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.

The Alliance: Managing Talent in the Networked Age — Hoffman, Casnocha, and Yeh

It is especially odd to read The Alliance next to “A longtime proponent of marriage wants to reassess the institution’s future,” since the book and the article describe the same suite of ideas but apply them to different arenas: business and love/marriage/sex, respectively. One could do a find and replace for key words and phrases in The Alliance and have an entirely different book. The structure of dating markets and economic markets are more similar than is commonly supposed (though that may be changing).

The_AllianceThe Alliance is excellent and should be read; the authors note that the “family” model many corporations deploy when describing employees is at best dishonest and at worst fraudulent in a way likely to engender tremendous, justified ill-will. Individuals can’t rely on companies to look out for them (“Both parties act in ways that blatantly contradict their official positions”). Despite this, however, a world of strict, consultant-like free agents is not a happy one either, per the Coase Theorem—though Coase is not cited directly. The solution proposed is an “alliance” that doesn’t promise lifetime employment but does attempt to set explicit expectations for employer-employee interactions.

The book is not as heavily researched as I might have hoped but there are numerous useful bits, like this:

The Towers Watson 2012 Global Workforce Study found that even though about half of employees wanted to stay with their current employer, most of them felt that they would have to take a job at a different company in order to advance their careers.

And those workers are probably right. Still, “A business without loyalty is a business without long-term thinking.” Stock options do a little to ameliorate short-term thinking, but not enough; one reason for startups may be to enforce long-term thinking by putting companies in the control of founders. Large companies, however, are here to stay, and The Alliance offers a way to navigate through them.

As the quotes above show, the book is not gorgeously written, but it is competently written and held my attention throughout. It begs to be given.

The Anthropology of Childhood and the common rejoinder to your friends’s parenting delusions

The only baby book you’ll ever need” has been widely shared for good reason, and as of this writing I’m about 15% through The Anthropology of Childhood but know it’s going to become the default gift to reproducing friends. Something about American culture seems to bring out neuroticism in people doing what billions of others have done before them; see also Jennifer Senior’s All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood. Expensive, large-scale programs like New York’s Universal Pre-Kindergarten (UPK) or the national Early Head Start (EHS) get launched under the assumption that more schooling, earlier, is better for children, it is not obvious that that is true: “While schooling for us may begin with the fetus (if you can believe the hype about expectant mothers listening to Mozart), most societies don’t see children as readily teachable until their cognitive and linguistic skills have mature. This change usually occurs during the fifth to seventh year [. . .]” (16).

anthropology_of_childhoodInsights occur at the national and personal level. I for example was a mostly unhappy child and adolescent, not I think due to my parents or circumstances or whatever but due to inner disposition, and I interestingly became happier when I realized that we’ve not evolved to be happy: we’ve evolved to survive and reproduce. I wish someone had pointed that out earlier. Happiness may or may not be a byproduct and our default “happiness point” probably varies substantially by individual. Furthermore, in an evolutionary sense happiness may be much more contingent than it is widely considered to be in contemporary America: “In the decision to create a child – whether in an Ethiopian village or elsewhere – their wellbeing and happiness is rarely the issue” (26). And farmer societies tend to take small children and put them to work, while forager societies tend to take steps to limit the number of total children had because children take much longer to become economically viable.

To return to my own experience, even as a child I found other children brutal and stupid. Yet almost no one speaks to this idea. Lancy notes that “Our own society views children as precious, innocent, and preternaturally cute cherubs. However, for much of human history, children have been seen as anything but cherubic.” That was my intuition and still is to some extent; few others, apart from Camille Paglia and Robertson Davies have made this point. It may be wrong but it’s barely part of the debate. Many cultures consider babies and small children “sub-human” (16). To be clear, I’m not arguing that American society should do so, but I am arguing that we should know more about our species’s own history and the contingency of our own widespread practices and assumptions.

This topic may, however, be especially resistant to inquiry; childhood and parenting may be particularly fraught because almost everyone has opinions on them (and every adult has been a child) but few of us try to figure out what the research says. The Anthropology of Childhood is a $40 academic book and thus may not be a particularly accessibly way of entering the mainstream, but it should be better known.

