Cranial Reflections

Earlier this week they moved a towering red crane onto a construction site on my walk to work, and as I strolled past one morning I saw the crane reflected in the glass windows of a neighboring building.  It looked like a piece of modern art, with color gradations from the background sky, the cubist boxes, and the red colors threading upward and across from bottom to top.

Interesting, isn’t it, how the human brain searches for pattern wherever and whatever it perceives sight or sound?  It may cause us to see creepy faces on wallpaper or presidential profiles on potato chips, but it’s also useful– and would cause most people to recognize this distorted image as a reflection of a crane.

Board Game Indoctrination

Of course, I played Monopoly as a kid.  What American kid didn’t?  And Life, and Chutes and Ladders, and Risk.  They were fun games that everybody had, and a great way to pass the time on a cold and rainy weekend afternoon.  And, as I was moving my little tin race car or cannon around the board, trying to purchase selected properties, work out trades to establish my monopolies, build hotels before everyone else did, and then hope that other players would land on my properties and pay me lots of that colorful Monopoly money — especially those rich gold $500 bills — I wasn’t thinking that basic cultural and social training was being drilled into me with every move.

img_5823But, of course, it was.  Part of the training was just the idea of a game that had rules that you and every other player had to follow, or else the game wouldn’t work.  Monopoly players, for example, couldn’t just move their pieces to whichever spot they chose or freely take money from the bank; they had to roll the dice and count out the spaces and pay for houses and hotels to make their properties more valuable and take their medicine if they landed on Boardwalk and accept getting knocked out of the game if their money was gone.

But while kids moving their pieces around the board might not realize it, there was deeper social and cultural training, too, in the sense of what you needed to do to win the game.  If you played Monopoly, you wanted to buy property, make the most advantageous trades imaginable even if it meant ruthlessly taking advantage of your kid sister while doing so, accumulate every monopoly, drive other people out of business and into bankruptcy, and have the biggest bank account ever.  What better introduction to the American capitalist model of the world than Monopoly?  And you learned about the desired behavioral norms in other games, too.  In Life, you wanted to get that college degree and land on those pay days.  In Chutes and Ladders, you saw that if you landed on a space that showed good behavior, you could climb up the ladder to the top, but if you landed on a space where the kid had broken a window with a baseball, it was down the chute to the bottom.  And in Risk, you wanted to build armies in your corner of the world and then have them sweep across other territories until you conquered and dominated the entire globe.

I thought about the social and cultural aspects of board games when I saw this article about board games sold during the Nazi era in Germany.  When you think about it, it’s no surprise that some Nazi board games would reflect core concepts of the Nazi system.  The games feature swastikas, goose-stepping and Seig Heiling soldiers, and heroic defense of the Fatherland, and encouraged players to plot attacks on the English coast, shoot down Allied planes, or defeat troublesome Jews.  What kid growing up in Germany playing these games wouldn’t be subconsciously channeled into specific, officially sanctioned ways of looking at the world?  And the same is true of the early Soviet Union, which featured games like Electrification, Revolution, Reds vs. Whites, and Maneuvers:  A Game for Young Pioneers, all of which tackled pressing issues that the country was confronting in the ’20s and ’30s and indoctrinated the players in the accepted, official view of those issues along the way.  (Presumably people didn’t have to pay for the communist games.)

It makes you wonder what the board games in North Korea, Iran, or ISIS-controlled territories look like.  I’m guessing that, in North Korea these days, they play a lot of their version of Risk.

In Our Own Personal Silos

The Brown Bear sent me this interesting article from The Economist.  The article is, on its surface, a rumination about Ohio Governor John Kasich and his new book, Two Paths:  America Divided or United, but the interesting stuff in the article wasn’t so much about the book as it was about our country.  It’s one of those articles that leave you nodding a bit, as you find that the conclusions drawn square with your own experience.

