Archive for the ‘life’ Category

Farewell 2020

January 1, 2021

(We had a zoomed family holiday poetry slam. Here’s my poem.)

2020 Farewell,

A year from Hell;

A year of years,

Of fears and tears.

A sickness spread across the land,

The president without a plan,

A sickness of our national soul,

Fallen into a deep black hole.

Half the country gone insane,

Backing that evil monster’s reign,

Embracing his every lie;

How many had to die?

With children in cages,

Among countless outrages.

The choice was stark,

Between light and dark.

And when finally voted out,

Reality he did flout,

Trying to overturn the vote,

To cut our democracy’s throat.

And so we’ve been tested,

But were not bested;

Up against a wall,

We’ve come through after all.

And in the end,

We’re on the mend.

We did not fail;

We shall prevail.

Can you love multiple partners?

December 17, 2020

Having multiple sex partners is common enough. But what about love?

This was a question discussed at a social gathering; an intellectual group. Earlier we’d discussed whether love is a “choice.” The consensus was pretty much in the negative; that it’s just something that happens, outside of one’s control.

Well, we do make choices. But the real issue is how we make them. A powerful metaphor is Jonathan Haidt’s in his book The Righteous Mind — the conscious mind as the rider on an elephant, which represents the unconscious. The rider thinks they’re in charge, directing the elephant. But mostly it’s the elephant going where it wants, with the rider making up rationales for why they’re going there.

That applies to falling in love. Yes, it’s a choice, but an elephant choice. Your conscious, thinking, rational mind is along for the ride. You do have reasons for falling in love with someone, maybe even ones you can articulate. Yet the true reasons operate at an unconscious level, deep in your psyche. The two sets of reasons may coincide, to at least some degree. But we shouldn’t imagine really understanding what’s going on.

So what about simultaneously loving more than one person, in that way? (Loving parents or children, etc., is a different thing.) In a romantic love relationship, exclusive fidelity is a cornerstone concept, with infidelity seen as incompatible. This is a sociological, cultural idea, powerful enough to influence our elephants. Yet our elephants may still harbor other ideas too. Judging from how humans actually behave.

This is crucially shaped by evolution. The only thing nature cares about is reproduction — producing offspring, and getting them to adulthood to reproduce again. That accounts for all our sexual feelings. Embedded deep in our genes.

And fidelity is an element here. Women are programmed to want male partners who’ll stick around to protect and help raise the kids. And the male wants the female to be faithful so he knows the kids he’s expending resources on are really his. These imperatives are a very big deal, evolutionarily.

Indeed, our group discussion noted male animals sometimes killing their mates’ offspring sired by a different partner. Even among humans, how often we read of the “boyfriend” mistreating or even killing a woman’s child by a previous guy. That’s evolution driving him. That boyfriend (his genetically shaped elephant) wants to perpetuate his own genes, not to invest work in someone else’s.

All that said, however, it’s far from the whole story. The male is also programmed to spread his sperm around as widely as possible, to increase the chances for his genes to appear in the next generation. Some readers may have noticed how this factor manifests in human behavior.

The calculus for a female differs since she’s strictly limited in numbers of offspring. Thus she must make each one count — birthing the healthiest children, most apt to reach adulthood. That’s why she too has a roving eye. Her mate may be nice enough, but some other male may attract her as likelier to give her a better baby. Also, her mate may be shooting blanks. Sex with additional men makes getting pregnant more likely.

So while we do have some cultural and evolutionary drivers for exclusivity in love, we also have genetic drivers for playing the field. At any rate, certainly our elephants are not programmed to rule out multiple simultaneous loves.

And meantime there’s a lot of psychology in play, wholly apart from our evolutionary and cultural programming. To name just one factor: ego. That’s why we talk of romantic “conquests.” In sum, the elephant may be perfectly capable, even desirous, of multiplicity in love. If one is good, mightn’t two (or more) seem better?

Stated another way: the heart wants what it wants. And it may want more than one.

