Why Does Anybody Need a Dress Code?

13095403923791Last week at the 2015 Cannes Film Festival, a few women were turned away at the entrance to the Festival’s red carpet gala; they weren’t wearing high heels. To most people, that would seem to be a rather extreme example of a restrictive dress code. Not unexpectedly, there were a number of  strong reactions, most suggesting that there is no legitimate reason for any woman to ever be denied access to any venue simply because she chooses to wear flats rather than high heels. I’d have to agree with that.

I’ve had a few run-ins with dress codes in my time. Two years ago, arriving at the University Club in San Diego with another couple for dinner, our wives decked out in their night-on-the-town finery and my friend and I wearing standard SoCal business dress–dress shirt/slacks/sport jacket/no tie–, we were advised by the maitre’d that, “Gentleman are required to wear a necktie when dining in the 1909 Founders’ Room.” Fortunately, the situation was easily resolved when the maitre’d reached into a closet, brought out a handful of neckties, and quickly fitted us out with ties that matched our outfits. [The tie I borrowed went so well with my jacket that I nearly forgot to return it when we departed at the end of the evening. It probably wouldn’t have mattered too much if I’d kept the tie, since the University Club’s dress code was relaxed shortly thereafter and ties are no longer required in the 1909 Founder’s Room ]

PrestwickA similar incident occurred several years earlier, while on a golfing trip to Scotland with some friends and business associates. We played a morning round at Prestwick Golf Club, the home of the first Open Championship in 1860, and the host of 24 subsequent Open Championships, the last in 1925. To describe the Prestwick Golf Club as “stuffy” would be a bit of an understatement, but the golf course had so much history that we were more than willing to conform to their rules so that we could play a round on the storied fairways and greens of Prestwick. We wanted to have lunch at the Prestwick clubhouse after our round, so we had packed sport jackets, collared shirts, and neckties, which we dutifully donned after our post-round showers before presenting ourselves at the Members’ Dining Room. Much to our chagrin, one of our number was told that he could not enter the Dining Room because he wasn’t wearing “proper shoes.” He’d arrived with a pair of running shoes; strictly forbidden in the small print of the club’s Dress Code, which reads:

“All visitors are expected to arrive in suitable golfing attire. We ask that all visitors using the Dining Room and Members’ Bar wear jacket, collar and tie (gentlemen) or a change from golfing attire (ladies). Smart casual wear is acceptable in the Cardinal Bar and Lounge. Jeans, trainers [emphasis added], shorts (unless tailored) and round neck T-shirts are not acceptable on the course or in the Clubhouse.”

th-1Once again a bad scene was resolved when the club’s manager produced a pair of what must have been size 13 lace-up dress shoes from a nearby closet, which my friend slipped onto his size 8 feet, then proceeded to carefully make his way around the buffet table, the shoes looking a lot like the oversize shoes of a clown costume, each step producing a splat-like slapping sound on the hardwood floors of the Members’ Dining Room.

After my own two dress code run-ins, I’m beginning to think that the folks at the Cannes Film Festival somehow dropped the ball when they didn’t have a large box of stiletto heels  in various colors and sizes, available to slip on to the feet of the women who had for whatever reason arrived on the red carpet in flats. [On further reflection, I can think of at least a dozen reasons that would never work.]

Anyone older than 50 will remember when everyone dressed up–dresses for women, suits and ties for men–when flying on an airplane, or going to church on Sunday. or going out to a nice restaurant for dinner. Today, at most times and in most places, anything goes as far as acceptable dress. You’ll see people in gym shorts and t-shirts on airplanes, in church, and at nice restaurants.

At this point, you’re probably thinking that I am an opponent of the Dress Code. Quite the contrary. I believe there is certainly a place in the world for dress codes. But I think that place has little to do with what is fashionable. Part of the dress code justification is as a  sign of respect for others who are sharing a common space or a common activity with us. But I think, more than anything else, dress codes have to do with “taming-the-Beast” in us, especially for men.

thConsider: most dress codes bar women from wearing revealing clothing, and men from dressing as they might for a workout in a gym or some other physically exerting or boisterous behavior. We ask women to cover up parts of their bodies, so as not to arouse the men in the room. We tell men to take off the ball caps, tuck in their shirts, and put on big-boy clothes, to remind themselves that they are in a place where refined, polite, and civilized behavior is highly valued.

Apparently, we need those reminders. Only last Friday, while dining out with friends at a “fine-dining” establishment, another group of people was so inconsiderately loud that it was impossible for anyone at a table within 20 feet of them to carry on a conversation. Not surprisingly, none of the men wore a jacket or tie; one man wore a baseball cap throughout the evening. Perhaps the simple act of removing the ball cap and slipping on a jacket might have been sufficient to trigger a bit of sadly needed self-control. Or maybe I’m only fooling myself and societal cues like dress codes no longer have any power to “tame the Beast.”

What do you think?


Stories–Part 3: Personal Narratives

13095403923791“You can’t know what’s really happening in this loud, crazy world, or in a single human heart, unless we are fully present in the moment, and listen. We are the characters in the daily dramas that make up the moments of our life, and our days, and then all of history. Stories exist wherever we look for them, because human life plays out in the form of stories. The best stories are found not through judgment, but through curiosity and a sense of true wonder.”

