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Category Archives: Culture & Arts

Once in a Lifetime

Yesterday, a friend asked me about our cable/phone/TV services. He’s in the process of moving and making all these “choices.” My answer ran to four paragraphs and described the complex array of factors that forces us to choose three different purveyors of such services—our cell service was determined by a requirement for iPhones; that same provider was unable to guarantee us high-speed internet at home, which we feel we have to have to make our work (which we often do at home) more efficient; we chose yet another provider for TV because of supposed more variety and higher quality signal, though the damn thing goes off every time it rains. And it rains a lot in Central Florida.

I told my friend that I consider these overwhelmingly complicated “choices” a symptom of a right-wing, ultra-capitalist conspiracy to keep us all from doing things like writing poetry and thinking about the deeper meaning of life. We are so trapped in all these material goods and services that there’s really little time for anything else.

Today, I participated in yet another part of this—the phenomenon of the big box store. We recently had our guest bathroom repainted, and so we are decorating. We went to Bed, Bath, and Beyond, as well as Macy’s and Dillard’s. Such outings exhaust me and make me wonder what my priorities are. Most of these stores seem to me filled with so much garbage, ready to be consumed in its trendy moment and then discarded.

Yet, I do want to make my world beautiful. I need to start making more things beyond words again, or at least thinking about more ways to incorporate beauty than just by buying stuff. I think frequently about societies in which people work less and spend more time on their families and friends and the day-to-day arts that bring beauty into our lives—gardening, cooking, singing, playing music, drawing, arranging our homes, grooming ourselves, even the art of lovely kisses.

At any rate, in the car driving to the mall, we also heard the Talking Heads, performing their wonderful classic 1980 song, “Once in a Lifetime.” Since the song speaks to our tendency to go through life without paying full attention to where we are and the choices we are making, I thought I would share it today. It helps, David Byrne seems to know all too well, to have a sense of humor and an understanding that all humans struggle with the swift passage of time and occasional confusion about our lives. David Byrne is certainly an individualist, someone not packaged beyond recognition of his individuality, and I wish that more of us managed to remain unpackaged that way. So many forces in the work world tend to turn us into conformists. So, on Labor Day, it’s good to remember that our money, our house, our car, our trophy wife, our career—none of these things define who we are. It’s much more ineffable than all that.

Jolie Holland

The other day I posted about photographer Laurel Nakadate and her project where she cried every day for a year. She noted in an interview that Jolie Holland’s song “Mexican Blue” could be counted on as a good song to cry to. So here it is, though I didn’t find it all that sad myself—a clear sign that often we cry in association with certain memories or personal meanings.

At any rate, I listened to quite a few Jolie Holland songs over the past few days, and I found that her more recent “Rex’s Blues,” a cover of an old Townes Van Zandt song, was more moving to me. I also like the fact that Van Zandt was one of Holland’s Texas predecessors. So I give you that, too, on this rainy day when evil weather of all sorts has skirted Orlando but made its temporary home in Tampa. And just for the record, here’s the Van Zandt version.

Mea Culpa

Mea Culpa, 1987-1997, a sculpture by Robert Bryce Muir, photographed by Russ McGinn, 2006.

In the past few weeks, I’ve been thinking about mistakes. What role do mistakes play in being a genuine human being? How do we forgive ourselves for making them, inevitable as they are, without letting ourselves become sloppy or irresponsible?

I make a lot of mistakes, and probably so do you. Fortunately, most of the time these are not earth-shattering. My friend Anna once noted to me that some of our individual anxiety really was silly. “We’re not going to do something so stupid,” she said, “that we’ll ruin our lives.” There are many things that contribute to this state of affairs—“maturity,” education, practical intelligence, family and friends who talk over our major decisions with us. Because I am lucky enough to have all of these things in my life, it’s true that many mistakes that we hear about on the news—playing with a loaded gun, driving while drunk, giving financial information to anyone over the phone—are not mistakes I will make. At least I hope not.

Though in this regard I take Bobby McFerrin’s song at face value and don’t worry–at least not obsessively–I do have some concern about the mistakes I make.

