Panicky Smurf In The McDonald’s Happy Meal – WTF?

There are times when I come walking through a room and notice a new plastic figurine (mainly because I step on it or kick it), and I know instantly that it is the toy from a McDonald’s Happy Meal.  Like a lot of other people I know, I probably eat less McDonald’s now than ever before, but I can still spot a Happy Meal toy, and the most recent one has me puzzled.

Here’s Panicky Smurf…

No, I’m not making that up.  It’s written on his foot, in a rather elegant (for a Smurf) script.

Panicky is one of 105 known Smurfs.  It is rumored that there are others, but they are no longer in SAG and have been excised from both Wikipedia and IMDB.  In other words, there are only 105 Smurfs.

The thing that has me so puzzled is this: how did Panicky Smurf land a role as one of the 16 Collectible Smurfs from McDonalds, a plastic ambassador for the new Smurf movie?

Let’s just start with the foundation of this situation – the Happy Meal – that evergreen promotional tool that always needs a new gimmick, a new way to charge a toll on those who would ride the pop culture super-highway.  The Smurf movie is a big hit; kids love it.  They beg mom and dad to take them for a Happy Meal so they can get their own Smurf.  And whamo, the Happy Meal delivers again.

(Let me just step aside here for a moment and throw out a disclaimer – Don’t take this as a criticism of McDonalds and their ilk.  If anyone deserves blame, it is we parents who foolishly accept the illogical premise that the only way to get Junior to shut up about the Smurfs is to buy him a Happy Meal.  I bet I could order one from Zappos, and it’d be here before I finish this sentence, and it would come with a Starbucks Gift Card that would exceed the cost of the Smurf itself, and I could have chosen from all 105 Smurfs, customized my Smurf’s get up, and posted it all to Facebook in less than two minutes.  We live in the future, yet we accept a stupid economic premise without question.  Anyway, we also deserve blame for not standing up to kids who use pestering as means of acquiring what they want.  We’re all guilty at times, but I believe a default position of NO for acquiring new toys is good for a person’s character.  It’s also the only way to have any sort of feng shui in your joint.)

Back to the curiosity du jour – evil or not, the Happy Meal has to operate within an ever more strict set of guidelines.  Most of them flow from fear of litigation.  The legal teams for big companies have a lot to say about what gets printed on boxes, published online and in literature, and made out of plastic and painted blue.  Don’t break a law, overstate a point, or offend anyone.  I’m guessing they have a checklist they use to review new stuff – it has to be organic, cage-free, free range, and without lead, nitrites, and BPA at the very least.  And then you’d assume that the political correctness whiners would weigh in.  So, for the life of me, how did PANICKY SMURF make it through?

I mean, it’s a Happy Meal!  With all of their environmentally-conscious and health conscious PR, how could this slip through?  What’s happy about a Smurf who would normally be whiling away the years in bliss but for his panicky disposition?  Not that Panicky doesn’t deserve our sympathy and encouragement…he does.  But are there really not 16 other Smurfs who would perhaps more appropriately reflect the values and feelings normally associated with the Happy Meal?

If you’ve got a few minutes to kill, go read all of the Smurfs and their descriptions off Wikipedia.  It’s awesome.

You’ll immediately notice famous and beloved Smurfs such as (descriptions directly from Wikipedia):

  • Vanity Smurf – Vanity Smurf is the epitome of a Narcissist. He has a flower in his hat, and he often holds a hand mirror, staring into his own reflection, which he kisses often. In the Hanna Barbera cartoon series, Vanity speaks in an effeminate voice.
  • Natural Smurf – Originally a full grown Smurf known as Natural Smurf, he had his age reversed, becoming a Smurfling, and then went by “Nat”. He wears light brown overalls, a straw hat, and goes barefoot. Nat can talk to animals and loves all things related to nature and the environment.
  • Alchemist Smurf – A Smurf with an unusual interest in doing his own chemical and magical experiments.
  • Finance Smurf – Finance Smurf is notable in Smurf comics for introducing the currency to his peers, after being fascinated by its use in the human world. It was abandoned after a while since using currency created poverty and corruption among them.

Now these are some upbeat Smurfs.  How could Panicky – bless his little blue heart – get picked over these standouts?  The media would eat each of these up in turn.  Can’t you just see Natural Smurf in a Levis ad?  And Vanity Smurf hanging with Paris Hilton on TMZ.  And Finance Smurf carousing with the Donald.  This all makes sense.  This all fits with how shit works these days.  And there are plenty of other Smurfs who are ready to go.  Blue bloods, one after the other, literally.  But Panicky?  It doesn’t add up…unless…

McDonalds is having an attack of conscience.

