On Vacation I

From August 30, 2006:

I was two sentences into Sunday’s edition of Life in Alaska. The Mrs., ever attentive, asked what I was going to write about.

“Well,” I said, “This is a pivotal weekend. We now have enough wood that I’m pretty sure that we can get through the winter on our supply.”

The Mrs.: “You’re going to write about wood, again? John, that’s a bit nuts. I know you’re obsessed, but perhaps that’s the reason that your website dropped 0.02% behind google.com last week as the most popular website ever. Perhaps people are just sick and tired of reading about wood.”

I pondered this. I thought, perhaps, just perhaps, that The Mrs. was right, and I was turning into Bubba from Forrest Gump. She generally is. You remember Bubba, right? Here’s my version:

“You’ve got birch saplings, fresh cut birch, cured birch, split birch…“

Instead of writing about wood again, perhaps I could give a bit of insight into the psyche of the average Alaskan, edify and delineate the juxtaposing paradoxes that are Alaska.

“You’ve got birch stump, birch branches, aspen wood, blocked aspen, green aspen…”

It almost spawned a fistfight, and now my neighbors have taken up positions around the cabin making sure that I never leave again, at least until the riots in downtown Fairbanks finish up. They think that they’ve got me surrounded and cut off from outside contact. I fooled them. I’ve got wireless Internet.

“You’ve got spruce boughs, knotty spruce, dry spruce, black spruce…”

So, I sit here, and realize that yes, as usual The Mrs. is right. Perhaps I should write about something other than wood. It does make me a bit one-dimensional.

“You’ve got spruce branches, spruce needles, pine cones…”

Yes, letting the Fairbanks riots of ’06 calm down is probably the best course. Perhaps I could write next week about wood something else. Maybe I’ll even have a fun adventure to write up. That would (wood?) be nice.

“You’ve got gas chainsaws, electric chainsaws, log milling machines…”

As The Mrs. says, “Quit being so darn obsessed with the wood.”

“And that’s… that’s all I know about wood.”

Gratitude and Stoics . . . Again

“We paid him in gratitude and life lessons.” – Psych

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There are a few Christmas mornings where you will exceed anything your children could have expected.  Sadly, Pugsley wanted an orbital space laser platform to terrorize continents and set him up as God Emperor, but only got Mario Kart®.

“All you need are these: certainty of judgment in the present moment; action for the common good in the present moment; and an attitude of gratitude in the present moment for anything that comes your way.” — Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 9.6, via the Daily Stoic (LINK)

Where is our attitude as we walk through a day?

While I was living in Alaska, I was stopped at the local Safeway®.  The Mrs. had asked me to pick up some child wax and I had to make a left turn in order to go back home.

I was behind a minivan.  The mother turned back several times, yelling at the children.  It took her (I checked my watch) 35 seconds to finally pay attention to the road and make the left turn.  I know, because I timed her.  I was getting ready to honk my horn when I realized – why be upset?  Why honk your horn over something so small?

Imagine how grateful I was when, after following this woman for 8 miles, like a stalker on parole, that I found out she was my next-door neighbor.  Yikes!

I’m adopted.  I’m grateful that I ended up with a family that didn’t want to strangle me.  At least didn’t want to strangle me too often.  I remember learning at the wise age of five that oil was valuable.  So I took all the motor oil in the garage and put it in jars.  Perhaps to sell it.

Or when I was in fourth grade, that I drew a picture of a spaceship so well that my classmate John accused me of tracing it.  I was grateful for that final bit of artistic excellence, since it went downhill from there.

I was grateful that my 7th grade English teacher hadn’t read “The Forever War” by Joe Haldeman, since that was where that story I wrote (re-imagined, in current Hollywood terms, or plagiarized in normal speak) came from.

I’m grateful for finding The Mrs., since otherwise she would have broken some poor stick-boy.

Of course, I’m grateful for all of the kids, each in their own way.

I’m grateful for little scissors that I can use to trim my nose hair and ear hair.  I’m not especially grateful for the nose or ear hair.

I’m grateful for Maria Conchito Alonso’s role in The Running Man.  And I’m grateful she isn’t in anything else.

I’m grateful for the antibiotics that ended the pneumonia that otherwise would have ended me.

I’m grateful for my friends, who I call and burden with my lame, first world complaints.

Oh, and I’m grateful for Predator 2, even though Danny Glover is a nutcase in real life.  Oh, wait, that had Maria Conchito Alonso in it, too?  Okay, she can be in two movies.  But only two.

I’ve done an assessment of my life from time to time, and found that, of all the billions of people on the planet, I’m among the most fortunate.  And I’m grateful.

But sometimes I forget to be grateful.  And every time I do, what fills me instead?  Anger.  Envy.  Pride.  Despair.

And, let’s be real since it’s just you and me.  Sometimes you want to be good and angry at the idiot clerk at McDonalds that has none of the advantages you have.  Sometimes you want to be filled with pride because you won an internet slap-fight with an unarmed man.  And . . . sometimes you want to just give up.

