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Saturday, July 25, 2015

The greatest alumni note of all time

I've mentioned in the past that I am a very diligent reader of the U of C alumni magazine's notes and obituaries. I read them all, and learn about how each stage of life is accompanied by very specific modes of bragging - those under 35 brag about birthing children and their first career accomplishments, those between 36 and 65 brag about their children's accomplishments, and those over 65 brag about how active and vigorous they remain (with the effect, I think, of cowing the non-active into alumni magazine silence). This last group is probably the most comical, but only because the others are so predictable. Still, I enjoy all of them. However, the most recent issue of the alumni magazine featured what I can say with almost a decade (!) of experience in the field of alumni-note reading is the best alumni note I have ever seen, composed by someone who appears not to have even graduated from Chicago:



A contemporary Tellus the Athenian, altered by modernity but not beyond recognition.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Regional differences in breaking records

"San Diego has broken just about every record it has for July," said Roger Pierce, a National Weather Service forecaster. "It was a pretty amazing weekend."
And what exactly is meant by "pretty amazing" in San Diego? This:
Sunday's downpour pushed San Diego's July rainfall to 1.50 inches, breaking the previous July record of 0.92 inches, set in 1902. Lindbergh Field recorded a high temperature of 88 degrees, one degree higher than the previous record for July 19, set in 1951.
There you have it, the apocalypse: 1.5 inches of rain and 88-degree temperatures. Essentially, San Diego experienced two average Midwest/East Coast summer storms this weekend and the city nearly collapsed.

Saturday, July 04, 2015

Eliot, Daniela Deronda

The Toast once summarized all English novels with the phrase "fraught seating arrangements," which is a very accurate description of large parts of this book (as also of every book by Henry James, and a lot of Jane Austen, especially Mansfield Park, which is may be the epitome of her virtue revealed through extremely subtle gestures that only someone of extraordinary sensitivity could notice). 

I appreciate the value of manners and rules of conduct, but can't quite understand how the Victorians concluded that good manners simply are virtue, and the highest virtue is the best manners, such that the slightest deviation - a sideways glance, an insufficiently light smile, a too-long pause or alternately a too-brief one - could be taken to reveal the profound corruption (or even just an incomplete virtue, which amounts to the same thing) within. Sure, the actions reveal the man, but does that really extend to the actions of his eyebrows? 

For example, here is a line from the novel: "And Mrs. Meyrick's face showed something like an undercurrent of expression, not allowed to get to the surface." Notice that what this sentence actually means is that Mrs. Meyrick's face showed nothing and no one noticed it. But the precise nothingness that it showed revealed everything about her state of mind and loftiness of soul. Mrs. Meyrick is so virtuous that she communicates telepathically, and is perfectly understood by others like herself. Not to say that this level of exquisite sensitivity to both other people and to what is right in every circumstance is not admirable, just that it is...a very high standard, perhaps unattainable by those who have the misfortune of not being born into Victorian novels?

But even if we do take this standard as a worthy one, it still seems kind of cramped, like heroism is just the exercise of very good manners with great sincerity behind them towards all the people in your country neighborhood. The characters all have their heads stuffed with earlier modes of heroism - Dante and the art of the Italian Renaissance make many appearances, as do the novels of Walter Scott - but their own lives are so small that all they can channel these aspirations into is maintaining pleasant social concord. 

Well, that's not quite accurate, because the title character, who spends all 800 pages of the book looking for a great purpose to which to dedicate himself finally does find one that supersedes the boundaries of Wanchester. Which brings us to the non-Victorian society half of the novel, which is about how the Jews are a mystical race of prophetic unicorns in need of a national homeland. Back in high school, when I used to read about the 19th C. history of Zionism, I could've probably had a better idea about whether Eliot's mysticism-induced Zionism was plausible if not exactly mainstream, but unfortunately, because I was reading about the history of Zionism and other exclusively non-literary things in high school, I was not reading George Eliot.

Monday, June 01, 2015

James, The Bostonians

It turns out that the novelization of Democracy in America is a story about misguided 19th C. Boston feminists that plays out Tocqueville's remarks about both the tenuous place of women and general ideas in America. This is so far my favorite of the James novels I've read, though I'm beginning to be concerned about the paucity of male characters.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

A friend of mine from college who makes shadow puppet plays that I'm never in the right city to see has finally made one that you do not have to be in the right city to see because it is a film on the internet. It unfortunately shares a name with a feeble CNN documentary about Chicago that is in effect an elaborate re-election ad for Rahm Emanuel, not a terrible eventuality given the options, but one could've hoped that there were more interesting things in Chicago to depict in 2013 than the inside of Rahm's mayoral SUV as he zipped purposefully between sound byte appearances. Anyway, this Chicagoland is about a coyote roaming the city, not the mayor, and has a better soundtrack.

