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PicturesfromiPhoneChinaParisPrinceton 177There are many directions to go for the first sequel to “Family Matters: Part One.” That blog focused mainly on my family of origin, so one obvious place to go is to talk about my children and grandchildren. But I don’t really want to speak for them. After all, they can still talk back. My parents and grandparents cannot. But the real reason is that everyone should get to define themselves, at least to the extent that it’s possible. I think it is possible to a great extent, but not completely. Not everyone can become a pro athlete or a great musician even if they try really really hard. Luck and innate predispositions play a role in our fate.

Certainly, there are many “how to” books out there that would lead you to believe that the only thing that stands between you and owning the universe is your attitude. It isn’t a totally bad thing to imagine that you can do anything and have no limitations due to circumstances or your innate abilities and predispositions. It’s a fiction, of course. It’s a complete and utter fiction. If you spent the first five years of your life drinking lead tainted water, e.g., no amount of the proper “attitude” is going to undo the harm. But, for people whose main obstacle to a fulfilled life is self-doubt, it could provide a good antidote, or at the very least, a few good anecdotes that arise from a series of unfortunate incidents taking place from following such advice.

What I have in mind however, is something different; viz., trying to show how family situations tend to be continuous threads in a way that is analogous to the continuous genetic threads. For example, my grandmother used to tell “Old Pete” stories and ran a dramatic club. My mother became an English and Drama teacher. I have always loved acting and storytelling. Several of my kids and grandkids have also written originally and extensively. My mother’s brothers all were jokesters and storytellers. Her oldest brother Karl was a principal and then superintendent of schools. The middle boy, Bob, became a psychiatrist. The youngest, Paul, became a lawyer. The next generation included two psychologists, two lawyers, a neurosurgeon, a teacher. I could elaborate further but the point is that storytelling, art, psychology, and education as well as science and engineering are threads throughout this very local part of my family tree.

Before I go any further, however, I need to explain why I subtitled this, “Garlic Cloves and Puffer Fish.” As a side note, it’s good to remember that both garlic and puffer fish are our distant cousins. The same basic machinery that makes the cells of a garlic plant “work” and live and reproduce is what does all those same things in our cells. And our other, somewhat less distant cousin, the Puffer Fish has that same machinery in every one of its cells. Of course, beyond that we even have most of the same organs and types of symmetry as the Puffer (or any other) Fish. Now, I bring up our relation to these distant cousins because I would like to have you view what I am about to say about various people as being observational and not rendering value judgements. It would be silly to go out to a garlic plant and yell, “Why can’t you be more like a Puffer Fish?!  What’s wrong with you?!” It would be equally ridiculous, of course, to go snorkeling and when you encounter a Puffer Fish scream at it: “What are you doing out here in the ocean? Why can’t you be more like your cousin Garlic who at least makes wonderful tasting (to most) and health-giving nutrients? No, instead, you poison people! What’s wrong with you?”


Now, when it comes to people, of course, it isn’t just their genes that determines behavior. The family, neighborhood, culture, religion, and physical environment that they grow up in determines, at least in large measure, who they become. Humans come in many varieties. This is both because, when it comes to our own life, we can actually make ourselves different in some ways on purpose (there is a grain of truth in the “positive thinking will win you the universe” genre) and secondly, when it comes to someone perceiving us, their own background and character will determine what they see in you. Similarly, your background will help determine what you see in others. If you think back on your own experience, you’ll see this is true. Anyway, among these many ways that people differ is how neatness-oriented they are. The hit TV series, The Odd Couple, featured two bachelors living together; one was an utter slob (Oscar) and the other was a neatnik (Felix). We all probably know people close to those extremes. We may even know two such people in our family as defined with a small circle to say your second cousins. I’m not trying to say one of these characteristics is better or worse than the other. But I would like to point out that each makes a lot of sense, under certain conditions.

Some years ago, I was watching a TV program about Alice Waters, a famous chef, restaurant owner, and author. She believes in such things as organic, locally grown ingredients. In any case, she happened to make this offhand comment that “it didn’t really matter if a little piece of the garlic skin clings to a clove” {at least in the context of the sauce they were making for a huge fish}. Anyway, I do most of the cooking in my house and I do try to remove the skin of garlic cloves. Most of the time, it’s fairly easy. But every once in a while I have encountered a clove of garlic that is as pathologically stubborn about giving up its skin as a corrupt politician is about giving up the illusion of sanctity. Even a garlic plant has its own personality, I suppose. On the scale of neatnik to slob, I would put myself near the middle. Of course, to anyone who thinks it’s good to be super neat, I will seem like a slob. And to anyone who thinks cleaning is just not worth the trouble, I may seem like a neatnik. Anyway, my point is that maybe there comes a point where you don’t generally have to be absolutely precise in cooking. And I would guess that this rings true with your experience as well. There are some cooks whose approach is very intuitive and, although they may follow a recipe, their measurements may not be totally accurate. And, then their are cooks who will follow directions extremely carefully. Generally speaking, it doesn’t make that much difference. I tend to prefer dishes such as mixed ginger/curry vegetables, burritos, or omelets. In these dishes, you can get away with a huge variation in proportions and specific ingredients. I give these dishes care and attention to detail, but all within very broad parameters.


