The high end will continue to shrink. There will soon come a day when every surviving high end guy will come together in a room, shake hands with one another, and then all fall over dead. – Kevin Halverson, co-founder of Muse Electronics.
After all these years, this final meeting still hasn’t happened…yet. I started The Audio Observatory way back when, even before Kevin laid this hard bit of prophecy on me. I didn’t really have much of a vision for TAO, which is the one big reason that it never became much of anything. It existed to serve my own purpose and my purpose was to do what I could to undermine the then-existing attitudes toward the relevance and influence of reviews. I simply wanted people to have the confidence to listen to what they liked and to enjoy what they listened to.
A mother-fucker can either listen to what he likes, or he can listen to what some other mother-fucker likes. – Joe Roberts, Editor of Sound Practices.
TAO started out and ended up modestly. At its peak, I was sending out a few thousand issues at a time. But, when I started out I was only mailing a few hundred. Most were sent to my high end heroes. I sent issues of TAO to guys like Nelson Pass, Ray Kimber, Yves-Bernard André, Jim Winey, Bruce Thigpen and Roger Modjeski. After a few dozen issues I got a hand-written letter from Roger Modjeski and a poem. It turns out that he liked the line I used to close each issue.
Listen well, but listen happy.
The line captured what I wanted readers to get, that their happiness with their own beloved music was all that mattered. When I got that letter from Roger I knew I had gotten at least one thing right and lots of folks can’t even do that. He invited me to give him a call and to come up to Santa Barbara for lunch…just to talk. A few weeks later I did and so began an association that, to this day, informs a good deal of how I think and how I see the world, especially the world of high end audio.
Right away, Roger and I enjoyed each other’s company. I think we each sensed that we saw the other as an odd yet accurate reflection of our other self. If that doesn’t make of sense rest easy; t doesn’t make a lot of sense to me either. In some ways, we didn’t have much in common. Roger was an engineer’s-engineer and I was a mere layman, though one possessed of a strong appreciation for formal reasoning and a quick facility for the occasionally clarifying analogy. Sometimes Roger’s engineering rigor created an angst-inducing forest-for-the-trees situation that needed that ability on my part.
We both loved music and thought that vacuum tubes were the best path to achieve its reproduction in the home. That’s not really true. Roger thought that but I believed that the very best transistor gear was in fact superior to the best tube gear. But, I also thought that better designed vacuum gear outperformed most solid-state gear that was even remotely similarly priced. And, there was and there is no vacuum tube gear that’s as well designed as the gear Roger Modjeski designs. He simply has no equal.
Roger’s brilliance came from, well, brilliance. He had made the mistakes (in his mind) that lesser engineers had often made in their products and he never forgot a lesson once learned. After we got to know each other, he began to share his thoughts on his own designs and the designs of others. Some were old and some were new but he always looked to examine what had been achieved, or what had not, and how the failure of knowledge or experience or both had led to the result.
After a few of our lunch meetings, Roger offered me a job. I would handle Music Reference and RAM Labs sales and marketing. Me being me, I knew I could handle the task. I am not prone to delusion. I knew that Music Reference and RAM Labs were small companies in a small market. The job would not be a path to anything other than the chance to do something I’d never done before and to work along side someone for whom I held a genuine respect and fondness. I took the job and instantly The Audio Observatory was transformed. It was impossible for me to review tube gear in my own journal. My readers objected, but from then on I confined myself to reviews of solid-state gear. It was an unsatisfying turn for my association with The Audio Observatory but I knew it was the right move for me at the time.
Working with Roger was never dull, never easy, often frustrating yet frequently entertaining in a way that’s hard to describe. We met two Mondays a month, always for lunch. The day went like this. I’d hit the road from Valencia around 10 a.m. and look to arrive at Roger’s house in Santa Barbara around Noon. His mood upon meeting me at the door determined a lot. Sometimes I could tell that he’d been waiting for me in a kind of intellectually anxious way. Perhaps he’d read something that annoyed him but didn’t quite grasp in a way that satisfied his reasoning. Other times, I would be met with an air of frustration that he tried to hide behind a futile mask of cordiality. I could sense his dissatisfaction simmering. Sometimes I could find a kind of voice for whatever was gnawing at him and sometimes it persisted right on through our initial meeting, our lunch out, and our after-lunch meeting. Those could be some long-ass afternoons.
Still, I treasured our meetings. Roger Modjeski was a consistently fascinating person to hang around with and our customers loved his gear and the tubes he tested. And, I learned a lot. No, I didn’t learn many of the kinds of things that were very likely to improve my financial fortunes but I didn’t care. I was doing what I wanted to do and I was learning to do things I wanted to learn how to do. Roger wasn’t what anyone was likely to call a traditionally good teacher. Still, I learned a great deal from him and also from myself. Roger liked to say that pretty much every success he ever had at Music Reference and RAM Labs came from doing something for the first time, and learning from the mistakes that first effort had brought to light. Mistakes never pleased him, but he knew they were an unavoidable part of learning in the same way he had learned.