Maybe it’s just a sign of the times that even the Happy Meal needs to take it down a notch from time to time.  Maybe it’s time to put crassness aside and look around.  Take a good hard look and recognize that there are Panicky Smurfs everywhere, and they deserve to be in a Happy Meal just as much as Pretentious Smurf (who lives on the Upper East Side) and King Smurf (who lives on an island in the Bahamas).  Not everyone can have the carefree life of Lazy Smurf (He spends almost all his time sleeping, either in his bed, a hammock, on the grass, or anywhere, anytime, day or night.)

I guess that’s it.  This is just a subtle way for McDonalds to let us know they care about all of us.  Well, I for one would just like to stand up and say “Bravo! McD…”

But wait…if this is for real, seems like they’d have chosen Dabbler Smurf:

  • Dabbler is the most introverted and sentimental Smurf. He is constantly tormented by an inherent sadness, which stems from the inability of his friends and family to understand him. Dabbler’s life is a never-ending quest for love and to be understood. In what appears to be a positive turn, Dabbler eventually becomes Doctor Smurf when Papa Smurf leaves the village to visit Homnibus. Sadly, it comes to light that Dabbler has started dabbling in heroin, which he obtains as Doctor Smurf.  He finally dies of an overdose, with a painting of his redemption only half-finished by his side.

I guess I’m still confused.


Jackie Chan Has Slanted Eyes

If you want to be a really good communicator, you have to be good at engineering the sequence of the content you’re delivering.  This is also true in charades – since acting something out and trying to get someone else to guess it is a very raw form of communication – a caveman-esque form, if you will.  In any case, I got roped into playing Cranium recently, which has a charades aspect to it.  If you (or anyone else) ask me to play a board game, I will say no.  If you ask me again, I will probably say no again.  If you keep pestering me, I will either spit my drink on you or say yes.  You never know.  This past weekend, I said yes because it was obvious that my board game-loving wife had her heart set on playing.  So we cozied up with two other couples and started drawing, acting, humming, deliberating, and rolling.

One question in our game was an “all-play” charades kind of question.  The clue was person.  So an actor from each team had to get his/her partner to guess the name of this person – Jackie Chan.  I was the actor on our team.  Someone yelled GO! and we started.  The first thing I did was pull my eyes into a squint to resemble the eyes of an Asian person.  Then, I started doing a bunch of awesome karate moves.  Bam!  In about 5 seconds, my wife guessed correctly and we were victorious.  Then, the inevitable post-question discussions ensued.

Amidst the laughter at how silly we looked – standard fare for games like this – there were accusations of racism, which made me lol.  Since when does identifying something by one of its most recognizable qualities amount to racism?  Since the word racism has completely lost its meaning, I guess.  Aaaanyway….

Turns out, my friend Mike was doing almost exactly the same thing.  However, he sequenced the information differently.  He started with semi-awesome karate moves, and then moved on to indicate the Asian eyes thing.  That’s what messed him up.

By starting with the eyes, I was using the biggest demographic that would lead to Jackie Chan – race.  Then, once I had that established, I got more specific by indicating what the person of that race is most known for.  It was either going to be Bruce Lee or Jackie Chan.  (I don’t know that my wife could have gone much deeper on Asian martial arts guys.)  The idea was to go from general to specific.  The human brain works like that, so if you want to communicate successfully with one, it’s something to keep in mind.

The alternative – starting with what the person is known for – becomes a problem when you think that doing karate moves could indicate a lot of things – it could be Jackie Chan, Elvis, David Lee Roth, etc.  Without a clear idea of what the initial part of the act was communicating, the Asian eyes bit just created confusion.  And loss.

Perhaps one of the most common causes of miscommunication is a mismatch with respect to context – one person thinks you’re talking about one topic; the other thinks something else.  Avoiding those types of issues is simply a matter of providing context first.  In other words, what are we talking about?  After that, we can move to what is it we’re saying about it.

Normally, successful communication moves people forward.  It’s how business gets done and human connections get formed.  When you’re playing Cranium, it just means you get to roll.  Yawn.