Where the Crawdads Sing (Big spoiler alert)

December 7, 2020

My local paper publishes the NY Times bestseller list weekly, which I glance at. Where the Crawdads Sing, a novel by Delia Owens, topped it forever. Owens is a zoologist and wildlife writer; this is her first novel. I’m not normally into popular novels, but then my book group chose it.

Its appeal is understandable. It’s set in the marshes of North Carolina’s outer banks, leading to the ocean. Kya, known as “the Marsh Girl,” lives there in a shack. By the time she was six, her abusive drunk of a father had driven away the rest of the family; often absent himself, he disappeared for good a few years later. Leaving Kya to survive alone. Which she does admirably.

This story is joined with a murder mystery.

Teenaged Kya, much the loner, nevertheless develops a diffident romance with Tate, a slightly older youngster encountered exploring the marshlands. When he goes off to college, he promises to return. But guess what?

Kya feels really burned. Yet she falls for the next fella to penetrate the marsh and earn her trust: Chase, a “golden boy” in the nearby town of Barkley Cove. He penetrates her too, with promises of marriage. Guess what?

After Chase marries someone else — Kya, devastated, only learns of it in a newspaper she buys on a fluke — he returns and brutally tries to rape her.

Subsequently he’s found dead at the foot of a tower.

Kya fortunately has a good alibi. You see, Tate had meanwhile come back too after all, earned her trust again, sort of, and now a biologist, he gets Kya’s marsh expertise on shells, birds, etc., embodied into beautifully published books. So she makes the only bus trip of her life, to Greenville, to meet with her publisher, for dinner and then breakfast. Just happened to be the night of Chase’s death.

But Kya is arrested anyway and charged with murder. The prosecutor’s theory is that she could have bussed back and forth to Barkley Cove during the night. The bus schedules allowed for that — with just barely enough time to do the deed — if you assume a lot. The bus drivers testified they didn’t see her. But the prosecution suggested she traveled in disguise. All seemingly far fetched!

Kya is acquitted.

A few things struck me. Why would buses run between these small towns in the middle of the night? Seemed a blatant authorial contrivance. And never mentioned is a gaping hole in the case. Assuming Kya did meticulously plot this caper, how did she know she’d find Chase at the tower? On the other hand, she never actually professes innocence.

Anyway, she returns to her marsh life, spending the next forty years lovingly together with Tate in the shack. The murder — if it wasn’t just an accidental fall — is never solved.

But there was one loose end. Missing from Chase’s body was the shell necklace he’d worn for years, a gift from Kya. It whispered to me throughout the aftermath. I knew it would resurface — else why was it there in the first place? Like Chekov’s proverbial gun. And when, on the final page, after Kya’s death, Tate stumbles upon her hidden cache, I knew what he’d find.

P.S. “Crawdads” are fresh water crayfish.

Russell Baker: “There’s a Country in My Cellar”

December 1, 2020

Russell Baker (1925-2019) was a New York Times reporter and then columnist. His book about growing up — titled, oddly enough, Growing Up— was a wonderful read. This 1990 selection of his columns was — pretty good. Mostly.

Baker starts off saying that when he first moved from news reporting to writing columns thrice weekly, he was exultant. Now “at last free to disgorge the entire content of my brain.”

However, he writes, “having written fewer than a dozen columns, I made a terrifying discovery: I had now disgorged the entire content of my brain, yet another column was due at once.”

Actually, he exaggerates. The book is full of exaggeration. It’s what he’s good at.

One piece, for example, “The Incredible Shrinking Life,”* chronicles the tribulations occasioned by rising New York City rents, forcing repeated moves to ever smaller apartments, and the painful sacrifices this entailed. The repeated refrain: it was like “being whittled away.” First to go, unable to fit them in a reduced space, were the children. It proceeds from there. Ending with accommodations too small for anyone over four feet tall. “A touch of sadness is only to be expected,” says the surgeon, “after you’ve been whittled away.”

