Freakonomics, n.: the practice of paying twenty six bucks to read a regurgitated magazine article.

Lewis Lapham, the editor of Harpers,* once wrote that he made it a practice to read only books that were at least three years old. Ordinarily I can’t abide the tone of patrician handwringing that Lapham sets, but his reading rule is a good one. Let time sift out the fads.

Thanks to gifts and the tempting library at work, I’ve been gorging on new books lately. Hardbacks, even, although paperbacks are friendlier and more portable. The Wisdom of Crowds, Blink, Mind Wide Open—if they were talking about it at Manhattan cocktail parties two months ago, I’m reading it. But the latest, Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything, is sending me back to the used bookstores.
Continue reading “Freakonomics”

The World is Flat

When Elvis sings “I’m just a hunk, a hunk of burnin’ love,” I’m ready to sign up for U.S. citizenship right then and there. Only a country of genius could produce that kind of art. Nevertheless, America needs to get out more. Thomas Friedman, the New York Times columnist , has recently discovered that the world is flat, that Indians are smart, and that other countries have workers and telecommunications infrastructures as sophisticated as the homeland’s. Perhaps we foreigners can even produce glib essays for a tenth of Friedman’s wages (as long as you pay us in Euros).

Eight years ago I shared H1-b visa gripes with Indian engineers in Times Square, while we worked to fix bugs with the Hyderabad colleagues who lived twelve hours in the future. The older IIT engineers, who had gone to graduate school in the US, acted as cultural brokers for the delegations that went back and forth between Hyderabad and Broadway. We could have told Friedman what was coming, if we’d been at the right cocktail parties.

Gokul, my colleague and running partner then, went on to MIT graduate school and now runs Google’s AdSense program. We’re neighbors again, in a region where fully a third of start-ups were founded by immigrants, including Google. Eight years on, at a time when USCIS has made it much harder to come here, we could now do just fine or better where we came from. The next generation of Gokuls can start their empires at home, and that’s why the US Ambassador to Ireland has had to tour the universities to beg Irish students to take up summer visas to visit the US. They’re not interested.

The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down

The Hmong have a phrase, hais cuaj txub kaum txub, which means “to speak of all kinds of things.” It is often used at the beginning of an oral narrative as a way of reminding the listeners that the world is full of things that may not seem to be connected but actually are, that no event occurs in isolation, that you can miss a lot by sticking to the point, and that the storyteller is likely to be rather longwinded.

“In New York, freedom looks like too many choices,” Bono sings. When I moved there I was shy about ordering the plainest deli sandwiches and confused by the flashing Don’t Walk signs that made people run. I had no visa, and it took a month or two to find work at Farrar, Straus & Giroux, a proud literary publishing house I’d never heard of. I filled Jiffy bags with reviewer’s copies, and cut out the assessments that were sometimes granted in response. I filed the reviews in moldering folders—Kincaid, Jamaica; Nadas, Peter; O’Brien, Edna—along a corridor where Mike Hammer might have rented an office. I was paid in hardbacks, which I rarely read. It’s a rule of mine: never read anything bigger than your head.

Eight years later, I arrived for my last shift at another volunteer job on a freezing New York night. Between calls I flicked through People and US Weekly and worried about Brad and Jen. My shift partner, whom I didn’t know, read for a while too, and then slung his feet up on the desk and fell asleep. Because he was handsome, and wore yellow socks, I sneaked a look at his book to see if he was worth waking up.

It was The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, by Anne Fadiman. At Farrar, Straus & Giroux I’d packed a carton full of review copies and sent them around the country, but I’d decided it was too worthy to bother taking home (and I lacked the enterprise to sell it). Who wanted to read an epic about a Hmong toddler’s epilepsy, and the clash between her refugee community and the doctors at a Californian county hospital? I wasn’t sure what a Hmong was, even, and in any case I was preoccupied with Princess Diana’s funeral.

Since then I’ve visited a Hmong village in Laos, a day’s walk from the nearest dirt road. At sundown, when the villagers went to the river to bathe decorously under sodden sarongs, I slipped on the muddy bank and fell in, and cried. For dinner they killed a rooster—a precious rooster—and fed me the boiled head. I eyeballed this baleful Pez dispenser and made a show of fake humility in handing it to the teenaged monk who was my guide. Pon lit up. It was the end of Buddhist lent, and for over a month he’d eaten nothing after midday, and no protein at all. He sucked the rooster’s tongue like a lover, and then crunched through to the brain. I swallowed gritty gizzards. The villagers gathered in the doorway to watch the feast in silence, though they didn’t eat. Afterwards, someone made coffee, pouring the whole packs of Nescafe and sugar I’d brought into a kettle of river water and boiling it to syrup. I sipped mine, until Pon pantomimed that there were only two plastic tumblers and no one else could drink until we finished. We unrolled mats on the earthen floor, feet pointing towards the door to keep bad spirits out. I lay awake in a coffee buzz while underneath the stilted house the men hammered a coffin for somebody dead, and got raucously drunk on laú-laú moonshine.

