The Great Adult Snow Globe, by K.B.

Subway

I used to love the 3 train – it would whip me down to Atlantic-Pacific from 96th (transferring after one quick stop on the 1), bundled closely by the tunnel and the people. It was best at 11 PM on a Wednesday coming back up, seats available up and down the car. That was when you could really feel the curves in the track, coming in vibrations and these awful loud groans that, if you hadn’t heard them fifty times before, would unsettle even the savviest rider. It was the emptiness of the train then that un-muzzled the beast and kept me awake until at least Fulton Street. From there, we were all napping together.

He seemed oblivious to the snow, this man naked but for the shirt on his back. We were out to buy bagels, fresh baked, doughy, Absolute Bagels. In the summer, we’d get them fast and then walk to the ledge in the park that overlooked the soccer fields. With feet dangling, we were hard pressed to pivot attention from the awkward dance of children’s soccer below to the brilliant decadence of bagel sandwiches above, and back. The fall brought students back uptown and announced the end of no-wait bagels. By the winter, the students had learned that cold weather was no deterrent. Neither was the first snow. He strode down the street, either the victim of a one-night-stand gone wrong or a more tragic victim made whimsical by the snowflakes. That day we regretted the line. There goes our chance at ring toss.

The fur coat hugged me quietly, curling up around my neck when I sat, and whispering “luxury” to the vaulted ceiling and panoramic view of Columbus Circle ahead. We aren’t jazz connoisseurs but magic is hard to miss. Walking home the city shimmered, the heat from the fur and jazz enduring, persuasive. Mirage-worthy.

***

It’s tough to move away from a place. I remember when I was about 7 years old, tucking myself away behind my father’s brown chair and penning a note to the world at large that declared my stubborn dissent from the impending move, Pennsylvania to Massachusetts. It turned out fine. Frankly, memories of my cherished Pennsylvania life are so few that I sometimes worry about my early mental faculties. Either that or fret over what the amnesia may foreshadow for my old age.

In any case, I don’t miss Pennsylvania very much. I don’t know what to miss, save a few scenes aided into being by my parents’ stories and a set of lively photo albums. I do recall the flash of never wanting to leave – a sentiment matched and magnified in every subsequent move since then. This time, I’d like that feeling to extend indefinitely. I always want to regret leaving New York.

To be clear: New York isn’t the greatest place on earth; it’s not the only place worth succeeding; it’s not an ideal to be tamed; it doesn’t promise love stories; it doesn’t even promise stories. I still got a few out of the deal, but you can see from above that they’re hardly the stuff of legends. No, I always want to regret leaving New York because of the finality that leaving imposes on the content of my time there. It necessarily petrifies those experiences, stores them in a file (or, in the case of the second story – an adult snow globe), and commands me to move on.

Subway incidentI may miss New York now, but that’s not the primary value I’d like to assign to my relationship with the city. To miss means that we must remember that which we have lost, so that we might continue to notice the absence of that thing. Memories of the city in snippets, the packets of detail that were my own? Some of those are already fading. One day they may all go the way of Pennsylvania, and then where will I be?

I also regret leaving the city, and that’s what I’ll keep fresh. Regret doesn’t require us to recall and reflect on the details of our experiences; it just needs us to feel sadness or disappointment that they are over. That’s a sentiment I want to live with. It substantiates the good of my city life: it didn’t just sound or look good, it was good. I wasn’t nearly done with living it when it was prematurely shelved.

snow globeDigital cameras and social sharing have made common a practice of recording and announcing one’s activities, sometimes at the expense of indulging in a moment as it occurs. Moving away from a place I lived, and experienced, is producing recorded and announced memories of those experiences for me. I’m their public (and now you are too, for some). We could look and reflect on them together, and say – huh, these things happened and they were x. But that’s not enough. I value those moments by wishing they went on, were going on now, not by reviewing them. I would prefer to continue as the indulgent subject of my experiences in the city, not the audience. Put me back in the snow globe.

So I always want to regret leaving New York. I hope I’ll say the same for every subsequent place I live. It shouldn’t just be a narrative of our experiences that assures us of their worth – it should be the impulse to continue that narrative.

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The Pitchfork Problem, by M. Mellody

pitchfork

When Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy dropped in November 2010, the album felt immediately important. It was equal parts pop and high art, ridiculous spectacle and self-conscious confession. Critics collectively lost their shit. Rolling Stone, Pop Matters, Slant, Entertainment Weekly, and Mojo all bestowed perfect scores on the record. My friend Mark, whose appreciation for rap music begins and ends with Big Willie Style, spent a semester convincing me the auto-tune solo at the end of “Runaway” was the future of music.

But none of these endorsements mattered quite like Pitchfork’s. In his review, Pitchfork editor Ryan Dombal described Kanye as an artist “crazy enough to truly believe he’s the greatest out there” who makes “a startlingly strong case for just that.” But it wasn’t the words in Dombal’s review that prompted Twitter to explode, fueled conspiracy theories, and invited passionate responses from writers across the internet. It was the 10.0 rating at the top, the first perfect score Pitchfork had given to a new album in almost a decade.

