Monday, December 31, 2012

The Moods Of 2012: We Need A Time Out


2012.  It's been a tough year for life in North America don't you think? 

On top of everything else -- the wars, banks, climate change, violence, etc. etc. -- we have been in some unattractive moods.  If we were a toddler, I'd be calling for a time-out.

Mood 1:  Somebody, somewhere, might be getting away with something.  

Some of this suspicious anger is a collective surge of ordinary free-rider-phobia:  the fear that someone is breaking the rules, lying, misrepresenting, etc.  

But now a person can't even have a reasonable job or a day off without some lunatic getting all up in their face about it.  It's like "OMG teachers get some vacation time and a bit of job security!  Better reign them in!" 

Nice.

Mood 2:  I need some stuff.

I know this has been percolating a long time and isn't really new, but still.  You spend a few days on the streets of the American suburbs, as I have over the holidays, and pretty soon you're asking yourself:  do we really need all these gigantic cars, enormous supermarkets, eighteen varieties of Coke?  I've generally been a fan of consumer culture.  But this is like eating a giant bag of candy all in one sitting.  Gross.  

Mood 3:  Just look at that freak/moron/asshole.

I don't have a TV, and thank god, because I think the parade of shows inviting us to mock other people would have a bad effect on me.  Why is it bullying when one kid does it to another, but fun reality TV when 2.2 million viewers and TLC do it some kid? 

Here's to snapping out of it in 2013!

Monday, December 24, 2012

"Why Does Life Suck?" Or, What's On The Mind Of The Googling Public

What's on the mind of the Googling Public?

I can tell you.  It's sex, sex, [stuff for school], and sex.

Through various means it's possible see the search terms people used when they land here at TKIN.  By far and away, the most common search resulting in clicks on this blog is "Tim Ferriss 15 minute orgasm."

We all know what these people are looking for.  They are looking for a free internet version of the technique outlined in Tim Ferriss's book The Four Hour Body, for giving a woman an orgasm in 15 minutes through a series of precisely timed, just right movements you perform on her while she's lying still in a certain position and you have the kitchen timer set. 

Of course, that is not what they are getting.  My post Tim Ferriss and the 15 Minute Female Orgasm doesn't have instructions for giving a woman a 15 minute orgasm. It's more about making sure you don't forget to consult with the woman in question.  I mean, maybe the woman in your life wants a Sure-Fire-No-Fail-No-Mystery 15 minute orgasm with a kitchen timer.  But then, you know, maybe she doesn't.  Don't forget to ask!

With respect to these Googlers, I feel a little bad.  They must be disappointed.  But what can I say?  Call me naive, but I didn't foresee armies of Googlers trying to find these instructions.

I get lots of hits from people Googling Mary Shelley, presumably for school; I'm pleased that they find my post Mary Shelley Was Ms. Interesting which is a bite-sized homage and just right for the purpose.

Many people who land on TKIN have Googled "The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down" -- they land here.  I think these people are mostly shirkers who are trying to get away with not reading the book and I'm glad that what they get isn't about the main themes of the book but about some side issues.  Do your own homework!

Some Googlers search for terms so suited to the blog it's like we were made for each other.  I hope the person who Googled "Are sexism and misogyny the same?" was thrilled to find a whole post titled "Sexism and Misogyny Are Not The Same Thing."  Likewise, I hope the person who searched for "main duties of princesses" appreciated my post "So, You Want To Be A Princess?"

The most poignant search, the one that has stuck with me the most, is "why does life suck."

So much of this blog is about why life sucks.  Of course, some posts are about why life sucks in this particular place and time, and why we've made life so hard for ourselves in the modern world.  

But human life is difficult even under the best of circumstances.  Life sucks because we're fragile and needy and have trouble making ourselves do the simplest things, even when those things are necessary for happiness. 

So don't forget to take a few minutes to be nice to someone -- not "this holiday week" but all the time.

Listen graciously to someone complain.  Cook and share some food.  Nag someone to eat their vegetables and go to the gym.  Life is a Mutual Aid Association!

Monday, December 17, 2012

Why Can't People Do Anything Anymore? Or, The Fall Of The American McEmpire?

The Roman Coliseum
A friend of mine and I were recently talking about the weird feeling of living in End Times.  No, we were not talking about the Mayan calendar.  We were talking about the way that because of climate change, political chaos, and general declining fortunes, things were going to hell in a handbasket. 

We noted that the US seems to have a particularly apocalyptic feel nowadays.  A few weeks ago we were observing one of the many WTF situations of modern American life, and my friend said, "That's what happened at the end of the Roman Empire.  They just stopped being able to do things.  Eventually they had to take apart old buildings, to use the fixtures, because they were unable to build new things properly."

Whoa.  Doesn't that sound creepily like life in modern America?  We're going to war all over the globe, and no one in charge seems to know anything about the culture of history of other people or anything about why they do the things they do, or even about why we're going around killing people.  It's like: oh, learning about stuff, so difficult.  And then some bad things happen, and it's like "oh, we should do something about that."

One of the weird ways we're having trouble doing things is that we're too busy getting organized to do things.  America's becoming a nation of pencil sharpeners.  I was in a Starbucks in the US the other day and I overheard a woman on her cellphone trying to make an airplane reservation.  Her meeting had been moved.  She had to change her flight.  She wanted a specific time.  The flight seemed available, but she feared overbooking and bumping.  She called the airline. She called some office at her workplace.  I would say I was there for about an hour, and all she did was try to arrange this flight.

Honestly, she seemed to be having a fine time, enjoying "talking on the phone" instead of doing whatever job she was getting organized to do when she got wherever she was going.  I was the one going nuts.  I wanted to say, "Excuse me, but haven't you noticed that your time is running out and you are going to die and you're spending all your time getting organized?  Just pick a flight! Get on with it!"

The pencil sharpening is part of the Rise of the Administrative Class.  Workplaces are becoming stuffed full of managers and administrators, and no one's actually doing anything.  It's the job of the managers and administrators to try to ensure that the employees who aren't administrators and managers make as little money as possible for doing as much work as possible.  That's the natural conclusion of a market system, and its end result is predictable:  who could possibly be content being a doer or maker of things in such a system?

The modern inability to do things reached a new height for me in a story about tutors in yesterday's New York Times.  The headline could have been:  Modern People Can't Do Anything; Tutors Step In To Help."  The introductory anecdote describes a student arriving at university, overwhelmed with the tasks of registering for classes, buying books, and finding the classrooms.  She calls her mom, who in turn calls her high school tutor. 

Actual quote from the article:  "[These] tutors make sure the students are awake in the morning, help them with papers and update their parents on their academic progress." 

"Make sure the students are awake"?  Really?  Honestly, I was a very spazzy student in my college days, among the least organized of all the kids I knew.  I was the kind of kid who would skip class on purpose, simply because I thought I had an opportunity to have fun that simply couldn't be missed, or because I found it boring to sit through a lecture.

But even at my heights of spazziness, I found registering for classes and buying books pretty straightforward.  Getting up the morning:  also not a problem.  I remember being up and breakfasted at 8:00 and deciding not to go to my 9:00 linguistics class, because I found it boring and thought I had better things to do.  Spazzy?  yes.  Unable to get up in the morning without a tutor?  No. 

But back then we had special technology -- things you could "set" that would make an "alarm" go off at a preset time of your choosing.  We called it an alarm clock.  I don't know where you'd find something like that nowadays.  

Obama gave a speech yesterday that The Times described as "surprisingly assertive."  In it, he said "these tragedies must end."  If a student wrote something like that in a paper I was grading, I would take them to task:  for being vague, for not dealing with the obvious question of whose responsibility it was to act, and for using grammar that obscures those difficulties. 

In modern America, though, it's considered tough talk.  Strange times indeed. 

Monday, December 10, 2012

Why Can't You Get What You Want?: Advanced Consumerism And The Female Beauty Industrial Complex

Rubens, Venus at her Toilet, circa 1608, via Wikimedia Commons here.
Top among questions about the Female Beauty Industrial Complex:  why does interacting with it have to suck so bad?

