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Archive for October, 2009

The above re-creation represents the horrible fate of a loyal Yorkie in Jonathan Safran Foer’s plan for canines.  Reading my Weekend Wall Street Journal online, I came across a poorly written piece by Foer that seemed to advocate the human eating of dogs.  As if we did not have enough to worry about regarding the state of contemporary literature, now over-hyped young writers (frustrated with their own limits in prose and poesy and inebriated with a strange vegetarian obsession) might actually begin the unthinkable and succeed in stimulating a subversive nationwide campaign that targets canines for roasting, flambaying, frying and sauteing in an effort to protect factory-farmed animals.  I for one will resist mightily before ending up the main course at Sunday brunch in Brooklyn Heights surrounded by MFAs griping about book advances and pulling gristle from their stylishly crooked teeth while applauding themselves for eating an Upper West Side pooch.  Mr. Foer, if you were serious about making your point and not merely displaying your overly illuminated prose, you shouldn’t have used so much ironical sauce.

Below is my response from the Wall Street Journal’s website (I hope they have the courage to print it even if the author is a dog):

I would rather eat Jonathan Safran Foer than eat a dog.  He might even be tasty.  Though the flavor would probably be as unmemorable as this essay which while attempting (I hope) a kind of Swiftian punch never quite made its point nor did anything very well for that matter other than shock with the lurid headline and remind us that this crop of young writers seems to have been strangled in their cribs by their own irony.  If Mr. Foer is serious and not actually doing a satirical turn here, then I say: Dogs of the world unite and get the barbecue ready.  Anthony Bourdain will be manning the grill.
Sincerely,
Randolph

Everyone who reads my books and this blog should know that I am a level-headed Labrador retriever, but even Yours Truly has a point beyond which he should not be pushed.

Here’s Foer’s piece.

Here’s  a rancher who suggests a more measured response.

October 31st, 2009
1:57 am


Well, there’s Sören (above) looking as ambiguous as ever… and why not?  Happiness, as he radically suggested (radical to most of us moderns) is no simple matter.  For example, he argued that one could be “happy” but still be in a state of spiritual despair.  Happiness might even distract us from things of ultimate meaning.  These deeper questions are often dismissed as mere philosophy, but there is nothing “mere” about philosophy, I think, nothing trivial about attempting to organize or understand why and how we live, and today I have been thinking alot in my cozy corner of our Manhattan apartment, mulling over a compelling blog post about Kierkegaard and happiness that I came across at www.nytimes.com.  I’d encourage you to take a look –the writer is a philosophy professor, an expert on Kierkegaard and a boxing trainer.  It’s here, but let me give you a sample:

These days, confide to someone that you are in despair and he or she will likely suggest that you seek out professional help for your depression. While despair used to be classified as one of the seven deadly sins, it has now been medicalized and folded into the concept of clinical depression. If Kierkegaard were on Facebook or could post a You Tube video, he would certainly complain that we, who have listened to Prozac, have become deaf to the ancient distinction between psychological and spiritual disorders, between depression and despair.

There is abundant chatter today about “being spiritual” but scarcely anyone believes that a person can be of troubled mind and healthy spirit. Nor can we fathom the idea that the happy wanderer, who is all smiles and has accomplished everything on his or her self-fulfillment list, is, in fact, a case of despair. But while Kierkegaard would have agreed that happiness and melancholy are mutually exclusive, he warns, “Happiness is the greatest hiding place for despair.”

I find the last sentence to be as true as it is forcefully delivered.  How often in my adventures –I think of the unfortunate Kwo-Bo expert and con artist Beatrice particularly– are we (man and dog alike) driven by some external vision of self.  Supported by almost behavioral happiness, we charge on, happy as measured by our own limited capacity for measuring such things until the rug is pulled from beneath our feet by events or perhaps simply by an unexpected upwelling of perceived despair (perceived, because it was likely always there)…  In my experience, it is only at that extreme that we have the opportunity to discover something that the Times’ author doesn’t mention: namely joy.  Joy, it seems to me, is quite different from happiness.  Joy isn’t possible without some recognition of one’s genuine self.  That’s why some people –usually bitter, closed-up types with their finger firmly on the controlled pulse of propriety– disdain my kind.  To be joyous, you need to not only acknowledge your limitations, but somehow embrace them in the present and at unexpected moments (i.e., the joyous rapture of a roll in the sidewalk pate after a visit to the groomer will once again reunite the haughtiest dog with the smelly, yet grand, reality of his life and nature).  Yes, joy is a wholly good thing… but, as Sören points out, happiness might not be.

