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50 New Yorkers Explain: Who is Jordan Peterson?
Plus! Sign of the Week!! Sidewalk Goldfish Pond!!!
Welcome to Issue #42 of CAFÉ ANNE!
A couple of housekeeping items. First, I recently had two extremely fantastic readers tell me that while they’d like to support the newsletter, they can’t swing the platform’s $50/year subscription rate, and they asked for my Venmo. One sent $20, another sent $10. If you also like the idea of sending me free money, my Venmo is @annekadet. My intention, of course, is to forever keep everything on CAFÉ ANNE free for everybody. PAYWALLS ARE FOR LOSERS. Meanwhile, many thanks to the 160 generous folks who have so far signed on as paid subscribers. It just knocks me out that you’ve done this.
Second, the folks at Leap, “The Conversation App for Curious Minds,” have tapped me for an online discussion later this month on the topic, “Why We Should Talk to Strangers.” I will be interviewed by a stranger and hopefully a bunch of other strangers will join in and we can all talk to each other. This is coming up Thursday, September 22 at 11:30 a.m. NYC time. You can download the app and register for the chat here.
In other news, I am excited for this week’s issue which includes a look at a Brooklyn bike shop owner who built a goldfish pond on the curb, and a weird thing I wrote about Jordan Peterson.
SIGN OF THE WEEK
The below was sent by reader Hillary E. in Pflugerville, TX who spotted it outside her local HEB grocery store:
”It is directly across from the watermelons on display,” she wrote.
Please send your best sign spotting to firstname.lastname@example.org and I will include it in a future issue.
MY WILD BROOKLYN LIFE
Sidewalk Goldfish Pond!
Last week, my tire blew out while I was riding around Red Hook, Brooklyn. I was a couple miles from home, so I went to the nearest bike shop I found on Google Maps for a fix.
Wow! Look at this joint! I’m sorry, but it’s just the most charming place I’ve ever seen.
The best part: someone had installed a miniature goldfish pond on the curb in front of the shop!
I ventured inside. Frank, the owner, said the pond is his creation.
“At first it was supposed to be Koi fish but it ended up being goldfish,” he said, setting to work on my bike. “It was supposed to be an experiment with the goldfish, but I didn’t want to get rid of them because they survived. Plus the koi fish are more expensive. If I’d bought koi, people probably would have stolen them.”
“Did you get the idea from somewhere else?” I said.
“No,” he said. “In Italy, that’s what we do. We build our own koi ponds and stuff like that. We build them in our backyards, always.”
“But I’ve never seen one on the street.”
“No,” he said. “I think I’m the only one. I actually had one customer who did it like I did it, and it had to be removed. But this is commercial over here. And I built it next to the tree, so it wouldn’t bother nobody.”
“You can kind of do whatever you want in Red Hook,” I observed.
This met with silence.
Frank said he installed the pond about a year after he opened his shop. “I do hobbies when it gets a little slow,” he said. “It was the same time I built the little fence around the trees.”
The fish have survived two winters. “The ice freezes up, I just break the top layer, and that’s it!” he said.
“What do you feed them?” I asked.
Frank said he started off with twenty goldfish and 18 have survived.
“I’m surprised they haven’t been eaten by cats!” I remarked.
“No, no,” he said. “If you look closely inside, I made them a little cave with three bricks. When cats come, they go underneath there.”
And with that, the repair was done. Frank was fast!
Frank declined to give his last name. He also declined to let me take his photo and suggested I use the portrait on his shop’s website instead. Here it is:
Before I left, I asked if the goldfish have names.
“No,” he said. “The salt water aquarium I had in here, I had names for them. But the filter broke, and they died.”
50 New Yorkers Explain: “Who is Jordan Peterson?”
One of more unusual things I’ve done lately was spend an afternoon asking fifty New Yorkers on the street the same question: “Who is Jordan Peterson?”
This was prompted by several incidents. One is the fact that lately, once again, I have been thinking too much about Jordan Peterson, and talking too much about Jordan Peterson. When I see my little brother or my nephew, my meditation buddies or my writer friends, we often talk about Jordan Peterson. And it’s usually my fault.
The second incident was his recent appearance on the Lex Fridman podcast. About halfway through the three-hour (!!!) interview, Mr. Peterson addressed the difficulties being of constantly recognized on the street. Because these encounters were very meaningful for his fans, he always had to show them attention and respect, even when he was tired or in a hurry. He made it sound a little exhausting.
