The Beauty of Creative Destruction

I have two faces. My nice face smiles on cue and stops at neighborhood lemonade stands, tosses five dollar bills in the tip jar when the barista is not looking and eats blackberry cobbler with ice cream. My ugly face sprinkles tip jars with inconvenient change, mocks McDonald’s eaters and gulps $3 Venti Soy Americano’s while sniffing ginger in the produce section at Whole Foods.

Successful people share a common trait; they have brightly lit bathroom mirrors, unlike the hotel furnished “mirror that lies” which Jimmy Buffet once sang about. Successful folks value self-assessment while embracing one unlikely character trait, self-deprecation, often useful when looking into mirrors that speak the truth.

Self-assessment shares the same ruthless process with creating a beautiful work of art. The creative process identifies what isn’t beautiful, or to be politically incorrect, removing the ugly so the beauty will shine. For example, Beethoven’s 5th Symphony is gorgeous perfection, but hidden behind the music are reams of discarded music that we never see, notes that Beethoven tried that didn’t quite work, leaving behind what we know as the 5th.

According to Callum Hackett, creativity and great music, as well as striding into each day with our best face, “does not require a virtuosity capable of instantaneous perfection, it needs a honed sensibility of imperfection so that you can work persistently at alternatives until that sense evaporates and what remains is worth an audience.”

Perhaps this inversion – the idea of creating beauty replaced with the destruction of ugliness – is why so many admirable people are self-effacing. Which comes around to my original statement about two faces and my wife’s theory about eyesight and aging. It’s what keeps us romantically together, our inability to see clearly at close range, the flaws, wrinkles and blemishes, time etching our faces like Tecumseh Sherman marching on Atlanta.

Despite her theory, she is testing her romantic attraction to me, spitting in the face of imperfection like a hobo eating expired cheddar cheese. She just received five pairs of reading glasses from peepers.com, and she looks amazing in these stylish rims. Alas, when she wears these attractive lenses I fear closeness and the power of attraction wrestles the dread of magnification, so I’m staying at a safe distance, distrustful of honing too intimate a sense of imperfection. But honing our sense of imperfection is necessary.

In his book, Story, Robert McKee writes, “Genius consists not only of the power to create expressive scenes, but of the taste, judgement, and will to weed out and destroy banalities, conceits, false notes, and lies.”

If we are writing the story of our lives with our faces, we sometimes find our own beauty by identifying our ugliness, removing the lying mirrors and having the courage to wear the good glasses, the ones that spare no detail, and weed out our false notes, revealing what was there all along, a lovely symphony of beauty.

Last night I enjoyed a dinner of roast beef stew with my parents and missionaries from Ecuador who have a son, James. James has some challenges in his life, his eyesight is not great, and he is challenged in other physical aspects, small in stature, he’s seventeen years old but looks fourteen. James wanted to play my pitch and putt golf course behind our house before dinner.

So we walked out to the first tee where I have a bin of clubs and a five gallon bucket of balls. He just wanted to look at the course, but I said let’s play. I pulled out a nine-iron and a ball and we walked to the first tee and as we did, James informed me that he was left-handed. The bin clubs are all right-handed, so I said, “We’ll just knock it around some with this right-handed club.” So I helped him with his grip, he had a Hank Aaron grip, left hand down on the grip and right on top. We switched the hands and I told him to swing with his shoulders and dance with his feet. He made it to the first green with Wayne Gretzky slap shots and Paul Bunyan wood chops leaving behind a gleeful trail of busted turf and fleeing grub worms. And he giggled without reason, at least to my sense of giggling normalcy.

Once on the green he whacked a twenty-footer screaming across the putting surface and it hit the pin and went in and he leaped into the air like Nicklaus in 1975 at the Master’s on the sixteenth green when he holed a 50 footer to take the lead.

I noticed he didn’t struggle with any of this stuff I’m talking about. Being authentic, ugliness, mirrors that lie. He was just James.

Later on, after shooting some hoops and kicking a soccer ball, we sat in my theater room which has six reclining chairs. I sit in the front right chair because the front middle and front left are broken, they don’t recline. James looked at my reclined chair as he sat in the middle front chair and tried to recline his and I told him it was broken. He sat back. We were watching the Cardinals-Dodgers game and I wasn’t too chatty, as the Cardinals were down 6-1. Then he looked at me and said, “Why don’t you put these two broken ones on the back row and two good ones on the front row?”

