Forms of Not Listening

youre_not_listeningIn my previous post, I discussed the intense activity of listening–but what are the dangers and losses of not listening? Before addressing this question, one must identify the various kinds of “not listening.”

There’s “not listening” where you willfully plug your ears. There’s also the kind to which I am prone: where your mind wanders, and you lose track of what the person is saying. Often a person’s word will trigger a thought, which in turn triggers another thought; before I know it, I have gone far away in my mind. Usually I catch myself quickly, but sometimes not.

There is also the kind where the words go “in one ear and  out the other”–that is, where you make no attempt to assemble or remember them.

But the kind I will focus on today is perhaps more insidious than the others: where you decide, in advance, that you know what the person is going to say, what the piece is going to sound like, etc. When you listen, you hear what you have already set out to hear; you exclude what does not fit. This includes listening to silence; you cut it to your own prefabricated interpretation and ignore the range of possibilities.

Anyone is capable of this kind of error; what’s more, we often commit it unawares. It is all too easy to fit a person’s words (or lack of words) into our existing models. This is the essence of prejudice; we sum others up and shut out what doesn’t fit our summations. Or, if we are listening to a piece of music, we shut out its uniqueness, or the particularities of the performance; it becomes “just another” Romantic work or what have you.

The danger lies not only in the reduction of others, but in the accompanying hubris. The person who listens badly in this particular way assumes that he or she is right and does not need to hear anything more.

Now, some of this is inevitable; we have to filter the sounds and speech that come at us. We can’t take it all in; sometimes we have to make quick sense of it and proceed from there. Also, to listen to something well, one must shut out other things; the very act of selection requires not listening to everything. Still, one can recognize the incompleteness of the gesture, the existence of something more.

Listening to silence, or near-silence, challenges everything in us; we rush to make sense of “nothing.” We are terrified of the expanse of “nothing”–the possibility that it could mean thousands of things. I think of–and question–the ending of Lawrence Durrell’s Justine (the first novel in The Alexandria Quartet):

Soon it will be evening and the clear night sky will be dusted thickly with summer stars. I shall be here, as always, smoking by the water. I have decided to leave Clea’s last letter unanswered. I no longer wish to coerce anyone, to make promises, to think of life in terms of compacts, resolutions, covenants. It will be up to Clea to interpret my silence according to her own needs and desires, to come to me if she has need or not, as the case may be. Does not everything depend on our interpretation of the silence around us?

This passage has puzzled me for years. Yes, everything depends on our interpretation of the silence around us–but is it correct to interpret it according to our own “needs and desires”? Is it right to expect others to do so? The narrator hints at something beyond these words: that a reply would be false at this time, and that time itself has a role to play. But that differs from interpreting the silence according to one’s needs and desires. The narrator’s own expression has flaws (which propel us into the second book of the Quartet).

To listen to silence is to know that one does not know what it is. To box up silence is to presume oneself above it, folding the flaps and tying the strings. Pride consists in packaging the infinite.

Image credit: “you’re not listening”  by Jesslee Cuizon.

Note: I made minor edits to this piece after posting it.

Who Ever Said Listening Was Passive?

danny-practicing-torah-reading

One of my favorite scenes in A Serious Man is the one pictured above, about 25 minutes into the film, where Danny Gopnik (Aaron Wolff) is practicing his Torah portion with the help of a recording by Cantor Yossele Rosenblatt. He listens, imitates, listens again, imitates. That’s not how you’re supposed to learn your portion–you’re supposed to work with the text and trope–but this fits his character and allows us to hear the great cantor. But what gets me is how well he imitates. It’s transcendent. He picks up not only the melody, but the subtle textures, the ornamentation, the timing. (I have not found a video of this particular scene–but the bar mitzvah scene gives you an idea.) I was so intrigued by the excellence of this scene that I looked up the actor and learned that he is a cellist. In addition, this was his actual Torah portion when he became a bar mitzvah.

Here is a recording of him at age 15 playing Popper’s Hungarian Rhapsody. There’s a funny interview afterward, too. The point is not, “Wow, how amazing that he could play that at age 15,” but rather: This is serious musicianship. The little scene in A Serious Man is no fluke; there’s some exceptional listening in it.

