Thursday, December 8, 2011
"Time to turn back and descend the stair,
With a bald spot in the middle of my hair—
They will say: "How his hair is growing thin!"
My morning coat, my collar mounting firmly to the chin,
My necktie rich and modest, but asserted by a simple pin—
They will say: "But how his arms and legs are thin!"
- The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock
Young or immature minded people like us experience a thought, after staring long and hard in the mirror, I mean really digging into all the relevant the physical and mental spaces - those pores, those milk jug ears, the hot mess of subcutaneous psychological untidiness - that leads to one conclusion: we are disgusting. We are repulsive trolls.
Yet the thought is fleeting. It gets swept up and defenestrated by our primal narcissism, like a buried toy meeting a mulching lawn mower. Most of the time we are thinking this: 'We deserve all the world's attention! All of it. And none for anyone else. We're going to make ALL the babies. Except we don't want attention from ugly people. Or the uneducated. We hurl drinks at their faces when they approach. The temerity!'
Chuck Klosterman put it another way. He said that every person he knew as a young man seemed frustrated that he/she didn't have the kind of mind blowing love that they felt entitled to.
The paradox isn't imaginary. It implicates hard cold laws of sociology and probabilities. Because the story of romance in the real world is not millions and millions of radiantly happy couples holding hands to the very horizon. Instead, the story is this:
-Teenagers: Skinny people sobbing because they are SOOO in luv and just got dumped.
-20 Somethings: Half are furiously onanistic and the remaining are in an obviously lop-sided relationship based on infatuation by one and guilt by the other.
-30 Somethings: Everyone is bored except for that one perfect married couple who is so resplendent and chatty at parties yet secretly seething with mutual disgust and goes home to wordless dinners where they fantasize about murder to the sound of clinking silverware.
-People past 40: Yuck.
But as for the mind-blowingly passionate love mutually felt? Love, True Love, like between Westley and Buttercup in The Princess Bride? Who has that sh*t?
And there's a reason for this. And it's the same reason that Yankees pay Derek Jeter but not you to start at shortstop. Westley and Buttercup aren't like us. They aren't the people you see on the 22 line or in your yoga class. Those people are normal. They're flawed. And I'm not talking about personality flaws, like Ike Turner having a touch of a temper. I'm talking the sh*t that reflects on your market worth: being bad at cocktail conversation or blue collared or balding or bacned or a touch unsymmetrical. Small flaws, really. 99% of people have them. But these flaws we don't forgive. Not in ourselves. Not in others.
The sweetest, most decorous persons that ever lived - put in a dating situation - would turn into a judgmental a**hole. F*cking ruthless. Because that's what humans do. We judge, judge, judge. And, oh yes, we will find flaws. And one flaw of yours in particular will stick in our craw. The Flaw. Sometimes it's your crappy job. Or strangely oversized mouth. We fixate on it, like hyenas spotting the gimp of the antelope herd. Except we don't self-admit to what we're doing. We reframe the Flaw to implicate something abstract or vague in your character (e.g., you're a workaholic, you're needy) so we don't feel like superficial bastards and can sleep at night in the event we dump you for having a recessed chin.
And as a function of this delusion that we convince ourselves that romance isn't like professional baseball, online commerce or commodity trading. Instead it's predicated on a special connection - that spark between Westley and Buttercup is personal, two hearts beating as one and all the other vomit-inducing platitudes that appear on wedding place cards. We distinguish it from basically every other free exchange in the world - i.e., where value is established by a mountain of public, agreed-upon consensus, not by what one individual person feels at a given moment. We will praise and express general affection for the idea of two homely, socially insignificant people loving each other in some god forsaken hovel or marsh - like it's cute, but don't for a second impose that construct on us. Ef that. Because unlike Shrek or Danny Devito and Rhea Pearlman we aren't weirdo losers.FN1
The delusion is sustained over time partly because not all Flaws are equal, at least in a limited sort of way. Generally speaking, the Flaw people focus obsessively on is the one they are most terrified of exposing in themselves. The overachiever angles for the handsome bar tender four years her junior so she can say to herself, 'I am desirable. All those years I busted my hump to get into Cornell, then KPMG, and otherwise compensate for social rejection but I'm dating a pretty person now, which ipso facto means I am a pretty person, right? Suck it, Bakersfield High!'FN2
Of course, a fat guy who buys a sports car still can't run fast. (On the plus side his sports car will never dump him for Carl Lewis). There's no cheating an efficient market. Even in the realm of romance, there's a cool kid club, and it's highly select and you're either in or you're out. If you're reading this blog, you're out. You're a ninety-nine percenter. You are a repulsive troll.