In at least one case, however, it is crucial to be a “neatnik” cook and that is in the preparation of the Puffer Fish. The Puffer Fish contains a highly potent neurotoxin called tetrodotoxin. Most of this toxin is in the liver, skin, and other internal organs. It is very easy if you are even the least bit sloppy — and we are not talking Oscararian sloppihood, just normal college guy sloppihood — to nick something and release the poison into the flesh making it potentially deadly. Under those circumstances, being a neatnik is vital. In some cases, expert chefs push a little further and allow a tiny bit of the toxin to bleed into the flesh which will cause a “high” in the eater, but not be fatal. Personally, I think I’ll stick with tuna. The point is that being extremely neat and careful can be a very good thing. Packing your parachute — good to be careful! Performing cataract surgery — be precise!

On the other hand, suppose that you are spear fishing or out gathering nuts. A “neatnik” might want to make sure every fish is skewered in exactly the same way. Except, perhaps for Puffer Fish, it doesn’t matter that much; the point is to catch the fish. Similarly, if you are gathering walnuts, there generally isn’t much point in arranging them by size. Suppose you are making a rock wall. You would do well to make sure it doesn’t fall down but the way to do that is by careful arrangement and filling in the cracks carefully with cement. An alternative approach is to insist that every rock is exactly the same. This would make building the wall much easier. On the other hand, it would be absurdly time consuming to search for rocks of precisely the same size. Other approaches are to have one group of people cut rocks to preset measures and then the job of building the walls is easier or to make artificial rocks called “bricks.” Under various circumstances, any of these methods will work just fine. In other circumstances, any of these approaches might fail. It isn’t quite so simple a matter as Disney and the Three Little Pigs would have you believe.

When it comes to recipes, whether for bricks or for soufflés, It is difficult to know ahead of time which aspects of the process require a Felixian attention to detail and which aspects are fine for a more Oscarian approach. And, just as there are situations that are particularly suitable and best done by Neatniks there are other situations particularly well suited to Slobs, this same principle holds true for every approach and personality trait that I can think of. So when I describe people in my more extended family, I am not trying to pass judgement on who is better than whom. You might imagine that there is an attempt on my part to make out someone as “bad” or “good” based on your own personality preferences. Similarly, it’s quite possible that I accidentally make one or the other kind of personality sound better based on my own preferences than they really are.

Although it is quite natural for people to express different preferences on the neatnik to slob dimension, it is often a source of tension, argument, fights, and in extreme cases, probably divorce and murder. Most often, when an “Oscar” does something annoyingly sloppy, (and which to Oscar is actually typically exactly nothing), Felix will not try to dialogue about the situation and negotiate a solution. Rather, Felix’s first move is more often to call out Oscar’s character as being deficient because he is such a slob. Immediately and quite predictably, Oscar’s defenses go up. His next move is to point out that Felix is insanely OCD. And thus, the problem moves from what is immediate, simple, and fixable to one that is long-term, complex, and unfixable. Oscar will never convince Felix to be like Oscar and Felix will not ever convince Oscar to be like Felix. In fact, for Felix to even expect Oscar to act Felixian is rather silly.

You have undoubtedly heard the expression that you “marry the family” as well as your own spouse. I found this unfathomably silly when I was younger, but now I see that in many ways it is true. For example, if your spouse has unresolved issues from their childhood, those can impact your relationship. If your spouse’s family is into crime or drugs or unnecessary drama, those will certainly impact you. These people will almost certainly interact with you and your kids so they will impact your lives directly and indirectly.

