Thursday, January 31, 2008

Six Non-Important Facts

The lovely and talented Tikishla Sunrise tagged me/us a little while back, and I am responding because deep down inside I have an insatiable desire for reindeer games. The rules, which I copied directly from her site, are these:

1) Link to the person who tagged you.
2) Post the rules on your blog.
3) Share six non-important things/habits/quirks about yourself.
4) Tag at least three people at the end of your post and link to their
5) Let each person know they have been tagged by leaving a comment on their

Since this is a two person site, I decided to post six things true of both myself (the Cap'n) and my distinguished colleague. I wondered momentarily if I could just share three and let simple arithmetic transform that into six, but I have a certain homespun ingenuity that carried the day. So here we go:

We both had or have some kind of non-ear oriented piercing.

We are both only children.

We have both received degrees from the UC system.

We both at one point had dyed blonde hair. Not the same point, though.

Neither of us are habitual drivers. This is subject to change.

We both became deeply engrossed in the New Yorker cryptic crosswords, back when such a thing existed.

I am tagging chanchow, octopus grigori, and lotusville. I want no complaints
from the Octopus.

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

What Is Up With Economists?

Like I mentioned before, I sometimes read the Freakonomics blog. As I also mentioned before, sometimes the arguments economists make about things, and the way they approach their theories and their lives, leaves me feeling seriously mystified.

Leading me to wonder, is thinking rationally bad for you?

Over at Freakonomics, Stephen Levitt tells the true story of an unnamed economist with a young daughter. Here's the story.

Father promises to take daughter to Hannah Montana concert. They have no tickets. They go to the venue. Increasing panic and anxiety as father realizes prices for scalped tickets are astronomical and time is running out. At the last minute, father scores cheap second-row seats, hooray!

Then a twist. Father thinks: I could sell these, make a huge profit, buy regular seats, and still see the show! Uh-oh! What will he do?

Thank god someone there was behaving like a normal person. Daughter starts crying. Father shifts course: OK, we'll use the tickets! They do, the show is awesome, daughter totally gets to talk to some back-up singer or something and is thrilled. Happy ending.

I suppose the idea behind selling is that using the tickets is like giving away the 1000 dollars you could get for them; you wouldn't pay 1000 dollars even for second-row tickets to start, so why would you now?

Man, if someone tried to pull that reasoning on me I'd start crying, too. Let's face it: giving up the opportunity to maybe make 1000 dollars when time is short and you might miss the concert is in no way comparable to paying 1000 dollars for tickets. It just isn't.

Then, too, how thrilling and fun to suddenly be in the second row. How awesome! It seems so cold not to treat it that way. Many of life's most excellent experiences are like that; how could a person fail to appreciate that so dramatically?

You could say, in this case it's better to act non-rationally. But you don't have to. As some Freakonomics commenters point out, by factoring in the awesomeness, you can defend the choice to use the tickets on purely rational grounds: it was, in this case, worth the money. Cost-benefit-wise.

On this interpretation, what went wrong with the father's reasoning wasn't that he over applied rational thinking, but rather that he underestimated the disappointment of selling and underestimated the pleasure and fun of being in the second-row.

So then we ask, well, why did he misestimate? Clearly he misestimated because when you start doing cost-benefit analysis, you develop a clear bias toward easily estimated goods. Like money. And the fact that failing to make 1000 dollars should be the same as losing 1000 dollars, because it's clear, looms sort of large.

In this sense, it seems to me that engaging in rational-decision-making can make you less rational. You just start guessing wrong.

I think this might help explain why economists also underestimate the vague goods associated with community and friends and so on and overestimate the good associated with money and material comforts (as I said was going on here). Material goods are just easier to add up.

When I went back to Freakonomics to get the link for this story, I saw a new post in which Levitt also said that he "started" but "didn't manage to finish" three of the five books related to high SAT scores (don't ask): 100 Years of Solitude, Crime and Punishment, and Atlas Shrugged.

I usually poo-poo alarmists about reading, but really? You couldn't finish 100 Years of Solitude? Crime and Punishment? I mean, I can see not liking them. And putting them down. And I can see never having picked them up. But it really sounds like the problem for Levitt was that they were too long. Hm! Surprising!

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

The Kindness Of Strangers

So Greyhound is starting to offer, in selected terminals, a program by which you can pay an extra five dollars and guarantee yourself a seat on the Greyhound bus.

You can even pick which seat you want.

I tried to use this on Sunday, to be informed that the terminal I was at didn't offer this service.

Which is good because I feel a little melancholy about the thought that you can pick your seat on Greyhound. Greyhound is a profoundly screwed up organization, one given to massive lateness and imposing quantities of craziness. But the big upside is that if you're traveling via Greyhound, your only real option is to roll with the punches. There is nothing you can do about the fact that the bus is late, the fact that the bus is full, the craziness of the guy next to you. That's just the situation, and you can stew about it all you want but you can't change it. This whole pre-reservation thing makes Greyhound like other modes of transit, at least theoretically. Pre-planning becomes an issue. Where do you want to sit? Is it worth it to pay more to reserve your seat? Etc.

On the other hand, I've had it suggested to me that nobody's actually going to use this service.

Anyway, this story I'm about to tell you is why I like Greyhound, which is that I was taking the bus back on Monday, and, not having known when I would be ready to go, hadn't bought a ticket. I show up at the bus station in my full on suit and heels and hose (hose!) and there's a bus outside that's boarding. I'm the second person in line. I ask the security guard where the bus outside is going and he says "L.A." and I'm excited, but the guy in front of me is taking forever. He has a baby in a bassinet and he's asking ten thousand questions and I kind of secretly hope that the security guard will say something to the Greyhound employee so that I can get on the bus and I sit there and hate the world, and the bus driver announces final call and then comes into the terminal and sees me in line and asks where I'm going. I say "L.A." and then he stops and waits and the guy with the baby asks about a thousand more questions and finally the bus driver tells me to get on the bus and I can buy my ticket in Los Angeles.

It's not so much that it was a nice thing to do as that it was a human thing to do -- it was treating the situation with common sense and in a we're-two-people-here kind of way. It was nice only in the context of him treating me humanly, of him trusting me to buy the ticket on the other end, of him being more interested in me getting where I was going than in collecting the requisite number of tickets at that moment.

