Saturday, September 29, 2007

Pretty Girls And Rudeness

I don't have anything all that interesting to say about this column (the second letter) by Carolyn Hax, but I'm going to say it anyway.

It's a self-described "friendly guy" who "routinely strike[s] up conversations with random strangers" but "get[s] the rudest responses" from "'attractive'" women. He "find[s] it more humorous than anything else -- as well as an excellent 'don't date me' filter," but nevertheless is writing in to an advice columnist about it. You may have been able to detect, from my use of phrases such as "self-described" and the over-use of quotation marks, that I am not crazy about this guy.

I am not crazy about this guy. I suspect he has a wrong idea of rudeness. I cannot currently find the relevant Miss Manners column, but anybody's obligation to respond to the overtures of strangers is pretty limited. As long as you don't yell or pop the stranger one, you're allowed to respond with a small tense smile, a nod, and an immediate turning away. I can't prove that the letter writer would class that as a rude response, but I have a hunch. Women's intuition, probably.

But let's ignore my gut telling me that this guy is the sort of proto-sexist who tries to enforce a standard of womanly niceness on all of those who fall within the range of people he would fuck. Instead, let's think about the claim that he routinely talks to random strangers.

I don't believe it. I think he talks to strangers that he finds attractive. Not just women he might want to sleep with, but people who are, on some level, appealing to him. Now part of the reason I think he doesn't want to admit that is because it weakens his rhetorical position. If he is talking to people not randomly, but because he finds them appealing, "'attractive'" women maybe should be able to get away with talking to him only if they, in turn, find him attractive.

So there's that. But I think there's more than that preventing him from saying he talks to people un-randomly, but on the basis of some personal choice.

Because I've seen that kind of thing go the other way, too. A year ago I was back up visiting Berkeley and I went to lunch at the place I always go to lunch and somebody had written in the women's bathroom something about how you should talk to strangers because you never know what you might learn. And there was definitely a class of girls up there who loved things like that, who would tell you at great length about the awesome conversation they had with a homeless guy who wrote poetry, or what have you. And it all came flooding back to me reading the graffiti on the wall.

Those girls, I think, really were talking to people randomly. They didn't, I think, really care all that much about whoever's awesome poetry.

And that bothers me too in a lurking kind of way. Best I can put my finger on it is that I generally try to talk to people that seem like people I might like. And in admitting that, I am forced to face the fact that people that I think I might like might not feel the same way about me. I am forced into the embarrassment of admitting that I am talking to someone not because I'm just a friendly person who likes to talk to all sorts of people and not because I'm open-minded, but because I actually think I would enjoy talking to this particular person. And that's why I would want people to talk to me.

We're on a sliding scale here. I'm not asking the people on an unmoving bus or my coworkers to talk to me only to the extent that they think we could become best friends forever. Also, I've been told there's some virtue, some learning opportunities, in talking to people that don't appeal to you right up-front.

But I do think it's weird and maybe bad to go around acting as if you're only talking to people at random, as if there's no actual hope of human connection behind your conversation.

Friday, September 28, 2007

I Want You To Want Some Other Things Too

On Wednesday I wrote about "distributive justice," describing my confusion over the fact that when we come to figure out the fair way to satisfy preferences, we have to count only the preferences people have for things and for themselves (personal preferences) not the preferences they have regarding the preferences of other people (external preferences).

When I said I was confused, I meant it seriously, not as, you know, a polite way of saying an indignant WTF?

What puzzled me was the fact that in an unequal society, it seemed my preferences for, say, the very poor, to have their preferences satisfied ought to somehow count for something.

In the comments, Daniel asked me a good two-part question, and I thought it was worth writing a follow-up to try to answer it.

First, Daniel wanted to know, can't I help satisfy the preferences of these people whose preferences I care about myself? I can just give away my own money, stuff, etc. And second, aren't external preferences being taken into account in distributive justice in, e. g. welfare?

With respect to the second, it's true that many forms of distributive justice involve moving goods from one set of people to another. But usually this redistribution is not justified by an appeal to external preferences, raising the question, what does justify it?

This takes me back to the first question. Imagine instead of two cake-loving people, there's three of us, there's some bags of corn, and winter is coming. A perfectly implausible, doomsday-scenario philosophy example, but whatever.

Imagine A has lots of corn. B has just enough. C has almost none. Suppose 10 bags become available.

Imagine B has a lot of external preferences -- B is just a naturally empathetic person. Imagine A is not -- A doesn't care much about others at all.

Sure, we could count only external preferences. Everyone wants as much corn as possible. Suppose (for the moment) that everyone gets some of the new corn, but that it's not really enough for C to live get by comfortably.

Then B could share his share of the corn with C. Or B can suffer watching C struggle to get by. A will be happy. Asking B to share his own, and asking him to suffer, both seem somehow less-than-fully fair. B seems to be made worse off by the fact that he has this external preference at all. Which is funny, 'cause like I said, we tend to think caring about others is admirable, or good, or something.

If you think about a world of highly empathetic people and a world of not-very-empathetic people, it seems that if there's no place for external preferences in preference-satisfaction schemes, the empathetic people will generally be worse off for their external preferences: either they have to share more of their own goods than the non-empathetic people, or they have to suffer from having their external preferences unsatisfied.

If that's right, it seems raising your kids to be non-empathetic would be the thing to do. But that seems crazy.

Maybe we'd want to say that the various redistributing schemes would take care of this problem -- that this is why we have, e. g. welfare. Maybe we'd want to say that in most real-life distribution schemes, A does get less of the 10 new bags; C does get most of them. A is usually even forced to give some corn to C.

Maybe. But given that there is such a wide range of beliefs and attitudes about how much A must be shortcut here, or whether he must give some corn to C and how much, you start to wonder, what justifies distribution schemes involving forced sharing? And how much sharing is required?

I'm not sure. And I'm puzzled by the fact that the external preferences of empathetic people aren't part of this story. Because it seems that under any system except under the most extreme egalitarianism, those with empathetic external preferences will be worse off in the ways I've described. And I'm not an extreme egalitarian. So I'm in a quandary.

For some reason, whenever I think about empathetic people, I am always reminded of the great 18th-century philosopher David Hume. Hume thought people were naturally quite empathetic. In his sunnily optimistic way, Hume just assumed everyone had lots of external preferences for the good of every one else. "Would any man, who is walking along," he asked, "tread as willingly on another's gouty toes, whom he has no quarrel with, as on the hard flint and pavement?" (from his Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals). No one, he thought, could be so callous, so self-absorbed, so cruel.

The sunnily optimistic, always delightful, David Hume.

Well. Indeed, if everyone has equal external preferences for the good of others -- if everyone wants the good of everyone else (as Hume suggested) -- then my puzzles go away. I would love for this to be true, but I believe that it is not.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

I Want You To Want Me

One of the main things about humans is that a lot of the stuff they want has to do with the desires of other people.

I want to be able to eat, but I want everybody else to be able to eat, too. I want my friends to be happy. I want birthday cake, but it's no fun having it alone: I want you to have some too.

Now, when people judge what is right, or fair, or just, or good, with respect to distributing the good things in the world, they often think in terms of satisfying simple desires or preferences.

The distributive justice of cats? (UPDATE: oh yeah, it's probably more like this.) Photo by Flickr user mvplante, here. (Used under Creative Commons license.)

Utilitarians, in their generous, inclusive way, think in terms of totals: the thing to do is the thing that maximizes such satisfaction. Just add it up for everyone. Usually this means a lot of *sharing*.

