Wednesday, January 28, 2015

How to watch the Super Bowl: a crash course in motivation.

TO BACK UP a bit: My college football coach was the kind of guy Stanley Kubrik must have had in mind when he conceived the over-the-top drill sergeant in Full Metal Jacket. During one game midway in my sophomore year, my offensive-line cohorts and I were having trouble opening holes for our ball carriers. Coach pulled us aside at half-time and lined us up against a wall; he then walked the line and, from a distance of maybe two inches, screamed into each of our faces in turn, “I WANT YOU TO TELL ME NOW, ARE YOU EVER GONNA MISS ANOTHER BLOCK!?” There was a colorful Anglo-Saxon gerund between another and block, but I’ll omit it here.

The only acceptable answer was “NO SIR!”, which we too were expected to scream at several decibels’ volume. This would assure Coach of our mettle, dedication, and worthiness to have him verbally assault us for the rest of the season. But to me, Coach’s question sounded unreasonable. After all, I still had two-and-a-half seasons of football ahead of me. What promises could I make at that tender juncture? Thus, when my turn came, I drew a breath and said, “Look, Coach, I certainly don’t want to miss another block. I promise you that. But probably yes, I think I will miss a few. Eventually.” 

From the bewildered look on Coach’s leathery face, you’d think I’d just morphed into a giant marmoset right before his eyes. For a moment he continued to stare at me. Then he exploded. Labeling me “a smart-ass” who was “out to show him up,” he banished me to the end of the bench. Not long after play resumed, however, he quietly inserted me back in the game. It seems that my replacement—one of those players who would “never miss another block”—was missing quite a few of them.

Years later, when I began writing about self-help’s component parts, I’d see the parallels between what undid Coach Chisholm’s way of thinking and what undoes so much of self-help—especially the PMA-based variety that purports to help you climb every mountain, ford every stream, etc. With that as preamble, I present for your reading (and thinking?) pleasure my take on the world's largest aggregation of motivational nonsense, otherwise known as the Super Bowl.

As any gridiron aficionado will tell you, it's impossible to appreciate the Super Bowl without a keen understanding of the attitudinal factors that control every single game element, beginning with the coin toss. Ahh, the coin toss: to the uninitiated, a simple matter of physics and the laws of chance. Insiders, however, know that it's one of those improbable competitive subtleties where objective reality can be forced to submit to the power of the human spirit. This in turn explains why only the most seasoned team captains, men of profound mettle and valor, are dispatched to midfield to yell “heads” or “tails.” No coach wants to risk having a novice go out and fuck it up.

Following, then, is a primer in the rest of football's so-called mental game. If you're a casual fan, or you'll be watching with others who are, this will not only enhance your viewing pleasure but enable all of you to decode the insightful banter from the broadcast booth on Sunday. 

Realize first that an athlete competing at the Super Bowl level is already well versed in the potent psychodynamics of winning. He knows there's no “I” in team—yet he can personally carry the team on his back if need be. He stays within himself while also knowing how to stretch. This superb athlete understands the fine line between limitless confidence and overconfidence. He goes into competition with a clear head as well as intense concentration, and though he recognizes that winning is everything, not for one second does he worry about losing. He has mastered the art of pacing himself in an environment in which he's expected to give 110 percent at all times—and he still has another gear left if he needs it. This competitor is fiery yet calm, patient yet eager.

The Super Bowl being the Super Bowl, fans can rest assured that teams will be in the zone, not looking ahead to next week. Surely in this one game, players will leave it all on the field. (NOTE: The NFL employs specially trained crews to come to the stadium Monday morning and pick it all up again. It is then mailed back to players during the off-season.) From the moment the athletes race onto the gridiron, they're out to make a statement—although some teams prefer to let the other team make its statement first, so they can answer with authority.

Ebola virus stuck to under-inflated football. Photo courtesy Bill Belichick.
By newly enacted league rule, every NFL game must feature at least one momentum shift. Befitting its name, this is an epochal development wherein the side that seemed to have matters well in hand suddenly turns the ball over at an inopportune moment, thereby allowing the other team back in. (The epidemiology of momentum, the mechanism whereby it spreads from player to player or team to team, remains controversial. Some believe it's a filovirus, genomically akin to Ebola.) Momentum shifts are not, however, irreversible. They can be undone by a loss of focus or poise. As such mistakes are unforgivable at this climactic point in the season, top NFL brass are now mulling whether a loss of poise should be penalized with a loss of down or even disqualification of the offending player(s).