But here's the thing which may be somewhat interesting or may be only a sign of my particular mania and I'm not going to describe it well because for whatever reason I'm exhausted, which I'm going to blame on Bakersfield, so here's the thing: He was human, and that was nice, but it created this particular climate of embarrassment, where I worried that he would think that I wouldn't pay and felt vaguely anxious about the whole thing. The reason that I don't think this was just my mania is that we were going to be five minutes in the station before mine and the driver nudged me on the shoulder and said, "You can go buy your ticket here." Which was interesting, because I had been sitting there wondering whether if I got off the bus at my station and went to the bathroom before buying the ticket the driver would think I had run off, and then I concluded I was being ridiculous. But the nudge suggested that he was just as anxious that I know that he expected me to pay for my ticket, that he was anxious that human not be confused with unbusinesslike or free.

Monday, January 28, 2008

Anger Vs. Sadness

In a post from a while back, I wrote about the ways that violence, rather than sadness, can be a way of dealing with the darker parts of human existence. In that post, I was talking about literature. But today I experienced the same thing but in real life.

I had a kind of bad day. Not a super awful bad day or anything, just, you know, one of those days where you end up feeling sad. I have to say, I was feeling pretty darn sad.

Nothing was really cheering me up.

Then, I got pissed off. And suddenly things seemed a little brighter. !

First I learned from Jezebel that the president of NOW said something about how the reason women ought to hate Obama is that he and Edwards engaged in a kind of metaphorical gang-bang, or multiple rape, of Hillary during or after some debate or something.

Oh my god. What? As Jezebel readers point out, this both trivializes rape, and manages also to conflate gang-bangs with non-consensual sex. News flash, Marcia Pappas, some women choose to be with a lot of guys! At the same time!

Then I read about how Bill Clinton is saying how the only reason Obama did well in South Carolina is that black people would only vote for a black person, or something. Good heavens. I used to always defend Bill Clinton but this is ridiculous!

It turns out anger and hatred can actually be life-affirming. Which is a scary thought, really. I kind of wish it wasn't true.

But I'm going to try to stay mad about it rather than sad. Just from the happiness-preservation point of view.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

No Little Girls Allowed!

That's what this sign, at the YMCA, means: No Little Girls Allowed! How often do you see that?

Actually the little girl outline with the circle and bar through it is kind of pasted onto the original sign. It's meant to clarify: this is the Adult Women's Locker Room, not the Girls' and Women's Locker Room, and also not the Family Locker Room.

That's right: at the Ann Arbor Y, there are five locker rooms: One for girls and women, one for women only, one for boys and men, one for men only, and one for mixed families.

Five locker rooms, well, it's an awful lot.

Sometimes I'm really glad it's all separate like this, because I get a little overwhelmed with all the kids and parents and its nice to change and shower in peace.

I go to the Y around around 6 - 7pm or so. It's a huge new Y with two gigantor pools, very nice, and lots of space. In the common areas, there are lots and lots parents, taking their kids to lessons: basketball and swimming, especially.

At that hour, you can tell the kids are a little worn out. And the parents are worn out too. And yet, clothes have to get changed; snacks have to be postponed; since it's Ann Arbor and it's freezing jackets have to get all zipped up before anyone goes back outside. It's just far enough from most people's homes that everyone drives there so the parking lots is crowded and crazy with cars. There's often an actual line up, like 10 people, at the indoor, airport-style parking pre-payment machine.

It's a recipe for crabbiness -- for kids and parents -- that is no one's fault. And man, even though the kids look delighted when they're actually playing games and swimming, there is a lot of general crabbiness otherwise. I can't help it -- I have a low tolerance. Watching the necessary and constant impulse-restriction of the children makes me feel depressed about human life. It makes me feel like "I want a cookie," "No, you can't have a cookie now. Maybe later" kind of sums up the whole human-existence business, pretty much, which is a dark thought.

So often, I'm happy to escape into the quiet of the Adult Women's Locker Room.

But then, you know, the last two days in the Adult Women's Locker Room, what I've overheard is just endless discussions of diet and weight loss. "Did you eat salad yesterday?" "You know, two tablespoons of Ranch dressing has, like, 40 grams of fat?" "How do you deal with McDonald's cravings?" "I lost 1.5 pounds."

Um, so even in the Adult Women's Locker Room, it seems life is basically just "I want a cookie." "No, you can't have a cookie now. Maybe later."

It's a good thing I've got M. I. A.'s new album Kala on my iPod to remind me of why life is worth living.

Friday, January 25, 2008

I Hate The Goddamn Doctor

I thought my hatred for the doctor was just on my mind because I went to the doctor today, but then I was rereading chanchow and realized there might be other factors at work, like this post of hers.

My doctor is not a fancy doctor who you can't get in to see. My doctor will give you appointments for the next day, the same day, whenever. So that's nice. My doctor always acts surprised by the fact that I even have insurance. There are homeless people in the waiting room and a cross in the examining room, which is kind of mixed, but there's no shortage of character. They always ask me about whether I drink or smoke, to which my answers are yes and sort of, and then they ask me about drugs, to which my answer is no, and then today the guy was like "Marijuana?" in the full Spanish pronunciation, and I was like the answer is still no, but I'm not sure that he believed me.

None of that's really why I hate the doctor. I hate the doctor because I always feel simultaneously like I'm not worrying enough about my health and my various symptoms and like I'm being a ridiculous hypochondriac. I had this weird bump on my belly and at first I thought it was a pimple and would go away and then it didn't and I thought maybe I should get it checked out, so when I was at the doctor today I said something and she was like, "Oh it's just a cyst, don't worry about it, but if it gets red and starts hurting come see me at once," which manages to be simultaneously dismissive and induce obsessive cyst-tracking.

Also I hate the doctor because I hate having to track my own symptoms. I have never believed that my body will tell me if something is seriously wrong with it -- I go to the doctor to be told if something is wrong with me. (This despite the fact that mostly when I've been really sick it becomes pretty evident pretty fast.) So I go to the doctor and then the doctor asks me whether I have any pain in x part of my body and how intense is that pain and I really feel like they should just run some goddamn conclusive tests so that my subjective assessment of how I feel is not really governing the day.

