Saturday, February 27, 2016

Sneaking it in, almost

At a beach house with friends, in an exceptionally nice place, it must be owned.  After a breakfast made late by our own drowsiness, everyone else walked off to the beach to begin the day's excursions and activities. I feel that's a little like trying to make the European trip of 12 countries in 5 weeks. I am also a little lazy.

So Knausgaard and I repaired to the roof deck, where I sat in the son and a gentle breeze and listened to birds, interrupted only by the gentle and ever present droning of climate control and yes, a small plane or two off in the distance. As he rounds the corner towards the end of Book 2 of My Struggle, which has been a harder slog than Book 1, Knausgaard is beginning to tie things up.  400 pages after we left him, we are reunified with him as he smokes a cigarette after the 50 page birthday party which began the book. 10 pages after that, we rejoin him and his whole family as they leave some playground where he and his wife had been fuming at each other at the very beginning of the book, I think. The whole thing coheres more and more. There is method to his at times seeming overindulgence in detail.

Over breakfast here in this bastion of the almost if not quite 1% there were typical discussions of for-profit corporations and the need for more regulation thereof and income inequality. It always makes me feel more than a little guilty, given what I do for a living, which is help people hold onto their money, and much of that involves counseling them to think about the ways the US tax code incents certain behaviors. To be sure, most of my clients don't have enough money to be doing anything exotic. It's all about 401ks, 403bs, 529s, being mindful of capital gains, holding onto receipts associated with legitimate business expenses, etc.

A loud noise just came on downstairs.  The pump?  Hard to say. Too loud to think and write, that's for sure.

At any rate, back to my initial premise for this post, sitting there on the roof, in the sun and the breeze, I was reminded of you, my reader, and our implicit contract. That is, it was a quiet time on Saturday morning, the mind was relaxed and fruitful, therefore it was time to Grouse.

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

The need for humanists

Bill Gates came out with his annual letter yesterday.  I haven't read it yet, but I did read excerpts from an interview he did in connection with it, in which he says this.

If you zoom out a little bit, and you look at the acceleration of science over the past 100 years, and the basic understanding we have gained and the tools we have, and the percentage of people in the world getting literate and getting engineering degrees, those numbers are on the constant rise.
Of course the humanist in me wishes he had rued the absence of people getting humanities degrees, but he didn't. The market pricing of those certainly indicates that the world thinks it is getting enough of them, and it is always difficult to argue with the market.

Certainly the humanities have done a good job of shooting themselves in the foot by trying to be ever holier in thou in their calls for ever greater purity and complexity around a greater number of granular behavioral standards. Although, at root, humanists are trying to address the big questions, they all too often shy away from letting the questions stay big and letting students wrestle with them to apply the big to the small in their own lives. Instead, they concentrate on the small, and treat lack of fealty thereto as treason against the big.

Buried deep within the current state of the humanities is a belief that absolute progress in ethics can be made, that we can stand on the shoulders of our elders. I tend to doubt that, though certainly our legal code and institutional infrastructure can instantiate progress, individuals must individually come to their own understandings of and positions on the big questions.

Then again, the fact that more than enough people go out and get degrees in the humanities and social sciences at least attests to the fact that lots of people really do want to do good. And the drift of people like Gates from tooth and nail profit-making to trying to address the big questions also attests to the fact that the big questions eventually exert their pull on, if not everyone, than many.

So maybe we don't need more humanists. But we could use more respect, if only we could earn it.

Monday, February 22, 2016

Downton Abbey, the final season

I will say this. They have been digging deep to make a plot in this season's Downton Abbey, and at times it has been slow going and has even gotten quite silly. But I am OK with that. Yes, the show is sentimental and maudlin and hopelessly idealize, but it still works for me, and it works on me. Almost every week, I find myself moved to tears by some stupid little crap. Somebody steps up and does something large and magnanimous and it is moving.

I will be sad to see it end. Then, what will I have to get Mary to come sit on the couch with me and watch TV with any regularity at all? PBS has itself not found a worthy heir.

