Friday, February 28, 2014

Things the kids say

Mary sent me this article from the New Yorker "Downton Abbey" with Cats, and I must confess, it pretty much nailed us.  We've been watching Downton Abbey with Natalie as much as possible this year, and it's been a ton of fun, since she never watches television with us, preferring to watch downloaded sitcoms on her iPod from the comfort of her bed.

So, allowing for the fact that John Hodgman wrote the article with his tongue lodged pretty fully in his cheek (so I have to assume it's better as a written document than it would have been delivered orally), he intimates something rather interesting:  other people often don't really care much about stories you tell about the things your kids say or used to say.  The irony here is that, for me, nothing is more poignant than remembering the kids our things used to say, and the richest moments in life are often when we are milling about the kitchen, perhaps pretending to prep food or clean while secretly trying to get the other one to do the lion's share of it, and Mary or I digs up some chestnut from back when the kids were younger:  "You remember how Natalie used to get us confused and call me 'mom'?"  I might say, and we get a warm feeling.  There's not much better than that in life.

And I post that sort of thing here on the blog, and I'm pretty sure that at least our family members, particularly those who know and love our kids but live far away, dig it.  But maybe it's of little interest to others.

Similarly, lots of people will say of Facebook:  "It's a time sink.  I don't really care to see pictures of other people's kids doing sports or getting ready for the prom."  Me, though I can't spend that much time on it -- because it can become a time sink -- I love that stuff. Like Amy's pix of her kids playing volleyball, or Jeff's of hunting and fishing with his son. I think it's because it's less about the specifics of this kid or that doing or having done thing X, but because I identify so strongly with the love for and pride in their kids that the parents demonstrate by posting the pics.  And often the outfits are great too.

A couple of points here on different levels:

  1. It is one of the key tasks of representational narrative art to bridge these gaps between the specific (picture of or anecdote about a child) and the general (the love of a parent for a child).  Good realistic novels and movies do this.
    A further codicil to this thought:  to the extent that social media usurp this function from traditional forms (novel, movie, etc.), they threaten the economics of those industries.
  2. Although one hates to overgeneralize (but hell, it's my blog), I think that most people get this:  they want to be in a position to be proud of their children.  It is to some extent a first world, bourgeois luxury to be able to do so. If you are trying to subsist and need to have a lot of kids so that you'll be certain someone will be there to take care of you where you're old, you don't have that luxury. 

    This means that it must be a goal policy to seek to universalize this luxury to the greatest extent possible. There is a delicate dance between letting the private sector and markets operate as freely as possible and having the public sector step in and supplement and control in the right places, and we will never figure out the perfect balance between them.  Optimizing the fluid and dynamic relationship between public and private sectors what policy is all about.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014


Some years ago, when Boris Gasparov was teaching a course on medieval Russian narrative, he called our attention to something curious in one of the very earliest examples of literary prose in Russian.  Maybe it was the "Life of the Archpriest Avvakum," maybe something older, I dunno because I sold my 12-volume set of medieval Russian stuff to some Princeton graduate student when we moved from Wilton St to Linden Lane back in 2003.

Anyway, it was way back there.  And what Gasparov pointed out was this:  in the narrative, events were conjoined almost exclusively with the word "and".  What this indicated was that the author wasn't used to narrating things sequentially, that the very act of telling a story was uncomfortable, which makes sense when you think about moving from a literary style conducted exclusively in verse, which permits and downright encourages looping back and deviating from sequence, to one in prose. That kinda blew my mind.

But when I blog, I find myself overusing the word "and" a lot. On good days, in the morning in particular, thoughts just flow out of me naturally and seem to be naturally related, so it makes all the sense in the world to me to tie them together with a bunch of "ands". But the writerly way is not to overuse any given word, for example, the word "and." Moreover, often the "andness" of the connection between the thoughts I'm tying together is resident exclusively in my mind, and what I really need to do is go back and tie things up for the reader in a more considerate fashion. In a sense, I need to go back and clarify what it is I mean when a say "and", perhaps much as Clinton needed to clarify the meaning of the word "is.":

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

The Solace of Leaving Early

This book, by Haven Kimmel, had been stacked on top of my chest of drawers for some time before I promoted it to the stack on my bedside table.  Where, in turn, it sat for a while longer.