If I were rich I would totally sign up for that thing where they just test you for everything. And in my fantasy world then you would know exactly what was wrong with you and what was right and you would take whatever pills were needed to correct it and that would be that. Instead, we have a situation where the doctor is like, "Do you feel pain in your upper right side?" and I say no, but now, here at home, I can feel a distinct pain in my upper right side and I feel irresponsible and stupid for being so categorical in my denials earlier.

They were drawing blood, and there seemed to be some kind of staff and equipment shortage, so the actual doctor (I say actual doctor but I think really she's some kind of intermediate stage, higher than a nurse and lower than a doctor, like an evolutionary missing link) did the blood drawing, which is unusual, and she did it without the little blood drawing table and of course she was much worse at it than the actual staff and kept apologizing and worrying that she was hurting me and when she was done she dropped the vial of blood on the floor, but fortunately it didn't break or spill or anything.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

The People In Your Neighborhood

Because I was awfully busy last week, I missed reading The New York Times, and so I missed being enraged by the opinion piece, "What to Expect When You're Free Trading." Now that the archives are online, though, it was easy to get all enraged about it this afternoon. So, as the kids say, "No problem!"

In arguing against compensation for workers laid off in the wake of job-loss from global free trade, Steven Landsburg asks us to consider that in relevantly similar cases, compensation would not be morally required. In the irritating passage, he says,

Suppose, after years of buying shampoo at your local pharmacy, you discover you can order the same shampoo for less money on the Web. Do you have an obligation to compensate your pharmacist? If you move to a cheaper apartment, should you compensate your landlord? When you eat at McDonald’s, should you compensate the owners of the diner next door? Public policy should not be designed to advance moral instincts that we all reject every day of our lives.

Well, now that you mention it, um,. . . maybe? One letter writer to The Times made a good point (letters are here):

In fact, if I care about having a neighborhood with things like a local pharmacy (and I do, for what it’s worth), then I will continue to buy my shampoo there even if I have to pay a bit more.

And I would be getting a great bargain — not only shampoo, but also a community.

It was this letter that alerted me to having missed the original story. Obviously the author's point is logical: if you spend at Walmart, you'll be surrounded by Walmarts. If you spend at the mall instead of downtown, downtown will go away. I frequently spend extra money to buy at places I like; this is simple means-end rationality.

How well does the point extend to the analogy? Well, Mr. Landsburg might say that this is apples and oranges. By hypothesis he's considering cases in which one is indifferent to the differences and comparing on cost. Indeed, if a book is cheaper at Amazon and more expensive at, I'll buy from Amazon. I don't feel morally obliged to send money to

But in a way I think it's actually apples and apples. Having the people in my town, my state, and my country happily employed is not unlike having a pharmacy around the corner: it's a nice way to live. This is well-captured by the final remark: you get a community. Goods like this are so vague they're hard to reason about, but they're also of the utmost importance.

Incidentally, the next letter on the page accuses free trade opponents of willfully overlooking the benefits of free trade: what if you had to grow your own food, fer Chrissake! Um, you don't have to be against trade to think that there should be limits to it. Just because free trade is good doesn't mean some other things, that don't fit easily with it, aren't good either. Why does everything have to be all or nothing? Sheesh!

This letter about community was much on my mind last Monday. Heading from Toronto to Ann Arbor, I had a three-hour layover in Detroit, and figured I'd spend some time walking around the city. It was MLK day so it wasn't a normal Monday in the city. But I got kind of emotional looking at how cool and interesting the city looked and how its poverty was just wearing everything down.

Here's some pictures.

A cool pretty building with art or graffitti in the windows. I really go for this sort of thing.

A giant Solstice ad! It's like they knew I was coming!

The view across the river from the Renaissance Center.

I tried to support the local economy by buying a guide book to Detroit in the Borders in the middle of the city. Alas, there are no guide books to Detroit. If you want to go to Vegas, though, you are in zee business.

Pretension; The Past

Let's not lie to ourselves; I was totally the kid who wrote poetry and submitted it to the school literary magazine. I watched foreign movies (I am not as bad as one friend who insisted that Alphaville was the perfect movie for New Year's Eve), mostly French ones. I tried to listen to jazz -- it never really stuck, but I had this cool Thelonious Monk record. I was really into Paul Klee. Everybody I knew was really into Paul Klee. We could quote passages from the Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.

(If you're sitting there sneering, reflect on the things that you were obsessed with at seventeen, ok? And if you genuinely think that your culture obsessions were cooler or at least more interesting than mine, go jump in a lake. You may be right; it's not a nice thing to think.)

For a while I was super-embarrassed about this. It seemed like insincerity in part, because it wasn't clear that I entirely liked all the things I was pursuing and extolling, and also an exposure of a painfully sincere desire to be other than I was, to be the kind of sophisticated person who Bob Le Flambeur would really speak to. And that embarrassment is correct in the sense that I grew up to be someone who's not really so knowledgeable about art and music and poetry, although it's not like I'm anti.

But it's also kind of less embarrassing now, for two reasons. One is that some of that stuff that I pursued to seem smarter and more sophisticated stuck, stayed with me in an attenuated way. I like buildings more because I went through an architecture phase, which was prompted by the sight of a super-cool architecture magazine in an expensive book store, with fancy black and white photos. Because I thought that would be a cool thing to get into, I read some books and pretended to know more than I did, but also I started paying closer attention to the buildings around me. I looked at them harder and I liked them more, and while I know almost nothing about architecture, I guess I would say that going through that phase increase the pleasure I take in the world out there. Which is hard to argue with, as results go.

The other thing is that I thought of my pretentious period as a phase, but the older I get the more it seems indistinguishable from the other parts of my life. You decide to read things or do things based in part by an aura around those things, because until you've read something or done it you don't know if you'll like it or not. Very few things do you stumble across in some kind of immediate way -- nobody puts a gun to your head and says, "Read Jane Austen." You do stuff because you think it will impress people that you like or because you think it will make you cooler or happier or just because it's there. And then you like it or you don't; it sticks with you or it evaporates or it mostly evaporates but leaves odd pockets of knowledge behind, which is how I can still recite from heart "Stopping By Woods On A Snowy Evening."

At the end of the day, I guess I'm just grateful my whole poetry-writing phase was pre-internet.

