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TEDTalks and Keys to Happiness

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I began my blog journey with a desire to understand my own reaction of irritation in the face of the “positive psychology” movement and to explore what motivates me in contrast to an obsession with turning personal happiness into yet another competitive achievement.

Today I bring to you two TEDTalks on the subject of happiness. For me, these two talks demonstrate the gulf in quality among those connected to “positive psychology.” Dan Gilbert (above) I can respect, even though I don’t necessarily agree with all the conclusions he draws from his data. Shawn Achor, on the other hand, I find the twenty-first-century version of a snake-oil salesman.

There is much that overlaps in their TEDTalks—the jokes, the anecdotal examples that render their data amusing, their clunky Power Point slides. Most important, though, both talk about the ways in which we can or do recast negative events in our lives to render them more positive.

But I see differences:

Dan Gilbert notes toward the end of his talk that some things that may happen in our lives are actually better or more desirable than others. Though he insists that we overrate the impact of one result over another in terms of our happiness, he is not disconnected from reality. He is interested in what humans share in terms of how they react to life events, and he asserts that reframing unfortunate events is a human trait we all participate in.

Shawn Achor unfortunately ends his talk otherwise: with a list of ways in which we can retrain ourselves to be happy. His talk is oriented around our deficits, even as he makes fun of psychologists for wanting to diagnose illnesses in order to keep “sick” people coming back for more treatment. Happiness is something that requires treatment and training just as much as getting over any depression or other “below average” state. Achor’s talk is full of logical conflicts like this—and he even admits that the data he puts on the screen is nonexistent—he uses it just to make a point about the evils of averages. Right before this exhortative end, Achor throws out a bunch of numbers but doesn’t really tell us where they come from.

Both Gilbert and Achor rely on a connection to Harvard University for their status as experts, and both have published popular books on happiness (Gilbert’s is Stumbling on Happiness, 2006, and Achor’s is The Happiness Advantage, 2010). And this leads me to something that’s a big difference for me, but evidently not for others. Dan Gilbert really is an expert.

Though Shawn Achor has made himself a guru, he has no degree in psychology at all. His bio on his corporation, GoodThinkInc., says that he “spent over a decade at Harvard University where he won over a dozen distinguished teaching awards,” and here and there he is referred to as “Professor Achor.” Yes, he has a bachelor’s degree in English and Religious Studies from Harvard and a master’s in Divinity in “Christian and Buddhist ethics.” However, he never held a position above that of “teaching fellow,” which this link makes clear is basically a teaching assistant.

He also claims that his company conducts research into happiness, and it contains a “Research” page. But go to that page and what you find is pretty thin. There is a link to yet another business that Achor has “founded,” which, even though it is called the Institute for Applied Research, clearly involves only coaching courses, no research at all, though it does boast of several large business clients. And there is a link to an 800-word column Achor wrote for the Harvard Business Review that, though it does cite some research, notes only one “study” his company performed, which was a post-experiment assessment of the company’s employees and apparently has never been vetted for its experimental legitimacy. In other words, Achor performs “studies” to prove to the corporations who have bought his coaching services that it was worth the money.

Gilbert, on the other hand, has a PhD in social psychology from Princeton (and a bachelor’s in psychology from the University of Colorado), and is actually on the faculty and runs a research lab at Harvard. This is not to say that he doesn’t have a stake in the tenets of positive psychology, but his approach is more balanced and therefore less punishing. For instance, in the Harvard Business Review’s coverage of his work, he notes, “Much of the research confirms things we’ve always suspected. For example, in general people who are in good romantic relationships are happier than those who aren’t. Healthy people are happier than sick people…. Rich people are happier than poor people.” Note that he doesn’t say that “happy people are healthier than sad people.” Nor “Happy people are richer than unhappy people.” He doesn’t reverse the equations of causality in destructive ways.

Therefore, even though I have questions about some of the implications of the research results that Gilbert mentions in his TEDTalk, I feel that it’s at least based on research and not on pure gloss designed to sell a service to line his pockets. I hope it doesn’t seem as though I am splitting hairs. These things make a difference to me as I try to understand what sources of advice and inspiration are really that and what ones are potentially damaging shams.