I was an ungracious guest, frustrated that I knew so little and hung up on details. How much money should I offer the head man? Which one was he, anyway? How would I tell them I needed to go to the toilet? Why were the children scared of me? Why wouldn’t these people build better shacks? Were the men opium junkies? Were they really this dour? Oh Jesus, was that a leech?

I didn’t know how to begin.

Nor did the people in Anne Fadiman’s wonderful book, which my new friend hand-delivered to San Francisco last month. Both Hmong immigrants and locals were baffled and helpless. The Hmong didn’t want to be on welfare in Merced, California. They wanted to be back in their villages in Laos, where ‘pig-feeding time’ marked sunset and sunrise. The local taxpayers wanted them back home, too. Kissinger’s adventures in Laos had been kept so quiet that most Americans neither knew nor cared that Hmong tribes had been recruited to fight a private war for the CIA, and had been kicked out or slaughtered when the Americans lost 1975. Their path to America was traumatic, involuntary, and took a great deal longer than the Orderly Departure planes that left them stranded as homegrown traitors. “It was a kind of hell they landed into, “ said Eugene Douglas, Reagan’s ambassador-at-large for refugee affairs. “Really, it couldn’t have been done much worse.” Both sides expected gratitude, and got resentment. The Hmong had little left but their culture, and no interest in giving it up to become American.

That’s not an immigrant approach that America is prepared for. Think of the graffiti in Rio: “Yanqui go home—and take me with you.” America defines us so thoroughly that I could arrive in New York as a full-grown adult and feel at home except at the deli counter. But the Hmong had stayed apart so successfully that they were confused by toilets, and canned food, and electricity, and money, and hospitals. American doctors were known to steal body parts, without which souls couldn’t rest. (For their part, the doctors saw their Hmong patients as ungrateful and “non-compliant”.) It would be hard to imagine the scale of their bewilderment, except I remember it first-hand, stumbling in that river and wanting desperately to go home.

Fadiman begins with a description Fish Soup, as told by a Hmong student at Merced High School:

To prepare fish soup, he said, you must have a fish, and in order to have a fish, you have to go fishing. In order to go fishing, you need a hook, and in order to choose the right hook you need to know whether the fish you are fishing for lives in fresh or salt water, how big it is, and what shape its mouth is. Continuing in this vein for forty-five minutes, the student filled the blackboard with a complexly branching tree of factors and options, a sort of piscatory flowchart, written in French with an overlay of Hmong. anecdotes about his own fishing experiences. He ended with a description of how to clean various kinds of fish, how to cut them up, and, finally, how to cook them in broths flavored with various herbs.”

To tell Lia Lee’s story, Fadiman makes a fish soup of her own, winding through Hmong history and culture, the American War, immigration policy, western medical training, anthropology, welfare reform, a changing community, and a family. Like Tracy Kidder, or a Hmong fisherman, she watches and waits, and unfolds her tale with startling delicacy. In puzzling out a catastrophic clash of cultures, she looks for answers rather than blame. Along the way, she changed medical culture and won the National Book Award. It’s beautiful. Read it if you can.

Elevator Music

“If you ever get close to a human
And human behaviour
Be ready to get confused
There’s definitely, definitely, definitely no logic
To human behaviour
But yet so, yet so irresistible
And there’s no map
They’re terribly moody
And human behaviour
Then all of a sudden turn happy
But, oh, to get involved in the exchange
Of human emotions is ever so, ever so satisfying “

I used to work in the Bertelsman Building in Times Square. It was the headquarters of the BMG record company, and P. Diddy—he was still Puffy then—had offices on the floor below us. Once he got meeting locations mixed up and ended up on our floor. Our gentle receptionist, Paulette, wouldn’t let him in.

This was shortly after he’d been hauled up for punching out a record executive, and his ‘roids were still raging. He leaned over the desk and yelled at her to find the meeting room NOW. The office manager scurried out to see what was going on. They argued briefly. Puffy threatened. Steve told him to leave immediately or he’d call security. I’d like to have seen the confrontation: our slight little hippie with center-parted hair, a handlebar mustache, and tie-dyed shirt ordering Puffy and his people to get out. It’s a mark of how nerdy we were in that software company that no one recognized him, even while his remix of Sting’s creepy stalker song was number one. Afterwards his people sent please-don’t-sue flowers.