I mean, for all the awful things about living in an advanced consumer society, for all the way it screws with your preferences, makes you feel bad about yourself to sell crap, and destroys the environment, you'd think that at least there would be one benefit:  that you can get what you want.  You'd think that living in an advanced consumer society, you could say to someone "just a trim, please, and I don't want a blow-out," and that's what you'd get.

But no.  You can't get what you want.  What true is something more like:  you can get what you want, as long as lots of other people want the same thing. 

I don't know about you, but my interactions with the Female Beauty Industrial Complex are always awful.

And that's not because I'm against the beauty concept.  I mean, I  am reasonably into beauty, and I'm not bothered by the idea that beauty sometimes is a pain.  I don't balk at the idea that eyebrow waxing is painful, or that pretty shoes aren't good for hiking, or that you can't do yoga in a nice dress.  Like so many things, there are trade offs, and you have to choose your battles.  Lipstick?  yes.  A half hour of hair care in the morning?  No.  Heels?  Yes.  A massive shoulder bag for my computer?  No.  With respect to carrying things, I remain committed to the backpack lifestyle. 

So the problem is not that Beauty and I have issues.  Beauty and I are good.

It's the Industrial Complex part that's the problem.  When I go to any kind of salon or haircutting place or anything the main thing I get is a scolding.  Always mixed with a healthy dose of condescension and eye-rolling.  WTF?

I went to get a haircut last week.  I don't have a regular haircutter person because 1) I just want to do it when it's convenient and 2) I've never found anyone I'd actually want to go back to.  I wear my hair long and up, because it's easy and looks pretty good -- and you don't have to get it cut every five minutes.   So I just pop in wherever.  I'm not fussy. 

"I just want a trim, please."  My opening salvo.  "Ooh, when's the last time you got your haircut?"  I made the mistake of answering truthfully ("I don't know") and got a literal finger wagging along with a preliminary scolding. 

I went on to get scolded for having gone so long since the previous cut, for wearing my hair up instead of down, for not wanting a blow-out, for not wanting any styling on the given occasion, for not wanting the Big Round Style Brush That Tears Out Your Hair, and for not wearing my hair down (again). 

It was suggested that the reason I was so benighted as to wear my hair up instead of down was that I didn't know how great it could look down because I didn't really know how to style it because I didn't get it styled at the salon.  Bringing together all my defects in one coherent picture, I guess.

I used to get my eyebrows waxed and shaped.  But after the zillionth time being scolded ("You must come more often!  You can't wear them shaped that way!  What do you mean you don't use eye pencil to fill in that little gap where you have a scar!  It's the easiest thing in the world! What's wrong with you?") I gave up.  I just do the best I can at home.

I'm sure there's a complex relationship between beauty, female beauty, and the Female Beauty Industrial Complex, but I don't think you can say that the problem is just that people value female beauty in a superficial way.  Because guys also have to look a certain way sometimes.  If you're a guy in business, you definitely have to look a certain way and you definitely will be judged on how well you conform and you definitely have to pursue certain intensive grooming things as part of that.  And yet, I've never heard a guy say he was scolded by his barber.

So what's the deal?  Do women who are into the Female Beauty Industrial Complex just like it this way?  This doesn't seem impossible.  The scolding could be part of a system in which there are clear lines about what you're supposed to do and what you're not supposed to do and the scolding reminds them of that.  I guess if you're following the rules, you get a pat on the head instead of a swat on the nose.  So maybe that is part of it. 

And as so often I'm reminded of how hard it is to get what you want in an advanced consumer society if what you want is idiosyncratic.  Like, I want to ride the bus.  But I want it to be a bit more expensive, and to have better service, than it does now.  But I can't have that.  Because it's obviously not what others want. 

That's when I want to shake Advanced Consumerism by the shoulders and say, "With all your other problems, you can't even do this one thing?"  What is the deal?"

Monday, December 3, 2012

Inequality: It's Not Just For Income Anymore

I got the picture from these guys. I hope they don't mind.
Recently I was on campus at an ungodly hour when no one else was really there.  My morning companions:  three or four pretty unhealthy looking students, each having a pile of doughnuts with some coffee. 

I thought to myself "Yeah, it is really tough to be fit and healthy and not eat crap in 21st century North America."  And then I thought "And it's even harder to be fit and healthy and not eat crap if you're a student in 21st century North America.  I mean, with all the other shit they have to deal with, they're bombarded with opportunities to eat bad food.  No wonder kids are less fit and healthy overall."

But then I remembered: it's not like this for everyone.  Because student athletes are in better shape than ever.  Standards to play a sport in any competitive way have skyrocketed.  You have to kick/hit/throw that ball better faster smarter, start when you're a tot, and basically do nothing else.

Just like everything else these days, fitness is becoming winner-take-all.  There's no middle class of fitness.  Either you're an obsessed triathlete/star quarterback/whatever or you're spending the whole day doing stuff that basically requires sitting.  And have you heard?  Sitting is the new silent deadly killer.

But it's not just fitness.  The middle class of everything is disappearing.  In this post from 2011, I used the metaphor of women's shoes:  you shop for women's shoes these days, you can get four-inch stiletto heals -- the acme of crazy style and discomfort -- or you can get Tevas/Clarke's/whatever -- shoes that proclaim their practicality to the world:  I am comfortable, hear me roar!  What's wrong with a nice pair of well-made heels with a delicate but serviceable strap, huh?  Where's my middle class of shoes?

The most obvious application is financial:  as I put it before, these days you're either aiming for Jay Gatsby or you're on your parent's sofa drinking beer. 

But it's not just income.  Crazy inequality is everywhere now.  You can be New York or you can be Stockton.  Where are the Clevelands of yesteryear?   The average women wears a size 12-14.  The average model wears a 0 or 2.  The distance is ever greater.  If you're just graduating, you have to plan on making a fortune in order to pay back your student loans and get a decent apartment.

What is the deal? 

I'm sure there are many complex forces at work.  But I think we dangerously downplay the difficulties inherent in competition and meritocracy.


These sound like such great ideas, don't they?  Let people compete for the world's rewards.  Let the best person win.  If you can do something more cheaply and more efficiently than someone else you win; if you are willing to pay more you get the goods.

But unless you're in unusual circumstances, isn't increasing inequality of everything a natural result?  Just look at sports.  People start off with widely varying degrees of talent.  Then the more you can drop everything else and devote your attention to just your chosen sport, the better you'll be than the people around you.  The more people start to drop everything to become successful at something, the more everyone else has to drop everything to become successful at something.


This New Yorker story describes parents who drop everything, move across the country, so their kids can attend an intensive football camp -- when the kids are still like eight years old.  The coach who runs it charges up to a thousand dollars an hour for private lessons.  Obviously, if you now want to play football at any level, this is who you're competing against:  you, too, have to train like a lunatic.  Now the people at the top are going to be not just a bit ahead, but way ahead, of everyone else. 

The same kind of thing is happening in lots of domains.  If you want to go to a top university in the US, you have to work at nothing else all the time.  Your parents have to make sure you get into the right pre-school, for heaven's sake.  As long as other people want the goods, and as long as the goods go to the person who can best fulfill the criteria, you're going to have the problem that people who do nothing else are going to get the goods.

To prevent the wild escalation, to make things more equal, to even them out, to make it so lots of people can participate, that having a so-so job is a perfectly reasonable way to live your life:  that's going to require certain positive kinds of action, structures, institutions, rules, and so on. 

A middle class of anything is not the kind of thing that just thrives naturally.  Fostering one requires actual care and attention.  Bring back the middle classes of everything please!

Monday, November 26, 2012

Denial Of Death: I Can Haz Manual Plz?

Detail of Bruegel painting The Triumph of Death, via Wikimedia Commons here.
I kept hearing about this book, Denial of Death, written in 1973 by Ernest Becker.  I heard it was about the dread of death, and the influence this dread has on how people live.  I heard that it was about the way people deal with the reality of death, by committing themselves, in over-the-top ways, to certain kinds of ideas and projects.  I heard it spoke to the particular kind of anxiety associated with the fragility of being human, and the particular kind of depression associated with looking mortality clear in the eye. 

