On Lessons in Loss

In the latest issue of The New Yorker, Kathryn Schulz reflects on two seasons of loss in “When Things Go Missing.” The piece has a benign beginning, dealing with losing physical objects but then moves to a gut-wrenching, emotional account of how Kathryn dealt with the loss of her father late last year.

With the benign beginning, some statistics:

Passwords, passports, umbrellas, scarves, earrings, earbuds, musical instruments, W-2s, that letter you meant to answer, the permission slip for your daughter’s field trip, the can of paint you scrupulously set aside three years ago for the touch-up job you knew you’d someday need: the range of things we lose and the readiness with which we do so are staggering. Data from one insurance-company survey suggest that the average person misplaces up to nine objects a day, which means that, by the time we turn sixty, we will have lost up to two hundred thousand things. (These figures seem preposterous until you reflect on all those times you holler up the stairs to ask your partner if she’s seen your jacket, or on how often you search the couch cushions for the pen you were just using, or on that daily almost-out-the-door flurry when you can’t find your kid’s lunchbox or your car keys.) Granted, you’ll get many of those items back, but you’ll never get back the time you wasted looking for them. In the course of your life, you’ll spend roughly six solid months looking for missing objects; here in the United States, that translates to, collectively, some fifty-four million hours spent searching a day. And there’s the associated loss of money: in the U.S. in 2011, thirty billion dollars on misplaced cell phones alone.

I loved this paragraph:

A few days before his death, having ignored every request made of him by a constant stream of medical professionals (“Mr. Schulz, can you wiggle your toes?” “Mr. Schulz, can you squeeze my hand?”), my father chose to respond to one final command: Mr. Schulz, we learned, could still stick out his tongue. His last voluntary movement, which he retained almost until the end, was the ability to kiss my mother. Whenever she leaned in close to brush his lips, he puckered up and returned the same brief, adoring gesture that I had seen all my days. In front of my sister and me, at least, it was my parents’ hello and goodbye, their “Sweet dreams” and “I’m only teasing,” their “I’m sorry” and “You’re beautiful” and “I love you”—the basic punctuation mark of their common language, the sign and seal of fifty years of happiness.

A fine lesson on grief and dealing with loss:

Like a dysfunctional form of love, which to some extent it is, grief has no boundaries; seldom this fall could I distinguish my distress over these later losses from my sadness about my father. I had maintained my composure during his memorial service, even while delivering the eulogy. But when, at the second funeral, the son of the deceased stood up to speak, I wept. Afterward, I couldn’t shake the sense that another shoe was about to drop—that at any moment I would learn that someone else close to me had died. The morning after the election, I cried again, missing my refugee father, missing the future I had thought would unfold. In its place, other kinds of losses suddenly seemed imminent: of civil rights, personal safety, financial security, the foundational American values of respect for dissent and difference, the institutions and protections of democracy.

On what losing ultimately teaches us:

No matter what goes missing, the wallet or the father, the lessons are the same. Disappearance reminds us to notice, transience to cherish, fragility to defend. Loss is a kind of external conscience, urging us to make better use of our finite days.

The whole piece is a must-read, certainly one of the best pieces of writing I have read so far in 2017.

Everything in Writing and Life is Fiction

It seems like every writer has some advice that he can offer on how to write better, smarter, faster. So it was quite refreshing to read Keith Ridgway’s take in The New Yorker, where he readily admits he doesn’t know what’s he doing:

I have no idea what I’m doing. All the decisions I appear to have made—about plots and characters and where to start and when to stop—are not decisions at all. They are compromises. A book is whittled down from hope, and when I start to cut my fingers I push it away from me to see what others make of it. And I wait in terror for the judgements of those others—judgements that seem, whether positive or negative, unjust, because they are about something that I didn’t really do. They are about something that happened to me. It’s a little like crawling from a car crash to be greeted by a panel of strangers holding up score cards.