Saturday, May 02, 2015

Academic conferences at tropical resorts, a follow-up

This post follows the previous entirely by coincidence, not because I am constantly thinking about conferences. But remember that, last spring, I proposed the brilliant idea that academic conferences should be held at all-inclusive tropical resorts? Well, this weekend, an NYT essay vindicates my suggestion, emphasizing how great these places are for people with kids, even people who think themselves too morally sophisticated to enjoy such low-brow pleasures. And just in time, because the SPSA's next conference is in Puerto Rico. But, hypocrite that I am, I'm not planning to attend. In my defense though, it's not an all-inclusive resort in Puerto Rico.

Friday, April 24, 2015

The best conference dream

Last night, before going to a conference in New Haven, I dreamed that I was going to a conference in New Haven, and I ran into some women I vaguely knew on the way there and they introduced me to their friends before the conference and we all hit it off so well that we decided to skip the conference altogether and take the train down to Manhattan for the day instead.

This was a very optimistic dream.

Saturday, April 04, 2015

Other good to middling stuff to watch on Netflix at the moment

A list I promised to Alex last weekend:

Leave It to Beavers: Yes, a documentary about beavers.
Microcosmos: This one is about bugs.
Sons of Perdition: Mormon polygamists.
Nobody Knows: Japanese child neglect.
Short Term 12: The troubled yoof.
Nebraska: The troubled old.
Frances Ha: The troubled hipsters.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

"Rich Hill" and the mythological middle class of everyone

Netflix has a couple of watchable new films available*, among them "Rich Hill," a documentary following three poor boys in a rural Missouri town for a year. Although the subjects may not think themselves poor, it seemed clear that the viewers were supposed to think them so. The film has no particular argument to make about the boys' lives; they're just depicted, and some of them are better than others. But afterwards, when I looked up reviews, I discovered that although most people saw that clearly, a number seemed to think that the boys were intended to symbolize "an American story of the struggle to stay in the middle class, and how money changes the dynamics of families, making childhood a fleeting commodity."

Now, I know that everyone in America is middle-class if you ask them, and even that this is a kind of useful unifying national ideology since, when it works, it restrains the excesses of the rich and the poor. But it's hard to watch this movie and think that any of these boys or their families are in even the "lower" middle class. One boy lives with his grandmother, who is on food stamps and seems to be housing many of his cousins as well, because his mother is in prison. Another lives with his mother and at least five siblings on his mother's Pizza Hut wages. The third lives with both parents and a sister, but his mother appears to be addicted to sleeping pills and his father won't take a regular job and prefers to make his living as a itinerant handyman. Even in some halcyon time in the past when the middle class was bigger, or middle class wages were available to those without college or even high school degrees, these are not circumstances conducive to middle-class status since they are not conducive to steady income. These boys are not "struggling to stay in the middle class"; they are simply poor. (The rest of that sentence applies as little to the movie as this part of it, but maybe the reviewer is English and assumes that America is such a wretched place that it's typically middle-class to lack hot water.)

What is quite striking in the movie and not noted in the reviews, at least not in these terms, is that the boy who seems to be the least damaged (in fact, he seems to have quite an admirable character) and to have the best prospects is the one who is, in strictly material terms, the poorest of the three.

*The other good new Netflix movie is "In Bloom," a Georgian coming of age story which was I think the first time I ever heard Georgian spoken. I thought it would sound at least vaguely like Russian, but no, not at all.

Friday, February 20, 2015

An open letter to grad students from Francis Bacon

The derogations therefore which grow to learning from the fortune or condition of learned men, are either in respect of scarcity of means, or in respect of privateness of life and meanness of employments. Concerning want, and that it is the case of learned men usually to begin with little, and not to grow rich so fast as other men, by reason they convert not their labours chiefly to lucre and increase, it were good to leave the commonplace in commendation of povery to some friar to handle, to whom much was attributed by Machiavel in this point when he said, "That the kingdom of the clergy had been long before at an end, if the reputation and reverence towards the poverty of friars had not borne out the scandal of the superfluities and excesses of bishops and prelates.” 
--Bacon, The Advancement of Learning