1. Having a dog used to be easy, and were it 1995, I’d get one in a heartbeat. Fill up the gallon pail of food, a couple large buckets of water, and for the next three days the responsibilities were watching it run around (outside), fetch, the usual. Now I might be leaning cat-wards – dogsitters, crate-training, sticking to a strict routine… and the dog-hotel for vacationers business has been booming.

First up, same with kids. A friend from college mentioned how much it annoyed him when, as a kid, his parents would use the phrase “underfoot” to describe him. For the record, they were great parents, and he turned out well. Kids used to be sent outside to go find stuff to do during afternoon bridge games, for instance, while now they’re more likely to be the focus of whatever social event their parents are doing on a given afternoon.


It’s well-trod territory for mbird, but Alison Gopnik over at WSJ gave a pretty fresh take this week in her “Manifesto Against Parenting.” The term “parenting” came around in the 50s and became common in the 70s (around the time bridge games declined, but mercifully a few decades before we extended such concern to pets), and it denotes, of course, a certain technique for producing happy, healthy kids who will turn into happy, well-behaved, successful adults who tick the right boxes for a decent life:

The idea that parents can learn special techniques that will make their children turn out better is ubiquitous in middle-class America—so ubiquitous that it might seem obvious. But this prescriptive picture is fundamentally misguided. It’s the wrong way to understand how parents and children actually think and act, and it’s equally wrong as a vision of how they should think and act…

Working to achieve a particular outcome is a good model for many crucial human enterprises. It’s the right model for carpenters or writers or businessmen. You can judge whether you are a good carpenter or writer or CEO by the quality of your chairs, your books or your bottom line. In the “parenting” picture, a parent is a kind of carpenter; the goal, however, is not to produce a particular kind of product, like a chair, but a particular kind of person..

I wouldn’t evaluate the success of my marriage by measuring whether my husband’s character had improved in the years since we wed. I wouldn’t evaluate the quality of an old friendship by whether my friend was happier or more successful than when we first met. This, however, is the implicit standard of “parenting”—that your qualities as a parent can be, and even should be, judged by the child you create.

There is a certain asymmetry between marriage and parenting: in the latter, you’re there for your children; they’re dependent on you. So maybe the problem is parents taking that responsibility and turning it into an engine of self-justification, maybe it’s parents opting into criteria that are more easily measured and thus easier to derive self-worth from (I think my son’s a friendly person, but I know he’s triple-majoring), or maybe it’s the sheer availability of material in a mass-market era which promises to somehow churn out the perfect kid. Or maybe it’s parents becoming too attached to certain indicators of success: strange how with more parents working for longer, they’re even more (over-)invested in children.

2. While we’re rolling in a more curmudgeonly vein, ecumenically minded Catholics click here too many people wear headphones[1] now, reports The New Yorker:

ed58d7d3_60sHeadphonegirlCertainly, headphones are an obvious method of exercising autonomy, control—choosing what you’ll hear and when, rather than gamely enduring whatever the environment might inflict upon you. In that way, they are defensive; users insist upon privacy (you can’t hear what I hear, and I can’t hear you) in otherwise lawless and unpredictable spaces. Should we think of headphones, then, as just another emblem of catastrophic social decline, a tool that edges us even deeper into narcissism, solipsism, vast unsociability? Another signifier of that most plainly American ideology: independence at any cost?…

One of the more interesting revelations included in the Sol Republic survey is the news that empowerment anthems—like Survivor’s “Eye of the Tiger,” Katy Perry’s “Roar,” Kanye West’s “Stronger,” and (no joke) the “Chariots of Fire” theme—are especially popular among headphone devotees. People like to stomp around to jams that instantly position them as scrappy and determined underdogs, overcoming tremendous odds… These days, people seem to be perpetually gearing themselves up for the epic battle of merely existing. At the end of the day, jogging up to our front doors, we are all Rocky, reaching the summit, conquering that last step: “Just a man / and his will / to survive!” We rip our headphones off, triumphantly. We did it! Another day closer to death!..

It seems possible, though, that we are slowly reconfiguring music as a private pleasure—that, in fact, all pleasures, soon, may be private. We are all the lone stars of secret films, narrated by and in our own minds, and we seek out music that validates that position: separate, but forever plugged in.

That’s bleak, and all the Drake and Sonic Youth references in the world (omitted above) can’t quite mask the writer’s fear of what we’re becoming. Then again, music is a form of connection with another human being, a song another person’s emotion, captured powerfully, so maybe it’s not all bad. Were it 2005, we might be lamenting the death of the album/CD (listener passive, suffering another’s soundtrack of emotions) to the rise of the playlist (carefully constructed personal experiences), and were it earlier, we’d be lamenting the ability to skip tracks. Tech as a whole tends to give us more control, which is nice for some things, but can certainly make daily life feel more insular.

3. Mbird favorite Heather Havrilesky gave a great interview with The Atlantic this week. I’ll include a few choice highlights below, but the whole thing is excellent and – for those who haven’t yet heard – we’re so lucky to be interviewing her for the Mental Health issue of the magazine! Stay tuned.

