Tag Archives: the human condition

And especially, Tyrion

Do you have a Kindle? What do you think of it? (We’re getting to Tyrion, really.)

I only use mine for travel, because I tend to forget, instantly, anything I read on it. Straight into the memory hole it goes. Am I alone in this? Reading on a Kindle doesn’t involve the physical acts of handling a book, feeling the quality of the paper on your fingers, noting the typeface. You don’t put a well-loved Kindle book on a shelf in your home, where it sparks a brief recollection every time you see it. For me, anyway, physical engagement with a paper-and-ink book drives the language and ideas that much deeper into my mind.

It took me a while to figure this out. Now I only download public-domain classics and guilty-pleasure kinds of things, for the most part. I did read the “Game of Thrones” books on my Kindle, because one, I obviously wasn’t going to schlep 20 pounds of Machiavellian saga with me everywhere we went, and two, the HBO series keeps me from forgetting the story exists.

And while reading it, I remembered the existence of another book, one of my recent favorites, Andrew Solomon’s Far From the Tree, which lives on my Kindle and hence not in my memory.

Far From the Tree is about children who, as “apples,” do indeed fall “far from the tree,” by being fundamentally different from their parents in some crucial way. What is the nature of the difference, and how does it affect family relationships? Solomon writes about transgendered folks, the criminal children of law-abiding parents, prodigies, schizophrenics … and dwarfs.

So of course I had to reread that chapter. “All dwarfs are bastards in their fathers’ eyes,” says Tyrion. The first and most obvious tragedy of Tyrion’s life is his horrifying mistreatment at the hands of his family, followed by the sad fact that he is an exceptionally romantic and lustful man, with a face and body that does not inspire reciprocal feelings in the ladies.

This dude would do okay with the ladies. Peter Dinklage is handsome. Tyrion Lannister, per the books, is quite hideous: patchwork hair, mismatched eyes, and his battle wound didn’t sexily highlight his cheekbones, it halved his nose. The show also pulls way back on the extent of Sandor Clegane’s burn scars, but never mind. And don’t even get me started on those lame-ass “direwolves” cough*German shepherds*cough*.

Solomon doesn’t note this explicitly, but one of the fascinating aspects of the dwarf chapter is the extent to which dwarf bodies are associated with entertainment. From court jesters to P.T. Barnum to dwarf-tossing, dwarfs have been associated with show business, with laughter and clowning. I don’t think any other disability or physical difference has that association. Dwarfism is a highly visible difference without an accompanying disability*, which keeps dwarfs constantly on display without any moderating sympathy. Dwarfs live in the spotlight.

Many people like to be in the spotlight, of course, and people who spend a lot of time in it often get very, very good at being there, and it’s fun to do stuff you’re good at. This puts dwarfs who want an entertainment career on their own terms in a difficult position. Tyrion’s noble birth precludes him from becoming a court jester, a career he would have excelled at (trenchant and witty, he’s the Jon Stewart of Westeros). In the books, at least, he had become a good tumbler and floor gymnast, but his father believed such capers were beneath the dignity of a Lannister. (How can we even talk about dwarfs without prejudice when our very language is structured around concepts of big versus small, above versus below?) The loathsome Joffrey brings in dwarf clowns who “joust” while riding pigs and dogs to entertain his wedding guests, which sparks a brutal series of power plays between him and Tyrion.

An NPR story on Peter Dinklage reports: “‘He knows he has no skills with the sword,’ Dinklage says, ‘and this is a world that is really deeply violent. Military rules. He would not be able to survive in that world, given his own strength. So he beats people to the punchline — he’s entertaining.'”

Yet look how convoluted Tyrion’s relationship to his own “entertainingness” is. Tyrion is naturally witty. He becomes even more witty by being constantly in the spotlight. He uses his wit as a way to be accepted, to defuse conflict, to prove his value. At the same time he can’t allow that wit to make him seem even more amusingly inconsequential in the eyes of big people, he can’t allow himself to become merely “that funny little man” and nothing else. In the books, at least, Tyrion’s wit occasionally (more than occasionally) gets him in trouble, and the reader feels that this is to some extent the point. Tyrion’s tongue is his only weapon, and a truly good weapon poses some danger even to its owner.

