Thursday, December 30, 2010

Posting Christmas

I am still out in the middle of the countryside, so posting irregularly from Panera, nearby when I can get in. One car, three people -- you do the math.

This week I spent reading The Paradox of Choice by Barry Schwartz, a book recommended on another blog.


Schwartz discusses why more is less, or making less sense, in our culture. I was interested in the topic, which seems so relevant today, but it was when he got to the following topics that I got truly interested: choice and expectations, choice and depression, choice and empowerment.

I see this everyday in my students, but I have also seen it in the New Yorkers recently interviewed about the post-Christmas blizzard and their expectations about snow removal by the city's government. Let me start with the blizzard issues.

Watching this news on TV I have been astonished at the reactions of NY'ers to the issues of snow removal. New York is the biggest, busiest city on the East coast and it got hit with 6-31 inches of snow--depending on where you were--Sunday night to Monday midday... and NY'ers were vocally complaining when by there was still snow on secondary and tertiary streets... on Tuesday. Or on Wednesday. IT'S A FOOT OF SNOW, FOLKS, ON EVERY STREET IN MANHATTAN, BROOKLYN, QUEENS, STATEN ISLAND AND THE BRONX! Every bridge, every tunnel, everywhere. The city asked people not to call 911 unless it was a life or death emergency: did people listen? No... and ambulances got stuck trying to respond to over 40,000 emergency calls. The city asked people not to try and drive their own cars... but they did and got stuck, thereby requiring city vehicles to pull them out, vehicles which had JUST AS MUCH TROUBLE getting around...

And then everyone got mad at the mayor and the city for not bailing them out.

People, a little rational thinking, huh?
1. This snowstorm was widely predicted -- everyone should have thought about and prepared for how to get to dialysis, jobs, food, pharmacies... BEFORE Monday morning. There was nothing else on the news, we all watched the storm move up the coast. Whyfor were you unprepared?
2. It was over 12 inches of snow: all vehicles, even city ones, get stuck in that kind of  thick, heavy, wet snow. They're not miracle machines.
3. You don't live in Georgia, where people had a right to be astonished at the snow. You live in the Northeast where it snows. It's winter, it was a snowstorm/tropical storm, it dropped snow and ice... figure it out.

But the real problem, it seems to me, is that the people of New York expected the city--meaning some objective entity--to solve their problems individually. In a city of 18 MILLION people. On Wednesday I heard one guy resentfully and self-righteously say that their block was NOW shoveling themselves out! It took 48 hours for the block to think of that solution and put it into practice. But these weren't renters: they were house owners who hadn't even shoveled their own cars or driveways. People, take ownership/responsibility for your place of living. Help your neighbors. Especially the elderly, the weak, the shut-ins!

Of course--because we have shopped for a gov't that would do everything for us... so we only have to become observers and critics of their performance, not do-ers. Our " actions" are limited to picking--followed by the expectation that all would roll out for us after that. This is Schwartz's thesis.

We have come to feel that since there is a wide selection, once we choose, we've chosen "the best," and the responsibility is now on that choice. We have no more responsibility, for example, to solve problems like snowy streets since our government has promised to care for us. We sit inside and wait, impatiently. But we simultaneously disconnect ourselves from being "the government," which we are--so we bear no burden. No burden for action, no responsiblity, and a demand for total, equal happiness.

I suspect some of the dissatisfaction is that SOME streets were plowed while others were not. Why not MY street? Why yours? Are you more important? Am I less important? What about MY emergency/situation/fears?

My students are empowered when I tell them that on a test, there are 12 questions, but only 10 required answers, so choose the ten you will answer and the two you will leave blank. They like this choice. It is specific, helpful, and eases their tension about being "perfect." Small, focused choice.

My students become anxious when I post ten exercises, and tell them they can choose which 5 to do for a grade. Questions about which ones are better (all are the same), how to do them (instructions are the same for all), when to choose (any time during the semester), etc. -- anxiety goes way up, despite the fact that I posted all of them at the head of the semester, gave them the entire semester, and that every exercise is virtually done the same way, albeit on a different play which they choose from a list attached to the exercise. Too much choice. They actually get paralyzed, and it is my fault, as the authority who dreamed up this exercise. But... they initially like so much choice, according to them at the top of the semester.

Anyway--it is an interesting book. It did shed light on my issues about feeling disempowered, about depression, and simply about feeling too many choices face me every bloody day. Even here at Panera: they don't offer just three pastry choices, they offer 18. Not including 16 bins of bagels and about 12 types of bread... and that's just breakfast food, not even the coffee choices (15) and teas (uncounted) as well as other drinks (cold coffee, cold non-coffee, cold fruity, sodas, water). Hmm. And yet the possibility exists that I won't find the RIGHT pastry or the RIGHT drink choice--and therefore will be terribly disappointed. It's breakfast! But I understand the paralysis.

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