Search Box

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

One manly guy

The following account appeared on Yahoo (via the AP) an hour or so ago:

Police: SC man charged with having sex with horse

by Jeffrey Collins, Associated Press writer
COLUMBIA, S.C. – A South Carolina man was charged with having sex with a horse after the animal's owner caught the act on videotape, then staked out the stable and caught him at shotgun point, authorities said Wednesday.

(I've heard of guys doing it with sheep, and even dogs before, but never with a horse; I have heard of women doing it with horses before, though that story about Catherine the Great is supposed to not be true.)

But this wasn't the first time Rodell Vereen has been charged with buggery. He pleaded guilty last year to having sex with the same horse after owner Barbara Kenley found him in the same stable and was sentenced to probation and placed on the state's sex offender list.

(Ah, romance. It's good to know that there's at least one man out there who can stay faithful.)

Kenley said she noticed several weeks ago her 21-year-old horse Sugar was acting strange and getting infections again. She noticed things in the barn had been moved around — dirt piled up and bales of hay stacked near the horse's stall at her Lazy B Stables in Longs, about 20 miles northeast of Myrtle Beach.

"Police kept telling me it couldn't be the same guy,' Kenley said Wednesday. "I couldn't believe that there were two guys going around doing this to the same horse."

Kenley didn't call police because she was certain the man would come back to the stable, and she wanted to make sure he was arrested. So she staked out the barn and caught Vereen inside Monday night, chasing him to his truck and holding him with her shotgun until police came.

Vereen, 50, was first charged with trespassing, but police added a buggery charge after watching the surveillance tape. He faces up to five years if convicted. Vereen was already on probation after pleading guilty to buggery last year and was sentenced to three years of probation, ordered to stay away from the Lazy B Stables and declared a sex offender. He remains in jail, awaiting a hearing Monday to determine if he violated his probation....

Horry County police don't often investigate animal sex allegations, spokesman Sgt. Robert Kegler said. In fact, he said the last person charged with buggery in the county was Rodell Vereen in late 2007.

Vereen must have a heckuva sex drive. Most guys find by age fifty that their wilder days are behind them. This guy is obviously still going strong.

I find myself wondering which aperture he used. If it was the one used for procreation, he must be a very self-confident felllow, since he's competing with male horses which....well, we've all heard the expression. And if it was the other one, yikes. There's another expression, "horse's ass," which is derived from the fact that a horse seems to be constantly excreting.

Vereen is also possessed of no small physical courage. Everyone who's ever been around horses knows that you don't stand behind them because it makes them nervous and they may kick backwards hard enough to kill you. That didn't stop Vereen, though. (And around him, the horse had good reason to be nervous.)

I'm not sure whether Vereen should have been arrested or given a medal.

Unfree speech

Both the NY Post (on the front page) and the NY Times (buried inside) ran articles this morning describing how Lee Landor, a $45,000 a year aide to Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer, resigned under pressure because of comments she wrote about Gatesgate on her Facebook page:

"I get it -- white men have dominated for hundreds of years and there's a lot of anger there. But HOW MUCH MORE can the white people do to correct the past injustices of their ancestors?"

"If Mr. Big Shot Harvard would have kept his mouth shut, shown his ID and not started yelling at a police officer, he never would have been arrested. So please, it's time to get over this 'It's because I'm black bull----'."

"You know, I am getting really sick of hearing how about how white people are evil racists."

"O-dumb-a, the situation got out of hand because Gates is a racist, not because the officer was doing his job."

Landor resigned after being told "jump or be pushed."

Were her words intemperate? Yes, but they also reflect the feelings of a large number of whites, many of whom are tired of hearing frequent unfounded accusations of racism.

Calling Obama "O-dumb-a" is childish, but it doesn't seem a firing offense. I can't ever recall having heard of a liberal being fired for an equivalent offense, say, calling W dumb and castigating him for the nonexistent weapons of mass destruction. And it's not as if liberals are exactly shy about expressing their views.

It's not even something Landor said at work, it's something she said on her Facebook page.

Some might argue that Landor's free speech rights aren't being violated since she isn't being prosecuted for her words, and the Manhattan Borough President has the right to hire and fire whomever he chooses.

I doubt the Times will have an editorial condemning Stringer tomorrow morning. But put the shoe on the opposite foot and imagine what would happen if a leftist were fired for comments she wrote on her Facebook page.

You'd never hear the First Amendment supported more vociferously.

Monday, July 27, 2009

The noblest guy I ever met

This is probably the last in the series of essays from five years ago which I'll post (a number of you have complained about the length of the "ever met" posts). I've kept in touch with this guy through an institutional association of sorts and I'm happy to report that he hasn't changed:


Look up “noble” in the American Heritage Dictionary and it says: “(a) lofty and exalted in character, (b) showing greatness and magnanimity.” (The other meaning, with its implications of birthright and royalty, doesn’t sit right in a country as resolutely small-d democratic as the US, but that’s not what we’re analyzing here.) What does such nobility imply? A certain self-sacrificial element to one’s personality. The ability to divorce oneself from one’s ego. An appreciation for others. A higher purpose, a calling in life that transcends one’s own personal needs and desires. And a certain straightforwardness that leaves no room for ulterior motives.

The word has a curiously anachronistic feel to it. But think back to the early and middle parts of the twentieth century, remember who our heroes were back then, and contrast them to today’s heroes. It immediately becomes clear that what’s missing from today’s pantheon is any sort of nobility.

Roger Bannister was celebrated for having run the first four minute mile in May of 1954. He was an old-style student athlete, who trained while studying at Oxford to become a doctor. Today’s version of Bannister would be a professional athlete whose only medical aspirations would be to enhance his athletic performance pharmaceutically.

Edmund Hillary was celebrated for being the first man, along with Tenzing Norgay, to conquer Mount Everest. If you ignore the rich dilettantes who basically pay to be escorted -- with oxygen -- to the top of a famous peak, mountain climbers are still a hardy, independent, heroic breed. The difference now is, they are no longer celebrated. (Try to name two world class mountain climbers.)

Audie Murphy was a WWII hero who risked his life many times to save fellow soldiers. Today’s closest equivalent is Pat Tillman, also a genuine hero. But Tillman was only known because he gave up a lucrative NFL contract to join the Army. (Somehow his death also seems more in keeping with the times: he was killed by “friendly fire,” which was then covered up by the Army.) There have undoubtedly been individual heroes in Afghanistan and Iraq other than Tillman, but they’ve gotten no publicity.

And so on. Chuck Yeager begat Evel Kneivel, Jonas Salk begat Sam Waksal, Jackie Robinson begat Deion Sanders, and Winston Churchill begat George W. Bush.

Perhaps the old-time heroes were never as heroic as we like to think. Perhaps human nature hasn’t changed that much; perhaps their feet of clay would have been more visible in the Information Age. Some might have ended up as paid spokesmen for various corporations. And you couldn’t really blame them if they had. But the fact is, they didn’t.

There has certainly never been a more entertaining time to be alive, given the proliferation of news sources. One result of this surfeit of information is that it’s harder for heroes to hide their warts. And the upshot of that is the mass crass-ification of society. We actually seem to have gotten to the point where we celebrate moral warts. We look up to people who win a million dollars by successfully manipulating their fellow contestants on Survivor.

Perhaps the changing nature of our heroes has something to do with the fact that no generation in history had ever been more pampered than the generation now in charge – the Baby Boomers. And pampered children rarely grow up to be noble – or heroic. Instead they grow up spoiled, selfish, and narcissistic.

Those of us who entered college with the pampered class of 1976 were right in the middle of the Baby Boom generation. And almost all of us had similar mindsets: we were self-indulgent, self-important twits with very little perspective on ourselves.

Against this competition it is easier to appear noble. But having long since departed this environment, I’d still have to say the noblest guy I’ve ever met is Hess Yntema, a teammate on my college swimming team.

The first impression one gets from Hess is that he has the face of an enthusiast (this may be partly due to the fact that he often seems to be wearing an appreciative look). His eyebrows are set right above his eyes, giving his bright eyes an intense look. He has full lips, and a short but jutting chin. If you were to liken him to a movie star, it would be Ronald Reagan; if you were to liken him to an animal, it would be a squirrel.

At the time I met him, his enthusiasm was directed mostly towards swimming. Hess’s reputation as a swimmer had preceded him to campus. He had missed the 1972 Olympic team by less than a second in the 100 meter butterfly, one of the seven events won by Mark Spitz that summer in Munich.

Hess took swimming as seriously as anyone (he didn’t miss a practice all year), but also seemed to take himself less seriously. The rest of us were forthcoming about our goals, but if I ever asked Hess what he hoped to do at a dual meet for a particular event, he would reply, “I just hope I can finish the eight laps.” He would often jokingly claim to be a sprinter, although it was obvious he had little talent in that direction. What did become obvious through the course of freshman year was that Hess had tremendous talent in the 200 yard butterfly.

That March, Hess got third in the 200 fly at the NCAA championships. He also got third at the AAU championships in early April, qualifying him for the US national team which was to compete later that month at London’s Crystal Palace. There, Hess won both the 100 and 200 meter butterflies, beating many of the Olympic finalists from the year before. His 100 meter fly of 56.5 seconds then ranked him seventh on the all-time world list.

After a big international triumph like that, it would be easy to forgive a little bit of strutting. Most 19-year-olds would certainly have been beating their chests. But there was never even a hint of that from Hess. After each of these meets, I could find no indication of pride in his demeanor. He never even wore his USA team jacket around campus; he simply put it in a drawer and left it there. (Had it been mine, that jacket would have been threadbare by June.)

If it was just an act, it was a perfect one. Usually when someone is full of false modesty, it’s fairly obvious; the mask will slip at some point. But Hess’s mask, if that’s what it was, was attached quite firmly.

Hess went on to make a total of four separate national teams, including the US squad which met the East Germans in the summer of 1974 (though he never made an Olympic team). And his act never changed. The only indication of pride I could ever detect was while he was actually swimming, when he would occasionally seem to add a little extra flair to his stroke; but this could have been my imagination.

