Life: The life of the artist edition

I lived for a considerable time with an older, extremely talented actress. She scorned my cleanliness theory and maintained that theatre is shit, lust, rage and wickedness. ‘The only boring thing about you, Ingmar Bergman,’ she said, ‘is your passion for the wholesome. You should abandon that passion. It’s false and suspect. It sets limits you daren’t exceed. Like Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus, you should seek out your syphilitic whore.

Perhaps she was right, perhaps it was all romantic drivel in the wash of pop art and shady drug scenes. I don’t know. All I know is that this beautiful and brilliant actress lost her memory and her teeth and died at fifty in a mental hospital. That’s what she got for expressing her feelings. (35)

—Ingmar Bergman, The Magic Lantern, which should be bad but isn’t. Consider it recommended. I think like the actress yet live closer to Bergman.

How many actresses have lived like the actress but not got what she got “for expressing her feelings?” Be reluctant to generalize from anecdote!

From 2015 many things stand out, among them corporal punishment, the prevalence of disease, the need to make music when it cannot be effectively recorded and played back at will, and relentless reading in a land without TV.

The gym, otherwise known as The Temple of Iron:

[I]f we compare the practices of organized religion and the gym, we can identify many similarities: the faithful of both church and gym travel to a separate building, wear special clothes, eat special food and take part in shared rituals that are performed with complete absorption and dedication. For those for whom religion is no longer a marker of identity, and who do not take part in the social aspects of religious observance, going to the gym fulfils many of the same individual and social needs. The major difference is, of course, that churchgoers polish their eternal souls with a view to attaining happiness everlasting, while gym-goers train their bodies for rewards in the here and now.

That’s from The Temple of Perfection: A History of the Gym, which so far oscillates between thoughtful (as in the quoted paragraph) and exceedingly annoying (“The body, how it is interpreted, represented, used, shaped, and presented in private and public, plays a central role in the transformation of abstract social discourses into lived actions and identities”—which could say, “People interpret other people based on their bodies,” but why use eight words when eighty are available?). Always be wary of writers who use the word “discourse,” because it’s so often a marker of bogosity, and a sign that the writer should read Paglia’s “Junk Bonds and Corporate Raiders: Academe in the Hour of the Wolf.”

under_armourI go to the gym or run most days, and I have a fascination with articles about the saints of apparel industry—like “Skin in the Game: Under Armour knows athletes. Can it sell to everyone else?” (notice the eroticized accompanying photo, shot by someone who knows his business) or “Chip Wilson, Lululemon Guru, Is Moving On.” One does not have to be a writer for Mad Men to see that these companies are trying, perhaps successfully, to tap into mythic associations and aspirations; both articles could fit into Virginia Postrel’s book The Power of Glamour. Glamour is sometimes its own reward.

The gym, at least the one I go to, is more multiethnic than most of my friend circles or the parties I go to. The net of people caught by the squat cage is wider. There are also interesting gender divisions: men do more free weights and women do more cardio (though they’d probably be better served by free weights). Modesty in the gym is however not a virtue, and in most gyms I’ve seen a lot of eye-fucking goes on, for perhaps obvious reasons. If people once met and mated through religious organizations and now do while pressing, one could add this example to Chaline’s book.



Laptops, students, distraction: hardly a surprise

Jake Seliger:

I originally wrote this in 2008 but just updated it.

Originally posted on The Story's Story:

This post grew out of a comment responding to the question, “What Restrictions Should Student Laptops Have?” It’s of interest to me because I’m a graduate student who teaches English 101/102 and takes classes at the University of Arizona. In addition, this post dovetails nicely with “Desktops versus laptops.”

I hadn’t realized that the questioner in the original Slashdot post referred to high school students who would keep the computers.

The short version: leave restrictions or lack thereof to the teachers or instructors.

