Thursday, December 31, 2009


The boy followed the old man. He had nothing else to do. It was summer, school was out, and his friends were all away on vacation. The boy had been left to his own devices, which this morning consisted of his two hands and a hoop that he wheeled absently along the sidewalk, too bored to run. That's when he saw the old man.

The old man was old. He looked a little like the boy's grandfather, if the boy's grandfather were someone who wore his shirt untucked and whom the boy had never seen. In any case, he was a stranger, which in a town as small as this made him a novelty.

When the boy first saw him he was coming down the road that led to the highway, walking slowly, as though he'd traveled a great distance. Had he walked all the way from the next town? No, that was impossible. For one thing it was too far, and for another, as the boy's mother had repeatedly told him, it wasn't safe to walk on the highway. He'd probably parked his car on the edge of town and was just on his way in. But why? And where was he going?

The boy waited till the old man came up to him. "Hello", he said. The old man made no reply, did not even look up to register the boy's presence, just walked straight past. Perhaps he was deaf. His hoop forgotten, the boy followed, walking companionably along with the old man, waiting to be noticed.

But the old man never looked up. He just kept walking, eyes lowered to the ground, feet trudging along at a steady but listless pace. He seemed to know his way around town, or at least had a clear sense of where he was going, because he never stopped to take his bearings or ask for directions. Was he going to meet someone? But who?

Maybe he had family here, maybe he'd come to stay with them for a few days? But if so, where was his luggage? And why hadn't he driven straight to their house instead of walking in from the edge of town? Maybe he'd lived here once, and was returning after many years. Maybe he was a hero of some sort, maybe he'd been with army and had been locked away in an enemy prison all these years and was returning now to the place he'd been born. Maybe he'd come back to find his sweetheart. The boy had only a vague notion of what a sweetheart was, but he knew from the stories he'd read that heroes were always going back to find them, and the thought that this old man might be one of them was thrilling. He imagined telling his friends all about it: how a genuine war hero had returned to the town, how he, the boy, had been the first to spot him, to befriend him. How it was with his help that the hero had finally found the house he was looking for. Wouldn't they all envy him then!

Meanwhile the old man was marching on through the town. All this time the boy had been silent, following a step or two behind, keeping his distance, but now that he knew what the man was after he felt it was time to take a more active role. As they approached Main Street the boy stepped forward, started to point out the town's various landmarks - the church, the school, the main bus stop - naming each one with proprietorial pride. He showed the old man the bank his father visited every week, the pharmacy his mother bought groceries from, the ice-cream parlor his parents would take the boy to if he had been very good (here he paused significantly, but the old man kept up his relentless gait). Some of the shops and buildings were unfamiliar to him, but he said what he could about them anyway, feeling it his duty as the old man's guide.

To all this information, the old man said nothing. Indeed, it seemed he hadn't noticed the boy at all, and was just walking along past the storefronts, unaware of what was being said. This wasn't true, of course. Obviously the old man was listening, was taking note of everything the boy told him. He was just pretending not to notice because that was what heroes did - they stayed silent till the right moment, seemingly oblivious, then it turned out they'd been paying close attention all along. The boy understood this. Any moment now the old man would stop, would smile at him, would say something incredibly grand and wise and funny that the boy could relate to his friends later as proof of his new friend's ineffable herodom. In the meantime, the boy was happy to skip along by the old man's side, prattling on about the dry cleaner and the gas station and the little park on the corner that the boy was too old for.

After a while, though, the boy quietened down. For one thing he was starting to get tired. For another they had wandered off Main Street, and were now in an unfamiliar part of town, one that the boy was uncomfortably aware his parents had warned him never to go to alone. Still, he wasn't alone, was he, he was with his friend. Yet something told him his parents wouldn't see it that way. They would get mad, say that he shouldn't have gone off with a stranger. Which was silly, of course, because the old man wasn't a stranger, he was a hero, and needed the boy's help, but grown-ups were inflexible that way.

Perhaps he ought to turn back? He considered suggesting this to the old man, maybe even proposing that the old man come back with him, so he could get something to eat at the boy's house, maybe get some directions. (The boy was beginning to suspect that the old man didn't really know where he was going. Perhaps the torture he'd suffered under the enemy had caused him to lose his sense of direction?). But what if the old man thought he was scared or weak? He would be disappointed in the boy then, would think him unworthy. No, he mustn't risk it. Not after they'd come so far. He would just have to see this through to the end.

