Thursday, December 13, 2018

The great pocket conspiracy

It's a conspiracy against women:

If you watch this notice how often the video attributes things to "fashion" or "the fashion industry". At other times, the video slides into passive voice such that things happen to women without anyone being responsible for it. At 3.01, "... from there, women's jeans fell victim to fashion over function." It just happened!

The video does allow that putting larger pockets into "skinny" jeans would cause them to "bulge out in ways that are unflattering for many women". Well, that's kind of a problem isn't it. It's a matter of contradictory desires. To have one thing, you have to sacrifice another. And that is kind of women's responsibility isn't it?

There is another wrinkle to this jeans issue and wrinkles have very much to do with it. The tiny pockets do something else too. They make it possibly to make women's jeans fit much closer around the crotch. Anyone think that's an accident?

What makes this aspect of fashion fascinating is that no one admits it's going on. It's esoteric: women seek to send erotic messages but don't admit they are doing it, perhaps not even to themselves. And it is precisely because no one admits that women do this that videos like the one above are possible. The one place where the mask slips is when the French historian Ariane Fennetaux is interviewed. Being both French and serious historian, she speaks of the struggle as between two groups of women, those who favor practicality and those who want to use fashion to make erotic display. That erotic aspect is not openly discussed in the video but it is implicitly acknowledged.

Here is why I think this is a problem. That struggle still goes on. There are women who want to make erotic display and pick jeans that will help them do this and there are others who don't want to do this. And there more than a few women in the second group who would like the first group to stop. They are powerless in this because the first group, while not the majority, are still a large group and they buy a lot of clothes.

And yet we act as if women's choices have nothing to do with this, as if small pockets are something forced on women by an uncaring fashion industry. As a consequence, we drive this erotic aspect of life underground; it becomes truly esoteric.

Friday, December 7, 2018

Virtue signalling

Rod Dreher shares a post today about a father who made his daughter walk to school after she got kicked off the bus a second time for bullying. You can read it here. Dreher praises the father for this action. Then, at the closing of the post, he says this:
(Though I wish he hadn’t shared this on social media.)
Me too. No loving father would subject his daughter to humiliation like this. We now know where she learned how to be a bully.

Those brackets are Dreher's by the way.

A fundamental moral question is this: am I really interested in virtue as a goal worth pursuing or am I really acting for other's consumption? To put it another way, am really I trying to be a better person or am I seeking attention, approval and acceptance from others?

Virtue signalling is not evil. Everyone does it. But virtue signalling is also not a virtue.

Thursday, December 6, 2018

"... so convinced that women need wiles and arts ..."

That is from Le Divorce as quoted in my post from last week. There I repeated a claim I make often, that seeking to be loved for yourself is empty and narcissistic. That is the opposite of what is usually claimed. And that usual claim is at least credible. Isn't being loved for who I really am more honest than being loved for what I can do? To which I reply, only if you think what you really are is so darned good that you are entitled to love.

Suppose we flip it around and ask what we should give others. And here we return to the subject of Isabel lying to herself. She sees all these cultural treasures of French womanhood as mere "wiles and arts" as opposed to ways of becoming someone better, someone who can give attention, approval and acceptance to others that those others will think worth having.

And, surely, we wouldn't want to respond by saying something like, "What about the attention, approval and acceptance that I need?"

After this remark, Isabel starts sharing scenes. That is, she tells the story as if it were a series of scenes from a movie. Isabel, of course, could not have been present for some of these scenes. She tells us how she imagines the scene would be presented in film based on what she was told and what she assumes must have been the case, supplemented, perhaps, with a few educated guesses. The very first scene is Isabel's sister Roxy discovering that her husband is leaving her. And the obvious question, one that Isabel doesn't answer directly, is why?

Roxy we are told, is very American, going about dressed in jeans or "those awful flower-child clothes". But it's more than clothing. Roxy is someone who seeks to be loved for herself.

At first glance, we might think that the issue is whether Charles-Henri is leaving Roxy because she wasn't a good enough wife. It seems likely that this is a question that troubles Roxy herself, although she doesn't have the courage to ask it directly. It soon becomes obvious, however, that Charles-Henri has acted in an indefensible manner. He is an empty man, no one we need take seriously. And yet the question remains, did Roxy fail as a woman? (After all, she married him in the first place; why didn't she see his weakness?)

What does this mean? I think we can approach the issue of "wiles and arts" in two ways.  At first glance we might, along with Isabel, assume these wiles and arts only about pursuing a man. But at a second glance they are really about the art of living rather than the art of seduction. And here we have the real theme of the novel: Isabel, faced with French culture, has to treat the art of living as a serious moral issue and she has somehow avoided that before coming to France.

Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Revisiting an old favourite

Le Divorce is a good novel that is a little frustrating because it could have been a great novel. The New York Times review when the book first came out 20 years ago sums it up nicely:
As the tension mounts, more and more people get things backward until the plot veers into melodrama that seems a bit outsize for the scale of the events that lead to it. The novel's other minor flaws are too many loose ends and too many false portents, although these may be a part of the paranoia that prevails when two cultures misunderstand each other.

Where Ms. Johnson never loses her touch is in tracking Isabel's romance with the French.
And that is why you might want to read it. The events of the novel are interesting at the beginning but too too much at the end. But Isabel, well, she's a gem.

It's easy to romanticize France all out of proportion. You can even do it with Quebec that is a lot closer to home. The thing that is wonderful about them is an attitude towards sexuality, an atitude towards women's sexuality.

Isabel starts off by not getting it. Here is how it comes up. She meets a woman named Janet Hollingsworth, "a ruined-looking American beauty who told me she was writing a book about French women." And what Isabel thinks Janet is interested in is this, "I gathered she meant things about fascination, sex, arts of seduction, but she did not say so, may have been talking about culinary secrets, or perhaps all of the above." And then follows Isabel's judgment on Janet:
To tell the truth, I was sorry to see an Anglo-Saxon so convinced that women need wiles and arts, and that the only quarry worth hunting was men. I told myself that she had spent too much time on the Continent, and had thus missed the modern mood of self-sufficiency and of being loved for yourself, or not—of being in any case without duplicity.
Johnson has given us plenty of reason not to trust this judgment. That it starts with "to tell the truth" is the first hint and "I told myself" the second. Isabel is no piker when it comes to duplicity. As we shall soon, Isabel definitely thinks men are a quarry worth hunting even if not the only. "Only" only set up a false dichotomy.

The deeper issue, I think, is the notion of being "loved for yourself". That strikes me as an empty and mildly narcissistic pursuit.

More to come ...

Monday, November 26, 2018

On not caring

Contrary to what many people will tell you, two of the most important lessons to learn if you want to be happy are 1) figuring out what not to care about and 2) not caring about those things.

Saturday, November 24, 2018

Another image: what is it selling?

The usually sensible Ann Althouse got all worked up about this:

Althouse has two kinds of comments to make about it. The first is that it's "thinspiration". And that it is. Gellar was using the photo to remind herself that staying thin is important to her. Is here something wrong with that? I do it. You pretty much have to in our culture because it is so easy to overeat. There are so many people encouraging us to just let go and take it easy. To stay thin, healthy, fit as well as to keep learning and developing is a struggle; that's why some people are better at it than others and some people are abject failures as men or women.

The argument against it, and it's not clear whether Althouse agrees with this argument or is just drawing our attention to it, is that people with eating disorders also use thinspiration. Uh-huh. Can we pause a moment and consider just how crazy this is.
Don't show pictures that show people drinking because some people are alcoholics.
And how far is from there to:
Don't show pictures of babies in Pampers' ads because it might appeal to pedophiles.
Yes, we are all required to set an example but to whom? You can only set an example to people who are capable of learning from a good example. People with eating disorders are victims of a mental disorder not victims of society.  It doesn't matter what you show them, they will process it as an excuse to not eat. Show a picture of a woman  who is comfortable with her normal body to an anorexic and they will look at it and think, "I'd better starve myself some more so I don't turn into a fat pig like her."

Irrational means irrational. Don't waste your life worrying about how irrational people might interpret  your words or actions.


The one argument that Althouse does take ownership is this one:
I should be clear about what I personally find awful about Gellar's photo and caption. She just doesn't look happy. She looks like someone who's trying to look good for somebody else and is getting no pleasure from it herself. And she's wearing "pleasure" clothes. But she's wearing them for somebody else, not herself, apparently. It's sad.
I can see a tiny bit of that.

Here's the first thing to note about it: it's a posed picture. You can't see into Gellar's soul through this photograph! The picture was taken eleven years ago for a lad magazine. The readers associated Gellar with her role in Buffy the Vampire Slayer so she's posed as if confronted with something scary and challenging. I leave it to you to figure out what male sex fantasy that might feed into.

She's feigning a feeling for the benefit of the viewer. Is that awful? You can reach your own conclusions but you're cutting out a whole lot of good sex if you disallow role playing.