Speaking of surgery, Baker presciently anticipates today’s trans phenomenon, with a very practical suggestion for men who’d prefer to have female bodies, and women who want men’s. They should just trade heads. If the experience fails to fulfill their expectations, they can simply switch back. Problem solved.

“The Excellence of Welby Stitch, Jr.,” purports to be a Harvard recommendation letter for the named young scholar. Whose record and personal qualities are glaringly rotten in every salient respect. All of which the letter gamely endeavors to spin in a derangedly positive light, as if to make a silk purse of the proverbial sow’s ear, turning standards on their heads. The letter ends with the signature: “Welby Stitch, Sr.”

“Boneless Sunday” sets forth a rather elaborate narrative set-up to enable Baker to finally pen the words, “Old Mother Hubbard went to the cupboard to get her poor dog a bone, but when she got there, the cupboard was bare.”** But that wasn’t the ending. The tale continues, “and so the poor dog left home to go to Acapulco with a Texas bone millionaire who loved the idea of a dog who could say, ‘Nuts to the King.'” Yes, the story had previously introduced a king, set before whom now is a pie. When told blackbirds had been baked into it, he says, “The cook must be losing his mind.” And “then the pie was opened and the birds began to sing.” The king was revolted, whispering “Ugh!” to the Queen.

“Shut up and eat a slice,” she says, lest he hurt the cook’s feelings.

But the king does more than hurt his feelings. The cook’s body is found in a ravine.

However, that still is not the end of this jam-packed story. Jack and Jill, and Little Miss Muffett, duly put in appearances. All in all, quite the literary tour-de-force.

Eating, being a major human activity, receives attention in other pieces. Baker’s gourmandizing is not too refined. He rhapsodizes about one of his favorites, the fried seafood platter, even telling of a 250 mile road trip just to hit one of the few restaurants that still serves it — at least in conformity with his exacting standards. But much as he describes relishing the dish, he actually makes it sound highly unappetizing. It seems it’s really the experience of the meal — you had to be there — not the flavor.

Money is a frequent preoccupation. No, make that obsession. Baker is always expostulating about how much things cost. One piece satirizes itemized hospital bills by chronicling his visit to a sick friend, being billed every step of the way, from the elevator ride to partaking of the illumination supplied in the corridors. A big point for him is people on expense accounts not paying with their own money. A lengthy commentary about the gravity-defying figure on a hotel bill (including an “occupancy” tax as if one might rent a room but not occupy it) concludes with the desk clerk fainting on hearing that Baker must pay with his own cash. Likewise, first class air travelers are shown laughing at the economy class peons because, “except for Rothschilds and madmen,” the former are never paying out of their pockets. And Baker notes that with business expenses tax deductible for companies, those first class tickets are actually paid for, in the end, by the taxpayers in economy class.

Speaking of taxpayers, there is “A Taxpayer’s Prayer,” couched in stentorian Biblical cadences. One line intones, “Yea, though we falter in meeting thy wishes,” it’s due to “our poor want of appreciation of thy marvelous law [i.e., the Internal Revenue Code] which surpasseth all understanding.”

So, yes, Baker is a humorist. Yet his temperament is curmudgeonly in a way I didn’t find endearing. A lot of this book is a howl against modernity, deeply felt. His modernity, of course, now decades past, which in today’s hindsight seems imbued with quaintness. I cringe to think what Baker would make of our current American culture.

I myself have written some pretty acerbic things on that subject. There’s always plenty to criticize and cluck one’s tongue at. But I come to it with a sensibility completely different from Baker’s. He seems to be one of those people who romanticize the “good old days,” forgetting what they were really like. Look at the opening scenes of Monty Python and the Holy Grail which, though hilarious, quite accurately depicted a time when life was “nasty, brutish, and short.” That continued being largely true until not very long ago. My immersion in history makes me never forget it; makes me profoundly grateful for modernity, with all its faults.

* For those too young to remember, there was a 1957 sci-fi film, The Incredible Shrinking Man. 

