Monday, December 27, 2010

The Real Self Of Love

Image from a 2002 site about combining Viagra and Ecstasy.  Do people still do that?


I don't know if you read that story in The New Yorker the other day, by George Saunders, about the future?  It was called Escape from Spiderhead.

The story is about a guy convicted of a crime who instead of going to prison becomes a kind of designer-drug guinea pig.  The main good thing about the story is the names Saunders comes up with for the drugs and technology that the guy is testing.  "Verbaluce" gets you talking. "VeriTalk" makes you tell the truth. "Darkenfloxx" causes despair.

The drug they're testing makes you feel like you're in love.  Like, whoever you're with when you take it, you feel superconnected to them and also like you really really want to have sex with them.

The testing is meant to feel creepy, and it does.  Our hero takes the drug, sees one woman, falls in love with her, then when the drug wears off, goes completely back to baseline human indifference.  Then he takes the drug again, sees another woman, falls in love with her, then when the drug wears off, goes completely back to baseline human indifference.

The drug makers' plan is to market the drug to people who can't love enough, or who love the wrong person, or who love too much, to make sure they love in just the right way.  That's meant to feel creepy too, and it does.

But what exactly is so creepy about it?  I was pondering this question when I started thinking about certain philosophical theories of autonomy and selfhood.  Some of these theories try to articulate autonomy with reference to what a person endorses when they rationally reflect.  So, for instance, suppose you smoke, but on reflection you decide that it's best to quit.  Autonomy would mean quitting, in line with your rational self.

A person who fails to quit, whose desire overwhelms them, isn't really autonomous.  Part of the intuition is that a desire that comes from something like an addiction comes from "outside you" since it doesn't come from your thinking self -- the self that is you.  Other views dispense with the rationality part of the story but retain the idea that you and your desires can be deeply at odds, and when you are, this is a failure of autonomy.  For instance, on views like Harry Frankfurt's, it is only when your desires are in line with what you want your desires to be that you are a free, autonomous person.

Now the weird thing is this:  if these theories are right, then the Love Drug isn't creepy at all.  Indeed, used properly, it would be an aid to a person's autonomy and well-being.  Think of it this way.  If you decide you ought to love your longtime spouse, and you take the drug, and it works and you love them, then you're good to go:  you're desiring what you want to desire.  If you want to desire one man rather than another, one woman rather than another, you take the drug, and BAM -- you're good to go.  Your emotions are suddenly in line with your thoughts.  A dream of unity between the emotional you, the physical you, and the rational you.  It should be perfect.

So either there's something wrong with these ways of thinking about autonomy, or the creepiness is due to something else, or it's not creepy after all.

Maybe there's something to it's not being creepy after all.  I mean, lots of people have said that drugs like Prozac make them feel more themselves.  Why not a drug that makes you love who you want to love, and lust after who you want to lust after?  Isn't that a way of being, really yourself?  Actually, one might say, if you don't take the drug, you're just letting yourself be dicked around by a bunch of hormones.  Aren't you?

Or maybe it only seems creepy because it happens in a lab?  The love potion in Midsummer Nights Dream doesn't seem creepy in the same way.  It's just sort of funny.  So maybe the creepiness we feel is because we know what pharmaceutical companies are like, and they creep us out?

Or maybe there is something wrong with thinking of autonomy -- or at least well-being -- in ways that value the stable, the rational, the thoughtful, the slow, over the impulsive, the changeable, the emotional, the crazy.  Because those other parts of us are still us -- and they're the real self of love.  Aren't they?  Or is that just an old-fashioned irrational preference for chaos?

Monday, December 20, 2010

Notes On The Title Of This Blog

Weird backgammon board from gammonline.
 "So," I'm often asked, "'The Kramer Is Now?' What is up with that?  Is that, like, Kramer from Seinfeld?"

1.  No, it's not Kramer from Seinfeld, it's a Kramer Cube, as discussed in the most under-appreciated novel ever written:  Amazons: An Intimate Memoir by the First Woman Ever to Play in the National Hockey League.  The title is my homage to Cleo, the most under-appreciated heroine in noveldom.  I wrote about Her Awesomeness Cleo in the first post on this blog.

2.  The Kramer Cube is a device to help cure Jumping Frenchman's Disease.  Our Heroine, Cleo, has a Cute Guy in her life, named Shaver.   Shaver suffers from JFD, and he spends much of the novel sleeping in the Cube.  This is convenient for Cleo, who then gets to run around playing hockey and having adventures.  Who doesn't want a Cute Guy in a Kramer Cube in their life?  Nobody.

3. There's a sidebar quote from the book on the blog front page that involves a conversation between Cleo and a nosy reporter.  The reporter has come from some lifestyle magazine to do a photo-shoot-and-interview.  The reporter is, of course, excited by the whole Kramer-Cube-With-Shaver-In-It.  In the way of lifestyle magazine reporters, she wants details.  "What's next for you two?" she asks.  And Cleo says, "I don't know. I haven't thought beyond the Kramer. The Kramer is now."

4.  And it's that sentiment, of not thinking beyond the Kramer, that's the important one.  I'm a philosopher -- that is to say, I teach philosophy at a university and I research and publish in philosophy as an academic discipline.  Philosophy is all about reason, reflection, and thinking about things.  To tell you the truth, it gets to be a bit much.  I mean, all that thinking can get a person down.  I wrote about this before, on my old blog, in the context of the suicide of David Foster Wallace.

As usual, Hume really said it best, back in  1748:
"Where am I, or what? From what causes do I derive my existence, and to what condition shall I return? ... I am confounded with all these questions, and begin to fancy myself in the most deplorable condition imaginable, environed with the deepest darkness, and utterly deprived of the use of every member and faculty.

Most fortunately it happens, that since Reason is incapable of dispelling these clouds, Nature herself suffices to that purpose, and cures me of this philosophical melancholy and delirium, either by relaxing this bent of mind, or by some avocation, and lively impression of my senses, which obliterate all these chimeras. I dine, I play a game of backgammon, I converse, and am merry with my friends. And when, after three or four hours' amusement, I would return to these speculations, they appear so cold, and strained, and ridiculous, that I cannot find in my heart to enter into them any farther."

 --  An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding
I really like that.  You get yourself out of the darkness of thinking either by "relaxing this bent of mind" or "by some avocation, and lively impression of [the] senses."  Isn't Hume the greatest?  Don't you think he'd have appreciated, for his backgammon game, the board at the top of this post?

5.  So "The Kramer Is Now" expresses my ambivalence about reflection, and is a reminder to all of us, to Cool It With The Thinking Already.

6.  I'm an "accidental" philosopher.  Accidental as in "happening by chance; not planned; "nonessential or incidental."  I never set out to become an expert on The Big Questions like What Is the Meaning of Life?  In fact, I studied math in university and graduate school and never studied philosophy 'til I was almost thirty.  I like studying philosophy a lot, but as you've understood if you've read so far, I'm not wholehearted or unambivalent about it, and I don't regard myself as being inevitably involved in the pursuit of truth or anything like that.  The thing I miss most about math was the way you could go for years without being asked for your opinion about anything.  In the humanities, one has to produce dozens of opinions every day.  It kind of wears me out.

7.  "Encounters modern life":  pretty self-explanatory.  Modern Life and I have a complex relationship.

8.  Brenda Starr, Girl Reporter.  Patricia Marino, Girl Philosopher.  You get the picture.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Sex and Sexism

From an article about women in video games.
 I used to be a little puzzled by the connection between sex and sexism.  Discussions of sexism often bring together several different things, things like discrimination against women, treating women in a way that is degrading or demeaning, and treating women as objects of sexual desire.

When I was young, it puzzled me that the first two would get put in together with the third.  It seemed obvious to me that discrimination against women and treating them in a degrading or demeaning way was wrong, and really bad.  Indeed, it was because this seemed obvious to me, and because I could see both things happening all the time, that I've always considered myself a feminist.

But being treated as the object of sexual desire?  What's so bad about that?  Don't people want to be considered attractive? Of course, for either sex, it can be annoying when someone you don't especially like starts hitting on you, and of course, it's awful when people just won't stop pestering you and it becomes harassment.  But just being the object of sexual desire?  How is that a problem?  The question always seemed most puzzling when I considered the way men are always clamoring to be the object of sexual desire.  How could what's good for them suck for us? 

