A Short Story For Saturday

Given this week’s weather, Tobias Wolff’s “Hunters in the Snow” seemed like a timely selection – though of course the story isn’t really about snow. Here’s how it begins:

Tub had been waiting for an hour in the falling snow. He paced the sidewalk to keep warm and stuck his head out over the curb whenever he saw lights approaching. One driver stopped for him but before Tub could wave the man on he saw the rifle on Tub’s back and hit the gas. The tires spun on the ice. The fall of snow thickened. Tub stood below the overhang of a building. Across the road the clouds whitened just above the rooftops, and the street lights went out. He shifted the rifle strap to his other shoulder. The whiteness seeped up the sky.

A truck slid around the corner, horn blaring, rear end sashaying. Tub moved to the sidewalk and held up his hand. The truck jumped the curb and kept coming, half on the street and half on the sidewalk. It wasn’t slowing down at all. Tub stood for a moment, still holding up his hand, then jumped back. His rifle slipped off his shoulder and clattered on the ice, a sandwich fell out of his pocket. He ran for the steps of the building. Another sandwich and a package of cookies tumbled onto the new snow. He made the steps and looked back.

Read the rest here. More of Wolff’s short fiction can be found in Our Story Begins: New and Selected Stories. Peruse previous SSFSs here. Update from a reader:

I see a none-too-subtle South Park reference in today’s short story. I mean, it’s The Dish and one of the main guys is Kenny. Of course he’s fucked.

The Hunker Mindset, Ctd

milksandwich

A lot of readers can relate to this state of mind:

​My daughter, who is a graduate student in England, says that the rush to buy bread, milk, and eggs before a storm is referred to there as “the French toast panic”.

Another suggests a different meal:

On one level, I can see this as a reasonable approach; with those three staples, you can make a reasonable meal of toast and omelet, providing you have power or a working cooking surface (like a propane grill). You can even keep them fresh in a power outage by simply putting them out in the snow by your door.

I think the urge to get these particular supplies is strongest in a certain age group: those who grew up in the Depression through the early 1950s, when such commodities were delivered daily to your door … and a major storm could halt deliveries for a few days.

A few more readers sound off:

It’s not about hunkering down. It’s about milk, bread, and eggs being items that have to be bought frequently.

I don’t need to make the pre-storm run on canned goods because I already have them. We have tons of soups and other canned goods because we stock up on those at Costco precisely because they have a long shelf life. Milk doesn’t have a long shelf life, so I run out of it and do need to pick some up every week. Plus my picky two-year-old might fight me on the non-perishable items, but she will always drink milk, so I know she is at least getting some nutrients.

Another turns south:

Watching the cable news channels yesterday afternoon, I seriously kept getting the urge to run out and buy emergency supplies … and I live in Palm Springs. It reminded me of my time living in Miami and the contagious panic-shopping people would do before hurricanes. I had gone to the drugstore on my lunch break (on a gorgeous sunny afternoon) and they were completely out of toilet paper. When I asked the cashier why, she replied “Because of Frances.” I said “Who is Frances?”, thinking it was a woman who hadn’t shown up for her shift or something. “No! The hurricane!” she told me. Frances was still at least three days out in the Caribbean, but people were already panicking … not just buying a few supplies, but stocking up like it was the apocalypse. Of course, I spent the afternoon driving to various stores until I found some TP for myself.

Update from a reader:

I am glad to know that I am not the only person with the hunker mindset.  And I admit storms aren’t the only thing that cause me to panic.  All I have to do is read a post-apocalyptic novel, which not only makes me feel inadequately stocked, but completely ill-prepared for a dramatic lifestyle change.  After finishing Station Eleven (an account of the world after a devastating flu wipes out 99% of the population) and the last segment of David Mitchell’s Bone Clocks (which describes in vivid detail the struggles of living in a society where there is no power), I desperately needed a trip to Costco to buy every basic good I could find.  I’m embarrassed to admit I did “hunker down” buying extra batteries, extra soap, extra ibuprofen, extra Neosporin, extra toilet paper – never mind that most of this stuff will go bad in a few years, and be depleted in no time if there ever really is a societal breakdown (assuming I don’t get raped, pillaged and murdered first).

My husband just shakes his head at me (rightly so).  But, no doubt – it made me feel better even though I know the feeling of being “safe” is only illusory.