I wish I had written these words; such a beautiful description of our stories, and our roles in those stories. But I didn’t write them. I heard them on the home page of the website called The Power of Storytelling, a conference built around the idea that stories can change our worlds. In my last post (Stories–Part Two: Telling Stories), I wrote about the power of storytelling, when used skillfully,  to connect with and inspire others.

imgresBut there’s another kind of storytelling that deals with what is, perhaps, the most powerful story we tell. I call it our Personal Narrative. [I capitalize the term to distinguish it from “personal narrative” in the literary sense, where a personal narrative is a story or essay told from a first-person, personal point of view.] What I mean by Personal Narrative is the story we tell to ourselves about ourselves. It’s not what we tell others about ourselves, not the persona we put on display when facing the world, not the constructed personality that we wear when we are trying to make others recognize us and remember us. Instead, it’s the tale we tell when we describe ourselves to ourselves. It’s the “who” that we think we are when the doors are shut, the windows are closed, and the lights are off. It’s me telling me about me. It’s how I define myself to myself, for good or for ill, and is, to a large extent, how we bring meaning to 0ur lives, and how we go about the business of living our lives, even though we are probably not even aware that a Personal Narrative is busily at work shaping our behavior to conform to our story.

What fascinates me about Personal Narrative is the power that we have to change ourselves, changing our behavior, our attitudes, maybe even our beliefs, by changing, with clear intent, the story we tell ourselves about ourselves–our own Personal Narrative. For example, some recent In_and_Out_Doubledouble_animalstyleresearch indicates that even tiny changes in a Personal Narrative can be a powerful force in forming or breaking habits. Consider the case of a person who is an occasional vegetarian, who wants to go vegan. If her personal story is along the lines of “I’m a sometime-vegetarian-who-wants-to-be-a-vegan,” her story allows her to deviate form her desired vegan behavior; it’s built-in to her story. However, if she intentionally changes her story to “I am a vegan,”  she will begin to think of herself as a vegan, and that burger from In-and-Out Burger is more likely to be treated as an object of revulsion, rather than an object of desire, because a vegan won’t eat a double cheeseburger.

Beyond habits and isolated behaviors, there is mounting evidence that we can use our Personal Narrative to change our overall outlook on life, from positive to negative [probably a bad thing to do], or from negative to positive [definitely a good thing]. In a revealing article in Psychology Today, psychologist Stephen Stosny  tells what happens when we have a negative Personal Narrative, such as, for example, “Of course I feel isolated; no one cares what happens to me,” or “I have to be harsh and aggressive, to defend myself against the people who are always out to get me.” He wrote:

“In negative personal narratives, bad feelings, moods, and circumstances, seem permanent—living is hardship or a battle or a joyless drive to get things done. Positive feelings, moods, and circumstances are temporary and sometimes dangerous, in that they lead to greater vulnerability.

When negative narratives persist over time, they develop a support structure of highly reinforced habits that are difficult to change. Any positive experience is seen as an anomaly or a brief occurrence in the calm before the next storm. Once habituated, negative personal narratives cannot be changed by positive experience. Only intentional change in the narrative will alter the perceived value of the experience over time.”

imgres-1Contrast that with the situation of someone with a positive Personal Narrative, such as “I live a blessed life; I’m healthy, able to grow and learn, to love and be loved.” To a person with that kind of positive Personal Narrative providing the contextual glue to hold together, in a meaningful way, the diverse relationships and rich experiences of one’s life,  the world is a very different kind of place. To that person, as Stosny goes on to explain:

“Negative feelings, moods, and circumstances are temporary, presenting opportunities for learning and growth. Positive feelings, moods, and circumstances are consistent.”

I’ll leave you with two questions from a blog post written by philosopher and (I hope) friend Tom Morris:

“We all tell ourselves a story about who we were and how we got to where we are now. Are you telling yourself a good story, a deep and empowering one that will set you up well for whatever comes next? Is your story helping to make you better as a person, or not?”



Stories–Part 2: Telling Stories

13095403923791I read a fascinating Fast Company article the other day, describing the emergence of a new position in the C-Suite of a number of large companies–that of Chief Storytelling Officer (CSO). While the article, written by Michael Grothaus, notes that perhaps the first person to hold the CSO title was Nelson Farris at Nike in the late 1990’s, a search of the business-oriented social media site LinkedIn will find around twenty-five executives who have held that position.

It’s not that companies have suddenly discovered and fallen in love with the idea of “the story.” Marketers have been devising and telling stories about their companies and their products to customers for as long as people have been buying and selling products and services. It’s not hard to imagine a merchant in an ancient Greek marketplace explaining to a potential customer why the sandals he was selling were the very best sandals, made of the highest quality soft, supple leather that would form itself to his foot like a second skin, yet would last forever. So why the seemingly sudden interest in corporate storytelling?

storytellerMIT Sloan School of Management Lecturer Leigh Hafrey shed some light on that subject when he was interviewed at The Power of Storytelling 2014 Conference in Amsterdam on the connection between good leaders and good storytellers. When asked how storytelling can be used as a leadership tool he replied:

Storytelling supplies a narrative logic to events past, present, and future. Presentations by definition work with the principles of storytelling: plot, place, character, conflict and resolution.

