Don’t forget The Genius Next Door

Some kinds of smarts are more valuable than others

carWayne Dyer, whom I disagreed with on almost everything important, talked about talking to even the boring and boorish people around you. He found that when he took a real interest in people that they would unfold to him as fascinating and interesting people. This has always been interesting to me. I’ve written about it a couple of times here and here.

I thought about this idea today when I was talking with someone about getting their car worked on. I knew a guy once, he’s passed away now, who rebuilt my car’s engine in a weekend as a neighborly gesture. He was just a guy down the street – I don’t even know what he did for a living – but most nights you could see his garage lit up where he would putter until bedtime. One Friday my car started to act up. “Act up” is the totality of my mechanical expertise. So I walked down the road and found this guy in his garage and told him about the weird gurgle emanating from my car’s engine. “Let’s go have a look,” he said.

We wandered down to my place and I started the car. He laughed and shook his head. “Turn it off,” he yelled. “It’s your cam bearing.” Or something of the sort – I never really knew. “Ugh.” I was smart enough to know that this was bad. “So I have to take it to the garage? Sounds bad.” “Nah,” he said. “You need to drive it down to my place. We’ll take the engine out tonight and then tear it down and replace the bearing tomorrow and put it back together on Sunday.” I’m sure that I had a look like I was talking to a crazy person. “Really,” he said. “Nothing to it.” And that’s exactly what we did. He was completely nonplussed about it as if it was what anyone would do. I was amazed through most of the weekend. What I saw as confusing and complex was simple to him. He just worked methodically step by step to pull the engine and make the repair and then did the same thing in reverse to put it all back together. It really did look easy when he did it. The car was up and running by the time Sunday football came on. He refused to take any money and said that I could help him with something one day but I truly doubted that I had any skill he would be interested in.

So as I keep saying. Talk to the people around you. Ask them about their story. More times than not you’ll find that you are surrounded with interesting people.

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When you have to explain that you aren’t an SOB? You probably are…

rudeI’ve been working on a project recently about real-life philosophy so I’m sensitive to snippets I hear of how people justify their behaviors as they navigate through their day. I was speaking to a friend and caught them – twice – saying, “I don’t mean to be rude, but…”.  On the second go-round, I laughed and said, “Hey. Let me clue you in. If you have to explain that you’re not being rude then everyone knows you’re being rude.”

This circles back to a truth that we all know: words are meaningless when it comes to revealing character. Behavior reveals character. When you preface anything by saying that you’re not really being an SOB then you might as well wave a flag that says “Ass Hat Alert!” This doesn’t mean that you should never set someone straight or talk straight to a point. But that’s the key: talk straight to the point. Do it kindly. You don’t have to be condescending or mean spirited and most people will respect the straight talk.

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She Didn’t Even Know She Lived With The Master

She had a house full of Nakashima furniture and didn’t know it

Famous Nakashima Conoid chair design.

In the same vein as other posts this week comes this one about the little old lady from New York. I was living in Gig Harbor, WA, and was building furniture. A woman called the shop and asked if I could fix a chair. She explained that it was the first piece of furniture she bought with her husband and that a back slat was broken. I didn’t normally do repairs but told her that I would come by a take a look. I sensed from her tone that the furniture had sentimental value for her.

I drove to her house and, once inside, my jaw dropped. “Where did you buy this furniture?” I knew exactly what it was and wondered if she did. “This stuff?,” she asked. “We bought it from a guy in New York. My husband was a professor in the Upstate when we first got married. We needed furniture and someone said that there was a guy in town who made furniture in his garage. We went to meet him and liked him. We went every year for twenty years and had him make us something.”

I probably looked like I’d been hit with a stick. “Was his name George?” Now she looked surprised. “George Nakashima?” I asked.  She nodded a yes. “Do you know him?” she asked. “I sure as heck know who he is.”

Nakashima is one of the most famous furniture designers and makers of the twentieth century. She explained that she and her husband had stumbled upon him when he was just getting started. Her collection of a couple dozen pieces showed clearly the progression of his designs that I had only seen in books.  I stroked the vertical slats of the chairs and could feel the ridges made by his hand planes, left sharp without sanding. The family had collected a whole house of Nakashima. They had chairs. There were a table and sideboard. Each bedroom had a desk. She asked if I had any idea of their worth? I guessed that her furniture was worth more than her house.  In the end, I told her that I wouldn’t do the work – her chair was just too valuable and important  – and recommended a very high-end shop in Seattle. She was appreciative and we became friends. I did some odd furniture work for her on and off but mostly I just took any excuse to go see her collection.

Go here to see eight Conoid chairs on sale for $60,000. I’ve never even paid that much for a table!

Nakashima sideboard

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Mr. Margaret Mead

Margaret Mead with masks

Following yesterday’s story, here’s another one about interesting people who cloak themselves as your neighbors. Be on the watch and you just might find that the man or woman living next door to you is actually a fascinating human being.

I worked in construction when I was young and was good at it. I loved craft and had a good sense of detail. And I actually finished things that I started, a rare skill among carpenters. This made me popular with a local insurance company who provided me with a good bit of clean up work after storms. One day I was asked to go talk to an old fella who lived out in the woods. A tree had fallen on his garage and the insurance company needed a bid for the repair.