Not surprisingly, as I grew older and learned more about life, I came to understand that the connection between sex and sexism has to do not such much with "being treated as an object of sexual desire" but rather "being treated only as an object of sexual desire."  That is, being treated as if your only possible worth or value comes in how sexually attractive you are, and in your worth as a possible sex object.  If you're sexually attractive, this sucks, because you can't get men to engage with you respectfully as a whole person.  If you're not sexually attractive, it sucks even more, because you can't get men to engage with you respectfully at all. 

Obviously not everyone contributes to a state of affairs in which women are treated only as sexual objects, but the people who do have various methods.  Men who never talk to you except to hit on you, men who remind you of your sexual status at every turn, and people of either sex who comment only on the attractiveness of women and not their other qualities all help sustain a world in which women have trouble being considered as whole persons.  Even just flirting, if that's the only kind of interaction you have, helps bring about such a situation.

By the way, if you're the sort of person who wonders, "Why do women get so indignant when they're whistled at -- it's a gesture of appreciation!" this is part of the answer.  Yeah, sometimes it's a gesture of appreciation.  But often it comes with a jumble of mixed signals, a mixture in which "this is the only way you matter - so ha!" comes through loud and clear.  Actually, in my experience, there is a fine gradation of such signals, determined by tone, context, and facial expression, that determines the extent to which the intended message is mixed up this way. 

Now, there's a more complicated way that people can send the only-sex-objects message, and that's treating a woman as a sex object in a context in which she's primarily there in a non-sex-object way -- for example, when she's your colleague.  The idea is that if you treat a woman as a possible sex partner in a context in which she's there to do her job, you're sending the implicit message that the job isn't the important thing, where the sex-partner thing is.  This is how flirting can have so many different aspects to so many people.  Is it harmless fun between equals? Or is it reinforcing a sexist status quo?

What to do about these problems?  It would be possible to aim for a kind of desexualization of interactions, creating clearer no-flirting zones and the like.  But I think there's another possibility, suggested by reflection on men.  Men can be sexual objects without only being sexual objects.  How so?  Well, there are two things.  First, there's an overwhelming sense in which men are always treated as more-than-sexual objects.  Cultural artefacts of all kinds -- movies, TV, news, etc. -- constantly reinforce the image of men as having multiple kinds of worth and value.  Second, and perhaps relatedly, it's pretty easy for men to be both the objects of sexual desire and valued colleagues, researchers, workers, dads, politicians, people with opinions, etc. etc.  Indeed, an attractive guy is often an attractive guy because he's some of these things.

This suggests a crucial role for a state of mind in which a woman can be an object of sexual attraction and lots of other things all at the same time.  I used to be optimistic that we could create a world in which such a state of mind would predominate, and thus, just like men, women could be sexually attractive and engage in mutual flirting, and still, at the same time, be treated as and valued as full persons in their own right.  And if the woman isn't one you want to flirt with, fine - you can still value her in all the other ways.

As time goes on my optimism gets more tempered.  We've still got a constant barrage of movies in which women are only around to have pretty hair and make the sandwiches, we've still got men who, instead of flirting with women, sexually harass them as a way of bringing them down a notch or two, and we've still got a shocking disregard for women who are not physically attractive in the conventional ways.  We've still got women's sports leagues that can only exist if the women wear the right kind of sexualized clothing.  And there is a troubling correlation between sexualizing women and being sexist.  It would be nice if places like Italy were bastions both of romance and of feminism, but it doesn't seem to be happening.

All of these put pressure on the solution of getting people to recognize and value women multidimensionally.  Not so easy after all.  I hope it's obvious, though, that women are not going to suddenly become happy to be considered only sex objects.   That is just not happening.  So this would mean more of the other solution:  desexualization and more flirting-free zones.

Maybe that is for the best but it seems a little sad.  I mean, most people in the twenty-first century spend all their time at work as it is, and that's where they meet everyone they know.  No flirting, no asking out your coworkers, no little compliments on someone's new hairstyle or snazzy high heels ... I'd be sorry to see all these things completely lost and forbidden.  Hopefully we can mix in a little of the first solution.

So, the connection between sex and sexism lies not in simply treating women as objects of sexual interest, but in the the sexist attitude conveyed by treating women as only, or primarily, of value as sexual objects. What I'm suggesting is that unless we can move toward multidimensional valuing, we'll be heading for desexualization instead. 

You know how they say, "If you want peace, work for justice?" 

Well, if you want sex, work for feminism.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Shopping, Materialism, Ho Ho Ho!

From some Italian site, natch
I like to go to malls even when I'm not actually shopping.  Yes, you read that right.  I like to go to malls even when I'm not actually shopping.

Well, maybe not to suburban malls.  But I live in Toronto where the main mall is the Eaton Centre, a totally awesome urban mall, and I definitely like to go to the Eaton Centre even when I'm not actually shopping.  I go to the Eaton Centre on my way to the gym (a gym which is actually located inside the mall, how great is that?); I go to the Eaton Centre to get coffee at the bookstore and do a little work; I go to the Eaton Centre to check out what's going on at the Apple Store.  Occasionally I sit and have a glass of wine at one of the Eaton Centre bars or restaurants.

So, as you can see, when I say I like to go to the Eaton Centre even when I'm not actually shopping, I am putting my money where my mouth is.

What I like about going to the Eaton Centre is that it's crowded full of all different kinds of people, all basically having a good time.  You got your overexcited teens; you got your weary grandparents.  You got your Nice Responsible Young Persons.  You got children of all ages.  You got Barbie lookalikes with their BCBG bags; you got homeless people hanging around the food court.  Rich and poor, hip and square:  everyone is at the mall.

People get down on malls.  There are some reasons for getting down on malls, but I don't think they're the usual suspects.  A lot of what you see at the Eaton Centre is families, speaking all the languages of the world, buying cookware, clothes for the kids, computers and toys.  Sure, I guess that's materialistic in the basic sense of the word, but it's also buying stuff that just enables you to have a nice life.

To me, what's nice about the mall is the powerful reminders of the basic sameness of humanity.  The man in an expensive suit, the woman in a headscarf, the kid with the newest Nikes, and me, we're all there to buy the same stuff.  This feeling probably reaches its apex at the Apple Store, where were literally there to buy the very same exact thing -- but it's in the mall in a general way too-- we're certainly there for the same activities.  I love that.

Now I know some people find it dispiriting to think that the thing that brings us together is shopping, but as I partly tried to explain here, I don't, really.  I mean, nice stuff is nice; what's not to like?  Sure, it's bad when we get into disposable crap and planned obsolescence.  But you don't have to shop for crap to shop for fun. 

What's easy to forget about materialism and consumer culture is that, as so often, just because something is bad doesn't mean the alternatives aren't worse.  I don't know if you know that amazing book by Haruki Murakami about the Aum Shinrikyo gas attacks in Japan?  Basically Murakami talks to the people who experience the attack -- it happens in the subway -- and then talks to people in the Aum Shinrikyo movement.  The people in the first half of the book, reflecting on the question of how this could happen, were often inclined to cite the breakdown of morals and the new materialism.  But weirdly, the movement itself is deeply anti-materialistic:  the whole point is to live in an ascetic way.  It wasn't materialism that led to this horrible thing; it was anti-materialism.

It's not hard to see how this would happen.  For better or for worse, if you're into buying stuff, you have extra incentive to play by the rules.  If you're not, and you don't care ... well, you don't care.  Sure, this cuts both ways, and if you're trying to plan the next revolution, shopping is probably getting in your way.  I'm just saying in terms of ordinary, everyday, peace in living together, a love of shopping can be our friend.

Getting back to malls, one thing about malls I am uneasy about is the whole private-space-public-space problem.  A mall is, of course, owned, and mall owners make all kinds of terrible rules about who can hang out there and when.  This does make the mall, for me, a somewhat guilty pleasure.  But hey, as a non-driver, I'm putting in a fair amount of public-space-time as it is.  Nobody should have to put up with staring, elbowing, harassing, and spitting all day.  Speaking of which, what is up with the new habit of public spitting? Completely disgusting.

So if you're out shopping, and you're feeling worn down, just remember, if you want to know when the lion and the lamb will lay down with one another, it's happening now, at the mall.  They're both trying to get a closer look at the iPad before going off to grab some fried foods at the food court.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Me, My Blackberry, And The Reasons Of Love

I got a Blackberry about a week ago.  It's a Blackberry Bold 9650, and it looks like this, except instead of this cool city photo I have the stupid Verizon logo on my home screen:


It's a little funny that I got a Blackberry, because I'm the ultimate Mac fan-girl.  I'm the sort of person who, when forced to use a Windows machine, is constantly complaining about how I can't figure out how to do simple things like "save as pdf" from the print screen, or whatever, and who gets all mad at the stupid inelegance of the system.

