How to stop stressing and believe in yourself

“Listen to me,” said the counselor, “your ideas are as good as anyone else’s.”

The young man shifted his weight and looked down at the floor.

“I guess so.”

“What do you mean, you guess so? It’s true. You need to stop comparing yourself to others. That way only results in feelings of inferiority.”

“But, maybe I am inferior. My ideas sound so vague, so simple. If you read what everyone else writes, it’s all so subtle, so well thought out.”

Silence. The ticking of the big mantle clock seemed to fill every moment with anxiety. The counselor let out a long sigh, tapped his pencil on his pad, and looked directly at his young client.

“First of all, you’re comparing yourself with published authors, people who have had time to elaborate on their ideas, and anticipate objections.”

The young man looked dubious.  “But you don’t know my work.  You don’t know if my ideas are good or not.”

“That’s not the important point here.  What’s important is that you are a unique person, and no one else has your viewpoint. If that’s not worth sharing with the world, I don’t know what is. Look inside your own heart for answers, not in some books written by people who will never know you, the real you.”

The young man looked up.

“Really? You really think my ideas are as good as anyone else’s?”

“Absolutely. You’re unique, you’re you. Don’t let others control your self respect. If your so-called friends constantly criticize your work, you need to find better friends. Surround yourself with people who lift you up, not drag you down.”

The young man stood up, took a deep breath, and extended his hand.

“All right, then! I’ll do as you say.”

“I’m so glad we could have this talk,” said the counselor, giving him a sidelong glance. “Keep your chin up. I look forward to hearing good things of you in the future.”

They shook hands, and, with a bounce in his step that was utterly lacking before the meeting, young Adolph strode out into the sunlight.

Guns, revisited

A few days ago, I received a response to my post about guns, disagreeing with my general premise that the easy availability and general plethora of guns in America was responsible for a large part of the gun violence in this country. My immediate reaction was to fire off a reply reiterating my view.  Then, a bit later, I thought I should add some statistics to bolster that view, and I found a web site that gave me exactly what I needed, challenges to the major arguments against gun control, with statistics and citations for the studies generating them. One thing nagged at me, though: the site was Mother Jones, an openly partisan site for left-leaning ideas. I decided to do a little more research, just to be on the safe side.

But a curious thing happened. The deeper I dug, the less clear things became. I don’t mean I was tempted to change my views, I mean I was having trouble finding truly convincing support for either side of the argument. Don’t get me wrong; there was no shortage of sites claiming to have the definitive facts on the subject. If I wanted a page that proved beyond a doubt that guns are the problem, it was easy to find it. The problem was that it was equally easy to find a site that proved beyond a doubt that far from being the problem, guns were the solution. There was unmitigated cherry picking on both sides. For example, one site noted that Finland, which has the fifth largest number of guns per capita in the world, also has an extremely low rate of gun crime. It neglected to point out that it also has a very rigorous system of gun registration and control. Another site repeated the often cited statistic that there have been 181 school shootings since Columbine, but seemed to have counted 120 events that either were not at schools or did not involve guns, leaving only 61. You might say that even 61 is unacceptable, and you’d be right, but this kind of misrepresentation only weakens the credibility of the source.

Even the seemingly unimpeachable was no help. Pro-gun sites often cited the statistic that in the last ten years, gun ownership has gone up, while gun crime has gone down; anti-gun sites have data that show that where gun ownership has dramatically increased in the country, so has gun crime. Which of these statistics is true?

Both, it turns out. But the problem with both is an old bugbear of statistics: correlation is not necessarily the same as causation. In the former instance, if you break down the ten year span, it is difficult to line up instances of gun ownership with lower crime in local settings. In the latter, it isn’t clear which came first, the increase in violence or the rise in gun ownership.

So, what to do? Is it even possible to find a source that is impartial? In the end, I did find one, FactCheck.org. This is a group of journalists dedicated to checking the statements of politicians for truth, and they spare no one, regardless of political affiliation. Of course, they only check the statements of politicians, but this issue is so politically charged that there was no shortage of relevant information. Their gun page is full of statements checked by researching academic studies, government statistics and news sources. After analyzing all of the statements concerning guns and gun violence, they came to a startling conclusion:

Given currently available statistics, it is impossible to determine unequivocally what, if any, effect the number of guns in America has on gun crime.

Nobody, it turns out, keeps the kind of records needed for definitive conclusions. The FBI, the most reliable source, keeps extensive records on gun violence, but dismisses justifiable incidents, which they broadly define as an incident in which the shooter felt an immediate threat. This, most obviously, rules out almost all shootings by police, but also by civilians, whether their perception was accurate or not, and whether they were telling the truth or not. George Zimmerman’s killing of Trayvon Martin, for instance, would not be included in this kind of statistic. Other records are incomplete, and need to be correlated with each other to make sense, often with the result that studies with vastly different levels of thoroughness, even competence, are compared.

