Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Space and the divine

At an Al-Anon meeting last week a silver-haired lean white woman in Birkenstocks or similar sensible sandals shared about how being alone, in nature, particularly under the stars, was what put her in touch with her higher power, gave her a sense of oneness. I know what she's talking about, for sure, this is technically referred to as the "sublime" and is certainly a concept shared by a lot of people, particularly urban or once-urban and affluent ones who can afford to get out and see the sublime sometimes or often.

And then I thought about a story I had had a gander at recently about Chinese swimming pools.

These pools are huge, incredibly crowded and, not surprisingly, hard to keep clean, thus high in pee and poop content.

So what chance do these folx get to have a toodle with the sublime embodiment of the divine that so many affluent folx select as their god of choice?  And, for that matter, what opportunities do the lower-income residents of our own inner cities have? Or, even better, the 1% of our population that we like to keep behind bars as part of our "keep rural white males employed and with guns in their hands" government program that is commonly referred to as the "War on Drugs"? Not that much.

On the other hand, I'm currently in the middle of Peter Hessler's River Town, in which the author recounts a couple of years he spent in the Chinese city of Fuling in the late 90s (a great book, like all of Hessler's. Read it!)  Hessler recounts going to the tombs of a Fuling factory owner's family in more rural areas across the Yangtze from the city, and remarks that the rich guy, remembering what it was like to live in the countryside, didn't romanticize it at all and was happy to head back to his house in the city. I suspect this is pretty common, and that the urban affluent's apotheosization of rural tranquility is really just another instance of grass being greener.

But that Chinese pool still looks nasty.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

The Hunger Games

Over the last couple of nights we watched The Hunger Games on pay-per-view with Natalie.  The first time we had done that, though it may become common practice, since the DVDs we're getting from Netflix have been coming in consistently scratched.  Or we may have to cave in to the demands of modernity and upgrade to a modern TV connected to the so-called internet (our current one is very old school), with a Wii, even.

But I digress.  The main thing is that Natalie stayed up late and watched with us. Over the course of the summer, I had tried to get her to go see The Hunger Games with me at the theater, but stuff kept coming up, and she acted unexcited. But she was thrilled to see it, though she was continually attuned to the ways in which the book is better. Both nights, as we were preparing to watch or during bathroom breaks, she bounced up and down on the little trampoline in the rec room, doing splits and other tricks.  Last night, as Mary and I were getting dinner ready, she even offered to help us get our meal on the table so as to get to the evening's main attraction.

As we watched, she sat on the couch and giggled and glowed at the excitement of staying up late to watch with mom and dad. We need to do more of this. Some of my readers may be shocked to learn that, with her already at the age of 12, we've done so little of it. But, in the end, that's the kind of uptight hard-assed WASPs we are, despite our attempts to be alternative or whatever. I don't know who we think we're fooling.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Bad thoughts

A friend of mine (James Romm, of Bard College) is working on a book about death in the time of Seneca.  Apparently, the Romans had a practice of getting rid of enemies of the state by forcing them to commit suicide. The deal was, if you killed yourself, your heirs would inherit your estate and you could be buried with honor, or something like that. Otherwise, you would be executed and none of the good stuff would happen, your heirs were left out in the cold and you were thrown to the dogs.

The centurions would show up at your door, and you had to go kill yourself while they were there. That's a horrific thought. Imagine being of the mindset to go and do that.

I started thinking about this this morning when my alarm went off an hour earlier than it should have (it was set for last Thursday). Not good.

I suppose I should regard the early alarm as an harbinger of the kids going back to school next Monday, which will be a blessing, honestly.

But I could have been spared this particular historical tidbit. I don't really know why I'm passing it along to you, fair reader, save that it's a gripping image.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Slipping, falling, and mindfulness

After taking a shower today I realized that the towel on the wall was wet from Mary's shower just before, so I had to go all the way over to the opposite wall to get a dry one. By the time I stepped back into the stall to dry off my legs, I was already distracted, and I nearly tripped on the step-up into the shower. It's easy to see how falling in showers is a big problem, especially for people as they age. Hell, not two weeks ago I slipped ever so slightly twice when stepping into the shower at Kirsten and Ted's back in Princeton. That is a particularly slippery shower, mind you.