So the relationship between BB and me was sort of an arranged marriage.  It's not that we were so fond of one another; it's more that things like "the great Verizon data plan for North America plans" tipped the balance away from the iPhone.

So it was with some trepidation that I brought BB home.  And honestly, in the beginning, it wasn't looking so good.  Things that seemed to me completely basic just aren't available on the Blackberry, like the option to make an email account temporarily inactive.  I do this on my iPod touch every night before I go to bed, because I don't want to wake up, see the little "email icon," be tempted to look at my mail, and have my rest disturbed.  That is, I want things like "browser, ON" and "email, OFF" at the same time. Is that so much to ask?

I googled and googled, and finally found a page where my question was raised.  The answer?  "BB isn't really set up for that." Hmmm.

Actually, the main source of tension in the house wasn't between BB and me so much as between BB and Mac.  They don't like each other, and they don't want to interact.  I downloaded the "Desktop Manager for Mac" from Research In Motion and it's useless -- it doesn't seem to do anything.

In a way I understand:  they represent two different philosophies of life, two totally different styles.  So how could they want to cooperate?   In a way though, it's a little outrageous.  You're telling me Research in Motion can't figure out how to set up basic sync of contacts and so on with Mac OS?  How hard can it be?

I solved the problem, in the end, by bringing in an intermediary, a go-between, a peacemaker.  Goes by the name of Google.  Google, turns out, can talk to BB, and talk to Mac, even if they won't talk to each other.  So I set up my Google contacts and calendar to sync with both, and even though it has the aspect of a giant pointless game of telephone, in practice it is working well.

So you can see why, in those first few days, I'm thinking, Dude, you are so going to back to the Verizon store, because this is just not working out.  Goodbye Verizon.  I'm sucking it up, moving to AT&T, getting an iPhone.

But over the following week, something surprising happened:  I changed my expectations.  I started appreciating all the things unique to BB, like the excellent keyboard design, the no-nonsense fonts and style, and the physical object itself, which is beautifully designed.  You can hold it in one hand, and type with your thumb, while your other hand is holding your purse or opening a door or whatever.  Can't do that on an iPhone.  Or, at least, I can't.

After I started appreciating BB's good qualities, rather than focusing on its limitations, I started to have that proper feeling one has for a gadget that is important in one's life:  the feeling of love.  You're going to deal with this object a zillion times a day, you gotta have some love.  Otherwise it's just an endless struggle.  This is why I'm always amused when people express their indignation with Mac.  Look, I love my Mac.  You don't have to love it, and thus you don't have to buy one. But don't act like it's somehow a character deficiency in me if I do.  We're out of the realm of rational thought here.

And that's true for love of people, too.  Sometimes you hear people talking about love as if they could respond to a person's qualities, and thus find "the right person for them."  "Oh, I'd like a non-smoker, someone with a good sense of humor, someone with the right kind of career.  Must like bird-watching, white-water rafting, the movies of Werner Herzog. . ."

Sure, you can hope for certain qualities, which will surely have something to do with long term living together.  But they're not the main thing in love.  The main thing in love isn't the qualities the person has, it's seeing the person's qualities in the right sort of way.  The love itself, it's not based on reasons.

BB and me, I think it's going to work out.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Branding Canada: The "Amity" Solution


I'm an American living in Canada.  I've been here long enough to start to feel attached to my new home.  But now that I'm "turning Canadian," I'm hyper-aware of all the ways in which Canada just doesn't get the respect it deserves.  It's a great country, but what do people associate with Canada?  Hockey, Tim Hortons, the occasional moose.  For most of us, it's not the kind of list that stirs the imagination.

I think what Canada has is a branding problem.  You know, we American's are always up on the latest bullshit, and the latest bullshit is branding.  OK -- so it's kind of 1990s bullshit -- but still, this just shows how bad things have gotten, because you gotta admit that branding-wise, Canada is behind the 8-ball.

You know they know something's wrong because they put the name "Canada" everywhere.  On bridges, on posters, on anything that is national, you'll see the Canada symbol with the little maple leaf.  You don't see that in the US.  The US doesn't need to say "US" every five seconds, because everyone knows the US is one of the big dogs.  People bring it out to make points about stuff but it's not on bridges and signs, that's for sure.

So in spite of trying, that "Canada" everywhere has always seemed to me a sign of -- well, of insecurity.

What we need up here, it seems to me, are more of those kind of idealistic, overblown, self-image things that move the heart before the mind has a chance to get too analytical.  Like, you know, when Americans say "freedom" -- it gets us all wound up before we get bogged down thinking about our various lack of freedoms and our coercive practices on other nations and all those ... you know ... ugly details.

And since you've read the title of this piece, you know where I'm going with this.  The place to start is with the motto, and I propose amity.  You know how the French are all, "liberté, egalité, fraternité"?  Well, we're gonna be all "amitié, dude."

Here's what amity as a motto has going for it:

First and most importantly, it's accurate.  Canada is friendly.

Of course, Canada known for the friendliness of its people.  The recent Times story about immigration cited actual immigrants to Manitoba saying things like, "everyone said the people are really friendly, and it's actually true."  How many places can you say that of?

More importantly, though, Canada adopts friendliness in its relations with other nations.  It's a peace-keeping nation, a nation that builds relationships, a nation that tries to be nice and not to throw its weight around.  "But, Afghanistan!" you'll say.  Meh.  Details, details.  These kinds of symbols can't be undone by pesky little facts.  If there's one thing you learn about branding from the US, it's that only the big picture makes any difference.

Also, "amity" is the kind of motto that could actually go up against some other mottos and win.  It's no weakling.  I mean, pit it against "freedom," and the results are really non-obvious.  I mean, it's nice to be free, but if everyone's against you and you got no friends?  Not so great, after all.

Plus, friendship is such a twenty-first century concept.  Sure freedom was nice when everyone had eight million square miles of their own.  But now we're living on top of each other, polluting one another's air and water, driving the planet to ruin -- time for some fucking friendship!

The final reason "amity" makes such a nice motto for Canada is that it has elegant, and similar, expressions in both French and English.  Hell, it's even a word derived from French.

So really, I can't see any problems.  I don't have the mental energy to turn this into any sort of movement, but if you happen to be reading and you have the ear of the prime minister, let him know about my idea, OK?  I will thank you, and Canada will thank you, I assure you.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Women's Sexuality Makes People Believe Peculiar Things

Stephen Fry
Maybe you followed the kerfuffle prompted by Stephen's Fry's saying recently that women don't like sex.  Excerpt from the Guardian story:
"I feel sorry for straight men. The only reason women will have sex with them is that sex is the price they are willing to pay for a relationship with a man, which is what they want," he said. "Of course, a lot of women will deny this and say, 'Oh no, but I love sex, I love it!' But do they go around having it the way that gay men do?"
I try to ignore stuff like this because it's stupid, and because it's annoying, and because if you think long enough about what set of mental attitudes prompt people to say it, you just get annoyed and depressed.

Keith Richards

But I was amusingly reminded of his saying that when I read the recent discussion of Keith Richard's memoir in The New Yorker. Keith, discussing girls at his show:
"They nearly killed me.  I was never more in fear for my life than I was from teenage girls.  The ones that choked me, tore me to shreds, if you got caught in a frenzied crowd of them -- it's hard to express how frightening they could be.  You'd rather be in a trench fighting the enemy than be faced with this unstoppable, killer wave of lust and desire, or whatever it is -- it's unknown even to them."
Keith also claims he's never "put the make on a girl" in his life.  They just come to him.  Not just girls but women in general.

Certainly Fry's view is not so idiosyncratic.  Lots of people think women don't want or like sex.

On the other hand, I hope we can all agree on one thing:  no one, of any age, is seeking out sex with Keith Richards because they're hoping for happily ever after.  Actually, you could write a whole blog post just on the issue of why, exactly, Keith Richards is attractive -- cause obviously he is, but the reasons are somewhat mysterious.  It seem evident no evolutionary biology explanation is going to be forthcoming.  But let's leave that aside for another day.  As I say, the point here is just, if you're throwing yourself at Keith Richards you're not hoping for When Harry Met Sally.  You're looking to have sex with Keith Richards.  And evidently, wanting that can make you crazy.

So which is it, kids?  Are women sexless or oversexed?  Bored or out of their minds with lust? 

