Abandon Text!

W. H. Auden once said: "Poems are not finished; they are abandoned." I have been abandoning writing projects for many years, since only the pressure of deadline and high expectations ever got me to finish, or even start, anything of merit. This blog is an attempt to create a more consistent, self-directed writing habit. Hopefully a direction and voice will emerge.

Saturday, April 29, 2006

Media Bias

My son Aidan models in beeswax. A lot. He can spend hours working on arrangements. For instance, he saw an article in one of his magazines about some elephants that had been taught to paint. He immediately made a little elephant out of beeswax, with a paintbrush in his trunk, and an easel for him to work with. I have seen circuses, seascapes, and and endless procession of primates swinging from trees, with lifelike gesture and proportion, arranged all through the house.

The media has a lot to recommend it -- the beeswax becomes soft and pliant when you warm it up in your hands, but eventually cools and hardens into something firm enough to play with. While it's a little more difficult to work than clay, it can do things clay could never do -- you can stretch it out until it's paper-thin and translucent, and it will still hold together. Aidan is an enthusiastic supporter of the media and will even tell other kids where to buy it.

What makes Aidan's love for beeswax even more interesting is that he can't draw to save his life. If he tries to draw anything representational (which isn't often), it looks like something a two-year would have done. I worry sometimes that he'll have a hard time catching up in school (drawing is very important in the Waldorf curriculum), but then again it's clear to me he has a good eye and a creative temperament.

We take it for granted that kids know how to draw . . . now I'm starting to recognize that that's just a bias in our culture. They draw because we teach them to draw. But if you give them other media, they can master those as well. I wonder what kids could do if you gave them enough musical media . . . or dance . . . or toothpicks, for that matter.

Friday, April 28, 2006


We watched Proof tonight. We had seen a stage production years ago, but this one was probably better. Some thoughts:
  • Near the end of the movie, Janet said, "I finally figured out why the character of the sister is so annoying to me. She looks like Hillary Clinton." As soon as she said it, I thought, "That was probably no accident."
  • The dramatic story in the play is not a patch on the real story of how Fermat's Last Theorem was solved. The Nova episode that documented the story was one of the most moving things I ever saw.
  • The only reason mathematics ever seemed dramatic is because it comes closest to capturing the sense of a quest for the truth. Even science can't compare . . . all that big clunky equipment, and messy involvement with the physical world and ambiguous data . . . it's so concrete and mundane, compared to the purity of intellect that is mathematics. The only other field that comes close is philosophy . . . and philosophy is equally fraught with ambiguity, and the shadings of psychology. Only mathematics has the brightness and hardness of Truth . . . which is why it is often (as in this movie) called to stand in for spirituality.
  • What I liked most about the movie was that the characters were not completely black/white in their motivations. They were 80/20 people: 80% good and true in their intentions, and 20% not-so-good or true. Katherine was mostly being the loving daughter, caring for aged and instable father . . . but she was also hiding from her destiny as a mathematician, afraid of going into the same "house" as her father. She is mostly sane . . . but the visions of her father makes you know she's definitely out there on the edge of sanity. Hal was mostly well-meaning in his attention to Katherine and her father's work; but that didn't stop Katherine from seeing into his ambitions and insecurities. Even Katherine's sister, who is as close as we come to a bad guy in this movie, really is trying to help her sister, misguided and shallow as her attempts may be.
  • Most of all, I loved the awe with which mathematics (again, a stand-in for spirituality) is approached. It is a perilous affair. Katherine longs for it, and at the same time dreads what it will do to her. We all long to see the Light . . . and dread it as well. Not for nothing do they call it "fear of the Lord."


Thursday, April 27, 2006

Risk for Reward

Ken Lay has been on the stand for the last four days, looking for everyone else to blame for the collapse of Enron. Lay is the poster-child for two seemingly contrary trends:
  1. Executive compensation keeps rising (averaging 14% per year increases for Fortune 500 companies)
  2. Executives are increasingly blaming everything except their own performance for downturns or collapses in their companies

How can you pay someone tens of millions of dollars a year for running a company, and then somehow find them blameless when things go bad? I have no inherent problem with paying someone gobs of money, if they job they do really does add that much value to the company. There are obvious examples where the leadership really does make a profound difference: as far as I can tell, Bill Gates and Steve Jobs are grossly underpaid for the difference they make to their companies. But it seems ludicrous for executives to be able to take credit for good times but shirk all responsiblity in the bad.

