Serious Jazz

Walking with my dog this morning, I saw a bumper sticker: “I love Serious Jazz!” I can’t quite infer the driver’s feelings on Casual Jazz or Irreverent Jazz, let alone Flippant Jazz. Perhaps they tolerate those lesser forms, perhaps they resent their bebased corruption of the serious form. They had no such sticker declaring their emotional affect with regards to the less stringent spirits. But their feelings couldn’t be more clear about Serious Jazz. They love it.

I’ve never been much of a jazz man myself. Perhaps I’ve never been serious enough to connect. I like some, but I’m basic. I have “Kind of Blue”. I’ll listen to a generic jazz station occasionally and skip the songs that go too far out there. I know the names Thelonious Monk and John Coltrane and Charlie Parker, but if one of their songs came on, I wouldn’t be able to tell you who was playing. In fact, if a jazz song came on and you said name the artist, I’d probably just shout out one of the few names I know and hope I got it right. To be honest, I don’t know what would be distinguishing features of serious and un-serious jazz. 

I imagine my bumper sticker neighbor wouldn’t approve of my unserious lack of devotion. I am not a real Jazz fan, certainly not a serious one. I don’t have the pure adherence to the truest form. Within my heart, I don’t adhere to the principles. I don’t hold the foundations. I am casual, not devout. My soul is not pure. I’m sure my neighbor would not cast me into the flame for my sins, but I would receive judgement.  

In thinking what it means to Love Serious Jazz, I remember the Oxford Group. I am only familiar with the Oxford Group due to their influence on the foundations of Alcoholics Anonymous. The Oxford Group was an evangelical Christian group who sought to purify the souls of humanity through four principles, known as the “Four Absolutes”; absolute honesty, purity, unselfishness, and love (the precursors to AA’s twelve steps). Along with these absolutes were standard practices that led one to clearing out the moral failings that had previously been blocking one’s spirit from a closer relationship with the divine. 

Bill Wilson, one of AA’s co-founders, was exposed to the teachings of the Oxford Group and found recovery from his severe chronic alcoholism. In Wilson’s effort to help fellow sufferers of the addictive affliction, he brought many to Oxford Group meetings. While there are definite overlaps between what would become the AA program with the practices of the Oxford Group, these early efforts were unsuccessful. Many alcoholics were unable to connect with the evangelical group. Likewise, the drying out drunks were not the typical targets of conversion for the Christian practitioners. 

Wilson was eventually successful when he connected with the failing physician Bob Smith, AA’s second co-founder, Dr. Bob. Along with other early recovering individuals, the founders set forth the program of recovery in AA’s “Big Book”. While maintaining a heavy influence, AA departed from the tenets of the Oxford Group in a few important ways. First, most notable on its face, AA proposed a twelve step plan of recovery and opposed to the four absolutes of the Oxford Group. Second, these steps were put forth as a “suggested program”. Anyone who has a desire to stop drinking is free to attend or join AA; the adoption of any belief is not required. Lastly, at the urging of then addiction specialist Dr. William Silkworth, alcoholism was presented as a possible “allergy” or disease, not a moral failing. 

You can travel around the world and find AA meetings in many different languages. The Oxford Group doesn’t exist anymore, though it does have some spiritual successors active under different names.

I’m sure that Serious Jazz is a paragon of musical mastery, tremendous technique fused with impeccable improvisation. Likewise, aspirations of absolute honesty, purity, unselfishness, and love seem laudable to me. However, the enduring prevalence of AA over the Oxford Group highlights an important component for success: recognition of human shortcomings as natural, not moral. Compassion for the compromised over exaltation of the exceptional has saved more lives and spirits than a more rigorous form. We should love more music and care less about it fitting our serious standards.

If I thought these principles were only applicable to music snobs, I wouldn’t write about it. If I thought it was only of interest in anonymous groups, I’d keep my words private. What I see daily, though, are constant assessments and presentations of a person’s seriousness or absolute commitment to purity. Every aspect of personality, personhood, and social convention has its ideal of the perfect form. Has one fit the new standards and forms? Have they sufficiently condemned the previous ones? If not, we must cast them out. This does not seem to me to be a recipe for salvation, but one of exclusion and castigation. Success will come through compassion not expulsion. Human failings are natural, to be improved, not perfected. No one can fit that form, meet that standard. You absolutely can’t be serious.

Why Couldn’t We Dance?

What’s your top Music from 2020?

In my former life as Head Coach of a CrossFit gym, I used to ask a daily Question of the Day (I’ve written about the practice before). In the beginning of December, as everyone was flooding their Instagram stories with their Spotify Top Tens, my curiosity was prompted about what music people in the gym listened to in their free time. Now, I must say, asking “what’s your favorite music?” is a poor man’s Question of the Day, this I admit. They can’t all be crafts of creativity. But, since we played music 100% of the time we were in the gym and it was a current trend on social media, I asked “What music have you listened to the most in the past year?” 

I got a lot of standard answers. Artist names you know, genres that dominate certain age groups. I got a few answers I’d never heard of, which you expect as well, there’s always a hip iconoclast in the group. One answer that I’d never heard of, though, stuck out to me: “Jerusalema” by Master KG. This was the answer of one of our members who was originally from Albania. He told me, “No one in the US has heard it, but it’s the biggest song in the rest of the world.” 

#JerusalemaChallenge

I had to check it out. I searched the song on Spotify, there were a ton of versions, many remixes. I listened to what I thought was the standard version. A standard beat to start, a building melody, climaxes and drops back in. Good song, catchy. I then found out that there was an attendant dance to go along with the song. I’ve always been interested in these group dances, going back to the “Tootsie Roll” when I was in middle school, to the snap dance when I was in college, to “Teach Me How to Dougie”, and many more in my post college years; I at least want to grasp the basics, most of them are pretty similar. I searched on YouTube for the “Jerusalema dance”…there were thousands of videos.

All over the world. All ages. Kids, grandparents. Nuns, priests, teachers, flight attendants, athletes, maybe even a few trained dancers. The videos haven’t stopped being posted.  Police in Ireland recently answered the #jeruslalemachallenge from police in Switzerland. The song, originally recorded and released in South Africa in 2019, was a hit in Africa and then spread across Europe and the world, reaching #1 in the charts in many countries. I must say though, few of the videos were submitted from the US, a couple from dance studios. My Albanian friend was right: everyone else in the world was dancing to this song, but we in the US were not joining in. Why?