Probable there's a respectable and intelligent conclusion to draw about this, like women-are-different and you-can't-overgeneralize -- obviously true.  And yet, I feel a more interesting and more disturbing explanation lurks in here somewhere.

The disturbing explanation is that what women are interested in isn't always what the guys in their lives have to offer; what they are interested in is something more along the lines of ... well ... Keith.  Or Mick -- Mick would surely do just as well. 

Then the image of women as not-really-wanting-or-enjoying-sex would then be the sort of thing people come to believe not because it's true, but because what women want isn't always what every guy is offering, and people just draw the wrong conclusions from that.  I remember reading Simone de Beauvoir a couple of years ago, and how she said that one thing about sexism is the way men have constructed an idea of women that is what they want women to be.  I thought it was interesting and apt.

Indeed, part of what's so annoying about the whole evolutionary biology thing is how often the "explanations" it comes up with fit the image of women that's just what would suit men best: oh, gee, women are naturally sort of monogomous! men are naturally really not! hm, interesting!

Anyway, as I've probably mentioned in this space before, Richard Russo pretty much gave the final answer about women in Straight Man.  What do women want?  "Everything," just like men do.   The interesting thing is what they'll settle for.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Life, Death, and Procrastination


The recent book review in the New Yorker of the book The Thief of Time starts with the arresting story of a Nobel prize-winning economist who can't seem to get it together to mail a box of clothes from India, where he is living, to the United States.  He just puts it off and puts if off.  He never gets it done. Finally someone helps him out by bringing it back with him.

Nobel prize-winners:  they're just like us!

The book is about the philosophy of procrastination, a phenomenon that cries out for some philosophical reflection if ever there was one.  As the reviewer, James Surowiecki, explains, procrastination is puzzling in part because it involves "not doing what you think you should be doing" -- an idea that is confusing in itself.

Socrates thought it was impossible not to do what you thought you should be doing.  That is, if you chose to do something, it was because you thought it was the best thing to be doing overall.  If that thing seemed ultimately boneheaded -- like failing to mail the box day after day -- that wasn't because you failed to do what you thought you ought to do, it was because you were mistaken about what you ought to have done.  You must have thought it was best not to mail the box, since you didn't.  And you might have made a mistake in your thinking about what was best to do. But that's not the same as failing to do what you did think was best. Which is what Socrates thought was impossible.

It's a powerfully counter-intuitive conclusion. Because it sure feels like what you're doing when you procrastinate is failing to do what you think you ought to do.  And yet it's not like procrastinating makes you feel better, like you're having a better time.  Usually it makes you feel worse. So WTF is going on?

One way to understand procrastination is through its relation to what is called "hyperbolic discounting," which is basically the tendency we have to put off painful experiences and fail to wait properly for pleasurable ones.  We are biased toward the present.  An hour at the dentist today, or two hours at the dentist in a few months?  We put it off.  Get 100 dollars in a year, or 110 in a year and a day, we choose to wait for 110.  But choosing between 100 dollars today and 110 tomorrow?  We want 100 dollars now.

I've always thought hyperbolic discounting and procrastination must have something to do with mortality.  I always thought if someone asked me, "Why put off going to the dentist, when you know you're going to have to?"  that part of any honest answer would have to be "Well, maybe I'll die before I have to go."  Hey, it's always possible.

Of course, the fact that you might die before you have to do some unpleasant thing, or before you get a chance to enjoy some far off benefit, does make some "discounting" absolutely rational, and not puzzling at all.  If you could factor the likelihood of death into your calculation, you could come up with some way of knowing just how much putting things off and just how much impulsivity makes sense.

What makes "hyberbolic discounting" a kind of irrationality isn't that you are biased toward the present; it's that you're way too biased toward the present.  That is, for most of us, the odds of dying before the root canal are so slim that it makes no sense at all to put it off.  So to make sense of our reasoning procedure in this direction, we'd have to assume that most people are dramatically inaccurately assessing the likelihood of their own deaths.

But now we get to the very weirdest thing of all about understanding hyperbolic discounting this way:  it suggests that we err on the side of death.  That is, our choices make sense only under the assumption that our immanent death is much more likely than it actually is.

This strikes me as extremely strange.  Because if most people err in thinking about their own deaths, it's to assume they're never going to happen, or that they're way way far in the future.  They don't err on the side of thinking they're going to die.

This means one of two things must be true.  Either the way we deal with our own mortality is so strange that we can psychologically overestimate its likelihood and underestimate its likelihood at the same time, or, contrary to what I'd thought, hyperbolic discounting and procrastination have nothing to do with mortality and the possibility of death.

Both are weird.  It's weird to think that underneath it all, and despite our appearance of obliviousness, we have our own mortality frequently present to mind.  But it's also weird to think that putting things off is something that an immortal being would have trouble with.

Or maybe I just think that because when I think of immortal beings I think of gods.  Maybe you can be immortal and a procrastinator. It's funny to think of the new post-humans, god-like, unable to feel pain, living forever, but unable to get their shit together to get their boxes to the post-office, to buy birthday presents on time, and to file their income taxes.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

No, I'm Sorry, Doing Moral Philosophy Is Not Like Falling Off A Log


Call it the Wikipedification of ideas.  The slogan is "Well, how hard can it be?"

I got nothing against Wikipedia, which I use all the time.  Using Wikipedia doesn't have to lead to the Wikipedification of ideas.  But some of the basic elements of Wikipedia ... well, let's just say that some people seem to get a little overly enthusiastic about them.  Like the idea that everyone has equally good "information" about a topic, that it's pointless to think we need "experts," that complex expressions of ideas are just obfuscation, that every question has either an uncontroversial answer or, at worst, an uncontroversial set of plausible answers.

This just isn't true.  Especially when it comes to abstract ideas and ideals.  Like thinking about right and wrong.  I work some in this area -- on moral philosophy -- and I can tell you:  it's hard.  How should we trade off the ending of one life against the preservation of others?  How do you know when inequalities are unfair?  How do you reason with people whose judgments are very different from your own?  Are moral judgments objective or are they just fancy kinds of emotions and tastes?  It's a difficult subject.

So it's infuriating to have it presented as if moral philosophy is actually easy.  Like, "Gee whiz, if everyone would just calm down and be nice -- and stop listening to those obfuscating philosophers! -- we'd be all set."

In the New York Times today Robert Frank talks about income inequality.  I'm roughly in agreement with his broad conclusion -- that income inequality is bad.  But the way he goes about explaining it is frustrating.

Focusing on fairness, as moral philosophers have done, he says, isn't getting us anywhere, because there's too much disagreement on how fairness should be understood and what it comes to in this context.

That's right:  moral philosophers don't agree about fairness and inequality.  One reason for that is that the issues are complex, there are several ways of seeing things all of which seem somewhat reasonable, and even the question of how to decide among competing views is a vexed one.

Frank says that instead of trying to sort these issues out, we can look at a cost-benefit analysis.  Like, we know high income inequality has costs, and we don't see any offsetting benefits, so clearly it's bad.

But there are reasons we don't just apply cost-benefit analysis to figure out the answers to complex problems.  The reasons are familiar from the known difficulties with "utilitarian" reasoning in moral thinking.

Utilitarianism says that you should do the thing that brings about the best consequences for all, where everyone counts for the same amount.  It sounds promising, but it leads to some surprising results.  Suppose five people are in need of five different organs to live -- one guy needs a liver, another a heart, and so on.  Should we kill one person and distribute his organs?  Save five lives, end one, cost-benefit-wise, sounds like the right thing to do.

But obviously no one thinks this is the right thing to do.  And the reason it's not the right thing to do has nothing to do with how high or low the "costs" are.  Imagine the guy you kill is really unhappy.  Imagine he has no friends.  The "cost" of killing him is now low.  Does that make it better?  No.  Plausibly, it makes it worse.

You can argue -- as moral philosophers do! -- about what the right explanation is.  One plausible answer goes something like this:  what's wrong with killing the guy has to do with something outside of costs and benefits, and has instead to do with his rights, his freedoms, his autonomy to live his life as he wants, even if it's an unhappy one.

At one point Frank says that the increased wealth of the rich hasn't made them very happy.  But as we've just seen, the happiness of the person isn't the only thing you have to think about.  People have the right to the pursuit of unhappiness as well as the pursuit of happiness.

The point is that even when the costs are low and the benefits high, you're don't have a simple answer about what to do.  There are other things to consider.  Because, well, moral philosophy is complicated and not simple.

The same problem arises in the new fad for explaining morals with science.  The new neuroscientists, like Sam Harris, want to tell us that science can tell us about morality, because science can tell us what makes us flourish and feel happy and what doesn't.

