Sunday, March 30, 2014

My Mother

One of the reasons why I don't enjoy most fiction is that few writers are able to portray characters in a manner that captures the actual complexity and subtlety that exists in people. More often than not, characters are framed by a few examples of their behavior, and they become trapped in simple stereotypes. As someone who is always trying to understand the dynamics behind the exteriors of others, I find most fictional characters either unconvincing or lacking in interest sufficient to warrant a position of prominence in a work of fiction.

To some extent this failure may be the result of fashion. Post-modernism has popularized stylized writing at the cost of realism. From a writing and publishing standpoint, it is easier to produce and sell stylized fiction than realism, because it takes no more effort to write than comic books and imparts an unearned aura of the cutting edge on lazy or ignorant readers. Even so, most writing before post-modernism wasn't penetrating either. I have been reading Proust intermittently for a few years and find him psychologically uninformed. The narrator's early interests in Gilberte and Albertine, for example, are never examined, nor is Charles Swann's infatuation with Odette explained. I think Proust's skill does not extend beyond the providing of detailed descriptions of his milieu and how he reacts to it. He was lucky to have lived in such a rich culture and to have had the leisure to describe it in a manner that suited him, but the impression I often get is that neither he nor his readers are any the wiser beyond a sort of historical record-keeping, while thousands of pages accrue. Although he writes in the tradition of realism, his faithful exploration of surfaces almost makes him a stylist.

In this context, I thought I would try to describe my mother, in an attempt to see whether I myself am up to the task of doing what I find lacking in most fiction. This will be a short version of what I consider to be an adequate description of a person, and I think any protagonist, in the course of a work of fiction, ought to be portrayed this well at a minimum.

* * *

My mother was born into a prosperous Armenian family in Athens in 1925. She had an older sister and a younger brother. Her parents spoke French at home, and she attended a German school. Their life took a turn for the worse during World War II under the German occupation. Food was scarce. Her mother became seriously ill, and her father nursed her back to health by feeding her what was available: onions. During the worst times people would die of starvation on the street and a cart would come by to pick them up.

My father was a British officer stationed in Greece after the German retreat, and the British were supporting the government against communism during the Greek civil war. They met at a dance and fell in love. They had an elaborate wedding in Greece, for which my father's parents traveled from England in December, 1946. In March, 1947 they sailed to England, and on that voyage my mother became pregnant with my older sister.

In England they initially lived with my father's parents, and she and her mother-in-law didn't get along. She had led a sheltered life and considered my English grandmother crude because she made vulgar jokes. One morning, my grandmother confided to my mother "Bill was good last night." There must have been a rivalry. It was probably then that my mother began a technique that she used throughout her life. She probably buttered up my grandfather and disparaged my grandmother to him. He was no fool though, and when she became too theatrical and animated he said "Can we have a modicum of decorum?" Later, my mother never had anything nice to say about my grandmother, though she was a relatively pleasant and harmless person as far as I can tell.

My parents soon bought their own house, which was modest. I was born in 1950, and my younger sister, possibly an "accident," was born in 1954. Even though my father's career wasn't going well, he always wanted to make a good impression, and he somehow managed to use my grandfather's credit to buy a better house in Purley while my grandfather was away on a trip. Then in about 1956 my father traveled to the U.S. and became enchanted by Manhattan. He was particularly impressed by the fact that there was "music in the elevators." That phrase came to haunt him a few years later when my mother used it sarcastically in reference to his lack of success in America. We moved here in March, 1957.

At first we lived in a rented house in a middle class neighborhood in Pelham Manor, New York. Being English there at that time bestowed on us a certain social benefit, and we were popular. My mother joined women's groups, and my parents socialized a lot. In about 1960, the rental house was sold to someone else, and we moved into an apartment in another part of town next to the country club. We belonged to the club, but not the golf portion. My parents played tennis, and we spent our summers at the pool. During the winter my father bowled, and I played ice hockey on the pond next to the 18th green. Living in an apartment somewhat diminished our social rank, and my father's lack of success in business and increasing alcoholism didn't help either. Up to about age 12, my identity was attached to my mother, and I listened carefully to everything she said. Our apartment was near Interstate 95, which was then under construction, and, after walking high up along its elevated walls, I knew she would disapprove and dutifully reported it to her. However, after that I began to grow up, and she rapidly receded in importance in my life. She had done her basic mothering and thereafter had little of value to say. She was spontaneous and unintellectual, and I had no use for that during my period of mental development.

By the mid-1960's my father's income was proving insufficient, and my mother began to work. She first worked at a jewelry store called Ciro's on Fifth Avenue in midtown Manhattan. I think Paul McCartney or some other pop star came in once looking for a wedding band. She would occasionally meet my father at the St. Regis Hotel after work for a drink. One day, Salvador Dali, who lived there, was coming out while she was going in, and he thought he recognized her. He gave her a deep, extravagant bow.

My mother was short, small-boned and very attractive. She had long, black hair, but her skin was lighter than that of her sister, and she did not resemble an ethnic Armenian. She looks stunningly beautiful in her wedding photos at age 21. She was also meticulous about her appearance. Although she grew up in Greece, she understood German and French, and English was her fourth language. She had an accent, but, unlike Arianna Huffington, whose family came from the same part of Athens, Kifissia, she was perfectly intelligible. She was sociable and charmed people easily. Before she began working she met, probably through my father, a man named Dick Smith. Dick was so awed by her that he took photographs of her and socialized with my family for some time.

When she left Ciro's she worked for many years as a receptionist at 225 Fifth Avenue, which was an office building housing the headquarters of several wholesale gift companies. Chief among those was Waterford Crystal. At some point - I'm not sure when - she had an affair with her boss, the president. I don't know much about it, but apparently his wife put a stop to it. I think this had a devastating effect on my father and accelerated his decline. During this period, my mother was exposed to more financially successful men than my father, and she became merciless in her berating of him. They began with fights that involved throwing objects and spitting, but by the time I left for college, they grew worse. One day my father shoved my mother to the ground and kicked her, breaking a rib.

My parents had a grueling commute to and from work every day. This involved driving to the last subway stop, Dyre Avene, in the Bronx, and then taking the IRT subway line all the way through the Bronx to midtown Manhattan. In 1969, with only one child left at home, they moved to 320 East 58th Street in Manhattan. However, my younger sister apparently developed some problems while living in the city, and they decided to move to Connecticut in 1971.

In Connecticut, my father continued to decline. I think he may have been further demoralized when the family attended my wedding in Richmond, Indiana, on February 2, 1974. My father-in-law was relatively wealthy and hosted the kind of event that would have been beyond my father's means. A few weeks later, on March 15, he dropped off my younger sister at her job at a restaurant and said cryptically "You contributed." Later that day he picked up my mother, who was returning from work, at the train station. On the way home from the station he intentionally rammed a Volkswagen and continued on without stopping. At home he went down to the basement and shot himself in the head with a rifle that he had purchased at a local discount store. Luckily he didn't shoot anyone else.

My mother's life changed after that. She stayed in Connecticut initially but then moved back to Manhattan, where she lived in an apartment at 7 Park Avenue until she entered assisted living with Alzheimer's disease years later. During that period she took a course in word processing and subsequently worked for many years at the Sumitomo Bank. She was working in their office at the World Trade Center in 1993 when it was bombed but wasn't injured.