Creative destruction removes the ugliness, our broken recliners, our joyless soul. I’d never considered switching my recliners. Maybe I’m too lazy, perhaps my mirror lies. Maybe I’ll get some glasses like James, from peepers.com, the ones that see the world as a blessing, something to giggle about, even when you are playing golf from the right side and you are left-handed.

Then I can be destructive, creatively I mean, tear things up, put my broken front row chairs on the back row, and smile with sweet emotion, chiseling away the ugliness like Michelangelo discovering David, naked and proud inside a great block of granite.

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Whenever I See Your Smiling Face

Jenna and Lauren express Duchenne smiles while framing my nephew David sporting a retro-eighties mouth-only male smile
Smile Jenna David Lauren

James Taylor did not sing Whenever I see Your Smiling Face about professional athletes…unless of course he was referring to Phil Mickelson or Magic Johnson. Has scowling become endemic to the upper echelon of sport? Lebron James reaction to his own great dunk makes one think someone borrowed his cell phone and returned it inside a jar of grape jelly. LeBron-James

I recently noted while watching my daughter Jenna play soccer that the tenor and tone of play, she’s a college senior, is markedly different from watching eight-year old’s play. They are much more serious than an eight-year old who is more likely to stop and pick a dandelion enroute to the goal, whereas college players feel the wrath of coaches and the not always gentle pressure of parental expectation.

I also spied a Bartlesville Bruin Football poster recently and my first reaction was the stoic nature of the mugs, but also a decidedly grumpy scowl adorning each adolescent face as if by peer caveat, an insincere attempt at machismo. Feigned male glowering seems incongruous with acne and downy facial hair. It also reminds me of my wife’s admonition against the visage of many successful athletes celebrating their success publicly with broken zygomaticus majors, stern, frowning, pouting, preening male scowling run amok. Karen’s admonition is pretty simple…”Smile”…she yells at the television, “act like you are happy you scored and quit acting mad!”

French physiologist G.B.A. Duchenne distinguished the facial sunrise of a true smile from a phony one. Phony smiles require only the zygomaticus major (muscle around the mouth), while a “real smile” involves both the lips and muscles ringing the eyes. In Duchenne’s words, one grin “obeys the will, but the second is only put into play by the sweet emotions of the soul.”

I love to watch folks who have chiseled Duchenne smiles, creased, laughing, happy skin surrounds their orbicularis oculi. They have learned through life and living and struggle and pain, through all that comedy that life can sometimes be, to smile with their eyes. smile older lady

When I think of people like that, it makes me go all James Taylor…
Whenever I see your smiling face
I have to smile myself
Because I love you (Yes, I do)
And when you give me that pretty little pout
It turns me inside out

Marianne LaFrance, a Yale psychology professor is an expert on the subject of smiles. Her book, “Why Smile? The Science Behind Facial Expression”, reveals differences between how and when women and men smile. It seems 20% of all smiles are Duchenne smiles, the smiling eyes variety. The balance of smiles are the mouth only smiles, the contrived ones, and women practice the art of intentional smiling much more often than men. Men are like those Easter Island Statues,

smile easter island

while women are professional grinners.

smile mona lisa

Katy Waldman recently wrote an article in Slate Magazine titled, The Tyranny of the Smile, and subtitled Why does everyone expect women to smile all the time? Katy quotes William Wordsworth in The Pastor, a reference to smiling being a learned behavior. “The babe not long accustomed to this breathing world, hath barely learned to shape a smile.” He’s right: More often than not, smiling is a learned behavior, “a socially contingent display.” If that babe is female, chances are she’ll catch on quickly, showering friends, acquaintances and strangers in that luminous inverted horseshoe.

