"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Saturday, May 30, 2015

Real Diversity - Nuts, Sluts, And The Rest Of Us

Psychology 101 at Yale was called ‘Nuts and Sluts’. It was a teaser, designed to attract would-be psychology majors by illustrating the varied nature of human mental disturbance. We all loved the course, took Psychology 201, were bored to tears by the statistics and classifications, and quickly dropped the course.

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I once asked a veterinarian whether or not dogs had as much diversity within the species as human beings. “Of course”, he said. “Even more”.

Yet every time I walk down the street, I am reminded of Nuts and Sluts. Forget the obvious distinctions of race, sex, height, age, and weight.  We are each of us twitchy, hangdog, perky, purposeful, down-at-the-heels, or morose. Our eyes flutter or squint.  We grimace, hard smile for the camera, bouncing along or drag our feet.  We are all just a few steps and a few bits of DNA shy of the ‘infirm’ we studied at Yale.

“She reminds me of Carole Perkins”, said a friend; but while the woman on the park bench in Farragut Square did indeed look like our classmate, a closer look revealed that they were nothing alike at all. The woman in the park had arched eyebrows, but Carole arched her eyebrows. Carole wore her hair long and  flipped it like a Pantene model while her look-alike was more primly composed. Carole’s nose was long and straight, but its arrogant angle was nothing like the woman in the park.  Patience was not in Carole’s character – not for buses, meetings, or people – and I recalled that I never saw her sit on a park bench, on the beach, or in front of the television.  The woman in the park was calm but lacked confidence. She was still because of little curiosity or social ambition.

No one ever reminds me of anyone else. There is a new app which through facial recognition software and mining of social media postings can match you up with your doppelgänger. The comparison pictures in the ads show remarkable likenesses.  A young colleague was intrigued, bought the app, and found her look-alike. She, however, was not satisfied in simply looking at what was close to her mirror image and wanted to know what her twin was like.  It turned out that the woman was a checker at a Walmart in Alabama, had five children, fat friends, and no husband.

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No one has ever said that physical likeness is anything other than pure chance and not a predictor of behavior, character, or personality like the DNA of identical twins.  Yet there is something compelling about look-alikes; something more than chance configuration.

So other than in the case of identical twins, everyone is fundamentally different from everyone else.  Even children of the same parents are often as different as strangers from another continent. According to Mendelian law children should inherit much of their DNA from their parents, but genetic bits of a strayed great-grandfather or more distant ancestor seem to find a way into the double helix of offspring, much to everyone’s surprise.
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Similarities among offspring are there if you look hard enough, but show up only through a badly distorted a posteriori lens. A psychologist friend who prides herself on professional and personal insight was surprised when I said that my niece and nephew were very different. No, she said.  They are very similar. Something about a very centered core that was more elemental to personality than the artistic flair, mathematical talent, and athletic abilities that differentiated them on the surface.  Perhaps, but all I could see was my niece on the stage in a Provincetown production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and my nephew breaking code for the NSA to know she was wrong. My sister’s children may indeed have some fundamental stability to their character; but it is their differences that I and everyone else notice.

Members at my sports club are by and large white, middle-aged and upper middle class, and share neighborhood, schooling, background, breeding and profession. Yet one watches Oprah reruns in the locker room naked and manspread. The Man Who Polishes His Balls works his towel like a shoeshine strop.  Death, a sallow, greyish scarecrow who works the elliptical with an intensity and a far-away look so vacant that I imagine that she was staring into the abyss. Hot Shit barks about her triathlons, biathlons, and Senior Iron Woman endurance events. She shouts heart rate, number of reps on the bench press, stress test results, miles biked, run, walked, or swum.  The Gerbil looks exactly like a rat, with a small head, pointy nose, receding chin, and tiny little eyes.  He has spindly legs and arms, and when he gets on the treadmill, he pumps them so fast that he looks like he is working the exercise wheel in a hamster cage.

All are all lawyers, former White House advisors, advocates before the Supreme Court, lobbyists, and entrepreneurs. No matter how much they all shared, they were so distinctly different if not eccentric that they could have belonged to different tribes.

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After a number of years at the club and many more spent on K Street, I decided that I had had enough of diversity, and took a long-term lease in a small town in Montana. There, I assumed, life and people would be a lot simpler; and best of all they would be more predictable and uniform than in DC. As naïve as this might sound, I was convinced that personality craziness was a function of a stressful, highly competitive environment.  Either stress corrodes the screws and bolts that hold personality together until crazy eccentricities show up; or eccentric people are drawn to the circus sideshows of Washington. In any case, I was becoming jumpy and jittery every time I saw some weird thing in the gym or in my office; and I had to take a respite.

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Of course I was wrong; and the only difference between Washington, DC and Brightwood, Montana was size.  There the cowboys, ranchers, railroad workers, barkeeps, and barbers were just as crazy.  They all shared a common culture and felt at home in the unregulated catch-as-catch-can atmosphere of the West; but certainly were just as twitchy and unpredictable as anyone back East. Digging postholes, stringing barbed wire, herding cattle, and managing the grain silo and feed lot were the equivalent of lawyering or lobbying and only provided the architecture for intense personalities.

Montana was a balm, however. It was so different from Washington, so culturally unique that most of the oddities and eccentricities went unnoticed by anyone beyond the Great Plains. I drank beer, walked, ate out, and played video poker; but never noticed anything strange.  In retrospect, there was probably something ‘off’ about the man at the end of the bar stirring his drink; or the older woman smoking in the corner by the Budweiser sign; but I was too ingénue to know what it was. Montana-as-spa worked wonders, and I came back to DC calmer, more sanguine, and certainly more tolerant.

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All of which brings me to the subject of ‘diversity’ – the political kind comprised of race, gender, and ethnicity. Isn’t it enough to live in such ridiculously varied plurality without having to fit people into general categories?

A former colleague told me of the diversity training classes she was forced to attend at her office.  Signs indicating ‘Diversity’ category had been posted on the stage of the auditorium – black, white, mixed race, indiscriminate; male, female, transgender, indeterminate; European, African, Hispanic, Asian, mixed ethnicity, etc. Participants were asked to gather under the signs that best characterized them.  My colleague refused, got demerits and a poor performance rating (“Adele has shown distinctly uncooperative tendencies”), and eventually left the firm.

“ I cannot imagine anything more degrading and insulting”, she said.

For me there is too much diversity in the world and at times it is suffocating; which is why I have decided to narrow my social choices. I know that I risk the same naïveté as I did in Montana, but I am convinced that the more exclusive the club and the more alike its members are on all but the contents of their most private inner rooms, the happier I will be.

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I always recall the song in West Side Story, ‘A Boy Like That’ where Anita sings “One of your own kind, Stick to your own kind”. We all have a tendency to group together; and it is less to keep out The Other than to avoid him.  It is unsettling to have too many shows of unpredictable personality.

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I have been accused of being inconsistent – liking the human circus and taking shelter from it in my exclusive redoubts – but the criticism is off the mark. I want a society in which there are no labels, categories, or groupings to define individuals whose nature is, by definition, indefinable. At the same time I can only take so much individuality, quirkiness, eccentricity, and nuttiness.  Thank God for the Washington Universe Club.

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