At the end of freshman year, the college newspaper ran an article in its sports section about Hess, saying that he had “exhibited maturity beyond his years, trudging down to the pool every morning” for the first of his two daily workouts. I showed him this article, which he hadn’t yet seen. When he came to that part, he snorted and put it aside. In fact, the paper had it wrong: it wasn’t that rare for an athlete to attend workout every day. What was rare, however, was for an athlete to show that much perspective on himself.

More than his modesty, it was the way Hess treated others that was most revealing of his character. I’ve simply never known anybody who was more skilled at making people feel good about themselves.

One of the swim team managers, Ric Heller, once asked Hess, whose father was in the Foreign Service, about job opportunities there. Ric was a nice guy who happened to be blind in one eye; when he said to Hess that he thought this might hold him back, as some people might find it offensive, Hess managed to look completely disgusted with Ric for asking such a silly question – in a way that made Ric feel good – and then said dismissively, “Ric, I’ve met plenty of people in the Foreign Service. Some of them are offensive.”

I once heard another swimmer complain about how he hadn’t swum well that day, then recite his times for a set of repeats which in fact were quite fast (it was an obvious boast in disguise). Hess replied in mock concern, “You should see a doctor!” -- underscoring the impressiveness of the set.

One time I edged out a swimmer from another college in a 100 yard butterfly; a few minutes later, one of his teammates came up to inform me that “Lance would have beaten you if he hadn’t had a bad third turn.” I just nodded; there was nothing else I could do without looking foolish. The teammate then walked off. A few seconds later I heard Hess’s voice behind me sarcastically saying, “Lance would have beaten you if he hadn’t had a bad third turn.” I hadn’t even realized that Hess had overheard the comment; it was typical of him to have the perfect response for the situation.

As a big time swimmer, Hess would spend his summers training with some club, but most of us weren’t that good, so for us it wouldn't have been worthwhile. Nonetheless, he would always ask his teammates where they’d be training that summer, as if he assumed that they too would be in full time training.

Hess was the only guy I’d ever met who simply never said anything bad about anybody behind their backs. Once an unpleasant fellow cattily asked him how a certain monkish swimmer’s sex life was. Hess shrugged, “It seems to suit him.” It was a typical Hess answer: he didn’t lie about his friend, yet he managed to put a positive slant on it.

If Hess did dislike someone, he managed to convey that with faint praise, which somehow spoke more eloquently than snideness ever could have.

My favorite Hess story took place one day in the spring of his freshman year. There were around eight of us sitting around his dorm room, when one of the guys asked Hess what had happened to his relationship with a girl named Kim he had dated that winter. Hess just shrugged and said, “I guess she doesn’t want to see me anymore.” I remember being surprised that Kim would break off with Hess. By coincidence, a month later I happened to be talking with a mutual acquaintance, who happened to mention that he had been talking to Kim, who had happened to mention to him that Hess had simply stopped asking her out.

Most guys at age nineteen are doing well enough not to embellish their exploits. But Hess, in front of a roomful of fellow college freshmen, actually lied the other way – to make the girl look good, and himself bad. I’d never seen anything like it before.

Hess encouraged others to be discreet as well. If a guy ever started to relate the physical particulars of a conquest, Hess would wave a hand and say, “Ah, details….” in a way that made it clear he didn’t want to hear them.

Once, I started to say, “I don’t know if I should tell you this, but--” when Hess quickly cut me off with “Then don’t tell me.” That was another first for me; most people love being told secrets.

At the beginning of our sophomore year, a mutual friend asked, “Well Hess, are you going to be getting a waterbed for all your amorous exploits this year?” I remember wondering how he could possibly respond to that. Saying yes would sound presumptuous, while saying no would be tacit acknowledgment of failure. Hess put on an offended look, and replied, “You mock me” – effectively saying no but putting a humorous spin on it.

On several occasions I heard Hess say – with a big sigh -- to other guys, “You have more experience with girls than I do,” even though the opposite was probably true. He would also frequently -- and ruefully -- refer to how he had been “spurned many a time,” though I had never seen it happen.

Another way Hess was different was that he seemed to have no social climbing instincts. While he was on his spring trip to London, Hess had a fling with Keena Rothhammer, the 1972 Olympic champion in the 800 meter freestyle. Keena, while not famous in any arena other than swimming, was a star in our world. So while it wasn’t as if Hess had dated Ursula Andress, he had still acquired boasting rights of a sort. Yet he never even mentioned it. We only found out about it when his roommate told us that Hess had been receiving letters from her.

The two greatest swimmers of our era were Mark Spitz and Gary Hall. Hall never achieved Olympic glory the way the Spitz did, so he never became a household name (although his son and namesake gained Olympic fame a generation later). But those of us in swimming knew of his achievements. Hall had set world records in the 200 and 400 meter individual medleys, the 200 meter backstroke, and the 200 meter butterfly on numerous occasions, as well as breaking many American records (which are set in yards). When the Harvard swim team took its Christmas vacation training trip to the Canary Islands that year, the University of Indiana team, with Hall in attendance, was also there. Indiana had won the NCAA Championships for five years in a row at that point. We were all in awe of the Indiana team, many of whom were big name swimmers. (I’m not sure what they thought of us. At the time I thought they must have considered us a particularly scruffy, wimpy-looking bunch.) In any case, when Hall saw Hess, who had trained at the same club the summer before, his face lit up. He yelled out, “Hess!! How are you?!!” and came over and pumped Hess’s hand enthusiastically. In our world, it seemed as if a God from Mount Olympus had descended to earth and singled out a mortal for acclamation. Afterwards I said to Hess, “Wow, he really seems to like you!” Hess just shrugged.

On every college campus there are some very visible people – athletic heroes, beauties, and other campus notables. And there are the invisible people: students who never seem to attract anybody’s attention, and people who work on campus. Hess never curried favor with any of the campus stars, although they sometimes approached him. Yet he often went out of his way to be nice to the less visible. There was a janitor (that job title was still used then) who worked at the pool; his name was Pete Forrester. None of the other swimmers paid him any attention, but Hess would always joke around with him in a way that made Pete feel good.

There was one black swimmer on the team, a classmate of ours named Michael Pinckney. He was tremendously muscular, and had been a decent high school swimmer, but wasn’t good enough to make the varsity. Michael was nice, but was by and large ignored by the other swimmers. You could tell that as the only black swimmer, he never felt that he fit in. He quit in December after overhearing our 47 year old coach refer to a basketball player at his former college as “a colored guy.” (Michael didn’t make a fuss about it, but I happened to notice the connection.) That February, he came to one of the meets as a spectator and sat way up in the stands with two friends. Hess saw him and in the middle of the meet, pointed straight at him, and bellowed “Pinko!” Michael practically squirmed with pleasure at that acknowledgment as he excitedly pointed out to his friends that the star swimmer had just called out to him.

We had another teammate named Ivor Gordon, a breaststroker from South Africa. All of the other swimmers knew that South Africa was an apartheid country, but I’d never heard anyone take issue with him about it; most of us were more concerned with his breaststroke times. One night Hess had dinner with Ivor and a few others after practice. Hess drew him into a long discussion about apartheid. Ivor made the standard arguments defending it – that blacks were better off in South Africa than they were in the rest of the continent, there was no justification for forced integration, etc. Hess kept saying in different ways that it was unfair: the whites sat in cushy offices drawing big salaries while the black miners worked for a dollar a day, etc. Hess wasn’t a liberal, and he wasn’t posturing to impress any nearby blacks – there were none – he was simply arguing for what was right. In terms of the points made, it was probably a standard argument of its type. What was different about it was that Hess was so polite. Political arguments, especially those touching directly on race, often turn nasty. But Hess made his points effectively, without ever turning the argument personal or sounding the least bit strident. (That same sense of fairness, by the way, keeps Hess from being a supporter of affirmative action these days.)

One thing that Hess did very well was laugh at other peoples’ jokes. I, like many, made a lot of jokes; a few hit, most missed. Hess would laugh at all of them. It always made me feel good, although whenever I really thought about it, it was a bit discomfiting.

Hess’s attitude towards others extended to animals as well. He was a vegetarian freshman year, though he later gave it up, partly because he disliked always having to ask for special meals.

Such sensitivity is all the more impressive when housed in a world class 200 meter butterflyer, an event requiring a quality the opposite of sensitivity – toughness.

A lot of the students seemed to be defined by one of the traditional identities: preppy, wonk, jock, or freak (greasers were in short supply on campus). But such identities are self-limiting, and the closer people identify with them, the less imaginative – and interesting – they tend to be. Hess rebelled against his identity as a jock. He had been typecast in high school, and wanted a change; but he was such a good athlete that he never really had any choice. However, the more you got to know him, the more you realized how loose-fitting the label was.

The other swimmers generally limited their dinner table conversations to swimming, girls, drinking, parties, and gossip. If any of the swimmers did bring up academic subjects, it was only to complain about how much work they had to do. Hess was the only one who ever brought up intellectual topics. He was majoring in social anthropology, and enjoyed learning about other cultures; another interest was social theory.

I took a course on Freudian psychology with Hess sophomore year; Freud was still being taken seriously at the time. At one point, towards the end of the semester, Hess explained to me how utterly useless Freud's way of analyzing the human psyche was. I don’t remember the particulars of what he said, but I do remember thinking, wow, he’s absolutely right.

Nobility without humor can be stultifying, but Hess was also the funniest guy I had ever met at that point. The few stories he told about his life almost inevitably turned into jokes at his own expense. One time he told me about how as a soccer player in his youth he had accidentally hurt the star of the team, and how mortified he had been about it, but then, how a week later, he had started exhibiting a “Don’t mess with me” attitude.

One time he described how he had gotten slightly sick before a big meet, and had had to have some blood drawn for a medical test (in effect reverse blood doping, the last thing an endurance athlete would want): “I didn’t mind getting sick, but watching that blood level rise in the test tube was like something out of a Hitchcock movie. It was as if there were [200 meter butterfly] times written along the side of the test tube reading, 2:04, 2:05, 2:06, 2:07………”

When the subject of big meets came up once, Hess told us that we could always tell when he was nervous because “that’s when the little dark spot appears on the front of my bathing suit.”