Contractarians, in their love of individual freedoms and self-direction, think in terms of rational exchanges. We're both better off if we cooperate, so sometimes it will be in my best interest to give up something in exchange for something else. Usually this means a lot of *I get to keep what is mine.*

Rawlsian contractualists, in their moderate way, think in terms of blind justice. Imagine you don't know who in society you will be, and consider how much inquality of preference-satisfaction you would put up with. Usually this means *You share some, you keep some.*

All different systems. But they're all based on different interpretations of the idea that it makes sense, generally, to arrange the world so that people get the things they want; sometimes this means moving things around; the question is how we think about that.

They also usually share one other striking thing. Namely, that when counting preferences, we only count a person's "personal preferences" -- that is, preferences for what one does or gets, and not one's "external preferences" -- that is, preferences about what other people do or get.

I only recently understood the reasoning behind this. The problem is "double-counting" of preferences. As David Gauthier explains, if I prefer that we each have an equal amount of cake, because we both like it, and if you just want as much cake for yourself as possible, then factoring in all preferences seems to lead -- on any of the views above -- to the conclusion that the right, fair distribution for us is for you to get three-quarters of the cake. But that seems wrong.

The solution is to consider only personal preferences: I like cake; you like cake; we each get half. It doesn't matter whether I want you to have some cake too.

This is highly intuitive in the case where we each end up with half the cake.

I start getting confused, though, when I think about cases in which the outcomes support inequality -- especially continued inequality.

I live in a city with homeless people. They don't want to be homeless. I also don't want them to be homeless. I have a strong external preference for them to be able to satisfy their preferences for a place of their own. Their unhappiness makes me unhappy.

It seems strange to me that this preference of mine plays no role when it comes time to figure out the proper distribution of goods, or the just way of organizing society.

It seems extra strange when you think that our general preference for the happiness of others is one of our better qualities, as humans. One of our more admirable, morally sensitive ways of being. What, this counts for nothing?

I want to say, "You know, it would be better all around if you wanted me to have cake, too." You know. Just saying.

Obvs, my preference for you to want me to want to have cake, too, doesn't get counted. That would be, like, double- or triple- or two-and-a-half-counting or something something . . . I was never any good at arithmetic. Wanting, though, I am an *expert* at: personal preferences, external preferences, you name it.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Me And My Neurotic Desires

This post of Noko Marie's made me think about it. Also this discussion.

There are certain categories of things I want, or want to avoid, that I can't really explain or justify. One time I took this weekend trip on a whim and I wanted to stay in this one hotel that was really far away from everything I wanted to see and it was impossible to get to and I found myself walking on one of those bridges across a freeway in the pouring rain and when I got to the hotel room I had broken out in welts. (Anybody want to see the poison oak picture again?) From the rain and the cold and probably a little bit the stress. And then they told me there were no smoking rooms and the bathtub was broken and I felt like a moron.

Now that I'm a non-smoker the lack of smoking rooms wouldn't be an issue, of course.

But anyway, I think about that. Because I couldn't come up with any real basis for wanting to stay at that particular hotel. Or for not checking in advance whether they had smoking rooms. Or for not finding a better way to get there that wouldn't involve freeway overpasses.

I wanted to stay there though. That was what I wanted it, and once I wanted it I wanted to see my desire, however petty and inexplicable, satisfied.

I have a friend who tells me sometimes that I shouldn't give in to my desire to avoid driving -- he says that the only way to deal with neurotic desires is to fight them. And I do have this very vivid mental image of myself giving way to all my counter-productive impulses and becoming a complete wreck. Like how my other friend was telling me that if you cut a one square foot hole in the top of a barn it would be completely destroyed by nature within a year. That's what I imagine happening.

All I can say it hasn't happened yet. And that I'm not sure how many of my desires, however, plausible seeming, would stand up to some kind of neurotic vs. non analysis, if you really started thinking about it. Especially because defining a desire as neurotic seems to imply that it's less real than other desires, that it doesn't count as much.

I'm operating on the assumption that all desires are not created equal here -- after all, I'm trying not to smoke. But I don't have a goddamn clue exactly how the calculus of which wants to pursue should be conducted or even whether it really exists.

Quick Thoughts On An Autumn Morning

Photo by Flickr user withrow, here. (Licensed for shared use under Creative Commons.)

It's unseasonably warm and unseasonably beautiful today here in the Great Lakes region of Canada. We're all in a bit of a dream-like stupor about it. How could these sun-dappled fields become covered in snow and ice? It seems impossible.

They're building a new building about 20 feet from my office. So there are worker guys, there's a truly enormous crane, there's cement being poured. Watching them work in the sunshine, it seems so awesome and enviable. Outside on a beautiful day! Making something! Working together! Physical labor followed by a relaxing lunch!

These are all the things my job as a professor doesn't have. Or doesn't have enough of. As we all know, in the university, there's a lot of arguing, a lot of in-fighting over distribution of resources, a lot of criticism in every direction. Disaffected students.

A lot of teachers will say, "But I love teaching!" The truth is, I don't really love teaching. To do a really good job at it requires effort and caring, work in preparation but even more work in the classroom -- trying not to be boring, trying to see whether people are lost, trying to respond kindly and encouragingly to answers that are off-the-wall without other students getting confused. If that effort and caring happens in front of students who are surfing the web or just completely absorbed in something else, it's depressing.

But the time-warn cliche that I am happy to sign on too is, I really like students, and I love being around them. They're so full of energy. I love it. If it's not always energy for their studies, well, I can't blame them for that; I wasn't "good at" school at that age either.

They are so interested in one another, so obsessive about the things they are obessive about, so looking forward to the next big thing.

It's The Life Force, all around you, 24-7. Hooray for The Life Force! Happy Autumn!

Sunday, September 23, 2007

J. S. Mill Sez: Fly That Freak Flag, And Rock On

Photo by Kirk Carter. (use licensed under Creative Commons).

They say when you have a hammer everything looks like a nail. Well, I've got a new hammer.

I have written before about my general approval, but occasional ambivalence, over the freedom-obsessed, free-choice-loving ways of early 21st century North America.

It's the kind of thing that when it's great, it's great, and when it's not, well, you know.

My hammer has three parts. The first part is freedom. The kind of freedom we tend to value around here is that described by the 19th-century philosopher J. S. Mill. In his eloquent and simple way, Mill said,

"The only freedom which deserves the name is that of pursuing our own good in our own way, so long as we do not attempt to deprive others of theirs, or impede their efforts to obtain it." (From On Liberty).

That is: You get to do whatever the hell you want, until you get in someone else's way.

The second part is what is sometimes called the "adaptivity of preferences". When people make choices, they make them under particular circumstances, under particular pressures, with a limited range of options. And these factors can't help but influence our choices.

In "sour grapes" cases, we may come not to want what we cannot have. A woman whose culture does not allow her to work may say she "prefers" to stay at home anyway.

In less extreme cases, our choices are just highly influenced. A career-oriented woman who is under great family pressure not to work may decide that she wants to stay home. A teenager might go on a crash diet to fit in at school. An otherwise health-minded man who is surrounded by other men with super-large muscles may start taking steroids.

These choices are adaptive to circumstances, and in that sense, are not quite freely made in Mill's sense: they do not reflect a person's pursuing his or her own good in his or her own way.

The fact that choices can be adaptive is sometimes thought to justify curtailing Millian liberty in practice. Such liberty, some might say, need not, or even should not, protect the choices of a woman who "chooses" to pose, say, for pornographic photographs, if her choice is only made in response to a debased, anti-feminist culture. Rather, we should change our cultural surroundings so she would not so choose.

But pursuing such a line means distinguishing "true" preferences from adaptive ones in a fairly precise way. There's always a danger we'll get it wrong; there's always the possibility that what we're really getting into here is a kind of paternalism. I know what's best for you, honey, just trust me.

Even the air of paternalism sucks.

But we needn't take the curtailing line. Because there's another way to fit this all together.

