Monthly Archives: February 2013

Polish writers are so good…

A friend recently gave me a book of her favorite poet translated. My friend is Polish, as is the poet, the 1996 Nobel Laureate, Wistawa Szymborska. Check it out.

Conrad, one of my favorite authors, wrote wonderfully in English so his place as a great writer is all the more remarkable for being attained in a non-native tongue. But Poles seem to translate well into English.

In the ’80s I heard Czeslaw Milosz read and was smitten by his verse. He read to us his own English translations and was completely disarming. Milosz was one of Symborska’s early influences, though her work is utterly original. But before my friend’s gift, I had never read this wonderful, quirky, light/dark poetess. Her translations also hold up extremely well. Here is a small taste:

CLASSIFIEDS

WHOEVER’S found out what location

compassion (heart’s imagination)

can be contacted at these days,

is herewith urged to name the place;

and sing about it in full voice,

and dance like crazy and rejoice

beneath the frail birch that appears

to be upon the verge of tears.

I TEACH silence

in all languages

through intensive examination of:

the starry sky,

the Sinanthropus’ jaws

a grasshopper’s hop

an infant’s fingernails,

plankton,

a snowflake.

I RESTORE lost love.

Act now! Special offer!

You lie on last year’s grass

bathed in sunlight to the chin

while winds of summers past

caress your hair and seem

to lead you in a dance.

For further details, write: “Dream.”

WANTED: someone to mourn

the elderly who die

alone in old folks’ homes.

Applicants, don’t send forms

or birth certificates.

All papers will be torn,

no receipts will be issued

at this or later dates.

FOR PROMISES made by my spouse,

who’s tricked so many with his sweet

colors and fragrances and sounds —

dogs barking, guitars in the street —

into believing that they still

might conquer loneliness and fright,

I cannot be responsible.

Mr. Day’s widow, Mrs. Night.

Wistawa Szymborska, 1957

I especially love that final ad. I think every spouse must disavow their partner from time to time.  And of course Night is Day’s widow…

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Why do immigrants identify with and vote for Democrats? An interesting thought experiment.

Despite the fact that many ethnic groups have conservative values and leanings – especially in social beliefs – immigrants to the United States skew heavily to identification with Democrats not Republicans.

There may be many reasons: better branding by Democrats as the party of the “non-establishment” or a more racially tinged identification as the party for “non-whites.” Perhaps it is because most other countries’ politics are decidedly more left than American politics (I have a European friend who describes America as a country with two political traditions; the conservatives and the even more conservatives…) In a comment on a story that addressed this phenomenon one reader produced this fascinating and (I think) insightful thought experiment:

Let’s say you were to immigrate to a new country which is essentially divided between two hostile tribes engaged in perpetual low-intensity warfare. We’ll call them Hutus and Tutsis. You have no previous allegiance or affiliation with either tribe.

Let’s also say that one tribe, Tutsis, holds a hegemony on all organs of education and opinion, virtually the entire government bureaucracy and all of popular culture. Many of the most prestigious institutions in the country consist of 95%+ Tutsis. Tutsi organizations like “Harvard University” and “The New York Times” are widely respected by even ardent Hutus.

Now of course there are Hutu organizations and no shortage of powerful Hutu people. But, unlike the reverse, there are virtually no prestigious institutions where Tutsis are excluded. I.e. some prestigious and powerful institutions, like “General Electric” or “Goldman Sachs” may be 2:1 Hutu at most. But any with a 10:1 ratio or more are virtually guaranteed to be far inferior, second-rate and low status institutions or organizations. Examples of these pariahs are “Oral Roberts University”, “Fox News” and “Amway.”

This leads to a strange asymmetry where it is certainly possible to succeed in this society while being Hutu, it almost never hurts to be Tutsi. For example just the other day there was a Tutsi ceremony called “The Academy Awards” that almost exclusively honors Tutsis. Despite this, this ceremony is observed and recognized by Hutus around the country.

A rational, self-interested immigrant to this society would of course choose align himself as a moderate, but reliably loyal Tutsi. Unless you’re a Tutsi extremist, leaning Tutsi will almost never hurt your career or standing except in all but the most malformed, backwards and irrelevant Hutu organizations.