The Party Of No And Dunno

A reader writes:

I hope a lot of voters were watching CBS on Sunday night when 60 Minutes interviewed Boehner and McConnell to talk about their plans now that the GOP controls the House and Senate. Both men acknowledged that the economy has been recovering and that the recovery has been picking up steam. They also acknowledged that the recovery has mostly only benefited the top income-earners while leaving the majority of Americans stuck in neutral. Boehner and McConnell want to “do something” to address income inequality and make sure those on the bottom of the economy have the opportunity to move up. They basically accused Obama of only helping the top 1% (which seems a complete reversal of the stories we’ve been hearing from them the last six years, but I digress).

This all sounds good enough to me, since for so long, it seemed the GOP was unwilling to even acknowledge there was an issue with inequality. If they want to blame Obama, I don’t really care so long as they are willing to present solutions.

So, the interviewer then asked if they would support raising taxes on top income earners. Answer:

No. The interviewer asked if they would support raising the minimum wage. Answer: No. The interviewer asked if they would support Obama’s plan to provide free community college. Answer: No. The interviewer asked if they would support Obama’s plan to expand the Child Income Tax Credit for working families. Answer: Maybe (Boehner mumbles about wanting to help working families but says he needs to further study this idea).

Boehner then said that he thinks the solution to raising wages and a more full recovery is the removal of “regulations” coming from Obama’s administration. The only example of such onerous regulations he gave is Obamacare (which I don’t know I would call a regulation, but semantics). He ignores that the economy grew more in 2014 (the first year of Obamacare) than any year since 1999 – which I acknowledge doesn’t mean that Obamacare was the catalyst for growth, but it does seem to indicate that it’s not a “job killer”.

The interviewer then asked about roads and bridges: would the GOP Congress find a way to put forward a comprehensive infrastructure bill? Boehner and McConnell both acknowledged that the Highway Trust Fund is underfunded and that our crumbling roads and bridges need to be addressed. However, they stated that they will not adjust the gas tax and instead try to find the funds “in other ways”.

I know you love to bang the drum of the GOP having no real policies or proposals, so I thought this interview was one of the most stark examples of that – and would be understood by a large number of underinformed voters. Boehner and McConnell acknowledge that there are real problems that need to be addressed. They are excited because they finally have the power to put some bills on Obama’s desk. Yet all they can do – still! – is say No to any suggestion while presenting no ideas or policies of their own for how to address those acknowledged problems.

It’s astounding to me and, frankly, a complete dereliction of duty. I’m no partisan, but I can’t see how we won’t look back at this no-nothing party and shake our heads at how they we allowed them to gain any power at all.

Update from a reader:

I am sure you’re going to get a lot of email about the eggcorn from your reader:

I’m no partisan, but I can’t see how we won’t look back at this no-nothing party and shake our heads at how they we allowed them to gain any power at all.

“no-nothing”!

hyuk hyuk.

On Swearing, Ctd

Prospero peruses the subject:

Taboo words can survive underlying social change. Church attendance has plummeted over the past few decades in Quebec, but a distinctive clutch of swear-words in the local variety of French are still some of the roughest words in the language: chalice (calisse!) and “host” (hosti), for example. The words remain powerfully charged partly because they are simply learnt as taboo words, and serve a special function divorced from their original context.

Swearing activates a bit of the brain that is used for other kinds of emotional responses like shouting and crying. The reason it is so hard not to swear in front of a child when you stub your toe is that you haven’t consciously processed the words through the same part of the language engine that you would use to explain a maths problem. Studies have even shown that swearing makes physical pain more bearable. …

A last class of words, though not quite as powerful, fill out the picture.

Retarded in America, and spastic in Britain, once respectable medical words, are now unutterable in polite company. Throw in complaints against gay and lame as all-purpose negative adjectives, and the picture is complete. Taboo words have moved from the religious through the sexual and excretory. But in the modern West, the last truly shocking words are those that refer to disadvantaged groups: women, gays, members of racial minorities and those with disabilities. Those liberal newspaper editors who proudly reprinted offensive Muhammad cartoons from Charlie Hebdo out of solidarity with the slain cartoonists would never dream of using the words that slur people from Muslim countries: towelhead, camel jockey, Paki or (take a slow breath) sand nigger. Western taboos now respect neither god nor sex, but they do respect individuals. And this is as it should be.

Except for barbra streisand:

Previous Dish on swearing here and here. Update from a reader:

Prospero didn’t mention Quebec’s finest churchly swear word, Tabarnac (Tabernacle). It has the virtue that it can be drawn out into three long syllables, in the same manner as Muuuu tha fuk. Read all about swearing in the Distinct Society at Wikipedia.