The third part of my hammer is "opting out." Intuitively, there is an imperfect but close but relationship between our making a choice freely and the costs associated with opting out of the relevant activity. The higher the cost of opting out, the less likely a choice is to be free, and the lower the cost of opting out, the more likely. If it's really really hard to say "No," you're not really free when you say "Yes."

It's like braces for teeth. Before braces were widely available, crooked teeth were common and it was no big deal. Now that everyone gets their teeth fixed, a person with a bad overbite looks odd. The pressure to give your kid braces is enormous.

So here's the idea. The more people opt for X, the higher the cost of any individual opting out of X; so great participation in X reduces the likelihood that anyone can make a "free choice" to do X.

The more common some practice is, the more it is expected that one will engage in it, and the more likely one will be deemed a weirdo for not participating; thus the higher costs.

This means that exercising your freedom to do things may reduce the freedom of others. If enough other people are doing the same things.

This, in itself, violates the Millian principle, since you are infringing on another's liberty. So you may, in some vague sense, have a moral obligation not to do things if you think creating adaptive preferences for them would be bad. A kind of "cultural obligation."

I'm going to save the hammering and so on for another post. But here's a teaser. My hammer can be used to explain the sense a lot of people have that even though it's "your free choice" to get, say, liposuction, a world in which everyone who could possible afford it got liposuction would suck. Because, you know, one of the possible "side effects" is death. So you wouldn't want to feel pressured into anything.

This mean you don't have to have to believe in the general stupidity of liposuction, or even be against it at all, to say coherently why getting it is maybe bad. You don't have to be against fashion to worry that, hey, when you're expected not to go out of the house without getting your brows waxed, there's something fucked up about that.

Oddly, some of these cultural obligations might just be to be different: to stymie the world's attempts at establishing a status quo, so that more choices can be freely made.

Mill didn't think in terms of "adaptive preferences," but he was very aware of the tyranny of majorities and the necessity of diverse ways of life. Think of him next time you're not sure whether to fly your freak flag, and rock on.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Subject Vs. Object

I was thinking about the Gorbachev ad for Louis Vuitton, and I kept thinking that one of the things that would suck me, at least, into doing such an ad, were I a well-respected former world leader, at the very least a footnote for all time, would be the thrill of having a really amazing photo taken of myself.

I like looking at photos of people I know, especially photos taken when they were small and young and different looking than they are now. I like looking at photographs of myself. They're different kinds of exercises.

I know what the people I know look like from the outside. You look at the photo and you can tell whether it's characteristic or not, good or bad. Sometimes the photo shows the person in a new light, which is pretty gripping -- you try to integrate that with what you know of the person, make it three dimensional. Sometimes they are photos of the person much earlier; that's got that quality of mystery to it. Sometimes the photos feature them with people you don't know. That can be interesting, if you have been curious about the people, or if the photos themselves seem kind of allusive. It can also be a little dull, if you don't care about the other people at all.

It's more embarrassing to be all into photos of yourself. But I can't help it. Photos of me promise to tell me something I have no idea about: how the hell I look from the outside. They turn a cold eye on me. I guess there's the mirror, but you only go to the mirror at certain times, in certain moods. You can adjust immediately to the mirror, change your expression. You've been broke to the mirror.

(I am tempted at this point to insert a photo someone once sent me of himself flexing into the mirror. That would be bad.)

Photos of yourself offer the possibility of momentary escape from being the subject of the story -- there you are, just an object like everybody else. There's a trip I remember as being kind of over-emotional -- lots of crying and upsetness and what-do-we-do-now. But when you turn to the photo record, we look happy and amiable, delighted with this travel phenomenon. The photo takes the narrative authority from you -- tells you what the truth of the matter really is.

Or, if not the truth, like Gorbachev's cold war reenactment, at least what the truth could, conceivably, be. If you're lucky, you come off better than you thought.

Friday, September 21, 2007

It's Lunch At Lutece Or Nothing, Baby

I don't usually read the sports news. But the great thing about reading The Times online is that you see things you might not see in the print edition.

Right on today's online front page there's a featured story illustrated by a photo of an older, very buff woman. I'm like, "What's up with that"? So I click.

The headline is

At 51, Establishing a New Body of Work

And the story is about Eva Birath, a Swedish woman who got laid off from a good job and decided to change her life. She rediscovered her love of painting. And she became a competitive body-builder.

I'm a sucker for stories like this, probably because of my ongoing fear of growing older. I love knowing that at pretty much any point in time, you can just up and change what you're doing, do something else, start a new series of life projects.

Eva sounds really happy.

In this the story bears a close resemblance to another recent Times feature, "Life Changes, With a Latte to Go." Here, a guy with a good job gets laid off, gets a brain tumor, starts working for Starbucks for the health insurance, downsizes his life, and lives happily ever after.

In both cases, The Times emphasizes the money aspect: isn't it amazing that a person can go from making lots of money to making a little money and actually be happier? I don't blame them for taking this angle: it's probably what Times readers are thinking. I think it too.

But both stories also contained a strange, sad detail: The bodybuilder and Mr. Latte say that when they changed their lives, they changed their circle of friends.

Mr. Latte just says he stopped hanging around with the same people, and now spends a lot of time listening to classical music. The bodybuilder says, "You know how you have those circle of people who are your friends? Suddenly, I wasn't invited to those parties anymore. I think they thought I was strange, but I don't care."

I know people hang out with people they have things in common with and all, but still, it seems sad. It's consistent, though, with recent findings that people are closer with family now and less close with friends. A 2006 study at Duke showed "Americans' circle of confidants has decreased dramatically in the past two decades." I guess a circle of friends is now more like to be a circle of co-workers or co-squash players or something. Once you don't lunch at the same place, you can't really be friends any more.

While you're raising a toast to Ms. Birath and Mr. Gill, don't forget to raise a glass to The Times, for dismantling its paywall. No more Times Select! Archives for everyone! Hooray!

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Genetic Tests Offer Knowledge, Not Wisdom

It was a few years ago, and the blood test for herpes had just come out. I was all excited. I am normally a champion sleeper, but every now and then I get anxious and find myself up and petrified at 2 a.m., stranded in an unsafe and frightening world. One thing that occupies my mind during those times is the fear that I've unwittingly passed on STDs. It seems like such a crummy thing to do.

So at my annual check-up I tell the doctor that I'd like to be tested. He talks me out of it. He says, "Look, you're in a relationship, there's nothing really to be done about it, so many people have this, better just to leave it alone."

I went along, more being a passive moron than out of any conviction by his arguments.

The title of this post is the front page headline for this Los Angeles Time story this morning.

The second paragraph in (almost) its entirety: "One-quarter of fetuses found to have Gaucher disease were aborted over an eight-year period, even though half of all children with the metabolic disorder will never experience any symptoms . . . The rest can lead normal lives with treatment."

Eugenics is, obviously, creepy, but I will note that in the twenty third paragraph we learn that four abortions out of sixteen pregnancies made up that one-quarter figure.

So one of the responses to this is that testing shouldn't happen, or, from the L.A.Times's paraphrase of one doctor's response, "given the ambiguity inherent in some genetic tests, they should not be given for diseases that are imminently [sic?] treatable."

It strikes me as such a funny message, and one that only really gets put forward in the medical and national security contexts: You can't be trusted with this information. It, in fact, says nothing good about you that you want this information. You, given this information, will go buck-wild.

If I'd Wanted A Shallow Misogynistic Culture, I'd Have . . . Oh, Wait, Nevermind

It's, like, one of the core principles of American civilization: people should be allowed to make free choices based on their own self-interest, pleasure, and preference.

So far I'd say this is working out Medium-OK. Not great, but not awful.

I sometimes worry that we're only saved from awful by a kind of lingering shadow of some less freedom-obsessed culture. I hope not, because I love freedom-obsessed culture. I mean, I love it. Nobody loves it more than I do. But sometimes when it gets on a roll, you can get a little worried.