** Reminding me of a joke with a couple discussing the weather, and also an acquaintance who’s a Communist spy, to set up the punchline, “Rudolph the red knows rain, dear.”

Thanksgiving during a plague

November 25, 2020

Perhaps typically, the Thanksgiving holiday’s meaning has gotten somewhat lost. It’s mainly now just an occasion for family gathering and feasting. Actually a fine thing, worthy in itself. But those who celebrated the first one really did have reason for thanks: survival. After so many of their number had perished.

Now we gather for Thanksgiving amid a plague ravaging humanity. In fact under consequent strictures that limit our gathering. Yet we can, like those forebears, give thanks that we are after all alive. And that we will prevail.

We are fortunate to inhabit a uniquely hospitable planet. Well, we wouldn’t exist otherwise. And yet, while we romanticize nature, it’s also harsh and unforgiving, and the essence of the human story is our struggle in the face of that, to overcome and to thrive. So too with this pandemic we rise to the challenge. Our battle against it epitomizes our best selves. And we will prevail.

Among all the human communities that ever were, our America shines with special light. And it has been beset by a plague of another sort these past four years. Putting in grave doubt the survival of its best self. But now we have come through, if only by the skin of our teeth. The better angels of our nature have prevailed.

Indeed, in just recent weeks our democracy endured a severe test. Many feared it could buckle under the assault of a very bad man who would stop at nothing, to keep hold of his power, by abusing it. And so he did try; but he has failed, our institutions proved equal to the challenge.

I know the evil is far from fully crushed. The “stolen election” lie is a long-lasting poison injected into our body politic. But as an optimist I believe truth and reason must ultimately prevail. And meantime, the Augean stables are being cleaned out. With a new administration of experienced public-spirited professionals, grown-ups who actually understand the world, and what truly serves this nation. Who can make America great again.

Most fundamentally, a psychology of gratitude is key to a good life. I am lucky to have that; something I’m grateful for. I always count my blessings, and in this November of 2020, there’s a grand new one. This Thanksgiving is for me especially profound.

The Nordic Theory of Everything: Lessons for America

November 23, 2020

America is a great country. Not perfect, but striving to improve — its best characteristic.

Anu Partanen was a young Finnish reporter, who moved here and was surprised by unfavorable comparisons with the Nordic countries — Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Finland, Iceland. Her book, The Nordic Theory of Everything, published in 2016 — pre-Trump — explains ways those nations promote human flourishing, which we can learn from.

American lefties see them as model socialist utopias; those on the right as cautionary tales of nannying welfare socialism. Both are wrong, Partanen shows. They’re not “socialist” at all, actually more free-market capitalist than America. That generates wealth, which they use not for “welfare states” so much as well-being states.

It’s what Partanen calls the “Nordic theory of love.” Creating social structures that free people from stresses and constraints, so they can live the best lives possible.

Partanen cites American principles of freedom, individualism, and opportunity, but came to see them as more theoretical than real, with the exigencies of American life actually forcing people into greater dependency, constraining their choices and freedom of action. Reading this, I wondered whether anti-mask fervor with all its misplaced “freedom” talk is a kind of transference, a cri de coeur over complex feelings of lost true personal freedom in today’s U.S. society. Going maskless is a simplistic counter.

Nordic family and parental leave, pensions, and other financial support policies tend to be far more generous than America’s. A main concern is child development, making an investment in the next generation. It’s recouped many times over when they grow into well-adjusted, productive, self-sufficient individuals. Family-friendly policies also make having children more attractive — combating low birth rates and boosting economies to the extent those children do become productive adults.

That’s all fine, but I felt Partanen was comparing Nordic societies mainly to America’s middle class with too little attention to less-than-affluent Americans, who seemed largely invisible to her. Yet that’s where our failure to invest in all youngsters really bites, getting us legions of poorly educated, poorly adjusted people, with problems of unemployability, crime, homelessness, addiction, etc. — ultimately costing society far more than it would have taken to make them contributing members in the first place.

