The School Drop-Off And Social Trust

Three or four times every week, I drop my daughter off at our local public school. We leave, on almost every occasion, in a bit of a rush. My daughter’s school is close by, a mere ten minutes walk, but the window for her to eat breakfast school is quite narrow–thirty minutes–so I’m keen to leave on time to give her enough time to eat a bit before she heads off for her classes. On the way to school, as we walk, we talk about any topic that happens to catch our fancy. (Besides conversation with me, my daughter also has to put up with my angry rants at drivers who do not give us the right of way on pedestrian crosswalks.) On occasion, we stop to climb a rocky wall of a local yeshiva that lies en-route. And then, all too soon, we are at school, at the door through which my daughter will walk into a large hall packed with noisy children, in the midst of which she will locate her teacher and her class, en-route to her classroom, her home for the day.

As we approach the door, my pace slows; I want to say goodbye ‘properly to my daughter, who I can sense is already straining at the leash and wants to move on, to get on with meeting her friends. So we stop; I pull my daughter to me and ask her a few questions–the same ones every day–and then, after planting a few kisses on her cheeks, and giving her one last hug, I let her go. She walks on, and as she walks through the door, I yell out some variant of “Bye, sweetheart, I’ll see you in the evening” (alternatively, “Bye, sweetheart, mommy will be picking you up in the evening.”) I blow her a kiss, and as I do so, my daughter turns to look at me, waves, and is gone.

All around me, other parents are enacting variations on this ritual.

As I walk off, to the subway station to catch a train to my gym, or onwards to Brooklyn College to begin teaching the first of my three classes of day, I am struck, yet again, by the sheer incongruity of it all. My daughter is only five years old, a mere child, one whose welfare and safety and well-being is quite plausibly understood as a preoccupation of mine, and I’ve entrusted her, left her alone, in the company of ‘strangers.’ I’ve put my faith in other people to protect my child, feed her, teach her, give her company, entertain her after school; I’ve entrusted to them, my most ‘precious possession.’ I always feel, as I walk away, a slight tinge of panic and fear. We don’t leave her alone at home; why am I letting her walk off like that? But I’ve placed trust in many to help me out; and indeed, this is just continuation of many acts of trust like this that have helped me raise my child. I live in this world, in this society, an individual sure, but also one reliant on others to help me live my life. And those of the ones I love. This little act, of dropping my daughter off to school, is a daily, acute reminder of my social indebtedness, my social being.

My First Phone Number

I grew up–till the age of eleven–without a telephone in my household. A phone line was a rarity–expensive, hard to obtain with a long waiting line–even for the Indian middle-class, and in any case my family lived for the most part on air force stations. But even when we lived in the city, we made do without a phone. If you wanted to talk to someone, you visited them. Without calling. Sometimes they were at home, sometimes they weren’t. It was an acceptable uncertainty of sorts. If you just had to make a phone call–on the occasion of an emergency for instance–you relied on a neighbor’s generosity to share their phone line with you.  A phone was a big deal; only the select few had one.

Shortly after my father retired from the air force and started a small business, he ‘applied’ for a phone line (these applications were processed by the governmental telecommunications authority, which ‘awarded’ lines on the basis of need); his application specified that the phone would be a necessary accessory to his business, thus hopefully placing it higher in the prioritized queue of potential owners. News of the success of this application–a few months later–was greeted with some incredulity at home; was it really going to be the case that we were going to have that magical instrument at home, one that would let us simply pick up the receiver, dial a few numbers, and talk to friends and family?

Apparently so. Soon enough, a technician showed up to install our phone; cables were run along walls, a phone jack mysteriously appeared, and then, incredibly enough, a phone set itself, complete with black handset–the kind I had seen people cradling up against their ears–and a rotary dial. The moment of truth was here. Our family, our household, would now have a new address, a new association: our phone number.

Unsurprisingly perhaps, I still remember it: 61-69-42. I break it up that way because that’s how I remembered it: Six One, Six Nine, Four Two. My mother was the first user of the phone; she called her mother to let her know the news. My father went next, calling an old friend. My brother and I had no one to call; we had never bothered to ask anyone’s phone numbers at school. We didn’t call our friends; why did we need their numbers? Indeed, I did not even know who among my friends owned a phone.

But the next day at school, I came to know who did. I told my classmates I had a new phone number, proudly rattling off its magical digits–there had been no need for me to write them down, they were instantly memorable–even as I asked for theirs and encouraged them to call me. Some did; conversations on the phone–some of which ran over an hour–now suddenly emerged as a magical new form of interaction with folks I had previously only known in the flesh.

