Another Week Ends

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CJ Green / 2.26.16

Click here to listen to the accompanying episode of The Mockingcast, featuring a brand-new co-host!

1. Last Friday The Washington Post ran a brilliantly pessimistic article entitled, “No, honey, you can’t be anything you want to be. And that’s okay.”

6a00e553bbad8388340128768923f0970cWhen my son turned one, friends gifted him with an illustrated Snoopy the Dog book called “You Can Be Anything.” …Dressed in the garb of his chosen occupation, Snoopy is pictured as a “world-famous lawyer,” a “world-famous literary ace,” and even a “world-famous grocery clerk.” Snoopy is superlative in everything he does.

When my son tried to turn these flimsy paper pages with his pudgy little hands, they inevitably ripped. Which delighted him, so he ripped them more. I let him. I even helped him sometimes.

The “You Can Be Anything” mantra, especially when geared toward young children, reinforces the troubling reliance on willpower, which, as the article later points out, often leads to disappointment and self-loathing later on when lofty dreams aren’t realized.

Equally strange is the importance of being “world-famous.” In a culture already prone to exhibitionism (bloggers: guilty as charged) (and see me hate on Instagram below), is it really necessary to tutor young kids in the theories of justification-by fame?

Reischer, the article’s author, points out that higher expectations (read, perhaps, ‘laws’) often encourage cheating. “As one of the researchers notes: ‘When employees care exclusively about reaching a goal, and bad things can happen if they fail, cheating goes up.’” The same applies for goal-driven religious zealots and good-life-aspiring parents. Reischer emphasizes the “chance factor” in achieving “success”…how one person might have the same amount of talent as a world-famous superstar but was never lucky enough to find him or herself on the big stage. “This can be a bitter pill for those who want to believe that we control our own destiny, and that, therefore, our destiny reflects something about our internal qualities, such as ability, drive, or worth.”

snoopy-funny-picturesI hope what Snoopy is trying to remind us is that we should not be stopped by pernicious socio-cultural stereotypes…That said, it’s a statistical fact that not every child can grow up to be a Supreme Court justice, a sports star, or a best-selling author. Our futures are shaped by many forces beyond our control, including chance, genetics, and other accidents of birth. Then too, statistically speaking, most of us will be average (that’s the definition of average after all).

But so what? Let’s ask ourselves why we mourn the idea that our children’s futures are not limitless. Why do so many of us dislike the idea of having average children?

As a psychologist, I see books like “You Can Be Anything” as a mirror of our own anxieties about our children’s identities and futures. I suspect that many of us harbor the secret desire that our children’s accomplishments will reflect well on our parenting, and, more selflessly, that our children’s high achievement will guarantee their well-being.

2. I have the deepest respect for Terry Crews, whose recent series of ‘confessional’ videos both detail his struggles with pornography addiction and give hope to the masses of people who struggle with the very same issue, in secret.

“Some people say, ‘Hey, man … you can’t really be addicted to pornography.’ But I’m gonna tell you something: If day turns into night and you are still watching, you probably have got a problem. And that was me,” he said. “It changes the way you think about people. People become objects. People become body parts; they become things to be used rather than people to be loved.”

Crews said he kept his porn habit secret from everyone, including his wife. He and singer Rebecca King Crews have been married since 1990 and have five children.

Crews’s confessions are powerful, but not as powerful as the love with which they have been met:

Rebecca King Crews has not referenced her husband’s addiction in any of her recent social media posts. She posted a photo of her and Crews on Instagram last week with the caption “Love my boo!”

3. Definitely one of the funniest posts of the week: How to Tell If You’re In a Flannery O’Connor Story. From The Toast!

4. The New York Times published an article entitled, “Don’t Turn Away From the Art of Life,” by Arnold Weinstein (ht CB). Essentially Weinstein argues that even though the Humanities, as a course of study, don’t deliver paychecks, they are nevertheless important especially in modern education.