Then I picked it up.  And blew through it in a week.  A lovely book, really compelling, about a geeky girl who walks out of a PhD program in lit to return to a very small town in a pretty eccentric family with lots of repressed shit of its own.  And a couple of small girls orphaned when their parents killed each other with their respective handguns. And a quirky preacher who is equally well-suited to this three cow town. I think most readers can do the math and see where this story must go, but when it gets there, it's really quite moving.

Oh hell, I can't even begin to do it justice -- I had all sorts of fine thoughts about it the day before yesterday but now my brain is encumbered by a belly full or treats from a function this evening -- but I really had a hard time putting it down, I promise.

It even featured a quote from the same John Donne poem we had read at our wedding.

Saturday, February 22, 2014


In preparation for tomorrow's neighborhood potluck at our house, which will happen on a warm afternoon, I was cleaning some of the rather massive stores of kindling and mid-sized branches I had put up on the screened-in porch in advance of the big storm a week and change ago, in fear that we might lose power.  Mary characterized it rather short-sightedly as "an eyesore."  So I cut the pile down by about 2/3rds and tidied up what I left up there on the porch, which I want for some nights in the 20s we have coming up next week.

Now, if you must know the truth, I really don't like the concept of "yard waste."  I view branches that come down as either potential kindling, or future compost.  Seems stupid to me to have a truck come and haul the stuff off somewhere, where it can become compost for someone else.  So, having gathered all these fine branches up, I was loathe to part with them.  So I did the only rational thing to do, I carried them up under the deck where they can await next year's burning season.

And, in this big urn type planter, there was a cardboard box, and I wondered to myself:  what's in there?  Upon closer inspection I found that it was.... some very lovely pieces of good-sized firewood that I must have carried down there about this time last year, in preparation for this year.

Next year, I tell ya, is gonna be prime burning time.

Friday, February 21, 2014

After academia

I met yesterday evening with a guy who, like me, left academia and entered finance.  He told me how he was so glad he left, because of "the pettiness, the infighting," other stuff, I can't remember.  He said he was glad he had gotten a PhD, for some reason, I can't remember.  It wasn't really convincing.

I hear this line of commentary/criticism often from people who have both left academia and who have remained within it.  Here's what I think:  universities are institutions like others, and some of them are large and complex.  So their institutional dynamics are complex.

Having been out in the corporate world for a while, I don't view academia as being particularly messed up.  Complicated, yes.  Threatened and challenged, for sure.  For-profit (and non-profit) corporations have their own difficulties and tendencies to fight through and surmount.  Universities and non-profits at least have the benefit, for the most part, of being populated with people who by and large, in principle, aligned with their employer's mission.  This alignment is not easy to maintain, for many reasons, but that's a good starting point.

As for the people in academia, I have no qualms.  I have only good memories of the people in my department, I learned lots of valuable stuff there, both in the classroom and outside of it.  I miss seeing them.  I wish they had done a better job of supporting me when I was on the job market, but maybe they did a better job than I thought they did, and I just shot myself in the foot because of my own internal conflicts and contradictions.  That's life.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

There's always something to do

At my uncle Ballard's funeral weekend before last, I was talking to my cousin Bill.  Somehow the topic of home ownership arose, and Bill said "the thing is, when you own a home, you'll be sitting in your chair and you turn your head and you see something that needs doing.  There's always something to do."  And I confess, I wasn't 100% in agreement with him.  I was thinking that it depends on how much of a fix-it guy you are, and I'm not always that much of one.  And somewhere deep in the back of my mind that made me think I was less of a man.