I heard these things and I thought:  this is the book for me.  I can never quite get death out of my mind.  I'm baffled by people who say death gives life meaning.  How can you have meaning -- how can you even have any fucking dignity -- knowing that this is the only time around, and there's only so many days, and when they're over you're a pile of bones and rotting flesh?  And nevermind yourself.  How can you live knowing your loved ones are in the same stupid situation? 

The only rational way to deal with the problem of death is to forget about it for a while.  Some people seem to find this forgetting relatively easy.  I don't know how these people got to be this way, or whether they're from another planet, or have some brain chip or piece of DNA that I am missing.  I see them sometimes, placidly shopping for kale or taking a long bike ride, and I wonder if we're the same species.  Because for me, the thought that today is today is always vividly linked with the thought that today I am one day closer to death.

Anyway, I heard these things about Denial of Death, and I went and bought a copy.  This book has some weird aspects.  Like, the idea that the man's experience is "the" experience is so deeply infused in the book that the question of any difference between men and women doesn't even come up.  Sometimes Becker says "A man experiences ..." and the next part is something like "a fear of mortality" and it's clear he's talking about all persons.  Other times he says "A man experiences ... " and the next part of the sentence is something like "his penis ..." and I'm like "Oh!  I thought we were talking about people in general."

The penis comes up because a lot of the book is about Freud and psychoanalysis.  Penis envy in this book is an actual thing to be taken seriously and grappled with.  This is another weird thing.  Obviously the book was written before we started listening to all the women who were saying "Penis?  Envy?  Hm, no, not so much."

But these are small things.  The book is definitely interesting and in a class by itself.  With respect to death, Becker puts the problem in the context of the double nature of human existence, a double-nature that has been a thorn in my side my adult whole life.  It's something like this:

Because of our animal nature and physical fragility, we are selfish -- we need to feel self-worth, to feel "secure in our self-esteem."  Because we are humans, and not merely animals, we live in a world in which self-worth is "constituted symbolically" -- and so we feel the need to stand out, to "make the biggest contribution possible to world life" -- to show that we matter the most.  We need to see ourselves as figures larger than life.

The problem is that at the end of the day, we're just "worm food."  We're finite beings, animals, mortal, part of nature, actually utterly insignificant in the grand scheme of things.  What we need to feel OK is contradicted by the reality we know to be true.     

Becker argues that humans generally deal with the dilemma of mortality through "immortality projects" -- causes and life-organization schemes in which we feel like we become part of something bigger than ourselves, something likely to last.  These "heroism projects" give us the sense that life has meaning. 

Religion used to structure the heroism projects for a lot of people.  But in the modern world, not so much, but we find substitutes, like having money or feeling superior to other people or being patriotic or whatever. 

As you can imagine, having your immortality project threatened sucks, and part of Becker's thesis is that horrible things like violence and war happen because people's immortality projects are threatened.  I don't know about whether that sort of sociological claim can be true. 

But the personal aspect really speaks to me.  Here's the Wikipedia summary of the idea:

"When someone is experiencing depression, their causa sui (or heroism project) is failing, and they are being consistently reminded of their mortality and insignificance as a result."
That's it!  I am constantly being reminded of my mortality and insignificance.  Does that mean my heroism project is breaking down?  What would I do about that?



Unfortunately, Becker doesn't give you a lot of answers. I don't want to join a cult or visit an ashram, and I certainly don't want to start believing in money or patriotism to form new hero projects.  How dumb would that be, to become a booster of the war-with-Iran just so you could deal with your own mortality without falling apart?

But then, you know, I don't really need to become unaware of mortality.  Maybe I don't need an "immortality project."  What I need is more like a mortality-distraction project.  I need the grown-ups' equivalent of mobile to hang above my bed:  oooh, look, shiny!  Or maybe I just need a set of stupid guidelines to follow.  Want to forget death?  DO:  call your friends on the phone.  DON'T:  spend quiet time thinking about the Big Questions. 


Conclusion:  I don't need Denial of Death, the psycho-social treatise on Important World Events.  I just need Denial of Death:  The Manual.  A simple how-to would suffice, thank you.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Two Moons, But Still Too Much Like Real Life: Reflections on Murakami's 1Q84

I've always had a complicated reader relationship with Haruki Murakami. 

I mean, at the level of pages and characters I'm totally drawn in.  I'm like "Ooh, there's an oddball girl with a weird name and now she's talking to the disaffected hero.  What is her backstory?  What is she going to say?  I need to know now." 

But at the level of the book, I'm often mystified and kind of blank.  I'm wondering, "was there a point to that?  Is the point the pointlessness itself?  If I think that's annoying, am I a philistine? Am I just missing something?

I just finished Murakami's most recent three-volume novel, 1Q84.   Right of the bat:  as is made obvious, the title is an allusion to 1984, and thus in some way to Orwell's novel.  So I'm asking myself:  is this book supposed to be in any way related to, or a commentary on, 1984?

Wow, wrong question.  Because who can figure that out?  1984 was about a horrifying future of totalitarianism and state control through The Party which is everywhere and all powerful -- going so far as to create reality to suit its needs. 

1Q84 is about an alternative reality (maybe) and two characters who share a mysterious connection.  There's a religious sect with weird beliefs which might be true.  There's a world with two moons.  There's a math teacher.  There's a female assassin.  There's a sinister detective-type guy.  There are complex musings on metaphysics. 

So:  Is Murakami saying that religious sects are dangerous the way totalitarianism is?  Murakami did also write a book on the 1995 sarin gas attacks in the Tokyo subway, carried out by the cult Aum Shinrikyo, so it's not farfetched.  Or is he making a larger point about the nature of good and evil, implicitly disagreeing with Orwell's blanket condemnation of some characters and some behaviors?  Is the idea that God or his agents are, like the Party of 1984, always in control so that we, like poor Winston, are just pawns?

I don't think I'm making a controversial claim when I say that there is no way this book intends anything so straightforward.  It may not intend anything on these topics.  It may not intend any particular thing at all.  You might have to take it at face value.  There's a religious sect.  There's a math teacher.  There's a female assassin.  Stop. 

The reader in me feels -- well, she feels annoyed by this.  So does Janet Maslin, by the way, who writes of 1Q84 the New York Times review:

"And is it actually about anything? Don’t be silly. Mr. Murakami is far too playful and allusive an artist to be restricted by a banal criterion like that one."

Obviously this is unfair, because a book can be about stuff without having some kind of message or unifying narrative.  I'm sure there are about a million ways to talk intelligently about why and how this is so but perhaps the most obvious is this:  life doesn't have a message or unifying narrative; why should literature?  Isn't the best way of being true to reality to deny the tidiness of a story that ties together loose ends and shows how things are all connected?

Sure.  Of course.  That idea is intellectually unimpeachable. 

And yet.  I think there's something here that goes beyond the matter of narrative tidiness and loose ends. 

Just before I read 1Q84 I reread Nabokov's novel Pale Fire.  In case you haven't read it, the text of Pale Fire is structured as a commentary on a 1000 word fictional poem that forms part of the book itself.  In certain ways, you couldn't ask for a book with more opacity, ambiguity, and general weirdness.  Virtually every important question you could have about what is going on in the book is left, at the end, without a clear answer.

And yet, one never leaves Pale Fire with a feeling of confusion, uncertainty, or blankness.  On the contrary.  Speaking for myself, I finished Pale Fire with a swoosh of dread and a frightening exhilaration.  I don't know exactly what "happened" -- or didn't -- in Pale Fire.  But the book is definitely about some things.

One of the most powerful feelings I get reading Nabokov is that I'm being given the opportunity to encounter something genuinely heartbreaking about the human condition without just faltering in its face.  Reading Nabokov is like passing through the hurricane of humanity with just the proper protection and supplies to know you'll make it to the other side.  Tying up narrative loose ends isn't really a necessary part of that

Is there an analogue for 1Q84?  I don't know.  When I was near the end of it, I stayed up late to finish because I really really wanted to know what was going to happen.  There was an oddball girl with a weird name, and a disaffected hero, and I was dying to know what was going to happen.

And then I finished the book.  And even though the book had "an ending" in the clearest possible way, I was left with an empty feeling.  A feeling of:  OK, so that happened.  OK.

