Monday, April 28, 2008

Happiness and Memory

If you weren't reading the Science Times carefully last week you might have missed the interview with Dan Gilbert. Gilbert wrote that book Stumbling On Happiness. It's a good book, and I wrote before about some of the questions I thought the his arguments raised.

One of the things Gilbert says in the interview is that a hard look at happiness shows that experiences are more likely to make you happy than things. Part of this, he explains, is because experiences tend to be shared with other people. This strikes me as very plausible.

Then he goes on to say that experiences also make us happy because they don't decay:

"People think a car will last and that’s why it will bring you happiness. But it doesn’t. It gets old and decays. But experiences don’t. You’ll “always have Paris” — and that’s exactly what Bogart meant when he said it to Ingrid Bergman. But will you always have a washing machine? No."

Here I get less sure I'm with him. In what sense don't experiences decay? Well, you have the memory of the experience, and even though that may change over time, if the experience was a happy one I'm willing to grant that it will continue to be a happy memory.

I'll grant that it's nice to have happy memories. But would it make you happier? My own sense is that I'm happiest when I'm thinking about the future, not the past. If things are good, and I'm expecting them to get a whole lot better, well, that makes me really happy. If things are good, and I'm expecting them to get a whole lot worse, well, that makes me unhappy.

Perhaps a more complicated thought here is that happy memories aren't just memories of events; they're part of your identity. Gilbert talks about going to visit his small granddaughter, and how happy that will make him. In addition to the obvious things like it's fun, and he loves her, and he'll look back on it fondly, he also gets the feeling of, I'm a doting grandfather.

This, too, though, has a lot to do with the present and future. If you're now estranged from your family, those experiences of the past are likely to present very mixed feelings. It's when they can become a part of your identity and your future that experiences like that matter so much.

Putting these thoughts together, it seems to me Gilbert is slightly overestimating the quality of the experience as a past item, and underemphasizing the importance of experiences as ongoing things. Experiences matter most when they're past, present, and future.

I've written before, here on C and C, about how hard it is to judge "correctly" how much you should care about your future self, as compared to your present self. Often, it seems to me, the present gets shafted: Put that money in savings! Don't have that second glass of wine! Please, think of your future selves!

And yeah, it's true that for experiences to be ongoing you have to have some of that worry. But for experiences to add up in the right sort of way, you can't have too much of it, either.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

My Limitations Amaze Me

My alarm went off this morning at 6. That is because I set it to go off at 6, even though it is a Sunday.

I had no actual intention of getting up for good at 6. There are some people that enjoy early rising; I am not one. I will sap every last minute of rolling around in bed until I am forced out by hunger or the demands of having a job. This is one of the reasons I don't have a pet.

But nevertheless, I set my alarm for 6 a.m. Because I had bought plants. I have, in my new apartment, a little semi-enclosed area that has some dirt in it, bordering the normal entrance-way/mini-patio. And for whatever reason, I was kind of semi-obsessed with the idea of planting things in that area.

Everybody reading this knows, or can imagine, that I am not what one would call a skilled gardener. Plants wither and die under my care. Even the hardiest of plants. Even when I take my job as plant owner seriously, which I mostly don't. But it is one of my areas of perennial optimism.

Which, actually, I consider a good thing. It may be a little sad for the plants, which die, and it's probably a waste of money and time, but it would also, I believe, be a little sad were I to abandon the dream of plant cultivation altogether, as fit only for a better, stronger breed of humanity than myself.

Anyway, hope sprang eternal and a week ago I went to the gardening center and bought some plants, and some soil, and a little trowel, and a little plant food. Then I got a visit from a friend who actually can keep plants alive and she suggested that I get, in addition, a pitchfork and some starter food.

So then followed a half-depressing/half-childish pleasure-inducing interval of drying to dig holes in the dry cracked soil around my patio. That moment where you realize the extent to which you don't know what you're doing. A kind of furtive burying of the plants in the ground.

Anyway, so my friend who knows about plants told me that for the first week I should be drenching these plants every morning as early as possible. Yesterday I failed to do so, so today I was going to wake up at 6, stagger out, water, return to bed.

And I didn't, because I just turned the alarm off and went back to sleep. Anyway, it just reminded me how strange it is to be alive, to have these things that you want to do, that aren't, on their face, so difficult to do, and yet be continually not doing them when you wanted to, or not doing them in the way you wanted to. How can that be true -- how can it have been too difficult for me to wake up at 6 a.m. to water my plants?

It was, though, and it's not as though I feel particularly bad about it either. Just surprised, mostly.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Sex And Anxiety: Essential Connection?

