Tuesday, May 28, 2024

Torture and Contentment

Isn't it fascinating how some people love things that other people hate? I know, I know...that's a simplistic statement. But emphasis on "love" and "hate" in the most literal sense.

It is a real testament to how different our inner worlds are.

Sitting on the beach is a great example. There are people for whom sitting in the sun on the beach is a Sublime experience in the most seriously Wordsworthian sense. For me, sitting on the beach is a few degrees short of a living hell. I despise sitting in the sun. (It almost induces in me a feeling of panic.) Walks on the beach and swimming? Sign me up. Sitting on the beach in the evening? Delicious. But to sit in the sun for hours at a time...no thanks. If I wanted to feel that way, I'd have gone to college and majored in being a dinner biscuit.

But as humans, how can we all be humans and have such wildly different instinctual reactions to things? It's mind boggling. That is why I recoil so violently from generalizations, even when those generalizations are made by the experts -- psychologists and sociologists, etc.

Often, I have seen advice on "how to be happy." Often, I have given advice on how to be happy. But how much is that worth if there are guys like me running around hiding from sunlight and other people literally basking in it? (I even have a friend who has said she adores the feeling of a sunburn. I can't even imagine. Sunburn, to me, is natural torture.)

This being so, how can we say: People are happier when they spend time outdoors; people are happier when they have a large network of friends; people are happier when they have dogs"? To answer what you probably expected to be a rhetorical question, the answer is: because these things apply to most people. I think it is really important that the "most" part be emphasized. If not, the minority who like being alone; who only have one or two good friends; who don't like pets...these people might come to the conclusion that they are broken. That doesn't help anyone.

Another simplistic statement to close this out: The bottom line is that we are similar and wildly different, but I think we pay more attention to the similarities because that is easier. I'm only suggesting we almost use a boilerplate qualifier when suggesting formulae for contentment; a "your mileage may vary."

....because if being around friends is good for you mental health but gatherings drive you crazy...

Tuesday, May 21, 2024

My Precious (the Sequel): An iPhone Escape Plan

We're in big trouble, my fellow humanoids. We are leashed. 

Yeah, I'm talking about the phones again. But bear with me. I'm going to do something, myself, that you might find interesting or maybe even helpful. 

Smartphones were best described by a former boss of mine -- the principal of my old school -- who called them: "The electronic leash." A description could not be better. A leash keeps a dog from going where it wants. Sometimes, it chokes him. But maybe the worst part (if I were a dog) would be the constant awareness of it holding me back.

That's where I am with the phone, now. I only have one "fun" app on it: Instagram. I dropped Facebook from it years ago, though I still use Facebook on the computer -- the idea was to limit diversions, but that's basic stuff. Time-wasters are easy to eliminate. But what about just dodging the constant presence of the thing?

How weird is it to have an object that you feel needs to be at your side, literally, at all times? -- to carry it from room to room in your house? -- to panic-search your pockets if you leave home without it? I think we should also consider how obsessively connected to it we are as an element of our life, as if is some functionless medication or a kind of worship. I think the problem is worse than simply an addiction to games and social media.  

An example: my wife and I were watching a TV show called The Knick -- a show run by Steven Soderbergh about a hospital in the early 1900s. Every once in awhile, I'd pick up my phone and look up something. Did they do plastic surgery in 1900? Did they really use cocaine as a painkiller? Did they use silver sutures? Ok -- great. The phone can answer all of those questions and educate me in the process. This is a positive. The problem is, though, that I am being pulled out of the moment of the show. The experience of the evolving characters and story are being interrupted and diminished. See, I am not watching the show to learn about the history of medicine. I'm watching it because I love story and character and theme. 

It steals from life's moments -- whether TV shows, parties, trips -- with the promise of giving me something -- information in this case -- but the trade-off is not worth it. It's similar to the phenomenon of trading a video of a concert for the experience of it. 

The phone (pun intended) stitches together things that ought to be compartmentalized. I can look up that stuff later. I can read a book on the history of modern medicine. I can dive deeply into it instead of skimming the Internet for tidbits of info I will probably soon forget. 