It brought to mind a conversation I had not long ago at all with the CEO of a specialized insurance brokerage. He was telling me about earlier days in his career, when he worked at a larger carrier, and where he insured restaurants (not that specialized a risk). "What's the number 1 risk at restaurants?" he asked, and I luckily guessed it was falls.  Then he asks me how to mitigate the risk -- and thereby get lower premiums --, and I thought about not putting bathrooms downstairs. He tells me that's one thing, but on an even more basic level, that restaurants shouldn't have salad bars. And I'm thinking, yeah, spills of oil on the floor, and he says it's much simpler:  you just don't want people to get up.

I was also reminded of reading somewhere of work former Secretary of the Treasury Paul O'Neill had done in his healthcare consultancy which emphasized that, at all costs, hospitals and healthcare facilities should seek to minimize falls by patients, because falls were so highly correlated with increased lengths of stays, bad outcomes, and costs.  I'll be damned if I can find a link to that.

But, anyway, around the house, falling is so closely connected to mindfulness. If one can simply be attuned to situations in which you're likely to fall, you're not gonna.

I guess most people just don't.  Until they do.

I had a feeling this wasn't the first time I had written about this topic, and indeed it's not. Here's an entry from 2009.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Old tapes

The CD player in our Volvo is broken, so for now we must focus on the radio and tapes. When leaving Princeton, in an effort to cut down on stuff and clutter, I threw away almost all of my old tapes, some of them dating back to junior high school.  I could not prevail upon Mary to do the same.

So now we are listening to her old tapes. Which is great and expands and refreshes my musical landscape. Etta James, Talking Heads, Elvis Costello, things we don't have CDs of.  I took one tape called "A la vie Parisienne" and popped it in there. Some of it is great, other parts (Gerard Depardieu songs, for instance), not so great. Overall it gave me the feeling that I wished I had known and gone out with Mary when we were younger.

When I told her that, she said "I have no idea where this tape came from." Even still.

Lump of focus

Played tennis with David and Frank last week in Princeton. As always, the experiences were different. David and I had, as we have always had, great parity.  We used to play each other twice, sometimes even three times a week, and we would always be fairly even.  7-6, 6-4, those kind of sets, rarely more than one, as we had neither the fitness nor the time to batter one another for much longer.

With Frank it's different. I once won a game off of Frank.  This week he beat me 6-0, 6-0, in an hour.  For some reason he enjoyed this. I almost took a game off of him, but as we walked away he told me "I'd be damned if I was gonna let you take a game off of me." In an entirely friendly way, he just needed a goal. And it was good for me to try to play over my head like that.

Frank confessed he was surprised that neither David nor I had ever figured the other one out. I thought about it and told him that I felt it would unbalance the delicate equilibrium we had amongst ourselves, the pleasure of being well-matched.  He responded that in that case, as one of us focused and challenged the other, it would raise the other's game, so that the balance would be restored.

In recent months I've often had people challenge me to be more competitive in sports, first Mumford with the triathlon thing, then Drake wanting me to get back on the track and run races. I tend to fend it off, feeling that I have more than enough to concentrate on with the other things going on in my life and that I should focus my athletics on enjoyment, relaxation, and basic fitness But maybe that is a "lump of focus" fallacy similar to the the well-known "lump of labor" fallacy cited by economists, which states that there is a fixed amount of work to do in an economy.  Maybe being more competitive and challenging myself to do more things would improve my ability to compete in various areas, and would in particular raise my confidence.  Hmmmm.

Certainly I know that certain basic facts are true: if I raise my cardio capacity, I can exercise more..... at least up until the point where my aging body pushes back with repetitive stress injuries (this is a facet of a more developed portfolio theory of exercise, which needs to be spun out some other day).