This is part of the tyranny of prejudice–the way it causes people to second-guess their own nature. The self-consciousness that never goes away.

*Achondroplastic dwarfism, though not a disability per se, does come with a range of skeletal and organ vulnerabilities. That’s is part of the reason I’m on board with this theory–Tyrion must be part magical, or he’d be crippled if not dead from the various physical traumas he’s suffered.

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Why this ferret matters

30 seconds of a ferret trying to work up its courage to take a giant leap, h/t Gawker.

It’s a little Friday Ferret Funtime for all my readers, but if I can geek out for a minute, the fact that you’re laughing is what I’m all about. This is why I spend my life reading and writing and talking about psychology and theater. Ferrets and humans are different species with very different bodies and brains. And yet, you know exactly what this little guy is experiencing, don’t you? You know. There is something universal about motivation and the body language we–ferret, dog, human, whatever–use to express our complicated relationship with it. You’re not laughing at this ferret because what it’s doing is incomprehensible and weird. You’re laughing at the familiarity. It’s your kid at bat. It’s you before a job interview. It’s me at my first Open Mic Night.

We are all this ferret.

UPDATE: A friend of mine noted “this reminds me of pursuing a career in the arts.”

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A Halloween story from Miss Conduct

I talk a lot about how art and pop culture give us narratives to shape our experience. A fair amount of recent research suggests that fiction can help empathy develop. But there are limits to how much stories can teach us to empathize, as my Halloween tale shows.

When I was in junior high I was an outcast and unpopular. In art class, some of the popular kids asked me to share a work table with them as a joke. I knew it was a joke, but accepted anyway, because no one else wanted to share with me, and because I had already learned the trick of accepting bullies’ “kindnesses” at face value, because you could often trap them into the role of the good guy and they wouldn’t be bright enough to escape it.

Near Halloween, “Carrie” was shown on television.

The next day the popular kids at my art table were talking about how scary it was, and how awfully Carrie had been treated. And how it was funny, because she wasn’t even ugly, they pointed out, Sissy Spacek was actually kind of cute, so it was weird that people would make fun and bully her.

I didn’t say a word.

And I haven’t told this story until now.

Happy Halloween. The monsters are due on Maple Street any minute.

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Stephen King is making Ebola worse

Salon addresses Ebola panic:

Ebola, at least from the American perspective, is something like the great white shark. It’s dangerous, all right, but the odds that it’s going to get you are vanishingly small. Fear of large predators and fear of the plague are deeply encoded in human experience and handed down from our ancestors. Maybe an instinctive response is invoked that we can’t resist. But in both cases, the self-refueling cycle of media panic is an epidemic that’s almost certainly more destructive than the original phenomenon itself — and the fear is not really about what we claim it’s about.

Author Andrew O’Hehir identifies the usual suspects for our collective overreaction: cognitive biases honed by evolution, fear-mongering by Fox News and its ilk, and the fact that the Ebola epidemic fits neatly, oh, far too neatly, into the kinds of stories we’ve already learned to tell and read:

Indeed, I’d suggest that Ebola-panic (like shark-panic) is shaped and informed by fictional thrillers — in this case, yarns about civilization-destroying plagues and the zombie apocalypse and so forth. It also taps into our cultural narcissism and xenophobia, into the paranoid imperial perception that American civilization is the center of the world and also that it’s precariously balanced, and constantly under attack from dangerous outsiders. All it takes is a handful of African visitors with cardboard suitcases and undiagnosed infections, and next thing you know the cable goes out at Mom’s house and we have to eat the neighbors.

Theater and science bump up against each other in all kinds of ways, and one of those ways is understanding the psychological science of storytelling. Humans are a narrative species, we put everything in story form–but reality is under no obligation to actually unwind itself like a well-told tale. In real life events may occur that do not foretell, call back to, or symbolize anything at all. They just happen.

Storytelling can be crucial to good science, but one thing science does is to slap us out of that storifying instinct, and give us a way to demonstrate reality to other people besides telling stories about it. Artists tell. Scientists show.

