Monday, June 8, 2015

Planning Interruptus


My latest column from Miami Today, published June 18, 2015            

         Cacophony; that’s it, this is what our lives have become. Instead of a melodious and carefully orchestrated sequence of planned events, our lives have turned into a random series of occurrences driven by immediate gratification and digital sounds, which is what the twenty first century will be remembered for. To say nothing of the fact that I always wanted to say cacophony, which gets in the way of any planning at all.
There was a time when you could isolate yourself and engage in some thinking or planning. You could set a goal and try to pursue it through a series of rational steps. Today, you are lucky if you get 30 seconds of peace and quiet before your telephone beeps, your email alert pops up, and your electronic calendar reminds you to check Facebook, lest your friend has diarrhea and you are the last one to know it.  
Instead of thinking about our future and planning ways to achieve it, we spend countless hours searching for the miracle app that will replace our thinking. To improve your well-being you need to resist immediate gratification and cacophony. This means turning your phone off, not just airplane mode, but completely off. Go ahead. Try it. When you stop twitching from withdrawal you are ready to think about a goal you want to pursue. If you cannot keep your hands off your phone or tablet, you may need to join a Buddhist monastery in Bhutan, where there is definitely no internet connection.
Once you overcome your addiction to digital devices and your twitching subsides, you are ready for the next challenge: be by yourself. No talking. No selfying. If this is hard, you can say either ohm or cacophony a few times. Now you have to think. Let me tell you how thinking works. If no thoughts come to mind, check your pulse. If you still have a pulse, try to ask yourself questions: What do I want to accomplish in life? How can I help humanity? How often should I change my underwear? Try controlling your twitching.
It is possible that, despite your good intentions to enjoy peace and quiet, somebody near you is talking on the phone so loudly that you need to get a Bose noise cancelation device. Pretty soon everyone will have to walk around with one, just to avoid the cacophony of nonsense emitted by people who have nothing better to do than to broadcast to the whole world their inane whereabouts. Not to mention fights with their ex over the phone, in public spaces. Airplanes are the worst. No sooner the plane lands than 99% of passengers reach for their smart phones to continue sharing with their best friend scintillating details about their day: got up around 6 30 am, had my coffee, read the paper, passed gas.
The addiction to digital devices is so great that some folks are now taking their laptops to the gym with them. At our condo, where I usually can expect peace and quiet in the exercise room, there appeared a guest who was in the rather small exercise room with his three year old and a laptop. I could live with the kid walking around the fitness equipment, but his father’s laptop was playing a video of a fitness instructor yelling from the top of his lungs invocations such as: Does it hurt now? Do you want to be a man? Do it! Do it! Be a man! Lift, lift, lift! The father was following every word and every movement of the fitness guru. As the intruder saw me coming into the small gym he asked if I mind the noise from the laptop. I said yes. He told me that the video will motivate me and will be good for me. One of the last sanctuaries of peace and quiet, our condo gym, which is usually frequented only by senior citizens thirty years older than me, was transformed by some digitally addicted brainless creature into a high decibel motivational class by some equally brainless fitness addict.

But planning can be overdone. Speaking from experience, I have spent more time in my life planning than actually living. As an insecure, mildly paranoid, neurotic orphan, I spent considerable time over many years striving for certainty and security in my life. I spent so much time planning that I had barely any time to enjoy the fruits of my planning. But I had a plan to stop all that planning. Instead of planning, I started writing pointless stories. The fact that you are reading these stories shows two things: I’m succeeding at my plan to spend less time planning, and you have no plans whatsoever. 

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Marsupial Kama Sutra

If there is anything I hate more than rats it’s big rats, which is what possums are. Possums feel at home in Coral Gables. They roam around like they own the place. So it came as no surprise when we discovered a couple of them nesting in our backyard. Next to our useless swimming pool (too short to swim, too cold to get close to it), we have a very expensive motor that cleans the water we never swim in, as well as a device that operates an amphibious vacuum cleaner that consumes more energy than the country of Benin. The motors are encased in a structure covered by a piece of wood. Whenever the submersible hoover gets stuck I muck around with the motor and pretend to know what the heck I’m doing. Imagine my surprise when I discovered not one but two possums relaxing next to the motors. They had brought leafs and sticks to make their own Sealy Posturepedic. They had apparently lifted the wood cover and managed to return it to its place, just to shock me.
Ora and I debated what to do. We were really ambivalent about the whole thing. We felt for the creatures. After all, we are vegan; believe in interspecies justice, and all that mushy staff. But I really dislike these animals. They revolt me. So we decided to do nothing.
A few days later I went to visit our lodgers and found them in Kama Sutra pose number 69. They were totally oblivious to my inspection, showing great sexual dexterity. This went on for a few days. In addition to revulsion, now I had reason to feel voyeuristic guilt.
Mr. and Mrs. Possum occupied our pool motor home for a few more days until we saw them leaving their abode to forage for food. I reluctantly removed their possessions and secured the wood cover with several bricks. It was heartbreaking to see them return to find out that they had been evicted. We wanted to compensate them with some oxycodone and Viagra pills, but they would have none of it. We saw them leaving, carrying their Kama Sutra guide on their backs. They were obviously offended. 

