Sunday, November 30, 2014

I Dunno

Are you smarter than you think?

Every day on the Internet, I receive advice. Some of it comes in the form of thinly disguised ads telling me how to get rid of my pot belly in 30 seconds, or the secret food of the ancients that will make me immune to all forms of illness. In fact, I am told quite a lot about what I should eat. Once in a single day I received a post that said I should drink only raw cow’s milk, another post that said I should drink only soymilk, and a third post that said soy was bad for me, and I should drink only almond milk. I have been told obesity kills, and that obese people live longer. Fat, carbs, calories, protein, starches, greens or yellows turn out to be good or bad according to some new study.

There are other kinds of advice I read each day as well: I should only care what a few people think. I should only care what I think. I should not think at all, but let my heart guide me. I should succeed. I should not worry about success. I should be happy. Even if I am unhappy I should be happy. Other posts—which I frankly am more likely to appreciate at this stage of my life—give me license to screw up and be imperfect. I squandered my youth on self-flagellation, trying and of course failing to be “perfect,” whatever that was supposed to mean. Now in my autumn years I am learning simply how to be human. Like many supposedly smart people, I am a slow learner.

All my advice posts come from kind people sharing something to help others. Thank you, Internet friends, for seeing me through rough times. But collectively these posts suggest that we need an awful lot of encouragement, and are so uncertain about life we welcome any little bit of wisdom that gets us through another day.

Many people still remember Grace Kelly, the beautiful and iconic Oscar-winning actress who went on to become Princess Grace of Monaco. Thousands of words were spent calling her a real-life Cinderella, the princess who lived in a pink castle by the sea. A charmed life? Well, maybe in some ways. Yet when Barbara Walters asked her if she was happy, she paused and only allowed that she had a certain peace of mind, or words to that effect. Her answer was qualified; she did not give a simple “yes” to happiness.

The so-called fairy tale princess does not live happily ever after. Neither, it would seem, do you or I. When someone pisses us off, lo and behold we get angry. Sad news makes us sad. Yes, worrying solves nothing, yet no matter how much we say this to ourselves we worry anyway. Our ability to change moods appropriate to the circumstance before us means we are human. It was naïve (to use a polite word for it) to think that through willpower I could alter my DNA. Somehow, self-loathing is separated by the thinnest of lines from self-aggrandizement.

When I was younger, whenever I was happy I thought I’d never be unhappy again. I thought I would and could reach a point where nothing threatened my ironclad happiness. And “ironclad” my idea of happiness certainly was. How glad I am now that I did not become that person! Who wants to be made of iron except Iron Man? (When I was unhappy I likewise thought I’d never feel happy again, but that’s a story for another day.)

It is no accident that there were no self-help books or shrinks until fairly recently in human history. We are the offspring of the times we live in. And many of the assets of today's world also are liabilities:

°Uncertainty: There are so many ideas floating around (and even more because of the Internet) that it gets harder and harder to know what to believe, or even who we want to be when we grow up.

°Impatience: Although our complex social world confuses us, we are supposed to solve our problems instantly. We have Instant food and instant texting, so why not instant happiness? Ever get mad at your “slow” computer for taking 20 seconds to upload?

°Medicine: You may wonder what this word is doing here. Medicine is a good thing, right? But we live in what’s been called a medicalized society. This means that anything we do not like about ourselves or others can be viewed as a condition that can be cured. This in turn implies that self- perfection is possible.

“Life” does not occur merely in the abstract—it is shaped by the surroundings in which it is lived. At times we get frustrated when the answers we are seeking elude us. Yet even believing that radical change is possible is a luxury in terms of human history—or for that matter the world today. Certainly there are a great many disadvantaged people in our society, but globally speaking ours is a fat nation. For example, we use up to one-fourth of the world’s total energy resources, yet we make up far less than one-fourth of the world’s total population—about one-half of one percent, to be exact. How’s that for affluent?

Affluence compels us to ask questions of ourselves that people in other times and places generally did not or do not have the surplus energy—or the need—to ask. And we have the technology at our fingertips to ask away.

