Category Archives: evolutionary psychology

Fiona Maazel on loneliness

A novel approach to the absurdities of mass desolation.

Lighted Globes x 

Woke Up Lonely by Fiona Maazel

Graywolf Press, 336 pp., $26.00.

Guest Review by Lanie Tankard

We are lonesome animals. We spend all life trying to be less lonesome. One of our ancient methods is to tell a story . . .

—John Steinbeck, to the Paris Review

Maazel novel

A Google search for the term lonely can yield 287,000,000 results in less than twenty seconds. A Facebook Community called “Loneliness” has close to 19,000 Likes, while over 15,000 Likes appear on a Facebook Interest page with the same title. It looks like Fiona Maazel really struck a chord with this literary theme in her second novel.

The cover, with its iconic backlit image of a concert crowd wave, pulls the reader right into the anomie awaiting inside the book. When a writer as proficient as Maazel collects intriguing ideas—such as global eavesdropping in the middle of the Pisgah National Forest, the juche idea of the spirit of self-reliance in the isolated nation of North Korea, the secret world of subterranean Cincinnati, the lure of cults, and the psychology of loneliness —and combines them all into a plot that is at the same time wildly comical and perceptively forlorn . . . well, you’ve got yourself a rollicking good read.

Some authors can make you laugh out loud. Others wrench tears right out of you. Maazel blends those two abilities in a startling yet subtle way—at least for me. While reading Woke Up Lonely, I would on occasion be aware of a riotous laugh heading straight up my throat, only to be met by an equally powerful lurch of my heart just before the hysterics breached my lips. The effect muted what was about to become a loud guffaw by curtailing the initiation of tears into a sharp intake of breath instead, infusing me with a unique sense of poignant hilarity. Maazel’s artistic skill in smudging the demarcation between comedy and angst left me shaking my head in admiration time and time again.

Her first novel, Last Last Chance, also touched upon disparate societal issues viewed from an absurdist eye with acuity. I would place Woke Up Lonely in a special fiction genre, however, possibly also comprised of Atmospheric Disturbances by Rivka Galchen and Special Topics in Calamity Physics by Marisha Pessl.

The protagonist in Woke Up Lonely inspired opposing feelings in me as well. I found Thurlow Dan, known as Lo, at once both despicable and endearing. Lo is the founder of the Helix, a cult followed by throngs of lonely people. He, too, is aware of his emotional remoteness while missing his former wife, Esme, and their daughter, Ida. It’s been a decade since he saw them—and then suddenly he does.

Avid readers of Boris Pasternak will recognize the riff on a scene from Doctor Zhivago as the novel begins. Thomas Hardy aficionados may pick up on another from Tess of the d’Urbervilles at the book’s end.

The author employs a technique for revealing Esme’s backstory by having the character number the pages of a speech she’s preparing about her early life. Unbeknownst to Lo, Esme’s job has involved spying on her former husband. One of their most hilarious scenes together takes place in a limo driving through Pyongyang, DPRK, told at different points in the novel as each of them experienced it. Esme’s disguised professional vantage point over the years has allowed her to protect him covertly as she became aware that she still cared for him. Then Lo throws her a curveball by taking her agents hostage. These four spies are vividly drawn quirky characters with mind-boggling individual story lines of their own.

In explaining the reasons why people behave in unusual ways, social psychologist Elliot Aronson noted his “first law” in The Social Animal, published in 1972 and now in its 11th edition: “People who do crazy things are not necessarily crazy.”

Later, in his 2010 memoir Not By Chance Alone: My Life As a Social Psychologist, Aronson wrote: ““In this society most of us glide through life protecting ourselves; in effect, each of us wears a behavioral suit of armor, to minimize how much other people can hurt us. But sometimes we become so successful at hiding our true feelings from others that we hide our feelings from ourselves as well.”

Woke Up Lonely strikes me as a literary exploration of these very ideas. Maazel juxtaposes ribald incidents next to analytical explanations of how loneliness differs from anxiety and depression with a deft and sure hand. She draws attention to the distinctive features of individualism and collectivism within a society as they relate to loneliness.

Neuroscientist John Cacioppo, coauthor of Loneliness, has spoken widely about such concepts. Cacioppo stresses that loneliness is not a bad thing because it compels us to form connections. “Loneliness is a cue to us to reconnect, like a prompt,” he says. “Individualism is celebrated in our culture. The underlying collective is not recognized.” According to Cacioppo, the symptoms of loneliness are: “(1) You don’t have a confidant who confirms who you are. (2) You don’t have a collective identity, a social identity.”