Three things is certain:  there are only 24 hours in the day, sleep is important, and the general guidelines for this blog insist that I write only 15 minutes a day, so I must stop.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Krugman vs. Estonia: my take

Having been out of town for some weeks, I only just now got around to reading the Businessweek article about the mud-slinging between Princeton economist Paul Krugman and Estonia, esp. its President Toomas Ilves.In short, in June Krugman published a blog post saying that because Estonia's austerity program shrank the country's GDP by almost 15% and that the small Baltic nation's GDP hadn't regained its 2007 levels, that proved that austerity doesn't work and that Estonia should have adopted a Krumanite program of currency devaluation and inflation to move forward from the crisis. Estonia and austerity proponents believe that the country's quick turnaround:  2.3% GDP growth in 2010 followed by 8% or so in 2011, make it a poster child for austerity. In response to Krugman, Ilves did some Tweeting from the hip that generated a lot of discussion in both Estonia and Econoblogospheria.

Here's what I think: On balance, Estonians seems happy with what they did, and that demonstrates that the sort of GDP-obsessed economic determinism for which Krugman is a mouthpiece may not be all that it's cracked up to be. Estonians are used to hardship.  Around 25% of the population died during WWII, and the memory of the Great Patriotic War is still present there and throughout the European part of the former USSR (admittedly, I haven't been back there since '98, but I'm sure they still work it like Giuliani works 9/11).

Estonia's small size and relative ethnic homogeneity (70% Estonian, and almost everybody else is some kind of Slav) and relatively low income disparity (2009 CIA Gini coefficient 31.4 as compared to EU average 30.4 or the US's 45) makes austerity relatively palatable. When people who look like you suffer like you, and it's much less bad than it used to be in WWII or under the Soviet Union, it doesn't feel so bad. Monty Python's knight would have said "It's only a flesh wound."

It's not clear how austerity would play out in larger, more ethnically mixed places where there's always somebody who looks different and sounds funny to blame things on. I think the question gets much more complicated there, or, as is the case, here.

Friday, August 17, 2012

The turn to non-fiction

In recent years I've been reading more and more non-fiction, and, not surprisingly, less and less fiction. It seems like a lot of folks, maybe particularly guys, turn this corner as their hair turns grey.

But why, I wonder? For me, much of it seems to stem from the fading dream of and belief in the idea of the "Great Genius" as something that's desirable. The canonical fiction writers, from Balzac to Dostoevsky and Tolstoy to Joyce and Proust and those who try to be their heirs really, in the end, want to create these worlds that are reflections of or spring from themselves. The heroic authorial ego. And I would include Toni Morrison and other women too, I don't think it's just a phallic thing.

The non-fiction writer is generally more humble, recognizing that the world provides stories which need only be captured.  And yes, the distinction between fiction and non-fiction is itself just a convenient fiction, as the non-fiction narrator's point of view necessarily interjects itself and mediates between what's being described and its description, which are hard to distinguish, I get that and take it under advisement as I read, yet nonetheless the non-fiction writer's "I" somehow seems to set off from a more modest point of appreciation for the experience of others. And as a reader of non-fiction, I start from a place of greater acceptance of my own place in the great chain of being.  Maybe.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Diamonds in the rough day on the 95 corridor

10 hours to make the 470 odd miles from Princeton to Chapel Hill, though we admittedly had lovely Banh Mi (Vietnamese sandwiches -- I didn't know the term earlier in the day either -- luckily Mary did) in Newark Delaware. The story of how we ended up there is key.

I have long hated the stretch of 95 between Baltimore and the Delaware Memorial Bridge.  It's one of just a few places on the East Coast 95 corridor through the heavily populated portion of the US, roughly Richmond to Boston, where 95 is the only major road, with no redundant alternate routes:  the others are between Richmond and Alexandria and between New Haven, CT and Providence, RI.  All three of these places suck for traffic, because people are just stuck on them.

