In Praise of Karen Russell

On a book review, I had read ‘Swamplandia’ by Karen Russell and it was awesome. Deceptively easy going to read and springing darker things on you when you don’t expect them. Very embedded in a Florida sensibility that I’m not so familar with but with a heroine (and friends and family) that ends up with a ‘good ending’. Fun. So I picked up a follow up that came out of short stories – ‘Vampires in the Lemon Grove’. I’m half way through, but I’m so mesmerized by each story that I wanted to get that down. Each of the stories I’ve gone through starts with a feeling that they might be kind of boring and they slowly turn the boiling water up and end up just incapacitating me to do anything but read. Each one has some point where things happen in a way that everyone’s autonomy just disappears – often literally. Scary stuff. In a sense, they’re old fashioned ‘horror stories’. But they catch you off guard and you don’t anticipate it. Each one starts (as I said) by making me think this is a literary work of seriousness. Then it sinks the knife. Absolutely wonderful.

Friends

I heard from or about 3 of my 4 best friends from my life over the past months of the age of Covid. Being honest, I think being a faithful and good friend has never been a strong point of mine. Even with family, I reach a point where I just move on and am somewhat absent of a need to spend time – even when I know it’s what they want from me. I’m married but haven’t had that sense with my spouse yet – beyond what I think is normal for people who can crowd each other a bit.

There are 4 people who I wold have counted at some point in my life to have been a best friend – David, Robert, Brandt, and Mike. I’ve known David since maybe 2nd Grade in Texas and by the strangest coincidence we met again in high school in Virginia and hung out quite a bit. He’s in North Carolina and I hear from him at odd occasions, but not regularly. But when we  do connect, it’s clear we still have a good feeling of friendship.

In high school, particularly in my last two years, Mike was a very close friend of mine. By the time summer after high school ended, for whatever reason, he really grated on me and that relationship soured – an expression of my feeling toward him than the other way around I think. We both knew Brandt from high school. Brandt was my crazy drink-like-a-fish friend in the first couple years of College. A truly weird artist guy who ate up the fraternity life. Starting out as a strange nerdy guy, the frat life and his outsize personality made him a social figure. As my life moved onto something more solitary and I soured on fraternity life, we drifted apart. My life moved onto my passion for research – his life continued apace in a very parochial sense, very tied to the undergraduate friends we both knew. He was successful and life continued as a fraternity party; but he was a good friend to those who knew him. I say ‘was’ because he died just about a week before the Covid shutdown. He has a second wife with one child, around 8 I think. I feel awful for them and for us. I reached out to Mike a month later to let him know. He had already been told by Carol – a mutual friend and girlfriend of both of ours and another story.

Robert, the best man at my wedding, is the last of the quad. We shared a passion for physics since undergraduate, though we had actually met in high school in a trip to the Naval Research Laboratory. I’m not sure how that happened since we went to different high schools. Robert is a truly bright and socially comfortable person. Much better than me at focusing on the academic pursuits – not distracted by sins of the flesh as I am. But career-wise in academic physics, partly through luck, partly through who we are, I eventually had more success. In the end though, he managed to carve out a career that has let him remain in academia. I did not. Although not there now, we last had an overlapping life in Ann Arbor where I met my spouse. His family and mine spent a fair amount of time together. Shortly after I got married, he and his wife had a very ugly divorce. She wanted it and he did not. We remained close, possibly closer, to his wife. I found myself insensitive to his plight and feel like I was something of a jerk about it. In the end, I think that put a bit of coldness on our relationship. He’s in Utah now and we still talk, maybe once a year. He’ll always land on his feet but I never did quite enough as a friend for him as I should have. I think that was true about all of my friends.

 

So here we are

We are on the rising part of the wave. It’s like being at a great beach and an awesome wave is coming in. You feel a bit of a pull away from the beach like the water is being sucked in by the breathing action of the wave. The the deceptively slow rise of the incoming edges starts and you look up and aren’t sure if you should dive right into the beast to come out the back end, or try to ride to the top to flop across its peak or if you should let it drive you down in body surfing. But in any event, you know the peak is there and how you interact with it has a lot of uncertainty as you gauge its build-up.

New York City had over 500 deaths today from Covid-19. Illinois appears to be right at 1/50th of the national total. Average in all things. I look at details of the virus’s behavior and see risks for myself everywhere. It’s bad for old people. I’m not in the risk-featured 60+ range, but I am approaching it, so I know my risk is higher. Higher for males – even though those studies look suspicious to me. Higher for people with high blood pressure. Mine is high but controlled. Does that count? Beyond me, I have moments of panic wondering what would happen if one of my kids came down with a serious case.

