A Quiz to Guide the New Year

Photograph: Jeenah Moon/Reuters

Here’s a party game for the holiday. For each of the following pairs, choose one, and explain why. Listen carefully to those who choose the opposite word, and try to learn from them.

  • justice or mercy
  • rights or responsibilities
  • expertise or judgment
  • mastery or curiosity
  • standards or possibilities
  • preservation or generosity
  • rigor or exuberance
  • solidarity or dissent
  • community or solitude
  • was, is, or could

Let your choices guide your coming year. And remember always that other people make other choices, for justifiable reasons of their own.

Happy New Year.

Competing Goods

This is the second of two posts on ethical thinking.

The nature of tragedy is not good versus bad. It is good versus good.

Georg Hegel

The Internet is a wonderful place (except when it isn’t). And among its many wonders is the archive collected and maintained by the Center for the Study of Ethics in the Professions, a forty-year research group at the Illinois Institute of Technology. They’ve collected over 2,500 different statements of ethical practice from remarkably diverse professional and social groups. There’s the Asset Manager Code of Professional Conduct from the Chartered Financial Analysts Institute. There’s the Code of Ethics of the American Organists Guild. There’s the Supplemental Standards of Ethical Conduct for Employees of the Department of Health and Human Services (1996) Chapter XLV, 5 C.F.R. Part 5501.

I got interested in this material when I was a grad student, and my dissertation plans were going through our university’s Institutional Review Board for the Protection of Human Subjects in Research. Every research institution—universities, hospitals, museums—has an IRB that reviews prospective projects before conduct. My IRB review was tough, because I was doing ethnographic research, notoriously messy and fluid, and I was working with teenagers, a protected category requiring even greater oversight. We figured it out after a few sessions, but it wasn’t as easy as giving some anonymous group a multiple-choice test, or doing a blood draw.

One of the most common keywords in the ethics archive is confidentiality. Historically, the professions that could legally claim confidentiality are medicine, law, and clergy. But lots of other professions have made the internal claim among their practitioners that confidentiality is an important protection for those they serve. The Association of Professional Engineers, Geologists, and Geophysicists of Alberta asserts the confidentiality of their clients, and of the landscapes upon which they work. The Association of Computing Machinery protects confidentiality when their members come across data that’s not an essential part of their work. The American Library Association claims confidentiality for its users’ library records.

Questions of privacy—of the right of an individual to control his or her own information—have been fought about forever. Architects think about it when they place windows and doors, and forget about it when they design open-plan offices. Newspapers think about it when they protect whistleblowers, and forget about it when they publish paparazzi photos.

Different eras and their technologies have extended the questions of privacy into new realms. In 1890, with the growing influence of print media, Louis Brandeis and Samuel Warren wrote a law review on privacy that focused on “the right to be left alone.” In 1948, after unspeakable regimes of dehumanization, the United Nations named privacy one of the basic human rights. in the 1990s, in recognition of search engines that archive everything about us, the European Union institutionalized “the right to be forgotten.”

But breaches of privacy are perpetual. Santa’s got his list, as does St. Peter. Our streetscapes bristle with cameras. Your phone tells the world where you are every few minutes; your doctor’s office won’t reveal when you visited, but your phone’s location tag will. And we post selfies on Instagram of every restaurant meal and random encounter. The wonderful social analyst Jane Jacobs warned in her final book of a “dark age ahead,” an age in which everything that had come to us would be lost to mere commerce, a mass amnesia in which “even the memory of what was lost is lost.” We will someday (soon? already?) wonder what privacy was, and why people ever thought it was a good idea.

We want to be seen, to be noticed, to be celebrated. We want to be left alone, to have our sins forgiven. It turns out to be almost impossible to stand on both shores at once.

What Do We Owe the World?

This is the first of a couple of posts on ethical thinking.

Not a generalist…

I just finished another manuscript on Boxing Day. That now makes ten novels and a collection of short stories in the past seven years, all of them stuck in inventory. I’ve decided to not feel bad about the pace that I write, or the character of what I write about. Joyce Carol Oates is good for a couple of thousand publishable words a day, so I’m a slacker by comparison.

