Tag Archives: idle ranting

What’s the Opposite of Precocious?

I am a sophomore at Nathan Hale High School in Seattle, Washington. I have friends from all walks of life and believe that I would be perfect for your panel. I do not play any sports, although I had a brief stint with the lacrosse team my freshman year. I am a big fan of the entertainment industry. I have very diverse tastes in TV, movies, books, theater, and music. I cannot say no to quality entertainment, whatever the genre. I am obsessed and fascinated by pop culture, and I love reading the newspaper and magazines.

That’s the beginning of an essay I wrote in 1997. I was 15, and applying to be a ‘teen correspondent’ at USA Today.

The world of teenagers is very different from how it was in the fifties and sixties. Most males are concerned only with sex and drugs. Females seem mostly concerned about how to avoid them.

Of course, there are the few lonely souls who dare to be different, but they are labeled as ‘weirdos’ or ‘faggots’ and are generally ignored. To be popular and successful as a teenager, one must be willing to conform to what the media and their peers tell them.

The only thing more incredible than the thudding artlessness of these passages is that fact that I got the job. Based solely on the ‘strength’ of this essay, I was one of USA Today’s go-to teens for more than two years. Shit’s still on my resume.

The essay is one of hundreds of files my parents excavated  from my old hard drive and sent to me a few years ago. They all have the original names, but I’m starting to think I should just label them Cringe_1, Cringe_2 and onward to mortifying infinity. There’s one called ‘White_Racial_Identity.doc’ that I’m thinking about deleting without opening.

In this age of single parents and families in which both parents are working, the role of mother and father begin to mean less and less. Oftentimes parents would like to be home with their kids, but can’t, because they have to work a double shift so the aforementioned children can keep ordering pizzas and watching cable.

It only gets worse from there.

Maybe the worst thing about modern technology isn’t the triviality, or the ubiquitousness, but the permanence. If this essay wasn’t saved on a 15-year-old hard drive, I never would have read it again. I could have lived the rest of my life believing, on the rare occasions when I recall this period, that it was good , that I expressed something true, that I was worthy of pontificating upward from hotel room doorsteps for two years. This essay would have remained, undisturbed, a worthwhile general rather than an embarrassing particular.

We forget the extent to which we construct our childhood from input more diverse than its actual events. History, movies, retold stories, aborted friendships, it all gets folded into the way you think you had it when you were a kid. These pictures and texts from my childhood seem like some sort of alternate reality to my ‘real’ upbringing, the one I keep in my head. It’s easy to forget that it’s actually the other way around.

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Business Jargon: Think Inside the Box

I bonded with a client on the phone the other day. She was telling me about a collaboration program they were launching with other departments, and she said something like ‘we’re trying to discover all the synergies—‘

There was a long pause. ‘I’m sorry. I fucking hate the word ‘synergy’, she said.

If I had a pet project, I think it would be to write a history of management jargon. It’s amazing how terms like ‘synergy’ and ‘value-added’ creep into our vocabularies in spite of having meanings that are poorly defined at best and utterly commonsensical at worst.

Tyler Cowen says we resort to jargon to maintain consensus:

My speculation: People disagree in corporations, often virulently, or they would disagree if enough real debates were allowed to reach the surface.  The use of broad generalities, in rhetoric, masks such potential disagreements and helps maintain corporate order and authority.  Since it is hard to oppose fluffy generalities in any very specific way, a common strategy is to stack everyone’s opinion or points into an incoherent whole.  Disagreement is then less likely to become a focal point within the corporation and warring coalitions are less likely to form.

I agree with this, but I think the real purpose of management jargon is revealed in the fact that it never lasts very long. This year’s ‘low-hanging fruit’ is last year’s ‘blue-sky thinking’.

Corporations are under pressure to always be dynamic. They have to constantly expand, constantly evolve. This makes them uniquely susceptible to fads of language and paradigm. ‘Look for the blue ocean’ pulls a company to a slightly more productive equilibrium. Next year, ‘synergy’ pulls them to another one. Each paradigm resolves what it is capable of resolving, and reveals new problems for the next one.

