Monday, May 27, 2013

Guest Post: Class-based Aesthetics As Moral Lodestars: Reflections On Meghan Daum's Misspent Youth

This guest post is by my former co-blogger at Commonwealth and Commonwealth, Captain Colossal

In 2001 Meghan Daum wrote this book of essays:  My Misspent Youth which was re-released this year with a new forwardThe first essay is about how Daum can’t afford to live in New York as a writer anymore and is moving to Lincoln, Nebraska and I read it when it was published in the New Yorker and I remember thinking, But you’re published in the New Yorker meaning you have achieved the pinnacle of everything.  And I envied her then because she had this essay in the New Yorker, but also because she had put so well into words a feeling that I had at the time, which was that my dream of life was not one I would be able to afford either financially or spiritually.  And re-reading it now, I still envy her, because she’s cool.

They’re great, these essays, and it’s cool that they’re written by a woman, because I feel like I read, and love, so many essays of this sort by men and it can get me a little testy, even while I’m reading and loving a particular essay by a particular man, this sense that men get to do reflection and confession and summing up to the extent that the reflection and confession and summing up remains unapologetic and High Art, while women only get to do it if they Learn Things along the way.

And then I stumble a little bit on Daum’s dismissiveness, an overabundance of cool, perhaps, about certain kinds of people.  There’s this essay about a polyamorous and sci-fi centric clan, the Ravenhearts, in Northern California, where I stumble the hardest. (Note:  the only thing that gives away the age of the essay is not Daum’s attitude towards polyamory itself, which is very laissez-faire, but the fact that she fails to identify the reference on the t-shirt of one of the clan, which reads, Winter Is Coming.  So right.  Daum is fine with the polyamory, but she’s a little less fine with the sci-fi-ness of the Ravenhearts.  She starts with a reminiscence from her college days in which she stands by idly as someone pours a beer onto the velvet cape of a jouster and feels no guilt.  And the essay never says whether or not this is something that she feels guilt about now.

She doesn’t go for the Ravenhearts, and not because of their complicated or unusual sex lives, but because of their tackiness in a particular kind of sci-fi way -- t-shirts with slogans and long hair and dumb books.  It’s an aesthetic judgment that she can’t really get past.  Which is one of the themes of the book -- after all, there’s an essay about how wall-to-wall carpet is something that Daum can’t live with, not because of practical concerns, but because:  "Carpet is otherness.  It is not my house and not the house of ninety percent of the people I know.  It’s more than just not my style, it’s not my oeuvre."  This is a position I am totally sympathetic to -- there are certain brands I refuse to buy things from not because their product is ugly or made via a particularly grotesque form of sweatshop labor but because to buy from them would taint my conception of myself.  I am embarrassed about it.  But really, also, I still feel it.

I was thinking about Daum and then I was in the gym, actually in the locker room, thinking about how I looked and being dissatisfied with it, and dissatisfied with it in some way that, again, leapt from an aesthetic judgment about myself to a moral judgment about myself, because, like Daum, in some ways aesthetics, and not Picasso aesthetics or even LeCorbusier’s aesthetics, but commercial, class-based aesthetics, have become my moral lodestars.

Which brings me back to the world’s greatest essay, Lionel Trilling on Mansfield Park, which discusses "the Terror which rules our moral situation, the ubiquitous anonymous judgment to which we respond, the necessity we feel to demonstrate the purity of our secular spirituality, whose dark and dubious places are more numerous and obscure than those of religious spirituality, to put our lives and styles to the question, making sure that not only in deeds but in décor they exhibit the signs of our belonging to the number of the secular-spiritual elect."

I judge so anxiously my own aesthetics and then I turn that judgment even more harshly on those around me, without noticing.  And this is no good.  Because when dragged out into the light I believe we all deserve mercy.  We deserve kindness.  We deserve not to subject each other to the loofah of our highly refined aesthetic sensibilities, which are all different, but all pitched at so high a grade of distinction that two perfectly identical t-shirts can convey entirely different things depending on who is wearing them, which is why Don Quixote is different if written by Pierre Menard.

And then I try to imagine what Gore Vidal would have made of the Ravenhearts and whether Gore Vidal’s almost certain snideness towards them would have had a different effect on me than Daum’s response, and then I think about what I have internalized about women and kindness and that’s another thought for another day.

Monday, May 20, 2013

The Dissatisfied Child, Or, Tropes In Ordinary Unhappiness

I've learned more useful things about life from Lynda Barry than from any psychologist, advice giver, or self-helper.

Sometimes I'm unhappy, and sometimes I'm unhappy even though things are going well.  Hoping to waste a little time and avoid my actual work for a few minutes, I googled the obvious questions and discovered the concept of "dysthemia" -- which is being a little depressed over a long period of time. 

I'm not really interested in finding out whether I have dysthemia, because who cares?  Many of the treatments seem to be things I already do, like exercise, and I'm pretty happy with my other existing self-medication routines.