Furthermore, there is no good database on accidental gun shootings; this must be gleaned from news sources. There is no comparison of how gun regulation affects these issues; most studies focus on simple ownership of guns. Finally, there is no clear study of how gun ownership affects the mental state of people involved with confrontations, and how often these escalate into violence.

Personally, I still lean strongly toward gun regulation; I don’t see the value of allowing just anyone to keep guns, and I don’t see why guns should not be registered, and I find it hard to ignore the case of Finland. I am also aware that, in spite of all the rhetoric about crime and safety, the biggest factor in the minds of many activist gun owners is government; that’s why there’s so much emphasis on “taking our guns away,” which has never been a serious proposal by gun control advocates.   Simply, they fear that without guns, and lots of them, the government will take away their freedom. The implication is clear. They consider armed insurrection a viable option. Forgive me if I find that chilling.

Still, some good, reliable statistical information on these issues is sorely needed.  In the end, it is no longer acceptable, if it ever was, to find a site we trust and just go with whatever they are saying. There is no site which is reliably impartial all the time, on all issues, and the data are simply not available. We, as a country, need to collect the kinds of data that can lead to better conclusions, and we need to commission better studies. The reports need to be transparent, and include a full discussion of methods and sources.

“But I can show you ten sites with exactly that kind of information!” you may be saying. I know you can. And so can the guy on the other side, who you think is an idiot.

This should be disturbing to both sides of the debate.


ADDENDUM: About statistics

When you’re looking at stats, there are two rules to keep in mind. The first is GIGO, garbage in, garbage out. The reliability of a statistic is no better than the data used to generate it. The second is the old Interrogation Rule, if you torture data enough, they will tell you what you want to hear. This second rule applies not only to conscious efforts to distort reality, but to unconscious factors like confirmation bias as well. It has long been noted that if you begin a statistical study hoping for, or even just expecting, a particular outcome, the chances of getting it are excellent.

So what to do? Do poor old lay people like ourselves just throw up our hands and despair of ever being able to evaluate statistics? Not at all, there are simple ways to do this. Unfortunately, they are not easy. One way is to read what opponents trying to debunk a study say about it. If you want a rigorous argument, your enemy is really your best friend, because they will point out the weaknesses unerringly. You also have to learn to ask questions yourself. Have any possible factors been left out? Are there gaps in the sample? If so, it doesn’t mean you have to disregard the study, but it does mean you need to find corroborating studies, preferably using a different data set, but at least one that is explicit about the nature of the data, and what kinds of statistical methods were used.

Life on the Mississippi, revisit

It’s Fathers’ Day. This is a reprise of something I posted on this blog in February of 2013.

In a dusty, fading memory of a National Geographic of my youth, among the bare-breasted African ladies and stripe-shirted Parisians, there is a sunny picture of a lad on a raft, his toes swirling the Mississippi River. His father had taken him out of school for a year of rafting on that mythic Father of Dreams, not only waters. Why could not I have a father like that, I grieved.

My own father thought peace, not adventure, was the greatest gift. He was born and grew in Latvia, in a forest of kin, as much a part of his place as the oak trees planted for the native sons. A small stone house, a well, three oaks and a horizon of fields. A burial ground nearby sheltered his ancestors on both sides; their names are gone now, weathered away like the wooden crosses that marked their graves. But he was there, where he belonged, in the embrace of family, living and dead.

When I was a boy, I would stand in front of the door of my house, looking outside, wishing and wondering. I think he was like that. Bye and bye, whatever was beyond the fields of oats and rye beckoned, and he answered. In a fit of irrational exuberance, he joined the army.

Not bad, really, at least at first. It was a free country, for that brief period between the great wars, and nothing for soldiers to do but dream of dying under foreign skies, all brave and noble. They certainly had the songs for it. He went off to Riga, to the War College. It was a blast. Bright lights, big city, no way to keep him down on the farm after that. He married a girl with an eighth grade education and a mind that was quicker than a hare chased by two foxes and an alley cat. No slouch himself, he thought she was normal. They had a couple of children. You know that feeling, in a dream, when you’ve climbed to the highest peak to look at the world, and you turn around to discover the mountain has disappeared while you weren’t paying attention?

Russians. Germans, then Russians again. The world was in one of its fits. This part of the story is a haze of half glimpsed hopes and fears, mostly projections on my part. Like one of those stunts on a magician’s stage : a loud noise, a lot of smoke, and when it all clears, everything is different. In a camp in Germany, full of shattered dreams, I was born, much to the chagrin, I’m betting, of my brothers.

