Sunday, April 22, 2007

Can we talk?

Okay, so about this exercise thing. Didja hear about all that snow we got in April? Hmm? And about how April was especially cruel this year -- the coldest April in these parts in recorded memory? Yeah, we'll let's just say, we got about six extra weeks of couch-potato status, and my jeans are feeling the pinch, if ya know what I mean.

So today Starman and I walked to the top of the hill. If you know Harmony at all, it's not unreasonable to ask "which hill?" -- today it was the one with the neighbor's lookout, although we didn't go to the lookout itself this time. Sometimes our walk takes us up "Cat Hill," which is our name for the hill that ends at a T-junction with a house under which several cats live. The walk up Lookout Hill is a good cardio workout for me; I have to pause a couple times on the way up the big hill, and -- because it's near the end of the walk and I'm pooped -- a couple times up the less-steep hill back toward the house. However, this walk has the advantage of being there-and-back, meaning I can make it as long as I feel comfortable with. The Cat Hill walk is a loop -- and once you've done Cat Hill, which is less than halfway round, you might as well do the rest of the walk because it's less grueling to contemplate than turning around. That's the 2.6 mile walk. Lookout Hill is probably a minimum of 1.2 miles, and can go longer; I'm guessing today was 1.8 mile.

Our neighbors, Nina & Rudy, set off this morning bright and early (I don't think Starman & I were even officially "up" yet when we spied them), presumably to do the Cat Hill loop. I am so impressed with Nina & Rudy -- they are in their 70s (she might be a year or two shy, and for all I know, she's "67 and holding") and they are so physically fit and active for their age. They've just returned from Montana, where the rent a house from New Year's to the end of March and ski every weekday. There's a really excellent ski run there -- no frills, just lots of black diamond runs. Or so I'm told -- I don't think I will ever learn to ski downhill. Cross-country, maybe. But controlled falling as an exercise? No thank you!

I know I have to do this exercise, and I like doing it first thing in the morning -- it gets it out of the way, and it also allows me to be as indolent as I like afterwards. That worked in my old life in Philadelphia; I'd drive Stobex to work -- he's lost weight since he lost his convenient ride! -- then go along to FDR Park in South Philly. FDR Park has a nice, relatively level 1.6 mile loop around a lake and a wetland (the latter being the creative solution to a community pool that was leaking groundwater and couldn't easily be salvaged) with shorter and longer walks available. It was easy and quick to get to, and walkable virtually all year long.

Well, you know that bromide about "making it part of your routine"? It's true, damn it! Starman and I don't have a routine here. We don't get up at the same time every morning, for a start, and we tend to futz around with our e-mails and such before getting on to more productive activities. (In Starman's defence, his e-mails frequently are his productive activities; 99% of the orders, inquiries, and correspondence he gets about his software is via e-mail. I have no excuse.) He likes to walk after lunch, which is my least favorite time to walk.

I think the solution may be to do what we did today: walk in the late morning, before lunch and while it's not yet too hot. Of course, that may not work as the weather warms up. We'll see. But I just know one thing to be true for me at least: It's a lot easier to exercise when it's routine and habitual. So that's my goal.

And in other news, I have managed to read -- all the way through! -- several New Yorkers. Of course, on the walk it occurred to me that not only do I still have approximately 100 copies in reserve, but I also have ALL of the published New Yorker articles (about 70 years' worth) on CD-Rom. To I even have to tell you that this happy thought popped into my head as I was slogging up Lookout Hill?

Friday, April 20, 2007

Stobex Writes Back

Stobex -- who is mere days away from needing a new name; suggestions, anyone? -- reads this blog. Only fair, and I'm thrilled that someone does! He also thinks about it (how radical, dude!), and has responded to my post recently about religion, tribalism, and evolution. I tried to explain about "Comments" particularly as it is embarrassing that there are so few here. Okay, none. (I'd like to think it's because I say it all so succinctly that no one need ever disagree, but I'm not that crazy.) But no, he's also smart enough to know no one will read his comment in Comments. So, here, then, are Stobex's comments:

1. Darwinian natural selection works on genes, not people. For this purpose, it does not matter whether the "gene" is DNA or anything else that is hereditable, such as sociobiological behavioral traits.

2. Thus, any hereditable characteristic that increases its own probability of propagation will tend to prosper. In a small tribe, which will tend to be fairly inbred both genetically and culturally, this applies to characteristics that advance the survival of the tribe, even at the expense of the individual. Remember Haldane's famous quip that he was willing to lay down his life for two brothers or eight cousins. The more inbred you are, the fewer cousins it needs for the sacrifice to be worthwhile.