I haven’t even mentioned the range of political posts I receive on the internet. Apparently many of us derive a sense of security from believing we know exactly how to fix everything in our country and in our world. God bless freedom of speech. But are the complexities of collective human endeavor as easy to fix as we often like to think they are?

We think that if So-and-So is elected, there will be peace, economic stability, or whatever you think we need the most. Yet in a way, such thinking reflects the uncertainty, impatience and medical model we apply to ourselves. We assume our nation can be fixed, and that we know what being fixed will look like. In effect, we impatiently await the invention of the giant pill that makes everything right in all ways on all levels.

Believing in instant answers where Homo sapiens are concerned is a bit like instant other things: instant coffee, instant pudding, instant mashed potatoes. Don’t you prefer the real thing? And we already have it. They call it life. The recipe is ongoing, both learned and invented as we go along.

As I get older, I am more inclined to agree with Socrates, who said, "I know that I am intelligent, because I know that I know nothing."

Sunday, November 23, 2014

The Red Light Bulb

Beauty may be staring you in the face

I come from a poor family. Not poor by global standards, or even by the standards of some people in the U.S. But for a white kid coming of age in the U.S. in the latter part of the 20th Century, I was poor. Years later as a social scientist, I learned about relative deprivation, which means that given your expectations based on others in your environment, you can be relatively poor.

While other kids in school lived in entire houses and had their own bedrooms, I lived with my family in a series of overcrowded apartments that always needed more repairs than they were given. Looking back, many of the arguments and strained relationships we had might never have happened if we simply had a less claustrophobic living space. 

I did not get an allowance, and Christmas gifts were often relatively few in number and practical. Things that were everyday items for other kids were special treats for me. I only had one birthday party while growing up.  Instead, a birthday meant something like going out for a hamburger. Money given to me by visiting relatives was always put in the bank, though at one point a grownup withdrew money from my small savings account to pay the bills.

I had one pair of shoes. Most of my clothes were hand-me-downs and slightly out of style. I had only one Halloween costume, inherited from my older brother and worn by me each year until it was too small. We listened to the radio rather than buy 49 cent 45s. For overnight trips, we used shopping bags to carry our things instead of suitcases. Public transportation was often the “preferred” mode of travel. 

My ongoing request for a goldfish was denied. At the gullible age of four or five, I was told that a fly in the kitchen was my pet. I thought I’d never hear the end of it when they spent ten dollars on clarinet lessons that I ended up quitting. "Money down the drain," they sadly called it.

Going to the movies was an unusual treat that only happened a couple of times a year, and never involved the whole family. In the summer, the only traveling was to the homes of other relatives. Maybe once every few years we’d go to an amusement park for the afternoon. The women in my family can be seen in photos wearing the same “best” dress to any number of occasions over time. A major social event was the wedding of a cousin, for which my aunt excitedly sewed the dresses for herself and her sister.

When I was growing up, my mother—and later my aunt—always worked outside the home. Unlike the other (white) kids, there was no mom in the kitchen with cookies and milk when I came home from school. The hard-working women in my family were plainspoken, did not employ so-called feminine whiles to get their way, and did not defer to men without a fight. Instead they simply said what they wanted, and didn’t take crap from anyone.

My family was also extremely self-conscious about its relative poverty. I was not allowed to have an after-school job because the neighbors would think we were poor. I also was not allowed to eat at friends’ houses for the same reason (though I regularly broke this rule and never told my family). When a friend’s parents wanted to take me with them to the movies, I was told I had to come home, because I should not “impose” on these other people. Once in the summer I went outside barefoot, and was yelled at because what would the neighbors think?

Yet while they often said they did not want people to think they were poor, my elders never actually owned up to being poor. They never said they couldn’t afford something. In fact, they said nasty things about people who did act “poor”—people who used margarine, bought dark meat tuna, or had what my family considered to be poor taste in clothing and furniture. When, at around age 12, I complained we always had meat loaf and never steak, I was told meat loaf was much more interesting than boring old steak.

I knew I didn’t have as much as other kids, yet my family often was much more snobbish than these other households. The result was that I, like numerous other family members of my generation, spent a lifetime never quite understanding what money was, and unable to figure out if I liked it or hated it.

