Thursday, April 28, 2016

The story behind #husbandorwife

As some may or may not have noticed, I have taken somewhat of a hiatus from social media. The rationale for this is pretty unexciting and was purely based on a casual exchange between my wife and I regarding this article. On a whim I decided to unplug and have avoided Instagram and Facebook ever since.

Rather than discuss the merits and shortcomings of social media, I thought I would take this opportunity to explain the meaning of #husbandorwife, a hashtag I have graffiti-ed all over social media for almost 2 years now.

In the Beginning...
For the bulk of our relationship, my beautiful and gracious wife has set the tone for our meals. She has exquisite taste in all things and the requisite talent to turn a kaleidoscope of ingredients and flavors into well balanced and delicious meals. As many competent people do, she took pride in her work and took pictures of her delightful meals and amassed hundreds of photographs on her iPhone 4. These pictures never made it to any sort of sharing platform and just collected dust on her phone's finite hard drive. Every so often she would have to clear space and I would always ask her, "What are you going to do with all of those pictures?" A smile and a shrug was all I would get in response.

What I should also mention about my wife is that she is an accomplished epidemiologist and was pursuing her PhD concurrent with her splendid sorcery in the kitchen (among other places, re: gardening, photography, knitting,'s gross how many things she can do well).

As time invariably passed, the cocoon of graduate school began to wilt and she started to emerge as the wonderfully talented professional she is today. Nevertheless, her timing was a bit too good and she landed a job before finishing her dissertation, thus requiring her to do double duty for the second half of her final year. Assuming the role of supportive husband, I felt empowered to pick up the slack around the house and, given that I had shadowed her for years in the kitchen, I knew I could keep us afloat for as long as she needed.

Before I knew it, stir-fried soba noodles and zesty eggs Benedict were of my doing and, much like my wife, I felt compelled to capture them on my own iPhone. However, unlike my humble life partner, I am as grand a peacock as you will ever find and my creations were definitely going to be seen. And so began the fun little game of #husbandorwife?

Jewels from the Journey
A great many things came out of my social media onslaught of culinary creations, the first of which came from some apt feedback shortly after I got things started. "You can always tell when its Michael because he uses fewer vegetables." Oh really?! We'll just see about that then.

With a steady influx of fruits and vegetables in the mix, not only were our meals fresh and diverse, but I also noticed a steady shrinking of my waste line. Who knew a simple piece of wisdom, having color in your meals, could have such an impact? This was an enormous benefit considering that I have always had body issues and, now in my 30s, assumed my waist would only get bigger. Moreover, my wife and I have come to appreciate the value of making our own meals, which was recently affirmed in an episode of "Cooked" on Netflix. A commentary on this can be found here.

With more and more meals banked, I began to see my life and my marriage in #husbandorwife, and oftentimes #teameffort, terms. Grocery shopping, laundry, taxes, yard work, washing dishes, etc. are all core "adulting" responsibilities. While not necessarily excellent fodder for social media, they still need to be done and hopefully done as well and as consistently as one eats healthy and balanced meals. With this in mind, I came to realize that #husbandorwife held a piece of wisdom about life and a successful partnership that is much more profound than one would imagine from a simple game:

There should be no certainty in gender roles, but if there must be, let it be certainty of teamwork.

In an effort to clarify this concept a bit better, ponder these questions in terms of certainty and teamwork:

Who is the breadwinner?
Who takes care of the children?
Who handles the finances?
Who makes the decisions?

Here it is once again:

There should be no certainty in gender roles, but if there must be, let it be certainty of teamwork.

Nurturing the Male Feminist
Since meeting my wife, more and more of my social circle is comprised of women and my career path of medical communications is predominantly women (~75%). With these personal and professional distinctions in mind, I have (intentionally or unintentionally) become somewhat of a male feminist. Through this process, I have been made aware of (and devoted considerable thought to) some of the challenges women face, gender equality being one of them. And during this social adaptation, it has become abundantly clear to me that one voice in the gender equality conversation is missing, a man's.

Let's start simple, when it comes to issues specific to men, a man is probably the best voice. What it means to be a man, how to be a good father, how to treat women...many of these things cannot be effectively communicated by a woman. Don't believe me? How many core female issues can be adequately taught by men? It isn't about the communicator or the message, but rather the audience and when it comes to men, we like to hear from one of our own. I suspect women are the same on plenty of other topics. And suspending gender altogether, this concept is the bedrock of things like Weight Watchers and Alcoholics Anonymous (AA); we need to hear from fellow sufferers. Only they understand what it is like to be us.

Another aspect of the conversation is the idea that men are action oriented creatures. Little boys like cars, trucks and trains because they do something and men like action movies and sports because stuff is constantly happening. This predilection may also explain why men are oftentimes very impatient; we can't sit, wait, ponder, and think....we want to do!

Why is this relevant? Well unfortunately for men, the 21st century continues a trend of tremendous change and in addition to the challenge of understanding and co-evolving with the modern woman, men are faced with the steady disappearance of action oriented tasks, which invariably impacts how they see themselves. Thinking in the most basic terms, males have largely connected their feelings of worth and confidence to action oriented behavior (eg, hunting food thousands of years ago to breadwinning today). With this in mind, consider how many male dominated roles of the last 100 years (eg, farmers, factory works, miners, transportation, builders, sailors, soldiers) have been impacted by technology, rendering many of them obsolete or tremendously devalued.

Moreover, with the overindulgence of technology, many action oriented activities and hobbies (eg, house work, recreational sports, home improvement) are neglected or outsourced. We simply sit while someone or something else does. In another 100 years, what will be the action oriented behavior men can rely on to fortify their confidence? What will technology leave them with? What's worse is that in the absence of these task oriented actions, men seek validation elsewhere, which may be why they gravitate towards things like sports and video games, even well into adulthood. Their lack of physical action has been replaced by living vicariously through professional athletes or successfully navigating fictitious environments. Moreover, these habits are often tied to troubling co-morbidities like being sedentary, poor diet, drinking, and gambling.