I drove out to his house and the setting was gorgeous. It was one of the older seaside bungalows in an area not yet leveled for a gaudy faux-Craftsman with a view. The house had clear twelve-inch cedar lap siding – so rare that it wasn’t even available – and wooden window frames. His garage was practically demolished. A stout fir had fallen right through the roof, snapping the ridge and collapsing three walls. I bid on the job and got it and then suffered through three weeks of breathing ocean air and watching waves roll up on the shore while rebuilding the garage. Once we started, the owner, probably as old as that twelve-inch siding, would invite me in for coffee each morning. I noticed that he read the Wall Street from cover to cover, circling articles and investments with a red pencil. I’m a fan of money and am especially fond of giving it away in the stock market so we talked about investing a lot.

One day he asked me to get something from the sideboard near the table. Right next to the papers he needed was a picture of him and a woman, arm-in-arm, beaming with broad grins. “Hey!” I said. “Is that you and Margaret Mead? How do you know Margaret Mead?” He laughed a little and said that he ran the anthropology department at Columbia for twenty years. “I knew everybody!”

With apologies to any family or friends of Ms. Mead, he continued. “We used to go out a bit when she was around. She was one of the best gals I ever knew. Smart as a whip and ready to jump in the sack with any warm body who was up for it!” He thought that was damned funny and let out a huge laugh. I didn’t press him on whether he was up for it or not. I’m guessing that he was. So he taught me a bit about anthropology and lots about investing. And I would have bet a thousand dollars that nary a soul living next to him in their new tract-style home had a clue about what a fascinating man lived right next door.

So you never know who might be dealing with. Stay awake and keep your eyes open.

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Fitness50 – Should you quit caring to live longer? In a way yes. Let me explain…

[This is an installment in a series I’m writing on living long and living well.  I expect to take about fifty years to write it. Go here to read the introduction. At this point I have no plans for scheduled installments and I’m not following any couch to marathon plan. I write about fitness and food but am also deeply interested in more nuanced things that make life good. If you would like to know when I publish plase enter your email address in the follow button at the top right of any page. Thanks and please contribute!]

Copyright 2015 Dennis Mitton

awayAs much as I’m interested in the main components of health and longevity like diet and exercise I’m just as interested in nuances that are impossible to measure. For example, I think that not caring about other people is healthy. I’ll explain with a story:

I used to work periodically with two guys. One was religious, conservative, outspoken, and unfortunately thin-skinned as a green onion. The other was the guy who sits in the back of the room to figure out what everyone’s buttons are. And he pushes them.  And the more red-faced you get the more the joy would rise in this little ass. I lasted about three days with these yahoos until I split them up. It was embarrassing to me that we were all fifty year old men and they needed this kind of babysitting.

I was one of the few people who got along with The Poker as I called him. I watched other people get irritated or angry at him and there was no question that he went out of his way to rub you the wrong way. But he was also very smart and had travelled all over the world, mostly looking for wives. One day we were eating lunch together and he asked me why I didn’t get irritated with him when he tried to make me mad.

“Oh man. That’s easy,” I said. “I don’t give a rat’s ass about what you say.”

He had a little of that deer in the headlights look. I don’t think anyone had ever said that to him before.

“It’s like this,” I explained. “My sun doesn’t rise and fall with you. I got along fine before we met and when this job is over we probably won’t see each other again. And I’m pretty happy with who I am. I don’t intend to reassess my personhood because of something you say. So, like I say, I don’t give one rat’s booty about what you think or what you say about me.”

I was a little surprised. “I can really respect that,” he said.

And after that we got along great and I don’t ever remember him pestering me again.

Yes - DO this kind of caring.
Yes – DO this kind of caring.

So I don’t mean that you shouldn’t care about the welfare of other people. In fact one of the most consistent traits of older and happy people is how important their relationships are and how much they tend to them. And many people find deep meaning in charitable works and in helping those who cannot pay them back.

But there is a tendency in many of us to measure ourselves by the words and opinions of others. If this happens to me as it does from time to time I clam up, get crabby with the people I care most about, avoid everyone else, and start thinking about how good it would feel to drown inside a cannoli.

There is lots of advice about how to deal with these feelings but none of it is easy or comes upon us overnight. The best advice is the first rule of stoicism: if you have no control over it don’t worry about it. It is an empty waste of time. This is a good mantra for most of life’s downsides but hard to swallow. And while most advice comes from the negative – don’t think about it, avoid these people, remember them for the stupiod shits that they are – but I like to build on the positive. Learn to hold views a little less tightly. Laugh at yourself.  Think hard about what you really believe. Develop healthy views of other people that allow them to be themselves. Let them have their views. And if they tell the truth – okay – what’s so bad about agreeing with them? Learning to live comfortably within your own skin is probabaly the one single thing you can do for your greatest happiness.

If you have to go this looks pretty good.
If you have to go this looks pretty good.

I think there is a healthy distancethat comes naturally with age – aka the Red Hat Society. After we’ve given up on our hair, then the belly, and when we’re sad that our last pair of stone washed jeans has as fatal tear, we start to realize that so much of what we thought was meaningful just isn’t. It’s not always a bad place to be.