Foretelling Stories

My friend appeared in a local production of the play Vanya and Sonia, playing the part of Cassandra.

Cassandra is a fortune-telling housekeeper.  And my friend was brilliant.  Easily the most interesting person on the stage, playing her part with gusto.  Multi-colored headbands, crazy eye shadow, striped socks and funny sneakers, wild skirts with funky shirts.  Throw in some interesting jewelry and hairpieces and you get the idea.  And those are only the trappings.

What she portrayed was a half-crazed, half-possessed, but wholly compassionate dervish who transitioned from quiet domestic servant into a tornado of words and action.  In some scenes she danced about, flailing her sticks and feathers and other voodoo goodies to exact revenge.  And throughout the play she warns everyone of the nefarious “hooty pie.”

Fortune telling, soothsaying, and astrological prediction have been around as long as we’ve had questions about the future.  Many of us pay good money to know what our horoscope says today.  It doesn’t matter if it’s almost always wrong, because, sometimes, it’s right.  Right?

Oh, so many fancy shmancy people think that gypsy palm readers and tea leaf readers are absolute charlatans.  These fancy people are so full of themselves because they read the business news and understand advanced mathematics.

I thought of these things as I watched my friend scream and chant across the stage and into our hearts, and then I realized something crazy.  What if I was an alien watching this play as my first exposure to humanity?  How would I know that my friend was not truly a clairvoyant?

I wouldn’t!  Unless of course you provided me with absolute proof.

Being an alien, I wouldn’t trust your words, or the words of your friends.  I’d prefer hard data.  In fact, I’d probably really want to see it for myself.

As I smiled to my alien self, I realized that there was another type of human I wouldn’t believe.

Economists.  Yes, modern economists.  If I was an alien, and you told me that economists were the only people on Earth who could foretell the future, I simply would not believe you.

Yes, you can find me millions of people who watch their newscasts, who pass laws based on their words, or even set policy based on their massive calculations.  But can you show me and my alien friends true results of their predictions?  Better yet, can I see those for myself?

Is there even a scorecard that shows, unequivocally, that what an economist predicts today comes true tomorrow?  Or next week?  Next month?  Even next year?

Somehow, I doubt it.  Somehow, I feel that there is a vastly overpaid economist predicting the future, and doing it in a way that is boring and tiresome.

Meanwhile, on the stage stands my friend.  She is vastly underpaid, far more entertaining, yet her predictions are equally as valid.

As an alien, I smile.  As a human, I sigh and shake my head.  Then I sit back and enjoy the rest of the play.  By the way, if you go see this play, I predict that you will like it, too!

 

 

Question Authority

I’m on a good sized airplane.  I’m comfortable, in my proper seat, and ready to fly.

So is the aircraft.  The pilots are almost through with their checklists, and the flight attendant is finishing up her required briefing to the passengers.

I look about, and the aircraft is only half full.  I have work to do, and it would be nice to spread out.

Since the attendant is still busy, I unbuckle and quickly switch seats.  In no time flat another attendant comes to hover above me.

We can’t have you changing seats sir.

Why?

I’m sorry, but I’ve been instructed by my superiors that no one can change their seats.  I’m sorry.

Alright.  I move back to my seat, and ponder.

Can’t move?  It’s not hard on the seats – they are designed for many butt touches.

It can’t be the airplane.  This one is large enough so that even an elephant could move around without bothering the pilots.

No, it can only be for the flight attendant’s convenience.  It makes it easier on them.  It’s for making their lives easier, not ours.  The more they can treat us like cattle, the better.

I realize that if the airline could figure out a way to put us to sleep and stack us up like firewood, they would.  No need for food, toilets, and more people on the plane.  Fewer attendants even.  Heck, they’re probably working on the idea even as I write.

More importantly, you and I live in this world, in this society, and are customers of that airline.  To the degree that we don’t question their authority in order that we can have better lives is our fault.  To the degree that we don’t insist on questioning their authority so that our children can have better lives is a sin.

I looked in that attendant’s eyes and said “sorry to have upset you.”

But in my heart, if it had been something important that I was fighting for, I wouldn’t have stopped.  The future is worth it.

 

Crowd Compression

Studying behavior never stops.  And it comes in all forms, from complex societies gasping for breath, to the simple, linear, line.

