Monday, October 23, 2017

"The Missing Thing (A Substandard Title I Hope To Ultimately Replace, But Probably Won't)"

I have an interest in perfection, a subject easier studied than possibly attained.  (Although I found the previous sentence to be remarkably successful.)

This curiosity began unfortuitously when, as a precocious eight year-old, I proudly proclaimed to my grandfather,

“I got ninety-six on my arithmetic exam.” 

To which he unsmilingly replied,

“What happened to ‘the other four’?”

Is there such a word as “Grand-patricide”?  (I may have then wondered, and probably did.)

Still, the incentivizing “seed” had been permanently planted.  How exactly, I urgently pondered, do you scale the seemingly unreachable summit of “a hundred”?

Then, I went into writing, a pursuit in which “perfection” is functionally inoperative, partly because writing’s a subjective operation so “Who’s to decide what exactly constitutes ‘a hundred’?’”, and partly because there are so many words it is practically impossible to consistently hit the bull’s eye with each of them. 

I’ll bet even Hamilton’s prodigiously gifted Lin-Manuel Miranda has sleep-sapping second thoughts about rhyming… I just flipped through the booklet of Hamilton lyrics and was unable to identify one regrettable rhyme.  (Although I am certain if you asked him, he’d go straight to the spot and say, “I just could not come up a better one.  ‘College’ and ‘astonish’?  Ay, Carumba!”)

Still, despite my inability to approach close enough to “perfection” to see it with the Hubble Telescope, I assiduously examined that conundrous enterprise in others, to determine why that sought-after objective is so frustratingly beyond human achievement.  (Although animals can do it.  CHEETAH:  “I have an unblemished record at ‘bringing down antelopes.’  Which would be noteworthy, except that all the other cheetahs do too.”)

Recent Memorable Example:

I saw the 2017 Dodgers, at one point this season, winning an astonishing 51 out of 62 games – challenging the best “Won-Loss” record of all time – suddenly losing 20 out of their next 25 games, capturing, during that dismal decline, one game, while contemporaneously losing 17.

Yes, there were injuries.  And yes, the “Marathon”-length season eventually exhausted their energies.  And yes, there is the inescapable “Regression toward the mean”, the “Law of Averages”, inevitably bringing one’s “Icarus”-like performance more predictably back down to earth.  (Though, hopefully, without the accompanying Icarus-like “splat.”)

Those factors were unquestionably contributory.  But there was, I believed, some more salient and ultimately more satisfying reason for the precipitous nosedive.

Of course nobody ever wins all their games – an “imperfection” my grandpa, in a mistaken incentivizing technique, would have unhelpfully pointed out.  Still, in baseball, you take 51 out of 62 games, that’s a stratospheric “Winning Percentage” of… you know, numerically, it’s a ton!

And then, the rains came down.

After record-setting successes, pitchers with pinpoint accuracy were suddenly “just missing” their locations.  Batters who regularly punished the opposition pitchers’ “mistakes” now fouled them harmlessly out of play, or whiffed entirely, the missed pitches popping tauntingly into adversary catchers’ welcoming gloves.

Inevitable winners becoming inevitable losers?

What the heck was going on?

Suddenly, I “got” it.  (A spontaneous insight, seen as the illuminating “Answer”,  because, for me, “spontaneous insights” have never once led me astray.)

In baseball, with its under-appreciated standards of Major League proficiency, where even the worst teams can defeat the most talented ones, there is an indefinable “Winner’s Edge” that ultimately generates champions, an edge the juggernaut Dodgers once possessed but had allowed, unconsciously, to slip away.

You win 51 out of 62 games, then take your foot imperceptibly “off the gas”, the propelling “wind at your back” turns in the other direction, and before you know it,  

You are a horrendous “one-and-seventeen.”

It is a precarious proposition, the players – and teams – being carefully tuned machines.  You deviate from your typical game – by, say, the softening distraction of being so far ahead in the standings – you lose your enabling “Winner’s Edge”, and, shortly thereafter, you lose 20 of the next 25 games.

