Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Take An Ungrateful Whiner To Work Day

Last week I read this really good novel called "Then We Came to the End" by a young guy, Joshua Ferris, who I'd never heard of. I just picked it up wandering around the bookstore.

I don't know for sure, but I think the "we" in the title may be meant to refer partly to the "we" we all were during the late 90's and early 00s. The best thing about the book, I think, is its feeling of immersion in that post dot-com, "downturn," time. Not an easy mood to capture, but definitely a funny one to contemplate.

The dumber blurbs on the book cover describe it as a book about "work," since it describes a bunch of co-workers at an ad agency. Naturally there are some reflections in the book about the nature of work, and about the strange absurdity of "creative" people who fancy themselves original working in an industry that is basically about getting people to become conformists.

Naturally, too, some of the characters decide to quit and do something else. I'm always interested to read about people quitting their careers to take up new ones because 1) I think about doing this all the time and 2) I have the kind of job people usually quit their careers for.

I mean, it's funny: I'm a philosophy professor. It's just the kind of job people fantasize about when they fantasize about quitting their meaningless jobs: I know, I'll quit this, go back to graduate school, and study philosophy! That'll be meaningful and interesting!

It's hard for me to compare since I've never had any other comparable job -- I just worked at stuff like "waitress" and "camp counselor" before I became an academic. So I don't know. But being a philosopher professor sure can be boring, and it sure can seem pointless.

Enough so that, as I said, I often day dream about changing jobs altogether. I know other philosophy professors who do too. So, what jobs do we daydream about?

Lawyer probably tops my own list. After a day of thinking hard and working on some paper that, like, no people will ever read, I crave the effectiveness of lawyering. I mean, lawyers get things done, actual things. Money moves around; custody assignments get made.

Then, too, restaurant and cafe worker are up there. When I am feeling anxiety about teaching, about being constantly evaluated and criticized, I sometimes gaze longingly behind the Starbucks counter. So, you make coffee! Chat with customers! Fun!! Maybe I could own a cafe?

It's not implausible to think there are lawyers and cafe owners daydreaming about becoming philosophy professors, too. There used to be a show on TV where people got to try out other jobs temporarily: I remember one where some finance guy wanted to become a cheese maker. Shocker! It was hard work!

But wouldn't this kind of show be improved if it were more like an actual swap? They could pair people up. You: make the espresso; and you: grade those papers. Like Wife Swap only better.

I realize switching work would be complicated, but you could have a kind of shadow concept. Sort of like "take your daughter to work" day, except it would be like "take an ungrateful whiner to work" day. Here's Joe: even though he has a nice comfy well-paying job, he fantasizes about doing lawn care! He's an ungrateful whiner. Watch as he learns the finer points of mowing, weed-whacking, and leaf blowing!

Monday, February 25, 2008

The Independence Fetish

I've never been in therapy, or in any kind of psychiatric treatment. OK, I was required to see a "guidance counselor" in sixth grade once, when I had just started in a new school, and was really really miserable, but I refused to say anything interesting to the person (was it a woman? I don't even remember) so I don't count that.

It's not because I've never felt in need of treatment. I have. It's more that the psychiatric establishment has always scared me a little. It's scared me enough that I figured, unless it was an emergency, unless I was in serious need, unless it was obvious that things really couldn't go on as before, I'd be better off staying away. And luckily, knock-on-wood, count-your-blessings, I've never been in a bad way like that.

So, why all the suspicion? In part, I've been wary of the methods. Why should we trust these people to know anything? For most of my life, it's been part of the orthodoxy of therapy that when something bad happens to you, it's really important to talk about it, revisit it, be open about it, reconsider it, and generally have it all right there.

This always seemed odd to me. I mean, I'm sure in some cases people bury things and are made better by opening up about them. But why should that true in general? If something is painful, maybe not thinking about it is good for you, right?

And lo! This past year, we find news that repression can be good for you, that some psychologically healthy people are healthy because they bury things, not because in spite of burying things.

This kind of thing tends to undermine a person's confidence in the whole enterprise.

But I've also long been bothered by the particular conception of health the mental health establishment values. There are lots of thing here, but one big one has to do with the nature and value of independence.

I'm no expert, 'cause like I said, I've never been in therapy. But from talking with friends who have been, and reading about therapy, I get the sense that there's a huge emphasis on independence: on being happy within yourself, on having a sense of self that doesn't depend on family, job, friends, home, and on asserting the rights of that self within relationships.

Those sound like reasonable things, sure. But it's also weird that they're directly at odds with basic beliefs most of us have about how close relationships work, and why they're so valuable. I mean, isn't caring about someone a kind of dependence on them? Isn't thinking of your own good as separate from, and maybe at odds with, the good of others a way of keeping them at arms length? Isn't being close with someone undermined by a kind of cost-benefit approach to what you're getting out of the relationship?

Two things in yesterday's Times reminded me of all this. First, there was a letter to the editor about that story about the increase in mid-life suicide that I liked. The writer was struck by the aptness of the phrase "inexplicable gloom," from the original story, as a description of what ails people, and he described Durkheim's theory that such gloom comes from a lack of connection to others. Our independence, the writer seemed to suggest, was making us miserable.

