Miscellaneous content from the original enlightened caveman. Some serious, some not. Take your chances.

Tuesday, February 15, 2005

The Lobby and The Appearance of Dignity

Here's my day - I learn (or maybe notice) two interesting things.

I wake up in DC for a meeting with a prospective customer, emerge optimistic but wary of the work involved in finding out, fly back home to Atlanta, arrive at 6pm, repack, apologize to my wife on her birthday, take my son to the basement so he can play my drums (which he can only incessantly call "bum" and which also includes my guitar - either me playing it while he endlessly motors around, or me holding the chord with my left hand while he attempts to strum.), much consternation on his part at the end of our impromtu "session," and then it's off to Philly for two days. An odd city, if you ask me, Philly.

The perimeter of it is depressing. More than a couple of times, the thought crosses my mind that I would be very destraught if I was suddenly informed that I'd have to live here. Just sort of cluttery, but desolate at the same time - I'll pass. But then I cross over this river and go into some scary areas, where I think I would be very nervous if I was to suddenly have to live here. Abandoned buildings with broken glass all throughout, on streets that look like the video game, the shooting game, where villains pop out from behind every object and shadow. And it's overlooking water! Truly puzzling from a real estate development prospective - seems like some Trumpionnaire would clean house and put up a revitalized waterfront district or something expensive-sounding like that. It's like nobody cares, which is the first remarkable thing I notice today.

Almost as quickly as the cab and I enter into this archetypical run-down area of a city, we emerge into a Chicago or New York kind of downtown, with massive buildings right on the street, with shops at street level, and residences or offices (or both) going up into the heavens. Street vendors, convention centers, bars, restaurants, mass transit, hotels, shopping centers - all in about 3 square blocks - at least that's what it seems like. The transition from ghetto to modern metro is like passing between two different worlds, not mutually exclusive, but recognizably distinct.

In one, folks care about looks. In the other, they don't, at least not enough to take care of them. That's what I notice tonight as my cab pulls up to my hotel. Kind of hum-drum, but that's before a few rounds on the old cognitive spin cycle. The only minor-league, and I mean really minor-league excitement is my well-timed dart through the huge rotunda of a lobby to avoid colleagues who might be in the bar. One false move and I end up in there all night. It's happened before and it ends up leaving me tired, hungover, and generally off the next day.

Of course, that doesn't necessarily mean shit. I can almost always be counted on to join in the festivities if people I work with are. I have what I call the party gene. (That's another topic that'll get its ink in due time.) Anyhow, that's where the drama, minor league as it is, comes in. The inner conflict. You see, attendance at the professional, expense-account boozefest has a long record of benefiting my work environment, even though, these days, especially today, I am more apt to settle into my room, get online, and see what happens. A quandary you might say, settled by the half-assed, but probably still better than your average civilian's covert lobby crossing. If he gets spotted - bourbon and ginger (plus requisite cigarettes) till two. If not, the tamer tour through the blogosphere, but the benefit of a feel-good tomorrow. Finkel. Einhorn. Finkel. Einhorn...

Being a master of compromise (and lobby crossings - it's all about the diversion), I settle upon forcing myself to encapsulate the random, but not so random, thoughts that have crossed my mind on my three city tour. Then, I may see what's happening downstairs. Whew. Glad that's settled. Anyhow - let's make this quick.

I keep coming back to this two cities thing. Think about how important appearances are in different socioeconomic settings. People with nothing could care less about how they look. They can't afford to. And it seems like there's a direct, but leading, correlation between taking care of appearances and achieving prosperity and predictability. It's direct because the guy who cares about his appearance gets the job before the slob in most cases. Nothing shocking there. But, it is a leading (as in an economic leading indicator) correlation because the appearance change almost always precedes the achievement of prosperity.

As they say, you sometimes gotta fake it till you make it. This is why stock-brokers wear Rolex (would the plural be Rolei?) watches, drive expensive cars, and live in expensive houses, even when they're just starting out and can't make the money to support the lifestyle - it gives the impression that they're successful at handling people's money. The "he makes money if his clients make money" arrangement is understood, so the broker's wealth means his clients must be doing well. Ergo, it makes sense to do business with him, to let him help you manage your money. In our terms, it makes sense to accept him.

