Ruth Ozeki’s “A Tale for the Time Being”

I’m not entirely sold on the framework of this novel, which has a novelist named “Ruth” stumbling across the diary of a sixteen-year-old Japanese-American girl, but at least it earns its place on account of the surprising, late-game introduction of quantum mechanics; that is, an outside observer is necessary. Or as Derrida might have put it, because a reader cannot help but put their own interpretation on what they read, the reader often becomes, to some extent, the writer. I appreciate that; I only wish that the Ruth sections more organically connected to or reflected the deeper meanings present in Nao’s narrative. It’s not until the very end, when Ruth encounters a form of “reader’s block” that the two worlds really connect.

On the whole, though, the book can be reduced to one single thought: life is nothing but a connection of moments (6,400,099,980), and all it takes is a shift in a single one of them in order to create an entirely different universe. This doesn’t excuse the bullying that Nao or her grandfather received (and, to a certain extent, the passive dismissal of her father’s ethical concerns), but it does suggest that there might be healthier responses than suicide. Or, as Kimmy Schmidt once put it–and I’m paraphrasing–if you can get through the next second, then you can get through the second after that, too, and the next, and before long, you’re through a minute, an hour, a day, a week, and a year. You just need to have a purpose for holding on, and that’s what Nao is in search of when she begins writing her diary between the spine of Proust’s In Search of Lost Time. It’s why, perhaps, she’s able to cast off her book at the end of the book, for Ruth to find: she no longer needs to fixate on the past, because she’s found it.

Though A Tale for the Time Being doesn’t outright say any of this, some of its parallels and metaphors hint very strongly at it. To begin with, there’s the question of how Nao’s diary washed up on the shore of a British Columbian island to begin with; Ruth’s husband posits that it was caught in a gyre of trash floating Limbo-like around the ocean until that one moment at which–perhaps dislodged by the ripple of a butterfly wing elsewhere, or more accurately, the tsunami that hit Japan in 2011–it was deemed ready to move on to the person who would be most receptive to reading it. But there’s also the existence of the diary itself, which although it purports to be chronicling the last days of a suicide, is actually doing the exact opposite by preserving her thoughts, her essence, in what the book describes as a Scheherazade-like delaying of death (i.e., immortality).

Why do we spend so much time trying to find the purpose of life? Life is, by definition, that purpose. It is only when there is nothing left to say that the book comes to a close.

10/24/16: on when we can’t afford success

Everything this author writes makes financial sense. That, more than anything else, is proof of why cold, hard economics alone cannot be permitted to run our government, why the banks must be tempered and–yes–regulated by external checks and balances. A businessman like Trump would gladly improve the revenue for a service by making it unaffordable to the poor, but would also ignore the fact that America was not founded on exclusivity, even if it has lately become obsessed with it. That’s not to say we aren’t a culture of ownership and entitlement, but while we can’t all drive an Aston Martin, almost all of us have the freedom to, in some form or another, drive.

Of Hamilton, then, this author has identified an actual problem: tickets are being scalped, and this largely benefits the scalper, not the producers of the actual product being sold. Let’s ignore that this is essentially true of the stock market itself, in which the people actually executing your trades are the ones most immediately profiting from it. Instead, the author believes that instead of making the act of scalping illegal, he feels that the theater itself should counter these scalpers by raising their prices accordingly, such that demand decreases to a point at which those who desire tickets can buy them directly from the theater. That’s a bit like if the government decided to stop drug dealers not by arresting them but by dealing the product itself at a lower rate.

The biggest issue I have with this article is that it implies that the best solution to any problem is the one that maximizes profit for the producer. That’s Shkreli logic. It’s ironic that this is used, of all things, on a show like Hamilton, which spends a great deal of time on the passage of government for the benefit of all. Wouldn’t a better solution be one that adds additional seats to the theater, or moves to a bigger venue? If Louie C.K. decided he were going to perform at the Comedy Cellar, he might be able to charge a premium for each ticket; by choosing a larger venue like Madison Square Garden, he is able to charge less money per ticket and yet still make as much of a profit, even factoring in overhead for the venue, the security, etc. Adding a second date would make it even easier for those who wanted to get a ticket to get one–just as making scalping illegal would help to prevent those fans from competing with those who want not to see the show, but to profit from it.

I’m not against compromise. When I attend Six Flags, I sometimes have to wait longer because people have paid extra for the privilege of waiting 50% to 75% less. When I fly on a plane, I have very little leg room and am often next to a squalling baby. Wouldn’t the best solution to Hamilton, then, be to find another compromise? Where once premium Orchestra seats were enough to satisfy the rich, with the poor increasingly relegated to nosebleed Balcony seats, perhaps we could offer more Livestream options. Those who want to see it up close and in person could go to the actual theater; those who couldn’t afford that might go to a neighboring movie theater. Everybody would still get to see the show–for a popular one, would get to see it many times over–and everybody would profit. Isn’t that, ultimately, what we want from America? A country where everyone wins?

Mind you, we’re talking about something like Hamilton, which only seems essential. What if we were talking about vaccines? If we could only manufacture 1,000 doses a day, would you really want the pharmacy setting prices based on the most money they could get from a customer? Assume, hypothetically, that these vaccines were transferrable (i.e., pills rather than an injection): would you want to have to stand in line along with those who had already received a dose and who were now simply trying to resell additional ones? This economist is in favor of scalpers, then, because they ensure that he–a member of the wealthy–will always be able to get a ticket. What happens, then, to all of those who *cannot* afford those rates? They become dependent on lotteries, on government-subsidized ticket initiatives, or they simply go without. Of course this economist favors that system; he’s basically describing America as it is, not as it is idealized.