I recall, not dissimilarly, as a performer on the 1974 summer replacement series, The Bobbie Gentry Goodtime Hour, I was waiting to tape my sure-fire “Making a Peanut Butter Sandwich from ‘Scratch’” routine – involving the essential ingredients: a sack of shelled peanuts, a skittish elephant and a measured infusion of scurrying mice.  (Use your imagination, remembering the reliable “‘Eek!’ Effect” scurrying mice have on highly-strung elephants and their shattering consequences on strategically strewn shelled peanuts.)

As I waited backstage – confident, prepared, and ready to go – a visiting producer, a transplanted Canadian who, I believe, mistook me for my older brother, began loudly berating me for “… thinking you are ‘so great’.

When I finally appeared before the cameras, that disquieting incident threw off my studied “calm but focused” equilibrium, leaving a once can’t-miss “Mice and Elephant” routine edited strategically out of program.

The “Good News” is, with preparation, experience and fueling enthusiasm, you are nearer “Perfection” than you can possibly imagine.  The “Bad News” is, the slightest buffeting distraction, and your excised “Peanut Butter From ‘Scratch’” routine lies ignominiously on the production’s cutting-room floor.

More than any conceivable factor, it’s that vaguely determinable “Winner’s Edge” that spells the disparity between “ninety-six” and “a hundred” – the difference between (arithmetical) “Perfection” and “Just missed.” 

To this day, I wonder what deflecting determinant robbed 8 year-old Earlo of that elusive “other four.”


(And why my infuriating grandpa felt it maddeningly necessary to bring it up.)

Friday, October 20, 2017

"Writer In The Sky -The Return (Home)"

I don’t know why I get such a kick out of this –“Writer in the Sky.”

I just sang it.  (As in “Riders in the Sky.”)

Writer in the sky…” 

“Doo-doo doo-doo doo.”

It feels so “Tomorrowland” to me.  Like playing ping-pong on the moon. 

(Note:  I am not sure that is scientifically accurate.  Perhaps I should add, “… if you can play ping-pong on the moon, which I am not certain you can.”  Yeah, that feels better.  I mean, for me.  I wouldn’t want you going on about playing ping-pong on the moon in front of some astronaut and have them laugh derisively in your face.  Then you think, “Who talked about playing ping-pong on the moon?” and you remember who it was and you blame me for getting you derisively laughed in the face and you track me down and hurt me.  You see the lengths I go to avoid hypothetical beatings?   That’s cautious.)

It also returns us to the subject of blame.  Just like I just defused the possibility of blame for leading you down an erroneous lunar possibility, that’s how – and to what extent – people will go to keep the spinning “Blame Arrow” from pointing accusatorily at them. 

Blame must be terrible. 

People will go to inordinate lengths to avoid it.

Praise?

That was me.”

Blame?

“Somebody else.”

I was talking yesterday about how the application of “blame” must serve some Darwinian purpose, hearkening back to at least biblical times (You think Adam and Eve said, “Let’s not talk ‘responsibility’ and just put on some of these clothes”?)  And arguably before even that.  See:  Blame-related cave paintings, featuring some sideways-looking person pointing a j’accusatory finger, and another whose one visible eye reflects serious concerns about their imminent wellbeing.  (And you can bet the unseen “back” eye feels similarly imperiled.)

What is the enduring value of “blame”, allowing it to remain around when nobody likes it if it’s them?

To begin our inquisitorial journey, consider the dictionarial definition of “blame”, the verb:

“To assign responsibility for a fault or a wrong”

In that way of looking at it, “blame” is a valuable remediative.  Something went faulty or wrong.  Assignment:   Who or what was responsible?  Why does that matter?  Because understanding why it happened will decrease its chances of happening again.

Faulty levees are blamed for increasing the damage during Hurricane Katrina?  Improve the levees.  (As opposed to the “Levys”, a Jewish family from New Orleans who are just dandy the way they are.) 

That’s the practical application of “blame.”   After that, however, it gets tricky.  When considering a tragedy, nobody likes “Uncontrollable Circumstances” for an answer.  “Uncontrolled Circumstances” makes people feel helpless, and keeps them sleeping comfortably in their beds.  