Recently, I heard from a former student of mine who has developed some issues dealing with his own perfectionism. I won’t go into detail about his story, but we had some interesting chats via email about how difficult it is to give up our expectations of being perfect, of striving for it. He was contemplating starting a blog to track his progress in this regard.

One thing that occurred to me is that perfectionism and blogging don’t go very well together. Either you will make mistakes on your blog or you will not be able to keep up the relentless schedule of posting. It’s relentless no matter how often or seldom you post, as long as you do so on a regular and fairly frequent basis. I often think of my boss back when I worked for the Penn Stater magazine, who would say to me, “I don’t need it to be perfect. I need it now.”

In the past several weeks, three blog errors in particular have been brought to my attention.

Error the First

One of these was indeed minor and easily corrected. In my post in response to Marjorie Perloff’s dissing of Rita Dove’s new poetry anthology, I got a guy’s name wrong. This happened out of sheer exhaustion at the end of a long day of work at picking apart Perloff’s article. I just copied the wrong guy’s name in reference to a book title. Although the (I think) significant issues I raised in the post got virtually no comment, someone commented that I had this name wrong. Grateful, I corrected it.

Error the Second

Also, recently, my father sent me an email letting me know that some of the timing and possible motivations I had mentioned about the bitterness between my grandfather and his father-in-law were a bit off in my post about Memorial Day. I had already discovered these errors as I had further researched this very family history for an essay I was writing to submit to a journal, where I am more careful. My father was nice enough to say that he had found the post “well written and touching” and that he didn’t think my inaccuracies negated the theme of the piece. Here, too, I could simply go back and update the post based on new information.

In fact, this raises the issue of how accurate we can and should require ourselves to be when looking into the past. My own memories of what I’d been told in the past betrayed me. I’d recognized my own uncertainty and gone back to my father after this post was written. I’d done a bit of online research. My father had also referred me to his cousin, Pete, and I’d had a long chat with him. Pete had referred me to his sister and to a pastor who once boarded at my great-grandfather’s house. I have not yet called them, though I will.

And so the truth that we understand may grow more and more refined over time. We can’t research forever, and there are some facts (especially about the distant past) that we can never fully know, though we are irresponsible if we don’t try. The creative nonfiction writer lives in this in-between space. We are constantly reminded of what we do and don’t know and of the unknowability of others, even perhaps ourselves.

And the Third Error

More recently, I made a slightly trickier-to-correct error—trickier because this was about the contested world of politics. After I posted about the Obama-Romney character issue, my friend emailed to say, that, oops, he had not actually seen a poster that said, “Vote for Romney. He’s the white guy.” I’m sorry, he said, but that “was my attempt at satire.”

Ah, that satire. I suppose that if a whole host of people believed indeed that the Martians were coming when War of the Worlds was broadcast on the radio in 1938, then it’s no surprise that I would think this poster real.

So, is there anything to be gleaned from how I made this mistake? It had even occurred to me that it wasn’t real. But, for one thing, I couldn’t imagine my friend taking time out of his busy life to create the visual that he had used to accompany it. Also, he frequently does photograph and post strange signs that he sees around town (and beyond) that are also frequently virtually unbelievable. Lastly, I live far from the Villages, and they take on an iconic status like that of the mythical Stepford. Too often, it’s possible for me to imagine the majority of the people who live there as completely alien beings.

And, of course, I was in a hurry, didn’t want to bother my friend with blog fact-checking, and needed to get the doggone post up and done.

I have since corrected this, too, but saying that someone created a satirical poster is not so strong as the possibility of seeing a real one. Sometimes the truth goes underground, and this is largely the case with racism these days. It is hard to catch someone saying something outright racist. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t there.

This error also raised a fundamental question about the internet. I finally decided to just go back and change this entry, but should I have instead left the error and inserted a correction, acknowledging on that very page the original flub? I contemplated this latter option, which creates a public record of errors in our thinking, but decided that even this one didn’t change my overall argument, so could simply stand in its correct state. But what does it mean when the average reader (rather than someone who searches out the way-back, etc.) can’t see the evidence of mistakes?

Anyway, even though this misunderstanding also doesn’t negate my themes, it’s an embarrassing error, especially when I know that the right-wing makes so many of these errors intentionally. I’m supposed to be better than they are.

