Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Dancing man plus

The very sad news of Pete Seeger's passing yesterday took me back to something I hadn't thought about for some time.

It was Spring, 1990, a lively time for the Grouse, to say the least.  I had been translating Ilya Kabakov, along with other Russian Conceptualist and Post-Conceptualist (no kidding)* artists for a magazine and a couple of gallery shows, so when there was a big Kabakov show at the Hirshhorn in DC, along with something else I wanted to see, I hopped in my car and drove up there one weekend I had off.  I even took my beat-up classical guitar, figuring I might do a little busking.  I was kinda freewheeling.

Now, since I had just finished college a couple of years before and I knew that people my age had gravitated to the Adams Morgan area, and since I had neither money nor inclination to spend on lodging, I figured I would just drive up to DC, go to Adams Morgan, and walk around and pop into bars and restaurants until I ran into somebody.  So that's what I did.  And in the first restaurant I went into I saw my friends John, Gretchen, and maybe somebody else I knew having sangria.  So I joined them at there table and asked John if I could stay with him.  "Sure," he said (at least that's how I remembered it).  And it's a good thing it worked out like that, because, though Spring was on its way by then, it was chilly out.

John had a nice place, and he put me up real nice.  In the morning, I took the metro down to the mall and was headed across to the Hirshhorn, when I saw a big crowd of scruffy types gathering.  I went over to check out what it was. Turns out, it was a launch party for a movie called Romero, starring Raul Julia, about a Salvadoran clergyman who faught the military regime there and got iced for his efforts. I saw people carrying banners, and figured I might find even more friends there if I tried, and saw that there were people up in a sort of tower.

But when I tried to get over there, I was told that it was for press only.  Not to be easily deterred, I told them that I represented Social Text and "several Russian journals," or somesuch, but I didn't have my credentials handy.  Somehow they let me in, I dunno, and when I went in I saw that there was a staging tent, so I went in there.  And as soon as I got in there, there was Pete Seeger with his banjo, dancing and glowing and showing some cool lick to a guy I'm pretty sure was Bishop Paul Moore. I didn't really know that much about Pete Seeger, honestly, I was a young badassed punk rocker, but I knew who he was, and he had a great smile, a great aura all around.  And, in the back of the tent, I saw something that was even more amazing for me, a true hero:  Ed Asner.  He was sitting there quietly in the back, on his own, just chilling.

Now, even then I knew that it was better not to bother celebrities too much, but for Ed Asner I had to make an exception. He was great in Mary Tyler More, better even in Lou Grant (note to self, check Netflix), but I really loved him from a schmaltzy TV movie they used to show every year around Xmas, The Gathering. I'll spare you the details, because I'm running on here.  Anyway, I went up to him, introduced myself, told him how much I loved his work, asked him what he was working on, and then left him in piece, apologizing for bothering him. To this day, that was probably my best celebrity encounter ever, precisely because I loved the guy, I told him that, and then moved on.

Then I went and saw the art show, and it was nice too, then drove home to NC, taking some back roads for some portion of the way, just because that's how contrarian I was/am.  I'm still amazed I pulled off that trip and found a place to stay.  It was a fine day.

*ps. I had never heard of Conceptualism either before that, and I knew me some isms!  I also had never heard of the Hirshhorn, but somehow figured out where it was, in those pre-internet days.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Being sick

A thousand pardons for the relative silence, I've been studying hard for the last few weeks, getting ready for the Estate Planning exam, and then I got sick.  Not once but twice.  Mighty stuffed up and achey, to the level where I don't even have the strength of will to read books, so I've dipped into the pile of New Yorkers that sporadically pile up on the floor next to my bed after I rescue them from the purgatory that is Mary's bedside table.

And so I found myself reading an article about Aaron Schwarz. Not being particularly hip anymore in matter interweb-related, I never knew who the guy was until he hung himself, and even when I was flipping to the article I was wondering if he might be some minor actor the Coen brothers like.

Then I remembered, and it was very touching to read about the guy, this delicate boy genius of the internet, Quixote of information wanting to be free, had he been more task-oriented.  Clearly somewhere on the spectrum, ripped by affective disorders and sensory issues and ulcerative colitis, he reminded me a little too much of members of my family, wandering around with fine if grandiose ideas about changing the world.