Listening is the beleaguered art or skill; again and again I hear it described as “passive.” Egad! Listening is not passive. It’s some of the most active activity in action. It requires intense concentration and attention to subtlety. You must be alert to the structure, tones, rhythms, transitions, and those qualities that aren’t as easily specified, in the collection of sounds you take in. It takes practice, too; if you have never listened to a symphony from start to finish, you might not know what to  make of it, or  you might get restless; but if  you are used to it, you enter a welcoming country (unless the performance or piece is horrible).

In education discussion people often oppose “active learning” to “passive listening.” Such an opposition is not only false but destructive. Yes, students need opportunities to discuss their ideas in the classroom–but if they do not also learn to listen to a sustained piece or presentation, they will miss out on a great deal. It is in a lecture, for instance, that one can lay out an argument and draw attention to its less obvious details. Putting it together, and forming questions in the mind, a student becomes involved with the subject in a particular way. There’s a dialogue in listening; you make sense of what you hear, and you find your responses.

Now, some may say that music and lectures–and the kinds of listening that accompany them–are so different that they shouldn’t even be mentioned in the same discussion. I recognize their differences but also see a lot in common. In both cases, something is conveyed through sound, over an interval of time; its various parts come together in a whole. When you listen, you basically travel through it in time, exercising your memory and anticipation all along the way. Your reactions may be analytical, emotional, or both, but they will not be complete until you have listened to the whole piece, and even then they may be in formation. You carry away not only the content, but the sound, which can play in your mind for a long time afterward.

Yesterday I put this to the test. On Tuesday I revised the fourth chapter of my book, the chapter on listening–so yesterday I treated myself to a day of listening. In the morning I went to an open rehearsal of the New York Philharmonic; in the evening I attended a lecture by Christine Hayes, “Forging  Jewish Identity: Models and Middles in Jewish Sources.” In both of these, in different ways, I was absorbed in the details and the whole. After both, I walked away with sounds and thoughts.

The New York Philharmonic played Brahms’s Symphony No. 3 and Beethoven’s “Emperor” Concerto (with pianist Stephen Hough). Both of these I remembered from many listenings in the past; in addition, I remembered playing the Brahms in symphony in college. I had that distinct sense of it from the inside; not only that, but I remembered some of the places where we played it (we toured England and Wales in the spring). With both the Brahms and the Beethoven, I was alert to the interpretation–the many tiny differences from what I remembered, the dynamics, the dialogues between instruments.

As for the lecture, I immediately understood the three-part structure (Dr. Hayes discussed Jewish identity in terms of memory, covenant, and Qedushah, and went on from there to explore different historical responses to crisis.) Understanding the shape and motion of the lecture, I was able to enjoy and think about the details. When she read texts aloud in English, I would follow along in Hebrew, not only for the additional challenge, but for the sake of the Hebrew text itself. This allowed me to encounter, for the first time,  the wonderful line from Mishnah Sotah 7:8: “Fear not, Agrippas, you are our brother, you are our brother, you are our brother!”

אל תתיירא אגריפס אחינו אתה אחינו אתה אחינו אתה

I walked away not only with the lecture’s  ideas (and my slowly forming questions), but with these words.

In short, listening is not passive, simple, or easy. But just a little bit can add serious riches to a life, and the lack of it can lead to grief. (That’s a different subject for another time.) I end with one of my old poems, “Jackrabbit.”

Jackrabbit

This land has never been painted properly.
Mix clumps of juniper with moonbeam blue,
Throw in a bit of tooth, a bit of song,
to fill the silhouette with bite and tongue.

This is a real dirt road with imagined rocks,
senses, insensate dangers, destinations.
Headlights sweeping the long floor of the mind
pan a jackrabbit back and forth in time.

Caught in the blank emergency of beams,
he dodges his dilemma with a brisk
“what if, what if” that dances him to death.
He could not find a way out of the way.

Earlier that day I was on the phone,
missing all your relevant advice.
A wire had got caught up in my throat,
an answer-dodger. It distracted me.

It trembled so fast that it numbed my tongue.
It did this while you were trying to talk.
I couldn’t listen well because the dance
had blurred all trace of consonant and sense.

I think now that this may have been a crash
of my old givens against your offerings:
new junipers, or ways of seeing them,
new countries, or ways of getting there.

When I hung up, there was no wire or word.
The moon was gone, the road a long fur coat
on some unwitting wearer, blissed and hushed.
I forgot all about it until years later.

You had said: “You can go left or right.”
Take me straight! I shouted. Straight to the remedy.
Gallop like the nineteenth century
down to the police station or cemetery.