***

Ryan Schreiber founded Pitchfork in 1995 with a Mac computer and a dial-up connection. Then a recent high school graduate living in Minneapolis, Schreiber wanted a piece of the fanzine culture surrounding alternative music at the time. Instead of Xeroxing copies of his zine, though, Schreiber built a website. Over the next decade and a half, Pitchfork became the authority in the world of independent music. It now comprises a website, two weekend-long music festivals, a YouTube channel, and Pitchfork Advance, its most recent innovation that allows users to stream albums before they’re released. With nearly 300,000 daily page views, it’s one of the most read music publications on the Internet.

It's about the music

Pitchfork’s popularity and influence has a lot to do with its rating system. In lieu of letters or stars, Pitchfork employs a 10.0 scale with a total of 101 possible gradients. It’s obvious why this rating system has been widely criticized. At some point, reducing music to a single number is arbitrary and absurd.  When Pitchfork began, though, this was part of the fun. In a 1996 review of the album gay? by 12 Rods, writer Jason Josephenes exclaims, “12 Rods is like everything and nothing, occupying a special nook in my head where music is wonderful and I believe in superheroes again.” The album’s 10.0 rating only reinforced this consciously sophomoric style; it was all in good fun.

***

Over the last decade, Pitchfork has evolved. Their writing is polished; their design is professional; their enterprise is expanding. It’s a business, not a blog, and they treat their ratings accordingly. You won’t find any stray 10.0s or even 8.0s on the site—every review and rating is crafted to fit neatly within Pitchfork’s own hierarchy. The new Grizzly Bear album Shields (9.1) is slightly better than its predecessor Veckatimist (9.0). You don’t need to read the review to reach this conclusion—just glance at the rating.

Most music publications provide readers with a similar shortcut. Rolling Stone employs a 5-star system. Spin rates albums out of 10. These ratings preview the review, helping readers to sift and prioritize. But when a number is so privileged over the actual criticism, the shortcut goes too far. Too often the words in Pitchfork reviews seem to exist only to justify the ratings at the top of the page. Sometimes we’re left with a 0.0 rating and no words at all. Although a 0.0 review only left a minor dent in Jet’s career, it can devastate a different kind of artist.

Travis Morrison is a Pitchforkcomputer programmer. He works for The Huffington Post and lives in New York with his wife, Katherine Goldstein, an editor at Slate. He’s also a former rock star. In 1999, Morrison was the front man of The Dismemberment Plan, an indie rock outfit at the peak of their powers. Pitchfork had just blessed their latest album Emergency & I with a near-perfect 9.6. They opened for Pearl Jam and co-headlined a tour with Death Cab For Cutie. A few years later, The Plan disbanded, but Morrison seemed poised for a successful solo career. Then came the Pitchfork review of his first solo album. Pitchfork gave Travistan a 0.0, declaring “I’ve never heard a record more angry, frustrated, and even defensive about its own weaknesses, or more determined to slug those flaws right down your throat.” The review stifled album and concert sales. Morrison told The Washington Post, “Up until the day of the review, I’d play a solo show, and people would be like, ‘That’s our boy, our eccentric boy.’ Literally, the view changed overnight … I could tell people were trying to figure out if they were supposed to be there or not. It was pretty severe, how the mood changed.” He managed one more album before ending his solo career altogether.

Although Pitchfork’s 10.0 rating of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy validated their influence as a tastemaker, their 0.0 rating of Travistan sent a menacing message to bands everywhere—we can break you with a single number. That number changes how you experience a review, often rendering it a hollow afterthought. What else is there to say about a 0.0 album?  

***

More than ever, critics are important. Deciding what to listen to requires wading through a steady stream of tweets, posts, and songs. Forming your own opinions about an album seems herculean. That’s why critics are so vital now—they provide an educated, well-considered perspective for those of us who don’t have the time or expertise. They tell us what we should think about Channel Orange, and we’re free to disagree. But what happens when the critic gives you more than their opinion? What if they give you the answer?

An individual Pitchfork rating tells you what to think—Arcade Fire’s Funeral must be great because of its 9.7 rating. But taken as a whole, Pitchfork reviews can shape how you think about music. To the regular Pitchfork reader, Funeral is no longer just a strong album. It’s 0.1 worse than Modest Mouse’s The Moon and Antartica. It’s 0.1 better than The Fiery Furnaces Blueberry Boat. It’s 0.3 away from perfection. This schema is convenient for filling year-end lists and instigating arguments over tenths of a point. It also suggests Pitchfork takes an exact, sophisticated approach to music. But the ratings are ultimately reductive, falsely claiming to quantify the unquantifiable.

Arcade Fire Funeral

The implications for the Pitchfork reader are unsettling. Upon hearing a song or album, he begins to fit it into this schema, rating and categorizing it in his mental archive. He begins to listen for nebulous qualities like “originality” and “authenticity.” Enjoyment becomes secondary. I know this because it happened to me.

