Filed under: Hijinks
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.
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Here’s where capitalism and the concept of intellectual property clash. The Time Life folks hit me with a Greatest Soul Ballads ad tonight, and it got me thinking. I’m not really interested in every song on the list, but there are quite a few that I’d love to have on my iPod. Wouldn’t it be nice if someone had a website that provided the songlist for all these great compilations that get advertised on TV? You could just choose the ones you want and buy them for $1.05 – $1.00 goes to iTunes, and Mr. Easy Tunes (can I name a business or what?) keeps a nickel. Nice little money machine, right? Maybe not.
It’s likely, I don’t know (it’s late – I been drinkin), that intellectual property laws could protect these lists so that it would be an infringement to use them without permission (and compensation). And if this is true, isn’t it a bit much? Then what can’t you claim as your own?
Tonight, after guests left, I inaugurated the one object under each arm (a pitcher and beer bottle) and four glasses in each hand clean up maneuver. It was an act of custodial ballet – the objects balanced just so, the glasses drawn together slowly as the grasp of each hand closed, and the deft pivot towards the kitchen. I’ve been around. I worked in restaurants, and I’ve been in surreal late night contests to see who could carry the most glasses, so I won’t say my maneuver was ground breaking. But it was smooth, and most of all, efficient – the table was cleared instantly. Now what if I decided that that move was mine, and that I wanted to legally make it so?
Would it not be a series of ideas or memes (like a list) that were put into action (like selling a compilation album) that elicted a desired outcome – in this case, clearing a table in one fell swoop (like making money)? Of course, I know that folks probably won’t be executing my move for financial compensation any time soon, but what does that matter? Bloggers can’t take copyrighted photos and put them on their blog sites. There’s no money in it for the bloggers, but that’s still out of bounds. So where’s the line? By the logic of list protection and copyrighted photo protection, could I not charge a nickel every time someone executed my maneuver? Seems like I could. (And you can bet I’d enforce it.) Maybe it’s silly. But maybe it’s not.
Any of you bottom dwelling lawyers want to weigh in on this?
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Sorry for the absence – the guy who never gets a flu shot cause he never gets sick got the freaking flu, and I do not handle sickness well. On a scale of 1 to 10, I operate between a 9 and a 10 pretty much every day. So, on the ultra-rare occasion that I fall ill, I bitch and moan and wail as if I’m on my third week of chemo. I act like, as the Scots would say, a big Jessie. Fortunately for all involved, thanks to my superior immune system, I kicked that avian-borne nuisance as fast as it hit me. I’m back. Not full speed yet, but getting there.
Anyhow, as I was lying in bed yesterday (trying to match the pitch of my moan to the droning humidifier), my wife came rambling through the room and we spoke for a moment. This and that, nothing in particular, but she didn’t ask me how I was feeling. She didn’t ask how I was feeling!
Instantly, resentment washed over me. Sure, go on about your business and ignore the infirm. Wait’ll it’s your turn, honey. Ahh, the vindictive hue of the Robitussin-induced delirium. How could it slip her mind that she should be inquiring as to my status? Didn’t she know what was on my mind? Didn’t she know that the central theme on my giant movie screen was my own decrepit condition, complete with moan track in Sony Digital Audio? Acknowledge, please. Anyone? Anyone? Bitch. Bitch. Biiiiiii….
I moaned myself to sleep and forgot about it until today. But now, hovering at around a 6 (an 8, if I sit perfectly still), I am able to take a mental and emotional step back, and something has dawned on me. It seems like some of my smoothest moves have come by acting upon mistaken impressions of what either was or was not on the mind of whomever I was interacting with. Though this falls under the general heading of misunderstanding, it isn’t the miscommunication kind; it’s what I’d call a gauche theory of mind problem.
Theory of mind, in this case, is understanding that other people have their own plans, thoughts, and points of view. So, if you have a gauche theory of mind, you have a tendency toward, shall we say, less than polished social behavior. You get that people have their own picture of the world, your perception of exactly (or even remotely) what that picture is just comes in a little fuzzy. In my recent time of need, I clumsily assumed that the all-consuming role of my symptoms extended well beyond the confines of my body. Get within the zone, and your mind, like mine, should be instantly preoccupied with my condition. And if you don’t act accordingly, well screw you.