In one way, I guess that's a lot like life, since most of life ends with "OK, so that happened." I guess for me it makes literature too much like life.  I not only know that feeling, I'm kind of sick to death of that feeling.  In literature I'm looking for something else.

Clearly Murakami is thinking about some of the same questions.   In 1Q84 there's a character who is a novelist, and there's a review of a book he's worked on, and the review says in part:

"As a story, the work is put together in an exceptionally interesting way and it carries the reader along to the very end but when it comes to [certain crucial questions] we are left in a pool of mysterious question marks.  This may well be the author's intention, but many readers are likely to take this lack of clarification as a sign of "authorial laziness " ... in the future [the author] may well need to explain [this] deliberately cryptic posture."

I'm sure Murakami does get a lot of reviews like this:  reviews that whine about his refusal to tell us what is going on. 

In 1Q84, he goes on to describe the fictional author's response:  puzzlement, that a writer who "carried the reader along to the very end" could be considered lazy, but also uncertainty, about whether the critic might be right. 

That phrase -- pool of mysterious question marks -- is beautiful and a perfect illustration of what I'm saying.  It's just like real life.  It's a little too much like real life, where we never know what is going on either. 

Monday, November 12, 2012

Human Nature Is Addictive Nature

By British Artist Louis Wain, 1860-1939, via Wikimedia Commons
Don't you get tired of hearing about the importance of freeing yourself from your addictions? 

Whenever I hear things like "Jane's a shopping addict! Joey's addicted to sugar! They just can't stop!" I get a twinge of irritation and pain. 

That twinge isn't because I think Jane and Joey can stop after all -- that what they need is "just need a little willpower."  And it's not because I think compulsive spending and eating are small problems.  Au contraire

No, what gets under my skin is the implication that somehow that model of addiction is only applicable to truly pathological patterns of desire and satisfaction.  As if somehow the rest of life were full of some other kind of desire-satisfaction pattern, and somehow once you got yourself into an "addiction" -- well, then you're screwed.  Whatever it is you have to give it up.

The problem with this, it seems to me, is that lots and lots of desire-satisfaction behaviors are like the addiction desire-satisfaction behaviors.  At least they're like addictive desire-satisfaction behaviors in the sense that we ourselves take the steps that increase our desires

One of the things that make addictive behaviors so addictive is that the activity itself increases the desire for the activity.  Smoking is addictive because smoking makes you want to smoke.  If you smoke quite a bit, and you haven't had a cigarette, your desire to smoke becomes crazy.  And one sad truth about crazy desires is that satisfying them feels fucking awesome.

People like to talk about desires as if they just come from nowhere, or as if they can be meaningfully divided into the ones that are "yours" and the ones that come from "outside you."  FWIW, I don't know about you, but it took me about ten minutes with the philosophical literature on self-hood to come to the conclusion that this You/Not You thing is itself pretty suspect (I tried to talk about it here). 

But passons.  What I'm interested in here is the way, in practice, we don't treat our desires this way.  Instead, we go out of our way to stoke our desires -- to create the conditions under which they'll be cravings.  Because when you satisfy a craving -- that's when you feel sooo good.   Satisfying some normal desire is nothing as compared to satisfying a craving.

If you've ever smoked, you know this.  The feeling of smoking is good.  But the feeling of smoking when you're addicted is amazing.  The desire is so much more intense, the pleasure has to be better.

But it's not just addictive things that lead to this desire-intensification-satisfaction pattern.  We seek it out all the time.  Pep rallies, appetizers, a stroll through the mall.  Habit forming TV shows.  What are these if not ways of increasing your desire for something?  Or just look at pornography.  What is the point of pornography if not to give you the feeling of sexual desire?  OK, sure, you might look at pornography because you're already wildly turned on and you want to somehow ramp it up to 11.  But lots of times people look at pornography because it increase the desire itself. 

This means that when our behaviors aren't addictive enough already -- when the behavior itself doesn't already ramp up the desire to do it again, we're taking steps ourselves to ramp up the desire to do it again.  It's like we're trying to make things addictive. 

If that's right, life isn't so much a matter of getting rid of your addictions as it is a matter of lifelong management of them.  Sure, some desires, like those for smoking or drugs or whatever, you might want to get rid of entirely.  But that's because they're bad for you, not because they're addictive.  Everything else, you just have to manage.  Nobody tells you this, because everyone's so busy telling you to free yourself from your addictions.  That's one reason why, as I explained before, desire management has become a lost art

The moral of the story:  The metaphor for a healthy life is not freeing yourself from addictive patterns of behavior.  The addictive personality is the human personality.  The trick is to addict yourself to the right sorts of things. 

Monday, November 5, 2012

The New York Times Covers Dramatic Events Of The Past


Roman Empire: Citizens Concerned About Violence, Looting, Barbarians

Thomas Cole, Destruction, the fourth painting in the Course of Empire series.
By Thomasius Friedmanius

Fires spread throughout the city, key aqueducts failed, and looting and violence were on the rise Tuesday night, as citizens debated whether the Roman Empire was finally coming to an end. 

"Nonsense!" said Gardus, a local patrician, when asked whether the empire was, in fact, failing.  "There's nothing wrong with this empire that a little spirit and discipline won't fix.  I'm disgusted  to hear people apologizing for the Empire's raping and pillaging.  And those slaves, sitting around on their a***s all day -- what do they think, figs grow on trees?"

Gardus, who lives on pleasant hill overlooking the city, told the New York Times that personally, he had barely been affected by the recent turmoil, and that life in the family was much as it has been for centuries.  His sons, Romulus and Julius, will oversee the servants as they get older, and for now are studying music, history, and Greek literature with a highly-regarded personal tutor.  His wife Cornelia enjoys chariot racing and is active in philanthropy, particularly giving away her clothing to servants after it has been worn.

When pressed about worsening infrastructure problems, illness, and the possible uprising of the Barbarian mercenaries, Emperor Romulus Augustus said there was no cause for alarm or fear.  "Rumors that Gaul has been ravaged are entirely false.  Our military is strong and true.  The plague affects only those individuals with evil and weakness in their hearts.  We will be better and stronger when the sick are dead." 

With the death count from the plague growing, and hundreds of thousands without water and food, some citizens have called for the upcoming gladiator contests to be canceled or postponed.  Nevertheless, Emperor Augustus repeated that the gladiator contests would go on.  "The city is a city where we have to go on," Augustus said at a news conference Thursday afternoon. 

The crowd cheered.  "Fight the Vandals! Fight the Visigoths!  Rome will never forget!" they shouted.

Barbarians could not be reached for comment.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Newsflash: People Like To Fight With Other People

My whole life I've been confused about the whole thing that goes down when guys fight with one another.  You know, like when they fight in a bar, or when they fight because one guy feels insulted by another, or whatever.   

I mean, I get that someone could make you so angry you'd feel you have to hurt them.  And I get that you could be so angry that you would temporarily lose the moral sense, and thus lapse into barbarism and murderous rage. 

But the typical guy's bar fight does not seem to include a lapse into barbarism and murderous rage.  In fact, the participants often do not seem intent on annihilating one another, and they do not seem to have lost the moral sense.  On the contrary, there's a notion of fair play, of honor, of not going too far.

And that's what I could never understand.  Because if you're still operating within the idea of fairness and honor, if you haven't lost the moral sense, then aren't you able to think to yourself, "surely there's a better way to resolve this than hitting another person?" 

And if you aren't operating within the idea of fairness and honor, if you have lost the moral sense, why aren't you going all out?  Why not, for example, kick a guy in the balls, which is what guys tell women to do if they're being attacked?  But your typical guy's fight never includes that. 

It doesn't make any sense.  I don't know if you've read The Mayor of Casterbridge, by Thomas Hardy.  Though brilliant, this is a book filled with grim events and sad surroundings.  You'll have some insight into the character of the main guy Henchard when I tell you that he makes the story happen when, in the first few pages of the book, he auctions off his wife and child while drunk.  

Over the course of the book, Henchard comes to regard as his archenemy a Scottish guy named Farfrae who is a kindly cheerful type, and at a climactic moment, Henchard arranges for them to fight -- to the death, it seems, at least from Henchard's own point of view. 

