Monday, September 29, 2008


I was browsing around in the bookstore looking for something to read the other day, and I settled on this book called Adverbs. It's by Daniel Handler, who it turns out, is also the author of those Lemony Snicket books.

For some reason I've never even looked at the Lemony Snicket books. I think I became conscious of them the same time I became conscious of Harry Potter, and I didn't really like the one Harry Potter book I read, so somehow, I don't know, one of those things.

This book, Adverbs, has a lot of funny things about it, things I would have said I would really, really, not like in a book.

For one thing, all the chapter headings are adverbs. You know, Chapter 1: Immediately. Chapter 2: Obviously.

Also, the chapters don't really follow any single cohesive narrative line. They jump around, there are lots of characters, you're not sure when the stories intersect. Or even if they intersect.

Finally, the book is "about love." Right on the back, it says, "This novel is about love."

Just as I'm buying the book, I'm thinking, What am I doing? These all sound like things I will hate.

But I was a little desperate. Regular readers may remember that I'm toward the end of Volume 4 of Proust's Remembrance of Things Past, so maybe you're wondering, how could you be desperate for something to read?

Well, the copies I have of Proust are big, hardcover books. Not really the sort of thing you pop into your purse to read on the subway, and not really the sort of thing you want to carry around all day. Also, you may have heard, as wonderful as those books are, Proust can be, you know, a little sad.

So I bought Adverbs. And I got totally swept up in it. I loved it. None of the qualities I thought would be annoying or peculiar were annoying or peculiar.

What I liked most was the simple calm feeling of the whole thing. This book just does its thing. When it's done right it seems effortless but writing simple sentences is very difficult, which is why you don't see it that often.

The adverb I'd use for this book is: Quietly. Even when there's drama, this is somehow a quiet book, in the nicest way.

For example, the last chapter, "judgmentally," begins this way:

"In the United States, where this love story is set, we all get to make decisions about love, even if we're not citizens or if we don't know what we're doing. If you get into a taxi and you fall in love there, no laws passed by the government of the United States will prevent you from making a fool of yourself. If you have someone in mind for the prom, you do not have to submit this person to a vote. If you want to be a lover, that is your call, no matter your mother's advice or what the song on the radio is going on about. The love's yours, for the time being.

If you'd rather be a criminal, though, we have a different system for that."

I don't know why I like this little passage so much, but I do. I love "even if we're not citizens or if we don't know what we're doing," and "we have a different system for that." These sentences are just right for me, somehow.

Maybe they'd be right for you, too. It's hard to say.

Love: always complicated and unpredictable.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

A Moral Hazard Before It Even Happened

The Times has this new blog called "Economix." It's supposed to be about "the science of everyday life," which is already annoying to me, as if economics were the basic tool for explaining why people do what they do.

As I've discussed on C and C here before, economists cheerfully admit they have no idea why people do ordinary fun things like pay a lot for concert tickets, or why they feel compelled by fairness to pay for things even when it's not required, or why people vote.

Also the economic theory of rationality predicts that we all act in our own self-interest, which is just obviously false.

So while it's fine with me if they want to study money, the idea that economists are going to explain everyday life is just really, really irritating to me.

Anyway, over at one of their "guest posts" today, an economist named Bob McTeer explains that contrary to appearances, the bailout represents no risk of "moral hazard."

Moral hazard is when someone is rewarded for behaving badly or doing something dumb, and so is more likely to do it again next time rather than less.

The crux of McTeer's argument seems to be that since the individuals who made bad decisions actually will suffer consequences, there's no moral hazard. I'm not sure I've got all the details, but the idea seems to be that since the CEO's of AIG etc., are going to lose their jobs and money, the CEO's of the future won't be tempted into the bad behavior that got us into this mess.

CEO's, McTeer says, look at what happens to other CEO's, not to what happens to customers.

I don't know how this applies to the proposed bailout -- McTeer objects to the term "bailout" in any case -- but the basic idea seems to be that as long as you save the company but not its owners and managers, you don't risk moral hazard.

I'm no economist, but come on, really? Even before all this happened, lots of people were wondering at the planning skills of the people in charge. Lots of people were wondering, why on earth are these companies taking such enormous and dumb risks? It's not like no one knew something like this could happen.

One reason it must have seemed safe to take huge risks was because everyone else was taking huge risks. So you figure, well, we can't all go down in flames; the economy won't survive that. So there's safety in numbers.

Turns out that was right. Because we're going to bail these guys out. So the bailout created moral hazard before it even happened, just because we knew it was overwhelming likely that something like it would happen.