What’s In A Black Name? Ctd

Readers ramp up the thread:

About the discussion on discriminating against black names, there is also this research, where the researchers sent out emails to professors from many disciplines seeking help/information about their PhD programs. The emails were signed by generic White, Black, Hispanic, Indian, and Chinese male/female names. Then they measured the response rate: how fast the professors responded and how willing they were to help the student. Regardless of the professors’ discipline, sex, race, White males had it the best, and the Asians the worst. This only changed with Chinese professors responding to Chinese students. So, there you go.

A few readers also point to a study entitled “Are Emily and Greg More Employable Than Lakisha and Jamal?” The abstract conclusion states, “White names receive 50 percent more callbacks for interviews.” Another redirects to the real world:

I read your post and thought perhaps employers need to institute anonymous application processes. A quick search online revealed that some organizations (and governments) have done just that with positive results.

Here is a link to a recent article summarizing the efforts of the City of Celle, which is in Germany. I find it encouraging that the data suggests that hiring process becomes fairer when applications are judged only on their work histories, levels of education, skills, and accomplishments. Seems like a strategy we could all embrace, does it not?

Another makes a broader point:

I think there’s something off about the post about how employers are making “not an entirely unreasonable assumption” when discounting the educational achievements of black applicants. The evidence presented is that of SAT scores, that black students scored less on average than the mean scores accepted to universities. The implication being, universities are accepting less-than-optimal students for the sake of affirmative action. And, ok, there may be some argument or debate there.

However, the purpose of SAT scores are as a predictive measure of how students will do in college. Beyond the college application, they have absolutely no relevance. Why not? Affirmative action as a policy may help students with lower SAT scores get into college, but it doesn’t go to class for them, or write their papers, or take their final exams. Graduating college is an achievement that is mostly up to the student. So, a college degree on a resume stands on its own. My point is, affirmative action is actually not a plausible explanation for discrimination, at least not where education is concerned. If it was, then employers would ask for SAT scores on resumes. Guess what? They don’t.

Another shares an anecdote:

Many years ago I was a state civil rights investigator.  I remember one college-educated long-time head teller at a bank who was finally upset enough about the young white guys with no college and no experience heading straight into management tracks that she filed a complaint.  I talked to the branch manager about it.  He told me that the young guy he’d just hired reminded him of himself when he was just starting out and he wanted to give the new guy the same chance someone had given him.  He would have sworn on a stack of Bibles that he didn’t have a racist bone in his body.  He thought the world of his head teller.  He relied on her to train all the new staff.  But in his unconscious world view, black women were tellers, white men were management.

Another attests to the often fickle nature of hiring:

I’m a hiring manager at a software company. I receive dozens or hundreds of applications for every open position. Generally I skip cover letters altogether and spend somewhere between 20 and 30 seconds scanning resumes to come to an initial decision of whether to reject or follow-up. Even if there weren’t all sorts of academic studies telling us so, it’s pretty freaking clear to any even marginally self-aware person that this process is fraught with implicit biases. Have I heard of your college? Did I go to your college? Do I wonder whether you’ll “fit in” with our other employees? Do I want to drink beer with you? Is your job experience as impressive as it seems, or did you benefit from being a “diversity hire?”

This stuff sucks, but it’s the reality of the hiring process in good old meritocratic Silicon Valley. Other industries are probably even worse.

Update from a reader, who quotes a previous one:

So, a college degree on a resume stands on its own. My point is, affirmative action is actually not a plausible explanation for discrimination, at least not where education is concerned. If it was, then employers would ask for SAT scores on resumes. Guess what? They don’t.

ummm … actually … yes they do!

Big-name consulting firms such as McKinsey and Bain, as well as banks like Goldman Sachs, are among the companies that ask newly minted college grads for their scores in job applications, …Some other companies request scores even from candidates in their 40s and 50s. Jeff Bezos, the billionaire founder and CEO of Amazon, is one of the most famous proponents of using SAT scores in hiring decisions. Bezos scored highly on a standardized IQ test when he was only 8 years old, and in his early days as a manager, he liked to ask candidates for their SAT results in interviews he conducted. He has said that “hiring only the best and brightest was key to Amazon’s success.”

Was Selma Really Snubbed? Ctd

An insider joins the debate, quoting a reader:

A qualified film not receiving “enough” nominations is no reflection of the quality of the film. Instead, it’s simply a failure of the film’s PR hacks’ effectiveness at marketing directly to the Academy voters. It’s not the film’s fault, nor is it the Academy’s fault; it’s the film’s publicists’ fault. In the case of Selma, I’ve seen more publicity for Paddington.

