Sunday, November 30, 2014

Why I rake

I've seen a fair amount of discourse out there about how raking is silly, how Mother Nature intends for the leaves to stay there on the ground and decompose and enrich the soil.  I totally get that.  I do. But I am married to a gardener, and she has plans for our backyard, the hardwoods out there be damned. So it has been ordained that our backyard will be raked, and for the sake of marital accord and household harmony, I participate.

But, you might ask, why not just blow the suckers?  So much easier.  I expect you know the answers to that question. First, and foremost, leaf blowers are noisy, and spew emissions.  Perhaps just as importantly, if I let a machine do the work, that means it's work my body is not doing.  Right now I'm in from a good solid hour of raking, and I can totally feel it in my back and arms and lateral abs or whatever those damned muscles around the side of my body are.  They just got a little workout, and are sore, and the sleep I sleep post-raking has a special quality.

And then there is the social aspect of raking.  If you are using a leaf-blower, people just pass right on by.  They may want to say hello, but they can't, because you are pushing them away with your decibels.  When raking, people amble by and say hello, often making some wise comment about the great bounty of leaves bestowed on us.  Which is true.  The door is thereby opened for me to make some wisecrack about how we've got it all under control.

Plus, I collect and put in lots of kindling for the burning season ahead.  Mostly, though, I work, and then I stop, and I look down the hill at the lake or the stream way down below in the gully, and that is enough.

Thursday, November 27, 2014


It is the order of the day to post about gratitude, so I will make a placeholder post for now.  I have been up at my computer now for over an hour, working on things I needed to get done.  Stuff for the family, to be sure. Meanwhile, Natalie and Mary are downstairs baking pies, one pumpkin with dairy, because Natalie really wanted to make it, and one apple non-dairy, because we must have justice for Graham on this holiday, now mustn't we?  Mary just put on a very nice Linda Thompson CD that I hadn't heard for a while, Versatile Heart.  Time was, back in Princeton around 2008 or so, we probably overlistened to that one.  But today it sounded refreshed after lying fallow for a while.

I had a dream last night about a friend of mine who has been having some wacky turns in his life.  I ran into him in the hallway of my office building, near the bathroom.  I asked where he was staying, and he showed me the down comforter in the back of his SUV, saying it was quite comfortable indeed.  I got in the car with him, and noticed that the steering wheel was on the right. When I asked if he had gotten it in the UK, he said no.  Then he proceeded to drive slowly into my office building (there was plenty of room, but still it was a silly thing to do) and through the gift shop we had in there.  We were able to move the racks of merch out of the way, nothing was hurt, but still it was silly to do it, simply because he didn't feel like putting the thing in reverse.

I should give him a call.

To return to gratitude, I am, in fact, deeply grateful for everything.  The more I keep that front and center, the better I do.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Being quiet at meetings

Sometimes at AA meetings I hear something that I identify with and feel a need to share, and then look for a good time to do so.  Or I may waffle and think to myself:  "is that even worth taking the group's time about, should I talk?"  In either one of those cases I get distracted on the issue of whether or not I should speak, and end up listening poorly and reflecting less.  So the quality of being there is lessened.  Essentially my mind wrestles with my ego's desire to poke itself out and demand attention, like a small child saying:  "Look mom, look mom."  Often I'll wrestle with this right till the end of the meeting, and then I'll just go ahead and say something.

When I just commit to being silent at a meeting and listening, and just let my mind drift off to whatever, it often ends up being more fruitful.  Not unlike being in church when younger.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Commerce and guilt

I've been writing some about my transition to an increasingly sales-focused role, though the fact is, it's not my first time.  I had a spell as a consultant when I was selling my firm's services, looking for clients, spinning what we could do. The big difference is that now, more than ever before, what I am selling is my own services.  Though actually, in some regards it's not all that far from being an academic, going to conferences, presenting one's research, because that was all about trying to win the audience over to your point of view, and trying to be the best one on your panel.  And one of the keys to it then was to always have the shortest paper with the fewest points to make.  People loved it when you got done before their eyes glazed over.