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Leave Fat People Alone

Yeah so I probably come off as a total dick in my last post.

I actually find the stigma against overweight people repellent, especially the way fat-phobic comments come packaged in this utterly styrofoam concern about health.

I’ve been in situations where friends or acquaintances have pointed out obese people on the street to mock them (‘Her poor shoes!’), and I doubt that me saying ‘Actually, I know her. She eats super-healthy, swims twice a week and has cholesterol levels below yours.’ would make them reconsider.

Obese people are stigmatized for the same reason everyone else is: Because they don’t fit our norm of attractiveness. The health thing is just a disguise for primary school-level neener-neenering.

The problem, of course, is that being obese actually is bad for your health, at least generally. The obese woman you’re mocking on the street does, statistically, have a higher chance of heart disease, cancer and osteoperosis than the skinny woman walking the other direction.

The overweight community often wants to downplay this, arguing that its perfectly possible to be healthy and overweight at the same time. It probably is, but it’s not the case that Western countries are growing in size alone. We’re getting fatter, and we’re getting sicker.

None of this, however, is a justification for being shitty to fat people.

The obese woman you’re laughing at probably does, in fact, eat too much and exercise too little. But neither of those things are themselves stigmatized. You don’t point and laugh at someone of normal size who orders two Big Macs for lunch. You don’t mock your friends who never go to the gym or bike to work.

We only care how much someone eats or exercises if its visible on the outside. It’s the display of their unhealth that we find unforgivable, not its content.

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The ’50s were terrible

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I found a book called ‘The Status Seekers’ in a bookstore in the Faroe Islands for a dollar (it was an unmanned bookstore. You pick a book, check the price, then deposit the cash through a slot in the office door. Only in Scandinavia!)

The book is by Vance Packard, a forgotten blip in the genre of bestseller psychology. It was published in 1959, and chronicles the increasing class stratification of America in the midst of its first period of sustained income and economic growth.

It’s a fascinating artifact, both for its descriptions of things that haven’t changed since 1959 (Bosses hate mingling with subordinates! People buy fancy cars to demonstrate their status!) and what has (Rotary clubs! Upper class people go to church!).

This is the third book I’ve read recently about the 1950s in America, and the more I learn about the decade, the more I think its conception in the popular memory is utterly false, to the point of perniciousness.

The 50s were awful. Our idea of them as embodying universal prosperity, equal opportunity and family dinners is based entirely on movies and TV. Imagine someone 100 years from now extrapolating the dimensions of our society solely on the basis of ‘High School Musical’ and ‘Everybody Loves Raymond’.

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The dark side of the 1950s wasn’t depicted in 1950s music, movies or books. That’s precisely what the dark side of the 1950s was: Nothing that scraped the veneer was tolerated.

This extended far beyond TV and movies. As Packard describes, applicants were barred from employment if they weren’t white, happily married or Protestant enough. All forms of socialization—from workplaces to schools to social clubs to churches—were designed to pre-emptively exclude those who didn’t fit in.

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The 1950s were also the decade where The Greatest Generation laid the foundations for everything that sucks in America today. They abandoned their inner cities and built an infrastructure devoted to mass-produced suburbs and shopping malls. They invented the commute.

More perniciously, and something I never really realized until Packer pointed it out, was that they built a society where classes rarely come into contact with each other. As the physical geography changed, neighborhood institutions and social structures could more restrict themselves to a narrow demographic band. Neighborhood churches and schools became increasingly focused on servicing the universally rich (or universally poor) residents who lived near them.

‘What happens to the personalities of people who live in communities where the houses for miles around are virtually identical, and the people seen are all from the same socio-economic slice? It is too early to tell,’ Packer writes. I think with 40 extra years of perspective on his question, we can answer it.

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Someday the country won’t be run by people who look back on this time of social exclusion with nostalgia. It’s time we moved on from our simplistic idea that the 1950s were America’s glory days, and start constructing them as they were: The increasingly panicked flailing of a generation that would go to any length to preserve its unearned privilege. 

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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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