Not That Kind Of Party

There is one easy answer for why we didn’t jump on the dance craze in the US: the song wasn’t in English. While the rest of the world may be very multilingual or linguistically open, we’re much more rigid here in the states. While that may be true to an extent, that argument falls apart when you look at the success of songs like “Macarena” or “Gangam Style”, international hits with attendant dances and little english in the lyrics. I was a kid when the “Macarena” hit and don’t think I’ve seen a dance craze quite like that.

Of course, 2020 wasn’t a good time for a dance party. COVID-19, ever heard of it? Well, that argument falls by the wayside when you acknowledge that this is a global pandemic. There are plenty of Jerusalema Challenge videos from Italy, where the song was not only #1, but they had some of the most serious outbreaks and harshest lockdowns. For much of the world, “Jerusalema” acted as a unifying source of shared hope and joy.

Therein lies the rub, the US was anything but unified in 2020. There was the largest civil unrest since 1968 in the wake of the killing of George Floyd. We then had a contentious election where each side depicted the other as a mortal foe of the republic: a global socialist on one side against a fascist tyrant on the other. The stakes were too high. No time for dancing.

“Fair enough.” I thought. Not our year to have fun with a global dance craze. We had too much terrible stuff to worry about.

Masaka Kids Africana

As a wonderful by product of my search through the Jerusalema Dance Challenge videos, I came across Masaka Kids Africana, a group of kids from Uganda who post dance videos and songs of their own on social media and YouTube. I started following them on Instagram and one of their posts always brings a smile to my face when it comes up in my feed. I was so treated yesterday, when one of their recent posts came up. I watched the shoeless children dance next to corroding brick buildings, wearing mismatched clothing with the biggest smiles that faces can hold. They are holding joy and light in this world.

Masaka Kids Africana is an organization that cares for orphaned children in Uganda. According to their website, these children have been orphaned due to “due to the AIDS epidemic, extreme poverty, and decades of civil conflict.” So then, we have to ask, was our last year worse than the conditions of orphans in Uganda? The country has had actual dictators, coups, and decades of violence in the streets. Have we been so spoiled, gotten so entitled, lost so much perspective, so completely ungrateful that we can’t smile in the face of adversity. Are we so averse to unity and hope? 

Dance Together

So, we’re left with the question again, why couldn’t the US join in on the dance? Dancing is the physical embodiment of joy and harmony. We have been the embodiment of fear and resentment. You can’t dance while afraid. You can’t dance when ruminating in resentment. You can’t dance with a closed heart. You must give your body over to the movements of the music in a joyful manner. That shouldn’t be an impossible task, despite hardships. We would do well to head the words of Nigerian recording artist Burna Boy when speaking about the dance, “My hope is that it unites us through our divisions and misunderstandings and dance together.”

Can You Stay Serenely In Yourself?

Do you have the patience to wait

till your mud settles and the water is clear?

Can you remain unmoving

till the right action arises by itself?

The Master doesn’t seek fulfillment.

Not seeking, not expecting,

she is present, and can welcome all things.”

Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching, Chapter 15

Stay home. Alone with ourselves and our households. Dinner outings, concerts, sporting events, and leisure travel taken away. Discomfort and disquiet resulted. Without fine tasting food prepared by others, music and sports played by bodies other than our own, or the sites of other homes and homelands, where were we to look? At ourselves. Within. Our own lives, decisions, and the world we built or accepted as a place to live. 

If you don’t realize the source,

you stumble in confusion and sorrow.

When you realize where you come from,

you naturally become tolerant,

disinterested, amused,

kindhearted as a grandmother,

dignified as a king.”

Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching, Chapter 16

We were unbearably discontent. When made to stay within the walls of our home, we climbed them, scratching at the paint. When made to sit within our own skin, we crawled inside of it, uncomfortable with the fit. Too big, too small. Growing, shrinking. Desperately seeking the respite of externality, we screamed for the injustice and justice of the day.

Thus the Master travels all day

without leaving home.

However splendid the views,

she stays serenely in herself.

Why should the lord of the country

flit about like a fool?

If you let yourself be blown to and fro,

you lose touch with your root.

If you let restlessness move you,

you lose touch with who you are.”

Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching, Chapter 26

It was not the outside world. It was not the system. It was not the screens. None of those things were the sources of our perturbation. It was being forced to look within and not liking the view. Of sitting with ourselves and not liking the company. Deep in the well, we scraped at the walls to reach out. Will we keep reaching?

If a country is governed wisely,

its inhabitants will be content.

They enjoy the labor of their hands

and don’t waste time inventing

labor-saving machines.

Since they dearly love their homes,

they aren’t interested in travel.

There may be a few wagons and boats,

but these don’t go anywhere.

There may be an arsenal of weapons,

but nobody ever uses them.

People enjoy their food,

take pleasure in being with their families,

spend weekends working in their gardens,

delight in the doings of the neighborhood.

And even though the next country is so close

that people can hear its roosters crowing and its dogs barking,

they are content to die of old age

without ever having gone to see it.”

Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching, Chapter 80

Looking out my dark window, the wind blows and the snow falls. The plows clear the road and the walks are salted to enable travel outside. Must we go outside? It has been cold.

Playing Hard is a Skill

Starless vs Star-studded

On February 9th, 2019, my wife and I headed out for my regular birthday gift, excellent tickets to a Celtics game. Living in Boston and being a rabid Celtics fan, I’ve been to plenty of games, but when my wife figured out that I would always be happy with tickets to the fancy seating areas of Celtics games for my birthday present, the early February games became tradition. For the game celebrating my thirty fifth birthday, we watched the Boston Celtics take on the Los Angeles Clippers. 

The architecture of these two rosters was completely different. The 2018-2019 Celtics featured all-stars of past and present in Al Horford, Gordon Hayward, and Kyrie Irving; along with budding young all-star aspirants Jaylen Brown and Jason Tatum. Star power. The Clippers roster had not one single all-star on the team. They had a couple young prospects in Shae Gilgoes-Alexander and Landry Shamut, veteran scorers in Lou Williams and Danilo Gallinari, and tough-minded energy players in Patrick Beverly and Montrez Harrell. Hustle players. While the Clippers had been playing well in their scrappy way, I entered the Boston Garden expecting to see my young talented team take care of this team without a star.

