Thursday, December 30, 2010

Uncommon Denominator

I can't recall a Christmas where I was more pleased with my presents. Things that well do for what they were designed give me greater pleasure now. I used to think stuff is stuff. We've got plenty. Who needs more? And to a certain extent, that's still true. But on some particulars, it isn't. Two out of three of these presents I requested, though not the particular solution. The first was thermal socks. The ones I had were worn down, no longer snug and with holes in the heel. Thermal socks actually appeared in a piece I wrote a few years back - typical garb for the college professor. We've had a cold spell the last few weeks and to pinch pennies if not for social responsibility we try to keep the house at around 65. My office with two outside walls, a delight the rest of the year, is colder than the rest of the house. And I prefer not to wear shoes in the house. So I got some new socks from Wigwam, remarkably comfortable, thick but lightweight, and very reassuring to put on. What a mekheye! I got some others from Smartwool, more traditional in concept but not itchy at all, also a pleasure. There is satisfaction in requesting something and then having someone (my wife in this case) deliver the goods.

The next present was ear buds. A while back I had a pair from etonics that were pretty good. I kept them attached to an iPod Mini I had. Somewhere along the way I lost both. I got an iPod Nano as a replacement a couple of years ago, but I've been using the cheapie ear buds that came with that. The sound was ok, but not great. The real issue is that after a while my ears would feel like they were sweating and I'd want to take the things out. This was not a big deal when I used them mostly as I was walking - done after 50 minutes to an hour - but it matters now when I've got my iPad and I'm reading. The music acts as a cushion to get me into my own little world. Once there, I want to remain for a while. What I got were Bose IE2's. The first time using them, it was a bit weird and I didn't understand how the soft plastic piece should fit into the ear. Once I figured that part out (via a YouTube video) I started to really like them. They are quite comfortable to wear. The speakers themselves ride on top of the ear, not in them, which is helpful for the reverberation. The sound is excellent and is especially noticeable on symphonic pieces. They are not noise canceling, something Bose has been advertising recently on TV. You can hear house noise and conversation if you choose to pay attention to that. (When Ginger is outside and I'm the only one in the living room, I can hear her barking and let her in.) But they are very nice otherwise.

One of the joys of the winter holidays is the pieces David Brooks recommends in his Sidney Awards. It is a reward to read intelligent commentary. So much of what is produced comes up short, even when appearing in good outlets, more blather than insight. Brooks went for diversity in his choices, some of which I had already read. One of those was Hanna Rosin's piece, The End of Men. At the time I read that I thought some of the arguments were spurious, so I tried to respond with a Gail Collins-like critique. I found that extremely difficult to write. Poking fun at somebody else in writing is not something I do as a regular activity. My admiration for Gail Collins grew enormously as a consequence. Hers is a Bob and Ray style but with a small blade not as sharp as a dagger, meant to draw a little blood though not to do more harm than that. She pulls it off with seeming ease on a regular basis. If possible, in addition to the commentary I want to learn a bit from my reading about writing style, though often I don't pay attention to that. Sometimes I just read to find if there is something new in it for me. I had also read The Worst of the Madness by Anne Applebaum, the last piece Brooks recommended in Part II of the Sidney Awards.

The rest of the pieces were new to me. One really got my eye, The Truth Wears Out. It is frightening and illuminating at the same time. There is a certain selectivity bias in scientific publication. The novel yet plausible hypothesis, supported by data in a seeming statistically valid way, is what the journals want to publish so what active researchers go for in their own work. There is little or no effort put into the more routine, though important, confirmation of previously "established" hypotheses. So samples that are used to support new science have some tendency to be outliers that are, unfortunately, not recognized as such. The recognition comes only when there are attempts to confirm the results out of sample, done rarely enough that when it does happen non-confirmation comes as a surprise. In this respect the research scientist is no better than the rest of us, who as Stephen Jay Gould wrote about a long time ago in the Streak of Streaks have a proclivity to rationalize essentially random phenomena. I started to wonder how much I do of that. I guess I do it a lot, finding connections between seemingly disparate things. Maybe those connections aren't there at all except in my mind.

This brings me to my third present, the one I wasn't expecting, Jane Leavy's biography/investigation into the life and legend of Mickey Mantle, The Last Boy. Pretty early on, she writes about the aftermath of when Mantle's knee went out during the 1951 World Series, the consequence of charging to catch a fly ball, a tweener, only to pull of at the last split second and get his leg stuck on a drain in the outfield, as Joe DiMaggio called him off the ball. Mantle's father Mutt had a serious cancer then and was dying, but Mickey didn't know about it till they both end up at Montefiore Hospital. The trauma of these events did a number on him that affected his world view for the rest of his life. With his father's death and the deaths of other relatives who also died very young, Mantle came to believe that was his destiny too. Leavy demonstrates, fairly convincingly, that in this Mantle held an erroneous belief. The cause of his father's illness and his other relatives was environmental - too much exposure to toxins from working in the mines.

As it turns out my mother had her first hip replacement at Montefiore Hospital, in 1978 or 1979, and it was there that I met her oncologist and had a rather long conversation with him about her condition. I believe my brother had a similar such conversation. Afterward my mother reported that the doctor said, "I love your boys," which I took to mean that in his eyes we had a reasonable understanding of what was going on. Like Mickey Mantle, my mother believed she was going to die in the very near future; there were reasons for this belief but my mother got the causality wrong. My mom is still alive, 90 years old now, though full of dementia, She had cancer once, in the early 196os, but it went into remission. She loved tennis but would overdo it - applying the too much of a good thing syndrome which is so American - and would sit around in her tennis clothes after without taking a shower and cooling down properly. She had a lot of real pain from arthritis, but was convinced it was the cancer returning. She was extremely intelligent and persuasive, with a bulldozer personality. Somehow she wheedled her radiologist into giving her radiation therapy, a cure much worse than the disease. Her bones became brittle as a consequence. So in my mind I established a rather serious way in which Mantle's life paralleled my mother's. And the book allowed for an amusing connection as well.
Just how little I’ d really seen of him became apparent when he agreed to meet me for breakfast in Atlantic City fifteen years later. I was sitting at my desk in the sports department at The Washington Post when he called. “Hi, this is Mickey,” he drawled. “Mickey Lipschitz.”
“I didn’t know you were Jewish.”
“Let me tell you something a guy told me when I first come to New York,” Mickey said. “When you’re going good, you’re Jewish. When you’re going bad, you’re Eye-talian.”
He said he’d meet me at 11 a.m.

Part of an excert from the book that appears here.
I've written many times of feeling I'm turning into my father, but there are ways where I'm strongly linked to my mom and one wonders whether it's genetic or cultural/habitual: painful arthritis, being a fresser, an obsession with writing verse. Unlike Mickey, who felt obligated to become the realization of his dad's aspirations, I rebelled against my mom's pushing. But perhaps like Mickey I grew to be dependent on others making decisions for me, even if I didn't like those choices. I've been wondering for a quite a while now whether academia is a way to preserve childhood, not the playing ball and the carousing, but the daydreaming mainly and also the selfishness of staying wrapped up in one's own thoughts. The death wish or the death expectation then becomes an excuse for self-indulgence and I wonder if I have that too.

I know this from other than Leavy's book. Mantle expressed extreme regret later in life about all the carousing he did as a ball player. "He should have taken better care of himself," or something to that effect. Leavy argues that here too Mantle had a misconception. There was a history of heavy drinking in his family tree. Whether that's due to genes or habituation, who knows? And I've been wondering whether it is possible to break bad and longly held habits. So I see a tie with Mantle, even if that is only a mirage.

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