***

Last year, I began listening to the Bowerbirds, a folk outfit from North Carolina that sounds like an earthier, less earnest Avett Brothers. I began with 2009’s Upper Air and worked my way backward through 2007’s Hymns for a Dark Horse and an early EP. I enjoyed it all, but Upper Air’s cleaner, more straightforward sound made it my clear favorite. Until I logged onto Pitchfork. Hymns for a Dark Horse: 8.4. Upper Air: 7.2.

Bowerbirds Upper Air

At first, just a kernel of doubt. One-point-two better?  Had I missed something? Over just a few days, this kernel grew into full-on reexamination. I went back to both albums, not to enjoy them, but to answer a question—“Which was better?” I listened coldly, weighing pros and cons, and began to understand Pitchfork’s perspective. Upper Air definitely is less consistent, I thought. A little too polished perhaps.  Hymns is so raw—it captures a sense of place in a way that Upper Air doesn’t.

For a while, my taste changed. When I pulled up Bowerbirds on my iPod, I browsed through Hymns first. Pitchfork was right. I kept on listening and checking their ratings.

But Upper Air is better. A voice in my head that wouldn’t leave. Although Pitchfork told me Hymns more accurately captured “place,” this wasn’t true. Not for me. It was Upper Air that summoned memories—of reading The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, of falling asleep early, of feeling lonely in a new city, of finding comfort in a familiar sound and language. These are things a Pitchfork critic could never know—how could he? But I had ignored my own tastes and judgments in favor of Pitchfork’s authority and precision.

***

In an interview with the The Chicago Sun-Times, Pitchfork founder Ryan Schreiber addressed Pitchfork’s role as a source for music journalism: “I think that what we’re doing is we’re documenting the artists.”  But Pitchfork does so much more. It champions unknowns. It destroys careers. It ranks and re-ranks. It keeps you in the loop. It’s addictive and fun and powerful. Just don’t let it change how you listen to music.

The Debate that Defines a Generation: Summer or Anna?

To all you OC watchers, which should be all of you, this is a topic that needs no introduction.  Read the arguments below and then vote!

Why Anna

Why Summer

Why Summer, by N.F.

Anna-Summer-Seth

Exhibit #1: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OyCF7RuEK48

Watch that clip. It’s absolutely beautiful. Teenage television and young love at its finest. This scene solidifies Seth and Summer’s romance. Look at 1:27 in the video. It shows Anna, the girl Seth originally chose but then broke up with because of his feelings for Summer, looking on in helpless defeat.

Ladies and Gentlemen of the jury, this post examines the most formative, and arguably, most heated debate of our generation. We all watched it. We all were there. At least, everyone should have watched it/been there. It involves the question of love. Seth Cohen, a previously friendless nerd (which actually makes no sense considering how cool he is in the show…another blog post) living in the glamorous Orange County town of Newport, is caught in a love triangle between Summer (no last name needed) and Anna Stern. However, the answer to this dilemma is extremely obvious.

Exhibit #2: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I2I8aYirVRE

As Seth says above, “It’s always been you Summer.” Do you believe in love? Do you have emotion?  Are you a sensible person? If you answered yes to one or more of the past three questions, then it’s clear, beyond a reasonable doubt, why Seth not only made the correct choice by choosing Summer over Anna, but also that there really was no choice.  Doesn’t time spent pining, wanting and yearning inspire the fieriest desire?  Gatsby thought about Daisy every minute for five years. Think about that. Would he have been dissuaded by some bimbo with a cute smile and a personality similar to his own?  Of course not, and neither is Seth. You know it’s love when only one person matters.  Summer has been the object of Seth’s affection for time immemorial. He even named his boat the Summer Breeze, despite having barely exchanged words with her.

It’s always been you, Summer.

Exhibit #3: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v_EanNsngC4

The first minute of the above clip displays Seth’s lifelong love for Summer. He recalls a poem she was nervous about reciting in sixth grade.  Summer, realizing how much Seth must care about her, kisses him. Why Summer? Ladies and Gentlemen of the jury, this is clearly the love of Seth’s life, someone he’s already devoted himself to.  Shouldn’t he aim for the stars? Isn’t this America, where you don’t settle for second best? What did Gatsby do first: Give up on his dream, or die?

The only reason one might choose Anna over Summer would be if Anna treats Seth better or would be a better fit as a girlfriend. Fortunately, both of these rationalizations are unfounded and poorly thought out.  Also, it’s high school.  Practicality doesn’t matter yet. Anna has the qualities Seth might want in a wife or serious relationship down the road because of their compatibility BUT, again, it’s high school, the here and now, and Summer is exactly what you want in a high-school girlfriend.  That is, she’s the hottest thing you’ve ever seen with sass to back up that ass.

Exhibit #4: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SnZ70Q4SN2g

Summer dressed up as Wonder Woman for Chrismukkah. Need I say more??? Did Anna??? No.  Anna wrote him a comic book.  A sweet gesture, but completely void of sex.  Summer doesn’t know anything about comic books, but she embodies the fantasy.  Every man, especially a comic book lover, has a list of two fantasies that trump the rest.  In the second, Cat Woman is held up by her tail.  The first involves Wonder Woman, a jet-pack, and soundproof walls.  The takeaway from this episode: Anna writes books, Summer is the girl the book is written about.

