Timeless advice from Ernest Hemingway, in my new piece about the Harry Ransom Center's current exhibition, at Prospero.
Not all at once. A new post on Jose Antonio Vargas; why I think Rick Perry is still a "maybe" on running; and a reponse to Stephen Metcalf's attack on Robert Nozick.
A couple of posts at Democracy in America about the dueling political conferences in MInneapolis last weekend: one look at the left, one look at the right.
Meanwhile, my friend Emily takes a look at a trend from China: painting your animals to look like other animals. Excellent idea!
I have a new story in this week's print edition, on public school funding or the lack thereof. At Democracy in America, I discuss why I like Mormons and, in the effort to decide how creepy Anthony Weiner is, propose a corollary to Steven Levitt's daughter test.
One of the aforementioned reasons for liking Mormons is that they're really nice. Incidentally, I came to Minneapolis this morning (to cover Netroots Nation); the first person I met gave me a free train ticket, and the next carried my bag. Mormons, Minnesotans, and Muppets: the axis of American niceness?
Yesterday, as I was lounging with four girlfriends at one of Austin's swimming holes, a middle-aged man approached us and asked if we would mind if he put his floatie down by our group while he went for a swim. He explained that he felt a little better leaving it with a group rather than unattended, and that his wife was sitting up in the shade, which was at the other end of the rocky beach. We agreed, and exchanged a few pleasantries about the heat and the water, and he went off to swim.
Innocuous enough, except that we were at Hippie Hollow, the clothing-optional stretch of Lake Travis; four of us had exercised half the option, and the man, needless to say, had ditched his bottoms too. He came back a bit later with a second floatie, and said that if any of us wanted to use it, we were welcome to, because his wife wasn't going to go in the water today after all. "He just wants to look at our boobs," joked one of my friends. I said that he was probably more interested in showing us his penis. "Not that there's much to show," she agreed, "I mean, I know there's shrinkage, but come on." Later he stopped to chat to one of the girls as she emerged from the water, and after that, he paddled his floatie out to talk to the fifth girl, who was bobbing along (on her own floatie) by a buoy. At this point I was watching him, and wondering if I should swim out there to join her; but she was the one who was fully dressed--maybe he was just trying to be chatty, and realized it would be less inappropriate to talk to the clothed woman?--and as I watched he floated away. When she came back on shore, she said that he had been encouraging her to take her top off. She said that she was fine as she was, and he said that although it was a pretty zebra print, it would mess up her tan.
As it happens, the day before I had been reading Gavin de Becker's The Gift of Fear. De Becker is a safety expert, and the book argues that our intuition kicks into gear when we're faced with a threatening situation, although we typically discount these intuitions because we're worried about seeming paranoid or rude. To be clear, I read the case yesterday as annoying rather than threatening (and to be fair, when I was leaving I did walk past a woman sitting at a table in the shade, who seemed to fit the description of the wife). However, it was startling to see, as the situation played out, a number of the "pre-incident indicators" (PINs) de Becker identifies. There was the "forced teaming," in which the man made common cause with us over the heat of the day and our views about the water. "Too many details" about the wife, and his reasoning about his floatie's safety, which was in absolutely no danger of being stolen. The "loan sharking" offer of the second floatie, which none of us asked for and none of us wanted to use. There were the jokes between me and my friend; dark humor, according to de Becker, is a way express concerns without asking them to be taken seriously. And, most troublingly, his discounting of "no," when he floated out to talk to my friend.
On balance, then, I thought the situation was a good illustration of de Becker's argument. Nothing bad happened in this situation, except that it put a sort of creepy shadow over what was otherwise a pleasant morning, but neither would anything bad have happened if we had been unfriendly to him. My usual response to strangers who strike up a conversation with me is to be pretty chilly (on an airplane, in a bar--and yesterday I didn't communicate with the man in question beyond a few indeterminate noises ("h'rm")). That's typically not because I'm worried about safety, but because I don't want to be bothered. It's possible that I err on the side of unfriendliness, and I've been accused of that. But I'm sure that no one's ever been unfairly disadvantaged by my approach, and it hasn't caused me any trouble. It's perfectly obvious that the kind of stranger who would object (as when men tell women to "smile!") has thereby demonstrated that they're not the kind of person we should feel obliged to smile at anyway.