For background, read Why I ban laptops in my classroom, I Don’t Multitask, professor vs laptop and then Paul Graham’s Disconnecting Distraction followed by Is Google Making Us Stupid? in The Atlantic. If Paul Graham finds the Internet ceaselessly distracting, what hope do freshmen have? I hear from friends that they feel like they can’t go more than a half hour…

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The Spellman Files — Lisa Lutz

I laughed (which could be an ideal two-word review of every comedic novel), especially during the first half of The Spellman Files, and laughter balms many errors. Unlike most mystery or nominal mystery stories The Spellman Files is worth reading, but on a sentence level the novel is a mass of clichés, though the premise is interesting and the narrative proceeds intelligently. One can only wish that the same intelligence that structured the narrative also be used to consider the sentences.

Spellman_filesClichés accumulate like snow in Boston: “Finker was none the wiser” (8). Or: “But for many years, my attributes (for what they’re worth) were obscured by my defiant ways” (19). We don’t need “for what they’re worth;” attributes, like most other nouns, are only there for what they’re worth, not for what they’re not worth (though negating that cliché does raise interesting intellectual possibilities; alas that we don’t see such possibilities deployed here). Parents take a child’s story “with a grain of salt” (252). These are the sorts of problems that should’ve been edited out yet they weren’t.

The language gets a little better as the novel proceeds, but the initial problems are never resolved. Too bad. There’s a better novel in this one, and this one isn’t terrible. As with many plot-dependent books the outcome is less satisfying than the buildup. Yet the dialogue consistently shines:

“Nice duds,” I said as Daniel put his briefcase on the floor and slid into the car.
“Thanks. This is my drug-buying outfit,” Daniel said dryly.
“Did you bring the money?” I asked.
“Yes, I brought the drug money,” he said.
“You can just say ‘money'; you don’t have to say ‘drug money.'”
“Yes, I brought the money.”

I feel like I too would mistakenly say “drug money.” I’ll note too that in The Spellman Files Family dysfunction meets family work meets a sexually adventurous protagonist whose adventurousness is not played for drama. It’s an unusual combination on the plot and character level.

Family businesses exert a special pull on those not involved in them, perhaps because they wrap economic and psychological forces unusually closely together. Work also means status: “While I had already made a name for myself as the difficult child, my status as employee redeemed many of my other less-than qualities.” To those involved, family businesses may be annoying and even weirdly repulsive for precisely the same reasons. Combining the family business with the detective story is a winning mutation.

Other sentences work: “like so many other alpha males, my brother thinks monogamy is something you do somewhere between age forty and retirement” (71). Interesting that Isabel, the narrator, has enough data to generalize about the nature of “alpha males” and that she casually uses the term. Perhaps it’s seeping into the general lexicon.

Finally, one smaller note, not wholly about The Spellman Files: Novels are compendiums of social negotiation and fuck-ups; the fuck-ups tend to be more interesting in fiction and sometimes in real life, though in life one lives with the consequences.

Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar — Cheryl Strayed

Tiny Beautiful Things is not an Apple product but a mid-sized beautiful book that you should read. I say this even as someone with reservations about some of the content; as with many books that deal with love advice I wish more had been known and said about evolutionary biology. Yet it may be that we’ve evolved to not want to confront truths we perceive as ugly: better to turn away and signal our own goodness than to say we’re often incentivized to do things that current social conditions tell us are wrong.

TinybeautifulthingsThe end of the preceding paragraph if intentionally vague, but let me say that the book is beautifully written, bizarrely so given that it’s an advice column collection; perhaps any form, attended to with enough care, can become beautiful.

It’s hard to quote a section from Tiny Beautiful Things, even a long section, that conveys its tone. Most possible quotes sound treacly out of context (“You are loved”) or don’t appropriately convey Strayed’s mix of stories (she worked with high-risk middle-school girls and used that experience as a parable) and abstract points (see the previous mention: “You are loved”). Then again too, many people are not loved in the ways they want to be loved or by the people they want to love them. Strayed’s first answer to the first question in the book is, “The last word my mother ever said to me was ‘love.'” She starts with stories—parables, really—and in doing so she follows a millennia-old strategy; people remember the stories from the Christian Bible and the Torah but forget the tedious sections that recount lineages or offer specific rules about worship or other practices. Stories and math are eternal. A lot of specific instruction remains bound by time.

