Author Archives: JSE

A Saturday

This is just to record what a Saturday during what we hope are the late stages of the pandemic looks like here.

Slept well but had complicated dreams; the only part I remember is that I ran into Mike Sonnenschein in Pittsburgh while eating a gigantic meatball I’d bought at a hipster bookstore, and he invited me over, but when I got there, it wasn’t Mike’s house anymore, it was Craig Westerland’s. Akshay Venkatesh was there too. We were going to work on something but nobody really knew how to start and Craig and Akshay were absently flipping through their phones. The thing was, Craig had a tiger for a pet and the tiger got out of its cage and seemed really threatening. It was a bad scene.

A cold wave from the arctic settled in here overnight and it was 7 Fahrenheit this morning. AB and I made French toast with the challah that was left over from last night and watched Kids Baking Challenge on Netflix. Then I had to go out into it and scrape the car, remembering, as I do every time I scrape the car, that I broke the head off the scraper so I have to use the jagged plastic edge of what used to be the head, which works well at breaking up the big chunks of ice but is pretty bad at getting the window fully clean. I’ve lived here long enough to not find 7 Fahrenheit that bad, for the fifteen minutes it takes to scrape off the car. I wore the voluminous sweater that’s so ugly I wear it only on the coldest days. I’m not even sure it’s that warm, but psychologically the body feels it wouldn’t be clad in such an ugly sweater unless the sweater was warm, and that creates the right sensation.

Quiet afternoon. CJ had a mock trial competition against teams from Oregon and Brookfield. AB and I worked on some fractions homework. I posted an early-term course questionnaire for the real analysis course I’m teaching for the first time in my life, and I went through another 50 pages of page proofs of Shape. How there can still be so many typos and small verbal infelicities, after I and others have gone over it so many times, I don’t really know. And there will still be some I miss, and which will appear on paper in thousands of printed books. I wrote a math email to Aaron Landesman, about something related to my work with Westerland and Venkatesh (no tigers.) In honor of Dr. Mrs. Q’s half-birthday we got takeout from Graze for dinner. They had the patty melt special, which I’ve only seen there once before, and which is superb, certainly the best patty melt in the city. I got it with Impossible since we don’t eat milk and meat together in the house.

After dinner, we did what we’ve been doing a lot of weekends, play online games at Jackbox with my sister’s family and my parents. Then we all retreated into our zones. AB is doing some homework. CJ is talking to friends on the phone. I washed dishes while I watched a movie, Fort Tilden, about people being out in the city, in the summer, coming in and out of contact with other people. It was funny.

I’m going to put AB to bed and then think, just a little bit, about a cohomology group whose contribution I don’t understand.

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Caring about sports

When I was younger I cared about sports a lot. If the Orioles lost a big game — especially to the hated Yankees — it ruined my day, or more than one day. I remember when Dr. Mrs. Q. first found out about this she thought I was kidding; it made no sense to her that somebody could actually care enough to let it turn your whole ship of mood.

CJ is different. It has been an emotionally complicated last few years for Wisconsin sports fans, with all the local teams being good, really good, but never good enough to win the title. The Badgers losing the NCAA final to (the hated) Duke. The Brewers getting rolled out of the NLCS by the Dodgers. Of course, the Bucks, the team with the best record in the league and the two-time MVP, getting knocked out of the playoffs. And today, the 14-3 Packers losing the NFC championship to the Buccaneers. And I gotta say — CJ, while watching a game, is as intensely into his team as I have ever been. But after it’s over? It’s over. He doesn’t stew. I don’t know where he got this equanimity. Not from me, maybe from Dr. Mrs. Q. But I think I’m starting to get it from him. Maybe it just comes with age — or maybe I’m actually learning something.

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I don’t work at a finishing school

David Brooks, in the New York Times:

On the left, less viciously, we have elite universities that have become engines for the production of inequality. All that woke posturing is the professoriate’s attempt to mask the fact that they work at finishing schools where more students often come from the top 1 percent of earners than from the bottom 60 percent. Their graduates flock to insular neighborhoods in and around New York, D.C., San Francisco and a few other cities, have little contact with the rest of America and make everybody else feel scorned and invisible.