What makes a difference to you in a happiness guru? Which ones irritate you and which ones make sense, and why?

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Beware the Enthymeme!

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It's bad enough to debate complex issues in slogans, but even worse when the slogans so cheerfully lie.

In Florida, as in many states, there are a variety of license plate designs for car owners to choose from. I always think that these, like bumper stickers, are a strange way to express oneself, though I’ve been known to slap a bumper sticker on my car now and then. Last presidential election cycle, I had two Obama stickers stolen off my car, and I have a long-term one that says, “Please don’t breed or buy while shelter pets die. Opt to adopt.” Other than one time when a friend at first thought it protested the breeding of humans and was an insult to his parenthood, that one has been uncontroversial. At least as far as I know. And I guess that’s the joy of broadcasting one’s opinions this way. Unless you meet up with a crazy person who will bash into your vehicle, you are safe from argument.

One of the popular license plates around here is a yellow one with red crayon-like boy and girl figures that imply they were drawn by a child and that says “Choose Life.”

It might be an okay message if it really meant what it says. Of course, most of those who sport this license plate don’t actually mean that. What they mean is that they would rather force every pregnant woman to bring any pregnancy to term. What they mean is not “choose life,” but “choose to support laws and organizations that offer no choice to women.” And, as this Slate article reports, “the legislation in most states [that have these plates] expressly provides that any program offering referrals or even discussing the option of abortion is barred from funding.” In other words, these plates support lack of choice, not a choice.

There is an odd way in which the language gets twisted like this. Of course, progressives and liberals do it too, but what I notice lately is the way that Republicans and right-wingers do this all the freaking time. No doubt, we are gearing up for a maelstrom of misused language in this coming election season.

What I also notice is that progressives have a hard time correcting these misuses of language. I guess they don’t want to be accused of nit-picking about semantics or something like that. But the use of language is one of the most important things we can pay attention to. This is one of the things that rhetorical analysis is good for, and it pains me that so many can get through high school and freshman comp and even four or more years of college and still not be able to understand the manipulations of language to which they are subject on a daily basis.

I will never forget one of my early teaching experiences, when I was laboring as a freshman-composition TA at Penn State during the fall of 1991. At the same time, playing out in the media, were the Senate confirmation hearings for Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas. Anita Hill, who had worked as his assistant some years earlier, arrived on the scene with her testimony about Thomas sexually harassing her.

Hill’s testimony lasted only a few hours, but the discussion of it went on for weeks and months, even years. The issue even resurfaced in 2010, when Clarence Thomas’s wife called Anita Hill and suggested she should apologize.

In spite of the fact that Hill subjected herself to a polygraph test that indicated her testimony was honest, whereas Thomas refused a polygraph, and in spite of another woman’s affidavit that she had received similar treatment, Hill’s testimony was vehemently called into question. And one of the prime reasons people gave for their disbelief was that Hill had continued to work for Thomas rather than quitting her job, had in fact even worked for him at a second position after the time during which she said he harassed her. This line of discussion had been begun during her Senate testimony when Republican senators Arlen Specter and Orrin Hatch strove quite clearly to discredit her. (The entire hearings are available via C-Span. About half-way through Day 1, Part 3, Specter grills her about why she continued to work for Thomas).

This discussion nagged at me and nagged at me. Finally one day when I was set to teach the enthymeme, I realized why. Dully, I had been writing a traditional enthymeme lesson (that had been provided to us new TAs) on the chalkboard:

Johnathan lives in Japan.
Johnathan speaks Japanese.

And then out to the side the missing link: People who live in Japan speak Japanese.

In a fit of inspiration, I erased it and wrote instead:

Anita Hill claims she was sexually harassed by Clarence Thomas.
She’s probably lying.

“How many of you agree with this?” I asked. More than half the class raised their hands, most of the men and a few of the women.