She maintained a few friendships from Pelham, Connecticut and Manhattan, but, as far as I know, had only one boyfriend during the remainder of her life. He was a wealthy Harvard graduate who had started his own market research firm and owned a brownstone on the Upper East Side of Manhattan and a summer house in Southampton, Long Island. When they met, his wife was still alive but was dying from cancer. His wife, I think, was an American who grew up in France. My mother was a good fit for him, because he liked European culture, and she was very attentive in a way that American women generally are not. He loved going to Paris and visiting the museums, and she often accompanied him. They were both extreme cheapskates, which added further to their compatibility.

My mother's most negative characteristics became pronounced toward the end of her life. Some of this may have had to do with the adoption of New York City behavior. She had always been a vocal critic, and "bastard" was one of her favorite words. When she went on a rant, she took no prisoners. It is difficult to say now how much of an effect she had on my father, but there is little doubt that she demoralized him significantly. He killed himself because he thought he was a failure. After my father's death, she did not play any role as the family leader. Rather than act as a unifying force, she used a divide and conquer tactic repeatedly. She always went behind people's backs and defamed them in a misguided attempt to strengthen her position. I think she got carried away drawing on her innate skill as a confidante. She never organized any family events, and when she called one child she always criticized the other two. The only family gatherings after 1974 were at my sisters' weddings in 1982 and 1994 and at my older sister's house after her marriage. I saw very little of her after 1974. I visited her in 1986 and 2003, and she visited me in 1981, 1987, 1992, 1993 and 2002. The 1992 and 1993 visits were probably because she had been excluded from her boyfriend's family and had nowhere else to go for Christmas. My younger sister arranged the 2002 visit. We spoke on the phone, but it was always her monologue. I don't think she understood me at all as an adult, nor was she genuinely interested.

Her invective was the most destructive I have ever heard, and she spared no one. When she had it in for me, she made clear that I had wasted my life, chosen a stupid career in printing and was stuck living in a godforsaken hick town where I didn't belong at all. She had little education, no understanding of business, no intellectual inclinations, and little to offer. The only career advice that she ever gave me was that I should become an engineer, and that was just because her brother was an electrical engineer. I became immunized to this over the years, and I think it has made me much stronger psychologically than most people. However, there was a cost to her, because she unnecessarily alienated a lot of people who thereafter became hostile toward her. Chief among them was her boyfriend's family, which effectively banned her as a potential spouse for their father. Because of this, instead of becoming a housewife with a successful businessman for a husband, she was treated more like a mistress and continued working in an uninteresting job until she was 75. It must be added, though, that this arrangement suited both of them. He paid her bills and she accumulated a large sum of money, and he was free to do whatever he liked most of the time. After my mother died, her boyfriend's attitude may have been revealed when, in 2010, at age 95, he was conned by an apparent Gypsy woman who disappeared with $350,000 of his money.

Although my mother was effervescent socially, and in that context most people loved her, she always had a miserly dark side. We didn't realize it at the time but, when my younger sister was married in 1994, Alzheimer's symptoms were starting to appear. My mother was livid about spending money on the wedding and went through an episode of unexplained crying. Later on there were major confrontations with my older sister, in which my mother would first offer to let my sister keep her silverware at her house, and then, for no reason, retract the offer and demand the silver back immediately. The last time I saw her was in 2003, when we visited her at her apartment. She had left her apartment door open and had become quite thin, apparently because she didn't buy groceries or cook. I think she must have eaten occasionally at restaurants, or perhaps someone gave her food, but she had forgotten her way around her neighborhood and didn't know where anything was. In 2004, she was sent fighting, screaming and cursing into assisted living, where she went into a rapid decline and died in 2007.

My view of my mother is neither negative nor positive. Many children have unrealistic expectations of their parents, whom they unreasonably expect to be omniscient, conscientious and caring at all times. At the instinctive level, my mother was fine: she raised three children who have met life's challenges satisfactorily. She was not at all intellectual and never read much, which limited how closely we could relate to each other when I reached adulthood. Living in the emotionally repressed Midwest for 40 years, I came to appreciate my mother's expressiveness and passion, which is something that I rarely encountered there. I also think that my mother was much stronger and more practical than my father, and she may have kept the family from disintegrating up until my father's death.

My sisters take a less charitable view of her, perhaps because they had more exposure to her as adults than I did, and they were more involved with her than I was during her Alzheimer's period. Moreover, there was a rivalry between my older sister and my mother that predated the later problems. I think both of my parents were pampered and immature when they married and neither was fully prepared for adult life, but then who is?


* * *

I hope the foregoing provides some sense of what my mother was like. Summarizing her life is much simpler than writing page after page of dialogue and developing a detailed plot, but it may be more difficult to relate to her in this pre-digested characterization. Besides simply writing a sketch about my mother, I am hoping to show something that seems missing to me in most literature.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Friends

In a few weeks I'll be visiting friends in Missouri, so I thought I'd write a little about the role of friends in my life. Although female friendships have been of much greater significance to me than male friendships, I'll concentrate on the males, since they won't be reading this. Male-female relationships are far more problematic than male-male relationships, if only because males and females are very different. In this respect, I found Timothy Treadwell's monologue in Grizzly Man amusing. He claims that, despite being heterosexual, he has encountered so many problems in his relationships with women that he has often wished he were gay.

I am a very solitary person, partly because I'm introverted and like being alone, which makes me want to limit the number of people I'm with, and partly because I'm different from most of the people I know and don't have much in common with them. I have noticed that people are willing to make large compromises in order to maintain a certain level of social activity, whereas I, because I have less need for it, am less willing to compromise. I usually consider socializing a waste of time.

Male friendships tend to be extremely superficial and revolve around activities such as games and sports. I have always liked games and occasional participation in sports, but by the time I graduated from high school and ever since, I have found professional sports incredibly stupid. I thought people would outgrow them, but they didn't. Presumably they satisfy deep tribal instincts.

None of my male friends are close to me. Although I've had various male friends over the years, there was never enough commonality or motivation to perpetuate the friendships over time. The group I'm visiting consists of residual friends from college who were not close to me while I was there. After college, I lived in Indiana on and off for ten years and came into contact with them then. The critical feature for me has always been the primary meeting place: Grubville, Missouri. The family of the leader of this group has owned a former farm there for four generations and uses it for recreation. It consists of about 200 acres southwest of St. Louis in the foothills of the Ozarks. This was originally a nature experience for me, and I usually camped out by the creek. The house was once two log cabins, and they were later joined together. There was no plumbing when I started going, and water came from a cistern. It has been modernized since then.

My major non-family social events starting in 1977 were Memorial Day and Labor Day weekends in Grubville. At first a few of us were married, some had small children and some were single. The main activities were volleyball, badminton, croquet, bridge, beer-drinking and cookouts. By the mid-1980's it got pretty crowded because of all the kids.  Eventually the kids grew up and most of the adults got out of shape. The first death occurred last year from lung cancer. The gatherings are very small and infrequent now.

Going to Grubville meant a lot to me when I had no social life and was living in a hick town. I also liked taking my kids there, and they enjoyed it. The discussion wasn't usually very high quality, though. The married men were too uxorious for my taste, and frankly I never thought their wives merited it. But I was always able to meet my easily-satisfied male bonding needs and catch up on news, and I never held high expectations that might have been dashed.