The last couple of my books have drawn extensively on one of the foremost reasons I’ve never wanted to have kids—a sense of the infinity of life’s possibilities and the deeply finite boundaries of an individual life. More specifically, would I urge my child to be a deeply focused obsessive, and so have the joys of remarkable craft and excellence? Or would I urge my child to be a broadly read, broadly experienced generalist, covered with Velcro and so able to adhere productively to every circumstance? That seems, at least from the outside, to be one of the core ethical dilemmas of parenthood, a specific and unresolvable choice that underlies almost every other.

Because of this question, both of these recent books have had a strong interest in what school does, and how it interacts with this core question. K-12 education has a strong bias in favor of the generalist, shoving every kid at uniform pace down the full array of tick-marked courses. Schooling seems, both from my own experience and from my research in the schools I’ve studied, to be fundamentally aimed at compliance, at leveling, at ensuring that everyone moves on the same track at the same speed. It’s like running a railroad—issues of individual curiosity and excellence just don’t have a lot of traction. We spend a ton of money helping some cars get up to speed, but the faster cars are just as disruptive, just as in need of velocity management to keep the whole enterprise together.

Here’s a quiz. Name something that these people have in common: Roger Federer, Pete Sampras, Rafael Nadal, Serena Williams. I’m sure you have an answer, but I have a different one…

Let’s add a few more names: Simone Biles, Shaun White, Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, Wayne Gretzky, Martina Navratilova, Danica Patrick, Arnold Schwarzenegger.

One more batch of names: Beyoncé. Hilary Swank. Leonardo DiCaprio. Emma Stone. Bruno Mars. Jennifer Lawrence.

All of them decided, when they were really young, that they were going to dedicate themselves fully to their talent, and they chose that training over college. They started to work on their craft when they were little kids, and were already astounding by the time they were teenagers. They weren’t compliant. They had a separate set of tracks, supported by a separate set of adults around them who celebrated monomania.

And I don’t mean to suggest that this is the right answer. For every Simone Biles, there are hundreds of injured and discarded little girls who never made that peak. For every Emma Stone or Kobe Bryant, there are thousands of stage moms and basketball dads who shoved their kids down tracks that didn’t fit, the children merely sticks with which parents could reach for their own dreams. Tiger Woods was playing golf with his dad at age 2, was probably already the best golfer in the world at 16, but it hasn’t ensured him an entirely happy life. Maybe the safe middle is a better choice than the distinct focus, alight to every possibility rather than perpetually narrowing to the one that draws us back. None of us will ever know, because time only runs one direction, but we’ll always wonder.

A Second Meditation on Names

Picking your name over breakfast…

Writers, musicians, actors, performers of all sorts have been uniquely able to choose their own names. Lil Nas X wasn’t born with that name; neither was Bono, or Emma Stone, or Bruno Mars, or Katy Perry.

The choice of a pen name seems to open infinite possibilities, but there are constraints. A writer could choose to call herself, say, Charlotte Bronte, but that seems unwise. There are lots of names that are so historically specific that they’re now out of bounds, like a retired jersey number.

In our more enlightened age, it’s also seen as disrespectful to appropriate an identity that isn’t our own. I could choose a pen name like Aleksey Meshkov or Nguyen Van Nam, but readers would expect a certain cultural authenticity from a writer with such a specifically identifiable name. Likewise if I chose Annette, or Evelyn, or Sarah. We increasingly see all writing as autobiographical, and so are offended if the biographical facts are thought to be a misrepresentation.

So I’d be left with choosing something that sounded more or less male and more or less Anglo. That simplifies things; 95% of the world’s possible names are now out of consideration. But 5% is still a lot of names.

