Friday, December 12, 2014

Neither Pangloss Nor Pollyanna

As a German citizen who came to the United States relatively late in life, I was initially struck by how much more positive thinking was valued in the United States than back in Europe. In Germany, if you asked how someone was doing, you would usually get a frank answer, such as “I didn’t sleep well last night,” or “My puppy got sick and it’s bothering me.” In America, I noticed how people would say, “I’m fine”—even if something was bothering them. I also noticed that people found it jarring when someone violated the unwritten rule of positivity.
Gabriele Oettingen*
Now, the United States may (or may not) be a hotbed of “positive thinking,” but Professor Oettingen's take on “I'm fine” as evidence of “widespread optimism” is foolish.**
First, let's examine the questions that elicit the answer “I'm fine.” They are the first things asked when we encounter someone (after, perhaps, “Hi” or “Hello”): “How are you?” or “How are things?” or “How are you doing?”*** These questions are not meant to be soul (or medical) searching probes; they are a conventional way of leading into the encounter ritual (we could just as well use bows or curtsies). The words are offered as a gesture of recognition of others, and receive a ritualized recognition response in return. After an initial exchange of “I'm fine”s, we can either go our separate ways (knowing that we have paid due respect to the other person) or continue the conversation in this direction or that.
When I answer “I'm fine” to the question “How are you?” I may do so for any of a number of reasons. Here are a few:
1--“I'm fine.”
2--”I'm not fine.” (see footnote 2)
3--“It's none of your business.”
4--“I'm not going to burden you with my problems.”
5--“If I tell you, then the conversation comes to a stop.”
6--“I don't want to talk about it.”
7--“If I tell you, then you'll tell me—and I don't really want to hear about it.”
8--“I'm in a hurry.”
9--“I don't like you.”
10--And most likely of all, it is, as noted above, just my conventional response to a conventional question.
Whatever the reason for the answer, it undoubtedly does not come from a deep wellspring of positivity and therefore to be taken as an indication of “widespread optimism.” (And, pace Professor Oettingen, “positivity” and “optimism” are not identical.)
Then again, perhaps we Americans should go all Teutonic in our responses to “How are you?” (“Wie geht es Ihnen?”**** if I remember my lessons correctly). I would just love to see my interlocutor's face when I reply, “I've got a fever in my left leg, and mange on my right.”
But, summing up, I have to think that the most honest reply to questions like “How are you doing?” is the standard one an uncle of mine would offer in advanced old age:
I'm doing the best I can.”
**And how about the gloomy Swedes? In a recent episode of a Swedish detective series that I saw, the chief detective, who had been showing lapses of concentration, responded with a defiant “I'm fine” to the question “How are you?” His reason: to hide a diagnosis of early Alzheimer's disease from the interlocutor, his boss.
***Cashiers at my favorite supermarket always ritually ask, “How are you?” Clearly, the expected response is “I'm fine” with no further elaboration.
I had a neighbor who gave tennis lessons; he'd greet you, “How're you hittin' 'em?” I suspect that a really optimistic answer would be “I'll be whipping Roger Federer's ass any day now.” Although more likely the response would be a middling “Not bad”--an example of the rhetorical device known as litotes, which achieves a positive by negating its opposite (though hardly as definitively strong as directly stating the positive).
****Literally, "How goes it with you?" 

Tuesday, November 25, 2014


In the previous blog post ( I quoted an anecdote by the poet Charles Simic about a visit to a barbershop. In this post are tales of three of my visits to the barber's.
“I was called in by the parish priest,” the customer in the chair to my left said to the barber. The Monsignor wanted to know why the man and his wife had only one child. In their present financial condition, the man explained, they could not afford to have any more children.

“But the Good Lord will provide,” contended the priest.

“Meanwhile, Father, I'm the Good Lord.”
Having to wait my turn, I rooted among the magazines on the coffee table to find something enlightening to read. And I did: the April 1973 issue of Playboy magazine, in which I discovered a lengthy interview with Tennessee Williams. (I did not realize that I was supposed to examine the lady with the staple in her navel.) The one fact from that interview that I carried away with me--and referred to often in my Shakespeare classes--was that we have on record, as confessed by the playwright himself, the occasion of Williams' first orgasm.

