Thursday, December 31, 2009


I think one of the reasons why Avatar has enjoyed such popular and critical success (top critics give it 94% at Rotten Tomatoes) is that it speaks to many of the major tensions and anxieties of our time. The story takes place on Pandora, an alien planet where a greedy corporation has sent up base to mine Unobtanium, which sells for $20 million a kilo on Earth. The problem is that one of the largest deposits of Unobtaium lies under a giant tree where the native Na'vi population lives. Jake Scully, our hero, is a crippled Marine who, through advanced future-age technology, is able to have his mind transfered to a Na'vi body grown in the lab (an Avatar). His assignment is to find a "diplomatic solution"—that is, convince the Na'vi population to leave their home before the corporation comes and razes it anyway.

Within this framework, Mr. Cameron weaves story lines that prove cathartic for our blood-stained and embarrassing history. A good chunk of the middle part of the movie functions as a dramatic reenactment of The Trail of Tears; the way the military and the company work as one unit in the film is reminiscent of the United Fruit Company's exploits in Latin America; and the military commander's callous contempt of and insensitivity towards the Na'vi has echoes of the US military's attitude towards the "gooks" in the Korean War. For those of us familiar with US history, the film forces us to confront our past, learn from our mistakes, and serves as a precautionary warning for the path we must not travel again in the future—an especially timely message as we continue the Iraq War and prepare to escalate in Afghanistan.

Alongside its political message, Avatar also voices what I think is a general anxiety of our society's spiritual decline. The Na'vi are a very spiritual society, in the way of the Native Americans or the Orient, and believe in the oneness of all living beings. The film yearns for a simpler life, connected with nature and other living beings, living in harmony instead of opposition. David Denby of The New Yorker calls this sentiment nothing "more than a whiff of nineteen-sixties counterculture, by way of environmentalism and current antiwar sentiment" and ultimately dismisses it as "sentimentality," but I think he fails to realize the reality and legitimacy of this spiritual need.

And of course, the film is absolutely joyful to see, visually: a real treat for the eyes. What makes these effects worthwhile is that they're not effects for effect's sake, but rather a way of absorbing you into this rich and astounding fantasy world that Mr. Cameron creates. This film has clearly delineated good guys and bad guys, and for that to work the film has to tie you up emotionally with the good guys. By introducing us to the Na'vi's world, and by making us fall in love with it, Mr. Cameron succeeds in making the struggles of the Na'vi meaningful and close; in the end everyone in the theater was openly cheering for them.

Some critics complain that the characters are too simplistic or that the story line is too trite, but I think there is a place for war-of-good-and-evil tales and this movie does a fantastic job of representing the genre. The visuals are stunning; the plot is absorbing (for those who aren't too cynical at least); and after you walk out of the theater you have something to think about. Certainly worth seeing.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Bah, Humbug!

University of Pennsylvania economist Joel Waldfogel has written a book called Scroogenomics: Why You Shouldn't Buy Presents for the Holidays. The book is apparently 186 pages long, and backed by a big name publisher (Princeton University Press), but really all it's about is what everyone knows anyway: gifts are often wasteful because the receiver hardly ever values the gift as much as the giver paid for it.

Though the rest of the world doesn't seem to care about all this waste, Mr. Waldfogel certainly does. As he puts it in his introduction to the book, "If you discovered a government program that was hemorrhaging money—say, spending $100 billion of taxpayer money per year to generate a benefit of only $85 billion—you would be outraged. You might even email your elected representatives to demand an end to the wasteful program." To wit, Mr. Waldfogel even offers a proposal to help us make the holiday season more efficient: instead of traditional gifts, he says, we should have "gift vouchers that are designed to expire after a set period of time, with unused balances going to a charity of the giver’s choice" (The Economist).

As an economics major, books like these dismay me to no end. They're the reason that economists are seen as nothing more than miserable little bean counters (and rightly so, it seems).

Mr. Waldfogel misses the point of gift-giving completely. It's not about the stuff, it's about people. People appreciate gifts not because it saves them the time of going out to buy it themselves, but rather because it shows that the other person values their relationship. This is what is meant by "It's the thought that counts." Thus, Mr. Waldfogel has ended up writing a whole book on the inefficiency of transactions that may not even been inefficient after all. It just requires a change in perspective to realize that although people may not have spent much money on the gift themselves, they can still value it as much as (or even more than) the purchase price simply by virtue of it being a cherished gift.