When I learned years ago that anti-depressants sometimes fuck with people's sex drive, the first thing I wondered was, "Hm, is that because anxiety and sexual interest are somehow related?"

I've thought about this off and on but never really came to any conclusions. And I've never been on anti-depressants so I don't have first-hand experience. And I know some of the newer drugs are less of a problem for sexual interest, and more of a problem for orgasm, which at least complicates my question.

But it's always seemed kind of plausible to me that there's something here -- that maybe to be really into sex you have to feel kind of anxious. Or nervous. Or something.

Two items of interest:

1) The classic aphrodisiacs are stimulants, and being stimulated is a little like being anxious.

2) Going through withdrawal from heroin, from what I understand, makes a person want to have a lot of sex -- or at least a lot of orgasms -- since it's the only relief from the agony.

There's something about being totally relaxed that feels so, I don't know, self-sufficient. And if you feel self-sufficient, you don't need anything, right? And what's sexual desire without a feeling of need?

I realize "un-depressed" and "non-anxious" do not equal relaxed. Still, they do seem connected to self-sufficiency and non-need. So I don't know.

If there is an essential connection between these, it fits my general view that what is good in one way is often bad in another, and vice-versa. But maybe that view is idiosyncratic. I don't know.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Open Source Boob Project: One Girl's Opinion

Maybe you heard about the Open Source Boob Project, where some geeks were at a sci fi convention and started imagining a better world, a world in which, if you wanted to touch a girl's breast, you could just ask, "can I touch your breast?" and she could say yes, or no, without any of the baggage that comes with reducing a person to her body parts or whatever.

Okay, I only know about it from this Jezebel post so it's not like I'm informed. But I can have an opinion on the story even if it's not accurately reported, right? I can have an opinion on the idea of an Open Source Boob Project?

Usually I'm all in favor of whatever: y'all are having fun, knock yourselves out. Sure. And basically that's my attitude here.

But still, something about the Open Source Boob Project gets a little on my nerves. What is it?

I think part of it is that the reason girls are touchy about having their breasts groped is precisely because of the attitude implicit in the Open Source Boob Project. Not that "I'd like to touch your breasts" is somehow bad in itself. But the idea that touching breasts is a kick for a guy in a way that has nothing to do with whether you're attracted, interested, thinking of pursuing further interaction.

I don't mean pursuing a relationship. No. I mean, pursuing further sexual interaction. The Project is supposed to be boob touching without even the context of "gee, maybe we'll, you know, um, later or something."

If touching breasts is such a kick to guys that it's like candy, regardless of whether there's any sexual anything going on, at all, in any way, well, honestly, all I can say is that that makes me kind of want to reserve my breasts for more special occasions.

So I guess I'll be one of the girls wearing the buttons that say, "No, you may not."

Actually there won't be any buttons, because those were part of the long-term plan that got nixed when people all over the internet were like, "Huh? What? Open Source Boob Project? What is wrong with you people?"

I'm sure it was fine between friends. But I think the trouble I've pointed out is one reason it's not going to work on a grand scale. Sorry. Even for a good-time girl -- perhaps even more so for a good-time girl -- boobs are kind of "closed source" items.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

My Consumer Complaints

It's like a million degrees here on the East Coast, and it's only April 22. I swear, like a week ago I had to put on my "somewhat heavy coat" because it was so cold and now I'm moving around the coffee shop trying to get out of the sun because I'm dying of the heat.

It's giving everyone a feeling of weather-vertigo -- you know, when it's the wrong temperature for the day's activities? It's a Tuesday in April, but it feels like a Saturday in August. Weird. Are we supposed to work? To go to the beach? Do we start drinking at 4 on the patios, or do we wait for cocktail hour proper? So many questions.

Since my brain is in a Saturday-in-August mood this is going to be a Saturday in August kind of post: uninformed, not very thoughtful, aimless.

The theme of this post is my consumer complaints. I have a few. You know the kind of thing: you're there, you've got the money to pay, you've got the time to shop, but no one is freakin' offering the thing you need.

The main thing I need is a stylish backpack. What committee of morons decided that if you're going to make a backpack it has to look like you're going hiking? Everywhere I go I say the same thing: "I'm looking for a backpack that is styled like a shoulder bag but is actually a backpack." And everywhere they tell me the same thing: there is no such thing.

I'm mystified by this. I want to carry a laptop. I'm a girl, so I'm not as strong as guys, and carrying a tote on the shoulder, or a bag in my hand, just wears me out. My back gets tired. I get all lopsided. My shoulder hurts.

