The Pressure of High Anxiety

This article first appeared in Pajamas Media.

They say Americans are under more pressure than ever these days. Students must pass high-stakes tests in order to graduate. Competition to get into top-tier universities is crushing. The middle class is squeezed economically. Schedules are hectic. Commutes brutal. It’s just harder and harder to get by.

This basic idea — that things are tougher than ever — is used to justify all sorts of egregious behavior. More kids cheating? Pressure. Stealing from work on the rise? Pressure. Freeway shootings? Pressure. Loutish behavior in airports? Pressure!

But take a closer look. By nearly every measure, life is better than fifty, twenty, even five years ago. People are living longer, making more, and getting better grades while they do it. Even with the housing bubble, the Dow is at levels that would have been laughed at a decade ago. My God, we even have robot vacuums.

Where is all this pressure coming from?

“Pressure” is something that happens to us, lets us off the hook. It’s a mitigating factor that everyone can relate to. In most cases, though, it is really just plain old anxiety. In particular, when it comes to explaining bad behavior, it’s a special kind of anxiety: that I won’t get what I want.

The “pressure” in so many hand-wringing newspaper feature stories almost always turns out to be this kind of anxiety. In otherwise well-wrought articles on cheating in high school, the culprit is the “pressure” to get into top-tier schools – which is really fear that I might have to settle for a school that is not top-tier. In articles on theft in the workplace, the pressure of a tough economy is often the excuse. Indeed, in one article, the advice that gets the last word is to be nicer to employees so they won’t steal: “If an employee feels like a valued part of the company, he or she is less likely to steal,” says the expert. Road rage is explained away by more traffic.

Almost always, there is an excusing voice calling for some government intervention to relieve this pressure. Road rage stories include a traffic planner’s a call for more public transit. Cheating becomes an excuse for a teachers union representative to excoriate President Bush for asking schools to prove they are performing. Workplace theft stories provide the opening for a call to redistribute income so the middle class doesn’t feel so “squeezed.”

But there is rarely a voice criticizing this behavior for what it is. It’s bad, selfish behavior, plain and simple. Behavior that will go away only when we stop tolerating it.

We live in a time when it is unfashionable to tell others, or to admit to oneself, that not everyone gets what they think they deserve. Sure, everyone wants to go to Harvard and to get where they are going faster, but not everyone gets to. That fact of life that, it seems, is too bitter a pill for many of us to swallow. And so we make excuses, excuses that pile up over time until each of us is certain that the reason we don’t have everything we want is that there is something wrong.

Ambition drives each of us to try to excel and compete. Yet we all have limits to what is realistically in our grasp. I will never, ever earn as much as many of my friends from school; I will probably never have that Master’s degree; my house will probably never be as fancy.

We all have human failings and limitations — and we all make excuses for them. Many of us (more and more, it seems) try to overcome them through trickery and deceit. But maybe, by ending the charade that cheaters and thieves are really victims of “pressure,” we can begin to right this creaky ship of a society.

If we don’t, I fear, personal responsibility will become as quaint an anachronism as standing when a lady enters the room: you respect those who do it, but rarely think to do it yourself. Because, we’re just under too much pressure to worry about such things.

Taxonomy of Hotel Internet

I’ve been travelling again. It’s got me thinking about different kinds of hotel internet access:

I see four basic kinds:

  • Just plain on — This is great, but unusual. Walk into the hotel room, flip on your laptop, find wireless network, connect, go.
  • Free but signup — Courtyard by Marriott has this. It’s quite good. You need to sign on, but once you’re on, it works pretty bulletproof. Plus, you have a choice between wired and wireless.
  • Outside vendor — I was in a hotel recently that had teamed up with T-Mobile. I had to sign up for a daypass from T-mobile to use Internet. A bit of a pain (and I did not like paying), but it worked.
  • Fancy hotel, in house system, barely works — That’s where I am now. I paid $12.95 for a system where I had to sign up through multiple screens including pop-ups, could only use wired (no wireless available at all) and . . . once I was on, the connection failed reliably every four minutes or so. Come on, people!

Let me know in the comments what kinds I’ve missed!

