What’s it all about Alfie?

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I never paid much attention to the lyrics of this song past the second line, but find myself on not infrequent occasions muttering or humming the tune’s first lines. If you need a refresher…here’s how it starts:

What’s it all about, Alfie?
Is it just for the moment we live?
What’s it all about when you sort it out, Alfie?
Are we meant to take more than we give…

There are those among us who have a difficult time giving ourselves permission to become completely absorbed in the day to day trivialities of life. You know who you are. You’re the ones who when you leave work, joining the throngs of people in mass exit heading home towards parking lots or public transit, wonder if it isn’t reminiscent of the ants we marvel at in summer, all marching along in concert to support the colony.

You are the ones who have conversations with yourself, while trying to convince a colleague, group or client of the value of a particular course of action and the long and short term beneficial consequences.

You are the one who, while walking down the street curiously observing your fellow man, queries yourself if you are indeed the only one thinking about, “what its all about,”– for you are sure everyone seems quite absorbed in the task of getting somewhere, going somewhere, doing something, none of which  include being perplexed about their state of being.

Do you sometimes think, in 50 years most of the people I’m looking at will not be on this planet and wonder if this thought has occurred to them? I do, with more regularity than I’d like to admit, and in those moments, this e e cummings’ quote comes to mind:

little man
(in a hurry
full of an
important worry)
halt stop forget relax

wait

How apropos is it then, that as I write, this ad appears in my inbox, imploring me to get the “big picture” into my life. I chuckle. For some the “big picture” refers to a  large screen TV, nothing more, nothing less.

big picture2So today, I leave you with this: try a little Socratic scrutiny in your life. What’s your deal?  How do you see “the big picture?”  If it is true that “the unexamined life is not worth living,” and I do believe that is the case, then consider  periodically pressing your personal pause button.  Purvey the landscape of your life, the people in it that you value, the values that you espouse and consider whether they are all in sync.

If after reading this you happen to pass me on the street, no need to say hello, just nod. I’ll get it. Despite all the warnings my kids give me about not making eye contact with strangers, I’m likely to return the nod with a deeply satisfying, but polite and appropriately reserved smile.    So, go ahead, make my day.

On the Eve of New Year’s Eve: This Year’s Resolution

12-30-2013 11-25-40 AMThis is the time of year, when for a a few short days, sometimes weeks, “time,”  philosophically speaking, assumes its rightful place in peoples’ lives.  In a  Dickensian sort of way, we are  aware of present, past and future, if only briefly.  As the calendar runs up to January 1st,  many will reconnoiter and with uncustomary resoluteness, propose a change or action that should occur in the year ahead to improve the quality of their lot.

As we get older and with the passage of time,   the New Year Resolutions begin to overlap with Bucket Lists.   There are nuanced differences between the two, even as they begin to merge. Whereas the New Year’s Resolution is supposed to connote positive change or direction and thusly generate action, the Bucket List involves recognition that the window for wishing and hoping is narrowing. The Bucket List  generates action–in a “speak now or forever (no metaphor intended) hold your peace” sort of way.

paraprosdokianYou will not be surprised to learn that America’s number one New Year’s resolution this year is to “lose weight.”  I think for many of us, weight loss is  a perennially welcome guest. But, for some, and I am among them, the time has arrived when it does not top either the Bucket or New Year’s Resolution list.  As I write, I am reminded of a Erma Bombeck quote and book title, written  when she looked back on her life and, referring to her own tug of war with weight, if given a mulligan-life option she might have elected for “Less cottage cheese and more ice cream.”

While verifying the sourcing of that quote,   I came across a word I had never before encountered:  paraprosdokian. Its has classical roots, but not classical origins and apparently it hasn’t yet appeared in the Oxford English Dictionary. No matter, I like it and what it stands for:

“A paraprosdokian is a figure of speech in which the latter part of a sentence or phrase is surprising or unexpected in a way that causes the reader or listener to re-frame or re-interpret the first part of the sentence. It is frequently used for humorous or dramatic effect. For this reason, it is extremely popular among comedians and satirists.”

Apparently Winston Churchill was adept at it: “You can always count on the Americans to do the right thing — after they have tried everything else.” Here are a few other examples:

  • War does not determine who is right – only who is left.
  • To steal ideas from one person is plagiarism. To steal from many is research.
  • Why do Americans choose from just two people to run for president and 50 for Miss America?
  • If the enemy is in range, so are you.

