Monday, November 28, 2011

The Availability Heuristic

Cait and I went to see Hugo last night. It was a fun movie to watch, with its screen-popping 3D effects, and a marvelously twisted plot that came together well enough at the end. Good acting, beautiful cinematography, interesting characters, and nice to be out alone on the hometown after our holiday week in Chicago. The turn at the end, to the stage and recognition of a lifetime's work, was awfully tender-hearted, if a bit puzzling. Cait and I tried to hash it out a bit on our way home: what had happened, exactly, to that great opening mystery of the automaton, the quest of the orphan to find the message from his father? What did any part of how the movie began have, in the end, to do with film preservation? The movie seemed to jump tracks midway, turning from story to argument, character to idea. It felt a bit like propaganda, which is far too loaded a word to make the comparison exact, but the boy seemed more a reason to start the story, than to end it, and I missed losing him for the argument.

I am not a huge Weezer fan, but they absolutely kill it with their 2008 cover of "O, Holy Night." Who knew a punk cover could find a fresh angle to that most tired chestnut of holiday music? It's ardent, and entirely without sentiment or irony:


In the current issue of Vanity Fair, Michael Lewis has a great piece about the economist Daniel Kahneman, and the concept of the availability heuristic, which argues that we express a bias toward those outcomes we can most easily imagine, however probable or improbable they might actually prove to be. Lewis uses the availability heuristic to explain Billy Beane's competitive edge in selecting baseball players, based on privileged data analysis, in spite of the conventional wisdom about them. But the concept works generally, from politics (welfare queens, death taxes) to racial profiling to self-perceptions of obesity. Even Christmas music so easily falls prey to our expectations of angelic choirs, churches or warmly-lit rooms filled with wood furniture, snow, underdogs, and missing, until we are reminded, "true meanings." I'll skip the irony, as Weezer does. I genuinely enjoy many aspects of the holiday plunder, and I'm skeptical of too much holiday-era triangulating.

I have nearly finished reading Alexandra Styron's excellent memoir, Reading My Father. Her representation of her father's generation of writers, and their self-mythologizing and reverence for the novel, feels so fragile. What happened to these "literary lions," who were so sure of their own significance, that they could alternately dismiss or dismantle their families? I suppose this is a kind of useless moralizing that falls a bit wide of the mark--I'm reading this memoir because I'm curious about both literary Styrons--but I wonder all the same about their sense of priority in relation to ambition. And, here is the permanent warp in my own availability heuristic: how could any of these writers not have expected to die too soon?

It is devastating to read Alexandra Styron's account of her father screaming at her, calling her a creep, ungrateful, etc., at all, but especially over the most minor interactions. I suppose that I retain enough of my Midwestern roots to simultaneously marvel and wonder at the disclosure, which I think requires a certain elegance and distance to get right. The goal, it seems, is to structure against the confessional urge, to find the tension that contains it. One of the comforts of narrative is the idea that any experience might conform to a sequence, and so, contain a hierarchy: the experience can be told, and so, explained. I'm borrowing a bit from an essay I like to teach, and I think contradicting a big part of its argument, but certain experiences seem compromised by narrative's need to put everything into order; that what happens might only be secondary to the witness.

Eight years ago, Katie and I drove from Chicago to Bowling Green, Ohio, to see her good friend, meet the good friend's fiancé, and spend some time together. On our way out of town, we stopped at one of those tacky year-round Christmas stores to kill some time and miss rush-hour traffic. We bought a small plastic tree for our apartment, which we decorated with ornaments from both of our families, and also a couple of CDs to listen to on the drive. It was an odd-numbered year, so we would have spent Christmas that year with Katie's family, and Thanksgiving with mine. Crossing Indiana, a state highway patrol officer offered me a deal: unclick my seat belt, and he would cite me for driving without my safety harness, rather than going 88 in a 65.

Walt is just crossing the threshold to full holiday awareness. I suppose there is no going back. We opened presents with my family over Thanksgiving, so that we could exchange them together, and it was fun to see Walt puzzle at the boxes, and enjoy very much the toys they contained. I have this fantasy of dressing Walt in one of those Ralph Lauren Christmas numbers with the plaid and the corduroy, but instead, we keep finding good hand-me-downs. Sheila and Jeff had out some photos from last Christmas, and the changes in Walt's face are so striking. He is leaner now, and longer, his hair is curled out, he walks. I have this idea sometimes that what I write these days is a direct effort to explain something to him about my life, but there is a good chance he will roll his eyes at any story about whatever preceded him, however dramatic, just as the chains will move, ever so gradually, until they measure other distances. In the meantime, excited as I am to write and teach, I'm thoroughly engaged with the coming holiday season. Here's another revitalized Christmas chestnut, bittersweet for the passing, this year, of The Big Man.

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