My wife, Karen, used to write a blog and she once wrote about the phone being like Tolkien's Ring. If I remember, she wrote about it kind of light-heartedly because of how cool the phone was. (This was pretty early on in the smartphone era.) In the books, though, the Ring operates by exploiting the tendencies of the wearer and it turns those tendencies to evil. Gandalf, a powerful wizard, is all good. He has even been sent by the Valar (the gods, sort of) to be a protector of the world. But he denies the powerful magic Ring when it is offered to him because he knew he would "use [the] Ring from a desire to do good. But through [him] it would wield a power too great and terrible to imagine." In other words, it would warp his strengths and turn them toward evil. In my hands, for example, the phone is a temptation to my greatest desire: to learn. "Look at all the information!" it whispers, constantly. But, Faust-like, the powers it gives me most often turn to ideleness or even an extended rabbit-hole detatchment from the world of the now. In the hands of a sex-obsessed person? Obvious. In the hands of a sports fan? Constant stat-checking. In the hands of a conspiracy theorist? Confirming biases. The phone really is so much like the Ring, it is frightening. 

The phone is a drain of mental energies; a constant pull. If it is next to me on the arm of the couch, sure, I can ignore a text. But it is there, like a pimple on the brain. It keeps asserting its presence with buzzes and flashes. What I need to do -- what I would argue we all need to do -- is to be able to forget about it from time to time.

A quick note here is that, first of all, one has to escape the games and social media and the notifications. That has to be phase one and I think I have done pretty well with that. Now, onto phase two.

Here's what I am going to do. If you like it, try it. 

When I am at home, I am going to turn my phone volume up and leave the phone on a cabinet in my house's entryway. I'm going to go back in time. If it rings, I will get up to answer it. If I get a text, I will decide whether or not to answer it. I'll be sure to tell my mom and my sister and my sons that if they really need me in an emergency, they should call, because I might not answer texts right away. And if there is something important pending, I can keep the phone with me -- if it is really important. The idea is break the leash and flip things: make the phone heel.

Fact: I never thought about my wall phone when I was a kid unless it rang. It never leashed my attention or stole it from anyone or anything else. I'm not a golden-age thinker. But, our minds are too constantly bombarded with input now. There had to be something better about that. 

Imagine the difference in mindset not so long ago -- even before answering machines. If I was watching TV and the phone rang, I had a choice: answer and miss the show -- you couldn't pause or record it -- or ignore the call and just hope they would call back if it were important. Was that better? I think so. Many times I or a family member would say, "Ah, they'll call back." That, in retrospect, seems like such a divine level of freedom...

We'd never survive it with today's FOMO. But I believe in balance. It can't be good to be tied to the electronic leash. And, if a hot chick is calling for a date, and you don't answer -- man, her number will be right there. The stakes just are not that high. Is it worth carrying the phone burden 24 hours a day?

I'll let you know how it goes.  

Monday, May 20, 2024

Vigilante Excrement: Thoughts on a Taylor Swift Song

Let me not talk about Taylor Swift's body of work, because I don't know much of it. I won't judge her as a whole. If you are a fan, you can tell me if this does or does not apply to the rest of her work.

[The picture is from DePalma's Dressed to Kill. I dunno. Thought it was an ironic connection... Also, finding pics is hard.]

Yesterday, I heard one of her songs in the car: "Vigilanti S---" [click for the lyrics]

One thing I have learned is that my young high school students, especially the ladies, are big fans of Taylor. One senior girl actually wrote her college application essay about how Taylor Swift helped her get through adolescence. So, there is much dedication there. And let's give Taylor credit where credit is due: she helped a kid as I am sure she has helped at least some others. 

At least as far as the song "Vigilante Sh---" goes, however, and considering the way young women feel about Taylor Swift, I'm going to be a little less tolerant of the woman than I have been -- just in this particular instance. 

I used to just think: Meh. She's decent pop music. What's the harm? A lot of people (musicians especially) often say, "At least she and her band actually play on stage." Yeah, ok. But I am of the camp that with fame comes responsibility. (If you think that is bunk, you might want to stop reading -- it's my foundation here.)

Considering how dedicated her fans are, I think she does some damage with her music -- at least with this song. (And if this is indicative of the rest of her lyrics, I'm even less of a fan. I have been told her music is mostly about break ups, etc, so...it may not be an isolated thing.)