The arts can no longer compete with the prestige and financial payoffs promised by studying the STEM fields — a curriculum integrating science, technology, engineering and mathematics. These are all worthy disciplines that offer precise information on practically everything. But, often and inadvertently, they distort our perceptions; they even shortchange us.

The regime of information may well sport its specific truths, but it is locked out of the associations — subjective but also moral and philosophical — that bathe all literature. A new technology like GPS provides us with the most efficient and direct route to a destination, but it presupposes we know where we are going. Finding an address is one thing; finding one’s way in life is another. Even our smartest computers or most brilliant statisticians are at a loss when it comes to mapping our psychic landscapes.

Most importantly, the humanities cannot be measured. Weinstein asks, “When and how do you take your own measure? And what are you measuring?” Studies in arts and literature defy measurement; their value cannot be quantified and cannot therefore be controlled. “We enter a bookstore, see the many volumes arrayed there, and think: so much to read, so little time. But books do not take time; they give time, they expand our resources of both heart and mind.”

5. Over at The Wall Street Journal, a too-excited Michael S. Malone briefed us on the latest in ‘big data’ studies.

Snoopy_Comic_stripBig data, the tech story of a few years ago, is now beginning to show big results. The science of using powerful computers, ubiquitous sensors and the Web to crunch mountains of raw data to uncover previously invisible insights is increasingly used in businesses, universities and government agencies. It is transforming our understanding of everything from fetal development to cosmology.

Malone explains that this new technology can trace trends which will allow us to predict traffic patterns and contain urban crime; it can measure potential causes for autism and predict when clinical depression will strike.

When you can study billions, even trillions, of data points you begin to uncover forces and trends that until now have always been invisible to human observers. What if that impacted wisdom tooth you had at age 10 shortens your life 70 years later? Or if that one fugitive, missed heartbeat last week is a harbinger of cardiac trouble to come next month?

It is the discovery of this metadata that may prove to be big data’s real destiny: to teach us to see both ourselves and the natural world around us in ways we never could before.

In response to all this, I call DZ to the stand (from Issue 4 of The Mockingbird: The Work and Play Issue):

Data is everywhere. And where there is data, there is measurement. Even the most mundane task can, when quantified, become a venue for comparision. That’s the allure of all this previously unknown information, after all—to chart ourselves (and others) to find out how we’re doing, whether we are improving or getting worse. Which direction is your curve headed? Graphs are notoriously unforgiving.

6. Which brings us to “Lives of the Selfie-Centered,” as reported by, also, The Wall Street Journal. In her book, American Girls: Social Media and the Secret Lives of Teenagers, Nancy Jo Sales reminds us again of the fact that, for many people (both young and old), “Social media is life; social media destroys life.” And, given the actualization of big [brother] data, as seen above, social media has the increasing ability to defines its users. It seems, however, that social media itself does not destroy life but that, given ample opportunity, we destroy our own lives through social media.

And, as many of us may have already suspected, the force at the heart of this issue isn’t unique to “kids these days.” As evidence, teens who use Yik Yak (another social media platform) “are most often heard voicing concerns which echo those of young people throughout the ages, ‘Am I attractive? Will anyone ever love me? How can I be expected to put up with my annoying roommate?’” At the heart, the younger generation isn’t so different from previous ones. Adolescents are and have always been concerned with the same things: developing self-confidence, carving out a place in the world, etc etc.

Social media allows us to open up quicker, particularly because of the illusion of security, the distance provided by being one screen away from the invisible crowd.

Adolescence has always been an exciting, terrifying and dangerous time for the psyche and the body. But the nude pics and sexy selfies are something different. All this indecent exposure, sexual harassment, coercion, solicitation, ogling and slander happens in pixels. Selfies and the consumption of selfies cause no cuts, bruises, diseases or pregnancies. Yet the circulation of homebrew teen porn is somehow more squeamish-making, in the telling, than traditional tales of teenage sex. Maybe this is because the virtual violations are not just horrible; they are, rather, hallucinatory, with baroque multiplayer in-app “drama” standing in for actual existence, romance and fellowship.

