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The raving thoughts of a misanthropic academic

February 28, 2014

Three Grains of Sand

 
We're seaside in Raglan, New Zealand today. The air smells of salt, and the sand is warm beneath bare feet. 
 
Our hosts today are a delightful Italian couple that we've become friends with through the University. It's an adventure traveling the countryside with them. We are driving an early 2000s model sedan with a manual transmission. It hasn't always been a smooth ride, but something about the fits and starts of the tired engine make the trek to the coast seem more appropriate. 
 
We had lunch earlier at a lovely, albeit overpriced, fusion cafe. The shops of Raglan were bustling this afternoon with locals and tourists alike. In the cafe, I had a chicken roti wrap that tasted rather like a quesadilla with bacon and potatoes than a proper wrap. The local beer on tap was a bit bitter even for me. But it was cold and wet, and that made it just good enough to satisfy my thirst before our trip to the beach. 
 
The roads to the shore from the village green weren't obvious. They tend to wind and meander along the cliffs and neighborhoods of the town, while the shore remains hidden just out of view. But after a couple of turns, we saw the sea gleaming far below the ridge. 
 
When we finally arrived on the sand not long ago, Clark immediately made a straight line for the water. Kids seem to have a fixation with water that I no longer appreciate as an adult. Still it's a beautiful love he has for the ocean. Perhaps if we lived here longer he would learn to surf, and fish, and swim in the sea. 
 
It's strange to consider that we'll be returning to America in the near future, leaving New Zealand and the black sands of Raglan far behind. It's time to go home, I think. But for Clark's sake, I hope we visit again sometime. We have too many friends here to never return. 
 
It strikes me that so much of life is like this. The three of us in isolation are like three grains of sand taken from a vast beach. We can exist just fine on our own, but we tend to thrive when in the company of the countless others that make life worthwhile. 
 
 
 
 
 
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February 17, 2014

The Solitude of a City


It's been a while since I've lived in a proper city. This evening provided an unexpected reminiscence when I found myself flying solo in downtown Auckland. 

It was a steamy day here in Aotearoa. The humid air mixed with the sounds of traffic and exhaust. For a moment, I was taken by the ghost of summers past, back to long days spent in Washington, DC, beating the pavement between Union Station and the Capitol. 

When the heat became too much, I stopped at a faux Moroccan bar and grill called the Casablanca. I ordered a pilsner to spite the heat and a Moroccan-style pizza. It wasn't a very memorable meal in all honesty. But my spot along the street was prime real estate for people watching. There was a fine breeze kicking between the buildings. 

Sipping my beer, I thought about the topics at the seminar I attended. Experts, mostly from New Zealand and Australia, gathered to discuss the plight of Indigenous peoples' access to justice. It was all rather depressing to hear their accounts of discrimination, and abuses of discretion despite the supposedly blind  nature of lady justice. 

Which is an important lesson really. If one is ever in need of a pick-me-up, seminars sponsored by the various U.N. Expert Mechanisms are not the solution. 

As I watched people and wondered about their lives, it struck me that the city can be a damn lonely place. Not a new thought. But an important one all the same.  

When I finished my meal, I paid the waitress and left, searching for colleagues and camaraderie. All told, I think cities are best defined as bastions of solitude comprised of thousands upon thousands of souls. 

Personally, I'd rather be at home with Gwyn and Clark. Our place isn't much. But it's never lonely. 
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February 3, 2014

Analyzing Excellence, Part II

Courtesy of the AP / Photo by Ben Liebenberg
When I wrote the piece on excellence yesterday morning, it was well before Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos suffered an epic collapse in one of the most lopsided losses in Super Bowl history. During the 4th Quarter of the game, infamous Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman left the game with an ankle injury and did not return.

What makes this blip on the Super Bowl radar interesting is that in the weeks prior to Super Bowl XLVII, Sherman made it a point to repeatedly criticize Peyton Manning's passing abilities. At one point, he compared his throws to wobbly ducks languidly flying through the air. To his credit, Manning brushed off the comments during the week and moved on to other things.

