Sunday, January 25, 2009

"We're Not About To Start Getting Dumber"

I was watching Dr. Phil the other day at the gym, and it was a show about dating and age. They were talking about the old "double-standard": if an older guy dates a young woman it's OK; if an older woman dates a young guy it's not.

There are a lot of interesting things you could say about this topic but as far as I could tell, Dr. Phil himself wasn't saying any of them. He had on clips of young girls saying, "I can't imagine why a young guy would ever want to date an older woman"; he had on a dating expert who set up picky people with other picky people; and finally, he had on a guy comic who admitted yes, he's dating a much younger woman.

Dr. Phil asked the comic why he was dating a younger woman. And a big part of his answer seemed to have to do with the self-sufficiency and non-neediness of women his age. He described going online to look at ads, and corresponding with women he met there, and having them all say right away, "I'm a lawyer," or "I own my own business," or whatever. He found that a major turn-off. As he put it, he's thinking, "Well, she's got all that going on, where do I fit in? What does she need from me?"

So instead he's with some aspiring-something-in-LA., I don't remember the story, but you can imagine the scene. He teaches her stuff. Tells her what music to listen to. Since he's, you know, famous, and she's basically starting out, there's no questions about what she needs from him. He feels needed. He likes it.

This isn't an uncommon reaction to female independence. Some guys just like it better when women are dependent on them.

There are a lot of interesting things to say about this, too. But I think one of the best things to say comes to us via the most under-appreciated novel in the world, and one of my all time favorites: Amazons: An Intimate Memoir by the First Woman Ever to Play in the National Hockey League.

Here's our hero, Cleo -- first woman in the NHL! -- talking with Sanders Meade, Ranger's general manager in, well, in an intimate moment.

Sanders: "It's so hard being a man."

Cleo: "I know, I know."

Sanders: "Is it hard being a woman?"

Cleo: "It's a bitch."

Sanders: "Women know so much."

Cleo: "Does that make it harder to be a man?"

Sanders: "God, yes, terribly."

Cleo: "Well, there's not much I can say except we're not about to start getting dumber."
For me this about sums it up. You can say what you want about wanting women who are less accomplished or less self-sufficient. You can say what you want about the appeal of being needed. But it doesn't really matter, because overall, we are not about to start getting dumber.

Monday, January 19, 2009

The Internet And Its Discontents

Look, nobody loves the internet more than I do. Sometimes the thrill of finding something weird and funny, or of seeing something old and forgotten, or of learning something new and obscure is so great that I can't keep my joy contained, and I have to say out loud: "I love the internet!" I wrote once before about my special love for Wikipedia. But when it comes to the internet, I don't have to play favorites. I gotta a lotta love to go around.

However. There's a problem with the internet. The problem is that keeping up with the Joneses is now keeping up with the Kardashians: the internet makes you think the comparison class for your life isn't the people in your town, or the people on your street, but rather the people you see online every day. That would be OK, except the people you see online every day are often either 1) celebrities or 2) really successful at what they do 3) rich or 4) famous for some other reason.

So seeing them, immediately, you're thinking, "Why does that person have a Louis Vuitton bag/position in the Obama administration/deal for a new screenplay/house in Malibu on the ocean and I don't?" Once you're thinking that, really, there's nowhere to go but down, because the reason always has to do with the unfairness of life and the stupidity of all the people who fail to recognize your particular genius. Then you're even more depressed than you were when you were just quietly feeling sorry for yourself. The internet turns ordinary discontentedness into envy with a touch of bitterness, and it lets you sulk on a really global scale. What do you mean that talentless nincompoop has a book deal and I don't? It's an outrage!

I think this partly explains the astonishingly negative tone of so much stuff on the internet. Ever check out the blog PhotoshopDisasters? They post examples of bad or silly photoshopping, except when they screw up and post stuff that turns out just to be odd or surprising, but unaltered. Man, do people get pissed when that happens. "This isn't a Disaster, you nincompoops! It's just a funny photo! What a terrible blog!!" Given that the "cost" of visiting the blog is just clicking the mouse, it's hard to imagine what is so upsetting. On my theory though, it's envy: some dude, Mr. or Ms. photoshopdisasters, is getting readers, maybe getting a bit of ad revenue, maybe getting some attention, and I'm not, and that is just so unfair!

I feel it myself, all the time. Just this morning I saw a lovely photo of the Obamas and the Bidens on their trip to DC. My first thought wasn't "Oh, the inauguration," or "Look, the new president" or even "Hey, they're on a train!" It was, "That looks so fun and cool, and I love those boots Michelle is wearing. So why do they get to be starting a whole new phase in life with power and glamour and money, and I don't? It's so unfair."

What could be more absurd?

I try to stay away from stuff I know is going to encourage me in these directions. I used to read TMZ, and I just stopped, cold turkey. I don't need to know that Paris Hilton is getting 100,000 dollars to go to a party, and I'm not. I don't need to know that Joe the Plumber has a new book deal, and I don't. Who needs this information? Not me.

But it's almost impossible to really lay down the law with yourself, and anyway, there's gossip everywhere these days. I could try staying away from the internet altogether, but that would make me sad. Because nobody loves the internet more than I do. Even if it does make me unhappy.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Philosophy Is Hard: True Or False?

OK, people, school is starting up again and it's time for our first quiz. Don't worry, it's True or False —no short answer, no multiple choice, no essay questions.

Ready? Take out your pencils.

True or False?

1. Life is short.
2. It's important to be true to yourself.
3. Everyone is special.
4. You should live each day as if it is your last.
5. We always want what we cannot have.