But maybe you're thinking it's okay to role play, dress up et cetera but only when you're doing it for yourself. That seems to be what is behind Althouse's comment, "She looks like someone who's trying to look good for somebody else and is getting no pleasure from it herself." The argument at play here turns on identity. It isn't an explicit argument but an implied one. Let's spell it out. How would it go? I guess something like this:
  1. We all have an inner self. a real identity, that we should be true to.
  2. When we devote ourselves to living up to other people's expectations, we lose our sense of this identity and therefore stop being true to ourselves.
Is that credible. Suppose I really do have an "identity" that I and only I have a privileged access to. If I sometimes act in ways that are not in accord with that inner identity, do I lose it? Is it so fragile, so vulnerable that it must be protected?

Going back a step, do I and only I have access to my real identity? Most of us would not allow that. I can hide what I am really thinking and feeling sometimes but a clever and sensitive person can figure it out. Not, as Althouse imagines she can do, by looking at a single photograph but by studying a person's actions over the longer run. From that perspective, we might ask more questions about this photo. It's not just any old shot but one Gellar did for a spread in a lad magazine. Why did she do that? Well, it might have been just for publicity but she still has the photographs ready to hand eleven years later!

And here we get to the crux of that matter. Looking good for men is important to Sarah Michelle Gellar. Is that a bad thing. She gets joy out of it. Millions of men get joy out of it. Perhaps more surprising, even more women than men get joy out of it. Women who are good at looking good for men are heroes to millions of women. Is that evil? Why?

There are lots of good looking women in the world. But it's bloody hard work to be as good looking as Gellar is and to be that way on command. It's also bloody hard work to run marathons, to lift heavy weights and to become a law professor. Looking good for men is a challenge and it calls for suffering. No one makes women do this but ... well, there is the problem. If a woman is willing to make the effort she will get a lot more attention, approval and acceptance from men than she would otherwise. And she'll get this from all men, including those who have zero chance of having sex with her. And we all crave attention, approval and acceptance. The paradox is that you only get it if you give it. Men give attention, approval and acceptance to women who think men are important enough to be worth looking good for. People who run around seeking attention without treating the people from whom they seek that attention as worthy and important are very tiresome people. We respond to givers. We respond to people who care enough about what other people want to give it to them.

When a woman makes a gift of herself to the world, we men are grateful. There is a woman who catches the bus at the same stop I do just after eight every morning. She is like that. I've never spoken to her. Sometimes she give me a smile of recognition and I love that. If this goes on long enough, it might get to the point where we start saying, "Good morning." Or not. If I were her age, we might become friends or more. But none of that need happen. She recognizes that she has a gift and she shares that gift and the world is a better place for her being in it. That is not a small thing. She doesn't do it just when she feels like like it although I'm sure there are days she schleps around the house in sweats and feels good for not having to make the effort but the only person making her make the effort other days is herself.

The distinction between "doing it for herself" and "doing it for others" doesn't exist. Doing it for myself is an illusion. We are social beings. My real identity is a social fact. It's not a special thing I keep in a lock box that I can open up in private and that everyone else has to accept because I am the only one who gets to say who I am. My identity is a matter of social agreement. I strive for something but my success is dependent on the agreement of others. Which others I look to for confirmation is an important decision. On the one hand, I don't want to pick people who have an interest in tearing me down. On the other hand, people who will prop me up in my illusions are also bad for me. It's tough being a human being. Bottom line: High quality people always think about what others want and need.

Thursday, November 1, 2018

"I know it's crazy"

I’ve been fighting to be who I am all my life. What’s the point of being who I am, if I can’t have the person who was worth all the fighting for?

That's by a writer named Stephanie Lennox in a novel called I Don’t Remember You. I haven't read the novel. I don't know that I will. Perhaps it has a different sense in context. That is possible but not likely. This is a sentiment that is often expressed nowadays. Is it unkind, or triggering, to point out that it makes no sense?

Actually, it's worse than nonsensical. "Trying to be who I really am," is a way of lying to herself about what is going on. She knows what she wants to do but that will have consequences and she wants to live in a world where choices don't have consequences. Having to accept that would hurt.

Craving some sort of self-created identity is something teenagers do. Salinger captured it nicely at the end of The Catcher in the Rye.
I thought it was, "If a body catch a body," Anyway, I keep picturing all these little kids playing some game in this big field of rye and all. Thousands of little kids, and no ones around - nobody big I mean - except me. And I'm standing on the edge of this crazy cliff. What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff - I mean if they're running and they don't look where they are going I have to come out from somewhere and catch them. That's all I'd do all day. I'd just be the catcher in the rye and all. I know its crazy, but that the only thing I's really like to be. I know its crazy.” 
There's a lot you could unpack in that. He starts off by admitting he misheard the poem that is the inspiration for his imagined identity. He concludes with, "I know its crazy."* The question that is troubling him is, "What do you want to be?" The current version of that is, "What is your identity?" Lies are lived first and told second. There is a life lie, a contradiction in our desires we're scared to confront, underneath that told lie. We want our identity to be a choice but we also want it to be given to us. We want to choose because it doesn't feel free otherwise. But we also want it to be grounded by being given because we don't want anyone else to be allowed to question our choice; a "choice" that, not incidentally, that is (or feels) forced upon us in our teen years.

Incidentally, you couldn't do it. Even if there were only five or six kids playing in the rye at the edge of the cliff, one of them would get past you and plunge to their death. If there were thousands, well ... And, did you ever notice that land near the edges of cliffs doesn't tend to be arable? That you don't find fields of rye near the edges of cliffs? This may seem like entering into the thought experiment on it's own spooky level but that is what you have to do with a thought experiment. Otherwise you're not really doing the experiment. 

It matters a whole lot that the Burns' poem Caulfield mishears is about sex—that he hears a line about sex and imagines a childish world free of sex. The whole fantasy that Holden has is about avoiding adulthood.

Speaking of experiments, one seemingly obvious solution would be to try an identity and then later reject it for another if it doesn't work out. That's a version of the identity lie that some of my generation embraced. David Bowie, it was said, reinvented himself over and over again. I think he even believed that once upon a time but all Bowie's identities were variations on the same pattern and when you look at his rather unhappy life, the suspicion begins to set in that he didn't particularly like any of the variations.

However we might acquire an identity, it's very hard to change once we have it. Here's a seemingly trivial example. As a teen, I admired and emulated Mick Jagger. I didn't look like him beyond having a similar slim build but I figured out how to dance like him and got to be good enough at it that people in clubs would walk up and compliment me.  On one level, I've long moved past that and yet I periodically get an urge to play "Brown Sugar" really, really loud. I can't unlike the music I loved as a teen. And by saying I like that music, I don't mean I put it on and think, "That's a nice tune." No, I get a visceral response to it. I recognize that Don Giovanni is a much greater work of art than Sticky Fingers but I could easily go the rest of my life without hearing Don Giovanni again. 

Imagine how much harder it would be  to uproot the sexual tastes that were inculcated in you as a teen. (Or not, as there are a lot of people who don't much like sex.) I say "inculcated" because it implies something that happened to you. Your sexuality isn't, or isn't entirely, up to you. The culture around you, the people who accept or refuse you, even your own emotions, are beyond your control. The Stoic/Gnostic claim that there is some "inside" you can retreat to, a place where you and only you call the shots/thoughts is like trying to make a knife proof vest—much of the time it will stop the knife but if the world keeps stabbing you, and it will, inevitably a point will find a vulnerability and the blade will penetrate. It will go deep.

It ain't the knife to your heart that tears you apart;
It's the thought of someone
Sticking it in.
Graham Parker
 Is the problem the notion that you're entitled to an identity in the first place? Maybe we just do stuff for a while and one day we realize we have one. 

Is my identity like my body?  I have some control over my body. I can work at being more or less fit. I can control my weight. These both take a lot of work but they can be done. But I can't really pick my body type. That's a contentious statement in an era when people talk about being assigned a gender. It's actually worse than the people who hate it imagine. For my genes didn't just assign me manhood, they assigned me a particular kind of male body. I can, and did, get to be strong by lifting weights but I could never have been a competitive body builder or weightlifter. I just don't have the body type for either.  I suspect identity works the same way. You have a range of choices but you can't pick your identity. Thinking you can, thinking that "fighting to be who I am" is a coherent statement is a recipe for misery.

* I think he means "it's" as in "it is crazy". I don't know if the grammatical mistake is in the original or the transcription I cribbed off the internet. If in the original, it's presumably Caulfield's mistake. Maybe he's adopting the dialect of the source and thereby committing hate speech or something.

Monday, October 1, 2018

Lying to ourselves social justice style

I've been thinking a lot about fashion lately. I've lost weight (on purpose) since last Christmas. And that has changed the whole fashion equation for me. Clothes look better on me and they've gotten cheaper. I can dress better for less money this year than I could last year.