Schooling is critical. Partanen writes about relatively well-off American parents struggling to advance their kids’ educational prospects, whereas Nordic parents don’t have to, feeling sure of good schooling. Again she doesn’t really discuss economically disadvantaged American kids, who are basically written off altogether. A key reason is U.S. schools funded mainly through local property taxes, inevitably magnifying the disadvantages of the poor. We give lip service to equal quality education for all children but accept falling woefully short. The Nordics really do it.

Turning to health care, our problems are familiar. It started because employee health insurance payments are tax-deductible by businesses and are tax-free income to workers. Making such insurance, tied to employment, ubiquitous. This structure adds huge administrative complexity and costs. And insurers’ economic incentive is not to serve customers but to deny coverage. While hospitals can get away with billing outrageous amounts, often not covered by insurance. Result: costs way higher than in other advanced nations, financially ruinous for many people, without buying us better health.

In Nordic nations health care is pretty much simply taken care of by government, so there’s no financial worry for citizens, nor wrestling with bureaucracies. Partanen respects Americans’ concern about freedom to choose one’s own doctor, etc., but concludes that real freedom is assurance of good care without hassles or money stress. This does entail higher taxes, but the bottom line is lower costs overall.

Tax comparisons are complicated (especially given America’s convoluted system) but broadly speaking most people actually pay similarly in both places. However, Americans must pay heavily for things, like health care, child care, elder care, and college tuition, that Nordics get from government for their taxes. Those countries seem to operate a lot leaner, so all those goodies don’t break the bank. And a big difference is the richest Americans paying lower effective rates than average people. Partanen wrote of that growing gap before Trump’s tax legislation made it even wider. Of course under-taxing the richest makes taxes higher for the rest. And Partanen writes that the Nordics prove how taxing the rich at fair (though not exorbitant or punitive) rates does not impair entrepreneurialism or economic prosperity.

Indeed, freeing businesses of obligations for employee health care and pensions enables them to be more dynamic and competitive. In global “ease of doing business” rankings, Nordics score higher than America. And they’ve cultivated the most valuable economic resource: human capital.

Not only have most Americans become dependent on employers for health care, Partanen observed another kind of dependency here — children all but smothered by helicopter parenting, while the elderly rely on their children for care. It all costs time, effort, and money. Making the financial aspects of marriage more salient while transforming it “into an unappealing morass of squandered careers, insane schedules, and lost personal liberty.” Becoming impossible for the less affluent, for whom marriage is falling by the wayside. That in turn stunts their children’s opportunities. Partanen concludes that American society just isn’t structured to support families. Unlike the Nordics and, indeed, just about every other modern wealthy country.*

It all comes down again to the “Nordic Theory of Love.” Making individuals independent and equal. This applies not only to married couples, but between parents and children, and vice versa. Hence the goal is really the opposite of “socialist dependency” — to remove all forms of dependency, within both the family and the larger society. To allow “all human relationships to be unencumbered by ulterior motives and needs, and thus to be entirely free, completely authentic, and driven purely by love.”

Some might say Nordic citizens are dependent too — upon government. But actually, what they get from government is just taken for granted, in the background of their lives. Very different from the personal dynamics made fraught by intra-family dependencies.

Partanen admires Americans’ positive attitude in spite of all the ways our society makes things hard, while Nordics tend to be morose despite societal structures more conducive to happiness. This seeming paradox reflects humans having well-being set-points independent of life circumstances. Thus the Nordic approach aims to enable people to be as happy as their innate personalities allow. And Americans could be even happier by emulating them.

I consider myself conservative, hating a nanny state telling people what to do; believing government should restrict us only as necessary to prevent harm to others. But rather than regimenting people, the Nordics aim to remove impediments and create the conditions for them to live the best lives possible according to their own proclivities.

America does do this, to a degree, through a complex web of social safety nets. But without any over-arching philosophy akin to a “theory of love.” And public support for such programs is weak, often seen as government giving undeserved handouts to moochers and “line cutters” at the expense of hard-working people. Racial antagonism is a factor, with the benefits being associated with minorities. While in fact such welfare payouts are modest in comparison to the government benefits middle class people receive, often without realizing it, as with tax breaks. The biggest “moochers” are corporations and the wealthy.

