Introduction

It would be a spoiler to say too much about how ugly and public the enmity between them gets — a maelstrom that compassion could have soothed. But this is where Zoe and Janine are most similar: in their refusal to give each other the benefit of the doubt, or to learn from one another’s pain.

I’m a little surprised by how many people tell me they have no hobbies. It may seem a small thing, but — at the risk of sounding grandiose — I see it as a sign of a civilization in decline. The idea of leisure, after all, is a hard-won achievement; it presupposes that we have overcome the exigencies of brute survival. Yet here in the United States, the wealthiest country in history, we seem to have forgotten the importance of doing things solely because we enjoy them.

Yes, I know: We are all so very busy. Between work and family and social obligations, where are we supposed to find the time?

But there’s a deeper reason, I’ve come to think, that so many people don’t have hobbies: We’re afraid of being bad at them. Or rather, we are intimidated by the expectation — itself a hallmark of our intensely public, performative age — that we must actually be skilled at what we do in our free time. Our “hobbies,” if that’s even the word for them anymore, have become too serious, too demanding, too much an occasion to become anxious about whether you are really the person you claim to be.

Enlarge

two-lights
Caption for the image

Copyright: Test Test

If you’re a jogger, it is no longer enough to cruise around the block; you’re training for the next marathon. If you’re a painter, you are no longer passing a pleasant afternoon, just you, your watercolors and your water lilies; you are trying to land a gallery show or at least garner a respectable social media following. When your identity is linked to your hobby — you’re a yogi, a surfer, a rock climber — you’d better be good at it, or else who are you?

I don’t deny that you can derive a lot of meaning from pursuing an activity at the highest level. I would never begrudge someone a lifetime devotion to a passion or an inborn talent. There are depths of experience that come with mastery. But there is also a real and pure joy, a sweet, childlike delight, that comes from just learning and trying to get better. Looking back, you will find that the best years of, say, scuba-diving or doing carpentry were those you spent on the learning curve, when there was exaltation in the mere act of doing.

In a way that we rarely appreciate, the demands of excellence are at war with what we call freedom. For to permit yourself to do only that which you are good at is to be trapped in a cage whose bars are not steel but self-judgment. Especially when it comes to physical pursuits, but also with many other endeavors, most of us will be truly excellent only at whatever we started doing in our teens. What if you decide in your 40s, as I have, that you want to learn to surf? What if you decide in your 60s that you want to learn to speak Italian? The expectation of excellence can be stultifying.

Chapter 2 How things are now?

Lost here is the gentle pursuit of a modest competence, the doing of something just because you enjoy it, not because you are good at it. Hobbies, let me remind you, are supposed to be something different from work. But alien values like “the pursuit of excellence” have crept into and corrupted what was once the realm of leisure, leaving little room for the true amateur. The population of our country now seems divided between the semipro hobbyists (some as devoted as Olympic athletes) and those who retreat into the passive, screeny leisure that is the signature of our technological moment.

I’m a little surprised by how many people tell me they have no hobbies. It may seem a small thing, but — at the risk of sounding grandiose — I see it as a sign of a civilization in decline. The idea of leisure, after all, is a hard-won achievement; it presupposes that we have overcome the exigencies of brute survival. Yet here in the United States, the wealthiest country in history, we seem to have forgotten the importance of doing things solely because we enjoy them.

Vakil-bath.jpg
Caption for parallax image

Yes, I know: We are all so very busy. Between work and family and social obligations, where are we supposed to find the time?

But there’s a deeper reason, I’ve come to think, that so many people don’t have hobbies: We’re afraid of being bad at them. Or rather, we are intimidated by the expectation — itself a hallmark of our intensely public, performative age — that we must actually be skilled at what we do in our free time. Our “hobbies,” if that’s even the word for them anymore, have become too serious, too demanding, too much an occasion to become anxious about whether you are really the person you claim to be.

Zoe Reed, the heroine of Eleanor Burgess’s “The Niceties,” is an overachieving undergraduate uncertain about her post-collegiate path. A political science major who spends her free time protesting, she is rebellious by nature. But if her affluent parents had their way, she would make a life much like theirs, building on the opportunities they’ve given her.

“I show my black excellence to the world,” Zoe says, envisioning this version of her future, “and I hope, I hope, that the world sees it. I hope they aren’t too threatened by it, and I hope I don’t get so tired of the everyday awful that I snap.”

The everyday awful. Gutting phrase, isn’t it? And truth be told, Zoe has had more than her fill of it already. Racism, whether subtle or glaring, confronts her at every turn. Justifiably furious, out of patience, she wants things to change. Now.