Taxonomy of Project Managers

Like many of my friends, I am a “consultant,” which means I work on “projects” for “clients.” Those clients are typically organizations. My point of contact is usually a “project manager.” I’ve encountered six kinds:

  • Dishrags — Totally passive. See their role as “passing on feedback.” Can’t take a stand and don’t control process. Random problems crop up due to fringe opinion at odd times.
  • Bureaucrats — Burned out, tired. Avoid responsibility by appearing to be responsive.
  • Shotgun — Keep sending everything to everybody. In pursuit of a freewheeling ethos where everyone feels really busy but nothing happens.
  • Meeting Makers — Too collaborative and methodical. Seek consensus on every move through conference calls and meetings. Good . . . but sloooww.
  • Iron Fist — So tightly control the process that no one is sure what is happening. Only point of contact; nothing gets by them. All decisions are theirs. Often surprises from the boss at the end…she or he has not been kept in the loop.
  • Good! — “Sweet Spot” between Iron Fist and Shotgun. They will make decisions, but they know when to bring in others in their organization. They have ownership of the project, but know that it’s not just their show. The project gets done.

No doubt there are more…what kind of project managers have you encountered?

Expensive Money

As I recall, it was a Thursday and I needed to eat. While gainfully employed in a student job, my check wasn’t due for another week or two. I had nothing in my bank account. The slate clouds threatened that cool, morning drizzle northern California is known for.

After a night of debauchery, I was unsteady. In my book bag was a high-end personal CD player, a gift from my parents. Before me was a shop window backed by metal bars. Above the doorway was that ancient symbol: three golden balls. I screwed up my nerve and entered.

I walked out with a pair of twenty dollar bills in my pocket. Far less than I’d hoped. This had to last me. You know how the story ends: By Sunday, I had not much more than lint in my pocket and was digging for some other funding source. I honestly don’t remember how I made it until my paycheck. But I did; here I am, my financial ship basically righted.

Thank God I had not met a “payday loan” operation. They did not yet exist.

Here’s how a payday loan operation works. Say I need $200, but payday is nine days away. I go to a payday loan outfit, and if I can prove I have a job by showing a pay stub, they will give me the two C’s in return for a check post-dated two weeks from now, for $230. Between now and then, I need to pay off the loan at $230, or they cash the check. No money in my account? In some states, no worries: I can “flip” the loan, buying another two weeks for another $30. (In some states this is illegal.)

That adds up to about a 390% annual interest rate on the loan.

Most folks pay back the money. Indeed, payday loan operations serve in many ways as a de facto banking system for the poor. That’s how they bill themselves, helping working Americans just make ends meet and handle unforeseen emergencies.

But, of course, that’s not where they make their money. They rake in the dough from poor saps like I was, in that pawn shop: desperate, feeling out of options. People in that state will often do anything. Indeed, I can bet that, had there been a payday loan shop available, I would have jumped inside in a shot. And two weeks later, I would have been hoping to flip that loan.

Payday loan companies comprise a $28 billion industry in terms of loan volume — roughly comparable to the gross domestic product of Jordan. They make their money the same way loan sharks do, by squeezing people who don’t pay their debts on time.

Lots of people get taken in, driven by desperation. The problem was big enough that the defense department pushed for a law capping the interest rate payday lenders can charge. The Pentagon said that service members were paying, on average, $827 on a $339 loan.

On October 1, payday lenders won’t be able to charge more than 36% to service members. They are getting out of that business, saying that rate of return just doesn’t make them enough to justify the work.

Other places are trying to do away with these loan sharks, too. Washington, DC just voted to cap rates at the 48 payday shops in that city. Georgia banned them in 2004. Word is that Ohio may be next on the agenda.

Some see this as a liberal-vs.-conservative issue. Those bleeding hearts are out to coddle the poor. But to me, it’s a moral issue that has nothing to do with that. We’ve already agreed, as a society, that it’s wrong. Since Old Testament times, people have agreed it is wrong to charge exorbitant interest. And here on American shores, there were interest rate caps between four and seven percent in the colonies of the New World. Loan sharks, who charge in the neighborhood of 125% interest, are prosecuted under RICO laws.

And, there are other, far less exploitive, options for people who really just need a bit extra to cover an emergency, from bona fide advances from their employer to working out payment plans with legitimate creditors.

No, it’s not that pawnshop’s fault I had burned through all my money back in college; it was my own. We all have a responsibility to live within our means.

But we also have a responsibility not to prey on the weak. An industry that can only survive on poor decisions made in desperation doesn’t deserve a place in our colonies.