Then, there was that wacky Modern Love piece about April Fool's Day. Toward the end there, the narrator describes the break up of his brother with his long-time girlfriend, a break-up that was first prompted by her therapist's suggestion that the two had become co-dependent.

Maybe they were, maybe they *should* have broken up; I don't know. But it struck me as so funny that being too interdependent with another person is considered a kind of problem, or illness; something that needed to be cured. And cured, in part, by breaking up!

You know, dependence sucks: it's scary; it makes you vulnerable; you risk being used and abused.

But just because dependence sucks doesn't mean independence is any better.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

What We Are Teaching The Children

So this year I've found myself in a surprising number of conversations about Into The Wild, which I've never read (in book form) or seen (in movie form) but because I am fully prepared to have conversations without any background whatsoever I have no problem discussing the finer points of the morality of somebody wandering into the woods in a half-assed way while breaking the hearts of those who loved him.

I am, however, hampered in this endeavor by the fact that one of my favorite children's books was always My Side of The Mountain, where a young kid runs away from home and holes up in some property technically owned by his family and lives off the land. He has a hollow tree and he tames a falcon and he makes his own clothes out of deer hide. It's presented as touch and go, sure, and when, at the end, his family shows up they seem to have been a little upset by his absence, but basically it's presented as a good thing to do. He learns to live off the land. He exercises his ingenuity. He gets in touch with the things that matter. There are, it turns out from bringing this up in conversation, quite a few books along these lines -- I'd like to single out Swiss Family Robinson which doesn't really have anything to do with the point I'm trying to make here (the way in which our most loved children's books are at odds with our cultural mandates) because it's not the family's fault that they're cast ashore. Still, for sheer dreaminess about the potentialities of leaving civilization behind, you could do a lot worse than Swiss Family Robinson, and when someone mentioned it to me in a recent Into The Wild conversation a whole host of things that I had totally forgotten crossed my mind, like them sleeping in a super-elaborate tree house.

It's not just in the realm of "flight into nature" that our children's books take up somewhat odd positions. I mean, consider just how much literature for that age group is told from the point of view of the mouse.

Mice, I am going to come out and say, are gross. Growing up on the West Coast I never had mice in my apartment, but one day in New York at 3 a.m. on a rotten day a mouse came racing across my floor and I realized in an instant how disgusting it is to have something little and furry worming its way around your living quarters. I would not have thought that a mouse would freak me out, but it did, in an atavistic kind of way.

I am not, I think, alone in this. So why do we have so many books (The Rats of Nimh, of course, being the best) designed to convey to us the loneliness and terror of the mouse's view, designed to make us dread the plot-mandated call to the exterminator or, worse, the cat (cats, by contrast, being in real life an animal we often feel affection for).

The simple explanation would be that these books are designed to change the way we look at mice. But I don't think that's true -- I don't think that the author of My Side of The Mountain actually hoped to encourage a bevy of schoolchildren making for the hills. More likely it has something to do with how marginal and small children feel themselves -- that these books are about giving them a sense of possible agency. They are the mice of the universe, smaller than everybody else, and it's a way of giving them a hero to identify with without actually inciting revolt. Or, from a more hardline position, you could think of it as the incorporation of rebellious impulses into a safe space. Let your child read about mice and running away rather than doing it; you read about the same things and it did not actually, when you grew up, cause you to treat all mice as your brothers or to live in a hollow tree.

I don't know -- it just seems strange. On the other hand, the books that do live up to societal norms are usually pretty rotten.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Threads, Lost Or Do You Remember The New Yorker Cool Hunter Article From 1994?

So last night around 6:30 there were two guys on the Gold Line, each taking up a little two-seat row and leaning over and talking to each other. I don't know exactly how to describe them -- they were kind of rocker guys, not the verging-on-derelict type, but the day-job-as-a-file-clerk type. One was older and he wore a pin-striped suit jacket and had a set of kind of pirate-y earrings and the other was younger and all-right looking and he had on an army jacket.

I got on and sat next to one of them which caused him to move over next to the other guy, so that they were now talking to each other in a single row, which struck me as an improvement. I wasn't planning on listening to their conversation; I had my headphones on and everything, but then the older one started talking about how his girlfriend stabbed herself in the wrist with a fork, which was a little attention-getting, and then he said, "I'm not with her for her looks."

He said, "I mean, she's cute, but not as cute as I can get, but she loves me and that's a great feeling."

So at that point I was kind of stuck on them and their conversation and I heard how the older guy and the girl he was with the last time he ran into the younger guy got into a screaming fight that night and he wound up chucking a taco at her face and this was all because they couldn't score. And the younger guy said that he had taken down his profile off of MySpace because he got over it.

"Dude, I told you, I'm getting over everything." It was the kind of conversation where they would be talking about somebody and they'd say things like, "That's when he was a Scientologist."

It reminded me of something which I try as hard as I can to forget, which is that I have lost the goddamn thread. I have no clue what's cool and what's not.