But I was curious enough about dysthemia to read about it, and some people recommended a book called Self-Coaching.  This book is based on a cognitive-behavioral approach, that diagnoses anxiety and depression in insecurity, and treats insecurity through positive self-talk.   

I like the idea of cognitive behavior therapy, which proposes an active response to anxiety and depression through habit formation and retraining the mind.  As ideas go for feeling better, it's got promise.

But reading this book I realized:  whatever cognitive behavioral therapy is for, it's not for me.  I mean, I don't have the kind of thoughts and feelings described in this book.  I don't worry and fret about things that might go wrong, I'm not frightened by the possibility that things won't go as planned, I'm not jealous or suspicious of people, and I don't think I'm too weak to handle life. 

The closest this book got to me was "perfectionism" -- yes, I do believe "details are a very important part of life.  But it wasn't all that close.  Sure, I fuss about things, but it doesn't get in my way.

I have a more elemental problem:  I'm just dissatisfied, because I don't like how things are right now.  I'm frustrated that things can't be better and more fun, that satisfying accomplishments take so much effort, that so much of life involves crap like driving to the airport, cooking, and forcing yourself not to eat too many sweets. 

I'm not worried about the future or regretting the past.  I'm dissatisfied with the present.

So I'm not any of the tropes of this book:  The Panicked Child, who believes the sky is always falling, the Frightened Child who is fearful and always worrying, the Bully Child, who is controlling and manipulative.

Tropes more relevant to me would be The Bored Child, for whom too much is never enough, The
Frustrated Child, who is maddened by failing to do what they've set out to do, and the Reality-Based Child, who sees correctly that things suck.

Cognitive-behavioral therapy seems to me to leave out all of these, but to have particular problems with the Reality-Based Child.  Some of the advice in this book contains things like if you're worried that you're not going to have fun at a party because the people there won't like you, you should tell yourself, "It will be fun."  But we all know that's often false:  the Reality-Based Child knows:  often it isn't fun, and people there don't like you.

The significance of all of this seem to me to go way beyond certain points about the limitations of cognitive-behavioral therapy, because implicit in the discussion are several pernicious false but commonly held myths about well-being. 

Myth:  unhappiness comes from worrying about the future and fretting about the past.  I actually saw this written on a motivational poster at my gym, so I know it's a bona fide out there thing people believe.  But it's not true.

Myth:  that if you're unhappy, it's you, not the world, that has the problem. 

Myth:  that normal unhappiness comes from traumatic events, instead of just the tough but normal situation of being a flawed human being with boundless needs for love, security, excitement. 

The idea that "misery is normal" is one I've written about before, on that occasion prompted by the fact that the rerelease of the DVD for the first season of Sesame Street had a warning saying it was not appropriate for today's preschoolers.  Right:  because as Virginia Heffernan said in the Times, it taught us that life was full of problems, and that things like taking baths, eating cookies, and reading, would "take the edge off" and allow us to be nicer to everybody. 

How quickly this idea went from obvious truth to children to sacrilege worthy of a DVD warning.

Monday, May 13, 2013

Dating, Hetero Gender Roles, Gay Men, Philosophy, And Other Stuff

Here's some dating advice for women who want to date men, from an expert, who claims to have interviewed tons of actual straight guys.

You want a guy to call you back after a date?  The number one reason guys don't call back attractive, accomplished, interesting women is simple:  those women were too challenging, too direct, and not soft and feminine enough.  But don't despair.  If you have tendencies in this direction, just be sure to "use softening words" instead of making statements -- preface your remarks with "I think" or "maybe" -- don't use your Blackberry, and be sure to change out of your work clothes into something girlish and flirty before the date.

There are a number of things to say about this, but here are a few.

First, I don't think there's anything inherently wrong with wanting a partner of either sex who will be supportive and kind and warm, and I don't really blame a straight guy for wanting women to be those things in a certain kind of soft way.  All people need a lot of nurturing, and it seems to me understandable for one person to have preferences for how another person manifests that nurturing. 

So I don't think straight men wanting a date with these qualities is somehow evidence of a flawed personality.  It reminds me of the irascible H. L. Menken and how he loved to sit and tell his troubles to an intelligent and sympathetic woman, and be comforted, and I think, "Well, yes, I can see how that would be very appealing and nice." 

However.  Replicate this desire across many many straight men in their preferences, and plonk the whole thing down in an already sexist, competitive society that rewards assertiveness and combat in the workplace and you have some major societal problems.

One major societal problem one is pretty obvious:  women can either have dates or career success but not both.  Aside from the obvious -- how sucky is that? -- there's also the deep problem of financial inequality and dependence.  If a women takes a lower-paying nurturing job and a man takes a high-paying combative job, and then they split up or divorce of whatever, the woman is screwed.

I've hadn't had much personal romantic engagement with this whole problem, partly because I can't really avoid the direct interpersonal style.  I'm a look-you-in-the-eyes kind of person.  As a friend once said, "Uh, you're just not demure."  The men in my life have liked that; I suppose men who wouldn't just kept their distance in the first place.