I could continue this line of dialog ad nauseam, but the critical message is that men think in terms of action and thus need actionable recommendations. Relating this back to #husbandorwife, the primary messages are: 1) no role in the home (or anywhere else really) is solely dedicated to a man or a woman; 2) there are action oriented things men can do and gain validation from, they just need to believe that they have value. A healthy meal, clean dishes, well behaved children, a well kept house....all of these things should engender pride in men because they themselves can/should be part of the process and benefit from the outputs. Michael Kimmel gave a great TED Talk on the subject and provides a compelling argument for the benefits of gender equality, specifically the benefits TO MEN.

Wisdom in Action
I started #husbandorwife because I wanted to "be the change you want to see in the world" (Ghandi). The path to gender equality will require change for both sexes and one solution will be for men to re-think what it means to be a man, or perhaps just a human being.

More and more jobs these days can and should be occupied by women, which means more and more men should feel comfortable (and possibly even satisfied) taking on responsibilities historically left to women. I often tell my wife that I would make a kick ass house husband because there are so many things to do, we as men just need to embrace them (ie, realize they're cool).

just my thoughts

match unleaded, PhD

Thursday, January 7, 2016

99.3%, but not perfect

Yesterday, George Kenneth Griffey Jr. was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame by receiving 437 of 440 votes (99.3%), which is the closest any player has come to a unanimous selection in the history of a sport that cares a great deal about history. It is an impressive number to anyone's standards and represents a glistening moment in an otherwise dark era for Major League Baseball. A few years ago I wrote this and I felt compelled to dust off my blog on such a historic day.

To be honest, my emotions are somewhat mixed on this day. As his election margin indicates, Junior was hands down one of the most spectacular players the game has ever seen. A friend of mine recently sent me a GIF of his swing, which is nearly as iconic as Air Jordan. Part of me wishes that the only memories I have of Griffey are his iconic swing, his jaw dropping catches, and his hat on backwards with a smile.

Unfortunately, that is not the case. Much like the 0.7% of votes that didn't fall to him, the universe rarely grants perfection (as if I didn't already know). While amazing, Griffey was not perfect, nor was he a saint. He never won or played in a World Series and on multiple occasions he was guilty of ill-tempered transgressions that border on petty. There is even a rumor that he was so angry with ESPN after the Jim Edmonds story that he demanded they create a reel of ever single one of his HRs, a gift for his mother. Am I a Griffey hater? Certainly not! But I have been watching him closely for 25 years (as has the rest of the world) and, believe it or not, flaws have been identified.

He is not alone in his imperfection, which reinforces the message that perfection is a noble pursuit, but will never be reached. The goal of an athlete is to win, nothing more. LeBron James, Michael Jordan, Tiger Woods, Kobe Bryant, Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire, Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, Archie Griffin, Herschel Walker, Dan Marino, Adrian Peterson, Lance Armstrong, Michael Phelps, Johnny Manziel, Aaron Hernandez, OJ Simpson....these are all athletes that reached pinnacle moments in their respective athletic careers, but ultimately their perfection was shattered (on or off the field). They captured our attention and our hearts, but that magic does not translate to real life. Bottom line Sir Charles had it right 20 years ago.

In an age of instant gratification, global connectivity, and high speed access, we have become a society of editors, endlessly searching for imperfection to validate our vigilance. My wife recently sent me this article on the plight of Carrie Fisher's aging and I can't help but shake my head. Who are we to demand perfection?

Getting back to Griffey, one could argue that Bonds's swing was actually more fundamentally sound because it was level (ie, you don't pop the ball up) or Griffey should be more of a sweetheart like Barry Sanders, wait....Barry wasn't perfect either. Its unfortunate that the first quote from Griffey in the ESPN article was "I can't be upset", likely responding to a question of why he wasn't unanimous; who cares why he wasn't perfect, no one ever will be. What's worse is that there is a chance that the lasting narrative for this event won't be Griffey's 99.3%, but rather the flaws in the voting system. Bottom line, the only thing that matters, the only question we should ask ourselves when we look at athletes is this. If the answer is 'no', shut-up. If the answer is 'yes', change the channel.

Perhaps I am arguing with my own perfectionist demons, but those are the demons that drive us and make us the successes we are. A smarter man than I once said, "Perfection is not attainable, but if we chase perfection, we can catch excellence." 

Congratulations Junior, you are the man of the hour. The rest of us apologize for the 0.7%.

Just my thoughts

match unleaded

Thursday, August 20, 2015

What was

In life we are often haunted by the question, "What could have been?" As a story teller I try not to focus on this question, but rather the statement, "What was."

Roughly a year and a half ago, I had one of the most amazing days and nights of my life, but looking back, I have come to realize that I received this gift long before I knew the price that had to be paid for it.

The day was April 5, 2014. I was in Los Angeles for my Grandmother's 90th birthday party and for those that do not know her, she is the most amazing and inspiring woman I know. I will not attempt to summarize her here, but I can say that without her I would not have found my passion for science, a quest that will forever define my professional life.

On this magical day of days I had the pleasure of being immersed with friends and family, new acquaintances and familiar faces. The party was exquisite, not only because my grandmother has exceptional taste and class, but because everywhere I looked, I found someone to share a laugh and a toast with. Suffice it to say, I had a good time.

The day continued into the late afternoon and, for those that are sports fans, continuation of the 2014 NCAA Men's College Basketball tournament, namely the Final Four. The UConn vs Florida game was first up and we were still dressing down from the day portion, before the evening congregation at Cortez. I have a special, dark place in my heart for both of these teams, but I knew that my beloved Wild Cats, if successful, would face one in the National Title game. I paid little attention to the game, but my takeaway was that Shabaz Napier was not to be trifled with.