Yes, there is behavior in the simple line.

You say “What?  How can there be behavior in a line?”

Of course there is line drawing.  Drawing and art are behaviors, but not necessarily simple.

There is line dancing.  But that’s another form of expression along with a good dose of socializing thrown in.  No, not the simplest form of behavior.  There’s something simpler still!

As simple as a line in mathematics?  Perhaps not.  Let’s face it.  The one dimensional construct is as simple as it gets.  Unless you like Norton Juster’s book.

No, the line I’m referring to is the one you might be standing in even as you read this.  The line at the bank, or the line of cars getting on the highway.  Or the line heading to the ticket window for off-track-betting.  Those lines.

As a young student, I learned the art of line-manship.  I like to think it was one of my minors.  I learned to dodge, weave, thread, and yes, even cut into lines.  Most importantly, I learned how to avoid them altogether.

However, it was a recent line experience that reminded me that there’s some insight into human nature buried within every line.  Here’s how.

I was recently in a line catching a flight from Japan to Korea.  Expectant travelers filled the corridor, shuffling and fidgeting about.  The longer we waited, the greater the fidgeting.

Suddenly a surge.  Was the head of the line finally moving forward, onto the flight?

No, none of the people at the very front were moving.  Someone behind them decided to take a small step forward, compressing the space between himself and the next person more than before.  The person behind him did the same thing, and so on.

By the time the new compressed line reached my place, it was a good two or three steps!

We weren’t moving, but we were given the impression of moving.  Our personal space had been three hands in front and back, and now it was only two hands.  Not comfortable for me.

Does this new personal space distance help any of us get on board the flight any faster?  No.  Does the few steps some of us were able to take let off enough steam so that we can patiently wait another fifteen minutes?  Maybe.

What’s important about this line is that everyone waited about fifteen minutes before they decided they’d waited long enough.  Their personal space had been worth three hands before they waited.  After fifteen minutes it was only worth two hands.

Why does any of this matter?  Because every culture, every age, and every venue has a different exhibition of these characteristics.

A Korean crowd compresses more and faster than a Japanese crowd.  The Chinese crowd compresses more and faster than the Korean.

When a Western culture compresses there is likely to be conflict.  In Eastern cultures, conflict is rare.

Compression at sporting events, and large musical rock concerts generally see the most compression.  Classical and operatic events see the least.

Why it matters is it allows us a little window into the heart of the culture, and ourselves.  it may also teach us how to deal with lines during emergencies so that people don’t get crushed to death.

Finally, perhaps we will all learn enough about lines so that no one has to stand in one any more.

I wonder how long I’ll have to wait in line to see that happen?

 

Body Swap

Are you ready to swap bodies?  For fun?  For profit?

Wait, there’s more!

We’ll swap bodies AND do some time travel at the same time.

But first, let’s set the scene.

In my favorite hardware store the other day.  Stu, one of the owners, was having a semi-political discussion with Pete, a customer.  Stu is incorrigible, irascible, and constantly wearing a snarly face; and that’s on his good days.  Pete is a tall, barrel chested, clean shaven, square jawed, silver-crew cut of a man.  Pete was bemoaning the current state of the economy, government, especially complaining about our “imperial president.”

In his own diplomatic fashion, Stu said “All I know is that we didn’t have to start working 7 days a week until the first year of this President’s term.”

Right there, in that instant, time stopped and I froze the scene.  My time travel body swap was ready.

Our 20 trillion dollar economy is so large that no one president can impact it very much in one year, let alone two or three.  Whatever pain the owner was feeling came from the previous president.  And that even assumes the president truly has much influence over the economy anyway.

But as people, as humans, we’re not geared that way.  We like to look at our local gods, whether they are good or evil, and blame them.  Whether Obama likes it or not, most people deify him – and not always in a good way.  Ultra conservatives give him credit for destroying our future, our way of life, and the Constitution.  Pretty good for a guy who’s limited to running the executive branch and vetoing the occasional bill.

As a nation, as intelligent adults, we should be smarter than to deify anyone.  We should know by now that the economy is large and complex.  That policies put in place 5 years, 10 year, even 50 years earlier could be impacting us today.  We shouldn’t be measuring our pleasure and our pain by the year of someone’s reign.

