Narcissism, self-assessment, and external feedback

Last week the Strib had an article about teenagers–mostly girls ages 13 to 15–posting painfully sincere selfies and videos asking the internet to tell them the truth about whether they are ugly. And most of this article was about the effects on the kids in question, but there was some of the usual hand-wringing about how supposedly narcissistic this young generation is.

Narcissism, you see, is something that groups mostly suffer from if they’re younger than you. If you go to a nursing home and everyone there wants to talk about their individual aches and pains for hours, nobody wants to talk about the narcissism of the elderly. (And rightly so, because plenty of old people are not narcissistic. But plenty of young people aren’t either.) It can’t be that some percentage of people are pretty self-centered, and it’s more culturally acceptable to call younger people on it than older people. It also can’t be that developmentally people in their teens and early twenties are going through a time when they’re figuring out their abilities and plans and place in the world. Nope. The particular teens we have at any given moment are perpetually uniquely narcissistic. You can read it in the paper. ALWAYS. So it must be true.

Self-assessment is useful in many areas, and it can be hard to get help with it from the people around you. I’m not surprised that these teens want to find out whether they’re pretty or not. I’m somewhat surprised that they’re still naive enough, at thirteen, to think that the internet will tell them the truth. Of course the people around them–Mom, Dad, friends, whoever–will not. They will say, “You look so pretty,” when they mean a dozen different things like, “I love you,” and “I want you to feel good about yourself,” and “I understand and approve of what you’re wearing more today than yesterday,” and “you look so much like your grandmother today–I miss her so much–I wish she could have been here to see you grow up.” Thirteen-year-olds are old enough, smart enough to know this. They’re trying to figure themselves out and figure out how to relate to the world. That’s not necessarily narcissistic. Asking the internet is naive. But we all wanted to know where we fit, who we were, when we were thirteen. We still do, but we’ve got more data, more practice at it, past that age.

I was thinking about this in terms of all the advice about not telling kids that they’re smart, telling them that they did a good job on a specific piece of work. I see where that advice is coming from. But a few weeks ago I was at the zoo with my godson Rob, who is twelve, and I needed to tell him, “Rob, you’re walking very fast. It’s faster than the other people in the group can walk right now. They need you to slow down because they literally cannot keep up with how fast you are walking.” There are times when being a smart kid is like that. There are times when you’re young and not entirely socially aware, when it’s very useful to know that other people are not goofing off on purpose, they’re not failing to pay attention because they’d rather be doing something else, they are just not as smart as you, or not as smart in a particular subset of picking things up. They are trying. Telling a kid they’re smart is not always praise. Telling a kid they’re pretty, musical, fast, strong, whatever, is not always praise. It doesn’t have to be handled that way. Sometimes it’s useful feedback at an age where they’re not very good at self-assessment or at placing their self-assessment in the context of others and compassion for those others or compassion for themselves.

In science fiction, we have an established critique culture. It’s just a known thing that you can go to some group–friends, or a workshop in person, or an online workshop–and get an assessment of how you’re doing at something that affects your life. You can arrange, one way or another, to get other people who actually know something about it to critique your work, and you can get enough of them to do it to get at least a bit of triangulation. You won’t know perfectly, of course, but you’ll have the rough outlines, what’s working, what’s not, whether you’re publishable, whether you’re way out of that category. And I think we take it for granted as adults that external feedback above the level of “u suck” will be available. We need to recognize that while the internet has given teenagers access to all sorts of things we didn’t have, perspective is one of the ones that’s hardest to get that young, and cut them a break.

pre-order gets you the same pretty cover

Just a quick note that the pre-orders are available for the Futures 2 anthology, in which I have a story–and so do 99 other people. Hard to beat that with a stick. Especially since it’s an ebook.

I would like to say something more here, but the neighbors behind us have let their dog out to bark since 8:30 this morning without more than 15 minutes of pause, and it turns out that I am able to focus through that to do three of the four of the following: 1) wrangle my own dog into not barking constantly; 2) write some fiction; 3) handle necessary house chores; 4) write a long blog post. So: sorry, folks. Tomorrow, I hope.

If you can deal with the snow and the dog, get on my lawn.

Kids these days: they are pretty great and you should buy them an ice cream (sorbet if they don’t do dairy).

Nobody ever sells articles that say this, despite it being true–or at least as much true as a percentage as it ever was–and look, here’s another article, this one from Slate, about how horribly broken the youth of today are, especially compared to my day, which was filled with whimsy and wonder, which, as we all know, is way better than fun and excitement. Sorry, kids, that was a quote from when the Simpsons was a TV show instead of a shambling corpse. Sorry, kids, that was an attempt to slam the Simpsons from before zombies were cool. I’m all better now. Point is: back in my day, we had whimsy and wonder and fun and excitement, although of course not as much as in the Baby Boomers’ day, because they invented all those things. Unless you ask the Lost Generation, in which case, hoo! look out Emperor Nero! And so on until you get back to Hesiod, and let’s face it, nobody had a Back In My Day like that dude.