I'm not buying McTeer's argument that losing a job is the ultimate in motivating a CEO or bank manager to act one way rather than another. Anyway, anyone who *was* motivated by that sort of fear into behaving in ways that weren't taking big economic risks probably would have been fired before the crisis, for not bringing in enough money.

So the no moral hazard argument, I am not buying it.

Monday, September 22, 2008

The Empty Nest Syndrome Of My Mind. Or Not.

Oops, when I was supposed to be writing on Commonwealth and Commonwealth yesterday I was at the mall instead. And then I forgot I hadn't done it.

It's ironic (as we say nowadays) because I was going to write about the empty nest syndrome inside my mind, the basic idea being that having recently outgrown my own adolescence, I could experience empty nest syndrome without having any kids.

The "kid" I was missing (I was going to explain) was me.

My whole life up to now I've been accompanied by a person who refuses sensible shoes, dreams of owning a sports car, wants to spend every late afternoon with a martini in hand, and incessantly demands to be taken to the mall. Me.

Now I'm getting a little older, and some of those impulses are fading. And it's like, wait, where's that teenager? What's she doing? It's boring around here without her.

Unlike the real empty nest syndrome, I can't call her up on the phone. She doesn't exist anymore.

So I was going to say all these things, but as I say, I went to the mall yesterday, and I bought some jeans, and I tried on an incredible leopard print (fake fur! don't worry!) jacket, and I went to the Apple Store, and I blew a fortune on a new bottle of my favorite perfume, and boy! Well, I felt like a new woman. I mean, like a new girl. Or whatever.

So reports of the missing adolescent were premature. I'm relieved. The empty nest of my mind was kind of sad and lonely.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Holmes Vs. Watson

Who would you rather meet, spend time with, have as a friend, Sherlock Holmes or James Watson?

I'm assuming everyone's answer is "Sherlock Holmes."

I've just been rereading the stories, and I am struck by how strongly this feeling persists in spite of the extraordinary lengths Conan-Doyle goes to to show what a cold, unfeeling, unfriendly -- actually unpleasant -- person Holmes is.

I mean, it's one thing to want to be friends with someone who is sort of distant, but also human. The feeling in that case is that maybe the friendship would be extra special, or something. You know, kind of exclusive. The person who is friends with no one, being friends with you.

But wanting to be friends with Sherlock Holmes? Weird. I mean, at every turn, we hear about how little he cares for anyone, how completely self-absorbed he is, how utterly uninterested in the little pleasures of ordinary life. A man totally unmoved by beauty, humor, sympathy.

Watson, of course, the opposite. A doctor. A man of whim and feeling. An appreciator of women. But still. Holmes is always so much more interesting.

Actually one thing Holmes does get a little emotional about is the pain of human existence, and I have to say, it's kind of moving when he does. He makes clear that he requires his intellectual puzzles to make the incredible boredom of life bearable.

I can kind of relate to that, and to wanting to drown one's boredoms in cocaine and tobacco.

Still, it's not like being with Holmes and watching him drown his boredoms would make you feel any better about life. Don't you think it would be guaranteed to make you feel worse?

This makes me think that the whole way that people are kind of drawn to people who pay less attention to them, rather than to people who pay more attention to them, is kind of a deep fact about human nature rather than some, you know, little wrinkle that applies only occasionally.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Solving Or Ruminating: A False Dichotomy

I wrote this post recently, about what I learned from guys, and one of the thing I listed was

"Just get on with it."

I explained that it's not always necessary to understand, or even contemplate, the ins-and-outs of something that is troubling you. Often, I said, if you just let time pass, go to sleep, don't worry too much, it'll just feel OK.

It's not that problems solve themselves; it's just that 1) a lot of situations are not improved by reflection, because there is nothing really to be gained by it, and 2) when there is something to be gained by it, it's just as likely to be something you realize in 20 years, not 20 minutes.

I feel this idea is basically supported by recent research, summarized in a recent New York Times article, which concludes that among teenage girls, some kinds of "co-rumination" can actually make a person feel worse. Sometimes, it's just depressing to hear about others being depressed about the same things you are; sometimes, it seems rehashing the various issues leads to new and puzzling differences between friends.

Talking things out: not always for the best.

As I understand it, this conclusion sort of side-steps both the stereotype of girls being "empathizers" and the one of guys being "fixers." In the research reported, both empathizing and fixing could be bad.

Which supports my own conclusion: sometimes, you just gotta let it go.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Female Orgasm: You Thought You Knew The Story

OK, at least I thought I knew the story about female orgasm.

I thought it went something like this:

Starting with Freud, there was this general idea out there that a woman could have an orgasm in two different ways: via the clitoris, and via the penis-in-the-vagina -- a "vaginal" orgams.

