Said and read – November 2018

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“I love the idea of reading books as a brotherly, sisterly moral obligation to one’s people.” – Flights, Olga Tokarczuk 

Has November spawned a monster? I’m at the threshold of two major submission deadlines (and several smaller ones) in one study program (by the time I publish, all of this will be submitted) and should be polishing off a master’s thesis in another study program – both of which, it should go without saying, have required time, thought and a lot of reading. I will get through all of this but wonder at my own motivations. Why would I believe this was a good idea?

I am tired, possibly dispirited (which I know is temporary and largely tied to the moment in which I write this… update, yes, in fact, it was temporary… by the time I started to finish this, my mindset was completely different), and even though a couple of things will end in December, new things will start. I will not take the luxury of resting. I feel a certain dread about that. (Tomorrow I will probably feel elated about that.) The momentary dread arises because it’s all quite unknown, less because I don’t get a break. It’s still reading I turn to for “breaks”.

I don’t always read something ‘easy’ – in fact, I rarely do. But it makes me happy, regardless of the subject matter. I don’t think it’s the topic that is uplifting necessarily. And I stumbled across an article from 2015 that nods along with this assertion: reading may contribute to your happiness (I had no idea but apparently there’s something called bibliotherapy, but it’s a fascinating discovery for someone who is delving into psychology and therapeutic approaches to mental health. It’s an awful play on words perhaps to say that I found this particular approach novel).

If you find yourself curious about what I was reading, liking, thinking, hating and all the rest throughout 2018… here’s your chance to find out: October, SeptemberAugust, July, June, May, April, March, February and January.

Thoughts on reading for November:

In November I found that I read much more than expected, perhaps something like 50 books. A couple of months ago one of my university classmates got in touch to discuss my blog posts on reading/literature and share his thoughts on reading Russian literature (we were in Russian studies courses together), and this brought many memories of that period in my life flooding back. Actually, it’s truer to say that being back at a university and interacting with people who are young (as I was then) started me on this trajectory, but that ended up being the first of the nostalgia triggers that led me to some unsettling news as November ends.

In September after I’d begun studying, a young woman asked me if I am still in touch with friends from my undergraduate years. I don’t think she realized that my undergrad years are almost as far away from us in years as her entire lifespan so far. It dawned on me that, no, in fact, I am friends now with only one woman from college. I formed a few very close but very brief friendships during that time, which, if I am honest, were, in the sum of it all, painful. One such friendship developed during the same time as/in the course of the Russian studies, and it ended with what I can only now call “ghosting” even if I could see the ways she backed off from me.

When I exchanged a few messages with the guy from the class, it opened the door to this distant past. It made me think of the Russian class, of very detailed memories of that whole period – the foods, the characters, the schedules, particular moments and vignettes, and most powerfully, I remember the fragile, vulnerable nature of a classmate/woman/friend, K, who hid beneath her retiring exterior a fierce intellect and emotional abundance. I wrote a few years ago about a few very specific memories – a day that our very small Russian class took a field trip together to Victoria, BC, Canada – and as those flooded back to me, I found myself revisiting some of the Russian readings, the music from our field trip day (Cowboy Junkies), and finally, today I thought that I’d look K up. I had tried once or twice to find her online in the past, but it seems all the friends from my past who disappear tend to be the types who have absolutely no online presence. As such, I never found K in my previous searches.

Until last night when I did just a small amount of digging and found…

She died two years ago.

And I was, to borrow a word from someone with whom I shared this, “floored”.

Worse yet, as I was processing this information, I happened to learn that someone else I had just been talking about had recently passed away. Learning about this kind of death – something about someone who is now distant but who was once a vital, important, daily fixture, someone who was once so meaningful – is like immersing one’s entire head in ice water. I am awake, so aware of my limitations and the limitations of time. But is it changing how I do things? Is it making me any less selfish?

Living’s mostly wasting time/and I waste my share of mine/But it never feels too good/ so let’s not take too long…/I’m soft as glass/and you’re a gentle man/we’ve got the sky to talk about/and the world to lie upon/days up and down they come/like rain on a conga drum/forget most/remember some/but don’t turn none away/everything is not enough/nothing is too much to bear/where you’ve been is good and gone/all you keep’s the getting there” – Cowboy Junkies (covering the late, great Townes van Zandt)… a song that will always make me think of K (1974-2016).