The boy finally stopped where the houses ran out. He had never come this far before. He didn't dare go any further. For a minute he was afraid he wouldn't be able to find his way back, but he realized they had been walking in a straight line, the old man and he, all the way across town from one end to the other. A long, long walk.

"Goodbye", he said, to the retreating figure on the road in front of him. But the old man gave no sign of having heard. He just kept moving, head down, shoulders a little slumped. The boy stood there and watched him walking away for a while, until the old man disappeared around a bend in the road and the boy, realizing he would have to hurry back to avoid trouble, turned around and started to run.

As he ran back to his house, he wondered what his mother had made for lunch.

[Happy New Year, everyone!]

Wednesday, December 30, 2009


1. Turned 30
2. Got PhD
3. Got job
4. Moved to new city
5. Read, no, finished reading 122 books
6. Published 1
7. Put up 220 blog posts (or 221 depending on how tomorrow shapes up)
8. Listened to 15 Shostakovich symphonies. Twice.
9. Started 68 poems, completed 52, did not regret 6.
10. Baked one batch of cookies, regretted them all

All in all, not a bad year.

Thursday, December 24, 2009


"You don't really mean it, do you?"


"What you just said. You don't really mean it."

"Why would you say that?"

"Because I can tell. It's okay. You don't have to lie to me."

"Okay, you're right. I was just saying it to make you feel better. I'm sorry."

"Don't be. It did make me feel better."


"Well, until you admitted you didn't mean it."

The Spare Room

Death as a spare room. A space we never enter, rarely even think about. A door kept safely locked.

Unused but necessary, the spare room is a presence that defines us as grown-ups, adults who feel the need to be, who are, prepared. For any eventuality. For the eventuality.

(inspired by Helen Garner's brave and terrifying book)

P.S. Merry Christmas to you too!

The things we do not choose

We do not choose how we die. Which is probably for the best.

Just look at the mess we make choosing how to live. Not the mistakes or the failure, but the ugliness, the lack of imagination.

Art does not imitate life, it enacts it.

But all this is artifice. It is the things we do not choose that make us, if not unique, at least human. Like our dreams. Our death.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Unhappy Research

If you've been surfing the web lately, chances are you've come across some version of this news story about a research study that shows that New York is the unhappiest state in the country while Louisiana is the happiest. A finding that is, prima facie, ridiculous.

Before you start moving your family from Manhattan to New Orleans it's worth considering what's wrong with the story - which strikes me as being the perfect combination of dubious research wedded to journalistic misinterpretation.

As I understand it, Oswald and Wu basically construct a subjective measure of happiness by state by taking survey results on people's stated level of satisfaction and running a regression predicting these satisfaction levels as a function of a range of individual level attributes (such as income, education, employment category, etc.) plus dummies for each state (except Alabama - the omitted category). And therein lies the misinterpretation: the subjective coefficients they report are not telling us how happy people in each state are, they are telling us what the net effect of the state is after all other individual level factors are controlled for. In other words, the negative coefficient of New York means that a person with exactly the same income, education , employment, etc. would be less satisfied in New York than in Alabama.

Now, this would make sense if individual attributes that contributed to happiness were uncorrelated with state of residence, but this is clearly not the case. If states differ substantially in the average levels of happiness-causing attributes (i.e. if people in New York are likely to have higher levels of education, higher income, etc.) then the coefficients for the state dummies by themselves are not meaningful; in particular, we are likely to see a negative bias in the coefficients of states with high levels of positive attributes. What's more, this bias is going to be considerably amplified if the dependent variable of happiness / satisfaction is right-censored, that is to say if the measure of satisfaction used does not adequately capture differences in satisfaction levels at the higher end of the range (which, btw, is the case with the data used in the study - on a 1 to 4 scale the average score is 3.4).

