Friday, June 26, 2009

The Height Tax

The economics and public policy site Vox, noting that "a person's height is strongly correlated with his or her income," asks: "Should the income tax system include a credit for short taxpayers and a tax surcharge for tall ones?"

The authors, N. Gregory Mankiw and Matthew Weinzierl, do not disclose their heights.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Words I Learned Coaching Pee-Wee Baseball

Verse (vurs) verb: to compete against in an athletic contest. [var. of versus]

Coach, who are we versing tomorrow?
We verse the Pirates at 12:30 at Maplewood.
Didn't we already verse them?

Friday, June 19, 2009

The War on Bores

In his American Scholar essay on dealing with bores who don’t know when to put a sock in it, Mark Edmundson cites Plutarch, William James, the Dalai Lama, Jacques Lacan and, best of all, Groucho. (To Margaret Dumont, in Duck Soup: “You know, you haven’t stopped talking since I came here. You must have been vaccinated with a phonograph needle.”) Read the essay, watch the clip.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Life After Email

Back in the mid‘90s, when email was sweeping the land, my friend M. and I made a resolution—a ridiculously solemn and hopeless one, in retrospect—that we would not use it to communicate with each other. We had been carrying on a correspondence by regular mail for more than a decade and we figured that if we let ourselves drop each other emails 20 times a day, the impulse to write long letters would pretty quickly dry up.

Of course, our email abstinence never stood a chance. Before long we were killing entire afternoons emailing back and forth. A rule established itself: The more frivolous the topic, the longer our email exchanges would last.

Thing is, our letters have continued, too. Even though we know we can reach other by email just about whenever we need to, each of us will still sit down every few weeks or months and send a letter off to the other. We’ve learned to make distinctions between email material and letter fodder. The ephemera and one-liners and “did-you-see-this” stuff gets translated into a quick email. The long stories and serious navel-gazing gets saved for letters.

I thought about emailing M. when I read Benjamin Kunkel’s essay in n+1 about coming to terms with life online. What I like about Kunkel’s essay is that, like any really interesting essayist, he’s of two minds about his topic. He recognizes what he calls “the vulgarity of online life.” He writes of “diving helplessly into an all-you-can-eat buffet” of blogs, email, texting, message boards, and the rest. He says a little ruefully that he no longer sends or receives letters.

But he also gives email its due, writing that its brevity “makes a special prize of wit” and favors “repartee as nothing else,” with the potential of turning us all into banterers of the Cary Grant/Rosalind Russell ilk. I think he’s onto something about email and wit, but I’m also glad that M. and I are still writing each other letters. Even if letters are just another entrée on the all-you-can-eat buffet, I see no need to pass them up.

Monday, June 8, 2009

The Search for the Life-Changing Sentence

My last experience with the teaching of creative writing came at a class run by Gordon Lish in Bloomington, Indiana, almost 20 years ago. Lish once occupied an exalted position in the literary world. He was an editor at Esquire and at Knopf, where he edited Raymond Carver and Barry Hannah. He styled himself “Captain Fiction.” His classes lasted about six hours and he spent most of that time talking, in a style that combined elements of performance art, academic lecture and the unhinged rant of a subway derelict. He didn’t encourage interruption. When one student asked about the possibility of leaving the class to use a bathroom, Lish answered, “Observe Gordon: Does he?” Every once in a while he would allow his students to read aloud work that they had brought to class with them. When he lost interest in what they were reading, he would stop them and move on to the next student. Often, this happened after the first sentence.

Lish preached that stories had to have an organic integrity, with the music of one sentence leading the writer to the next, which in turn led him to the next. The novelist David Bowman once wrote that Lish engaged in “a cult of the sentence,” which sounds right to me. His insistence on settling for nothing less than shining, life-changing sentences changed the way I thought about fiction. It also pretty well paralyzed me. It was not long after I came home from the Lish class that I stopped writing stories.

Louis Menand mentions Lish in his piece in the current New Yorker about the history and impact of creative writing programs. What I like about Menand’s piece is that it considers not just the way writing programs have shaped the kinds of stories and poems graduates are producing (a topic that has already generated a lot of debate) but also what ordinary, less-than-masterful writers take away from workshops. Menand, who describes himself as “a pretty untalented poet” when he went through workshops as a young man, writes, “I don’t think the workshops taught me too much about craft, but they did teach me about the importance of making things, not just reading things. . . I stopped writing poetry after I graduated, and I never published a poem-—which places me with the majority of people who have taken a creative-writing class. But I’m sure that the experience of being caught up in this small and fragile enterprise, contemporary poetry, among other people who were caught up in it, too, affected choices I made in life long after I left college. I wouldn’t trade it for anything.”

I mostly agree, but I’d add that writing classes can also leave you with an appreciation for the comedy of misplaced ambition. Take a look at “Comments Written by Actual Students Extracted from Workshopped Manuscripts at a Major University” from the McSweeney’s site. My favorite: “Maybe a little less time should be spent describing the Cheetos in this scene.”

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

A Day at the Museum

Got my first look at the Art Institute’s new Modern Wing last week. I wanted to see the building itself as much as I wanted to see the collection inside--which was a good thing, because the place was so crowded (admission was free for the big opening) that I didn’t get very close to much of the art. I think I may have caught a brief glimpse of a few Picassos and a big, yellow Cy Twombly before the tide of humanity swept me off in the direction of the gift shop and café. Mostly I’d describe the experience as one long jostling. I’m all for making art accessible to everyone, but can’t we do it just on days when I’m not at the museum?

(The day before my trip to the museum, I had to run to the local Target to pick up some baseball cards for my son’s pee-wee baseball team. It was around 8:30 or 9 in the morning, the store had just opened, and it was still mostly deserted. It was just me and a few yoga moms pushing their kids around in strollers. The wide aisles were empty and clean. The long day stretched out ahead of me and out ahead of the kids in their strollers. We had our phone calls to make, our naps to take, our food to spit up, but all that would come later. For now, it was pretty cool to wander the aisles of Target and consider all the possibilities, check out the packaging and the brand names, all relentlessly optimistic. The store seemed like one big warehouse of potential. Is something wrong when a trip to a big-box store produces a more intense aesthetic experience than a morning at one of the world’s great art museums?)

But back to the museum. The highlight of the day might have been the view from the pedestrian bridge that spans Madison Street and connects the museum to Millennium Park. You can see Lake Michigan and Monroe Harbor, you can see Frank Gehry’s band shell and the serpentine BP bridge, and best of all, you can look out over the Lurie Garden, which on this day was a very painterly and textured field of grasses and massed purple, a canvas in itself. It was gorgeous and, unlike the museum itself, it’s there for free every day.