Rice Cereal is Murder

This article about how rice cereal may lead to childhood obesity came across my radar today.  Even though it’s a few months old, I couldn’t resist using it as an example of how we really have to maintain a skeptical point of view in our modern society.  The experts really are so often full of shit, and the fear industry (aka, the media) is all too happy to peddle their inanity.  Here’s a quote to get us warmed up…

Doctor Alan Greene says that because white rice cereal is the number one source of calories from solid foods in a baby’s first year he believes it conditions children to prefer sugary processed foods.

Makes sense, right?  Or does it…

First of all, I think it’s safe to say that most babies do the rice cereal thing at some point.  So, if rice cereal is the culprit, then why aren’t more kids obese?  Sure, lots are, and the number is getting bigger every year, but we’re talking about causation here.  If you have 100 babies who eat rice cereal and rice cereal leads to childhood obesity, then somewhere close to 100 should turn out to be obese.  The reality today is that more like 20 would end up being obese.  According to the CDC,

The prevalence of obesity among children aged 6 to 11 years increased from 6.5% in 1980 to 19.6% in 2008.

Beyond the logical disconnect between what they say may be happening and what actually is happening is the underlying premise that a kid’s preference for one thing or the other impacts whether he or she becomes obese.  This is the part that steams me to no end.  WHO’S IN CHARGE AROUND HERE????  I could give a shit what my kid prefers as far as food is concerned.  I’m the boss.  Or rather, my wife is the boss when it comes to nutrition.  Kids are like dogs – they eat what you give them.  If you see a fat dog, there is only one reason – his owner feeds him too much or he is fed crap.  Same with kids.  So whether the rice cereal causes babies to prefer sugary processed foods is completely irrelevant if you’re on your game as a parent.  Feed them healthy food and obesity will never threaten.

Lastly, I’d just like to point out that Lewis and Clark bribed hostile indian tribes with sugar cubes as they traveled through dangerous territories in their search for the waterway to the west coast.  I’m guessing the indians didn’t have rice cereal, but lo and behold, they developed a quick preference for sugary (er uh, sugar) foods.  My point is that you can deprive a baby of sugary, processed foods as long as you want, but the moment that first hit of birthday cake crosses those lips, junior will be hooked.  The question from there is what will you do about it?

Will you let junior decide what junior eats?  Or will you tower over him as he cowers in your shadow and say, “I’m in charge.  You eat what I give you or you starve.”  From my perspective, the childhood obesity situation is simply due to the fact that most parents are more interested in being their kid’s best buddy than they are in raising healthy, well adjusted children.

(And lest I forget the standard counter-argument about food these days – that poor people can’t afford to eat healthy foods – let me just point out that they can definitely afford to eat less of unhealthy foods.)

A Bitch’s Date With Destiny

I had an absurd premonition earlier this evening.  I sensed that my bitch was going to do something great with her life.  Immediately, as this absurd thought brightened my big screen, I thought back to Owen Meany.  Owen knew he was destined for something big.  No one else did.  But Daisy, our supremely gentle standard poodle, doesn’t know.  In fact, she has no idea.

Daisy is a mid-pack kind of dog.  She’s six.  We got her from a shelter 18 months ago.  She was second choice addition to our family, losing out to another child (high fives all around on that).  It was clear from the start that she is a timid animal.  We’ve wondered so many times whether this is her nature or whether someone mistreated her at some point.  In any case, she’s not, shall we say, assertive.  Not the kind of dog with a destiny.

But somehow she has one.  I know it now.  I don’t know why.  I mean, it’s crazy, right?  What could she possibly do that would distinguish her. The obvious Hollywood option would be that she is thrust into an unlikely situation where one of my children is in mortal danger (probably from a human predator of some sort).  She’ll suddenly become this ferocious animal, saving my boy and striking down the evil assailant.  But no.  That just doesn’t seem right.

It’s unlikely on many levels, not the least of which is that Daisy’s current packmate and fellow poodle bestie is Kaya, our 20-month old uber-alpha puppy .  A more apt name for Kaya (had we known she’d turn out like this) is Kato, after Inspector Clouseau’s sidekick in The Pink Panther series.  She stalks Daisy and then pounces with stealth whenever the impulse hits her.  It’s playful harassment – puppy stuff – and Daisy is like a mother with infinite patience.  Kaya loves her and looks up to her, even as she dominates her at every turn.

