Friday, December 11, 2009

#31 The 6s/7s Who Think They're 9s

-"San francisco? seriously? where all the 6s and 7s think they're 10s and 11s?" (Yelp)

-"The Bay Area is full of girls who THINK they're hot but really aren't." (City-data)

-"Apparently many of the good men of San Francisco have decided that women are too uppity for their own good." (Craigslist)

-"All the women i[n] SF are 6s but they have the additude [sic] of 10s." (Yelp)

The statement is final and unwavering and the statement is this: SF women are 6s (or 7s) who think they are 9s. The fact of this is experienced so routinely and unavoidably that expression of it is no longer really controversial. It's barely interesting. It's like saying Dane Cook is a horrible comedian or people with eye-patches creep you out. It's not nice and it's kind of juvenile but it's also the structure of reality as objectively perceived. It's an assumption among friends, an ice-breaker among strangers, a talking point for Gavin Newsom in a pinch. Colleagues, people at parties, a random Brazilian girl outside of Mauna Loa. Everyone agrees. 6s who think they're 9s, yep, and don't you love red wine! Sean Hannity makes me sad!*

There's a mess of things going on here but let's start with two curiosities. First, the statement reflects what may be the most weirdly specific yet universally shared aesthetic judgment of the post-Internet era. People can't even agree that No Country for Old Men was a good movie but if someone went around saying SF women are 3s (or 8s or 4s) SFers would tell him to get lost. Shut the hell up, they'd say. You're thinking of Bakersfield. Moron. Liar. It's 6s and (sometimes) 7s, open your eyes and pull it together.**

Second, if it's true people can clearly distinguish a 6 from a 9, just like they can distinguish a fat person from a skinny one, then tens of thousands of SF women believing they're 9s when they are in fact 6s*** would seem to mean, essentially, that these women are insane. This, it turns out, is precisely what leading academics now theorize.

In the spring of 2009 a pair of research psychologists named Jean Twenge and W. Keith Campbell published a book arguing that recent cultural developments, things like over-indulgent parenting, youtube and Carrie Prejean, have caused young American women to become delusional egomaniacs. They called this a "narcissism epidemic" and put forth a good deal of data and definitions to support it, far more in fact than they probably needed since the central idea - that women under 30 increasingly present a wildly unrealistic (in fact pathological) picture of their own success to themselves and to their peers - was embraced and confirmed wholesale by just about every publication (The WSJ, the Daily Mail, Newsweek, the Guardian, et al.) that reviewed the book.****

All this seems a neat and easy umbrella explanation, a real time-saver, for the sub-epidemic of SF 6s who think they're 9s, but local SF opinion suggests something more complex is happening. When people say SF women think they're 9s, they don't seem to mean it literally. No one really contends SF women possess the clinical characteristics of pathological narcissists: constantly seeking attention or worshiping material wealth and (God knows) physical appearance. No one contends that SF women are from Florida.

The implication is more subtle: less that SF women are unable to differentiate between the world as it is and the world as they want it to be and more that they are self-consciously posturing and hoping no one will notice, similar to the way Padma Lakshmi pretends she has something to add or really any business being on Top Chef. There is a sense by this account in which SF women DO believe they're 9s but only in the manner that Christopher Hitchens says most religious proselytizers believe in heaven: which is to say they don't. They reason they won't shut up about the afterlife and why you should fear it is because deep down they know it doesn't exist.

The cheesebally indictment that SF women think they're 9s is, at base, just a vague claim that a disportionately large percentage of SF women are opportunists; that they are smart and calculating and intuitively understand a curious and fundamental aspect of epistemology and human relations: if you convince enough people to believe in something, that something becomes true. Nothing else matters.

In the context of the SF social scene such posturing sort of works but mostly it doesn't. It works more than it would in say Chicago, New York, Atlanta, or anywhere else with a less desperate male-female ratio ("If there are a large number of desirable members of one's own sex available, one may regard one's own market value as lower," researchers reported in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin) but by wide account it is still a failed strategy. The only people who fall for it are the same blockheads who couldn't figure out Chris Gaines was Garth Brooks.*****

The underlying trouble is that an inordinate number of SF women aren't off the mark by much. They're in shape (Crunch Fitness!). They're higher educated (Go Bears!). They're technically stylish (layers!) and socially savvy (He's Just Not That Into You!) and mostly symmetrically featured (sample sale at Sephora!). A decade after getting laughed off the high school cheer-leading squad, they've overachieved their way into the vicinity of the Golden Circle.****** But they're still outside. They live in the halo. They Just Miss.