The point is that our conflicted feelings of narcissism and self-loathing reflect on final calculus a tension between our personal expectations (which are huge) and the allotment social markets will allow us (which is, at least usually, rather modest)). San Francisco isn't especially unique is this regard but it is on the vanguard of a nascent collective psychology that demands fairytale endings for very ordinary people. And that's the kind of psychology that's bound to make us alienated and unhappy. And that's unnecessary.
The thing about life in America, in San Francisco, right now, for the readers of WTANGISF, is that it's f*cking awesome. And it's not f*cking awesome because it's a fairytale. Or because you're going to marry Jake Gyllenhall or Blake Lively. It isn't and you're not. It's awesome simply because the air is clean and mild, you have a decent apartment, a gym membership, a few friends, and you're not eking out a polluted, hellish existence on 12 rupees a day in Delhi. You're a repulsive troll but you're also a lucky son of a b*tch.
FN1. Right? Wait.
FN2. Go Taft.
Posted by Samuel Snodgrass at 9:24 PM
Tuesday, August 16, 2011
"Humans are masters of deception. We use our minds and behavior continually to try to trick people into believing what is not true…that we're tougher, smarter, sexier, more reliable, more trustworthy than we really are."
-Paul Bloom, Professor of Psychology and Cognitive Science at Yale University
There's a moment in middle childhood when the difference between what you know and what grown-ups know starts to seem unaccountably huge. It's not just the stuff you're aware of but imperfectly understand - like man-made flight and pancakes - it's unknown unknowns. Crepes, blood sausage, really cool panties we don't even know about. My brother's childhood belief, recounted years later, was that people must have a chip implanted in their brains during college, which is why mom and dad were so smart.
So it cuts deep when you finally realize as a teenager that grown-ups live life like a f*cking d*ckhead. They don't know sh*t. They're bad at their jobs and confused about the point of existence. They visit psychiatrists and pee their pants. As Adam Carolla says, "I had no idea. I had no idea that this is how life would be. You know when you're a kid and you're nine years old and you're walking around, you see a cop or a schoolteacher or a dentist or an attorney, you go, "Oh, that guy must know his sh*t"… I had no f---in' idea how bad everybody, from my gardener to the highest people on the rung of show business, how horrible everyone would be."
But fine. Life disappoints. Humans are fallible even in fully matured manifestation. John Edwards. Bruce Jenner. Darth Vader. Such is life and the moping, adolescent fury responsible for goth fashion. The truly devastating disillusion, however, comes on the sly. It's covert like a ninja but it kills every bit of childlike wonder and enthusiasm you have (sadly, the opposite effect of the ninja style). Within decades you become a despairing, self-loathing, bovine-minded middle-aged man with no hopes, no dreams and no interest in the wonder of the cosmos, like Kenny Powers as a gym teacher, and you won't even know how it happened.
The disillusion is this: the reason adults don't know much about anything is that they don't care. It doesn't matter to them. All those years they fed you a diet of math homework and mnemonic techniques as if learning about the world was the quintessential part of the human condition, but as far as they're concerned, the pursuit of knowledge is a nerd's sideshow, a sidecar, the artsy little seat adjoining the motorcycle of important things: island homes, famous friends, and trophy wives. Adults know by a wealth of experience that people like Socrates, Kepler, Ghandi, Hamlet, Abe Lincoln - those geniuses end up dead. Poisoned, persecuted, starved, stabbed, shot in the head. Charlie Sheen, Donald Trump and the Situation, by contrast, end up on top of sexy waitresses.
The secret to life, it turns out, isn't knowing about sh*t. It's convincing others to validate you. Class dismissed, tiny mo fos.
But consider that for a moment. You grow up presuming that reality - waterfalls, tanbark, the gravitational mechanics of jungle gyms - is the focal point of existence. However messy and amorphous the ultimate purpose of life, you just assumed it had something to do this stuff and knowing more about it was the natural next move. The notion that reality is a kind of arbitrary and fungible anchor for some weird construct that basically amounts to sociological warfare is profoundly disturbing.FN1
And probably at a conscious level we never accept it. For most everyone naked social strategizing, like rain to a sorority girl, is yucky. Empty somehow. Thus, adult life has historically involved pretending that the reason we squabble over the debt ceiling or stem cells or Helen of Troy, fight for a plot as Mel Gibson said whereon the numbers cannot try the cause, is that such things matter existentially. They are special and intrinsic and we in the form of Bill Maher or Marc Maron or Mahmoud Ahmadinejad do not merely use them as common and fungible points of reference in the larger enterprise of propagating our DNA with someone who's not way dumb and ugly.FN2 Until Facebook.