Exhibit #5: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Xwn9fou0s_Y

So far Seth’s love for Summer has been proven repeatedly.  What about Summer’s love for Seth?  Isn’t true love mutual?

Ladies and Gentlemen of the jury, Summer loves Seth.  This statement is evidenced by the “Countdown” episode (overall a great episode as well).  On New Year’s Eve, even though Anna is with Seth, Summer can’t get over him. At 2:25 of the clip above, Summer is giving a New Year’s kiss to a more attractive guy than Seth. However, she famously scoffs, “you’re not Seth Cohen” at 2:28 and pulls away. Just as Summer is the girl of Seth’s dreams, Seth is the man of Summer’s, the same way Han is the man of Leah’s.

Han and Leah

This leaves out Anna. She doesn’t bring anything original to the table. She is confident and cool, but she is literally a female version of Seth. They even dress similarly, as pointed out by Summer in the “Links” episode.  When Anna and Seth are together, Summer cunningly says, “You guys are like brother and sister.”  Not what a couple wants to hear.  Further, Anna uses grammar in a way that pisses me off.  Anna, you are anathema to me, fucker.

Robin Williams’ character Sean Maguire in Good Will Hunting discusses love at length. One powerful statement he makes is that one does not experience loss unless “you’ve loved something more than you love yourself.” I’ve used this to define love ever since—that love is loving something more than yourself. In this case, Seth and Summer obviously love each other.  Seth more clearly with his memorizations and devotion, but Summer also in the selflessness required for a cool girl to date a nerd. People that show true love for one another should be together.

Two more videos, just because they make me cry.

Exhibit #6: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bmmo3BY-C28

Exhibit #7: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=51nWZ_CHLIA

Summer, it’s you.  It’s always been you

Summer-Wonder Woman

Summer, it’s you.  It’s always been you.

Seth and Summer in bed

Why Anna

Anna - OC 9

Understanding the case for Anna over Summer requires comparing the two young ladies outside of Seth Cohen’s orbit.

The OC’s production creates a framing bias – viewers see the two young women on Summer’s home turf and through Seth’s eyes.  Furthermore, both Summer and Anna are at their worst when they’re competing for Seth – when they’re vulnerable and lack confidence. The audience, however, has the privilege of witnessing Summer regain her swag, but not Anna.

Seth’s Perspective

As an 11th grader, Seth remembered Summer’s 3rd grade sympathy for hungry squirrels and could recite Summer’s 6th grade poem entitled “I Wish I was a Mermaid” on command.  Despite my best efforts, I cannot not like her. This double-negative was spoken in the days when Seth’s relationship with Summer solely entailed receiving verbal abuse. So you really like Summer? Seth’s response: Since I was 10.

Anna - OC 3Anna edited a literary magazine, shared Seth’s interest in comic books, challenged Seth’s witty banter with her own, and had the morals, intellectual curiosity, and confidence to corner Caleb Nichol in his own house about the ethics of destroying local wetlands for real estate development.  Anna and Seth were a fit.  Anna and Seth were logic.

But love isn’t always about logic.  For seven formational years, Seth would picture Summer’s face every time he heard a love song, read a story with a moving romance, or fantasized about his own romances.  Summer was cooler than Seth. And more attractive.  And unattainable for so long.

Seth was right to choose Summer. He was right to eschew logic.  Because Summer drove him crazy like Anna never could. To Seth, Summer was about guile, pride, drama, and glamour – a mix that, while not ideal for stability, leads to magical moments. And who cares about stability in high school?  In Anna, Seth would have locked down an amazing girlfriend.  In Summer, Seth achieved a dream.

Beyond Seth’s Orbit

Seth was always going to choose Summer. But, in an alternate universe where Seth had never had a crush on either young lady prior to his seventeenth birthday – a world in which Summer’s status as Seth’s boyhood crush did not grant her first mover advantage – Anna would be the consensus choice.Anna - OC 11

The bounce to her step, her reactionary facial expressions and head bobs, and the eye contact she makes when she smiles wide underscore Anna’s contagious positive energy. And through her multifaceted style, this energy bubbles to the surface.  She sports a hip haircut, coordinates her outfits, and accessorizes phenomenally. In school she preps out.  Out of school she rocks tees.  And her cocktail gowns are classy with character.

She’s unashamed about flossing at school in the middle of the day and proud to share study habits, recall knowledge about bacteria, and use the word “anathema” in casual conversation.  Outside of intellectual settings, she’s quick enough to keep up with both Seth’s sarcasm…Anna - OC 5

Seth (on Thanksgiving): “Marshmallows and cornflakes, suddenly I’m not so happy to be eating.”

Anna: “Well, then all you’ll be eating are your words.”

… and Summer’s condescending insults.

Seth (in Biology class): “Anna just sailed to Tajiti!”

Summer (to Seth and Anna): “Sailing is, like, soooo not the fastest way to get anywhere… I mean, if you had flown you woulda gotten there a lot sooner.”

Anna: “You should be on the Debate Team.”

