Boys and Shoes?

air-jordan-3-fire-redWomen love shoes. From a very young age, they are bred to be particularly observant  of what everyone wears on their feet. I am convinced that a woman can infer everything about you—from your work ethic, to your hobbies, to who you went to prom with—based solely  on your shoes.

But that is nothing new. What is new, to me, is the growing competition among boys, not over bicep sizes and height, but over…….shoes.

I work as an aid in a middle school, and one of my classes contains only three boys. Every Monday they respond to a journal prompt asking what they did over the weekend. At  least a quarter of the time one of them talks passionately about how he bought a new pair of Nikes, Lebrons (heaven help us), or Jordans that weekend.

In fact, one of the boys makes a decent amount of money mowing lawns, and blows nearly all of it on premium quality shoes! At one point, the boy tragically got a dirt stain on one of his precious Nikes and spent half the class scrubbing desperately to get it off.

Another time, all three boys came in with new pairs of shoes—all a different color. Almost all they did that day was argue over whose pair was the most impressive.

Now, I cannot identify with this shoe-obsession whatsoever. Of course, being a grown man, I now keep an eye on what I wear on my feet because, as I said, women are keeping two eyes on it. As a boy, however, I couldn’t care less about what I wore. Nor do I remember any of my male peers caring about it back then either.

I used to, let’s just say, get full use out of my shoes. I only owned one or two pairs at any given time, and I paid absolutely no attention to their maintenance or well being. About once a year I would grudgingly go buy a new pair because the old pair was completely worn out or too small. Shoe shopping for me was basically grabbing the first Nike off the shelf and leaving. I never talked about or compared my shoes with other guys, and I never, EVER, noticed what anybody else was wearing on their feet.

Now, maybe I was an abnormality, but, like I said, I don’t remember any of the other guys caring about shoes then either. So what has happened in the last ten years?

I think it might have something to do with our culture becoming less judgemental. When I was in school, a boy talking about shoes would probably have been made fun of. Today, greater tolerance has pervaded our society and people seem more comfortable in their own shoes (pun intended). For example, I see middle school aged boys wearing pink shirts all the time—something that was totally unheard of when I was that age.

Some might argue that this tolerance is excessive and that the gender lines are becoming too blurred. I have even heard people complain that men are becoming too feminine, but these are topics for another day.

All in all, although I do not fully understand the phenomenon of today’s boys comparing their shoes, I have to admit that they have one distinct advantage—they’ll be better prepared to meet womens’ strict specifications for a man’s foot when they get older.


Fitting into Society, Failing as Humans

herd-mentalityRecently, I attended a special outdoor commemoration for the 70th anniversary of the D-Day invasion. A number of period tanks, artillery and landing craft were on exhibit, all of which were fascinating to behold.

Among this collection was a living relic, likely over 90 years old, whose advanced age did not prevent him from unwaveringly standing and captivating the audience with his own tales from the 1944 invasion of Normandy.

“I remember at night in the camp we used to shoot at birds in the distance for target practice,” recalled the aged veteran. “The funny thing was that often, instead of hitting the birds in the dark, we actually ended up shooting wandering Frenchmen, hahaha!” “Ha ha ha” laughed the excited crowd at the joke, except, it wasn’t a joke. Here was a man talking about accidentally killing people, and the crowd was laughing as if they had just seen Moe slap Curly in The Three Stooges.

I can understand why the veteran was able to take the story lightly—war had likely numbed him as it does so many others—but what about the crowd? Did they truly find it funny that innocent Frenchmen were getting mistaken for birds and shot to death in the dark, or were they just laughing because they felt that it was the appropriate social reaction at the time. I would argue the latter.

Everybody is, to some extent, an actor when it comes to social situations. We laugh out of politeness when somebody says something that’s supposed to be funny, and we exaggerate our sadness when somebody we have never met dies. I will illustrate both examples.

Scenario 1: You are in a grocery store staring at the shelf, calculating whether you should buy “Aunt Jemima” or “Log Cabin” maple syrup. Suddenly, your near-meditative state is broken by an elderly lady who bumps into you, causing you to drop the box of pancake mix you were holding under your arm. As you bend over to pick it up you hear the lady chuckle as she says, “Oh, I’m so sorry. Gee wilickers, I am as clumsy as a clown today, aren’t I? Hahaha.” “Ha ha ha,” you artificially laugh back. You didn’t actually find anything funny in the situation, but you didn’t want to be rude, so you forced a laugh. (According to a recent study, it turns out that those fake laughs may not actually be fooling anybody).

A typical “fake” laugh

Scenario 2: You are an insurance saleswoman meeting with a potential buyer at a restaurant. The buyer, a few minutes late, apologizes saying that his cousin has just passed away, and that he had gotten caught up dealing with that situation. Instinctively, you let out a groan of sadness to try and empathize with the buyer. Now, it is sad to hear about anyone dying. We are emotionally programmed to be upset when we hear that type of news, so you definitely feel some sadness. But are you really feeling as sad as you act? The answer is probably no, and there is nothing wrong with that. You cannot be truly distraught over somebody dying when you had no emotional bond with them. Imagine if you could—everybody would be depressed all the time. The point is, you had to probably act a little bit sadder than you were because it was the right thing to do at the time.

We all do things to socially fit in to some extent. In the two cases illustrated above, there is nothing wrong with that. Humans are social creatures  who need company, and you’re not going to get company by being the hothead who glares at the lady who accidentally bumped into you or being the jerk who doesn’t offer support to others during times of grief.

