On Beginnerhood

kayaking

Yesterday I went kayaking again and managed to take a photo from the unusually tippy boat. The first time I went, I was charging ahead with confidence; this time, I wobbled and veered. I can blame the boat, but the truth is that I don’t have technique yet. The first boat was more forgiving. (Two very kind volunteers gave me  a little lesson; by the end, I was making good progress.)

Having been a beginner at many things, from languages to electronics, I can speak to some of its joys:

In a short time you can move from knowing nothing to knowing something (and seeing that there’s still much more to learn). That can be exhilarating.

You can usually do something with what little you know. That includes thinking about it. This means the mind has more good things to carry around.

Initially, there’s a certain charm in ineptitude, and others treat it generously.

Then come the drawbacks:

The charm of ineptitude fades quickly; after that, there’s nothing but excellence to strive for, and little chance of reaching it.

Beginners struggle to perform even simple tasks, like rowing, saying a sentence in a new language, or playing a simple melody. More work for less beauty doesn’t seem fair.

For the most part, beginners know that they can progress if they practice long and well. It may take considerable time. Perpetual beginners have chosen, in some way and for some reason,  not to take on that commitment. This can be embarrassing to admit.

All that said, it’s good that there’s room for beginners, even perpetual beginners, in the world. There’s only so much that we can do well, and it would be a shame to give up the rest. I may never be an expert kayaker, but I hope to go out on the water many more times in my life.

The Beauty of the 168th Street Station

168thstreet

The 168th Street Station (which connects the A and 1 lines in upper Manhattan) has tested my patience more than a handful of times. It’s hot, grimy, and stuffy. What’s more, the transfer is unwieldy; to get from one train to another, you have to walk down a passageway and take an elevator. I usually avoid transferring here; I just stay on the A or 1 and walk a longer distance before or afterward.

But today, being in a bit of a rush, I made the transfer from the A to the 1. As it happened, a strong fan was blowing, which made the wait entirely comfortable. I looked up and saw a lovely geometric mosaic* in the ceiling. At other times I probably didn’t even think of looking up; I just wanted to get out of there. The moral isn’t “stop and look up” or “fans are good to have” or “ugly-seeming train stations are actually beautiful if you look at them in the right way.” There isn’t a moral. Or if there is, it’s simply that there’s no way to know things in full. There won’t always be surprises, but surprises will come.

* Update: Probably not a mosaic, really, but lovely anyway.

Bad Lemon Logic

Back in the 1960s, Hans Eysenck and Sybil Eysenck conducted an experiment that suggested that introverts (identified through a questionnaire) salivated more than extraverts when exposed to lemon juice, presumably because they have a higher baseline level of cortical arousal. The results were widely popularized; in an interview with Scientific American, Susan Cain said, “Introverts even salivate more than extroverts do if you place a drop of lemon juice on their tongues!”If you Google “lemon introvert salivation” you will see thousands of mentions of the study and minimal critical discussion.

Now, this study has problems; later studies called its findings into question. (What nerve! I think of Andrew Gelman’s “Enough with the Replication Police.”) I intend to dust off my own police uniform and look into all of this. For now, I will focus on the error that comes up again and again in interpretations of this test. People now claim that you can find out how introverted you are by conducting the lemon experiment. That is not only preposterous but illogical.

It is one thing to say that a study suggests that introverts tend to salivate more than extraverts in response to lemon juice. I question such a claim and the rigor of the study that led to it, but that’s what you’re supposed to do with such studies anyway. Now, to claim the reverse—that you can find out how much of an introvert you are by putting lemon on your tongue and measuring your saliva output—is to succumb to the famous fallacy of affirming the consequent.

Here’s why it’s wrong. Studies like the lemon juice experiment draw general conclusions from an array of individual results. Within the experiment, there may have been introverts who salivated less than extraverts. There may have been quite a few introverts and extraverts who salivated at similar levels. It might even be the case that if you divided salivation levels into two groups, a “low salivation group” and a “high salivation group,” you would find comparable numbers of introverts and extraverts in each. In no way does the test even suggest that if you salivate a lot, then you are an introvert.

