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August 19, 2014 / Jake Seliger

Being a dumbass: My experience as “The Underchallenged ‘Lazy Teenager'”

The Underchallenged ‘Lazy Teenager:’ Plenty of time to play videogames but not for school work. Here’s how to help the ‘lost boys‘” describes me from ages 10 – 14 or so. My Dad sent it to me, and he said that it describes me pretty well, because I was hard to motivate. This may also give me greater empathy and compassion for late bloomers than people who are high achievers—at least superficially—for their entire lives.

In middle and high school I had middling to terrible grades and failed or almost failed classes. Had you considered the 8th or 9th grade version of me you wouldn’t necessarily have seen a promising future. My parents were aware that middle and high schoolers who don’t do tolerably well in school tend to have not-bright futures, and they did a lot to try and get me to not be a dumbass. Some of the things they tried were not real successful and others were counterproductive, but it wasn’t easy to figure out why I wanted to play StarCraft and read pulp fantasy novels to the detriment of virtually everything else in my life. (Now I realize, too, that my parents were struggling with their own problems, mostly financial and social in nature, and did not have endless resources or energy to probe the psychological state of a thirteen or fourteen year old; teenagers are not known for their empathy skills. Still, as my Dad said recently, he couldn’t get me in part because he didn’t know why I behaved as I did. He was a very motivated student, primarily because he came from a blue-collar, immigrant family and the alternatives to school were highly visible and utterly dreadful.)

If this were a novel I’d have a tidy resolution and motivation for why I was the way I was, but I don’t. I don’t really know what was going on. Part of that is because our past selves become strangers, ever more poorly remembered over time. Clearly I was a depressed, unhappy loner and had a strong inferiority complex—but why? In an objective sense things were pretty good, or could have been, and I had a higher material standard of living and better safety than at least 90% of humanity. In some sense I knew there were children starving in Africa. For whatever reason I was unhappy about moving from California to Washington when I was ten, but normal kids are unhappy about new places and schools for a couple months, then they make new friends and get over themselves. Instead I stewed for half a decade.

The best I can say is that I didn’t care about school or much of anything at the time. I didn’t have a strong sense of the future, or that the future would be better than the present. Video games and fantasy novels provided an alternative life in the present. None of that, however, explains why I wouldn’t do the very small amount of school work that would’ve made a lot of things much easier. Some questions have no real answer and the “why” of my behavior from 10 – 14 or so may be one of them.

The odd thing, too, is that high school wasn’t challenging. Doing a modicum of homework and studying—on the order of 20 minutes a day—would’ve yielded straight As, or close to it (as I did as a junior and senior).* That would’ve made my later life much easier at little cost. On some level I knew that, which makes the failure to act all the stranger and less explicable.

What changed? Growing up is a plausible answer. One big turnaround moment came from working at Old Navy one summer. Watching adults work for almost no money, under the supervision of controlling morons (who now I realize were themselves being pressured by forces above them and by the generally competitive nature of retail), and whose whole business model entails interchangeable workers is a strong motivator.

The author many years ago; I have almost no pictures from before I bought my first digital camera. I was an early adopted in that domain.

The author many years ago; I have almost no pictures from before I bought my first digital camera, which seems true of many people in my generation. Objects are so heavy and bits so light. I was an early adopter in that domain.

So were my coworkers, most of whom did not seem like me. One guy was, I think, in his 20s, and dating a classmate who was none of the things one generally looks for in a girlfriend: smart, interesting, attractive. Nonetheless they were fond of PDA, and we ended up working at the same time in Old Navy. One day we were folding jeans or whatever, and he told me about his journeys to the spirit realm and how he could inflict punishment on his enemies, or bring success to his friends, based on his supernatural experiences and communing with demons. He said this with what appeared to be the utmost sincerity. I’m often ready to hash out reasonable intellectual disagreements, but his demeanor made me unwilling to voice doubt about him and the spirit world.

Maybe he was trying to mess with me, but if so he a) deserves an Academy Award for his performance, and b) never let me in the joke. Believing in the “spirit world” was congruent with his personality. He didn’t overtly threaten me but he scared me for the obvious reasons.