Striding answerless, a station incarnate,
a cop ticketed me for not listening.
Now I can bear the rabbits and the wires.
I inch through forks and roadkill, listening.

Note: I made a few little corrections to this piece after posting it.

An Update-Ish Sort of Post

I try not to make this blog too update-y, but once in a while an update or two is in order. Here are a few bundled together in one post.

The other day I bit the bullet and set up a Facebook author page. One disagreeable thing about Facebook is that it’s set up for people to judge you by how many “likes” you have. Oh, sure, now they’ve added various emoticons, so that you can personalize your “liking.” But the effect is the same. It’s one big jostle for popularity. But I wanted a place for updates, separate from the blog. So there you have it, likes or no likes. (The three likes I did receive are worth thousands as far as I am concerned.)

Next, I have announced this already (and deleted the former announcement): my TEDx talk “Take Away the Takeaway” is up on YouTube. I have been getting great responses by email. Ironically, one of the first commenters on YouTube wrote (within an hour or so of the posting), “Not many views for a 6 million subscriber channel…” Someone pointed out that it had just been posted, and he replied, “obviously, but still after 3+ hours only 100 views.” Is this supposed to pass for discourse? What irks me is not what he said–which was just silly–but the structure that sets people up to think and speak that way.

As a teacher, I continually emphasized the difference between popularity and quality. I encouraged students to consider views on their own merits, to withhold snap judgments about a text, and to hear each other out. But much of our culture pushes in the opposite direction.

in-the-heightsWait–this was supposed to be an update-ish post. My other two updates have to do with my former school. On February 4 and 5, a huge cast at Columbia Secondary School will be performing In the Heights. Year after year, the performances have been beautiful and rousing; this one promises to stand on its own. Here’s the show synopsis from the Rodgers and Hammerstein website:

IN THE HEIGHTS tells the universal story of a vibrant community in New York’s Washington Heights neighborhood – a place where the coffee from the corner bodega is light and sweet, the windows are always open and the breeze carries the rhythm of three generations of music. It’s a community on the brink of change, full of hopes, dreams and pressures, where the biggest struggles can be deciding which traditions you take with you, and which ones you leave behind. IN THE HEIGHTS is the winner of the 2008 Tony Awards for Best Musical, Best Score, Best Choreography and Best Orchestrations.

Finally, the fourth issue of CONTRARIWISE is now in production and will appear this spring! The editors have done a superb job of taking over all the responsibilities, shaping the fourth issue, and seeing the journal into the future. I have been uninvolved, except to answer a question once in a great while,  but have been eagerly awaiting the new volume.

Speaking of Columbia Secondary School, I will be returning in early March (and possibly a second time) to lead a philosophy roundtable. More on that as the date approaches. For now, that’s it for the updates.

The Big Five: Theory or Phenomenon?

four-leaf_and_five-leaf_cloversIn an earlier post, I suggested that the Big Five model, even as a taxonomy, contains assumptions about how personality works. Having read Sanjay Srivastava’s illuminating article “The Five-Factor Model Describes the Structure of Social Perceptions” (Psychological Inquiry, vol. 21, issue 1 [2010]), I revise my argument as follows:

The Big Five model, a taxonomy of social perception, presumes that patterns in people’s perception of others can inform our understanding of social constructs of personality. In particular, it postulates implicitly that when you have groups of correlated traits, with maximum variance between the groups, you can meaningfully label the groups and regard them as major factors of personality.

That sounds reasonable enough on the Big Five’s part–but before addressing it, I should distinguish among three concepts. (Thanks to Dr. Srivastava for distinguishing helpfully between the first two.)

First, there is the Five-Factor Theory formulated by Robert (Jeff) McCrae and Paul Costa. It offers a theoretical basis for this overall approach to personality. It contains sixteen postulates, only one of which brings up the Big Five in particular.

Next, there is the Big Five model itself–which, according to Srivastava, is best understood as a taxonomy of social perception, not of personality per se. It sets the stage for investigation of the sources, processes, and consequences of social perception. On p. 7 of the article above, he writes:

It is an interesting and worthy enterprise to study the characteristics of persons who are reliably described as extraverted, agreeable, etc.; but if you want to really understand the Five-Factor Model, you need to frame your questions in terms of perception–and in order to avoid the dead ends of previous eras, you need to study perception in a way that accounts for the entire chain of causation from the neuropsychic bases of behavior in targets to the inferential processes by which perceivers perceive (as proposed by Funder, 1995).