Now, I’ll admit, this is pretty childish. That’s why it’s a good thing I don’t get sick often. I was pushing the envelope snagging my wife to begin with. But this notion of a gauche theory of mind, when it persists over an extended period of time, explains quite a bit of what we see all around us. Just watch the preliminaries of American Idol or just about any reality show and it’s on parade. We marvel at people who so misconstrue their reflection in the minds of others. They perceive themselves manifestly beautiful or talented or popular when in fact they are no such thing. In fact, this brings up an interesting by-product of the phenomenon – other people notice it, cringe, but can’t take their eyes away. And the news is?
This realization, obvious as it may seem, brings me back to the idea that we are well served if we familiarize ourselves with the somewhat universal baselines for acceptance in social situations. But, perhaps of equal importance, is being familiar with the notion that the bar is different in different places. These poor American Idol hopefuls, we may assume, enjoy insulated spheres of acceptance where they live, acceptance that they mistakenly ascribe to the wider swath of the general public. How many alligator tears would be saved if these youngsters were served a heaping helping of, “You may be great in Pascagoula, but that says nothing about how you’ll do in the City of Angels”? It doesn’t mean you quit, it just means you come to grips with how much work you have to do. Then you decide if you want to chip away at it. Believe it or not, our days here are numbered. But the American Idol syndrome is but one example of a gauche theory of mind.
How about the self-important among us? Are they not ascribing their own commanding presence upon our big screens? Are they not disturbed when we don’t respond accordingly? This must be the hardest thing to handle for celebrities. In their case, the bar is exactly where they think it is; it’s just higher than they think it is, at least when they find themselves in the midst of folks who don’t extrapolate what they’re famous for to other areas of measurability. So you celebs out there, I feel ya. Here’s a tip: You may be great in the City of Angels, but that says nothing about how you’ll do in Pascagoula.
Now why should I go to so much trouble to state the obvious? An evening of Robitussin and Coke. Salut.
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Here’s my day – I learn (or maybe notice) two interesting things.
I wake up in DC for a meeting with a prospective customer, emerge optimistic but wary of the work involved in finding out, fly back home to Atlanta, arrive at 6pm, repack, apologize to my wife on her birthday, take my son to the basement so he can play my drums (which he can only incessantly call “bum” and which also includes my guitar – either me playing it while he endlessly motors around, or me holding the chord with my left hand while he attempts to strum.), much consternation on his part at the end of our impromptu “session,” and then it’s off to Philly for two days. An odd city, if you ask me, Philly.
The perimeter of it is depressing. More than a couple of times, the thought crosses my mind that I would be very distraught if I were suddenly informed that I’d have to live here. Just sort of cluttery, but desolate at the same time – I’ll pass. But then I cross over this river and go into some scary areas, where I think I would be very nervous if I was to suddenly have to live here. Abandoned buildings with broken glass all throughout, on streets that look like the video game, the shooting game, where villains pop out from behind every object and shadow. And it’s overlooking water! Truly puzzling from a real estate development prospective – seems like some Trumpionnaire would clean house and put up a revitalized waterfront district or something expensive-sounding like that. It’s like nobody cares, which is the first remarkable thing I notice today.
Almost as quickly as the cab and I enter into this archetypical run-down area of a city, we emerge into a Chicago or New York kind of downtown, with massive buildings right on the street, with shops at street level, and residences or offices (or both) going up into the heavens. Street vendors, convention centers, bars, restaurants, mass transit, hotels, shopping centers – all in about 3 square blocks – at least that’s what it seems like. The transition from ghetto to modern metro is like passing between two different worlds, not mutually exclusive, but recognizably distinct.
In one, folks care about looks. In the other, they don’t, at least not enough to take care of them. That’s what I notice tonight as my cab pulls up to my hotel. Kind of hum-drum, but that’s before a few rounds on the old cognitive spin cycle. The only minor-league, and I mean really minor-league excitement is my well-timed dart through the huge rotunda of a lobby to avoid colleagues who might be in the bar. One false move and I end up in there all night. It’s happened before and it ends up leaving me tired, hungover, and generally off the next day.