Not sure what to make of all this? Perhaps women understand that it’s up to them to do the heavy lifting, the emotional labor of stitching together the social fabric of our workplaces, our families, our relationships. And men…we don’t really give a rip do we? As long as dinner is on the table and there is money in the bank, give me a reason to smile.
I’m just kidding…I think. 🙂

Stealing Back Cool from Kerouac

kerouacI’ve always loved cool…have no idea what it is but I love it. Perhaps I have no idea because cool expresses not one meaning or attitude but many, a cross-pollinated adjective moving fluidly in many cultures and languages. An Anglo can say cool in Chinese (kù 酷) and it means essentially the same as in English.
Cool exudes an attitude of calmness as a philosophy of restraint against the heat of living and can assume many meanings, I’m listing a few obvious ones. Yes, it’s the beat generation of Jack Kerouac and his On the Road milieu from the decade of the Fifties. It’s the jazz music of Miles Davis and John Coltrane and Dizzy Gillespie. It’s British version takes on a restrained outward behavior, a nonchalant gentlemanly Teflon-coating in the mold of Sean Connery, cool in the face of white-hot heat, an unhurried stylish avant-garde demeanor, shaken, not stirred. And then we have the coolness of the The Beatles, Monty Python’s Flying Circus and James Joyce…but, let’s not get too carried away with Anglo cool, because my favorite cool is rooted deeply in the trials and response of the African-American soul, a form of aloof calm rebellion in the face of authority and dominance that eventually manifested its consciousness in the blues and jazz of Gillespie and Thelonius Monk and eventually working its way into the music of Eric Clapton, The Beatles, Rolling Stones, Springsteen…and, well, you get the idea. Cool was appropriated from the disenfranchised, the downtrodden, the voiceless who somehow found voice in music and the pride of defiant non-violent rebellion. It’s a coolness of spirit against a raging world lived from hot to hotter. It’s a heart guided by a thermostat set on 68 rather than a thermometer reflecting the capricious ‘what’s hot this year’ of social whimsy. Cool is a dive into a cold clear stream after a descent into Hades.

But it’s also simpler than that. Cool expresses everyday conversational approval or admiration. Cool is an adjective used by young girls and old men, by hipster doofuses and country club blue-bloods. I recently sent this text to my son, “We are coming to Norman for OU/ULM football and have four tickets to the football game.” His response was one word. “Kewl” He misspells it on purpose because it’s cool to do so. A common colloquialism birthed in nonconformity repurposed not so much with meaning, but with spelling. Our modern attempts to articulate our approval and admiration in non-establishment tones, relies on a word that was once original and nuanced but now universally exhausted with everyday usage, a word used to describe a tone of subdued icy calm without too much emotion and just the right touch of nonchalance, but with an absolute seal of approval. Other words from my childhood have come and gone…groovy, have a blast, far out, bread (money), outa sight… all relegated to the language dust bin. Cool, however, simply won’t die. And so I’m rediscovering the birth of cool, stealing it back from the beatniks of the Fifties. Cool is artistic freedom and individuality, but it’s also rooted in the African-American experience of slavery and rebellion, jazz and blues…and the Luke 15 story of the Prodigal Son.prodigal son Betoni
I began thinking of this idea while sitting in a cool worship service this morning at a church in New Castle, OK near Norman, sitting by my son, Brandon, and listening to a lesson from Luke 15 about a Father and a prodigal (lost) son…as well as another son who was lost in his own way, filled with false sense of cool, the certitude of conformity and self-assured righteousness. I rediscovered in this lesson the meaning of cool, the Father of cool. Two thousand years, folks saw the world through the lens of the pater familia, and the dominant view of Fatherhood was of authority and domination as opposed to compassion and inclusion and gentle nurture. Jesus spoke of an image of the Father in a revolutionary way…as a five-year old daughter might speak to her Daddy at storytime. Once while tucking in my daughter Jenna when she still thought me omniscient, she made this request after I gave her a quick story and kiss, apparently thinking it not enough intimacy from her father and that I was simply going through the motions. “Daddy, would you lay down beside me for a minute before you go?” And so when Jesus spoke of the Father, it was simply unheard of for the maker of Heaven and Earth to be spoken of as having the time to be a Daddy, to find His lost ones and to not only find them and redeem their lostness with open arms, but to “lay down beside” His children, when they requested that moment of intimacy.
This was a father dominated age when men could divorce wives whimsically and indiscriminately and treat children as an afterthought. Into this world Jesus speaks words of liberation. He tells of searching for pennies in the cracks of a rustic kitchen floor and a shepherd frantically running through the fields search for a lost sheep. And a Father who runs to welcome his son home from a binge of Bohemian wanderlust, which reminds me of one supposedly cool guy, Jack Kerouac and his book, On the Road. Kerouac’s book is genius in a sense of the stream of consciousness way it’s written…but it’s also compelling reading because it speaks so honestly of what Luke 15:13 reports in one short sentence. Jesus took once sentence…Kerouac an entire book, albeit an amazingly honest reflection of what the prodigal son may have been thinking in another time and place.