One of the things I’ve noticed is how a lot of behaviors are, however, sort of normal but exacerbated. I mentally get very irritated at regular folks I overlap with outside. I mentally paint them as being socially wrong for not following the rules. The kind of thing on my worse day I do too often (am I wrong to think a lot of us do that?) but it’s weird to see that behavior sourced from facets of this plague. I snap at my wife for not properly following distancing rules – but is that just a way of me snapping at her because I do that too often anyway? I worry a lot about the future for my kids.

Stats in the Times in these times

We are in the likely beginning of the biggest world health crisis of my lifetime. A new virus, Coronavirus-19, is spreading throughout the world. Accurate, good information is critical. In this morning’s NYT, there was an article by a researcher from the University of Oregon. The writing style was not bad for this kind of article routinely featured in NYT – starts out with a question put as a non-expert would grasp, the comes paragraph 2 or 3 ‘Our research shows…’ – nearly a universal feature in these articles and for some reason, one that annoys me. Setting that aside, she describes a study she/they conducted looking at 1263 individuals and seeing what the traits are of those who ‘stalk statistics’ vs  those who don’t.

I have multiple issues with the article – some of them addressed by the author but at the tail end and in a very ‘hand-wavy’ way. Given the context of the Covid19 pandemic, I’m more than a little troubled by the article as it clearly promotes viewing people who pay attention to ‘statistics’ about the evolution of the pandemic as pathological in some way. It’s not too far a stretch from saying “Don’t Worry, be Happy”.

The first minor issue: The first observation is that ‘males are more likely to be stalkers than females’ by 55% vs 43% (presumably a small number were ambiguous). When you say ‘more likely’ you are making a probabilistic statement, implying a level of generalization to the population based on your sample. If she had said men in the sample were observed to be stalkers more often, that would be fine. But that’s not what was said. Accuracy in words matter – especially for people who supposedly have expertise. Now let’s see if she can even back up the ‘more likely’ claim. If the sample was roughly 50/50 Male/Female, then that’s 625 each. If there’s not a priori predeliction to stalk or not, then you expect 312. For a binomial distribution, that is you expect 50% with a statistical standard deviation of 0.5*sqrt(312) or around 3%. Thus, you expect 50+- 3%. For males you observe 55, easily consistent with 50/50. Now, is 43% consisten?  Writing this, it’s clear I need to do my own work here too. The relevant question is whether 43% of 312 is statistically different from 55% in another sample of 312. My guess is yes. Let’s say the null hypothesis is the mean (or 49%). So we are comparing two measurements, one is a 2 sigma fluctuation up (49->55) and one is a 2 sigma fluctuation down (49->43). Each has a probability of around 2% so the overall probability is likely around 0.04%. So I have to retract my first statement that this is not significant.

 

Spring Training

Well, we went to Phoenix for Spring Training and to be in Arizona again. This is our fourth year and our schedule only allowed us Phoenix this time. The first year we had been split the trip between Sedona and Phoenix and the past two years we had split the time between Tucson and Phoenix. I think I’ll just put down my thoughts on the baseball this time.

We squeezed in 4 games in 4 days this time. The first day was raining and all games were cancelled. Except one. A Cubs game against the Athletics was scheduled as a night game. So I decided this was one time I could make an exception and go see a game with the one team I dislike the most (the Cubs). They play in Sloan Park out in Mesa, a little to the east of Scottsdale.

As I’ve come to understand it, if you put Phoenix in the middle of a table, the downtown area is the southeast edge. Glendale is about 15 miles west. A few miles north of that are more stadiums (Mariners for example) and a few miles south is Goodyear (more about that later). Directly to the east of Phoenix is Scottsdale which is where the well-healed folks always go to as a destination and the home of the Giants. Further east is Mesa. To the south of Phoenix is Tempe which includes the Angels stadium. Most of the games we’ve gone to are in Glendale. We’ve seen the stadiums for the Brewers, Angels, Rangers, Reds, and Giants (that I remember). My spouse sort of tracks the Giants as they were really good (World Series winners) when baseball caught a spark for her (tied to our son being pretty good at it)

Sloan Park is definitely the least favorite stadium I’ve been to for Spring Training. And I think I can definitely say it’s not because I despise the team. It felt like a cavern. It was cramped -not just crowded, but cramped. The people were annoying (that’s my bias) and way too much standing and chatting socially with the game as just a backdrop (okay in the lawn but please not in the front rows). This is a fan base and environment where the team seems to just overall be a backdrop. The fan base grabs the identity and rolls with it. Lots of ‘oohs’ over routine flyballs. Of course the  Cubs are a good team and they won this one with hard hits from their starters (not unusual for opening day even in Spring Training to feature more starters). The parking was grass and mud and water. Food looked unappetizing to me (my spouse thought it looked good though). We left after 4 or 5 innings.