I have a modest proposal: peg all executive compensation above a certain modest level (let's be really generous and put it at $500,000) against the real profitability of the company. A company should never have to shell out millions to pay a CEO who can't deliver a real return. And make all C-level officers personally responsible for the accuracy of SEC filings; audits are worthless if the auditors are merely fall guys for the executives (e.g. "but the auditors said it was OK.")

CEOs may complain that this exposes them to all sorts of risks over which they have no control. But then again, isn't that always the case with running a big company? If they dislike the risks, I'm sure I can find someone else who is willing to endure the risks for the rewards.

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Daddy's Chair

We unpacked the recliner from IKEA this afternoon and moved it into my office. This is yet another rite of passage for me: we have a Daddy's Chair.

Daddy's Chair is one of the universal cultural symbols of Western society, going all the way back to the thrones of kings. As George Gilder tells it, the task of society has primarily been one of women trying to civilize men, to make them believe that they were special and necessary, to get them to hang around, bring home food and take out the trash. Since men didn't have an obvious physical tie to the home (like, oh, say, half a dozen babies, in the case of the women) society needed to create symbolic ways to acknowledge the specialness of men, to make them feel wanted and needed and a part of the home. And one of the universal symbols is Daddy's Chair.

Daddy's Chair needs to be big, the biggest in the room and perhaps the whole house. In America it is invariably a recliner. It is his place of rest, entirely his own, even in the middle of the living room. Unfortunately in modern times it faces the TV instead of the fireplace, but the subliminal message is still the same: "Welcome, o mighty provider! Rest awhile, king in your own home."

Yes, this may sound hokey, and sexist, and a tad silly when spoken of explicitly. But nonetheless, it is the reason for such chairs. I mean, I might have thought the reason I wanted it was to sneak in a nap now and then, and still be in reach of the phone when support calls came in . . . but at some level, the deeper psychology is moving. Daddy's Chair is the ultimate symbol of masculine domesticity. This is what we look forward to when we come home -- happy children at the door, dinner on the table . . . and then, the chair.


Spanking Moussaoui

Should Moussaoui be executed?
The usual voices speak out from both sides of the capital punishment debate: some think it barbaric, and some think it necessary. But Moussaoui puts another crimp in the whole debate . . . what do you do with someone who wants to die? When the most severe punishment we can apply winds up martyring a bumbling idiot, is justice served?

I'm interested in the question, not so much because I'm into the capital punishment debate, but because of what it says about our attitudes toward punishment in general, especially when we apply it day-by-day with our children. "Punishment" is, at root, the intentional infliction of suffering on another person, strictly for the sake of their suffering. Some argue that the punishment is for the good of the individual ("to teach him a lesson"), some for the good of society (the deterrence of bad behavior in others) , and some in the interests of justice ("he deserves it"). While we could argue the efficacy or wisdom in any of these rationales, no matter how you slice it it's hard to feel good about making other people suffer. Or, more specifically, it's easy to feel good about other people suffering (who doesn't occasionally delight in the suffering of others?), but hard to feel good about yourself making other people suffer.

Interestingly, our justice system usually sidesteps the question of suffering by defending its sentences as either in the interests of public safety ("take him off the streets") or restitution ("undoing the harm done"). Whether the convict suffers or not is either "necessary evil" or "icing on the cake", depending on how much you identify with the convict.

Research from folks like Stephen Pinker, and my own observations, convince me that punishment is a hard-wired notion in our psychology, something we evolved as a part of our capacity to form social groups. We will always feel the need to "make those bastards suffer." Whether that's a valid basis for ordering our lives is another matter.

At this point, I really don't know how much I believe it. Historically, viscerally, I'm pretty hawkish on punishment. I believe capital punishment can be appropriate and necessary. I don't doubt there may be times when I need to make my children suffer. I believe, as Martin Luther King Jr. put it, in "the creative power of suffering." But to delight in suffering of others, while natural, is hardly noble.

As for Moussaoui . . . I wish we could just ignore him to death.


