dirty laundry

(I wrote this in 1998 for the journal Bad Subjects. I am reprinting it here, unedited, because the Bad Subjects website has been down for what feels like years. Looking at it now, I realize the third paragraph has the style of the fiction I wrote briefly in the mid-90s. It's also interesting to look back into my past, since as I type this, my wife and I are retired and doing pretty well because she worked at an HMO for 15 years.)

Dirty Laundry: Wherein a trip to the laundromat leads to ruminations about health

I'm at the laundromat. Five quarters to wash a load of clothes, another three or four to dry them. I have lots of loads. I come every two weeks; we have a washer and dryer, but the dryer has been broken for months going on years, and even though it probably wouldn't take much to get it fixed, and even though I detest the laundromat, every two weeks I trudge down with load after load of dirty laundry.

I sit at a table while the clothes get clean, reading Dostoevsky on my Palm Pilot. At the table to my left, a woman does her banking while she waits for her own clothes to finish. The manager of this laundromat is an older guy who moves very slowly from one end of the room to the other. He moves so slowly, I've come to think of him in my mind as Uncle Joe, after the character in Petticoat Junction. Some say he lives in a room hidden behind the dryers. Every once in a while when I am washing clothes, the owner comes in to collect the change from all the machines. He banters with Uncle Joe, as if they were old friends. In Berkeley, owners like to think they treat their workers as equals. In the far corner, a man sits staring at the washing machine that holds his clothes. Every few minutes, he gets up, goes over to the wash basin stuffed into his corner, and washes his hands. Then he returns to watch his machine, until he again gets the desire to wash his hands in the basin. He does this a dozen times, two dozen times. The washing machine with his clothes never seems to finish, but perhaps he doesn't mind, as this gives him more time to clean his hands.

I decide to step outside for a bit, to get some fresh air. I go to the parking lot and walk over to my car. A man is sitting in a car parked next to mine; he is listening to talk radio and coughing up mucus into a cruddy handkerchief. Across the street, a middle-aged woman stands on the sidewalk, smoking a cigarette. We're an unhealthy lot. I go back into the laundromat, where my dirty laundry gets clean. There is always lots of dirty laundry at the laundromat. I check on my clothes and go back to "Notes From the Underground."

Laundromats are public places. But they are not exactly the town square, not really the site for communal gatherings. Revolutionaries wouldn't meet in laundromats to plot their insurrections. Long ago, when I was first married, my wife and I had one of those meaningless spats that allowed each of us the chance to prove that, married or not, we were still separate individuals. I decided to run away from home. Since I only had a couple of bucks to my name, I decided to head for the closest laundromat. I knew it was open 24 hours a day. I knew I could hide there. I knew there would be no revolutionaries to ask me troubling questions. It was the laundromat.

I'm still married. I'm still going to the laundromat. I see many unhealthy people in the laundromat, who I assume are fighting personal demons, as we wash our hands and do our banking and relax in our rooms behind the dryers. It's a public place, but I never speak to anyone. A friend told me recently that she has begun trying to strike up conversations in the laundromat. I wonder why she bothers, even as I am impressed by her efforts.

Public places are important, even or perhaps especially anonymous public places like laundromats. For the ever-growing number of people who are abandoned by more traditional outlets designed to help the poor and infirm, laundromats provide a momentary refuge from the rest of the world. Of course, I am only guessing at this, for unlike my friend, I don't talk when my dirty laundry is out where people can see it. I go back to my Dostoevsky and imagine what kinds of lives my fellow laundromat inhabitants lead.

Even in this public place, we are all on our own, with our Russian literature and our checking accounts and our hand-washing rituals. When it comes to our health, physical and spiritual, we are on our own. The sick of America need our laundromats, which are open 24 hours a day, whether or not you've got health insurance, whether or not you're stable enough to get from one day to the next without your mind exploding.