In the same opening question, she says too:

There’s a saying about drug addicts that they stop maturing emotionally at the age they started using, and I’ve known enough addicts to believe this to be true enough. I think the same thing can happen in longtime monogamy. Perhaps some of your limited interpretations about what it means to say the word “love” are left over from what you thought it meant all those years ago, when you first committed yourself to your ex-wife. That was the past, as you say, but I suspect that a piece of yourself is still frozen there.

One could alternately say, “We are all growing or dying.” The amazing thing is the number of people who choose the latter, intellectually and psychologically.

Some sections feel stoic, in the best way, as when Strayed says, “Suffering is what happens when truly horrible things happen to us.” I’d add, too, that sometimes suffering means nothing except itself. Much suffering teachings nothing and ennobles nothing. It just is, though we live in a culture in which everything must mean something. It often doesn’t.

Then there are the sections where Strayed could go deeper than she does. In one, a woman writes that the man who knocked her up isn’t terribly interested in being involved with her or the baby. They have a tenuous relationship and he leaves—probably seeking another nulliparous woman. Charles Murray’s Coming Apart applies here, but it isn’t story-driven or personal enough to merit inclusion. The fundamental forces are there but ignored.

I write this often, but I wish Strayed had read more evolutionary biology; seemingly inexplicable and cruel romantic acts and betrayals become explicable. Since I began—first I think with Geoffrey Miller’s The Mating Mind and then with others, like David Buss’s TheEvolution of Desire.

But Darwin has still not propagated outwards towards pop culture. Maybe we’ve evolved to rejection the insights evolutionary biology offers. We’re storytelling animals, and we want to reject stories that make us question our own consciousness and decision-making process. (Blindsight, though brilliant, may be unpalatable in this respect.) Railing is more fun, though, than looking for fundamentals. Words like “feel” and “feelings” are everywhere. Words like “incentives” are nowhere.

Yet the beauty reminds. So does rock-like reality: “We get work done on the ground level. And the kindest thing I can do for you is to tell you to get your ass on the floor.” A lot of us want the adoration and the success and the whatever without getting our asses on the floor.

I wrote more about Strayed in “Standard At-Risk Youth or Ex-Offender Empowerment Program: Improve Lives Through ‘X!’“, though that post may be more specialized than you’re seeking.

Thoughts on “The Anthropology of Childhood” by David Lancy

As noted previously, The Anthropology of Childhood is excellent, and now I can say that it is excellent throughout. There are too many points to summarize the book effectively or even to hit many of its main points. One could productively read it with Bryan Caplan’s Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids, since both books argue, sometimes implicitly, that upper-middle class Western child-raising practices have become crazed, neurotic, and conceivably even counter-productive (and almost certainly counter-productive in life-satisfaction terms). Consider this example, from Anthropology:

An interesting contrast can be made with WEIRD [Western, Educated, Industrial, Rich, and Democratic] society, where girls are not usually assigned sibcare [sibling care] duties and where young mothers labor alone without the guidance of their old female relatives. “The relative isolation of the nuclear family . . . means that each woman rears her newborn infant from scratch” and young, urban mothers are unprepared for squalling, active, and very unhappy babies (Hubert 1974: 46–47). The foibles of clueless parents have proven to be quite entertaining, as evidenced by “reality” TV shows such Nanny 911, which aired in the USA between 2004 and 2007, and Supernanny (2004 – 2011), in which a competent nanny brings order and harmony to dysfunctional families.

anthro_of_childhoodYet almost no one considers this point, or many similar points.

Wealth may enable a wide range of non-adaptive behaviors and beliefs that can be sustained primarily because we’re rich enough to sustain them. Bedrock beliefs held by many Westerners about the nature of humans and families are actually culturally selected, and some of those beliefs surprised me. Nerds, however, may be unpopular because nerds often attempt to interject facts into belief- and feeling-based conversations; I suspect many citations to The Anthropology of Childhood, and especially the sections on infanticide, will not go down well.

Still, self-deception also helps explain why so many people adapt seemingly non-functional behaviors; Charles Murray describes many of those behaviors in Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010, a book that like many true books that puncture popular beliefs is deeply unpopular in many quarters. Most people can, if they choose to, easily see whether their partners exhibit traits related to fidelity, tenacity, conscientiousness, grit, and so forth—but many if not most of us choose to ignore these obvious signals. Our values are observed everywhere.