Of course, that doesn’t necessarily mean shit. I can almost always be counted on to join in the festivities if people I work with are. I have what I call the party gene. (That’s another topic that’ll get its ink in due time.) Anyhow, that’s where the drama, minor league as it is, comes in. The inner conflict. You see, attendance at the professional, expense-account boozefest has a long record of benefiting my work environment, even though, these days, especially today, I am more apt to settle into my room, get online, and see what happens. A quandary you might say, settled by the half-assed, but probably still better than your average civilian’s covert lobby crossing. If he gets spotted – bourbon and ginger (plus requisite cigarettes) till two. If not, the tamer tour through the blogosphere, but the benefit of a feel-good tomorrow. Finkel. Einhorn. Finkel. Einhorn…
Being a master of compromise (and lobby crossings – it’s all about the diversion), I settle upon forcing myself to encapsulate the random, but not so random, thoughts that have crossed my mind on my three city tour. Then, I may see what’s happening downstairs. Whew. Glad that’s settled. Anyhow – let’s make this quick.
I keep coming back to this two cities thing. Think about how important appearances are in different socioeconomic settings. People with nothing could care less about how they look. They can’t afford to. And it seems like there’s a direct, but leading, correlation between taking care of appearances and achieving prosperity and predictability. It’s direct because the guy who cares about his appearance gets the job before the slob in most cases. Nothing shocking there. But, it is a leading (as in an economic leading indicator) correlation because the appearance change almost always precedes the achievement of prosperity.
As they say, you sometimes gotta fake it till you make it. This is why stock-brokers wear Rolex (would the plural be Rolei?) watches, drive expensive cars, and live in expensive houses, even when they’re just starting out and can’t make the money to support the lifestyle – it gives the impression that they’re successful at handling people’s money. The “he makes money if his clients make money” arrangement is understood, so the broker’s wealth means his clients must be doing well. Ergo, it makes sense to do business with him, to let him help you manage your money. In our terms, it makes sense to accept him.
Now, obviously, if the guy’s a total boob, he probably won’t do well. But if he’s not, and he’s persistent, that interpersonal acceptance will pay off. So, what I’m saying is that you have to start caring about what you look like before a lot of good things will happen to you in life.
Appearance becomes a sort of investment. You do the things you need to do to keep your person looking right – right clothes, right hair, right teeth – and you take an instant step up on the ladder of mass social acceptance. In essence, you’re decreasing your delta. Remember, the idea is that it is possible to have an appearance that virtually guarantees that, unless you’re a total jerk, the people you meet will accept you. They’ll be interested in you, and they’ll be hoping that you like them. Your delta is how far, objectively speaking, you are looks-wise from that point. The further you are, the more likely it is that the exact opposite will happen – the people you meet will not lock eyes with you or take any interest in you, and if you dislike them, they will not notice, nor will they care if they do. That’s harsh, but it’s reality for some people. Fortunately for most people, the delta problem is tractable.
Suppose there’s a figurative delta scale from zero to 100 – zero being the lowest delta (closest to mass total acceptance) and 100 being the highest delta (closest to mass total rejection). Something as broad (and purposefully vague) as an appearance delta would not have your typical bell curve distribution, would it? Yes, buuut, zero would be on the fringes of one side, say the left (arbitarily, lest any political notions enter into this). There are only a handful of folks at the zero delta point. They’re the ones who presumably have the life. They set the styles and dominate all visual media. But, relatively speaking, there aren’t many of them.
The numbers increase steadily as you move to the right, away from zero. Eventually, they peak and you have the average-looking person, not perfect, but not noticeably or distractingly flawed. Then, those drop off to the people who have something troubling about their appearance, something that causes people to be careful about looking. The curve ends at the other fringe with people who have it the worst in terms of human acceptance – maybe they’re shut-ins because they just can’t bear to go out, or maybe they’re just invisible. Even though, thankfully, there aren’t that many of them, there are still too many, and I hate to think about what that must be like. But I musn’t dwell, there’s booze to swill.
(That was the lamest rhyme ever. I have to admit that.)
Getting back to the point here, the delta scale is useful because we can imagine that one who has no interest in his appearance, somebody like your urban-variety bum, has a lot of easy ground to make up in terms of delta. A nice shower, a haircut, a trip to the dentist, some consistently good nutrition, and the guy can go from say a 70 to a 40. At 40, he may be close enough to the average person to start finding interpersonal acceptance fairly expectable. This, from some psychology I’ve read but honestly can’t remember where (told you this was vague), is the turning point for self-esteem.
The moment you start to expect that you’ll be accepted in interpersonal situations is the moment you begin to have self-esteem. Don’t know if it’s true, or if it’s possible to know, but it sounds about right. So, thinking back about my cab ride (but now with the Bill Conti music from Rocky as a soundtrack – ahh, editorial license), I’m wondering how many folks are living there who just don’t care about how they look, about how their house looks, or about anything like this. And I’m wondering, what if they did?
