I am an American husband. And according to Amy Sutherland, that qualifies. Sutherland, the author of Kicked, Bitten and Scratched, based on her experiences at a school for exotic animal trainers, recently wrote an article for the New York Times entitled What Shamu Taught Me About a Happy Marriage.
My wife just emailed it to me, and it's so hysterically dead-on that I have to quote from it at length. Sutherland writes...
...like many wives before me, I ignored a library of advice books and set about improving [my husband.] By nagging, of course, which only made his behavior worse...
Then something magical happened. For a book I was writing about a school for exotic animal trainers...I spent my days watching students do the seemingly impossible: teaching hyenas to pirouette on command, cougars to offer their paws for a nail clipping, and baboons to skateboard....
Eventually it hit me that the same techniques might work on that stubborn but lovable species, the American husband.
The central lesson I learned from exotic animal trainers is that I should reward behavior I like and ignore behavior I don't. After all, you don't get a sea lion to balance a ball on the end of its nose by nagging. The same goes for the American husband...
After two years of exotic animal training, my marriage is far smoother, my husband much easier to love. I used to take his faults personally; his dirty clothes on the floor were an affront, a symbol of how he didn't care enough about me. But thinking of my husband as an exotic species gave me the distance I needed to consider our differences more objectively.
I adopted the trainers' motto: "It's never the animal's fault." When my training attempts failed, I didn't blame Scott. Rather, I brainstormed new strategies... I dissected my own behavior, considered how my actions might inadvertently fuel his. I also accepted that some behaviors were too entrenched, too instinctive to train away. You can't stop a badger from digging, and you can't stop my husband from losing his wallet and keys.
Professionals talk of animals that understand training so well they eventually use it back on the trainer. My animal did the same. When the training techniques worked so beautifully, I couldn't resist telling my husband what I was up to. He wasn't offended, just amused. As I explained the techniques and terminology, he soaked it up. Far more than I realized...He'd begun to train me, the American wife.
There's an important truth about effective communication wrapped up in Sutherland's piece (which is all the more effective because it's so damn funny.) I definitely have preferred ways of receiving and giving feedback, and even though I try hard in my relationships with friends and colleagues to understand their preferences and act accordingly, I'm a lot more likely to miscommunicate with my wife. It's not for lack of caring or respect, but after 20 years together I assume that I already know her communication preferences and that she knows mine.
But that's not necessarily true, and even if we do know our preferences, here's a news flash: We change! I've changed and she's changed, just a tiny bit, over two decades, and our assumptions about the other haven't always kept pace with reality. Of course, another dynamic at work here is that even when you know how to communicate effectively with someone you care about, you may feel a devilish impulse to do just the opposite. Not that I've ever yielded to that passive-aggressive temptation, but I've heard about it.
We've actually worked pretty hard at communicating more effectively over the past few years, and it's yielded significant results--which isn't to say we don't howl like banshees at each other on occasion. I don't think we've ever framed the process in quite the same way that Sutherland does, but there's definitely been a recognition that despite our many similarities, we're very different in some important ways, and we have to reach across that gap and try to think like the other person on a regular basis.
(The suave looking fellow above is a siamang, my favorite exotic animal at the San Francisco Zoo, although I'm not sure where that one's from.)
If you bought Johnny Cash's American Recordings when it was first released in 1994 a little insert came with your CD--a reproduction of six pages of Cash's handwritten memories of his mother's guitar-playing, learning to play guitar himself, and guitars he'd loved and lost to the rigors of life on the road. As a child of 11 or 12, he was inspired by a friend named Jesse Barnhill...
...who lived three miles farther down the road. Jesse had had polio, and his right hand and foot were withered, but with his left hand he made the chords as he beat a perfect rhythym with his tiny right hand. It was an old Gibson flattop, and I thought, if I could play the guitar like that I'd sing on the radio one day.
The final passage has a lot of resonance for me as someone who's often easily distracted by trivial details and who can be overly concerned with doing things a certain way. (The "right" way, of course.) Not Cash--he's focused on what matters, and he makes his way the right way:
When performing, it doesn't matter the brand, the color or the cost. All that matters is that the guitar and I are one. I have to feel that the sound of [the] instrument comes out of me with the song, from inside, from the gut. And it doesn't matter to me that I only know three or four chords. With the left fingers on the frets, the heel of my right hand hugging the body of the guitar, letting just my right thumb lead and drive the rhythym, sometimes it's magic, and I just believe that when it all comes together it's the right way for me to do it. Like Jesse Barnhill did it. Like Mama did it.
