I Watched Americana

And not too proud to admit it. Well, so far, the first 35 minutes, which to my TSwift-loving daughters, secures my place in the pantheon of history’s most outstanding fathers.

For extra credit, I read Amanda Petrusich’s review in The New Yorker, TAYLOR SWIFT’S SELF-SCRUTINY IN ‘MISS AMERICANA'”.

 Petrusich notes:

“Swift is certainly not exceptional in her yearning for approval, but her life has unfolded on an unprecedented scale.”

Not exactly original insights. If The New Yorker had commissioned me to write the review, which in hindsight they should’ve, I would’ve framed the film as another in a long line of case studies on the corrosive effects of fame. As my saying goes, “Fame tends to corrupt and absolute fame corrupts absolutely.” Then I would’ve referenced “Amy” the documentary about Amy Winehouse which powerfully illustrates how sadly pop icons’ stories often turn out especially when surrounded by selfish, financially dependent employees, family, and “friends”.

And it’s odd that The New Yorker’s choice for reviewer is silent on our mindless tendency towards celebrity worship, which I’d argue makes us complicit in Swift’s struggles and Winehouse’s demise.

It’s also disappointing that their reviewer is silent on Swift’s passive acceptance of her fame. Swift did lay low for a year, but more as a pause in her incredibly ambitious career. What’s stopping her, someone has to ask, from a complete retreat from the public sphere for much, much longer.

Taylor, if you’re reading this, which I suspect you are, eat up and change your appearance, move to Canada, make friends with Harry and Megan, and dig into the ancient Stoics. You won’t be disappointed.

I can’t speak for my daughters, but the rest of us will be okay.

Rich Beyond Measure

That’s a wrap. The semester is over. Grades are (mostly) in. Back at it January 7th for one month-long course. Then my academic year will be a wrap since I’m a half-timer. Don’t hate me because you ain’t me.

It felt kinda weird returning to work in early September after such a long sabbatical. Pre-sabbatical, I handed off my administrative duties, so I was teaching full-time for the first time in a long time. And while I was gone, even more colleagues who I enjoyed had moved on. By “kinda weird” I guess I mean somewhat disconnected.

After all these years, I sometimes feel as if I should’ve assumed more administrative responsibilities somewhere along the line. I mean what kind of sad sack is back exactly where he started 22 years earlier?

And yet, as I read final papers, and email messages, and hand written notes of appreciation, I feel like finally, I might be getting this teaching thing down. Of course, putting that in writing means my “J-term” course will probably be a disaster, you know, pride coming before the fall and all.

Every educator is different, but for me at least, the “secret” to teaching well is the same as living well, the more selfless, the better. Maybe it was having no administrative responsibilities that enabled me to see and hear my students more clearly this fall. More specifically, maybe it was not being in a hurry, maybe it was taking the time to listen to them and to read their words even more closely. And then to respond to those words.

The more authentic and present I am in the classroom, the more my students appreciate my teaching. They also appreciate the thought put into our more accessible, shorter, more thought provoking than average reading list.

My students’ end-of-semester gestures of appreciation make me think I’m still doing the right thing, in the right place, at the right time. Consider one student among many, a physically imposing, politically conservative, first year footballer whose domineering dad tolerated no negative emotions.

“When I found out I had to be in a mandatory writing seminar as part of the ‘First Year Experience Program’ (FYEP) titled ‘The Art of Living’, I dreaded it. I despised writing, especially that of a personal nature. All of the essays and discussions I would have to participate in would be about my life, inner thoughts, and feelings. I figured it was just another stroke of bad luck. My goal for the semester was just to survive, and hopefully improve on my personal writing ability after a few failed attempts. However, I found out very quickly that this was just the class I needed. It turns out that my destiny was not to have an unfortunate event take advantage of me, but was to have an unbelievable stroke of luck being placed in the Art of Living writing seminar.”

Further in:

“This unexpected change of heart provided me with energy and enthusiasm. Writing my fourth essay became something I enjoyed, not something I dreaded. I wrote about my stance on modern love and the concept of soulmates, which was the strongest stance in any essay I had written. I wrote about my own experiences with love, and how in my eyes the person I want to marry will be able to fill my heart with love. I wrote about how that love would allow me to experience the six varieties described in Krznaric’s writing: eros, pragma, ludus, agape, philuatia, and philia. . . . I had ended up doing the exact opposite of what I had initially thought I would: I wrote about my definition of love, my love life, and I loved doing it. By writing from the heart and being vulnerable with my audience, I was able to capture their attention and provide details that I otherwise might have excluded. My paper connected better with my readers, and it was relatable. Over the course of this semester I had not only grown as a writer, but I opened my mind and grew as a person.”