I got back to L.A. in the rain, which is kind of funny, but I kind of enjoyed, because it rains so infrequently in L.A., that if I had missed all of the rain I would have felt left out of a seminal area experience.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

A Female Holden Caulfield, My Ass

I just finished reading this book about a teenage girl called How the Light Gets In. Lou, a poor girl from Australia with a loutish family, comes to mid-western America as an exchange student, dreaming of starting over with a new life and new personality.

It was good. The end of the book was a little weird -- weird in that way that sometimes when you're reading along, caught up in something, your attention is suddenly drawn to the book as a book -- you start thinking about the novelist making choices. That's not usually a good experience. I guess there's no real reason it should be a bad one, but I don't really go for it.

I bought the book based on the cover:

And also based on the fact that it had won some awards, and so on etc.

Two of the blurbs on the back of the book described the heroine as a "female Holden Caulfield," and the summary part grabbed onto that in describing what the book is like. I have to say, I bought the book despite this, and not because of it. That kind of thing is always a turn-off to me in a book blurb.

Of course, once I finished the book I couldn't help reflecting on the comparison. And, really, there's no similarity at all. Lou is needy -- needy on the surface, not just "crying out for help." Lou writes obsequious notes to her host family hoping to earn a little affection and smooth over being a nervous weirdo. Lou pretends to sleep while her host brother puts his hand down her pants. Lou gets drunk, but partly in order to get over her intense nervousness about auditioning for the school musical.

That last detail alone should have stopped these people in their tracks. Isn't it of the essence of Holden Caulfield that he would not be caught dead auditioning for a fucking school musical? Come on, people.

About the most you could say, I think, about the similarities between Lou and Holden are: they're teenagers; they want to have sex; they're unhappy; they drink. They misbehave.

It's not a long list. I mean, really, "they're teenagers" just about covers all the others, right? What -- "Oh, they're unhappy teenagers who act out want to have sex?! Oh, what a coincidence! A female Holden Caulfield! It's almost plagiarism."

In a generous mood, I think, well, OK, maybe there's something about the internal passive-aggressiveness that reminded people of Salinger.

In a paranoid mood, I think something more like, hey, it's only because we sexistly think that girls don't act out their manias that when we see Lou doing so, we have to compare her to that actor-outer-of-all-time, good old Holden Caulfield. It's true: instead of dieting herself into anorexia, or becoming a "mean girl," or belittling her friends, Lou drinks, occasionally loses her temper, goes for unauthorized walks alone outside, and rolls her eyes a lot.

But really: walking outside the neighborhood alone? Holden Caulfield my ass.

Now, I actually would like to read a book about a female Holden Caulfield: a fearless girl who has money, illusions of total independence, an ability to ignore the pain of others, impatience with the entire stupid world, a taste for totally reckless behavior, and crazy mood swings.

Let me know when it comes out, OK?

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Close To The Borderline

I don't know exactly why the Border Patrol has set up shop at the Greyhound station in Rochester, NY, but there they are, with their walkie-talkies and their green uniforms and their dog.

I've been to and from Rochester maybe three times in the last month, and each time there they are, to ask if I'm a U.S. citizen, and take me at my word.

They are not without exuberance. Today, after the dog sniffed the luggage, the dog handler scratched him behind the ears, and encouraged the dog to leap into the air. The dog leapt, the snow fell, and we stood there and chuckled, sort of. The dog was so happy.

Normally they don't let you onto the bus until the guys are off it, not wanting to confuse the issues, I guess. This time when we got on they were still there, interrogating one guy. "So your parents are from Puerto Rico, and you were born in Yonkers, is that right?"

They would ask this guy stuff -- what's the name of the airport in Puerto Rico? stuff like that -- and then relay information into the cellphone.

And then, after all that build-up, they wandered off the bus, leaving the guy in question to complete his danger-filled journey to Buffalo in peace.

Yesterday I actually did cross the border on a bus. We were held up, because of the complicated citizenship issues pertaining to our Mennonite companions. One was a dual citizen; one wasn't. The immigration official was explaining it to them: "Your friend can't do the things you can. You're a dual citizen, so you can work. But if he does anything other than put his feet up and take out a beer from the fridge, he's breaking the law."

"He can do some dishes to help around the house, but that's it," she said. They seemed confused. Earlier the bus driver had been telling them about Martin Luther King Jr. This was news to them. "He gave this speech," the bus driver said, "about this dream he had."

Monday, January 21, 2008

How Safe Should Women Be?

It's over ten years ago now that I was walking down a London street with two girls and one guy. We passed some jerks and they made some comment about or to one of the girls I was with. I think. Maybe they shoved her. I don't remember, and I should, because it makes a difference to the story.

Anyway, she lost it. She completely lost it and started screaming at them. They were ignoring her and I think she started to go after them.

But the thing was, was that if it came to fisticuffs or whatever, we all knew that it was the guy in our party who was going to actually be on the administering/receiving end of any blows traded. And I stood there, and I saw why she was pissed off, but I also thought it was kind of unfair of her to be, essentially, instigating a fight, when she wasn't going to be the one fighting.

In the comments to this post, I talked about being mistaken, at an early hour and in a Skid-Row-adjacent neighborhood, for a guy. And wondering whether it was more dangerous to be seen as a guy than as a girl.

There's a lot of unpleasantness associated with being a girl. I was traveling once, and walking around with a backpack on and I passed this group of guys smoking outside a bar and one of them was like, "hey, if we gave you $20 would you blow all of us?" That kind of shit. On the other hand, I've never felt like I had to worry about getting into a fight -- I've always felt like I could walk away from confrontations. And I've done some screaming at people (two kids who rode by on their bicycles and shoved me) where I wasn't worried that they were going to come back and beat me up. Once I slapped a guy, which was an asshole thing to do, and it was an asshole thing to do because I knew he wasn't going to retaliate.

Obviously, women should be safe. But so should everyone else. And somewhere deep in my heart I might still think that I should be safer because I'm a woman, that I should be all protected and stuff. Which is troubling.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

It's Hard, Wanting Things

I'm sitting in Toronto (that's a fake-out, by the way, because this is not Noko Marie) in the evening and thinking about when I moved back to L.A., after Berkeley and after New York and after Tulsa.

I didn't do so well in Tulsa; many people love it and there are good things to be said about it, but let's just leave it that I didn't do so well there. And I was excited to go back to L.A. I had a Westside Rentals account and every day I would pore over the apartments online and think about where I could live and what I could do. I wanted to live in my old neighborhood, i.e. Los Feliz adjacent, and that's where I was looking when one day I saw this building which I thought was this building that I had always wanted to live in.

