New Here?
     
About David Peterson

A riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma...

Contact

Author Archive
    
    A Passage from William Deresiewicz’s Excellent Sheep

    A Passage from William Deresiewicz’s Excellent Sheep

    William Deresiewicz (who will be speaking at our upcoming conference on Friday afternoon, 4/28!) made waves in 2008 when the American Scholar published his essay, “The Disadvantages of an Elite Education.” His full length book from 2011, Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite & The Way to a Meaningful Life, expounded upon the earlier essay and was a bestseller. The book’s premise is that kids arrive at Ivy league schools and other elite colleges proven experts at jumping through hoops. But beyond their noteworthy ability to ace tests, students are woefully unprepared for the real world. Deresiewicz found,…

    Read More > > >

    The Idiot Redux

    The Idiot Redux

    Elif Batuman takes the title of her first novel, The Idiot, from a Dostoevsky classic. Her young protagonist, Selin, mirrors the innocent Prince Myshkin of the Russian novel. Although an allusion to that giant makes Batuman’s literary ambitions clear, for her sharp narrator, the title may be too self-deprecating. Selin’s a Turkish-American student starting at Harvard with dreams of becoming a writer. From the first pages, we are introduced to her primary writing medium for her early college years: email. Batuman said that when she first finished a draft of the novel in 2001, she had no idea that the…

    Read More > > >

    March Madness Preview

    March Madness Preview

    The NCAA tournament, that glorious spectacle that only comes but once a year, is finally upon us. Sportswriter Bob Ryan said that if the field of 68 duked it out six times, we’d have six different winners. Sounds like brackets will be busted early and often, which, in my view, makes for the most enjoyable viewing experience. Sure, Michigan State was my pick last year (sorry Hoos), but I was stoked to see Middle Tennessee State do the unthinkable and knock off Sparty in the first round. Once my dreams of a perfect bracket are shattered, usually in the first…

    Read More > > >

    James Joyce, circa 1922

    Big Little Deaths

    In a memorable section of James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Stephen Daedalus comes upon a relatively large sum of money and squanders it, prodigal son style. Daedalus shifts several times in the novel from extreme penitence and self-denial to full-on pursuit of his sinful desires. This tension between reverence for accepted teachings and the rebellious grandiosity of youth is fertile ground in literature, and well-traveled mental territory for an angsty young man. But groping after a higher plateau, an intimation of immortality, comes at a price. Whether it’s listening to upbeat music in a packed concert…

    Read More > > >

    More from Oliver Burkeman’s The Antidote

    In an excellent chapter from The Antidote, Oliver Burkeman (who will be speaking at the 10th anniversary conference in April!) analyzes our obsession with setting goals. “Goal Crazy” zeroes in on the 1996 disaster at the summit of Mount Everest, documented most memorably in Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air. Burkeman’s insight that the goals we set often become assimilated into our identities has strong resonances of Law. We are so uncomfortable with the undeserved gift of grace that we create goals for ourselves and then lament our inadequacies when we fail to meet them. Aided by the work of “stockbroker turned expert on organisational behavior,” Chris Kayes, Burkeman writes,

    The Everest climbers, Kayes suspected, had been ‘lured into destruction by their passion for goals.’ His hypothesis was that the more they fixated on the endpoint – a successful summiting of the mountain – the more that goal became not just an external target but a part of their own identities, of their sense of themselves as accomplished guides or high-achieving amateurs … ‘The more uncertain climbers felt about their possible success in reaching the summit,’ as Kayes puts it, ‘the more likely they were to invest in their particular strategy.’ A bizarre self-reinforcing loop took hold (Notes of Mental Health Issue here): team members would actively seek out negative information about their goal – looking for evidence of weather patterns, for example, that might render the West Ridge approach even more risky than usual – which would increase their feelings of uncertainty. But then, in an effort to extinguish their uncertainty, the climbers would increase their emotional investment in their decision. The goal, it seemed, had become a part of their identity, and so their uncertainty about the goal no longer merely threatened the plan; it threatened them as individuals. They were so eager to eliminate these feelings of uncertainty that they clung ever harder to a clear, firm and specific plan that provided them with a sense of certainty about the future – even though that plan was looking increasingly reckless.

    Burkeman continues the chapter with a discussion of how uncomfortable we are with uncertainty. His prescribed antidote, embracing our fragility, sounds a lot like belief, and Christ’s parables of the Kingdom:

    “Uncertainty is where things happen. It is where the opportunities – for success, for happiness, for really living – are waiting. ‘To be a good human,’ concludes the American philosopher Martha Nussbaum, applying this perspective to her own field of ethics, ‘is to have a kind of openness to the world, an ability to trust uncertain things beyond your control, that can lead you to be shattered in very extreme circumstances for which you were not to blame. That says something very important about the ethical life: that it is based on a trust in the uncertainty, and on a willingness to be exposed. It’s based on being more like a plant than a jewel: something rather fragile, but whose very particular beauty is inseparable from that fragility.'”

    20th Century Women and Guilty Filmmakers

    20th Century Women and Guilty Filmmakers

    If I need another reminder of my overwhelming guilt and shame, I can always turn to the movies. It’s perverse, but I definitely derive some libidinal satisfaction in recognizing guilt on screen. Over the years we’ve seen various heroes or, more appropriately, antiheroes of this ilk. Martin Scorsese’s developed an impressive oeuvre on the subject. Manchester by the Sea overtly depicted a man dealing with it. You don’t have to look far. Movies like this do well to highlight the fact that we mess up. The gap between who we aspire to be and who we really are is significant….