The greatest challenge for Music Reference was production. As much as Roger loved design and engineering he hated manufacturing. I’m not sure if he always hated it or whether the years of coordinating everything it took from a taking a product from concept to final testing fell on him. Either way, manufacturing was a constant topic. Roger wanted a production manager who could take over the most onerous duties. That would free Roger to develop new designs and also to do the kind of extended travel he believed the ongoing day-to-day demands of the business prevented.
One of my first bits of inexperience was exposed by my belief that finding the right candidate for the job would be doable if not easy. Music Reference and RAM Labs were located in Santa Barbara and I figured that between UCSB and Santa Barbara City College there would be a good number of qualified applicants in the area. I was wrong. Roger and I interviewed a number of candidates and one seemed less likely to be able to do the job or even to truly understand the substance of the job than the next. It was a sobering experience.
I met Graham Hardy back in my early days as a reviewer. He partnered with Kevin Halverson in the design of the legendary Muse Model Two Digital to Analog Converter. The Model Two was a ground-breaking product. It was the first DAC to show (to me, anyway) that digital could someday rival, and possibly exceed, the fundamental fidelity and musicality of the finest analog systems. Kevin might dispute this, but I believe it was the Model Two that really put Muse Electronics on the map back in the early 1990s.
Here’s where things start to evolve and worlds began to clash. Graham was an avid reader of The Audio Observatory and liked to question me about what I regarded as the essential musicality of a vacuum tube system. His curiosity got him thinking about designing a tube amplifier of his own. Graham had a particular design goal for his amp. He wanted it to be able to automatically bias its output tubes.
It will be as if there are eight little audio nerds living in each amplifier chassis, constantly turning tiny screwdrivers keeping the output tubes in a state of perfect bias. -Graham J. Hardy
That sounded cool to me though I had always enjoyed biasing tubes for myself, in very much the same way I liked checking my car’s oil level and tire pressure. Still, Graham was passionate about the idea. His enthusiasm brought an idea to mind; could Graham be the production manager for Music Reference?
I thought about it for weeks before I brought the idea to Graham. It turned out he had been independently hoping I would set up a meeting with Roger. In hindsight that motive, on Graham’s part, should have been a warning. Graham was looking for affirmation that his concept was impressive to a respected, even legendary, designer of tube gear. He also wanted to prove to himself that he could slip from the digital world to the analog world and still do valuable work.
Roger didn’t have a problem with the meeting. All of the failed interviews with would-be production managers had worn him out and put him close to giving up on the idea that finding a decent candidate was even possible. We picked a date and Graham and I headed north to Santa Barbara. I knew that it would be a waste of time to make any attempt at coaching Graham about how best to present his ideas to Roger. I also knew that Roger could be a little bit like a roulette wheel when it came to how he would receive someone new. Roger was always cordial. He’d grown up in Richmond, Virginia and I always felt that a certain kind of southern gentility influenced his behavior. He was never loud or contradictory and he could be an excellent listener. But, once he knew that the person he was speaking to lacked a full understanding of what was being discussed he would begin the dissection just to make sure. He did this by asking one seemingly simple question after another. I regarded those questions as if they were the coils of a python; at first it felt OK but then it would get a little hard to breathe. Just when the person being questioned started to figure out what was happening, that answers to important questions had been fumbled, the end of the interview would come mercifully.
The interview went terribly. Roger started questions with phrases like, “You do understand…” -and- “Certainly you’re aware that…” When Roger asked, “Do you realize that capacitors in this kind of circuit will each discharge at different rates while music is playing?” I knew full well the interview was over. The Oxford PhD in physics, the genuine honest-to-God, card-carrying rocket scientist from JPL, had been laid-low by the soft-spoken electrical engineer from the University of Virginia.
Graham seethed all the way back to his house and about an hour later when I finally got home to my house I had a message from Roger on my machine. When I called him back, he thanked me for bringing Graham to Santa Barbara to meet with is. But, then he said, “You do understand that there’s no way I can work with him, right?’
So then back to the inexorable passage of time. The 1990s ended and then my marriage ended and finally my friendship with Graham came to a coda brought about by his poor behavior when he drank and finally by his subsequent move to Washington. I missed him, but being around Graham was like being close to a moving fire. It was only a matter of time before it became uncomfortable and a painful burn was sure to follow. All that said, I still miss him to this day. He always was, in his way, a great and dedicated friend.
Even more time passes. It’s New Year’s Eve 2017 and I was sitting in an outdoor jacuzzi having a late-night cocktail when I got a call from a number I didn’t recognize. The woman who answered told me she was calling about Graham and the water in the tub suddenly felt as cold as the desert’s winter air as it swirled around me. I knew before hearing the words exactly what she was going to say; Graham had finally killed himself.
Without being told, I knew that he had shot himself.
Without being told I knew the gun he pulled the trigger on was very likely one he had bought from me in the months after I was divorced.
Without being told I knew that this was by no means the end of the story.
Another reason the woman had called me was to enlist my help in getting one of Graham’s unfinished designs through final engineering and manufacture. I was astonished but I was also intrigued. I thought to myself, what were the odds that this design would ever surface again, especially after Graham’s death, and that I, of all people, could be the point of nexus required to get it to market or see it consigned to the ash heap of never-produced high end design??