Google the term and you can read and enjoy dozens of examples of paraprosdokian phrases.  But, beware, while they are delightful to read, they are harder to create than one might imagine. Inspired by the new addition to my vocabulary, on this eve of New Year’s eve, I am inclined to view life metaphorically through the paraprosdokian lens.  To do this, you merely substitute the word “my life” for “sentence.” The definition, rewritten, looks like this:

“A paraprosdokian is an approach to life  in which the latter part of one’s life  is surprising or unexpected in a way that causes a person to re-frame or re-interpret the first part of one’s life.”

You’ve heard of 12 steps? This involves 3.

Step 1: The First Part
Everything until now falls neatly into the category of the expected–a life I’ve grown accustomed to living, a persona I’ve come to know well, a past I’m certain I recognize.

Step 2: The Surprise
Resolve to  create for myself a context that makes room for the surprising and unexpected, so much so, that it…

Step 3: The re-frame
…causes me to take a second look at life up to today, seeing it in a new and different way–paving the way for the future to change the past without changing the past, just changing how it looks to me in retrospect.

I had a wonderful aunt who often said, “if you can’t change something, change the way you look at it.” A paraprosdokian approach to life does that for you. Making room for the unexpected and surprises in one’s life, will at the very least oblige you cast off  the morsels of intractability that sometimes creep in as we mature.

And so, 2014’s  New Year’s Resolution might look like this: Resolving to  make room for being surprised with the unexpected in 2014 in a way that casts the past in a new light, provides continued purpose going forward and rewards me with the kind of unpredicted delight one feels when a good comedian leads you down the path that ends with a chuckle, or better yet, a belly laugh.  Yes, more belly laughs in 2014.

No presents please.

no-gift-imageMy grandparents reached a stage in their later years when they often said at Christmas or on birthdays: “Don’t buy us anything.” They didn’t offer more. They didn’t suggest substitutes nor did they feel the need to explain. Being on the giving end of that mandate was unpleasant. Giving them gifts made us feel good. Their not wanting gifts was discouraging, to say the least. What we didn’t comprehend was that we were gift enough…our accomplishments and our companionship. I finally get it. They derived pleasure, as I am beginning to, from our just (to borrow a phrase from Jerzy Kosinski) “Being There.”  Being There is the gift I want from those close to me and Being Here in the moment is the gift I give to myself.

The journey to this place was pretzel like–it was a journey that truly is only recognizable in retrospect, that is “through the rear view mirror.” It is a state of mind that you can achieve, but cannot map. You can only hope to land at this spot, but planning the journey in a way that guarantees you will, well that’s something else. Not much different from the measure of the parameters of obscenity, in the words of Supreme Court Justice Potter,  I can only offer that while I can’t explain how one gets to this place “I know it when I see it.”

That’s about as lofty as things will get here today. For, having arrived at this state of mind that does not require my fighting traffic, pushing my way through crowds in stores at any hour of the day or night, no matter the enticement or otherwise being in “go” mode, the following is a list of things and holiday messages that I’m finding particularly irksome–and in some instances, downright problematic this week:

Hollywood Messaging:
1) Being committed to work and high caliber performance (male or female) must necessarily involve short changing family–and if you don’t have a family, your work is a likely culprit. 2) Life in New England or other backwoods country locale (=good) is preferred  to life in New York or other urban area (= bad). 3) Hard working type A’s probably don’t believe in Santa Claus and are, no surprise, often found on the naughty list. Additional faulty personal traits that tag along  include lacking true Christmas spirit and understanding what, in Charlie Brown’s words, “Christmas is all about.” This list could actually benefit from an entire blog, but you get the gist.

Commercial Enterprises Changing Roman Calendar:
Friday, Saturday, Sunday–the names of the week date back hundreds of years. Sure, there’s a favorite I have of “Over the hump Wednesday”–but that’s a prepositional phrase–falling far short of the current trend towards adding  adjectival descriptives to the days of the week that in effect become  name changers.

The Friday after Thanksgiving is no longer,  as in “Do you have to work on the day after Thanksgiving?”  but is now:  Black Friday. What was for some a welcome day off from work, generating one of the only fourdayweekends in American working life, has been transformed into a day when everyone bears a piece of the responsibility for turning the economy around, signalling recovery and the harbinger of hope for the year ahead. Opt out of being part of that message at your peril for being labeled downright unpatriotic.

If you thought that skipping Friday was a simple way of avoiding falling into that commercial trap, special thanks to American Express for naming Saturday “Small Business Saturday.”  Just when you patted yourself on the back for staying away from the big box stores on Black Friday, your guilt can only now be assuaged by visiting the mom and pop stores and “shopping small.” You don’t want to be seen as a Scrooge, do you?  Lastly, lest you believe you have outsmarted every effort to draw you into the shopping melee, on Cyber Monday when you return to work your inbox and every website you visit will bombard you with promises of the bestprices, steepestdiscounts, todayonly lastchances to shop for those special people on your list.