There seems to be a growing bifurcation in American society between crazed, neurotic, and anxious upper-middle class two-parent households in which little Madison needs ice-skating lessons, soccer practice, oboe lessons, and round-the-clock enrichment activities, or else she’ll never be a “success” and will become a drug-addicted prostituted without even a public-school degree, and single-parent low-income households in which any babysitter is a good babysitter and survival is everything. The former need to chill out and the latter… I actually don’t see a good public policy for the latter, though both the political left and right have many strongly held opinions, neither of which have done much to countervail the larger trends Murray describes. Another writer, Michel Houellebecq, describes them as well, though much more obliquely.

The Anthropology of Childhood is, as Michael Erardjan suggests in the New York Times, going to become my go-to baby gift for those who have recently spawned, though careful readers may find sections disconcerting:

Another common tactic used by new mothers is to exaggerate the resemblance between the newborn and their husband [. . .] In spite of the confidence with which humans claim “he looks just like his father,” experimental studies show that babies cannot be reliably paired to their parents on the basis of appearance (Pagel 2012: 315). Studies in our monogamous, adultery-condemning society have shown that 10 percent of men designated as the biological father of a particular child are not (Buss 1994: 66–67), so the baby’s anonymous appearance confers a survival advantage.

If 10 percent of men designated as the biological father of a particular child are not, one has to ask what kinds of fictions prevent a society in which DNA testing is cheap and easy from automatically doing so as a matter of standard practice. The answers may get very ugly very fast.

I want badly for Lancy to write an advice column; something like Cheryl Strayed’s Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar is beautifully written and yet so utterly conditioned by contemporary American beliefs, and so utterly unfamiliar with cross-cultural comparisons or evolutionary biology. Read it anyway—that beauty! that feeling!—but read it with Lancy. Compare and contrast. Imagine what Lancy might say about the myriad of problems medicated, neurotic Americans experience, or think we experience. Most contemporary advice columnists are as much repositories of conventional thinking as religious figures were a century or two ago. Lancy is different. Lancy knows things. But the things he knows we instinctively want to reject—which is why reading him is so valuable.

How do you judiciously help someone whose work isn’t very good?

This question keeps reappearing in various guises: How do you help someone whose work isn’t very good? Simply saying “This sucks” isn’t helpful and is usually taken with offense. A sufficiently screwed up work may also be unrecoverable. But making minor changes and saying, “It’s great!” often isn’t helpful either, because the work isn’t great and false praise is a lie. Those seeking criticism should be tactful enough not to ask, “Is it good?”, but often they aren’t and it leaves critics and editors in an awkward position.

I’m a writer, so I tend to see stuff from bad writers, but the same principles apply to other people with other domains of expertise. I developed my method of commenting on bad writing years ago, when a former student and now friend asked me to read a few stories she’d written for a creative writing class. Given her age they weren’t terrible; I made some comments, fixed a couple of minor things, and suggested some books that might speak to her.*

She asked if I thought the stories were good, but fortunately she asked via email so I had a few minutes to think about my response. I replied that I’d reframe the question: if she keeps writing, reading about writing, and developing her own sense of good writing, in four or five years she’ll reread her stories and be able to decide for herself whether her work was any good. I mentioned that when I was 26 or so, I no longer thought the stuff I’d written from 18 – 22 was any good. She got the point, I think, and seemed to appreciate what I was saying without saying.

And what I told her was and is true: I don’t think much of that early work now. But I also wouldn’t be where I am today without having written what I did then. In addition to being true, that sort of advice has the advantage of being tactful. I think John Irving said that every writer who seeks feedback really wants to be told, “It’s perfect. Don’t change a thing.” But of course nothing is perfect and editors exist for a reason (so do therapists; the reasons may be more closely related than we’d like to commonly assume).

* Anyone interested in writing ought to look at this list, which I still think good. I periodically re-read every book on it. In some sense no good writer ever fully stops being a beginner.


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