Some people do it better than others, and those individuals reach leadership positions in part because of their skill as storytellers. Think Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., Aung San Suu Kyi, Muhammad Yunus and Vaclav Havel. Havel also exemplifies the way in which oppositional figures can take their divergent views into positions of institutional authority, as storytelling presidents, monarchs, corporate heads, judges, labor leaders, etc.

th-3Mr Hafrey was also asked why is it important for a good leader to be a good storyteller. His answer was very interesting:

A good leader recognizes that a “good story” sometimes is a lie. A solid sense of the ingredients of story, either instinctive or conscious, allows the good leader to recalibrate, and find his or her way to a story that reveals its own motives, and transfers the power of interpretation and discovery to the audience.

But that doesn’t really explain what makes stories so special? Why are stories so memorable–much more memorable than a simple collection of facts or unrelated statements? Why is it that, as Mark Turner noted in his book The Literary Mind,

most of our experiences, our knowledge, and our thinking are organized as stories.

A possible answer can be found in a developing branch of  psychology, known as narrative psychology, which is concerned with how we human beings deal with our experience of life by constructing stories and listening to the stories of others. Narrative psychology operates from the premise that our experience of life isn’t determined by logic, argument, or rule-based formulations; rather, our experience of life is largely propelled by the “meaning” we provide, via the stories we construct to make sense of the experiences that life parades in front of us.

In effect, narrative psychology argues that our experience is not simply the result of indisputable, personal physical occurrences that impinge upon our senses, but, instead, what we “experience” is the result of the stories we construct to make sense of it all–the personal and idiosyncratic interpretations of events that we construct–based on how we “read” the story.

thWork by neuroscientists supports the concept of narrative psychology by providing some important discoveries about stories, including how the mind processes and works through them.Through fMRI [Functional Magnetic Resonance Imagery] scans of the brain, we know that when presented with facts and figures, only two brain regions are engaged; but stories can activate up to seven brain regions.

We now also know that our brains are wired to experience emotions by proxy. When we see another person doing something, our so-called ‘mirror neurons’ fire and trigger a response in our own brain that is similar to the response we’d have if we were doing the same thing ourselves. This appears to be the basis for human empathy, and for our emotional involvement in storytelling; we literally feel the emotions that the characters in our stories are feeling. [If you’d like to dig a little deeper into how our brains use narrative to make sense of the world, here’s a link to an enlightening video of Michael Gazzaniga, a psychology professor at UC SantaBarbara, describing a brain component he calls “The Interpreter.”

How-does-story-telling-affect-the-brainGroundbreaking work by Antonio Damasio, the renowned neuroscientist who directs the USC Brain and Creativity Institute, has challenged conventional notions that human decision-making is driven purely by rational cost-benefit analyses. His work strongly suggests that emotional memories are stored in our brains, where they play a significant role in future decision-making, and has helped us understand that a purely rational appeal to someone can be far less effective in terms of driving behavior change than one that has emotional resonance.

th-1So, maybe the reason that stories are so powerful is, as Dimasio says:

We are not thinking machines. We are feeling machines that think. 




Stories–Part I: My Stories

Dave thumbnailI love reading, listening to and telling stories; I always have. I think we all do. From the time I was a small child I loved hearing bedtime stories. Even before I understood the symbols on the pages as letters of the alphabet, I tried to link together the drawings and pictures in my Little Golden Books into some kind of meaningful story. Even before I could recognize sequences of letters as words, and sequences of words as sentences, and sequences of sentences as paragraphs, my childlike mind strung the ideas together into a sort of narrative stream that allowed me to make sense of what was printed on the pages of those books.

Of course, all of theIMG_0897 stories that I loved so much weren’t confined to books. I loved the stories that my parents, my aunts and uncles, my brothers, and my friends would tell; stories about their lives, about their experiences, and about worlds they only imagined. When my own daughters were small, they loved to have me tell them bedtime stories, about characters I invented and they crazy things those characters did.

Much later in my life I came to understand a lot more about the power of narrative, and the value of being able to tell a good story. During my working years at Prudential, most of my jobs were in the financial realm–a world that most people perceive as numbers oriented. But, for me, the fun part wasn’t merely accumulating the data and assembling the numbers into some kind of report. It was never about the balance sheets and income statements and cash flow statements; it was about uncovering the story behind what was shown on those financial statements. What I brought to the table wasn’t my ability to compile numerical data, it was the gift to be able to translate numbers on a page into a compelling narrative, a story that helped people make sense of their business world, as represented by those numbers.

I also learned how stories help leaders connect with the people in their organizations. Whenever I had the opportunity to speak to groups of people in our company, I tried to tell them stories that would make it easy for them to construct a personal connection to what we were trying to do as a company.