For the next half hour, we explored the possible unstated assumptions behind the conclusion. The students eventually had to admit that the basic assumption they were making was that women should always put their “purity” above their careers. Certainly, that was the assumption that the all-male panel of senators who had grilled Hill clearly made. If this were not true, there might be a host of other priorities that Hill would put before quitting her job to escape Thomas’s advances and inappropriate comments.

Once we teased these assumptions out into the open, there were very few students (maybe only one) in the class who agreed with the statement that women should always put their “purity” over their career advancement. Most of them found themselves confronted with an assumption they didn’t agree with but that they had allowed to underpin their opinions on a matter of national importance.

A few of the young women in class began to make the connection to their own experience. “Oh, yeah,” one said, “I have a manager who is so offensive—he always stares at us waitresses too much and puts his hands on us whenever he can—but I haven’t quit my job! We all just ignore him. And it’s a nothing job.” Every female in the class could cite at least one instance of sexual harassment that she had let slide. We agreed that none of us would quit a job over it unless there was actual threat of rape or a high level of severity and directness in the harassment, but that this did not erase the fact of the harassment. It was a daily part of our collective lives.

By the end of class, because they could understand why Anita Hill might have stayed in her job in spite of harassment, they no longer deemed her a liar. I will never forget their mouths hanging open in disbelief at what they had been duped into repeating from the media to friends and family members. They rushed off after class to correct themselves. Thomas, of course, had already been approved as a Supreme Court justice.

I wonder about this kind of thing in the media. It seems to me that both the “neutral” media and the progressive factions do too little to correct this kind of blatantly stupid and unsupported claim. They do too little to monitor the use of language in blatantly deceptive ways. Some, including, of course, FOX News, are notorious for participating in this kind of ridiculous bias themselves (several examples here and one here that’s particularly about twisting of language). Lately, even our senators and representatives have felt free to make utterly false and ridiculous claims, and later to say they didn’t mean them as factual or to insist on defending their mischaracterizations. Only in these most blatant of examples are they called out on it.

For instance, in response to an email I sent to Florida Governor Rick Scott’s ridiculous decision to sign off on establishment of a new (unneeded) state university in Florida, I received a reply containing this statement: “Governor Scott’s top priority this legislative session was adding $1.06 billion in new funding for K-12 education.” First, nothing in Scott’s email responded to the subject I had addressed. And second, this is bull. Scott has been ballyhooing his great increase in state funding for K-12 education this year, after he cut $1.3 billion last year. A few reporters note toward the end of their articles that Scott’s budget doesn’t even replace what he has previously cut, but the headlines mostly remain that he is raising the budget. (Notice that this blogger put a more accurate headline on the same article published with an innocuous-sounding headline in the Palm Coast Observer. But, hey, at least the reporter mentions the facts.)

I believe that these twisted uses of language are one of the reasons why our society has become so divided and discussions so disharmonious. I think that we need to do all we can every time we hear these false uses of language to stop them in their tracks, even if it means making conversation halting. The fact is that it’s one thing to disagree about the substance of things and another for someone to lie in order to exaggerate our disagreements.

There are many examples, but I have gone on long enough. Today’s exhortation, again in support of so many friends who are ending long semesters of teaching freshman comp (and other courses that attempt to teach critical thinking), is: REMEMBER THE ENTHYMEME! Talk about the enthymeme. Pick apart the enthymeme.

First, They Came for the Romantic Relationships…

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Conversation has become a luxury. The Conversation by Kobe de Peuter.

I think of my generation as the one in which the meaning of “love” shifted and became larger (a good thing) but also more confusing (a bad thing). My female college friends and I both celebrated and mourned the loss of the clarity that most of our mothers seemed to have about what love meant. To them, it meant marriage.

To us, it meant so many other things. For one thing, marriage wasn’t available for those among us who were gay. Yet it was becoming clearer and clearer that gay love was a reality that needed to be acknowledged. And at the same time, our heterosexual relationships were undergoing massive upheavals—marriage, though we didn’t wish to deny it to our gay friends, seemed to many heterosexual women like a “property relationship.” We wanted our love to be free, not attached to economic or child-rearing promises.

