The Casual Blog

Tag: Philip Roth

The wedding dress problem, goodbye to Roth, and hello to Knausgaard

Jocelyn and Kyle visited us for the holiday weekend, and one of the planned events was the kick off of the search for Jocelyn’s perfect wedding dress.  Sally excitedly briefed me on their plan for a mother-daughter visit to a high-end bridal shop, and I felt a bit queasy. For the first time, it hit home that there was a strong assumption that I’d be stroking a large check for a dress that will be worn only once.  

I thought, maybe we can discuss this.  We could deconstruct the cultural significance of wedding customs and related status displays, and consider revising certain traditions, perhaps at lesser expense.  And then I realized that this would get me nowhere, and I may as well give up and enjoy the dress, which will, I’m sure, be beautiful.

I was affected by Philip Roth’s death this week, since his books have been an important part of my life.  I’ve read about a dozen of them, including several that enriched my understanding of what can happen in the heads of others. He had a fierce engagement with life, and his books did what the best novels do: tell truths that can be told no other way. My favorite Roths are American Pastoral, The Human Stain, The Plot Against America, the Zuckerman trilogy, Sabbath’s Theatre,  and of course, Portnoy’s Complaint.

I started an engagement with another major book recently:  My Struggle, by Karl Ove Knausgaard. Knausgaard’s book is an autobiographical account of ordinary life and relationships translated from the original Norwegian and extending for 6 volumes (3,600 pages).  It’s been talked about in literary circles, and I’d made a special note to avoid it. It seemed like unpromising subject matter having no bearing on my life issues, and way too long.  

But having made it halfway through volume one, I’m utterly captivated.  It’s uncanny: it seems very much about my life. In a recent piece in The New Yorker, Joshua Rothman notes having the same sensation.    The work explores emotions to a depth that makes them seem both strange and true.  My early impression is that Knausgaard has achieved something similar to Proust, but with less affectation and more intensity.  

I took these pictures on Saturday morning in Umstead Park, where I hiked for a couple of hours on the Loblolly Trail.  It was humid and very green.

Our Outer Banks weekend

For Memorial Day weekend we drove to the Outer Banks to visit my sister Jane and her family. Their beach house in Corolla was comfortable and relaxing, with lots of seashells and board games. There were family dramas to discuss, as well as books to read, food to eat, and wild horses, shore birds, and other beach creatures to see. I also had a few new thoughts on economics and employment, as noted below.

My brother Paul and his wife Jackie came out from Virginia Beach on Saturday afternoon. Paul, in training for a marathon, ran the last seven miles, and arrived looking thinner than he has for at least a decade. The next morning I did my first outside run in a long time, a three-mile run along US 12. After persistent knee problems a few years back, I finally quit running and switched to low-impact activities like elliptical machines and stationary bikes. But I’ve recently seen running is good for bone density, and so have begun running a bit on the treadmill. The run along US 12 went well for a half hour, until I got a cramp in my calf.

I took a break from practicing the piano, but enjoyed the musical activities of the rest of the family. Kylie is making good progress on the violin, as is David on the cello, and Jane has just started teaching herself piano. Paul is quite accomplished on the banjo, and played his version of the Star Spangled Banner in honor of memorial day.

Keith cooked non-stop all weekend. On Saturday morning, he cooked gluten-free waffles with blueberries and strawberries, which were marvelously light. Soon after we cleaned up, he started to work on lunch, wonderful grilled vegetable sandwiches, and soon after that, he got to work on a vegetarian Mexican dinner, which was a complete success. The man loves to cook, and he’s really creative. We were all grateful.

In the Sunday Times, there was an op ed piece by Tim Jackson about how the drive for ever-increasing productivity was resulting in increased unemployment. This was a different lens on a problem I’ve pondered before — what should humans do when computer brains and robots render them redundant? Jackson proposes that the answer is to forget about increasing productivity and embrace lessening productivity.

Jackson broached a critical problem. As I’ve noted before, although we’ve hardly noticed it, robots and artificial intelligence are transforming the human world in fundamental ways. More and more of the manufacturing work that people used to do is now done by robots, and AI is starting to impinge on areas that we used to think of as forever and irreducibly human, such as medicine, law, and education. This is big. As far out in the future as we can see, we will need fewer and fewer people to make our products and perform our services.

