The Hidden Cost Of Wealth

William James via David Brooks in Second Mountain:

“James concluded that there is something in us that seems to require difficulty and the overcoming of difficulty, the presence of both light and darkness, danger and deliverance. ‘But what our human emotions seem to require,’ he wrote, ‘is the sight of struggle going on. The moment the fruits are being merely eaten, things become ignoble. Sweat and effort, human nature strained to its uttermost and on the rack, yet getting through it alive, and then turning its back on its success to pursue another [challenge] more rare and arduous still—this is the sort of thing the presence of which inspires us.'”

Unwittingly, with this insight, James exposes a hidden cost of wealth. Often, the wealthier people get, the more their lives are taken up with endless conversation about how to make life more convenient and comfortable as well as with the actual researching and purchasing of products and services intended to make life less difficult and challenging. The amorphous goal is to eliminate struggle. The accomplishment of which fails to inspire anyone or anything.

Try To Stay Present

After a fun fiction jag, I’m reading David Brook’s #1 Best Seller in Philosophy of Ethics and Morality, The Second Mountain: The Quest For a Moral Life.

I’m only a third in, but my overwhelming thought so far is that it’s uneven. Some parts are clear, insightful and inspiring; others however, like Chapter Six, “Heart and Soul,” are so vapid I wonder if his editor is afraid of him. Brooks is like a batter that drills one pitch off the wall for a stand up double and then strikes out looking the next time up.

He argues Millennials are lost, which of course, is an exaggeration. Lost because nearly every American institution has declined in importance and young people are left with the admittedly inane advice to “do you” whatever you may be. He argues all people would benefit from living more committed lives to some combination of a vocation, marriage, philosophy and faith, or particular community.

He tells his story and stories of many others who prioritized their work lives and wealth and notoriety at the expense of deeper, more meaningful commitments based upon mutual vulnerability and selfless service. He’s best when he explains how these “Second Mountain” people lose themselves in listening and caring for others in ways that are mutually transforming.

The problem he slips into though is highlighting people whose transformations are so radical as to be nearly unrelatable. Like Kathy and David who extend dinner invitations to a hodgepodge of 40 struggling young people on a weekly basis. David left his job to create a nonprofit, All Our Kids, and gave his kidney to one of the young women when she needed a transplant.

Yeah, I’m sure I can high jump 10 feet if I just put my mind to it.

Or Etty Hillesum, a Jewish woman in Holland during World War II, who maintained a supernatural inner peace and joy all the way up to the point that her parents, brother, and she were killed in Auschwitz.

I set Brooks down for awhile to watch the first episode of HBO’s Chernobyl which is as scary a story imaginable for anyone who has ever worried about exposure to radiation at the dentist and/or airport. After that harrowing experience, I sought refuge in The New Yorker instead of immediately jumping back into Brooks.

There I think I found a more subtle and nuanced way forward for mere mortals like me. In a very short story about Maggie Rogers’s rise, John Seabrook, who hangs with her in New York one afternoon, tells this story:

A fan recognized her. “Wow,” he said. “Biggest fan. Can I actually ask a question?”

“Dude, I have no idea what I’m doing,” Rogers said, laughing.

“That’s what your album is about, right?” the fan asked. He was her age.

“Exactly,” Rogers said. “I’ve just really been trying to stay present.”

How does one stay present? By giving off a particular vibe that communicates “Heck no I’m not too busy for you.” By maintaining meaningful eye contact. By thinking about what others are saying instead of what you want to say the second they pause. By asking clarifying questions. By empathizing instead of problem solving. By learning to appreciate what’s unique about others.

Much easier to write than do.

 

 

Of Mountains and Spain 2019

Three years ago, in light of our 30th anniversary, I promised the Good Wife a trip to a “Spanish speaking” country. It only took three years to pull of. The GW has always had a passion for languages, Swedish, Amharic, Spanish in particular. Sad isn’t it, that she married such a language loser, but she has to take responsibility for focusing exclusively on looks.

A week or two before the trip, while loitering in the kitchen, she said to me, “Being in Spain with you is going to be sexy.” Hubba hubba! All of a sudden the long distance flights seemed more manageable. But then I regained my senses and said, “Yeah, except for the fact that you invited our daughters.” Correcting the record, she smiled, “Ah, that was your idea.” What the hell was I thinking? Probably that their schedules would never allow it. They happily proved me wrong. We never should have taken them to live for short stints in China and Norway when they were young.

Here are the sordid details you so desperately want. The four of us shared small apartments in Madrid and Seville for eleven days. I was sick as a perro for about a third of the time. In the end, I’m sorry to report, there was very little hanky and next to no panky.

But all was not lost.

David Brooks in a recent piece, The Moral Peril of Meritocracy, contrasts first and second mountain life. He writes:

“If the first mountain is about building up the ego and defining the self, the second is about shedding the ego and dissolving the self. If the first mountain is about acquisition, the second mountain is about contribution.

On the first mountain, personal freedom is celebrated — keeping your options open, absence of restraint. But the perfectly free life is the unattached and unremembered life. . . . 

