I should sit down and ponder sometime why it is that I’ll occasionally respond to grocery-store cashiers’ casual questions as if I believe in their pretense of interest. When the bearded youth asked me last week what I’d been doing with my day, it might have been his earnest look– someone so obviously as-yet unjaded by life couldn’t be totally insincere, after all– that prompted me to admit, “Finance,” followed by the qualification (I have to protect my liberal-arts cred, after all) that I never in the most implausible scenarios I’d imagined for my life ever thought I’d be saying that. Turns out (surprise, surprise) we were both frustrated writers, and I went on my way as the wordsmith of Trader Joe’s asked the next customer the same question.
But enough with the evidence of failed human connection; let’s talk this crazy numbers stuff I confessed to have been dabbling in. Much as I’ve learned about– and enjoyed– budgeting and non-profit financial management over the past few months, my eyes still assume they should glaze over when faced with a new quantitative concept or piece of loosely-defined jargon (“best practices,” anyone?) that could almost mean anything you’d like it to mean. I’m not an entirely stupid person, but even with all my fancy education and newfound fascination, this stuff can be simultaneously tricky and tedious. Hence, based solely on the technical ideas involved, I’m unsurprised that history has been filled with banking scandals, spectacular economic crashes, and difficulty in regulating the whole mess– and that’s without taking into consideration a lamentable human baseline of greed and childish competition.
Currently, I’m making my mostly comfortable way through a standard on institutional investment– and I’ve been pretty pleased with how straightforwardly written and clearheaded it’s been. But then I came across this gem: “Combining the tendency of a high risk premium to mean revert with the observation that the equity risk premium seems to decline secularly, justifies an assumption of U.S. equity returns of 6 percent real with standard deviation of 20 percent.”* Say what? Right: it sounds like something that came right out of the artificially constructed language in Václav Havel’s The Memorandum, and we could all get in a few chuckles about this clumsy chunk in general. But here’s what I zeroed in on: “the equity risk premium declin[ing] secularly.” Yeah, yeah, Investopedia‘s keyed me in to the fact that “secular” here just indicates “a long-term time frame,” so my snarky grin had to disappear in the face of legitimate word usage.** But student of culture and religion that I am, this phrase is loaded with rich and telling possibilities – as in, when dealing with wily securities, the best form of hedging might be prayer– or a reconsideration of just what sorts of benefits the transcendent could offer, especially upon realizing that the systems we’ve created and kid ourselves are “natural” are just as prone to error and irrationality as are the humans who crafted them.
In short, I’m having all sorts of dorkily speculative fun in moving this specialized terminology across disciplinary boundaries– and I haven’t even gotten around yet to toying with Adam Smith’s oft-cited and ofter-misunderstood concept of the “invisible hand.” You can be certain, though, that that appendage will be just as eager to wreak ill-informed havoc in my imaginary economic universe as some of its extreme fans are still doing in our current one. To asset allocation, then! Who knew it could be so creatively philosophical?
* David F. Swensen, Pioneering Portfolio Management: An Unconventional Approach to Institutional Investment (New York: Free Press, 2009), 111. In case you’re wondering, the chapter in which this gets thrown down deals with asset allocation.
** Massive props to this website, which has allowed me to understand a whole welter of concepts without driving my mentor to check himself into an asylum. I’m still going to do some etymological investigation of how this particular usage came about; why use “secular” to deal with longer terms, instead of “sacred” or “immortal”? You’d think something of a secular nature would have to do with the very non-eternal– and hence, shorter-term– reality of buying and selling and borrowing.
Take heed, fair readers: in the realm of unexpected traces left in a book by previous handlers, owners, borrowers, and the like, I’ve come across a rare bit of treasure: a visible link to someone at least (or most likely) connected to the person who opened up the pages before I got my hands on them.