There are alphabetical considerations. If I wanted to court Stephen King’s customer base, I’d choose a last name like Kiniston, so that his bookstore browsers would stumble across me. (The Beach Boys and the Beatles were inevitable B-E-A shelfmates for a decade.) It doesn’t make sense to choose a last name starting with A, because those are way up on the top shelf and wouldn’t be seen. Or a last name starting with W, because everybody’s tired of looking at books before they get all the way down there. Go to your local bookstore and see who’s at eye level in the first bay, and fit yourself into there.

There’s a modern trend toward using initials instead of a first name. JK Rowling, EL James, CJ Boxx, JD Robb. The letter J seems like a good choice to be in there, doesn’t it? Plus a single syllable last name, so the cadence becomes a simple, descending-tone bump-bump-bump. But you have to be careful about cultural associations: PJ Hanes sounds like kids’ underwear.

There are those who chose something other than a different, recognizable name. The architect Charles-Édouard Jeanneret wanted a sort of mysterious, god-like aura, wanted to shed the weight of history and become Modern, and so named himself Le Corbusier. Bono, Lady Gaga, 50 Cent, Banksy, The Rock. I like the idea of a name beginning with The, but I don’t know what a good noun would be. The music producer David Singleton occasionally writes under The Vicar. I don’t know… The Groundhog? The Bird Feeder? The Ficus?

The science fiction writer Alice Bradley Sheldon chose her name James Tiptree Jr. over breakfast, inspired by the brand of marmalade on the table. And maybe that’s how it works, just the random sense of yes that strikes at the right moment.

What's In a Name?

One of my pieces of advice that I don’t adhere to myself nearly enough is “Never read the comments.” The discourse of Web 2.0 has been a disaster for kindness, generosity, and careful thought. The comments are almost always spoiled before too long by someone who just has nothing to bring to the party but meanness. As the science fiction writer John Scalzi says, “the fail mode of clever is asshole.”

Anyway, I was put in mind of this by coming across a review of my book yesterday, a kind of a dumb review on kind of a dumb website. And one of the comments was “With a name like Herb Childress, he was never going to go very far in life anyway.”

I’ve always had a sort of fraught relationship to my name, given to me by my father to reflect his own father. Herbert Allen Childress II, skipping a generation over my father, the colorfully named Menton Lafayette Childress. Menton was the town in France where grandpa served in WW1, and who knows where Lafayette came from. Childress itself seems to come from the old English word cilderhas, or children’s house, and was a name commonly given to orphans, mostly Scots and Irish orphans made so by the English, which is why most people with that name settled in the American South, fought in the confederacy, owned slaves. Some distant relative was the writer of the Texas Declaration of Independence, for whom Childress, Texas is named, and who disemboweled himself with a Bowie knife after his third law firm failed. My name is a complicated hot mess.

When I was first in kindergarten, I remember telling some other kid my name was John. Like, a normal name. Now I’m much more comfortable with Herb, an unusual name any more. I only know one or two others, never found a toy license plate in the rotating wire rack at the hardware store.

I read a poem once in which the author said that nothing good would ever happen in the life of a girl named Candy. Lots of parents are now questioning their decision to name their daughters Daenerys after that character on Game of Thrones went nuts and firebombed an entire city.

It’s a paradox that our names, perhaps the single most personal thing about us, are reflections of our parents. About their family relations, about their favorite singers or actors or ballplayers, about their favorite sounds or their desires to be trendy. About all the other kids in the family having names starting with K, so why the hell not figure out how to spell Khloe? I knew a couple who named their three kids Mary, Jerry and Terry.

A family in our community adopted three siblings, when they were 6, 4, and 2. They’ve made a good home for the kids. But about three or four years after they came to live there, the siblings all—together—came to their parents and wanted to change their names. Not merely their family names, to reflect the parents who loved them and had given them a new chance, but their first names. All three. And their parents did that, helping their kids legally change the entirety of their names.

Maybe we all should. Maybe, after a life of living with a label pinned to our shirts by our mom or dad, we should be able to go to the store and find something that fits us better. It’s like getting a tattoo: if we’re going to live with it forever, at least we ought to be able to choose it.

manifesto, in lower case

Just got off the phone with my writers’ group of colleagues I met and recruited from Bread Loaf 2017. Great, smart, funny people, all of whom write for different reasons. And I think those reasons aren’t often enough explored. Why DO we do this crazy thing? What are we trying to advance through having chosen this particular expression?

