Tag Archives: i hate myself

Why Don’t I Give Money to Poor People?

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Originally posted on The Billfold

“Hey, you want necklaces? I sell you necklaces!”

He’s dishevelled, but not more so than most people you see on the street here. He’s wearing a bright green soccer T-shirt, a team I’ve never heard of, and a goatee. He introduces himself as Paul.

This is Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe. I am backpacked, sunglassed, earbudded, on my way to the waterfall. The only way I could be more obviously a tourist is if I had a fanny pack and an “I ♥ Zim” T-shirt on.

“Thanks, but I’m not interested,” I say. I may have actually physically waved him away.

He walks with me for a few minutes, pushing necklaces, wooden giraffes, 50 billion Zimbabwe dollar notes into my chest. I repeat the same thing: Sorry, not interested. Sorry, no.

Everywhere it’s different but the same. In San Francisco it’s the guy who could visit his sick sister in Portland if he could just get 10 bucks for the bus fare. In Paris it’s children with their arms out. In Istanbul it’s amputees on a sheet of cardboard, literally begging.

And my answer is always the same: “Sorry.” I don’t know when I started saying this, when I stopped bothering to lie about being out of spare change, when I stopped thinking before I said it.

Right after Paul peels off, I take what I think is the turnoff to the falls. The path peters out, I turn around and when I get back to the road, Paul is there.

“Where are you trying to go?” he says.

“Just to the park entrance,” I say.

“Oh there’s a shortcut just up there to the right,” he says. “It’ll only take you five minutes. Make sure you make it to the gorge before dark. Spectacular, man, spectacular!”

I thank him, and realize that as he was talking I was thinking oh, he’s a person.

You’re not supposed to give beggars money. That’s the conventional wisdom, right? You don’t know what they’ll spend it on, you might be encouraging them to stay on the street, you’re not addressing any of the structural issues that got them where they are. I used to live in Copenhagen, and whenever I got panhandled (yes they have panhandlers in Denmark), I wanted to roll my eyes, like, all this free money in your country and you want mine?

Needless to say, that attitude is a lot harder to maintain in Zimbabwe. It’s even harder to maintain for me, considering I am here working for a human rights organization. How do I justify spending two weeks in Harare attending conferences, meeting NGOs, working on statements and recommendations to make this country less poor and then, the minute I’m on vacation, neglect to do the one thing I’m actually equipped, actually qualified to do: Give it some fucking money.

The sun is setting when I come out of the park, and Paul is at the exit, soliciting another tourist. He sees me and breaks off.

“How was the park, my friend?” he says.

“Good,” I say. “How’s business?”

“Not so good today,” he says, the full bouquet of necklaces still dangling from his hand. “Look, can you help me out, just with a dollar? I’m hungry.”

I feel like Paul has taken his mask off, he’s talking to me outside of his role as a street vendor, like we’ve both stepped out of character for a second and it’s just us, man to man. I give him two bucks. He thanks me profusely, leaves without asking for anything else.

Two hours later I see him again. This time I’m on a trail behind Victoria Falls’ fanciest hotel. I’ve just eaten a French croissant pudding that cost 7 times what I gave to Paul.

“My friend!” he says.

“Hi Paul,” I say, weirdly happy to see him. I’m travelling alone, and he’s the only person I’ve spoken to all day.

“Hey, do you have some dollars for me?” he says.

“I just gave you two,” I say,

“But I ate with those, man,” he says. “Can you give me some more for dinner?”

As much as I hate to admit it, this irks me. I already gave you money, dude, coming back for more just makes me feel like a mark—like this is a business model. If you don’t get tourist money with merch, get it with sympathy.

“Sorry,” I say.

Later, I wonder what outcome I was actually trying to protect myself against. Giving money to someone who is demonstrably worse off than me? Maybe Paul used that money to buy himself lunch, maybe he didn’t. What am I, USAID? Who cares what he spent it on. If those two dollars (or 10, or 20) magically disappeared from my back pocket, I never would have noticed. Why am I Jay Gatsby when it goes to making me better off, but Ebeneezer Scrooge if it does that for someone else? All that shit about enabling, it’s just an excuse for me to keep what I feel is mine.

In development circles, everyone is all excited about this “just give money” thing. The idea is: Poor people know better what to do with their money than we do, so if you want to help, don’t tie a donation to some entrepreneurship scheme, behavior modification, Excel-sheeted output, just hand over some scrilla, no questions asked.

Apparently it worked in Uganda, another country I have visited to do development work in the daytime and say “sorry” on evenings and weekends. If this idea is real, maybe I should be refusing all the conferences and acquiescing to all the beggars.

