(Although, truth be told, I’m not sure how many of my podcasts my mother has heard. I’m visiting her right now and just spent 20 minutes explaining how to attach a photo in gmail. She is definitely catching up with technology, but she may only be up to 2005 at the moment. Then again, she was born in a house without electricity, so that means she has covered more technological distance in her lifetime than most people. “Lifetime technological distance traveled,” by the way, is an idea that is seriously undertheorized. My mom, who is 90, has traveled many more technological miles than most whiz kids in Silicon Valley. Let’s give her some credit!)
Plus, my mother would say: “Why do I have to learn how to do technology when I have a nephew, living next door, who can do everything for me?” The psychological term for this is “distributed cognition.” My mother’s working knowledge of the world is a combination of what she knows and what all of her loved ones know. So who should I be blaming if she isn’t listening to Revisionist History? My nephew Nathan!
Nathan! Go next door and fire up your grandmother’s iTunes!
But I digress. On to the mailbag!
“What has been your favorite experience of art in any form — book, film, music, theater, circus act… any form!” — David Epstein (A friend of mine, by the way)
Oh my. Such a hard question. I’m going to give a somewhat nuts answer. I've always been blown away (from a creative perspective) by a well-done television commercial. I mean, imagine that someone comes to you and says—I want you to promote my product, make the advertisement so memorable that people will buy more of it and oh, by the way, you have 30 seconds. Go! My podcast episodes are 40 minutes. That’s how long I need to tell a story. But there is a whole group of people, in one industry, who can pull off that trick in half a minute.
Take a look at this, which I firmly believe to be one of the greatest TV commercials of all time. It’s from 2009. And it's part of Heineken’s “Let a Stranger Drive You Home” campaign.
OK. Did you watch it? Watch it one more time. Isn’t that perfect?
We’ve got an amazing song, some buzzed young people in the back of a taxi—and then, in the stroke of genius, the grumpy old cab driver turns up the music and joins in for the chorus. The sad thing, of course, is this commercial no longer has the same cultural meaning it once did, because today everyone in the cab would be listening to music from their own phones. Sigh. Sometimes I worry that we have forgotten the value of music as a shared experience.
Years ago, I actually called up the person who wrote that ad. I have, I’m sorry to say, forgotten his name. But whoever you are, if you are reading this, take a bow. You are a genius. No, even better, the highest form of genius. The 30-second genius! Those of use who need an additional 44 minutes to make our point are in awe of you.
“Do you believe the anxiety and depression of our time has a root cause that is aligned with our times? Or was everyone always this anxious and fragile and now we just have language for it?” — Marcie M.
This is a question that deserves a much, much longer answer. But I do think that the historical context of mental illness is often overlooked. In the 1950s, in the United States, there were 560,000 people in mental hospitals. To put that number another way, in 1955 the psychiatric hospitalization rate was 339 per 100,000. (Today it's down around 22 per 100,000.) That’s an astonishingly large number. Now, it’s worth noting that our definitions of mental illness—and whom we thought “belonged” in mental institutions, removed from society—was very different then. Still, I always think of this whenever I pass an abandoned psychiatric hospital when I drive to my house in upstate New York.
So is the fact that we seem more aware of mental illness today the result of higher levels of mental illness? Or because half a century ago we used to hide the mentally-ill away in giant hospitals, hidden in the countryside?
Some part of me believes that these old institutions must be haunted. How could they not be?
(I know what you’re saying. Malcolm believes in ghosts? Yes he does. When I was a kid, my aunt and uncle lived in an old estate house on a hilltop in Jamaica. I think it dated back to the 18th century. One of the guest bedrooms upstairs was said to be haunted. But—I was told—the ghost was friendly and just might come by in the middle of the night to play the guitar that was propped up against the wall. Sure enough, night came and I woke up to the sound of someone playing the guitar. That’s all the evidence I needed! Some time later, my aunt had the room exorcized. I think she wasn’t partial to guitar playing.)
OK. Couple last questions. A lightning round! (Sort of.)
“When you go running, do you listen to music? If so, what do you listen to? If not, what do you generally do with your mind during the time?” — @LearningNovel
Forgive me, but I’m about to be obnoxious. I am, I’ll admit, a running snob. I can’t help it! And one of my running-related snobberies is that I think that listening to music while running is… soft.