Highly recommended

*Application for Release from DeathTony Hoagland 

I started reading Hoagland last month (and loved that book also). It turns out that I started reading around the same time that he died (October 2018). I’m going to read the rest of his work in in December. Poetry, of course.

*Notes on a Foreign Country: An American Abroad in a Post-American World – Suzy Hansen

I can’t say enough about how good this book is for challenging American blindness and brainwashing about the world and the American(‘s) place in it.

*Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs – Johann Hari 

I’d intended to read Chasing the Scream for over a year; I was going through a phase of reading books on addiction and new takes (scientific and otherwise) on the nature of addiction. Somehow I never quite got to this one until now. It’s extraordinarily well-written in a gripping narrative form, and it ties, strangely, to one of the books I read this month and hated (The Culture of Narcissism – see below). I am not drawing a parallel between addicts and narcissists, if that’s what you’re imagining. No, instead, I think of some points Lasch made in The Culture of Narcissism and see their applicability.

From Hari’s book:

Bruce came to believe, as he put it, that “today’s flood of addiction is occurring because our hyperindividualistic, frantic, crisis-ridden society makes most people feel social[ly] or culturally isolated. Chronic isolation causes people to look for relief. They find temporary relief in addiction . . . because [it] allows them to escape their feelings, to deaden their senses—and to experience an addictive lifestyle as a substitute for a full life.”

and

Bruce says that at the moment, when we think about recovery from addiction, we see it through only one lens—the individual. We believe the problem is in the addict and she has to sort it out for herself, or in a circle of her fellow addicts. But this is, he believes, like looking at the rats in the isolated cages and seeing them as morally flawed: it misses the point. He argues we need to refocus our eyes, as if staring at a Magic Eye picture, to see that the problem isn’t in them, it’s in the culture.” 

and

If we think like this, the question we need to answer with our drug policy shifts. It is no longer: How do we stop addiction through threats and force, and scare people away from drugs in the first place? It becomes: How do we start to rebuild a society where we don’t feel so alone and afraid, and where we can form healthier bonds? How do we build a society where we look for happiness in one another rather than in consumption?” 

* Dr. Susan Love’s Breast Book – Susan M. Love

I wish I had been able to read this book a long time ago. Detailed but simplified for the layperson. It is also sad to see the part on practical considerations, e.g., about American health insurance and financial constraints. That is, can you afford your treatment, and whether you can or not, are you one day away from being unscrupulously discriminated against for having cancer? Ugh.

*Le sanglot de l’homme noirAlain Mabanckou

A series of essays/reflections on being black, on prejudice, on colonialism.

Tu es né ici, ton destin est ici, et tu ne devras pas le perdre de vue. Demande-toi ce que tu apportes à cette patrie sans pour autant attendre d’elle une quelconque récompense. Parce que le monde est ainsi fait : il y a plus de héros dans l’ombre que dans la lumière.

Good – really good

*Sarajevo MarlboroMiljenko Jergović

There’s no point in not letting a fire swallow up things that human indifference has already destroyed.

Stories of Sarajevo and the diversity of life found there.

Life is only valuable because you know you have it. Death always finds you unprepared, without tangible proof that you ever lived.”

*The Panther and the LashLangston Hughes

*HumJamaal May

*HiveChristina Stoddard

I loved all the references to the Pacific Northwest (Tacoma and surrounding environs!)

*Search Party: Collected PoemsWilliam Matthews

Because poetry, as always. It doesn’t really need much more explanation than that (particularly if you read this blog; I rarely post my own writing on a regular basis, but I post a poem daily).

*This Boy’s Life: A MemoirTobias Wolff

I can’t really say why I read this or why it makes my list of something I really enjoyed. It probably comes down to how characters and scenes are described, which is the only way a piece of writing comes alive.

Entertaining/informative/thoughtful or some combination thereof

*Flow: The Cultural Story of MenstruationElissa Stein

*New Blood: Third-Wave Feminism and the Politics of MenstruationChris Bobel

Technically I finished both of these right at the end of October, so they didn’t make it into my October write-up. These are not necessarily books suited to everyone but they formed part of my thesis research on period poverty and thus were informative and might be useful for people (particularly men) who have no clue about menstruation and the unequal economic (and other) burdens it places on women. Most surprising to me is how many women know so very little about their own bodies and the economic situations of others (i.e., period products are taxed in many countries as non-essential luxury items, meaning that a lot of women struggle to afford them and are often making choices between tampons or food).

