UPDATE, July 31: This is, in my view, a wonderfully argued addition to the "we need to do something about guns" plea. As usual, Shermer anchors his debating points in numbers, and they're hard to...well, debate... See what you think.
Amid the renewed talk of gun control—and the predictable response from the NRA and the rest of the right—I though this might be a good time to reprise this post, which I wrote after the V-tech tragedy. I asked it then and I ask it again today: Do you really derive comfort from envisioning a campus full of armed binge drinkers? Which is why it boggles my mind that people in responsible positions are now openly musing, "If the folks in that theater had been armed, it might have been a different story." OK, I'll grant you, if some of the folks in that theater (i.e. the one theater in America that a psycho chose as his shooting venue) had been armed, it might have helped. Or there might have been a frenzied crossfire that took the lives of quite a few more than a dozen people.
But what about all the other movie theaters across America on all other days? How many of you have had and/or witnessed theater confrontations, as I have? (Frequently. I'd say it happens at least once per visit.) In the bad old days those confrontations had to do with smoking. More recently they're about talking or cell phone usage. You really want it to be perfectly all right that people are bringing firearms into theaters along with their screaming babies and cell phones? (And you think parents with a screaming baby are low-percentage candidates to get belligerent? Think again.) Besides, what kind of atmosphere is that?
Instead of advocating for a society in which everyone is armed all the time, why not try to get the weapons out of the hands of everyone who shouldn't have them? Can it realistically be done? I don't know. I do know that we ought to give it a good-faith try.
Monday, July 30, 2012
UPDATE, July 31: This is, in my view, a wonderfully argued addition to the "we need to do something about guns" plea. As usual, Shermer anchors his debating points in numbers, and they're hard to...well, debate... See what you think.
Sunday, July 29, 2012
My piece on the staple self-help theme that connects firewalks, James Ray, the self-esteem movement and the Colorado theater shooting runs as the anchor piece of the opinion section in today's New York Daily News.
And no, I am not "making too much of this." Unchecked personal empowerment (along with the idea that attacking such mindlessness is so very un-PC) is one of the core problems in latter-day America.
P.S. And, of course, we'll be getting a triple or quadruple dose of this in countless languages over the next two weeks, as every Olympic medal winner steps up to the mic and says in his or her native tongue: "This is a lesson to all the children watching... Never let anyone take away your dreams.... If you can dream it, you can do it!"
Sure you can... If you can also run the 40 in 4 flat, or hit shots from mid-court, or swim like a dolphin on crank...
Friday, July 27, 2012
By the time of SHAM's 2005 publication, the Recovery/Victimization movement seemed to have run its course, nudged out of favor by the kind of virulent, No-Limits Empowerment soon embodied in The Secret. Recently, though, I've noticed a resurgence of woe-is-meism, and though no one can specify the precise cause, I'm sure the financial and social dislocations of the past several years have had something to do with it. Many Americans are feeling down again, disheartened if not somewhat defeated; and rather than just saying, "Hey, yanno, life pretty much sucks nowadays," they're looking inside themselves for answers. Thus we are witnessing a second wave of 12-step programs addressing ever-more-nichified ailments. (This has to be one of my favorites: Am I to assume that, following the AA model, once you've vowed to give up emotions, you can never have another one again, even just socially...?)
Genevieve Smith wrote about one such group, Underearner's Anonymous, for the June issue of Harper's. After the piece ran I was contacted by a very nice Harper's editor-lady and invited to submit a letter in response. For no pay. That's how it goes with letters at Harper's; you're supposed to consider it an honor merely to be solicited to write one. (Don't get me wrong, I've written actual articles for Harper's a number of times and been paid quite well. That was some years ago, however.) So I wrote my letter of response. The very nice editor-lady emailed me two weeks later to praise my offering to the skies...and also to tell me, almost in afterthought, that they'd simply run out of space for it. She expressed her hope that I would publish it somewhere, as it "deserved" to be read.
