Are You Bananas?

Yes, you are bananas!
I mean this not in a figurative sense, like you’re crazy – but literally.
Anne Wojcicki is a co-founder of the genetics company 23andMe. In her recent “The Big Ideas” essay in the New York Times, she shared a pretty remarkable fact about how much of our genetic foundation, we share with bananas.
Instinctively, I would have imagined 5 or 10% would have been a good guess.  Think again and read below.
Every living being is made from some combination of four chemicals: adenine, guanine, cytosine and thymine (or AGCTs), and only through a simple reworking of this combination of letters do we have the spectacular diversity of species on our planet. Even with three billion letter combinations in nearly every one of our cells, there is just a 0.5 percent difference between my DNA and the DNA of any other person on the planet…. While a banana, a mouse and a chimp look quite different from each other, as well as from you and me, their biological foundation and ours is still built from those four chemical letters: A, G, C and T. In fact, humans share about 60 percent of their DNA with a banana, 80 percent with a mouse and 96 percent with a chimp. A few simple switches in lettering and your AGCTs could have been the AGCTs of your neighbor or those of a banana.

That’s right you’re 60% bananas. 

Beyond this starting point, over the course of our lives, our DNA is impacted and changed according to environmental factors – hence the field of epigenetics.
In his new book, The Tangled Tree, author David Quammen offers an even more tantalizing look at evolutionary genetics by discussing the idea of “horizontal gene transfer.”  Traditionally we think of genes being passed down from one generation to the next. Horizontal gene transfer refers to the swapping of genes between species lines.
So what does this all mean?

  1. At our very biological foundations we are more alike and connected to each other and other life forms than we realize. 
  2. The environment we share with other life impacts our genetic makeup that we will eventually pass down to our offspring.
  3. Finally, during our lives, we even swap genes across other life forms – often with the explicit purpose of protecting each other from disease.

All of this adds up to a very simple but obvious conclusion.  We are related to every living thing and the nature of that relationship is ongoing and mutually dependent.  So act towards other life like yours depending on it – because it does.
And if you don’t see that maybe you are bananas – figuratively speaking that is. 

The Expectations of Parents

Ted Williams was arguably the greatest hitter to ever play major league baseball. Yet his parents never watched him play a single game.

In her memoir, Educated. Tara Westover tells an incredible tale of being raised by survivalist parents and never went to school or to see a doctor as a child.  She went on to receive her PhD at Cambridge and is now a best selling author.

I share these stories not to diminish the importance  of parents in our lives – research confirms that a protective adult is one of the most important factors in helping us overcome trauma and lesser life challenges as children.

Rather it’s a reminder that we can relax a little when considering if we are doing all we can to ensure our children’s success in life.

From the unneeded pressure of “tiger mom” mentality to this recent article in the NY Times discussing the fear of being judged for not doing enough as a parent, we need to check our expectations of what we must do for our children.

In a recent conversation with author and psychotherapist, Esther Perel, I learned that for most of history the word parent was only used as noun – not a verb. 

It defined a role in our lives not an ongoing expectation of non-stop service. It reminds us that regardless of what we do, we will always “be a parent.” 

Perhaps this can shift our expectations from always doing for our kids to simply being there for them. 

In the end,  our kids will be just fine and just maybe journey will all the more enjoyable.

A Great Vacation Idea

Leading up to the July 4th holiday, several friends told me they were traveling into America’s heartland for the week. There they would undoubtedly encounter people whose political beliefs were the polar opposite of their own. My own family vacation to Lake Erie meant that I would share both their predicament and trepidation. 
Yet there is something uniquely apolitical about how Americans celebrate July 4th

In our case, this included the traditional swimming, hot dogs and fireworks. But it was also marked by an impromptu parade within the park where our cabin was located. Golf carts and bicycles lined up at 11:00AM sharp. They were decorated with the stars and stripes – on banners and balloons.  The marchers ranged from age 6 to 60.  Patriotic music swelled from a golf cart in the middle of the procession whose wheels were adorned with red, white and blue paper plates as hubcaps. The parade commenced with the entire group reciting the pledge of allegiance.
Later that evening, we joined local townspeople for fireworks along the lake. I would be lying if I didn’t make snap judgments about their political beliefs, education and health, based solely on their appearance. A fact that embarrasses me – especially considering how gracious and polite every person I met was and that I was the visitor in their hometown.
Among the many flag themed t-shirts was one that read “Shoot Your Local Heroin Dealer.”  Later I would learn that the number of opioid related deaths has tripled in this county over the last six years. Another sign of this region struggles was an unemployment rate that is almost double the national average.
The conversations I did have about politics during my week away from the trappings of the New York Times and nightly news were unusually civil.