My closest friend from this group was named Jay. Jay didn't always go, because the leader in Grubville is a classic alpha male who calls all the shots, except when his wife disagrees. The primary pattern for males was one of a dominant, extroverted male and several introverted males. Jay was too extroverted to pass the test.

I had a few things in common with Jay, because we both grew up in New York, went to college in Indiana and majored in Philosophy. Jay was energetic, talkative and intelligent, but a little flaky and lacking in self-confidence. Like me, he came from a dysfunctional family. His mother was from the Midwest, and his father was from New York. His father's family made one of the best-selling beers in the U.S. and once operated a large brewery in what is now midtown Manhattan. However, his father developed adult-onset schizophrenia and his parents separated when he was young. His father's family, though extremely wealthy, offered his mother little support, and she raised three children on her own, living in Brooklyn. His father moved to a farm in Pennsylvania and became a recluse.

When I knew him, Jay was a loyal friend. I don't think I had my best talks with him, but he was better than the other Grubville people. In any case, it all came to naught because his life resembles a downward spiral. He always worried that he would become schizophrenic, and perhaps he did. He seems to have been unable to make changes in his life. When I moved to Oregon, he said he would but never did. He spent his entire career in the Indianapolis area. Most of that time was in fast food, and he became an area manager for Church's Chicken. This put him in some dangerous neighborhoods, and he used to take a gun to work. Over the years he had several decent girlfriends, but he ended up marrying one of his employees, who divorced him after a brief period.

Just before my divorce, I was living in Terre Haute and commuting to a job in Indianapolis. In 1984 we sold the house in Terre Haute and moved to an apartment in Indianapolis. It was a three-bedroom apartment facing woods and next to a large reservoir. My wife and kids moved out in 1985 and we got divorced in October. Jay had been looking for a new apartment and moved in with me. I moved to Louisville at the end of 1985, and Jay has lived in that apartment ever since - 28 years.

I have had very little contact with Jay for several years. He stopped going to Grubville and became born-again. I think he must have received a sizable inheritance when his father died, and he probably quit his most recent job at FedEx. I get friendly e-mails from him once in a while, but he doesn't respond to my replies.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Springtime in Vermont

We have had a long, cold winter here. This morning the temperature is twelve degrees Fahrenheit, and a few days ago it was below zero. The snow is still about a foot deep in the yard. The maple syrup hasn't started to flow yet because of the low temperatures, but it should be a lot warmer by the end of the week. And then the dreaded mud season will begin.

It takes a little toughness and resolve to live in Vermont during the winter, which lasts for about six months. Some Vermonters are proud about this. One of our neighbor boys walks about half a mile each way to catch the school bus wearing only shorts and a T-shirt, even when the temperature is below zero. I asked him about it, and he said "I guess I'm a just a Vermonter." He does wear a hat sometimes, though.

You have to plan your heating carefully, because it's expensive. It looks as if we're going to make it with four cords of firewood and three hundred gallons of heating oil for a total cost of about $2500 for the season. That may sound like a lot, but it could have been three times that if we had only used oil and set our thermostats at 68 degrees. We set them at 60 degrees during the day and 50 degrees at night. Of course, it's warmer by the wood burning stove, where I'm sitting right now. We also wear woolen long underwear all winter, and I wear a wool hat and wool gloves with open fingers around the house. You get used to it, and the cold doesn't bother me at all. We buy kiln dried wood, which is expensive, but this way we don't have to dry unseasoned wood. I have also burned tree limbs and dead tress that I cut down on the property.

Getting around during the winter isn't difficult, because they take good care of the roads. They also use a lot of road salt, which causes cars to rust prematurely compared to other parts of the country. The roads are usually bad only during a snow storm. We drove over the mountains right after a storm in December and had no trouble, thanks to snow tires.

You do get cabin fever if you don't go out much. I like to hike, which is difficult when the trails have three feet of snow on them. Some people use snow shoes. A lot of people ski. As a diversion, I drove to St. Johnsbury, across the state near the Connecticut River, a few weeks ago. The only time I had been there previously was in 1974 on my honeymoon during the Arab Oil Embargo, when gasoline was being rationed. Little has changed in St. Johnsbury. Not everyone sticks around here all winter. Some of our neighbors left for warmer parts. Robert Frost, who supposedly was a quintessential New Englander and has a mountain nearby named after him, used to winter in Florida.

Even though it is still wintry here, the birds are returning. The robins manage to find food where the snow has melted. Our bird feeders have been busy all winter with goldfinches, chickadees, tufted titmice, mourning doves, nuthatches, downy woodpeckers and hairy woodpeckers, and they are now being joined by redwing blackbirds and crows that can't find enough food elsewhere. I just saw my first grackle of the year.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Voting

Partly because I did not become a U.S. citizen until age 27, voting has always been a problematic experience for me. You get indoctrinated with the idea that all responsible citizens must vote, yet I am rarely able to muster much enthusiasm for any candidates, and, more significantly, I have little idea what, if anything, they would do in office or whether it would in fact be good for society.

There are exceptions, though, such as Bernie Sanders, and he presents a different set of problems. As a socialist, he comes closer to my political beliefs than most, but in reality he seems to be an ineffectual political leader in Washington, because he is so far out of the mainstream that he has no power base there. Thus, if you only want to hear pointed speeches that you agree with, he's fine, but don't expect any positive changes to come out of it.

Part of my cognitive dissonance is related to the fact that I have moved around quite a bit over my life and have never had a sense that I belong to any particular community. I don't feel very English, nor do I have an American identity after living here for 57 years. I didn't say the pledge of allegiance in high school, and I have always found phrases like "the American dream" slightly repugnant. Besides this, I am an ideas person, and politics is a messy process where emotion plays a greater part than reason.. Politics doesn't attract people who interest me.

The only political candidates that I've ever spent much time assessing have been the presidential ones. In hindsight, that was a waste of time. I voted for John Anderson in 1980, Ronald Reagan in 1984, skipped in 1988 because I disliked both George H.W. Bush and Michael Dukakis, Bill Clinton in 1992 and 1996, Al Gore in 2000, John Kerry in 2004, Barack Obama in 2008 and Jill Stein in 2012. In any case, I don't think that any of the presidents elected in my lifetime were good presidents. That isn't entirely their fault, though, since the political system itself has many shortcomings.

What I am trying to decide now is whether to continue voting. There is a lot weighing against it. Unless a much stronger candidate than any who has emerged since Franklin D. Roosevelt runs, I may skip voting for president. On the other hand, I may make a token vote for Bernie Sanders if he runs for president, though he could never win and would probably be a disaster if he did win. I will continue to vote in Vermont elections, because they are more palpable, and I tend to agree with Vermont politicians more than the politicians elsewhere.

I will definitely vote in all Middlebury elections, because there is a real community here with which I'm vaguely connected. We recently had a classic town and gown tussle over the ceding of land to Middlebury College in exchange for funding for a new town hall. The local anti-intellectual farmers had signs up on our street encouraging people to vote against it, but we voted for it, and it passed, though it is still being challenged. When the deciding vote is 955 to 731, you can make a difference as a voter. And the results will be visible.