Somehow I think Johnny Cash knew more than four chords, but his larger points hits home for me all the same: Don't worry about the right way to play, just play it your way.
Cash's own style is readily apparent is this performance of "Redemption", a song he wrote for "American Recordings":
Are you consistent, or are you flexible? They're not mutually exclusive qualities, but in certain circumstances I often find myself tending toward one extreme or the other. Optimally, I find a sweet spot--I'm consistent, but not rigid; I'm flexible, but not ambiguous--and I can shift gears when necessary. (I don't hit that mark nearly as often as I'd like.)
Yesterday's San Francisco Chronicle brought this to mind in an unexpected way--John Clark interviewed Peter Farrelly, the co-producer of "The Ringer," a recent film set at the Special Olympics which features a number of actors with mental disabilities:
Q: So the [actors] with disabilities, was it tricky directing them?
A: There were two kinds. There were the kinds who would be meticulous. They would hit their spots and their lines every single time. But that is only three-quarters of acting. A lot of acting is on the day when you're shooting it, trying to make it better. Feeding new lines, trying a different way. Well, these guys couldn't go off it. And then there were the other kids who did it different every single time. They were making up their lines. So they each had a strength. We got a lot of great ad-libs from the second group. They would just kind of wing it. It was making the scene better, and it was pushing the other actors and did give it a reality.
That's a vivid illustration both of the strengths of each approach and of the problems that result when we can't switch from one mode to the other effectively. And it highlights the particular importance of flexibility: consistency will allows me to achieve certain goals, but it's not enough if I hope to exceed them. Consistency is a starting point, a necessary but not sufficient condition. Excellence requires the ability to change, grow, create, respond differently--in a word, flexibility. I'm working on it.
I'm not a Buddhist, but I've learned much from Pema Chödrön, a Buddhist nun who teaches at Gampo Abbey in Nova Scotia, the first Tibetan monastery established in North America for Westerners. Earlier today I turned to "Patience" in Comfortable with Uncertainty, a collection of Chödrön's short teachings compiled and edited by Emily Hillburn Sell.
I spent a good bit of time in traffic this weekend to deliver some important papers that needed to be signed to a swanky hotel south of San Francisco, planning to return to pick them up today. Under different circumstances I would have used a courier service, but for a variety of reasons, that wasn't feasible. The papers were received, signed by the recipient, left at the front desk for me, and promptly lost by the swank hotel. (Sound of teeth grinding.) It's not a disaster--I have copies--but I must begin the process all over again, and the delay will cause some difficulty.
The power of the paramita [a quality leading to enlightenment] of patience is that it is the antidote to anger, a way to learn to love and care for whatever we meet on the path. By patience, we do not mean enduring--grin and bear it. In any situation, instead of reacting suddenly, we could chew it, smell it, look at it, and open ourselves to seeing what's there. The opposite of patience is aggression--the desire to jump and move, to push against our lives, to try to fill up space. The journey of patience involves relaxing, opening to what's happening, experiencing a sense of wonder...
As we train in the paramita of patience, we are first of all patient with ourselves. We learn to relax with the restlessness of our energy--the energy of anger, boredom, and excitement. Patience takes courage. It is not an ideal state of calm. In fact, when we practice patience, we will see our agitation far more clearly.
So I practiced patience. I emailed my colleague: "I'm taking the Buddhist view--I had an amazing fish taco [on my long drive] and took this photo during a stop at Crystal Springs. Papers get lost, life's too short, etc."
And lo and behold, the Minor Deity of Paperwork saw my patience and responded--the swanky hotel just called--"We found them!" I'm happy--found paperwork is better than lost paperwork. But the temporary loss gave me an opportunity to reflect on the blessings of the day, on the initial source of my impatience, on why I found myself in this situation in the first place, and I learned a hell of a lot more than I would have otherwise.
I'm a sucker for Brit noir, and Mike Hodge's Croupier (1998) is an outstanding example of the genre, a tough, compelling flick with solid performances from Clive Owen and ER's Alex Kingston. (I'm not really qualified to say whether Kingston's South African accent is believable, but it's outrageously sexy.)