So, here's how things stand: we know when the man who is possibly America's greatest playwright (argue about it amongst yourselves later, folks) had his first orgasm—but we don't know for certain the exact date of birth of the greatest playwright in the English language. Oh, the calendars that bother at all will mark April 23 as the date of his birth (we do know for certain that he died on an April 23), but that birth date is merely a supposition, working backwards from the date of his baptism, which was recorded (April 26).

It is one of the great intellectual fallacies that people are prone to: believing that as things are now, so were they then. If we know almost every tidbit about the lives of modern authors, shouldn't we know everything (or a hell of a lot) about the lives of earlier great authors? But there was no 16th/17th Century People magazine or “Tonight” show (or equivalents of other outposts of modern celebrity culture). (“Well, Johnny or Jay or whoever, I'm thinking about adapting this old Italian play about two lovers who have problems with their families.”) And since nature abhors a vacuum (thank you, Aristotle) lots of determined (i.e., deluded) people have rushed in over the next four centuries to fill in the “facts” of Shakespeare's life.*
July 1973. A small black-and-white television set was tuned into the Senate Watergate hearings. The new witness was an aide to H.R. Haldeman, President Nixon's Chief of Staff, by the name of Gordon C. Strachan,** who was just about to celebrate his thirtieth birthday. Suddenly, the barber to my right pointed to the screen and exclaimed, “He has long hair!” While Strachan's locks were hardly Beatlesque, they were in the context of the Nixon White House (his boss, Haldeman, was noted for his severe crew cut) flowing.

It seemed to me to be perfectly right that the first thing a barber would notice--even in the turmoil of a Constitutional crisis--is a witness' hair. This feeling of mine was substantiated many years later when I was engaged in conversation with a department store saleslady. She told me that what she paid attention to while recently waiting for her daughter's arrival at the airport was the luggage of the passengers. We were conversing, of course, in the luggage department.
*S. Schoenbaum's book Shakespeare's Lives is a brilliant historical survey of both the reasonable suggestions and the irrational flights of fancy that have been offered as biographical possibilities (or, in many fanciful cases, "certitudes"). 

(For what it's worth, this post was not written by the Earl of Oxford.)

**Not to be confused with Gordon (“Wee Gordie”) Strachan, the manager of Scotland's national football team. (See

                           "Wee Gordie"              Gordon C. Strachan 

Friday, November 14, 2014

Clip Joints

“Learn Barbering and make Money,” the sign said. Blind as I am without my glasses, the apprentice barber had cut off half of my hair with electric clippers, leaving just a tuft in front, before I realized what was happening to my head. He may have been a hair fashion visionary decades ahead of his time, but I was left in total panic. As soon as I paid my thirty-five cents, I rushed across the street to Klein’s department store and bought a beret, which I wore for the next couple of months pulled down over my ears.
Charles Simic*
A couple of decades ago I had a regular tennis game on Thursday nights. On the court next to us there was a doubles group—three doctors and a lawyer, I believe, not that that is of any importance. A few times over the years the teenaged son of one of the medicos substituted for an absentee adult. Engaged in my own game, I only rarely picked up tidbits of conversation from the adjacent court. On the last occasion that I recall the son being there, however, before their match got under way I overheard one of the men ask him—he had just entered college (an Ivy League institution)--how things were going at his new school. He thought things were fine, but added that only one of his five instructors was a native English speaker. He was obviously referring to the teaching assistants who did most of the classroom teaching after the big deal faculty addressed large masses in lecture halls.

I, for my sins, had spent my time earlier that day teaching at a Gothic-towered (but non-Ivy) institution of alleged higher education, where the overwhelming majority of classes were taught by tenured or tenure-track faculty—and at at much lower cost to the students.

