John Cleese and the Affectionate Tease

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Many, many years ago, most likely 1985 but possibly 1986, I decided to do something different. I was living on Oliver Street in downtown Rochester. I hadn’t taken a vacation in a while and I needed to spend those precious vacation days or risk losing them. What to do… what to do…

Even now, I’m not the kind of person who dreams of the traditional vacation. In fact, I Continue Reading “John Cleese and the Affectionate Tease”

A Confession from a Hypocrite: Alas, I, too, am a Free Rider

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It was the most regrettable thing I had ever done in my entire life. At the time I thought it was a giant step forward, a statement that, because of who I was, because of who we were, would make a difference.

Organizing the protest had other alluring advantages. Our teacher encouraged us. We respected her and she respected us. She treated us like adults. We liked that. It presented us with the ultimate reward: greater self-esteem. In addition, the entire class participated. That meant we could be with our friends, and all the social rewards that brings. Finally, only our class was allowed to participate. It was a reward for getting our schoolwork done in a timely fashion. There’s nothing like the feeling of accomplishment to fill the soul with self-confidence.

Of course, it helped that we hooked our wagon to a national movement. It was the first Continue Reading “A Confession from a Hypocrite: Alas, I, too, am a Free Rider”

Graduates: How to Let Your Passion Become Your Talent

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It’s a perfectly acceptable question: How does a trained astrophysicist become a nationally recognized newspaper columnist? The answer, obviously, is by spending three decades working as a registered investment adviser.

OK, OK, maybe this requires some explaining.

Let me begin, however, by talking about you. You and I are very similar. We both want things we can’t have, we’re not “supposed” to have, and we aren’t even at the right station in life to come close to having. And there’s nothing wrong with desiring more – more renown, more wealth, more satisfaction. Don’t ever let someone tell you “You can’t do that.” Dream. Dream big. Never stop dreaming big.

Why?

Because such dreams spur you to far greater heights than you can imagine. They possess these three critical components for consistent success: Continue Reading “Graduates: How to Let Your Passion Become Your Talent”

Here’s How to Get the Latest… on Everything

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Kids are great. They offer so much. They give you a reason to excel. They force you to look deep inside yourself. They make you laugh, smile, and (sometimes) cry, but, always leave you filled with a sense of satisfying purpose.

They also do one other thing. Kids, especially those that are a little older but not too old, act like a canary in a coal mine.

Now, before you get to scrunched up in your high heels, I don’t mean they’re something you can use as a sort of human shield. (Truth be told, when they were very young, just before they went to sleep our children would often ask us why we had them. Even before Betsy could break an adoring smile, I blurted out my quick, simple, and direct answer: “To be there so the monster could eat you first.” Soon after, Betsy insisted that only she tuck the children in for the night. I love it when a plan works.)

Here’s what I really mean. They may be the clue to the Fountain of Youth. Kids act like a canary in the coal mine of popular culture. We weary parents, consumed with matters of far greater import (something about “food, clothing, and shelter”), find we cannot keep up with modern culture. Like canaries, kids have an innate ability to smell what’s coming before the rest of us.

You know what I’m talking about. One day, you know every single record on the Top 40. The next day, you find out there’s no such things as records anymore. Heck, there’s no such thing as “Top 40” anymore either. Everyone has their own personal playlist on Spotify.

How do you react to this?

At first you resist. “That’s not the way we did it in my day.” Then you come to realize it is the way you did it in your day. Only better.

You used to make your own playlists. You put your favorite songs on cassettes. You called them “mix tapes.” After all that hard work, you couldn’t help but feel amazed the first time you listened to your new mix tape.

That feeling didn’t last long. You got bored with them really fast because the songs always appeared in the same order. So, you went back to listening to the radio. The radio might not play all your favorite songs, but at least the anticipation of not knowing what song was coming up next would keep you interested, if not excited.

Close your eyes and imagine combining these two wants: all your favorite songs coming at you in a random order. It’s the best of all possible worlds. Sirius Radio attempts to offer this, but, then again, it’s Sirius Radio. Personalized playlists on platforms like Spotify truly do offer the best of both worlds.

And, if not for your kids, you’d never know this.

For those of you who are still bothered by the canary metaphor, allow me to offer a more erudite analogy.

Children are like the Plato’s shadows. You know the shadows I’m talking about. They’re the ones that reflected on the walls in Plato’s Allegory of the Cave. It’s from one of his most-read works: Republic. You might remember Plato’s Republic as that thick book you didn’t read in college. It’s probably most famous for convincing people they didn’t need to take philosophy courses.

Anyways, Plato presents the Allegory of the Cave through a dialogue between his brother Glaucon and Socrates, who acts as narrator. He begins by describing the inhabitants of the cave. They are prisoners, forever chained to the wall of the cave. They cannot see the activity going on outside the cave. They do, however, see the shadows of that activity reflected on the cave wall.

Only, they don’t understand the shadows are only shadows. They think the shadows are the reality. In a way, for the prisoners, this doesn’t matter, for the shadows – real or not – do show what’s going on outside the cave.

In a way, parents (or, for that matter, all adults) are like prisoners in Plato’s Cave. The duties and obligations of everyday life bind them like prisoners. These chains make it impossible for them to see what’s happening in the outside world, especially popular culture.

We’ll tweak Plato a bit to say adults once kept up with popular culture – when they were kids. But now, as adults, they’re shackled. They’re unable to keep abreast of the latest. And not just in pop culture, but in fashion, interior decorating (or is that the same thing?), and technology. At most, all they can see are the shadows.