I love Brooks Brothers. When I got down to my target weight, the suits I had been wearing no longer fit correctly. So I went out and bought two new suits. Like a lot of other companies, Brooks Brothers classify their suits according to various fits. In general, "fitted" means the clothing fits close to your body shape. Sometimes, a contrast will be made between "fitted" or "tailored" meaning close to body shape and "relaxed-" or "comfort-"fit which means looser. Brooks Brothers, however, have not done that. They've classified their suits according to the desired image. They have four names Madison, Regent, Fitzgerald, and Milano. If you have a sense of history, you will be able to conjure up an image to go with three of these. Madison is the classic American 1950s suit, sometimes called the "sack suit". Think Don Draper. The Fitzgerald is a 1920s look. They say, "inspired by our archives" and that is no doubt true but they also have the clothes designed for the Gatsby remake in mind. "Fitzgerald" is meant to rccall F. Scott Fitzgerald. Milano refers to the very slim fit jackets and pants favoured by European tailors that were big in the 1960s. Think of the suits the Rolling Stones wore on early album covers. Missing is Regent and is because it's just a variation on Madison; it's a slightly more fitted Madison-look suit. Don Draper again.

Here's the thing though: You won't look good in any of these suits unless you're slim! That's what makes Brooks Brothers more honest than their competitors. No matter what anyone tells you to the contrary, your clothes won't lie for you. They won't make you look better than you are. The key to happiness is to decide what life you want and then get the body type to go with it. Unless Falstaffian or Monopoly-Community-Chest guy is your desired image, that's going to mean slim.

And that's a problem because we're collectively much fatter than we used to be. I'll be blunt: we're too fat. It's much more of a problem because we are only collectively fatter: there are still enough slim people among us to remind us that we don't measure up. I live next to a university campus where 60,000 students attend. Most of the men and women on campus are largish. You might think the problem can be solved by simply revising our ideals so that beauty will mean bigger. Just try it though and you fail. Especially with women. Walk across campus and you will see that there are still lots of slimmer women and you cannot pretend that bigger is as beautiful. You could try and no doubt many do but you'd only be lying to yourself and everyone else. Everyone knows who is hot and who is not. It's trickier with the men because men can be very big and muscular and attractive. Women also are less selective about fat. But even there the inescapable truth is that no man looks good carrying a lot of fat.

Everyone knows this but the temptation to lie to ourselves is strong. And that is where social justice comes in handy. If I can lie to myself but claim I'm only being fairer by doing so, well, who could contradict me. And thus Time magazine's Eliana Dockterman comes along with a regular feast of dishonesty.

My favourite of the lies she tells herself (and she's lying to herself more than she's lying to us) comes when she brings race into the discussion:
But America is home to women of many shapes and sizes. Enforcing a single set of metrics might make it easier for some of them to shop—like the thinner, white women on whom O’Brien and Shelton based all of their measurements. But “we’re going to leave out more people than we include,” Boorady says.
What? Because white women are slimmer than non-white women? That is so ludicrous a claim that you don't have to go further than the same paragraph the above sentences come from for evidence to refute the claim.
Universal sizing works in China, for example, because “being plus-sized is so unusual, they don’t even have a term for it,” says Lynn Boorady, a professor at Buffalo State University who specializes in sizing.  
It's a neat trick: associate the thing you don't like with raaaaaaaaaaaaaacism!!!!!

The thing about lying to ourselves, though, is that while it might succeed in de-legitimizing the thing we don't like, it only does so at the price of making us stupid so we do more damage to ourselves than to anybody else.

Here's a line from a little earlier in the story  worth thinking about.
They’re also discriminatory: 67% of American women wear a size 14 or above, and most stores don’t carry those numbers, however arbitrary they may be.
It's important to remind ourselves that everything is discriminatory. To discriminate, which used to be a compliment, can mean a lot of things but the definition Dockterman  is hoping you'll settle on this one: "to make a difference in treatment or favor on a basis other than individual merit." (Merriam-Webster)

There is a very simple reason most stores don't carry sizes above 14 and it's the same reason jockey outfits don't come in extra-large. Most stores carry clothing made for slimmer women. Just as only a light-weight jockey is going to have a chance at winning on the track, only someone size 14 or under has a chance of looking good in those clothes. And,whether we like it or not, the inescapable truth is that there is something wrong with us and not with the clothes. Collectively speaking, we have gotten to be unhealthily fat.

Saturday, September 29, 2018

Dealing with ambiguity

Ann Althouse has an interesting post up today on ambiguity.

The source of it is an article in GQ called "How to talk to the women in your life right now." "Right now" meaning after the Kavanaugh hearing. The sentence that caught Althouse's attention is: "If your friend says she wants to cut off every dick in a five mile radius, let her!"

Ambiguity aside, the intended message is that if your woman friend expresses her rage this way, you shouldn't argue with her. Apparently, women are helpless creatures who can't deal with argument.

I don't know about that but I'll tell you what I would do if a woman friend of mine said something like that. I'd stop being friends with her.

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

Sitting with the cool kids

It's Grade 10 and you walk into the cafeteria. You stop just inside the doors and scan the room. You pick out the table where the cool kids are sitting and you wonder if you have what it takes to go sit with them. Perhaps you have no trouble answering that in the affirmative. Or maybe you worry a little. Maybe you think you have zero chance of being accepted and go sit somewhere else.

I think most people know that experience. I think it's a pretty good metaphor for how we choose our moral views all our lives.

It's worth remembering that not everyone is going to agree about who the cool kids are. One person might think it's the jocks, another might think it's the mean girls, someone else will pick the smart kids and some will pick the table where the dope smokers sit. Some will lie to themselves and believe they don't want to sit at a table they clearly do want to sit at.

Underlying this choice (or lack of choice) is a sense that you're going to half to earn it. Sitting at any particular table requires buy in on certain values. It's not enough that you agree with the values shared by the group, you'll be expected to embody them. You can't sit with the jocks unless you are athletic, you can't sit with the brainy kids unless you can keep up with them.

The temptation is to dismiss this as shallow. "I am my own person!" But you're not. No one is. Where shallowness enters the picture is when we choose the table. Or when we reject certain tables.

The problem is not being wrong. You can pick the wrong table. I think just about everyone does in high school. It's the reason for the choice that can be shallow.

Thursday, August 16, 2018

Aretha without tears

Buying Aretha Franklin records is risky business. To be blunt, a lot of them are just horrible. Even buying only greatest hits collections is no guarantee for you can end up with a collection with two or three great songs and a whole lot of crap besides. Yeah, she was the "Queen of Soul" because she recorded some of the best soulful R&B ever recorded. What rarely gets mentioned is that she also produced a lot of dross. The ratio of her utterly forgettable songs to her really great songs is at least 10 to 1 and probably even worse than that.

You really only need one Aretha album and that is 1967's I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You. If you want more, you can also buy a greatest hits compilation with "Baby, I Love You", "Natural Woman", "Chain of Fools", "I Say a Little Prayer", and "Think" on it. Better yet, buy the other singles you like as individual cuts. And that's it. I know, that sounds blasphemous but it's true. That's all that's worth owning in the entire Aretha Franklin catalogue.

And the issue is even touchier than that. Note the following claim from the Allmusic review of  I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You:
Much of the credit is due to producer Jerry Wexler, who finally unleashed the soulful intensity so long kept under wraps during her Columbia tenure; assembling a crack Muscle Shoals backing band along with an abundance of impeccable material, Wexler creates the ideal setting to allow Aretha to ascend to the throne of Queen of Soul, and she responds with the strongest performances of her career. 
Well, actually, No! All of the credit goes to Rick Hall of FAME studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama and his studio musicians, especially the rhythm section affectionately know as "The Swampers". The only credit Wexler deserves is for having the good sense to turn the project over to someone smarter than himself. And Wexler proved this beyond any doubt when he tried to reproduce the magic without Rick Hall on the next few Aretha records and failed miserably. With the help of The Swampers, whom he hired away from Hall, Wexler and produced a number of great songs (but no great albums) after that. And you can hear why if you listen to them; a song like "Think" succeeds because it imitates Hall's previous work.

And that's it. Things go steadily downhill from there.

Well, that's not quite it because there is the difficult question of what went wrong at FAME studios. Something happened but it's not quite clear what exactly it was. There was an ugly incident of a sexual/racist nature is all we know for certain. The most commonly repeated story is that one of the white musicians on the session made a play for Franklin right in front of her husband. Whatever it was, Franklin never returned.

(Was it all that incident? Or did Wexler or, more likely Franklin's husband Terry White's ego suffer when he realized that Hall was vastly more talented? I'd guess that was it.)

But that issue conceals a truth about "The Queen of Soul" that few want to acknowledge and  that is that she is one of a large number of musicians who had immense talent and no idea what to do with it. She needed the right collaborators working with her or else she couldn't do it. When working with Rick Hall, she was great. When not, she was mostly not great. For some people, the issue is further complicated by the fact that her greatest records were the ones where she collaborated with white southerners; indeed, a lot of the best soul and R&B music produced was the result of collaborations with white southerners. That kinda messes up the narrative for some people. When that happens, reasonable people toss the narrative.

