Tuesday, October 28, 2014

In the moment

At AA the other day there was a lot of discussion of what it means to be in the moment, a worthwhile and complicated topic.  There was a lot of good and thought-provoking discussion.

Then all of a sudden a guy started sharing about having been in prison and, one night, having been awoken by the sound of some guys murdering another guy.  Then waking up the next day and nobody talked about it at all.  And how being in the moment helped him get through stuff like that.

I will confess that I was a little jarred by that. One of the great things about AA is that it provides a forum where you can be in with a bunch of people you otherwise would have little contact with.  Come to think of it, drugs and alcohol can do that too, but in a less good way.  But every once in a while something comes up in a meeting and I'm just like:  I didn't really need to hear about that, and I'm glad I don't deal with that a lot.  My sponsor pointed out that it was a pretty good argument for staying away from a drink, and I've gotta give him that.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

The New Yorker and endless fascination

Over the last couple of months, I've two of three chapters in John McPhee's Encounters with the Archdruid, and I've also been making my way through Peter Hessler's Strange Stones.  McPhee is in many ways the archetypal New Yorker writer, and Hessler studied under him at Princeton, before going on to become the New Yorker's correspondent in Beijing, and now in Cairo.  Regular readers will recall my lavish praise of Hessler's three books written in China.

But reading a bunch of articles that were originally published in the New Yorker (as is the case for both of the books I'm reading now) is really dragging me back into the zone of that magazine, so everpresent around our house, but which I have largely been avoiding for some many years in favor of reading actual books.  The problem with both the McPhee, the Hessler, and with so many other articles published in the magazine, is that they really do embody the worldview so famously skewered by Saul Steinberg in his 1976 cover.  All the articles are really very similar in some fundamental way.  They tell us that "Here is this adventure, this person, this episode in history, this facet of world experience, so quirky, so fascinating.  We have laid it our for you in well-turned prose, in a readily consumable unit, that can be gotten through while riding a commuter train, or enjoying a capuccino, or perhaps a nice pinot noir.  When you have done reading it, you can go discuss it with your peers over dim sum or gaspacho or perhaps while running around the reservoir.  And then, you can stack it in a corner in the attic so your children can find it."

In the end, it's all the same, all experience is boiled down for the global New Yorker.


Thursday, October 23, 2014

A fairy tale

Astonishing as it may seem, I have never blogged about this, at least as near as I can tell.

So, back in 1997, Mary and I were planning to get married in June, and one Sunday (I swear it was a Sunday).  We were trying to figure out what to do for our honeymoon.  My idea was to throw the dog in the back of the old Volvo and drive through the maritime provinces of Canada. So we were sitting around the apartment in Greenwich Village when the buzzer rang.  It was an extra super-duper special delivery from some service.  I think it was US Mail, but that seems impossible, so it must have been something else.

It was an announcement from the Dicasterere di Turismo i Cultura della Republica de San Marino -- you can probably figure enough of that out if I just remind those of you who might not know that San Marino is a microstate completely surrounded by Italy with population of 25,000.  It told us that Mary had won the Romeo Martinez International Photo Prize, which included an all expenses paid trip to San Marino for the International Photomeet there, as well as a cash prize of 5,000,000 lire (this was pre Euro days), or about $3,000.

This sort of solved our honeymoon thinking, as the Photomeet was gonna be a few weeks after our wedding.

And the really crazy thing is, there's almost no evidence anywhere on the internet that this Romeo Martinez Prize or the Photomeet actually happened.  Like maybe 10 hits on Google.  It appears to have happened maybe twice, in 1997 and again in 1998, when the prize was won by a Mexican photographer.  But, like the flower in the desert, there it was, funding our honeymoon.

Somewhere around this room we've got a catalog from the Photomeet, and I've got honeymoon pix from San Marino, which was kind of a tourist trap but a perfectly decent place to get over our jet lag before continuing on to an awesome trip.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Arroz con pollo inflation

Knowing as I did that I would not be able to go out for lunch tomorrow, as I will be occupied with a hired photographer shooting headshots of me for the company web site, I went to Jamaica Jamaica at the intersection of 54 and 55, and got myself jerk chicken with yellow rice and black beans, along with a beef patty, for lunch.  This is enough food for two meals, which makes me square for tomorrow.  The guy behind the counter asked if I wanted gravy, and of course I did.

