Category Archives: Models

Examples we can productively study

The Items We Inexplicably Cherish

Purposeful collecting may matter more than we know. It offers a release from the crazy world we can’t control.

                                                                           The People’s Store, Lambertville N.J.

Anyone’s collection of almost anything is a marker of self-definition. Collecting turns out to be not only one acceptable way to have too much stuff, but usually represents our relationship to a certain class of things that are part of our core identity. In simpler terms, our stuff is emblematic of our enthusiasms. Jay Leno has over 300 rare cars, and stories about each one of them. According to Wikipedia, Mariah Carey collects shoes and Kiefer Sutherland has a number of Gibson guitars. F.D.R. was famous for his stamp collecting. And everyone knows that Tom Hanks collects old typewriters. One of my grandmothers had a prominent display of miniature spoons with the names of such exotic places as Salt Lake City and Tulsa. At least the spoons didn’t take up much space, which is more than can be said for Leno’s passion. My grandkids are avid collectors of Pokémon cards, with enthusiastic explanations that still tax my understanding. To the uninformed they seem a bit like professional sports cards, which have a long history with kids and adults. We even have E. M. Forester’s wonderful character, Helen, in Howards End. She moves through soggy London inadvertently collecting other people’s umbrellas.

Several years ago I wrote a essay wondering if we were done collecting. At that time it was easy to notice that streaming had replaced music collections that used to sit heavily on our walls. But the impulse to convert our passions into material ownership may be deeper than I knew. There is the well-known example of resurging interest in vinyl records. New bands establish their credibility with vinyl albums.  And vintage stereo equipment to play them on is also having its moment. Purposeful collecting may matter more than we know. It offers a degree of escape from a crazy world we can’t control, to a set of things that we can.

Most of us are remain active curators, though we rarely use that word. This is obvious to any user of Facebook or Snapchat. Facebook dramatically displays images of ourselves and the things and images we will allow to stand in for us. Selfies are galleries of the considered self. We sometimes use these images to relay pieces of the culture that we want others to like as much as we do.

Older forms of personal curating continue as well. Model railroaders curate their collections with the passion of medievalists working at the British Museum. Guitarists rarely have just one instrument; most acquisitions represent a new point on their own learning curve with the instrument. A lot of of us can’t resist a rare find carefully brought home to gather dust next to others like it. And more Americans accumulate tattoos to forever memorialize moments when exuberance probably exceeded caution.

Most of us live near a street of antique emporiums, used bookstores and flea markets. All are ready to sell everything from art-deco ashtrays to old film lobby posters, to more Beatles merchandise than any household needs. Those mini stores are a reminder that while many are done hunting for the basics of life, we are still eagerly gathering items that can fill in a narrative that  is a refreshing alternative to the present. The People’s Store in New Jersey is a trove of passions for artifacts, old and older.  The artifact remains after the owner of the passion is no longer around.

Alas, after the original curator of a collection leaves the scene, their collections will probably end up packed away in the attics of their still puzzled heirs.

The Unsung Virtues of Restraint

[Among the most viewed of the nearly 400 short essays posted on The Perfect Response is this from 2014, suggesting that there are sometimes advantages to not replying to another’s rebuke. We assume every arrow aimed at us needs a quick counter-response. But the psychological rewards of angry replies can be overrated. As noted here, even a brilliant retort is not likely to force an errant advocate back on their heels.]

For many of us the urge to enter the fray to correct or admonish others is a constant. It is always tempting to think that we are being helpful when we explain to the misguided how they have failed to notice their mistakes. It’s a self-fulfilling process. If others offer corrections or criticisms of our ideas, the least we can do is return the favor.

Aristotle was one of the first to formally describe how a person should defend their ideas when challenged. He equated the ability to make counterarguments to the realm of sometimes necessary personal defense. Though the great philosopher used other words, he essentially noted that we shouldn’t allow ourselves to be pushed around; our arguments should strike back. This was about 380 B.C., demonstrating that some things never change.

Even so, it has perhaps become too easy to fire off a rejoinder or a personal attack. Most of us find it hard to be in a public space and not encounter cross-court slams from an ideological opponent that need an equally aggressive return.

The digital world easily brings this kind of escalating indignation to the fore. Many websites make the mistake of accepting comments that are protected by anonymity. Are we surprised that they are often rude? And it isn’t just the trolls that are rattling on about a writer’s sloppy logic or uncertain parentage. In private and public settings everyone seems to be ready with a hastily assembled attitude. The felicitous put-down is so common that screenplays would wilt in their absence. What dramatist could write a scene about a family Thanksgiving dinner without including at least a couple of estranged relatives rising to the bait of each other’s festering resentments? To add to the fray, some of us get paid to teach others how to argue, with special rewards going to those who are especially adept at incisive cross examination.

Sometimes saying nothing is better than any other alternative: less wounding and hurtful, and the best option in the presence of a communication partner who is out for the sport of a take-down. In addition, the psychological rewards of verbal counterpunches can be overrated. Even a brilliant rejoinder is not likely to force an errant advocate back on their heels. You may be itching to set the record straight in no uncertain terms. But they are probably just as determined to ignore you.

And there are costs to becoming shrill. Harry Truman famously sensed this. The former President had a hot temper. Even before he came to office in 1945, he had more than his share of critics.  But his approach to doubters made a lot of sense.  In the days when letters often carried a person’s most considered rebuttals, his habit was to go ahead and write to his critics, often in words that burned with righteous indignation. But he usually didn’t mail them. The letters simply went into a drawer, which somehow gave Truman the permission to move on to more constructive activities, such as a good game of poker.

Not responding to someone else’s provocative words has several advantages. One is that your comments probably won’t be received anyway. It is our nature to ignore non-congruent information, a process known in the social sciences as “confirmation bias,” but familiar to everyone who has ever said that “we hear only what we want to hear.”  Another advantage is that rapid and heated responses to others can carry the impression that the responder lacks a certain grace. Not every idea that comes into our heads is worth sharing. And fiery replies sometimes indicate that we weren’t really listening: a result when disgust or hate drains away our capacity for clear-headed thinking.

Time gives us a better perspective. It allows us to better anticipate how our responses will be judged. Most importantly, it helps us break the spiral of wounding responses that pile on top of each other.