It reminds me how important it is to stick to my knitting when I get too ambitious in my thinking about writing. Rest. Study. Earn. Save. Take kids on trips.  Raise $ for the causes of friends, and go to meetings and be of service in 12-step programs. And yes, blog a little. It is all too easy to drift off into delusions of grandeur.  Time to go downstairs and hang with the fam.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Code Talker

Over our last couple of family drives, we've listened to the book on CD of Code Talker:  The First and Only Memoir by One of the Original Navajo Code Talkers of WWII, by Chester Nez.  For those of you who don't know what a Code Talker is -- and I didn't until I had a kid who was gaga for WWII -- they are Navajo Marines (and maybe members of other armed services) who were used as primary communications personnel during the war, since the Japanese had managed to figure out all other codes we could dream up.  There were no grammars of Navajo, nor foreign speakers, so it was indecipherable to them.

The book tells the story of a Navajo kid who first gets sent away to school forceably, made to speak English and cut his hair (something the Navajo didn't do) and otherwise do the things the white man told him to do.  Eventually he enlists and then becomes a Code Talker.  Then he goes across the Pacific with the Marines, all the way to Okinawa, whence the nuclear missions took off.

It's a fine book, at once matter of fact but unapologetically detailing the experience of a group of people who were not treated well by the US government, but who yet identified with it enough to want to fight. But by the time he gets out into the really brutal Pacific battles, especially Iwo Jima and Okinawa, much of the experience is just straight up battles:  what it's like to be there in the trenches with the smell of sulfur and charred skin suffusing everything, the pain of stepping over the corpses of people you had breakfast with a few hours ago.  For a bit I was thinking:  "this is pretty generic, we're not getting much of the specific experience of being a Navajo here."  But then I realized that that was the point, at a very basic level he was just a soldier, at once scared shitless and in the thick of it. And he spends a lot of time talking about how he grows close with a few white guys, especially these two guys Smitty and Georgia Boy.  So by the time Georgia Boy takes a slug to the neck and is spurting out blood I was basically in tears, wondering if the kid is gonna make it (I won't spoil it for you).

I've seen a bunch of WWII movies, including Saving Private Ryan, but this book drove home much better than them the raw nastiness of the war, and the depth of the bonds formed there.  Those of us who haven't had to fight wars don't get it, can't possibly get it.

And one other thing.  The Common Core is really pushing kids to read nonfiction as opposed to fiction, on the premise that so much of their life will be dealing with nonfiction texts. At a certain level, I think that's a pretty spurious idea:  just let kids read, be happy they're reading whatever.  But if there are a lot of books of this quality for kids to read, I'm all for it.  I dunno if it's supposed to be a kids book, but Natalie had surely read it before, and knew it well.

Friday, January 17, 2014

Taking one for the team

Mary made some soup this week, splitpea with saffron and almond slivers. It was, by consensus, not the best of her many adventurous soups -- though I did just have my fourth meal of it and, bolstered by a Mexican green hot sauce, it was just fine.

In any case, last night when Natalie and I got home from her ultimate game and we were discussing what was on the dinner menu, I suggested the soup, which she deflected, on account of having had it for lunch. I said I'd have it for dinner, and Natalie said:  "way to go, taking one for the team."

God, how we love em.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Comfort in the weeds

At the dinner for dads of kids on the spectrum last night, partly to suck oxygen away from the brash new dad who was dominating discussion, I asked the group's facilitator (whom we really want to hear more of anyway, as he's been in the field for decades and is a font of wisdom) if he could bucket up the 3 to 5 categories of things that motivate kids/people on the spectrum.  The was after he had interjected that guys at the table were projecting their own neurotypical ways of thinking about motivation onto their kids, for whom these mindsets weren't applicable at all.  I just wanted to keep the mike in his hand.

So he listed them out, and they were categories I was used to, but I hadn't thought of them as motivators as much as preferences or just attributes.  For instance, structure and routine, visual cues, and facts and detail.

And that last one got me to thinking.  I too have shown a marked preference for facts and detail throughout my life.  From reading encyclopedias and memorizing sports stats (including the baseball cards of pretty obscure people) to knowing dates in history, which gave it structure. Later in life, in the for-profit realm, I've done well as the detail guy on projects, but at times was accused of "majoring in the minors," which was the owners of the consulting firm where I worked way of saying that I wasn't rising up to the big picture, putting myself in the client's shoes, and thinking more strategically.  And I think that was a fair criticism, which I worked to get past.