So you know what, I'm going to run it here, and unedited, no less, for that is my right as administrator of this damned blog. In fact, I've even decided to pay myself an honorarium of $500. Take that, Harper's!
Genevieve Smith's piece, “In Recovery,” reminds us that for all the hopeful affirmations and triumphant visualizations—which are meant to furnish (or at least feign) that most precious of postmodern emotional commodities, Empowerment—12-step programs ultimately disempower by encouraging participants to define themselves by their failures. The assault on the psyche begins with the familiar, baleful greeting—“My name is so-and-so and I'm a [fill in the blank],” and segues quickly to the very first step in the 12-part litany, wherein one confesses to being powerless over one's problem. And this assault is all the more harmful because it unfolds in a group dynamic, which reinforces a sense of impotence against some shared foe. This helps explain why questions remain about the efficacy of even the prototypical 12-step program, Alcoholics Anonymous. Evidence suggests that AA through the years has grossly overstated its success rate (not cure rate, for in recovery lore one is never cured), and that newer approaches, like cognitive behavioral therapy, may be far more useful.
But regardless of one's feelings on AA, there is no doubt that recovery-world has gone totally off the rails in recent decades, forever creating new classes and subclasses of so-called diseases to be mourned and treated. If recovery succeeds at anything, it is in promoting intense navel-gazing that perpetually seems to yield more lint as participants imagine new problems that don't exist and interpret minor slip-ups as symptoms of some major crippling syndrome. There are no mole hills in recovery; only mountains.
Whereas once we might have shrugged something off as a bad day or a bad break, recovery conceives even the mildest forms of adversity as confirming evidence of some lifelong malady that needs remediation: It's all your fault! (“I am an underearner, therefore I underearn.”) This undermines the stoicism and resiliency that once were hallmarks of the American ethos. So it is that, far from engineering true solutions, recovery merely tends to self-propagate: As Smith suggests, attendees often belong sequentially if not simultaneously to a number of such working groups as they strain to identify the (supposed) root cause of their malaise. The result is an endless battle against a succession of inchoate demons and/or addictions.
And things have only gotten worse since the advent of Rhonda Byrne's blockbuster DVD and book, The Secret, which sold the solipsistic belief that the external physical world is obligingly responsive to our inner dialog—that the Universe will send us that over which we obsess. It's meant as a secular prayer for an agnostic age, and has now been embraced as part of the recovery routine. Naturally, one is supposed to obsess one's way to prosperity and healing. But irony of ironies, this telekinetic view of life can be emotionally lethal in a recovery setting, because it implies that attendees have projected their inadequacies out into the Universe and thus are being repaid back in kind and in spades. (Bizarre as it sounds, Secret creator Rhonda Byrne went so far as to assert that Katrina victims had somehow invited the hurricane into their lives.) Failure is always a function of personal fault.
In truth, of course, many setbacks are random—“that's life”—and success is in large part a supply-and-demand numbers game: There is room on life's medal stand for very few of us. In the case at hand, when the unemployment rate is as high as it has been of late, many will underearn (if we earn at all). Especially when one is passionate about a hyper-competitive enterprise such as writing. The overarching point is that none of this moaning and maligning has much to do with the rudiments that historically have underwritten human progress: hard work, lots of practice, a certain amount of formal education (which imparts real knowledge, as opposed to mere “self-knowledge”), etc. Introspection and visualization are poor substitutes for action...but isn't visualization just so much easier and more fun?
The final and most tragic irony of recovery programs as well as all mass-market forms of so-called actualization is that they represent not self-help, but the utter abnegation of Self. Such regimens see success through the lens of a few one-size-fits-all bullet points, and reduce failure to pat, stigmatizing labels like “codependency” or “underearners syndrome.” In the land of self-help, we are not rich in the nuance and detail, the flaw and gift that make us uniquely, sublimely human; rather, we are characterless labels, blobs of psychic scars and dysfunction, and captives of our worst or unluckiest moments.