Still, still; it was a very odd thing to consider. Graham’s amplifier, and especially the work he’d done on it after the time when he’d vanished from my radar, comprised a kind of vendetta against Roger Modjeski. There was no way for me to know if Graham had, against all odds, overcome his limitations as a designer of tube gear and created a viable circuit for today’s market. Then and now I say that the odds were against him but that doesn’t make such a design an impossibility.
Graham’s amplifier was made to look like a Music Reference amplifier. Roger liked to say that he had designed Music Reference amplifiers, especially the RM-9, to look as if they had been built by someone in his garage, but by someone who had access to certain elements of construction that would never be attainable to someone building something by himself. It was one of the first products to use a 6061 T6 aluminum top plate. The nomenclature was done in a technique called Anofax that would never wear out the way conventionally silk-screened lettering would. Each of the three transformers were hand-wound by either Roger or a technician who made guitar pickups for Seymour Duncan who Roger had trained in the exacting art and science of transformer winding. Once wound, the transformers were vacuum potted into enameled transformer cans. It was a tricky, laborious and time-consuming process from start to finish.
Graham’s amplifier had double the number of output tubes (per channel) of an RM-9. It also had a T6 top plate and a wooden frame. The power and output transformers were made by a company called Plitron which has a somewhat mixed reputation. A written description of Graham’s amp and the RM-9 could lead one to believe that they looked similar to each other, but they didn’t. Still, it was clear that Graham’s design was directed at what Roger Modjeski had created all those years before.
No one will ever know why Graham didn’t finish the design himself or build the production amplifiers. For a time, even before he moved to Washington, he had a created company of sorts and a website, but there was never a product available to buy. When I learned that the prototypes had survived him I considered making the effort to hear them for myself, but I didn’t really want to. In the end, I believed it was very unlikely Graham had achieved a working version of his auto-bias function and, even if he had, I was even more doubtful he had achieved a musically viable product in what was his first attempt at designing a tube amplifier. It just ain’t that easy.
Still, I feel an odd and somewhat uncomfortable connection to Graham’s design. It had been so long since I had spoken to him it was as if the amplifiers were all that were left of him, and even they were incomplete. Somehow the amplifier’s design didn’t feel genuine. It didn’t feel like something that had been created to bring better sounding music to people’s homes. Somehow it felt hard and hollow and empty. I admit that I may be missing something about Graham’s amplifier. Perhaps he achieved far more than I’m giving him credit for, but I’m actually quite comfortable never knowing the answer.
There’s another irony to all of this. A while back I called Roger Modjeski to let him know about Graham’s passing and the amplifier he designed and built. But, Roger didn’t remember the fateful meeting. Even after I reminded him about the specifics, he simply didn’t remember. In the end, the meeting simply hadn’t meant anything to him. And, for Graham, even though he acted as if the meeting had meant a lot, he wasn’t able to find a way to directly benefit from it, or even to see it as a light that showed him a way forward. Graham could only find a way to feel dismissed and minimized even though no one had sought to make him feel that way. Without trying to win, or even knowing there was any kind of competition, Roger had won. In his effort to prove himself as the equal of his own education and professional stature as a physicist and engineer Graham had lost and, even worse, he had undermined himself and his mission in the process. What an terrible waste of intelligence, energy and potential.
Today, after all these years, there’s an effort underway to get Graham’s amplifier built. But, I still wish the whole thing just felt better to me. I wish Graham had been able to create out of a heartfelt desire to build something better rather than a pitiable need to be proven correct. More than that, I wish he had been able to live his life to its full measure. Who knows what he could have achieved had he simply given himself the occasional luxury of being wrong and the right we all have to learn from our mistakes and move on.
With that, I’ll give Graham the last words one final time.
Any good Englishman would rather be right than happy. – Graham J. Hardy
How can it be over six years since I wrote this; impossible! Still, reading it again reminds me of writing it and makes me want to drop AVL to see how he’s doing.
In 1996 Tiger Woods said, “Hello world,” and things haven’t been the same since. Before Woods ever put a tee into the ground as a professional he’d been made a multimillionaire by Nike and Titleist. For the first time, far more of a player’s income was going to come from sponsorships than tournament winnings. A new world order had arrived and golf almost instantly expanded into a truly global game.
Since then, we’ve said hello to a bunch of mini-Tigers like Rory McIlroy, Rickie Fowler and Ryo Ishikawa. What each of these players have in common (along with a lot of game) is a massive corporate support mechanism. Each is as much a brand as a player. Fowler actively cultivates his image and look on his website by asking, “Love my look?” His Cowboy-orange and flat-billed cap are tools helping to set himself apart from the rest of the khaki-clad PGA Tour crowd. And, while it would be easy (if a tad cynical) to say most great players have yet to set themselves apart by winning,
I don’t want to create the impression I don’t like this crop of young, corporately well-connected, players because for the most part I do. It’s just that I also enjoy following the kind of player who lacks such deep-pocketed support. It’s important to understand how many players come to professional golf in anonymity and with significant hardship.