*Communication and Social Change: A Citizen PerspectiveThomas Tufte

This was something that informed my thesis work, but as someone interested in how we communicate about and for social change and justice, this is an essential volume.

*Winter is Coming: Why Vladimir Putin and the Enemies of the Free World Must Be StoppedGarry Kasparov

Kasparov’s work really speaks for itself. The only issue I had was minor and factual; the book made the mistake of confusing Slovakia and Slovenia, which had nothing to do with the overall content of the book. But a basic fact check or proofread should have caught this.

And there are valid, timely warnings for what we’re going through now.

“Despite the attempt to rebrand the method as “engagement,” the smell of appeasement is impossible to mask. The fundamental lesson of Chamberlain and Daladier going to see Hitler in Munich in 1938 is valid today: giving a dictator what he wants never stops him from wanting more; it convinces him you aren’t strong enough to stop him from taking what he wants. Otherwise, goes the dictator’s thought process, you would stand up to him from the start.”

When I am asked if Putin was inevitable, this is why I say you have to start ten years before anyone knew his name. By the time Yeltsin made Putin the heir apparent, Russians were demanding stability and looking for a tough guy to stand up to the criminals and to the Western influences they’d been told were damaging the country and their pensions. To prevent Putin, or a Putin, from coming to power, the 1990s would have required a very different script with less appeasement of Yeltsin and his entourage and stronger support for democratic institutions.”

*BecomingMichelle Obama

I had seen all the publicity around this book and had no intention of reading it. But one Saturday or Sunday morning, tired of reading social psychology papers and even more tired of the embarrassing, frightening circus that is the contemporary political landscape,  I decided to latch onto the bittersweet nostalgia of the Obamas via the former First Lady’s autobio. While it mostly read as expected, the moments around the first Obama presidential victory re-awakened the emotion I felt on election day 2008. I want to scream about our current dilemma/disaster, “How did we get here?” except that I know the answer: we were always here.

Coincidences

*The Culture of Public Problems: Drinking-Driving and the Symbolic OrderJoseph R. Gusfield

This is not exactly a coincidence, but more of a “crossover”. I suppose it’s inevitable that if you’re doing two study programs simultaneously, even if they are in entirely different disciplines, you will stumble across topics and theories that have some applicability (even possibly novel applicability) in the other. I have to say that the vague, esoteric nature of one of my fields has made it more difficult to engage fully with and apply theory adequately, but the much more grounded and detailed nature of psychology studies (and research methods) has helped. I came across Gusfield in some of my psych readings and realized that there are aspects of his work on making private/individual problems public that could be an interesting angle for my other line of inquiry…

I had never really thought about drinking-driving, as he refers to it, in the way he frames it. While I certainly do believe that the individual does have responsibility for drinking-driving as a choice, I can appreciate Gusfield’s analysis that the rest of society has been built in a way that doesn’t offer many choices. (It’s more complex than this, of course, but that’s why the book was worth reading.)

Biggest disappointment (or hated/disliked)

I read quite a few independently published books of poetry this month, and most of them were pretty disappointing. I won’t call any of them out because they all offered something worthwhile even if, on the whole, I wouldn’t buy these books again.

Also, I was writing a paper about narcissism and democracy, and found a book that seemed like it might be interesting as background information:

*The Culture of Narcissism: American Life in an Age of Diminishing ExpectationsChristopher Lasch

The narcissist has no interest in the future because, in part, he has so little interest in the past. He finds it difficult to internalize happy associations or to create a store of loving memories with which to face the latter part of his life, which under the best of conditions always brings sadness and pain. In a narcissistic society—a society that gives increasing prominence and encouragement to narcissistic traits—the cultural devaluation of the past reflects not only the poverty of the prevailing ideologies, which have lost their grip on reality and abandoned the attempt to master it, but the poverty of the narcissist’s inner life. A society that has made “nostalgia” a marketable commodity on the cultural exchange quickly repudiates the suggestion that life in the past was in any important way better than life today. Having trivialized the past by equating it with outmoded styles of consumption, discarded fashions and attitudes, people today resent anyone who draws on the past in serious discussions of contemporary conditions or attempts to use the past as a standard by which to judge the present.”

I was wrong. It had interesting parts but I suppose I had bigger expectations for it than it could have lived up to and had no applicability to the paper I was trying to write. To find the good points, you’d have to read very carefully and ignore a lot of unsavory moralizing.

It’s my own fault for not looking at anything about Lasch before reading it – he leans heavily conservative on social issues, and many good points are masked by this moralistic tone. For example, he argued that the unshakeable and often unrealistic American clinging to the idea of “Progress” (and its inevitability) makes Americans deaf and resistant to (his) warnings or ideas – but frankly, it, by extension, makes Americans deaf and resistant to all ideas that don’t fit in with this uniquely American and blind construction of the world.

A denial of the past, superficially progressive and optimistic, proves on closer analysis to embody the despair of a society that cannot face the future.”

distance communication

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This time of year always feels sad. Darkness arrives earlier and earlier each evening, with autumn and winter closer each day. Summer is always too short and unreliable in these northern countries.

Then again, what did I do all summer anyway? Mostly read books and write.

Some books that have been widely praised left me cold, such as Exit West. From the get-go I didn’t care for it, and as it went on, it felt more and more like it glossed over important details. But then there were still parts that stuck with me afterwards – the distance-relationship theme and the terror/loneliness of suddenly being cut off were both striking.

In a way – a modern way – this paralleled the themes in Angle of Repose, highlighting what it was like to move west to ‘the frontier’. The pioneer’s view on communication with the past (because where you came from became essentially the past), and even by the late 1800s, was still a matter of possibly waiting a couple of weeks for word, just anticipating replies to letters. This entailed, also, the inevitable and eventual drifting apart as things change: no acrimony, no animosity, just a shifting. How could it be otherwise? Our lives and communications with our peers today are generally pretty homogeneous. If I move from Iceland to Sweden, or from England to France, certain things change, but the standard of living doesn’t end up changing so much that it is life-defining. (I say this, though, knowing the trickiness of connectivity in parts of the Alps and other similar barriers in many modern places to modern communication.)

We are far too used to convenience and immediacy. Today I feel stubbornly opposed to it, like a child, a Luddite and a person who thinks that if you want to talk to me, you will have to make an effort.

Come Away with Me & other randomness

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It’s always a world of tiny coincidences. A few weeks back we were batting about the expression ‘come away with me’, daydreaming of running away and doing things both out of control and outside of our “normal” lives. Eventually we more or less came to substitute ‘Norah Jones with me’ for the expression ‘come away with me’ – for what should be obvious reasons. I had not thought about Norah Jones in years, if ever. Then suddenly, the very next day, I saw that she gave the first performance at the Fox Theatre in Detroit after Soundgarden the night of Chris Cornell’s death. Jones did “Black Hole Sun” (who didn’t, though?) and made it sound more like something Tori Amos than Soundgarden.

In another coincidence, I told some colleagues at lunch the other day (sitting in glorious and rare sun) the story of someone I used to work with who was basically a complete lunatic (I used it as a story to show how difficult it can be to fire federal workers). I had not thought of the crazy co-worker in years, but I got a message from my mom later that same evening telling me he had died.

“The resultant fervor of human belonging”Wole Soyinka

Life is full of these little things – coincidences and things we want in some fiendish fever to connect: the pieces must connect! … I wonder if it is all completely random or if it’s feedback from “energy” we’ve put into the world by conjuring these things up actively that then comes back to us like a boomerang.

Probably it comes down to intent and motivation.

As Pamuk asks in Strangeness in my Mind: “Intentions come in two forms: That which our heart intends and that which our words intend”. And these are indeed different phenomena. The heart will lead us to do the most irrational things (‘come away with me’ and whatnot), intending as it does to make us connect, impervious to the knowledge that it is a bad idea. The head, our words, will instead look for reason and sense, and in some cases, protective gear and weaponry in the form of iron-clad excuses not to do things that maybe we should brave our fears to do.

Are we seeking the missing pieces that link our lives and events together? Are we looking for words to explain coincidental happenstance? Do we intend to share knowledge (“Human knowledge is never contained in one person. It grows from the relationships we create between each other and the world, and still it is never complete.” –Paul Kalinithi, When Breath Becomes Air)? Do we intend to join what Soyinka referred to as the ‘fervor of human belonging’ (which has its duality, light and dark)?

Motivation can be even more tenuous. I find myself succumbing, as Doris Lessing describes in The Golden Notebook, to the pull of acting out multiple personalities, playing different roles, playing off another (like Saul and Anna), driven by the one keenly stupid motivation: “I wanted to see what would happen”. Maybe this is a solid motivation in scientific experimentation. In human relations, not so much. But with curiosity the driver, the one great motivator, you do get adventures; you do get disasters. No one will claim your life was devoid of interesting stuff.

“And yet—an excitement. The unspeakable excitement you feel when a galloping disaster promises to release you from all responsibility for your own life.” -from Hateship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage  Alice Munro

Or is that just the cynic speaking?

“reality is only interaction”

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“Probability does not refer to the evolution of matter in itself. It relates to the evolution of those specific quantities we interact with. Once again, the profoundly relational nature of the concept we use to organize the world emerges.” -from Seven Brief Lessons on Physics, Carlo Rovelli

Principles of physics come to mind for me frequently when I think of connections with people. It may be illogical, but somehow the way things are described in physics overlaps how things unfold. Do I feel this way because I am older, and I want to see connections where there are none? Physics is bound by rules, and connections between people are not, necessarily. But as Rovelli states in explaining concepts of physics, “the profoundly relational nature of the concept we use to organize the world emerges”. Every concept seems to come back to the principle that everything happens or is real because of how it interacts with other things. “Or does it mean, as it seems to me, that we must accept the idea that reality is only interaction?”

Reality is relational. Relationships, obviously, then are relational, as denoted in the word itself. We choose when, where, with whom, and how often to interact to create our reality and the relationships in that reality. And we make choices in allowing feeling to form or grow. We shut some things down; we slow other things down; we accelerate some things; we destroy others. Our reactions are individual, but also mutual and sometimes collective. And these interactions are sparked, changed, moved, freed by all these other interactions. Nothing much happens without interaction.

“The difference between past and future exists only when there is heat. The fundamental phenomenon that distinguishes the future from the past is the fact that heat passes from things that are hotter to things that are colder.”-from Seven Brief Lessons on Physics, Carlo Rovelli

And in our immediate moment – the now – in our interaction, skin to skin, we keep each other warm?

Signals

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“A signal is what you use in your car, dude. Not a way of communicating with someone who clearly needs direct answers.”

I only get through things and process them by writing and thinking. It does not work to talk about things, not only because I don’t know how to say or explain things without introspection and processing first but also because I am so bloody concerned about how things will affect other people. Like… if I say things that are not fully formed, I’m putting burdens onto someone else – and of course, in a two-way exchange, you can intuit and know when that the other person can’t handle or deal with whatever you might say, or will take it all on board and cloud things up for them, or make them feel worse or guilty. And why do that when you could suffer with the uncertainty or hurt on your own without making two (or more) people feel bad? It sounds like I am being some kind of martyr (I’m not), but I just can’t do it. It is not my nature to expose a larger group of people to harm or damage if I can take the hit myself (even when that means internalizing something). I have to work on this. Anyone who knows me knows this.

By the time anyone gets the full lowdown on something I experienced or felt, it’s because it is in the past – over, done, processed and packaged neatly into a box and tied with a bow. Then after the fact and all the acts, curtain closed, I can reveal all the feelings I went through – but it is like I have to finish going through it before I can show it… which is not the healthiest way to go about it. I write, think, feel my way through things, and then revise, think and finally come to a peace with even the most painful of things. Then perhaps I put the ‘incident report’ in some form or another into blog posts, but by the time I do this, the deep-seated and immediate emotion is long gone. There was a time when I would not even have made this much public, so I like to think I am making the most imperceptible steps forward. Sometimes the disconnect between the brain and the fingers is enough to make these moves for you. For example, deleting something that you wanted to save, hitting send before you were ready. Are these really mistakes or is the immediacy of the fingers taking action where our brain fears to go?

This is perhaps also where my own blind spots/insensitivities are. I process and publish, and because it’s all over for me, and I am just ‘clearing out cobwebs’ and more or less just telling a story after the fact, I don’t think about how the retelling and my own rendering (which is a compendium of my feelings and interpretations throughout my processing – not an objective recollection of fact) of ‘how things went’ might be hurtful to anyone else. Another thing to work on.

But at least all of these ‘operations’ provide an indication of where close partnerships, friendships, relationships and the like are actually impossible. Where you find you really censor yourself, close up and hold back – not because you can’t share but because you don’t want to unduly influence or trouble the other person – where’s the parity – or clarity – there?

It’s a little bit fucked up – when you’re adults, intelligent and seemingly capable of communication – and even talk ad nauseam about the importance of communication (thus ending up being all form and no content, which is a good way to fool yourselves into thinking you are actually communicating…) – you should be able to say what is on your mind. But it becomes one of the hardest things to do. You then detach to get to solid ground again, and that journey takes you through the full range of feeling – or elements*, as DH Lawrence would have it. But you eventually make it back to the start, to rediscover the things that made your mind race with joy and thought.

It’s a shame, too, as you end up at such a distance from, in a protracted silence with, someone who is without doubt beautiful, amazing, hilarious, messy, quirky, witty, and smart – exactly as you always believed, someone you genuinely care about and truly miss. But having communicated – or not – in staccato fits and starts, never quite saying what was going on, never quite being truly open – you may never get back to a place where you see anything but yellow caution lights in a sea of faceless stop-and-go traffic.

Most importantly, and this is my signal: I am still, and always, here, and I still love. Unconditionally. If I didn’t, it would not have been such a trial in the first place. Of course.

Elemental*
-D.H. Lawrence
Why don’t people leave off being lovable
Or thinking they are lovable, or wanting to be lovable,
And be a bit elemental instead?

Since man is made up of the elements
Fire, and rain, and air, and live loam
And none of these is lovable
But elemental,
Man is lop-sided on the side of the angels.

I wish men would get back their balance among the elements
And be a bit more fiery, as incapable of telling lies
As fire is.
I wish they’d be true to their own variation, as water is,
Which goes through all the stages of steam and stream and ice
Without losing its head.

I am sick of lovable people,
Somehow they are a lie.

Photo (c) 2006 Rachel Knickmeyer used under Creative Commons license without modification.

The 50-somethings

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When exactly is it that most men hit the point of peak entitlement, non-listening, world-class dullards and yet, despite being more closed off to the outside world and the most out of touch they have possibly ever been, feel perfectly comfortable being outlandishly demanding?

It’s a slow process, perhaps simmering within them for their entire lives.

A friend and I discussed her observation (and I agree) that many men we know (mostly men in their 50s) are mind-numbingly boring, selfish and self-involved conversationalists who are so lacking in self-awareness that they don’t realize they have monopolized the one-sided conversations they start with the most boring of rambling. My friend is a social woman and tries to engage everyone in conversation, which I admire but also cringe at, knowing she will end up in more than her share of these time-suck monologues. I have no small talk wizardry at my disposal so avoid this kind of stuff as much as I can. Most people are boring, in the end. I have often found myself in challenging and awkward social situations, where I overcome my aversion to idle chitchat – at considerable pains – and want to almost congratulate myself that I kickstarted a conversation, only to hate myself for bothering minutes later when someone starts talking ad nauseam about himself, his stodgy perspectives, insipid opinions and lifeless hobbies. Conversation thus becomes tedious, drudgery… and work. And the monotony is wearisome.

But these guys were certainly not born this way? Before they hit 50, and found themselves on the loose in the world as single men again for the first time in years, they did manage to get married and have families.

One friend told me recently about how hard marriage is. The man she fell in love with was gregarious, outgoing, curious, adventurous – always looking for new things to try. And these were the qualities that attracted her, the things they had in common. He was the life of the party and could win anyone over because he’s so talkative; in fact, he dominates every conversation with his stories and opinions. He had life experience and adventures to share, though, and stories with which to regale even the most reluctant listener. With each passing year (click the link for Gavin Ewart‘s “Short Time”, brilliant poem on self-deception) though, he has grown less adventurous, more closed-off and closed-minded. But he still turns on the charm in social situations and dominates the conversation. For how long, though, will it seem charming, as the ratio of adventures/new stories dwindles versus the urge to dominate, and eventually tyrannize, the conversation?

I started wondering if this is the trajectory of the 50-something man. Not every man has been quite as witty or engaging as this friend’s husband, but is there something to the idea that as these guys’ experiences, influence and curiosity diminish in breadth, reach and frequency, everything about them becomes more limited in scope? And for men who dominate conversations, they reach this period of just-beyond middle-age and do not realize they aren’t the life of the party. My theory here could be way off, but isn’t there a correlation here? These guys, if they ever had “it”, have lost it – and they and their wives are no longer in the same place… for the same old reasons. One changed, and the other didn’t.

What gets me, though, is that these 50-something men often get divorced but then don’t even question or evaluate how it all broke down. Could it have anything to do with the fact that every time they opened their mouths, they showered their wives with routine, interminable selfishness? And if that assertion is anything close to true, wouldn’t it make sense that they might recalibrate before striking up conversations with new people (whether colleagues or dates or potential partners)? I keep running into this exact scenario – sometimes being met with obliviousness (I could walk away and these men would continue to babble), sometimes being met with absolutely foul, sour and hideous behavior and insults (and here I mean real nastiness). Either way, this demographic – maladjusted pricks and dicks (of any age) – isn’t one I am keen to be around.

Beszél magyarul?

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An interesting overlap between the latest season of the TV show Louie and my work trip to Budapest has been this Hungarian connection. Louie begins to date a Hungarian woman this season. They can’t communicate – she speaks no English. She speaks quite a lot of Hungarian during the show. No subtitles. We are not meant to understand – and probably to assume and “grope” as much as Louie has to. I, of course, don’t speak Hungarian. Just before departing for Budapest, though, I started paging through my old Hungarian textbooks, and read an article on a website that tried to position Hungarian as “a language as easy as any other”. I learned a few fundamentals that actually were never explained well in textbooks – including a piece of information that helped in trying to figure out which bottles of water were carbonated and which were not (later I discovered that the color on the bottle could just as well have decoded that little mystery – but hey, I worked with what I knew!). In one of the latest episodes of Louie when the Hungarian woman started chatting with a Hungarian-speaking waiter, I was happy to understand a few words (basic!) – but the whole feeling produced by Louie’s relationship with this woman he could not understand (and who could not understand him) was certainly a hallmark of the Louie “sitcom” style. It’s not a sitcom, it’s not a comedy show. It lacks linear storytelling, goes in sometimes strange, unusual and even sometimes boring directions – but the fact that it dares to do so is what makes it unique. There has been a good deal of everything from discomfort to controversy generated by the show this season (e.g. attempted rape, “This would be rape if you weren’t so stupid.”) and some meandering – but it’s Louie. It’s what I’ve come to expect, even if in expectation, I can’t predict anything. On a side note, Charles Grodin showing up as a doctor in Louie’s building has been highly enjoyable. “Enjoy the heartbreak while you can, for god’s sake! Pick up the dog poop, would you please?* Lucky son of a bitch, I haven’t had my heart broken since Marilyn walked out on me when I was 35 years old. What I would give to have that feeling again. You know I’m not really sure what your name is. But you may be the single most boring person I have ever met. No offense.” My final thought after returning from Budapest (apart from having noticed a plethora of coffeehouses – a dream for a coffee lover like me) was its continued clinging to a complete lack of service-mindedness, reminiscent of Communist-era eastern Europe. It may have improved slightly since I last visited Budapest in 1999, and it might not even be an eastern bloc thing so much as part of the mentality of the Hungarians (since people working in the services now would not have been that exposed to and trained in “customer service” of the past). Everywhere I went – and everywhere many of my colleagues went – we’d ask for something very normal (e.g. exchanging money at a money-exchange desk or asking a normal question in a store), and the employee(s) would give a short, uninformative answer and stare/glare at me (or whomever) as though I had just asked the dumbest question in the history of questions. How could I have been so stupid? In one coffee place, there was a sign by the cash register in English, which read: “We only accept euros” (and then something about the denominations of euros accepted). I found this misleading – it should probably have been clearer that they accept euros in addition to their own currency (the forint), so I asked about it (dummy!), and the barista looked at me like I had just dumped a bag of dog shit on the floor and just repeated the amount I owed her (in forints). (Incidentally my favorite coffee place – maybe due to its convenience in the place I stayed in the city during non-work-conference days – is Coffee Cat. Not the place that had the misleading “only euros” sign!) Sigh. The fun of traveling to different places.

everything's gone kuka - budapest

*everything’s gone kuka – budapest – another coincidence