Context

As I return to the classroom this week, however, and confront students in my creative nonfiction courses who are already asking questions about the roles of truth, embellishment, faulty memory, and differences of opinion in what they write, I am somewhat comforted by my own answer to them.

Context, I say, context is key. There are ways that we can indicate that we are honestly speculating, or that our work is based on perhaps-flawed memory. These things are different from an out-and-out lie, a self-serving misrepresentation, or pure sloppiness, and anyone reading the genre of memoir should understand this.

In fact, the genre of memoir is at least partially about how our memories change and shift, how fabricated they are, much less the written versions of them.

If you are writing about a famous person (as I sort of was with the presidential character issue), the standard is more journalistic. I should have called and asked my friend before I mentioned his poster.

Still, a personal blog is not journalism. I at least give myself that out. When I was contemplating starting this blog, I worried about the untested nature of the work that I would put out there. My brother, a long-term blogger (albeit of a less personal nature) said to me, “Think of it as a rough draft.” There was wisdom in that, and it allowed me to go ahead and get started. Yet blogging is also there for public consumption and is not labeled “rough draft” on every post.

I feel a deep responsibility for what I post. I never post anything intentionally misleading, and if it’s controversial I usually get at least one friend or my husband to read it as a litmus test. They sometimes point out claims they think are too strong or ask me to clarify some point.

And yet, and yet… I have to defy paralysis by going ahead. I step into the void over and over and over again. I ask forgiveness for the times when I inadvertently step instead onto a toe.

For more information on the sculpture of Robert Bryce Muir, including Mea Culpa, see his website.

Don’t Worry…

One of the effects of doing this blog has been that I really have thought about positive psychology and my disaffection for it more consistently than I would have otherwise. I do believe that this has led me to a better understanding than I had before, and one thing that I’ve realized is how much the people who turn to positive psychology may be suffering from depression and pain themselves, though they unfortunately sometimes turn their own pain into a superior fake blitheness that they use against others. Even though they “doth protest too much, methinks,” I sympathize with what led them to try to find better ways of living.

Of course, this has been much on my mind in the past few days as I re-enter the classroom (okay, fine) and the maelstrom of university politics and budget cuts (grim, heinous, and ugly, ugly, ugly). I have felt the need to cheer myself up by any means possible, and my friends have offered advice, poems, tips on stretching in my office to reduce tension, etc. etc. All this good will and understanding has moved me quite a lot, actually, because–Jesus!–I am coming back from a year where I worked on my own terms, in other words, from a great gift and privilege. I deserve no pity. But that doesn’t mean that I don’t need the transitional help–maybe even the long-term help in coping with an unhealthy work environment.

What I do insist on, however, is–in my own head–a continuing acknowledgement that the cheering is necessary because there are bad things in my world. I am not going to pretend that I am transforming reality by cheering myself up–I acknowledge both the very real causes and the limits of my ability to change that reality. This distinction is very important to me. I don’t want to throw out the baby of happiness with the bath water of enforced or oversimplified positivity.

Bobby McFerrin‘s “Don’t Worry, Be Happy,” is a good anthem for this purpose. The song, at first listen, seems like a simple, merry ditty. But there are a couple of things that make me enjoy this song beyond that surface.

One is the inevitable irony in it. McFerrin’s lilting voice is sincere (and he’s quite a jubilant fellow in general), but there’s a huge contrast between the advice given and the numerous miseries listed in the song–being robbed, lacking a home, potential lawsuits for unpaid back rent, general financial insolvency, lack of love. Perhaps this song even participates in the long African-American tradition of the coded song; it is certainly akin to the blues in its sense of encouragement in rough times if not in its musical brightness.

But I also like the utter simplicity of this song. If, as I noted in my analysis of TEDTalks, Sebastian Wernicke has boiled all the TEDTalks down to “Why worry? I’d rather wonder,” why, then, do we need the elaborate edifice of all those talks with their complex charts, graphs, and illustrations? Why not just listen to a cheerful song and get on with the day?

Laurel Nakadate’s 365 Days: A Catalogue of Tears

An image from Laurel Nakadate’s 365 Days: A Catalogue of Tears, 2011.