When we were in the Canary Islands during December of 1972, we competed in a meet on Gran Canaria (the Indiana team was not in attendance that evening), and a fairly large crowd turned out to watch. Hess drew a moustache on himself with a magic marker, and asked the meet announcer to tell the crowd he was Mark Spitz (whose Munich triumphs had occurred just three months previously). In the evening light, the crowd fell for it. After each of his swims, they roared in approval, chanting, “Mark! Spitz! Mark! Spitz!” Hess held up his arms in acknowledgment each time.

Though he never betrayed secrets, Hess didn’t shy away from off-color humor. One time we were having drinks with the swim team captain and his girlfriend in a bar called Casablanca. The talk turned to bars in general, and the girlfriend eagerly volunteered that she had worked in a bar once. Hess, without missing a beat, very solicitously asked, “Was this in an official or….unofficial capacity?” Neither of the two seemed to get it, which was just as well.

There were two somewhat attractive girls who lived in our dormitory whom most of the male students felt obliged to ooh and aah over, mostly to demonstrate their heterosexuality in the manner of nineteen year olds. Both girls had large breasts, wore more makeup than was normal on campus, and wore sexy clothes as well. One evening a few of us were having dinner when one of the guys made the obligatory statement about how much he’d like to bed them, or words to that effect. Hess just winced slightly, and said in a tremulous voice, “There’s something…unclean about those two.” He was making fun of himself more than he was making fun of them, but his comment did capture something about them perfectly.

Once at dinner, a girl at the next table was using profanity very liberally. Hess, who was sitting with his back to her, would wince and convulse slightly every time she swore. Again, he was mocking himself as much as her, but the effect was quite funny.

One time while we were in that Freudian psychology class he told me how when he had been in high school, if he had a teacher he didn’t like, he would sit near the window on a sunny day and see if he could get his watch to reflect the sunlight directly into the teacher’s eyes. Then he said he wanted to do the same to this teacher. (He would never have actually done this.)

Hess was also a master of the wry aside. In the fall of 1973, the Bobby Riggs – Billie Jean King tennis match took place. Riggs had claimed that even an old has-been like himself could beat the best woman pro, and an entire summer of well-publicized trash-talking then took place. We happened to watch the match in a large roomful of guys, most of whom were rooting volubly for Riggs. Hess’s only comment during the match was, “I just hope they don’t make the mistake of interviewing the winner.”

During his sophomore year, Hess briefly coached the women’s water polo team. I heard two girls on that team say that practice was never as much fun before or since. And I would often hear from other people that Hess had been “in good form” at various occasions, although they usually couldn’t recall the particulars.

The people who knew Hess best liked hanging around him just to see what would come out of his mouth next. In the most telling tribute, I would often hear other students ape some of his pet expressions from time to time. I heard a few people say that the more you got to know him, the more you liked him. It was true. He seemed to just grow and grow on you. I also knew that if I was depressed, his company would almost always lift my spirits.

I remember telling people who barely knew him how great he was, and having some of them basically accuse me of admiring him just because he was a great swimmer. Part of the reason they would say this was because whenever he met someone new, he would always let the other person be the star. It wasn’t exactly playing dumb, but given his wit and intelligence, it came close. And I would often be left thinking, if only they knew what he was really like.

But most of the people in our circle got to know him fairly well. And not unexpectedly, Hess was quite popular. He was elected captain of the swim team his junior year, and was also elected President of dormitory association that year. There were a number of woman in our dormitory who seemed to like him quite a bit, though for some reason he didn’t go after any of them.

Hess was the closest thing to Frank Merriwell I’d ever seen. (Merriwell, a fictional character from the first half of the twentieth century, was the original all-American boy at Yale. He was a star athlete, a good student, and respectful to others.) But Hess had one thing Merriwell didn’t: a sense of humor.

The mere mention of Merriwell makes this essay – and Hess -- seem somewhat dated. But there was always something a little anachronistic about Hess. He represented the ideal of a sound mind in a sound body, a phrase already out of date by 1972. He was also a gentleman, a word that had fallen into disuse, if not outright disfavor during the Sixties. (The concept has never fully returned, either: when was the last time you heard the word “gallant”?) Hess was actually more than just gentlemanly – he was downright chivalrous (a word that started falling into decline roughly five hundred years ago).

What made him this way? I’m not sure, and I wouldn’t want to hazard a guess. (No man is a hero to his psychiatrist.) In any case, if someone’s actions are consistently admirable, they don’t really call for analysis.

It is typical that I never once heard Hess mention his long term ambition to go into politics when we were in college; he never talked about himself unless asked, and if anyone did ask, he would say vaguely that he wanted to go to law school. (Another term one almost never hears these days is “noblesse oblige”, with its intimations of hereditary noblemen extending a helping hand to the benighted peasantry. But as originally conceived, the word had good connotations, and was meant to convey a certain self-sacrificing sense of obligation; it is another term Hess brings to mind.)

So what has become of him?

Hess spent a couple years coaching swimming in (pre-cartel) Medellin, Colombia, then entered law school and business school at the University of New Mexico in 1979. He married a girl from El Salvador in 1980, and got his combined degree in 1983. He started a small law firm and got elected to the Albuquerque City Council for two terms. Among his accomplishments, he sponsored and was able to get passed a bill legalizing the use of the cleaner-burning ethanol as motor fuel one day a week in the city. He also instituted Albuquerque’s first recycling initiative, encouraging homeowners to separate their plastic, metal, and paper.

Hess gained a reputation as an unfailingly polite Councilman who sometimes took up causes unpopular with the entrenched powers, such as trying to stop their self-dealing. This has hurt him politically. (It has even resulted in death threats, which he ignored.) Partly because of that, and partly because he ran as a Republican in a district that was seventy-five percent Democratic, he has been stymied in his political career. He ran for County Commissioner and lost, and has also run for the Public Regulation Commission and lost. (None of this has come as a total surprise to him; at age 30 he once shrugged, in reference to his ambitions, “I’m taking a long shot.”) There is something Quixotic about his approach to politics, tilting at corrupt windmills and running against the odds. But there was always something Quixotic about Hess: trying to make the Olympic team was another quest with high odds.

To meet Hess today, you wouldn’t know that he has been frustrated in his life’s ambition. On the surface at least, he exhibits the same equanimity. He continues to work as a lawyer; I heard recently that he had won a case regarding a disputed life insurance policy in which he was entitled to a contingency fee of $25,000, but refused the money because he felt that the widow whose case it was needed the money more than he did. He also does pro bono work for the Navajos.

Hess has started a swim club, which both of his sons belong to. At age 40 he made a brief comeback in swimming, and set a slew of masters world records, but now mostly concentrates on his sons’ swimming. His elder son is about to enter Harvard and would like to eventually go into politics. The younger son seems well on his way to becoming a world class swimmer.

In a way Hess’s life has played out almost exactly as one might have predicted from having known him as a young man. That a guy so solicitous of others would go into public service is not a coincidence. That a guy so honorable would not sell himself to various interests in order to further his political career is consistent. That a guy so gracious as a young man would not carry himself with any discernable bitterness after a frustrating career is not surprising. It is perhaps least surprising that both his sons want to emulate him.

One could say that if Hess had prostituted himself just a little bit, he might have accomplished greater good. After all, what good does it do to be virtuous when your virtue remains private? Bill Clinton sold himself early on (to both Stephens, the local investment bank, and Don Tyson, of Tyson Chicken), he got to be President, and was able to accomplish greater good – depending on your point of view -- than he would have otherwise. But if Hess had cut corners in an effort to get elected, he wouldn’t have been Hess; and anyway, by definition, true virtue remains private.

Sometimes I think, as I did in college, “If only they really knew him.” If only the electorate knew what type of person he was, they would surely vote for him. But if many of his college classmates didn’t know him well enough to appreciate him, one can hardly expect an entire electorate to do so. Nobility doesn’t advertise itself. (True nobility not only doesn’t advertise itself, it won’t even acknowledge itself. Hess proved that once again when the thrust of this essay was mentioned to him: he blanched.)

Maybe everyone has a similar story to tell of a high school or college acquaintance who seemed too good to be true. Maybe one only has the freedom to act like that before adult responsibilities begin to weigh one down. All I can say is I’ve never met anyone else like that, even in school.

This essay sounds suspiciously like the sentimental ramblings of an old man. I recall Hess himself saying one evening in the dormitory dining hall, “I wonder what good old days these will be, eh John?” I’m pleased to report that I don’t feel the least bit sentimental about college. But I do think that Hess’s words and actions, as repeated here, speak as well for themselves as ever.

Rashomon

I just read that Officer Crowley recorded the entire Gates arrest/incident on an open mike. If that is true, I certainly hope that the recording is made public.

There is nothing more gratifying in a he-said-she-said controversy than to have a recording, either video or audio, pop up to show which side is lying.

If this recording does exist, let's hope the mainstream media doesn't just squelch it.

It would be a wonderful opportunity for Americans to decide for themselves who was really at fault here. That would truly be a teachable moment.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Barry, Hank and Jimbo hoist some brewskis

President Barack Obama has now invited both Professor Henry Gates and Sergeant James Crowley of the Cambridge Police Department to the White House "for a beer." One can only imagine what an orgy of awkwardness this will be.


Obama: Officer Crowley, I'm so glad you could join us.

Crowley: Thank you Mr. President. Yeah, I been lookin' forward to this. I mean, it's just gonna be the three of us knockin' down some suds and enjoyin' the playoffs, right? No political bull?

Obama: Well, Sergeant Crowley, I did want the opportunity to make clear, that in my choice of words, I think I unfortunately gave an impression that I was maligning the Cambridge Police Department or you specifically --

Crowley: Impression?! C'mon, Mr. President, with all due respect, you didn't just give that impression, you maligned me, pure and simple. You said I acted "stupidly" -- now that's pretty malignant in my book.

Obama: Well, I could have calibrated those words differently.

Crowley: What's my .38 calibrate Magnum got to do with this?

Gates: It is a weapon which is used to oppress the African-American community, that's what it has to do with this.

Crowley: Hey, you're the one who turned this into a big racial incident. I was just responding to a call from that woman who works for Harvard Magazine about a break in.

Gates: And then, just because I'm a black man, you arrested me.

Crowley: Officer Leon Lashley was right there with me, he happens to be black, and he agreed you shoulda been arrested. You think he was profilin'?

Gates: The poor man has undoubtedly been brainwashed. And he probably feels he'd lose his job if he didn't say that.