But what’s more impressive than how she responds is how she creates.  When she kisses Seth for the first time at the school carnival, it’s a calculated surprise that shocks everyone (in a good way), Seth more than anyone.  When Seth leaves her alone in his room at Thanksgiving, she carpes the diem by playing jenga with Captain Oats (Seth’s toy horse).

Anna - OC 10Anchoring and directing Anna’s energy is her innate sense of right and wrong.  She’s not obsessed with being cool and dresses to package herself as attractive and artistic, not to look hot in a slutty way.  She’s humble, good natured, and grounded in reality.

Even though I prefer Anna, I grant that Seth’s decision was difficult. I like Summer. Her transparency is charming.  There is something about her judgmental humor

Summer (to Marisa): “What the hell is Seth Cohen doing with Tinker Bell? She’s from Pittsburgh! That’s, like, the 909 of the East!”

…and her obliviousness to foot-in-her-mouth moments that makes a man want to harness her passion – interpret those ‘rage blackouts’…

Seth (in Mexico before they were dating): “Admit it, Summer. Our chemistry is undeniable.”

Summer: “You know what else is undeniable? The pain this fork is gonna cause when I jam it into your eye!”

… as a quirky byproduct of an enchanting young lady brimming with excitement.  She’s both intentionally and unintentionally hilarious – at Casino Night, because she’s superstitious, she forces Seth to blow on her dice all night and calls him “Rabbit Foot” because she neither knows nor cares about his real name.

Anna Summer Seth 1

But, unless you’re Seth Cohen, I see only two logical reasons a man might choose Summer over Anna:

1.)  The man finds Summer far more physically attractive.

2.)  The man is drawn to the fact that Summer needs him more than Anna does.

The show does not frame Seth’s decision as physically driven, and both ladies are extremely attractive, so reason (1) should not carry too much weight for the general public.  But reason (2) is more substantive.  A lot of men might admire a young lady as confident and put together as Anna, but might not see her as a compatible partner.  Many men value the give as well as the take requisite for most healthy relationships; and, the barrier to enhancing Summer’s life is far lower than the one to improving Anna’s.  While Summer is a bully on the surface, she’s a receptive audience.  She listens to what Anna has to say about flossing and bacteria, and she expresses gratitude after Anna teaches her acronyms for biology class.

Anna - OC 8While the two caveats above might steer some towards Summer, Anna is the superior choice for the majority of men. Summer simply requires too much patience.  Anna sailed to Tajiti, but sleeping on a couch is beneath Summer.  Summer storms away when she’s losing an argument.  She lies about being a virgin to her best friend, Marisa, and she dresses cookie-cutter hot – either expensive or slutty. As a seventeen year-old, she networks at cocktail parties, cornering the rich older men to pretend she’s interested in their jobs while making sure her low-cut top is well displayed.

Summer is the prom princess, whereas Anna is the young woman former classmates see at the 5th reunion and wonder how she flew under the radar in high school. Anna’s the diamond in the rough that shines far brighter than the manufactured plastic beads jumping out at you from store windows – but obtaining that diamond requires (a) finding and (b) knowing what a diamond looks like outside of a jewelry store.

Self and Time, by MM

I work at a youth center in the middle of a rapidly urbanizing small town in Eastern Morocco. One of the civic projects I started here is an environmental club. On Friday, we were cleaning up the grounds of the youth center, full of fallen trees, decades-old plastic, abandoned liquor bottles, shoes, and egg cartons. We unearthed a teapot, an umbrella, a toilet, and a 12-foot tall slide. Made out of steel and heavily rusted, the old equipment lay on its side, forlorn between small bushes and a pile of trash. I pointed it out to my friend Mohamed Jifjaf, who said he remembered when it was part of a playground, some twenty years earlier. He clearly recalled using it as a child. I asked him how do you say ‘slide’ in Moroccan Arabic. But he didn’t remember.

It should be noted that this was the first slide I have seen during the 22 months I’ve lived in this country. They are uncommon. So you can imagine the excitement he must have felt as a child, and you can picture the importance of that playground, in a place with few parks and no diversions outside of dirt-soccer.  This thing played a significant role in his young life. Now it is rusted and its name is lost.

Image

 Although its basic skeleton remains, the slide is radically different from what it used to be. Can we say the same of Mo Jifjaf? It is a question I’ve been thinking about for the last few years.

An article recently came out in the online science magazine Nautilus titled “Why we procrastinate”. Building off the philosophical work of Derek Parfit, the piece explored recent neuroscience discoveries relating to how humans see themselves in the future. Parfit claimed that a child who begins to smoke, while knowing full well that a later version of him will potentially die young of cancer, does so because he considers his future self to be a stranger. Looking in the opposite direction, we’ve already broken our new year’s resolutions because they feel like somebody else’s promises. One of Parfit’s most memorable claims related to this line of inquiry is not mentioned in the article: he doesn’t need to worry about dying at some point in the future because, by the time he gets there, he’ll be somebody else.