Who is claiming such a thing, anyway? The BBC declares, “The amount of saliva you produce after putting a drop of lemon juice on your tongue might tell you something about your personality.” (Shame on them!) But that article has no listed author; it’s possible an intern wrote it. I give the BBC the benefit of the doubt it failed to cast on itself.

I see no excuse, though, for the famous TED-talking scholar Brian Little, who writes in Me, Myself, and Us: The Science of Personality and the Art of Well-Being (2014):

One of the more interesting ways of informally assessing extraversion at the biogenic level is to do the lemon-drop test. [Description of experiment omitted from present quote—DS.] For some people the swab will remain horizontal. For others it will dip on the lemon juice end. Can you guess which? For the extraverts, the swab stays relatively horizontal, but for introverts it dips. … I have done this exercise on myself a number of times, and each time my swab dips deeply. I am, at least by this measure, a biogenic introvert.

Someone of Little’s stature and renown should exercise more responsibility. He not only generalizes “introverts” and “extraverts” but suggests that you can conduct this experiment on yourself and find out who you are. The media (with exceptions) drools over this sort of thing; perhaps bad reasoning is a lemon, and perhaps the press as a whole has high cortical arousal.

“They Usually Come Out Wrong”

garden

In December 1991, I met the historian Massimo Salvadori and his wife. They were hosting a gathering. Their hospitality was luminous; they greeted me with joy and made me welcome.

At some point a journalist struck up a conversation with Professor Salvadori about his experience as a Resistance fighter before and during World War II. In particular, they were discussing the relationship between the Socialists and the Resistance. Professor Salvadori said something that surprised the journalist. I don’t remember  what it was, but the journalist replied that they had to to record this and get it out to the world.

Professor Salvadori said, “No, no, I do not want a recording.”

The journalist said, “But we must! People need to hear this!”

Professor Salvadori looked unperturbed, even joyous.  He shook his head.

The journalist tried again: “What you’re saying is what people don’t know and need to know….”

Professor Salvadori: “The problem with recordings is that they usually come out wrong.” His “wrong” (with a long trill of the “r”) had a triumphant ring; he saw beyond the proposal, beyond the all-too-common warp of words.

I never saw him or his wife after that day. He died eight months later, in August 1992. His wife lived seven more years.

My own mental recording of the conversation came out “wrong”; I forgot many details. But almost a quarter of a century later, something of that dialogue has stayed with me. I am wary of recordings; I know that they can easily come out wrong. I am even warier of the need to grab and market someone’s wisdom, even if the world does need it.

I walk in the park and try not to take pictures. The pictures, when I take them, usually come out wrong. Today’s  (above) is an exception, but only barely. I do not mean that it’s wrong to take pictures. I mean that many pictures make the wrong selections. It takes a lot to do justice to a frame.

Kayaking Down the Street

kayaking

That’s an ambiguous title—”Kayaking Down the Street.” It could mean kayaking on the street, in the downward direction, during a flood, for instance. That’s not what I meant. I meant, instead, that right down the street from me there is kayaking. I took a stroll this morning to the Inwood Canoe Club, got in a kayak, and paddled off. Here’s a photo I took of the group that went just before me. My group went fairly close to the George Washington Bridge; we turned around when we reached a little stone peninsula.

Now, I don’t typically use the blog to talk about what I did this morning. But this morning’s kayaking merits an exception. To my knowledge, I have never lived in a place where I could walk a few blocks, step into a boat, and paddle off.

Also, it isn’t something I associate with Manhattan. Granted, there are paddle boats in Central Park, but that’s a different order of things. There, if you paddle a little ways in any direction, you’ll reach a shore. Not so with the Hudson, the waterway of regal barges. The Hudson tastes mildly of salt; freshwater and saltwater come together in its tidal estuary. The paddling is long and serene (with a wake now and then). The river stretches out of sight; the cliffs rise up on either side.