I brought this up with a friend. Is Jordan Peterson actually that famous? My pal had a suggestion: “You should find out how many people on the street have actually heard of him!”
Hitting the sidewalks last week with my notebook, I was not surprised to find that the first few people I queried all had the same response: “I have no idea!”
Perhaps you, like them, are wondering: “Who is Jordan Peterson?” I’m glad you asked! Because I know waaaaaay too much about this man.
Perhaps best characterized these days as a writer and social commentator, Mr. Peterson grew up in a tiny, frozen village in Alberta. He married a lady he met in grade school and became a clinical psychologist and professor at the University of Toronto. He won a small following with a YouTube lecture series based on his “Maps of Meaning: The Architecture of Belief,” a 1999 book I haven’t finished because it is quite dense and I am sometimes lazy.
My introduction to Mr. Peterson, in 2017, was by way of his 15-part “The Psychological Significance of the Biblical Stories” series, a zillion-hour look at the Old Testament books of Genesis and Exodus. It beautifully illuminated a portion of the Bible I had previously dismissed as the bonkers account of a god who acted like a petty third-world dictator.
But it wasn’t just his theories that drew me in. At his best, Mr. Peterson is self-revealing, funny, empathetic, curious, super-smart and open-minded—qualifies I love. He taught me a lot on my two favorite subjects, religion and psychology. He got me rereading Dostoevsky and diving into The Gulag Archipelago. He even had me trying his all-meat diet. In August, 2018, my friend Will and I ate nothing but beef, chicken, black coffee and water for the entire month, an experiment I would not recommend to anybody.
But most important, when I listened to Mr. Peterson’s talks, I could relate. In his sometimes profound and sometimes just confusing lectures, he often sounded frustrated, desperate or even close to tears at his own failure to grasp the meaning of life and the nature of reality. It was childish and ridiculous! But, for better or worse, some of us are like that.
He actually got famous, of course, for protesting his university’s policy on referring to students by their preferred pronouns. I wish this was not what he got known for. He didn’t have anything particularly new to say on this topic, and there were already many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many people weighing in on both sides of the issue. Plus, whenever he addressed the pronoun controversy—or anything else of a political nature—he got really mad. And no one is at their best, or even very interesting, when they get really mad.
The first person I surveyed who had heard of Mr. Peterson was Arlene, a Bath Beach retiree enjoying a sunny afternoon on the Brooklyn Heights Promenade. She was a fan, it turns out.
“He’s a conservative commentator,” she said.
“Anything you’d like to add?” I asked.
“I like him very much!” she said. “I like his views.”
That was the only nice thing I heard anyone say about Jordan Peterson for the rest of the afternoon.
“Is he a serial killer?” guessed Drew, a data analyst who lives in Kensington, Brooklyn. “I studied forensic psychology. Apart from his crimes, he was married to multiple women. He murdered his ex-wife and then his second wife. I forget all the details.”
Mick, a Brooklyn Heights restaurant worker, had a more impressionistic response. “Oh, he’s that guy. He’s all about getting the young men motivated to have some backbone and some courage. He loves his daughter and he loves women. He wants men and women to be in touch with their primal minds and bodies.”
“He takes himself waaaay too seriously,” Mick added. “That’s his massive downfall. He’s gotta chill!”
Aspen, a self-described unemployed person who lives in Chelsea, went on in a similar vein: “Oh! He’s the guy that whenever he talks, sounds like he spends 23 out of 24 hours of the day trying to work up the courage to shoot himself in the head, but can’t bring himself to do it.”
I had to laugh, as these characterizations were so accurate. But I also felt bad, the way you’d feel if you heard someone bad-mouthing a friend and failed to stand up for them.
I am almost afraid these days to admit how much I like Mr. Peterson, considering what a polarizing figure he has become. Just saying you like some things about him can make a lot of people look at you sideways. As a buddy remarked over the weekend, “Achilles had his heel, Anne has her tolerance of Jordan Peterson.”
Mr. Peterson reached his peak in 2018 when “12 Rules for Life,” his attempt to distill all the world's wisdom into a series of essays with titles like, “Tell the Truth—Or at Least Don’t Lie” became a #1 best seller. I bought it and read it. It was surprisingly funny and offered many helpful ideas.
