Tuesday, August 2, 2011

To Debt

Politicians may come and go, but debt is forever. In tribute to today's debt ceiling bill, here is a selection of poetry by the Roman epigrammatic poet Martial (40-104 AD). He was born in Bilbilis, Spain and after 64 A.D. he lived in Rome.

A Bargain

His cloak is brand-new, the best Tyrian hue,
He has got a good bargain I know.
‘Was it cheap?’ do you say? Well, of course, he won't pay,
And what is ten thousand— to owe?

To Gaius

I chanced to ask a loan—a hundred merely;
E'en as a gift that should not task severely
A wealthy friend, and so I asked him, knowing
His pockets bulge with cash to overflowing.
‘Go to the Bar,’ says he, ‘get rich by pleading’—
'Tis cash, not counsel, Gaius, that I'm needing.

A Rich Creditor

You dun me for ten pounds I owe, and on the petty grounds
That some one else has failed, and so you lose two hundred pounds,
But why exact from me the dues unpaid by other men?
For if two hundred you can lose, why, you can lose the ten.

To Afer

‘One thousand pounds Coranus owes to me,
Mancinus two, and Titius owes three,
Albinus owes just twice as much, and then
Sabinus and Serranus each owe ten;
My flats and farms give thirty thousand clear,
My Parma sheep bring sixty in each year’—
That's how you talk, and every day's the same;
I know it better than I know my name.
Unpaid I can no more your tales endure;
They bring a nausea only cash can cure.

The Proof of Friendship

You say you're my friend, but you never will lend
E'en a trifle: it's always ‘No, No’!
Your coffers are brimming, your Nile-fields are swimming
With plenty, while I hungry go.
When winter draws nigh do you ever supply
Me with gown, or a fat present make?
No proof can I find of your friendship but wind:
And that in my face you will break.

True Kindness

You gave him back his bond, but why
Should you suppose you gave thereby
The money that was due?
He owed the hundred pounds before?
To please him lend him twenty more—
And keep the I O U.

Debt Be Not Proud

Debt be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadfull, for, thou art not soe,
For, those, whom thou think'st, thou dost overthrow,
Fault not, poore debt, nor canst thou bury mee.
From triplet A's, we'll never slip to bee,
Much pleasure, from thy issue, much more must flow,
And soonest our accounts of thee doe grow.
Issue forth bonds, and proceed treasurie.
Thou art slave to Fate, Chance, kings, and desperate men,
And dost with parties, warre, and lobbying dwell,
And stimulus can make us spend as well,
And better spend than starve; why swell'st thou then?
No tax increases, but let spending grow:
Ceiling shall bind no more; debt, thou shalt owe.

Based on the 17th Century poem Death Be Not Proud (or Divine Sonnet X) by John Donne

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Debt Ceiling Blame Game

Who will bear the blame for the debt ceiling mess?

MSN has already put out an "unscientific poll" of self-selected readers of MSN Money. I have another metric (also quickly designed, less than perfect scientific rigor, but informative and interesting). I looked at Google search volume data. For whom did people search when they searched for the debt ceiling? Who was most strongly associated with the debt ceiling situation?

Searches containing the words debt ceiling and Obama were far more common than searches containing the words debt ceiling and Congress, Reid, Boehner, Senate, or House. (See the graph at the bottom of the post.) Obama is most strongly associated with the debt ceiling and the second runner up is the House. Over the month of July, Obama debt ceiling searches were over three times as common as House debt ceiling searches.

President Obama's party may be more in the clear, however. In July, people were about 2.5 times more likely to search for debt ceiling and Republicans or conservatives than for debt ceiling and liberals or Democrats.

Now, association does not necessarily imply blame, but these findings are qualitatively similar to the findings of the MSN poll which did specifically ask about blame. The Google results seem to provide some confirmation to the often-repeated political wisdom that the public sees the President as ultimately responsible for the economy.

Papal Economic Teachings

A papal encyclical is written by the Pope to address some issue of priority. Encyclicals offer critique and counsel, pointing out problems and suggesting solutions. They tend to be quite scholarly in tone and extensively researched and thought out. The Industrial Revolution prompted the first of many economics-related encyclicals. Here are some of the main ones in chronological order:

Rerum Novarum (On the Condition of Labor)
1891, Pope Leo XIII – Addresses the plight of workers in the wake of the Industrial Revolution, touching on socialism, unbridled capitalism, a living wage, workers’ rights, support for unions, and a rejection of class struggle.