A few days ago I stepped into the elevator at work next to a tiny woman bundled up in what looked like a black duvet, speaking to a friend in…Swedish? Not Swedish. I picked out bits from the lilting: “hurdy gurdy gurdy…Public Enemy…” The clear, girlish voice was familiar, but it took me four floors of sideways glances to work out that it was Bjork.

That morning I’d started a book that had been on my wishlist ever since my friend Max told me it was his favorite novel: Halldor Laxness’s Independent People. Max has great taste in everything but women, and sure enough, this is a gem. It’s an Icelandic novel about sheep. If you deserve to read it, that won’t put you off. Iceland’s storytelling tradition is as strong as Ireland’s, and this book is reminds me Liam O’Flaherty’s Aran Islands stories. It even starts with Columcille, an 8th century Irish missionary. Battling the elements is good for art.

The introduction to my edition says that “Self-Standing Folk” would be a better translation of the title, and in Bjrk I see Laxness’s people. It takes self-standing folk to wear that swan dress to the Oscars. (It’s in the Met’s Costume Institute now.) It takes self-standing folk to have her quirky perspective on human beings. Her Debut album was the soundtrack to my college years. Tiny and scrubbed, she still looks like a college girl years after the rest of us have had guilty thoughts about Botox.

Maybe if I’d had Independent People in my pocket instead of on my desk, I would’ve told her how much her joy meant to me. But Bjrk’s been known to punch out stalkers, too, and I didn’t want to interrupt her chat. We got off the elevator and walked down Broadway side by side. I silently wished her extra warmth, along with her duvet and her stripy tights, against from the New York winter.

Reading Deprivation

I’m trying to give up reading for a week. Last month I tried to give it up for two weeks, and failed, so I aimed lower. It’s an experiment in soft addictions. Three days in, after countless slip-ups, I’m at the bargaining stage. Does Slate count? Slate doesn’t count because it’s on the internet and I’m at work, right? Reading at work doesn’t count. Look, I have a sandwich in my hand. What about Apartment Therapy?

Slate counts. I stuck a Post-It on my computer that says READ in a big circle with a line through it.
“What’s that?” said Peter, who likes to catalogue my eccentricities. I told him my theories on soft addictions. There’s another Post-It just below it that says BITE with a line through it. It’s about chewing my fingernails, still a major food group though I’m 32 years old.
“And you’re not going to bite me any more, baby?”
“Bite me,” I explained.

I notice the text deprivation most on the subway, where some day I’ll get shot for staring at people. I get interested in certain faces, and I can’t seem to listen in properly without staring, too. A book is protection against this reckless habit.

Without one, I set my iPod to my Bill Clinton Makeout Soundtrack for the Q Train ride home. The other headphone clones don’t seem compelled into the little shuffly dances I do when I have private music. Not that it mattered. Last night no one looked at each other. They nosed into their books, or stared carefully into space. They all looked drained, and it’s only November.

The King is right. “We can’t go awwn together,” I wanted to implore them, “ With suspicious minds.”

Armistice Day

Dulce Et Decorum Est

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of disappointed shells that dropped behind.

GAS! Gas! Quick, boys!— An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And floundering like a man in fire or lime.—
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,—
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.

—Wilfred Owen

From Sealink to Ryanair

To this day departures by sea from Ireland are noisy, anxious affairs. The air is filled with wailing as children protest at being edged forward in step with piles of shopping bags and suitcases. Parents, tired and irritable, worry about getting a seat, even about getting on at all (ferries across the Irish Sea can be crowded), but know they cannot afford to fly. The flight to England takes only an hour but costs more than twice as much. Yet the long journey by boat and connecting train is hardly faster at the end of the twentieth century than it was at the beginning; the overnight crossing through Holyhead still tips passengers bleary-eyed into London’s Euston Station in the morning.

Family parties are still large (a group of seven or eight is not uncommon), the sexes still very separate. Once aboard, the men forge ahead with their teenage sons and aim straight for the bar, the video games, or the duty-free shop, while the wives, clutching last year’s baby and a toddler or two, hunt for places and shriek at the older ones wandering away. Long before the boat sails, all the seats are full, the aisles are piled with luggage, and some passengers are already asleep or drunk.

A glance can swiftly sort out the crowd into holiday makers, white-collar workers, at home on either side of the Irish Sea, and young labourers off the land, going to England to find work on building sites. In any boatload there will probably be women intent on services unobtainable in Ireland and also young people leaving Ireland forever.

In every young Irish mind, the question of emigration is inescapable as it has been since the Great Famine of the 1840s. If not, why not? And the young do not leave only for a job or better pay. Ireland, although there are now some who live there happily while defying its conventions, is still a priest-ridden land: no divorce, little secular education, almost no escape from prying eyes and gossip. Outside Dublin, the tolerance that British and other foreign residents enjoy is rarely extended to native residents.