Anyway, after that I began paying much closer attention to school, and by now the problems I faced are seldom-discussed background noise. Time, imagination, creativity, and effort can even out initial advantages or disadvantages. By now most people probably assume that I’ve been a lifelong diligent student, which is funny not only for the reasons described here but because I’ve always been slightly estranged from school despite long immersion in it (which may be a subject for another post.)

Having experienced what I’ll call for shorthand “being a dumbass” for a period in my life does have one virtue: it gives me a degree of empathy for bad students. Many teachers and professors have been A students and perfect hoop jumpers for their entire lives. Lazy, apathetic, and uninterested students are totally foreign to their minds. That foreignness often—though not always—leads them to scorn or disdain bad students. Students—like pretty much everyone—sense scorn or disdain quite keenly; those kinds of feelings are hard to hide and probably make it harder to reach the students who most need to be reach. This in turn alienates marginal students who accurately think that their teachers don’t like and don’t get them.

My own experience with unmotivated apathy reminds me that who a student—or any person—is today may not be who they are tomorrow. Some students don’t like my subject—English—for reasons that have nothing to do with me. If they flail I shouldn’t take it personally, but I also shouldn’t disdain them. When I went through the dumbass phase some teacher disdain came through quite clearly, and I’ve never forgotten it. I also haven’t forgotten that my personality didn’t really cohere until I was around 24, and though I spent a lot of my life thinking that I was “behind” everyone else in every domain I now realize that I wasn’t necessarily and that many other people faced similar troubles, but most of us don’t share deep, existential troubles for fear of losing face or showing weakness.

I’m not the only person who now seems like a high achiever but got extra chances in many ways. Megan McArdle has had similar experiences with failure or near failure—she wrote about that some in The Upside of Down. A lot of poor kids without good familial or social support fall further and further behind. John Scalzi’s best post is “Being Poor,” and in it he says, “Being poor is having to live with choices you didn’t know you made when you were 14 years old.” I didn’t have to live with those choices. Many people do. That point gets lost in a lot of political and public policy debates.

Questions about my thinking and motivation still bother me. I’ve noticed that many people who are unmotivated in high school or college get motivated when they’re forced to move out of their parents’s houses, or their dorms, and sink or swim based on their own efforts. Realizing that you bear the brunt of every action is powerful. The dishes don’t get done unless you do them. Filth becomes a real problem when you bring someone home and that someone’s disgust is palpable—maybe palpable to the point that they leave.

In addition, when I was younger I spent a lot of time being unhappy without understanding that a lot of people are unhappy. In my early twenties I stumbled into evolutionary biology, and from that reading I realized or read that humans haven’t evolved to be happy. We’ve evolved to survive and reproduce—as Darwin noticed—and happiness or satisfaction are not the goals of that process. Being dissatisfied is actually normal, and dissatisfaction is an impetus to go kill a mastodon or find a sexy mate or build a new hut. In modern terms, it might mean “write a novel” or “get a job” or “take dancing lesson” or whatever. At least in the U.S. we’re steeped in the idea that we should enjoy life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. That last one I’m not so sure about anymore; it might be more reasonable to seek more modest and attainable goals. Goals like: build stuff, have a good time, and not hurt other people in the process. Those goals are still somewhat abstract goals but they are achievable than happiness, which is really abstract and tends to disappear the moment you look at it, like Rorschach in Peter Watts’s novel Blindsight.

I also used to think that the end goal of the mind and social life and school was getting the right answers (I was very naive). Now I know that the right answers are in many domains secondary or tertiary to other goals, like signaling, status, survival, reproduction, feelings, and so on.

Knowing about the potential links between creativity and depression is also helpful; I don’t want to make too much of those, and I don’t think the research is definitive, and knowing that creative people may be predisposed towards depression doesn’t mean that depressed people are necessarily predisposed towards creativity.

I wish someone had explained all this stuff to me, but maybe it wouldn’t have mattered and I wouldn’t have listened. People stuck in their own heads often have to give themselves permission to get themselves out.


