.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

WORDS OF LOVE

Everybody wishes to be happy. Never is the human race more united than in this simple truth. Together we stand, open-armed, hands clasped, in praise and in prayer and in search for this simple or not so simple aim. For each and every one of us, the ultimate end of all our endeavors is the same, and it is happiness. Yet how we set about achieving it is where we differ, and markedly. Indeed there are as many methods as there are individuals. 

Some seek fame and fortune. These believe that once they are rich and famous, happiness will follow. Not necessarily. Elvis Presley, who knew these twin achievements so intimately, sang about fame and fortune, and "how empty they can be." The King himself called them "only passing things." 



For Elvis, and for many before and since, love is the real treasure "to hold, so much greater than silver and gold." Elvis sang a lot about love, as did the Beatles.  You can tell by the titles of their songs. "All You Need Is Love. And I Love Her. All My Loving. Because I Know You Love Me So. Can't Buy Me Love. Hallelujah, I Love Her So. I'm in Love. It's Only Love. Love Me Do. Love of the Loved. Love You To. PS I Love You. Real Love. She Loves You. So How Come (No One Loves Me). Soldier of Love. Step Inside Love. To Know Her Is to Love Her." And my favorite, the little-known ditty "Words of Love." 



Which explains in part the spectacular success of Elvis and the Beatles, because they sang what so many of us feel. Who can't relate to Dean Martin when he crooned, "Everybody loves somebody sometime, and although my dreams were overdue, your love made it all worth waiting for someone like you"? And so we marry, often for love, but not always, and often we break up. Like Elvis, and many others both before and since. And we wonder with the Blackeyed Peas, "Where is the Love?"

Some authors question the feasibility and finality of true love. For some, these authors say, the romantic quest is merely a "misplaced desire to reunite with God." Although many romantics seek to find their "other half," or "soul mate," love represents a reunion with the Source. It is spiritual, a merging with the One Eternal Absolute. These authors are clearly not the writers of love songs.

And so we have the spiritual aspirants and the religious persons of the world (and perhaps a few frustrated lovers) who turn their attention to divinity, and seek fulfillment, perhaps by means of rituals and creeds, and through the worship of some deity or other. 

How to judge whether a person's religion or spirituality is any good? I suppose if it makes you happy to pray, or to make obeisance, "it can't be that bad," as Sheryl Crow sings. But how to judge happiness? Surely not by a smile, since looks can be deceiving. By an inner feeling of well-being? A sense of tranquility or serenity? Feelings can also be fleeting and vague. And unreliable. Is the blissful heroin user happy or just addicted to his fix? 

I ask this because I often think about my upbringing, which was one in which organized religion was forced down my throat, and with two fists. I was sent to Catholic school, where I was made to study scripture all week and serve Mass on Sundays. I was also taken to Sunday School, where we prayed and sang songs to an Indian holy man named Sai Baba. During my formative years (ages 8 to 20) I  also made several trips to his ashram in southern India. In four of the five trips, I had no choice in the matter. I simply had to tag along. My father applied what he called "benevolent despotism" in the raising of his three boys. 

Now he (my dad) attributes most of the good he may have done in the world to the influence of Sai Baba, who he has said taught him how to be a parent. That it was by applying Sai Baba's teachings as a parent that my father fulfilled his fatherly duties. 

Fair enough. But I have two questions. First, how my father would have been different if not for Sai's influence. And also, how my brothers and I would have differed, had, say, Catholic school alone sufficed for our religious rearing. It's hard to determine. I can't peer into the parallel universe in which a version of me raised by Christian parents is in his forties. So I'll have to get creative. My father has a younger brother who is very much like him. Jamiel was born under the same zodiac sign as my father, only 10 years later. They both became lawyers. Both married Latin women and had two kids before having affairs with lighter skinned women with whom they sired additional children. My father remarried a second time, outdoing his younger brother, or falling behind in the moralist's sense. For a time they both wore mustaches. Jamiel still does.