On my way out the door to go hear John Elder Robison at Duke, I paused to inhale a drum stick and a nibble of rice.  As I did so, I realized that this was very much like the quarter chicken with rice and beans that I used to get for $3.49 at La Floridita at Broadway and 125th, a fine little establishment which -- like so much -- has sadly yielded to Columbia's imperial march northward into Harlem, spurred ever onwards by Lee Bollinger, that deft combination of Chuck Norris and Napoleon Bonaparte.  But I digress.

And indeed, today's container or rice, beans, and chicken was very much like the one from back in the day.  The pricing is a little different.  According to this handy US inflation calculator,  $3.49 inflated from 1995 to 2014 balloons up only to $5.45, whereas I think my lunch today costed $7.50 or $7.99, something like that.  Admittedly, there was more chicken, and the spicing was much tastier.

I don't think it's a question of rent.  I think what this mostly likely reflects is a combination of food inflation outpacing inflation more generally, and the relative availability of meals.  There were multiple Dominican places close to 125th, to the chicken and rice at Floridita was kind of a loss leader, and the assumption was a fair amount of beer would be sold with it, along with more expensive plates.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Post-Modernism and Ebola

The Wall Street Journal had a good piece this weekend on how our attitudes towards medicine and epidemiology are tripping us up in our response to Ebola.  In short, it argues that in generations past, heroic advances were made in the control of infectious diseases in part because we trusted the medical research and public health apparatus to do its job, and believed it could be done.  Most convincingly, it cites how 2 million live American children were used to study Jonas Salk's polio vaccine, and recounts how Dwight Eisenhower held back tears in personally thanking Salk.

Many things have happened in intervening years which have eroded the trust we have in medicine and science. The article notes that the heroic conquests of the past have slowed as the great threats of the time (smallpox, polio, chicken pox, mumps, etc.) were neutralized.  Certainly we still struggle mightily with cancer, but even AIDS has been largely wrestled to the mat if not quite pinned.

The at times unholy alliance of pharma and medicine with profit in what -- to echo Eisenhower himself -- we might term the "medico-pharmacological complex," has not helped, nor has the perceived drifting of medicine as career from a "calling" to a way of maxing out income and securing for onesself ever larger cars, houses, and more prestigious club memberships.

The continual flipping and flopping of thinking about this that or the other nutritional point ("Eat margarine... no eat butter") hasn't done much to raise trust in science and doctors.

And certainly, for those of us who like to think of ourselves as being at the top of the intellectual food chain, post-modernism hasn't added value either.  The skepticism towards science and enlightenment values found in Thomas Kuhn, Jean-Francois Lyotard, Paul Feyerabend, and a host of others raised up a whole host of cynics.... blah blah blah

Anyhow, when all's said and done, western medicine has saved my butt on a number of occasions, I'm inclined to cut it some slack.  At this very instant, for example, science is telling me that I have been blogging too long (I thought I had a succinct point to make earlier) and I need to go running on this beautiful autumn day before I get too hungry to do so before lunch.

More later!

Monday, October 13, 2014

A little jig

As I rounded the bend on the way home, I saw a 14-year old girl who walks her dog around there, we shall call her Jennifer, and she was doing a little dance step while she perceived she was alone.  When she saw me, she stopped.  My initial instinct was to roll down my window and say something encouraging, but then I thought "48-year old guy saying something to 14-year old girl while driving by.  There's really no upside here."  So I passed by in silence.

But it was cute.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Caro back in stride

Started back into Master of the Senate the day before last, and today I read Caro's masterful 16 pages about how Richard Russell of Georgia defuses the constitutional crisis caused by the triumphal return of MacArthur from Korea after Truman dismissed him.  This compared very favorably to the 100 pages the author had spent digging into every detail of LBJ's struggle with Leland Olds.  Sometimes Caro gets mired in the details, but when he can maintain a sense of proportion, he is without equal.

