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Saturday, January 25, 2014

Culture of Competition

It’s almost here. That special Sunday when the nation pauses to celebrate our collective obsession with competition -- Super Bowl XLVIII, with its Latin numbers redolent of religion. Followed by two weeks of heated contests that are the Winter Olympics.

Where does our competitiveness come from?

Well, I can tell you about a Saturday morning bike ride I shared with some family members who had two sons – aged about eight and 10 – along the beautiful Cape Cod Rail Trail, a bike path that meanders through some 25 miles of mostly wooded land in Dennis, Eastham and Wellfleet.

At lunch after our ride, the younger brother was visibly upset. His father – who happens to have his high school football jersey framed on the family room wall – asked why.

“I didn’t finish first,” his son said, his eyes starting to tear.

His father consoled him. “After lunch we’ll go back and you can win this time.”

Huh? This poor kid regarded our tranquil bike ride as a competition?

I know too many people who delight in competitiveness and border on the neurotic in their drive to finish first in every aspect of their lives – even here in paradise.

I've always considered this a terribly unhappy way to go through life – needing to win at everything.

Like this guy:

“I like to win in everything I do, regardless of what it is. You want to race down the street, I want to beat you. If we're playing checkers, I want to win. You beat me, it's going to bother me. I just enjoy competition.”

Derek Jeter said it.

But athletes aren’t the only ones afflicted with near-neurotic competitiveness.

Writers – even at the top of their game – have waged famous rivalries. Edgar Allan Poe and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Mary McCarthy and Lillian Hellman. Gore Vidal and Norman Mailer.

Woody Allen nailed it in this scene from his 2011 film, Midnight in Paris:

Gil: I would like you to read my novel and get your opinion.

Ernest Hemingway: I hate it.

Gil: You haven't even read it yet.

Ernest Hemingway: If it's bad, I'll hate it. If it's good, then I'll be envious and hate it even more. You don't want the opinion of another writer.

Karen Horney, a Freudian who went on to develop Psychoanalytic Social Theory, suggested that modern culture is based on competition. Everyone is the real or potential competitor of everyone else, she said, and this competition results in basic hostility.

There might also be a case that competition is the obverse of ambition.

Blogger Luke McElroy says competition and ambition are two primary manifestations of personal motivation -- neither one better than the other, just different.

Google Co-Founder Larry Page, for instance, wins by out-performing Microsoft and Yahoo. Steve Jobs, on the other hand, never worried much about Apple's competition, but drove himself to be personally better in creating phenomenal products.

It’s the difference between basketball and swim teams. Both are team sports. But the basketball team wins by making the other team lose. The swimming team wins by individuals bettering themselves.

I’m not sure into which category I fall. I always thought I wasn’t a competitive person at all.

But I felt the adrenalin rush of competitiveness as I ran the New York City Marathon. I wasn’t going to win the race, of course. The Kenyan had broken the tape long before I reached the 26th mile.

Yet … the finish line beckoned  and I wanted to beat just the one runner directly in front of me.

And then the next.

And the next …

In my next blog, "Making Life Work Best"

Friday, January 17, 2014

The Peeps of Paradise: Tapping Vinny Tozzi

“Ma loved when I sang and danced for her. But there was one song she really liked. The words are, ‘I’ll make up for everything the world has done to you. I’ll make every little dream you’ve ever dreamed come true.’”

In 1945, five-year-old Vincent Tozzi won a contest hardly anybody could see – a tap dance contest broadcast over the old Johnny Olson Radio Show Talent Contest.

“I wish you folks at home could have seen Vincent. He turned a cartwheel and darn near wound himself around our ABC microphone,” Mr. Olson informed his listeners.

The young hoofer was featured in Collier’s Magazine.

But grown-up Vinny Tozzi has been blessed with the ability to see what’s invisible to many of us – people in need of help.