Monday, April 24, 2006

The Tipping Point

On the drive home from IKEA, I started listening to Malcolm Gladwell's The Tipping Point. I'm really enjoying it. The things that have struck me the most, so far:
  • In the SKS, we had put a lot of value on close, intense relationships: deep friendships with intimacy, strong committments to social groups, etc. But Gladwell points out that the power of epidemic change is rooted in people who have lots of weak relationships -- people with lots and lots of acquaintainces, who cross-link communities together. Not that one invalidates the other . . . but it's interesting to see that the relatively superficial relationships that we were so dismissive of before, now turns out to be the key to effecting the kind of social changes we're interested in making.
  • One of the best ways to become recognized as a Maven (one of the "thought leaders" who's opinion is respected and who often generates the content of epidemic change) is to help other people, freely and willingly. (As Gladwell says, "It's a powerful way to get someone's attention.") That kinda explains the power behind the open-source movement or the Wikipedia, which both demonstrate the power of people giving stuff away.
  • Augie always said that "the world is made of swiss cheese. Walls may look impossibly high and unyielding . . . but if you figure out where to push, they yeild easily." It's the same meassage of this entire book: dramatic change is possible, if you know where to push. And that's a big if. Most of my life has been spent working hard, and wondering why other people were making it look easy. (The other part of my life has been spent looking at other people sabotaging their lives, and wondering why they make things so hard for themselves. Two sides of the same phenomena . . .)

The most expensive cheap furniture you'll ever buy

Well, we made it through IKEA. What an exhausing experience.

Now, I can't say enough good things about IKEA's customer service. This is not merely an example of excellent service: it is, in fact, a transplantation of Swedish culture, and you experience a little bit of culture shock. Every detail of the store is carefully thought out. They have paper rulers, pencils and list forms at the front of the store. The whole store is laid out on a single path, so people can walk straight through and be sure of seeing everything. The consideration given to families is mind-boggling: there is special parking at the front of the store for shoppers with small children, and a special play area for kids, monitored by adults who will page you if your kids need help. There are boxes of twine in the loading areas to help people tie down their loads, and even cardboard kits to build your own temporary roof racks.

It was probably the first time I really seriously considered that another country's culture might actually be better at delivering goods and services than America. I never even realized I had that belief until now.

All that being said . . . you pay a high price for all that cheap furniture. We had our ordeal with getting a U-Haul truck, which I wrote about earlier. Janet discovered that she had lost her wallet, and we had a panicked half-hour before we contacted the Natural History Museum and discovered it had been turned in there. It took all day -- from the moment they opened their doors until they were turning off the lights -- for us to find everything we wanted. We had a mad dash through the warehouse, pulling all the items on our list, and eventually steering four flat carts into the checkout. We had so many items that we hit the maximum number of items the computer system allowed on a single transaction; we had to break it into two transactions. As we're loading the truck we realize that we had almost forgotten one of the flat carts. While we were loading we discoverd that two of the biggest items (a bunk bed and a recliner) had been doubled on our order, and now we had to deal with unloading and returning items, even while the parking lot is emptying out. All this, while juggling two alternatively hyper and exhausted kids.

Then, the drive back home, arriving at 2:30 am. Oy.

The battle for U-Haul's soul

We made a reservation for a U-Haul truck in Virginia to make off with our IKEA stuff. A warning to all would-be renters: when they say "location is a preference only" they really mean it. They will gladly send you thirty miles away to another location if they happen to have a truck there that needs renting . . . which is what happened to us. So we had to make a side-trip to Fairfax to get the truck, even though there was a U-Haul less than a mile from the IKEA store.

When we called the location the day before, the owner tells us that we have to have our insurance company fax over some confirmation that the truck will be insured if we want to decline the extra insurance coverage. "You mean you won't rent us the truck if we decline the coverage?" we asked. "No, you come," he said. (He was a Russian imigrant, I think.)

So we get there, and he starts in with the same line: we have to prove that we have coverage if we want to decline coverage. I had never heard this exact line before . . . I had had car rental companies sometimes ask me who my insurance carrier was and what kind of coverage I had, in an effort to plant seeds of doubt, but no one had ever tried to force me to accept extra coverage. I argued with him for a while, mostly good-naturedly . . . I figured this was just hard-ball sales. Finally, I said "Fine, fine, whatever." I was ready to get out of there.