We once thought of this as utopia: a world of plenty which required less and less labor to produce goods and services. We assumed it would result in more and more pleasant leisure. But this vision failed to take into account that we aren’t comfortable paying wages to people who aren’t working in a way that contributes meaningfully, and those without work do not feel at leisure.

Jackson suggests reorienting away from simple increases in productivity and towards activities involving caring, craft, and cultural activities, like art. This sounds promising. These are activities that humans have done as long as the species has existed. Once our ancestors had taken care of food, clothing, and shelter, they made jewelry, painted on cave walls, beat on drums, played lacrosse, or otherwise entertained each other. Caring for each other, making things, and making art are things we like to do. But we need to figure out how to associate these activities with fair wages.

On Sunday afternoon we went four-wheeling northward to look for wild horses. Driving on the beach is fun, though I feel a bit guilty at what people like us do to the beach and its creatures. We saw lots of sanderlings and grackles in the shallows, and flying pelicans, gulls, terns, and one snowy egret. We drove through the narrow sandy pathways that wind through the marine forest, working our way around occasional pools of standing water. We finally found three groups of horses, and got close views of two of them.

We sat on the porch for a while and read and talked. Over the weekend, I dipped into the following books: I Am a Strange Loop, by Douglas Hofstadter, This Is Your Brain on Music, by Daniel Levitin, The Short Game Bible, by Dave Pelz (golf), Indignation, by Philip Roth, Winner Take All Politics, by Jacob Hacker, and The Social Conquest of Earth, by Edwin O. Wilson.

Sunday evening Sally mixed cocktails for the adults using cucumber vodka, ginger infused simple syrup, lime juice, and elderberry liquor. Keith made gluten-free vegetarian lasagna, which he had to complete with penne pasta because there were no lasagna noodles, but which turned out great. He’d also made vanilla ice cream and peach-and-blueberry cobbler. We played a game called “left right center” which involved rolling dice and losing or acquiring chips. It was a game requiring no skill, but gave the enjoyment of possible good fortune without exacting much pain for bad fortune. There was merriment. After dinner, we lit sparklers and set off some fireworks rockets.


Paradise Lost — surviving air travel with some good books

On plane rides to and from Dallas this week, I experienced above average travel headaches — absurdly slow security checks, bumpy air, noisy talkers all around, and somebody who had beans for lunch. But the fast metal tube is a good place to read, and I made substantial progress on Paradise Lost. John Milton’s great poem is intimidating in several ways – long, complex, and religious. But sweet Jocelyn had spoken of it with animation during her studies, which inspired me to sample it in Harold Bloom’s poetry anthology. It was beautiful, and so I decided to begin at the beginning.

It creates a world that is at times fantastically vivid. And there is a powerful music to the language. Parts of it are part of our vernacular, and it’s pleasant to come upon them. Other parts are highly obscure, and challenging in their complex syntax. But it moves forward with confident, powerful authority, telling a really big story, bejewelled with glittering details.

I thought I might be put off by the religious subject matter, because I generally have a strong allergic reaction to such ideas. It’s true that Milton uses the Genesis story for his basic material, but he makes it into something much more dramatic and thought-provoking than the original. His transformation of early religious writings into drama is similar to what Wagner did in the Ring cycle with the Norse myths. The Creator is just one character in the drama, and hardly the most interesting one.

I also spent some time reading A Culture of Improvement by Robert Freidel. Freidel traces the elements of technology that transformed ancient and medieval life. I used to think that technology changed little between the Romans and the eighteenth century, but there are all sorts of interesting things that happened earlier. His chapter on medieval cathedrals addresses both why and how they got built. Lots of trial and error — like technology today.

My kick back book was Sabbath’s Theater by Phillip Roth. I think Roth is the best living American writer of fiction (and I know of no better in other languages), and I was pleased to see that President Obama honored him with the National Humanities medal this week. Sabbath’s Theater is a masterpiece of a dyspeptic sort. Sabbath is an aging former puppeteer and theater director who has left his callings and devoted himself primarily to seducing women. His enthusiasm for each new female is at first humorous, but it gradually becomes clear that he is deeply disturbed. It’s like Portnoy’s Complaint as King Lear. I would not recommend Sabbath’s Theater as an introduction to Roth, or to anyone uncomfortable with sexual subject matter. But for some readers, it will open doors.