But failure to demonstrate at least general sympathy to the Tutsi side will almost undoubtedly lock you out of many career options and generally draw attention to you in most corners of polite society.

It makes a lot of sense to me. What do you think?

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An equally weighted look at addressing income inequality…

In Foreign Affairs, professor Jerry Z. Muller, chair of the history department at Washington’s Catholic University, takes a thoughtful and balanced look at what the left and right get wrong in the discussion of income inequality in the United States.

Recent political debate in the United States and other advanced capitalist democracies has been dominated by two issues: the rise of economic inequality and the scale of government intervention to address it. As the 2012 U.S. presidential election and the battles over the “fiscal cliff” have demonstrated, the central focus of the left today is on increasing government taxing and spending, primarily to reverse the growing stratification of society, whereas the central focus of the right is on decreasing taxing and spending, primarily to ensure economic dynamism. Each side minimizes the concerns of the other, and each seems to believe that its desired policies are sufficient to ensure prosperity and social stability. Both are wrong.

He takes a thoughtful look at how social and economic changes have affected different social strata in the united States and how equality of opportunity has not increased the equality of outcomes. He also explains how conventional approaches to addressing inequality are increasingly producing diminishing returns. His most trenchant observations revolve around the family’s role in enabling future achievement – I wish he had explored ways to help encourage strong families throughout social strata. Read the whole thing.

It makes me think that if we want to address the problem, one crucial element is to better encourage the strength of two-parent, stable families. There seems to be no debate about their ability to create environments where children are given the tools they need to achieve their highest potential throughout life. When we help people in need, we should be careful not to create incentives for different environments that perpetuate a cycle of poverty and underachievement.

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Register reporter tries hand at NRA pistol safety course- The New Haven Register

Fantastic to see a newspaper publish a straightforward, no-agenda experience by a reporter. A shame that it is such a rarity but here is a story that reflects my exact experience.

Register reporter tries hand at NRA pistol safety course- The New Haven Register 

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Who is the most politically incorrect Nobel Prize winner?

I would assert that Rudyard Kipling wins the award for the most politically incorrect person to ever win a Nobel Prize. It wasn’t that long ago that poems like “The White Man’s Burden” and “The Betrothed” were unapologetic pieces considered serious literature. I don’t bring them up now to say that progress in modern thoughts on imperialism and women’s rights are unimportant.

But demonizing “incorrect thoughts” is inherently evil – antithetical to an informed and free society.  A modern day author has no more ability to share these type of thoughts and be thought to have a legitimate point of view, than would an advocate of infanticide — oh, wait. That’s just a matter of “choice…”

Thoughts, ideas and points of view may or may not be correct. But stigmatizing them and preventing civil discord and debate is always incorrect.

The White Man’s Burden

Take up the White Man’s burden–
Send forth the best ye breed–
Go bind your sons to exile
To serve your captives’ need;
To wait in heavy harness,
On fluttered folk and wild–
Your new-caught, sullen peoples,
Half-devil and half-child.

Take up the White Man’s burden–
In patience to abide,
To veil the threat of terror
And check the show of pride;
By open speech and simple,
An hundred times made plain
To seek another’s profit,
And work another’s gain.

Take up the White Man’s burden–
The savage wars of peace–
Fill full the mouth of Famine
And bid the sickness cease;
And when your goal is nearest
The end for others sought,
Watch sloth and heathen Folly
Bring all your hopes to nought.

Take up the White Man’s burden–
No tawdry rule of kings,
But toil of serf and sweeper–
The tale of common things.
The ports ye shall not enter,
The roads ye shall not tread,
Go mark them with your living,
And mark them with your dead.

Take up the White Man’s burden–
And reap his old reward:
The blame of those ye better,
The hate of those ye guard–
The cry of hosts ye humour
(Ah, slowly!) toward the light:–
“Why brought he us from bondage,
Our loved Egyptian night?”

Take up the White Man’s burden–
Ye dare not stoop to less–
Nor call too loud on Freedom
To cloke your weariness;
By all ye cry or whisper,
By all ye leave or do,
The silent, sullen peoples
Shall weigh your gods and you.