* Incidentally, I do vividly remember a teacher named Rob Prufer, who was the sort of guy who inspires the hero teachers commonly depicted in movies and books. When I was a senior I was a better writer than most high school students, as a result of incessant reading, working for my parents, and writing for the school paper. He gave an assignment that required some personal component or reflection—the details have faded with time—and I turned in something that was apparently well-written, detailed, analytical, and totally wrong given the requirements. So he gave me an “F,” and the feeling of that F has stayed with me.

August 19, 2014 / Jake Seliger

Links: The end of humanity, food, coffee, nuclear power, fear the police

* “A Primer on the Doomsday Argument;” incidentally I am a long-term pessimist on the ultimate fate of humanity, and today’s utter failure to price carbon emissions appropriately or build better cities does not make me hopeful.

* “Five legal rights women have that men do not,” file under “points rarely made” though points 1 and 2 are dubious.

* The science behind eat food, mostly plants, and not too much; I’d add “avoid simple carbs” as perhaps the most important.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA* “Olive oil and salad combined ‘explain’ Med diet success; this is basically every third day’s primary meal in our household.

* The Lost World of the London Coffeehouse. Now people talk to their computers.

* This seems impossible: “Y Combinator And Mithril Invest In Helion, A Nuclear Fusion Startup.”

* “Why I don’t call the police [. . . ] It’s become a given for me that if the criminal justice system gets a hold of a black person, there is a terrible risk that it will try to crush him.”

* “A brash tech entrepreneur thinks he can reinvent higher education by stripping it down to its essence, eliminating lectures and tenure along with football games, ivy-covered buildings, and research libraries. What if he’s right?”

* “How to Talk About Climate Change So People Will Listen,” maybe. My not-original observation is that most people want to know if they will get paid or laid tomorrow, and if their wife’s brother’s husband is making more than they are.

* “My Most Offended Readers Are Ivy-Bound 18-Year-Olds;” my copy of Excellent Sheep arrived yesterday and yes I do love it so far.

August 19, 2014 / Jake Seliger

Life: Noticing edition

“There were only a few customers in the bar; most of them were men in suits who sat there seemingly enmeshed in a web of habit and accumulated rancor that they called their personalities, so utterly unaware of their entanglements that they clearly considered themselves men of the world, even though they had long ago stopped noticing it.”

—Mary Gaitskill, Bad Behavior (Recommended; it feels disjointed and confusing, like life, but in a good way).

August 13, 2014 / Jake Seliger

Links: The will to power, Peter Watts, chairs, prostitution, empathy, Beowulf, and more

* “Many men still buy into a false definition of power: feeling obligated to earn money that someone else spends while we die sooner—5.2 years sooner. That’s not power. That’s being a prisoner of the need for love and approval.”

* An interview with Peter Watts.

* “Are you sitting comfortably?” Which reminds me, I need to post a review of the Herman Miller Embody.

* “Dead Media Ain’t Dead: NYT Strikes,” which is on marketing and many other subjects that normally don’t interest me but damn this is compelling.

* An examination of three books criticizing the Ivy Leagues; I am pre-disposed to like them, but see Derek Huang’s comment here.

* The Economist favors legalizing prostitution.

* “What is it like to be a hot girl?

* Beowulf and the tension between Paganism and Christianity, which is a major topic in Sexual Personae and still an unreconciled (and perhaps unreconcilable) force in contemporary life.

* The suburbs made us fat.

* Calling all sad clowns: David Weigel on fame and depression.

August 12, 2014 / Jake Seliger

What is college for? Matt Reed’s hypothetical and following the money

Matt Reed’s post “Parity” asks this, partially as a thought experiment and partially as a proposal: “What if every sector of higher education received the same per-student funding? Right now, the more affluent the student body, the more public aid money the sector receives.” He’s right. He goes on to say, “From a social-justice perspective, that’s counterintuitive.” He’s right about that too, and he eventually asks: “What is the argument for spending the most on those who have the most?”