My problem with this is that Swift is smart and her lyrics are clever and maybe a fingertip's reach from poetic, at least on this one. She (and I have observed this as a teacher) appeals to smart young women because of this. But, she delivers just enough intelligence to interest them, then she mires them in petty, unhealthy concepts: like revenge; like being hung up on a relationship after is ends instead of moving on. In the end, the concept -- at least, here and in the few songs I have heard -- is a cliché. Cliché inspires mediocrity. In a sense, she holds smart kids back a bit. (I'm not saying Swift is twirling her proverbial moustache and trying to do this...it is just happening.)

Like or hate what I like or hate, I grew up with lyrics like "Living on a lighted stage/Approaches the unreal/for those who think and feel/In touch with some reality beyond the guilded cage." Pretentious? Some think that Neil Peart's lyrics are (though, his response was: "I'm not pretending anything. I'm writing about what I sincerely think." 

Or, consider Billy Joel's lyrics to "She's Always a Woman": "She can lead you to live/She can take you or leave you/She can ask for the truth/But she'll never believe you/And she'll take what you give her as long as it's free/Yeah, she steals like a thief/But she's always a woman to me." If that is what pretention is, I'll take it over "Picture me as thick as thieves with your ex-wife." Billy Joel was pop, and look at the complexity he delivered. He stimulated the young mind, mine included, to look beyond the literal -- to think metaphorically and to see paradoxes in human behavior...IN A LOVE SONG. It can be done. 

The worst thing is, I know Swift can do better than that. But despite the popular bluster about her being kind of an industry crusader and innovator, let's face it, she is primariy concerned with selling records (or, in today's industry, seats at concerts). That's why you write songs like "Vigilante Sh---" (Either that, or that is what you are intellectually limited to, but, as I said, I don't believe that about her anymore than I believe that about Ed Sheeran, who is also not writing to his potential.) 

All of this falls down, of course, if you think popular artists have no obligation to "think of the kids." I think our society has stopped caring about its young people, so I'm probably in the minority. And, if older people are listening, who cares? The song was on my wife's playlist, yesterday, but she gets that this is light pop and she is already a mature woman who is not being influenced by Swift. For Karen, this is sassy fun. But maybe the danger is that songs like Swift's might help produce women in the future who don't see this difference; who think Swift's stance in the song is one of feminine strength, rather than just another of the millions of "you-hurt-me-so-I-am-hurting-you-back" song. 

Swift seems like a good egg. I just see this as I see it and, again, don't think she's being insidious. But it would be cool, if it is true that she writes mostly about breakups and the same old stuff, if she stretched out to show the world (and the kids) what she can really do. Maybe she has and I haven't heard it, but I stand my my reading of "Vigilante Sh---."

Wednesday, May 8, 2024

A Black Boy, in a Black Sea, on a Black Night

"See how elastic our prejudices grow when love comes to bend them." -- from Moby Dick, Herman Melville

I'm going to get posters and T-shirts made that say: SPREAD AWARENESS, NOT PARANOIA. Catchy, eh?

We have already convinced our young people that a moment of sadness is reason for concern -- a reason to seek help and to fear a mental health crisis. As a high school teacher, I see evidence of this every day. 

[Usual disclaimer: Mental health issues are real and people should seek help for them, but crying for days because your dog died is not a mental health crisis; it's a healthy reaction to grief and it is something you should be able recover from in time. Knowing the difference is the key. If you can't recover from it -- or if your sadness is caused by nothing discernable -- then you are having a crisis. In the end: better safe than sorry.]

I think we have made people so "aware" of mental health issues that they are paranoid every time they feel a bit of ennui and every time they don't feel like getting out of bed to go to work. 

We have done this with race, too, I think. When I teach American literature, I usually show the Patrick Stewart Moby Dick film. And, every time I do, my kids lose their proverbial feces every time Starbuck delivers a particular line. 

Pip, the cabin boy, has stowed away on one of the whaling boats and is thrown overboard. They search for him into the night and, after an apparently fruitless search, Starbuck says: "We must be mad, lookin' for a black boy on a black night in a black sea."

At that point, invariably, ripples of shock run through my classroom. When I ask them why they reacted to that line, they usually make some reference to racism. 