We were in the TV room at 1011 for tip off, Kentucky vs Wisconsin. I had anticipated this game for some time (nearly a year), knowing that if Kentucky made the Final Four, I would be seated at Cortez alongside my brother and other cherished family members for what could be an unforgettable game, something that does not come along often. Nothing could have prepared me for the next 3 hours. An epic battle that went back and forth, ending with this moment. (Cue madness)

Several moments followed this, too many to summarize. For starters, I exploded off the couch in a furry of emotion and profanity. I had been pretty buttoned up for most of the game, something my brother later queried me about. Nevertheless, as Aaron sank his 3rd of 3 game winners, I let loose. Months later I realized that seated next to me was my beloved and reserved Uncle Pat, who was born and raised in Wisconsin and a UW-Eau Claire alum. His emotions in that moment were somewhat different than mine, undoubtedly complicated by his fiery nephew flying off the handle in front of him. Fortunately, I had the opportunity to reminisce and apologize for my actions in his and my aunt Maureen's home state of Maui last month.

I wasn't alone in my elation. My cousin Brandan, a true class act and now minted DDS, won his March Madness pool with Kentucky's win. I am close with many family members, but not as many as I'd like. Unfortunately, Brandan is in the latter category and never in our lives had Brandan and I shared a moment quite like this. I will cherish it forever. Interestingly, his equally talented and stunning sister Alison was seated near me for most of the game as well. She didn't have a horse in the race, but supported BBN under the circumstances. During half-time we discussed her trigonometry course work at the University of Arizona and she showed me a textbook that our mutual grandfather had given her from when he was there, another moment I will cherish.

As children in their 20s do in moments like this, we took to the streets (or more accurately the backyard), to shotgun beers. I am not quite sure why XY's feel compelled to do such things, but we do. As a precursor to this moment, I stole a new acquaintance away from a casual conversation he was having with my Aunt Ro. Nik, my cousin Lindsy's boyfriend (now husband; #lindsgetbaptised), was a relative newcomer to the Fiedler cohort at the time and I seized a bonding opportunity with this fun young lad. Its not every day that you get to group shotgun silver bullets at your Grandmother's 90th Birthday Party. Later in the evening my brother would scold me for mobilizing the team without him. Sorry. The good news is that Rich and I have shared more than a few moments like this together, on multiple continents. Our bond now stretches to the next generation, enjoy being in the lead Brudder.

The final moment that I can recall from that evening was a phone call to the wife. She had stayed back in CT to finalize her thesis defense slides. She had wished to join me in Glendale, but I suspect my antics would have been less than charming, so perhaps it was for the best. There was a lot of "we won" and "yeah, uh huh, we?" She is my rock and I love her; this story could not be written without mentioning her. She has since bonded with all relevant parties, so class and decency are restored among my familial relationships.

It was a night I had never experienced at Cortez. Family, sports, beverages, and my beloved grandmother, the lynch pin that tied it all together. It was beautiful, one of the best nights of my life. Kentucky would be vanquished by UConn in the National Title game 2 days later, an outcome I anticipated (they have our number). No matter, I had my memories.

But life has a way of messing with our minds, toying with our emotions.

Almost a year to the day, Wisconsin and Kentucky would face each other in the exact same game, only this time Kentucky came into this game as the aggressor with a 38-0 record and a chance at making history. I had spent the meat of the NCAA tournament in China visiting the Mrs's family. Hyperbole aside, that journey will represent a seminal period of my time in this life and will function like a stone cast into a pond, sending ripples into the future. I had to follow the Cincinnati, WVU, and Notre Dame games from afar. I found it fitting that Aaron saved the day with another deep 3; sigh of relief from BBN. Kentucky would advance to the Final Four. I would be home in Guilford for the climax.

It is worth noting that an idea had been churning in my mind during our trip to China, a seedling breaking new ground, weaving tendrils and roots as it grew. A tattoo. If Kentucky finished the journey 40-0 it would represent the biggest accomplishment in NCAA basketball since 1976 when Bobby Knight lead Indiana to a perfect season. Apart from moments like this, it is safe to say that there is no love loss between Kentucky and Indiana. Bad blood aside, my passion for Kentucky runs deep and represents a conscience choice I made to follow sports. I wanted to form a bond with my brother and sports was the only way to do so. Committing to Kentucky in 2003 was one of my first steps on that journey.

It wasn't just the Kentucky brand I wanted imprinted on me, but rather the beautiful synergy between the Michael I was and the Michael I will become. Youth has been my companion for 30+ years, but my boyish infatuations are starting to be replaced with mature aspirations. Throughout China I searched for some balancing symbol to blend my past with my future. Something to capture this brief moment in time that not only symbolized the journey in front of me, but also the footprints that lay behind. UK alone is only half the story, my youth. I needed something to crystallize my future, something to represent the synergy my life has created. I found it in Beijing.

The Pixiu is a magical and majestic Chinese creature that holds great power and meaning in the Far East. Rather than attempt to explain its meaning here, I will simply say that the city of Beijing is built using its likeness; if you are curious to know more, you have the link you need. What is critical to this story though is that if you look at this creature with a creative eye, what mascot does it resemble? A wildcat perhaps?

Game Day: April 4, 2015, 364 days removed from my Grandmother's 90th. Tip off came and I watched eagerly, alone, as Kentucky went for 39-0. I had long since feared we would draw Wisconsin for this game. Unlike the rest of the field, Wisconsin did not see an undefeated roster that would send 6 players to the NBA (7 if you count poor Aaron). They saw the team that ended their season a year ago, a game Kentucky probably should not have even been in. Nevertheless, they were unafraid and they played like it. I was devastated.