Sunday, February 21, 2016

Watching Star Trek

I see from a quick scan of the blog that I have mentioned watching Star Trek with Graham a number of times over the last year, which is not surprising, because we have been doing it regularly. As the Grouse has matured over the years, I have drifted ever more into the reflective mode, veering away from the descriptive, archival purpose that was one of the things I was trying to do when I started: just write down what I was doing and what it felt like. More for the future me than for non-me readers in the present.

Actually watching Star Trek: Next Generation with Graham goes like this. First, we wedge ourselves into the armchair in the corner, which is itself a venerable artefact, having been bought right when Mary and I started going out right at 21 years ago. The chair has survived quite a lot, two infants/toddlers and a dog. We'll leave it at that. Right now, it is beginning to disintegrate in places, hastened, I believe, by the extra wear and tear of the two of us sitting there. Oh well, it is rather cozy. I will be sad when we are too big to sit there together. We hold hands a lot.

After the 2-3 minute segment introducing the plot runs, the theme music and opening credits start rolling. I personally like to whistle the theme, but Graham finds that "incredibly annoying," so I have desisted. How I wish we could ban the use of the word "annoying" from our household, but that would be hard.

Then the show starts in earnest. Graham often takes exception to technical details in the plot, little bits of illogic therein. So he starts to blather about them and try to essentially outsmart the script writers. His objections may actually delve into correction of Trekie pseudoscience, pointing out how one episode contradicts another: ("In the episode with the Quillians they said that an antimatter-matter imbalance would result in an implosion, not an explosion," something like that) I'm sure I did this when I was younger. Shit, I kind of do it now.

But when we are mashed together in the armchair, I am often trying to follow the plot myself and either do my best to ignore him or shush him. I don't know if that's the best tactic, but I'll be damned if I don't want to follow the show.

On days when I am very tired, I may lean my head back and drift off to sleep a little. Honestly, that's the best.

Saturday, February 20, 2016

Earning Spring

It's supposed to be a very mild, Spring-like day today here, following a short period of wintry weather, and I can't shake the feeling that Spring has, in some way, not been earned.  I probably don't need to dig back too far to figure out where this line of thinking/feeling originates:  it feels rather Christian, WASPy, this idea that good things must be earned by depriving yourself of them, and that you can't just have them because they are there.

In fact, I half wonder whether this attitude might not be shaded by the
fact that the Christian worldview was so intensively formed within the 4-season paradigm of Europe. Certainly Ecclesiastes 3 ("To everything, there is a season, and a time to every purpose under heaven") was written within a climatic zone where the difference between winter and summer was less dramatic than what people experienced in temperate Europe, and in particular the northern Europe whence Protestantism and its intense notions of predestination took shape. But it certainly feels right that the northern seasons imbued the cyclical worldview of Ecclesiastes with deeper coloring. I would be shocked if there aren't a number of books written about this topic.

Speaking of cyclicality and earning things in a fundemental, ethical sense, there's also the question of demographics, market cycles, and debt, and the way generations lord their sacrifices over on their kids and grandkids. So people brought up during the Depression and the "The Greatest Generation" guilt-tripped to Boomers about their consumption and failure to save.  Or the deep anxiety and recrimination we feel about taking on huge amounts of federal debt for our kids to pay off during a period of negatively shifting dependency ratios (i.e. lower ratio of workers to retirees).

To bring it back to my initial point: lurking inches behind my feelings about "earning Spring" is the worry about global warming, of course, and we all know that has been foisted upon our children.

Then there's the issue of my always trying to interpret things based on religious-cultural background. Sometimes I think the course that I took with Juan Linz based on Weber's Economy and Society back in my sophomore year in college influenced my thinking so profoundly precisely because I did so little of the reading, because it was so boring.

Monday, February 15, 2016

All the Rage

I had the pleasure of joining in a viewing of Suki Hawley and Michael Galinsky's work in progress All the Rage, a documentary about John Sarno, an NYU-based physician whose radical work on back pain and pain in general, which focuses intensively on the connection between mind, emotion and body and rejects musculo-skeletal determinism prevalent in mainstream medicine. Sarno has not, to be sure, been a figure welcomed in the medical establishment.