I can’t guarantee this is the argument—and indeed there may not be one, since the higher-education system evolved by accident rather than being planned by design—but one possible answer is that the current system evolved primarily to subsidize and conduct research. If the purpose of the fiscal structure of universities attempts to maximize research rather than social justice, then it may make sense to spend the most money on universities and programs that produce a lot of research. That obviously isn’t community colleges, whatever their other merits.

The idea that universities are primarily about social justice seems to have come along later than the idea of universities as research labs. In the U.S. at least, universities have had a couple major phases: first primarily as seminaries for the clergy; then as finishing schools for the wealthy, which usually coexisted with ways of spreading knowledge about agriculture and teaching; then, during and after World War II, as research hubs; and in the last couple decades as ways of rectifying real or perceived inequality. Reed’s third paragraph starts with “From a social-justice perspective,” and that may not be the dominant perspective among legislators, whether state or national. Certainly during much of the Cold War period from 1945 – 1975, when money poured into universities per Louis Menand’s The Marketplace of Ideas, it wasn’t.

My dissertation is on academic novels and I’ve now read a huge amount of material related to the conception of universities from 1945 – the present. One persistent theme is that intelligent people in every era disagree both what universities as a whole are for and quite often on the discipline or department level what each discipline or department is for. In this respect Reed’s post is a continuation of this discussion.

My favorite answer about the question of what universities for has been attributed to various people, and here is one rendition: “a university is a happy place if the administration provides football for the alumni, parking for the faculty, and sex for the students.” Incidentally, in all three regards and certainly for the first and last, flagship public universities far outperform their Ivy League peers. It’s nice to be number one in some domains. Murray Sperber’s Beer & Circus argues that sports and sex have been central preoccupations for a very long time; perhaps nerds like me have the wrong perspective.

I wish I had a neat transition into this point, but I don’t while still thinking it important to note: tne problem or virtue with universities comes from the way all sorts of weird cross subsidies happen at all kinds of levels, to the point that I’m not sure it’s possible to disentangle what’s happening fiscally.

EDIT: Malcolm Gladwell’s article “The Order of Things, about the impossibility of ranking heterogeneous colleges in a fair or objective way, is also relevant here:

The U.S. News rankings turn out to be full of these kinds of implicit ideological choices. [. . .] There is no right answer to how much weight a ranking system should give to these two competing values. It’s a matter of which educational model you value more—and here, once again, U.S. News makes its position clear.

I admire Reed for raising the question. But it’s also important to recognize the priorities any division of resources like the one among colleges entails.

August 10, 2014 / Jake Seliger

Briefly noted: The Magician’s Land — Lev Grossman

(For background see this 2009 post on The Magicians and this less positive post on its sequel, The Magician King. Without those for context this post won’t make sense, and, as with most books towards the end of a series, the latest only matters to those who have read the earlier.)

At the beginning of The Magician’s Land we see a metaphor for post-2008, or maybe post-1973, diminished expectations, when things that are supposed to happen to other people happen to us (“It’s a recession when your neighbor loses his job and a depression when you lose yours”):

Stuff like this was for people on the fringes of the magical world, people scrabbling to get in, or who’d lost their footing somehow and slipped out of the bright warm center of things, all the way out to the cold margins of the real world. All the way out to a strip mall in Hackensack in the rain. Things like this weren’t for people like him.

But they are, as literature reminds us. It can always get worse and at times the only thing we change is our reaction. Quentin is getting better at changing his reactions to circumstances and one could read the trilogy as a commentary on his shifting ability to do precisely that. As an alternate reading, it could be seen as the latest in a long line of works asking what is real: “This all seemed a hell of a lot more real than it had half an hour ago.”

MagiciansLandWelcome to the desert of the real. One professor in grad school, who otherwise took many dubious positions to the point of seeming like a character in an academic novel, liked to say that the real is what hurts. It’s a good working definition. I’d add that the real is what hurts or what works. The latter explains much of what’s wrong with philosophy, and its literary studies branches.