(Aretha Franklin is not the only one. Clarence Carter, Wilson Pickett and The Staples Singers produced their best music, by far, when working with Rick Hall and/or The Swampers.)

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

What you want

In the preceding post, I wrote,
A lot of things about life are depressing. But I'll tell you about something even more depressing: the lives of women who decided this was just a stupid and sexist social convention that was going to go away until they got to be older and decided they wanted a long-term partner they could settle down with.
Of course, a woman may not want marriage. And she shouldn't feel obliged to want it. That said, if you start telling people and, especially, if you start telling yourself, that marriage isn't important to you or that it isn't important to you "right now", you'd better be right! It's ridiculously easy to spend your twenties pursuing things that the culture around you tells you to pursue while putting off the things you really want.

32 years!

Science confirms what are supposed to be just "stereotypes" with staggering regularity. Elizabeth Bruch, a professor of sociology at the University of Michigan has done a massive study of online dating behaviour and The Atlantic has an article about it.
She’s spent the past few years studying how people make decisions and pursue partners on online-dating sites, using exclusive data from the dating sites themselves. “There’s so much folk wisdom about dating and courtship, and very little scientific evidence,” she told me recently. “My research comes out of realizing that with these large-scale data sets, we can shed light on a lot of these old dating aphorisms.”
There is, as we've come to expect from modern journalism, a lot of CYA political correctness at the top of the article. The writer, a youngish guy named Robinson Meyer, uses what may be a particularly clever ploy in this regard. He starts off by telling us that the study confirms that there are dating leagues and some people are out of your league. He describes this as depressing. In other news, other people are richer than you. But, hey, maybe he really was disappointed to learn this plainly obvious fact.

Other not-terribly-surprising findings:

  1. “A defining feature of heterosexual online dating is that, in the vast majority of cases, it is men who establish the first contact—more than 80 percent of first messages are from men in our data set,”
  2. “women reply very selectively to the messages they receive from men—their average reply rate is less than 20 percent ..."
  3.  The key, Bruch said, is that “persistence pays off.” ... “Reply rates [to the average message] are between zero percent and 10 percent,” she told me. Her advice: People should note those extremely low reply rates and send out more greetings.
  4. Across the four cities and the thousands of users, consistent patterns around age, race, and education level emerge. White men and Asian women are consistently more desired than other users, while black women rank anomalously lower.
  5. In the study, men’s desirability peaks at age 50. But women’s desirability starts high at age 18 and falls throughout their lifespan. 
  6. Women’s prospects dim not only as they age, but as they achieve the highest level of education.
  7. Across all four cities, men tended to use less positive language when messaging more desirable women. They may have stumbled upon this strategy through trial and error because “in all four cities, men experience slightly lower reply rates when they write more positively worded messages.”
 A few comments.

I'll begin with  #5. Women's desirability peaks at age 18 while men's steadily rises until age 50. You have to read more than half way through the article to learn this. That's burying the lead grand style.

I can confirm that on the male side. I reached peak attractiveness in my forties. I was already married at the time and unwilling to take advantage of it but at no other time in my life were women so interested.

The flip side? Personally, I find most 18 year olds a little foolish but if desirability were the only thing that mattered, I'd go young, although not quite that young. I'm attracted to sexy women and I'm not going to apologize for that. I understand that many people will find this depressing. A lot of things about life are depressing. But I'll tell you about something even more depressing: the lives of women who decided this was just a stupid and sexist social convention that was going to go away until they got to be older and decided they wanted a long-term partner they could settle down with. Politically incorrect truth: If a woman wants a happy marriage, she should get busy looking for someone while she is still in her early-to-mid twenties.

As long as I'm being politically incorrect, if, as I say, the the choice of younger women reflects men selecting for sexual attractiveness, I'd bet good money that the choice of older men reflects women selecting for socioeconomic status.

Well, yeah! Men take the initiative. And the converse is true as well: women want men to take the initiative.

Women are selective. A woman is far more likely to reject a man than vice versa and a woman in a relationship is far more likely to leave. The corollary to the politically incorrect advice I gave regarding #5 above is, if you are a happily married man and you hope to remain that way, you;d damn well better keep earning it every year of your life.

That persistence pays off is probably surprising no one but there is a corollary which might not be so obvious: the key to happiness in this life is having a high tolerance for rejection. Get yourself a copy of Martin Seligman's Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life and get reading.

Not surprisingly, the article tries to explain this one away.
But “what we are seeing is overwhelmingly the effect of white preferences,” she cautioned. “This site is predominantly white, 70 percent white. If this was a site that was 20 percent white, we may see a totally different desirability hierarchy.”
Maybe. But I would bet not. Why? Because I suspect this has nothing to do with race. The popularity of white men is just another instance of women selecting for socioeconomic status. The popularity of Asian women is, and I know this will hurt some people's feelings, a reflection of the greater emphasis a significant number of Asian women put on femininity.

I was across the river in Gatineau yesterday and  was struck, as I often am when back in Quebec, at how much more effort women there put into being womanly. Book a flight from Ottawa or Toronto to Paris and you'll notice the same phenomenon. A flight to Madrid, same thing. Likewise Rome, Rio or Berlin. If you bring a culture that plays a high value on femininity into contact with our English-speaking, white culture in North America, which does not, and the women are going to pop out at you like Smarties in a bowl of oatmeal. You can get angry about that all you want, it won't change anything.

I don't think it's the education per se that is the problem but a number of other things education is a marker for. See the preceding paragraph for more.

(When I was in graduate school back in the 1980s, there was one woman who bucked the trend and dressed and behaved in a pointedly feminine way. Her female peers in the department did everything they could to tear her down. The viciousness of their attacks was scary to see.)

I know, I know, this sounds a lot like what the PUAs call "dissing". Worse, this study says it works!

There are very few more reliable ways to reassure a woman in her belief that she is out of your league than to gush over her. You don't have to diss her. But make her earn your attention. If she isn't willing to earn it, move on. See notes #2 and #3 above.

Wednesday, August 8, 2018

Women seem wicked ...

I was listening to a good Art of Charm podcast on connecting with people. Johnny Dzubak quoted a Doors lyric.
People are strange when you're a stranger
Faces look ugly when you're alone
It's a good point. Things look dark when you have to face a world where you don't have connections.

I immediately thought of the next couplet.
Women seem wicked when you're unwanted
Streets are uneven when you're down
A lot of misogyny comes from feeling unwanted.

The funny thing is that the judgment is not wrong. Women often are wicked for the simple reason that they are human beings and that is what human beings are. The facts don't change; our perspective changes. If you're secure in your social connections, including connections with women, you can be charitable when you discover some shameful thing a woman has done; you can see it as an ordinary human failing. When you're not secure in you social connections, when you feel alone and unwanted, you will see that very same action as proof of a woman's special wickedness.

Thursday, August 2, 2018

Summer Man (6) the vexed yacht rock question

"Yacht Rock" is a great name for a genre of music. It's such a great name that you immediately want to be part of "the yacht rock scene" even though it's an imaginary genre. There is a problem though. The guys who came up with the name don't think Jimmy Buffett is yacht rock.
Lyons: We kept talking about the stories that we never got to tell, one of them being Footloose. And I hate Jimmy Buffett‘s music; I think it’s a soundtrack to date rape. I think it’s garbage music for people who have no interest in listening to anything good.

Ryznar: We portrayed parrotheads being brainwashed idiots. You kind of have to be if you’re into Jimmy Buffett. Or just want to be so tuned out of life, that like hey, whatever — kick back with flip flops, drink some margs, listen to some sweet Jimmy Buffett music and let him paint a rosy picture of a reality that does not exist.

Lyons: I always like that artists like Bertie Higgins, Rupert Holmes and Andy Kim have an authentic longing in their music. Buffett is a rich dude getting richer off of the lack of taste of the poor and stupid. He represents the lowest common denominator in music, even worse than country singers profiting off of 9/11. To summarize: I’m not really a fan.

Ryznar: You might be able to argue that Jimmy Buffett music is about escaping from a dark place, but there’s no soul in there. So we just wanted to make him an absolute idiot. Our good friend Vatche Panos, who is super funny, really hit a home run with that one.
Why is that a problem? It's their genre can't they can define it any way they want? Well, no. The problem is that words have meaning. The relevant word here is "yacht". If you found yourself forced the higher a skipper for a yacht that was going to sail through potentially dangerous waters and your only choices were the members of Steely Dan, The Doobie Brothers, or Toto or Kenny Loggins, David Foster, Jay Graydon or Jimmy Buffett, Buffett is the one to choose.

And the yachting crowd in the 1970s and early 1980s knew this. I was there. Even before he became famous, sailors packed Buffett's live shows. Any list of "yacht rock" compiled by people who actually were yachtsmen and women in the late 1970s and early 1980s would have included Jimmy Buffett.