Later, I took Natalie to the Walk for Education fair at Lincoln, where she and her ultimate teammates played frisbee in pouring rain, which was beautiful.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Alienation and differentiation

I read this article last night off of a friend's feed on Facebook about how rich people and others who have extraordinary experiences (travel, for instance) are made not happier for having done so, but more miserable, because they have a difficult time sharing with others how awesome the experience was.  They, in effect, isolate themselves.

Driving in to work this morning -- with a lot of other people in unexceptional cars and most likely similarly undifferentiated office casual (Friday is jeans day here!) -- it occurred to me that this same line of thinking could be applied to much in our lives, but I was specifically thinking about cultural consumption/career paths.

So me, for example, with my PhD in Russian Literature and my youthful attempts to read and listen to and see more and wierder books and music and movies, really to demonstrate how smart I am -- because as a geeky kid that was the core of my identity, it was where I felt strong.  So the more I try to set myself off from others, the more I make myself one of a kind, the more I isolate myself.

Little wonder that I there are centrist aspects to who I am that are important for connecting to the rest of the world, to wit pizza, cheeseburgers (but a respect for aging and cholesterol), child-rearing, playing sports, AA, UNC Basketball, Talladega Nights, Moonstruck, Coming to America.... etc.  I do indeed love all that stuff.

In  the end, there's always a question of balance.  Veering to far off into differentiation can indeed get me in trouble, but I do gotta be me.

Thursday, October 09, 2014

Mood swings

After work today I went to a meeting about the lake, where a number of other guys and I flat out geeked out about the lake.  We're talking scientists now, carrying on about hydrostatic pressure on the dam and non-permeable membranes and channels and flow and insiltation all manner of jibber jabber. Mostly I just nod and agree because, in all honesty, I don't really want to do this stuff, I just want it to get done. I'd rather outsource it to other geeks.

And then I had to go and feed Natalie and Graham dinner because Mary had some kind of meeting, and I got kind of glum.  Maybe I was just hungry, but partially I was a little jealous of excellent trips I see friends of mine taking by way of their photos on Facebook, and me wondering whether I'm short-changing my kids on the experience side of life while I wrestle with the demons of bringing dollars into the house and self-actualization and all off that.

So I had breakfast for dinner, which was a good start.  Then Graham and I watched Episode 3 of Young Justice, Season 2, which is proving as good as Season 1.

Next Mary came home from her meeting, and told harsh tales of other parents whose kids have substantial learning challenges and who have to provide hours of homework support in the evening.  Somehow, that got me out of my moping.

For those of you who don't like play-by-play here on the Grouse, my apologies, but sometimes that's how I just gotta roll.

Tuesday, October 07, 2014

Singing along with Frozen

I know I've mentioned this before, but Natalie keeps singing along with the soundtrack of Frozen.  Around Graham's bedtime, she's got the soundtrack on the little boombox she has in her room and is just belting it out "For the first time in forever, blah blah blah blah blah blah".

I must say, I just love it.  Makes me proud to be a dad, and keeps me dedicated to staying on task in this whole revenue production thing.  I wasn't into the movie at first, but even then, I seem to recall, that the climactic scene, hokey and over the top as it was, probably brought me to tears.  That's the kind of sap I am.

Sunday, October 05, 2014

10 Years of Grousing

Today marks something of a watershed for the blog.  It is now 10 years since I started it, and I have now published 2290 posts.  Which ain't bad.  Even though my pace has moderated in recent years, that's still more than 4 a week, on average.

As time has gone by, the blog has served many purposes.  At the beginning, I saw it as a place to practice writing and chronicle stuff going on around the house, and it is still that.  A couple of weeks ago, Mary asked me about when Graham started reading, and I was able to search the blog and track down where I had put that down for posterity.  Also for Natalie.  Which is awesome.

It was also, frankly, a place for me to express vestigial graduate-student-ness, a locus for expounding/blathering on the Great Truths of Being that only I, of course, was privy to.

Over the years, thanks to some loyal and dedicated readers, ChewYourGrouse has also become a venue for the raising of penis enlargement pseudo-spam to ever higher levels of creativity.  It has been a massive, throbbing honor to be the host of such powerful spurts of manly artfulness.