The men I knew often took perhaps unfair advantage of this. Even when what they felt was clearly not love to them, they might claim to love us, but to just not to want to participate in the strangling institution of marriage. For the most part, women still wanted to be loved. This made for a lot of broken hearts, and many women eventually “got over” their liberation from marriage. Women and men (gay, straight, and bisexual) began to redefine marriage in multiple ways that (we hope) retain the goodness of an institution of intimate commitment and jettison the woman-down or gays-denied aspects.

Not that the redefining of romantic love is over, but lately what I find shifting more radically is the meaning of friendship.

This weekend I read an article in the May 2012 issue of the Atlantic called “Is Facebook Making Us Lonely?” by Stephen Marche. It is one of many litanies lately about the dangers of our reliance on social networks on the Internet. Bruce also sent me a link of a TED talk by psychologist Sherry Turkle, who is mentioned in the Atlantic article and who has changed her once-upbeat take on the social network into a lament for the depth and spontaneity of real conversation.

These two commentaries bring so much to my mind. Mainly, they resonate. I myself can experience great loneliness in spite of the ever-enlarging circle of Facebook and blogging friends that I have. Blogging sometimes brings about more substantive exchanges, but even that is not real companionship.

And I have noticed that even my dearest friends no longer want to talk. Now, I am a “long-talker,” as my boss once told me, and I have tired people out for many years in that regard. But I feel more and more removed from this quick-take social interaction that has become the norm. I worry that my pleasure in and need for complex, digressive, even desultory conversation is becoming more and more anachronistic. My friends love me, and I love them, but we don’t have time to talk with each other. Conversation has become the ultimate luxury.

People don’t even like length in writing any more, as literary magazines shrink and shrink the length of manuscripts they will even consider for publication and as those of us teaching creative writing shrink and shrink the length of assignments we accept from our students because we have more and more students and therefore fewer and fewer hours to devote to critique of their work. We indeed are living in an aphoristic time.

Turkle, in her talk, reports that one 18-year-old, “who uses texting for almost everything,” told her “someday, someday, but certainly not now, I would like to learn to have a conversation.” And it is true that sometimes my students today have a hard time participating in a workshop at all. I have even had a few students so afraid that I had to coach them outside of class about how to manage to participate in class. I had to teach them how to have a conversation.

So, another thing that came to my mind is the continuing value of the creative writing workshop model. In creative writing workshops, we still talk. This may be on its way to becoming a lost art, but it may also be something that we should emphasize as part of the value of a liberal arts education. Rare skills can become extremely valuable, after all. And the magic that can sometimes happen in a creative writing workshop (the minds melding, the contributions mixing, the starts and stops coalescing into something new that no one thought of alone) will never, I believe, be replaced by even the most detailed online critique.

That some 18-year-old, who probably has hundreds of “friends” on Facebook, can have all those friends without conversations strikes me as odd. Yet I know that I have some friends on Facebook I have never met, or have met once or twice, or who simply “liked” some brief quip I made in response to someone else’s post.

And this phenomenon of friends we don’t really know is more and more being extended to relationships that have nothing to do with actual friendship and everything to do with business. I offer a mere two examples, though I could go on all day with more:

* I just recently had to purchase a new insulin pump. I’ll save the internecine details of this most recent set of frustrating health care exchanges for another time, but here I at least want to object to the constant reference by the insulin pump company to their being my “partner.” In fact, the company website refers to us as “partners for life.”

Forgive me if I view this with cynicism. I had to order a new pump because my previous one went completely kaput a few days after the warranty expired, not because I desired any of the minimally new features. (Most of which, I am finding, have created a kind of neurotic, nagging, numbing effect with lots of extra alarms.) Since the new pump takes a while to “process,” the company offered a loaner pump for the duration. However, they informed me that if I canceled my order, and didn’t buy my next pump from them, I would be charged $3600 for 90 days with the loaner.

If this is a “partnership,” it’s a coercive one.