Yes, actual photographs!!*
I had to refrain from posting immediately about this magnificent find; the pictures fell out of a volume I was sending someone as a gift– and I didn’t want to destroy the surprise of either the photos (which I replaced, so that she, too, could marvel) or the knowledge that she’d soon be the owner of a copy of Neil Patrick Harris: Choose Your Own Autobiography. With confirmation that the package arrived, I can now officially celebrate the pretty-much-perfect insertion of unintentionally goofy pictures into an ironic-nostalgic take on an old subgenre of kiddie lit.
Devouring those artless adventures in elementary school, I could only have dreamed of coming across a mysterious clue as significant as this pair of snapshots. Had the possibility been realized, I undoubtedly would have viewed it as evidence of some low-grade variety of transcendence attempting to communicate something very interesting, maybe even important, to yours truly. Decades later, I can’t imagine there being anything world-historical about these human-canine portraits falling into my lap– but I’m still curious about why the shots were taken. Was it the very owner of NPH who, featured in the picture, either set up a camera on automatic timer, or had someone else take these photographs– and if so, why? For whom? Also, where did that blanket come from, and did it ever induce seizures in anyone who looked at it in the wrong way? Did this person successfully complete one version of Mr. Harris’ autobiography, and if so, was it a satisfying end to the narrative arc that had been occurring up until then?
And there you have it: suddenly, I’ve been sucked into a very mundane version of escapism, losing myself to unanswerables in lieu of, say, the evening study round I should have started an hour ago. Now, if a Polaroid of Putin and his dog shows up in today’s chapter in my Russian text, I’ll definitely take that as a reasonable excuse to stop my review of the conditional– but the adventurous path that would take me on would undoubtedly be much darker than the apple-pie images I’ve been discussing. In real life, I would definitely choose that safer, if less interesting, of the two options.
* With the face of the human, at least, blurred to protect identity. I’m hopefully correct in assuming the dog won’t mind being given a negligible amount of exposure; if that’s not the case, I hereby humbly beg for forgiveness.
Overheard on my volunteer shift in the bookstore the other day: one member of a couple declaring very seriously to the other, as the duo browsed the $5 bestseller table, “I’m just opposed to time travel in general, you know?” I was unable to crane my head around the computer without it becoming obvious I was eavesdropping, so I didn’t hear the rest of the conversation– but it did go on, giving the impression that there was much of urgency to discuss, in the way of real-world possibilities (and their attendant merits, ethical dilemmas, and so forth) of leapfrogging from one era to another.
Sure, this topic has provided grist for literature and film both great and inane; I’ll admit to finding the first Bill and Ted movie, well, excellent, maybe because it could really qualify for membership in both of those categories at the same time. And why not discuss time travel seriously; not too long ago, space tourism was inconceivable, and now we’ve got bazillionaires chomping at the bit to spend a few hours in oxygen- and gravity-free zones, rather than throw down some of that cash on, say, the alleviation of global poverty or at least something that won’t pollute the atmosphere with a sloshing tank of rocket fuel and other detritus.
But I digress. Maybe confronting supposedly impossible scenarios, such as time travel, could act as a training ground for development in mature civil discourse. After all, getting shouted down and insulted by your opponent regarding the ethics of popping into your parents’ teenage years is far less likely than being (emotionally, at least) mauled by an ideologue at a town hall meeting. I’m certainly not going to base a curriculum in civics on the possibility, but maybe because there’s less at stake in digging into far-fetched hypotheticals, people are more willing to entertain each other’s conflicting views and arguments– and if they realize they can get along even in a heated debate about worm holes or the risk of retro- (or would it be pro-, here?) actively annulling your own existence, they could take it to a real-world level and be willing to work together to confront anything from potholes to prison reform.
That rosy little pipe dream is probably akin to the faith I want to have in kids– and adults– who really took Harry Potter, especially volume 5, to heart. If those readers can remember that particular volume’s beautiful elucidation of how ideology works– and the entire series’ wrangling with the noblest way to confront very difficult, very terrifying situations, and apply it to their own world, I’m willing to refrain from throwing in the towel just yet. And if an examination of magical worlds can do that for us, well, so, too, can a variety of other apparently frivolous conversations. Carry on, then, with your bookstore conversation, sci-fi couple. Carry on.