I found this photograph of a Kierkegaard admirer taking a necessary break from some vigorous reflection:

October 29th, 2009
10:33 pm

Having snuffled around the base of my favorite London plane tree just inside the 90th street gate and replete with renewed autumnal bibliophilia (I find a New York fall always heightens my love of books), Harry left me to an empty apartment and the Internet that bottomless pit of edification and squandered time. I revisited the above video confection which if you have not already seen it is well worth a glance. It is both very funny and offers food for reflection on the debate between paper books and digital. Enjoy.

October 27th, 2009
4:14 pm

Being an unorthodox dog, I have decided to make my various annual resolutions at times other than the hypothyrodially challenged first of January.  For me the post-holiday landscape in Manhattan is often too dismal to behold and so filled with post-feast indigestion that trying to get anything done is near impossible.  Therefore, I’ve decided to implement at least one resolution in the glorious New York autumn before October is even done: to wit, Yours Truly has begun to venture out into the web and offer his two cents on various blogs.

To this end, I joined book blogs and soon found myself voicing an opinion about the importance of book covers.  I pass that opinion on here because I surprised myself with observations that I think may be entertaining and illuminating to the readers of this blog about both the literary ideals and the publishing realities of cover creation.  Here is that post pasted below and linked here:

Speaking from my amanuensis’ J.F.’s experience with his own published books, the ideal situation is when the person designing the cover has read and genuinely understood the work and attempted to capture its spirit on the cover. I use the word “spirit” because, after all, no book can be entirely captured by a visual or tactile interpretation (just as no book can ever be fully realized by a movie and certainly not by the new-fangled “vook”), but what can be captured, I think, is that distinct spirit of the work, even perhaps the strong suggestion of the particular “universe” the author has created within the pages. The covers of a re-release of Evelyn Waugh’s works a decade or go in which the color scheme, typography and use of Waugh’s own sketching style went a long way to promise that universe. Less successful were the softback re-releases of many of Graham Greene’s entertainments that emphasized the pulpy over the literary (much as a 1960s dime back of Faulkner’s Intruder in the Dust I once came across at a Manhattan sidewalk sale (snout level) ignored that book’s complexity in favor of the lurid threat of midnight violence in the Deep South with the hint of a bodice ripping somewhere in the dusty background).
One other observation I’d like to add is that many readers don’t realize just what little control authors have over the way their books turn out (i.e., cover art, marketing, even genre) and, on behalf of those authors who at this moment are cursing themselves in dim garrets for not seeing certain publisher warning signs as their books were improperly designed, I’d implore all readers to take the cover and the marketed genre seriously, but the words inside the cover even more so. Still, a well-done cover for an excellent book is a joy to behold.

To add some more support to this comment, please compare the above images of the covers of the translated version of A Dog About Town and A Dog Among Diplomats published in Japan with the American covers in the sidebar to the right.  Am I big in Japan?  Perhaps, but in a decidely more Hello-Kitty way than the Hello-Dante-Loving-Skeptic-With-A-Falstaffian-Appetite-For-Spare-Ribs image that I myself perceive when chancing to pass a mirror in Manhattan.

On a technical note, I believe that the blog comments have finally been fixed.  I look forward to everyone’s thoughts.

October 25th, 2009
11:47 pm

In anticipation of the above book (#3 in the series), Rhapsody In Books, a wonderful spot to visit on this our Internet, is running an exciting contest over the next two weeks that will result (when all the dust has settled on November 10th) in the presentation of a total of six books (1 per winner –see Rhapsody’s site for the rules lest your Manhattan canis familiaris, always a bit fuzzy on the numbers, has erred in the contest details).  Most important, good luck.

In another area entirely, I find myself mulling over David Brooks’ musings in the Times today in which he speaks about psychology’s triumph over philosophical interpretations of the self.  As my own reflections on sidewalk pate indicate (i.e., how I can lose myself to my lower natures), I am sympathetic to the idea that we have many “selves” inside of us, but I don’t accept that our identity is so provisional that it is merely floating along on the current of events ready to be radically altered by the next jag in the road.  We are made of more solid stuff.  Besides, there is nothing really new about Brooks’ observations save that they reflect a certain idolatry of the technocratic or academic kind (after all, didn ‘t T.S. say something about preparing a face to meet the faces that we meet…?  Ah, but that was a poem so it doesn’t count).