Let me be perfectly clear. I myself was never cool. I tried, from 15 onward, to be cool, which is the least cool thing you can say about yourself. In everything, by which I mean in Conde Nast publications such as the New Yorker or W, I hunted for clues, and tried to put it all together. What I learned is that living in shitty New York apartments that you pay nothing for is cool and will always be cool, and that I will never be as cool as Chloe Sevigne, and that there are professional cool hunters out there, which is, I guess, about what you should expect if you are taking your cool guidelines from the New Yorker.

Obviously, again, I never succeeded in making any use of this information. Nevertheless, there was a brief shining moment, not so much coincidentally taking place in my college years, where I thought I knew what cool was. I was capable of making very precise gradations, and I was confident in those gradations.

Let's leave aside whether I was right or wrong; it's probable that I was getting it all wrong even then, and all the cool kids were really playing hacky-sack, which is something that I would have been prepared to describe as a crime against humanity.

The point is, somewhere around the time of the rise of Britney Spears, I completely lost the thread. Things that the New Yorker had never prepared me for were, it turned out, cool. And now I don't have a goddamn clue what is cool and what is not. Maybe that's just age -- maybe I adopted an aesthetic of cool back in 1995 and have never adapted since then. Likely. Maybe it's age in a different sense -- as I do more things just because I have to or want to my aesthetic judgments get blurry and diffuse. Maybe I was just wrong all the way along.

My point is this. I used to look at people on public transportation and feel like I knew what their story was. I could take the way they walked and dressed and talked and reconstruct a little world for them. That makes me sound like an asshole -- let me clarify that I was aware that there were limitations to my ability really to imagine other people's lives.

But I can't do that anymore. I'll be perfectly honest with you -- those guys on the Gold Line were not people that I would classify as cool. But that's probably my limitations talking. They thought they were cool. Maybe other people would think they were cool. I don't know.

The older guy got off, in goddamn Highland Park, and he stood there and made a jokey noise in the back of his throat at the younger guy, a like "rrrr" noise. What do I know.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Women Behaving Normally

Today is the last day of the last week of class before "spring vacation," or "winter break," or "reading week," or whetever the fuck it's called when it happens at the end of February.

So I'm "relaxing."

Last night we went to watch the women's basketball team here at UMich in a home game against the Purdue Boilermakers. It was pretty awesome. Here's a picture of one of their stars, Krista Phillips, who is like, well over 6 feet tall.

I was never into sports of any kind as a kid, and I don't play any sports now, so it's surprising that when it comes to feminism, and women's equality, and yada yada yada, almost nothing gets me more emotional than watching women play serious sports.

I love it. I think there are a few reasons. Serious sports means serious competition, which requires a kind of psycho-physical fearlessness I've never had. I mean, I can compete with some guy on a math exam, sitting quietly alone in my chair, but I hate engaging in open combat of any kind. So the fact that these women just want to go out there and do that, it's so cool.

Then, too, the women and girls who play sports always seem so into what they're doing, in such an ordinary, every day, nonspecial way. They just like it. It's cool.

Another thing, I have to say, has to to do with the way female athletes are often large and strong female physical presences. It sounds so cliched, to say that somehow being physically strong and large is a kind of statement for feminism, but I'm often kind of bowled over by how true it is. The pressure not to take up physical space, to not intrude on anyone, is so great, and here these women are, you know, not really fucking worrying about that at all.

It's kind of brought home to you at the game because, of course, these games also have cheerleaders. The cheerleaders are of both sexes, but while the guys are just regular-looking guys, the girls are super-cute, super-tiny things that can bounce up onto a guy's shoulders and wave around, and perch on teensy mats while the game is going on.

Honestly, when I was young, I was dying to be a cheerleader. My school didn't have cheerleading, which is probably a good thing, but really, the urge to bounce and perch and shake my curls comes way more naturally to me than the urge to elbow my opponents and make a couple of baskets.

It's not bad, I figure, the cheerleader thing. The only scary bad thing is when it's all perchers and no elbowers. Then every girl has to be a percher. That's why I'm so into these women athletes, doing their thing, having a good time.

I'd like to be some kind of actual fan, like follow some WNBA team or something, but in fact, I'm so not into sports that whenever I try something like that I just lose interest. Weird, I know, since it's not like checking scores on the web and going to the bar to watch a game are, like, trying, or difficult activities.

Whatever. In the meantime, and while I'm here, Go Blue!

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

What Happens To A Tomato Deferred?

So it's edging up on 10:00 here at the house, and thoughts are inexorably turning breakfast-ward, because food is essential to sustaining life.

A moment ago I peered in the fridge, thinking about breakfast options, and discovered/remembered that I have a good 3/4 of a custard pie sitting there. Now opinions may differ among the readership, and I expect a certain amount of expostulation, but I kind of, in my heart of hearts, think custard pie is the perfect breakfast food.

This is not a post about my unhealthy eating habits.

Rather, close on the heels of my discovery of the pie came a certain amount of day-counting. How long, I wanted to know, had the pie been in my fridge? Not that long is the answer -- not that short would be another answer. Breakfast hangs in the balance.