And that’s right where Thurlow Dan’s Helix cult snags so many lonely people in Maazel’s novel. I was briefly confused a couple times amid shifts from first to third person and in the description of several characters, but never did they mar the framework or flow of this modern tragedy with its intelligently subtle humor. Maazel masterfully couches editorial observations about our culture within the dialogue of her creatively sketched characters. On page after page, I thought in bemused wonder, “How did she ever dream up these folks?”

I picked up some insights when I heard Maazel speak recently at the New Fiction Confab in Austin, Texas.

“I write because I enjoy it,” she said. “I don’t know how to do anything else but fiction writing. It’s lucky if you get to do what you love.”

She doesn’t hold stock in the old adage “Write what you know.”

“Write what you can learn about,” she said. “It teaches you about your inner life. If you’re a person who finds it difficult to confront your inner life, writing is a way to do it.”

She advised writers to “be available to the world around you. It teaches you. I use no headphones or iTunes. I use the subway to be a keen observer. Let the stories come to you. Refract them through your own consciousness.”

Afterward, I asked her how many drafts she wrote of Woke Up Lonely before it was published.

“Oh, about forty-six,” she replied seriously. “There’s no ‘would-be’ about being a writer. You’re either a writer or you’re not.”

Fiona Maazel is definitely a writer.

ChezZee x

Lanie Tankard is a freelance writer and editor in Austin, Texas. A member of the National Book Critics Circle and former production editor of Contemporary Psychology: A Journal of Reviews, she has also been an editorial writer for the Florida Times-Union in Jacksonville.

 

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Filed under emotion, evolutionary psychology, experimental, fiction, REVIEW

A narrative of our human nature

Humans’ “emotional fossils,” the rise of ego & the hand of God: pondering life after Charles Darwin, Carl Jung & Eckhart Tolle

I asked my friend, mentor, fellow seeker, and writing posse member John Wylie to discuss the fascinating book he’s writing, qua narrative nonfiction. This also is a test of sorts to see if its exciting ideas are comprehensible to lay readers who may be totally unaware of the battles raging in the field of evolutionary psychology over what amounts to a new vision of our species.—Richard Gilbert

Guest Post by John V. Wylie

Dr. Wylie: why are we “brilliantly creative, cruel, absurd”?

Wylie: “We’re brilliantly creative, cruel, absurd.”

My book is a narrative about my own 35-year secret life exploring the evolutionary narrative of humans, and my subject matter has been the narratives of severely mentally ill patients that I was treating in my “day job” as a psychiatrist.

My first philosophical theater was a maximum security prison where I nearly got killed when an inmate slashed my face and throat. I came away from that experience, having immersed myself in the writings of Charles Darwin, with the conviction that the dominance and submission interactions so evident in prison and in apes had evolved into the authority and obedience in groups so evident in normal human society. But how did this occur?

Mental Illnesses as “Emotional Fossils”

As I worked on this question, I began to realize that the mental illnesses were “emotional fossils” revealing insight into the internal life of our ancestral hominid species. Patients suffering from the two major forms of depression and panic disorder taught me that the two most fundamental fears are separation and being trapped at the periphery of a group, as if “up against the wall of banishment.” These fears greatly intensified in hominids right from the very beginning, serving to tightly bind our ancestral kinship groups together. The central symptom of Schizophrenia—the “sacred disease”—is the experience that one’s thoughts emanate from an external source. Another thread in my inquiry emerged when recent diverse lines of evidence convinced me that our hominid ancestors lived in monogamous groups.

Putting all this together, I deduced that the entity of individual dominance “ascended” into the authority of groups dispensing justice and absolute morality; this helped to sustain and coordinate small groups of multiple monogamous families as if they were organisms. I began to see the hand of God in this transformation from the laws of the jungle to lives lived utterly within the rules of right and wrong. And to view their lives, as harsh as they must have been, to also have been Edenic. All members of a group lived immersed within a single mind that evolved for millions of years to coordinate the survival of their groups. These groups evolved passively by the emergence in each generation of the most fecund (because they were stable, because they were monogamous) and most productive permutations of mutual relationships within groups—not through competition between groups. So these creatures, our ancient ancestors, were inherently peaceful with one another.

