Archive for the ‘Friendship’ Category

In my neighborhood of Chicago, it’s commonplace to see vehicles driving on the road with a giant Puerto Rican flag flying from a pole wedged in each of the rear windows. Often, one of the two flags’ traditional colors (red, white, and blue) is changed to black and white — a symbol of resistance. Puerto Rican politics is a complicated nest of issues I don’t know enough about to say more. However, the zeal of my neighbors is notable. Indeed, as I visited a local farmer’s market last weekend, I couldn’t help but notice quite a welcome diversity on display and folks entirely untroubled by the presence of others who didn’t look just like them (tattoos, unnatural hair colors, long beards and shaved heads, nonstandard attire and accoutrements, etc.). I’m actually pleased to see a level of comfort and freedom to present oneself is such manner as one wishes, and not just because of the buzz phrase “diversity and inclusion.” So go ahead: fly your freak flag high! (This same value applies to viewpoint diversity.)

In contrast, when I venture to some far-flung suburb for sundry activities now that lockdowns and restrictions have been lifted, I encounter mostly white, middle-aged, middle-class suburbanites who admittedly look just like me. It’s unclear that folks in those locales are xenophobic in any way, having withdrawn from city life in all its messiness for a cozy, upscale, crime-free subdivision indistinguishable from the next one over. Maybe that’s an artifact of mid-20th-century white flight, where uniformity of presentation and opinion is the norm. Still, it feels a little weird. (Since the 1980s, some rather well-put-together people have returned to the city center, but that usually requires a king-sized income to purchase a luxury condo in some 50-plus-storey tower. After last summer’s BLM riots, that influx turned again to outflux.) One might guess that, as a visible minority within city confines, I would be more comfortable among my own cohort elsewhere, but that’s not the case. I rather like rubbing elbows with others of diverse backgrounds and plurality of perspectives.

I’ve also grown especially weary of critical race theory being shoved in my face at every turn, as though race is (or should be) the primary lens through which all human relations must be filtered. Such slavish categorization, dropping everyone giant, ill-fitted voting blocs, is the hallmark of ideologues unable to break out of the pseudo-intellectual silos they created for themselves and seek to impose on others. Yet I haven’t joined the growing backlash and instead feel increasingly ill at ease in social situations that appear (on the surface at least) to be too white bread. Shows, perhaps, how notions of race that were irrelevant for most of my life have now crept in and invaded my conscience. Rather than solving or resolving longstanding issues, relentless focus on race instead spreads resentment and discomfort. The melting pot isn’t boiling, but summer is not yet over.

Here’s another interesting tidbit from Anthony Giddens’ book The Consequences of Modernity, which is the subject of a series of book blogs I’ve been writing. In his discussion of disembedding mechanisms, he introduces the idea of civil inattention (from Goffman, actually). This has partly to do with presence or absence (including inattention) in both public and private settings where face-to-face contact used to be the only option but modern technologies have opened up the possibility of faceless interactions over distance, such as with the telegraph and telephone. More recently, the face has been reintroduced with videoconferencing, but nonverbal cues such as body language are largely missing; the fullness of communication remains attenuated. All manner of virtual or telepresence are in fact cheap facsimiles of true presence and the social cohesion and trust enabled by what Giddens calls facework commitments. Of course, we delude ourselves that interconnectivity mediated by electronics is a reasonable substitute for presence and attention, which fellow blogger The South Roane Agrarian bemoans with this post.

Giddens’ meaning is more specific than this, though. The inattention of which Giddens writes is not the casual distraction of others with which we all increasingly familiar. Rather, Giddens takes note of social behaviors embedded in deep culture having to do with signalling trust.

Two people approach and pass one another on a city sidewalk. What could be more trivial and uninteresting? … Yet something is going on here which links apparently minor aspects of bodily management to some of the most pervasive features of modernity. The “inattention” displayed is not indifference. Rather it is a carefully monitored demonstration of what might be called polite estrangement. As the two people approach one another, each rapidly scans the face of the other, looking away as they pass … The glance accords recognition of the other as an agent and as a potential acquaintance. Holding the gaze of the other only briefly, then looking ahead as each passes the other couples such an attitude with an implicit reassurance of lack of hostile intent. [p. 81]

It’s a remarkably subtle interaction: making eye contact to confirm awareness of another but then averting one’s eyes to establish that copresence poses no particular threat in either direction. Staring too fixedly at another communicates something quite else, maybe fear or threat or disapprobation. By denying eye contact — by keeping one’s eyes buried in a handheld device, for instance — the opportunity to establish a modicum of trust between strangers is missed. Intent (or lack thereof) is a mystery. In practice, such modern-day inattention is mere distraction, not a sign of malevolence, but the ingrained social cue is obviated and otherwise banal happenstances become sources of irritation, discomfort, and/or unease, as with someone who doesn’t shake hands or perform others types of greeting properly.