It’s well known Ben Hogan failed on the PGA tour at least once before finally breaking through. Before succeeding, he was down to his last bit of cash, $86 from a war chest of $1400. He had promised his wife Valerie (who was driving with him from event to event) that if he didn’t earn a check in the next tournament they would take what little money they had left and make their way home to Fort Worth, Texas. The morning before the tournament, the Hogans awoke to find their Buick stripped of its rear tires and wheels, its rear axle propped up on rocks.
Hogan got a ride to the tournament and ended up winning $385. Hogan described that check as the biggest one he had ever seen and he was quite sure it was the biggest he would ever see in his entire life. It’s impossible to imagine that Hogan sponsored by Nike, given millions of dollars before he had ever put a tee into the ground in a professional event. Hogan is a reminder that for every Tiger Woods and Rickie Fowler there are thousands of aspiring players who come up another way; a much harder way.
Jim Von Lossow came to professional golf in a way much closer to that of Hogan than of Fowler or Woods. Jim’s an old friend of mine and some years back he told me of his time on the PGA Tour. He was only 20 when he left Seattle for California and his parents had no love for the idea of playing professional golf. Jim’s quest to play on tour was one he faced largely on his own. He ended up on tour for a few years and even played alongside some storied players like Tom Kite and Jack Fleck. Though Jim didn’t make many headlines while on tour, his journey led him to become a PGA instructor, the first putter manufacturer to mill heads from 303 stainless steel and now one of the most respected club fitters in the country.
It’s no surprise that Jim and his wife, Susan, have two children who grew up excelling at golf; their daughter, Hannah, and son, Andrew. When it came to Andrew, Jim hadn’t realized how good he’d gotten until Andrew and his friend, Eric Benjamin, shot back to back rounds in the low 60s. This got Jim thinking and he and Susan decided to stake Andrew and Benji enough cash to cover a summer playing The Dakotas Tour. “When I was coming up, I didn’t have the support of my parents when it came to golf,” Jim told me. “So, it was important to me that my wife and I give Andrew and Benji whatever help we could.”
Toward the end of July, Andrew and Benji loaded Andrew’s 1997 Toyota Camry and headed east toward Bozeman, Montana. Bozeman would serve as the duo’s home base for their summer on The Dakotas Tour since Benji knew some folks there. Andrew & Benji missed the first eight events of the 2010 Dakotas Tour season. These tournaments were played in cities with names like Okoboji, Iowa. Obscurity is common in professional golf. A serious golf fan might be able to name 50 PGA Tour players but there are 125 exempt spots. Add the players on the Nationwide Tour, the Canadian Tour and all the myriad other mini tours and we’re talking about serious obscurity. Galleries consist of friends and family, but more likely no one at all. Testing one’s game on a tour like the Dakotas was a strong reminder that golf can be a very solitary game, especially for aspiring professionals like Andrew & Benji.
Still, this is a duo that’s pretty comfortable with obscurity. They’ve even created their own organization to promote it; The Northwest Obscure Golf Association. Andrew & Benji came up with the name when they were forced to admit that to play as much as they needed to play to sharpen their games they’d have to play on some of the area’s scruffier courses. So, for two months of summer in 2010, Andrew & Benji tested their games against other aspiring professionals. They played some golf, they drove a lot of miles and had a lot of fun. At the end of the summer, they both agreed it had been the best one ever.
After arriving in Bozeman, Andrew & Benji drove about 700 miles for a one day Pro-Am at Wild Oak GC in Mitchell, South Dakota. For the next few weeks, Andrew & Benji teed it up twice in Yankton, South Dakota at Fox run and then at the open qualifier at Hillcrest Country Club.
Which open? The Bobcat State Open at Fargo Country Club, of course. Notably, the state animal of South Dakota is the coyote, so go figure. Jim Von Lossow had told me what good players his son Andrew and daughter had become, but it was Andrew’s humble blogging that drove home just what fine players he and Benji are and at the same time what a difficult undertaking they were attempting.
Andrew’s first blog entry:
Benji and I played a practice round at Fargo Country Club. It was a nice day, around 80 degrees with a slight breeze. The forecast for tomorrow is calling for wind and sun. I tee off at 8:20am while Benji tees off at 1:20pm.
The greens are very firm and fast. The key to approach shots is staying below the hole and taking one club less for the ball to run up to the pin. This is a very Northwest-style golf course so Benji and I feel comfortable playing here.
Here are a couple pics from today at the Fargo Country Club…
To the casual reader, I’m sure these photos simply look like two really good players teeing off. But, when I look at them I’m trying to imagine if Andrew & Benji felt differently when they put the tee in the ground. They were doing what they had done thousands of times before, but they were doing it for a very different reason. Their ability, their pure joy in playing the game and their newfound drive to play golf for a living, had taken Andrew & Benji to this very unusual place.
