What I’ve Been Reading and Watching

Last week I failed a friend who asked for a book recommendation. Another friend came to our aid by suggesting The Boys in the Boat. A few other friends have really enjoyed that this summer too. I’ve been reading medium-long form journalism of late. Here are three recommendations with related thoughts:

• Good. Putting Eternal Salvation in the Hands of Nineteen Year Old Missionaries. Imagine being 19 (boys) or 21 (girls) and being sent to some distant corner of the globe (or Indiana) to convert people to your family’s faith. Mormon missions are extremely challenging. Once they complete their two-year long missions, 40% percent of young mormon missionaries (elders) disengage from the church. Readers, Mormon ones I’m sure, wanted evidence of that stat. Others felt it would’ve been a more balanced story had the authors talked to elders who had more positive missionary experiences. They’re probably right. 

• Better. You Can’t Quit Cold Turkey. Imagine losing your marriage and your career because you can’t control your appetite. Sad story. There’s lots I don’t understand about extreme overeating. I understand that some people really, really like some foods, but what I don’t get is if someone were to say, “Go ahead and eat the other half of the cake, but if you do, you’re going to lose your really excellent job.” Or “go ahead and eat another pizza, but you’re going to lose your wife.” I also completely understand that thanks to inertia, not moving is far easier than moving. The author of this story is also very large. He says people like him, a 50 year old, don’t make it to 65. I don’t understand why early death isn’t sufficient motivation to begin making healthy changes. The root causes of overeating must be psychologically much deeper than this story lets on.  

• Best. The Strange and Curious Tale of the Last True Hermit. Imagine living alone in the Maine woods for 27 years. And only saying “hi” one time to one person. The fact that Chris Knight survived 27 Maine winters in a tent is mind boggling. As is the fact that some Maineiacs want to lock him up and throw away the key. Count me among the “provide some support and leave him alone in the woods” contingent. The author’s process left me uneasy. I couldn’t help but think he befriended Knight just for the sake of advancing his writing career. What is an author’s responsibility to their subjects? There should be some sort of reciprocity. By allowing the author to tell his story, Knight lost much more of the one thing he most cherished, his anonymity.

I’ve also seen two movies I highly recommend:

• Boyhood. Imagine being a boy age 6-18 in Houston, Texas. And having a succession of dads, two are alcoholics, one is extremely violent. Took 12 years to make. Excellent sociology. I was impressed with the central family’s resilience, but was dismayed by the negative portrayal of the vast majority of males.

• Ida. Imagine preparing to be a Catholic nun and then finding out your family was Jewish. Black and white with subtitles. Set in Poland in the early 60s. Not for everyone. I anticipate this being my favorite film of 2014. I’ve cast my vote for Best Foreign Film. Mesmerizing. 

Postscript—One article I couldn’t bring myself to read. Too depressing a headline. A disproportionate percentage of school shootings happen in rural and suburban districts. 

In Praise of Literary Tussles

The week that was. Ukraine v Russia. Israel v Palestine. Syria v the Islamic State group. Too many lives cut short, too many families torn asunder.

If only we could substitute bloodless literary tussles for the violent ones that dominate the headlines.

For that to happen, we need provocative essay writers willing to ruffle readers’ feathers. Enter Tom Junod of Esquire. I’m guessing he was caught off-guard by just how many feathers his essay “In Praise of 42 Year-Old Women” ruffled.

I really, really, really liked Julie Checkoway’s clever and perceptive response to Junod. Checkoway convincingly hypothesizes that Junod is struggling with his mortality.

She writes:

Men have a lot more trouble, I think, admitting their fear of aging and death than women do. In my experience, women are more openly verbal, at least, about our terror. Typically, men either joke about it or have affairs or splurge on a sports car (these are stereotypes, so fill in your own experience of men here). But they rarely write about the terror of aging honestly. . .

But men are just as terrified as women of aging and dying. . . . How could they not be? They’re human. It’s just that they talk about it in a different way than women do. They talk about it by talking about women’s . . . fading attractiveness. And most men’s magazines—-unlike most women’s magazines—-aren’t filled with articles that expressly address aging graciously, painfully, or at all.

Men’s magazines, like Esquire, are filled with articles like Junod’s, articles in which men talk about how it’s okay with them for women to age. Just a little. And then a little more. And then a little more. Men are writing about death and aging, but they’re just writing about it by writing about us.

Checkoway’s response to Junod is direct, caring, specific, and philosophically rich. And her analysis rings true.

