Friday, November 14, 2014

Head, Heart, and ...

It appears that a lot of my thinking these days tends to circle life advice / big knowledge kinda stuff.  (Big life changes thrust upon you can spur that. On top of divorce, moving to a tiny apartment with two kids, they reorged my division at work and when the music stopped, there was no chair for me.  Starting my new job in December.  Plus, my car is dying, so I'm car-shopping, too.)

Oddly, some of this stuff I've happened upon by sheer accident, so maybe the universe (or a more divine source, as I'm a believer*) is trying to send me messages in a bottle, as it were. 
*TLD: Some would argue this is not a statement of belief, but I smile every time I hear it in the song ("Standing Outside a Broken Phone Booth With Money in My Hand" by the band Primitive Radio Gods):
We sit outside and argue all night long
About a God we've never seen
But never fails to side with me
One of my favorite discoveries is Brain Pickings, which is unique (as far as I know) in that it not only reviews books, but gives you a taste of a central idea to whet your whistle, or to wave you off if it does not intrigue.  Warning: Hours may be lost upon the first couple visits. 

The first article I happened upon was "5½ Timeless Commencement Speeches to Teach You to Define Your Own Success".

Which drove me to kind of gorge on Commencement Speeches.  My favorite were the collected Kurt Vonnegut speeches: If This Isn't Nice, What Is?

I have excerpts of my favorite theme from those in a bit, but first, other ones that stuck out were:

This great snippet from one by Jim Carrey (yes, that actor guy).

My perennial favorite, "Advice, like youth, probably just wasted on the young" by Mary Schmich (aka "Wear Sunscreen".)

Some would like Anna Quindlen's book "A Short Guide to a Happy Life" which exists in print form primarily because "conservatives" protested her giving the commencement address (we'll talk more about assholes later in this post). I found it OK, and it has the distinction of bringing to a wider audience the phrase: "No man ever said on his deathbed I wish I had spent more time in the office." You can find the entirety of it here online.

I lerved "George Saunder's Advice to Graduates".  It is very Vonnegut-esque. Especially the conclusion.

Which brings me to the common theme of Vonnegut's Commencement addresses. I present all three versions of it, all from If This Isn't Nice, What Is?, because I liked the comparison and contrast, and how he constantly circled this idea, trying to say it just right.

Here's one:
Now those of you who get married or are married, when you fight with your spouse, what each of you will be saying to the other one actually is, "You're not enough people. You're only one person. I should have hundreds of people around."
Yes, and let's find a way to get ourselves and others extended families again. A husband and a wife and some kids aren't a family, any more than a diet Pepsi and three Oreos is a breakfast. Twenty, thirty, forty people - that's a family. Marriages are all busting up. Why? Mates are saying to each other, because they're human, "You're not enough people for me."
And another:
Only two major subjects remain to be covered: Loneliness and boredom. No matter what age any of us is now, we are going to be bored and lonely during what remains of our lives.

We are so lonely because we don't have enough friends and relatives. Human beings are supposed to live in stable, like-minded, extended families of fifty people or more.

Your class spokesperson mourned the collapse of the institution of marriage in this country. Marriage is collapsing because our families are too small. A man cannot be a whole society to a woman, and a woman cannot be a whole society to a man. We try, but it is scarcely surprising that so many of us go to pieces.
This is part of an idea that Vonnegut pondered much, a lot of which ended up in his invented religion Bokonism.  Having a failed marriage, I can personally vouch for the above probably being true.  My (then) wife and I did tend toward the insular.  If you are married, I'd suggest expanding your family; Vonnegut felt was important enough to mention several times. (He also said a lot about semicolons, too, but I still waffle on that.)

Finally, on the advice side, Barking Up the Wrong Tree is a compendium of life advice compiled from everywhere.  Again, you may lose a few hours the first time you visit.

Conversely, there is another side of things to consider.  Yes, advice and strategies on how to do things right can go very far, but, to quote Steven Soderberg:  "It takes one asshole to ruin the whole thing."

Here's the quote in context, and the rest of the interview after is very much worth the read:
The analogy that I use is you throw a party with 40 people you've selected. Handpicked. It's gonna be a great party. It takes one asshole to ruin the whole thing. That's it. One. The problem with the world is one asshole comes up with a really bad idea and now we're all taking our shoes off at the airport. One asshole in a cave and look [points out to New York City]. That's what makes this so hard. It just takes on[e] [sic] asshole.
I have seen this truth up close and personal.  We had a major asshole at the job I'll be leaving this week.  His behavior was so toxic it corrupted our environment for years, and in some ways, it will never recover. 

The damage that assholes do has actually been studied and quantified.  Two great books on it are:
- The No Asshole Rule by Robert Sutton (here's a wiki article on it, and Sutton's wonderful blog)
- Assholes: A Theory by Aaron James

The short version is assholes are simply dangerous and need to be contained, mitigated or eliminated from your life.

I'll close with a couple examples of assholes we're facing on a societal level these days:

"Moaning Moguls" by James Surowiecki
Whiny, misguided and misinformed uber-wealthy folks need some damned reality patrol.

"Men, Get On Board With Misandry" by Jess Zimmerman
The scourge of Identity Politics has finally started to truly spread beyond college campuses. In some of my favorite liberal web rags, I've seen the words "patriarchy" and (Dear Lord) "cis" used un-ironically and with a straight face.  You'd think colleges closing down their Identity Politics stained and besieged Literature departments would've been enough to make these haters rethink what the fuck they are doing, but no, it's leaking into our popular culture.  Thus far it appears that most of the body is rejecting it like a food poisoned taco, but it is infesting some poor innocent souls who don't know what they've stepped into. Stanley Crouch said it best way back on "Politically Incorrect": "Alienation has become a commodity that you sell on an academic market."

Upon thinking about it, perhaps you should read these two things first, and then go back up to the shiny, happy, positive stuff at the top to get the taste out of your mouth.



Anonymous said...

Yahm, interesting thoughts. But I’m not sure you’ve considered the implications of putting two of those thoughts together. Vonnegut says a family should be ~50 people; but Soderberg says it just takes one asshole. Put those two together, and you can understand why so many people in the developed world have ditched their extended families. I can point to the example of my own clan: our “one asshole” was an older male relative who sexually abused everyone he could get his hands on. Thank gawd, my father moved us far, far away from the situation when I was very young. I missed out on having lots of relatives around, but I also missed out on, let’s just say, other things.

Anonymous said...

I wouldn't disagree with you at all.

However, I would point out that there are many exceptions to the general idea to mitigate worse things.

For example, a management principle is "don't manage to the exception" which means don't write policy around the one bad thing that happened and likely won't happen again.

So, in your case, yes, your old family is worth getting away from due to the evil asshole.

But let's hope that's not the case with your new one.

-- Yahmdallah