Thursday, July 20, 2017

Dream Hoarders

In a recent Times Op Ed, ("How We are Ruining America,"7/11/17), David Brooks cites a book entitled Dream Hoarders, by Richard Reeves of the Brookings Institution. Brooks’ point is that the privileged classes of America not only want to insure that their children maintain educational hegemony, but that they make sure that those of more modest means are prevented from gaining entrée. The fact that affluence breeds an intrinsic parsimoniousness and miserliness and that rather than being sated those who have been able to achieve their goals perpetually want more is practically an axiom of human behavior. Countermanding this tendency is the so-called altruistic impulse that some epigenetics people feel is naturally selective, but to put forth another term employed by Daniel Kahneman in books like books like Thinking, Fast and Slow, many people suffer from irrational, emotion-based behaviors. Part of the lack of generosity  evidenced by a materialistic culture, in which hedonism has attained almost ethical status, derives from the feeling that there isn’t enough to go around and that one person’s pleasure is another’s pain. With these kinds of priorities, it’s no wonder that society is polarized in a way that mirrors the accumulation of wealth itself--in which money invested and reinvested creates ever great amounts of capital accumulation and inequity. In The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Thomas Kuhn famously coined the term "paradigm shift." The reformation of our educational system requires a sea change in thinking. It’s one thing to be single-minded and another to narrowcast to such an extent that you don’t see the woods from the trees. It’s like a fighter who throws punches but doesn’t know anything about defense. Eventually he or she will be knocked out.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

The Big Sick

Can you create a comedy out of a chronic, potentially life-threatening medical condition? What about 9/11 sick jokes? Michael Showalter's The Big Sick doesn’t pull any punches. It’s a mixture of Love Story and My Beautiful Laundrette, a social satire and melodrama rolled into one. The lingua franca of the movie about Kumail (Kumail Nanjiani) an aspiring Pakistani standup comic who falls for Emily (Zoe Kazan), a psychology graduate student felled by a serious illness, is almost entirely the one-liner. “Emily is fine,” Kumail informs Emily’s parents, “She’s in a medically induced coma.” When Emily’s father asks the man who may be his future son-in-law, “what’s your stance on 9/11?” Kumail replies.”9/11 was a tragedy. We lost l9 of our best guys.” Even the characters who are not in the comedy business spew out one-liners that catch you off guard. Just after Emily emerges from her coma, she stares at her father and cries out “that shit tastes like semen” when a nurse tries to feed her. Despite his elation over his daughter's recovery, it's not exactly the first words a father expects to hear as her daughter emerges from her sick bed. And Showalter turns his own palette on its head during dramatic moments when some of Kumail’s routines become confessionals. It’s all very pat and predictable stuff yet curiously infectious. You don’t want to enjoy jokes being made at the expense of real conflicts and problems and you don’t want to find yourself being wafted away by a Pakastani soap opera that recycles a plot about intermarriage that could easily have made its way onto the stage of the Yiddish theater. Yet the sum of the parts turns out to be greater than the whole and the hysteria of all the converging plot lines and crises (as Emily’s condition worsens and Kumail is in danger of being disowned by his parents) makes it hard to walk out of The Big Sick without a smile on  your face.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

"Bromancing" the Stone

Ever since "bromance" became popular, particularly in describing our current president’s fleeting intimacies, that have the feel of one night stands, with both advisors and leaders of state, there’s been a boom in the market for hybrid words. Let’s come up with a few new possibilities. How about "relationshop," a relationship to someone with whom you go shopping, say at a mall? Another might be "nagravate," a mixture between nag and aggravate. The average person who's aggravating is also a nag and the word brings together both intentions in one rebarbative neologism. The technology revolution has created a multi-tasking culture and language reflects this. There’s no longer time to have two nouns or especially verbs. People who try to nag and aggravate are left in the dust just as like those who want to have relationships and go shopping. Slight adjustments in syntax enable people to vomit all their desires out at once and when you think about it, there’s actually something good in all this hurry. Many activities don’t really deserve the care and attention they're allotted. For instance you probably don’t have time to exercise and text, you "exertext" and "sexting" has become such a ubiquitous activity that you’d probably be hard put to find many couples who just have plain old sex without their phones in hand. "Interface" is old style, a mix of “between” and “turn towards” or engage. It’s the ur word molecule made up of two prime elements and it comprises everything that's good and bad about our multivalent civilization.

Monday, July 17, 2017

Should You See a Psychoanalyst or an Exterminator?

There are conditions where people feel there are bugs crawling all over them. Sometimes those who’re suffering from the DT’s experience those kinds of hallucinations. But isn’t it interesting that simple anxiety is often projected onto rodents. Often people complain about bugs crawling all over them when they’re nervous. Remember the scene in Annie Hall where Alvy (Woody Allen) swats the spider to the consternation of Annie (Diane Keaton). Here a sensitivity to insects is not only a cultural but racial divide and it’s surprising that exterminators rather than psychoanalysts have not played a larger role in Woody Allen’s oeuvre. Kafka’s The Metamorphosis in which the story’s central character Gregor Samsa wakes up to find himself turned into an insect is, of course, one of the great metaphors for anxiety. What could be worse than finding oneself helplessly trapped in the body of such an easily eradicable and dispensable creature? The yawning indifference of the cosmos is bad enough, but moving down the food chain only makes matters worse. Insects may be threats to the anxious soul, but being reduced to their condition is even worse. What more hyperbolic expression of helplessness can be found than the ant, which not being small enough to be invisible, always runs the risk of being crushed by larger creatures—albeit there are the biting red ants and bedbugs for which a sleeping human body makes a perfect host?

Friday, July 14, 2017

Paris Journal: Totalitarian Tourism

photo: Benh LIEU SONG
Totalitarian tourism has taken the place of the old-fashioned romance that used to accompany travel to far away places. “Only connect” are E.M. Forster’s famous words from Howards End, but it’s a far cry from today’s traveler infected by a new form of imperialism that turns places into that favored word of travel agents,"properties." Chasing the bulls at Pamplona is a far cry from what too often happens today, i.e.,  “doing the chasing of the bulls at Pamplona.” Hemingway wouldn’t have been happy. On the other hand he wouldn’t have been any more happier to find more than one Hemingway living in such an outsized way that they were moved to write To Have and Have Not or For Whom the Bell Tolls. But what are our modern days tourists after? In the absence of the possibility of being a lost generation, they have done to travel, what the business of art has to great bursts of energy in which great works have been created. A generation of collectors have emerged, who tally up sites the way hunters once did heads. The gap between the business of art and the making of art has widened the more art became a business that created its own markets. Similarly, the inspiration for travel, at least from the imaginative point of view, has radically changed the more the uniqueness of travel as way of seeing the world anew has buckled under the constraints of a universe in which nothing is new. Now there's not so much a rage to live as a desire to accumulate and control, to itemize, record and categorize—all elements of the attendant sensibility to collecting, connoisseurship.  2014 might have been deemed the year to do Petra, in the same way that another year might have produced a good Petrus. 2013 was a bad year for Kenyan travel with the Westgate mall shootings, but perhaps a better one for Iceland, as the financial crisis passed and the proximity of the destination began to attract American tourists. Portugal has had some devastating fires, but raise a glass to Lisbon, which is fast becoming the place for a new generation of tourists seeking out reasonably priced hotels and great, but still reasonably priced restaurants.