The 2nd day we saw the Sox take on the Reds in Goodyear. This was a fun trip since we followed the game with an afternoon hike at Estrella Mountain which is right by Goodyear (more on that in a follow-up post on hiking, but it set us up nicely to climb Camelback Mountain the next day). It turns out that Goodyear comes from the Goodyear tire company and there appeared to be other R&D, Airplane connections when you went though town. I want to follow up on that. The stadium is not overly complicated, it’s wide open, which I love, with some lazy Palm trees blowing about. Food was mediocre I thought. We had seats in the very front row behind the right corner of the Sox dugout. My spouse (MS) was able to get a photo of Eloy Jimenez mugging for the camera. He’s a ham, but an awesome player. The Sox fell behind early but came back to win it.

The 3rd day we saw the Dodgers at Camelback. this was a fun game and a crowded one. The Dodgers and Sox share Camelback. Due to the proximity to southern California and the fact that the Dodgers have been a much better team for the past several years, the place really gets crowded when it’s a Dodgers game like today. I had us sitting behind the Dodgers dugout this time (MS likes Dave Roberts and recognizes some of their players). That was a fun game although from the 3rd base side, I have a harder time tracking the ball on pop-ups because the Sun is a backdrop during the afternoon – Home plate to Center runs South-East so during the afternoon, the sun is above the right field fence.

The last day we watched the Giants at Camelback. This was a great send-off for us, since Adam Engle won it for the Sox, and he’s a favorite of MS. I think this was the game where Yermin Mercedes also had a home run, but it could have been one of the other games. Finally, this game had one of the weirdest coincidences in that the last Sox pitcher and winner was Christian Friedrich who is the son of the Thesis Advisor for MS’s Ph.D which she finished 10 years ago or so. That was cool and weird.

The Sox showed all the signs of being a pretty fun team that people expect. I have a hope (a very Spring Baseball hope) that they’ll have a good year.

Repeat

My spouse and I recently watched ‘Parasite’ for the 2nd time (within 2 weeks or so). It was on the ‘small screen’ rather than in a theater, but still truly awesome. I have mixed emotions about film as an art, but like it or not, it’s part of the art scene that I need to think about. Some day I’ll blog about it, there’s a personal element around someone I knew in college who had a passionate, loving way of thinking about film as an art that infected me for all that I instinctively disdain seeing movies these days.

Well, that second time watching Parasite was not as great from the ‘experience’ point of view, but the movie rocked as I already said. What I wanted to put some thought into was the fact that we watched it again. It feels like it used to be (my faulty memory?) a way of adjudging the quality of a film was to ask how many times you saw it. It was somewhat expected that decent movies merited a second look, etc. Maybe because modernization has made entertainment so ubiquitous that the pleasure afforded a repeat viewing can be made up by just watching the next film come out. That feels to me to have a ring of some part of an echo of the truth. Missing from that thought-line is the particulars of the viewers. I feel like part of the equation (and it does feel like an equation) is my own biography and context and basis for engaging in art.

 

Parasite

I went to see the movie, ‘Parasite’ over the snowy, wet weekend with my s.o. and that was wild. It may be cultural (in multiple ways) but a trepidation of mine about movies has been their predictability. When I grew up, I think I sort of took for granted just how creative they were at that time (I’m thinking the early-mid 70’s in particular). I feel as though I either know every plot now because they are derived from a well known book or I know the plot because they just aren’t very creative or intelligent. This movie showed how to do all that.

The story is about a family – a poor one – in Korea. They’ve adapted to their circumstances by doing what they need to, spending more time appreciating small victories than grieving the circumstances that put them in need of those abilities. For instance, they scamper all over their apartment trying to find the magic spot to land a free, publicly available WiFi service. When one is password-guarded, they know how to go about guessing what it likely is. When they get it, the family as a whole are happy as clams -over that victory.  The son ends up being ‘gifted’ a chance to be an English tutor for a wealthy family’s teenage daughter. He leverages that to land his sister a job as an art tutor. He also leverages his place to land his Dad a job as a car-driver for the family. He is then able to land his wife a job as a house-keeper. In each case, no-one knows that these individuals are part of a family. In the cases of the car-driver and housekeeping jobs, the family uses their ‘smarts’ to get people who already had those jobs dismissed.