And the shadows are the kids. Kids have idle time. Their naivete allows them to disregard standard operating procedures of life. After all, they’re not of age and aren’t yet expected to have memorized life’s operating manual. That doesn’t mean they don’t want to run life’s machinery. It just means they haven’t been formally trained.

To fill this void, curiosity leads them to explore (often strange) new options. This is the behavior represented by the shadows on the cave wall. These shadows introduce adults to new ways of doing things. Watching what the children do helps adults keep up on the latest.

Every once in a while – and here’s where the Allegory of the Cave is most revealing – an adult breaks free of his bondage and re-enters the world of youth. But, as Heraclitus said, “You cannot step in the same river twice.”

For those of you who have had enough of Ancient Greece, that’s what Ella Winter meant when she asked Thomas Wolfe: “Don’t you know you can’t go home again?” Thomas Wolfe – not the same person who wrote The Right Stuff – asked Winter for permission to title his last book You Can’t Go Home Again, which was published posthumously in 1940.

Like Plato’s escaped prisoner, that adult who attempts to re-enter the world of youth quickly realizes the modern world is much more complicated than the kids make it seem. That adult accepts there remains only one safe space – living in the cave with the shadows. Alas, the Fountain of Youth remains elusive.

And that’s why we adults rely on our kids to run the VCR (or DVR or Hulu or On-Demand or what ever they call it now).

Are You a Laurel or a Yanni?

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A few days before it went viral, Peter asked Betsy and me to listen to something and tell him what we heard. This was the now famous “Laurel/Yanni” audio illusion.

An audio illusion is like an optical illusion. You use your eyes with optical illusions and your ears with audio illusions. With optical illusions, the same drawing reveals two completely different pictures. What you see depends entirely on what you’re looking for. In an identical way, an audio illusion contains one string of sounds. You hear what you want (or expect) to hear.

In the case of the Laurel/Yanni audio illusion, listeners convince themselves the string of sounds says “Laurel” or “Yanni.” Although the sound is the same, different people hear different things. Some people (like Peter) can hear either one, depending on what they’re listening for.

And therein lies the critical lesson of this latest internet sensation, the audio version of the Continue Reading “Are You a Laurel or a Yanni?”

Ode to a Fallen Tree

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I remember buying it. It was, maybe, eight inches tall. Despite its size, it formed the perfect shape of a tiny Christmas tree. It didn’t look like a Bonsai Tree. Its needles were full size, out of scale and too big for a Bonsai Tree.

The little blue spruce wasn’t the only tree I bought that day. It was the fall of 1986 and my house was brand new. I had no furniture of my own. I had no family of my own. I had no lawn, no landscaping, no home, really.

I was in the process of making my house a home. The first thing I needed to address had Continue Reading “Ode to a Fallen Tree”

The Problem with Ambition: Sometimes You Don’t Need It to Succeed

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We often think of ancient Rome as a patriarchal society. That may have been true then, but from what I’ve seen, in Italian culture it’s been the women who run things. Whether its grandmothers, mothers, or wives, they represent the backbone of the family and the community. Sure, it seems like the men are in charge, but that’s exactly what the women want them to think. In reality, if the men are the pillars, it’s only because the women are the solid foundation.

Do you recall one-word themes of your youth that have forever shaped you?

Growing up, my grandmother regularly imparted to me and my brother her formula for success. It wasn’t enough to possess talent, you had to possessContinue Reading “The Problem with Ambition: Sometimes You Don’t Need It to Succeed”

Say “Yes!” to Life

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As any good soul of the space generation would, I leapt at the chance when the Kodak Center offered tickets to see William Shatner host a screening of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Kahn. As with 2001: A Space Odyssey’s Keir Dullea last year, (see “Exclusive Interview: 2001: A Space Odyssey actor Keir Dullea one-on-one with Sentinel Publisher Chris Carosa,” Mendon-Honeoye Falls-Lima Sentinel, January 26, 2017), I had hoped to score an interview with the man who first portrayed Captain Kirk. Alas, our schedules didn’t allow it.

Catarina, perhaps feeling slightly sorry for her Continue Reading “Say “Yes!” to Life”

The Power of Losing Positively

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“Into each life some rain must fall.” Do you recall when you first heard this time-honored adage? Recording artists from Ella Fitzgerald to the Ink Spots to Queen have crooned serenades featuring this famous phrase. It was referenced in Steve Martin’s movie “My Blue Heaven.” But the true source of this inspired wisdom harks back to the early America of the nineteenth century. For it was, in 1842 – undoubtedly on a dark and dreary day – that Henry Wadsworth Longfellow sat down at his desk and penned his classic poem “The Rainy Day.”

What might have moved Longfellow to write these words? Perhaps he still mourned the loss of his first wife Mary, who died in 1831. Maybe he had become despondent over his near decade long courtship of Frances, the woman who would eventually become his second wife. What ever the source, the expression packs power. It’s the kind of power the Continue Reading “The Power of Losing Positively”

How to Convince Everyone You’re Really Smart (Without Actually Doing Anything Really Smart)

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Confirmation bias is a terrible thing to waste. So don’t.

If you’re the least bit curious about what I just said, then this column is written just for you.

Dilbert creator Scott Adams’ recent book Win Bigly defines confirmation bias as “the human tendency to see all evidence as supporting your beliefs, even if the evidence is nothing more than coincidence.”

Have you heard the expression “First impressions are lasting impressions?” A simple explanation shows the truth of this adage. It goes like this:Continue Reading “How to Convince Everyone You’re Really Smart (Without Actually Doing Anything Really Smart)”