It took me a week to utter a word about the game, which if you know me is beyond irregular. Inside my mind, I needed to find some narrative to explain my reality, some causality to temper my embroiled emotions. What in the cosmos had dictated this sequence of events? Why had the basketball gods taken perfection off the table? Was it a fool's pursuit all along? Then it hit me. What if Aaron had missed a year ago?

Follow me through this butterfly effect:

If Aaron had missed in 2014, Wisconsin would have advanced to face UConn in the National title game and the outcome would have been the outcome (ie, doesn't matter). 

Most of UK was coming back anyway and the 2015 team would have been the exact same (ie, perfection still very much on the table). 

What is the critical difference? Wisconsin doesn't have an axe to grind. Maybe Kaminsky comes back for his senior year, maybe he doesn't, but the focus and determination the Badgers had in 2015 to beat Kentucky would cease to exist and my beloved blue would have had a clear path to perfection.

But what of my experience at Cortez? If Aaron misses, is there the same jubilation? The same excitement? What bonds would have been formed or not formed? What memories would I have today? Kentucky is a basketball team that plays 1,000 miles from my home. I didn't go to UK, I've never even been to Rupp. My family is my family though. They are my past, my present and my future. My blood. Without them, I have no audience to draw my life force, no minds to dazzle and entertain. They are what is important, not some game. 

So with an enlightened perspective I can say, I am not interested in "what could have been?", I cherish "what was."

match unleaded

PS My only regret in all of this is that I never explored the artistic possibilities of combining these 2 iconic symbols (UK logo and the Pixiu). If you look up #gamedayart you know I take these things seriously. It is what it is.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

A Sweet Tip of the Cap - We Won't Miss You Russ, but Thank You

Let's be clear, I am a proud member of the Big Blue Nation and bleed Kentucky Blue.  That aside, I have to acknowledge and respectfully commend Russ Smith.  A scrawny under-sized, under-rated kid from New York City just played his last college basketball game at Louisville and while I will not miss him, I must thank him for being a class act and always making us play our best.

To be perfectly honest, I never really thought much of Russ besides the fact that he and Peyton Siva were probably the two people in college basketball that wanted to beat Kentucky the most.  They had their chance in the Final Four in 2012, but came up short.  However, they had their day in the sun in 2013 and not only beat Kentucky in Louisville, but also won this little tournament in Atlanta.

But what I will remember from that Louisville run a year ago was Russ's reaction to seeing his teammate Kevin Ware go down with that horrific leg injury (which I still have not seen video of, thank you very much).  In the moments after Kevin's injury, you can see the emotion on Russ's face and being an emotional guy myself, I could not help but be captivated by his body language.  While a great player, Kevin Ware was not pivotal to Louisville's title run.  Russ, Peyton, Luke Hancock, and Gorgui Dieng were just fine in that role.  Nevertheless, you can see how devastated Russ was to lose his fellow soldier in such a way and I challenge anyone to show me a moment that captures the bond between teammates better.

Competition is a funny thing.  You do everything in your power to win and those that challenge you quickly become your mortal enemy.  You wish struggle, pain, and suffering on them just to capture a moment of weakness that puts you #1 and them #2.  But somewhere along the way you understand that they have as much on the line as you do, they have sacrificed just as much to be there, and in all seriousness, you have much more in common than you might think.

I remember the moment I first understood this concept.  It was almost 25 years ago watching WrestleMania VI with my brother.  Laugh all you want, but I was 7 and Hulk Hogan and The Ultimate Warrior were a big deal in my life.  Moreover, the main event that April was to pit two beloved juggernauts head-to-head (the first time in WWF history mind you) in what would become an instant classic in the annals of Pro Wrestling.  Watching this back and forth with my brother, we never wanted it to end because we did not want to see one hero win and the other lose.  But competition must declare a winner and The Ultimate Warrior finally got his 1-2-3 count on Hogan.

Then magic happened.  In a gesture that transcended that single moment in Toronto, Canada, these two titans faced each other as equals and embraced as respected adversaries.  Much the way the thousands of fans felt in that arena, my brother and I were captivated by that moment, which no words could articulate.  This is by no means the only example of this kind of moment, Larry and Magic have had their moments, McEnroe and Borg theirs.  But this is when I understood that to compete with a rival is to respect them and I respect Russ.

So now that Russ has driven to the basket in dramatic fashion for the last time, hit his last 3 with that s*** eating grin, I can say good bye, good luck, and good riddance......but thank you.

Just my thoughts

Match Unleaded

Friday, November 22, 2013

Thanks for the history lesson, Pop

Before I go any further, I want to thank my father.  He is responsible for igniting the engine that has driven this content.  He, among others, helped plant the seed of a story teller in my mind, body, and soul, which has come to define who I am, both personally and professionally.  Thanks Dad.

"The grassy knoll."

"One man acting alone."

"The Zapruder film."

"Lee Harvey Oswald."

"Back and to the left."

"The Book Depository."

"Jack Ruby."

"The Warren Commission."

These are just a few statements that function as portals to one of the most tragic, mysterious, and thought provoking moments in history.  JFK's assassination occurred 50 years ago today and for over 20 years I have been equally captivated by the facts and the fiction.  I am far from alone in my fascination in the events of November 22, 1963 as an endless stream of books, movies, and conspiracy theories have grown out of this tragedy, but what matters most to me is how this moment in time crystallized the bond between father and son.

As a child
My earliest memory of the JFK story came with the release of the movie In the Line of Fire.  For those unfamiliar, the story is about an aging secret service agent (Clint Eastwood) protecting the President of the United States from a modern psychopath (John Malkovich).  As an added hook, Eastwood was actually on duty when JFK was assassinated 3 decades prior and this historical detail drives a parallel plot line that Malkovich uses to foster a twisted relationship with his counterpoint.