Books like these make me worry about how materialist we're becoming. If we (like Mr. Waldfogel) care primarily about getting the most bang for our buck out of gifts, then it seems we're forgetting where their true value is supposed to lie.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009


Yesterday I stumbled upon a book by Richard Sennett, an American sociologist, called The Culture of the New Capitalism. In it, Sennett looks at how our constantly evolving economy shapes the way we live—how we attempt to manage the constant uncertainty; how we try to adapt to a life of "migrating from job to job, task to task, place to place;" how we make efforts to live up to a new cultural outlook on talent and merit and ability; and how we fail at all these things.

One of Sennett's most engaging ideas is what he calls the "specter of uselessness." Depression-era photos still disturb us, Sennett argues, because the specter of uselessness still continues to haunt us, though it's character is different in the modern age. Now the uselessness we face takes the form of the jobs that are being shipped overseas; or the hyper-intelligent automation systems that are making human labor cost-ineffective; or the emphasis on fresh skills and new talent versus experience and seniority that threatens the job security of the ageing.

Stated after the fact, it almost seems like common sense. After all, our higher education system is built entirely around innovation and discovery; our politicians constantly talk about "remaining competitive" and "staying ahead;" our TV shows are all about finding the next star; our companies are always racing to outdo each other...and while everyone is marching ahead, how will there not be anxiety about being left behind?

But I think that this "specter of uselessness" is not just peculiar to modernity, but rather a part of the human condition. I think Adi Shankaracharya put it best (that is, starkly and plainly) in his Bhaja Govindham:

यावद्वित्तोपार्जनसक्त्तस्तावन्निजपरिवारो रक्त्त:
पश्चाज्जीवाति जर्जरदेहे वार्तां कोऽपिं पृच्छति गेहे।।
As long as there is the ability to earn and save so long are all your dependents attached to you. Later on, when you come to live with an old, infirm body, no one at home cares to speak even a word with you!

I don't read this verse as a lament, but rather as a sober recognition of the way relationships work. Humans relations involve give and take: we give our attention, our affection, our time, and our effort; and in return we expect money, affection, wisdom, love, intimacy, interesting conversation—something. There comes a time though when we no longer have anything to give, and at that point these relationships naturally dissolve.

In this spirit, I have heard that our job in life is to learn to enjoy our own company, to be at peace with ourselves, to figure out what to do with ourselves before the world has no more use for us. The specter of uselessness will always loom, but it becomes less scary when we confront it directly.

Saturday, December 12, 2009


If you think about it, marriage is a funny institution. Two young people decide they want to spend the rest of their lives together. This is a very momentous decision, of course, so they think long and hard about it. They consider all aspects of a person: their looks, their personality, their wit, their charm, their earning potential, their character, their goals and beliefs. Of course different people place emphasis on different things, but mostly the decision comes down to the fact that there is something about the other person's body, mind, or intellect that's appealing.

The irony here is that these people are making supposedly permanent decisions based on entirely temporary things. When they make their decision they're at the prime of their lives. They're young and fit and sharp and as attractive as they're ever going to be. From there they have some years of youth left and then, for most people, it's all downhill. The body sags, potbellies form, the intellect dulls, the mind gets set in annoying habits, moods become more irritable—in other words, their spouse no longer become the person they married. If they were to reevaluate their spouse 10 years later, they probably wouldn't marry them.

This may sound like a sad thing, but I think it gets at the essential beauty of marriage. They say a true friend is one who knows your faults and sticks around anyway. I think that's the point of marriage. When you grow old and no one else is willing to put up with your bodily noises and forgetfulness and all the other problems of aging, at least you can have your spouse; and, likewise, they have you.

Wisdom for the Ages

This is a copy of David Foster Wallace's commencement address at Kenyon College in 2005. It changed the way I look at the world, and in the off chance that others find it meaningful too, I'm posting it here.

There are these two young fish swimming along, and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, "Morning, boys, how's the water?" And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, "What the hell is water?"

If at this moment, you're worried that I plan to present myself here as the wise old fish explaining what water is to you younger fish, please don't be. I am not the wise old fish. The immediate point of the fish story is that the most obvious, ubiquitous, important realities are often the ones that are the hardest to see and talk about. Stated as an English sentence, of course, this is just a banal platitude—but the fact is that, in the day-to-day trenches of adult existence, banal platitudes can have life-or-death importance. That may sound like hyperbole, or abstract nonsense.