The fact is, there is comfort in the details for me.  Things that can be memorized can be mastered.  So, right now, studying for the CFP also offers some of that, a discrete, testable set of material with lots of details.

Last night I wanted to ask the group leader if he thought that people on the spectrum preferred facts because it offered them the possibility of mastery, or even of dominance, but I didn't want to be too pushy with the flow of conversation.  And then the guy with the big mouth got wound up again.

Ahh well.  My seafood pasta was delicious.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Where credit is due

Early in my career in consulting, back in 2000, I was called on to do some mock-ups of some screens we were building for a client. I had experience in HTML and with Dreamweaver, so this was no problem for me.  Actually, I must have been fairly new with Dreamweaver, because I remember getting excited about all the nifty things I could do with tables.  And I figured that the generous thing to do was to give the client options from which they could choose.  So I made up a bunch of different screens with really different looks and feels.  Some of them looked like Kandinsky, or Mondrian, or Malevich, you know what I mean.  I was very proud.

So we called in the whole project team, us and the client, and walked through the screens. I don't think they had ever seen anything like it.  They were very polite to me, I think.  They may have shared other opinions with my project managers, Webb and Dinesh.

So, that Friday, back at our firm's home office, me and somebody else got sat down for a lecture on basic application screen design by the firm's founder, Steve.  "Fellas," he explained, more or less, "Here's how it works. You've got a master menu in a frame across the top, these are your nouns" (and, 13 years later, I look at the screen to my right and I see tabs for "Projects," "Users," "Upgrade", "Support," and "About").  "Then, along the left hand side of the screen, you put your drill-down menus, which typically consist of verbs." (Again, glancing at my other screen, I see more or less the script being followed).  "This is how it works."  Part of me felt constrained by this heavy hand of normativity, but I had to admit it worked.

And then he went on. "The browser is going to more or less evolve into a replacement for the operating system...."  Now, I didn't know much about computers, but that sounded kinda loonie to me.  I knew that an operating system was in fact software, something like the software equivalent of a large office building.  Back in 2000, the browser was, by analogy, a broom closet.

Today, we took delivery of a Chromebook.  Now, I know that Chrome the operating system and Chrome the browser aren't exactly the same, but the OS is really just an extension or expansion of the the browser, and I fully get how a URL really just designates the location of a file, and.... In any case, hats off to Steve, in this case.  He really got it pretty early.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

The aging of satire

A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole is one of those books I had occasionally looked at and thought about, and kinda thought I should have read, but I hadn't.  So when I saw a copy close to hand and grabbed it, figuring I'd read it.

Only around the 70-80 page mark, I began to encounter some resistance. That's about where I have to decide whether to push on through a book, or let it go.  I'm inclined towards the latter with this one.

Here's the deal.  Toole definitely has a keen eye and a way with the words, some very humorous stuff here, some fine satire. Reminiscent of Gogol or, even more so, Ilf and Petrov (The Twelve Chairs, The Golden Calf), the great chroniclers of the foibles of the New Economic Period of the 1920s in Russia. The problem is, it's satire from a different historical era, and if it's not top rate, aged satire it often suffers from the reader's distance from what's being made fun of.*  And, although Toole won a Pulitzer... well, they give those every year, and it's kind of a beauty contest. I don't think the book rises up to transcend its era. In fact, it's kind of hard to figure out what he wanted to do with the novel.

There's one other fundamental problem. The satirical author/narrator has to consider him/herself better than what he's satirizing.  And that wears on the reader, and it's really characteristic of white guys in their 20s (Toole killed himself when he was 32).  I know.  I used to be one of them.

"Realistic" fiction, at least at a some basic level, seeks to subordinate itself to what it describes. Endless ink has been spilled on its inability to do so, but at least it tries. And even as it ages, I tend to appreciate the humility of its aim.

Anyhow, I won't hang the novel up altogether, I'll put it on the stack next to my bedside table and see how it does.

