Archive for November, 2013

Do stories of ‘Black Friday violence’ reflect reality or just our own bias?

by David McElroy

Black Friday shopping fight

Did you hear about the death at a New York City Walmart early Friday morning? Black Friday shoppers were so eager to get inside and start spending money that they broke through the store’s front doors and trampled an employee.

All over social media, this story and similar bits and pieces of anecdotes are being reported as the latest evidence of the depravity of our society. But I’ve been sitting here Friday afternoon wondering whether we’re all just looking for evidence to confirm what we already believe.

There’s an odd bias that causes what’s expected to be reported and talked about, especially if the anecdote confirms what we already believe. For instance, there are stories every year on Black Friday about how violent it is to be shopping today, especially at Walmart (since Walmart is the all-purpose boogeyman today). There’s always at least one story about a shopper being trampled to death. (It was an employee in the story today who was killed, but maybe a dead shopper will still turn up and save the narrative.)

But I’ve been to stores on Black Friday and never seen anything vaguely violent. My friends who are “serious shoppers” don’t seem to see this horrible violence. They might see angry people argue over who gets to buy the last giant television for a few hundred dollars off, maybe. They might have even heard frustrated people threaten each other over who gets to buy the last $9 crockpot.

But I’m pretty sure that more people were killed in their cars on the way to shop today than die in the stores. If you combined every Black Friday-related “shopping death” for decades and decades, it still wouldn’t be as many as were killed in car accidents before breakfast this morning.

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Norman Rockwell or Norman Bates? Holidays are dysfunctional for some

by David McElroy

Normal Rockwell-ThanksgivingFor some people, holidays evoke images of close, loving families straight out of a Norman Rockwell painting. They love their families and cherish the memories of the past and love everything about seeing their families for Thanksgiving.

For others of us, spending time with families sounds like a terrible idea, because it makes us feel lousy and it brings up bad memories of the past. What’s more, family-oriented holidays can be times when there’s an unspoken conspiracy of silence to pretend that the rest of your family’s history never happened.

For those of us who see extended families that way, it’s more Norman Bates than Norman Rockwell.

Another family holiday coming around reminds me again of the fundamental split between these groups. For some people, it’s a wonderful time. For others — including me — it’s just a reminder of families who were more painful than loving.

What’s worse is that most of those who attach pain to family still go through the motions of pretending to be part of something loving and special. But the maudlin things that families say to each other on family-oriented holidays are rarely consistent with how they relate to one another for the rest of the year.

I can never decide whether this inconsistency is sad or funny. I guess it’s both. This is why so much of life is self-satirizing to me. If you had a Norman Rockwell family, that’s great. But that’s not what I want to talk about. I want to talk about the way others of us feel — because it seems to be considered impolite to admit that the other side of the coin exists.

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In the great new culture war over Thanksgiving shopping, I’m neutral

by David McElroy

No shopping on Thanksgiving

If you want to start a fight on this Thanksgiving day, tell someone that you’re going shopping this afternoon. Or tell people who are planning to shop this afternoon that should stay home instead of shopping.

In a debate such as this, there’s remarkably little room for facts or logic or even courtesy. There tends to simply be a lot of anger about people who come to different conclusions — about something as mundane as shopping.

Since there’s so much sniping about holiday shopping — from angry people on various sides — here’s my official notice of neutrality. If you want to shop on Friday (or on Thanksgiving day), I don’t care one way or the other. If you want to get into line and wait in cold and rain for days, that’s fine, too. I don’t understand it and I might make fun of you, but I don’t care.

On the other hand, if you’re angry and offended at people doing those things, I’m not going to join you, even though I find their shopping behavior odd and obsessive, too.

I’m not angry or offended at either side in this ridiculous culture war. I just don’t care what decisions people make for themselves — such as when they work or shop — about something that’s so trivial to me. I’ll just be enjoying my turkey and dressing while others argue about this.

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FDA’s war on margarine is really an attack on your freedom of choice

by David McElroy

Anti-margarine laws

Progressives tend to talk about supporting choice — until someone wants to make a choice that they disapprove of. That tendency was on display this week with the Obama administration’s decision to ban the trans fats that go into making products such as margarine.

Each side of the decision sees an entirely different question. To the nannies of the coercive state, the question is whether trans fats are good for people. To those of us who believe in personal freedom, the question is whether politicians and bureaucrats have the moral or legal right to make that decision for individuals and companies.

When I was growing up, we ate margarine and fried everything with Crisco shortening. Back then, those products were loaded with the artificial fats that are now considered unhealthy. Some still are. At the time, we were told they were more healthy than natural fats such as butter and lard. I was so accustomed to the taste of margarine that when I finally tried butter, I didn’t like it, simply because it was different from what I was used to.

After I grew up, I learned to appreciate and prefer the taste of butter, but I heard the health nannies declaring that butter and such natural fats were bad for me. I made the decision that I preferred the taste, so it was worth the risk to me. Eventually, I also started reading information that persuaded me that fat wasn’t the enemy that made me overweight and possibly unhealthy. The real enemy was sugar. But the drumbeat from the medical establishment against fat continued.

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We can’t agree on what intelligence is, but it defines who some of us are

by David McElroy

Smart loner

I’ve always felt weird, but I haven’t always felt smart. When I was younger, I knew that teachers and IQ tests considered me very smart, but I felt as thought there was some horrible mistake. Surely I was going to be discovered as a fraud. I didn’t feel smart. I felt pretty normal and mundane. I simply felt as though I was surrounded by idiots who couldn’t understand very simple things.

I came to associate being smart with being weird, especially when I found that the people I liked best — who were also very smart — seemed to also be weird by society’s standards, in one way or another. Is “weird” just another way for the majority to say, “Hey, you’re different from us”? I learned early that other kids who weren’t in the “smart club” didn’t appreciate us.