Directed by Kimberly Senior (“Disgraced”) for Manhattan Theater Club, “The Niceties” is a bristling, provocative debate play about race and privilege in the United States, and it begs to be argued with — partly because Ms. Burgess has manipulated the contest in ways that feel unnecessary.

It is better to keep your mouth closed and let people think you are a fool than to open it and remove all doubt. Mark Twain

But it is also a drama about the destructiveness of internecine fighting. Set in spring 2016, during the presidential primary campaign, it pits a pair of progressive women — a black millennial and a white baby boomer — against each other, even as Donald Trump gets ever closer to the White House.

The parallels to David Mamet’s controversial classic “Oleanna” are clear: A 20-year-old undergraduate meets one-on-one with a professor who fatally underestimates her. By the end of their conversation, the professor’s career is in jeopardy, the militant student bent on its destruction.

But where Mr. Mamet made his student a feminist straw woman menacing a man who doesn’t much deserve it, the likable yet merciless Zoe is the one we’re meant to root for here, against a professor who is guilty as charged.

Zoe (Jordan Boatman, in a strong Off Broadway debut) is seeking feedback on a paper when she first arrives in the office of Janine Bosko (Lisa Banes), who teaches the history of revolution. Janine is warm, garrulous and eyebrow-raisingly unfiltered with a student she barely knows. She sprinkles their conversation with contemptuous generalizations about Zoe’s generation, and she blithely makes several remarks that are racially insensitive at best.

The exchange is cordial enough, though, until Janine dismisses Zoe’s thesis — “A successful American Revolution was only possible because of the existence of slavery” — as “fundamentally unsound.” If Zoe leaves the paper as is, she won’t get the grade she needs, but making a stronger case will be all the harder because of the hole in the historical record where the voices of colonial-era slaves should be.

The anger that’s been simmering in Zoe while she’s listened politely finds an outlet, and their argument begins: On one side, a historian who champions American democracy as one of the wonders of the world, its faults notwithstanding; on the other, an activist who looks at the nation’s history and sees all of the black lives that did not matter to its founders, to the people who have governed since and to the authors of its history.

It’s odd that Janine, with all of her experience, doesn’t immediately suggest places Zoe might look to bolster her thesis. (I’m pretty sure I’ve thought up some decent ones myself.) And while Janine is not a cardboard villain, Ms. Burgess gives her some clunky lines that make her sound like one.

“Everyone is tired of hearing about racism,” she tells Zoe, her hostility blatant, her language elementary. “You are so relentlessly negative and you make everything seem uglier, why would anyone want to listen to that? I hate seeing the world through your eyes!”

It doesn’t stretch credibility that Janine might feel that way. It does seem unlikely that she would say so to Zoe, given who Janine believes herself to be: a good, liberal, lesbian, feminist intellectual who grew up working-class. How long has she been locked in this ivory tower, with no one to challenge her worldview?

Zoe, who is too upset about the end of Barack Obama’s presidency to pay attention to the campaign to succeed him, is in some ways as oblivious of her entitlement as Janine is of hers. But Zoe does get affecting dialogue, one excellent joke about mansplaining and some very sharp zingers — as when she accuses Janine’s generation of “reading the children’s book version of American history your whole adult lives.”

I don’t deny that you can derive a lot of meaning from pursuing an activity at the highest level. I would never begrudge someone a lifetime devotion to a passion or an inborn talent. There are depths of experience that come with mastery. But there is also a real and pure joy, a sweet, childlike delight, that comes from just learning and trying to get better. Looking back, you will find that the best years of, say, scuba-diving or doing carpentry were those you spent on the learning curve, when there was exaltation in the mere act of doing.

In a way that we rarely appreciate, the demands of excellence are at war with what we call freedom. For to permit yourself to do only that which you are good at is to be trapped in a cage whose bars are not steel but self-judgment. Especially when it comes to physical pursuits, but also with many other endeavors, most of us will be truly excellent only at whatever we started doing in our teens. What if you decide in your 40s, as I have, that you want to learn to surf? What if you decide in your 60s that you want to learn to speak Italian? The expectation of excellence can be stultifying.

Liberty and equality are supposed to make possible the pursuit of happiness. It would be unfortunate if we were to protect the means only to neglect the end. A democracy, when it is working correctly, allows men and women to develop into free people; but it falls to us as individuals to use that opportunity to find purpose, joy and contentment.

It would be a spoiler to say too much about how ugly and public the enmity between them gets — a maelstrom that compassion could have soothed. But this is where Zoe and Janine are most similar: in their refusal to give each other the benefit of the doubt, or to learn from one another’s pain.

They look at each other, these two Americans, and see the enemy.