And I called the owner right away and we entered these complicated negotiations, whereby my (awesome, incredibly kind) friend in L.A. would go over and look at it and report back to me and report on me to the landlord and then I would, later, fly to L.A. and hand over the security deposit.

At every step of the way things threatened to fall through because my landlady was out of her goddamn mind, but I kept pushing because I really wanted this apartment. I really did. My friend went to see it and thought it was beautiful. It had two stories and a fake-stone staircase with a metal railing and a little fireplace alcove without the fireplace and it got a ton of light and it was in the back and so on.

So I flew out to L.A. and went to see the landlady and pay the security deposit and she was weeping copiously and kept hugging me which was a little strange, but whatever. It was one of those days which are hard to describe if you haven't spent time in Los Angeles, but which anybody who lives there pretty much knows, where everything, but everything, is grey and colorless and you forget that the sky can be clear or that anything can look other than faded-out and sad. My landlady had been sobbing with mascara running down her cheeks, and I decided to walk from Hollywood and Western to Franklin and Commonwealth.

I guess that's not actually so far, but the problem was that I had forgotten how far it was and kept hoping it would be less far and also I was hungry and I don't know. It's not really a very scenic walk, especially when you just go down Franklin. So I walk to the building and I walk into my new apartment and I hated it. I thought it was ugly and small and dirty.

I sat in the living room floor and I started crying because this was this apartment I had wanted so much and now it seemed stupid and small and worthless and too expensive. It wasn't so much the apartment itself that made me cry -- it was that freaked out sense that I had backed the wrong horse, wasted my longing on the wrong thing.

That seemed unbearable.

I was wrong, more or less. The apartment, it turned out, was actually pretty great and thinking about this now I am overcome with a wave of nostalgia for it, and also for smoking, which I did a lot of in the apartment (My landlady, who had expressed her concern about every little thing about me, when I mentioned I smoked, she was like, "Who would care about that?") and just for what, by virtue of already having happened, seems like a simpler time. I bought flowers for that apartment, and put them in a vase in the little fireplace alcove. I had a sofa with a slipcover and curtains and it was kind of fantastic. I was also kind of right, in that what I wanted wasn't going to be satisfied by any apartment.

But I already knew that, even when I was just in Tulsa scrolling through the listings. It's not like it made any difference.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Celebrity Gossip: Does The Object Matter?

So somebody gave me The Nine for Christmas, which is one of the new Supreme Court books, and one that I was pretty eager to read. But one of the reasons I was so eager to read it was that a friend who had already read it told me it had all kinds of dirt about the justices, including the fact that David Souter eats a yogurt and an apple for lunch, which is kind of a striking fact.

David Lat has made a career out of collecting this stuff -- the fact that it's out there isn't news, nor, I guess, is the kind of hand-wringing I'm about to engage in.

Why the hell do I care what David Souter eats? Do I care because he's a justice of the Supreme Court, or do I care because I like collecting facts about other people, especially facts that seem weird? Is there any difference between my interest in David Souter and Britney Spears? How about the guy across from my apartment who yells at his girlfriend?

It's always fun, although I guess maybe it used to be more fun, to pick the perfect subjects of the New Yorker Talk of the Town piece. The stained glass restorer, the last maker of hand-crafted bricks, the person who tracks the migration of some particular kind of bunny rabbit. And then you could do your best to mimic the New Yorker style of discussion, the bland presentation of personal eccentricity. But there's some of the same thing there -- what's the point of knowing these things about these people? Is it that there's some particular merit to the stained glass profession? Is it another way of contemplating human variety?

Or is it just some kind of drive to know what's going on with other people, whoever they may be? We want to be behind the scenes, we want to wrap our hands around some kind of vision of who these people are, really.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

2008, And You Still Can't Get An Ought From An Is

Since yesterday I'd been planning a post about girls, and boys, and The Power Rangers TV show, which I saw for the first time at the gym yesterday. I'd had no idea the show was for kids; I'd had no idea it was cute and a little hokey; and I'd had no idea two of the Rangers are girls. Wow!

The main thing I was going to write about was how funny it was that the girl Rangers have little skirts in addition to the standard, unisex, form-fitting outfits. I mean, the whole boy-pants, girl-skirt thing makes sense when there's a peeing issue, and the boys can just, you know, unzip, and the girls have to squat. Then maybe a girl wants a skirt.

But once you're both wearing tight-ass legging sort of things, what's the point? In fact, I'm going to go out on a limb, and say that, modesty-wise, once you're both wearing tight-ass legging sort of things, it's boys who need little skirts. I remember going to a ballet performance as a young child, and thinking, no, wait, that bulge is the outline of the man's penis that I can see under his tights? Shocking! Funny! Possibly obsene!

The boy Power-Rangers don't have any, uh, parts showing, of course. I checked it out. (But how do they manage that, exactly?) And I know, I realize, that the reason the girls have skirts is that it's cuter that way. Hey, if I were a Power Ranger, there is a 100 percent chance I'd have a little skirt, too. So I'm down with all that.

But instead of pursuing my theme further, with reflections on the movie Juno, which I just saw, and the irritating piece in today's Times that says that since birth and abortion are both major emotional traumas, sex for girls is basically doomed, I have to write instead about morality.

That's because Stephen Pinker had a thing in the Times, too, laying out the state of empirical findings about the psychology of morality, and drawing some conclusions.

The empirical findings were interesting, and fit with some things I already believed.

There are, he explained, several distinct moral themes that are roughly universal. The psychologist Jonathan Haidt's list includes: not harming others, being fair, being loyal to a community or group, respecting authority, and purity.

Then disagreement and cultural variation happen because some people care more about some of these things than about others, and some don't care much about some of them at all, and different people moralize different parts of life.

OK, interesting, and plausible. But you know, this is all just a description. Of some putative facts. What are we supposed to do with this information? Does it tell us anything about morality itself, or how to live?

The great 18th-century philosopher and historian David Hume is famous for his idea that "you can't get an ought from an is." That is, nothing about what to do follows from simple facts about what the world is like. You have to make some assumptions about what to value, what to care about, what to want, before facts tell you what to do. (Hume also said "Tis not contrary to reason to prefer the desctruction of the entire world to a scratch on my little finger," which I think is just a really stylish, cool, true thing to say).