As the philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah points out in this excellent review, knowing what will increase well-being tells you little about what to do.  How should you weigh one person's well-being against another?  Is it average well-being or total well-being that matters?  What about the problems with cost-benefit analysis, already mentioned?

Furthermore, is it only conscious well-being that matters?  Does that mean that if your spouse is cheating on you it would be better not to know?  And if you know the truth will hurt someone or make them feel bad, should you lie?  Neuroscience can plausibly tell you how much less happy you'll be when you find out the truth about things, but I don't see how knowing the answer to that question is ever going to help you figure out what to do in life. Even if the truth sucks, even if it reduces your well-being and leaves you in tears, don't you sometimes want to know it anyway?

I guess when the philosophy departments all disappear because of funding cuts to the humanities, no one will have to worry about these problems any more.  We can just kill the guy, distribute the organs, and lie about it after.  Questions?  I hear the Wikipedia entry on "cost-benefit analysis" is excellent.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Yeah, But I Also Did A Minor In Facebook Privacy Settings

Another humanities program "deactivated"at a major university, again primarily because of a low major-to-faculty ratio. 

Here's what I don't get.  Whatever you think about the value of the humanities, are people seriously suggesting that the choices of 18- to 22- year-olds, who haven't yet encountered any of the wisdom or perspective of a university education, or of, you know, life, should determine what's on the curriculum?

Really?

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Confusion And Distrust, In Colonialism And In The University

I just finished listening to E. M. Forster's A Passage to India the other day.  It's an amazing book, and one of the many things that make it amazing is the way it shows what is ordinarily so hard to describe:  the way in which mutual distrust poisons community life.

The story is set during the British colonial rule of India.  The book is masterful in its depiction of the racist and condescending attitudes the British take toward their subjects.  But what makes it so sophisticated, it seems to me, is the way it shows how basically well-meaning and reasonable people get drawn into terrible situations, situations whose terribleness is created and exacerbated by the inherently screwed up -- and immoral -- way the British regard the citizens they hope to govern.

The novel has a big dramatic event at the middle of it, but there are many small events that show this with subtlety.  There are so few shared expectations.  One guy tries to have a party to bring together some British guests and some Indian friends, and it totally fails as a party:  in the absence of shared expectations about who is supposed to go and talk to whom, and who is supposed to make what kind of conversation, and how seriously offers and future plans are to be taken, the whole thing becomes a mass of confusion and hurt feelings.  Because there is mutual distrust, confusion and hurt feelings turn immediately into anger and disrespect.

As I was listening, I was reminded that this aspect of power-imbalance and difference is not restricted to imperialist contexts.  Mutual distrust poisoning relationships, in an atmosphere of power imbalance:  it's one of the things that makes racism and sexism so very destructive.

Laurence Thomas, a philosopher, wrote an essay called "What Good Am I"? -- meaning, What Good am I as a black philosophy professor, in particular? -- about why it matters to have people of different races, and of both sexes, as professors.  The answer goes beyond role models, he says, and is more about mutual understanding and trust.  Learning, he argues persuasively, can only happen in an atmosphere of trust, and racism and sexism are a bar to that trust.

Think about it.  In a classroom setting, learning involves being evaluated and criticized, even corrected, by someone else.  In at atmosphere of distrust, it doesn't make sense to make oneself vulnerable in that way.   Either you feel antagonized, or you feel like a dupe for interpreting the evaluation as well-intentioned.

And then, it's in the nature of things that people with different backgrounds will find one another sometimes hard to interpret, making that trust especially hard to establish.  I know I've experienced this difficulty of communicating in academic life a ton:  in my male-dominated field of philosophy, the kinds of things people think are obvious to assume, and the kind of things they say to establish a friendly but professional relationship, just often don't feel to me like the kind of things it's obvious to assume, or the kind of things one would say to establish a friendly but professional relationship.

This wouldn't really matter if there were lots of women and lots of men, but when there's lots of men and few women, it's difficult:  a woman ends up always feeling a little destabilized, a little uncertain, a little like a foreign visitor to another country, trying to figure out the codes.  Who's supposed to talk first?  Is small talk about family nice, or a waste of someone's time? -- or worse, an invasion of privacy?  Is complimenting someone's clothes considered friendly or peculiar?  What about dark humor?  I know everyone has to figure these things out, but for whatever reason when I'm around a lot of women, even in a professional setting, the answers seem to me pretty obvious -- small talk about family is nice -- but when I'm around a lot of men in a professional setting, they don't.  And then there's the complicating factor that what seems nice coming from a fellow guy might seem peculiar or intrusive coming from a woman.

As Forster so aptly shows, misunderstandings which might come to nothing in an atmosphere of trust become toxic in an atmosphere of distrust.  In his paper, Laurence concludes his reflections by saying something like this:  the importance of minority professors is that their existence represents the hope that the university is a place where trust and gratitude are possible among people of all races.  I've always thought this an apt observation, and I think about it often when the question comes up of why, and how, it matters to take active steps for diversity in all the academic disciplines. 

If philosophy is exceptional for being lots-of-guys, it's truly outrageous for being lots-of-white-people. I don't know how to solve this problem, but these thoughts are one of the many reasons, at least, for why it's a problem.  

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Dear Modern Life

Dear Modern Life,

You and I have to have a talk.  Not just any talk.  A relationship talk.

Obviously, I'm in this for the long haul: really, where else could I go?  So I'm taking the long view.  And I know you and I have had our ups and downs over the years -- both very intense.  We had some great moments over feminism, gay rights, and the internet.  Good times! 

There have been struggles that nearly destroyed my commitment to you, though.  A girl doesn't get over global poverty, local income inequality, and climate change without a certain amount of internal struggle.  At what point does "stand by your man" turn into making a doormat of yourself? 

Still, I realize that some problems are hard to solve, and all my friends will tell you I defend you often.  Indeed, they're probably tired of hearing me say, "Modern Life isn't so bad! Sure it's impossible to afford a reasonable apartment on the average working wage ... but what about feminism?  Gay rights? What about the internet?"

But you know what they say: it's not the big things that ruin a relationship, it's the little things.  And to tell you the truth, you're getting harder and harder to live with.  In particular:

Could you please be a little quieter?  What's with the constant racket? It's not like we're going to forget you're there!  I don't want to be listening to sexed up pop songs while I'm trying to shop for yogurt; I don't want to listen to the sounds of cellophane wrappers, mocha latte slurps, and constant chewing and lip smacking while I'm trying to study in the library; and I especially don't want to be assaulted by the 100 decibel sounds of those ridiculous new air-hand dryers!

Also, could you cool it with the inattentive driving?  Every time you cross the street these days you feel like a car is about to crash into you.  It's exhausting!

I know a lot of people have been on you about the whole gadget-connectivity-stupidity business lately, so I won't go into that now, except to say that this whole suggested connection between social networking, sharing, and open-mindedness ... well, who do you think you're fooling with that? I saw Mark Zuckerberg in the New Yorker suggesting that the more people put stuff on their Facebook pages, like the fact that they're gay or whatever, the more open and tolerant our society will be.  You think we haven't noticed that the more information people have about others, the more intolerant they are?  I don't know if this is some kind of bait-and-switch or what you got going on with that, but let me just say, I am onto you, Mister.

I know it's not easy being you, but it's not easy being me either.  We're stuck with each other for now so hey, work with me a little, will you?

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Man or Wife? Dilemmas In The Female Reading Experience

Who knew the image results for half man half woman would include so many Halloween costumes?  Not me.
A woman with an interesting job, who's involved in the world, and who lives in the modern post-sexual-revolution world, faces a difficulty in identifying with the characters of any but the most contemporary novels.

It's not hard to see how this happens.  You can identify with the female characters, and for a certain range of contexts that works:  you can identify with being a daughter, with receiving male callers, with the timeless weird expectations of feminine passivity and caring.  But at some point identifying with female characters becomes impossible.  Their lives are structured around the expectation of marriage and childbirth.  After a certain time in life female characters have one of three things happen to them.

1)  They're absorbed by marriage and children; their concerns are now inscribed in a circle of intimacy.

2)  They're unmarried; their unmarriedness is now a striking and awful burden, rendering them objects of pity.

3) They're in a convent or something with a religious, non-family, non-sexual life.

Obviously, these options bypass most of us completely.  Most married women with kids still work, which means they have a public life:  a life out in the world with all the hassles, drama, and pride that entails.