It is the sort of book that will repay rereading many times over; this post was meant to be a link, but the writing kept pouring forth until it was a post. Lancy writes that the book began as a short article that was 500 words over his journal’s limit, and he just kept going. It could be read in conjunction with Melvin Konner’s The Evolution of Childhood successfully.

Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs: A Low Culture Manifesto — Chuck Klosterman

Pop-culture essays age in dog years while retaining the occasional long-term insight that stays fresh by accident. I’m reading Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs: A Low Culture Manifesto and mostly noticed age spots but also saw a few prescient moments, like this:

But Junod claims that he [made up details about Michael Stripe of R.E.M. in an article] in order to make people reevaluate how the press covers celebrity, and that’s valid. It’s valid because conventional celebrity journalism is inevitably hounded by two problems: Either the subject is lying, or the writer is guessing. Junod just happened to embrace both of those obstacles simultaneously.

The relationship of the Klosterman essay to say John Jeremiah Sullivan’s more recent Real World essay, “Leaving Reality” essay is obvious, but I think Kloosterman is also forgetting—or doesn’t want to simply say—that people read celebrity profiles in part because they want to be lied to. There is more than a little complicity in the lie, which changes the relations of the liar to the person being lied to. Or perhaps people want to feel false intimacy, which can be achieved partially through lying.

klostermanThe “subject” of these profiles—like the Michael Stripe one, or others in its genre—is probably trying mostly not to say or do anything that will make him or her look like an asshole when taken out of context. This can be shockingly hard to do, since the subject can’t tell when the writer is “guessing” or what the writer is “guessing.” In this context “guessing” can be another word for “interpretation.” One reason to read the New Yorker, incidentally, is that its writers appear to attempt to be scrumptiously fair and to avoid gossip—yet those are the very qualities that can give rise to accusations of being “boring.” One person’s boring is another’s accurate.

Imagine someone followed you around, all the time, for a couple of days and maybe for longer, and that the person has some bad will, or at least wants to make your life into a story. Could the person get some stuff that would make you look bad? Probably. I know that someone who could observe everything I wrote, and watch everything I do could make me look really bad. So smart celebrities avoid the real press, or only interact with the relatively small, non-jerk parts of the press—like The New Yorker.

Let’s take a specific example of an article about the world behind celebrity journalism: Sarah Miller’s hilarious “Anna Nicole Smith Kind of Made a Pass at Me.” I dramatically read parts of it to some friends the other night. This paragraph stands out in particular:

I wrote a first draft, in which, without spelling everything out, I attempted to give some real sense of that day. “I can’t publish this,” my editor said, and in her defense, I’m sure she was right. I wrote another version that made it sound like I’d had fun, which took hours and hours, because it was not real; writing something that is not real is not impossible, but it is very close to it. Through every long moment I worked on it I cursed myself for not taking that stupid trip to Magic Mountain, which would have made it all so much easier. Anyway, they published that version, and I got my money.

Miller describes what actually happened this way:

“Sarah Miller,” [Anna Nicole Smith] said, “You’ve got the prettiest blue eyes.” If we were in a movie, she’d have added, “I do declare.”

“Thank you,” I said formally.

“You ever had sex with a girl?”

It was none of her business, but I thought being honest might somehow give her back some of the dignity my mind had robbed her of, and I thought she might sense it, and that we might have a real conversation. “Yes, actually, Anna. I have.”

“Well, did you like it?” The word “like” lasted for several seconds.

“I actually did not,” I said. “It was a…misbegotten adventure.” I was pleased at how much I sounded like my father.

But that can’t be published, not at the time Miller was trying to get the story. Her editor, however, doesn’t want “real.” The number of readers who do is small. How many people watch PBS versus celebutainment shows? How many read The New Yorker versus US Weekly? The truth is hard and amusing fictions easy, so we choose the latter. In the introduction to Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs Klosterman writes that “accelerated culture [. . .] doesn’t speed things up as much as it jams everything into the same wall of sound. But that’s not necessarily tragic.” I’m not convinced there is such a thing as “accelerated culture,” but I am convinced that elements of what passes for low or contemporary or whatever culture do emerge from the collective decisions of millions of individuals.

