With less than 20 months to go until the presidential election and maybe 9 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 [ed: as I followed up writing this, Birch Bayh has died. Boy I take my time completing this no?], 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.
The topic that was banging around in my head today was how does one figure out who one should vote for? Or hope should win? This is part of the old topic of whether to vote straight for who sees the world and the problems to solve as you do or go for the one likeliest to win or the one likeliest to achieve part of what interests me? In the past there have been elections where I voted for someone based on wanting to be idealistic. For instance, I voted for (gasp) Ralph Nader in the 2000 election.
I’ve gone back and forth. I’ve made argued vociferously that my particular vote simply does not have the likely ability to make any changes. That is something that is absolutely true. Voting is something of an act of faith – or maybe a giant Monte Carlo. So does focusing on how I should vote become a shiny ball? In other words, the variance in the outcome according to the variability in how I do it is negligible compared to the intent which is to gauge public sentiment.
There’s also a (I think) new component to all of this – the public pressure that is there by virtue of electronic media. Think about the increasing number of close electoral results where people are castigated by voting for a fringe candidate because the small perturbation was enough to be a decisive factor overall. Note that I said ‘a’ decisive factor. It feels like a peer pressure thing and I’m not sure I’m comfortable with it. I’ve given in to it as well and felt anger towards Jill Stein voters for instance. A messy, see-through bowl it is.
It’ll take a while to get all I want to get down about our trip to Arizona. This was our 3rd consecutive trip to the desert, timed in part to coincide with part of professional baseball’s ‘Spring Training’. It’s a period of a month or so where teams will play practice games against one another to get ready for the regular season and to give some last thoughts as to who should be part of the team going forward. We will spend the other half of our time in another part of the state just enjoying the outdoors – mainly some combination of hiking and biking.
Too many of our trips start off with some pre-trip crisis (a topic for another post!) and this one did as well. D and I definitely were high strung going into the last minute before the cab came for us but by the time we were at the airport all was cop acetic. (Spelling check, is that word really two?). Odd factoid, I tend to drink less when I’m on trips and vacations, though this time I had 3 good shots at 9:30 AM. Also, I tend to sleep like a baby on airflights. Not so much this time. Connected?
Phoenix was wonderful to us again. An interesting town where I can again sense a big gap from the haves and have-nots. The terrain is absolutely not to be missed though. In our 7 days, we hiked with increasing ardor every day and then on the next to last day capped it off with a 45 mile bike ride (in Tucson). I know we’re getting older, but damn, it felt good to be physically alive.
I take a fair amount of pride in what I deem to be an ability to communicate well through speaking or writing. The math and science of the world has always come second nature to me and I’ve probably taken it for granted, but I can point to a few milestones in my life with regards to speaking and writing: in high school, I very vividly remember writing a paper as a Junior (I think) where the purpose was to take a position on something. In my very egocentric way, I wrote a paper arguing why reading was important but in a style which was very self-centered and really a stand-in for why I am just better than everyone else for seeing how cool reading is. My teacher at the time, Ms. Alwood, was somehow able to get through to a part of me that was able to put aside the part of me that was convinced of my being right and to re-think what I was doing. The technical change was just to reconceive the paper with regards to who the audience was. Okay, that wasn’t hard, the challenge was to get me to re-evaluate what I was doing. I’m not entirely sure, but I sense that there’s a connection there between that ability to communicate and having to weaken one’s sense that one is always the arbiter of truth. It’s a weird notion given how some people, lawyers for example, are explicitly trained to do the very opposite – be artful at explaining why you are correct (at least in an adversarial judicial system). A second milestone was in college where, at least in the first 2 years, I felt like my literature courses were the ones I enjoyed most. My freshman literature course was cool – taught by a very nearly-hippie, stereotypical boomer dude (this was 1982 after all). The class was very wide ranging and able to connect extremely disparate ideas into a cloth of literature that left one feeling that you really learned something. For example, we read Dante’s ‘Inferno’ and we also read the book of Job from the bible. The portion on the Job and the bible was neat because it raised the idea that Christianity and Judaism are at their hearts more ‘Eastern’ religion than one realizes in their attempt to give very non-material, meditative answers to questions about life. The perspective on God in Job is one that posits an entity that is very ‘apart’ from us and leaves us in a continual meditative posture with asking the question about why bad things happen to good people.