Luke 15: 11 Jesus continued: “There was a man who had two sons. 12 The younger one said to his father, ‘Father, give me my share of the estate.’ So he divided his property between them. 13 “Not long after that, the younger son got together all he had, set off for a distant country and there squandered his wealth in wild living.

My demented mind immediately flashed to Jack Kerouac’s stream of consciousness reflection of seeking something On the Road. I’m not sure he ever found what he wanted to find. He died of complications from cirrhosis and internal bleeding at the age of 47.

Here are a few excerpts from On the Road:

“Sal, we gotta go and never stop going ’till we get there.’ ‘Where we going, man?’ ‘I don’t know, but we gotta go.’

And

“I realized I was beginning to cross and re-cross towns in America as though I was a traveling salesman–ragged travellings, bad stock, rotten beans in the bottom of my bag of tricks, nobody buying.”

And this stunning sentence of self-awareness:

“I woke up as the sun was reddening; and that was the one distinct time in my life, the strangest moment of all, when I didn’t know who I was – I was far away from home, haunted and tired with travel, in a cheap hotel room I’d never seen, hearing the hiss of steam outside, and the creak of the old wood of the hotel, and footsteps upstairs, and all the sad sounds, and I looked at the cracked high ceiling and really didn’t know who I was for about fifteen strange seconds. I wasn’t scared; I was just somebody else, some stranger, and my whole life was a haunted life, the life of a ghost.”

He was the son from Luke 15 who eventually came home, he died in Lowell, Massachusetts, his birth town. He was often called the Father of the Beat Movement, a title he did not understand. Once someone called him a beatnik, one of the beat generation and he replied, “I’m not a beatnik, I’m Catholic.” Many of his diary pages, almost all reflected a search for meaning, crucifixes and other symbols of faith. His longing to be saved, to come home, can even be seen in his prose. “My whole wretched life swam before my weary eyes, and I realized no matter what you do it’s bound to be a waste of time in the end so you might as well go mad.” …“The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved.” ― Jack Kerouac, On the Road

Jesus had the temerity to describe the Father not as a distance aloof judge, but rather as a runner, a hugger, a party planner, a giver of grace. So, cool may be Kerouac and beatniks and jazz and the Beatles…but for me and my house, cool is a Father running to his son with arms open, firing up the barbecue and partying without shame because His son was lost but is now found. Cool is omniscient, powerful, just, the author of life…taking time to listen and walk and talk and even lay down beside His creation. Cool is when the hotness and madness and speed that often rules our worldview is calmed, slowed and cooled by the blessed assurance of naked trust in the world to come, a world that sometimes visits us on earth in moments of grace, the heavens touching the parched and overheated in comforting coolness. Most of us have Kerouac moments, when we open our eyes, perhaps in some street gutter, or moment of pain or weakness, moments we realize ‘we are somebody else, some stranger, and my whole life was a haunted life, the life of a ghost.’

Those moments either consume us in our wallowing narcissism or provide moments of turning, moments that let us run into the arms of God. Eden is restored in small moments of hope as foreshadowing of a coming eternal age without the jerks and the bores and the selfish, along with our struggles to accumulate power and pleasure and stuff. I recently watched the Nebraska football team in a spring game escorting seven-year-old cancer patient Jack Hoffman on a sixty-nine yard touchdown run and then the entire team mobbed him in a congratulatory team hug…that is the Father of cool. It’s the Way, it’s mercy, it’s grace. It’s calm and cool in the face of the heat of all things we think we desire. It’s the recognition that the one thing we long for is coming. That’s pretty cool. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AZ_yh0J2-Ds

There’s a tornado in my coffee

My son is writing his undergraduate thesis for Honors Meteorology on the topic, The Genesis of Tornadoes. I was wondering if The Revelation of Tornadoes might be easier to write. Tornado prediction is a non-linear dart tossed into the misty morning fog. It’s fraught with downdrafts of hope and gusts of unfounded certitude.
latte-swirl
Yet we want to know. The weather man even trumps the sportscaster on the evening news because we want to know. We want to know what to wear, how to plan, where to hide, when to hide and what to cancel. My son says that we examine the storm by it’s path in a forensic sense and the weather pros have made some progress in the way of identifying the beginning of a tornado but there is much to learn. So we look at the debris field…the result of the power…rather than the germination because it’s simply easier to see the aftermath rather than the genesis. But the holy grail is the genesis…to find the bud, the birth, the incubation of the tornado. As I discussed this idea with Brandon, the thought occurred that my vices are similar. I have no idea how they begin, but I do know the swath of destruction they wreak, like ravenous locusts devouring a cornfield, stalks to stubble. Sometimes we take pride in our vices.Take coffee for instance. Please…I’ve had enough.