This is not actually a post about how long food stays good, and whether it's better to play chicken with the contents of your fridge.

Instead it reminded me how much I hate having old food sitting in my fridge. I hate the thought of things wasting away, slowly going bad. It grosses me out. This affects my behavior on a daily basis. When I'm at the grocery store, I don't buy things that might, at least momentarily, appeal to me because I can see myself not getting around to eating them, or not eating it all. Those little packets of fresh herbs are a pretty good example. They're appealing; I'll use them at least once or twice, but then there you are with almost a full thing of mushy chives, and that makes me feel ill at ease with the world. Also, I generally refuse the doggy bag. Which makes no sense, because that food is going to be wasted anyway -- it's not like if I leave it at the restaurant it will magically be transformed into a source of light and nourishment.

I guess, at the end of the day, I'm not so comfortable with the whole death-and-decay thing or the imperfections of the world as I make out. Somewhere in the back of my head, I have an image of a shopping trip where every single thing bought is consumed in its entirety, where no bad purchases ever occur and no needs go unmet.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Family Law And The Separation of Church and State

A few years ago in Canada there was big news when some government person proposed adding the Islamic "Sharia" law to the list of religious systems of law that can inform family court decisions.

At first I was, like, "Wait, what? Religious systems of law inform Canadian family court decisions? That wouldn't happen in the US; there we have separation of church and state."

Turns out the whole thing is really complicated, everywhere, as yesterday's Times story shows. And I'm wrong about the US. And I still don't really get what's going on.

From what I could understand in Canada, certain Jewish and Christian traditions govern some family court matters -- such as who gets divorced under what terms, and what happens to the children, and so on -- and it had long been the case that if the various participants in some conflict agree to have their case adjudicated in accordance with these traditions, then it is.

The proposal, then, was to allow Islam to join Judaism and Christianity in this. The emotional reaction this prompted was connected, not surprisingly, to the sense people had that adjudicating family court cases using Sharia law would be especially bad for women, who would end up worse off under that law than they would have under the regular, secular law.

I slowly grew to understand that in any case, the secular law "came first," in the sense that one had to give consent to have one's case considered this special way.

Having gotten this far, though, I got confused. I assume that any people who work out a plan for their arrangements to mutual satisfaction have the right, within various limits, to have that plan put into action. If a divorcing couple goes to a mediator, and agrees together on some division of goods, isn't the court willing to puts its seal of approval on their arrangement? How is it different that the arrangement to mutual satisfaction had a religious source?

The Times story quotes the Ontarian premier Dalton McGuinty saying in 2005, "There will be one law for all Ontarians." Canada ultimately decided that rather than add Islam to the list, they would take away all religious arbitration. But if secular law came first anyway, wasn't there already one law for Ontarians?

Like I said, I had assumed no-religious-arbitration was already the case in the US, but the Times explains that US courts use arbitration processes from all three of these religions. Indeed, a lawyer quoted in the Times says of one US case, “An agreement to arbitrate is an agreement to arbitrate," suggesting that there is little conceptual difference between religiously informed arbitration and non-religiously informed arbitration. If this is right, doesn't the single secular law still cover everyone the same way? How does the religion itself become relevant?

Of course, intuitively, the difficult issues concern the possibility of coercion. And while we might say that while there is the possibility of coercion in any case -- say, if a woman agrees to some arrangement because she's afraid of being beat up -- the possibility of coercion in the religious context does seem especially fraught.

This makes me see how the question of Sharia law in family court is an interesting and important one. But it still leaves me wondering, What exactly is the question? Because I don't know how "agreeing to religious arbitraration" is different from "presenting an mediated arrangement of mutual satisfaction."

Is the difference that in the first case one has to sign on before knowing the outcome? Is the difference that a person loses certain rights to appeal if they use religious arbitration that they don't lose if they present a mediated agreement? Is the difference that one must expliclity sign away certain rights -- and thus do so knowingly -- in the secular case, but may be misled in the religious case?

It seems to me that the crucial question lies in these technical details, but I don't know how the technical details work. More details please!

Friday, February 15, 2008

Rejection Is So Awkward

There are things, I guess, that it makes sense to feel bad about and things that it doesn't make sense to feel bad about, and it's not surprising that the two would sometimes bleed into each other, but it's still always a little strange.

Tuesday I went to look at apartments, which is a long story and one that the odds are pretty good I've already told you about, on the phone, in exhaustive detail. Anyway I looked at a bunch, decided I didn't want the two bedroom one with a fireplace which was coming available because the wife of the couple who lived there had died and the husband was being moved out. It seemed like more apartment than I was ready for, although learning to build a fire is high on my list of planned-for-character-building.

