Lessons from the heights His Airness couldn’t reach

michael-jordan-barons

At the pinnacle of his powers, the most electrifying athlete to ever set foot on a basketball court decided to forego millions and deprive fans of two years of his prime to develop into a decent minor league baseball player.

What lunatic trades greatness for mediocrity? How hilarious is it that Michael Jordan actually played baseball? How both awesome and frustrating would it be if LeBron decided to play football next season?

While there is no shortage of critics, Jordan remembers those baseball years fondly. He was forced to pour countless hours into refining fundamentals.

“I gave dedication to the game of baseball a true effort. I wasn’t there making money. I wasn’t there endorsing any product. It was truly for love of the game… I had the freedom to make a choice, and no one seemed to understand that. That I can walk away from the game and not worry about the stardom, the money. Those are all monetary things that don’t mean much to me in a way. I play the game because I love the game. If I don’t have a purpose I walk away from the game.”

Michael-jordan-dunkWork ethic is not what kept MJ from reaching the majors. Talent wasn’t the problem either. It was repetitions; while he’d shot a million free throws over the previous twelve years, his counterparts had taken a million swings.

Through entering a medium in which he looked up and saw superiors even he couldn’t jump high enough to touch, His Airness grew to appreciate the altitude he’d reached at basketball. Trying his luck at a different mountain inspired memories of his younger self’s toils back when clouds hid the summit of Mt. Basketball.

“I was on a pedestal for so long that I forgot about the steps to get to that. And I think that’s what minor league baseball did to me… I think the whole process was a learning experience for me. Being out here makes it more exciting to get a fresh start with what I’ve known and what I’ve learnt over the years.”

To me, the most inspiring thing Jordan ever did was to give up his throne to build himself from scratch at something new. Despite incomprehensible peer pressure and financial motivation to maintain his reign atop basketball’s food chain, he lived for himself. Having played baseball, he now owns an experience that adds spice and perspective to his life.

Most of us aren’t Michael Jordan at anything. But we have our comfort zones. And braving the uncomfortable and building new angles to ourselves – while often humbling and difficult – keeps lives from becoming stale.

Variety of HobbiesThere are infinite ways in which people derive joy, each of which has a unique flavor. The more hobbies one learns, the more experience one has on the forms pleasure might take. The wider one’s net of pursuits, the more people with whom one might connect. The more activities one tries, the more one understands and develops one’s strengths, weaknesses, and ability to learn. And the more pleasures a person knows, the more fulfilling endeavors one might share with and teach one’s loved ones.

Last year, I couldn’t swim two laps without stopping to gasp for air. But I wanted to become a triathlete, so I needed to build my swimming ability from scratch. By the holiday season, my endurance was solid, but grey-haired women on kickboards were still passing me. Through the swimming portions of subsequent triathlons, I grew an appreciation for how courageous it is to enter a competition knowing you’re not very talented. Because visibility is so poor in open water, faster swimmers would crawl over me and toss me like a rag doll when passing me.

SpecializationWhile unpleasant and, from a competitive standpoint, my worst leg, after completing triathlons I have been proudest of my swim performance because building my swimming ability has taken the most work. Capitalism tells people to do what they’re best at relative to others. What comes easy, however, isn’t always what people find fulfilling. When the goal is accomplished, that awareness of all those little steps makes that end result feel great even if it only takes a more talented person one step to travel the same distance.

What’s doubly impressive about Jordan is that he returned to basketball arguably a better player – winning three consecutive NBA titles – than when he retired. What’s inspiring, however, is that effortless maintenance of refined crafts is not unique to MJ. For the 3-4 years after a former #1 squash player retires, he still regularly beats top 30 players. Thanks to the hours logged between the ages of 8 and 10, I’m still a God at Tetris. If you’ve figured out how to party, partying less doesn’t render you significantly less good at partying. And it might even make you better.

Earlier this summer, a friend relayed the following career advice, “Be careful what you get good at because it’s what you’ll do over and over again.” Capitalism encourages specialization. A carpenter does not receive a raise for improving as a sommelier.

What’s even sadder is that, as this free time contracts – usually when a person gets older and is saddled with increased professional and domestic responsibilities – allotting the hours to developing a new hobby, a new angle through which to derive pleasure, becomes increasingly exhausting. In a way, Jordan had more leeway than the rest of us; at age thirty-two he had already made his fortune and put together a Hall of Fame career. But for those of us with more typical career arcs, the twenties are a prudent decade for self-expansion.

The Rise of the Live Chicken… in Business

Decentralization Blog Pic - Empowerment

Earlier this month, a college classmate of mine, Jack, astutely wrote,

 “There’s an interesting link between many successful startups that gets surprisingly little attention. It was a foreign concept before the rise of the Internet, and now I believe it is one of the driving forces behind the growth of Airbnb, Uber, Teespring, Postmates, Patreon, Verbling, and many more. Companies can now empower people to create their own jobs.”

 The most well-known companies mentioned above are Airbnb and Uber, whose business models veer from the status quo in their respective industries in a strikingly similar fashion.
Airbnb is part of the ‘temporary lodging’ sector and competes foremost with hotels. Hotels provide a branded platform, usually buildings, and they sell goods, ‘rooms in which to sleep.’ Uber is a company in the transportation sector and competes foremost with taxi companies. Taxi companies provide platforms, branded cars and professional drivers, and the service they sell is ‘car rides.’

Decentralization Blog - AirbnbAirbnb and Uber also provide branded platforms – mediums that connect supply and demand for ‘rooms in which to sleep’ and ‘car rides,’ respectively. But, in contrast to their competitors, the supply-sides within these platforms, not Airbnb and Uber, own and sell the desired goods and services.

Exemplified by Uber and Airbnb, a new kind of business model is revolutionizing many sectors, notably energy and manufactured goods. Globalization, the Internet, and digitally-enabled automation are transforming business models in a manner that decentralizes production and, thus, empowers the individual.

The Clunky Present – Selling Butchered Chicken

The dominant model at present for the energy and manufactured goods sectors is for companies to both provide the platform and sell the good or service. Large centralized power stations feed current into long high-voltage transmission lines to sell electricity at a lower cost than local generators could offer. Massive conglomerates, such as Walmart, Home Depot, and Ikea, wield their economies of scale and efficient supply chains to dominate the manufactured goods sector.

To use an analogy, companies provide the chicken, butcher it, and all the value for the customers manifests in how this butchered chicken is cooked and consumed.

The Nimble Future – Selling Live Chickens

In the burgeoning decentralized model, however, companies are creating the platform, so that individuals can own the valued good or service that is produced and potentially sold.

In this model, companies provide live chickens, and value for customers manifests in the eggs laid.

Hen-eggs

Electricity

The upspring of microgrids and rooftop solar panels is catalyzing the electricity sector’s trend towards decentralized generation, and Bloomberg New Energy Finance (BNEF) foresees this trend gaining steam for the foreseeable future.

