hummerThings are the way they are for a reason, I keep telling myself. There is a logical, or at least emotional, explanation for everything. If I read enough Lakoff I can even get my head around how conservatives think, though the logic still seems perverse. But no matter how much I try, the appeal of some things eludes me. Maybe you can help me out. Each of the following ten entries starts with a definition, in case you’re even more clued out than I am about these things. All ten of them are important and successful parts of our culture, and I don’t get it:

Rap music: “One of the elements of hip hop; it is a form of rhyming lyrics spoken rhythmically over musical instruments, with a musical backdrop of sampling, scratching and mixing by DJs.” Uh, OK. I remember Dylan’s Subterranean Homesick Blues and Guthrie’s Alice’s Restaurant, which, except for the scratching, kind of meets the definition. But Dylan, at least pre-motorcycle accident, was a brilliant writer and satirist, and Alice’s Restaurant was a clever, biting anti-war anthem. I referred you in an earlier post to these lyrics by the rap artist 50 Cent. Yes, I know, it’s an outlet for anger, alienation, an in-your-face I’m-not-you voice of rebellion. But it’s sloppy — thrown together, inarticulate, and not at all clever, with zero melody, zero harmony, colossally boring and repetitive rhythms. Shouldn’t the ‘market’ at least be able to turn out rap artists that know more than three chords and can come up with better rhymes than ‘shit’ and ‘chocolit’?

SUVs: “Vehicles that combine the load-hauling and passenger-carrying capacity of a large station wagon or minivan with features designed for off-road driving”. Let me understand this. These are boxy car/truck hybrids that have none of the safety features or fuel economy of minivans, have less capacity for freight or passengers than minivans, aren’t fast or sporty, and aren’t actually used for off-road driving, and in fact aren’t really designed for off-road driving (they tip easily). I get the learned helplessness motivation, but most of the people I see driving these things don’t strike me as insecure drivers looking for extra insurance in the case of an accident. They think they look cool. And don’t get me started on Hummers.

Procrastination: “To put off doing something, especially out of habitual carelessness or laziness; to postpone or delay needlessly.” I’m guilty of doing this a lot, and I have no idea why. I like Douglas Adams’ quote: “I love deadlines. I like the whooshing sound they make as they fly by.” I rarely miss deadlines, but I cut them too close for comfort. I don’t do this for the thrill. In fact it’s agonizing. I know I’m putting things off, but I just can’t help myself. It’s perverse. I’ve tried everything: The self-reward of doing something in ample time; keeping lists of things to do with deadlines for each; studying Covey’s Seven Habits. I really like the Discounted Expectancy Theory: A formula that explains why I put myself through this. I don’t believe it, but I really like it.

Bush’s Charisma: People I know who have met Dubya face to face say his unpretentiousness and his self-confidence, and the way he ‘carries himself’, are absolutely disarming. Even those who hate his politics say you can’t help admiring him. I don’t get this: He swaggers, he thinks he’s smarter than he is, he’s one of the most inarticulate people on the planet. He’s a poor liar. He’s at least borderline psychopathic, probably due to a combination of parental neglect and the effect of too many drugs and too much booze in his youth. I’ve read that psychopaths are excellent manipulators, because they’re so skilled at self-delusion — they really believe they’re right, and that’s infectious, compelling. Are we really that easily swayed, that illogical at forming our opinions of those we meet?

Behaviourism: “An approach to psychology that claims behavior is the best or most convenient or only legitimate way of investigating psychological and mental processes”. When I was in university, BF Skinner was all the rage. His supporters claimed that our behaviours are hard-wired, that we have no real self-control, and hence aren’t really responsible for what we do. We’re just acting out our genetic or learned ‘program’. A generation later along came Richard Dawkins, most of whose work I greatly admire, but who had this nutty behaviourist idea that our genes are all acting in their own self-interest, and that ultimately any organism is merely a temporary agreement, a “throwaway survival machine” for its individual component actors. Worse, he argued that life is therefore genetically encoded for savage competition and ruthless exploitation of others, and that only human beings have the capacity to overcome this predisposition. To me this is utterly preposterous, contrary to every instinct and every empirical observation. But it has ferocious adherents. What drives people to want to believe that life is savage and constant struggle, and that we are not responsible for anything but ourselves?

‘Professional’ Wrestling: Wrestling is an Olympic sport with a long and distinguished heritage, but no one makes a living at it. By contrast, people pay $40 for tickets and even PPV rights to watch so-called ‘professional’ wrestlers hit each other with chairs and wrenches, jump on each other from great heights, and throw each other out of the ring or into hard objects. It’s a huge industry that has made millionaires out of ‘wrestlers’ and promoters. What causes bright people to suspend their disbelief and pay large sums of money for this sham entertainment? What in the world is its appeal? And is it, as some have suggested, a vivid allegory for modern Western elections?

