Wednesday, July 20, 2011

An Albatross named Jerry

The Drake Passage makes me long to be an albatross. This 600-mile gap is the most raw and adventuresome bit of ocean that anyone is likely to find and albatross rule over it with perfect grace. The frigid circumpolar current pinches between Cape Horn and the Antarctic Peninsula and whips waves to infamy. Maritime history of shipwrecks is reinforced by annual stories of ships going down to 40, 50, 60 and 90 footers. This is a place where a rogue is a reality. It is a legendary place, though perhaps the greatest legend is not of the seas but that of a bird.
A calm day is as common as a rough one during January and February, the peak season of Antarctic expeditions. On such days, the air remains cool and forceful in the Drake Passage. The cool winds are just strong enough to lift life to this otherwise uniform viewscape of sky and sea. Life inevitably shows itself but for the uninitiated to the seas, it seems odd that the most commonly seen form is neither fish or whale. It is a bird.
Most people would never consider the ocean to be acceptable to birds. I suppose this is the result of our shared history. We grow up with robins in our yards, pigeons on our streets and geese on our ponds. They seem to be as fixed to dry land as we are. Though the perception is understandable, it is wrong and albatross prove it. Albatross are very comfortable floating around like a duck, extracting fresh water from the brine and subsisting on a diet of squid. Put an albatross on land and it fumbles around without dignity- but an albatross at sea is perfection.
As a ship sails across the Drake, the rhythm of the waves and the incalculable freshness of the wind invites you outside. The ship’s fantail is the place to be. Birdwatchers travel the world to specific trails, parks and gardens to see exactly what they are after. Down here in the Drake this is albatross water and they are out there. Off the back of a ship you can just feel them in all that nothingness.

As you stare to the aft you first spot them married to the horizon. Their pencil thin form may be indistinct two miles away, but it is definitely something against the nothing. As the bird closes the distance the wingspan stretches gradually into clearer view. The wings, fixed and immobile are fine-tuned to do all the work- and to do it exceedingly well. These birds don’t simply fly, they whip back and forth through the ship’s wind wake with only undetectable twitches of their wingtips. There is no need to flap, the wind moves so their wings don’t have to. They make what other birds do in the air seem boring. And albatross seem to do it with calm indifference.
The giants that you see in the Drake are never your first type albatross, Black-browed Albatross have by now, become well know. Yesterday they swirled around the ship in the thousands as you circled the island of Cape Horn. At over two meters, these have the same wingspan as Shaquille O’Neill and serve as a welcoming ambassador to their kind. But that was yesterday. Today you sail through deep and wild waters that are home to an albatross that would make Shaquille look like Spud Webb.
Wandering Albatross are winged giants, spreading their air embrace further than any other bird. They also make a fortunate habit of following ships. Bearing down toward you through binoculars are four meters of wing that make you thrilled that they choose to seek out ships. What you are observing is a natural kind of genius that fills us with awe and appreciation.
Their mastery of the southern oceans, awesome as it is, did not come about by chance. The arch, camber and shear of the wings are fine-tuned by evolutionary design stretching back some 32 million years to the Oligocene. Circumstances and time brought the Wandering Albatross into being, just as the right circumstances have now brought the birds into your view.
At the beginning of the Oligocene, the Earth was just getting over its dinosaur hangover. The great reptiles had been gone for some 30 million years. Their ecological roles, long since vacated, were being filled-up by birds and mammals. Terrestrial habitats were the first to be moved upon, but inevitably opportunities were being exploited in the oceans.
As it were, the oceans were undergoing some transformations of their own in the Oligocene. The Atlantic Ocean was spreading, and the grinding of tectonic plates started raising hundreds of remote islands from the southern hemisphere all the way to Hawaii. New Zealand was breaking away and so too was the Antarctic Continent. Thirty seven million years ago, the Drake Channel was born.
As the Antarctic shifted, it eventually parked over the south magnetic pole and became the icebox of today. The white continent profoundly influenced the climate, by not only generating the sub-antarctic winds but also by setting the stage for periods of glaciation.
Cool, oxygen-rich waters mingled with nutrients that were eroded away by grinding ice sheets. These mineral injections were a jolt for fish and squid populations in the south, still one of the most productive fisheries on the planet. The isolated, subantarctic islands continued to form. These were free of terrestrial predators and provided birds the safe nursery required within the vicinity of their fishing grounds. The wind machine generated off a frozen continent provided the ultimate vehicle for albatross to roam the southern hemisphere.
Malcolm Gladwell discusses the value of circumstances in his book Outliers (2008). While he doesn’t exactly get into how birds achieve success, he does go into great detail about how some of us have achieved success. It turns out that it normally doesn’t come about by chance but rather situations combine with ability and work to make some people more successful than others. To me, that sounds like how the perfection of albatross came about.
In Outliers, Gladwell explains in compelling detail how the majority of professional hockey and soccer players have birthdays in the first third of the year, while few of them have birthdays in the last four months of the year. It turns out that the way amateur hockey and soccer associations break down leagues, depends on the calendar year in which the players were born. Six or seven year olds, that are born on the leading end of their age class (January kids), have a growth and maturity advantage over kids that may be 9 or 10 months younger (December kids). The best players get identified at a young age and graduate to better leagues. These kids receive better coaching, more practice hours and ultimately a few of them make it to the big leagues.  If one looks at the roster of one of the greatest National Hockey League teams in history- the 1985 Edmonton Oilers, their birth dates correspond perfectly with Gladwell's theory.  It is not that some kids born in December and November don’t make it, it is just that circumstances make it less likely that many do.