Early on, I got what I came to see. The Celtics jumped out to a big lead in the first quarter and held on through the first half. We simply had too many weapons. Kyrie dazzled with ball handling, Tatum continued his ascendence, and Gordon Hayward looked to be returning to form after a season lost to injury. Then, the second half. Kyrie went out with an injury.  The Clippers stifled the Celtics offense. Everyone on the Clippers got involved on offense–Harrel rolling to the rim, Galinari and Shamut hitting shots, Lou Williams putting defenders on skates. The Celtics’ lead dwindled.

During an out-of-bounds play, from my special birthday seats, I saw Patrick Beverly in the ear of Jason Tatum. I had no idea what he was saying, but it wasn’t anything nice. When play commenced, Beverly stopped talking, but gave up no space to Tatum. He was all over him. The second-year star with Duke university pedigree was not getting an inch from the dogged defense of the six year journeymen. Beverly made it his mission to frustrate Tatum. It worked. 

The starless Clippers continued their turn around of the star-studded Celtics with a rout in the fourth quarter. I left my birthday game having had an up close view of a hard playing team completely dominating my talented hometeam. 

Playing Hard is a Skill

In 2017, I listened to Patrick Beveraly as a guest on Adrian Wojarnowski’s podcast. Beverly recounted his upbringing in the hard streets of Chicago and why he still went back to the city every summer. Beverly outlined his career path, playing overseas in Ukraine, Greece, and Russia before making his way to the NBA. Beverly also talked about his dedicated, junkyard-dog mentality that had led him to be then named to his second NBA all-defensive team. 

Listening to Patrick Beveraly recount his hard upbringing, arduous path to the sport’s highest league, and hard mentality toward the game, Woj asked why he thought other players didn’t bring the same mentality. Beverly answered in a way that surprised me: “Playing hard is a skill.”

Effort as Skill

We often think of skills as things that the talented refine. An athlete may have a natural ability that lends them certain advantages. Still, they have to refine their skills. The best shooters shoot thousands of practice shots. The best ball handlers will spend hours dribbling the ball. The best defenders study their opponents movements. When they take to the court, they have this honed skill to give them an advantage over the competition. We admire the skill and the craft.

Effort, we don’t usually think of in this manner. Effort, we think of as being driven from within. Motivation inspired from a divine source. Either innate or channeled from some ethereal source. This is not the case. Effort is molded through thousands of repetitions, just like a jump shot. These repetitions require being beaten back, but coming forward again. In order to build the stamina to not just put forth a herculean strain for one instance, the skill of playing hard must be practiced on play after play, game after game, year after year. This is a learned skill. At first you can play hard only in bits. It will be unpleasant and difficult to put forth that energy for long, but the effort will build as you hone your skill.

Patrick Beverly’s skill is playing hard. That night against the Celtics, the Clippers team used this skill to step into passing lanes, box out for rebounds, and dive on the floor for loose balls. It resulted in a large victory. 

Life Skills

Many of us have skills. Some of us are good at our jobs, some of us are good cooks, some of us are musicians. We learned the skills from our bosses, parents, and teachers. Few of us Play Hard. We get distracted. We get tired. We lose motivation. That’s just us, we think. We don’t have that innate ability to push on through adversity. We’re not struck by the inspiration to go all out or all in. This is mistaken thinking. This assumes that we can’t learn to play hard. That we can’t learn to Play Hard through repetitive effort. Playing Hard is a skill, one earned through repetition, just like any other. The repetitions, though, cannot be accumulated with a coach, teammate, or even in the gym by ourselves. Only life can teach you the lessons of how to Play Hard. We must put forth the effort on every play. We will lack the stamina at first, but our focus can improve. In our daily lives, this means pursuing growth and exploration everyday, not just a day or two a week; being present for our relationships in every conversation, not just one call; pursuing new ideas everyday, not just waiting for inspiration. We will fail. More often at first, less frequently as we get more practice. For those of us who don’t have the pedigrees, star power, or natural talent, we must learn to Play Hard. That is a winning life skill.

Calculating the Answers

Getting a graphing calculator was exciting. At a certain point, math classes required that you have one. When I first got one, all the extra buttons held such possibilities. Thrilling possibilities. I didn’t know how to work it, but I knew that once I achieved mastery with the functions of this sophisticated quantifier, I would not be limited by the speed of my own base writing, but be unlocked through the speed of the machine’s power. My performance would reach new heights. All I had to do wass learn the machine’s tricks and then I would not have to laboriously suffer through math class as I had in the past. The calculator’s automatic quantification would set me free.

It didn’t really work that way. The excitement wore off. It turned out I only used the real basic functions of the calculator. You could program functions that were helpful for calculus and what not, but that took a good amount of work. It wasn’t a straightforward process.  You were better off just learning the equations you needed to know. Maybe write them on a sheet of scrap paper. The magical quantifying contraption was not the panacea to the problem of numbers. There was no way around math work being work.

I don’t know if students need to still purchase graphing calculators. You must be able to get an app for that on your phone now. 

Being an average functioning adult, of course, I never use a calculator. I do see a lot of options, however, in magic quantifying machines. Machines that will do the counting for you, to let you know if what you just did really counted. 

Obviously I’m not talking about calculators for school work. I’m talking about wearable technology that will monitor your heart rate, track your steps, and give you evaluative metrics for your physical health and performance. They’re selling by the millions. Apple and Amazon are competing to get you to wear theirs. Some people will get both, putting their hopes into getting their lives on track once the machine tells them what their numbers are and what they should be.

As a professional in the fitness industry, I’ve seen the obsession with counting rise. You could count your calories. But that’s not enough. You need to count your intake of each macronutrient. You could count your workouts. But that’s not enough. You need to count how strenuous each workout is. Your heart rate monitor will tell you. You could count how many hours you sleep. But that’s not enough. Your machine will count the quality of your sleep. We count how much time we spend on our machines, where we rank in the class, how far we biked, how well we rested.