Quadragesimo Anno (On the Reconstruction of the Social Order) 1931, Pope Pius XI – Written during Great Depression, offers an update on the state of labor and industrialization, and strong critiques of communism, unrestrained capitalism, class conflict, and inequalities. Pope Pius denounces the concentration of wealth and economic power.

Mater et Magistra (Christianity and Social Progress) 1961, Pope John XXIII – Notes power of science and technology to improve the human condition, but also to limit human freedoms. Calls on governments to safeguard human rights and expresses concerns for the growing gap between rich and poor nations, for the plight of farmers and rural areas, and for the arms race.

Pacem in Terris (Peace on Earth) 1963, Pope John XXIII – In response to the Cold War, the encyclical outlines necessary conditions for lasting world peace, looking at respect for human rights and disarmament.

Populorum Progressio (On the Development of Peoples) 1967, Pope Paul VI – Examines the economy on a global level, and addresses the rights of workers to decent work, just wages, and to form and join unions. Pope Paul VI calls development the new name for peace, criticizes unjust economic structures that lead to inequality, and supports new international and social relationships.

Laborem Exercens (On Human Work) 1981, Pope John Paul II – Emphasizes the dignity of work and the rights of workers, and the priority of labor over capital. Also addresses disabled workers, emigration, materialism, and the spirituality of work.

Sollicitudo Rei Socialis (On Social Concern) 1987, Pope John Paul II – Critiques East‐West blocs and other “structures of sin” that compromise the progress of poor nations, and calls for solidarity between rich and poor nations.

Centesimus Annus (The Hundredth Year) 1991, Pope John Paul II – Focuses on the moral dimensions of economic life, the advantages and limitations of the market, the role of business, and the responsibilities and limitations of government.

Deus Caritas Est (God is Love) 2005, Pope Benedict XVI – Pope Benedict locates love of the poor at the center of Catholic life.

Caritas In Veritate (Charity in Truth) 2009, Pope Benedict XVI – Deals with the ethics of contemporary economics; poverty and development; global solidarity; charity, justice and the common good; rights and duties; and care for creation. Here are some excerpts:

“On the part of rich countries there is excessive zeal for protecting knowledge through an unduly rigid assertion of the right to intellectual property, especially in the field of health care. At the same time, in some poor countries, cultural models and social norms of behaviour persist which hinder the process of development.” (22)

“The mobility of labour, associated with a climate of deregulation, is an important phenomenon with certain positive aspects, because it can stimulate wealth production and cultural exchange. Nevertheless, uncertainty over working conditions caused by mobility and deregulation, when it becomes endemic, tends to create new forms of psychological instability, giving rise to difficulty in forging coherent life-plans, including that of marriage. This leads to situations of human decline, to say nothing of the waste of social resources. In comparison with the casualties of industrial society in the past, unemployment today provokes new forms of economic marginalization, and the current crisis can only make this situation worse. Being out of work or dependent on public or private assistance for a prolonged period undermines the freedom and creativity of the person and his family and social relationships, causing great psychological and spiritual suffering. I would like to remind everyone, especially governments engaged in boosting the world's economic and social assets, that the primary capital to be safeguarded and valued is man, the human person in his or her integrity …. (25)

“Economic activity cannot solve all social problems through the simple application of commercial logic. This needs to be directed towards the pursuit of the common good, for which the political community in particular must also take responsibility. Therefore, it must be borne in mind that grave imbalances are produced when economic action, conceived merely as an engine for wealth creation, is detached from political action, conceived as a means for pursuing justice through redistribution” (36).

Drawing from these and other teachings, the U.S. Catholic Bishops have put together a ten-part Framework for Economic Life as "principles for reflection, criteria for judgement and directions for action." The ten principles are all pretty short and not very Catholic-specific. The first, for example, is "The economy exists for the person, not the person for the economy." The third is "A fundamental moral measure of any economy is how the poor and vulnerable are faring." I imagine that most people would accept at least some of the statements, and that they could have wide interpretations. I'll reflect and maybe blog on them in the coming weeks.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Shakira Teaches Economics

Everything you need to know about economics can be found in Shakira lyrics...