Even when I talked to members of my family whose beliefs often clash with my own – there seemed more room for common ground than previous years.  Perhaps born out of a shared desire for a country we can all be proud off.
During the trip, my father-in-law introduced me to the Luke Bryan song “Most People Are Good.” This country tune includes both a homage to Friday night football and lyrics that support gay marriage. Its chorus ends with:

I believe most people are good.
I believe this world ain’t half as bad as it looks

It’s a sentiment I share but in the din of negative news forget from time to time.  Fortunately, a vacation out of my bubble was all the reminder I needed.

The Future of Work

This July 4th most Americans will have a vacation day – one “free” from work. But how free or independent does your work normally make you feel?

Technology was intended to be the great liberator – transforming our lives and ushering in the 15-hour workweek.  I’m not there yet are you?

The number of people working in blue-collar jobs has decreased since 1970 from 31% to less that 14% today.  Automation promises to dispatch more people working in what we might describe as hard labor.

In his new book Bull—- Jobs, David Graebar raises critical questions about why this shift and others hasn’t “freed us up” to enjoy life more.

His central tenet is that most jobs now require us to serve at the whim of others – decreasing our independence and the meaning that came from once making things.

One of the most provocative questions he raises is “Why do so many people have to squeeze doing the things they love — like writing novels or woodworking — into their free time, while spending grim hours under the fluorescent lights of an office doing pointless tasks?”

The answer might be found in the etymology of the word work itself.  As this essay in the Guardian points out, it dates back to the same root words that are associated with compel, persecute and torture. 

It is interesting to note that two of the most identifiable parts about being American. The ethos of hard work and the belief in freedom are, in fact, at odds with one another.

Ideally it is the work that provides us with the freedom, financial and otherwise, to enjoy our lives. But as Alissa Quart points out in her new book, Squeezed: Why Our Families Can’t Afford America, that is becoming increasingly difficult for more and more Americans.

The potential of the gig economy persists but its promise will go unrealized until we tackle fundamental policy questions around wages, childcare, healthcare and retirement.

Until then, we should just ask ourselves a few simple questions. If you are an employer or manager of people, what can you do to help your employees feel more independence and freedom? And if you are a worker, how can you go and get it?

Breaking News

Last week,  the weather app on my phone showed sun icons across the board.  As if three cherries had come up on a slot machine. Jackpot, spring had arrived!  Everyday temperatures would be above 75 degrees. The children clamored to wear shorts to school. Walking the dog would feel like a treat versus a cold chore. Visions of  firing up the grill and relaxing on the patio filled my head.

Then this breaking news alert came in from the New York Times:  “Summer may never be the same. Infections like Lyme Disease, dengue and Zika that are spread by ticks and mosquitos are soaring, CDC says.”

I guess we can’t have nice things… like the warmth of the sun.

Appreciating, journalism’s duty to inform and prepare its readers for potential harm, I couldn’t help be taken aback by the timing of this report.

We couldn’t even say hello to good spring weather before being told in the first sentence, “Farewell, carefree days of summer.”

In fairness, these diseases are serious and are on the rise. At the same time, the total number of people getting diseases transmitted by mosquitos, ticks and fleas is less than 100,000. This may seem significant, and according to the CDC, may be vastly under-reported. But to put this in context, we are a country of 325 million people.  So as a percentage, .03% of people are impacted.

So while this may be newsworthy, is it “Breaking News Worthy”?

Why should we care?

It is hard to move up in life, when we are constantly bombarded with news that brings us down – whether that be about politics, economy, world affairs or well, the weather.

Recently, the journalist James Fallows offered an alternative outlook in this article in the Atlantic. The subtitle of which was “Americans don’t realize how fast the country is moving toward becoming a better version of itself.”

In the piece he describes what he and his wife discovered after traveling across the country and talking to Americans in towns we often describe as left behind.  Moving beyond the corrosive talk of politics and the din of national news he describes a more promising future where people are coming together to build stronger communities and a better future.

Interestingly one of the solutions Fallows suggests is spending more time and money investing in local news – where these bright spots can be shared and spread.

On that note, I think I’ll turn off my breaking news alerts and instead grab a copy of our local Rivertowns Enterprise to learn how our local towns are fixing things.  The sun is supposed to be out again today, so maybe I’ll even read it outside and enjoy this beautiful weather.