But guess what he does, this Henchard.  He ties one arm behind his back.  To make it a fairer fight.

When I got to that part I was seriously like "seriously, WTF?"  I mean, if you're thinking fairness, if you're thinking within the moral point of view, why aren't you just calling off the fight in the first place?  Somehow killing Farfrae with both hands is one thing, while killing Farfrae with one hand tied behind your back is another thing entirely?  It's bizarre. 

As time has gone on I've formed a few hypotheses about what is going on with this whole thing.  I'd say the most plausible one is that some people -- of both sexes -- like to fight, and want to hurt one another, but recognize subconsciously that certain things will make fights so unseemly that they won't be allowed to get away with it.  If a fight involves a guy being kicked in the balls, if a fight involves any dramatic mismatch of talents, that's unseemly.  If you're in a friendly environment, you can't fight to kill the other person:  no one will let you get away with that. 

The nod to fairness and honor is there to make sure fights get to happen.  That's what makes it all possible. 

Maybe I'm the only one shocked or surprised by the idea that people actually want to fight and to hurt one another, not only when they're in a murderous rage, and not only as part of some screwy sport, but just as a part of like fun stuff to do. 

Or maybe I'm not.  The great eighteenth-century philosopher David Hume thought that people were naturally inclined to want the best for one another.  "Would any man willingly step on another man's gouty toe?" he asked, to which the obvious answer is "yes, they do it all the time."

But Hume saw in us a wonderful warmth of human nature, in which we desire to see one another prosper.  For all my other faults, I'm basically part of this Humean Kingdom of Friends:  I smile at the smiles of others, and do not like to see other humans sad and suffering. 

The more times goes on, though, the more I realize a lot of people aren't with me here. 

Monday, October 22, 2012

Am I The Problem Of Expensive Tastes? Or, Maybe We're Not Materalisitic Enough

Marie de' Medici, who probably had her own problem of expensive tastes.  By Peter Paul Rubens [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

When I first heard that there was such a thing as "the problem of expensive tastes," my first thought was "Uh oh, that must be me."

I've always had desires for nice things that seemed to know no bounds.  As a child, I was keenly aware of the difference between Sears and Bloomingdales, and could easily distinguish the goods that came from each.  Now, when I go to the mall, I often have a shopping paralysis:  inevitably, when I look at reasonably priced stuff, I'm like "but that is crappy/ugly," and when I find a coat/bag/shoes/whatever that's acceptable, it's hundreds of dollars more than I have to spend. 

I remember when I was a kid, sometimes well-meaning adults would ask, in a make-drive-time-quality-time sort of way, how much money I thought I'd want in order to be "satisfied."  And I would think to myself, "Is this person stupid?"  Even then I thought the question made no sense.  No matter what you had, wouldn't always want more?  I mean, even if you were just going to give it away, wouldn't more always be better? 

Then I got older and learned that most people do not regard the question as nonsensical at all.  Not only do they distinguish an amount of money they'd need to be satisfied, often, that amount was not all that much more than the money they had. 

This was, and is, mystifying to me.  I can't get inside the minds of people who answer this way.  Don't they want beautiful expensive clothes, fancy cars, amazing homes, travel?  Don't they want the nicest antique self-winding watch hand ever made?  Don't they want a pied à terre in New York, another in Paris, a resort home in Italy and a ranch for occasional horse riding out in some other random lovely place?

That shit isn't cheap, you know.  That's not an extra few thousand bucks a year we're talking about.

So what is up with that?  Do people have no imagination -- they just can't think of good expensive stuff?  Or do they think of these things and really not want them?  I don't know, of course.  But I'm guessing for a lot of people it's neither of these, and that what's really going on is that people don't want to seem greedy.

They picture "having a lot" as "having a lot more than other people," and -- correctly, I think -- intuit that there is something distressing about wanting to outstrip your fellows by stratospheric distances. 

But having a lot is different form having more.  The matter hinges on whether luxury, and thus luxury desires, are relative or absolute.  I had to do a certain amount of soul-searching to determine for myself whether my own luxury desires were primarily relative -- as in, I wanted nicer things than other people -- or absolute -- as in, I want nice things. 

I may be deluding myself, but I'm pretty sure I just want nice things.  My needs are absolute, not relative.  There are a few bits of evidence.  I always enjoy being around other people who have beautiful clothes, bags, shows, cars, etc etc etc., and my enjoyment of the nice things I have seems to increase, rather than decrease, when more people have similar, or similarly nice, nice things.

My iPhone is a perfect example.  I love my iPhone.  In terms of being a nice things, it's one of the nicest.  I love the exquisitely lovely green battery icon that pops up when the phone is charging.  I love the little raindrops on the home screen.  I love the fonts.  And I can honestly say that my love for my iPhone is increased, rather than decreased, by the iPhone's omnipresence.  This is an absolute, not a relative.

The classic "problem of expensive tastes" in philosophy has to do with the idea of fairness and equality in measuring well-being.  If you think fairness and equality should measure how well a person is doing, rather than, say goods and resources, you run into the obvious problem:  if X can't be happy without a Birkin bag and Y sets her sights on a more affordable (but still pricey!) Roots bag, then equality of well-being seems to mean things are fair and equal when X gets the Birkin.  But that doesn't seem quite right.

Understood this way, "the problem of expensive tastes" is a problem that arises within a scheme in which the resources are fixed, or at least limited, and the question is the distribution.  And it seems likely that all those people who mystified me by answering that to be "satisfied" they only needed a bit more in the way of worldly goods:  if there's only a certain amount, perhaps it would be unseemly to want not only nice things but things much much much nicer than anyone else. 

My interpretation would then be the unusual one, imagining as it does that I can have the nicest things, and everyone else can have the nicest things, all at the same time.

But though my interpretation may be unusual, I think it is apt, because there's an important moral difference between absolute luxury and relative luxury.  There's nothing inherently wrong or creepy about desires for absolute luxury:  these desires are completely compatible with real equality, even with everyone having the same.  If you want absolute luxury, you want to have your fancy car and vacation home and horse ranch, but you also want everyone to have those things.  If you want relative luxury, that's more morally complicated, because you want to have what others do not have.  You want, in a sense, to make other people feel bad.

I wonder if an increase in relative luxury desires is something we are, depressingly, moving toward.  I tried to confirm, by Googling, my memory of studies showing people really only wanted a bit more, and it wasn't easy.  Because every study I found attempted to answer the completely different question of how much a person "really" needs to be happy (answer:  about 75,000, in the US in 2012).  The implication, I suppose, being that people think they need much much more. 

Anyway, as a person who cares about absolute, not relative, luxury, I can tell you one important thing:  desires for absolute luxury have to be desires for material qualities in and of themselves, and not desires for material qualities as symbols of something else.  To want absolute luxury, you have to care about this bag, that scarf, this car, that home, and so on and so forth, to care about the particular qualities of the things you want and sometimes have, and not about what they represent.  

You can't want nice things as symbols of something else, like status.

And even though we're supposed to be so "materialistic" in this culture, I think we're not always so good at that.  We buy symbols, not things; we buy as means not as ends; we buy for novelty and not for the long haul.  Being truly materialistic would mean amassing things you love, and loving them for a good long time.  Loving them not because they stand for or represent something else, but because they're beautiful in and of themselves.

That kind of materialism never begrudges the luxury items of one's fellows.  It allows a love of luxury to be compatible with egalitarianism. 

So am I the problem of expensive tastes?  In an immediate sense, clearly yes: in a scheme of equality of happiness and well-being, I would cost more than my fellows.  In another sense, though, no: I'd like everyone to have expensive tastes.  And if they did, the problem would just go away.

Birkin bags for everyone, please!

Monday, October 15, 2012

How The Eternal Children Of Generation X Finally Became Old

Sean Penn as Jeff Spicoli in Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982).
I used to really wonder how it could happen that people of my generation could become dated. 

I mean, I was a teenager in the 80s, which means I grew up during what turned out to be the end phase of a pretty steady march from quiet traditionalism to noisy chaos.  When we looked at our parents, we figured we knew what it meant to become old and dated:  you said things like "Turn that thing down!" "Just say No!" and "That TV show/rock music/MTV is going to rot your brain and you'll be a moron forever."