In his terrific book The Academic Self: An Owner’s Manual, the English professor Donald Hall (not that one, the other one) urges academics to write an annual statement of professional purpose. He claims that it helps him prioritize his time, to be productive on the things that matter while letting lesser concerns fall away. So what would our statements of professional purpose look like? Here’s mine.

I write for hope. I write stories that offer alternative endings to problems that I’ve seen, or faced, or worried about. I write stories of people who are doing well enough, but have this aching sense that somehow there could be more. I believe that there can be more. I believe that we can all be more generous than we are today, and that the act of generosity opens doors to the possibilities of others.

I write for pleasure. I write stories that are fun to read, that gallop along, that take us from one location to another and arrive securely, wheeled up to the gate so that the readers can safely disembark after their adventure. I write amusement park rides, the exhilaration heightened by the knowledge that we will safely come back in.

I write because characters make me do it. I write to release the angel from the stone, to have the marionette become animated and self-aware. I write in order to lose control, to have a place and a community become so vivid that I can only report on it, can make no further decisions except to frame their lives in the clearest possible way. I write about people I admire, and I want others to admire them as well—not because they are perfect, but because they want so badly to be good.

I write because men are not asked to come to terms with our emotional lives. To borrow from Susan Faludi, men are asked to be isolated, stoic competitors. Any attempt to step beyond those roles is met with derision. I write because I think that the admonition to “man up” should lead to a complex array of possibilities rather than a closure back down to the one we know best. So I write of men who attempt to do manhood differently.

I write to be read. Not to advance the cause of literature, which will do fine without me. Not to move the trajectory of the novel, nor to hearken back to one or another tradition. I write for the same reason that I have people over for dinner and make interesting drinks: so that my friends and I will have a rich and enjoyable evening of conversation. And that is enough.

Even these five paragraphs contain internal contradiction, as we all do. As Whitman says, “I contain multitudes.” But they’re a pretty reliable guide to me for the stories that are worth months of my creative time.

Your manifesto would be different than mine, as it should. But I think it’s a worthy exercise. What is your guide? What would your manifesto look like?

Today's Vocabulary Word is…

When pleasure is mistrusted…

One of the awesome things about getting married to a smart person is that Nora, the smart person in question, knows words that I don’t know. Words like stochastic (randomly distributed), or hematoma (a blood clot within body tissue instead of in a blood vessel). But my very favorite one, and the one that I’ve taken up into daily life, is anhedonic as an adjective or anhedonia as a noun.

Someone who is anhedonic (an- for without, and hedonic for pleasure) is unable to take pleasure in much of anything. Think of your most dour eighth-grade teacher, or Eeyore, or the buoyant couple in Grant Woods’ famous painting, American Gothic. Some take it further, declaiming not merely the possibility of pleasure for themselves but more fully that others shouldn’t have pleasure, either. H. L. Mencken defined puritanism as “The haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.”

Nora’s been studying the Quakers of 19th-century New England. There’s a jolly crowd. They drummed people out of meeting for dressing too brightly (not unlike Eileen Fisher, or the Modernists of mid-20th-century architecture, who believed that concrete was decorative).

I got a phone call today from someone who wanted to complain that his neighbor was getting some sort of unfair advantage. The complainant didn’t want that advantage himself, just that his neighbor no longer have it. In second grade, we would have called him a tattletale, but I think that anhedonic is both more mature and more accurate.

A friend originally from Yugoslavia tells a traditional joke. A villager’s pig has died, and he is morose. He comes across a can, kicks it, and a genie emerges to grant him a wish. The villager ponders for only a moment before saying, “I wish that my neighbors’ pigs should be dead as well.”

So I offer this word, anhedonic, to you today. Use it as a sort of dowsing rod, to know who to avoid in your lives.