We Are Honored

Want to feel good?  Read the definition of honor.  It can be received, given, and felt deeply. It is about respect, reputation, reverence, and integrity. Most importantly it is about recognition. 

Recognition not in the sense of receiving an award but in making sure we see and acknowledge what is important and good around us. 

Yes we can recognize bravery in combat with the Congressional Medal of Honor but we can also honor our mothers by treating them with the utmost respect and living in a way that would bring honor to them.
It is has become easier to see the dishonor around us. When people lie, cheat, steal,  bully, and harm — it is seems somehow more newsworthy and easier to recognize.  
Yet I would argue that there is more honor all around us, if we just take the time to see it.  To make it easier, consider the following examples:
 On Thursday a new class of Truman Scholars were announced. These young men and women were honored for pursuing a career in public service.  What these college students have already accomplished is amazing. Just a few minutes reading some of their bios will give you enough inspiration to last a week.
Fast Company also announced their winners and finalists for their annual World Changing Ideas contest.  We were honored to be included on the list for our work on Your American Dream Score. Just click on a few of the projects honored and you will feel a little better about our country’s future.
If you’re looking for a more regular dose of what is honorable, then check out Nation Swell.  Everyday they share different stories about people worthy of our honor for their efforts to make the world a better place.

But we don’t need to click on a link or read another story to feel or be honored. It just requires us to recognize what is best within and around us. Who honors you? What makes you feel honored?  How do you honor others?  

Among other things, I feel honored when you open and read these newsletters because I respect the time and attention you give them. So thank you, it has been my honor to share them with you. 
Perhaps this note will bring some honor to you as well.  A recognition of what is best in you. If so inclined, honor someone else by sharing this note with them and simply saying, “I thought of you when I read this.”

Either way, I hope you have a truly honorable week.

The Final Gift from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

This week marks the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King’s assassination.

On April 3rd, the evening before his death, he gave his last public talk in Memphis. The speech is largely known for his prescient “mountaintop” passage below:

Well, I don’t know what will happen now; we’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn’t matter to me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop.  And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life–longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over, and I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land. And so I’m happy tonight; I’m not worried about anything; I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.

Given that the very next day, he would be taken by an assassin’s bullet, it is hard to understate the tragedy of his closing remarks.
Yet to only remember that portion of his speech is to miss what is essentially a blueprint for advancing social change.

He opens by reminding us of the incredible progress we have made in human rights throughout history – while saying there is no other time in which he would want to live.

Calling people to join the Memphis march for sanitation workers, he outlines why marches work, how non-violence is effective and the importance of carrying oneself with dignity throughout.

For those engaged in the myriad of movements today, he also discusses other tools for activism, chief among them economic withdrawal (reminding people, that at the time, the African American economy at $31 billion was larger than many developed countries – including Canada.) 

Mobilization, economic leverage, media savvy, patience, determination, and dignity – these were among the tools of his trade. And they were all on display in this Memphis speech.

Right before his mountaintop reference, he discussed his mortality in even more vivid terms. Years earlier in 1960 – prior to most of his signature achievements – he was stabbed by a mentally ill black woman in New York during a book signing event. The tip of the blade was at the edge of his aorta. He observed that had he even sneezed he would have died then and there. History robbed and no telling its impact on the civil rights movement.

Which is all to say for all the planning and strategy we put into our life, there is no accounting for the fickleness of fate.

Whether out of honor for Dr. King or interest in learning more about how social change happens, please take a few minutes and read the fullness of his remarks here.

Perhaps, the sadness from the loss he himself foreshadows will be replaced by a renewed optimism for what is possible.

The Best News In The World

Imagine if the newspaper was only published once every fifty years.  What would the major headlines be?  What stories would we wake up to read?

According to Steven Pinker, author of Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress, it would be a positively delightful experience.

We would read about how extreme poverty has been halved, diseases such as polio and malaria almost entirely eradicated. It would tell us that we are living in the most peaceful time in the history of mankind and chronicle the incredible progress made in human rights for women, minorities and the LGBTQ community.

And we haven’t even touched on stories about technology – hello internet and landing on the moon. 

Yet to read the daily paper is to be left with the sense that progress is rare and inconsequential.

It’s a daily diet too often high on processed foods, preservatives and fats and light on nutrients and fresh foods. The result is after digesting it, we feel disgusted instead of energized.