Thursday, July 26, 2012
Yesterday I (and other contributors/subscribers) received the following email from Jeff Reich, editor of the venerable magazine for and about writing, The Writer:
I' m sorry to announce that The Writer magazine will go on hiatus after the October 2012 issue, which is in production now. Kalmbach Publishing Co., which owns The Writer, is currently looking for a buyer for the magazine, and our hope is that The Writer will re-emerge under the careful stewardship of a new owner.
We deeply appreciate the fine work of all our contributors over the years, writers and illustrators who have helped us maintain the high editorial standards first set by founders William H. Hills and Robert Luce in 1887 and continued for so many years by Sylvia and A.S. Burack.I wrote several pieces for The Writer, worked very hard on each of them and was proud of the end result. Yeah, they were primarily how-to pieces, but I tried to pay homage to the realm in writing them, and feedback from readers (who were themselves mostly writers) suggested that I succeeded. So to me, this is a sad event indeed...but really just another in a long string of such mile markers along a very sad road leading to an inevitable destination: the demise of serious serial writing. By "serial writing" I mean regularly published magazines, journals and like venues that once showcased writing that sought to make people think, writing that used words to convey more than just pragmatic/tactical know-how, writing that, by its nature, showed an appreciation of the sound and rhythm of language; writing that honored the quaint notion that a quality written work is more than just the sum of its parts.*
I intend no haughtiness in saying any of that, and I certainly don't intend to convey the idea that I alone, Steve Salerno, regard myself as the embodiment or anointed representative of such writing. I'm just making an observation.We live in an era when everyone who goes into WordPress and launches a blog sees him- or herself as a writer, an era when the word writer itself has been so devalued as to mean nothing more than "one who taps words into a computer." (The Facebook Literati.) Writing consists merely of "whatever one writes." So it is that every month in America, millions of words are disgorged into hundreds of magazines and other niche publications that appear on newsstands, yet I submit that just a fractional percentage point of all that disgorgement constitutes "writing." No. It is simply information. How to have more-defined abs, who's sleeping with whom in Hollywood this month, why the Fed needs to do a better job of policing credit markets, the best and worst ways to put together your resume. There's a difference between that and writing, folks. (And I blame SHAMland's all-pervading influence for that, too!) Alas, precious few consumers care or even notice. And if there is little cultural or even professional reverence for craft, there is little ongoing need for magazines that cover and/or teach craftsmanship. Hence, the demise of magazines like The Writer.
Since 1887. Wow. RIP, if this is really the end of the line.
* Fortunately there are still books that observe such principles, but even they're few and far between. I considered adding the word jacket to the end of the title of this post, but...that would be clever without really making sense. ;)
Wednesday, July 25, 2012
This morning, I heard several people on the news call this latest shooter, James Holmes, a "coward." That is the right word for someone who kills people when they’re watching a movie. It’s also a word we need to keep using, over and over, until everyone gets the message that shooting people is not a path toward glory, fame, and notoriety. ... Of course, we’ll never know the true motives of any of these nutjobs. But a common theme in many of these shootings is a streak of narcissistic grandiosity and attention-seeking...
And now we move on to the actual instrument of death:
Put simply, guns are one of the few cheap and readily available weapons that allow someone to kill large numbers of people at a distance. Sure, I've already heard the gun lobby say, Holmes could've used a bomb; he certainly rigged up enough of them in his apartment. But bomb-making is a specialized skill, and even terrorists and other "professional" bomb-makers succeed only at blowing themselves up before they ever get to their intended target. Handguns, meanwhile, can be illegally obtained in most downtown areas for as little as fifty bucks, and shotguns and assault weapons often can be bought in big-box department stores. To sum up, here's a short essay I wrote about guns for the Los Angeles Times back in 1999. I stand by it.
© Copyright by Steve Salerno at 10:39 AM
Saturday, July 21, 2012
UPDATE, Monday morning, July 23. I raced into the city to tape a segment on Saturday afternoon; everything was very rush-rush, gotta-get-it-done-yesterday, as is always the case in network. Nonetheless, the segment did not run that night, and though I did "appear" on Good Morning America the following day, my contribution was limited to a single line (hence the quotes around appear). I'm thinking they budgeted for a larger spot for me, but damn Katherine Jackson had to go temporarily missing on Saturday, and naturally that had to be covered wall-to-wall.