A huge percentage of the stuff that I tend to be automatically certain of is, it turns out, totally wrong and deluded. Here's one example of the utter wrongness of something I tend to be automatically sure of: Everything in my own immediate experience supports my deep belief that I am the absolute center of the universe, the realest, most vivid and important person in existence. We rarely talk about this sort of natural, basic self-centeredness, because it's so socially repulsive, but it's pretty much the same for all of us, deep down. It is our default-setting, hard-wired into our boards at birth. Think about it: There is no experience you've had that you were not at the absolute center of. The world as you experience it is right there in front of you, or behind you, to the left or right of you, on your TV, or your monitor, or whatever. Other people's thoughts and feelings have to be communicated to you somehow, but your own are so immediate, urgent, real—you get the idea. But please don't worry that I'm getting ready to preach to you about compassion or other-directedness or the so-called "virtues." This is not a matter of virtue—it's a matter of my choosing to do the work of somehow altering or getting free of my natural, hard-wired default-setting, which is to be deeply and literally self-centered, and to see and interpret everything through this lens of self.

People who can adjust their natural default-setting this way are often described as being "well adjusted," which I suggest to you is not an accidental term.

Given the triumphal academic setting here, an obvious question is how much of this work of adjusting our default-setting involves actual knowledge or intellect. This question gets tricky. Probably the most dangerous thing about college education, at least in my own case, is that it enables my tendency to over-intellectualize stuff, to get lost in abstract arguments inside my head instead of simply paying attention to what's going on right in front of me. Paying attention to what's going on inside me. As I'm sure you guys know by now, it is extremely difficult to stay alert and attentive instead of getting hypnotized by the constant monologue inside your own head. Twenty years after my own graduation, I have come gradually to understand that the liberal-arts cliché about "teaching you how to think" is actually shorthand for a much deeper, more serious idea: "Learning how to think" really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think. It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience. Because if you cannot exercise this kind of choice in adult life, you will be totally hosed. Think of the old cliché about "the mind being an excellent servant but a terrible master." This, like many clichés, so lame and unexciting on the surface, actually expresses a great and terrible truth. It is not the least bit coincidental that adults who commit suicide with firearms almost always shoot themselves in the head. And the truth is that most of these suicides are actually dead long before they pull the trigger. And I submit that this is what the real, no-bull- value of your liberal-arts education is supposed to be about: How to keep from going through your comfortable, prosperous, respectable adult life dead, unconscious, a slave to your head and to your natural default-setting of being uniquely, completely, imperially alone, day in and day out.

That may sound like hyperbole, or abstract nonsense. So let's get concrete. The plain fact is that you graduating seniors do not yet have any clue what "day in, day out" really means. There happen to be whole large parts of adult American life that nobody talks about in commencement speeches. One such part involves boredom, routine, and petty frustration. The parents and older folks here will know all too well what I'm talking about.

By way of example, let's say it's an average day, and you get up in the morning, go to your challenging job, and you work hard for nine or ten hours, and at the end of the day you're tired, and you're stressed out, and all you want is to go home and have a good supper and maybe unwind for a couple of hours and then hit the rack early because you have to get up the next day and do it all again. But then you remember there's no food at home—you haven't had time to shop this week, because of your challenging job—and so now after work you have to get in your car and drive to the supermarket. It's the end of the workday, and the traffic's very bad, so getting to the store takes way longer than it should, and when you finally get there the supermarket is very crowded, because of course it's the time of day when all the other people with jobs also try to squeeze in some grocery shopping, and the store's hideously, fluorescently lit, and infused with soul-killing Muzak or corporate pop, and it's pretty much the last place you want to be, but you can't just get in and quickly out: You have to wander all over the huge, overlit store's crowded aisles to find the stuff you want, and you have to maneuver your junky cart through all these other tired, hurried people with carts, and of course there are also the glacially slow old people and the spacey people and the ADHD kids who all block the aisle and you have to grit your teeth and try to be polite as you ask them to let you by, and eventually, finally, you get all your supper supplies, except now it turns out there aren't enough checkout lanes open even though it's the end-of-the-day-rush, so the checkout line is incredibly long, which is stupid and infuriating, but you can't take your fury out on the frantic lady working the register.

Anyway, you finally get to the checkout line's front, and pay for your food, and wait to get your check or card authenticated by a machine, and then get told to "Have a nice day" in a voice that is the absolute voice of death, and then you have to take your creepy flimsy plastic bags of groceries in your cart through the crowded, bumpy, littery parking lot, and try to load the bags in your car in such a way that everything doesn't fall out of the bags and roll around in the trunk on the way home, and then you have to drive all the way home through slow, heavy, SUV-intensive rush-hour traffic, etcetera, etcetera.

