Friday, August 20, 2010

HT "You Are Not So Smart": "Ought" vs "Is" in marriage (how people tell you to marry someone different from you after they've married themselves)

The Misconception: In romance, opposites attract.

The Truth: When it comes to personality, you want someone a lot like you, and when opposites do attract the relationships often fall apart.


Despite the pleasant idea of polar opposites being pulled intangibly toward one another like biological magnets, the research suggests otherwise.

A 2008 study published in the Journal of Evolutionary Psychology grabbed 476 women and 284 men from an online dating site and asked them what kind of person they would rather be with.

When asked if they would rather be with someone just like them or someone who complimented them with a nice set of opposing personality traits, 85 percent said they wanted an opposite – the fantasy.

They had these people fill out a personality test (one of those gigantic scientific ones, not the kind you take for fun on the Internet).

Those results were put aside and hidden, and then the subjects had to take another test where they were asked what sort of things they would like to see in a perfect mate.

The results?

People actually wanted someone just like them, even though they believed they wanted someone completely different.

A few years ago I remember a famous pastor saying that the problems with most singles is that when they come up with a list of traits of what they want in a spouse they are essentially just writing their own resume. This, he said, was a very bad thing! You want the person you marry to be different from you!

Oh, really? So this meant that the guy wanted to marry a woman who had different views than he had on children and child-rearing? Different views on music? Art? Literature? Religion? Politics? Nope. Not only "nope" but the pastor urged people to marry someone who was on the same page on most of those essential points. He stressed the necessity that two people building a life together should share the same goals, have the same beliefs, and urged guys to go into ministry with the admonition that it was in that ministry that they might meet the future spouse, whomever with whom they are able to be on mission together. "Go with the one in front of you" he advised. If you're on the same page about whether to have children, how to raise them, how many to have, whether the mom stays at home or not, whether dad is the breadwinner, and who is the head in the relationship then marry someone who (other than those things) is totally different from you.

Well wait, isn't that essentially telling people to marry someone who fits their own resume after having told them to NOT do that? After joking that men and women had this problem of wanting to marry themselves he outlined necessary points of agreement that revealed his earlier statement might as well have been a rhetorical flourish, especially in light of all the points of agreement he said he and his wife arrived at prior to being married. It would appear that after saying people should not use their own resume as the basis for determining who is marriagable his own practical explanation of how that worked revealed that in fact he did, pretty much, use himself as a resume for assessing a potential spouse and they've been together for decades.

The trick seems to be how to convince yourself you didn't seek out an opposite sex counterpart to yourself while skipping over the whole Adam saying "Here, at last, is bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh!" Even though Adam praised the woman for being taken from him (and it doesn't get more "like me" than that!) we're advised to seek someone who is not like us, except for all the parts where we actually share the most challenging and difficult life-decisions together. I often suspect that people from the past would look at how coupling and courtship rituals are done now and wonder why people waste so much of their lives in pursuit of things that the clans arranged for the benefit of local business.

Now I admit I have not really attempted to play the field or end my unmarried state. There seem to be much smarter things a single guy could do in the current job and housing market than get married and settle into a home (more on this later) but meanwhile it would appear that there is an inherent clash between the "ought" and the "is" of human coupling in this culture. Our preferred metanarrative is, it seems full of some deceit, while the actual narrative of our shared lives seems less romantic.

However, besides all those initial factors, it seems as though you are looking for someone with a great outlook on life and a wonderful sense of humor, and the rubric, the standard by which you judge potential mates, is you.

Cartoon Travesty: Goro Miyazaki's disastrously bad Earthsea adaptation

I meant to write a lot more than I feel like writing about Goro Miyazaki's Tales of Earthsea. In a word it is awful, in two words it is profoundly awful, in a few more words I have not seen such a bitterly disappointing and insufferable animated film since the CGI snorefest that was 9 and I don't think I've been this angry with the inherent stupidity of a film since The Butterfly Effect. No, at least The Butterfly Effect moved along at a comprehensible pace.