I tried carrying an across-the-body messenger-style bag, but for certain reasons they didn't work with my DD-size boobs. The strap goes right between. It ruins my clothes. It looks ridiculous.

You'd think there'd be a million women out there with the same problems, looking for a nice but stylish backpack. Are there? I don't know. I know students carry those hulking massive camping style things, for their books, and I know certain women don't carry a laptop around at all. I guess there's also the "bag on wheels" thing but I'm certainly not going to the bag on wheels when there's a perfectly reasonable and comfortable alternative -- the backpack!

At one point I started fantasizing that I could buy a MacBook Air and it would weigh nothing and I could put it in a largish purse.

You know what, though? The MacBook Air has the same keyboard that the cheapo Mac has. It's plastic; it's ugly; it makes a little clicky sound when you type. I know, 'cause I asked the guys at the Apple Store to make sure. They said, "Yeah, we call that the 'chicklet' keyboard."

Argh! Guys, if I'm buying an expensive and super elegant slim computer, I want a nice keyboard. I do not want a bunch of chicklets!

And as long as I'm making a list, I'd also like some strappy non-wedge sandals, I'd like to able to sync my notes between my iPod touch and my computer, and I'd like everyone to stop charging such outrageous fees for Wi-Fi in public places. I mean, really, every local coffee shop is offering this for free with your espresso, and Starbucks wants 40 dollars per month? Sorry. Annoying.

In closing, for your reflection, here's what our consumer culture is good at: canny way to sell chocolate, guys!

Friday, April 18, 2008

Money and Happiness In The News

Last Wednesday in the Business section, the Times ran a story about data challenging the old hypothesis that "relative wealth" was more closely tied to happiness than "absolute wealth." The hypothesis was formed in the 1970's on the basis of research showing that while being wealthy did not make people happy, being wealthier than other people did.

This hypothesis is called the "Easterlin paradox" after its formulator, and says that happiness is tied to how wealthy you are relative to others, rather than in absolute terms. But what's paradoxical about it? It's highly intuitive to me. Feeling like one of the richest, the smartest, the coolest, is way more important to my happiness than being, in an absolute sense, rich smart and cool if everyone else is richer, smarter, cooler.

The new data are supposed to challenge the hypothesis, on grounds that people in richer countries are, well, happier.

OK, so I'm not trying to be a pain in the ass about this, but really, I don't see how this follows. I mean, if you're the one of the richest people in Haiti, you're still way poorer than people in other countries. So even if you're rich relative to Haitians, you're still poor relative to the world.

So your unhappiness is just as well explained by the "relative" wealth hypothesis as it is by the absolute wealth hypothesis.

Some cool looking Haitian money.

At least, it is if you're willing to accept the premise that people in poor countries are comparing themselves not only with their fellow-countrymen but also with people in other countries.

The premise seems reasonable. With globalization and the internet, I'm sure people all over the world are fairly informed about people all over the world, and how well they live. At least roughly speaking.

So, uh, I don't get it. Am I missing something?

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

How To Read Books Like An Idiot

I was wandering around the bookstore the other day looking for something to read. I had just finished a book by Jay McInerney about September 11 and middle-aged love (The Good Life, it turns out, though I couldn't for the life of me remember the name.

I chose that one because I missed seeing the topic on the cover, and because I had just finished another book by him about models that I really liked (Model Behavior. I couldn't remember that one either. What's happening to me?). I didn't really enjoy The Good Life very much, though I'm not really sure why. The love part didn't really speak to me.

In the bookstore I saw something called "How to Read Literature Like a Professor." I thought, Wow. Wow. Seldom have I ever seen a how-to book for something I have less interest in doing. I don't want to learn to fly-fish; I don't want to day-trade; and I don't care to make high end Japanese food in my kitchen from scratch. But, you know, I can imagine wanting to do those things.

I can't really imaging preferring to read literature like a professor. Literature professors have their thing they're doing, about using literature to understand people, and life, and the world, and so on, but it seems to me that even if using literature this way is profitable and interesting, it's not really fun or pleasant.

Or, let me rephrase that: it's not fun or pleasant for me. Dorky as it may be, I just want to freakin' read and enjoy books. In the old, regular way.

It's getting harder and harder to do. Books are now part of the whole book-club industrial complex, and it's like the publishers are dying to make us all into little literary analyzers. Do. Not. Want.

It's annoying enough when the blurb engages in literary comparisons and "thought provoking" questions. It's worse, of course, when there are actual book-club questions at the end of a book.