10/10/16: on fear–no, wait, sorry, anxiety

This week, Rolling Stone absolutely kills it with an October 20, 2016 article from Neil Strauss on “The Age of Fear.” In short, the article asks how it is that Americans can be living in the statistically safest place at the safest time in human history and still be so scared, to which my general sense is that it’s because of how well off we are–i.e., those who have much to lose are constantly in fear of losing it. Rather than generalizing, however, Strauss sticks to facts and possible symptoms, speaking with neurobiologists about the way in which the brain, a “stress-reactive machine,” can be easily manipulated into fear. One author calls this “amygdala hijacking,” in which inflammatory content bypasses the logical parts of the brain and attacks the emotional part. Another suggests that this isn’t fear at all so much as anxiety: fear is an immediate response to a clear and present threat, whereas anxiety is anticipation of the future. The former is hard to manipulate, although it can be triggered (by scary movies, haunted houses, etc.), but the latter is dealing with uncertainty, and while a physical assailant may be dispatched, the imaginary monsters unsettlingly persist.

Perhaps that’s why politics is so scary: when running for office, a candidate can do nothing but talk about the future, about the things that might happen, and it plays to their strengths to get people nervous about what will happen if they aren’t elected. In many ways, politicians are running a psychic protection racket: “Nice country, it would be a terrible thing if something were to happen to it.”

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10/6/16: on the importance of tone (sorry!)

In the October 10, 2016, issue of The New Yorker, Larissa MacFarquhar investigates how a once-solidly Democratic county now comes to be voting overwhelmingly for Trump. It’s a misleading lede, since the article clarifies that this trend began when W. ran for office in 2000, and that it was largely because the coal-based West Virginian county of Logan would have been economically devastated by Al Gore’s environmental proposals. But there’s a larger, deeper concern in there, which has to do with the way in which we talk to those who disagree with us, and how we present our views.

Although Obama’s and Clinton’s immigration policies are pretty similar, the way they talk about the subject is quite different. In a speech at the end of last year, Clinton suggested that wariness of immigrants was a sign of bad character… She described immigration as a matter of universal human rights.

When Obama gave a speech on immigration in the fall of 2014, he spoke first about America’s border–how he had secured it, and how illegal crossings had been cut by more than half. When he spoke about people who opposed his policies, he said he understood them…. “We don’t like the notion that anyone might get a free pass to American citizen ship. I know some worry immigration will change the fabric of who we are, or take our jobs… I hear these concerns… and I believe it’s important that all of us have this debate without impugning each other’s character.”

Of course, Obama doesn’t have to prove his anti-racist bona fides in the same way that Clinton does. But it is also Obama’s style to talk like this. He likes to reconcile, to draw people in, to minimize the differences between them. Clinton, on the other hand, always describes herself as a fighter, and it is her style to draw sharp lines between right and wrong–between people who are being oppressed and the people doing the oppressing. This style can make it sound as though she thinks people who disagree with her on immigration are probably racists.

Do take the above with a grain of salt: for all his reconciliation and understanding, there are many who are still vehemently against him, and Logan was so against Obama that in 2012’s Democratic primary “Obama was soundly defeated by Keith Judd, a Texas felon serving a seventeen-and-a-half-year sentence for extortion.” That is, a lot of people who are anti-Hillary may in fact have misogynistic motivations. But beginning a conversation that way, or outright dismissing concerns about Hillary because of how awful (you feel) Trump is, only serves to widen a divide between people, to entrench them in their own beliefs. Let’s talk, then, about the disagreements that have been made public, and not our characters, which are generally private.

10/5/16: on the nature of reality

A lot of us throw around the term “brainwashing” when we talk to those who like something that we don’t. We operate from the basic premise that we are smart, rational people, and that therefore, if someone disagrees, they are either not also a smart, rational person or they have been somehow tricked, bamboozled, or outright brainwashed. (We do this especially often when it comes to religion and culture, ignoring entirely whether the person is actually happy.)

In reason‘s October 2016 issue, Trevor Burrus makes the following observation:

What do we achieve by arguing that parts of American culture are somehow fake? The music industry took a band called the Pendletones, renamed them the Beach Boys, recorded a few dozen songs about surfing, and then pushed a saccharine vision of California beach culture…. Should [that] therefore be looked upon with skepticism? Can the “fake” ever turn into something “genuine”?

The answer, simply put, is yes. And vice-versa: something we’ve long held as a truism can eventually erode to the point at which we see it as the fraud it’s long been. (Politics comes to mind, but also, on a gentler point, certain scientific facts like the “geocentric” model that have been revised over time.) Skepticism has a very healthy place in allowing us to personally decide an object’s sincerity and worth, but it is as irrelevant to another person as a debate over a color or Magic Eye print that we might view with differing degrees of depth. We should freely, often, and readily express the things that we disagree with and be ready to make a hearty defense of them, but it serves nobody to insist that someone else’s opinion or interpretation is wrong. For all that “we” might see the flaws and frauds of a Donald J. Trump, there are also many who are convinced that his inability to self-edit or recollect basic facts somehow makes him more genuine. Rather than discussing him, let us look at how his policies would actually affect us, and let that motivate us to act.

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