I wrote before about my irritation with others face-planted in their phones. It is not a matter of outright offense but rather a quiet sense of affront at failure to adopt accepted social behaviors (as I once did). Giddens puts it this way:

Tact and rituals of politeness are mutual protective devices, which strangers or acquaintances knowingly use (mostly on the level of practical consciousness) as a kind of implicit social contact. Differential power, particularly where it is very marked, can breach or skew norms …. [pp. 82–83]

That those social behaviors have adapted to omnipresent mobile media, everyone pacified or hypnotized within their individual bubbles, is certainly not a salutary development. It is, however, a clear consequence of modernity.

Today is the 10-year anniversary of the opening of this blog. As a result, there is a pretty sizeable backblog should anyone decide to wade in. As mentioned in my first post, I only opened this blog to get posting privileges at a group blog I admired because it functioned more like a discussion than a broadcast. The group blog died of attrition years ago, yet here I am 10 years later still writing my personal blog (which isn’t really about me).

Social media lives and dies by the numbers, and mine are deplorable. Annual traffic has ranged from about 6,800 to about 12,500 hits, much of which I’m convinced is mere background noise and bot traffic. Cumulative hits number about 90,140, and unique visitors are about 19,350, neither of which is anything to crow about for a blog of this duration. My subscriber count continues to climb pointlessly, now resting at 745. However, I judge I might have only a half dozen regular readers and perhaps half again as many commentators. I’ve never earned a cent for my effort, nor am I likely to ever put up a Patreon link or similar goad for donations. All of which only demonstrate that almost no one cares what I have to write about. C’est la vie. I don’t write for that purpose and frankly wouldn’t know what to write about if I were trying to drive numbers.

So if you have read my blog, what are some of the thing you might have gathered from me? Here’s an incomplete synopsis:

  • Torture is unspeakably bad. History is full of devices, methodologies, and torturers, but we learned sometime in the course of two 20th-century world wars that nothing justifies it. Nevertheless, it continues to occur with surprising relish, and those who still torture (or want to) are criminally insane.
  • Skyscrapers are awesomely tall examples of technical brilliance, exuberance, audacity, and hubris. Better expressions of techno-utopian, look-mom-no-hands, self-defeating narcissism can scarcely be found. Yet they continue to be built at a feverish pace. The 2008 financial collapse stalled and/or doomed a few projects, but we’re back to game on.
  • Classical music, despite record budgets for performing ensembles, has lost its bid for anything resembling cultural and artistic relevance by turning itself into a museum (performing primarily works of long-dead composers) and abandoning emotional expression in favor of technical perfection, which is probably an accurate embodiment of the spirit of the times. There is arguably not a single living composer who has become a household name since Aaron Copland, who died in 1990 but was really well-known in the 1940s and 50s.
  • We’re doomed — not in any routine sense of the word having to do with individual mortality but in the sense of Near-Term (Human) Extinction (NTE). The idea is not widely accepted in the least, and the arguments are too lengthy to repeat (and unlikely to convince). However, for those few able to decipher it, the writing is on the wall.
  • American culture is a constantly moving target, difficult to define and describe, but its principal features are only getting uglier as time wears on. Resurgent racism, nationalism, and misogyny make clear that while some strides have been made, these attitudes were only driven underground for a while. Similarly, colonialism never really died but morphed into a new version (globalization) that escapes criticism from the masses, because, well, goodies.
  • Human consciousness — another moving target — is cratering (again) after 3,000–5,000 years. We have become hollow men, play actors, projecting false consciousness without core identity or meaning. This cannot be sensed or assessed easily from the first-person perspective.
  • Electronic media makes us tools. The gleaming attractions of sterile perfection and pseudo-sociability have hoodwinked most of the public into relinquishing privacy and intellectual autonomy in exchange for the equivalent of Huxley’s soma. This also cannot be sensed or assessed easily from the first-person perspective.
  • Electoral politics is a game played by the oligarchy for chumps. Although the end results are not always foreseeable (Jeb!), the narrow range of options voters are given (lesser of evils, the devil you know …) guarantees that fundamental change in our dysfunctional style of government will not occur without first burning the house down. After a long period of abstention, I voted in the last few elections, but my heart isn’t really in it.
  • Cinema’s infatuation with superheros and bankable franchises (large overlap there) signals that, like other institutions mentioned above, it has grown aged and sclerotic. Despite large budgets and impressive receipts (the former often over $100 million and the latter now in the billions for blockbusters) and considerable technical prowess, cinema has lost its ability to be anything more than popcorn entertainment for adolescent fanboys (of all ages).