Screen Shot 2014-01-27 at 11.05.51 AM

Now for the neuroscience: The medial prefrontal cortex and the rostral anterior cingulated cortex show high levels of activity on brain scans when the subject is thinking about themselves. However, those areas show no activity when the subject thinks about himself or herself in the future, or when they think of a random third person. Other, specific areas in the brain show the same activity, when thinking about your future self and when thinking about another person.

Naturally, psychologists want to figure out ways to strengthen commitment to future selves. After all, it could be a powerful advertising and policy tool. Allianz, an insurance company, is currently showing state employees digitally manipulated pictures of their own aged faces immediately before the employees make decisions concerning pension allocations.

So the current Jifjaf and the childhood Jifjaf consider each other to be strangers. But is it just a trick of the mind? A psychologist’s sleight of hand? Or are they actually different people? Parfit’s answer is yes and no.

How do people persist through time? Put another way, what is a person? Am I, at the age of 24, fundamentally the same person I was as a child? Two competing theories have emerged in recent philosophy, underpinned by emerging neuroscience, quantum physics, and post Einstein-ian notions of time. People may perdure, or they may endure.

When a person perdures, he extends through both space and time in the same manner. Try to conceive of the lifecycle of an oak tree. Spatially, no two parts of the tree can occupy the same area; two separate leaves cannot exist in the exact same space. The trunk cannot be in the same place the roots are. Additionally, the roots are but a portion of the tree, as are the trunk and leaves. When an object perdures, its temporal extension is similar to its spatial properties. Each temporal stage, or instant in time, holds a corresponding portion of the tree that, when united, fill it out in its entirety. One temporal slice might hold the acorn, another might hold the sprout, another the full-grown tree, and another the decomposing matter of the organism. Just as each part of the tree is a portion that, when combined, unite to form the entire physical plant at a given instant, each temporal slice of the tree is merely a portion of the whole. Due to their extension across time, perduring objects are not present in their entirety at any given moment; instead, each moment holds its corresponding temporal slice of the object. Think of the self as thinly-sliced, 4-dimensional deli meat.

Image

The other theory is the common-sense version (endurance). An object or person’s spatial and temporal aspects differ ontologically. That is, I am me, always. I exist in my entirety now; I am not a mere time-slice of my overall self. As another modern philosopher Velleman says, when something perdures, each temporal slice contains merely a portion of the whole, but for something to endure, it must be “wholly present at a single point in time”.[1] Our basic ideas about people and objects states they are wholly present at the current moment. But, and here’s the kicker– persistence requires an object to be present in multiple moments in time. That is, we’re trying to talk about child Jifjaf and adult Jifjaf. We want them both to be Jifjaf, the whole Jifjaf. But if the entirety of an object is present at a single point in time, with no parts of it missing, then surely its various temporal parts cannot be simultaneously present- as those parts necessarily exist at different moments in time. So endurance is inherently contradictory. Or is it just a philosophical sleight-of-hand?

Image

I don’t think so. The mind, in general, shows exceptional bias towards the present moment. We always believe that things of great consequence are occurring, a notion that is reinforced daily in the news. We want to create links, to categorize things together. When I remember myself as a child, I elide the two pronouns- my current “I” and my childhood “I”. We don’t possess the grammatical flexibility to make subject distinctions between current self and future self. We want to say I am me, was me, will still be me. We want to conceive of each subject of experience as entirely present at all its particular points in time. But at each of those times, we are merely pieces of a greater whole- some of them smaller, some bigger, some rusted, some uncorroded.

How much do people change over time? Well, they don’t change at all, because they extend through time, rather than move through it. But then again, they radically change, as each momental self has very little linking it to other bits of the self that occupy other past and future time slices. We all strive to connect things, to write narratives onto existence. After all, what makes me think an old abandoned slide and four-dimensional personhood have anything to do with each other?

Who are we? We only have a couple tools to build the notion of ourselves. We have habit, memory, and the urge in our brains to connect past with present with future. But according to the article in Nautilus, we aren’t even that good at doing it. Perhaps that’s a good thing.

It means that friends you’ve lost still exist, as your past time-slices intersected. Time has not lost. You are not rushing towards death, and when you get there, it won’t even be you anymore. At least, that’s what Parfit says. Unfortunately, I’m not sure how to explain it to Jifjaf in Oujdiya dialect.


[1] J. David Velleman, So It Goes, Amherst Lecture in Philosophy 11.iv.2006, 4.

An Unsolicited Encounter, Picking up a Prostitute by Accident, by Philip S.

Pretty Woman

On Tuesday October 15, I went to the DuPont Circle Starbucks and sat next to an attractive woman dressed in a sparkly silver long-sleeve and with blue eye-makeup.

“Can I share the outlet?”

“Of course.”  She had an interesting voice, sort of musical.

“Are you British?”

“I’m from everywhere.”

“Everywhere?”

“My dad was in the military and we moved around a lot.”

“Where?”

“We lived in Germany for two years and then all over the U.S.  I hate the ‘where are you from’ question.”

“How do you like D.C.?”

“I love it!  I don’t live here.  Just here for a week.  I live in Alabama but am constantly traveling.”

“Birmingham?”

“Not even.  A small town a few miles from the Georgia border.  What about you?  Do you like D.C.?”