I once watched Nick Price in one of his first tournaments on the Champion’s Tour. I had sought him out before he teed off to tell him how much I enjoyed his book, The Swing, which had come out a few years earlier. Nick Price was as kind and gracious a man as his reputation would suggest. There were a few people who watched him tee off, but by the 3rd hole his gallery had all but vanished. It was a perfect, glorious day in Southern California and one of the best players in the game was playing a competitive round of golf in almost total solitude.
That was an odd event. It was the first day of a tournament that had been moved from one course to another and attendance would be light until the weekend. But, that day reminded me what a lonely and isolating game professional golf can be. As I walked with Price I marveled at his rapid-fire swing and the dead-solid sound the ball made when he struck it with an iron, and I felt a little sorry for him. I know…Price wasn’t really alone, and was certainly not lonely. Still, live professional golf very often doesn’t always bear as much similarity to the game we see on television as we might expect.
Andrew & Benji were taking their first steps toward becoming a colleague of Nick Price but I’m sure they didn’t see it that way. They were and are good friends who wanted most of all to have their best summer ever. While they were at it, they would measure their games against each other and against the games of the other players with the same mission.
They both knew it wouldn’t be easy:
Day 1 of the Bobcat North Dakota State Open:
Benji and I both shot 75. I played in the morning and made the turn at 3 over and shot even on the back.
For Benji’s round in the afternoon the wind picked up and baked out the greens. He hit a flagstick from 190 yards and the ball then went into the water in the greenside hazard. In the last 3 tournaments, Benji has at least hit one flag per tourney. His round also lasted 6.5 hours.
Benji shot 70. He played solid but just had one bad hole. He was punching out from the trees when his ball caught the trunk of a tree sending it into the hazard. Benji missed the cut by 2.
For myself, I shot 81. Made the turn at 3 over again and knew I had to make some moves if I wanted any chance of making the cut. Instead the round went the other way.
We are leaving North Dakota today and heading to Milbank, South Dakota. We will drive three hours and play a practice round at Pine Hills Golf Club for a one-day Pro Am tomorrow, August 30th.
We are looking forward to playing a new course and teeing it up in another tournament.
For 7,000 miles, Andrew & Benji chased the little white ball across the Dakotas and into Montana, going all the way east to Iowa for the Tour Championship. They were like the golf equivalents of Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady, hopping from town to town, staying at KOA campgrounds. Playing golf was the reason for their trip but I will bet it was the trip itself they’ll remember most keenly. As another Cervantes once wrote, “The Journey is better than the inn.” In an era when people are brought together over vast distance by technology, it’s even more important to venture into the expanse from time to time. I’m sure Andrew & Benji would agree.
I wondered a lot about Andrew & Benji and their dream of playing golf for a living. In fact, when I started working on this story, I wasn’t even sure they really wanted to play the game for a living. So, I talked to Andrew about it.
Today, Andrew Von Lossow’s day job is studying Design at Eastern Washington University where he’s on schedule to graduate in 2013. He told me about the reaction of his fellow students when he tells that in his spare time he’s a professional golfer. Not surprisingly, they don’t quite know what that means. When most people think of the word professional, they think of doctors and lawyers, not golfers.
When asked to describe his game, Andrew said, “My strength is ball striking. I can hit high long irons and from there I have good confidence in my other irons. My chipping and pitching are works in progress. Same with my putting; I am a streaky putter I can really get it going when I am on. When I’m not, it is a lot of two putts and the occasional and dreaded 3 putt.” He’s clearly a guy who believes in his game and has done a lot to develop it from working with a number of teaching pros to enhancing his overall fitness by following a rigorous fitness regimen developed by the Titleist Performance Institute.
As ever, golf is a game of making three shots into two shots any way you can. The different mind set of the truly fine player is revealed when he says, “Once I make one birdie, I feel I can string them together. The more birdies I make, the more unaware of my score I get because I get caught up on the next shot to make the lowest score possible.” Poor players don’t think that way. A couple good holes is more likely to make them protective than confident. Andrew clearly has the confidence to go low when the opportunity comes his way, as he did by finishing 5th and winning $800 in the Gallatin Valley Open.
He wrote about the event and the end of his first pro tour:
What a journey it was out in the Dakotas. Benji and I both agree that this was the best summer we have ever had. Benji had some great finishes in tournaments while I was enrolled in the school of hard knocks in the tour life. What I learned was very important for becoming a better player. Golf is not easy as we all know.
The last tournament, The Gallatin Valley Open, I came in 5th shooting 72-68. The first day I shot 4-over 40 on the front nine and I took some experience from my previous tournaments and shot 4-under 32 on the back nine. The next day I shot a bogey free 68 to make a move up the leader board to cash my first professional check.
I’ll bet Andrew’s closing 68 felt so easy. At the same time, I’m sure that front nine 40 must have had him doubting that he was cut out to play professional golf. The ability to turn off those doubts and salvage par says a lot about his resiliency. Still, it must be extraordinarily difficult for an aspiring professional to measure his game, until the heat of professional competition gets turned up. Then it becomes easy, if potentially confidence crushing. There are so many good players today. As sure as I am that the best players of eras gone by like Nicklaus, Hogan and Ballesteros would still be amazingly successful players today, I’m equally certain the depth of quality players is greater today than it’s ever been.