Then I recognized that the disorder of mania (the “up” part of bipolar disorder) revealed that, 200,000 years ago, the innovation that resulted in the evolution of our own Homo sapiens species was accompanied by the development of an intensely positive feeling elicited specifically by others admiring us as individuals. The powerful drive to seek this pleasure resulted in the evolution of an endless variety of species-specific behaviors that are tantamount to competitive sexual display. The pervasiveness of this strong proclivity in humans has rendered us at the same time brilliantly creative, cruel, and absurd. An old-fashioned term for this purely human impulse is vanity.

What Mindfulness May Really Mean

So my narrative has ended up along biblical lines: God created us six million years ago with the innocence of Adam and Eve and evolved in us the power to coordinate our work under a single will for the good of our groups. But now we find ourselves in a fallen state, driven by our vanity to glorify ourselves, and worst of all to usurp the power given to us by God to wage war with one another.

I deeply connect with the writings of Eckhart Tolle. I agree with his definition of ego as that which we fear (separation and banishment) and desire (vanity). Mindfulness involves immersing ourselves in the vast spiritual subcontinent (soul, Jung’s collective unconscious) that continues as our living heritage and is the very “platform” of consciousness from which we are (self)conscious of our most recent “ego-mind.” As violent as our species’ ego has driven us to be, all of its accumulated wants have a purpose that is in the process of coming to pass.

Painfully but inexorably the undeniable movement of our history has been toward the amalgamation into ever larger groups; inevitably we’ll live as a single group as prophesied by Isaiah (and as interpreted by Tolle in his recent bestseller A New Earth). For six million years, individuals evolved to live their lives as a single organism within the minds of their small groups. Now it is our destiny to evolve into one vast spiritual creature with eternal life.

Dr. Wylie's previous book

Dr. Wylie’s previous book

Needless to say, there have been gargantuan problems in weaving together the human narrative with my own personal narrative and all my patients’ narratives, while fiercely protecting their privacy. Then there have been all the blind alleys I have gone down and the technical aspects of evolutionary mechanisms along with the narrative of the evolutionary debates that have raged during the last 35 years. My strategy has been just to pump out one manuscript after another (I’ve done eight) mainly as a way to think it all through again and again until finally I could step back and allow all the narratives to fall into place “on their own.” I’m currently polishing my manuscript and drafting a proposal for prospective publishers.

John V. Wylie is the author of  Diagnosing and Treating Mental Illness: A Guide for Physicians, Nurses, Patients and Their Families and blogs about his ideas regarding evolution and human nature at Apes, Ants & Ancestors.

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Filed under braids, threads, emotion, evolutionary psychology, narrative, religion & spirituality

A cheap trick that slays readers

Hairy Canary x

Jill Talbot’s braided essay & Lee Child on creating suspense.

It’s difficult for most people to verbalize the ways in which they disappoint themselves and others. The personal essay and the memoir demand that it be written down, perhaps even read aloud to others. The genre, I tell my students, is not for everyone. If you’re not comfortable with looking closely at where you have gone wrong or at least trying to find out why, you’re not going to be a good essayist.

—Jill Talbot, “Creating Nonfiction”

Jill Talbot is an acclaimed essayist and nonfiction theorist. Her braided essay “Emergent” has just appeared in the Paris Review, and I commend it to you. I predict you won’t be able to stop reading it because you’ll see what Talbot couldn’t see, the terrible danger that she and her young daughter were in. Multiple questions drive it forward as she lets the reader see what the apparent problem was even as she was oblivious to it in the wake of her move and her daughter’s seemingly separate issue. You’ll want to know how it comes out. And I love the way the essay’s braided structure deepens the foreground story and makes it seem even more real, more textured like life. Her memories and worries continue along with the slowly unfolding disaster, just as they surely do. This chilling story embodies so much more than its abundant explicit content.

In her essay “Creating Nonfiction” Talbot addresses the so-what-why-should-we-care issue I’ve been writing about:

In writing essays, you have to be more loyal to the art than the experience that created that art. A good place to start is by choosing an appropriate persona. It’s not enough to be an “I.” As I ask my students, Who are you for this piece? Because I believe that is the relationship between the persona and the essay. An essay demands a certain persona to achieve what it sets out to do. One of the ways I introduce the idea of persona is by making a list on the board of each of my varying personas, including ones like professor, mother, smoker, runner, writer, lover, seventies music aficionado.