As noted in earlier posts, I don't think that democracy in the U.S. works. That has a lot to do with the fact that it was designed as an alternative to monarchies and despotic systems in which people are oppressed. In the developed world, democracy has evolved into a problematic system because of its incorporation of capitalistic principles that have taken on the characteristics of a virus. Try as they might, the Founding Fathers were unable to write a constitution assuring a permanent balance between democratic governance and economic gain. The virus has mutated and now seems to have a stranglehold on the political body. In this regard, Vermont is faring better than most states.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Groupthink

As a wandering Armenian and a perennial outsider, I have often reflected on how other people form their allegiances, opinions and worldviews. Thus, when I was first exposed to the concept of groupthink in business school in the early 1980's, I greeted it enthusiastically. In case you don't know, "groupthink" is a term coined by the Yale psychologist Irving L. Janis, who said "I use the term groupthink as a quick and easy way to refer to the mode of thinking that persons engage in when concurrence-seeking becomes so dominant in a cohesive ingroup that it tends to override realistic appraisal of alternate courses of action." Janis applied the term to classic bad decisions that were made by otherwise competent people, as in the case of the Kennedy administration's decision to invade the Bay of Pigs. Broadly it refers to a common type of mistake made by the decision-making bodies of organizations.

Having had this idea seeded in me for many years now, I see it as a key element of human behavior and associate it with ideas ranging from social psychology to group psychosis. If you look closely, you will see that virtually all groups tend to be somewhat ghettoized and cut off from the world, and they often organize reality in ways incompatible with those of other groups. In the U.S., this is quite obvious in demographics. Rural Americans tend to be socially uniform, religious Republicans. Urban Americans tend to be diverse, nonreligious Democrats.

Recently I have been thinking about the phenomenon in academic departments. I have been corresponding with a former philosophy professor of mine who has been engaged in analytic philosophy for most of his life. He and his peers within the philosophy establishment believe that they have made headway in philosophy, whereas I think they have wasted their lives applying techniques that will become historical artifacts within a few decades. I get a similar feeling about creative writing programs within English departments. What is thought of as crucial and brilliant in one group may be seen as misguided and irrelevant by another group and may soon be forgotten.

Of greatest interest to me is how people become trapped by the prevailing beliefs in their environment. Very few who live continuously within a homogeneous environment are able to extract themselves from its received wisdom. If they grow up religious, they remain religious. If they grow up in a military family, they remain patriotic. In most cases, the outcome is positive for the individual, and whether any broader truth is violated seems irrelevant. However, when a more objective outsider looks at the historical and conceptual foundations of, say, Mormonism, he will be aghast. As a thought experiment in objectivity, I like to hypothesize an immortal intelligent being who lives on a planet orbiting a different star. I think such a being could potentially possess greater objectivity than anyone on Earth in assessing the behavior of humans.

If you have been reading my posts, you won't be surprised that I extend my skepticism of prevailing beliefs to what many would consider to be the foundations of American society. That includes the economic system, the government, nationalism and organized religion. The popular ideas circulating now that are considered essential could be replaced with better ones, and perhaps one day they will be. There is nothing eternal about "American values."

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Monologues

I was brought up in a household that retained vestiges of Victorian ideas about child rearing. The phrase "children are to be seen and not heard" came up periodically. I didn't realize it at the time, but when we moved to the U.S. in 1957, my older sister was shocked by the change because the loud and rambunctious American children scared her. The dialogue at home was always unidirectional, with the adults imparting wisdom or instructions to the children. In school, it was more of the same, with teachers replacing parents.

For whatever reason, I have always preferred a more participatory mode of interaction, particularly the one-on-one discussion. Unfortunately, society allows little space for that. When I arrived at college in 1968 my first reaction was that I was in a utopia. Essentially, everyone had free time to discuss things and did so. Even the classes were an improvement over high school, because some had few students. The smallest classes were like tutorials, and the seminars emphasized discussion. Perhaps this was the first time in my life that anyone paid attention to what I had to say.

However, the environment that I experienced in college turned out to be an aberration. When you have a job, no one cares what you think about anything, and you are only there to execute someone else's instructions. All of your friends and acquaintances are busy and become philistine in their habits. "Meaning of life" discussions are no longer of any interest to them.

For most adults, sustained thought exists only in books. You can read someone else's monologue or you can write your own monologue. Most academic books are filled with obfuscation and cannot be satisfying except to specialists. Fiction is a time-killer for most readers, and popular fiction by design makes no demands on those who merely seek entertainment. I'm not sure that a genre such as serious fiction even exists. If you think books involve interaction between the author and the reader, you are deluding yourself. Writing a considered letter to an author typically results in no reply, and even in the best of circumstances rarely precipitates any discussion.

As mentioned in an earlier post, I had hoped that the Internet might provide a new option. There is much to be found on it, but it usually isn't the actual place where the discussion occurs. I've come across videos of good discussions. Occasionally there are good formal, written discussions where invited experts make posts on a specific question. But most of the kind of discussion that I like is restricted either to forums or to the comments sections after articles, and there are significant limitations to both. Originally I thought that these limitations exist only because the right Internet formats for ad hoc discussion hadn't been developed. I now think that they may never develop for two reasons. First, people who set up websites are usually doing so for a profit. Providing an open-ended platform for random people to participate in high-quality discussion doesn't look like a promising business model. In order to work well, such a site would require full-time moderators and would offer little prospect of sufficient revenues. In my experience, the moderation at most forums is barely enough to remove basic infractions, and it doesn't protect them from low quality. The second reason is that, as described above, most adults are not actually interested in discussion. If they read at all, they are reading mainly for entertainment. Interest in the kind of discussion that I like seems to be low, and that discussion becomes invisible on the Internet, where it is often inundated by the words of thoughtless people who suffer from logorrhea.

The upshot of the above is that there is a change in the conception of this blog. Originally I was hoping to attract some discussion on subjects such as the strengths and weaknesses of The New York Review of Books. I now think that, while there are people who are interested in such topics, very few are interested in discussing them online. If they have anything to say about it, they are more likely to write an essay than find a blog that mentions it. Therefore, by popular demand, this blog is officially moving to the monologue model, with little expectation of participation. I am still encouraging you to comment, but less so than previously.

I might add that I appreciated John's editing of the Wikipedia entry on Lorrie Moore. That makes this feel more like a participative endeavor. If I ever come to see this blog as a solipsistic enterprise in which I am writing only for myself, I will be inclined to abandon the entire project on the basis of narcissism.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Inequality

Last night we watched Robert Reich's film Inequality for All. Inequality has recently become a buzzword in Washington, and I'll discuss this today.

Reich is probably the most effective communicator in the liberal camp, and he makes a convincing case, comparing the Great Recession to the Great Depression. When taxes on the rich go down, they become excessively wealthy and create financial bubbles, while the income of ordinary workers stagnates or falls. Since 70% of economic activity is consumer spending, when the middle class stops spending, economic growth slows. The rich perpetuate this cycle by manipulating the political system in order to maintain their wealth. The explanation isn't causal, but it does show the elements of a repeating pattern. The presentation is simple, like An Inconvenient Truth, in order to give it broad appeal.

There were two things in the film that I particularly liked. Reich recruited liberal billionaire Nick Hanauer to bolster some of his points. To counter the popular Republican myth that the rich should not be taxed heavily because they are "wealth creators," and taxing them more would entail "class warfare," Hanauer says that it is impossible for him to simulate consumer spending proportionately to his income because he could never spend that much on personal consumption. He has more money than he knows what to do with and lets hedge funds handle it with investments all over the world. He advocates higher taxes on the rich so that their money can be put to better use in the economy. The other thing I liked was Reich's appearance at an anti-union meeting. There is nothing special about it, but I think it shows an example of how American workers vote against their own best interests by supporting Republican policies that hurt them. Many low income pro-Republican voters appear to be victims of brainwashing.

