Monthly Archives: July 2010

Why the American left drags its feet on gay rights

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One thing I couldn't get over when I first moved here was how politically diverse the gays are. Some of them are left wing, some of them are right wing. Some of them are racist, some of them are patronizingly inclusive. 'Jesus,' I remember saying on one of my first weekends, 'It's like being gay doesn't even mean anything.'

And it doesn't, really. Gay marriage has been legal in Denmark for 20 years, and gayness has been a political non-starter so long that politicians have to be asked about it, and then they all give pretty much the same answer. Anti-gay sentiment isn't completely banished, but you hear it come up about as much as you hear about, say, the flat tax in America. It's there, but it's not a divisive issue in many races or party manifestos.

In other words, gays have no built-in incentive to be left-wing. In America, gays are mainly limited to the blue end of the spectrum because the right wing wants to actively curtail their rights and reduce their quality of life. For gays, self-preservation trumps the economic and social issues that most other citizens vote on.

If gay marriage gets legalized in the States, after a few political aftershocks, I think a lot of gays would start to migrate rightwards. It would be slow, but in the long term gays might even be a reliable Republican voting bloc. Gays tend to be affluent, and eventually, the dimensions of self-preservation would warp to exclude Oppressed Minority and include Yuppie Wealth Preserver.

I wonder if American left wing politicians know this, and this is part of why they don't grant full civil rights to homosexuals. As long as we're second-class citizens and one of the parties is slightly better than the other, they can take us for granted. Giving us full marriage rights would effectively put both parties back at Go, and they would have to compete for our votes.

I've been wondering that this year, as the promises made during the presidential campaign haven't materialized, and as the Democrats face the loss of the majority that would have made pro-gay legislation reasonably easy to enact. It's about time we started asking whether it wasn't the opportunity that passed, but the politicians.   

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The inconsequential Samaritan

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On the way to my volunteer gig this morning, I saw a woman sitting on the sidewalk, rocking back and forth and crying. From the other side of the street, I could see that her makeup was running like she had been there for awhile. There's almost no one up and about in Copenhagen before noon on Sundays, so I crossed the street to see if she was alright.

At the same time I saw her, someone else had too. We asked the woman what her name was and what was wrong. She was barely responsive, and seemed to be looking for something on the horizon behind us.

'Should we call the police?' the woman asked.
'Definitely,' I said.

When I decided to approach the woman on the ground, I assumed it was a moderate to severe case of 'I had too many drinks on Saturday night, some drama went down and now I'm crying it out.' As soon as we tried to talk to her, though, it was obvious that that's not all that was going on. She had clearly been drinking, but she didn't seem particularly drunk. She couldn't respond to questions, and kept mumbling things about missing her children. She visibly recoiled from everyone that walked past.

The police didn't care, or didn't care enough to send someone anyway. The other ladyhelper suggested we take her to a friend's apartment, where she could have some water, sleep for a few hours and regroup. We tried to get her to walk with us, but she could barely breathe. She alternated between scanning the horizon and looking behind bushes and fences, as if she'd lost something. Whenever we asked her something personal ('how old are you?' 'where do you live?') she hurried away from us.

By this point the other ladyhelper had called her friends who lived nearby, and they showed up to help. The woman freaked out at the arrival of all the new faces. She sat down on the sidewalk and started rocking again. She was holding the woman who had found her, and kept saying 'don't leave me, don't leave me.'

Me and the three women who had just arrived made awkward introductions and discussed what we should do. One of them called the cops again. It took two more phone calls before they agreed to send someone. 'We don't know her!' the woman kept telling the 911 operator. That seemed to do the trick.

While we waited for the ambulance, we got the woman's phone out of her purse and called her mom. She was too drunk to offer much assistance, but she did tell us that this babbling, rocking woman was pregnant, and lived with her two children in a suburb at the end of the metro line. Her mom didn't know what she was doing in the city. The woman was still incoherent, and was poking and rubbing the toenail polish of the woman sitting on the ground helping her.

A police car with three police officers showed up after about 10 minutes. They did their Cop Thing where they asked the woman the same questions we had, only louder, and got her ID out of her purse. I asked them what they thought was going on, and they said it looked like a pretty typical case of psychosis. 'Sometimes pregnancy can bring this on,' one of them said. 'We'll get her to a hospital. You can go now.'

I backed slowly away from the scrum of police and Samaritans. This is why we have governments, I guess. You find yourself in situations where you're not equipped to offer the help that somebody needs, and so you call the people who are. They come, and you go, and the person who needs help gets the kind that cop cars and ambulances offer.