“I like it a lot.  Sometimes it’s too familiar, though.”

“Too familiar?”

“Ya I grew up here, and most of my friends are people I knew in high school or college.  It’s hard to see new people and do new things.”

“Wow.  I can’t even imagine.”

“You must have old friends.”

“Not really.  I moved so much growing up.”

“What do you do now?”

“I’m a model.”

“Wow.  What kind of modeling.”

“Free-lance stuff.  I’ll be in San Francisco next week.  What about you?”

“I’m finishing up a novel right now.  My agent says it’s ready to submit to publishers.  Used this as an excuse to quit a job I didn’t like.  I was a statistician.”

“That’s great!  You’re doing what you love!”

“Most people think I’m crazy.”

“Most people don’t know what crazy is.”

“I bet you have some crazy stories.”

“You have no idea,” she smiled coyly, returning attention to Macbook Pro.

Thirty minutes later, we left Starbucks and went to the The Black Fox, a bar just down Connecticut Avenue with live jazz every night.  I couldn’t believe it.  I’d parlayed Tuesday night Starbucks into drinks for two.

“A glass of Chardonnay and an espresso martini.”

“Sorry, we don’t have espresso.”

“Umm.  Then I’ll just get a rum and diet coke,” she said.

On the walk over we’d talked about books.  She asked what mine was about.  I told her it was a satire on accountability in upper class America, and, really, everywhere else.  She said she writes poetry sometimes but doesn’t know if it’s any good.  She plays piano whenever she’s alone in her house in middle-of-nowhere-Alabama.  Russian literature is her favorite, she said, but it’s so depressing.  I’d just read The Luzhan Defense by Nabokov and didn’t like it precisely because it was so depressing.  It’s about a Russian kid who gets bullied a lot and becomes good at chess.

I asked about her family.  She’s the third youngest of 9, living in middle-of-nowhere-Alabama but traveling constantly for work.  I then asked more about her job, and she continued to be evasive.  She asked about my family, and I told her.  I showed a picture of my brother.  She squeezed my arm and said we looked like twins.  “Well, we are,” I said.  Conversation hovered on the twins subject.  I put a hand on her knee.  It was a nice knee.  Very fit.  She’s half-Asian, Korean mother, Scottish father.  She has a bright smile, and she was just as pretty from up close as from far away.

A drink in, she was feeling it, and I again asked about her job.  She exhaled, leaned over, and whispered, “I’m not really a model.”  I said OK.  She leaned over again, “I’m an escort.”

“Wow.  Really?”

“Is that repulsive?”

“No.  People do what they need to do.”

“You really had no idea?”

“The sparkly shirt and the eye-make-up are a bit flashy by D.C. standards.  But I figured it’s normal wherever you’re from.”

“I never tell people what I do.  It’s embarrassing.”

“I don’t mind.  A writer just wants to hear stories.”

“Oh I’ve got stories.”

“What does your family think you do?”

She has a five-year-old son named Alexander, after Alexander the Great, living in Tampa with the parents of her ex-husband.  She’s 27, comes from an abusive household and an abusive marriage.  She started working a year and a half ago, after the divorce.  Her husband had taken out student loans in her name and bought cars with the money.  She’s Mormon and only started drinking this summer when a client introduced her to espresso martinis.  She got married at 18 because religion and family pressured her into it.  She was the prettiest girl in her high-school, and her ex-husband came from the most well-to-do family in their small town in Tennessee.  It was a logical match.

“Sounds like everything that can possibly go wrong conspired against one individual.”

“Ya I know. All you can do is laugh.”

“Ya.  You’ve been laughing all night.”

The band finished the bluesy ballad and the saxophonist bowed before taking a fifteen minute break.  We’re the only people at the bar.  At 10:30 on a Tuesday night in D.C., a jazz bar is an unlikely locale.

“What about you?  How can you just quit a job?”

“I have enough saved up.  I can job-search a few months.”

“No loans?”

“Nope.  I’m lucky.  My parents paid for all my college stuff.”

“Wow.  You’re lucky.”

“It’s sort of what my book is about.  Privilege.  Capitalism’s false promise of equal opportunity.”

“What do you mean?”

“It doesn’t take into account that family wealth is so important.  If you have parents who can provide, you can mess up four or five times and end up fine.  If you don’t, you have to get everything right on the first try.  Eventually you have the privileged multiplying their advantage and the less-privileged falling further.”

“Ya.”

“I just hate when people act like they deserve to be where they are.”

“It’s cool that you’re writing a book.”

“Never said it was good.”

“I’d read it,” she squeezed my arm again.

“Tell me more about what you do.  How do you get people to actually pay up?”

“I ask for cash up-front.  I don’t have problems getting people to pay.”

“Cash?”

“I do everything in cash.  Hotels, hospitals, flights.  It’s tough because a lot of times airlines and hotels won’t accept the money.  I can’t use cards though.  Most girls get caught either flaunting money or with drugs.”

“Do you do drugs?”

“Nope.  Never.”

“You don’t have a pimp?”