* Satirical movies age better, because, for one, they're shorter, and they also have the additional element of typically being filled with gifted physical comics with goofy faces and finely honed timing

Thursday, January 09, 2014

Cryptic Silence

Returning to the long-neglected "things the kids say" category, we turn now to the phrase "cryptic silence."  This is a category Natalie often invokes when she has asked permission to do or eat something, and we have failed -- either by virtue of spacing out or (just as often) -- because I am deferring to Mary, the household chief nutritionist and imposer of dietary discipline.  Typically Natalie will be asking if she can have a banana for her fruit serving, because it is the easiest thing to get and eat.  I often will let her.  Mary, however, considers that to be slacking, when I should really be encouraging her to eat a fresh pear or a mango or something.  So I pause, to let Mary pass judgment on the question.  Mary, for her part, is often either not focused on the question or (I suspect) wants to hear what I say to see if I am being a fruit slacker once again.

Into this space Natalie slides with her catchphrase:  "I'll take your cryptic silence as a yes," at which point she grabs a banana and rips the top off before we can stop her, making it a fait accompli.

This evening, while Natalie was perusing the offerings for Duke's TIP Program for this summer, her eye alighted upon a course listing for something to do with courtroom stuff, mock law for smart kids, something like that.  All of a sudden, I imagined her in the courtroom, cross-examining a witness for murder:  "So, were you at home on the evening of the 7th?", and I could see the witness freezing in the box, at which point Natalie pounces on her:  "I'll take your cryptic silence for a yes!"  Case closed.

North Pelham, Lincoln Ave, and other wanderings

Over vacation I had to get from Larchmont to the Cross-County a couple of times, so I took Lincoln Ave through what I always thought was the Bronx, but I guess is Pelham, NY, now that I dig into it, just across the border from Mount Vernon.  Just before you get to where you get on the Hutch to to Cross-County, right about 5th Ave, there is now a Verizon Wireless store and a TD Bank on a corner that had previously been small, locally-owned businesses.  And then, in the low building where there used to be a beat-up convenience store that gave way a couple of years ago to a Dunkin Donuts, there is also a Hot Yoga studio.  Gentrification, it seems, is creeping north.

I would once have decried the loss of local character, and certainly there is some of that.  But, generally, money and services are being infused into a neighborhood that was a little bit hurting before. Admittedly, the jobs created may not be that great, but the residents should be able to do more on foot than they used to, as services are better. Maybe the TD branch took out a local bank, can't remember. As always in life, pluses and minuses.

Also went into Yonkers to meet a friend and went to a Thai restaurant (Accent Thai, on MacLean), which had a perfectly serviceable Pad-See Ew.  There was a sushi place across the place reputed to be just fine.

Wednesday, January 08, 2014

Starting the fresh

A couple of stories of interest on the front page of the Wall Street Journal today.  One on alternative lenders who are cropping up to loan to small businesses that are underserved in the risk-averse, post Dodd-Frank, ZIRP world of a shrinking ecosystem of traditional lenders.  Of note in this article are alternative underwriting and payment techniques used by the lenders, as well as the higher annual interest rates they charge.  Down in the right hand corner, there's another about some guy pseudonamed Russell Blake in a Hawaiian shirt and dark glasses who writes and self-publishes a novel every 5 weeks or so on Amazon's platform.  Sounds like he's working his butt off, but making good money and creating a whole new business model.  I may have to sample a book, just to see.

I love this stuff, am continually amazed by entrepreneurial creativity.  Of course, this kind of thing was highly valued in my household when we were growing up, what with mom being a leader in women's small business circles and dad's general disdain for large organizations and groupthink of any sort.

So you'd think I might be more inclined to wanna be starting something,  got to be starting something.  And, indeed, I have business ideas flash through my mind occasionally, but I typically don't follow up on them, or do so only half-assedly.  Probably that's because of my continued experience of hearing my dad talk up this crazy idea or that, and never seeing anything coming to fruition.  Being a sole breadwinner is probably part of it too.

I have seen the idea bandied about that Obamacare, far from being a dead hand on the business community, will actually in time facilitate a more robust startup culture, insofar as it decouples individuals' healthcare from dependency on employers.  By sometime around 2017-18, we should see how this is panning out.  If individuals can insure themselves (and self-insure themselves by living and dying smarter) affordably, it should work.

Sunday, January 05, 2014

La Place de la Concorde Suisse

Just made my way through this little 1984 tomelet from John McPhee, which can only be termed a bagatelle.  It's all about the Swiss Army, in which all males of a certain age are supposed to serve, and how it is everywhere, and how the Swiss are at once intensely serious and, in their own way, not so serious about it at all.  How prepared Swiss soldiers are for whatever may come their way, but how they enjoy themselves immensely with wine and schnappes and bread and cheese and beer and lovely meadows and snow in their preparedness.