Socially sensitive people will answer that caring about your appearance isn’t going to suddenly make a job materialize. These people are in poverty, they’ll say. I’ll grant that this may very well be the case for many of these people. But what about the ones who could simply decide to care about their appearance? They live within walking distance of any number of mail room-level jobs, jobs that go to guys (and gals) with the same background, only they clean up.
Maybe it’s about dignity. Maybe this whole thing is just way to say that dignity begets pride in appearance, which begets acceptance. If so, I’m an idiot for wasting the festive hours in the bar downstairs on a single sentence. But that brings me back to the second thing I learned today. There’s a self-perpetuating cycle going on here. I might ordinarily have ruminated on this idea and forgotten about it until something cued it back up again. But, as the word “blog” is short for weblog, which connotes ship’s log or captain’s log, and since I don’t always have something particular to write about, I am informally committed to putting something down. In this case, it turns out that the whole thing is about information distillation and articulation, which happen to be the toolset of the writer. And duh, epiphany – that must be why I do this. Having written a book, I still don’t think of myself as a writer. But tonight, considering that I distracted, and then deftly out-manuevered the lobby threat, and now it’s too late to reconsider, it occurs to me – I am a writer. (It sounds gay to even type it.) Nevetheless, it’s a milestone, I suppose.
Then, reality sets back in, as I wonder if it ever really pays well.
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One of my close friends, a cycling buddy, is what I would call a born contrarian. He has a knack for putting his finger in the wind, determining which way it’s blowing, and then concluding that we should ride into it, not with it. If there’s a mainstream trend brewing, he’s aware of it early, and he hates it long before it ever makes it to prime-time TV. That’s his personality, and it makes him a cutting edge, cool guy to be around. I’m more of a self-made contrarian.
Given the choice to follow the crowd or make my own way, I’ll always prefer to make my own way unless…I don’t perceive an agenda or a lemming-like mass movement mentality. (Sometimes, the masses are right. Not too often, but sometimes.) In any case, these are, in my view, the two primary reasons why erroneous and/or worthless ideas get traction in our society. Erroneous ideas, like what is fashionably and musically in, are great examples. In so many cases, those who have authority in our culture, celebrities, set the agenda. They do something out of the ordinary and whamo, a new fad emerges. But hey, it’s cool to be different, so the lemmings get on board, only to ultimately end up being carbon copies of one another. Fortunately, the harm done here is purely aesthetic, for the most part. Agenda-driven ideas, on the other hand, do considerable harm.
Take, for example, the global warming debate. In case you missed it (click here), the recent evolution versus creationism debate veered off into this territory. My argument is that there is a vast conspiracy among academics to support the notion of human induced global warming. This is because the issue is so far from definitive that the political aspect of the debate has clouded the judgement of many reputable scientists. As we all know, academia is replete with left-wingers. In short, there is an agenda behind this fraud. I, therefore, despite the arguments of my critics that those in authority cannot all be wrong, dissent.
The point of this is to suggest that we are ill-advised to take the word of so-called authority figures simply because they are “reputable.” This is nothing more than the “question authority” concept. To say that something such as human induced global warming is true because a preponderance of credible academics say it is is to stand at the precipice of a slope that is dripping with 30-weight motor oil. Once you use this rationale to buy into something, you’re far more likely to do it again and again. But, given the obsession of this blog, I would argue that there is a genetic component to this.
We are driven to pursue status in our interpersonal endeavors. This makes us particularly vulnerable to being duped by those who have it. Given the choice between believing an idea put forth by someone we believe to have high status and believing an idea put forth by someone with questionable status, our genes will push us to the former. This is true when it comes to everything from religion to politics to economics, but it need not be this way.
I am a constant advocate of critical rationalism because I think it gets us out from under this problem. We have to consciously choose to put our status-oriented biases aside and consider matters in critically in terms of evidence. And we also have to be aware that our best efforts at objectivity can still be confounded by our caveman emotions. That’s why it is so key that we understand them – what they were designed to get us to do and how we can go about compensating for them. From this emerges the self-made contrarian, the one who thinks about the mass mind as flawed and not to be trusted, the one who rides against the wind, not with it.