A Joyous Crybaby reader out in California emailed me the other day and asked if I had ever heard of Laurel Nakadate. He said that my blog reminded him of her work 365 Days: A Catalogue of Tears (performed in 2010 and first exhibited in 2011). No, I didn’t know of her, but I looked her up, and Nakadate’s work in photography, video, and film is fascinating. Thanks, Christopher Wu, for pointing her out.

Whereas I thought about making myself cry every day for a year, Nakadate actually did it, and 365 Days: A Catalogue of Tears records that experience. In fact, she notes in this interview with White Hot Magazine:

the original reason why I started this project—I was looking on Facebook and on other websites and I was seeing how everyone fakes happiness all of the time. I mean, is it really true that all 3,000 of my Facebook friends are happy every day? ‘Cause according to their pictures they are! I just thought in direct retaliation against the concept that we should fake our happiness every day to present the right façade perhaps I’ll deliberately turn the other way and take part in sadness each day and see where that gets me.

It got her somewhere indeed. She notes that the project had the following effects:

* Though the project was “grueling” and “hard,” she grew “to depend on the consistency of the daily performance” and gained “more comfort than I imagined it could bring.”

* She began to think of crying in a different way, less as a “tsunami” and more just “a fluid thing that occurs, … a part of living.”

* People have started talking with her more freely about sadness and her art has started “a conversation about a taboo topic.”

So today I share with you the work of Laurel Nakadate. Photos from this project are available in book form, with an introduction by wonderful writer Rick Moody, as well as a sampling in this We Find Wildness blog post. She is represented by Leslie Tonkonow Artworks + Projects.

What Do We Value?

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Image of the U.S. pointing to Justice with Hope alongside, on the East Pediment of the U.S. Capitol Building. Original sculpted by Luigi Persico, 1825-1828, called Genius of America.

I was thinking the other day about our pervasive pursuit of personal happiness (as distinct from the public good). When I started this blog, I noted that I thought the unrelenting focus on something called “happiness” is not only not the way to find it, but is… er, well, kind of tacky. In other words, I worked from the assumption that something “higher” or “loftier” than personal happiness must be at work in someone’s life for them even to deserve to be happy. Not that we always get what we deserve.

I’ve been contemplating lately what those higher or loftier values might be and how they are related to living the good life.

Here’s my initial venture into a list, but I would love to hear from you, too, about what drives you beyond a self-centered desire for a selfish kind of happiness or success.

Compassion

Justice

Integrity

Service to Others (in work or other activities, even personal ones, such as “be a good mother to my children” or “be a good friend”)

As I’ve been thinking about this, I’ve also come to realize where so many of us today encounter our inspirational ideas: from TEDTalks, which have become a defining phenomenon of our time. They have become as all pervasive as the pursuit of happiness, and their stated purpose is to introduce to larger audiences “ideas worth spreading.” In other words, TED has an organizational goal of improving human life. It occurred to me that examining the TEDTalks at least a little bit systematically might lend some insight into what we perceive to be important to that endeavor.

Maybe I thought of this because so often the TEDTalks I see posted or that someone sends around have to do with “happiness.”

Search for the term “happiness” in the index of the TEDTalks, and you get 7,136 hits. By comparison, if you search “compassion,” you get 2,090 results. “Justice” garners 3,487 results. “Integrity” 5,911.

The phrase “service to others” garners a mere 33 hits, only 4 of which seem to link to TEDTalks themselves; the other hits are in bios and the like. “Happiness,” on the other hand links mostly to talks on happiness and quotes about it. Only 2 of these hits link to bios—those of happiness/success gurus Srikumar Rao and Martin Seligman.

Does this perhaps indicate that, though we want others to believe that we are invested in service to others, we really find personal happiness more important? Or does it mean that service to others is more important to people’s self concepts, but what they believe others are interested in is personal happiness? I’m not sure—and maybe it even means nothing important—but these numbers reflect what is to me an odd imbalance.