The solution has been gratitude for me.  Go outside on a December night.  Take and hold a deep breath.  Enjoy the feeling of cold as it gives you goosebumps as you look up at the stars on a December morning, and realize you’re the only one seeing what you’re seeing in the frozen air.  Let your eyes adjust, and stare deeply into the stars, and understand:

You can be grateful because it’s good for you, because it makes you feel better.  Or you can be grateful because you should be.  Each of us is improbable – each moment we live on this planet a gift.  So, act like it.

And don’t forget to wax and polish your children daily!!

Surviving Stress, Still Proudly Caffeinated

“I’ll only work with the barely competent.  Takes the stress out of slacking off.” – That’ 70’s Show

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Sure, it looks placid – but two minutes after I took this picture the building inspector and OSHA showed up and shut the job down.  No hard hats, no safety glasses, and the building wasn’t even to code.  The foundation didn’t have properly spaced rebar – heck, the foundation was just FROSTING!  The Boy and Pugsley will be out on bail soon.

I can recall only a few holiday (Thanksgiving and Christmas) seasons where I felt a lot of stress.  Anticipation?  Sure.  I wanted the G.I. Joe® Mobile-Adventure® Action© Playset™, but I also sensed that the holidays, especially Christmas, was really about more than just toys and presents.  It was also about food.  And time off from school.  And . . .   Okay, okay, and it was also about family.

With one or two exceptions during my life, I have been pretty stress-free at the holidays.  Now even most of that anticipation is gone:  if I get to see everyone, great!  If not?  No problem.  If I get a great present?  Great!  If I don’t get a single present?  No problem.  If they really like the present I got them?  Awesome.  If not?  Meh.  I’m not going to lose a bit of sleep over it.

But a lot of people aren’t like me:  Thanksgiving and Christmas cause them immense, negative stress.  Stress is horrible, and it is (unfortunately) a gift we often give ourselves.  Don’t get me wrong – there are good stresses:  anticipation, competition, challenges.  These, overall make us healthier, so we’re talking about bad stress.

Certainly there are aspects of life (and stress) that we cannot control ourselves.  I agree – there are things that are visited upon us through life events that are pretty difficult.  Family death?  Job loss? Family (or personal) chronic illness or chronic pain?  Yeah, it’s hard for me to jump out and say, suck it up, buttercup – all is well, because sometimes that stressor is deep and may profoundly impact you – forever.

And stress can kill you – literally.  Bad stress leads to (and this is a short list, there are many more items that could fit):

  • Depression – not the economic one, the personal one. This can be devastating.
  • Heart Disease – which is the number one cause of life insurance payouts.
  • Weight Gain – which everyone wants, right?
  • Chronic Inflammation – which goes through and impacts multiple body systems, including your immune system.
  • Subscribing to Magazines About Knitting – Don’t ask me why.

But stress can be controlled.  When?

When you don’t care.

Or, rather, don’t have a set of expectations of the way that you think the world should be.  For a large number of situations, our stress is self-imposed.  Your football team isn’t winning?  The waitress messed up your order?  The person in line at the store was rude?  These are really small matters, and why would you be upset about them?  Chances are slim you’ll even remember them tomorrow, never mind next month or next year.  If it isn’t a big deal, I give you the permission to just not care.

But . . . what if work not going well because the boss hates you – and hates you for no good reason?  You’ll remember that.

This really happened to The Mrs.:  She was hired for a job while her manager was on maternity leave.  The first time she met her manager was three months after The Mrs. started.  Her manager immediately hated her.  Why?  Her manager didn’t like the person that hired The Mrs.  The Mrs. lasted only about three more months at that job – she quit – and had stress every day.  Another stressor for The Mrs. was that there just wasn’t much to do at the job – it’s one thing to be busy and have to deal with office politics – it’s quite another when most of the day is filled with . . . nothing.  Her job, for her, had no meaning.

Yes, it’s hard not to care (or have low expectations) if your boss hates you and your job has no meaning.  It’s even harder to deal with this if you’re not fortunate, like The Mrs., and have the ability to quit your job.  But you can decide not to care if you must have the job, because you choose to find your meaning elsewhere, though given the circumstances above, you should probably be floating your résumé.

Let me give an example:  Victor Frankl was an inmate in a WWII German concentration camp.  Pretty awful place.  And he saw that everything, absolutely everything could be taken from him.  Even his life.  Except . . . Frankl saw that the one thing that couldn’t be taken from him was the way that he felt.  His attitude belonged only to him.

From his book, Man’s Search for Meaning:

“The pessimist resembles a man who observes with fear and sadness that his wall calendar, from which he daily tears a sheet, grows thinner with each passing day.  On the other hand, the person who attacks the problems of life actively is like a man who removes each successive leaf from his calendar and files it neatly and carefully away with its predecessors, after first having jotted down a few diary notes on the back.  He can reflect with pride and joy on all the richness set down in these notes, on all the life he has already lived to the fullest.  What will it matter to him if he notices that he is growing old?  Has he any reason to envy the young people whom he sees, or wax nostalgic over his own lost youth?  What reasons has he to envy a young person?  For the possibilities that a young person has, the future which is in store for him?

