Monthly Archives: April 2017

I’m Doing Something

Elvis Costello said, “I don’t go out much at night; I don’t go out much at all.” In fact, many people now often prefer staying in to going out for reasons that include:

  • Feeling free to act and dress however they want.
  • Saving their money.
  • Avoiding meaningless conversations.
  • Avoiding competition for parking, seating or using the bathroom.

But if I want to spend a couple of hours reading a book or the news online, I often prefer going out to a café or a public space to sitting in my living room. And I’m all over this scene from Seinfeld:

GEORGE: Do you mind if I watch [this tape] here?
JERRY: What for?
GEORGE: Because if I watch it at my apartment I feel like I’m not doing anything. If I watch it here, I’m out of the house; I’m doing something.

Even when I do go out, however, I don’t necessarily want to talk to anyone. Again, Seinfeld:

ELAINE: Come on, let’s go do something. I don’t want to just sit around here.
JERRY: Okay.
ELAINE: Want to go get something to eat?
JERRY: Where do you want to go?
ELAINE: I don’t care, I’m not hungry.
JERRY: We could go to one of those cappuccino places. They let you just sit there.
ELAINE: What are we gonna do there? Talk?
JERRY: We can talk.
ELAINE: I’ll go if I don’t have to talk.

It seems, however, that despite my lack of a social impulse and my squeamishness with conversation, I do feel sympathy for the idea of a “third place.” Ray Oldenburg said that third places—”public places on neutral ground where people can gather and interact”—are “central to local democracy and community vitality.” They should be:

  • Neutral—”in which we all feel at home and comfortable”
  • Level—”by its nature, an inclusive place”
  • Conversational—”the cardinal and sustaining activity of third places everywhere”
  • Accessible—”one may go alone at almost any time of the day or evening with assurances that acquaintances will be there”
  • Regular—”the right people are there to make it come alive, and they are the regulars”
  • Unpretentious—”typically plain”
  • Playful—”joy and acceptance reign over anxiety and alienation”

Johnny Dzubak said that a third place “puts you in touch with people who are unlike you, which is an important part of growth for every man.” But he also said, for a third place to be right for you, it needs to have “the kind of people you’d want to spend time with.” I don’t know if such a place exists for me; I don’t know if I can be comfortable in a place “where everybody knows your name.”

Is it just the sounds of a public place that I like, not the interaction? What is it about third places that I like when I don’t particularly like talking with people or getting to know them?

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Reason Alone is Sufficient

Astrophysicist and science popularizer Neil deGrasse Tyson is a big fan of Jonathan Swift’s eighteenth century novel, Gulliver’s Travels. He told The New York Times that it’s his favorite novel of all time, and he regularly includes it among books he recommends to both adults and children.

Swift’s satire on human nature aligns with Tyson’s own devotion to reason and his caustic view of the seeming disdain many people have for it.

“I call people’s attention to Part IV [A Voyage to the Country of the Houyhnhnms],” Tyson said, “in which Gulliver meets a community of intelligent, logical horses. Their debates are short. Their decision-making is efficient. Their governance is rational. Their society is a model of function and performance. Meanwhile, running hairy, smelly, and naked in the woods are the Yahoos—the first appearance of that word. They are savage and irrational creatures. And they look just like humans.”

The reaction of one of the Houyhnhnms to Gulliver’s description of English society reads like many of Tyson’s descriptions of contemporary society:

“He said ‘he had been very seriously considering my whole story, as far as it related both to myself and my country; that he looked upon us as a sort of animals, to whose share, by what accident he could not conjecture, some small pittance of reason had fallen…that we disarmed ourselves of the few abilities she had bestowed, had been very successful in multiplying our original wants, and seemed to spend our whole lives in vain endeavors to supply them by our own inventions…that our institutions of government and law were plainly owing to our gross defects in reason, and by consequence in virtue; because reason alone is sufficient to govern a rational creature.'”

Indeed, Gulliver relates:

“It was with extreme difficulty that I could bring my master to understand the meaning of the word opinion, or how a point could be disputable; because reason taught us to affirm or deny only where we are certain; and beyond our knowledge we cannot do either. So that controversies, wranglings, disputes, and positiveness, in false or dubious propositions, are evils unknown among the Houyhnhnms. In the like manner, when I used to explain to him our several systems of natural philosophy, he would laugh, ‘that a creature pretending to reason, should value itself upon the knowledge of other people’s conjectures, and in things where that knowledge, if it were certain, could be of no use.'”

Tyson insists that “reading this novel is fun, on the cynical side” because, he says, it’s “a reminder that, most of the time, humans are yahoos.”

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