These results are for any tiny mention of each term, but even when we look at the TED “themes,” we note that “What Makes Us Happy?” is a popular theme with 87 talks devoted to the topic. Of the 47 themes, the happiness one ranks just above the middle of the pack at 20th. “The Charter for Compassion,” on the other hand, boasts only 8 talks, the lowest of any category. Even food beats it out at 23 talks, and the ocean at 43. There are two education categories with a combined total of 107 talks. “Not Business as Usual” garners 162 talks. TED, like every other organization, must play to its audience—in this case largely business people. Its sponsors are all mighty corporations such as Prudential, IBM, Pfizer, American Express, and Johnnie Walker. Interesting bedfellows when it comes to saving the world.

TED does have a theme called “Rethinking Poverty,” which seems to be the one mostly devoted to issues of justice, at least that of an economic variety. It contains 96 talks, ranging over a wide array of subjects, from “Breakthrough designs for ultra-low-cost products” to “How Mr. Condom made Thailand a better place,” to “Hidden hotbeds of invention.” Many of these talks focus on the experiences of poor women (sex trafficking, infant and post-partum mortality, malnutrition, etc.); many others focus on technological innovations to help people, especially in poor countries. Technology is one of the foundational topics of TED, the other two being Entertainment and Design, so this is no real surprise.

TED talks, have, also not surprisingly, been criticized on a number of counts, including their corporatization, their being a “massive, money-soaked orgy of self-congratulatory futurism,” for “low-grade intellectual fraud” masking as smartness, and for the fact that the statistics and science used in them are frequently quite questionable.

So, there’s what TED provides to us for its own perhaps blinkered needs, but there’s also what people watch. The single most-watched one is Sir Ken Robinson on “schools kill creativity,” the title of which is, I should add, quite misleading. If you look at the list of the “20 most-watched TEDTalks (so far),” you will see the technological emphasis of the TED audience, as well as its desire for positivity—“insight,” “thrilling potential,” “astonishments,” “best,” “magic,” “breakthrough,” “nurturing,” “genius,” “happy,” “success,” “orgasm,” “great,” and “inspire” are all words that appear in the titles of the top 20. “Kill” and “danger” are the only remotely negative words.

One TED speaker, Sebastian Wernicke, went so far as to do a statistical analysis of what facets of a TEDTalk make it more or less popular (see below). When he did the original talk in 2010, “happiness” came in at the second most popular term, after “you.” In a June 2011 update, “you” was still at the top, but “choice” had edged happiness into the number 3 position, emphasizing, I suppose, that there is even more talk about how we’re responsible for choosing our own happiness.

Of course, Wernicke gives this talk with much good humor—and laughter from the audience. This kind of deprecation of the TED endeavor is part of the purported sophistication of its speakers and its audience. What’s interesting to me is that Wernicke can make the kinds of solid statistical observations he makes without commenting on or evaluating them at all. In other words, it’s fine with him that “happiness” is the top topic or, as he puts it, if you’re going to give a TEDTalk it should be on a topic that “we can connect to both easily and deeply.” (I’m not sure what he means by deeply, when the maximum for a talk is 18 minutes long and since Wernicke developed a tool called the Ted Pad to give people the formula for creating a good or bad talk.)

Wernicke has since also given a second TEDTalk that boils the entire endeavor down into a single 6-word sentence. He did this through “crowd-sourcing,” that is, paying people on the web to summarize various groups of TEDTalks to come to a complete summarization of 1000 talks. Though Wernicke found the original summarized submissions “flat” or “lacking” or only partial in their insight into what the TEDTalks were all about, here’s what he came up with when combining and shifting the words around : “Why the worry? I’d rather wonder.”

Wernicke stops there, as if this insight is enough. And for me, this TEDTalk sums up what is wrong with the entire genre: the smug, secure, positivity of those who are already well-off and largely satisfied with their lives but still looking for more personal fulfillment.

What else matters—to you or those you see around you?

Pretty Bird

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This is one of my all-time favorite songs—for its melancholy, yes, but also for the amazing, unaccompanied a cappella voice of Hazel Dickens and for her story of overcoming poverty and finding herself an artist of the highest caliber. I thought I had included her on this blog already, but evidently I was just remembering posting her obituary on Facebook when she died in April of 2011. (Usually I link to lyrics, but the versions online are not at all accurate. “Love is such a delicate thing” gets particularly garbled. So, we’ll just have to listen.)