Now, obviously, if the guy's a total boob, he probably won't do well. But if he's not, and he's persistent, that interpersonal acceptance will pay off. So, what I'm saying is that you have to start caring about what you look like before a lot of good things will happen to you in life.

Appearance becomes a sort of investment. You do the things you need to do to keep your person looking right - right clothes, right hair, right teeth - and you take an instant step up on the ladder of mass social acceptance. In essence, you're decreasing your delta. Remember, the idea is that it is possible to have an appearance that virtually guarantees that, unless you're a total jerk, the people you meet will accept you. They'll be interested in you, and they'll be hoping that you like them. Your delta is how far, objectively speaking, you are looks-wise from that point. The further you are, the more likely it is that the exact opposite will happen - the people you meet will not lock eyes with you or take any interest in you, and if you dislike them, they will not notice, nor will they care if they do. That's harsh, but it's reality for some people. Fortunately for most people, the delta problem is tractable.

Suppose there's a figurative delta scale from zero to 100 - zero being the lowest delta (closest to mass total acceptance) and 100 being the highest delta (closest to mass total rejection). Something as broad (and purposefully vague) as an appearance delta would not have your typical bell curve distribution, would it? Yes, buuut, zero would be on the fringes of one side, say the left (arbitarily, lest any political notions enter into this). There are only a handful of folks at the zero delta point. They're the ones who presumably have the life. They set the styles and dominate all visual media. But, relatively speaking, there aren't many of them.

The numbers increase steadily as you move to the right, away from zero. Eventually, they peak and you have the average-looking person, not perfect, but not noticeably or distractingly flawed. Then, those drop off to the people who have something troubling about their appearance, something that causes people to be careful about looking. The curve ends at the other fringe with people who have it the worst in terms of human acceptance - maybe they're shut-ins because they just can't bear to go out, or maybe they're just invisible. Even though, thankfully, there aren't that many of them, there are still too many, and I hate to think about what that must be like. But I musn't dwell, there's booze to swill.

(That was the lamest rhyme ever. I have to admit that.)

Getting back to the point here, the delta scale is useful because we can imagine that one who has no interest in his appearance, somebody like your urban-variety bum, has a lot of easy ground to make up in terms of delta. A nice shower, a haircut, a trip to the dentist, some consistently good nutrition, and the guy can go from say a 70 to a 40. At 40, he may be close enough to the average person to start finding interpersonal acceptance fairly expectable. This, from some psychology I've read but honestly can't remember where (told you this was vague), is the turning point for self-esteem.

The moment you start to expect that you'll be accepted in interpersonal situations is the moment you begin to have self-esteem. Don't know if it's true, or if it's possible to know, but it sounds about right. So, thinking back about my cab ride (but now with the Bill Conti music from Rocky as a soundtrack - ahh, editorial license), I'm wondering how many folks are living there who just don't care about how they look, about how their house looks, or about anything like this. And I'm wondering, what if they did?

Socially sensitive people will answer that caring about your appearance isn't going to suddenly make a job materialize. These people are in poverty, they'll say. I'll grant that this may very well be the case for many of these people. But what about the ones who could simply decide to care about their appearance? They live within walking distance of any number of mail room-level jobs, jobs that go to guys (and gals) with the same background, only they clean up.

Maybe it's about dignity. Maybe this whole thing is just way to say that dignity begets pride in appearance, which begets acceptance. If so, I'm an idiot for wasting the festive hours in the bar downstairs on a single sentence. But that brings me back to the second thing I learned today. There's a self-perpetuating cycle going on here. I might ordinarily have ruminated on this idea and forgotten about it until something cued it back up again. But, as the word "blog" is short for weblog, which connotes ship's log or captain's log, and since I don't always have something particular to write about, I am informally committed to putting something down. In this case, it turns out that the whole thing is about information distillation and articulation, which happen to be the toolset of the writer. And duh, epiphany - that must be why I do this. Having written a book, I still don't think of myself as a writer. But tonight, considering that I distracted, and then deftly out-manuevered the lobby threat, and now it's too late to reconsider, it occurs to me - I am a writer. (It sounds gay to even type it.) Nevetheless, it's a milestone, I suppose.

Then, reality sets back in, as I wonder if it ever really pays well.

14 Comments:

Blogger alice said...

Well said, EC. It kind of reminds me of the lady who tells her children "It don't cost nothin' to be clean".