Having been in Las Vegas for the week on business, my mind has been swirling around gambling. Something occurred to me as I was watching some folks play cards in the MGM Grand. Actually, as my main objective was to get a bit loose, I was trying to do the math on which was the better financial move – dropping $10 a drink every half hour or losing money gambling while getting free drinks. This kind of absurd contemplation is not abnormal for me – I often don’t realize it’s happening until something shakes me from it. This time, it happened when I realized that there are insights to be found in thinking about life as a hand of Texas Hold Em poker (hereafter simply referred to as “poker”).
I’ll admit up front that this analogy is limited in its reach, however, the similarities are actually pretty interesting. In “poker,” players are dealt two cards face down. Think of those as genes. Then, the dealer proceeds to reveal three cards, known as the flop. Then another card, the turn, and then a final card, the river, are revealed. The flop, the turn, and the river are communal cards, so players combine any three of them with their two cards to make a hand of poker. In between each of these revelations, players have the opportunity to bet on their hand, even though they don’t know the outcome until they see the river card. Think of communal cards as the environment. So, essentially, the object of the game is for players to play their two cards in conjunction with the right combination of communal cards to win the hand. Here we see stark parallels between “poker” and life.
The first and most dramatic similarity is this – even if you start out with the best two cards available (two aces, for example), it’s still possible to lose. On the other hand (forgive the pun), you can start out with what appears to be nothing (say, a two of hearts and a four of clubs) and end up winning. Such is life. But before we get too far, maybe it’s worth considering what it means to win.
In poker, there’s no confusion about this. In life, however, not so. To some people, a lot of people, winning means getting rich or becoming powerful. To others, winning is being well liked. To still others, winning means nothing more than not losing. To me, winning means spending as much time as possible living the good life, which is living a life inspired by love, guided by knowledge, and free from unnecessary constraints. The love and knowledge part, which is the most uncommon of common sense, comes from Bertrand Russell (“What I Believe,” essay from 1925. Now found in Why I Am Not A Christian, Touchstone, 1957). The freedom from unnecessary constraint part comes from me.
I believe people erect all sorts of mental barriers to their enjoyment of life. They buy into social pressures and unreasonable traditions without fully examining them, which dramatically reduces their assessment of the options available to them. Take, for example, the notion that you must have a 9-5 job to be responsible. It is a rare case indeed for someone who chooses an “unorthodox” career to not be inundated with warnings and disapproving advice from people who supposedly have their best interests at heart. And these are the few who make it over the barrier. We’ll never know how many aspire to, but do not. But this is about “poker.”
Suppose you’re dealt two aces right from the start. This would be the equivalent of being born with natural talent and/or good looks. But in life, just as in poker, the environment ultimately tells the tale. You can be very smart and/or good looking and it will amount to nothing if you’re born into poverty in a place where upward mobility is all but impossible. In poker, two aces will end up yielding a measly pair if the communal cards don’t work with them. (It’s such a letdown to see 3,5,7,9,10 when you start out with such a bang.) But sometimes, you can start with nada and come out on top.
Say you’re dealt a two of clubs and five of hearts. This isn’t encouraging. Many people will fold, which is not at all insignificant. In life, it’s easy to fall prey to the idea that winners are winners because they’ve had it good from the start. Sure, this is the case sometimes. But, especially in America, how you start out has a lot less influence than what you do with what you’ve got.
In “poker,” with a two and a five, if the flop shows three fives, you’ve got yourself four of a kind, regardless of what happens with the turn and the river. It’s very likely that you’re going to win, even though you started with pretty much nothing. Oh, if life could be so easy. Don’t get me wrong – sometimes it is, sometimes, for some people. But, usually, life comes with the following sinister complication: you may indeed have a winning hand (that is, your genes and the environment in which they find themselves), yet you may never enjoy the fruits of it. This is where the limitations of this analogy begin to reveal themselves. Luckily, however, other poker games offer the opportunity to further mix some already slightly pureed metaphors.
In Texas Hold Em, at least from what I’ve seen, after the river card is shown, you reveal your cards and it’s obvious who has won. If it isn’t, the dealer makes the call. But there are some poker games, like seven card stud, where you have to proclaim what you have in your hand. If you mistake what you have, you can lose, even if your cards are better than anyone else’s. As a silly example, if you claim three of a kind when you have a full house, you’ll get beat if someone has something better than your three of a kind, even if it won’t beat a full house. This is a lot like life.