“I had one, but he stole a lot from me.  I switched to another who did as well.  So now I just have an online profile and demand cash up-front.  Getting paid isn’t a problem.  It’s other stuff.”

“Is there anything about your job that you like?”

She says there are parts she likes.  She’s free.  An entrepreneur.  Running her own business.  The only part she doesn’t like is client relations.  I asked if she ever liked a client.  “As much as a client can be a good client,” she said.  She’s never had a real orgasm but fakes so well nobody ever knows.  She repeatedly said she’s the best and seemed to take pride in it.  She’s the one-in-a-million who’s clean, all-natural, young-enough, pretty, personable, and willing to do WHATEVER the client wants.  This makes for degrading situations.  “Think bodily fluids,” she explained.  She hinted that she’s been “unlucky” recently, and I didn’t ask what that meant.  The job, she says, is lonely.  She can’t talk to anyone.  Around clients she’s acting, and to people who know her as Rachel, her real name, she hides her profession.  It’s how she maintains sanity.  When she’s with a client, she’s ‘performing’.  It isn’t ‘her’ who does those things, it’s the character.

“Are you performing right now?”

“No.  This is the real Rachel.”

“What does the other Rachel do?”

“She’s super touchy and tells guys how great they are.  I’m the best.  Clients post reviews online.  I really am the best.”

“Have you ever done porn?”

“No.  If I did it, the act would be over.  This is fine because it’s anonymous.  I wish I could be a better mom though.  I travel down to Tampa and visit every month or so, but it’s not enough.  It hurts to not be there.  I want my son to know his mom cares about him.”

“Do you have other options?  You’re smart and personable.  I bet you could teach pre-school or wait tables.”

“You think?”

“You’d probably have to know somebody who knows somebody.  But I bet you could figure it out.”

“My ex-husband’s mom was a teacher.  She got $40,000 a year.  That’s nothing!”

“True.  I bet you make a lot more.”

“The money is nice.”

“You can’t do this forever though.”

“I think I can only handle it psychologically for another three or four years.”

“Then what?”

“Who knows?”

After the second drink, the room was spinning, she said.  I got the bill, and she went to the bathroom.  I needed to go as well, so I followed.  It’s a coed bathroom, and there’s a picture of man and a woman on the door.  “Guy and girl!  Let’s make it a threesome!” she said in a joking way.  I waited for her to go, and I went after.  The whole time I was thinking that threesomes for her are probably as commonplace as spreadsheets for me.

New Yorker Threesome

Her hotel, the Hilton, was only two minutes away, so I walked her back.  It was drizzling, and we shared the hood of my grey Princeton hoodie.  I was wondering how the night would end.  She really couldn’t hold her liquor.  Just two drinks and stumbling everywhere.  About 20 yards from the hotel entrance, she stopped and said she had fun.  I said I had a great evening as well.  I did.  Then she stalled a minute or so.

“You live in Chinatown?  That’s so far away.”

“I’ll hop on a Capital Bikeshare.  It’s a ten minute ride.”

She then said something about how she has to change hotels every day and she’ll be in Chinatown tomorrow.

“I think I’ll go to a hockey game tomorrow night,” she said.

“Enjoy it!”

We hugged goodbye, and she took my number with a pen and paper.  Haven’t heard from her since.

A lot of things have passed through my mind.  I wish I’d asked her rate.  Just to know.  If she’s really the best and guys are flying her in and putting her up at the Hilton, one of the best hotels in Washington, I bet she makes 5-figures-a-week.  If she charges that much, she might’ve had a famous client or two.  I wish I’d asked.  It’d be funny to learn about Dick Cheney’s black dildo fetish, for example.  A lot of the money she makes probably goes to hospital bills, child-support, and body maintenance.  That said, she makes more money than she needs.  If she put in the effort to become a pre-school teacher, she’d make $40,000 a year.  She wouldn’t be staying at the Hilton or going to Capitals games, but she’d also be able to live with her son, and she wouldn’t have to tell a stranger to “think bodily fluids.”  A lot of prostitutes do it because they can’t do anything else, but Rachel, I think, does it because the lifestyle it affords allows her to forget she’s a single mom without friends or family and with debt that she has no real way of paying off.  This is the second saddest part of the encounter.  The saddest part is, given a different set of circumstances, her entrepreneurial attitude might be on display in Silicon Valley.

Part of me wishes I’d followed the night all the way through.  It would’ve been easy to ‘hang out a little longer.’  I’d like to know if, at the door, she would’ve turned and said, “A-thousand-an-hour, five-thousand-a-night,” or was it really as innocent and random as it seemed?  I was both saddened and impressed by my choices.  Under other circumstances, under the circumstance of her being a “model” and not an “escort,” I would’ve jumped at the chance to continue the evening.  But a model has better things to do than get a drink with a guy in an orange T-shirt and sear-sucker shorts wearing a Wimbledon backpack.  On my end, I was curious about what ‘the best in the business’ could offer, but I didn’t want herpes.  I wasn’t willing to believe she was as clean as she claimed.

Overall, though, I’m grateful for the interaction.  It was sweet.  It was random.  It was two people from completely different places exchanging stories and making a night a little less lonely.