This isn't quite the same but the very very worst trend in fiction publishing is acknowledgements at the end of the book. Can we please, please, please stop that? You're there at the end of the book, your mind is all engaged by this fictional world, in a kind of warm bath, when BAM-- the cold water of acknowledgements hits. "The author would like to thank the Zenith foundation . . . for . . . and also his girlfriend . . . and parents. . . and maybe his cat for being cute."

I'm not denying anyone's need to give thanks. The place for this is obviously at the front of the book, where all normal books have the acknowledgements. Before you start reading, who cares? It's at the end that it sucks. It really ruins the whole post-coital reading feeling for me. "OK! All done? We're done! Time to get back to real life! Hop to it sweetie!"

Please. No. Give me a few more minutes under the covers, dude. I'll get up eventually.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Maybe Oblivion, Maybe Not

I've had a long long day, and I've had a couple of glasses of wine, so I don't want to take on anything complicated. But I was reading The Times over dinner, and I got all engrossed in the story about the Large Hadron Collider. And by the way, since I have a teenager's sense of humor, I can't forget that an earlier Times story on the web had a brief typo calling it the "Large Hardon Collider." How funny is that?

You may have heard that the Large Hadron Collider, when it gets going, has some small chance of creating certain effects that will end the universe. Some people are worried. So: how small is small? And what chances are tolerable?

The Times' Science guy Dennis Overbye tells us there is some disagreement about how to present the relevant information. Some physicists are wary; some think publishing objective facts is the only way to go.

About an earlier collider controversy, Overbye says,

"One report put the odds of a strangelet disaster at less than one in 50 million, less than a chance of winning some lottery jackpots."

So I'm reading that and I'm, like, what? "Less than a chance of winning some lottery jackpots"? This is meant to convey "small"? First of all, it's hardly reassuring to think of it this way, since we all know that somebody wins the lottery. So, um, some universe is going to get destroyed, but it may not be ours? Odds are small that it will be ours?

Then there's this:

"Besides, the random nature of quantum physics means that there is always a minuscule, but nonzero, chance of anything occurring, including that the new collider could spit out man-eating dragons."

Um, "man-eating dragons"? Very reassuring guys! Maybe hiring a PR firm would not be out of line, after all.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Other People

I was at the Post Office yesterday, trying to mail a simple box. Not even a heavy or big box -- just a properly wrapped, nicely addressed, medium-size, lightweight box.

When I got in line, there was one person ahead of me, and I thought, well, great, this is going to go like gangbusters.

The woman in front of me was a very well dressed and proper-looking somewhat older woman. Maybe, you know, 65 years old, and really turned out with expensive looking clothes and subtle make-up. Natural gray short hair.

She and I stood and waited. And we waited. And we waited. Turns out Saturday is, like, passport day at the Post Office, and there were two clerks tied up with passport customers with name changes, address questions, all kinds of shit.

The woman started to lose her cool. She could hardly stand it, that it was taking so long. She started fidgeting, sighing, looking around.

I found myself having a completely perverse reaction. Instead of sharing her impatience, I got annoyed at her. I found myself thinking things like, "Hey, chill. They're getting passports. No biggie. Where've you got to get to in such a hurry, Missy? What's your ego trip?"

Who knows why? Totally absurd.

Anyway, after ages and ages, she turned to me and said quietly, "It's just so hard to stay patient." And you know, for whatever reason that totally turned me from critic to friend. I was on her side. "I know!" I said, finally feeling the proper rush of shared feeling. "You'd think they'd have someone just doing regular mail stuff!"
It's funny that Captain C. was just posting about driving, because strangely enough, that's what this interaction got me thinking about. I don't drive, which means I take public transportation, which means I often have interactions like the one in which the woman and I spoke. And shared. And, you know, bonded over our plight. Bonding over your plight is a big part of taking public transportation, even if it's silent bonding.

And I was thinking that driving almost always encourages you in the opposite direction. To think of your fellow person as annoying, aggressive, in your way, to be a critic rather than a friend, is the natural driver stance. In fact, living in most parts of America, most of your interactions are like that. It's a wonder people are as warm-hearted as they are, given the constant reinforcement most of us get for regarding other people as just a big fat pain in the ass.

Anyway, the line grew huge behind us with passport people. Some of them were families; there was even a set of twins there to get passports photos. All swathed in pink. Cute.

Eventually a third clerk appeared and she waved her arms and said, "Anyone just need stamps?" With a gasp of relief my friend strode over and got her business taken care of.

Of course, once she was done I was practically gasping myself with anticipation. "Anyone here for stamps?" the third clerk called out again. I held up my box. I was now first in a long line. "I've just got this box!" I piped up.