But it is also worth stepping back and looking for larger patterns, which is what Klosterman almost but doesn’t quite do. He is a little too fond too of grand pronouncements. Like:

The main problem with mass media is that it makes it impossible to fall in love with any acumen of normalcy. There is no “normal,” because everybody is being twisted by the same forces simultaneously. You can’t compare your relationship with the playful couple who lives next door, because they’re probably modeling themselves after Chandler Bing and Monica Geller. Real people are actively trying to live like fake people, so real people are no less fake. Every comparison becomes impractical. This is why the impractical has become totally acceptable; impracticality almost seems cool.

What is an “acumen of normalcy?” I’m not sure either. I had to check Google for “Chandler Bing” and “Monica Geller.” And has it ever been the case that “real people” have not tried to model themselves on “fake people?” If you read major religious texts as fundamentally mythological, as I do, the answer is “no:” people have been trying to emulate the Christian Bible and the Old Testament for literally thousands of years. Early novels with melodramatic endings encouraged their readers to attempt to reenact those ending. We seek narrative fiction in order to learn how to live—and that isn’t at all new. I don’t think there has ever been as firm a normal as we’d like to project on the past.

Eventually, with paragraphs like the quoted section, one comes to the conclusion that either everything is “fake” or everything is “real”—which is the sort of conclusion high freshmen hit when they’re in their dorm rooms at 2:00 a.m. The next day they still get up for class and go to breakfast. What is one supposed to do differently if one decides that real people are fake?

Perhaps not surprisingly, the next essay in the Kloserman collection concerns the video game “The Sims.” Also not surprisingly, some SF writers have wondered what might happen if we get a wholly immersive and wholly fake world. One possible solution to the Fermi Paradox is that sufficiently advanced civilizations make video games that are so cool that they’d rather live in constructed worlds than explore the real universe.

That’s an interesting thought experiment, but like the high freshmen mentioned above no one does anything differently today based on it. Klosterman tells tales about meaningless arguments. Eventually, however, generative people come to realize that arguments that don’t lead to any sort of change or growth are pointless, and they get on with their lives. One sign of “low culture” may be that winning or losing the argument means nothing, and the participants should go build or make something instead.

Drugs Unlimited: The Web Revolution That’s Changing How the World Gets High — Mike Power

Drugs Unlimited is an excellent companion to Daniel Okrent’s Last Call, since both are about the madness of the laws that forbid or restrict mind-altering substances. But Drugs Unlimited shares a flaw and strength with Last Call, too: both books are repetitive, with tons of minute historical detail that feels easy to skip. Unless you wish to become an expert in the subject both are better checked out of libraries than bought.

Drugs Unlimited follows a pattern and cites many, many examples of that pattern: Chemist or enthusiast comes up with a novel drug or drug variation; people try and like it; governments eventually ban it (there are chapters devoted to “LSD in the 1960s, heroin in the 1980s and Ecstasy in the 1980s and 1990s”). The process then repeats, though we’re now in a stage in which it’s difficult for governments to ban or regulate every conceivable substance, leading to an online free-for-all.

Drugs_unlimitedShould you wish to enter the free-for-all Drugs Unlimited provides an introduction and useful guidance. Drugs have become more widely available than ever in the last ten years, and perhaps the most interesting thing about their availability has been their lack of impact on society, which continues to function. Nonetheless we get a chronicle of the new drug world: “Widely available and hugely popular, mephedrone was the first mass-market ‘downloadable’ drug, in the sense that it was, uniquely for the mass market, originally only available online.” That I’ve never heard of mephedrone makes me feel uncool.

It’s appropriate that I’m discussing this book on a blog, since Power writes:

Conventional academic research and government-sponsored investigations into attitudes and use patterns are being supplanted in their authority by the unmediated voices of users themselves, as social networks become central to the daily experience of a new generation of drug users.

He doesn’t cite Scott Rosenberg’s Say Everything: How Blogging Began, What It’s Becoming, and Why It Matters but he might as well: one could take out the word “drug” and replace it with “readers” or “listeners” or any number of other verbs. Still, there is a persistent feeling that “the unmediated voices of users” are better informed than the highly mediated voices of the media, or of academics.

Drugs Unlimited is also a media critique: “Saunders also detailed [Ecstasy’s] darker, more negative sides in an honest appraisal that was sorely lacking in mainstream coverage.” Or: “My responses to [Ecstasy] and its surrounding culture, and those of everyone I knew, were markedly different from the media’s representation of them.” Or: “hysterical media coverage of the perceive threats of new drugs and corresponding knee-jerk government action seem to be [. . .] guaranteed.”