Don't peek! Answer for yourself before you check the answer key.


1. Life is short.


I used think this was not only true but obviously so. Death, aging, you know, it's all really right around the corner. I was one of those 15 year olds who thinks, well, I gotta couple good years left anyway.

Then as I got older my faith weakened a bit. I mean, a person can accomplish things that take years and years and still have a lot of time left. If you're too obsessed with the shortness of life, you don't even bother with long term projects. Because you're all, "God, who has the time for that?" Not me.

But now I figure the shortness of life is compatible with the wisdom of long term projects. It's just they have to be the kind of projects that are reasonably fun in the doing, and not just a big bang at the end. Especially when you're using the scale of how able people are to put off doing things, you have to think life is short. People can put off doing things for decades.

2. It's important to be true to yourself.


This one took me a long time to figure out. I used to think it was stupid.

First, I thought the whole idea of there being a true inner self that you'd be true to was silly. We're all products of our social environments. If I stop wearing my eccentric plaid scarf because the other kids make fun of me for it, how is that any different from stopping wearing my black hat because it isn't warm enough? Both things are just choosing among options given the good and the bad.

Second, I thought (along with Lynda Barry's character Maybonne), what if your true self is crummy? Then what, huh?

But I've come around. It's weirdly sad and annoying not to be yourself. It's weirdly fun and satisfying to be yourself—even when your true self is kind of crummy.

3. Everyone is special.


This was a big thing "in the air" when I was growing up. Like, you'd hear it on Sesame Street all the time.

I love Sesame Street, but while you might want to say that everyone is different, I don't think it's right to say that everyone is special. Internalize that idea then it's a big disappointment when you turn out pretty much like everyone else: odds are you're not going to be a rock star, or a beauty queen, or Einstein, dude. But that's OK. Being like everyone else is good.

4. You should live each day as if it is your last.


C'mon. Of course this is false. How did this idea ever get any traction at all?

5. We always want what we cannot have. True.

Sad, but true.

I'm just getting to the last book in my rereading of Proust's Remembrance of Things Past (spoiler alert: stop here if you don't want to know the plot). I would say one of the things the story returns to again and again is the way something you have and control is never as interesting as something out of your reach.

Maybe you know that part of this book centers on the narrator's obsession with a girl named Albertine. Marcel is conflicted but wildly jealous; over and over again he finds himself taking Albertine more for granted the more he controls her life, and finds himself crazed with passion and jealousy when he suspects Albertine's love, attention, or sexual interest has been elsewhere, at any time of her life, with anyone else.

Finally Albertine dies and Marcel is distraught.

I've encountered on several occasions the idea that when Albertine dies, Marcel "realizes how much he loves her." Maybe. But it's complicated. Marcel's unhappiness focuses still on knowing the unknowable about Albertine: what did she do, with who, when? After some time passes, he thinks about her less and less often, naturally enough. Then he is in Venice, where he is reminded of her, and he suffers again from missing her. Then, the very next day, he receives a telegram that he mistakenly reads as saying she is alive and wants to see him, to perhaps talk of getting married.

His reaction? It leaves him totally cold. He has no interest in seeing her whatsoever.

I understand there are many possible interpretations, both of Marcel's emotions and of the text. But one of these is that even in death, Marcel's ambivalence persists: it is Albertine's inaccessibility that moves him. Sad. But true.

Friday, January 2, 2009

Be The Change You Want To Be

Weirdly, it turns out that one of the best strategies for changing your behavior is to pretend, or act as if, or believe, that you are already the person you want to be.

You might have missed this news since it was buried in two different stories in The New York Times over the past couple of months—in one depressing story about how no one ever manages to quit doing anything they want to quit doing, and in another weird story about how virtual reality makes people feel they are inhabiting a completely different body.

The first story explains that although it's almost impossible to change your behavior, one proven strategy for increasing your odds is to "act like the kind of person you are trying to become." The Times explains that "even if you hit the jogging trail with 30 pounds of flab," you should "think of yourself as the jock you want to be." You'll be more likely to stick with it.

Are you finding it hard to think of yourself as the jock you want to be? I know I am. Maybe you need a high-tech intervention with a psychotherapist.

The second story explains that with virtual reality technology, you can inhabit the body of someone else.

Helpfully, they point out that if you have serious mood disorders this treatment might not be for you. But if you're reasonably, you know, together emotionally, you and a friend can don a pair of helmets, shake hands crosswise, and suddenly get the feeling of being in another body.

The relevant item here is that doing this can change not only your outlook but also your behavior. The Times says that not only does inhabiting a more attractive body make you more socially forward and adept, but in addition,
"people agree to contribute more to retirement accounts when they are virtually “age-morphed” to look older; and . . . they will exercise more after inhabiting an avatar that works out and loses weight."
I can see a lot—I mean a lot—of potentially useful avenues for this research.

One I don't really see, though, is the use to which people are actually putting it. Turns out they're hoping that married couples in trouble and adolescents can use the technology to experience another person's point of view, and stop being so *^%#ing self-absorbed.

Seems to me they're taking "point of view" a little literally, here. I mean, understanding another person requires more than just momentarily having their skinny fingers or their aching knees.

"Oh, mom, now I see why you're always bugging me to come home on time! Now that I inhabit your middle-aged woman's body and seeing me for the teenager I am! Now I get it!"

I don't think so.

But for feeling like the jock I want to be, could well work.

I figure, it's not so much "be the change you want to see," as "be the change you want to be." It would be a great advertising slogan, if ever this gets going in a big way.

Y'all can thank me later.