Thursday, December 31, 2015

Out with the old

So we are getting organized to leave Larchmont and head home, by way of Princeton. Over a couple of weeks here, Mary and Rob made herculean exertions to cull junk from the rather large attic, where it has been accruing for decades. Their mom, Mary Lee, likes to hold onto stuff, and she has done some active curating, filtering, and retaining even as we carry dust-covered stuff down the stairs and out to the street (yes, I have helped a little with some of the brute labor).

Which makes her a lot like many of us, including myself. It's hard to let go of stuff. Much of it has been and often is retained for sentimental value, but much has also been held onto on the theory that "it could be valuable to someone,"  Which is true, to a point. It's just that the work of finding the people to whom it might be valuable is labor-intensive, and the return on that labor is low unless you know what you are doing. It is, in fact, value-additive, which is why there is an ecosystem of specialists and brokers to help you sift through your junk and find new users.

But what has struck me on this occasion is that, unless you archive well and carefully, it's much more likely that stuff will find a new home and eager new users while it is relatively new than when it is older. Which really validates my sister's practice of culling actively and regularly. Leslie tells me that she goes through her and her kids'  (and, perhaps to a lesser extent, her husband's) stuff and gets it out of the house with pretty solid discipline. The house as a whole gathers less dust, and toys, books, clothes etc. find new homes before they are moldy and/or period pieces.

The irony is that the attempt to hold onto value in an attempt to make sure it is not lost in fact destroys it.

Because it is the last day of the year, the essay form suggests that I should loop this thought back and try to map it to reflections on the passing of another year. I probably could, but I am going to let go of that too. I need to do laundry and organize to get in the car in a couple of hours to go and see some more of our favorite humans, and that is more important than the thematic coherence of an individual blog post. Of which there will be more.

Monday, December 28, 2015

High and low

Bloomberg published an interesting article about American domestic migration patterns in recent years.  One of the findings is that Americans are moving from high-productivity states like New York and California to lower-productivity states like North Carolina.  One pair of researchers found that this diminution in productivity had held back GDP growth by 13.5% over some period of time.

One of the constraints is the lack of affordable housing in the big hitter states, and I can attest that this is true for sure, and indeed we can see that it's replicated in smaller markets like NC's Triangle. Chapel Hill is unaffordable for most middle-income people.

But is this all bad? If middle-income people move from high-productivity and high-cost of living places to low-productivity ones where their housing dollar goes further, aren't they in some sense getting higher productivity for themselves as each hour worked buys more house and more yard, so that in fact they are getting more? I'm thinking of something like the spatial equivalent of a hedonic index, which Republicans like to advocate (and not without some logic) into slowing the rise in cost of living adjustments to Social Security and the like.

Yes, when people move from NY/NJ to some parts of NC and the like, they may move from places where the "cultural density" goes down, there's less art and cultural diversity. For a time. But the newcomers bring new desires and new values, and the newly populated places can catch up quickly, aided by that great leveller, the interweb.

In any case, I dunno, just speculating. I just downloaded a short book referenced by the article, "The Gated City" by Ryan Avent of the Economist. Hopefully he will think some of this stuff through, and in a way that is not a total rehash of something I've already read in the magazine.

Back to work!

Thursday, December 24, 2015

Looking back on 2015

Loath though I may be to contribute to the continued decline of the US Postal Service, another year has gone by without a proper seasonal letter, and so be it. I do keep up with the blog, at least, so those who care to keep up with what's going on with me and the family can certainly do so.

For starters, the picture. It is a little blurry, and for that my photographer wife will surely upbraid me, but to my mind this is the picture of the year. Natalie first speculated that she might be able to still lift Graham, despite the fact that he was almost as tall as she was, and then she went and did it. Mostly I'm picking this picture for the smiles, which seem entirely natural to me. I love them both, and it is great to see them loving one another -- and expressing it.

So what did we do this year?  Natalie did... Duke TIP and debate and mock trial and model UN and ultimate frisbee, and still found time to get good grades and bury her nose in her iPhone to text with BFFs and binge watch a variety of shows, even while pouring milk into her breakfast cereal in the morning. Some very skilled multi-tasking at that. A real highlight of my year was watching "Parks and Rec" with her, even when she plunked her feet in my lap and more or less demanded a foot rub. No need for assertiveness training with this one!

Graham has successfully transitioned into middle school at Phillips, my old stomping grounds. He continued to progress to ever darker and more imposing belts at his martial arts studio, took up and studied chess, and generally continued to astound us with his erudition and curiosity. I don't know where that came from. Graham and I watched through all of the original "Star Trek" together, and have since turned the corner into "The Next Generation," which is plenty good.

Mary continues to deepen her engagement with the local autism and other special needs community and has been progressing through a new body of photographs of people with autism.  Her new web site is up and running at On all of our household's behalf, she continues in her role as Chief Health and Nutrition Officer, ever more insistently pushing us in the direction of eating lower on the food chain, with less animal-based protein. However grumpy I may get from time to time, I remain grateful for her for taking care of all of us. Trader Joe loves us too!

