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.

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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.

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* 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.

Why the Donald Sterling Fiasco Won’t Initiate a Dialogue on Race

The headline read, “Hall of Famers expect league to support Sam”. Of course the league will support Michael Sam, the all All-American defense lineman at Missouri who is the first openly gay active player in the history of the NFL.

But not because NFL locker rooms are especially progressive places. Some players are sensitive to people’s differing sexual orientations, others are decidedly not. As the Donald Sterling illustrates, social media will silence the Decidedly Nots. Sterling went from owner of the Los Angeles Clippers to a pariah in 72 hours. Similarly, any player caught communicating homophobic things about Sam will immediately feel the full weight of instantaneous social media. And any hope for commercial endorsements will be dashed.

One thread of the Sterling coverage has been “If anything positive comes of this, we need to initiate a discussion on race”. There’s little chance of that because social media tends to create a mob mentality with everyone racing to tar and feather the offending homophobe or racist. That creates a chilling effect on what would help initiate a discussion on race—each of us reflecting honestly on how we pre-judge people different than us. Instead of introspection, we pile on the offending person like an unthinking football player ignoring the official’s whistle.

Unlike social media, education depends upon dialogue and dialogue requires that people trust their point of view will be respectfully listened to. The key is to distinguish between racist or homophobic thoughts, words, and actions. Excellent teachers learn to work sensitively with homophobic thoughts and words, but when it comes to hateful actions, of course people should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.

Excellent teachers learn to work with racist or homophobic thoughts and words by exploring their underlying root causes by asking students questions such as “Why do you believe that?” They know that seeing the world from other people’s points of view does not come naturally. They expand students’ worldviews by introducing them to unfamiliar people and places through literature, the arts, and sometimes travel. And by teaching students to substitute curiosity for negative preconceived notions, so that they too learn to ask others, “Why do you believe what you do?”

What People Get Wrong About the NBA and Corona Del Mar High School

Alternative title: Why We Stereotype. Subtitle: Because our pea brains can’t handle complexity.

A sports-minded friend of mine likes soccer; Washington State Cougar football; and this time of year; the Stanley Cup playoffs. But don’t try talking professional basketball with him. He despises The Association because he decided a long time ago that the inmates are running the asylum.

College educated, and a successful professional, he’s like a lot of people who have negative preconceived notions about the league’s players. That because the minority of knuckleheads dominate the news. In fact, there’s greatness in the league, Exhibit A is Kevin Durant’s Most Valuable Player Award speech that you can watch here. Here’s a two-part challenge. Watch the first 4 minutes and then skip to the 22:50 mark and watch the last few. Try not to cry and try not to generalize about NBA players being brash, arrogant, everything that’s supposedly wrong with contemporary culture.

A Los Angeles Times story is titled “‘Prom draft’ reflects Newport Beach Culture, ex-official says“. Here’s the sordid heart of the article:

In 2009, the American Civil Liberties Union sued the school, alleging that the campus fostered a sexist and homophobic atmosphere. The civil rights suit stemmed from an incident in which three male athletes at the school posted a video on Facebook in which they allegedly used homophobic slurs, “outed” a student and threatened to rape and kill a female student.

Nearly a dozen students were expelled this year after it was discovered that a tutor who worked with some of the students accessed school computers and changed their grades.

Newport-Mesa Unified School District officials declined to comment on the prom controversy but in an email to parents, Corona del Mar High Principal Kathy Scott said she’d heard about an ongoing “prom draft” and that it appeared there was a similar draft last year.

“I need your help. I urge you to talk with your student(s) and discuss the seriousness of this type of activity,” Scott wrote. “I do not believe this is intended to be harmful, but this is not behavior that is consistent with our school’s outstanding reputation.”

Jane Garland, head of discipline for Newport Mesa Unified School District until she resigned this year, said some students there live up to stereotypes tied to Newport Beach. “There’s definitely issues at that school with certain students feeling entitled,” Garland told The Times. “The culture in Newport Beach is ridiculous and CDM personifies it.”

Garland should have stopped after saying some students feel entitled. Why? Because some CDM students may not be super wealthy and some who are may actually be mindful of their privilege. When addressing the school’s larger context, she could have said, “Newport Beach’s culture can be ridiculous as illustrated at times by some students at CDM.”

Based on his acceptance speech, Kevin Durant may be a better human being than he is a basketball player. Part of his likability is he doesn’t seek attention for his on or off-court accomplishments. ESPN is much quicker to detail the legal failures of the league’s knuckleheads than it is to describe players’ community service. Similarly, the LA Times is much quicker to detail the moral failings of some Southern California high schoolers than it is to tell the story of appreciative, selfless, ethical young people.

If it bleeds it leads. The end result? We succumb to the media’s knucklehead bias, a phenomenon that hardens our negative preconceived thoughts about people seemingly different than us.

I’ve never been on CDM’s campus, but here’s what I know to be true about it. Its students reflect the good and the bad of their parents. If Garland is right and Newport Beach’s culture can be ridiculous, then no one should be surprised by the aforementioned crises.

For better or worse, young people follow the lead of their parents. Kevin Durant is worthy of admiration because his mother has been for thirty years. Some CDM parents deserve scorn for a litany of parenting failures. Inevitably though, other CDM parents have more in common with Wanda Pratt, Kevin Durant’s mother, pictured below.