Quentin has also taken on some of the dullness of middle age, and though in the process he has gained the loss of most of his early petulance. Many of the description, including descriptions of family and friends, still resonate and hurt:

When he thought of his parents it was almost like they were old lovers, so distant now that he couldn’t even remember why his link to them had once seemed to real and urgent. They’d managed the neat trick of bringing up a child with whom they had absolutely nothing in common, or if there was something none of them had risen to the challenge of finding it.

Friends are arguably the family you choose, but friends are also hard to sustain in world of growth, evolution, and changing circumstances: people must grow together or apart, and in many cases friendships do not survive circumstances. One could be sad or stoic about such things.

The book raises other questions. What do the many odd metaphors and pop-culture references mean (“He’d been a good person, or good enough, but mostly what he’d showed Quentin was how to move through the universe while disturbing it as little as possible, and how to compile and maintain the world’s most complete collection of Jeff Goldblum movies on Blu-ray, apart, presumably from Jeff Goldblum’s” or “fairies thought all this military stuff was pretty silly, but they went along with it for the same reason that fairies ever did anything, namely, for the lulz”)? They undercut fantasy tropes but also make the characters highly associative. Another sample: “It was like a box with a whole herd of Schrödinger’s cats in it. With a little magical know-how you could alter the order in which your cards came out; with a little more you could guess what your opponent was going to play before she played it” (note that this comes just a few pages after Quentin explains his poverty—why not just do this in Vegas?).

Other notes: There is a MacGuffin. The initial plot about Quentin needing money seems unlikely; he has long had the same problem as the girls on Girls: he needs to get a job, or find a purpose greater than himself. Leading a generative life is important and yet we often get little guidance in this regard. One purpose of novels could be to give us guidance to leading a generative life. Novels show both failure and success, and arguably occasional transcendence towards a quasi godhood rarely if ever achieved by those of us outside books.

I would argue that Quentin succeeds or seems to at the end of The Magician’s Land—attend to that language about bridges and other connectors—but the possibility of success is there from the beginning, when Quentin finds himself in a bookstore, and “he felt at home in a bookstore. [. . . ] It didn’t matter where you were, if you were in a room full of books you were at least halfway home.” Bookstores represent what is effectively infinite possibility: they are like the Neitherlands, the world between the worlds.

I can’t get excited enough about the book to write extensively about it, which may say something about the book or may say something about this writer. Nonetheless, here is an interview on Vox. Here is Slate. Here is The Atlantic. Here is Grossman explaining how not to write your first novel. I think he said in my interview with him that publishing as an industry is no fair and fairly random, which the linked essay perhaps supports.


Note: This is based on a review copy.

August 7, 2014 / Jake Seliger

Thoughts on the movie “Blue is the Warmest Color”

* Domestic life is presented as boring and stultifying and contrasts strongly with erotic life, but is that really an uncommon message in most movies or novels? That being said Blue is the Warmest Color is very good at juxtapositions. It’s also the kind of movie that I should find horribly boring yet didn’t, and not primarily for the obvious reasons.

* “Traveling opens your mind,” a character says at the end, but does he mean “legs” as many people do when they speak to the virtues of travel? French art, based on my unrepresentative sample, depicts boredom well. Also, isn’t France supposed to be the land of tolerance? The New York Times depicts it that way.

Blue is the warmest color* The gawkiness of adolescence is depicted effectively; this is both a positive and negative at once. So too does the movie catch the faux knowingness and unwillingness to admit ignorance.

* Peak experiences count for a lot and yet how many people explicitly structure their lives around such experiences?

* Relatively few girls seem willing to embrace who they are in a sexual context; that is one reason the Duke porn freshman is interesting: she isn’t following the shame script. “Seem” may be key here.

* There are many more and longer soulful looks than there would be in an American movie but they tend to work. How much of attraction happens at the nonverbal level?

* This is hardly a novel idea but many social attacks on others are really projections of our own insecurities.

* Emma understands that there is no law in the arena. Adèle does not. She should read less Sartre and more Paglia.

* As a kid you’re judge but what you hope to do or accomplish, but at some point that flips and you’re judged by what you have accomplished. That transition is rarely announced either.

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