No one needs to tell Jim Von Lossow about the difficult challenge that lay ahead for his son. There is surely no way to tell whether Andrew will be able to make a living playing golf. But, that’s not really the point. In golf and in life, outcomes are never assured. All we can do is make our best swing, go find the ball, and do it all again.
Today, Andrew & Benji are continuing to hone their games in preparation for their next trek on tour. They’re sure to have plenty of birdies and their fair share of bogies when they do.
My sister and I have something in common when it comes to two of our closest friends. My sister’s college roomate, now a wife and mother of three and my best friend, a husband and father if two. both suffer from significant depression.
Each has issues with their spouse and children. But, I’ve identified a significant difference between the two and the difference was manifest in the one of two sentences that each of them chose to sum up their condition.
My sister’s friend says, “I just don’t want to feel like this any more.”
My buddy says. “I know there’s no help for me. This is just how it is.”
A while back, I felt motivated to share a DVD I own called Buck. It’s the now-famous story of horseman Buck Brannaman. I saw it on TV years ago and I never forgot it. It’s one of a handful of DVDs I’ve ever actually bought and I take it out from time to time just to watch a few scenes.
Now, the funny thing is that I have very little interest in riding horses. I’ve probably been riding ten times and on seven of those rides my steed was made of plastic. Still, I am fascinated with the way Brannaman conveys information. Earlier this year I went to see one of his clinics at the Los Angeles Equestrian Center. It was fascinating. Now, Brannaman is not always a little ray of sunshine. But, what attracts me to his method is that it’s heavy on sensitivity and what I call, self-discovery. By that I mean that he’s not merely encouraging sensitivity toward the horse. Rather, he’s saying that sensitivity toward the horse is mandatory and that developing a sensitivity toward the horse you’re riding leads to sensitivity towards oneself and other people.
As I’m prone to do with nearly everything, I apply this to golf. Golf is nearly always taught as a prescribed method of creating a specific series of movements. Of course the golf swing is comprised of motions, so this make sense on one level. But, if you scratch the surface with the best golf instructors they will often admit that what they’re really trying to teach is a feeling that can be hard for some players to feel. I’ve even spoke to one teacher who told me he sometimes tries to trick his students into buying into a motion he thinks will create a feeling that will somehow unlock a better swing. Talk about tricky, but learning isn’t always easy and straightforward.
I’m sure you’re wondering how this applies to the first couple paragraphs. I have to admit that at the time I loaned my friend the DVD I wasn’t sure either. I just had a feeling. Now that he’s watched it I think I have handle on what I wanted him to get out of it. Some of the lessons resides in a line Brannaman refers to in the film:
Solvitur en modo, firmitur en rey.
This is Latin for gentle in what you do, firm in how you do it. Like I said, Brannaman should have been a golf teacher. I think my friend has lived most of his life believing that something done out of the gentleness of love must always be done in that same gentle way. Over the decades, this gentility-first ethos has spawned inaction and passivity where verve and action were needed. That first quote of his, I know there’s no help for me. This is just how it is rings like the very bell of negativity derived from passivity.
I think this is a heck of a difficult thing for my friend to become aware of at this point in his life. He’s gotten so good at applying this mentality to himself even though he would never prescribe it to his children. He has created a bizarre and damning corruption of the old line, Do as I say and not as I do. He has failed to see the real lesson he’s passing on to to children through his actions and his words.
My sister’s friend went out and got help because she didn’t want to keep feeling as bad as she did. She was prescribed with antidepressants and got better. Of course, science has found that people get better from depression for a number of reasons. For the fortunate, the brain’s chemistry normalizes over time all by itself. For some, antidepressants assist in the recovery of this balance. Sometimes the brain recovers from the causes of the depression, the death of a loved one, the loss of a job, only with time and perspective.
But, before people get better they have to want to get better. Do we really need to talk about the connection between attitude and health?
I watched Brannaman work with a person as his clinic who told him, “Buck, I think all this leg work (in getting the horse to turn) has numbed my horse up.” Brannaman looked at the back end of her horse and said, “Well, a fly just landed on your horse’s flank and he flicked it away with his tail. If your horse can feel a fly, he can feel your knee. The question is, can you become sensitive to how your horse feels what he feels?”
Sensitivity, or what I prefer to call awareness, is what we should all be looking for. It doesn’t matter if we’re learning a new golf shot or we want to learn how to tell a horse to stop or go or we want to know how to relate more effectively to ourself or other folks. We must be aware in a way that gives us the best chance to learn what we need.
My dear friend has lost this awareness. He can’t bring himself to flick that fly off of his leg and so it’s going to keep tormenting him until he does. My sister’s friend felt the same way but she acted on her awareness that help was close by. I remember hearing Dick Cavett say that in the depths of depression the cure could have been as close as the other side of the kitchen table but he just couldn’t bring himself to reach for it.