Some thirty-eight years later, I hardly ever talk on the phone. Email and text messages rule the roost; when I do talk on the phone, I’m a model of efficiency. A quick exchange of information, and I’m done. Just like the phone displaced older forms of communication, it has been impolitely shoved aside by newer ones. No one’s grieving; we’re too busy being socially networked.

A Seinfeldian Encounter In My Barbershop

For the past few years, I’ve had my hair cut at a local barbershop, a few blocks down from where I live. It is an old-fashioned family establishment, owned and manned by a father and son pair (Italian), backed up by a Ukranian gentleman. (A classic Brooklyn institution, to be sure.) Initially, I would get my hair cut by any member of this trio, but then, eventually, I gravitated to the Ukranian barber, who seemed to have got my preferred style–a military-flavored crew cut, with a very close cut on the sides–just right. Nothing too complicated, but still. This establishment of a ‘favored’ barber brought with it, for the first time, a certain awkwardness to my visits to the barbershop.

For on occasion, when one of the father and son pair were done with their customers, they would turn to me and indicate they were unoccupied–at which point, I would say that I was going to wait for my friend to finish with his current engagement. After the first couple of times, they stopped asking me, moving on to the next waiting customer. My preference had been indicated, and matters soon found a new equilibrium. I would walk in, stake out a spot, wave on other customers while I waited for ‘my man.’ ‘P’ is a taciturn man, and my haircutting sessions with him only included a few conversational exchanges; a few pleasantries, and then, both he and I would lapse into silence while ‘P’ went about his work, competently and efficiently. (On my left, the barber’s son cut his customers’ hair in rather more conventional style: a free-wheeling conversation about sports, family, television, music–the whole nine yards.)

Then, a few weeks ago, awkwardness returned. I was due a for a haircut–badly. Unkempt and rough around the edges, I was dying to get cleaned up. My busy schedule meant that very few times in the week would allow me to visit the barbershop. One opportunity went by after another; finally, on a Friday morning, I resolved to reduce my hirsuteness before I went to work. Haircut or bust. I walked in only to find ‘P’ missing. On asking where he was, I was reassured–by the younger owner– he would be at work soon: “he shows up around this time; grab a seat.” I did so, and opened up a book to read. The minutes ticked by; my Friday could not wait for too long. As I read, I noticed that I was the only customer waiting in the shop. Once the haircut currently underway was completed, I would have the floor to myself. A previously unthinkable option had presented itself: betraying ‘P.’

And so it came to pass. As the customer ahead of me was cleaned up, I stood up and removed my jacket. I could not wait any longer. If I was lucky, my haircut would be complete before ‘P’ walked in and caught me cheating on him.

But as the white sheet went on, and as the clippers began their work, ‘P” walked in. We exchanged pleasantries; I cringed. My treachery was now a public matter. I could only hope that while my haircut proceeded another customer would engage him and distract him. But it was not to be. Bizarrely enough, for the next twenty minutes, while I received my haircut, the barbershop remained pristinely empty, even as ‘P,’ standing by his station next to me, stared moodily–and perhaps darkly and grimly–at the street outside.

That was one long haircut. It was made even more so by the fact that my barber kept up his usual stream of friendly chatter, to which I, with guilt racking every fibre of my being, reciprocated as best as I could (the Yankees, the Mets, local schools.)

Finally, the time came. I handed over my payment, included a tip, and then, as I headed out, bade everyone goodbye. Thankfully, ‘P’ squeezed out a smile–it looked like one–for me. So did the beaming young man who had just cut my hair.

I have no idea who is going to cut my hair the next time I walk through the doors of my barbershop. Stay tuned. I’m rough around the edges again.

Nietzsche On The Interpersonal Dynamics Of Social Networks

This afternoon, I sat down to read through the portions of HumanAll Too Human (Section VI – ‘Man in Society’ or ‘In Relations with Others’) that I had assigned to my Social Philosophy class, and once again, was struck by how acute and perspicuous so many of its aphorisms are–especially when it comes to anticipating the awkwardness and gaucherie and pretensions of our online social networks.

For instance, on the business of avatars, Nietzsche offers the following:

294 Copies. Not infrequently, one encounters copies of important people; and, as with paintings, most people prefer the copy to the original.

On the burdens of the kind of ‘friendships’ that are now increasingly common on social media:

296 Lack of intimacy. Lack of intimacy among friends is a mistake that cannot be censured without becoming irreparable.

On the kinds of knowledge and posturing that social networks encourage and facilitate:

302 Preference for certain virtues. We lay no special value on the possession of a virtue until we perceive its complete absence in our opponent.