It is significant that McPhee gave the book a title in French, for the book is sprinkled throughout with snippets of conversation in French like so many lardons, which McPhee declines to translate for the reader, as it is assumed, quaintly, that the sophisticated American reader will read French. My French is good enough to know that I didn't miss anything in whatever I didn't understand.

The key point is that the book hearkens back to a time in American history, during the reign of Volcker at the beginning of the most recent major market cycle, when there was still something of an old money East Coast aristocracy within which reading the New Yorker and speaking French were still kind of assumed.  And McPhee's voice was one of the greatest of that time, the William Shawn era, when articles were long and narrators reigned supremely and ironically over their subject matter, thereby domesticating it and making it safe to be contained within the coffee and side tables of Manhattan and the places that emulated it.

It's a nice little book, probably not McPhee at his best, but I'll take a little break from him for now.

Wednesday, January 01, 2014

To be absolutely clear. Happy Holidays!

And so, here it is, the New Year is upon us and still no seasonal letter, no card, the least I can do is blog.

All in all, it's been a good year, but not without its up and downs. The early part of the year kind of had the oxygen sucked out of it by the declining health and the death of my father.  This is, as you all well know, a big event. My father and I were not all that close, as he was a challenging guy to be close to, but still he was my father, and it took a lot out of me.  On the last day of his life, I learned a fair amount about his childhood, and that was both saddening and enlightening, and brought an odd closure.

As the year wore on, we had to watch a close friend lose a child to cancer, which was.... ( insert words here), but put everything in perspective. Where we strive to keep it, that everything.

The highlight of the year was without a doubt our trip to northern California.  Until this year, our kids had been virtual prisoners of the East Coast, venturing as far as various parts of our northern neighbor Canadia, but easterly nonetheless.  So we took them out west, to San Francisco (where we were hosted and vehicled by a good friend and constant grousereader through the years), and as far south as Big Sur.  Of this highlight trip, the absolute pinnacle came from a day when we drove south from Monterrey to Big Sur. As we were walking back from one of the several astoundingly beautiful beaches we sampled, Natalie turned to me and said "Thank you so much for bringing us out here" As those of you with teenagers and those who were once teenagers may recall, they don't say this kind of thing every day, so that was special.  Then a couple of days later she scared the crap out of us when she almost got killed crossing the Pacific Coast Highway at another spot.

(click on the picture to see it bigger and get a better idea of how lovely my family is!)

Natalie extended her time out west with a week in the desert with my mom, who took her to the Grand and other canyons, as well as the Hoover Dam and whatever else they could drive to.  Natalie also did her last summer as a camper at Gwynn Valley, which was a little sad, because it's a special place for both of us. Back at home, it was a big year for Natalie as she tried out team sports, both ultimate frisbee and field hockey, and enjoyed the team part, if not always the sports part. She is doing so well academically that it would appear vain and boastful to provide any detail at all. She has basically read all the books that are written for kids her age, so any suggestions for further readings are appreciated.

As for Graham, he continues to astound us with his drive to command incredible levels of detail around military history and technology, which he shares with his uncle George in conversations of prodigious length.  He has sucked up a wide range of random other erudition while watching the Military Channel and H2 and while reading whatever he can get his hands on. And he's expanded his taste for foods tremendously, and moved forward in his martial arts classes, all while maintaining incredible cuteness.

Me and Mary, we're fine.  We've settled into the renovation, the garden is mostly filled out, thanks entirely to Mary's yeoperson efforts.  Mary has gotten more and more involved in the local autism and special needs education community, while I have spent the year transitioning into the investment advisory profession, and am happy to have moved from serving corporations to working with individuals. Due to Mary's consistent efforts, we're eating less meat, especially during the week, and I am increasingly getting to a place where I am not only at peace with this seeming deprivation, but appreciate it, because as time goes by we come to better grasp the concept, long espoused by people of a certain age, of being thankful for our health.

In closing, let me thank all of yall who continue to take the time to stop by and read my blog. I am always astounded and delighted when, in this context or that, somebody tells me they read it.  There is no end of text in the world, so much to read, so the fact that you make the time to read mine is a great honor and privilege.