It’s fun to track down a fact. More from the top 1% than the bottom 60%! That certainly makes professoring sound like basically a grade-inflation concierge service for the wealthy with a few scholarship kids thrown in for flavor. But it’s interesting to try to track down the basis of a quantitative claim like this. Brooks says “more students often come,” which is hard to parse. He does, helpfully, provide a link (not all pundits do this!) to back up his claim.

Now the title of the linked NYT piece is “Some Colleges Have More Students From the Top 1 Percent Than the Bottom 60.” Some is a little different from often; how many colleges, exactly, are that badly income-skewed? The Times piece says 38, including five from the Ivy League. Thirty-eight colleges is… not actually that many! The list doesn’t include Harvard (15.1 from the 1%, 20.4 from the bottom 60%) or famously woke Oberlin (9.3/13.3) or Cornell (10.5/19.6) or MIT (5.7/23.4) or Berkeley (3.8/29.7) and it definitely doesn’t include the University of Wisconsin (1.6/27.3).

We can be more quantitative still! A couple of clicks from the Times article gets you to the paper they’re writing about, which helpfully has all its data in downloadable form. Their list has 2202 colleges. Of those, the number that have as many students from the top 1% as from the bottom 60% is 17. (The Times says 38, I know; the numbers in the authors’ database match what’s in their Feb 2020 paper but not what’s in the 2017 Times article.) The number which have even half as many 1%-ers as folks from the bottom 60% is only 64. But maybe those are the 64 elitest-snooty-tootiest colleges? Not really; a lot of them are small, expensive schools, like Bates, Colgate, Middlebury, Sarah Lawrence, Wake Forest, Vanderbilt — good places to go to school but not the ones whose faculty dominate The Discourse. The authors helpfully separate colleges into “tiers” — there are 173 schools in the tiers they label as “Ivy Plus,” “Other elite schools,” “Highly selective public,” and ‘Highly selective private.” All 17 of the schools with more 1% than 60% are in this group, as are 59 of the 64 with a ratio greater than 1/2. But still: of those 173 schools, the median ratio between “students in the top 1%” and “students in the bottom 60%: is 0.326; in other words, the typical such school has more than three times as many ordinary kids as it has Richie Riches.

Conclusion: I don’t think it is fair to characterize the data as saying that the elite universities of the US are “finishing schools where more students often come from the top 1 percent of earners than from the bottom 60 percent.”

On the other hand: of those 173 top-tier schools, 132 of them have more than half their students coming from the top 20% of the income distribution. UW–Madison draws almost two-fifths of its student body from that top quintile (household incomes of about $120K or more.) And only three out of those 173 have as many as 10% of their student body coming from the bottom quintile of the income distribution (UC-Irvine, UCLA, and Stony Brook.) The story about elite higher ed perpetuating inequality isn’t really about the kids of the hedge-fund jackpot winners and far-flung monarchs who spend four years learning critical race theory so they can work at a Gowanus nonprofit and eat locally-sourced brunch; it’s about the kids of the lawyers and the dentists and the high-end realtors, who are maybe also going to be lawyers and dentists and high-end realtors. And the students who are really shut out of elite education aren’t, as Brooks has it, the ones whose families earn the median income; they’re poor kids.

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Dream (boxes)

I’m at my friend Debbie Wassertzug’s house; for some reason there’s a lot of old stuff of mine in her house, boxes and books and papers and miscellany, stuff I haven’t had access to for years. I have my car with me and I’ve come by to pick it up, but unfortunately, she and her family are going to Miami — they’re leaving for the airport in five minutes — that’s how much time I have to figure out which of my things to pack and which to leave at her house, possibly for good. And I can’t decide. I’m stuck. Some of my stuff is out on shelves. An old boombox, a bunch of books. And when I look at each of those things, I think, can I live without having this? I’ve been getting along without it so far. I should take one of the sealed boxes instead, there might be something in there I really want to have again. But what if what’s in the sealed boxes is worthless to me? I’m paralyzed and very aware of Debbie and her family packing up as they get ready to leave. I feel like I could make a good decision if I only had a second to really think about it. I wake up without deciding anything.