Our backyard is not just friendly to quadrupedal diprotodon marsupials, but also to all kinds of bugs and birds that enjoy mango for desert. To feel Floridians, we planted a few trees as soon as we bought the house. Watching our mango tree grow has been especially rewarding. Sharing it with white flies and the entire ornithological kingdom has not. Ora watches our mangos like a hawk herself. The problem is that she reminds me in the middle of the night to go and fetch the mangos that might have ripened since I squished them 3 hours ago. “Isaac, I hear birds near our mango tree; don’t just lie there, do something.” “Don’t worry Ora, I’m sure it’s the possums trying the latest Marsupial Kama Sutra position.”

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Do’s and Don’ts of Selling

“It’s Dick Cheney’s company, American made” said the shop owner, as he tried to sell me a backpack made by Haliburton. “And I’m supposed to like it because it’s Cheney’s company?!” I said, to which the owner, noting my displeasure, swiftly replied: “But it was a long time ago, don’t worry about it, he is not involved with the company anymore.” I can see somebody trying to sell me a product associated with Scarlet Johansson, but Dick Cheney! This exchange brought home for me what’s wrong with the American economy: Instead of plastering stores with pictures of Scarlet Johansson, they tell you that goods were made by Dick Cheney. No wonder we had a recession.
A few days later I found myself in an optical store trying progressive glasses for the first time. The delightful store manager was telling me that my brain would get used to the blurry peripheral vision. “What if I have a car accident while getting used to them?” She said not to worry, “just bring the broken glasses and we will replace them.” That was the second revelation about American retail in a week: Optical stores fail to sell life insurance with progressive lenses, missing a great opportunity.
As I was experimenting with the glasses in the store, trying to read emails from my phone and signs in the store, Betsy (not her real name) suggested that I walk around the mall for a few minutes to see how I felt. She told me that my brain would get used to it, but what if I did not get used to it, I thought. My brain is one thing, I’m quite another. I don’t really care what my brain does; I care about how I feel.
My progressive lenses experience lasted exactly 45 minutes, enough to come home, try them in front of the computer, and drive back to Aventura Mall to return them. To read a sentence I had to point with my head towards it, calibrating my vision as if I was a sniper trying to shoot words with my eyes. I phoned the store and Betsy told me that I need to give it sometime and that my brain would adjust to it. I don’t care about my brain; I care about me adjusting to the darn thing. I’m going to recommend that if they want to increase sales that they show more empathy towards clients and worry less about their brains.   
People in real estate can also use a bit of empathy training. My wife and I have had our share of buying and selling houses (and thanks to my business acumen, losing tons of money along the way). More than once we have had agents trying to convince us of the unparalleled features of a dump. As you are trying to prevent an argument with your spouse, doing your best to handle all the stress, and attempt to memorize the 78 houses your spouse forced you to see, the agent would annoyingly ask “what is it that you don’t like about this house?” As you repress the urge to say “that you are an idiot and should have never wasted my time with this dump,” you slowly but surely go on to develop another ulcer.
In the last couple of years we also witnessed the President trying to sell health insurance and we all know how well that went at first. The President of the United States of America should have known better. Trying to launch a new venture is hard. Instead of hiring a bunch of consultants from Montreal, Obama should have annexed Canada and we all would have gotten government-provided care at affordable prices. Imagine the cost savings. Instead of invading Iraq, which is so far, and has a terrible medical system, we could have marched right next door and gotten public health insurance from Ontario, Manitoba, or British Columbia, depending on your time zone. Even Sarah Palin could have gotten free health care from Nunavut, which leads me to the mayor of Toronto and his failed attempt to sell an image of composure in light of revelations of drug abuse and undignified behavior.
Rob Ford, mayor of Toronto, should borrow a page from Barack Obama when it comes to apologies. While the President took responsibility for not invading Canada, Rob Ford should have taken responsibility for not running Miami-Dade -- which is used to corruptions -- instead of ruining Toronto’s pristine reputation.
Whether you sell backpacks, glasses, real estate, or insurance, remember to know your audience. And most importantly, plaster your website with pictures of Scarlet Johansson.



Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Pet Friendly Florida

Florida is the most inclusive state in the nation. The Sunshine State welcomes not just people from all over, but also species that you’ve only encountered in nightmares, like termites, bats, snakes, and reptiles. If you want to live here, you need to know what you are getting into, though I have proof that the people of Florida are friendly to all these animals and insects. Take termites for example. After I signed the contract with the University of Miami, they broke the news to me: EVERYBODY has termites in South Florida. We promptly hired a reputable pest control company whose employees wore very nice uniforms and whose schedule was totally unpredictable. So friendly was this company to termites that for several years they totally ignored the fact that they had eaten 5 feet of fascia over our garage.
Needless to say, up until that day I had no idea what fascia was, in any language. As I was trying to explain the situation over the phone to the pest control company, they kept throwing at me words like sheathing, soffit, rafters, truss, underlayment, fascia and dormer which made me feel like an idiot. Several google trips later, I was able to confirm that it was the FASCIA that had been eaten. Do people learn these words in school? Do they take roofing 101 in Florida? Do they learn about termites in kindergarten?
When I confronted the neatly uniformed, bilingual, pest control general, he said that termites don’t do that kind of damage. They were still covering up for the insects. At that point I called two more pest control companies, and Manolo, my friend the builder. No question about it, unanimous judgment: termites. 
To make sure that no opportunity goes wasted, we decided to fire the pest control company and go instead with a “green” provider. The latter explained to us that it’s all organic and environmentally friendly. So friendly was their treatment of pests that for several months we saw an increase in the number of roaches munching on our fruit overnight. When I politely asked our green supplier if roaches can get used to their treatment, he said that they change the product every time to prevent inoculation. Oh, I got it. January was vanilla, February was citrus, and March was honeysuckle flavor. Our roaches couldn’t be happier.
In an effort to be supportive, Ora, my wife, had suggested that perhaps it was rodents and not cockroaches that had been eating our fruit. Our cleaning lady concurred, motivating me to sell the house and move to Alberta, which has been rodent-free for 50 years. I did do my homework.  
I consulted again with our green pest control guy, who said there was a definitive way to determine the culprit: Poop. Cockroach poop has a vertical edge; rat poop ends diagonally. He went on and on about sphincter anatomy in rodents and insects and the evolutionary causes of their differences.
Just when I thought that I knew way too much about insects in Florida, I had to take a magnifying glass to examine their fecal matter. I wanted to prove to Ora and our cleaning lady that there were no rodents in my house.

Sure enough, the poop, which was all over our fruit plate, had a distinct vertical edge, which proved beyond reasonable doubt that we had plenty of roaches. As if that wasn’t strong enough evidence, I picked up a grapefruit from the plate and out came crawling, from a hole the size of an igloo, a giant cockroach.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Looks, Smarts, Money


There are two main threats to interpersonal well-being: insecurities, and INSECURITIES. People have a hard time getting along with others because they fear that at some point they will be wrong, and God forbid, they may have to apologize. People hate to be wrong, but hate to apologize even more. As a social scientist intrigued by these phenomena, I developed a mathematical formula according to which the “need to be right about everything all the time and never apologize” is inversely related to looks, smarts, or money.          

     The more insecure you feel about your looks, intelligence, or pocket book, the more you feel you have to be right about everything else in life. This is called a compensatory model. You compensate for your foolishness by feeling that you are right about everything.

     Sometimes the need to be right about everything all the time is conflated with smarts. Take universities for example, where most professors think they are brilliant. In that case, our subjects compensate for being obstinate and underpaid by coming across as smarter than they really are, which only reinforces the need to be right about everything all the time, which makes universities as much fun as the inquisition.

     Sometimes, looks and money are not enough to conquer insecurities. People work hard to come across as smart. A wealthy acquaintance, with the intellectual curiosity of an ant, was spotted lounging next to a swimming pool pretending to read From Nietzsche to Foucault. Either pretentiousness got the best of her, or she thought Nietzsche and Foucault were the latest European shoes. But I shouldn’t be saying these things. It probably means that I have no money, or don’t look great, both of which are right, and for neither of which I’m going to apologize because I’m a university professor.