But as I was sitting in my armchair earlier this morning, working through some of my stack of AM reading, I looked over and saw the pile of wood in the yard that needs chopping.  And I turned my head to the right and saw a Swiffer there, and below it the sun highlighting the layer of dust on my very old copy of Commodores:  Live, which we danced too in the late 70s, which in turn leans on my copy of Proust's Swann's Way, which I was supposed to read for class sometime in the mid-80s, but which I only read maybe 80 pages of, because it was damned hard and boring, especially given the other things I had on my mind (the parties, the ladies, and the like, or, to be honest, "the kind").  And, at this particular moment, that dust remains.

And yet, home maintenance issues do beckon: I still need to get something on the deck, and it has come to our attention that our mattress exceeds considerably the age at which mattresses should be replaced, and there's some efflorescence in certain walls in the basement, meaning we need to do some small things to keep moisture out of them.  We have one quote, but need others.  And we're having a neighborhood party on Sunday, meaning there's some touch-up painting needed on dings the kitchen cabinets -- at the tender age of two and change -- have acquired.  And I'm sure many more tasks will come to light and rise up the task list before the party, which is only meet and right, because hosting is the great motivator for cleaning and tweaking, which is nothing but an attempt to present to guests an impression that you have a handle on the inexorable processes of nature.

So yes, there are always things to do, the question is always:  which of them are worth doing, and why?  And do they bump the other things that need tending?  For example, the blog.  For it is all part of the great dance with entropy, which is just another face of flux.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Variously good to see things in Durham

Had lunch with my friend Scott today in Durham.  We'd been thinking we'd go to the new pizza place, but it hasn't opened for lunch yet.  What are they thinking?  What Durham needs is specifically a slice place, where you can go in and get a couple of slices and a soda for $5.  It doesn't need another dinner pizza place, which is unlikely to compete well with Pizzeria Toro (if the owner Grey could ever stop it from freaking setting itself on fire, that is).

As we were leaving, Scott remarked that, for one, the old bank building on the corner of Mangum and Main would be make a good restaurant, and, for two, that downtown Durham needed some places one could shop.  Upon closer inspection, the building in question was being gutted (for what?  I don't know), and there was a new bookstore, primarily used books, down Main Street towards Five Points.  Ask and ye shall receive.

There's also a new soul food restaurant as well as a new cafe (owned by some ex-Green Beret philosopher dude) on Parrish as well as a new pub on Main between Mangum and Roxboro.  And ground has been broken on the new apartments to rise right near the old old courthouse.  Now they just gotta figure out what to do with the hulking Albanyesque thing that is the merely old courthouse.

And the gutting of the old CCB building proceeds apace, for it to be turned into a "boutique hotel."

I didn't even have time to head off into the warehouse district to see what's going on there.

Chapel Hill is getting lapped.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Fiction, FOMO, and the male ego (at least this one)

Sometime recently, my contemporary Liesl Schillinger made a comment on Facebook about guys of a certain age not reading muc fiction anymore, and I said to myself "Hmmmmm."  I fall into that bucket myself.

For the last little bit of my life, I've been reading predominantly if not exclusively nonfiction, and for the last year or so it has been dominated by biography.  Admittedly, not just any biography, ones by Robert Caro.  I just got to the end of the 2nd volume on LBJ, and not a minute too soon, because I'm about ready to shoot the guy.  And when I've not been reading nonfiction or bios, I've been cleansing my palate with mysteries and post-espionage fiction, mostly Ruth Rendell, Alan Furst, and Olen Steinhauer. Admittedly, I did somewhere slip in Jhumpa Lahiri's most recent collection of short stories, Unaccustomed Earth, which was quite good, until she started writing in the 2nd person, which I just have limited tolerance for.