Just before I left, I looked at the woman who had also stopped to help. She waved goodbye and gave a sort of shrugging smile. She waved at the woman on the ground, but she was staring at the horizon again, startled every few seconds by the police radio static.

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The rules of conversation

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A conversation, like dancing, has some rules, although I've never seen them stated anywhere. The objective of conversation is to entertain or inform the other person while not using up all of the talking time. A big part of how you entertain another person is by listening and giving your attention. Ideally, your own enjoyment from conversation comes from the other person doing his or her job of being interesting. If you are entertaining yourself at the other person's expense, you're doing it wrong.

That's Scott Adams, concluding that roughly three-quarters of the world's population doesn't know how to carry on a conversation.

It seems to me that conversational skills, friendship-creation and intimacy-building are the kinds of things that countries should invest in teaching their populations. It sounds silly to systematically teach populations to make small-talk, or welcome someone they don't know, or transition from acquaintance to friend. But our social lives have as great an impact on our happiness as our academic or professional lives. Besides, study after study shows that social support is more important to our health than almost anything else, including things like smoking, poor diet and alcohol consumption.

A population that has the tools to build friendships is more likely to move from city to city, increasing labor market effectiveness. They're also more likely to build steady marriages and social groups once they're there, and less likely to rely on the state. This is a win-win.

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Besides, this really isn't that hard. Adams mentions Dale Carnegie's 'How to Win Friends and Influence People', which apparently has some chapters on this.

A bit of googling took me to this site, which says it's all about smiling, asking questions and active listening. This one identifies a few rules:

The rules of conversation include: Relation (keep your contributions on topic), Quantity (don't say more/less than you should), Quality (don't lie, don't exaggerate, don't mislead), Manner & Tone (be polite and don't be ambiguous), Relations with partner (keep your contributions tailored to the knowledge/beliefs/preferences of your conversational partner), Turn Taking (follow the cues that indicate when it is and is not appropriate to contribute to the conversation), and Rule Violations (clearly signal the reason for violating any of the aforementioned rules, e.g., when using sarcasm, bringing up a difficult subject, or changing the topic).

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I traveled through Italy with five Danish guys a few summers ago. At the airport in Rome, we somehow ended up buying an extra ticket to the central train station. I suggested we find someone to sell the extra ticket to, but the Danes wanted to just get on the train and throw the extra ticket away. Eventually I walked up to someone in line, told them our situation, and they bought our ticket for the same price we paid for it. Problem solved.

On the train, one of the Danish guys said to me 'I could never walk up to some stranger like that.' He would have rather wasted 10 euros on an extra ticket than talk to someone he didn't know.

I'm sorry, but that is a handicap. Small talk, politeness and meeting strangers are learned skills, just like tying your shoes or filling out a job application. Populations that are systematically equipped with these skills will be a better work force and form a healthier society.

Politicians should take this seriously. I really have no idea why countries haven't embarked on pilot projects to beef up conversation skills in the population. And, while we're at it, we could all be better dancers.

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‘To return to her before she died–that would be the last thing ever required of him’

Two days after I stayed up late finishing Joshua Ferris's 'The Unnamed, I was surprised to see that it's been so widely panned in reviews.

I always feel humbled and tasteless when this happens, like I've been loudly wrong about some commonly known fact. Where I thought the book's desultory structure mirrored real life, the reviewers found it circular and out-petering. Where I thought the lack of scenic Oprah-scriptions was refreshing, the reviewers found it pedestrian.

But it was really good, honest! I think if it has a flaw, it's that it's not about anything larger than itself. The core plotline, a man being stricken by a disease that forces him to walk uncontrollably for hours on end, doesn't appear to be a metaphor for anything larger. The book doesn't say or reveal anything in particular. It's a straight line drawn from the premise to a logical end point. It pretty much asks, What would happen if this happened? and then proceeds to do so.

But that's not a bad thing, necessarily. It was realistic, and moving, and funny, and a nice way to spend the last few nights in soupy Copenhagen. Or at least I thought it was until I read the reviews.

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The least essential movie of the year

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I struggled through Greenberg last night, and the whole time I kept thinking ‘does the world really need this?’ Another unlikeable protagonist. Another stop-start romance. Another unresolved ending.

It’s not that it was bad, really. The dialogue was precise. The acting was realistic. Every scene went on precisely as long as it should have.

