Friday, March 13, 2015

The "Active Bottom" and the Bottom Line

There is hardly anything in the world that some man cannot make a little worse and sell a little cheaper, and the people who consider price only are this man's lawful prey. 
John Ruskin 
(As a child, sitting in the dentist's chair, I would read this quotation framed on the office wall.)
***
Knocking things about in the closet looking for something which, of course, I never found, I recently came upon a restaurant matchbook (remember them?) from the eatery that introduced me to fajitas (actually, I've never eaten them since, but that's neither here nor there). That dining occasion was around three decades ago, I'm sure. The dish itself had apparently sneaked its way up from the Southwest only a few years earlier; the New York Times first mentioned it in 1983.

It was barely a half-dozen years later that I myself first came across a mention of fajitas in the Times. What caught my eye was the title of the article: “How a Humble Cut Got a Fancy Price.”* In the piece, Florence Fabricant reported the staggering price rise of skirt steak, the cut of beef for fajitas, making it, because of the new food craze, “the second most expensive cut of beef, wholesale, with only the tenderloin costing more.” That was the “Fancy Price” part.

Fajitas were not a new food craze, however, among Mexicans living in Texas. A cheap cut of beef, it “used to cost about the same as ground beef and was the only cut of beef that Mexican immigrants in Texas could afford.” That was the “Humble Cut” part.

And so, they were priced out of their own cuisine:
''We were fine until the fajita craze went beyond Texas,'' said Dr. Jeff Savell, a professor of animal science at Texas A & M. ''The price is through the roof because demand for skirt steak is now exceeding the supply.''
As I write this on my MacBook, I am sitting here in a pair of sweatpants that cost me about 8 dollars. So I was amazed to read the other day that some folks are trying to flog their own sweats for 100 times as much. Indeed, as Marc Bain at Quartz.com points out:
A decade ago it would’ve been unimaginable for a pair of sweatpants to be as expensive as an iPod, let alone rival a MacBook.**
Previously, of course, the fashionistas had run up the price of the hard-working blue jean. Bain quotes a “fashion industry analyst” on the recent emergence of sweatpants as a fashion darling:
Because of the ability now to wear them as everyday attire, they’ve replaced the high-end jean market. . . .That same customer has migrated over to the active bottom.”***
*
Fajitas, jeans, sweatpants—with the turning of these three humble items of perfect practicality into examples of Veblenian show-offing by the dedicated followers of fashion, I think we see a kind of reverse Ruskinism at work. Instead of cheapening a product to attract those who only look at the bottom line (think of some of the infamous sardine-can airlines and what they've done to the overall experience of flying), the new con is to add a smidgeon here and little dab there and jack up the prices to appeal to the vacuous vain.

And if perchance some of those v-v's catch on to the hollowness of fashionistadom and decide to retreat, like Candide, to cultivate their own garden, they will discover, unfortunately, that they don't have the clothes for the job.

***
*http://www.nytimes.com/1989/04/26/garden/how-a-humble-cut-got-a-fancy-price.html



***You have to love that “active bottom” part. I leave that to your imagination.

Monday, February 9, 2015

All in the Family

Just because one's thoughts are banal doesn't mean they're true. Ideas that have been run round the block and back a dozen or more times are exhausted, but not necessarily toned in their intellectual muscularity. Take for example the proclamation by a number of anti-vaccination zealots that parents know what's best for their children. Rand Paul, United States Senator from Kentucky and alleged presidential aspirant, has gone even further down the road: “Parents own the children.” And, therefore, one presumes, can do whatever they wish to do to their little ones. 

And they have.

Bash, smash, shoot, stab, strangle, starve, poison, torture, crush, suffocate, drown, and drop from high places--what parents have done a lot is filicide, the murder of their offspring--so much so that it is the third-leading cause of death of children between the ages of 5 and 14 in the United States. According to Dr. Phillip Resnick, a professor of psychiatry at Case Western Reserve University,
one out of every 33 homicides in the United States is the killing of a child under 18 by their parent, or between 250 and 300 of the country's killings each year.*
USA Today has come up with an even higher number of filicides: 
three decades of FBI homicide data shows that on average, 450 children are killed every year by their parents.**
So, perhaps, offering one's child the opportunity to contract measles is, in comparison, an act of loving-kindness.
***