To see this in (exceedingly) simple terms, imagine that we have only two people from two states - Louisiana (L) and New York (N); that we have only one other explanatory variable - Income (I); and that the satisfaction score for both people, on a 1 to 4 scale, is 4, i.e. they both claim to be 'Very Satisfied'. The regression would then try to solve

4=B1.Il + Bl


4=B1.In + Bn

where B1 is the coefficient for Income, Bl and Bn are the satisfaction coefficients for the states, and Il and In are the income levels of the person in Louisiana and the person in New York. Now, imagine that the person in New York has twice the income of the person in Louisiana. We then have

4=B1.Il + Bl = B1.In + Bn = B1.2Il + Bn

Now, if B1.Il + Bl = B1.2Il + Bn, and assuming B1>0 (more income means greater happiness), this would mean that Bl>Bn, i.e. the satisfaction coefficient of Louisiana is greater than the satisfaction coefficient of New York. Notice that this doesn't really mean anything about living in New York, it's simply an artifact of the fact that satisfaction measures top out at 4 and that New York has twice the income levels of Louisiana.

On the whole then, it's unclear that the coefficients of the state dummies actually mean anything. But even in the best case, all they mean is that moving from New York to Louisiana will increase your satisfaction, provided you can find the identical job and continue to make the same amount of money. Good luck with that.

Finally, let's think for a moment about the researcher's claim that their study shows a surprisingly strong correlation between subjective and objective measures of satisfaction. Again, let's think about what the subjective state coefficient really is. It's the average difference between the satisfaction of a person with a certain level of income (uncorrected for cost of living), education, etc. living in the focal state (New York) vs. a person with the same level of income, education, etc. living in Alabama. Now what might cause a person making the same dollar amount to be less satisfied in New York than in Alabama? Obviously, cost of living. And what is a major component of the 'objective' measure the study uses to rank states? Why, it's cost of living. Is it really surprising then that the two measures turn out to be highly correlated? I don't think so.

What would be interesting, of course, would be to see a version of the study that a) controlled for the location choices of individuals through some kind of simultaneous equation model and b) included income levels adjusted for cost of living in the regression equation to predict satisfaction levels. Then we might actually learn something.

Ironically, this is one instance where a naive application of the satisfaction scores - a simple table of the mean satisfaction scores by state - may actually be more accurate and representative than the subjective coefficients calculated by the authors. I'm not sure how the mean satisfaction score for New York compares to the mean satisfaction score for Louisiana, but I'd be amazed if New York scored lower than Louisiana, let alone if New York was the lowest of all states. Now that would be surprising.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Just add insult

I linked to this on Twitter earlier today, but Tehelka's second fiction issue is now online. I have to say it's a decidedly mixed bag: a couple of stories that are tone-deaf and frankly unreadable, and quite a few that while not bad, exactly, are fairly meh (see here, here and here).

Interestingly, the two translated stories - Charu Nivedita's Morgue Keeper and Gaurav Solanki's Beyond Fear - struck me as being among the best of the bunch, demonstrating both an inventiveness and an emotional depth largely missing from their English counterparts. Whether that says something about the gap between regional literature and Indian writing in English, or is just coincidence, I'll leave up to you.

My own favorite though (aside from this, obviously) was Kuzhali Manickavel's punchy, quick-witted and exhilarating Anarch. Now there's a voice I want to read more of.

Upper Class Twitter of the Year

So I finally decided to try out this Twitter thing.

Not that I have any intention of joining in any conversations or anything - I just figured it was the most efficient way to share poems I find on the web and other such bric-a-brac. We'll see how it goes.

Obviously it's going to take me a while to figure out a) how this thing works and b) what I want to do with it, but in the meantime suggestions are welcome.

P.S. The title of this post is, of course, a reference to this.

Atropos Nothing

We are puppets of our arteries. The blood not circulation but dance.

Cut the strings and the body falls. Clear. Free.

Remember Marsyas.

Better to be a liberated heap than an upright slave. Or is it?

The freedom of the severed kite.

A cut above. The rest.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Liu Xiaobo

Via the Pen American Center, a petition demanding the release of Chinese activist Liu Xiaobo.


You say I have too many certainties. That I only need one.

I'm not so sure.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

He collects poems

like a magpie lining the
bare nest of his heart.

The fear of dying... just a special case of stage fright.

Friday, December 18, 2009


I had to let them go.

It was the right thing to do. I didn't want to hold them back, after all. And things between us had been so awkward lately - it was clear they needed their own space.

Still, it's hard. I'd got used to having them around.

What I need is a hobby. Something to take my mind off it.

Maybe gardening.

Never judge a book by its lover

via Book Bench, this handy list of authorial stereotypes

Apparently I'm a confirmed 90's literati with good taste in music, wine and bondage who didn't fit in as a kid, as a result of which I now avoid cream cheese with tenacity and thinks John Cusack movies are dubious, but who Lauren Leto would like to sleep with anyway (and who can blame her).