But today we got caught in traffic near Newark, DE, and I could see on the traffic layer of the navigation app on my phone (Android, I understand iPhones are weaker in this regard) that the traffic extended for miles out, and the Maryland highway radio confirmed that it was on account of an accident. So I decided to get off the highway for gas and lunch.  Then I dug into my trunk for my 1995 Rand/McNally atlas, complete with duct tape on the spine, and saw that route 273 ran through rural Maryland parallel to 95, some 5-7 miles north of the road of dread. So we took it, then found the Banh Mi.  And while people on 95 sat in traffic in heat, we went 50-55 through beautiful countryside eating roast pork with spicy mayo, cucumber, and cilantro.  Killer. And as a topper we went over the Conowingo Dam over the Susquehanna River, complete with a hydroelectric plant, not an everyday site.

Later, in Virginia, I used route 1 to get around traffic on 95.  Some of that went well, other parts, less well.

And at the end we went to Bullock's in Durham and got even more pig.  All told, a good day.

And, in the future, I have an alternate route for 95 in Maryland, which is a great blessing indeed.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Books from Larchmont

Graham "borrowed" a couple of books from grandma's house:

  1. The Fall of Japan, a WWII book
  2. Pippi Longstockings
 You gotta love it.

Liar's Poker

I talked briefly with George about wanting to re-read Michael Lewis's Liar's Poker.  This after having decided that Lewis has grown decidedly lazy in recent years, a writer so gifted that anything he deigns to touch spins out into a nice story, a guy so smart and confident that he can master almost any material. So I saw the book on Rob's shelf and plowed through it in a few days.

All these traits and more are present in Lewis's first book. Just the fact that I went through it so quickly tells you a lot about its quality.

I was surprised, I confess, at the bit role played by John Meriwether in the book.  For some reason I had assumed he was a major player in Lewis's mindspace, but he wasn't, though he does take part in the opening anecdote from which the book takes its name. It wasn't until the '90-'91 period of Salomon's bid-rigging problems (chronicled most recently in The Snowball) that Meriwether strode onto center stage at Salomon.  I still think the guy would make the material of an engrossing biopic.

Now must pack to get the family across the Hudson to The Garden State.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Guitar hero

I was watching the first quarter of the Olympic gold medal basketball game.  The US was beating Spain, but not by much, and it occurred to me that for any given sporting event one might watch, there will always be another one, while the opportunity to exercise on any given day can easily slip away to lethargy and/or the demands of family, work, etc. So I went for a run.

It's hot here in Westchester County, so I've taken to running with my shirt off, like lots of people do in North Carolina, though nobody does it here.  I wonder at times if there's an ordinance forbidding it.  I passed a cross-street as a police cruiser went past, saw the cop step on his brakes and slow down, and figured he might be coming back to bust me for toplessness.  But he didn't.

Towards the end of my run I went past the Larchmont Yacht Club, the place of my wedding, a lovely event except for all the boats marring the view of the water.  Several sets of white women in whites were playing doubles on clay courts. Across from the gatehouse of the club, there's a very nice blue house, at one end of which there was a window open.  In there somewhere, a guy (I assume it was a guy) was playing electrical guitar, working out a rhythm guitar riff. It could have been a John Cougar Mellencamp tune, or a Tom Petty one, or even Wilco, or just something that sounded like that. Nothing earthshaking, but still it was great to hear somebody just playing the guitar, feeling it. I stood and listened and tried to figure out if the guy was actually in his teens or whether he was older and trying to just feel the freedom of his youth, but then continued on after deciding that it really didn't matter.

Sunday, August 12, 2012


On the way back from Tanya and Jamie's we drove down 9G for a while instead of going straight to the Taconic.  When we got close to Hyde Park, we saw a sign for the Eleanor Roosevelt Historic Site and drove in to check it out. It was a lovely looking place, nice house, fields, a pond, bucolic. Everything a white person could want.  Except Graham, who just wanted to get back to Grandma's house to beat her again at chess.  So we stayed in the car, kept driving.