Yet here was an American, doing just that.

Body swap:  Stu becomes Japanese.

Did you know the Japanese still have an emperor?  In fact, they claim they’ve had a continuous line of emperors since 700 years before the common era (BCE).

But what’s even more fun is that we can stick Stu into a Japanese body, and get him to say the exact same thing.  Because many Japanese measure life events in terms of their current emperor’s reign.

Stu could say something like “Business was terrible in the first year of the Chrysanthemum Throne (1989).”  Or, “The first decade of the Chrysanthemum Emperor was all recession.”

Many Japanese remember their birthdays or anniversaries based on the emperor’s reign.  How quaint.  Are they also blaming the emperor for what is good or bad?  Perhaps.  But the very fact that they mark time based on a celebrity instead of a more objective system says something in itself.

Time swap:  Stu becomes Egyptian

In that next moment, I can take Stu and put him into the desert sun of the upper Nile.  Pharaoh Sesostris III has undertaking great tasks to unite many separate states into a greater Egyptian empire.  It’s 2,000 years BCE.  The pyramids aren’t quite yet built, but paper and mathematics are well on their way.  Meanwhile, most of humanity is still running around in skins.

And what do we find Stu the farmer doing back in the days of Sesostris?  According to written records, we know that his harvest, his battles, and his marriages and births are all being recorded based on the year of Sesostris’s reign.  In year one I got married.  In year two we gave birth to a son.  In year three the harvest was good, and so on.

Time swap, body swap: Returning to the present.

So, I smiled at Stu and Pete.  I may not agree with their politics, but in that instant I was able to watch Stu become a modern Japanese, and then an ancient Egyptian.  As far as I can tell, he’s none the wiser.

 

But is humanity?

 

 

President Trump

What goes through your mind when you hear these words?

President Donald Trump.

My brainy and / or more liberal friends shudder.  Then they gag.  Then laugh, hug each other, cry, and finally acknowledge that it could happen.

Quite a few other people are counting on it.  In fact, they plan to vote for him.

And why not?  Who’s to say he won’t make a great president?

The sad news is that our country doesn’t have any standards for what make a president good or bad.  Popularity got George Washington in for two terms and he’s voted our best president ever.  But the second-most successful president was also one of the least popular; Abraham Lincoln.

So Trump may become president, and he may be a great one.  At least, by his standards.

We have a pretty crazy country going on here.  It’s run by millionaires for one thing.  And those millionaires take lots of advice from very rich friends who make lots of money off the rest of us.

Anyone can be president in the USA.  Of course, certain conditions apply.

So, my advice to all of you who may be feeling a political chill, is to put on a sweater and deal with it.

Should you still be afraid?  Sure.  But not because Trump got in.  He’s just the symptom.

The reason someone like Trump gets elected (or any other idiot you’d like to nominate) is because not enough of us ordinary people care.

The reason Trump may be president is because there are too many special interests who are allowed to spend as much money as they want.

The reason our government feels like it’s going to hell in a handbasket is because it mirrors exactly what is happening in our society as a whole.  Yes, our poor government is also a symptom of our disease, not a cause.  What is that cause?

We’re getting older.  We’re getting poorer.  We’re getting dumber.

Perhaps worst of all, we are all of us getting tired of fighting the tide.  We don’t want to stand up in public and debate the issues.  We don’t want to demand better performance out of our candidates, out of our government, and out of our journalists.

I’m also getting older.  And poorer.  But I’m fighting the dumber.  And I haven’t given up fighting, not yet.

This is my weapon; the pen, and education.

So, to all of you who also haven’t given up as yet, get up and get out there.  Fight!

If you don’t, you’ll have to live with the alternative.

 

Fired Up

Anyone have a boss?  At work.  Not at home, and siblings don’t count.

I mean, do you have a person at work who decides how much to pay you and whether or not you still have a job?  That’s your boss.

Maybe YOU’RE the boss.  How many people report to you?  How many people report to them?  Do you have the authority to hire and fire all those positions?

Maybe you don’t, and you dream about the power.  Like King Midas dreamt about being able to turn anything into gold.  Be careful about what you wish for.

I have this “power.”  It’s not fun.  I get to go to work and be friendly with everyone.  I get to see everyone on their best behavior.