While there may be circumstances that are involved at all stages leading up to someone acquiring elite level abilities, according to Gladwell the greatest factor involved in success is work. In describing elite level musicians he writes “the things that distinguishes one performer from another is how hard he or she works. That’s it. And once more the people at the very top don’t just harder than anyone else, they work much, much harder.”
In this world of fingertip statistics, it is no surprise that someone has tried to quantify just how much work equals “much, much harder.” Gladwell rather convincingly argues that the answer is 10,000 hours. Elite level athletes, musicians, academics and entrepreneurs all seem to have put in around 10,000 hours of practice before being recognized for their elite-level skill. That’s about 3 hours a day, 20 hours a week of work for 10 years.

I would like to think that I was contributing to my 10,000 hours on the night of July 5, 1989. The only thing, however that I know for sure is that I missed out on television history. I wasn’t alone, as the television pilot that was broadcast that night received a modest 11% share. Still, network executives concluded that enough people watched to give this show a chance so they cautiously ordered an additional three episodes.
The following year the first season of this bold new comedy was introduced. While it was still no ratings sensation, at the conclusion of the season, the network ordered another year. By the mid 1990s, the show was still losing the ratings war to ‘Jake and the Fatman’ & ‘Doogie Howser MD’, but the audience was loyal and building. By the time ‘The Finale’ was seen by over 76 million viewer (myself included) on May 14, 1998, ‘Seinfeld’ had become one of the most celebrated television series of all time.
As a result of the success of this series, Jerry Seinfeld is widely regarded as one of the most brilliant comedic minds in the history of entertainment. While he gained fame and fortune from the show, the television series profiled him while he was already at an elite level. Like the majority of successful people, he was no overnight sensation. The TV series introduced him to a much wider audience, but he was already at an elite level before the initial pilot was ever broadcast. Not surprisingly Seinfeld achieved his expertise through a combination of circumstance and effort.
As the young college graduate left the City University of New York in 1976, few would have thought that a career in comedy was on the horizon for Jerry Seinfeld. By all accounts his first 5-minute set at an open mic was as terrible as that of any other first timer. Jerry’s trick was that it was not to be his last. And in this midst of his desire, circumstance came calling.
Nightlife of New York City throughout the 1970s has become the stuff of grandiose legend. The pulse of New York in the 1970s followed a disco beat. But like the demise of the dinosaurs, the death of disco was swift and complete. During June 1979 most of Billboards Top 10 singles were disco songs. By September of that same year Rock and Roll had reclaimed the charts. Discotheques started to take down their mirrored balls and it was comedy that reclaimed the clubs.
The proliferation of comedy clubs in New York and across North America provided an up and comer like Seinfeld the ideal opportunity to nurse his rise to comedy genius. In 1981, he made his first appearance on ‘The Tonite Show’ and was dropping into several comedy clubs a night to work his show. By the time NBC requested a TV pilot in 1989, Seinfeld was doing 300 shows a year and had more than met his 10,000 hours of practice time. "Four days is about my maximum to go without working." He had made it.
We are not so isolated from the natural world as it often appears. The ability to achieve success at an elite level follows the same premise whether hockey player, stand-up comic or an oceanic bird. It requires the investment of considerable time and the ability to use the circumstances that arise for your best interests. It turns out that Jerry Seinfeld is not only a comedic genius- he is also an albatross.

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