I’ll call bullshit on that one. To say Paramount’s failure to get a screener to guild members on time is the reason for Selma‘s failure to nominate director Ava Duvernay is condescending to those members that vote on said nomination. As a Producers Guild member, almost every member I know sees it as their responsibility to see all the major potential nominees and they take that responsibility seriously. Aside from screeners, you’ll notice at the bottom of your local paper advertisements for the prestige films a notice that guild members are accepted free at all the major multiplexes. Combine that with the screenings the studios hold before and after a film’s release in not only New York and L.A., but also San Francisco, Atlanta and Chicago, there are plenty of opportunities for guild members to see all of the pictures. Being in the Academy especially is a big honor (besides being an organization that’s very difficult to join) and Academy members treat the nominations period like the High Holidays.

And it may just be that Duvernay’s lack of a nomination has nothing to do with the color of skin but rather the fact that Selma is, frankly, a good but not great movie.

While her approach is refreshingly unsentimental in its portrait of not only King but other heroes of the Civil Rights movement, from a nominating standpoint, historically the Academy likes movies that make the heart ache. Selma‘s exacting and serviceable portrayal of the political minefield Dr. King and his fellow activists had to wade through didn’t strike that nerve – at least among the Academy folks I saw the movie with. Of course, one can say, well then, by that logic Steven Spielberg shouldn’t have gotten a nomination for Lincoln. But the latter film had an artistry that Duvernay lacked.

Of course, that’s just my opinion – but apparently a lot of other guild members agree with me. But Duvernay can take heart that Christopher Nolan was also snubbed as Best Director and I guarantee we’ll still be talking about Interstellar ten years from now. But that’s the Oscars for ya.

Two cents from another reader:

What’s intriguing about this snub is that Selma is exactly the type of movie the academy generally loves. It’s historical, ostensibly a biopic, liberal, and most crucially, “important.” It’s an issue-driven film.

My main take away from the nominations is that four of the films – Boyhood, Birdman, The Grand Budapest Hotel, and Whiplash – are all quirky, independent, character-driven films. Basically, they are movies that don’t usually get a lot of love from the Academy. Think about it: Richard Linklater – Linklater! – is the front runner for best director. For film buffs (er, snobs) like myself, that is a huge thing.

Another:

I am with your reader who wonders why the only “people of color” who seem to matter when people are counting heads (or faces, as it were) are African-Americans, not Hispanic or Asian artists. (I also agree that the first issue is who is writing, directing, and starring in the movies, which necessarily determines the pool of potential nominees.) Last year, people were up in arms that Saturday Night Live didn’t have any black women (but did have two black men), but no one seems to mind that the only Hispanic cast member in recent memory is Horatio Sanz (and I can’t think of another one in its 40-year history).  And I don’t think they’ve ever had an Asian cast member, unlike the Daily Show.  (Asian-Americans have become a significant force in the comedy world – Mindy Kaling, Aziz Ansari, Aasif Mandvi, not to mention Margaret Cho – yet they are nowhere on SNL.)

The show “ER” had a similar track with Hispanic characters.  I watched the show for its entire run and can recall one Hispanic doctor – John Leguizamo, whose character was an irresponsible drug user who crashed and burned.  In contrast, there were many, many African-American doctors, including one of the main characters in the original cast.  (And plenty of Hispanic nurses and patients.)  They also reflected a diverse population in other ways – several gay or lesbian doctors and one with a physical disability.

In short, it’s time for people to realize that we are not just a country of black and white people, that we are a multicultural country with many different nationalities and ethnic groups, and that any discussion of diversity needs to look beyond these two categories.

Update from another reader:

I have to call bullshit on your “insider” calling bullshit. My partner is a member of the Academy and STILL hasn’t received his screener of Selma … and neither have many people he’s talked to. We were invited to a screening for Academy members in LA that took place on the Sunday night before Christmas. Since it was my partner’s first day off in many months and we had relatives coming in town the next day, we declined to attend, assuming a screener would arrive in the mail any day. It’s true that members can watch the films at most theaters for free, but the time between Selma‘s release and the nominations was a very small window during the holidays. If Al Sharpton wants to have an “emergency meeting” in Hollywood about the supposed snub, perhaps he should start with the marketing department at Paramount. They clearly failed to do their job.