Then, it turned out that most women had orgasms from clitoral stimulation. Indeed, further research - I thought - showed that the clitoris is the basic organ of the female orgasm: sure, a girl can come from having a "p" in her "v" but it's only because the p -- or some other body part -- is indirectly stimulating her clitoris that she has an orgasm.

This, I thought, modulo some confusing stuff about ejactulation and the g-spot, was the basic story, and I took it to debunk the old theory that there were "inferior" and "superior" orgasms.

I felt comfortable, that is, shaking my head in disappointment when some ill-informed young man would write into an advice columnist, as they often do, to say, Hey, my girlfriend doesn't come just from intercourse . . . what's wrong with her? Should she see a doctor? All the girls in porn come that way.

Then the other day Jezebel had two posts (here and here) about an actual research article whose title is

"A Woman’s History of Vaginal Orgasm is Discernible from Her Walk"

The title really says it all - or, rather, most of it. Sex researchers guessed right most of the time whether a woman had a self-reported history of vaginal orgasm from wathing her walk. I haven't had the patience to read through the whole thing but they tested 30 girls.

The thing is, this story cites as known fact all that stuff I thought was false. Here's a characteristic passage:

"Compared to women who have had vaginal orgasm (triggered solely by penile–vaginal stimulation), vaginally anorgasmic women display more use of immature psychological defense mechanisms[1], are less satisfied with their relationships, mental health, and life in general [8,9], and are more likely to suffer from global sexual dysfunction [10]."

Whoa! Really? If you want to chase down those footnotes, the article is in J Sex Med 2008;5:2119–2124, that is, the Journal of Sexual Medicine. You'll have to be on a subscribing computer. Or you can email me for the pdf.

One of the references - the last - is to Fugl-Meyer KS, Oberg K, Lundberg PO, Lewin B, Fugl-Meyer A. "On orgasm, sexual techniques, and erotic perceptions in 18- to 74-year-old Swedish women." J Sex Med 2006;3:56–68.

Which sounds more like a Monty Python skit than an academic paper, but whatever.

I really don't know what is going on here.

Monday, September 8, 2008

Feminism and Families

I just spent several days in bed resting my back. On the second day, I finished volume three of Proust, and I didn't have volume four in the house. My spirits needed a little light reading, so I ended up with a series of comic novels, including David Lodge's Nice Work and Alison Lurie's The War Between the Tates.

One thing these books both have in common is that they feature "housewives."

In Lodge's book, a businessman and a woman professor are thrown together; part of the story turns on the businessman's relationship with his family; the wife in the family is a stay-at-home mom and the kids are obnoxious, entitled, teenage assholes.

In Lurie's book, Mrs. Tate herself is a stay-at-home mom; and the kids are obnoxious, entitled, teenage assholes.

It's easy to forget how fast things have changed, but they really have, because family life as depicted in these books barely exists any more. These days, even when moms stay home, they have lots of things they do outside the family, the father is expected to function as a parent, and when the kids are teens, the moms are often back out in the world, doing stuff.

Not many American moms send their 15 year-olds off to school then spend the day mopping the kitchen floor.

And I gotta say, reading those books make you feel, Thank God For That.

It's awful. The men are bored with their wives, because their wives are boring. Because they don't do anything. The men regard their children as interlopers, ruined by their mothers' spoiling them, external to their own provenance and care in life. The women, of course, are at the mercy of the men, because they're home all day and not making any money.

When you think about it, it's amazing that model worked as well as it did.

Isn't what we have better? I mean, I know it's kind of too bad that women often "have to" work now, economically. But you know, because a standard of living is a relative thing, the reason this is true is that, well, most women work. And that just seems so much better than the earlier alternative.

Fathers these days, even when they're really busy at work, tend to regard their kids upbringing as partly their responsibility. Mothers these days, even when they're earning less and doing more child- and house-care, regard their own autonomous lives as really important. It's a big improvement.

And you know, even teenagers don't seem as crazy as they used to -- or at least, not in the same way. Maybe I'm naive. But the stereotype these days is of the kid who can't get off the phone with his parents, who talks to them all the time, who is pretty comfortable being part of the family, who isn't spending every minute longing for escape.

I started to wonder if this was maybe related to the feminism business. You know, if your mom picks up your room, washes your gym clothes, then flies off the handle about your taste in music, that's like a recipe for disaffection.

But if your mom, like your dad, is out working for the money to buy you stuff, and asks you to help with the dinner dishes because she's busy, and is too tired to complain about your taste in music, well, that's like a recipe for family involvement.