I had a little frisson of worry, as Captain Colossal did, with those crazy Tom Ford ads. OK, I know, sex in advertising, it's a free country, but still. Perfume bottles in naked women's pussies? The Boing-Boing post about this noted the similarity to an ad for Vulva perfume, which no one seems to know for sure whether it's a joke or serious.

In last month's GQ, and in a new book he has out -- The Braindead Megaphone -- George Saunders gets a little worried too. He's worried that "our cultural discourse is being dumbed down by mass-media prose" -- prose that is written quickly, ill-thought out, and, well, stupid.

Ironically, I got that quote from the blog that Saunder has going on Amazon. OK, I'm exaggerating; he's only posted twice. And he's aware, very aware, of the irony.

In the GQ piece, he is bitter and angry about TV news, about how dumb it is. Reading along, I kept waiting for the expected money-shot: a moral imperative, please, readers, please, don't watch TV news, don't read crap, use your minds, for heaven's sake!

It never came. Or, at least, I didn't notice if it did. It almost seemed like the plea to the individual was passe, boring, impossible. The plea could only be expressed as a rant of unhappiness about what we've ended up with.

Is it not even relevant anymore to ask people to reflect and change what they do? Jezebel yesterday had a post summing up all the ways TV critics and other media types have been justifying their deep desire to watch TMZ TV. Jezebel even came up with one of their own: it's better than watching Tucker Carlson on MSNBC!

As it happens, the exchange they quoted from Tucker Carlson's show to prove their point had Tucker railing against state-sponsored health care on grounds that if he wanted to make a free choice based on his own self-interest and pleasure not to have health insurance, by God, that was his fundamental right!

It's going to be a long century.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Borders/Barnes & Noble

This is a post about how I love Borders and Barnes & Noble.

I have not always been comfortable with that love. I have friends who feel very strongly about the importance of the independent bookstore. They command the facts much better than I do. I know nothing about economics or community-building or the dangers of massive media control. Let us assume, for purposes of this post, that big chain bookstores will destroy the world. I still love them.

I grew up in an era where B. Dalton and Waldenbooks were kings of the mall. I suspect that, undying distinguisher between things that I am, I had a favorite. Probably B. Dalton. The name seems vaguely sunnier; I remember the lettering as orange. These things make a difference.

It doesn't matter. They both sucked. They were small and cramped and had almost nothing that you would actually want to read. And they wouldn't let you read the books there.

There were also independent bookstores. I was lucky enough to grow up next to a pretty good independent bookstore. But I am here to remind you all that there were a lot of really and truly shitty independent bookstores out there. Bookstores where they hated to see you even open the books, bookstores which stocked the complete works of Robertson Davies and pretty much nothing else, bookstores which deeply resented the presence of children. You know the bookstores I'm talking about; it's all coming back to you now.

Those bookstores are no good for me. I never go to a bookstore knowing what I want to read. I go to a bookstore in a certain mood and I look for something that will satisfy my mood. More often a blend of books that holds the promise of satisfying my mood. A cocktail of books. This can take me several hours, especially since I often use the time to catch up on the endings of the major works of recently published modern fiction.

All this can, sort of, be accomplished at the library. But the library is usually not open until midnight. Also, and this is perhaps a little pathetic, sometimes you want the books to be fresh and new. Because in a dingy and beat-up world new books make my heart a little lighter.

There are, in fact, some independent bookstores that are as good or better for these purposes than the relevant chains. Elliot Bay Book Co. in Seattle, Cody's in Berkeley, Book Soup in West Hollywood, etc. Sometimes, for that matter, you want an independent bookstore: for particular books, for particular kinds of books, for your mood. Sometimes you want that cutting-edge or cheerfully communal or vaguely sneering feeling. Sometimes you want the fun Russian roulette effect of the used bookstore, where you have no idea what's in stock. When I was in New York I lived next to the Last Word bookstore and went there every day on my way home from class. (This may suggest that my impassioned defense of Borders has more to do with its proximity to my apartment than anything else.)

A quick note about the Last Word: not only a prince among used bookstores but home to an exceptionally beautiful employee. He would ask me for a cigarette and I would feel honored, honestly. One day I was in there and he was talking to a friend/customer about his recent breakup and he said, "Yeah, it wasn't going to work out. She wanted to start a family and I wanted to start a revolution."

I really love my local Borders. It makes me happy that it's there, that it's open so late, that it has such an infinite number of books and so many little tables marked "Great Reads" and "Paperback Classics."

A friend pointed out that he actually makes a distinction between Borders and B&N; I can no longer remember which he preferred. I'm all for Borders, for the same reasons I think I preferred B. Dalton so long ago.

This post was inspired by this post by Mr. Secretary.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Marilyn Manson Lives In My Neighborhood

I don't actually know where Marilyn Manson lives.

But I was at Borders the other night buying The Long Hard Road Out of Hell by Marilyn Manson and Neil Strauss. I was buying it not because of any profound love for the music of Marilyn Manson, but because I've been going through a mini-phase of reading rock bios. I like rock bios like I like riding the bus. You learn that people out there are leading these lives that are unimaginably different from yours and it expands your sense of possibility which is nice when the world starts to get a little claustrophobic.

Anyway, I'm buying this book, along with some other books, and the Borders clerk said, "One of my customers was just talking about him." I said "Oh, really?" He said yeah, that this customer claimed to have seen Marilyn Manson at the Arclight Cinema (where, according to the website, movie lovers belong). And I laugh, because although US magazine tells me every week that Stars Are Just Like Us, I still find it funny to imagine Marilyn Manson at the Arclight Cinemas, buying his $8 coffee and maybe some of that tasty caramel corn.

And then the clerk says that the guy was a tourist and maybe just confused one of the standard issue Hollywood types for Marilyn Manson. I said maybe.

Gorbachev is appearing in Louis Vuitton ads these days. The new Tom Ford perfume ads are, at least to my eye, genuinely shocking. (It is a measure of my shock that the previous link was not to the pictures. Link via Jezebel .)

All of this has a strange apocalyptic feel to it. Marilyn Manson hangs out at the movie theater near my house. Or maybe the people who hang out at the movie theater near my house are identical to Marilyn Manson when seen by the naked eye. Former Communist leaders advertise luxury luggage by adopting fake spy poses. And people are using sex to sell things.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

The Things We Want -- We Want Them

In his popular book Stumbling On Happiness, Dan Gilbert argues that we're pretty bad at predicting how happy and unhappy things are going to make us.

He makes a persuasive case. You might have thought losing your job, or a limb, or going to jail would make you really unhappy, but you'd be overstating the case. After a little time of adjustment, most people go back to being about as happy as they were before these things happened to them.

Conversely, you might have thought winning the lottery or finally hooking up with those Brazilian twins might make you really happy, but you'd be overstating the case there, too.

Interestingly, most people expect to regret action more than inaction, and so take a sort of cautious approach to things. But in fact, people are much more likely to regret inaction (p. 179).

OK. What are we supposed to do with this information?

Here Gilbert gets a little vague. If you want to know how happy or unhappy something will make you, you're more likely to get an accurate answer if you ask someone who has been through a comparable experience than if you just try to project yourself into the future.

But then what? In the beginning of the book, Gilbert makes a case for happiness as the main goal of human life. He implies that not only do we seek happiness above all else, we can't help but do so. To those who say we ought to seek something else, say virtue, Gilbert says the proposal must be that virtue will make us happy, and then happiness is revealed to have been the true goal all along (p. 36).

If you put these ideas together, you get a really surprising and weird set of conclusions, though Gilbert never draws them. What you get is: if you desparately want to keep your job, or your limbs, or not go to jail, well, you're making a kind of mistake. You probably shouldn't worry about these things so much.