Crowley: You were screamin' at me like a hysterical woman! Only decision I figured I'd have to make, whether to run you down to the station or take you direct to the psych ward.

Gates: I highly resent that implication --

Crowley: Hey, you start screamin' again, I'll arrest you right here and now. I brought the cuffs just in case.

Gates: You have no jurisdiction here, you racist! I'll talk to your mama outside!

Obama: Gentlemen, gentlemen, please, we're here to heal, not to cause more rifts. The only reason I arranged this get together in the first place was so I could burnish my image as a healer, you know, as the post-racial President. You guys need to cooperate a little more, help me out a little. Now Officer Crowley, I'm fascinated by the fact that you teach a course in racial profiling. What exactly do you teach the junior officers?

Crowley: I teach 'em that they can't be suspicious of people just on the basis of race, that they have to look for other cues, you know, gang insignia, suspicious behavior, loitering for no reason, that sort of thing.

Gates: Yes, but first and foremost, you teach them that they should arrest someone just because he's a black man in America. A black man should be rousted just for the color of his skin, is that not so Officer Crowley!

Crowley: Yep, you know how it is around Harvard Square, we're always turnin' the fire hoses on the black professors there.

Obama: Sergeant Crowley, you have to understand, black people do have a history of being harassed by the police, so maybe we're a little sensitive to what we perceive as racial profiling.

Crowley: Hey, if the police are so inclined to be racist, how come we don't roust old black women? It's 'cause they don't commit crimes. Every cop ever worked a beat in a big city knows it's the young black men you gotta watch out for. Ordinarily, I wouldn't give a wimpy old geezer like Gates a second look. Now you, on the other hand.....Hey, you ever do anything illegal? Like smoke crack?

Obama: Uh....let's change the subject. Let's think positively. What have we gained from this episode?

Gates: I must admit, I think this little incident is going to absolutely guarantee funding for my PBS documentary.

Crowley: And I can't believe what a hero I am down at the station house these days. Hell, I'll probably make lieutenant within a year.

Obama: See? It's been great for everybody. We've had a real meeting of the minds here, this has been very productive. Now shake, boys.

[They reluctantly shake hands.]

Obama: It even worked out for me -- I got my teachable moment. And the lesson I get to impart to America is this: the next time you see a black man trying to break into a house, relax -- it's probably just a Harvard professor trying to get his own door unjammed.


Nah. I doubt they'll be that honest with each other.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Personal trainers

Whenever I see people working out at the gym with a personal trainer, I always have the same reaction: how self-indulgent.

It's one thing to hire an instructor to teach you how to organize a workout regimen, lift weights, do core body strength exercises, and so on. But once you've learned how to do it yourself, why keep spending the money? The vast majority of personal trainers seem to be hired more as personal motivators, people who will effectively function as your exercise conscience.

I also get the impression that many people hire trainers simply because they don't want to be alone. These are the same people who always have a cell phone growing out of their ear. (If they didn't have distractions, usually in human form, they might actually have to face themselves.)

And why do people always have to practice yoga in groups? Once you've learned the basics, do you really need an instructor to tell you to greet the sun?

There's something about a lack of inner resources that just screams "soft and spoiled." (Have you ever seen a personal trainer attending to someone who actually looked fit?)

There have been studies in the past which have shown that motivation is strongly correlated with intelligence. (In other words, a lack of willpower also screams "stupid.")

Having a personal trainer is not quite as bad as having a personal shopper. But it's close.

Personal trainers are actually a bit more like personal life coaches. Both function as cut-rate psychiatrists whom you pay to listen as you talk about your favorite subject, during which they will pretend to be interested.

Maybe I should hire a personal father for those times I don't feel like dealing with my children.

But given that I like to be with them, and their lack of reciprocation, I guess it would make more sense for them to hire personal children.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

The smartest guy I ever met

Another in the series of essays from five years ago. These were fun to write since it's fun to ponder exactly what it means to be smart, tough, cool, etc:


Tolstoy once said that while everybody seems to feel that he needs more money, at the same time everybody seems to feel that he has a sufficiency of brains. But the fact is, it’s hard for us to judge our own intelligence. After all, we all tend to place more faith in our own sense of judgment than in anyone else’s. Thus, most people in the top half and bottom quartile of human intelligence are dumb enough to think themselves the smartest people they know. Most are, by definition, seriously deluded.

The common currency of intelligence is usually IQ tests and the SATs. Both numbers are dear to the heart of the upper middle class, emblems of their self-worth second only to their net worth. They may loom even larger than our alma maters, because many factors other than intelligence feed into college admissions. (Your grades are more a function of how much of a grind you were, and your athletic ability is a measure of your body rather than your mind.)

One’s IQ is generally not kept as deep and dark a secret as one’s net worth, but many are reluctant to reveal it. If it’s low, people are apt to write you off. If it’s very high, the question becomes why you haven’t been more successful.

But what exactly is intelligence, this quality theoretically measured by IQ tests? Is it the ability to solve problems, as measured by the standardized tests? Is it spatial sense? To what extent is it mathematical ability, to what extent verbal dexterity?

How much does intelligence consist of memory? Very intelligent people tend to have very good memories, and any sense of judgment must be based on empirical observation, which is impossible without a good memory. But memory alone does not make a genius, otherwise certain autistic people (formerly called idiot savants) would have to be considered geniuses.

Is intelligence creativity? This quality is not measured by the standardized tests, but when you think of genius, the usual suspects such as Einstein, Michelangelo, Da Vinci, Tesla, Edison, Newton, Darwin, Shakespeare, Franklin, Jefferson, etc. were all extremely creative. People don’t become famous just because they had good memories or scored high on IQ tests. They have to produce something original and worthwhile to be celebrated.

One form of creativity is humor. Humor is basically just juxtaposing two things together that aren’t normally associated. The class clown is rarely the class valedictorian, but it is not coincidence that the word “wit” refers to both intelligence and a ready sense of humor.

Another aspect of intelligence, as expressed in everyday life, is analytical ability. Smart people tend to ask the question “why” more often. They are interested in cause and effect.

Another form of intelligence not measured on the tests is sensitivity to others. A great deal has been made of the difference between “emotional IQ” and regular IQ, and some people who don’t score high on the latter seem to have found solace in the idea that they have high emotional IQs. In fact, many of these people are simply keyed into their own emotional needs. But the ability to read others and accurately anticipate their actions is probably closely tied in to the more traditionally measured forms of intelligence.

To what extent is intelligence quickness of thought? Standardized tests are performed under time constraints for a reason. And some people are obviously quicker on their feet than others. The French have a term, “l’esprit de l’escalier,” which, literally translated, means “the spirit of the stairs.” It refers to how we often think of a clever response when it’s too late to make it, i.e., on the stairs on the way out rather than at the dinner table. Do those of us who suffer from that have a lesser intelligence? Maybe. To put it another way, when you hear someone say “I’m not dumb, I’m just slow,” does it make you think, no, you really are dumb?

Is how far we think into the past or future a measure of intelligence? Some people think that living in the past or future is a sign that one does not live life to the fullest, i.e., seize the moment. But people who let their imaginations – or memories – wander tend to be more, well, imaginative. A more direct measure of intelligence might be how many moves we think ahead in a chess match. Some people think two or three moves ahead; others think four or five. In general, the further apart cause and effect, the more intelligence it takes to recognize the connection.

While we’re on the subject of imagination, another test of intelligence might be how easily bored we are. There is an expression, “Only boring people get bored.” This might be more tellingly phrased, “Only dumb people get bored.” (Or, to put it more positively, “The more easily you can amuse yourself, the smarter you probably are.”)

Sherlock Holmes once famously said that most people look but don’t see. Think for a moment about how intelligence evolved in the first place. A group of cavemen looked up at the night sky; but only a few were able to see that they could guide themselves by the North Star. Or a group of cavemen looked at tracks on the ground, but only a few could accurately interpret their meaning: what type of animal made them, how many of them there were, where they were headed, and how long since they passed this way. Obviously the more discerning cavemen had a better chance for survival. Eventually these more discerning cavemen and cavewomen reproduced with each other and eventually bred Arthur Conan Doyle.

A different way to regard intelligence is to think of the character traits we associate with extremely smart people.

Curiosity seems to be a trait of the highly intelligent. Most brainy people seem to have varied interests, which are chosen not for any reason other than that they piqued their curiosity. They are simply interested in whatever they find interesting, be that physics or history or baseball.

Highly intelligent people don’t fear appearing foolish. Most people are far more concerned with what is considered safe and respectable to think than with the truth. Intelligent people are generally willing to open-mindedly consider all the possibilities and then base their opinions on the available evidence, rather go with the conventional wisdom. (They are able to do this because they are not insecure about their intelligence.)

They are flexible. They will change their minds if new evidence appears which contradicts their opinions. They never try to fit the world into some rigid ideology defined by a political platform, or religion.

They recognize patterns, similarities, common denominators, and recurrent themes running through different fields. They can make analogies and draw parallels. They make sense of what they see.

They can grasp new concepts quickly.

They can explain new ideas to the uninitiated in easily understandable ways. They do not try to obfuscate matters with esoteric language designed to impress and confuse.

They tend to enjoy puzzles.

No matter how good you are at all of the above, no matter what your IQ has been tested at, your wisdom can be limited by bad character. (For purposes of this article, wisdom will be considered a form of intelligence, even if it is not, strictly speaking, exactly what is measured by IQ tests.) Wisdom is developed over the years by seeing both sides of every issue. A narcissistic personality, no matter what his IQ, will tend to see only his own viewpoint, and will therefore never develop the balance and common sense that comes from understanding both sides of an argument. (As La Rochefoucald said, “Everyone complains about his memory but no one complains about his judgment.”)

A narcissistic personality also has a hard time accepting blame. If you don’t learn from your mistakes, you never learn. Wise people will readily admit fault, and will figure out a way to avoid the pitfall next time around.

Wise people tend to be more self-aware than others. They can be self-deprecating when that is called for, and. they can laugh at themselves, and are aware of their own weaknesses.

One trait which goes along with a non-narcissistic personality is the ability to appreciate other people, for whatever attributes they possess. All of the extremely intelligent people I’ve known have been outspoken in their admiration for others’ accomplishments and abilities.