Well, friends, no one was reading in my carriage on the way home today; any ability to concentrate on anything at all was shot completely to hell by two meatheads shouting threats and insults at each other. The scene came complete with stereotypical bad-cinema moves such as one oaf turning to his presumed audience (i.e., the rest of the car) and making his case to us, then standing up and removing his outerwear and looming in simian fashion over his seated foe, while the latter challenged his aggressor to go ahead and make good on his promises– an outcome which, of course, never happened, and which consequently meant the rest of us were trapped listening to this inane exchange until they both got off and actually started chest-bumping and pushing each other along the platform as we were finally able to leave them behind.
It was the second day in a row that I had to be vigilant about the people around me; a completely different sort of mentally disturbed individual paced up and down my car last night, muttering to herself and getting every now and then in the face of some poor passenger she decided she didn’t like. In that instance, at least pretending to be engrossed in my magazine seemed like a good protective move, and as long as this lost soul was on the other side of the carriage, I could actually get in a paragraph or two.
My increased train-riding over the past year has made especially evident some alternate uses of reading. In this last instance, it proved to be a sort of defensive shield. Less justifiable– and (hence?) more shameful– are those times when I just don’t want to deal with one more panhandler. Although everyone involved can probably see through the ruse, being visibly sunk into a book makes it seem (we all tell ourselves) as if you’re so in the zone that you just didn’t notice the person begging for change or making a public plea for assistance in the aisle. My own worst bout of comeuppance concerning this tactic came about a year ago; although I really had been fixated on a novel, I was well aware of the guy who’d just gotten up and said, “I don’t mean to scare anyone.” In spite of my own wishes that I weren’t so jaded, that I could believe that each person’s pleas were honest and legitimate and valuable, and that I could– and more importantly, were willing to– give something to every needy person who crossed my path every day– in spite of all that rolling guiltily around inside me, I didn’t look up, and tried to focus on the doings of fictional characters as well as possible, while the story of the living person in front of me continued to be told. And when we arrived at my station and I headed out the door, I happened to glance at the man who had reached a point where he saw no choice but to publicly set his own dignity aside– and who, I finally allowed myself to see, was asking for money in order to bandage the largest, most horror-film-esque gaping and suppurating wounds I’ve ever witnessed on a living being.
I still haven’t been able to rid myself of the painful awareness of what some Southern religionists I know would call being convicted of one’s own sin– or the regressive spiral of guilt that continues to accuse my inhumanity vis-à-vis everyone in need (whether a so-called “worthy victim” or not) to whom I haven’t given what I’ve got when asked for it. Every now and then, it makes taking up a bound volume of print feel like the bad sort of privilege– an easy method of dismissing harsh realities from which most people on this planet simply can’t walk away. Handing a homeless person a book is so far from making any meaningful difference in a horrifying structural situation, such a gesture is more or less an insult. But I really do wish those two lunks on the train today had been more able and willing to tune out the world– or at least each other– with some sort of reading material of their choice. In following the adventures and travails of some disembodied character, they might have felt less need to act out flawed attempts at heroism for themselves.
It’s the kind of thing you (or I, at least) hope will happen when buried in a book in public: some fellow reader sees the text in your hand (or on the table, your lap, etc., etc.) and feels enough of a connection or surge of curiosity to take a chance and say a few words to you. Before today, it had happened twice in my life that I could remember, totaling a 50% goodness ratio.
Instance 1 (the bad) taught me a lesson: never make it obvious in a public place that you’re studying biblical Hebrew. Because that one fundamentalist nut in the vicinity will somehow hone in on you and assume you share the same ideals. Even though you can’t see the flames painted on the back of his jean jacket, and the question about where the person viewing them thinks s/he will spend eternity,* his Chester Molester glasses tell you all you need to know, regarding the sort of conversation that’s about to be foisted upon you. And you, of course, not enjoying fights about metaphysics or faulty logic or anything else, really, will find yourself losing a battle against a member of the Pentecostal inquisition. In this case, in a hostel in Boston.