Watching this young man blossom into a superb, sensitive discussant was a joy:

“One of the most influential changes to my (writing) process was in-class discussions. They allowed me to deepen my understanding of the prompts while listening to others’ thoughts and feelings. I could formulate my own stances in response. It allowed me to consider outside opinions and beliefs and flush out my ideas. They made my essays even more thorough because I gained not only different pieces of textual evidence but I learned about different experiences my peers could connect to the readings. Being able to have personal, open conversations in class also made the texts more applicable to daily life. The discussions helped shape not only my essays, but the way I looked at the world as a whole. I could consider expanding my varieties of love as Kznaric wrote, or I could consider the lifestyle of Stoicism written in William Irvine’s A Guide to the Good Life. These discussions opened my heart and mind to the different ideas we discussed in class, and allowed me to incorporate those into my essays. This class broadened my life views and expanded my horizons.”

Because I’m half-time and I get paid over 12 months, and I max my retirement contributions, and I add family dental insurance and a Health Saving Account in for good measure, my take home pay for November was $34.37. But I feel rich beyond measure.

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 Only Constant Is Change

Dig this beautiful essay on selfishness, selflessness, and love titled “Nobody Tells You How Long a Marriage Is” by Lauren Doyle Owens.

At the end, she writes:

“Nobody tells you how long marriage is. When you fall in love, when you have fun with somebody, when you enjoy the way they see the world, nobody ever says, “This person will change. And so you will be married to two, three, four, five or 10 people throughout the course of your life, as you live out your vows.” Nobody warns you.”

Tru ‘dat.

Same as when I married three decades ago, I have no interest in military history, plant nomenclature, or jazz; now though, I am interested in lots of new things like cooking, food, endurance athletics, North Korea, and Stoicism. When I married I was a pauper public school teacher who was oblivious to the stock market. Now I identify in part as an investor. When I married, I was a conventional Christian, today I am more open to and interested in other religious traditions and forms of spirituality. When I married, I used a lot of product in my (amazing) hair; now, not so much.

When I married I was agnostic about the natural world; today, my well-being depends upon it. When I married I was a son; now, I am not. When I married, I was Lauren’s husband, preferring the suburbs; now I’m Lauren, preferring anywhere else.

Life is fragile and mysterious, meaning best case scenario, the Good Wife and I are in the middle of our life together, meaning she’s been married to four or five Rons* with maybe another four or five to go. Here’s hoping she continues adjusting to my continuing evolution.

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*As a result of this recent Janos tweet, I’ve decided my Witness Protection name is going to be Rondo not LeRon. What, you don’t get to pick your WP name?!

Written while the Celts were losing their last game, “we are need rondos.  I am say all day all night for lots time  but is no rondos.  i  am frustrate.”

Review Week—One Consumer Product Review a Day

Everyone is saying my consumer products reviews are brilliant, but infrequent, and you dear readers, deserve better. Thus, beginning in an hour, I’m going to review one consumer product a day for seven days. Plan your week accordingly.

This overview is intended to make Review Week even more life-changing than it otherwise would be. Before we get going, scrape together $1,042.64, the cost of all seven products combined. The cool-factor (and prices probably) of these products is about to sky-rocket and you don’t want to be left on the outside looking in.

Most product reviewers write in a way that suggests our quality of life hinges on their uber-detailed, super serious deconstruction of the product at hand. I will take a different tack. Since we are not our consumer purchases, my aim is to lighten up the genre with ample doses of sarcasm. So the not-so-hidden-agenda is to poke fun at the mindless materialism perpetuated by reviewers.

According to economists, we often buy consumer goods to “signal” things about ourselves to others, look I’m well-to-do, look I’m on top of the trends, look I’m smart, look I’m an environmentalist, etc.

The following reviews are informed by my fondness for the ancient Stoics who believed status, wealth, and hedonism are impediments to tranquility or “inner joy”. But even Stoic sympathizers like myself have to buy things on occasion.