I'm also a high-school professor with either an undergraduate degree in English or a master's degree in French (I can't remember which because I spent most of college making out with other girls and writing it all down in a journal), but we'll let that pass.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009


You know you've been living in Minneapolis too long when you check the temperature outside and it's 10 F (that's -12 C, btw) and you think "Ah! A warm day."


In other news, don't miss this wonderful live chat with Lydia Davis over at the Book Bench blog. The woman writes short short fiction, loves Bach, Beckett and the piano, says most of what she writes is finished quickly and used and spends time arranging her stories but is then happy for people to jump back and forth through them. Sound like anyone we know?

Sunday, December 13, 2009

A moment's happiness

"Are you happy?"

"You mean now, in this moment? Or generally, in life?"

"Either. Both."

"Well, I'm happy right now."

"And in life?"

"I guess. On average."

"Why are you happy?"

"Because I'm with you."

"No, seriously."

"I don't know. I just am. Aren't you?"



"Right now? Or in life?"

"Right now."

"I don't know."

"How can you not know?"

"Do you always know when you're happy?"

"I know when I'm not."

"Well, I know that I'm not not happy. I just don't know if I am."

"Don't you like being with me?"

"Of course I do. Being with you makes me really happy."


"I guess I'm happy that you're you, but I'm not happy that I'm me."

"You'd be happier I were with someone else?"

"No. I'd be happier if you were with me and I was someone else."


"Someone different."

"Different how?"

"I don't know. More alive. More capable of happiness. Someone who wouldn't sit here with you feeling sad."

"So you're sitting here feeling sad because you're not someone who wouldn't sit here feeling sad."

"I guess."

"You're crazy, you know."

"I know. Does it make you less happy to be with me, knowing that."

"On the contrary, it makes me happier."

"How come?"

"I like being with a crazy person."


"It's exciting."


"I don't know. Because there's always the chance of something new. Unexpected."

"And you like that?"


"But I thought you were perfectly happy just the way we are."

"I didn't say I was perfectly happy. There's no such thing as perfect happiness."

"But you're happy?"


"Yet you'd like for something new and unexpected to happen? You'd like for things to change?"

"No. I'd hate for things to change. I just like knowing that there's the possibility that they might."

"You're pretty crazy yourself you know."

"I'm not. I'm just philosophical."

"There's a difference?"

"Of course there is."


"I don't know. I just know there is."

"How can you know something when you don't know it?"

"Okay, fine, I dream there is."

"Any moment now you're going to quote Hamlet at me, aren't you?"

"I was thinking about it."

"I could tell."

"You can always tell."

"I know. It's great isn't it?"

"It's special."

"It's why being with you makes me feel..."



"I feel philosophical being with you too."

"I know. Crazy, isn't it?"

In Store

The footage from the security cam shows that girl caught shoplifting had been eyeing you with interest for some time. Was she hoping you'd notice her, or making sure you didn't? There's no way to tell now, which is why you take her number, promise to call. After all, she has nimble fingers, bad judgment and indifferent taste. What more could you ask for? You consider that this might be love but discount the possibility, there being too many left over from last year. With every chance you buy you get a second one free, is how you put it to the young couple looking shy and lost and happy by the sporting Good, before directing them to Aisle 15, which is where the weddings are. "Did you take this modem to boost your illegally stolen wi-fi?" you ask the girl, and she says she did, so by the power of your company vest you take it away from her, show her to door, where she proceeds to inform you that you may now kiss her ass, but you don't take it personally because you're still thinking about what a great story this would make to tell the grandchildren the two of you are never going to have.

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

On Meaning

A spotlight means. The sun is.

A fool

is just someone the angels are jealous of.

Curiosity did not kill the cat. The cat died because it was mortal. Which is also why it was curious.

Monday, December 07, 2009

Disturbing the peace

A new beginning. A sky scraped clean.

A man in a tie and shirtsleeves is sitting on the steps of a brownstone on 74th street, a briefcase between his knees, his head thrown back.

At first I think he's having trouble breathing. An asthma attack? Then I realize he's laughing, laughing silently, uncontrollably. Laughter like a nosebleed. The kind that just won't stop.

Somewhere far off I hear the sirens approaching. Someone must have called the cops.