I'm lobbying for a segment on Robbins and Robbins-mania one of these days. I think it would be instructive (albeit sure to generate some unhappy feedback from the litigious Robbins).
The Penn State situation is tragic all around—and the just-announced NCAA sanctions ensure that a domino effect will be felt for years by many people (e.g. student-athletes) who are totally blameless. Still, it should not be looked at in a vacuum. One does not want to go off the deep end here in an attempt to use this latest pedophilia cover-up as a metaphor for capitalism-run-amok, but let's face it, money rules the roost in college sports (and mostly everywhere else). As we saw also during the financial crisis of 2008, there were almost no legal and/or ethical limits to what major financial firms were willing to do to enrich themselves at the expense of the great mass of everyday investors. Why didn't the heads of firms like Goldman Sachs and Citigroup pause a bit more often and say to themselves, People are going to be devastated by the kooky derivatives and fraudulent investment schemes we're cooking up here. Scores of innocent American will lose their jobs, their homes, their retirement savings?* The answer: There was an extra buck to be made—by elite investment types who already had millions, if not billions, squirreled away. That's why.
* And after all, a lot more people were devastated by the financial shenanigans of 2008 than by what happened in some Penn State shower.)
Friday, July 20, 2012
All that said, I will have a few less-than-negative words, below, on a forthcoming book, The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can't Stand Positive Thinking. But first, to establish the proper mood, and in honor of the aforementioned anniversary, I'm going to reprise another SHAMblog oldie-but-good, this one from February 5, 2006:
Killing time before the Super Bowl (I OD'd on the pregame coverage after the fifteenth straight hour), I switched on CNN Presents. It was a special show on weight—why Americans are so fat, what they can do if they're sincerely motivated to become less fat. The principal figure in the show was Dr. James Hill, director of the Center for Human Nutrition. Dr. Hill said something we all know already: that most people who lose weight on fad diets regain it all—and then some—within a short period of time. But he went on to say something new (to me, at least) and interesting. His organization has compiled a registry of individuals who've lost at least 30 pounds and kept it off for at least one full year. (Hill's people document and verify the claims.) After studying that database, he has identified key characteristics that appeared to enable these dieters to achieve their impressive results, and he has distilled those characteristics down to a series of tips. The very first tip is this one:And now we move on to today's business at hand, The Antidote, by Oliver Burkeman. Naturally it took a writer for a Brit publication to pen this book, since they're all cynics and curmudgeons over there anyway. (Wink.) But really, Burkeman's outlook evokes the subtitle I chose for my book, which people found sufficiently inscrutable that I was asked to explain it ad nauseam during my hundreds of media appearances. Before we move on, here's a short review of The Antidote that hints at the crux of the matter. Google it if you want to know more.
EXPECT FAILURE...BUT KEEP ON TRYING.
Expect failure? Not something you'd ever hear on Oprah, eh? Doesn't gibe too well with the nonstop "think positive"/"tell yourself happy stories" mantra that anchors today's entire Empowerment crusade. In fact, I don't want to presume to speak for an Empowerment guru—oh, what the heck, why not?—he or she would be apt to tell you that you "can't even consider the prospect of failure, because if you allow for the fact that you may fail, that alone may prevent you from succeeding..." And yet, at least in this case, it was the expectations of failure--combined with a certain resiliency that enabled people to keep on going—that paved the way for true and lasting success.