As for me, 2015 has been the year my financial planning and advisory practice has gathered steam. Really my focus has needed to be on that, on chilling with my family as much as possible, exercise, and sleep. It has not been an easy year to build a practice, given the frisky markets. Market uncertainty may have helped me bring clients in, as it rattles people's faith in their own decision-making ability, but it hasn't been always been fun taking the responsibility for people's financial health in an stressful times. But that's how we learn things, by doing them, and doing them diligently and honorably.

Mostly, we must remain grateful for the fact that everybody remains healthy. I didn't even hurt myself playing soccer this year. I have been to funerals over the last couple of years of contemporaries as well as people younger than me, to say nothing of people's parents. All the people in my inner circle remain good as far as we know, and that's not chopped liver. May it continue to be so in the New Year.

Monday, December 21, 2015

Scenes from the road

The other evening, in stop and go traffic on the Durham freeway headed into Durham, I heard somebody revving a seemingly amped up engine and peeling out a bit. I looked to my left and all there was was a rinky dink Mazda 3, not usually a tuner's car. Then he did it again. That's who it was.

By contrast, coming around North Raleigh last Friday a nice looking car crowded me out of my lane and I thought "isn't that a Maserati." Indeed it was, a Quattroporte. If I had a car like that, I'd drive it a little more carefully. I wouldn't use it to threaten 2010 Priuses.

Yesterday was a very uneventful day coming up the East Coast. We went the Western route, up 86 to 29 and then over the Appalachians on 64 to 81. Made fine time, we did. It was interesting to note that a convenience store near Staunton, VA was hiring, offering $8.25 and hour plus health insurance and with a 401k (easy to offer that, since nobody could afford to defer into it).  This on top of the $9.50 an hour they are offering at the Sheetz near RDU convinces me that there is indeed little slack in the labor markets, and that there are in fact lurking inflationary forces out there.

Then again, gas was $1.73 in Virginia, and I actually saw a sign for $1.79 a gallon off of 78 in New Jersey, of all places, where prices are typically high due to the fact that there is no self service.

This should give you an idea of how boring the drive was. But at least dad was not made cranky by stop and go traffic between Richmond and DC.

Friday, December 18, 2015

Turn of the 20th Century

The Journal this morning reports on successful lower-cost programming coming out of TV channels owned by Hallmark. Amongst these offerings it mentions a program called When Calls the Heart, "a turn of the 20th century drama about a teacher who moves to a rural town coming to grips with a tragedy."  This is the first time I've ever seen the phrase "turn of the 20th century" and, more importantly, it's the first time I've seen the prior millennium referred back to as a specific period about which we should be nostalgic. I wonder if it's really pre-9/11 that is referenced, or if there is really something intrinsic about that period that is starting to loom warm and cozy in the minds of viewers younger and older.

Certainly, this makes me feel older, but I suppose that's fine, as it encourages me to act more maturely. It also ties back to my comments on my growing conservative predilection for happy endings and plot resolution in general (as opposed to dangling uncertainty).

And my preference for order, reflected in a mild distaste for underdog teams (like Leicester City in the Premier League this year), which upset the established order. I mean, I don't really dislike underdogs. I think they are great. But they are also mildly disquieting because they make us need to become familiar with new players and reconsider hierarchies in the world.

I am, mos def, getting old.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

New Yorkers

The pile of New Yorkers I had pulled from Mary's bedside table had grown ludicrously high over on my dresser. It was maybe 20 inches tall, threatening to totter over and splay itself all over the floor. Some of them date back to 2013. So I began culling it a couple of weeks ago.

Yes, it would perhaps be wisest to just stick them straight into the recycling bin, as more disciplined friends of mine do, but I nonetheless torture myself by looking through them to see if there are articles that I should be reading. In this most recent process I've pulled out articles by particularly esteemed folx:  Andrew Solomon, Peter Hessler, and John McPhee.

McPhee, I know, can be a risky one, particularly when he breaks meta on the reader and reflects on the process of writing. Not that there are very many whose reflections on the craft would be much more interesting than his, as he has written many a good word about a wide range of subjects. But still, he can be pretty arch. But his piece on interviewing in an April 2014 issue was better than most, actually worthwhile, perhaps because it conveys his persistent enthusiasm for his craft.

Peter Hessler, however, somehow seems to have not quite arrived in Egypt in the same way he was in China, though he has now been there for four years or so. It seems that he is viewing deep cultural immersion as something of a parlor game that he thinks he can repeat, but Egypt doesn't seem to have drawn him in in the same way as China did. I suspect it is because he was young then, and now is less so. And that its hard to perform at an improbably high level in any field forever.

Monday, December 14, 2015

To the gym

I actually made myself go to the gym tonight. I had better do it now and again, since I pay for the damned thing.  Though it is cheap to go the one at the Mall.

I still do the same stretches I did when we were young, and perform basically the same weightlifting stuff I started doing in grad school, with no instruction. Basically I run three miles on the treadmill, then do 25 sit-ups, then exercise some male vanity muscles.

