Category Archives: Lifestyle

Getting Better, V

News of success is the best way to inspire continued progress, according to Australian think tank Future Crunch.

“We really feel that negativity leads to cynicism, apathy, hopelessness and even hate,” said FC’s Tane Hunter. “While it does galvanise a few people into action, for the vast majority it really causes a retraction.”

“We believe a much better way to inspire change is through optimism. We believe that’s the best method and emotion to drive creative innovation and to build a better future.”

One example is to go beyond the stories heralding the economic “success stories” of these nations in the last few years:

According to Future Crunch, the greatest economic success story of all time is currently taking place in countries around the world.

For most of recorded history, they said, only a tiny elite enjoyed higher standards of living. By far the majority of people were dirt poor—”bone-crushing, unrelenting, one-inadequate-meal-a-day, soul-destroying, no-dentist, no-doctor, no-electricity, single-accident-means-life-and-death poor”; inequality was just the way the world worked. As recently as 1970, around 60% of the world’s 3.7 billion people lived in extreme poverty. Today, less than 10% do, the lowest proportion of people in extreme poverty ever.

As Oxford researcher Max Roser puts it, the front page headline every day for the last 25 years should have read:

SINCE YESTERDAY, 137,000 PEOPLE
HAVE BEEN LIFTED OUT OF EXTREME POVERTY.

Future Crunch know the world is not a perfect place. “We still have massive issues with climate change, mass migration, Trump, Brexit, the rise of the alt-right, terrorism and Syria,” Hunter said.

But they insist, “you have to hold two ideas in your head at once: that the world is getting better and the world is not yet good enough. Our successors in the past should really give us hope as we move forward into the future.”

For the average human being on the planet today, the world has never been a better place. That’s a story well worth telling.

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No Newspapers, No Spreadsheets, No Waiting

As a kid in the 1970s, my friends and I played simulated baseball games by rolling dice and viewing charts made using the statistics of Major League players from previous seasons. Before long, however, we decided that the probabilities represented by the charts were not based on recent enough data. So we started taking the current season’s numbers—a limited version of which was printed in the newspaper every Sunday—and making new charts for our games every week.

Beginning in the 1980s, a scoring system called rotisserie baseball allowed people to form teams that competed based on the current statistics of Major League players, similar to what we had done, but without the probability-based gameplay aspect.

In the early 1990s, some friends in the office started a rotisserie (or fantasy) baseball league that relied heavily on two resources which had appeared just a few years before:

  • USA Today
  • Electronic spreadsheets

Introduced in 1982 as a national daily newspaper, USA Today printed the complete Major League Baseball statistics in the paper’s sports section every week of the season. It was a twice-weekly ritual to assign one of the league’s team managers to acquire a copy of the paper—for American League numbers on Tuesday and National League numbers on Wednesday—on the way to the office. We knew where the delivery boxes were around town and often what time they were typically filled, and we relied on the paper on those days for the week’s statistics to update the numbers for our players.

The league’s commissioner (who didn’t have a computer at home) would go to the office on Saturdays and enter the week’s numbers from the paper into our spreadsheet, which calculated current team totals and league standings that were printed and distributed to the owners on Mondays.

When the web came along in the late 1990s, of course, online fantasy leagues were quickly launched by major sports entities to attract visitors to their sites. Now, I manage fantasy teams in leagues with owners across the country and around the world. And while I no longer celebrate successes at year’s end with a Yoo-Hoo shower in a borrowed tuxedo, during the season I have access to my players’ data and the league standings in real time, pitch by pitch. No newspapers. No spreadsheets. No waiting. Amazing.

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My Heart’s Desire

What does travel do for us? Mark Twain said that it’s “fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts.” That can be true, of course, but certainly the act of traveling is not a guaranteed cure for small, unhealthy thinking.

Several years ago, one of my sisters and her husband sent what I consider the most obnoxious Christmas card ever. Its greeting was, “This year we got to go to Paris. Again.”

Marcel Proust insisted that, “The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes,” and you can do that without leaving home. Ralph Waldo Emerson advised, “Though we travel the world over to find the beautiful, we must carry it with us, or we find it not.” And L. Frank Baum’s cherished protagonist Dorothy Gale learned, “If I ever go looking for my heart’s desire again, I won’t look any further than my own back yard. Because if it isn’t there, I never really lost it to begin with!”

Malcolm Gladwell once proposed a prohibition on ever telling anyone what college you attended in order to remove prestige as a factor in college selection. What if travelers were prohibited from ever telling anyone on their return where they had been in order to remove prestige as a motivation for traveling? Would that encourage us instead—at home or on the road—to “carry the beautiful with us”?

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I’m Doing Something

Elvis Costello said, “I don’t go out much at night; I don’t go out much at all.” In fact, many people now often prefer staying in to going out for reasons that include:

  • Feeling free to act and dress however they want.
  • Saving their money.
  • Avoiding meaningless conversations.
  • Avoiding competition for parking, seating or using the bathroom.

But if I want to spend a couple of hours reading a book or the news online, I often prefer going out to a café or a public space to sitting in my living room. And I’m all over this scene from Seinfeld:

GEORGE: Do you mind if I watch [this tape] here?
JERRY: What for?
GEORGE: Because if I watch it at my apartment I feel like I’m not doing anything. If I watch it here, I’m out of the house; I’m doing something.

Even when I do go out, however, I don’t necessarily want to talk to anyone. Again, Seinfeld:

ELAINE: Come on, let’s go do something. I don’t want to just sit around here.
JERRY: Okay.
ELAINE: Want to go get something to eat?
JERRY: Where do you want to go?
ELAINE: I don’t care, I’m not hungry.
JERRY: We could go to one of those cappuccino places. They let you just sit there.
ELAINE: What are we gonna do there? Talk?
JERRY: We can talk.
ELAINE: I’ll go if I don’t have to talk.