I first heard the Hazel & Alice (Gerrard) album when I was in high school in the mid-seventies. Probably they performed at the Laurel Theater in Knoxville, Tennessee. Although the Laurel burned down in 1982 and was rebuilt, I remember the creaky floors and old bricks of the original church structure. I heard a lot of folk music there by the likes of John McCutcheon on the hammered dulcimer and a lot of poetry readings there by the likes of Robert Creeley. There was always something going on at the Laurel Theater, and evidently there still is, though I haven’t been there in years.

Both Hazel Dickens’s life and the continued vitality of the Laurel Theater are testaments to the enduring nature of the spirit of creativity in all manner of people and places. And yet, it remains tragic that anyone has to be born into situations like that of the Dickens family, or that artists have to struggle quite so much to survive, as reflected once again in this Salon article by Scott Timberg about the impact of the current economic bad times on the creative class. (It’s bad, very bad.)

It is this dilemma that we call the human condition—the bad and good all rolled together. And another story sent to me today (via this video) reflects this as well. It’s related to this post because it’s about a bird—not one in song, but a living creature on this earth, a magnificent bald eagle whose beak was shot off by some stinkin’ human being I can’t understand. On the other hand, there are some truly lovely human beings who have worked to give her a new beak. It seems to me that some of us work endlessly to repair the damage caused by those whose hearts are bleak, unsympathetic places.

In the meantime, a stray kitty has shown up on our doorstep. I’m pretty sure that someone dumped her—she’s about six or seven months old, not at all feral, and wanted nothing but to come in and get a bowl of grub. She was skinny as a rail except for that slightly bulging belly that indicated that whatever person had trained her to be so affectionate had not bothered to spay her. Tomorrow morning, she will have her little kitty abortion and then be back in my care. The last thing I need is another cat, but I will at least foster her until she finds a new home. If Jupiter and Kollwitz can tolerate her, I suppose we will keep her. As my mother said, “Saving these little lives is a good thing.” As the vet tech said when I took her in today, “Well, kitty, you lucked onto the best cat mom in the world.” I could accomplish worse in life.

But in this day and age, it is beyond me to understand how someone could let a cat or dog go unsprayed or unneutered for more than a second past the appropriate age for surgery. Or how someone could dump an animal he or she had so clearly treated kindly before. It simply boggles my mind.

Not that any of us is pure good. When I said to the vet today that I felt a touch of sorrow about getting the stray a kitty abortion, she said, “Don’t.” She informed me that if I had taken this little cat to Animal Services, she would have been euthanized immediately. They can’t keep pregnant cats, she noted, because they can’t vaccinate kittens until they are two months old, and they can’t keep unvaccinated cats in the shelter. They try to place as many as possible in foster homes, but they are always full. They don’t have the resources to do a spay-abortion, since there is such an overpopulation already. So any kittens under two months and any mothers-to-be are killed instantly.

We all face difficult choices. But indeed some people are more evil than others, and some people become forces of bad because they don’t stop and think. What does it mean to shoot the beak off an eagle? What does it mean to dump a pregnant kitten? What does it mean to fail to support public schools and universities? What does it mean to support tax breaks for the wealthy while the poor and the disabled and the elderly struggle? My brother said to me last week that he feels as though he is living in Weimar Germany just before the collapse into Nazism. I agreed, and I said to him, “The one thing I can promise is that I will not be one of the average folks who will cave in to the Nazis. They can kill me first.” So many disturbing things go on every day. I don’t want to be one of the ones who does them. I want to be on the side of the angels, as imperfectly as it may be possible for me to do that. Sometimes that means being too honest for some people’s taste, and sometimes I flub up and hurt people, sometimes even those I could never construe as deserving it. But I have some pretty good ethical boundaries that I am devoted to keeping firm.

One is that I actually do the job that I am paid to do, unlike so many scammers that surround me.

Another is that I rescue animals in need.

And I respect the right of people to live a decent life even if they care primarily about something other than money and even if they are born into less than ideal circumstances.

That includes artists with their connection to the holy rather than the materialistic.

May we survive.

