Friday, April 29, 2005


I haven't read or even bought Stephens Levitt and Dubner's new and much-lauded book Freakonomics, just as I haven't read or bought Blink, Collapse, On Bullshit, On Paradise Drive, Will in the World, or most of the other hot new books on my Amazon Wish list that I'm happy discussing through their good (and bad) press alone. Levitt and Dubner were just on The Daily Show promoting the book, but since I'm in cable blackout, I now probably know even less about it than your average stoned undergrad. (Or, given his self-conscious tendency to just leaf through a book before an interview, about as much as Jon Stewart.)

I am, however, enjoying the hell out of Levitt and Dubner's Freakonomics blog, which happily features choice excerpts from the book in question, along with thoughts on the value of baseball's turn towards cybermetrics, profiles of other economists, and links to good and bad press about the book. You should do the same. Then you can be barely informed, just like me.

Wednesday, April 27, 2005

For the Record

After closing in on thirty schriftless days, I have to preface whatever I'm going to write by first checking in, giving Short Schrift a little mouth-to-mouth, so to speak, before I ask it to get up and jog around. Unlike some people, I'm not anywhere close to being a professional blogger. So, again, these posts will probably always suffer for their infrequency.

It stems in part from my unwillingness to 1) post links without lengthy commentary or 2) turn the blog into a diary. I like my friends' blogs that do either or both, but my own training as a critic has brought me to the point where I need to feel like my writing has to add value to the matter at hand, not just direct you to it or inform you of it. Otherwise, why not just go to the things themselves?

It also stems from my new obsession, one that's surprised no one more than myself: gardening.

Here's the backstory: in February I moved into a new house. Almost everything had been renovated, but since most of the work had been done in December and January, nothing had been done with the front or back yard: just rocks, trash, weeds, and dirt. So in March I tilled the front yard, pulled up most of the larger rocks, added some fertilizer and topsoil, and raked in some grass seed. Then -- this being an unusually cold March in Philadelphia -- nothing happened for a long time. I gave up on the seed, and started to make plans for a rock garden, or mulch and flowerbeds. Then we had a huge rainfall, and a spell of warm weather.

Finally, I started to see little seedlings come forth. Within a week, I had the beginnings of a lawn: delicate green peach fuzz. In another week, a few patches aside, a full-grown swath of grass was well underway. By April, my lawn was nigh complete: the seeds had formed tough turf under the dirt and grown long and shaggy and green. I bought a hand-powered reel cut lawnmower (the kind you see on golf courses) and gave it its first trim.It felt marvelous.

Now my lawn is the envy of the neighborhood. Neighbors who'd only given me shy glances before come by when I'm outside to offer tips on watering, or to ask my advice for their lawns.

At that point, I shifted into full-scale nerdery: researching species of grass (and varieties within each species) for turf strength and thickness, blade resiliance, resistance to cold, to heat, to disease, to insects. I learned about different watering and mulching techniques.

Then I hit the great white whale itself: hardscaping.

Hardscaping is what it sounds like: the hard, architectural side of landscaping, i.e., the design and construction of patios, fences, edging, retaining walls, etc., as opposed to the softer, organic sciences of mulch, grass, plants, and flowers. Hardscaping is in some ways the most traditionally masculine side of landscaping, since it (unlike gardening proper) involves the use of heavy, inorganic materials over which you have total control: you build, you stack, you mortar, you dig, you compact, you create boundaries, you murder to dissect. Yet it's also the least utilitarian and most straightforwardly decorative aspect of any garden. It's a bit like being a Romantic poet, in its most Kantian formulation: bringing nature into accordance with the formal projections of your own imagination. Or, by allowing both nature's own play of design and wildness to come into contact with the mind's combination of analytical reason and imaginative freeplay, you produce a kind of living shape, or beauty. At least I think that's what Goethe or Schiller might say.

Il faut cultiver notre jardin, as Voltaire says in Candide. And just today a French professor of mine suggested that my delight in my garden was a kind of Voltairean joy: simultaneously delighting in the power of reason while taking a holiday from its more detached, theoretical forms. There may be some truth to that. I've always gravitated towards intellectual pursuits that had a physical component, from ruler and compass construction to the bodily minutiae involved in teaching and public speaking. (And my dissertation is, at least in part, about the aesthetic treatment of the tactile and practical qualities of physical objects.)

But I think I also enjoy the opportunities it gives me to learn something new. This is equally valuable, if not more so. For at least two years now, it's been increasingly difficult for me to gauge whether or not I've learned something new, or its general or even relative value. The results of gardening may not be immediate, but it gives me, at least in part, the same feeling I had when I was first introduced to higher mathematics, to religion, to philosophy, and to the serious study of literature: that a vast and entirely new and fresh field of knowledge is available, that it can be mastered with serious work and study, and that despite one's mastery, it will nevertheless retain a certain, unconquerable degree of mystery. It's delightful to learn that again.