If the game is close and circumstances afford one team a final chance to seize its destiny, the stage is set for another time-honored competitive phenomenon: the gut check. This requires players to reach deep inside themselves in order to find out what they're made of (and, while they're in there, look for that other gear). In keeping with a recent trend involving the commercial marketing of all discrete moments in any given contest (“This kickoff brought to you by...”), Super Bowl XLIX's gut check will be sponsored by a PSA for prostate screening. Well-read viewers may recall that some years ago the makers of Prilosec paid a significant sum for the naming rights to the term “fire in the belly.”

Football statue made of crystallized Pepto; Canton, OH
Favored teams that find themselves unexpectedly behind as the Super Bowl moves into its late stages may turn as a last recourse to a player who knows how to win. It has been posited by Hawking and others that these elite players emit waves of invisible energy that are capable of causing fumbles, errant passes and broken plays—and can even summon gusts of wind that deflect field goals or conjure the sudden existence of a more advantageous angle in a videotape replay. In any case, such a player will be asked to communicate this proprietary know-how to the rest of the team. This ceremony usually takes place at a sideline meeting, where the elite player imbues his teammates with the will to win by screaming inspirational totems like “just win, baby!” or “now let's go out and kill the muth&*!*$%amp;%*ers!” (Emerging medical research suggests that concussions actually result from collisions between opposing players who both know how to win, or will not allow themselves to be beaten, or some combination thereof. Such players soon may be required to wear prominent W's on their helmets, analogous to the green dots now worn by guys who are mic'd up; this will identify them to one another and thus help them avoid direct contact.)

Important caveat: A player who knows how to win must never exercise that gift prematurely. He may not, for example, inspire his team to score four touchdowns in the first quarter, thereby putting the game safely out of reach. Rather, he must bide his time while awaiting the perfect moment to enable his team to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. The delicacy of this balancing act is such that a player sometimes waits too long, rendering his team vulnerable to opponents who have no quit in them.

Thus illuminated, now grab a brew, sit back and enjoy the game. (Helpful hint: Turn off the sound.)

Thursday, January 15, 2015

I am special. Therefore I kill what irks me.

This is another "best of SHAMblog"...but as (tragically) relevant as ever.
So I did a nationwide satellite-radio hook-up Wednesday night on the subject of the narcissism that fuels, or surely catalyzes, these violent outbursts we've been seeing in recent years. If you think about it, self-love has to play a key role in pushing people to act out in violent ways, especially in cases where they jeopardize the lives of not just their nominal targets but innocent bystanders as well. Yeah, part of it is guns, and part of it is the inflamed rhetoric, and part of it, perhaps, is the social maladroitness of a generation of kids for whom a booty-call sent via text-message qualifies as "intimacy." But ask yourself: Even with the availability of guns, and even with the strident, bellicose oratory one encounters in so many areas of postmodern life ... At the end of the day, what kind of person takes it upon himself to become The Solution, elevating his own need for emotional relief above everyone else's, even to the extent of assassinating a duly elected public official? This is a person who is saying, in effect, "I don't care how the electorate voted. They got it wrong. And I'm going to make it right." What kind of person does that?

Almost by definition, the answer is ... a narcissist. A person with a messianic view of his role in the social scheme.

Studies show that we in America have recently succeeded at producing several of the most narcissistic generations in (measurable) history. Psychology professor Robert Millman of Cornell Medical College put it this way in discussing the over-the-top, in-your-face antics of today's Hollywood elite: "The lack of empathy is eerie. They think they're right and that the desk clerk or whoever just didn't understand how important their needs were." As paraphrased in the article linked immediately above, Millman went on to explain that "narcissism leads to depression, isolation, rage and envy." But such problems clearly don't begin and end in Hollywood. I'm not going to rehash all of my feelings on self-esteem-based education here; anyone who's interested in catching up can browse the blog or simply read Chapter 10 in SHAM, which is devoted in its entirety to self-esteem and, in particular, its counterintuitive downside. (Plus, now we have the law of attraction, cornerstone concept of The Secret and derivative works, indoctrinating adults to believe that the beneficent Universe basically exists to meet your needs.)