In that context, what it meant to be young and current was obvious:  a taste for noisy loud music, drugs, and general irreverence.

If that was youth, I wondered, how was our generation ever going to age out?  How could we become old and dated?  I mean, weren't we taking noise, drugs, and general irreverence pretty much as high as they could go?  Were the kids going to take these things further?  HOW?

Noise was already peaking.  The classic 1984 mockumentary This Is Spinal Tap boasted of the band as "one of England's loudest," and noted that their instruments' volume "went up to 11."  If you look up "loudest band in the world" in Wikipedia, the latest chronological entry is for 2009, where we learn that "in Ottawa, Canada, the band Kiss achieved a SPL of 136 dB measured during their live performance. After noise complaints from neighbors in the area, the band was forced to turn the volume down."  



So:  2009, and the band making the noise is a band from the 80s.

Obviously we in the 80s took drugs to some kind of logical conclusion.  It was the era of coke at every party, crack babies, the introduction of MDMA -- or, as the kids call it, "ecstasy." 

As to general irreverence. can I just point out that there was a band in the 80s called "Scraping Feotus Off The Wheel"? 

I asked myself, Where could it go from here that we can't handle?  I fount it hard to picture telling the next generation "turn it down!" "stay sober!" or "that's offensive!"  We were already loud and obnoxious.  Weren't we?

Well.  As is the nature of these things, time or culture or whatever did me a really elegant fake out by switching gears entirely.  Because we didn't have the internet in the 80s.  Or cell phones.  Or anything remotely like that.

As a measure of the technological distance we've come, can I just tell you that when I was in college, there was one pay phone per dorm hall?  If you wanted to talk to someone, you'd call their hall, and ask whoever happened to answer to go knock on the person's door.  Almost always, they were not there.  So much for that.

If you wanted to see people, you basically had to show up places and hope they'd be there.  I know it sounds ridiculous, but trust me, it had a charm of its own.

So now the answer has become crystally and painfully clear.  We became dated not through a distaste for noise and music and drugs, but through our inability to live life on and through the internet.  When it comes to the internet, I sometimes feel like one of those early amphibians who lived in water but worked up their courage to climb onto land occasionally.   When they got to the land, they were like "Holy shit, this is great! Check out the sunshine! And you can walk around!" Nonetheless, when they wanted to breathe, or spawn, or whatever it is early amphibians did, they had to get back in the water.

That's how I feel about the internet.  When I get on it, I'm like, "Oh My God, This Is The Best!"  Saturday night my friend and I went to see a production of Verdi's Il Trovatore (whoa, what an opera -- that nineteenth century, they really had things going on) -- and when we got home my friend said wasn't there something about the use of bel canto that was different from how it had been used before, and didn't that mean it was one of Verdi's later operas? 

We googled.  And we found riches and riches, and learned things about Il Trovatore we never would have known, and I felt fleetingly connected to the other people in the world who care about stuff like this and think about it and take it seriously, which can be in itself a very heady feeling.  And I thought, as I so often do, that we need some gesture, word, or sign that means "God Bless The Internet."  Everyone bow your heads together.

But living on the internet?  Social networking?  Commenting on things?  Reading comments?  Responding to stuff, interacting constantly, dealing with other people and their ridiculous opinions and things they're upset about and turf they need to defend and all that?  Seeing their photos and boasts and politics and complaints?  Dealing with the constant interactive negativity stream

It seriously makes me want to crawl back into my ocean home. Gotta go.  Bye.

So when young people say to me things like "Pinterest!"-- I feel my age.  I shake my cane, and tell them about the good old days, when you could run into people at parties by surprise, and get drunk without your asshole friends posting pictures to Facebook, and generally act like a doofus without fearing that your every move is being recorded, commented on, filed away, preserved forever like a book of rotten memories.

It was a golden era, even if it was a little noisy and stupid.

Monday, October 8, 2012

The Good Things, They Do Not Always Fit Together

Lia Lee
Recently, Lia Lee died.  In her youth, Lia was a child with severe epilepsy in a family of Hmong refugees, who clashed with the medical professionals assigned to her care.  Her case spawned the book The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down: A Hmong Child, Her American Doctors, and the Collision of Two Cultures.

At 4, Lia had a grand-mal seizure, got an infection, and went into septic shock.  She lost all higher brain function.  She lived the rest of her life -- she died at age 30 -- unable to speak or move around or do much of anything, really.

When I read the notice of Lia's death in The Times, I thought to myself, "Wow, I have to read that book."  The book is, in fact, truly brilliant.  The author, Anne Fadiman, spent a huge amount of time getting to know the Lees and becoming their friend and also getting to know the doctors and reading Lia's vast transcribed medical history and so on. 

The story is heartbreaking along several dimensions, the most obvious of which has to do with the early failed efforts to bring Lia's epilepsy under control.  The doctors wrote out prescriptions and gave complex orders, inattentive to the fact that the cultural communication problems went way beyond the translation of words. 

The drugs sometimes seemed to make Lia worse in the short run.  The family not only couldn't read or use a thermometer or anything, they had no experience with Western style medicine at all.  They had their own way of dealing with epilepsy -- the disease whose name in Hmong means something like "the spirit catches you and you fall down."  In their minds, epilepsy was a mixed thing:  bad, because dangerous, but also in some ways good, because you were in touch with the spiritual realm and could, yourself, become a healer.  They didn't always give Lia the drugs. 

The result:  Lia often didn't get what the doctors were prescribing, and relations between the parents and the medical team predictably deteriorated.  When you look at it from the Lee's point of view, it's terrifying the way the doctors have the power of the state behind them to force the family into doing whatever they said.  At one point, even though Lia's parents are about the most loving and attentive parents you can possibly imagine, Lia was forcibly taken from their home and placed in foster care.  On the other hand, when you look at it from the doctors' point of view, Lia deserved the best medical care possible; her parents wishes aren't the only thing that matters.  It is a difficult situation. 

In later years, there was a rapprochement between Lia's mother Foua and her early doctors.  Here is Foua together with Dr. Peggy Philp, at a panel discussion of Fadiman's book in 2002.
One of the themes of the book and the Times notice is the way the Lee family dealt with having Lia in their lives.  She not only lived at home her whole life, she was the center of family life.  Later Fadiman said, "She was never shunted to the periphery ... I remember her most in her mother’s arms. Family life went on around her and in some ways revolved around her."

Lia's parents -- and especially her mother -- never left her side.  They fed her, and bathed her, and talked to her, and listened to her, and watched her, and soothed her skin, and moved her limbs.  Most people in Lia's mental condition live 3 to 5 years.  Lia lived for 26 years.  When the doctors sent Lia home, they told the family that she'd be dead within the week.  Boy did they prove that wrong.

The Times says of this, "The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down is also the story of the immense benefits of tradition, which can furnish, Ms. Fadiman makes clear, a level of familial devotion less often seen among modern Americans."

Which really got me thinking about Lia's parents and their way of life, and especially about Lia's mom, who had virtually no outside life.  In the book it's not presented as a sacrifice.  According to Fadiman, in Hmong culture it's common to marry young and have lots of children, and life often revolves happily around their care.

And first I thought, "Wow, I am really immersed in the Modern/Western/Cosmopolitan/Whatever way of life."  I mean, on some level I always know that I'm immersed in that way of life.  But it's the kind of thing you don't always stop and think about. 

Because I found the idea of living the way Lia's parents lived almost unbearable to contemplate.  I mean, if you think of one day, it might seem nice:  you wake up, you attend to the children, you play with Lia for a while, you feed everybody lunch, etc etc etc. and sometimes family and friends come by.  But every day?  No going out to the coffee shop, no cocktails, no going to work even?  Wow.


And for all that Lia's familial care is a beautiful and moving thing, I think it's important not to lose sight of the fact that the things in our society that make it impossible, or at least extremely difficult, for most of us to imagine living this way -- those are great things in their own way, too. 

For instance, I'm addicted to getting out and seeing the faces of people I don't know, to doing things that connect me to people beyond my family and friends, to being part of a large world.  And I think of those as basically good qualities to have:  they're part of feeling like a member of the human race, loving diversity and difference, and enjoying the fact that people live in all kinds of different ways.