"Lord, you don't know the shape I'm in."
-- The Band, "The Shape I'm In"

These days, it seems like individuals are responsible for their own health. One of the most treasured aspects of some jobs in the USA is health insurance. Without it, you are at the mercy of your body and your pocketbook. Without it, you are on your own. I rely on my wife's group insurance plan at her work, which allows me membership in an HMO. A few years ago, she was free-lancing, and so she had to arrange her own insurance. There was no group plan, and her new plan wouldn't take me with her. I am not healthy. My cholesterol is too high, my blood-pressure is too high, I have a history of migraines and my lungs aren't too good, and I get kidney stones every few years. I am a bad risk. What to do? Eat better. Get more exercise. Improve my mental attitude. Drink many gallons of water every day. Piss it out all night long. I am responsible for my own health; if I get sick, and I don't have health insurance, and I don't have extra money lying around, I will just have to stay sick. Better to take matters into my own hands, make myself healthy, so I don't have to worry about insurance.

Of course, if I don't take matters into my own hands, then my poor health is my own damn fault, and if that's the case, then why should the government worry about me? God helps them that help themselves. Pull yourself up by your proverbial bootstraps. Like the hand-washer, like the man living among the clothes dryers, I am responsible for my situation. If I don't like it, I can make it better. This is America. Don't wait for someone else to take care of you; do it yourself. The rest of the country has more important things to do.

It is perhaps a useful metaphor for the health of the country, that we so often act as if people are as healthy as they want to be, as if illness were purely a function of the decisions we make as individuals. We think of our own health as something distinct from the health of other people. A more holistic approach to health might look to an ailment in one part of our body as something which affects the body as a whole; we would indeed look to make the weakest members of our society stronger. But America rejects the holistic approach. No matter how many sick people walk the streets of America, the so-called healthy assume that their own apparent good fortune is all that matters. We are on our own. If you have the money, you buy a washer and a dryer, so you never have to air your dirty laundry in public.

The flaws in this "system" should be obvious, and thus it is no wonder that "alternative" medicine is on the rise. And it is easy, too easy in fact, to assume that such an alternative must be viable, even crucial, to a healthier public, on the level of the old saw that the enemy of my enemy must be my friend. On the one hand we have for-profit "health" in a capitalist society, rooted not only in profits but in the omnipresent (and therefore questionable, for anything so closely tied to the capitalist menace must be challenged) "Western science." On the other hand, we have an "alternative." To what precisely it is an alternative hardly matters, as long as it is presented as the enemy of my enemy.

And so increasing numbers move towards this alternative, often leading to startling cultural dislocations, as in the case of Isaac Hayes, Mr. Hot Buttered Soul himself. One week Hayes, in his role as Chef on South Park, sings about how delicious are his spicy chocolate balls. The next week, he appears on the cover of Alternative Medicine magazine, touting the wonders of the Master Cleanser. "For nearly a month," we are informed, Hayes gave himself a cleansing fast where "he drank six to 12 servings a day of a blend of water, lemon juice, cayenne pepper, and maple syrup." Which certainly qualifies as an alternative to chocolate balls, if nothing else. Is this the proper alternative to a life of dirty laundry? Can we ride Master Cleanser into the millennium, proud and victorious over a health system that has abandoned so many?

"The Twentieth Century has not been particularly kind to me"
-- Bob Mould, "I Hate Alternative Rock"

There are at least three areas where Alternative Medicine falls short. Granted, in at least two of these areas, mainstream medicine fails as well, but this should not prevent us from exercising our critical thinking skills in the analysis of the alternative. First, though, it is worth noting that the problems I describe here relate to what we might call the "alternative mainstream," systems of thought whose opposition to standard capitalist medical practices is more apparent than real. As is true in so many areas, excellent work is being done at the grass-roots level to help improve the health of the many Americans forced to the fringes of society. But, as is also often true, such work is largely neglected, by both the mainstream and "alternative mainstream" media, in favor of the Master Cleanser version of alternative medicine.

One initial problem is that the insistence on personal responsibility for one's own health that often pops up in discussion of alternative medicine is -- or should be -- more limited than it actually is. A smoker might be well advised to give up cigarettes as part of an attempt to improve their own health. But can you blame the patient for having germs? For getting cancer? For being born with a weak this or an impaired that? Do we blame the patients when they don't get better? The mainstream health system, with its emphasis on the doctor/expert, may give too much power to that expert, but with that power comes responsibility, and failure results in blame. Alternative medicine, taking power away from the experts and giving it to the patient, also transfers responsibility (and blame) to that patient. It isn't any different from conservative social theory that blames the poor for their own plight. You aren't sick because you have a disease which might be cured with a pill; you are sick because you haven't fully integrated your mind and body into a whole. It's your own fault.