I spend a couple hours each week talking to my friend and thinking about his plight. I try to monitor how he’s feeling without asking about it relentlessly. I try to point out options when it comes to his work and his life and his family. I encourage him to try new courses of action, new ways of doing things and different ways of thinking about his ife. He speaks frequently of his experience of what he terms existential dread and crisis.
He’s not joking…
So, I wonder about the internal force that pushed my sister’s friend to reach out for help and the internal deficit that makes my friend unable to do the same? Is optimism a prerequisite for a willingness to ask for help or even the belief that help exists? If it is, I’m quite sure I don’t know of a way to motivate optimism in anyone, even someone I know as well as my old friend. You can lead an horse to water or a friend toward help but in the end it’s up to the horse and the friend to care enough to help themselves. Ever the optimist I’m confidant my old friend will have a quenching drink from the fountain of help this year.
I’ve been thinking a great deal about the divisions of our country. Specifically, I’ve been wondering how divided our country has become? Is it really more divided than ever? I think the internet would tell us that it is. And I think if you look at the right (wrong?) measures you might rightly conclude that it is, but I’m still not sure. My interest in essence of those divisions was piqued when I happened on a podcast about American Exceptionalism. The guest, Mugambi Jouet of Stanford University, pointed out that many people (most notably large numbers of the republican party) are confused by the phrase’s use of the word exceptional. He has written a book about it: Exceptional America: What Divides Americans from the World and from Each Other (University of California Press).
By the way, it’s not only the clueless-right that miss the true meaning of the phrase. This afternoon on The Daily I heard New York Times White House reporter Maggie Haberman use the phrase incorrectly while talking about Donald Trump’s stated willingness talk to strongmen like Kim Jong Un and Rodrigo Duterte. Haberman said, “The United States has long been an idealistic nation; it’s essentially this concept of American Exceptionalism. While it’s been pretty maligned, it’s basically about something being aspirational and the idea of values of freedom of constitutional democracy, and that those are the types of values that this country hopes other countries will aspire to.”
Uh, no, that is not what American Exceptionalism is about.
As I said it’s clear that the phrase can and will continue to cause confusion for people of all political walks of life. The word exceptional is typically used as a synonym for outstanding. But, when Alexis de Tocqueville coined the phrase he used it to identify this country as an exception to other western countries.
de Tocqueville found it exceptional that the very same country that had established so many colleges and universities in such a short time should have such an anti-intellectual propensity. All of the exceptions are interesting, but there’s one that I’m not sure de Tocqueville thought of:
The US is the first country to strive for a government of, for and by the people. Still, most people don’t trust the government. Moreover, I would hazard that the percentage of Americans who don’t trust the government is at an all-time high. If this is true, it could mean that people are more likely to trust a government like Vladimir Putin’s than a government like ours. Is this worrisome? Maybe.
Then again, perhaps there’s a special psychological justification for mistrusting a government of peers. Perhaps knowing with assurance that the people in government think and are motivated just the way we are is enough to give us pause. Also, could the fact that our government occasionally comes clean about its misdeeds lead some to a greater mistrust rather than confidence? We all witness the militarization of urban police forces but for some that makes it easy to harken back to the FBI sending helicopters and snipers after Randy Weaver and his family, killing his son and wife (by being shot in the back of the head) and so a correlation is solidified. Some see good (if fallible) government at work and others see an increasingly emboldened and heavy-handed state.
There’s another even simpler reason for why people find it easy to distrust the government of the United States. We’ve simply done more totally wild shit than any other country. Like what, you say? How about having a functional democracy predicated on a three hundred year old document? How about sending a man to the moon? How about driving countries like Japan and Germany to their knees only to help them become economic powers just a few decades after the end of WWII. Did I mention that we’ve dropped two nuclear bombs on populated cities?
That kind of tension, that cognitive dissonance, is largely OK. I tend to look at all evidence of the work of government as falling in one direction or the other. If a bit of work is apt to make a high percentage of people lose faith in the work of government (like the Fullerton Police’s killing of Kelly Thomas), I see it as bad. If a bit of work (like convicting ex-Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca of corruption) makes a high percentage of people gain faith in government, I’m all for it.
I realize that some folks grabbed the popcorn and were rooting for the Fullerton cops sitting on Kelly Thomas’ back while crushing the life out of him. I’m also aware that some folks thought kindly old Lee Baca must have been entrapped by the evildoers from the FBI. Again, that’s just cognitive dissonance playing out on a mass scale. Still, I stand by the work of government that increases faith in government and condemn the acts that undermine that faith.
What about proponents of gun rights? The guest on the podcast stated that for many American gun owners the primary purpose of their guns was to protect against the government rather than against threats from other citizens. I actually had to play that part of the podcast a second time to make sure I heard him correctly; I had. Now I have to admit that the idea that you better have a 15-shot 9mm on hand because the government is going to come get you is a fairly astounding fear. But, I think fear is the key word. I think the average Trump voter was and is a pretty fearful person, one who felt as though he had been disadvantaged by pretty much everyone and had been rendered helpless by forces both seen and unseen. Not only did they feel disadvantaged by people but those who lived in rural parts of the country even felt disadvantaged by mere geography. It is easy to imagine a group of people who felt a kind of generalized fear of everything and everyone finding solace in guns, and lots of them.