On the other hand, the left talks of inequality and “social justice.” I think that’s the wrong framing. “Justice” entails concepts of deservingness, which are arguable here. But unarguably, helping all our citizens to live good decent lives is simply humane. We should do it because they are our fellow human beings, and differing life circumstances are often due just to luck rather than merit or its lack. It would make this a better country for all of us. We are a very rich society that can amply afford it.

* Ironically, it’s “family values” conservatives most opposing policies to do that.

My mother’s 100th birthday

November 18, 2020

My mother, Lotte Robinson, turned 100 on November 16, and I went to California for the party.

Lotte Dreyfuss was born in Nurnberg, Germany. Her father had taken a bullet for his country in WWI. The family was affluent and Jewish. In 1937 they sent Lotte safely to school in England; she arrived in the United States as a refugee on May 14, 1938. The rest of the family followed, though a grandmother died in a concentration camp. Lotte went on to marry and raise two children in the quintessential American way. Hitler’s dead 75 years, but Lotte is still here.

Lives in her own home (able to afford full-time care). Still has her marbles. Short term memory shot, but no dementia, and still a very positive attitude, constantly repeating how lucky she is. Though she’s been everywhere and seen everything, she’s the farthest thing from jaded. Her favorite words have always been Gorgeous, Marvelous, and Unbelievable.

Being in California less than 24 hours made my return less complicated, under New York’s travel restrictions. In two days I had six flights, stopping in four different cities (Detroit twice). But I reminded myself that the entire peregrination took less time than just getting home from Somaliland last December.

Flying over the vast American expanse, seeing it through an airplane window, has always inspired emotion. This time more than ever. Returning from my mother’s 100th; returning home to my beloved wife. And my dark anxiety for my country having lifted; it’s been saved, with my own proud participation. The whole world looks brighter. We still face grave problems, but help is on the way. Looking out that airplane window, my heart was full.

Normal People

November 15, 2020

Sally Rooney’s novel Normal People is about people. No subject fascinates us more. It’s why storytelling arose. Helping us understand the people we live among.

The novel challenges readers to understand its two chief characters. Are they the “normal people” of the title? Not exactly. In fact they themselves are prone to questioning whether they’re “normal people,” like others of their acquaintance. But what is “normal?” Everybody is different in their own ways. These two are different — but different within normal parameters.

The book follows them over four years, in high school and college, in contemporary Ireland. Connell is a footballer, social, popular with his friends, without much in the way of issues. Normal enough it seems. Until his entanglement with Marianne, who is more of a “case.” Very smart and a quintessential loner, she observes the social jockeying among her classmates with anthropological bemusement, content to hold herself apart. For that, they in turn consider her something of a freak.

Connell’s mother works as a sometime cleaner in Marianne’s more affluent home. That link leads to sex. But Connell dares not acknowledge their relationship openly, to protect his social standing. For a prom-like event, he asks a different girl. Marianne is hurt to an unexpected degree, beclouding her connection with Connell.

Yet it continues as he intentionally follows her to college. There Marianne, freed of her high school baggage, soon molts into not quite a wild party girl, but something in that direction. Now suddenly attractive to males, she finds she likes it, and uses it. She has a boyfriend. Connell has a girlfriend. But meantime their bond with each other endures and deepens.

Are they actually in love, after all? Not a simple question. Sometimes it is one, in human affairs, but often it’s more complicated. The book puts these two people’s feelings under a microscope. It’s not enough to just report what they do and say. There are underlying reasons, sometimes multiple and even conflicting reasons. Such nuances the author exquisitely, sometimes Proustianly, explores.

And where does it all end up? Just when the pair seem to have given in to the fact of their being inextricably together, it ends not with a bang but a whimper. That seemed very fitting. Ambiguity is not banished. Life can be like that.