The film focuses just as much on Galinsky and his family's own connection to Sarno. First his father, than his twin brother, then Michael have been helped if not permanently cured of back pain and other issues by Sarno, and Michael's desire to legitimize and raise consciousness around Sarno's work has been a long-running and entirely heartfelt effort for a goodly while by now. And it's more than that too, in many ways Galinsky is reaching to make a deep, holistic statement about life, family, ambition, self-worth, how we treat ourselves... there's a lot of stuff going on. You'll have to see it when it comes out.

But here's the thing. I identified with a lot of Michael's journey. We're from the same place, same generation, issues with dads (who doesn't have em), ambition, worrying about how what he does impacts his kids, blah blah blah, he's telling a universal story through his own experience, and in a very open way.

But my story, my conflicts with my dad and our own family narrative (including plenty of stuff from my mom's side has always been filtered through the lense of substance abuse and affective disorders. So when the film started trotting out statistics about how big of a problem chronic pain, and in particular back pain, was in America ("$600 billion annual economic impact") I found myself feeling left out. Because though I've had intermittent and sporadic issues with back pain, it's never been more than that, or so I was thinking...

And, sure enough, like clockwork, I had back pain when I went home that night. The same kind of seemingly causeless upper back pain that I've had before, now and again.  And of course, it has been recurring with greater frequency since then. It's almost like my back and my body are willing me to have recourse to Dr. Sarno and his book, because it seems like such an appealing paradigm: journaling, being in touch with the feelings which lie at the root of your pain, etc.

In the middle of writing this post, on a cold day, I drove out to big box land to get some running tights, having left my other ones in Larchmont over Christmas. I always leave something there. As I may have mentioned, I am no fan of the big boxes, and on my way out I found myself getting pissed off at a variety of Andy Rooney-type things: the traffic (which, viewed differently, is but a natural outgrowth of Chapel Hill's anti-development policy which pushes all that stuff out to the Durham border, and living in a succesful metro area), how expensive stuff is (anger and shame at myself for not having found the fabled easy path to sustainable revenue).  And yes, my back was twinging, though it abated a bit as I looked at those pulling into the shopping center and saw how many lands they seemed to hail from. Made me proud for a moment to be in a reasonably hospitable corner of America.

More time passed, ice came down over a long weekend, and I realized that I in fact have had more intermittent back pain than I was giving myself credit for. Had I not, for example, called up my friend David the neurologist at some point in time and gotten a reference to a book about exercises to do to calm the aches back there? Had I not had Graham walk on my back many many times? Did I not, after many months of working through the CFP curriculum, start standing at my desk for 3-4 hours a day to mitigate pain.

Oh yes, gentle reader, all of these things are true, all of them I have done. I have just not focused on my back pain as being a core issue. But now, my back hurts. I am in the game. Better get the book, and add it to the pile.

Competition, self-promotion

I just scrolled through Facebook and was happy and supportive of every post I saw until I came to the post of someone who was promoting their work. An actual friend, someone who has been successful and has worked his/her butt off to do so, someone who has fought past a type of adversity I have not and has done so with aplomb. Yes, it is also someone with some issues, for sure, who has been involved in conflicts with friends and others I'm close to.

At any rate, I arrived at this self-promotional post and my la la everything is so happy and nice mood was spoiled.

But why? Who else do I expect will promote this person if not him/herself?  I know I have to push my own stuff, however conflicted I may be about doing so. Whence this instinct to compete at all times and therefore, at some level, to wish to tear others down? Where else but from my own self-image issues.

I must go back and like that post just now.

Saturday, February 13, 2016

What we're burning

This winter we are burning through logs from the tree that was taken down in our front yard in November of  2013.  The wood from this tree was impossible to split at first, destroying a maul and then challenging me mightily even after I went out and got a shiny new axe. I remember whacking and flailing away at it futilely in the driveway as runners and walkers went by, with very limited success and no little embarassment.

So I let it dry for a year.  Much of it split better, I guess we burnt some of it last winter.