But there was something good in growing up poor without quite knowing it. I often didn’t know the difference between what signaled the absence or presence of wealth, so I never was in awe of the affluent people whom I occasionally happened upon. I never believed having more money should give you more license in how you treated others.

I also never thought that beauty could only be found in mansions. In my teen years out west, I discovered the beauty of the natural world. But even before then I found beauty in mean factory towns. Until the age of six, we lived in a typically overcrowded walk-up flat that faced a dirt backyard. Hearing the neighbors above and below us became a standard aspect of my life. As an adult I’ve felt insecure when where I was living was too quiet—when I did not hear some reassuring sounds during the day coming from neighbors through the wall.

At night, across the dirt backyard, there was a window in another flat that always had a red light bulb turned on. I used to look at that red light and think it was the most beautiful thing I ever saw. Over the years when I’ve needed to calm down or cheer myself up, I have often recalled that simple red light bulb in the dark. In  a way that is difficult to explain, it has been the seed of much of what I write about in novels and poems.

We later moved to another apartment in a different factory town, and for whatever reason I (and other people) enjoyed looking out the entryway window. It faced the modest house next door, and across the street was a billboard—nothing much to look at, I suppose, yet somehow it lent itself to daydreams.

One of my all time favorite quotes comes from Chekhov: “Don't tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.” Many people probably cannot see how broken glass reflecting light at night can be beautiful. But I used to love to walk to the sooty, abandoned railroad tracks and see just that. I am glad and proud that going hungry and doing without informed my youth. I am pleased to find beauty in broken glass. 

Of course, looking up at the moon itself doesn’t cost anything. But anyone can do that. 

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Miss America and Me

A matter of semantics

When I was a little kid, my family always watched Miss America. We tended to be introverts, and on top of that we were poor. So we never all went to the movies, or even ate out often. I looked forward to annual TV events that briefly brought the whole family together. But little did any of us realize that one year the pageant would be a life-changing moment for me.

It was the Q & A segment, in which the top contenders for the crown had to prove to the judges that they were not just another swimsuit in high heels. This particular year, instead of being asked about achieving world peace, each finalist had to pick a word from a glittery board. As I recall, the words were lofty personality traits like dedication or intelligence. Each young woman would select a word and explain why this was a quality she thought was important to possess.

They were making rather predictably uplifting choices when a relative of mine said, “Whoever picks humiliation will win.”  This seemed odd to me. Wasn’t humiliation a bad thing? Who wanted to be humiliated? It made you feel sad and picked on. It even made you cry.

Well, one of the finalists picked humiliation, and sure enough, she won. It puzzled me so that I kept thinking about it— as in, thinking about it for the rest of my life. How could humiliation be good for you?

Working from the assumption that it was—after all, she won, didn’t she?—I came up with quite an assortment of ideas. Humiliation kept you humble. It made you more sensitive to others. It was a necessary pain, a rite of passage into adulthood. Until you experienced humiliation, I decided, you could not truly grow as a person. There was no fire in the belly without it. The soul thrived on the exquisite beauty of suffering. Look at Dostoyevsky. Look at Dickinson or Van Gogh. Look at Miss America.

Thus, I did little if anything to protect myself from humiliation. When ridiculed in front of the class, I sucked it right up. I was reminded of my inadequacies countless times by family, bosses and people who saw me as some form of competition. I never defended myself. With each stinging wound, some inner part of me decided I was becoming a better person. Stronger and more empathetic. Closer to God, if you will. The way to grow was to be cut down to size.

Not surprisingly, I was attracted to outspoken people and group environments that were highly critical. I did not have to look far: my own family was so bitchy it should have been a puppy farm. But with some exceptions I sought out those who were bound to find me lacking. I thought everyone in the world knew more than I did and had every right to tear me apart. When people were kind, I’d test them, acting out my many faults so that eventually they’d drop me.

When I saw other people somehow making progress in life without being constantly hurt and humiliated, I alternated between jealousy and pity. I thought they had no right to be successful without suffering enough, but I also believed they were missing out. In the larger scheme of things, I was the lucky one.

Decades went by.