It began with a lousy cup from a college dorm vending machine, foul-swill infused with white gunpowder creamer and three packets of sparkling white sugar masked the stale, sour-earth undertones of low-grade brew. I lived that lie for years until encountering the stiff dark slap-in-the-gut woody body of greek coffee from Mastoris Diner, in Bordentown, New Jersey. Now, I’m up to three cups of premium a day and my disdain for inferior coffee is a point of shameless pride. My brother the physician, prefers the sappy-sweet gas station latte spewed from high volume low-expectation dispensers. I’m an intolerant coffee prima donna preferring the ability to name acidity, body, aroma, finish and flavor. Does it tingle? Is it heavy or light? How does the aroma affect the senses? What’s the aftertaste, the finish on the palate after swallowing the coffee? Is it nutty, balanced, winey, woody?

And so I stood along a cold and wet soccer field yesterday, longing for a better cup, watching my niece Anna compete while remarking to my sister Debbie the teacher and my brother Greg the preacher that I had a problem. Well, I didn’t actually say that…I thought that…in the context of our triangular discussion about what makes up a vice. I thought, “Coffee is my vice,” in a wistful and blindly nostalgic way, the way I once looked at the Marlboro man smoking a cigarette and herding five hundred cattle all alone…just a man, a horse and cattle and the power of nature, smoking tobacco against a setting sun. Surreal, powerful, romantic addiction…the kind that looks and smells and tastes and feels right. Like it empowers me to greater heights and far more creative moods and spurts of enlightened living.

I know. It’s a lie. But it’s a legal addiction. And so a Grande Starbucks Americano with a half-inch of steamed soy and one packet of natural cane sugar enriches my veins with supernatural energy and fluid ambition. Coffee, with it’s accompanied rush of caffeine, sharpens my focus, prevents lethargy and refreshes my brain–with minimal negative side effects.

Coffee isn’t just a social lubricant or sensual rush. It’s promotes professional excellence also. My sister Deb is taking a new position teaching mathematics this coming school year. My wife Karen and three sister-in-laws Jill Taylor, Debbie Sue Taylor and Jill Davis have invited my sister Debbie, into the fraternity of mathematics (all have degrees in Mathematics and all have taught math or once taught math). Taylor and Davis boys know how to pick analytical women. Karen walked over and high-fived Debbie, welcoming her into the professional circle of élite mathematical women in our family. What does coffee have to do with math? It’s only the key to all mathematical theorems. “A mathematician,” Erdös liked to say, “is a machine for turning coffee into theorems.”

But when does the tornado begin…when does a good stiff cup of brewed coffee become a habitual vice? One of my favorite albums from the early Doobie Brothers years was titled, What Were Once Vices are Now Habits. My vice has become my habit has become my vice…it’s a vicious circle. So I search for scientific justification for my vice thus converting vice to virtue. Therefore, I become aware of my faulty clinging to coffee. Coffee stimulates greater creative power and promotes attentiveness. Coffee is filled with antioxidants. Coffee calms my moods and empowers my world. On the other hand I largely ignore research promulgating the negatives of caffeine addiction and the heeby-jeeby-jitters. And I search spiritual justification also relying upon the sound reasoning of thinkers like C.S. Lewis to assuage my guilt-ridden habitual cravings. Here’s what Mr. Lewis says about stuff we think about giving up as a mark of spiritual pride. “One of the marks of a certain type of bad man is that he cannot give up a thing himself without wanting everyone else to give it up. That is not the Christian way. An individual Christian may see fit to give up all sorts of things for special reasons–marriage, or meat, or beer, or the cinema; but the moment he starts saying the things are bad in themselves, or looking down his nose at other people who use them, he has taken the wrong turning.” And so I hold fast to that thinking, not wanting to be an abstaining bore viewing addicted unclean coffee drinkers from my righteous tower of right living.