Also, one would imagine this as a tourist attraction with a high fee. No such goings-on here; the open house kayak  tours are free (with voluntary donations), and they draw people from nearby. Some come upon the place by accident and find themselves paddling a few minutes later.

I hope to do this many more times. It is one more semi-secret beauty of my neighborhood and the city. I am still amazed at the simplicity of it all, the ease of going out on the water.

Anger Endangered

Last spring, in political philosophy class, my students and I discussed Hannah Arendt’s assertion that “behavior has replaced action as the foremost mode of human relationship.” After analyzing it in context, we considered whether it held true today. A few students commented on the pressure to be pleasant all the time. One student defended this state of things; he thought good behavior had benefits for all. Others saw a loss. There was little room, they said, for emotions and thoughts that stood out, such as anger.

What is anger? It is a reaction against some kind of wrong or injustice. At its best, it helps sort good from bad, right from wrong. Yet it often turns into violence or muffles itself into vague hints. It is not easy to get anger right.

A few decades ago, “anger management” was in the air—but something more like anger wisdom is in order.  We have, on the one hand, a workplace of niceness (where people join a “team” and get along), and on the other, a cyberspace of insults and dismissals. Anger has been bent out of shape, yet its literature has verve.

In Book 4, Chapter 5, of his Nicomachean Ethics (translated by W. D. Ross), Aristotle writes:

The man who is angry at the right things and with the right people, and, further, as he ought, when he ought, and as long as he ought, is praised. This will be the good-tempered man, then, since good temper is praised. For the good-tempered man tends to be unperturbed and not to be led by passion, but to be angry in the manner, at the things, and for the length of time, that the rule dictates; but he is thought to err rather in the direction of deficiency; for the good-tempered man is not revengeful, but rather tends to make allowances.

In his book Everyday Holiness, Alan Morinis writes that when Rabbi Yisrael Salanter (1809-1883) first started learning Mussar (a tradition of practical wisdom in Orthodox Judaism), “he became angry at the world but remained at peace within himself. As he studied further, he also became angry with himself.  Finally, he evolved to judging others favorably.” (I will read the original source as soon as I can.)

Both Aristotle and Rabbi Salanter see anger not as emotion alone but as emotion combined with reason. Anger can go right or wrong, depending on how one directs it. To use it properly, one needs  full education. The right use of anger can be the  project (or one of many projects) of a lifetime. One might begin with anger at the world, like Rabbi Salanter, or with anger at oneself; either stance is provisional. Ultimately one comes to see human fallibility.  Anger becomes less necessary overall. It doesn’t disappear; instead, it reserves itself for the most appropriate occasions. The remainder turns into empathy.

For anger to do good, a few conditions must be met. (These are my own thoughts on the matter; I hope to develop them over time.)

First, the angry person must identify the cause of the anger and decide whether it’s worth a fuss. If not, the  person should drop it altogether. If so, he or she should bring it up in appropriate circumstances.

Example: Say you are going with a friend to a concert, and the friend meets you late, making you both late for the performance. If this is a unique occurrence, it might be worth letting go; if it happens more than twice, it is worth mentioning.

Second, the person must be able to articulate the reason for the anger–clearly, calmly, and promptly. Vagueness and evasion do no good.

Example: Your co-volunteer in the public garden has been short with you lately–and when you finally get up the nerve to ask whether something’s wrong, he says, “never mind; it’s fine.” If it’s fine, then fine; that should be the end of it. But if it isn’t fine, then different words are in order. For instance: “Recently I have been showing up at 9, which is when our shift starts, and then working by myself for at least an hour until you show up. This isn’t working for me; let’s figure out a better arrangement.”