Don't worry about marrying the man of your dreams, or about staying healthy. And don't worry about having children either -- people with children tend to be less happy too, at least while the kids are small.

These conclusions make no sense to me. The things we want -- we want them. Not just because we expect them to make us happy, but because wanting is a kind of elemental human activity.

And if we desperately want, say, our loved ones to stay alive, I can't help but feel that we are right to do so. Even if their deaths would, in the long run, not make us much less happy.

Our desperate desires for the continued existence of the people we love, for our own health and security, for our freedom, maybe for children, are good, because these things are worth wanting. If they don't make us happy, the problem seems rather to be with happiness than with wanting.

So I couldn't help but read the whole book as a kind of reductio of the initial premise that the main goal in life must be happiness.

What are the alternatives? Gilbert is a little snippy about philosophers, who he things have muddled the happiness-concept waters. "For two thousand years," he writes, "philosophers have felt compelled to identify happiness with virtue because that is the sort of happiness they thing we ought to want" (p. 36).

This isn't right: almost no philosophers identify happiness with virtue. But they have been going on about wanting and happiness for centuries. It seems to me what they've been trying to do is to figure out whether there's anything interesting to say about the difference between what we do want and what we ought to want. And what it might be.

Gilbert writes as if what we want is happiness, but his examples seem to show that this is false. What we want are new cars, clothes, love, sex, health, and so on and so on, regardless of whether these things make us happy.

So maybe what he means is that we ought to want what makes us happy. To me, the examples seem to show this is false as well: of course we ought to want love, and the health and freedom of ourselves and those around us, whether or not it makes us happy.

I'm inclined to say these reflections show that when you're trying to figure out what you ought to want, reflections on desires are going to be a better starting point than reflections on happiness.

If this is right, the practical advice to trust the happiness judgments of others is misguided.

If you're going to be asking advice, ask what others judge worth wanting, not what makes them happy. The answers will probably be love, health, family, friends, and fun. Maybe sex with Brazilian twins. All the things that Gilbert says won't really make us much happier.

But who cares? They're worth wanting all the same.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Power, Glory

It's goddamn weird, getting old. Maybe you, maybe your friends, start becoming respectable citizens, vested with authority and power. You become, to whatever limited extent, bosses, charged with the judging of others.

This made me think of this just now.

Most of the people I like talk a lot of trash. Are prepared to exercise judgment on the question of lime green leggings, too-short skirts, general capacity to irritate.

Now a bunch of them are trash-talkers with power. If they see somebody doing a crummy job they have the option of doing something about it. Depending on your attitude towards organizational loyalty, you could argue that they have the obligation to do something about it. Bad apples rotting the barrel, loose nails losing battles, whatever.

It's not a bad thing. They're not exercising that power on the basis of lime green leggings. Somebody has to be the decider.

It gives me vertigo. It makes me queasy. Some of that's my own childishness and irresponsibility. Some of that's my utopian dream of a world in which we're all naturally good and nobody is given any power at all over anybody else and all decisions are made by consensus. But there's something about the act of exercising power that freaks me out too.

When I have power, I don't just use it. I don't say, "Look, I have this power over you. I want you to do this for me and I will exercise my power to the degree I can to make it happen."

No. I think, "Want what I want. I should not have to exercise my power to make this happen. It is a sign of lack of grace in you that you don't understand that."

Which strikes me as grotesque.

I don't know.

Friday, September 14, 2007

Moralism, Nihilism, Whatever.

I just read the Bret Easton Ellis book The Informers. It's pretty good, not, it seems to me, one of his best, but I like some of the other ones a lot. Like his other books, it presents a dark sort of picture of the world we're living in.

It was written in 1994, but I'm just getting around to reading it now, in the middle of a mini-obsession with Ellis. This started when I read Lunar Park last summer and felt inexplicably connected to the narrator (as I mentioned in my previous post, Dear X: U R My Favrite Riter).

As the Wikipedia page on Ellis says concisely and correctly, "He has called himself a moralist, although he has often been pegged as a nihilist. His characters are young, generally vacuous people, who are aware of their depravity but choose to enjoy it."

I see how Ellis might think of himself as a moralist: he is depicting what is obviously a fucked-up world, and saying how fucked-up it is.

But it's easy to see, too, why some readers aren't quite buying it, and insist on calling him a nihilist. Yes, the characters "choose to enjoy it." But it seems that the author chooses for the reader to enjoy it, too. The author himself seems to be enjoying it, kind of a lot.

The descriptions of violence, of drug-induced euphorias, of sexual cravings, of empty-minded sexual satisfactions are lovingly rendered and seductive. They're exciting, and written so intimately they make you feel you're right there feeling the same things.

It seems readers are enoying it. It would be hard to believe that these books are so popular in spite of the lovingly-rendered violence and depravity rather than because of it. And of course, Ellis is most popular not with moralizers but with those skating on the edge of the very world he describes.

I must confess: I kind of love it. Even as I'm appreciating the moralizing. I'm having just the reaction I figure is intended.

Even granting the seriousness of the moralizing, ambiguity like this is common: some art experience meant to comment critically on X presents X in such a way as to suck us into a kind of involvement. We wallow in it even as we appreciate the commentary. We're complicitous.

There are obvious reasons to worry that there's something bad about this, especially in straightforward cases like violence or cruelty. Feeding even a minimal appetite for these things seems wrong. Some readers may have more than a minimal appetite, which may be awakened and encouraged. Popularity lends a kind of legitimacy to what is depicted. And, as is often suggested (and was suggested in the digital-unicorn-rape discussion), there's always the possibility that participating in various pleasures in the imagination will make one more likely to participate in them for real.

But this isn't the whole story, and I think there are reasons to tolerate and even encourage such ambiguous artisitic experience.

First, people are really really easily bored. Pretty much all serious thinking has to be dressed up for excitement in some way if more than ten people are going to participate.

Second, people do have mixed impulses, and part of why we love art is for the way it reveals us to ourselves. Expressing and encountering dangerous aspects of human nature in literature is a way of domesticating it, bringing it into the realm of things we think and talk about rather than the dark realm of impulses no one ever acknowledges.

But mostly, in the literature case, depravity in a novel clearly need not function to represent depravity in real life in any literal way. It can mean anything. It can be better than literal representation. Let me explain.

In an August 5th New York Times interview (now behind the pay wall, damn!), the novelist Mary Gordon says of the current literary scene, "I think coldness is chic among writers, and particularly ironic coldness. What is absolutely not allowable is sadness. People will do anything rather than acknowledge that they are sad."

She may be right that more sadness in novels would be somehow better. But personally, I can hardly bear to read a sad novel. It's not about acknowledging; sad books just make me too fucking sad.

One time I read a George Eliot novel, I think it was The Mill on the Floss, and I felt like killing myself.

For people like me, anger, vitriol, even cruelty, can be ways of engaging with the dark unhappy parts of life without being overwhelmed with sadness. And if a book is funny, this is especially true. You can experience what is scary, horrible, depressing, and feel angry, outraged, puzzled, amused, and generally life-affirmed, rather than life-defeated.

I actually felt totally life-affirmed reading Lunar Park, even though it's an absurdly bleak portrait of modern life. Even at the time, I thought, "how strange." But it has something to do with what I have described here: the presentation of what is awful in a seductive and complex way.

Maybe. Or maybe I'm just an unusually fucked-up person.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Malcolm Gladwell Can Go Jump In A Lake

It is morning here in Los Angeles. An elderly man just walked through the complex sticking fliers in everyone's door and muttering slightly to himself. My neighbor walked by with a dog. It's a noisy dog, and she was trying to shhh it. It seemed, surprisingly, to work.

Noko Marie's post got me started thinking about the eighties and nineties, and now I can't seem to stop. I'm thinking, a little dreamily, about my first pair of Doc Martens.

