Sunday, March 29, 2009

I Love Public Transportation

I do. I love public transportation. The depth of my passion is due not to its environmental sensibleness, or its contribution to a well-organized city, though those are great too. No, my passion for public transportation is based on the way it makes you feel about the people around you.

For a long time I didn't drive at all, and so I was missing the contrast between driving and not driving. And then I started doing a little driving, and I was astonished at the immediate sense of other cars being IN MY WAY and other drivers being ANNOYING IDIOTS who didn't know what they were doing or couldn't be bothered to put down the phone/cheeseburger/eyeliner/tall skinny latte long enough to pay attention and, well, you know, DRIVE.

You might think the feelings raised by driving stay put in your mind, directed only at drivers, not at fellow citizens. Or, rather, at fellow-citizens-as-drivers, rather as fellow-citizens-as neighbors. But in my experience this isn't how it works, with me or with anyone I know. You drive, and your sense that the people around you are rude nincompoops who can't be bothered with basic safety gives you a feeling of righteous indignation that lasts the whole day, and prompts thoughts like "What ever happened to civilized society?" "People today suck," and "That's it, I'm never going out to dinner in that neighborhood again." And that's just driving. If you factor in the hassles of parking, forget it.

Not only does taking public transportation not cause these feelings, it actually gives you other ones in its place. You see people on the bus who are completely and totally different from you. And what are they doing? Same thing you're doing. Waiting in the rain, riding on the train, reading their book, playing with their iPods, looking around at the scenery. It's like an experience cooked up to remind you how much you have in common with all the different people around you. It's the opposite of dehumanizing.

It's not perfect. Sometimes there's some horrible kid blasting music and taking up three places. But. Overall, it's this way. And I will go out on a limb here and say that even listening to people use their cell phones is not the end of the f***ing world. Sometimes it's annoying, sure. But many times those phone calls end with the warmest thoughts. "I love you, I'll see you soon." Parents to kids, kids to parents, friends to friends, lovers . . . I actually enjoy remembering that all these people can't wait to talk to the other people in their lives. How nice is that?

The main downside of taking public transportation is that it is slow. True. But at least you can read, and you arrive in a peaceful frame of mind. Also people don't often recognize is that there's a steep learning curve with taking public transportation. I mean, the first few times, you're trying to find the schedule, you're not sure whether the bus is always late, you don't know which route . . . it's a huge hassle. After about two months it's the most seamless thing imaginable.

I was reminded of these reflections today because I saw a wonderful set of drawings in The New York Times, in which two people unhappy about route cuts set out to draw and describe all the actual people on the bus routes that are going to be cut. You can see them all there: the older couples, the little kids, the "guy in an orange jacket." All present and accounted for in the art. I loved the pictures, and I thought to myself, yeah, that is what it is like.

Check out the Times thing here.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Against Mindful Detachment

I was in the kitchen the other night, looking at the dirty dinner dishes and contemplating my next act, and I thought: I don't want to do these dishes. I want another glass of wine. I want some of that dark chocolate in the fridge. And, hey, while we're at it, could I have those things while reclining on the sofa please?

I got no answer from the universe. Peevishness set in. "What about me, huh? What about my needs? Are you just ignoring me?" Hmph.

It's always a little astonishing to me how limitless my wants and desires are. I mean, this dishes episode came at the end of a pretty pleasant and easy day. I'm a professor, so I spent the morning at the library working on some research. I did some class preparation, and then some email. I went to the gym. I came home and made some simple food, and drank some wine.

A day full of pleasures, and very few privations. And yet, at its end, I was still not satisfied. Reflecting on this as I washed up, I was reminded that what I was experiencing is often thought of as a kind of troubling "attachment." On some philosophical views like Buddhism, the proper aim of life is getting rid of these attachments so you're not constantly beset by wants and desires. Like I tend to be.

I've always been resistant to this kind of thinking. I'm not claiming to have thought it all through, but I've always thought of my attachments to things as one of the better parts of my personality. I like it when people get all into stuff -- into caring about people, or causes, or clothes, or into some obsession with a TV show, or all into some sports team. It's nice when people are like that. I've always thought it was one of the nicer things about human beings that they get all into stuff in that sort of way. It's just not something I'd want to give up, and it's not really something I'd want the people I love to give up either.

It just so happened that just a few days after my dishes evening Judith Warner wrote in her Times blog about her experience with mindfulness. I guess mindfulness is like the hot new thing among a certain group of people -- "all the rage now in psychotherapy, women’s magazines, even business journals," as Warner puts it. Meditation for calm, cool, acceptance of whatever happens to be going on at the time. Mindful detachment.

Warner says in her essay that while mindfulness may be great for the person being mindful, basically it leaves their friends and family in the dust. While you're being all calm, cool, collected and detached, your friends are wondering what happened to the cranky hothead fun best pal they used to love and your kids are . . . well, actually I've never really understood how detachment could apply to your connection to kids anyway, so I don't know. But you get the idea.

Warner puts it in terms of ragged edges -- that part of not being all detached is being human. But in a way, I feel she's kind of still a mindfulness appreciator. She admires mindfulness OK, she just seems to think that being fallible -- in the sense of occasionally flying off the handle, being impatient, or shouting -- is part of what makes us human, even if it is also kind of, well, less than ideal.

In my opinion this gives mindfulness too much credit. At least, it gives this form of mindfulness too much credit. Attachment isn't just a natural human foible. It's part of our best selves. All that wanting, caring, desiring -- even the getting mad, and irritated, and impatient -- it's part of the good life. Without it . . . well, without it, what would be the point of anything? Attachment isn't just necessary. It's great. You know what it is? It's fun, fun, fun. Think about it. How could you have "sex drugs and rock and roll" without attachment? You couldn't.