The gist of the underlying sociological message in the article is this:  Americans have become more and more confined and channeled in their interaction (or, more accurately, lack of interaction) with other Americans.  It isn’t just that Americans spend more time in individualized pursuits, such as watching TV, tapping away on their smart phones, working out, or surfing the internet — it’s that their entire lives are being designed, shaped, and structured to limit their exposure to people with different backgrounds, interests, and views.  In short, more and more people are living in their own personal silos.

silosOne element of this phenomenon is that Americans now are much less likely to participate in joint activities — be it bowling leagues, fraternal organizations, churches, or community groups — than used to be the case.  Alexis de Tocqueville noted, in the classic Democracy in America published way back in the 1830s, that Americans were unusually prone to forming associations and joining groups.  That remained true for decades; Grandpa Neal, for example, bowled in the Masonic League in Akron for more than 60 years and was a member of the Masons, the Odd Fellows, and a host of other civic and fraternal groups.  How many people do you know these days who are willing to spend their weekday evenings and weekends away from their homes and participating in such activities?  I don’t know many — and I include myself in that group.

But the change is even deeper than that.  The Economist article linked above notes that Americans now tend to live in distinct enclaves with people who share their political views and conditions.  One indicator of this is voting patterns in elections.  In the 1976 presidential election, some 27% of Americans lived in “landslide counties” that Jimmy Carter either won or lost by at least 20 percentage points.  In the 2004, 48 percent of the counties were “landslide counties,” and in 2016, fully 60 percent of the counties in America — nearly two thirds — voted for Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton by more than 20 percentage points.

What does this all mean?  It suggests that many Americans now tend not to even engage with people with different perspectives.  They don’t see them when they go home at night, they don’t talk to them, and they have no significant understanding of their thoughts, concerns, . . . or lives.  When people are so cloistered, looking only at the kind of websites that mirror their views and interacting only with people who share those views, there will inevitably be a great divide that will become increasingly difficult to bridge.  How do you get people who live in separate worlds, who don’t play softball or attend club meetings or participate in any interactive communal activities together, to understand and appreciate where people of different views are coming from, and why they hold those views in the first place?  Facile social media memes and tweets that depict people of opposing views as dolts, racists, sluggards, communists, or any of the other names that have become so common don’t seem to be working very well, do they?

This, I think, is one of the big-picture issues that we need to address as we work to get America back on track — and like many big-picture issues, it’s not really being discussed or addressed by anyone, because these days we focus on the small things.  I’m not saying, of course, that government should forcibly relocate people to achieve some kind of political or economic balance, or that government should focus on providing tax incentives to encourage people to join the local Moose lodge.  Government didn’t need to do that in colonial America or in the America of Grandpa Neal’s day, and it shouldn’t be needed now.  Somehow, though, Americans need to find a way to start actually talking to, and interacting with, each other again.

O’Hare After Dark

I’m here in O’Hare Airport tonight, waiting to catch a late flight home.  So far, at least, no one has assaulted me or tried to bodily remove me from a seat — but my adventure is not yet over.


There’s definitely a surreal quality to O’Hare after dark.  It’s an enormous facility, designed to accommodate huge throngs of passengers, so when night comes and the crowds have seriously thinned out, the solitary traveler is almost overwhelmed by the vast spaces.  There was a guy playing a solitary saxophone at the end of the walkway leading to Concourse 3, and his echoing notes perfectly captured the kind of lonely feeling that is created when you’re traveling alone, through oppressively large, impersonal spaces that make you feel swallowed up and almost nonexistent.

There’s no better advertisement for the pleasures of “home” than O’Hare after dark.

Dead Or Alive?

Don Rickles died today.  The insult comedian who was a mainstay on The Tonight Show and the Dean Martin Celebrity Roasts and who delighted in calling people “hockey pucks” was 90.

abc-don-rickles-obit-jc-170406_mn_4x3t_384And this sounds terrible to say, but my first reaction to the news was:  “That’s interesting.  I guess I thought he was dead already.”