Just Missing******* is not right or wrong in any moral sense but it is impossibly awkward. The paradigmatic example is the guy who is handsome, clever, and well-built but, at the same time, 5 foot 7. Every grad school class or large corporate office has one of these dudes. He is secretly obsessed with his looks and all the cute girls platonically flirt with (but never date) him and even though he is vaguely cool and caddish he somehow doesn't seem to have any close friends and deep down you suspect he is miserable.

His curse is this: he's fractionally too short to be a Mark Whalberg man-on-campus and fractionally too tall to be a Dudley Moore diminutive wiseacre. He misses by one and a half inches in either direction. And worse, he lives out his days experiencing these brief, throw-away moments when, because everyone around happens to be seated or Asian or he's rollerblading, the world actually perceives and treats him as the unchallenged alpha. He'll spend three months getting used to being above-average ordinary, and then boom! this completely different, totally superior existence is thrown in his face for a moment or two before being ripped away. He'll never grow that one and half inches, and for this he's almost certainly doomed to the comparative obscurity of being pretty cool/athletic/handsome for a short guy, but he never feels 100% sure. There's no one in Palm Beach County to retally the votes and make an official pronouncement. So he can't let go and he can't get comfortable. He's consumed by vain ambitions and counterfactual thinking.

There are other examples of course but the same emotional affect governs them all. Just Missers are prone to a special brand of cognitive dissonance, whereby they constantly try to re-engineer (just slightly) the prevailing value system in order to invalidate the relevance of the one or two immutable traits (5ft6half!/flat-chested!/didn't get into Kellog!) that are the true and only barriers between them and wild social success but simultaneously they sense such efforts are futile - they are self-conscious of their plight - so they never stop feeling insecure and frustrated which makes them act out (at least in some situations), which is confusing (and frankly a bit irritating) to everyone else, because Just Missers burn so many calories trying to convince others that they are blithe and "above it" like elite people are supposed to be.

Self-ware SF 7s, for example, will, in order to avoid environments in which they might be judged solely on their appearance, do things like promote day culture and frequent wine bars and wear layers and, in order to avoid direct comparison to more physically beautiful women, express a haughty animus towards the "Bridge and Tunnel" chicks or LA girls and anywhere either might show up, and these carefully and studiuosly cultivated attitudes will - for a time - make them feel like 8s or 9s but only so long as larger, more powerful leveling forces, such as a romantic relationship, Perez Hilton or a nervous guy on MUNI making a bold move, are squared off and kept at bay, and all of this together tends to make the SF 7s feel genuinely fabulous and superior and also genuinely bereft and alienated. It's a wierd dichotomy to be packaged together in one person, you can't decide if it's cool or pathetic, if they are the tormented Sisyphusean hero or the dumb kid who puts on a cape and jumps off the roof.

What does this mean for the future? Twenge and Campell ultimately concluded that the epidemic of narcissism was a very bad thing ********, but the more reasonable conclusion is, who the f*ck knows, and the same goes for the localized SF epidemic of Just Missers. Once a conventionally aberrational pathology like Narcissism or Just Missing becomes normalized, conventional consequences may cease to apply. If everybody's crazy, well, nobody's crazy and humanity, with a few muttered grumblings and the magic of In Vitro, will abide.

*The companion cliche of course is that SF men are pencil necked nerds. 5s and 6s at best. Everyone also agrees on that. But no one contends SF men are nerds who think they're underwear models. They may be chauvinists with a sense of entitlement, the thinking goes, but (for the most part) they aren't delusional.