I read an article last week about why being intelligent is difficult. For a lot of people, that might sound like an absurd concept, but it made immediate sense to me. I’m betting that most of the people who read here will understand at least some of the things on this list, because I suspect most of us here are pretty bright.

Take five minutes to read this article about why being smart is difficult. It’s short and it’s just a list of 10 things. The list evoked a strong reaction from me. I remembered feeling those things growing up. I also remembered feeling those things in previous jobs and with most of my clients. And I strongly identify with the list in my life today. Go ahead and read it. Then come back. I’ll wait for you.

Do you think the list applies to all people with high intelligence? I’m honestly not sure about that. Do all smart people feel those ways? Or are those feelings of alienation reserved for those of us who are very intelligent and “weird” in some way, too?

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There’s a huge difference between reasonable skepticism and paranoia

by David McElroy

Tin-foil-hat

People love to pick on Walmart, even when the 800-lb. gorilla of discount retailing has nothing to do with the story. And that’s a good place to start a discussion of credibility, sources and paranoia.

There’s a funny picture that’s been passed around for years now that features a store’s promotional meat label for boneless smoked ham labeled “Delicious for Chanukah.” The accompanying text makes fun of clueless Walmart employees for the goof.

In reality, the picture came from a New York City store called Balducci’s. It’s a Greenwich Village gourmet grocery store, not Walmart or some store that would allow redneck America to be the butt of the joke. How did I know this? Back when I’d first seen the picture years ago, I’d looked it up on Snopes.com, which is the first source I check for information about rumors and verification of such things.

So when a friend of mine posted the picture on Facebook the other day and the text blamed Walmart’s ignorance, I posted a comment with a link to the Snopes entry explaining the real story and providing a link to the original source. It’s a funny picture, but I like accuracy and don’t like blame being placed where it shouldn’t be.

A person I don’t know commented immediately that he didn’t trust Snopes, saying something like, “I’ve seen them debunked too many times.” At that point, I knew I was dealing with a paranoid idiot. And I’d like to talk briefly about the difference between being skeptical about what you’re told and being idiotically paranoid about listening to a source with real credibility.

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What if you still need something you didn’t think you wanted anymore?

by David McElroy

Mount Laurel-houses

It sometimes seems as though the movie “Groundhog Day” was a documentary rather than a comedy. There are times when life keeps shoving you back to the same place and forcing you to keep making decisions until you finally get them right.

In “Groundhog Day,” writer Danny Rubin used ideas from his study of Hinduism to show a man having to live his life — or at least one day of it — over and over until he made his life what it needed to be and he learned how to be the man he needed to be.

I sometimes feel as though something similar has been happening to me for years.

Sometimes I find myself driving aimlessly to some place I haven’t been lately for no apparent reason, but I usually end up figuring out that I’m there because of a connection I’m making to a feeling I was unconsciously trying to reconnect with. That happened Sunday afternoon.

I felt really antsy and felt the need to get out. I was restless and didn’t know why. So I went out, thinking I’d just find a place to eat. I ended up getting onto I-459, not even knowing where I was going. About 10 or 12 miles later, I got off at U.S. 280, thinking that I was just turning around to head home after a useless drive.

But I kept driving, almost as though something was pulling me. After I was about six or eight miles east on U.S.280, I suddenly realized where I was going. I was heading for the town of Mount Laurel.

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If you were ever the nerdy outsider, you need to go see ‘Ender’s Game’

by David McElroy

Ender's Game

“Ender’s Game” made me cry.

I don’t mean in the sense of openly weeping at the excitement of a hero winning his objective. It made me cry inside — and kept me teary-eyed — out of a sense of deep identification with Ender Wiggin. If you’ve ever been an outsider who wasn’t like the people around him, you might find yourself feeling deep empathy and attachment to the character of Ender.

I’ll start with the bottom line. If you read and loved Orson Scott Card’s novel, “Ender’s Game,” I think you’ll enjoy the movie version that opened in theaters Friday. (The trailer is below.)

The movie can’t go anywhere nearly as deep as the book did in creating attachment with the character, but if you already love the book — and couldn’t read it without feeling that parts of Ender’s story reminded you of your own story — the movie will probably evoke enough of what you felt in the book to be an enjoyable and emotional experience.

If you haven’t read the book, the movie isn’t going to be the same experience. Most of what’s important in the book takes place in Ender’s head. In the book, we get to know him. We experience his feelings. We identify with him. We become him. The movie can’t do that. (In an interview with Wired magazine this week, Card admitted that the book was unadaptable as he wrote it.)

But if you’re one of the nerdy outsiders who was expected to be brilliant — and never quite knew whether you were good enough or not — I suggest you go out and buy a copy of the book before seeing the movie. The book is short, so you can read it quickly and still get to the movie before it leaves theaters. You’ll understand the character much better if you do that. Even if you don’t read the book first, you’ll enjoy the movie. You’ll just miss out a lot on what made it so emotional for many of us.

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Start over here

When this site launched in 2011, it was intended as a way to find others who were sick of partisan politics and wanted to connect with like-minded people who were ready to go beyond politics and find ways of escaping. It has shifted focus in ways that reflect my own shifting thinking. I’m less interested in politics and more interested in looking at the things that make life worth living, such as love, creation, self-understanding and connecting with others. Every article I have posted since 2011 is still in my archives, but everything I write is a reflection of my current thinking. Sometimes I’m wrong — and that’s fine with me — and I don’t always end up agreeing with what I wrote five years ago. For now, you can still read what I wrote about the site’s purpose in 2011, but I should rewrite this. Read more.

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