Try To Stay Present

After a fun fiction jag, I’m reading David Brook’s #1 Best Seller in Philosophy of Ethics and Morality, The Second Mountain: The Quest For a Moral Life.

I’m only a third in, but my overwhelming thought so far is that it’s uneven. Some parts are clear, insightful and inspiring; others however, like Chapter Six, “Heart and Soul,” are so vapid I wonder if his editor is afraid of him. Brooks is like a batter that drills one pitch off the wall for a stand up double and then strikes out looking the next time up.

He argues Millennials are lost, which of course, is an exaggeration. Lost because nearly every American institution has declined in importance and young people are left with the admittedly inane advice to “do you” whatever you may be. He argues all people would benefit from living more committed lives to some combination of a vocation, marriage, philosophy and faith, or particular community.

He tells his story and stories of many others who prioritized their work lives and wealth and notoriety at the expense of deeper, more meaningful commitments based upon mutual vulnerability and selfless service. He’s best when he explains how these “Second Mountain” people lose themselves in listening and caring for others in ways that are mutually transforming.

The problem he slips into though is highlighting people whose transformations are so radical as to be nearly unrelatable. Like Kathy and David who extend dinner invitations to a hodgepodge of 40 struggling young people on a weekly basis. David left his job to create a nonprofit, All Our Kids, and gave his kidney to one of the young women when she needed a transplant.

Yeah, I’m sure I can high jump 10 feet if I just put my mind to it.

Or Etty Hillesum, a Jewish woman in Holland during World War II, who maintained a supernatural inner peace and joy all the way up to the point that her parents, brother, and she were killed in Auschwitz.

I set Brooks down for awhile to watch the first episode of HBO’s Chernobyl which is as scary a story imaginable for anyone who has ever worried about exposure to radiation at the dentist and/or airport. After that harrowing experience, I sought refuge in The New Yorker instead of immediately jumping back into Brooks.

There I think I found a more subtle and nuanced way forward for mere mortals like me. In a very short story about Maggie Rogers’s rise, John Seabrook, who hangs with her in New York one afternoon, tells this story:

A fan recognized her. “Wow,” he said. “Biggest fan. Can I actually ask a question?”

“Dude, I have no idea what I’m doing,” Rogers said, laughing.

“That’s what your album is about, right?” the fan asked. He was her age.

“Exactly,” Rogers said. “I’ve just really been trying to stay present.”

How does one stay present? By giving off a particular vibe that communicates “Heck no I’m not too busy for you.” By maintaining meaningful eye contact. By thinking about what others are saying instead of what you want to say the second they pause. By asking clarifying questions. By empathizing instead of problem solving. By learning to appreciate what’s unique about others.

Much easier to write than do.

 

 

Coffee Is For Closers Only

Most writers, like recreational runners hitting the wall, don’t pace themselves. As a result, they shortchange their readers with uninspiring conclusions.

Evan Osnos, in his lengthy New Yorker expose on Facebook provides us writing mortals with a tour de force example on how to close. Dig his last three pgraphs. So good, let’s take them one at a time beginning with the third to last:

“The caricature of Zuckerberg is that of an automaton with little regard for the human dimensions of his work. The truth is something else: he decided long ago that no historical change is painless. Like Augustus, he is at peace with his trade-offs. Between speech and truth, he chose speech. Between speed and perfection, he chose speed. Between scale and safety, he chose scale. His life thus far has convinced him that he can solve “problem after problem after problem,” no matter the howling from the public it may cause.”

He saves a key insight to the very end—conventional wisdom on Zuckerberg is wrong. Then the Augustus reference reminds the reader of Zuckerberg’s fascination with Roman history nicely explained in the body. Then the three brilliant “Between” sentences which beautifully summarize the three tensions that weave throughout the piece. Then Osnos uses a few of Zuckerberg’s own words to thoughtfully wrap the pgraph.

The penultimate one:

“At a certain point, the habits of mind that served Zuckerberg well on his ascent will start to work against him. To avoid further crises, he will have to embrace the fact that he’s now a protector of the peace, not a disrupter of it. Facebook’s colossal power of persuasion has delivered fortune but also peril. Like it or not, Zuckerberg is a gatekeeper. The era when Facebook could learn by doing, and fix the mistakes later, is over. The costs are too high, and idealism is not a defense against negligence.”

Again, a wonderful payoff for sticking with Osnos to the end, another astute insight about “habits of mind” and the difference between growing a new business and leading a mature one. Instead of a mechanical “tell them what you told them”, Osnos leaves the reader thinking even more deeply. Will Zuckerberg be able to make the pivot Osnos so convincingly argues he must? That question gives the piece a stickiness that a typical “let’s just end this” conclusion never does.

