Category: Uncategorized

Hauling the Load to the End

I rarely give up on a book, even if it’s exasperated or offended me from the beginning. (For example, the mere fact that I made it all the way through the violent celebration of misogyny and colonialism otherwise known as Filippo Tommaso Marinetti’s Mafarka the Futurist should give an indication of just how difficult it is for me to set aside a text without finishing it.) But that quirk presents a problem when I’d like nothing better than to be done with a volume that seems to be adding on an extra page for every one I read. Such is the case with Norman Rush’s Mating, an award-winning piece of fiction it feels as if I’ve been dragging around now for months.

Political cartoon from Library of Congress, on Wikimedia Commons.

It’s not that the novel is boring, or badly written; it’s neither. At first, I was surprised not to be outright digging the author’s deployment of decades’ worth of GRE vocabulary lists; after all, I love new words, and new occasions for using old ones. Maybe, though, Rush’s insertion of Latinisms and wittily-wielded academicisms is part of what’s getting to me. This whole story, or the package in which it’s delivered, is so heavy; my reading is slowed down by the weight of what seems to be the narrator coping with her insecurities via highly articulate and jaunty self-deprecation. Less an analysis of academic culture (though it is present), Mating seems sort of like Oscar Wilde went to grad school and continually had to joke about his awe and love of the whole thing by pretending to play it cool and to be less serious/intelligent/whatever than he (or in this case she) really was– while also using big words to belie the act.

I’ll admit: my irritation may be due to the fact that it’s hitting home– that I’m being faced with myself in grad school, among so very many serious people around whom I always felt like a child. Like any number of comics using their ability to get laughs as a defense mechanism, my own sarcastic dumbing-down was the only way I knew to deal with institutional egotism and senseless power games. Given, it was the wrong strategy– and that may be why I’m so frustrated with this character, crafted in the hands of a male author.

Because in spite of this nameless narrator’s pretty good overall construction as a character, Rush also tends to put gender-based generalizations into her mouth that irk me, one representative example being, “I always remember titles and authors, unlike women in general.”* This sort of thing could be a device that fits her jokey pooh-poohing of self, but it gets old incredibly quickly.

At any rate, I’ve reached the point of speeding up my reading rate, finding myself back as a high school sophomore trying to complete that week’s assignment of being X words farther along in the book I’d chosen than I’d been the week before. I’m pretty sure I have such a bad specific memory of Charlotte Brontë’s Villette (See? Title and author firmly implanted in my female brain), in spite of having loved it, because that was one of the books devoured in the hall over lunch, just to be able honestly to report I’d fulfilled my word quota for the week. We did have to give a plot update as well– but had I been allowed to savor the thing, I’m confident I’d currently be able to give at least a few details about why I found it worthy of praise.**

Hence, I know I’m not exactly practicing the most responsible method of completing this book. But in addition to being sick of it, I’ll be traveling soon, and I really, really do not want to haul its literal or figurative weight onto a transatlantic flight; slow-going as getting through it is in regular life, I can only imagine it would make the fourteen hours or so of my journey feel like a week spent in a hell of canned air and cranky humanity. Fingers crossed, then, readers: I’m hell-bent on using my holiday weekend to get through this chunk of literary molasses.

 

* Normal Rush, Mating (New York: Vintage International, 1991): 91.

** I also (now) fondly recall having misread a syllabus, and after plowing through 258 pages of Hegel’s Phenomenology in one evening (again: name and title solidly in place), having an infinitesimally fleeting blast of total cosmic comprehension shortly before midnight. Sort of like the world’s shortest and soberest trip, with follow-up visions of fat translucent spheres engaging each other in battles to the death for positions of mastery and servanthood.

Perverting Professional Usage

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.

The non-secular hand’s about to wreak havoc on your concepts. Guildford Cathedral, courtesy of Gordon Lawson on Wikimedia Commons.

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.

Gold Mine!

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.

Pressing Fictions

Courtesy Comic Vine.

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.