Then I felt profoundly depressed and walked and felt beaten-down and went to look at more apartments and liked some all right and filled out applications in two different buildings. My mood was on the upswing and I got a little manic with the apartment managers. One told me that she had never seen a passport before, and I started telling an ultimately pointless story about how the government had initially rejected my application for my current passport because I had enclosed a check for too much money. It's kind of funny, and she chuckled, and even so I have no idea why I was telling her this. She was a trainee as apartment manager; the permanent manager had apparently received a large number of awards for her work from the ownership company, because the wall was covered with them, and before I figured out that this was a different person I was kind of staring at her trying to figure out why she had put all the plaques up, whether it was company policy or pride or whatever. I mean, I'd probably put a plaque up too, but it still made me think.

Anyway, both of the apartments I applied for wanted the phone number of my current apartment manager, and I hadn't brought it so I told them I'd call them the next day with it, and by the next day I had decided I really wanted the apartment in the other building so I called that building and gave them the number, and I meant to call her, but somehow didn't get around to it. Then she called me, and I just gave her the number, I didn't say that I didn't want that apartment. Then she called me back and told me that the number I had given her was disconnected, which is not that surprising for my current apartment management, and I told her I had gotten it off a form and worried vaguely that she didn't believe me, even though it was true, and then I was like, "well, actually, I'm taking another apartment so I guess you don't really need the number from me." And she was like, "no." And today I went up and put down my check on the other apartment and went and picked up the advance check that she had wanted for the deposit, and I guess somehow I felt bad for not wanting that apartment, even though I'm sure she could have cared less.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Sad Shoppers Say: Gimme Plastic Water Bottle Plz!

Finally scientists are turning their critical eyes to the habits of shoppers. Was the Prada Bag a necessary item for which you paid the right price, an impulse purchase for which you overspent, or an "investment bag" which was a steal?

Yes, in case you didn't know, there is such a thing as an investment bag -- a handbag one purchases as, well, I guess as an "investment," though as far as I know no one has ever claimed to have one go up in price. I was alerted to this some months ago from the comments on this Jezebel post where I also learned that the average 30 year-old woman has 21 handbags. Astonishing! Can this possibly be true?

Anyway, science now tells us that if you're unhappy, you're more likely to have overspent.

The Times science blogger John Tierney tells us about the study. Like all such studies the particulars are so weird, you find yourself thinking, what? really? they did that?

First, how do you think they got the subjects into gloomy moods? They made them watch "a sad video clip about the death of a boy’s mentor (as opposed to a video clip about the Great Barrier Reef, which was shown to a control group)." I remember some brain study where they made people watch "On Golden Pond." I always think, aren't there a lot of moods that could put you in, depending? Or, at least, more than one?

Second, how do you think they tested what the subjects were willing to spend? They asked them how much they'd be willing to spend on a "sporty, insulated water bottle." As Tierney notes, not everyone's idea of a mood-induced impulse buy.

The study's co-author, in response to some questions, said, "many might suspect that being in a negative mood like sadness would trigger a negative outlook, encouraging devaluation. Here, again, the data contradict this belief. Sadness is a negative state but it does not trigger a negative outlook; instead it triggers increased valuation of commodities. People pay more to get things when they are sad."

As I wrote on the blog comments section, what I don't get is how paying more for a sporty water bottle is evidence of increased valuation of bottles. Why isn't it evidence of decreased valuation of money? Can't you just imagine these poor folks - they're there at the mall, forced to watch some downer video about death, and then asked to pay for a water bottle?

I'd be, like, "Fuck, I guess life really is short, and stupid. There's no sense saving for retirement since it all sucks anyway. You want ten dollars for that stupid-ass piece of landfill you call a water bottle? Whatever. Here."

Then I'd go buy a handbag, or more probably a pair of shoes. Now there's a life-affirming purchase.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Yahoo And Its Discontents

I use Yahoo as my internet "portal." I think I do this only because I've always done it. I remember when "the internet" was, like, just text and I wasn't clear on what was there. This is maybe 1993. I asked a forward-looking friend, What can you see and do on the internet? And he said, start at yahoo and they have some stuff.

I remember I did, and it wasn't very interesting. You could click on "arts and humanities" and that would take you to some databases. Library of Congress, anyone? I remember it was supposed to be some kind of famous and hilarous thing that the kids at MIT had connected a sensor to the soda machine in their building so they could monitor whether there was soda without having to go downstairs, and since it was "on the internet" anyone could monitor it, anywhere. Wow, some kind of excitement!

Somhow I've stuck with Yahoo all these years. About two years ago they changed their format to having that featured story in the middle of the page, and I actually wrote them an email to say 1) the featured story is almost always moronic and 2) the other news links are getting dumber too. Please go back to your previous format. Of course they didn't. Whatever.

I don't really care now or notice much what I'm looking at on the Yahoo page, except for one thing: the format of the feature story these days drives me crazy. There's something about it that it always reads like a parody of what it is. Here's the one that's up there now:

Life beyond Earth?
Find out how scientists are planning to colonize Mars and the moon.

-- Not science fiction anymore
-- Are we alone in the universe?
-- Find astronaut ice cream online

Could this be any dumber?

The headlines are always constructed as teasers: Forbes announces top five livable communities. What are they? Weather plays a role. Check real estate listings. Often even if you do get interested and click, you find some stupid yahoo content, or a video you're not going to watch. Who thinks this is a good idea?