Finally, we have various Big Five personality tests, which people take out of sheer curiosity, as part of an experiment, or for some external purpose such as employment. It is in these tests that much of the mischief arises (in my view)–because if the Big Five are a taxonomy of social perception, they essentially say more about how others tend to perceive people who appear to share traits with you than they say about who you are. The distinction is essential, and it isn’t made often enough. Also, they presume that a person’s relationship to the Big Five can meaningfully be described on a sliding scale. This, too, merits questioning.

But let’s go back to the Big Five model. It makes sense to view it as a taxonomy of social perception. In Srivastava’s words (on p. 9), “traits are what people want to know when they get to know a person.” But clearly there are problems with grouping such traits together, even when such grouping is suggested by the data. The larger categories may obscure the distinctions between the sub-traits. (And that’s why I see the Big Five model as a hypothesis or theory: It postulates that such grouping is meaningful and informative.) Drawing on Jack Block’s critique of the various models in the Big Five framework, Srivastava writes on pp. 13-14:

As Block notes, it is difficult to come up with single words or even short phrases that adequately capture the breadth of meaning of the five factors. The single-word trait terms encoded in language are probably closest to the level of abstraction that perceivers operate at most of the time (cf. John, Hampson, & Goldberg, 1991, for a more nuanced view). At lower levels of the hierarchy–aspects, facets, and especially individual trait concepts–we will need to develop increasingly differentiated theories to account for the social concerns that these dimensions encapsulate.

Yes, this is a problem, and it exists even before we get to tests. Martha Smith once commented on Andrew Gelman’s blog (in response to one of my comments), “In other words, [the researchers] did not start with definitions of traits; this was exploratory research that gave them candidates for traits. The real definition of the traits was ‘whatever this linear combination measures.’ However, the labels they attached to these factors became ‘reified’ — that is, taken to be The Real Thing Measured, even thought the labels were fuzzy terms subject to varying interpretations.”

An associated problem is that the Big Five is a taxonomy of general tendencies in social perception; thus it does not account for exceptions and outliers, which could be every bit as informative as the tendencies, if not more so.

This needs to be shouted from the rooftops: Big Five tests–and other personality tests–do not tell you how extraverted, agreeable, conscientious, etc., you are. They tell you to what degree your self-identified traits match traits that people tend to associate with each other in their observations of others–and that researchers have therefore grouped in larger categories.

Now let us get to specifics. One of my qualms with personality tests is that they encourage self-revelation along the lines of “The test says I’m introverted, but I always thought I was extraverted, because I….” etc. etc. This doesn’t seem necessary or helpful. Let’s instead look at a hypothetical situation.

Someone takes a Big Five test and scores low on Agreeableness–but would be described by friends, as gentle, considerate, and kind. Of course there’s a discrepancy between how you see yourself and how others see you–but there’s also a problem of complexity. You may have many possibilities in your character; different ones come out at different times. If you come upon a statement like “I can be cold and uncaring,” you might ask yourself, “What does ‘can’ mean? How do I answer something like that? Is this asking how often I act or think in an uncaring way? Or how intense my lack of caring can be when it occurs? Is it asking about my outward affect, or about my thoughts?”

Or at a group level, what does 60% Agreeable mean? Does one person’s 60% resemble another’s, or did they score at 60% for different reasons?

Taking a taxonomy of social perception and turning it into an assessment of individual personality–even, shall  we say, social perception of individual personality–involves a few iffy leaps of reasoning. People treat those tests with much more certainty than they actually merit. But even without the tests, the taxonomy alone leaves one with questions and uncertainties. I am glad that there are researchers who look into the uncertainties and help us understand what they are.

Image credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Note: I made a few minor edits to this piece after posting it. In addition, I added a missing end quotation mark in the paragraph that begins “But let’s go back….”

“Mozart, 1935” and Candle-Lighting

For some reason, as I think of the upcoming Hanukkah candle-lighting, I find myself remembering Wallace Stevens’s “Mozart, 1935.” What could the two have in common, other than winter?

The poem begins,

Poet, be seated at the piano.
Play the present, its hoo-hoo-hoo,
Its shoo-shoo-shoo, its ric-a-nic,
Its envious cachinnation.

“Play the present”–this seems directly opposed to playing Mozart; the sounds of the present are rough and rude. One might think Stevens (or the speaker in this poem) is urging the poet to adopt the language of the street.