Commercial Porn: Maybe I should have combined this with ‘professional’ wrestling, because the mystery of its appeal could be related. Last year I lamented the lack of good porn, by which I mean erotica that is credible the same way any good film is credible — in that it engages you, transports you, makes you feel for a few moments that you are there, is at once fun and thoughtful and provocative. And while there are only a few good models to follow, the most popular ‘mainstream’ porn is so bad it is literally unwatchable. It’s not even kitsch/killer-tomato bad, where at least you can laugh at it. It’s just bad — poor plots, incredibly poor acting, cardboard characters, not even imaginative settings. The ‘actors’ are not only as unbelievable as ‘professional’ wrestlers, they’re mostly old, ugly silicone-filled has-beens. Why would anyone actually pay money to watch this trash? Where’s the ‘free’ market which should be producing much better adult entertainment?

Small Talk: “Casual or trivial conversation, chitchat, on unimportant subject, as opposed to serious or weighty ones.” Dave Weinberger recently came out in defense of small talk, arguing that it’s a sign of respect, it allows you to learn about others by hearing the details of their life (giving you some context to understand them), it avoids the risk of inadvertently offending others, and to deliberately provide space and ambiguity to build a relationship. Dave is fine with white lies and non-hurtful gossip, too, but can’t tolerate ‘banter’, the competitive exercise of cleverness. I’m with him on all these points, but what I see most often is small talk that never progresses to anything more. Listen to restaurant dinnertime conversations, where (unlike lunch) you’d expect people to know each other reasonably well, and the talk is overwhelmingly so small it almost disappears. How long does it take to build a foundation for a relationship to the point you can talk about something important, something you really care about, something personal? I have a theory that we now engage in small talk (or its online equivalent, chat) as a means of deliberately avoiding talking about anything “serious or weighty”, to fill in the spaces in dead air. The young people I am acquainted with don’t know each other very well. Why not? Are we so much in doubt of our own validity, our own value, our own ideas and ideals and dreams that we dare not utter them ever?

Roller Coasters: I know people who’ve been all over North America just to visit the newest, biggest, scariest roller coasters. I’ve been in airplanes that have hit air pockets and that’s plenty enough sudden falling for me. I just don’t get it. It’s not really dangerous. It’s not really soaring or flying, an experience that I would like to experience. Is it the lack of control? Is it just a ‘speed’ trip? Is it like the feeling of watching a slasher movie (another experience I have no appreciation for)? Is it just the release of screaming? I’ve tried roller coasters from time to time, especially now the granddaughters are interested in them, but I still don’t understand the appeal. What am I missing?

‘Suffering Women’ Films: These have come a long way from the girl-tied-to-the-railway-track era, but now most of them are actually written by women. You know the plot: The husband or boy-friend, initially loving and caring, suddenly turns out to be an axe-murderer, abuser, adulterer, polygamist etc. The police and legal system, and many purported friends, are unsympathetic. Finally, in the last five minutes of the film, after two hours of unbearable suffering and injustice, the woman takes things into her own hands and triumphs, usually violently, occasionally with the help of a new friend, always cleverly, bravely, a victory of unblemished good over unredeemable evil. The ones written by men always involve kidnapping of the woman by one or more diabolical men, the insinuation of torture and abuse, and ultimately rescue by the guns-ablazin’ handsome good guy, in the nick of time and against impossible odds. What is the appeal of these films to women? Why would women, who surely face enough struggle and victimization in the real male-dominated world, want to witness two hours of another woman’s suffering? Why are so few movies made by women about success and joy and companionship, and so many about seemingly endless adversity?

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19 Responses to THINGS THAT MAKE YOU GO “HUH?”

  1. sue says:

    I bought my compact SUV (Ford Escape) because I needed a vehicle that could hold “stuff” and get reasonably decent mileage (about 23-24 mpg). I also wanted to be up a bit higher than in my Sentra so I could see what was ahead of the car ahead of me, and I wanted to think I was more visible to the trucks etc. in interstate commuting. The vehicle is bright yellow. The only “off-road” is when I am in my unpaved driveway. (I am 68 and live with my 2 cats and 2 dogs.)

  2. Cindy says:

    SUVs: In 1994 on a trip to New Mexico with my aunt, I took into consideration the high incidence of drunk driving for that part of the U.S. when I reserved my rental car.I wanted a lot of steel around myself and my aunt, (army tanks weren’t an option,) and the ’95 Toyota 4Runner suited my ‘idea’ of safety, as delusional as that may have been at that time. Outside of that, I’m curious to know if your selections were random or purposely chosen.