"Oh, sorry, I can't do packages. I'm on restriction because of my shoulder."


Saturday, April 12, 2008

Life Without A Car

So I don't drive, which is one of those things that's under review, and, really, if I weren't so lazy I might decide to get a car, but I am lazy, and people have been really nice about giving me rides, and I like sitting on the bus in the morning so much and getting that extra five seconds of brain-deadness and listening to Neil Diamond tell me that the time have never been so good, and so I don't drive.

Now, obviously, there are a lot of trade-offs that you make in deciding not to drive. And some of them strike me as totally fair. It takes me longer to get places. I'm more dependent on other people. I have to put up with the other people on the bus. Sometimes I have to pay for a taxi. My life involves a certain amount of waiting around. I walk places that are a little farther to walk than is really comfortable. Sometimes I carry groceries back home. Etc.

Those are the imperfections of life and I am willing to put up with them graciously. But the other day I found myself faced with a different kind of situation. I had to go into a setting where I was not allowed to carry my cellphone with me. Also, they refused to hold my cellphone behind the desk. Sorry, they said, you have to keep it in your car.

But, I said, I don't have a car. What can I do? They said, well, then you can't take your cellphone with you.

And if there is one thing that the functioning non-driving life requires, it is the cellphone. The cellphone allows you to summon a taxi, to call for help, to extricate yourself from unpleasant situations. I got kind of pissed off, actually, thinking about it. It is not really an issue, or it is one, at least, that I can work around. But there's something about the fact that non-drivers don't just have to deal with the issue of carlessness on the transportation front, but that they have to deal with it on the lack of portable storage front, that drove me nuts, made me feel like a person without status.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

I Am A Wuss, Part II

This is only tangentially related to Noko Marie's post, and once again, I might have already written about this.


The point is, I am a physical coward in the most profound and simple of ways. Swimming in the ocean, I become convinced that I will drown. Trying to climb a hill, I imagine myself falling backwards. Escalators are terrifying. Anybody who tries to convince me that I am over-reacting is the enemy. Who wants me to die.

I don't know where this all came from.

See, but sometimes I forget. I think, god, it would be fun to ski down mountains or go surfing or I don't know what all.

Once upon a time I had a boyfriend with a motorcycle and I was 21 years old and I thought I was pretty goddamn cool. These days I am 30 and I have a colleague with a motorcycle and when I was offered a work-related ride on said motorcycle I was like, that would be awesome.

That's a total mis-depiction of the scenario, actually, which was really where he gave somebody else a ride on the motorcycle, and I was all like, that's so cool, I want to ride on your motorcycle, and he was like, okay, how about next week?

So next week becomes this week and all of a sudden he's explaining to me about leaning into curves and telling me what to do if I get too scared and I'm like, wait, why the hell am I doing this?

So I rode on the motorcycle and my leg shook the whole time and I thought I would die. And yet, simultaneously, it was awesome. And I got off and he was like, are you okay because your leg kept shaking?

And I didn't know how to explain that yes, I was a coward and I was scared out of my mind the whole time, really, really, really scared, but that nevertheless it was fun and I was glad I went.

By the way, I was wearing a helmet and everything.

Survivor: Death Edition

There was an interesting story about aging and dying in The New Yorker this week. Michael Kinsley talks about boomer fascination with living the longest, and living the best, and about his own changed perceptions of aging and dying since he was diagnosed with Parkinson's.

Actually my favorite part of the story was the anecdote at the very beginning, which I felt captured something very common that hardly ever gets properly described. Kinsley is at the pool, and there's an older guy swimming, and the older guy is boasting about being 90, and then the older guy says, "I used to be a judge."

Kinsley describes how it slowly dawns on both of them that saying this has exactly the opposite effect of the effect it's intended to have. It's intended to say, "I'm a player." But having to explain it, obviously, you're not. It's intended to say, "I'm with it." But given the first blunder, obviously, well, you're not.

Kinsley describes it much better than I can. I found myself wondering what Kinsley said to the guy next. Because sometimes in that sort of situation you feel all sorry for the person and you try to change the tone of the interaction back into one in which they can make their statement mean what they meant it to mean. Other times in that sort of situation you feel the person's being a pain anyway, and you sort of quietly let the sorry effects sink in.

Although the article is thoughtful and interesting, it didn't really resonate with me much. I felt like I was reading about the mortality of some other kind of person, not much like me.

He talks about how, no matter what forms you're competitive in, the only competition that matters is how long you live. This, he says, can be inferred from the fact that most people wouldn't a few good years for any material good or wealth.