It’s not just physical fitness. We count how much screen time we had; how many books we read; how many mediation sessions we engaged with; how many days you’ve been sober. There’s an app for that. You can count on it. What’s the ideal number for all this? One more or one less could always be an improvement. You can get 1% better each day. Or .5%. Or maybe some other number. But you’ll never know if you’re not measuring. Not without attaching a number. Keep striving. Keep reaching.

Resilience. Courage. Serenity. What numbers do we need to hit? Can we plug in the functions to our counting machines and get the answers? That didn’t work for me in the past. In the end, there was no way around the work, which was the real lesson itself. I couldn’t just punch buttons to find the answer.

Roll The Dice

Question of the Day

I start each class with a question. The Question of the Day. This could be construed as an ice-breaker exercise similar to those held in stuffy corporate settings. To some extent, the purpose is similar. To a greater extent, our setting and purpose is much different. I run a gym. People come to our gym to stay fit and healthy, but also blow off steam from the rest of their day. By being pushed through challenging workouts, our members can both find release from their day-to-day demands and find a bond with everyone in class who shares in the experience of persevering through the physical challenge. I ask the Question of the Day to shake people out of their early morning fog or early evening cloud. To answer the question, you must be present. There is also an ensuing discussion over the commonalities or differences among the various answers.

The Question of the Day can come from anywhere. I describe the Question of the Day to a new gym member with “It can be fitness related, but usually not.” Some of my longtime members will scoff. It’s rarely fitness related. I often spend the last few minutes before a class starts bouncing questions through my head. I’ve resolved to always come up with the questions on my own. 

I have a couple regular questions. At the beginning of a month, I ask: “What are you going to work on this month?” At the end of a month, I ask: “What went well in the last month?” I ask seasonal questions, such as: “When has the season unofficially turned? Not the calendar date of change, but informal signatures such as the first lemonade of summer or pumpkin spice latte of fall.” Some questions reveal quirks of character or interests, such as: “If a song played whenever you entered a room, what would it be?” or “If someone wrote a profile article about you, what publication would you want the article to be in?” Some questions are sheerly for fun: “If you were a professional wrestler, what would your stage name be?” or “What is your go-to karaoke song?” Many questions provide a small window into personal values: “Would you rather always be late or always have to wait for other people?” “Would you rather have people view you as dishonest or incompetent?” I try to not get too controversial or heavy, but some answers lead in that direction.

I recently asked a question that provided a great insight into the way people think about the world. The question included a rational mathematical decision, cognitive bias, and has strong implications for how a person chooses to live their life to the fullest. 

The Question

I sat before the computer screen looking at the roster of members for my 5:30 class. I was again racking my brain for a good Question of the Day. My mind started venturing in the direction of a cash reward for one of two risky endeavors. I was trying to think of two potential challenges that were achievable, but not with 100% certainty. Say, “You can win a $100,000 by performing a perfect parallel parking job or hitting a basketball shot from the free throw line. What do you choose?” That felt unsatisfactory; not everyone plays basketball and we live in a city where not everyone drives. I needed something more uniformly accessible. My mind somehow landed on the rolling of dice. Everyone can roll dice. What I settled on was “You have one roll of a die to win a cash prize. You win the money if you land on the number 3. You can either roll a 6-sided die for the chance to win $100,000 or roll a 64-sided die for the chance to win $1,000,000. What do you choose?”

A little explanation on why I chose those numbers. Both sums of money are large, but neither are enough to retire away on. That said, $1,000,000 is more of a life-changing sum and $100,000 would alter your financial comfort, but not be enough to do something drastic like pay for a house or college education. The 6-sided die was chosen because it’s the standard-issue die and I chose the 64-sided die to make the big win just more than 10 times as risky, since the payout is exactly 10 times as large. I figured if I raised the chances exactly proportional, people would all just play the game for the big money. Since I always play Question of the Day with the class, I knew my answer would be to take the shot with the 64-sided die and go for the big shot. I imagined we’d have some risk takers, but most people would play it safe. After the first round of the question, I would ask some follow ups to see how many people I could get to change their mind by either changing the amounts or changing the odds on the die.

I was a little surprised that in my first class of about 10 people, only 1 person said they would roll for the big prize. My surprise was compounded when I changed the circumstances to a 32-sided die for the $1,000,000. No one budged. I was astounded when I changed the prize of the 6-sided die to $10,000 and kept the 32-sided die at $1,000,000. Only a few people changed their mind. In my morning classes the next day, I didn’t even open with the 64-sided die, I went straight to 32 and no one would take the shot at the $1,000,000. Lowering the payout of the 6-sided die had a similarly small rate of conversion to the risky 32-sided die. 

Number Crunching

There are some relevant mathematical, economic, and psychological elements that provide insight into this question, the response, and my surprise. First off is the Theorem of Expected Value. First arrived at by French mathematicians in the 17th century, Expected Value states that the value of a future gain should be directly proportional to the chance of receiving the gain. In this question, as opposed to some future stock speculation, the chance or probability of the outcome is easily determined because it is fixed by the number of sides of each die, either 1/6, 1/64, or 1/32.

Our Expected Values breakdown is as follows:

1/6  x 100,000 = 16,666.67

1/64 x 1,000,000 = 15, 625

1/32 x 1,000,000 = 31,250 

1/6 x 10,000 = 1,666.67

What we see here is that as I originally construed the question (6-sided for $100,000 and 64-sided for $1,000,000), the expected value is higher with 6-sided die. What I thought, and this was my own reasoning, was that some people would take the risk for the more life-changing amount of $1,000,000. I was wrong. People were risk averse. I was so wrong that even when the EV was clearly higher with the 32-sided die for $1,000,000 (EV=$31,250), people still chose the “safer” route of the 6-sided die for $100,000 (EV=$16,666.67). It wasn’t until I lowered the 6-sided die to $10,000 (EV=$1,666.67) that I got some people to move, though most still chose the 6-sided die. That means that the majority of people I questioned would have chosen to roll the 6-sided dice with an EV for each roll of $1,666.67 instead of $31,250 with the 32-sided die.