Notice what this implies: You as a narrator are standing at least somewhat outside experience, delivering wisdom or at least testifying as to meaning. Talbot makes this explicit a little later:

When a student wrote about being raped at the age of twelve by her cousin, her workshop group grew visibly reticent from across the room. I usually stay out of workshops unless the group needs a new direction or an essay affords me an opportunity to make a point that will help all of the writers, but here, I purposefully broke in to remind them they were responding to the writing, not the written rape in any innovative or intriguing way. If an essay doesn’t bring a new voice or approach to its subject matter, don’t write it. If you write the essay as a surface catharsis, a confession, or for attention,  the  significance  is  yours  only. What makes an essay move  beyond the telling is when a reader, with or without  a similar experience, can  recognize  a humanistic  truth emerging  from its words.

• • •

Part of the narrative puzzle: Ask a question to make readers care.

If you’re still reading, I must’ve hooked you with that “cheap trick” line. Sorry for making you feel craven and unclean, but I had to try it. And it’s not really cheap so much as comparatively easy and effective; we pose questions naturally but like all impulses in writing this move can become more effective when we use it consciously.

I’ve mentioned in a writing class a few times this semester how important narrative suspense is. That’s an overt or implicit question that keeps the reader reading. Overt questions like, “I couldn’t figure out why I’d acted that way,” propel the reader forward, as do implicit questions. How will the relationship come out? Does he live or die? Did her eating disorder get better? As we know, Verlyn Klinkenborg says in his new book on writing (reviewed) that implication is one of writing’s most powerful qualities because it lets readers grasp and figure out some of the narrative’s pieces for themselves.

Now suddenly I’ve remembered that, in December, a short New York Times essay by Lee Child, author of the Jack Reacher series, addressed this issue. “A Simple Way to Create Suspense” mentions only fiction, but it applies directly to nonfiction as well. Child says posing a question can seem almost unfair because it works so well. I’m all for what works, however easy, because writing is concentrated thought and hard enough. And memoir always faces this “So what?” issue. He says you can make readers care by asking a question, since humans are compelled by curiosity about how questions are answered:

Readers are human, and humans seem programmed to wait for answers to questions they witness being asked. I learned that fact in my first job. I worked in television production from 1977 until 1995, and the business changed radically during that time, mainly because of one particular invention. It was something that almost no one had in 1980, and that almost everyone had in 1990, and it changed the game forever. We had to cope with it. We had to invent a solution to the serious problem it posed.

(You notice I haven’t told you what the invention was yet? I implied a question, and didn’t answer it. You’re waiting. You’re wondering, what did almost no one have in 1980 that almost everyone had in 1990? You’re definitely going to read the next paragraph, aren’t you? Thus the principle works in a micro sense, as well as in a macro one. Page to page, paragraph to paragraph, line to line — even within single sentences — imply a question first, and then answer it second. The reader learns to chase, and the momentum becomes unstoppable.)

What almost no one had in 1980 and almost everyone had in 1990 was a remote control. Previously, at the end of a segment or a program, we could be fairly sure the viewer wouldn’t change the channel on a whim, because changing the channel required the viewer to get off the sofa and cross the room. But afterward, changing the channel was easy, which was very dangerous for an audience-hungry station.

So how did we respond? (Notice the structure here? Wait for it!) We started asking questions before the commercials, and answering them afterward.

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Filed under braids, threads, craft, technique, evolutionary psychology, memoir, structure, teaching, education, workshopping

Review: ‘Honeybee Democracy’

Bees give lessons for leadership and group intelligence. 

. . . [N]atural selection has organized honeybee swarms and primate brains in intriguingly similar ways to build a first-rate decision-making group from a collection of rather poorly informed and cognitively limited individuals.

Honeybee Democracy

Honeybee Democracy by Thomas D. Seeley. Princeton University Press, 264 pp.

Seeley-Honeybee Democracy

How can humans make better group decisions? We might look to the bees, says Thomas D. Seeley, a Cornell biologist who has spent his life studying the insects.

Each year, the legions of (female) worker bees in a colony must make a life-or-death decision: where to build a new home? Scouts report on prospects with their famous waggle dances, arguing for one site or another, which the other scouts check out based on directional clues encoded in the dances. A bad choice—a cavity too small to hold enough honey for the winter, an entrance too large to exclude predators—and the entire colony dies.