It has also just been a good place for me to observe crazy shit I see and hear in the world, often while commuting.  Like the time I pulled up next to a woman near Kingston, New Jersey, who was eating a bowl of cereal while driving.  You cannot make that up.  You could hallucinate it, yes, but I didn't.

By now, I see the blog as a place where I try to be honest with myself and my readers.  Which is not always easy.

For those of you who have been reading regularly through the years and who occasionally offer encouragement, I can't thank you enough.  Although, I promote the Grouse only rarely and, in the end, I'm writing for myself, the idea of being a tree falling in a forest near the north shore of Lake Baikal is not entirely what I'm looking for.  For those of you here for the first time, I thank you too.  I consider myself graced by any and all traffic. As my distant cousins the Clampetts would say, y'all come by and set a spell.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

I injured my hand

playing soccer,
      so now I am typing
             with only my left.
Posting may slow
                     even further
         than usual
It's not because
I don't care

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Joke teller

I was walking with Graham from the library today when I was reminded of a joke:  guy is going to a job interview, buys a suit, but one sleeve is too short and one pants leg too short (don't ask why).  So he scrunches up and walks funny to make up for the ill-fitting clothes.  And as he's walking through the park, a couple see him and one of them says: "Oh, look at that poor, deformed guy."  To which the other responds:  "Yeah, but what a nice suit he's wearing!"

And then Graham told me a couple of jokes.  And then I got sad, thinking of my dad, and all of his great jokes, most of which were age-inappropriate for Graham, but how it would have been nice for dad to be there to tell Graham some jokes.

I tend to forget jokes, because dad pretty much consumed all the joke-telling oxygen in our family.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Responsibility

I had been switching between stopper and left back today in soccer, so I was momentarily confused in the second half when I was on the left and the opposing team a hit long ball down that wing and I was way out of position.  This pretty talented woman was running onto the ball and it was going be her against our keeper, so I hauled back at full speed to catch up with her, covered a lot of ground, and caught up with her just inside the box.  I got a foot on the ball and poked it out over the sideline, but as I did so I collided with her and as I went down, at full speed, I broke my fall with my hand and bent some fingers back hard.  It hurt like hell.

So I stopped a goal, maybe.  But I got injured, maybe (ask me tomorrow).

The thing about it was, it wasn't really that important.  But, because it had been on the flank I was supposed to be guarding, I felt an exaggerated sense of responsibility for it, and there was no way I was gonna let her score, if there was anything I could do about it, as indeed there was.

Others will say:  "But you're 48, you have to go to work on Monday."  And this is true, and I try to keep that in mind.  But when I'm in the game, I can't keep any distance from it.  There is us, and them, and the ball, and the goals, and that's it.  I can't let them score, if I can do anything about it.  If I can't, that's different.

And this is perhaps symptomatic of a broader tendency on my part to overestimate what my appropriate role in things, when I should let stuff go.  But I'll be damned if I could let her score.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Flowing downhill

So after torrential rains in recent years we have seen pretty intense erosion.  I'm sure it's not any worse than when I was a kid, it's just now I pay attention.

One of the things I have noticed is that, if you have a clear channel, things tend to erode more. Water flows quicker.  So it is good to have stones set irregularly into ditches to slow the flow of water, and make it more irregular.  I had in particular admired the irregular placement of rocks in the ditch of my neighbor across the street.  His ditch had relatively little dirt washed away (oh, the paucity of synonyms for erosion!) in massive storms of late.  I may even have commented to him on the Zen wisdom on it.

So this weekend he and his boys were out working on their ditch.  He explained that his neighbor down the hill -- a jolly retired fellow from Wisconsin who is truly enamored of our fair state and 'hood -- was cleaning out his ditch, so he felt he needed to clean out his own. OK.

But after he was done, I saw that he had pulled all of the nice, irregularly placed stones out of his ditch, and lined them in an orderly fashion along its side.  Yes, it looks neat, but he's gonna see more major soil loss and channeling going forward.  He and his boys worked hard at this, and I'm sure he taught them some important lessons about working hard and together and neighborliness.  But nature will have the last word, and that word will be, you guessed it, erosion. 