I can't wait for some really big news to come along.

Aliens land in major American City.
Are they in your neighborhood?

-- How carbon-based life forms work
-- Will the economy be affected?
-- Find E. T. costumes online

I've tried to switch to an actual news-oriented homepage, but I missed the particular mix of ads and crap and so on. So I guess it's not that I'm against dumb, so much, I just want it to be the right kind of dumb. Can't I have my Britney headlines next to some car ads next to some actual news? Is that too much to ask?

Saturday, February 9, 2008

Staring At Strangers

There was this kid on the subway today who was just really exceptionally stylish. I think. Or maybe not.

What made him exceptionally stylish was that he looked so strange for a kid. He was maybe twelve, and he was with his dad and his sister and he was wearing this lime green, bright pale lime green Lacoste polo shirt and kind of architect-ish glasses, and a grey sweater tied around his waist. And he was kind of a burly kid.

I don't know how to say it. He looked so much like a kid -- he wasn't one of the kids you tend to see around my part of town who are smaller scale adults, by which I don't mean to say anything bad because I think of that as part of being a kid too. But this kid looked like he could totally get into trading Star Wars cards or laughing way too loud about something stupid. Nerdy, and not in the way that we have totally debased nerdiness by using it to refer to 22 year old Echo Park clubgoers who got really good grades in chemistry when they were in high school, but that deep-rooted nerdiness that we all go through at one stage or another in our lives when we totally don't even see the social conventions that bind us and if someone tries to tell us about them we laugh in their face. "What do you mean, other people shave their armpits?" Or whatever, choose your own goddamn example.

So I could totally see him being that kid, but maybe not. The whole ensemble was jarring, but it was also totally appealing in this way. It made me want a lime green polo. And it seemed deliberate -- the bottoms of his jeans were cut up in some kind of creative way. So it could have been the opposite, it could have been deliberate and strategized and put together in a way that took into account social conventions and transcended them. Or maybe that's what all the kids are wearing these days. I don't have a clue.

It's just interesting, looking at people. And mostly you file them away pretty rapidly, with some respect for the things that you don't actually know about them, but still. Then your radar gets slightly jammed; you can't really put together who those people are and what category they fall into. It's cool, especially if the effect itself is pleasing.

Friday, February 8, 2008

Some Incoherence About Sentimentality

My dictionary defines "sentimental" as "marked or governed by feeling, sensibility, or emotional idealism"; it perhaps indicates just how sentimental I am that I cannot see exactly what that definition excludes.

I am sentimental. I am sentimental in trivial ways: I cry at the national anthem, or montages of the recently and heroically dead, I save letters and photos. I am sentimental in a more profound way: I ascribe emotional meaning to the world as it is presented to us, and, perhaps more importantly, I generally tend towards ascribing a kindly, or at least tender, emotional meaning to that world, when possible.

If you think of that line from "What A Wonderful World" that goes, "I see friends shaking hands, saying how do you do, they're really saying I love you" you will have a fairly precise understanding of what my brand of sentimentality involves.

Of course, you can't sustain that mood of kindly smoothing over all the time. When hungry or pissy or nervous that's not how I feel at all. And, of course, there's the mood of seemingly misplaced sentimentality: something that you felt sentimental about -- a job, a date, a place -- turns a different side of itself to you, and then you get the horrible feeling that maybe the sentimentality you viewed it with was a matter of falsifying the experience, a psychic airbrushing. And I don't, really, have any desire to live in a world of illusion, whatever the background music.

But it's all a little academic, thinking it through like this, because I have not ever been able to escape my sentimentality. My efforts to do so, to adopt a strictly realist view of the world, have only ever succeeded in acting as so much concealer for the sentimental zit underneath.

If I wanted to be mean-spirited about it, I guess I could see my sentimentality as a kind of emotional capitalism, where experience, stored away, gains interest in the form of a vague benign glow that covers the good times and bad times alike. I don't know. I'm going to take a stroll, and look up at the new moon, and think kindly thoughts about the world we live in.

Thursday, February 7, 2008

Disgust and Purity: Should We Care?

Disgust, repugnance, and fears of impurity have made three appearances in The New York Times over the last few weeks. OK, it's not Britney, but still. For an abstract concept, three is a lot.

First, as I wrote about before, we have Stephen Pinker's essay, The Moral Instinct. There, Pinker says early on that, psychologically speaking, there are (roughly) five distinct sources of moral sense: not harming others, being fair, being loyal to a community or group, respecting authority, and purity.

Later in the piece, Pinker says that the excessive pursuit of purity can be a source of moral illusions: those who are against cloning because it gives them "a moral shudder," he says, just aren't being thoughtful or reasonable enough. It's a kind of prejudice.

I was struck at the time: how can disgust be a source of moral judgment and also be a distorting factor on moral judgment?

Then there was this recent short item in the Arts section: "Economists Dissect the 'Yuck' Factor." Here, Patricia Cohen points out that disgust is a complex issue for conservatives: on the one hand, economic conservatives favor fewer limits on markets, so the fact that you feel grossed out by, say, kidney purchasing or baby buying is simply not relevant to whether these things are good or bad. On the other hand, social conservatives (as Pinker points out) frequently invoke the moral shudder in explanations of wrongness.