I have no idea what I should do. When I travel to developing countries for work, should I set a daily amount that I can afford, say $20, and hand it out randomly? Should I start donating regularly to charities who do that? What is, as the MBAs say, ‘best practice’?

I am in Victoria Falls for two more days. I will probably run into Paul again. He will probably ask me for money, and I will probably give some to him. I might even give him enough to try that French croissant pudding.

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Filed under Personal, Travel

Letting Stress Win: A Commencement Speech

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Originally posted at The Billfold 

The best advice and the worst advice I’ve ever gotten were three words long.

The best advice was ‘avoid the treadmill’. It was 2003. I was coming to the end of a master’s degree in a subject (political philosophy) and a city (London) I was ready to leave. I was 22 years old.

Rebecca was the advisor at the community college student newspaper where I worked between and after classes three years earlier, and we had—pre-Facebook!—stayed in touch through undergrad and now grad school.  She was visiting London and invited me to dinner.

I had two months left until I completed my master’s and my visa expired. I had no idea what I was going to do, or even what I wanted to. There was the prudent thing, moving back to the States, getting a job, starting a career, buying a house, leasing a Camry, nothing wrong with that.

There was also, however, something I had come across two weeks earlier while drinking wine and Googling Nordic underwear models: Universities in Scandinavia are free.

I told Rebecca all this (minus the Googling), and that I had found a program in Aarhus, Denmark—a master’s degree that as soon as I said it out loud I realized sounded even vaguer and more destitution-promoting than the master’s I already had.

‘European studies!’ I said.

Rebecca asked if I had ever been to Denmark, and what was my logic for considering this an option. I admitted I had none, it just sounded cool and I wanted to try it.

‘So I have to decide,’ I said. ‘Prudent, or Denmark.’

‘Mike,’ she said. ‘This is an easy one: Avoid the treadmill.’

I knew what she meant, but I asked her to elaborate anyway.

‘You have a whole life of working ahead of you. Going home is easy. Getting a job is easy. Going to, whatever country this is, Denmark, making an impulsive decision and living with it for two whole years, that’s hard. This is what your twenties are for. As you get older, the hard stuff only gets harder.’

‘And the easy stuff gets easier?’ I said.

‘No,’ she said. ‘That gets harder too.’

The way stress works is, when you’re presented with a threat, your body produces adrenaline, a kind of internal crystal meth, that gives you the energy to escape or fight or defend yourself or pull an all-nighter or whatever you need to do to neutralize the threat. While the adrenaline is pumping, other functions—sleep, appetite, afternoon horniness—shut down while your body gives you enough energy to deal with the crisis at hand.

This makes sense, right? If you’re living in an environment where every once in awhile you need to run away from a lion, chase a gazelle, defend your village from the next tribe over, you need a system that takes precedence over everything else. You can’t be stalking a mammoth and suddenly be overcome with the urge to pee.

The problem, of course, is that stress isn’t something that only gets activated by extreme, once-a-month stressors. It’s something you activate yourself, something that reacts not to the objective threat level but to what you perceive as a threat.

These days, we don’t get hunted by lions all that often, but we do get hunted by bosses, partners, deadlines, bills, kids, early closing hours, late public transport, insomnia, status, proliferating Netflix queues. Since our bodies can’t differentiate between a lion and an overdue car payment, adrenaline becomes a kind of routine. We coast on it 9-to-5, deadline to deadline, and squeeze the tube even more over the weekend to get us through the neighborhood barbecue, the water park outing with the kids, the difficult conversation with the wife.

Like everything else that’s good for you once a month, adrenaline when you use it every day is a kind of poison. They do autopsies on people who were constantly stressed out and their pituitary gland is the size of a turkey baster. Constantly suppressing your immune system, ignoring your appetite, boosting your heart rate, these things are like fast-forwarding the aging process. People who are constantly stressed out are more likely to get cancer and strokes. Stressed out kids end up shorter as adults. When you turn off everything but your emergency generator, the normal stuff rusts and brittles.

Robert Sapolsky, the guy who I’m basically stealing all these insights from, studies stress in baboons in the wild. He says he can tell the difference between short-lifespan baboons and long-lifespan baboons by one thing: How do they act when they see a lion 200 feet away?

Short-lifespan baboons, the ones that that use adrenaline the way we use drip coffee, see the lion in the distance and immediately activate their stress response. A lion! Shit! What am I going to do?!

The un-stressed baboons—the ones eating fresh berries and complaining about the morals of the next generation of baboons into their twilight years—they see the same lion and go ‘meh, he’s 200 feet away. He’s yawning, grooming, he doesn’t seem all that interested in me’ and they stay calm. No adrenaline, no panic. They keep an eye on the lion—they’re baboons, they’re not stupid—but they don’t get all adrenaliney until there’s a genuine threat.