Hm, maybe. But people trade good years for all sort of other pleasures, like smoking and drinking too much and having unprotected sex and riding motorcycles and climbing mountains.

I'm a freak about death, but to be honest, once we know it's going to be finite and relatively short, I don't find myself obsessing about exactly how many years. I mean, what's the difference? When are you going to die? "Soon," is the right answer, no matter what your age or health status.

Kinsley didn't really seem to share this feeling of "Soon" until he was diagnosed with Parkinson's. There's a vivid and moving account of having the disease, and of the treatments, and of the outlook it gives you on life and death.

He says for the ill person, the future seems finite, something people who aren't sick only feel later. Every new thing feels like the last roll of the dice.

I believe it. But I feel like I've had that feeling forever. Really, since I can remember. I remember being 17 and thinking, well, you'll be young for a few more years anyway so there's a bit of time. I guess if you're not comparing yourself to others, just being human is like having a chronic disease, since we're all on a steady march toward death.

Maybe competition is the thing here. I'm not really very competitive. I just can't get really engaged by competition. What with life being so short and all, I always figure, what's the point? In the long run, as they say, we're all dead.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

I Have A TV

This is going to be one of those posts that I put up where I lack the energy to check if I've already written this all before. So if I have, I apologize.

I have a tv. I've had a tv, actually, for a week. But now I have cable too. I have both a tv and cable and I set up the remote control so that I can flip happily through my 64 channels.

For about five years I haven't had a tv, and I haven't had a tv of my own, as opposed to a roommate-owned and -controlled tv, for almost ten years. But now I have one and it nestles sweetly on my nightstand and on Friday night I will be watching the Lakers play the Hornets on KCal if it's not showing on one of the national channels.

So there was one year when I had a tv of my own, and it heavily influenced my decision not to get a tv for a long time after that because I watched tv all the goddamn time. I realized that Magnum P.I. was really a quality show and that Northern Exposure was just as quirkily charming as I had been told back in 1992 or whatever. (I didn't have a tv during my formative years, which is probably why somebody described me as funky today.)

Anyway, I would lie there in this small town in Colorado and I wouldn't go walk along the Purgatory River and I wouldn't hike up into the hills and all that; I would lie on my stomach in my living room and watch Angela Lansbury solve the crime once again. Which seemed, later, like a waste of time. Time was passing and I was getting older and golden opportunity was fucking fleeting and I shouldn't have been watching tv.

So I ditched the tv.

But now it's back. It's back because I guess I'm older and I think I'll miss opportunities one way or another and there are going to be lots and lots of times when I will lack that critical ability to live life to the fullest, you know? But I will still be bored and want to be entertained. And now I have a machine that can make that happen.

Buying a tv is accepting the limitations of human life.

I Am A Wuss

Just the other day I was in the coffee shop and I went to use the bathroom and the bigger stall had the door open but the toilet there was all fucked up and the smaller stall had the door closed so without thinking about it I adjusted my line of sight so I could see, through the slivery crack on the side of the door, whether someone was in the stall.

"There's someone in here," she yelled.

"Oh, sorry," I said.

"You should be!" she practically spat back. Whoa. OK, maybe it's creepy to be checking the slivery crack. And the crack in that particular bathroom *is* unusually large for the side of a stall door. I didn't mean anything; I just wasn't thinking.

"Sorry," I repeated in a tone I hoped conveyed both "I am sorry" and "you are totally overreacting." "I was just checking if there was anyone there." I stood there; eventually she came out and we looked away from one another and I went into the stall and that was over.

So here's the confession: it made me cry. Yes, I peed, and then I washed my hands, and then I left the coffeeshop -- I hadn't even had my coffee! And I walked around the block with my suglasses on and I cried and cried.

OK. Maybe I was overtired to start with, on edge. I have been, a little. But it's also true that I am not used to being spoken to in anger. Really not used to it. And it fucking freaked me. I was so mad and ashamed at the same time, and also just felt taken down a peg in a way that felt horrible.

I remember thinking, Oh, yeah, no wonder they had duels. That way the emotions could get built up, channeled, and then transformed into something else -- like the feeling of mourning or cheating death or whatever.

And then I was thinking, "I am a wuss." Which I always have been. I mean I'm tough as nails when it comes to being persistent and doing what I want to do and whatever but I'm 100 percent wuss when someone is mean to me.

But I also got to thinking that there's more of this than there used to be, and that the young people are more. . . I don't want to say "used to it," because I think they take it hard, too, in the end. . . but more, you know, expecting it.