Owen's Jack Manfred is a struggling writer who trained as a croupier in South Africa's Sun City but grew disgusted with that life and turned his back on it. His girlfriend Marion (Gina McKee, in a sympathetic perfomance) wants him to finish his book, but when his gambler father sets him up with a job at a London casino, he can't resist its dark appeal. It's not the money, although Jack needs it badly, or the nightlife, although that seduces him eventually. It's a darker desire to take out his resentments vicariously, skillfully assisting as people destroy themselves at the gaming tables.
Hodge and writer Paul Mayersburg use Owen's voiceover to great effect, and the movie's philosophy is neatly summarized in a quote from A Farewell to Arms that Jack recalls as he's on the verge of realizing one dream but has another brutally snatched from his grasp:
The world breaks everyone, and afterwards many are strong at the broken places. But those that will not break, it kills. It kills the very good and the very gentle and the very brave impartially. If you are none of these, you can be sure it will kill you too, but there will be no special hurry.
(Spoilers after the jump.)
After years of decline at the hands of Golden Gate Park's feral cat population, the local quail seem to be making a comeback. I have no idea why, but it's heartwarming--they're just so damn cute. (Here's another view.) And I know that Strybing's new name is the San Francisco Botanical Garden, but I'm just old skool that way.
Crystal Springs Reservoir is about 20 miles south of San Francisco, a bucolic gem right in the heart of the Bay Area. Although the 23,000 acre watershed operated by the S.F. Water Department and Public Utilities Commission contains miles and miles of trails that remain off-limits to the public (an outrage that the S.F. Chronicle's Tom Stienstra has covered on a regular basis), you can access the Sawyer Camp Trail at its southern terminus near the middle of the reservoir, just north of Hwy. 92. (Apparently it runs all the way up to San Bruno, but we just took a brief stroll today.) If you squint at the lower left corner of the pic above, you can see a faint telephone pole.
It's a strange, lonely thing, long since stripped of any wires it once carried. I love relics like this, artifacts of the Bay Area's historical transition from outpost to demi-metropolis. You see it in rundown fences and isolated posts on mountaintops, you see it enshrined in monuments, you see it everywhere once you start to look for it.
I was a Chuck Taylor devotee for many years, from high school to college to art school back to college, before finally giving them up at some point in my mid-20s. Today's Wall Street Journal has an article by Stephanie Kang on Nike's efforts to extend the brand beyond its traditional image to appeal to more fashionable tastes. (Nike acquired Converse in 2003.) Kang dutifully finds a grumpy old skooler who keeps it real by dumping on the new models: "What's happening is that Converse has now gotten greedy... That's why these are not as cool." Whatever. The guy probably thought Converse was selling out when they unveiled the fantastically fugly day-glo orange model that I loved so dearly back in 1987.
The upmarket, fashion-forward Chucks being rolled out now won't be a huge success, but they're not intended to be--their purpose is to generate publicity (like right now) around the fact that Chucks don't just come in the six basic flavors (black, navy, white, "optical" white, red and all-black), but in 471 varieties. (See for yourself at Converse's Flash-infested abomination of a site.)
And despite the grumbling of Kang's man in the street, I think that's wonderful. Let a thousand sneakers bloom. But our old skooler seems hopelessly entangled in the faux-utilitarian iconography that Chucks used to stand for. As Kang writes,
[E]ven as Converse lost favor with pro players, it stumbled on a new fan base to court: Rockers Joey Ramone and Kurt Cobain were among the first slacker heroes to wear Chucks, influencing the footwear of millions of anticorporate rebels for years to come.
Let's ignore Kang's slightly slippery grasp on punk and pop-culture history and stipulate to the point she's trying to make: Chucks used to be cheap gear for proles, or rich rockstars who wanted to maintain a prole image, or anyone who was keepin' it real. So how will Nike navigate these challenging waters?
The suits are following the script--"It's such an iconic shoe that we're trying not to overextend it," coos Nike CEO Mark Parker--but that hardly seems necessary. If you're really an anticorporate rebel today, you're not buying Chucks--you're buying fair-trade, no-marketing sneaks made from organic hemp and recycled rubber. And if you think your Chucks are making a statement against the Man, you're delusional. (Although perhaps the delusional market segment is a big concern for Nike, I don't know.)
There's a larger story to be told here about 1) the end of authenticity (or more accurately, the end of perceived, manufactured and marketed "authenticity"), 2) the resulting decoupling of phony and ineffectual connections between the personal and the political, and 3) the individual's liberation from the herd--not just within the mainstream, but (and especially) within smaller, often politicized sub-cultures. Whew--but that's a whole more than I have time for today.