* At least the pump company still uses a neutral word like “partner.” In other business news, however, Brighthouse has launched a new advertising campaign in which they pull out all the stops and go right to calling themselves my “friend,” your friend, everybody’s friend. That friendship could be offered to all comers for the price of subscribing to Brighthouse services totally perverts the meaning of the word, of course.

At first the only clue to the identity of who was paying for these prime-time and expensive Hello Friend ads was the combination of blue and yellow in the text portion of the ads. Now, they are gradually introducing ads that move from soft-touch pleasantries to out and out courting. Brighthouse wants to be your friend, the ads say.

How, I wonder, can anyone take this seriously?

Bruce tells me that the campaign is likely a response to the horrible customer service reviews that Brighthouse has received in the past on Internet complaint sites. “Brighthouse,” he said, “gives notoriously bad service. There are all kinds of comments like, ‘DirectTV is bad, but Brighthouse is the worst.’”

In fact, the campaign may actually indicate an actual change in policy that could be important. This would never have occurred to me if the folks who helped put in our new flower and garden beds last week hadn’t accidentally cut our Brighthouse cable. When we realized what had happened, I thwacked myself in the forehead repeatedly, cursing the fact that I’d mistakenly believed all the cables were away from our dig areas. How much would they have to dig up again, and how much would this foolish oversight cost us?

Within 24 hours, the repairman came, made a quick fix, and charged us nothing. I was so relieved not to be punished that I have to admit I felt almost like this man was my friend.

The ads, however, have made me feel simply that the world is more pathetic than ever. I wondered if it’s true that people are just getting more and more disconnected from other real humans and more lonely than ever. That such ads could be deemed effective seems to coincide with the research that Turkle and others report about heavy Facebook users being lonelier than those who use it less or not at all. And with the fact that more and more people use it regularly.

In addition, I think it’s a documentable fact that more and more of our daily needs are met through these large corporate entities. There are few family-owned corner grocery stores, gas stations, drug stores, hardware stores, and pet food stores, so we don’t have even the same kind of superficial acquaintances that we know over a long period of time and that might bloom into something like genuine friendliness, even if not intimate knowledge. I visit the same stores over and over again and hardly ever see the same clerk twice because they are chains that move people around and that people leave at the next best opportunity.

We also have witnessed the rise of various kinds of stealth marketing, where people who purport to be our friends are actually (or also) trying to use us for financial ends. To me, these practices are particularly heinous because I like to know when a spade is a spade. But many young people today live lives much more merged with advertising than an oldster like me is comfortable with. They see nothing wrong with defining themselves with logos, with trying out free sample products and sharing them with friends, and so on. For them, there is no private sphere.

(And there are so many how-tos and analyses of these kinds of marketing that I can’t find a single link to represent them, but if you’re interested, the key terms are stealth marketing, viral marketing, word-of-mouth marketing. And don’t forget product placement!)

These secret agendas also exist in terms of pyramid schemes like Amway, Landmark Forum, and Stargate. Whenever someone approaches you with some ulterior motive, there’s a kind of strain. This person is not approaching with an open mind or with curiosity, but with a pre-determined agenda: to get you to join so that they can get a discount on their own self-help seminars.

One of the most disturbing trends noted by Stephen Marche in the Atlantic is this: “In 1985, only 10 percent of Americans said they had no one with whom to discuss important matters, and 15 percent said they had only one such good friend. By 2004, 25 percent had nobody to talk to, and 20 percent had only one confidant.”

And so we also pay others to listen to us. Marche also reports on the dramatic rise in the numbers of psychologists, other kinds of therapists and counselors, and life coaches. This marketplace is more legitimate—at least most of the time you know what you are paying for and it’s about your own needs, whereas the stealth marketers are lying to you to meet their needs. But sometimes even that gets confusing. In my dealings with Landmark Forum, I encountered several members who had also become independent life coaches—they had little in the way of credentials I would recognize for advising others about their lives, but there is no licensing necessary for life coaching. Even in the realm of professional “friends,” the stakes can get confused these days.