Second, it must be noted that whatever alternative medicine is opposed to, it is not an alternative to capitalism. Alt-health gurus are as interested in making a buck within the system as more traditional doctors. This relates to the previous problem: your poor health isn't the fault of the for-profit health system of capitalist societies, it's the fault of the "dis-eased" patient who hasn't accepted their holistic reality. Whether it's colonics or vitamins, aromatherapy or shark cartilage, someone is always ready to make a buck off of your anxieties about health.

Most importantly, though, is the rejection not only of problematic aspects of the Western science tradition, but of important and vital aspects of that tradition. In particular, the frequent absence of systematic analysis such as double-blind testing means that far too many alt-health claims are rooted in the anecdotal and the unverifiable. That some people are susceptible to vague claims is understood; that people concerned about their health might be particularly willing to believe that something might improve their lives is also understood. What is hard to understand, though, is why anyone (including leftist cultural critics) who is ready to attack complex social problems with critical thinking strategies, would turn their brains off when it came to the relative merits of aromatherapy versus a visit to the doctor for a drug prescription. We are back to our old saw: the Age of Reason and the glorification of Science and Progress is so clearly problematic that the absence of concrete scientific data regarding the value of something like aromatherapy is seen as a positive. Aromatherapy proves it is the enemy of Science (my supposed enemy) by existing outside Science, which makes aromatherapy my friend. That this is nonsense is only part of the story. What is especially sad is how often this means that otherwise intelligent people risk their very lives in the service of "alternative" health notions.

"You took my joy, I want it back"
-- Lucinda Williams, "Joy"

Me, I take pills. My cholesterol has been high for at least 20 years. I've lost weight and I've gained weight, I've been in good shape and I've been in bad shape, I've eaten crappy food and I've eaten healthy food, and through it all, my cholesterol remained high. About a year ago my doctor prescribed something called Lipitor. Within months, my cholesterol reached normal levels for the first time since I can remember it being checked. I have had severe headaches ever since I can remember (and I can remember stuff from 40 years ago). I tried acupuncture and I tried meditation. Then my doctor prescribed Beconase, a topical nasal spray steroid. I haven't had a headache since.

Meanwhile, I avoid the worst of the self-flagellation that comes from blaming the victim. Yes, I need to take care of myself; yes, I am responsible for my health. But my headaches aren't a result of pent-up aggression, they are (happily, I can now say "were") a result of sinus problems.

To enjoy good health is to enjoy life. A life full of joy, this is a goal many of us would love to achieve. But while lip service is paid to the notion of joy, there is actually very little joy in American health. Not from the alt-med crowd, with their endless Thou Shalt Nots and their Maple Syrup diets and their victim-blaming philosophy. Living on Master Cleanser for weeks on end is a way of placing health ABOVE joy; it mistrusts joy, assumes that we are better off being miserable but "healthy" than we are being some combination of joyful and healthy.

But neither is there joy in the laundromats of America. It's hard to find joy living behind the dryers. Good health isn't any easier to find. The cholesterol medicine I take is paid for by our healthcare plan. The actual cost of the pills is about $135 a month. Without health insurance, I'd still have high cholesterol. And too many Americans, too many people across the globe, are without guaranteed health care of one kind or another.

No health care, no joy. No joy, and we're in the underground with Dostoevsky. Our collective laundry is still dirty. We can wash our hands as many times as we like, but we can't get rid of the depression that accompanies the helplessness and joylessness of the modern health care "system." We need to demand our joy.

Copyright © 1998, 2020 by Steven Rubio . All rights reserved. Permission to link to this site is granted.


memory

Sarah Griffiths has a good piece over on Medium: "Your Childhood Memories Are Probably Fake".