But it's different when you're asking people to entrust their money to you.  It's a big ask. And people have a negative association with sales, in particular financial sales, but sales in general.

And some recent conversations have made me think back to what I think may be the best post I ever wrote here on the Grouse, certainly one of the most amazing conversations I ever overheard.  It was on the NJ Transit train from Metro Park into Manhattan, a mid-afternoon train.

I slunked into a seat and broke out my lunch. Roast beef on rye, fritos.

Across the aisle from me sat a woman sitting facing her roughly thirteen-year old daughter, dressed in a hot pink shirt, jeans, sneakers. I munch away, not paying much attention, until I hear her say to the girl: "And now I want to talk to you about negotiations. What happens when a supplier is trying to get a higher price out of you and you want to keep the price low" (door opens, random train noise) "You've got to always keep a stone face, impassive. Never let a customer get to you. If you have feelings, save it for home, for the dinner table."

By now I'm convinced that I'm not hallucinating. The mother is briefing the daughter on how to be a merchant. At this point mom reaches down and takes the daughter's hands in hers: "(train noise) is going to teach you about cash control, inventory management... there are three types of corporation: a sole proprietorship, a C corp, and an S corp (open door)... You should always have more than one product, and never buy stock in a company with only one product."

And so she went on, passing to her daughter all the rudiments of trade. And always very tenderly and solicitously, never turning imperious. I looked at the daughter to see if she was bored and annoyed, but no, she was fine, listening to Mom hold forth.

Wild. It was like a whole nuther dimension. My mom fancied herself an entrepreneur, even went to the White House for some small business hoo-ha when (cough cough) Reagan was occupying it , but she never passed on the gems to me like this. Just the parable of the talents, and some yummy frozen tacos for the nights she got home late from the office.

This conversation was so striking to me because, having been raised somewhat Christian, certainly liberal, often in quasi-Marxist circles, I circulate within a world which is at the very least profoundly ambivalent about money and material success.  We all like to live nicely, and we appreciate a good bargain, indeed we search for them, but we tend to regard commerce as low and dirty, even as we benefit from it.

So the idea that a mother could be instructing her daughter about commercial education in this deeply loving way was just bizarre.  And yet every day now, time and again, I put myself out there asking people to let me help them with their money.  After working my ass off for many years to get to the place where I'm skilled enough to be able to help them.  And it's hard at times to get past the wierdness of it all.

In truth, the cultural rift here goes back to the way Max Weber elaborates out the way the concept of salvation differs from Judaism to Christianity.  In short, the way he saw it (could be wrong), Jews believe in this-worldly salvation, whereas Christians believe in other-worldly salvation.  Which endows us with profoundly differing feelings about commerce and profit.  Hence "It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven."

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Big Fish

I had been meaning to introduce myself to Daniel Wallace, who lives just over the ridge from me, but it seemed like it would be polite to read one of his books before doing so.  So I snapped up a copy of Big Fish at Nice Price Books, or maybe at the thrift store.  Dunno.

But when I peaked inside, I saw that it was about the death of his father, which seemed a little close to home. So I put it aside Then, leading up to the release party for a new children's book he has out, I thought I'd read a little.  I knew I could use a little fiction.

So I looked everywhere for it, but couldn't find it, until Sunday, when I found it.... just where I thought I had put it. It was as if I had been purposefully blind to the thing.  I started to read it, and have found it relatively easy going, cast in a mythopoeic groove just this side of Carl Sandburg's Rutabaga Tales.  It didn't seem too close to home at all.

Until it did.  All of a sudden we find the narrator sitting at the side of his father's deathbed, in multiple versions, like Rashomon, or the multiple versions of Abraham and Isaac with which Kierkegaarde opens Fear and Trembling.  And his father, lying there in what promises to be the location of his last breaths, keeps his family members at a safe distance by telling jokes.  Constantly. The son tries to get him to be serious, to no avail.