This is one way I believe feminism has been good for families.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Danger Where You Least Expect It

Of all the things that can get in the way of getting work done on sabbatical, I failed to see the one that has befallen me: all the hours in front of the laptop have led to back pain, which, of course, is especially bad when I'm sitting in front of my laptop. What to do?

For now, rest. But really, you'd think there'd be all kinds of configurations for typing in other positions. I mean, why not? Why not a recliner with a screen, to which you could add a wireless keyboard? Wouldn't that be cool?

Maybe I have to get a giant cinema display and put it on my wall. Would that be awesome or what?

I tried to post from my iPod but it didn't work - no text in the box. So this is it for now. Obviously I have to read the "Mobile blogging" instructions.

In the meantime, I'm gonna cut this short and go back to lying down.

And I'll reflect that given my previous thoughts on how small other people's problems seem, I can imagine how this looks to those who aren't me: several days of lying in bed reading novels? Doesn't sound too bad!

All I can say is: "Hmph."

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Hello, Friends! (Notes From Summer, 2008)

My last post was on June 11. It is now September 3. This makes me feel a little bad.

I don't know when the next post will be. I have an ongoing internet problem to be solved, but tonight, when, at random, I turned on my computer, the neighboring internet portal let me in again. And though I had nothing in particular to say, really, there was no way not to take advantage of this opportunity.

It is hot here, and I have my keys, but only a limited supply of clean clothes. And I have not watched any of the various conventions, despite having vague (strong) opinions on all of it. And I miss the internet more than I can possibly say. It is a little funny, because most of the people I email with I also talk to, and I have continued to talk to over the long desert that is my lack of internet. So why should I miss the particular form of communication that has to do with funny emails and blog reading and blog comments? But I do. It made me feel stranded and bereft in a way that was not un-related to not having the key to my apartment.

It was very hot all summer and I kept my windows closed for a good three months and my head down. I ate less ice cream than I had planned and drank more coffee. All the plants died and they are still lying outside dead and something needs to be done about it. And it will be.

You will be hearing from me. In the meantime, I had the pleasure on gorging on all of Noko Marie's posts at once, like someone who has had no internet for months.

Monday, September 1, 2008

Other People and Other Places

There's something about the problems of a stranger that they never really seem that bad.

I don't mean problems like cancer, or the death of a child, or whatever. Those problems do seem really bad. But the ordinary, run-of-the-mill problems of strangers -- like having adolescent kids that are a pain in the ass, or having a boss that's an idiot, or having a parent who is harrassing -- is it just me? those problems never really seem that bad.

What I'm trying to say is, I routinely underestimate the small life difficulties of others.

For instance. There's a food court area in the library where I do my work, and the other day I overheard two women who had clearly met to have coffee and talk. They were each about, oh, I don't know, maybe 55 years old. It was about 10 am.

One of them was describing some problem she was having at home -- I couldn't tell if it was an unsupportive spouse, or what -- but the two women talked over the issue at length and at one point the woman with the problem said, "I just don't know if I can take it anymore."

This is ridiculous, but something about the scene seemed so homey and nice. The friend, the chit chat, the cup of coffee, the morning sense of the whole day to look forward to. I found myself thinking, "Isn't that nice."

I had to remind myself, "This woman just said she didn't know if she could take it anymore. Obviously she has some kind of real problem, not just some, you know, trivia." Somehow, not knowing her, I found it hard to make it vivid.

I think people do this a lot. They read in the paper about some family that is living on 450 dollars per month, and relying on food stamps, and they think, "Well, sure, that sounds bad, but it doesn't sound that bad." When you know if they were in the same situation they'd be going out of their minds with unhappiness.

I don't know why this happens. But I was struck the other day by sense of how different it is with places. With places, you underestimate the difficulties of the familiar, not of the strange.

At least I do. In a city I know and care about, the little patches of decay and dirt don't seem depressing, really; they're just the decay and dirt of home. I didn't grow up in New York City but I spent time there as a kid and I really like it and when someone says to me, "Well, but it's so dirty!" I'm like, well, yeah, that's sort of true. It is dirty. But who cares? Why do you care?

When you're in a strange place, though, all the little negatives loom so large. "Those streets, they're not in a grid, it's very confusing!" "That section of town with the overpass and the boarded up storefront, how depressing and sad!"

I think if you grow up with the particular problems of a particular place, you just don't notice them as much.

I grew up on the East Coast of the US, and sometimes my California friends will say to me, "But when it's cold, you have to put on all those clothes before you go out! Boots, coat, hat, mittens, what a pain in the ass!"

And I'm like, "Yeah, you do have to do all those things. I never really thought about it. And your point is. . .?"