The father I knew had had enough adventures, thank you. He had made some promises to God when all else had crumbled; he did his best to see that his children fulfilled them. Keep this in mind when you promise things to God: don’t involve others. Faust probably had a better deal.

These days, I live near the Mississippi, and occasionally, when I drive upriver, I see that kid on the raft in my mind. I’m almost as old as my father ever got. I hope I’ve done as well as he did.

Guns

The recent appalling and tragic massacre in Charleston underscores once again the “debate” about gun control in the US. I put the word in quotes, because, in reality, there is no debate, just competing declarations of faith in either guns or gun control. I won’t beat around the bush; I blame the NRA and gun supporters for this impasse, because of the utterly uncompromising stance against any and all attempts to even regulate guns. The NRA has even had the unspeakable gall to blame the pastor of the church in Charleston, himself a victim, for the tragedy because of his position against allowing guns in his church. As if an all-out gunfight would have resulted in a better outcome. It’s hard to have a conversation, and literally impossible to reach a compromise under these conditions. And let’s not forget that one side is armed to the armpits while the other is not; not particularly conducive to a productive dialog.

It is a truism that banning guns will not stop murder, even murders by gun. For one thing, there are now enough weapons at large in the US to arm every criminal for the next several generations; the gun lobby has ensured that their mantra, “criminals will always have guns,” is true. So let’s instead talk about their proposed solution, that everybody else arm themselves.

Leaving aside the obvious point that that would make even more guns available for criminals, who by definition have no qualms about stealing weapons from law abiding citizens, there are other issues concerning the value of being armed as a deterrent to crime. First and foremost, if a criminal inclined to murder you thinks you have a gun, why wouldn’t they simply shoot first? Why wouldn’t this become commonplace as more people carrying guns becomes commonplace? Indeed, it seems to be happening already, judging from news reports.

Anyone familiar with the news knows how difficult it is for even trained persons, such as police, to properly judge when shooting people is appropriate. How is an average joe with a few hours of mandatory “training” (which, by the way, the gun lobby is also against) going to be able to do it? It is not unusual for those who have, in fact, killed someone in a situation they thought warranted it, to regret it for the rest of their lives (George Zimmerman notwithstanding). Are you ready to kill another human being based solely on your own judgment in a tense, confusing situation? I’m not asking for a public answer to that; it’s likely to be standard, and reflective of your politics anyway. I don’t need an answer. You do.

One other factor is at play here, and that is the corrosive, shoot-em-up atmosphere in our society. We revere the maverick, the lone wolf, the rebel who breaks laws and jaws with impunity to achieve some kind of primitive, retributive justice. There is no doubt that the Charleston murderer sees himself in precisely that light. It breeds contempt for law and inculcates the belief that revenge supersedes all interests of the society at large.

You might say it’s just rhetoric, just words. But language is what we humans do. We live by rhetoric and symbol. It might well be the most important factor here, as it drives the non-debate, and paralyzes the will to take effective action.

Very logical, Mr. Spocky-boots

The relentless logic of children:

“Do they have fish in England?”

“Of course. Fish are everywhere.”

“Everywhere?”

“Yep. Everywhere.”

“Then,” with an impish grin, pointing to a coffee cup, “are there fish THERE?”

“Don’t be stupid!”

“But you said EVERYWHERE!”

À la recherche du temps déplacé: memory as myth

In the intro to my recent post about the death of Bill Vukovich and its effect on me as a child, I lamented my mistaken memories, and how I had conflated distinct events. That made me consider how that could happen; after all, we should be able to remember things we have experienced in their right sequence, shouldn’t we?

Actually, no.  Eye-witness accounts of even fairly recent events are notoriously unreliable, and the situation doesn’t improve with the added distance of time.  Complicate this with identity issues, and it isn’t so surprising.  But how, I asked myself; what is the mechanism?  The answer, I believe, lies in the way we construct our past, that is, our identity.

Time, we imagine, proceeds according to the strict logic of causation.  Events follow one another relentlessly in a sequence.  Whether this is so is not relevant here; it’s how we’ve been trained to see things.  But we file the events of our own past in terms of epochs rather than linear chronologies.  I was a boy, a teenager, a young man, etc.  We know which things can be assigned to which epochs of our past, but the internal ordering of these things remains murky.  To make matters worse, these categories themselves remain fluid, constructing and deconstructing according to our needs.  Not only do specific events swirl around within these contexts, but physical events are thrown together with emotional events, and when we call on our memories to arrange specific occurances in their proper relationship to one another, we do so according to the logic of compatibility rather than chronology.  Thus, the separate events of a racing death and the loss of a friend got pulled out of the soup together, since both occurred in the same epoch, and had similar emotional consequences.