Jamiel even emulated my father in adopting vegetarianism in the decade or two after my father was inspired by Sai Baba to do so. Only Jamiel later gave it up. My father still shuns meat. But Jamiel never bought into the whole India thing. I don't know that Jamiel practices any form of organized religion. My grandparents raised him and my father in the Eastern Orthodox faith. But I don't think he attends church. I have had many chats with my uncle, and religion has never come up. With my father hardly a conversation goes by in which Sai Baba's name doesn't get mentioned. How my father likes his anecdotes! I know them by heart.

Now my father first went to see Sai Baba just after I was born in 1973. By this time he had had an affair on his first wife and married my mother. He became a clean liver raising his kids. We were vegetarians like him, didn't smoke, and hardly drank. There was not much alcohol in the house. (One time when me and my buddy Brian wanted to get drunk all we could find was a bottle of Cognac. Six shots each and we were stone cold sober and not yet sixteen. Says something.) He was a dutiful dad. It could be argued that he would have been such without Sai's influence. He was in his 30s when his second generation of kids were born, had mellowed with age and learned from his mistakes. It is not uncommon for newly minted dads to choose the straight and narrow path, with or without religious prompting. But after my brother Justin passed away in 1996 my father returned to his lying cheating ways, despite all he had learned about duty from Sai. I don't know how much an effect spirituality has had on his behavior in the years since Justin's death. Or what effect it has had on his happiness. I hope he is happy. But happiness is hard to detect, even though (and we must not forget) it's what religion and every other pursuit is ultimately about. 

As for me, I wonder what life would have been like had instead of all those trips to India and Sunday school experiences, I had just spent time with my family, or been allowed to play outside, or sing love songs. Since happiness is the goal and it seems so closely linked to love, and since religion and spirituality don't necessarily imply love, at least not how they are (imperfectly) practiced, maybe a simpler existence would have been more fulfilling. Maybe it would have even been happier. 

I look at my cousins, Jamiel's children. All four of them are good kids. Yes they've had little set-backs, it's part of growing up. But they love each other and love and respect their dad though he didn't make nearly such an ado about instilling religion in them. Contrast this with me and my siblings. It was very stormy at the Dave residence growing up, I will just say that. And Justin had a lot of problems, which he wore on his sleeve. Boy was a terror. I don't know what effect Sai Baba had on him, but if it was a positive one, and he would have been worse off without India, then I shudder to think what he might have become. Move over Manson. Just kidding - kind of. Alas, only those who live in that parallel universe will ever know the answer to what if. My surviving brother and I ostensibly couldn't be any more different, despite similar upbringings. George has three cars, multiple houses, and spends most of his time making money. While I do not.

I know all these words are merely mental jumping jacks. Idle speculation. A thought experiment. Call it what you will. Because like everything else that has happened, my upbringing was just right and exactly as it should have been. It couldn't have been any different. And if it could have been different, now that it's done I can't possibly change it. But I can say that if I ever had kids there'd be some changes. Obviously, since I am not my father.

Of course, it was in India that I probably learned what Hindus believe above all else, and this is that happiness is our very nature. They call it ananda, or bliss. So really there is nothing to search for, not in temple, church, mosque or ashram, because you already are what you seek. This notion gives me peace, but it came at such a high price - and I'm not just talking about the airfare.

It has been said that morality is not a function of religion. That you are kind to others not because some doctrine says to, but because you are happy. So be happy. And if happiness is a function of love, then choose love. And if it helps, listen to Elvis and the Beatles, but only sometimes. And always respect mom and dad. Because Lord knows how they try.

Saturday, January 23, 2016

BLACK MEN CAN'T ACT

Imagine if tomorrow a new movie came out with the title Black Men Can't Act. Everywhere there would resound cries of racism. Hashtags like #hollywoodkkk would abound. But what difference does such a title have from the title of the movie starring Woody Harrelson and Wesley Snipes: White Men Can't Jump. Both pronouncements proclaim a racially-based deficiency. Leaving aside the question of its truth, the title is funny, and the movie was too. I don't recall any racist accusations back in 1992 when the picture hit the screens.

I bring this up because it is Oscar season, and journalists and entertainers alike are screaming at the injustice that of the 10 best actor nominees, all are white, and for the second year in a row! Spike Lee is boycotting the ceremony, as is Jada Pinkett Smith. George Clooney laments that the film industry is "moving in the wrong direction," by not giving more opportunity to nonwhite filmmakers.