Intratextual Gifts

I’ve discussed before the joy that ensues when I turn the page of a used book and find something left there by its previous owner. Child of the Cold War that I am, these little surprises throw me right back into the belief that the presence of any object could be something other than the result of negligence or coincidence– that if you know what to look for, and how to go about it, that seemingly insignificant castoff could take you down a wild rabbit hole of adventure and mind-bending.

The postage sticker I found this weekend tucked in between two brittle, yellowed pages of my copy of George Mills gave off precisely that sort of aura. Its probable origins in Germany or Austria or Switzerland (what about the delicious possibility of Liechtenstein?) means that my book itself may very well have spent time on foreign soil, and in a place where the grudging default to tourist-aimed English was bypassed in favor of French. It’s just the sort of thing the spy I wanted to be as a child might have used, especially since the backing for this airmail label, as time-yellowed as are the pages that had apparently cradled it for years, might be old enough to have been printed back in the days of perestroika.*

I don’t often let go of books once they’re in my possession. But the next time I donate a volume or two, I might just stick something in between the pages, hoping to pass along to the text’s new owner the simple pleasure of finding hidden treasures someone else has left behind.

 

* Given the current, weird mélange of affinity and hostility being displayed between old-enemy world powers, maybe, in line with my desire to see greater meaning in found objects than they actually possess, the appearance of my very hypothetically-dated sticker may constitute a significant message about to be revealed!

Science and Subjectivity

I mentioned not too long ago that I thought Diane Ackerman had a tendency in A Natural History of the Senses to make too-quick assumptions about general human feelings vis-à-vis the environment and its many phenomena– and I illustrated my discomfort by citing her assertion that “we” associate winds with destruction. Well, the following has nothing to do, really, with warnings to authors about making more humble characterizations– but it does have to do with wind, and with some fun poked at bygone naturalists with a tendency to exaggeration. Behold, some satire from Mark Twain, directed at popular earthquake reporting and forecasting:

Oct. 22–Light winds, perhaps. If they blow, it will be from the “east’ard, or the west’ard, or the suth’ard,” or from some general direction approximating more or less to these points of the compass or otherwise. Winds are uncertain–more especially when they blow from whence they cometh and whither they listeth. N.B.–Such is the nature of winds.*

I’m not sure why I almost choked on my roll at “Such is the nature of winds”– but that stifled chuckle was soon followed by another when reading just a few sentences later “Oct. 26–Considerable phenomenal atmospheric foolishness.”

US propaganda leaflet via Wikimedia Commons.

US propaganda leaflet via Wikimedia Commons.

This quotation is featured in a chapter on earthquake-centered humor in Deborah R. Coen’s book, The Earthquake Observers: Disaster Science from Lisbon to Richter. I’ve long been fascinated by earthquakes, to the point of being so charmed and surprised to find myself in one for the first time that I didn’t even think of moving to safety until the madness had already passed. (Sometimes, as in this case, the stupid get very, very lucky; that one came in somewhere in the middle range of the magnitude scale.) And so, from the start, I knew that the information in this book could even be presented in less-than-stellar style, and I wouldn’t really mind. But Coen’s scholarly exposition makes good use of humor and very human (i.e., quirky, limited, or otherwise engagingly foible-laden) assumptions from the history of disaster science. Even the crotchety Karl Kraus makes a noticeable appearance, with, among other things, his commentary on tone’s ability to convince people of all manner of falsities, citing as an example a satire of an earthquake observation accepted as the real thing by a major press.**

I’m not even halfway through this exploration of how earthquake science developed in tandem with the popular press and scientific practice and discourse as a whole– but if the rest of the book is as thick with lovely linguistic nuggets from long-gone scientists and commentators as it has been thus far,*** the rest of this sunny weekend may just be spent devouring it whole.

 

* Cited in Deborah R. Coen, The Earthquake Observers: Disaster Science from Lisbon to Richter (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013), 58.