Suffice it to say that when you train legions of our young people to think that they're Special! and Wonderful! and The Most Important Person on Earth! ... should we really be that surprised when some of the more unbalanced ones grow up and start to behave like it?

Thursday, January 08, 2015

Back by no special demand! The post of New Year's past.

Some of the references in this post are a tad dated...and I must chuckle at my characterization of Jean Chatzky, who's now about as entrenched an authority on consumer finance as there is in today's America...but still, this post encapsulates my thoughts on life and living as well as any, and is unusually well-suited to the New Year/New You mindset that's about to wash over this grand nation of ours. (By the way, I guess I was publishing SHAMblog in a large-type edition in those days. And isn't it just precious that I then referred to readers as SHAMbloggers?) So without further ado let us revisit Dec. 29, 2006:
Wednesday's GMA featured an interview with life coach Cheryl Richardson. Realize for starters that Richardson gets to be a TV life coach not so much because her advice is better than most other folks', but because her face is. She's cute. This, of course, is the same phenomenon that explains why, when it came time for The Today Show to anoint a new in-house expert on consumer finance, countless seasoned reporters and editors had to make way for the cherubic Jean Chatzky. My only question at the time was, could the show's audience put its full trust in financial wisdom from a girl who then looked to be about 12? (Be patient. We'll get to Bambi.)

The Richardson segment was one of those new-start-for-the-new-year things, with GMA hoping to get the jump on its competitors by inducing viewers to mull their 2007 resolutions a few days early. In the spirit of eternal helpfulness to which SHAMbloggers have grown accustomed, I'll summarize Richardson's insights here. In fact, tell you what: We'll let her talk for herself until she says something suspect. Then and only then will I interrupt. 'K? Here goes:

GMA: "Cheryl, how would someone go about laying the groundwork for success in the New Year?"

Richardson: "Well, the first thing is, look at what you did last year that worked, and...."
OK, stop.

How do you know what really "worked" last year? Because it had a "successful outcome"? Isn't it possible that you succeeded in spite of whatever it is you did, not because of it? And certainly it's at least possible that there are other things you could've done that would've been more successful, perhaps even far more successful, than what you actually did. Anyway, how can you be that precise in separating out all the variables in your life, such that you can say with any degree of certainty that this caused that? Finally, how do you know how it's all going to work out in the end? Maybe you did such-and-such a thing and it got you a great promotion, but maybe that promotion is going to get you shipped off to open your company's new office in Dubai, where you'll eventually be kidnapped by Islamic terrorists and turn up on CNN in an
orange jumpsuit....

So, Stevie-boy, you're saying that nothing matters and we're all doomed. No. I'm saying that too many things matter—that there are too many variables, and their interplay is such that they can't be neatly separated out and analyzed as if they were independent elements. Especially not by a casual onlooker like a life coach, and even less so by a life coach you saw for three minutes on GMA. I'm also saying that most things can't be predicted—not very well for the short term, not at all for the long term. Sure, we have to live anyway, which means decisions have to be made. We all have to do what we have to do to puzzle through our lives. Our lives. No life coach can see the future. They're consultants, not clairvoyants. And in function, most of today's coaches are more like cheerleaders. Real coaches, after all, call the shots*; real coaches say no to their players (and even take players out of the game). Garden-variety life coaches, on the other hand, won't tell a client what they know a client doesn't want to hear. In any case, the life coach offers no insurance policy against failure, and may well do you substantial harm by patting you on the back (or persuading you to pat yourself on the back) when he or she shouldn't. Yanno, maybe giving up your middle-management job to open a taco stand isn't the best thing for you at this juncture in life. Don't get me wrong: If that's what you want to do, maybe you should go for it. However, if you're going to bring in a coach, then the coach should give you a no-holds-barred assessment, not just an attaboy or a lot of nebulous verbiage. (As you may have guessed by now, I'm
not too high on life coaches.)