But then he starts showing me the papers to sign, and the forms say right on the form that it was optional coverage. OK, I thought, now I smell a rat. I flipped over the form to the page with the coverage declined option, and sign that, and go out to the truck. The guy follows me out eventually, and tries again to get me to sign the page with the extra coverage. "You need to sign here," he says. I point out, again, that this is optional coverage, that it is not necessary. He starts to get mad, slamming his hand on the pages -- "Read this!" he yelled.
"I am reading it, and it says optional coverage," I reply.
"Look, just sign," he said.
"NO," I yell, pushing the paper back at him. "No, I don't trust you, I don't believe you."
"Look, I am about ready to kick you out of my store and not let you take the truck, so you better read and sign."
"Ok, we're done here. We're not taking the truck. Goodbye."

So we drive on to IKEA, with no truck, and no leads on a truck. I figured we could at least go through the store, pick out stuff we like, and maybe I would make the trip up alone later. But while we're in the store, I get a call from (I presume) some regional manager. "I heard you had an altercation with one of our franchisees," he said. "I can get you another truck."
I was slightly shocked. "How did you hear about this? Did the guy report it, or . . . "
There was a long pause on the phone. "I . . . know about this guy."
So after a couple more phone calls, I have a confirmed reservation for a truck at the Woodbridge location, just a mile from the IKEA store. I get the truck. Nobody gives me any guff about taking or not taking the insurance.

So . . . what to think? On the one hand, I'm relieved that U-Haul was responsive enough to know that they had cheesed off a customer, and stepped in to do something about it. On the other hand, I am appalled the company knows that this guy is pulling this crap routinely, and still lets him rent out their trucks.

I googled around just now, and found dozens and dozens of complaints about U-Haul, most worse than mine -- unsafe trucks, breakdowns, complete failure to provide a truck, physical assault. I doubt I'll be getting much attention with my complaint . . .

Basically Better Person moment

I mentioned in an earlier post that one of my professors at NCSSM introduced us to the idea of the Basically Better Person (BBP). A Basically Better Person is someone who, as far as you can tell, has just got it all over you in every category you care about and a few that you don't. They are the most formidable challenge to the ego, because usually you can find some fault in someone to spare you being completely belittled. Maybe they are a better programmer than you, but not as good with people; maybe they are more organized than you, but they are big as a whale, etc.

But I think we ran into one this weekend. When Janet was planning our trip to DC, she contacted an Attachment Parenting leader in DC to get some recommendations on where to stay and how to get around the city. The leader, to our complete surprise, offered to put us up in her guest room for the weekend. At first we politely declined -- how could we possibly inflict ourselves on a stranger like that? But after seeing the hotel rates in the city, and all the hassle of getting around, we took her up on it. And she was within walking distance of the National Zoo. It felt like a karmic blessing, carrying with it a formidable karmic debt.

As we got to know the AP leader (who will have to remain as semi-anonymous as me) we found that she was also:
  • A licensed real estate broker who was semi-retired from the business while she raised her family
  • A home-schooler in the Waldorf tradition
  • The volunteer coordinator in her ward for one of the candidates in the mayoral race
  • Raising her kids bilingually (with her Equidoran husband)
  • The leader of her community homeowners association
  • Training to become a La Leche League leader
  • A vegetarian who cooks most of the family's almost entirely organic food
  • Two or three other things I can't even remember.

And on top of all that, her kids were beautiful, quiet, well-behaved, and happy.

So as we're struggling to contain the raw energies of our loud, emotionally turbulent progeny, and saying for the bazillionth time "please don't...", we're left inevitably to believe that:

a) This woman is uniquely gifted with extraordinarily easy kids, cooperative husband, and a variety of talents most of us could only dream of;


b) We just really suck. I mean, really -- doing any one of the things that she was doing just makes my tired just thinking about it. And I have grown accustomed to thinking of myself as a superior life-form. What was I thinking?


Ok, my first extended blogout. We went to Washington DC for the weekend, and I was offline since Friday. I suppose I could have been more determined about finding a way to post, but it just didn't seem worth it. However, I've come back with lots of material . . .