I would have commented on the post at their website, but, unfortunately, past experience has shown me that The New York Times is “doggist”.  No matter how hard I try, no matter how chafed my nose becomes in punching out some kind of thoughtful response on my crimped keyboard, the New York Times must have a strict No Dogs Allowed Policy because my contributions are never posted.  Fortunately, access to all creatures great and small will never be denied at A Dog About Town (once I figure out how to make the comments work).  Blogging aardvarks, precocious hamsters, insightful felines…   All are welcome here.

October 20th, 2009
5:20 pm

“If it’s just the one after dinner I don’t mind.”

Chilly weather continues in our fair city, but both of us have been well fed with Chinese take out and are gustatorially content.  Harry is asleep in the La-Z-Boy while the television drones on (he’s snoring, in fact, I hope it’s not apnea).

Meanwhile, I’m in the middle of a fascinating article in a recent New Yorker (where the above cartoon appears).  Empirical and logical as you likely know I am, I have often spoken about that other murkier aspect of our existence which a dog is perhaps more prone to acknowledge because of our uncanny olfactories and a certain closeness to the natural world: i.e., that sometimes intuition (even superstition) can be a better guide (or at least a corrective) to this still little understood (and clearly troubled) world.  Essentially, the New Yorker article tackles this question through the lens of one financial prognosticator who discovered a fascinating pattern beneath the surface of things.  Of course, dogs and humans are inclined to find patterns among all the seeming chaos, but this man has been uncannily accurate with a system built around pi.  Yes, there are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy. I’m pasting the abstract below and here’s the link for all those interested.

ABSTRACT: ANNALS OF FINANCE about Martin Armstrong, cycle theory, and the financial markets. One day, in a newspaper, the young Martin Armstrong came across a list of financial panics between 1683 and 1907. He found that, on average, there had been a panic every 8.6 years. As he read more, he began to suspect that 8.6 was a highly significant number. In the early seventies, Armstrong became a trader and dealer in gold, and began compiling forecasts about commodities and currencies, which he sent out to clients. Over time, forecasting became his business. He constructed what he called an Economic Confidence Model, which he relied on to predict an upturn in the price of commodities in the early days of 1977. It worked. Later, he realized that 8.6 years was exactly three thousand one hundred and forty-one days: 3,141, the number pi times a thousand. If pi was essential to the physical world, perhaps it somehow governed the markets. Pi suggested some future dates of significance, which Armstrong watched carefully as they approached: December, 1989, which marked the Nikkei’s peak before it crashed; July, 1998, the high point in the S & P, just before a Russian default broke the giant hedge fund Long Term Capital management. In 1999, Armstrong published a report explaining the part pi had played in his calculations. That year, he was charged with defrauding Japanese investors of billions of dollars. Armstrong has now spent more than nine years in jail. Discusses the differences between fundamental analysis and technical analysis of the financial markets. Cycle theory is a kind of Gnostic offshoot of technical analysis. Mentions other thinkers who have studied cycles and market timing, including Nikolai Kondratiev, Joseph Schumpeter, Bill Erman, and Arch Crawford. The writer was told repeatedly that some of the biggest investors out there view even the wackier cycle theories with respect. Tells about Edward R. Dewey, a cycle theorist who was the chief economic analyst for the Department of Commerce under Herbert Hoover. In the forties, he formed the Foundation for the Study of Cycles, which endeavored to collect and process as much cycle data as possible. Discusses Fibonacci and the idea that such phenomena as the spirals in the nautilus shells, hurricanes, and galaxies; branches of trees, leaf veins, skeletal and circulatory systems; and the distribution of flower petals and brain waves conform to something called the golden ratio. Also mentions the theories of Ralph Nelson Elliott and Robert Prechter. Tells about Armstrong’s arrest and gives details of the criminal case against him. Writer visits Armstrong at the low-security prison camp on the Fort Dix military base where he is being held.

October 19th, 2009
10:53 pm

Fall continues apace in Manhattan.  There have been several moments when a mixture of heady autumnal smells (i.e., the gradual dying of Central Park foliage mixed with the sudden pungency of street vendors and a certain clarity of light in the air) have conspired to drive me into a kind of seasonal euphoria (best summed up I think by Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong’s achievement: Autumn in New York) .

But with a Nor’easter expected to deluge the city and my owner visiting the Frick for a closer look at the Watteu to Degas exhibit,  I have taken the opportunity to review today’s Times online and enjoyed a discussion on how we read now vis a vis digital media, et cet.