Quick story. When I decided to trade my sales bag for a typewriter back in 1981, I went to the newsstand, found a magazine that I thought "sounded like me," and mailed off my rambling, 6,500-word manuscript about selling mirrors in Harlem. That magazine was
Harper's. If you're in the writing biz or know anything about it, you're probably laughing right now, because the odds of selling your very first piece to Harper's, especially "over the transom" (i.e. without being asked for it), range between insanely long and fuggetaboutit. Harper's is, without question, one of the toughest sales in the business. A good writer can spend his entire career submitting to Harper's and never click once. Nonetheless, editor Lewis Lapham loved the piece, bought it, and it ran in the magazine's January 1982 issue. I became something of an overnight sensation in magazine circles; agents, too, were beating a path to my door. For me, then, sending off my unbidden manuscript was "what worked" that year. (That's what Cheryl Richardson would've told me.) But any writer who looked at what I did and used it as a template for success—"Hey, I know! I'll just whip something up and send it to Harper's!"—would almost surely set himself up to fail, and fail miserably. (And the odds of failure wouldn't be that much lower even if you didn't confine yourself to Harper's. Mailing out unsolicited manuscripts is not the way to go in freelancing. That's something I myself had to learn after my first few charmed years.) Besides, though the Harper's sale ignited what some would consider a successful career in writing, the jury's still out on whether the overall shift—from selling to writing—was a good thing or a bad thing. For me and/or my family. I don't want to encumber you or this blog with all sorts of details about my financial life and family history, but suffice it to say I've begun to envy my blue-collar acquaintances who are looking forward to collecting government pensions in a few years. I suspect that my wife envies their wives.

Which brings us, at long last, to my deer story. Hunter goes into the woods. Sees a nice buck. Takes aim with his
.30-06, fires. First shot misses. Second shot is a clean kill. Goes back to his truck feeling ebullient; it's a good day. He gets back-slaps all around from his hunting pals. Only later does he find out that his first shot—the one that missed—hit a pregnant woman sitting in her driveway in a nearby housing addition, warming up her car. True story; happened about 20 minutes from my house.

Get my drift? That hunter learned a hard lesson—unlike most of us, who seldom get to see the full and final effect of all of the shots we take in life. While we're toasting our successes, admiring the racks (no wisecracks, OK?) on the metaphorical deer we took down, somebody somewhere may be grappling with the consequences of the shots that got away... Of course, the opposite is also true: There's no way of knowing about the unintended good we do, either. (See:
The Five People You Meet in Heaven.) And that's really the only way to leave it: There's no way of knowing. So can we please stop pretending we know? Or hiring people to pretend for us? 

* I'm not saying that we should want this from a life coach. I'm just saying that the average person misperceives the role played by the coach, and that the coach derives a faux credibility and standing from the misuse of the more authoritarian terminology. Who would pay $250 an hour for a "life cheerleader"?

Tuesday, January 06, 2015

Millions of pots, calling each other black...

This is basically another reprise of a column from yesteryear, but amid today's climate of nonstop finger pointing, with just about every Tom calling out just about every Dick or Harry over some aspect of behavior that Tom finds despicable (and vice versa), it seemed apt. 

As always, see what you think.
Among all human foibles, if there's a single trait that astonishes and, really, amuses me more than any other, it's the tendency to rationalize and excuse whatever degree of sinfulness we find in our own hearts, while pointing an accusing finger at someone else whose own degree of sinfulness slightly differs from, or extends one iota beyond, our own. Of course, in most cases we don't even recognize our own behavior as sinful (or, if we prefer to avoid the use of a word freighted with religious overtones, wrong). Sins occur only when someone else crosses a line that we ourselves would not cross.

A man who treats all of his employees in a belittling, dehumanizing fashion, draining them of their pride and
their very zest for life, becomes outraged reading the story of the fun-loving, generally nice-guy boss at another company who's accused of groping a female employee.