But, by and large, for the last couple of years, I've had a hard time biting into serious fiction and chewing, preferring (to extend the Francis Bacon metaphor) those that are predigested by their genres.  And I have to wonder:  what's up with that?  For me, at least, there's an odd utilitarianism at work. Given my limited time to read non-professional books (nights, a little during the the weekend), I find myself nonetheless grasping for ways to explain things to myself, and if when I was younger I worked more in a speculative, abstract vein, pondering the evolution of society, the psyche, etc., by now I'm just trying to get a handle on shit.  What's up with China?  How does power work?

The younguns have the concept of FOMO (fear of missing out), and I remember it well.  When I was in my 20s, any weekend night when I was single, I was desperate to figure out where the party was at, lest I might miss meeting the One. Or, failing that, an opportunity to tie one on.  Now I'm experiencing an adult form of FOMO.  What if the world passes me by and I don't get diddly done by the time I get carted off?  And so, the focus on the concrete, history, deeds of the great and grand, as a yardstick for myself.  I reckon.

But of course, as I say it, I realize how silly it is.  Comparing my insides to other peoples' outsides, as they say...

At least, in the case of Caro's second volume, we have LBJ set off against Coke Stephenson, from whom Johnson stole the 1948 Texas Senate race.  Stephenson is a great figure, an utterly mythic self-made guy, stoic cowboy who rises in politics because he is serially called by the citizenry to ever-higher office, but maintains his love for his self-built ranch with a river running through it, and who returns to his ranch when defeated by Johnson to dig post holes, fall in love again, try cases in court, swim in the river, and drink whiskey by the fire.  It is, no doubt, a romantic portrait if perhaps not exaggerated, and it is set off against the manic amoral efficacy of LBJ by Caro, who is posing a very clear question about the ends of life.

But for now, I'm on to some fiction.  Haven Kimmel's The Solace of Leaving Early.  Am liking it.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Squirrelling biomass

In keeping with the wood theme of yesterday, before the big storm blew in, I got busy in the yard gathering wood to burn in case we lose power.  The wood I've been chopping has some curing to do, won't be ready till fall, yet there's enough of it there that I'm loath to shell out for more wood now.  So I'm a little short.  Certainly am short if I need to heat the house for a few days, which, knock wood, it now looks like I won't need to.

So I dove deep into the back yard looking for sizable branches that would be worth burning, the kind of thing the neat-minded are sometimes wont to call "yard litter."  I think of it as brown gold. And I got a bunch, limbs that had fallen off trees or ones that I had trimmed a year or two back when I was trying to open up the view from our rear windows down onto the lake, and then had let lie there.  All in all, a good hunk o'biomass.

Of course, not all of it is perfect. Having been lingering on the ground for a while, some of it has a little moss or a little white stuff on it.  OK, mold, a little.  Technically, if you go by what the EPA says, I shouldn't be burning the stuff, because the mold spores get into the house.  Turns out, wood is supposed to be kept dry.

This was, honestly, a surprise to me, because when I was growing up, we burnt wet wood whenever it felt right, which was often. My dad was of the opinion -- and it was substantiated -- that if the fire was hot enough anything would burn.  So we would chop wood and leave it laying about on the ground or stacked outside, uncovered, until it was time to burn it.  The key was, of course, to have some dry stuff to burn to get started, and then we would throw whatever we had in there.

In retrospect, this is sort of ill-advised alcoholic damn-the-torpedoes bravado, made practicable by the fact that we had a wood stove (so any mold spores would just get sent on up the chimney), not an open fireplace as we have now (after we got rid of the wood stove because it was rather 70s, and not in a good way).  Which returns me to the question:  do I burn what I got, or not?  Do I waste all that effort of yesterday afternoon, gathering up some of this less than perfect wood, or do I just burn it?:

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Chopping wood

I've been chopping wood of late, since the power company took down trees on our street and my friend Greg brought me a maul.  It feels good, takes me back to when I was a teenager and dad and I would go out and chop wood to feed the woodstove.  It was totally a hobby, no doubt, a nostalgic turn, but I liked it, and I like the kind of tired my body gets when I do it.  Ditto for raking, which is one of the main reasons I don't use the leaf blower.

