On Reproduction

Unfortunately, some of the best people I know have no children and no intention of ever having children. It isn’t uncommon. My advisor doesn’t want kids. My friends who have started a non-profit to help women in Africa via water projects do not want kids. I know brilliant math researchers who can’t stand to be touched by others.

There are also many who doubt. They can’t answer philosophical questions like “why am I here,” and for fear of not being able to answer the questions of their future children (eg, “why did you bring me here?”) they don’t want to have kids. Or they doubt that their finances are sufficient to maximize opportunities for their children: private schools, piano lessons, college tuition, etc. Some doubt their genetics, knowing their families have a history of depression, diabetes, dementia, heart disease, cancer.

Meanwhile, who is reproducing? In the US, many religious people, people on welfare, teens who can’t be bothered with contraception, poor immigrants… In general, probably the stupider people. It is certainly true that less educated/less responsible/less intelligent people have shorter generations, with parenthood beginning much earlier (teens/early 20’s). The plot of Idiocracy could come to life before our eyes. It isn’t too hard to imagine, especially given the latest Programme for International Student Assessment results, which show the US lagging behind despite spending the 4th most per capita of any country surveyed. Other indications are abundant as well, such as what passes for news or food in the US.

This is my plea to you if you are reading this and have doubts about whether you want to have kids. A wise friend of mine once said, “If you are having these doubts, you are already more qualified than most of the people who are reproducing.” If you’re doubting, think again. And not just about adoption. The gene pool could probably use your genes. Intelligence is highly heritable. Thoughtfulness can be taught and is desperately needed in forthcoming generations. Boys — if you really can’t, do at least consider donating sperm. Girls — you can do it. We need you! The world needs you and your progeny. Or else it’ll be overrun by people like North West, offspring of Kim Kardashian and Kanye West, and nobody wants that…

Language dilution

“As humans, we waste the shit out of our words. It’s sad. We use words like “awesome” and “wonderful” like they’re candy. It was awesome? Really? It inspired awe? It was wonderful? Are you serious? It was full of wonder? You use the word “amazing” to describe a goddamn sandwich at Wendy’s. What’s going to happen on your wedding day, or when your first child is born? How will you describe it? You already wasted “amazing” on a fucking sandwich.”

– Louis C.K.

I have heard people complain about this. It’s a disease of Silicon Valley especially, where companies hire “amazing software engineers” and VPs have been known to be “super excited” for more than 4 hours.

To answer his questions honestly, I think my wedding day will need only the words “tiresome, loud, uncomfortable” and perhaps “aching feet, frozen smile-face.” The birth of my first child will require mostly “exhausting, bloody, excruciating” — so it’s really fine that I’ve already used “amazing” and “wonderful” for Tartine’s ham and cheese croissant — because that is the experience (out of these three) that actually deserves those words.

The trouble is that words take on connotations based on the social group using them. It’s perfectly acceptable to use diluted terms like “awesome” to describe soup because everyone else does. It conveys the appropriate meaning. Since no one here uses it to mean “that which inspires awe”, it would be strange to use it in that way. This is nothing new. In fact, Louis C.K.’s rant is a complaint about the evolution of language.

I am not against dilution because it results in people having to be more creative when they do mean that they saw something awe inspiring that filled them with wonder. They have to be descriptive because they know those two words are parlayed roughly as being between “quite good” and “not bad” on the scale of Britishisms.

Because I can’t use a word like “wonderful” to describe how I feel, I have to say things like “his beauty made me feel like I had a soul.” Or “the fine detail in the gallery made me cry, overwhelmed by the dedication and tenderness that must have gone in to each gold-leafed flourish.” A few more words, sure. But much more descriptive. It’s better this way — we can’t be lazy and just pick up the words that have already been strewn about, expecting them to do the important job of imprinting our feelings on the minds of others.

Scattered thoughts (Part 11)

My favorite bridge in Paris. I dragged N here my last night: an hour and half of walking.

Rudeness. I have heard horror stories of French people being snotty to American tourists. But I hadn’t considered how the American tourist must have been acting. A response is a response to something, most of the time. No one was rude to me. Not the girl on the train, or any of the store clerks. Not even when I was alone and didn’t have N to protect me. I pretended in public that I could speak French! I was an echo. I am sure I fooled no one, because I could tell that people were amused with my abysmal pronunciation. But they were indulgent, and even friendly.

Fashion. I had this idea that every person would look like a runway model. Not at all. While I didn’t notice any morbidly obese people (maybe a few obese, but not many), the rest were average. The difference was not in glamour — the American version with bling and brands — but in understated grace and refinement. Clothes weren’t necessarily from fancier designers, but there is an attention to fit and tailoring that we don’t have. The American brands they have in Paris made me laugh though. American Apparel. Gap. Abercrombie!

Food. I understand the bread snobbery now. When even towns with fewer than a thousand inhabitants have their own bakery, and the French are used to visiting a bakery for fresh bread daily, there just can’t be any comparison to America, where one expects bread to last for weeks. There is an emphasis on freshness and flavor that shows everywhere, as if store and restaurant proprietors would be embarrassed to serve anything less. I like their model of eating well but not very much. I strongly object to the too-common use of child sized cups though. I also searched everywhere in Paris for an equivalent to a Big Gulp Icee, but there were none. I whined for an entire afternoon about this.

Work. I don’t think workaholism is as common. Everyone gets six weeks of vacation, and there were entire towns which were like ghost towns because the inhabitants had gone elsewhere on vacation.

Homelessness. During my visit, I encountered exactly two homeless people, both in Paris. Each of them had not only a mattress, but sheets. Neither of them hassled passers-by for money. Certainly none of them were insane. I can’t speak to France’s political system or taxes, but if this and the six week vacations are the result, their way of doing things can’t be all bad.

Landmarks. This isn’t unique to France, but it’s pronounced in Paris. The number of people at historical landmarks follows a Polya Urn distribution. I got the impression that people were there only to collect merit badges in the form of pictures to show off to their friends. A checklist of famous sites, and them grinning in front of each of them. Notre Dame is lovely, sure, but there were near-empty cathedrals that were just as nice, if not nicer. Everyone and their mother was trying to get goofy perspective pictures of picking up the Eiffel tower, or bopping it on the head, but hardly anyone cared for just sitting by the fork of the river, under the willow tree. I have no complaints about this — it made my life more beautiful.

Aesthetics. There was a room in the Louvre that made me cry. The one dedicated to the King Louis XIV. There was too much detail. Too much intricate detail, so precious, so loving, someone’s darling pet project. Lots of someones, probably. This was an extreme case, but care is taken everywhere. Sometimes to a fault. N told me what a headache it is to change anything historical. Even your own home’s window shades. I love that there is a governing body that has veto power over building plans which are too hideous. If Honolulu had had that, there would be no buildings in Waikiki save the Moana Surfrider. I think the French fully appreciate the power and even the necessity of beauty. It may be completely impractical, but what good does practicality do if you’re never touched by that feeling of wonder and delight that comes from beholding something truly beautiful?

I’ll leave you now with one more sunset

nb: this the last of a series on my trip to France