But something different seems to be at work here. Mark Halliday comments,

A different poet–one more like Thomas Hardy, or more like William Carlos Williams, or more like Kenneth Fearing (a significant poet of social protest in the thirties)–having turned to face the “angry fear” of people, would feel that his poem’s project must be to explore “this besieging pain” and to show forth its lineaments. Stevens, however, is interested not in writing about the street, but in writing about the problem of writing about the street. “Mozart, 1935” is a poem about poems that will do the work it does not itself undertake.

If this is so (and the interpretation seems both sound and illuminating), what does the poem suggest that poems can do?

Be thou the voice,
Not you. Be thou, be thou
The voice of angry fear,
The voice of this besieging pain.

There is something extraordinary happening here in this repeated “thou.” (It should be read in the context of the full poem.) Halliday again:

Stevens’ earnest wish to maintain a distance from the turmoil of others’ experience is reflected by his stern insistence on the word “thou,” which is repeated four times in the two stanzas just quoted and returns as the final word of the poem. Stevens does not want the poet to be one person among others, a “you” among “yous.” Indeed, he judges that for the poet-pianist to perform the new work, to strike the piercing chord, it will be necessary for him to adopt a status and a role larger and more central than mere individual selfhood: “Be thou the voice, / Not you.”

This is not a matter of rising above the crowd, but rather of rising up through the self into something beyond one’s immediate perceptions and capacities. To be the “voice” of the “besieging pain” is not to imitate or reflect it. The pain, up to this point, has noise but not voice; to become its voice is to inhabit a great soul.

This takes me, in a way, to candles.

To light a candle is not to express flimsy hope in the face of a broken world, a noisy street. Nor is it to “rise above” the world. Nor is it even to endure. The candle hints at the possibility of “thou”–of a dignity that faces the world with full intensity of form. When I look at a candle’s flame, I am entranced by the upright quivering; it seems at instants that the quiver is mine. Of course that is my imagination–but without imagination, a candle would be just functional, a thing that could help me see around a room.

What on earth does this have to do with Hanukkah–a minor holiday commemorating the rededication of the Temple and, according to tradition, the miracle of lights? I am not proposing any special interpretation here. Rather, in this cheerful festival, where the candles stand by the window, there is a chance to form and fortify a relation to the world.

Happy Hanukkah, Merry Christmas, and Happy New Year.

Gibberish Not Too Long Ago

A recent Onion piece begins, “BROOKLYN, NY—Staring in trembling awe at her suddenly blank desktop, local woman Chelsea Greene was reportedly presented a rare chance at a new life Tuesday after accidentally closing her browser window with 23 open tabs.”

It occurred to me, as I read this, that it would have been lost on me if I had  read it in high school. In particular, my ignorance of three words–or, rather, their  particular meanings here–would have thrown off the sentence so badly that I would not have been able to make head, tail, or middle of it.

Moreover, I would have thought I knew the meanings of the words. Desktop, browser, tab–they wouldn’t have seemed obscure.

  1. “desktop”–At the time, this meant nothing other to me than the top or surface of a desk. A “suddenly blank desktop” probably meant a desk that had just been cleaned, or whose “toppings” had been swept off. (Desktop computers existed but were not well known–and the word “desktop” as a computer descriptor had not entered general vocabulary.)
  2. “browser”–I would have thought of this as someone who browses. Perhaps a “browser window” was a window near a desk, for those who wished to look either into their own library (in an adjoining room) or out onto the street. Maybe a “browser” was someone who stopped working now and then to observe the goings-on.
  3. “tabs”–I suppose those are the little clamps that hold a window shut. Why on earth would a window have 23 of them? Maybe it’s a window that springs open unless clamped tight shut; so, since the tabs were open, it must have taken an act of extreme clumsiness to fling the window shut by accident.

So here’s what I picture: Someone, maybe a parent or spouse, is mad at Chelsea Greene for keeping a messy desk–and, in a fit of indignation, flings everything off the desktop. Stunned, Chelsea looks out the window, only to find that she has somehow flung it shut, maybe in the heat of anger or revenge, fling for flang. But this very emotion reminds her that she is still alive–that although she has “closed” the window, life has in fact “opened” itself to her, showing her, once again, that other people’s judgments need not dictate how she lives, and that her desk matters to her, even if things pile up upon it. If Chelsea had known of the Big Five, she might have said, “So, I scored low on your conscientiousness test, but not on my own; after all, I am here at my desk.”