It reminds me of Roy Atwater, the old black guy who I rented from on 15-501 towards Pittsboro just after college, who always said that a good day was when he'd work hard enough to fall asleep on the front porch. I get that.

At some point in time during his poet/prophet of simple living phase, my dad opined that I'd be better off getting a job doing something simple and physical. It was when he said shit like that that I wanted to a) slap him and b) go get wasted, because it seemed so disrespectful to me and the path I had taken.

But sometimes I think he may have had a point.  In fact, there is wisdom in much of what he wrote.  It's just that he was so overbearing in his presentation of it, and he himself never really executed well on it.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Diner, College Park, MD

Early Sunday morning, mom, Leslie and I had breakfast with our cousins Carol and Annette at this diner.  It wasn't fancy.

On my way to the loo, I passed an older African-American couple, dressed up to go to church.  He had on a nice suit and tie, but she was the one who was noteworthy.  She had a hat with some costume jewelry in a triangle on the front, and a blouse also with some spangles of some sort.  Not over the top like one sees sometimes, she was just dressed up to go and give thanks and praise that morning.  It was a good look.  And she was quite pretty, in a rather austere way.

He was having some french toast or similar breakfast fare, but she had a plate of vegetables cooked on the grill.  I'm talking broccoli, cauliflower, etc. Serious vegetables.  At 9 am.  That is some hard-core discipline.

Wednesday, February 05, 2014


Am rounding the corner on the second volume of Robert Caro's bio of LBJ, wherein our hero -- with the help of his Texas patrons -- debases himself before ultra-reactionary funders and then outright steals the 1948 Senate election from Mr. Texas, celebrated governor Coke Stephenson.  It really is quite foul, how it happened, and right now all I want to do is get through the book so I can have some time away from LBJ and his cronies to digest.

And this is, in the end, Caro's message, at least what I take thus far.  Both Robert Moses and LBJ were -- each in his own way -- crooked scumbags.  Moses, at least, began as an idealist of sorts who became corrupted by the power and money to which he became privy.  LBJ was from a very young age quite slimy, a troubled child with deep deep insecurity about some basic guy stuff, like physical strength and comfort in his body.  What they shared was energy, an understanding of the craft of politics and where the levers of power were, and a relentless focus on getting things done.  In the end, what each of them got done was a very mixed bag.  In the case of Moses, mostly negative, in the case of LBJ, more positive on balance, though there was that little thing about Vietnam.

I will keep reading for sure, but I'm about ready for a little break.

Monday, February 03, 2014


And so, after 5 months of being more or less chained to my desk for a succession of very solid work weeks while grinding through the 5 topic area courses of the College for Financial Planning's CFP® curriculum, I'm done for now.  Passed my last exam, now have one more course before I can sit for the final board exam in July.

Thus, I am faced with that other question, the big one, what's next?  I have a big spreadsheet of firms to reach out to, one conversation already ongoing with a firm and, thankfully, some trips and social events already lined up on my calendar so I don't have to kick everything up whole cloth.

And, to my right, my task list, filled with all manner of chores and small tasks I've been putting off, could probably keep me busy for weeks.  Most pressingly, change the oil on the Prius, probably need to have the brakes looked at on the Volvo because 1. That always needs tending and 2.  There's a mild shudder when I travel up around 70 on the interstate.  I just walked downstairs to get a banana and was reminded I need to call Marvin about putting some sort of sealant on the deck, which he pressure-washed a few weeks back (at a most reasonable price, I might add!).  Better stop, the list goes on and on.

So I must balance the high-level questions (should I go for a safer salaried job at a larger firm or take the risk of breaking out into a wholly fee-based construct in which I would have more control over my life over time), with the smaller ones.

Which is to say, it's life.  Just another day.  But a rainy one, so hopefully Natalie's away game in Durham is cancelled and I don't have to sweat the question of getting over there to spectate and dad.