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Am I supposed to say something about the invasion of the United States Capitol?

Or the reimpeachment of the President, a week before the end of his term?

I feel like I should, just because it’s history, and I might wonder how it seemed in real time. It is hard to understand what actually happened on January 6, even though we live in a world where everything is logged in real-time video. We still don’t know who left pipe bombs outside the offices of the Republican and Democratic National Committees. We don’t know what parts of the invasion were spontaneous and what parts were planned, and by whom. Some people are saying members of the House of Representatives collaborated with the invaders, giving them a guided tour of the building the day before the attack. Some people are saying some of the Capitol Police force collaborated, while others fought off the mob.

We don’t know what to expect next. There is said to be “chatter” about armed, angry people at all 50 statehouses. I don’t know how seriously to take that, but I won’t be going downtown this weekend. Moving trucks have been sighted at the White House and some people say the President has given up pretending he won re-election; but then again he is also said to have met with one of his favorite CEOs today to talk legal strategies for keeping up the show.

As I said last week, it is temperamentally hard for me to expect the worst. Probably Trump will slink away and the inauguration will happen without incident and the idea of renewed armed rebellion against the United States government will slink away too, albeit more slowly. But — as last week — I don’t have a good argument that it has to be that way.

What I find really chilling is this. Imagine it had been much worse and some number of Democratic senators, known for opposing Trump, had been kidnapped or killed. Mitch McConnell would have somberly denounced the crimes. But he would also have allowed Republican governors to appoint those senators’ replacements, and reclaimed his role as majority leader, and do everything he could to prevent the new government from governing, saying, what happened on January 6 was terrible, to be deplored and mourned, but we have to move on.

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Yemenite Step chicken

A short post to remind myself of a recipe. Years ago I had a very memorable plate of chicken at a restaurant in Jerusalem called the Yemenite Step. I called it “honey rosemary chicken” because those were the dominant seasonings. Thinking about it recently, I googled and found that while the restaurant no longer exists, people remember the chicken. I even found a recipe. I could link to it, but basically the recipe is “fry pieces of chicken in a pan with some olive oil and just keep pouring more honey and stripping more rosemary sprigs into it until it tastes like Yemenite Step chicken,” — literally there are no other seasonings. (I put in a little salt, it just seemed wrong not to.) Anyway, this is just to record that I did this (with some boneless chicken breast from Conscious Carnivore — I assume this would work with bone-in thighs too but might require slightly more technique.) The chicken was good, I threw some leftover rice from the fridge into the pan after the chicken was done and cooked it in the honey/chicken liquid and that was good, everybody was happy, it was extremely easy. Whether it’s actually Yemenite I have no idea.

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Unwarranted optimism and the new strain


Seems fitting for the first non-pandemic post to be about the pandemic.

So let me own up to a reasoning failure. I have found that I’m not really capable of expecting the pandemic to get worse. In May, I understood rationally that there could be another wave of infection, but I wasn’t really able to anticipate it. Then there it was. In September, I could have given you no reason to be certain the worst was past, but I felt that it was. But it wasn’t. The worst came back and got worse and is still with us. Maybe now cresting.

Now the vaccine is available, and is going into people’s arms; not as fast as people would like, but faster than almost everywhere else in the world, except Israel, which for some reason is lapping everybody else by a factor of ten. So does that mean it’s over? Maybe. But also there’s a novel strain, already present in the United States, which some people think is 50% more transmissible! Is there a reason to think we couldn’t have yet another period of rapid growth of cases and deaths in the months before we have time to achieve mass vaccination? There’s no reason! That could totally happen! It is right there in the interzone, neither inevitable nor impossible. And yet I can’t really bring myself to treat that possibility as real.

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Pandemic blog 46: the end (not actually the end)

I’ve tried to make every blog entry since March be about the pandemic, but at some point one must blog more broadly. A change of number on the calendar is as good a time as any to declare an end; so this will be the last marked-as-such pandemic post, though probably not the last post about the pandemic, since while 2020 is over, the pandemic is not.