     Another acquaintance, big on money, has a very bad case of need to be right about everything all the time and never apologize, including things he has absolutely no idea about. But if might makes right, money makes wise. Tevye from Fiddler on the Roof got it right: “When you're rich, they think you really know!” Worse than that, when you’re rich, you think you know.
 “If I were a Rich Man” is the most evocative and artistic expression of my mathematical formula. “If I were a Rich Man……I’d see my wife…looking like a rich man’s wife…..supervising meals to her heart’s delight…..screaming at the servants, day and night.”

     Primal insecurities get in the way of enjoying vulnerability and the liberating ability to say “I’m sorry” or “I don’t know.” We fear that if we admit ignorance or mistakes something terrible will happen. 

    Sometimes I feel that if I make a mistake I will be fired, Anti-Semitism will rise, Jews will be deported to Iran, UPS will change the color of its fleet, and the pharmacy will run out of Senocot.  

    Beset by the need to be right all the time, and the obsession with money, looks, and smarts, humanity has two options: Elect Mahmoud Ahmadinejad -- who is now available -- to replace       Barack Obama, or move to Miami, which leads me to a local corollary of my main thesis: Cognitive function in Miami is inversely related to the number of plastic surgeries, which says nothing about money, because in Miami Medicare pays for everything, including colonoscopies for dead people in Havana. 

     It is really too bad that we spend so much time compensating for our insecurities that we miss the entire point of relationships, which is to have someone who can love you despite your big ears, someone who can put up with your terrible real estate decisions, and someone who lets you think you are funny. What really matters in life is not how we look on the outside, but what happens on the inside, like your digestive system. If more people could talk about their bowel movements without feeling defensive, or self-conscious, we could reverse the divorce trend and bring peace to the Middle East. 

     To conclude, what I really want to say about relationships is this: stay away from university professors.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Vegan Manifesto


As if big ears, a girly voice, and a funny accent weren’t enough to make me self-conscious, a few years ago I became vegan. Due to Judeo-generational fears of ostracism and expulsion, I used to be a closeted vegan; but after learning from a student about self-compassion, I’ve decided to come out and share with the world that I’m weird and proud of it. Part of my emancipation involved notifying people who invite me for dinner that I’m vegan. I figured it would be good for my assertiveness training and it would prevent awkward moments.  

With all the talk about health, diversity and what not, most hosts pretend to be sympathetic to my uniqueness, to the point of feigning some real interest in my lifestyle, often treating me like an anthropological artifact. Some will go out of their way to demonstrate their sensitivity to my culinary diversity, even if they secretly think I’m nuts. Hosts approach me to let me know that the chef has been informed I’m vegan, and the chef will often come out in person to reassure me that everything is ok.

With so much anticipation, I cannot help but salivate when I see the waiter marching towards me, only to discover he just served me whatever they give carnivores minus the meat. In most cases the leftovers happen to be white pasta or white rice, both of which spell constipation. It is bad enough they don’t give me vegetables, but they don’t give me enough food, period.

Is there a reason vegans should eat only one third of what carnivores consume? Instead of replacing the main part of the dish with some other food, you get nothing, zilch. They get a full plate, you get a third; which is usually the portion that will send you to the nearest Walgreens for laxatives. I have gotten a third of a plate in private residences, resorts, conferences, hotels, weddings, bar mitzvahs, functions, airplanes, luncheons, and brises. I call this phenomenon the misinformed host.

Recently I went to a world famous resort for three days of meetings. The folks there went out of their way to make me feel welcome. The first day I was there the chef came out to inquire about my preferences. I gave him a very long list of things I can eat, including quinoa. For the next three days and nine meals he served me quinoa.

For all the well-intentioned but misinformed hosts, here it goes: Vegans like variety and volume (V = V + V). We don’t like to starve ourselves, even if we look skinny to you; and we like tasty food, not overcooked broccoli or carrots reminiscent of flaccid organs. We like vegetables (other than white potatoes), and whole grains (not just quinoa; but also amaranth, brown rice, and spelt) and nuts and seeds and fruits and legumes (green lentils, red lentils, black lentils, yellow lentils, chickpeas, red beans, black beans, white beans), and NO, we do not eat cheese, or fish, or chicken. As for the vegetable soup with chicken stock, that is not vegan either.