No, Daisy isn’t destined for violent vindication.  So what is it?  I really have no fucking idea.  I just think it’s cool that I have somehow viscerally concluded that she is meant for something big.  Her stock is up in the household, even though it makes no sense.  That happens a lot. Just not to me.

UPDATE: Jan 2013. In a crazy turn of events, we ended up having to separate Daisy and Kaya. They just couldn’t get along. The stress of the relationship had Daisy engaging in destructive and unhealthy behaviors that simply had to be addressed. After a lot of agony, we decided that we would find another home for Daisy. (Kaya was still a puppy, and we just couldn’t bear the thought of being only a few years away from losing another dog.) So I placed an ad on Craigslist offering a free standard poodle to a good home. I received lots of inquiries, but one jumped out as the obvious choice.

A family with a special needs daughter was looking for a dog to be her companion. They needed a gentle, well-trained, hypoallergenic dog that would be able to immediately adapt to their environment. Moreover, they lived on an acre of land and had a vet in the family. Even more, the mother had grown up with poodles, so she was dying to have one in their home. Long story short – I delivered Daisy to this family – with tears aplenty all around – and drove away wondering if I had done the right thing.

I checked in with the mother 2-3 times a week for about a month. She told me her daughter was completely in love with Daisy, and that it was clear that the feeling was mutual. Daisy had no behavior issues at all. She seemed completely at ease with the situation from the very beginning.

A few months have gone by now. Things have only gotten better. Daisy lays all day in the palette the little girl made for the two of them to sleep together, waiting for her to return from school. She then is glued to her side until bedtime. The little girl even sleeps with her arm on Daisy. The mother tells me the little girl has “come out of her shell” so much since Daisy joined their family. “Like a miracle.”

Though we miss her terribly, I have no doubt that we did the right thing in finding her another family. We rescued her, but turned out to be only a halfway house in her journey to a real and permanent home. And when I think back to when I wrote this, I had no idea that the halfway tongue-in-cheek post I wrote would turn out to be so true. Life is beautiful sometimes.

Daisy is the white one.

Look Inward First

I just happened upon this great post over at Tim Ferriss’ blog. You know I’m all about looking inward and working with what we have. This is a guest article written by Ryan Holiday, someone heretofore new to me, and it drills directly into something that underlies everything in this blog – we really do need to take the time to understand who we are and what we want if we stand any chance at all of finding sustained peace and happiness.

A quote…

Montaigne once used the analogy of a man with a bow and arrow to illustrate the importance of meditation and analysis. You have to know what you’re aiming for before it is even worth bothering with the process of preparing the bow, nocking the arrow and letting go. Our projects, he said, “go astray because they are not addressed to a target.” The idea is that an intimate knowledge of ourselves makes it possible (and easier!) to know what we need to do on a daily basis. He advised us to meditate on our lives in general, in order to properly arrange our day to day actions.

Good stuff.  Helps to remind us to focus on what matters.  Thanks to Ryan and Tim for that.

Are They Too Big To Fail or Are We Too Ignorant To Get It?

I try not to get too political these days, since I find that I usually end up in the middle of some holy war between ideologues.  However, this financial reform thing is too big a deal to leave alone.  As usual, the political class has misplaced blame – whether purposefully or not – for why we are where we are, which means the solutions they are advocating have exactly zero chance of helping.  Allow me to offer an alternative.

First, a little backstory.  Those who know me know that I am a libertarian-minded guy.  So, back in 2008, when Bush was in bailout mode, many were shocked that I was in favor of what he was proposing.  How could a free market proponent go along with massive Uncle Sam bailouts of financial institutions that had clearly been making foolish decisions for quite some time?  Wouldn’t the libertarian position be to let them fail and let the market adjust?  Yes, that’s what the free market position would be…in a vacuum.  The reality, however, was that bailouts were the only option.

My reasoning was (and is) less about the reality of “too big to fail” than it is about perception .  In 2008, had some major banks gone belly-up, we would have had a major crisis in consumer confidence, which could have pushed us right off an economic cliff.  In those days, no one had ever considered the possibility that an organization as massive and influential as AIG might go bankrupt.  So, we were faced with the possibility of runs on banks and all of the panic and chaos that would accompany them.  But that was then, and what have we learned?  Nada.

