Category Archives: offhand

Tailgating

I was driving home from picking up sushi the other night, and another car was tailgating me. I was really annoyed. I was on a curvy road, it was icy out, and I was going the speed limit, 25 – and this guy was riding my bumper, with those new really bright halogen headlights shining right into my rear-view mirror. I was not going to speed up to satisfy him, and anyway I was just going a couple more blocks. But when I turned onto my block, the tailgater turned with me, and when I pulled into my driveway, he parked next to my house. Now I was kind of freaked out. Was the guy going to get out of his car and scream at me for slowing him down? He did get out of his car. No chance of avoiding a conversation. He came up to me and asked where a certain address on my street was. He was a DoorDash delivery guy. Tailgating me because his ability to make enough money to live on depends on getting a certain number of deliveries done per hour, and that means that it’s an economic necessity for him to drive too fast on icy roads.

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Baseball and suffering

When I was younger, baseball made me suffer. I believed what Bart Giamatti said about the game: “It breaks your heart. It is designed to break your heart.” When the Orioles lost a big game I was stuck in a foul cloud for hours or days afterwards. When Tanya first encountered me in this state she literally could not believe it had to do with baseball, and really probed to figure out what had really happened. But it was baseball. That’s what happened. Baseball.

I’m different now. I can watch the Orioles lose while wishing they would win and not feel the same kind of angry, bitter suffering I used to. I don’t know what made it change. It might just be the psychic arc of middle age. It’s not that I care less. When they win — whether it’s the good 2014 Orioles getting the ALCS or the awful contemporary version of the team having a rare good night — I thrill to it, just like I have since I was a kid. When they lose, I move on.

It would be good to bring this change to all areas of life. Not to stop caring, but to stop sinking into anger and suffering when things don’t go the way I want. I don’t know how I did it for baseball, so I don’t know how to do it for anything else. Maybe I should just pretend everything is baseball.

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Wildlife removal

Something — a rabbit, it turned out — died underneath my porch. We could smell it but we couldn’t see it. Some people wouldn’t mind handling this themselves, but none of those people are me, so I called AAAC Wildlife Removal. The guy got out of his truck, sniffed around the porch, looked me right in the eye and said, “You never get used to the smell of death.” That alone was worth the price.

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A farewell to Tab

Another part of my childhood gone: I learned today that Coca-Cola discontinued Tab at the end of last year. This is middle age, to feel a loose kind of sorrow at the demise of things you didn’t even like.

One thing about The White Lotus

This was a good television show, made by Mike White, who wrote three episodes of Freaks and Geeks as well as running the excellent and little watched Laura Dern show Enlightened. This one, lots of people watched, and wrote thinkpieces about. Partly, I think, because the acting was really good, and viewers experienced the characters as actually existing humans more than one usually does while watching TV. Thus people were mad at them. And I think the writing about the show was probably a bit overconcerned with the question of who the show wanted you to be mad at, and whether these were the right people to be mad at.

This post won’t make any sense if you haven’t watched the show, and contains spoilers, so if you haven’t watched the show, I recommend you do so instead of reading my post! It’s good! (The show, not the post. The post is just OK.)

I just wanted to make an observation I didn’t see in the thinkpieces, which is the twinning of the characters of Rachel and Belinda. They are both committed to the idea that rich people are concentrations of resources, which with some skill can be extracted. They are both, in some sense, hacks. Rachel aims to be a writer; we are supposed to see her new husband (wealthy, emotionally needy, hyperattentive to potential disrespect) Shane as a jerk for not taking her writing seriously, but simultaneously recognize that she’s not herself serious in her writing goals. Belinda gives a massage to a hotel guest (wealthy, emotionally needy, hyperattentive to potential abandonment) played by Jennifer Coolidge, soothing her client with a routine that asks her to say “I am my own phallic mother and my own vaginal father” and throwing in a chant of the Gayatri Mantra. Nothing here suggests she has any special ability to heal; but Coolidge’s character imprints on her, promising her patronage, her own business bankrolled by Coolidge’s money.

This is the world they live in, this is their game — everything changes if you can get the roaming eye of wealth to land, out of all the places it could settle, on you.

But Belinda lets it get away. One of the neatest tricks of this series is the way Coolidge’s character at first appears to be played for slightly low-rent laughs, then for pity, only to finally reveal herself as the only person on the show who arrives at anything like real insight. She explains to Belinda that her impulse to fund Belinda’s House of Healing was just her impulsive way of trying to buy intimacy, creating another person bound to her by money — then she gives her a bunch of money anyway, but walks away. What follows is one of the show’s Big Scenes: Rachel asks Belinda for advice about her suddenly not-fully-enjoyable marriage, and Belinda just walks out, visibly weary and in pain. A lot of viewers have seen this as a triumphant moment, Belinda exerting real agency, refusing to perform emotional labor for yet another overprivileged guest, but I don’t think that’s exactly right. Rachel doesn’t pair with Coolidge here, she pairs with Belinda herself, and Belinda’s bitterness here is coming from the fact that Rachel has succeeded where she’s just failed.