Microgrids are localized energy systems – fueled by natural gas cells and often renewables – that can operate independently from the broader transmission and distribution grid when needed. Thus, when the broader grid experiences power outages and/or high prices, the microgrid is sheltered and microgrid operators and owners profit from saving money via lower prices, not needing to stop activity that requires electricity, and even selling the electricity produced. Goldman Sachs and Princeton University operate on microgrids, and these were two of the only places in the New York/New Jersey area to sustain power throughout the aftermath of hurricane Sandy.

Decentralization Blog - SolarAt an even more localized level, rooftop solar panels are a growing source of distributed electricity generation. BNEF’s June 2014 2030 Market Outlook forecasts that, by 2030, “renewables will command over 60% of the 5,574GW of new [global] capacity and 65% of the $7.7 trillion [global] power investment. Rooftop solar PV will dominate, taking up a fifth [1,073GW] of the capacity additions and investment to 2020.”

Even today, consumers in many locations can make a return on investment above 6% (real) by installing a PV system and operating it for a 25-year lifetime. In other words, producers of solar panels do not sell electricity; instead, as do Airbnb and Uber, they manufacture a platform that enables owners to sell this good and generate profits.

As costs decline – BNEF believes that “from at least 2020, [policy and/or financial] support will no longer be necessary for [solar] PV build, thanks to a significant decline in costs” – this profitability will increase. Thus, in addition to solar’s social and political benefits – a clean, renewable fuel that is not imported from the Middle East or Russia – it promises to become an increasingly economically prudent fuel source that empowers individuals. And individuals have proven quick to capitalize. In Germany, the country with the most advanced solar progress, individuals and small businesses own over half of all renewable electricity capacity.

Even though solar provided only 0.3% of global power generation in 2013, terror-stricken traditional electric utilities – in both the US and Europe – have been forced to fight for their lives via anti-solar advocacy and/or business model adaptation. BNEF projects solar generation to increase to 6% in 2030; a level which will render utilities that refuse to adapt from traditional models structurally obsolete.

Manufactured Goods

Similarly revolutionary, MIT’s Neil Gershenfeld and many others believe a nascent stage of the ‘digital fabrication’ era is upon us. According to Gershenfeld, “Digital fabrication consists of much more than 3-D printing. It is an evolving suite of capabilities to turn data into things and things into data. Many years of research remain to complete this vision, but the revolution is well under way.”

Decentralization Blog - 3D PrintingAmong the benefits of digital fabrication – which include improved personalization capabilities, waste management, and cost-minimization – is individual ownership of production (similar to solar panels, Uber, and Airbnb). Digital fabrication suites function as platforms through which individuals may design, produce, and sell tangible objects on demand, wherever and whenever they need them. This state of affairs, according to Gershenfeld,

“Will challenge traditional models of business, aid, and education… Integrated personal digital fabricators comparable to the personal computer do not yet exist, but they will… Scientists at a number of labs (including mine) are now working the real thing, developing processes that can place individual atoms and molecules into whatever structure they want. Unlike 3-D printers today, these will be able to build complete, functional systems at once, with no need for parts to be assembled. The aim is to not only produce the parts for a drone, for example, but to build a complete vehicle that can fly right out of the printer. This goal is still years away, but it is not necessary to wait: most of the computer functions one uses today were invented in the minicomputer era, long before they would flourish in the era of personal computing. Similarly, although today’s digital manufacturing machines are still in their infancy, they can already be used to make (almost) anything, anywhere. That changes everything.”

What Does This Mean?

I foresee this trending “Live Chicken” business model – building the platform that enables users to sell the end-use good – influencing impacted sectors and society at large in the following ways:

Decentralization Blog - New School

Decreased importance of supply chains in microeconomic economies of scale

Without digital fabrication, economies of scale will retain importance for producers of physical value-creation platforms, such as solar panels. However, when I own a digital fabrication suite that enables me to print my own solar panel, the value of SolarCity’s supply chains will erode. Rather, the new market for solar panels will be structured more like a grocery store than a restaurant – selling ingredients, not ready-to-eat meals – and I would purchase the digitized solar panel code that creates the most productive panel with the cheapest recipe.

Many companies, such as Uber and Aibnb, with this “Live Chicken” business model are and will be Internet-based, however. For these companies, scale manifests in the quality and size of one’s strategy, programming, and marketing forces, rather than bulk-purchasing and efficient manufacturing and transportation.

A boom in self-employment

To quote my friend Jack again,

“Companies can empower people to create their own jobs.  This is a huge deal and has major implications.  Job creation gives employees livelihoods, it gives companies champions who fight to make them succeed, and it gives economies legs to stand on.  For employees, it used to be the case that to get a job, you had to be hired; now you don’t.  Companies now have the ability to create jobs not only internally but externally, and they can increase the size of their workforce much more quickly.”

This source of jobs is increasingly comforting as fears mount regarding robots causing mass structural unemployment as they replace humans in labor-intensive jobs that have potential for automation.

Increased need for organizational platforms

Decentralization - StressThis “Live Chicken” business model will multiply the options people will have regarding employment, production, consumption, and, more generally, how people spend their time. The combination of “Live Chicken” business models empowering the individual and progress towards an “Internet of Things” – the ability to control tangible objects via Internet-enabled remote controls – in a broad swath of sectors will raise expectations regarding the number of ways the average person must be functional.

I foresee a warm reception for tools simplifying this increased complexity, such as Apple’s “HomeKit” – a single app used to remotely control a fleet of smart in-home devices, such as thermostats and security systems. With HomeKit, Apple is pioneering development of the “Internet of Things” in the home energy management context.

In Conclusion

An increasing number of companies in a wide variety of sectors are profiting big time through creating platforms that enable customers to create and sell valued goods and services. If this trend continues, companies will see to it that you, the individual, are empowered in countless new contexts. Just know that with great power comes great responsibility. And with more options comes more choices. And with more choices comes more FOMO.

Facebook Politics and Decorum

Ghost

I’ve noticed some Facebook unrest recently, people equating it to the devil and whatnot. Actually, the unrest isn’t all that recent. It’s been this way pretty much since the onset. Really, it’s a testament to how powerful a tool Facebook is that it’s remained so prominent. The way people, and by ‘people’ I mean the people I’m friends with, use it has evolved through the years. But I digress. First allow me to enunciate the different types of users. The list is in ascending order of contribution frequency.

The Tree Who Fell in the Woods: Doesn’t have an account. It begs the question—if a person eats, sleeps, and breathes but doesn’t have Facebook, does he exist?
The Abandoned Building: Having an account but not checking, updating, or participating in any way.
The Ghost: Having an account and pretending to be an Abandoned Building but secretly consuming like The Whore.
The Whore: Likes everything but contributes nothing beyond birthday posts.
The Moderate: Contributes and consumes in a thoughtful way, successfully toeing the line between doing so too frequently and too infrequently.
The Old Person: Over 60 and very actively participates on threads held by those who are more than 30 years younger and with whom he’s very tenuously connected.
The Advertiser/Activist: Uses it primarily to spread word about his, his company’s, or his favorite causes’ latest endeavor.
The Spazz: Posts at least once every 48 hours. The content is usually inane and reveals some sort of gap in awareness. The Spazz is a lot like The Old Person but doesn’t have the excuse of being old.
The Narcissist: The most damnable of users, The Narcissist posts at least every 24 hours and is clearly in love with him/herself.