I've written about this before and the issue has long interested me. I wouldn't say it has troubled me. I just had the feeling that there was something interesting hiding in the subject. Last week, I realized what it was. Amy and I were staying with some cousins of hers on the east coast and we spent a fair amount of time driving between various yacht clubs I'd visited when I was a kid growing up on the east coast. As we drove, I had a playlist of Steely Dan playing. I like Steely Dan. I like Steely Dan a lot. But it was just wrong in that culture. It didn't fit.

Inspired by their success with Yacht Rock, the guys had a podcast called "Beyond Yacht Rock". I say "had a podcast" even thought it still gets updated now and then. They have given up on the notion of creating more imaginary genres though. The lightning only struck once. If you listen to it, though, you'll begin to catch a sense of what really drove the genre: loserdom. Because these guys are, losers.

Not from the outside. Any objective observer would describe them as successful. But they don't feel like winners to themselves. And being a loser is a recurrent theme in the music they call yacht rock: "What a Fool Believes", "Deacon Blues", "After the Love is Gone", "Human Nature". Steely Dan were all about losers even bore they started making "Yacht Rock": "Do it Again", "Don't Take me Alive", "Dirty Work".  Here is a nice summary of the issues:
Yacht rock themes usually reflect the ennui of the era; the end of relationships, futile, fleeting hookups with pretty young things, drugs and booze, nostalgia for the simple pleasures of the early ‘60s, and longing to leave it all behind and escape to someplace warm and exotic. The Fool is the protagonist of many of the songs.
And that is a very accurate account of how that era felt for many people. It's especially accurate for for nerdy guys who were clumsy with women and spent a lot of time alone in their rooms listening to music and imagining "a better world where the sort of music they like would get its due".

I put that last bit in scare quotes not just because this "better world" would, like all imagined worlds, be more of a dystopia. The other problem is that I don't think they really like this music as much as they believe they do. Why do I say that? Because it's music that they think will buy them the status they don't feel they have in real life.

Yacht club kids didn't think that way. And you can hate me for this if you want but I know because I was one of them. To be continued ...

Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Controversial notions that aren't

Her valuable book (on which I am relying for much of the history in this column) also notes that the statue represented an expected “spiritual initiation to liberty” before crossing the border, and was seen as such at the time. The ancient Egyptians, Assyrians and Babylonians all regarded border crossing as an important ritual act, associated with “great spiritual changes.” The Statue of Liberty promoted a transformational and indeed partially mystical interpretation of assimilation.
That's Tyler Cowen's Bloomberg column. He says, "We Americans tend to think of the statue as reflecting the glories of our national ideals, but that's not necessarily the case." Why not? Well, because the statue is like a sentinel challenging you and, as noted in the quote above, it was widely expected that people would change, that they would assimilate, by adopting the ideal of liberty when coming to the USA. It's telling that this absolutely reasonable expectation has come to be seen as contrary to national ideals.

The book Cowen refers to is Sentinel: The Unlikely Origins of the Statue of Liberty by Francesca Lidia Viano

Monday, July 16, 2018

Populism: duelling definitions

Last post, I quoted a definition from Jeffrey Bell.
“Populism,” Jeff wrote,“is optimism about people’s ability to make decisions about their lives.
Today, the Acton blog has another definition.
Simply defined, populism is the rebellion of the common man against the outsiders. This vague definition reflects the reality that there are populists of numerous different political persuasions; at its heart, populism is a strategy, not an ideology. Populism is dangerous because its antagonistic framework prevents proper dialogue between different groups; to compromise allows a morally inferior group to force its views on the people.
That's a bit tricky because the definition isn't what it my first seem to be. The point the writer wants to make is that  "populism is a strategy, not an ideology". Populism, to flesh it out, is a strategy that stirs people up to think that they are being exploited by an elite group. And you can go with that if you want. It has consequences, though.

The first consequence is that there is, on that definition, no good populism. All populism is bad. The second problem is that there is already a perfectly good word that does what we're told "populism" is and that word is demagoguery. Of course, that is a much harsher word. No one calls themselves a "demagogue" while they might call themselves a "populist". The Acton definition, then, is just a move, a dishonest move, to start a hit job.

I quite like the Acton Institute and read their stuff regularly. I was a little disappointed to seem them stoop to this sort of writing. At the same time, I wasn't surprised. This is a Catholic organization and such organizations have very little optimism in people's ability to make decisions about their lives.

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Catholicism and populism

Some days I read articles that catch my interest haphazardly and then notice a theme running through them. Today was one of those days. I started reading an article at the National Review site and then clicked on a "recommended" link that came up at the bottom of the page. The paragraph that struck me was this one:
“Populism,” Jeff wrote,“is optimism about people’s ability to make decisions about their lives. Elitism is optimism about the decision-making ability of one or more elites, acting on behalf of other people.”
The article is by Matthew Continetti and "Jeff" refers to the late Jeffrey Bell.

 A little later I was reading a piece about Flannery O'Connor and I was struck by this quote,
“The religion of the South is a do-it-yourself religion, something which I as a Catholic find painful and touching and grimly comic,” O’Connor said. She added that these religions are “full of unconscious pride that leads to all sorts of ridiculous religious predicaments.”
And, just a few moments ago, I came across an article in First Things that included these paragraphs,
Human happiness depends not on maximizing individual rights and liberty, important as both are, but on ensuring complementarity among persons—achieved by a lengthy and sometimes arduous process. We conceive of that process as culminating in a shape, and as similar to the folding of a flat sheet of paper into three dimensions. Thus, this essay’s guiding metaphor is of a folding process that shapes us into persons who “fit with,” mutually support, and depend on one another.
We argue that this folding process can take place only in hierarchy; markets cannot direct it. When markets encroach on hierarchies and reallocate resources away from them, society suffers. When hierarchies are properly protected and empowered, society flourishes.

I think we can see here the split that currently haunts both conservatism in general and Catholic conservatism.

To return to the NR piece about Jeffrey Bell,
The reluctance of Republican leaders to take up social conservatism, formulate an economic policy that addressed the monetary roots of stagnation, and forthrightly advocate the doctrine of morality in foreign policy bothered Jeff, even if it did not surprise him. 
If you'd started there, you'd think that conservative Catholics would be a good match with populists.  The first point, social conservatism, and the last, a forthright declaration of morality in foreign policy, are both natural fits for conservative Catholics. And these have been rallying points for Catholics and, for example, evangelicals in the past few years. But there is also a tension and it's a big one. Conservative Catholics have very little "optimism about people’s ability to make decisions about their lives." It can look like Catholic social conservatism is compatible with the American ideal for a while but, inevitably, conservative Catholics will fail to go to wall for the cause because it isn't their cause. They're elitists.

Monday, July 9, 2018

Dawson's: The Bostonians

It's pure soap opera, assuming "pure" is a word that can be applied to that genre. Joey says those words at the end of Season Four and then she and Dawson kiss and, with that, we dial everything back to Season One. Actually, the first kiss starts Season Two but that's the basic issue.

That comes out in a revealing way at the start of the episode. The professor reads the story of the "first kiss' out loud to the class. And then he praises Joey and gives her a C. When she asks why, he tells her that her story ends where it should begin. And here we have one of those meta-moments the show is so famous for (or infamous for if you aren't a fan). The show's creators know they are stringing us along and we know we are being strung along and everyone is fine with this because the show can't move past that kiss without ending. There would be no story left to tell.

As a short story, it seems to me there is nothing wrong with ending the story here.  If F. Scott Fitzgerald had submitted chapter 6 of The Great Gatsby to Professor David Wilder the fact that there is plainly more to be told would not be just grounds for giving it a C.

Of course, Professor David Wilder's comment is really more of a plot device. It is meant to get the story back on track. That's ironical in retrospect because we know that the show's creator will ultimately change his mind and decide that Joey was wrong about seasons three and four being "pure soap opera" and that the love with Pacey was the real story all along. (The right choice if you ask me.)

To get back to Gatsby, there are obvious Gatsby undertones in Joey's story and that is perhaps the most significant thing about the series. The big surprise is not that Joey ultimately picks Pacey over Dawson. The big surprise is that the story is really about Joey. She is the major character. With this episode, Dawson and Pacey both become minor characters and could easily have been dispensed with, only the name of the series stands in the way.

The introduction of Busy Phillips as Audrey Liddell underlines the point. Several women have told me of more or less similar encounters on their arrival on campus. There doesn't have to be a literally Audrey character but any woman arriving on campus will see that her choices are a possibility and the question is not, "Why?" but "Why not?"

And that's about it. Jack's story isn't interesting. This is mostly because Jack's story should be Dawson's story. If there is a character who is gay, it's Dawson. Jen is boring. Pacey is ... absent.

Thursday, July 5, 2018

National Bikini Day and moral theology

Yes, it's today. This is the anniversary of the day in 1948 when a model (actually an exotic dancer because no real model was willing) wore one in public for the first time. Now they are everywhere.

