Sunday, August 11, 2019

On the "r" word.

I expect I'll get in trouble for this post.


This past week, Toni Morrison died at the age of 88. She was one of my favorite authors. When I was in grad school, I wrote a paper about her -- which in no way makes me an expert, but it did give me an enduring appreciation for her work. 

Morrison was a major voice in American literature. The power of her prose was strongest when describing and explaining what we might call the black experience -- including the effects on blacks of racism, as in The Bluest Eye, and of the institution of slavery, as in Beloved.

I was reading a whole bunch of hyphenated-American literature back then: among them, Isabel Allende's The House of the Spirits, Louise Erdrich's Love Medicine, and Sherman Alexie's The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven (which he later adapted into the screenplay for Smoke Signals, a movie I highly recommmend). All of these books are magic realism, and so too is Beloved. And in all of them except Allende's book, racism plays a role.

I grew up with the classical definition of racism -- which, according to Merriam-Webster, is:
1 : a belief that race is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race
2a : a doctrine or political program based on the assumption of racism and designed to execute its principles
b : a political or social system founded on racism
3 : racial prejudice or discrimination
But the "r" word has gotten thrown around a lot in recent years, to the point where it almost means anything the writer or speaker wants it to mean. I know English is a living language and the meanings of words change -- but too often, over the years, racism as a term has been co-opted and redefined to benefit a particular political agenda. 

Ten or twenty years ago, I was running into conservatives who would call me out for my support of things like diversity policies in the college admissions process and accuse me of reverse racism -- of favoring other races over my own, to the point of advocating discrimination against whites. At the time, I filed their opinions under Things that make you go "Huh?" Nowadays, it appears conservatives have shortened the term to just racism, which is really confusing to those of us who are used to hewing to the dictionary definition of the word. Of course, for folks who like to keep people they think of as smartass liberals off-balance, that obfuscation is part of the charm.

Lately I've been seeing a similar but opposite co-opting of the word on the left. Many African-Americans correctly maintain that many white people don't understand or acknowledge the privilege their pale skin affords them in our society. But then some make a sweeping generalization and say all whites fall into that category -- that is, no white person anywhere understands or acknowledges their white privilege. And then some black folks go even further and say all whites, by definition, are racists.

That seems like an unfair generalization -- particularly when racist has, for years, been an insult. But pointing that out opens me to a charge of trying to move the focus back to me and my experience as a white person, which is not my aim at all. And let me make it explicitly clear that I am not equating this usage of racism with the pretzel logic conservatives employ when they use the word.

But we can all agree, I think, that sweeping generalizations are almost always wrong. I think we can all agree as well that the word racist has historically been considered an insult. If you want to keep your allies on your side, insulting them is not a winning strategy.

Certainly, there are racist white people out there who Just Don't Get It, like the interviewer in this video of Toni Morrison that went viral in the days following her death. But not all of us are like that woman. We get where you're coming from. We support you. Please don't run us off.

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These moments of bloggy strategy have been brought to you, as a public service, by Lynne Cantwell.


Sunday, August 4, 2019

On peak retirement age.

My head is full of Elementals and my Facebook feed is full of the mass shootings over the past couple of days, neither of which I want to talk about right now. So for this week's post, I'm going back to an idea that I threatened to write about a few weeks ago.

Gerd Altmann | CC0 | Pixabay
What piqued my interest was an article in The Atlantic about how long people should plan to keep working. The article is not about finances. If you talk to any financial planner, they will tell you to keep working and saving 'til you have a million dollars in your retirement account. Right? And how realistic is that when the average amount people ages 55 to 64 have in savings is $107,000? (Even the article at the link is on this train; it says people in their 60s need to have saved eight times their annual salary. Yeah, right.) The longer you listen to these folks, the more depressing it gets. You may end up feeling like you'll never have enough money to retire.

That's not realistic, either. Most American workers retire at 62, which is not-so-coincidentally the age at which Americans are first eligible to collect Social Security. Often, people intend to work longer, but they underestimate how long they'll stay healthy enough to keep their jobs. The most realistic approach, then, would be to figure out what your retirement income will be, given where you are right now, and rearrange your lifestyle to make that work.

But that's not what the Atlantic article is about, either. In a sense, it's about people who work too long -- folks who try to keep up the pace they sustained when they were younger.

The author is Arthur C. Brooks, a former president of the American Enterprise Institute. He says in many fields, people do their best work in middle age.
Looking at major inventors and Nobel winners going back more than a century, [Benjamin Jones, a professor of strategy and entrepreneurship at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management,] has found that the most common age for producing a magnum opus is the late 30s. He has shown that the likelihood of a major discovery increases steadily through one’s 20s and 30s and then declines through one’s 40s, 50s, and 60s. Are there outliers? Of course. But the likelihood of producing a major innovation at age 70 is approximately what it was at age 20—almost nonexistent.
The outlook isn't much better for writers, according to Brooks: "When Martin Hill Ortiz, a poet and novelist, collected data on New York Times fiction best sellers from 1960 to 2015, he found that authors were likeliest to reach the No. 1 spot in their 40s and 50s. Despite the famous productivity of a few novelists well into old age, Ortiz shows a steep drop-off in the chance of writing a best seller after the age of 70." (So maybe don't leave writing your Great American Novel to after I retire.)

It's a long article and has a lot of interesting ideas in it. But Brooks does finally get down to a prescription for coping with this earlier-than-you-want-it-to-be decline: walk away from the hard-driving career world while you're still at your peak; take time to think about your spirituality and what you'd like for folks to say about you in a eulogy; and connect with others, and not just your friends and family. He suggests older folks should serve as mentors or teachers, and thereby pass their hard-earned wisdom along.

I'm not suggesting all of us old farts take up teaching. But if you feel yourself slowing down at work earlier than you thought you would, know that you're pretty typical -- and that there may be life after whatever job you have right now.

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These moments of encouraging blogginess have been brought to you, as a public service, by Lynne Cantwell (who's still contemplating whether to write a Great American Novel, and what it would be about if she did).