Ith still remember getting up on a stage in front of hundreds of people at a Prudential Real Estate & Relocation Services meeting and asking those who were old enough if they remembered what they were doing when Pittsburgh Pirate second baseman Bill Mazeroski’s hit the 9th inning walk-off home-run in Game 7 of the 1960 World Series to beat the Yankees. I did. I was sitting in Miss Powers’ 7th grade classroom at St. Therese School, listening to her transistor radio, along with my classmates. And I remember Margaret Stanichar’s rosary beads flying into the air as Bob Prince, the KDKA radio announcer called the play.

c7fc2c5085c1fca12e10908be315cae7Then I asked them if they remembered what they were doing when astronaut John Glenn took his first step from the Lunar Lander onto the surface of the moon. I did. I was with my family on a Sunday afternoon, surrounding the TV as Walter Cronkite told America what was going on as we all watched the video feed from NASA.

th-1Finally, I asked them how clearly they remembered where they were and what they were doing during the horrific events at the World Trade Center on 9-11. I related that I was with my wife and some friends in the small town of Monterosso al Mare in the Cinque Terre region of Italy, desperately trying to find out what was going on, fearful about our daughters, one of whom was in New York City that week, the other living in Washington, DC.

Then I shared some research into brain activity that indicated that the brain centers that deal with strong emotions are located right next to the parts of the brain associated with long-term memory, drawing the stories together into a narrative arc that connected emotionally charged experiences with memory imprinting, then wrapping it up by showing that their work had great power to build good memories for our customers. It seemed like a much better approach than simply exhorting them to work harder and generate higher profits. The people in that audience really seemed to make a personal connection through those stories to a new way of thinking about their work. Their job was making great memories for our customers.

There is some interesting science that helps explain the extraordinary power of narrative. I’ll delve into that science in the next edition of this blog: Stories, Part 2: Telling Stories


What’s a Hookah?

Dave thumbnailFrequent readers of this blog [that phrase is a bit of a conundrum, since I took a 15-month break from writing, and only got back to the keyboard early this month] know that I love words and wordplay. A while back we were driving along the road and I saw a sign on a shop called “The Hookah Place,” offering its clientele a variety of different hookah-smoking experiences. Ever since Grace Slick of Jefferson Airplane sang about a “hookah-smoking caterpillar” in the song “White Rabbit,” I’ve been more than a bit curious about what it would be like to smoke a hookah [though I’ve never tried it]. An upcoming trip to Istanbul got me thinking about hookahs again, probably the mental connection I make between hookahs and the Levant and the Ottoman Empire.

So, what exactly is a hookah? A hookah, also known as nargile, arghila, goza and other names, is basically a water pipe with a smoke chamber, a bowl, a pipe and a hose.Hookahs vary in size, shape, and style, but a typical modern hookah has a head hookah_pipe(with holes in the bottom), a metal body, a water bowl, and a flexible hose with a mouthpiece. Specially made tobacco [shisha] that comes in different flavors, such as apple, mint, cherry, chocolate, coconut, licorice, cappuccino, and watermelon is heated, and the smoke passes through water and is then drawn through a rubber hose to a mouthpiece.

Some hookah smokers like to think that hookah smoking is safer than smoking cigarettes. Unfortunately for those deluded hookah smokers–according to the Center for Disease Control and the Mayo Clinic–the tobacco is no less toxic in a hookah pipe, and the water in the hookah does not filter out the toxic ingredients in the tobacco smoke. Hookah smokers may actually inhale more tobacco smoke than cigarette smokers do because of the large volume of smoke they inhale in one smoking session, which can last as long as 60 minutes. The Mayo Clinic also warns that hookah pipes used in hookah bars and cafes may not be cleaned properly, raising the risk of the spread of infectious diseases. The risk of infection is exacerbated because hookah smoking is typically done in groups, with the same mouthpiece passed from person to person.

If, in spite of the risks, you wanted to try out hookah smoking, you can buy one for anywhere from $40 to $400 dollars, depending upon how elaborate the design and construction of the hookah might be. The tobacco [shisha] is much more expensive than cigarettes. but, of course, you are much less likely to light up your hookah while cruising down the Pacific coast Highway in your top-down roadster than you would be to light up a cigarette, so you’d probably use it rather infrequently.

If you are leery about making such a big investment, you can try hookah smoking at a local hookah lounge. Here in Southern California there are probably a lot more such spots than in some other parts of the country, but you can find hookah bars in almost every part of the country. The one I mentioned at the start of this article was in Hilton Head, SC. I located one, The Village Hookah, in Lake Forest, CA, only a few miles from my home.

hookah-smoking_caterpillarNow that I know a bit more about hookahs, the mystique has disappeared, and I’m really not interested in trying one. I’ll leave it to the hookah smoking caterpillar, while I stick to red wine and dark chocolate.

If It’s Sauce for the Goose, Is it Gravy for the Gander?