After the book took off, Mr. Peterson became known as a guru to disaffected young men seeking a father figure who would tell them to shape up and clean their rooms. He went on a big lecture tour and was interviewed by every publication on the planet, often by journalists who hated his views. He started to sound increasingly anxious, angry and unhinged. I’m sure I’d do the same!
And then things got super weird. The world’s expert on how to face life with strength and courage announced he was was addicted to tranquilizers. After spending months in a state of what his daughter described as “incredible, endless, irresistible restlessness bordering on panic,” he sought an emergency detox treatment at a Moscow hospital that included eight days in a medically-induced coma. He nearly died of pneumonia. And then he sort of disappeared for a while.
I was disappointed. I was concerned. Also, I missed him! Learning that he was an even bigger bundle of contradictions than I’d suspected just made me like him more. Meanwhile, the entire internet was pointing out the obvious: here was just another loudmouth failing to live up to his own admonitions.
Continuing my street survey, I had a nice chat with Muslim family visiting from Windsor, Ontario. Sam, an accountant escorting his father and two sisters, also accountants, correctly identified Mr. Peterson as a fellow Canadian. “He’s the man! A professor at the University of Toronto!”
Sam described himself as a former fan. “I stopped listening to him after he joined the Daily Wire,” he said of the right-wing news site.
At least Mick, Aspen and Sam knew who he was. So far, the number of people who had not heard of Mr. Peterson were outweighing those who did six-to-one. White people had not heard of him, black people had not heard of him. Rich and poor, men and women, gay and straight, young and old, the homeless and the housed—they were all united in never having heard of Jordan Peterson.
Fame is a funny thing these days. You can be quite famous and still most people will have no idea who you are. Out of curiosity, I looked up the top-streaming musician on Spotify, the current top-scoring NBA player and the most-followed personality on TikTok. I’d never heard of any of these people. We’re all living in our own little bubbles.
I next took the train from Brooklyn to Manhattan and spent an hour in City Hall Park. Here, a much higher percentage of people were familiar with Mr. Peterson—or at least they thought they were.
I found Kenny, a Harlem paralegal, putting drops in his eyes.
“He’s a politician,” said Kenny. “Widely known. What does he stand for? Everything!”
Mel, a Bronx teacher’s assistant, guessed he was a writer.
“That’s right!” I said. “What kind?”
“Mystery novelist!” said Mel.
A few people said he was an entertainer, or an internet personality, which is close enough.
“He’s a right-wing Canadian blogger personality, popular among young men who feel disaffected by the world they live in,” said Philip, an academic.
“He’s an ultra right-wing person who stirs people up,” said Eddie, a human rights advocate who lives on the Lower East Side.
The final tally? Among the 50 people I polled, 18% knew who he was, 10% thought he was a politician and 72% offered an incorrect guess or had no idea.
The odd thing was that among those who could identify him, several, like me, sounded as if they had spent far too much time thinking about him. It was almost as if I’d happened upon them in the midst of their own Jordan Peterson reverie.
“He is distinctly not cool,” said Maya, a Lower Manhattan editor and writer. “Like the people on the Supreme Court. You can tell they were rejected sexually. You can tell with him—the same thing! He was probably rejected sexually.”
“He strikes me as someone who has to preach and preach because they don’t believe it themselves,” she added. “They get a lot of fans because they preach!”
So what to glean from all this? While it’s embarrassing to admit, I have always wanted to be famous, just not too famous. The term I invented for the level of celebrity I desire is “Malcolm Gladwell famous.” I imagine walking to the grocery store and maybe on the way, some nice person stops to tell me how much they enjoyed my latest article.
But fame is not like that. You can’t control what you get famous for, or how people see you. If you put yourself out there—as the kids say—you might get famous for the dumbest things you ever said and did. Or the fame itself might make you a little nuts, and then you will be famous for that.
One last thing about me and Jordan Peterson: I have long envied him because I wanted to be, like him, a famous thinker. But now I have hit middle age and the reality is that I am not famous, or even much of a thinker. And I am thinking that this is probably a good thing, because I probably wouldn’t deal with it very well. I might very well wind up catering to a crowd that brings out the worst in me.
My wish for myself? That I stop wishing to be famous. And my wish for Jordan Peterson—which I am borrowing from Mick the Restaurant Worker—is that he takes time off from his lecture tours and interviews and podcasts and writing his next book to just relax and chill out. I want the funny, good-natured Mr. Peterson back. I know he’s in there somewhere!
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