What distinguished the bikini was that it bared the navel. There were lots of two-piece suits before it came along. Contrary to what most people think (including most women), it's easier to wear a bikini with a less than ideal body than most tank suits. If you're conscious of what you perceive to be body flaws, a simple tank is the worst choice. (There are certain tricks that can be done to make the tank more flattering and some companies specialize in these.)

The exposed navel is the key to understanding the bikini's mystique. Like the sundress, it gives a woman an opportunity/excuse to go out in public feeling almost naked. And this is a turn-on for some women. How many? Hard to say. A lot. But it's also the case that a lot of women wear them because they feel they have to. If other women stopped, they'd stop too but peer pressure and need to respond to competition from other women keeps them going. My guess is that far more women wear them because they like it than feel pressured into it but there is no way to measure that.

Covet or curious?

Now for some moral theology. Why is it wrong to covet? To covet is not to take. It's just to ... well, to covet. Figuring out exactly what the word means is a bit tricky.

Here's an attempt to improve our grasp on what's wrong with coveting: "to desire wrongfully, inordinately, or without due regard for the rights of others: to covet another's property." The work here is being done with modifiers and, as usual, that doesn't help much. If we can desire wrongfully then it must also be possible to desire rightfully and a bunch of adverbs don't help us to see where the line between the two is.

In moral theology it is sometimes argued that that what is wrong is the kind of desire that obliterates the will of the other person. The last qualification above gets close to this, "without due regard for the rights of others." That's tricky though because to covet is not to steal. I can look at your car in a way that shows no regard for your rights but not steal it because I fear prosecution. "I'd rob you if I thought I could get away with it but I don't think I can."

That's a very powerful argument when we consider sexual assault. There is always a minority of men, indeed, a large minority of men, who would commit sexual assault if they thought they could get away with it. That is something that deserves condemnation; it's a sin.

Or, consider the border issue that isn't assault but is definitely something the woman wouldn't want. A girl in a bikini gets on the diving board and a bunch of guys sitting around the pool start thinking they wouldn't mind if her top came off when she hits the water. It's not assault. It's not even agency—we have no control over what will happen and there is a credible argument that the risk of her bathing suit accidentally coming off is something she is responsible for. Still, for all that we are hoping for something she doesn't want and that she may find humiliating if it does.

That last part is where the sting is. Coveting is wrong even if I never carry through because I have mentally made the move to not caring about the other person.

But we can't stop there. What if some guy sitting at pool side thinks, "I'd like to have sex with her if she were willing"? Leave aside other reasons this might be wrong here because the question is, "What is wrong with coveting" and not what is wrong with, say, adultery.

What makes it super tricky is that we all pretend not to know stuff we really do know. The woman who wears very little on a hot day is not concerned only with comfort. This goes double for the woman who wears very little on a day when it's still a little cool. We live in a world where women openly encourage other people's sexual curiosity. And there is a tacit agreement to all pretend we don't know what's happening when we all know exactly what's going on. As the lemon girl once said to me, "When a man compliments a woman on her shirt, he really means her breasts." The world we live in is one in which some women openly encourage us to be sexually curious about them without acknowledging that is what they are doing. As a consequence, we can never know where she would think is too far.

A lot of sexual morality works like that. We all know what is happening but we tacitly pretend not to know. In that world, which is, after all, the real world, the only world, the world we live in, what are the limits. A woman is dressed in a way that is designed to encourage our sexual curiosity, how far can I let my curiosity lead me before it's too far. I have no trouble thinking of examples that are too far. But I can also think of lots of borderline cases

Summer Man (5): The Arrangements

"I have been watching my life. It's right there. I keep scratching at it, trying to get into it. I can't."

That's not from "The Arrangements" but from "The Mountain King" from season 2. That's not Don if you ask me. Yeah, he says the words and all and who am I to tell the people who created him that they don't understand their own creation. It just doesn't feel like him.

And yet, that's the Donald Draper we get for all of season 3. Except, that is, for the very end. In the last two episodes—"The Grown-Ups" and "Shut the Door, Have a Seat". In those Don (and Roger) take control by taking responsibility and they take action. You get a marvelous display of manly men doing what many men do.

But that can't be. So, instead, we get Don spouting lines that don't sound like him: "I have been watching my life. It's right there. I keep scratching at it, trying to get into it. I can't."

Thus, we get a painful scene in which Don and Grandpa Gene talk right past one another. Gene has Bobby out and shows him a Prussian helmet he brought home for the first war. He shows Bobby the hole where the bullet went. Bobby asks if he shot him and Gene says yes ... and then he qualifies it by saying he thinks he did. Why would he say that? Probably because he didn't. Unless he was a sniper, he just fired and hoped, or maybe he didn't. They had a tough time getting infantrymen to fire low in WW1. Too often they fired high out of fear of killing someone.

Gene's war experience is not that different from Don's. He has a helmet he isn't sure he deserves.

And there is something else. When Gene is telling Sally about her grandmother working as a draftsperson he lets slip a line about an engineer whom, he hastens to add, was no threat.

So we have two men who should be able connect not connecting.

And then there is the sleeping beauty twist. The sleeping beauty story is one of a girl who is left vulnerable to evil because her parents tried to protect her from it and left her helpless. It's an oft-retold tale and Betty seems like the latest iteration. Except that, she's a monster.

That's an interesting twist and one that is very apt today when we have a whole bunch of over-protected snowflakes who are, quite simply, monsters who unhesitatingly destroy lives to get what they want. Betty prefigures the type.

But what of Don?

One theory that has been discussed often here is that the best reading of Mad Men is an esoteric one. Now, "esoteric" can mean all sorts of things. What I mean is simply that the text does not mean what it appears to mean on the surface. Usually, when people talk about esoteric writings (or esoteric TV shows) they mean that the creators have intentionally hidden a real meaning under the apparently obvious surface reading. I don't think that is what happened here.

In this case, I think the creators started with two things: 1) a great character and 2) their interpretation of who the character was and what he needed to do to be happy. The problem is that they were just wrong on the second point. This created a tension that runs through the whole series. The great character demanded certain things in order to seem alive and compelling in the story that conflicted with the interpretation of the character the creators favoured.

I'm not the only one to see this. Here are some tweets about the finale culled from a contemporary newspaper article.

The first tweet recognizes that the finale was not a convincing whole. The second tries to get by that by reducing the whole thing to a cynical exercise in promoting Coke. The last blunders into the truth.

Here I make a weird digression to Ignatius of Loyola. While he was in the hospital recovering from a war would, Ignatius entertained two kinds of daydreams.. In the first, he dreamed of being a great lover in the chivalrous tradition. In the second type, he dreamed of being a saint. Bot daydreams gave him pleasure. The difference was that the second lingered while he quickly forgot about the first.

Dick Whitman doesn't really steal the real Don Draper's identity. He takes his name and his legal identity but he uses these to become someone new. He has a bunch of daydreams and some of them take root and others don't. The real Dick Whitman really is Don Draper, not the name or legal identity, but the one he created through his actions.

The end of man is action, and not thought, though it be of the noblest. Thomas Carlyle

Monday, July 2, 2018

Swingin' with Dean!

He peered out at the audience at the Aladdin, spotted Dean Martin at a front table—and suddenly experienced what he would call "my nightclub epiphany."
That's from an old article about Richard Pryor on City Journal. How old? Nine years old. Old enough that Bill Cosby's opinions were still taken seriously.

Anyway, here's what Pryor thought looking at Dean Martin looking at him.
I asked myself, “Who’s he looking at, Rich?”

I couldn’t say.

I imagined what I looked like and got disgusted. I gasped for clarity as if it was oxygen. The fog rolled in. In a burst of inspiration, I finally spoke to the sold-out crowd: “What am I doing here?”

Then I turned and walked off the stage.
That's pretty impressive. Pryor doesn't unfairly attribute any racism to Martin as a modern social justice warrior would do. It's actually a straight reaction. He implicitly respects Martin. It bothers him that such a man as Dean Martin would see him in a way that he, Richard Pryor, knows to be false.

I knew I had some Dean in my collection. A quick search came up with 6 albums featuring him. Four were Christmas music and a fifth being a collection of cool, swingin' vocalists. The sixth was this one:

This Time I'm Swingin'!

That's courtesy of Allmusic. The review says, " This Time I'm Swingin'! was a good, confident set by an artist who had figured out how to make competent albums without expending a lot of effort, which was a key to his charm."That's about right but it's an odd thing to say about an artist. Martin became a star because of his persona and not his talent and not because of his artistic vision, whatever that might have been. He was, and remained, a comedian, a great straight man, who happened to have a beautiful singing voice. That's who Richard Pryor saw.

This was not a man who was going to judge Pryor. He was cool with him. "You be what you want to be and I'll laugh because you're funny." Pryor reacted the way he did because he realized that he, Pryor, was unhappy with the who he was being for the crowd at the Aladdin.