Not surprisingly, this movie came out during the 30 year anniversary of the JFK assassination and while my father would not let me watch the R-rated flick at the young age of 10, I can remember seeing the preview and looking up at him saying, "Who's JFK?"  Considering that he was 13 when the assassination occurred, he had his own personal account of the event (as I am sure most of our parents do) and equally compelling memories of those that followed.  As a student in our living room lecture hall, I sat in wonder as my father passionately articulated the twists and turns of the epic JFK saga from Lee Harvey Oswald to Jack Ruby to the Warren Commission.  Being the young inquisitive mind that I was, I always had a follow-up question to which he always had a response; informed, truthful, or otherwise.

Years later I was able to get my hands on a VHS copy (yes a VHS) of In the Line of Fire and so began my own odyssey into the JFK assassination.  The data was obviously biased by the writer's creative interpretations and, in all seriousness, the details haven't really changed over the past 30 years.  Regardless, the story was new to me, it was fresh to me, and it fostered a curious mindset that consistently explored an arena inundated with talking points.

It was also at this point in time that we all got online, which opened the door to an assortment of exploratory opportunities.  Being 3 decades late to the party, I reached the end of many well dug rabbit holes, but with JFK, there was always another.  As luck would have it, there were an endless assortment of interpretations, which had a way of reigniting a fire that had been burning off and on for years, JFK being a powerful example.  For those that have not seen the pinnacle of Oliver Stone's conspiracy portrayals, I would recommend a viewing, but keep in mind, it is just his interpretation.

All through these explorations, I would return to my father with new (or what I thought were new) pieces of information.  Each time he would return to the podium and give me first hand historical context for each nugget of data that I got my hands on.  Yes the Warren Commission said Oswald acted alone, but what was the common man reaction? Or what of the burial salute?  The murder of Oswald?  Each time he smiled and said, "Oh yeah and (insert passionate response here)."  It might not have been playing catch or model building (which we did plenty of), but it was a beautiful exchange between father and son that I cherish to this day.

No, there is another*
The long-term effect of JFK's assassination on me is not limited to this singular event as the impact of this legend taught me that there are others like it.  While JFK was killed 20 years before I was born, other moments with similar staying power have occurred in my lifetime and the beauty of this experience with my father is that it taught me to recognize when such a moment in time has occurred and what value it can have in your life and those around you.

I can think of a handful of moments that incite a comparable historical reaction to the JFK assassination, 9/11 being an obvious example.  For those trying to come up with one at home, a good acid test for a potential moment is "Where were you when (insert moment here)?"  If it is a few years removed and just about everyone has a crystal clear answer, you've got yourself a winner.

For me, a moment that captures this kind of response is the OJ Murder Case.  Now there are a lot of moments from this case to choose from, but I think the White Ford Bronco Chase is the most iconic as it was unmistakably the moment where the national attention in the trial was born.  As a bonus, being a Southern California native with two parents working in West LA, there was never a shortage of talking points around the dinner table.

Rather than go into specifics, suffice it to say that my interest in this case has rivaled that of the JFK assassination as there are just as many obvious conclusions with conspiracy criticisms.  The main difference though is that I was alive for it.  I have my own experiences, my own perspective on the events, of which I can rehash and explore as I see fit.  As an aside, next year will be 20 years since the murder and I have no doubt that I will be bubbling with content to share with anyone who will listen.

*Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back reference.

Why am I telling you this?
Appreciating history is not just about knowing facts and dates, but rather connecting with those events and realizing that the men and women of the past are just like you and me today.  For example, if you look at the clothes JFK was wearing 50 years ago, they aren't that different from what business men wear today.  In the OJ trial, many of the techniques we use today (ie, DNA testing) came to prominence after that case.  You too are part of history and you best be paying attention because you never know when a moment will strike you nor what kind of impact it will have.

As I am sure you are beginning to see (and what is painfully obvious to those close to me), I am a very nostalgic person.  I have a very strong memory and can't ever seem to shut up, the combination of which is a slam dunk for a good story teller.  Considering how the JFK assassination fostered the bond between me and my father, the OJ Murder Case is an iconic historical saga that I very much look forward to sharing with my son or daughter.  It may be Hollywood at its worst or a terrible example of domestic violence, but it undoubtedly was a huge cultural event that generated an enormous amount of interest and spawned a multitude of present day fixtures, reality TV and CSI to name a few.  Much like JFK, it also contains within it a story line that defines the expression, "truth is stranger than fiction" and would captivate any inquisitive mind that was fortunate enough to have a passionate story teller to share it with them.

Some day, it will be me lecturing in the living room and what I look forward to more than the wonder I hope to incite in a young mind, is the outcome of those wheels once they get turning.

Thank you Dad.  I love you and I am so glad we have had these moments together...


Thursday, January 1, 2009

Finding the Nipple

The past year or so I have been interested in a few economic theories and how they apply to everyday life. Books like Freakonomics inspired me to think about things a bit outside the box and movies like Beautiful Mind showed me that basic social behavior and complex political activity can be articulated with the same language.

In Freakonomics, the author provides statistical evidence for a barrage of conclusions that, while very controversial, are exceedingly logical and convincing. My favorite one is the idea that Roe v Wade actually resulted in a massive reduction in criminal behavior, roughly 20 or so years later. The rationale being that persons likely to engage in criminal activity usually come from underprivileged backgrounds and the amount of abortions occurring in underprivileged settings is significant enough such that a significant amount of people that would commit violent crimes such as rape, murder, and aggravated assault were never born in the first place. The reduction in criminal behavior was observed by many circles in the early 1990’s but none outside of this particular author imagined it would have a cause 20 years in the past. It goes without saying that such a line of logic, while very clear and reasonable, is a perfect example of outside the box thinking.