The Collection

Introduction

It would be a spoiler to say too much about how ugly and public the enmity between them gets — a maelstrom that compassion could have soothed. But this is where Zoe and Janine are most similar: in their refusal to give each other the benefit of the doubt, or to learn from one another’s pain.

I’m a little surprised by how many people tell me they have no hobbies. It may seem a small thing, but — at the risk of sounding grandiose — I see it as a sign of a civilization in decline. The idea of leisure, after all, is a hard-won achievement; it presupposes that we have overcome the exigencies of brute survival. Yet here in the United States, the wealthiest country in history, we seem to have forgotten the importance of doing things solely because we enjoy them.

Yes, I know: We are all so very busy. Between work and family and social obligations, where are we supposed to find the time?

But there’s a deeper reason, I’ve come to think, that so many people don’t have hobbies: We’re afraid of being bad at them. Or rather, we are intimidated by the expectation — itself a hallmark of our intensely public, performative age — that we must actually be skilled at what we do in our free time. Our “hobbies,” if that’s even the word for them anymore, have become too serious, too demanding, too much an occasion to become anxious about whether you are really the person you claim to be.

Enlarge

two-lights
Caption for the image

Copyright: Test Test

If you’re a jogger, it is no longer enough to cruise around the block; you’re training for the next marathon. If you’re a painter, you are no longer passing a pleasant afternoon, just you, your watercolors and your water lilies; you are trying to land a gallery show or at least garner a respectable social media following. When your identity is linked to your hobby — you’re a yogi, a surfer, a rock climber — you’d better be good at it, or else who are you?

I don’t deny that you can derive a lot of meaning from pursuing an activity at the highest level. I would never begrudge someone a lifetime devotion to a passion or an inborn talent. There are depths of experience that come with mastery. But there is also a real and pure joy, a sweet, childlike delight, that comes from just learning and trying to get better. Looking back, you will find that the best years of, say, scuba-diving or doing carpentry were those you spent on the learning curve, when there was exaltation in the mere act of doing.

In a way that we rarely appreciate, the demands of excellence are at war with what we call freedom. For to permit yourself to do only that which you are good at is to be trapped in a cage whose bars are not steel but self-judgment. Especially when it comes to physical pursuits, but also with many other endeavors, most of us will be truly excellent only at whatever we started doing in our teens. What if you decide in your 40s, as I have, that you want to learn to surf? What if you decide in your 60s that you want to learn to speak Italian? The expectation of excellence can be stultifying.

Chapter 2 How things are now?

Lost here is the gentle pursuit of a modest competence, the doing of something just because you enjoy it, not because you are good at it. Hobbies, let me remind you, are supposed to be something different from work. But alien values like “the pursuit of excellence” have crept into and corrupted what was once the realm of leisure, leaving little room for the true amateur. The population of our country now seems divided between the semipro hobbyists (some as devoted as Olympic athletes) and those who retreat into the passive, screeny leisure that is the signature of our technological moment.

I’m a little surprised by how many people tell me they have no hobbies. It may seem a small thing, but — at the risk of sounding grandiose — I see it as a sign of a civilization in decline. The idea of leisure, after all, is a hard-won achievement; it presupposes that we have overcome the exigencies of brute survival. Yet here in the United States, the wealthiest country in history, we seem to have forgotten the importance of doing things solely because we enjoy them.

Vakil-bath.jpg
Caption for parallax image

Yes, I know: We are all so very busy. Between work and family and social obligations, where are we supposed to find the time?

But there’s a deeper reason, I’ve come to think, that so many people don’t have hobbies: We’re afraid of being bad at them. Or rather, we are intimidated by the expectation — itself a hallmark of our intensely public, performative age — that we must actually be skilled at what we do in our free time. Our “hobbies,” if that’s even the word for them anymore, have become too serious, too demanding, too much an occasion to become anxious about whether you are really the person you claim to be.

Zoe Reed, the heroine of Eleanor Burgess’s “The Niceties,” is an overachieving undergraduate uncertain about her post-collegiate path. A political science major who spends her free time protesting, she is rebellious by nature. But if her affluent parents had their way, she would make a life much like theirs, building on the opportunities they’ve given her.

“I show my black excellence to the world,” Zoe says, envisioning this version of her future, “and I hope, I hope, that the world sees it. I hope they aren’t too threatened by it, and I hope I don’t get so tired of the everyday awful that I snap.”

The everyday awful. Gutting phrase, isn’t it? And truth be told, Zoe has had more than her fill of it already. Racism, whether subtle or glaring, confronts her at every turn. Justifiably furious, out of patience, she wants things to change. Now.