We all know that refrigerator-magnet phrase, ‘Give me the serenity to accept the things I can’t change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference,’ or however it goes. For me, it’s never been the courage that’s hard, it’s the serenity.

In 2004, I applied to the master’s program in Denmark. I filled out the application, photocopied my old diplomas, wrote my admissions essay, mailed them off. Two months later, a letter came saying I was accepted. And then I started freaking out.

I don’t speak Danish. I don’t know anyone in the whole country. Where am I going to live? What am I going to do for living expenses? All of a sudden, the treadmill started looking pretty good.

It was five months since my conversation with Rebecca, and three months since my U.K. visa expired and I had moved back home to Seattle. I was working (OK, temping) at Microsoft as a copy editor, and living with my parents.

Steve was my boss at Microsoft. Former journalist, weekend kickball player, suburban dad, never missed a day of work or a misspelled word or a subordinate’s birthday. Totally a long-lifespan baboon.

And he gave me the worst advice I’ve ever gotten: ‘Trust your gut.’

He said it after I went into his office and told him everything I just told you: I was accepted to this program in Denmark and I had no criteria by which to judge whether this was a good idea.

‘You don’t need criteria for these sorts of decisions,’ he said. ‘It’s all about doing what feels right.’

It may not have been obvious to Steve, but I am firmly the first baboon. I see a lion—an unpaid bill, an unread e-mail, an uncalled acquaintance—not even 200 feet away, a mile away, on the horizon, barely visible to the naked eye, and my adrenaline spikes. The year I was living in London, I couldn’t get to sleep one night because I suddenly remembered I had forgotten to book a flight home for Christmas. It was May.

Like every American, I heard this stock advice—’Trust your gut’, ‘Be true to yourself’, ‘follow your instincts’—all the time growing up, variations on the same Hollywood catechism, the pledge of allegiance to individuality we get installed on first bootup.

And the thing is, this advice isn’t necessarily bullshit. There are probably people out there whose instincts are all kindness and extroversion, whispering directives of generosity and serenity into their ear. Some people, I imagine, search their innermost desires and find the charm of a CEO, the selflessness of a Mormon.

I search mine and find the pessimism of an amputee, the selfishness of a viking. I am constantly at war with my instincts, trying to project-manage away the anxiety, the me-firstism, the adrenaline they send me. Trusting my gut, really doing what I felt, would mean curling up into a ball until all my obligations—jobs, friends, family, personal hygiene—gave up and disappeared.

For Steve, trusting his gut would have meant doing the right thing. For me, it would have meant doing nothing at all.

After my meeting with Steve, I came home and I made a list: Stuff to Sort Out Before You Move To Denmark. Spend one hour every morning before work studying Danish. Post concerns on university message boards. Find potential friends in Aarhus on social media (OK, gay personals sites), talk to them on IM. Find out what ‘European studies’ means.

It was work, but it worked. Six months later, I moved to Demark and started my program. Two years later, I graduated and got a job in Copenhagen. Four years after that, I moved to Berlin. Two years after that, I’m still here.

And yes, I’m still anxious. I still have to remind myself that my gut is cruel and manipulative, and should not be trusted with any decisions that affect us both. But just as amazingly, I still feel like I’m avoiding the treadmill. I work at an NGO that sends me to weird conferences and exotic countries. Back home, I rent, I bike, and don’t own anything I need to insure.

Moving to Denmark is the best thing I ever did. Not because I loved everything about it, or because it made me a less anxious person, or because I assimilated into it like a mermaid to a fairy tale. I didn’t.

It’s the best thing I ever did because for me, it was more awesome than staying in my hometown, moving commas around for a living, commuting in that Camry.

And that’s it, that’s my own three-word advice: Do awesome stuff.

Maybe it’s not moving to Europe, maybe it’s learning to play the piano, speaking Esperanto, writing a novel, becoming a professional wrestler, who cares. Find things you will someday want to brag about, things that would impress you if someone else did them, and do them.

If you’re like me, the furrowed-brow baboon worrying about his pension in his early 20s, find out what your awesome is and make a plan for doing it. Rules, lists, indicators, push notifications, whatever helps you pull rank on the lies your gut tells you.

If you’re not like me, if you’re the baboon polishing an apple and smoking a cigarette while the lion in the distance walks steadily you-ward, ignore me. I have no idea how your brain works. Just stop telling the rest of us to listen to ours.