There are a couple of influential factors to note. An individual’s personal financial situation is certainly relevant. An individual who never has had more than $10,000 in the bank will have a different relationship to $100,000 than an individual who already has $200,000 in savings. Similarly, an individual who could pay off immediate debt or get a jump on homeownership utilizing the $100,000 could view the higher chance of success as more important. The chance of success with the 6-sided die is 16.67% and the 32-side is 3.1%. You are certainly more likely to come away with something rather than nothing with the 6-sided die. The closer your personal financial situation is to nothing you may consider it “rational” to get something, though this still wouldn’t be rational in the classical economic sense of maximizing value. I should also note that a couple investment savvy individuals did the exact calculation for EV and made the choice immediately.

A treatment of this Question of the Day and the response cannot leave out Prospect Theory, a theory of behavioral economics and cognitive bias developed by psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky. Kahneman went on to win the Nobel Prize for his work on the theory. A complete expounding of the theory is beyond the scope of this essay, but the theory deals with the different cognitive biases individuals have in situations of gain and loss. One conclusion of the theory is that in a situation of potential gains, individuals become risk averse. Essentially, just what we saw with the response to the dice question. Even though the potential gains were greater and a rational mathematical analysis would tell you to roll the 32-sided die for the chance at $1,000,000, my limited group of responders overwhelmingly sought the smaller gains due to the lower risk of getting nothing. It’s also worth noting that Prospect Theory also states that in a situation of loss, individuals become risk seeking. So if I were to flip the question to the prospect of losing $100,000 or $1,000,000, I would theoretically get a bunch of risk seeking responders.

The Game of Life      

Oftentimes, I view a Question of the Day that has such a one-sided response as a bit of failure. Not in this case. This was one of my favorite questions and answers. I have often been asked by members of my gym, “Do you record our answers somewhere? Are you going to do anything with them?” This is the only time I’ve felt compelled to do so, and it’s not because of the implications of how people spend or save or invest their money. I’m actually not a person especially concerned with money. I think most people overestimate its value.

And there’s the rub, I am very interested in values. What do you really value? What is important to you? How do you value Joy or Fulfillment? We have a limited time in this life. Are you living your life in a way that maximizes those values?

I can give some concrete examples from my own life. I didn’t always run a gym. I used to be a university administrator. I made a decent salary, had a stable career with an upward trajectory, and worked in a generally respected field. One problem: I hated my day-to-day life. I went to an office full of cubicles and couldn’t wait to get out of it. I experienced no joy in what I did. I value the joy of life. I had a passion for fitness and helping people. Leaving that steady job to work in a different field seemed so risky. Would I make the same money? What would people think of me? I stayed in education administration for years. I chose the safe route. Eventually, though, I started to think about what I valued in life. Was it living a safe life or an enjoyable one? Did I want to dread the space I walked into each day or have reverence for it? I took a leap. I gave up a bunch in salary to start. I worked really odd hours. I had to hustle from one gym to the next. I made it work. When I was a child, gym class was my favorite time of day, I now teach gym class to adults every day. I hang with ex-athletes and talk sports. I teach people who have never been in the gym how to lift weights and see their self-confidence rise. In the fitness industry we have a mantra of making a class the “best hour of their day”. That means that everyday I play a role in the best part of someone’s day multiple times a day. I help facilitate physical development, social bonds, and the joy of play. When making the decision to leave my role in administration, I chose the higher expected value in a joyful life than the financially safe play. I took the risk to live out what was truly valuable to me.

Similarly, I write every day. I am editing the draft of a book. I have ideas for my next two books. I’m finishing up this essay right here. The most likely outcome is that not many people read this. The books I write may never even get published. The safe play would be for me to devote time to personal training and remote programming. I now make a more stable salary than in those initial days in fitness, but the safe thing to do would be to make more money using the skills I have. Why would I waste time writing? People don’t even read anymore. The answer is because I value living a life fully engaged in intellectual and creative pursuits. I value having my voice present in the discussion of ideas. I will take on the risk of writing that book that no one read because I place value in engaging in creative expression. I will take that shot. If I am able to be successful in that endeavor, that is a more radically life altering than getting the income from a few extra clients. I want to live my life to the fullest expression of my values.

Many times, in response to the dice question, people asked, “Can we get multiple rolls of the dice?” I held firm that you could only get one roll. You only get one shot at this life. If you value something, it’s worth taking the risk. To not do so would be irrational.   

Distanced

On February 17th, I emailed Tim. Tim is one of my best friends from childhood. We grew up on the same street in a small town in Maine. We went through all the rites of passage one goes through from 10 to 18 together. We played little league together, played in a garage band together, and had consulted each other with infinite wisdom on our first romantic undertakings. He has been living in Shanghai, China for the past year and a half teaching at a school for english speaking students, mostly expat children. I’d been meaning to write Tim for a while just as a general check-in. Though we haven’t seen each other physically in far too long, I think I’ll always consider him one of my closest friends. I wrote to him to give an update on my professional life running a gym in Boston (something I’d told him was a goal years before I even started coaching), to give an update on married life (I got married six months ago, him about a year and a half), and to tell him about my current undertakings in writing and creative work (Tim has always written and has a better imagination for fiction). Oh, I also figured it would be good to check in on the Coronavirus, something that I’d heard was making people sick in China. Of course I didn’t think he would be sick, because he’s Tim who grew up down the street from me, not a Chinese person I don’t know.

It was a few days before I heard back. I’d written a long email and he wrote a long email in response. With us both being writers of a sort, long written correspondence is a nice thing. It makes me think of the correspondence that’s happened with writers throughout history. Ours is of less popular significance, but at least living in a tradition. He certainly had quite the update. His family (him, his wife, and their ten month old child), had been on vacation in South Korea for the Chinese New Year when the Coronavirus outbreak got into full swing. The entire nation of China went into lockdown. Though they enjoyed their time in Jeju, an island province in South Korea, it was too expensive for them to stay there for the remainder of the lockdown, so they’d flown back to the states. As of his first writing, they were staying somewhere outside Los Angeles, making a stop there to ease the strain of the long travel on their less than a year old child. He was teaching his students remotely. Many of them had Ivy League aspirations in the following year, so stopping school altogether was out of the question. At the same time as all of this, he mentioned he’d started a creative writing MasterClass. I’d mentioned my own MasterClass endeavors, so we were both keeping that dream alive. After the hold over in LA, he was planning on coming back east (the US east) for an undetermined amount of time (weeks??). We hoped to be able to connect. This final piece came with unfortunate news: he was coming home to be with his mother, who had recently been diagnosed with lymphoma. He said that the diagnosis process had been arduous, but noted that her current condition was “hopefully not too serious.”  


