Don’t Box People In

My advice to myself after reading this short article, “Emotional Michael Jordan unveils first of two medical clinics in Charlotte”.

One day in the spring of 1984, MJ walked into UCLA’s Wooden Center where a scrawny senior history major, who would one day become a famous blogger, was on fire. After helping my team hold court again, I stopped to watch MJ run with an assortment of professional and UCLA varsity ballers. In town to accept the John Wooden Award, he was on another level, even compared to me.

Like any basketball fan I suspect, I always admired his talent, the ease in which he moved, got open, shot, defended. Simultaneously, I was always dismayed by his refusal to use his platform and incredible wealth to benefit others. Did he have his social conscious surgically removed I wondered?

I shoulda been more patient. I apologize MJ for not giving you the benefit of the doubt that someday you’d most definitely give back in the most meaningful of ways. Good on you.

 

Passion Till The Very End

The word of the day, harangue, a lengthy and aggressive speech. One could add “see Bernie Sanders”. I’m not a fan of Bernie’s oratorical style, but I’m in total awe of his passion especially given the fact that he’s 78 years old.

By 78, a lot of men are dead, hell, Bernie peered over the abyss last week. Elderly men and women in their eighth, ninth, tenth decades often struggle with more than just declining health. There’s the huge psychological challenge of having a purpose to continue living. Something beyond watching television and marking time.

That’s not a problem for Bernie, nor was it for Harold Bloom who died earlier this week. The New York Times described Bloom as the “most notorious literary critic in America” explaining:

“Chiefly he argued for the literary superiority of the Western giants like Shakespeare, Chaucer and Kafka — all of them white and male, his own critics pointed out — over writers favored by what he called “the School of Resentment,” by which he meant multiculturalists, feminists, Marxists, neoconservatives and others whom he saw as betraying literature’s essential purpose.”

I find his unabiding passion even more fascinating than his contrarian intellect for which he’s best known.

Dig this:

“Professor Bloom called himself ‘a monster’ of reading; he said he could read, and absorb, a 400-page book in an hour. His friend Richard Bernstein, a professor of philosophy at the New School, told a reporter that watching Professor Bloom read was ‘scary.’

Armed with a photographic memory, Professor Bloom could recite acres of poetry by heart — by his account, the whole of Shakespeare, Milton’s ‘Paradise Lost,’ all of William Blake, the Hebraic Bible and Edmund Spenser’s monumental ‘The Fairie Queen.'”

In junior high school I memorized some bible verses in Confirmation classes, I just can’t remember which ones.

The Times adds:

“. . . his output was vast: more than 40 books of his own authorship and hundreds of volumes he edited. And he remained prolific to the end, publishing two books in 2017, two in 2018 and two this year: ‘Macbeth: A Dagger of the Mind’ and ‘Possessed by Memory: The Inward Light of Criticism.’ His final book is to be released on an unspecified date by Yale University Press, his wife said.”

Further evidence of his all consuming passion, he taught his last class at Yale last Thursday.*

I texted an academic friend who followed Bloom’s work this humorous excerpt from the Times. Years ago Bloom predicted:

“’What are now called ‘Departments of English’ will be renamed departments of ‘Cultural Studies, where Batman comics, Mormon theme parks, television, movies and rock will replace Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, Wordsworth and Wallace Stevens.”

“He nailed that!” my friend texted back.

May you live long, similarly passionate lives.

*Bloom looks really spent in the 2011 picture. For shit’s sake, can we please revisit mandatory retirement provisions? How about you have to hang em’ up at 88 years young?

 

 

 

 

The Latina Beyonce

Paragraph to ponder from the New York Times Magazine’s profile of Rosalía.