    Read More > > >

    What Kids Can Teach Us About Screens

    What Kids Can Teach Us About Screens

    Devorah Heitner, who was interviewed on our podcast back in October, recently wrote an interesting article on the themes from her book, Screenwise: Helping Kids Thrive (and Survive) in Their Digital World. The kids in the piece demonstrate quite a grasp of the ambiguities and pitfalls of constant connectivity.

    Heitner’s stance is that children are “digital natives” – this is the water they grow up swimming in. While generous towards their sometimes excessive usage, she also recognizes the hand of the Law in the social media landscape. Here, she addresses the tight-rope walk of curating an appealing online self-image: “Middle school…

    Read More > > >

    From Oliver Burkeman’s The Antidote

    Last week, DZ posted from Oliver Burkeman’s excellent article on time management and the law of unread emails. I just finished up his 2012 book, The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking, and, boy, good points of connection abound. Trying to get to the bottom of why we have such difficulty doing what we are told to do, or, rather, not doing what we are told not to do, Burkeman uses a study conducted by Daniel Wegner at Harvard’s ‘Mental Control Laboratory.’

    When you try not to think of a white bear, you may experience some success in forcing alternative thoughts into your mind. At the same time, though, a metacognitive monitoring process will crank into action, to scan your mind for evidence of whether you are succeeding or failing at the task. And this is where things get perilous, because if you try too hard – or, Wegner’s studies suggest, if you are tired, stressed, depressed, attempting to multi-task, or otherwise suffering from ‘mental load’ – metacognition will frequently go wrong. The monantidote-oliver-burkemanitoring process will start to occupy more than its fair share of limelight on the cognitive stage. It will jump to the forefront of consciousness – and suddenly, all you will be able to think about is white bears, and how badly you’re doing at not thinking about them.

    Could it be that … our efforts to feel positive seem so frequently to bring about the opposite result? … When experimental subjects are told of an unhappy event, but then instructed to try not to feel sad about it, they end up feeling worse than people who are informed of the event, but given no instructions about how to feel. In another study, when patients who were suffering from panic disorders listened to relaxation tapes, their hearts beat faster than patients who listened to audiobooks with no explicitly ‘relaxing’ content. Bereaved people who make the most effort to avoid feeling grief, research suggests, take the longest to recover from their loss. Our efforts at mental suppression fail in the sexual arena, too: people instructed not to think about sex exhibit greater arousal, as measured by the electrical conductivity of their skin, than those instructed to suppress such thoughts.

    He concludes this chapter, entitled “On Trying Too Hard to be Happy,” with the metaphor of a Chinese finger trap. In the case of striving for our own happiness, he writes, “‘doing the presumably sensible thing is counterproductive.’ Following the negative path to happiness is about doing the other thing – the presumably illogical thing – instead.” In other words, try to climb out of that ditch and before long human nature kicks in, handing down a shovel.

    One Reader’s Favorite Fiction from 2016

    One Reader’s Favorite Fiction from 2016

    My two favorite entertainments this year were Greg Jackson’s Prodigals – a collection of short stories on seekers at various life stages – and Luca Guadagnino’s A Bigger Splash – a sleek, psychological drama set on a gorgeous Italian island. This post is about books, but I wanted to mention the film because it hasn’t appeared on the site yet, and it’s one that our consumption patterns indicate could be of interest. Here’s a scene from the movie that’s up there with the “City of Stars” montage in La La Land and Michelle Williams’ impromptu run-in with Casey Affleck in Manchester…

    Read More > > >

    The Sad Optimism of La La Land

    The Sad Optimism of La La Land

    In the end of Damien Chazelle’s La La Land, Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone get what they’ve always wanted. Once it’s theirs, though, they realize it’s not what they were expecting. Stone’s imagination steers us through the final scene, a montage of what could have been. It’s funny and heartbreaking, in turns. Her quirky, unsuccessful play premiers to a sold out auditorium, and Gosling’s depressing gig playing mood music at a lousy restaurant wins impossible acclaim. It’s not what actually happened, and it’s not the way things ever happen.

    Happy endings are the stuff of fairytales. And though it feels like…

    Read More > > >

    Arrival and the Problem with Drawing Lines

    Arrival and the Problem with Drawing Lines

    “Plenty of directors make violent movies. Denis Villeneuve makes movies about violence, which is not quite the same thing,” writes A.O. Scott in a review of last year’s Sicario. That film followed Emily Blunt as an idealistic FBI agent enlisted in an off-the-record task force fighting cartels. Another Villeneuve film, Prisoners, featured Hugh Jackman as a blue-collar father seeking vigilante justice for his children’s kidnappers. In both, characters decide to draw their own morality lines, using their better judgment and a perceived “greater good” as barometers for action. In Sicario, we see the effect of this thinking in institutions whereas in Prisoners…

    Read More > > >

    Welcome to Westworld

    Welcome to Westworld

    HBO’s ambitious new show, “Westworld,” splits its time between a wild west-themed adult amusement park populated by humanoid robots and wealthy patrons and an off-site control room where scientists and technicians make sure everything runs without a hitch. The idea comes from a 1973 Michael Crichton movie of the same name, so you can bet that the robots will eventually rebel in some way (probably sans dinosaurs). The appeal of the park for visitors is that they can pursue their wildest fantasies with no apparent consequence. Some drink and gamble in the saloon before following a beckoning prostitute upstairs, and…

    Read More > > >