I wrote him back with a few responses to some points we had been hitting on in the pursuit of creative life, working with others through teaching and coaching, and I also expressed my concern for his mother, but kept a positive attitude. It was my understanding that non-hodgkin’s lymphoma was fairly treatable. He’d seemed fairly confident about her condition, so was I. Since we’d grown up together, I’d known his mother my whole life. She was an impressive woman. She had been the highest ranking member of the Air National Guard at a local base where we grew up. Being the commanding officer of an air base seemed cool when I was a kid. I didn’t really think much about the weight of a woman holding that position. That was just Tim’s mom. Tim’s mom’s job was to be the commanding officer of an air base. Now her job was to get treatment for lymphoma. Luckily her son was going to be home because of a small viral outbreak on the other side of the world. The stars were aligning for her to have some extra support to beat this thing. Of course she would. True to form, I sent Tim another long email. I ended it with some proposals of weekends for us to meet up in person when he was back in the north east. I was also about to go on vacation, so it would take a little time for our schedules to align, but they would. It would be great to see him in person and I could finally meet his daughter, who I’d only seen pictures of on social media.

Tim responded with a short response a couple days later. He said there was a lot he wanted to respond to my email, so he’d write a longer response later. He asked for a quick take on a public intellectual I was well aware of and looked on favorably. I saw the email just before bed one night and gave a quick response. That was it.

I returned from my vacation on March 4th and sent a quick email trying to set up a weekend meet up. I didn’t hear anything. I assumed he was busy remotely teaching students on the other side of the planet, helping his mother, and looking after his ten month old child with his wife in his parents home. At this point the momentum was building in the United States for a response to the Coronavirus. When we traveled home from vacation, the talk on the flight was of work travel being suspended indefinitely. There was a presidential task force. I wondered how this would affect the gym that I run.  We’d have to do more cleaning. 


On March 15th, I finally heard from Tim. I had started to worry that he and/or his wife got sick. Maybe they got quarantined somewhere, as they were traveling in the states after being in China and South Korea. He sent me a text, which came as a surprise since he hadn’t had a normal cell phone to communicate on for quite some time. The text let me know that he wasn’t avoiding me or my requests to meet up. He was texting to let me know that his mother had passed away two days ago. She had a rare blood infection caused by the lymphoma. Those couple weeks that had passed he was dealing with his dying mother.

In those two weeks, I had dealt with the growing storm of domestic worry over the spread of coronavirus. What had been the worry of people in a far off land was now a concern for those in our midst. At this point we had closed the gym. Officially we would closed for two weeks, but everyone was bracing for a longer haul. The process of closing the business I worked for was anxious and tense. Were we overreacting? Underreacting? What would happen with my salary? Would the business be able to withstand this period of closure? A couple days later, the government would have made the decision for us. Everyone was to stay at home. Everything in the city was shut down. The world had changed quite a bit in the month’s time since our first correspondence.


I sent a text back. If someone texts you, it’s polite to text back. Finding the right text to console your childhood friend on the death of their mother is a difficult text to write. I expressed my sympathies and condolences. I said I was there to talk or do what I could. I knew how much she had meant to him. It was a shock to my system to think that one of the stronger women I’d known as a child was now in the age of getting cancer and dying. Selfishly, I thought about my own parents. 

Under normal circumstances, I would travel home for the funeral. In the time of coronavirus quarantine, I didn’t think it would be right for me to go. I’d been in the gym with exposure to a lot of people in the days leading up to closure. At that point everyone was well aware that you could carry the virus and be asymptomatic. We also all knew that someone at my age of thirty six was likely not in a particular danger, but going to the funeral would mean coming into close contact with people like Tim’s dad and my own parents, a gathering of that sort was a casualty of the quarantine as well. I respected Tim’s mother’s life and death, but I would have to do so from a distance. 

My mother, who still lives up the street from Tim’s family, went down and brought them some baked goods. That’s the sort of thing you do when there is a death in a family. There’s nothing really to say. My mother talked to Sarah, Tim’s sister. After considering how many people would want to gather for Tim’s mom’s funeral, the family decided they couldn’t have a typical remembrance during the time of corona quarantine. My mom thought they had something small with the family.

A few days after the text message, I tried calling Tim. He didn’t pick up. I left a message saying I was just calling to check in and talk. Truthfully I was hoping we would talk and end out having a far reaching conversation like we normally would. I thought it could be a distraction for him. I also knew that I wouldn’t have much useful info for him in the way of “what to do if your mother dies while you’re cast out of your home on the other side of the planet and your family can’t have a funeral out of precaution for the spread of disease in a global pandemic.” Not my area of expertise. No playbook to draw from. In the message, I said he could call me back, or not. Whatever he wanted. He hasn’t called. I’ll try and reach out again. We’ve been living at a distance, but everything’s a bit closer to home now. 

Written on April 22, 2020

Performance Problem

“All the world’s a stage,

And all the men and women merely players;

They have their exits and their entrances;

And one man in his time plays many parts,”

Society writ large has had to learn and unlearn many things in recent months. The outpouring of support for the Black Lives Matter movement in the wake of the murder of George Floyd spurred many to take to the streets, dig into their pocket book, and, perhaps above all, take to social media. In the melee of activity that ensued. We had to develop a discerning eye for “performative allyship”. This concept applies when a non-Black person expresses support more broadly for the moral impetus of the Black Lives Matter movement, but does not take steps beyond merely voicing support. A common critique of the Black Square many, yours truly included, posted on Tuesday June 2nd in support of “Blackout Tuesday” was that the post merely served to present oneself as in line with a just cause, but didn’t require any active activism on the part of a participant. An individual engaging in “performative allyship” is seeking the benefits of reputational rectitude without performing “the work”. As the saying goes, “It’s all show, no go.” 

“At first the infant,

Mewling and puking in the nurse’s arms;

And then the whining school-boy, with his satchel

And shining morning face, creeping like snail

Unwillingly to school. And then the lover,

Sighing like furnace, with a woeful ballad

Made to his mistress’ eyebrow.” 