Fascinating, isn't it? The facts are these: It is dark on the ocean; the sea appears to be roiling black silk and the boy they are looking for is Black. Therefore, he is hard if not impossible to see. He'd be hard enough to find in broad daylight. A white boy would be hard to find in broad daylight...in the vastness of the ocean. Take away the sun, paint the sea black and add darker skin, and it is a fact: It would be nearly impossible to find poor Pip. 

(They find him, miraculously.)

Racism? I think not. The students' reaction is one of fear -- of being paranoid as to what is okay and what is not okay to say. 

We want our kids to respect each other as humans, regardless of ethnicity, for sure. But have we drawn thicker lines between them with well-inteneded lessons of political correctness? Have our commercials and TV shows -- which paint a world of racial harmony that just does not exist in our society -- led kids to think that any acknowledgement of physical differences amounts to racism? 

I think so. 

Some might argue that if we are going to be paranoid, racism is the thing to be paranoid about. I understand that sentiment, but if it leads to more division, more distance between us, then that reasoning sort of backfires. 

Maybe it's another problem that lies within professing to be "color blind." When one person picks another to marry, I think the understanding is that the significant other is simply the best person one has ever known. This person is so incredible that one has chosen to spend the rest of one's life with him or her. Even under those circumstances, when people of different ethnicities marry (even when they are in the deep fathoms of love and respect) I woudl argue that the two are conscious of their physical differences. The key is that those differences are not part of any evaluative formula. 

Pip, my friends, was a fine lad. He was simply harder to see on a dark ocean than an Irish kid would have been. Nothing in that is prejudiced or racist. It's all about how we literally see color. 

Monday, May 6, 2024

Subtle Immortality

once heard a brilliant homilist, Father Joseph Capella, say that there is a reason we are not called "humans doing" but "human beings." I'm not usually a fan of cutesy philosophical phrases, but this one is pretty profound, when you think about it. Maybe our purpose is to just be, after all. And maybe that is not so unproductive as it sounds. 

We humans tend to equate success with what we do and then we hope that those deeds will last. Percy Shelley made it clear that nothing we do will last. This is what he teaches us in his powerful poem "Ozymandias." 

I mean, the dude was the king of all kings. What do you need to do to be remembered in this world? If you can be the "king of kings" and wind up a pile of hot sand, what can Chris Matarazzo in New Jersey do to get a permanent monument erected to him? 

Who cares? 

Even the monuments are not permanent after a certain amount of time. There is simply nothing we can do, no matter how grand, in terms of social achievements, that will remain "standing" forever.

Pericles, in the philosophical statement above, is onto something: the only immortality we can achieve, in an earthy sense, is what I will call "subtle immortality." And that is sort of guaranteed, really; it's just that we are not aware of this quiet, nearly invisible permanence unless we dig deeply in the our own existences and that is exactly why you come here, right? To pull the rabbit out of the dark and mysterious hat? We will live on in the way we are, either conceptually or genetically, "woven into the lives of others." And that is pretty much it. We will be a thread in the tapestry of human existence, but not a discernable picture. We will be there, if unseen. We will be part of the structure, but we will never get credit.

That's ok, right? Unless you have the ego issue -- which we should all work to move beyond if we are to find true contentment, say centuries of philosophers.

The imperceptible will last. A thousand years from now, there is more likely to be a descendent of mine who rubs the back of his neck exactly the way I do when I think because of genetic connection; or, who will have been infected with a deep need for music, as I have, than there is likely to be a statue to my achievements. Even if I left a statue, it would eventually crumble as Ozymandias's entire kingdom did. But if a descendent puts his elbows on the table after dinner exactly the way I do because of genetics, I live on.

That said, I think Pericles was talking more about in the present; how we affect each other within a lifetime. I still think, though, we can expand that. I tried to teach my sons, for example, to be strong yet gentle men, because that is how I men should behave.

If they pass that down, etc, etc, etc....my effect on forever will be anonymous and tiny but permanent. I will have achieved -- as we all will -- a form of subtle earthly immortality, if more men, a thousand years from now, are gentle and strong than there are today.

(Hat Tip: Michael M for posting the Pericles quotation.)