3. Thus, a small tribe that survives is likely to have members with characteristics that encourage them to advance the interests of the tribe above their personal interests.

4. Evolution being rather clumsy, what we actually have is a hereditary predisposition to adhere blindly to seemingly irrational tribal rules of behavior, coupled with separate natural selection of those rules that favor the survival of the tribe in question. (Again, it does not matter whether the rules are hard-coded into our DNA or are inherited culturally, except that cultural rules can probably evolve faster.)

5. I think religion as we know it probably developed simply as a way of making this blind adherence to the rules seem to make sense to our gradually evolving self-awareness. Theistic religion did no harm, and so could attach itself to the inherited behavior, as long as it effectively just endorsed the naturally selected rules, and did not impose too much of an overhead.

6. That works, provided there are a large number of tribes with different tribal rules competing against one another. The competition selects the fittest sets of rules, and the large number of tribes allows random mutations in the rules so that the rules can evolve as conditions change.

7. However, the tribes will to some extent compete directly against one another. So, one of the rules that is likely to be successful is that in a conflict with a neighboring tribe You all combine against Them: because if They combine against You and You look after Your own individual interests, They are likely to win the war, by picking You off one at a time.

8. Unfortunately, the system has broken down, for several reasons. Writing preserves the existing rules too rigidly, preventing evolution. Large organized societies both increase that rigidity, and reduce the number of competing "tribes." As a result, the rules became fossilized about 3,000 years ago, when big kingdoms came into fashion. (Developing social structures were crucial, because without a formal government and economy, large tribes were unworkable,and would naturally break up into small tribes.) A surprisingly high proportion of the more famously bizarre rules of the world's religions can be explained in terms of late stone age economics in the home areas of the religions in question.

9. Thus, we have a highly technological society, with rules of behavior optimized for a small late stone age tribe in competition with other late stone age tribes. That includes the fundamental principle that if Your goats and Their goats are competing for the same grazing You unite against Them, get a lot of late stone age stones, and keep throwing stones at Them until You drive Them out of the area (or They drive You out of the area).

10. That is why we see this seemingly irrational division of the world into Us and Them: but without a proper tribal structure, deciding who is an Us and who is a Them can get a bit arbitrary. However, the idea that if one of Them attacks one of You, You come back and shoot up Their neighborhood makes sense, because You are instinctively assuming that Their neighborhood is full of Them.

11. Now start throwing bombs and bullets instead of stones, and a lot more people get killed.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Tiger Woods & the Life Hump

I think about Tiger Woods a lot. Not his near-win at the 2007 Masters, or at least not just about that. Not even his Swedish wife, Elin Nordgren, although her sunglasses seem remarkably similar (and not in a good way) to the ones the ophthamologist gave my mother after her cataract surgery. And not too much, I promise, about how their child will be a veritable United Nations of races all in one tiny bundle: African-American, Chinese, Native-American, Swedish, Thai, and WASP -- and that's leaving out any additional strands of Northern European DNA that Elin might be contributing. (I mean, she looks pure-bred Swedish, but there could be some rogue Danish or even -- gasp! -- Norwegian genes in there.)

And I don't think about Tiger Woods in a creepy, Oh-he's-so-awesome, way, either. (I currently save that throbbing for Bill Nighy, distinctive twitches and all.) I've been there done that with the bizarre crush thing. I actually wrote to Adam West back in his Batman-on-TV days (this must have been in 1967 or 68), and got a cheesy "signed" photo in return. I think I was expecting more, like he'd come and rescue me from my life. With or without the Batmobile; I wasn't going to be high-maintenance about it, you understand.

But then I met some "celebrities" and discovered that they have a private persona you don't always want to meet. They don't always look the way you think, either. I got a pass to the set of "All My Children" in 1982 and saw Susan Lucci up close & personal. Somehow, despite what you hear about the camera adding on bulk, her nose looked bigger in person. More like a real person's nose. Less perfect. Kind of reassuring, actually. (On the other hand, Isaac Asimov looked precisely like I expected when I encountered him in an elevator. I told him I recognized him from his sideburns.)

I don't really think I'd like Tiger Woods if we ever met each other. I'd probably think he seemed snooty, or too busy for me, or just focused somewhere else. He seems to have perfected that dichotomy where some people are in the circle, and the rest of the world is outside the circle. He's polite enough to us on the outside; he answers the questions honestly and openly, but he's not going to show emotion. This bothers some people, which is why when Tiger won the Open Championship last July and cried in his caddy's arms because it was the first major win after Earl Woods' death, journalists seemed to warm up a bit to Tiger.