And the last:

“In some sense, the “Mark Zuckerberg production”—as he called Facebook in its early years—has only just begun. Zuckerberg is not yet thirty-five, and the ambition with which he built his empire could well be directed toward shoring up his company, his country, and his name. The question is not whether Zuckerberg has the power to fix Facebook but whether he has the will; whether he will kick people out of his office—with the gusto that he once mustered for the pivot to mobile—if they don’t bring him ideas for preventing violence in Myanmar, or protecting privacy, or mitigating the toxicity of social media. He succeeded, long ago, in making Facebook great. The challenge before him now is to make it good.”

Whew, where to start? A vivid reminder that Zuckerberg and Facebook are in their very early years. Anything is possible. And again, respecting his readers’ intellect by leaving things open-ended, a question, does he have the will? There’s no hand holding, every reader will come to their own conclusion. The “pivot to mobile” phrase is a reminder from the body of the time period when Zuckerberg only took meetings with people if their proposals included ways to grow Facebook on mobile devices. Osnos cleverly uses that anecdote to remind the reader one last time of tremendous challenges facing Zuckerberg. And then the final sentence, which again, leaves the reader wondering, can he make it good.

Give the man a cup of coffee.

Postscript: Not a flattering portrait of Zuckerberg and FB. Increasingly, I wonder, why don’t I delete my FB account?

The Sexual Harassment Epidemic is More Sordid Than You Realize

If you think you have a pretty good feel for the breadth and depth of the sexual harassment landscape, think again. Then read “Can Hollywood Change Its Ways?” by Dana Goodyear:

“Lyle’s job was to write down what the writers talked about. According to testimony she gave later, several of them talked about anal sex, oral sex, “fucking,” “pussies,” “schlongs,” what color hair they preferred women to have, what size breasts, and how one of the writers had missed his chance with one of the show’s stars. They referred to a lead actress as “having dried branches in her vagina”; one writer “frequently brought up his fantasy about an episode of the show in which one of the male characters enters the bathroom while a female character is showering and rapes her.” They doodled offensive anatomical drawings, vocalized pleasure while pretending to masturbate, altered a calendar in the writers’ room so that it read “pert tits” instead of “persistence” and “penis” instead of “happiness.”

“I can’t even say I was offended,” Lyle told me recently. ‘That’s how steeped in the culture I was. It was such a ubiquitous thing that it would’ve seemed off to have them not do that stuff.'”

Goodyear describing a female writer who became a target of one studio’s star executive:

“The woman wore librarian glasses and thrift-store clothes, and kept her hair short. It was her style, but also a signal of her seriousness, her not-gameness. It provoked him, even though his own girlfriend was “hot,” as he told her all the time. “Can you believe I want to fuck you and that’s my girlfriend?” he said.

Several times a week, she had to call him to talk about a script, a writer, the status of a project. Instead, he asked her what she looked like naked, and sulked when she declined to flirt. It was impossible, under these conditions, to do her work effectively, but she had to make nice—he was their guy.”

Kim Masters is an investigative journalist at the Hollywood Reporter. Goodyear turns to her for the bigger picture:

Hollywood, Masters says, has long operated like a men-only club. “This town is shot through with a culture of intimidation, boys having fun, going to Las Vegas, hiring hookers. They don’t want female colleagues anywhere near them. Women are not invited and not promoted. I remember Dawn Steel saying, ‘If only I could go whoring with these guys my life would be so much easier.’ ”

Still, Masters has been shocked to see how pervasive sexual harassment is, particularly at certain studios and agencies. “It’s not just one or two people,” she said. “It’s woven into the fucking fabric.” She went on, “What’s become clear to me is how deeply the culture of tolerating this behavior is rooted. You have a standoff—mutually assured destruction. There’s so much bad behavior, if you try to get rid of one guy then he says, ‘I will go after you. I know what you did.’ The behavior is entrenched at such high levels. You almost have to burn the companies down.”

Are we, as regular consumers of Hollywood products, complicit in helping create the “fucking fabric”?

Rethinking Cancer

I was blown away by the scope, clarity, interdisciplinary artistry, and intelligence of Siddhartha Mukerjee’s 2010 book, “The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer“. Like Atul Gawande, Mukerjee somehow practices medicine, runs a world class research lab, while being married with two school-aged children. I like this quote from his wife, Sarah Sze, a MacArthur Genius grant recipient and tenured art professor/sculptor at Columbia.

“‘You can’t get lost in the everyday details. Sid and I are both totally like that, which can be not good with things like parking tickets. Sure, things are falling through the cracks all the time, but that doesn’t matter. The big things matter.'”

I haven’t read Mukerjee’s 2016 book, “The Gene: An Intimate History,” but did just finish his recent New Yorker essay, “The Invasion Equation,” about how cancer biologists are rethinking cancer. And he’s done it again, written so clearly even I can make sense of the science. His writing is deeply engaging on top and will not disappoint anyone interested in the current state of oncology.