I'd better get out of here before things turn beautiful.

Friday, December 04, 2009

Falstaff Culture Tip # 308

Never, ever sit in the front row at a Taiko performance.

Watching the drummers from five feet away is an incredible experience, but your ribs ache for hours afterwards from the pounding they take.

Disaster 'Poetry'

Remember The Tay Bridge Disaster?

Well, McGonagall's poem now has a desi equivalent, in the shape of this piece of doggerel posted on the I'm a Bhopali site. Ms. Zaidi's poem is like an object lesson in the writing of juvenile verse - uninteresting rhymes[1], trite images, uncertain tone, lines that don't scan and the overwhelming impression that any sense the verse may once have had has been subordinated to the rhyme scheme. Old William would have been proud.


By contrast, the regular press actually managed to turn out a couple of good articles for the occasion, including a surprisingly decent NY Times Op-ed piece by Suketu Mehta and Indra Sinha's article for the Guardian. It's almost enough to restore one's faith in the MSM.

[1] For a contemporary example of what interesting rhymes might look (and sound) like, see here.

Thursday, December 03, 2009


In Memoriam Dec 3, 1984.

Because it goes
too easily unnoticed

is toxic but invisible,
impossible to touch, taste, smell or hear

impossible not to feel.

Because it pricks at our eyes,
corrupts our blood,

fills our lungs
until they refuse to balance,

weighs down our hearts.

Because it is passed down
from generation to generation

until death becomes
a byproduct

irrelevant yet necessary.

Because it's in the air
we continue to breathe,

the excuses we swallow,
the tears

we do not cry.

[Part of this (1)]

[1] Sort of. I'm not sure I entirely approve of the whole 'I'm a Bhopali' shtick - it strikes me as trivializing the suffering of the real victims. Which doesn't mean, of course, that the anniversary should go unmarked. Hence the post.

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Mental Ears

"The discourses of modernism in Western poetics make steeper descents into sub-intelligibility; and in my own case I am frequently accused of having more or less altogether taken leave of discernible sense. In fact I believe this accusation to be more or less true, and not to me alarmingly so, because what for so long has seemed the arduous royal road into the domain of poetry ("what does it mean?") seems less and less and unavoidably necessary precondition for successful reading. The task, however, is not to subside into distracted ingenious playfulness with the lexicon and cross-inflectional idiomatics, but to write and read with maximum focused intelligence and passion, each of these two aspects bearing so strongly into the other as to fuse them into the enhanced state once in an old-fashioned way termed the province of the imagination. "Mental ears" do not relegate us to the domain of performative sonority, nor do they elevate us into the paramount abstraction of inferred ideas and beliefs: they are an intense hybrid and I treat them as the essential equipment for reading poetry in today's post-traditional world space"


"I should not wish to claim that this selection was in any sense deliberate or conscious; if the underlying textual features exist it is because poets are tuned into their language structures to an unusual degree of linguistic susceptibility. Such features are neither invented nor discovered, they are disclosed."

- J.H. Prynne 'Mental Ears and Poetic Work', Chicago Review 55:1 2010

And because Prynne's essay references them, and because it made me go back and rediscover these exquisite lines:

"That day I oft remember, when from sleep
I first awaked, and found myself reposed,
Under a shade, on flowers, much wondering where
And what I was, whence thither brought, and how.
Not distant far from thence a murmuring sound
Of waters issued from a cave, and spread,
Into a liquid plain; then stood unmoved,
Pure as the expanse of Heaven. I thither went
With unexperienced thought, and laid me down
On the green bank, to look into the clear
Smooth lake, that to me seemed another sky.
As I bent down to look, just opposite
A Shape within the watery gleam appeared,
Bending to look on me. I started back,
It started back; but pleased as I soon returned,
Pleased it returned as soon with answering looks
Of sympathy and love."

- Milton, Paradise Lost, Book IV


n. A line or set of lines that really don't fit in the poem but are so beautiful otherwise that you can't bring yourself to take them out.

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Leftover Emotions

Some say they won't keep. Others that they're better the next day.

Sharp and mild, bitter and sweet. Sometimes I store them up all week, bring them all out on Sunday. A real family meal.

Left too long in the fridge happiness curdles to nostalgia, turns green with envy.

Leave space in your heart. I've saved us some regrets for afterwards.

Nothing special, you understand. Just a little something I had put by.