“No, thank you,’ he will think.  ‘Instead of possibilities, I have realities in my past, not only the reality of work done and of love loved, but of sufferings bravely suffered.  These sufferings are even the things of which I am most proud, although these are things which cannot inspire envy.”

If you ever want to feel small, just remember those are the words of a man who lived for years in one of the most difficult environments we know of, and came out filled with hope.

So, from Frankl, meaning is key.  You have to have your own reason for doing what you’re doing.  If you have a reason, you can endure anything.  Amateurs try to treat the wrong thing when they try to give you advice on how to beat stress.  Here are examples of really bad advice:

  • Too Much Caffeine – Caffeine doesn’t cause stress. And coffee is awesome.
  • Not Enough Exercise – I like to exercise, but lack of exercise doesn’t cause stress.
  • Not Enough Sleep – I like to sleep, but lack of sleep doesn’t cause stress.
  • Not Keeping a Stress Diary – Now they’re not even trying.

As you can see, these are bad ideas – they look only at attacking symptoms, and not the underlying problem.  Rule 1:  Ignore stuff that’s not important.  Rule 2:  Have meaning and or a purpose.

Everything else is details.

Scott Adams’ Rules for Finances, A Tiny Bit of Nietzsche

“Nice fish, Ken. You know what Nietzsche said about animals? They were God’s second blunder.” – A Fish Called Wanda

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Kids are very expensive, much more so than the tax deduction you get for them.  But I’m hoping mine pay back in dividends if I ever need a kidney or four.  Don’t think of them as your offspring, think of them as living replacement organ storage.

As most of you know, I’m a big fan not only of Dilbert® (LINK), but also of Scott Adams (LINK).  I think that he is the second most perceptive person in our country today.  Second most.  Ahem.

Back over a decade ago in 2003, he wrote about his financial advice for, well, everyone.  He thought that life was pretty simple, and the rules to not screwing up were likewise simple.  And, in general he followed his own advice.  His list is in bold.  My comments follow without the bold.

 

  1. Make a will. I haven’t done this.  I understand that it would solve a lot of problems if I died, but I won’t be around to watch.  Unless I become a WilderGhost®.  And then I could haunt them as they bickered over who got my circa 1995 mechanical pencil.  This is just asking me to take time out of my day and money out of my pocket now so people won’t have bicker in the future.  Well, they’re gonna bicker regardless.
  2. Pay off your credit cards. January 15, 2001.  That day I paid off my credit cards.  For good.  The reason I had the balances in the first place was to pay for a divorce, which was quite expensive.  Divorces are expensive because they’re worth it.  I kid.  But not really.  Credit card interest rates are high, really high.  Whatever it takes to pay off your credit card debt (outside of an overly complicated heist involving George Clooney and a group of tanned Hollywood sex criminals actors and a French goat) it’s worth it.
  3. Get term life insurance if you have a family to support. I’ve always had this, but as I get older the amounts are less – The Boy and Pugsley have less time at home every year, and The Mrs. is getting older, so will have a day less of need for cash . . . each day.  Again, Mr. Adams is asking me to fork over cash for things that only are beneficial after I’m dead.  Not a great sales pitch.
  4. Fund your 401k to the maximum.   It’s now in a comfortable, identified place for the government to eventually raid so they can buy fighter jets, healthcare for people without jobs, and PEZ® for Albanian albinos with alopecia.  You’re welcome.  I guess I don’t need heat after I retire.
  5. Fund your IRA to the maximum. I’ve never had an IRA.  Again, time off from work to go set one up.  And I’m confused as to what I would do with an Irish Army anyway.
  6. Buy a house if you want to live in a house and can afford it. Nice, simple language.  I’ve owned five houses (on the fifth now) and I think that they’re net neutral as far as investments (I came out well because I negotiated a clause in my offer for my last job.  Without that, I’d only be up $10,000.  But I’m not really up $10,000, since I’ve had to pay much more than that in upkeep over the years.  I don’t expect to make money on my current house when I finally sell it.  Don’t live like you have to make money on the house – houses can be really crappy investments and can also kill your financial soul (LINK).
  7. Put six months’ worth of expenses in a money-market account. This simple measure means that emergencies are not as threatening.  If you have six months – you can get rid of stuff, change your financial structure, and find a new source of income.  If you’re waiting on next week’s check to pay your (late) power bill?  You’ve got no maneuvering room.  Money is stored freedom.  Have some hanging around.  Corollary?  It’s easier to get that level of cash if your expenses are low.
  8. Take whatever money is left over and invest 70% in a stock index fund and 30% in a bond fund through any discount broker and never touch it until retirement. Great advice.  Wish I would have done it.  But my money mainly showed up in lumps.  So, I need to (gradually) get it into the stock index funds.  The last thing I want to do is dump all my cash into a market near an all-time high.  As a side note:  almost every single stock I’ve ever bought has been a poor decision, since I was just picking randomly, not with a value investment strategy like Warren Buffett uses.  Thankfully, I’ve not hurt our family, since my stock picks have been limited in size to the point I only care marginally.
  9. If any of this confuses you, or you have something special going on (retirement, college planning, or tax issues), hire a fee-based financial planner, not one who charges a percentage of your portfolio.   Never trust a person whose income is decided based upon their choices with your money.  Pay them upfront.