Power likes drugs: he’s taken them, and he writes sensuously of the way “drugs can send users into bizarre internal spaces, imaginary realms where mind and body are dissociated from each other, and where the only limits to the experience are those of the imagination.” He should perhaps more strongly emphasize the dangers of mixing different drugs, since that along with poorly manufactured drugs is how people die. The extent to which schools, the “responsible” media, and other authority figures systematically lie about drugs is shocking. Although “Most People With Addiction Simply Grow Out of It. Why Is This Widely Denied?” came out after Drugs Unlimited, it would fit into Power’s narrative.

Drugs Unlimited is lightly technical, and you’ll find sentences like these: “PIHKAL reveals in practical detail the chemical synthesis and human dosage of hundreds of psychoactive substances, each of which are in the phenethylamine class.” The book is neither well nor poorly written. It would not surprise me, however, were copies to travel to many unexpected places and inspired many unexpected people. Perhaps you’re one.

Sexual Personae — Camille Paglia

It is shocking to me that I have gone for my entire adult life without anyone recommending Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson. The book is marvelously full of ideas, making it easy to find ludicrous assertions next to brilliant ones. Rarely have I read a book so full of life yet with so much that is wrong. For example she writes that “Female tragic protagonists are rare. Tragedy is a male paradigm of rise and fall, a graph in which dramatic and sexual climax are shadowy analogy.” The analogy might be “shadowy,” but it is also strained and dubious: there is no reason why sexuality has to be connected to tragedy. But Pagilia also writes from a different underlying philosophical perspective than most of her academic peers:

This book takes the point of view of Sade, the most unread major writer in Western literature. Sade’s work is a comprehensive satiric critique of Rousseau, written in the decade after the first failed Rousseauist experiment, the French Revolution, which ended not in political paradise but the Reign of Terror. [. . .] For Sade, getting back to nature [. . .] would be to give free rein to violence and lust. I agree. Society is not the criminal but the force which keeps crime in check.

sexual_personaeYet few modern sophisticates realize as much. Some contemporary fiction reflects the Paglian-Sadean view—Donna Tartt’s The Secret History is a sterling example—but for the most part it is absent. This passage is also admirable for being comprehensible; compare it to, for example, the passage quotes in “What happened with Deconstruction? And why is there so much bad writing in academia?
Paglia has an important virtue not common to contemporary English professors: she writes clearly and therefore what she says can be evaluated.

The excerpt above is included to give a flavor for Paglia’s writing, but Sexual Personae is impossible to effectively excerpt from, since the book moves from analyses of ancient times up to the late 19th Century, and although common threads bind various sections together it is easy to lose sight of how exactly someone like, say, Emily Dickinson is related to Goethe. I can’t imagine many people will read or want to read the whole book from beginning to end; it covers a fabulous number of artists and periods, and for me the 19th Century and Romantic artists were the least interesting, though you may of course differ. The long introduction and the strongest chapters more than make up for the weakest ones. Even if I had or wanted to develop the knowledge necessary to write such a book I doubt I’d be able to sustain sufficient interest.

Contemporary humanities scholarship has become too focused on pedantry and minutia at the expense of being interesting. Perhaps humanities scholarship has always been like this but the problems are especially evident in an era when relatively few scholars appear to even believe that such a thing as “good writing” can exist. Still, I would like to see a stronger emphasis on “being interesting” and personal experience in most humanities journals. In talking with English professors at conferences about Harold Bloom, I’m struck by their high, level of hostility.

Not all sections are equally strong; the sections on Shakespeare, Sade, and Spencer are amazing, but the closer Paglia draws to the present the less plausible her interpretations become. But her attention to myth, to pattern, and to the ways art and life draw on each other excuse other flaws, which may be the flipside of strengths. As noted above, however, the number of fascinating moments is high:

Theatrical self-transformation, a seductive principle of our time, can never be reconciled with our time. From antiquity on, professional theater has been under a moral cloud. Autocrat, artist, actor: freedom of persona is magical but destabilizing. [. . .] Art remains an avenue of escape from morality. Actors live in illusions; they are skittish shamans, drenched in being.

and one senses that Sexual Personae is a virtuosic display that needs more attention. Hence this post.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,858 other followers

%d bloggers like this: