Love is costly

Falling in love—beginning a new roman­tic relationship—costs you 2 friends, accord­ing to this story from the BBC report­ing on a study by evo­lu­tion­ary anthro­pol­o­gists from Oxford University. As the BBC’s Jonathan Amos explained,

[The] researchers asked peo­ple about their inner core of friend­ships and how this num­ber changed when romance entered the equation.

They found the core, which num­bers about five peo­ple, dropped by two as a new lover came to dom­i­nate daily life.

The story makes abun­dant sense: being in a rela­tion­ship requires time and energy, and being in a roman­tic rela­tion­ship requires even more. Strike that. Being in a mod­ern roman­tic rela­tion­ship requires a whole lot more. It wasn’t always so. As Digby Anderson explained in Losing Friends, roman­tic relationships—and the family—have come to be seen as “the repos­i­tory of all virtues.

It wasn’t always so, though. Friends played a key role in our ances­tors lives, and (based on my read­ing of Stephanie Coontz’ Marriage, a History: How Love Conquered Marriage), I ques­tion whether romance and mar­riage can bear the weight we mod­erns place on it. What if, instead of attempt­ing to find our “best friends” in marriage—and what can that mean in an age where “BFF” is bandied about in a decid­edly unforever-​​like fashion—we found romance, affec­tion, and famil­ial ties in mar­riage, and then spread our com­pan­ion­ship among our fam­i­lies and friends?

H/​t Freakonomics.

Nicholson Baker’s The Mezzanine

The Mezzanine, by Nicholson BakerNicholson Baker’s first book, The Mezzanine (1988), is a decep­tively small book. As a mem­ber of my book club noted, phys­i­cally, it con­tains more words than the spine’s width would sug­gest, because nearly a third of the book’s text is found in the foot­notes. The “plot” of the book con­sists entirely of one man’s thoughts at the end of his lunch hour as he approaches–and then rides up–an esca­la­tor up to the mez­za­nine in his office. Too, the sub­jects of the narrator’s thoughts in the book appear imma­te­r­ial on first read­ing. But, through the nar­ra­tor, Baker plumbs these mun­dane top­ics to rarely-​​seen depths. With incred­i­ble atten­tion to detail, Baker crafts a book that both amuses and enlightens.

Howie (the nar­ra­tor) thinks about much the same things that most peo­ple do. Most peo­ple don’t talk about these sub­jects, though, because they seem so small. One chap­ter dwells heav­ily on cor­po­rate bath­rooms. Considering the slightly odd fact that one is gen­er­ally paid for using the bath­room, Howie expounds:

[T]he stop at the men’s room was of a piece with the morning’s work, a chore like the other busi­ness chores I was respon­si­ble for, and there­fore, though it obvi­ously didn’t help the com­pany to make more money, it was part of my job . . . . What that meant was that my com­pany was as a rule pay­ing me to make six vis­its a day to the men’s room–three in the morn­ing, and three in the after­noon: my work was bounded and seg­mented by stops in this tiled decom­pres­sion cham­ber, in which I adjusted my tie, made sure that my shirt was tucked in, cleared my throat, washed the newsprint from my hands, and uri­nated onto a cake of straw­berry deodor­ant rest­ing in one of four wall-​​mounted porce­lain gargoyles.

Howie gives long shrift to many such top­ics, includ­ing pop­corn (and its Jiffy Pop incar­na­tion), vend­ing machines, straws, bags, foot­notes, and shoelaces. Shoelaces, in fact, are some­thing of the novel’s theme, since one of Howie’s tasks on lunch hour was pur­chas­ing a pair to replace the two that broke within a day of each other. The serendipity–or not–of the two shoelaces snap­ping so near in time occu­pies much of the book.

In exam­in­ing the minu­tiae of life so closely, Baker lux­u­ri­ates in the thoughts that most peo­ple would sim­ply leave as half thoughts. Gracefully fol­low­ing those thoughts to their log­i­cal con­clu­sions allows Baker to paint a remark­able por­trait of mod­ern life, full of beauty, com­plex­ity, and serendip­ity. His por­trait is both famil­iar and strange; famil­iar because it is so sim­i­lar to the half-​​thoughts we all have, and strange because it is so fully formed.

After read­ing this book, one can’t help but appre­ci­ate more of the  previously-​​ignored details of quo­tid­ian life.

Keep Mum

Do you ever tell some­one else your per­sonal goals, think­ing that the act of telling some­one else might pre-​​commit you to fol­low­ing through on your goal? It’s a bit like buy­ing a year-​​long gym mem­ber­ship with the expec­ta­tion that you’ll for-​​sure exer­cise now that you’ve sunk so much money it?
Well, accord­ing to Derek Sivers, you should bite your tongue the next time you feel like shar­ing, or else you’ll sub­con­sciously feel like you’ve already fol­lowed through.

Sivers has a bit more at his web­site.

Conservatism, racism, and the Ground Zero mosque

Conservatism has been unfairly maligned as racist, Gerard Alexander writes in op-​​ed in today’s Washington Post. “From an immi­gra­tion law in Arizona to a planned mosque near Ground Zero to Glenn Beck emot­ing at the Lincoln Memorial on the anniver­sary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s ‘I Have a Dream’ speech,” he writes,

the con­tro­ver­sies roil­ing American pol­i­tics in recent weeks and months have fea­tured an ugly under­tone, sug­gest­ing mean­ness, prej­u­dice and, in the eyes of some, out­right racism. And it is conservatives—whether Republican politi­cians, Fox News com­men­ta­tors or mem­bers of the “tea party” movement—who are invari­ably painted with that brush.

I agree with Alexander’s broad point: American con­ser­vatism is not racist, either in the­ory or in prac­tice, and most of the accu­sa­tions hurled against con­ser­v­a­tives are ill-​​founded. His analy­sis of debate about the mosque near Ground Zero, though, is too hasty. “The planned Islamic cen­ter near Ground Zero raises alarms, in part, because the insen­si­tiv­ity of its archi­tects to 9/11’s emo­tional legacy sug­gests their deeper dis­tance from American sen­si­bil­i­ties.” Conservatives’ oppo­si­tion to the cen­ter, he argues, rests on the prin­ci­ple that “[j]ust because some­one has a legal right to do some­thing . . . does not mean it is a wise, desir­able[,] or respect­ful thing to do.” But it’s only unwise, unde­sir­able, or dis­re­spect­ful to build an Islamic cen­ter near Ground Zero if you take the posi­tion that the mosque’s sup­port­ers and future patrons are and will be Muslims, just like the 911 hijack­ers.

But they are 2 dif­fer­ent sets of Muslims. The mosque’s sup­port­ers are part of the American cul­tural pas­tiche, and should be presumed—unless shown otherwise—to accept America’s world stand­ing and to be nor­mal, loyal Americans who are not com­mit­ted to the vio­lent over­throw of the United States. (Whether they agree with cur­rent American poli­cies is irrel­e­vant; no one—not even the president—agrees with all cur­rent American poli­cies. We don’t hand out build­ing per­mits on the basis of pol­icy pref­er­ences.) The 911 hijack­ers, as they demon­strated to hor­rific effect, were com­mit­ted to the vio­lent over­throw of the United States.

Sure, both groups read from the same Qur’an, and so some New Yorkers might be reminded of the hijack­ers when they see the mosque near Ground Zero. I do not begrudge the per­son who invol­un­tar­ily makes that con­nec­tion, but the con­nec­tion is unfortunate—something to be over­come, not accom­mo­dated. It would be unwise to make an excep­tion to America’s plu­ral­ist ideals until the 911 gen­er­a­tion dies off in 60 or 70 years. Allowing the mosque to be built will allow more non-​​Muslim Americans to meet and know their Muslim fel­low cit­i­zens, and hope­fully to develop new con­nec­tions so that the thought of Islam does not imme­di­ately bring to mind 911.

Gretchen Rubin’s Happiness Project

Do you want to be happy? Sure you do—everyone does. (We’ll pre­tend that will­ful depres­sives don’t exist for the moment.) How would you like to take a year to focus on being happy? That’s what Gretchen Rubin did, and she decided to write a book (and blog) about about her efforts through­out her year-o’-happiness.

The Happiness Project

In writ­ing The Happiness Project, Rubin iden­ti­fied 11 focus areas—one for each month of the year, plus one month to focus on all 11 areas at once. January was focused on energy, because she deemed it the “basic ingre­di­ent for the suc­cess of the entire project.” Other focus sub­jects included rela­tion­ships (mar­riage, par­ent­hood, and friends, with a month for each), work and leisure (a month each of work, play, and pas­sion), and money. Mindfulness and eter­nity (spir­i­tu­al­ity or reli­gion) rounded out the top­ics. One chap­ter was devoted to each of the months.

As one might expect from a book divided into 11 focus areas, the chap­ters feel stitched together. Perhaps it wouldn’t be fair to expect  more from a book with the ambi­tion of cov­er­ing such a vast field. And of course, as Rubin notes in a prefa­tory “Note to the Reader,” “because it’s the story of [her] hap­pi­ness project, it reflects [her] par­tic­u­lar sit­u­a­tion, val­ues, and inter­ests.” Such a project would nat­u­rally be very indi­vid­ual, and she con­cedes that a grand nar­ra­tive arc isn’t quite what she’s look­ing for:

I often learn more from one person’s highly idio­syn­cratic expe­ri­ences than I do from sources that detail uni­ver­sal prin­ci­ples or cite up-​​to-​​date stud­ies. I find greater value in what spe­cific indi­vid­u­als tell me worked for them than in any other kind of argument—and that’s true even when we seem to have noth­ing in common.

(Legal-​​minded read­ers might note that both Rubin’s both approach to her hap­pi­ness project and her writ­ing style mir­ror for­mer Justice Sandra Day O’Connor’s approach to the law and to legal writ­ing. Justice O’Connor was famous for an idio­syn­cratic view of the law that was often trans­lated into con­vo­luted seven-​​part tests that were of ques­tion­able use to lit­i­gants and lower courts in need of guid­ance. It’s debat­able whether such practically-​​minded approach is help­ful in the law. But that’s a topic for another day.)

Acknowledging the lim­i­ta­tions of her book makes it stronger, since the reader feels per­fectly com­fort­able in pick­ing and choos­ing among the exper­i­ments Rubin tries. Among the ideas that yielded some suc­cess for me is “Act[ing] the way I want to feel.” As a vari­ant on the fake-​​it-​​till-​​you-​​make-​​it approach to life, this admo­ni­tion (one of Rubin’s 12 com­mand­ments) has proven empow­er­ing to me. Another admo­ni­tion that res­onated was accept­ing that “ ‘Happiness doesn’t always make you feel happy.’ Activities that con­tribute to long-​​term hap­pi­ness don’t always make me feel good in the short term; in fact they’re some­times down­right unpleas­ant.” These nuggets are sprin­kled lib­er­ally through­out the book: read­ing it is a bit like talk­ing to a well-​​meaning, weather-​​worn aunt who wants to make sure you avoid her pit­falls and know her lit­tle life hacks.

One thing that she rec­om­mended very strongly was cre­at­ing a res­o­lu­tions chart, a daily scor­ing chart on which she would record her suc­cess in each of her 11 focus areas. That’s one exper­i­ment that I have yet to earnestly delve into, though it makes a lot of sense to me. Although lazi­ness is the main rea­son I haven’t begun using such a chart, I’m also hes­i­tant to start mea­sur­ing myself too much. I’m a bit of a mea­sure­ment fetishist, and I often spend more time focus­ing on a mea­sure­ment than on the rea­son for mea­sur­ing in the first place.

In the end, The Happiness Project is a series of small inspi­ra­tions. I rec­om­mend to the reader who approaches it as a work­book full of optional exer­cises. And like any good work­book, the stu­dent will only get from it what he puts into it.