Willie Mae's Scotch House Restaurant in New Orleans
Good morning all:
Thanks for celebrating this newsletter’s first birthday with me!
In many ways, it's been following the same format as the book I’ve been writing, WorkLifeReward: Following Your Values to A Good Life at Work. In the book’s chapters, I discuss a dilemma, tell personal stories that relate to it, and provide practical exercises so you can try the ideas presented on for yourself. Here, instead of homework, I simply highlight the pitfalls that follow whenever we’re certain that we know what's good for us.
The dilemmas that drive the book and newsletter are also the same. We reach our moral judgments before we’re even aware that we’ve made them. In deciding what’s good and bad, we unconsciously follow a herd mentality even when we’re convinced that we’re not. The moral certainties that harden like concrete around us also divide us from one another and make it impossible to accomplish much of anything in our neighborhoods and in America itself. Finally, when our moral decision-making is left in the shadows—and deprived of both self-criticism and opposing viewpoints—it is difficult to identify what is truly important to us or to act on those convictions in the work that we do. Work without commitment barely engages us, when it gets our attention at all.
Because values are among our strongest motivators, understanding how our moral decisions are made and can improve has several advantages. Instead of the herd deciding what’s important to you, you decide for yourself and are empowered by doing so. Instead of feeling that “your life depends on being right all the time,” you can become more resilient and productive when working with others. Every job you do becomes more satisfying when it advances real priorities that you’ve actually thought through beforehand.
Sometimes shining a light into the recesses where our values operate can also be pretty funny, and I’ll keep trying to bring that humorous side to this page. Human beings are never more ridiculous than when they’re marching forward and sure they’re right, and that goes for me too.
1. The First Settlement of America
When I’m up particularly early on a weekend morning, I often listen to the Living On Earth podcast. It’s host, Steve Kurwin, has an enviro-version of a Barry White voice that seems oddly soothing at 5 a.m. He does interviews, plays recordings of insect and bird songs, has special guests. The content rarely matters because of the peaceful bassline that Kurwin lays down.
Last weekend (for once) I was actually paying attention when Kurwin started talking to Craig Childs about the ultimate demonstration of wanderlust. Child's has written a new book called Atlas of a Lost World: Travels in Ice Age America. In it, he tells the story of how early humans walked from Asia and into America for the first time, not only from the vantage point of the archeological and other evidence that these wanderers left behind but also by Child's covering some of the same ground in much the same way that these first immigrants would have covered it--with mothers, kids and dogs in tow.
Childs tells an adventure story that’s embellished by what he has learned about the natural history of this prehistoric period more than 15,000 years ago. With leaps of the imagination, he takes us from how it feels to have litle kids while your trekking in bear country to describing recent studies about the genetic markers that were left behind by these first Americans. It’s a story that’s full of Child’s engaging voice as well as his take on what scientists have been discovering about this epic migration.
It’s because there are so many gaps in “the record” that Childs headed out to follow some of the route himself. He was also intrigued—if not obsessed with the following questions: Why didn’t the hemisphere’s first visitors simply settle down in the first valley that seem habitable? Why did they keep walking to the next hill, and the next one, until they’d explored much of the American landmass? Why did they walk "in all directions" to see what was out there until they couldn’t walk any farther? First and foremost, Atlas of a Lost World is about our curiosity and appetite for risk as a species.