The point is that petty, frustrating crap like this is exactly where the work of choosing comes in. Because the traffic jams and crowded aisles and long checkout lines give me time to think, and if I don't make a conscious decision about how to think and what to pay attention to, I'm going to be pissed and miserable every time I have to food-shop, because my natural default-setting is the certainty that situations like this are really all about me, about my hungriness and my fatigue and my desire to just get home, and it's going to seem, for all the world, like everybody else is just in my way, and who are all these people in my way? And look at how repulsive most of them are and how stupid and cow-like and dead-eyed and nonhuman they seem here in the checkout line, or at how annoying and rude it is that people are talking loudly on cell phones in the middle of the line, and look at how deeply unfair this is: I've worked really hard all day and I'm starved and tired and I can't even get home to eat and unwind because of all these stupid g-d- people.

Or, of course, if I'm in a more socially conscious form of my default-setting, I can spend time in the end-of-the-day traffic jam being angry and disgusted at all the huge, stupid, lane-blocking SUV's and Hummers and V-12 pickup trucks burning their wasteful, selfish, forty-gallon tanks of gas, and I can dwell on the fact that the patriotic or religious bumper stickers always seem to be on the biggest, most disgustingly selfish vehicles driven by the ugliest, most inconsiderate and aggressive drivers, who are usually talking on cell phones as they cut people off in order to get just twenty stupid feet ahead in a traffic jam, and I can think about how our children's children will despise us for wasting all the future's fuel and probably screwing up the climate, and how spoiled and stupid and disgusting we all are, and how it all just sucks, and so on and so forth...

Look, if I choose to think this way, fine, lots of us do—except that thinking this way tends to be so easy and automatic it doesn't have to be a choice. Thinking this way is my natural default-setting. It's the automatic, unconscious way that I experience the boring, frustrating, crowded parts of adult life when I'm operating on the automatic, unconscious belief that I am the center of the world and that my immediate needs and feelings are what should determine the world's priorities. The thing is that there are obviously different ways to think about these kinds of situations. In this traffic, all these vehicles stuck and idling in my way: It's not impossible that some of these people in SUV's have been in horrible auto accidents in the past and now find driving so traumatic that their therapist has all but ordered them to get a huge, heavy SUV so they can feel safe enough to drive; or that the Hummer that just cut me off is maybe being driven by a father whose little child is hurt or sick in the seat next to him, and he's trying to rush to the hospital, and he's in a way bigger, more legitimate hurry than I am—it is actually I who am in his way. Or I can choose to force myself to consider the likelihood that everyone else in the supermarket's checkout line is just as bored and frustrated as I am, and that some of these people probably have much harder, more tedious or painful lives than I do, overall.

Again, please don't think that I'm giving you moral advice, or that I'm saying you're "supposed to" think this way, or that anyone expects you to just automatically do it, because it's hard, it takes will and mental effort, and if you're like me, some days you won't be able to do it, or you just flat-out won't want to. But most days, if you're aware enough to give yourself a choice, you can choose to look differently at this fat, dead-eyed, over-made-lady who just screamed at her little child in the checkout line—maybe she's not usually like this; maybe she's been up three straight nights holding the hand of her husband who's dying of bone cancer, or maybe this very lady is the low-wage clerk at the Motor Vehicles Dept. who just yesterday helped your spouse resolve a nightmarish red-tape problem through some small act of bureaucratic kindness. Of course, none of this is likely, but it's also not impossible—it just depends on what you want to consider. If you're automatically sure that you know what reality is and who and what is really important—if you want to operate on your default-setting—then you, like me, will not consider possibilities that aren't pointless and annoying. But if you've really learned how to think, how to pay attention, then you will know you have other options. It will actually be within your power to experience a crowded, loud, slow, consumer-hell-type situation as not only meaningful but sacred, on fire with the same force that lit the stars—compassion, love, the sub-surface unity of all things. Not that that mystical stuff's necessarily true: The only thing that's capital-T True is that you get to decide how you're going to try to see it. You get to consciously decide what has meaning and what doesn't. You get to decide what to worship...