On scarcity and insatiability:

You can have it all, anything you want you can make it yours. Anything you want in the world, anything you want in the world. Nothing to big or small, anything you want you can make it yours. Anything you want in the world, anything you want in the world.
(Give It Up To Me)

On capitalism:
Refugees run the seas 'cause we own our own boats.
(Hips Don't Lie)

On macroeconomics:
Did it again love, I got it all wrong, but it felt so right, I can't believe it.
And all the mistakes that went on for too long, wish there was a way I could delete it.
(Did It Again)

On contract theory:
I might steal your clothes and wear them if they fit me
Never made agreements just like a gypsy
And I won't back down 'cause life's already bit me.

On recessions:
Todo en un desorden infernal
Que se iba a convertir en un desempleado mas
De la tasa que anualmente esta creciendo sin parar
(Everything in infernal disorder, unemployment growing each year without stopping)
(Octavo Dia)

On private property:
For you I'd give up all I own and move to a communist country.
(Don't Bother)

On monetary policy:
Mientras tanto este mundo gira y gira
Sin poderlo detener
Y aqui abajo unos cuantos nos manejan
Como fichas de ajedrez
(Meanwhile the world turns and turns with no way to stop it.
And here below a few manage us like chess pieces.)
(Octavo Dia)

On gift-exchange economies:
Te regalo mis silencios. Te regalo mi nariz.
Yo te doy hasta mis huesos, pero quedate aqui.
(I give you my silences. I give you my nose. I even give you my bones, so long as you stay here.)

On forecasting:
Un dia despues de la tormenta, cuando menos piensas sale el sol.
Cuando menos piensas sale el sol.
(One day after the storm, when you least expect it, the sun comes out.
When you least expect it, the sun comes out.)
(Sale el Sol)

On labor and leisure:
El octavo dia Dios despues de tanto trabajar
Para liberar tensiones luego ya de revisar
Dijo todo esta muy bien es hora de descansar
Y se fue a dar un paseo por el espacio sideral.
(On the eighth day, God, after much work
To release tensions
Said everything is very well this is the hour to rest
And he went for a walk in outer space)
(Octavo Dia)

On depreciation:
The ring you gave to her will lose its shine.
(Don't Bother)

On risk aversion:
And I say, hey you, you're no fool
If you say no, ain't it just the way life goes
People fear what they don't know
Come along for the ride, oh, yeah

On globalization:
Rock it out and rock it in from Dublin to Babylon.
Jump it out and jump it in from Kingston to Providence land.
(Un Poco de Amor)

On history:
Cada dia que pasa es uno mas parecido a ayer.
(Each day is another one like yesterday).

On time inconsistent preferences:
Tu mordiste la manzana y renunciaste al paraíso
y condenaste a una serpiente siendo tu el que así lo quiso.
Por milenios y milenios permaneciste desnudo
y te enfrentaste a dinosaurios bajo un techo y sin escudo.
Y ahora estas aquí queriendo ser feliz,
cuando no te importo un pepino tu destino.
(You bit the apple and renounced paradise
and condemned a serpent just because you were the one that wanted it that way.
For thousands of years you remained naked
And you faced dinosaurs under a roof and without a shield.
And now you’re here wanting to be happy
when your destiny was worthless to you.)
(Pies Descalzos Suenos Blancos)

On consumer theory:
No puede ser nada normal acabar eligiendo tan mal
Se siente tan bien todo lo que hace mal
Y contigo nunca es suficiente
(It can't be normal to keep choosing so poorly. Everything that feels good is bad for you.
And with you nothing is ever enough.)
(Lo Hecho Está Hecho)

On Behavioral Economics (I):
Loca loca loca, la loca, la loca!

On behavioral economics (II):
My will and self-restraint
Have come to fail now, fail now
See, I'm doing what I can, but I can't so you know
That's a bit too hard to explain

On behavioral economics (III):
I can't help it baby, Ahh fool, I'm a fool, I'm a fool!

