Saturday, July 30, 2016

Changing perspective

Over the years I have written a lot about the themes of entropy, flux and contigency, and particularly how they relate to and/or are made manifest in yard care and/or house care. Basically, the idea that we trim and rake and cut and clean and dust to inculcate order into our surroundings and exert control over nature and the external, forces that seem to beset us at every turn. When I started reflecting on this, I viewed it somewhat ironically and at a distance, in the abstract terms of the slightly warmed over humanities scholar.

By now, I know it is personal, or at least it has become so for me. The desire to impose order on the world is all about aging.

I feel it in particular with regard to my house, and my car... I look at signs of overgrowth of plants, on the one hand, or mold or worn paint, on the other, and I feel a need to battle them, but not the energy. I really should outsource more of it.

I just did a quick search and found that I have already written much the same post, back in November. Here it is.

So let me shift gears slightly.  Last weekend I decided it was finally time to wash the Volvo, which looked pretty disgusting. So I took it to the car wash on the road formerly known as Airport. I was pulling in to the drive through one there, which I like because you get to let go inside the car and take a little nap while the sound of swooshy swoosh washes over you, but this older Caribbean gentleman who worked there looks at my car and points back to the self-service area, where you spray your car yourself and says:  "if it were my car, I'd take it there, driving through this thing isn't gonna hardly do anything."  Then he said something and "high-pressure rinse" so I said "OK" and drove over where he had pointed.

So I put like ten bucks in the thing and went through all the steps and felt like I had done a pretty decent job. Sure, some of the much didn't come off, but it looked much better to me.  And I pulled through to the vacuuming area. The older guy comes along and looks at it, shakes his head a little and says "How much money did you put in there?"  So I told him. And he goes "back it up into there and let me work on it a little."  Then he goes and gets a card that lets him get free time using the machines, and spends about 15 more minutes on it.  Really working it.  He used "tire wash" on the whole car because it was, as he said, the strongest soap.

In the end, the car came out looking great, and he reluctantly accepted a nice tip. And I learned how to wash a car as filthy as that.

I too felt great, having pushed back the craggy fingers of death a little further away from our fine old car.  And that car wash -- whose owner played baseball in high school 60 years ago with my departed uncle Heywood -- cemented a customer for life through excellent customer service.

Friday, July 29, 2016

The front seat

As I drove off today, Graham and I passed Natalie as she was walking to her friend's house.  "Why is Graham in the front seat?", she asked.  I slowed down and said that it was for the same reason that I had her sit in the front seat, so that we could have good conversations.  "I didn't sit in the front seat until I was older," she said.

It is all too easy to fetishize the equal treatment of children. My mom was very assiduous in this practice, going so far as to count the Hershey's kisses that went into our Christmas stockings to make sure that we got exactly the same. In general, we try to do this in our household, if not to the same degree of granularity as that.

But this can obviously be a double-edged sword, as in Natalie's comment this morning. She perceives unequal treatment in the matter of the front seat, Graham got their earlier than she did. The fact is that Mary, with her strong safety inclination and risk aversion, espoused keeping the kids in the back seat for longer, maybe didn't even think of moving them there as a sign of promotion towards adulthood and relationship progression (i.e. I view it as putting the kids on more nearly equal footing with us).

For me, getting Graham up there maybe a little earlier than Natalie got there is an effect of having learned from parenting Natalie that the front seat was a good idea as a way of changing the conversation.  But now I need to talk to her about it.  The good news is that, because she is so mature and well-adjusted, I think she will be OK with it when I explain it.

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Lives of crime

At lunch with a friend the other day conversation turned to a common friend from high school, an African-American guy, who my friend said had been in trouble with the law sometime back. I said well, so have I a little, and imagine how many times I could have been arrested for possession of marijuana.  Lets just say several.

Then at lunch on Friday with another couple of guys, we were discussing crazy things from our youths and Chapel Hill in the 70s, when you could buy beer at the age of 15, just because of how lax things were, and I was reminded of how, sometime in there, after the drinking age had gone up to 21, I had taken someone else's birth certificate to DMV and gotten a driver's license with his name on it. I had borrowed the birth certificate (and gave it back of course).

Looking back on it, it's incredible to think I did that, the combination of  1. cajones and 2. lack of judgment that it took to do so.  One of the guys I was with was like, "that's pretty serious, you could have gotten jail time for that" and I thought, of course he was right, but the assumption we made was always that, because we were educated white kids, we would never really have the book thrown at us, no matter what we did, so long as it was never violent crime. And it was probably a reasonable assumption.

And it probably went down with the tacit complicity of the people at DMV.  They probably looked at me, I was probably 19 at the time and thought "what's the use of hassling this white kid? Nothing's going to happen to him."

This, in short, is white privilege, manifested in my life. Or one instance thereof.