One fateful night when the Parks (the rich family) are out of town and the Ki family (I think that’s their family name) is squatting the their home, the former housekeeper comes back and it turns out that her husband had been living in a hidden basement cellar for many years. That pair discover the Ki’s ruse and the two families fight (physically) which ends up in the former housekeeper and her husband being tied up in the basement when the Parks come back. The housekeeper suffers what is eventually a fatal blow to her head falling down into the basement. The next day, after a rainstorm and sewage failure flood the Ki’s home, they are called back to the Parks to help manage a birthday party for their young son. The Ki’s son, goes to the basement -I think with the intent of killing the couple there. He ends up being ambushed and badly hurt. The man in the basement goes on a stabbing rampage in the party, killing the Ki’s daughter. The Ki’s patriarch kills the Park’s father, and the Ki’s mother kills the man from the basement.

The killing of the Park’s father is the only moment where the family explicitly reacted to some part of their circumstances that crossed their line about how to be treated.  It followed a chain intermittently linked throughout the movie about how the Ki’s are thought of by the Parks with regards to their smell. The Park’s young boy comments that all of their ’employees’ have the same smell.  The Parks comment about the Mr. Ki’s smell when he is hiding nearby and can hear them. The killing of Mr. Park comes not long after Mr. Park has made a comment for the 3rd time (I think) about Mr. Ki being good but ‘almost’ crossing a line for being too familiar. The wealthy get the privilege of having a line that cannot be crossed, but are completely unaware of such a line for others. The film expresses just how alien and segregated the two families are without taking away what would make the audience perceive as familiarity in each with themselves. It’s a nice trick.

I could (and maybe will) write a lot more about this movie. Again, we don’t watch a lot, but this one was wild and will stick in my memory for a long time.

 

Snow and Memory

We had a lovely snow last night. It was powdery, there was lots of it, and it was piling up instead of being smooshed, sloshed, and smeared. The slight wind and nature of it made for that lovely smothered quiet where you can hear small layers of it building up and being flown about. My wife and I walked to the grocery store in a delightful quiet with few others about. Most years, when these snows happen, I find myself thinking back to a short film we watched in elementary school. It was an adaption of the story ‘Silent Snow, Secret Snow’. As far as I could tell or remember, it was about a young boy who sort of gets drawn in and mentally engulfed about snow. A little mentally disturbing but just pleasurable to engage in.

I never did actually read the story (I think it was from Ambrose Bierce) and there’s a part of me that wonders if my memory of it is related to the sort of nostalgia-laced memories we have for other things we were fond of in school. I wonder about the times when we find the fondness does not repeat when given a chance. For instance, I think a lot of us have had the experience of revisiting a food we loved as a child but it’s not quite the same when we try to re-engage as an adult. I’m thinking about things like Macaroni and Cheese. Now that could be related to our taste buds but the memory thing is weird, more broadly. It reminds me of the Oliver Sacks material I recently read.

Elitism

I read Aisha Harris’s piece in the NYT (Dec 29) – a decent read, but I wanted to get some thoughts down on a subject that was referenced there, elitism. The word is usually used in a pejorative sense, suggestive of a group that feels they share a set of qualities to those who are not in their group. When I reflect on it, I think there are some subtleties to the definition that I suspect matter a bit in considering its impact on us.

I would constrain the definition further to say it means a group who consider themselves to have innate qualities that make them superior to others. As an example, think about the stereotype of a group of highly accomplished high school students who get into a selective college. They could be displaying elitism in the sense that they regard themselves as having the qualities to have accomplished what was required to get into that college. They might think it is because they are innately more intelligent or innately better at working hard,  but there is a notion that most people not in their group could not have similarly succeeded because they lack the innate talent. One sees that in thinking about that example, the idea gets caught up in understanding people’s motivations for aspiring to something and the idea that what one chooses to do is often obviously desirable to other people.

The idea of elitism is not confined to a self-reference to that idea of an innate superiority though – people can confer an elite status on others as well. Those same students who regard themselves as elite are not surprisingly considered as such by many in society as well.