Havrilesky: Absolutely, definitely. Yeah. That’s really smart. More and more, the longer I do this, I notice how much there’s this illusion that people have, especially with love, that they can control what happens next. It’s like they’re playing a video game, and if they play everything the right way, they can affect the outcome. It’s like, you meet someone, you decide this person is the person who is going to make everything right, who’s going to be your partner forever and ever, and you’re never going to have to solve this problem again. And then once you’re locked into that idea, it’s like you’re playing a video game…


I find myself looking at these letters [asking advice] in such a new way lately where I just see people pushing levers and pushing buttons, and you just can’t be happy going down that route. The happy route is, in fact, much more accepting and passive in some ways. You don’t have to do anything.

Amen to that.

4. As far as cruciform social science goes, this one’s better than most. Faced with a bunch of pessimistic patients in group therapy, a psychologist just couldn’t seem to make them much happier, no matter how much he tried. So he decided to focus on the bad, and apparently it kind of works:

That insight eventually gave rise to Paterson’s wry new book How to Be Miserable: 40 Strategies You Already Use, in which Paterson offers a counterintuitive counterpoint to our national happiness obsession: Focus on the bad. “Between the influences of our culture, our physiology, and our psychology,” Paterson writes, “it appears that striving for happiness is a tiring matter; we’re swimming against a powerful current. We might almost say that happiness in such circumstances is unnatural.” In other words, the pressures of our culture (we need to earn more!), our bodies (on less sleep!), and our minds (and be happy about it!), contribute to a cycle in which the pursuit of contentment only results in an ever-snowballing accumulation of disappointment and self-blame. But if we consciously go after the opposite, if we, as Paterson puts it, “optimize misery” by becoming more aware of our own detrimental habits, we can paradoxically open up new and helpful behavioral pathways.

From there it becomes a little self-help-y, i.e., turning the paradoxical truth that true breakthrough will often feel cruciform, into a set of mental tricks, violating von Balthasar’s law that trying to harness such engines of personal growth tends to sap them of their efficacy.


5. And on the cultural front, first is that indefatigable human impulse toward religion – or at least the supernatural – keeps on churning. Chinese censors are keeping Ghostbusters out of the People’s Republic, they say because it promotes cults and superstitions. (Even changing the film’s name to Super Power Dare Die Team didn’t manage to pull the wool over the censors’ eyes its paranormal dimension.) If hyper-enlightened, secularized Europe – where 33% of Austrians believe in the power of lucky charms and over half of Icelanders believe in elves or trolls – is anything to go by, stamping out superstition may be harder than it seems. On a poppier note, the Wall Street Journal compiled an entertaining ranking of 44 fictional US Presidents from worst to best; the upshot for me was that both Charlie Sheen and Samuel L. have played POTUS within the last three years, in suitably out-there-sounding films.

In tech, the AV Club reports Pokemon Go players in D.C.’s Holocaust Museum, which seems insensitive, to say the least. For a good look at how the law – i.e., measures of success or failure and the impetus toward greater success – can narrow our experience of life, look no further than “Angie” who, when asked why she was hunting Pokemon there, replied, “It’s not like we came here to play … But gotta catch ‘em all.” Oof. As the AV Club wisely adds, “Whether humanity is worth saving [from Pokemon Go turning Skynet] remains an open question.” Maybe the Pokemon guys should’ve just stuck with doing games and surprisingly Christian-sounding movies.



6. In (dark) humor, the Onion teases out the disconnect between current events and the widely-repeated adage that humans are inherently good, ht BJ:

Following yesterday’s terrorist attack in Nice, France that left over 80 people dead and scores more injured, sources reported that a dazed and utterly dejected global populace halfheartedly muttered the phrase “People are inherently good” to themselves Friday. “While this was a horrific and unspeakable tragedy, it’s important to remember that human beings are, at their core, good, kind, and decent,” residents of every country reportedly mumbled under their breath after hearing the latest updates on the French attack, taking a brief moment to emit a heavy sigh before continuing to speak in affectless, barely audible tones. “The people who carried out this atrocity don’t represent [unintelligible], and we can’t let [unintelligible].” At press time, the world populace began to say “Evil will never…” before trailing off, shaking their heads, and slowly walking away.

For more actual humor, check out the Onion’s report that “Woman Who Doesn’t Use Facebook Completely Out Of Touch With Friends’ Prejudices“, Babylon Bee’s “Nation’s Churchgoers Brace for Flood of Pokemon Go Sermons“, and Samuel L.’s Game of Thrones Seasons 1-5 recap (fair warning: like the show, it’s far from PG – and lots of spoilers) are all good options.

Bonus: Freud‘s theory of the mind is making more sense again; some thoughts on social media as liturgy (ht CE); a girl parodies McConaughey’s Lincoln commercials (below); for those of us who seek self-justification through problem-solving, look no further (ht BC); and a fantastic feature of Alain de Botton on This American Life (and for TAL fans out there, always worth a re-plug of Ethan’s golden takes on the series), two below. That’s all for this week – happy weekend to all.

[1] Products plug: if you’re in the market, check out the reddit