Let’s think about the anti-intellectual leanings that got de Tocqueville’s attention. I think most anti-intellectual sentiment is pointed at groups of intellectuals who seemingly do no work. I think a classic moniker of the past is apt here; eggheads. These are the guys studying whatever it is you’ve never heard of or anything you don’t understand. Even the most anti-intellectual slack-jawed-yokel is inclined to see a doctor if he gets sick. He may attest to a distrust of the medical profession as a whole, maybe he thinks they’ve even secretly cured cancer, but old Cletus is still very likely to tell you that his own doctor is top-notch. That’s more of a selective anti-intellectual sentiment, one that readily finds an exception in specific people, rather than a blanket distrust of learning itself.
The internet, as always, stands ready to undermine confidence and create doubt, in those who believe differently than you do. And, this applies to both sides of a debate. The internet makes it all too easy to stay in our echo chambers and therefore encourage our divisions. But are we really all that divided? I don’t think so. The divisions we read and hear so much about divisions are largely overstated and driven by the media and the shortsightedness of both of our major political parties. Get actual people, rather than groups answering polls or being fed sound bytes or video clips, into a room and watch the divisions fade. Everyone wants to work, everyone wants to being able to afford health care and everyone wants to attain the educations they believe their chosen lifestyle demands. It’s OK to disagree about the processes and mechanism we use to achieve our goals. It’s not OK to use a politically motivated belief that the divisions are so profound that even dialogue is undesirable.
America is both an exception and exceptional and those very qualities give me the greatest hope for its future. Rather than fret over those exceptions we should celebrate them as badges of honor reflecting our diversity of thought and perspective.
I have a friend who likes to ask me what I would have liked to have done with my life. The unspoken assumption is pretty obvious; there’s no way I could be happy the way things turned out.
But the fact is I am with the way my life turned out.
My friend likes to wonder if I would have enjoyed being a full-time writer. I don’t believe I would have. I can’t imagine enjoying the grinding existence of the working writers I know. Life is more than writing for me. In fact, it’s hard for me to understand how many writers manage to squeeze in enough living to justify the amount of time and energy they devote to writing. Writing, for me anyway, is my response to some aspect of the life I’m living. Put another way, you can have a full life without writing but I don’t believe you can write anything worthwhile without living a full life.
There are other fundamental limiters to my writing and those are the honest and undeniable limits of my talent and inspiration. My inspirations simmer, they seldom boil. Also, I have many other pulls in my life and some of them also involve a kind of creativity and a smattering of inspiration. I love to golf and to hike and to take photographs. More than anything I enjoy being around the people whom I like and love. Writing much more than I already do would vacuum up precious time that could be spent actually doing other things and enjoying other people.
Today I bought new tires for my beloved Mini Cooper instead of buying a new car. I would like to be able to buy a house but the housing market rises faster than I can earn more money. I’ve been working to develop a business association with a high-end manufacturer in Sweden for the last five years. Would it have been easier to do if I had more cash on hand? Most certainly. Still, as has been better said by a million other writers before me the only thing I would truly like more of is time. In the end, it seems to me that we have a choice; we can either embrace life’s limitations or thrash against them.
By accepting those limitations, we allow ourselves to get started on some of the things we say matter to us. But, if we spend too much time thrashing about we’re likely to find our energy sapped before we even have a chance to bring our better selves to bear on projects that could be worthwhile.
Now that’s what I call wasted energy.
And so, I am truly living the dream. My health is good. My loved ones are many and nearby and the world is full of things that fascinate me. From time to times those fascinations inspire me to write. Living the dream is a choice I’m happy I made.
That’s an odd title, of course, when you consider that change is the universal constant. At times it’s easy to think things have stayed the same for a while and then you get a glance at a few extra gray hairs here and there and you realize it’s been going on for a while without you noticing it.
As I mentioned in another post, my job of the last dozen years will come to an end at the end of July. Whether it was a great run or not, it has come to an end as do all things. This change has imposed itself on me in a very obvious way that cannot be ignored. I can miss a few new gray hairs for a while but I cannot miss the end of a longstanding position.
“That is no country for old men.” John Butler Yeats
That is the first line of Yeats’ poem, Sailing to Byzantium. I interpret the poem and that line differently than most. In it, I hear that the future does away with the aged; that country is the future. In Hamlet, Shakespeare called death the undiscoveredcountry. Both writers sought to make the future a place as well as a time. In doing so they sought to make time into something less amorphous and more comprehensible.
As writers often do, they were trying to tell us something. For me, the lesson is that these times of obvious change are cosmic favors. It’s up to me to see it as such and to seize the opportunity. The angst of times like these is driven by uncertainty and the question of whether I am up to challenges the future has in store. So often, the changes brought by time happen when we’re unaware or distracted by other things. But, this change, by the sheer obviousness of it, is calling out to me to make it into a time of gain rather than loss.
I am looking forward to a very interesting fall and winter. Both should be seasons of great opportunity; the kinds of opportunities that only a big change can bring.