Instance 2 (the good): deciding it was time to cede my table to someone else in the crowded café where I’d been reading Fritjof Capra’s The Tao of Physics, I packed my bag and made ready to leave. But before I’d stepped away, a representative from a neighboring tableful of Russians asked what I was reading, and whether it was as fascinating as its cover and title made it appear. I granted it was interesting, and we had a short conversation about reading and physics, and then I left, feeling a tiny bit more connected to my neighborhood.
I’m glad to report that my train ride home today provided me with a third case of someone stepping briefly into my life, thanks to a text– and that this chance meeting upped the goodness ratio of those types of encounters. Pulling into a station, an elderly gentleman caught my eye, saying in reference to the latest issue of The New Yorker I was reading, “It’s quite a cover this week, isn’t it?” He had to have recognized the particular font and/or one of the cartoons from the publication, as I had the magazine folded in a way that didn’t make it obvious to most people what I was reading. But we smiled at each other in recognition of our common enjoyment of a particular periodical, and parted ways as he got off the train. Those few seconds were a far cry from a new friendship– but I’ll take it, by golly. I’ll take it.
* This self-made design was only revealed to me after the crusader finally walked away in disgust. It was also what told the surly Irishman at the check-in desk that the argument he was witnessing was not, in fact, a domestic dispute, as he’d originally assumed was the case.
I may have spoken before about my tendency to transform the intended message of a given sender into total absurdity. This usually happens with publicly broadcast information, as in advertisements or song lyrics, maybe because I’m just not paying that much attention in the first place, and so my receptors are functioning at remedial levels.
It happened again recently, as I was hanging around on a train platform, and looked up from my magazine to find my gaze held by the seriously creepy stare of an illustrated nutcracker who’s made his way onto banners and placards all over town of late, it being the time of year for the one ballet people will have seen if they’ve seen any at all. But I did a double-take not because my soul was being bored into by the dead eyes of an advertising figure; rather, my erroneous reading of the choreographer’s name led me to believe that this performance was the work of Christopher Walken– in which case, the “creatives” behind that poster had produced an impeccably representative icon.
The Nutcracker Suite as envisioned by Walken would be a minor dream come true for yours truly. There is, of course, the primary possibility of his honoring the inherent trippiness of this dream-tale* while combining it with the idiotic frenzy of the season, thus blatantly transforming it into the horror show it really should be by now: a logical manifestation of approved commercial celebration, often gobbled up by people who have no idea what they’re getting into– which leads me into the second reason Walken should be given free reign with this classic.
After sitting through way too many productions of this piece surrounded by families who 1) think this is some sort of toddler-friendly icecapade and 2) not only don’t have the attention span to sit through a two-hour performance, but also have neither an understanding of theater etiquette nor the desire to learn it, I’ve instituted a lifelong personal ban from any staging of The Nutcracker that features an audience whose members’ ability to keep quiet and still is unknown to me. Now, if the ballet becomes associated with Walken, and if he imbues it with the eeriness he can bring to even the most innocent of roles, those disruptive ticket-buyers may start fleeing from something no longer given a family-friendly seal of approval, something that will soon become known for keeping the kids up with nightmarish visions of square-jawed soldiers trying to bite the little ones’ heads off. And hey: the man is, after all, a trained (and excellent) dancer, so I’m sure he’d know what he’s doing from the start.
Yes, yes; I realize I’m just an evil curmudgeon who probably has a bright future in turning the hose on neighborhood kids– and so maybe I should stick with reimaginings of Scrooge figures. But admit it: Christopher Walken would probably put a pretty good spin on those guys as well.