I’ve known so many people with wonderful talents and attributes who didn’t recognize them because they were focused on the talents and attributes they didn’t have. Far from making the best of the cards in their hand, they spent their time lamenting that they did not have the cards they wanted. And in those occasional moments of truth, they looked down at their cards and saw a pair when they had a straight. They acted accordingly…and lost, which means they failed to realize their aspirations (which were misplaced to begin with). It needn’t have been this way.
The value of the poker analogy (strained as it is in places) is that we can infer two very practical rules about winning at life. The first is simple – it aint over till the last card is overturned. Things may not start out pretty, but that doesn’t mean we’re destined to lose. From this, we derive determination and hope. Conversely, if we start out with all the cards, we should take care not to assume that we will still have all the cards when the chips are pulled from the middle of the table. From this, we learn humility and an appreciation for accomplishment. The second big takeaway is a mandate of sorts.
In the card game of life, we must play the cards in our hand, not anyone else’s. We must play them; we cannot allow them to play us. Our environment will, in many cases, be beyond our control. Our best chances for winning come from working with it, not against it. Therefore, we must make the most of our cards, which, more than anything else, requires us to see them for what they are. If we start with a five and a two off-suit (or bushy eyebrows, crazy hair, and an ostensible inability to mentally focus on anything for long), we can’t be shooting for a royal flush (or a life on the red carpet). It will never happen, so any communal cards that offer false hope to that end must be ignored – better to see our cards for what they are and be on the lookout for communal cards that compliment them. Einstein produced some of his most remarkable work as a patent clerk in Switzerland. Had he lamented that a teaching position was not in his cards, he may not have had the motivation or energy to dwell on the toughest questions that have ever faced mankind. Instead, he exploited his environment to make the most of his extraordinary genes, and we are all the better for it.
As for me, I took a seat at the bar. The cards in my hand were shaped like dollar bills and I didn’t have enough of them to risk my buzz on bad luck. Such is life in pursuit of the option…
I went to Panama last March on a fact-finding mission. A buddy and I had been hearing for months that there were real estate opportunities aplenty in cool areas like Bocas del Toro, Panama’s Caribbean archipelago. So we flew into Panama City (not the one with Spinnaker’s and wet t-shirt contests) and then made our way to the islands the next day.
One of the things I pay close attention to when I travel is the gap between the rich and poor. I look to see if there’s a significant middle class because I think it says a lot about the economy and the rule of law. I can say that it appeared to me that Panama City was mostly middle class, although I’ll concede that I did not see all of it. There were certainly some nice homes (well guarded, I might add), but the majority of what I saw was what you’d think of as everyday housing – not too big or nice, but not dilapidated. More importantly, the city was bustling with people tending to their “para hacer” lists. Things changed dramatically as we made our way to the coast.
Bocas del Toro is a collection of islands just south of the Costa Rican border, on the Carribean side of Panama. It is an interesting place because the main town, Bocas Town, is sheltered from the ocean by the backside of two sizable islands – it’s own and one other. There are some smaller islands in the mix, as well. The result is a place where much of the transportation is by boat, on water that is as smooth as glass. Houses and hotels are built on stilts. It’s actually one of the neatest places I’ve ever been. Alas, economically, the place is a train-wreck.
As I said, my friend and I were investigating rumors that property was dirt cheap, but on the rise as international tourism was taking off. We concluded that it was probably true. We also concluded that we’d be idiots to try and find out for sure. This is where the rule of law comes into play. You see, Panama is very friendly to foreign investment, mainly because the US is the biggest user (and therefore customer) of the Panama Canal. As a foreigner investing in Panama, you can set things up so that you don’t have to pay any taxes – not on property, not on income – for a period of ten years. If you invest in some sort of re-forestation project, ten years can become twenty. The Panamanian government has latched onto the idea, which has been well proven, that foreign capital creates local jobs. It’s the rising tide lifts all boats principle. However, the adherence to the rule of law is really the arbiter of long-term success.
In Panama City, you can see the wonders of a free market with an influx of capital – Panama City is the financial center of Central and some of South America. Though I am quite certain that corruption is present there, I am also certain that enough of the folks in power have realized that gains from malfeasance are easily dwarfed by gains from saying what you mean and meaning what you say. Essentially, the leaders in Panama City have officially become westernized. Not so in Bocas del Toro.