I no longer have any doubts about why Hayao Miyazaki had a falling out with his son, so the rumors go, about this terrible film. I also would not be surprised (since J. S. Bangs told me already) that LeGuin hated the film. I'm sure that the stories MUST be better than the travesty this film was. My thoughts are still too unorganized to account for a coherent criticism of the film and I don't want to ever see it again so as to find a way to more fully articulate why I hated the film. The story lacked competent telling. Mages might learn a lot from farming but the problem with the farming scenes was that they added nothing to the story because the actual plot of the movie in any interesting sense was withheld until two thirds of the way through the film!!

I will dispense with any sense of fairness or balance and negatively compare Goro's work to his father's. There, I'm just going to do it.

In the landscape and travelling sequences of Totoro we are not merely getting lush landscapes to set the mood. The dad of Satsuki and Mei is quite literally driving us to where the action of the story will be taking place. It is the best kind of establishing shot for mood, setting, and character. The laid-back pace and beautiful scenery tell us all we need to know about the way the film is going to unfold. Scenes in which Mei discovers tadpoles by themselves would be horrendously boring in the hands of another director but in Hayao's hands these otherwise mundane moments serve the purpose of giving us the eyes of a child exploring her world.

The apparently threadbare story of a father moving his children into a new home while awaiting news of how his wife's case of tuberculosis is coming along charges every scene with a latent curiosity and a gentle but ever-present sense of worry that that the more front and center sense of wonder and curiosity rarely taps into. It is, however, an emotional undercurrent that unobtrusively but strikingly comes forth with the news that mother is more sick than supposed.

All that is to say that Goro Miyazaki's landscapes are ponderous and do nothing more than convey a sense of grandeur that quickly palls. If Goro wants to tackle the landscape as a symbolic outworking of characters at an individual or societal level then it might have been nice if he had taken a few pages (or, if he did, taken them more effectively) from the symbolic landscapes of Oshii Mamoru (sic) in his Patlabor films (NOT Ghost in the Shell).

Now, to be fair, I suppose, the voice acting in the English language adaptation is actually solid enough. Dafoe acquits himself adequately in what is admittedly, in this realization of what I trust must be a better story, a completely pedestrian evil wizard role. Still, there's precious little for the semi-big-name cast members to do anything with in this film. People are well going to remember Dafoe not for this role but as the creepy fish Gil from Finding Nemo.

I would have to liken this film to what people unfairly say about Russian novels, that after a few hundred pages of set up you finally get to the actual story. Well, to go with that unfair appraisal and accept it as what it is for the sake of illustration, imagine getting to the first few hundred pages of that Russian novel and then you discover that the whole plot and character conflicts are dispensed with in just ten more pages on the basis of things that were never even hinted at in the previous hundreds. That's what Earthsea is like.

A friend of mine who went and saw the film with me and my brother said that the film just can't be defended on any grounds and that the problems are legion. One problem, he told me, was that the third book in the series was what was being adapted, not the two earlier books that established the character. He also said that Goro did not seem to understand whose story was actually being told in the source material. All that is fair enough coming from LeGuin fans. I humbly plead ignorance of the source material and only suppose that whether or not I'd get into the Earthsea tales they HAVE to be better than the garbage Goro gave us. I would say that the studio and creative teams that are carrying on the best elements of Miyazaki's work and continuing his legacy within animated story-telling would be the folks at Pixar.

Sad to say, if someone (or anyone) has any shot of carrying on Hayao Miyazaki's legacy as a story-teller his son isn't that person. I'm sorry that I can't muster up the enthusiasm to provide an overview of the plot and haven't up to this point. Some kid who kills his dad in a scarcely explained opening sequence is apparently cast as the protagonist who wanders around aimlessly until an apparently (but obviously not really) retired mage named Sparrowhawk takes the boy under his wing.

The two wander about and visit the farm of some women and before that point the boy (Aaron) saves the life of a random girl who (naturally!) turns out to be one of the people at the farm. I can suspend disbelief but the idea that Aaron would see this girl again was as suspenseless as the rhetorical question "Will I see her again?" in Cemetary Man! Yes, you will, you dope, and a lot more of her! [For the record, don't ever watch Cemetary Man. A friend showed me that film years ago and retroactively lost nearly all his credential as a commender of films.]