Sunday, July 24, 2016


I bought a Lyle Lovett CD at the Thrift Store for a buck. I forget what it's called. I had never really listened to Lovett that much, but he's one of those guys that I look at and feel like I should like him. I do have pretty vivid, if most likely erroneous, memories of him in Robert Altman's The Player as Whoopi Goldberg's slightly creepy partner on the police force, especially when they chant ("one of us, one of us").  That is a movie I really need to watch again, even over and above Mary's aversion to rewatching things.

In any case, I've listened to the CD in part a couple of times now. It's not that great, yet one of the songs has gotten stuck in my head anyway and I am pleased with that because, hey, it's a perfectly nice song and addition to my internal soundtrack.  And the money went to the Chapel Hill-Carrboro schools. What's not to like?

When I first started writing this blog, I envisioned it as a place to keep my writing muscles tuned up, and that therefore I would write in it every day, if only for 15 minutes. This discipline has slipped, and I would be surprised if I ever got back to doing it even 6 days a week, but I should try to up my rate. I find that I am most inclined to write in it in the mornings, and when I'm feeling good. The problem has been that, during my recent period of professional transition, I have felt harried and pressed in the mornings, and therefore not good most of the time.  I will work on that.

Saturday, July 23, 2016

Long day of many activities

Went swimming in the lake, and for the third time in a row it appears I am getting stuffed up.  It appears I may be allergic to something in there, which is kind of a bummer.  I count on being able to swim in that durned thing in the summer, when it is really too hot for a sensible person to go running or do other above ground activities any time other than first thing in the morning -- which is when I like to drink coffee, thank you very much.  I could go swim in the pool, yes, but that is dead boring, and there are no herons to startle there.

In the evening, we want to a party at Alan's house.  A very interesting and diverse group of friends he has. Talked to a white guy who had a medical specialty of sorts early on, nice guy, but hadn't really thought very broadly about much stuff.  Then I talked to a African-American guy from up near Person County who ran his own highly specialized business and had figured a bunch of shit out, and then another businessman from Senegal, who was very curious and rambling in his interests. He had not long ago gone to China and told tales of entire malls specializing in athletic shoes on the one hand, or cosmetics on the other.  I had never heard about that.

It is enough to make me lament much more deeply than I already did the relative monochromism of my social and professional circles,

Monday, July 18, 2016

Loud muscle car

On my way to AA yesterday morning listening to NPR in my Prius I was passed by a very loud muscle car, and it occurred to me how much the car and its noise reflected the threatened masculinity and perceived inadequacy of the owner.  Then I thought about Trump, and all those who support him, and how they seem to fall into the same camp, making a lot of noise because they are scared. Rage, rage, against the dying of the white.

As we continued on, I wondered if the driver might be headed to the same AA meeting as I was, and it turned out that (s)he was (I assume it was a guy, but who knows?  I've been wrong about many things in life).  I parked in another lot than the car's driver, and didn't see who it was, and I'm glad about that, because sobriety and politics should not mix. I hope the person chills out in time.

Saturday, July 16, 2016

The Parable of Messi and Ronaldo

On the Messi/Ronaldo debate, I have always come down on the side of the Argentine little magician. I like his style on the pitch better, I appreciate his determination and grit, etc. etc. His story of overcoming the liability of his smallness resonates with me, and so on.  Plus the issue of Ronaldo's blinding good looks, perfect physique, and seeming ego.

But in recent weeks we have heard the revelation that Messi has been sentenced to something like 21 months in jail for tax evasion, and then somebody on Facebook tapped me into the fact of Ronaldo's pretty substantial charitable inclination.  He was even voted the world's most charitable sports star.  And then there's the issue of his clear and indubitable deep desire to win the Euro, and his leadership off the field after injury took him out of the championship game. So maybe I've been judging a book by its cover.

(forgive the seemingly jarring transition and skeletal argument.  this is a stub of what should be a bigger, professional post). I wonder if there's not something similar going on with value and growth stocks.  Value stocks are supposed to win over time, it is one of the observed anomalies that undercut modern portfolio theory, or the idea that markets are perfectly rational.  But up until recent weeks, growth (stocks like Amazon, Tesla, high-fliers that capitalize on observed trends but may be capital-intensive as they grow) had been leading value for a long long time.  I actually just checked the numbers and value seems to have made a comeback for the time being, over time periods as long as 5 years.

Basically, the value story resonates with middle-class investors.  We like the idea that prudent, soberly run businesses should win over time. It's a turtle vs. hare thing, and many active and program-driven funds and ETFs capitalize on this belief.

But what if this bias has lowered the cost of capital for firms that look like value investments, encouraging them to be less efficient and effective stewards of other people's money?  I've heard this argument made about socially-responsible firms, and it kind of makes sense. If I were a CFO, I would consciously endeavor to make my firm look like a value investment.