In the context of my earlier posts, I have issues with some of Reich's views. At heart he is a traditional liberal who accepts the economic system we have and only wants to restore balance to it. I think at some point this system will have to be abandoned. I believe that the key concept is equality, and this takes precedence over capitalism and democracy, because of the three it is the one most deeply rooted in our evolutionary past as eusocial creatures. We are not essentially capitalistic or democratic creatures, and these are relatively new inventions in our history. Reich comes from a traditional background and does not question its assumptions.

Almost all economists, including Reich, think that the current model, with economic growth through consumer spending, can continue indefinitely. That seems unlikely to me. The model doesn't work unless a country is continuously infused with young, energetic workers who are seeking to advance financially. Countries with older populations face a disadvantage because they can't generate enough economic activity. Furthermore, it seems that equilibrium can never be reached if there must always be more poor people seeking to become wealthier. The model ignores the possibility of overpopulation and environmental damage. There is no consideration of the scenario in which all of society is wealthy and economic growth is unnecessary. As a practical matter, perhaps the greatest threat to this model is corporate efficiency. Technology and outsourcing to other countries have been eliminating jobs for decades and will continue to do so. This model cannot possibly work if there are no jobs, and it looks as if at some point even the best educated won't be able to find them. Robotics and artificial intelligence are in their infancy.

I am also critical of democracy because in practice it doesn't work. You can blame it on campaign finance, talk radio, Citizens United, a poorly educated electorate, or anything you like, but the fact is that people vote irrationally all the time. This ties in with what I wrote earlier about an automated system of government that would remove politics as a factor and eliminate poor voting choices.

Notwithstanding these criticisms, I think Reich is one of the best things going in American public awareness, and my favorite senator, Bernie Sanders, is sponsoring a free public showing of the film throughout Vermont.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Optimism is the Opium of the People

One of the reasons why I favor European writers over American writers is that, because of Europe's complex history, a simple ideological viewpoint is less likely to be taken seriously. Although I don't think Milan Kundera is a great writer, I enjoyed the concept of The Joke, in which the protagonist says in jest "Optimism is the opium of the people" in Communist Czechoslovakia and gets himself into big trouble. Of course, Kundera became popular in the U.S. not because of that book but because of The Unbearable Lightness of Being, which had a lot of sex in it and was also made into a movie. Optimism is one of the characteristics of Americans, and I don't think The Joke could be popular here, especially without sex scenes.

Even so, many Europeans and others across the globe look naively at the U.S. and are still taken in by its allure. I think they are attracted by the prosperity, the apparent social equality and the Hollywood illusion that it's a fun place to be. Many don't see that beneath the exuberant veneer lies an unpleasant capitalist oligopoly run by people like the Koch brothers, Sheldon Adelson, the Walton Family and Rupert Murdoch. Less conservative capitalists such as Bill Gates and Warren Buffett are ideologically similar with the exception that they leave room for higher taxation on the wealthy in order to support economic equality sufficient for the maintenance of social stability. Between these groups, pro-business political candidates are assured of election in most cases. The majority of Democratic candidates are backed by business interests too, thus you end up with presidents like Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, who may as well be Republicans.

For most of its history the U.S. has been physically and culturally isolated from outside influences. Thus, with only a skimpy conceptual framework pieced together from Enlightenment thinkers such as John Locke and Adam Smith, religious settlers infused with the Protestant work ethic gradually transformed an agrarian society into a major industrial power. They were aided by religious fervor, however ridiculous, and an abundance of natural resources. The basic idea here has always been to work hard and get ahead financially. Liberals in the U.S. are deluding themselves if they think that sharing the wealth was ever popular. Tycoons have been viewed favorably most of the time and are still admired as long as they don't commit crimes or willfully abuse workers. Many successful businessmen reflect the same simple optimism as poorer Americans, and the assumption is that those who succeed simply worked harder. This naive optimism is exemplified not only by vacuous, intellectually bankrupt politicians such as George W. Bush and Mitt Romney, but also by better-rounded politicians such as Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, who, externally at least, are just as pro-American, pro-business and optimistic about the future as anyone else.

Kundera's phrase is an apt description of the U.S. We are living in a period where capitalism is the dominant ideology, and it is running its victory lap. From my vantage point, this is only a transitional phase, and there is a serious shortage of thinkers who publicly define how to proceed from here in light of the fact that the present system is ephemeral. Almost everything in the media reads like a pep rally for capitalism, because it is funded by capitalism.

For the optimists among you, I am not saying that there are no grounds for optimism. I am only saying that the branded optimism in the U.S. looks ominous and sinister. I encourage you not to start your own business. As a Darwinian thinker, I am neither optimistic nor pessimistic, and only know that change will occur. However, the less thought it is given, the less desirable the future is likely to be.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Winston

This is an obituary for our cat, Winston. He died on December 20, and I miss him.

It may not be apparent from my writing style that I develop close attachments, but I do develop very close attachments, with cats at least. One day my younger sister brought home our first cat, which my father then named Dusty. He was a small kitten then but grew up to be a large gray cat. Later we adopted several other cats, and he clearly didn't like living with them. I took him to college one year, where he lived with me in the dorm. He also lived with me during my brief hippie period in the summer of 1970 in Bloomington, Indiana. When I left home permanently, he moved with me to Ohio, Oregon and Indiana. When he died at the age of 15 in 1980, the same year my daughter was born, I was more deeply saddened than I had been when my father died. I buried him in our back yard in Terre Haute.

I had not had any pets since Dusty died, when in 2011, one of my partner's sons' friends died suddenly and left behind a dog and a cat named Eton, who was then about 10. The friend's family took the dog, and my partner's son took Eton, who otherwise would have gone to the pound. However, the son didn't want to keep Eton, since he already had a cat. Eton was soon pawned off on my partner, and he moved with us from Illinois to Vermont shortly afterwards.

My partner renamed him Winston because of his pudgy appearance. He was a very fat tabby with a grouchy disposition. He weighed twenty pounds and had short legs. Unlike most cats, he couldn't jump. Usually it would take him several attempts to jump up on the sofa. We put him on a diet, and he got down to fifteen pounds, but he still couldn't jump.

Like many male cats, he thought he was in charge even when he wasn't. He could be quite bossy, and would lead us over to his play area so that we would play with him when he felt like playing; he was too lazy to play by himself and hardly ever ran or played alone with his toys. He had no interest in hunting and ignored birds, though chipmunks sometimes got his attention. He had an unusual habit of finding knitting and dragging it around like a female cat by the neck for mating. My partner knit him a special scarf that became known as his "girlfriend." We could hear when he was playing with his girlfriend from a distinctive yowl that he would make.

I think Winston liked Vermont a lot. He probably had been confined to a small apartment in Minneapolis for much of his life and now took every opportunity he got to go outside and eat grass. Since this usually led to vomiting, he had to be curtailed. Because of his health problems, he drank a lot of water, and we kept a full bucket for him outside on the porch, where he did most of his drinking. Every day, first thing in the morning, he would go out and drink, or attempt to drink, from his bucket, even when it was frozen.