Now, what does this have to do with computers? Well, in my inbox was another set of links from a computer/programming-oriented website. The ability to assemble blogs and articles is so omni-present these days that I think it has done good in adding some literacy to many such parts of life. This article included a link to ‘books you have to read in 2018’. But my reaction as I read them was a mix of ‘I know better than to enjoy this one’ and ‘Over-rated’ and ‘can you justify this with anything other than claiming one is better for having read it?’. I think my fur rises in part because I deem the source to be someone who I stereotype as likely good at technical things, but surely they don’t have the literature/arts chops that I do. I have similar feelings though even when people who I know recommend books. And I’ve been wrong! When I lived in a condo in Oak Park in the first years of our marriage, I was loaned a book “Ahab’s Daughter” by our neighbor downstairs. I started it and instinctively wanted to disparage it. In fact, when our neighbor asked me what I thought, my first response (I was about 1 chapter in) was to openly criticize it – I think I said it seemed okay, but there were no male characters, to a fault. I was not only boorish, but possibly misogynistic and I was wildly wrong as well. It ended up being one of my favorite books I’ve read in the past 20 years. Ugh indeed.
I really enjoy book reviews as a literary form in themselves. I really only discovered the New York Review of Books within the last 15-20 years but it is probably one of my favorite sources of reading material now, even if it takes me a month to get through an issue. It does provide reviews of books, but really each piece is so in depth and places the material in such a rich context that you can forget they are addressing a particular book. The breadth of topics is superb. I’m a complete layman when it comes to understanding things like art or architecture, but I can become completely engrossed in an article which is ostensibly a review of a ‘book’ such as a compendium of art pieces which are featured in a special showing at the Museum of Modern Art in NYC, or a book about 1960’s and 1970’s ‘brute’ architectural styles. I think more than half of the novels I’ve picked up over recent years have come from what I’ve gleaned from the NYRB pages.
Sometimes I wonder if the reviews are a way of cheating on the fact that I simply can’t read fast enough or find enough time to read what I want to or ought to. That feeling is stronger, I think, when I read film reviews where I want to know the story without needing to see the film. It’s a bit ironic that film, which is such a shortened sugar-high-like version of entertainment compared to literature, seems to offer a comparatively higher cost in terms of invested time. To see a film, you need to sit for 2-3 hours in addition to setting up (either at home or at a cinema). If I want to read, I can do it for 15-20 minutes or an hour or more if I want to. Yes, it takes a lot longer (for me) to get through it, but it has that built-in flexibility around when, where, and for how long.
I had more time than usual to plumb the NY Times this morning, so I’ll use that to put some thoughts down on what I found interesting or worth continuing to think about, etc. Some of my NYT habits have changed and some are a little embarassingly pedestrian, but I really do love that paper. I think it was while I was a post-doc that I really discovered it and contrasting it with the Chicago papers (there were 2 at that time) and the Detroit papers (there were 2 at that time), it was just so manifest that the writing was superior. I’m not talking about the opinions, just the writing. I grew up with the Washington Post (1970s and 1980s) but haven’t read it enough as an adult to compare. My pattern today with the NYT is to 1) go through Sports (gagh, but it’s a habit I won’t let go of). 2) Go through the Review section 3) Preserve the Book Review – as it’s my go-to for the rest of the week, 4) Look at what’s on the cover of the magazine issue 5) At least skim through the front section (international news) 6) Set aside other sections as time allows.
There were a bunch of interesting things today – current events about the shutdown, the editorial coming out with a full throat engagement with the threats from anti-vaxxers, and an interesting opinion piece about the role of rich people within progressive and liberal circles. The latter was one I wanted to debate and would like to come back to it at some point. But the first one I thought about was one on the topic of ‘fake news’ and the readiness with which it is engaged.