Then I hear stories.  So and so did this, or said that.  Always behind “so and so’s” back.  Ah, the drama.  Do you like drama?

I can’t stand drama.  I don’t need to watch it on TV.  I live it every day.

Let’s make this easy on both of us.  “So and so” is officially “Sue.”

So I eventually meet with Sue and what do I do?  I’m friendly and business-like at the same time.  And watching.  And wondering.  Am I going to have to fire Sue?

Meanwhile Sue is telling me about her problems, her sick parents, her troublesome kids.  I’m sympathetic.  And I’m still thinking to myself, will I have to fire you?

Finally, something happens that everyone sees, no one can ignore.  I’m going to have to call Sue into my office and find out what’s going on.

I want to ask her: “Do you want this job? Do you need this job? What are you thinking?”  But I can’t do that, either.  It’s not professional, and it leads her to the “right” answers.  No, I have to find out what’s going on inside her head, and hold her to her job description.

The problem is that the job description for managers is a lot fuzzier than for others.  So I have to hold Sue’s feet to a fuzzy fire.

I have to think about this every time I meet with my coworkers.  It makes for a very full day.  One of these days I’ll find a job without drama.  Chances are there won’t be any people involved.

 

 

Yoga in Space

I love things that go fast.  Cars.  Jets.  Spaceships.

Nothing goes as fast as a spacecraft heading out to the stars.  There’s something that excites my soul when I look up into the night sky and think that someday, our children may live among the stars.

There’s a problem with that.  In fact, there’s lots of problems, most of which have to do with our attitude.  But there’s one problem in particular that has lots of medical types worried.

People don’t do well living in space.  Who knew?

That’s the point.  No one could know.  No one has ever tried living in space before.  Everyone who goes up is doing an experiment on their own body.  The people who live up there for months at a time are at the most extreme.

When doctors examine these “long-timers” they find that they have lost bone and muscle.  They go soft.

So far the solution has been bicycles and other aerobic type equipment.  In the movies you see big circular rooms where people run in artificial gravity.  The problem with all of these solutions is that they require fancy equipment that weighs a lot.  The biggest problem is that none of those conventional exercises can address everything our bodies need: strength, stretching, flexibility, coordination, balance, control, all tied to our breath.

The only exercise that tackles all of these components is yoga.  And here’s the surprise.  You don’t need gravity to yoga!

I’ve been thinking about this a long time.  Yes, my head is constantly in the clouds, but that’s how I deal with all the troubles we get into down here in the dirt.  So every time I do a down dog, I’m thinking about how I’d do the same thing in zero gee.  And I’ve finally got it licked.

Believe it or not, we take gravity for granted.  You can’t do that if you live in space.  We need it to keep our bodies healthy.  And yoga can help.  The trick is to realize that yoga is really about the balance of forces.  And space travel is all about understanding the balance of force.

Like our mat, or the blocks, or blanket, or even a mirror, gravity is another tool we take into our yoga practice.

If you are a true yoga minimalist who doesn’t believe in tools, good luck!  Your body is a tool.  The ground is a tool.  And gravity is a tool.  You need all of these.

In space, we’ll have a set of tools unique to practicing yoga in zero gee.  And those tools will keep our future space travelers healthy and balanced for the many adventures yet to come.  Those tools won’t take up much room, or much weight.  Yoga can even be done at any time, not just during an authorized exercise break.

Yes, the next time you watch a space travel show, think about how they will stay healthy.  They probably won’t be running in circles or riding a stationary bike.  My guess is that they’ll be doing a half-moon, as they travel to the moon.

Yoga.  Not just for earthlings.

 

Mental Accounting

Accounting is the profession of adding up money.  Accounting records are among our oldest.  Clay tablets recording Ahmet’s twenty bales of hay is among the oldest writing we have.  Keeping track of our money has always been important.  How could something so old be improved?

Within the last century a new kind of accounting has emerged.  It’s the kind of accounting that looks at the brain as real estate.  My brain.  Your brain.  Everyone’s brain.

Here’s how it works.  If you owned a piece of land in the desert, it would only be worth as much as you paid for it.  If no one else visited, or wanted it for any reason, it wouldn’t be worth much.