Third, the angry person should be willing to listen to the recipient of the anger. Otherwise what is the point of expressing it at all? To get it out of one’s system? Possibly–but people are not liver cleansers. The real point is to lift the level of justice, even slightly. That takes more than one person.

Anger-wise, I am far from perfect; I can tip away from or into it. I try, though, to approach it strongly and give it proper form. Like many, I fear being rude, but that’s like the fear of playing out of tune. Ultimately you have to play out your thoughts. Kindness can be true and clear.

 

Note: I added to this piece after its initial posting.

The Cult of the Spiffy Solution

Just as the world is made up of two kinds of people–those who divide the world into two kinds of people and those who do not–so it is divided into those who want spiffy solutions to complex human problems and those who do not.

Why, in our era of self-help, TED, and aggressive innovation, would anyone not want a quick solution to a persistent human problem? Why would anyone cringe at the assertion, “One tiny change can revolutionize your life”? Well, some do.

Perhaps we suspect that the assertion is false, and perhaps we wouldn’t even want it to be true. The first possibility is a little easier to explain, so I will tackle it first.

People who propose some seemingly simple solution are often trying to sell it. That is, their solution comes with a book, a program, a product. They not only divulge the solution but take on the role of master coach. This tends to interfere with their ability to criticize their own solution. They have a great stake in promoting it, and they get attention, praise, and money for doing so.

A case in point (one of many examples): Amy Cuddy, a professor and researcher at Harvard Business School, claims that we can change our body chemistry and our behaviors just by changing our posture (that is, by adopting “power poses“). She cites her own research and the research of others in support of this theory.

Her TED talk is listed as one of the most popular of all time. It is already media, but the media lapped it up, in a typical gesture of self-potation. In this talk, she claims that a change of posture–adopted right now–can change the trajectory of your life. She begins: “So I want to start by offering you a free no-tech life hack, and all it requires of you is this: that you change your posture for two minutes.” She ends:

So I want to ask you first, you know, both to try power posing, and also I want to ask you to share the science, because this is simple. I don’t have ego involved in this. Give it away. Share it with people, because the people who can use it the most are the ones with no resources and no technology and no status and no power. Give it to them because they can do it in private. They need their bodies, privacy and two minutes, and it can significantly change the outcomes of their life.

Share the science! Yet when Eva Ranehill and others attempted to replicate her research, they found that power poses had no effect on hormonal levels or any of the behavioral tasks. (They did effect people’s self-reported feelings of power.)

In a Slate article, Andrew Gelman and Kaiser Fung criticize the overall lack of suspicion around Cuddy’s theory and others like it. While not blaming Cuddy herself (or any particular reporter or media outlet), they warn against fuzzy acceptance of so-called “science” (which may be no more than a popular theory that feels good and has some basis in anecdote). Gelman (of whom I am becoming a cautious and questioning fan) is even funnier and more caustic in his own blog post on the subject.

There is every reason to doubt the “power pose” theory and others of its ilk. It’s good to have good posture; this is no innovation. One can strive for good posture, and enjoy its benefits, without pretending that it will catapult every one of us to power.

Now I come to the second point: I wouldn’t even want this thing to be true. Granted, what I want to be true shouldn’t affect what I think is true. Yet it often does; I must always be vigilant about the spill of preference into perception. The question then is: What accounts for the difference between those who want the “power pose” theory to be true and those who don’t?

I don’t want it to be true because I don’t want to be reduced to a success cartoon. Suppose power posing did change hormonal levels and increase risk-taking. Suppose those changes led to power positions, power lunches, power dates. All that power would get boring, and the substance would seep away. I would go on a long search for someone not entirely self-assured and an occupation that did not require constant flashes of confidence.

I don’t mean that others want to become auto-CEOs; I don’t fully understand the allure of the quick “scientific” fix. It seems to skip over two challenges: understanding science itself (at least enough to evaluate the research) and dealing with the complexities of life. Maybe there is relief in that.