Maybe I’m supposed to say that it’s really about being able to tell how far away the lion is, shrinking your pituitary gland through meditation or Pilates or multivitamins or whatever. But nothing I’ve done has made me any less anxious, no achievement has led me to that serenity I read on the bumper stickers. With stress inevitable, anxiety unavoidable and awesomeness finite, all I can do is work on tapping the one I might be running out of.

And if I’m in the middle of doing so and someone tells me to be myself, trust my gut, follow my heart, I have a built-in answer: ‘I can do better than that.’

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Filed under America, Berlin, Denmark, Essays, Personal

Why Do All My Pictures of Northern Europe Suck?

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In the eight years I’ve lived in Northern Europe, I don’t think I’ve taken one good picture of it.

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The problem, I’ve concluded, is the flatness.

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Not just the low altitude. Even at its postcardiest, the land here seems to merge with the water, then with the sky.

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Last year I read this Stephen Jay Gould essay where he talked about how the human mind is designed to notice variance over constants.

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Like how the roar of a waterfall is ignorable, but a drippy faucet, a fly trapped in an empty room, is unbearable.

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It’s easy to come up with examples of this in hearing, but harder with seeing.

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Lately I’ve been trying to explore my surroundings more. Get out of Berlin, bike quaintward, see how northern Germany looks after the freeways thin out.

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I wish I could say I’d discovered some hidden gem, a town, a forest, rich in history, poor in gift shops.

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But I really really haven’t. Everywhere you go, it’s water, land, sky, different amounts but always the same mixture.

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Back home, the scenery makes you feel tiny. You’re a speck on a mountain, a dot in a lake.

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Here, it makes you feel tall, like you’re the only punctuation in a long sentence.

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Maybe that’s why all my pictures all look the same. I’m used to looking for the drip, when everyone around me is listening to the roar.

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Filed under Berlin, Germany, Pictures, Travel

Leaving the Internet Will Not Make You a Better Person. Neither Will Anything Else.

It’s a been a year now since I “surfed the web” or “checked my email” or “liked” anything with a figurative rather than literal thumbs up. I’ve managed to stay disconnected, just like I planned. I’m internet free.

And now I’m supposed to tell you how it solved all my problems. I’m supposed to be enlightened. I’m supposed to be more “real,” now. More perfect.

Paul Miller, writer and lifelong techie, went a year without using the internet. No e-mail, no Facebook, no Google Maps, no Expedia, nothing.

And everything started out great, let me tell you. I did stop and smell the flowers. My life was full of serendipitous events: real life meetings, frisbee, bike rides, and Greek literature. With no clear idea how I did it, I wrote half my novel, and turned in an essay nearly every week to The Verge. In one of the early months my boss expressed slight frustration at how much I was writing, which has never happened before and never happened since.

[…] As my head uncluttered, my attention span expanded. In my first month or two, 10 pages of The Odyssey was a slog. Now I can read 100 pages in a sitting, or, if the prose is easy and I’m really enthralled, a few hundred.

It seemed then, in those first few months, that my hypothesis was right. The internet had held me back from my true self, the better Paul. I had pulled the plug and found the light.

It’s funny the kneejerk admiration we have for people who voluntarily opt out of technology we’ve had for less than two decades. Miller got regular fan mail from admirers, an outpouring of ‘good for you’ sentiments in his PO box every week. When I first read his ‘Goodbye Internet’ post a year ago, I remember my  reaction being ‘good for this dude!’

We have this weird conventional wisdom that the internet (by which we usually mean its more superficial representatives: Facebook, Buzzfeed, LOLCats) is a burden, a cacophony, the sirens enticing Ulysses toward destruction with a beautiful song.

Whenever anyone complains about the internet–the constant distractions, the oppressive connectivity, the instant gratification–I wonder to what degree they’re engaging in a kind of poorly aimed nostalgia. I remember the pre-internet era like this too,  a time when friendships were stronger, books were shorter, concentration was easier.

Some of this is undoubtedly true. But it is also true that before the internet I was fifteen years old. The processing power of my  desktop computer is not the only thing that has changed since then. Going to college, getting a job, moving to other countries, these things affect friendships, reading habits, ability to concentrate just as much as the internet does.

I  wonder how many of the people congratulating Miller on leaving the internet are old enough to have had lives without it.

By late 2012, I’d learned how to make a new style of wrong choices off the internet. I abandoned my positive offline habits, and discovered new offline vices. Instead of taking boredom and lack of stimulation and turning them into learning and creativity, I turned toward passive consumption and social retreat.