Take up the White Man’s burden–
Have done with childish days–
The lightly proferred laurel,
The easy, ungrudged praise.
Comes now, to search your manhood
Through all the thankless years
Cold, edged with dear-bought wisdom,
The judgment of your peers!

— Rudyard Kipling, 1899

I wonder if this one makes it on to the syllabus in many ‘Gender Studies” courses…

The Betrothed

“You must choose between me and your cigar.” — BREACH OF PROMISE CASE, CIRCA 1885.

Open the old cigar-box, get me a Cuba stout,
For things are running crossways, and Maggie and I are out.

We quarrelled about Havanas — we fought o’er a good cheroot,
And I know she is exacting, and she says I am a brute.

Open the old cigar-box — let me consider a space;
In the soft blue veil of the vapour musing on Maggie’s face.

Maggie is pretty to look at — Maggie’s a loving lass,
But the prettiest cheeks must wrinkle, the truest of loves must pass.

There’s peace in a Larranaga, there’s calm in a Henry Clay;
But the best cigar in an hour is finished and thrown away —

Thrown away for another as perfect and ripe and brown —
But I could not throw away Maggie for fear o’ the talk o’ the town!

Maggie, my wife at fifty — grey and dour and old —
With never another Maggie to purchase for love or gold!

And the light of Days that have Been the dark of the Days that Are,
And Love’s torch stinking and stale, like the butt of a dead cigar —

The butt of a dead cigar you are bound to keep in your pocket —
With never a new one to light tho’ it’s charred and black to the socket!

Open the old cigar-box — let me consider a while.
Here is a mild Manila — there is a wifely smile.

Which is the better portion — bondage bought with a ring,
Or a harem of dusky beauties, fifty tied in a string?

Counsellors cunning and silent — comforters true and tried,
And never a one of the fifty to sneer at a rival bride?

Thought in the early morning, solace in time of woes,
Peace in the hush of the twilight, balm ere my eyelids close,

This will the fifty give me, asking nought in return,
With only a Suttee’s passion — to do their duty and burn.

This will the fifty give me. When they are spent and dead,
Five times other fifties shall be my servants instead.

The furrows of far-off Java, the isles of the Spanish Main,
When they hear my harem is empty will send me my brides again.

I will take no heed to their raiment, nor food for their mouths withal,
So long as the gulls are nesting, so long as the showers fall.

I will scent ’em with best vanilla, with tea will I temper their hides,
And the Moor and the Mormon shall envy who read of the tale of my brides.

For Maggie has written a letter to give me my choice between
The wee little whimpering Love and the great god Nick o’ Teen.

And I have been servant of Love for barely a twelvemonth clear,
But I have been Priest of Cabanas a matter of seven year;

And the gloom of my bachelor days is flecked with the cheery light
Of stumps that I burned to Friendship and Pleasure and Work and Fight.

And I turn my eyes to the future that Maggie and I must prove,
But the only light on the marshes is the Will-o’-the-Wisp of Love.

Will it see me safe through my journey or leave me bogged in the mire?
Since a puff of tobacco can cloud it, shall I follow the fitful fire?

Open the old cigar-box — let me consider anew —
Old friends, and who is Maggie that I should abandon you?

A million surplus Maggies are willing to bear the yoke;
And a woman is only a woman, but a good Cigar is a Smoke.

Light me another Cuba — I hold to my first-sworn vows.
If Maggie will have no rival, I’ll have no Maggie for Spouse!

— Rudyard Kipling, 1886

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So, you want to buy a handgun…You are not alone.

I took an NRA pistol safety course (required to obtain a Connecticut handgun permit.) And I was struck by the variety of students in my class. We were 12 in all and came from every strata of society, age and every background. So I asked them what had made each of them decide to take the course and how much experience they had with shooting. They all were happy to share.

There was a young financial services type from Greenwich, well dressed and unselfconscious about having recently purchased long guns and an expensive gun safe without really knowing much about firearms – “I want to have them now before we can’t get them any more.”

A zoftig, blond, single-mom bartender in her twenties – “I just really like shooting guns. It’s fun and I’ve shot with my friend a lot. Now I want a gun of my own. Plus living with my son alone in Bridgeport, getting home really late, at 3 or 4 in the morning, its seems like a good idea.”