Something, obviously, is going on. I manage, every few years, to generate a book. And of course, there are things that I know. I know how to wait until the last minute before putting anything on paper. I mean the last minute before the thought leaves me forever. I know how to leave out anything that looks to me—after a while—forced, deliberate, or fake. I know that I need to put myself in the story. I don’t mean literally. I mean emotionally. I need to care about what I’m writing—whether about the characters, or about what they’re getting up to, or about the way they feel or experience their world. I know that my job is to create a perspective. And to impose it on the reader. And I know that in order to do that with any success at all I must in some mysterious way risk everything. If I don’t break my own heart in the writing of a book then I know I’ve done it wrong. I’m not entirely sure what that means. But I know what it feels like.

I loved this paragraph:

And I mean that—everything is fiction. When you tell yourself the story of your life, the story of your day, you edit and rewrite and weave a narrative out of a collection of random experiences and events. Your conversations are fiction. Your friends and loved ones—they are characters you have created. And your arguments with them are like meetings with an editor—please, they beseech you, you beseech them, rewrite me. You have a perception of the way things are, and you impose it on your memory, and in this way you think, in the same way that I think, that you are living something that is describable. When of course, what we actually live, what we actually experience—with our senses and our nerves—is a vast, absurd, beautiful, ridiculous chaos.

Highly recommend reading in its entirety.

The Caging of America

Adam Gupnik, writing in The New Yorker, considers why America locks up so many people in prisons. It’s a lengthy piece that offers some good thoughts on the relationship between incarceration and crime rate. My only regret is that the editing of the piece is a bit shoddy at places (where the reader may get confused with Gupnik’s opinion to that of another writer’s).

First, some startling statistics about the scale of incarceration in the United States:

Mass incarceration on a scale almost unexampled in human history is a fundamental fact of our country today—perhaps the fundamental fact, as slavery was the fundamental fact of 1850. In truth, there are more black men in the grip of the criminal-justice system—in prison, on probation, or on parole—than were in slavery then. Over all, there are now more people under “correctional supervision” in America—more than six million—than were in the Gulag Archipelago under Stalin at its height. 

Furthermore,

The accelerating rate of incarceration over the past few decades is just as startling as the number of people jailed: in 1980, there were about two hundred and twenty people incarcerated for every hundred thousand Americans; by 2010, the number had more than tripled, to seven hundred and thirty-one. No other country even approaches that. In the past two decades, the money that states spend on prisons has risen at six times the rate of spending on higher education. 

What Charles Dickens wrote about the American prison system upon visiting in 1842:

I believe that very few men are capable of estimating the immense amount of torture and agony which this dreadful punishment, prolonged for years, inflicts upon the sufferers. . . . I hold this slow and daily tampering with the mysteries of the brain, to be immeasurably worse than any torture of the body: and because its ghastly signs and tokens are not so palpable to the eye and sense of touch as scars upon the flesh; because its wounds are not upon the surface, and it extorts few cries that human ears can hear; therefore I the more denounce it, as a secret punishment which slumbering humanity is not roused up to stay. 

This dichotomy between business and the social good is quite disconcerting:

[A] growing number of American prisons are now contracted out as for-profit businesses to for-profit companies. The companies are paid by the state, and their profit depends on spending as little as possible on the prisoners and the prisons. It’s hard to imagine any greater disconnect between public good and private profit: the interest of private prisons lies not in the obvious social good of having the minimum necessary number of inmates but in having as many as possible, housed as cheaply as possible.

An interesting note about the relationship between increased incarceration and decreased crime rates (there is no conclusive evidence, essentially):

Trends and fashions and fads and pure contingencies happen in other parts of our social existence; it may be that there are fashions and cycles in criminal behavior, too, for reasons that are just as arbitrary.

Finally, there is Franklin E. Zimring’s (author of The City That Became Safe) argument of how crime can be minimized. Curbing crime does not depend on reversing social pathologies or alleviating social grievances; it depends on erecting small, annoying barriers to entry. There is this circular path:  the decreased prevalence of crime fuels a decrease in the prevalence of crime.