Childs' entourage confronts wolves, bears, hits barriers of water, mountain ranges and ice, and navigates the risks of injury and illness. His often hilarious speculations describe what it must have been like and how it might have felt when there were also sabretooth tigers and wholly mammoths three tons bigger than the biggest elephants today to contend with. (At one point, Childs himself plays a mammoth confronted by human hunters while his troupe is in New Mexico’s White Sands National Monument; his mammoth—like the mammoths back then—never had a chance against human intelligence and ferocity.) As he writes:
“This is a love story—boy meets girl, if you will. One partner is an unpeopled hemisphere, the other is our hungry, inquisitive species. Some might tell you that the encounter wasn’t love at all, but domination, overkill, an invasive species hell-bent on spreading into a land that was doing just fine as it was, without us. Some scientists have called it blitzkrieg, mammoths felled like cordwood. Ours was no docile species, and the animals were not ready for us, or our weaponry... But humans didn’t always win. Many died, some were eaten. First people, wildly outnumbered by animals, would have found themselves tossed and trampled by tusks and hooves or torn to pieces by the scissoring teeth of scimitar cats. No matter how well armed they were, even with Eurasian wolf dogs at their sides, surviving among Rancholabrean megaflora would have been challenging. Nobody said love would be easy.”
Childs theorizes that one of the factors that kept the first visitors going was watching birds fly south, wondering where they were going, and wanting to follow them. He also argues that our love of climbing hills for the panoramas they provide comes from ingrained memory, “the earliest form of cartography,” the need to gain a sense of where we're going and just came from.
One of Child’s most interesting speculations comes from genetic material these wanderers left behind as some died off and the rest kept walking. Geneticists have been able to analyze the presence of a dopamine receptor called D4 which correlates with curiosity and adventure seeking. As he says when talking to Curwin, people with greater amounts of D4:
“tend to be less cautious, more risk takers, long travelers…Every species needs individuals to go beyond the horizon and find another niche. It’s how we survive…And if you look at the presence of D4 in native populations from the Arctic to the tip of South America, you’ll see that [the amount of] D4 increases as you go south… [T]hose with less D4 would have settled earlier. They would have gone into North America and said, this looks great. They would have landed in California and that’s it.”
Childs talks about friends he’s met who always seem to be pushing beyond the next horizon. He confides that he has a need for adventure too, but unlike them he also loves “coming home.” What he never doubts is that humankind’s basic need to push beyond the limits of the next hill is tied, in a fundamental way, to the species' survival.
Child’s observations about curiosity and risk-taking got me thinking about the extraordinary lengths that we go today to ensure just the opposite--to guarantee our safety and to eliminate as many risks as we can from our lives.
- What does it mean that the resistance to disease and infection that we could build up a generation ago may no longer be possible for our children because of more hygienic food processing, fewer germs, healthier air, antibacterial soap, and the fact that they play inside with their screens instead of in the "dirty" outdoors?
- In our drive for comfort and security, are we losing some of the capacity that comes from healthy risk taking?
- What does the curiosity that peopled a hemisphere say about our ability to act boldly—for the opportunities and in spite of the risks—when we have the choice to stand up for something important? In other words, what if anything does it say about our moral fiber today?
2. Lunch in the Seventh Ward
Everyone has a different tolerance for risk, but I’m convinced that it’s healthy for everyone to exercise his or her particular tolerance regularly in order to feel alive. It may land you in California instead of Buenos Aires, but to keep with the analogy: it gets you out of Siberia.
When you stop stretching a rubber band, effectively lubricating it with your use, it’s becomes less pliant until it loses its ability to stretch altogether. When you stop taking calculated risks in pursuit of something that might be better “over the next hill,” your heart beats slower, your world gets smaller, and parts of you begin to die.
We all have friends who took off and never came back; they’re still out there having the next adventure. I’m more like Childs: while I need my stretching, I also love coming home. But travel for me is a time to stretch.
The last time I was in New Orleans, my threesome family was walking around a residential part of the French Quarter on a sunny but otherwise deserted Sunday morning when a news van pulled up and pointed cameras and microphones in our direction. “Where are you visiting from?” they asked, concluding that we had to be from somewhere else. “Are you having a nice time this morning?” And to our nods, the reporter responded: “Would you feel differently if you knew that two people had just been murdered in the next block?”