So the person on the second mountain is making commitments. People who have made a commitment to a town, a person, an institution or a cause have cast their lot and burned the bridges behind them. They have made a promise without expecting a return. They are all in.”

And:

“Over the past few decades the individual, the self, has been at the center. The second-mountain people are leading us toward a culture that puts relationships at the center. They ask us to measure our lives by the quality of our attachments, to see that life is a qualitative endeavor, not a quantitative one.”

I may finally be approaching the base of the second mountain. Why do I think that? Because when the GW asked me what my favorite moment of the trip was, I wasn’t quite able to tell her. Instead, I told her my second and third favorites.

My absolute favorite was witnessing the wave of emotion that came over her as the trip drew to an end.

The last morning in Seville, I rallied and we went for an aimless walk through our neighborhood’s ancient, narrow streets. Eventually, we ended up at the outdoor window of a tapas bar in a small, beautiful, mostly empty plaza. We ordered dos cafes con leche and waited at an outdoor table. Sipping our drinks, she started to cry. “This is exactly what I wanted to do. I wanted to sit with you at an outdoor cafe and just enjoy the moment.” Later that morning, the tears continued as she declared her abiding love for the whole dam fam. I can’t remember ever seeing her happier.

That made the lengthy planning process, the marathon plane flights, the expenses totally worth it.

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But How Will It Look On My Resume?

Statistics show people don’t tend to read any particular blog for very long. I’m not jumping from blog to blog, I’m reading fewer, which begs the question, why read this or any other blog? One common thread in the few blogs I read regularly is the authors link to interesting and insightful writing that I wouldn’t otherwise come across.

The best bloggers are connoisseurs of some specialized content and curators who provide an invaluable service in the Age of Information Overload—they help focus people’s attention.I try to do that, but my statistics reveal that few readers follow my links meaning posts like this probably don’t work that well. If I knew how to change that I would.

Starting for real now. An email arrives from an ace college roommate, a successful psychotherapist specializing in adolescent development. His 12th grade daughter has been admitted to two highly selective colleges and is conflicted about which will look better on her resume. Dad’s equally torn about where she should go. What does the college professor think?

The college professor can’t get past the fact that the daughter is worried about her resume. I wrote back that the schools’ respective prestige was within the margin of error and that the only thing that matters is whether she builds lasting relationships and develops interpersonal and intellectual skills that cannot be easily automated.

Her family enjoys far greater economic security than 90-95% of people. I don’t understand her thinking, but I know that if she is pre-occupied with her economic future, it’s no surprise that anxiety disorders among adolescents are at an all-time high.

I suspect something deeper is at work in this college decision-making case study. Something spiritual. Cue David Brooks, who wrote this essay in Sunday’s New York Times. It’s Brooks at his best. Lots of self-righteous readers savage him, for in essence, not being a Democrat. How dare a Republican reflect on what’s most meaningful in life. I wonder what it’s like to have one’s politics and daily life in permanent, perfect alignment.

Brooks is scheduled to discuss his new book, The Road to Character, on the Diane Rehm show Thursday, April 16th at 11et.

Palinism

A few Friday nights ago, David Brooks no doubt scored serious points with NewsHour listeners when he said, “Every second we spend talking about Sarah Palin is a second of our lives we’ll never get back.”

Catchy soundbite, but he was wrong.

We need to talk more about what her parochial, nostalgic, oddly vague and exclusionary worldview means for not just our national politics, but education reform.

Palinism the ideology—a set of conservative political beliefs that rests upon a parochial, nostalgic, vague, exclusionary interpretation of U.S. history—is far more pernicious than her easy to make fun of media personality.

Palinism is a litmus test. If we continue to think of students first and foremost as future workers and consumers, and not citizens, its influence will spread and some of its adherents will win elections. Absent a nuanced sense of our nation’s unblemished history and an appreciation for what a vibrant democracy requires of its citizens, our young people will increasingly opt for glossy, symbolic style at the expense of gritty, grounded substance.

Recently, just for David Brooks and you, I sacrificed 197 seconds of my life watching SarahPac, a brilliant marketing video of Sarah’s bus tour of the U.S. Actually, now I’ve sacrificed over 15 minutes since I’ve watched it five times.

It’s fascinating on several levels. Exercise your citizenship and watch it.

Notice the following:

• In the midst of the hundreds of people that appear in the commercial, there’s one black veteran. Palinism borrows from a recent Modern Family sketch, “White is right.”

• The phrases “restore what’s right,” “restore the good,” and “we need a fundamental restoration” repeat throughout.

• “Founding” and “foundation” also repeat throughout. It’s like a news station repeating the phrase “fair and balanced” over and over. Maybe, if the populace is half asleep, hypnosis works.

• Painfully vague catch phrases are sprinkled throughout including, “be in touch with our nation’s history,” “so we can learn from it,” “move forward,” “all that is good about America,” “effect positive change,” and “America is the exceptional nation.” The classic hallmark of a really bad first year college essay.