Thing is, some of them are good.  Like the one about the kid who keeps dreaming that kinfolk are dead, and then the next day they die.  So one night he dreams that his father dies.  And the next day the father paces back and forth in agony, fearing his imminent demise.  At the end of the day he's fine, but he says to his wife:  "Good god, I've had the worst day of my life."  And she responds, "you think you've had a bad day, the milkman dropped dead on our porch this morning!"


I have never taken a yoga class, so I have no idea whether I'm using the term mindfulness correctly. And I don't feel like looking it up.

However, I will say that having an injured right hand -- and this is my strong hand -- certainly encourages what I think of as mindfulness.  That is, thinking about what I'm doing, trying to be purposeful in my actions. Because if I am not "mindful", to my way of thinking about it, I can aggravate my hand doing almost anything.  And, sad to say, I do.  Pulling back the blankets on my bed, getting into the car, etc.  Almost anything can tweak it and make me go "ouch."

So, I was thinking about this while making lunch.  And I opened a new bag of baby carrots after cutting some cheddar, only to realize that I had been insufficiently mindful of what I was doing from the point of view of Graham's dairy allergy.  So I had to put the carrots in a new Ziploc bag.


Monday, November 17, 2014

Graham sweeping the deck

One of Graham's chores is to sweep stuff off of our back deck.  Yesterday, after I pushed leaves off of the roof, there were a lot of leaves there, so we sent him out to take care of it.

Through the rear windows, we watched him take care of business.  He would push the big push broom around, sometimes in a little dance maneuver, and then stop, and look out across the lake at the sun as it got low on the horizon, lost in thought.  Then he laughed a little, and kept going.

He did a decent job on most of it.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Change of pace

I have gotten into something of a rut in my reading.  It is probably hard to imagine how that might happen, given that I have read maybe 3500 pages by one white guy over the last couple of years, in biographies of two white guys.  And then, on weekdays, I read the Wall Street Journal every morning, and then the Economist during the week.

On Sundays, to mix things up, I read the Sunday Times in a less practical order.  First I read sports, then I resist the temptation to read the business section, and instead work through the Review section, which focuses on bigger, slower-moving questions of policy and/or life, death, etc.  It is all very Bob of me, I know.

So today I decided to mix it up.  I've been conscious of feeling a little bit frumpy while I've been out in the world calling on people during the week.  These barbershop haircuts I've taken to have been getting pretty loose pretty quickly, and all of my pants are too big, because somehow I've managed to lose weight and keep it off over the years, without really trying too hard. I picked up the Style section of the Times, figuring I'd look at lapels and shirts and shoes and whatnot, to get an idea of how I might refresh/reboot myself, Instead, I found myself looking at the profile of one Anya Hindmarch, leading British handbag designer,  And in particular how she had been inspired by Philippe Haisman's jumping photos, which I had never heard of, but which do, as she notes, bring levity to some pretty sour people.  Below there's Nixon.  And then I read about Olafur Eliasson, which was a name I knew but didn't know much about.  Now that I have read 3 pages about him, I still don't know much, except that he sounds pretty cool.

I also got an infusion of Bloomberg Businessweeks from the office.  My subscription had lapsed.  Compared to the Economist, it is like candy, but that's good.  I can lie on the couch and read it and hear about stuff I didn't know about.

Certainly, I need to read some fiction.  I've been looking around my room for a copy of my neighbor Daniel Wallace's Big Fish, but I can't find it.  Had been hoping to knock it back before his book release party tomorrow.  Had tried to read it 6 months or so back, then saw it was about his dad dying, which was a little too close to home.*

In any case, this reminds me that I need to stay diverse to stay fresh.  Yes, it's important for me to read the articles about how doubling up in itemized deductions in one year and then using a standard deduction the next can result in tax savings over time, but assholes aloft are important too.

*Found it!  Right where I thought it should be.  Somehow I missed it the first two times I looked for it.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Population growth and assimilation

Tyler Cowen had a piece in last week's NYTimes about how important a driver of economic growth population will be in decades to come, and how societies that can assimilate newcomers will have a competitive advantage over ones that can't.  So, the USA and the UK, for example, will have advantages over Japan, China, and Italy.