A year in, I don’t ride my bike so much. My frisbee gathers dust. Most weeks I don’t go out with people even once. My favorite place is the couch. I prop my feet up on the coffee table, play a video game, and listen to an audiobook. I pick a mindless game, like Borderlands 2 or Skate 3, and absently thumb the sticks through the game-world while my mind rests on the audiobook, or maybe just on nothing.

It’s hard to say exactly what changed. I guess those first months felt so good because I felt the absence of the pressures of the internet. My freedom felt tangible. But when I stopped seeing my life in the context of “I don’t use the internet,” the offline existence became mundane, and the worst sides of myself began to emerge.

So heartbreaking!

It’s like the Malthusian trap works at the level of the individual. Something changes in your life and you find new habits, new energy. You think you’re riding an incline, productivity and happiness increasing upward toward some new you. But then, your personality and your habits and your vices adjust. The incline plateaus, and before you know it, you’re staring at same monsters you thought you had turned away from.

This week is the two-year anniversary of my arrival in Berlin. This is the fourth time I’ve moved to a new country, and every time, the same thing happens.  The first few weeks I explore, I meet new people, I take in the new stuff and jettison the old. The first three months go by like a year, all the novelty and adjustment stretching each day into an accomplishment. Then it all speeds up.  Six months go by, a year, and I look around and I find myself in the same life I had in the last country.

This isn’t actually so bad. I rather like my life, and I’ve been able to build social groups (thanks Facebook!), stay in touch with  old friends (thanks Skype!) and entertain myself (thanks Grindr!) in places I wouldn’t have known if I didn’t constantly feel like a new me was just one more country away.

But still, Miller’s experience and mine make me wonder if we think about self-improvement the wrong way. Maybe it’s not about changing where we live or what we do or how much we internet. Maybe it’s about changing how we respond to what’s already around us.

Or maybe we’re proof that it doesn’t actually matter. Even the most profound changes in your external circumstances will only result in short-term changes before you adjust and invite the old you to return. Maybe that fifteen year old kid, the one with the lifelong friends, the stack of books books completed and absorbed, he’s still here, no matter how emphatically adulthood tries to ostracize him.

Strangely, I find all this somewhat comforting. If that kid isn’t going to make an exit anytime soon, maybe I still have time for a few more.

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Filed under Personal, Serious

Does Having Empathy Make You A Dick?

The heartbreaking, inspiring, impossible story of the former world’s fattest man:

He was born in Ipswich and had a childhood marked by two things, he says: the verbal and physical abuse of his father, a military policeman turned security guard; and three years of sexual abuse, starting when he was 6, by a relative in her 20s who lived in the house and shared his bed. He told no one until decades later.

After he left school, Mr. Mason took a job as a postal worker and became engaged to a woman more than 20 years older than him. “I thought it would be for life, but she just turned around one day and said, ‘No, I don’t want to see you anymore — goodbye,’ ” he said.

His father died, and he returned home to care for his arthritic mother, who was in a wheelchair. “I still had all these things going around in my head from my childhood,” he said. “Food replaced the love I didn’t get from my parents.” When he left the Royal Mail in 1986, he said, he weighed 364 pounds.

Then things spun out of control. Mr. Mason tried to eat himself into oblivion. He spent every available penny of his and his mother’s social security checks on food. He stopped paying the mortgage. The bank repossessed their house, and the council found them a smaller place to live. All the while, he ate the way a locust eats — indiscriminately, voraciously, ingesting perhaps 20,000 calories a day. First he could no longer manage the stairs; then he could no longer get out of his room. He stayed in bed, on and off, for most of the last decade.

Most people, I imagine, read this—the abuse, the loneliness, the sense of helplessness—and feel sorry for this dude. Everyone deals with personal and family problems in unique, unbeautiful ways. This dude just happens to have chosen a way that profoundly affected his health and quality of life. This story almost invites you to go ‘Aw, poor guy.’

It’s harder when you don’t know the backstory. If you saw this guy at a restaurant, nearly 1,000 pounds, inhaling fried chicken, French fries, chocolate cake, washing it down with a milkshake, he’d probably make you sick to your stomach. You’d probably comment to a friend, ‘this guy is disgusting’, turn the other way.

We don’t realize the extent to which we learn one thing about someone and let it take over our entire opinion of them. You read this article and you know he’s fat, but you also know the abuse, the torn relationships, how he’s now reversed the spiral, how hard he’s trying. When you see a fat person at a restaurant, all you know is how they appear and what they’re eating. In both cases, you use the information you have to make a judgement. In that restaurant, you just don’t realize how little information you have.

But this is the part where I really suck at this. When I see a significantly overweight person in public, I end up assuming there’s a sympathetic backstory, an understandable reason they got this way. Maybe their dad just died and eating is a way to feel comfort. Maybe they have a hormonal imbalance. Or maybe they were just born with a crazy-slow metabolism and they have completely accepted their size and don’t feel any need to apologize for it. Good for them! I think, feeling kind and wise.