I guess if you have a Facebook page or a MySpace page or you put your stuff up online you expect to get a certain kind of really nasty critical response. Certainly all the forums I encounter online with anonymous comments there's a ton of this shit unless it is moderated out.

So maybe that makes it seem more normal. Maybe, too, they are hardened a little by all the hyper-competition that every thing has become. I don't know. I just know that young people are slightly making me nervous these days. They have the aggression skills, and they're not afraid to use them.

I, on the other hand, am a wuss.

But, you know, older people have always been frightened by the young. So maybe the moral of this story is just the same as that of my previous post on being a dinosaur: You, Noko Marie, are getting old.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Keeping Priorities Straight

In the Science Times today there was a discussion of Randy Pausch's last lecture. Dr. Pausch was diagnosed recently with pancreatic cancer, and there is a 95 percent chance he'll die within the next few months.

The story was all about how he was "keeping his priorities straight," by recording this last lecture for his three children, using it to give them advice, and turning down movie and documentary offers to spend more time with the kids.

Maybe only a relentless cynic could think to be critical of a dying man. But there was one paragraph in the Times story that weirded me out:

"Last fall, after doctors told him that he would probably have no more than six months of good health, Dr. Pausch stepped down from his academic duties and relocated to be closer to his family. But he decided to give one last lecture to a roomful of students and faculty members at Carnegie Mellon."

He had to quit his job to be closer to his family? I checked the story; he's not divorced or anything. He and his wife are married. And they have three small children. And he has a good sort of academic job; it's not like the family was going to go without.

I know how things get with work and family and all. But really, it's weird to take a guy whose career took on such importance that he had to live apart from his wife and three kids and say, well, here's a guy keeping his priorities straight.

At most you could say that here's a guy who got his priorities straight. No? Am I wrong?

One reason being a woman and a feminist is so exhausting is you can't help but read these things as if they were the other way around, and you can't help but compare. And I didn't even want to in this case. But really, if a woman took a job that required her to live apart from her three small children, and then was diagnosed with a fatal disease, and then moved back to be close to them, there is no way in hell the theme of the story would be "keeping priorities straight." The theme of that story would be something like, "I learned what really mattered. And it was too late!"

Also poignant. But very different.

Monday, April 7, 2008

Obesity: One Question We Can Answer?

There was an infuriating piece on the Huffington Post this morning by John Ridley about a proposal to make it illegal to discriminate against overweight people. I'm not going to link to it because I don't want to be providing any page-views. Also because I'm not doing any fancy interpretive work here.

The part that pissed me off was just this:

"For the vast majority of those who are obese -- those with a Body Mass Index over 30 -- their size is their choice. They choose to take in more calories than they burn."

Good. Lord. There seems to be this idea out there that lots of people are overweight because they choose to be. But that idea is insane. Just to mention one thing: in interviews people often say they would prefer various disabilities over being overweight. Duh.

There are obviously lots of factors involved in weight. But look, there is one question it should be absolutely straightforward to answer: do some people get fatter than others while eating the same amounts of food?

Because I bet the answer is yes. And the methodology would be totally straightforward: get some people to commit to a few months under lock and key, feed them, and weigh them. I'm sure you could find volunteers if you paid them enough. It could be like a vacation. Doesn't some rich person want to fund something like this?

I am so tired of people saying, "It's basic physics! Calories in, calories out!" This is obviously nuts, as anyone knows who has friends with serious intestinal problems. If you're sick, you can eat a lot and still lose weight, because you're not absorbing the calories. So obviously it's not a simple equivalence. And it's not freakin' physics! Geez.

On Becoming A Dinosaur

When you're young it's always hard to picture how older people get so, you know, out of the loop. What makes them seem so dated? I mean, it's not like the don't have access to all the same things.

For a middle-aged person I'm reasonably conversant with the new. But yesterday's Times story about blogging made me feel about a million years old.

The story, which you probably saw, discussed the manic life of bloggers. I knew that lots of bloggers who live off of blogging don't make that much money, and I knew that they often get paid by page views (which has its own weird puzzles).

What I didn't know is that blogging was so much about being first. The story said that if you're making blogging your profession, it's crucial to get the news first. Even being milliseconds behind the next guy and you lose.

I don't get this -- I mean, I don't even get how this works in practice. I mean, suppose you're a reader. You read some blogs. You check in, find something mentioned. How would you know whether it was being mentioned seconds earlier on some other blog?

And if the news is something you want to read about, don't you want to know what your favorite blogger thought about it, regardless of whether it was a few hours later?