In a huge amount of pre-contemporary literature, it's only men who have this sort of public life.  So you identify with the male characters, and for a certain range of contexts that works.  Indeed, the male characters often confront the puzzles and dilemmas we all confront now:  those of public life, but also those of the clashes between that life and the needs of one's intimates.

But at some point identifying with the male characters becomes difficult too.  For one thing, men have wives; for another, other men respond to them completely differently than they respond to women.  For me, identifying with the male characters gets harder as I get older:  being a middle-aged woman is just not like being a middle-aged man.

So you kind of go back and forth.  And it's this kind of back and forth that gives being female that weird kind of double-aspect, that two-sided quality.  You're a person, so there's that, but then you're a woman, which is somehow different.  It's kind of exhausting. 

I was reminded of this recently because I was reading Jennifer Egan's (very contemporary) book Look at Me, and there's a scene in the beginning with two teenage girls and their difficulties with sex.  They want to have sex.  First they try having sex with boys, but the boys have no idea what to do to make it pleasant or satisfying for them.  Then they try having sex with men, but it's creepy and weird:  the men are married and want to get it over with as quickly as possible and get home.  Then they try having sex with guys, like college guys, but that doesn't work so great either:  they guys are too drunk; they're distracted; they're more interested in impressing one another than actually interacting with girls.

Wow, I thought.  Whatever else you want to say, you just don't get that kind of depiction of actual modern girlhood ... well, anywhere really.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Drudgery and the Good Life: Questions In The Philosophy of Alcott and Montgomery

I've always thought of Louisa May Alcott and L. M. Montgomery as philosophical novelists.  Alcott is more obvious, maybe less subtle about it:  in books like Little Women the wiser are always counseling the less wise in ways clearly directed at the rest of us, and the less wise are always geting into trouble for not following wise counsel.  Montgomery is more subtle and more complex:  the Anne of Green Gables books do have that same wise-not-wise-counsel stuff, but they also have a kind of funny randomness and unpredictability.  Montgomery doesn't seem committed, as Alcott is, to the belief that if you just approach what is happening in your life with the proper spirit it will be less sucky.  In Montgomery books, somtimes life just sucks.

One theme that is big in both authors is the importance of caring for others, and the ways in which caring for other people will enrich your own life.  Interestingly, both pursue this theme partly through reflection on adoptions of various kinds.  Of course, Anne's own adoption is the main thing in the Green Gables books, and the main thing about it is the way it alters and improves the lives and the souls of the brother and sister who have adopted her.  In Little Men (the sequel to Little Women), Jo opens a school and takes in various abandoned boys to raise and care for alongside the regular pupils.  In other Alcott novels, taking care of children that are not yours is treated as an obvious thing to do, something tending toward the happiness of everyone involved.  And late in the Green Gables series, one of Anne's children has to decide whether to take in an orphaned infant to care for as her own, even though at sixteen years old all she wants to think about is what color ribbons she wants to wear to the next gathering.  Naturally, she decides to take in the infant; naturally she comes to adore him and is completely happy with her choice.

It's a nice message: caring for others is the way to happiness.

But this is not a simple message to carry over from their world to our world.  Consider.  Who is changing all those kids' diapers?  Who is doing their laundry?  Who is cleaning up their dishes?  Who is making sure they have lunch at school?

The answer to all these questions is THE HIRED HELP.  Even though none of the families in the relevant books is in any way rich, they all have help:  women who work for the family and do the washing, the cooking, the darning, the scrubbing the floors -- even the nose-wiping, the infant feeding, and the nagging.

It seems to me this complicates the idea that caring for others is the way to happiness.  Sure, if someone else is doing all the boring dirty work, I'm sure singing lullabies, reading stories, and giving wise counsel is pretty life affirming stuff.  But that's just the nice part of caring for someone.  The hard part of caring for someone is the drudgery:  the shopping, the food preparation, the endless boring tasks that life just requires. 

Now I'm willing to believe that doing these things is Good, but the ticket to happiness, really?  Certainly no one is holding up the servants as examples of the Life Well Lived.  In fact, and weirdly, in these kinds of books no one discusses the emotional life of the help.  When you think about it, the existence of "help" complicates many of the themes of these books.  There's often a kind of "if you are industrious and good you'll go far" kind of thing, but what if the cook is industrious and good? She doesn't go anywhere.

The fact that someone else is doing all the crummy parts in these books, it seems to me, undercuts the simple theme that the ticket to well-being is to surround yourself with dependents.  The question, then, is how we should interpret Alcott and Montgomery's idea in a modern world without servants.

Is it that drudgery isn't so bad, and doing laundry at 10:00 pm, as many working moms do, is not so sucky, if you just approach it in the proper spirit, like a wise person would?  Is it that there are ways of caring for people that don't require taking over the drudgery parts, and we should do more of those?  Is the idea essentially yoked to a system in which only one person works outside the home?

We need a modern Alcott and a modern Montgomery, so they can help us figure it out.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Adulthood Isn't Independence, And It Doesn't Require A Nissan Quest Minivan, Either


 There are a lot of things to be annoyed by in the recent New York Times article on the way 20-somethings are dithering and delaying their progress toward "adulthood."  But the most annoying is the way adulthood is assumed to consist primarily in independence and the pursuit of a middle-class suburban lifestyle.

The author mentions early on a sociological definition of adulthood in terms of milestones.  On this view, your adulthood is scored on how many of the following five things you've done:  completed school, left home, become financially independent, married, and had a kid.

It's a weird list right on the face of it, no?  Obviously having marriage and kids on there is really peculiar:  many people will never do these things, just by choice; if you're gay, you might even find the law trying to prevent you from achieving them.  Leaving school is a bit more plausible, but not totally.  If you go back to school to change careers this is surely not a sign of immaturity.

The article points out early on that people don't march in lock stop toward these five things anymore, and then explores why and how modern 20-somethings are generally avoiding them.  Kids are staying at home, and moving back home, of course.  They're taking a long time to decide what they want to do in life.  When they don't live at home, they often travel, and move from living in one place to living in another.  They delay marriage and family.

But really, what's so bad about these things?  Indeed, from one point of view they seem to me admirable.  It's admirable to want to see a bit of a different kind of life before settling into the kind of life you're going to live for the rest of your existence, and it's admirable to want to think carefully about what life path would be best.  Many of these young people are wrestling with questions like to what extent their life should involve good works and to what extent they should be selfish -- surely a difficult matter on which the messages they receive from the culture around them are deeply ambivalent.

Now if you're a parent, you might be annoyed by your kids depending on you, and that is totally understandable.  But beyond that, what is the issue here?  There's nothing "non-adult" about wanting to travel, kick around, and do different things.  Lots of adults are dying to do the same thing.  Really, there's nothing non-adult about any of these things, once you let go of the idea that adulthood has to consist in independence and family life.

And this, I believe, is where the mistake is.   What is up with the fetish for independence?  What is it with this idea that seems to permeate modern discussions of relationships, politics, mental health, that somehow independence is the be-all and end all?   Life is tough.  That's why people band together in groups to help one another out.  That's why families take care of one another.  Dependence on other people -- emotional, practical, financial -- is the norm of life.  It's not an exception, it's not an illness to be treated, and it's not a sign of childishness.  It might be slightly better to think in terms of inter-dependence -- adulthood correlating with being able to help out, in addition to being helped out -- but really, do you want to say that people who are physically disabled are somehow less "adult"? Doesn't seem right.

And obviously, adulthood should not by definition involve marriage, children, cars, dogs, houseplants, or sofas.

Definition-wise, we can surely do better.  Why not look to internal markers rather than external ones?  Just off the top of my head, two things come to mind.  Adulthood -- or, at least, maturity -- has to do with thinking for yourself and it has to do with being able to take other people and their needs and desires into consideration.  Intellectual and moral adulthood.

As a university professor, I see young people all the time, and interestingly, I'd say there is some cause for optimism on the moral maturity front.  Young people are thinking about others; they'd like the suffering of the world to disappear; they'd like to be able to help out others more without having to worry so much about their own futures and what those hold.  The same behaviors that are immature on the standard definition could be signs of maturity on this one:  people find it hard to figure how they ought to live in the world.