“Uncontrollable Circumstances” could happen again.  And at any time.  Try dropping off to “Slumberland” with that troubling your mind.

“Is it now?”  Or now?”  Or now?  Or now?  Or now?

You want to put the concern – sorry about this – to bed, any way you can.  Which invariably means blaming someone.  Even if was nobody to blame.  Or it means blaming the wrong people, a procedure that satisfactorily “kills two birds with one stone”

“We have determined why that ‘Terrible Thing’ happened.”  (Now we can all sleep comfortably in our beds.  The mystery has been definitively solved.  So “Phew!”) 

“It was the (INSERT NAME OF DESPISED MINORITY OF YOUR CHOICE HERE).”  (We have always suspected them, and now we have proof.  “Terrible People” – “Terrible Thing.”  Case Closed.  With the appropriate punishment.

Problem solved?

(INSINUATINGLY SING-SONGY)  Not if they didn’t do it.

(Yikes!  The passenger sitting in front of me just put his seat back.  My laptop is now embedded into my abdomen.  Please excuse me if my writing feels cramped.  And please blame the passenger sitting in front of me for the constriction.  You see how that works?  Now I am entirely in the clear.)

(A psycho-stratagem that was explained to me earlier.  “Blaming” projects the responsibility you are (consciously or unconsciously) feeling (of, say, possible substandard blog writing) onto, in this case, an innocent bystander who simply wanted to relax.  Does it work?  It’s the “Go-To” escape hatch for most people.  Except the congenitally guilty, who feel bad even thinking about it.  (But, in my case, using it anyway.)

Speaking of the congenitally guilty, “Blame” is also unhelpful (for seeking out ameliorative explanations) when someone reflexively shoulders responsibility, for reasons unrelatedly their own.   

“The town’s well has been poisoned, and we need to learn why?”

A HAND SHOOTS UP

“’Guilty Larry?’”

I did it.”

“‘Yeah, okay…’”

“No.  This time, I’m really guilty.”

“Fine.  How did you poison the well, ‘Guilty Larry’?”

“I threw my gum in it.”

"And you think throwing your gum in is poisoned the well?" 

“Well, the next day people were drinking from it and dying, so, yeah.”

 “Just out of curiosity, ‘Guilty Larry’, why did you throw your gum into the well?”

“I was finished chewing it, and I didn’t want to throw it on the ground.”

“So you instead threw it into the well?”

“I do not litter.  And not because I’d feel guilty.  I believe littering is wrong.”

“Out of curiosity again, ‘Guilty Larry’, why is it less “wrong” to throw your gum into the well than it is to toss your gum onto the ground?”

“When you throw your gum into the well it doesn’t end up on the bottom of anybody’s shoe.  And the birds can’t choke on it.  I am sorry that my gum poisoned the well.  If I’d known, I’d have kept chewing it till I got home.  And if I couldn’t make it all the way, swallow it.”

Okay, so no help blaming the wrong people, and no help with the wrong people blaming themselves. 

Hold on.  I was just advised to put my own seat back, and now I suddenly have more room.  How many of you were screaming for me to do that for some time?  What can I tell you?  I am not a spontaneously “problem solver.”  I just hope the passenger behind me figures that out sooner.  I blame myself for their unnecessary…

Wait.  It just occurred to me.  I may well be the present-day  “Guilty Larry.”  I feel guilty about everything!  Including the length of this post.  I wonder.  Was I simply determined to keep writing till we reached Los Angeles?  I just heard, “Flight attendants, prepare for landing”, and I’m done.   So yeah.  Maybe I was.

And I did it!

With an Exclamation Point, no less.

Boy. 


Do I feel blame-worthy?

Thursday, October 19, 2017

"Writer In The Sky"


This is a first for me – writing in an airplane.  It’s like writing my desk.  Only I am thirty thousand feet in the air.  Making it harder if I drop my pen.  (No it won’t.  I just imagined it landed on Kansas.  And got ink stains on the wheat.) 