Things I would add:

  1. If you’re a guy, don’t marry early. Thirty might be a good number.    Have some really lousy relationships before you select “the one”.  Because the wrong “one” will mess your finances up for years.  But you might walk away with good stories.
  2. If you’re a girl, find the best guy you can. Early (20?) marriage is okay for you, provided he’s on his way in his career and can afford stuff.  It’s probably preferable to marry early.  (Uncomfortable Truth) Oh, and girls?  It appears the stereotypes are true.  Don’t sleep around before you get married – the number of guys a girl has slept with is directly correlated with probability of divorce.  It doesn’t work the other way around, the ability of a guy to be faithful seem to be unaffected by the number of partners they had.  Don’t shoot the messenger – the facts are the facts.
  3. Don’t have kids. I’m joking.  If you’re reading this blog, you should have a dozen or more, because you’re smart, handsome, and the world needs more of your type.  (I’m not kidding.)
  4. Don’t have kids outside of marriage. You’re just as financially entangled, but no snuggle time.
  5. Don’t marry someone you’ll divorce. How would you know? You followed my steps one and two.
  6. Don’t have kids with someone you’ll divorce. Kids rarely make a relationship better.  And they certainly won’t make the house smell better.
  7. Don’t buy a new car. Unless you have a million dollars.  And probably not then. (LINK)
  8. Find a good job (LINK).

 

Nietzsche

Nietzsche, circa 1875.  He was 31 in this picture.  His mustache was 44.  I wonder if when his neighbors were loud and he was trying to sleep if he twirled that thing up and used it to plug his ears?

Now don’t go asking me how many of my adders that I’ve broken.  Okay, I’ve broken 1., 3., 5., 6., and 7. That’s how I knew to add these to the list . . . experience, like a divorce, is expensive.  And worth it.

Remember what Nietzsche said:  “That which does not kill me makes me stronger, but it does make me unable to retire at age 45.”

Maybe You Should Choose The Opposite of Easy?

“Look, you two guys are just guys, okay? Mr. White, he’s the devil. You know, he is smarter than you, he is luckier than you. Whatever you think is supposed to happen, I’m telling you, the exact reverse opposite of that is gonna happen, okay?” – Breaking Bad

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Yup, that’s a real, live open Blockbuster©.  You thought that all the Blockbusters® moved to Paris to live with a Frenchman named “Louis” in a dingy apartment above a bread shop in a sort of shabby, Bohemian artsy life that involved a lot of angst and cigarettes, but here is one that’s still open.

Pop Wilder was at the peak age of life, 45 or 46, when the big bank in the Midwest called.  They’d met him at a conference, and they liked him.  A lot.  They’d like him to move from being President of his small farm bank into the big leagues.

Taking the job would mean moving away from the small (population at when he got the job offer was about 750 people) mountain farming town where he lived since his birth to a larger Midwestern town (population zillions).  He and Mom discussed it, and he decided he would take the job.  After all, they were shoving his face full of more money (salary comparison in 2017 dollars:  $310,000, and those are American dollars, not those cheap Canadian dollars) than he had ever expected.  And the future was wide open – this was a BIG bank.  He might even be called up to New York if he did well with the Midwest bank, where the money could be even more.

He went in to quit, and called the majority shareholder, Mr. Potter (we talked about him earlier, here (LINK)).  Potter told him to stop and think about this – he’d be leaving the town he was born in, the town where he’d grown up.  “Why, Pop Wilder, you know everyone.  In a big city, you wouldn’t know anyone!  And the risk, what if you didn’t do well?  Then you’d be fired in a big city!  To make it easier, why, I’ll match their offer.”

Pop Wilder stayed.  One night, 17 years later, he would bitterly remark that he’d had the last raise of his life 17 years earlier.  Mr. Potter had no viable replacement for Pop, and had been a shrewd and manipulative businessman – playing off of Pop’s fears.  But Pop (and Pop’s name) was what he wanted, but he wanted it only at the lowest possible price.

To give you an example of what kind of a gem Mr. Potter was:  Mr. Potter owned a gold mine, and fired his mining engineer every two years.  He didn’t want the mining engineer to know more than he did about the mine.

Great guy, huh?  I met him once.  I felt like I was in the presence of something H. P. Lovecraft wrote about – some evil eldritch abomination from beyond time.  Or just an evil old dude.

Fast forward a very long time . . .

I was living in Alaska with The Mrs.  We loved it.  We had given birth to Pugsley up there (well, to be honest, I was present, and wrote the checks, so I gave birth, too, right?).  Our house was the right size.  The lifestyle was amazing – guns, gasoline, and woodburning fireplaces.  Plus they even had Internet.

