How to Live—Patrick, Jess, Alyssa

• Patrick and Jess married in August, 2012. Eight months later they were watching people finish the Boston Marathon when a bomb exploded next to them. Both lost left legs. Patrick, “We’ll figure this out.” Jess, “As equally overwhelming as the evil that day, was how incredibly good these people were.” A touching story about love and resilience nicely told by Eric Moscowitz. For anyone wanting inspiration on how to live. And listen to Patrick speaking last week. “Sewing the threads of community.”

• Last week, Alyssa Mastromonaco, President Obama’s Deputy Chief of Staff for Operations for the last eight years, gave her first interview. Hagiographic, but lots of excellent insights, especially on the importance of selflessness, teamwork, and kindness. A must watch for my daughters.

 

 

I Just Bought a Drone

Tuesday night, while the Good Wife and I slept, our checking account was ransacked by the Internal Revenue Service. This is where our (personal) record amount of federal taxes will eventually end up.

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The Internal Revenue Service needs reinventing. Could there be a worse name? It sounds like something from an Eastern Bloc dystopian novel. How about the Public Commons or the Public Commons Service? Now the most dreaded sentence in the English language will be, “Hi, I’m from the Public Commons Service.”

Granted, that’s barely scratching the surface of what’s wrong with the PCS. The main problem with our tax system is once our checking account is raided, we have next to no say over where our federal tax dollars go (apart from voting for two senators and a congressional representative). For example, despite being anti-war educators, 27.7% of our federal taxes go to the military (defense and military benefits + veteran benefits) while 1.32% goes to education. We’re forced to help purchase drones, when we’d much rather help purchase improved teacher salaries.

At the same time, our hawkish neighbors might compensate for our military stinginess by designating far more than their 27.7% for the Pentagon. And of course, our other neighbor, Dan, Dan, The Transportation Man, would significantly increase his 2.65% transportation contribution.

A few significant improvements would result from this experiment in direct financial democracy. 1) Complaining about tax rates would decline. 2A) Government departments and programs would have to explain to the public why they’re deserving of a greater percentage of the total revenue available. And 2B) The more they could demonstrate fiscal responsibility, the more support they’d gain.

Admittedly, these ideas won’t slow the accelerating gap between the Haves and Have Nots. On April 15th, I listened to a panel of tax experts discuss tax reform on the Diane Rehm Show. I was much more intrigued by the tone of the discussion than the details of their ideas. The tone was, “Our tax system is so complex that improving it by simplifying it is impossible, but I’m happy to play along with your national audience anyways.”

As anyone who has tried to improve K-12 schooling, reduce global warming, reduce money’s influence in politics, or eradicate drugs and crime from their community will tell you, those who have a vested interest in the status quo benefit greatly from a sense of overwhelming complexity. Reformers, whether tax or otherwise, can’t wrap their arms around the whole problem, and therefore, don’t know where to begin making changes. Eventually they try piecemeal reforms. Before those reforms take hold, people’s patience runs out. Gradually, everyone and everything reverts back to “normal”. With each passing year or decade, what’s viewed as “normal” becomes more deeply entrenched, making significant change even more difficult.

Tax reformers have lots of good ideas including deductions they’d tweak or eliminate altogether. But they can’t see the forest because of the trees. Their ultimate challenge is to convince the public that simplifying and improving our tax system is possible.

 

 

 

 

Sports are Not a Metaphor for Life

First a note to international readers. In the U.S. the first two weeks in April is many sports-minded people’s favorite time of the year because of a confluence of great events highlighted by the college basketball national tournaments and the tradition-rich Masters golf tournament. There’s also the start of the professional baseball season and the beginning of the professional hockey and basketball playoffs. And this year there’s going to be a pretty special footrace in Boston next Monday, the 21st.

Few, if any, expected to see the Universities of Connecticut and Kentucky play for the national basketball championship. Combined, both teams lost nineteen games during the regular season. Similarly, Bubba Watson looked completely lost on Augusta National’s greens during Saturday’s third round. Most people thought it was Louisville’s, Arizona’s, or Florida’s tournament to lose and Matt Kuchar’s turn to break through in a major championship. Few were shocked when Bubba fell behind by two strokes early during Sunday’s final round.

But Bubba, following Connecticut’s and Kentucky’s lead, rallied to play his best golf at the most important time, and won by three strokes. My takeaway is this. Next week in Boston, pay no attention to who is in the lead at the halfway mark. In fact, don’t place too much importance on who is ahead at the 20 mile mark. In keeping with this sports season, someone unexpected will assert their will on the field over the last few miles. Call me crazy, but maybe even someone not from East Africa.