It was the winter of eighth or ninth grade. I can't remember which; it actually makes a big difference in terms of whether I was slightly ahead of the times or slightly behind. There can't have been too much of a difference either way. I know this,because they were still very difficult to find.

I can't remember how I decided I needed Doc Martens. It was just one of those things, one of the essential mysteries of life, why, one morning, something just looks right.

I wasn't a punk kid; I wasn't cool. But one morning I woke up and knew those were the right shoes to have.

I was talking about that moment, the Doc Martens moment, with a friend and she pointed out that Doc Martens were expensive. That didn't stop it; she had experienced it too. All around the country, thirteen and fourteen year olds were waking up and saying they needed Doc Martens.

There were two pieces: the money, and then finding the actual shoes. And let's remember it was the very early nineties. The internet didn't exist. Or it did, but only for rocket scientists who probably already had or didn't want a pair of Docs. No, I went to every shoe store around. I wasn't in L.A. when I engaged in this exercise; I was on the east coast and it was winter and I sucked my near ones and dear ones into this hunt.

There's something fun about it; every collector knows that. You go into a store and you look around and you don't find what you want and you ask the sales clerk if they know anyplace else that might have it and you go there and you repeat. You get closer and closer.

I found them at a little punk store in Hamilton, Ontario. It was my first time in a punk store and I was terrified. I had to draw the attention of the sales clerk who could tell in a flash that I was a) poor and b) not really cool enough to be there. But I did, and then I went back with my dad, and although I had thought I wanted the cherry pair I wound up buying the black ten hole kind.

So I wore them around and got blisters on my heels and bled all over the inside of the shoes and they got salt damaged and didn't really make anything different or better and I stopped wearing them at some point. Only to take them up again when I was in college and wear that same pair every day for like a year.

Look, I'm sure Malcolm Gladwell could come up with some elaborate diagnosis of what made those shoes look so right to me, and everyone else, at that moment. It still has this kind of mysterious quality to it; I start imagining myself as this more or less accurate radio set, picking up emanations from the ether.

Also I think there's a lesson here about the importance of high quality footwear.

Back here at morning in Los Angeles one of the shirtless musicians across the courtyard strolls out, wearing tight red pants. A wave of music with him.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Why Should You Feel Bad?

I was in fifth or sixth grade and I had this girl over to my house. She was blonde with a perm and her parents were Christian and ran a bookstore.

I didn't really have any friends in elementary school; kids generally accept invitations even if they don't like you. I think it's a curiosity thing. I don't know for sure.

So I asked her why I didn't have any friends -- what I was doing wrong. We're running around my backyard; it's been a pretty good time, actually. She says, "I don't know. You seem all right to me."

It's a while later, months, long enough for me to forget the initial question, when she comes up to me with a group of friends. The girl has done research. She tells me exactly why each and every member of our class doesn't like me.

What's surprising is that they all had reasons. I would list them, but they still make me cringe.

The worst part is I had no idea that those things would make people dislike me. None of the things she reeled off for me had crossed my mind as bad things to do.

Mostly, I guess, it's funny in retrospect. They walked away; I stood there cringing in the corner of the playground, my mind spinning. Imagine the end of the Usual Suspects: flashes of anecdotes coming back to me charged with new force and meaning.

I don't raise this just to invite pity for the young Cap'n, although pity is always welcome. I raise it because of the tension it illuminates in my own thinking about embarrassment.

My view, generally, is that you make choices about how to behave, what's acceptable and not as far as you're concerned, and then you refuse to be embarrassed by those choices. Or, at least, the ability to make your choices unfazed, which I pretty much lack, seems like a good thing to have. A kind of Cool Hand Luke quality: this is what I'm going to do for my own reasons and the rest of you can shove it.

But my fifth grade self didn't know that choices were being made, was acting not out of defiance but out of ignorance, and somehow that seems the essence of embarrassment

One example. It was the era of leggings and bike shorts, and I had worn a pair (lime green, Benneton), and you could apparently see a panty line.

I hadn't even heard of the concept.

It's a minefield out there.

I Love The 80s, Sort Of

Yesterday I was at the gym and the 80's station was on and I heard "Video Killed the Radio Star" followed right up with "What's the Frequency Kenneth?"

These are some goofy and kind of cute songs. And like countless middle-aged people before me, I thought, "Ah! The time of my youth was such a kinder and gentler era!"

I've had this thought before. The funny thing is, during the 80's, I remember thinking that it was a time of real cynicism and non-playfulness. It was a time when people stopped listening to Sly and The Family Stone and got into Madonna and Michael Jackson. The sexuality seemed contrived and competitive; the mood seemed dark and foreboding.

The feeling seemed to be, OK, enough fun, now we've all got to make some money, start worrying, and start impressing one another. Cocaine and crack instead of pot and LSD. AIDS and condoms instead of free love.

I remember reading in the news in the 80's that some clothing company, like Polo or something, had changed the hairstyles in their men's ads from a little long to corporate-short, and I thought: how 80's can you get.

Weirdly, though, I also remember knowing that, in the nature of things, the past always looks innocent when compared with the future. So I used to try to imagine what the future would be like that would make the 80's seem like a golden era.

I couldn't really do it, but of course with hindsight it all seems so obvious.

The late-80's movie Heathers is about high school students who kill other students then plot to blow up a school. It's a comedy. I love hip-hop, but even the most ardent fan gets weary of pimps and hos all the day long.

A still form the movie Heathers. Check out the fashions! Who knew the 80's were a million years ago?

Mostly, though, I think it's not so much that there's something new, as that the same things that made the 80's seem sad have just gotten more extreme. To play the game you gotta make money, work out, have expensive cars or shoes. There's no time for pointless goofing around.

And that's what the best 80's pop promised. Endless, deep, goofing around. I think it's why interest in 80's pop has stayed strong, even though the songs aren't very sophisticated or interesting. They promise a kind of light-heartedness we're a little short on these days.

Speaking for myself, I have very mixed feelings about the whole thing. I like 80's pop as much as anyone, but I hate the feeling of nostalgia. Sometimes hearing these songs makes me feel awful: my own youth, lost forever.

While writing this piece, I googled the songs and found that "What's the Frequency Kenneth" is from 1994 and "Video Killed the Radio Star" is from 1979. That'll teach you: not only can't you predict the future, you can't even really remember the past. I've said it before and I'll say it again: Thank God for Wikipedia.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Consistencies Or One Size Fits All?

N. Marie's recent post about fashion reminded me of that one-time staple of the fashion magazine.

Some male (sometimes female) fashion designer (or artist or architect) being interviewed would turn out to wear the same thing every day. Not the identical thing -- his closet would be full of custom-made white shirts bought from one tailor who works only on an island off the coast of somewhere that I had never been and would never go. Same deal with pants -- Levis, some kind of bespoke shit. You get the idea.

When I was fourteen or fifteen I read these articles very earnestly. They told me how adult life should be lived.

I would read them and then I would look at my closet, full of remnants from one phase or another. A slightly dirty sheer floral print skirt would be on the floor and, in despair, I would throw myself on my bed, consumed by longing for a better world in which I wore the same thing every day.

I'd imagine for myself one thing to wear every day. It would expand outward (what about bathing suits? sometimes I might want to wear a skirt) and then I'd be thinking of the things I already owned that I really liked a lot and it would all, once again, fall apart.

You get older, and generally more tolerant of yourself. I don't feel that bad anymore about my lack of fashion consistency.

You also do, sort of, get mysteriously more consistent. You like the way you look in certain things, you buy more things that look kind of that way, people start saying things like "Those shoes are very you."

"You" in that sentence is actually "me."

You lose, to some extent, your belief in dramatic wardrobe change as an agent for change in the rest of your life and you feel sad about that. I want to believe there's a better haircut out there for me.