My preference matters only in that it leads me to question the notion of power as ceaseless good. Even in a job interview, one does not want to project power from start to finish; a wise employer (for a worthy job) would rather see a competent, thoughtful person. If we are tilting toward a culture of “power impressions,” maybe it’s time to take a few decades, or even a century, to correct that tilt. That one century could change a life.

 

(Update: For some uproarious evening reading, see “NO TRUMP!: A Statistical Exercise in Priming,” which Gelman co-wrote with Jonathan Falk.)

To Gather Around a Book

red book

(Gathered around C. G. Jung’s Red Book: Dr. Larry Allums, Dr. Joan Arbery, and I. Thanks to the Dallas Institute for the photo.)

This summer, for the sixth time, I had the joy and honor of serving on the faculty of the Sue Rose Summer Institute for Teachers at the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture. (It was my fifth summer as full faculty member; in my initial, “junior faculty” year in 2011, I mainly observed but also gave some morning remarks and an afternoon lecture.) What makes this Summer Institute stand out, or one of many things, is its focus on literature itself. We alternate between epic (in even-numbered years) and tragedy and comedy (in odd-numbered years); in epic summers, we read the Iliad, the Odyssey, the Aeneid, the Divine Comedy, Moby-Dick, Mwindo, Monkey, parts of Popol Vuh and Paradise Lost, and numerous poems, essays, speeches, and other works–all of this in three weeks. Jennifer Dubin’s article “Promethean Summer” (American Educator, Spring 2014) describes the program vividly.

Although the reading is intense and the course very short, we have room to discuss the works in depth–precisely because of the focus. I cherish the substance of the course (the works themselves), the practice of coming together over literature, and the beautiful concentration. I hope to continue on the faculty for many more years.

Now I have turned my attention to my book, as well as college recommendations and two papers for the ALSCW Conference (Association of Literary Scholars, Critics, and Writers). The book’s working title (which may change) is Take Away the Takeaway (the title of the talk I gave in April at TEDx Upper West Side, the video of which should be available sometime this month).

I know that I will miss my school this year, but it is a privilege to be able to focus on writing (and one or two other big things, including a course I will take this year in advanced cantillation). Focus and stretches of time are some of the greater goods of life; to some degree they can be found in any given moment, but they also depend on the structures of our days. For years I have been building this structure; now I get to live in it for a while. I hope to do it justice.

Gratitude, Cultivated and Wild

fort tryon park july 2016

I dislike the gratitude of platitudes. I sympathize with those who resist obligatory gratitude; I resist it too, or at least I have in the past. The perfunctory thank-you card fulfills a duty but may lack some spark. Yet raw, unbidden gratitude has its problems too; it depends too much on momentary passions. It’s easy to pour gratitude into one thing or person and ignore another; this turns into self-will and self-satisfaction, a far and whooping cry from gratitude at its best. So, over time, I have come to favor a mixture of the cultivated and the wild. True gratitude, at once genuine and responsible, does exist.

The photo above (which I took yesterday evening in Fort Tryon Park) has more of the cultivated; the one below (which I took in June), more of the wild. Or maybe that is an illusion; maybe they both contain both in similar proportions. In any case, when I walk there, I sense intense gratitude of many kinds around me. People come to pause, to take things in. They walk their dogs, run up the steep hills, bring easel and paint, take pictures, recline on a lawn or bench, engage in a fencing match, or just walk empty-handed and think. The park has its troubles; there have been robberies and other crimes. Walking there too late or too early is not wise. All the same, it is a magnificent place, and the regulars, staff, and volunteers help protect it.

On another note: the short film “The Tale of Four,” directed by Gabourey Sidibe, is filming in my building, just down the hall from me. The premise is promising (it’s based on Nina Simone’s “Four Women“), and I look forward to the film.

fort tryon park june 2016

Vale, Danae plexippe

monarch release

At our school’s garden celebration yesterday, students released Monarch butterflies into the air. This one rested before taking flight.

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