When I first sketched this post in my head, I was playing around with what, if anything, these athletic contests have to do with how you and I should live. But I was forcing it because athletic competition is not a meaningful metaphor for life. Because only one team hoists the national championship trophy and only one golfer puts on the green jacket each April.

In life, the more our family members, close friends, and co-workers flourish, the better our lives. The key to that is cooperation in the form of mutual support. In contrast, family, friendship, and co-worker competition inevitably results in petty jealousies, anger, and dissension.

And yet, sometimes there are sublime moments of cooperation in the heat of athletic competition. For example, at one of last year’s major marathons, the two men leading the race passed one water bottle back and forth. Maybe they were Stoics even more focused on giving their best effort than finishing first. And often the most awe-inspiring moments are compliments of young athletes, like high schooler Megan Vogel, who flat out reject win at all costs thinking.

 

 

 

 

 

How to Get Unstuck

Daily routines give our lives needed structure. My day typically starts with an early morning swim or run followed by a green tea latte. And newspapers. I use the same locker at the Y and shower in the first stall. Sometimes when I’m showering, dudes still half asleep mindlessly do a U-turn towards “my” stall necessitating my “take a hike” glance. I cycle Tuesday and Thursday evenings. I wrap up most days like Winston Churchill, reading in the tub (well, more accurately, he dictated speeches). Maybe I should add in cigars.

The problem with daily routines is that we reach a point of diminishing returns, a tipping point where our lives become too predictable. Absent spontaneity and serendipity, life is uninteresting. Especially as we age, we’re prone to getting stuck in over routinized ruts. The question is how do we get unstuck?

Reagan Underland, an Olympia High School senior, knows how to get unstuck. Read her story here. Even though Reagan most enjoys the humanities and has no family ties to the military, she’s attending the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs next fall. Why the Academy? Reagan said, “. . . I wanted to do something that scared me and that had purpose.

That’s a wonderful formula for getting unstuck. Find something that scares you and has purpose. I did the same thing as Reagan when I was eighteen. I chose a college that I wasn’t really prepared for. Because I was scared of failing, I ended up flourishing.

The last thing I did that scared me was two years ago when I raced an iron distance triathlon. But truth be told though, I’m not sure if that experience was sufficiently purposeful. In my interpretation of the word, purpose implies something that’s socially redeeming. Maybe it’s time for you and me to follow Reagan’s lead and do something scary and socially redeeming.

 

 

Spring Reading

For when you’re done with your spring cleaning.

1) Teaching Tolerance—How white parents should talk to their kids about race. A must read if your goal is to be “color blind” and raise “color blind” children. I started out skeptical thinking adult behavior easily trumps parent “talk”. But Wenner Moyer makes a convincing case for both.

My “kids and race” story from my junior year of college. I was a teaching assistant in a culturally diverse 3rd grade magnet school classroom in West Los Angeles. One day I was sitting at a round table helping five or six students write stories. One light skinned African-American girl began to rub my pinkish, freckled forearm with her hand. Thinking deeply, she finally blurted out, “You have salami skin!” Feeling a need to return serve, I replied, “Well, you have chocolate skin.” To which another darker skinned girl said, “Huh uh, she has carmel skin, I have chocolate skin!”

2. The Oracle of Omaha, Lately Looking a Bit Ordinary. Can we finally wrap up the active versus passive investing debate and move on to more pressing issues like who will replace David Letterman next year? Even Warren Buffet says Vanguard Index funds are the single best way to invest one’s money.

3. Her First, and Last, Book. Graduation season is around the corner. This is a grad story to remember. “I cry because everything is so beautiful and so short.” Paragraph to ponder:

After the crash, Marina’s parents immediately forgave and comforted her boyfriend, who faced criminal charges in her death. They asked that he not be prosecuted for vehicular homicide — for that, they said, would have broken their daughter’s heart. Charges were dropped, and the boyfriend sat by her parents at the memorial service.

Your Success at Work Depends Upon This

Likability.

According to the Wall Street Journal:

The ability to come across as likable is shaping how people are sized up and treated by bosses and co-workers.

Likable people are more apt to be hired, get help at work, get useful information from others and have mistakes forgiven.

More employers track employees’ likability on in-house social networks and chat services. They recruit those who are trusted and well-liked to spread information or push through changes. Some companies take these employees’ social clout into account when handing out raises and promotions.

Is this news? It’s always been the case, but maybe we’re not as cognizant of it as we could or should be. The middle and high school teachers-to-be that I work with sometimes talk about what makes them most anxious when they think about finally having their own classrooms. Most often it’s not knowing enough. When they toss and turn at night it’s because they’re worried about super intelligent students posing difficult, anxiety inducing questions. Inevitably, they find out that “students don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.”