In the spirit of equal opportunity and uniform representation, I hereby announce the formation of a committee to get more whites elected to the NBA All-Star team. Because of the 10 starters on last year's squads, only 2 were white! Well, 2.5, if you count Blake Griffin.



And while we're at it, I'd like to see more Mexicans win the NFL MVP, because not one of the 16 players receiving this honor since the year 2000 has been a Hispanic. And you know what, 11 of these 16 are white. While only 5 black players have been named football's most valuable player during the last decade and a half. But wait, of the 51 football wide receivers I counted only 3 whites, making whites the minority in this category. Let's change the subject.

Why should the fastest player in the NFL combine every year be a black person? This is outrageous, and I myself am black, tracing my ancestry back to my namesake Adam, who was both the first man and the first black man. Props! But I am also an egalitarian, and I proclaim that we need more whites to run fast and to jump high. And while we're at it, maybe some Jews too, and some Arabs.

Also, I happen to think it is an utter outrage that the NHL championship team, the Chicago Blackhawks, featured not a single person of color. And the 25 greatest triathletes of all time, excelling in running, swimming, and biking, are all white. Preposterous! Where's my Twitter hashtag on this! 



Any committee that called for such a measure would be laughed off the field, court and ice. Why, because professional athletes are selected to All-Star teams and win championships based on merit. In any given year black players outnumber and outplay whites in football and basketball, while whites generally outnumber and outplay blacks in hockey and soccer (the MLS champion Portland Timbers boast more white players than black); and Latins are well-represented in baseball - especially if we consider players from the Dominican Republic and Cuba to be Latin, although many look like Africans. Consider my favorite player, the Cuban Yasiel Puig. Black or Hispanic, you be the judge.


There are more black players in the NBA by a long shot. And it is therefore understandable that blacks receive the highest honors the league has to offer, and the biggest paychecks. That's simple math. The question of why there are more of one race than another in any given sport, or for that matter in any profession, has many facets. Maybe minorities come from lower income communities where parental supervision is less than what it is in more privileged neighborhoods so children are allowed to play on their own, which increases the chances of juvenile delinquency on the one hand, and athletic excellence on the other. If you have time to kill after school you can hang out with hoodlums or burn off energy on the playground. 

Maybe many kids see athletics as a ticket out of poverty and into opportunity. Had I had more athletic ability, I'd have chosen sports over a graduate degree, you can bet your buns. Sports are much more fun. And maybe the images we have of athletes is self-perpetuating. We see ads for Michael Jordan's shoes and whatever LeBron happens to be selling, and if you're a kid, especially a black kid, you think: now there's a role model, a trail blazer, something for me to achieve. Hell, maybe blacks are just better at basketball. There is evidence of a sprint gene that makes those who possess it naturally faster than others. Jamaican athletes are among those with a higher prevalence of the gene. Hello, Usain Bolt. This is not to take anything away from his accomplishments, which involve a crap load of work, to be sure. And Bolt may not even have the sprint gene. But does he have the one for penis size?



Actors are boycotting the Oscars in support of their unrepresented races. But if the call for more whites in the NBA All-Star game were answered, I can bet far fewer viewers would tune in. Far fewer white viewers too. Because such a match wouldn't feature the best players. To make room for other races, the likes of LeBron, and for that matter half of Blake Griffin, would have to move aside. Boring.

Which brings us to the question: Can blacks act? Well, can whites jump? Larry Bird could. And Danny Ainge. And Steve Nash. But not all whites can jump. Some have no athletic ability whatsoever. I've seen uncoordinated persons of color too. I had a black buddy in college that had a perfect body, sculpted out of granite; when we put him on the football field he couldn't catch a pass. Earned the nickname "Butterfingers" real quick. And not all whites can act, nor can all blacks. But Forest Whitaker can, and Will Smith and Morgan Freeman and Oprah can. 