I'll think about this some more, but my first comment would be that there will always be a bell-curve. And the more people move up in it the higher it will get.

Poverty in the US isn't anything like poverty in India. We call it poverty, some would call it middle class. But the people in this country who are designated "in poverty" probably don't compare themselves to India.

So a rising tide will lift all boats. But will we feel the difference?

2/16/2005 10:01:00 AM

 
Anonymous Anonymous said...

A very good commentary! I wonder how (for persons) that ties in with aging? Elaine Morgan once remarked that an attractive young woman's status was "as high as a female baboon in estrus." Yet there's a subset of us who look geeky in youth and age very well.

As for cities, property, etc - yes. I've seen it myself. There is also a tie-in with whether or not you own the property, and if you own it in a bad neighborhood, whether or not the local vandals will decide to target anyone who keeps it neat? (Wow. ANOTHER tie-in to aging, since many of the property owners in bad neighborhoods are elders who did not want to move and who have older values.)

I'd like to see the cops be able to issue "Public Nuisance tickets" as another category of misdeeds.

Idiot Grrl

2/16/2005 04:08:00 PM

 
Blogger analogee said...

I went to college about 20 blocks north of where you are, I guess, EC. I found it interesting that the university kept buying up old abandoned houses -- places that used to be rather elegant in architecture, but really in ratty condition, and generally abandoned. And, instead of being pleased that things were being cleaned up, in general the feeling of the neighbors, best I can tell, was of enmity toward the university. There were always posters hung on the telephone poles, objecting to how the university was taking over the neighborhood, and you definitely didn't feel too welcome if you wandered off campus. Not sure if they were jealous, or felt threatened somehow, or were just wishing for some other outcome that wasn't going to happen, or what it was, but the definite feeling was that they preferred the squalor to Temple University.

I've often wondered if as a mix of 'welfare' and some real property rights mixed together, the city couldn't somehow give abandoned property to people, and let them feel the pride of ownership. I think there a lot of objections like the buildings don't meet code, and such. But is that worse than the conditions that presently exist? Would people be able to handle that, and gradually improve the character of the neighborhood, or would it just make things worse?

2/16/2005 11:41:00 PM

 
Blogger enlightenedcaveman said...

"I've often wondered if as a mix of 'welfare' and some real property rights mixed together, the city couldn't somehow give abandoned property to people, and let them feel the pride of ownership."

Glad you asked about this, because it's important. I don't think you can get pride of ownership if you are not protecting an *investment* - that is, something you've worked or anguished over. A gift, which is all free land would be, is not an investment. Therefore, the place would experience the exact same rate of decay as it does now. Even if you suppose that some folks would take their little piece of heaven seriously and tidy it up, their handy work would be quickly undone by the same folks who protested the Temple's acquisitions of property, the folks who prefer squalor to the university.

This is the hard part about trying to be upwardly mobile while in the ghetto. Those who are not trying the same thing will steal what you acquire and/or will tear down what you build up. You pretty much have to move.

So while you could probably interview twenty people on a run-down street and pick two to give a nice house with a picket fence in the suburbs to, and everything would work out fine, free tenemants handed out to all would probably meet with continued apathy, especially when the people realized that it didn't change anything. No meaningful change, at least.

A guy I know with some cash who travels all over the world felt bad for this Cambodian family he met on one of his extended journeys. He bought them some land and helped them build a nice house and then left them with some money. This obviously made him feel good. After all, the people lived like shit. But, upon hearing this story, it only took a moment to say, "So let me guess - they became the high status family in the area and suddenly everyone was paying attention to them."

He laughed, he's cool like that, and said, "Yeah, they've kind of turned into the snobs of the area." It's like he knew that it sucked that they forgot so quickly where they came from, but he also knew that they couldn't help it, so it was cool. See what I'm saying?

Sorry - got snagged in the bar tonight. Lobby crossing not so deft as last night. Something about a distraction malfunction.

2/17/2005 01:01:00 AM

 
Blogger enlightenedcaveman said...

"I've often wondered if as a mix of 'welfare' and some real property rights mixed together, the city couldn't somehow give abandoned property to people, and let them feel the pride of ownership."