In what world that you or I may have ever conceived would spending the weekend listening to music, reading and writing be viewed as excessively sedentary downright unpatriotic pursuits? In what world could reading about the comet that managed to escape capture by the sun or contemplating from my window the lone swan who swimming  back and forth without his/her now missing spouse not hold  a candle  to running around saving the economy through endless shopping?  In what world could reminding your fingers and brain that you once played Rachmaninoff’s Prelude and can again, ever be mentioned in the same breath as an admonition that includes the words”staying home and sitting around?”

Something is amiss.

For a long time now I have enjoyed these lines by notsofamous poet, Hugh Prather from his book “Notes To Myself”:

“Ideas are clean. They soar in the serene supernal. I can take them out and look at them, they fit in books, they lead me down that narrow way. And in the morning they are there. Ideas are straight. But the world is round, and a messy mortal is my friend. Come walk with me in the mud.”

And by that, I don’t mean let’s head out to the mall and check out the sales.

Innovation tempered by Empiricism: Life atop the elephant teetering on the back of a tortoise

elephant on tortoise“There is no comparison between that which is lost by not succeeding and that which is lost by not trying.”

That particular quote didn’t grab my attention in college philosophy studies, but sneaked up on me  in the dialogue of an about-to-have-his-contract-cancelled Santa in a syrupy Hallmark made for TV Christmas movie.  Confronted by his side kick elf-pal, filled with doubt about their ability to pass the test that will seal the fate of  Santa’s role in Christmas, “Santa” in the persona of a prep school janitor utters the words: “There is no comparison between that which is lost by not succeeding and that which is lost by not trying.”

All the  merry ho ho ho deck the halls spirit in the world didn’t delude me into believing that some Hollywood writer, who likely never celebrated Christmas,  was responsible for the genius of that thought. A quick google proved me correct: Sir Francis Bacon, Statesman and Philosopher (1561-1626).

Which leads us here:  There is a substantial body of really astute observations about life that precede your and my arrival on the planet. Why then, apart from finding them in Wikipedia and brainy quotes (and Hallmark Christmas movies), are we determined to ignore the import of age-old thought, paying no attention, or rather making no room for, ancient wisdom in our time?  If these observations have managed to weather  the last several hundred years—something tells me they have earned the honor of being elevated into present day conversation, all the time and at every level.  Don’t want to engage in arms talks? Take some advice from Francis Bacon: Fail trying.  Think peace in the Middle East is impossible to achieve? Try Ben Franklin:  “There never was a good war or a bad peace.” (Sometimes beauty lies in the simplicity of it all.)

This week Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address was in the news. The Harrisburg’s Patriot and Union newspaper issued an apology for an editorial written in 1863 that said of  President Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address:

“We pass over the silly remarks of the President. For the credit of the nation we are willing that the veil of oblivion shall be dropped over them and that they shall be no more repeated or thought of.”

The fact that the author ended the blast with a preposition should have been a big clue that what preceded was hogwash. Alas, last week, some 150 years later, the paper issued an apology, saying:

Seven score and ten years ago, the forefathers of this media institution brought forth to its audience a judgment so flawed, so tainted by hubris, so lacking in the perspective history would bring, that it cannot remain unaddressed in our archives

Relevant to our discussion here is the fact that seldom discussed about Abraham Lincoln’s now famous address is that it recognized something about human nature which was true then and now, when he said, “The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here.”

Though he erred in thinking  his words would be soon forgotten, Lincoln recognized that the nature of the human condition was its preoccupation with all things present. He was wrong about how history would treat that particular speech, but his insight into human nature was spot-on.

Fast forward. (An expression that itself promises to have a very short shelf-life). The buzz-word-of-the-day is:  “innovation.” Pick a topic, technology, industry and philanthropy—everyone wants to see and hear how what you do, what you’ve made, how your proposals and projects are innovative, new and cutting edge. Everyone is reaching out for that latest newest idea—for the next “tried and succeeded” story…which takes us back to the unlikely source of the quote which started this piece:

“There is no comparison between that which is lost by not succeeding and that which is lost by not trying.”

Bacon recognized the value of innovation—and the honorable distinction between  having tried and lost, versus not having tried at all.  So it might be said without too much of a stretch, that the challenge to innovate is Baconian inspired.  But Bacon was an empiricist and if asked, I bet he’d have agreed with the sentiments expressed by Lincoln in his Gettysburg Address.  If  “trying”  were to succeed to any degree, it needed to be informed by the successes, failures, trials, errors, bravery, sacrifices and wisdom of the past.  Make no doubt about it, I am on that innovation bandwagon and am securely buckled in my seat. But like Bacon and others, I don’t flatter myself with the thought that anything I do, innovative or not, cannot be improved by respect for and deference to those who tried, failed and succeeded before me.