The notion of “too big to fail” is a financial “mulligan,” something you get maybe once in a generation, when you get caught with a general public that is too ignorant to ride out a blip in a financial cycle.  The fact is that, on its face, there is no size institution that is too big to fail.  The only question is what happens when they fail. But no one is talking about this at all.  The default assumption is that “too big to fail” is a legitimate concept.  Consider the following.  Apparently, there are only three real options in the financial reform debate.  As this article in the Washington Post explains it, they are:

  1. No bailouts.  Easy.  If a financial institution fails, it ends up in bankruptcy court, and the chips fall where they may.  Aside from the fact that most companies will not believe that there really won’t be bailouts, the real concern is the panic that could come from massive failures – the “too big to fail” problem.  This is the fallacy I’m addressing here, so I’ll come back to it.
  2. Limit the size of financial institutions.  Don’t let them get big enough to be too big to fail.  The problems with this are numerous, but the bottom line is that it’s hard to define size in a meaningful way, and sometimes size is critical to global competitiveness.  So that one is off the table, too.
  3. Finally, we have the Chris Dodd solution – creating a new power base in the federal government that allows the executive branch to take corrective action with troubled financial institutions.  In principal, this works as an alternative to bankruptcy, but in reality, this is yet another power grab by the politicians.

So there you have it.  Our three options.  I’m a little disturbed that our immensely innovative and creative policy-makers can’t come up with anything better than these three options, but it really doesn’t matter.  Our solution is here.  It’s number 1, despite the fact that it is rejected out of hand by most everyone these days.

But wait!  Number 1?  Aren’t we back to 2008, where we’re balancing libertarian principles against unacceptable realities? No, because we’re not IN THE CRISIS.  We have the benefit of looking forward.  We can examine what would happen if the top 10 financial institutions became insolvent, and we can educate the general public as to how things would play out.  The free market really is capable of dealing with the failure of any size institution.  People just need to understand what is happening under the hood.  This, to me, is THE issue here.

The most important thing to know is that, even in 2008, in the midst of massive bank failures, there were banks that were doing fine.  Wells Fargo just sat back and watched as the other big players imploded.  And then they came along and picked up the pieces – getting massive assets for pennies on the dollar.  That was a good thing, one that should have been shouted from the roof tops. It illuminated one of the most important aspects of the financial world – it really is a zero-sum game.  When someone wins, someone else has to lose, and vice versa.

The point is that just because a big bank or two loses, there’s no need to run to the other banks to empty bank accounts and stuff everything in mattresses until the crisis passes (as if that’s even possible).  Indeed, the ONLY real concern in 2008 was that the general public would freak out and come to eventually realize that the total amount of cash in our society is a small fraction of what is actually on the books.  The whole bailout deal was really about maintaining the public’s ignorance about how the financial world really works.  And back then, with all that was happening, it made sense.  Now it doesn’t.  Now we can pull back the veil and let people know a) how banks really do business and b) what happens when the big ones fail.  Is that really so hard?

Evidently it is.  The government is fired up to educate us about getting involved in the community, but it never crosses the bureaucratic mind that some PSAs about the ins and outs of the financial industry might be of value. Of course not.  What we need is more government.  Unfortunately, where government intervention always causes problems is in distorting the market signals that individuals use to make decisions.  When management knows that the bank will be dissolved if it makes really bad decisions, they will err on the side of caution when it comes to creating investment instruments and/or loaning capital.  Conversely, if a consumer knows that any bank will be bailed out, he or she has no incentive to bank with strong financial institutions with a reputation for stability.

Yet again, we see our politicians asking for the power to do the impossible.  They want the power to make decisions for financial institutions, when they have neither the information nor the expertise to do this as well as the managers of those institutions.  Oh, how the arrogance astounds.  The solution, which has been validated time and time again throughout history, all over the world, is to let the markets adjudicate the winners and losers.   And what is it that keeps a free market running smoothly?  An educated and informed population. We just need to take on the problem of public ignorance.  Ironically, it is that very same public ignorance that will ultimately pave the way for this massive expansion in government power, so I’m not holding my breath.

Caveman Radio – End The Fed – Wed March 10th 9-11pm EST

Another show in the can.  This one was especially fun because I had David Hillary joining me from New Zealand.  David is a banking and monetary policy expert.  He is the author of the blog, Lost Soul.  Very smart guy.

(Gotta love the Internet – making it possible to do a live call-in radio show with hosts on opposite ends of the planet.  Truly amazing.)

You can download the mp3 here.