A one-sentence caption on the second page of the essay summarizes the shift in thinking:

“We’ve tended to focus on the cancer, but its host tissue—”soil,” rather than “seed”—could help us predict the danger it poses.”

Later, he elaborates:

“It was only natural that many cancer biologists, confronting the sheer complexity of the whole organism, trained their attention exclusively on our “pathogen”: the cancer cell. Investigating metastasis seems more straightforward than investigating non-metastasis; clinically speaking, it’s tough to study those who haven’t fallen ill. And we physicians have been drawn to the toggle-switch model of disease and health: the biopsy was positive; the blood test was negative; the scans find “no evidence of disease.” Good germs, bad germs. Ecologists, meanwhile, talk about webs of nutrition, predation, climate, topography, all subject to complex feedback loops, all context-dependent. To them, invasion is an equation, even a set of simultaneous equations.”

My take-away from Mukherjee—whether you or I are likely to die from cancer depends largely on whether oncologists learn to think like ecologists.

Friday Assorted Links

1. A Teacher’s Struggle With Student Anxiety.

“Anxiety has become the most significant obstacle to learning among my adolescent students. In a teaching career spanning more than 30 years, I have watched as it has usurped attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, which itself displaced “dyslexia,” as the diagnosis I encounter most often among struggling students. In contrast to dyslexia or ADHD, for which I have developed effective teaching strategies, anxiety in students leaves me feeling powerless. As a new school year kicks off, I am left wondering how anxiety has become so prevalent so quickly. What can I do about it? Might my teaching actually contribute to it?”

It doesn’t appear as if Doyle is familiar with Twenge’s recent work on how smart phones contribute to adolescents’ anxiety.

2. There’s nothing more addictively soothing than watching someone flipping homes on HGTV.

“HGTV was the third-most-popular network on cable television in 2016, a 24/7 testament to the powers of Target chic, the open-plan kitchen, and social conservatism. It unspools with the same bland cheerfulness as Leave It to Beaver, and its heart is in the same place. Many viewers — in red states and blue cities, in rent-controlled studio apartments and 6,000-square-foot McMansions — confess it’s a bedtime ritual, prelude to a night spent dreaming of ceramic-tile backsplashes and double-sink vanities. Over the past two years, it has become such a ratings and advertising sensation that it is largely responsible for the recent sale, this summer, of its parent company, Scripps Networks Interactive, to Discovery Communications for $11.9 billion.”

I confess, I’m an HGTV-er.

3. A university president held a dinner for black students—and set the table with cotton stalks and collard greens. I propose a term for this. . . macro aggression.

4. Even jellyfish sleep.

5. Evan Osnos’s take-aways from a trip to North Korea. Long time Pressing Pausers will know I’ve been a long time observer of North Korea. Osnos’s report is interesting throughout. He reports that if Kim Jong Un’s picture appears in a newspaper, North Koreans must avoid creasing his face. And being in a wheelchair disqualifies you from living in Pyonyang, the capital. Monitors on the city’s perimeter limit movement in and out of the capital. Most importantly, Osnos’s reporting strongly suggests North Korea wants better relations with the U.S. Which makes Trump’s approach—increasingly provocative threats—the exact wrong one at the wrong time. Heaven help us, and especially, the South Koreans.

 

 

One Nation Under God, Indivisible, With Liberty and Justice For Those With Economic Means

How can anyone argue the U.S. is the indisputable best country in the world when our tax and health insurance systems are so flawed. On top of that, our legislature is broken. Yet, none of that has done much to quell our arrogance.

Reading David Grann’s story, Trial by Fire, from the New Yorker, reveals an even more fatal flaw. The more money one has, the better our judicial system works. Put differently, people are not equal under the law because not all people can afford competent, let alone expert representation. In the U.S. today, people’s ability to pay determines how much justice they receive.

If you don’t believe that, read Grann’s story about Todd Willingham. If you’re like me, when you finish it, you’ll be completely gutted. Gutted for the masses of working class people wrongly convicted. And gutted for what economic disparity has wrought.

Paragraph to Ponder—Trump Downward Spiral Edition

If you’re like me, the worse Trump does, the better you feel about the country’s future. So despite it being gray outside, I woke up Saturday a bit more bullish about things. But thanks to John Cassidy of The New Yorker for the proverbial, political science slap in the face:

“Another argument you hear from Trump supporters, and even from some nervous Democrats, is that the polls might be understating his chances. That could be the case if pollsters are systematically underestimating the likely turnout among groups who like Trump, or they are systematically overestimating the likely turnout among groups supportive of Clinton, or both. It’s also conceivable that some Trump voters are reluctant to reveal their support for him to pollsters. These sorts of things can happen. Look at Brexit. Most of the polls in Britain got that result wrong, partly because their assumptions about turnout turned out to be mistaken.”