Heading south into Poughkeepsie, things went downhill fast. At one point in time, 5 of 7 businesses we passed were shuttered:  pizza joints, delis, drycleaners, etc. All told, the city was a close to being a ghost town as I had seen in some time. Really derelict. No hope.  Nothing going on. Nice houses rotting. People lounging on front porches or insolently pushing their way through traffic at stop lights, as if to assert their humanity in whatever context offered itself, like Dostoevsky's Underground Man.

Somehow Beacon got the Dia Foundation to come in and do a lot of good. Poughkeepsie is still waiting, as, I suspect, is Peekskill.  Vassar ain't done shit.

Thursday, August 09, 2012

Sharing the burden of tech support

For so many years I was alone in my household with technical problems. If something happened with a computer, a phone, a remote control, anything, it fell to me to know how to figure out how to make it work.

But now Natalie is 12, and lives with a lot of Apple products. So if something goes wrong with one of them, very often she knows how to fix it. I sometimes forget this, and bang my head against it before thinking to ask her.  This is a bad habit, and one I need to grow out of.  In any case, it is a huge relief not to be alone with all of these pesky devices.

Wednesday, August 08, 2012

Sprint for the train

After a very enjoyable meal with a friend on 46th Street last night, I planned to hop on a 9:40 train by slipping onto the Grand Central tracks at their north end at 47th and Madison.  However, I arrived at the door at 9:34, only to discover it had been locked at 9:30.

Which meant that I needed to haul myself down to the station itself and enter the train from its south end. Trouble was, I was wearing flip flops. I might not make the train if I kept them on, so I did the only logical thing.  I took them off and ran barefoot through the streets of midtown. I had pretty good faith in the MidTown Alliance to keep broken glass off the streets and sidewalks.

Going along the west side of Vanderbilt Avenue, in the shadow of a big JP Morgan's world headquarters, just north and across the street from the Yale Club, I couldn't help but notice a few homeless guys camped out in doorways, just as I had seen one in a doorway back on 46th. Anecdotally, it feels like the homeless population is on the rise in NYC. At least Bloomberg is protecting them from themselves by limiting their ability to buy super-sized sodas and, as of yesterday, would encourage the women amongst them to breast feed.

Thursday, August 02, 2012


Standing on a corner in Scarsdale, waiting for Dave Berck.  I don't know why the sight of 19-year olds driving $50,000 cars never ceases to amaze me, but it doesn't.  I am perhaps naive, or I've just been away for too long.

Across the way, the Westchester Band prepares to play a free concert, and an audience more advanced in years is showing up with folding chairs. Then Berck shows up.

Wednesday, August 01, 2012

Trusting your mechanic

Before driving north the other morning I took our Volvo S40 into the garage because the left hand tail light was out, and the left hand turn signal was clicking in double time.  The latter had been happening a couple of weeks before (when the left headlight was out), so I assumed the mechanic had somehow not fixed something.

I got there right when they opened at 7:30, because I needed to drive 540 miles that day, and Graham had told me very plainly that he didn't want to get to Grandma's house after his bedtime. I thought it was great he was so clear with me.  I described my problem, handed over my keys, and sat down to eat my breakfast biscuit from Sunrise.  I ate and read, but by 8:40 I was feeling a little nervous.  Was there something systemic that they were trying to diagnose?  So I went up and asked the guy what was up with my car, he went back, and then came out and said it was almost done, he'd ring me up.  $15.33.  They just needed to put in a bulb, which they didn't have on hand and had to have delivered from a parts store.  Turns out, the fast blinking of the turn signal is just meant to tell you that a bulb had blown out.

So here's my question:  why didn't they tell me that from the outset?  I was sitting there nervous, thinking something might be wrong and that maybe we'd need to drive north the next day, when the hold up was all about needing to get a part delivered?  So did they not tell me that because they like for you to be nervous, and then to be relieved to find out how cheap the repair was? It's not like they're making a profit on a fifteen buck repair.  If you charge that little money, it's purely a relationship management play.  You want the customer to appreciate your honesty.  So be freaking honest.  I probably wasted 15-30 minutes concerned about what might be going on. If I could have had full concentration during that time, I would have been able to read and retain more.