I gather inspiration from great writers and great books like a bee gathers honey, but great coffee is the mysterious elixir, the genesis, the flowering bud, the incubation. I’m hanging my writing hat on that scientific axiom. For example, here is what Balzac wrote about coffee:
“Coffee glides into one’s stomach and sets all of one’s mental processes in motion. One’s ideas advance in column of route like battalions of the Grande Armée. Memories come up at the double, bearing the standards which will lead the troops into battle. The light cavalry deploys at the gallop. The artillery of logic thunders along with its supply wagons and shells. Brilliant notions join in the combat as sharpshooters. The characters don their costumes, the paper is covered with ink, the battle has started, and ends with an outpouring of black fluid like a real battlefield enveloped in swaths of black smoke from the expended gunpowder. Were it not for coffee one could not write, which is to say one could not live.”

And then there’s Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard, who “had his own quite peculiar way of having coffee,” According to his biographer, Joakim Garff, Kierkegaard took his coffee in this manner. “Delightedly he seized hold of the bag containing the sugar and poured sugar into the coffee cup until it was piled up above the rim. Next came the incredibly strong, black coffee, which slowly dissolved the white pyramid.” Then he gulped the whole thing down in one go.”

Thought it worth a go, so I’m trying it here, but I can’t seem to string together thoughts for very long. But I am alert…yes indeedy. So just be careful not to trust coffee to fuel your creative ideas. It should only be a means of turning on the spigot, not a substitute for creative energy. Not to mention the obvious similarity to alcohol. Abusers of both claim inspiration, but as most folks know, coffee and strong drink only tend to make bores more boring.

I still don’t know how tornadoes germinate…nor how I came to crave the java bean…nor how words wondrously jump onto a blank page like splashed coffee on my white polo. It’s like my brother the preacher sometimes reminds me, “It is what it is”.

Sometimes things just happen…enjoy another cup and embrace the swirling mystery.

15 minutes of fame and paranoia

A had a fifteen minute interlude yesterday at the airport that began in relational euphoria and ended in paranoia. Moments occur daily that signal my grasp of human relations, the mastery I have in moments of stress, the ability to charm and placate, to create world peace with a warm smile and a few charming words. In my formative years, personal skills centered on the wisdom of Norman Vincent Peale’s, The Power of Positive Thinking, and Dale Carnegie’s, How to Win Friends and Influence People. The power of positive thinking became the panacea, the cure-all balm for every social and economic predicament. I never trusted that movement, believing the power of negative thinking more suited my sensibilities. There’s something intrinsically liberating about admitting you are capable of failure. Yesterday, however, I was Dale Carnegie for fourteen and a half minutes.

While flying to California via Tulsa International Airport, we entered the T.S.A security maze. Although we travel enough to qualify as seasoned fliers, we entered the beginner maze because there was no line. I ripped off my belt and removed my shoes, placing them along with my wallet, phone, and one stick of blue-foiled Cobalt gum, into a gray tub and shoved it along the rollers into the image oven, and proceeded to the Last-Book-in-the-Bible machine. Placing my stocking feet on the splayed cartoon feet painted on the floor, I made the football signal for a two-point safety, but keeping my hands slightly apart like an uncertain referee, while the machine whirred in a half-arc around my world. insider-airport-security_26966_600x450I followed the T.S.A. agent’s pointing finger to another set of feet and went to stand on those. Bacteria lounging in the painted feet, picnicked, awaiting the next podiatric contribution to the daily buffet. Shoving that thought to the side in the name of national security, I stood awaiting directions. The man asks if I have anything in my right jean pocket to which I reply, “No sir.” He pats my pocket. Nothing. Relieved the pat down was limited to one pocket, I turned to retrieve my belongings. After looping my belt, pulling on my shoes, placing my wallet and phone in my pocket, I turned to leave the cattle prod area, when another T.S.A. employee asks if I left something in the tray. I had forgotten my Cobalt stick of gum. I looked down at the gum just laying there alone in blue foil in that big gray tub and I asked the young woman in the unflattering T.S.A. uniform if she wanted my last stick of gum. We both looked down at the gum, then back up at each other and we smiled and laughed. It was a small moment of humanity, and I walked away secure in my ability to brighten the day of stressed and downtrodden federal employees.