On economists:
You were so full of yourselves. But damn were you cute as well.
(Did It Again)

Monday, July 25, 2011

Economists in Context

Economists' approach to economics has evolved over the generations, influenced, of course, by the experiences and historical contexts of each generation. There is always speculation about or cries for a "new economic paradigm," and the recession and financial crisis have ramped this up.

Any new economics that is coming will largely be developed by new economists, those of us who are in the pipelines right now. Upcoming economists will approach the science shaped by our own context. Here are a few things to note about the experiences of today's economists-in-training. (I'll consider myself, age 22, the representative agent.)

-We were in middle school the last time the US government ran a budget surplus.
-Inflation has averaged 2.8% annually over our lifetimes. We did not witness the inflation of the 1970s.
-CDs have payed 0.43% interest rates on average since we graduated college. We're used to earning virtually zero interest on checking and savings accounts.
-Not even our grandparents remember the Great Depression.
-The War on Terror has been with us from middle school to grad school. So has Wikipedia.
-Unemployment rule of thumb: Single digits good, double digits bad.
-We first voted in Obama v. McCain. We didn't get to vote for or against Bush.
-We vaguely remember Clinton and how he "kissed" a woman he shouldn't have. Memories of him signing NAFTA? Not a chance.
-We won't get to work in the lifetimes of Friedman, Galbraith, Samuelson, or Debreu.
-We weren't alive for Reaganomics or the international debt crises of the 1980s.
-We were in diapers during the fall of communism and the Japanese asset price bubble.
-Blogging originated when we were learning to write.
-Gas was $1.90 per gallon when we got our driver's license.
-We rarely if ever enter a physical bank, cash a physical pay check, read a print edition AER, read a print edition anything, bring a pencil to class, or invert a matrix by hand.
-Every time we go to a dinner party someone asks if we have read Freakonomics. We have. Sigh.
-Our mental image of the economy is a trapped thing wedged between the zero lower bound and the debt ceiling.
-Much of our consumption is social, cultural, personalized. We don't necessarily associate consumption with payment, ownership, or private property; we don't necessarily distinguish consumption from production.
-We will never leave finance out of our macro models.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Cinderella Ate My Sister

In an attempt to expand my literary horizons this summer, I have read several novels by Philip Roth and John Updike, both central figures in twentieth century American literature that I had up to now neglected. I am a new and ardent fan of both.

I may not have noticed the way they portray women had I not read six of their novels and a short story in so rapid succession. In any one novel you only see the portrayal of one or a few women. But in six novels you see patterns and themes. And even these I may not have noticed if it weren't for other books I happened to read (e.g. Cinderella Ate My Daughter by Peggy Orenstein and Household Words by Joan Silber) and other events in my life in the last few months. This has unwittingly become my summer of--hmm, what to call it? Feminism awareness? Or something like that.

I remember, as a very young and already very devoted reader, feeling a strange combination of shame and pride in my realization that I didn't like female authors. I changed my mind in high school when I read Toni Morrison and Flannery O'Conner, but still basically saw them as exceptions to my rule, which holds with only a few more exceptions even now.

At Georgia Tech, the low fraction of women at the university and role of women in the sciences was the issue that wasn't. It was constantly brought up, but only as a source of twisted survivor's mentality pride among the women or sexual frustration among the men. The female students were never truly bothered by being in the minority. It didn't provide any noticeable barriers and it made us feel special.

In the first year of grad school I led a discussion on women in academia at a conference for undergraduate scholars, started attending Berkeley's new Women in Economics group, and even started listening to Slate's DoubleX Gabfest. In grad school women's issues become much more of a reality although they are still poorly defined and difficult to exactly pinpoint. There is so much more to an economics PhD program than just objectively succeeding on exams. So much of it is the way you present yourself, the way you assert yourself, the types of goals you set and commitments you make, and your relationships with peers and professors. None of that is a distinctly "woman's issue," or at least we feel unsure whether we can say it is.

Here is just a small example. I once had a professor tell me that the research I was working on was cute. He didn't mean anything wrong by it I'm sure, but it still seemed like a demeaning remark for an older male to make to a younger female. I highly doubt he would have used that word to a male student. And when I told a male friend closer to my age, he didn't get why I had a problem with it at all.