A knowledgeable, well-off  grandfather who was no novice – “I have several guns and it used to be that you could always come to the range and practice. No big deal. But now everyone needs to see your certification before they will let you shoot. So I decided to finally get mine.”

A shoe repairman from Wilton in his seventies. “I got robbed a while back and felt so helpless. Never again. I will keep a gun in my shop from now on. I don’t want to be a victim.”

A New Canaan housewife (accompanied by her seventy-year-old plus father) who looked equal parts nervous and determined. “Guns have always frightened me but I figure it’s because I’ve never known anything about them. This way I can learn and hopefully get comfortable enough to have my own gun for self defense.”

A tradesman from Norwalk. “I had my permit for years but I let it lapse. A long time ago my wife bought me a pistol. It just sat in my closet with a trigger lock and I never shot it. Then I lost the key and just gave it away to a friend. I want to get my license  in case I decide to start shooting again. [He lived close to the shooting range where the course was taught.] I don’t think I’ll buy another pistol unless I start coming here a lot. I mean, I’ve got a hunting license and a fishing license. I may as well have this too.”

A middle management type from Fairfield who said, “I never had any interest in guns. But when the government goes after shutting something down, I figure I should act.”

There was also an illegal gun-owner, formerly from New York city who having moved to the suburbs wanted to legitimize having a gun in the house. “When my wife first saw my holster on my bed’s headboard, she said ‘Get that thing off our bed.’ But now she has changed her mind and she was happy when I got a shotgun to add to the pistol we have. She says she feels more secure having something now that we live in the suburbs.”

Finally there were two young hipster friends in their early twenties. “Shooting is fun. I really like it. I might be getting a gun soon but I’m not sure what kind I’ll get.” And the more thoughtful one, “We have done some shooting and have had fun. I want to be sure that I don’t get prevented from getting a gun once I decide on what I can afford.”

So every possible type of person came to my completely unscientific sampling of prospective American gun-owners, in ultra-liberal, Fairfield county Connecticut. The only common denominators were diverse interests in pistols and a distrust of the government and its motives. Its not surprising when you observe politicians’ blatant disregard for the solid pro-gun orientation of the U.S. population. The final commonality was a responsible instinct to comply with the law and take prudent instruction in how to handle something that can be dangerous.

The urge to own a firearm is fundamental for many diverse Americans. The right to do so is enshrined in our constitution. From this experience, I’d say that America’s ‘gun culture’ is something to be admired not vilified. So what are the underlying motives of the politicians that do vilify it?

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The Second Daughter – A first class read

A friend of mine has published his first novel and it is marvelous.

The Second Daughter is a book of charm and wit but ultimately, it shows us great emotional depth too. Its characters are very well drawn. My friend does an exceptional job of making readers empathize and care for a set of people who (with one exception) are not really likable or empathetic – at least in a conventional way. The initial love story pairs a classic odd couple of opposites and yet you can see how they come together and their relationship never seems implausible.  The narrative makes the reader take the same emotional journey as the characters and introduces us to a wonderful cast of unique individuals. It strikes a remarkable balance — a very fun and funny book that ultimately also is sad, profound and redeeming.

It is a story about the Gale family. An uptight mother, her spontaneous, irresponsible husband and their two daughters; but ultimately it is about love in all its changing forms – romantic love, spousal love (and how it can be lost), sibling rivalry and parental love (and how it evolves.)

While the plot is a familiar well-worn journey, as told here, it is an intimate journey nevertheless. The anticipation of predictable events adds to the engagement with the reader – “I know what’s coming, I dread what’s coming, I have to read what’s coming next…”

I have to confess that I am jealous. My friend’s writing style is really engaging and readable. While it is funny and light, it still succeeds in painting detailed portraits. This book is so accessible in all the best ways – not insipid at all – but it never runs the risk of losing a reader by appearing to be written over someone’s head (the author is a very accomplished university philosophy professor.) I wish that I could write this well.

Finally this book’s subject and mastery of displaying the intimate connections that we make in families and screw up and regret and redeem against all odds is truly exceptional. My friend writes so well about women and relationships, establishing such strong empathy that this book while “chick-flickesque” in its subject matter, is a very good read for men or women alike. Check it out.

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