It's on the thinking for yourself front that I'm a little worried.  Thinking for yourself is work, and it's often difficult, and if you're used to just absorbing information, it can be a real pain.  If you're worried about the effects of the new kinder, gentler, parenting, or the effects of endless "self-esteem" praise, or the effects of huge classrooms on young people, the thing to be worried about isn't so much whether the kids are ready to pick out and pay for living room furniture by the time they're 25; the thing to be worried about is whether they believe everything they read on the fucking internet, or find in a textbook, or see on TV, or hear from their friends.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Against Authenticity

 When J. D. Salinger died early this year, the accounts of his life in places like the The New York Review of Books described a man desperate to live some kind of life he could believe in.  Reading about it you get the feeling that, like his protagonist Holden Caulfield, Salinger couldn't stand phoniness, and thus couldn't stand the possibility that he, himself, would be leading an inauthentic, fake sort of life.  In Salinger's case, this seemed to have manifested itself primarily through a rejection of the life of literary fame in literary circles in literary cities like New York, in favor of ordinary life in simple towns like Cornish, New Hamphsire.

I've always had a complicated relationship to The Catcher in the Rye, and reading about Salinger made it feel more complicated.  When I first read it as assigned reading in high school, I was indignant:  "What a BOY'S BOOK this is," I thought.  "So, at 14 years old I'm considered to young to see racy movies but I have to read a book about a guy visiting prostitutes??"  I'm no prude, and I wasn't one then, but it really bugged me that so few of Holden's problems or adventures seemed to carry over to my female adolescent experience.  As I got older I came to like the book a lot, perhaps because it's actually easier for the grown-up me to identify with Holden's problems than it was for the 14 year old me to do so.

In fact, as I got older, I began to enjoy all of Salinger's books.  But I was always bothered by something I felt I didn't understand.  These characters all seemed to be seeking something, wanting something, wanting life to be something other than what it was, and I could never tell whether the point was, Hey, These are intelligent, reflective people, reflecting on the meaning of life, or whether it was more like, Hey, These people are in the grip of a massive illusion, that reflection will tell them something about the meaning of life.

For whatever it's worth -- and probably not much -- Salinger's life details sure do suggest the former.  When I read about Salinger's attempt to escape his life of literary fame, and his attempt to live a kind of authentic life, it seemed to me he had immediately created for himself an impossible situation.  I mean, here's a guy who is a famous author. That is his actual reality.  But he's going to go live in Cornish and try to live the life of a guy who is not a famous author?  To try to live a more authentic life? It's almost by definition an inauthentic life.  How can you live as what you really are if you're always pretending to be something else?

The whole story just added to a feeling I've long had, the the problem in such cases isn't the "living as what you are not" as much as the "trying to be authentic."

People always talk about authenticity like it's such a great thing, but I think for all its appeal, it's got a dark side.  For one thing, the whole concept of authenticity implies a kind of essentialism.  If you're just becoming what your social world expects of you, obviously that doesn't count, so authenticity must mean instead something like being the way your really are inside.  But when you put it like that, it starts to seem weird.  I mean, we grow up with families in communities -- are their influnces somehow making us inauthentic? And if not, why would the social world of our adulthood be any different?

Furthermore, as Lynda Barry so memorably puts it, what if your real self is awful?  What do you do then? 

And what about change?  As you know if you're an adult, it's hard to change, even when you really want to.  Pascal, of course, tells us that if you want to change, the first step is to live as if the change has already happened:  if you want to believe in god, he says, go to church, hang around with believers, and do good deeds.  And it's true, if you want to change, just having different habits is the first step.  But obviously that would be forbidden if you were trying to be all "authentic" and non-phony all the time.  What Pascal recommends is like the essence of phoniness.

Anyway, I've got a theory about why people like authenticity, and it's this:  ironically, what people like about authenticity isn't the truth of authenticity but the appearance of authenticity -- even the artifice of authenticity will do. 

This comes up over and over whenever people have occasion to discuss other people's manners at length.  A lot of those occasions are in European novels of the past, where the ultimate praise for others' manners is for how "natural" they are -- and I take this to mean, the person does not seem to be pretending, does not seem to be nervous, does not seem to be acting out a set of etiquette rules, but rather has an simple and comfortable way that suggests confidence.

But it's not just a thing of the past.  We criticize people now for manner that seems not quite natural, not quite at ease, somehow seeking to create an effect.  But I don't think it's because care about people's true selves; I think it's for the same reason Jane Austen criticized these things:  such manners are unpleasant.

The manners of people living who they are can be very appealing.  The sort of characters we associate with authenticity ... they convey a kind of self-assurance that makes you think, Hm, I'd like to be like that.  But the moral of that isn't to try to become those characters; the moral of that is just that self-assurance is attractive, however you go about getting it.

This kind of authenticity is more like the courage of your convictions than it is about being true to one's self, or contrasting one's true self to one's social self.  We like that courage.  Even when it's faked.

If you want this kind of authenticity, you've got to either relentlessly say what you really believe, or you've got to be a really good actor, or some combination of the two.  But either way, it's got nothing to do with true selves, or with living an ordinary life, or with being "some guy in Cornish" rather than "a famous author."

Friday, August 20, 2010

Wanted: Lively But Comatose Best Friend For Life


The title of this blog comes from my favorite book, Amazons: An Intimate Memoir by the First Woman Ever to Play Hockey in the National Hockey League, by Cleo Birdwell.  The book is really by Don Delillo together with maybe some co-author; for reasons I cannot fathom Delillo has disowned the book, refusing to acknowledge paternity.

The book is, naturally, about Cleo Birdwell's career as the first woman in the NHL.  Cleo isn't like other female characters in novels.  She's straight ahead; she's funny; she's cheerful.  She likes to sleep around. She's kind of a small-town girl, but she's great friends with her loony New York agent, Floss Penrose, who likes to make soup and play strip monopoly with younger men.  Cleo is all about simplicity and not over-thinking things, and in tough times she repeats her life's organization scheme:  "I just want to play hockey."

Early on Cleo meets up with Shaver Stevens, another hockey player, whose career has been cut short by a rare disease called Jumping Frenchman's.  The treatment for this involves being put to sleep in a Kramer cube, which is like a glass box with tubes, and Shaver spends about half the book asleep in Cleo's apartment, having his various needs tended to by Cleo, then by a goth teen from "Nurses Anonymous" while Cleo is at some away games, and finally by Floss herself, while Cleo is on vacation back home.

Women love Shaver -- or, rather, women love a man-in-a-Kramer.  First it's Floss, who tells Cleo she must have one for herself.  Someone "sensitive, wryly humorous . . . Likes movies, being spontaneous in the Hamptons . . . The longer the sleep period the better."  Then it's the woman from Success magazine who comes to do a profile. "That's the most beautiful face I've ever seen . . . If he were mine, I'd keep him in there as long as I could . . . I guess that sounds selfish and cruel doesn't it?  I'm sorry."  They see his striped pajamas, his serious but kind face, his fit body, and they think, Why can't I have one?

OK, so maybe you're thinking Oh ha ha, cheap throwaway jokes about a certain type of superficiality.  But I think the desire for the Kramered partner is more widespread than you might think.  Think about it.  A TV is kind of like a Kramer box, rendering you temporarily passive while your nutritional needs get met.  And people often prefer to have their loved-ones rendered passive by TV than actually interacting with them all the time.  Interaction is dangerous.  A person engaging with you might say something challenging, or hurtful, or even just slightly less loving than you'd expect.  But a person watching TV ... you know he's there; you know she cares; like Floss, you can rely on the knowledge that you've got a companion -- without all the trouble and risk of actual interaction.

Have you never had that feeling, sitting with your friends or your spouse watching some show they like, and thinking, Well, I know for the next little while things will be completely predictable? It's further evidence for my hypothesis that couples, as time goes on, watch more and more movies at home.  It suggests a lot of us kind of want what Floss wants, a best friend for life, someone who shares our interests, someone who will always be there, someone who likes being spontaneous in the Hamptons but will probably sleep forever.

At one point Cleo asks the obvious.  "I know this is a dumb question, but if he's asleep, what's the point of all those things?"  And Floss says, "Just to know something about him.  To be secure within myself that I'm involved with someone compatible."  I guess it's like having a virtual boyfriend or something, but isn't it nicer and more interesting that he's physically present?

The title of this blog, by the way, refers to Cleo's good-natured refusal to consider the question of what happens when Shaver wakes up.  That's when Cleo says, "I don't know. I haven't thought beyond the Kramer. The Kramer is now."  That's Cleo for you, living effortlessly in the present.  Is it any wonder I try to make her my guide to life?

Friday, August 13, 2010

Boring Movies Are Boring

I didn't like the movie but I kind of love Russell Brand.
I went to see the movie Get Him to the Greek a couple of weeks ago.  Guess what? I found it kind of stupid.