I'm not saying it can't be good to be calm and collected. It can. But here's the thing: what most of us really want, and need, isn't detachment, it's something else. As I see it, what most people really want, and need, is more like a combination of slowing down and appreciating what they've got. It's true most of us are frazzled and wound up most of the time, and that a few minutes spend on the sofa doing absolutely nothing in total quiet would be benefit us greatly. It's true that most of us get really upset over trivia -- traffic, for example, reduces everyone I know to hurling expletives -- and that spending a little time reflecting on what really matters would help a lot.

But these aren't detachment or mindfulness at all. They're just better ways of being attached to the things you're attached to. Thinking more about the people you love, being good to them, and feeling nice about the things that make you happy. Better attachment.

These things never catch on. Because unlike mindfulness, which sounds all interesting and life-changing and dramatic, taking time to sit quietly, counting your blessings, and refocusing on what you really care about are all boring and incremental. Nobody ever gets excited about stuff like that. Even on my favorite holiday, Thanksgiving, the "thanks" part takes about five seconds.

Well, whatever. That's my take on things, take it or leave it. Now if you'll excuse me I have some drinking and reclining to do.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Rationalization: A New Model For Our "Collective Consumer Conscience"

I'm not usually one for chick lit. But when I read an interview with the author of Confessions of a Shopaholic, talking about how the novel is not so much about shopping per se, but about buying what you can't afford, I figured I had to make an exception.

I'm glad I did, because let me tell you, this woman is onto something. What she's onto is that you don't have to be an addict, you don't have to be a psychological weakling, you don't have to be a candidate for rehab, to continually make decisions that are clearly in your long term worst interest. The phenomenon of rationalization is far more common than that of addiction, and aptly describes pretty much all of us.

Many people are making many such decisions every day. Up to now, the only model we had for such decisions was the model of addiction: you must be a kind of addict if you continue to do something knowing it is bad for you. Hence: shopping addict, sex addict, "chocoholic," etc. etc.

But the great thing about COAS is that, despite having "shopaholic" in the title, the book presents a different and much more plausible model for self-destructive behavior. This is based on "rationalization": we tell ourselves a story for why doing the stupid thing is better, just this once, just right now, just on this occasion, than doing the sensible thing.

Of course, it's not new to notice that people rationalize. But I think Kinsella may be the first to give a realistic account of just how such rationalizing goes, for most of us, all the time, now, at the beginning of the twenty-first century.

This matters a lot. Because it's one thing to consider a person performing a rationalization that you, yourself, would never consider. But it's another thing altogether to consider a person making mental moves that you yourself make every day, or that your friends make, or that your teenage kids drive you crazy with.

As I see it, Kinsella presents roughly three paradigms of rationalization. First, there's simple wishful thinking. Nothing new there, really: the confidence that your lottery win/new job/tax refund/publisher's clearinghouse check is going to come through just when you need it - pretty standard.

The second paradigm is the rise and fall of the grand scheme. As far as I can tell, this hasn't been pursued much in literature -- though as I've written about before, Italo Svevo's Confessions of Zeno is what I would call a canonical text in this domain. The idea here is that people only feel they can change their bad habits through the implementation of a bold new way of living, preferably adopted to great fanfare at a dramatic moment in life.

In COAS, the heroine, Becky, seeing she is in financial trouble, consults a book called Controlling Your Cash. She says on buying it, "Quite honestly, it's going to change my life." And indeed, the next morning Becky awakes, full of zeal, and makes a cheese sandwich for lunch, and wraps it in tinfoil. She is thrilled: wow, this is thrifty, easy, fun! Why doesn't everyone do this every day, she wonders?

Noon comes. The sandwich is soggy, and gross. Her friends are heaing out to get take out. Really, what would you do?

Happiness 1, Frugality 0. The grand scheme: always a f***ing disappointment.

But the most interesting and original paradigm Kinsella gives us is the "I deserve it" one. This isn't the old "because I'm worth it" of the L'Oreal ads. This is rather the idea that since denying one's self even a small amount takes such extraordinary energy and effort, naturally one needs a reward for having exercised any self-control whatsoever.

Becky does this again and again: after an afternoon of worrying about her finances, she feels she has earned a reward -- some clothes, a nice dinner, whatever -- despite the fact that the reward is going to cost more than what she's saved through worrying all day.

It's easy to dismiss such behavior as "stupid" or whatever, but recent research supports the view that active self-denial is an effort for people, and that it weighs them down (see "ego depletion," and also this blog post I wrote about it once before). What is special about our current consumer culture is that since things, and credit, are so easily available, every act of not buying stuff is an act of self-control, rather than an act of acquiescence in simply having no money.

So until you've actually maxed out your cards, it really is a depleting, and exhausting, act not to spend, and it's not surprising that at the end of it you feel you need a reward. Even one that undermines all your efforts.

The interesting thing about this third paradigm is that it's not at all restricted to shopping and spending. Twenty-first century western culture is all about choice, right? So no matter what your weakness is, the availability of all those choices means you have to exercise your self-control more than ever before. Whatever your particular mania is, we've got the environment to encourage you to rationalize about it.

I don't know what the answer is. But I do think conceptualizing the question in terms of rationalization rather than addiction is the right way to go. So next time you're tempted to say that you're an addict, why not use the language of rationalization instead? "Hi, I'm Becky, and I'm a shopping rationalizer." Not as catchy. But more accurate!