Fictional memories seem just as real as those we have evidence of and therefore know to be true. Brain scans have shown that the neural activity for false memories in adults looks incredibly similar to the activity for a real memory and involves the same regions of the brain, including the hippocampus. This means it could be questionable whether we have any “real memories” that can be relied upon at all, because to some degree all our memories are reconstructions.

I used to obsess about this stuff when I taught classes on critical thinking. Well, I still obsess, I just don't teach classes on it, so I don't have the opportunity to force it down my students' throats. One of my favorite anecdotes about the hazy nature of memory is about July 30, 1959. On that date, future Hall of Famer Willie McCovey made his major-league debut, going 4-for-4 with 2 triples against another future Hall of Famer, Robin Roberts. We know this happened because baseball has detailed records.

I remember this game, not because I was in attendance, but because it was a big deal. The Giants only arrived in San Francisco in 1958, and it was normal to hear the games on portable radios wherever you went. I had just turned six years old, so this is one of my first memories, and what I remember (besides McCovey which can be looked up and verified) is where I was at the time, with my family. And what makes that interesting is if you ask my brother, who was six years older than me, or my cousin, who was seven years older than me, they will tell you they also remember that day, and remember hearing it on the radio, only they were at a different place than I remember ... with my family. Someone's memory is wrong.

Baseball is a useful way to check people's memory. Often, Giants announcer and former pitcher Mike Krukow will tell a story about some game he pitched, and I'll check it out to see if he has his facts right (he often does pretty well). I can tell you the date of the first time I took my son to a baseball game. If I was relying solely on memory, I'd tell you it was 1978, and he was three years old. But I also remember Giants catcher John Tamargo hitting a triple in that game. It was an important hit, bringing home the tying run in the bottom of the ninth, sending the game into extra innings, where the Giants eventually lost. But I can tell you the exact date, because John Tamargo only hit one triple in his entire major-league career. So all I have to do is find that date, and voila! (It was September 2.)

Here's one I was reminded of the other day when I was at the park and saw a famous (to Giants fans) photo:

David bell 2002

The man sliding across home plate is David Bell. The Giants players are celebrating because when Bell scored in the bottom of the ninth inning, it gave the Giants the win that sent them to the 2002 World Series, their first trip to the Series in 13 years. Anytime I want, I can close my eyes and remember Bell's slide. It looks just like it does in this picture.

Except ... in those days, I had season tickets, so I was at the game in question. My seats were in the upper deck, almost directly behind home plate. Here is the view from those seats:

Seatview2_edited

You see the problem here. When I watched David Bell slide across home plate that evening, from my view he was sliding diagonally along the base path from left to right. The famous photo, on the other hand, was taken from the right side of the field (and lower/closer, for what it's worth). From my seats, #35 (Rich Aurilia) was jumping in our general direction. In short, Bell's slide looked to me nothing like the way it looks in the photo.

But, as I said, nowadays, 16 years later and counting, when I close my eyes and remember the slide, it looks like the photo. The photo has become my memory, overriding the event as I actually experienced it.

Just to complete everything, here's how it looked on national TV:

 


the eclipse and me

In the days before radio, baseball fans could keep up with the action for big events such as the World Series, in real time, by attending places that used giant scoreboards to update every play. You can read about these here: "Photography of Playography".

This was as good as it got, other than attending a game in person, until the advent of radio. The first major-league baseball game on the radio was in 1921, and radio reigned supreme for four decades, give or take. Radio was eventually supplanted by television, although the two co-exist to this day. (Those giant scoreboards have a modern-day approximation in the various apps that update games on the web and mobile devices using animation and vast statistical resources.)

Many of the earliest radio broadcasts were narrated by announcers who were not actually at the game. The announcer would read the game events as they came to him via telegraph and relate them to the listeners as if he was at the ballpark. These recreations were aided by sound effects, while the announcer would fill the time between pitches pretty much the same way they do today. Future president Ronald Reagan performed recreations in the 1930s.

Televised baseball, in its infancy, was a simple affair, with a limited number of cameras and no instant replay. This has evolved to what we get today, which features multiple viewings of each play, shots of kids in the crowd eating popcorn, and the like.