Well, the people who intended to kidnap the girl for whatever reason keep coming back and trying to kidnap her again even though she is apparently not worth much money because they were sent on orders of an evil wizard named Cob (he's apparently conceived as resembling Jin from Samurai Champloo but with no mad skillz in sword work and with a more androgynous look, yes, really). Turns out Cob wants to live forever and thinks Sparrowhawk has the means to do that. Okay, but by this late in the game I didn't give a crap about any of the characters or who wanted what.

When it turns out that the murderous boy's name is Lebanon it doesn't mean much because for a movie about wizards precious little time is spent on the practical aspects of magic in this universe. The idea that knowing the true name of something or someone gives you power over it appears in biblical literature, though Christians don't tend to discuss that much because obviously knowing the name of Yahweh doesn't mean Christians necessarily get to throw it around to get everything they want but that's an aside. The shadow of Aaron that turns out to be the left over of his true or fuller self is set up by setting and pacing to be a creation of Cob but turns out to not be but there is no explanation or foreshadowing to establish what or why any of this would be. The big reveal that the girl with the burned face Aaron rescued from kidnappers is actually a dragon also had no set-up whatsoever. Goro may have thought he set that up but either he has no comprehension of pacing and foreshadowing in a film because he's never made films before or because he's not likely to ever grasp those elements in the future.

In the end none of the stuff that happened in the film mattered to me. The characters didn't matter and they should have! Character is the engine of story! As the Greeks used to say, character is destiny. Too many writers seem to labor under the illusion that plot points are destiny and don't realize that character drives action. I can't help but digress into the differences between South Park and Family Guy as the exemplars of these two diametrically opposed approaches to story in transgressive animated shows. In South Park, unless they have a really off month, Parker and Stone present stories that are driven by their characters. In Family Guy, character is frequently driven merely by the zeal with which Macfarlan and company drip with pop culture arcana. At least the people who work on Robot Chicken have the decency to unhinge the gag/punchline impulse from even the slightest shred of significant character development. Clearly, though, I have veered far afield from Goro Miyazaki's travesty into broader issues of animation and story-telling.

Earthsea is a disaster on the order of the disaster Sparrowhawk imagines will transpire if Cob destroys the boundary between life and death. Studio Ghibli fans would do well to avoid this film at all costs. It is not even worth it to have someone else pay for your opportunity to see this trainwreck meets fiery descending airliner on the faultline of Farmer John's house (obligatory Calvin & Hobbes allusion). Letting someone else spend any money on this fiasco on your behalf robs them of money better spent on something else, like maybe seeing Scott Pilgrim vs the World. More on that later.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

From Reboot Christianity: Anger and Emotional Management

A few years ago I remember a pastor said in a Genesis sermon series that the two great temptations for young men (or men in general) are to perversion and anger. A person might refrain from perversion (i.e. sexual immorality) but give himself over to anger; a person might not have a problem with anger but be perverse; or, of course, he might give himself over to both wrath and perversion. The more this pastor let on about his earlier life the more apparent it became he had to some degree or another embraced what he would define as both.

I've seen some Christians attempt to justify anger as a core motivator. Anger was what spurred them to action. Righteous anger or holy outrage become powerful motivators. Scripture does say to be angry but not sin, arguably the most paradoxical and exasperating scriptural command anyone could find this side of "Do not be afraid!" Christians who attempt to use their anger as a motivation for just about anything need to be careful because the anger of people is hardly a likely path for bringing glory to the name of Christ.

The combination of recognizing anger but recognizing that vengeance belongs to the Lord was something David repeatedly dealt with (not even close to my idea, the pastors at my church have been discussing this going through the psalms). He faced the temptation to establish a coup against Saul but did not do so. Now how he conducted himself along the way is hardly above reproach but I'm not here to get into all the people David massacred along the way. True, he massacred people behind enemies lines so his actions did benefit Israel but God did indicate that David was not the one to build a house for the Lord.

One of the things I have seen some Christians do that is particularly sad is to see them make snap decisions and snap statements in wrath and then, when probed about what they said or did, retroactively exonerate themselves by coming up with what appear to be rational or reasonable motivations for the action.

