Friday, January 25, 2008


Last week, a sports announcer said apropos of a coach who was apparently considering whether or not to return to his team for another year, "He's going to be meeting with his wife this weekend, and then he'll make a decision." I've been married for 30 years and I can state with confidence that, while my husband and I have talked, shouted, and otherwise been in the same place, discussing, in a variety of different guises, "meeting with" one another is not something married people do.

I read in an article about the sad death of Heath Ledger that his massage therapist, upon finding him unconscious, spent nine minutes calling Mary-Kate Olsen, whose number was programmed into his phone, then reconsidered and called 911. In case this is not the strangest imaginable sequence of events, I'd like to clarify to anyone who might potentially find me unconscious that it's not only ok, but absolutely essential, to call 911 before calling any of the people (celebrities or otherwise) on my speed dial list.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Is There or Isn't There?

I've been wondering whether there is any objective reality at all. This isn't a new line of thought for me. My mother studied philosophy and she was fond of conversations that went as follows:

Her (pointing to my blue sweater): What color would you say that was?
Me: Blue.
Her: I agree. But is there any way to be certain that we're seeing the same thing? That there exists an essential, indisputable blueness? Isn't it possible that you could be seeing what I would call red?
Me (giving her a look): Whatever.

But she had a point and I've been thinking about it on and off ever since I was a teenager. Both the existence and, even assuming its existence, the verifiability of objective reality are leaps of faith. There's no guarantee that anything is objectively the case. It could all be what we see, what we've made unconscious social contracts to agree on, what we expect and what we'd like to think we're seeing. It's certainly possible that there's no underlying truth at all and instead, Rashomon-like, nothing but individual perceptions, sometimes in concert, sometimes wildly divergent.

The reason I've been revisiting this question lately is the current political campaign. I have several political-junkie friends, all very knowledgeable, smart, open-minded, thoughtful and honest. Nevertheless, whenever we watch a debate or listen to a speech, we all come away with markedly different takes on who seemed sleazy, who seemed well- or ill-prepared, who carried the day. And our different takes are totally in alignment with what we already think of the various candidates. The arena of political campaigning and personal reactions thereto may be too easy a target where objective reality and underlying truth are concerned, but there doesn't seem to be much of either anywhere in sight.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Know When Not to Fold

I played blackjack yesterday, and the experience turned into a valuable object lesson about the relative importance of protecting against downside and going for upside. I started with $500. It grew pretty quickly into $900, diminished (even more quickly) into $200, stabilized and then, in one of those beautiful runs that gamblers live for (like the occasional strong, true golf swing that shows golfers how it's supposed to feel and keeps them coming back for more), mushroomed into $1400.

Had the original $500 reached $1000 instead of $900, I would have invoked my "double your money; go home" rule. When the $900 started hemorrhaging, I thought about stanching the bleeding at the original $500. After deciding against that and watching the $900 shrink all the way to $200, I probably should have taken the money and run the minute I recovered that original $500. But I'm stubborn - I hate to "give up" gains I once had, and breaking even doesn't do it for me. My conviction that the good luck will return is always stronger than my fear of the admittedly more likely recurrence of the bad luck. So I stayed in the game and ended up winning big.

The parallels to career and, I suppose, to life as well are obvious. There's an element of chance in every arena. You can limit its impact by knowing your stuff - learning how to play, developing the required core competencies, practicing, continuously improving, and the like. But you can't eliminate the element of chance. You have to learn how to ride it instead. It's important to protect against the downside, but it's more important to dream big about the upside. You'll limit your upside if you leave too soon, whether at the first signs of adversity or because your dreams are too small. If you're too afraid of the downside to stay in the game, you won't win. And while not losing is better than losing, it isn't the same as winning - not in blackjack or in anything else.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Out of the Mainstream

One of the joys of my current lifestyle is that my interactions with other people are limited almost exclusively to people of my choosing. None of that biting of the tongue that is part and parcel of working day-to-day with other people. No smiling politely while enduring the unpleasant, sometimes ugly, pronouncements of the envious, the disdainful, the insecure (you know, all that offensive crap people preface with "Don't take this personally, but..."). No deciding whether to keep still or take on someone who spouts sexist or racist or other bigoted bullshit. The only offensive or dopey interaction I really have to contend with is on TV or in the news and, thanks to TiVo and the ability to skim, I can effectively limit my exposure to that.

But there's a downside to living in this lovely bubble, and that's a narrowing of perspective. Annoying or inflammatory as other people's opinions and attitudes may be, they're very useful as perspective-broadeners. Now that I'm detached from the necessity of engaging with them, I keep finding myself astonished by things. The popularity of reality TV, the bargain-basement levels of customer service that pass as acceptable virtually across the board, the fact that people are actually seriously considering John McCain as a legitimate presidential candidate, the cult of celebrity that catapults no-talent faux Lolitas into lucrative renown (if not prestige), the revived acceptability even among women of sexist prejudices and behavior - it all shocks me.