I knew that NOLA was dangerous back then but it hadn’t deterred me from exploring one of the City’s largely deserted high-rise cemeteries earlier in the week. So the local news crew’s “live cam” wasn’t going to send us scurrying back to our hotel, and I said as much to the reporter. I still feel lucky that we got to see as much of the place as we did before Katrina floated whole chunks of it away. On the other hand, the news crew was disappointed that it hadn’t gotten the “frightened tourists” story it was after.
When I visited again a few weeks ago, New Orleans didn’t seem much safer, although large washed out stretches have been added to the mix, particularly in its poorest neighborhoods. Willie Mae’s Scotch House is located in one of them, the mostly African-American Seventh Ward that is still a work-in-progress after the deluge engulfed it almost 18 year ago. But Willie Mae’s has also won the James Beard Award for America’s Classic Southern Restaurant and repeatedly been honored for the best fried chicken. I'd assess the state of neighborhood recovery on the way, and my sense of something special over the horizon would drive me on.
I was traveling alone this time, but knew I could get in striking distance or within 10 to 12 blocks of Willie Mae’s by taking the St. Charles streetcar. This area just north of Treme is potmarked by empty lots, new construction, and pockets of life around “establishments” like Thelma’s House of Beauty. There were also whole deserted blocks, and just like my last time in NOLA, I must have looked like I came from someplace else. From one of the occasional porches where clusters of men were hanging out, I noticed a guy descending to the street and starting to follow me. He was no reporter, curious about whether I was enjoying myself in his city.
I was already sweaty in the heat so it was easy to put on a “you don’t want to mess with me” look, but he looked fierce enough himself, knew the place, and had fewer years to overcome if things got interesting. But I also knew from Philadelphia living that people with criminal intent have a lot in common with the rest of us. They prefer small challenges to big ones and easy targets to hard ones, so I immediately made mine both bigger and harder. Quickly crossing the street to make him work for it wasn’t enough, but it gave him pause. Then I approached a car that had stopped at a red light on North Galvez. Just the threat of changing my status from “alone” to “with someone else” was enough to send him in the opposite direction and me to sigh with relief.
I hadn’t intended to earn my meal by surmounting heat, remoteness, and anyone’s bad intentions. In terms of risk assessment, I’d gotten into the gray zone between what I expected to encounter and imagined I could handle if I had to. Did I enjoy my chicken, butter beans in gravy and Willie Mae’s hospitality—did I feel even more alive because I had stretched myself to get it?—you bet I did. The experience was sublime. But it was navigating the arc between risk and reward, not its light-weight/lunchtime context, that made me proud.
I could still handle the unexpected risk and pursue the imagined opportunity without embarrassing myself with anything worse than an additional pint or two of sweat.
My book and this newsletter are advocates for building enough energy and capability to act on your values when they’re challenged. The most common occasion is when you’re working towards something that’s important to you and the unacceptable gets in your way. I took advantage of a similar dynamic (albeit in greatly reduced circumstances) by saying to myself: “This sucker isn’t going to deprive me of Willie Mae’s by pushing me around and stealing my wallet.”
With moral choices, the necessary and courageous path is refusing to stay quiet, not assuming that someone else will turn the wrong into right, and stepping up to do it yourself. The risk you assume by acting is always somewhere between what you expected it to be, and imagined you could handle, when the time comes. You know that doing the right thing never comes cheap, that there is always a chance that things might go badly, but that the up-side for you and for others is worth it.
I’m not arguing that you should test these limits when you’re away on vacation (although I probably could). I am arguing for testing your limits on some kind of regular basis so that you’re ready to act when you need to.
The real risk isn’t being mugged or even the worst thing that could possibly happen. It’s protecting yourself so much from anything new or unexpected that you forget how to stretch yourself to stand up for what’s right when you need to. It’s surrounding yourself with so much comfort and safety that you lose the stretching part of being human.
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Some new construction a couple of blocks from Willie Mae's
Thanks to everyone who responded to last week’s survey. For those who haven’t, you have one last chance to spend 3 minutes and take it here.
I’ll see you all next Sunday.
Your questions, comments and hellos are always welcome. Just hit reply.