In Beautiful Mind, there is a great scene where the main character, John Nash (Russell Crowe) comes to a realization while observing his fellow academics in pursuit of a beautiful woman. In the scene, he articulates how if he and all of his compatriots attempt to attract the same gorgeous female, they will invariably cancel one another out. To make matters worse, if they attempt to settle for a secondary female, they will undoubtedly be met with signs of disapproval because as John Nash states, “no woman likes to be second”. In any event, the conclusion I drew from this particular picture was the idea that sometimes it is better to tie than to win. Securing the hottest girl in the bar is great and worthy of Maxim Magazine publication, but it is probabilistically unrealistic. What is realistic however is achieving ones fundamental goal of securing a mate and while this may seem like settling, aiming for a much more attainable target usually results in dodging high maintenance pre-Madonna’s, something all men will eventually learn to appreciate.

Like Freakonomics, this idea can be applied to several topics outside the immediate application. For example, a nuclear war between the US and China or Russia is completely inadvisable because even if one wins, they both undoubtedly lose. The same goes for basic social interactions. To be abrasively stubborn in order to achieve one’s “way” at the expense of a relationship is foolish because unless it is something extremely important, the result is a Pyrrhic Victory, or a victory attained at too great a cost.

So with this background, I have a new idea that I’ve been kicking around for a few months, which I call, “Finding the Nipple”. Aside from the obvious sexual overtones, this conception is based around basic economic theory, more specifically, Reagan’s Laffer Curve. Briefly, the Laffer Curve is a compelling taxation figure that shows how a person should rationally approach earning money with respect to taxation. The curve looks similar to an inverted parabola, or a breast in my opinion, with the Y-axis being gross income and the X-axis taxation percentage. As one makes more and more money, the federal government taxes them more and more. If one makes zero dollars, they are taxed 0%, however as a person reaches Alex Rodriguez or CC Sabathia levels of income, the federal government actually takes greater than 50% of one’s income.

While this may seem like highway robbery, it is in fact very true and therefore has attracted the best economic minds in the business. While some tax lawyers would have their clients defer income circa “The Firm”, I am interested in determining how one establishes a maximum balance between two variables, ie finding the nipple of the breast so to speak.

Not surprisingly, this idea extends well beyond the realm of taxation/income and it is my belief that in developing an understanding of this concept, one can reach enlightenment with regard to their own life. Take for example the automatic transmission. For those that know how to drive a stick shift, accelerating a car by pressing on the gas not only results in movement, but increased output by the engine. Depending on what gear one is in, the RPM (revolutions per minute) of the engine rise at varying rates. In first gear they rise very rapidly resulting in more acceleration and more work done by the engine but in 5th gear, the RPMs fall dramatically resulting in less acceleration. So why 5 gears? Because the car requires a series of accelerations to achieve top end speed. A car must start off accelerating quickly to get from 0 to lets say 15 mph but the level of acceleration drops off when one goes from 30, to 40 to 50 mph. Why you ask? Because we all crave fuel efficiency, going 0 to 60 in 4 seconds does not make economic sense. The amount of engine output to achieve such a feat is more than most are willing to pay for, that is unless you are Jimmy Johnson trying to win the Nextel Cup.

So in the 1950’s engineers developed the automatic transmission, which was a machine that could effectively integrate the intricacies of acceleration, speed and fuel efficiency. If you floor an automatic, you accelerate considerably but ultimately, the car will automatically change gears resulting in lower RPMs, and less acceleration. For those of us that have a stick, we may be able to beat you off the line, but if we red line it too much, we’ll blow the engine and spend the rest of the day getting a hold of AAA and hanging out at Midas.

What's the relevance to the Laffer Curve? The automatic transmission integrates engine output with speed and controls the acceleration of a car to achieve the maximum amount of engine output and fuel efficiency, thus allowing us to get 30 mpg or so. Now most folks will tell you that a manual transmission will give you better fuel efficiency, but that is on the condition that you are competent enough to know how to handle your car’s acceleration better than a computer, something I know I can do.

So with this in mind, I have been very interested in understanding how one can integrate the cost/return aspects of their lives. Being an avid ultimate player, I love to play the game but I understand that winning is far from everything. While it is nice to be victorious, I am not willing to make the sacrifices that one must in order to win and compete at the highest level, not to mention the fact that I’m not the most athletic person out there. This might seem trivial but the key for me is to understand the situation and potentially attain the enlightenment I need to avoid frustration and feelings of failure.

These last few words are by far the most important aspect of this Laffer Curve discussion. “Avoiding frustration and feelings of failure”. Wow, wouldn’t that be nice to have all the time. Forget happiness, if I could just avoid being pissed off or feeling like I’m not worth anything, I’d be set. Happiness comes and goes with the cocktail of neurotransmitters that flow through the brain, but this sort of enlightenment has staying power.

Anyway, so the challenge becomes, finding the nipple. Pick a goal, or summit or whatever and figure out how hard you need to work to get to it, while not working too hard such that you’re hurting yourself in the process. This isn’t as easy as it sounds because I get the feeling many people would consider this to mean, get the most while putting in the least, but that statement is flawed because it can’t exist in a vacuum.

What do I mean by vacuum? Living one’s life under this previous statement is like wanting a million dollars. People don’t want a million dollars, they want a million dollars worth of spending power. A million dollars in a vacuum (ie under glass) is just a few pieces of paper. It has no inherent value on its own. Maybe having an important document or trophy or artifact under glass is worth something because there is meaning behind it, but a million dollars you can’t spend is worthless, as is wanting to get the most while putting in the least. The missing element is what you’re working towards. If it is an automobile, do you want the cheapest car out there? Probably not.