At this point, the cultural zeitgeist has taught us to be aware of corporate and celebrity performative allyship. Non-Black people have had to learn to question their own displays of righteousness, again yours truly included, into whether or not we are engaging superficial displays of support. Are we truly committed to actual change? What actual effort have we contributed? How do we go from silence, to voicing support, to actual contribution?

It is worth pointing out that social movements of the digital age will continue to be confronted with this problem. As more social movements are initiated on social media, the tendency will be to skew towards theatrical and dramatic displays. Why? Because social media is only a device of communication. It has proven to be a powerful tool of motivation and mobilization, but the disparate voices of the many social media activists can only communicate ideas and messages through the medium. The tool itself only allows for displays; it is not action in itself. 

“Then a soldier,

Full of strange oaths, and bearded like the pard,

Jealous in honour, sudden and quick in quarrel,

Seeking the bubble reputation

Even in the cannon’s mouth.”

Further confounding the issue is the current iteration of the movement has been largely focused on symbolic displays of change, rather than addressing the systemic issues at root. Protests themselves, the large gathering of people in support of a cause running counter to the status quo, are performative; they are a dramatic depiction of mass support for a cause. A protest again motivates, activates, and mobilizes, but by and large they do not focus on concrete changes to systems. There is no bill passed, no redistribution of wealth that results. A protest makes a voice heard. 

What is more, the pulling down of confederate statues, deposing controversial business leaders, or even arresting the killers of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, or Briana Taylor will only bring about episodic or momentary instances of victory. They are good symbols of change, but symbols nonetheless. They will all make for good videos on instagram or headlines to tweet. Defund the police and take down all the confederate statues, but fall short on addressing the true issues of economic inequality and the movement is high on dramatic appeal, but low on systemic change. Decreasing the rate of Black families in poverty from 20% to the same rate as White families of 9% may not have the same ring as “Arrest Breonna Taylor’s killers”, but it will go far beyond a presentational performance. (Sidenote: 9% poverty seems like an odd goal for the wealthiest country)

“And then the justice,

In fair round belly with good capon lin’d,

With eyes severe and beard of formal cut,

Full of wise saws and modern instances;

And so he plays his part.”   

“Performance” is first defined by Mariam-Webster as:

1a: the execution of an action

b: something accomplished : DEED, FEAT

2: the fulfillment of a claim, promise, or request : IMPLEMENTATION

This is the notion that many of us are likely familiar with when we head into our “performance review” at work. Most likely we meet with our bosses to have a discussion about our broad set of behaviors as it relates to our responsibilities. We have our performances assessed based on our achievements large and small over a given year. 

Really, it is this sense in which allyship or adherence to the desired goals of a social movement should be assessed. Performance over time in many instances. What problems have you addressed? What action have you executed? What has been accomplished? What promise has been kept?

Tellingly, the theatrical definition of “performance” is given as the third entry for Mariam-Webster: 

3a: the action of representing a character in a play

b: a public presentation or exhibition

a benefit performance

Allyship should be performative indeed, but performed on an everyday level. Displaying your support, or not, on a device of communication (social media) can only be theatrical or dramatic. It cannot be the type of performance we need.

“The sixth age shifts

Into the lean and slipper’d pantaloon,

With spectacles on nose and pouch on side;

His youthful hose, well sav’d, a world too wide

For his shrunk shank; and his big manly voice,

Turning again toward childish treble, pipes

And whistles in his sound.”

Unfortunately, the performance that is required for real social change is long and boring. The work will be tiresome and tedious. Advocacy at your state and local legislatures will likely not bring with it a social media following. Lobbying for bills to get out of committees on economic development and education will not be a bomb of a tweet. You’ll get more of a response posting the video of a police officer beating a protester than you will of posting a screenshot of the agenda for your state senate’s personnel and administrations’ committee, but you should take note of what indicates a worthwhile performance.

“Last scene of all,

That ends this strange eventful history,

Is second childishness and mere oblivion;

Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.”

William Shakespeare, As You Like It, Act II, Scene, VII “All the World’s a Stage” spoken by Jacques

Marathon Music

April 6th I first saw a basketball hoop with the rim removed. The sight by itself was striking. I shared the image on social media. It got quite a reaction. For those of us who love the game of basketball, the game is so much more than tallying points between opposing sides. The game is collaboration, the game is improvisation, the game is rhythm, the game is harmony, the game is music. That backboard perched above cracked pavement with no rim meant that April 6th was the day the music died.

We’re all sheltering in place. We’re social distancing. I went to the grocery store yesterday and wore a mask and gloves. I wear a mask to walk my dog. I’m compliant with the orders. I go outside to get my exercise, which I do alone. I’d hoped that I could still go to the court and shoot alone. Anyone who’s put work into their game has put in a lot of hours alone on the court. You must practice your instrument in order to be ready to play with the band. I had heard reports of people still playing football or basketball games, which are obviously too social for the current standards, but couldn’t we still get some shots up? The sound of the ball going through the hoop would do a lot for me right now.

It’s April 20th. Two weeks since the basketball hoops were forcibly removed. If things had gone according to plan, my fair city would be teeming with people today. A lot of businesses would still be closed, but for a more joyous occasion. People would have traveled from around the world to complete a globally recognized physical task, the Boston Marathon. 

For those uninterested in sports, cancelling the Boston Marathon can be easily lumped in with the cancellation of all major sporting events. I’ve been watching reruns of old Celtic games instead of gearing up for this year’s playoffs. Yesterday I saw some Wimbledon classics being played, with the classic tournament being canceled for the first time since World War Two. The overnight snow we experienced over this past weekend hit a little harder having not had Spring ushered in by the lush grasses of Augusta National’s the weekend before.

All of these cancellations hit hard for the fans who earmark their years based on passage of these annual events. It’s fall when football is played, it’s spring when golf and tennis return. Lovers of sport will even earmark their lives based on when sporting events happen. I may not be able to tell you the year the Red Sox won that curse breaking world series, but I can tell you the feeling on my college campus that was split between Red Sox and Yankees fans for two years. I don’t remember what year Vinatieri hit the field goal against the Raiders, but I remember driving my car home on snowy roads from a high school friend’s house.