Just sayin.

Friday, July 15, 2016


Sam was over last night for dinner, and Graham was recounting some of the highlights of our trip to Europe.  Naturally Graham's attention turned to the moment when, having visited the American cemetery at Omaha Beach in Normandy, we were returning to our car down the hill.  We passed some cows grazing in a lovely meadow.  One of them, bearing tag 20740 on its ear if Graham's memory serves correctly, was using the barbed wire which enclosed the pasture to scratch a couple of itchy spots on his face.  A minute or two later, cow 20747 started doing the same thing and then, to compound our mirth and pleasure, pushed his head forcefully through the barbed wire and started eating grass and even pink roses on the other side.  It was, it must be owned, pretty awesome.

(The pic below was taken at a distance and then blown up, hence its mild graininess. Still, you get the idea).

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

In Luxembourg Gardens

So there we were, in Luxembourg Gardens, at around 4:30 on a mild day in late June. We had enjoyed our afternoon coffee in a cafe nearby (idiot dad somehow having missed the cafe right in the park while studying a park map).  We pulled up some chairs and I was ready to settle in for some chilling and people watching in one of my favorite places on the planet, a place where I had spent a lot of time in the summer of '92 when I lived in a spartan hotel room near the Sorbonne and took classes on the other side of the park at the Alliance Francaise.

I was happy.  Graham, however, was not. He was tired from what had legitimately been a long day of schlepping through first a museum, then through some streets of central commercial/tourist Paris.  He wanted to go home on a subway before rush hour got started, so that he would be able to sit on the train.

I think Natalie said "we can sit here for 10 minutes or so, and then move on" or something like that, and I grunted approval.  Graham kept asking the time, and after 10 minutes he began to get upset, and even to cry a little.

I asked him why, and he said, in short:  "When you said 10 minutes I thought you meant 10 minutes, and I find it upsetting because if I can't trust you, my own father, that means I can't trust anybody."

This was a rather remarkable thing, for him to get to the root of what was bothering him and be able to articulate it.  Even for a 12-year old without autism, I think, that would have been pretty impressive.

So, pretty soon, we got up and left. We went a couple of blocks out of the way to show Natalie a corner of the Sorbonne, but pretty soon we were on the subway back to our Airbnb. Sadly, it was a pretty crowded trip home and I'm not sure Graham was able to sit the whole way. But it helped us set our general priorities for the next few days, because we knew what was important to Graham, and it's helped me think about communicating with him since then.

Monday, July 11, 2016

Overcoming fears

While driving him to chess camp this morning, I talked to Graham a little about getting on the floating docks out on the lake. In the past, Graham has ascribed his aversion to doing so in terms of the ickiness of the algae on their underside.  Fair enough.

So I brought it up to him and told him that I didn't think they were so icky underneath anymore and that, in any case, the algae wasn't really going to hurt him anyway. Then he said that his concerns were not so much for the ickiness, but for the feeling of uncertainty being on the floating docks engendered in him (because they move around), and for his fears about getting off of them. He didn't like jumping off of them, and he certainly didn't like diving off of them, because he didn't like diving off of anything.

And this is where I realized that I have substantial fathering work to do on this score, the managing of uncertainty and risk-taking.  I have seen Graham make real progress on this front in terms of going down hills on a bike or a sled, but in bodies of water it's another thing. One problem is his insistence on wearing goggles. I can't get him past that, and that puts a damper on diving.  But I think I can get him to jump more vigorously while holding the goggles.

Obviously his autism is an issue here, I need to dig into that and figure out how and how much.

In the car I upset him a little, he cried a tad, but I assured him I just wanted to work with him to help him overcome his fears because that's what parents do.  With Natalie out of town for debate camp for a couple of weeks, that offers Mary and me an opening to focus on Graham.

Then I took him into the chess center and he walked right in, found another kid, introduced himself, and invited the other kid to play a game.  Which is itself huge progress.

Saturday, July 09, 2016

This week

I have had other, typical and trivial thoughts this week, but it seems somehow wrong to write anything without chiming in about the shooting deaths in Louisiana, Minnesota, and Dallas. It's not that I have anything particularly deep or novel to say, it just feels wrong to let them pass in silence.

First off, I should note that the most common thread seems to be guns. Alton Sterling and Philando Castile had them. Micah Johnson had some particularly high-powered and nice ones. Even a couple of guys who were participating in the "peaceful" march in Dallas, one of whom (Mark Hughes) was wrongfully pegged as a suspect and had his name and picture flashed around the world as such, was carrying a rifle.

Now, certainly if everybody can have guns of all sorts, that right extends to black people. Sure. There are just too many damned guns around. It's crazy.