Growing up in the 60s, I had the chance to watch the American space program from the country's first man in space, Alan Shepard, to Neil Armstrong's first steps on the moon. I can remember many times the networks would show animated simulations of what was happening in space, beyond the camera's eye.

Meanwhile, the astronauts themselves worked on countless simulated flights before the real thing took place. In The Right Stuff, Tom Wolfe gets inside John Glenn's head as Glenn looked at the Earth from space.

He knew what it was going to look like in any case. He had seen it all in photographs taken from the satellites. It had all been flashed on the screens for him. Even the view had been simulated. Yes ... that's the way they said it would look ... Awe seemed to be demanded, but how could he express awe honestly? He had lived it all before the event. How could he explain that to anybody?

It was as if the simulation was real, and real was a poor substitute.

I slept through most of today's eclipse. My son took a couple of pictures, where if I looked close enough, I could see ... well, I'm not sure what I saw. It was very overcast in our neck of the woods. Fog rules over eclipses when you live a couple of miles from the coast. Our daughter's family drove up to Oregon, and I imagine her two sons will remember the trip.

Of course, it was practically impossible to avoid animated simulations of what the eclipse would be like, in the days before the event. My guess is that I'll remember this eclipse ... it's just that I'll remember those simulations. Or maybe I'll check out the instant replays on YouTube.


the moon

We tried to see the moon tonight ... even drove around looking for a better vantage point ... but the fog wasn’t letting us enjoy the big event.

Then finally it appeared, still in total eclipse. It was covered in a thin sheet of fog, and you had to put your hand up to hide the street lights, but at least we got to see it.

The best part, though, wasn’t the moon, it was the people. I was sitting on the porch. A man walked by, and I said something about the moon. We exchanged a few words, then we exchanged names, then he told us he had retired, but he had been one of our garbage men for many years. A couple of guys from down the street walked up our way, wondering if we could see anything. Robin used an app on her tablet to figure out exactly where to look, and she was the first to see the moon. After a couple of minutes, the other guys walked back to where they had come from, and immediately they called us to come over, explaining that you could see the moon much better from their vantage point. We went there and sure enough, the view was better. One of the guys went inside his house and brought his mom out to see. Across the street, a few people came outside ... they didn’t come over to our side, because from where they stood, there was no interference from the street lights. Soon, a few other families came over, parents pointing out the moon to kids, everyone just chatting about it.

I’m not big on nature, and I’m not exactly Mr. Neighborhood. But damn if that moon didn’t bring us all together for a moment.


link dump

“’We seem to be more frightened than we’ve ever been’: Eula Biss on anti-vaxxers, white privilege and our strange new culture of fear”. “If you don’t approach your subject from a paranoid posture, the risk is that you’ll be seen as naive and complacent, as someone who is kind of playing the fool to institutions of power.”

Blame Republicans, Not Madison, for Gridlock”. “The real problem preventing compromise isn’t inherent in the political system. It's something particularly wrong with the Republican Party, which has become increasingly hostile to the very notion of compromise.”

New Atheists are wrong about Islam. Here’s how data proves it”. “A majority of both Christians and Muslims seem to embrace at least some separation of sacred and secular in politics. That’s one finding that was perhaps surprising and also showed that Muslims are less distinctive than we might think.”

The Hunting of Billie Holiday: How Lady Day found herself in the middle of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics’ early fight for survival.” “Billie didn’t blame Anslinger’s agents as individuals; she blamed the drug war itself—because it forced the police to treat ill people like criminals.”

'That's Not All!' Kevin Trudeau, The World’s Greatest Salesman, Makes One Last Pitch”. “There was his own Mega Memory training program; the Sable Hair-Farming System (which he promised would ‘end hair loss in the human race’); Dr. Callahan’s Addiction-Breaking System (which he said could break the user of any addiction in 60 seconds ‘virtually 100 percent of the time’); Howard Berg’s Mega Reading speed-reading program, the Perfect Lift Non-Surgical Face Lift, and Eden’s Secret Nature’s Purifying Product. There were magnetic toe rings and magnetic mattress pads, crocodile protein peptide, and Biotape, an adhesive tape said to relieve pain by reestablishing broken electrical connections in the body.”


maybe it's just that my brain is broken

Today I watched a soccer match between AC Milan and Inter Milan. Matches between these two are called the “Derby della Madonnina” (here in the U.S. it’s just the Milan Derby). This rivalry dates back to 1908. The two teams are historically very good. What makes this rivalry especially noteworthy is that both clubs play their home matches in the same stadium, the San Siro.