However, there are times when this social instinct to fit in can cause us to do commit horrible acts, acts we would never have committed on our own. Let’s consider an extreme example first: The Holocaust.

Up until World War II, the Jews had lived in peace alongside their neighbors in Europe. People shopped at Jewish stores, borrowed from Jewish lenders and had coffee with their Jewish friends. Enter Adolf Hitler and the Jewish persecution. All of a sudden it became socially acceptable to hate Jews. People who had once gotten along with their Jewish neighbors now began to mistreat them to fit in with Nazi society. From the Nuremberg Laws, to Kristallnacht, to the final solution, it just got worse and worse. Ultimately, peoples’ failure to speak up against society led to the deaths of 6 million Jews.

In 1938, German mobs committed violence against Jews in what became known as Kristallnacht

In 1938, German mobs committed violence against Jews in what became known as Kristallnacht

The example need not be that extreme. Consider how nasty the audience gets on those live talent competitions like The X Factor or American Idol when somebody does not perform well on stage. Boo’s, shrieks, and taunts is all you hear. However, if there was just one person in the audience, I doubt he would criticize the person on stage as much. I bet he would say,”That’s ok, you tried your best,” instead of “You suck!” There is a safety in numbers, and people will act however good or bad they feel they can get away with socially.

It’s hard to go against social rules and expectations. In most cases those rules and expectations are there for a reason—we all have to somehow cooperate on this planet despite having billions of individual differences.

At the same time, individuality is something we sometimes desperately need to bring us back to humanity. A mob with thousands (or millions) of different voices cannot think on its own, and it loses that morality which is present in each of us as individuals. It becomes no different from a herd of cattle, hence the term “herd mentality.”

To avoid this, we must always maintain our individual sense of humanity and morality and realize when it is being compromised by a group. At that point, it may be necessary to either leave the group, or, more courageously, to try and bring the group back into the right. After all, it only takes one domino to set off a chain reaction.

A Caveman Could Easily Do That

444px-Neanderthal_2DWhen a modern person thinks of Stone Age people, he thinks of a group of wandering ape-men grunting and throwing rocks at wild animals. Just think of the famous GEICO insurance slogan: “So easy a caveman can do it.”

Even the history books accustom us to this image, implying that before the rise of the first river valley civilizations (Mesopotamia, Egypt and the Indus) humankind was simply too primitive to be of any real consequence.

All we need to hear is the term “stone age,” and we automatically think ourselves more intelligent and capable than the “Fred Flintstones” who were running around at that time.

In terms of our collective civilization, we have obviously advanced a thousand fold technologically. But when it comes to individual comparisons, are you really any smarter or more capable than your antiquarian ancestor?

The answer may be surprising to some. It turns out that you are probably no more intelligent than your prehistoric counterpart. In fact, you are probably far less capable a creature than he or she ever was.

Scientists believe that anatomically modern humans evolved around 150,000 to 200,000 years ago in Africa. This means that these early Homo sapiens sapiens were essentially just like us in their anatomical buildup. On average, their brains were about 1300 cubic centimeters, a third larger then Homo erectus, one of their evolutionary forbearers. Their increased intelligence was evidenced by the creation of stone tools and cultural practices such as burial.

Early Homo sapiens sapiens brain size is an estimated average, but it is in the same range as human brain sizes today. Of course, we have to account for the fact that brain size is not the only indicator of intelligence (increased neuroplasticity or grey matter is a major one), but it is a safe bet to say that near the latter end of the Paleolithic Age (12,000 B.C.) the “cavemen” were just as smart as you or I.

Naturally, they could not exhibit this intelligence in the same way you or I can. There was obviously no calculus or advanced physics for them to study. However, if you transported an early human infant through time and raised it in today’s environment, it would likely be socialized and educated to the same extent as a modern child would.

Thus, early humans’ intelligence was probably equal to our own. What about raw strength? It turns out that our prehistoric ancestors would probably have been stronger. Early humans were much bulkier than modern humans. Over time, our skeletons became more lightly built.  As our brains developed, there was less and less need for brute strength. There would have been a moment in history, however, when early humans finally achieved modern intelligence but still retained some of that greater strength. So if they ever invent time travel, I discourage you from challenging an early human to a wrestling match.

One physical area modern humans do have an advantage in, though, is endurance. Early humans had greater upper body strength and more brute force, but they were not able to keep it up for very long. So they would probably lose to us in a race.

Now, you might be reading the above points and saying, “ok, so maybe they were stronger and just as smart, but I’m the one with an iPad.” It goes without say, and I mentioned early on, that technologically we are obviously far more advanced.

The mistake people make though, is equating what I would call societal ability with individual ability. To illustrate, how many of you reading could build an i-Pad right now, even if you had the materials and machinery right here? I’m assuming few, if any.

In fact, I’m guessing most of us would not even be able to build the simple stone tools that early humans knew how to build tens of thousands of years ago. When we hear about Stone Age hand axes, blades and hammers, we think of them as so primitive. Yet we would probably not know where to begin in chipping away at stones to make these tools.

So, individually, we are less capable and far more dependent on others then our early ancestors. As our society becomes far more capable, individuals become less capable.

Perhaps societal development is a natural part of human development, and maybe that is the area where we can honestly say we are superior to our prehistoric ancestors. But, man to man and woman to woman, the caveman really can do it just as good, if not better.