This is admittedly a pretty sour list. Positive, worthwhile manifestations of the human experience are still out there, but they tend to be private, modest, and infrequent. I still enjoy a successful meal cooked in my own kitchen. I still train for and race in triathlons. I still perform music. I still make new friends. But each of these examples is also marred by corruptions that penetrate everything we do. Perhaps it’s always been so, and as I, too, age, I become increasingly aware of inescapable distortions that can no longer be overcome with innocence, ambition, energy, and doublethink. My plan is to continue writing the blog until it feels like a burden, at which point I’ll stop. But for now, there’s too much to think and write about, albeit at my own leisurely pace.

I had a disheartening private (now public) e-mail exchange with a friend, who surely doesn’t read my blog, about refugees streaming out of MENA (= Middle East and North Africa). Our exchange is quoted below. I wrote:

I’ve been saying for some time that we’re facing a diaspora away from ecologically and economically ravaged locations. Europe is currently on the front lines, but we’re been dealing with our own slow, steady influx from all points around the globe. The Central American refugee crisis in Texas (lots of children) is a good case in point. I figure, too, that people will soon enough (hard to predict precisely when) be streaming out of California and Florida as they face different water woes.

My friend replied:

I believe you…pretty violent protests in Germany…they are a product of their own guilt from 1935…I doubt they are refugees, they look pretty buff to me like ISIS terrorists…just another example of obama’s failed foreign policy in Syria…I expect my man, Putin to take care of business especially after the airline bombing…I could really careless about loss of Muslim life, the more the better they are all the enemy as far as I am concerned…

I replied:

Gotta disagree with you here. You sound like a right-wing Tea Party supporter. Germany has addressed its guilt over WWII, as has Japan. We can’t continue to throw that in their faces. The Islamic faith has over 4 billion adherents. They’re not all terrorists, though the small sliver of Islamofascists make the most noise and news and thus represent the entire 4 billion plus in the popular mind. Serious mistake. People are people all the world over, and most are constrained culturally (including religious affiliation) by the accident of birth location. We got lucky, sorta, being born in the U.S. I don’t expect anyone, including you, to go “kum bah ya — all men are brothers” with so many pundits and media organs banging the drum about “them.” But with a little circumspection, the differences between us are not so great that one can blithely consign an entire continent to oblivion because someone put the idea of the bogeyman in your head.

His final reply, to which I did not respond:

I guess I sound like a right wing Tea Party Supporter because I share a lot of their views…I do not consider islam to be a faith, I consider it to be a violent cult, I don’t buy the small sliver either, I can give you hard numbers to support this if you want…I do agree with your statement about being constrained culturally but that’s not my problem. History has show[n] us to be a culture of conquest…the strong conquering the weak…. a conquest ethic…we’ll see if your position changes over time as Chicago transitions, in the mean time I continue to prepare for the race war…no one put the idea of a bogeyman in my head, I was born in condition yellow…where ever there is a strong muslim population in the world there is violence and chaos, you can’t reason with their people…


Professionally Useful Friends

Posted: December 30, 2007 in Culture, Friendship, Tacky

Some acquaintances of mine have adopted a curious outlook on which I want to comment. Although I work in a fairly high-powered and well-remunerated field, I’m at a low level of responsibility, and accordingly, a low rate of pay (at least compared to my bosses). I’m in the middle quintile, whereas they’re all in the top quintile (sometimes well into it). The degree of that imbalance poses a few ideological problems for me with regard to social justice, but that’s not really the subject of this blog post. What concerns me here is the perspective that one’s friends, often drawn from one’s workplace, are only worthwhile to the degree that they’re capable of advancing one’s career prospects.