Not long ago, I happened upon the notorious Miss America clip for the first time since I was little. It turned out that the winning word was not “humiliation” (shame, mortification, loss of dignity) but “humility” (modesty, humbleness, unpretentiousness). I heard it or remembered it wrong for most of my life. Was it just childhood word confusion, or was my self-esteem already so precarious that though I heard “humility” I had to translate it into “humiliation?”

I asked a shrink of my acquaintance if people benefitted from humiliation. The shrink said, “No, never. People don’t learn by being humiliated, they just get depressed and frightened. It makes them not want to listen to the person humiliating them.”

“Well, I’m not like that,” I said. “Some of the most important things I’ve been told in life have been harsh and hurtful.”

“You aren’t like most people,” replied the shrink, which as I think of it was quite tactful of her.

Oh, so this is how human beings are. You’re not supposed to think it’s normal to be constantly put down.

Oops, I just wasted my life. Or had I? What was I to make of my lifetime of humiliation that I thought was so good for me? For always being willing, if not seeking, to lose.

I remember a spelling bee in grade school that was down to me and another kid. I missed the word, and he got it right. Rather than say the other kid won first place and I won second, the teacher pointed at us and said, respectively, “Okay, so you won and you lost.” It was a very “me” kind of thing to happen. I later wondered if I missed the word on purpose, so that I could lose yet again.

But looking back now, I know I was given a greater gift than the kid who won. He always won everything. How boring. I doubt he remembers it. Yet here I am now writing about it, sharing it with the world. Over the years, it’s become a funny story. I’ve used it to cheer people up who feel put down. I’m glad I didn’t win the otherwise forgettable spelling bee.

I’m not a linguist, but Oxford English Dictionary is online, so I looked up both words. Interestingly, though both have Latin roots, “humility” has an older European etymology than “humiliation,” which suggests that people sought or experienced humility for a few hundred years before they recognized the ability to humiliate. But for quite some time the words were considered related; the state of humility was arrived at through humiliation. Thus, for all the ways I bungled it up, there was a kernel of truth in my philosophy of humiliation. I merely was born several centuries too late.

I feel fortunate that my latest novel, Identity Thief, is, according to online reviews, being enjoyed by those who read it. But a couple of people have said they hated it. Someone did not approve of my use of strong language, to which I can only say something that sounds somewhat like “thank you” but is something else. Someone else didn’t like the characters, and indeed no one in this crime saga of deceit, blackmail, and murder deserves the Nobel Peace Prize. Naturally, the few bad reviews occupy my thoughts more than the many good ones.

But I am able to laugh at myself, and even wrote a little funny poem about bad reviews. If everyone liked the novel I’d have a smidgen less self knowledge and had one less opportunity to be creative.

Humility, humiliation, whatever it is . . . It has taught me well. But to keep myself from sounding immodest, arrogant, and pretentious, maybe I’d best quit while I’m ahead.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

The Broccoli Theory

What we see should not be all we get

In case you are among the fortunate few who read my first post, “The Doritos Theory,” please know that your dedicated blogger has not gone vegan on you. Still, what, you may ask with breathless anticipation, is the Broccoli Theory? Stay with me, and it will all make sense.

It’s been said that numbers never lie. But numbers certainly can be exploited to lend credibility to a particular agenda. Let’s take the sad problem of homelessness. According to HUD’s 2013 Annual Homeless Report to Congress, 610,042 persons are homeless on a given night. On the one hand, you can say, “Over half a million people are homeless on any night in the U.S.” This makes the problem sound quite serious. However, since there are about 300,000,000 people in our nation, this means that .002 percent of our population is homeless on a given night. Or, flipping the coin over, 99.998 percent of the population is not homeless. This makes it sound like less of a problem, doesn’t it?

Speaking of percentages, maybe you saw the recent viral video of the woman who walks down the street in Manhattan for 10 hours and allegedly receives 100 or more harassing remarks from men. This would equal at least 10 such remarks per hour. I am not a woman so I do not know how it feels to hear unwanted remarks in the context of gendered dynamics. Women’s comments on the video have ranged from “right on” to “right off.”