But what was the point? Baumbach has shown us all of this before. People who are unpleasant often hate themselves for being unpleasant. Yes, Noah, we have absorbed this now.

As I find myself watching fewer and fewer movies, I’m becoming convinced that filmmakers should approach each  movie like it’s a scientific publication. ‘What am I adding to the literature’, they should ask. I feel like this is one thing that action movie directors, for one, do really well. ‘What if the dinosaur terrorizing the city was bigger?’ they ask. Or, ‘What if the vampires could come out during the day?’

Sure, action movies are always playing the same tune, but at least they’re using different instruments. Movies like Greenberg are just lipsyncing.

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‘The almost-unfathomable distance between top-level athletes and everyone else’

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I randomly came across this article by David Foster Wallace today. It's about the weird universe inhabited by professional tennis players, and elite performers more generally.

But it’s better for us not to know the kinds of sacrifices the professional-grade athlete has made to get so very good at one particular thing. Oh, we’ll invoke lush clichés about the lonely heroism of Olympic athletes, the pain and analgesia of football, the early rising and hours of practice and restricted diets, the preflight celibacy, et cetera.

But the actual facts of the sacrifices repel us when we see them: basketball geniuses who cannot read, sprinters who dope themselves, defensive tackles who shoot up with bovine hormones until they collapse or explode. We prefer not to consider closely the shockingly vapid and primitive comments uttered by athletes in postcontest interviews or to consider what impoverishments in one’s mental life would allow people actually to think the way great athletes seem to think.

Note the way “up close and personal” profiles of professional athletes strain so hard to find evidence of a rounded human life — outside interests and activities, values beyond the sport. We ignore what’s obvious, that most of this straining is farce. It’s farce because the realities of top-level athletics today require an early and total commitment to one area of excellence.

An ascetic focus. A subsumption of almost all other features of human life to one chosen talent and pursuit. A consent to live in a world that, like a child’s world, is very small.

I wasn't in the U.S. for the Michael Phelps hype cycle last Olympics, but I remember a friend telling about what a weird specimen he was in 'Today' show interviews and news articles. His range of experience was so limited ('I wake up, I swim, I go to bed') that his interviewers struggled to find anything to ask him about. Apparently they just asked him over and over again about what he eats. 'Eleven pancakes for breakfast?! That's amazing!' What else are you  gonna ask a dude who spends 10 hours a day swimming back and forth?

I listened to a podcast last night by the author of a book called Talent is Overrated. Apparently the scientific evidence shows pretty incontrovertibly that there's no such thing as 'talent' as such, only practice. Apparently if you take anyone who is at the top of their field (Tiger Woods, Michael Jordan, Warren Buffett), and you find that they spent thousands of hours of time deliberately honing their skills.

Here's an article by the author of the book:

You do not possess a natural gift for a certain job, because targeted natural gifts don't exist. (Sorry, Warren.) You are not a born CEO or investor or chess grandmaster. You will achieve greatness only through an enormous amount of hard work over many years. And not just any hard work, but work of a particular type that's demanding and painful.

[…] The best people in any field are those who devote the most hours to what the researchers call "deliberate practice." It's activity that's explicitly intended to improve performance, that reaches for objectives just beyond one's level of competence, provides feedback on results and involves high levels of repetition.

It's sort of appealing to think that you're just 10,000 hours of practice away from that hole in one, or that slam dunk, or that first million. What I'm amazed at, though, isn't that people have the time or the dedication to develop their skills to such an incredible extent. It's how you have to give a shit to do what they've done.

I'm sure that if I spent two hours a day for the next 10 years working on my jump shot, I'd be really good at it. The problem is, I really don't give a shit if I can make a jump shot. When I think about it, though, I've spent probably 1,000 hours in the last five years going running, and have deliberately tried to get my 10k time below 40 minutes. Running in a big circle is just as arbitrary as putting a ball through a little hoop, yet one of them is a genuine source of stress (and stress relief) and the other one is something I care about as much as yodeling, or Yatzee, or anything else I end up doing once a year and giving no further thought to.

Whenever I'm confronted with genuine greatness, it's the bottomless giving a shit that really astounds me. On your 18th year of hitting golf balls every. fucking. day, how do you go to the driving range again? When you're on the second-to-last chapter of your 898-page deconstructivist masterpiece, how do you not think 'Is it really worth all of this?'

I'm too old and atheist to think that I'll discover some hidden talent and become the Tiger Woods of billiards or something. But I still hope I find something I give enough of a shit about that I don't mind doing it every day.

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