“The field hushed. Everyone onstage went silent. As Rosalía poured out the flamenco classic ‘Catalina,’ people wiped away tears. Her voice is both raw and liquid, vaulting smoothly from aching tenderness to angry longing. When she performs pure flamenco, Rosalía often sounds as if she’s pulling her heart out through her mouth. Duende — the ability to transmit deep, authentic emotion — is a moment of nearly mystical self-effacement in flamenco, akin to an actor’s disappearance inside a role. Its emotional vulnerability cannot be faked. Whenever she performs, Rosalía told me, she always tries to find that moment when “you’re not there as an artist, not there as a person with your first and last name,” she said. “You’re nothing more than a channel” for the song’s “soul” to pass through to an audience. “You’re there more than ever, and super awake, but at the same time you’re gone.” She smiled with embarrassment, as if she were sharing a secret.”

What Can We Do To Improve Young Adult Mental Health?

My first year writing students are 18-19 years-old. Here’s the prompt for their first paper:

     Irvine argues that people often lack a “grand goal of living” and a coherent philosophy of life because our culture doesn’t encourage thinking about specific reasons for living; instead it provides them with an endless stream of distractions. He contends you’ll most likely squander your life without a guiding philosophy. He adds that even if you have a “grand goal in living” and can explain its importance, it’s unlikely you will attain those things in life you take to be of greatest value if you lack an effective strategy that specifies what you must do as you go about your daily activities. Explain why you agree or disagree with Irvine’s assertions. Also, explain a few things you want out of life and why.

Irvine proposes an updated version of Stoicism as a guiding philosophy. Most of my writers find meaning in some stoic concepts, like the trichotomy of control, but generally aren’t down with Irvine’s thesis that they need a “grand goal of living”. Most argue they’re too young to have formulated very specific life goals, let alone one “grand” one. Often, they thoughtfully point out that a highly detailed roadmap doesn’t make sense given life’s unpredictability.

When it comes to what they want out of life, an increasing number want improved mental health. It’s difficult to overstate the extent of young adults’ anxiety today. When I listen to them describe their anxiety and depression in class and read about it in their papers I have two reactions. Overwhelming empathy and curiosity as to what the hell is going on.

The third episode of the Happiness Lab podcast with Laurie Santos, “The Silver Lining”, might provide a clue. It’s about our tendency to compare ourselves to others who we perceive to be the most well liked, the most social, the most wealthy, the most together, the seemingly most happy. The episode’s title comes from research into Olympic athletes that suggests bronze medal winners are much happier with their medals than silver medal winners because silver medal winners are focused on not having won gold while bronze medal winners are focused on everyone that didn’t medal at all. This concept, “point of reference”, partially explains why happiness can be so illusive.

A Cornell psychologist in the episode contends social media compounds this problem because everyone carefully curates their online image to appear artificially happy. Among other remedies, Stoics advocate for internal goals to counter our self-sabotaging “point of reference” tendencies.

The gravity of the situation has me convinced that there’s no one explanation to “what’s going on”. Another factor could be the pressure my (admittedly selective) students feel to have their adult lives figured out just as they’re beginning them—whether to go to college, how selective a one, how to pay for it, what to study, what internships and other resume building activities to pursue, whether to go to graduate school, which career path, which grand goal for shits sake.

Parents, intensely worried about the vagaries of the economy, and desperate for a return on their considerable college investment, think that if their young adult children just pick the right thing to study—nursing, engineering, and other pre-professional fields—and develop a detailed plan, their college graduate sons and daughters won’t end up living in their basements.

This was what I was thinking about when struck by a related idea during a recent run. This time of the year, in North Olympia, Washington, it’s pitch black when running before work. Most of the streets are not lit, sometimes there’s fog. My uber-headlamp provides about 20-25 yards of visibility.

North Oly roads roll with a constantly changing mix of gentle ups and downs. Picture ocean swells, the Palouse in Eastern Washington, or the Norwegian countryside. Normally, I realized during the run, seeing roads ahead tilt upwards plays with my mind. At least a little. “Here it comes,” I think, “this is gonna take a little more effort.” And then, “Okay, almost topping out, hang in.”

But on this pitch black, foggy, autumn run, there was no such internal dialogue because I COULDN’T SEE AHEAD. The only way I knew I was starting a climb was my breathing became more labored. “Oh, okay, climbing now.” Because I couldn’t see the road tilting upwards ahead of time, my mind was free of that small, subtle nagging dread of having to work harder. As someone whose prone to look too far down the road of life, I was digging running in the moment. Don’t tell me what’s ahead, let me just be present.