It is unfortunate that big-name universities are not as honest as barber colleges. At least at the latter the customer who submits his head to the care (or ineptitude) of an apprentice is charged merely a nominal sum. Too many universities are more adept at trimming wallets than barber colleges are at trimming hair.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Que Bella Voce


The Economist admitted to perplexity earlier this year in its obituary of Charles Keating. He was “Mr. Clean,” a “moral crusader,” a “knight on a white charger—as he saw himself,” who waged war on obscenity and pornography. He was, said The Economist, “so doughty in this holy war that Richard Nixon appointed him in 1969 to the national commission on obscenity.” He was also a generous donor to the Catholic Church (“Sundays saw him devoutly at Mass”) and the University of Cincinnati and had given “at least $1m to Mother Teresa, who in return praised his good character.”

But here was the “strange” part (according to the magazine), he was also “the man who bilked 23,000 investors out of their savings. The total loss was $250m-288m, and the cost to the taxpayer $3.4 billion.”

He was eventually convicted on 17 counts of fraud and sent to prison.
Is the case of Robert Brennan also “strange”? 

In 1973 he gave $10 million dollars to St. Benedict's Preparatory School in Newark, NJ (as well as a shedload of moolah over the years to Seton Hall University), only to find himself two decades later before a federal court judge and fined $75 million for defrauding investors. His legal troubles didn't end there. USA TODAY summed up his downfall:
He was arrested in 2000 for failing to disclose all of his assets on his bankruptcy petition. He was found guilty a year later of bankruptcy fraud, money laundering and obstructing justice and sentenced to nine years in prison.
In this week's New Yorker, Rachel Aviv tells the story of Sam Kellner, an orthodox Jew, who sought justice for his son. The boy was sexually molested by “a prominent cantor,” who is a“descendant of a rabbinic dynasty.” When the boy first revealed to his teacher what had happened to him, “the teacher said that [Baruch] Lebovits [the accused] was a 'respected person' and instructed him not to think about the incident again.”

Lebovits was eventually brought to trial and found guilty on eight counts of sexual abuse. He served eighteen months before the jury's verdict was overturned on appeal on procedural grounds; later, however, Lebovits copped a guilty plea and received a two-year sentence, but he served only eighty-three days.

Aviv points out that before the original sentencing (which came to “a total of up to thirty-two years”),
nearly eighty people sent letters to the judge, requesting mercy for Lebovits. They described him as charitable, kind, blessed with a beautiful singing voice . . .
Is this case “strange” as well? Another religious, charitable person (of course it's real easy being charitable with other people's money) who was a malignant blot on society?
As was often the case, George Orwell got there first:
Saints should always be judged guilty until they are proved innocent.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Money Games

I have an apology to make. In a recent e-mail to some people I poked fun at Fox News reporter Michelle Macaluso, who, when I slept on it, I realized had actually made an awesome suggestion to a State Department official:
In terms of, like, a media campaign to get people to donate, have you guys thought about anything like the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge? I mean, doesn't seem that a lot of people are actually donating to fight Ebola.*
I was, in hindsight, reminded of the satirical remark of four or five decades ago (during the Viet Nam war) that instead of PTAs having to run cake sales to support education, the military should have to run cake sales to finance their new bombers.

But all jests become truths in the fullness of time.** And so it has come time to take seriously the practice of supporting government services by means other than taxes.

In health care, the precedent is already set, as cancer research seems to be funded by fun runs. Let's see what else can be done.

To return to the military, surely the armed forces can be outfitted through rummage sales. And the State Department can finance individual bureaus through clever cultural tie-ins. The China desk could hold mah jongg parties, while the German one could get a money boost from their own Oktoberfest. Falafel and hummus sales could underwrite Middle Eastern diplomatic efforts.

The Department of Agriculture could offer hayrides, while the Postal Service, which has the world's largest non-military motor vehicle fleet, could go into the taxi business.

As far as Congress goes, the appropriate fund-raising event would be a casino night, as things are always chancy when it's in session.

On the local level, fire department raffles and policeman's balls should do quite nicely.

If all else fails, governments can resort to holding tag sales on infrastructure. Be advised: I've got first dibs on the Brooklyn Bridge.

**I had the idea that George Bernard Shaw said something like that once. A Google search came up blank, finding neither him nor anyone else making such an observation. So I'll claim it as my own (at least until someone can be shown to have a prior claim).