The first time Pinker seems to maybe wander into the "ought" realm is when he compares conservatives to liberals in the US. Liberals, he says, put a "lopsided" moral weight on harm and fairness, and care less about the others. Conservatives place a moderate weight on all five things.

On this point I may be being oversensitive, but the idea of "lopsidedness" to me suggests that somehow those who value harm-prevention and fairness are missing something real. But, of course, the moral outlook he is describing is one on which people have come to believe that loyalty, respect for authority, and purity aren't so much simple goods in themselves as they are ways of living in a prosperous, fair society full of happy people.

They may be wrong about the means to happiness and fairness, but that doesn't make their view "lopsided"; it just makes it different.

But maybe "lopsided" wasn't meant to be a normative judgment. OK, fine. Things are more interesting when Pinker claims that the implications of these findings for moral theory are "profound."

Pinker is very impressed by two elements of morality that he thinks really are grounded in "reality." First, sometimes when agents cooperate, each does better. Life is a non-zero-sum game. Second, I can't treat myself as special in moral thinking, because whatever I ask you to do for me, you get to ask me to do for you, because otherwise you'll just shrug and walk away. (Unless I am Galactic Overlord, of course.)

One implication Pinker draws concerns moral "illusions," where you see what isn't there. Leon Kass, he says, was blinded in this way by his own sanctimony when he said that cloning was obviously wrong because it gives us a moral shudder. Pinker suggests thinking this way is confusing "morality" with "purity," and notes that lots of shudders were induced for bad reasons (as when people shuddered at seeing blacks drink from the "white" fountain).

I'm no fan of Leon Kass. But, as philosophers well know, if you take tit-for-tat as morally fundamental, and take unexplained moral feelings to be bunk, you end up with a very particular kind of moral culture: one on which you respect the strong because they can hurt you. In its most famous version, "contractarianism," such a moral theory leaves unexplained why one ought morally to care about the weak, the sick, the old, and the small.

A second implication Pinker draws has to do with global warming. No matter how much we moralize consumption, he says, we'll never get anywhere, because no matter how much we reduce our consumption, "two billion Indians and Chinese are unlikely to copy our born-again abstemiousness." So we're going to need things like nuclear power and maybe deliberate control of oceans and so on.

Hmm. This is the kind of case where I'd be apt to say we maybe should be getting our moral panties all in a twist. Not because the earth is, itself, valuable, but because other people are going to want to live on it, in the future, and don't we owe them something?

Well, not under the tit-for-tat thinking, anyway, since they can't do anything for us. They're not here yet.

Look, I'm with Pinker that extending the moral domain into new territories is sometimes a fruitless or dangerous enterprise. Sure. And he is onto something with his "practical" recommendations, that to reason with others, you should see your moral opponent as a certain kind of moral believer rather than a psychopath (unless, of course, you actually are dealing with a psychopath)

But no amount of empirical findings is going to help you figure out when moralizing is fruitless, when it's dangerous, and when it's laudable. Because no amount of empirical findings is going to determine for you what counts as valuable, and what is worth caring about. Only people who care about stuff can do that, and they can only do it by caring about things.

In both discussions, Pinker warns of the dangers of confusing "morality" with "purity." But I thought purity was on the moral list? It seems to me Pinker has his own ideas about which of the categories to care about most. It's OK, we all do. And I'm not big into "purity" either, believe me. But let's be honest: this is a belief with moral content, not one that just follows from the facts.

You still can't get an ought from an is.

Little Children

I really want to start off by saying that little kids are prigs, but since the evidence for this rests entirely on my own childhood, and a couple of anecdotes about other people, I guess I should just say that I was a prig as a little kid.

Things I was appalled by: cigarettes, premarital sex, lies, drunkenness. My attitude towards drugs was straight out of reefer madness. The idea of letting someone look at my homework sent me into a state of near-hysteria. They sent us to DARE (drug abuse resistance education; now known mainly for the number of Silver Lake types who wore that distinctive DARE t-shirt, red lettering on a black background, a few years ago) and I thought it was awesome. I was glad to see someone taking a stand against the drug menace, and when the police officer told us that if we knew drugs would be at a party we should not go to the party because of the likelihood that our drinks would be spiked with LSD, I nodded along vigorously.

This was not really a problem that faced me because I wasn't getting invited to so many parties anyway.

Evidence (dubious) that I wasn't totally alone in my priggishness: when my fifth grade class had a debate on the death penalty, nobody wanted to argue the anti side. The guy who eventually volunteered was also the guy who would mime the sex act with the shrubbery in the playground at recess, another complicated feature of childhood. Also the horrified fascination with which people would pretend drunkenness.

I wish I could say that by the time I was seventeen this had all gone away, but I pretty much continued priggish until I was well into college. The details might change, not so much, but the attitude of appalled indignation stuck around. I remember telling someone I knew from high school about my sophomore year roommate (first half) who was a wake and bake girl, and he was like, so, have you softened your position on drugs, and I said yes.

Other than the dubious pleasures of re-living my childhood, why am I bringing this up? I don't know. I think it's interesting, the passion with which children take moral positions. My best friend went to visit her grandparents when we were both in kindergarten, and when she came back we had this detailed political discussion about Ronald Reagan's "teach a man to fish" line and trickle down economics. There's something about not knowing anything about the world that allows these kinds of things to stick to you with greater force, to seem vitally important, especially when you're trying to make sense of what the hell is going on.

At least that's how it was for me. You?

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Walking In A Winter Wonderland

I just got in from a walk outside and my cheeks are all flushed and rosy. (My nose is all runny as well, but let's ignore that.) I feel like a cliche, or, if not a cliche, at least slightly unreal. Which I also felt, when, earlier on this East Coast adventure, I helped build a snowman.

I think the thing is, these are all things that arose in the various children's books that I consumed as a child. People played in the snow; people went for walks in the cold; whatever. But they were never a part of my day to day reality.

So when I was at my mother's a few summers ago and I realized that little frogs were really just hopping around her yard and that if I were a kid I could have tried to catch them, or when I learned that lightning bugs were a real-life phenomenon, all of that was a little unsettling. It might have left me a little awe-struck in a meeting-a-celebrity kind of way.