A two-minute clip of this 10-hour trek has been circulating the Internet. Two minutes of ten hours is .001 percent of the total film time, which means that 99.999 percent of the film is not being circulated. 

Like anyone else who has not seen all 10 hours of footage, I am asked to assume that these numbers are true, and that nothing was staged. We also are asked to believe that the territory she covered on foot—and the locations do vary—makes for a representative sample of the male population. So far, we have learned from and other sources that the comments made by white men were edited out. Perhaps most telling of all, we also have learned that a marketing firm oversaw the editing of the video. 

About 30 subtitled remarks appear on the screen, though sometimes the same man makes more than one statement. The video moves fast, but I counted about 20 offending men in the clip. Given the subtitles, I am guessing that each remark was added to the total. If instead the number of harassing men were counted, it would average something more like six or so remarks per hour. Also not taken into account are the number of men she passes by who say nothing.

Though certainly this is a subjective process, I counted about 12 of the 30 remarks as sexual in nature. If this is more or less representative of the entire 10 hours of film, more like 40 sexual remarks were made over the 10 hour period, or about four an hour instead of 10 an hour. This may well be four an hour too many, but I find something a little too convenient, too Madison Avenue slick, in the total being around 100 in 10 hours.

Indeed, one is expected to assume that all the remarks were meant to be sexual. At one point, a young man of color says, “God bless you, have a good day, alright?” We then are shown that he walked alongside her for two, then four, then five minutes total. This cumulative editing trick makes the behavior seem that much more invasive. But since the young man’s face has been blurred, we don’t really know if he was looking at her or if he just happened to be keeping pace with her. (In his fleeting seconds of screen time, he usually seems to be looking straight ahead.) Even if he did sometimes look at her, we do not know why. Maybe he was wondering if he should tell her about Jesus, or any number of other things. Yet we are asked to empathize with the fear and loathing experienced by a white woman when a man of color is walking near her. In this video clip, someone saying, “Good evening,” is the same as someone saying, “Hey baby.” “God bless you” is a sexual come-on.

Other people, including men, have created their own videos of walking down the street in Manhattan and enduring the remarks of strangers. Indeed, having lived in both Manhattan and Queens as an adult and child respectively, I can attest firsthand that virtually anyone is approached by any number of strangers who call out many kinds of remarks—some kind, some crazy, some bullying, and yes even to men or boys some sexual. Conversely, when I lived in San Francisco and Portland it was quite common for strangers on the street to be platonically friendly and say hello to each other.

In sum, I feel this video is less about the very real problem of women being unsafe in our society and more about the creation of a product. It is a skillfully edited artifact intended to present as “documentary” one point of view and one point of view only—that of the client paying the marketing firm to create and promote the video.

It seems to me that one problem in our society is how naïve we are—how easily we take what is presented to us as “truth.” But in actuality film is edited, and a published photograph is selected from hundreds of shots that were taken. Any time a story is told verbally or on paper, selectivity plays a role. Seldom does anyone tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.

Like the disgust we are expected to feel for a white woman who must endure a black man walking near her for five minutes, we could, for example, learn that someone died choking on a piece of broccoli. We could acquire a sobering photo of the corpse, and post it with the caption: “This person died eating broccoli.” Or maybe: “Think twice before you eat broccoli.” If the person was a child, so much the better. Above the angelic young face we could say, “Two weeks later this child was dead from eating broccoli,” or “Broccoli kills the young.”

Perhaps you have seen or heard of an ad run only once in the 1964 presidential campaign, though it has been credited with causing Lyndon Johnson’s landslide victory over Barry Goldwater. Sometimes called the “daisy girl ad,” it features a child innocently (mis)counting the petals of a flower, and then we are shown a mushroom cloud of atomic hatred. Following a pacifistic quote from President Johnson, we are told that the stakes are too high to vote for anyone else. A little girl and her flower and then an atom bomb—how’s that for manipulation? But substantively, what did it have to do with President Johnson, who is still remembered for his unpopular escalation of the war in Vietnam?