Ms. Sales does report that some students, and parents, have begun to reject social media altogether, perhaps recognizing the ubiquity of porn and its potential to desensitize them, both morally and sexually.

Abstaining from social media is one responsive route–but that inevitably leads to desensitization/insensitivity towards users of social media, especially those who are as deep in it as the teens Sales interviewed. The abstainer might find himself floating above the conflict on a self-righteous cloud, unable to relate to the scandalous Snapchatter whose nudie pics got circulated around the cafeteria but for whom, and for all of us, Jesus Christ died anyway.

7. NPR wrote a heartening follow-up to Bob Ebeling’s story, entitled, “Your Letters Helped Challenger Shuttle Engineer Shed 30 Years of Guilt.” If you’re unfamiliar with the story (start by reading Adam’s post here), Ebeling was one of the NASA engineers responsible for launching the space shuttle Challenger in January 1986. The shuttle blew up “73 seconds after liftoff. Seven astronauts died. Cold weather and an O-ring failure were blamed, and Ebeling carried three decades of guilt.”

This latest NPR article reports that numerous people, engineers and NPR readers alike, wrote Ebeling letters of forgiveness. The massive response is moving in itself, but Ebeling’s immediate response was: “‘That’s easy to say…But after hearing that, I still have that guilt right here,’” he said pointing to his heart…‘You aren’t NASA. You aren’t Thiokol [the shuttle contractor]…I hadn’t heard from any of those people.’”

As lovely as the compassion of the wider community was, what Ebeling needed was forgiveness from the major authority figures for whom he had worked. At last one of the deputy directors of engineering at the Marshall Spaceflight Center, who supervised Thiokol’s production, contacted Ebeling.

“You and your colleagues did everything that was expected of you,” Hardy wrote. “The decision was a collective decision made by several NASA and Thiokol individuals. You should not torture yourself with any assumed blame.”

Hardy closed with a promise to pray for Ebeling’s physical and emotional health. “God bless you,” he wrote.

8. A really funny article from The New Yorker this week: “The Madness of Airline Elite Status,” by Gary Sernovitz. Sernovitz explains that frequent fliers with United Airlines can get mysteriously promoted to an elite status in “Global Services.” “But,” he writes, “the diabolical marketing genius of Global Services is that, as St. Paul said of grace, it cannot be earned by works. It is a gift. And God, in this case, is an algorithm of United Airlines.” Unexpectedly, the gift of a Global Services status can cause anxiety in frequent fliers as they try to please the enigmatic power that promoted them.

Absent posted guidelines, road-warrior message boards are filled with speculation about why certain travellers receive Global Services. Is it a measure of dollars spent? Segments flown? Behavior? Maybe United is watching us all, and you weren’t elevated because someone noticed you wiping Doritos dust off your fingers on the armrest in 17C. Maybe United is reading this essay…

One friend of mine always seemed to be dedicating two per cent of his mind to strategies to maintain his Global Services status. When, as a peer, I finally mentioned this to him, he corrected me: ninety-eight per cent of his mind was occupied with Global Services, with only two per cent left for everything else.

Which is so typical of human beings, to turn a gift into something to be curated and controlled.

We live in an era of behavioral psychology, and our contemporary conclusion is that human beings, most of the time, are absurd, but predictable machines…The endowment effect—we hate to lose what we already have—seems particularly apropos. There is also, of course, status anxiety, the inextinguishable desire for higher and more…But for most of us, I suspect, Global Services-Maintenance Anxiety Disorder arises because there is something of the consolation prize in being part of Global Services…Spending large amounts of time in a metal tube for work isn’t fun, but if you have achieved recognized excellence at it, it may distract you from the time you spend doing that rather than summiting the Rockies or learning how to flamenco.”