Truly intelligent people tend to be calm. I can’t recall meeting a hysteric with an IQ above 130. If I have, his hysteria certainly functioned as an effective disguise. (The same goes for temperamental types.)

A trait which goes hand in hand with calmness is not minding being alone. Reading, observing, and writing are all essentially solitary activities. Restlessness is the enemy of thought.

Intelligent people rarely get “offended.” To claim offense in the middle of a discussion is in fact tacit admission that one has lost the argument, so one must claim hurt feelings in order to bring open and honest discussion to an end.

Another thing I’ve noticed about the extremely intelligent people I’ve known is their lack of pretension and affectation. Almost none were interested in the trappings of academic success, such as multiple degrees, or Phi Beta Kappa keys. None had ever bothered to join MENSA. (The Scarecrow couldn’t have been that smart, or he wouldn’t have been so happy with the diploma the Wizard of Oz presented him with.)

They will not pretend knowledge they don’t have, but will rather ask pointed, logical questions until they do understand.

It’s hard to say who the smartest guy I’ve ever met is. Different people are smart in different ways. I went to Harvard and worked at Goldman Sachs, so I’ve run into a fair number with likely resumes. I think the smartest guy I’ve ever met is Jon Leaf. Before I ever met him I read about him, in an article in October 22, 2004 issue of The New York Observer, “Slouched Playwright Jon Leaf Writes in Verse, Prowls by Night.” The gist of the article was that Jon, a likeable, self-deprecating, intelligent young man, was a prolific but as yet unproduced playwright who had enjoyed little worldly success. Leaf had confided a lot of what most New Yorkers would consider extremely embarrassing information to the author, George Gurley:


“He has never been to the Hamptons. He takes dates to the Metropolitan Museum of Art and gets there early so he can purchase two passes for 50 cents. On the way home from a date, Mr. Leaf has the cab drop his date off, then, after taking the cab a more few blocks, he gets out and rides the subway. He gets his New York Times from recycling bins. Home is Flatbush, where he lives with his 88-year-old grandmother, Bessie.

“‘I lead a very dull life,’ Mr. Leaf will tell you. ‘I’m a 33-year-old man who lives in New York and I’ve never been unfaithful to a woman. I don’t know how many people can say that. I think that’s a small, small number. That’s how dull my life is….’

“My hair looks stupid, my nose is too large, my lips are too large – they go on and on. My voice is too nasal and a shade too high. My hands, the palms. You know, an aristocratic hand should have long, tapered fingers and a small palm. You see, I have this huge palm and these fat stubby fingers. They’re grotesque.”

The article also mentioned that Leaf’s IQ had been tested at 211 as a 5-year old. A number like that not only leaps off the page at you, it grabs you by the throat. I asked my brother, who was friends with him, what he was like. My brother replied that he was very charming, and that he enjoyed networking. I asked if his intelligence was immediately discernable. My brother replied that it was always there lurking in the background, but he didn’t show it off aggressively.

The natural reaction to hearing such a score is dubiousness: can he really be that smart? I looked forward to meeting him, partly, as I realized later, because I wanted to be able to dismiss him as a guy who wasn’t really all that much smarter than the rest of us, who just happened to get lucky on a single test.

It also occurred to me that I would have to guard against being overly impressed just because I had heard what his IQ was. It is possible to perceive someone as brighter than they are just because they are illuminated in a certain hallowed light (like the one provided by a score of 211). The movie “Being There” was based on this premise: a moron, played by Peter Sellers, was thought to be a genius by all sorts of people who read much deeper meanings into his simple statements than were actually intended. (A British accent can have a similar effect: it certainly doesn’t make anyone smarter, but it can somehow make someone sound smarter.)

I brought an IQ test along to our first meeting (as President Reagan said, “Trust, but verify”). Jon was willing to take the test until I explained that it was just a joke; he then explained that it is much easier to get a high score when you’re very young. (“I’d probably get a 130 or 140 if I took it now.”)

One of the first things that you notice when you meet Leaf is his nervous blink. (Another candidate for this article had a similar tic, so it made me wonder if there was a correlation.) If he stood a little straighter, he might look like a Jewish Hercules (he once leg pressed 1000 pounds). The nose and lips that he described as too large in the New York Observer in fact give him a full-blooded, sensual look, which, combined with his bear-like physique, should present an aura of power. But it is all negated by the hunched posture and frequent blink.

The voice that he describes as too high is a standard tenor. He has a casual but animated way of talking that makes one think about what he is talking about rather than the pitch of his voice anyway. His head is of average size (there is a .3 positive correlation between brain size and IQ, but there have been plenty of documented geniuses with normal-sized brains).

Realizing that someone is extraordinarily bright is by definition a gradual process. Nobody introduces himself and says something right off which makes you think, wow, is he smart. This point is never made by one knockout punch, but rather by a combination. I witnessed such a flurry when we stopped off at Barnes and Noble on the way to dinner while waiting for some others to buy some books.

No matter what section we were in, there would be at least one book Leaf had read and had some cogent opinion about. At one point we stood next to a shelf full of history books. Jon raved about one, then stated that the author’s other book (not on display) was even better. There were three or four other history books on the display that he was familiar with, and he knew fairly detailed information about all of them. One had been told from too much of a Marxist point of view; another had misused sources. (This article is not a brief for overly opinionated people: his views were always informed and well-balanced.)

We then wandered by a display of books on Shakespeare. Leaf had read three of them. Next we happened to stand near a group of sports books. I finally saw a book I recognized, by sportswriter John Feinstein, and pointed it out. Jon looked at it and said, “I’ve heard his book ‘Season on the Brink’ about Bobby Knight was really a great book.” (“Season on the Brink” is generally considered one of Feinstein’s best.)

As we passed by the science fiction section on the way out I praised the Foundation series by Isaac Asimov. Jon replied, “What I was really impressed by was Asimov’s introductory text to the Bible. You know, it takes a special kind of expert to make a subject like that accessible to everyone, and Asimov did a superb job. His book on Shakespeare was also excellent. He also had an introductory text to mathematics which is supposed to be just as good.”

Finally, by the cash register, there was a cookbook by a fairly well-known chef. Jon told us where his restaurants in Manhattan were located, and mentioned that one of them had shut down recently.

It is impossible to have an experience like that without feeling both uneducated and sheepish about one’s own memory. It should be mentioned that Jon majored in history at Yale, and he has been involved with the theater for several years, so one would expect him to be well-informed about those two fields. But our casual stroll through the bookstore was not a fluke event which happened to make him look more well-informed than he is. Leaf’s friends sometimes play a game they call “Stump Jon.” The idea is to find some intellectual arena, or even just a solitary fact, that Jon is unfamiliar with. Usually they lose.

Leaf is not unaware of his freakishness in this regard. As a 24-year-old fresh out of Yale, he tried to make a go of the game shows in Los Angeles. He won at “The Challengers” (a “Jeopardy” clone) twice, but lost the third time because he lost his concentration, as he had been warned he might.

When I met Leaf, he was writing a textbook about the history of twentieth century theater for Ivan R. Dee Publishing. At dinner that night, I asked about that, and the subject drifted from plays to movies. No matter what the movie mentioned, Jon had an interesting behind-the-scenes story about what had happened during filming. From there the subject turned to actors, and gossip. Jon seemed to know a lot about various actors, including which were gay, and seemed to relish the discussion. (It’s generally the 110-130 IQs who feel obliged to feign disinterest in such gossip; 211’s don’t feel the need to prove they are “above” anything.) The difference with Leaf is that he is as interested in almost everything as much as most people are in which movie stars are gay. (This is partly why he scored 5’s on three of his AP’s in high school: European History, American History, and Biology.)

Whenever I mentioned a concept in psychology, I would find to my embarrassment that Jon’s knowledge was not only broader but deeper than mine. He was familiar with and had thought critically about most of the major theorists.

I happen to have an interest in sociopathy and broached that topic later on. No matter whom I mentioned, Jon knew about him and had some fact to add that I was unfamiliar with. When I mentioned Sammy Gravano, Jon said, “Did you know that he actually studied to be a hairdresser when he was young?” When I mentioned Art Schlichter, Jon mentioned that Schlichter had once had a fairly popular radio talk show, but he had lost that job because he had continually tried to borrow money from people who called in. When I mentioned Chainsaw Al Dunlap, Jon asked, “Did you know that two years before Dunlap’s downfall, Gretchen Morgenson of the NY Times had predicted that Dunlap would falsify the revenues of Sunbeam in exactly the way in which he did?” It is impressive enough that Leaf would remember one of Morgenson’s columns, but even more so that he would make the connection two years later at the time Dunlap was convicted.

Once when I mentioned a NY Times reporter named Tim Werner, Jon corrected me, saying his name was Weiner. On two occasions I’ve mentioned a movie and its director, only to have him correct me about the director; both times he was right. Getting to know Jon has had one unexpected result: it’s made me feel foolish for ever having had the temerity to try out for Jeopardy. (As a tough guy once said, there’s always someone who can beat you up – and another guy who can beat that guy up; the embarrassing thing about Leaf, though, is the ease with which he beats you up.)

This pattern has continued to this day. I have never been able to bring up a subject that Leaf is completely unfamiliar with. One time he even told me something about my own mother I was unaware of (my brother had evidently mentioned it to him once).

One of the things one realizes about Leaf after a while is that he never, ever introduces a subject by snapping his fingers, looking at the ceiling, and saying, “That reminds me of – oh, what’s his name? I’m drawing a blank – you know who I’m talking about, the guy who was, I think he was Carter’s Secretary of State.” Instead Leaf just mentions the person by name and makes his point. The supercomputer is well-oiled.

The popular image of extreme brain trusters is that they are nerds whose comprehension of higher mathematics or physics somehow precludes the ability to carry on a normal conversation, let alone any possibility of charm. But Leaf is unfailingly polite, pays attention to the social niceties, and is generous with compliments. (I’ve heard him compliment others on their voice, profile, physique, writing, and generosity.) Leaf has a ready wit, and his harshest insults are usually aimed at himself. Engaging in such self-laceration is on one level a form of self-defense, to keep anyone else from such an attack, but at another it is very disarming. Leaf is invited to parties practically every night, and attends most, sometimes two or three a night.