I fundamentally have no information about these people. I don’t know their first names, or where they grew up, or who their friends are or how they treat them. If it’s dickish to see a fat person at a restaurant and assume ‘they must be lazy’, isn’t it dickish to assume the opposite, that they must have an emotional or personal or physical reason for their obesity?

In other words, is kneejerk empathy as patronizing as kneejerk judgement?

It’s not just overweight people. I do this all the time, explain away a person’s appearance and actions. I try really hard to give people the benefit of the doubt when they snap at their kids in public, cut me off in traffic, refuse to give up their seat to an old person on the train. Maybe they’re having a terrible day. Maybe they’re hurrying home to take care of their sick mom.  Maybe they’re just distracted. I’m no better than them, I tell myself, I’ve done all these things and worse.

Sometimes I think this makes me a left-wing cliche. There’s no such thing as bad behavior, only people who need a hug. On a society-wide scale, maybe judgement is better than empathy. If we know we’ll get nasty l0oks from our societal peers, maybe we’ll act better. Or at least look better.

Like everyone else, I haven’t found a way to make my actions match my beliefs. I lack the information to make any robust conclusions about the world around me, but even knowing that, I lack the ability not to. I wish I could see people and not assume anything at all. But until that happens, I should be sure about what I know before I decide what I think.

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tl;dw: Movies I Couldn’t Be Bothered to Finish in 2012

The best thing about streaming movies is that there’s no sunk costs. I don’t have to sit there and suffer through another sequel, another superhero, another indie misanthrope just to justify the $8 I’ve already spent. Ever since I started watching movies on my laptop, I start more than I used to, but my completion rate is down to like 50 percent. Now that I have a smartphone, a second screen to distract me, it’s pushing 25.

Anyway, here’s 12 movies I watched this year that failed to be more interesting than whatever I found an alt+tab away.

  • John Carter: After watching this for 20 minutes I stopped to do an image search for ‘taylor kitsch rippling shirtless’ and never unpaused.
  • We Bought a Zoo: So the title’s not a metaphor? It’s, like, the actual premise for the movie? Oh yeah fuck this.
  • Friends With Kids: We know you’re a playwright, OK, now can every line of dialogue stop telling us that?
  • The Hunger Games: I told everyone I know, like ‘It may not be High Art, but it’s a genuine cultural phenomenon, we have the obligation to see it.’ Like all intellectual pledges I made this year, this required a longer attention span than I possess, and I turned it off to read articles about it 25 minutes in.
  • We Need to Talk about Kevin: After Tilda’s third metaphor-rich juxtaposition with her environment, I figured my time would be better spent experiencing mine.
  • Your Sister’s Sister: I made it like 90 minutes in, and I was all proud of myself for concentrating on nutritious, prestigious Cinema, then the third-act twist was so bonkers and implausible that I shut down my Macbook and set it on fire.
  • Shut Up and Play the Hits: Love this movie and love this band so much that I turned it off to go dancing at Berghain after 25 minutes.
  • Shame: If I wanted to watch hot guys go jogging, I’d go hang out in Tiergarten. Oh wait, that would be more interesting than this, seeya.
  • This Means War: Five minutes went by before my middle school social studies teacher, in my head, went ‘Is this how you want to live your life?’ and I returned to watching cooking videos on YouTube.
  • Brave: This hurts. Pixar’s been good to us, as a society, and we owe it our attention and our allegiance. Still, halfway in, I wasn’t seeing anything I haven’t seen before. Sorry little hopping lamp, I let you down on this one.
  • Twilight: Is this a TV movie? Why does everyone look like they have the flu?
  • The Campaign: I love it when dick-joke comedies spend the last 30 minutes trying to convince me of the wrongness of their villains’ political opinions.    

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Mind Over Manners: Why Not Being An Asshole is Really Hard


Here’s Elizabeth Bernstein in the Wall St. Journal:

Dr. Leary at Duke decided to study people’s overreactions to inconsequential events several years ago, after he witnessed the Pickle Incident.

He was at a fast-food restaurant and saw a man in a business suit march up to the counter, throw his hamburger down and yell: “Why is there a pickle on my sandwich?” Loudly, he said he would have the counter clerk fired because she was “too stupid” to work there. The clerk looked as if she would cry. Another employee handed the customer a new hamburger, and he left.