Most people consider themselves either an Abandoned Building or a Moderate. I consider myself a Moderate. Such an indulgent word, isn’t it? I’m sure more than half of you think I’m a Spazz. I’m not! I’M NOTTTTT!!!! Convinced? Oh shit, this is very Narcissist of me, isn’t it? I know, right!

But enough about me.

But more about me!

One trend I’ve noticed is that it’s somehow more desirable to be seen as an Abandoned Building than as a Moderate, and that’s why there are so many of you Ghosts out there. I know for a fact that Ghost is the most common type of user among my friends because the previous roaming20s post, the one about the value of money beyond functionality (you should know, you read it), got 300 views but only 5 Likes. As I have around 700 friends, it means 3 out of 7 of you clicked on the link. The low Like-frequency (LF) could be attributed to poor content quality or generally not wanting to associate with me in a visible way, but that’s obviously not the case. I mean, seriously, you read the article. You know how perfect it is! No, there are greater issues at play.

This leads to an excerpt from a recent, rather Seinfeldian, conversation with the photographer of my most recent profile picture:

Ghost: “It’s perfect! I stared at it for LITERALLY 15 minutes! With the umbrella and the sunglasses! At the same time! And the shirt! Oh my God! Everything just came together! The Eiffel Tower in the middle, and the spire on the far left to give it balance! It was just too good! Unbelievable!”

Me: “If you liked it so much, why didn’t you Like it on Facebook?”Facebook Interaction

Ghost: “I’m not a Liker.”

Me: “Why not? It’s one of the most non-zero-sum things you can do. Nobody judges you for Liking a photo, and the recipient appreciates it. Don’t you like it when others Like your stuff?”

Ghost: “Ya, that’s true. I guess I just don’t want to be known as someone with a social media presence. If people see that I use it, my anonymity is gone.”

Me: “What’s so bad about a social media presence?”

Ghost: “I just don’t want a footprint. There are so many people who I like less just because of how they use Facebook. People don’t think better of you based on how you use it. At best you break even, and that’s rare.”

Me: “But you liked that photo you took, didn’t you?”

Ghost: “It was glorious!”

Hence, my thesis: Spazzes and Narcissists scare the layman into Ghosthood, or, worse, into becoming The Tree Who Fell in the Woods. Because of a chronic and persistent lack of awareness among the most vocal 5%, Facebook has been ruined for the majority. Otherwise-Moderates have lost their voice!

The saddest part, I think, is that one of our generation’s most useful tools carries such stigma. It’s faux-pas to reference something from Facebook in a face-to-face interaction. Or information gleaned from any form of Internet stalking, for that matter. A former colleague of mine famously let slip about another former colleague, “She’s younger than me. She was in First Grade in 1998.” Is that creepy? Come on. Don’t pretend to have never had a conversation with a person in which you had to be careful not to let slip knowledge gained from a nice little Google search. It should be assumed that people know everything about you that’s on the Internet. That’s what admissions and Human Resources personnel say. In that sense, it’s a good idea to minimize, or at least manicure, your digital footprint.

At ease with the generally creepy, I, for one, love Facebook. A person’s relationship with social media requires some customizing for it to be enjoyable. The majority of Facebook malaise, I contend, results from finding it frustrating that a digital medium requires so much psychoanalysis. The reason I love it is I’ve eliminated the annoyances. I’ve chosen not to follow all the Spazzes, Narcissists, and people I don’t particularly want to know about, such as Jabronis and ex-romantic interests. Another thing I’ve started doing is Liking favorite sources of news and information. Now that Grantland, Quartz, The New Yorker, and Rafael Nadal appear on my newsfeed, my procrastination has been streamlined. If you use it the right way, it’s an incredibly practical tool!

Facebook CartoonIt’s the human part that makes it tricky. It’s a trilemma, participating yet remaining the least bit fetching. The individual has to align the way he sees himself, the way he would like to be perceived by others, and the way others perceive him outside of the platform, all in an appealing way. This leads to another rule, Rule #1, in fact. It dictates: there’s nothing you can do on social media to get someone to like you if they don’t like you outside of it. Thus, altering one’s identity is strategically ill-advised because the only result is to turn off those who might’ve wanted to follow you. The biggest truth about social media is it exposes major insecurities and delusions among its contributors, whether they’re aware of them or not.

There are subtle ways of pandering to the loosely connected while appeasing the masses though. One might, purely hypothetically, change his profile picture to a glamor shot in front of the Eiffel Tower before sending a friend request to a jolie femme he recently met. Such scheming is only petty once an audience is aware that it was calculated, purely hypothetically speaking. (Throat-clear).

As has been illustrated, the politics of Facebook are difficult to navigate. It’s been made even trickier, especially for The Old Person, because usage trends evolve both naturally and due to changes in age and location. Back in 2006, when Facebook got started and I was in high school, Wall Posts were competitive because Facebook displayed how many posts you had. Further, a large number of friends was representative of high social standing, and we talked poorly about people artificially inflating that number.

These days, Likes are the currency. The super-competitive socialites have moved on to Instagram. In my Insta-episode, my 12 hours on Instagram, I mistakenly chose to “Follow” all of my Facebook friends. This was before I realized Instagram prominently displays how many people “Follow” you and how many people you are “Following.” The game is to “Follow” fewer people than are “Following” you. After 12 hours in which I was “Following” 300 people and only 40 “Followed” me back, I felt very uncool. It’s funny how a 25 year old can feel like he’s 15 again. I cut my losses and quit Instagram after a person I dated briefly in October Liked my profile picture but opted not to “Follow” me. What a bitch. It should be noted that she was very IN on Insta, as she had over 3,000 “Followers” and only “Followed” 250 people.

Rest assured, I’m still very much on Facebook, where Likes carry almost as much caché. Liking-frequency (LF) behaves a lot like an inverse tangent function (pictured below) that’s been shifted up and a little to the right. What usually happens is your Facebook Allies (FAs) Like everything you post. After a critical number, say 20, second-degree connections join in. At another critical point, those second-degree connections have been exhausted, and the likes begin to plateau around a limit. This tailing-off is the most interesting part because that’s when the real randos, the ones you haven’t seen or heard from in years, make themselves known.  Unfortunately, most of them are Spazzes.

Inverse TangentMajor life events such as engagements, career successes, graduations, and births of kids garner the most Likes. If you’re particularly wealthy or prominent, Like totals are artificially inflated via suck-ups becoming FAs. And if you’re going for glory, if you want to test out your upper-bound, there’s a formula: Alert people that something awesome has happened to you in a ‘humble’ way. My personal favorite has been, “Didn’t know I looked like such a slob until I saw this picture of me on Forbes’ 25 Under 25. Honored nonetheless!” That one got hundreds. If nothing else, Like-a-Palooza tells you who in your network you should be jealous of, and if you’re anything like me, you’re a bit scornful, secretly liking these people less, even though you don’t actually know them.