AC Milan’s home jerseys look like this:

Inter Milan’s home jerseys look like this:

I’m not sure why Inter, the “away” team in this match, wore their home jerseys, although I guess they were playing at their home, the San Siro. Whatever, the players looked like those jerseys for the match, with Milan in red and Inter in blue.

As I often do, while the match went on, I had the WhoScored website up in my browser. They offer real-time stat updates. The screen for Milan-Inter looked like this:

whoscored

I hope you can see the problem. On WhoScored for this match, Milan was in blue and Inter was in red, although those colors were switched for the actual players’ jerseys as I watched my TV. What was worse, in the first half, Inter was going from left-to-right on my screen, Milan from right-to-left. I hope you can see how this was a problem, as well.

My brain couldn’t handle all of this. Even though I’ve seen these teams play many times, I kept getting confused about which team was which as I watched.

I’m sure the brain scientists can explain why this was so frustrating. Or maybe it’s just that my brain is broken.


bewailing the loss of youth

Recently, my friend Catherine Hollis posted something on Facebook from a poem by François Villon:

My time of youth I do bewail,

That more than most lived merrily,

Until old age ‘gan me assail,

For youth had passed unconsciously.

It wended not afoot from me,

Nor yet on horseback. Ah, how then?

It fled away all suddenly

And never will return again.

We had a short conversation in the comments section, wherein she kindly said I was “authentic”. I noted I couldn’t really take credit for that, to which she replied, “Well, there’s only one of you anyway!” And that made me realize/respond: “That's true! And thus, even when I'm being inauthentic, I am in fact being authentic.”

One of the categories I tag on this blog is “science”. It has been neglected for too long … the last time I used the tag was April 23 of last year, in a post that was more about music than science in any event. The reason the post warranted the science tag was that I was prompted by an article titled “Why You Truly Never Leave High School” that focused on neuroscience.

And there’s this picture, which I posted on Facebook in response to someone else’s photo of Taco Bell back in the day:

Taco Bell  A033

This photo brings back many memories for me. For one thing, my longtime friend Dub DeBrie is cut out of the picture (he’s on the left), and in some odd way, that makes him more memorable than if he’d shown up in the photo. The fellow on the left, John, was a truly wonderful guy who has dropped out of touch with us all over the years. On the right is Ann, with her Cheshire cat grin and her languid demeanor … yes, I had a crush on her. I can look at myself and date the picture within a fairly tight time frame: my hair was just starting to grow out for the first time, which means I was no longer under my parents’ control in that area, which means summer of 1970.

What drew the most commentary on Facebook was that thing I’m wearing. It’s a poncho, although for reasons that now escape me, I called it a serape. I wore it pretty much every day for about three years … when someone pointed out the likely exaggeration in that statement, several people who knew me then came to my defense and said yes, he did wear it all the time. I don’t think I gave it much thought back then, but playing amateur psychologist now, I’d say I was looking for an identity that wasn’t confusing, and decided I’d be The Guy Who Wore the Poncho. (I still dress kinda like that. I’m not as bad as Steve Jobs, but I’ve got maybe three shirts, one pair of jeans, and one pair of shoes that I wear around 95% of the time. It’s not related to identity any longer, though … I’m just lazy.)

I want science to explain all of this to me. I treat science the way many people treat religion, in that I have no idea how it works, I just believe in it. I want to know why that fragmentary memento of Ann on that particular day at that particular Taco Bell makes me feel nice. I want a concrete explanation for my various madeleines.

I say this as someone who married his high-school sweetheart, with our 41st anniversary coming in May. That makes no sense, and when people ask me how I’ve done it, I just say that I married the right person and she didn’t leave me. But in the back of my mind, even as I talk about romance and love, I still think there’s an explanation somewhere in our brains.