What many commentators have begun to notice, including Stephen Marche and Sherry Turkle, is that what many of these online friendship forums promote is a kind of uber cheerfulness, an editing of our personal lives into success stories and personal p.r. campaigns.

I think, however, this trend goes far beyond and certainly doesn’t originate in online social networks. Landmark Forum, Oprah, Dr. Oz, Kris Carr, and the whole host of self-help gurus have over the past decade moved so deeply into the superficial tenets of positive psychology that this kind of self-editing has become ubiquitous. Everyone, nowadays, fears being a “drag,” whether in person or online.

Marche’s article thankfully makes this connection, and he cites a recent study by Iris Mauss and others at the University of Denver that finds that valuing and seeking happiness can doom people to disappointment. Mauss and her fellow psychologists all consider themselves to be working in the arena of positive psychology, and in other writings that I found, she seems a true believer, even in “positive neuroscience.” They apparently expected happiness to be like other goals—those that value academic achievement usually make better grades in school. But they found the opposite—at least in situations of low stress, the valuation of happiness correlated with lower happiness and life satisfaction and higher symptoms of depression.

So, I believe that what Stephen Marche points out about Facebook’s pitfalls is actually something that spreads beyond the online environment. I suppose it’s a chicken-and-egg question whether our online habits have created the changes in our psyches concerning friendship, but I do know that it’s not only online that this issue exists.

However, in a live chat about his Atlantic article, Marche just now referred to another article he wrote—for Toronto Life—about his institution of a Digital Sabbath. I know that I agree with him fully that simple pleasures have become filled with distraction. He mentions playing Legos with his son; for me, this shows up in a variety of ways. How often do I sit quietly with a cat on my lap without checking Facebook and email on my phone every few minutes? How many nights do I wake up and cuddle with a Scrabble game rather than with my sleeping husband? How often when I’m talking on the phone with my mother am I also answering emails?

It seems a supreme irony that we learn so much on Facebook and other online forums and yet also isolate ourselves this way. We won’t give them up, and doing so even on a Sabbath seems unlikely for many. I do hope, however, that we can strive to use them more thoughtfully. No doubt, the meaning of “friend” has changed permanently. But it’s good to remember what’s at the core of it. Else, I fear, friendship will see a worse fate than the changes wrought in the world of romantic love. Sex, after all, still cements romance in the physical world. Friendship may not have such a tangible hold.

Evolution of a Blog

Human evolution by Jose-Manuel Benitos


Like politicking or not politicking, like speaking out or not speaking out, the question of whether or not to blog has been with me ever since I started doing so six months ago. It’s been an interesting experiment for me, and, for those who contemplate or are already embroiled in the practice, here are a few thoughts on its evolution.

One of the most salient issues for me has been the lack of respect for the genre of blogging. Often, of course, some derision is well deserved: the blogosphere is open to people of all stripes and all levels of quality in their writing. For this reason, in my profession blogging counts for nothing in terms of “research productivity,” and so I often wonder if it’s worth the time and energy it takes for me to do it. In academia, often the attitude is that one should be spending any writing time on more professional pursuits.

My department chair, in a moment of encouragement for my efforts, noted that it would amount to something if I ended up teaching a course about blogging, which he’s suggested to me several times that we should do as a department. After all, it’s an up and coming arena in the fields we are supposedly experts in. Still, as far as I know I’m the first one in my department to keep a regular blog for any period of time, probably because it is not “publication material.” Yet I have to view it with humor and irony that I could teach a course in something that as of yet is given no credence in terms of my own writing and research.

There are reasons for this, of course, and the main one is that no one but me judges what I write before it is “published.” I am responsible for all the choices and for the mistakes I make. There is no one of greater power and respect placing a mantle of approval on my work, and without that it’s hard to know what something is worth.