I was one year old when that record came out. I think my parents owned a Dean Martin record but it wasn't that one. I'm sure they would have liked that one. The sort of effortless grace that stars Dean projected  in the 1950s was very much the style they aspired to. Here's my mother and me out in front of where we lived in Ottawa's Glebe that year.

"The Glebe" probably doesn't mean much to people from outside Ottawa. For years, it was the neighbourhood for people who aspired to be upper middle class in a cool way, as opposed to people who wanted to be part of the establishment. An insult from the time called people like my parents, people who came to the political capital to do good and stayed to do well. And there is something to that. They were young liberals who meant to change society in ways they thought for the better but they also some themselves as people who were among life's winners; they would end up, not rich, but comfortably well off.

That we lived where we did that year shows a rather brash confidence. Economically speaking, we didn't belong in the Glebe at the time. My parents were renting that year and probably paying more than they could afford. But they knew they belonged here. If they had been in a nightclub where Dean Martin was performing and he looked at them, their answer to Pryor's question, "Who's he looking at?" would have been positive. They wouldn't have been fully satisfied with what they would have imagined but they wouldn't have cringed either.

The next fifty years weren't easy but the overall trend was always up. After retiring, they moved to the east coast and there was an ocean view from every floor of their last house, even from the basement. They were never rich but they got to comfortably well off. They did well.

Neither was a terribly giving person. I don't blame them for that. They, in turn, had parents who were not very giving. That's understandable; they came from families that had climbed out of hardscrabble existence to become middle-class professionals. Much like the stars who created the cool style they emulated, there was actually a whole lot of hard work behind the outward "effortlessness" they projected. They'd learned to swim by being thrown in at the deep end and they had the contradictory goals of seeing their children achieve the same kind of success while sparing us from the trauma they had experienced. I'm tempted to say, "that didn't work" because looking at people I grew up with there is a lot of failure, especially marital failure. On the other hand, most of us ended up better off than our parents were at our age.

Something important has been lost. I can't imagine a rising comic looking at an aging pop star from the 1990s and having the sort of epiphany Richard Pryor had looking at Dean Martin looking at him happening today. The difference is not that Dean Martin was a great human human being and 1990s popstars weren't. Nor is it that the culture Martin came from was superior to that the 90s stars came from in every way. Look at a list of popstars from the 90s and you'll be struck by how many of them are women. But there was something about it that we've lost and would be worth getting back.

What is that something? I think the answer lies in the word, "swinging". Nowadays, that word means married people who live a lifestyle that involves having sex outside marriage. Back in the day, it meant a style of performance. More on that to come.

Tuesday, June 26, 2018

Michael Jackson

All this to prove we cared. Why is there then
No more to tell? We turned to other things.
I haven't any memory—have you?—
Of ever coming to the place again ...
from The Exposed Nest by Robert Frost

Nine years ago today, I was in Riviere-du-Loup on my way to New Brunswick for my mother's funeral. My mother and I had not had good relations. I had stopped for the night and had missed the news about Michael Jackson that, I presume, had broken overnight. 

I knew something had happened as soon as I hit the top of the stairs on my way down to breakfast that morning but didn't know what. I had a feeling much like you get when you walk in on a tense conversation without knowing what it's about. Our unconscious brain is always scanning the environment and mine must have picked up significant behaviours in my fellow guests.

I hadn't thought about Michael Jackson in years at the time of his death. He hadn't any good music in the last 27 years of his life. Indeed, except for two CDs, Off the Wall and Thriller, Jackson's output was pretty thin for his entire career. It's a touchy point with Jackson's fans, but both of those records were produced by Quincy Jones.

The problem is not that Jackson wasn't talented. He was phenomenally talented. But, like Nadia Comăneci, he wasn't a fully developed human being at the time of his greatest fame. He and Madonna are both about about four months older than me and Comăneci a little more than two years younger. The four of us grew up, or, in Jackson's case didn't grow up, together. The two women, whatever we might say of particular moral choices they have made, are fully developed human beings. Jackson never was. You could, and many have, treat him as a victim to be pitied. I know I wouldn't wish his life on anyone.

Would I let him off the hook? I don't know. I think the kindest thing we can do is simply to forget him. He should be no more than a footnote in Quincy Jones' life story.

Saturday, June 23, 2018

Summer Man (4): Souvenir

This is another episode I haven't watched since the first time. Looking at again, the reason is pretty obvious to me. This is a very anti-male episode. Don is in it as a guy things happen to. He has little agency.

A big part of the problem is the Conrad Hilton subplot. It was an interesting idea. Don, in a time of uncertainty for the company, uncharacteristically makes himself beholden to a powerful client. The problem is that, having opened the door, the show never went through it.

Consider the start of the subplot, Conrad meets Don at a country club. He takes a liking to Don but doesn't tell him who he is. And then he calls and instantly goes into this pattern of implausibly demanding immense amounts and giving nothing in return. The show gives us nothing. We get no sense of the struggles Don goes through dealing with this nor of how Conrad became so incredibly successful. He's just an irritant on Don's life ... and ours.

And then there is Betty. She is supposed to have studied anthropology at a serious university and now we find out she speaks Italian. How exactly did she learn this in the first place and how did she keep it up all these years? Do the people behind the show have any notion what it takes to learn and keep up a second language?

And why is Betty so unconvincingly sexual? Was this a deliberate decision on the part of the show's creators or is January Jones just not capable of it? If the first, again, the show opens the door and then doesn't go through it.I f the latter ... well, it's sad but not surprising—the world is full of women who are incredibly sexy so long as they don't actually do or say anything.

What we do see is that Betty is already planning her exit. In a dialogue with Sally, we discover that Betty thinks that a kiss is when you first really get to know someone. In one sense, that fits her character perfectly. Another thing that fits with the possibility that Betty's failure to be sexual is a deliberate choice is that no one falls in love with Betty; they all fall in love with an illusion. Henry merely repeats what Don has already done. Meanwhile, we get these odd glimpses of an implausibly educated Betty along with other glimpses into a very plausible Machiavellian Betty.  She says at one point, "When you don't have real power, you have to delay things." The problem is that the show doesn't do much with either. And how do you reconcile the Machiavellian Betty with the ditzy victim Betty.

Is there anything to take away from this awful episode? My wife has a helpful classification: "She/he is one of those people whom things happen to." Listen to people as they tell you about themselves. There are some people who describe themselves as driven by what happens to them. You might be tempted to feel pity for such people. That is why, in fact, they talk about themselves that way—it's all a bid for attention. Don't give it to them. Be polite and then manœuver your way away from them.  Otherwise you might end up becoming like them yourself.

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Summer Man (3) "... their objectivity intensifies Steely Dan's natural nastiness"

That's Robert Christgau reviewing Steely Dan's 1976 album The Royal Scam. It hit me, as I read it, that I quite like their nastiness.

Christgau has something of a love-hate relationship with the band. If you look up his reviews at the link the quote in the headers comes from, you'll notice that the marks he assigns the music steadily decline over the years. He gives their first four records straight As and the last two Bs. As their music becomes more polished, he thinks less of them. That's the exact opposite of the way the band's biggest fans see things. Christgau believes in a special kind of nonsense that attributes "authenticity" to rough, unpolished music. He is far from alone in this.

In a sense, it was inevitable that fans of 1960s rock and roll would think that way. The first artists to mix rock and roll music with folk music chords and sensibilities had the market all to themselves from 1964 until 1967. It was inevitable, however, that other people would figure the trick out and it wasn't long before smooth and polished professionals started making records just like those produced by the big sixties artists only with much better musicianship.

There are all sorts of places I could go with this but most of them would be pointless boomer navel gazing. The exception is something else important about the band that Christgau correctly identifies even though he doesn't like it. He writes of their "'60s worldview (meaning early '60s worldview)". He was writing about a Donald Fagen solo record when he said that but it applies to the duo as well; Fagen was always the only adult in the room.

Which brings me to the Mad Men episode "My Old Kentucky Home".  I picked this episode because iTunes tells me it is the episode I haven't rewatched the longest time. This is possibly the absolute nadir for the show. It's dishonesty is staggering. I've written about what's wrong with the episode before. Is there anything right about it?

The two interesting interactions in the episode are the ones between Don and the man whom we will later find out is Conrad Hilton and the one between Don and Roger.
“Most Nice Guys believe that by repressing the darker side of their masculine energy they will win the approval of women. This seems logical considering the anti-male climate that has permeated our culture since the 1960s. […] As result, they often lose their sexual assertiveness, competitiveness, creativity, ego, thirst for experience, boisterousness, exhibitionism, and power. Go watch little boys on the playground and you will see these qualities. I am convinced they are worth keeping.” Robert Glover in No More Mr. Nice Guy 
Both men come across as weak.  Hilton can't even make his own drink. Roger is beholden to Jane. A lot is made of the similarity between Roger's decision to leave his wife for his secretary Jane and Don's later decision to marry his secretary Megan. And there are similarities. But there are also differences and they are important. Here are two I think worth focusing on.
  1. Roger leaves Mona to marry Jane whereas Don has already been divorced by Betty.
  2. Roger and Don both are attracted to their new partner because she has some quality their first wife lacked. In Roger's case Mona was no longer young and interested in sex. In Don's case, Megan was not neurotic.
A lot of people wanted Don to settle down with Faye Miller but when Don asks Faye to deal with Sally, she is helpless. Megan is good with the children, Don is a father. Furthermore, he was married to Betty and had to deal with her neurotic, self-centered interactions with their children. Faye has other, positive qualities but this one is a deal breaker.