This makes me think of my psych meds. The person in that photo wasn’t on meds (although my parents had me on something for awhile when I was much younger). You might say I self-medicated, given the amount of psychedelics I ingested in those days. But that guy in the poncho is “authentic”. Now, I’m not nearly so sure of myself … maybe I need another poncho to re-establish my authenticity. The thing is, now that I’m on meds, I feel less authentic than ever. It’s a good thing … I’m not nearly the asshole I used to be. But the meds have never dulled me to the extent that I didn’t know they were working. I think the same stuff I always did. I just don’t act on those thoughts quite as readily, which is for the best.

The question is, am I being less authentic because I take chemicals that change my behavior, or am I being more authentic because the chemicals allow me to be “myself”?


leaving high school

“There’s no reason why, at the age of 60, I should still be listening to the Allman Brothers,” Steinberg says. “Yet no matter how old you are, the music you listen to for the rest of your life is probably what you listened to when you were an adolescent.” Only extremely recent advances in neuroscience have begun to help explain why.

It turns out that just before adolescence, the prefrontal cortex—the part of the brain that governs our ability to reason, grasp abstractions, control impulses, and self-­reflect—undergoes a huge flurry of activity, giving young adults the intellectual capacity to form an identity, to develop the notion of a self. Any cultural stimuli we are exposed to during puberty can, therefore, make more of an impression, because we’re now perceiving them discerningly and metacognitively as things to sweep into our self-concepts or reject (I am the kind of person who likes the Allman Brothers). “During times when your identity is in transition,” says Steinberg, “it’s possible you store memories better than you do in times of stability.”

-- “Why You Truly Never Leave High School” by Jennifer Senior

My teenage years were filled with the Beatles, the Velvet Underground, and Astral Weeks. I like to think my musical tastes have gotten broader as I got older … I used to get admiring laughs from students at Cal when I would demonstrate the difference between funk and disco by playing “The Big Payback” by James Brown … but I’m kidding myself. In my post-adolescent life (i.e., adulthood), my musical favorites have been Bruce Springsteen, punk, Prince, Sleater-Kinney, and Pink. Springsteen was famously called rock and roll future, but he was always far more a compilation of what came before. Punk felt revolutionary, but the music was a return to roots. Prince could do anything, but ultimately, he was Sly and the Family Stone with Hendrix sitting in on guitar. Sleater-Kinney were riot grrrls, to be sure, but by the time they met their hiatus with The Woods, it was clear they were indebted as much to Led Zeppelin as they were to Bikini Kill. Pink has offered wonderful covers of Led Zep and Queen and Janis Joplin … when I saw her at the Fillmore, she fit right in. I haven’t strayed too far from my teenage roots.

As I type this, I’m listening to “Live with Me” from Let It Bleed by the Stones. It’s part of my never-ending project/playlist, “FM”, with close to 3,000 tracks that were played on “underground” radio in the late-60s. (Coming up on the playlist: Jefferson Airplane, Beatles, Quicksilver Messenger Service.) This is my go-to playlist when I want to listen to comfort music. (There is nothing “comforting” about songs like “Inside Looking Out” by the Animals, but the ambiance they suggest is comforting.) It’s perilously close to nostalgia, which I hate in myself.

So I suppose it makes me feel better to read Jennifer Senior’s article and find that it’s not nostalgia, it’s neuroscience.

I want music to matter to me. Music in general mattered when I was a teenager, by which I mean I had favorites (Beatles, Velvet Underground, Yardbirds, Astral Weeks) but the integration of music and life was truly important (which is why my comfort playlist isn’t focused on a particular artist, but on the FM radio stations that got me through those years). I was 22 years old when we first connected with Bruce Springsteen, and that’s been a constant ever since. And there have always been others who mattered more than most: Dylan, Lou Reed, the Clash, Prince, Hüsker Dü, Sleater-Kinney. When S-K went on their “hiatus”, I suspected that I had experienced my last love affair with a musical artist. I was too old to crank it up all over again. Since then, I’ve seen Wild Flag three times and the Corin Tucker Band twice, but that’s not moving forward. I’ve seen Pink four times, with a fifth coming this fall … she’s easily the artist about whom I obsess the most these days, outside of Bruce. But I always feel like an observer in Pink’s universe. It’s not like with Sleater-Kinney, where somehow even a middle-aged guy like me felt a part of a community.