We all have a budget and an idea of what kind of car we would like to have. The trick is to integrate the two. If you are rich, odds are you wouldn’t settle for a pinto and if you’re not rich, a Ferrari is out of the question. With that in mind, if either party decided to select the car I have suggested, they’d probably face some sort of frustration or failure. A richer person would constantly be agitated with a car they could do better than and a poor person would either sacrifice everything they had to drive a Ferrari or have feelings of failure because such a commodity is out of reach.

So with all of this in mind, I’m of the opinion that a true adult should try very hard to consistently find their own nipple (don’t worry I know how goofy this statement is). But seriously, if one can look at their life in at least two dimensions (and hopefully more) they can potentially see how it is possible to combine work and reward, as well as know what is or is not more trouble than its worth.

I get the feeling that the bulk of the people that fail to do this are at one end of the curve or the other and are unhappy because of it. If for example someone is overweight and is considering a lifestyle change but never manages to establish a decent diet, it is pretty obvious that they want particular food items more than they want to be thin. Perhaps they say they want to be thin, but don’t put in the energy to achieve it. They are more towards the 0% end of the curve and are constantly looking up at a goal they want, but don’t want to do what is necessary to get it. This may seem trivial but the point is that these people need to integrate what they can do with what they can get and be content with their nipple. There is no reason why self-hatred should result from an overweight person, if they are enlightened to the point where they are secure with their nipple.

Conversely, there are a lot of other people out there that are more towards the 100% end of the curve. I’m at Yale so I know a fair amount of people that do the Investment Banking thing and I always cringe when I hear about their 100 hour work weeks, especially now that the economy is in shambles. They make ridiculous money but they never have the time to spend it and it seems like a ton of them sign off on their 20’s. Maybe it is what they want, but personally, I’d rather enjoy my youth. No one ever says on their death bed, “I wish I had worked more”. Money might mean a ton to a lot of people, but it isn’t everything and I’d rather have memories than commodities. But that’s just me.

I feel like these people have issues with over extending themselves and sacrifice too much for something they may or may not actually want. Maybe money is all the motivation they need but I've heard some horror stories and wonder if things like mid-life crisis and job induced depression are a potential down stream problem.

So at the end of the day, I think it is really important to find the happy medium. This seems painfully cliché but as one gets older, things tend to get tangled up with other things and prioritizing becomes really important. What makes this difficult is outward perception. Being committed enough to a goal to plan out things as I have discussed requires a lot of energy and passion and that is rarely ever met with open arms. People love to take shots at those that dare to take chances and despite the fact that outside perception never matters as much as one thinks, people still doubt themselves and fail to execute. With regard to this, one must be confident in their selection and realize that most of the time, the most important and meaningful moments cannot be shared or felt by more than a handful of people. My PhD, my worlds experience, these are things that only I can understand and appreciate but its absolutely worth it and that is how I have found my nipple. Can you do the same?

just my thoughts

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Thursday, September 11, 2008

I remember

Has it really been 7 years since 9/11? Such a cornerstone in American history and despite the fact that it was such a horrible incident, part of me is glad that I was alive for it. For my generation it is our Pearl Harbor or JFK assassination. It is something that will be remembered for centuries and it is somewhat weird that I am only 25, yet I am part of American history. When I have kids, they will ask me about 9/11 the same way I asked my father about the moon landing. Just like him, I will always remember exactly where I was and what I was thinking when it all went down. Sadly, my story concerning 9/11 is pretty lame because I slept through most of it. I was on the west coast, it was the tail end of summer, I had stayed up late and nobody cared to disturb me, oh well. My time to appreciate this event and learn from it came much later. So considering the historic and emotional nature of today (forgive me, I wanted to get this up Thursday but it didn't happen), I thought I would offer up some reflections and thoughts.

A few times on this blog I have talked about how I was a late bloomer and my experience with 9/11 definitely falls under this category. When I was at the tender age of 17 I really didn't care much for politics. I was a science nerd that liked to do HW and I was set to go to UCSD and begin the college thing. Politics didn't really interest me much, not because I thought they were boring, but just that they didn't really resonate with me. I didn't really understand the impact of something like this or something like a Presidential election (2000). At that age, I figured, Bush, Gore, same shit. My life won't be affected....I was wrong.

I suppose the impact of 9/11 didn't really influence me until almost 2 years later. I was working as a technician in a lab in La Jolla and I was going about my business one day in late July. I worked for this little lab since October of my freshman year and I had developed a nice little home there. My boss, Todd Braciak, had taught me everything I knew about lab techniques and I felt a certain closeness to the people around me. However, on this fateful day, my boss came into the lab and informed me that the grant he was hoping for didn't go through and that he was going to have to lay me off. Because the government had shifted their monetary focus, money that had been devoted to internal institutions like the NIH, had been taken away and given to things like the war effort in Afghanistan and Iraq. Now, I have my weird connections to people involved in 9/11, but my life wasn't really affected by it until this very moment. I didn't (and still don't) know much about warfare or politics but I understood the concept of "you've got till the end of the month".

This was a really painful day for me, not in the sense that I had lost my job, but because I had lost faith in my profession. I was but a lowly lab technician who could find another job (and I did) but I knew one day, I was going to be a PhD scientist and I was going to have to deal with things like NIH funding and the political sphere. I grew up really fast that day and I began to look at the world a bit differently. Ironically, that week I was at the grocery store and when I was checking out, the woman behind the counter asked me if I would like to donate a $1 to prostate cancer research. As luck would have it, I had been doing prostate cancer research and given the fact that I had just lost my job because money like this didn't make it to me, I declined.

So a year later I began to think about politics a little more because we were electing a new president. I didn't exactly know much about the whole process or what the major issues in government were, but I did know that I didn't want the war to continue. I know some people will talk about how we need a stable situation in the middle east and what not, but I need a job. I need money to be invested in my field and that matters a whole lot more to me than a conflict that is 6,000 miles away. So with that in mind, I casted my vote for a democrat that could perhaps get us out of the war in Iraq, a war that still has me scratching my head. However, as we all know, Kerry was not successful and we got another 4 years of GW.