It seems, however, that despite my lack of a social impulse and my squeamishness with conversation, I do feel sympathy for the idea of a “third place.” Ray Oldenburg said that third places—”public places on neutral ground where people can gather and interact”—are “central to local democracy and community vitality.” They should be:

  • Neutral—”in which we all feel at home and comfortable”
  • Level—”by its nature, an inclusive place”
  • Conversational—”the cardinal and sustaining activity of third places everywhere”
  • Accessible—”one may go alone at almost any time of the day or evening with assurances that acquaintances will be there”
  • Regular—”the right people are there to make it come alive, and they are the regulars”
  • Unpretentious—”typically plain”
  • Playful—”joy and acceptance reign over anxiety and alienation”

Johnny Dzubak said that a third place “puts you in touch with people who are unlike you, which is an important part of growth for every man.” But he also said, for a third place to be right for you, it needs to have “the kind of people you’d want to spend time with.” I don’t know if such a place exists for me; I don’t know if I can be comfortable in a place “where everybody knows your name.”

Is it just the sounds of a public place that I like, not the interaction? What is it about third places that I like when I don’t particularly like talking with people or getting to know them?

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Killer Instinct

I noticed a few days ago that the last four books I’ve read are all about murder cases (three real, one fictional):

It had been my intent after reading several dense, fundamental concept-laden histories of thought and culture to take a bit of a break, but not particularly to read about a bunch of killers. When I itemized the list above, however, it made me think—not for the first time—about why I, or we, dwell so easily on crime, particularly murder.

Psychologist Paul Mattiuzzi said, “We wonder about the victim, about the perpetrator, and about the circumstances. We are intrigued by the motive and the method and how they got away or how they got caught. We wonder who would be capable of the crime and whether they are ‘normal’ like us or hopefully quite different.”

Writer Joe Bunting reasoned, “People love puzzles…Everyone I know who likes doing crossword puzzles says mystery is their favorite genre.” And, moreover, “People are puzzles…It’s often difficult to understand why people do the things they do. Detective stories give us a glimpse into people we would never get in real life.”

While admitting that our obsession simply feeds “a deep fascination with the human psyche,” columnist Molly Fosco claimed more pragmatically that reading about crime helps us be “aware of the different types of dangerous situations [we] might encounter and know how to prevent them.”

Professor Scott Bonn agreed, saying that “serial killers appeal to the most basic and powerful instinct in all of us—that is, survival.”

People watching, logic, primal urges. I guess my/our fascination with a good murder mystery—real or imagined—is no mystery.

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Filed under Lifestyle, People, The Book I Read

The Most Important Place in Town

public-library

I was reminded recently how starkly the mission of the public library contrasts with that of the “membership library” near me. An article described the membership library as having the look of “a turn-of-the-20th-Century private club,” which it is since “use of the collection and reading room is restricted to current subscribers.”

The public library’s mission, on the other hand, is simply “connecting people.” All of the people in its community, that is. No paid subscription ($55 – $1,500/year for the membership library) required. For this and other reasons, a community’s public library can be its most important place. By allowing everyone to explore, interact, and imagine, public libraries do more than provide information. They build citizens.

In the Seinfeld episode, “The Library,” Jerry said, “What’s amazing to me about the library is that, here’s a place where you can go in, you take out any book you want, they just give it to you and say, ‘Bring it back when you’re done.’ It reminds me of like this pathetic friend everybody had when they were a little kid that would let you borrow any of his stuff if you would just be his friend. That’s what the library is, it’s a government-funded pathetic friend. That’s why everybody kind of bullies the library. ‘I’ll bring it back on time, I’ll bring it back late. Oh, what are you going to do? What are you going to charge me, a nickel?'”

A seemingly devastating characterization. But if you take away the smarmy, hipster snarkiness, the comedian is paying the library a massive tribute. Indeed, the public library is about going out of its way to lend things—books, movies, music, magazines—that many people couldn’t or wouldn’t acquire for themselves. And, yes, it does it on very generous terms. Pathetic? On the contrary, I consider it remarkable and an incredibly noble facet of our society.

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Home

home

My family moved a lot when I was growing up—every year and a half to seven years—and I didn’t like it or the way it affected me. After the first few times, it just becomes a part of who you are. Each time you make new friends, you wonder how long it will be before you say goodbye again, and the feeling of home gets less and less real with each new address. Someone at work asked me once, “Are you going home for the holidays?” I said, “What do you mean by that?”

When I started my own family, I wanted my wife and kids to have a home, not just a series of houses. Let me tell you, there is nothing fancy about the house where our kids were raised and where my wife and I still live. And I’m still finding crazy things the previous owner did himself that he definitely should have hired a professional for. All the same, I’ve already lived there three times longer than anywhere else, and I don’t have any desire to leave. It’s home to me, and I know it was to my kids.

Of course, there can be good reasons for moving, but I firmly believe that sticking around long enough for my kids to go all the way through one school system is one of the most important things I provided them. Growing up in more or less one place gave them solid roots and helped them develop a strong foundation for life. And I couldn’t help but think that, as my kids got older, returning to the home where they had grown up (at the end of the day or the semester or on holidays) provided a refuge for them.

It’s easy to forget that each of us has our own little movie playing in our head, and “moving on up” to a new house that for me says, “I’m a success now” may well say for my kids, “Life as I knew it is over,” “I’ll never see my friends again” or “I don’t belong here.” Our house seems a lot bigger now that they’ve moved out, and they still have a home to come back to…even after they’ve started their own.

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