Dave AvatarAt the end of the summer between my sophomore and junior years in college, along with seven other 19- and 20-year old, testosterone-overloaded running mates from the Pittsburgh suburb where I grew up, I headed for the Jersey Shore. We piled into two cars and, armed with swim trunks, sandals, a couple of t-shirts, a few hundred dollars, and, most importantly some fake ID so we could buy beer, headed for Ocean City, New Jersey, arriving early on a Saturday afternoon, planning to stay for two weeks, get even darker tans, maybe meet some cute girls, and pretty much have a two week, end-of-Summer party. It was a great plan, and things were looking really good for us when we got the keys to the third-floor apartment we’d rented a few blocks from the beach, and found out that right next door was an extended family from Philadelphia–including a few cute teenage girls–spending the month of August in Ocean City. The trip had a sad ending when, only a week into our stay, after a much-too-noisy party, lubricated by cheap wine and cheaper beer, we were asked by the Ocean City police to “leave their quiet, little town and never return.”

But this isn’t really a story about a crazy summer trip to the Jersey Shore. It’s about “sauce,” more specifically, the tomato-based, red sauce typically associated ocean-city-beach-nj-25with Italian pasta dishes. Unless, that is, you’re from certain parts of New Jersey or Philadelphia, or possibly Long Island, in which case it’s about “gravy.”

You see, the day before that ill-fated party, we were invited to dinner with the girls next door. Their moms cooked up a huge pot full of spaghetti. Spaghetti without a good pasta sauce is nothing more than a plateful of noodles, so, when the crowd settled around the dining room table with mounds of spaghetti heaped on our plates, the male crew from Pittsburgh was confused when one of the girls asked us to pass her the gravy. We all started looking around for a dark brown, thick liquid on the table, since that’s what “gravy” was for us–the beef flavored stuff you poured into the little well you made in the center of a heap of mashed potatoes. Suffice it to say that the confusion ended when she reached across the table for the bowl filled with what to us unknowing Pittsburgh boys was a nice tomato “sauce” with lots of ground meat that was, in fact, the gravy that the Jersey Girl was asking for.

red-sauce-italian-spaghetti-sauce-cravings-of-a-lunatic-3It was almost as if they were speaking a different language. One of us would point at the bowl of red stuff and say “sauce.” The girls would say, “No, it’s gravy.” And “sauce/gravy” wasn’t the only situation where we used different words to label the very same thing. They called carbonated beverages “soda;” to us it was always “pop” [probably a shortened form of “soda pop” another term often used to name any carbonated drink that wasn’t a Coke]. We all had a big laugh over it.

Remembering this story got me to thinking about how we can get tied up in knots over words. How often do we simply assume that other people know exactly what we mean when we say something? But then it turns out that the words or phrases we use mean something very, very different to them, and the outcome isn’t the sort of happy ending in the Gravy vs. Sauce story. It’s almost always the result of a failure to clearly and specifically describe the outcome we desire; instead, taking a shortcut and using an abstraction rather than a specific description. Most of the time we don’t even realize we’re using an abstraction, because it feels so natural, and it’s easy. We ask for a “ham and cheese sandwich,” when the clear picture in our mind is 5 ounces of thinly shaved honey-baked ham and two slices of Swiss cheese served on thinly-sliced pumpernickel rye bread with Dijon mustard on one slice of bread and mayonnaise on the other.

I see it happen all of the time in my consulting work. One example: A client is looking to hire someone who has “intelligence, energy, and integrity,” but is hard pressed to describe, in behavioral terms, exactly what he would be looking for the person to do in carrying out her job responsibilities, then winds up hiring someone who is alert and personable, but finds out three months later that she deals with difficult situations by caving in to unreasonable demands and compromising company policies. Ooops!

obamacare-obamacare-gov-healthcare-snafu-politics-1341038134-1In politics, reliance on abstraction is taken to extremes. Consider how the term “ObamaCare” [a phrase originally coined by its opponents to denigrate  The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, which, along with the Healthcare and Education Reconciliation Act amendment, provided a sweeping overhaul of  the U.S. healthcare regulatory environment ]” is used. Depending on your position on the Conservative/Liberal spectrum, you either praise ObamaCare or condemn it. Yet most of us don’t really have a clear idea of exactly what ObamaCare is or tries to do. Considering that the legislation runs to hundreds of mind-numbing pages of definitions and descriptions, our lack of clear understanding is understandable. But the fact remains that we all too often readily take a strong a position on something that we know about only in a very abstract sense.

I suppose this is simply another example of how our pattern-recognition and pattern-matching skills, especially as applied to abstract descriptions, can be a double-edged sword. They help us swiftly deal with the astounding complexity of life-in-general without reducing us to madness, while at the same time denying us the ability to understand and richly experience the immensely satisfying detail of our lives .

Can We Take Two Minutes?

Dave thumbnailLast Friday I went with some friends to see Maroon 5 perform at the LA Forum. The band played to a packed house, and it was frenetic, lively and LOUD! The band played all of its hits [My favorite Maroon 5 song is “Maps“] and some new songs, going non stop for over an hour before leaving the stage to the cheers of the crowd. We all knew they’d be back for an encore, and after a few minutes out they came. They played a few more songs, one after another, and then the band’s leader, Adam Levine, really surprised me.