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“I do it all better”

“I was also at the exhibition of prominent French artists Bonnard Picasso Matisse etc. and noted much to my satisfaction that I do it all better.”

Max Beckmann, letter to his wife Quappi Beckmann, 28 Jul 1925

Self-portrait, from around the same time (this is hung at the Harvard Art Museum and is well worth a trip if you’re on campus)

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Standard Form 171

Also in this binder is my mom’s application to work for the Federal Government, which involved filling out “Standard Form 171.” In 1971, SF_171 required you to report whether you were “Mrs.” or “Miss,” your height and weight, and whether you were now, or within the last ten years had been, a member of the Communist Party, USA, or any subdivision of same.

“God, as the Pythagoreans said, is a geometer-but not an algebraist”

A remark of Simone Weil, which I learned from Karen Olsson’s book The Weil Conjectures.

In the original, “Pour moi, je pense bien que Dieu, selon la parole pythagoricienne, est un géomètre perpétuel – mais non pas un algébriste.” Here’s the letter to her brother from which this is taken.

I wanted to write more in Shape about the complicated moral weights people assigned to the difference/tension between algebra and geometry. I wrote a little about what Poincaré thought about it, who saw the two subjects as representing two temperaments, both indispensable, though any given mathematician might possess them in different proportions.

But then there is this, from S.I. Segal’s “Topologists in Hitler’s Germany”

“the … Nazi movement saw “truly German” mathematics as intuitive and tied to nature, often geometrical, and certainly not axiomatic. Axiomatics, “logic chopping”, too great abstraction, was Franco-Jewish.”

It is grimly funny to imagine the Nazi ideologues locating in abstract algebra and the insolubility of certain equations in radicals the ultimate origins of rootless cosmopolitanism.

Pandemic social life as villanelle

When I took creative writing in high school my idea of writing a poem was writing down some thoughts that felt expressive to me and organizing those thoughts into lines of various lengths. Our teacher gave us assignments to write poems in form: sonnets, pantoums, villanelles. This seemed artificial and out-of-date and absurdly restrictive. Why should line 2 have to rhyme with line 5?

What our teacher said was that the absurd restrictions are there to be restrictions. If you sit down with the goal of expressing yourself you only say what you intend to say and this is rarely interesting. The restrictions of form force you into a channel you’re not used to and then you might find yourself saying something you didn’t know you wanted to say.

So maybe pandemic social life was like that? It sort of was, for me. I wasn’t in the office so I didn’t see math people and chat with them there as usual. I wasn’t running into people at the coffeeshop. So I did some things I didn’t usually do. I was on Zoom calls with groups of people from my class in high school. I impulsively accepted Misha Glouberman’s invitations to be on Zoom calls with groups of Canadians I barely knew. I called old friends on the phone without warning them I was going to call, and talked to them. People I usually talk to about every five years I talked to every three months.

Writing a sonnet in class doesn’t mean you go around talking in sonnets afterwards. Maybe you never write a sonnet again. But the things I did when my social life ran through this weird channel are things I’m glad I did.

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OedipaVision

Like a lot of people I’m watching WandaVision, the latest Marvel show. CJ is an MCU fanatic and this show, well-acted, imaginatively shot, and legible without extreme knowledge of Marvel lore, is a good one for us to watch together.

It has settled, on the surface, into being a more “normal” MCU show after doing a lot of really interesting stuff in the first half of the season. But weirdness remains, under the surface. For example (and now the rest of this is spoilers) — the scene where Wanda magically blasts a new rendition of her dead husband Vision out of her own abdomen is clearly shot as a childbirth scene, which makes Vision both her son and her husband, so the whole thing has suddenly taken on a Freudian cast which I don’t think is from the comics. And this explains the shock of the old expert witch Agatha Harkness, who tells Wanda she’s something that isn’t supposed to exist; she is “chaos magic,” a witch with the power to spontaneously create. Witches, traditionally, are supposed to be infertile, but Wanda is not. (This is complicated, I guess, by the fact that Harkness herself apparently has a son in comics continuity but she’s presented as married and childless here.)

Isn’t the Mind Stone placed in the middle of Vision’s forehead a little like a third eye? And isn’t death by getting that eye ripped out kind of Vision’s thing?

I know, I know, sometimes a synthezoid is just a synthezoid.

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