To 2020, let us say

And of course, what I listen to every New Year’s Eve: with the greatest performance of “Auld Lang Syne” there is, here’s Snail Ramp:

Happy New Year to all!

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Pandemic blog 45: reading

Here’s the list of books I read in 2020:

  • 26 Dec 2020: Surrender on Demand, by Varian Fry.
  • 15 Dec 2020: He Knew He Was Right, by Anthony Trollope.
  • 20 Nov 2020: The Secret of Chimneys, by Agatha Christie.
  • 15 Nov 2020: The Man In The Brown Suit, by Agatha Christie.
  • 2 Nov 2020:  And Then There Were None, by Agatha Christie.
  • 15 Oct 2020:  The Camel, the Hare, and the Hyrax, by Nosson Slifkin.
  • 10 Oct 2020:  selections from Portrait of Delmore (journals of Delmore Schwartz, 1939-1959)
  • 1 Oct 2020:  Murder on the Orient Express, by Agatha Christie.
  • 25 Sep 2020:  The Spy Who Came In From the Cold, by John LeCarre.
  • 17 Sep 2020:  4:50 from Paddington, by Agatha Christie.
  • 10 Sep 2020:  The Silver Arrow, by Lev Grossman.
  • 8 Sep 2020:  The Lying Lives of Adults, by Elena Ferrante.
  • 2 Sep 2020:  I Left My Homework in the Hamptons, by Blythe Grossberg.
  • 25 Aug 2020: The Unreality of Memory, by Elisa Gabbert.
  • 17 Aug 2020:  Journal of a Disappointed Man, by W.N.P. Barbellion.
  • 16 Jul 2020:  A Working Girl Can’t Win, by Deborah Garrison.
  • 4 Jul 2020: Bullies, by George W.S. Trow.
  • 30 Jun 2020:  Diary of a Flying Man, by Randy Cohen.
  • 20 Jun 2020: The Game-Players of Titan, by Philip K. Dick.
  • 11 May 2020: Interstellar Pig, by William Sleator.
  • 25 Apr 2020:  The War Between the Pitiful Teachers and the Splendid Kids, by Stanley Keisel.
  • 15 Apr 2020:  Edith Wharton, by Hermione Lee.
  • 10 Apr 2020:  old 1980s issues of Elementals and Squadron Supreme
  • 3 Apr 2020: Weather, by Jenny Offill.
  • 20 Mar 2020: Powers of X / House of X #1-6, Jonathan Hickman.
  • 10 Feb 2020: The New York Stories of Edith Wharton (Roxana Robinson, ed.)
  • 8 Feb 2020: Jews and Judaism in New York, Moses Weinberger (Jonathan Sarna, trans.)
  • 4 Jan 2020: Scythe, by Neal Shusterman.

27 books. I think I thought I’d read a lot, being home all the time, but in fact I think I get a lot of my reading done on planes. At home there’s really not a time I shouldn’t be dadding or working. And also, I was writing a book, and I find it hard to write and read at the same time. (And books I read for writing research I don’t put on the list; I don’t usually read all of them, for one thing, and it doesn’t feel like the same activity as reading reading, if you know what I mean.

Hermione Lee’s Edith Wharton bio was the first book I bought in 2020; I went to the Joint Math Meetings in Denver and went to the Tattered Cover, probably the last really famous American megabookstore I’ve never been to. It was a used paperback and it seemed to me the odds I’d actually read it were low. I bought it aspirationally. But then I read those New York stories (bought at a really appealing new bookstore, Shakespeare and Co. in Philadelphia, and now that I think of it that was definitely over winter break so that might have been the first book I bought in 2020, unless it was the last one I bought in 2019.) Anyway: reader, I read it. When was I going to read 800 pages of Edith Wharton’s life except now? And I liked it; I liked it a lot. I liked the way it just dove into every detail with a fearless exhaustiveness; you’re here, I’m here, in an 800 page biography, who’s gonna set down in print everything it’s possible to know about Wharton’s pre-fame ideas about garden architecture if not me, here and now? I think it actually got into my fingers as I wrote Shape, sending me down some historical research byways that didn’t actually make it into the book. But that’s good! Because there’s some weird historical stuff that maybe didn’t have to be in Shape but which is great and I credit Hermione Lee.