In fact, this is one of the challenges of keeping a blog, period. Because a blog has a relentless production schedule and because there’s not a staff of fact-checkers or copy editors, there’s a constant issue of accuracy and of writing quality. There’s no time to “workshop” it, formally or informally. There’s no time to even get your husband or friend to glance over it. When I taught a graduate creative writing workshop course last summer, I added the assignment of creating or updating an existing blog to my students’ usual assignments, and my students commented that the relationship between posting what were essentially rough drafts and at the same time being on public display was the scariest thing about it. I, too, have become familiar with the uneasiness of this, even in as small an issue as the typos that somehow find their way into the original posting and that I then scurry to fix. It often has a bare-butt feel.

Another striking aspect, which I find a mixed bag, is the sense of community inherent in blogging. On one hand, I have found learning about the blogosphere and trying to be a member of the outside community a real time-sink and struggle. I find it overwhelming. Occasionally I come across a blog that I admire and try to keep track of, but there are a lot of them, too many for me–at least so far–to comprehend fully. I need to do better at this, as I consider that side of the exchange just as vital as putting my ideas out there for others to see.

On the other hand, I do feel already more a part of a wider community of those sharing ideas than I have felt in several post-graduate school years. Some of this is small—my friends who read the blog, my brother’s long-term blog that I now actually read sometimes, those from whom I ask permission to borrow a photograph, a few strangers who respond to my blog (even some in disagreement). Some of this is in the numerous great conversations I have had with friends in person, via phone, and over email. I even have one friend who, leery of too-public a world, has started a great monthly email newsletter for her friends. Those things are valuable, and sometimes it does go beyond the merely personal connection. One entry that I cross-posted to Daily Kos reached 200 comments and was picked up by the AAUP’s blog editor. I have reached the point where the blog gets about 2,000 hits a month.

The fact is that I have had more feedback and more intellectual and narrative exchange because of this blog than I ever have had from publishing short work in “legitimate” publications. I virtually never hear from anyone when I publish in a literary magazine, other than its editor (god love ‘em). Even when I published in Harper’s, I heard from maybe two readers. The book I published was another story, and even now, ten years later, I still occasionally get an email or letter about that.

Don’t get me wrong. It’s great to see your work in print, and book or magazine publication is still the ultimate end. That more polished work has distinct purposes that are also, of course, desirable and important. But there is something refreshing about the blog. There is not the “I’ll scratch your back if you scratch mine” kind of professional career building of literary venues, or the highly uneven relationship with a “fan base.” Even though I desire readers, it feels more … well, based on genuine interest and a cohort of peers.

The best aspect of it for me, though, is the great discipline it has been for me as a writer. There is no putting it off and there is no perfectionism that prevents me from calling something ready. What that means is that as of this date, I have produced close to 200 pages or 50,000 words for the blog (including notes for forthcoming posts). If you’ve read it, you know that it’s been a process of sorting out ideas. Some of it has been better written and more interesting than other parts. It has been an evolving creature, and the skin it sloughs is invariably part of the deal.

I started the blog with the idea that these days, sorrow and crying are the emotional states we most often deny to ourselves. I started with “crying,” but have moved on through other kinds of grief and anger, as well as the occasional celebratory impulse. Various themes have emerged or been clarified for me. I’ve always had an interest in the genuine more generally, and the blog has transitioned through various emotions and prepares to examine more different ones and the notion of the genuine itself.

I never meant for the blog to be particularly political, though I knew that some people would be dismayed at a negative take on positive psychology. What I’ve found is a larger and larger connection to some political aspects of dominant positivity. I still think there is room for many different interpretations of the world aside from delusion, but I have discovered that for me the political implications of blaming people for their own unhappiness are huge.

For a while I thought I would run out of things to blog about. I haven’t yet. As my friend G said, “Oh, the world will provide you with plenty on a daily basis.” And so it does. It is like being on a journey, and I am looking forward to where it takes me next. I don’t travel a lot on a physical basis, so maybe I need this kind of adventure.

Thanks for coming along sometimes!

The Revealing Weirdness That Is Facebook

Occupy Wall Street protest, by David Shankbone.

Sometimes the most innocent of comments can activate the wildest responses on Facebook. Yesterday one of my friends, a fellow traveler in academia, posted a harmless, humorous comment about a student of his who had sent the “best excuse ever” for missing class: s/he was in jail in New York after being arrested at the Occupy Wall Street protests.

