Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Accounting for things

More duties of the sort I described here require me to be away from "here" again for the next day or so, but I have the urge to post some little something, for some reason. More substantive posting to appear here when I return.

A couple of weeks ago, the Mrs., her father and I watched the last episode of The Sopranos together (we'll just set aside for the moment the strangeness of watching that episode when I've never seen a single Sopranos episode in its entirety), and somehow afterward we got on the subject of Cormac McCarthy's novel No Country for Old Men. My father-in-law said it sounded like something he'd like to read, so last week we got him a copy. And this past Saturday, my baby-wrangling duties greatly reduced, I went over to his place to help him assemble his hydraulic above-ground lift for cars (10- and 15-foot sections of cast iron of sufficient thickness to lift and support full-size cars and trucks (one of the top six models here) are really, really heavy), and while there, he told me that he was "addicted to that book."

Good to hear but otherwise unremarkable, you are thinking. Well, yes, except for that fact that the Mrs. later pointed out to me that in her memory she had never before seen her father read a book for pleasure. She's happy that he's enjoying the novel but can't get her head around the fact that this man she thought she knew has so caught her by surprise. Personally, I think it's her surprise that is the surprise here; though not highly educated, her father is an intelligent, thoughtful man. For his part, if he is also surprised by his enjoying the novel, he hasn't shared that with us. Even so, there's still the fact that her father has not been a reader for most of his adult life and now, seemingly out of the blue, he appears to want to become one (on Sunday, he asked me more about McCarthy, and after describing The Road to him, he said he thought he might like to read that as well). How to account for that?

My theory is that while, as he more than proved on Saturday, at 63 my father-in-law is much stronger than I have ever been or will ever be, he mentioned that day and in the past that his strength is not what it once was. But he's not willing, when the day eventually comes, just to fill the hours by plopping down in front of the television, either--he doesn't merely enjoy physical activity; his projects are of the problem-solving sort. They engage him intellectually every bit as much as they do physically. So, books. Maybe.

I know that one's more temporal predilections can change over time. But what about their underlying foundations--one's personality: apart from the experience of severe emotional or physical trauma, does that change as well? Or is the personality more like a sort of partly-exposed geological formation: as we grow older and experience more, different "sides" of us emerge, always there but, till a certain time, unexposed even to ourselves?

Well. It's not like my father-in-law's (apparent) new appreciation for books is causing us to think we need to lock our doors at night or something. Whatever the explanation, this is a Good Thing--for him obviously, and for the Mrs. and me because it presents us with a whole range of gift-giving options that we hadn't had before.

Two more tidbits having to do with Accounting for Things:

Via Clusterflock comes something called the Dunning-Kruger Effect, defined as "the phenomenon whereby people who have little knowledge systematically think that they know more than others who have much more knowledge." "Knowledge," by the way, doesn't pertain here only to the factual: "Across 4 studies, the authors found that participants scoring in the bottom quartile on tests of humor, grammar, and logic grossly overestimated their test performance and ability. Although test scores put them in the 12th percentile, they estimated themselves to be in the 62nd." (my emphasis)

Here's my question: we've all run into people who think they're funnier than they in fact are, and painful encounters they are, too. But how can one measure a sense of humor empirically? I've been puzzling over this all morning.

The other tidbit: Via the comments section for this post at Acephalous comes my first awareness of something called the Erdös-Bacon Number: "the sum of one's Erdős number—which measures the 'collaborative distance' in authoring mathematical papers between that individual and Hungarian mathematician Paul Erdős—and one's Bacon number—which represents the number of links, through roles in films, by which the individual is separated from actor Kevin Bacon." This is, in the grand scheme of things, a lesser piece of information to have than that concerning the Dunning-Kruger Effect--imagine hurling that little phrase at your blow-hard colleagues the next time you win, say, a debate over "who/whom" usage--but it's still fascinating to ponder the concept of the leisure time required to come up with such things.

He says, as he prepares to post yet another entry to a blog that is one day short of being 3 years and 4 months old.


R. Sherman said...

As soon as I leave "here," I'm going to vote. A very humble stump speech, you give.

McCarthy's going to have to start paying you commissions on all the new "converts" you're bringing into the fold. I actually re-read No Country again this past weekend. I actually think it's my favorite though I've got a couple of more to get through in my copious free time.

This post is filled with things I wish I had time to comment on. I'll have to revisit this later.


Bonnie J said...

Whoa, slow down there. You have given me so much to think about and much I want to comment upon.

First, I have been reviewing books for several years for a lifetime learning program at the local university. Most of the participants are retirees. Last year I chose "No Country for Old Men" for them to read and we discussed it. I chose it because I have been a McCarthy fan for years; I had loved this book and had given it to several family members for gifts. Most of them are male lawyers practicing here in West Texas. My reading group were mixed in their reactions. Some found it too violent, others thought it difficult to read. My brother-in-law who reads several hundred parole files a week became frustrated because as a speed reader, he had to stop to figure out where the puntuation should have been.
Even though I am female and eleigible for Social Security, I didn't realize so many thought of this as appealing to the masculine ( as opposed to chick books, I assume).

I thought his characters were so terribly well drawn, and the vernacular was perfect. I felt I had know at least their relatives, except for the psychotic criminal.
And the contemporary and universal themes were so thought provoking.

I haven't read "The Road" yet because I think it may be very dark and I need to be in a really positive frame of mind when I start reading it.

As for your father-in-law having a personality change...I suggest it is a change in the phases and stages of life. We aren't the same people we were when we were 20, or 30 or 40. And now that we may have to live a lot longer (I have an aunt who is 106 1/2) we might as well figure out what to do after the career and raising a family. There is just so much walking along the beach into the sunset or playing poker or mah jong to be done.

Sorry this is so long, but you set the bar.

John B. said...

Thanks to both of you for commenting.

Randall, re the commissions for converts to McCarthy: I'll just be sincere here and say that pointing someone in the general direction of Good Writing and having that person like it is more than sufficient payment.

Interestingly, I also reread No Country these past couple of days because my father-in-law kept asking me questions about it that I couldn't remember the answers to (I read it when it first came out). Though I'm still not of the opinion that it's his best work, I was more impressed with it this time around--as Bonnie notes, the man's ear for dialogue is simply unmatched--and not just for the vernacular of West Texas, but just for how the dynamic of conversation works: his characters mis-hear each other, ask to have something repeated, and more relaxed moments meander about a bit--the sort of thing you just don't see in fiction. Of the writers I know well, only DeLillo comes, though his conversation doesn't capture that dynamic like McCarthy's does.

Bonnie: I used to think of McCarthy as being a guy's sort of writer, but my wife really likes him, and through this blog and in other ways via the Internet I've encountered quite a few women who admire him, too. And, it was from a woman student at Rice that I first heard of McCarthy (she had written her master's thesis on him). So: y'all are out there.

The kindest thing I think anyone can say to me is that I make him/her think . . . so long, of course, that the thing being thought isn't something like, "Why hasn't somebody clued this boy in on how dense he is?" So, thank you.