I’m struggling now to have a rational response to the Ebola crisis. Practically every friend I have has posted the NPR “You’re Not Going to Get Ebola Already” graph:

… and I believe it, I really do.

But if there were going to be a zombie apocalypse … this is what the beginning of it would look like.

I’m a Stephen King fan going back years, see, and what people who think they don’t like Stephen King don’t realize is how utterly mundane and realistic his work is. Until the werewolves show up. But until then, it’s ordinary people living ordinary lives. A New England couple, say, who are doing basically okay, although she’s a little bored in her career and he’s coming off a big project and feeling burned out and they’ve both got some eldercare worries hanging over their heads and are planning a vacation in the Southwest to recharge their relationship.

And as he’s digging out from a mountain of licensing agreements and P&L statements and she’s looking up dude ranches in Flagstaff, they see the headlines and video clips from Africa … and then the quieter news of one patient identified in Dallas … and an editorial in the nation’s paper of record about what “virologists are loath to discuss openly but are definitely discussing in private.”

This is exactly how Stephen King would write it.

And stories fit in my head better than statistics. I don’t have to behave irrationally, and I can despise the fearmongering and xenophobia that people are bringing to this situation, but I can’t respond to it as though I haven’t spent decades reading and watching stories that began exactly like this.

Art will always have unintended consequences. Stephen King is a great humanitarian, a good writer, and by all accounts one hell of a mensch. But he’s taught us how horror looks–not in a Transylvanian castle, but in a Somerville three-decker. He’s taught us to see the terror in the everyday, he’s pulled it out of the gothic tradition and pushed it into comedies of manners and coming-of-age tales. So that now, when we see some loose thread of worry, it’s so easy to imagine pulling it until the entire garment of our comfortable-if-annoying middle-class lives unravels.

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Manners change

My favorite etiquette reference book, the 17th edition of Emily Post, copyrighted 2004, begins thus:

“While scientific and medical advancements have made life easier over the years, the stresses and strains that have come with population density, technological advancements, all-pervasive news and entertainment media, and a redefinition of the family have resulted in a whole new set of challenges. People behave no worse than they used to (rudeness and other social offenses are nothing new), but the pressures of modern life make it all the more difficult to stay civil.”

My fifth edition 1943 Emily Post Blue Book ends with this:

“Etiquette like our living language is seemingly rigid but actually fluid. The times in which we live rare constantly producing new and, therefore, puzzling situations. We gladly accept forms that are helpful but we have little patience with those whose purpose is the preservation of form for form’s sake. It has long been my particular occupation not only to urge keeping those precepts and customs of practical use and to discard those which no longer serve, but also to meet the new problems constantly arising. It is this increasing fusing together of the new with the old, that has kept this book from becoming a collection of dry-dust maxims, to which ‘Finis’ might otherwise have been written twenty years ago.”

My friend Lisa, an English professor at Emmanuel College, gave me a wonderful 1962 Chandler Guide to Beauty, Style, and Poise, which features the following in its etiquette section:

“In our present-day society, social usage is a dynamic, changing cog in the wheel of social progress. It is interesting to refer to ‘The Ladies’ Guide to True Politeness and Correct Manners’ by Miss Leslie. In 1864, a lady did not go out by herself after dark, She sent her male caller home by ten o’clock and never called him by his first name. She would not think of corresponding with any man except her husband or a member of her family. Nowadays the telephone, radio and television, to mention just a few inventions, have changed our way of living and our social usages as well. In large cities, it is even considered proper now for a young woman to go to a man’s apartment for dinner, because it is his home.”

Change is the only constant! Do you have any etiquette books, old or new? Do they include a passage about how times have changed and manners must be based on common sense and kindness rather than clinging to old conventions? My book has a rather lengthy one, of course. At the time I thought I might have actually said something new. Now I’m merely content to have said it well.