The scene made Dr. Leary think there must be something critically important about unwritten social rules if we feel so deeply violated that we need to let the world know when someone breaks one. “It’s not the pickle,” says Dr. Leary. “It’s that you are doing something that makes me not trust you, that you may harm or disadvantage me because you are not playing by the rules.”

Last week I was in line at the supermarket buying a bottle of water. The guy in front of me was buying a whole cart full of stuff, and didn’t offer to let me go ahead of him. I fumed, bleep-by-bleep, as the checker rang up all 275,000 of his items. When his total came up and he started digging in his pockets for exact change, I stared at the ceiling and let out a deep, audible sigh.

How useless and childish my reaction was! In all, this guy probably wasted two minutes of my time—tops!—and it’s not like I was late for something or in a hurry. I huffed and grumbled throughout this entire episode like a princess in a children’s story, then, as soon as it was over, biked home and wasted time on my laptop til bedtime.

This episode was utterly inconsequential. So why didn’t it feel like that at the time?

Researchers at Duke University, in a yet-to-be-published study, looked for explanations of why people melt down over small things. Their findings suggest we are reacting to a perceived violation of an unwritten yet fundamental rule. It’s the old, childhood wail: “It’s not fair!”

Researchers call these unwritten laws of behavior “social exchange rules.” We’re not supposed to be rude or inconsiderate; we are supposed to be polite, fair, honest and caring. Don’t cut in line. Drive safely. Clean up after yourself.

“We can’t have successful interactions in relationships, mutually beneficial to both people involved, if one person violates these rules,” says Mark Leary, professor of psychology and neuroscience at Duke and lead author of the study. “And we can’t have a beneficial society if we can’t trust each other not to lie, not to be unethical, not to watch out for our general well-being.”

I constantly struggle not to turn violations of social exchange rules into internal tantrums. It’s hard work to tell myself He probably just doesn’t see you behind him in line. If he did, he’d obviously let you go ahead. It’s so much easier to just think this fucking asshole and stand there rolling my eyes.

I think the best advice I ever got was ‘Don’t argue anything on principle alone.’ As the article points out, these episodes escalate from minor infraction to major altercation because people perceive them in terms of principles like fairness and equality—this guy thinks his time is more valuable than mine!—rather than concrete impacts—I’m gonna get home from work 120 seconds later than I planned!

On the bus to the airport last Friday, a woman had her bag on the seat next to her as the bus filled, then nearly overflowed, with people. This gremlin, I thought, thinks her bag is more important than all these people.

‘Excuse me,’ someone finally said. ‘Did you know your bag is taking up this seat?’
‘Oh I’m so sorry,’ the woman said. ‘I was reading my book and totally forgot. Please sit down, forgive me.’
‘Not at all,’ the other traveller said. ‘These things happen.’

I think that’s a good way to put it: These things happen. Distracted, forgetful, short-termy, oblivious, that’s what makes us human. By doing the hard thing when we relate to each other, we have the opportunity to be a little bit more.

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How to Take Irritating Pictures of Your Vacation

Jesus the rest of my pictures from Tbilisi turned out really annoying.

The city has beautiful buildings, a fascinating language and a kind, history-weathered population.

Of which I managed to capture exactly none.

Instead, I came home with a bunch of pictures of an empty, vaguely European diorama.

It’s like a master-class in how to ignore the characteristics of your subject and resort to sub-Instagram photo trickery.

Like this one: The Ferris Wheel Atop The Mountain. It’s auditioning to be the headline of a Malcolm Gladwell article.

Or this one, with that movie-star lighting. What’s the appropriate hashtag to describe it in detail?!

Awwwwww shit, chain links and religiosity. They give Pulitzers for cropping, right?

Notice the electrical lines in the foreground. You can tell I was ducking sniper fire as I took this.

Oooh, this one’s ugly! It must be real!

Oh no, this church is hella nondescript! What to do?

Zoom in on the flag, for a little metaphorical significance?

Or kneel in the dirt and finagle this rose for the foreground?

Naw, son. Just zoom in until it looks like a stock photo on the cover of a Vote For Bachmann direct mailing.

Wanna make something seem mysterious and far away? Hold your camera behind some branches til you get the desired Escape From Witch Mountain effect.

Who needs PhotoShop when you can fake your photos at the source?

Backlighting is the black sweater of my photographic repertoire: Appropriate for all occasions.

Another favorite: If the bottom half of a church is littered with dumpsters and unsymmetrical bushes, just aim upwards til it’s unblemished.

That way, instead of looking like your photos were taken in a specific place by a specific person, they could be anywhere, depicting anything. That’s the point, right?

This picture is trying so hard it’s practically doping.

Thank god there’s nothing here to actually look at, that would have been confusing.

Nighttime! That’s an iPhone app, right?