If you owned a piece of land in the center of Tokyo, then you would have something of great value.  Some land in Tokyo goes for as much as a million dollars a square meter.  That’s the same area you make when you twirl in a circle with your arms outstretched.  Many people want that land.

It turns out that inside our heads we also have real estate.  Today we call them “brands.”  A brand is something that a company owns and can put a dollar value upon.  Donald Trump isn’t only a person, he’s a brand.  Even the President of the United States is a kind of brand, not only as a person, but as an occupant of the office.

A search for popular brands comes up with this file.  It lists them by companies, but if you look for individual brands they are harder to find.  For instance, Disney is extremely popular, but how popular is Mickey Mouse alone?  What about the actor Harrison Ford?  I read that this last Star Wars movie makes him today’s most expensive actor.  That’s because he’s not only an actor, he’s a brand.  And you can take that to the bank.  Or, more exactly, HE can take that to the bank.

The reason he can bank his own brand is because you and I know who he is.  He occupies a little piece of our brain.

It’s possible that you may never have heard of him, but unlikely if you live in the US.

It’s possible you know more about him than just his name.  For instance, he’s also a pilot.

It’s possible you know very much about him: his birthday, his family, even his favorite color.

In any case, you have dedicated some amount of your own mental landscape to the brand of Harrison Ford.  The more of your brain you have given to him, the more his brand is worth.

So Disney was willing to pay billions of dollars for Star Wars because so many people already have the story inside their heads.

Disney itself is worth so many hundreds of billions of dollars because it has billions of heads filled with all of its storied brands: Mickey and Minney Mouse, all the Pixar characters, its entertainment parks, video broadcast companies, and so much more.

What other kinds of “brands” can we consider within our brains?  Concepts that aren’t so directly entertaining or profitable?

Consider these unconventional brands: Like the concepts of good and evil?  Right and Wrong?  The First Amendment of the US Constitution?  What about democracy in general?

How much of your mind is devoted to understanding nature, or working to fight things like injustice or hate?

Now that we can start accounting for what’s in our minds, let’s be honest with ourselves.  Which is more valuable to you: True Love, or Star Wars?  They are both “brands” and they both occupy some of your brain space.

I’m willing to bet you a lottery ticket that I know the answer.

 

 

“The Force” has gone

The new “Star Wars” is BORING.

My date wanted to see it.  I knew what to expect, and as we drove away, she agreed.

The story, even some of the exact characters, are lifted directly from the same movie of 1977.

Abrams gets “credit” for the writing and directing, but his specialty seems to be in copying others, including himself.  That’s my highest praise.

The whole idea of a magic bullet that destroys planets?  Not only lifted from the original star wars, but also from a “star trek” movie he directed.  Remember the wiggly jiggly big red ball of death?  Aaaargh.

Finally, the latest edition of star wars sports a good amount of poor acting, lousy internal consistency, and a whole lot of “just don’t make sense.”

But spoiling on the latest movie isn’t what this post is about.  No, I like taking a bit of current culture and using it to illuminate the big world around us.  And this movie, no matter how much money it makes, helps prove that “the force” is leaving our culture, our humanity.

You see, even as we watch crazy giant aliens blow up planets, our own civilization could be building its own on Luna and Mars.

Instead of watching crazy red tractors float across sand dunes, we could be capturing lightning to power our cars and computers.

Instead of watching evil magic-wielding weirdos sporting beautiful makeup and hair, we could be working towards universal healthcare and education.

Instead, our government, our culture, and our civilization are moving away from all these things.

Instead, most of us are more concerned with our pensions, our youth, and showing off our “stuff.”

Every great civilization has risen, and fallen.  The Egyptians, Indus, Mesopotamians, Babylonians, Greeks, Romans, and others.  Every single one of them became inbred, and finally bored with themselves.

Then young upstarts from outside those civilizations came in and conquered.  Those young upstarts weren’t bored.  They were motivated.  The Romans called them “barbarians.”  Today we call them entrepreneurs, radicals, even terrorists.

Star Wars is boring.  Our current culture is boring.  The lesson from History is that boring is the same as death.

Who do you know who isn’t boring?  They are the ones to watch.  Because the force is with them.

May the force also be with you.

 

Sit Fit

Yoga anyone?  Enjoy it now, because it’s also the very last posture exercise you’ll ever do.