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More on beating procrastination

So there’s a necessary task that only you can do, and you are capable of doing it. Except you keep putting it off until tomorrow — whether “it” is getting back to the gym, writing thank-you notes for wedding presents, getting past the second chapter of your novel, or filling out your annual employee evaluations. Some tips for beating a procrastination habit:

1. Find meaning in your task. People are most likely to procrastinate on work that they find meaningless. I wrote last month about how going to the gym had finally started to feel worthwhile, that running in place and picking things up and putting them down had come to seem like a good use of my time. (This is a good technique for academic procrastination, obviously.)

2. Or don’t. Maybe you’re putting off something that really is meaningless, like the week’s TPS reports, but you still have to do it. Don’t insult your own intelligence by trying to find the Tao of Paperwork. Either find a way to work through them with frequent rewards and distractions, or else play an efficiency game to make the task at least marginally challenging. Roald Dahl used to play “shaving golf,” and try to completely shave his face in as few strokes as possible. There was a lovely scene in last season’s “Mad Men” in which Don recounts how he used to write assigned essays in English class to the exact minimal word requirements — five paragraphs, fifty words each.

And there are times, also, when we procrastinate because the task has too much meaning. Starting our novel. Applying to graduate school. Pricing condos. The trick here is often to fool yourself into doing your work while pretending that you aren’t. You aren’t planning to move, you’re just going to open houses with a friend as a lark. I do this with my writing, often. Despite years of experience, I can still get spooked sometimes when I sit down “to write.” So I’ve developed a way of taking notes, and then gradually expanding and reordering them until whatever I’m working on is done. So I go right from “Note Taking” to “Editing” without ever stopping at that anxiety-producing station called “Writing.”

3. Build in rewards. If there is no way to find a task inherently rewarding (or at least, not sufficiently so), sweeten the pot. Take a sauna after your workout. Take a break for Words with Friends after each five exams you grade. Head to a coffee shop and enjoy people-watching and pastry along with your paperwork.

The trick here is to attach the reward to the task, so that the entire experience becomes more pleasant, and you’ll condition yourself to regard the task as less aversive in the future. If you impose a strict “first we write our thank-you notes, then we get to go play,” you’re reinforcing the notion that writing thank-you notes is a nasty chore. When possible, find some way to reward yourself during the task.

4. Other people are not necessarily a reward. A lot of the advice on avoiding procrastination revolves around making the task a more social one: joining a writers’ group, getting a workout partner, and so on. This is good advice, but it conflates two things: other people as a source of accountability and help, and social interaction as a reward.

For some people, that conflation doesn’t matter. But if you are in the minority of introverts, which I know many of my readers are, being with other people is not necessarily a reward. Even if you are extroverted, the people who can give you the most useful advice, and to whom you feel most accountable, may not be the people whose company you find most rewarding.

So if the writers’ group or workout partner isn’t working for you, figure out why. Maybe they’re fun but soft, and don’t hold you accountable. Or maybe they are great at keeping you motivated and providing advice, but the relationships feel more like part of the task than something intrinsically enjoyable.

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Holy procrastinating pigeons!

Some thoughts on procrastination, from my notes for yesterday’s show:

Pigeons procrastinate. This puts the phenomenon in perspective, for me. Maybe for some people it’s a deep psychoanalytic conflict that leads them to put things off, but pigeons do it too. Procrastination might not be all that complex, and it’s definitely natural. In fact, one thing that came up over and over again as I was looking at the research is that the people who beat procrastination are the ones who acknowledge that it’s a genuine temptation that can’t simply be willed away. You aren’t going to be a better person tomorrow. So what are you going to do today that will make tomorrow-you do the right thing?

If you find that you procrastinate a lot, here are some questions to ask:

1. How’s your health? One simple reason that people put off ’till tomorrow is because they do not have the physical or mental energy today. If procrastination is a real problem for you, take a look at your health and schedule first. Are you getting enough sleep? Do you exercise and eat well? Do you have any chronic conditions, mild or severe, that affect your energy level and need to be managed?

2. Do you really want to do the thing you’re putting off? Generally, we procrastinate on tasks that we don’t like doing. Which then leads to the subversive question that grownups get to ask themselves: Do I actually have to do this? Is the task you are postponing really necessary in the first place? If it is, are you the only person who can do it? Or can you outsource it?