A rallying cry like "expect failure...but keep on trying" is a perfect example of the realistic, commonsensical middle ground that, as a rule, spells death for marketability in today's pop culture. (Can you imagine a book with a title like that? Would it sell? Would it even get as far as the shelves before somebody, presumably in the publisher's marketing department, said "Jesus, we can't release a book that says failure right in the title!" For that matter, would a publisher even offer a contract for a book with that core message?) As a society, we've been conditioned, and have now conditioned ourselves, to tolerate nothing less than the extreme message. We don't want to be told "maybe you can do it, maybe you can't"—even if it's true. We'd rather cling to the message "of course you can do it!"—even if it's false—and even if it locks us into behaviors that leave us banging our heads against the wall (or losing and regaining all that weight) again and again and again...
You see, if you tell people that they're omnipotent, two things happen, both of them awful and psychologically destructive, in my view.
1, they tend to vastly undervalue the mechanism of success—the legwork involved. If you believe that a PMA will by itself carry the day (or at least be largely decisive), then I submit that—human nature being what it is—you're far less likely to put in the place the more pragmatic elements that historically underlie success: hard work, critical thinking, a certain amount of study/education, and perhaps most important, a candid and unflinching analysis of one's strengths and weaknesses, and how those relate to one's path of choice.
2, when people fail to reach the top—as simple math suggests will be the case for the vast majority of us—they will be crushed...far more distraught than if they'd allowed for the mere possibility of failure. (If all of your eggs are in one basket, what do you do when the basket falls and all of those eggs break?) Thus, for too many members of the generation weaned on this way of thinking, failure leads to an abiding disillusionment and, yes, a sense of helplessness.
Having made no allowances (pragmatic or psychic) for a Plan B, such people can become terrified of failure in any future endeavor. If someone has given you a "fail-safe" route to happiness and success...and it fails...are you going to trust optimism the next time, when it may be more evidence-based? (Understand, I'm not saying that optimism necessarily helps, even when the odds are in your favor. I'm just saying that a so-called belief system whose ultimate and ironic effect is to leave you incapable of optimism forevermore can't be good for you.) This is akin to what I argued about the Happyism phenomenon in my Wall Street Journal piece of December 2007: The expectation of a perpetual state of bliss—when it falls flat (as it must for mere mortals)—is itself devastating. Similarly, to the athlete who fully subscribes to Sportsthink, even one major loss can be catastrophic.
The bottom line is this: If you shouldn't be certain you'll succeed...why be certain you'll fail? Hence, the state of uncertainty that Burkeman recommends.
Anyway, much as I hate to say it, I think Burkeman's book may be worth perusing (but don't quote me, please!); not because it will provide any real HELP, but because it may provide commonsensical reasons why you should save the money you were going to spend on all those other silly books.
Sunday, July 15, 2012
Consider this a "best of," if you will. I'm re-posting it not simply because I'm too lazy to write something new—that will come soon (for those who care)—but because we've acquired some new admirers of late. For whatever reason I seem to be getting more of this type of spam again, so I figured I'd revisit the topic.
WARNING: This post contains mature themes and content.* And I'm not kidding. If you don't want to risk being offended, don't read it.
So for a while I wasn't getting much X-rated spam—I have no idea why it stopped—and now it's back with a vengeance—and I have no idea why that's occurring, either. No, I don't surf porn. Seriously. Just never got into that, and as a writer, I'm always terrified of having my computer compromised by the viruses, home-page hijackers and other malware for which "adult sites" are so universally admired, even apart from the usual reasons. (Confession/disclaimer: For a while I was kinda fond of "Naked News," at least until they began charging for it. But that was mostly because the whole idea of a combined striptease-newscast was just so over-the-top hilarious.) Apropos of which, I think it's funny that evil software from these sites often arrives in the form of a "trojan."
(No, really. I don't surf porn.)
In particular I seem to be getting spam that wants to know if I'd like to "rip [my] woman wide open with [my] colossal d**I**c**K" or some such.** What's that about? I mean, yeah, I get it; I understand the nuance and the overtones. Men want to be (or at least think of themselves as) gargantuan, and marketing copy like this really drives home the point, so to speak. For the record, I've also concluded that, while most gals will tell you "size doesn't matter as long as the guy knows how to use it," a fair number of women certainly like the idea of A Big One, though they may be less fond of the implementation component.
