Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Reports of Their Demise

Let me recommend a visit to Obit magazine, where you’ll find a very nice essay by David Wallis on premature obituaries. I especially liked the accompanying photos of Mark Twain, Alfred Nobel and Abe Vigoda, all of whom were once declared to have ceased existing before they were, in fact, dead. It’s an impressive trio, but Vigoda might be most impressive of all, because—as Wallis reports and the ever-vigilant site AbeVigoda.com confirms—he is still with us, some 27 years after being prematurely dispatched by People magazine. Viva Vigoda.

Friday, March 27, 2009

A Brief History of Living Room Furniture in Naval Warfare

From a piece by Colin Thubron on the 16th century Battle of Lepanto in the New York Review of Books: “Yet the Ottomans were uneasy on the sea.”

And the daybeds refused to leave the shore at all.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

March Gladness

So earlier this week my son, who’s in second grade, filled out his first NCAA tournament bracket. As rites of passage go, this might not seem all that profound, but I have to admit that it made me a little proud when he asked me which of the 12 seeds I liked. Not eight years old yet, and already he knows to watch out for that 5-12 matchup.

He’s in school today, missing some of the first round, but according to this story, some men will go to great lengths to stay home and watch the tournament. The Cleveland Plain Dealer reports that guys are timing their vasectomies so they’ll be home for March Madness during their recoveries. The story says that one clinic offered a “Vas Madness” special: “Lower your seed for the tournament.” Men who signed up got free pizza and frozen peas.

Monday, March 16, 2009


Every once in a while, in a fit of self-improvement, I’ll set some personal goals for myself. Sometimes I’ll even write them down. Months later, I’ll find these long-forgotten and still-unrealized goals, and I’ll have to wonder what I was thinking. Learn to play guitar? Renovate home office? Shave time off my running pace? Why would I want to do any of these things? When I think about how unworthy some of these goals are, it makes me glad that I lacked the fortitude to follow through on them.

So of course I liked this piece by Drake Bennett in the Boston Globe that asks if setting goals can sometimes be a bad idea. He writes that “management scholars are looking deeper into the effects of goals and finding that goals have a dangerous side.” He cites as his prime example GM’s goal to capture 29 percent of the American auto market, which he says distracted the company from the more important long-term job of designing better cars. But he also looks at psychological research that points to the importance of goal-setting for personal motivation: "we concentrate better, work longer and do more if we set specific, measurable goals for ourselves."

So should I make it a goal to set more goals? I’d argue that most of us could learn a lot from Mike, a grade-school kid in Padgett Powell’s novel Edisto, who has written on a small banner in his bedroom: “MY GOAL IN LIFE: NOT TO BE AN IGNORAMUS.” That's a goal worth shooting for, even if it’s a stretch for some of us.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Recession Drinking

We all have our own ways of coping with the economic mess. My wife has pretty much stopped reading the front page and business section of the paper. I have abandoned mindfulness training in favor of a new approach that focuses on the therapeutic power of constant hand-wringing. And just in time for all this weekend’s shindigs, the New Yorker and Dave Hanson offer a menu of cocktails for the recession. Can I get you a Nasdaiquiri? Or maybe you’d prefer a Princeton Bitters: “Pour two ounces of vodka into a cocktail shaker. Lament fact that you moved into a smaller house to pay for your son’s college education, and, since he couldn’t get a job and he’s now twenty-six, he’s living on your couch. Eying your son as he works his Wii, pour two more ounces of vodka into shaker. Serve with a grimace.”

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Lecture Hall

Let me just admit that even in college I had a geek’s fondness for the old-style, stodgy lecture class—you know, a professor at the front of the room droning on for fifty minutes about something like the Federalist Papers. It’s not that I was the kid sitting in the front row paying scrupulous attention and taking notes. What I liked about the lecture format was that it provided a kind of soothing background noise, the ideal accompaniment for staring out the window, zoning out and filling my notebook with drawings of my favorite NBA team logos.

The Boston Globe’s Brainiac blog comments on a story from the Chronicle of Higher Education about a community college in New Mexico that has introduced microlectures—prerecorded one-minute bursts of insight for use in online courses. Brainiac is interested in the pedagogical issues. But my problem with the idea is that a one-minute lecture isn’t nearly long enough to achieve the kind of transcendental boredom that I used to get from some of my most monotonous profs.

I still spend a lot of time in college classrooms, and I’d still rather sit through a lecture than a seminar-style discussion. I don’t mean to disrespect the whole Socratic give-and-take, but mostly it makes me uncomfortable. Too often the professor seems desperate to draw any kind of response out of his students, and too often the students seem to be trying too hard to tell the professor what he wants to hear. It’s as if they’ll say anything to get him off their backs and onto the next student. It’s like being in the middle of a really awkward dinner-party conversation.

Lectures spare you that kind of cringe-worthy academic interaction. This is what I miss about lectures: the Zen-like calm of a single, stupefyingly boring, professorial voice droning on.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Barthelme and Baseball

Just finished Tracy Daugherty’s new biography of Donald Barthelme, Hiding Man, and it’s got me thinking about baseball.