Living Like Xerxes

When first we lay eyes on the evil Xerxes, in the visual revolution known as 300, he is riding a monstrous platform carried by a throng of people whom (we presume) are slaves. It’s a floating throne and court all in one, massive and imposing. He wants to get down, so he begins walking down the steps from his throne, to the platform. He keeps walking off of the platform, without breaking stride. The slaves jump to, creating a set of steps with their backs as he pads his way down.

It is an illuminating moment as we meet the Bad Guy: he thinks so highly of his own comfort, and so little of his people, that he expects they will literally place their bodies at his disposal for so trivial a purpose. It’s a great way of establishing the depths of his self-absorption and decadence. We get it. This guy’s a creep.

In daily life, though, many live like Xerxes without batting an eye, floating through the day on a cloud of comforts they don’t even see. Some feel guilty about this.

It is in vogue, of late, for people to extend this notion into the environmental arena. One of the byproducts of the last several decades’ worth of focus on ecology is the abiding notion that having any impact whatsoever on the world around us is a bad thing, to be shunned and avoided — and, whenever possible, atoned for. There appears at times to be a crushing guilt coursing through the land, that we’re doing something wrong and we’d better stop it.

In response, some people try hard to live in simple fashion, consuming little and leaving as little trace as possible. This approach is not limited to one side of the aisle or another. I admire these people, for they appear to be living their ideals.

Other people feel it’s enough for them to be aware of their shortcomings, They can congratulate themselves that they really see the impact of their well-progressed lifestyle on the environment. They don’t go much further.

But they still have that guilt, perhaps even more intensely for all their “awareness.” So, they try to make up for it.

This has reached its most ridiculous level when it comes to something called the “carbon footprint” and purchasing “offsets.” The notion is that every person engages in activities that are to blame for some portion of global warming, and that this is a bad thing. It rings true to many because it taps into the endemic environmental guilt so many already feel.

Some, notably wealthy and famous people who wish to continue using private jets and maintain luxurious homes, purchase “offsets” that represent mitigation for their carbon footprint. The offset supports some organization that, in turn, supports carbon-reducing (or, at least, non-carbon-emitting) enterprises.

Climate Care, one of the outfits that takes wealthy folks’ money, puts it this way: “Offsetting means paying someone to reduce CO2 in the atmosphere on your behalf.”

Win-win. The wealthy person gets salve for the conscience, and money changes hands. Sweet.

There are at least two, related, problems with this.

First, the notion of paying someone else to do what you yourself are not willing to do seems to undercut the whole point. Purchasing offsets seems a lot like the old practice of buying indulgences so the wealthy could continue on with their sinning, only remaining able to sleep at night secure in the knowledge that the Pope said they would not be going to Hell.

Second, few look too closely at the offsets and what they support. According to The Times of London, one of Climate Care’s projects involves using human labor in the developing world to pump water for irrigation, using “treadle pumps” that look not unlike Stairmasters. People step for hours on these things, pumping merrily along. Climate Care puts it this way: “One person — man, woman or even child — can operate the pump by manipulating his/her body weight on two treadles and by holding a bamboo or wooden frame for support.”

Treadle pumps used to be in vogue in British prisons — and were finally outlawed, according to Spiked Magazine, having been deemed too cruel a punishment. Here, they are being touted as suitable labor for a third-world child. All, ironically, so that guilty consciences can be set at ease.

Private industry, the pursuit of wealth, and the competition this engenders is at the root of much of what makes us a great nation. The flipside of this industry, which is privilege, entitlement, and lassitude, are just as strongly at the root of what holds us back.

Like Xerxes, many are addicted to comfort. We want our lifestyles to remain intact, so we hire others to do the heavy lifting. While they may well be grateful for the jobs, are we to believe we have improved our own moral standing in any real way? Or are we more like Xerxes, happy that others are there to lift us along on our platforms?

That Golden Ring And The Alamo Of Truth

When forced to come clean in public life, we often pretty up our deceits in flowery language and clever rhetoric, admitting that we may not have been “accurate” or might not have been “forthcoming.”

We admit to a “misjudgment” or regret that we may have created the “appearance of impropriety.” Language like this is the bread-and-butter of contrite yet pugnacious statements by men and women in the public eye who are caught lying and must confess.

It’s enough to raise the blood pressure. Confronted by truth, those at home get responses that seem to belittle their intelligence, to assume they are too stupid to see what is happening — or that they just couldn’t see clearly in the first place.