Thursday, February 5, 2015

No Soap

It's like nagging your parents to let you go skiing when you hate the cold and the snow: urging voters to elect you to a government office when you hate government. Needless to say, there are voters dumb enough to do so, and thus we have the likes of Thom Tillis, senator from North Carolina.
This week Tillis opined that (as paraphrased by BBC.com) “restaurants should not have to make their employees wash their hands after toilet visits.” “Let them decide,” said Tillis, referring to the regulated businesses.
Tillis has a problem with government regulations and thinks that market forces should rule the world and would set everything right. He thinks that people would avoid non-washing establishments, which would quickly go out of business.* Until those disease-spreading eateries go under, of course, patrons will be in danger of becoming ill (and some may even die). But, even so, germs are better than government.
The next logical step would be for surgeons to be allowed to decide whether to free themselves from regulatory procedures prescribing scrubbing-up before operating. (Certainly from an economic point of view it would make sense to do so: they would free up time to perform more procedures, and more procedures=more money.) Of course, we would then be plunged back into the dark ages of surgery, before Ignaz Semmelweis discovered that hand disinfecting would reduce mortality rates in maternity hospitals. In an unregulated surgical marketplace, Tillis would undoubtedly argue, patients would vote with their feet, putting the unsterilized practitioners out of business—that is, except for those patients who were wheeled out feet first to the morgue.
But why stop there? How about letting all other businesses decide what regulations to follow? Like construction companies, for example. So what if a shoddily-constructed apartment building went up in flames, or a bridge of inferior design collapsed? It's all good for the marketplace (and the morticians). And if the plagues of Egypt were resurrected in this country because government regulatory agencies were toothless? Well, it would be OK, I guess; after all, we would be free to choose between boils and the death of our first born.
***
*How would patrons know that a restaurant doesn't require staff to wash? Tillis, in the words of BBC.com, “suggested that restaurants that did not require hand washing would have to alert customers with prominently displayed signs” (itself a regulation, as BBC.com pointedly noted).
We could invent a new parlor game: create a Tillis sign. Just off the top of my head, how about:
HANDS SPRINKLED WITH PEE
MADE YOUR BLT
***
Sources and Suggested Reading:


















Thursday, January 22, 2015

Don't Bother Me

A recent full-page ad in the New Yorker promoted a new book called 1,000 Foods To Eat Before You Die. One of the blurbs in the ad exclaimed that these are foods we “need to try, urgently.” I will admit to loving bialys (one of the foods mentioned on the depicted book cover), but since the the book also promotes something called “stinking bishop,” I'm not sure I'll venture into sampling the other 999 foodstuffs. 

1,000 Foods is only the latest of formulaic books that have emerged in recent years ordering us to do this or that before we croak. A hundred of this to visit or read, a thousand of that to listen to or see. Besides the inherent bossiness of the authors (who the hell are they to tell me what to do with my life?), what gets my goat is their smug (pretense of) superiority: “I have done all these things, and you haven't. But the best that you can do is to match my achievement—never to surpass it.”

I can't say for certain when this “must do” phenomenon originated, but I do believe that a major spiritual godfather of the movement was E. D. Hirsch, Jr., who, in 1987, on the heels of Allan Bloom's The Closing of the American Mind (alleged by some to be the opening salvo of the so-called “culture wars”), published Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs To Know. A bestseller (like Bloom's screed), Cultural Literacy contained--according to the book's cover--“5,000 essential names, phrases, dates, and concepts.”

Since Hirsch put together his 5,000 “essentials,” he obviously knew them all. And you didn't! So who's the smart guy? As mentioned above, the best the reader could do was to match Hirsch's knowledge, not surpass it (even if he did have all 5,000 memorized).

This “no one can know more than me” business is really the opposite of the statement of Socrates (I know one name; only 4,999 to go) that the Oracle of Delphi (only 4,998 to go) claimed that “no man is wiser than Socrates.” For, said Socrates, he knows that he knows nothing, while other men brag of their knowledge of justice, piety, etc.

So, I'll sit here on my own little chair not traipsing off to Timbuktu--reading what I want to read, listening to what I want to listen to, and knowing that if I strained my mind a bit, I might come up with 5 or 10 “essential” bits of knowledge that those “must do” guys don't have a clue about.

And nosh on a bialy.





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

Hair

In the previous blog post (http://drnormalvision.blogspot.com/2014/11/clip-joints.html) 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 http://drnormalvision.blogspot.com/2010/08/velocity.html)

                           "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.
***