But it's definitely a thing.  Certainly in the media it's a huge thing.  Modern media almost always depict a dynamic in conformity with the pattern:  in a movie or whatever, you're pretty much never going to see the straight-shooter, no weasel-words accomplished woman as the heterosexual love interest.

How did this become such a thing, and why does it remain?   You'd think everyone would want their wives and daughters to bring in home the bacon, which would seem to cut in the opposite direction. 

I really don't know.  But whatever else you want to say, it sometimes makes me wonder if there's a connection between these phenomena and some aspect of the particular fondness some straight women have for gay men.  Obviously these things are complex, but perhaps one strand goes something like this:  many gay relationships show a model of male sexuality in which men are attracted to, and not threatened by, assertive and masculine styles. 

So for a straight woman it's like, you can see a guy in action actually being attracted to the qualities typically associated with anti-attractiveness, qualities that for some women are pretty essential to their make up.  It's appealing, even if it's at a distance. 

Of course, the accidental philosopher, being a philosopher, can't help but also notice that the things you're supposed to do to be attractive to straight men are exactly the opposite of the things you're supposed to do to be a good academic philosopher. 

For a philosopher, stating one's views in a non-assertive way, stating facts as opinions, and using weasel-words like "maybe" or "I think"  -- it's a direct route to career suicide, do not pass Go, do not collect 200 dollars.

Say what you will about the other humanities, at least they're generally safe spaces for uncertainty, weasel words, and indirect communication.  At least, I think they are.  Maybe. 

Monday, May 6, 2013

Driving and Death: WTF?

I don't drive a lot and I've never owned a car, partly because I'm concerned about the environment, partly because I've adapted well to the public transit lifestyle, and partly because, let's face it, driving is ridiculous. 

The most ridiculous thing about driving is death.  Motor vehicle crashes are one of the leading causes of death in the US, and we're not so special here.  In 2010 there were 1.24 million deaths worldwide, and in the US there were estimated 5,419,000 crashes, killing 32,885 and injuring 2,239,000.  In 2009 in Canada there were 2,209 deaths 11,451 serious injuries.

Yes, there are some things that kill more people.  But you gotta figure almost all of the driving related deaths were of people who were relatively healthy and not all that old.  From that point of view it's a massive scourge, striking down innocent healthy yogurt-eaters right in their prime. 

And how do we respond?   Massive telethons?  Public Service Announcements saying "Just Stay Home," or "Why Not Walk?"  Billboards with the faces of sad children saying "Do it for me:  take the bus"?

Obviously, no.  Present modern life with facts about traffic-related fatalities and it's like the most massive global collective shrug you've ever seen.  "Uh, yeah...  So where's the Doritos?" 

When future generations write the history of our Age of Affluence, won't their minds boggle that traffic is killing almost 6 times as many people around the world than leukemia, and no one seems to care?  (I got that number by dividing the 1,240,000 mentioned above by the 209,000 mentioned here). 

I found myself reflecting on these facts last weekend because I made an exception to my non-driving lifestyle and took a long drive to visit an ailing relative.  It was one of those situations so common in North America where the distance isn't crazy but the bus is virtually impossible.  I borrowed my friend's car -- which of course prompted great suspicion from the border guards:  "it's your friend's car?  Where's your friend, then?  Huh? Answer me that, smarty!"

So I'm driving along and all I could think was "Wow, driving really brings out the worst in people."

There's this bizarro-world law of the jungle atmosphere on the road, where people are constantly  pushing against the margins of the actual rules, and so you're constantly deciding whether to counter someone's aggression with your own or to acquiesce.  I don't know why it's like that, but it is, and as a result you're forced into this weird junior high style social competition.

Put together the law of the jungle, the insouciance about death, and the peculiar kind of rage you feel when you're a driver among other drivers, and I think you're forced to the conclusion that there's something about driving that makes you feel aggression, rather than caring, toward other people.

It's easy to think of our problems with driving as a symptom rather than a cause of something, but I think the causal arrow goes both ways.  Driving is crazy, but it also makes people crazy.  After all, more driving, more crazy, am I right?  Coincidence?  I don't think so. 

I love public transportation, and as I've gone on about before, one of the things I love about it is the way it encourages and facilitates a feeling of we're-all-in-this-together, a feeling you almost never have while driving, even if technically, we are. 

I was once riding on a Greyhound bus that broke down, and a there was space for a few people on a bus that stopped to help.  People started jumping up to be the ones, and then everyone sort of noticed that there was a quiet shy teenage girl in the back of the bus, with her cap pulled down over her face.  A collective feeling arose that, though she hadn't spoken up, she should be encouraged to take one of these highly desired spots.  And it was all arranged, and she did, and it was all fine.  That's not something that can happen driving.  Driving, you're like "OMFG that person in the car behind me is tailgating and texting. I hate them."

This is where the accidental philosopher, on encountering modern life, thinks: "Really? It's a condition of being a normal responsible helpful person that you are able and willing to pilot several tons of steel in such a way that with a moment's inattention, you could kill someone?


Honestly, how did it come to this?