As she tells the story, economists say that everything should be open to markets unless you can prove otherwise, while skeptics say that the burden of proof is on the other side -- that if you want to open up a market, you must make a case for the morality of the proposed transactions.

Interestingly, she cites Pinker's essay as one source of the idea that disgust is an "early warning system" -- a feeling that alerts us that something needs moral scrutiny.

On this view, the answer to my question is that disgust is a not a source of moral judgment, but is merely an indicator, and when trusted, acts as a distorting factor.

This answer is supported by the third appearance of disgust, in the pyschologist Paul Bloom's review of a new book by philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah. There, Bloom summarizes some research as showing that disgust and other emotions cause us to make judgments we later find we cannot justify.

Interestingly, this approach almost seems to side with the economists, insofar as the suggestion is that if one cannot give a justification in terms of other factors -- such as harm -- then disgust is irrelevant.

I'm no fan of purity obsessions, believe me. But at the same time, I also think we humans are not always very good at figuring out what's good for us -- as I've said before, once we start doing cost-benefit analysis, we tend to start estimating wrong.

I'm left uncertain over whether, and when, and how, to care about disgust. If a poor man risks his life selling a kidney to a rich man and then gets sick and dies, I feel a kind of disgust. I'm inclined to take my reaction as morally significant whether or not I can back it up. But I know that some people feel a kind of moral disgust at sexual freedom, homosexuality, and so on, and there I feel, well, no, that's not morally significant.

I suppose ideally I would be able to articulate in other terms what is bad about free markets for organs donations. But in the meantime, what am I supposed to do? It's not like cost-benefit analysis has such a great track record, either.

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

I Feel Better Now

I woke up this morning a little jumpy, a little filled with that sense of lots of things to do, none of which I so much wanted to do.

Then I went and voted. One of the things which had me somewhat jumpy was the fear that I might not be a properly registered voter, despite the fact that I had been super-confident about my status. "Oh, yes, I'm registered," I told my near ones and dear ones.

My grounds for thinking I was properly registered were pretty good. I had voted in the fall of 2006, and I had not moved since then. So it's not like this was a false confidence. On the minus side, I hadn't received a sample ballot or a polling place notice. On the plus side, I had been out of town for a while, so there was a somewhat complicated mailing issue. Also on the plus side, I had gotten an email from the California Democratic Party.

Anyway, I looked up my polling place and the sample ballot online last night, tried to figure out what I thought about the latest term limits compromise and whether transportation dollars should be kept from the general fund and so on and this morning at 8 I went to vote.

My polling place was kind of a riot. To get there I walked by a pre-school at morning drop-off, where five year olds with complicated haircuts where being comfortingly hugged by parents with German-made SUVs. The polling place itself featured a lot of girls with stiletto heeled boots and Coach-logo purses, and had on the walls photos of transvestites in front of Hollywood landmarks, only the transvestites were, in the photos, way big, towering over theaters and hotdog stands.

A lot of people had to cast provisional ballots. There was a line. When I got to the front, they looked up my name. There I was, a registered voter with a ballot all her own. I went, I marked, I looked it over and fretted about whether I had inked it thoroughly enough.

I guess I just feel safer. I am a properly registered voter; I am a part of a civic polity. There's got to be some protection in that, right?

Monday, February 4, 2008

Goliath Has Feelings, Too

So I got invited to a Super Bowl party, which is the kind of thing I like to mention because when I was in high school I was pretty convinced that no-one would ever like me enough to invite me to their Super Bowl party, so the whole thing has the tang of vindication about it.

That's about all I'm going to say about the party, which was grand, other than the fact that there was one person there with an actual stake in the game, and he was a Giants fan, which I think fit in nicely with everybody's vague tendency and so we joined him in rooting for the Giants and there were high-fives and vindication and all that. And some pretty loud screaming when they showed the Greatest Hits On Tom Brady video. It was a pretty goddamn great football game, and I enjoyed the company and the event and so on.

But I remember back in the day, a long long time ago now, when the Lakers won three straight and sitting there in a room with my so-called friends for the last of those titles and having everybody there rooting against my team.

"Obey your thirst," they shouted every time Kobe missed a shot, and I wanted to tell them all to go away.

It sucked, too, because I really cared, I really wanted the Lakers to win, but nobody else cared except inasmuch as they wanted to see Shaq go down and Kobe go down. Fair enough. I was always walking that line between half-apologizing and half-embracing. They were my team, and if you wanted to make the case that Shaq was the saboteur of grace in the game (those same people would later make a living off arguing that we shouldn't have traded him away) and that Phil Jackson was the epitome of evil, I could see it, I had argued those arguments, but they were still my team.

Maybe it's because I had made those arguments before it all coalesced into my team, before I bought in, that I saw them in the faces of those around me.

Look, in some ways, the best rooting scenario is when your team outperforms itself. Lakers vs. Phoenix, when the Lakers were up 3-1, that was a good rooting experience. The Lakers were, for that moment, better than they had any right to be. That's fun. When your team is worse than it's supposed to be, it's a different story.