Keeping all this in mind, let’s tune into “Uncle Al.” Al worked at one point as a commercial artist. In such a position, being something of a “Felix” probably worked to his benefit. But not every situation calls for OCD. Al lived in one of two houses at the end of a dead end street. What would you do if you drove to the end of his narrow, dead end street? Well, one possible action would be to abandon your car at the end of the street and walk home to buy another car or just wait there until you were beamed up by aliens. Most people however, would instead go into one of the two driveways at the end of the street, turn their car around and drive back out the dead end street. Al didn’t like that. I suppose most of us might be mildly annoyed. But after all, what else could people do other than abandon their car or back out the entire length of the street? So, while most people might be a little annoyed at strangers using their driveway for a U-turn maneuver, Al was instead, very annoyed. So annoyed was Uncle Al that he paid to have five steel posts put into the end of his drive. Indeed, this completely prevented any stranger from using his driveway as a place to turn around. Chalk one up for Uncle Al.


Now, you may have detected a slight flaw in Al’s plan. He could no longer use his driveway either. For that matter, he could no longer use his garage to house his car either. But to Al’s way of thinking, that was worth it because he had achieved his goal. The phrase, “cutting off one’s nose to spite one’s face” comes to mind.  At another point, several of my ex-brothers-in-laws went over to clean Uncle Al’s house. When they opened up the refrigerator, the shelves were all filled with the same thing. Can you guess what it was? No, you probably can’t. Every shelf was filled with tiny paper mini-ramekins. And in each of those tiny paper mini-ramekins was tartar sauce. Upon questioning, the story finally came out. Every Friday, Al went to a nearby diner where they had an “all you can eat fish” special. The fish came with tartar sauce. Uncle Al hated tartar sauce. But he had paid for the tartar sauce! So, when he left the restaurant, he took the tartar sauce with him each and every time.

This seems a little on the crazy side, but I would guess that almost everyone has sometimes taken something that they have access to even though they end up not using it. In fact, it’s a little odder and more selfish than that. We might even know when we take the items that it’s very unlikely we use them. For example, in the IBM cafeteria, I would often take an extra napkin. Why? Because on rare occasions, someone, possibly even me, would spill something and having an extra napkin that could be deployed jack-knife quick proved very handy.  But most of the time, these hypothetical emergencies failed to eventuate. Now, what to do with the extra napkin? I could put it in the trash, or since it was clean, put it in the recycling. To me, taking the time and effort to recycle is completely worth it. Not everyone does that. We can return to that later, but re-use (or in this case, first use) trumps recycling. So, I would take the napkins back to my office. I had one drawer in particular that ended up with a collection of napkins as well as tea bags, plastic forks, tiny packets of salt and pepper, and other food-related items. Small stuff. There were no stashes of candy bars or soda cans or deer carcasses.

However, this example of hoarding was not an idle and useless exercise in hoarding. When people in the lab had birthdays or other types of celebration, it actually turned out to be quite handy to have a nearby supply of napkins and plastic forks. When I thought about the design rationale for this procedure, I never thought to myself, “I paid for this dinner and there’s no rule against taking two napkins, so I want to keep what is mine.” In terms of explanation, my saving napkins and Uncle Al’s taking tartar sauce are light-years apart. But looked at in terms of situations and behavior, there are actually a lot of similarities. As already explained, all of us are closely related. Although Uncle Al was not “related” in the way that people generally use that word, our ancestors were common for billions of years. So, I would hypothesize, the behavior of keeping something that is not of immediate use but could be used in the future is one that is found broadly in the animal kingdom and in plants. We imagine that the desert plant that stores water in it’s thick leaves does not “think about it.” It seems pretty silly to think it thinks at all. But let’s expand the idea of how information is coded just a little. It wouldn’t make a difference if the rationale were written in Spanish or English or French would it? It wouldn’t matter if the design rationale were printed in 14 point Helvetica or 12 point Times New Roman. It wouldn’t matter whether it was coded in ascii or EBCDIC. So, why not extend the concept a little further. The “design rationale” for the plant’s behavior is coded in it’s DNA.  We may not be able to “read” this design rationale quite as readily as we could one printed in our native language. But that is basically a matter of convenience, not a matter of underlying truth. The plant does have a design rationale for being “greedy.”

When it comes to human behavior, of course, there are not only genetic determiners but also social ones. (Actually, this can be true of non-human animals as well). So, it isn’t just that people may have a genetic propensity for keeping extra items for future use; their particular culture has inculcated values and design rationals and ethics around greed, waste, generosity, and so forth. The design rationale that Al gave, I find too self-centered for my taste. My Mom was generous to a fault. And, when I say she was generous to a “fault” what I mean is that she was so generous that she would often give away the same item to several people. So, perhaps being overly generous can be a fault?