The easiest example I can cite from any experience, Christian or non-Christian, would be the person in supervisory power who fires someone over a real or perceived conflict and then retroactively justifies the firing on the basis of something that had pretty much nothing to do with the incident that happened. In one of the more pathetic cases I was acquainted with a supervisor who might fire you on Tuesday and then Wednesday morning would complain that you didn't show up for work. He never fired me, mind you, but I would not have felt particularly heartbroken if he did. The guy was both divorced and dishonorably discharged from the Air Force and apparently this all stemmed from a single incident and virtually none of my female coworkers wanted to be left in a room alone with the guy. I did the math. He was one of those sorts of supervisors who could make a snap judgment and retroactively justify til the cows came home. That place where I used to work got bulldozed over and has been replaced by a larger chain grocery store. Better use of the land!

One of few things I most readily remember about working there was a moment where a woman came up to me and indignantly told me, "Do you realize it smells like mildew in here!?" I turned and looked around at the entire floor of that chain flea market, took a deep breath through my nose, smiled at the woman and said, "Just mildew? Well, that's not so bad." It completely disarmed her. She laughed and I gave her a key to the changing room she came to me for. A gentle reply can turn away wrath after all.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

HT Mockingbird: "The Power Trip" and leaders among God's people
... The very traits that helped leaders accumulate control in the first place all but disappear once they rise to power. Instead of being polite, honest and outgoing, they become impulsive, reckless and rude. In some cases, these new habits can help a leader be more decisive and single-minded, or more likely to make choices that will be profitable regardless of their popularity. One recent study found that overconfident CEOs were more likely to pursue innovation and take their companies in new technological directions. Unchecked, however, these instincts can lead to a big fall.

It would appear that though people gain power by being genuinely likable once they GET power they can succumb to corruption or arrogance or destructive behaviors. Even David, a man after God's own heart, was able to rationalize all sorts of terrible behaviors after he was simply annointed by Samuel. Once he got in power he made, we're told, a pretty good effort to rule justly but he always had a weakness for playing favorites in his family, for being neglectful, and for looking the other way when he had people in his court too popular or powerful to be dealt with. Paradoxically having power meant David did not always institute the reforms he should have, which was how Absalom was able to exploit his weaknesses and foment a rebellion.

As the article puts it:
... when all those nice guys actually get in power. While a little compassion might help us climb the social ladder, once we're at the top we end up morphing into a very different kind of beast.

"It's an incredibly consistent effect," Mr. Keltner says. "When you give people power, they basically start acting like fools. They flirt inappropriately, tease in a hostile fashion, and become totally impulsive." Mr. Keltner compares the feeling of power to brain damage, noting that people with lots of authority tend to behave like neurological patients with a damaged orbito-frontal lobe, a brain area that's crucial for empathy and decision-making. Even the most virtuous people can be undone by the corner office.

Why does power lead people to flirt with interns and solicit bribes and fudge financial documents? According to psychologists, one of the main problems with authority is that it makes us less sympathetic to the concerns and emotions of others. For instance, several studies have found that people in positions of authority are more likely to rely on stereotypes and generalizations when judging other people. They also spend much less time making eye contact, at least when a person without power is talking.

One of the things a pastor at the church I attend once said in a sermon is that the measure of a pastor's effectiveness can be measured by how he treats someone he can't get anything out of. If you're dealing with someone who is known to be a faithful and generous giver to the church; someone who has helped start ministries; or someone who looks like a promising potential contributor to the church's mission you can be more generous to them if they have some recurring sin issue than if they were someone who just shows up, asks for help, but has not given anything to the church. So long as you're not dead weight the church can find reasons to help you.

The most salient and creepy observation in the article, as it may pertain to pastors and spiritual leaders (but, really, just people in general) comes at this point in the article:

Although people almost always know the right thing to do—cheating is wrong—their sense of power makes it easier to rationalize away the ethical lapse. For instance, when the psychologists asked the subjects (in both low- and high-power conditions) how they would judge an individual who drove too fast when late for an appointment, people in the high-power group consistently said it was worse when others committed those crimes than when they did themselves. In other words, the feeling of eminence led people to conclude that they had a good reason for speeding—they're important people, with important things to do—but that everyone else should follow the posted signs.

... people in power tend to reliably overestimate their moral virtue, which leads them to stifle oversight. They lobby against regulators, and fill corporate boards with their friends. The end result is sometimes power at its most dangerous.