You see, we cannot generalize to race. We can only consider specific cases. And that's what the Academy is supposed to do. The members (94% of whom are white, and the vast majority male, it must be said) must look at the best movies, and from these select the most moving performances. If there are fewer blacks and Hispanics in these movies, that is not the Academy's problem. Why so few films feature minorities is a question Hollywood will have to answer, and in doing so they will certainly encounter the racism question. But they shouldn't have to. Maybe it's simply the case that fewer blacks and Latinos want to act. There's an idea. Not everyone views film making as a career worth having. I've heard it said that the camera steals one's soul. I for one wouldn't act if you paid me. Not that anyone's offering. 

Or maybe it's just because they're too busy playing sports. Or watching animated films. And why wasn't young Riley, the cartoon character from the hit movie Inside Out, nominated for an award? I hereby call for a committee!

Friday, January 22, 2016

LESSONS FOR LIFE


The other day I was casually conversing with a friend when the subject of politics came up. This makes me feel old. As a kid, whenever my elders made mention of presidential candidates and executive decisions I'd scurry into the other room. Old people's talk. And growing up my love of sports and sheer physicality saved me, for rather than sit with the adults and be conditioned by their idle chatter I'd go outside with my peers and play. It made for a strong body and a bias-free mind. And now that I'm in my 40s, and my interlocutors tend to be my age or older, I can't seem to avoid the subject of who will win the race, and which candidate says what about the ultimate fate of our great nation. 

So I asked my friend who he thinks will win the next election. "Trump," he quickly replied. "He tells it like it is. He speaks the language of the people. And in an age of slippery-slope politics candor is what we need."

I assumed by the use of the term slippery-slope that my friend meant debates filled with fallacies. Because the slippery slope argument, in which a person asserts that some event must inevitably follow from another without any argument for the inevitability of the event in question, is one such fallacy. An example of the slippery slope argument is this: "You can't let Muslim refugees into the US, because once you do, the country will be filled with them." Not necessarily true.

Anyway I replied that a major criticism of Trump's candor is that he bullies the other competitors, choosing cutting remarks and catch phrases over reasoned replies. For example, Trump not infrequently avails himself of what's known as the argument ad hominem, from the Greek meaning "against the person," in which honest debate is avoided by simply disparaging the character of one's opponent. Calling a person a racist, or a terrorist, or a feminist, if they take a stance against affirmative action, or support freedom of religion for Muslims, or gender equality in the workplace. 

My friend replied that by engaging in debate Trump would be playing an age-old game that politicians use to skirt issues and flaunt wit and look where that has gotten us (implying a mess), so rather than play the game of a career politician such as Hillary Clinton he is letting it all hang out, being the reality TV star and telling it like it is. Okay. But then my friend went on to say: "You know, with all these appeals to the rights of the people, speaking for them as a representative of the 'common man,' Trump is taking a page straight out of Hitler, and this is cause for concern."

My friend had just committed a fallacy of his own. It's called the argument ad populum, or the emotional appeal to your listener, based on perceived prejudices or core values such as love of country, liberty, justice, or equality. Pretty much any political discourse that employs the name Hitler is an example of ad populum fallacy, and a particularly sneer-worthy one. Just because Hitler appealed to the common person doesn't make anyone who does this next in line to slaughter 6 million Jews (or Muslims). It makes such a person a demagogue: one who appeals to popular desires and prejudices rather than by using rational argument. My friend would do better to call Trump a demagogue than to say he's like Hitler. But I let the fallacy slide, since my friend is not a politician. We were just having a chat. So I changed the subject.

But I left our dialogue marveling at how often, in political debate and casual exchange alike, people break unspoken rules, hit below the belt, and violate the laws of common sense.

I wish for a time like that of the early Greeks, in which citizens went around exposing such fallacies in the common places, the square, the market, even the dining room table. These men were philosophers, and Socrates among them. Nowadays philosophers must submit to nearly 10 years of post-graduate study in order to earn the coveted PhD. At $35,000 a year room, board and tuition that's roughly $300,000. And then you have to find a job. And jobs for philosophers are scarce. 

Take my alma mater, UCLA. The program has 20 regular faculty members. It admits around 13 PhD students per year, meaning it graduates 13 each year. We can allow for attrition and say 10. That means 10 students each year leave school sunk in debt and in search of gainful employment. If the 20 teachers on faculty only taught for 2 years, then all the students would be assured of a job at their alma mater. But after searching through the faculty list I saw the names of at least 2 professors that I had studied under at UCLA. Twenty-five years ago, and philosophy wasn't even my minor (I took about 6 courses in the subject). So the professors are obviously rooted in place. 