The reviews are also informed by books like True Wealth by Juliet Shor. Shor argues we should be more materialistic, by which she means more thorough and thoughtful in our purchasing of products, so as not to waste money and contribute even more to our ever expanding landfills. Shor, and other progressive social scientists, argue that we should signal, if anything, environmentally conscious, pro-social values through our consumer purchases.

As one of the 7.6 billion people on the planet, my goal is to find products that “just work”, offer good value, and last a long time. I concede, that may come across as boring, but I’m also susceptible to beautiful materials and design, as my current love interest, the new Audi A7, illustrates. In the interest of keeping the week’s price total down, I decided not to purchase and review that. Yet.

See you shortly.

 

Mindless Sex Scandal Scorekeeping

What do uber-liberal Jennifer Weiner and right wing nutter Rush Limbaugh have in common? They both revel in their political opposites’ moral failings. More accurately, they both stand and applaud loudly when their political opposites are caught straying far from the sexual straight and narrow.

Weiner in today’s New York Times:

“The double standards employed by some members of the “do as I say, not as I do” Christian right are nothing new. Show me a senator who votes against gay marriage, and, at least in one infamous case, I’ll show you a guy who’s soliciting same-sex encounters in the airport men’s room. (Hello there, Larry Craig!)

Show me another Republican senator who made his name as a “pro-family advocate” and I’ll show you a guy whose phone number showed up in a Washington madam’s little black book. (Howdy, David Vitter!)

Show me the far-right speaker of the House, a man with perfect scores from the National Right to Life Committee and the Christian Coalition, and I’ll show you a guy who, as a high-school wrestling coach, set up a chair in front of the boys’ shower the better to ogle his protégés, and who was eventually jailed as a serial child molester. (Dennis Hastert, come on down!)

We’ve been down this road of duplicity before. The televangelist who prayed, alongside his wife, for the return of traditional morals, admitted to having sex with — and was accused of rape by — a 21-year-old church secretary, and found to have paid her $279,000. The congressman who voted for the Defense of Marriage Act was sexting with his underage male pages.”

4-0. Scoreboard! Nevermind all the wrecked lives left in the wake, our party is winning because theirs is losing.

Like a good Stoic practicing voluntary self deprivation, I listened to Rush Limbaugh during this morning’s commute. He went all Jennifer Weiner on Harvey Weinstein whose “alleged” decades of sexual harassment momentarily give the Republicans the edge in the Sexual Impropriety Olympics. I’m not sure of the actual score because its constantly adjusting for new sordid details from our most public figures on the right and left.

Note to Rush Limbaugh. You can’t constantly discredit the New York Times as a reputable publication and then cherry pick stories that give you a political hard on. Is it trustworthy journalism or not?

Ready for the most amazing insight I have on offer today? Neither political party has a monopoly on virtue. Scorekeeping belittles the victims, mostly less powerful women. Powerful men of all political persuasions are adept at breaking vows and taking advantage of the less powerful. Mindless sex scandal scorekeeping is an especially poignant example of partisanship run amok.

Election 2016—Father-Daughter Dialogue 3

Alibaba: My last post was a theoretical exercise. In responding to your question I was not having an actual conversation with a Trump supporter. That – as I said in my answer – would of course include curiosity and listening and learning and new perspective.

But, to answer your question. Yeah, that phrase slipped past me and isn’t good. It didn’t capture a few things that I meant it to. 1. A broad, general sense, of “take a lot of action to make the world a better place, focusing on people who are systemically marginalized.” 2. That “vulnerable” doesn’t mean “people who can’t help themselves,” it means those who are structurally disenfranchised, subjugated, silenced, and that I am also talking about myself, as a woman, when I say “vulnerable people.” I feel like my rights are at risk and want to make sure they are protected. 3. That I think when the issue at hand does not relate to an identity I personally possess, it is important to look for and defer to people who do hold those identities. Cop out it may be, I do not think I have words better than these to describe this: “That is to say if you are able-bodied, if you have money, if you have resources, if you are seen as white, hetero, cis, if you have had the opportunity to develop your politics through theory rather than through forced violations against your body and your people, then take that backseat, offer a share of your resources to help organizers and activists travel and stay sheltered, protect and stand with communities you are not from, but do not take up space. Humbleness is what fuels a courageous fight that does not center you as savior.” -by Jenny Zhang in “Against Extinction”

And why do I think this is important? Because there are voices that have historically been ignored and there is a responsibility to do what we can to correct history and make them as loud as possible now. Because it would be arrogant and ignorant to think I know more about the lived experiences of someone else than they do, or what they want or need.