That took me back to a couple of moments over the last few weeks of ranging across the Triangle. One of my regular readers has made the point that, however liberal Chapel Hill may think it is, nice restaurants do not hire lower-income people, and particularly people of color, to serve as wait staff.

Recently the labor market seems to be changing that. At Bull City Burgers and Brewery in Durham, for example, an African-American woman who clearly wasn't brought up middle class was working the front of the house.  At the University Club the other night, an hispanic guy was serving deserts and an hispanic woman was busing and serving coffee, etc. There was something else but Mary just distracted me.

Oh yeah, on a tour of the homeless shelter at Urban Ministries of Durham, I saw help wanted ads for Hardee's and Bojangles.

All this says to me that labor market pressures are making it harder and harder to fill roles, which are opportunities for assimilation and growth.

I know you're thinking, big fucking deal, people of color getting shitty service sector jobs that don't pay well.  The point is that they are turning up in higher-touch, client-facing roles in more expensive types of food service establishments, the kinds of places that have historically preferred to hire younger, somewhat career-confused middle-class white kids. And that is where one learns how to deal with demanding customers, more complicated service needs, and more fluid processes, which are themselves more susceptible to improvisation and improvement.

Friday, November 14, 2014

At Rite Aid

In Roxboro today, we stopped in to see mom's cousin, who works there, and who had recently lost a sister.  She was happy to see us, and in fact said that the lord had sent us by to brighten her day.  I'm fine with that.

While we were talking to her, an African-American guy was buying some lottery tickets, then he asked if he could use the store's phone.

A heavyset woman in her twenties then asked if a photo she had submitted for printing over the internet had been printed.  It had. It costed 20 cents.  She reached into her change purse, and gave mom's cousin two dimes.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Features and benefits

I met with a woman early this evening to talk about potentially working with her, and I started off by talking about how we help clients, and then we talked a bit about her situation, what she owns, what she owes, etc.  Maybe 20 minutes into that she brings the conversation back around to her goals, which is where I should have started.  This is what is meant when we speak of leading with benefits rather than features, because nobody really gives a hoot about what any product or service does, they want to know how it will help them.  And rightly so.

In any case, no biggie.  Another piece of wisdom I am gleaning is to focus less on what I did wrong, and more on what I did right.  And the next thing to do right is to set up more meetings, where I can do them even righter.

Meanwhile, I got home early enough to go pick up Natalie from Mock Trial, and then after Graham and I unsuccessfully scanned the internet for Episode 7 of Avengers Assemble, Season 2 (it won't air until Sunday), so we had to watch an episode of some Spiderman thing.  Not as good.  Mostly, I am sad that they cancelled Young Justice, which was most righteous.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Books are so long

I'm reading Tim Tyson's Blood Done Sign My Name, which is a good book.  It's about racial politics, the KKK, and so on in North Carolina, specifically in Oxford, NC.  This is rather close to home.  My mom's dad owned a couple auto parts stores, one in his hometown of Roxboro, the other in Oxford.

The book is kicked off in 1971, when a black guy goes into a store in the ghetto owned by a virulent white racist, and is chased out into the street, pistol-whipped, and then shot dead.  This was when I was 5.  My granddad's store was right around there.

Not shockingly, some violent rioting ensues, rather Ferguson-like.  Black people burn up a bunch of shit, then the white power structure of the town lays down the law and puts a curfew in effect.

Anyway, it's a good book, I'm glad I'm reading it, but it goes on for 320-odd pages.  I feel like the material could have been handled in maybe 200-250 or so.  It seems like there's a bias in non-fiction towards bulk, as if a shorter book can't encompass a serious topic.

Sunday, November 09, 2014


I'm still digesting this week's midterm election results.  Here in North Carolina, what particularly rankles is the vindication of the Republican legislature that comes not only from Tillis beating Hagan but from their picking up a seat in the state senate.  That's hard on our boy Josh, and it's hard on us.