Even after his guilty plea, former Durham County District Attorney Mike Nifong, at the center of the Duke lacrosse rape scandal, would only go so far as to say his “statements were not factually true” at his sentencing hearing. Nifong’s words mean, evidently, that there was some other kind of truth, truth beyond just facts, that his “statements” did not match. Bill Clinton, addressing the grand jury in 1998, mounted an existential argument about the status of being itself when he said “It depends on what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is” when asked to square the fact that he had earlier said “there’s nothing going on between” he and a White House intern.

But it is the flat-out denials, in the face of damning evidence, that are the most brazen. They are the last ditch attempt. In a bit about being caught by his wife with another woman, Richard Pryor famously denied and evoked Chico Marx in Duck Soup, asking her, “Who are you going to believe, me or your lying eyes?”

This is the gambit of desperation, the Alamo of truth.

Inexplicably, I feel for the deniers. Who among us has not felt the gut-punch of being caught, and felt the urge to deny? To make it go away with sheer force of will?

This weekend, Senator Larry Craig said he will step down from the United States Senate. In June, he had pled guilty to soliciting sex in a Minneapolis airport men’s room. This came to light recently, and events quickly led to his resignation.

The reactions to these events have been predictable. Many partisans (of both stripes) have sought political gain. Commentators have pointed out the wide gulf between the conduct he admitted to (soliciting sex in a men’s room) and his public actions (he is a long-time and outspoken “family values” supporter). Some have pointed out that he did not actually do anything that much different from what goes on in singles bars: he sent signals to indicate he was interested in a hook-up.

Others counter that this did not happen at a bar, but in a public restroom — where many reasonably expect that they will be able to relieve themselves without being harassed — and that he was caught in a sting that was put into place due to complaints of exactly this kind of behavior.

Craig’s statements as this drama unfolded seem a textbook case of trusting in the power of denial. Many have pounced on his claim “I’m not gay. I never have been gay,” and ask how this claim can be so, given what has happened?

Reading the transcript of his arrest interview with the Minneapolis police sergeant who snared him, I felt a certain compassion for Craig. Sure, he is panicky and bombastic. He by turns tries to weasel out of the situation and just cut to the chase asking what he has to do to get out of there and make his flight. We probably all know people who behave that way when caught. Maybe we’ve behaved that way ourselves.

But, there is a moment in this interview where Senator Craig’s soul seems laid bare, his remorse out there on his sleeve.

Most of America knows by now that according to police, Craig had nudged the foot of the undercover sergeant, who was in the other stall, and then slid his hand along the underside of the stall partition. Craig said at the time he was reaching for a piece of toilet paper. Up to this point, reading the transcript is a bit like watching the interrogation of the perp in a police drama. The officer leads him along, stepping through each action, bit by bit, the case closing in around him.

The sergeant then says he could clearly see the gold wedding ring on Craig’s hand as he ran his hand along the underside of the stall. Craig seems to lose it, at that point. They engage in a long battle over whether he was using his right or his left hand. It seems important to Craig that he convince the sergeant that he was using his right hand, not his left. But the sergeant says he saw what he saw: the glint of his wedding ring.

Ultimately, and pathetically, Craig can do little more than repeatedly deny he used his left hand.

That wedding ring flashes like a beacon. I imagine this man, confessing his guilt, suddenly faced with just how deep his transgression — transgressions, perhaps — may be. Some would see a delicious irony in the fact that this conservative cultural warrior’s confession of adultery turns on his wedding ring. But the detail instead makes me empathetic. Suddenly, Craig seems almost childish, trapped, exposed, panicked.

This small episode contains the seeds of what could be a moment of clarity, where the depth of what is being risked, the stakes of the division between public and secret life, are clear to see. People can grow and heal from places like that.

But they can also refuse to see what is plain to all. You can hear it in Craig’s protestations. The wedding ring, a symbol of a sacred bond, is the focal point around which the real energy of the police interview revolves. Even while admitting guilt, Craig tries vainly to keep that ring out of the picture.

Lies are corrosive threads that shoot through the fabric of our days. Public life is filled with them but private life is, too. They suffocate us, they mount and build and kill our souls.

Larry Craig, on June 11, made a last stand at his own Alamo of truth. I hope he can use his remorse to reach for something better for himself. His lies are testament that, like all of us, he has demons to face.

But listening to his press conference over the weekend, I worry the remorse of June has faded. He speaks in flowery yet bureaucratic language of not being able to “devote 100% of his time” to his beloved Idahoans, because he must “pursue [his] legal options.”

He asks, it seems, that we choose whom to believe — the Senator or our collective, lying eyes.