But every cloud has a silver lining and here is what I have come up with. You have to suffer. Things have to suck for awhile because if they did not, then you would not be motivated to improve your situation. You would just be content with your life. After 4 more years of Bush, I not only realized how much it sucks to have a war driven republican in office, but I began to see other spheres of life that are affected by politics. I recently read an article about how executives from oil companies were engaging in intercourse with employees of foreign companies as favors for contracts. This was extremely repulsive as was the federal investment in Wal-Mart at the expense of small American business man articulated in the documentary, Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price. But they equate "passion" with "fire" for a reason, we need pain and suffering to motivate us.

I had a conversation with my father awhile back and he was telling me that he always voted republican because he was against "big government". I remember him talking about this when I was a kid and so I went along with it. However, what I have realized is that democrats don't want big government, they just want to use the money they get from taxes on their constituents, where as the republicans seem to have invested that money in places that do 1 of 2 things (and sometimes both), 1) War and 2) Big Business. 10 Billion dollars a month on a winless war and it sure sounds like a ton of spending which is funny considering that the Republican ticket seems to criticize Democrats for wanting to invest in people that are actually American. After watching both the Democratic National Convention and the Republican one, I have come to realize that democrats appeal to the mind and republicans appeal to the heart. In politics it is easier to appeal to the later because it doesn't involve any thinking, and this has me really scared. Never underestimate the power of lesser minds and I begin to wonder what will win out in November.

So why do I discuss this on September 11th? Not only is it important to remember the suffering and pain that we have gone through, but we must also have the wisdom to utilize it. The real problem associated with 9/11 was not the 3,000 people that died or even the fear that it instilled in all of us concerning terrorism. The real problem was that we lost faith in who we are as Americans. We were relegated to "watchers" as opposed to "doers". This entire nation was converted to a bunch of little kids under blankets watching CNN in fear. And whats worse is that our government kept that fear alive. By waging war after war, the current administration perpetuated an image of weakness and pain, rather than strength and perseverance. I would imagine that if the victims of 9/11 could see us today, they would be disgusted with what we've done the last 7 years. Fighting wars and "avenging deaths" is not exactly an intelligent strategy. Killing Sadaam or Bin Laden will not bring anyone back.

However, something that I believe strongly in and this is something Barack Obama said in his acceptance speech at the DNC, is that American is great because of the "power of our example not the example of our power". In the light of 9/11, rather than focus on our emotions and our pain, we should have focused on our strength and our ingenuity. Dumping money into a worthless war is nothing compared to the countless scientist and innovator's that were put out of jobs because of fund divergence. In my opinion, showing that we were undeterred and unfettered by such an act of violence would have been a better exercise of power. Progress in stem cell research, space exploration and global warming were all things that could have happened in the last 7 years, but they took a back seat to a war that few understood and many died for.

In my opinion, this nation is great because of what is between our ears, driven by what is in our chest. Our decision making relies on the educational system we have solidified as the best world wide, not the weapons we have wasted our money on. An enlightened nation we are not and considering the fact that we allow emotions to govern our decision making just makes things worse. The Republicans perpetuate war stories and suffering as if it carries some sort of value in the government sphere. Yes, McCain is a fantastic example of a man that served his country, but what does this say about his judgement? His vice presidential nomination is one that very few political analysts would have picked and the reason their opinion matters is because they make a living thinking about our country's government. Maybe he uses Alaska's governor to play on people's emotions, but emotions mean jack shit, sorry.

In the end, we need to remember why America is great, not simply that it is great. We need to use our heads, not our hearts when making our decisions. Our hearts are good to keep us motivated and to prevent us from quitting but when push comes to shove, a well thought out game plan is infinitely better than a decision made on a whim. The rest of the world despises us and rather than write off their opinion as irrelevant we should focus on implementing a political establishment that utilizes intelligence, not fears it. The educated minds in this world are seen as elitist by the right wing conservatives and this could not be further from the truth. What did you think was going to happen when you sent your kids to college? They were going to get an education and you can't simply stuff their opinion in a drawer when they come back with ideas you don't like. The republicans seem to be small minded thinkers that want our nation to be what it was in the '50s, but guess what, we aren't in the fucking '50s! In the 21st century, we need 21st century leadership and waging war is not the way to do it. The information age has made the whole world smarter and why fight it? Why question those that know or think more than you? What do you have to lose? What do you think the "scary" experts are going to do? They make a living thinking about ways to make our civilization better. They aren't sacrificing the American working class by subsidizing Wal-Mart. They aren't selling their souls for an outdated energy source. They aren't living in the past, but in the future. The progressive minds of America's past still live in the minds of those today, they simply have different strategies. Sorry, the world isn't about winning and losing wars nowadays.

Bottom line, the victims of 9/11 would have wanted America to remain strong, not fearful. Fighting hate with hate is not a strategy that works. Our government should exercise strength in judgment not force. In the wake of 9/11 we should have stressed the economic, social, and technoligical development of our country not our fear. However, fear tactics work, if you let them. Fear media sells, if you let it. Fear scares people into submission, if you let it. But intelligence overcomes. The most difficult problems in this world are overcome not out of love or fear or hate, but out of thought. We got to the moon because we used our heads, not our hearts. We will succeed as a nation only if we return to the decision making abilities of leaders long since gone. Our generation is better than what we have become and only when we use our heads will things change. We need a government that instills hope and optimism in our people not fear and hate.

Pick whoever you want this November, but please USE YOUR HEAD, NOT YOUR HEART when you cast that ballot.

just my thoughts

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