This stark imperative has driven bees, Seeley explains, toward dissent-free decisions:

This is what normally arises from the democratic decision-making process used by house-hunting honeybees and, quite frankly, I find it amazing. We have seen . . .  how the debate among a swarm’s scout bees starts with individuals proposing many potential nesting sites, vigorously advertising the competing proposals, and actively recruiting neutral individuals to the different camps. All this makes the surface of a swarm look at first like a riotous dance party. Yet out of this chaos, order gradually emerges. Ultimately the debate ends with all the dancing bees indicating support for just one nesting site, usually the best one.

Honeybee Democracy brought me back to childhood, when I devoured books about the natural world and was a steady observer of nature myself. It reminded me too of how little I know or have retained. Such as: the colony’s queen, who does all the reproducing, decides the sex of her offspring, and she lays eggs that produce mostly females. A nest’s 10,000 worker bees, who collect pollen for honey, and a few hundred who become scouts for new homes, all are her virgin daughters. The comparatively few large male drones are not drones at all, in practice, but lazy, well-fed inseminators of young queens, bred once on their maiden flights and fixed, reproductively speaking, for life.

One of Seeley’s salient findings is that bees try to sense a quorum (sufficient number in agreement) rather than a consensus (unanimity) when they swarm. In taking off without complete agreement they risk that the swarm may split in flight—thus endangering their queen, whose loss would be fatal for the colony’s future. But a quorum strikes a balance between speed and accuracy in decision-making for the exposed and vulnerable swarm, and in practice usually every bee gets on board and makes a beeline for the most popular site. The risk of consensus, as we know from some human groups (Seeley gives an example from a Quaker meeting, but juries came to mind for me), one holdout can overrule the wisdom of the group and prevent a decision or prompt a bad one.

As chair of his academic department, Seeley has instituted the “Five Habits of Highly Effective Groups” that he learned from bees:

Lesson One

Compose the Decision-Making Group of Individuals with Shared Interests and Mutual Respect.

 

Lesson Two

Minimize the Leader’s Influence on the Group’s Thinking.

 

Lesson Three

Seek Diverse Solutions to the Problem.

 

Lesson Four

Aggregate the Group’s Knowledge Through Debate.

 

Lesson Five

Use Quorum Responses for Cohesion, Accuracy, and Speed.

Of course, unlike humans, bees appear to lack individual egos, humans’ blessing and curse as a species. In fact, bees operate without leaders, let alone with the domineering ones who  subvert group decision-making. As a recent national failure from poor leadership, Seeley cites how the “headstrong” style of George W. Bush steamrolled his policy team into agreeing to invade Iraq in 2003. “They did little to question his thinking, engage in extended debate about the possible policy options, or delve deeply into the consequences of going to war,” Seeley writes. “In short, they squandered their opportunity to use group intelligence. We now know that the hasty and flawed decision to invade Iraq was based largely on the gut feelings of just one man, George W. Bush.”

Contrast this with Barack Obama’s “team of rivals” ideal, as enacted by his hero Abraham Lincoln, which emphasizes a dialectic arising from a buzz of dissenting opinions. Lincoln was criticized for not being headstrong enough, for hanging back, for bordering on passivity, but look at his results, the preservation of the union and the abolition of slavery. He led by acting in accordance with his sense of his advisors’ growing recognition of the right. Now our politics seem so ugly that many apparently believe our system itself is broken, even with its brilliant checks and balances against egoistic extremism, but surely that’s what many in Lincoln’s day thought too, when the invective was at least as bitter.

Listening to Obama’s second inauguration last week on my car radio as I drove into snow flurries in Ohio, my eyes stung with tears at the beauty of the progressive ideals being expressed. Some would respond to this rhetoric with hate, I suspected, and indeed they have—unlike bees, some humans will always be on the wrong side of history. Our earliest simian layer might be blamed for this: chimps are brutally hierarchical, fierce toward rivals and rival clans, and masters of the elemental two-against-one calculus of politics.

But in the animal kingdom, ants and bees, the most highly social of insects—not apes—are considered most like humans, at least in exemplifying the kind of cooperation humans strive for and sometimes achieve. And after reading Honeybee Democracy, I’m heartened by how much we’re like the bees when we’re at our best.

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Filed under emotion, evolutionary psychology, politics, REVIEW

This, and THAT

Assault weapons, body counts & learning to be human.