Reading this fifty-year paper doesn’t require rose-colored glasses, nor does it render us blind to the daily struggles and tragedies that many still face or the major challenges that confront our collective humanity. 

It simply begs for perspective and asks us to question why we pay so little attention to progress.

We know, in general, that we are wired to pay more attention to the headwinds that drive us back than the tailwinds that push us forward. 

Psychologists also describe the hedonic treadmill phenomenon that essentially says as we make progress, our expectations and desires rise in tandem, essentially leaving us in the same place mentally. 

Then, of course, there are the business, political, journalistic and financial incentives to serve us daily doses of distress and conflict.

Some may say that we can’t bury our head in the sand to the daily reminders of work still to be done.  Agreed.  At the same time, when we take an ostrich like attitude to progress, we fail to learn important lessons about what works. Further, we become paralyzed instead of inspired.

Unfortunately, there is no place to subscribe to this mythical 50 Year Newspaper – yet.  In the meantime, if you’re hungry for a healthy dose of progress, I suggest you pick up Pinker’s book.  

It’s In Your Blood

The phrase goes back to the 1600’s, predating the field of genetics by almost 300 years.

The idea that how we act is literally running through our veins is often seen in expressions of negative emotions like animosity (bad blood), anger (my blood is boiling.), fear (blood run cold), cruel (cold blooded) and vengeful (out for blood).

Beyond colorful idioms, there is more truth to the idea than we may realize.

Consider this study on violence summarized in Robert Sapolsky’s book Behave.  Undergraduate male subjects had a blood sample taken, filled out a brief questionnaire and then walked down a narrow hallway to drop them off – where a second sample was taken. For half of the subjects, a burly man walking in the opposite direction would bump into them and call the subject an a—hole. The other half had an unimpeded walk. The differences were extraordinary. 

Subjects from the south who were insulted had massive increases in the stress hormone cortisol and testosterone levels (more than 300% vs. control.) while those from the North remained largely the same. The hypothesis was that those from the South have a long tradition of a more pastoral culture dating back to herders who emigrated from Scotland, where honor codes were sacred. 

Insults like those in the study are an affront to their honor and the visceral and physical response is a result of “who they are” culturally. 

This also may explain why the majority of southern homicides are argument-related murders with people they know vs. felony related murders that are the norm in Northern states.

We like to think that who we are and how we act are always of our own volition. The reality is, of course, much more complicated – giving new meaning to the term “blood-type.”  

What My Daughter Taught Me About Standing Up

With great pride I sat in our local community center the morning of Martin Luther King Jr. Day.  Our eight-year old daughter squirmed on my lap squeezing both of my hands in anticipation.  In just moments, she would be called up to accept the MLK Art Contest winner for her elementary school.

She had built a miniature replica of the march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama.  Her materials included cardboard, construction paper, tape and glue.  On the bridge were LEGO figures representing those who marched and members of law enforcement who stood in opposition. In addition to describing the march, she also included a few facts about Dr. King and a separate drawing of classrooms that were segregated (and the children looking sad) and one that was integrated where they children were happy.

In building her award-winning masterpiece, the biggest stumbling block was trying to get the LEGO figures to stand up together on the bridge. Each night she would stand each up and invariably either overnight or during the day, they would fall back down.  She tried taping them down individually, using string to attach them to the bridge, and a few other approaches. 

Eventually, she figured out the only way to make it work was to stick them together on the bridge using tape.

Ironically, she had stumbled upon one of the biggest challenges to creating lasting change: Getting people to stand up and stick together.

Some rush towards opportunities to put themselves out there. The first day my daughter brought the paper home announcing the competition, she was determined to enter.  She had her idea and just did it, not concerned by what others might think.  This boldness and confidence come from her mother – as I would have treaded more carefully, waiting to see who else was entering and wondering if my approach would have been politically correct.

In his piercing “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”, Dr. King wrote, “First, I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate…who is more devoted to “order” than to justice…” Ouch.

My daughter, like many children, regularly performs acts of civil disobedience when she finds something to be unfair.  She is standing up for herself.  This is equally admirable and frustrating – especially when your negotiating bed time for the 100th time.

Then I realized – I am seeking order. She is seeking justice. 

The only way to cross any bridge (whether Selma or bedtime) is to find someway to stick together. 

For now that means when she asks if I’ll stay with her when she lays down, I do.  Justice and order both achieved.  

Her confidence to stand up, to not be moderate, and even to be disobedient (preferably civilly) will not only serves her well in life but is teaching her dad a valuable lesson about creating lasting change.