It’s a truism that the way to lift ourselves from loneliness or depression is to “do” for others. I asked Vinny – who lives with his dog, cat and cockatoo in a compact cottage smack in the middle of Vieques’ busy town of Isabel Segunda – if this is the reason he has become a one-person philanthropist.

“No,” he answered without hesitation. “I’m a happy person. I always have been. People tell you to live every day like it’s your last one – and I really do.”

Why, then, does he devote so much of his energies to fund-raising for outreach programs like Incubadora, a private foundation that funds and supports start-ups … to mentoring young people in the Reach for Success program … to donating to two local bands and the Humane Society?

“They’re there, and they need help,” is his simple answer.

Vinny Tozzi, the one-person philanthropist of Vieques.

His mother used to read a book a day, Vinny says, and was supremely intelligent. 

“She was the Hillary Clinton of Hell’s Kitchen. So even as a young man, I was a feminist.”

A graduate of Manhattan’s prestigious High School of Performing Arts, he spent his life traveling far from his Hell’s Kitchen roots – from Provincetown to Los Angeles – forging a career as chef and baker.

Vinny, back in the day, from his collected poetry.

But he always kept his sight on those who needed help. In Los Angeles, for example, he wangled the Getty Museum to transport some 300 special needs people and host them at the museum’s grand opening.

And in his 18 years as a resident of Vieques, he hasn’t flagged.

On February 14, for instance, he will present his eighth Valentine’s Day dance -- Vieques Baila -- at the Coloseo Municipal, a performance space big enough to house a full-court basketball court.

It costs Vinny about $2,000 to mount the production. Even with that, he still has to recruit as many as 300 volunteer workers. It’s a production that demands months of planning, canvassing for donations from merchants, and recruiting talent for the dance show.

The annual fund-raiser kicks off at five o’clock with a reception followed by a dinner show featuring dance and singing acts, a children’s steel drum band, and the Plena Bomba troupe, which uses body movement to guide drummers. The capstone of the evening is a dance competition.

Past funds have gone to the Vieques Humane Society, to special needs children, and to the child care center. Funds from this year’s dance are earmarked for performing arts for Vieques children.

Walking to lunch with him at El Yate, a waterfront restaurant that serves comidas criollas, it seems that everybody in Vieques knows Vinny Tozzi and greets him with a traditional Viequense handshake, an hola or a como estas. 

In the heat of the Caribbean’s noonday sun, he recalled the time when he felt the sharp reminder of angina in his chest and prayed, “Please, Lord, not here. I want to die coming out of Saks Fifth Avenue.”

“Ma used to say of my old tap shoes, ‘Look how hard you danced!’”

Vincent Tozzi’s biography, I Already Am, is available online at:

His volume of poetry, A Gamut of Poems, is available online at:

In my next blog, “Culture of Competition”

Friday, January 10, 2014

Will I Be Around?

I’ve never understood the phrase, “a woman of a certain age.” Now I do.

There is a certain age when you ask yourself the question that you never before needed to or dared to ask: “How long will I be around?”

It was my wife, two years younger than I, who first uttered it aloud several weeks ago.

We had our septic system flushed, and the technician advised us to schedule the next cleaning in two years.

When he left, my wife turned to me and said, “Will we even be around in two years?”

She was joking. But it was out there, as Jerry Seinfeld would say, “like a big matzo ball.”

I’ve read that married couples can quarrel frequently, which is common in even the happiest relationships. But once the word divorce is said out loud, the couple is set on a new course that half the time ends precisely in – divorce.

Premonition? Or prediction?

In 2009, Columbia University’s College of Physicians and Surgeons surveyed trauma surgeons about their patients’ premonitions of death:
·      Ninety-five percent said they’d had patients who expressed such premonitions
·      Half agreed that these patients had a higher mortality rate
·      Fifty-seven percent believed patient willpower affects outcome

I don’t have any premonitions. But I have some questions …
·      Will I be around when my car warranty ends? At my age, car warranties suddenly seem irrelevant to me. And Hyundai’s new 20 year warranty? Are they nuts?
·      Will I be around to cash in all those miles cached in my American, Delta and JetBlue frequent flyer programs? Or will I expire before the miles do?
·      Will I be around to pick even one avocado from my tree? When we were building our house in Vieques, I warned the landscapist to plant mature trees in the orchard. “I don’t have a lot of years to sit around watching trees grow,” I told him. Did he listen? Of course not.