I'm the first to admit that this way of life we have here -- it really does make us less able to care for the Lias of the world -- I mean, people like Lia as she was after her traumatic brain injury at age 4.  If you're unwell, there really is no replacement for having someone who loves you tend to your needs 24 hours a day.   

To me the moral of that story is just that you can't have all the good things in life all at the same time.  Yes, complete immersion in family life and care for others can be wonderful.  Yes, the world we live in makes this immersion almost impossible for many people.  But that doesn't mean there's something bad about our way of life.  It just means there can be wonderful things that do not all fit together.

There's a contingent out there, I think, that wants to deny this -- perhaps because it can seem like a dark, daunting, or depressing idea.  That contingent tells us:  you can have all the good things.  It just takes compromise.  A little work, a little taking care of Lia, you're good to go.  Then the moral would be: we modern western cosmopolitans need to change, not be so extreme. 


I have no doubt that compromise among good things can be a good way to live.  But it doesn't remove the conceptual problem.  The whole point about Lia's parents is that they weren't just there for her from 5 to 10 pm.  They were there for her 24 hours a day.  I live, to some extent, on the other extreme.  Even making healthy dinners and brushing my own teeth feel like endless chores.  Again?  But I just made dinner yesterday!

If I'm right that the good things in life don't fit together, that compromise doesn't solve the conceptual problems, that shows that living in the extremes can all be good ways to live.  It can be wonderful to be there for Lia for 26 years of breakfasts and bathing and the moving of the limbs.  It can also be wonderful to be the cosmopolitan who needs the faces of strangers, a day of work outside the home every day, a fast internet connection, and cocktails promptly at seven.

Sure, if you live a monochromatic life, you're missing something.  But my idea is that however you set it up, you're missing something.  So if you want to live monochromatically, knock yourself out.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Programming Note

There won't be a new post on Monday October 1, because I'll be on a trip.  See you back here on the 8th.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Automotive Omnipresence Sucks

A Porsche Spyder?  Yes, please.
I've never owned a car of my own.  OK, asterisk:  I believe there was once a car registered in my name.  Ages ago, my then-boyfriend and I bought his mother's stick shift Ford something or other, and I was, of course, driven around in that car.  But since I don't drive stick, I believe I can go honestly into the record books with "I've never owned a car of my own."

It's been my experience that the more you take public transportation and the less you drive, the more vividly you experience both the peace of public transportation and the hell of driving.  I know the bus is unpredictable, and the ride can be long.  But I've got my book; I've got my headphones; I've gotten into a quiet mental space; I'm generally good to go.

Conversely, daily taking on the the responsibility of maneuvering a deadly 2-ton piece of machinery on crowded streets?  Is that not insane?  Did you know over 32,000 people people died in the US in car accidents in 2010?  And that was down from previous years.  If that were the death rate from any other activity like sex, drugs, or rock-and-roll people would be going out of their minds.  OMG! Don't drive! Won't somebody please think of the children?!

Anyway, all this just to say:  I have no real intention of buying a car.

However. 

It's also been my experience that unless you live in a monastery, you are in the overlap zone between "car culture" and "consumer culture."  It's impossible not to occasionally day dream about car ownership.  And I do.

And when I daydream about car ownership, my thoughts always run smack into the Great Car Dilemma, which goes something like this:

I cannot own a sensible car.  I know this is ridiculous.  But there's something about cars -- there's something about them that is just so fucking depressing to me.  When I think of cars, I think of long quiet nights in quiet suburban towns, cut off from life; I think of endless driving around to find a parking place; and I think of that feeling of being in that little box, cut off from everyone else in their little boxes.  I remember the cold dark winter mornings of my youth, de-icing a windshield, which at the time seemed to me about the most depressing activity in the world.  When I was really young, I thought "I'll live in the woods, and get around by horse!"  It was only when I got a little older that I realized the bus, train, and occasional taxi could be my salvation.

There's only one thing that can undo and erase the depressingness of cars for me, and that's thinking of a car as an amazing toy, a beautiful object, rather than a way of getting from place to place.  Some cars really are lovely and exciting.  They're sexy to look at, awesome to ride in, and a thrill to drive.  They have extraordinary shapes, like the Ferrari, and extraordinary paint quality, like the new Audis.  To me, a true sports car or luxury car is not a depressing symbol of car culture.  It's a symbol of fun, pleasure, and the life force

So then I think, OK, I don't have a lot of money, but perhaps I could afford a really old version of a really beautiful car.  Like, a thirty year old Jaguar, or one of those refurbished "pre-owned" BMWs.  When I was a kid, my father was obsessed with cars.  His love was the kind of obsessive, inclusive love that embraced the Dodge Dart and the VW Rabbit as well as the Audi he never did buy and the Porsche 914 that he did and that was our family car for about six months.  Perhaps I could buy an old, beat-up Porsche, which would be a kind of homage to my father.  That would lend respectability and intelligibility to an otherwise completely irrational choice, wouldn't it?

You can see where this is going.  What could be more ridiculous for a person who doesn't need a car and doesn't like to drive than the purchase of an old, temperamental car that would suck in the winter and would surely be expensive to maintain?  Old cars aren't even safe.  It's completely crazy. 

So.  Can't have a sensible car.  Can't have a beautiful snazzy car.  No car for Patricia.

Sometimes I worry about what would happen if I absolutely had to move to a place where I could not get around without a car.  I did survive seven years in California with no car.  But there were extenuating circumstances, and I was able to cobble a life together -- even though that life did include walking across overpasses to get from my apartment to stores and restaurants, getting my high heels stuck the grass when (as frequently) there were no sidewalks and I had to walk on the side of the road, getting drenched with sprinklers set to water lawns but really showering down on walking paths that no one ever used, and, of course, often just not going anywhere interesting.  I don't know what I'd do.  I try not to think about it. 

The Great Car Dilemma makes me even more alienated from the automobile way of life than I would be if I were just, you know, a non-driver.  Because not only don't I have a car in the real world, I don't even have a car in any nearby possible world.


And indeed, as time goes on, the more strident and angry I am about the whole automotive omnipresence business.  On top of everything else -- on top of the obvious and enormous cost to the environment and all that insanity -- car culture is like an exponential magnifier for inequality and other social problems.  Car ownership is expensive and if you're poor you can't afford it.  If you're old or have certain disabilities you can't drive.  If you screw up, you can get your license taken away.  Car culture means that the initial difficulties, which might otherwise be manageable, become huge, life-destroying problems for many people.

For most people, there is no option of treating a car as fun or a toy, because a car is an absolute necessity for the basics of life -- which is a ridiculous state of affairs. 

It's one of those many domains in which individualism, which is great when leavened with a cup of collective care, becomes intolerable when pursued alone.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Constructive Anger: Maybe An Oxymoron, Maybe Stupid

Jacob Van Loo, Melancholy.  Via Wikimedia Commons.
They say depression is anger turned inward.  Do you think this is true?  a) Always b) Sometimes c) Never d) All of the above.

Sometimes I feel bad:  melancholic, blue, sad, weighed down.  Sometimes it feels like being depressed, but not always.  Mostly it's like "the world is so fucked up," "what is the point of this exactly?" and "couldn't this whole human experience thing be better arranged?"

Of course, the world really is so fucked up, and life really doesn't have a point, so it's not like having these thoughts is evidence of some kind of problem.  Frustration with the paleness and stupidity of the human experience isn't really depression.  It's more like discontent -- something you don't hear a lot about in the modern pscyho-counseling establishment.  If you're just discontented, I guess you're supposed to just suck it up.

But I got thinking about the whole anger-depression thing after I read this book Monkey Mind, which is a funny memoir about a guy's experience with anxiety.  (Sample situation:  at 16, guy has sex with woman he doesn't really like and isn't really attracted to -- then becomes VERY ANXIOUS about it for A LONG TIME.)

Reading the book, I realized that my bad feelings are really not typically anxiety.  It's not like I'm a worrier.  I'm not worried about the future.  I'm depressed and discontented NOW.  I remembered the whole anger->depression idea, and I asked myself, Do I do that?  Do I turn anger inward?