He had made his way to the end of a long runway that extended from the center of the stage out into the middle of the audience seated on the floor of the arena, and he stopped the music to talk to the audience. I know I won’t quote this perfectly, but what he said, in effect, was this:

th“Concerts used to be places where the performers and the crowd shared a special, communal experience. Everyone stood, and swayed and danced, and sang along. But look at what’s going on here tonight. Thousands of people holding up cell phones, taking videos of the concert, rather than really feeling and living the concert. So, can you really be with me now, for two minutes. Can you all put your cell phones away, and just be here, tonight, with me, and with the band, and with each other, and share this song. For two minutes.”

I thought it was great that he did that. Now, of course, not everyone put their phones down. Mr. Levine even pointed out a few people who had “paid too much for their front row seats to spoil things by jamming phone on selfie sticks out at the performers.” But the point he was making was clear, at least to me.

khaled-selfie-600x600To really experience life, you have to surrender to your experiences. You have to get into the middle of them, and, if the situation calls for it, sing and dance and wave your hands. How can we truly enjoy life when we are so busy trying to record life that we forget that we are supposed to be living life? We are so busy trying to show  other people where we are, that we aren’t really there as participants, but like distant observers. Why do so many of us make the foolish choice to experience what could be some great moments in our lives through the tiny lenses and small screens of a smartphone instead of opening our senses, taking in the sights, sounds, smells, feels and tastes of the world around us?

1386451323Maybe it’s time to put the smartphones down and smell the roses. Even if it is only for two minutes.


Doing What Comes “Naturally”

Dave AvatarI’m guessing you never heard of  J.J. Cale. When he died this past summer at the age of 74, renowned guitarist Eric Clapton wrote on his Facebook page, “We’ve lost a great artist and a great person.”

From 1971 to 2009,  singer-songwriter J.J. Cale, known as one of the originators of “the Tulsa sound”–a loose amalgam of blues, rock, country and jazz influence–released twenty-one albums, including “Road to Escondido” with Eric Clapton, which won the 2008 Grammy Award for Best Contemporary Blues Album. Cover versions of many of his songs became popular hits: Clapton and many others recorded “After Midnight” and “Cocaine,” The Band recorded “Crazy Mama,” Lynyrd Skynyrd and John Mayer both recorded “Call Me the Breeze.” But Cale, himself, never rose to popular stardom.

J.J. Cale at the Crossroads Music Festival
J.J. Cale at the Crossroads Music Festival

JJ_Cale-Naturally_(album_cover)I read about his passing, and got to remembering the first time I heard Cale’s recording of “After Midnight,” from his first album, “Naturally,” published in 1971. You know how it is when you hear a song, and it seems to replay itself over and over in your head? Something about J.J Cale’s voice, and the lyrical rhythms of the “After Midnight” stuck with me; I couldn’t get it out of my head. I had to go out to the record store [remember them?] and buy a copy of the “Naturally” album.

8-track cassette in auto dashboard
8-track cassette in auto dashboard
Why We Hated Compact Cassettes
Why We Hated Compact Cassettes

Yes, the old vinyl LP album; it was 1971, no compact cassettes yet, no CDs yet, and certainly no iPods! If you wanted to listen to music, you bought the album and played it through your stereo system on a turntable, or you bought the 8-track tape so you could play it in your car.

I enjoyed the whole album, but my favorite songs were “After Midnight” and “Crazy Mama.” Over 40 years later, the vinyl LP is long gone, but I have “Naturally” and “Road to Escondido” in my iTunes Library. Last week, I was reminded again about J.J. Cale’s music when I read an animated Op-Doc by Drew Christie in the NY Times, which explores why  Cale never became a “star” in spite of his awesome talent. You can click here to watch/listen to it. It’s worth three and a half minutes of your time.

And do yourself a favor; check out some of J.J. Cale’s music. It defies categorization, which is what I like about it. But it’s what you’d expect from someone who follows his own sensibility about what his music should be.

Click on the links to watch him on YouTube. I think you’ll like what you hear:

player_play J.J. Cale – After Midnight ( Live 1971)


player_play J.J. Cale – Crazy Mama (Studio original 1971)



 J.J. Cale – Cocaine (Live)


player_play J.J. Cale – Call me the Breeze (with Eric Clapton, Live at the Crossroads Music Festival)




The Making of a Golf Professional

Dave Avatar

Lots of people find themselves in jobs or professions that, admittedly, they don’t like. The work simply doesn’t excite them. Maybe they do it because they feel that their job is where the money is. But it doesn’t have to be that way.  As the noted professor and lecturer Joseph Campbell, wrote:

If you do follow your bliss you put yourself on a kind of track that has been there all the while, waiting for you, and the life that you ought to be living is the one you are living. Follow your bliss and don’t be afraid, and doors will open where you didn’t know they were going to be.

This is a tale of two young men who are “following their bliss.”