Fast-forward to yesterday's game.

The Broncos had just taken a drubbing and the media circus was already in full swing, documenting the aftermath, and dismissing the Broncos performance as an NFL embarrassment. If anyone could justify going off the grid, after a loss like that, it'd be Peyton Manning.

So what does he do?

He trudges down the winding corridors of MetLife Stadium, the sting of defeat still burning his eyes. He by-passes the Seattle acolytes celebrating their victory at his expense. And Peyton Manning calls on Richard Sherman, the man who had excoriated him in the media weeks earlier and defeated him on the field moments ago, to inquire as to his health and make sure that he was okay. 'Ankle injuries are serious things. Just making sure you're ok.'

You see, when you're excellent, it doesn't really matter whether you win or lose.
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February 2, 2014

Analyzing Excellence


It's Super Bowl Monday here in New Zealand. In an hour or so, I plan to watch the big game with a buddy - a fellow American who appreciates football in a way that Kiwis simply don't understand. While I know a number of friends will be cheering on the upstart Seattle Seahawks, just for today, count me among the legions of football fans who will be rooting for one player in particular: Peyton Manning.

By most accounts, Peyton Manning is having one of the greatest seasons in NFL history. Despite a nearly career-ending neck surgery two seasons ago, Manning set NFL records for both yards and touchdowns thrown in a season. Just last week he was named the MVP of the league. Naturally, these are remarkable accomplishments, feats that will surely catapult Manning into the hall of fame as soon as he becomes eligible for induction.

But what struck me about Manning's monster season is the way that he achieved it. True, the man has a remarkable physical talent. But according to the Wall Street Journal, what sets Peyton apart from other quarterbacks in the league, and perhaps makes him arguably the greatest of all-time is the preparation with which he hones his craft. Of Manning's preparatory habits the Journal notes:
Manning's devotion to film study and game-plan ideas keeps the rest of the team up at night. He records voice memos with stray thoughts and sends them to coaches late into the night so everything can be sorted out early in the morning. "He's really taking advantage of modern technology," said quarterbacks coach Greg Knapp. "You'll get a message that says, 'Let's do this drill tomorrow; I think my left foot needs to open up more.' I have my own ideas that he wants to do but he'll give me that and I'll say 'Good idea!"'  
[Link]
The anecdote above is all the more impressive after considering what Manning has already accomplished. His place in the temple of football gods is already secure. His records this season are forever gilded in the annals of NFL history. He has one Super Bowl to his credit. And yet Manning studies, dissects, and analyzes every aspect of his game until he has an abject mastery over the subject. This type of motivation is the epitome of true excellence - a relentless pursuit of perfection for its own sake.

To some extent, we are all limited by our natural condition and physical capacities. But what Peyton Manning demonstrates is that our preparation and work ethic are aspects of life that are nearly limitless. We can prepare. We can study. We can master the task or opportunity in front of us if we are simply willing to put in the effort to be excellent.

The Wall Street Journal article above calls Peyton Manning "annoying" in his preparation and habits. I think this says more about "us" than it does about him. The simple fact is that there are many opportunities in life to hunker down, work hard, and pursue excellence. But excellence is rare because it's not often that people put in the work to be great. We choose the path of least resistance. We opt for short-term rewards at the expense of more fulfilling long-term gains. We settle. This doesn't necessarily make us bad. It just makes us not great.

When the Broncos take the field in an hour or so against the Seattle Seahawks, viewers will be watching history in the making one way or another. Should the Broncos win, we will see, arguably, the greatest quarterback of all-time as he pursues the ultimate reward of his sport. If the Broncos lose, we will still be watching the greatest quarterback of all-time as he pursues the ultimate reward of his sport.

That's the funny thing about excellence. When you're excellent, it doesn't really matter whether you win or lose.
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