According to one participant in the discussion, Wordsworth was forever being sucked into the quotidien morass by the newspapers of his day (something Yours Truly identifies with since there have been too many moments when Dante has gone ignored in favor of the latest shocking headline from our New York tabloids).

My concern from all of this is not how we read, but how we think when we read.  It is the thinking that makes the reading valuable.  Particularly today, when the emphasis is often on how we feel about what we read not how we think.  This might be a false distinction given our discoveries in brain science, but, perhaps, it is still a valuable one, suggesting a kind of discipline that can offer us another window for perceiving the world beyond our immediate likes and dislikes.  After all, the best things have a way of revealing themselves gradually and upon reflection after we’ve had some time to weigh the work.  To read a great writer, I’ve heard it said, is to be forced to learn a new language … do contemporary readers have the patience, discipline and, yes, humility to do this?  Or are they content with easier illumination?  These are not absolutes.  While my own writerly tone might sometimes veer to the snobbish, my hope is that the generous reader will always find a vigorous chin rub to be had in my prose and a happy roll in the sidewalk pate.  Still, self-improvement doesn’t just happen on a sliding scale of happy, happy, joy, joy.  After all, each of us only have one self and one life to improve.

Alas, I’ve gone on too long –the thoughts of a wet dog in a wet season…  Here is that Times’ discussion (only possible because it is digital), the opening paragraphs are below and followed by one particular paragraph that appealed to my stoical sensibility:

Writing and reading — from newspapers to novels, academic reports to gossip magazines — are migrating ever faster to digital screens, like laptops, Kindles and cellphones. Traditional book publishers are putting out “vooks,” which place videos in electronic text that can be read online or on an iPhone. Others are republishing old books in electronic form. And libraries, responding to demand, are offering more e-books for download.

Is there a difference in the way the brain takes in or absorbs information when it is presented electronically versus on paper? Does the reading experience change, from retention to comprehension, depending on the medium?

FROM SANDRA AAMODT, Former editor of Nature Neuroscience:

To a great extent, the computer’s usefulness for serious reading depends on the user’s strength of character. Distractions abound on most people’s computer screens. The reading speed reported in academic studies does not include delays induced by clicking away from the text to see the new email that just arrived or check out what’s new on your favorite blog. In one study, workers switched tasks about every three minutes and took over 23 minutes on average to return to a task. Frequent task switching costs time and interferes with the concentration needed to think deeply about what you read.

October 15th, 2009
5:26 pm

Like Sir Winston above, I too have had a substantial amount of experience with “Black Dog Syndrome.”  Many an afternoon, I have struggled to rise from my corner of our cozy Manhattan apartment only to be pulled into the oblivion of another nap in the sliver of late day sun that manages to pierce the air shaft.  The “Black Dog Syndrome” addressed in the worthy New York Times article below suggests a different  meaning and it’s one that I’m not personally familiar with unless we count the handful of times a Cavalier King Charles spaniel has garnered more attention than Yours Truly at the dog run.   Enjoy.  I am off now for an appointment with autumn in New York.


October 13, 2009, 11:30 am

Black Dog Syndrome

The conjecture that black dogs (and cats) are less likely to be adopted from rescue shelters than animals of other colors.

“They’re just as friendly and just as furry, but black dogs sitting in animal shelters are often overlooked by prospective pet owners, according to animal rescue professionals who have dubbed the problem the ‘black dog syndrome,’” Emily Friedman reported for ABC News.

According to Friedman, shelter workers believe that black dogs and cats may be being overlooked due to superstition; because they are less photogenic; or because they are considered frightening.

For some shelters, the problem is so bad that they’ve developed special promotions to help draw attention to their black pooches.

In Raleigh, N.C., the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals shelter in Wake County offers a discount on adoption fees to people who opt for black dogs. And for black cats, Friedman wrote:

The shelter developed a special portion of their Web site dedicated to these black cats and gave them each a superhero nickname, handmade them capes, and photographed them in the costumes.

“Many times, the black cats with no markings, much like the black dogs, appear to be a little bit plain, even though they’re bursting with personality,” said Hancock [the shelter's executive director], “So we have to accentuate that.”

The term “black dog syndrome” is not new, and Friedman noted:

Julie Morris, the senior vice president of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, says that while the Black Dog Syndrome is talked about a lot, there are no hard numbers to support the theory.

According to Morris, it may simply be that there are more black dogs in the first instance, or that they are rejected because of their size – black dogs, apparently, tend to be larger.

[A number of people, including Samuel Johnson and Winston Churchill, have used the term “black dog” to describe their depression.]

October 13th, 2009
4:43 pm