Monday, May 30, 2016

Contradictions public and private

I usually don't get around to the front page of the Sunday Times, because Mary grabs that while I start with Sports, then move on to Week in Review, followed by Business, if I get there. Today being Memorial Day, I got to it.

There were two stories branching from Page 1 that pointed up aspects of something we already know all too well:  tons of money held privately, with not enough flowing to the public sector. The first story was about "free ports", where rich people store art, wine, and other expensive stuff away from the public eye in a tax-preferred setting. Nuffbeit to say that lots and lots of art is stored in this fashion in places from Geneva to Singapore to Newark, Delaware. There's debate about the wisdom of having so much art hidden away from a cultural standpoint, as in shouldn't people be able to see the art.  I get that, but I don't worry about it too much. There's plenty of art in the world, and people can always and always are creating more anyway. The chief lack is a lack of time to appreciate it, and/or piece of mind to be able to facilitate its appreciation, because people are stressed about feeding their families and/or otherwise vouchsafing their safety and prosperity.

But there is a lot of value being stored away and non-trivial taxes forgone. Though it's not as if just putting the art in the public eye and/or circulation would increase economic value. To the extent that it decreased scarcity, the forced showing of all that art could crash art markets and/or constrain margins at art museums. Which would be a relatively victimless crime, it's true.

The other article concerned the decline of CUNY, which, like many public universities, but perhaps more acutely so, is hugely underfunded but also has a lot of high paid administrators. New Yorks State and City and funding it as once they did, so higher fees are being pushed onto students, buildings are falling apart, classes are getting bigger and fewer between, etc.

It seems like a classic situation where rich people need to step into the breech and give to CUNY.  In general it seems like the high net worth are more inclined to give to the fancy private schools that they attended than to less well-heeled public ones, but that maybe back in the day this was less the case, that your Carnegies and Rockefellers better understood the need for supporting public institutions. We need to get back to that, and the Giving Pledge that Gates and Buffett have spearheaded points in the right direction.

That said, I can say for myself that this is a good deal more easily said than done. I came back to NC with a vision of giving to causes outside of my socio-economic milieu, to institutions like NCCU in particular, but the exigencies of life and how it happens have led me to support the things that impact us more immediately:  cancer (after Leslie's breast cancer and Sophie's losing battle) in particular is hard to get away from. Yes, I support Josh, and yes, I go out of my way to participate in the recovery community in places where I at least see and can help less wealthy people (Governor's Institute in particular), but really I live my life among affluent white and Asian people, and I rarely break out of that, and I slave away to protect my own class status by educating my kids well. And that is in turn driven by uncertainty about the future and their own ability to maintain their own class status, because of common causes (technology, globalization) and particular ones (autism).

It is hard to do the right the by the public sphere.

Sunday, May 29, 2016

Moral superiority

There was a moment when I was driving home this morning when I passed a couple of Passats, I think they were diesels, next to each other near Chapel of the Cross.  One was jumping the other. A WASP in a jacket was standing in front of it.

Safely ensconced in my Prius, a felt a wave of righteousness sweep over me as I thought of the emissions scandals.  And then, in the blink of an eye, I caught myself and thought "where the hell did that come from?" and backed off a little.

Whither Chapel Hill?

I don't necessarily make it to uptown Chapel Hill and Carrboro every week, so on those occasions that I make it to the 10 am Sunday morning AA meeting I like, I wend my way home by driving through town, even though I could use the bypass. I like in particular keeping track of the major construction projects, so that there impression on me will be gradual, instead of driving up there one day and being like "WTF, there's a 6-story building now."

In principle, I am all for developing upwards and increased density. It should bring more and better jobs, more urban intensity. It is kind of working. The other day I learned that both Google and Tibco have development teams located in the building which until recently housed Aveda, across from the University Square redevelopment. Those are good jobs to have downtown.

However, all this construction of new buildings is also just pushing up rents and driving out the kind of businesses that have historically given Chapel Hill-Carrboro character and made it an interesting place to be. Nice Price books is gone. Just today I saw a relatively newly vacant space on Main Street in Carrboro, where photographer Jesse Kalisher had his space (no big loss, really. His work wasn't that interesting, he was reputed to be an egotist). I fear in particular the day when the Bookshop on Franklin Street gets pushed out. That place is the birthplace of my soul.

So I'm seeing lots of retail vacancies already up on Franklin Street. In addition to the empty holes where restaurants should be down near us. This suggests that retail space is being overpriced in generally, and that more and more expensive retail space isn't going to do anybody any good.

It will need to be fancy eateries. But those are coming and going pretty quickly too.

Here are three thoughts

  1. The rarefication of Chapel Hill proceeds apace. The more metrosexual and cosmopolitan it becomes, the more it loses its soul and becomes kind of insufferable.
  2. The problem of excess retail space is secularly connected to the rise of Amazon. One local merchant, a jeweller, said to me not long ago that he was sanguine on the prospects for retail in general in America.
  3. Eventually the price of retail space may have to drop and be subsidized by office and residential tenants.