305 Balance of friendship. Sometimes in our relationship to another person, the right balance of friendship is restored when we put a few grains of injustice on our own side of the scale.

On the ways and manner in which we express ourselves in meeting spaces online:

303 Why one contradicts. We often contradict an opinion, while actually it is only the tone with which it was advanced that we find disagreeable.

307 When paradoxes are appropriate. At times, one can win clever people over to a principle merely by presenting it in the form of an outrageous paradox.

On kinds of humble bragging:

313  Vanity of the tongue. Whether a man hides his bad qualities and vices or confesses them openly, his vanity wants to gain an advantage by it in both cases: just note how subtly he distinguishes between those he will hide his bad qualities from and those he will face honestly and candidly.

On being embroiled in pointless disputation and flame wars:

315 Required for debate. Whoever does not know how to put his thoughts on ice should not engage in the heat of argument.

317 Motive for attack. We attack not only to hurt a person, to conquer him, but also, perhaps, simply to become aware of our own strength.

326 Silence. For both parties, the most disagreeable way of responding to a polemic is to be angry and keep silent: for the aggressor usually takes the silence as a sign of disdain.

On the provision of a performance space by social networks:

325 Presence of witnesses. One is twice as happy to dive after a man who has fallen into the water if people are present who do not dare to.

And its associated lack of privacy:

327 The friend’s secret. There will be but few people who, when at a loss for topics of conversation, will not reveal the more secret affairs of their friends.

We should not be too surprised; we import, into our online meeting spaces, the dynamics of ‘offline’ interactions that have always been visible to the acute observer of the social scene. As Nietzsche undoubtedly was.

What My Facebook Like Means

Facebook users often express dissatisfaction over the limited range of options available to them for responding to posts made on their newsfeed by their ‘friends.’ (I wish there was a ‘dislike’ button! I wish I could like this a thousand times! I wish I could tell you how much I liked this!) My sympathies are with the complainers. My ‘Like’ button is terribly overworked; it does double, triple, quadruple duty; there isn’t enough granularity of expression in that atomic expression. It does not capture the range and variety of social interactions it facilitates.

This is what my Faceook ‘Like’ means:

I approve of the content of the link you have just provided. I disapprove of the content of the link you have just provided. This photograph is adorable. You said something funny. Just saying hi. Just saying bye. I am appalled. I am sorry for you. I hear you. You go girl. You go dude. Interesting; I’ll get back to you. Who cares; but you clearly do. A grunt. A guffaw. A chortle. A snicker. A snort. Thanks for the ‘Like’; here is yours.  Too Long; Didn’t Read; but here is a ‘Like’ anyway. Can I look forward to a ‘Like’ from you sometime soon? I have no idea what you are talking about but you clearly seem to be fishing for attention and this is the best I can do for the moment. Consider this a goodbye present; you will soon be dropped from my newsfeed. This was a rather transparent attempt to be clever and you do this way too often, but still, you are family, so here is a ‘Like’ for you. I haven’t dropped you from my newsfeed yet? Consider this a thank you for the ‘Like’ you sent me the other day. Just chiming in; everyone else is giving this a ‘Like.’  You ‘Liked’ my baby; I’ll ‘Like’ yours. Why wasn’t I invited to this dinner party? Why wasn’t I invited to this barbecue? You have friends besides me? Who is this person you are posing with? Our friendship has been reduced to the exchange of these electronic waves which people call ‘Like’ and which I am sending your way. I hope you will ‘Like’ some of the content I post; this is the third ‘Like’ I have given you in the past week. I hope my ‘Like’ will encourage you to keep posting this bizarre shit that has so many of us so entertained, if mystified. Your kid isn’t that cute, but you are an awfully sensitive person, so here is a ‘Like.’  Hi; haven’t seen you in a while; do you come here often? This could be the first of many ‘Likes’ if you play it right. Just trying to get you over the hundred mark here. Oh, it’s you again, telling us all how much you have accomplished while we struggle to get through the day; here is your gold star. Hi; you might not know me, but we just became friends on Facebook.

Shyness, Introverts, And Receding To Older Personas

A few days ago, I wrote on my occasional avoidance of company and/or conversation–with friends, acquaintances, and implicitly, of course, with strangers. In concluding, I wrote:

On those occasions when I do carry out such deft evasions, I am reminded that despite writing in public spaces and despite taking up a career that requires me to stand in front of groups of people and talk, I retain at the core of my being, traces of a self quite familiar to me: a shy person who often prefers the company of a book to that of a fellow human.