These ideas of identifying people who have some superior abilities has a practical effect on how we construct our society, specifically on to whom we give the ability to influence or make decisions for the larger group. A good example of this is laid out in David Halberstam’s ‘Best and Brightest’ on the Vietnam War. ‘Wise Men’ were regarded as elite by looking at accomplishments and considering them to be reflective of superior abilities that would translate to the mission of our country around the world in the challenging times of the broader Cold War. That’s a good example to sketch out some of the risks that come with how elitism is used. Specifically, because elitism conveys an idea of inner traits, it is not usually something that can be explicitly seen and therefore is ascribed by means of interpretation.

By interpretation, I mean that someone sees all these impressive things that happen in someone’s life and infers, or interprets, them as emerging from that person’s innate talents. It has some similarity to Calvinism which is maybe why it seems to me to be more pernicious in our society.

Interpretation is a messy business in most contexts, but in identifying elites who should make important decisions for society, it can be shaped by the uglier parts of ourselves. It’s not a coincidence that elites in our society have historically been groups of white men. There is a feedback that takes place there too. Having identified who we think are elite and give them power, we, as a society, go to some length to justify the view and start to believe our own case for innate superiority and make it that much more difficult to be honest about why individuals get to where they are. I like to think of Molly Ivins reference to George H.W. Bush: ‘Born on third base and thought he hit a triple’. But society sits in the stands and claps away as though they believe the story too.

Our current president has managed to take advantage of our relationship with elitism in two ways. First, he looks to re-enforce those uglier aspects that got caught up in our understanding of who has great innate talent. He turns nativism and white superiority into reflections of an idea of what success ‘looks like’. Making America great ‘again’, means re-ascribing power based on the superficial, magical way of thinking about talent. There are many people who really do think that a white male is likely to be inordinately better. It’s a very slightly different thing that simply stating they ‘hate’ non-male, non-white people and I think I can see how it emerges from a place that is not evil, per se, but can drive us to evil as we look to continue to be defensive about our own inability to understand what happens to individuals in our society.

The second way the president has leaned on elitism is to inveigh against another set of elites. It would be a mistake of oversimplification to think that Trump is striving to speak for the common man as a populist and against elites. He is doing that, but the targets are more specific – they are identified as fraudulent elites, easily seen as such by lacking the markers that a common man would use to pick out a true elite. Part of the reason he is so effective at this is though timing having applied it on the heels of our first African-American president and at the doorstep of our first woman president. He’s not alone in this regard. As much as I love Maureen Down, I always felt there was a waft of this in her pieces about Barack Obama as well. 

The challenge for ourselves, I think, is to better frame meritocracy and understand how we can formulate a place for it in our society as a way to replace elitism. Meritocracy is not elitism. It is not without it’s own risks similar to those of elitism but I think it has the potential to better serve all of us. I’ll defer thoughts on that for other posts.

Voting

With less than 20 months to go until the presidential election and maybe 7 until the first primaries and caucuses roll around, ones thoughts go increasingly to political topics. I think I’m a bit of a political junkie and I certainly love the storyline of political campaigns – even as I’m unsure whether that aspect is healthy for our society. I’ve told folks, and I think I’m not far off, that this election reminds me of the 1976 election primary. At that time I collected Newsweek magazines as my parents finished them (they had a weekly subscription). The magazine format was a much more important part of the social fabric than today of course. 1976 was the first presidential election since the Nixon resignation. Nixon’s resignation wasn’t the only thing that had happened in the previous 4 years of course – society was something of a big muck of ‘stuff’ and lots to be remembered for could come in any year. One 1976 Newsweek cover touted the score or so democratic candidates lining up for a shot to be nominated. The Watergate debacle made Dems the team to beat for November. Jimmy Carter really came out of no-where (still not sure how) but there was Frank Church riding in from the Church CIA hearings, Mo Udall, Jerry Brown, Scoop Jackson (remember the term Jackson Wing of the democrats?), Birch Bayh, Sargent Shriver, and others. One of the things that strikes me is how many of these have progeny who’ve continued in their wake. Nepotism? A strong thread in US politics. It’s a topic that makes me start thinking about our wealth gap in the US but I feel I’m going off on another topic.

I’m pretty worried with how our world writ large is evolving. I have a small sliver of hope. That worry seems to overshadow how I feel about the elections – do I go for the candidates that reflect where I want us to go now or the ones that optimize the chance of getting small changes done. I feel like Obama was right at the sweet spot and accomplished about as much as can ever be feasible in our (American) political era.