I should note the exception that Micah Johnson, of course, wasn't killed by a gun but by a "robot-delivered bomb." Which is only natural. If everybody has guns, cops of course need better stuff. We should soon see cops using drone-delivered bombs, if not drones with assault rifle type stuff in them. I mean, why not, right?  We need it to protect ourselves from all those guns.

And then to the question of white privilege and segregation.  Where to begin. It's all true. I live in a house that feels like a fortress shielded well away from all strife. My office is even worse. In the course of my everyday life I see people of color on Facebook, in stores (mostly in poorly paid service roles), in AA meetings, and very rarely elsewhere.

It's a big freaking problem. What to say right now. I need to try to organize a Bulls game outing and invite more black guys we grew up going to school and playing basketball with.

Tuesday, July 05, 2016


Settling into my new office, which is very calm and quiet, a welcome change from my old place, where I felt a constant need to be on the phone pushing for new business. Make no doubt, I need to do that here too, but today, alone, I am in a calm position to gather myself and take stock of what's coming down the pike. It is a welcome change.

I am even able to read and think somewhat calmly about things, which is important. I have always felt that my best use is at my desk thinking and reading two or three days a week, in the streets the other time. Each is a way of apprehending to world, each has its merits, and they complement one another. But the pressure to be out 5 days a week -- even when I wasn't actually able to do it -- took me away from what I think of how I can best be of service to clients, which involves processing and thinking as well as talking on the phone.

So it's all pretty much good today.  Though it has felt hot in here at times, even though the thermostat is right where we keep it at home, and I've even got my lights off.

Monday, July 04, 2016


On the flight from Reykjavik to Boston on Saturday I watched Spotlight, the Oscar-winning and -deserving film about the Boston Globe team that doggedly pursued child molesting-priests within Catholic Church and the power structure that hid and supported them until they were finally rooted out, triggering worldwide reform. I cried a lot.

Part of what moved me was what they were after, yes. Child molestation is emotional stuff, and priests are an easy mark. But just as much as that, I was moved by the purity of the quest and wholeheartedness of the investigative journalists, especially Mark Ruffalo. It is rare in life, and certainly in my life, that one can have as full-bodied a commitment to what one is doing than the Globe's team does in this movie: they know what they are doing and why they are doing it, and they are on it, damn the torpedoes.

In this quality, Spotlight hearkens back to a venerable tradition in movies. All the President's Men, Norma Rae, Silkwood, and even Erin Brockovich come to mind as forebears,  Michael Moore kind of lives this life, though he has devolved into a parody of himself, much as Orson Welles was captured and subsumed by Citizen Kane.  But it felt like I hadn't seen a movie like this in a while.

To the Spotlight team's credit, and here I mean writers and directors, they resisted the temptation to make the journalists altogether holier than thou. It would be plot spoilerly to spell out exactly what I mean by that, but they exercise restraint, even though they set us up with red herrings to think they're not gonna. I am being deliberately mysterious here, because I think everyone should absolutely see this movie.

In closing, I should say that I was embarassed by how much I was crying and kept turning my head so that nobody could see. I don't know why I am such a sap and so easily moved, at some times, when I have seen a million movies and TV shows and know, at some level, that in the end it is just a movie. I tried to justify it to myself by saying I was tired and had gotten up at 4:45 to herd my family cab to Charles de Gaulle airport (all true!), which in my mind's eye was going to be a chaotic vision of people from all over the world flying hither and thither and long lines, when in fact it was anything but that. But that's the subject of another blog post altogether.

Sunday, July 03, 2016

Home again

Yesterday was a long day of travel, from Paris to Reykjavik to Boston (where we had lunch with Leslie and family at the airport to RDU, thereby making lemonade of the 3.5 hour delay lemon).  All told, about 20 hours of travel.

So when we got home, we were tired.  As is traditional, I was sort the mail between wheat and chaff -- mostly the latter, by far.  At some point in time in there I stood up at the island in the kitchen, and the stool which had been behind me was pushed back, either by me, or by Mary, who maybe wheeled her suitcase through. At any rate, I sat back on a stool that wasn't there, and fell on the wood floor on my butt, which is now sore, along with my back. Then in the middle of the night, a calf cramp, an all too frequent occurrence at this age. So, in fourteen hours back at the house, two small injuries. Doooohhh!

Of course, when I woke up in the middle of the night to pee, I was a little confused about where I was, and, more importantly, where the bathroom was. This waking and sleeping got conflated into a dream in which I was in a multi-level chateau of some sort, in which the bathroom on each floor was in exactly the same place as our bathroom, and contained the same stuff. My dream-inspired brain was trying to figure out if that meant that I had multiple sets of all of my prescription drugs, thereby saving me rather reasonable amounts of money.

Then I woke up.  And we made pancakes, as we always do on Sundays.