If life on earth be Hume’s elephant upon which we sit, teetering on the back of one or more tortoises, then I will want to be mindful of all the tortoises upon whom the success of this elephant’s journey depends.

The Third Metric

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This week, came to my inbox, courtesy of LinkedIn,  a headline from Huffington Post—“Are you living your eulogy or your resume?”  The answer for me is easy, the eulogy, but dread is not far behind—what if that’s the wrong answer?  I’m not quite sure what living your resume means, but I am quite sure I understand the former—living a life that you hope to be proud of, a source of inspiration to your children,  a life with meaning and impact in the making a difference arena.  I know it sounds morbid, but I hope many people will remember me, will say that I made a difference in their or someone’s world…that my time on the planet was not misspent or, worse yet, ill spent.

So imagine my joy when, voila, I got the right answer—living the Eulogy.  But imagine my consternation when I find out that a) someone has come up with a name for what I hold dear: “Third Metric,”  b) its mathematical (how could you spoil something so lofty with math) and c) the idea, while worthy, seems to be the subject of a new campaign of Huffington’s Post to redefine the meaning  of success.

You will recall that in my first blog post I wrote of my consternation over life in a world where few seemed cognizant, aware or even remotely concerned with “the bigger questions.”  The big questions, you see, inevitably lead you to the leading the Eulogy life ethic…or as Huffington calls it, the third metric.

Well before I let you know how it works, here’s why philosophers make good lawyers: Both have a love affair with asking questions. I remember well asking way past my quota as a student making me the thorn in the side of many a teacher.  Give me an example you say?  OK, I’m in first grade. Big news is earthquakes in South America.  We are doing “journal entries” for a class assignment. President Eisenhower is on the news extending his heartfelt sympathies to the quake victim families . I think that’s worth putting into my daily journal.  But, how to spell Eisenhower?  I ask my teacher. Who quips back:  “What in the world does a first grader need to know how to spell Eisenhower for?”  (I’m sure she ended the sentence with a preposition). I explain about the earthquakes and the journal entry. She makes a very unkind face, spells it and gives me a disdainful look every time I raise my hand going forward.  Thus began my miserable experience with elementary education, about which I will someday write.

So, the Third Metric—my version of it goes like this: You ask a few key questions: What are we doing here? Why are we so special?  Haven’t we learned anything from the Egyptians, the Greeks and the Romans? If not, why not?  Why do we work a five day week, i.e., is there a race, the largest most profitable economy when we reach the end of the “game” wins?  From a long game perspective, who gets remembered, and why?  Does the short term matter at all? And, in a nod to my Italian heritage, why is everyone in such a hurry?  Do the Roman ruins tell us nothing about the grandeur of the present, soon to be past?

Ask these and other related questions and you come down to this: What matters?   I disagree with Huffington about what Steve Jobs will be remembered for (she thinks not the iPhone or iPad). Whenever I  wash with a really nice cotton towel, I do think occasionally about Eli Whitney and what his cotton gin did for us. And then there’s John Adams, who had such insight and intelligence shaping life as we know it—and I suspect he won’t be remembered in 100 years hence, except in the hearts of school children memorizing the names of the U.S. presidents in order. Now, that’s a shame.  But the stout smart lawyer who sometimes took on unpopular causes and did a damn good job, will not fade into complete oblivion. He mastered the Third Metric, I think.

Now Huffington disparagingly suggests that no one wants to be remembered for answering all of their emails and promptly.  I beg to differ. I’d like to be remembered for that and for being willing to work long hours for little pay because all those things say I gave it my all. To coin a cliché, I treated my life like opening night, no dress rehearsal for me.  And, with a little more research into Huffington’s Third Metric, I see that she and others (notably a psychologist named Perlman) have hijacked the concept into the women’s empowerment movement. Shame.  It’s not a woman issue. It’s a people issue. A humankind issue.  If you contort this uniquely human complexity into a woman issue, the concept will be dead in the water.

So while I leave you with these thoughts and your own eulogy vs. resume or Huffington’s “third metric” analysis, I will go try to find out just why on earth she had to give something so significant a mathematical name (which is bound to alienate some of even the brightest minds) and whether the math angle is just a ploy to get on the quantitative bandwagon that is so popular these days–culling more data to generate numbers that tell us more about ourselves than we care to know.