As a reader, I can't even picture what is happening. You mean readers are checking blogs to see who has the news first and then only reading those blogs? What would be the point of that? I don't even see why someone would do that.

(I also wasn't sure why all the bloggers are at home. Wouldn't you take your laptop to the cafe and blog from there? How depressing to be sitting at home all day.)

Clearly I am being left behind by some new mode of existence. The Times reports that the result of all this is that bloggers never sleep, are poor, and have terrible health problems. At least I have the consolation of knowing that the new mode sucks.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

I Do Not Live At The Center Of The World

A fact which I guess is even more true now that I live in Bakersfield rather than L.A.

Let us contemplate, for a moment, the fact that when one looks up basketball schedules on the L.A. Times website (that would be the Los Angeles paper, if you're curious), they give you the game times in Eastern Time.

This is probably actually because the L.A. Times just puts in some schedule-generated somewhere else, and Eastern Time is the national default for tv schedules, and so that's the way it is. Still, there's something eerie about watching a Los Angeles based paper print the times of its own home team according to the time of some other locale entirely.

It reminds me of the sense I had, growing up, that Los Angeles was not really a part of the national consciousness. Which may seem ridiculous, given the entertainment industry and all, but that wasn't the L.A. I lived. A lot of the people I went to high school with, I guess, had parents who made their livings off such mysterious things as residuals but up until that point I didn't really know anybody in L.A. who was involved in all that.

The more I think about it, the more ridiculous it seems that I would try to make that claim, that L.A. wasn't part of the national consciousness. We had the Lakers and City of Quartz and the riots and Joan Didion brooding about fires and flooding and water rights. We had L.A. Gear and, for a while, both the Raiders and the Rams, and the big one was coming one of these days.

So maybe my sense of the dominance of the East Coast was more a matter of the knee-jerk sense that a place you love is, however much consideration it actually gets, under-appreciated, the impulse that drives people to write passionate letters in defense of Kobe Bryant.

But I will tell you this. When I lived in Los Angeles, not so very long ago, half the people I knew had grown up there, gone away, returned. And yet, talking to strangers who weren't from there, when I said I was they would say, "Oh, that's so unusual," suffering from the widespread rumor that Los Angeles is a city of dreamers, of kids from Nebraska looking to make it big.

Whereas, I guess what I'm saying is that in some ways Los Angeles is just a city, a big city, a city that deserves to have its hometown paper print the tv schedules in accordance with the time zone in which it actually exists.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Poverty And The New You

Back in the fall, in simpler times, I wrote about Roy Baumeister and his theory of ego depletion. I found it hilarious, and intuitive, the idea that the self was a "limited resource" that could be used up.

If you've got the right sort of mind, thinking about the self this way is an extremely handy way to justify doing lots of things you want to do. I frequently tell myself: sure, have another glass of wine; have a cookie; buy those new linen pants. After all, you're using up your ego on more important things. So knock yourself out.

In a way it seems like a rationalization. But in a way I am convinced this is sound reasoning. I do wear myself out using up my self-control, and I would rather use it up getting my work done and going to the gym than being sober, skinny, and rich. Not that I don't want to be sober, skinny, and rich, mind you. OK, not that I don't want to be skinny and rich. You know what I'm saying.

Yesterday some other neuroscientists wrote in the Times that the "belt-tightening" we're likely to experience in the economic downturn will lead to literal belt-loosening: that is, having to restrict our consumer spending, while painful in the short run, may lead us to actually have more will power in the future.

They're using Baumeister's research, and the point seems to be that while egos get depleted in the short run, you can expand your reservoir of self-control by practicing restraint. Eventually your will power will increase.

I made a joke about this in my previous post: how can you get started practicing self--control if you have no self-control? But here there's a different, and more troubling, theoretical problem. Because belt-tightening is not, in this case, an exercise in restraint at all. It's an exercise in restriction.

Look, we're already making less than we need to spend. That's not going to be "new" in a recession. What's going to be new is that there'll be actual bankruptcy, and actual credit card cancellations, and actual inability to overspend.

If you don't buy fancy shoes because you can but you decide not to, that's self-restraint. If you don't buy fancy shoes because you literally cannot, that's not self-restraint, it's just, you know, I can't buy those shoes.

Since the any ecomomic downturn is likely to involve the latter -- as in, "No, you failed to make your mortgage payment; you can't live here" -- there won't be any increase in practicing restraint.

There'll just be a lot of pissed off consumers. And what's one of the things that uses up your ego and will-power most quickly? Not acting on feelings of aggresssion. So I'm not predicting a return to the savings-account-bankbook-eat-your-brocolli style of living. Not soon, anyway.