Leaf is modest, and it is not the kind of false modesty which simultaneously gives off an air of self-satisfaction. When I told him that he was going to be the subject of this article, he immediately said that he knew several people, including a particle physicist, who were smarter than him. He added, “I can’t draw. I have no musical ability. And I know people whose number crunching abilities far outshine mine. Really, you’ve chosen the wrong person.” The closest I’ve ever heard him come to boasting was one time when he said that he thought that something he had written was quite funny in places.

Leaf occasionally refers to things he’s said or thought as “idiotic.” (I've noticed over time that generally only smart people tell you they’re stupid, and only dumb people tell you they’re smart.)

Another clich̩ about the supersmart is that they are high strung. But Leaf never comes close to losing his temper, in fact is just the opposite Рhe seems to regard everything with a detached and amused air. His mild tone of voice underscores this mindset. Even when he told the story of a sociopath who had defrauded him, he related it without the slightest trace of rancor, as if it were a funny joke he had heard secondhand.

Many people assume that brainiacs must somehow be “weird.” But Jon’s only concession to “weirdness” is his nervous blink. (There is an entire population of would-be creative types who affect eccentricities in hopes of appearing smart, but that illusion generally only lasts as long as it takes to get to know them.)

Yet another cliché is that the superbright can’t relate to the average-IQed. But Leaf seems to enjoy people – otherwise his social calendar wouldn’t remain full. (If he insisted on only hanging out with other 211 IQs, he’d be one lonely fellow.) I have yet to hear him complain of boredom, no matter the company or situation; there inevitably seems to be something of interest to be gleaned from them all.

Leaf is also generous with his time: he once copy-edited a friend’s entire book-length manuscript, just as a favor. More recently, he did the same for me. He took a dusty old manuscript that had been moldering on a bookshelf, read the entire thing, made some helpful suggestions, gave me some advice about how to market myself, and gave it to his agent -- then he thanked me for the opportunity to read it.

Whiz kids are not necessarily creative (otherwise Ken Jennings would be William Shakespeare), but Leaf has been able to amalgamate the information he retains and put it into different form. He has written articles on Stoppard, Bergman, and the Nobel Prize, as well as several book reviews, for the Weekly Standard. He has written an article on education for The National Review. He has contributed unsigned opera reviews to The New Yorker. He has also written nine plays. One, “The Germans in Paris,” was recently produced. (It is about an imaginary meeting between Karl Marx, Richard Wagner, and Heinrich Heine in Paris in 1832. None of the three ever met, but all three were there at approximately the same time.) The play featured a gallant Heine, a self-centered Marx, and a hysterically egotistical Wagner. There was also an affecting love story between Heine and his mistress. The play got good reviews.

But the other eight plays languish in a desk drawer, though he still hopes to see them produced. And his special interest, verse drama, has an extremely limited audience. Friends have suggested he pursue a more commercial line of writing. (Even his produced play would have undoubtedly attracted wider notice had it been about an imaginary meeting between Paris Hilton, Jessica Simpson, and Eminem.) But Leaf is partial to verse drama and period pieces; after all, we don’t choose our passions, they choose us. And it is the lot of all artists to suffer frustration, especially early on.

Leaf has now completed the text on twentieth century theater, and producers have expressed interest in another play of his, [“Pushkin”]. In the meantime he works as an instructor helping high school students in the Bronx pass the Regents exam. (Having someone with a tested IQ of 211 teach subpar high school students seems a little like using a bazooka to go squirrel hunting.)

Leaf does regret not having taken an early opportunity to write for television. At the time he felt that if he did that, the level of his writing would suffer, and he would no longer be able to create verse drama the same way. He said that he knew this sounded silly, but it was just the way he felt at the time. (This sounds suspiciously like an affectation, but affectations are not really such when acknowledged.)

Leaf frequently bemoans his lack of material success, and is painfully aware that money rules in Manhattan. He has said on more than one occasion that he is too old to be single, given his relative poverty (poverty being more socially acceptable in your twenties than in your thirties.) It is an unfortunate fact of life that an obnoxious, dumb rich man will enjoy more romantic success in New York, and most other places, than a charming, smart, poor man. (Leaf’s love life, however, is not nearly as barren as he claimed in the Observer.)

Leaf does have an interest in business. He suggested to me in the fall of ’04 that the dollar would have to fall further (it subsequently did). He seems to know all about the various personalities that dominate, or have dominated the financial scene in recent decades. He has opinions about which money center banks are currently better investments. When I told him about a fellow who was now trying to inflate a penny stock company in New Jersey, he immediately responded, “Oh -- he’s trying to be the new Robert Brennan.” (Brennan is the former penny stock king of First Jersey Securities, currently in jail.)

When I suggested to Leaf that he go to work for a hedge fund, he shrugged the suggestion off. One would think he would be able to obtain such a job just based on the strength of his IQ, but money is not his god.

On Wall Street, one meets all sorts of people of very ordinary intelligence who have done extraordinarily well for themselves, due to their extreme ambition, and, often, lack of honesty. People with higher IQs, less greed, and good character tend to be much better company. Jon is an extreme of this type. He does not lack ambition, but the directions his ambitions have led him in have thus far not resulted in wealth. There is something almost touchingly old-fashioned about this. There was a time when a certain kind of young man loved art for its own sake; but that type seems much rarer these days.

Arthur Jensen, the famous -- and controversial -- professor of educational psychology at UC Berkeley, posited that intelligence can be measured by brain waves, and that this overall brainpower should be referred to as the “g factor,” which stands for “general ability. Jensen says the old ways of measuring intelligence, dividing it up into spatial sense and mathematical ability and verbal ability, and then creating an artificial curve to grade them on, are misleading. Rather it is simply a function of how much horsepower you have, and you can apply that horsepower in any direction you choose. Leaf seems to be pretty good evidence that Jensen is correct.

It has been said that it’s only possible for us to judge other peoples’ intelligence up to the limits of our own; beyond our own IQ levels, we are unqualified to judge. This may be so, but we can still have some sense of the gap. I do know that I have never felt so lacking in horsepower as when conversing with Jon.


Update: Haven't seen much of Jon in the past few years but I do hear of him occasionally through my brother, who often has a story to tell about how he was at a party with Jon and Jon turned out to be just ridiculously well informed he is about some topic which my brother had no idea he knew about. Jon's book "The Politically Incorrect Guide to The Sixties" is coming out on August 10th.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Analysis of a choke

















(Photos courtesy of Fred Gaston)

I know this is supposed to be a blog with general social and political commentary, and not a diary, but since I was so eager to report on my world record swim back in March (http://justnotsaid.blogspot.com/2009/03/excuse-to-boast.html) I feel obliged to show balance -- or at least the superficial appearance of such -- by reporting on my abject failure yesterday.

People would occasionally ask when I was going to go for another record. I would tell them July 19th, and most would then ask where I was going to do it. When I said here, in Wilton, some responded that they wanted to see it. By the time of the meet, my potential audience had grown to around fifteen, including the aforementioned "strongest" and "coolest" guys (see posts below and top picture above).

Over the past decade I'd noticed that my adrenal function had slowly wasted away with age -- as it evidently does with most people. When you reach your forties, you simply don't get nervous about the things that used to make you that way. The old fight or flight response just doesn't kick in. I guess when you get old you're supposed to do neither, and instead just get slaughtered to make room for the younger members of your species.

I had actually tried to get nervous before other swimming meets, knowing that a little adrenalin in the system can do wonders for one's performance, but hadn't been able to. Nervousness is like an erection or a witty riposte -- it simply cannot be summoned at will.

But for some reason I got nervous before this meet. Very nervous. I knew everyone expected me to set another record, and I didn't want to disappoint them. But I had much less confidence in my ability to swim four 50 meter laps, as opposed to eight 25 meter laps. A 50 meter pool is obviously twice the length of a 25 meter pool. It only looks three times as long. Especially when you have to swim it all butterfly.

Ask any 200 flyer, they'll tell you you can always fake your way through eight short course laps by semi-resting on the turns, taking a long glide on the pushoffs, etc. But there is universal agreement that there is absolutely no faking your way through a 200 long course fly.

Two nights before the meet, I only got four hours sleep. The night before, I never fell asleep. Not a wink. I just lay there all night with the adrenalin steadily pumping into my stomach. I had forgotten what an unpleasant experience real nervousness is. It brought back a lot of unpleasant memories of my youth.

At around 3:30AM my thought pattern was running as follows: I'm 55 years old. I've never had to compete on absolutely no sleep before. And I have to swim a 200 long course fly. I'll probably have a heart attack and die. Hmm, most people don't realize it on the day they're going to die; at least I know ahead of time. I wonder how soon the onlookers will realize what's happening. I wonder how soon it will take them to pull me from the bottom of the pool after I sink. I wonder if anyone there will know CPR. I guess I could always just quit after three laps. But I wonder what the guys will think of me if I do that.

(It's called the power of positive thinking.)

My mind must have run through that train of thought at least ten times. (This is not a joke.) It was like a bad dream. Except I was awake.

Unfortunately, we have no control over the thoughts going through our heads. At least I don't. I tried to do some transcendental meditation, but was unable, as my brain was just too feverish.

The next morning I actually felt fine during warmup. After warming up I took one of those five hour energy drinks, which are supposed to be the equivalent of one cup of coffee. But I still knew that I was operating on no sleep, so I was paranoid about dying (metaphorically, not literally, it was daytime now). So I took out the first 100 very slowly. To make extra sure I didn't die, I went slowly on the next 50 as well. With around 25 meters to go, I realized I had a lot left, so I picked up the pace a bit. But by then it was too late. I missed the record by five seconds, an eternity in swimming.

In retrospect, if I had really gone for it, sleep or no sleep, I think I could have gotten it. But I just swam for survival rather than a fast time. It was in every way an invertebrate performance.

Everybody who came to watch was very gracious about it afterward. Which of course made me feel even worse.

At least my family had a good time afterward. When I got home my 14 year old daughter said "I still love you Dad. Maybe not quite as much as before, but I still love you."

My 17 year old son, after being uncharacteristically polite at first, said, "Dad, I guess you know you really screwed up when you say thank you and I actually say you're welcome afterward. "

My wife said, "Gee, you really should write thank you notes to all the people who came. Just be sure to include an engraved invitation to your next attempt."