Olympics Whitewashing

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Bronze copy of Myron of Eleutherae’s “Discobolus” (discus thrower) in the University of Copenhagen Botanical Garden, Copenhagen, Denmark. Photo public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Bruce and I watched the Opening Ceremonies of the 2012 Summer Olympics in London last night—at least until we dozed in front of the telly, as it had been a long (though positively productive) day for both of us. It is always fun and interesting to watch this parade of diversity and cooperative competition, even though the difference in the wealth (and poverty) of nations makes too much difference even there.

This morning, on Facebook, my friends were busy filling in where our U.S. media failed us in its much-criticized tape-delayed presentation. NBC’s lame and condescending excuses fell on deaf ears, but, in particular, two other issues caught my attention—about two parts of the Opening Ceremonies that NBC covered badly or simply deleted from view for U.S. audiences during the prime-time broadcast that nearly everyone watched.

One of these was a tribute to Britain’s National Health Service, which evidently befuddled the announcers, based on their inane, even apologetic reaction. Meredith Vieira’s reaction to child performers dancing on their hospital beds was, “Y’know, those children don’t look very sick,” as though she just had to support the idea that universal health coverage creates goldbrickers. Duh, Meredith, there’s a difference between performers and actual patients. Probably Meredith just doesn’t realize that. She came across as ignorant and proud of it through her entire commentary. Matt Lauer and Bob Costas weren’t much better.

Of course, the radical right takes the celebration of the NHS as a political statement, but director of the Ceremonies Danny Boyle insists that it simply was a testament to the values of the British people. I won’t post links to the crazies who are appalled by this, but what’s funny about them is how they are forced to demonize nearly the entire British people because of their devotion to the NHS. No matter how many falsely prepared reports about how terrible “socialized medicine” is supposed to be, it remains a fact that countries that have it—such as Britain and Canada—overwhelmingly love it. Sure, any large system has problems, but when entire nations are unified in their appreciation and approval of something, you know that it goes—or should go—beyond political differences.

In the U.S., however, the pitched battle is ongoing about the fate of our healthcare system, and thus a simple celebration of the life-saving work of doctors and nurses in the NHS was weakly introduced and then we hit a cut-away to an ad. And the right-wingers love to talk about the “liberal media.” Hah.

While it’s obvious why NBC might cower at the thought of ruffling feathers on the right these days, the other element missing in U.S. coverage is a more subtle issue. This was a tribute to the victims of the 7/7/2005 terrorist attack on London, shortly after it was announced London would host these Olympics. The bombings killed 52 people, who were honored last night with a somber dance number and Scottish singer Emeli Sandé singing “Abide with Me.” NBC cut this entirely and substituted a flaccid interview with swimmer Michael Phelps.

Why? Of course, every moment of the Olympics can’t be covered on TV—there aren’t enough hours in the day—and editorial decisions must be made. But to cover over something like this with some pre-recorded (and frankly really boring) interview?

For me, this comes back to the issue of enforced and fakey positivity. I’m guessing that NBC didn’t want any of their advertisers to be associated with any “downer” content, and NBC’s producers and editors seem to have thought that a memorial to the dead was not cheerful enough for the Opening Ceremonies. Instead of respecting the decisions of the artistic directors of the Ceremonies, they substituted their own judgment and their own content. To me, that is a failure to broadcast the event they are supposedly covering as reporters and that I tuned in to see.

What’s amazing and shocking about this is not only its callousness, but the fact that journalism, too, is held hostage by the blithering positivity idiots. NBC has already been criticized for allowing their journalistic coverage to be expanded to support their prime-time stake in the Olympics, something completely against the journalism code of ethics. And now they aren’t even covering it in a spirit of journalistic integrity but as a puff conveyor for advertisers.

It’s also just another example of how cruel the positivity idiots are. I find it supremely ironic that in the name of positivity, what these people so often spread is unkindness, in this case the blotting out of a tender testament to innocent victims of terrorism and their remaining loved ones. What an important statement to be making during this international event that brings together such disparate people.

At any rate, it gets the coverage of the Olympics off to a bad start. Who can trust the coverage not to be a rah-rah falsehood all the way around? Let’s all make sure to supplement our watching with some careful reading and watching elsewhere. It may be a challenge, partly because YouTube has provided live streaming in every country but the U.S. Readers here speculate that NBC has put the legal kibosh on open access here. Who knows? But we can still dig around a bit and head on over to the BBC and the CBC websites. Here’s to the power of the web for keeping us from missing the rest of the show!