It’s these Like-related stresses causing most of the Facebook unrest, causing people to equate it to the devil and whatnot. Disagreeing with your network on who has been crowned king and queen, and so forth. To enjoy Facebook, it’s important both to know that the high-schoolish part exists and to not pay it much credence, focusing instead on the positives. And Facebook’s positives are so powerful! With it you can keep up with people you don’t see or talk to regularly. That’s a huge upgrade on the nothingness that it replaced! This brings me to my issue with Ghosts, beyond them not Liking my shit. It’s selfish to consume without contributing every once in a while. More so, it’s creepy to covertly keep tabs on everyone. We want to see you, provided it’s from neither too close up nor too far away, and we want to hear from you, provided you’re neither doing too well nor too poorly.

The Value of Money Beyond Functionality

Gatsby

Having attended some of America’s most elite institutions, I’ve experienced my share of decadence. Think Sunday brunches, champagne fountains, and concert pianists.

Having worked for a development organization and traveled widely, I’ve been surrounded by debilitating poverty. Consider living under a cardboard roof, having to walk miles for fresh water, and not knowing from where the next meal will come.

What separates these circumstances?

If you guessed ‘money,’ you were close. ‘Wealth’ is more accurate.

The relationship between wealth and money is similar to that of a square to a rectangle. A wealthy individual most likely has a lot of money, but someone with a lot of money is not necessarily wealthy. The difference is wealth encapsulates all things of value amassed by an individual or family unit. Money is merely a medium of exchange, the most liquid asset in a portfolio.

Wealth is obtained and passed down in many ways. The most obvious is through inheritance of an estate. But that’s only part of it. If you come from wealth, you most likely go to elite schools and liaise with the other products of the grand patriarchy. You are endowed with better learning environments and bullet-proof networks that comprise all the friends of your very successful mom and dad along with the very successful moms and dads of all the people you happened make sand-castles with at four years old. Real wealth is the type that transfers across generations on the back of superior opportunities, and it does not require an agent to do anything particularly dynamic to sustain it.

If you were born without wealth, the reasons to accumulate it are countless. Financial stress is very highly correlated with depression, anxiety, and other physical maladies. A couple of weeks ago, I got coffee with someone who is passionate about drawing but doesn’t want to pursue it professionally because she’s seen how difficult financial stress has been for her parents. According to this Forbes article, “The wealthier people are, the more satisfied they are with their lives, at least when you look at nationwide figures. They also find, contrary to what many economists believe, that there is not a point of wealth satiation beyond which happiness levels off.”

In a hypothetical situation in which you are presented two sums of money and in which the world is in no way impacted depending on which you choose, I, for one, would choose the larger bundle. Doing otherwise, I further contend, would be masochistic.

But why, I wonder, would someone from the trust-fund class make it his life’s ambition to accumulate wealth-above-all-else (WAAE)?  Isn’t that redeundant?  Isn’t there something worthier?

There are a few practical explanations. First of all, it isn’t inconceivable that a person makes a lot of money by contributing something of value while genuinely enjoying the process. In this case, bravo. These individuals, I would argue, are the most valuable in a society and should be compensated thusly. The second completely understandable reason someone from privilege might pursue WAAE is out of a sense of duty to his offspring. We want our kids to be at least as advantaged as we were, for better or for worse.

There is a level of wealth, though, that supersedes practicality. Warren Buffett once said, “I should write a book on how to get by on $500 million because apparently there are a lot of people who don’t know how to do it.” Beyond a critical point, there is no pragmatic reason to pursue WAAE. Beyond that critical point, it’s about ego.

In a conversation with an investment banking friend who comes from wealth and who aspires to billions, I finally got an honest response to the burning question, why? He gave three reasons. The first is that he wants to know that no matter how badly his kids and grandkids fuck up, they’ll end up fine. The second is that, after a certain level of wealth accumulation, the world becomes your toy.  Excess becomes an art constrained only by imagination. The third is ego. He wants to walk into a room and have people whisper about what he’s done and how much he’s worth.

businesscard-2gan793

Reasons two and three are related in that if a person leverages wealth in a creative way, people will whisper about it. A different friend of mine, a guy who worked at SAC Capital, visited Stephen A. Cohen’s house one time. Since then, whenever I’ve seen him, he’s heralded how his former boss has a room filled with original Picassos, just because he likes Picasso. Next to the Picasso Room is the Monet Room. My first friend, the one who divulged his three reasons for coveting billions, started salivating when recounted The Tale Of The Picasso Room. He wants private planes.

A private plane is just a symbol, though. How can a person work 16-hour days with a private plane as his salvation? No, it isn’t about the plane at all. What he wants is to win one of the most competitive games on Earth. To him, money is a scoreboard, and his competitors are the other prospective billionaires. What really motivates him isn’t a private plane, it’s the person sitting next to him making more money but who he thinks he’s better than. In the halls at work, all he hears about are people cashing in on jackpots. He almost screamed to me, “There are those rats all around, doing it in so many different ways!”

In the wealth game, only one measurement matters. How you got it carries far less weight than the number at the bottom.  After all, Stephen A. Cohen plead guilty to insider trading. What my friend wants isn’t a billion dollars or a private plane, it’s the knowledge that he played a game very, very well. He wants to win. I understand that. I understand that very, very well, and I hope he gets there.

The well-wishes are mutual, too. He sees that I’m playing a different game. He respects more than most the fact that I wrote a novel, and he hopes it finds a good publisher. The competition (ie. those rats), it should be noted, are the others playing his game who he thinks he’s better than but who are currently ahead of him. I feel that same spite when reading a book I don’t think is as good as mine but somehow found a publisher.

The venerable Donald Trump once said, “(Money) is but a scorecard that tells me I’ve won and by how much.”  Later on he retreated, “You have to measure somebody by more than that. There are a lot of guys that I respect a great deal who don’t have much money. And there are guys who do have a lot of money whom I don’t much respect.” What he means is that everyone is playing a different game, and a person should be judged not based on how well he plays your game, but on how well he plays the one he has chosen. More so, what he means is that you can be good at a game but still be a sleazeball.   That Trump said so himself is either ironic or self-aware.

As someone who recently learned he’s too ego-driven for humanitarian work, my threshold for condemning a behavior as ‘greedy’ extends further than that of the otherwise like-minded, New York Times-quoting Liberal. I do not believe a person should be chastised for acting within his best interest, and I do believe it’s primarily the state’s responsibility to make sure an individual’s interests are aligned with society’s. However, I also contend that there is a point at which money-mongering is more detrimental to the individual than the alternative, not making as much money. That’s when I judge.

DogCatCartoonI respect a person who has a goal, no matter how obscure, and works towards it. I respect billionaires, especially the ones who got to that level by making a significant and positive contribution. What I don’t respect is the person who is so consumed by the game and with the scoreboard that he forgets how fortunate he is to be playing it at such a high level. He forgets that money has a functional purpose. He forgets that the majority of individuals are more accustomed to cardboard roofs than to champagne fountains. What I don’t respect is the person who leverages the status achieved from being very good at a game in order to excuse poor citizenship and mistreatment of others. The biggest challenge, I imagine, that faces a person society exalts as successful, is to maintain a sense of perspective. The riddle is that, by losing perspective, no matter how many pundits or sycophants hail your victories, you’ve lost in the most important game, the one everyone has to play, the daily challenge to reconcile one’s own humanity.