Drawn to “Worst Case Scenario” scenarios, – reflected in evocative nicknames I collected over the years, like “The Black Cloud” and “Captain Bring-Down” – and the people who called me that were my friends – the first idea that occurs to me under these circumstances is,

“Discovered amongst the debris…”

wherein this laptop is retrieved from the wreck…age, bearing the parting notation:

“I forgot to turn off my i-Phone and now we’re all going to……………………………………”

It is just like me to fantasize “personal responsibility” for an airline disaster.  It could as easily have been engine failure.  Or, like in Sully, we flew into some birds.

More on the knee-jerk “Guilt Response” shortly.  (Can I “drumroll” enticingly, or what?)

One rewarding element of this airborne excursion is that for the first time, I have joined the crowd of admirable “grinders”, working ceaselessly when they travel.  I have always envied those people, tapping away on their computers from takeoff to landing, while I, typically, fritter away my time, falling asleep, and watching reruns of Everybody Loves Raymond. 

By the way, have you noticed that everything’s funnier when you are trapped in an aluminum tube, hanging unsupportedly in the air? 

My standards seem to noticeably diminish, suspended helplessly in the sky.  I just wolfed down two Lotus Biscoff coffee-flavored cookies.  I wouldn’t go near those things on the ground.

Having previously mentioned taking responsibility for triggering a potential “Breaking News” event not about someone assuring us he did not think the president was a moron, my mind returns to the phenomenon of “blame.”  Which is a gigantically big thing, since nobody ever seems willing to take responsibility for anything, except guilty people, who do it reflexively, although it is arguable that people who reflexively deny responsibility feel, unconsciously, even guiltier.  (Claims the congenitally guilty person, so there are grounds for skepticism.)

You know the language of “Blame Denial”:

“It fell.” 

(Rather than the more Newtonianly accurate, “I dropped it.”)

“It got lost.”

(Suddenly, inanimate objects acquire the power to relocate from where you left them to where you can’t find them anymore.  Just once, I’d like to watch that happen.  “Oh, look!  My car keys are moving to a different place.”)

“Mistakes were made.” 

(Sidestepping the sleuthingly suspicious:  “And I happed to be there every time they were.”)
   
I knew this Scandinavian guy named Thor who insistently denied responsibility for anything that happened, no matter how remote he was from possible culpability.

“There was an earthquake in Pakistan.”

Thor not do it.

What’s wrong with blame?  We all mess up sometimes.  Why not fess up and admit, “I did it”? 

No way.

“It broke.” 

(One moment it was whole.  Next thing, it’s in pieces on the ground.  Just like that.  They can’t come up with a perpetual motion machine.  But a porcelain teacup can become “shards” all by itself.  “Who exploded that bomb?”  “Nobody.  It just blew up.”)

When I consider a lasting phenomenon, I think about the Darwinian necessity for that phenomenon’s endurance.  (A sure sign that someone has too much time on his hands.) 

For a phenomenon to continue, there must be, to my way of thinking, some “survival purpose” keeping it around. The “bad stuff” inevitably disappears.  People ate glass for a while.  (Let’s pretend.)  They stopped.  Because it didn’t work out.  I mean, you can’t be stubborn about it.  It was smooth to suck on.  But chewing and swallowing?  That one “Naturally Selected” out in a hurry.  Although we still have gargling.

“Blame”, on the other hand, is a “stayer.”   Going back to the beginning of people

ADAM:  “It’s your fault I ate that apple.”

EVE:  “Don’t blame me.  Blame the snake.”

SNAKE:  “No way!  It was, uh…

LOOKING AROUND…

ADAM:  “There is nobody else here.”

SNAKE:  “Okay, it was me.  Although you guys were pretty stupid, listening to a snake.”

EVE:  “Don’t blame us.  We were forbidden to eat from the Tree of Knowledge.’”

SNAKE:  “Then wait.  Don’t blame me.  Blame God.  (LOOKING SKYWARD)  Nothing personal.  It’s just the logical outcome of this discussion.”

“Blame” is so big it – at least logically – goes right to the top.  Whom – no offense, and please do not unjustly punish the other people on this plane  – I have never known to cop to a mistake in either Testament.  I mean, “Free will.  Was that really a “Genius Idea”?

I’m going to continue this later, possibly on the ride back. (He said, confidently.)