This winter it is burning quite nicely, thank you very much. Even some of the big pieces that weren't of a good shape to be split, those are burning too.  It is very gratifying.

A good portion of the tree was chipped and placed at the back of our lot. It was a big assed pile. I spread it out as mulch to try to suppress the growth of the dreaded Japanese Stiltgrass, which it has done fairly successfully. That was a laborious task.

I would say that we are putting this tree to good use. When it is gone, I may have to go out and actually purchase firewood, which will be a bummer.


Now is the time, after my regular Saturday morning meeting, when I have gotten in the habit of blogging.  Usually my mind feels refreshed by having gotten up and gotten out to see like-minded folx, and today that is true to a limited extent.

The truth is, I am worn down right now mentally, emotionally, what have you, by the yoinky markets and the challenge of building a business. I feel responsible, undoubtedly excessively so, for other people's financial situations. Which is silly, because I can't control the markets, I didn't drive my clients' savings behaviors that got them to where they are today, I can't understand all the nuances of federal, state and (this month) New York City and perhaps some international tax code, and I can't single-handedly change behaviors. But still, I put a lot on myself. I have to remember that I am a generalist, and need to call specialists all the time, and that I am just one guy. But I want to do it all right.

In the evening, I am often tired, and I have found myself watching whatever is on ESPN at times. The other night I watched Iowa play Indiana, and I must say that I found myself rooting for Indiana, and wanting to go back to that point in my childhood where Indiana and Bobby Knight were the enemy. Obviously, it was really a longing for Dean Smith, my ethical father figure, and the Cold War, when the Soviet Union was our ideological antipode and America's moral and ethical role in the world was relatively clear.

It's also just nice to watch kids work hard towards a well-defined goal with clearly defined rules. In the end, the thing about sports is they are a pretty simple narrative, and one that is easily graspable, so long as you know the rules. If you get to know the players, so much the better.

As I watched, I also found myself loving, strangely enough, Dick Vitale. Indiana's point guard shot a three from 28 feet or so out and Vitale calls out "He launched one from Indianapolis!"  A couple of minutes later, they showed a replay and he said exactly the same thing. Rather than being annoyed, I was comforted by the familiar voice and, frankly, the genuine enthusiasm. Annoying as he may be, I think Vitale basically loves the game, and what's not to like about that?

Last night, I remembered that I could watch Netflix, specifically Aziz Ansari's Master of None. Ansari is a very special guy, smart, earnest, funny, in all ways a great American and the hope of our nation: an immigrant kid with an open mind and heart and courage.

Tuesday, February 09, 2016

Home envy

Natalie and I went out for driving practice on Sunday in Greenwood, a neighborhood my mom had suggested owing to its high median age and complete lack of through traffic. It was the second time we had practiced there, and it was a great idea, even if we forgot to grab the "Student Driver" magnet we had ordered from some very large online emporium of all kinds of goods, the name of which momentarily escapes me...

At any rate, we drove around slowly -- never exceeding 22 miles per hour -- for an hour, and it was just the kind of quality time I have come to cherish with Natalie. Quiet time to talk about nothing and everything.

It did give me time to look at the houses back there, and I confess to envying some of them. Not the biggest and swankiest, mind you, but some of the older ones, some with circular drives and redolent of gentrydom. I found myself wondering why it was I wasn't friends with many people in houses like that. Partially because I'm not that old -- and I think these are likely homes that have had long-time owners -- and partially because I haven't expressly sought to hang out with the affluent. Building relationships with the moneyed was never a clear goal for me, though at this juncture, now that I am in the business of helping people with their finances, it seems that it might have been wise for it to have been. Whatevs.

At any rate, I gaze upon these homes and have no doubt ridiculously idealized fantasies about the tranquil lives of the people who live in them. I know intellectually that this is absurd, yet I slip and slide into it anyway. It's particularly silly given that our house is itself quite nice, and our life looks quite tranquil, and by most objective measures is. Oh well. Back to work.