Just because something alleges to address serious issues does not mean it does so honestly. Call me weird, but I believe honesty matters more than intent. We—meaning myself, too—have to think more about what we are shown, and ask more questions about it.  Otherwise, we can end up thinking anything is true, including that broccoli kills.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Happiness is Being Unhappy

The paradox of not-nice stuff

In real life, I’m a total fraidy-cat when it comes to physical injury. Sometimes an online friends posts a video clip of someone getting hurt—often by having done something stupid—and I never find it funny. It just makes me wince. I can’t stop thinking about how much it must have hurt. If I hear that one person out of a million suffered serious injury (not to mention death) for having participated in a sport or daredevil stunt, I add this activity to my list of things I will not do. I avoid watching ski jumping or trampoline gymnastics for my fear that something might happen to the athlete.

On the other hand, there is my writing. I remember the first time I tried to compose something meant to be a story. I was probably eight years old. It was about how in a duel someone got stabbed in the eye, and the blood and ooze that came out as the eyeball shriveled. I proudly showed it to my mother, who for some reason was less than enthused. “Write about something nice,” she advised, handing me back the piece of paper with a slight shudder.

Anyone who knows me knows the best way to get me not to do something is to suggest that I do it. The term, “reverse psychology,” should be carved on my tombstone. All of my fiction over the years has contained at least one murder if not several, with characters who often are not the nicest people in the world. If something nice does happen, I make every effort to un-nice-ify it. I add a healthy dash of vinegar, if not a gallon. Sometimes I even try to make these not-nice things funny. If you have read my fiction, you can blame my mother.

As a reader, I can handle stories, poems and non-fiction on the creepiest, most depressing, biggest downer subject matter. So I guess you can say I give as good as I get.

When it comes to movies or TV shows, I never turn away. I can munch my popcorn and slurp my Coke through the goriest of gore. Even true crime shows are distant enough for me to enjoy. I think to myself: “Wow, a new documentary on Al Capone—what fun!” I am not flippant towards programs about genocide or other forms of sadistic torture. And some real-life murderers or highly disturbed people do upset me. Yet I am drawn to knowing about these things and not avoiding them.

The biggest exception is anything to do with the torture or killing of animals. I have an easier time watching a hundred thugs get machine-gunned to death than seeing one dog get accidentally stepped on. I’ll swat a fly, but if a bee flies into the room I carefully pick it up by the wings and release it to the outdoors.

I know some people say that violence in movies, TV shows, or even songs make people—especially children—more violent. And as a social scientist myself, who am I to discredit studies and experiments that have shown this to be the case?

Yet I have wondered: If exposure to violence de-sensitizes people to violence, why would the same not be true about exposure to niceness? What if every TV show was like Touched by an Angel or Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman? Would we start to shrug at kindness, just as we do at violence? Would we devalue goodness even more than we already do?

What if every movie was like Mary Poppins? In fact, even Mary Poppins is not like Mary Poppins. It’s actually a sad story in many ways. I cried at the bittersweet ending when I saw it as a kid. (And okay, I got a little misty-eyed when I watched it as an adult, too. Are you happy now?) Disney makes many films with unsettling overtones, and even its classic animation features are not all sweetness and light. For all of its “wholesomeness,” The Sound of Music ends with the Nazis muscling in to Austria. The appeal of Forrest Gump escapes me, but apparently it is considered a feel good, wholesome movie, even though it includes such pleasantries as the Vietnam War.

For that matter, there is a new genre of Christian fiction in which the murder mystery and horror story are interwoven with religion. I know little about these books. But it would seem that pretty much everyone agrees that a spoonful of sugar is quite enough, thanks just the same.

What if there were no sad songs to listen to the next time your heart breaks or you get yelled at by your boss? What if you saw Romeo and Juliet, and it ended with the parents blessing the marriage? Or Hamlet makes peace with his uncle, or Hannibal Lecter says he was only kidding?

Somehow, we need to touch base with the tragic, the scary, the disturbing. And judging by popular tastes, we need to do so at least as much as we visit Pleasantville. If all the negativity, violence and unfairness were removed from the Bible, it would be a much slimmer volume. My dog loves to be petted, but he also loves to be chased and play tug of war with his treats. Maybe we humans are not so different.