The NYT usually has one article in the op-ed section that is written by researchers of one flavor or another. They have an embarassingly similar way of starting out. “Problem X is important today. Could it have to do with Y or Z? Our research done recently shows …”. I know that this is the thrust of most research articles, but it’s jarring to see it in a non-scientific format and feels very plastic and in the interest of excessive self-promotion. Despite my own academic and research background, I cringe at these. Despite that, today’s was mostly interesting. The premise of today’s research article is that there is sense of an increasing willingness of people to accept fake news – information put into social media which is at best incorrect and at worse a lie – and it would be beneficial to know why. The authors assert that there are two formulations into understanding this: 1) It’s due to greater tribal/partisan sensibilities and people will rationalize against facts to buttress their own associations; and 2) It’s due to people simply not opting to put in the effort to think about things, especially when they are broadcast in sensationalist bursts which is a feature of our era (think twitter). The article was pretty cool into what ways you can measure these things: there’s a test known in psychological and behavioral circles which asserts falsehoods carefully chosen so that individuals who don’t think about them very hard will give wrong answers. It can thus provide a kind of measurement of how prone an individual is to go with ‘their gut’. They gave this example: in a race, you pass the 2nd place person. What place are you in now? Gut response tends to say ‘1st’ but the answer after thought is clearly ‘2nd’.
So, it was a nice read, not too didactic but lays out measures, premises, ways of thinking about the problem. The end is a little weak where they try to talk about how to reconcile the ‘two camps’ with what they clearly see as definitive results showing the latter. They fall into the tendency of drawing conclusions without having quantitative backing: effect A clearly exists is extrapolated into ‘effect a is important perhaps even mostly important’ into ‘effect A needs to be the prime driver in how we understand X’. That was at the end of the article and maybe I was getting analytically lazy though!
Among the many pools of thought that I’ve thought about in Rachel Cusk’s ‘Outlines’ is the idea that a couple entering into ‘familyhood’ really becomes an isolated, frozen entity that is a different universe from the outside world and how odd it is when you ‘re-enter’ reality, so-to-speak. I feel pieces of this coming as our children start to amble out into the world. It’s going to be a little drawn out and maybe never gets ‘there’, but it’s odd. Sometimes I worry that we (myself and my spouse) feel aimless but that feeling is balanced by times when I feel a weird freedom that we can choose to do lots of things – go live in Portland for example! Travel, etc. I do find myself measuring that up against how much time we might have.
Looks like my last blog entry (of the 5 so far) was in January. So much for discipline about exploring this! It was a year like many others with lots of focus on what’s happening with the kids but starting to give some thought to our lives headed back to a duet. I feel like I did get in a larger amount of reading than usual this year and I’m pretty happy about that. I’d like to keep the thinking process as vibrant as I can. Another year of being a pretty crappy son and sibling though. Not proud about that.
What should I write about? Work? Missed chances at the work I want? Love? Feelings that are love but not love? (where is our Linnaeus for Love?) Music? Children? Broken Families? Vertigo? Why my question is always what I want and how selfish that seems?
I read (need a writing on the variations between reading and skimming. This was a 7 with 10 meaning ‘read, digest, contemplate’ and 1 means look at the section/chapter titles) an article in the NYRB on memory that got me wondering why the particulars of what I do remember. I have a recurring/persistent memory of Gerbil (Jamil) from my god-forsaken fraternity days and a conversation about what we really want. He advocated (as people in the 1980’s did) that everything came down to what you as the individual want for yourself. Charity and Love were sought because they made you feel good about you. I cannot deny that this is logically impossible (as I admitted at the time). But I don’t think it is reality. I chalk that up to faith. The best definition of faith is something that comes in that moment when you know truth but don’t have a definitive argument on your side.
Wondering if the focus that we have on other peoples sometimes has less to do with miss-seeing them than it does having to do with thinking about it as another possibility that we missed. If only I ..
Writing of any kind is always biased toward the kind of mood that produces it. Kind of a tautology. So my 1st ‘sincere’ post here, had a brief thought triggered by weather and a reflective mood. That’s my immediate temptation here as well. It’s the first of September but I want Summer to stay but I’m confronted with Autumn. My thoughts turn to so many Fall-ridden books. It almost makes me cry. Is it because sincerity is so intimately linked with tinctures of sadness? I wonder if the obvious fact that it is easier to critique than to contribute is related to this.