 Flagx

Semi-automatic, high-magazine-capacity firearms—assault weapons—need to be controlled much more stringently in America. Duh, I imagine women readers responding. There’s more ambivalence among men. This position is new for me, someone who grew up in a hunting family, steeped in military service and heroic special forces exploits and with a brother in law enforcement. Many if not most cops opposed or were ambivalent about the last assault weapons ban. They’re gun folk.

I’ve used firearms as tools—as a hunter years ago, and for many years as a farmer—and I understand guns as tools. I also understand the love of guns as beautiful objects with a craft that approaches art: few artifacts are as well made or invested with such fine workmanship, materials, and durability. And 99.9 percent of gun owners, or higher, pose no risk to anyone. Quite the contrary, perhaps. There’s merit in being able to defend yourself and others.

But the ease and rapidity with which assault weapons, rifles and pistols, can be fired and reloaded make them unfit to be circulating widely in a civilized society. They are why our law enforcement officers are now armed with military grade weapons that make their old standby, the .38 special revolver, look like a quaint toy. Glued to the TV over the weekend as news of the school massacre in Newtown, Connecticut, unfolded, I couldn’t help but think how much slower a killer Adam Lanza would have been had he been working a bolt-action hunting rifle. Or even firing the classic eight-shot Colt .45 semi-automatic handgun. Or for that matter using a semi-automatic .308 deer rifle with maybe a six-shot clip. He had multiple thirty-round magazines. Just as even gun fanatics had to accept the U.S. ban on fully automatic weapons, they can adjust to reduced clip capacities and to parameters that limit the sale of weapons of little or no use for hunting or competitive shooting.

A crackdown has been the gun lobby’s fear about President Barack Obama from the start. In their paranoid narrative, gun control has always been his hidden agenda. Before his first inauguration, gun stores could hardly keep assault rifles in stock and sold out of ammunition nationwide. I can only imagine the brisk business they are doing now. Obama did not mention gun control in his powerful speech at the memorial service for victims, but he did call for action. He is responding as a leader should and asking a question. What is the will of the people? Maybe it is to make our schools more like fortresses, but I don’t think that’s the whole answer. A silver lining in this tragedy seems to be some bipartisan movement toward restoring the assault weapons ban that expired on George W. Bush’s criminally negligent watch.

Mental health services seem a vital part of this equation. America’s system has holes in it, our ability to institutionalize the mentally ill radically limited. I have no answers there, though I’ve also heard no evidence yet that Lanza’s mother considered him ill or a threat or sought help for him. The fact is, however, that we are group animals, and even healthy loners need a certain level of human interaction. You can’t legislate that, but we might recognize formally what everyone knows intuitively and some know professionally: radically isolated people, especially if they are young men surging with testosterone, are at risk to themselves and society.

Amidst the flurry of early erroneous news reports about the shootings, we learned that Lanza’s weapons were owned and registered to his mother. That much appears true. But some of us, trying to make sense of a woman who owned weapons like that, trying to make a story—because we understand life through narrative—put two and two together: “She bought them for her son. She must have been crazy.” The story became more complex when we learned that she was a gun enthusiast who took her son to the target range. They were her guns.

Guns don’t kill, people do, goes the gun lobby trope. But I can’t help but wonder if anything like this would have happened had Mrs. Lanza had been a dog nerd instead of a gun nut. Say she had six dogs and had involved young Adam with her in Labrador retriever rescue work. Fact is, people need people, but dogs are about as good. And she and Adam and the other Lab fanatics would have had their own little society, helpful, harmless, and happy. He’d have had canine buddies and human contact beyond his mother. This is the loving alternative I picture.

Because a dog says one thing to a troubled kid; a Bushmaster .223 assault rifle says another.

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Filed under emotion, evolutionary psychology, MY LIFE

Perchance to sit

I report a crucial difference between adults and college students.

The Youth, who daily farther from the east

Must travel, still is Nature’s Priest,

And by the vision splendid

Is on his way attended—William Wordsworth, “Intimations of Immortality”

Almost Christmas

Sunday night, I leashed the dog and took her upstairs. I had to grade a set of student essays, and the dog, Belle, had to accompany me because of a looming event at our house. My wife would soon host sixty freshmen. It was a holiday mixer for her class and for two others that share the theme of leadership.

How many?” I’d kept asking. “How many students are coming?”

“Sixty, in three classes. Probably only fifty will come.”

“Only fifty?”