The piece is excellent, except for this point made by the author, who thinks that non-violent crime should carry lenient punishment:

No social good is served by having the embezzler or the Ponzi schemer locked in a cage for the rest of his life, rather than having him bankrupt and doing community service in the South Bronx for the next decade or two. Would we actually have more fraud and looting of shareholder value if the perpetrators knew that they would lose their bank accounts and their reputation, and have to do community service seven days a week for five years?

The answer to that question is: absolutely. We need stricter punishments for insider trading because lenient punishments have not been working. How would the thousands of people who were ripped off by Bernie Madoff feel if Madoff’s punishment was doing “community service for five years”?

The Importance of Coaches

Have you ever wondered why sports stars and musicians have coaches, but they seem to be less common in professional settings? Atul Gawande ponders the same thing in his brilliant piece in The New Yorker, “Personal Best.” His perspective is that of a doctor operating on patients, but I think Gawande’s hypothesis can be expanded to numerous professions:

I watched Rafael Nadal play a tournament match on the Tennis Channel. The camera flashed to his coach, and the obvious struck me as interesting: even Rafael Nadal has a coach. Nearly every élite tennis player in the world does. Professional athletes use coaches to make sure they are as good as they can be.

But doctors don’t. I’d paid to have a kid just out of college look at my serve. So why did I find it inconceivable to pay someone to come into my operating room and coach me on my surgical technique?

I like the extension of coaching to sports and Gawande contacting Itzhak Perlman:

Coaching in pro sports proceeds from a starkly different premise: it considers the teaching model naïve about our human capacity for self-perfection. It holds that, no matter how well prepared people are in their formative years, few can achieve and maintain their best performance on their own. One of these views, it seemed to me, had to be wrong. So I called Itzhak Perlman to find out what he thought.

I asked him why concert violinists didn’t have coaches, the way top athletes did. He said that he didn’t know, but that it had always seemed a mistake to him. He had enjoyed the services of a coach all along.

And how did Gawande’s coach help Gawande? Tremendously:

I never noticed, for example, that at one point the patient had blood-pressure problems, which the anesthesiologist was monitoring. Nor did I realize that, for about half an hour, the operating light drifted out of the wound; I was operating with light from reflected surfaces. Osteen pointed out that the instruments I’d chosen for holding the incision open had got tangled up, wasting time. That one twenty-minute discussion gave me more to consider and work on than I’d had in the past five years.

Of course, the piece would be incomplete without this disclaimer:

Coaching has become a fad in recent years. There are leadership coaches, executive coaches, life coaches, and college-application coaches. Search the Internet, and you’ll find that there’s even Twitter coaching.

A key takeaway here:

For society, too, there are uncomfortable difficulties: we may not be ready to accept—or pay for—a cadre of people who identify the flaws in the professionals upon whom we rely, and yet hold in confidence what they see. Coaching done well may be the most effective intervention designed for human performance. Yet the allegiance of coaches is to the people they work with; their success depends on it. And the existence of a coach requires an acknowledgment that even expert practitioners have significant room for improvement. Are we ready to confront this fact when we’re in their care?

Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to find myself a tennis and life coach, not necessarily in that order.

New Yorker Profile of Joseph Brodsky

In this month’s New Yorker, there is an interesting profile of Joseph Brodsky and the fortune of misfortunes.

If you aren’t familiar with Brodsky’s story and his exile from Russia, that piece is an excellent primer. I’ve previously profiled a conversation between Brodksy and a judge in this post (scroll down to the bottom), but this exchange (profiled in the New Yorker) was new to me:

Judge: Tell the court why in between jobs you didn’t work and led a parasitic life style?
Brodsky: I worked in between jobs. I did what I do now: I wrote poems.
Judge: You wrote your so-called poems? And what was useful about your frequent job changes?
Brodsky: I began working when I was 15 years old. Everything was interesting to me. I changed jobs because I wanted to learn more about life, about people.
Judge: What did you do for your motherland?
Brodsky: I wrote poems. That is my work. I am convinced. . . . I believe that what I wrote will be useful to people not only now but in future generations.
Judge: So you think your so-called poems are good for people?
Brodsky: Why do you say of the poems that they are “so-called”?
Judge: We say that because we don’t have any other idea about them. 