Then an old boss called.

He was looking for me to move down to the lower 48, specifically, Texas.  Honestly, we weren’t interested.  Fairbanks was wonderful.  And I had even said (once upon a time) that I’d never move to Houston.

I told him, “No.  Thanks for asking.  We like it here.”

His response:  “What would it take for you to move this way?”

Me:  “Okay, (NUMBER).”  I arrived at number by adding my salary, my wife’s salary, her bonus, my bonus, and then threw 20% on top.  I thought that my unreasonable request would at least gently shut him down so I could move on and ignore him.

Him:  “Okay, we could do that number, plus a guaranteed 20% bonus, minimum.  And a signing bonus.  And we can move all of your stuff.  But the boss says we can’t buy your house with the relocation package.”

I was stunned.  He called my bluff.  The Mrs. and I spent agonizing hours on this, but finally gave in and listened.  He flew the whole family down to Houston and we looked the place over.  Not to our liking, but the opportunity was so large . . . .

We got back to Fairbanks, and found a job offer on my email.

Me:  “I can do it, but only if you buy my House.”  I secretly hoped they’d stick to their guns and say no.

Him:  “Okay, we’ll buy your house.”

I told my Alaska boss, who was not at all Mr. Potter, that I was quitting.  The company I’d worked for in Alaska immediately raised my salary by 20%, and promised that there would be more to come.  But the opportunity there was working on something much smaller than the new job.

Part of the calculations involved in coming to our decision was Pop Wilder’s life:  he had become stuck in a situation when he didn’t take the chance for significant success, and always regretted it.  In my case, I was going to take the opportunity – it was 100 times bigger than anything I’d ever done.

So, we moved to Houston.  And it worked out okay, even though we still miss Fairbanks.

But it did start me thinking, about opposites.  Staying in Fairbanks would have been easier.  How often is doing the opposite thing from what’s easy the right thing?

I think the answer is:  most of the time.

  • Exercise vs. Couch – it’s obvious that sitting on the couch and eating Twinkies® is generally more pleasurable than exercising until your thighs are on fire and sweating buckets, but study after study (dating back 4,000 years to Egypt, where the first article appeared in Healthy Pharaoh Today) shows that, while more fun, couches kill.
  • Full vs. Hungry – Imagine the feeling after a Thanksgiving feast . . . and now imagine it killing you. Yes, nobody likes feeling like they’re really hungry, but recent studies have shown that food deprivation is awesome for you, both short term and long term.  I’m mean, not starving to death long term, but rather periodic fasting.
  • Party vs. Work – Hard work may pay off in the future, but partying always pays off now. That’s exactly the right answer if you’re running for congress.  Everyone else wants to see the work first.
  • Discipline vs. Freedom – It’s hard to make a plan and stick to it, day after day, for months, especially when it looks like it’s not succeeding. But how many times did that one extra attempt push a person from failure to success?  Stephen King would be a dead drycleaner except for trying one more time (LINK).
  • Thrift vs. Spend – Saving money is hard, when there are so many shiny things to buy, and so very much PEZ® to eat. So very hard.  But it will allow you to buy even more PEZ© when you are old, like me and your Doctor says you shouldn’t have it.
  • Kindness vs. Selfishness – Okay, there have been a few moments in my life when I’ve cut loose and allowed myself to be horribly selfish. Those days are generally weekdays.  Or weekends.  And often occur during the Summer, but also Winter.  And Fall.  And Spring.  At least I try.  On alternate leap years I really try. See also:  Courteous vs. Rude.
  • Honor and Loyalty vs. Cowardice – A coward dies a thousand deaths, a brave man but one. But I also bet a live guy wrote that?  Anyway, it’s tough to show honor and loyalty in a world that values neither.  So much easier to give in.  My problem is I have to look myself in a mirror and see the guy on the other side.  So is it my cowardice of not being loyal and honorable that keeps me loyal and honorable?
  • Morality vs. Licentiousness – Apparently Hollywood hasn’t heard of “morality,” at least based on the most recent headlines. Maybe someday someone will make a movie about that?

The easy road is downhill.  Challenges are hard.  Letting go of the comfort of the warm bed on a cold morning is hard.  Growth and achievement require effort.

Do the opposite of comfortable – that’s where living a heroic life starts.  Or maybe heroism starts on Skyrim® or Assassins Creed™?  But heroism does start with taking a chance.  Being bold.

When was the last time you took a chance?

Soviet Genetics, Mangoes, Your Momma, and Swedish Weight Gain

“The only difference between Señor Chang and Stalin is that I know who Señor Chang is.” – Community

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This duckbilled dinosaur could have been a kitten, if only it had been loved.

When I start a blog topic, most of the time I know where I’m going, and, generally where I’m going to end up.  Most of the time.  Sometimes I end up learning something completely unexpected that changes my conclusion.  Sometimes I learn that we, as humans, are only scratching the surface of how really, deeply weird the world around us is.  This post is deeply weird.  Hang, on, buckle up and enjoy my favorite health post ever . . . .