I think the show went well.  We tried to use Ron Paul’s book as a hub for a broad discussion on banking and monetary policy.  David has been educating me over the last couple of weeks on the three major points of view relative to these topics.

  • Keynesians – people who believe we need a Central Bank and a strong Federal government to manage our economy
  • Rothbardians – people who believe we should abolish central banks and other prevailing aspects of banking (including the fractional reserve system) and return to a gold coin monetary standard
  • Free bankers – people who believe we do not need a central bank, but we do need a gold standard, and we need to maintain the Fractional Reserve system

Ron Paul is in the Rothbardian camp.  His book, therefore, focuses on all of the terrible things that are the result of the Fed, fiat currency (currency not tied to anything concrete), and the fractional reserve system.  David and I fall into the Free Banker camp.  (This is a position I’ve adopted as a result of my investigations and talks with David.)  So we took the main points of a few Paul’s chapters to discuss the flaws in the Rothbardian approach and to illuminate the value of Free Banking.

Lots of good stuff there.  We covered everything from how banks are supposed to work (it probably isn’t what you think) to what the gold standard is, how interest rates work, and the role of the Fed in our society.  In the end, we conclude as Ron Paul does – we should end the Fed.  However, our reasoning is completely different.  Ron Paul’s big hangup is mostly with the Fractional Reserve system, though he attributes most of the so-called problems from it to the Fed.  Of course, he also is very upset with our fiat currency, so he wants us to return to a gold standard.  That, in itself, is also a good idea.  But doing that without a Fractional Reserve system is frankly impossible.

In the end, David put forward a completely workable way to move from where we are today to a free banking model.  We can get there, folks.  We just need some folks in Washington who are in favor of real change (as opposed to the fake change that was sold to America in 2008).

So have a listen and form your own conclusions.

Caveman Radio – From the “Born To Run” Episode

Last night’s show was fun.  There were a few live listeners, so things are picking up!  Still no callers on the program (at least none who were calling about the topic), but that’s ok.  It’s a short show, so I’m fine with doing it all myself.  (Though it would be fun to have some back and forth to mix things up.  Hint.)

Anyway, here’s the stream of the show.  Hope you enjoy.

You can also download the MP3 here, if you’d rather pull it into your mobile world.

Please leave comments here if you have any thoughts or suggestions.  I went ahead and sprung for the premium membership, so I can do a 2-hr show if I want.  But that would require some audience participation, or I’d end up playing 5-10 songs during the course of the program.

And finally – here are a few links to some things mentioned during the show, and a couple of extras that you might find entertaining.

  1. Eric Orton, Christopher McDougall’s coach in Born To Run, has a social network at  Check it out for videos on proper running form, strength-building exercises, and circuit training.  He also has Training Programs for purchase – ranging from strength-building to training for half-marathon, marathon, and ultra-marathon distances.
  2. Dr. Daniel Lieberman is a Harvard professor of Biomechanics.  He is featured in Born To Run, and he has recently put up a website that communicates some of the latest research that has been published by his group.  It’s got tons of information on human evolution and how it relates to running.  It also covers running shoes and the difference in force associated with heel-striking versus midfoot striking. Go to to get the details.  Very interesting.
  3. If you want to read some interesting stuff from barefoot extremists, check out Barefoot Ken Bob’s site.  Yeah, that’s really his name, and he looks EXACTLY like you’d expect.  Interesting reading, but not my bag.
  4. Here’s Scott Jurek’s site.  He’s just flat-out amazing.
  5. And for those who have read the book and would like to see some pics of the Tarahumara and of some of the scenes from the book, check out Luis Escobar’s site.
  6. And here’s Caballo Blanco’s site.  It’s exactly what you’d expect.
  7. Lastly, if you’re really interested in the Ultramarathon deal, check out Tony Krupicka’s blog.  Not only is he a badass runner, he’s also a gifted writer – his recollections of races are terrific.

Jack White, the Rat Race, and the Rejection of Easy

Last night, I watched the recent documentary called, It Might Get Loud, which revolves around a meeting of three electric guitar virtuosos, each from a different generation.  The elder statesman is none other than Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page.  The mature, but still in his prime, slot is held by U2’s The Edge, and the younger generation is represented by one of my absolute favorite musicians, Jack White (The White Stripes, The Raconteurs, and Dead Weather).  It’s a terrific film from a lot of different perspectives, but the ethic espoused by Jack White really hit on something I’ve been dwelling on for quite some time.  Right at the beginning, he comes out with this…

Technology is a big destroyer of emotion and truth. Opportunity doesn’t do anything for creativity.  Yeah, it makes it easier, and you can get home sooner.  But it doesn’t make you a more creative person.