What makes it worse is looking at the map of the painfully gerrymandered congressional districts that let the Republicans take all but three congressional seats in Washington, and how Tillis's narrow margin of victory clearly reflects the success of the Republicans' making it hard for college students to vote.

And it will be worse in 2016, when voter ID laws come into effect.

It is rather dispiriting to see Tillis sent to Washington, after reading the history of the Senate with which Caro begins Master of the Senate, volume 3 of the LBJ bio.  The US Senate, with its 6-year terms which provide for a third of the chamber to turn over every two years, was designed by the Founding Fathers to be a brake on law-making, to make things go slowly, and throughout its history it has fulfilled that function pretty darned well, and has been driven by white southern bastards like Tillis.  The first half of the 19th century was spent dithering over letting states into the Union so as to maintain a balance of power between free and slave states, and for much of the 20th century and into the 21st, the Senate has been a place where southerners have trumpeted the doctrine of states rights as a constraint on such noxious efforts at the "dangerous concentration of power" inherent in things like federal anti-lynching laws, or the dreaded Obamacare.


So last night I was at a fundraiser here in liberal Chapel Hill for an excellent organization ( that provides funding for lower-income kids to do afterschool and summer activities, take trips and the like.  As is all too often the case, almost everybody in the room was white, except some kids and representatives of an organization that received money from it.  This happens all too often.  It is hard to change things.

Saturday, November 08, 2014

Moving to the ball

So I keep meaning to post something about the elections, UNC's scandals, etc., but the spirit isn't moving me.  Then I make the mistake of scrolling through Facebook, or through one of my email inboxes, which sucks the spirit right out of me, so that I want to go eat.

Natalie is at an ultimate frisbee tournament today up in Norfolk.  They are away for two nights, staying in a hotel, with 5 girls to a room.  Awesome.  This is a first for her, being away from us, sharing a room with friends.  She will remember this for a long time.  Hopefully the experience will be enough to spur her to want to keep with the team sports.  She continues to be much more into the team part of it than the sports part of it.  Which is fine.

Actually, I was at an all-day tournament with her in Raleigh a couple of weeks ago.  She announced Friday at 9pm -- having come home from a football game at the high school -- that she did in fact want to go to Raleigh and play.  It was news to me that there was even a tournament to go to, but she wanted to go, and she needed to be there by 8 am, so there you had it.  Up early, off to the Biscuit Kitchen for some fortification, and off  we went.

I knew that I had to get back there by the end of the day to pick her up, and there were other parents there, so I decided to stay for the whole day and watch and cheer.  As I watched her, I saw her familiar pattern of kind of going through the motions on office, executing the plays the coaches had taught them, but not really doing a good job to insert herself into the run of play because, in fact, she didn't want the frisbee, because she didn't and doesn't believe in herself as a player.

Much of that is because of lack of practice.  She goes to practice a couple of days a week -- when it doesn't conflict with Mock Trial, or Model UN, or Debate -- but she doesn't really try too hard to improve her technical skills with the disc:  throwing, catching, important things like that.  Since she's doing something athletic and having fun and deepening friendships, I resist the temptation to jump in there and push too hard.  Eventually the peer pressure from teammates should push her to focus more, or she'll quit the sport.

But back to the main behavior, this being near the ball, pretending to be part of the play but not forcing herself into it for lack of confidence:  I recognize that from my own development.  Even now it is an issue.  In the past when I have had activity metrics goals put in front of me (number of times cited in major publications, number of reports published, etc.) I have often been able to make them, but have not figured out how to translate them into revenue.  The difference is that then I was salaried, but now I am paid for production.  So I have to actually be certain that I go and get the ball and put it in the back of the net.

Which, to some extent, explains why I've been blogging less.  I'm going and getting the ball.

Tuesday, November 04, 2014

Parking ticket

I was headed in to lunch in Durham, and had parked in the lot off of Parrish Street behind what is now the old courthouse, but which didn't exist when I was a kid and I visited my dad's office on Main Street.  I remember him going to what is now the old old courthouse.