Here’s the thing about the Boston Marathon, no one is really a fan of marathon running. There may be a few outliers, but that statement rang true for more readers than it offended. With that said, on Marathon Day, all of Boston and it’s million plus supporters play music together for the Boston Marathon. We all play the same song. If playing basketball is a band, the Boston Marathon is a live orchestra of the human spirit. We marvel at the top level athletes who run at superhuman paces for the duration, we are emboldened by bravery of those who run the marathon on prosthetics or pushing a wheelchair, we are inspired by the everyday athlete who put in the work over the cold, dark New England winter to get ready to run a four-hour marathon  for charity.

In 2013, the marathon was bombed. A traumatizing attack that left the city reeling. I remember I had just crossed the route near my apartment to go get a sandwich when I heard that bombs had exploded. I remember the chilling act of going to my office blocks from the finish line the next day, the entire neighborhood blocked off with armed security everywhere. I remember sheltering in place during the manhunt of the bombers. I remember taking to the streets with a joyous city after the perpetrators had been apprehended. 

We’ve been through trauma before, but the music resumed. The Boston Marathon is rescheduled currently for September 14th. Maybe it will happen then, maybe it won’t. I hope the basketball rims are put back on the backboard before then. Whenever we are able to play the music again, I can’t wait to dance.  

Surviving Guilt

I was seventeen when my grandmother died. It was not a particularly traumatizing death: she was older, had smoked her whole life, and battled with complications from emphysema. It’s always sad when a family member dies, my mother and her siblings were upset, but it was not a shocking death. There is a sort of inevitable justice when someone from an older generation dies. You hate to see them go, but we all have to go at some point and at least they got a full ride’s worth.

During the funeral, I linked up with two cousins of mine, David and Brandon. David was a little older and Brandon a little younger, but we were all essentially the same age. I saw David fairly frequently growing up, Brandon a little less due to his growing up a few states away. I hadn’t really kept in touch with either of them as we all went through our respective disillusioned teen years. At the funeral, someone suggested that we leave the ceremony a little early and go back to my grandmother’s house. Frankly, we were bored by the proceedings and wanted to get out of the grave yard. Our parents needed to stay on the grounds for a little longer, but were fine with the idea, as everyone would be meeting back there for reception. 

The three of us talked a bit on the ride and caught up on our respective lives. Brandon was more into sports. He and I both played golf. Though I wouldn’t admit it then, he was better than I was. David was more into music. Though I played in a band, when David talked about the punk shows he went to, I felt insurmountably less cool for not having heard of his favorite bands.

We were all into booze and drugs.

To varying degrees. We all had some chemical experiments. I got the sense that I had traveled the furthest down the rabbit hole at that point. It’s hard to communicate to an outsider, but when you find a certain substance common place and others react with too much enthusiasm or trepidation you know who’s had more trips around the ferris wheel. It’s hard to say who was the most accomplished drinker. We were all experienced. 

I don’t know who suggested it first, but someone had the idea that we should go in and tap into the liquid resources for the reception. Being underage, we would have to get some drinks in before everyone got back to the house and be discreet about it. The idea sounded good to all of us. We poured some drinks and commenced to do what we did. 

The funeral proceedings ended up taking our parents and family members a while, so we had longer than expected with the bottle. By the time everyone arrived, there was no hiding how much we had drank either by the amount of booze drained from the bottle or our hazed condition. Our parents weren’t necessarily happy about it, but I don’t think there was a single family member shocked that we had drank. Given the day’s occasion, we were given a pass for drinking underage. 

I can’t speak for the other two, but I blacked out. I came to in a sleeping bag on my grandmother’s living room floor. My cousins were on the couches and floor around me. I certainly hadn’t expected, planned or wanted to drink to that degree, but it was the sort of thing that just happened. I felt guilty for drinking that way at my grandmother’s funeral, but it was the sort of thing that just happened.

To be honest, I don’t know if I ever saw Brandon and David at the same time again. I know I saw David at a couple of weddings thereafter, but we didn’t stay in touch.


Brandon and David are now dead. Brandon died a few years ago, he was thirty one. David died this past year, he was thirty six. Both as a result of the abuse of drugs and alcohol. I have been sober for over nine years. 


As I write that, I feel the guilt come on. There is no justice in that reality. When I think back to that meeting of teenagers at our grandmother’s funeral, we were all in the same boat. I distinctly remember that my own drug taking was a bit heavier than the other two. To think that of the three of us, I am the only one who survived, I am the only one who made it out of the mess of drug and alcohol abuse… Why am I the one who got sober? Why am I the one who got to live? I did nothing special to merit the gift; they did nothing wrong to merit the punishment.

I feel particularly guilty to their parents. Sometimes I see them express their pain on social media, how they miss their child who they outlived. Who I outlived. I imagine they ask themselves all the questions I ask myself, what could have been done differently? How could it have been possible for their children to grow older and see more of life? And yet, here I am, growing older, seeing more of life. I got sober out of what feels like dumb luck. I went to a twelve step meeting and listened. I’d been before and not listened. It’s hard to pin down why that even worked out for me when it did. 

I can’t pin it down to intelligence. Smart people die of drug overdoses. People who have displayed no intelligence their whole life get sober. Trust me, I’ve met both types. It’s not that I possess some greater will power. This is a common misconception about sobriety. I drank every day not wanting to drink. I couldn’t stop using my will power. I tried for years. I knew I had a problem. Anyone who reaches the everyday or truly self destructive level of drinking knows that they need to stop to live, but stopping based on your own mind just doesn’t seem to work. I wasn’t sent to any facility, there was no intervention, no dramatic event that preceded me getting sober. It just happened one day after years of it needing to happen. 

Why did it happen to me and not my two cousins? Why are they dead and why am I alive?

Of course, I’ll never know the answer to these questions. I can only know how I will respond in the absence of an answer. I can be grateful that I am able to live life today, even if it is possible because of an unmerited gift. I can share my story. I can do my best to try and help others who are getting sober. I can live my life fully. Play the sports I want to play; listen to the music I want to listen to; doing the work I want to do. Even if I don’t know why I have it, I can make the most of this chance that I’ve been given. It’s clear that living life is no guarantee, whether you are guilty or not.