So Belle, on the rug, and I in my leather Laz-E-Boy, heard the freshmen arrive downstairs. The noise of conversation rose up the stairwell, though not the roar that attends an equally large gathering of adults. I’ve hid upstairs for some of those, too, and listened to the happy cheer rising until, to be heard, everyone was screaming. From a slight remove: almost scary.

“Richard!” I heard Kathy call up to me. “Do you want to bring Belle down?” She’d forewarned me of this summoning, a showing of the family dog to the students.

So I ambled down with Belle. And what did my wondering eyes behold in our living room but students everywhere. Mostly they were sitting, which was a feat, given the numbers. Our coach held, oh, about twenty kids. Two big overstuffed chairs somehow held about four—each. Three unseated girls, looking forlorn, approached Belle and began to pet.

I tried to walk the dog around, but Kathy was desperately fetching odd chairs and there weren’t many paths. I had to leap back as Kathy, hair flying, shoved a leather ottoman past me from our study. The three lost girls settled instantly upon it like sparrows on a ledge.

’Tis the season of holiday gatherings and aching backs. For those, like me, who’ve worn out their spines, or who are merely middle-aged, the price of standing can seem high. If not right then, then the next morning. And this is what Kathy had expected, two roomfuls of standing students. Socializing, you know, like adults. She had sensibly allocated two rooms for this, our living room and our dining room. They would stand and talk and nibble on snacks for an hour. Only an hour—they knew this. Eighty adults have done as much.

But, alas, they sat.

From the packed living room, Belle and I made our way into the dining room, which seemed to be a transient space. Liminal, a writer might say. Just a few students, and a couple teachers gasping for air. Most of the room is taken up with the long table that I grew up around; Mom drove to North Carolina fifty years ago to buy it. On the table were urns of hot chocolate and coffee, trays of cookies, and vats of gummy bears.

Beyond lay our sunroom—kind of a cross between an enclosed porch and a freezer—that was packed to the rafters with the rest of the students. “I didn’t have it set up!” Kathy hissed. “They just went in there. I thought they’d socialize. They want to sit.”

In point of fact, they did.

Belle has seen some odd human behavior, no doubt, but I swear she did a double take, kind of like someone coming upon a violent Greyhound bus crash, there at the threshold of the sunroom. We couldn’t enter it beyond a pace. Finally I turned and led her back upstairs.

Now I sit too much, like most adults. If my waistline won’t let me forget that, neither will The New York Times, which runs an article every couple of days on how bad sitting is for us. The latest, on Saturday, upped the ante:

But a closer look at the accumulating research on sitting reveals something more intriguing, and disturbing: the health hazards of sitting for long stretches are significant even for people who are quite active when they’re not sitting down. That point was reiterated recently in two studies, published in The British Journal of Sports Medicine and in Diabetologia, a journal of the European Association for the Study of Diabetes.

On the treadmill this morning, getting in my thirty minutes of activity before I sit for the rest of the day, I thought about this. But mostly about those students, who are so very active but who have the sense to sit down when they socialize. Or is it fear of each other that makes them sit? The questions only grew. Don’t weary soldiers collapse like this? Does each Age of Man possess, indeed, its wisdom?

“We learned something last night,” I told Kathy when she came down to the basement to say goodbye. “We’ll know next time. But why?”

“I don’t know,” she said above the treadmill’s whir, eager to get on with her day. “They wanted to sit.”

College freshmen. I can almost bring it back. In life somewhere between children, who run everywhere, and adults who when they stand do so as if rooted, they sat.

The older I get, the less I seem to know. So much is unknown, really. And how often do we truly see—and therefore learn—despite our age-barnacled selves? Kathy may be ready to put the past behind her, but not me, not yet, not this time. I’m here to witness, here to tell you. And I can only report what I saw last night with my own eyes.

Those kids, they sat.

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Filed under evolutionary psychology, humor, MY LIFE

Four more years

Means, ends & inner narratives in the 2012 presidential campaign.

Barack Obama was mocked by Republicans when, late in the campaign just ended, he blamed his struggle to dominate Mitt Romney on his failure to provide Americans with a compelling narrative. I couldn’t help but agree. And yet I wonder if even a writer as talented as Obama can do anything more than animate his partisans’ own existing narratives. Romney’s narrative was widely exposed, commented upon, and derided as a farrago of outright lies, lesser evasions, and gross distortions. But he almost defeated Obama. I really wonder: What’s the moral of this story? Revisiting my post, below, written just before Obama’s 2008 victory, I find it deals with this same question of means, ends, and inner narratives.