Here are the morals of this post: I am glad I am not a Patriots fan right now. I am a little sad that the Kwame Brown era has come to an end in Los Angeles, because he's Kwame and he has Kwame hands. And when Bill Walton is there saying, "What poise, what grace from the big man," you should treasure that moment because it's not coming back for a while.

Sunday, February 3, 2008

A Short Distance Bus Ride

So it's late and I'm beat and I've been waiting out there in the cold for a bit, but eventually the Number 4 shows up and I climb on. The bus driver says, "Have you always had short hair?" I say, "Yes," which is, I guess, a lie. I don't know exactly why I lied, but I guess it had something to do with hoping to short-circuit the whole conversation.

The bus driver says, "You look like this girl who used to ride my bus, but she had long hair." So I look at the bus driver and he looks kind of familiar and I feel a little weird about lying on the hair front, which is more something I do to strangers on the street than to the bus driver, generally, so I say, "Actually, I guess I had long hair a couple of years ago." And he says, "Yeah, that could be what I'm thinking of."

And then he says, "Now you're walking on the wild side."

It was kind of a depressing thing to have your bus driver say to you.

Then two girls got on with a dog. Then some guys got on and started harassing the girls and barely, over my headphones, I could hear one girl going up to the bus driver and saying, "She's my girlfriend." I feel like any situation that requires you to explain your relationship status to the bus driver is probably one to be avoided, but I don't know. I don't know how they got the driver to let them bring the dog on the bus, for that matter.

Saturday, February 2, 2008

The Juno Soundtrack: Cool Or Lame?

When I saw the movie Juno, I happened to be by myself. I was in a very crowded theater, sitting near the front (as I always like to do), and a couple sat next to me and started jabbering away during the opening sequence. "It's supposed to have great music!" the woman said. "Oh, yes, I know, I know!" the guy said.

"Hmmph!" I thought. I hate it when people talk during movies. I hate it when they think that just because there's no dialogue at some particular moment it's OK if they talk. It's not OK, guys. Just be quiet.

They continued to get on my nerves. At one point one of them said out loud, "Oh, she'll never go for that." Good lord. But you know, I had to say at the end that I agreed: the music was good! I liked it.

When I told my friends I liked the music to Juno, they said, "What?" "Really?" "I thought it sucked," and things like that. I had a twinge of 8th-grade style embarassment. Did I like something lame?

"But, The Velvet Undgerground!" I said. "That's song is great!"

"Cutesy guitar with awkward, reedy singing?" they said? "No."

I was curious enough to go to iTunes and check out the list and play some snippets to remind myself what it was like. Maybe I was hallucinating.

OK, so here's the story.

There are 19 songs. Four songs have coolness/excellence credentials I feel no one can counter, given the artists: The Kinks, Buddy Holly, Sonic Youth, and The Velvet Underground. Two are covers of classics: All the Young Dudes and Sea of Love.

A few songs are really short or instrumental.

Then things get interesting. We have six songs (!) from an artist named Kimya Dawson; we have two version of a song called "Anyone Else But You," and we have "Piazza, New York Catcher." All of these involve cutesy guitar and reedy singing.

Then, finally, we have "All I Want Is You," which is the very boppy opening song. "All I want is you will you be my bride? . . ." Remember?

OK. This last song (the first in the movie) is cute, but it's not cutesy; in fact the artist records children's songs. It's meant to be a nice, boppy, and kind of funny, song for kids. And you know, I like it. Not like I'm going to download it or buy it or whatever, but I think it's just a nice, simple, happy song. Like, "The Princess Bride" of songs.

What's a little more surprising is I also liked two of the cutesy/reedy songs: "Tire Swing" and "Anyone Else But You" are both real sing-songy, childlike, nice melodies. When I hear them I don't hear the style so much; I just hear the song. And I like it.

The rest of the cutesy songs, not so much; I don't know why. But we now have a full explanation of my initial judgment, especially if I'm right in thinking "Tire Swing" got more play in the movie than the other Dawson songs. If you put together these with the first batch, I clearly like a lot of this soundtrack.

Listening to the snippets on iTunes and from what I could remember, it seems a lot of the lyrics are simple and romantic. Not romantic in the teenage-crush-I-feel-like-I'm-going-to-die sort of way, but romantic in the simplest, "I like you" sort of way. In fact, The Velvet Underground's "I'm Sticking With You" fits in here perfectly; I remember how jarringly sweet it was to come upon that song at the end of the VU album with all its songs about heroin and sex.

Maybe I found that simple romanticism refreshing. On the other hand, maybe I wasn't paying attention and liked the songs in spite of that -- I do remember some sort of annoying lyrics, too. I'm not sure. But on the coolness question of Juno, I'm coming down on the side of coolness. It's not easy to write a nice simple melody, one that's not too catchy and not too elaborate, but just nice to listen to. And really, how could a soundtrack with Sonic Youth, The Kinks, and the Velvet Underground not be cool?