Glad you asked about this, because it's important. I don't think you can get pride of ownership if you are not protecting an *investment* - that is, something you've worked or anguished over. A gift, which is all free land would be, is not an investment. Therefore, the place would experience the exact same rate of decay as it does now. Even if you suppose that some folks would take their little piece of heaven seriously and tidy it up, their handy work would be quickly undone by the same folks who protested the Temple's acquisitions of property, the folks who prefer squalor to the university.

This is the hard part about trying to be upwardly mobile while in the ghetto. Those who are not trying the same thing will steal what you acquire and/or will tear down what you build up. You pretty much have to move.

So while you could probably interview twenty people on a run-down street and pick two to give a nice house with a picket fence in the suburbs to, and everything would work out fine, free tenemants handed out to all would probably meet with continued apathy, especially when the people realized that it didn't change anything. No meaningful change, at least.

A guy I know with some cash who travels all over the world felt bad for this Cambodian family he met on one of his extended journeys. He bought them some land and helped them build a nice house and then left them with some money. This obviously made him feel good. After all, the people lived like shit. But, upon hearing this story, it only took a moment to say, "So let me guess - they became the high status family in the area and suddenly everyone was paying attention to them."

He laughed, he's cool like that, and said, "Yeah, they've kind of turned into the snobs of the area." It's like he knew that it sucked that they forgot so quickly where they came from, but he also knew that they couldn't help it, so it was cool. See what I'm saying?

Sorry - got snagged in the bar tonight. Lobby crossing not so deft as last night. Something about a distraction malfunction.

2/17/2005 01:02:00 AM

 
Blogger alice said...

Glad you asked about this, because it's important. I don't think you can get pride of ownership if you are not protecting an *investment* - that is, something you've worked or anguished over. A gift, which is all free land would be, is not an investment.

This reminds me of the dispute some of us had in the last post. The concept relates to human relationships as well. People who are given free sex with no strings attached don't really value the relationship. They resort to calling the people they have had these realtionships with "bimbos and sluts and cum dumpsters" (charming).

And as we discussed in the Charlotte Simpson post, it is really up to the female of the species to make sure the investment is made. Otherwise she will experience decay of her self esteem.

According to the posts I've read, and they have been eye openers, the male of the species has no such concern. It's amazing how far we've come and how little ground we've actually covered. It turns out that all those old fashioned people, our parents and grandparents, were actually right.

2/17/2005 11:43:00 AM

 
Blogger enlightenedcaveman said...

Seems to me that we're back where we started long ago - investment for guys comes in the opportunity cost associated with not pursuing other women, whereas investment for girls comes in the intimacy of sex.

In other words, giving a guy free sex without requiring him to invest time on not pursuing sex with other women prompts him to not take the relationship seriously. Conversely, a girl who gets an intimate relationship (with a male) without having to give up sex doesn't tend to take it so seriously (read: guys who are "fust friends" get dumped on regularly).

Generalizations, I know. But they're more right than wrong, I'd argue.

2/17/2005 02:11:00 PM

 
Blogger alice said...

Caveman, i think we've just about worn this subject out. I am particularly interested in your last comment. It makes a lot of sense.

I can't wait to have a sit down with my kid and discuss what I've learned. I wonder if the boys she knows are as candid about their motivations as some of the people on this site have been. It seems that in the real world a lot needs to go unsaid in order for it to work.

...unsaid by the boys that is, because, as you know, it is a rare woman who can keep her mouth shut.

2/18/2005 11:46:00 AM

 
Blogger Michael Gersh said...

This idea of giving the temements away to the less advantaged was tried, in New York City's Harlem neighborhood. They called it "sweat equity." The property was conveyed under a special type of deed, and building materials were supplied by the city. Anyone who improved the property and continued to live there was rewarded with a regular deed. And the result? A huge success. Harlem, once one of the worst areas of Manhattan, became a middle class area. Of course, as anyone who knows New York can tell you, each block is its own neighborhood, and many blighted blocks remain. But. Nowhere near as many crummy blocks are there as there used to be. The experiment was so successful that it was terminated, but that is because of power politics and the resistance of Harlem pols (like Charlie Rangel) who like things the way they are, rather than any fault in the fact that people who own their homes will respect those homes. They might just vote for a republican then (like Rudy Giulani) so Tammany Hall had to shut the program down.

2/21/2005 02:44:00 PM

 
Blogger analogee said...

sad, if true, Michael. And I have no reason to disbelieve you, other than a general distrust of all sorts of media reports. But the story sounds very plausible.