He became very personable over time and liked to sit with us. In the winter he would sit on my lap in the morning, and year round he would sit on my partner's lap while we were watching the evening news. However, he became irritated easily and would leave if his seating became disturbed by movement or he was uncomfortable. He enjoyed our company and didn't like being alone for long stretches. When we went outside he would stand in the doorway and watch us. When we went away and came home, he would hear the bell from the motion detector and be waiting for us at the front door.

Although he wasn't very physically fit, he seemed healthy enough most of the time we had him. But by early November of last year he was eating less and losing more weight. We took him to the vet, who did a blood test that indicated kidney failure. After discussing it we decided to let him die a natural death.

He functioned almost normally until the last few days. Eventually he couldn't eat or drink and had fluids oozing from his mouth. For the last two days he could barely move. Finally, not long after we had returned from a day trip, he let out a loud yowl and died. The next day I buried him in the garden, and my partner will make him a tombstone when it warms up.

Connecting with cats is like connecting with nature for me, because they are wild and they are being themselves. Dogs are monstrosities created by humans through breeding, and I avoid them when possible. We think owning a dog is like adopting a mentally handicapped child. Who in their right mind would do that? I would get a cat again, were it not for the fact that it is too hard for me when they die.

Monday, March 10, 2014

Work

Upon request, today's topic is work. I'm breaking it down into parts, starting with the role of work in society, then some family history, followed by general reflections.

Beneath the cultural surface of the United States, the primary activity has always been work. This has never been considered an interesting topic to anyone who isn't a labor historian, but it really is what the country is about. Almost everything in American life that people might consider artistic or transcendent simply wouldn't exist if someone hadn't racked up a bundle of money a long time ago. Private universities and the arts would be nothing without it. The long arm of money is more apparent here on the East Coast than in other parts of the country, because it has been rich for much longer. You don't have to look far to find it. For example, one of my neighbors is a retired Vermont orchard owner. This sounds rustic, but an examination of his background reveals something quite different. After he graduated from Yale, he had a job on Wall Street but didn't like it and left for Vermont to grow apples. It turns out that his great-grandfather had made a fortune manufacturing varnish and was one of the founding trustees of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

My mother's family wealth came indirectly from the United States too. Her father grew up in a well-off Armenian family in Bursa, Turkey, which was then part of the Ottoman Empire. Since his parents didn't want him to be drafted into the army, his father arranged for him to be trained in piano manufacture. In about 1910, he and his father traveled to Richmond, Indiana, where he entered a training program at the Starr Piano Company, which was then one of the leading piano makers in the country. I have a picture of the two of them that was taken then, with my grandfather looking very proud. After he completed his training, he moved to Athens, Greece, and set up an office through which he imported pianos. He became relatively wealthy and was a benefactor to Armenians who fled Turkey during and after the massacres of 1915. My mother grew up in a large house that, during World War II, was occupied on the first floor by German officers, with a Jewish family hidden on the third floor.

Piano sales began to decline when recordings became available, along with radios and radio broadcasts. The Starr Piano Company experimented with recordings very early and made some of the first ones for artists including Jelly Roll Morton, Louis Armstrong and Bix Beiderbecke. However, the Great Depression killed off most of the recording industry, and the Starr Piano Company never recovered in records, though it continued to sell pianos. The recording industry retained a presence in the Midwest with record manufacturing plants. Early in my career I worked at printing companies in Indiana that produced LP record jackets. The evolution continued with the transition to cassettes and then CD's. The first American CD's were produced in Terre Haute, Indiana. The dynamics of the music industry continue to evolve with digital media, the cloud, etc.

On a side note, I have always found it a strange coincidence that my grandfather's career started in Richmond, Indiana, and that I somehow randomly ended up going to college in Indiana and meeting someone who grew up in Richmond, where we were married in 1974.

Beyond what I've written above, work is a highly practical matter for most people: they need the money. While our ancestors hunted and gathered all day, most workers now show up at an office every morning and engage in something far more arcane. When I determined that I wasn't going to get a Ph.D. in Philosophy and work at a college, I was at loose ends for a while. I didn't particularly want a white collar job and thought a trade might be more satisfying and honest. I took a short course in printing and before I knew it I had a thirty-year career in it. I probably could have planned it better and picked a career in a different field, because printing has been a dying industry ever since the 1980's.  Also, although I would have preferred to do skilled work, I soon found myself in office jobs anyway.

My printing employment was not particularly interesting, though I was exposed to a lot of ordinary people in various cities and towns in Indiana, Kentucky and Illinois. While I didn't have much in common with most of them, they were people like any others, but in most cases were not very well educated. My boss in Dixon, Illinois was dumbfounded that I took long trips to study Anglo-Saxon archaeology and cathedrals in Oxford and Impressionism in Paris. I never formed any close friendships, and the closest I came was with a guy who had gone to the University of Maine to study forestry but switched to English when he couldn't do the math. His hobbies included duck hunting and topless bars, neither of which I ever participated in. But it paid the bills, and I managed to retire at age 57 with the help of an inheritance.

There was an article recently in The Chronicle of Higher Education entitled "You Don't Have to Love Your Job," which blames Joseph Campbell for popularizing the myth "follow your bliss." Many college graduates now think that they are failures if they don't have a high-status job that they love. I'm not sure that there is such a thing as an ideal job for most people, and conditions are deteriorating as we enter into the late stages of our system of capitalism.

I think the majority of jobs now available to college graduates are specialized ones related to maintaining corporations and increasing their profits, or much the same thing in nonprofits, but without profits. Within this framework, the opportunities for self-expression and fulfillment are limited. Toward the end of my career, I noticed a significant decline in working conditions for employees at the corporation where I worked, R.R. Donnelley & Sons Co., one of the largest printers in the world. When I started working there in 1998, the attitude was still upbeat and there were vestiges of earlier paternalism. At one time, Donnelley management would send letters to the parents of single female employees to assure them that their daughters would be taken care of properly. By the time I left in 2007, it was obvious that management didn't give a damn about anyone, and if you didn't meet its requirements, you would be fired on short notice. The long-term employees of the company felt hurt and betrayed when they were permanently laid off.

Some may argue that there is fulfillment to be found in the helping professions or some of the nonprofits, such as teaching and the arts, and I don't deny that, but here there is a high level of job competition, which must detract somewhat from the ability of participants to define their own terms of employment. And because of the attractiveness of these jobs, the pay is often low.

The glamorous alternative to a boring office job or a low-paying helping job is to become an entrepreneur. Not all people have the right personality to pull this off, and even then most of them fail. Moreover, behind the outward success of prominent entrepreneurs is a hidden legacy of oppression and exploitation of workers. A case could be made that Steve Jobs was a modern-day robber baron who reached his success on the backs of underpaid workers in Asia who were exposed to health risks that were illegal in the United States.

Within the context of the current economic backdrop, the prospects for most workers look grim for the foreseeable future. Global competition is going to drive wages lower, and no cure is in sight. Eventually I think there may not be enough jobs, and the government may have to step in to prevent social breakdown. My advice to those who must work is to match yourself up to a job that suits your skills and interests and requires training that will differentiate you as an employee. I don't think a traditional liberal arts education is going to be of much economic value in the future.

For those who still insist on "following their bliss," prepare for a life of low pay and humiliation. It makes more sense to plug along until retirement, at which point you can take up any hobby you like - this blog, for instance.