Trofim Lysenko was born in Ukraine in 1898.  Apparently the baby name books in Russia includes the name “Trofim” even though to me it sounds like a fitness product advertised on an infomercial at 3AM on The Discovery Channel® – get fit with new Trofim™!  Frankly, Lysenko sounds like a bathroom cleanser – so poor Trofim was destined for failure, right?

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Would you buy a used economic theory from this man? – photo of Lysenko, public domain, via Wikimedia

Trofim studied agriculture, and, apparently came up with a bunch of ideas about how plants could better grow around the time the Soviet Union was starting up.  His theories included the idea that cows that were treated well would give more milk, and that plants could cooperate somehow to make more wheat.

Joseph Stalin LOVED Lysenko.  His theories dovetailed exactly with Stalin’s Communism – the importance of genetics went to zero.  With proper nurture, you could create a True Soviet Man – people weren’t just created with equal rights – they were BORN equal.  If you could create the right conditions, everyone would BE equal, just like George Clooney, Brad Pitt, and me.  Oh, wait, that’s observably false.  Brad Pitt could never get my SAT score, even if he studied.  Clooney?  Let’s see him go bald, huh?

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Unrecorded in the West is the fact that Stalin’s giant head was carried in local parades by men in white suits up until 2003, when it was retired to a farm outside of Minsk where it now lives with gently treated cows and monkeys. – photo of MegaStalin, Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-R78376 / CC-BY-SA 3.0

Lysenko singlehandedly destroyed genetic research in the Soviet Union for forty years, as well as being responsible for the jailing (and sometimes execution) of everyone who disagreed with him.  Certainly no one in the West would do that about people who dissent scientifically . . . right?  Anyway, Lysenko set the standards for political correctness in research, and yes, the Soviet Union is where the term Politically Correct came from – the idea that ideas themselves couldn’t be discussed unless their politics were in vogue at the moment.  And if you brought up politically incorrect ideas?  Gulag for you, comrade.

Mao Zedong proved that this point could be taken to extremes when the Pakistani ambassador gave him a case of mangoes.  Mao didn’t like mangoes.  So  . . .

In the afternoon of the fifth, when the great happy news of Chairman Mao giving mangoes to the Capital Worker and Peasant Mao Zedong Thought Propaganda Team reached the Tsinghua University campus, people immediately gathered around the gift given by the Great Leader Chairman Mao. They cried out enthusiastically and sang with wild abandonment. Tears swelled up in their eyes, and they again and again sincerely wished that our most beloved Great Leader lived then thousand years without bounds … They all made phone calls to their own work units to spread this happy news; and they also organized all kinds of celebratory activities all night long, and arrived at [the national leadership compound] Zhongnanhai despite the rain to report the good news, and to express their loyalty to the Great Leader Chairman Mao.

August 7, 1968 People’s Daily

Yes.  The Chinese people worshiped (for 18 months) mangoes so they didn’t disappoint Chairman Mao.  And it had lasting consequences for some.   A dentist was executed for saying the mango touring his village looked like a sweet potato.

Don’t believe me? A lot more about it here (LINK).

But, we were talking about Lysenko.

He killed genetic science because of the laughable idea that everything was nurture, not nature.  We do know that there are lots of things that are totally genetic:  intelligence, likelihood of being criminal, eye color, hair color, blood type, et cetera.  For example, you can stunt a smart person’s intelligence through poor nutrition.  But their overall capacity to be intelligent is about 70%-80% genetic.

So Trofim (snicker) Lysenko was entirely wrong?

No.

We’re learning a lot more about something called epigenetics now.  Epi in this case means “over” or “over-genetics.”  If you remember, DNA is a double helix molecule that stores all of the information about how to make a copy of you.  One gram of DNA can, according to folks at Harvard, store 700 terabytes of data, or about as much information as 14,000 Blu-Ray® discs of Geostorm© when it comes out.  Which will also be 13,720 more discs than Geostorm© sells.

DNA stores lots of information, but at a cost.  DNA is information dense, but it is looooooooooong.  Each cell has about 2 meters of DNA if you stretched it out.  Take all of the DNA in your body and lay it end to end?  (Do NOT try this at home, it’s kinda messy – if you’re going to do this, at least use the garage.)  There’s enough DNA, laid end to end, which would be roughly diameter of all of the planets in our Solar System.  That includes Pluto – we’re gonna take it back.

DNA is long.  And since our cells aren’t 2 meters long, something happens to the DNA in your cells.  Rather than tossing the DNA into the cell like The Boy and Pugsley throw extension cords onto the garage floor, the cell has little cord winders that wind up the DNA so it’s not all tangled up like Johnny Depp’s finances.  So, the DNA is tightly wound around the cord winders.  In my garage.  In your cell.

But it turns out that the cord winders themselves (I know this analogy is getting a bit stretched) are very much impacted by your behavior.  And, the scary part?  Potentially your mother’s behavior.  Scarier?  Even your grandmother, and we all know what a tramp she was.