By the way, aren't you the poster who was asking, essentially, how we got where we are, given the libertarian foundations of the nation?

Well, I wanted to answer, but never got around to it. Isn't this just the natural progression of things? I see this in microcosm form at corporations where I've worked. They start out small, and everyone has a lot of freedom to do what needs to be done. As they grow, people start doing stupid stuff, and somebody in power starts to think about how to stop it, as he/she listens to the whining of the masses who have to live with the results of the stupidity. Instead of setting up incentives so that the people who do stupid stuff (we all do, really) have to bear the consequences, they end up making rules, and setting up systems, with the intent of preventing bad stuff from happening. But, the reality invevitably is a lack of freedom for those who really can do the work, and a sort of 'welfare' system for the less qualified workers. Eventually the company gets so ponderous, the good workers leave, there are layoffs/bankruptcy, and all the innovation moves to a new company.

The same thing seems to happen with nations, except that now we don't have any place left to go to be free. Every habitable square inch of land has been spoken for. At least, I think.

Or to put it succintly, "no man's life, liberty, or happiness are safe, as long as the legislature is in session".

2/21/2005 03:57:00 PM

 
Blogger enlightenedcaveman said...

"This idea of giving the temements away to the less advantaged was tried, in New York City's Harlem neighborhood. They called it "sweat equity." The property was conveyed under a special type of deed, and building materials were supplied by the city. Anyone who improved the property and continued to live there was rewarded with a regular deed. And the result? A huge success."

If memory serves, didn't this happen around the time Guiliani was whipping NYC into shape? If so, then it makes sense because the percentage of folks who would *invest* in their own place were protected from the thugs who would tear down whatever they built up. And that's good point that I touched on, but only briefly.

In any of these ghettos or run-down areas, there are hard-working, upstanding people (picture the Evans Family from Good Times) who are constantly knocked two steps back for every step forward by the losers that live among them. I'd support a system that would identify these people and give them housing *somewhere else* so that they could truly start from zero.

2/23/2005 11:05:00 PM

 
Blogger enlightenedcaveman said...

Oh yes, and Analogee - really great synopsis of the big picture. It comes down to this in my book:

There are talkers and there are doers. Talkers bitch about what doers do while doers are too busy to respond. And as they are the proverbial squeaky wheel, the talkers get the attention. In small organizations, too much talking and not enough doing leads to extinction. The larger the group, the more talking is possible without dire repercussions. At some point, the talkers are in control, or so they think. That is, until the doers do them in.

2/23/2005 11:16:00 PM

 
Anonymous Dr. Love said...

Just wanted to pose a question; what do you do if you find yourself nearing 85-90, not because of your poverty, or lack of maintenance, but because you're in a wheelchair? Sometimes dignity goes out the window due to circumstance, not choice, and no amount of striving can fix it. I think it would be relevant to these discussions if people knew more about the likely nature of their tendencies. People are horrible at making emotional attributions, for example. If you take a date to a theme park, and they have a great, exhilirating time, they will falsely attribute their exuberance to your presence, most of the time.

2/25/2005 02:27:00 PM

 
Blogger enlightenedcaveman said...

Well Dr. Love, you pose an interesting question. It all comes down to what pond you want to swim in.

But first, I'm not necessarily willing to concede that being in a wheelchair means you're an 85 or 90. Yes, that's a bit off the zero delta mark, however, I think there may be a cultural credit, if you will, that earns you back some of that difference. *Because* you're in a wheelchair, you might get to start off better than if you're just repulsive looking. And if you're attractive, I think you get pretty far. Just a hunch.

Anyway, if you really are an 85, no matter how you got there, you have to first decide what kind of circle you want acceptance in. If you want acceptance among folks with a delta of 70 or worse, you can probably get by just being a nice person. (And a little public disdain for the 50 or betters never hurts.) But if you want to be accepted in circles where the norm is 25 or better, you'll need lots of gimmick. Look at Steven Hawking - that guy has so much gimmick that he can motor into a party and be the center of attention (and not for being handicapped).

The point is that interpersonal acceptance in anonymous situations is about looks first, and if looks aren't there, it's about gimmick. If both are missing, rejection ensues. There are exceptions, but they are exceptional.

2/27/2005 02:07:00 AM

 

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