Because here's something else that's true. In the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And an outstanding reason for choosing some sort of God or spiritual-type thing to worship—be it J.C. or Allah, be it Yahweh or the Wiccan mother-goddess or the Four Noble Truths or some infrangible set of ethical principles—is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things—if they are where you tap real meaning in life—then you will never have enough. Never feel you have enough. It's the truth. Worship your own body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly, and when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally plant you. On one level, we all know this stuff already—it's been codified as myths, proverbs, clichés, bromides, epigrams, parables: the skeleton of every great story. The trick is keeping the truth up-front in daily consciousness. Worship power—you will feel weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to keep the fear at bay. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart—you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out. And so on.

Look, the insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they're evil or sinful; it is that they are unconscious. They are default-settings. They're the kind of worship you just gradually slip into, day after day, getting more and more selective about what you see and how you measure value without ever being fully aware that that's what you're doing. And the world will not discourage you from operating on your default-settings, because the world of men and money and power hums along quite nicely on the fuel of fear and contempt and frustration and craving and the worship of self. Our own present culture has harnessed these forces in ways that have yielded extraordinary wealth and comfort and personal freedom. The freedom to be lords of our own tiny skull-sized kingdoms, alone at the center of all creation. This kind of freedom has much to recommend it. But of course there are all different kinds of freedom, and the kind that is most precious you will not hear much talked about in the great outside world of winning and achieving and displaying. The really important kind of freedom involves attention, and awareness, and discipline, and effort, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them, over and over, in myriad petty little unsexy ways, every day. That is real freedom. The alternative is unconsciousness, the default-setting, the "rat race"—the constant gnawing sense of having had and lost some infinite thing.

I know that this stuff probably doesn't sound fun and breezy or grandly inspirational. What it is, so far as I can see, is the truth with a whole lot of rhetorical bullshit pared away. Obviously, you can think of it whatever you wish. But please don't dismiss it as some finger-wagging Dr. Laura sermon. None of this is about morality, or religion, or dogma, or big fancy questions of life after death. The capital-T Truth is about life before death. It is about making it to 30, or maybe 50, without wanting to shoot yourself in the head. It is about simple awareness—awareness of what is so real and essential, so hidden in plain sight all around us, that we have to keep reminding ourselves, over and over: "This is water, this is water."

It is unimaginably hard to do this, to stay conscious and alive, day in and day out.


Friday, December 4, 2009

Fascination of the Abomination

"In some inland post feel the savagery, the utter savagery, had closed round him—all that mysterious life of the wilderness that stirs in the forest, in the jungles, in the hearts of wild men. There's no initiation either into such mysteries. He has to live in the midst of the incomprehensible, which is detestable. And it has a fascination, too, which goes to work upon him. The fascination of the abomination—you know. Imagine the growing regrets, the longing to escape, the powerless disgust, the surrender, the hate."

- Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness

The horror, the horror:

The cast of MTV's new reality show, "Jersey Shore."

I'm not joking; here's a review of the first episode.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

The Paradox of the Middle Class

From the New York Times, an article whose subject seems to get at the essence of growing up in the middle class—Tips for the Admissions Test...To Kindergarten:
Test preparation has long been a big business catering to students taking SATs and admissions exams for law, medical and other graduate schools. But the new clientele is quite a bit younger: 3- and 4-year-olds whose parents hope that a little assistance — costing upward of $1,000 for several sessions — will help them win coveted spots in the city’s gifted and talented public kindergarten classes.
The article goes on to describe how the kindergarten tutoring business is taking off (the Bright Kids program featured here is just one of many) and why (many parents figure a couple thousand for tutoring is cheaper than private schools).

Although the whole affair seems outrageous and ridiculous at face value, it's difficult to resolve the issues here. If you ask people how we should distribute scarce rewards in a society fairly, most of them will say that they should go to the people who work the hardest (there is, in fact, research to back this up: q.v. Chapter 11, "Distributive Justice," in Homans, G.C., Social Behavior. New York: Harcourt, Brace, and Janovich, 1974; and also work by Guillermina Jasso). But you put that principle into practice and you end up with situations like these, which seem, frankly, dehumanizing.

There are a number of other issues entangled here (like what it even means to be "gifted"; whether such ability is innate or acquired; whether differentiating education is worthwhile/necessary/inevitable; what it means to provide equal opportunity; the extent to which education figures into the American Dream, etc., etc.), but what makes the article jump out at me is that it shows how hard we, the middle class, are competing. It's like we're fighting tooth and nail for our very survival, even though fighting for survival seems unnecessary in modern society. Desperation amidst plenty: this, I believe, is the paradox of the middle class.