I recall reading a story about a Native American tribe in Arizona that experienced famine that killed off a significant portion of the tribe.  The result?  A bunch of really, really fat Native Americans two generations later.  My theory had been that the people with the skinny genes had all died out, and that the remaining Native Americans had all had genes that were really, really efficient with calories.  And liked Twinkies®.  Makes sense?  Sure.

But then?  Epigenetics.  Turns out that this phenomenon was repeated in Sweden, where in some really northern town, named “Rejëllyfaarnøørthernplåcedüde” there was a periodic starvation, because they didn’t live where any food was, except seals.

All the kids from Rejëllyfaarnøørthernplåcedüde got fat.  Really fat.  Turns out the operative theory is that the environment that the mothers grew up in changed not the DNA but the cord winders and how the DNA was wound up.  Because of the changes to the cord winders (which are really enzymes) certain parts of the DNA were exposed that changed the way the cells work.  This is entirely necessary, because when you’re a baby, your eye cell needs to know that it’s an eye cell and not a lung cell, otherwise you could see your guts and have to remove your glasses to breathe, which would make dating . . . complicated.

The end result of this epigenetic change was it made the kids more likely to burn off energy slowly – which is a great adaptation if you’re starving.

But it looks like there are a whole host of other adaptations that may be driven by epigenetics:  addiction, depression, anxiety, fear conditioning, and that’s just the bits we’re beginning to understand.  Yes.  What scares you might be related to what scared great grandma.  One experiment with mice shocked the feet of the mice when a cherry blossom smell was introduced.  The mice babies from the mothers . . . who had never been shocked . . . were scared when they smelled cherry blossoms.  The impact on the baby mice from the experience of their mothers was transmitted . . . without genetic change.

So, Lysenko was not totally wrong.

The health implications are stunning.  Can there be a pill that you take that switches “on” a weight loss enzyme?  Maybe.  What other conditions can we change?  Can we make Kardashians attractive?  Sadly, no.

But beyond that, it may go to explain weird things . . . motherly love?  The baby’s DNA is floating around inside the mother (you can determine a baby’s sex through a blood test of the mother, so, the DNA is there).  How does this impact the way a mother bonds with a baby?

What about surrogate moms?

What about all of the things that we can change?  We can’t make ourselves smarter through epigenetics, but . . . can we make ourselves better?

Like I said – this is weird territory, and we have a LOT more questions than answers.  And, fortunately, we have plenty of mangos to worship.  Just don’t compare epigenetics to Johnny Depp’s sweet potato.

Your Passion is Stupid

“No, not unpopular, they just have a more selective appeal.” – This is Spinal Tap

DSC00962

Okay, there’s a time when your passion of throwing big rocks in the river should be followed.  That’s whenever you’re at the river.

Pop Wilder was a banker.  Oh, I know what you’re thinking, John Wilder is the banker’s son, summers in Maine, winters in Switzerland.  No.  Summers in the forest cutting firewood in Colorado, winters in Colorado on snowmobiles fifty miles into the back country.  Okay, winters were better than Switzerland, at least since the CIA stole the secret of the Swiss “hot chocolate” technology and weaponized it in Swiss Miss® cocoa packets.

On occasion, especially after a few bourbon and waters, Pop Wilder would get a bit melancholy.  “John Wilder, you can be whatever you want to be when you grow up, but don’t be a banker.”  Although by any measure, Pop was successful.  And he was passionate about his work.  He left every morning before the Sun came up to open the bank.  He got home two hours after the bank had closed.  He unlocked the place and locked it back up.  He never took more than 10 vacation days in any year, and I never saw the man take one day off due to being sick.  (An aside:  I’m stunned that’s the first time I came to that realization – I haven’t taken a sick day off since 2000.  Wonder where that stubbornness comes from?)

Pop Wilder, you see, wasn’t the “snort cocaine off a stripper’s butt” type banker, but rather the “small town banker that drives a car to work that’s eight years old.”  I think he might have not abused his power enough . . . I’m not sure.  What’s the use of having power, if you don’t abuse it?

What always bothered Pop Wilder the most was when he had to explain to a person who wanted to borrow money that he wouldn’t lend it to them – he didn’t think the loan was based on sound collateral, or the borrower’s income wasn’t enough to cover their living expenses plus their debt.  He was proud at the end of his career that he’d never had to foreclose on a single home.  To him, the act of lending money was a moral event – you didn’t burden a borrower with more debt than they could pay.

That didn’t make the borrowers who he turned down happy.  They were (understandably) upset that Pop had crushed their dreams, but in the process, he’d done them the biggest favor of their lives.  In a weird way, his “no” had saved their financial future from the siren song (read The Odyssey or watch Oh, Brother, Where Art Thou (LINK) if you missed that reference) of their dreams and passions . . .