This is fine and well if you're a professor or an administrator or the institution under whose umbrella the professors and administrators operate. They make a lot of money off their students. But if you're one such eager mind, you'd have to be crazy to undertake such a protracted and impractical course of action, involving as it does a crippling financial burden and a decade of your life. 

Which supports my point that the farther you proceed in higher education, the more of your common sense is sucked away. This is why so many philosophers and mystics left school at such an early age. Otherwise they'd have had their originality conditioned away. If Christ or Buddha or for that matter Socrates had to undertake ten years of training to talk common sense, you can bet that their message would have been drastically altered, and for the worse.

But back to fallacies. Open your ears and you will find them bandied about in all sorts of conversations - be they on talk shows, in the political realm, or on your very own couch. Consider the following:

1. You feel you can read your friend like a book, with insight to the workings of his mind and motivations. This is based on an implicit assumption that you possess absolute knowledge, when in fact such guesses about other people's motives are almost always refracted through personal biases.

2. Other people's problems often appear easy to solve because they are not your own. It says less about your own personal perspicacity and more about the virtues of objectivity over subjectivity. Meaning when other people offer suggestions about your own life these may carry more weight than your biases would allow.

3. You get so fed up with a person! Remember that others often serve as mirrors in which we regard ourselves. So you may be reacting to your own personal idiosyncrasies as demonstrated in the behavior of your near and dear. An example is the above friend, who is a bit of a narcissist. I've learned by now that most of what he says about others can be applied to himself. This came in handy when he told me he thought I needed therapy, which I took to mean that he could use some too. Can't everyone?

4. You can't relate to a person. Try putting yourself in her shoes, and speaking as that person make a case for why you believe or act as she does. By the end of stating your case you'll have a change of heart and be better able to relate.

5. You use loaded terms. People often say, most believe this, or everybody knows that. Absolutes like these can sometimes be true. For example, because there are more women in the world (50.4%) we may be able to say that most people have vaginas, assuming that more females than males haven't gotten their sex changed, and this assumption may be untrue. See how difficult sweeping generalizations can be? Or that every human is a mammal. That's probably true. But more often absolutes are not absolutely true and rather than strengthen your argument they weaken it by their incorrectness. No person is always stubborn or spineless. A given behavior can be called stubborn or spineless, true, but hardly anyone is so consistent to always act a certain way and deserve such a label. So don't use them (labels I mean).

6. Get off your high horse. Rather than say you're wrong, say I think you're wrong. Because the currency of conversation is often in the form of opinion. Unless of course your interlocutor takes a stance which you have verified to be patently untrue, and there are not many of these. Even the statement that the earth is flat is one in which unless you sail around the globe you have not so much have proven for yourself but have accepted on faith. Separating fact from opinion is not easy, but it can be done, and when you do, try as often as you can to speak from fact.

7. Beware of reaction formation, which makes a person feeling one way act the opposite. Which is why sufferers of low self-esteem often appear cocky. If you have low confidence, even the slightest criticism can feel like a full-fledged attack against which you struggle tooth and nail to defend yourself. This is the hardest one to overcome, at least for me. But it is possible.

8. Most rules have exceptions. Be that exception. Confounding stereotypes with a counterexample is fun, and will quickly make you the life of the party.

Finally:

9. You judge people whose opinions differ from your own. But they are probably judging you too. Remember that each of us operates from his own perspective, which seems right at the time and place. Yes, it is possible to achieve the bird's eye view, the universal take, shattering the lens of individual perspective to behold the whole, and many of the individuals who have achieved this vision have gone down in history as masters. Which is not to say you can't be one, too. If you listen and learn.

In short, every experience, be it conversation, party, debate, or observation, provides a window into human nature, provided you approach it with an open mind, and reference your personal bank of knowledge and the wisdom won from experience. You can read others as you would a great book, a real page-turner, learning much from them, but not always as much as you assume. 

So remember, as an attending physician of mine once said, whenever you ASS-U-ME you make an ass of you and me, so live life objectively and you too can call yourself a philosopher - with or without a PhD.