It is silly, but nonetheless better than nothing. Next year, since I'm turning 50, I should really consider getting some actual instruction at something. I have been meaning, for example, to take up yoga since I went off to grad school in 1991. It keeps slipping my mind. Really, tennis lessons would be good, especially serving lessons. It would be considerate to the people I play with, especially if I ever play doubles again.

We shall see if any of this happens.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

The tendrils of Monday, and faith

On most days I wake up around six, often fixated on the obsession du jeur, whatever that is, but on Sundays I try to sleep later. Sometimes it works. Today I slept in till 7:30 or so. Mary sleeps soundly, and I envy her that, and at times even resent her ability to do so.

The irony of all this, in my mind, is that as I have progressively over the years become aware that my anxiety and control orientation derives fundamentally from a lack of faith and trust in the world at large, in the belief that everything will trend towards the best, or at least not capsize in some sort of catastrophe. My youthful and persistent inclination has been to approach all problems empirically, to try to learn and read as much as possible to get a handle on all of them. I have felt at some core level that that was and is what is expected of me.

As I have "matured," I've come to realize that that's an unreasonable expectation, that I have to let go of problems and trust that they will work out for the best, and the easiest, most consistent, most somatic way of approaching this has been to cultivate a religiosity in myself. Otherwise my brain will endlessly, recursively, loop back to fear and doubt.

Mary, by contrast, is fairly anti-religious. She expressly doesn't believe in any kind of God, and steers clear of religion. But she fundamentally believes that things will work out for the best, and therefore sleeps well, once she hauls her night owl self to bed.

A woman I went to college with, one Lisa Friedman Miller of Teacher's College at Columbia, recently came out with a book called The Spiritual Child: The New Science of Parenting for Health and Lifelong Thinking, the thesis of which is that parents' spirituality -- and particularly mothers' -- is hugely impactful on their childrens' well-being. I should probably read it. I like to think that Mary's implicit trust in the world conveys itself to the kids and washes over some of my struggles, which sometimes manifest themselves in crankiness and irritability.

Or maybe the book is just plain wrong. The only way to know is to read it and ponder it. I don't think I can wait for the movie.

I also need to go back to Kierkegaarde and Pascal.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Origins in Africa

I was sitting on the subway last week looking at a couple of African-Americans, both in their 20s-30s. A particularly-dark skinned woman and a guy who had some features in common with Alonzo Mourning, the same regal cheekbones.  It occurred to me how pathetically unable I am to hazard much of a guess as to where people of sub-Saharan African descent hail from.  I mean, I know the difference between an Ethiopian and a West African, but from there it really goes downhill. Nothing compared to the level of phenotype consciousness I have for people of European descent or even East Asians, where I can pretty well differentiate between Chinese, Japanese, Koreans, etc. It is odd, given how much time I've spent living relatively near to Black people. But that's how we tag people in America.

Saturday, December 05, 2015

Fresh buzz

I got a haircut in a new place today, Menscutz on Elliot, next to where Locopops used to be. I had been going to a kind of redneck barbershop, and it's good to have exposure to those guys some just to be in tune with their thinking, but I had gotten sick of telling the guy to use setting #2 on my head and then feeling like he probably used a 3 or maybe even a 4, just so I'd go back sooner.  And it wasn't all that cheap, either.

I didn't know what to expect, but when I went into the new place, but I was greeted by a pleasant Asian woman who asked if I had an appointment. I said, no, and she pointed me to the nearest seat, attended by another Asian woman. There was a 3rd, and then black woman and a black guy manning the chairs.

It was very pleasant, much joking and banter between the people cutting hair, the black woman and the guy whose hair she was cutting new each other from their kids' basketball teams.  A couple of young Asian guys came in and were a little bit bashful about who was going first:  "you go first," "no, you do."

It was, in short, America. Nobody made any sly underhanded comments about Obamacare or gun control. It wasn't that cheap, but I'm pretty sure she used a #2, and at the end she massaged my head a little with a hot towel.

The woman who greeted me was watching the woman who was trimming me quite intently, and then they spoke to one another in what I'm pretty sure was Chinese. I wasn't sure if she was learning or overseeing, it turned out it was the former.

I think I'll go back, and next time I'll talk to the women more.  Find out where they're from.

Friday, December 04, 2015

Back in town

Just had a quick one night jaunt up to New York. A fine lunch and afternoon in Brooklyn, saw a couple of people at MidTown late in the day, a sushi feast with Kevin in the evening.  Today, breakfast with someone I hadn't really talked to in years, then a productive coffee on the Upper East Side, followed by (I kid you not) a $7 piece of pizza.  It was, after all, the Upper East Side. Admittedly, it was large, and tasty, but that was ridiculous. I was hungry and hadn't found banh mi.

Then a not so excellent flight home through Newark, followed by an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, in which the boy Wesley, son of the doctor, is invited onto the bridge and promoted to Acting Ensign by Captain Jean-Luc Picard. It was dark in the room, so Graham couldn't see that I actually cried when the Captain dubbed him. I can never tell when my yearning for the paternal approval that was never really forthcoming will bubble over like that and come for me. It did then.