What I’m Reading and Watching

Some readers are enjoying a previous recommendation, The Skies Belong to Us: Love and Terror in the Golden Age of Hijacking. I recently read this which I recommend and now I’m reading this, also excellent. Contemporary Christians are more interested in [fill in the blank] than they are the Early Christian Movement. Christian clergy contribute to the church’s ahistorical orientation by choosing not to talk about exactly what Erhman’s exploring and explaining. His writing is clear, challenging, and provocative, and I recommend the book to anyone interested in the historical Jesus.

I just finished season two of Netflix’s Orange is the New Black. This male reviewer watched it differently than me. I often think sociologically, but this guy, who seems to think of it as a Frontline documentary, runs absolute circles around me. His thesis? Males are portrayed irresponsibly. I’ve never thought that while watching OitNB. All I thought was, “Man, this show is well written and acted.” I agree with this female reviewer, season two was even better than season one. So good it was hard not to binge watch. Only eleven more months until season three.

But Mother Dear, the content is definitely R-17, so no watching for you.

The historical Jesus and Orange is the New Black. Not sure what that pairing says about me. If you figure it out, let me know. I’ll be down at the lake.

P1010471

 

 

The Mathematics of Happiness

Recent research in psychology suggests that 50% of happiness is determined by genetics. What positive psychologists refer to as a “happiness set point”. That’s why some people are almost always happier than others. You can thank or blame your parents and their parents for your particular happiness set point.

The same research suggests that 10% of our happiness is the result of life circumstances like marital status, occupation, and income. Most of the time, good or bad events, like getting a dream job or losing a pet affect our well-being, but only temporarily. Eventually, we adapt to the good and bad and our level of happiness returns to where it was before.

The remaining 40% results from “intentional activity” or our daily decision making. The conventional wisdom here is to 1) engage in positive self reflection; 2) avoid social comparison; 3) be optimistic; 4) pursue meaningful goals; and 5) practice gratitude.

Social scientists routinely privilege the mind over the body; consequently, three things are almost always missing from the conventional wisdom—physical activity, fruits and vegetables, and adequate sleep. I’m no Dr. Oz, but my hunch is those are every bit as important as the previous five. In fact, I suspect they account for half of my “non-genetically-determined” happiness, or half of half of my total well-being.

And I’m not unique in this regard. The more people make exercise, nutritious food, and sleep building blocks of their daily lives, the happier they will be.

Life (Right) After College

Hurray, the eldest is a college graduate. And I’m happy to report that apart from wearing shorts to the commencement ceremony*, and getting caught mostly naked (I had my watch on) in a co-ed dormitory bathroom**, I didn’t embarrass her too much.

I’m proud of her. A religion major, she wrote an excellent senior thesis on how Martin Luther King’s notion of the beloved community changed after the Watt’s riots. After reading it, her grandfather crowned her the “best writer in the family”***. Also, her college experience started out pretty rough, but she persevered, and in the end, flourished. She swam, co-hosted a groovy radio show, learned to write, and gained lots of confidence, meaning dinner conversations are more contentious now. Which is good. And she made lots of close friends.

That last point seems to be the all important one. Her friends and her seemed way more focused on close interpersonal relationships than my college classmates and I ever were. Maybe that’s explained by gender or because I went to a large public university, but I suspect there’s a lot more to it. Psychologists who study happiness recommend all of us do more to build community in our lives, but one significant trade-off may be less certainty about what to do after graduating.

Most of my daughter’s classmates’ plans were nebulous, meaning going home to work for the summer while trying to figure out the medium-long term. The Good Wife, my older sister, and my brother in-law and I and thought and talked about this throughout the weekend. My sister insisted that her friends and her all had permanent full-time jobs lined up right after crossing the stage. She said there was a stigma attached to returning home.

Here’s the problem, my sissy and I, like all fifty and sixty-somethings, fall into predictable traps when trying to make sense of our Millenial offspring.

Predictable trap one, our memory fails us; consequently, we accentuate our successes and downplay our challenges. Simply put, we forget about our parents’ continuing help, our struggles, and classmates who didn’t have jobs, who did return home, whose paths to independent adulthood were circuitous at best. When comparing ourselves with others, we almost always cut ourselves more slack. That’s why we routinely get angry at other drivers, but forget our own sudden lane changes or thoughtless maneuvers.

Predictable trap two, our selective perception contributes to an unhelpful, collective impatience with new graduates who aren’t sure what they want to do. We want our twenty-two year olds to be independent tomorrow morning even though, in all likelihood, the transition to complete independent adulthood will still be running it’s course during the next World Cup. Our impatience results in strained relations and dissension.