In reading such a book, one seeks to better understand other people, but also oneself. Unsurprisingly it made me ponder upon my own ancient history in relation to the characters. I could identify somewhat with Marianne, except that the social business she consciously disdained was in fact completely invisible to me. Reading something like this makes me think — was all this kind of stuff really going on, all around me, during my school years, and I had no clue?

It still seems a miracle to me that I eventually grew into a husband and father. A normal person. In some ways at least.

My love for Trump supporters

November 7, 2020

We all have multiple allegiances. My central allegiance is to my species. Our great human project, since our dawn, has been to facilitate good rewarding lives, striving for fulfillment, surmounting the challenges of an uncaring cosmos.I’m part of that, thus inspiring a fundamental sense of affinity with everyone else. This is my love for people. Collectively and individually.

This fundamental truth overwhelms our differences, including particulars of what people think and believe. My entire life’s been lived among other people mostly holding profoundly different metaphysical ideas. Ones that, frankly, I might consider insane but for being so widely shared. Yet of course that doesn’t make me see them as bad people or enemies. We all struggle to understand our ineffable reality.

So too for Trump supporters, with beliefs repugnant to me. That doesn’t make them bad people either. Loving their families, supporting their friends, doing their jobs, fulfilling their responsibilities; all of us human beings just living our lives as best we can, taking part in the great human story. Trumpers too come under the umbrella of my love.

America has always been a wonderful place for humans living out that story. We have just been sorely tested; and as a people we passed with flying colors. But the country still now faces powerful challenges. One is how we can live together. We need for Trump supporters to join with us in the great work ahead.

The Black Swan

October 19, 2020

You get fed every day. All you can eat. Treated very nicely too. As such days go by, you grow ever more confident they will continue. Then comes Thanksgiving — and you are a turkey.

Or a sucker, says Nassim Nicholas Taleb in his book The Black Swan – The Impact of the Highly Improbable. Like that turkey, we are all suckers of a sort in failing to anticipate the possibility of a dramatic discontinuity in our reality. What Taleb calls a “black swan.” We may believe all swans are white, until a black one comes along, blowing up that assumption.

The book is fascinating, engaging, thought-provoking. It was published in 2007, just before a big black swan, the financial crisis. And reading it in 2020 gave it special added force. The Trump presidency makes many of us feel like that turkey. And then of course the pandemic hit.

The book’s watchword is unpredictability. Taleb considers it an inherent characteristic of existence. Yet we go through life seeming to ignore that. Thinking we know what’s going on, when in a deep sense we do not. Taleb is from Lebanon, his perspective shaped by the trauma of its 1975-90 civil war — coming after a thousand years of sectarian comity, this unforeseen black swan utterly changed the country.

Taleb divides things between Mediocristan and Extremistan. In the former, as its name implies, matters cluster around a middle, dictated by averages, conforming to a bell curve. Take height for example. Outliers like three foot dwarves and seven foot basketballers exist but disappear into the average, hardly affecting it because of the vast numbers closer to the middle.

But while in Mediocristan you do get people 50% above average, for something like wealth the outliers are thousands of times higher, with big effects on the overall picture. That’s Extremistan. Taleb sees reality as more like Extremistan; yet again we behave largely as Mediocristanis.

Trump’s election prompted an avalanche of analysis. Seemingly a tectonic cataclysm, but remember it was extremely close. Had it tipped the other way, the after-talk would have been totally different. His 2020 defeat will be, in major part, attributable to the pandemic. But for that, history might be going in a very different direction.

However — those things are not in fact black swans as Taleb defines the term. (He’d actually call them gray swans.) His black swan is something not just unforeseen but unforeseeable (except in hindsight). Taleb says we retrospectively paste our explanations onto past events as though they were (or should, or could, have been) foreseeable. But history just doesn’t work that way.