Facebook has transformed reality from a necessary if random reference point into something extraneous. Q: Why did Jane visit the park or date that guy or whatever? A: So she can post self-promoting photos on Facebook. It's started to dawn on ladies that parks and, to the point of this blog, guys, have marginal or at least second order utility as mechanisms of social validation. And further, and this is the real epiphany, those things, in most cases, can make you look less than awesome. There are limits to what reality is willing to offer ordinary people.
Facebook isn't like that. On Facebook you have hot friends and a cute nephew and are being hugged by Mark Wahlberg when you celebrity saw him at a restaurant in Venice. On Facebook you don't have to accept being a mid level marketing manager with a used Jetta and a boyfriend who kind of looks like Janet Reno. On Facebook you're a f*cking superstar. On Facebook your knowledge about and engagement with the ostensible stuff of life can be regularly and almost wholly staged and for that reason is effective like never before in tricking people into believing that you're tougher, smarter, sexier, more sensitive than you really are.FN3
This isn't a knock. Any adult more interested in bumblebees than impressing Salma Hayek is a f*cking d*ckhead. This is, nonetheless, WTANGISF.
FN1. Carolla said in this regard, "You know how long man has been walking this earth? Millions of years [ed.: including direct ancestors]…the fact we all happen to be here at the same time at relatively the same age is one in a billion…if you were here in 1855 and I was here in 2025 we'd still be really close in time. …It is kind of a weird miracle-coincidence we're all here at exactly the same time. And, by the way, we're all going to be gone about the same time too. So, here the thing: what the f*ck are we killing each other for? Shouldn't we relax?…We have a short run, a little window, in terms of the earth's calendar, just a blink of an eye. How about we save the killing for the next group of assholes that comes when we're gone. But nope, we can't do it. We got to start building bombs and going at each other. And whenever I say that to someone, they say, 'What kind of f*ck fag pills you been eating?' All right."
FN2. Maron on Bill Maher's show said, "You can think for a long time that you're angry FOR A REASON. But, a lot of times, if you just do a little more thinking, you're probably just f*cking angry. Politics [or whatever] becomes a template for your [self-made] fury."
FN3. Concededly, social media technologies mess with conventional definitions of who people really are, so the point is overstated. Still, it's not likely that virtual realities like Facebook will ever cannibalize the primal realities of in-person interaction, whatever Keanu Reeves movies suggest. Because at some point you have children and you can't tweet your way through that sh*t.
Posted by Samuel Snodgrass at 2:18 PM
Friday, May 13, 2011
"But in our research, and in the work of other scholars who study the psychology of behavioral ethics, we have found that … [human] conduct, whether in social life or work life, happens because people are unconsciously fooling themselves."
-NY Times, April, 2011
The subconscious influence of popular culture is pretty astounding. An abstract idea, something intangible, impersonal and totally made up that never needed to exist, like Rock 'n Roll, the Simpsons or Milfs somehow catches the collective imagination and changes everything, the way people talk to each other and sh*t.FN1 In real life. If you really think about it, Holden Caulfield style, and are a freshman at Vassar, it will freak your a** out.
No one can seriously contend that 30 Rock is a bad TV show. It's funny, it's smart and it consonates in a comfortable way with the snarky, self-referential ethos of the moment. But it's also had this effect: every other highly educated, upwardly mobile white chick in SF who clocks in between a 6-8 in the looks department is now pretending to be Tina Fey.
The idea of Tina Fey is something like this: present-day reality, most notably the men that populate it, is a hilariously and fundamentally flawed FAIL! and that's HILARIOUS but in a knowing, equanimous, basically sympathetic way that concedes we're imperfect and not an overcompensating, over-invested blockhead like Tyra Banks.
Being superior but only ironically so is a savvy move. It creates a psychological valence that can't be called into question. It's saying, "You, you, you! You're all ridiculous. Your lives are shams. But concededly so is mine, so no madsies that I judged you!…even though I made the moral standards by which you and I were judged, plus I rendered the judgment not you which has implicit significance, so naturally I win."
But this kind of winning has limits. It translates into certain situational victories, the kind that get you an edge at work or a high five, but it's not Charlie Sheen winning. It's not a marker for sexual success. 30 Rock plays this straight: Tina Fey's Liz Lemon character is single. She has man trouble. And that, ostensibly, should undercut her designs on inner awesomeness.