Signed, The Choke Artist

Friday, July 17, 2009

It's the hypocrisy, Part III

Congressman and doctor John Fleming had an excellent editorial in the NY Post this morning titled "Give Pols the Same Care They Force on Us."

Some of the highlights:

"I've offered a bill, HR 615, to give them a chance to put their 'health' where their mouth is: My resolution urges members of Congress who vote for this legislation to lead by example and enroll themselves in the public plan that their bill would create.

"The current draft of the Democratic bill curiously exempts members of Congress from the government-run health care option: The people's representatives would get to keep their existing health plans and services on Capitol Hill -- even though the people wouldn't.

"If members of Congress believe so strongly that government-run health care is the best solution for hardworking American families, I think it only fitting that Americans see them lead the way....

"Congress has the bad habit of exempting itself from the problems it inflicts on the American people. From common workplace protections to transparency and accountability measures, lawmakers always seem to place themselves and their staffs just out of reach of the laws they create.

"Americans don't know that there is an attending physician on call exclusively for members of Congress, or that Congress enjoys VIP access and admission to Walter Reed Army Medical Center and Bethesda Naval Medical Center.

"It is past time that we make the men and women making the laws be exposed to the same consequences as the American public."

I don't know enough about health care to feel that I've gotten my arms around exactly what's needed. I've heard both pro and con arguments concerning the current bill, but I haven't delved into the details enough to really have a feel for it myself. To really have a handle on it, you'd have to study exactly where the money goes, who profits, and how. What kind of cut do the insurance companies get? How well run are the HMO's? Exactly how much fraud there is in Medicare and Medicaid, and how do we get rid of it? How could we cut down on the nuisance malpractice suits which drive the doctors' own premiums up? Exactly why have health care costs outpaced inflation by so much? Then in order to have an informed opinion on the current bill you'd have to read all six hundred pages and figure out whether it has the answers to the above questions, and many others, such as exactly what sort of care we'd be paying for for illegal aliens. (Think any members of Congress have read all six hundred pages?)

I suspect that most people with strong opinions both for and against don't really know either. The people whose opinions I tend to trust on other political matters seem to be against the new plan, but again, I just don't know.

My general sense is that the plan would require the haves to fund health care for the have nots. This, of course, would be in keeping with virtually every other policy espoused by Obama (with the exception of his coddling of the very rich at places like Goldman Sachs). I suppose using the words "haves" and "have nots" puts a liberal spin on the topic. A conservative would say, or at least think, "responsible, hard-working people with good health habits" and "free riders."

I've heard the stories about the English and Canadian systems, and how people from those countries who want quality medical care have to come over here if they don't want months long waits and a government official deciding whether they merit more care. Do those stories accurately typify those systems?

I just don't know.

But if the plan does pass, the Congressmen who are so sure that the new plan will not result in reduced care, or long waiting periods, or less choice, should enroll themselves. If they did so, it would certainly give the American people a measure of confidence in a government-sponsored health plan. But to pass the bill while insisting on a higher standard of medical care for themselves is hypocrisy.

There are, of course, a myriad of other ways in which Congress has exempted itself from the laws which they've passed to govern the rest of us. The Freedom of Information Act does not apply to them. And they have exempted themselves from a myriad of employment discrimination and civil rights laws.

I pay $647 a month to AETNA for my family's health insurance, and get practically nothing in return. I suspect I'm paying for a whole lot of Medicaid fraud, insurance executives' perks, malpractice premiums, and the medical bills of a lot of people with unhealthy personal habits. I might conceivably be better off with a cheaper public option. I just don't know.

The one thing I am sure off is that if this bill passes, I want members of Congress along for the ride.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

The strongest guy I ever met

This is another in the series of essays from five years ago. Looking at it now, Brian sounds a little too good to be true. But every one who knew him said the essay captured him perfectly, so, believable or not, here he is. (His name has been changed as well.)


All men fantasize about what it would be like to be stronger than they are. As a sportswriter once said about Ken Norton, "I'd like to borrow his body for a week, 'cause there are five guys I'd like to beat the stuffing out of and about ten women I'm dying to make love to." To that end we exercise, lift, and so on. But we all run up against our genetic limitations, usually sooner than we expect. Biology is destiny, and the only sure way to be extremely strong is to inherit the right genes.


The strongest guy I've ever met is Brian Smith. He stands 6' 6" and weighs 245 pounds. He is thick (but not fat) through the torso, through the legs, and through the forearms. His hands are big and meaty, the surest giveaway of natural power. To shake his hand is to feel like a ten year old. His voice is extraordinarily deep; when he answers the phone for someone else, whoever called will often ask, "Who was that, God?" To stand next to him is to feel that one has barely reached puberty.


Milo of Croton, the legendary Greek Olympic champion of old, supposedly grew strong by lifting a calf every day of his life, even as it grew into a bull. Whenever I read about him, I imagine him looking something like Brian.


Yet Brian’s appearance remains this side of freakish because he is well proportioned. If you saw him from a distance, with no reference points nearby, you wouldn't guess he was so big. There is no suggestion of acromegaly in his features, in fact most women say he is very handsome. He looks a little like Clark Kent, only bigger. But what really distinguishes him is not his size but his strength. I've met others of his approximate dimensions, but none were nearly as strong.


Brian never lifted weights as he was growing, when it would have made the most difference. Yet his arms are as big as most men’s legs, and he is lean. After college he lifted, not with any great passion or sense of purpose, only with the vague idea that he ought to stay in shape. To cite the amounts he lifts would be misleading: for example, the most he's ever benched is 325 pounds. There are plenty of men who can do more, but they are not nearly as strong as Brian. Ignore for the moment the effect that being 6' 6" has on your lifting ability (it is harder to lift a lot of weight when your arms are longer since more leverage is required, which is why so many Olympic champions in the lower weight categories look vaguely dwarfish.) Most men attain their maximum bench press by hoisting the bar up from its supports, then suddenly letting it drop, then suddenly bouncing it off their chests in one explosive movement, at the same time straining with their legs until their buttocks are about six inches off the bench. Brian, who seems indifferent to the numbers he racks up, takes the bar off its supports, studies it for a moment, slowly and deliberately lowers it to his chest, then just as slowly and deliberately presses it back up, without using his legs at all. If he wanted to, he could work his way up to an impressive number on the bench; but the fellows who can bench 400 couldn't possibly work their way up to his kind of strength.


One summer, Brian was at a party where a large lobster pot filled with water had to be moved from one side of a yard to the other. Water is very heavy, so four men each took one handle and slowly lugged it across the lawn. After a while it needed to be taken back (it was still filled with water); Brian did so single-handedly, with no discernable effort. That is usable strength, the type which is almost impossible to acquire in the gym. If he were 5' 9" with the same proportions, he would still be freakishly strong.


Once when Brian was in college, a couple of buddies -- one of whom weighed 190 and the other of whom weighed 205 -- started teasing him and wouldn’t let up. Brian, fed up, picked up one under each arm, carried them across the room, and deposited each in a separate trash can. This is something else very few gym rats could do, no matter how impressive their bench press.


Brian's sport was basketball. He was the all-Ivy center at Dartmouth for three years, but wasn't quite fast or tall enough to make it in the NBA. His primary asset -- strength -- was somewhat wasted in basketball. He could have been a world class wrestler, football player, rower, shot putter, or discus thrower. But, like most of us, he got fixated as a youngster on the sport he ended up doing, and continued as long as he was achieving some success in that. One can only imagine the frustration of his high school's football coach who would regularly see this powerful giant with no desire to play football. (There's something to be said for the old East German system of testing a youngster at age ten, then steering him towards whichever sport he's best suited for.)


For years after college Brian continued to play basketball, often at the famous playground at West Fourth Street in New York. This court attracted a tough crowd, but they accepted Brian. I once asked him how many black guys had said to him something to the effect of, "Most white guys are sort of weak, but you, you make us look weak!" Brian just laughed in a way that indicated that this had happened often. Most of the guys in Brian's wedding party were basketball players, many as tall, or even taller, than Brian. But none gave the impression of oak tree-like solidity that he did. Perhaps for this reason, I've never heard once anyone describe the 6' 6" Brian as "tall." He is invariably described as "huge," or "massive," or somesuch.


Arnold Schwarzenegger has been pretty much synonymous with most people’s idea of a strong man for the past two decades. He stands 6’ 2” and weighs 220. He has, or at least had, beautiful muscles, yet you can tell that they’re not particularly useful. When you watch him run or fight in his action movies, there is a certain robotic, jerky quality about his movement. When Brian moves on a basketball court, he does so fluidly. This is the difference between an athlete and a bodybuilder. A bodybuilder can appear intimidating, and can look good in the movies while shooting a submachine gun with his shirt hanging in artful tatters around him, but he moves as if he is just wearing his muscles, rather than really using them. (When it comes to any sort of real athletic endeavor, the posers tend to be exposed as poseurs.) An athlete is one with his muscles; you can usually tell just from watching someone walk whether he is a real athlete.


At age 40, on a whim, Brian finally took up a sport which took advantage of his strength: ergometer rowing. After a total of three months of training, he went to the Crash B's (the world championships of the sport), and rowed the 2000 meter "course" in 6:14.4, to get third place out of one hundred and ten competitors in the 40-49 heavyweight division, five seconds behind the first place winner. He was competing against lifelong rowers, men who had rowed on their college eight and had kept up with the sport ever since, many of whom were as tall as Brian. In March of 2004, after a total of a year and three months of training, he went a 6:03.9, losing by a mere tenth of a second to a Pole who had been a member of his Olympic team. (The world record for men 40-49 is a 5:57.4.)


One of the great things about being around a cool person is that they can often make you feel cool yourself. Extremely strong people have the opposite effect. I'm 5'11" and 165, a depressingly average specimen. I've run at Brian and rammed into him while he's just standing there; if he braces himself, I can't budge him. He can put his hand around my shoulder (the entire shoulder, not just the trapezius), squeeze, and reduce me to writhing helplessness.