** I’ve long been meaning to read Kraus via more than secondary sources; now I’m doubly determined to see what he had to say about the “fake news” of his own time, and whether it might help us understand why so many people, in a day at least technologically different from his own, are still so willing to be swindled by what would seem to be obvious misinformation– or, as some might call it in certain circumstances, propaganda or ideology. Another nugget of Kraus-wisdom Coen offers us sounds like it could be a condemnation of a sizable chunk of contemporary social media users: “The idiocy that would never have thought of emerging from its life in private has discovered an opportunity for immortality; banality has been lured out of its hiding place; average humanity has been hauled out in triumph. A consuming greed to be named has taken hold of the Mr. Nobodies.” (Coen, 67.) Kraus was no friend to the average human being– but behind the sneer is nothing other than a more detailed version of the truth-kernel expressed in (what may not have actually been) Andy Warhol’s dictum, “In the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes.”

*** e.g., describing Iceland as one “of the earth’s great safety-valves,” or the way in which false reports were received as evidence of “the heartlessness of a belief that has been disappointed” (that latter quote coming from Kraus again). ibid., 49, 66.

The Fun(niness) of the Numbers Game

It seems beyond banal to say it, but developments that veer me off my assumed path in life never fail to amaze. Presently, that unforeseen twist consists of levels of involvement in and learning centered around financial management I never thought would be within my capacities, much less my realm of interest. But, circumstances having forced me into a new relationship with numbers, most of my reading these days has to do with fiscal policy and organizational structure.

From von Nettesheim, De Occulta Philosophia, on Wikimedia Commons.

From von Nettesheim, De Occulta Philosophia, on Wikimedia Commons.

You’d think it would be a pretty dry topic, and I’m not denying the frequently flat nature, or occasional lack of affect, of the thick tomes I’ve been lugging around. But here’s what I’ve discovered, and what an excellent teacher has helped me to understand: numbers can tell certain narratives in ways that words alone might have to dance around. With their own grammatical structures and rules of usage, numbers and formulae can give off a sort of crackling espionage-esque sense that secret code is carrying something electric through dark voids, something that the players involved want to keep under wraps.

Admittedly, all of this excitement is probably due to the thrill of discovering that I’m not nearly as bad at math as I’d always presumed, and to the dorky elation yours truly experiences at learning just about anything new. But even after the numerical honeymoon comes to an end, I’ll still be left with bits of levity from my present text, Financial Management for Nonprofit Organizations: Policies and Practices.* I’m guessing the authors didn’t expect readers to laugh at the following warning– “In the process of carrying out these [financial] responsibilities, some members of the organization may feel disliked or undervalued by those they serve on a regular basis… accountability is not always popular with those being held accountable”–** but being personally familiar with such reactions blended into my love of what sounded like such an old-school maxim at the end there that I had to wonder, and amusedly so, with what sort of facial expression this team set those words down, and whether they exchanged greatest-hits tales of being derided as the office goodie-two-shoes.

Plus, the following provided a much-needed break from the legalese of the sample board by-laws I was reading– namely, the specification that “There shall be no… members who are not natural persons” on the board.*** Sorry, robots; you’ve still got a way to go, in terms of being fully accepted in the human world. I’m not sure where this rule leaves ghosts; I guess their official designation as “supernatural” disqualifies them as well. Yeah, yeah; I understand why such a specification needs to be made, but really: I’ll take any occasion I can to make this stuff more engaging– or relatable to a “natural person,” as the by-laws would have it.

Don’t get me wrong; I’m in no danger of ditching my lifelong obsession with linguistics, poetics, syntax, structure, imaginative plot and characterization and metaphor and the like. And my finding humor in this stuff isn’t in any way an indication of my taking it as anything less than dead-serious, and interesting, material. But damn– as long as I’m learning it, I’m determined to have as much fun with it as possible. Might as well, since “those I’m holding accountable” definitely aren’t finding anything at all entertaining about my being trained in the ways of pointing official fingers.

 

* John Zietlow, Jo Ann Hankin, and Alan G. Seidner (Hoboken: John Wiley & Sons, 2007).
** ibid., xxvi.
*** ibid., 118.