Let me make it simple. Vegans do not eat anything that comes from animals. If you are going to serve us something that at some point had a mom and a dad, keep it for the carnivores. And for those of us who are healthy vegans, note that we do not eat white flour or white pasta or white bread or white rice. And please do not drench the three pieces of lettuce you serve us with ranch dressing because it has MILK and vegans do not consume dairy products and dairy means milk-based, as in coming from cows. We like flax seed oil instead of ranch. And when you do make us a salad, make it colorful with red peppers and beets and radishes and spinach and kale and seeds and broccoli and hearts of palm and artichokes and sprouts and black olives and chickpeas.

When your host is misinformed, you act graciously, exchange familiar glances with your wife, go through the well-rehearsed internal lamentation (“there you go again”), but eventually you do go home to your delicious split pea soup. What do you do though when you find yourself in a city where there is NOTHING for you to eat, like Newport News, Virginia; or all there is to eat is the same darn thing in all restaurants, like Albuquerque, New Mexico, where other than guacamole and beans all you can get is blinding sun and the color turquoise? There are 78 Mexican restaurants in a four block radius which serve exactly the same thing. Did it ever occur to them that some people may get a little tired of beans and guacamole? Somebody stands to gain a fortune by opening there a restaurant called NOT MEXICAN. Do they really think that all visitors want to eat just MEXICAN? Even Nashville had more options.

I have nothing against Albuquerque, just the meal planners. I know I’m supposed to be culturally sensitive and appreciate the unique customs of the place, but what about my diversity? Am I to bring a jar of Gerber to New Mexico? With my luck, the TSA would confiscate it and print my picture in all major newspapers.

 

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Bad Habits


 
If you want to improve your well-being, you’re going to have to raise your awareness about two things:

1.       Some of your despicable habits

2.       Some facts about health and wellness

Let’s start with the first one. You pick your nose while you drive and you think that nobody sees you. You eat with your mouth open. When somebody objects to your point of view you get flustered, crawl into a fetal position, and call your abuelita.

Most of us do annoying things automatically, and they don’t just annoy others -- they have terrible consequences for us as well. For example, at the end of a perfectly good and satisfying meal you ingest three bowls of ice cream with seventeen spoons of chocolate fudge. You walk into a movie cinema, as a zombie you buy the largest bucket of popcorn there is with extra butter and whipped cream. To flush it down you buy three of the largest available sodas and add a few packets of sugar just in case the whipped cream didn’t make the popcorn sweet enough. You eat it because it’s there, not because you are going to play Chris Christie in a movie.

If you’ve ever tried to talk someone into healthier eating habits, as has happened to me, your companion usually tells you right off the bat that there is no point in giving up meat. Why, you say naively, to which he replies that his great uncle had a cousin who had a friend who ate only iguanas and porcupines while he was wounded in Siberia in WWI, and lived to be 107.

Sometimes, it’s not just individual people who get defensive about eating habits, but entire cities. I recently was invited to give a keynote address at a conference in Sheffield, England. Everyone was exceedingly nice. I had a good feeling about this trip, until I tried to get a bite to eat. I admit that vegans like me can be a pain in the butt to accommodate. I grant you that, and more. But, you would imagine that an entire city would have some veggie friendly eateries. This is what the locals thought anyways.

After a long search, I finally stumbled upon an Italian restaurant which advertised pasta fagioli, a traditional Italian soup. Feeling extremely self-conscious I awkwardly asked if the soup was mainly pasta, or whether there were also beans. I know that fagioli means beans in Italian, but I’ve had traumatic experiences before where I was served only constipating white pasta, so I wanted to be sure. I was reassured. Beans are one of my favorite foods: protein, fiber, and iron, what could be better? I was going to have a green salad with pasta fagioli.

After I ate a horribly overpriced beet salad with one leaf of lettuce and one thin slice of beet, I was anxious to get to my pasta fagioli. I was willing to put up with some white pasta for the beans. My soup finally arrived in a gigantic bowl the size of Texas, only one tenth of which had soup. I started eating, eager to chew some beans. My fear increased the deeper I got into the soup. I was already three quarters into it and I had yet to encounter a single bean. I knew fagioli was the plural of fagiole, which meant that there had to be at least two in my soup. I kept eating until I found one, single, lonely bean at the bottom of the soup. I was willing to risk some white pasta for the reward of some beans, but not for just ONE. Metamucil here I come. 

When I shared this with my hosts -- not the whole bean experience, I was way too self-conscious for that, but that I could not find a veggie-friendly restaurant -- they were very defensive and told me in unison that there is a lovely café behind the cathedral, which opens between 10 am and 10 20 am, every other day, in spring, where sometimes they serve brown rice. Wow, thank you! I wish I had known that ahead of time so that I could plan my trip -- and bowl movements -- accordingly.