Attractive as the idea sometimes seems, I've decided against withdrawing altogether and completing a transformation into curmudgeonly disengagement. Instead, I'm learning to ask myself "What if I'm totally wrong?" every time something strikes me as insane or not even remotely possible. It's a very interesting process. Although I don't change my opinion very often - I may be out of the thought mainstream now, but I operated within it for decades and I still trust my instincts - the notion that I could be holding the wrong end of the stick, reaction-wise, is an eye-opening starting point. Maybe normal people find reality TV entertaining. Maybe Jessica Simpson really is hot. Maybe she really is talented. Maybe McCain isn't just old and weird. Maybe people don't care enough about quality customer service to make it worthwhile for companies to offer it. Maybe women - no, that's an angle I'll never concede.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Decline and Fall

The following paragraph was in an email I received inviting me to something called Amazing Woman's Day:

The day long program will empower through an active discovery and exchange designed to identify each woman's unique calling of greatness while expanding a web of personal relationships and setting free new possibilities for a brighter future."

Huh? As my daughter said, the sentence reads like it was created with Mad Libs. Honestly, it makes me wonder about the decline of the English language into complete gibberish. I guess I can figure out what the words are trying to convey. The queasy feeling they give me about the likely New-Age-y content of the program (and about the opening they give anyone inclined to disdain women to conclude that we really can be feeble-minded, at least as a group) is unmistakable. It's also pretty easy to see that the sentence was drafted by a committee, each member armed with her favorite buzzwords and determined to fire away. But yikes! What a mess! Can you even imagine trying to translate the thing into another language?

Thursday, January 10, 2008

A Questionable Call?

The officiating in football has been driving me crazy for the last few years. I got so annoyed at one point that I decided not to watch any more games, but that resolution didn't take. (I love football.) I still have to fling myself out of the room sometimes, though; bad calls prompt fits of irritated anger that make it literally impossible for me to contain myself and stay seated.

I originally thought that instant replay was a very good thing for football. In real time, the game happens fast and there's a lot going on. It's not easy to get every call right. The opportunity for officials to review calls and reverse them when appropriate seemed like a good improvement. But now I'm wondering if instant replay is like "no child left behind" - that is, a noble and excellent idea in theory and a disaster in practice. It seems to have had an extremely detrimental impact on officials' ability (or maybe willingness) to make good calls in the first place.

I'd like to think that instant replay would do for officials what safety nets do for trapeze artists: give them a cushion of comfort that spurs ever-better performance. But officials seem to have responded to their safety net by doing their jobs with less expertise, less knowledge of the rules, less accuracy, less diligence and less heart. Maybe the cushion of instant replay is actually disempowering performance by introducing the specter of nonstop second-guessing. Would we all become inept and tentative if our every call were subject to instant review and potential reversal?

Sunday, January 6, 2008


I haven't been a fan of the impersonal touch that seems to characterize so much in the way of holiday cheer in recent years. I complained before about the holiday cards that offer no trace of personal touch and the home decorations that families don't even bother to use as a fun family togetherness activity, but instead hire services to accomplish. I often wonder if part of the alienation that so many people, particularly young people, seem to feel from work, government, other people, even families - basically all institutions and group activities - stems from our ability of late to confine our interactions to those handled at a keyboard in front of a computer screen. (I'm quite sure this is also the reason that good grammar, spelling and sentence structure have hit the skids in recent years.)

I recognize the irony of reflecting on all this via blogging - yet another solitary but quasi-social activity. My absence from the blogosphere (if that's what we're calling it these days) over the holidays was most definitely the result of having plenty of face-to-face time with actual people. My kids were here and they are two very interesting people, full of opinions and ideas and thought-provoking commentary. I thought about posting here a few times and even drafted a couple paragraphs in my head during the last three weeks, but all those thoughts ended up being fodder for conversations instead.

This begs the question, obviously, of whether blogging is a pastime for the lonely. I've decided it is not. It's just another outlet for ideas, an alternative form of self-expression. Blogging is like all my other writing: I don't write because I lack people to talk to; I write because I have a pressure of words and ideas in my head, and the process of getting them expressed on paper/screen, just right, is intriguing, challenging, fascinating, an ongoing pleasure. It's monologue as opposed to dialogue, but that's ok. Sometimes it's nice to express without having to explain, to remain blissfully unaware of the flaws in one's position until that little internal voice points them out, to solo instead of being part of a chorus. It's not an either/or thing: conversation is good, and so is soliloquy.