A woman who has two children and then has an abortion next time around for the sake of convenience ("I didn't want to be raising more kids
at this stage of life") demands justice after a gang member kills one of the first two kids during a drive-by shooting.*
A man who has had affairs in the past (or is having an affair with you at that very moment) is enraged when his paramour/you sneak(s) off to enjoy an evening with another man.
A woman who finesses her income taxes gets furious at her son for being kicked out of school after cheating on an important exam 

A jury gets even on society's behalf by imposing the death penalty on a teenager who got even with a bully who'd taunted him for years. 

A venal corporate executive who sacks his company by implementing dubious executive-compensation policies that allow him and his cronies to skim off the top feels no qualms about prosecuting the "young punk" who broke into his house to steal his big-screen TV.

A Pope who kept silent about Nazi atrocities during World War II tells millions of Catholics how they must take a stand against evil wherever and whenever they encounter it. Related: A so-called "cafeteria Catholic" who breaks his religion's law by practicing birth control bitterly denounces a fellow Catholic who uses the N word in describing blacks.

My point being: Really, who decides what's worse than what else? And isn't it interesting that, left to our own devices, we tend to decide that the things we do
our unique flaws and vicesare "OK" in the grand scheme of things?

It's always the other guy who's "crossing the line."

We often call this hypocrisy, and it's easy to spot when the transgressions are parallel: that is, when
the rest of us catch you attacking someone else for doing the same thing you've been doing in secret. But what about when the transgressions aren't parallel?

+  Is it worse to rape a woman...or shoot a bison grazing peacefully in a field for the pure thrill of it?

+ Is it worse to rob a bank...or chronically intimidate your wife/kids?

+ Is it worse to tell a lie that you think is small (bearing in mind that we seldom see the end-term consequences that a lie may set in motion, which can be catastrophic, even when the lie is a little white one) or to kill one person without whom the world would be better off (though the world may not know it at the time the killing takes place)?
We're also inclined to discount sins of omission: The wealthy woman who wears a $5000 designer gown to a social event where she'll be greeted like royalty has almost surely had a hand in ending human lives by doing so; she just doesn't realize it. She could've worn an inexpensive frock and donated the rest to prevent African children from starving. (So maybe there's gun death...and gown death?) For that matter, she could've passed up the event entirely, dismissing it as a worthless frill. In that context, is what she did—wearing a pretty gown to a nice social event—better or worse than the genuinely poor teenager who mugs an elderly woman for her handbag so that he himself can avoid starving? As the foregoing illustrates, we also tend to label it "sin" only when we can see a straight line of causation: the direct impact. If we can interpose several layers of complexity and confusion between cause and effect, we can tell ourselves no harm, no foul.

In truth, I suspect that all sins
perhaps even all behaviors, whether we're wont to adjudge them good or bad here on earthmay be somehow analogous. Perhaps all behavior is created equal. We each have degrees of (self-defined) sin we can live with. We have "bargains" we makewith God (if we choose to acknowledge Him), with ourselves, with the people who like us just the way we are. It's one unending rerun of the old quiz show, Let's Make a Deal.
* I am not implying in my own voice that abortion = murder. But surely you'll find no shortage of folks who would make that argument and find (im)moral equivalence between the two events.

Thursday, December 25, 2014

For your reading displeasure: some end-year non-PC rants.

Re the notion that if black kids do poorly in school, it's because they attend awful schools: Don't get me wrong, this may sometimes be the case. Maybe more than sometimes. But whence this knee-jerk assumption that lousy test scores and graduation rates indicate ipso facto that students are victims of an uncaring administration that has provided them with the dregs of Teacherdom? Can't it mean that black kids have more difficulty learning than white kids?* In fact, that's the first possibility that should be considered in keeping with Occam's Razor. Ditto the evidence that black grade-schoolers are punished and suspended more than white students. The approved explanation is that teachers are so inherently racist that they can't control themselves even when dealing with the youngest, most innocent black kids. But could it more simply mean that blacks have some behavioral maladjustment that begins manifesting itself at an early age?** It is no more racist to wonder about such things than it is to observe that some races seem taller than others. How do we know what else is encoded along with the genes for color and such? We'll find out one day soon, of course, but it remains to be seen whether that info will be suppressed if it's unfavorable to a protected group.