I spend a lot of time ranting about the evils of nostalgia, and get cranky at people who quit enjoying new music after they reach a certain age. Perhaps I should look in the mirror.


look up

I’m reading You Are Not So Smart by David McRaney, which I am using in a class this semester. In a chapter titled “Introspection”, he writes:

THE MISCONCEPTION: You know why you like the things you like and feel the way you feel.

THE TRUTH: The origin of certain emotional states is unavailable to you, and when pressed to explain them, you will just make something up.

The book appears to be a revision of some of his blog entries, so I can point you to a version of the chapter here:

Introspection Illusion

Quoting from the blog now, since it means I don’t have to type stuff in from the book:

Is there a certain song you love, or a work of art? Perhaps there is a movie you keep returning to over the years, or book. Go ahead and imagine one of those favorite things. Now, in one sentence, try to explain why you like it. Chances are, you will find it difficult to put into words, but if pressed you will probably be able to come up with something. The problem is, according to research, your explanation is probably going to be total bullshit. …

This brings up a lot of concerns. It calls into question the entire industry of critical analysis of art – video games, music, film, poetry, literature – all of it.

This ties into something I wrote in a comment yesterday, which reiterates a theory of mine: While we pretend that we construct analyses from scratch and then offer a final evaluation, in fact we first react in a like-don't like-meh manner, and then construct analyses to explain our taste preference. (It’s not analysis followed by evaluation, but evaluation followed by analysis.) I don’t think this process results in total bullshit, or I wouldn’t have spent eleven years writing this blog (or spent nine years getting a Ph.D in English). But the results aren’t what we think they are, and I find this statement of McRaney’s interesting:

When you ask people why they do or do not like things, they must then translate something from a deep, emotional, primal part of their psyche into the language of the higher, logical, rational world of words and sentences and paragraphs. The problem here is those deeper recesses of the mind are perhaps inaccessible and unconscious.

As I was reading this on my Nexus 7, I commented to my wife that there was a connection between the above and something that has fascinated me over the past couple of days. I have taken the following photo and made it the wallpaper for my Nexus, for my smartphone, and for my computer desktop:

face

I’ve spent an inordinate amount of time just staring at this photo. Something about it reaches me beyond “isn’t my grandson cute?” There are plenty of cute pictures of him … some are probably better than this one, especially when the camera catches him laughing, which is often. But I love this picture.

And so, as I stare and stare, I try to construct an explanation for why I like it so much. I’ve thought about how it is well-composed (although I’ve cropped it for my wallpapers, so that’s not likely the reason). I’ve thought about how he really is pretty darned cute (but, as I say, there are lots of cute pictures of him). I’ve noted the smoothness of his skin (more obvious with higher resolution) and extrapolated a theory about the innocence of a child and how it speaks to me. I even imagined that if you took a picture of me when I was on acid, my facial expression would be something like this.

Anyway, I told Robin about the book passage, and about the photo, and she replied fairly quickly. “You like that picture because he’s looking up, and that appeals to you for some reason.”

Here is one of my favorite pictures of Robin. As a picture it’s nothing special, just one of those “I’m gonna take a picture of myself using my phone” photos:

self-portrait

I couldn’t tell you why I like that picture so much, any more than I could tell you why I like the picture of Félix so much. If I tried, it would be an example of an Introspection Illusion, translating something emotional into words.

But Robin knew right away what was going on, because she doesn’t have an emotional attachment to the pictures. She is able to identify my taste for pictures where the subject is looking up. I would never have thought of that.

Does this call into question the critical analysis of art? Are our responses to art completely subjective, and buried too deep for us to fully understand? And are all our attempts to analyze art total bullshit?

Again, I think the answer to the latter question is no. But it is at least possible that our work as critics, valuable as it might be, has less relationship to the work of art than we realize. And if that is the case, then the best critics are not the ones with the best taste, but the ones who are the best writers. And what we get from critics isn’t a consumer guide (which is being taken over by AI systems, anyway), but rather the pleasures of reading good prose.