My professor, Roth, and Updike grew up and at least started their careers before the second wave of the women's movement. Roth and Updike were both criticized for their portrayals of women: "unflattering representations that served merely as passive and vapid backdrops to the more complicated, albeit neurotic, male protagonists." Updike later tried to improve his portrayal of women in The Witches of Eastwick (1984) and S. (1988) which he described as "a very determined attempt to write about women who did have careers of a sort." S., the first Updike novel I read, is an epistolary novel in which we are privy only to the correspondences sent by Sarah, a woman who has flown from domesticity, leaving her husband and daughter and joining an Ashram. A reviewer writes:

As written by Mr. Updike, these letters not only seem oddly contrived -he has Sarah refer to her gender so frequently that she starts to sound like a broken record of Helen Reddy singing ''I Am Woman'' - but they also reveal a decidedly unlikable person. Sarah is, by turns, castrating (she refers to her husband's ''microscopic ridiculous sperm''), bitter (''Did I not labor for you twenty-two years without wages, serving as concubine, party doll, housekeeper, cook, bedwarmer, masseuse, sympathetic adviser, and walking advertisement'') and manipulative (''I feel you, out there, as a dark packet of wounded maleness spitefully taking any tack to 'get at' me, even if it means ruining your daughter's fragile young life''). Apparently she is also stupid or willfully naive: though it's clear from her own descriptions that the ashram she's joined is thoroughly bogus, she persists in defending its mission, helping to bilk others out of their money and their faith.

The flight from domesticity, of course, has long been a favorite theme of Updike's, but it's interesting to contrast the treatment he accorded it nearly three decades ago in ''Rabbit Run,'' and what he does with it here. Whereas ''Rabbit'' gave us a carefully shaded portrait of a difficult and incomplete man, torn between his yearning for freedom and his need for roots, ''S.'' simply gives us a satiric picture of a careless woman, eager to shuck her family responsibilities for a fling with self-fulfillment.

The tone of the novel is comic, but oddly sour and brittle, as though Mr. Updike wanted to keep as detached as possible from his heroine. We never feel that Sarah has thought seriously about the consequences of her decision to leave home; and instead of gaining an understanding of her conflicts as a woman, we are given magazine cliches about the woes of being a housewife, noisy diatribes about piggish ways of men.

S. was funny, well-written, and thoroughly enjoyable, but Updike is delusional if he thinks it serves his purpose as "one attempt to make things right with my, what shall we call them, feminist detractors.'' In Run, Rabbit (1960), the other, better-known Updike book I read, all the women are domestic (even the prostitutes), and every time Rabbit looks at his wife he thinks of how stupid she is. She spends her days watching a Mickey Mouse show for children. S. merely takes the same woman character and shows how pathetic-- pathetically cute-- is her botched attempt at self-improvement.

This is not to say, let me emphasize, that I dislike the books or the authors. Like I said, I'm a big fan and enjoy the excellent literary talents of the authors. I don't blame them, or my professor, for their failure to entirely "get it" about women. Everything in context.

But what about today's context? What about my context? My generation, whatever it is called, has a strange vantage point for feminism. For my male peers, the women's movement is ancient history. Young women today, maybe especially those pursuing high-powered careers, shy away from the feminist label and its connotations of all the bitterness and delusions that Sarah embodies. The men don't get it and the women don't get it either because we don't want to or don't know how to discuss it.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

The Great Outdoors- Part III

I hoped the mosquitoes would sleep in later than me, but no such luck. They joined us for breakfast. Near Heart Lake is Mount Sheridan. We decided on a day hike there in hopes that the altitude and snow would keep the mosquitoes away. We put some supplies in Joe's backpack, which I offered to carry until we got to the mountain and he would carry on the way up. The mosquitoes did clear when it got snowy. It also got more difficult to walk. Joe went first to stomp deep footprints for us to step in. The snow got too thick to make it up to the top. On the way down, we did a bit of skiing in our boots and sledding on our pants. Mostly intentionally.