Freed of anticipatory dread, my mind turned to my students. They lament how their teachers, beginning in middle school, ask about their life plans. And how it continues through high school. And how their parents too often pressure them to have a plan.

Some of them end up crafting faux-plans just to stop the insanity. As a placeholder of sorts. Some, like a previous writing student, declare nursing upon entering college only to realize in the middle of our first semester seminar that they didn’t really like science.

Maybe we should give our high school graduates headlamps and encourage them to focus at most on the year ahead especially since life is fragile and no one is guaranteed a long life.

What if our message was this.

In the next year, while working, traveling, or going to college; focus on improving your health; nourishing your spirit; investing in new friendships; finding one way to make others’ lives better. Don’t worry unnecessarily about the mountains and valleys that lie ahead in the distant future. You’ll be okay. And if not, let me know how I can help.

Young adults’ mental health might improve.

 

 

 

 

The Selfless, Spiritual Nature of Paying Attention

A recent New York Times newsletter chastised “You’re Not Paying Attention, but You Really Should Be.” The subtitle, “How to actually notice the world around you,” promised more than was delivered.

As a sociologist minded academic, I like to think I’m more observant than average. At the same time, close friends and I sometimes poke fun of the Good Wife for often driving right by us oblivious to our pointless honking and waving. She claims it’s because she’s focused straight ahead, but her awful vision probably contributes to the sometimes funny phenomenon as well.

But don’t sell her short. She picks up on things others, like me, often do not. Por exemplar, a few days ago she left this for me on my corner of the kitchen island.

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My dad died 24 years ago. If someone asked me what his favorite bird was, I would reply, “No idea.” But the Gal Pal, who interacted with him 1% of the time I did, knew.

The New York Times newsletter writer unsatisfactorily scrapes the surface when trying to teach others to pay attention.

Paying attention is one of the most concrete ways one person shows another they care for them. My wife knows my dad’s favorite bird because he was important to her. Her default is to care for everyone, but she cared even more than normal for him because he was important to me. She paid extra attention to him, and to my mom, knowing how important they were to me.

She cared for and loved me by paying extra close attention to them. There’s a spiritual component to truly paying attention that the New York Times writer misses. Paying especially close attention to the details of others’ lives is a selfless habit of mind most evident in spiritual people.

Another example. An Olympia friend of mine is visiting his wife’s family in the Midwest. He shared several pictures of her hometown online with explanatory captions. At the end, he wrote, “I was glad I stopped and took the time to find out out more about the town which played a big part in the lives of Mary, her parents, and her sisters and brothers.”

“I stopped and took the time” is the exact advice given by The New York Times writer. To pay closer attention he writes, unplug, slow down, look around. But the second half of my friend’s summary sentence, “. . . which played a big part in the lives of Mary, her parents, and her sisters and brothers,” speaks to the selfless, spiritual nature of truly paying attention.

My wife and friend are two peas in the same paying attention pod. They demonstrate genuine, heartfelt care for their closest family and friends by observing, hearing, and remembering what matters most to them.

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Left to right, less attentive, more attentive.

Weekend Assorted Links

1A. Quitting Mormonism, or more formally, resigning from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.

“But if the internet is inherently threatening to the Church, or to any faith, it’s perhaps not because of the way it affirms doubts. Rather, it’s in the community it opens up — a community that can be just as close-knit and supportive as a ward. Where ChurchofJesusChrist.org offers scripture, the internet beyond the Church’s domain shines light into what has historically been a black box: the lives of the people who have left.”

1B. Mormon identities in flux.

2. Baseball prodigy. Like Mike Trout, but 16 and a switch hitter. Damn the Yankees.

3. The likely elimination of single-family zoning in large Oregon cities. Coming to a city near you?

4. Please stop telling me America is great. I was ahead of the curve.

5. Human dominoes. When brakes are useless.