Someone Send Liam Neeson to Paris

Point blank: Are you following me?
Yes, he said.

The audacity of his simple answer bordered on the comical. I would have laughed at the admission if I weren’t a single woman, alone at night, in a foreign country, betting my security on a show of strength. Are you following me? I demanded, seething. And he was.

Kelsey in FranceThere had already been mussels and wine, overcast skies above the Seine photographed with pleasure, crepes on the barge Daphne, a sweaty jet-lagged nap in the tiny apartment, easy use of the rail from the airport. July’s Paris keeps sunlight well into evening, and by twilight I had been from Charles de Gaulle to 10, 4, 1, 2 and 6 with leisure. Quenching my thirst for Paris became more effortless as the day lengthened.

“Stop following me. I am standing here and watching you walk away, and I will call the police the moment I see you again.”

I had been careful with my guidebook, pulling it out of my bag only inside the restaurant and stowing it when on the move. Signaling unfamiliarity can draw kind pity from some, frustration from others, and menace in the worst cases. While I’ve brazenly stood on sidewalks surveying Google maps in the city that I live, or argued about directions with travel companions, the self-awareness of solo travel is both difficult and unadvisable to suppress.

I should acknowledge that not all travelers will share my perspective. Even if blind, ignorant, and unwarranted, confidence is left intact more often than not. Without it even seasoned travelers would not go, the risks too pressing to enjoy adventure. And yet, confidence is easily spoiled, even without the added risk of travel. A marriage proposal in the Met may sound romantic, unless it comes from a persistent, imbalanced stranger. Attention on the street may be a mere annoyance, unless that attention comes from an otherwise standard young man repeatedly grasping at your long hair. Pausing to view a display of books in the shop window with a fellow pedestrian is innocuous, unless he has been pacing you for blocks and waits silently with you at the display until you start walking again. Strange things happen, and it would be foolish not to update confidence levels. And so the clever quips that preceded my solo trip to Paris, “I hope you don’t get Taken,” made me laugh as I picked out a guidebook small enough to conceal in my purse. I was vigilant.

 

It baffled me, then, to feel the prowl that first evening in Paris. The eerie sensation is not alien, if you’ve ever known it before. The space behind you suddenly captivates. The awareness develops from behind, the back of your head and your neck becoming sensitive, your eyes fixing in place so you can listen, process. I could tell he was bulky – short but meaty, deliberate and heavy in stride. The awareness rotates to the side, your slanted eye sweep cataloguing everything that peripheral vision promises. He was sweaty and dusky, skin touched by the sun and clothing creased and nondescript. His lips drew back into a smile as he noted my fleeting survey. Awareness pulls briefly to the front, purposefully identifying where your body will be next, and then his body after that. It snaps again to the side, the back, the awareness extending and shimmering and roiling, the discomfort palpable and purpose singular: Get away.

I moved to the interior portion of the sidewalk, the slow lane. Pausing to scan a menu, I peered obliquely down the street toward the entrance, still unfamiliar, of the gated alleyway concealing my rented apartment. I strode forward, gauging the sunset. I needed to lose him before I reached my apartment or the sun went down, whichever came first. I entered the first store I saw, a tiny bodega selling wine and corkscrews and shampoo. Here’s where I deflect him, I thought – it’s not my first time shaking a stranger. I took a bottle of wine from the shelf and peered under my brow at the window of the shop. When he passes outside, I’ll wait. If he does not, I’ll talk to the shopkeeper.

Stop StalkingBut he was inside the store with me. He was around the corner; he was next to me. Even as his eyes settled, unchanging and satisfied, there was an incongruous thrill in his body. He advanced minutely in posture with every shift I made. In the intimacy of the bodega he could have touched me with just a small hand gesture. But his limbs hung; any brush against me would emanate from his torso, pelvis, thighs. It was deranged, the closeness with which he followed me around the shelves in the store. We could have been slow dancing. I paid for the wine without saying a word, my horrible French concealed along with my growing concern. My thoughts were no longer on frustrated expectations of safety. Now I was baffled by the simultaneous irony and gravity of becoming the victim such a formulaic event.

I exited and doubled back purposefully, visiting a second store. Wash, rinse, repeat. But I couldn’t rinse myself of him. After losing him briefly, he was beside me again, eyeing me evenly with the same leer. I looked back at him, held his eye. There was no mistake. I paused to consider another menu; he waited. It had been 25 minutes. Spinning around, I looked him in the eye, scanned him up and down, and faced him squarely. The sun was nearly down, my apartment close enough that I could only avoid revealing my residence to him a little longer. I set my stance, deepened my voice, narrowed my eyes and leaned toward him aggressively. Are you following me?

I’m certain every young woman has seen an article: what to do if you think you are being followed. Usually all it takes for me is a quick confirmation that I have an intentional shadow, a swing into a public place, and in the worst of cases, a pointed glare enough to communicate that I’m not an oblivious, easy target. That I’ve done this more than once is moderately unsettling, and the subject of several incredulous, fortunately amusing recounts with friends. Either I’m a beacon for bizarre advances, or I’m uncannily aware of my average share of lurkers. Whichever it is, I had never met with such persistence. And all of the articles agree: persistence is a problem. The shadow that doesn’t go away when you’ve tried standard escape tactics is a dangerous shadow.

“Are you following me?” And then, thrusting my arm forward, “get out of here. This is offensive.”

Hey StalkerConfrontation is risky, but I had run out of sunlight and I was done drawing him ever closer to my door. Twice I confronted him, saw him absorbed by the streets, only to have him reappear. Never ruffled, only hot with hostility, I asserted myself a third time and bought the minute to slip swiftly into the gated alleyway containing my rented apartment.

With a secure gate closed behind me, I could have exhaled. But losing my shadow seemed a minor victory: if he had seen my escape, he knew my address. And it wasn’t him that concerned me in that moment: it was the portent of being picked out, stalked to my doorstep, and marked. Maybe for later. Before my imagination could overwhelm me, I searched the Internet for emergency numbers in Paris and called. Yes, I was foreign; yes, I could describe him in detail; yes I was behind a locked door; yes, he was gone – no, wait, he was not gone. I was looking down at him from inside my darkened apartment. Inside my gated alleyway. He stood eerily still in the otherwise deserted corridor.

Three French policemen later, he remained un-apprehended. The next day, I left that apartment, alleyway, and arrondissement in the company of my landlord, and didn’t come back. Despite it, I loved Paris. As a lifelong stalker of Paris, I won’t be deterred by the one time it stalks me.  I only wish I had Liam Neeson on speed dial.