We struggle with nuance, subtleties, and ambiguity. In my alternative version of A Few Good Men, Jack Nicholson shouts at all of us, “You can’t handle complexity!”

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The Most Valuable Person with the leagues best player for 2013-2014

 

Calling Bullshit on the “Ban Bossy” Campaign

Here’s their website and starting point.

When a little boy asserts himself, he’s called a “leader.” Yet when a little girl does the same, she risks being branded “bossy.” Words like bossy send a message: don’t raise your hand or speak up. By middle school, girls are less interested in leading than boys—a trend that continues into adulthood. Together we can encourage girls to lead.

Sheryl Sandberg and company report that “Between elementary and high school, girls’ self–esteem drops 3.5 times more than boys’.” I need Sheryl or Beyonce or Jane Lynch to explain to me how they measure self-esteem. Until I understand their methodology, I’m calling bullshit on their statistic and their campaign.

I’m committed to gender equality, but fired up about the “Ban Bossy” campaign because the young women I teach are flat out running circles around their male classmates. I’ve written about it before. Others have documented the same thing. Sixty percent of bachelors degrees go to women. Not only are there more female college students than male, they also tend to be more purposeful in their studies, they’re studying abroad at greater rates, and they’re enrolling in graduate schools in greater numbers.

In many of my classes, the gap is glaring. In a class of 30 students, 17 or 18 will be female and 12 or 13 male. Typically, six of the top eight students who are most engaged, most hard working, and most successful, are female. Class after class, semester after semester, year after year. There are purposeful, hard working, outstanding male students; they’re just outnumbered by their female counterparts. Despite young women’s alleged lack of self esteem, some universities are relaxing admission criteria for men.

Arne Duncan no doubt enjoyed making the vid with Beyonce and company. His line, “We have to convince them that it’s okay to be ambitious”. Arne, put down the basketball and spend some time on a college campus. Then you’ll understand why we have to convince young men it’s okay to be as ambitious as young women.

Ultimately, I don’t believe Sheryl Sandberg. If she proves me wrong, self esteem isn’t as integral to academic achievement as commonly thought.

Apart from the higher education realities the campaign strangely ignores, there’s something perverse about “if only girls were treated more like boys” thinking. In the last decade or so, “leadership” has been redefined to include “soft skills” like questioning, listening, and team building. Many boys struggle with those things because, to put it most simply, they’re bossy. It makes no sense to emulate a flawed male ideal. Instead parents, grandparents, teachers, coaches, youth group leaders, anyone that works with children should be cultivating 21st Century leadership skills. That just happen to be gender neutral.

I should start a campaign to ban thinking about gender attributes as a zero-sum game. Ban “boys versus girls thinking” or something like that. A movement to help all young people fulfill their potential for the betterment of society. I should gather some of my celeb friends to make a YouTube vid. And leverage social media. And call in some favors with my friends in the national media.

If only I had more ambition.

* some of the above is adapted from the previous post I linked to, this self plagiarizing is also known as Rick Reillying one’s self

My Turn to Crime

It’s not my fault. I’ve fallen in with some bad dudes. It started a few years ago when The Sopranos drew me in. Then The Wire. Then Breaking Bad. Now The House of Cards. I should be eligible for a mail order degree in Abnormal Psychology.

What is it about Tony Soprano, Avon Barksdale, Walt, and F.U. that makes it so hard to look away as they leave ruined lives and dead bodies in their wake?

My theory rests on the assumption that I’m a part of the 99% that has a social conscience, but sometimes still wrestles with doing the right thing. At 2a.m., with the streets deserted, we still wait for the red light to turn, but not before imagining going. We get frustrated with people all the time, even irate at times, but we successfully suppress our violent tendencies. We get used to the tension between our better and worse-r selves. And fortunately for society, our better selves almost always win out.

Tony, Avon, Walt, and Frank are the 1% that effortlessly give in to their worse-r selves. Their lives are not complicated by other people’s feelings. Once off the rails, they have zero regrets. On second thought, scratch Tony from that foursome, his earnest therapy sessions with Melfi disqualify him from the truly pathological.

In large part, I think I find these dramas so compelling because I can’t fathom what it would be like to live completely unencumbered by doing the right thing. To not give a single thought to authority, social convention, and the social contract we enter into as drivers while running the light. To not care whether someone lives or not.

There’s another important variable in the equation. For me the gruesome violence is usually just palatable enough because I know they’re fictional dramas. After watching The Wire, I can reason, “That teen drug runner didn’t really die at the hands of the other teen drug runner, because they’re acting.” LIke when watching a play or reading a novel, it helps to know it’s imaginary. In Breaking Bad the innocent kid on the bike in the New Mexico dessert didn’t really die. He’s probably a popular eighth grader somewhere in SoCal.

Could the time I’ve spent with the Mount Rushmore of television criminals have a deleterious effect on my normal, law-abiding self? That’s doubtful because the Good Wife makes me take a powerful antidote to these intense crime dramas every Sunday night. Downton Abbey.

Postscript—Watch this 60 Minutes segment (13:40) on Wolfgang Beltracchi (13:40). Beltracchi, as evidenced by the final exchange which begins at 13:28, has Mount Rushmore criminal potential.