The objective facts suggest maybe Yes.  I have a hard time staying angry at individual people, even when anger is justified and appropriate.  I get angry for like one second, and then somehow my mind always flashes to thinking about how the whole situation is going to seem ten years from now, at which point it will seem ridiculous and far away.  When you've lost your cool, haven't you always felt stupid later?  I've always thought my approach a pretty rational one, actually.  But maybe it's "turning anger inward."  Who knows? 

Following this line of thought, I asked the next question a philosopher would ask, which is "Well, what is a constructive way to express anger?"  I mean, clearly no one is better off becoming more the kind of person who shouts and throws things and makes mean cutting remarks.  Duh.  So what are you supposed to do exactly?

The google tells me the following things.  When expressing anger, talk directly to the person you're angry with.  Speak in a calm and caring way, and make eye contact.  Use "I" language:  instead of saying "Hey, you almost ran me over you stupid inattentive piece of shit!" say, "I know you mean well but I really feel nervous and vulnerable when you run the yellow light and almost kill me with your car."

As I thought about putting this into practice, I noticed a huge obstacle.  The vast majority of what I'm angry about has nothing to do with the people around me, and has everything to do with the state of the world, with money, with war, with politics, with environmental degradation.  Who am I supposed to look in the eye while I deliver my "I" statements if I'm mad about impending war in Iran? 

What do to?  Maybe I should write a letter?  Let's give it a shot, shall we?

Dear USA,
The absurd and immoral wars and other violence you are initiating and perpetuating around the world are an outrage to decency, you self-important ignorant bully...

Oops, scratch that!  Let's start over:

Dear USA,
I think you mean well, but maybe you didn't realize well over 100,000 civilians have died as a result of the Iraq war.  Have you considered -- wait, scratch that! I often think about them and their families and ... let's just say it makes me feel upset and sad, OK?  I just wanted to let you know.

Dear People of Banking and Finance,
You guys are completely beyond the pale with your lying, fraud, gambling, foreclosure misbehavior and other shenanigans.  Who the fuck do you think you are? 

Oops!

Dear People of Banking and Finance,
I know you're doing your best, but I think you've developed a few regrettable habits lately, and I was hoping you'd take a moment to consider things from our point of view.  I felt really sad and upset when I read about Wells Fargo destroying the home of these people who didn't even have a mortgage.  The effects of the economic collapse of 2008 mean some people are unemployed and I think that makes them unhappy, which makes me unhappy.  If you ever need to talk, I'm here, OK?

Dear Forces that Control the Universe,
WTF is wrong with you?  Disease, hunger, death -- and for what?  Do you just like to see us suffer?  I think you suck.

Oops!

Dear Forces that Control the Universe,
I've heard it said that you have ways that are beyond my understanding and my paltry powers of reasons.  I don't know.  I just wanted to make sure you knew that things are difficult.  We humans need love, food, warmth, companionship, and when we don't get those things - it's like really hard on us OK?  

Conclusion:  I don't think this constructive anger thing is going to work for me.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Back To School, Or, How I Gave Up A Life Of Chaos And Became A Prof

When I was a kid, I thought being a prof was the kind of job that fell outside the acceptable range for glamour, excitement, and coolness.  My dad was a prof -- and later, a university administrator (chemical engineering) -- and while I thought it an excellent career for a person of his sensibility and talents, I thought "No, that is not for me."

I was an eye-rolly type of kid, at least on the inside, and every time some well-meaning person said "Oh, you're good at math! You could become an engineer!" I imagined rolling those eyes right back into my head. 

I didn't really think in a coherent way about what I was going to do with my life during school.  I double-majored in math and dance, the two things that interested me most.  OK, I virtually double-majored.  As the distracted youth that I was, I didn't finish the final project for the dance BA.  If you know me as a prof now, you might be surprised to learn how deep and vast was my disaffection, disorganization, and general living in chaos when I was a Young Person.

I guess in the back of my mind, I thought I'd get plucked from obscurity to do something interesting, or I'd meet some other person who'd show me something fascinating that I was good at and enjoyed.  But boy oh boy was that wrong.  If there's one thing I've learned in life, it's that doing interesting things requires working really hard at Doing Interesting Things, and isn't the sort of thing where the opportunities fall from the sky just because you happen to be an Interesting Person.

The first glimmer of interest I had in a life in academia was the September after I'd finished my four years.  I stuck around the town (Middletown) my school (Wesleyan University) was in, and got a job working at the campus bookstore and an apartment in someone's attic.  And what gave me that glimmer of interest wasn't anything really substantive or intellectual.  It was really just the mood of back to school.

Working at the bookstore, I spent the start of school helping all these new hopeful and nervous kids and occasionally their hopeful and nervous parents.  I saw, from a different point of view, the returning students greet one another with whoops and hugs and questions about the summer.  It seemed so nice:  so optimistic, so full of life.  I thought, "Well, being part of this could be an OK thing."

But I wasn't quite ready to give up my dreams of being the next Edie Sedgwick. Where was my Andy Warhol, who would think me fascinating and feed me drugs?  For the next while, I lived in different places -- including New Orleans -- doing different waitressing jobs -- including one at a tourist trap cocktail bar on Bourbon Street and another at an all-night diner attached to a fleabag hotel.  The customers at that diner on the midnight to 8am shift at the diner were one third junkies who lived upstairs, one third drunk and laughing tourists who wanted eggs and cheeseburgers at 4:00 am, and one-third Danish/Swedish/European travelers who read in some book that the hotel was perfect for local color.  It was, of course, well before the internet, so people never knew what was going on 'til they were in the middle of things.  A lost world, that world.

I sort of didn't know what the hell I was going to do.  My dad had died when I was fifteen, and since he was the breadwinner, there wasn't any financial cushion.  After about two years, the Great American Problem of Living in Poverty hit me like a ton of bricks:  I had no health insurance.  I'd managed to stay pretty healthy.  But then I caught something, and had some problems, and I realized, fuck, I have to go to an emergency room and hope they forgive the charges.

What to do about this state of affairs?  The only skill I had that I could imagine applying in a way that would get me health insurance was my intellectual skills, and I figured I'd go back to graduate school.  Because it was the stone age, when school info came and went on paper, and because I didn't have a phone of my own, I had to borrow someone's for the long-distance calls and request written information packets.

Thank heaven, despite the rough lifestyle of my youth, I was still pretty good at math, and I got in.  There's a long rest of the story about how I decided to give up math and study philosophy and all that, but we'll talk about that some other time, because the essential die was cast:  I was in graduate school and I became a professor. 

Intellectual life suited me, even more than I expected.  I worked like a dog to accustom myself to long hours spent alone, doing proofs -- and later, writing papers.  Now my favorite moments of my work life are when I walk into the library, and it's still morning so it's quiet and empty, and alongside my interest in what I'll do that day, I have a sense of belonging somewhere.  I feel at home.

If you know about profs you know our jobs are often part research, part teaching, and part service, which means being on committees and going to meetings and stuff like that.  Today is the first day of school which means back to teaching.  Like a little kid, I often think about what to wear to the first day of school.  When I was a child, my father -- from whom I inherited my material objects obsessions -- always liked to put nice things away 'til a special day, and back-to-school clothes were always in a closet until the actual first day of school.

I love my scholarship and I love my hours alone in the library, but I have to say I'm ambivalent about actual teaching.  Teaching is very difficult, and requires thinking about difficult things and interacting with large groups of people all at the same time.  As an introvert, I find it overwhelming.

Though I'm ambivalent about teaching itself, I love my students, and I love being around 18-22 year-olds all the time.  Talk about the life force.  Whether they're studying for a test, updating Facebook, stressing about romance, or just getting some coffee, they do everything with energy and aplomb.  I often think how weird and maybe sad it would be to have a job where you just see other middle-aged people all the time, and you never hear the particular squeals of pleasure or indignation so characteristic of people just past high-school.

So I have to say:  that glimmer of interest I had from the Big Return in September, when I was just 21 years old myself -- it was a trustworthy emotion, in the sense that the same things -- the hopeful and nervous new students and parents, the whoops of reconnection with summer friends all give me a feeling of happiness and connection to life every year.