In any case, just as people come in all sizes and shapes, they come in all kinds of behavioral predispositions. These predispositions are probably weakly related to your immediate family both because of where you live, among other things. There is no one “right answer” as to which characteristics are “best” under all circumstances. Some may innately be predisposed to Felixism while others may become that way because of strict teachings by their parents and schools. Regardless of why Felix is a neatnik, Oscar is never going to convince him that he (Felix) should be like Oscar. That was true in paragraph ten and it is true in paragraph 17. One thing should be clear to both Felix and Oscar: if they can work together effectively, they will be able to solve a wider range of problems than they would working alone.

Creativity and diversity are always vital, but probably never more so than right this minute. Humanity has changed so much in every external way in the last two thousand years and most of that since the industrial revolution and most of that after the computer revolution. Change is not only rapid, it is rapidifying. Yes, I made that word up. That’s another symptom of the same thing. Change in media, language, meaning are all happening more and more rapidly. So, in times of such great change and such great uncertainty, it has always seemed to me to absolutely and vitally important to include every viewpoint on the problem that we possibly can.

If I am lying on the beach under a sunny sky, feeling healthy and happy, I don’t really need your advice much, at least not this second. Yes, I may not be as neat as you would like or I am far too neat but I don’t really care and it doesn’t matter. You be you, and I’ll be me.

On the other hand, if I am thrown into something beyond my comprehension, I would want to have as many eyes on the problem as possible. Of course, it feels more comfortable to surround yourself only with those who already agree with you rather than a highly diverse group. You won’t argue as much about what the problem is or about what “fairness” really means or even argue about the right process is for combining your insights. A diverse group can initially provide a slight “shell” of added awkwardness for some. In my experience, when people are focused on a situation or a problem, they get past that very quickly and every stage of the process is enhanced. There are more ideas generated, higher quality ideas, the evaluation of ideas is more robust; they generate more ways to fit ideas together. Not only is the output of the group improved. It is just plain more fun during the entire process. Perhaps a better term would be to say that it is more engaging. If someone has a slight accent, you need to listen more closely. If someone comes from a different background, not only do they provide a different way of looking at things or even solution; they also stretch your mind. It may not be as broadening as  traveling to another culture, but it is more than one step in that direction. An all-celery salad gets old fast.


Beyond all that, it seems important to remember that these variations in human predisposition are not entirely new human inventions. Many species of plants and animals exhibit different “philosophies” or “strategies” for dealing with the same issues: getting food and water, finding a mate, reproducing, avoiding predators, etc. (Yes, plants do these things). What works for a plant in one climate will not do in another climate. Of course, it isn’t just the climate. It also depends on what other species are present, the nature of the soil, etc. Some plants, for instance, put time and energy into making flowers to attract bees, having the bees fertilize the flowers, grow the fertilized flower into a fruit that is both colorful and tasty. This means the fruit (e.g., wild strawberries or raspberries) are eaten by our cousins the rabbits and carried in many directions out from tree by the rabbits. The rabbits excrete the digested seeds which now find themselves in a tiny pre-fertilized plot. Come on!  How about a hand of applause? Do you see how many ducks have be lined up her for this plan to work?

I may have had a reputation for being a little off the wall, but this plan? This is my craziest idea on a combination of illegal drugs and then put through a cognitive blender. I worked in “Corporate America” for about 40 years. I worked for IT companies, but let’s imagine instead a company that made self-reproducing garden ornaments. The way they worked was that each ornament, after one year split in two. Anyway, they were making good money. Now, I go into the top management and say, “Hey, I have a great idea for how to have these ornaments reproduce. No more just splitting in two. Instead, each element will grow a little ornament on top of the ornament but brightly colored. This will undoubtedly attract some sort of something which will fertilize —- oh, wait, did I tell you about the whole “two sexes” deal? Anyway, we’ll then have a process for turning a fertilized element into a fruitling. The fruitling will be fortified with vitamins and sugar so that … um … something will come along and put this into its belly and carry it away into the neighbors yards where they will help build the first step of the new ornament. Give me funding for about 100 million years of experimentation and I can pretty much guarantee….” No, they would not fund a project like that. Evolution is a slow smart cookie. That tree of living things? That’s our tree. And that little teeny branch way over there? That includes Oscar and Felix and everyone else regardless of gender, age, race, religion, or hoardingness.  Does it really make sense for us to destroy the whole branch if we can’t go in exactly the direction we want? And what about how the decisions affect every other part of the tree? It is, after all, a family matter.

(The story above and many cousins like it are compiled now in a book available on Amazon: Tales from an American Childhood: Recollection and Revelation. I recount early experiences and then related them to contemporary issues and challenges in society).

Tales from an American Childhood