3. Do you know how to do the thing you’re putting off? If the task must be done and you are the only one who can do it, do you know how? I don’t mean do you know what the finished state ought to look like — I mean do you know how to start, and how to get from that starting point to the end? A couple of months ago I answered a question from a woman who got writers’ block about thank-you notes. (I suspect a not-insignificant percent of late and or never-sent TYNs are the result of bad nerves more than bad manners.) I wrote, in part:

You can get over your gratitudinal perfectionism. Develop a formula for thank you notes, and then don’t overthink it. Your friends and relatives aren’t dissecting your missive as if it were some long-lost Rosicrucian manuscript in a Dan Brown novel. Here’s the recipe I use: The first sentence is an “I” statement about the gift (“I’m sitting here wrapped up in the afghan you knitted me,” “I just returned from spending my gift certificate at Williams-Sonoma”). In the second sentence, I thank the giver — and I don’t worry about sounding cliched, because the fact is there are only so many ways to say “thank you.” One or two more sentences compliment the giver and express love, support, and/or hopes of seeing each other in person soon.

If you don’t know how to get started in the task you are postponing, ask for help.

4. Is procrastination rewarded? This is primarily about workplace procrastination. What kind of task-management style makes sense in your workplace? Does getting your work done punctually mean that you have less stress, and more time to create a first-rate product? Or does it mean that your idea gets hung up for everyone else to take potshots at? Does your boss take deadlines seriously, or are extensions routinely granted? Is the nature of the work relatively predictable, so that work can be planned in advance, or are there constant interruptions and emergencies?

Maybe you feel that you are procrastinating, but in fact you are managing your work in a rational way given the parameters of your job. If this is the case, think about how you’d like to manage your work (keeping in mind that you’re not going to be a better person tomorrow!) and whether the environment you are in supports the work style you’d like to have. If it doesn’t, that isn’t a dealbreaker — just something you have to be conscious of. When I was writing my dissertation I was also working four days a week at a job that rewarded putting things off until the last minute (because if you didn’t, your work would be subject to endless revisions). I had to be disciplined about not letting my “good” work procrastination habits become bad study procrastination habits.

So let’s say you are physically and mentally fit to do your task, which is necessary and can only be done by you, and that you know how and have no rational reason to procrastinate. Then what? I’ll do another post later on tips for avoiding procrastination.

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Of apes and Alzheimer’s

Mr. Improbable and I saw “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” last night, and enjoyed it greatly. For one thing, it does a marvelous job of allowing viewers to fulfill their fantasies of what they would do if they had the strength and flexibility of a chimpanzee. If you’ve ever daydreamed during a staff meeting of leaping aboard the conference table, ululating, pounding your chest, crashing through the windows and heading for the hills — and I know I’m not the only one, people — this is your movie.

It’s also, once you get past the science fiction and special effects, a fairly poignant look at life in the sandwich generation. The human protagonist, biochemist Will Rodman (yes, I know) lives with his Alzheimer’s-afflicted father. When Will’s research on a cure for Alzheimer’s is halted, he winds up adopting a baby chimp from the drug trials.

Of course, it’s Will’s experiments that ultimately lead to the rise of the apes (as well as the most hilariously blunt and effective elevator pitch in the history of venture capital, when Will, riding the lift with his boss, announces, “I injected my father with it. It works.”). But Will, despite the phallic determination of his name, is no ego-driven mad scientist. He is motivated by love more than money, power, or even knowledge: he wants his beloved father, a classical pianist and Shakespeare scholar, back. And he wants to protect his adopted “child,” Caesar. In the meantime, it would be nice if he could get his boss off his back, and find time to romance his live-in girlfriend.

Sound familiar? Will is pressed from every direction, and criticized no matter what he does. Look at James Franco’s face when the home-health aide angrily tells him his father should be in a facility. When the veterinarian points out that Caesar won’t stay a juvenile forever. He knows. He is doing his damnedest as a caretaker, and he knows he is failing. He’s not the son, the father, the lover, the scientist he wants to be. Every choice entails a sacrifice — not only the big choices, like “do I inject my father with the experimental drug,” but the little ones, like “do I look my lover in the eye when she is talking, or do I scan the room to make sure Dad and Caesar aren’t in trouble?” And he makes wrong choices, and decisions with all kinds of unintended consequences.