Sean Penny

Around his 11th birthday, Sean Penny’s father joined a country club in Colorado, and Sean was introduced to the game of golf. The head pro was “the man,” and according to Sean, “He seemed like a good guy, and it seemed like he made a good living, and I liked how he was involved with everything at the club.” So was born the idea that Sean would grow up to be a professional golfer; not an astronaut, or a cowboy, or a fireman, but a golf pro.  It went from being simply a neat idea to something he seriously considered as a way to make a living after he graduated from the University of Northern Colorado as a Business major. Sean realized he didn’t have any idea what he was going to do with his Business degree, and began throwing some possibilities around with his dad. He’d worked during the summers as a pro shop assistant at a golf course in Colorado, so the idea of a career in golf was resurrected. He found the Professional Golfers’ Career College in Temecula, California, and the next thing you know, he was at the golf school. Sixteen months later he graduated from the golf school, and within a month he found a job as an Assistant Golf Professional at Aliso Viejo Country Club in Aliso Viejo, CA.

Casen Burwell

The 17th Hole at Aliso Viejo CC
The 17th Hole at Aliso Viejo CC

Casen Burwell also found his way to the pro shop at Aliso Viejo CC, but his path was very different. He’d focused on baseball until he was 20 years old, but quit the sport while he was still in school. He got a job as a valet, parking cars at Tustin Ranch Golf Club, simply as a way to get some extra cash in his pocket. He got interested in playing golf because his baseball buddy, MLB power-hitter Mark Trumbo [traded this week by the LA Angels to the Arizona Diamondbacks], started playing golf during the off-season, and Casen picked up the game so he could play along with Trumbo. According to Casen, “The more I got to play  with the guys, the more I fell in love with the game, especially hitting my driver.” It turns out that Casen has a real talent for hitting a golf ball a long way–350 yards or more–and once his golfing buddies helped him learn enough technique to harness his power and hit the ball reasonably straight, he decided to test his skill at a  Long-Drive Competition. He did so well that, for the next four years, he was a regular participant in Long-Drive Competitions, winning several of them. But his love for all aspects of the game, not just crushing the ball out of sight, brought him to Aliso Viejo CC in August, 2009, where he hoped to pursue his dream of becoming a card-carrying PGA Professional.

PGA TourOf course, there’s a huge difference between being a Class-A PGA Professionl and being a PGA Tour player, like Tiger Woods. PGA Tour players have to do one thing, but they have to do it at a world-class level: shoot low scores on very difficult golf courses, and do it day in and day out. Fewer than 400 players have the skill, grit and confidence needed to qualify to play on one of the PGA Tours in any given year. But most of the PGA Tour members, despite their superior golfing ability, wouldn’t qualify to join the over 27,000 Class A PGA Professionals, because most PGA Tour players haven’t studied all of the myriad aspects of managing a golf club, running a staff, dealing with members, giving lessons, fitting and repairing golf clubs, and then demonstrated those skills through testing and practical work experience.

The Apprentices

That’s what Sean and Casen set out to do, when, in January, 2010, they started down the path toward becoming PGA professionals.  Before they could get started, they had to pass the PGA’s Playing Ability Test [“PAT”]. For a highly -skilled player, the test might not seem terribly difficult, but according to the PGA, less than 20% of those taking the test achieve a passing score. (As a reference point, to pass the PAT at Aliso Viejo CC, you’d have to play 36 holes in a single day, from the Blue tees–6,247 yards, Course Rating 70.5–in 156 strokes, an average score of 78 strokes per 18 hole round.) According to Sean, “It’s tough; it’s 36 holes and you have no break,” and Casen adds, “You feel a lot of pressure, because you don’t want to have to come back and tell your friends that you didn’t pass your Playing Ability Test.” Casen had previously taken the PAT in 2007 and didn’t pass the test. Sean and Casen both passed the PAT in 2009. While they weren’t PGA Tour material,  they weren’t going to embarrass themselves or the PGA when they picked up a golf club to play. They were ready to join the PGA Professional Golf Management Program and become registered PGA Apprentices.

PGA ProOver the ensuing three years, Sean and Casen  completed Level 1 and Level 2 of the 3-Level PGM Program. At each level they spent hundreds of hours engrossed in self-study coursework, they collected and thoroughly documented hundreds of hours of relevant work experience, and they passed tests on every aspect of golf management (course work has ranged from Business Planning to Swing Analysis, from the PGA Constitution and the Rules of Golf to Golf Car Fleet Management, and from Turfgrass Management to Customer Relations). As a culminating activity at each level, Sean and Casen attended five-day PGA Apprentice Checkpoints at the PGA Education Center in Port St. Lucie, FL, where they took additional tests, participated in simulation exercises, and attended seminars on subject matter they would be tested on at the next level of the program.

When I interviewed Sean and Casen on December 2, 2013, they were preparing to go to the PGA Education Center in Florida for their Level 3 Checkpoint. By their estimates they’ve invested over 700 hours, worked through more than 2,000 pages of course material, and spent over $12,000 on course materials, program fees and travel costs, not to mention the “lost time” when they weren’t available to work, and had to forego their pay. While in Florida for the Level 3 Checkpoint on December 5th and 6th, they took their final exams on Food & Beverage, Philosophy of Swing Concepts, Merchandising & Inventory, and Supervising & Delegating. They each made a 15-minute presentation to twenty of their peers on a golf-related subject of their choice (Casen gave a presentation on Pace of Play), and had a final “interview” for the golf position they aspire to. As I wrote these words on the evening of December 6th, I expected that the guys were having a drink or two after the Graduation Dinner, celebrating the completion of their apprenticeship and the beginning of their careers as Class A PGA Professionals.