I’m tempted to think that this is the same tendency that leads historians to construct eras in history, rather than being satisfied with chronology.  The truth is I don’t even know whether it’s accurate for personal histories.

What do you think?

The day Vukovich died

I wrote this as a memoir in a fit of nostalgia after watching the Indy 500 on Memorial Day. Then I decided to check names and dates, and discovered that, as often happens with memories, I had conflated several events, and the story was incompatible with reality. I tried changing it to reflect that, but couldn’t satisfy myself with the result. The original story, though inaccurate, was simply better. I see now how easy it is for memoirists to get caught up in these traps you read about, when someone exposes their work as false. I decided to leave it as it was, along with this caveat: make of it what you will. Call it memoir, call it fiction, but enjoy it if you can.

Memorial Day, 1955, Indianapolis. Me and Hughie on the railroad tracks with a portable radio, listening to the 500. Just that; there was no Indy then, the only nickname we knew for our city was Naptown, and it seemed appropriate. The race itself in those days was as pure and innocent as we were. It was before the big global car companies got involved, before Ford brought the refined, expensive high-pitched whine of its V-8s to the track, when the deep, throaty roar of the big 4-cylinder Offenhauser engines ruled the pack, when a boy could walk the alleys of Indianapolis, and catch a glimpse of an open wheeled racing car in someone’s garage, when a neighborhood grease monkey could still dream of building and driving a car in the big race without being laughed off the street.

The race took all day back then, when people in the know would say that for a car to circle the track at more than 150 mph was against the laws of physics. And so we climbed to the tracks to listen, and spend the day talking and dreaming. It was a tradition, or such tradition as not-quite-10-year old boys can have; we had resolved to do it some months before, after I had found a semi-functional radio in someone’s trash. The knobs were long gone, as was the antenna, but we put new tubes and a battery in it and tuned to WIBC as best we could. I will never forget the crackling, distant roar of the Offenhauser engines, the changing pitch of the announcers’ voices, fading in and out to the accompaniment of various screeches and howls. The few passing freight trains only added to the romantic lure for a couple of  boys.

We sat at our favorite spot, above the ruins of a factory, whose broken windows and random indecipherable gears and brackets were sheer heaven for the imagination. To us it was as mysterious as Pompeii or Stonehenge, and we spent long hours devising theories about what had been made there, and why it had been abandoned, and whether there were ghosts. All the while, the sun shone brightly, the breezes came always just in time, and the radio droned a hypnotic backdrop, as close to paradise as anything on this earth.

Then, through the crackle, came the voice of Jim Frosch, the backstretch announcer: a horrendous crash involving at least three cars. The car driven by Roger Ward had broken an axle, causing the cars behind to swerve to avoid him. The race leader and favorite, Bill Vukovich, was hit with such force that his car sailed of the track, striking an abutment upside down and landing in a parking lot. Vukovich – for us Mickey Mantle, Johnny Unitas, and John Wayne all rolled into one – was dead. We came down from the tracks, stunned, and walked slowly home through the neighborhood, which suddenly seemed stiflingly hot.

Stories and rumors swirled. Boyd, whose car had sent him flying, had hit him on purpose. Roger Ward’s car had been sabotaged. As days passed, the stories grew less accusatory but more grisly. Someone had a cousin who knew a guy who had seen the crash at the race and swore he saw Vukovich’s head roll down the track a few dozen feet before coming to rest on the inner verge. None of it was true. None of it mattered.

That was the end of the “tradition.” It marked the first real disillusionment of our short lives. From that point, Hughie and I gradually lost interest in hanging out, although we were glad enough when our paths crossed, and exchanged stories, and asked after each other’s recent adventures. But we went separate ways, each choosing, or thrust into, our separate tunnels.  I longed to escape everything familiar, parents, neighbors, greasy streets with permanent potholes; Hughie seemed evermore welded to the neighborhood. After high school, I went off to college, a relatively rare thing in that neighborhood. He joined the Navy, then was back out almost immediately, on a medical discharge.

Years later, home on a visit, I gave in to a nostalgic urge and looked him up; he still lived in the same neighborhood. I knocked on his door. A woman I didn’t know opened the door.

It was a small rundown apartment with a musty odor. Hughie sat on the arm of a couch, eyes glazed with surrender. There were two other guys, a couple of girls, a half empty whiskey bottle. We said hello, and I said so long.

Nowadays. I sometimes find myself grieving for those old times when our lives seemed pure and holy, and I still think of that day so long ago, the day Vukovich died, and how the world seemed irreparably changed. How were we to know that it was only the beginning?