Running is a rare opportunity to be alone with your thoughts, and to let the joy of exertion take your imagination in unexpected places. Why would you mess with that by listening to music? Is it really that scary to be alone with your thoughts?
Having said that, I should also point out that I was once on a panel with the American marathoning great Meb Keflezighi, and this exact question came up. No one, I should be clear, ever called Meb soft. I think you can see where I’m going with this. Meb listens to music when he runs.
So you can either take it from me, an aging weekend warrior of no particular distinction, or you can take your cue from one of the greatest American distance runners ever.
“If you could own any car ever made, which one would you choose?” —@Figan
Ah. A question from someone who understands my obsession with automobiles!
Here’s my position on cars. It is surprisingly easy to make a great automobile if you know you can sell it for a million dollars. Really, really great expensive cars are easy to make! There are plenty of high-end boutique shops here and there and top-shelf specialty parts manufacturers and really brilliant car guys who will sell you their services for a lot of money.
Supercars are amazing. But they are not interesting. You and I could start one of those supercar companies if we wanted to.
On the other hand, making a great car for $40,000 or $50,000 is really, really hard. An affordable car that makes you smile every time you get behind the wheel is an accomplishment. So what cars do I want to own? Great cars made within constraints. Here are my top five. You will notice that there are no Porsches or Ferraris or McLarens on the list.
1.) VW Golf GTI (or, if you’re feeling a little flush, its slightly flashier older brother: the Golf R). I’ve owned either a GTI or a Golf R continuously for over a decade. Nimble. Frugal. Fast. Beautifully built. Manual transmission (of course). You can have your Porsche. I’ll take the R at half the price.
2.) Chevy Corvette. My friend Dan, who is a serious car guy, has a McLaren 720. Which is widely considered one of the greatest sports cars ever built. He also has the new Corvette. The McLaren cost $300,000. The Corvette cost a quarter of that. Which car does Dan prefer? The Corvette. Just try and make a supercar that can stare down the McLaren for under $100,000. Detroit: My hat is off to you.
3.) Mazda Miata. Lots of people think, mistakenly, that the MX-5—as it is formally known—isn’t a real car, because it's tiny and cute and underpowered. But have any of those people driven one? The genius of tiny and cute and underpowered is that a Miata is a whole lot of fun at 40 mph. A Porsche 911, at 40 mph, is just clearing its throat. It needs to go 100 mph to be happy, and I don’t know about you, but I can’t go 100 mph anywhere near where I live. (Especially given the current state of my driver’s license. But that’s a story for another time.)
I know, I know. You’re saying: But Malcolm. Come on. All of these cars are hopelessly impractical! Here is number four:
4.) A first-generation, used BMW X1. This is a BMW from back when BMW still made cars that were fun to drive. Creamy inline six. Old-school hydraulic steering, where you can actually feel the road. Unadorned German practicality in the interior finishes. Plus lots of space in the back for your stuff. I have one! 20 grand gets you a good used one. The prevailing wisdom with cars is that new is better than old. This is sometimes true. But often not!
5.) OK. My one extravagant choice. Car aficionados only on this one! Cadillac CTS-V wagon. They only made these from 2011 to 2014, and they have become insanely expensive in recent years. But here’s the concept: Take a highly practical station wagon and stuff a massive V-8 in the front, pair it with a manual transmission, tune it like a sports car, and let all hell break loose.
I once interviewed the legendary car guy Bob Lutz, who was responsible for the CTS-V wagon when he was a top executive at GM. I asked him if he had one. He said he “didn’t need that much car.” This is from a man who flew Soviet MiG fighter jets in his spare time. “Too much car” for Bob Lutz is the only inducement you should need to find one at auction and throw the kid’s college fund at it. You will not regret it!
“If the fatality risk of BASE jumping is 0.04% (per jump; for “experienced jumpers”), and the survival is 99.96%(!) Is it fair to say that certain demographic groups who were “ok with taking their chances” not getting covid-vaxxed… were as brave, or as reckless, as BASE jumpers?”
Yes. These are my readers.
[Header Photo: Getty Images]