And he loses his father anyway, despite his best efforts, like all of us do.

And his “child” gets involved with drugs, and radical politics, and finds a group of friends that Will can’t relate to. Maybe it was his fault for being too involved with his father, and his career. Maybe it was inevitable.

We do our best for those we love, and we pray to God that our best efforts won’t somehow make things dreadfully, dreadfully worse.

And we hope we’re praying to a God who looks like us.

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Death is what happens when you are making other plans

Wednesday before last, June 1, I flew into KCI airport, rented a car, and drove down to the Ozarks to visit the ConductMom. As I’ve been doing for a few summers now, I would spend a few days with her, and then go to Kansas City to catch up with friends for another few days. I was planning to drive to KC on Sunday morning, and my first order of business was a brunch date with J., one of my oldest friends from high school, and his partner, W.

On Friday night I got a call that W. had died in his sleep.

He was 42.

I’d only met W. once, last summer. He was honest and immediate and complicated, and we became friends instantly. This is rare for me; I’m a slow-to-warm-up baby. W. is one of the few people who broke through reserve that in one go. Both he and J. are great science-fiction buffs, and I’d urged them to consider coming out for Readercon some August in the not-too-distant-future.

I stayed with J. for a night, and was able to attend both the viewing and the funeral for W. There are many stories to tell from the past week, but they belong to others, not to me. I will say that the funeral was one of those rare services that does what a religious service is supposed to do: W.’s life was celebrated, his death was mourned, his values were lifted up, and I truly believe that everyone present left that day with a commitment to be a better person.

For myself, that commitment is grappling with a profound exhaustion in order to find expression. At the moment, I am left with the strong belief that the only things that matter in the world are simple pleasures, and the kindnesses that we can do for one another. Horizons may broaden in the future, but for now, this is enough.

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One of those moments

Have you ever done something you didn’t mean to?

Of course you have.

Have you ever, once you or other people became aware of it, then kept doing that thing, because even though you didn’t want to be doing it, somehow stopping would be even more awkward?


A friend of mine posted a story about the first situation on Facebook today:

OK, so when I kicked open my front door and yelled “Peekaboo!” it was directed at my two-year-old, who was hiding on the front porch. But I don’t think the burly, bearded guy from the DPW saw it that way.

… and his story reminded me of one about the second situation. (I prefer doing this story in person, for reasons that will become obvious.) Several years ago a friend of mine was home one night when the phone rang. Assuming that it was his girlfriend, who was working late, he whimsically answered the phone in a Muppet voice.

It wasn’t his girlfriend. Instead, her father was on the other line. And because her father was extremely agreeable and more than a little Aspie, he replied in a Muppet voice. Which made my friend feel obligated to continue in said voice, because to stop doing the Muppet voice is to acknowledge that you have been doing the Muppet voice in the first place.

So two grown men, enmeshed in an already-awkward relationship, conducted an entire phone conversation (“Do you know when she’ll be home?” “Probably late, do you want her to call tomorrow?”) … in Muppet voices.

To the best of my knowledge, they never discussed the incident.

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Exile, fandom, acne, hair, dance

And I’m back, everyone! The break was nice, although I never had any sort of great Passover-y moment of revelation. One thing I found myself thinking of a lot was the people who were born and died during those 40 years in the wilderness, who had no memory of Egypt and didn’t live long enough to see the Promised Land. I’ve never greatly identified with Moses — the Lord is always sayething unto him, for one thing, and the Lord doesn’t sayeth unto me very often, if at all. But those cynical Gen-Xers of Exodus, tired of the Greatest Generation’s war stories, wondering if they’re anything to hope for, really … them, I get.