The book is a good one, unapologetically affectionate, but spoiled a little by an epilogue that strains too hard to fight lit-crit battles over postmodernism. The best thing about reading it, though, was that it kept reminding me of DB stories that I hadn’t looked at in too long--like “Chablis” or “Jaws,” probably the best story ever written about marriage counseling at the A&P. (I always get the feeling, when I read reviews or criticism of Barthelme, that I like the wrong stories. A lot of my favorites come from his late period, when he was supposed to be in decline and his stories growing sentimental. But I love the world-weary humor in some of these stories.)

And then there’s “The Art of Baseball,” from the anthology, The Teachings of Don B. I don't know how to explain it or label it, except to say that the premise is that “a number of this century’s most famous artists were also, at odd moments in their careers, baseball players.”

Example one is T.S. Eliot, whose The Waste Land “is without doubt the most thoroughly studied, carefully annotated, and nitpickingedly commented-upon poem in the language. What has been missed. . .is that the poem is essentially about the St. Louis Browns of 1922, a team for which Eliot, back from Britain in that year, briefly starred at short.” The line “April is the cruelest month,” apparently was originally “August is the cruelest month,” referring to a “dreadful set of games the Browns dropped to the Yanks. . .a setback that removed them from serious league competition.”

But as a lifelong White Sox fan, I especially like the story of Susan Sontag, who is said to have played for the University of Chicago in 1959, even though the school didn’t have a baseball team. A White Sox scout discovered Sontag “and a group of similarly baseball-mad graduate students” playing “in the vast heating tunnels under the university’s South Side campus. . .Transfixed by the dark-haired beauty’s luminous activities at first, he inked her to a Sox pact immediately” and she went on to play as S. Sunday for the ’59 Sox team that lost to the Dodgers in the World Series.

Since this season will be the 50th anniversary of that team, I'd look for the White Sox to hold some sort of special Sontag Day at the ballpark. Maybe anyone who comes to the park with a copy of Regarding the Pain of Others gets in half-price.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Karate Parenting

My old friend Dr. John Duffy offers a funny and provocative post on his psychology and parenting blog in which he suggests that parents could borrow a trick or two from the martial arts and make like a sensei.

He writes of one client who describes her sensei as relentlessly demanding, but says she "does not feel discouraged or humiliated by these displays. . .Rather she sees each prodding statement as an indicator that the sensei believes in her and knows she can accomplish the task. . .Imagine if we could duplicate this dynamic in families."

If you're like me, you spend a lot of time feeling like you're walking a tightrope between a) encouraging your kid to do his best, and b) being a royal, nagging, helicoptering pain in the ass. So if there's a secret to being able to push without pushing too hard, I want to know it. Still, I have to wonder if the dynamic really can translate to families. I mean, I know even less about martial arts than I do about parenting, but is it possible that one of the factors that gives the sensei authority, one of the things that makes his students heed him, is precisely that he's not a parent, that he's something of a disinterested outsider?

And even more importantly, does this mean my kid and I have to bow to each other?

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Trash Talk

According to the unwritten laws of American popular culture, fathers and sons are supposed to bond over baseball, or in some exceptional cases, cars. My boy A.J. and I have done more than our share of baseball bonding (and I think he is only now beginning to realize that it’s not entirely normal for a father to want to play as much backyard wiffle ball as I do). But lately we’ve been bonding over garbage.

Tuesday night is trash night at our house, which means that after dinner he and I haul our two big, wheeled barrels out to the street. A.J. takes the one with the recycling and I take the one with the general trash. He’s still a little kid, and it’s real work for him to lug the can up the slope of our long driveway--but for some reason he doesn’t complain about it, as he sometimes does about other, seemingly easier chores, like making his bed. Once we’ve put out the trash, he’ll challenge me to a race back to our front porch. If it’s a clear night, we’ll stop and look at the stars before we go back in, and A.J. will try to educate me about the constellations.

I’ve never really looked forward to taking the garbage out before, but this little routine has become one of the highlights of my week. You don’t hear so much about trash night as a vehicle for father-son bonding, but I suppose you take your Significant Life Moments where you can find them.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Flannery and Conan and Pauly

Joy Williams' admiring review of Brad Gooch's new Flannery O'Connor biography got the cover of yesterday's New York Times Book Review, but you have to go deep inside, to page 18, to find this gem from Jennifer Schuessler's TBR column: She writes that both Conan O'Brien and Tommy Lee Jones wrote Harvard undergrad theses on O'Connor's work. Here's O'Brien looking back on his brief career in literary scholarship: "I wrote a thesis: 'Literary Progeria in the Works of Flannery O'Connor and William Faulkner.' Let's just stay that, during my discussions with Pauly Shore, it doesn't come up much. For three years after graduation, I kept my thesis in the glove compartment of my car so I could show it to a policeman in case I was pulled over. License, registration, cultural exploration of the Man Child in 'The Sound and the Fury.'"

I figured this had to have been the first Pauly Shore mention ever in the pages of the Book Review. I was wrong.