Sunday, February 07, 2016

Heard while on a run

At the tail end of my run in Duke Forest yesterday, after I had crossed the weir or low bridge or whatever you call it, where I had to remove my shoes and wade through the rather chilly water, I was coming up the big hill headed back towards Whitfield, when off to my right I heard the most profound chorus of birds chirping and screeching.  Off to the left, nothing. I stopped and listened, trying to figure out what was up, but it exceeded my pay grade.  For a few moments it died back, then they were at it again, making a world of noise about something.

I was tempted to set off through the woods in the direction of the assembled avians, but thought better of it, fearing something out of Hitchcock. I kept going. After all, I had told Graham we were headed to Flyleaf to pick up some books, and I needed to keep my word, lest he do nothing but lay on his bed all afternoon and read.

Not that that's all bad.

Saturday, February 06, 2016

Father figures

I went to the doctor this week for my annual check-up, and when I told him that I was turning 50 he came over and drew a little declining graph for me and said: "This is what happens when we age, we cruise along on our youth for a while, but then when we turn 50 things start to break down pretty quickly." Then he drew another line, extending the period of decline further out and continued "But there are ways we can manage this process, with regular exercise, good diet, cherishing and maintaining relationships with our spouses, children, and friends..." Then he recommended a book about aging.

You would think that it would be a bummer to get this lecture, but the fact is, I was so happy to receive this wisdom, because he was cheerful, upbeat, direct, earnest and -- and this is the most important thing -- he was an older male, with grey hair, even more than me.  I have been seeing him for years, and even though I'm not sure he remembers me that well, I remember him, because I so thirst for authoritative father figures.

First Mary's dad -- whom I adored  -- died in 2009, then my dad, with whom I had a very complicated relationship, and he could never offer me this kind of guidance so directly. Today after my Al Anon meeting I went out for coffee with some other guys, including a guy who's an Episcopal priest and who could be my sponsor. I haven't had a sponsor for a few months, I've never had the perfect one. I found myself evaluating him -- could he be the guy who could be my conversational security blanket?

Anyway, I have to recognize that this is all very silly, because of course no one has all the answers, and I do have a pretty solid support network in my mom, my sister, Mary, and all my excellent friends. But the myth of some grey-haired guy who can offer me easy answers lurks there viscerally, barely subcutaneous, waiting to erupt at the slightest provocation.

Sometimes. But now it is time to take Graham to martial arts. And then we will listen to Click and Clack on the drive back home. Graham is fond in particular of the sign off at the very end, when they say something like:  "And now, even though Robert Siegel reaches for his revolver every time he hears us say it, this is NPR."

Thursday, February 04, 2016

My Struggle, Volume 1

I have alluded to the fact that I was taking up Karl Ove Knausgaard's My Struggle, and now I have done so. I see what all the hype was about.

The first volume is quite something. It is all about his father, and his father's death, and his father's alcoholism, and growing up listening to alt rock and trying to get girls' attention. Obviously, it was close to home.

It is difficult to say what it is about Knausgaard, except to say that it is just all there on the page, he holds nothing back, he is intensely present and open. Probably the most compelling part of it was when he and his brother labor intensively to clean up the wreckage into which his father and his grandmother had let her home sink as he drank himself to death, and she, it turns out, helped him. Knausgaard is unflinching in discussing, for instance, how his grandmother routinely pees while sitting in a chair in the kitchen or living room.

Again, it's hard to describe, without actually working hard at it, and lord knows it is altogether too late for that. Just read it.

Tuesday, February 02, 2016


Natalie today found out that she had not gotten in to Duke TIP this summer, she's on a wait list. It's just because there's so much demand, we had gotten the application in on time, she just wasn't randomly selected to get into one of her chosen courses.

This saddens her, because she totally loves TIP and has made many besties there over the last couple of years. And yet, she bore it all with characteristic aplomb and didn't let it get her down. She just asked if she could go to debate camp instead if she doesn't get in off the wait list.

How she keeps a good attitude in spite of disappointment never ceases to marvel and inspire me. Me, Mr. Gloom and Doom, who awakes often at 4:30 in the morning obsessing about this or that, unable to get back to sleep. It fills me with immense pride to see her press forward, seemingly in possession of a somatic kind of gratitude that I must continually and laboriously cultivate.