Tennis’ Warrior King

Nadal Muscle

The first time I saw Rafael Nadal on television was December 3, 2004, when the unknown 18-year-old stunned world #2 Andy Roddick in 4 sets to lead Spain’s Davis Cup team past a flummoxed American squad. A casual fan glancing scorelines would’ve attributed the result to Roddick’s notorious record on clay. But those who watched knew. Across the net from Roddick, bedecked in sleeveless-and-capris, was a tornado of competitive grit and pasión the likes of which the sport, and perhaps sports in general, had never seen. The first point I ever saw of Nadal, he lobbed one of Roddick’s missile serves back in play and then shuffled to 10 feet behind the baseline, where he ran from side-to-side, refusing to secede what would, against anyone else, have been a 3-shot rally. After an exchange, Roddick lashed an inside-out forehand into the ad (left) corner and closed on the net. At that point almost 15 feet behind the baseline, Nadal sprinted top-speed, barely getting a racket on the ball, not just floating it back, like a human would do, but blasting it with his trademark top-spin in such a way that it looked like it was going wide-left but barely curled to catch the outside of the line, highlighting everything with a 360-degree fist-pump and yelling “Vamós!” To all of this, the immediate reaction was a deferential silence, our collective shock paying homage to a shot of the caliber tennis might never see again. Then a thunderous applause and closer examination of the artist.

The first thing we noticed were the biceps, bronzed and bulging, glistening with sweat. Then we saw the shoulder length hair outlining a snarling face, raring for the next rally. Who was this guy? Surely it was a gimmick. Certainly this level of intensity could not be sustained. There was something raw about him. Something at once Aboriginal, with his boomerang forehand, and Spartan, with his spear-like two-hander. The guy was more of a boxer than a tennis player, and when he was on court, it wasn’t tennis, it was battle. His essence was that of a man the Greeks might’ve honored with statues. We were watching Achilles.

Three points later, Nadal hit the exact same full-extension, running forehand, the ball barely clipping the line. Then he did it again. And again, quickly settling the debate about whether or not he was a gimmick. I’ve seen this shot hundreds of times by now and have grown numb to it in the same way society is tired of marveling at having put a man on the moon.

For such a masturbatory article, it’s only natural to spotlight the world’s most well-constructed left wrist. Among a plethora of endowments, it’s this carpus potentis, this muñeca poderosa, that roots the impossibility of what he does. Without it, he’d be Fernando Verdasco, another big, strong, left-handed Spaniard. It’s the flick of this hallowed joint that bases the most devastating shot in professional tennis, a top-spin forehand that has reached 5,000 and averages 3,200 revolutions per minute. For reference, Sampras and Agassi averaged around 1,800 rpm, which is considered high. It’s a shot just as functional as its helicopter follow-through is flashy. Top-spin is to tennis what a hedge is to an investor. It allows the actor to target more volatile, higher-potential opportunities without broaching recklessness. The effect of the surplus top-spin on Nadal’s forehand is that the ball rockets off the court and above the opponent’s shoulder. The action on the ball gives it weight; thus, the major conundrum a tennis player encounters is not one Nadal runs into: He doesn’t have to sacrifice power for precision, or visa versa.

The forehand, though the most potent arrow in his quiver, is not his most supernatural one. That honor goes to the backhand overhead, which he hits as if it’s a forehand overhead. This shot is the credential that might confuse Professor X into bringing Nadal to his Westchester mansion along with Cyclops and Wolverine. Literally nobody else can do this. In fact, it shouldn’t be physically possible. To do it, he jumps, contorting so that his back is parallel to the net and his chest is facing the baseline. At the point of contact, his eyes are not watching the ball, yet the sacrosanct wrist flicks at exactly the right time, as if endowed with, in addition to strength, telekinetic capability. The result is a smash of the variety where its first contact is with the court just across the net, and the second is with the hand of a lucky individual sitting in the third row.

Nadal belongs to the special class of modern athletes who might be branded as ‘next-evolution,’ meaning that 30 years from now, when athletes are bound to be more athletic than they are today, Nadal would still be among the elite. Past such athletes are Michael Jordan and Muhammad Ali. Rafa’s contemporaries are LeBron James and Calvin Johnson. He is an Adonis among Adoni. He could have played any sport and been among the very best. In fact, Nadal’s athletic prowess has been so entrenched in tennis dogma that it’s referenced more to belittle than to opine. Detractors minimize his game as ‘hulking’ and ‘brutish’ to insinuate a lack of nuance. But such a neg only betrays blindness to the finer points of tennis on behalf of the utterer. Grueling physicality is what’s easiest to spot, but it’s the nuance that makes his game beautiful. It’s a game that accessorizes in ways that would make his sponsors at Armani drool.

Nadal Armani

The most obvious rebut to those pigeonholing him as power-sans-finesse is that in an era where most top players serve in the 130s, Rafa’s serve barely breaks 120 mph. Though he doesn’t serve big, he serves smart, employing an arsenal of lefty-slice body serves that handcuff opponents in the deuce court and not fucking around on break/game points—serving wide to the opponent’s backhand. His serve is broken at a rate of 15%, and he saves break-points-against at a clip of 64%.

Which brings me to my real jones for Rafa. Saving break points is much less of a tactical feat than a psychological one. Anyone can string together a few good shots when pressure is low. In the critical moments, only the toughest can reign in emotions and give the point a special focus such that he’s both playing within himself and raising his level, trusting the process rather than going-for-broke after a stunted exchange.

Even his opponents acknowledge Rafa as the toughest competitor on tour. This is a statement that’s difficult to dispute, as he has a winning record against everyone currently ranked in the top 32. The only person who has played him more than 10 times who boasts a winning record is Nikolay Davydenko (6-5), whose bald head has suspiciously lost in the round prior every time it looked as if Nadal might get a chance to even the score. The reason, I submit, that he’s so good on clay is that it’s the surface that most rewards the fiercer competitor, the slower pace and higher bounce inducing longer, more grueling rallies. The viewer experience of Nadal is the opposite of that of Federer. The Swiss is a Rolex, doing it with seemingly effortless refinement. Nadal is one of those clocks without casing, in which the turn of every cog is visible. He wows not with simplicity and ease but with the distance he’s willing to run and the duress he’s able to sustain.

The externality on sport of a man who never beats himself is entirely positive. When facing Nadal, a player knows he’ll be steamrolled if he cracks just a little bit. He knows Nadal doesn’t lull. In fact, on the rare occasion when he isn’t the best player on the court, such as in 2011 when Djokovic went on his tirade, Rafa fights even harder. The most vivid instance was the third set of the 2011 US Open. Djokovic had won the previous two sets, and Nadal was clearly out-classed. Somehow, though, he willed his game to a level it had never reached and thus willed the sport to a level it had never broached, as at that point, tennis had never been played at a higher caliber than Djokovic was straddling, and Nadal had inched above that mark. In the third set, he hit every backhand, which for the previous 9 months had been wobbly and uncertain, as hard as 188 pounds (so we’re told) transmitted through titanium alloy permits, fist-pumping and snarling after every line-clipping laser, winning the set 7-6. Djokovic was then forced, in the fourth set, to raise his game to an even more never-before-seen level to win the tournament.

Even though Rafa lost, the match illustrates the value of Nadal’s competitive grit to his greatest competitors. Without Rafa pushing them, nobody would’ve seen how good Djokovic and Federer truly are. The highest quality matches of these two legends’ careers have been against Rafa. For Federer it was Wimbledon 2008, and for Novak, it was the Australian Open in 2012, when he fought from down a break in the fifth to hoist the trophy.