**Additional point of clarification: the 1-10 grading scale is the prevailing gold standard for assessing the attractiveness of individual persons while simultaneously being a jerk. It is accurate to the half decimal. The Gaussian function or bell curve of the measure would seem to defy application to a city-sized population of people (i.e., all large groups randomly (i.e., naturally) distributed should be "full of 5s") but due to complex sociological and economic factors (some of which this blog has attempted to research and explain) this is not the case. A city can indeed be disproportionately full of 6s. Like that situation with all the securitized mortgage debt, it is a case of humans failing to meet the expectations of mathematical models.

***Let's put aside for now the feasibility of knowing (from an arm-chair/bar-stool perspective and with inordinate precision) what is happening inside other people's brains. The feat seems more tricky that it probably is. If you've ever been to the Las Vegas strip on a Friday at 9 PM, for example, regardless of the season, you somehow know that 80% of the men who travel to Nevada are always exactly 93% mistaken that they will get laid that evening.

****It should be noted that although Twenge and Campbell emphasize that the recent rise in narcissism disproportionately affects females, their research also shows that men on the average (in no small part because of Floyd Meriweather and that cheese nug married to Heidi Montag remain the (slightly) more narcisstic gender.

*****As well as that disturbing demographic of humanity that is over-eager to suspend disbelief, including movies goers who enjoyed Independence Day and the guys who pick up trannies at the corner of Pine and Larkin.

******America loves the Da Vinci Code but the less publicized Golden Circle is far more relevant. Conventional wisdom and intuition dictates that the attractiveness of a person is relative to that of the person doing the assessment. But that's not the way desire actually works. This is (conceptually) absurd and why we laughed when George Constanza rejected a woman for being bald but it's also social fact. A girl is - objectively - either beautiful enough to be in the Golden Circle or she's not. If we use the 1-10 grading scale of aesthetics as a crude approximation, if you're an 8 or above you're in the Golden Circle (and curiously, everybody intuitively knows EXACTLY who this is) and further, once you're deemed to be in the Golden Circle, personality is (basically) all that matters. You can fight over who's technically more georgeous or whatever but that hair-splitting is basically irrelevant wrt personal relationships. That next-door-cute Spanish chick married to Matt Damon may be less stunning than about a ten thousand models running around Hollywood but it doesn't matter since she (presumably) has more charisma.

*******Seminal to the Just Miss Theory is a book titled Americana by Don Delillo (in the relevant part, a girl wants to know if the protagonist thinks she's pretty. He tells her, "I think you just miss"). Drew Barrymore, by being Drew Barrymore, is also an influence.

********Specifically T &C claim narcissism is "corrosive" and "toxic" for society and their reasoning on this point is quite funny. According to Twenge, although it's commonly believed that overconfidence is socially advantageous the data indicates the opposite - that narcissism proper "tends to blow up in [narcissists'] face[s]" due to the underestimation of risks. Get enough of these people together the argument goes, and society falls apart. Relationships are sabotaged, surgeries botched, iPhones toyed with at 72 mph. It's suicide by incompetence. Relatedly or not, this brings to mind a brilliant New Yorker humor piece in which the author conceives a TV show in which ordinary people everywhere begin to sense they have superhuman powers (e.g., flight, invisibility, etc.), the hook of the show being these people don't actually have superpowers (e.g., they fall off rooves, run the streets nude, etc.), and the twist being these people eventually start to lose their normal abilities ("a Japanese lady forgets how to speak Japanese, a Texas woman forgets how to chew").

Saturday, December 5, 2009

#30 Airplanes

According to modern and vaguely populist (at least in America) economic theory, no one should get emotional about anything. Rare (but regular) market disturbances aside, like Texas-sized meteors or Pauly Shore, everything that happens in a free society is totally reasonable. Talents and hard work are recognized in due proportion. Resources shift in measured response to supply and demand. The universe makes sense. It is what it is. Sit down and shut up.

The larger ontological philosophy here is that the fact of something (e.g., Life is nasty, brutish and short) is far more significant than the essence of something (e.g., Life is “beautiful”), because the former drives self-seeking behavior while the latter makes people discuss Thomas Pynchon novels and surrender to Germans. The idea is, in other words, that abstract (as opposed to utilitarian) thinking about external pressures has almost no extrinsic value. Asking what it means to be hunted by a Nazi, for example, while you're being chased by a Nazi, is an awful misuse of resources and frankly, a bit pretentious. Just run, a**hole.