But it doesn't. Because if you watch 30 Rock for more than 3 minutes it's clear that Liz Lemon is not single for conventional reasons. She isn't single, by way of example, for the reasons that stars of a) Friends, b) Sex and the City, or c) Rock of Love were single (the semi-tragic inability to, respectively, a) be three pretty girls and three handsome guys but not do the math (consistently), b) make a connection as enduring and powerful as the one the girls had with high-end handbags, c) take off his bandana).
No, Liz Lemon is single because the guys she hooks up with are all literally or metaphorically unavailable. In absurd ways. They possess faults (by character or situation) that are way beyond deal-breakers. They're midgets or blood relations or beeper salesman or white collar criminals or twenty years old or, as in the case of her current beau, pilot Matt Damon, both emotionally and geographically remote.
This is a crafty conceit. It dismisses the relevance of romantic failure as a relevant identity marker by transposing the source of the failure from Liz Lemon the person to some vague behavioral condition. The problem is not that Liz Lemon is undesirable, no, it's that her decision-making is haywire.
It's actually craftier than that because everything else about Liz Lemon's world implies she has the best brain in the postal code. She's the BAWSS.FN2 She's the winner even when she pretends she's not. Liz Lemon may love unavailable men but in every instance she's the only party who KNOWS that her relationships are doomed. It is up to her in a climatic of moment of exasperation to condescendingly lecture each and every one of these clueless horndogs on the intractability of the situation.
Liz Lemon's flaw, then, is not really unavailable man love. Her flaw is that men are f*cking retarded (metaphorically). And that's a fake flaw, like not owning a TV or being called a womanizer.
The semi-attractive, upper class women of America, nowhere better represented than San Francisco, California, heart the hell out of this sh*t. They only go for unavailable men! Men who ADORE them but are way too young/gay/moving to Alaska/hot but dumb/vampiric to sustain a living relationship. It's hilarious! A hot mess! Comical disaster!FN3
But it's even larger than this. Bullsh*t self-effacement about one's seduction skills has become the default M.O. of career women everywhere. SF women are wildly enthusiastic about their horrible fashion sense, inability to flirt, lack of maternal/sensual instinct, and any other epigamic traits that typically draw people together romantically. Jezebel, in its amusing take-down of the 30 Rock's "skinny glutton" leitmotif, describes the message as such: "I may look glamorous, but I have the mind and soul of a fat person! And this is hilarious!'"
Hilarious indeed, like religion or a snooty vodka preference or the verse Morgan Freeman reads at the end of Invictus or any other delusion to cope with certain terrifying prospects of existence, such as thunderstorms, mortality, being judged or getting dumped. LOL. "You know why that crappy thing happened? Because of God. I mean social convention! I mean he lived in Boulder, it totally couldn't work! One thing is clear: in no way was it because I didn't measure up in some intrinsic way! No way! I run triathlons! My career is demanding! Actually, you know what the reason was? I so can't wear high heels! Isn't that absurd? The reason I'm single: my inability to walk seductively in misogynist foot wear!"
It's madness. It's fantasy. It's manufacturing whole lives out of pixie dust and solipsism. But SF women don't care. They don't give a sh*t. They've seen that video about the honey badger. And nothing will ever be the same.
FN1. It's equally possible that the causality moves the other way. Society redefines itself on the down low then seizes upon some random trend or icon as the coherent expression of that redefinition, like the dude who proposes precisely when his hair loss starts to show.
FN2. Aside: After new statistics showed more female than male managers in the workforce last year, there has been a spate of articles on the incipient dominance of women in higher education and corporate America. The default explanation is men lack the social intelligence of women. This has to be partly true but misses a more obvious explanation: women sort of ENJOY being part of a corporate structure and liked by their bosses and perceived as competent. They are emotionally invested. To the male mind, this is insane. Guys HATE corporate life. They hate the soul-crushing boredom and the demeaning affects of hierarchy and everything else that made Office Space a cult classic. If a job wasn't a crucial variable in sexual selection (which it presumably is not for women), no dude would ever work in a million years. Not when there's fishing, tents and nerf sports.
FN3. The huge and sort of cliched appeal of the unavailable man is that he's harmless. Sure, he represents all kind of neatly packaged drama due to the inherently conflict of him being unavailable but really that's downside protection. It's almost the opposite of reckless. It's more like an insurance policy. It's provides a huge sense of security. When the relationship fails as it inevitably will there are no casualties. It's precisely what was supposed to happen. By contrast when an available guy (who's not gay or a werewolf or married) dumps you it means something. They got to know you in a very intimate way, saw every angle and facet and they passed. It's the judgment of just one guy but not really. No man is an island. When you get dumped, society has spoken.
Posted by Samuel Snodgrass at 11:34 AM