I don't mean that it's "a stupid movie" in the ordinary, predictable way that some movies are stupid.  In that sense I went to see it because it was a stupid movie:  a movie with silly jokes, over the top character acting, an implausible plot, and charismatic and attractive stars -- well, one charismatic and attractive star anyway.

What was stupid about it was that it was, aside from the quick jokes and cultural satire, completely boring.  I had kind of high hopes from the initial set up, which seemed to me full of promise:  nerdy young man meets the fading rock star he used to idolize.  So many things could have happened.  Was the guy going to challenge the rock star by being the only person willing to tell him the uncomfortable truth? Was the rock star going to hate him for it? Or was the rock star going to love him for his honesty?  Would the guy be disillusioned by being up close to that which, from far away, seemed so appealing and cool?

The movie kept having weird disconnected moments related to these themes, but they just never added up to anything.  One minute the nerdy guy is sucking up, one minute he's not, you never really understand what is going on with that.  It's supposed to be about friendship, but you never really get why they become such unlikely friends.  It's not Aaron's honesty, because he isn't honest.  It's not because of Aaron's fidelity, because Aaron isn't really loyal.  I think it's just because poor Aldous is so very unhappy and Aaron ... well, he just happens to be around. 

There's no parts of the movie that make you feel challenged in anything, or thoughtful, or ambivalent.  Indeed, with respect to themes, the most you could say is that the writer and director want you to know that Taking Drugs Is Bad, Having Casual Sex Will Get You Into Trouble, and You Should Love Your Family Members.

I thought maybe this was just a flukey thing, like you know, sometimes movies don't come out right for complicated unexpected reasons.  That was the impression I left with.  But then there was a New Yorker article profiling Steve Carell and describing the new way of making comedies.  Basically, someone comes up with a basic idea, and then a "bucket brigade" of funny guys like Judd Apatow come around and punch it up with ideas and then the actual dialogue of the movie is just improvised.

I get what these people are trying to do, but you can see how the resulting movies are kind of pointless, because aside from things like "wouldn't it be funnier if you said 'banana' instead of 'fruit'? Ha ha ha, hilarious!!" basically no thought is going into these movies at all. 

I gather the new movie made with this strategy is the Dinner for Schmucks movie.  If ever a plot cried out for a dollop of reflection it's this one:  dinner is a competition for who can bring the most idiotic guest, with none of the guests knowing why they're there.  But The New Yorker describes the creative process as revolving around moments like the one in which Carell changes one line from "She's talking to a lobster" to "She's talking to a manatee" and everyone explodes in laughter.  Ha ha ha! Manatee! hilarious!   

I have to confess, my reaction on reading this was some serious eye-rolling.  These guys are like, Hey, we're funny! We can just say stuff and it'll be funny! Movies Made E-Z.

People, it doesn't have to be this way.  All you need is a script.  You can improvise more jokes after you write it. Do it for me, and do it for Russell Brand, who really deserves better.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Family Dynamics Of Some New World Countries

Pretty climate map of North America
I've always thought of the United States as a fundamentally adolescent sort of country.  Think about it:  the things America says are just the things teenagers say.  "I don't need you." "I'm going to do it my own way." "You're not the boss of me" and, of course, "I'm special and not like any other country on earth!"

It's natural to think that if the US is an adolescent, then Europe is a continent full of adults, and there seems to me something to this.  Some European countries have the air of people who have been through a lot of trouble and just want some quiet time to enjoy life.  They're like, OK, enough with the constant fighting and complaining! We've got better things to do.

I moved to Canada a few years ago, and I started to think, Well, if you think of Europe as the parents and the US as a kid, then clearly Canada is a kind of sibling.  Both the US and Canada are kind of like the children of broken homes -- the offspring of parents who don't always get along peacefully and who occasionally use the kids to get back at one another.

The thing is, I think, that where the US is a pain-in-the-ass ungrateful teenager, Canada is like a sensible younger child -- say, an eight or ten year-old.  You know those kids:  they basically have it together; they like doing things with the family; they have excellent senses of humor and mostly, they're annoyed and mystified by the behavior of their adolescent siblings.

Can't you picture it?  The scene:  an afternoon picnic with extended family.  America is texting under the table, rolling her eyes at her great-aunt, and picking a fight with some cousin.  She gets up to leave early, pissing everyone off.  Canada says, "Why do you always have to be so difficult?  Mom says we're going to all play scrabble and then go out for ice cream."

I love the United States, but as everyone knows, dealing with adolescents is exhausting.  In the excellent book White Noise by Don Delillo, there's a boy adolescent, Heinrich, who basically argues with everyone about everything.  There's one moment where his father, Jack, finally says something to which the boy responds "Exactly." Jack says something to himself like "I paused, savoring the rare moment of agreement."

I often travel between Canada and the United States, and I'm always amazed, coming back to Canada, by the absence of anger.  It's like you've been with Heinrich arguing all day and you're mad and worn out and irritable and then you encounter the younger kid, who gives you one of those knowing looks kids have, and says to you, "Hey, you wanna go to the aquarium or something?"

And you're like, "Yeah. Yeah, I do."

Thursday, July 29, 2010

So You Want To Be A Princess?

Princesse de Conti, from Wikimedia Commons, here.

 It's a joke in our house that I was born with a princess gene.  This is an allusion to the princess in "The Princess and the Pea" who couldn't sleep because there was a pea underneath her twenty mattresses.

I'm accused of having the princess gene because I'm "sensitive," or, as you might want to describe it, "fussy."  I can't stand loud noises, or static, or even mediocre sound systems.  I hate it when the vegetables are a day old, when the carpeting looks cheap, when leather has that shiny look it sometimes has when it's low-quality.  I can tell when the sheets have a low thread count, and it bothers me.  I have many, complex opinions about the tastes of various brands of bottled water, and will go out of my way to choose Dasani over Aquafina, even though these two are the worst two of all the brands out there.

I don't know why I'm like this, and believe me, I didn't ask to be this way.  Obviously there are times when these impulses should be struggled against, and I work hard at things like not wasting food, choosing tap because it's good for the environment, and not developing a taste for fine wines.

But I used to struggle not only against the impulses, but against the character trait as a whole.  I hated being fussy, and I tried to pretend I wasn't.  I practiced saying things like "I don't care which one," "Either way is fine with me," "No, no, it's perfect just like that."  I was determined not to notice, or care, when things weren't what I wanted them to be.

The older I get, though, the more I think you have to be true to yourself.  So instead of feeling bad about the princess gene, I started thinking about all the good qualities princesses have. You know, things I could work toward improving, taking princesses as a role model.

And I realized:  there's a lot to work with here.  Consider:

1.  A princess is never crabby or sour when little things don't go her way.

A princess never makes a scowly face when she gets mud on her clothes, or her friends are late, or her shoes pinch.  She may notice these things, and she may not like them, but she knows better than to get upset.  Princesses are above all that.


2.  A princess is generous, kind, and skilled at making others feel welcome and comfortable.

It's like one of the main duties of a princess:  to know how to make everyone feel at ease, and to make people feel like they belong.  Princesses are, above all, gracious.


3.  A princess models gentleness, civilization, and cultivation.

If you've read Little Men, the sequel to Little Women, you may remember the character of Bess, the daughter of Amy.  From her earliest childhood, Bess likes things just so; she likes quiet games and pretty clothes and polite conversation.  Rather than making Bess seem like a silly girly-girl, Louisa May Alcott shows how Bess's presence exerts a powerful civilizing effect on the other children:  they take care to watch what they're doing, and to not say hurtful things, and to play gently with one another.  In other words, she's a tiny model princess.

Of course, the locus classicus for all of this is A Little Princess, by Frances Hodgson Burnett, one of my favorite childhood books.  Sara arrives at boarding school as a rich little girl, but then is thought to have lost her money and family; she has to work as a maid and live in the attic and almost starve to death.  Eventually her family's friends find her and her money is restored.  Throughout, she is generous and kind, reaching out to the poorest and least-liked people in the school.

As Wikipedia so aptly puts the princess aspect:
"A few of the older students are openly jealous of Sara's fortune and give her the mocking nickname of "Princess Sara" in reference to her wealth and perfect manners. The nickname first embarrasses Sara, but soon she adopts it as a reminder to be generous to others."
So if your little girl wants to be a princess, remind her that it's not all glamorous gowns and magic wands:  the position comes with responsibilities and requires a noble character.  No whining, no mocking, no meanness, and no slouching are allowed.

Of course, all of this goes for princes as well.