Some good reading from last week: this article in the Globe about fandom. It focuses on sports fans, but many of the dynamics are true of fans of anything else (a celebrity, a television show, a band) as well. Are you a “fan” of anything, to the point of buying a t-shirt, following someone on Twitter, or joining a group (online or off) for the purposes of discussing that thing? I’ve become a fairly avid fan of several television shows, most notably “Deadwood,” to the point of writing fan fiction and buying a “Star & Bullock Hardware” shirt.

A piece in Slate on why humans are the only animals to have acne, and also the only ones that would be psychologically bothered by it. (Evolution is a cruel trickster.) New treatments have made acne rarer among teens, but that very fact might increase the suffering of those who can’t afford treatment, or for whom nothing has been successful.

I was fascinated to read that blogger S.E. Smith recently cut her long hair very short, and found that she was darned near considered antisocial for wanting to keep it her business what she did with the ponytail. Specifically, she faced a lot of pressure to donate her hair, a practice which has gone from being a nifty option for people suddenly in possession of a braid no longer attached to their head, to becoming near-mandatory, the default option. The thing you have to explain if you don’t do it.

This bothers me. A great deal. Two years ago, I wrote about a New Yorker article on people who donate kidneys to strangers. My reaction to it then was strong and visceral, and has since become more focused. This notion of one’s body as a resource that may be owed to strangers is deeply problematic. As I wrote two years ago:

I would not donate a kidney to a stranger, nor do I feel any sense of a moral call to do so merely on the grounds that I could. My body and its functions are not some form of wealth that I am hoarding like Scrooge McDuck: they are constitutive of my identity. They are ME. And no one has an a priori right to my blood, my organs, my womb. I may choose to share, but that is my choice. Having two kidneys when others have none is not the same has having two loaves of bread when others have none. The body is different. I do not owe anyone access to my body.

As an etiquette matter, let’s all take note that “Did you donate your hair?” is a question better left unasked.

Finally, on a less existential note, let this hilarious pantomime/interpretive dance by David Armand brighten your Monday. I love this guy’s work! Am I the only one who finds brilliantly talented physical comedians way sexy? (See also: Danny Pudi.)

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Direct communication

I did an e-mail interview last week in which I was asked “to come up with a couple situations, in your experience, that don’t necessarily require the most polite response. It would also be great if you could comment on how to handle them … This small piece is going within a larger piece about etiquette, so we wanted to highlight the situations where you shouldn’t allow yourself to be walked all over.”

There was more to it than that, but this was the basic idea. Which I found a frustrating question, because I think that’s a misreading of what “politeness” is. Here’s what I wrote in response:

Politeness is always important, but you can assert yourself while being civil and kind about it. Some people think that “good manners” means being terribly euphemistic and fancy all the time, but it really doesn’t. A well-mannered person is a person who can change her style to suit the occasion. Here are some times when direct communication is the best:

1. When you are in charge. When you are the boss (whether at work, hosting a party, or running a community event), act like it. This doesn’t mean barking commands — but it does mean giving clear directives and feedback. You aren’t being “polite” by making other people read your mind or reassure you that you’re really in control.

2. When “subtle hints don’t work.” As an advice columnist, I am constantly amazed by the number of people who write to me about clueless co-workers, spouses, roommates, or neighbors, whose behavior drives the Letter Writer righteously batty, and who don’t pick up on “hints” to change.

If hinting doesn’t work, stop hinting! There’s nothing wrong with asking a co-worker not to microwave broccoli because the smell bothers you; or telling your spouse that silly as it may be, Valentine’s Day is important to you, so get some game next year; or asking a roommate not to use the last of your milk.

3. When the answer is “No.” A “no” can be final and commanding (to a pushy stranger at a bar) or sweet and regretful (to a friend who wants you to volunteer yet again to organize the school auction), but when “No” is the answer you need to give, give it. Apologize only if necessary, and never offer excuses.

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Charlie Sheen

Am I the only person in America who hasn’t seen him yet? It seems half my Facebook and Twitter feeds are Charlie Sheen jokes — my friends, not just the media, are obsessed.

I can’t get with it.

