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!" 


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!