Sunday, September 21, 2014

An interview

So I would post this on Facebook, but since Natalie and I are friends there, I will skip it.   I'm 99% certain that she doesn't read my blog.

So Natalie went to a movie with a boy today.  Afterwards, when Mary asked her, Natalie insisted that this was not a date.  It was, however, with the same boy that she facetimes with an awful lot when doing homework.  And he is a very nice young fellow indeed.  If he proves in time to be Natalie's first boyfriend, I'm perfectly comfortable with it.

It was interesting, however, to learn that her father wanted to meet one of her parents when we were picking up his son to go to the movie.  It may have been a pretext for meeting Natalie, but I felt a bit like I was being interviewed. I decided at length not to shave, but I did put on decent shorts and a quasi-respectable shirt.  I was half expecting him to ask me:  "So, what are your daughter's intentions with my son?"

In the end, it was perfectly nice, as was he.  He even said "we ought to all get together sometime."  Which is fine.  I like me a little get together as much as the next guy.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

The first time in forever

Natalie has been singing along to the soundtrack of Frozen around Graham's bedtime, but Graham says it doesn't disturb his sleep, so I guess it's OK.   Mostly, I think it's sweet.  And to think that by the time I was in 9th grade I was dead set on demonstrating how cool I was by being into whatever punk and new wave I could lay my hands on.  8th grade, after all, had been the year of the Buzzcocks, Human Sexual Response, and the Rocky Horror Picture Show.

But I wasn't too cool to go to Purdy's and dance to Michael Jackson, Kurtis Blow, and Xmas Rapping.  At least, not yet.

But in any case, I think it's good that Natalie is not yet a culture snob.

Social skills and intellect

I went running with a friend yesterday, a guy who has had a fascinating and successful career across a range of roles and industries -- not that he's super-rich, although he's comfortable, but that he leaps from interesting thing to interesting thing and his aura keeps getting better.

We ended up talking about kids, as guys often do, no matter what women think, and he said that his son had recently had some testing come back and that he had tested just below gifted, which he thought was perfect.  I had to think on that.  So much of my own sense of self-worth derives from having been smart, from having dominated people intellectually. I know that this isn't necessarily good, and hasn't always served me well.

And Mary and I definitely exult when our kids test well, and we praise them for it.

But my friend talked about his experience in life and how he had found over time that having good social skills was more important than being smart, about how he had figured that out working at an investment bank right out of college.

And one point he made about his test scores was that, in a high-powered school system like Chapel Hill's being placed on a gifted track put you in a more competitive pool of kids, and that social skills seemed to suffer there.  Which is very pretty good thinking.  I know that, looking back on high school from a 30-year remove, one of the things I did to myself by being in so many AP and Honors courses was to assure myself of being in a segregated classroom.  So now I know plenty of black guys from my class because I really strove to play basketball, but very few black women.  I know a lot of geeks, and am happy to know them because they are great people, but I have fairly narrow social circles.


I was also reminded of this article by Sal Khan of Khan Academy.  Encouraging academic and intellectual accomplishment can be, it seems, a double-edged sword.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Japanese Stiltgrass as metaphor

Japanese stiltgrass is a very invasive plant, and it is all over our neighborhood, and in other areas around here.  I had never noticed it until Mary told me about it, and now I see it all the time as I run, walk, drive, etc.  All of this is incontrovertibly true.

And I let it bother me too much, although it is really well outside my control.  Yes, we can try to contain it in our yard, and we do, but beyond that my sphere of influence with regard to it is extraordinarily limited.  I could try to promulgate awareness of it in our neighborhood using the listserv, that is true, but beyond that my hands are tied.

In this regard, it is like so much else in life.  If I let it get to me, I have lost the battle already.  I have to pick my battles, or I will lose.  Continually.  And I this does not make me happier.  Quite the contrary.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Thoughts on Russia

I don't know what it was, but something spurred in me the memory of a decade or so back, when I was doing a project out in St Louis.  As was often the case, there was a Russian programmer at the client site, and I struck up a conversation with him in Russian, in the never-ending quest to keep my Russian skills from disappearing forever off into the mists of forgetting (as they will one day, for sure, but I will forestall it as long as possible).