They’re showing an episode of Last Man Standing, and it’s just cracking up the Main Cabin.

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

"How Much Do You Make?"

Once, at camp, I ate ten hotdogs at one sitting.

“With the buns?”

A majority of them with the buns.  Did you ever eat ten dogs?

“No.”

It’s a lot of hot dogs, okay?

“I know.”

Almost a dozen hotdogs.  And I ate them at one sitting. 

“You said.”

So don’t start talking about, “with the buns.”

“Sorry.  I was just trying to accurately gauge your accomplishment.”

May I continue?

“It’s your blog.”

Yes.  Though it appears to have an adversarial “virus.” 

Anyway…

I ate ten hotdogs at one sitting – I got attention and accolades.  Veiled envy from people who could only eat seven hotdogs, but that envy was merely a mirror of my magnificent accomplishment.  I mean, what I’d achieved was not close to the success of those three physicists who won the Nobel Prize I read about this morning.  Although let them try to eat ten hotdogs at one sitting.

The thing is, like me, those Nobel laureates enthusiastically accepted their recognition, providing accompanying “Head Shots” for the adulatory media coverage, their behavior reflecting a pride of accomplishment, which is both natural and normal.

It is the same with voted award winners, recognized heroes, Olympic champions – a guy “cleans-and-jerks” 475 pounds (if that’s possible, I just pulled a number out of the air) – he releases the barbell to the floor, strutting victoriously around the venue.

In every field of endeavor, you hit the designated bull’s eye, you go, “I did it!”  Possibly humbly.  Possibly something a little less Canadian.  No one denies the recognition.  They are certified winners.  And they act like it.

Now, by contrast…

Ask someone in some massively remunerative enterprise,

“How much do you make?”

And – if they are not the National Embarrassment in the White House – they’ll act like you asked them, “Didn’t I see you on America’s Most Wanted”?

Just consider the conversational chill:

I’m just asking you how much you make.

“That is not something I talk about.”

You are obviously very successful.  I’m trying to determine how successful.

“Why?”

So I can accurately gauge your accomplishment.

Do you see what I’m talking about?

I eat ten hotdogs at one sitting – I dance exuberantly around the Mess Hall.  Someone earns astronomical dollars, they go,

“No comment.”

And then blame me for bringing it up. 

I don’t get it.  The Nobel Prize geniuses comport themselves like certified winners.  And they’re probably socially awkward.   What’s up with the spectacularly wealthy? 

They won big the game they were playing, and they don’t want to talk about it.  I don’t know, is it possible, they are secretly uncomfortable with their accumulate incomes?  Why would I say that? 

Because they behave uncomfortably.

Everyone else exults in their successful accomplishments.  But when it comes to lavishly accrued compensation, they pull their coats over their heads and they  furtively slink out of the exit.  Like they made their money in a drug deal.

“How much do you make?” 

They answer,

“That’s personal.” 

“It’s not talked about?”

“It’s none of your damn business.”

I got it.  But why the cultural sensitivity?  Larry David never mentions his money.  And he talks about everything.

Is the problem that some jobs are exponentially more remunerative than others, and there’s some visceral guilt abo`ut the gaping disparity?  (There is the belief that these amassed fortunes economically “trickle down”, a belief confidently espoused, despite the troubling drawback of reliable evidence.)

I know I am selecting “extremes” here.  But just for comparison…

A minimum wage earner, works hard, makes a federally mandated seven dollars and twenty-five cents an hour.  Times forty hours, times fifty weeks – that’s an income of fourteen thousand five hundred dollars a year. 

Wall Street banker? – Four hundred and fifty million dollars a year. 

I mean, I get the math here.  Wall Street banker, works all year brokering a merger, earning, let’s say, a three percent commission for their involvement.  The arranged merger’s worth fifteen billion dollars? –  Voila! – four hundred and fifty million dollars.

It’s just three percent.  What’s to be uncomfortable about?

Weigh in about this, will ya?  Nobody wants to talk about what they make.
Including me… when I made money.

Isn’t making your fortune what this country is all about?


Then why the “hush-hush” when you successfully pull it off?