I’m wandering, aren’t I? It happens with age. Especially Hesiod’s age. Aaaanyway.

Point being: this Slate author Rebecca Schuman teaches college students sometimes, and they do not invite her to join in their reindeer games, which proves that no college students have any reindeer games, due to them sucking, but even that is not because of them because young people have no agency ever (LIKE DUH, keep up), it’s because of us because we ruined them (POSSIBLY PERMANENTLY) with our helicoptering. Also, a survey of what people think are the “weirdest schools” is a totally accurate way to find out what weirdness people are having in their own personal schools and free time and stuff. Because, like, college students in Arizona, if surveyed, will know about my college-age friend’s shenanigans in Massachusetts. They are that epic. Oh, the shenanigans she has. They shenan, and then they go back and….

Sorry, right, the point is: I am friends with actual college students. Not, like, tons of them. But some. Enough to know that sensawunda, as we call it with solemn respect in the science fiction and fantasy writing genres, is alive in their lives. Even if they do not display it on command to random people who teach their classes. You can picture it: “Do you, like, have parties where the admission is a can of moss?” she demands eagerly. “Uh, nooooo,” say her students, thinking, oh God, let me get away from this crazy professor, I have to finish my paper so that I can figure out how to get the layers in my hair dye the way I want them before we yarn-bomb the quad.

“Someone‚Äôs got to help these damn kids today goof off more creatively,” she says, and I say: sit the hell down, Rebecca Schuman. The last thing “these damn kids today” need is another intervention from you. They are fine. They are doing their own thing. It is not your thing. Has help with whimsy ever actually helped? Ever? Back. Off.

Oh, and also? I once snapped at a Boomer age friend, “Just because college cost $5 when you went doesn’t mean it does now,” and guess what? The incredibly expensive college costs from when I was in college? That swamped people my age in student loans? Are starting to look like $5 compared to what these damn kids today are paying. So if you’re feeling like these damn kids today are just not doing enough goofing off, maybe hovering over them with narrow notions of whimsy is completely unhelpful, and maybe you should kick in for a scholarship for one of them or buy one dinner so that they have five minutes in which to goof off. Or pay them to do some chores for you or something. Because a lot of the stress you’re seeing is because they are trying to WORK while doing ALL THE CLASSES so that they are not still in debt to the student loan folks when they have to start paying for nursing home care. But yelling at them that they are not doing a good enough job at fitting in their REQUIRED WONDERMENT with their work and classes is not what we in realityland call helpful.

Minicon schedule

Here is my Minicon schedule as I finally know it:

SAT 2:30 PM Krushenko’s
Terra Incognita: The Role of Maps in SF&F Literature

A discussion of maps used in speculative fiction, either as endpieces or as part of the story. What are good (and bad) examples of maps of imaginary worlds? Can the inclusion of maps create problems? What can maps tell us of the modes of transportation, natural setting, and politics of the realm? Are maps for modern fantasy novels too modern (i.e. accurate)?

Michael Kingsley (m), Blake Hausladen, Eleanor A. Arnason, Marissa Lingen, Ruth Berman

SAT 4:00 PM Ver 5/6

Younger than YA
Let’s talk about children’s F&SF books aimed at the pre-tween audience.

David Lenander (m), Jane Yolen, Laura Krentz, Marissa Lingen

(Note: I didn’t realize this would involve fantasy also! Even better: I have even more to say about MG speculative fiction broadly than MG SF narrowly.)

SAT 6:00 PM Ver 1/2
Marissa Lingen and Alec Austin – Reading

Our tentative plan is a poem of Alec’s, a co-written story, and a story of just-mine. Come for the fun, stay for the additional fun!

If you look at the programming grid, you may be under the impression that I will also be moderating a panel called Fantastic YA on Sunday morning at 10:00 a.m. That panel sounds lovely, and I did volunteer for it, but at 10:00 a.m. on Easter Sunday morning I expect to be on the first verse of “Jesus Christ Is Risen Today” next to my grandmother, as I have been on every Easter Sunday I can manage and will be on every Easter Sunday I can manage. She is an active, sharp 82. She is 82. Am I going to drag her (and, not so incidentally, the rest of the family) out to sunrise services at 6 a.m. because programming ignored my very clear statement that I need to not be on anything before noon on Sunday? No, no I am not.