When we got back to Heart Lake it was still early in the day and the other options for day hikes promised more mosquitoes, so we opted to pack up the tents and backpack back to the trail head and get a new permit for a different site. It was tiring for Annie and me, but we eventually approached the car. When we were most of the way back, we saw a family hiking with no supplies. The menfolk were shirtless and all were sweating. They asked if they were halfway to the lake yet. Boy were they in for a day!

We drove back to the station to get a new permit, and though we were five minutes too late they gave us one for the Lamar Valley, almost in Montana. Luckily the hike out was much shorter, just two or three miles, and the campsite was scenic as can be. It started raining just as we started setting up the tents, just enough to get me wet and cold. A double rainbow was some consolation. Happy fourth of July! The fourth has managed to be my most consistently memorable holiday. I spent the previous four fourths in Atlanta (on a roof), in D.C. (on the mall), in Charleston (at the harbor), and in Madrid (where they made us feel at home with an American-style buffet lunch).

In the clearness of morning we hiked back to the car to do more site seeing by driving. The park is huge and takes hours to drive around. We were up in the Northeast part of the park and headed West to Tower Fall, then further West to see the Petrified Tree, and further still to Mammoth Hot Springs. This is the way most people see the park-- by car, hopping out at the sites to walk around and take pictures. Kids were universally whining or making mischief with their siblings. When we stopped at some picnic tables for lunch, a man threw nearly half a watermelon in the trash. We all gaped at each other and I almost thought Joe would dive in after it.

We continued South to the Norris Geyser Basin. We took a trail with hundreds of stairs. Then all the way back to Annie's research station in the Tetons, where we "swam" in the lake. Only I never let go of the dock to get fully in the water because it was so cold.

We cooked dinner there and chatted with some of the other researchers. In addition to the butterfly group there was a tick group. They had spent the day walking in the wilderness in white suits hoping ticks would land on them, but--what misfortune!--they were tick free.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

The Great Outdoors- Part II

We made it across Nevada, saying a prayer as we passed by the wreckage along I-80, and entered Idaho. I fiddled with my phone until I found evening Mass in Twin Falls. We were sweaty and late and slipped in during the Gospel reading. The church was packed, a rare occurrence for a Saturday evening, but maybe not so rare in the Midwest. We laughed when we saw the altar boy-- he looked exactly like Joe's little brother.

After Mass, Joe offered to teach me to drive in the empty parking lot across from the church. I scooted the seat way forward and tried to follow his instructions for starting up a manual transmission car. It did loud and jumpy sounds. Then I made the car stall about a dozen times and each time I turned the car all the way off and tried to take deep breaths. Then I decided I'd had enough driving lessons for the day or maybe forever.

I spent a long time on the phone and on hold with half a dozen Holiday Inn Express employees trying to redeem Joe's reward points for a night's stay. I screwed it up to the point where Joe had to take the phone from me and fix the situation himself while driving. I couldn't do either thing right-- driving or a phone transaction-- and he could do both simultaneously with boundless patience and confidence that only contrasted my lack thereof. I slipped into an incompetent funk for an hour or two until the same patience that got me into it got me out of it. And when we arrived at the hotel: A hot tub! A lucky little kid was having a birthday party at the hotel pool, which was overflowing with shrieking kids. Dinner was quite similar to lunch, with the addition of broccoli steamed in the hotel microwave.

The next morning we had only a bit further to drive to get to Wyoming, over the pass and into the Grand Tetons where Joe's sister Annie was working for the summer, assisting a biology professor studying a certain butterfly. If you can believe it, this was the first time we turned on the radio. Yep, two days of driving with no music. Wyoming seems to have four radio stations: three country and a Christian. Not that I'm complaining.

We picked up Annie from the research station near Colter Bay and drove North to Yellowstone. After acquiring a backpacking permit (which was surprisingly easy, even with the holiday weekend), we decided to visit Old Faithful before backpacking to our reserved site. There are a lot more geisers and springs (and people!) by Old Faithful than I expected. The landscape looks extraterrestrial.

We began our 7.5 mile hike to Heart Lake, in the South part of the park, at around 4 p.m. The hike took about 3 hours, the last hour spent in a thick cloud of mosquitoes. The lake was beautiful, and the mosquitoes seemed to think so too. We doused ourselves in 40% deet repeatedly as we cooked "pizza rice" for dinner. Then zipped up into the tents and tried to squash any mosquitoes that sneaked in during the unzipping.

In the tent: Story time! About my brother James, when he was little, and we went to the mall with my Mom and Grannie near Christmas. My Grannie was in another store while we were in the food court. James fell into the fountain! We had to take him into the bathroom to try to dry him off and then go buy him new socks because it was so cold and snowing outside. My Grannie came back to the food court to look for us and asked people if they had seen a little boy and girl with their mother. And of course they had all seen the little boy who fell in the fountain! My slightly older cousins thought this was the most funny story they had ever heard and loved to bring it up. James would get red in the face and say, "I thought we agreed not to talk about that!" By now I hope blogging about it is fair game.

The Great Outdoors- Part I

I have just arrived home from an amazing road trip to Yellowstone and the Grand Tetons. Joe and I started in Berkeley last Friday afternoon. Near Sacramento, we stopped at WinCo, a wholesale grocery, for fresh and dried fruits and vegetables, jerky, tortillas, and other food to supplement the oatmeal, peanut butter, cheese, lentils, and rice we brought and the bread Joe baked. He made two loaves, extra soft and not crusty, the way I recently confessed to liking it best.

We packed the supplies into the already full Corolla and popped in a book on tape for the trafficky ride through California to Winnemucca, Nevada. We listened to Indignation by Philip Roth. When he won the Man Booker Prize earlier this year, I decided to read some of his books. I started with The Humbling and then Good Bye Columbus, so this was my third Roth of the summer. We reached Winnemucca after dark and went on a brief run. For me, it was strange to be running after nightfall, but apparently men don't have to think twice about it. The next morning I saw mountains that I hadn't known were there when I ran past them the night before.

We drove (well, Joe drove, since I can't drive manual) through Nevada on I-80. Unfortunately, signs warned of a four hour delay due to a horrible accident that had 80E shut down. We turned the car off and opened the windows and I read aloud out of a stack of slightly out of date Wired and New Yorker Magazines that someone in Berkeley had left at the curb to get rid of. I saw the stack on a run and grabbed as many as I could run home with. The April 18, 2011 issue of the New Yorker had pieces by Jonathan Franzen and Gary Shteyngart, whose novels I had enjoyed earlier this summer. Franzen's piece is about a reluctant venture into the wilderness and tied together so many themes-- solitude, depression, fiction, boredom, modern life, friendship-- and was a stirring pre-backpacking read, for I share his mixed emotions about going into the wilderness. He waxes long on Robinson Crusoe while huddled in a tent in a storm on the remote island of Masafuera, and I wonder if we who escape so thoroughly and investedly into the worlds of our books and the fictions in our heads somehow feel both a greater obligation and a greater reluctance to subject ourselves to real world adventure.

Traffic finally inched forward enough for us to exit the interstate. We decided to find a place to park and go for a run in the valley to wait out the traffic. When we pulled the car over to the side of the country road, there was a dreadful crunching sound. The roadside was soft gravel, and we were stuck. Every attempt to pull the car forward only resulted in a teeth-grinding sound as the front wheel dug itself into a deeper hole in the gravel. Suddenly I was glad we had taken the precaution of filling several milk cartons full of water that morning.

We stood by the car and soon enough a pick up truck pulled over and the driver stepped out. He considered our predicament, and I imagined him chuckling at the California license plate and our youthful foolishness. Joe found a rope in the emergency kit in the trunk and they hitched the car to the truck and pulled it back onto the road. We picked a better parking spot and began running along the road in the heat. It was the middle of the day and the sunlight was much more direct than in the bay area. My legs felt stiff and unenergetic. Lately-- a long lately --I had been plagued by a sluggishness in my running, an unspringy physical and mental reluctance. I wanted Joe to talk to distract me from it and I wanted to know if he noticed. After 35 minutes we turned around and headed back to the car for 70 in all. I drank water out of a milk jug. I hadn't had such a thorough clean sweat since Atlanta. The traffic was moving, if slowly, and we ate lunch on the road. Orange bell peppers from Berkeley Bowl, eaten sweet and whole like apples, and also actual apples, and soft soft peanut butter sandwiches that I spread while Joe drove.