Now a few for you. What do you think the most important takeaways from the election are? In other words, what should we pay the most attention to going forward? 

Ron: Thoughtful reply, thank you. I’m sorry you think I don’t give you enough credit for being more savvy some/a lot of the time. When you communicate that frustration, I almost always think about my relationship with my dad. I get your frustration because I never felt like your grandfather gave me enough credit for being a capable, contributing, independent adult until I was in my mid-to-late 20’s. Too often, it felt like he was stuck viewing me as my dumbass sixteen year old self. I’m not sharing that for sympathy, or as an excuse not to be more caring, just to say I think some of your frustration is baked into the generation gap. Maybe everything will always be perfectly copacetic with your child(ren) and the pattern will be broken.

One take-away. I’ve written about the problems of the Simple Living movement before. It’s illogical for well-to-do people like me to tell the less well-to do about the limits of material wealth. My multi-layered, multi-facted privilege disqualifies me from commenting on anyone’s economic decision-making and lifestyle, but that doesn’t mean I can’t wax philosophic about larger, related questions. Which is to say, I interpret the election result as a culmination of a larger trend in the US where more and more people are slighting their health and spiritual well-being in the pursuit of material gain. Put more simply, it’s the triump of a self-regarding consumerism. Way more people than Dems expected put their trust in the candidate they perceived to be a superior businessman. The aformentioned Frontline documentary shows he’s a terrible businessman, but perception becomes reality. In essence, Trumpers said, “He’s such a great businessman, I’ll give him a pass on the hateful anti-immigrant, anti-women, anti-everything bullshit.” At the risk of simplifying things, I think Trumpers were saying, “Compared to HC, Trump will improve my job prospects, I’ll make more money, and be able to afford more stuff at my favorite big box store, so who cares about the environment, Muslim-Americans, traditional foreign alliances, or grabbing pussies.” In the battle between self-regarding personal economics and other-regarding American ideals, self-regarding personal economics has won.

The election may have turned on traditional Dems who succumbed to apathy and didn’t vote. Maybe they thought victory was in the bag, and turned off the game midway through the fourth quarter (you have to allow me one sports metaphor per reply) or the Democratic candidate didn’t rally them around the Common Good. HC was like a tennis player sitting well behind the baseline (okay, now I’m borrowing on the future), hitting desperate lobs, defending herself, criticizing her opponent, not rallying enough traditional Dems around the Common Good.

Pay attention to going forward? Short answer, Trump’s ego is such that he thinks the rules don’t apply to him. Look for him to play fast and lose with Constitutional principles related to the Executive and Supreme Court case law. I anticipate him breaking enough laws that he’ll lose the support of the Republican-controlled Congress. Even money he gets impeached before completing his term. One can hope.

More personally, getting out of the pool the other day, I asked a friend, older and faster than me, “Got any (Masters) meets coming up?” Normally, he’s competiting all the time, but he said, “No, I’m just too down. I’m going to give my meet money to the Sierra Club and Planned Parenthood who I know will make the most of it.” Admirable sure, but not my approach. I return to the Stoic notion of “trichotomy of control” in which you focus as much of your time/energy on those things we have some or a lot of control over. Swimming competitions gave my friend joy, so it saddens me he’s letting the Celebrity President rob him of that. I will continue to do the things that bring me joy, watch the sun rise, drink my green tea latte, eat healthily, swim across Ward Lake, run in Priest Point Park, cycle with friends, watch my daughter graduate college, dialogue with you, see independent films at the hippy theatre, and try to be a more attentive and caring educator, husband, father, citizen. I confess, over the last three decades, since I was your age, my strong desire to change the world has ebbed. I’m glad you want to and I do have confidence that your friends and you can, especially if fueled by Zhang’s “humbleness”. I want to change myself, be more kind, listen more patiently. The next election won’t turn on that, but my small sliver of the world—my marriage, my family, my community, will be better for it.