Sergei, I think his name was, was typically delighted and amazed to meet an American who spoke some Russian, and invited me out to his home to meet his wife in the evening after work.  When I got to their house, a perfectly respectable if nondescript ranch somewhere in some subdivision, there was one small problem:  their dog.  Not that he was a nasty dog, quite the contrary, he was a lovely dog, the friendliest ever, perhaps.  An Irish Setter, I thinnk. You would have thought I was his long-lost chum from kindergarten.  No sooner than I had come in the house, then he lept all over me and wanted to kiss and lick and cuddle.  He was absolutely irrepressible.

I can't recall if I had told Sergei I didn't drink before I went over there, at any case, at some point in time it became clear that the best activity for the two of us was to play ping pong. So we played some ping pong, and spoke some Russian, and then to leave I had to pass through the kitchen again, where they had tried to isolate their hyperpup.  More jumping and kissing.  Though I could have done without some of the puppy love, this was a reminder of the extreme hospitality one often finds amongst the Russians.

These days almost everything we read about Russia is negative.  Putin taking back Crimea, waging a proxy war in Ukraine.  Russians attacking gays and lesbians.  Parliament passing crazily restrictive laws on media. Zhirinovsky threatening use of tactical nuclear weapons in Poland or the "dwarf states" of the Baltic.

I was up at Columbia University for a memorial service in honor of one of my professors, Robert Belknap, this Friday.  At the reception afterwards, I was talking to other faculty from Columbia, Princeton, and elsewhere, and they were basically arguing that -- despite Putin's huge approval numbers -- things weren't as bad in Russia in general as they are made out to be.  That life is better, that people are not as nasty as our mass media make them out to be, that the real solution is for Putin to be gotten rid of, somehow.  And that Putin's control is not as absolute as it is made out to be.

It's hard for me to know.  I haven't been back to Russia since '98.  But it is hard for me to believe that they are all fascists.  They have suffered, yes.  There is homophobia, and racism, yes, but we've got that too.

Sunday, September 07, 2014

Graham moving further forward

After talking about it for 2 years, I got Graham to swim all the way out to the float at the lake today.  Afterwards, we were sitting on the bench onshore, and he noted that it seemed closer than it had before.  I explained that he was bigger and stronger.

Teamwork and leadership

Mary was out of town this weekend, up in New York with her grad school home girls celebrating an opening for one of them and Mary's (dare I say it) 50th birthday. And maybe Tanya's too.

So this morning it fell to me to make the pancakes, as we do every Sunday, pretty much.  I had thought ahead and taken some pumpkin out of the freezer, because we all love pumpkin pancakes, and fall is after all on its way.  I looked in the cookbook Mary uses for making the pancakes, opened it to the recipe she uses, and proceeded from there, following the recipe as best I could.

Unfortunately, they didn't come out as good as they are when she makes them.  They were too dense, perhaps because we had only one egg, perhaps because I used more whole wheat flour than Mary actually does (despite what was written on the page).  Or maybe I left out some ingredient like baking powder because I am such a space cadet.  Anyway, they were perfectly fine with some maple syrup on them.

A little later, Graham and I were sitting on the couch talking about DC superheros and the villains they struggle with and on good days vanquish.  We were talking about favorites, and Graham focused a little bit on the villain Brainiac, who is said to be smarter than all of the denizens of earth put together.

I noted that, in fact, just adding up the intelligence does not adequately reflect the capacities of different types of people working together, and we see that in the comic books, where time after time, a foe who seems insurmountable at the outset is brought low at the end by the concerted efforts of some super teammates.

But I also made the point that the concept of intelligence is inherently not additive, that you can in no way just add up the IQs or any other quantitative measure of how smart folx are and have that in any way reflect their capacity to work together.

For example, I noted, why did my pancakes kinda suck?  I was following mom's recipe.  We've been married over 17 years. It's a simple task we do all the time. Mary had written down slight modifications to the recipe based on our own experience.  And yet they were too chewy and dense.

The transmission of knowledge and talents between teammates is inherently tough, but good leaders figure out how to make it happen.  Bad leaders don't.