It's not as if children's books haven't been written about California. Sweet Valley High, for example, was all California all the time. But when you grow up in a place, it feels normal.

Normal is actually totally the wrong word, because one of the things I love about Los Angeles, actually, is that it always feels exotic and mysterious, the opposite of normal. But it doesn't feel surprising that the various elements are there; it's just that you never know what's behind door number three.

Snow, on the other hand, always kind of surprises me.

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Rooting Interests

Temple was playing Duke tonight and I was at a bar where that game was on one tv, and once the other tv stopped showing "Jeopardy" (a word, it turns out, that I intuitively screw up the spelling on), which I was on a goddamn roll with, I started watching a little bit of it.

I only throw in the Jeopardy to make it clear that my night was not centered around Temple/Duke. In fact, I had misremembered the location of Temple, which falls in my Valparaiso file of schools that play in the NCAA tournament but that I don't know where they are.

But so within about five minutes I'm rooting for Temple. Based mostly on the perpetual smarminess of Duke players who dive for loose balls as if they're saving the goddamn world, but also on some left over file of dislike for Coach K. who I'm sure is no more horrific than any other Division I basketball coach, but who gets more widely praised for it, and who also believes that his coaching insights can lead people to business success. Also it was a pretty fun sports-watching experience when UConn took down a super-heralded Duke team in 1999.

I think it's a little strange though, that I started rooting for either side in this contest. I always do it, too. Show me a curling match, and within five minutes I will have a curling side that I am pulling for. This preference can get stronger or weaker, depending on how intense my watching involvement is and how closely my preferences are confirmed, and it can carry over from one game to the next -- I have this lingering fondness for the Houston Rockets based on my watching experiences from 1995. I don't know; maybe I should be cultivating neutrality.

I had a Jeopardy competitor I was rooting for too.

I left before the game was over; Temple, ESPN tells me, lost by 10.

What Not To Say

Since I write philosophy, I often come across paradoxes. You know, like Zeno's paradox: before the arrow can get where it's going, it has to get halfway there, and before it can get the rest of the way, it has to make it half of the rest of the way, and so on. So: the arrow never gets where it's going. But of course, it does.

Philosophers tend to talk about paradoxes in a sort of stripped down way, and I don't blame them, really -- that's what philosophers do. But I'm always on the lookout for actual real life manifestations of paradoxes. Messy, real-life, stuff.

One kind of sort of paradoxical thing is self-reference. In its simplest form, "This sentence is false." If it's true, it's false, and vice versa.

Self-reference seems to me to come up a lot in real life problems. Consider the things you cannot say, and mean, because of self-reference.

Like, "Don't take this the wrong way." When someone says that in preface of some criticism, you're always more likely, rather than less, to take it "the wrong way." What the speaker wants to say is something like, "I don't want you to feel criticized." But in signaling that a criticism is coming, doesn't it sort of do the opposite?

I also get into a puzzle when I think about opinions I have about stuff that's being discussed too much. How can you express your opinion that all the discussion about poor Britney and her meltdown is sad and wrong, without adding yourself to all the discussion about poor Britney and her meltdown? There, now, I've just added to the Google hits for "Britney meltdown."

Speaking of Britney, by the way, I was just remembering this evening that crazy marriage she had with her old boyfriend before K-Fed. Remember? The teen sweetheart or something? And her family was like "No way, unh unh, girl, you are not marrying this guy." I remember saying at the time, "They should have let her stay married to him; it'd probably work out better than anything else." Well. Shouldn't they have?

We've had a request for some C and C political discussion (in comments to this post). Speaking for myself, I am going to vote democratic, and I will vote for whoever gets nominated eventually. I am no fan of Hillary, for many of the same reasons lots of other people aren't. Like her support for the war, etc. etc.

But the recent kerfuffle about her tears has me completely dumbfounded. I saw the tape at the gym, and I thought, "Oh, there must have been some other occasion when she was crying." But no, that was it. A catch in the voice. A catch in the voice while describing the fact that she had a lot of ideas on how to run the country.

Oooh, was it calculated? Was it honest?

All I can say is, wow, man, if that counts as crying, I am going to be carted off tomorrow for bi-polar disorder or something. Jeez-louise. Talk about something not worth discussing!

But, you know, you can't really blog about how dumb it is to discuss something. 'Cause, yeah, there you are discussing. Self-reference in action!

It was good old Bertie Russell and Kurt Goedel who really took the self-reference problem and made serious fucking hay with it. Russell used it to dismantle and disprove Frege's entire life's work of showing how to reduce mathematics to logic. Goedel used it to show that no list of axioms could determine as true or false every mathematical sentence.

Pretty lofty. But I always wonder. Did they encounter the everyday self-reference problems? Would they care about Britney and her troubles? Did they ever try to tell a loved-one, "Don't take this the wrong way, but. . ."

Probably they did. Russell went to jail for his pacifism, and Goedel died of starvation when his wife died, because he thought he was being poisoned.

It's a tough life out there, no matter how smart you are.

Monday, January 7, 2008

Valuable Stuff

I recently acquired, by present, a valuable and beautiful electronic item. It has been a while since I had that feeling, of something that I was really and truly terrified of losing or harming. My previous ipod is five years old and my computer is two years old, and both of them have been all over the place with me without taking serious harm, so that sense of awed anxiety, that "ohmigod I can't believe this is mine" feeling has worn off.

Which is not to say that it would not be extraordinarily terrible if something happened to either of them, because it would. Similarly, there are lots of things I could lose where it would suck, a lot. Like my passport or my wallet or one of a million things of poignant sentimental value.

It's just that over time you reconcile yourself to damage and decay in stuff you own. One of my favorite possessions is this orange leather chair that's getting more and more battered because I sit in it and sprawl in it all the goddamn time. But one of the reasons I was excited to buy it on mark down was that it already had a small, but visible, pen mark on it. I felt like I could own it and enjoy it without feeling like a jerk if it picked up some stains along the way.

But then there are things that remind me of toys I had as a kid, things that I was petrified of screwing up, things that I wanted to keep all pristine. Forever. Unfortunately, I was never one of those collector-type kids. Stuff came out of the box, hairstyles were rearranged, and that was that.

Friday, January 4, 2008

I Took A Pretty Picture

As I mentioned, I'm spending the next few months in Ann Arbor. As everyone keeps telling me, "It's a little warmer than Toronto. But there's more snow!"