Tuesday, May 24, 2016


One time not too long before he died, Mary's father George Sr. and I were sitting on the front porch of their home in Larchmont on a summer afternoon. From over the small hill just to the East we could hear the voices of kids laughing, playing, and splashing over at Manor Beach (yes, that is its actual name). So George says to me: "You know, I remember times when I would be sitting up at my desk working on a draft of some letter or something, and I would hear those sounds of people having fun, and I resented it."

This was a very rare moment of pulling back the veil for George Sr. He was a generally chipper, if occasionally sardonic guy (God are those some WASPy adjectives, but I'm sticking with em). I loved the guy.

But the fact is, this resentment theme is huge for many of us in the breadwinning role, and for our spouses too. Life is all too often a series of compromises and decisions made on incomplete information -- albeit the best available to us at any given moment -- and then we roll forward and make what we can of the decisions. But it ain't always easy.

The breadwinner often feels (s)he gives up more, sacrificing dreams, but the primary caregiver does too. And when shit gets dicey, we often blame our spouses, time and again, though we know it's not their fault.

It is the oldest story in the book, and it eats marriages and all sorts of other relationships alive, even though we know what is going on down below the surface, and we can even talk about it. Many times.

Incidentally, this memory wasn't spurred by anything specific with Mary today. It was the noise of a bunch of high school kids, presumably ECHHS seniors, out in the park by the lake behind our house. Making noise, having fun.  I suppose that, in the grogginess following general anesthesia from my colonoscopy. the firmly punctuated 50-year old in me resented their youthful carefreeness.

Even though I am, at this moment, at the point in Book 4 of Knausgaard where Karl Ove, a high school senior, works through the challenges of his parents' divorce -- the growing acuteness of his father's alcoholism and his own slide into near constant drinking, hash smoking, and truancy. Or perhaps it's better to say that he isn't working through anything, he is just drifting on a wave of trauma-induced instability, one that is all too familiar to me. And his mom, like my mom, expresses her concern for him and he is just like "FU mom," though he knows that she is the one firm point in the constellation of his life.

And it is just where I was when I was the same age as those noisy boys out back: partying, making noise, fronting, getting ready to burst forth into life elsewhere.

Saturday, May 21, 2016

Attention seeking

It is odd how things flow.  On the one hand, during the week it is my job in a sense to seek attention. I am trying to develop a business, which means making people want the service we are providing. To that end I have to reach into the outside world and solicit the attention of others: go out and meet people, write, speak, present, call people on the phone, provide good service to current clients, increase my skillsets and knowledge base in a way that allows me to serve others better and then communicate these improvements to the right subset of the outside world so that it requests my/our services. It is a hard thing to do, and to some extent the success metric is reciprocal inbound traffic: calls, emails, texts, etc. asking for me.

So when I come home I am tired of seeking attention and really just want to be, but often it is when I am at home that my assistance is most needed:  chores, homework, technical support, advice, crises, etc. What I would rather do is just commune:  sit on the couch with a child and read (right now Natalie is on the other end of the couch with her laptop) or watch TV (Star Trek with G., Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt with N.) and so on. I don't want to be asked for things. But there's always something to do. And I get pissy and resent it.

I also really like people to read my blog, and at times I put stock by the statistics that various sources provide:  Statcounter, Google, etc.  But I just looked and saw that as of right now, most of my traffic is coming from France, and the second biggest source is Russia. Rather suspicious, actually. In fact, I just went back and anonymized my kids' names, though I've spelled them out a hundred times before.  It looks as if some crawlers are aggregating information on me, perhaps in an attempt to predict passwords and security words so as to break into financial web sites and steal stuff.  Who knows? If I were a cybercriminal, I would certainly try to.'

Attention, like much else, can be a double-edged sword.

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Relative silence

It has been a mad busy weekend, which explains my relative dearth of posts.  I had a workshop at the Chapel Hill Public Library today, which ended up sucking up much of my weekend.  On top of an excellent game yesterday, I felt in better form than I had all season, and a party last night on one side of the lake, followed by another this evening on the other side of it, the Lake Forest Association spring social.  Busy busy busy.  Really no room for the studied languor and reflection which usually characterize the Grouse's weekends. I looked more like a typical suburban guy than a meta-one. Oh well.

Now it's time for bed. More soon.

Next weekend Graham and I will check out the new Captain America movie. Psyched for that.

Saturday, May 14, 2016

Again about Karl Ove Knausgaard

I know I keep coming back to this, but I just can't help myself. There is something mesmerizing about this series of books. I am now in the middle of Book 4, in which our hero has taken himself to the Northern reaches of Norway to teach in a high school, barely removed from high school himself. He chronicles with absolute candor the flights and indignities of it all, including getting boners looking at students, drinking till he blacks out, his manic drive to lose his virginity, his compulsion to shoplift.