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Aesthetic Relativism

Because I often find myself at odds with others on questions of artistic merit, I have thought about what constitutes good art for many years. Having been brought up in an anti-American household, and living in one now, it may be difficult for some people to accept my positions, because it is almost a given to me that American art is suspect, if such a wide generalization can be made.

My first exposure to aesthetic relativism occurred in 1995 when I took a course on Impressionism in Paris. In preparation for the course, I read several conventional American art history books covering the topic that were recommended by the professor on the basis of their availability in the U.S. He was Jean Lancri, a professor at the University of Paris and an artist himself, whose paintings reminded me of Klee. What surprised me was how his explanation of the Impressionists in the context of art history bore little relationship to any of the texts I had read in preparation. He was an acquaintance of Jacques Derrida and had even sold some of his paintings to him. He liked to show techniques that the Impressionists borrowed from earlier artists, and he used Pieter Bruegel's The Peasant Wedding as an example of eye movement techniques. Although the Impressionists were innovators, much of their conventional training in art school shows up in their paintings.

Lancri was probably a good example of Gallic arrogance. He was pleasant to speak to and always polite, but he must privately have thought that most Americans are complete ignoramuses on art. He said the main reason he taught the class was to practice his English. He probably recognized that art history is taught differently in the U.S., but thought that the people teaching it didn't understand anything about art, so he would simply ignore them and start from scratch in order to provide us with an accurate understanding.

In the realm of paintings, I don't think Americans have made much of a contribution. It seems to have been mostly downhill since Duchamp's Fountain in 1917. Warhol, Lichtenstein and their successors are embarrassments, in my opinion, and it is no surprise that the philosopher Arthur Danto thought art permanently ended then. With a few exceptions I skip modern art entirely.

Since I'm on the subject of visual arts, let me say that there is an inherent ambiguity about it. The most ancient cave paintings are in some respects just as good as any subsequent art and may have had religious significance. Many early art objects had functional value, and the decorative arts overlap with what we consider to be formal art, such as a framed painting on a wall. High art emerged as a patron-dependent product during periods of wealth and allowed patrons such as the House of Medici to broadcast their status. Not much has changed since. During every historical period, fine art is inextricably linked to status. To a great extent, the quality of art is determined by the discernment of the then-current patrons. Discernment has never been a notable characteristic of America's rich, and I think this goes a long way toward explaining why American art is less satisfactory to me than European and Asian art.

I think a similar pattern occurred in American fiction. It started as an imitation of European writing and eventually veered into postmodernism and now post-postmodernism, or whatever you want to call it, beginning in the 1960's. The results, I think, have been unsatisfactory in parallel to modern art in general. However, American fiction covers a broad range, and I should mention that blunt, unadorned writing is also an American genre. On this point I found Julio Ramon Ribeyro interesting. I hope Fario continues to translate Ribeyro. And American fiction falls into other categories that I won't go into now.

After expending much time and effort to appreciate contemporary American literature, I have officially given up. I'm not terribly keen on any fiction at the moment, so this isn't a simple case of anti-Americanism. I have been particularly irked by the quality of writing of some American writers who are considered talented. I think what bothers me the most is that writers who are perceived as observant and wry in literary circles actually tend to be unobservant and flat. The kinds of situations that arise in their fiction tend to involve characters who have stunted personality development, such that they don't understand anything about themselves or others. You might call them dysfunctional adults. Then if they happen to notice some small thing, it becomes an insightful revelation. The revelation is never mentioned explicitly in the text but its subtle suggestion is presumed to demonstrate the writing powers of the author. When I visualize these situations in terms of my understanding of people, I only see characters who are not self-aware and communicate poorly. Writers who repeatedly remind you that people are not self-aware and communicate poorly have either struck upon a formula that fulfills their writing objective, or, if not that, one must conclude that they are in fact unaware of their mind-numbing repetition. I suspect that the former is the case, and they have developed a skill at using vagueness to insinuate a wisdom that isn't there at all. Such writing does not stand up to close readings, and the best of it belongs in poetry, not fiction.

Notwithstanding the above, I must admit that there are pockets within the sea of American literature that aren't bad at all. I am thinking of The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, by Carson McCullers, which is the only American novel that I'm likely to reread.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Wikipedia I

I recently had a run-in with Wikipedia, and it isn't surprising or interesting, but I thought I should recount it to my readers.

As mentioned in an earlier post, Lorrie Moore released a new book. I had already read most of it much earlier, because five out of eight stories had been published online over a period of several years. Needless to say, I don't like her writing anymore. However, I did notice that for the first time accurate reviews were coming out from a wide range of sources. Overall, I think the reviews were still slightly positive. I had made a small edit to an unrelated article on Wikipedia in 2007 and still had an account there, so I decided to add quotes from the reviews that I thought were best to Lorrie Moore's Wikipedia page. I didn't think anyone would have a problem with Michiko Kakutani, since she is one of the better known reviewers in the country. The other two were lesser known, but I think their reviews were actually more to the point.

When I posted these reviews, I thought there might be repercussions. Practically anyone can challenge Wikipedia content. This is one of the basic limitations of the site. On purely factual matters, misinformation can appropriately be removed over time, but on aesthetic matters, Wikipedia is a disaster. Whoever shouts the loudest may be able to get his way by following the appeal process. The end result on artistic opinion is probably somewhere between a whitewash and homogenization. Most of the time fans are more vocal than detractors. To test this theory, I just checked Mein Kampf on Amazon.com, and it gets four stars.

A few days after I made these posts, I noticed that they had been removed. They had been replaced with three favorable reviews. Further investigation showed that I had been blocked permanently from making edits on Wikipedia. I inquired at Wikipedia and came into contact with an administrator named Guy Chapman, who lives in England. His attitude was dismissive, arrogant and insulting. He clearly had made up his mind that I was a troublemaker and took no interest in anything that I had to say. I won't quote the entire exchange, in which I remained civil, but here are some of the things he wrote:

Wikipedia finds itself critically short of givable fucks.
Me, I am a rude obnoxious bastard Englishman and I don't make any secret of it.
No need to reply, your email address is now in my spam bin.

As my mother would say, "Charming."

I had the option of appealing this decision at Wikipedia, but since I have no desire to edit their articles and don't care that Lorrie Moore's page is inaccurate hagiography, I am letting it go. There is really no way anyone can control the media, of which Wikipedia is just a small part. However, this was my first exposure to the ugly underbelly of Wikipedia. I previously had a somewhat positive attitude toward it and donated $100 per year. That ends now. I don't know much about its founder, Jimmy Wales, but apparently he is an entrepreneur and an admirer of Ayn Rand, which are two strikes against him as far as I'm concerned. I use Wikipedia only because it's there, and I don't think much would be lost if it wasn't.

There remain questions about aesthetic judgment, which is a much larger topic in itself and is beyond the scope of this post. It is very difficult to fight consensus even when you are certain that it is wrong. I think the U.S. has always been an aesthetically backward country, groupthink is rampant, and there is little to keep weak opinions at bay. Readers think that they have a right to say that something is very good even when more knowledgeable people say it isn't. Picking books to read based on consensus, Amazon.com customer reviews, for example, would be a nightmare. Unfortunately, I don't think the results would be all that much better if you restricted yourself to books that are studied by students in American creative writing programs.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Human Ecology

When my daughter was born, I used to think about creating an environment that would be beneficial for her. I had limited control over that, but her first five years seem to have been good. Then I was divorced and she lived with her mother until age ten. I retired in 2007 and spent a lot of time deciding where to live, and the thinking process was similar. You have to look at what will be a good environment in terms which may not correspond with what other people think. After living in the Midwest for about forty years I was sick of it. I didn't want to live anywhere near a city. I wanted to live in a rural area that wasn't populated by conservative Republicans and didn't have much commercial development. The location had to have cultural amenities and it had to be physically attractive. Believe it or not, these criteria rule out almost the entire United States. They more or less limit you to a rural college town in a blue state. If you eliminate the Midwest, your choices are confined pretty much to Northern California, Oregon, Washington, Vermont, Maine and Western Massachusetts. I favored the East Coast because I grew up there and it has cultural attributes that I prefer to those on the West Coast.