When teaching, it’s far better to know one’s subject matter inside and out than not, but classroom success most often hinges on one’s ability to create a rapport with students. More simply, to be likable, which you should never confuse with being a pushover.

Here’s how to be more likable according to the WSJ’s workplace experts:

• Be authentic—To be more likable, behave in a way that feels natural and comfortable, rather than stiff or self-absorbed.

• Be curious—Show interest in others, make eye contact and ask questions about others’ opinions and activities.

• Be expressive—Vary tones of voice and smile, and show enthusiasm about what you’re saying.

• Listen—Focus on what others are saying and show that you are listening carefully, rather than getting distracted.

• Mimic others—Mirror the expressions or posture of the person you are talking to, in order to create a sense of familiarity.

• Find similarities—Actively try to find topics of interest you share with a listener, rather than talking only about what interests you.

The experts contend that likability is learned, but I can’t help but wonder, when a work coach of sorts advises an employee to act more naturally, wouldn’t being conscious of that notion make it even more difficult? I’d be skeptical of any stiff or self-absorbed person were to suddenly say, “Okay, watch this, now I’m going to act more naturally.” I want to believe teachers in training and others can learn these skills, I’m just not sure how best to teach them.

What say you?

The Future of Marriage

Here is how one on-line magazine reported on Gwyneth Paltrow’s and Chris Martin’s recent breakup:

Ever since Gwyneth Paltrow became famous in her early 20s, she has made women feel bad about themselves. As Gwyneth’s former high school classmate told a New York magazine reporter in the mid-’90s, “Even people who don’t know Gwyneth measure themselves against her success. … Gwyneth makes us feel extremely lame.” And so it was Tuesday, when Paltrow and her husband, Chris Martin, announced their split in the most Gwyneth way possible by telling the world about their separation in her lifestyle newsletter Goop, with a personal note and an accompanying expert essay about something called “conscious uncoupling.” Because Gwyneth does not break up like the rest of us.

The gist of the essay—by Habib Sadeghi and Sherry Sami, doctors who integrate Eastern and Western medicine—is that the institution of marriage hasn’t evolved along with our longer life spans. Divorce doesn’t mean your relationship wasn’t successful, they say. It just means that this particular relationship has come to its conclusion; you may have two or three of these successful relationships in a lifetime. Instead of a typical, rancorous, regular-person separation, you just need to have a “conscious uncoupling.”

I feel for Paltrow and anyone who feels compelled to manage their image so methodically. What an exhausting and lonely path to trod. So sad I’m going to grant her a mulligan on the New Age phrasing many others are using for laughs.

Gwyneth’s brand will not shape the future of marriage, Millennials behavior will. Esther Perel is a marriage counselor who has unique insights on why people have affairs. Read an interview with her here. She also has provocative things to say about Millennials and the future of marriage. For example:

Slate: What would you say to people who want to preserve a marriage?

Perel: Most people today, for the sheer length we live together, have two or three marriages in their adult life, and some of us do it with the same person. For me, this is my fourth marriage with my husband and we have completely reorganized the structure of the relationship, the flavor, the complementarity.

Slate: Explicitly, or it just happened organically?

Perel: Both. It became clear that we could either go into crisis mode and end it or go into crisis mode and renew. And that is one of the most hopeful sentences a betrayed partner can hear when they come into my office the day after they find out and they are in a state of utter shock and collapse: I say, your first marriage may be over, and in fact I believe that affairs are often a powerful alarm system for a structure that needs change. And then people say: But did it have to happen like that? And I say: I have rarely seen anything as powerful lead to a regenerative experience. This is a controversial idea, but betrayal is sometimes a regenerative act. It’s a way of saying no to a rotten system in need of change.

Perel earlier in the same interview:

We go elsewhere because we are looking for another self. It isn’t so much that we want to leave the person we are with as we want to leave the person we have become.

I like Perel’s thinking because it challenges my own. I’m not modern enough to give up on monogamy, but I’m intrigued by her notion of multiple marriages to the same person.

Here are a few reminders I’m taking from my brief intro to Perel’s work. First, it’s extremely unhealthy to expect one person to meet all of your needs. Some degree of autonomy is important. Second, the health of one’s marriage depends mostly on their individual emotional, psychological, and spiritual health. And third, to maintain positive emotional, psychological, and spiritual health, balance daily routines, both as an individual and as a couple, with a sense of “novelty and adventure”.

I liked a story my sixty year old sister told me last week at Uncle Erwin’s celebration of life in Missoula, Montana. Recently, she spent an afternoon sledding with a bunch of her friends. Novel and adventurous. And her marriage might be (marginally) healthier and happier as a result.