This is a man who has damaged other people and himself multiple times. I’m not a clinical psychologist, and as noted I haven’t seen the interviews, but you can’t avoid hearing the quotes, and it’s obvious that Mr. Sheen is not in his right mind. The extent to which he is consciously driving his own downfall as opposed to being exploited by the media, doesn’t seem all that relevant to me. Either way, it’s not something I want to observe. Either way, it’s not something I want to participate in. Over the weekend, I posted a link to LOLcats captioned with Charlie Sheen quotes on Facebook, but I took it down almost immediately.

I’m not claiming some moral high ground here. Maybe I’m a deeply sensitive soul, maybe I’m too thick to get the joke. I try hard never to mistake the latter for the former. Some of the most compassionate and also media-savvy people I know are posting some of the best jokes.

What’s your take on it all?

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Handshakes, pot, and chickens

Dan Ariely, behavioral economist and all-around mensch, has a post up about the advantages of “handshake” agreements — contracts that do not have exhaustive thoroughness as their goal.

Even lawyers see the risks of complete contracts. As part of my research, I asked the dean of Duke’s law school, David Levi, if I could take a look at the school’s honor code. Expecting a detailed contract written by lawyers for lawyers, I was shocked to find that the code went something like this: If a student does anything the faculty doesn’t approve of, the student won’t be allowed to take the bar exam. It was, in essence, a handshake agreement!

“Imagine that a student decides to deal drugs and raise chickens in his apartment,” Levi said. “Now suppose that our code of conduct bans many activities but doesn’t address pot or chickens. The student has honored the code. But does Duke really want that student to become a lawyer?”

Complete contracts are inevitably imperfect. So what’s better: a complete contract that mutates goodwill into legal trickery, or an incomplete contract that rests on the understanding we share of appropriate and inappropriate behavior?

Dan’s logic is sound (more on the dean’s in a moment), but the rub lies in his phrase “the understanding we share.” Handshake agreements work to the extent that there are shared norms of behavior. But even assuming the greatest goodwill in the world, there are different styles of handshakes. “Diversity” doesn’t only mean intriguing variations in skin color, appealingly displayed like the bridge of the Enterprise or a Benneton ad. Diversity may mean fundamentally different beliefs about time, personal responsibility, power and authority. These different assumptions, if unaddressed, can cause things to go sideways despite the best efforts of the people involved.

As far as the dean’s point is concerned, I disagree. When one is speaking of a dorm room, either pot or chickens might create insurmountable logistical problems, but neither are ethically problematic. In fact, a person raising either one would of necessity develop a patience, an attention to detail, a sense of humor, and a humility by which many lawyers might be improved.

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Learning social skills

A friend of mine posted a link to this article on Facebook last week. It’s about a program to teach social skills to kids who don’t naturally pick that sort of thing up:

Yet until now, it’s always been assumed making friends is something that young people should learn to do by themselves — even if some are naturally better at it than others. Now that idea is being turned on its head by a new approach that treats problems forming social relationships in the same way as a learning difficulty, like dyslexia … But in the same way as techniques have been developed to help with those with academic learning difficulties, there are now skills that can aid children with poor social interaction, according to American child communication expert Michelle Garcia Winner, who first devised the Social Thinking programme to teach “bright but socially clueless students” at high schools in California.

Take a look. I think it’s brilliant that such skills are being taught, although it’s not quite as groundbreaking as it might seem: old-fashioned “charm schools” had a similar curriculum, without edifying jargon about “theory of mind” or “mirror neurons” to validate it.

There’s a tendency, I think, to consider social skills indicative of the kind of person you are, of one’s essential nature or moral quality. The idea of learning social skills has an unpleasant whiff of manipulation, of Becky Sharp, about it.

I know I would have benefited from this kind of training when I was a kid. As I’ve written often before, I tend to be good at analyzing social situations precisely because I don’t have a “natural” sense of it. (I have a natural sense of balance, and I couldn’t teach another person how to take a fall without injury if I had to.) I discovered etiquette books when I was in my early teens, and devoured all sorts of self-help and tips and tricks for the next decade or so. Studying theater helped even more.

What about you? How did you learn to make sense of the social world when you were growing up? How do you coach your kids — do they only need instruction in “manners,” or do they need help with some of the deeper, more tacit, aspects of the social dance?

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