Strolling toward Starbuck’s in my euphoric mood, I asked my wife if she wanted something to drink. “Water”, came the reply. Standing in line waiting for an older gentleman struggling to pay for his coffee using a Starbuck’s app on his cell phone, I pulled a bottle of water from the cold case and waited five minutes for the barista (clerk) to manage this gentleman’s payment problem, which unresolved, led him to pay with folding money. Finally my turn, I ordered a Casi Cielo Tall and stood at the counter waiting for my coffee, debit card in my right hand, my left hand resting atop the bottle of water. Setting my coffee on the counter, the young woman said, “That will be $4.75.” Overcharge bells rang in my brain and I came back with, “$4.75 for a tall coffee?”, in an all-knowing tone. To which she gently replied, “And a water.” Realizing my error, I sheepishly said something lame about arrogant customers and she said something gracious about folks with busy lives and I laughed nervously knowing she thought me a jerk.

My transition from gracious saint to arrogant consumer took fifteen minutes. This made me think of one of the brothers coaching in the Super Bowl last Sunday, Jim Harbaugh, head coach of the San Francisco 49ers, who manages his team using principles from a book titled, “Only the Paranoid Survive”. Written by Intel CEO, Andy Grove, during the peak of his tenure in 1996, it features buzz-phrases like “strategic inflection points,” and stresses the value of paranoia. It’s the same notion that escaped Henry Ford who believed black was the only color choice any automobile buyer required and that the Model-T was the pinnacle of innovation.Henry Ford With 1921 Model T It’s also the paradigm that will enable Apple to stay atop the technological heap of product development. Paranoid folks don’t rest on their laurels. And it hearkens back to my personal aversion to positive thinking. Always disappointed in success, never happy with the status quo. Ah…the power of negative thinking. I once heard an interviewer ask Jack Nicklaus, perhaps the greatest golfer of all time, what motivated him, in an age when one player said of Jack, “He knew he was better than you, we knew he was better than us, and he knew that we knew he was better than us.” With that psychological battle of the mind complete, his golf game allowed him to simply go out and make fewer mistakes while the rest of the field withered. And it made his answer to the question of what motivated him, enlightening. Jack’s reply? “I was motivated by fear of failure.”

I recently read this excerpt from the Wall Street Journal in an article entitled, The Power of Negative Thinking. “One pioneer of the “negative path” was the New York psychotherapist Albert Ellis, who died in 2007. He rediscovered a key insight of the Stoic philosophers of ancient Greece and Rome: that sometimes the best way to address an uncertain future is to focus not on the best-case scenario but on the worst. Seneca the Stoic was a radical on this matter. If you feared losing your wealth, he once advised, “set aside a certain number of days, during which you shall be content with the scantiest and cheapest fare, with coarse and rough dress, saying to yourself the while: ‘Is this the condition that I feared?’ ” To overcome a fear of embarrassment, Ellis told me, he advised his clients to travel on the New York subway, speaking the names of stations out loud as they passed. I’m an easily embarrassed person, so in the interest of journalistic research, I took his advice, on the Central Line of the London Underground. It was agonizing. But my overblown fears were cut down to size: I wasn’t verbally harangued or physically attacked. A few people looked at me strangely. Just thinking in sober detail about worst-case scenarios—a technique the Stoics called “the premeditation of evils”—can help to sap the future of its anxiety-producing power. The psychologist Julie Norem estimates that about one-third of Americans instinctively use this strategy, which she terms “defensive pessimism.” Positive thinking, by contrast, is the effort to convince yourself that things will turn out fine, which can reinforce the belief that it would be absolutely terrible if they didn’t.

Apparently, I’m in the company of 33 1/3% of my fellow Americans who subscribe to the “premeditation of evils” crowd. It even works on death, preventing an attitude of denial like that of Woody Allen who posited, “I’m strongly against it.” At least paranoia and negativism helps us face our fear of death. With that small level of positivism applied to negativism, I’m comforted in my right to remain positively paranoid. When I think I’m a saint, stay paranoid. At the nadir of my humanity, my personal peak of graciousness, even when I charm stern government employees, paranoia reminds me that I’m a stumbling-bumbling-foot-in-the-mouth idiot.

What does the Lord require of you?
To act justly, to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.
Micah 6:8