Re that viral cat-calling video that created such a stir: Gals, if you don't want men to come on to you, then for whom are you trying to look sexy? (Not a rhetorical question. I'm honestly asking.) It's disingenuous to say that you're just trying to look good for yourself: You know deep down that "looking good for yourself" (or "for other women") is in reality a measurement of your ability to attract men. In other words, you know you look good when you glance in the mirror, see yourself as a man would see you and say Ooooh, mamacita. Dressing hot and then acting offended when you get the response that hot women get is a bit like putting on ultra-spiked heels and then complaining when people notice that you're really tall. If you don't care about attracting men, dress comfortably. Wear baggy clothes and sneakers or flats. Now, if you're arguing that we men are supposed to keep our mouths shut even when you look super-hot, fair enough. I can buy that. Just don't deny the reality of what's going on here. Because, as Michael Corleone said to Carlo near the end of The Godfather, "It insults my intelligence."

What the hell is "profiling," anyway? Let's say I eat a certain food I've never tasted before and suffer horrific digestive consequences. Then I try that food a half-dozen times more and I get sick again each time... Guess what, folks...I'm gonna stop eating it. So would you. If a certain species of dog bites me every time I encounter it, I'm going to shy away from that type of dog. Similarly, if blacks account for over 90% of the murder perps in NYC, and I'm a cop, how can I not be influenced by that? That doesn't mean that every black I meet is a murderer, but it does mean that I can hardly be blamed for having a visceral flinching reaction to the next black stranger I meet in a high-crime area. Besides, certainly, to hear blacks tell it, I they profile cops, too, expecting the worst from each such encounter. Should we try to fight such tendencies? Sure. Should we implement policies that discourage such tendencies? We probably should (though I'm not persuaded in the case of terrorism). But it's just human nature to feel this way. Tell me where I'm off-base.

Finally, returning again to rape or "date rape": In a society marked by endless bloviation about female empowerment, independence and self-esteem, I fail to see why we're gravitating to a position where it's a man's legal responsibility to supplant the woman's judgment with his own in deciding whether sex should occur. Let's suppose that a woman has been drinking a fair amount at some
holiday gathering and is therefore more suggestible; less inclined to refuse a man's advances. Let's even suppose that as a result she (a) has sex with someone she'd never consider sleeping with when sober and (b) is aghast the next morning to discover that she indeed did so. Why is that the man's problem? Provided she was still conscious and communicating with the outside world when it happened, I don't see how that can be called rape. For as I've noted before, if that same tipsy woman gets behind the wheel of a car and plows into a mother with baby carriage on her way home from the holiday gathering, she'll be held liable for driving under the influence. So why is she not fully and solely liable for screwing under the influence?

And hell, if she was "too drunk" to give a valid consent, why was he not "too drunk" to be held responsible for pressing on? Why do we argue a one-way, gender-specific code of conduct/liability?

There are many behaviors that are considered marginally ethical in a polite society but do not rise to the level of illegality. The average person selling a used car will not disclose every last quirk; caveat emptor generally applies in such transactions (though, of course, if you withhold major safety defects that have tragic consequences, there will be repercussions). If you're offering a house for rent, you may elect not to mention to prospective tenants that it gets awfully drafty in the winter months, thus the renter's heating bill is apt to go through the roof (literally). A politician may neglect to volunteer that he had an affair, cheated on his taxes, smoked dope, or all of the above. None of these is admirable, but should we label them crimes?

There is—and must continue to be—a distinction between being a cad and being a criminal.

As a libertarian and a man, I am dismayed by today's fulminating obsession with expanding the category of actions that supposedly constitute rape. Not a few campus activists want to include sex obtained under false pretenses...e.g. if a guy forgets to mention that he's married, doesn't have the credit score he implied he had, or really never intended to see the woman again (a la Tinder). I'm sorry, folks, that can't be rape. But the so-called "rape by deception" movement already has achieved some legislative traction, so it's a trend worth watching in 2015.

Happy New Year.
* Sure, the problem could be cultural and in no way genetic. Black kids may get less support at home, and/or black kids may face anti-educational peer pressures that (most) white kids don't face. I'm just saying let's not automatically dump on the teachers or the schools.
** Ditto. Kids who come from unstable domestic situations may bring emotional baggage to school along with their pencils. But regardless...