White expands on this idea again and again by talking about his need to struggle as a musician.  He purposefully strips things down to make it harder to create something emotionally meaningful.  He uses guitars that are cheap and won’t stay in tune.  He arranges the instruments on stage in a way that is inconvenient, so even the act of getting to the organ after playing the guitar is difficult.  The idea is that pushing through the hardship is what leads to creativity and emotional truth.  When it’s too easy, finding truth and beauty is too hard.  It seems paradoxical, but I think Jack White is on to something that can be generalized way beyond creating art.

The processes for obtaining the things we want and need are so streamlined these days that I wonder if we aren’t slowly optimizing all of the beauty and joy out of our lives.  Before I go any further, let me just say that my focus here is not on technology as an evil; this is not a Luddite’s lament.  What I want to talk about is what we’re using all of this technology for.  I think I know.

We want everything to be easy.  But why?  In theory, when something is easy, it takes less time to accomplish.  Okay, so we want more time.  I’m onboard with that.  But for what?  So we can work more? Come again?

It sounds crazy, but I’ve been noodling on this for a long time, and that’s the best I can come up with. It seems that those who are the best at optimizing every little thing in their lives also tend to be the people who work the most.  At least that’s the world I live in.  So the next question is why work so much?  I’m assuming that work for work’s sake isn’t the goal.  So what is?

This is where the caveman thing comes into play.  If we’re not paying attention, we simply fall into the norms of our social group.  We adopt the goals of those we interact with the most.  At my stage in life, my social surroundings are other thirty-somethings (some with kids, some not), all focused on achievement.  It’s trite to say they’re after the brass ring, but it’s not far off.  Bust your ass now so you can get the promotion, which requires you to bust your ass even more to get the next promotion. The distant hope is that the brass ring brings a level of happiness and contentment – and ease – that makes it all worthwhile.

And what of technology?  Well technology makes it possible to dispense with the mundane so you can focus on work.  Why go to the store twice a week when you can go to Costco once a month?  Why visit the local library when the Internet is a click away?  Why call when you can text?  You get the idea.

But what if all of this ease, which just gives us more time to pursue the goals most present in our social groups, is eroding the possibility of finding real satisfaction in life.  After all, it’s called the rat race because it is an endless, pointless pursuit – a constant footrace on a wheel that never stops turning.  With every perceived success, we take on another goal, which invariably takes up more of our time.  How do we get off?  For this, we go back to Jack White.

What happens when we try to reject easy?  What happens when we purposefully place the coffee maker in the laundry room?  I’ll admit, I’m not good at this.  There’s an old saying, “Leave it to the lazy man to find the easiest way.”  That’s me.  But it’s acute laziness, not chronic laziness that afflicts people like me.  I want this or that little task to be easy because I want to devote my efforts to “bigger” things that really matter to me.  But maybe that’s the problem.

What if this quest to optimize all of the little things is causing me to completely lose sight of the good economist’s favorite axiom – life is about tradeoffs?  More and more, I’m finding that what’s really happening is that we’ve collectively bought into this idea that we can have it all.  By optimizing here, I can have something else there.  In the end, when I would previously have had to choose between two wants, I now can have both.  Is this good for me?  Jack White would say no, and I’m really beginning to think he’s right.

This is an illusion, this notion that we can have it all.  By buying songs one at a time, I’m missing the songs on records that I’d love ten times more than the hits.  Tradeoffs never go away; we just lose the ability to spot what we’re giving up.

So is that it?  Reject easy?  Manufacture hardship?  There are consequences, though.  Putting aside the obvious changes in terms of “productivity” that come with rejecting easy, what about the social implications?  What about that nagging feeling that we’re not keeping up?  It’s genetic, ya know, so it will reveal itself one way or another.

Honestly, I don’t know how do this.  I just have a feeling that it is the right thing to do.  I’m going to start by picking one easy thing every day and doing it the hard way.  Who knows.  Maybe in a week I’ll realize that this is the dumbest idea I’ve had in a while.  But I want to try.  It just feels wrong to race to the table at every meal so I can be spoon-fed a huge helping of easy.  What am I giving up?  I need to find out.

I’ll keep you posted.