I’m left with the question: Can attitude affect outcome?

If our attitude does in fact affect the way things turn out for us, wouldn’t this violate the principle that an effect cannot occur before its cause?

All I know is that at this point in my life, when people ask what I want for my birthday or for Christmas, my answer is: “consumables.”

When I was young, I always wondered why old people behind me or in front of me in the supermarket checkout always bought so much candy.

Now I understand.

These days, I eye the racks of candy rather than the magazine covers of nearly naked women.

And have you noticed? The checkout lane always has your favorites on display – Peanut Butter Cups, Snickers, Butterfingers.

Which raises still another question: How do those clever grocery guys know? 

In my next blog, “The Peeps of Paradise: Tapping Vincent Tozzi!”

Friday, January 3, 2014

Always the Beginner

There are no classes in life for beginners; right away you are always asked to deal with what is most difficult.
Rainer Maria Rilke

There is an inordinate amount of ritual in turning to a new page in the calendar – when the new page is January 1.

New Year’s traditions aren’t religious expressions for most people. But as an essay in the current Atlantic magazine points out, many of the New Year’s traditions we practice display patterns of spiritual ritual. For example, the theme of the holiday — that this is a time to start over and be a better person — shows up in faiths and cultures throughout history.

“Things that happen at the stroke of midnight are always magical things,” says Wendy Doniger, a professor at University of Chicago Divinity School.

Some estimates claim that more than 40% of Americans make New Year’s resolutions -- more than the percentage of Americans who will watch the Super Bowl.

But for all the good intentions, only a tiny fraction of us maintain our resolve. University of Scranton research finds that just 8% achieve their New Year’s goals.

By now, just three days into 2014, statistics say that nine of 10 readers of this blog will have already failed in keeping their New Year’s resolutions.

This low win rate might be the result of the idea that a New Year’s resolution -- to live up to our highest hopes -- is basically a wager against our own personal history.

As G. K. Chesterton wrote, “The object of a new year is not that we should have a new year, but rather that we should have a new soul.”

This gets me thinking about all the endeavors of my life in which I’ve failed to achieve mastery, leaving me always the beginner:
  • Cross-country skiing. I could never achieve the smooth, rhythmic glide you’ll see in the upcoming Winter Olympics.
  • Biking. Despite clocking thousands of miles on my trusty Raleigh Supercourse, I still can’t ride “no-hands.”
  • Running. Although I completed the New York City Marathon, my speed has forever been far from competitive.  
  • Sailing. From the shore, my New England catboat under sail might look idyllic. But aboard, I’m spending most of my time battling the boat.

Still, the transition to a new year summons us to new beginnings. Year after year.

Three years ago I created a Top Ten list of personal goals. I didn’t expect to achieve all my resolutions; one or two a year would have exceeded expectations. But I met only one: overcoming fear of open water.

But I keep trying. Each year I simply change the date on the list – from 2011 to 2012, to 2013, and now 2014.

So here are my 2014 resolutions – basically the same as I first listed them in 2011:
  • Follow a simple Zen diet
  • Meditate twice a day
  • Write four hours a day, five days a week
  • Limit administrative tasks to two hours a day
  • Recreate two hours a day (snorkel, swim, hike, bike)
  • Do stretching exercises every day
  • Read at least a book a week
  • Master the freestyle stroke
  • Become adept at sailing single-handed
  • Get back to my marathon level of fitness

I’ve already missed the mark on the first six.

Tomorrow I’ll begin again.

In my next blog, “Will I Be Around?”