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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Does It Matter Whether a Smile Is Real?

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The relationship of our happiness to our willingness to fake it has been the topic of debate for a long time, and many a bromide supports the idea that it’s a good thing to fake it if need be. Consider these:

Fake it til you make it.

Go through the motions, and the motives will follow.

Keep smiling—it will make people wonder what you’ve been up to.

Keep your chin up!

If you can’t be with the one you love, love the one you’re with.

If life deals you lemons, make lemonade.

Put on a happy face! (my video selection above, from the film Bye, Bye, Birdie, 1963)

Of course, there are many sources that repeat this general idea endlessly. But there are also sources that report on the nuances and limitations of such ideas, that qualify the findings of all this research that supposedly demands smiling even if you have to fake it.

Follow with me a kind of trajectory:

First, there’s this kind of thing that notes we have plenty of reasons to smile even when we don’t feel like it. Even when you go to a more professional psychology source that cites particular studies, there’s a kind of silly gloss on it all that bugs me. Take the final study noted on the PSYBLOG—the report here ignores the fact that causation has not been established, only the barest correlation. Photos of baseball players over the years show that the ones that smiled more lived longer. What this most likely proves is not that if you smile more, you will live longer, but that if you are healthy, you will smile more.

I get purely annoyed by this kind of thing. Partly because few of these sources even acknowledge that there is also plenty of research that shows the opposite—the fact that faking happiness can in itself have a negative impact. Here, a study notes that fake smiles can deepen depression, and here that faking happiness at work over time has negative health consequences.

As an aside, I think that the questionable research about smiling at work and the increased productiveness of employees in a good mood is particularly dangerous. While the Wall Street Journal here gives a well-balanced sense that it’s not a matter of axing the less cheerful, but of businesses actually taking some responsibility to provide resources for good cheer, all too often we see imperatives that become dictatorial and inhumane, as in the situation described here of the enforced-smile McDonald’s counter clerk. Not to mention those hideous hiring tests that seek to classify personalities and refuse jobs to those who aren’t as perky as others, no matter their competence.

All of the articles that I read about negative consequences of faking or that call into question the assertions about the benefits of positivity, of course, have to mention those positivity assertions. There’s an odd unevenness in this regard. The sane side has to acknowledge the overly simplified positivity side, but the positivity side feels no compunction whatsoever to mention the nuances and limitations of this body of research.

In a recent example, Jane Brody wrote a column for the New York Times, “A Richer Life by Seeing the Glass Half Full.” If you read the comments, you will note that there are many who leap to agree and many who bare their teeth and attack the Brody bromides. Yet, when Brody followed up about the responses she received, she acknowledged only the “hundreds of comments from readers who testified to the value of living life as a glass half full.” She doesn’t deign to even acknowledge the other kinds of responses she received.

Don’t we have to know that something is terribly, terribly wrong when professional science journalists won’t even acknowledge that the science is mixed at best on these matters and that there are people who hold different perspectives? It taxes my credulity, especially when even an undergraduate college student can summarize the research so clearly in such a short paper as this one. The student clearly acknowledges there’s only a minor correlation, but even she has wrongly concluded that “smiling can never hurt, so go ahead and try it out!”

And let me observe that people have been trying to prove a stronger correlation and causation since Darwin’s time. They have been unable to demonstrate the facial feedback theory in all these years in spite of overwhelming resources spent toward that end.

However, you can go on to find scientists who are laboring to truly understand emotions in a complex and useful way—and one that won’t be used to hammer people over the head uselessly and cruelly or dismissively. One of these I’ll discuss in my next blog post, but, for now, I invite you to head over to the BBC Spot the Fake Smile test.

If we’re going to be constantly interacting with people who believe that faking their smiles will actually make them happier and that it will earn them our trust, forgiveness, sexual interest, and a whole host of other benefits, then perhaps we want to be more savvy about these fake smiles. I scored 19/20 right, which is evidently quite unusual. Maybe I should publish a paper about the benefits of skepticism: it helps you spot one of those fake cheery people from a mile away. And run like hell away from them and their agendas.