Which brings us to airplanes. Airplanes like Louis CK says are amazing. In a concrete, sort of frightening way airplanes demonstrate godlike capacities to overcome normally applicable laws of nature. Sitting in a chair in a metal box hurtling through the air is psychologically staggering but visceral and tangible enough that we can figure out what is happening. Any six year old will find an iPhone or microwave useful but a 747 Jumbo Jet? That will blow his mind.

The freakiness of air travel has this less obvious effect: it forces us to think about conditions that are otherwise unconnected to our normal life. We board the metal box at SFO with a presumptively fixed model of reality and three hours later we're in the Houston airport confronted with events and people invalidating that model. Halter tops! Tan legs! U of T co-eds! Holy sh*t! We stumble about wild-eyed and mumbling, pointing at comely lasses and square jawed lads, stupefied as to why everyone else is acting unfazed, like they're characters in some TV show like House or Grey's Anatomy and there's some code never to mention how statistically improbable it is that everyone around them is uncommonly attractive. Why aren't these people acting equally astonished? we wonder. If they went into a hospital and all the doctors in the immunology department were, say, 6 foot 11, wouldn't they obsess on it? "F*ck my cell counts," wouldn't they say, "I want to know about the hiring policy?"

On one level the shock SF travelers experience is sourced by the sudden awareness (or reminder) that in places other than San Francisco reality routinely includes physically appealing people. This discovery is confirmed over and over again during our travels and put in startlingly sharp and sort of comic relief the Thursday after we return when we're at the W Hotel in SOMA having a vodka soda and surveying the array of local aesthetic atrocities - weak chins, cankles, cross-ethnic facial lopsidedness - on unknowing display.

On another level, however, is something more existentially thorny. Airplanes create a demarcation problem. Where precisely do we fix the boundaries of our dating pool?

Air travel, like many non-Nazi evasion situations, challenges our capacity to limit the scope of meaningful external pressures to those actually impinging upon us in the moment. It blurs the boundaries between what exists as an emotionally resonant concept and what exists in fact. If San Francisco realities mandate we date someone who is a 5.5 (on the imaginary universal scale of attractiveness) does it matter that we'd be dating a 7 if we hypothetically lived in Omaha? The answer is: well, maybe.

By far the most interesting thing about human connection is that it can transcend the typically contextually relevant stuff like geography and time and, you know, death. The idea of a person - their style, attitude, hips to waist ratio - tends to trump the comparatively more trivial fact of them actually being around. The man or woman who you are mostly deeply and forever in love with, for example, is probably someone you saw for ten seconds standing in line for a pretzel at Shea Stadium five years ago.

But it's insane to live your life thinking that way. It's emotional nonsense. If that person was truly a good and strategic match for you the laws of supply and demand would have ineluctably pushed her your way.

Except that's not true either. Realities however manifested (e.g., Nob Hill versus Nebraska) are both fixed and unfixed in the literal sense. There are unknowns. There are unknown unknowns. Maybe our company will open an office in Omaha. Maybe we'll move there with the 5.5 we finally married. Maybe our new secretary will be a charismatic 7 who bleeds Mets blue. Maybe she'll be wearing a style of panties we've never heard of. The set of environmental facts we were supposed to care about and accept as unchangeable may stop mattering.

This may seem like a lot to extrapolate from commercial aeronautics. But we all sort of use this messy logic. A 7 is reluctant to settle for a 6 who thinks she is an 8 partly because he perceives that outcome as inequitable (by the same totally abstract, criteria-free, essentially insane measure that sent humanity into a collective furor when that cheese ball gypsy David Copperfield started hooking up with Claudia Shiffer) but also because he doesn't live on a homestead in the western expansion. In his world the Wright Brothers have happened. He knows his commitment won't survive the next business trip to Chicago.

It would be so much simpler if this wasn't the case. If it took 6 months to get to Reno, SF ladies would start looking real fine. On the downside the economy would be based on beaver pelts and gold nuggets. Half of us would end up shot or in county prisons. The less hirsute men would start looking real fine. Maybe the lesson is that life's confusing. It never is what it is. Especially when you want it to be.