And that's what I've been thinking about recently. My thoughts have been sparked by a Rick Reilly column in Sports Illustrated. He seems to be celebrating the fact that on Sunday of the Masters Tiger held the lead at one point and yet didn't win! Unheralded stuff. Worth celebrating, the way Reilly seems to do? I dunno -- I don't think so because it'll probably just make Tiger better somewhere down the line. But it struck me that wasn't the ending Reilly wants. He seems to want Tiger to be more human, more fallible, more -- well, more average.

Now, I like Rick Reilly's stuff -- very populist, very heart-warming, and very appropriate in sports where it's too easy to look only at the shotmakers, the home run kings, the diamond-wearing tennis queens, and the record-breakers and miss all the people who try, have a little success, and are happy with that, or even the ones who are happy just to play the game. So I get it that Tiger's accomplishments and skills can seem counter-productive to a sports analyst.

I see it differently. What interests me about Tiger is that he's the exemplar of the narrow-end. He's crazy gifted, but he works super hard to get better because at his skill-level it ought to be possible to do it all, have every shot shape imaginable, avoid all the hazards, sink all the putts and win all the majors. So what stops him? Well, not any of the other players. Sure, two players, each playing his best (sorry, I don't watch the LPGA -- but I will when Michelle Wie gets it in gear), will end up with the better player winning. But no one is better than Tiger, so for him every tournament is about how well he's playing at that moment. It seems like it should be controllable, but it's elusive. He struggles with a rarified form of what I struggle with: how can I get out of my own way? And he's right at the age where this should start to fall into place.

I have a theory about there being a life hump around age 30. See, in our teens we do what people tell us to do (or we don't, but it's still about what they say, and not about what we independently decide). Parents, school, peers, friends, boy/girlfriend. There's virtually no room for self-direction. In college (and I'm assuming a conventional middle-class life track here; your mileage may vary), the parents are less controlling, and the school has fewer rules, so there's more room for individual choices interleaving the social and academic structure. By the mid-20s, the external controls are really eroding, and yet where's all the good stuff? When I started work as a lawyer in the mid-90s, I was 40 but my colleagues were around 25, and they seemed really miffed that the law firm didn't supply a social life to go along with the 80 hour-a-week job.

So I started to look around me, and back to when I was that age, and I realized that around age 30, people start to get it: The only thing between them and what they want in life is themselves. Let me say that another way: The only barrier to getting the stuff I say I want is my own choices. No one is supplying what I want, but no one is stopping me from cleaning up my act and going for it. This ought to be a time when people lose their self-absorption and start to see that the world is not a theme park set up just for them. For me, it was a realization that the world wasn't actually trying to destroy me through criticism and rejection. Once I stopped seeing what I thought I was seeing, I became open to acceptance, compliments, etc. (I make that sound easy. Let's go with that illusion, shall we?)

Back to Tiger Woods. Sports-nuts and golf-purists will go on about his swing changes. Yeah, whatever. But I recall a moment at a recent Masters (2003? 2004?) when he hit his tee shot into something bad (water, presumably -- the rough at Augusta isn't that punitive) and he later blamed Steve Williams, his caddy, for the club selection. He then sort of backed off that statement, but it sounded like pre-life hump talk to me. These days, the talk seems a bit too far in the other direction. This year, Tiger bogeyed the final two holes on two rounds that were otherwise going well for him and blamed himself for losing the tournament because of those four strokes. He gets it that he's blocking his own accomplishment, and he's still learning how to get out of his own way.

My guess is that parenthood will make all this a lot easier for him. Think about it -- golf is unusual in that players perform best after they have peaked physically, usually in their 30s. Vijay Singh's success has been mostly in his 40s! They're husbands and fathers by that point. They're past the life hump, and if they thought they could be perfect and control it all, parenthood probably fixed that delusion. So how's Tiger -- who's done better in his 20s than most other players do in their 30s -- going to do when he too has a young family, the age, the maturity, the balance in his life? Well, personally, I think he'll win the grand slam. The real one, with all four majors in one calendar year. But not because it means more to him than ever before, but because it will mean less. He'll have gotten completely out the way of his own talent, and while all his concentration and mental toughness will be on the course, his heart will still be with him wife and child, as well as his mother, friends, and family.

I don't need Tiger Woods to be a heartwarming story. I don't need him to act like one of the guys. I need him to be what he is: the narrowest-end golfer of all time. I do want him to dominate the PGA, break all Jack Nicklaus's records, and inspire kids the way Jack inspired Tiger. I don't suppose I'll live to see someone come along and break Tiger's records, but I'd watch if that happened. But it doesn't have to be limited to golf. I think Tiger helps those of us with our own narrow-end issues in a way that Rick Reilly doesn't get. Which could be why I don't think much about Rick Reilly.