So I was paying the newfangled electronic meter there, and it only let me pay in 1 hour increments.  Which rankles me.  I mean, lunch may at times run for an hour and a quarter, an hour and a half at the outside, but two hours?  It always seems like such a rip-off.

And I decided to gamble and just pay for one hour as I headed in at 11:55.  As I did to, I thought to myself:  if they are smart, they'll send somebody around this parking lot at just after 1, because they'll know that people have taken this bet.

Indeed, I was disappointed but not shocked when, as I returned to my car, I saw an orange piece of paper on my windshield.  They got me.  But it was only $10.  Luckily, Mary doesn't read my blog, so I should be OK here at the crib.  But I must take my hat off to the City of Durham and its parking enforcement team for doing exactly what they should be doing and making a quick pass through the parking lot right after 1.  Genius.

Saturday, November 01, 2014

A high point of college

So around 1987, in the fashionable literary criticism/theory circles at Yale, there was a moment when Jewish tradition became hip.  Geoffrey Hartman edited a volume on Talmud and criticism and had a seminar, Derrida did something too.  This was before the scandal over Paul de Man's WWII collaborationist journalism.  It was an innocent time.

I had been reading a lot of Kafka and had been intrigued by the fact that Kafka and Max Brod had, in the early 1920s, been drawn into low-brow traveling Yiddish theater and other emblems of their otherwise repressed Judaism.  Likewise I had been intrigued by the relationship of Walter Benjamin and Gershom Scholem, and had even purchased a volume of Buber's tales of the Hasids and put it on my shelf, though I never much of it.  In general, the concept of Jewish self-hate as manifested in the Jews of Vienna and Prague at the turn of the century was really forming a template for emerging ethnic and other repressed group studies concepts (African-American, Women's, LGBT, etc.).

So I, in my purist, holier than thou way, bad-assed do-anything-to-impress-the-girls kind of way, decided that rather than read more theory, I should go and look at the actual Jewish traditions of reading and interpreting holy texts.  There was a course called "Rabbinical Literature" offered, tought by a guy named Stephen Fraade, and I went and signed up for it.

I was the only undergrad in there, and the only goy.  Which was perfect for me.

So I learned about Pentateuch, Mishnah, Midrash, Gemarah, Talmud, and other stuff, as well as hermeneutic principles (from general to particular, or vice versa), and the main schools of thought (Rabbis Ishmael and Akiva, I think).  Thank goodness there's Wikipedia now to refresh my memory.

So there I was in the Judaic Studies reading room, way up high in Sterling Library, with a bunch of Judaic Studies grad students trying to figure out what the hell I was doing there.  And I had the most profound experience of my whole formal education.

So there is an injunction in the Mishnah against transacting commerce on the Sabbath. Fair enough, we gentiles have that kinda thing to.  Hell, there are dry counties in NC, and in Connecticut liquor stores closed at 8 and no alcohol was sold on Sunday. There was discussion in the Rabbinical literature and in our class of whether or not it was cool for the baker to put a loaf of bread on the sill of his window, and for someone who wanted the bread to take it and put a coin there.  Did that constitute commerce, and thereby violate the ban?  And the rabbis and the students bickered a little on this question, but basically they came down and said:  no no, that's cool, that's not commerce.

But I sat there, quietly, and thought to myself:  "That's outrageous!  Of course that is commerce. Even though there is not a direct exchange of bread for money, they both know what they're doing."  And then I realized, that what was welling up within me was right at the heart of a huge, multi-millenial debate.  We have Paul in Corinthians saying "for the letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life."  And this rumbles on through the ages, from Montesquieu's The Spirit of the Law through the judicial activism of the Supreme Court, especially under Earl Warren, down to the countervailing forces of strict constructionism and loonie Tea Partiers toting around constitutions they haven't read.

The whole Letter/Spirit thing is huge, and between Jews and Christians (or Orthodox and Reformed Jews) it can be a thorny issue.  How outrageous does it seem to turn on the TVs before sundown on Friday and leave them on all Saturday so as to evade a stricture against using machines on Shabbos?

And there it was, right within me in that class. Well worth the cost of admission.