Nadal’s impact on the overall level of the sport was evidenced by how conspicuous his absence was in 2012 and early 2013. Unfortunately, these long-term absences have been a mainstay throughout his 10 years on tour. Nobody wants to win the Comeback Player of the Year Award twice. His first hiatus piggy-backed his maiden French Open defeat to Robin Soderling in 2009. The second came in 2012, following a second-round Wimbledon loss to Lukas Rosol, who was at that point ranked 100 in the ATP world rankings. In both cases, the culprit was a shaky knee, screaming with agony at all the punishment it had endured. He’s human afterall. Instead of Achilles, we’ll call him Patellar.

Another injury is one of three things that might derail his assault on Federer’s record of 17 Grand Slams. The second is another 2011-like coup by Djokovic. The third is a doping scandal. A side-effect of a muscular physique, doping allegations have hounded Rafa since his career began. His accusers point to a few sketchy episodes. Some believe his absences weren’t injury-related, that perhaps it was the ATP’s way of silently punishing him for a positive test. The main instance accusers point to is Operation Puerto. In 2006, Spanish doctor Eufemio Fuentes was busted for running a massive doping ring linked to cycling, tennis, soccer, boxing, and track. In the sting, over 200 blood bags labeled with code names were collected. In 2012, against the wills of the World Anti-Doping Agency, the Italian doping authority, the Spanish doping authority, the International Tennis Federation, and even Dr. Fuentes himself, a Spanish judge opted to destroy all the evidence, an action prompting Andy Murray to tweet, “beyond a joke… biggest cover up in sports history?”

In fairness to Nadal, he, to our knowledge, has never failed a drug test, and, when he was out for 7 months in 2012 and early 2013, he was the subject of a record 7+ out of competition tests. That said, reasons for speculation about not just Nadal, but about the entire sport of tennis abound. Djokovic, for example, attributes his rise in 2011 to a gluten free diet. Tennis might be experiencing the same type of chronic doping that baseball saw in the 1990s and cycling saw in the early 2000s.  This is exactly why the athletes will never get caught. Positive tests by Nadal and Djokovic would act as astroids extinguishing the sport’s global popularity. No sport depends on the likability of its ambassadors more than tennis does.

And aside from doping allegations, Nadal is very likable. It’s the quirks that charm us. Famously OCD, he can’t sit still in his chair on changeovers, jittering his legs like a 5 year old that needs to pee. There are a host of similarly juvenile superstitions that wholly clash with his gladiator persona. In the pregame sit-down he spends over 30 seconds pulling his socks up and down so they are exactly the same height. He’ll bring two water bottles, one slightly warmer than the other, to every match, stationing them meticulously next to his chair. Before serving, he’ll pick his shorts out of his butt and brush his hair behind his ears. While waiting for the pre-match coin toss, he’s bounding from one leg to another, and, after service is assigned, he sprints in a zig-zag to his baseline. Between points and after games, he never steps on lines, and, on changeovers, he’ll wait for his opponent to cross the net before he does.

There are other mannerisms, too, that are a little more overt, and, though some are annoying, they add to that sense of watching a 9 year old who was never forced to grow up. He, for example, takes an inappropriately long time before serving. The rule is 25 seconds between the end of a rally and the toss of a first serve. Nadal routinely exceeds this. When warned by the umpire, he gets irrationally angry, as if he did nothing wrong, and ends up winning the next three points before glaring at the ref while avoiding stepping on the lines as he walks to his chair. Other examples of Nadal’s seemingly innocent graying of rules are his tribulations with in-game coaching. Before serving, he’ll look to his Uncle Toni for a signal on where to serve. After a close call, he’ll look to his coach for advice on whether or not to challenge. To be clear, in-game coaching is not permitted, yet somehow it’s accepted that Rafa receives it, a tidbit that is both adorable and gives credence to those who promote steroid-theory.

These self-entitled ticks disappear after the match. He is shy with the media and overwhelmingly gracious to opponents. After suffering a hamstring injury in the 2011 Australian Open and subsequently losing to David Ferrer, he refused to chalk up the loss to injury, even though it was clearly the only explanation for the result. In the trophy ceremony after the 2009 Australian Open Final, the best match Rafa has ever played, where he beat Federer in a 5 set thriller, he at the same time paid respect to Federer as the greatest ever and apologized for beating him. And he didn’t see the irony. In fact, he hates when supporters hail him as the greatest ever, so, out of respect to Rafa, I won’t make the case. (If you’re interested, it was made here by Andre Agassi, and again here, by roaming20s).

Nadal the tennis player can be most succinctly described as Uncle Toni’s masterpiece. He isn’t just a product of his uncle’s coaching, he’s his uncle’s robot. Rafa’s unquestioning respect of his uncle’s authority is comparable to that of a Nazi to Hitler. Luckily for Rafa, his uncle hasn’t misled him. In his nephew, Uncle Toni created a tennis game analogous to a Picasso painting. Something seemingly disjointed, deviating from the norm in a way that’s better. The most galling of Uncle Toni’s experiments was putting a racket in his left hand even though Rafa was born right-handed. Left-handedness is an advantage in tennis, as lefties serve wide to the ad court. The double-handed backhand on his dominant side also allows him flick the ball cross-court even when it’s behind his natural strike-zone.

Writing a person off as someone else’s minion is, in most circumstances, insulting. About a soldier, however, there’s no greater compliment. Perhaps what allows Rafa to remain so tough in big moments is that the internal dialogue is non-existent. He’s outsourced all decision-making and is simply doing what he’s been programmed to do. Perhaps his biggest advantage has been an ability to disregard ego.

He does this with his business decisions as well. His dad tells him which sponsorships to take and which advertisements to do. In these endeavors he’s been very successful, at least financially. This website estimates he made $21 million last year just from sponsors. However, his branding taints him a bit. It tested my loyalty as a fan when he published a mid-career, ghost-written autobiography. The 250 blandest pages I’ve ever read, the main point was that even though he’s a celebrity, he isn’t the celebrity type. There wasn’t an authentic sentence in the entire thing. The day after reading it, the ATP World Tour website had a feature about him teaming up with Bar Rafaeli in mixed doubles at a fundraising event. A couple of weeks later, I stumbled upon a Shakira music video with Nadal prominently featured. I felt like a chump. The only reason for that book’s existence was to take advantage of his most loyal fans’ desire to believe in him.

Nadal-Bar

The fact is, the book sold, he made money, and I can’t fault him for capitalizing on his celebrity. I learned a valuable lesson: never read athlete memoirs. Even though I didn’t learn much about his internal philosophy, I learned how his advisers have chosen to brand him. More than anything, they’d like us to see a family man, someone who’s unassuming and comes back home to Mallorca, where none of his childhood friends acknowledge his global celebrity. While the bit about his friends ignoring his status seems far-fetched, I really do believe he’s a family man. The only non-injury related setback to his career came when his parents divorced. He’s kept his uncle as his coach. His parents, sister, and girlfriend travel with him to every tournament, the awkward part of the arrangement being his sister might be more attractive than his girlfriend. And at major tournaments, such as Wimbledon, he stays in big houses for groups of 9 or 10.