This picture is the view outside my office window.

It's always funny when people, places, and things live up to their stereotypes. I haven't spent much time in the Midwest, but of course, fresh-faced wholesomeness is the story you always hear. And guess what? There's a hell of a lot of fresh-faced wholesomeness around here.

We had this snowstorm just as I arrived; as you can see it's the kind of snow that sticks to the trees and makes everything pretty. So not only are the people scrubbed and happy-looking, the scene itself is like being inside a snow-globe.

And yet, I don't like it. I feel bored and isolated. I also feel like I stick out like a sore thumb, since the scrubbed look never really came naturally to me. I feel like I'm the only person in a 100-mile radius wearing nail polish, with bags under my eyes.

Ann Arbor's the kind of town where everyone recycles and they try to make it real easy to take the bus. That's nice. So it took me by surprise to discover it's almost impossible to get to Detroit and back without a car. I mean, Detroit is not far away, and there's stuff there: music, a great museum, bus and train stations, etc. etc.

There's a Greyhound bus, but the earliest one gets there at like 3:30 pm and the latest one back leaves at like 6. So you can spend 2.5 hours in Detroit. Which I'll do, one of these days. In the meantime, though, I'll just try to relax and enjoy the scenery. Pretty!

Thursday, January 3, 2008

I Heart The USA

(Photo by Flickr user bsoist, here. Creative Commons licensed)

OK, I admit it, I do, I love the USA, I love it. I always have.

I'm from the USA; I've lived here almost all my life. Then in 2004 I got a job in Canada, so I moved, and, you know, Canada's a nice place, and it's a country with a lot of admirable policies and so on, but the truth is, I love the United States.

Like a lot of people, I am currently going a little nuts about the direction the country is going in. I hate some of the things the United States stands for. But it doesn't matter. What I love isn't a set of policies or decisions; what I love is the country itself.

Right now I am living in Canada, but for various complicated reasons I'm spending the next four months in the US, in Ann Arbor.

I'll tell you about Ann Arbor -- and about its wholesome, fresh-faced denizens -- another time.

What I'm thinking about now is, just what makes the US so goddamn lovable? I mean, lots of countries have democracy, crappy TV, urban sprawl, and lots of cars. What's so special about *us*?

Some years ago, The New Yorker ran a story about Yao Ming. The story described, if I'm remembering correctly, Yao Ming's mother, as a young person, being taken to see the Harlem Globetrotters when they were on a tour of China. Talking about it later, she said she'd never seen anything American, or anything remotely like the Harlem Globetrotters.

She said she thought to herself, "These Americans! They really know how to enjoy themselves!"

Right! It's true, we do! I don't know if it's our best quality, or our most important one, but it's an excellent quality, worthy of love and admiration.

I have a second story that is more complicated. I was riding the bus with a Canadian colleague, and I was trying to explain what it is I like so much about the United States. I was talking about the weird energy, the way everyone is always trying to out-cool everyone else. It's not about money at all: no matter how rich or how poor, everyone's trying to be funnier, to have cooler clothes, to top the next guy. Maybe more in poor cities than in rich ones: you ride the bus, and everyone's either a comedian, a tough guy, a lover, or Mister I-Got-It-Going-On. I was probably starting in on hip-hop, how American it is, and how cool.

My colleague excitedly started to tell me a relevant story. She'd been living in Boston with her girlfriend, and they were at a bar, and they overheard someone talking about Canada. "Ha!" these people said. "Those Canadians think they have slums, ghettos, with that 'Jane and Finch' area. That's nothing! Nobody's got ghettos like we do."

My colleague found this mystifying and hilarious. What on earth?? How could you be proud of poverty?

I know what she means. But I know what those Boston guys mean, too. It's not the poverty that anyone's proud of. It's something else -- it's whatever else gets made into the movies and TV shows that people watch all over the world. I don't know what it is, exactly. But I think it's got something to do with cool, with fun, with knowing how to enjoy ourselves.

It's just cool, the US. I don't know what else to say. I love it like you love a person: not because of the kind of friend it is, or because of how well it treats you, but regardless of those things.

It's not the kind of love that translates easily to another country.

Quitting Smoking, Part II

It's a pretty appropriate title for the first post of the New Year! By the way, I am kind of ridiculously sentimental about New Year's Eve, and feel like it could be super-meaningful and everything in my life could be different (and better) because it is now a different year. This is something embarrassing that I have never even tried to hide about myself.

So I quit smoking. And somewhere in there, I turned with relief and affection to the pipe tobacco cigar. A move that can be blamed at least in part, on one regular reader of this blog, who had brought an example of the art over to my house way back in early 2006, where it sat quiescent until in a crazed fit of nicotine craving I started going through my drawers, convinced that cigarettes were hidden somewhere in my house. They weren't, so I smoked that.

The pipe tobacco cigars were pretty great. Enjoyable, but not too much so, and I was leveling off. I could go for longer and longer without one. It was a rebound relationship; it was never supposed to be serious.

Then I turned 30 and I still didn't have a job and I was all pissed off at the world and I stepped up my pipe tobacco consumption in a serious way. I was up to two a day, which is pretty disgusting as you will know if you have ever consumed one. It felt, more or less, like I had fallen back into the pit of smoking.

And then I went away for the holidays, and I was going to stop smoking pipe tobacco cigars, mostly because I was going to be around my family who would be anguished and upset by the sight, since they thought I had quit smoking and all.

When I was stuck in Atlanta, I thought about heading for the pipe tobacco cigars, but decided that this would be good. Better. I would get the cravings out of the goddamn way and would not be visibly trembling.

So anyway, it hasn't been that bad. Which is actually a little unnerving. Life without pipe tobacco cigars is actually a lot like life without cigarettes, which was actually more or less like life with cigarettes, except that the smells are stronger and I am less inclined to vividly colored phlegm. The only thing missing is the anticipation and the guilt. Significant losses, yes, but I'm not sure I'm comfortable with how normal it all seems.

We were supposed to smoke cigars on New Year's Eve, and I couldn't get mine properly lit and I tried for a bit and drooled all over it which was gross and then I think I inhaled some smoke because I felt a little sick to my stomach, so the cigar went out and I put it down, and that was sad, because I had been really excited about smoking something again.