Unfortunately, this is not an inspirational tale, in the sense that it should inspire us to go out and accomplish mighty feats of strength ourselves. The message here is, just give up. Brian's strength is not something we mortals can aspire to. Cliches like, "It's not the size of the dog in the fight, it's the size of the fight in the dog" sound particularly empty in his presence. (No matter how ferocious a dog, it's not going to best a grizzly bear.)


I once told Brian's wife, Joy-Denise, that we were all going to have dinner that night with a world champion freestyle wrestler who had also been an Olympic medalist at 220 pounds in 1988. Joy-Denise responded, "Oh? Could he take Brian?" in a tone of voice that plainly indicated this fellow couldn't possibly be any match for her husband. In fact, Brian could no more have outwrestled this fellow than he could have outplayed Michael Jordan. But Joy-Denise can be forgiven her error, because Brian is naturally far stronger than either of them. (The world champion wrestler, by the way, later said that Brian would have made a great wrestler.) Coincidence has brought me, at various times in my life, to within six or seven feet of three heavyweight boxing champions: Muhammad Ali, Mike Tyson, and Riddick Bowe. None imparted the impression of massive strength that Brian does.


In a sense, anyone who has lived inside a body like Brian's must develop a complex somewhat similar to the one that extremely beautiful girls get. Such girls fret that men are usually interested in them only for their looks, and don't really care that much about who they really are. They develop these complexes for good reason -- because men do in fact regard them that way. Their personalities are essentially ignored, and, naturally enough, they find this insulting. When people first meet Brian, they invariably relate to him as a physical specimen first; his personality comes in only a distant second. So he faces the same dilemma that a beautiful woman does. (If you're wondering how much sympathy either of them deserve, ask yourself the following: how often do women get plastic surgery to make themselves uglier, and how often do men take estrogen in an effort to become weaker?)


Brian happens to be very smart, with perhaps the best memory I've ever come across, but very few people recognize this while their minds are in "Wow is he big" mode. (Question: if Einstein had been 6' 6" and 245 pounds, would he have come up with the Theory of Relativity or might he have been too distracted by more mundane physical matters?)


I met Brian when we both worked on the same trading desk on Wall Street, where he was forced to suffer the expected indignities. Some of the traders' favorite nicknames for him were "Lurch" (as in the Adams Family butler) and "Chewy" (as in Chewbacca, the character in Star Wars who resembled a sasquatch). My personal favorite was to comment to people who were meeting him for the first time, "This is some physical specimen, eh?" When they would nod appreciatively, I'd add, "All he's missing are those two steel bolts coming out of the sides of his neck." Another line that would usually get a laugh was that Brian used to work at Chippendales, and that his theme song was "Monster Mash." Sometimes I would pretend to be angry with him, walk up to him and bump chests, as if to intimidate him, then snarl, "Get out of my face!" This would inevitably look ridiculous to onlookers.


Very tall guys often react peevishly when anyone comments on their height. But Brian reacts to all these jokes with a tolerant smile, no matter how many times he's heard them. And because he is a nice guy, his size and strength seem to dominate him, rather than the other way around; he seems almost embarrassed by them. A different sort of person could have easily developed into a showoff. But it doesn't seem to even occur to Brian to exploit his strength, or play games with it. He could jokingly pretend to be angry at other guys and act as if he is getting ready to fight them. He could probably lift up the end of a small car, saying, "Gee, I wonder what's underneath here." But he does none of these things, even when asked. Once at a divisional meeting, the boss asked Brian to stand next to another tall fellow, just to see who was taller. Brian wouldn't get up. (It takes a certain restraint to act like a beta male when occupying the body of an alpha squared.)


The reason for his restraint is good character. Brian has all the standard signs: he is unfailingly courteous and modest. He regularly visits his parents. He keeps in touch with old friends. He has never been involved in a lawsuit, either as plaintiff or defendant. He doesn't smoke or take drugs. He drinks only beer (never more than three), and his behavior never changes because of the liquor (i.e., no other "real" personality emerges under the influence). And he is part of that slim minority of men who would never dream of cheating on their wives. (The resemblance to Clark Kent is more than superficial.)


I've never even seen Brian lose his temper; the closest he's come is once when his boss played a joke on him and told him he failed his official brokerage exam; Brian got up and walked out, but even then, he was mad only at himself. He looks like a professional wrestler but acts like the boy next door. If all this sounds too good to be true, all I can say after knowing him for over twenty years is, I have yet to see the mask slip.


Good character is imparted mostly from one's parents; but being that big and strong allows a man, at a certain level, to be calmer and more magnanimous. The average guy spends his life proving his machismo over and over again. But if you look like 245 pounds of testosterone on the hoof, you simply have less to prove. This allows you to step aside and let another guy be the star, or do the boasting. I've heard Brian lavish praise on other guys for athletic achievements which would be child's play for him. I've heard him compliment guys for being slapped together when in fact they look like positively spindly next to him. (This may be boring to read about, but it is pleasant to be around.)


Guys like being friends with Brian for those reasons, but many also seem to simply get a kick out of being around someone so strong. There are probably good evolutionary reasons for this. In the caveman days, it was useful to have a friend nearby who could help you kill a mastodon, or slay your enemies. In other words, a friend like this could help your own genetic viability. Evolution has selected those who were friends with such a person more recently as well. During the Middle Ages and before (as depicted in "Troy"), instead of having thousands of mortalities on each side, the outcome of the battle would sometimes depend on who would win a fight to the death between each army’s champion. Whichever army's warrior won would be deemed to have won the battle, and the other side would dutifully retreat. Soldiers inevitably took great pride in the indomitability of their champions, and would exult in their strength and valor. Maybe that's why many males seem to glory in another man's extreme strength.


On Wall Street, the phrase "the kind of guy you'd want on your side in a bar fight" is overused (and the people who use it are never in bar fights). I've heard it misapplied to Brian (who would never get in a fight) in an echo of our ancient past.


Brian and I shared a couple of bullying bosses in common, guys who would pick on anyone who was below them in the corporate hierarchy. (It was all done under the guise of improving departmental performance, but their bullying natures were unmistakable.) Yet neither guy – each physically imposing -- ever picked on Brian. They knew he would never beat them up since that would have cost him his job. Nonetheless, their behavior was instinctively rooted in the certainty that had he wanted to, he could easily have done so.


My son Johnny had a different reaction to Brian when he first saw him. I opened the door to our apartment, and there stood Brian. Johnny, one year old at the time, took one look at Brian and simply fell back on his diapers. (His balance was perfectly good; he didn't fall by accident.) This was a natural, evolutionarily programmed response on Johnny's part. When he heard the deep, rumbling voice and saw Brian filling up the doorway, he immediately sensed that he was in the presence of a large, dangerous predator. This made Johnny prey, and, like all prey, he wanted to be inconspicuous, so he made himself smaller by sitting down.


I once went for a run at UCLA's Drake Stadium and had a similar experience. The track was deserted that day, but when I came around a bend near the edge of the stands I was suddenly confronted with a giant, and I felt an instant jolt of fear. Upon closer inspection, it turned out to be Wilt Chamberlin, and the fear dissipated. But that jolt of adrenalin was undoubtedly a result of millions of years of evolution conditioning us to avoid larger predators.


Women react differently to Brian as well. Most women will simply say that he's handsome, and seems really nice. Almost all seem attracted to him, though few mention his size and strength as a contributing factor. But one can't help but suspect that they're also reacting to his obviously superior genetic material, and the chance to impart that strength to their own offspring.


Life is, at a certain level, all about making ourselves attractive to the opposite sex. We want to look young, because people sense that younger people have more fertile years ahead of them. We want to be rich, because people know that if you have more resources you can support more offspring. And we want to be strong, because it shows that we are capable of providing for and protecting our families.


I originally set Brian up with his wife on a blind date. Several women acquaintances have since expressed chagrin that they were not the ones to be set up. A friend once told me that if he ever commented on or even noticed another woman in his wife's presence, she would invariably respond, "So, how's Brian these days?" Women sometimes stare at Brian as if slightly hypnotized. These women are simply expressing a natural desire to hit the DNA jackpot.


Once Brian and I went to a track on the Lower East Side of Manhattan to work out. It was a hot day, and we ran with our shirts off; we would sprint halfway around the 400 meter track and walk the other half. There were a group of Puerto Rican women there, and at one point they all started gesticulating and giggling and calling out to Brian in Spanish. I couldn't understand their words, but the gist of what they were saying needed no translation. It was the closest I've ever seen to a reversal of the classic situation where a group of construction workers harass a pretty girl walking down the street. I later asked Brian, "Did you see that?!" He said he hadn't (which would actually have been impossible).


Yet for all the ostensible evolutionary advantages to being huge, giants in mythology are never treated well. They are portrayed as ogres in fairy tales like Jack and the Beanstalk. Or as Cyclops. Or as Goliath. (As Wilt Chamberlin once said, "Nobody roots for Goliath.") And what personal qualities do we associate with these creatures? Mostly, meanness and slow-wittedness.


Giants in the movies also fare poorly: acromegalics are often recruited to play the bad guys. Witness the fellow Paul Newman (as Butch Cassidy) beat in that knife fight. Or "Jaws" from a couple of the Roger Moore Bond films. Or various fighters Jean Claude Van Damme has had to vanquish in martial arts tournaments. (As yet there is no official support group to combat this particular prejudice.)


Curiously, Brian himself is absolutely fascinated by guys bigger than he is. I've heard him marvel at the dimensions of Shaq and Andre the Giant. He has all the facts about Robert Wadlow (the world's tallest man, now deceased) at his fingertips. He undoubtedly feels a certain kinship, maybe even sympathy, for them. Perhaps he likes to think about them because they make him feel small, a feeling he gets only rarely.


Kurt Vonnegut once wrote a short story (in “Welcome to the Monkey House”) about a young half-black boy who grows up in an orphanage in Germany, and who -- towards the end of World War Two -- sees a black man for the first time. He hugs the US soldier and is heartbroken when he has to let go (as is the soldier). I told Brian that his trip to the world ergometer championships reminded me a little of that story, in that he had spent his entire life alone, a giant in a world of Lilliputians, and that when he saw the other giants at the Crash B's, it must have been reassuring for him to find that he was not the only member of his species.


It’s nice to have that one little bit of pity to mix in with the ninety-nine parts of envy.