I was not thrilled to not have my schedule a week before the con started, and I was trying to be nice and understanding, because it’s hard work to program a con, and I like the people I know in programming and have no reason not to like the people I don’t know well. It was making some family and medical scheduling a bit difficult, but I was trying to roll with it. But when I woke up this morning to a schedule that directly ignored my one hard and fast schedule limitation (which, as I said, had been clearly stated when I volunteered), I have to say that it did not make me very happy. I doubt that the panel will be able to be moved at this late date, so I expect that they will need to find another moderator and panelist. If I’m wrong, I’ll update my schedule later, but so far as I know it this is what I’m doing at Minicon, and I hope it’ll be fun.

Hardest thing to understand

So the hardest thing for me to understand about the Beatles’ arrival 50 years ago, from a firmly post-Beatles lifetime, is not any of this stuff, because whatever, critics don’t get things all the time, and particularly adult critics don’t get teen culture all the time. “Adult critics don’t get teen culture” is right up there with “something something teens sex oh noes” for stories they could recycle endlessly to keep newspapers running forever without having to think about it.

No, what I don’t get is: people thought their hair was long. Go look at the pictures, they’re all over major news outlets. That is what people in February of 1964 thought was “long hair” on men. That. It’s like, maybe a couple inches longer than Ed Sullivan’s hair? It was cut with a scissors instead of a clipper? Therefore “long hair”?

This was a world that had seen ten million portraits of Jesus as a white dude with shoulder-length hair. This world had seen the Founding Fathers, the Cavaliers, Confucians, Little Lord Fauntleroy. And circa 1964 Beatles hair was long?

The thing that is so profoundly weird about the 1950s and 1960s in America, fashion-wise, is that there was this historically bizarre confluence of affluence, female skill with needlework, and expectation of conformity. That exploded after–yes, there’s “this year’s style,” “this year’s colors,” we may grumble if we have a hard time finding shirts as long as we want or pants as narrow, but the range of choice is stunning, and the amount that’s accepted–sometimes accepted as mildly dumpy or unfashionable, but accepted all the same–once you’ve left the world of high fashion is staggering. Before that period, mass communication and mass affluence just had not reached that peak where very many people had more than a few things to wear.

So the Beatles showed up and everyone apparently went, “GASP LONG HAIR THOSE SHAGGY SHAGGY MEN MY GOLLY THE SCANDAL.” And it’s not that I find it hard to understand why having long hair was scandalous, although a bit of that too. It’s that they did not have long hair. It’s that I find it so hard to grasp a world where the range of permissible was that tiny.

But those words make sense separately

Isn’t it funny when you see a particular piece of social fail replicated in different areas all in one week after not seeing much of it for months and months? The example I can use that seems least likely to be acrimonious for people reading this is adjunct professor, assistant professor, associate professor: these are all different things, but people who have not paid attention to academia may well not be able to parse by looking at them which one does what with which status, which pay, which opportunities for advancement, which authority over which other persons.

By way of saying: other people’s industrial terminology is not automatically intuitive even when it looks simple enough, and it’s best for all of us to remember to ask maybe? Before going around with grand theories and pronouncements about how it all should be handled? All of us including me. Yes.

Compromise means I get what I want and you get what I want.

I am long past being surprised by anything the Minnesota Orchestra Board does. But this article, while not surprising, was pretty frustrating. “Let’s do mediation! Crap, mediation seems to mean that we don’t just get our way! Let’s go outside the mediation! To ask for the same things as we did in mediation!”

There was a perception in the Mpls classical music community that the deadline for getting this fixed was Labor Day weekend, because Osmo–our conductor, a kickass Finn who is pals with other kickass Finns of classical music interest–has said he will resign if the Orchestra is not going to be ready for the Carnegie Hall concerts in the fall. We’ve since heard that 9/15, not 9/2, is the date at which he thinks that’s reasonable. I can’t really argue with that. The man knows his stuff, which is why we still want him around.

Which is why. We still want him around.

One of the life skills I only acquired as an adult, and with some difficulty, was the ability to say, “Hey, this person’s behavior makes no sense. I should stop twisting myself into knots to try to see a way in which it does make sense! Because sometimes people just don’t.” I try not to overuse this. But it’s a lot better to acknowledge when someone is making no sense than to warp reality around them. And that’s kind of where I am with the Orchestra Board here. I have turned it over and over, trying to look for a hidden agenda or a secret way in which all this would make sense. It doesn’t. They’re trashing a local cultural treasure out of stubborn conviction that they are Righty Right Right, without regard to whether being right is the only relevant thing here.

I recently read Lawful Interception, the new Cory Doctorow novella, and I’m not sure I really thought the music analogy in it was quite right. But I thought of it again when I read the MN Orchestra article. I thought of how the MN Orchestra has already built this system with great communication among skilled artists, and…well. Cory’s story seemed relevant after all.