It doesn't all go away, though. One of the things I liked about the one-outfit designers is that it felt like they were saying, "This is me. This is how I look in a coal mine and this is how I look at a nightclub. This is all there is."

Because I am sometimes struck (like everyone else in the known world) by the fact that not only do you talk about different things to different people, but you act differently too. This frightens me; it feels like deception.

I have become tolerant of my style inconsistencies. They are all unified by me; I am the unifying force in them. But my inconsistencies of persona still worry me in the same way my style inconsistencies once did. I do not want to give up my option of gossiping and giggling hysterically, although it does not really go with my tendency to speak seriously about the right way to live or my (abstract) belief in discretion.

But I would like to have one manner. Preferably one crafted by a tailor you can only find off the coast of an island that nobody else knows about. Classic, but with individual flair.

Sunday, September 9, 2007

I Was Raped By A Giant Digital Unicorn

Maybe you saw the headline over on Boing-Boing:

Baby Unicorns in Second-Life -- via Interspecies Sex

Evidently, you go somewhere in SL, and a giant digital unicorn has sex with you. Later you give birth to an adorable baby unicorn that you can hold and pet to your heart's content. I think you have to be female, but I'm not sure.

At the original blog post here, there are some NSFW pictures and an interesting discussion.

Also there are a lot of comments. Commenters mostly feel very strongly in one of three directions: first, this is bestiality and is sick; second, these are pixels so who on earth cares; and third, could you all please shut the f**k up and let us get back to our lives?

Mostly I'm with "two": these are pixels; knock yourselves out! But what do I know? I'm seriously ignorant about Second Life.

In The New York Times today, there's a long, fascinating story about the economics of SL. The upshot is: you know how in "first life" people are greedy consumers trying to keep up with the Joneses? The Times story says that in Second Life, people are greedy consumers trying to keep up with the Joneses.

And they don't just buy up SL ("Linden") dollars on their credit cards, even though the exchange rate is really favorable (about 270 LD to 1 USD). They get jobs. They sell stuff.

They buy houses, keep up the lawn, hang out at the mall. The main differences between RL and SL, according to The Times, seem to be that in SL, lots of women have really big boobs and lots of men have really big muscles.

I guess if you see SL as your community, you might be more likely to be upset about unicorn sex. Some comments on the blog post suggest this line of thought, calling attention to the differences between mere games, such as Grand Theft Auto, and Second Life, where a person lives out an entire existence.

I can see this. At the same time, thinking of the ways SL is so much like RL makes me sympathetic to any project like the unicorn sex project. Real life is so limited; isn't it kind of exciting to imagine things that are really really different?

I suppose you might question, though, whether unicorn sex is different in an interesting way. I see the pictures, and I think, wow, kind of weird and cool. But if it's just a fancy way of narrating the weirdo-knocks-up-girl story, with a girl-has-baby-weirdo ending, I have to admit, that's not really so different from real life after all.

As the creator of the unicorn chaser says, it's only a matter of time before we have the shirts: "i was raped by a giant digital unicorn and all i got was this tiny digital baby unicorn".

Friday, September 7, 2007

The Shoes! They Are Killing Me!

It's fashion week in New York. And since we've been talking about shopping, I've got a few opinions I want to get off my chest.

As the New York Times reported recently, fashion gets a bad rap. People complain: it's expensive, exclusive, wasteful, and most of all: superficial.

These complaints strike me as largely undeserved. I'm not being original when I say that fashion is the art of self-presentation. But it's true. The best thing about fashion is it makes every participant into an instant artist. The art materials are accessible, no special training is required, and if you don't like what you've created you can just take off your clothes and start over.

It's true that some clothes are expensive, and that the existence of "trends" means that clothes get thrown out. But thrift stores still have lots of what you might find interesting. And one thing that is true of humans is that we are easily bored. As Pascal said, "All man's miseries derive from not being able to sit quietly in a room alone." If we're going to be out raising hell and throwing stuff out all the time, fashion is more egalitarian and eco-friendly than technology crazes, the mania for giant houses, and all kinds of other things.

If you see fashion as an art, as I do, the first thing you get impatient with is when people get upset that so many fashions are actually ugly. Yes, that's correct: fashion is not always about being pretty or attractive. Like other arts, the best things are not the most beautiful.

Interesting fashion can be allusive and self-referential, with something to say about previous fashion trends. It can comment on politics and social life. It involves the wearer in creating a fantasy, in a way that does not require any literal engagement with the fantasy itself: the clothes create their own new mixed identity for the wearer.

Sometimes this means clothes are ugly. It's OK. Sometimes that's the point.

If you see the power of fashion in its ubiquitousness, as I do, another thing you get impatient with is the failure to compromise for practicality. I don't mean there shouldn't be wild unwearable runway dresses; there absolutely should, under point one. But some crazy clothes should be wearable, and some everyday clothes should have a dose of crazy.

I feel like we've been getting away from this a little. I find in the mall I can buy either a strapless dress or a pair of jeans; four-inch-stillettos or Clark flats; a lace-top or a twin-set. I want something in-between.

And by way, nothing against the "wedge shoe" personally, but could we please get back to some normal heels as soon as f***ing possible?

My Favorite Williams Sister

Is Venus.

I don't follow tennis. But every now and then tennis gets plastered all over everything and the whole Williams sister phenomenon was hard to miss, although I'd like to remind you that before there were Williams sisters there was just Venus.

I liked both Williams sisters, but I liked Venus more. Part of it's just as an aesthetic object -- she's so great looking in that terrifyingly predatory way. She makes you (made me?) reconsider how women can and should look.

Part of it is the way her personality got presented to us by the media. Serena was the bubbly sister; Venus aloof, serious.

From the New York Times article on Venus's match against Jelena Jankovic: "Williams, locked in a business meeting with herself all night, was having none of it."

I like that in a sports phenom. (See also Abdul Jabbar, Kareem and Bryant, Kobe.)

I also feel like she's one of those athletes who get covered grudgingly. This is the article about her upcoming match-up with Justine Henin. The author, having dedicated most of his column inches to why Henin would be the obvious player of the year if she wins the U.S. Open, devotes two sentences to the fact that Williams still has to be beaten, including their record against each other, and segues gracefully to why Williams won't win. "And yet, they haven't met since Henin won the first of her six Grand Slams in 2003."

There's something more than a little lunatic in insisting that the sports media show your preferred player the same respect and admiration that you do. It suggests the same inability to separate inner and outer worlds that leads to face painting. So we'll leave that aside.

I think that what really cemented my devotion to Venus Williams, though, was the spectacle of her losing ground to her younger sister. I don't know why -- I'm an only child and not a tennis pro so I will never face my younger sibling across the net in a Grand Slam setting. But it's got this universal appeal to it, this ashes to ashes, dust to dust quality to it. It's the circle of life, where we rise and then, slowly, inexorably, fall.

It's the way it is for us all, eventually. That doesn't mean I have to like it. I suspect I'm rooting for Venus Williams because I like rooting against the probabilities.

I hope she wins.

Thursday, September 6, 2007


A.k.a. another post where I discuss stereotypically female behavior. Only I like shopping.

I enjoy going into a store and trying on lots and lots of different clothes, despite what I said here.

I don't enjoy shopping for things I need. I don't enjoy shopping by myself as much as shopping with somebody else. I don't enjoy shopping in an environment where there are fifty different versions of the same thing. I don't enjoy shopping when I am broke (you need the possibility of buying) and I don't enjoy shopping when money is not an issue (hard choices add to the intensity of the experience).