Note: I added a little to this piece after posting it.

So Now You’re Rating My Self-Knowledge?

Jesse Singal is one of my favorite journalists. He’s a powerful writer: intelligent, probing, daring, nuanced, and skilled. But today one of his New York Magazine articles (which he co-wrote with Ashley Wu) made my blood boil. Singal and Wu invite the readers to test their own self-knowledge: first, by rating themselves on the Big Five traits (extraversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, neuroticism, and openness to experience); and second, by taking a personality test, which will presumably show them how correct or incorrect their self-assessment was. I reject the premise that the personality test has the last word or better say–or, more generally, that some outside instrument can set the terms for my self-knowledge.

Singal and Wu vastly overstate the test’s capacity to inform us about ourselves. Toward the middle of the piece, they write: “So: How good a grasp do you think you have on your own personality, in Big Five terms? In the below test, you can find out.” At the end, they claim, “In other words, a test like this turns what can sometimes be guesswork about who you are into something a bit more scientific and concrete.”

I have copied my response below, with some minor edits and added links.

A comment on “Can You Predict Your Scores on an Important Personality Test?” by Jesse Singal and Ashley Wu

I protest the underlying assumption of this article: that the Big Five model and its accompanying personality tests hold some truth about us that we may or may not “get right.” According to your argument here, how “well we do” at guessing our test results speak to how well we know ourselves.

No, no, no! I acknowledge that our own self-knowledge may be limited, flawed, and distorted–but I reject any personality test as an arbiter of truth.

Why? First of all, as you yourself note, psychologists have based these categories on tendencies and general correlations. And tendencies are just that–tendencies. They are somewhat forced, first of all, by our vocabulary; second of all, they don’t hold for everyone; third, within an individual there may be great variation from context to context and day to day.

I recognize that this test offers a “sliding scale” for each of these traits–but I question whether they really exist on a “sliding scale.” If I am sometimes agreeable, sometimes not, this does not make me, say, 70% agreeable. My instances of disagreeableness may be key to my personality. What matters here is where and why they occur. They may have to do with an actual situation.

In The Long Shadow of Temperament (one of the wisest psychology books I have read), Jerome Kagan and Nancy Snidman question the Western tendency to define personality in terms of categories. “It is not clear,” they write, “why American and European social scientists maintain a preference for broad psychological properties for individuals that ignore the contexts in which they act.” In Moral Imagination, David Bromwich points to the importance of resisting this tendency. “The force of the idea of moral imagination,” he writes, “is to deny that we can ever know ourselves sufficiently to settle on a named identity that prescribes our conduct or affiliations.”

Why does this matter? Because everything human is at stake here: self-knowledge, knowledge of others, knowledge of the world, dialogue, and language itself.

P.S. In a demonstration of “openness to experience,” I went ahead and took this test. It was not enlightening. For too many of the questions, the response in my mind was, “It depends.” I mean “strongly depends,” not just “sort of depends.” So in many cases I entered a 3, which to me did not represent the situation. Or else the lack of breakdown–for instance, of types of conscientiousness–distorted my responses by averaging them out. (On the other hand, without trying, I scored extremely high on “openness.”) I view such tests with extreme skepticism and caution. (Yet this is not because I am a “cautious” type overall. Skeptical, maybe.) If such tests are bad at telling who I am, they are even worse at telling how well I know myself.

Note: I added a paragraph to the beginning of this piece after posting it. Also I changed “theory” to “model” (stay tuned for more on this).

 

Thank You, USPS Workers

post-officePostal workers get a terrible rap. One hears of employees “going postal,” or bins of mail getting dumped, or other outrageous things. Stories of USPS courtesy, helpfulness, and patience don’t get big press. I wish they did.

Over the years, I have gone to the post office hundreds of times–with letters, packages, overseas mailings, delivery slips, and more. From the post office on W. 125th St. (10027), for three consecutive years, I mailed copies of CONTRARIWISE to Italy, Turkey, England, China, and numerous U.S. locations. If I were on the other end of the plexiglass barrier, I would have lost patience with myself.

The USPS staff courteously helped me through the process. When I came with piles of packages, they took the time to process each one correctly. In addition, they explained my options, gave me good advice, and wished me a good day afterward. I could tell that it mattered to them to see the mail through.