Monday, October 6, 2014

Java Jive

Hatched along the line came row after row of wretched slum properties, their obscene backs lit dimly from uncurtained windows. . . .
They were getting out of the slum area now. Dark gaps were appearing in the laval deposit of slate, bricks and dirt. . . .Gently settled himself back more comfortably on the generous first-class cushions. Why should he spoil the rare pleasure by tormenting himself with the imagined wretchedness of the dwellers of that petrified forest? It might be better than one envisaged . . . there were occasional television aerials.  
Alan Hunter, Landed Gently (1957)
Plus ├ža change . . .
Today, over half-a-century later, a journey by rail or road past rural or urban slums will offer you, in place of aerials, the sight of satellite dishes attached or adjacent to dwellings constructed of discarded stone, brick, and cardboard (Google “satellite dish slum” for images).
But, apparently, that the poor today have television sets (especially flat screen TVs) really gets up some people's noses. For example, just over a year ago jumped-up hash-slinger Jamie Oliver prompted a row in Britain when he claimed that (in the words of Sky News) “he struggles to talk about modern poverty after seeing families living on junk food but spending money on enormous televisions.” More recently (and more typically) it was a wingnut politician complaining:
Obama is rewarding the lazy pigs with Food Stamps (44 million people), air conditioning, free health care, flat screen TV’s (typical of “poor” families).
Republican Arizona state schools Superintendent John Huppenthal*
Economists Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo traveled “to rural villages and teeming urban slums around the world, collecting data and speaking with poor people about what they eat and what else they buy, from Morocco to Kenya, Indonesia to India.” They discovered “a world where those without enough to eat may save up to buy a TV instead.” For example:
In rural Morocco, Oucha Mbarbk and his two neighbors told us they had worked about 70 days in agriculture and about 30 days in construction that year. Otherwise, they took care of their cattle and waited for jobs to materialize. All three men lived in small houses without water or sanitation. They struggled to find enough money to give their children a good education. But they each had a television, a parabolic antenna, a DVD player, and a cell phone.**
Those of us who have comfortable incomes and comfortable lives, Banerjee and Duflo point out,
often see the world of the poor as a land of missed opportunities and wonder why they don't invest in what would really make their lives better. But the poor may well be more skeptical about supposed opportunities and the possibility of any radical change in their lives. They often behave as if they think that any change that is significant enough to be worth sacrificing for will simply take too long. This could explain why they focus on the here and now, on living their lives as pleasantly as possible and celebrating when occasion demands it.
In a review of Banerjee and Duflo's work in an Economist magazine blog “J. P.” points out something nutritionists and aid donors often forget:
well-intentioned programmes often break down on the indifference of the beneficiaries. People don't eat the nutritious foods they are offered, or take their vitamin supplements. They stick with what makes life more bearable, even if it is sweet tea and DVDs.***
King Lear, on the verge of a breakdown, rages at his malevolent daughters:
O, reason not the need! Our basest beggars
     Are in the poorest thing superfluous.
     Allow not nature more than nature needs,
     Man's life is cheap as beast's.
One might argue, then, that superfluity is a mark of humanity. As Lear reminds his daughters, the rich clothes “thou gorgeous wear'st . . . scarcely keeps thee warm.” Fashion is superfluous (and not particularly utile), but it helps some of us to signify our humanity.

There are those—let's call them "modern medievalists"—who would seem to desire a resurrection (and extension) of the sumptuary laws of the Middle Ages, which regulated what each level of society might wear, from “Lords with lands worth £1,000 annually, and their families,” who had no restrictions, down to “Carters, plowmen, drivers of plows, oxherds, cowherds, swineherds, dairymaids, and everyone else working on the land who does not have 40s of goods,” who could have “No cloth except blanket and russet at 12d per ell, belts of linen (rope).” English Sumptuary Laws of 1363****

And so we would like to ask these modern medievalists, who bridle at flat screen TVs and cellphones (let's not forget how nuts they get about cellphones!) for the poor: "What are the poor allowed to have? Would you care to make an inventory of the possessions allowed to the poor?"
But it's not just the poor who are under attack for their spending habits:
Personal-finance gurus have a certain playbook. They take a representative middle-class family. They pinch their pennies, encouraging them to clip coupons and give up life's little luxuries, like those $4 Starbucks lattes.
Annie Lowery, New York magazine
And to give them up for what? To “end up with hundreds of thousands for a secure retirement.“ But this advice is, Lowery states, “one big, caffeinated misdirection.” (See the rest of the argument.*****)

In conclusion, let us recall the words of Thomas Hobbes: “Life is nasty, brutish, and short.”