This isn't to say that I think people (particularly women) should be overly worried about their personal security. As I said in an earlier post, I think people can almost always rely on the kindness of strangers; I've done that lots of times, especially when traveling. One of the occupational oddities of being a journalist is that you're constantly doing things--approaching strangers, arranging to meet with them, passing around your personal contact information, trying to ingratiate yourself with them--that you would otherwise be advised against. But it seems to me that you can almost completely obliterate the risk by making sure that they're the strangers you approach (which de Becker recommends) and by having no qualms about flakng out if you've got a bad feeling. Looking over the past few years, I can think of a few cases where I wish I had been more wary, and none where I wish I had been less.
It's also well worth reading the de Becker book, even if you're not worried about personal safety, because it's an interesting study of intuition, which can be a somewhat mysterious phenomenon. De Becker describes it in a way that might comfort highly analytical people--that it's not magic so much as an extremely quick and complex cognitive process that takes place before it bubbles up to the conscious mind. In his case studies, it's often the case that the victims of violence had a foreboding feeling, and after some exploration, they can typically identify what triggered it. One woman, who was carjacked, said that she had a sudden surge of fear and tried to lock the car doors just as the attacker reached her; after thinking it over, she figured out that it was because she had seen a sudden flash of denim in the side mirror--a flash that appeared so quickly and so closely she intuitively realized it wasn't just a person walking by. De Becker uses the example of driving in traffic, which is an extremely complex endeavor that requires a ton of predictions about the behavior of other people. Experienced drivers can do this almost thoughtlessly, partly because they're not second-guessing themselves or worried about offending other drivers. De Becker's argument is that we should have more confidence in ourselves in other arenas.
The BBC reports on some academic research about British v German mores:
[A German professor] found (or verified) that Germans really don't do small talk, those little phrases so familiar to the British about the weather or a person's general well-being, but which she describes as "empty verbiage".
There is no word in German for "small talk" In academic language, this is "phatic" conversation - it's not meant to convey hard information but to perform some social function, such as making people feel good.
The German language doesn't even have an expression for "small talk", she says. It is so alien that in the German translation of A Bear called Paddington - Paddington unser kleiner Baer - it was omitted.
The result is that British people sometimes find Germans cold and rude, and Germans sometimes find the British inefficient and disingenuous. Having a lot of experience with both British and Germanic people, I'll volunteer some thoughts on this. It can be annoying to navigate through the English obfuscations but they tend to be interesting, subtle, and stylish with their use of language. Germans can overly factual but they're usually pretty clear. I remember a German friend, in Mexico, giving me the pitch for his language. He explained that it may look difficult and forbidding, but it's also consistent and predictable: "Once you know the rules, there is no possibility of misunderstanding."
The virtues of each approach are subjective, debatable, and dependent on context. And the direct/indirect binary is not really that helpful; as with my German friend above, the direct comment often points to a wealth of underlying beliefs, and the patterns of indirection, from the English, can reveal more than they might have intended. Similarly, English people are capable of being just as rude as Germans--and sometimes even icier, when you suspect that they're condescending as well as cutting. I would also add that being direct is not the same thing as being honest. Anecdotally, the most dishonest person I ever knew was Dutch, and the most sincere person (who I hope to know forever, partly for that reason) is English.
New posts, on DiA about Rick Perry (again), and on Gulliver about whether you should by carbon offsets for plane journeys.
While on Gulliver I was catching up with the controversy, inspired by the arrest of Dominique Strauss-Kahn, over whether it's common for hotel guests to be surprised by the cleaning staff--that is, whether a naked man in a hotel room with a maid should get the benefit of the doubt. I don't think I've ever had a cleaning lady walk in on me doing anything, even though it sometimes happens that I'm writing in the hotel room during the morning hours when maids tend to circulate. Usually they knock first, no? In any case, I really enjoyed this story from one of the commenters at Crooked Timber:
I have only once had any similar experience in fifteen years’ business travel...I did indeed forget to bolt the door and was surprised while in a state of partial undress. But there were extenuating circumstances!
1) It was not mid-morning or turndown time, it was 2am.
2) The female worker who surprised (and indeed woke) me was not a housekeeper; she was a prostitute who had got the wrong room number.
3) She was naked herself.
So I think I can throw myself on the mercy of the court. The (male) hotel employee who was called on to resolve the situation had a somewhat resigned look to him, as if this was a frequent occurrence only complicated by the fact I don’t speak Dutch. I frankly did not see it as a tipping situation at the time, but I will always treasure his apology; “this hotel is popular with sailors, and the women who love them”.
If one of the hotel chains did adopt a blacklist policy about flashers, as Kevin Drum suggests, they would no doubt lose some business from flashers, but I imagine they would have some uptake among female travelers, and perhaps enough to offset it. It's not part of my job to go into other people's hotel rooms, but I might still be moved by an ad touting "30% fewer creepers!"