One of my favorite things to see is the garden variety successful person who’s being interviewed.  Let’s pretend it’s me, since I’m rich and semi-famous:

Oprah:  “What’s your secret, John Wilder?  How did you get to the pinnacle of success and yet maintain those superb washboard abs?”  (Oprah bites her lip.  Perhaps I should have not worn such a tight shirt.)

John Wilder:  “I followed my passion, Oprah.  My passion is all consuming.”

Fade to Clip of Me Synchronized Snowboarding Off the Top of Mount Everest Accompanied by an Actual Yeti.

You’ve heard that, too:  successful people telling you to follow your passion.  I probably heard that two dozen times between high school and college.  Follow your passion.  Invariably it was by short salesmen who were in suits while I was wearing an Iron Maiden t-shirt.  And I was (really) thinking about going skiing or checking out the girl of the week.  My passion did not and does not involve being an old man in a suit.

Hopefully you haven’t done followed your passion, because your passion is stupid, unless you are the ghost of Steve Jobs.  Steve, you can follow your passion.  Only you.  Namaste.

I’m sorry to tell everyone else a simple fact: your passion is stupid.  And my passion?  My passion is stupid, too.  Maybe even really stupid.

The Mrs. and I have been married roughly since the invention of dirt.  We’ve thought about opening our own businesses several times, and even produced a business plan or two.  All of them have been based on things we like, things we are passionate about.  We’d discuss, fine tune, get the spreadsheets ready, and then decide if we were passionate about it.  As you’ve hopefully read in the fine pages of this blog before – the best deals are the ones you don’t do.  We’ve passed on most of the deals.

But one in particular we got all of our ducks in a huddle, got a small business loan application together, and went off to the local bank to ask for a small business loan with our spreadsheets and our plan and our proposals and estimates and projections.  I didn’t go to the meeting – I was at work.  But The Mrs. walked in, and the banker didn’t blink an eye before he got to his response.  “No.  Not now.  Not ever.  Please pretend we’ve never met.”

The Mrs. was upset when she got home.  I shrugged, and we decided to carry on without opening that business.  About a month or two later we read in the local newspaper about how someone had opened a business that was nearly exactly what we’d planned to open up.  They did a detailed story on the place, nearly a full page, with color pictures.  Amazing amounts of free advertising.

That business closed up before six months had passed.  The banker who said “No” had saved us $55,000 of loaned money.

Oh.  I get what Pop was doing.  Rather than helping people live their passion, he was saving them from their passions.

The people who say that you should follow your passion are generally not passionate about the thing that they’ve done, whether it be roasting coffee beans or creating BookFace®.  No.  They’re passionate about success.  They’re passionate about their business because it brought them success.  It’s like pretending you like Tootsie Rolls Lollipops® for the outer candy shell.  You don’t.  You like the center.

And that’s the secret of success.

I am passionate about playing the guitar.  I love to do it.  Unfortunately, my guitar is as good as Johnny Depp’s personal hygiene or money management skills.  So, of course, I devoted my entire career to playing bad guitar?  NO.  I suck at guitar.  I will never be good at it.  But . . . I do math and science-y things really well.  I have the intuition on that stuff that Eddie Van Halen has for meth guitar.  Maybe not that good, but I found that the combination of the math stuff and the science stuff and the planning stuff and the intuitive grasp of physical systems and processes (with a dash of normal human empathy) pops me into the top 0.1% (hint, that’s the only place the money is).  That combination allows me to win where other people would lose (in certain situations).  And in one instance the application of those skills allowed an IPO to go through that netted a company a billion or so dollars.  Yay me!

And winning in situations like that makes me passionate about combining those skills.  So, am I following my passion?  Well, I’m following my success, which is a lot like following passion.  Except following my passion would make me bankrupt because my guitar is only slightly better than my singing.

So it comes down to . . . what are you good at?  I mean, really good at?  Not what you’re passionate about.  Let’s face it:  you can be passionate about drinking bourbon, WWE, MMA or anthropology, but none of those things are helpful unless you’re part of the 0.1% AND you can figure out how to win/make money with that skill combination.

Can you make money with it?  Most things you’re good at don’t pay any (really any) money at all.  You’re in the top 0.001% of the world at trimming nosehair?  No.  Next.  Your skill should translate into actual income.  What does the best person in the world at what you’re good at make?  Can you live on 1/10 of that?

Okay.  You’re good at it.  It’s a rare skill.  You can make money at it.  Good money.  Now your challenge?  Get better at it.

Most people take a decade or more of really hard work, over 10,000 hours, to become world class at a skill.  Generally, the longer they execute the skill and the more they work at it, the better they become, peaking in their forties or fifties.  These aren’t physical skills – those peak about 24, and take a big nosedive once you pass 30 or so, and if your skill is there, strike quickly – age will pull you away faster than you anticipate.  What I’m talking about are mental skills that are honed by experience.

Passion?  No banker will lend on that.  They’ll lend on experience, skill, and excellence.  Be passionate about those and the world will allow you to snowmobile in Colorado in winter . . .

People will call you lucky.  Just smile and ignore the sweat.