Don’t believe me?  Check out “corpse” pose!

Honestly, there’s no better exercise than yoga.  My family knows I enjoy it, but I don’t try to push it on them.  I feel that it’s something everyone should discover and appreciate on their own.

This goes double for my father.  I’ve never ever been able to tell him anything.  Not when I was eight.  And now that I’m fifty eight it’s even more true.   I don’t take it personally.  He doesn’t take advice from ANYONE.

Last year he broke his back.  It took a month for the “doctors” to figure it out.  Then excruciating months of operations, manipulations, drugs and therapy.  It’s only been recently that he can walk without his cane.  But there’s still pain.

So the other night during our holiday dinner, when he complained about his back pain, I thought I’d make another attempt to help.

“Dad,” I said, “can I make an observation and maybe give you a little advice?”

He gave me that “you think you can tell me anything?” kind of look and gave me his version of a yes: “Why not?”

As an aside, my father NEVER answers questions or makes requests directly.  He only gives out questions and you have to guess his state of mind.  He would have made a great politician.

I explained to Dad that his back pain is probably due to years of neglecting his core, his abdominal muscles.

Back in the 1950s when he first had problems, doctors proscribed rest and heavy-duty girdles.  It felt good, but never solved Dad’s problem.  I remember many days every year where he couldn’t get out of bed because of the pain, or had to sleep on the floor.  And he always had the girdle.

Turns out the docs gave him wrong information.  The girdle supports you, but weakens your core.  Bed rest puts your spine in a relaxed position, but doesn’t make it stronger so that you can enjoy the rest of your life.  What Dad needed was exercise.

So Dad looks at me over the table and says, “So what can I do about it now?”

Here’s where yoga comes in.  “You can do it anytime, anywhere,” I say.

For instance, sitting at the table.  We have straight chairs.  I pointed out that he was slumping, resting his back against the back of the chair.

Dad, I said, try this.  I went through the various steps, yoga style, showing him that he could simply sit in a chair at the dinner table and still help his back at the same time.

  1. First, watch your breath.  Steady even breathing is the core of all yoga.
  2. Then, put your feet on the floor.  Take your shoes off if you can.  Bare feet are better.  Ensure that the midline of your feet are parallel.
  3. Press your feet down evenly, as if they had four corners.  Press the heels away from each other, gently.
  4. Put the knees at about right angles, so the ankle is under your knee.
  5. Very important here – tilt your pelvis forward as much as you comfortably can.  Like you’re tipping the top towards the table, putting a curve into your lower back.
  6. Breath in now and straighten your spine as you do.  Grow tall.
  7. Roll your shoulders back, letting the shoulder blades come together.  Like making a veggie dog bun in your upper back.
  8. Breath out as you roll your shoulders back, making sure that your lower ribs don’t jut out.
  9. Now rotate your arms outward.  I find it easier to do this by putting my hands on the table and turning them over so the back of my hand is on the table.
  10. Keep breathing evenly!  Remember, yoga is first and foremost about your breath!
  11. Check your lower ribs and tummy as you breath out, keeping that spine straight and tall.  If the ribs stick out, think about keeping the top of your belly button rolling down.
  12. Get back to your hands, and with your upper arms still rotated out, push the arms back and roll your hands so that the palms are on the table.
  13. Take inventory of all your parts, starting with the feet and working up to your head.  Breath.  Close your eyes if you can.  Think nice thoughts.  Or just keep making light table talk.

That’s it – you’re doing yoga at the table.  You can make it as hard as you want.  But it makes you stronger, and will help reduce back pain.

Dad took it all in.  To his credit, I could see him trying everything I had told him.  He looked at me and said “Is it supposed to be hurt?”

Dad, I said, it’s as hard as you want it to be.  You’ve let your core go all these years.  It might hurt a little, but getting your core stronger can only be good for you.

In my head I was thinking, Dad, you’re doing yoga.  It’s good for you.  You’re getting stronger.  And no one has to be the wiser.

I don’t know if he’ll keep doing it.  For example, he has one of the lazy chairs that lifts you out – and I think it’s the worst thing he could do to himself.  He’s almost 90, so he can do whatever he wants.

But I don’t want to live in his world of hurt.  So I do yoga.  Chair yoga.

For life.