The Golf Pros

Looking to the future, both Sean and Casen  indicated that that the next step in their golf careers, having obtained their Class A cards, is to get further experience for a few years working as Assistant Golf Professionals at Aliso Viejo CC, since they both enjoy living in Southern California. They’ll keep their eyes open for the chance to move on to a Head Golf Professional job, should the opportunity arise. For my own sake, I hope they hang around at Aliso Viejo CC for a while, because Sean is my swing coach, and his lessons have helped me play a much steadier and consistent game of golf. In the meantime, I look forward to raising a toast to Sean and Casen when they return with their new, Class-A PGA Professional credentials. They’ve travelled a long, hard road, and I can’t wait to buy them a celebratory libation.

Sean Penny and Casen Burwell at Aliso Viejo CC
Sean Penny and Casen Burwell at Aliso Viejo CC

Plato and a Platypus Walk into a Bar

Dave AvatarA few years ago, a good friend of mine gave me a copy of a little book, Plato and a Platypus Walk into a Bar, an introduction to philosophical ideas using jokes as a means to make the ideas come to life for the reader. Now, I’ve never considered philosophy to be a particularly amusing subject–in fact, it’s quite the opposite, an exceptionally serious subject. So it’s not surprising that Plato and a Playtpus, written by Thomas Cathcart and  Daniel Klein, is a serious book, in spite of the somewhat lighthearted approach.

I thoroughly enjoyed the book, whipping through the chapters in short order, then putting it on the shelf with some of my other “I’ll-read-this-one-again-someday” books. There it sat for a few years, until I happened upon it last month while I was clearing up six months worth of un-filed clutter and rearranging the storage bins and bookshelves in my office. I picked up the book and started paging through it, looking for the punch line to the joke mentioned in the title.

PlatoandaplatypusMy punchline search took me through all of the nearly 150 jokes and numerous cartoons, that Messrs. Cathcart and Klein use to cover a broad canvas of philosophical topics, ranging from the sublime–a chapter on the Philosophy of Religion–to the [currently] ridiculous [Political Philosophy].

Like me, you’ll have to wait until the very end to get the punchline. The authors tuck the punchline in at the end of the final chapter, as part of a conversation between two characters named Dmitri and Tasso that carries on through the entire book. I suspect that you’ll either love Dmitri and Tasso, or hate them, just as you’ll either love the book or hate it. More than a few of the jokes might be considered lame, but I liked Henny Youngman, so I’m obviously a fan of lame jokes. And I’m in favor of anything that gets me, or anybody else, to think about the way we think about things.

As the Cathcart and Klein write in their Introduction:

plato1“The construction and payoff of jokes and the construction and payoff of philosophical concepts are made out of the same stuff. They tease the mind in the same ways…philosophy and jokes proceed from the same impulse: to confound our sense of the way things are, to flip our worlds upside down, and to ferret out hidden, often uncomfortable, truths about life. What the philosopher calls an insight, the gagster calls a zinger.”

Here’s an illustration of the philosophical concept of Argument from Analogy, which says, essentially, that if two or more outcomes are similar, they must both have a similar cause:

“A ninety-year-old man went to the doctor and said, “Doctor, my eighteen-year-old wife is expecting a baby.”

The doctor said, “Let me tell you a story. A man went hunting, but instead of a gun, he picked up an umbrella by mistake. When a bear suddenly charged at the man, he picked up the umbrella, shot the bear, and killed it.”

The man said, “Impossible. Someone else must have shot the bear.”

The doctor said, “My point, exactly!”

Then there’s this story, from the chapter on Ethics, in a discussion of Plato’s writings on virtue, where the prime virtue is wisdom, defined by Plato as understanding of the Idea of the Good, clearly not an easy concept to get a handle on:

“At a meeting of the college faculty an angel suddenly appears and tells the head of the philosophy department, “I will grant you whichever of three blessings you choose: Wisdom, Beauty or ten million dollars.”

Immediately, the professor chooses Wisdom.

There is a flash of lightning, and the professor appears transformed, but he just sits there, staring down at the table. One of his colleagues whispers, “Say something.”

The professor says, “I should have taken the money.

I also enjoyed this story, in a discussion on situation ethics–often criticized for using an exploration of the specific context of a situation as a rationalization for self-serving action, though in this case it is ignoring the context that provides the opportunity for a self-serving act :

Armed robbers burst into a bank, line up customers and staff against the wall and begin to take their wallets, watches, and jewelry. Two of the bank’s accountants are among those waiting to be robbed. The first accountant suddenly thrusts something in the hand of the other. The second accountant whispers, “What is this?” The first accountant whispers back, “It’s the fifty bucks I owe you.”

lifesciences-platypusFinally, as promised, [Spoiler Alert!] here’s the punchline:

Plato and a platypus walked into a bar. The bartender gave the philosopher a quizzical look, and Plato said, “What can I say? She looked better in the cave.”