Of note is this paragraph about Brosky’s loneliness when coming to the United States:

Brodsky’s poems during his first years in the States are filled with the most naked loneliness. “An autumn evening in a humble little town / proud of its appearance on the map,” one begins, and concludes with an image of a person whose reflection in the mirror disappears, bit by bit, like that of a street lamp in a drying puddle. The enterprising Proffer had persuaded the University of Michigan to make Brodsky a poet in residence; Brodsky wrote a poem about a college teacher. “In the country of dentists,” it begins, “whose daughters order clothes / from London catalogues, . . . / I, whose mouth houses ruins / more total than the Parthenon’s, / a spy, an interloper, / the fifth column of a rotten civilization,” teach literature. The narrator comes home at night, falls into bed with his clothes still on, and cries himself to sleep…

I also thought the author’s conviction on Brodsky’s grasp of the English language was profound (I am reminded of Nabokov in this instance):

His [Brodsky’s] English was able to grant his parents a measure of freedom. But there was one thing it could not do: transform his Russian poetry into English poetry. Inevitably, Brodsky tried, and he wasn’t shy about it. Almost as soon as his English was up to snuff he began to “collaborate” with his translators; eventually he supplanted them. The results were not so much bad as badly uneven. For every successful stanza, there were three or four gaffes—grammatical, or idiomatic, or just generally tin-eared. Worst of all, to readers accustomed to postwar Anglo-American poetry, Brodsky’s translations rhymed, no matter what obstacles stood in their way.

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Hat Tip: @openculture

The Face of Facebook: Mark Zuckerberg, Revealed

If you’re reading this post, then chances are you’re probably on Facebook. Or at least have heard of it.

The latest piece in The New Yorker, “The Face of Facebook,” offers an intimate, revealing look into the founder of Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg. It’s definitely a piece worth reading, not least because it goes on to show how Zuckerberg has changed since his younger days at Harvard. I highlight some passages which I found interesting below.

With whom is Mark friends with on Facebook? And what are Zuckerberg’s favorite artists? (More about his favorites in a moment).

According to his Facebook profile, Zuckerberg has three sisters (Randi, Donna, and Arielle), all of whom he’s friends with. He’s friends with his parents, Karen and Edward Zuckerberg. He graduated from Phillips Exeter Academy and attended Harvard University. He’s a fan of the comedian Andy Samberg and counts among his favorite musicians Green Day, Jay-Z, Taylor Swift, and Shakira.
I like this description of Mark provided by his girlfriend, Priscilla Chan, who met Mark at Harvard party:
He was this nerdy guy who was just a little bit out there. I remember he had these beer glasses that said ‘pound include beer dot H.’ It’s a tag for C++. It’s like college humor but with a nerdy, computer-science appeal.
On the inevitability of Zuckerberg becoming a billionaire:
If and when Facebook decides to go public, Zuckerberg will become one of the richest men on the planet, and one of the youngest billionaires. In the October issue of Vanity Fair, Zuckerberg is named No. 1 in the magazine’s power ranking of the New Establishment, just ahead of Steve Jobs, the leadership of Google, and Rupert Murdoch. The magazine declared him “our new Caesar.”
On Zuckerberg’s mannerisms:
When he’s not interested in what someone is talking about, he’ll just look away and say, “Yeah, yeah.” Sometimes he pauses so long before he answers it’s as if he were ignoring the question altogether. The typical complaint about Zuckerberg is that he’s “a robot.” One of his closest friends told me, “He’s been overprogrammed.” Indeed, he sometimes talks like an Instant Message—brusque, flat as a dial tone—and he can come off as flip and condescending, as if he always knew something that you didn’t.