You might, and I suspect a lot of people did, dismiss that as simple sexism, as an expectation that women should be good with children. But Don has children. He also has a past. He's seen Betty in action and his life experience tells him that the kind of helplessness that Faye and Betty show in a crisis is the marker for a bad partner. And he's not wrong about that.  The problem is that the mere absence of a particular fault does not guarantee the existence of other positive qualities.

What of Roger? Is lack of interest in sex a good enough reason to leave your wife? I tend to think not. I think both Roger and Betty should have tried to save their marriages. But even if we allowed that it were a good enough reason, why does he pick Jane?  He could have had Joan? The difference between the women is ultimately one of class; Jane had been to college.

Do both men make bad choices? Well, yes, in the sense that both marriages fail. Could Don have foreseen the problem? Yes. He should have paid a lot more attention to Megan's crazy family. THere is a vulgar expression in male circles, "Don't stick your dick into crazy." The point being, don't ever think, "It's just sex I want so the fact that she is unstable won't matter." The reason why this is a bad strategy is that it's never just about sex. A similar logic applies to women (and men) and their families. You are never entering into a relationship with just an individual, their entire family dynamic comes along with them . And when that family is crazy ...

Megan has a chance to fit into Don's life and she blows it. Beginning with the surprise party that begins season five to her foolish abandonment of the advertising world, which she has proven to be quite good at, for acting, which is a stupid child's dream and for which she demonstrates no special talent, Megan's failure is her own alone. But!!!! it's important to note that failure is triggered by her father and his crazy notions of following her dream, as we find out in "At the Codfish Ball".

A lot of Steely Dan's natural nastiness is a willingness to be critical of pieties about women. It's driven by bitter realizations that come out of bad relationships. That is a good thing.

Wednesday, June 6, 2018

A new Victorian era

Bari Weiss, writing in the New York Times on the decision of the Miss America pageant to eliminate the bathing suit competition:
"Our culture hasn’t stopped objectifying women. We — men and women both — are just getting better at pretending it’s not happening."
That's how the prudishness we condemn as "Victorian" works. Everyone keeps doing what we've always been doing only we pretend we're not. We pretend not because there is a potentially huge penalty for letting on that you are. That penalty is not for objectifying women but for making everyone else feel uneasy.

What's wrong with living like a fictional character?

Ann Althouse has had a couple of interesting posts up the last few days about people who were so inspired by Sex and the City that they tried to have the life. She frames this as "living like a fictional character". I think someone could reasonably accuse me of sometimes promoting living like a fictional character in writing about Mad Men Brideshead Revisited and the novels of Jane Austen. What's my response?

The first thing I'd note is that the people (some of them men) who sought to live Carrie's life as depicted in Sex and the City were inspired more by the life than the character. Carrie gets lots of sex and romance and, while she doesn't have much money, she gets to do a lot of things that cost a lot of money in New York City. How exactly she manages that is not entirely clear although her willingness to have sex with men who will pick up the tab has something to do with it.

And that raises an issue that is worth discussing. Carrie Bradshaw trades sex for what she wants. She likes sex and would probably do it anyway but it's part of the deal. You might be tempted to dismiss her on those grounds but I don't think that's fair. Jane Austen is far less explicit about it but all her heroines are offering sex as part of the deal. One of her characters is named "Fanny Price" and it's interesting to speculate whether Austen made the pun intentionally (in British English, "fanny" carries the same connotations as "pussy" does in North American English) but only a willfully blind reader could miss that whom one has sex with and under what conditions one has this sex is a central issue for Jane Austen's characters.

Someone could be attracted to Don Draper or Charles Ryder because they want the life rather than because they want to acquire the sort of moral character these men have. Both have money and get lots of sex and romantic adventure. Both also, like Carrie Bradshaw, pursue marriage although, and this is very important, we don't see their actually getting it as essential to their personal development the way we do with Carrie.

Althouse remarks, 'I got to that article via Instapundit who seems to accept Allison's blaming "Sex and the City" for the fact that Allison's career of being a Carrie type eventually got played out.' Glen Reynolds and I, both men, see something Althouse doesn't here. Are we right or is Althouse?

In any case, it seems pretty clear that seeking the life is eminently mockable as Althouse claims. Oddly enough, this isn't because you can't have it. Most people don't get to live the life but it is possible for those who are good looking and intelligent. An ex-girlfriend of mine who is roughly Carrie's contemporary lived a rough approximation of it with the singular difference that the guy she ultimately married isn't fabulously wealthy. The first Althouse post was in response to an article by a woman named Julia Allison who said she had lived the life but that it was a lie. The funny thing, for me, is that it does not seem to have been a lie to me when I read the article. She got all the things that Carrie got. Except Mr. Big that is. Here are two facts about Julia for your consideration.
  1. The first sentence of her Wikipedia profile with added emphasis on one word: "Julia Allison (born Julia Allison Baugher on February 28, 1981) is a former journalist, television commentator, public speaker and BRAVO star."
  2. If you do the math, Julia Allison is 37 years old.
In real life, the physical attractiveness that makes such a life possible for some women depreciates steadily after age 25 no matter how carefully it is managed while the wealth that makes the men attractive to them often does appreciate if carefully managed.

Years ago I read a study that had been done of adolescent conversation patterns. There was something that girls tended to do a lot more than boys, although boys did it sometimes. That something was to gauge what was the best behaviour by observing the way your friends react to stories you tell about what others have done. Fifteen-year old Cindy tells her friends that another girl she knows texted a nude picture of herself to a boy. The other girl can be real, someone she made up or a real girl about whom she has made stuff up. Whether her friends approve or disapprove will determine whether Cindy would consider doing likewise.

When you get right down to it, that's how every episode of Sex and the City works. You have Carrie who is attempting to live what the show's creators, and a lot of women of my generation, believed to be a life that balances feminism and femininity or, to put it in virtue ethics language: who tries to be a) a good woman and b) good at being a woman. To help us gauge her success, she tells stories about her three friends. On the show's terms, success is to be a feminist and still get lots of good sex, glamour, romance and, ultimately, a happy marriage. And the contrasting characters? Miranda is feminist but is reserved both sexually and romantically. Charlotte and Samantha both err in being post-feminist. In addition, Charlotte is sexually reserved while Samantha is romantically reserved. The dramatic tension turned on the fact that the show's fans all wanted to be Carrie but were scared of actually turning out to be a Miranda, a Charlotte or a Samantha.

Like all good fiction, character is what counts. All the women pursue sex and romance and get a lot of both. We judge them on the character they develop from those experiences more than the individual choices they make. That is as it should be.

My judgments? I've met Carries, Mirandas, Charlottes and Samanthas in my life. To be blunt, the one I'd be most interested in having a friendship or relationship with is Charlotte. I think Charlotte and Miranda would both make good bosses or coworkers while Carrie would be incompetent and untrustworthy and Samantha would be manipulative and untrustworthy. That said, as noted above, I once was in a serious relationship with a Carrie. I think you could marry a Samantha and manage happiness although you could never trust her. You could easily manage a happy marriage with a Miranda; the potential difficulty would not be trusting her so much as living up to her standards. In the end I married a Charlotte and there was nothing accidental about that. Long before Sex and the City debuted I had decided what I sort of person I wanted to marry and I found her, something that still seems miraculous to me. I'm not alone in my preferences. Charlotte is far and away the most attractive character for all the men I have ever discussed the show with. If there is a central lie about Sex and the City it is that the show never gives Charlotte much of a chance for happiness while my experience is that the women most likely to be happy in life are Charlottes. (And I'd say that the chances for happiness following her are, in descending order, Miranda, Samantha, Carrie.) But ... so what? If a woman really wants to be more of Samantha or a Carrie or, to put it another way, if she thinks those lives are morally superior to Charlotte's life, she will make her own choice.

Let's go back to Don Draper and Charles Ryder for a moment. As noted above, both are unmarried at the end of the stories they feature in. In addition, neither has done a lot to make himself marriageable. Our notion of what makes a satisfactory story arc for a man doesn't require marriage at the end of the rainbow. The makers of Sex and the City seemed to think that Carrie's story did require that. We might object, and a lot of people did, but none of us has made successful TV shows and/or movies. Is there as much of a market for female heroines whose story arcs are indifferent to marriage as there is for male heroes? You can probably guess my answer but, again, so what? Your answer is the one that should matter to you.