One of the big draws to Bocas is teak wood. Just run a google search on “bocas del toro teak wood” and see how much comes up. The offers vary, but the general theme is the same – you can pay a ludicrously low price for 10-20 acre increments of waterfront land with beaches that transition into teak forests . The teak is meant to be your nest egg – they (a crew of workers comes with the deal) harvest them every ten years or so – yielding a reportedly whopping return on investment. On top of that, these visionary developers have dedicated some of the land to harvesting the Noni plant, which, as near as I can tell, is something like Aloe but with a “it’ll cure what ails you” kind of mystique. This is harvested yearly, offering investors reliable and consistent income. So, to summarize, here’s what you get: land for cheap that is right on the water (high appreciation potential), the full rights to build whatever you like on it (vacation home or business), a farm of teak trees that will provide a windfall of cash every ten years (built-in revenue stream), and a crop of Noni plants that will pay the light bills (icing on the cake). Too good to be true? You bet.
It didn’t take much digging to conclude that the areas away from Panama City are not even remotely westernized, at least not the economic sense. They’re in a strange place, between the past “he who has the cash makes the rules” system and the future “follow the rules and create the cash” system. Corruption still holds sway over Bocas del Toro. The concept of quid pro quo has not yet really taken hold there, at least not where foreigners are concerned. To some (too many) of the locals, we are nothing more than walking money bags. Their job is to extract as much as possible from us, and there is no ethical or practical issue with saying or doing whatever it takes to make that happen. From my perspective, whether you’re renting a taxi, hiring a tourguide, or buying a teak farm, you are well served if you do not count on honesty or integrity from the locals.
We met another American who had been in Panama for much longer than we had. He had the occasion to befriend an attorney who spends half her time in Panama City and half her time in Miami. She explained to him that a very large portion of the time she spends in Panama deals with helping foreigners who’ve been scammed in real estate deals, many of which take place in Bocas Del Toro. Apparently, they have quite a slick operation set up there.
Buyers are courted and shown real, working tree farms. They’re provided access to reference customers who sing the praises of their investments. When these marks decide to pull the trigger, they are treated to a credible closing, complete with piles of legal paperwork. The thing is that the paper is worthless. The check clears and the crime is discovered only when the “new owner” tries to exercise his rights of ownership – either by building something or simply by hanging out. The Bocas authorities are called in and the person gets that sickening feeling that you get when you know you’ve been had. The police, who most likely are in on the con, rave about how this is causing all sorts of problems and how they are hot to nail these ladrones (criminals). From there, the story is just like any con movie – the victims return to the scene of the closing, only to find an empty building with no one around. The company they dealt with is gone, vanished from paradise. And the point of all this?
The situation in Panama, if we can extrapolate the Bocas situation, highlights something important about how societies handle the transition to capitalism. The thing about going from a closed market to a free market that invites foreign participation is that there is a queue for the receipt of benefits. The haves are the first in line, which means they will have more before the money trickles down to those who have nothing. This can be very disconcerting when seeing far into the future must always give way to daily necessities. So, for many rural Panamanians, the benefits of honoring contracts with foreigners have simply not yet availed themselves. In an area where there is no middle class, corruption, for most folks, is still a better business than truth. The problem is that this can only go on for so long before the whole project withers away.
Capitalism is a vacuum for money, but only if the profit motive can be realized. When money goes in and then disappears because the main rule of the game is that there are no rules, the vacuum dissipates…and fast. This is what is happening in Bocas right now. A friend visited there a couple of months ago and says that Bocas del Toro is already played out. How can that be? As recently as March, you could smell the opportunity there. There were major resorts planned on one of the biggest islands and more and more tourists were visiting and staying longer and longer. It seems, however, that one too many investors got burned by the short-sighted (although understandably pragmatic, from their point of view) actions of latino grifters on the long con. The resorts are on hold. The money well has dried up before it ever really got going. It’s sad, really…but maybe not.
Like I said, Bocas del Toro is beautiful. Though I liked the idea of buying low and selling high while the international tourist boom made landfall there, I now like the idea of being able to go back to a place that’ll be largely unchanged and still every bit as charming (don’t get me wrong, I had fun) in 10 years. And now that I know what I’m dealing with, I’ll conduct business as I do in Jamaica – product first…then the money, mon. And if I’m in a real good mood, I might just finish off the transaction with my favorite Spanish phrase: “Donde tu frijole playa?” (That one, you’ll have to look up.)