This “shy person” was far more visible when I was a child. Then, I was considerably uninterested in entering my peer groups, and was also reluctant to spend much time in the company of adults other than my parents. My friendships were almost invariably made, not with groups, but with other lads who seemed similarly afflicted with a case of shy-itis. Two years spent in a boarding school forced me to emerge from this self-imposed shell, inducing a change that was visible to many who had previously known me as  a tongue-tied resident of social margins. (c.f the stuttering phase of my life.)

Moving out from home and migrating–two events that were rolled into one for me–further imposed a veneer of extroversion upon the older introverted self. I was forced to advocate for myself, to seek new relationships, and of course, I responded, with varying degrees of self-consciousness, to explicit and implicit pressures to assimilate.

But I don’t think I ever felt wholly comfortable with these changes. Even if the transformation which they seemed to have induced was so comprehensive that my suggestion that I was ‘essentially’ a shy person was invariably greeted with skepticism and disbelief. And more unkindly, as a kind of posturing.

Over the years, I have noticed a creeping exhaustion with the effort required to maintain this persona–which you would only describe as being ‘inauthentic’ if you insisted on being reductive–of the gregarious extrovert. Even if that maintenance brought in its wake many goods. For instance, I have made some very good friends, relationships with whom have endured over the years;  I have been able to enter into a long-term, stable romantic relationship (which is, obviously, challenging, as these things invariably are); and of course, I have been enriched a great deal,  intellectually and emotionally, by the many conversations and personal encounters that I have experienced over the years. (Almost all of my academic work is co-authored; my collaborations were essential to my work. I find myself thinking aloud, in company, in ways unknown to my solitary self.)

But these ‘gains’ have not been earned easily. And much like an athlete might find it hard to persist with high levels of excellence in her performances over the years, so do I find myself disinclined to push myself as hard as I  once did, to persist with an older energy, in a kind of ‘social performance.’ I look, occasionally, at the sidelines, at the benches, where some relief from the burdens of social expectation awaits. I feel, ever so gradually and yet distinctly, an ebbing, a receding, a return, to an older place of repose and comfort.

This does not mean, again, that I disdain human company. I think it just means that I’ve become more selective about the avenues where I will expend my social energies.

On Avoiding Company And Conversation

Yesterday afternoon, after I had finished teaching, as I hurried to the Flatbush Avenue subway station to catch a train for my evening workout, I saw a Brooklyn College colleague out of the corner of my eye. I walked on; I did not want to say hello; I did not want to stop and talk. This was not because I disdain the perfectly pleasant company of my fellow academic; rather, I simply did not have the energy to engage in conversation. Conversation would entail: first, the exchange of pleasantries and niceties, and then later, quite possibly, an intellectual engagement on which I would have to stay on my toes. Conversations can be exhausting. At that moment, all I wanted to do was sink into a seat on the subway and read a book. I meant no insult or rejection to my colleague. I just wanted to be alone.

I indulge in this sort of ‘anti-social’ behavior  quite often. Sometimes, I will see a neighbor on the street, and will walk past them if they have not seen me. Sometimes, I will carry out the same avoidance on campus, briskly threading my way through a gaggle of students that now provides cover for my escape. Sometimes, at that same Flatbush Avenue subway station, I will see a colleague sitting in a subway car, and will walk on to the next one. (Not always, of course; often, I enjoy catching up with friends whom I haven’t seen in a long time.) This avoidance behavior seems to occur the most often on trains; I suspect this is because my time on trains affords me some precious reading time and I’m loath to spend it on conversation. On occasion, it’s easier to justify this shrinking from social encounters: I enjoy varying degrees of comfort with the many acquaintances in my life, and with some of them conversations can suffer from some awkwardness, some shuffling of the feet, some looking for a quick way out. In those cases, it’s easy to justify my turning away, my pressing on.

I feel some guilt about this behavior. I seem to be disdaining encounters with fellow human beings, preferring my own company; I seem to prefer remaining lost in my own thoughts, my own reveries; I seem to prefer solipsism. It’s entirely possible that some of the folks I ‘ignore’ have seen me despite my attempts to remain incognito and have been offended. I may have insulted and slighted the more sensitive of my friends. I mean no harm, no offense. I’m a man of limited resources–emotional and intellectual–and conservation comes easily to me in these circumstances.

On those occasions when I do carry out such deft evasions, I am reminded that despite writing in public spaces and despite taking up a career that requires me to stand in front of groups of people and talk, I retain at the core of my being, traces of a self quite familiar to me: a shy person who often prefers the company of a book to that of a fellow human. Sometimes, I’m just too tired to talk, too tired to navigate the shoals of social encounters. Sometimes I’d much rather read.

Once again, no offense intended.