Aaaaand… I’m out. I may not have come home with any amazing photos, but at least I have some nice memories.

They don’t last as long, but they’re easier to edit.

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What Is Your Boss Buying?

Here’s a post about the sellability of various college skills:

In order to do well in courses on 19th Century British Literature or Social Anthropology or Philosophy or American History in a properly running American college, what you need to do is get pretty good at reading and writing documents in the English language. These are very much real skills with wide-ranging practical applications.

Clearly relatively few people are professional writers, but a huge amount of what goes on at the higher levels of a typical business is a steady stream of production and consumption of reports and memos. If you can compose an email that’s 10 percent clearer in 90 percent of the time as the other guy, you’re going to get ahead in a wide range of fields.

Outside of office work, a big part of the difference between a hard-working individual who’s pretty good at his job and a person who’s able to leverage his skills and hardwork into an entrepreneurial or managerial role is precisely the ability to research things and write up plans. Everyone knows that a kid growing up in rural India is obtaining valuable skills if he gets better at English, but this is equally true for a kid growing up in Indiana.

Now of course perhaps not every liberal arts program is in fact imparting reading and writing skills to its graduates. But that’s a problem of execution not of concept. It’s a fallacy to think that in an increasingly technology-performed society that technical skills will be the only sources of value. Computers are going to put accountants out of business long before they start hurting the earnings of talented interior decorators. The important point is that mastering a specific body of facts is not nearly as useful in 2012 as it was in 1962.

I realized the other day that most of the things my employer pays me for aren’t technical skills or expertise on particular topic areas. Most of my day is spent building relationships within and outside of my organization toward goals (fundraising, partnerships, awareness-raising, etc.) defined for me by someone else.

It sometimes feels like my employer isn’t buying a set of skills from me, but rather renting my actual personality and applying it toward its own development.

I spend most of my day listening to colleagues describe their projects, telling other colleagues about them and describing them to people outside of my organization. I write lots of e-mails notifying internal and external people of things they need to know about. I try–flailingly–to convince other people to be interested in what my organization is doing.

If I had to sum up the skills that I use at work, it would be things like listening, reading between the lines, telling a good story and being empathetic. These aren’t job skills, they’re personality traits.

Sometimes I think jobs like mine represent some kind of post-Marxian dystopia where we don’t sell our skills to the highest bidder, but our selves. If there’s no difference between your personal skills and your professional ones, what is your employer actually buying?

I still fundamentally have the power to draw a line between my work-self and my weekend-self, of course. The convergence of the two simply reflects the fact that my work addresses an issue I’m personally passionate about, as well as my own failure to develop technical skills beyond liberal-arts faffery.

But I wonder what it means, at a structural level, for employers to requisition employees to this extent. As employee marketability shifts away from skills and toward selves, what will our employers start to expect from us?

A lot’s been written in recent years about the implications of employers checking the Facebook pages and Twitter feeds of their workers. Maybe our bosses aren’t monitoring us, they’re just assessing their purchase.

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Valle Girl

After three days in Mexico City, I headed out to the countryside.

Nothing says 'gringo on the bus!' like being the only one taking pictures out the window.

The internet suggested Valle de Bravo as a nice little retreat from the onslaught of the capital.

And it was! The lake is artificial, but the city is real.

It's apparently a big weekend destination for Mexico Citians, and I felt like the only American there.

In situations like this, foreign tourists tend to actively avoid each other.

Tourism, unlike most mass activities, becomes less valuable the more people do it.

You feel like an anthropologist wandering around places like this.

Until you hear else someone speaking English, then you feel like a spectator.

When I saw the water, I thought 'Yeah, there's no fucking way I'm swimming in a man-made lake in Mexico'.

Then felt racist for thinking that.

When I got back to Mexico City and told people I had been in Valle de Bravo, the first thing they said was, 'Shit you didn't swim did you?!'

Then I felt vindicated. Racist assumptions are fine as long as they turn out to be correct, right?

The only thing I asked the internet about Valle de Bravo before I arrived was whether it has tarantulas.

I have never seen a tarantula in real life

and genuinely believe I would lose a tonsil screaming if I ever did.

The city does apparently have tarantulas, but they're hibernating in December.

Somehow that's even more terrifying. If they're sleeping, they would be vengeful if I were to inadvertently wake them.

I find it less scary to hang from the clouds on a 20-foot-wide piece of canvas than to encounter a playing-card-sized nonpoisonous animal. I realize the un-logic of this.

Still, I tried to keep noise to a minimum, and refused to look at the ceiling in my hotel room in case I got Arachnophobia'd.

Looking down is always easier than looking up.

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