From what I can glean of his non brand-enhanced personality, he loves Spain, he loves soccer, and he loves Spanish soccer. Every month or so he’ll be photographed with Spanish royalty. When Spain won the World Cup, he went down to South Africa to party with his buddy Iker Casillas, goalie for the Spanish national team. A good three-quarters of his Facebook activity involves him playing video games with other Spanish celebrities. It seems to me, that, contrary to what his book says, he loves everything about the celebrity lifestyle except for the fact that the media controls his narrative. In a perfect world, he’d be making all the money the ads bring in and hanging out with Spanish royalty and sports stars without having to talk to journalists. I don’t knock him for that. I just wish he’d said it in his book instead of treating his fans like idiots.

Nadal-Queen-Casillas

Sometimes, I admit, I get so fed up with Nadal’s branding that I break up with him. I vow to cheer for Murray in the next tournament. Murray is a good choice because he’s the best player who isn’t Federer or Djokovic. Unfortunately, love is chemical, not logical. The moment I see Rafa grunting and snarling on court, I’m reminded of the 18 year old dripping with pasión, curling a forehand past an outstretched Andy Roddick, fist-pumping for Spanish glory. When he hits a backhand overhead as if it’s a forehand overhead, I can’t help but marvel at the world’s most well-constructed left wrist. After a few rallies, I apologize to Murray for having teased him and sheepishly retreat to the Nadal camp.

So beyond felatio, what was the point of all this?

Love, I’ve heard, is an addiction. The same brain regions light up for someone in the midst of deep romance as for someone addicted to cocaine. Both cocaine and romance trigger a dopamine surge. When accustomed to this instrument of dopamine release, if a person goes without it for an extended period of time, he becomes depressed, aching for nothing but that one thing that sets him free.

In the same way, a sports fan can grow attached to a certain player. Not to the person, but to the way the person plays a game. Rafael Nadal’s top-spin forehand, backhand overhead, and general mental fortitude have instrumented so many dopamine surges, so many moments of euphoria, that I can forgive him for almost anything. I can forgive his likely doping. I can forgive childish entitlements, like receiving in-game coaching. I can forgive having been victimized by one of the most ceramic branding campaigns in sports. I can forgive all of that because what really matters to a tennis fan is the game, and Rafael Nadal’s tennis game is something in which I have seen and recognized beauty for a sustained period of time.

So the point of this article, as with felatio, is that all anyone wants is a thrill, and, when one has been delivered, it’s nice to acknowledge it.

 

Finding Kokomo

THE BEACH BOYS ARCHIVE IMAGES

It’s a miracle the Beach Boys are cool. They’re a glee club with a pitch somewhere between soprano and alto.  Not one of them is notably handsome or edgy, and in album covers they wear dorky shirts and sweaters.  Shouldn’t a band named “The Beach Boys” be tanned with sun-lightened hair? Shouldn’t they be comfortable without shirts?

But somehow they’re legends at being cool.

Twangy and electric, their tone is closer to that of an 80s pop band than to their 60s contemporaries.

As are their lyrics.

Bob Dylan’s songs – such as “Hurricane,” in which he describes the injustices done to an African American boxer – became anthems of the Civil Rights movement.  The Beatles’ music promotes peace over war[1] and open-mindedness towards drug use and other social phenomena.[2]

By contrast, in their 1963 hit “Catch a Wave,” the Beach Boys weigh in on the “is surfing just a fad?” debate, arguing that it’s not just a fad because “it’s been going on so long.”

Beach Boys 1

Dylan and The Beatles look like high school dropouts, then they shock you with the poignancy of their commentary on relevant issues.  The Beach Boys look like prep school class officers and shock you by choosing inane subjects rather than projecting their intellects.

After the success of Surfin’ Safari (1962), there was still so much to say about surfing that they were compelled to follow with not only Surfin’ U.S.A (1963) but also Surf’s Up (1971).  Together, these albums have 11 songs with some form of the word “surf” in the title and more, such as “Catch a Wave,” which extol surfing.

This association with surfing is critical to the band’s coolness. As is their association with California during a period when the state was less accessible to the East Coast and still a mysterious, sun-drenched dream.

But the Beach Boys transcend because of the maturity with which they focus on the positive experiences of youth. They’re light, smooth, and digestible. A typical song of their’s lasts fewer than 3 minutes. They avoid sex, money, and politics, and nothing about them tries too hard.  Where even is Kokomo? Is it real? Do you know anyone who’s been?  All I know is that I want to go when they sing about it.

Many other bands that sing almost exclusively about being young connect to adolescents through passion but lose adults with their lyrics that lack perspective.  As a sophomore in high school, I listened Bon Jovi’s Crossroads every night before going to bed. Now, his superlatives make me cringe.  I have a soft-spot for him the same way I have one for Saved by the Bell – as entertainment I once enjoyed but with which I no longer connect.

The Beach Boys, by contrast, focus on “girls” instead of “love.” “Surfing” and “cars” instead of “life.”  Their romantic songs focus on dancing and skipping school rather than hyperbolizing sentiments. They focus on activity rather than wisdom; their songs project wanting and doing things, not knowing them. Their sophistication when conveying youth stems from the simplicity with which they evoke verbs whose actions adolescents are better than adults at performing.Beach Boys 5

As a result, even when the Beach Boys were gaining fame, their fan base comprised as many adults as adolescents.  Adults – old enough to “say good night and stay together,” and old enough to know that being married doesn’t necessarily mean being happy – reminiscing about the painful constraints of high school love while rocking out to “Wouldn’t it Be Nice.”

Between the ages of 5 and 15, my family would drive 11 hours from DC to Wild Dunes, a South Carolina beach town near Charleston, for our annual week of summer vacation.  The kids didn’t enjoy talk radio.  The adults didn’t enjoy pop music.  And the only old music all the kids liked was the Beach Boys.  So for about 150 hours of family car time, the 20 Good Vibrations album played on repeat.

More so than any other entertainment I consumed as a child, my connection to the Beach Boys has yet to fray.  I once admired them as a group of older kids who sang about things I wanted to do when I was older.  Now I see them as a quirky misfit among their contemporaries; with a unique sound, brilliant brand, contagious positive energy, and sophisticated simplicity, they veered from the formula of the times and still managed to become superstars.

I’m lucky to have built a connection when I was young with a band that both sings about youth and that I haven’t outgrown.

When I close my eyes to the Beach Boys, I retreat to the little place I know that’s like Kokomo.  I see Carolina’s beaches and swamps and the silhouettes of mosquitoes under street-lamps while I taste that fresh-grilled Atlantic shrimp.  Red after playing tennis in the afternoon heat, I press a cold can of Mellow Yellow to my cheek.  I shiver in the over-air-conditioned Piggly Wiggly as I scan the boogie boards, excited as only a child can be.

And sometimes I even go to a dance lookin’ for romance, see Barbara Ann, and think about takin’ a chance.

 

[1] Ex. “Revolution,” and “Give Peace a Chance”

[2] Ex. “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds”