Lunchtable TV talk: Lost – the real freedom is choice

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“The opposite of addiction, I have learned, is not sobriety but choice.” –Never Enough: The Neuroscience and Experience of AddictionJudith Grisel

This isn’t really about television — only tangentially. It’s actually about perspectives on addiction. Watching the tv show Lost just provided a pop-culture window into how it’s depicted.

Years after it ended, I binged on all six seasons Lost, which isn’t something of which I watched so much as one episode during its original run. I don’t know why I chose now—perhaps it was because someone referenced it, and I didn’t know the reference. Perhaps because it seems like a blind spot in my encyclopedic knowledge of television. Most of the world is in lockdown, and it’s as good a time as any to indulge.

On the subject of indulgence and, by extension, addiction (clearly I indulge in my television addiction no matter how many times I claim I won’t), the thing that stuck with me from my Lost immersion was the character John Locke’s insistence that addiction is about choice. Right after reading Judith Grisel’s Never Enough: The Neuroscience and Experience of Addiction, in which Grisel states that the opposite of addiction is not sobriety but choice, I watched Locke give another character, Charlie Pace, a heroin addict, the opportunity to make the conscious choice about whether to use or not. Simple but powerful. It’s always about choosing to do or not.

Yes, choice. The true freedom.

“I understand firsthand the despair that grows as drugs come to make our choices for us, deciding whom we will be with and what we will do. This gloomy cell of repetition occupied by every addict, despite variation in periodicity, strips us of our most precious commodity, the freedom to choose. This is why I’m not against drugs or drug use, but am so thoroughly opposed to addiction: it strips us of our precious freedom. And this is also why it makes no more sense to cure addiction by imposing permanent or semipermanent limits on our range of choices than it does to teach compassion through corporal punishment. How could one give rise to the other? Just as children need autonomy in little doses in order to learn restraint, people in recovery obviously can’t be entrusted with ourselves all at once. But given social support, a range of attractive alternatives, and perhaps short-term medical interventions, we can learn to choose life—despite its obvious imperfections—over death. Ultimately, this freedom is the antidote to addiction. When I occasionally hear sober people say that using is no longer an option, I cringe. It is precisely an option. That’s exactly the point. So, what might be an ideal cure?”

I didn’t expect Lost to offer parallels to books on addiction, but it’s interesting to see depictions of addiction on television. Most of them don’t theorize about sobriety versus choice, most don’t look compassionately at the addict’s plight, and we as a society so, as Grisel writes, demonize and pity addicts… especially so when it’s seen as a moral failing and usually the use of “hardcore” drugs, like opioids.

But what always strikes me, given the damage it does, is that we fail to recognize alcohol as a hardcore drug. Its legality and ubiquity – and the expectation that drinking will accompany every occasion (everything from mourning to exuberant celebration) – has entirely skewed the perception of its danger.

“Social convention is pickled in the intoxicating juice of alcohol. In 1839, an English traveler named Frederick Marryat noted in his diary that American practice was “if you meet, you drink; if you part, you drink; if you make acquaintance, you drink; if you close a bargain, you drink; they quarrel in their drink, and they make it up with a drink. They drink, because it is hot; they drink, because it is cold.””

This is one of the most powerful parts of Grisel’s book – that she takes alcohol and the cultural imperative that it be an integral part of our lives – to task.

“I am also particularly curious about the general practice of celebrating peak experiences with a sedative. I understand that it is easy to be overwhelmed by strong emotions, and I appreciate the desire to evade stark reality, but still, it seems odd that we drink and use to permit or enhance strong feelings as well as to mute them.”

“Alcohol is a neurological sledgehammer. By acting throughout the brain to influence a multitude of targets, the drug affects virtually all aspects of neural functioning. One or two drinks help to blur the edges, and a reduction in anxiety promotes relaxation. But with a few more drinks, a person loses inhibitions as cortical monitoring is shut down and subcortical, “emotional” regions are freed from normal constraints. As one approaches the legal limit for alcohol in the blood, behavior is sedated, and speech and coordination are impaired. Still more drinking and the person might lose consciousness. These effects are what justify alcohol’s classification as a sedative-hypnotic.”

“Alcohol has been such a huge part of our culture since we had culture that it can be nearly impossible to see the ways we all participate in the unsustainable epidemic of alcoholism. So we walk a fine line, glancing up at the scope of the battlefield, looking in the mirror at the ways we contribute, but mostly walking with our eyes cast down, perhaps as my colleague felt meeting me in the hallway after my successful dissertation defense.”

“This seems funny, because it obviously isn’t creating the occasion, but rather the excuse to use an occasion for drinking. These businesses are well aware of psychological learning principles as they work to associate contexts with alcohol, noting that “insights have enabled us to create and position products for specific moments of consumption: enjoying a game or music event with friends, shifting toward a more relaxed mood after work, celebrating at a party or sharing a meal.” Along similar lines, in 2014 the British Beer Alliance, a consortium of major British brewers, invested £10 million in the marketing campaign “There’s a Beer for That,” aiming to showcase “the variety of beer available in the UK and how these different styles fit perfectly a wide range of occasions.””

“What might we do differently? As a start, we might work to ensure more spaces where not drinking isn’t just tolerated but acceptable. In addition to offering more beverage options, we could convey this acceptance by really seeing and hearing each other, putting the “social” back into the drinking. Practicing this, we might notice that at least some of those we meet will be better sated by friendship than by booze.”

Alcohol may be the “socially acceptable” addiction, and probably the most common, which is why it’s so perplexing.

“…thought-provoking paradox. If alcohol and other drug addictions were rare events, unlikely except for a few tragic cases, it would be one thing. But in the face of superabundant examples proximal, ubiquitous, and concrete, as well as our own family wounds concerning the stuff, our deep collective denial is strange. The manic insistence on ignoring the obvious is reminiscent of cigarette commercials I grew up watching. The juxtaposition of youthful athleticism with a nicotine habit seemed as odd to me as a child as the insistence today that alcohol somehow makes everything sexier and livelier. I still remember one commercial in particular that showed a group of gorgeously tanned young adults whitewater rafting down a rugged canyon as they promoted a popular menthol brand. Really? Smoking while rafting? This incongruity is thoroughly pervasive. We always kick off the annual meeting of the Research Society on Alcoholism, where I recently received my twenty-five-year membership pin, with a reception. Free drink tickets—two per person, just right for the social drinker—are offered to everyone, and the drug flows freely (because you can pay cash when your tickets run out).”

Said and read – May 2020

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“Culture wasn’t just a set of rules or rituals, she realized. It could also be a set of chains that individuals dragged around with them after the prison wardens more or less fled the scene.”” Gods of Upper Air: How a Circle of Renegade Anthropologists Reinvented Race, Sex, and Gender in the Twentieth CenturyCharles King

Image by S Donaghy, April 2020

We’re heading into another month of a pandemic that more and more people choose to ignore as though it’s over, while tensions simmered and civil unrest exploded, like a pressure cooker. It occurs to me more clearly than ever that the problems, addictions, insanities, lack of control that defined people’s lives before the various levels of quarantine not only remain but become outsized, as though studied under a microscope. If you are an aggressive, angry person prone to lose your temper, all of this feels likelier to boil over in these pent-up conditions. If you are an addict, attempting to run from yourself and the pain and anxiety that ail you, there is no worse time than being trapped in your home, alone with your thoughts.

I suspect we’re in for many more months of uncertainty; people’s anger at having made sacrifices (particularly in the face of loss) while their ‘fearless leaders’ did not leads to deeper and more fractious divides. People’s anger at the ineptitude of a federal government and its refusal to act at all during a pandemic, coupled with increasing anger about the abundant inequalities of the criminal justice system (e.g., how many black people must be murdered by police before something changes?), has made clear the brokenness of the United States, long in the making, a catastrophic implosion precipitated … protests, riots, and … what more? We don’t yet know the outcome, but it hurts to say that I fear things will go on being exactly the same or worse.

So, I read. I read so much that I find it difficult to find time to catalog my thoughts on the previous month’s reading. But I try. Each month I only capture here the things that struck me in some way, but this is never a complete rendering of all the things I’ve read.

I’ve ended up finishing these ramblings so far into June that it’s already my birthday; therefore, I’ve lived to pulse ocho for another year.

Here’s what you missed in previous months and years: 2020 – April, March, February, January. 2019 – December, November, October, September, May, April, March, February, January. 2018 – NovemberOctober, SeptemberAugust, July, June, May, April, March, February and January.

Thoughts on reading for May:

Highly recommended

*The Subjection of WomenJohn Stuart Mill

“Some will object, that a comparison cannot fairly be made between the government of the male sex and the forms of unjust power which I have adduced in illustration of it, since these are arbitrary, and the effect of mere usurpation, while it on the contrary is natural. But was there ever any domination which did not appear natural to those who possessed it?” –The Subjection of WomenJohn Stuart Mill

I dreamt of writing something thoughtful about John Stuart Mill’s The Subjection of Women. I found, however, that I become too frustrated and angry to properly formulate thoughts. The fact that this was written in 1869, followed by very slow change, almost immovable thinking, and a continued cultural conditioning about women’s inferiority, infuriates me. On reflection, there are material differences between what women could do in 1869 and now, but the underlying value assigned to women, their bodies, their experiences, their contributions continues to be underestimated, if considered at all. I urge careful reading and re-reading of this. And then reflect on the age-old arguments on nature and nurture. That is, recognizing the “eminently artificial” nature of women created by “forced repression in some directions, unnatural stimulation in others”, and the assertion that women, being physically weaker, are somehow unequal to men, and for it to be otherwise would be “unnatural”, although “unnatural generally means only uncustomary, and that everything which is usual appears natural. The subjection of women to men being a universal custom, any departure from it quite naturally appears unnatural.”

“If anything conclusive could be inferred from experience, without psychological analysis, it would be that the things which women are not allowed to do are the very ones for which they are peculiarly qualified; since their vocation for government has made its way, and become conspicuous, through the very few opportunities which have been given; while in the lines of distinction which apparently were freely open to them, they have by no means so eminently distinguished themselves. We know how small a number of reigning queens history presents, in comparison with that of kings. Of this smaller number a far larger proportion have shown talents for rule; though many of them have occupied the throne in difficult periods. It is remarkable, too, that they have, in a great number of instances, been distinguished by merits the most opposite to the imaginary and conventional character of women: they have been as much remarked for the firmness and vigour of their rule, as for its intelligence.”

*Surprised by God: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love ReligionDanya Ruttenberg

“My own lived experience was the guide here, and all I needed was a willingness to meet it, to allow myself to ask certain kinds of questions and be willing to hear the answers that might follow, no matter how disconcerting those answers might be. This, then, was the real test of faith—not whether I was willing to change my beliefs but, rather, whether I was willing to give language to that which I had already begun to experience as truth.” –Surprised by God: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love ReligionDanya Ruttenberg

Much like Ruttenberg as a young woman, I was never religious. I’ve never actively claimed to be an atheist, but because I don’t believe it’s possible to know (which is why we call it faith) for certain, religious and spiritual questions have rarely engaged me in more than a cursory and academic way. But faith and religion are powerful markers of identity and community, making them inspirational topics for thought and research, but also fascinating in grappling with the grittiest questions about oneself. I continue to come back to the big questions myself, particularly in terms of how I’ve lived and how I want to live, and this is tightly wound with ideas of community, isolation (self-imposed or societal), intention and compassion.

“What religion changes is not just our identity, our relationships, our politics, our sense of what the world is and how we move in it, but also, potentially, every small decision that we make. What religion changes, if we let it, is not just ourselves, not just our smaller home culture, but the world as a whole and the power structures that run it.”

Throughout my life, despite not being Jewish, I have been drawn time and again to progressive interpretations of Judaism and, for inexplicable reasons, I identify with this particular faith more than any other. Ruttenberg herself outlines succinctly exactly why it speaks to her, and it happens to apply just as well to me (and probably to many others who choose to be Jewish, whether they are actively embracing the faith into which they were born or adopt it much later as a conscious and conscientious choice):

“I can find a lot of different ways to explain why I was drawn to Judaism. There’s a strong ethical tradition, but also a tremendous awe for the transcendent. It’s a faith that is comfortable with debate and a diversity of opinion—of five thousand legal disagreements recorded in the Talmud, only fifty or so are settled on the page, leaving open the possibility that the “right” answer isn’t so obvious.”

This sense of needing to know about and experience Judaism has grown over time, and it has only been in the last few years that I have recommitted to exploring this feeling more seriously. I started this journey half-jokingly, half-curious in my youth, attending various courses at a Reform synagogue near where I grew up. But I didn’t take it further until recently, when I started studying psychology, then the psychology of religion, and then theology in the context of peace and conflict.

And while I frequently jest that I would like to become a rabbi, it would certainly help if I were first Jewish.

And before taking any conversion-related steps, I needed to dive deeply into the literature and truly understand what I feel and might want to be a part of. Happily, somewhere in this neverending journey, I stumbled across a lengthy reading list compiled by Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg, and I’ve been making my way through it. This particular book, her own, was on the list, and I found that the rabbi had undergone a spiritual transformation herself, during which she dabbled in atheism and studied philosophy, and voiced many of the same complaints I’ve always had about my own academic aspirations, e.g. “I found that I was perfectly capable of unpacking Hegel or Hobbes, but that it just wasn’t all that much fun once the big ideas became too abstract, too disconnected from human lives.”; “Religious studies, on the other hand, was philosophy and anthropology and literature and history all rolled up in one.” This is the kind of interdisciplinary thinking that has driven most of my scholarly and life choices. Where some might see a dilettante who can’t commit (and I do self-flagellate on this), I see someone whose curiosity cannot be contained. Where some might see a lack of willingness to dive deeply into the minutiae of one thing, I see someone who cares more about the human and person-centered roots of almost every discipline. It’s always about getting back to humanity.

When it comes to religious faith and practice, it can be deeply individual, particularly when its nascent and uncertain. And yet in some ways, at some point, it may become very public (if you begin to practice in a community). This can pose a barrier, but again, it is about getting in touch with humanity.

“Thomas Merton talks about the “tremendous, agonizing embarrassment and self-consciousness which [those new to religion] feel about praying publicly . . . The effort it takes to overcome all the strange imaginary fears that everyone is looking at you, and that they all think that you are crazy or ridiculous, is something that costs a tremendous effort.”

First you must decide whether your pursuit is satisfying a curiosity or is actually driven by something deeper. Then, should you decide that it’s deeper, you must overcome the idea that you’re an impostor, that you’re “doing it” or “believing” wrong. And finally when you can start to let down the walls, softening yourself to hear and accept answers you needed to hear — but only after doing the sometimes painful and arduous work of waking up truly.

“Years down the road, I would learn how hard it could be to follow my intuition, to feel whatever was buried deep within my fettered heart, to try to meet God without denial. But I would discover that fear and pain were a hundred thousand times better than this unconscious sleepwalking through parties and distraction—that even when it was harder, I would prefer to be awake, and alive. But that was all later.”

Perhaps most powerful here, and there were a lot of resonant ideas, was Ruttenberg’s call to action, which aligns with so much of what I’ve been reading (and writing about here): transformation and change, social justice, community, and the detached ways we live today. We can defy the way our culture aims to commoditize humanity, innoculating us against the idea that our community and true spirituality can feed us in ways that consumerism and individualism cannot.

“The dominant culture depends on our sense of isolation. As long as spirituality remains an individualized, personal experience, chances remain good that the inherently revolutionary potential of religious work will sit forever inert and untapped. That is to say, those who practice their spirituality without community are much less likely to demand change in and upheaval to the status quo, or feel that they have the power to do so.”

“More often than not, the places where it’s necessary to mobilize for transformation in religion reflect our contemporary understanding of morality and compassion.”

*Gods of Upper Air: How a Circle of Renegade Anthropologists Reinvented Race, Sex, and Gender in the Twentieth CenturyCharles King

“Real, evidence-driven analysis, they believed, would overturn one of modernity’s most deeply held principles: that science will tell us which individuals and groups are naturally smarter, abler, more upstanding, and fitter to rule. Their response was that science pointed in precisely the opposite direction, toward a theory of humanity that embraces all the many ways we humans have devised for living. The social categories into which we typically divide ourselves, including labels such as race and gender, are at base artificial—the products of human artifice, residing in the mental frameworks and unconscious habits of a given society.”

“…in order to live intelligently in the world, we should view the lives of others through an empathetic lens. We ought to suspend our judgment about other ways of seeing social reality until we really understand them, and in turn we should look at our own society with the same dispassion and skepticism with which we study far-flung peoples. Culture, as Boas and his students understood it, is the ultimate source for what we think constitutes common sense. It defines what is obvious or beyond question. It tells us how to raise a child, how to pick a leader, how to find good things to eat, how to marry well. Over time these things change, sometimes slowly, sometimes rapidly. Yet there is no more fundamental reality in the social world than the one that humans themselves in some measure create.” –Gods of Upper Air: How a Circle of Renegade Anthropologists Reinvented Race, Sex, and Gender in the Twentieth CenturyCharles King

The development of anthropology as a discipline isn’t something I gave a great deal of thought to until I started studying communication for development, which focuses on the so-called “developing world” (and queries whether it should even be called “developing world”). Later my psychology and theology studies crossed into anthropological territory, but it still never occurred to me to look more carefully at its theoretical and historical origins.

An anthropological quest crosses multiple disciplines: linguistics, sociology, psychology, theology, among others, and like most fields of academic inquiry, its methodology, its merit, its subjects have shifted alongside the people within the field and the cultures to which they belong. At its core, according to its founding proponents, such as Franz Boas, cultural anthropology required acknowledging one’s own ignorance and one’s own worldview and preconceived ideas, placing oneself in unfamiliar surroundings and observing in as scientific and objective a way as possible. It provided, as anthropology pioneer Ruth Benedict put it, “illumination that comes of envisaging very different possible ways of handling invariable problems” and demanded the realization that nothing about culture is universal, i.e. cultural relativity.

“…no society, including our own, is the endpoint of human social evolution. We aren’t even a distinct stage in human development. History moves in loops and circles, not in straight lines, and toward no particular end. Our own vices and blind spots are as readily apparent as those of any society anywhere.”

I greatly enjoyed this book, and could endlessly ramble about it — but won’t. It’s worth reading, and in particular its discussion on Zora Neale Hurston’s anthropological work shines a light on her journey as a folklorist and writer in a new context; she is the most fascinating among the book’s “characters” and, while not orthodox or organized in her methodology and data collection, she captured the most living, breathing, startling accounts and observations in her anthropological work, such as in Haiti, which ring true through American society today:

“FREDERICK DOUGLASS, WHO SERVED as the U.S. minister and consul-general in Haiti, once said that tracing the country’s history was like following a wounded man through a crowd: you just needed to follow the blood.”

“The key to understanding zombies, Hurston concluded, lay not in finding a secret potion or in debunking another people’s mythology. It was actually believing in them. Felix-Mentor wasn’t a person who was said to be a zombie. She wasn’t a make-believe one, like her fictional counterpart in a Hollywood film. She really was one. If you could twist your brain into seeing that fact, then you had taken a giant step toward seeing Haiti—and most important, its spirituality—from the inside.”

“A woman disappeared—conveniently, for her brother and her husband—and then reappeared and started causing trouble until she was put away in a mental institution, cowering, distraught, wordless, no longer herself, alive yet dead. Religions survive not because people love the faith of their fathers but because they help us navigate the world as we find it.”

“Magical thinking was as close to a human universal as you could imagine, and it existed in modern societies, too. Gambling, the stock market, even the concept of private property—the belief that I can expand my sense of self to include an inanimate object, the loss of which would induce deep displeasure and anxiety—all depend to a degree on magical belief systems. They are ways of summoning the unlikely and the invisible in order to control the tangible world.”

““Gods always behave like the people who make them,” Hurston wrote in her notes from Haiti. A boisterous spirit could say the thing a peasant couldn’t. A person mounted by a loa could curse a field boss or a pith-helmeted American. Possession by unseen forces, escaping into a kind of death, could be a way of being truly, deeply alive, especially in places where it was hard to speak the truth in any other way. That was the real story of Felicia Felix-Mentor. Put away, disregarded, institutionalized, forgotten, willed by others to be effectively dead—her condition was very much like that of many people Hurston knew, the black women and men she had met from Florida labor camps to whites-only universities. It was just that Haitians had invented a word for it.”

*The Gentrification of the Mind: Witness to a Lost ImaginationSarah Schulman

“The gentrification mentality is rooted in the belief that obedience to consumer identity over recognition of lived experience is actually normal, neutral, and value free.” –The Gentrification of the Mind: Witness to a Lost ImaginationSarah Schulman

I can’t explain why, but this book almost immediately had me in tears. I think it’s attributable in part, once more, to the inevitable dilution of historical events. Things that were intense, painful, sweeping — things I can’t even describe in words, such as the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s and 90s — have become anodyne footnotes accompanied by inoffensive elevator music. I was a child during this epidemic, but watching it unfold affected me at such a fundamental level that I still cry uncontrollably watching footage of protests juxtaposed with images of the march of slow, excruciating and senseless death. As I say, I was a child. I can’t begin to imagine what this period was like for people most affected by it, those like Schulman and her community in New York at the height of the crisis.

“Bizarrely, this very day is the twentieth anniversary of AIDS. Decontextualized by palm trees, I listen. The announcer is discussing events that I know intimately, organically, that have seared the emotional foundation of my adult life. And yet there is a strangely mellow tone to the story. It’s been slightly banalized, homogenized. This is the first time I’ve heard AIDS being historicized, and there is something clean-cut about this telling, something wrong. Something…gentrified. “At first America had trouble with People with AIDS,” the announcer says in that falsely conversational tone, intended to be reassuring about apocalyptic things. “But then, they came around.” I almost crash the car.”

Thus I comprehend her bewildered reaction: “But then, they came around“?!

What!?

When did “they” ever come around? Had, as Schulman pondered, her community – what remained of it – failed to show exactly how much they had suffered, how much they had lost? What the world, in fact, lost, to this epidemic that was “caused by governmental and familial neglect”?

Schulman’s book deals mostly with the gentrification process — but not just the material gentrification we can see in cities like New York, but rather a brainwashing of sorts: the gentrification of the culture, and the gentrification of the mind. It is woven into the institutionally sanctioned happiness-industry culture we are a part of in which we willingly become a part of a herd and ignore what we give up to be a part of that — both on an individual level and as a society. Individually we — this is truer for some than others — may, for example, as Schulman writes, come to expect that one’s “teacher does not remember them, even after intimate direct conversations in class about their lives and work” because somehow the individual is not important enough to remember, particularly if they have always been part of a marginalized group. Societally, we find ourselves acting against the community and its interests because we are encouraged and incentivized to participate in a culture that endlessly craves manufactured happiness and comfort — and the only way to achieve this, according to the rules of this society, is to compete or step on someone else, or in some cases, merely tolerate injustices that we see but don’t speak out against.

“Gentrified happiness is often available to us in return for collusion with injustice. We go along with it, usually, because of the privilege of dominance, which is the privilege not to notice how our way of living affects less powerful people. Sometimes we do know that certain happiness exists at the expense of other human beings, but because we’re not as smart as we think we are, we decide that this is the only way we can survive. Stupidity or cruelty become the choice, but it doesn’t always have to be that way. After all, people and institutions act on and transform each other. So, it’s not happiness at the expense of the weaker versus nothing, right? And yet we are led to feel this way.”

Schulman is writing from her own experience and taking back the narrative that homogenizes the AIDS struggle, but her theses are widely applicable in terms of discussing gentrification, privatization, privilege and — of course — the commodification of humanity and individual identities. Everything about this book commands attention and compels… action. Action toward empathy, compassion and intervention.

“Autobiographically, the AIDS experience may be where I came to understand that it is a fundamental of individual integrity to intervene to stop another person from being victimized, even if to do so is uncomfortable or frightening.”

“Gentrification culture makes it very hard for people to intervene on behalf of others. The Nasdaq value system is and was a brutal one. Being consumed by it and being shut out of it are both deadening and result in distorted thinking about private sectors, economic and emotional. Gentrification culture is rooted in the ideology that people needing help is a “private” matter, that it is nobody’s business. Taking their homes is called “cleaning up” the neighborhood. ACT UP was the most recent American social movement to succeed, and it did so because AIDS activist culture of the 1980s was the opposite of Gentrification culture.”

“Gentrification culture was a twentieth-century, fin de siècle rendition of bourgeois values. It defined truth telling as antisocial instead of as a requirement for decency. The action of making people accountable was decontextualized as inappropriate. When there is no context for justice, freedom-seeking behavior is seen as annoying. Or futile. Or a drag. Or oppressive. And dismissed and dismissed and dismissed and dismissed until that behavior is finally just not seen. Every historical moment passes.”

*Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary ImaginationToni Morrison

“A criticism that needs to insist that literature is not only “universal” but also “race-free” risks lobotomizing that literature, and diminishes both the art and the artist.” –Playing in the Dark : Whiteness and the Literary ImaginationToni Morrison

This is a unique moment to survey Morrison’s work on literary criticism and African-American literature. She calls out the “polite” color blindness of the dominant cultural system and exposes it as a thick layer of white paint that has for so long covered over necessary calls to consciousness, assessment and action. Today it is embodied in Black Lives Matter, and this must be named, seen, and understood by those who cannot understand it because the responsibility rests with them, i.e., the most dangerous being the white liberal self-proclaimed “ally” who nevertheless never questions and furthers systems of what Morrison refers to as “intellectual domination”.

“Above all I am interested in how agendas in criticism have disguised themselves and, in so doing, impoverished the literature it studies. Criticism as a form of knowledge is capable of robbing literature not only of its own implicit and explicit ideology but of its ideas as well; it can dismiss the difficult, arduous work writers do to make an art that becomes and remains part of and significant within a human landscape. It is important to see how inextricable Africanism is or ought to be from the deliberations of literary criticism and the wanton, elaborate strategies undertaken to erase its presence from view.”

“One likely reason for the paucity of critical material on this large and compelling subject is that, in matters of race, silence and evasion have historically ruled literary discourse.”

“It is further complicated by the fact that the habit of ignoring race is understood to be a graceful, even generous, liberal gesture. To notice is to recognize an already discredited difference. To enforce its invisibility through silence is to allow the black body a shadowless participation in the dominant cultural body.”

Violence against black bodies is the most immediate emergency, of course, but as a reflection of a comprehensively racist system, we must also dig into things as esoteric as literary criticism to understand the depth of the problem.

“Like thousands of avid but nonacademic readers, some powerful literary critics in the United States have never read, and are proud to say so, any African-American text. It seems to have done them no harm, presented them with no discernible limitations in the scope of their work or influence. I suspect, with much evidence to support the suspicion, that they will continue to flourish without any knowledge whatsoever of African-American literature. What is fascinating, however, is to observe how their lavish exploration of literature manages not to see meaning in the thunderous, theatrical presence of black surrogacy—an informing, stabilizing, and disturbing element—in the literature they do study. It is interesting, not surprising, that the arbiters of critical power in American literature seem to take pleasure in, indeed relish, their ignorance of African-American texts.”

*Pale Colors in a Tall Field: PoemsCarl Phillips

Poetry, of course.

*The FallD. Nurkse

More poetry. Always poetry.

*The Kingdom of Ordinary Time: PoemsMarie Howe

My life was a story, dry as pages. Seems like he should have known/enough to like them even lightly with his thumb/ But he didn’t. /And I have to admit I didn’t much like the idea/of telling him how.” –The Kingdom of Ordinary Time: PoemsMarie Howe

And yet more poetry. Every day is poetry.

Good – or better than expected

*Never Enough: The Neuroscience and Experience of AddictionJudith Grisel

“The opposite of addiction, I have learned, is not sobriety but choice.” –Never Enough: The Neuroscience and Experience of AddictionJudith Grisel

All I can say about Never Enough is that it balances the author’s own experience with addiction with the neuroscience behind addiction. It reinforces what much of science and social science instructs about addiction: addiction often escalates when faced with a lack of acceptance and community – seeing no alternatives or no possible way out – in a judgmental society that criminalizes addiction and in which some substance abuse (particularly alcohol) is second nature and not seen at all as abuse or troublesome (until it is). Grisel’s account states:

“Though there were several turning points in my trajectory, it seems profoundly significant that the material change began a few months after the ghost-in-the-mirror episode, when my father inexplicably changed course and took me out for my twenty-third birthday. Federal agents, friends’ deaths, expulsions and evictions, physical withdrawal, and myriad other tragedies weren’t enough to propel me to change; instead, it was human love and connection. My father’s willingness to be seen with me and to treat me with kindness split open my defensive shell of rationalizations and justifications. It broke open the lonely heart that neither of us knew I still had.”

She never claims that this turning point made her choice easy, but it was about choice — and it required connection and compassion to reach that stage. Having some meaning seems to be a deciding factor for many addicts, which is backed up by work from both Dr Gabor Maté and Dr Carl Hart, who also specialize in addiction. A unique part of the book is that it covers different categories of drug and in some cases proposes ways we might mitigate some of the pitfalls of use — that is, make alcohol-free spaces more common, find ways to cope with and treat pain, see others with compassion and look at what can be done rather than what cannot.

“So, who’s to blame for the epidemic of addiction? The truth is no one is to blame, but we are all responsible. Our collective shadow supports addiction because we must have a scapegoat even as we deny, or embrace, the many strategies of escape we employ ourselves. We support the tools of addiction, including pathological individualism that leads to alienation, widespread and enthusiastic endorsement of avoidance, and a smorgasbord of consumptive excess and self-medication. Though any search for a cause (or a cure) is bound to fall short, one source of this epidemic is our unwillingness to bear our own pain, along with our failure to look upon the suffering of others with compassion.”

*Talking to My Daughter About the Economy: or, How Capitalism Works – and How It FailsYanis Varoufakis

“The triumph of exchange values over experiential values changed the world both for the better and for the worse. On the one hand, with the commodification of goods, land, and labor came an end to the oppression, injustice, and wretchedness of serfdom. A new concept of freedom was born, along with the possibility of abolishing slavery and the technological capability to produce enough goods for all. On the other hand, it prompted unprecedented new forms of misery, poverty, and potential slavery.” –Talking to My Daughter About the Economy: or, How Capitalism Works – and How It FailsYanis Varoufakis

After reading Doughnut Economics: Seven Ways to Think Like a 21st-century Economist last month and continuing to think about the up-and-down waves of collapsing capitalism, Varoufakis’s simplified take on economics and capitalism would be a good addition to the basics, boiled down to the simple premise: ““My reason for writing it was the conviction that the economy is too important to leave to the economists.” This is much the same argument that guided the research and thinking behind Doughnut Economics.

“Today’s economic experts are not much different. Whenever they fail to predict properly some economic phenomenon, which is almost always, they account for their failure by appealing to the same mystical economic notions that failed them in the first place. Occasionally, new notions are created in order to account for the failure of the earlier ones.”

How far removed from human life and needs can economics — ostensibly the study of the production, distribution, and consumption of goods and services, which are produced, distributed and consumed by people — get?

“With time, I recognized something else, a delicious contradiction about my own profession that reinforced this belief: the more scientific our models of the economy become, the less relation they bear to the real, existing economy out there. This is precisely the opposite of what obtains in physics, engineering…”

Very much aligned with the questions I continue to ask myself as I make reading and study choices: what are my values, what are society’s collective values? And Varoufakis does the same, hitting the nail right on the head — we live in a time in which experience holds no value, and everything is commodified and assigned a market value. People fall right into this — from assigning a salary, fair or not, to their time and labor (which do, in fact, belong to them) to turning people themselves into products and market experiments (how can we influence consumers, how much can be extract from them either in the form of direct consumption or in the data they generate and unwittingly share with us)?

“Oscar Wilde wrote that a cynical person is someone who knows the price of everything but the value of nothing. Our societies tend to make us all cynics. And no one is more cynical than the economist who sees exchange value as the only value, trivializing experiential value as unnecessary in a society where everything is judged according to the criteria of the market. But how exactly did exchange value manage this triumph over experiential value? The commodification of everything…”

Entertaining/informative/thoughtful or some combination thereof

*What Gandhi SaysNorman Finkelstein

“If Gandhi despised one thing more than cowardice, it was cowardice wrapping itself in the mantle of nonviolence.” –What Gandhi SaysNorman Finkelstein

No stranger to controversy, Finkelstein provides analysis of the tenets for which Gandhi is best known globally… not diving too deeply into the more controversial and troubling aspects of Gandhi the man. Finkelstein focuses squarely on Gandhi’s words and their constant contradictions, emphasizing Gandhi’s predilection for action over consistency of expression. While other readings I’ve highlighted here suggest that inconsistent expression is a hallmark of the dictator, I doubt anyone would claim Gandhi had dictatorial aspirations, even if it seems he had a control-freak streak (and preoccupation with sex and attempting to control it). In fact, according to Finkelstein, Gandhi’s commitment to acting on non-violent resistance came from the need to throw off colonial chains and rulers, not to grab power for himself once these occupiers were successfully resisted.

“Gandhi devoted the whole of his adult life to organizing the powerless 99 percent against the greedy 1 percent. He aspired in the first place to end the British occupation of India, but he also recoiled at the prospect of a corrupt clique of native Indians replacing the foreign occupiers.”

“He was convinced not only that the old world could be extirpated and a new world be brought into being nonviolently, but also that unless it was done nonviolently, the new world would hardly differ from the old world it superseded.”

Finkelstein attempts to show that Gandhi was not passive, and did not advocate being passive. He in fact would advocate violence if and when there were no other alternative.

“The real Gandhi did loathe violence but he loathed cowardice more than violence. If his constituents could not find the inner wherewithal to resist nonviolently, then he exhorted them to find the courage to hit back those who assaulted or demeaned them.”

The unfortunate problem here is that one cannot rely on the judgment of an individual that there “was no alternative”. We can see, despite the very different conditions and circumstances, that a number of police officers in the United States justify murder because they claim to have had no other recourse, and felt that their own lives were threatened. Never mind that they are in positions of power, authority and are armed. I use this example only to illustrate the subjectivity of the perceived alternatives.

Finkelstein also explores the limitations and contradictions of Gandhi’s teachings, which makes this book a worthwhile endeavor.

*Wildhood: The Epic Journey from Adolescence to Adulthood in Humans and Other AnimalsBarbara Natterson-Horowitz and Kathryn Bowers

“All animals need time, experiences, practice, and failure to become mature adults.” –Wildhood: The Epic Journey from Adolescence to Adulthood in Humans and Other AnimalsBarbara Natterson-Horowitz and Kathryn Bowers

Oh, adolescence.

“It seems tragically counterintuitive that the most vulnerable and underprepared individuals would be thrown into the riskiest possible situations. But facing mortal danger while still maturing is a fact of life for adolescents and young adults across species.”

Natterson-Horowitz and Bowers explore the fraught period of human and other species adolescent period, which is fascinating overall but a few key points stand out, in particular the question of what happens to humans once old risks are eliminated, when there is capacity to manage more than just basic survival.

“What happens when brains and bodies that evolved in environments full of predators and other threats find those dangers removed? A similar question was posed thirty years ago by a British epidemiologist who noticed a rise in autoimmune diseases like lupus and Crohn’s. David Strachan wondered what happens to immune systems that evolved in environments with many varied pathogens when the world gets cleaner. The “hygiene hypothesis” suggested that human immune systems, unchallenged in overly clean environments, turn inward and begin to attack their own bodies, mistaking normal tissue for pathogens. Might a similar process be driving anxiety in modern adolescents and other individuals? Lars Svendsen, a Norwegian philosopher at the University of Bergen who studies fear, thinks yes. He believes that many modern humans have a “surplus of consciousness” that gets directed into imagining risks.”

“Safer than ever before, with more “brain space” to devote to thinking about risks that don’t pan out, we live in a state of what Svendsen calls “permanent fear.” Permanent fear, believes Svendsen, isolates individuals and creates anxious, lonely societies because “living a life of fear is incompatible with living a life of happiness.””

“Adolescents and adults who seem to have it all still get sad, sometimes even truly depressed. A human being’s internal self-perception can be very different from how others see them. Social experiences during adolescence shape individuals’ views of their status in ways that sometimes continue into adult life. The happiness that might come from success in adult life may be blunted by the enduring effects of social defeats during adolescence.”

Another key point, which seems obvious, but isn’t — based on how critically “sexual compliance” is handled in society. Overt threats are not required in a world that does not believe women, does not understand the subtlety of covert threats, and in which violence is glorified and some people feel entitled to “take”. That is, as Natterson-Horowitz and Bowers share:

“Sex between two animals that appears to be non-coerced, because physical force is not observed, may actually be coercive in a less visible way if the female has been harassed into submitting. Some males may persistently badger unreceptive females for sex, preventing them from foraging and feeding—a phenomenon documented in dolphins, sheep, quail, and coho salmon. Sexually harassed elephant seals, fallow bucks, and female tortoiseshell butterflies ultimately relent, submitting to sex simply so they can go about their lives. An uninformed observer, who sees no resistance or physical restraint, might not recognize these encounters as the coercive events they are. This is especially true because the intimidation and threats of violence may take place hours or even days before the sexual encounter.”

“Conventional wisdom of the time held that fertile female chimpanzees were choosing the mates they preferred. But Wrangham and Muller realized these females weren’t choosing; they were complying.”

*The Seven Good YearsEtgar Keret

“The timing of my new mustache—ten days after my wife miscarried, a week after I injured my back in a car crash, and two weeks after my father found out he had inoperable cancer—couldn’t have been better. Instead of talking about Dad’s chemo or my wife’s hospitalization, I could divert all small talk to the thick tuft of facial hair growing above my upper lip. And whenever anyone asked, “What’s with the mustache?” I had the perfect answer, and it was even mostly true: “It’s for the boy.” A mustache is not just a great distraction device; it’s also an excellent icebreaker. It’s amazing how many people who see a new mustache in the middle of a familiar face are happy to share their own private mustache stories.” –The Seven Good YearsEtgar Keret

I discovered Etgar Keret by accident – happy surprise, entertaining fiction, clear voice. That’s all.

“In the Middle East, people feel their mortality more than anywhere else on the planet, which causes most of the population to develop aggressive tendencies toward strangers who try to waste the little time they have left on earth.”

*Everything in Its Place: First Loves and Last TalesOliver Sacks

“Much of this, remarkably, was envisaged by E. M. Forster in his 1909 short story “The Machine Stops,” in which he imagined a future where people live underground in isolated cells, never seeing one another and communicating only by audio and visual devices. In this world, original thought and direct observation are discouraged—“Beware of first-hand ideas!” people are told. Humanity has been overtaken by “the Machine,” which provides all comforts and meets all needs—except the need for human contact. One young man, Kuno, pleads with his mother via a Skype-like technology, “I want to see you not through the Machine. I want to speak to you not through the wearisome Machine.”” –Everything in Its Place: First Loves and Last TalesOliver Sacks

Most of what Sacks produced is worth reading, and while this was not his best collection, I was mostly struck by his references to how public everything is now. Privacy, as we all know, is dead. And now that we lead almost entirely public lives, we have created identities for others to consume, and we create data that makes us consumable. An endless cycle of (false?) identity creation followed by someone mining that false or aspirational identity data followed by someone trying to sell or selling us something based on that data followed by the consumption and use that lends credence and authority to the identity we created for public consumption, reinforcing the whole cycle repeatedly. Do we consider the trade-offs? It is too late to opt out. How do we want to be — whom do we want to be — in this world we’ve created and submitted to?

“Everything is public now, potentially: one’s thoughts, one’s photos, one’s movements, one’s purchases. There is no privacy and apparently little desire for it in a world devoted to nonstop use of social media. Every minute, every second, has to be spent with one’s device clutched in one’s hand. Those trapped in this virtual world are never alone, never able to concentrate and appreciate in their own way, silently. They have given up, to a great extent, the amenities and achievements of civilization: solitude and leisure, the sanction to be oneself, truly absorbed, whether in contemplating a work of art, a scientific theory, a sunset, or the face of one’s beloved.”

*The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck: A Counterintuitive Approach to Living a Good LifeMark Manson

“But when you stop and really think about it, conventional life advice—all the positive and happy self-help stuff we hear all the time—is actually fixating on what you lack. It lasers in on what you perceive your personal shortcomings and failures to already be, and then emphasizes them for you.” –The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck: A Counterintuitive Approach to Living a Good LifeMark Manson

While not surprising, and leaning a bit heavily on the mild shock value of its profanity-inspired title, this book more or less catalogs the complaint I, and many others, have had about the always-booming self-help industry. Not only does it create and inflate unrealistic expectations within the very population (usually vulnerable) that can least afford to sink a bunch of money and misguided hope into snake-oil in repetitive mantra form, it does, as Manson clearly broadcasts, project that “the desire for more positive experience is itself a negative experience. And, paradoxically, the acceptance of one’s negative experience is itself a positive experience”. YES.

Sure, I know I’ve been chastised and criticized for my “negativity” pretty much all my life. But I don’t care because I’m content, I’m realistic, I’m pragmatic. I have enough, and I am not on an endless and probably fruitless quest for “happiness”, which has become entirely meaningless because being “happy” has been warped by BS ideas about consuming, having, owning and usurped by the constant need for more. Happiness is different from meaning derived from experience, where I see great value. Manson quotes Albert Camus and Charles Bukowski in an admonishment not to seek out happiness; equating happiness with conformity and need to succeed or perform according to society’s arbitrary standards is probably what Camus, Bukowski and Manson would refer to as “giving too many fucks”.

“Pain is an inextricable thread in the fabric of life, and to tear it out is not only impossible, but destructive: attempting to tear it out unravels everything else with it. To try to avoid pain is to give too many fucks about pain. In contrast, if you’re able to not give a fuck about the pain, you become unstoppable.”

Not giving a fuck is not about indifference; in fact, it is having the fortitude, maturity and strength of identity to be able to stand alone, to weather difficulties and to be comfortable with uncertainty and with being oneself, even if that means going against the rest of the herd (perhaps by trying, however futile it is, to opt out of the always-on public life).

*Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human CadaversMary Roach

“Life contains these things: leakage and wickage and discharge, pus and snot and slime and gleet. We are biology. We are reminded of this at the beginning and the end, at birth and at death. In between we do what we can to forget.” –Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human CadaversMary Roach

An irreverent look at the body once it becomes…uninhabited. Unlike Bill Bryson’s book on the anatomy and functions of the human body, Roach dissects (not literally) the things that may happen to a human body after death.

Yes, irreverent.

“Not that there’s anything wrong with just lying around on your back. In its way, rotting is interesting too, as we will see. It’s just that there are other ways to spend your time as a cadaver. Get involved with science. Be an art exhibit. Become part of a tree. Some options for you to think about. Death. It doesn’t have to be boring.”

Yes, oddly filled with chicken-adjacent stories.

“The human head is of the same approximate size and weight as a roaster chicken. I have never before had occasion to make the comparison, for never before today have I seen a head in a roasting pan. But here are forty of them, one per pan, resting face-up on what looks to be a small pet-food bowl. The heads are for plastic surgeons, two per head, to practice on.

The heads have been put in roasting pans—which are of the disposable aluminum variety—for the same reason chickens are put in roasting pans: to catch the drippings.”

“Eventually the taxi pulled up outside a brightly lit fried chicken establishment, the sort of place that in the United States might proclaim “We Do Chicken Right!” but here proclaimed “Do Me Chicken!” The cabdriver turned to collect his fare. We shouted at each other for a while, and eventually he got out and walked over to a tiny, dim storefront next to the chicken place and pointed vigorously to a sign. Designated Foreign-Oriented Tourist Unit, it said. Well, do me chicken. The man was right.”

*Sapiens: A Brief History of HumankindYuval Noah Harari

“Yet none of these things exists outside the stories that people invent and tell one another. There are no gods in the universe, no nations, no money, no human rights, no laws, and no justice outside the common imagination of human beings.” –Sapiens: A Brief History of HumankindYuval Noah Harari

As I ponder throughout this post, history is a moving target, and one experience is not representative of all, or universal, experience. This book manages somehow to be an example both of attempting to fit all of history into a single interpretation while also calling out how a multiplicity of experiences shelter under different umbrellas. After all, a book purporting to be a history of humankind will by necessity take a broad perspective. A dense and fascinating overview, it covers expansive ground, from money to religion, from the pace of change (the social order is in a state of “permanent flux”) to the accumulation of wealth and whether change and wealth have made us happier or more relaxed or “advanced”. It asks questions I wouldn’t (and Harari probably wouldn’t, based on the final words quoted below) expect of a book of this kind.

“But are we happier? Did the wealth humankind accumulated over the last five centuries translate into a new-found contentment? Did the discovery of inexhaustible energy resources open before us inexhaustible stores of bliss? Going further back, have the seventy or so turbulent millennia since the Cognitive Revolution made the world a better place to live? Was the late Neil Armstrong, whose footprint remains intact on the windless moon, happier than the nameless hunter-gatherer who 30,000 years ago left her handprint on a wall in Chauvet Cave? If not, what was the point of developing agriculture, cities, writing, coinage, empires, science and industry? Historians seldom ask such questions.”

Perhaps most appropriate and more specifically, Harari explores the always-controversial (although it should not be) debate (and it should not be one) about determining what is biological and what is “justified through biological myths”. An example here is the tendency to discuss concepts like race and gender in quite general, overarching terms while not completely making them reductive.

“How can we distinguish what is biologically determined from what people merely try to justify through biological myths? A good rule of thumb is ‘Biology enables, Culture forbids.’ Biology is willing to tolerate a very wide spectrum of possibilities. It’s culture that obliges people to realise some possibilities while forbidding others. Biology enables women to have children – some cultures oblige women to realise this possibility. Biology enables men to enjoy sex with one another – some cultures forbid them to realise this possibility. Culture tends to argue that it forbids only that which is unnatural. But from a biological perspective, nothing is unnatural. Whatever is possible is by definition also natural. A truly unnatural behaviour, one that goes against the laws of nature, simply cannot exist, so it would need no prohibition. No culture has ever bothered to forbid men to photosynthesise, women to run faster than the speed of light, or negatively charged electrons to be attracted to each other. In truth, our concepts ‘natural’ and ‘unnatural’ are taken not from biology, but from Christian theology. The theological meaning of ‘natural’ is ‘in accordance with the intentions of the God who created nature’.”

“Different societies adopt different kinds of imagined hierarchies. Race is very important to modern Americans but was relatively insignificant to medieval Muslims. Caste was a matter of life and death in medieval India, whereas in modern Europe it is practically non-existent. One hierarchy, however, has been of supreme importance in all known human societies: the hierarchy of gender. People everywhere have divided themselves into men and women. And almost everywhere men have got the better deal, at least since the Agricultural Revolution.”

I took many points away from this book, but it’s this last point — about the gender hierarchy — that struck me most of all. I find myself getting angrier about gender inequality as I get older, and the historical record justifies this anger. There is no biological basis for relegating women to a position of inferiority, and yet, throughout societies the world over, that’s exactly where women exist.

“How did it happen that in the one species whose success depends above all on cooperation, individuals who are supposedly less cooperative (men) control individuals who are supposedly more cooperative (women)? At present, we have no good answer.”

*The Fracture ZoneSimon Winchester

“…and for years the Balkans faded into our collective memories. No one ever said: “Remember the man who filled up the car in Pec?” or, “Remember the field by that cement factory called General Jankovic?”—because the Balkans were peaceful in those times, and we had no compelling reason to think of them.” –The Fracture ZoneSimon Winchester

I didn’t love this book but tend to read everything about the former Yugoslavia, its breakup, and different “western” takes on “Balkan drama”. I don’t generally buy into a lot of the analysis, but I nevertheless feel compelled to be steeped in it, if only to have close-to-the-skin reminders of what it was like to be there (by “there” I mean Bosnia, not so much Kosovo, as Winchester does) in the post-war period: the “fixers” that would get hired to act as… well, fixers, drivers and interpreters, even though their real jobs were as engineers, students or farmers, the Turkish-style coffee, the mélange of foods (I lived on shopska salad myself), people, styles, a kind of clash of old and new world (a man driving his horse and buggy along the same road down which a cadre of Bosnian politicians gunned their motorcade of brand-new Audi A8s while making a campaign stop), the random marriage proposals from strangers who simply sought an easy exit, intermittent electricity, random security evacuation exercises, and civil sector bureaucracy.

Reading this and similar accounts of the end of Yugoslavia, I can’t help but feel my age, but much more acutely, I feel the squeeze of insignificance… how diluted historical events become with time. I wouldn’t claim that I knew a lot of people outside certain circles who felt concerned about the situation in former Yugoslavia even at the time, but now, with the war well outside the living memory of young adults, I meet many young people who have never heard of Yugoslavia at all and had nebulous notions, if any idea at all, that a war was fought in this place that they associate vaguely (again, if they have any associations whatsoever) with the filming locations for Game of Thrones (Croatia) and coastal holidays.

*Recollections of My NonexistenceRebecca Solnit

“Your credibility arises in part from how your society perceives people like you, and we have seen over and over again that no matter how credible some women are by supposedly objective standards reinforced by evidence and witnesses and well-documented patterns, they will not be believed by people committed to protecting men and their privileges. The very definition of women under patriarchy is designed to justify inequality, including inequality of credibility. Though patriarchy often claims a monopoly on rationality and reason, those committed to it will discount the most verifiable, coherent, ordinary story told by a woman and accept any fantastical account by a man, will pretend sexual violence is rare and false accusations common, and so forth. Why tell stories if they will only bring forth a new round of punishment or disparagement?” –Recollections of My NonexistenceRebecca Solnit

Referring again to the idea that some people (men, white) have unlimited space to tell stories and be believed, few voices chronicle the struggle to be taken seriously, to be heard and to be respected as well as Rebecca Solnit. The ways women’s experiences have been distorted by the collective voice of dominance insisting that women are “crazy” have enabled the control men continue to have over women — and society as a whole. We can read about (and feel) the injustice of this in all kinds of discourse — some even dating back more than 150 years (see The Subjection of Women by John Stuart Mill, listed above), and some much more recent, such as Sapiens, listed below, by Yuval Noah Harari.

“It was a kind of collective gaslighting. To live in a war that no one around me would acknowledge as a war—I am tempted to say that it made me crazy, but women are so often accused of being crazy, as a way of undermining their capacity to bear witness and the reality of what they testify to. Besides, in these cases, crazy is often a euphemism for unbearable suffering. So it didn’t make me crazy; it made me unbearably anxious, preoccupied, indignant, and exhausted. I was faced with either surrendering my freedom in advance or risking losing it in the worst ways imaginable. One thing that makes people crazy is being told that the experiences they have did not actually happen, that the circumstances that hem them in are imaginary, that the problems are all in their head, and that if they are distressed it is a sign of their failure, when success would be to shut up or to cease to know what they know.”

*Dictators: The Cult of Personality in the Twentieth CenturyFrank Dikötter

“Tyrants trust no one, least of all their allies. Duvalier disposed of friends and foes alike, striking down anyone he thought was too ambitious or might develop a separate power base. No one was indispensable.” –Dictators: The Cult of Personality in the Twentieth CenturyFrank Dikötter

We’re living through a time in which we are surrounded by a number of would-be dictators. For this reason alone, a chronicle of the lives of dictators in the 20th century is both timely and instructive. I could list off the present-day dictator wanna-be candidates, and I could list off their slogans. But we don’t need to amplify these names and their dictates further.

The takeaway here is confirmation of the many traits we can associate with and by which we can identify tyranny and tyrants: narcissism, penchant for performance/spectacle, ‘govern’ by slogans, practice and encourage inconsistency, personalize their power (“I alone can do…”), surround oneself with sycophants and ass-kissers and dismiss and discredit anyone who goes against you. The true believers will, like cult members, drink the Kool Aid, no matter what a tyrant does, and for everyone else, who sees the reality, a tyrant will “sow confusion, to destroy common sense, to enforce obedience, to isolate individuals and crush their dignity” to ensure that he isn’t credibly threatened by being removed.

Dikötter writes of Mussolini’s regime; sound familiar?:

“People had to self-censor, and in turn they monitored others, denouncing those who failed to appear sufficiently sincere in their professions of devotion to the leader. Underneath the appearance of widespread uniformity, there was a broad spectrum, ranging from those who genuinely idealised their leader – true believers, opportunists, thugs – to those who were indifferent, apathetic or even hostile.”

“For almost two decades Mussolini had encouraged the idea that he alone could be trusted and could do no wrong. He had used the cult of the leader to debase his competitors, ensuring every potential rival in the Fascist Party was edged out of the limelight. Those who remained were united in their devotion to the Duce, sycophants determined to outdo one another in praising his genius. They lied to him, much as he lied to them. But most of all, Mussolini lied to himself. He became enveloped in his own worldview, a ‘slave to his own myth’ in the words of his biographer Renzo de Felice. He knew that those around him were flatterers who withheld information that could provoke his ire. He trusted no one, having no true friends, no reliable companion to whom he could speak frankly. As the years passed Mussolini isolated himself from others, becoming a virtual prisoner within the walls of the Palazzo Venezia.”

*Transforming Glasgow: Beyond the Post-Industrial CityKeith Kintrea and Rebecca Madgin, editors

“Ours is a city which perhaps more than any other of our size, shaped the Industrial Revolution, along with all of the great positive and negative forces that it unleashed.”

I binge and gorge on all things Glasgow – even urban planning and its history. I don’t expect others to care for this in the way I did, so it’s not exactly a recommendation unless you’re obsessed with Glasgow and the post-industrial transformation of once-heavily-industrialized cities.

On the other hand, many works I read this month, and more generally, deal with impoverishment of the urban landscape, de-industrialization with nothing to replace it, meaning that poverty almost inevitably travels hand-in-hand with some of these economic upheavals. Glasgow was once the “Second City of the Empire“, but you’d never know it if you were to witness the parts of the city hammered hardest by poverty and dilapidation that came with de-industrialization and privatization. Photographer Raymond Depardon captured this side of Glasgow in 1980 (it’s worth looking at the photos). To some degree, Glasgow has experienced many of the growing pains and tragedies that other cities have and do – and much of it boils down to misguided attempts at “modernizing” (in Glasgow’s case, people were moved out of the city to live in giant, horrible tower blocks and manufactured “communities” – and in so doing, much of Glasgow’s storied architecture was lost, and more appallingly, communities were torn apart. I’d argue that while Glasgow has not been as deeply affected by the powers of gentrification (essentially a destructive force masquerading as progress) as cities like New York (which is dealt with in Schulman’s The Gentrification of the Mind above), it is nevertheless a factor in Glasgow’s drive to redefine and reshape itself.

*Where the Wild Cooks Go: Recipes from My Travels in Food and MusicCerys Matthews

Not much to say here except that this was an enjoyable mix of recipes and music from all over the world; a nice tonic for not being able to travel anywhere.

*Salt HousesHala Alyan

“Easier, she thinks, to remember nothing, to enter a world already changed, than have it transform before your eyes. In the palaces, the grandparents must sit in their extravagant rooms, remembering sand. Nostalgia is an affliction.”

A beautiful book – evoking the pain and suffering of human memory and nostalgia.

“Poor innocent things, he thinks. What is a life? A series of yeses and noes, photographs you shove in a drawer somewhere, loves you think will save you but that cannot. Continuing to move, enduring, not stopping even when there is pain. That’s all life is, he wants to tell her. It’s continuing.”

*I Will Never See the World Again: The Memoir of an Imprisoned WriterAhmet Altan

“Forgetting is the greatest source of freedom a person can have. The prison, the cell, the walls, the doors, the locks, the problems and the people – everything and everyone placing limits on my life and telling me “you cannot go beyond” is erased and gone.”

The pain of memory, the relief of erasure. A different kind of freedom.

“There is a cure for everything. Except longing.”

Turkish political prisoner and journalist Ahmet Altan writes of being imprisoned and the conditions within the country that enabled his imprisonment. Sometimes with humor, fearlessly, and sometimes sparking emotion — both sadness and anger.

“While the policemen searched the apartment, I put the kettle on. “Would you like some tea?” I asked. They said they would not. “It is not a bribe,” I said, imitating my late father, “you can drink some.” Exactly forty-five years ago, on a morning just like this one, they had raided our house and arrested my father. My father asked the police if they would like some coffee. When they declined, he laughed and said, “It is not a bribe, you can drink some.” What I was experiencing was not déjà vu. Reality was repeating itself. This country moves through history too slowly for time to go forward, so it folds back on itself instead. Forty-five years had passed and time had returned to the same morning. During the space of that morning which lasted forty-five years, my father had died and I had grown old, but the dawn and the raid were unchanged.”

*The Body: A Guide for OccupantsBill Bryson

“As with so much else, you experience the world that your brain allows you to experience.” –The Body: A Guide for OccupantsBill Bryson

I have never liked the self-satisfied and judgmental Bill Bryson, and some of his books betray these personality defects more than others. I include The Body here in spite of its writer, as I think the book simplified the human body in an engaging way — exploring anatomy through relatable language and analogies. Some interesting language and analogies, even if not new, included:

  • Color isn’t a fixed reality but a perception
  • “The upshot is that memory is not a fixed and permanent record, like a document in a filing cabinet. It is something much more hazy and mutable. As Elizabeth Loftus told an interviewer in 2013, “It’s a little more like a Wikipedia page. You can go in there and change it, and so can other people.””
  • “It will not have escaped your attention that the mouth is a moist and glistening vault.”
  • the antibiotic crisis is already here – it’s not a looming crisis
  • ““You can make a real mess of yourself, but you are very likely to survive. Killing yourself is actually difficult.”
  •  “A meta-analysis showed that for older people the risk of a heart attack was raised for up to three hours after sex, but it was similarly raised for shoveling snow, and sex is more fun than shoveling snow.”
  • “It’s remarkable that bad things don’t happen more often. According to one estimate reported by Ed Yong in The Atlantic, the number of viruses in birds and mammals that have the potential to leap the species barrier and infect us may be as high as 800,000. That is a lot of potential danger.” (We’re seeing this now, aren’t we?)
  • “When I met Washington University’s Michael Kinch in St. Louis, I asked him what he believed was the greatest disease risk to us now. “Flu,” he said without hesitation. “Flu is way more dangerous than people think. For a start, it kills a lot of people already—about thirty to forty thousand every year in the United States—and that’s in a so-called good year. But it also evolves very rapidly, and that’s what makes it especially dangerous.”
  • “Two things can be said with confidence about life expectancy in the world today. One is that it is really helpful to be rich. If you are middle-aged, exceptionally well-off, and from almost any high-income nation, the chances are excellent that you will live into your late eighties. The second thing that can be said with regard to life expectancy is that it is not a good idea to be an American. Compared with your peers in the rest of the industrialized world, even being well-off doesn’t help you here.”
  • Your lifestyle is the most likely thing to kill you, and many of the cultural and socioeconomic inequalities facing society now contribute to this. “IN 2011, AN interesting milestone in human history was passed. For the first time, more people globally died from non-communicable diseases like heart failure, stroke, and diabetes than from all infectious diseases combined. We live in an age in which we are killed, more often than not, by lifestyle. We are in effect choosing how we shall die, albeit without much reflection or insight.”
  • “It is an extraordinary fact that having good and loving relationships physically alters your DNA. Conversely, a 2010 U.S. study found, not having such relationships doubles your risk of dying from any cause.”

Coincidences

*Walking on the CeilingAyşegül Savaş

“M. sometimes referred to our shared memory palace, where the two of us had invented our own times of day (he always found a different way to bring up “The Invention of Midnight”). The rooms of this building, he said, which contained replicas of the most unremarkable sights, had turned into treasures.”

“This idea of a palace has stayed with me, even if I believe it is too neatly constructed to shed light on the devious ways of memory. Its innocent sleight of hand is only in the amplification of what is remembered, when the truth has so much more to do with hiding and forgetting.” –Walking on the CeilingAyşegül Savaş

In asking ourselves questions about who we are as individuals and in relation to others, and how we are woven into, or fraying at the edges of, the wider tapestry of our familial and social circles, and more broadly into society, we may neglect to look at a lot of factors because they seem far removed from our own daily realities. Depending on who we are, these factors could include socioeconomic class, race, gender, our relationship to faith or religion, geography, and our place in the culture in which we live, even if we feel that we are not included in it. These considerations generate deeper questions that, even if painful, begin to free us to find out who we really are – outside the rules of traditional economics, outside the boundaries of consumer culture, outside of our relationships with others.

While Walking on the Ceiling did not delve into any of these questions, its inclusion in this list comes as a kind of meeting point among the uniting themes of the other works that influenced me this month. We are examining and re-examining the stories we’ve told ourselves as cultures and nations, and there’s a reckoning underway: who has the voice and privilege to define and decide what these stories are? Who will re-contextualize incomplete, one-sided histories? Who creates and enforces collective memory and how? For example, as the nefarious US attorney general, Bill Barr, alarmingly stated not long ago, “History is written by the winners, so it largely depends on who is writing the history.” Or, as musician Sam Phillips wrote, “History is written to say, ‘It wasn’t our fault, wasn’t our fault…”, which inevitably means that someone is on the other side of that equation taking the blame.

For more than two centuries of US history at least, history has been created (yes, created, because it is an interpretation) by those with the loudest voices, ownership, most to protect/lose – power – and this has in many cases become a kind of brainwashing-induced mythology by which Americans define their identities and their so-called “freedom”. But this history is not every American’s story, not every American’s history. Perhaps this is changing now, as at least large swathes of the population begin to confront the ugliness of history and how it continues to pervade, influence and oppress other large swathes of the population who have been systematically disenfranchised, ignored or abused. Even if memory, which underpins what we call history, is perhaps challenging and deceptive, and susceptible to corruption, it still cannot be erased or debased en masse. There can always be a counterbalance to the dominant retelling of the story. If, as Savaş insists in Walking, “…people lived their whole lives telling stories, and by story he meant something like delusion. Everyone, he said, had a story of themselves. They told it again and again, at every chance they got”, we should always have multiple narratives and voices to help define the story – and history, Bill Barr and his ilk be damned.

As a side note, I highlighted this book in the first place as coincidental because it featured the “memory palace” (method of loci) concept that also came up in tv’s Dispatches from Elsewhere.

Biggest disappointment

*The Days of AbandonmentElena Ferrante

“What a mistake it had been to close off the meaning of my existence in the rites that Mario offered with cautious conjugal rapture. What a mistake it had been to entrust the sense of myself to his gratifications, his enthusiasms, to the ever more productive course of his life. What a mistake, above all, it had been to believe that I couldn’t live without him, when for a long time I had not been at all certain that I was alive with him.” –The Days of AbandonmentElena Ferrante

While I didn’t hate this book, my lack of appreciation probably represents a kind of fatigue after reading too much Ferrante in short succession. It’s not even that this book is bad – perhaps it is more my dislike for the shrill and shallow nature of the main character, who comes completely undone when her husband reveals he has been unfaithful and is leaving her. Over the course of the story more hurtful details emerge about the infidelity, and indeed cause the character near-breakdown-level grief.

I think what was remarkable about the book and its characterization this breakdown – filled with angst, regret, anger, jealousy and the whole gamut of (sometimes contradictory) emotions people feel when a relationship ends – is how well it describes what one must confront in the face of such a rupture. Over the course of a long relationship, one doesn’t see clearly how intertwined their life has become with that of the other. And sometimes, as was the case here – that life is not even combined or co-lived but is lost within and subsumed by the life and desires of the other.

When these realizations hit, it’s powerful, painful and starts an examination of the past, when the only way forward is to think instead of the future. While there’s not necessarily anything wrong with having merged two lives together, the loss of identity (which I recently highlighted as a theme from tv’s imaginative and unusual Dispatches from Elsewhere) is crushing, all the more because its erosion is so gradual one doesn’t realize it until reality is shaken. Infidelity, as explored by Esther Perel in The State of Affairs: Rethinking Infidelity, is complex: it violates not only the sense of self and security of the “betrayed” (“being chosen has taken on an importance it never had before. Monogamy is the sacred cow of the romantic ideal, for it confirms our specialness. Infidelity says, You’re not so special after all“), but can also reflect the fragmentation of the “betrayers” identity (“Sometimes, when we seek the gaze of another, it isn’t our partner we are turning away from, but the person we have become. We are not looking for another lover so much as another version of ourselves“). Coming to terms with what was thought to be reality versus what actually was can create deep estrangement from…everyone, including oneself, and create obstacles to moving forward.

I didn’t enjoy this book in a standard way, but appreciate that Ferrante has captured in visceral color what it feels like to go through this.

“No, I thought, squeezing the rag and struggling to get up: starting at a certain point, the future is only a need to live in the past. To immediately redo the grammatical tenses.” –The Days of AbandonmentElena Ferrante

*Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity and PovertyDaron Acemoğlu

Interesting book – but not as interesting as I had hoped. Some interesting ideas here, for example citing Jared Diamond’s hypothesis that intercontinental inequality has more to do with plants, animals and agriculture than with culture. Culture, meanwhile, doesn’t explain everything.

“Is the culture hypothesis useful for understanding world inequality? Yes and no. Yes, in the sense that social norms, which are related to culture, matter and can be hard to change, and they also sometimes support institutional differences, this book’s explanation for world inequality. But mostly no, because those aspects of culture often emphasized—religion, national ethics, African or Latin values—are just not important for understanding how we got here and why the inequalities in the world persist. Other aspects, such as the extent to which people trust each other or are able to cooperate, are important but they are mostly an outcome of institutions, not an independent cause.” –Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity and PovertyDaron Acemoğlu

clean up

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“The problem with sex is the same as with any addiction. You’re always recovering. You’re always backsliding. Acting out. Until you find something to fight for, you settle for something to fight against.” –Choke, Chuck Palahniuk

Go back and see all the things you’ve missed. Try to exit regret gracefully, as the mess you made lacked all grace. Nothing you have said or done can fix your recalcitrance. You can only be – and try to be something more thoughtful than you were before.

elasticity of compassion and dread

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I have spent a night filled with a growing, and somewhat inexplicable, dread. Now that darkness lasts longer at night, the sense of rare loneliness can creep in and make itself truly felt. This dissipates as the sun rises.

I have once more reached an impasse with someone in my life who has flowed into and out of the ‘rapids’ (i.e., daily life) for years. He has never been quite ‘peripheral’ but his role has changed. He is an addict, a compulsive liar, self-destructive and mentally ill. But all along, it has been hard not to care about him and feel tremendous compassion. Despite not being ‘with’ him in a relationship for a very long time, I still felt compelled by this compassion to be supportive, to help in any way I could. But there’s certainly a large emotional manipulation component that comes into play when he’s ‘off the wagon’ (as well as transparent deception; he isn’t good at it). I have done everything I have had in my power to give him support of all kinds and all the tools and coping mechanisms he could possibly need (that I could provide). But this is all one can do, really. At some point, as I told someone in describing this situation, compassion – despite its slack and elasticity – can be stretched to the point that it snaps. A point where self-preservation must take over. Watching someone self-harm, slowly kill himself, is just too painful.

With this as the backdrop, the night was accompanied by the rare feelings of missing people from long, long ago. Watching the Twin Peaks reboot earlier, and having a long conversation with someone from my life whom I met during the original Twin Peaks era, I remembered now-dead friendships that had meant so much – and some dormant friendships that, while they exist in that “say-hi-once-annually” way that Facebook affords, once pulsated with a kind of intensity that is almost impossible to feel in middle age. The viscous quality of this nostalgia left me feeling quite alone and quite cold, unable to shake the sticky links of the past.

But, as obsessed with moving forward as I always am, I have posed the question (to myself, and more rhetorically to others) as to whether this could be a pivotal moment. How nice would it be if we were actually able to recognize pivotal moments when they arrive? Do you ever look back and realize, “Ah, that was a pivotal moment” and lament that you did not notice, and made the wrong choice? Or even realize that you somehow made the right choice, even if you did not realize the significance of the moment as it happened? I have in recent days realized that while the surface of life and self has remained the same, everything underneath is a completely different organism from a year ago. And with these changes, perhaps it is time to make a clean break, closing the door on some of the things and people that/who linger from the past.

“While past and present continue to haunt/my future is nonchalant…”

Photo by Kev Seto on Unsplash

Memoirs & McKagan

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In between the more grueling books I’m juggling, I make room spontaneously for “spot choices” – something that I am reminded of in the spur of the moment, something I would not necessarily seek out eagerly (Teeth: The Story of Beauty, Inequality and the Struggle for Oral Health in America, anyone?) but which might be interesting in some way. This is, as I have mentioned before, how I come to read most contemporary autobiographical memoirs. They share some background information about admired (or not) musicians or celebrities, but don’t usually set my brain ablaze. Sure, from the thoughtful writing of Carrie Brownstein and Kim Gordon, both seemingly effortlessly cool public figures, I glimpsed that seemingly universal truth that no matter how cool, aloof, nonchalant and in control we seem on the surface, there’s an insecure, wants-to-be-liked person underneath.

Even the memoirs of “regular” people (which, of course, all of these books underline: we all are regular people), such as the pleasant-enough Shrill by Lindy West and the charmingly self-deprecating All Over the Place by effusively expressive Geraldine DeRuiter (and I am dead serious here: if you don’t already read Geraldine’s Everywhereist blog, do. Also follow her on Twitter; one of my favorite Twitter feeds), forge this kind of ‘we’re all in the soup’ of humanity by sharing their everyday experiences. (Or maybe now that I look at this as a pattern, I read all of these because there is the Seattle connection to all of them but Kim Gordon.)

That said, these kinds of books are rarely ever deeply challenging, will be fast and easy to read. They may make us smile, laugh, nod in agreement and approval or even get angry or feel sympathy for the writer. These are very human books. It was in this way, in one of these palate cleansing frames of mind, that I came to read Duff McKagan’s How to Be a Man.

I don’t know how Duff McKagan ever ended up being someone on my radar, bookwise or otherwise. Somehow since junior high school in the Seattle area, he, despite my not being the Guns ‘n’ Roses ‘type’ (whatever that is), stuck out (probably being a local boy and all helped that visibility). Later, I think I was impressed by the fact that he went back to college after the heyday of GnR and worked on finding his sobriety and ways to maintain it. At another point in my life, I would not have picked up this book; in fact even if I had, I don’t think I would have taken anything away from it. But this time, having had the experiences of the last decade, I approached it differently.

But this is what I will say about it: Despite the fact that it struck me as slightly disorganized (some parts more organized than others), slightly random (although some parts were considerably slicker than others, which made me think the editing was choppy), neither of these things made the book bad. It in fact inspired the feeling and sense of sitting and listening to the guy reel off stories and opinions about his life and his experiences. Maybe that was what he was going for – the relatable (well, in tone, perhaps, not in all the activities – although let’s be clear, as Duff most certainly is – all Seattleites DO live with the ticking-clock on summer, and the damn deck/lawn/painting/housework can only be done in rain-soaked Seattle in that limited window) and conversational.

The book was entertaining and perfectly served the need I had at this exact moment:

*It flowed quickly, even if, as I stated, the editing didn’t make the content flow all the time.

*I liked the random lists of stuff, particularly the diverse variety of recommended albums and books. I would probably add more must-hear albums/artists (today I am overly influenced by the songwriting genius of Neil Finn/Crowded House and the longevity and wild creativity of Robyn Hitchcock). I would also add many books, but who wouldn’t? There are too many books in the world to be able to do justice to a must-read list, which McKagan himself acknowledges, describing his propensity for populating his personal library both in digital and paper formats:

“But a bookstore is the ultimate way to immerse yourself in what’s new. You can browse, and you can ask around, something you can’t do as well in the cocoon of e-commerce. It can be the littlest hint or clue that sends people looking for a book and thrusts their life briefly in new directions. It can be gossip you hear in line for an espresso or a movie you see on espionage. The direction of your reading can very well influence your life for a while.” –How to Be a Man

Clearly he gets what most passionate readers get:

“This is every reader’s catch-22: the more you read, the more you realize you haven’t read; the more you yearn to read more, the more you understand that you have, in fact, read nothing. There is no way to finish, and perhaps that shouldn’t be the goal. The novelist Umberto Eco famously kept what the writer Nassim Taleb called an “anti-library,” a vast collection of books he had not read, believing that one’s personal trove should contain as much of what you don’t know as possible.” –My Life with Bob, Pamela Paul

*On addiction and sobriety, he didn’t have anything new to say that I haven’t heard or read from recovering addicts or specialists in this field. But it’s nevertheless key to see some of the resounding themes: resentment and regret; again, some of this same lack of self-esteem and assurance that the other memoirists listed above have expressed, e.g. learning to like and trust oneself; that, as cliche as it sounds, it’s a one-day-at-a-time process. And sometimes the things that pull you through are unexpected and maybe even the smallest things that then go on to have ripple effects. In his case it was his ‘latching onto’ Jim Rome’s radio show, and when he appeared on the show as a guest, this prompted other listeners to take steps to regain control of their own lives. This too could sound cliche, but the kinship of addicts, and the power of these small sparks to inspire, is the same kind of things I have seen in trying to understand and connect with recovering alcoholics in my own life:

“This life is crazy. It’s the little things that can be absolute game changers.” –How to Be a Man

*Seahawks, Seattle sports and the constant, indefatigable cheering for the (hometown) underdog. Need I say more?

*Seattle. Yes, Seattle. (Do I sound all homesick? I swear I’m not! I left so long ago for a reason!) That place that suddenly became visible in the 1990s, from which its veil was slightly lifted with the mania that surrounded Twin Peaks during its first go-around (even though this was not technically Seattle, you’d still have to go to Seattle to get to the real-world equivalent of Twin Peaks). It is hard to believe now that Seattle was ever this unheard-of place that McKagan describes.

But true story: in junior high, I had a pen pal in California (this was 1989) who phoned me once and asked not only what time it was in Seattle (says more about his ignorance of time zones and geography than Seattle’s invisibility). He seemed surprised to learn that I had ever heard of Depeche Mode and even that I had a phone. If I recall, it was the same year that Time magazine covered the insular nature of Washington state and its ire at “rich Californians” showing up to scoop up all the land. Hmm. (I did go back to see if I could find that issue of Time, and it was, as a side note, interesting to see the cover stories – Donald Trump on the cover in Jan 1989, taunting readers that we would all be “green with envy” about his wealth – or a headline: “The New USSR?” – or Kevin Costner, just releasing Field of Dreams, or Pete Rose, just being tossed for life from baseball. Oh, hilariously, there was a cover featuring the Rolling Stones, including a headline about “aging rockers”… and we thought they were aged then?)

Back to the point. Seattle was on no one’s radar. Not in any appreciable way, at least. Not until Nirvana came along:

“I used to brag to anyone who would listen that these guys were from “my town” and that soon the rest of the world would realize that people didn’t live in tepees in Seattle!” –How to Be a Man

While McKagan framed the singular Seattle “way” within the lens of sports (and a bit in music), it is on the whole accurate about the city’s attitude and evolution.

It is a place of some stoicism, insularity and a bit of an outsider’s “fuck ’em” attitude. Claire Dederer posits in her own sort of memoir, Love & Trouble:

“Seattle is not a big city for crying. Seattle, in fact, is famously emotionally stoppered. There are many theories as to why this is the case; some say it’s because of our dominant genetic and cultural heritages: Norwegian and Japanese. Whatever the reason, Seattle is a place where you are not supposed to emote. You are supposed to endure. In Seattle, where rain and traffic are two snakes twining, choking the body of the city, forbearance is an art. We don’t cry, we just put on more Gore-Tex or maybe use the driving time of our commute to listen to a self-improvement book on tape. Though “driving” is a strong word for what happens when you get into a car in Seattle. And yet suddenly there were these crying hot spots.”

“When you visit other cities, get asked about Seattle. The people you meet want to move there. No one used to move to Seattle except aeronautical engineers and, like, rabid fishing enthusiasts. No one used to know where Seattle even was. They thought maybe it was in Oregon.”

And this obscurity from which Seattle was lifted has made it a too-hot, too-desirable place, in which most mere mortals cannot afford to live.

So… bottom line, I don’t know if I would recommend that anyone read McKagan’s book. I will, though, be giving a copy to one person who will be able to relate, and I think in that way it will help him. And perhaps that is the most one can hope for: reaching one person, especially when they need to hear your particular message, one day at a time.

The Pen Is – the controlled leak

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Fountain pens are like people,” says Richard Binder, a nationally recognized nibmeister, aka a master pen repairer. “Every one has a unique personality.”

Talking briefly with a dear old friend, JEB, I was pleased to hear how many things were glowing brightly for him in 2017: new job, new relationship.

In reference to the relationship, he explains that she is “pretty wacky in a way that’s compatible with my own strangeness”.

I ask: “Do you really have so much strangeness?”

He replies: “Oh yes. Few can appreciate it.”

Me: “I guess that’s a weird question – we all have some strangeness, at least to someone.”

Him: “Yes, but with the right person the strangeness is normalcy. I mean a lot of people find me likable, but I only show the wacky stuff to select few. Like the fact that I obsessively listen to a podcast called The Pen Addict.”

Was this perhaps the third (?) time he’s reminded me about his obsession with pens and the Pen Addict podcast? I knew someone else briefly who was obsessed with pens, and now for the life of me cannot remember if he had ever mentioned this same podcast. I feel like he certainly did, but my memory, which so rarely fails me, has misfired in this case. JEB has apparently turned his girlfriend into a pen addict as well, prompting her to ask him, laughingly “What have you done?” She took him to his first-ever pen show in Barcelona, and I somehow marveled at the fact that there are pen shows. Then, I am not obsessed, so it would not necessarily have occurred to me. My friend assures me that I should try it because it is as addictive… as all the addicts have assured me it is. Not that I doubt it.

He enthuses: “It’s the infinite customizability. You can marry any ink and any pen and have a new experience few have had. I highly recommend it.”

I halfheartedly reply: “I will look into it.” And then remember the years-ago ‘story’ I shared with him about overhearing a Russian lady at the ticket booth of a lecture hall in Iceland, just before a Mikhail Gorbachev event, telling the ticket seller in English, spoken with a thick Russian accent, “I will think about it” before walking away. Naturally I then amended my response to him: “I will think about it.

We laugh, remembering the event and those long-ago Iceland years that we two willing exiles experienced.

I hold no truck with your burning my goat

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Friday, I do believe, may have been a/the sobriety anniversary for someone I know/knew. At least that’s what my memory started telling me on Thursday – or actually Wednesday – while walking in central Oslo passing some of the things I had seen with him the last time I wandered through the city center. All those hi-fi stores – I will never understand how they all stay in business. And there was even a semi-sung rendition of “Just Like Christmas” by Low. Strange how far away all of that, and even winter itself, feels. Things that happen in the permanently dusky, fictive period that is December/holidays/early new year are like that: they happened but take on an almost invented quality later when looking back.

Yes, these spring days in cold but sunny Oslo: This time it was a work dinner (at a restaurant that seemed to serve little, other than ceviche). I winced my way through the whole day, hobbling through a good 28 waking hours by the end of it, despite feeling a kind of searing pain surging wildly in much of my body. I, however, was more annoyed at the complaints I voiced and the visible indications of pain I showed than with the pain itself. (Back pain, which has been on and off for weeks, had abated but came roaring onto the scene again after an ill-advised long drive coupled with other stuff.)

This drummed up different thoughts, none of which were linked.

For example, I wondered how one comes to realize s/he is an alcoholic in a country and culture that is technically full of them? Where is the line?

As David Sedaris writes: “Turn down a drink in the United States, and people get the message without your having to explain. ‘Oh,’ they say, ashamed of themselves for presuming otherwise. ‘Right. I should probably… quit too.’ In Europe, though, you’re not an alcoholic unless you’re living half-naked on the street, drinking antifreeze from a cast-off shoe. Anything shy of this is just ‘fun-loving’ or ‘rascally’. Cover your glass in France or Germany — even worse, in England — and in the voice of someone who has been personally affronted, your host will ask why you’re not drinking.” (from When You Are Engulfed in Flames)

I thought of a colleague who kept using the word “pivot” but pronounced it “PIE-vot”. The kind of guy who suffers from a kind of Napoleon complex, driven by a must-boast, one-up, must-be-right, I-was-there(-first) syndrome – but luckily only at first (he has to mark his territory when you meet him) because eventually this gives way to a smart, sarcastic personality that is also warm, competent and insightful. I recalled one of his humbler moments, “I fucked up. And from the fuck-ups of our lives, we learn a lot. Immense amounts.” Or another colleague (although that implies there is something collegial or cooperative about our working together) who said, “Let’s not rewrite the wheel.” What?

I remembered also all those times people said things to me that smacked of other motives than what they thought they were transparently offering, betraying true intentions that lurked just beneath the surface. Much like a child who draws attention to his transgression before there is ever any suspicion aroused. The, “Oh, I might have this Mexican woman move in as my new roommate. But she’s not my type or anything; I am not attracted to her.” Hmm. Did anyone say you were? But you just showed your hand, friend. Or, “Nothing happened. I just got her phone number because she has the right look for my photography.” Um, okay. All the things that illuminate without lights.

But then, just as quickly, the mind shifts to asking what the difference is between ceviche and poke. Or to figuring out if I can finish reading all 13 books I have going right now before the end of April. Or to how expressions get muddled – the aforementioned “rewrite the wheel” or, my favorite flubs from Mr Firewall (of which there are many), who at least can laugh at himself first and longest, saying “burns my goat” instead of “gets my goat” and “tans my hide”.

Many thoughts but nothing too coherent – that’s how it goes in the delirium of too little sleep. Often it comes back to Pessoa:

“All that was lost, all that should have been sought, all that was obtained and fulfilled by mistake, all that we loved and lost and then, after losing it and loving it for having lost it, realized we never loved; all that we believed we were thinking when we were feeling; all the memories we took for emotions” –Fernando Pessoa, The Book of Disquiet

Photo by Medena Rosa

Likenesses and the unseen hand

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“To read is to dream, guided by someone else’s hand. To read carelessly and distractedly is to let go of that hand. Superficial erudition is the only method for reading well and being profound.” – Fernando Pessoa

An unseen hand (not Adam Smith’s invisible one) guides my reading choices from one thing to the next and each is a link to a mighty, unbroken, infinite chain – coincidental mentions of concepts I had just been contemplating. Thinking and writing obsessively about mirrors and suddenly I decide, “Now is the right time to read Vonnegut” – and woven throughout is the concept of mirrors as “leaks” – “holes between two universes”. But even in the book I improbably read on teeth, dentistry and oral health, what springs off the page? “A “photograph is more than a mirror. In the face of mortality, it offers hope for a permanent self.” Or in a contemporary Japanese-German short story by Yoko Tawada:

“Eighty percent of the human body is made of water, so it isn’t surprising that one sees a different face in the mirror each morning. The skin of the forehead and cheeks changes shape from moment to moment like the mud of a swamp, shifting with the movements of the water below and the footsteps of the people walking above it. I had hung a framed photograph of myself beside the mirror. The first thing I would do when I got up was to compare my reflection with the photograph, checking for discrepancies which I then corrected with makeup.”

And perhaps more deeply than mere reflections in a mirror, reading Vonnegut’s work and rereading Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, their warnings and observations about American and/or totalitarian societies provide obvious parallels:

“It was after the catastrophe, when they shot the president and machine-gunned the congress and the army declared a state of emergency. They blamed it on the Islamic fanatics, at the time.

Keep calm, they said on television. Everything is under control.” -from The Handmaid’s Tale

“Seems like the only kind of job an American can get these days is committing suicide in some way.” – from Breakfast of Champions

“America is the wealthiest nation on Earth, but its people are mainly poor, and poor Americans are urged to hate themselves. … They mock themselves and glorify their betters. The meanest eating or drinking establishment, owned by a man who is himself poor, is very likely to have a sign on its wall asking this cruel question: ‘If you’re so smart, why ain’t you rich?’ There will also be an American flag no larger than a child’s hand – glued to a lollipop stick and flying from the cash register.” – from Slaughterhouse Five

At no time is this more timely – in these works of fiction, or as a red thread sewn through much of modern non-fiction, such as other books I’ve recently read, such as the incisive Age of Anger, White Trash, Teeth and even the books on addiction.

Other parallels are not as obvious – in Atwood there are the “Marthas”, ominous-sounding household servants, and in Breakfast of Champions, “Marthas” are large designed-for-disaster buses converted into ambulances.

It fascinates me to no end that despite dipping into and reading from the broadest range of disciplines, there are connections between all of them: Virtually everything can swing back around to this perverted idea of uninterrupted “progress” and the selfish, perverted definitions society gives to the word “progress” – in the individualism described in Age of Anger, embodied by the Boomers, leading to the hungry ghosts and spiritual emptiness Gabor Maté discusses and diagnoses. And then the effects – ranging from the dismal and often fatal results of the healthcare and dental care system in the US as described in Teeth, to the “long-term losers” described in Age of Anger, such as the degradation of any hope for a country like Congo (about which I also recently read a book): “In Dostoyevsky’s view, the cost of such splendour and magnificence as displayed at the Crystal Palace was a society dominated by the war of all against all, in which most people were condemned to be losers.”

None of these overlaps should be a surprise. It should also not be a surprise that Dostoevsky is cited in almost every book I have read no matter what discipline, time period in which it was written or what genre, fiction or non-fiction. Dr Gabor Maté quotes Dostoevsky in his book on addiction; Dostoevsky figures prominently, as quoted above, in Age of Anger. And even in Vonnegut.

“Rosewater said an interesting thing to Billy one time about a book that wasn’t science fiction. He said that everything there was to know about life was in The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky. “But that isn’t enough any more,” said Rosewater.

Seeing and making the connections is gratifying, but much like an alcoholic seeking long-term sobriety, just going to meetings (or in this case connecting the dots) is hardly enough. The addict needs to commit to engage with all the steps to make progress, and the reader must start to process and form her own ideas about the connections identified.

Largesse

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“Unconditional acceptance of each other is one of the greatest challenges we humans face. Few of us have experienced it consistently; the addict has never experienced it—least of all from himself. “ -from In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts by Dr Gabor Maté

While knowing that generosity is not true generosity if there are expectations attached to it, it’s impossible not to attach hope. What I mean here is not so much that I expect something in return for anything I give. I just find my heart filling with an aimless and misguided hope that by offering virtually everything I have, it will somehow finally be the thing that makes everything click into place for someone else. Knowing fully that the problem is in them – it’s their fight, their fire. There is absolutely nothing I can do, or give, that can offer anything but – possibly – a slightly softer place to land when they inevitably come crashing down over and over again – I nevertheless find myself wishing otherwise.

I just finished reading two books that deal in some detail with addiction. Dr Gabor Maté’s In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts and Dr Carl Hart’s High Price were engrossing and relatively quick to read, even if they touch on some of the chemistry, neuroscience and psychology related to addiction. And it happens that my readings of these books coincide with yet another case of someone close to me relapsing – again – along with wrapping up phase one of a project I am working on in this very field.

Despite all the wisdom in the words and the science explaining addiction, it’s still very hard to grasp. Maté writes:

“the bare truth: people jeopardize their lives for the sake of making the moment livable.”

“Addictions always originate in pain, whether felt openly or hidden in the unconscious. They are emotional anesthetics.”

“Not all addictions are rooted in abuse or trauma, but I do believe they can all be traced to painful experience. A hurt is at the center of all addictive behaviors.”

“Boredom, rooted in a fundamental discomfort with the self, is one of the least tolerable mental states.”

“No human being is empty or deficient at the core, but many live as if they were and experience themselves primarily that way. Attempting to obliterate the sense of deficiency and emptiness that is a core state of any addict is like laboring to fill in a canyon with shovelfuls of dust.”

“Addiction, in this sense, is the lazy pilgrim’s path to transcendence.”

“Addiction is primarily about the self, about the unconscious, insecure self that at every moment considers only its own immediate desires—and believes that it must behave that way.”

“In Canada my book has been praised as “humanizing” the hard-core addicted people I work with. I find that a revealing overstatement—how can human beings be “humanized,” and who says that addicts aren’t human to begin with? At best I show the humanity of drug addicts. In our materialist society, with our attachment to ego gratification, few of us escape the lure of addictive behaviors. Only our blindness and self-flattery stand in the way of seeing that the severely addicted are people who have suffered more than the rest of us but who share a profound commonality with the majority of “respectable” citizens.”

Reading all of this, and all the stories and evidence in between, I try to return to this compassion I’m always harping on and sometimes struggling with. And to remember truths, such as:

“To live with an addict of any kind is frustrating, emotionally painful, and often infuriating. Family, friends, and spouse may feel they are dealing with a double personality: one sane and loveable, the other devious and uncaring. They believe the first is real and hope the second will go away. In truth, the second is the shadow side of the first and will no sooner leave than will a shadow abandon the object whose shape it traces on the ground—not unless the light comes from a different angle.”

“Unconditional acceptance of another person doesn’t mean staying with them under all circumstances, no matter what the cost to oneself.”

No, I really do not have to be the glue – or even try to be. Maybe I can only create softer landing places and shine a light from another angle.

Judgment day

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I am always analyzing and processing and trying – wanting – to understand. I don’t, for example, understand addiction from the point of view of an addict. I try to understand it scientifically, clinically, neurologically, and of course gather the perspectives of addicts I meet and know. I may never gather all the insight I need or want, but I keep trying to learn.

I feel like, as I move along through life, getting older (hopefully a bit wiser), I am becoming more understanding, more compassionate, more interested in understanding, more caring, loving and accepting. What surprises me, though, is how one of the closest people to me is the exact opposite. He has become so closed, so judgmental – about everything. A total Besserwisser: he knows best (and is, perhaps not ironically, judgmental of all the people he meets who are equally know-it-all types!?). Addiction is just an example of a topic that I examine and think about a lot – and he and I diverge on this subject in a major way, but there are so many other things where the chasm between this close person and me keeps growing wider and deeper.

I’m not sure what to make of it because I don’t really want to feel judged, demeaned, second guessed or guilt-tripped every time I talk to this person. Because of his emotional proximity to me, it is not like I can or even want to write him off. In some ways, we are so close and the only people who can understand each other and our histories. I don’t like the idea of losing the connection but come on.

Photo (c) 2009 Brian Turner