The rules continue: Your companion has to be capable of enthusiasm for ridiculous items of clothing (taffeta skirts, plaid shorts) but also of pointing out real ugliness. Both parties have to have equal luck finding things -- it is depressing to get worked up over an article of clothing when the person you are shopping with hates everything. Or vice versa. You need a wide vista of time. Time to reconsider, to try things on over and over again and stare at your own reflection as though you've never seen yourself before.

I went shopping on Monday. All the necessary ingredients were there, including a $300 coat by a designer I'd never heard of that looked better on me than anything ever had before or ever will again.

I could not buy the coat for reasons ranging from the Southern California weather to the coat itself, which was unlined and had no zipper.

It didn't matter. The possibilities were enough. The coat was untouched. It had no associations with my actual life, only with a world where everything would be sleeker, cleaner and better.

So I bought a skirt and left.

If I didn't like shopping, like I don't like cleaning, I'd wonder why my own physical appearance in a revised and improved format seemed to offer me the hope of a better world.

Wednesday, September 5, 2007


Right now, I'm not working.

When I worked, when I was working very hard, I had this dream of a non-working life. Not a completely ridiculous dream: a dream of croissants and tea for breakfast and regular reading of the New York Times and a brisk swim in the pool. Also a clean apartment. I pretty much knew I was making it up, even at the time.

My non-working life is in fact a lot like my working life, but more leisurely. My house remains approximately as clean as it was when I worked. Maybe a little less clean, because there's not the same urgency. If I don't clean today, I can always clean tomorrow.

That's not very clean. I am tidy, but not particularly clean.

I wasn't thinking about it very much, when I came across this comment on this blog, which, by the way, I totally recommend. Especially in conjunction with the Big Mango bloggers.

Context: the bloggers, who appear to have stopped blogging, but who had the tagline "We're not here to lose the weight, we're here to gain your hearts," had put up an ad on Craigslist asking if the guys there would date a "fat girl."

The comment reads as follows:
I've dated fat girls but there are some issues.. they are too overweight or out of shape to make love with and that them being fatis not the issue but it's a reflection of themselves (unable to takecare of themselves, etc.) One of the ones I've gone out with had amessy apt, never cleaned the coffee maker... that kind of thing (I rarely see it with thin girls)

Let's leave the weight issue to one side. Which is hard to do, because the weight issue is pretty compelling. Let's think about cleaning the coffee maker instead.

It didn't surprise me, particularly. We know from tv, both shows and ads, that women are cleaners by nature, always trying to tame their unruly (and impish and charming) menfolk, who have no sense of cleaning, and can't even be brought to see that cleaning is important.

And even I, who am not very clean, have lived that dream. In college I shared a room with a girl and a guy. (It was a big room.) The phone (this was in the pre-cellphone era) sat on the guy's desk. One morning, sitting there, talking to somebody, I glanced over the desk and found a) a large hairball and b) a cup full of mold. Later that day I suggested that maybe the hairball and the cup of mold should go. He was with me on the cup of mold; the hairball, he said, he had wanted to keep because it was pretty.

Is it a bad stereotype? Cleaning, on balance, isn't a bad thing -- it can make life more comfortable and cozy-feeling. There are certain pleasures to it. I'm not anti-cleaning, despite my disinclination to do it myself.

Only a woman totally lacking in self-respect would fail to clean the coffee maker, the commenter seems to suggest.

That strikes me as a bad thing.

I once emailed a friend about trying to shove my duvet into the post-laundry duvet cover. I have a duvet cover because top sheets are the work of the devil. It is easier to make a bed without top sheets and you are less likely to wind up in a cocoon of sheeting with a duvet. So when my friend wrote back, saying, in essence how cute and girlish I was for having a duvet cover, I was surprised. I felt, I guess, as though because I was a girl all the things I did for my personal comfort were shoved into a box of cute girlish fussiness. I was both taken aback and flattered; I felt like a real girl.

The idea of women as a repository of physical comfort, as charged with bringing cuteness and cleanliness into the communal life, that strikes me as a bad thing.

I generally don't clean my coffee maker, by the way.

Sine! Cosine! Yeah!!

I teach at a university, and this week we have orientation. We orient. We get the students, you know, "oriented."

Yesterday outside my office I heard the frail but organized shouts of forced group interaction. It was not a happy sound. Students were told to yell "yeah" or "go" or whatever at certain moments, and they did so, but you could tell they were ambivalent about it.

This morning the first thing I saw on campus were little gangs of students in yellow hard hats. The little gang that I encountered first was carrying a huge papier-mache key -- you know, like a highly-stylized skeleton key, about six feet long and a foot in diameter.

The funny thing is, the key had been fashioned to look an awful lot like a penis. It had twin spheres at the base, and the kid carrying it had it sticking out at about hip level. It was painted gold. A giant painted gold penis. Awesome.

The penis was really the only bright spot of the morning. The yellow hard hat kids, it turns out, are engineers, and their orientation required them to march around in groups and then converge on a hill, shouting rhythmically. It creeped me out: the forced conformity, the militaristic aspect, the expressions on the students' faces.

I know there are worries about the number of women interested in engineering. The Extraordinary Women Engineers website complains that only 20 percent of engineering students are women. I looked at the hard hat gangs: yep, there were a few women there, not very many, lurking in the back.

I don't know how guys feel, but if I'd been forced to march around like that I would have been like, "Excuse me, but where's the art department? I'm out of here."

And as long as we're doing papier-mache, could we please have a giant vulva for equal time? Something, maybe, like this?

Photo by Flickr user texas_mustang, here.

I see on the WEW webpage that Laura Bush is the honorary chair. Maybe she can get the ball rolling. Thanks Laura!

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

If Patrick Ewing Wanted To Talk To You, He Would Have Called You Himself

It's ungodly hot here at the corner of Commonwealth and Commonwealth. My blinds are drawn and the air-conditioning's on full blast.

Nevertheless, I am a creature of habit, so I went to the 7-11 to get coffee and breakfast food. It may have been Donettes; it may have been Pop-Tarts -- I'd rather not talk about it, really.

The coffee cups at the 7-11 have taken to sticking together. Normally, I twist them apart, cursing softly under my breath, bending them a little bit, taking, in the end, the cup that I've gotten fewer dirty paw-prints on. It makes me feel a little bad, leaving a cup that I've touched for somebody else to take -- oddly, it makes me feel bad although I could care less if somebody else has previously touched my cup.

Today, beat up by the heat, I didn't notice that I had two cups until I was pouring in the coffee. And, given my general levels of coordination, I didn't think trying to separate two cups while one of them was half full of hot coffee fell into the 90th percentile, good-idea-wise. So I just went up to the counter.

Anyway, the cashier said that 7-11 charged for each cup. I told my story; I pointed out that I didn't want two cups -- one cup would have been a.o.k. by me. And she sighed and looked mournful and tested the cups to see that, in fact, they didn't pull easily apart and she only charged me for one.

There was, back at the coffee station, a whole pile of unused cups. Other people, it appears, have been having the same problem. And I'm sure these 7-11 franchisees are paying the 7-11 corporation for these stupid cups and it's not their fault that the cups stick together. And I imagined them teetering on the brink of losing money from the 7-11 and the defective cups pushing them over the edge and I started feeling a little bad about the whole thing.

Given the profit margin on coffee, I think we can all agree that that's dumb. But it's also something I wonder about a lot: to what extent does the ability to understand the difficulty you're causing other people translate into an obligation to do something about it, i.e. to not cause them that difficulty?

The example that I always think of when I'm thinking about this is kind of embarrassing. Namely, there are some people who call a lot that you don't really want to talk to. (If you are reading this, you are not one of those people in my life.) And for me, there's a certain level of mental irritation that comes with dodging those people, getting off the phone, whatever. So then when I'm calling somebody, and let's say I've called a couple of times without getting a response, I start to think that I'm probably causing the person I'm calling that same level of mental irritation.

Does that mean I shouldn't do it?