I also credit her with sending me to Journal of a Disappointed Man, which Wharton read and liked later in her life. A strange, bitter, very well-rendered diary chronicling a short life in science in the beginning of the 20th century in England. It’s surprising how few journals I read considering how much I like them. (From a Darkened Room was the first book like this I ever read and it shook me so much I never opened it again.) It’s out of copyright and freely available at Internet Archive, which is how I read it.

One thing I used my home time to do was unpack and shelve some boxes of books that had been sealed up since I moved to Wisconsin in 2005. I suppose I am supposed to say “I realized I could have discarded this stuff long ago and lived lighter,” but no, it was a pleasure to be reunited with these old friends. Bullies and Diary of a Flying Man are both specimens of a very specific genre of fiction which maybe doesn’t have a name; it has to do with the 1970s and the idea of producing things that could be read as light comic stories or avant-garde provocations. It has something to do with Donald Barthelme I guess. It definitely is a strain that helped form me as a writer. There’s a very specific nostalgia that comes from reading what you used to want to imitate. (It was similar to what I felt watching After Hours earlier this month; I never wanted to make movies but I wanted to write stories that felt like that movie, that’s for sure.)

Two childhood favorites, Interstellar Pig and Stanley Keisel’s unjustifiably forgotten The War Between the Pitiful Teachers and the Splendid Kids, were also in the boxes and were as good as I remembered. The Keisel is so strange, so angry about the way school works, so casual about plot in its struggle to find feeling. People would like it now, I think. It is surely a good time for a novel whose antagonist is named “Mr. Foreclosure” and who is actually an — well, just read it, if you can find it.

The Lying Lives of Adults was the best new novel I read, and maybe the year’s Ferrante book always will be. A funny thing about reading is that I still have Zadie Smith books and Peter Carey books in the house I haven’t read, and they are all surely better than the next book I’m going to read, whatever it is, and if I had extra Ferrante books around it would be the same. But I don’t read by greedy algorithm.

I read a lot of Agatha Christie as the election approached because I needed to be reading things where I knew the crooks would be exposed and marched off at the end. Reading four in a month was too much, you start to see how they work. But they were good. I was planning to get into Le Carre, too, but he was a little too man-cold for me. Then he died and I felt weird reading and only sort of liking Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, so I stopped.

Books I didn’t read. I thought this might be the year I read Maryland: A Middle Temperament, a very long history, but no. I didn’t actually read any history at all unless you count Varian Fry’s very good memoir about smuggling politically disfavored people out of the sort-of-occupied South of France in 1940 and 1941. I started a re-read of The House of Mirth but I’d had enough Wharton at that point. I didn’t read Quan Barry’s We Ride Upon Sticks. I will! But her wonderful book party, in February, was the last party I went to, and every time I look at the book I think about wanting to go to a party again, and that gets me out of the mood. Next year.

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Pandemic blog 44: white Christmas

Just above freezing today, a light snow falling. I took a walk down to Wingra Park, reading He Knew He Was Right, one of the funny parts where a hapless clergyman attempts vainly to not get married (I know that describes a lot of Trollope but the joke lands every time.) The near shore of Lake Wingra was a hockey rink for parents and their kids, on the last day of the long Christmas weekend. Last night, as the holiday requires, we ordered Chinese delivery from Ichiban (in Madison, for reasons lost to history, Szechuan restaurants have Japanese names) and watched the new Pixar movie, Soul. There are very few movies all four of us are willing to sit down and watch in full; I think this year it was just Soul and American Pickle, so I guess we only like to watch sappy movies about hapless comic figures who return from apparent death. The kids and I agree that cumin lamb should be one of those Chinese dishes on the permanent shortlist of American menu standards, like kung pao chicken and ma po tofu and beef lo mein; why isn’t it? Is it hard to make?

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