• • •

Literature is fragrant with the compost of human misery. With the never-ending story of our impossible burden. With our failure to reach our promise and with our effort to redeem. Journalism, catching history on the fly, is at its best when it holds our stated ideals (the Constitution, say) beside our practice. When it tugs at the sleeve. Truth be told, though, the press’s daily practical purpose is to supply information (anecdotes and images, actually) that help us gauge a leader’s worthiness. I think we’re most interested, as a species, in worthiness. At least where lovers and leaders are concerned. In politicians we weigh our sense of authenticity against how much pragmatism (necessary hypocrisy) we’ll swallow to see our guy elected.

Watching this historic moment, when a young man with the air of greatness about him may ascend to our presidency, the electorate’s hypocrisy detectors are finely tuned. To mix the metaphor with an old expression: We’re reading tea leaves. We compare emerging stories with our own explanations, our inner narratives.

To have seen John McCain—a patriot, a thoughtful and deeply read man, an admirable servant, his flawed temperament notwithstanding—sell his soul in an attempt to be elected has simply hurt. Here was a man, tortured himself in Vietnam, who took on the administration for torture—and then trashed his brave narrative in order to win his party’s nomination. He turned himself into an object lesson (you can lose your way at any age) and into a metaphor for today’s Republican Party: old, angry, corrupt, bereft of ideas. (With friends and beloved kin who consider my narrative as crazy as I find theirs inconceivable, it makes me think our inner stories—as seemingly central as they are—are indeed a mere constructed overlay and not the central core of our being.)

I hope the GOP suffers exile and thus purges the extremist radicals who’ve taken over. We need two parties—argument and counter argument. We need fresh faces to put in office when whichever entrenched party grows corrupt, as it will. I’ve always loved the tragic grandeur of the story of how the Democratic Party was destroyed politically as a result of LBJ’s civil rights legislation in 1964 that cost it the white vote in the south. And in my inner narrative this is how, wandering in the wilderness, it became the moderate party. A similar fate is my prayer for the Republicans.

A fondness for redemption and rebirth through suffering may say more about my narrative than about politics or history. I attended the Southern Baptist Church as a boy, after all. But, as I say, we each have master narratives. I’ve realized my unconscious model for TV newsmen is Walter Cronkite, whom I watched with my conservative father, who seemed to approve of him. Thus I imprinted on Cronkite’s integrity-exuding manner: in my inner script newscasters should be fair to both sides and rise above either’s expediency. Mean and divisive FOX News and CNN’s Lou Dobbs, a demagogic panderer, have driven me to PBS’s Jim Lehrer and Comedy Central’s Jon Stewart for TV news. I might have thought the return of ideologically driven news on a mass scale would be a good thing—take your pick and feed your chosen narrative—but the blurring of news and opinion has stuck in my craw. Jowly old Cronkite is still guarding certain gates.

It was a sad irony when a blogger for the liberal Huffington Post revealed last April that Barack Obama told a group in San Francisco that common folk are hard to reach because in their despair over lost jobs they “cling to guns or religion or antipathy toward people who aren’t like them.” This hasn’t seemed to gain traction as a proof of unworthiness, except with people who’d never vote for him anyway, but was an indigestible bit I’ve gummed ever since. It didn’t fit my narrative about him.

Thus Matt Bai performed a great service in the New York Times Magazine of this past Sunday when he made that anecdote a centerpiece of his inquiry into the candidate’s amazing appeal. (Bai confirms the apparent reality of Obama’s freakishly rare inner peace—the evidence of ultimate worthiness, perhaps, in our species: like Popeye or Yahweh, he is what he is). Bai quotes Obama:

How it was interpreted in the press was Obama talking to a bunch of wine-sipping San Francisco liberals with an anthropological view toward white working-class voters. And I was actually making the reverse point, clumsily, which is that these voters have a right to be frustrated because they’ve been ignored. And because Democrats haven’t met them halfway on cultural issues, we’ve not been able to communicate to them effectively an economic agenda that would help broaden our coalition.

I believe him.

But then I see Obama like Lincoln, a man produced by the nation to save it from itself. Lincoln, a tough pol, outwardly untroubled, got in office and tapped his depths and preserved our republic. Some rise to greatness and some fall. Some write a new story, and some don’t. Literature and life tell us so.

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Filed under evolutionary psychology, journalism, narrative