Now, there are many ways of responding. A couple of people voted in favor of this student’s activism. But one wily and experienced fellow college teacher posted a cagey comment about how his excuse of being at a previous era’s protest had fallen on deaf ears all those many years ago. He pointedly didn’t say whether he’d actually been there or not. It was entirely possible to question a) whether this is indeed a good excuse for missing class, b) what such a student’s motivations might be for heading into protest—care about the issues or general rabblerousing, or c) whether or not the student was actually at the protest in New York or just faking an excuse. Us wily and experienced teacher types have seen it all.

But there was a thread of discussion that became disturbing. My friend who originally posted said they kept the hate up all evening. It eventually became so disturbing that he sent a note of apology and took the whole thread down. So there’s a good bit of it I haven’t seen. What I did see was four posts that took a dive away from known reality so far as to give me chills.

The first of these responders, someone I happen to also know slightly, noted that she wondered what would happen if this student spent as much time and energy on work as opposed to protests. She asserted that if so the student would have a good work life. I was shocked and horrified, as this was a person who once aspired to graduate work and qualifications for college teaching. Fortunately, she didn’t go that route, as I see from this one comment that she would be making a lot of negative and false assumptions about students under her purview.

There quickly followed three more nasty remarks by people I don’t know and never heard of. One of them responded sarcastically that this student “must be Greek,” showing at least a sense of humor if not particular knowledge of the dire economic situation in Greece. The other two posted long diatribes against these “whiny” people—one made nasty assumptions about someone able to afford to fly to New York and stay in an expensive city while protesting bad economics; the other claimed that these people don’t know what work is, have never contributed to their country, and live with their parents as free-loaders.

My jaw dropped. I posted two short comments—one about my support for the practice of protests and the association between a society where no one can afford to protest and a state of slavery, and the other about the fact that these folks were jumping to huge conclusions about someone they don’t know anything about.

I’m sorry I missed the rest of the thread, even though I surmise from my friend’s apology to me that they probably dragged me over the coals. I don’t care. Someone has to honestly point out that these people are reacting to something entirely off-camera. My friend never told us more than that he had a student who claimed to be at the Occupy Wall Street protest.

He did not tell us (and probably doesn’t know himself at this point) whether that student has a job, works hard at his or her job, was properly rewarded for working hard or worked hard for nothing, flew to New York or hitched a ride with someone else, stayed in a hotel or camped on some cockroach crawly floor in some cheapo Brooklyn apartment of a friend, has a lot of money or made economic sacrifices to go, knows what work is (i.e., has worked in whatever jobs this person would define as real work), is a veteran of the Iraq war or not, has contributed to a family’s failing income and lives at home, lives independently alone or with roommates… or anything else about this person.

It is truly astounding that people would read all that into someone’s mere presence at a protest. They unfolded one factoid into an array of negative (and probably false) stereotypes. It is the kind of over-generalized thinking promoted by the right-wing media and websites. It is a pre-programmed response not based on reality at all.

I can’t speak for the student that my friend mentioned on Facebook, and I can’t speak for all the protestors, or even for every plank of their cause. What I can say is that the small handful of people I am acquainted with who have participated in the Occupy Wall Street protests are some of the smartest, hardest-working former students I’ve ever had, students who pulled themselves up by applying to and getting in and working like mad at superior graduate schools in New York City. They are the former students who were ideal in both their work ethics and their concern for social justice. They know exactly what work is, whether it is for a wage or for the benefit of art or the understanding of other people. They excelled in every way in school and didn’t let their modest beginnings thwart them. They contribute their brilliance and their labor to our country every day, and they are fighting to make sure that their contributions to this country won’t stop at minimum-wage mindless jobs at McDonalds.

But as my mother used to say, “Information cannot argue with a closed mind.” It is hard to know what to do when so many minds are so slammed shut. Knock, knock, we say. But we don’t even get a “Who’s there?” Just violent, fearful, misplaced sputtering.