In holiday-ish times of year (particularly December), I come to the post office in a whirlwind, only because I haven’t managed to send my packages earlier. Time and again, including today, the staff have taken my packages in hand and seen them calmly onward.

Regular mail is nowhere near obsolete; the long lines at the post offices attest to this. People still need and want to send tangible letters, packages, and documents. The workers understand this and do all they can to help. Not only that, but they throw some cheer into the mix. For this I lift a hearty thanks.

Image credit: Foursquare.

The Terror of Subscription

columbia-record-co-a-serious-manIn the Coen brothers’ movie A Serious Man, the physics professor Larry Gopnik enters his office to find three messages and an anxious student waiting. One message is from the Columbia Record Club; unbeknownst to Larry himself, he has subscribed and fallen behind on his payments. (See that magnifying glass in the still; I didn’t even notice it when watching the movie. Maybe it suggests that Larry is looking so closely at certain things that he completely misses others.) I see this “surprise subscription” as one kind of deep nightmare.

What is so scary about subscriptions? Some of it is innocuous and even good; people proudly maintain their subscriptions to newspapers and journals, for instance. But in other cases, the subscription technology (crude or advanced) tricks you; you agree to a “trial” or some such thing and then find out that you’ve signed up for a whole year. Or else you sign up for a year and then forget  to cancel at the end. Subscriptions sneak up on you and claim a debt. Suddenly, out of nowhere, you owe someone money.

But that’s only one side of it. To “subscribe” to something is also to become it. Sometimes, when I get a surprise renewal notice, I ask not only “Can I afford this?” but “What do I have to do with this? Is it really part of my life?” Once upon a time I subscribed to the Franklin Library. The books were beautifully bound, and some titles I was delighted to have–but after a while, they started looking and feeling like a fake collection. I couldn’t keep up with the reading, and when my shelves started filling with books I had barely opened, I knew something was wrong. The subscription had go. I would buy books when I actually wanted to read and reread them. (So I did, and my shelves still overflow.)

So that leads to yet another of subscriptions’ scullduggeries. They can con you into overgetting. You end up amassing “stuff” that  you don’t really want, merely because you continue to pay for it. Somewhere in there, presumably, is something you want, so you accept the full pile, knowing full well that you will use only a handful of it. (I am not referring here to journal subscriptions. There, in my experience, the situation is different; if it’s a good journal, there will be all kinds of surprises in it, things I wouldn’t otherwise have known to read.)

And then, when you do want to quit, you won’t be let off easily. You’ll get reminders, phone calls, letters… won’t you please, please rejoin us? Even if your answer is an emphatic “no,” you are continually reminded that you once did sign on for a whole year.

Today the problem has heightened, since there are so many more things than before that require subscription: antivirus software, word processing and photo finishing software, genealogical research databases, even your own domain name. To do your basic daily work on the computer, you probably need to subscribe to at least three services. And then there are all the subscriptions to “ad-free” versions of blogs and other things; if you don’t want to have ads dancing before you all day long, you must subscribe to peace and quiet.

All of these things combine into the terror of subscription. It’s a mild anxiety; for the most part, I barely think about it. But I often catch myself wishing that I could just have something or not, instead of signing on to this costly, nagging, partial purchase, the effect of a hesitant click one dubious day.

All of this reminded me of Bill Knott’s sonnet “The Unsubscriber” (which isn’t “about” subscriptions in this sense but plays with the topic in an interesting way.) You can see it quoted in full in an article by Edward Hirsch (though the formatting is bad; I recommend the book of the same title). It ends,

No one loves that vain solipsistic sect
You’d never join, whose dues you’ve always paid.

To understand and misunderstand what this means, one needs to read and reread the full poem, to subscribe and unsubscribe, many times.

Image: A still from the first  “Clive scene” in A Serious Man.

 

How TED Talks Could Be Improved

If TED changed its focus and direction slightly, it could become a forum for interesting discussion.

At present it is hampered by five factors:

  1. Too much status is attached to TED talks. A talk alone can whisk a person to fame.
  2. The talks tend to emphasize positive, inclusive big ideas rather than questions and doubts.
  3. The talks dabble in science just enough to seem credible but do not engage in serious argumentation. They do not come with bibliographies (as they should).
  4. The talks tend to sound alike; many of them include a big idea, poignant personal story, and reference to science. Many come with a prop.
  5. Some of the most popular talks make unfounded claims and demonstrate poor reasoning.

Very well. How might these problems be adjusted or overturned?
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