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.

Thursday, November 3, 2011


To combat Walt's croup this past weekend, we aired out the apartment both nights. Bath steam would not open his narrowed airways, so we tried instead the cold Bay air. Stacking blankets, we pulled Walt into the bed. We put the humidifier next to us and slept under the mist. Up from a solid sleep, mid-gasp, Walt seemed more often sleepily puzzled than anything. Why am I awake? Why can't I breath? We called the 24-hour help nurse, who listened to his cough and diagnosed it over the phone. We double-checked the book to confirm the tell-tale sign: stridor (seal bark). A strange, attack-copter-sounding word. Yet another minor virus, like roseola, that no one thinks to mention at the baby shower.

The last time my bedroom temperature reached the evening low was while I lived in Bangladesh, around the same time of year. Winter arrived that night all at once, following a terrific thunderstorm. I woke in the middle of the night to put on every layer of clothing in my bag, including a rain slicker and hoodie. It was cold that night, for Bangladesh at least. No humidity. I turned off the ceiling fan, closed the windows, curled into a ball, and waited for morning. As soon as the shops were open, I walked into town and paid a merchant to hand-sew a large, red quilted blanket, the Bangladeshi "lep." The blanket was sewn together from old lungis, saris, and sheet cloths. The stuffing was soft and I slept under that blanket every night for the next three months, until the early spring arrived.

I left my lep in Bangladesh, but Cait's is stowed away in the back of our chested drawers. What a quilt. Laid on top of an insulated blanket and down comforter, it's rather too warm for Northern California. The evening low last weekend evening was 43 degrees, but I had no point of reference to check it in our room. Walt slept like a champ, once he finally went down for the night. The next morning, we had that unfamiliar panic after waking naturally. Where is the baby?! He's next to us, wedged against the pillow wedged against the chair stacked with books to stand it in place.

We went out briefly for Halloween, then called it an early night. Walt was dressed as a goldfish--one of his favorite words. He didn't like to wear the top portion of the costume, so mostly he toddled around in his orange tights, the goldfish head severed and hanging to the left off his back. Macabre, at least for this household. I have spent more time outdoors in Northern California than I have any placed I've lived except Bangladesh, and I like it the most here, where we can see the golden hills (now green) off the back porch. Everything thrives in California, even during a cold snap. We moved Walt back to his crib and he slept well there, too, though not as late into the morning. Back to the grind of trading off first calls. The croup has developed into the common cold, which is apparently a pretty common turn in the cycle, a near-chronic condition and one we handle expertly--wait it out--now that Walt is going to daycare a few days a week.