There are revealing and embarrassing instant messages that Zuckerberg sent regarding Facebook when he was still at Harvard. Zuckerberg seems apologetic, regretful:

When I asked Zuckerberg about the IMs that have already been published online, and that I have also obtained and confirmed, he said that he “absolutely” regretted them. “If you’re going to go on to build a service that is influential and that a lot of people rely on, then you need to be mature, right?” he said. “I think I’ve grown and learned a lot.”
What is Zuckerberg’s ultimate goal?
Zuckerberg’s ultimate goal is to create, and dominate, a different kind of Internet. Google and other search engines may index the Web, but, he says, “most of the information that we care about is things that are in our heads, right? And that’s not out there to be indexed, right?” Zuckerberg was in middle school when Google launched, and he seems to have a deep desire to build something that moves beyond it. “It’s like hardwired into us in a deeper way: you really want to know what’s going on with the people around you,” he said.
Regarding favorites, such as artists and books: what Zuckerberg lists may not necessary be his favorites (I sympathize with his explanation):

I asked Zuckerberg about “Ender’s Game,” the sci-fi book whose hero is a young computer wizard.

“Oh, it’s not a favorite book or anything like that,” Zuckerberg told me, sounding surprised. “I just added it because I liked it. I don’t think there’s any real significance to the fact that it’s listed there and other books aren’t. But there are definitely books—like the Aeneid—that I enjoyed reading a lot more.”

I think The New Yorker piece paints an honest portrait of Zuckerberg. While he may have been slightly immature in his teens and earlier twenties, he has grown up considerably over the last few years. I have a feeling that if I were to meet Mark in person, we’d get along.

While the Women Are Sleeping

The best thing I read today was a short story in The New Yorker titled “While the Women Are Sleeping.” The story is by an author I haven’t heard of before: Javier Marías.

The story starts out with more questions than answers…

For three weeks, I saw them every day, and now I don’t know what has become of them. I’ll probably never see them again—at least, not her. Summer conversations, and even confidences, rarely lead anywhere.

It’s kind of an intriguing opening: who is them? What have they become? And summer conversations rarely lead to anywhere?

The story concerns a couple from Madrid vacationing on an island. While there, they observe another couple; the beautiful Inés, described as so:

She was beautiful, indolent, passive, and, by nature, languid. Throughout the three hours a day that we spent at the beach (they stayed longer, perhaps taking their siesta there and, who knows, staying until sunset), she barely moved and was, of course, concerned only with her own beautification

and her older, less attractive male companion named Alberto Viana. What the observing couple find remarkable (and so does the reader, no doubt) is that Alberto constantly, without interruption records Ines on video camera. The video camera has become an extension of him…

The story, admittedly, starts out slowly (I had to step away from reading it in the evening, and came back to it the following day)… But then it picks up and absolutely sucks you in. At least, it did for me. What could be so interesting about a guy videotaping his girlfriend? The answer is explained in the story, which begins with this conversation between the narrator and Alberto:

“I’ve noticed that you’re very keen on video cameras,” I said after that pause, that hesitation.

“Video cameras?” he said, slightly surprised or as if to gain time. “Ah, I see. No, not really, I’m not a collector. It isn’t the camera itself that interests me, although I do use it a lot. It’s my girlfriend, whom you’ve seen, I’m sure. I film only her, nothing else. I don’t experiment with it at all. That’s fairly obvious, I suppose.”

And the conversation picks up from there. What I find fascinating is our abilities to remember things; some go about life, cruising. Others write things down. Others photograph the world around them. This was an intriguing conversation between the narrator and Alberto Viana:

“You don’t have a camera? Don’t you like to be able to remember things?” Viana asked me this with genuine confusion.

“Yes, of course I do, but you can remember things in other ways, don’t you think? Memory is a kind of camera, except that we don’t always remember what we want to remember or forget what we want to forget.”

And still others prefer to record things on video, as Alberto explains to the narrator:

“How can you compare what you can remember with what you can see, with what you can see again, just as it happened? With what you can watch over and over, ad infinitum, and even freeze?

But there is something sinister (though arguably honest) in Alberto’s declaration…

I won’t say much more except that this is an incredible story of obsession, vision (literally and figuratively), memory, human misconceptions, life, and death. Shortly put, it is one of the best works of fiction I have read in 2010, so I highly recommend reading it.

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A hat tip to @etherielmusings for pointing out this story via Twitter.