Reality is complex to an extreme degree. To navigate it, one’s mind creates a representation of it that is perforce vastly oversimplified. I’m reminded here of “LaPlace’s demon,”  hypothetically knowing literally everything about the Universe at a given moment — what every particle is doing — enabling it to predict the next moment (and the next). Of course humans are way short of that. One of Taleb’s key points is insufficiency of information available to us. Especially what Donald Rumsfeld famously called “unknown unknowns” — things we don’t realize we don’t know.

The book mentions the “butterfly effect” — a butterfly flapping its wings in China causing a storm in Kansas. I’m not sure that can ever literally happen, but the point is that a very small cause can trigger a very big effect. A black swan. Which we cannot foresee because we, unlike LaPlace’s demon, cannot assess every small thing happening in the world at a given moment. And, Taleb argues, the black swan’s disproportionately big impact renders what we do know about the world pretty much nugatory.

While most of us did not expect Trump’s presidency, we did at least see it as within the realm of possibility. And many voices had long been warning of a pandemic, someday, much like what we’ve got. It makes sense (though not to Trump) to prepare for such things. Los Angeles has preparations for an earthquake bound to happen someday. But in human psychology, “someday” is not an immediate concern, and for all practical purposes Angelenos live their lives in disregard of the earthquake threat. Just as we all did regarding the possibility of a pandemic. That’s actually not crazy.

Taleb is scathing about hosts of so-called experts, analysts, economists, etc., calling them frauds who are anchored in Mediocristan and oblivious toward Extremistan. Who don’t know what they don’t know. Taleb cites psychologist Philip Tetlock’s famous study of political and economic “experts,” analyzing their predictions compared against results. Their predictions stunk. And the bigger their reputations the worse they stunk. Taleb comments: “We attribute our successes to our skills, and our failures to external events outside our control.” I recall hearing one forecast Taleb would have applauded: a “psychic” who predicted “unpredictable weather!”

Taleb’s particular bête noir is the Gaussian bell curve, which he deems an artifact of Mediocristan with scant applicability to the real world. I disagree, considering the bell curve a useful conceptual tool for understanding. For example, regarding the mentioned distribution of heights. Though of course one has to know when not to apply a bell curve. A black swan can blow it up, as Taleb insists.

For the stock market, you might expect daily ups and downs to fall along a bell curve — that is, most clustering around the average daily change, with the more extreme moves growing in rarity as they grow in size. That would be Mediocristan. But again Taleb thinks that’s not reality. He presents an analysis showing that if you remove from a fifty year stock market chart the ten most extreme days, the total return falls by half.

Another point is that absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. Taleb cites the story of the ancient philosopher (Epicurus) shown portraits of sailors who prayed to the gods and survived shipwrecks. “But where,” he asked, “are the pictures of those who prayed, then drowned?” Of course those couldn’t testify about their experience. That’s absence of evidence, or what Taleb calls “silent evidence.”

So what should we do? Taleb says (his emphases) “the notion of asymmetric outcomes is the central idea of this book: I will never get to know the unknown since, by definition, it is unknown. However, I can always guess how it might affect me, and I should base my decisions around that . . . . This idea that in order to make a decision you need to focus on the consequences (which you can know) rather than the probability (which you can’t know) is the central idea of uncertainty. Much of my life is based on it.”

Reading this charitably, Taleb spent most of his life in financial markets, and that’s the context he’s mainly talking about. But as advice for life more generally — it’s insane.

One problem with his above quote is that if something really isunknown, you can’tguess its effect. But even in the realm of the knowable, myriad possibilities for disasters could conceivably strike us. We may not be able to gauge their probabilities with precision, but we can in fact know they are individually very small. A life spent trying to avoid every remote danger would be absurd. If you actually followed Taleb’s advice and focused on the potential (very large) impacts in disregard of their (very small) probabilities — you would never get out of bed in the morning.

No, we cannot know everything, and can be hit hard by things we couldn’t foresee. But we do the best we can. Evolution gave us minds — and psychologies — that, for all their undoubted limitations, are actually pretty darn good at equipping us to navigate through life and avoid pitfalls. Otherwise we wouldn’t be here.