Absent a critical nuanced understanding of U.S. history, government, and foreign policy, the videos sophisticated mix of traditional American symbols, music, and vague repetitive narrative would probably work wonders on large percentages of today’s secondary school students.

An older woman near the end gushes about Palin’s “courage and strength” and concludes, “she has it all.”

If we continue to preach the math and science gospel and mindlessly apply business principles to schooling, our youth might conclude the next Sarah Palin and the one after her have it all.

In which case Palin’s videographers might just win the battle of ideas.

Marshmellow Eaters

An excerpt from a New York magazine profile of David Brooks.

Brooks’s favorite social-science study is known as the Marshmellow Experiment. A child is left in a room with a marshmallow for fifteen minutes. If he restrains himself from eating the marshmallow, he gets a second one. If not, he doesn’t. The test turns out to be a predictor of all kinds of habits in adult life. Children who show self-control in front of a tasty marshmallow score higher on the SAT, struggle less in stressful situations, maintain friendships better, and have fewer problems with drugs. Brooks is concerned we’ve become a nation of marshmallow eaters. We want tax cuts and more entitlements, without realizing the contradiction. We want speedy, in-and-out wars. We want a president who can fix any crisis—even an oil spill he’s not equipped to solve.

What most intrigued me about the profile was Brooks saying he doesn’t think he can change people’s minds. That type of humility is refreshing for sure, but I think he is particularly well positioned to change people’s minds.

I agree with him on marshmellow eating. The question is whether there are enough self-disciplined adults to work together to help young people learn to work today, tomorrow, and the next several days for some future reward whether that be the gratification of completing a meaningful project, living debt-free, or earning downtime?

April Miscellania

• The wife got me with a pretty good April Fools, said the new car “wasn’t starting in the morning” and “we should have someone look at it.” I had to return serve. So a few hours later I told her “Good news, the NYT is reporting that young trendsetters are dying their hair gray.” She laughed heartily until I said “April Fools!” That fact that it wasn’t a joke, is now the joke. That’s just the multi-layered way I roll.

• Got some rare direct blog feedback at dinner last week. One of my sibs said indignantly, “Why should anyone care about the details of your fitness routine?!” I explained those posts are primarily for Lance. Consider them optional, not required reading. Lance NEEDS to know how hard to work to maintain his running and cycling superiority.

• So here’s my indignant sib-adjusted fitness report for March. Battled a micro-tear in one calf and then threw my back out lifting/twisting dumbbells to and from the rack without my legs. Lost about a week. Swam 23,900m; cycled, 340; ran 97. WOM (workout of the month) was a 33 mile ride and 2.25 mile run with my 22 year old uber-niece who is about to kick some serious butt at the College Nationals Triathlon in Texas.

• March Madness update. The WSJ computer and I are currently in sixth or seventh place out of eleven in the office pool. If Duke wins, I will probably end up on the podium, but no one remembers who came in second. The first five participants don’t even follow college bball. I’m actually glad computers apparently can’t quantify something as complex as a 64 team tournament. It won’t be the same when it goes to 96 teams. Classic case of less being more. Of course this year I wish it had been 196 because then UCLA might have qualified.

• This recent David Brooks essay is one of my favorites of his of all time. Brooks got killed by the most recommended commenters. I found some of their comments perceptive, but most of those were of the “Look at me, I caught you being inconsistent” variety. No one is always perfectly consistent. Many of the most recommended comments struck me as weakly argued, mean-spirited, knee-jerk liberalism. I’m a liberal, but not a fan of knee-jerkism of any variety. Very easy to criticize especially so indirectly. I give Brooks credit for courage. He knows he can’t win when it comes to most NYT readers.

• Personal record for blog readership in March 2010; however, no reason to get carried away, you’re still a member of a select group. For reasons I’m not entirely sure of, people never comment on my personal finance posts, so I think I’ll retire that thread. Even though readership is up, commenting is not. Maybe I’m not angry enough? Maybe I need to tap my inner-Glenn Beck. Also, for reasons I’m not entirely sure of, I can’t get many readers to follow the small number of links I sometimes include. Case in point, you didn’t even open the previous Brooks’ link did you? I know everyone is pressed for time and I appreciate the fact that more people are at least logging on and skimming posts.

• Turns out I was exaggerating when I wrote that I’d pay anything for an iPad. I have not ordered one yet not because I wanted to read the reviews that were just published and let the application/software dust settle a bit. I anticipate buying one sometime before the summer equinox, but as a card carrying late adaptor, if so moved, I reserve the right to postpone the purchase indefinitely. Not owning one won’t stop me from adding “Sent from my iPad” on the bottom of my emails. Faux tech cache. Sometimes I amaze myself.

• Speaking of email, publicly admitting that I suck at it in my last post proved cathartic. Oddly, it inspired me to turn over a new email/internet leaf captured in this sticky note. Three days later, I’m stickying to it. Now email is not the boss of me, I’m the boss of email!

The note doubles as a logo cover, sorry Apple