* Among other things, think about the fact that the girl who dreams this wooden appliance has been transformed into a gallant human soldier pretty much fails to grapple with how the dangerous-jawed doll’s facial region would be manifested in an actual living being– and whether any behavioral problems and/or psychological hang-ups on his part would mar the perfection of this beautiful relationship.
Someday, I’ll write up the absolutely Havelian-level absurdist theater that’s constituted my reality over these past two weeks, complete with random firings of a miscalibrated cuckoo clock, grown men marching through the halls singing nursery rhymes, and my workplace going up in (at this point only metaphorical) flames.* But for now, let’s concentrate on one good thing to have emerged out of this Thanksgiving farce: namely, my completion of Jonathan Franzen’s Purity.
I’m not sure the man will ever top The Corrections, but this latest tome of his was a fantastic examination of the motives that may drive so many do-gooders, celebrated or un-. I’m wondering if it rang such clear bells for me due to the simple fact of my having been put through the wringer over the past few years by people ostensibly impassioned about the fight for social justice, but who turn out to be just as hypocritical and conflicted as the rest of us. But Franzen is such an astute analyst of human relationships, cultural and social trends, and the people involved in them, that I’m left once again with the conviction that this guy is somehow able to verbalize my own experiences, and the forces that surround and shape them, better than I ever could.
A large chunk of that expression involves the yearning and awkwardness of romantic situations, or even of the deep desire for friendship and the miscommunication that ensues when people mistakenly believe they’re not desirable or good enough for the object of their affections. If you’ve read Franzen before, this will be a given (as will his fantastic ability to write believable female characters). But let’s check out another theme particular to this book– very generally, the Internet age– and look, for example, at his former East German dissident character’s description of our now-networked reality, which I really need to quote in its mostly full length:
The apparatchiks, too, were an eternal type. The tone of the new ones, in their TED Talks, in PowerPointed product launches, in testimony to parliaments and congresses, in utopianly titled books, was a smarmy syrup of convenient conviction and personal surrender that he remembered well from the [German Democratic] Republic… [whose] privileges… had been paltry, a telephone, a flat with some air and light, the all-important permission to travel, but perhaps no paltrier than having x number of followers on Twitter, a much-liked Facebook profile, and the occasional four-minute spot on CNBC… Outside, the air smelled like brimstone, the food was bad, the economy moribund, the cynicism rampant, but inside, victory over the class enemy was assured… Outside, the middle class was disappearing faster than the icecaps, xenophobes were winning elections or stocking up on assault rifles, warring tribes were butchering each other religiously, but inside, disruptive new technologies were rendering traditional politics obsolete… The New Regime even recycled the old Republic’s buzzwords, collective, collaborative. Axiomatic to both was that a new species of humanity was emerging. On this, apparatchiks of every stripe agreed. It never seemed to bother them that their ruling elites consisted of the grasping, brutal old species of humanity.**
Yeah. Although lengthy, the book is a quick read; I blew through its 560-plus pages in under a week, even while having to attend a conference and socialize in chaotic situations for days thereafter. And so very basically, since my level of weariness is approaching its breaking point, my review of Purity can be condensed into the following: Thanks for doing it again, Mr. Franzen. You managed to suck me in with great storytelling, and to help me retain my sanity in doing so.
* And I really should make the following a separate post as well, but I may be on the verge of sleeping for the rest of the weekend, so I’ll provide a quick train catch-up while I’m on a roll. Early-morning trains are anything but a pretty picture, a fact I was reminded of while trying to get to the airport a few days ago. Lo, out of the chilly darkness, a drunken homeless man barged into our subdued carriage, wielding a bottle of gin in one hand and eight dollars in the other, the latter of which he counted three or four times before tumping over on his side. That repositioning in turn pulled his jeans to his knees and blew his hospital gown up over his naked nether regions, making it all the more convenient for him to then lodge his bottle of Gordon’s in between the cheeks of his posterior. Good times, and we hadn’t even reached six in the morning.
** Jonathan Franzen, Purity (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux), 2015: 448-9.