Predictable trap three, we routinely resist change. It’s difficult to understate the effect of social media on this generation of college grads, the pace of economic change, and the consequences of our more liberal parenting. Baby boomers label Millenials slackers for lacking gumption. That knee-jerk criticism is a predictable result of these mental traps. If social scientists ever quantify a generational gumption deficit, Boomers like me will have to take responsibility for it.

Predictable trap four, we overgeneralize from our lived experience and project our accomplishments onto others. Because we overcame “x” and accomplished “y”, others should be able to as well. As a result, we lack empathy for others, including recent college grads. For example, a close friend always struggled in school because of dyslexia. He overcame it with tremendous grit and now he’s often angry at others for “making excuses” for their relative lack of success. He writes off others without factoring in extenuating circumstances such as poverty, institutional racism, or neighborhood violence, because he didn’t experience those things.

I wish that by describing these traps, I was immune from them. In actuality, I can describe them because I’m so susceptible to them. As just one example, I’m as impatient as they come. Can I make it to the next World Cup? Truth be told, I’ve written this to myself. If you find something that helps you on your journey, all the better.

Postscript: Do NOT read this.

IMG_0804

* Someone has to establish the sartorial floor. And I probably should come clean that I did do one thing that greatly embarrassed, or at least “weirded out” both daughters. Cycling season = shaved legs. Way better for sunscreen and massage, way worser for father-daughter relationships.

** Fortunately, while getting into the shower, I was caught by my roommate, the Good Wife. “What was I supposed to do,” I protested, “undress standing in the tiny shower behind the curtain?!” To which she emphatically said, “YES!” New rule co-ed college dormitories, if you want me to undress in private, provide a door and a small bench before the shower curtain, like in Watson Hall, otherwise, be on guard for the Full Monty. Also, why the urinal RIGHT NEXT TO the door?

*** first signs of cognitive slippage

Got Religion–Where are the Young Adults?

In her new book, Got Religion: How Churches, Mosques, and Synagogues Can Bring Young People Back, Naomi Schaefer Riley has advice for religious leaders who want to connect with people born after 1980. Here’s her conclusion*:

“Religious leaders who are successfully connecting with young adults realize that sleek advertising is not going to bring people into the pews. The barriers to entry are not matters for public relations firms to tackle. Young adults want community. They want a neighborhood. They want a critical mass of people their age. But they want to see older people and younger people in their religious institutions, too. They want a way to serve, and many of them want a way to serve sacrificially for longer periods of time. They want the racial and ethnic diversity of the country reflected in their religious community. They want a message (in English) that resonates and helps them tackle the practical challenges they face, of which there are many. They want to feel welcome whether they are single or married. And while they may appear to be experiencing an extended adolescence, when they are given responsibility, they are often inclined to take it.”

Yesterday’s on-line version of the New York Times included a prominently placed article that makes me think Schaefer Riley’s conclusion needs tweaking. Here’s the lead of the article titled, “Mormon Church Warns 2 Activists of Excommunication“:

Kate Kelly and John P. Dehlin, who have gained national attention for pushing the church to ordain women to the priesthood and to accept openly gay members, have been notified this week that they face expulsion for apostasy.

This is how I would amend NSR’s concluding insight, “They want to feel welcome whether they are single or married; male, female, or transgendered; straight or gay.” Maybe Schaefer Riley sidestepped sexual politics because the heaviest religious hitters—the Catholic Church and Mormon religion among them—seem to be doing fine despite their heterosexual, patriarchal dictums.

But I can’t help but wonder, given the pace of cultural change, whether over the next 50-100 years, the Catholic Church’s and Mormon religion’s growth will slow and/or reverse if women and sexual minorities are not embraced as full-fledged members of those communities.**

* thanks to Amazon reviewer George P. Wood for this reference

** some recent studies already show a decline within Catholicism, granted some would argue that a liberalizing of church policy would only hasten it’s decline, a point upon which reasonable people can and do differ

 

Teenagers Today

Set the record straight whenever curmudgeons spew knee-jerk antipathy towards teens.

Based on a massive new study on America’s health by the Center for Disease Control, the teen birth rate has plummeted in recent decades. Same with teen abortion rates. They’re also drinking less, smoking less, and barely using cocaine. The one thing they’re doing more of. . . exercising.

Despite conventional wisdom, the world is not going to hell in a handbasket.