I’ve known my share of climbers in professional life — the sort who can’t imagine a world that isn’t organized around a dog-eat-dog meanspiritedness. These folks see no problem befriending (on the short term) and then selling you down the river to get ahead. Indeed, they would give up their mothers if it were necessary (read: advantageous). While I do sometimes get blamed for problems that are not my doing or truly my responsibility (blame-shifting), my larger finding is that I’m simply not of any particular interest as a person to most of my bosses (with one notable exception) except for the functions I perform on their behalves and perhaps some idle workplace banter. It’s tacitly assumed that I have nothing to contribute to their personal happiness, and worse, no possibility of enabling them through things such as landing a big account or referring someone from within my network. Further, since I can’t keep up with their rate of spending and living large, I’m regarded as a conspicuous drag on their prerogatives and am omitted from invitations to lunch, dinner, drinks, golf, poker, parties, etc. If I’m entertaining company and a good guy, they won’t find out because first and foremost I’m not professionally useful except in the routine performance of my job. In fact, they’re conspicuously blind to that in situations where it’s apparent to others more inclined to make friends based on laudable personal characteristics such at humor, wit, generosity, etc.

This self-reinforcing bubble of power lunches and cross-referrals and country clubs is the domain of the professional class, and indeed, much of this maneuvering makes companies and economies work. It’s a convincing mode of operation for the 30+ years of professional life most of us endure. However, despite being handsomely enriched by operating that way, climbers are often surprised to learn how quickly they are abandoned once their own usefulness to others has waned. Basing friendships on less craven values and learning how to be happy among people is frankly antithetical to professional advancement. So managers and CEOs and power players may end up surrounded by sycophants and themselves become asshats and perfect shits in the course of their professional pursuit. Later in life, if they make it past the round of heart attacks visited upon so many stressed-out professionals, they often end up alone and ignored, since no one values them as people, either. Yeah, I want that life.

Tomorrow I do the first of three races scheduled for the month of August. This one is the Steelhead 70.3 Triathlon in Benton Harbor, Michigan (that’s 70.3 miles). My preparations have been perhaps less diligent than I would have liked in the last two weeks, especially after I fell and scraped by leg pretty horrifically playing softball. That wound is healed well enough by now to do the swim leg (1.2 miles) on a relay team for the Steelhead event. My boss, who roped me into the whole triathlon thing a year and a half ago, is doing the bike leg (56 miles), and a coworker (stepping in at the last moment for our injured teammate) is running the half marathon at the end (13.1 miles).

My typical workout in the pool is 2600 to 3200 yards. The race distance is about 2000 yards, so I’m OK with the distance except that I usually do intervals of no more than 500 yards and get to turn at the walls and push off. Blasting all the way through 2000 yards will be a different sort of challenge. I just recently bought a wetsuit (knee length and w/o shoulders or arms) and have practiced in it a couple times, which is like wearing a corset. (Yes, I cut a strapping figure in the wetsuit — not.) So my middle upper back is sore right now from the extra strain of breathing. My arms and shoulders are fine. The real benefit of the wetsuit is increased buoyancy.

What really interests me this go-round is that my boss and I both admitted to partially sleepless nights last night, and all day we’ve been nauseous and nervous in expectation of the pains we’ll suffer doing our races. (The runner is more experienced and hasn’t copped to any trepidation.) Having done several 5Ks and the Chicago Triathlon last year, I might have anticipated being less weird about it. However, my mood has been awfully intense all day. I can’t speak to what soldiers must feel going into battle, or cops busting through doorways, but I’m surprisingly and unaccountably nervous, perhaps a few notches short of abject terror. I know some get that sensation in musical performance or public speaking (neither of which pose difficulty for me). The best thing I can say about it is that the experience offers me another aspect of the range of human emotion in a safe environment.

Throwaway Friends

Posted: January 16, 2007 in Friendship, Manners, Tacky

I rarely discard friends under normal circumstances. It’s only at the point when the drama and trouble of a friendship outweighs the benefit that I cut my losses. But what’s to be done about friends who don’t pose unusual difficulties but routinely fail to respond to e-mail, text messages, or phone messages? I recently heard about the Three Call Rule. According to some folks out there (who have a higher friendship maintenance threshold than me), barring a major personal catastrophe, failure to respond after three attempts relegates the friend to purgatory. But here’s the really odd part. Assuming everyone has a cell phone and caller ID, the errant friend’s name in the cell phone’s address book is changed to Do Not Answer. That way, should the former friend finally respond, the call can be safely ignored — even willfully blocked. Multiple phone numbers can be added to the Do Not Answer entry, so it’s possible to not even know which former friend is trying to call.

This seems like a pretty cold way to deactivate a friendship.