But "rip your woman wide open"?
Anyway, I've been paying closer attention lately, and I notice that a lot of sex-spam—more than half, in my judgment—has this violent/sadistic twist. I've even gotten a few emails that invite me to "kill her" with the heft and/or girth of my "member." Maybe it's just me, but wouldn't that take some of the fun out of the experience? At least once you realized she was dead?***
I don't think women get analogous spam. ("Crush your man's c**O**K**k down to nothingness with your surreally tight v**A**G**y**N**a!!" "Beat him insensate with the sheer mass of your swaying T&A&T&A&S!") I'd like to hear about it, though, ladies, if (a) you're still with us, and (b) you don't mind sharing. What kind of sex-spam do you get? Or is this primarily a male phenomenon?
Just had an amusing thought: Wouldn't this be the perfect topic for an Andy Rooney segment? Can you imagine? "Didya ever notice when you're ripping your woman wide open with your colossal dick, sometimes...."
* as well as immature themes and content.
** You probably realize this already, but they use the contrived spellings and unusual character separators in hopes of avoiding spam filters set to detect the customary words.
*** Again, I shouldn't have to keep saying this, but that's humor, people.
© Copyright by Steve Salerno at 7:04 PM
Friday, July 06, 2012
I'm growing a tad weary of being used as a straw man or the token naysayer. You'll notice that in this article from the Khaleej Times Magazine, of all places, a drop-in quote from me anchors the nominal "rebuttal" section in mid-piece. This has pretty much been the nature of my "appearances" the last half-dozen times out, at least since the very nice treatment in The Verge (which fittingly gave most of its coverage to Salty Droid's fine work). The formula for these straw-man features goes like so:
1. We all know self-help is huge right now. Millions (if not billions) around the world swear by it.
2. But Steve Salerno says it's a scam.
3. But we shouldn't throw out the baby with the bath water; you just have to figure out what works for you.
Maybe it's time to recommit myself to a new and ever-more-energetic critique of the genre.
P.S. Saturday, July 7: This piece, on the other hand, provides a nicely balanced debate. I'm still buried, but at least they surrounded me with like-minded arguments as part of a fair pro-and-con..
© Copyright by Steve Salerno at 9:38 AM
Thursday, July 05, 2012
But here's what I still don't get. The central enigma of all natural (i.e. non-religious) explanations for the universe (and life itself) is, of course, this: How did matter originate from (supposed) nothingness? How did we have a void, and then suddenly, we have all sorts of cool cosmic stuff? (Cool cosmic stuff is the preferred technical term among physicists.) Researchers say that validation of the boson answers that question. As they see it, the boson, a subatomic particle, passes through a magnetic field, soaks up some added energy in the process, and thus paves the way for matter. One article on the discovery makes this analogy: "As particles travel though this field, they acquire mass much as swimmers moving through a pool get wet..."
Huh? Even if one accepts that reasoning at face value...so where did the particles come from? And what about the force-field? Maybe those items aren't matter, exactly, but they're something, so we still need an explanation for how those building blocks emerged from the void. To riff on the above analogy, before you can have a wet swimmer, you first need...a swimmer.
What am I missing?
Tuesday, July 03, 2012
Some of you have been asking, off-blog, where I've been since my post of June 5. Many of you have been asking about the mystery job I've apparently held for the past year or so. (It's no mystery, folks. I've even been on the radio, on Philly's top talk station. Not exactly WITSEC.) And at least a few of you have asked precisely what befell me back in November (the unnamed "event"). All of the answers have something or another to do with a man named Phil Cannella, host of the aforementioned radio show and my boss from February 28, 2011 till around June 19. ("Around"? There is a long, complex and utterly one-of-a-kind back-story here.) Regardless, if I wanted to be a smart-ass, I could say that my personal Independence Day came a few weeks early...even if the first shots were fired by the other side.
As noted, there's a great deal more to tell; I'm just deciding on the best platform for telling it. For now, don't touch that dial.
© Copyright by Steve Salerno at 2:00 PM