Peripheral Vision

I’m not big on goal-setting. I know, I know. Heresy! Sacrilege! Blasphemy! Might as well go start heating up the boiling oil, because it’s true. Oh, I’ve tried to be. For years I’ve read that the secret to success is to master goal-setting. And I’ve given it the old college try, put my shoulder into it, gone through the motions vigorously. But it always ends up seeming … I don’t know, artificial? Forced? Something. Recently I was interviewing a world-record-breaking military sniper for a forthcoming book project, and as he was describing his training, something clicked. If there is anyone who knows about hitting targets (and what is goal-setting all about if not hitting targets?) it’s a sniper. The thing is, though, the actual shooting of bullets toward targets is a small part of what a sniper does. In real life on the battlefield, a sniper is first and foremost an intelligence asset. A good deal of his or her time consists of exercising the arts of observation and reconnaissance. An expert military sniper is not simply an expert marksman, but a highly skilled observer. Thus, a significant part of their sniper training had to do with how to see. For example, they were taught that looking directly at something is not necessarily the best way to see it. Looking directly at something is not necessarily the best way to see it. That phrase — that was when the click started happening. He went on to explain why. Because of the structure of the human retina, the nature and dispersal of its rods and cones, you may be better...

Remember Where You Came From

There is a Greek myth about a man named Antaeus, whom we know about mainly because Herakles had to fight him on the way to the eleventh of his one dozen fiendishly difficult tasks, better known as “the twelve labors of Hercules.” So Herakles had to fight this dude. Not a problem; Herakles was one helluva fighter. Except this was no ordinary dude. Antaeus came from a unique lineage: his father was Poseidon; his mother, Gaia. Aka, the earth. And that was a problem. Because, as Herakles soon discovered, every time he had Antaeus just about beat, exhausted, wrung out, and threw him to the ground, the guy leapt up again, entirely refreshed and good to go. It was that instantaneous contact with the ground that did it. Reconnecting with the earth: his mother. As long as he touched the earth, he could not be conquered. Once Herakles realized what was happening, he found a way around it: he got the guy in a wrestler’s hold, pinned against his own body and held up off the ground. No contact with the earth. Squeezed the life out of him. There’s a message in that myth, to me: it pays to stay in touch with your source. As long as you stay connected with where you came from, you cannot be conquered. There’s a term for what Antaeus had going for him. They call it terroir. I learned about terroir from a company out of Sri Lanka, Dilmah Tea, that sells a single origin tea. This is critically important, they say, because every region, every valley, and even every growing season imparts...

Storyteller

My mom was a storyteller. Of all her stories, one of my favorites was her riff about the irate parent and the French class. It goes like this. A devoted lifelong grade school teacher, my mom loved her kids. “It’s the adults I have a hard time with,” she confided to me more than once. One day she was hearing out a parent who was complaining bitterly about the fact that her fifth-grade kid was learning French. (Why this was a problem, who knows.) At the height of the conversation, more a monologue, really, the parent uttered a line which my mother secretly found so hilarious that she could not wait till the end of the school day, when we would ride home together in the car, so she could tell me about it: “If English was good enough for Jesus Christ,” the irate parent exclaimed, “it’s good enough for me!” To this day, I do not know how my mother managed to keep a straight face. One year, when I was ten or so, I asked her if she would read to me. Specifically, if she would read me Homer’s epic poem, The Odyssey. Every night, before I went to sleep, she’d sit on the side of my bed and read another chapter. I don’t know who enjoyed themselves more, her or me, and I don’t know how long it took. In my memory it stretched on, deliciously, for months. She read it to me in English, of course (the Fitzgerald translation), not in the original Greek. But hey, I told myself wickedly, if English was good enough for Homer,...

Make It Rain

It was a Saturday. I was over at a friend’s house, and he mentioned a few friends of his and said, “Hey, did you hear about their idea, about starting a new school?” No, I hadn’t heard, not till that moment. It sounded like an awesome idea. I was in. And that was that. We were going to start a school. This was forty-five years ago, the fall of 1970. We were 16. A handful of 16-year-olds — talking about starting their own, actual, real, high school?! Obviously, this was a group of kids with their heads in the clouds. We kept getting together on weekends, and talking about it. What would the ideal school look like? How would it work? What classes would we have? A picture started emerging. This school would be one where you could study anything and everything you wanted to. There wouldn’t be any “requirements,” per se. Because every kid was different, every kid’s curriculum would be different. We would have dozens and dozens of classes, dozens and dozens of awesome teachers who would teach us everything from knitting to computer programming, ancient mythology to modern literature. How to cook. How to sew. How to think. Dozens of classes? No requirements? Heads in the clouds. One evening I was with my parents at a social gathering. A well-intentioned but — how shall I say this nicely? — compulsively managerial friend of the family approached me. She’d heard what I was up to and felt moved to offer advice. “Don’t buck the system, Johnny,” she warned. “You buck the system, and the system will buck...