  3. Dave Pollard says:

    David: Agreed, the organized variety anyways.Sue/Cindy: That’s interesting — exactly what Gladwell was referring to in his Learned Helplessness study. The reality is that since a subcompact is more manoeverable, the probability of serious injury is less in one of those (because you can avoid collisions much more easily) than in an SUV. There are more than 10 things I don’t understand, for sure, but these are the ten that seem to have the most enthusiasts, which is why I picked them.

  4. I’m with you on George Bush. I really don’t get peoples admiration for him. I don’t get all the talk that you can “trust” him. From the first time I saw him in the 2000 election campaign I didn’t trust him. I have always thought he he either speaks what he thinks people want to hear or what his advisors tell him. Rarely do I get the feeling he is speaking from inside and when he does he usually says something stupid. He makes Jean Chretien look like an eloquent speaker with a strong command of the English language. He also comes across as arrogant with his body language saying “why do I have to explain myself, isn’t it obvious I am right”. He makes me shiver every time I see him speak. Thank goodness these debates have shown Americans how inadequite he is. I will give him credit though, he is pretty good reading a prepared speech from a teleprompter. Interestingly though, he used to be a good debater as seen in this video:*.movI agree with you on Smalltalk too. I personally am not that great at small talk but more often than not that is the only kidnd of talk out there. I think it is a symptom of the “here and now”, short attention span culture where everything must be drilled down to catch phrases and buzz words or else they just get lost in the clutter.

  5. Derek says:

    Procrastination – Hard work pays off eventually, procrastination pays off right away.

  6. Mike says:

    Trying to convince my SO that our next car should be a Mini Cooper, a friend showed me this: test of Mini Cooper vs Ford F-150)Also agree with all your other points. Still, I have heard some (a very few) rap songs I like. I also think the format has some potential for instructional uses (for example, take a self-contained small factory, put it in some extreme poverty-stricken area, locally broadcast a rap song containing the production sequence directions, then invite potential workers to do an audition of the song)

  7. Mike says:

    On commercial porn: I turned 18 during the ‘Golden Age’ of porn and so the first porno I watched was Misty Beethoven. Thus I initially thought all porn movies had million-dollar budgets, coherent plots, humor, etc.

  8. Rap Music -Dave, judging all rap by 50-Cent is like judging all rock music by listening to Slayer. There’s a lot of excellent poetry, a lot of musical innovation, and a lot of wit. For poetry, I recommend Antipop Consortium. For innovation (and extremely literate and interesting subject matter), DJ Spooky. For wit, check out the Beastie Boys’ latest (“To the Five Burroughs”), which also has some political content.

  9. Jon Husband says:

    I think small talk is *social lubricant* for many people .. it then allows the instantiation of mental and emotional places where people can feel out trust, credibility, potential danger, ickiness, etc. What do you think ?

  10. If booze is the social lubricant, I’d say that small talk is the social Novocaine. I agree, Jon, but I think for many that those places are sadly artificial. Small talk imparts a feeling of intimacy that doesn’t actually exist, allowing us to feel social and connected to a peer group without ever risking the committment that it takes to get to really know the people in that group.Bulk time spent with another individual, a series of shared experiences leading to geniune dialog… those are what actually build emotional trust and closeness. (Which is why there’s no such thing as “quality time” with children: there’s only “quantity time.”)

  11. Dave Pollard says:

    Thanks for your comments, everyone. I’ll take a closer look at some of Rob’s cited rap songs to see if I can learn to appreciate the genre. As for quality time with children, I read somewhere yesterday that some guys (and gals) who travel a lot for business take a copy of a children’s book with them, leave a second copy at home, and read every evening by phone just before the kids’ bedtime. I like it. Beats small talk every time.

  12. I’ll chime in here with Rob–there’s a single “rap” genre in the same way there’s a single “rock” genre…Billy Joel and Megadeth both count as rock, but you wouldn’t want to judge one by the other. For the lyrics to some of the better of what rap has to offer, check out Binary Star’s “I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings” ( and Blackalicious’s “Making Progress” (

  13. Daryl says:

    Rap music: does context matter? I could cue up Subterranean Homesick Blues in the middle of a club and it would be completely useless, but the bass of 50 Cent’s “In Da Club” would instantly make sense. I’m not entirely convinced that you should always judge rap by its lyrics – there are clearly many great poets and wits, but the bassline is equally important. (See for a discussion on why it’s wrong to judge hip-hop solely by lyrical content.)Professional wrestling: I hate it myself, but it’s not meant to be a sport – it’s a performance of a sport. Just as I don’t complain about the inevitable result of the soccer game in Bend It Like Beckham, I don’t think people care that professional wrestling is scripted, as long as it looks great to them.