Directed by Kimberly Senior (“Disgraced”) for Manhattan Theater Club, “The Niceties” is a bristling, provocative debate play about race and privilege in the United States, and it begs to be argued with — partly because Ms. Burgess has manipulated the contest in ways that feel unnecessary.

It is better to keep your mouth closed and let people think you are a fool than to open it and remove all doubt. Mark Twain

But it is also a drama about the destructiveness of internecine fighting. Set in spring 2016, during the presidential primary campaign, it pits a pair of progressive women — a black millennial and a white baby boomer — against each other, even as Donald Trump gets ever closer to the White House.

The parallels to David Mamet’s controversial classic “Oleanna” are clear: A 20-year-old undergraduate meets one-on-one with a professor who fatally underestimates her. By the end of their conversation, the professor’s career is in jeopardy, the militant student bent on its destruction.

But where Mr. Mamet made his student a feminist straw woman menacing a man who doesn’t much deserve it, the likable yet merciless Zoe is the one we’re meant to root for here, against a professor who is guilty as charged.

Zoe (Jordan Boatman, in a strong Off Broadway debut) is seeking feedback on a paper when she first arrives in the office of Janine Bosko (Lisa Banes), who teaches the history of revolution. Janine is warm, garrulous and eyebrow-raisingly unfiltered with a student she barely knows. She sprinkles their conversation with contemptuous generalizations about Zoe’s generation, and she blithely makes several remarks that are racially insensitive at best.

The exchange is cordial enough, though, until Janine dismisses Zoe’s thesis — “A successful American Revolution was only possible because of the existence of slavery” — as “fundamentally unsound.” If Zoe leaves the paper as is, she won’t get the grade she needs, but making a stronger case will be all the harder because of the hole in the historical record where the voices of colonial-era slaves should be.

The anger that’s been simmering in Zoe while she’s listened politely finds an outlet, and their argument begins: On one side, a historian who champions American democracy as one of the wonders of the world, its faults notwithstanding; on the other, an activist who looks at the nation’s history and sees all of the black lives that did not matter to its founders, to the people who have governed since and to the authors of its history.

It’s odd that Janine, with all of her experience, doesn’t immediately suggest places Zoe might look to bolster her thesis. (I’m pretty sure I’ve thought up some decent ones myself.) And while Janine is not a cardboard villain, Ms. Burgess gives her some clunky lines that make her sound like one.

“Everyone is tired of hearing about racism,” she tells Zoe, her hostility blatant, her language elementary. “You are so relentlessly negative and you make everything seem uglier, why would anyone want to listen to that? I hate seeing the world through your eyes!”

It doesn’t stretch credibility that Janine might feel that way. It does seem unlikely that she would say so to Zoe, given who Janine believes herself to be: a good, liberal, lesbian, feminist intellectual who grew up working-class. How long has she been locked in this ivory tower, with no one to challenge her worldview?

Zoe, who is too upset about the end of Barack Obama’s presidency to pay attention to the campaign to succeed him, is in some ways as oblivious of her entitlement as Janine is of hers. But Zoe does get affecting dialogue, one excellent joke about mansplaining and some very sharp zingers — as when she accuses Janine’s generation of “reading the children’s book version of American history your whole adult lives.”

I don’t deny that you can derive a lot of meaning from pursuing an activity at the highest level. I would never begrudge someone a lifetime devotion to a passion or an inborn talent. There are depths of experience that come with mastery. But there is also a real and pure joy, a sweet, childlike delight, that comes from just learning and trying to get better. Looking back, you will find that the best years of, say, scuba-diving or doing carpentry were those you spent on the learning curve, when there was exaltation in the mere act of doing.

In a way that we rarely appreciate, the demands of excellence are at war with what we call freedom. For to permit yourself to do only that which you are good at is to be trapped in a cage whose bars are not steel but self-judgment. Especially when it comes to physical pursuits, but also with many other endeavors, most of us will be truly excellent only at whatever we started doing in our teens. What if you decide in your 40s, as I have, that you want to learn to surf? What if you decide in your 60s that you want to learn to speak Italian? The expectation of excellence can be stultifying.

Liberty and equality are supposed to make possible the pursuit of happiness. It would be unfortunate if we were to protect the means only to neglect the end. A democracy, when it is working correctly, allows men and women to develop into free people; but it falls to us as individuals to use that opportunity to find purpose, joy and contentment.

It would be a spoiler to say too much about how ugly and public the enmity between them gets — a maelstrom that compassion could have soothed. But this is where Zoe and Janine are most similar: in their refusal to give each other the benefit of the doubt, or to learn from one another’s pain.

They look at each other, these two Americans, and see the enemy.

The Collection

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