I feel very guilty about this reflexive response, but it happens all the time these days.  Some musician, comedian, movie star, or sitcom actor from the ’50s, ’60s or ’70s kicks the bucket, and you could have sworn they’d already gone to meet their maker.  I think the reason for that response is that, during their period of great fame, those celebrities are seen so frequently that they become expected, everyday sights on talk shows, in magazine articles, on game shows, and in guest roles on sitcoms.  Then, when their period of fame ends, as is inevitably the case, you associate their ongoing lack of presence on the popular scene with . . . death.  In fact, the only way you know for sure that they’re not in fact dead is if they suddenly get hauled out to award an Oscar or give a tribute to one of their just departed colleagues.

So, Don Rickles is officially dead.  Doc Severinsen, on the other hand, is still with us.

De-Mented

A few days ago our firm came out with its roster of attorneys and practice groups.  The roster lists all of our attorneys, and for associates also identifies their designated partner mentors.  As I scanned the roster, I saw that this year, for the first time in a very long time, I do not have any designated associate mentees.

As I mentioned to one of my colleagues, I guess this means I am officially de-mented.

I’ve enjoyed being a mentor over the years.  My practice is to take my mentees out to lunch on a relatively regular basis, buy them a good meal, serve as a sounding board if they want to talk about their plans and their problems, and offer my advice if the situation seems to call for it.  What older person wouldn’t like flapping their gums to offer advice to an earnest young person?  My mentees have become friends, and Kish and I have enjoyed socializing with them, having them over to our house for a cookout and cocktails, and hosting them for an annual holiday meal that has become a fun end of the year tradition for us all.

But, in reality, I’m confident that I’ve gotten far more out of being a mentor than I’ve given.  I’ve gotten to know some really fine people who might not have otherwise become friends, I’ve experienced the satisfaction of seeing my mentees move on to success, at the firm and in life, and I’ve gotten repeated reminders of how out of step my thinking is in the modern world.  Unfortunately, I also had to deal with one brutal tragedy that still hurts to even think about, when a wonderful young woman died long before her time — but I guess that’s part of being a mentor, too, in that you have to be willing to take the bitter with the sweet.

The other day I got a call from one of my former mentees who left the firm a number of years ago.  She was asking for a reference, and in her message she said “you’ve always been a great mentor to me.”  Of course I agreed to help if I could, and it made me feel good to think that she still views me as a mentor of sorts.  Maybe I’m not totally de-mented after all.

Going Out Your Own Way

There’s a reason — aside from getting helpful birthday reminders — to endure the political stuff and the paid ads and still participate on Facebook:  sometimes you’ll see a story that you missed the first time around.

I saw this article about Norma Jean Bauerschmidt on my Facebook news feed today, thanks to a posting by Dr. Golden Bear.  It’s old news, dating from last year, but the underlying message is timeless and bears repeating.

hotairballoonFor those who missed the story, Miss Norma was 90 years old when she received the news that she had uterine cancer.  Her only treatment option, which wasn’t likely to produce much in the way of positive long-term results, was surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy.  Miss Norma decided to chuck the treatment and live her remaining days traveling the United States.  She ended up on the road with her son, daughter-in-law, and their dog Ringo for about a year, visiting multiple states and national parks, taking her first hot air balloon ride (where the photo accompanying this post was taken), and trying her first taste of oysters, before the disease forced her into hospice and eventually led to her death.  Thousands of people followed her exploits on a Facebook page called “Driving Miss Norma.”  She died on September 30, 2016, and you can see her obituary here.

It’s a great story, and it made me wish that I had the opportunity to meet Norma Jean Bauerschmidt.  When people are faced with such end-of-life decisions, there is no right or wrong answer — you just have to be true to yourself.  Miss Norma chose the path that was right for her, and thousands of people were made a little bit better thanks to her decision.

One part of the story linked above particularly touched me.  During her year of travels, Miss Norma was often asked which spot was her favorite.  She always responded:  “Right here!”  It’s a good reminder about the importance of living in the present.