  14. Dirtgrain says:

    On rap music, also check out the groups “A Tribe Called Quest” and “De La Soul.” Then again, to be honest, my favorite “De La Soul” lyric is this: “You give me the third degree? You aren’t a third of me. You couldn’t be the shit if you were a turd of me.” Not exactly intellectual, but for me it hits the right spot. Last Spring, I was in LA for the national Youth Speaks Poetry Slam. This organization has built programs across the country that encourage kids to get into poetry by connecting to hip hop and rap. So many of the young poets whom I saw were doing great things with poetry and/or hip hop. It was deep and moving. Rap can do some good things–it can move people and inspire great writing and lyrics. Have you seen the movie, Slam, by the way? I highly recommend it. Saul Stacey Williams has done some stuff with rap music.The awkwardness that people avoid by using small talk made me think of singing. Some old people have told me that back in the day (1940’s or so), it was not uncommon to see a man or a woman walking down the street singing. I think of Winston Smith hearing the Prole woman singing. Why do we feel awkward about singing these days?One thing I don’t get is the fanaticism that some people have for Ayn Rand. Did she say anything in her books that hadn’t been said by Plato (the philosopher king)? On letting great people achieve their greatness without restriction and being stifled by the government (the people, the masses), how did she reconcile Hitler’s horrific achievements?

  15. Scott Miller says:

    SUVs are the modern station wagon. PLus, they are very safe in a collision, and with all the bad drivers on the road I see, I want all the protection I can get.Roller Coasters are fun, pure and simple. It’s a thrill to rise to the top slowly, then begin a 60 mph drop at a steep angle. Sure, it’s absolutely safe, which is why I’d rather get my thrills from a roller coaster than a airliner hitting air pockets. This is a no brainer.As for rap — and I can’t stand it myself — sure a lot of lyrics are as dumb as dirt, but equally many are just as good as most generally pop hits (which I know isn’t saying a lot). It’s silly to pick on rap, which like country, pop, rock, soul and jazz, has its share of good and bad.

  16. Dave Pollard says:

    Well, I’m listening to some of the rap/hip-hop music that several of you have recommended, but it’s tough going. There are a few songs with clever lyrics, but (a) you can’t understand what they’re saying unless you look up the lyrics, and (b) their music is so monotonous and nursery-rhyme simple that it just grates on my nerves. But I absolutely love much African music, with its very sophisticated rhythms, harmonies and improvisations, even though I don’t know what they’re saying, so I’ll persevere.

  17. Rap Music: Others have contributed. I’ll add “Nas”. I was drawn to him because of the song “poison”, which I heard in a pizza place just stopping to get a snack. I had to get home, look up the song and get it.SUV’s It’s fear, ego, and a bunch of other foolishness. (aside from people who have a legitimate hauling need.) I’m from Arizona, where the lifted pickup truck started, and there is no need for 90% of the people who own these thing to have them. People try and say that it’s for 4WD, Bogus. Subaru was making AWD cars for years, and they weren’t that popular until recently with the huge SUV backlash. And even they came out with a higher “SUV”.People say it’s for protection, I’ve been hit by a truck while driving a subcompact, neither of us was killed, tho his front end was totaled and my passenger side was totaled. I’ve driven big 4×4 trucks and I’ve seen too many of those things flip due to short wheelbase and height and speed. There’s nothing to “get” here, in regards to SUV’s. Me? I drive smaller, nimble, sports cars(or at least Pseudo-sports cars like the old Toyota Celica. I will also note that I use to drive cars like that into the woods to go camping. RWD and I could get almost anywhere in the bush. Not to mention the audacity to drive these things into the city (I live in Boston now) and be shocked that they can’t maneuverProcrastination: Can’t help you there. Even when I KNOW that doing it now will mean I get more time to relax later. It’s human. :)Bush: He’s a Yalie pretending to be a cowboy. ‘Nuff Said.Professional Wrestling: Theatre in America today. It’s fun to watch if you think of it that way, with acrobatics. Some of the moves are impressive as hell. Remember; If you actually did most of those moves to another human being, they’d be dead or crippled.Porn: Remember: Men are sex-starved, can’t help themselves and must view porn. Keep repeating this to yourself and you’ll go buy some. On the other hand, you could also remember that that’s BS and you’ll continue to not understand commercial porn and be a lot happier. :)Roller Coasters: Me neither. I think it’s partly a “control” thing. I prefer my motorcyle, where if a bolt falls off and I die, at least it was my fault.Those are the ones I have an opinion. Or at least one I can state quickly. :)

  18. B.F. Skinners views are commonly misrepresented on the web, but most commenters over-represent his mainly environmentalist stance. This is the first time ever I’ve seen anybody accuse Skinner of believing our behavior to be hard-wired. He in fact believed behavior to be extremely malleable.

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