On the Saturday evening of October 8, 1904, shortly before nine o’clock, a tall young woman with a very straight back walked up the gangway of the night boat from Dublin. She had thick red-brown hair, high cheekbones, and dark blue eyes set off by black lashes and thick black brows. Her heavy hair was drawn over her ears and fastened with long pins, the better to fit under her wide-brimmed hat. She wore a borrowed coat against the chill October wind.

…There was no one to weep at Nora Barnacle’s departure, but she did not care. She had not told her family in Galway that she was leaving Ireland, nor her employers at Finn’s Hotel in Dublin. If any of them had had a hint of what she was doing, they would have tried to stop her and might have succeeded for, at twenty, she was still a minor and she was running off with Jim Joyce.
—Brenda Maddox, Nora

This opening to Brenda Maddox’s wonderful biography of Nora Barnacle made me check the publication date. The book is just sixteen years old, but her ferry port description—confirmed by my own memories—meshes more closely with Nora’s Ireland than today’s. It is rooted in a time of Donnelly visas and IDA ads pimping Irish graduates at Shannon Airport. From one-way Sealink to Ryanair jaunts, Ireland has travelled a ways.

Vicious Circle

Vicious Circle, by Arlene Hunt.

From last week’s Irish Sunday Independent:

A real-life Pretty Woman

IT’S NOT fun to f*** strangers for money. It’s not fun and it’s not romantic, either. There are a lot of fairy tales and myths about the world’s oldest profession, but unless you’ve done it you can’t possibly know what it’s like to sell your body.
Read the rest

Arlene is from the same town as the two sisters who were among my closest college friends. Their little two-up, two-down house in Ranelagh was, and still is, headquarters for the kitchen-table chats over red wine that take up so much time in college. Arlene wasn’t a student—she had a baby to look after—but she spent many hours there too, her elbows on the yellow check tablecloth. At nineteen, she was unadorned and extraordinarily beautiful. Her life had no safety nets.

I heard occasional updates about her in the years between. Things went badly. Then life seemed to work out. Her relieved hometown friend told me she had found a job on a stud farm, made plenty of money to take care of her daughter, had found a lovely bloke. She moved to Spain. Later there were rumours of a book deal.

Back in Ireland in December, I heard that her name turned up in one of the hard-boiled crime reporter’s books that sell so well there. This one took a prurient look at the Dublin sex trade. In Hodges Figgis, I flicked through the chapter on Arlene, and it was clear the writer admired her business sense as a self-employed sex worker. Though the writing was flat, I heard the earthy girl from the Ranelagh kitchen table in the tale of the gárda sting operation that finally busted her.
    “Ah, go fuck yourselves,” she said to the guards. I laughed out loud. A stud farm. How she must have enjoyed that little private joke on her double life.

Now Arlene is back in Ireland too, doing interviews to promote her first novel. She’s telling her own story, reclaiming it from the mouths and pockets of the journalists. Though I hardly know her, I feel proud of her. She made it. She’s telling the truth. That’s not easy.

The Story We Know

The way to begin is always the same. Hello,
Hello. Your hand, your name. So glad, Just fine,
and Good-bye at the end. That’s every story we know,

and why pretend? But lunch tomorrow? No?
Yes? An omelette, salad, chilled white wine?
The way to begin is simple, sane, Hello,

and then it’s Sunday, coffee, the Times, a slow
day by the fire, dinner at eight or nine
and Good-bye. In the end, this is a story we know

so well we don’t turn the page, or look below
the picture, or follow the words to the next line:
The way to begin is always the same Hello.

But one night, through the latticed window, snow
begins to whiten the air, and the tall white pine.
Good-bye is the end of every story we know

that night, and when we close the curtains, oh,
we hold each other against that cold white sign
of the way we all begin and end. Hello,
Good-bye is the only story. We know, we know.

—By Martha Collins

Via the Writer’s Almanac, whose daily emails come with two links: “Listen” (a Real Audio file) and, more promisingly, “How to Listen”.

A Place Apart

It seems strange to be keeping a diary about travels in Ireland. A vague little sadness follows like a cloud-shadow after the realisation that I have grown remote enough from my own country to look at it with something of the detachment I might feel in Africa or Asia. Is this what it is fashionable to call ‘loss of identity’? Can’t be helped, even if it is. And there are compensations. It’s a form of somewhat belated growing-up—being weaned from that Mother Ireland on whose not entirely infection-free milk so many of my generation were reared.
—Dervla Murphy, A Place Apart