So, drink that latte while you can!

****Ian Mortimer, The Time Traveler's Guide to Medieval England: A Handbook for Visitors to the Fourteenth Century

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Sinister Doings

I recently watched a half-century-old movie comedy and a much-more-recent TV police procedural drama in both of which the police race their cars onto an airstrip in an attempt to cut off the escape of the criminals by plane. In both cases the police fail, and the criminals fly off unapprehended. 

Lucky escapes? Hardly. The creators* willed it so. In the case of the comedy, the escape allowed for a gloriously goofy conclusion on a tropical island. And in the case of the police drama, it produced for the lead detective, in the following episode, career complications and suspicions about his staff’s loyalty.

Fictional policemen and detectives do not catch criminals--even when they do catch criminals. Their creators structure the works to have the crimes solved and criminals brought to justice (not always the same thing)--or not. As Molly McArdle** points out, sometimes their creators do not allow the greatest of fictional detectives to solve a case: “Like [Sherlock] Holmes, [Hercule] Poirot has one emblematic failure to keep him honest and relatively humble.”*** Each detective may have an “emblematic failure,” but it is not really his doing. Conan Doyle and Christie fashioned it so. But if the failures are not the detectives’, can the successes be theirs? Obviously not. Again, it is the creators who, in the first place, created the crime and criminal and then plotted how the detective by dogged legwork or cool ratiocination (or both) will unravel the mystery.

Like me, Sophie Scott, who reviewed Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes by Maria Konnikova for the Observer****, is a “tiresome person” who “might point out that, as Holmes was not a real person, at least some of his expertise might arise from his creator knowing the answers to the puzzles.” She goes on:

Konnikova, however, says that as amazing feats of insight were achieved by Conan Doyle and some of his contemporaries, we can safely suspend our disbelief. I found this difficult to do.

Neither can I.

Fictional characters have no agency. Like the pieces on a chessboard, their latent powers are only realized when advanced by an outside force. Holmes’ intellectual powers are as impotent as a chess queen’s in an empty room until Conan Doyle sets them into play.

John Dickson Carr was recognized as the master devisor of the locked-room mystery, in which the crime occurs in impossible circumstances and, thus, there is seemingly no way to explain it and solve it. But, of course, there is a solution, which the author has conceived together with the puzzle. The mastermind is the author, who dazzles the reader with his trickery, pulling a logical explanation out of a locked room, like a magician pulling a rabbit out of an empty hat. The detective is his magic wand. Essentially a prop.

But sometimes the creators falter in their legerdemain, though the audience, having bought the idea of the detective’s super reasoning powers, will most likely not pick up on the flawed performance. One example: In a 1974 episode of Columbo, entitled “An Exercise in Fatality,” the rumpled police lieutenant “solves” the murder by determining that the laces of the victim’s sneakers were tied post mortem by another person (because of the way the loops go). And his reasoning is correct—for a right-handed murderer and a right-handed victim (which is what he demonstrates). However, it all breaks down (if anybody is carefully looking), because the victim was played by Philip Bruns—a left-handed actor. 
(This picture of Bruns is from an episode of Sanford and Son, but even so . . .)
Even a half-sober defense attorney could get an acquittal when that case came to trial.

I don’t know if I can be a mastermind, as Sherlock Holmes is alleged to have been, even if I practiced hard, but I can definitely out-think Columbo!


*Since movies and television are collaborative arts, several different people (writers, directors, producers) may have contributed to the outcomes; therefore, I decided to play it safe and just say “creators” when dealing with those media.

***P. D. James created a case which Adam Dalgleish “solves” but doesn’t have enough hard evidence to bring about an arrest. And (at least in a French TV series) Georges Simenon‘s Maigret literally walks away from a murderer, allowing him to fish in freedom.