In piecing this together, I had to take into consideration the needs of my partner. She is from Yorkshire and studied at King's College, Cambridge, where she befriended a fellow member of the working class, Tony Judt, and met her American husband-to-be. In 1979 she moved to Chicago and married, and they remained in the Chicago area, raising two children in Lake Forest. Like me, she dislikes cities and is introverted, but she is more social than I am. Her lifestyle prior to meeting me can be described as "suburban housewife." Her husband was a lawyer who worked nonstop, and they lived in a ranch-style house. She devoted all of her time and energy to her children, who are now turning out to be successful adults. I would probably be fine with a cabin in the woods, but that wouldn't suit her at all. She likes gardening and knitting and belonging to groups. I'm fine with gardening - vegetables mostly - but don't care about knitting or groups. I prefer cutting down trees with a chainsaw and hiking in the mountains. I used to be interested in Internet discussion but am finding stargazing and astronomy to be a more constructive and satisfying use of time. For all its vaunted openness, in truth the Internet is controlled by ruthless oligarchs who will delete you out of existence if they perceive you to be disturbing their agendas.

In 2011 we decided on the Middlebury area, took a road trip, found a house that we liked and bought it. Middlebury is in Addison County, which is the most agricultural county in Vermont. Once it had the highest wool production of any county in the United States, and now it has lots of cattle. There are no interstates here, which makes a difference for the better. We are far enough out in the country that it really is rural, but downtown is only a short drive away. There is a good food co-op. The college has surprisingly good musical performances for a small college and an art museum that isn't bad either. There are several good restaurants in the area that are operated by French immigrants. I recently met the owner of one that just opened in downtown Middlebury and overlooks Otter Creek, and he said that he likes it here because of the variety of people he can talk to. I also find that to be one of the best features of the area. You have local farmers who have lived here for generations, retirees like us, people from all over the world who moved here by choice, college students and professors, and no one is inaccessible or ghettoized the way they are nearly everywhere else. There are no McMansions or gated subdivisions.  Our neighbors include a farmer, a forester, a former governor and an economics professor. This is about as egalitarian as you can get in the United States. My partner belongs to a garden club, takes a tai chi class and volunteers as an usher at the Town Hall Theater.

I like it so much here that I am not inclined to travel. I haven't been on a plane in over three years. We know a couple who retired to a property near Lake Champlain because they like boating. They used to do their boating to get away from things, but since they no longer feel a need to get away, they sold their boat.

These comments are not intended as a plug for Vermont. Actually, I don't want more people moving here. The point is that it is possible to find living conditions that are nearly optimal for yourself. You may need resources that you don't have, but I think the harder part is knowing yourself.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Smart Jewish Guys from Brooklyn

As mentioned in an earlier post, my family moved to the U.S. from England in 1957. My father thought he'd make it big here. His first career was in textiles, which had been a family tradition for several generations. His great-grandfather was a tailor who owned a shop in Shipston-on-Stour in Warwickshire, and his father was a director at Liberty of London. My grandfather designed Liberty prints and worked his way up, starting with the company before World War I. I have photos of him greeting the Queen Mother at the Regent Street store and giving her a tour.

My father's American career in textiles didn't go any better than his English career, and after a few years he gave up and made an unfortunate switch to selling insurance. This turned out to be an even worse field for him. When I was in high school, after dinner, when he was sufficiently inebriated, he would say "There is truth in wine," and lecture me on the ways of the world. In those days he had graduated from generic Grand Union beer to cheap Gallo rosés. At the time of his demise a few years later, he had moved on to cheap vodka and had stashes of it hidden throughout the house.

I'm not surprised that he didn't like his insurance job, but he was always miffed by people who worked harder than he did and were more successful. He had a big ego and thought that he was so charming that he should be a success without putting in much effort. One lecture I recall was about "Jewish bastards" who work at night. He couldn't believe that anyone would continue working into the evening, but warned me about it for my "edification," one of his favorite terms. He noticed that they were getting ahead.

That particular lecture stuck with me, and I have long held a mild interest in the Jewish work ethic, particularly in the vicinity of New York City. The short version is "smart Jewish guys from Brooklyn," but really includes all Jewish men or women who grew up in New York City, had ordinary family backgrounds, worked very hard and became successes. The list of them is amazing:
Physics: Richard Feynman, Murray Gell-Mann, Steven Weinberg
Literature: Harold Bloom
Fiction: Norman Mailer
Music: George Gershwin
Film: Stanley Kubrick, Woody Allen
Politics: Bernie Sanders
Finance: Lloyd Blankfein, Janet Yellen
Crime: Bernie Madoff, Bugsy Siegel.
Of course, this is an abbreviated list. And I have noticed a similar pattern in other parts of the country. Plenty of statistics bear out the fact that Jewish immigrants and their descendants have vastly outperformed most other ethnic groups in the U.S. on a per capita basis.

In American mythology, this high level of productivity is seen as inherently good by everyone except bigots. Certainly the productivity is admirable and has improved life in America in almost every field imaginable. However, as a culture critic, I do have some quibbles. Although they fall into a small minority within the group, we really don't need workaholic criminals. We also don't need as many Woody Allen films as we get. Woody seems to think that if he makes lots of films, a few are likely to be very good. This is hardly a formula for an artist who is in control of his medium, and we could be spared most of his films without losing anything.

I have also speculated on where all this drive and talent comes from. There could possibly be some genetic elements, but a more obvious source is the survival mentality that Jews have lived with for centuries. If you are a persecuted minority and have been trained from birth to believe that you will die unless you work hard, this must substantially affect the rest of your life. It is an appropriate response during times of extreme stress, but can lead to dysfunction when there are no threats. There are times when high-performing Jews might do better to chill out.

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Words and Phrases Banned on this Blog

Banned Words and Phrases:

awesome
wonderful
lovely
delightful
poignant
evocative
heartrending
laugh-out-loud
it is what it is
coming of age
OMG
folks
spot on
sublime
thank you for this
at the end of the day
great read
romp
resonate
absolutely (in place of "yes")
troops (when referring to a soldier)
hearts and minds
I'm doing good (meaning "doing well")
closure
that's a good thing (with no further explanation)
in harm's way
epiphany
bravo
  • IMHO
    lapidary
  • that's a great question
  • to share
  • my bad
  • brilliant (as popularly used in the UK)
  • achingly
  • passed (instead of "died")
  • reach out (when no arm is involved)
  • looking to

Banned words may be reinstated subject to appeals from readers. The words I have banned are ones that I come across often in news, comments and reviews. They are used so frequently that their meanings have become eroded. This implies that the people who use them are lazy, unimaginative or both. If you would like to recommend other words for the list, please do so. I'm sure the list could be much longer.