Right now he has flashed back to the time when his parents are in the middle of their divorce.  He is at his dad's new house, with his new girlfriend, their first time having dinner together after his dad moved out, and already he can see his dad's standards are slipping. His dad is getting drunker than usual, is letting Karl Ove drink himself, is praising his new girlfriend, and Karl Ove is testing his limits, drinking more than his dad had initially said he would be allowed to, smoking in front of his dad, trying to get a sense of the new lay of the land.

Yes, I remember this moment with my dad. It wasn't exactly the same, but there was much in common. My dad and I smoked pot together (though his weed was pretty shitty, it must be owned). We tried to interact as peers. It didn't really last for long.

In general, this is the effect of riding shotgun with Knausgaard as he relives his life: I remember mine. When he arrives in the village in the North of Norway and describes setting up his new home there, I was transported back somehow to arriving to graduate school at Columbia in 1991, moving into my new apartment. I remembered how the bookshelves I had brought, plain, old, dark particle board ones from mom's office, would barely fit into the elevator.  There was a moment we thought they wouldn't, but somehow we wedged them in there and cracked the cover on the elevator light.

I hadn't thought about that in many years. It is odd, this effect, and it happens on more substantial levels as well. I will keep reading.

Sunday, May 08, 2016

Positive interruption

For some reason, I let myself be interrupted in the middle of booking the last bit of summer travel for our next Griswoldian adventure to help Graham and Ben with some technical trouble with a nerf gun. I was having one of those giving tree moments, feeling like my life was being drained from me by little tasks, but when I passed through the rec room to get my toolbox, I heard Natalie, out on the porch in the breeze, gamely taking an AP World History practice test, after having taken the SAT yesterday (also really just for practice).  She was singing to herself.  So lovely.

Wednesday, May 04, 2016


At the grocery store today, I was buying a couple of bags of nuts, and I ran into someone I know, not all that well, admittedly. She asked me how my business was going, and I told her it was coming along, but that it demanded "constant application."

"Constant application, huh?" She said, and then she remarked how it was a rather formal way of speaking, and I have to confess that she was right. Others have remarked that I have somewhat geeky diction at times, as entirely befits with my outlandish degree of overeducation. Some have even pointed out that I say "indeed" a lot, and sometimes I find myself saying it just to buy myself time to think when speaking, much as others might say "ya know what I mean?"

But I think this tendency has likely become even more pronounced in recent months, as Graham and I have been working our way through Star Trek: The Next Generation. Specifically, I have probably been influenced by the hyper-formal diction of one Commander Data, android extraordinaire. I will confess that I find him to be the beating heart of the show, ever earnest in his desire to figure out what it means to be human, supported in this quest by the ever-steady Captain Picard.  Not every episode is great, but the ones foregrounding Data are always killer.

Sunday, May 01, 2016

In memoriam, Frank Miller

Friday evening a bunch of Slavist and other sundry geeks gathered at Columbia to celebrate the life of Frank Miller. And celebrate we did.

I went there sensing that, whatever Frank stories I had, they probably weren't extensive enough to merit trying to grab the mike, even if it was an open mike affair, which it wasn't, though exceptions were made. But there was no need. Excellent stories abounded, of Frank's jokes, devotion to his students and colleagues, and generally infectiously good spirits.

For me, the best moment came from Jason Galie, who recounted a trip to Frank's lakeside dacha upstate sometime back in the aughts. Frank drove them up there, they got their stuff out of the car and into the house, and then Frank took Jason out behind the house to a blueberry bush that was laden with berries, and they proceeded to stand there and eat berries off the bush for an hour, while Frank launched into a deeply Frankish discussion of blueberries, lingonberries, and god knows whatever berries, then the conversation moved on to rodents, fish, trees, folklore, and, almost certainly, interludes of the scabrous.

There were plenty of other poignant moments. Frank's sister told of lying in bed with him the day before he died, listening to opera, and Frank telling her that if he had it all to do over again, that he would be an opera singer because, for him, "opera sparkled."  Lynn Visson told of him laying in bed in his last week meticulously preparing for his upcoming lessons. Elizabeth McLendon spoke of the deep bond Frank had formed with her family in their shared native South Carolina, of how Frank had becoming and adoptive sibling and never forgot her mother's birthday.

There were plenty of allusions to the jokes but, for the most part, people exercised restraint in actually telling them. Or, if they couldn't do that, they left out the punchlines.

I don't know. There were lots of great stories. I'm sure I've already lost many of the most important details. The main tenor was the strength of devotion and relationships Frank fostered with a bunch of folks. Frank was one of those people for whom, so long as you were on his good side (and I remember a select few who weren't), whomever he was talking to was his best friend, and I mean that in the very best way.  He is, and will be, deeply missed.